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Wacky Wednesday – “Exposure”

25 Sep

Jared closed the bathroom door.

He regarded his face in the mirror, crinkling his brow, grimacing through closed teeth, pulling down his cheeks. He poked and prodded the flesh. He noted its increased elasticity with no small amount of annoyance; he’d have to put in another resupply request. This one was almost brand new, but was already showing signs of wear. He forced a sigh from his lungs, and made his mouth into a frown.

“Dude, hurry up! I wanna get there, like, tonight!”

Jared increased his vocal volume by two point seven decibels (which he had discovered was an excellent level for making oneself heard without sounding upset or provoking a response), and said “Gimme a fuckin’ minute! Jeez.” He’d have to work quickly – Brad seemed particularly edgy tonight. Perhaps some ceremonial social intoxication and the promise of coitus would alleviate his increased stress levels. Jared reached a finger behind his ear and felt for the tiny flap of skin which hid there, disguised as a dermal imperfection. He seized it between his digits and pulled forward, and his face fell away with a wet sucking sound.

Dropping it into the sink, Jared regarded his true countenance with relief. The fleshy, ape-like features of the human face would always seem vulgar and primitive to him – nothing at all as beautiful or elegant as his own scabrous chitin, fluted nostrils, or lidless ocular pads. It was a shame that this façade was still necessary. Jared could hardly wait for the covert campaign to finish, so that assimilation might begin in earnest. Then, this ridiculous costume would no longer be necessary – and, as an added bonus, he would never again have to imitate that idiotic troglodyte, Brad. The mere thought–

Dude! What’s the holdup, bro? Kelly texted me, like, three minutes ago!”

And there he was, pounding on the bathroom door in a fit of impatience. It was laughable, really, the way these creatures were controlled by their chemistry. Brad was practically coughing in a cloud of his own hormones, and he wasn’t even aware of it. Jared, however, was acutely aware. The stink of Brad’s primal musk was strong enough to gag his olfactoroid slits.

Picturing a screaming Brad strapped to a vivisection table, reminding himself that it would all be worth it, Jared seized a hand towel and hastily mopped his glistening faceplates. Placing the fleshy sack over his face again, he hoped that the cursory absorption would be sufficient; if he secreted any more moisture he risked compromising the mask entirely, and at a human social function, no less.

Jared’s human face frowned into the mirror. It would have to do for now.

He opened the door and almost walked straight into Brad, whose facial features expressed frustration. Jared noted this, fixing his own in what he hoped was a passable representation of defiant readiness. Raising an eyebrow, he made his mouth say, “Waiting on you, bro.”

Brad’s grimace was deeply satisfying. As they exited the dwelling together, Jared felt his spirits lift. This night may yet hold some promise after all.

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Wacky Wednesday – “The Speechwriter’s Guild, Part I”

3 Oct

Arthur Schlesinger stubbed out his cigarette, removed his glasses, and tried to wipe the sleep from his eyes. It was three in the afternoon in Texas, but it was midnight in Cape Canaveral, and he’d been struggling to stay awake. He looked at his watch again – it was time.

Arthur stood, cricking his back on his way over to the television. He switched it on, spun the dial, and stopped on a bright and washed-out image of the presidential podium at Rice Stadium. He watched his boss ascend the steps, and heard the tinny ocean rush of the crowd dissolve as it fell silent.

John F. Kennedy began his speech then, reciting Arthur’s words with a casual confidence as though he were inventing them on the fly, speaking straight from the heart. Arthur was always impressed by Kennedy’s effortlessness with this sort of thing; it was a natural skill, and one not shared by the rest of the Administration. He was damn sure LBJ didn’t have it, in any case.

Arthur lit another cigarette and nodded along, mouthing “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things,” and hearing the crowd applaud. He noted the delivery on “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and he particularly enjoyed the punctuated growl in the Presidential tone on that last word. It was a fine speech, and Arthur felt a glow of pride. He really believed it, even if the politics got in the way – the stuff about “mankind’s great adventure”, all that, and Kennedy made it sound like he did, too. Arthur reached out to tug down the blinds and peeked through at the lights of the Space Centre over the hill. He’d had the tour yesterday. It was astonishing. Truly awe-inspiring. We’re really doing it, he’d said, it’s actually happening. His guide had grinned and replied, Of course. And best of all, we’ll get there first.

The President delivered the Hilary quote with vigour. Arthur hoped that the allusion didn’t slip them by. It was a hell of a thing they were applauding, and he didn’t think a single one of them knew just what was involved. Everest was one thing – this was the moon.

The speech finished and Arthur walked over and switched off the television. He poured himself a celebratory tumbler, and held it while he stood by the window in the glow of the launch pads.

Johnny had done one hell of a job, and the crowd had loved it. This had been a big one, one for the books. People would remember those words forever, so grand in scope and so emphatically spoken by the cocky young President. Arthur loved those words. They were the best work he’d ever done, but they were too big – too important. He felt a bitter pang, knowing that as soon as they had left the typewriter he had relinquished them; they weren’t his words anymore. They belonged to the world, and they would forever be attributed to the handsome college kid in the expensive suit. He blew smoke at his reflection in the window until his face was all but obscured, a shadowy indistinct form, unrecognizable, inhuman. The whiskey had only touched his lip when the telephone rang, loud and insistent in the dark motel room, and Arthur jumped out of his moody thoughts.

He scooped up the receiver and heard the hiss of breath on the other end. He said, “Hello?”

“Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“It was a fine speech, Mr. Schlesinger. One you should be proud of.”

Arthur’s heart skipped. He hadn’t given anyone this number – it was just a temporary room while he was at the Cape. He hadn’t told anyone where he was staying. He placed the tumbler on the bedside table and said, “How did you–”

“We’d like you to come and meet with us, Mr. Schlesinger. A car will pick you up in ten minutes.”

“Now wait just a damn minute. Who the hell–”

The voice on the other line was abrupt, but polite. “We appreciate your work, Mr. Schlesinger. And we would like to help you be remembered for it.” That shut Arthur up. “Please, come and visit us. I shall explain more then.”

Arthur heard the line go dead and, slowly, he set the receiver back down.

**

Arthur was led from the limo – it hadn’t been a car, as he had expected, but a sleek black stretch with tinted windows, driven by a chauffeur who seemed as impervious to questioning as a trained CIA assassin – onto the curving driveway of an enormous Gothic mansion. He was waved through into a grand foyer, richly furnished and filled with people, with marble floors, a glittering candelabra, and exotic-looking artifacts resting on plinths. Red velvet curtains framed the windows, and Arthur spotted mounted deer heads and what seemed to be an actual suit of armour. It was unreal – he felt as though he’d stumbled back in time and interrupted some Bavarian lord’s dinner party. Who were these people, carrying drinks in black-tie getups and mumbling to one another? Just what in the hell was going on?

Arthur was busy blinking behind his glasses, seriously doubting his decision to get in the car, when the sudden smell of pipe tobacco materialized into a bearded man with olive skin and twinkling black eyes.

“Ah, Mr. Schlesinger. Welcome, and thank you so very much for coming. My name is Rajesh Singh. This is my home. Won’t you follow me, please?” His manner was authoritative but genial, and Arthur found himself complying before he could even think. He was led through a side door into a broad corridor, equally well-appointed as the foyer, with portraits lining each wall. Arthur caught himself, and stopped in his tracks.

“Wait just a minute. What’s going on here? How do you know me?”

Singh turned back to face him and smiled, spreading his hands. “Ah, of course. How rude of me. I understand this must be confusing for you. Allow me to explain.” The man was broad and powerfully built, with an impeccably tailored suit and glossy black hair. His beard was zebra-striped with white along his chin, and his nose was hawk-like, predatory. “You, Arthur – may I call you Arthur? – are a speechwriter, yes?”

“Yes, but–“

“Well, as it happens, so am I.”

Arthur’s patience was wearing thin. He wanted to be back in his room. He wanted some scotch and some sleep, and this fruity Arab was playing games? He said, “So?”

Singh laughed, a rich and well-oiled sound. “So, you and I are of a kind! Kindred spirits. Wordsmiths, sir, silver-tongued artists who weave the truth in colourful patterns of sound and rhythm. Is this not so? Our superiors are merely vessels, amplifiers for our music – but it is the words which endure. In my homeland, I wrote many beautiful words to be spoken by simpletons, and I watched the world applaud these men for their “genius.” I know this frustration better than most. All speechwriters do – this is a pain we all share. And so we formed a… club, shall we say, where we could acknowledge each other’s work properly, and help to rectify this unique injustice that is inherent to our profession.”

Arthur was flabbergasted. Before he could speak, Singh curled a finger, inviting him to follow, and turned to walk down the corridor. As their feet sunk into the plush carpet, Singh indicated several portraits that they passed. “Judson Welliver,” he said, pointing to an austere nineteenth-century gentleman. “He wrote the Gettysburg Address. That there is Anatoly Stolichsyn, who put words in Lenin’s mouth.” He waved at each of them now, rattling off names in rapid succession. “Annabelle Jackson, Wu Xien-Po, Blas De La Fuente. From Robespierre to Gandhi to Hitler and every famous face in between, the members of our Guild have crafted the greatest and most memorable words in human history – and we are the only ones who know their names.”

They came to a blank spot on the wall at the end of the corridor, and Singh turned to face Arthur, his obsidian eyes sparkling. “Humankind is once again on the brink of momentous things, Arthur. Momentous words will be needed.” He swooped in close, and Arthur could smell the spice of his cologne. “You, my friend, will write them. And we would be honoured if you joined our Speechwriter’s Guild, and took your place on the wall among us.”

Arthur Schlesinger was overwhelmed. He found his reply – if there really was one forthcoming –  sticking in his throat. He removed his glasses and squeezed the space between his eyes, and heard Singh tut sympathetically. “Ah, of course, I understand. It is quite a lot to take in. I urge you to sleep on it – go back to the motel, think it over–“

“No,” said Arthur, putting his glasses back on and doing his best to disguise the heavy emotion in his voice. “No, I don’t need to sleep on it. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been dreaming of this my entire goddamn life.” He extended his hand to a beaming Singh. “Your sales pitch needs some serious work, Mohammed. But I would be honoured to join your club. Where do I sign?”

The bearded man threw back his head and laughed again, long and loud and unrestrained, the sound ringing down the hallway. Bizarrely, Arthur felt the hairs on his neck stand on end at the sound of it. Singh clasped Arthur’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically, saying, “Come with me, my friend.”

Singh opened the door at the end of the corridor, and Arthur stepped into a room unlike anything he had ever seen.

Wacky Wednesday – “Il Papa”

19 Sep

The classroom was calm. The quiet was only disturbed by the sound of nibs scratching on paper and birds chirping in the cyprus trees outside the open window. A warm breeze wafted through and tousled the glossy hair of an eight-year-old boy, who sat with one hand supporting his nodding head and the other doodling pointlessly on his page. He sighed as he looked out the window at the glorious Tuscan afternoon, and longed to be with his papa, running through that bright green grass and flying the kite they had built together the night before. Dio mio, he thought, please let this end! He looked at the huge crucifix mounted above the chalkboard. He clasped his hands together and shut his eyes tight, praying with all his might that when he looked at the clock, Gesù Christo would have performed a miracle.

A ringing slap of wood on wood tore the boy rudely from his reverie. He jumped, yelping in fright, and was suddenly face-to-face with his ruler-wielding schoolmaster.

Salve, Tito! Praying again, are we?” The man’s breath stank of coffee. “You would have this classroom become a chapel, no? You would have us all forget our studies, and join you in your pious mumbling! Well, certe, I know what to do.”

Tito watched in horror as his maestro strode to the front of the class, placed the ruler on his desk, pulled out his chair, and climbed atop it. All the children’s eyes were fixed on him as he reached up and clasped the crucifix in his hand. A girl gave a mousey squeak as he ripped it from the wall. He brandished it before his chest, pointing straight at the trembling Tito, and said, “I hope you will remember the lesson I am about to teach you.”

With a grunt he swung the cross down and smashed it against his desk. Several children screamed in surprise as bits of wood and plaster flew through the air. He exhaled sharply, brushed his hair away from his face, and sat down again. “I trust,” he said, still looking unswervingly at Tito, “there will be no more distractions. Ritorno al lavoro, tutti!

The air was filled again with the sound of pencils scratching away. All except Tito returned immediately to their math problem. He slumped in his chair, his eyes locked on the pieces of shattered wood still laying on the maestro‘s desk. He felt a lump in his throat and hot tears welling in his eyes. Even from his seat, he could see the tiny sculpted face of the Saviour, split in half by the force of his fall. Gesù Christo looked so very sad, and to Tito it was just like looking into a mirror.

**

Sixty years later, Tito sat uncomfortably on a gilded throne and adjusted his rosary between a thumb and forefinger. Suoi cardinali surrounded him like a flock of aged birds, bright and lavish in their crimson robes. Tito offered his hand to a middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes, who kissed his ring and asked him to bless her family. Tito smiled tiredly, waved his hand, and muttered in Latin. The gratitude on her face touched his heart, and Tito said a silent prayer of thanks for the chance to grant such joy with so little effort.

He looked out at the massive throng gathered in St. Peter’s Square, and breathed a worn-out sigh. He was an old man, and his stamina was not what it used to be. He ran in fields with his papa no longer. As more and more of the faithful came through, Tito did his best to show them equal love and patience. His noble office required tireless service, and if he had to forget his weariness to see the light on just one more face, he would do it with a glad heart.

An elderly man approached the dais, his tottering gait supported by a young woman. Tito felt inspired by his effort, as the man was older even than he. He extended a hand, and said, “Buonasera, my son. You have come far, and waited long. What service may the Holy See bestow upon you?”

The wrinkled old man looked up through rheumy eyes at Tito, and parted his slackened lips to say, “Only the chance to gaze upon you once, Beatissimo Padre, before I die.”

Tito did not reply. He was frozen in shock, the carved beads of his rosary slipping through his fingers to clatter on the marble. In the face of this ancient man, he saw his maestro from a lifetime ago. His surprise at seeing the man still alive was only matched by his confusion. This could not be the same man. Could it?

Tito whispered, “Why are you here?”

The maestro looked pleadingly up at him, not understanding. His eyes laboured to focus on Tito’s, and then recognition spread across him like the turning of a page. A rattling wheeze escaped his throat, and his wrinkled face was a mask of emotion.

“…Tito?”

The Holy Father stood suddenly, to the alarm of his cardinals, and stepped off his golden throne. He grasped the old man by the shoulders, and pulled him close in a tight embrace. The piazza was eerily silent, the huge crowd transfixed by what they saw. Somewhere in the assembly, someone began to clap – and before anyone knew what was happening, the Vatican rang with thunderous applause.

Tito released his maestro, who was weeping freely. He said, “I never did forget that lesson you taught me.”

“What lesson was that, Padre?”

Tito smiled. “The power of forgiveness.”