Short Story: Diesel Harper

The game had come. It was the day. The big one. College scouts. Screaming Crowds. Cheerleaders bouncing in rhythm. Gravity making fools of their breasts and perverted lechers of everyone watching. The stands were awash in red and white, streaming and waving as if pouring from Niagra. Within it, the floating detritus of signs held aloft praised players or urged the team on. Beneath the lights, late September mist glowed like evening sweat on players’ brows. Iridescent. Without time

The Reds versus the Knights, this was it; bigger than state, bigger than the Superbowl. This was what every high-school player dreamed of. But no player dreamed bigger than Devin “Diesel” Harper though. Life hinged on his moment. Not just for him, but for his whole family. Growing up in Podunk, Indiana was never going to be easy, especially for a black kid on welfare. Unlike some of the people he knew of living off government money– and he was certain race wasn’t a factor– he and his family were there rightfully, no matter how much they’d tried not to be.

Devin’s father was a truck driver doing long hauls along the interstates. The crossroads of America had taken his legs when his rig overturned outside Chicago one, snowy night. Paralyzed from the waist down, and with a wife confined to a wheel-chair from progressive M-S, there wasn’t much the elder Harper could do but swallow his pride and admit disability. The food stamps and welfare came a little later, when the M-S progressed further and medical bills racked up.

Devin thrived. Despite the pressures of life and school. He’d seen enough people fall victim to their own vises or those of a system attempting to lure them deeper into poverty. He’d so far managed to avoid them himself, graced as he was with a keen-sight and the nimble skills that had made him a star Running Back. There wasn’t a thing Devin couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. Enough people had told him as much. Football was the one thing he could use to pull his family up from the muck. So, he went at it with all cylinders firing.

The grid-iron was slick. The turf glistened. Minute pools formed in the tamps from cleats. The scoreboards showed the teams were neck and neck. 4th and nine. A single play would determine whether Diesel’s team won outright, or whether they’d pummel and hammer their way to victory in overtime. There was no other option.

Diesel was face-to-face with a wall of meat. He’d been there once before. He’d nicknamed the guy “Meat” in his head. Meat looked more like he belonged in a Mr. Universe competition than a high-school. So much mass would slow him down though. Diesel’d earned his nickname because he was a runaway truck. No-one could catch once he took off. If he got the ball, it was all over. He readied himself, planned his moves. Meat grunted steam into the air like a bull. A mix saliva and adrenaline over day-old spaghetti and fresh B-O hinted itself at Diesel’s nostrils.

Diesel heard the snap. His body worked. He juked right. Meat was too heavy. He lunged. Diesel weaved left, through a gap between defenders. He was half-way up the field when he turned back. The pigskin spiraled at him like a sidewinder missile. He leapt, snatched, clutched, tucked, and hit the ground with a roll. His elbows went down, but Meat hit him hard enough to knock the ball loose in his hands. He clutched it tighter to his body, allowed the impact to dissipate through him. He came to a stop less than ten from goal. The whistle blew. Moments remained.

It was now or never. He knew the play, saw his opening. Meat was back. He was going to go for it. 1st and goal. No other choice. Diesel wasn’t a secret weapon. He was the weapon. The only one. Unstoppable. Unbeatable. This was for Mom. Dad. Everyone. It was for the Scouts, eyeing him from around the field. Most of all, it was for himself. To pull himself out of the muck, his family with him– that was plan.

The snap came. Meat lunged. Diesel juked, weaved. Meat roared. Goal was a step away. He landed across it. His leg hit, the ball cradled against his belly. Meat hit too; a cruunnch tore away reality. He felt his elbows hit mud; the rumble of the crowd in the stands. They’d won. The team had won. The Scouts knew it was him. Before he could fully appreciate it himself, he was out. Unconscious from pain, and with a sight he somehow knew; he’d never play again.

Beneath his unconscious eyes, dreams began. They weren’t dreams as he knew them though. His dreams always involved football, cheer-leaders, in all the was a normal high-school boy might dream of such things But these dreams were different. They felt different. Most importantly, he knew they were different.

He was older, college-aged, getting recruited to the NFL. Contract signings and payday checks in the millions led to all-night parties. Mounds of drugs. Boozing. Fast, easy women. He saw Mom and Dad on holidays. They were worse off than ever, but lavished with ludicrous gifts. It pained his heart.

But the dreams did not yield. He got older, heavier, wealthier. Mom and Dad sank deeper. Their hopes sank with them. More holidays passed. He no longer lavished them. The entirety of the dreams shifted as if all at once: he was suddenly broke, selling cars, doing drugs, weeping in a rat-infested, hole-in-the-wall motel. Whatever had led him there, fame and fortune were part of it– or had been. They were certainly no longer present.

He felt it in his chest, the answer. He’d seen and heard of it through-out his life; players that went pro, formed habits too big for their money to keep up, and fell hard. He never thought he’d become one. Maybe he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t sure. No-one could know the future, after all. Let alone see it, right? He was even less sure about that.

In the end, all he knew was the undeniable feeling of relief he had on awaking in the hospital, his leg in a cast, and his body flooded with the mellow armor of painkillers. It allowed him to mull things over: he saw the path of life laid out before him while the dreams were still fresh. A nudge here. A push there. That was all it would take to set things right. Football or not, Devin’s grades were just right, and his mindset newly re-centered to still avoid tragedy. If he picked up his slack here, the career-killing injury might not turn out so bad.

Over the next few days, people showed up to congratulate him on his victory. He’d taken himself out of school to normalize himself to the pain pills he was forced to take. On a welfare living, it was tough enough to make food. Meds would be short. He felt it better to get as much healing in as possible while he still had them.

The third day of his self-imposed therapy, a girl from his geometry class appeared. She was advanced for her age, a Sophomore taking Senior classes. She’d offered to bring his homework over. They lived only a few buildings apart, had often waved or said hello between home and school. As any timid girl might, when insisted to by his mother, she lingered near his door to give him his homework. Devin wallowed in his latest dose of introspection and healing and almost missed her. When they finally said hello, she revealed her name was Amber. He thanked her.

She stuck around long enough to feel awkward before turning away. Devin stopped her, “Amber?” She turned back inquisitively. “I could use some company. And i-if you don’t mind… some help with the homework. Math’s not… my strong suit. Football is. or was.”

Imagine that, him— superstar Diesel Harper– stammering at her. Amber giggled desperately, but caught herself to keep him from feeling mocked. On the contrary, he seemed to understand things were usually the other way around. In fact, it was also the other way around.

“Ar-are you sure? I mean, if you really wa–”

“Yes. Please, stay.” Devin scooted over for her to sit. He reached for his backpack, determined to see his nightmarish dreams buffered by as much effort as humanly possible.

She sat with a shy smile. Devin smiled back, then rifled through his pack for his geometry book. They launched into work with as double the vigor Devin had used to launch himself across the goal time and again.

“You know,” Devin said during one of their breaks. “I had this dream about the future. More of a nightmare really. Now, it’s almost funny how scared I was.”

Amber’s eyes gleamed with intrigue. “What was it about?”

“Football… and math.”

They both laughed.

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Short Story: Rat-King

The ’68 Camaro painted in yellow-jacket colors blasted through a stretch of desert as indistinct and unremarkable as the others behind it. Wind whipped through the interior, kept heat off the leather and vinyl upholstery. Steve Miller’s Swingtown broke into the first “oohs.” Between the three day high, and the hypnotic scenery, Dave Petrov was soaring. The .45 in the passenger seat didn’t hurt.

For the first time, Dave was free. Above all, he was safe. Dry blood still painted the nail beds of his hands, but they were clean now. No-one knew what he’d done. No-one could care if they knew. Not a single soul would cry over the death of the Fifth-Street Rats.

He was roughly five years old when he was recruited as a runner. It was the best job in the world for a naive, poor kid in need of as much food and money as possible. Home was a small town in Illinois, and considerably less “civilized” than most of its neighbors. Winters were cold. The heat was always off. Summers were hot. The nearest lake was fenced, pay to enter. Air conditioning didn’t exist for people like Dave.

Summer was always a mixed blessing. Good, long nights for staying out, scavenging, but something always went wrong. Dave still remembered the summer they’d taken his father– incidentally, the same summer he started running for the Rats. Hot as hell out. The family’d just lost their sole means of income. Eventually, mother found a way to pay the bills– either working for less than she was worth, or “spending long weekends away.” Eventually Dave figured out what that meant, but he could never find the heart to blame with five kids to put dinner on the table for. As soon as he could, he made it four.

The Rats became a surrogate family. An even that some might’ve called predestined. Dave just called it sensible. Capy was the big brotherly, bruiser-type. More walrus than man, and wearing a shirt three-sizes too small for his bulbous gut. Dominic was his foil; the skinny, twin-brother type, too tall and skinny for any clothing to fit properly. Eventually he and Dave became inseparable.

Then there was Ferret, the Rats’ version of the shadiest drug-dealer thief Uncle you’d ever met. He was greasy bastard, always smelled like a skunk. Somehow that led to the nickname Ferret– even years later, Dave didn’t get it. A few others came and went from the neighborhood, but none were out of jail long enough for Dave to know well– except the bastard, Kane.

All of this was his fault. Every time Dave searched for an expletive for him, a thousand more worked to succeed it. He was everything about Humanity that made it unworthy of preservation; stupid, but ruthlessly cunning enough to have been made leader; misogynistic enough to have driven all but the most junked-out hoodrats away. He was a million other things too, murderer, thief, liar, cheat, traitor, anything that might suit him in one moment or could be abandoned the next. All of this, as well as the biggest hypocrite Dave ever met. He complained openly of others’ dishonesty. Dave sincerely doubted a truthful word had ever escaped his lips.

But most of all, Kane was a vile, hate-filled creature of self absorption. In Dave’s word’s, A “royal asshole.” He’d learned that at eight years old, when they first met. The dead-beat thug-wannabe just gotten out after a nickel stretch for petty theft. From the moment he arrived at the Rats’ Nest, he’d begun hassling the “oreo-nigga with the whore-mother.” For years Dominic protected Dave from Kane, but it started at that moment.

Eight-year old Dave was dressed in ratty clothes, with shaggier hair than most from his mixed heritage. It always made him the odd-man out or a target for playful ridicule. The “nigga with white-boy hair,” that was Dave. After a while, he didn’t even mind. He’d learned to take the jabs in stride like the others. He was far from a hothead, and most of the time, it was just the guys joking in their round-robin way.

Kane wasn’t like that. He singled Dave out. In and out of jail for petty crimes, Kane only got worse. When he out for good, it seemed, the two were at the height of rivalry. Now 19, mobile, and with enough money stock-piled to buy half a country, Dave wasn’t putting up with it. Kane had other plans for him. Plans that involved being the fall-guy if things went wrong. It was obvious, after a time, that he’d do whatever possible to ensure Dave got pinched. No doubt, he’d seek out and raid Dave’s cash-stash, steal everything not nailed down, and then have Dave shanked in the joint.

He’d sensed where things were heading– his knuckles whitened atop the steering wheel, further accenting the dried blood beneath his nails.

He should’ve known. Should’ve seen it coming. Things wouldn’t be this way. But he hadn’t, and they were. Dom’s blood was on his hands, and no amount of soap or water would change that. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing Kane had paid for it.

Kane’d had the bright idea to rip off an airport. The luggage handlers were low-level guys susceptible to easy pay-offs. All the Rats needed was a mark, someone likely to be transporting a lot of high-value goods. They needed rich people too cheap to charter their own aircraft. Kane thought he found that in a flight manifest for a company. They’d rented out a 747 to fly a load of execs cross-country from O’Hare, bearing a load full of cargo. They could only imagine the riches they’d take with.

So, the Rats loaded up with guns and made for the airport. One of Kane’s guys let them through. Minutes later, they were rushing onto a plane, grabbing carry-on luggage while Dave, Ferret, and a couple handlers filled the car from the cargo section.

But Kane busted through the plane door with Capy and Dom and found a bunch of suited feds. The manifest had been a cover. Capy went down first. Dom was injured, managed to make back to the car. Kane had escaped with a flesh-wound.

The job had been fucked from the moment Kane was allowed to plan it. But for Dave, “I told you so” was the furthest thing from his mind when the powder keg went of. Dom fell out of the plane, clutching his wounded gut. Kane fled like a coward to the car, hid behind it. Ferret took cover, blasting holes at the feds with a sawed-off 12 gauge. He managed six shells before a fed splattered his brains across the cars side windows.

Dave and the others were burning rubber along tarmac while Dom bled out in the backseat. Kane shouted orders at Dave. Before he could finish, his brains were splattered across the car’s rear-window. With a last good-bye to Dom, he ditched the car in an alley, and started running.

He’d been running since then. His three-day high was wearing thin again, but each time it did, the look in the Rat-King’s eyes as the barrel turned on him reappeared. He was as much terrified as angry then. Mostly, because he understood then how royal an asshole he’d been, and what he’d earned as a result.

Now, he wasn’t anything. Just dead. Like the rest of the Rats, and the gang itself. That was fine by Dave. He re-gripped the steering wheel and soared along the roads, more destined for nowhere than ever before.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: It Starts With You

Blood on the tracks.
Blood in the street.
Blood from the workers’ backs,
stains the rich-men’s feet.

They call it economics,
a lack-luster draw,
but its no card game, lunatics,
and we’re dying for your flaw.

The rich get richer,
and the poor keep dying,
while they feed on the ichor,
formed of the rich-men’s lying.

It’s an old song.
Its grooves worn down.
No less wrong.
No fewer wearing a frown.

But it can change.
Especially in this age.
We can treat the mange,
start fresh on a new page.

“How?” you might ask.
It starts with you.
We all take part in the task;
just live life true,

not in vain,
nor at others’ expense.
Inflict no pain.
Seek no recompense.

Live and let live.
Do, do not, or try.
Learn to forgive.
Let your spirit fly

Make a joke.
Plant a tree.
Be kind to folk.
Embrace creativity.

Just remember:
it can change.
But it begins with you.
Be tender,
fear no emotion’s range,
and speak softly if you do.
Humanity is the sender,
and even though strange,
it needs all of us, and we it, too.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: On Death We Dine

I close my eyes,
for a moment,
I see;
concrete gristle,
staining steel-gray skies.
Pale incandescence,
pocking them with light.
Beneath rolling clouds,
blackness splinters,
with blue-violet lightning.

Graffiti of neutral and violent hues,
splashes color here and there,
that color voices the voiceless’,
untimely, unrelenting despair.

In the distance,
billboards lighted,
like cheap, sidewalk,
window-whores.
Mannequins of humans,
caricatured creatures of beauty,
made to look like us.

Still, they can’t,
for they know nothing,
but to be beautiful,
when all the world around them,
reeks of poverty–
and ugliness entombed in despair.

The distant sound of traffic,
ever-present,
omnipotent,
but in relative ways,
for the masses, non-existent.

Yet somehow,
the air is unclear.
It tastes of those things,
which afflict the world so–
pain,
death,
poverty,
and the ever-present despair.

Somehow we carry on.
No reason to.
No explanation.
Just survival.
Scrounging, scavenging,
hoping for revival,
day to day,
until passing, old,
forgotten,
decayed.

On the streets,
and out of time,
we greet defeat,
and on death we dine.

Short Story: A Job to Do

Smoke curled and rolled beneath a low-hanging light, dissipated by the wave of a wrinkled hand. The man it was attached to hunched forward over the table beneath the light, in a booth seat of a dank bar most just called by its designation. Officially it was named The Oldhouse Tap. Unofficially, it ran by other names, most as unappealing as its never-swept, never-mopped tile floors. Even the walls had felt the rigors of age, their wall-paper stained and peeled like a cheap motel.

Another man sat before the smoking man, both with large mugs of beer that were more foam than brew. Such was the way the burnt-out bartender poured her patrons their poison. She cared about as much as they did. Most people in at this time of day were still on company time, the others hiding from their wives or families when they should have been at the unemployment office, or one of the half-dozen places through-out town with help-wanted signs in their front windows.

Instead, they were spread out around the bar, staring up at a television that never strayed from its Info-Corp news channel. Like them, the two men at the booth were mostly quiet, but when deigned to speak, did so in low, hushed tones. The second man hunched forward over the table, parted the smoke with his wrinkled, black, sunken eyes.

“I can have the money in a week, all I need’s more time.”

The smoking man took a drag from his cigarette with a few, resolute nods, “And you’re sure of that, yeah?”

The other man began to launch into a tall-tale. Of course, he started by explaining his position; like many others, he’d been laid off due to the shaky economy. No amount of groveling or employment seeking would help. All those help-wanted signs were for men and women twenty years younger. The shops in town didn’t care much for the older generation with their responsibilities, bills, and needs. They wanted expendable assets to leash one day, and kick-out when they were no longer cost-effective.

The other man went into detail on his experiences, “I was in with a shop down Main St, a coffee place– nothing in the front mind you, they don’t want the geezers working the front. They’ve got an image, you know.”
“Hmm,” the smoking man said with a long drag. He blew a long plume, “Got to have appeal with the kids.”

“Exactly.”

He went further in the same vein, but the smoking man was no longer listening. He’d heard all the tales a million times over. Everyone had their sob story, and everyone thought theirs was worse than everyone else’s. In truth, the smoking man knew they were all the same. It wasn’t his business to care, but he knew nonetheless. Each of the men and women he’d met were cut of a similar cloth; all older– his age really– out of work, and needing money. In a way, he sympathized; it could just as easily be him. Well, not him, but him in another life. He could have just as easily found himself in their shoes were circumstances even a little different.

Alas, no amount of empathy, sympathy, or cold beer would change what he knew now. He wasn’t like them. He was what they wanted to be; well-aged, still sane, and with immovable job-security. He even had spending money, something in direly short supply these days. Hell, he thought, probably not a one of the patrons in the bar today had that. They were all likely drinking on tabs that would follow them past their graves.

He listened to the sob-story a little longer, if only for courtesy’s sake. He already knew what would happen. It wouldn’t be another month before he was back in here to discuss the terms of the man’s repayment, only to be begged and pled with to hold off on collecting. Unfortunately, begging and pleading only went so far. Maybe the man hadn’t personally helped to tank the economy, but he had to deal with it the same as the rest. The problem was, dealing was all they ever tried to do. Not a one of them had learned to hold to their word.

He’d been in the banks’ employ long enough to know that the defaulters knew the stakes. Loans were an uncommon luxury even in the best of times. Now, they were downright impossible to come by. Even so, most of the people that had signed on the dotted lines had still refused to cop to the responsibility inherent in signing. Then, when the smoking man came to collect, they bargained and begged, and pled for more time.

His job wasn’t the most pleasant by any means. He could think of thirty or forty jobs off the top of his head that he’d rather have if only they were quite so secure in their need. That was the interesting thing though, as much as people wanted what he had, they never wanted to take the opportunity to get it. It left him as the sole member of an occupation where help-wanted truly meant it. But it wasn’t a fun job, most certainly unpleasant even with the best cases. Too many people defaulted nowadays, and by the first and fifteenth of every month he was expected to be in fifty places at once. Most places weren’t much different than this one.

Sure, a few of the people would repay the debt, or else shake his cynical core to feeling with their real misfortune. In those rare cases, he’d leave with a thankful politeness, possibly never to be seen again. Or else, he’d promise to return, understanding of their unfortunate circumstances. Whatever that latter groups circumstances were, he was certain he would never find any of them in a dank pit like the Oldhouse.

That was how the smoking man could tell the unfortunate from the dead-beats: when the unfortunate were down-trodden, lost for hope, they ran to their families to spend those possibly last moments with them. Conversely, the dead-beats were always in bars, restaurants, what-have-yous, running up tabs and knowing their last moments were upon them. It was an effective system, one that only a man working so deeply under the table for the banks could have established– or even distinguished.

He listened to the man tell his woes for another half-cigarette, then stopped him mid-sentence.

“I can’t help you,” he said as he rose from his seat.

He pulled his over coat open on the one side while the other man stammered and choked on his beer. A moment later a gun was out. A single, suppressed round ended the man’s life. He fell forward onto the table, blood leaking from a wound in his head. The rest of the bar had watched, each of them fearing they might be next. The smoking man replaced the gun into its shoulder-hoslter, then stepped over to the bar to drop a wad of cash on it.

“The bank will send someone by to collect the body,” the man said as he snuffed a butt in a tray on the counter. “You all have a good day. I’ll be seeing some of you next week.”

Most heads were hidden as he turned away. He had work to do. There was such little job security left in the world, and though it was messy, it was still a job that needed to be done. Even if there was no-one else willing to do it, few would do it as well as him.