Short Story: A Tragedy

I hurt. Everyday. They tell me that it’s “normal,” a part of disease. They say the aches and pains that incise my kidneys, steal air from my lungs, are expected, routine. The seizures that grip me, take control of my body away, and leave me feeling more exhausted than I could if I’d run for leagues more than miles. But supposedly, they’re “in line” with a prognosis.

Bullshit. None of this is normal, or routine, except that I’m dying. That’s what we do. We die. But I’m dying the most terrible kind of death, the kind where no-one can do a damned thing about it or even figure out why. I’ve spent months in and out of hospitals, chained to beds by I-Vs, Heart monitors, and catheters.

Do you know the pain or humiliation of a torn catheter? Or even what one is? It’s a tube they shove into your urethra. You know, that thing you piss with? I haven’t gone to the bathroom in almost a year. And don’t get me started on sponge baths.

You know that joke that guys like to tell; “Nurse, I’m ready for my sponge bath?” Well it’s all in good fun, until you wake up in the middle of the night, covered from ass to neck in shit from a year’s worth of liquid diets and hospital food, and have to have one. It’s not funny then. Or the other three-hundred odd times, with a different nurse every two nights.

But you know what’s worse? Even worse than the drugs that make you puke, or the humiliation of being on-display for med-staff 25 hours a day, or constant, nagging pains that cut and stab at you day and night, cause you to scream, cry, or rage through the morphine? You know what’s worse? Having a perfectly able body whither away before you– your perfectly able body.

When I first entered the hospital, before the misdiagnoses of metastasized carcinomas, leukemias, and a half-dozen other, terrifying cancers, I was two-hundred pounds of tonka-tough American muscle. I worked eighty-hour weeks as a welder, union-born and bred. I bled excellence and I sweat green. I had a half-mil house, a stunning wife, and two teenaged kids that’d managed not to fuck up their lives with dope or booze. I was living the American dream.

But like that great philosopher Carlin once said, they call it that ’cause you gotta’ be asleep to believe it. Christ what a wake-up call I got.

Have you ever seen a man, so big, strong, tough, that the only person you can think to compare him to’s a guy like Schwarzenegger? Well that was me. I may not’ve had the chiseled jaw, or that lady-killing Austrian accent, but I damn near had the rest. I was him. He was me. But that first episode? None of that meant jack-shit.

You know what they say about the bigger they are? Well, when I fell, I almost took a whole damned gas plant with. No bullshit. Working with an open flame, spot welding in a natural gas refinery carries its own set’a risks, but no-one ever expects to suddenly find themselves out of control of their body, seizing on the ground next to a flailing torch that’s half-cutting through a hot gas line. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I’d managed to cut the damn gas line to the torch in my state.

A plume of fire was roasting the air that was barely making it into my lungs, but the torch wasn’t strong enough to breach the full gas line ’cause of it. And thank fuck for those reinforced tanks. If it weren’t for their double-insulated walls, that gas would’ve exploded, caused a chain-reaction and taken the whole plant down with it. Of course, it would’ve spared me the agony that came next, but even with it, I can’t imagine having all that death on my shoulders. Even dead. Foreman said something later about 2,000 guys on-site, and I was the only one sick that day. Fuck, that would’a been a catastrophe.

The local paper did an interview with me not long after. They’d heard about the incident, wanted to try and drum up some of their own brand of fear mongering. They sent some hot-shot reporter girl over to try and make a fuss about the safety regulations. Christ, she could’a been my daughter. Fresh outta’ college and making those squinty, suspicious eyes at me. She sat me down to ask “hard” questions, but was stunned when all I gave her was the real truth. She batted her lashes a few times too. I guess she hoped I’d cave, screw the union and the gas company over.

I didn’t. There wasn’t anything to say. It wasn’t the job. It was me. They say accidents don’t really happen, but no one can predict just dropping to the floor and frothing at the mouth. As far’s I know, not much of that interview made it into the paper beyond a few of my own words. Guess they didn’t quite get the reaction they were hoping for.

That was when the Union began its own investigation. I talked to the rep that was in charge of the whole thing. He said it was a “formality” thing. Bullshit again. The gas company wanted to make sure they couldn’t blame me, sue my pants off, and take my benefits away. The Union rep eventually made sure to note there was nothing at fault on my end, beyond my obvious ailment. Legally, they couldn’t touch me for that.

What did it matter though? Through all that, I went from one doctor’s office to the next, every other night in the ER for seizures, chest-pains, near-on strokes. I guess something just wasn’t quite wired right in my brain. Maybe ol’ Pop’s genes were finally hittin’ their stride, givin’ me some of his late-life ills. I don’t know. But then again, neither does anyone else.

The first time I noticed the weight loss, I was being weighed at a specialist’s office. I was down to one-ninety, skin sagging and muscle half-eaten away already. He was one of the many specialists, I might add. In the end, he was about as useless as the rest of ’em, but only the first of the neuro-specialists I’ve had the great displeasure of meeting. That was the first time I heard about MRIs and EEGs. If only I’d known what fun those couple of words would end up being. Turns out, when you’ve got twenty year old ink in your arms from shitty, basement tattoos as a teenager, some of them might turn out to have metal in them.

The first time I had an MRI, it damn near ripped the skin off my arm. To their credit, everyone in the hospital freaked. They treated me good about it. They’re always nice like that– like they want to get you better, but really you know all they care about’s what the rest of us care about; putting your time in to clock out so you can go bang your spouse and fall asleep with a beer afterward. I can’t blame them for that though. That’s the human condition. That, and I’m pretty sure it wrecked the machine. Not many men can lay claim to causing a million dollars of damage in under thirty seconds.

After that, I spent three-months between the main bullshit and having to get my earliest tattoos removed and skin grafted on. You know where they took that skin from? My ass. That’s right. So now, not only was I bandaged on my arms, seizing three to four times a day, in and out of the ER and Doctor’s offices every other day and night, now I was walking around with a gimp because my ass hurt. Talk about shit or get off the pot. Hell, I couldn’t even sit on one.

At least I can look back on that and laugh. The rest ? All I can do’s shake my head.

That American dream I was talking about? It took a while– well, not really– but it unraveled into the nightmare we all knew it could really be. Almost as soon as things took a turn for the worst, I found out each of my kids were gettin’ into trouble– Son was boozing it up, and my Daughter was smokin’ pot on school grounds.

I guess I can’t blame ’em. They’re just kids and they don’t know better. Don’t have the “tools” to handle the kind of fuckery old dad’s health’s put ’em through. My wife on the other hand… The less said the better, but from what I understand, she’d fit right in with some of the army-wives that marry off just before their husbands’ deployments.

Whatever. Water under the bridge I guess. We’re all destined to do two things alone in this life anyhow; shit, and die. Well, I’ll have the latter covered anyway, even if I’m covered in the former when it happens. Maybe then, at least, I’ll be a good joke; he was such a shit he went out covered in it.

Ah hell, who knows, maybe medical science will finally reach a point that it can diagnose me. I doubt it. They say they don’t know what’s wrong with me. That all this breathless agony and withering muscle-tone’s in line with a prognosis and they’ve just gotta’ find the right one, treat it. I guess all they need’s a name. Something to call it, you know? Something hepatic, or encephalitic, or something with one of those -itis suffixes. I don’t know about them, but I call it life, and it’s a tragedy. A god damned tragedy.

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Short Story: I Remember…

I remember the ships that hovered over our world in conquest. I remember it as if it had only just happened. Though it was decades ago now, nothing is so vivid in my mind. They came from the sky on glowing trails, like someone had hurled fire-bombs at us. An apt comparison given what came later. The only difference? They never hit the ground. They never had to. They came to a rest, searing heat and all, just above the tops of the tallest buildings.

I remember sitting on the couch, then later, standing in the streets, seeing the giant television in then times-square that revealed we’d been beaten, or rather surrendered– the beatings came later. I can’t remember those. I don’t want to. What I do remember was wandering, guided by my mother’s hand, through New York’s chaotic streets. I’d never known the scent of fear– real, pure, human terror– until then. It was palpable on the tongue, stank like the homeless did, like we all do now.

My mother… she had a gentleness that died with her, as if the world took such a soft creature to protect her from the wrath her child’s generation would bear. Even now, I remain glad that the madness of those first days claimed her. Though I was terrified and alone for a long while, I knew even then it was safer to be dead than subject to the horrors to come.

The first mistake we made as a civilization was existing. That was all it had taken to bring them from the skies over Alpha Centauri, have their forces launched across the openness of space to our backyard. Before the tele-streams and internet died for good, someone had calculated that they’d left their home system for Earth sometime around the broadcasts of Kennedy’s election, hadn’t arrived until the late 2010’s. It led to our second mistake.

I remembered being eight years old…. Christ, it feels like a life-time ago now. Maybe it was. Eight years old, with a gun shoved into my hands. It was a nine millimeter, fifteen round magazine with a thumb safety, and heavy. I remember that much. With that tool came the first beatings from my own kind, to instill in me how to hold it, aim it, kill with it. All because some armchair-genius had calculated the invaders expected our technology to be stuck in the sixties. What a fool.

It was only later that we learned, collectively, that our technological prowess would have never matched theirs. Not in a million years. They didn’t have to speak, or scream, or fire weapons. They simply arrived and the planet was already conquered. When we took up arms in resistance against our governments’ fealty, we spent immeasurable amounts of ammunition trying to kill them. They took full magazines from whole battalions of armed militias, their bodies riddled with holes, but bled not a single drop of fluid from their leathery hides. They were modern-day Khans, each of them, but even his conquest paled in comparison to theirs.

Their tactic was simple. To remember it now almost makes me laugh, but I can’t. I haven’t known joy or laughter, or anything more than fear for decades. I doubt there’s a human that has. As it was explained by a former-scientist just before his untimely execution, these humanoid creatures have some type of reinforced cartilage across their bodies– like the stuff our noses and joints are made of, but so strong it can withstand the force of bullets. They were walking kevlar, and because of their gel-like skeletons and regenerative abilities, nothing short of a nuclear weapon could stop them. Believe me, we tried them all; grenades, bombs, TNT, nothing worked. We learned that the hard way. Every one of them is like a walking terminator. Every. Single. One. Like those terrifying machines, they have only a goal to achieve– whatever it is– and they eliminate anything in the way of it.

Evidently, Humanity’s a part of that goal, because I remember the day their darkest weapon was revealed. As if compelled to by my own muscles, my body, fraught with the peril a rat faces in a sewer– and stinking like one at that– I encountered one of these invaders.

I was in an alley, running for my life after my militia detachment suddenly fell to the ground, began to seize, writhe, foam at the mouths. A few others and I managed to escape, but were split up. I had learned long ago not to scream nor draw attention. Even so, one of them must have sensed me, pursued me. It cornered me in an alley.

They don’t so much walk as float. Though they have two legs, it seems they’re useless. Their arms work though. I’ve seen it, felt it. They drift, lame, wherever they go. Queer-looking face tentacles take the place of mouths above three-fingered, malformed-hands with claws attached to arms longer than their legs. They make a god-awful sound– like someone’s ground metal against a cheese grater in your ear. It’s paralyzing. Both from fear and an auditory pain that seizes your muscles. It’s not even their greatest weapon– the one they conquered us with, or that I saw that night with my own eyes.

I remember sometimes doing things, even at a young age, and not remembering why I’d begun to do them or how. It was as if I simply materialized into the middle of an action, forgot everything about it. They have this way of doing that to you; making you freeze, drop your weapon, lie. For years, we thought we were gaining ground on them, and had received numerous reports about their deaths. We’d heard the war-stories of units that felled them in battle, and even I suspected the scientist’s words had been erroneous, that they could be killed.

How wrong I was. How wrong we all were.

They were lies; every story, every battle scar, ever supposed death of an invader. They’d fabricated the memories in the militia’s minds, used them as walking surveillance drones. They kept mental links through some kind of ESP, allowed them to spread their stories through the militias. Those stories flared into hope for victory, spread like wild-fires around the world. My best friend, the only person I trusted, was one of their plants. What she and I shared… it was the closest thing to joy left in the world. Even still, we could never smile. All of it was lies.

It’s been decades since they first came, and now all hope is lost. We know now what happened, even though we can’t remember how, or why we missed it. I remember hearing from a medic after a patrol that a person will sometimes forget the moments before and after a traumatic experience, sometimes including the trauma itself. It just sort of gets buried in your mind, so impossible to cope with you literally can’t. You fabricate things to put in its place, or else lose time altogether. It has something to do with an electrical overload in the brain that doesn’t allow memories to consciously form.

All I know is what happened after the raids. As if in a flash, we went from believing we might one day win, to knowing there was never been a fight to begin with. They simply appeared– walked in the front door as it were, and we were disarmed. Not a single one of us took up our weapons to fight. We couldn’t. We’d been brain-hacked, mind-controlled not to.

Now, I stand jam-packed with three-hundred other humans in a cage no bigger than a dozen feet squared, like cattle on a killing-floor. I don’t know where we are, or where we’re going, but I remember how we got here. I remember smiling and joy and happiness that once made days of sadness and sorrow worthwhile. But now all I know is despair and the sickly putrescence of two-hundred-odd other bodies smothering me. I forget my name, my friends’ names, even my home. But somehow, I remember my mother’s gentleness. I miss her. I miss the warmth of summer sun, and of childhood– what little of it I had– and the taste of fresh-water. I remember all of the good that came before the bad, something I cannot forget despite the doom we all face.

Maybe one day there will be hope again. Maybe not. All I know is that I remember it….