Gold Flecks

Gold Flecks

by W.S. Beasley

I hope I’m writing down this story in time. The police station shrugged me off but if I can get this message to be believed somewhere, maybe there’s hope, maybe there’s a chance to— well. Here it is.

Antony and I woke up at four in the morning to venture forth on the final leg of our trek. The New Mexico sun made it tricky to hike after eleven in the morning, and there were many miles yet of shadowless desert to traverse. It would have been in our best interest to actually set out at four, but waking up then would have to do. We had been on the trail for three arduous days after hitchhiking along a gravel desert road—and getting more than a few warnings from the flannelled and weathered cowboy driving—before getting dropped with our packs at the trailhead.

It was known by the locals as Viper’s Whisper, and it didn’t exist on any tourist map: a sort of meandering and deadly path that crisscrossed the delicate invisible demarcation between a protected state desert and American Indian reservation lands. At journey’s end was rumored to be another invisible border, one of a less geographical nature. I hadn’t heard those rumors, but tales of another kind.

"My great grandmother spoke of the trail in whispers when my mother wasn't in the room."

I was first told of the treasure when I was a very young girl. My great grandmother Isabel, after whom I’m named, spoke of the trail in whispers when my mother wasn’t in the room. She would lean forward in her rocking chair to tell me, stopping whenever a nurse’s heels came clicking down the hall of the institution. Once my mother caught her telling the story, and she rushed me back to the car. After that we didn’t visit the old woman again for almost a year.

That didn’t stop me from asking again and again about the trail’s folklore the next time I saw her. According to her story, there was a cave at the end that concealed riches beyond imagining; when she was sixteen she herself had even tried to get there, but failed along the route. Well, she said she failed. Now I will never know. Isabel died when I was nine, and from that point onward the fantasy existed in me, a living desire to reach whatever lay at the end of the Viper’s Whisper, to carry the torch of my namesake. It took no convincing to sell my boyfriend Tony on the adventure. He was immediately onboard.

—What stopped her? he asked yet again.

—She never told me.

We boiled water for coffee in the pre-dawn darkness and silence. A moth that flew too near to the low blue flickering propane light was cremated in an instantaneous and tiny golden spark.

We set out. It was just after five thirty when the sky began to pale, the bats flittered overhead—going the same direction as we were, back to their faraway rock caves—and we turned off our headlamps. I wondered if any of those bats were headed to the very same cave as we were. By the time the bright tip of day touched the landscape, we had covered nearly eight miles. It became clear that the trail was inclining toward a low cluster of black mountains in front of us in the west, the tips of which were alight with dawn. With the first ray of sun the heat pricked the backs of our necks, and Antony resumed the complaining he had been doing the last three days.

By nine we reached the base of the mountains, and the trail began to wind up into the rocks. We stopped for water. Antony finished his first bottle and began the second.  Watching him drink, I wondered why I brought him. Why did he want to come? I saw his eyes when I told him about treasure, but I couldn’t criticize. After all, I myself was there for treasure, too. The sloppy way he drank from his liter bottle irritated me. I had grown a recent fear that Antony might propose to me. These were irregular thoughts. Tony and I got along great, always. I felt off though, and I wasn’t sure why. Instead of trusting my gut, I pushed the worry out of my head.

Up ahead was the mountain, sublime and present and serene and looming.

There was nothing significant about the cave. It wasn’t even hidden, the path led straight on into it. Perhaps the long traverse of desert was concealment enough. Our pre-dawn headlamps were switched back on, batteries checked. We walked in. Squeaks and echoes around us and soft guano underfoot alerted us to the bats, and we kept our lights shining ahead to avoid disturbing the tiny roosting creatures. Eventually the echoes subsided; the ground grew hard. The bats didn’t roost as deeply here as they would have in another cave. I wish I had noticed that as we went in. I was too excited, drawn in like a moth.

I led the way, and for bearing I kept my fingertips brushing along the northern cave wall to our right. As the cave widened, the southern wall to our left receded into the darkness, and I prodded my headlamp into the dark across, and then above. The beam did not reach the ceiling, and the southern wall looked to be almost fifty yards away. A huge chamber of indeterminate size surrounded us in invisible shadow.

"Something became visible. It was two points of bobbing light. We froze; the lights grew still."

Antony and I looked at each other. I could see the same ratio of fear and excitement in his eyes that I felt in myself. With a nod, we continued onward. After circling the rim of the cavern, the walls began to narrow again, creating a passage on the east side, opposite from where we had entered on the west. The walls got tight on either side; in some places so narrow that we had to shuffle sideways in the dark. But the ceiling never reappeared, giving me the feeling of being wedged at the bottom of some deep crack in the earth. We had been in the dark for only an hour when, about thirty feet ahead, something became visible. It was two points of bobbing light. We froze; the lights grew still. It took a moment to realize that somewhere out in front of us was a smooth surface. It was reflecting the light from our headlamps back to us.

We pressed on. I wish we hadn’t. I wish I knew then what I know now; what my great grandmother Isabel had known all along.

The passageway had come to a head, and the wall at its end was a polished stone surface. We stepped right up to it, and I’ll admit I was mesmerized. I didn’t think. I leaned forward and put my palm on the shiny cool surface, and I saw myself mirrored in the stone. A perfect match. It was almost as if there were another Isabel with her palm just on the other side, touching mine. The material was jade, maybe, something diaphanous and deep green, with tiny gold flecks within. A vertical pond of frozen stone.

Antony was much more cautious than I was, my hand still pressed to the surface.

—This is weirdin’ me out.

—Touch it, it’s so cool.

—Isabel I don’t like it.

I turned and walked to him, took his hand, gently, and led him to the stone. I led him to it. I placed his hand flat on the rock. He looked at himself reflected within the wall, through the demarcation of this world and the reflected world. I remember thinking that it really did seem like those gold flecks were floating, almost in a jelly of—

"With a gasp and in shock, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor."

Then it happened. It happened so fast. In the space of a blink, Antony was through, sucked to the other side. He occupied his own reflection. He pounded on the inside of the stone, yelling, silent. With a gasp and in shock, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. My ears rang. In a blur I recovered myself and stumbled up quickly. I think I was screaming, and I slammed my fist again and again on the cold, immoveable stone, the reverberations of my cries scattered around the cavern, echoing.

He was pounding on the other side too, but then. Then he— something about Tony changed. He stepped back and closed his eyes for a moment, and then when he opened them he looked at me. The panic was gone from his pupils.

He was different. He was trying to calm me now, putting his hands flat against the inside of the surface: an invitation to do the same thing, I think. It felt wrong somehow. I took a step backward instead. I thought I was going to vomit.

And then, calm Antony took one decisive step forward, clean out of the jade, returning to this world. Cooly. Evenly. Not himself.

I ran.

A few steps into my sprint I looked back over my shoulder. Antony stood facing the stone again, and from deep within, the gold flecks looked out, in pairs, moving forward. That’s the last thing I saw.

I was in the desert for two days before I made it here.

I hope it’s not too late.

***

Check out more of Sam's writing, film, and photography at www.wsambeas.com

Night Sweats

Today we're featuring a story all the way from the east coast (the beast coast) by Sarah Montello! 

 Content Warning: This piece contains a description of sexual assault. 

Night Sweats

Sarah Montello

She leans against the sliding glass door, the twinkling lights glinting off the fresh ice cubes floating in the top of her glass. Something sickly sweet to sip, masking alcohol and masking the stress of the days and nights. She adjusts her skirt, smiles, laughs, flips her hair. 

The wooden planks of the deck are still darkened by this morning’s rain water, and the moon above gives so little lights that faces are made out by tiki torches and phone screens lighting up like fireflies. Just a smattering of twenty-somethings in various stages of undoing, speaking too loudly, and with too much conviction, on topics they know too little about. 

She pauses a beat, sits down her still mostly full cup on a plastic folding table, and blinks twice as the candles floating in mason jars start to blur a little bit. She smiles at the host, a dark-haired beauty draped across the side of a lounge chair, and heads inside. She makes it up the carpeted stairs, and closes the bedroom door behind her.

It seems like the bed takes up the whole room, and the deflated pillows are more and more inviting as her headache pounds against her temples. She closes her eyes, pulling her knees in to her chest. She breathes in deep. A minute, or an hour, passes.

The door opens, letting a sliver of light into the otherwise dark room. She turns over a bit and sees him come in and clicks the door closed behind him. One of the boys from the party, tall, with slicked down blonde hair, cut long on top, and chunky square frames dominating his face. 

He lays down on his back and smiles at her, a slow and sweet grin that urges her closer. And she goes, she moves on top of him, straddling her legs around his waist and leans down to kiss him. He kisses her back, hard, his teeth clanking against hers, his hands running down her sides. She pulls back a little, and he begins to thrust his hips up at her, his belt buckle cold and hard against the inside of her thighs. 

Aggressive. His hands hold her hips down on him. The lacy edges of her skirt pull tight around her legs as she tenses under his touch. Not right. Not beautiful. Not romantic.

She goes to get off of him, scooting off to the side of him, her butt hitting the mattress and leaning her torso back into her elbows. She goes to disentangle her legs but he catches them, his hands digging into the unnamed back of her knees and holding on. 

She tries to meet his eyes, but they focus in on her tank top where the straps have fallen. He twists her legs and yanks her down, her elbows giving out from under her, her shoulder blades crashing onto the mattress. Her lips begin to tremble, her heart pounds in her chest. Not good. Not good. 

She tries to scramble away, back, back, pulling on the sheets, but he’s not letting go. The side of her head grazes the wall, her sharp earring back pushing into the side of her neck, and she realizes there’s nowhere for her to go.

He smiles, but not the sly sweet smile that gets a girl to kiss him. His face contorts into the insidious smirk of a man who sees something he wants. He hands travel up her thighs as he moves himself between them, on his knees, and squeezes along her legs, his fingers contracting around her toned muscles too tight to be playful. She lets out a small yelp of pain, and tries to turn away, squirming her upper body toward the wall.

He laughs, just a small chuckle, one she isn’t even sure she hears over the panicked thump of her heartbeat in her ears. His hands are traveling farther up now. She needs help. 

Her hands go from gripping the sheets to pounding against the wall. She needs someone to hear her. She tries to scream for help, but the words get caught, like she’s lost her voice, and it comes out muted. “Help,” she forces out of her throat, her windpipe is on fire. “Help.”

Her fists hit the wall over and over. There’s a whole party of people in the backyard. Could they hear her? His hands claw at her underwear, and she wriggles her hips in an attempt to make their removal more difficult, to try to buy time. Not good.

Finally, she feels it coming up into her mouth, and she lets out a scream.

———

A girl shoots up from her bed. Hair matted down with sweat, breathing hard, legs tangled in a thick down comforter. Light filtering in from the shades she forgot to pull before bed. She grabs her phone from underneath her drenched pillow and clicks it to display the time. 5:56 am. September 19th. Just a nightmare. 

Tears rolling down her cheeks, she replays it in her mind. Not good. 

***

About the Author

Sarah Montello holds a BA in English from St. Thomas Aquinas College and a Master's Degree from Duke University. She is currently teaching high school English and constantly encourages her students to read for pleasure and to write, write, write! Her artistic endeavors include slam poetry, micro fiction, and short stories. While this short piece is not entirely auto-biographical, the artist wants to remind readers that it is real. These characters are your neighbor's daughter, your best friend's little brother, your barista, the captain of the baseball team, and 4/5 women on every college campus. It's happening to someone right now. Listen to the reminders posted on the blue line platforms, and if you see something, say something. 

 

Monochrome

Today we're sharing a short story by Rob Tiemstra.

"It’s a little abstract, but it’s very personal to my life as an artist, as a photographer, and as a person. It’s the most introspective thing I’ve ever written, even though it is a complete fiction. It’s both a literal exploration of the theme (i.e. exposure necessary for photography) and a thematic one, referencing how my life has an artist (and a not particularly social one at that) has often left me feeling isolated in this weirdly cold melancholy." -RT 

***

Monochrome

No one likes the color gray. It is a half color, neither black nor white. Writers use it to symbolize boredom, loneliness, and despair. It is the color of uncertainty, of loss, of purgatory. Its sole merit is as a symbol of complex and inscrutable characters. But then an author released a trashy erotic novel with “gray” in the title, and that was the end of that. Perhaps gray was the title, I do not remember. I've lost so many memories to the fog.

Have you heard of a town called Elview? I would be surprised if you had. Its reputation diminished ever since it got lost in the fog. But you may have a parent, or a grandparent, who visited us during our glory days. I probably met them. I met most people coming through Elview by train or car. No one went straight through the station or the town square, they always stopped. We were always worth a stop, no matter how long the trip.

Elview was a golden town. That's what we were known for. Nestled in the St. Mortimer Valley, the sun always struck a sweet yellow hue over our rooftops when it rose. I have never seen a village as alive as Elview when the sun first appeared – the streets buzzing like a beehive full of honey. Not everyone had a camera back then, but they might as well have. I reckon it was the most painted and photographed township in the country. But maybe that's just nostalgia talking.

Every morning, artists and photographers would get off the train, and one by one they'd stop dead in their tracks. The newcomers were always dumbfounded by how beautiful the light was, and the repeat visitors always stopped to watch their companions gape in awe. It would rain occasionally in our little town, but scattered showers only made the buildings and streets more radiant than before, glittering like gold before our gobsmacked guests. Artists would come for weeks at a time, searching all over the surrounding hills for the perfect angle to paint our little golden town. Photographers would camp out overnight on the hillsides to capture the exact moment when the sun came over the nearest crest.

As a youth, I worked as an assistant editor for the local art gallery. My job was to compile pieces for the magazine we'd send out to our neighboring towns. So me and my fellow assistant editors were tasked with reviewing every single painting and photograph sent to us. Sometimes even the most stunning art becomes dull when you see nothing else. But one day a year, I was relieved of the tedium. It was a special holiday that I had entirely to myself. And no, I'm not talking about my birthday (I wonder what my birthday was...)

The tourism board never talked about it to outsiders – they never mentioned the gray days.

Once a year, a mist would roll in overnight, and we'd awaken to see our entire town cloaked in an oppressive blanket of fog. On this day, the streets were silent. People moved up and down the sidewalks as fast as possible, retreating to their homes like cockroaches before a lamp. Dim yellow light glowed from all the windows, as if our renowned sunlight had also retreated inside to escape the fog. Men and women would get off the train as usual, and would halt in confusion.

“Did we get off one stop early?” I would hear them say to each other.

“No, this happens every once in a while,” their companions said, “No place is perfect, after all. It'll be golden again tomorrow.”

And then they'd hurry their way to the Inn as quickly as they could, intent on using the rest of the day to build anticipation for the comping sunrise.

The gray days were the only days I took any pictures.

I would get up bright and early like a child on Christmas morning, and I would roam the streets in the few hours I had to myself before work. I had my own camera, and plenty of film. I would go wandering from the post office to the train station, capturing objects, people, streets, and images suspended in the fog. I loved imagining that no world existed past my line of sight.

I developed these photographs alone. I didn't want the others to judge them – I'd had my taste of their judgment when I submitted my first batch to my own magazine, anonymously of course. I saw my colleagues flip through the submissions as usual, flipping over one golden sun-soaked landscape after another until they got to mine. They casually tossed my entire portfolio onto the reject pile. This stung most of all – if they took the time to laugh at it, like they did some other submissions, it would have at least validated it as some form of art! The casual dismissal cut deeper than any criticism.

I once asked my boss why we accept so many of the same picture. He said “What do you mean, lad? We get thousands of different photographs every year! Paintings too!”

I mentioned that so many are the same kind of photograph – sunset, sunrise, golden hour – and that many even looked like they had been adjusted to appear more vivid than the town actually is.

“What's the point of photography,” I said, “If you're just going to alter the image to look more like a painting in the end anyways?”

He laughed again, this time with the fondly condescending tone of an adult who thinks their student is missing a fairly obvious point.

“Son,” he said, “This is the image of our town. The color is what strikes people's imaginations! Why do you think no one shoots this place in black & white?”

I never talked to him about his taste in art after that. The conversation did little to sway my opinion – though I did immediately buy some black & white film afterwards. Whenever a submission came in that he particularly liked, and he showed it to me and my fellow assistant editor Claire, I would nod my head, pretending to be impressed. Claire was the only one I trusted to show my gray day photographs. I don't know whether she was being honest, or just found my innocence cute, but she said she liked them.

“Anyone can make a sunset look good,” she said, “An artist can find beauty in any weather.”

We got 2 gray days in a row the year my boss died. He died at 2:21 in the morning between them. I wonder if his last thought was how he'd miss the sunrise. When the sun came up the next day, we all missed it too. The fog had refused to leave. I saw the usual suspects get off the train in confusion, but they were joined by the locals this time. No one knew what to make of it. It was like snow in southern California.

I was just as unprepared for the second gray day as everyone else. I had used up most of my annual supply of film the day before, but I still got some shots. I had taken to mailing my developed photographs out of state, under a pen name. Is “pen name” still an accurate term when it isn't a writer using it? It doesn't matter. I've lost both my pen name and my given name since. I don't remember where I left them...

At any rate, my pictures were met with a similar reception abroad. I got so many rejection letters, I stopped reading them, merely held up the envelopes to the light to see if they had some form of payment enclosed. My ego tells me I've probably thrown away dozens of certificates for achievement in fine art photography, but I'd be lucky if I threw away one. I could never make a living off my photos, but since I inherited the magazine, and the gallery along with it, I had a fine source of income. Occasionally I slipped one of my photos into the magazine to see if anyone noticed. I've gotten a few complaints.

Each year, we saw an increase of gray days. It started with a week, then a month, and soon the golden days were the minority on our humble calendar. I remember walking by the head of the tourism committee passed out drunk on the sidewalk. The constable would never arrest him for public intoxication, because everyone felt bad for him. It wasn't his fault his job was handicapped by the blasted fog. I believe the poor man hanged himself a year later.

Claire and I were lovers for a while. She even modeled a few shots for me – I always photographed her at a distance, partly obscured by fog. I called these shots “dreams of love”, and never sent them to anyone. I have the negatives somewhere, but cannot bring myself to look at them or destroy them. She left early one morning - got lost in the fog and never came back. I suspect she realized I could never love someone as much as I loved my gray pictures. Funny how so many artists are woefully inadequate as people.

The last golden day was 10 years ago. I've seen and captured every inch of this town, and if you look at my portfolio you can see the streets getting grayer and grayer, like we're slowly fading away into the mist. I can no longer tell the difference between the photographs I shoot in color or black & white. I barely see my fellow townsfolk anymore – they are either always inside, or have moved on, to get lost in the fog like everyone else. Elview is completely silent, save for once a day when the train comes roaring through the station. It doesn't stop anymore. And if I'm being honest, I haven't actually seen the station in years, the fog is so thick. The postman visited regularly for a while, delivering my rejection letters, and I'd give him some new pieces in return. He got lost in the fog too. I haven't seen him in quite some time.

I still send out my photographs. I drop them in the mailbox on the corner, and they are gone the next day. Someone must be picking them up. I don't think anyone recognizes the return address anymore, because I no longer get any mail back from the galleries. Or they just don't bother sending rejection letters anymore.

If you're reading this letter, you probably think I am an old man wiling away his latter years in the mist. But it is not so. I am young yet – I can't be older than my early 40s, though I have lost count. I am the robust shadow of a healthy man. I often wonder whether I should just abandon this gallery, this magazine, and this town. I want to venture out into the fog, but now I fear it. The fog has grown so dense I fear that if I step into it I may drop off the edge of the world into an endless gray void. And I know for certain that if I leave, I'll never see my beloved Elview again.

But a muscle inside me has been aching, aching so hard I can no longer sleep at night. It's a muscle so atrophied and disused that I barely know what to call it. It is the one part of me that yearns for human connection. For warmth, for love. I love my gray town, I love the fog, in spite of everything it has taken from me. But their love for me is all used up. Burned into strips of celluloid.

This morning I packed up my camera, my pictures, and a set of clothes. If you are reading this letter, some evidence of my existence has reached the outer world. For that I am happy. I must warn you, reader: Do not try and find Elview. You will get swallowed by the fog if you try to trace this letter's origin to my once golden hometown. Just remember my story. I hope that you cherish whatever colors strike your eye - be they blue, red, green, gold, or even gray.

I've enclosed a photograph of myself to prove my story is true.

 

Yours truly,

The last artist from Elview.


Attached to the letter is a single frame of 35mm film. It is completely faded.

***

You can check out Rob's photo series, An Empty Wheelchair, right here on Late Homework, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @the_timestar!

A Brave Little World

In A Brave Little World, Max Friedlaender breaks down your favorite childhood film (if your favorite childhood film was The Brave Little Toaster) as a critique of capitalist labor. Enjoy! 

***

A Brave Little World

All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately...” - Upton Sinclair

We live on the cusp of an automated age. With the exponential rise of technology and the constant cheapening of computers, it seems we’re racing towards dystopia faster than you can say “Skynet.” Predictions from an Oxford University study puts 47% of American jobs at risk of being hijacked by computers within the next two decades. And if you think it’s just coal-miners and auto-workers at risk, you can think again. Most jobs lost will be middle-class maintenance and transportation jobs. They’re gunning for you, Joe Plumber.

This would be less of a problem if our economic system of choice wasn’t almost entirely labor-based. Your children likely will grow up in a country where employment is not the standard. So let’s flirt with the oft-argued idea of Socialism - the political ideology your parents love to hate. But for our children’s sake, let’s keep it light, keep it accessible. To best prepare our progeny to bow beneath the heel of a metal overlord, let us examine the 1986 movie, The Brave Little Toaster as a Marxist critique of capitalist labor philosophy.

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On the surface, Jerry Rees’ movie is the story of a gaudy little Toaster and a ragtag team of appliances - the Radio, the Vacuum, the Lamp and the Blanket - on a quest to the big city to find the boy that once owned them. They start the movie, alone in the family cabin, biding time, keeping house and awaiting the return of said owner, their beloved “Master.” There is a lot to say about that kind of devotion (and we will get to it) but to start it suffices to say that the language of the film itself, early on, presents a power dynamic from human to object.

This dynamic determines the worth of the appliances, much in the same way employers determine the worth of labor. They both constitute examples of what Marx defines as a “commodity,” or an object with commercial value. A man can be useful, an object too can be useful, but they are only commodities once their value is realized and utilized by another party. The appliances therefore are defined by their accessibility to human beings yet, at the same time, are incapable of influencing their use.

Not merely the vehicle for a lazy Jack Nicholson impression, Air Conditioner acts as a voice of concern to the appliances, offering the reasonable, albeit jerky, opinion that he, and the others, have been abandoned. “It’s scrap metal time,” in his own words. The hopeful “low-watts” however cannot accept this version of events and attack the Air Conditioner, chiding him for his jealousy and for being “stuck in the wall.” That’s when things get heated for the air conditioner.

“I can’t help if the kid was too short to reach my dials. It’s my function!”

“I can’t help if the kid was too short to reach my dials. It’s my function!”

The unit, enraged, glows red. He sputters like an old sea captain, erupts in a shower of sparks then explodes. And not in the way that cartoons often do - appearing through the smoke covered in soot or stretched like an accordion. He dies in that wall. We’re ten minutes in now. This is just some world-building shit. What we learn - what Jerry Rees wants us to know - is that in this world, machines are capable of free will and their desires are independent of their designated functions.

Yet dissidence among machines is the exception, not the norm. What keeps the objects going, what pushes them to journey into the unknown in search of the Master, is faith - a belief in the Master’s compassion. Which is not unintentionally cultish. The Toaster and his pals are indoctrinated into a system of belief that affirms their existence. It’s a facsimile of what Marx called, “the opiate of the people.” Religion. And “Blanky” is a goddam zealot, literally floating on air at the thought of his Master’s presence.

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Take this lyric:

“Let us see the Master/ We don’t wanna make him late/ You just keep a-knockin’/ He will open up the gate/ To the City of Light.”

It reads like a hymn. In their minds, human beings are infallible, powerful and infallible because they are powerful. Like the modern corporation, “too big to fail.” A concept that we now know as flawed.

So when the appliances find themselves in a repair shop in the beginning of their journey, they are at first excited by the prospect of a tune-up but quickly learn the truth from a singing group of mish-mashed electronics in the Rocky-Horror style “It’s a B-Movie.” Toaster and pals realize that they are being sold for their parts. And as the sun sets, their prayers for safety go unheeded:  

“There goes the sun/ Here comes the night/ Somebody turn on the light/ Somebody tell me that fate has been kind./ You can’t go out, you are out of your mind.”

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A city of light turned to dark as the illusion of corporate compassion crumbles around them.

Having witnessed for themselves the disheartening length of human brutality, the Toaster and friends, nevertheless, press on to the Master’s apartment where they are stopped by a chorus of brand new appliances: a computer, a microwave and a lot of other things that passed for innovation in 1986. A fancy lamp, I guess?

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The distinction isn’t clear, but the new appliances brag nonetheless about their technical superiority in “Cutting Edge,” an ode to high-speed, computer-chip technology. What these appliances can’t seem to realize, what their illusions prevent them from seeing, is that as they chant, “more, more, more,” touting the luxury of capitalist excess, they are in the process of being replaced. Human demand maintains the pace of technical innovation. And as soon as they reached the market, so soon will they be pushed off the shelves by something more attractive. They’ve yet to learn what Marx, the Toaster and his friends have already learned, that: “Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer.”

Which brings us to the dump, the final scene of the movie in which Toaster and friends listen to a procession of doomed and dreary cars on their way to being crushed. The song “Worthless” recounts the lives of a each vehicle as they take their final ride down the conveyor belt to a percussive mechanical death. The life the cars live, the people they carried and the impacts they made are meaningless, their worth stripped from them over time like the threads of their bolts.

“I was the top of the line, out of sight, out of mind/ So much for fortune and fame/ You’re worthless.”

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It is only in their final moments that these cars realize that they were never worth anymore than the sum of their functions. As the working class here in the real world ages, they too learn that the economy which provides for them only does so to perpetuate itself, not out of the interest of it’s parts. Retired coal miners today face such a crisis as they encounter the challenge of reforming their underfunded health care plans in an industry with deteriorating wealth. For current coal miners in a disintegrating job market, their challenge lies in adapting their skills to an employable profession. In either case, the value of the laborer is determined, solely, by the demand of the market.

To the bureaucrat, the worker is merely an integral yet replaceable part in an ever-churning political machine. The economy, education - these are manufacturing institutions, shaping minds like smoldering metal, crafting the next generation of cogs and wheels. Even now, educational institutions are preparing to populate an entirely new workforce. The broadening of science and technological education is one effort to upgrade ourselves in the face of obsolescence. But fact remains that it takes 9 months to make a person and mere minutes to assemble an iPhone. And only one of the two comes with a GPS and Solitaire. So, children are the future, sure. They’re just not very user friendly.

***

Kids These Days

We're debuting our prose & poetry section today with Chapter 1 of Kids These Days, a novel by Ben Sack!

"KIDS THESE DAYS is a futuristic comedy about elderly millennials navigating a world where they're no longer cool. It's the year 2062, and sixty-seven-year old Cal Feinman has never had a real job, never been married, and never had children. But when a misguided sperm donation shows up on the doorstep of his government-provided housing in the shape of a teenage girl, his comfortable life is thrown into chaos. 

With KIDS THESE DAYS, I tried to write our generation in a new perspective, by putting us in the shoes of the old people who like to scold us for not buying houses or not eating marmalade or whatever. Turns out, we'll be just as out-of-touch as they are." - Ben Sack

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CHAPTER ONE

A BUNCH OF OLD JUNK

Between the glass cases displaying cluttered clusters of iPods, through the bookshelves bursting with the mournful pages of the last magazines, among the forgotten crates of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs which no one had the means nor desire to watch, ricocheted the joyful sounds of a game of Super Smash Brothers Melee. Through the half-open doorway at the back of the antique store rattled the relentless clicking-click-clicking of the controllers, accompanied by the incandescent glow of New England’s only operational CRT TV. It was not yet nine-o'clock, and the morning sun was still busy rousing those who worked, screaming at them with its spitfire colors, “get up, weary fools, make yourselves useful!” The sun, however, would not be screaming at these three old men -- and it hadn’t for a very, very long time. 

“Wait, wait, I should have L-canceled there, I should have…” Cal muttered as Ethan battered him over the edge with a forward smash. “The controller’s busted, I missed my wavedash,” he complained as his last stock was lost, and Ethan’s Fox taunted him from the victory screen.  

“Blame the controller,” Ethan snorted. “Blame the game disc, blame the power grid, what was it last time?”

“Allergies,” interjected Nick, his fist buried in a box of General Mills French Toast Crunch cereal. 

“Don’t you remember they cured allergies?” Ethan prodded. “We got the shots together, remember?” 

“Didn’t work for me,” Cal said. “I still get all teary when September rolls around.” 

“You’re always crying about one thing or another.” 

“Don’t blame a man for his emotions,” Cal said, reciting a slogan from some mental health awareness posters that ran in the 2030s. “Feelings are for everyone.” 

Nick burst into one of his sudden laughing fits, spraying his companions with bits of ancient maple-flavored corn puffs. Thirty-five years ago, just before the Sugary Snacks Act went into effect, Nick spent his entire savings on a thousand boxes of French Toast Crunch. He had been eating them constantly ever since, at a rate most people would find repulsive. He kept them in a storage locker, the location of which was his most treasured secret, and though Cal and Ethan had suspected for years he must be drawing near the end, there was somehow always another box. As for the laughing fit, Nick was prone to them, an effect of his experiments with mind-altering substances, his favorite hobby throughout his time in the Program. Ethan, who was a medical student in his former life, was certain he could pinpoint the exact solution which caused Nick’s hysteria -- a mixture of pureed fir tree needles and cattle urine Nick called “Everyellow,” the effects of which were, as recorded in his lab notes: a feeling of solidarity with animals, intense need to brush teeth, and overall contentedness.

Cal, for his part, could do with a little contentedness, though he never experimented with drugs, because with his luck, he would be caught by Mrs. Overby and removed from the Program, a fate which at his age would be as good as death. 

Nick’s cackling sounded something like a moose crossed with an alligator who had just swallowed a canary. For all it’s apparent chaos, it was surprisingly regular -- two large guffaws, followed by a shriek, then a gurgle, then a rattle, then repeat. His friends had been listening to it for so long that they could tell by it’s cadence how long it would last, and sometimes placed bets on the matter. 

“How long you want?” Cal poked Ethan in the shoulder. 

“Give me one,” Ethan said. 

“I’ll take two,” Cal said. 

Ethan took his smartphone out of his pocket and started a timer. As the numbers ticked up, the heaving breaths between the shrieks and the gurgles became less and less frequent, until finally he puffed out his cheeks, beat his chest with his fist, and belched, like someone who just defeated the hiccups. The clock read two minutes and thirteen seconds. 

“Five bucks,” Cal said. 

“You owe me five from last time,”

“Fair enough,” Cal stood up, clasped his hands together, and lifted his elbows, sending an inhuman wave of popping noises crackling through his joints like electricity on a malfunctioning power line. At full posture, you could see Cal was a slight man, barely five foot seven the last time he checked, and bony as a dried cod. His sharpest points -- the elbows, knees, and hips -- poked at the insides of his oversized flannel and khakis like tentpoles. 

“You should get that checked out,” Ethan said, referring to Cal’s carbonated joints. 

“How long have you known me?” Cal retorted. 

“Usually there’s eleven pops,” Ethan said. “That time there were thirteen.” 

“Lucky number,” Nick added. 

The front door of the antique store opened, and the electronic chime went wee woo, startling the owner, who had been snoring behind the register. He was a rickety gentleman named Harry, even older than our three old men. Harry sat in a mahogany rocking chair (an original Boston Rocker, in fact), and when he jerked awake, he sent himself on a wild oscillation which he did not have the will to counteract. 

“WhooOo, WhaAt!” Harry shouted, his doppler-effect voice wobbling off the dusty walls. “Yooou ThrEe? I thooouught I toooold you nOT to COMe bacK!” 

“You’ve been telling us that for fifteen years,” Nick said.

“Wasn’t us,” Ethan was pointing at the front door, his long, skeletal finger trembling like it were pointing at the ghost of Christmas yet to come. 

Harry’s rocking chair froze in place. 

“We’ll I’ll be…” he sputtered. “Customers.” 

Two teenagers stepped inside and started to pick their way through the haphazard piles of inventory. Their faces were blank -- they were lost in the chatter of the Tön devices which harbored in their ears and interfaced directly with their brains. They did not seem to notice the peculiar old men gawking at them. 

“Quit staring!” Cal whispered, elbowing Ethan in the ribs. Ethan winced. “They’ll think we’re crazy.” 

“I’d hate for that to happen,” Nick said, his voice muffled through the cotton of his sweatshirt, which was pulled inside out over his head, baring his thick, milky, cereal-laden gut for all to see. 

“Put that down!” Cal yanked on the shirt, pulling a few of Nick’s red hairs off with it. One of the teens, who was examining a digital wristwatch, froze in place and carefully set it back on the shelf. 

“Not you!” Cal said, waving at the teenagers. “Sorry!”

Ethan sat on the old church pew at the back of the shop, crossed one long leg over the other, and watched with eager anticipation. He was a lanky, stern, stoic-looking man. At first glance, you’d expect him to be the quiet, brooding type. In reality he was not quiet, but he was certainly brooding, and it took something special to make him smile. However, at this moment, he had a great big smirk on his lips, because on a list of his favorite activities, watching Cal interact with teenagers was number two, just behind dispensing unwanted medical advice.

“Better take a deep breath, Cal, I can see the veins in your forehead,” he said. “I don’t want to see you with a subconjunctival hemorrhage. That’s what killed my Uncle Jude.” 

“Shove it,” Cal said. 

Cal took a deep breath and watched the teenagers from a distance, waiting for the optimal time to make his move. Cal had made a pact with himself at an early age that he would never be like the old people he grew up with. That he would always make an effort to see things from the perspective of the younger generation. That he would try his best to keep up with trends and technologies, and to not fall into the useless oblivion of old routines. It turned out, however, that today’s teenagers were nothing like Cal imagined when he made that promise all those years ago. These teenagers were insufferable. Withholding judgment on them was like holding back urine after a night of drinking -- it got harder all the time, and once it started, it would be flowing like the Mississippi. 

Ethan rubbed his hands together until dead skin sprinkled down from them like snow. He couldn’t wait to watch Cal’s judgment bladder burst. 

Cal sauntered over to the stereo, an old Harman Kardon system he had wired himself. He kept an old Toshiba Satellite laptop on top of the speaker stack. It was hooked up to a two-terabyte external hard drive that contained his extensive and carefully organized collection of mp3s (all tagged with the proper metadata, all 320 kbps, all with the appropriate high-resolution album art). He scrolled through the listings, clicked play on his favorite band, leaned back on his tentpole elbows, and tried his best to look distant and disinterested.

“Question that noise,” one of the teenagers said, looking up from the Power Ranger action figure he was fondling. He was wearing the typical uniform of his age, unisex, brandless, grey cotton sweats cut into a tanktop and shorts. Such was the fashion of choice among hip people in the year 2061. In fact, most young people dressed so much alike that the best indications of their individuality came in their choice of bionic implants -- eyes, ears, hands, tongues -- they could all, for the cost of a cheap surgery, be switched out and replaced with newer, more interesting models. This teenager, for example, had bright yellow cat’s eyes in place of his God-given ones. 

Cat’s Eye approached Cal. “What’s in a dizzy, programmer? You might go brain-on listening to this smog.” 

Cal was bewildered. “Sorry?” he said. 

“He’s asking you about the music!” Ethan called out, delighted. 

“It’s LCD Soundsystem,” Cal said slowly. This garnered no response from the feline-faced kid in front of him. “You’ve never heard of LCD Soundsystem?” Cal cringed as he said it. He was acutely aware of his geezerly tone. “They’re...a very important band.” 

“Question how you survived this long,” Cat’s Eye said, having moved on to perusing a basket of tangled ethernet and micro-USB cables marked at one dollar a piece. “Listening to walls-off smog, glassing glow screens all day, it’s a miracle you’re not all fried eggs.” 

“Who you calling fried egg?” Nick said, careful not to topple the French Toast Crunch pieces he had stacked like a Jenga tower on the bridge of his nose.

Cal forced a smile. “What do you listen to? I’d love some recommendations.” 

“Split it with you,” Cat’s Eye said. He waved his hand near his right ear, then near Cal’s ear. A wild look washed over him. 

“You don’t have a Tön?” Cat’s eye said, astonished. He called to his friend, who was nose-deep in an old book. “Tembo, he doesn’t have a Tön.” 

“Walls-off!” Tembo said, taking a big whiff.

Töns were remarkable communications devices that had replaced smart lenses, which had replaced smartphones. They were metallic objects about the size and shape of a kidney bean, worn in the ear. By vibrating at specific frequencies, the Tön was able to influence the neural patterns of the brain, creating precise sensory hallucinations. The Tön allowed for near-telepathic communication with other wearers, as well as exciting new virtual media experiences. Best of all, the Tön created an enhanced, personal sensory reality for each user, complete with targeted advertisements. An early press release for the Tön One put it best: 

 

Your music from every speaker

 your art on every wall

 The smell of mom’s apple pie

 instead of the bathroom stall.

 

“Can’t have one,” Cal said. “Doctor’s orders.” 

This was only partly true. Cal did indeed have a psychiatric disorder, but he was diagnosed so long ago he had completely forgotten which one. The only direct effect it still had on his life was in the form of a big yellow pill he took every morning. Cal didn’t know if he still needed the pills, but, having no recollection of what life was like before he started on them, he decided it was too late to find out. When the Tön came on the market, Cal had asked his physician, Dr. Katz, if it was safe to get one. 

“I’m no expert,” Dr. Katz said. “But you should probably be careful.” 

And so Cal had never tried. But he was not usually one to take a flippant doctor’s advice so seriously. In truth, Cal didn’t have a Tön for the same reason most other people his age rejected them -- because music and media and advertisements were now hyper-targeted directly to people’s heads, so there was no need for them to exist in real, physical space. Since the Tön took over, the outside world had become increasingly peaceful and free of distractions. Billboards, which to a Tön user would shine with the trailer for the latest reality trip, appeared to Cal as blank white rectangles. Bars and restaurants that would formerly blare the grating and dissonant music which had overtaken the top forty were instead as serene as a lake on a still morning. It was an old person’s paradise. To be in touch with the culture of youth meant giving up this Eden, and though he wouldn’t admit it, that was something even Cal could not bring himself to do. So, Cal and his peers stuck to their smartphones, which one Chinese company continued to manufacture just for them. 

“Oy,” Tembo called to Cat’s Eye. “Seen this?” He was holding up a white iPhone 4s. 

“You be careful, that thing’s older than your parents.” Harry said. 

Tembo held the phone to his ear, puffed out his chest, and put on an accent that was somewhere between Texas Southern and Cockney English. “Oy, I mean, Hello! I would like to place a collect call.” Tembo and Cat’s Eye started to giggle. 

“Give it,” said Cat’s Eye, taking the phone from Tembo and holding it to his own ear. “Yes, hello, this is 911, what is your emergency,” he mocked. 

“Wait, wait,” laughed Tembo, trying to take the phone back. “Thought up a good one, give it.” 

“Wait,” Cat’s Eye said, not wanting to relinquish his turn.“Yes, I’d like one pepperoni pizza with extra pizza…”

Tembo swiped at Cat’s Eye, knocking the device from his hand. It smashed against the hardwood, and a large crack spidered across the glass. The sound shook Nick from his balance, sending the French Toast Crunch Jenga tower scattering across the floor.

“Dumbasses!” Harry screamed, nearly catapulting himself out of his rocking chair. “Get out of my shop!” 

“Ain’t blame me you people made such crackable shit,” said Tembo. 

The teenagers left, the door chime announcing their exit. Ethan looked at Cal expectantly. 

“Say it,” Ethan said. “Say it. Come on. Say “Kids these days…”

“Fuck off,” Cal said instead. “One V one me. You get to use the wonky controller.” 

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You can read more of Ben's work, and contact him at his website sack.space