Breaking Protocol

“Thank you all for gathering on short notice.” Harry sat in his chair with the light of his monitor reflecting off his glasses. “I know these are hard times, but I’m glad we can still gather quickly as the need arises.”

Harry focused his eyes on his webcam, doing what that guide to video conferencing had told him to give the illusion of eye contact to the people on the call. It was tricky to maintain, but he’d had a lot of practice.

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The Simple Life

Grady was a simple man. He liked to hike, he liked his wife, and he liked his work. He merely tolerated their kids. Everyone had assured him that he’d eventually like them when they became little people instead of pink blobs, but they’d been wrong. He could be occasionally persuaded to do activities adjacent to hiking, such as rock climbing or camping, and did his best to avoid everything else.

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Between the Cracks

Eustace looked at the young man sitting across from him who was staring at the floor between his shoes. “I can’t spend a day in a warm office or house during the winter without getting bloodier knuckles than I’ve ever gotten from a fight.”

Eustace clenched his fist and watched the blood run from the split skin of his knuckles. “They say Humans are very adaptable, but really we’re just good at ignoring discomfort.”

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Still an Accomplishment

Luke placed the trophy on the shelf and took a moment to straighten it so the plaque faced outward. After a quick scan of shapes and words he’d long ago memorized, he sighed and turned to his wife. “One day.”

She nodded. “One day.”

Luke looked around the room at all of his trophies and led Mariah out of the trophy room, leaving the lights to her. Instead of checking on the kids, he moved into the living room and sat down on the couch.

A moment later, Mariah sat down next to him. “You’ll get one eventually. I know it.”

“I guess.” Luke raised and lowered a shoulder. “I’ve been playing sports for almost thirty years and I’ve never won. I’m getting a little tired of second and third place trophies.”

“Yeah, but you have more trophies than anyone I’ve met. That counts for something.”

“Tons of second and third place trophies aren’t an accomplishment.”

“Luke, you play a dozen sports a year. You’re an amazing coach to the kids and none of your teams would have come close to placing without you.”

Luke looked away from Mariah.“It doesn’t feel like anything worth celebrating.” Mariah pushed herself up to kiss him on the cheek and was settling back again when there was a crash from the den. Luke was in the room before she could get up.

When she arrived, she found him standing next to a fallen trophy case, broken trophies scattered on the floor.

Luke looked up to her. “Well, shit.”

Mariah smirked. “You had enough trophies to pull your trophy case off the wall. You don’t think that’s an accomplishment?”

Luke look at her for a moment before busting out laughing. “I guess I’ve come in first when it comes to having too many trophies.”

Analysis Paralysis

Howie sighed for the fifth time,

“I get it, Howie. It’s a tough call.”

“If you did, that wouldn’t be sarcasm, Len.”

I shrugged. “It’s not like we can do anything about it.”

Howie’s brow furrowed and he looked at me. “What?”

“We pass data along, not make decisions.”

“Sure we do!” Howie glared at me. “We have experience they need to make decisions!”

“Howie… We work in a cube in orbit around a distant star, collecting data. No one cares.”

“If we’re the only people reading these reports, then it’s our job to provide analysis. Why do you think we needed to have doctorates?”

“To justify launching us into space?” I shrugged. “It pays well and that’s all I care about.”

“No, you moron.” Howie tossed the tablet to me and I grabbed it. “We’re supposed to think about the data.”

I ran my eyes over the readouts and then did it again while running calculations in my head. Howie smirked and crossed his arms. “Told you.”

There was a huge fluctuation in the energy in the local star system heading straight for the Sol system or the system’s star was acting up. It would take a few days to run the test to know for sure. If we waited, it’d be a month before we could transmit again. If it was something coming out of the star system, the data said it’d get to Earth in two weeks.

“So we have to make a call. Spend billions preparing for whatever this is, or don’t.”

“Oh.” I started chewing on a fingernail. A few minutes later, I was out of fingernails but still couldn’t decide what to do.

“Not so easy, is it.”

“So much for retiring.”

“Better safe than stuck forever.”

I nodded and Howie made the call.

 

Deck the Hall

I got along great with my neighbors until John Hall moved in next door.

He had points against him moving in because he pushed his father, Jack Hall, out of the house he’d owned his entire life. We all pitched in, but Jack was getting to the point where he couldn’t handle things on his own. So it made some amount of sense, but it still felt awful to come home one day and discover Jack had been stuck in some nursing home before we could say goodbye.

That was only the start. John started throwing parties. Lots of people in beat up old cars attended and they went late into the night, often with frustratingly loud music. I tried to be understanding, but I couldn’t put up with it forever.

John laughed and flipped me off the first time I talked to him so I got the neighborhood association involved. They fined him, but he refused to pay since his father had signed the agreement, not him. I called the police, eventually, in the middle of one of his parties, and a bunch of people got busted for drug possession.

We got a couple years of peace out of that, but Jack was eventually back and John had passed away in the meantime. Instead of throwing parties, he started planting bushes that grew onto my property and sued about property lines. After he lost and had to trim his hedges, he started throwing things into our yard to get our dogs to eat them. Which is why I went over there today to confront him. He said he hoped our dogs died so I decked him.

 

-Statement to the Police regarding assault at 81 Oak Tree Lane on June the twenty-seven between one John Hall and one Lawrence Henderson.

Growth

Arnold left his room in the dead of night, carefully stepping around every creaking board as he made his way downstairs. It was after midnight, his family was asleep, and Arnold had grown hungry.

He made himself a quick sandwich to hold him over while he pre-heated the oven. Once it beeped, and he’d finished the banana he’d taken after the last crumbs of the sandwich had disappeared, he popped a pair of pizzas in to cook.

While he waited the prescribed twelve minutes, he reflected on the constant gnawing hunger he’d felt while at school, where they wouldn’t even let him snack on the bags of pretzels he’d stuffed into his locker. He’d tried to sneak them into class by sticking them in his pockets, but the snap and crunch had given him away instantly. As had his classmates. Not even they understood what he was going through.

His parents got it, though, sort of. They didn’t like seeing him eat as much as he did, but they didn’t question his need for the extra food. He heard his dad saying something to his mom about “puberty” and him being a “growing boy.” He wasn’t sure why they thought that. He was eighteen, a senior in college. He’d gone through puberty years ago.

That being said, he was happy to let them assume whatever they wanted. They wouldn’t understand if he explained it, so he avoided it as much as they did. He hadn’t even seen a doctor about it. He didn’t want to end up in a lab.

So he ate two frozen pizzas, another banana, and then went to bed so the alien parasite growing inside him could get all the nutrients it needed. He was proud to be a dad, especially to such a special child.

Wanderlust

James heaved himself out of his car and staggered to the trunk. He looked at everything he owned scattered on the forest floor for a moment before gathering up his backpack, his messenger bag, and whatever else he could fit into his already stuffed bags.

He grabbed a few bottles of water and wrapped his blanket around his shoulders. Once his messenger bag had been shifted so it hung under his backpack, he looked around the woods one last time before starting off at a forty-five degree angle from the direction his car had been going.

He managed to walk for about fifteen minutes before he got light-headed and had to sit. He let himself take five minutes to rest, drink some water, and make sure he wasn’t losing too much blood. Once his five minutes were up, he carried on.

When the sun had set, he’d crossed half a dozen roads, changed directions ten times, and taken a short nap hidden under a pile of leaves. After a brief dig through his backpack, he pulled out his headlamp and carried on, stopping only once to hide his light when he saw a line of flashlights bobbing in the distance.

The next morning came late, hidden behind a light rain, but he still walked until his legs refused to carry him any further. A short rest got him back on his feet and then his feet got him to a dry spot to set up camp. As he ate a protein bar and set out his collapsible cookware to collect water, he hummed a song to himself. As he curled up under his blanket, he sang a few lines as he drifted off.

“And everything must end so something new can start. And I’m on my way back home.”

All Natural

It was one of the parks in the city big enough to let you forget you were surrounded by concrete and glass. Lucia wouldn’t know he was there.

His phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, saw her face, and silenced it as he fought down the rising panic. It was only three in the afternoon and he had plenty of time. As the panic started to win the battle, he hauled himself to his feet and started walking toward the parking lot.

Half an hour later, his bugout bag in hand, he bought a greyhound ticket. Once he got to the state park, it was easy to find someone willing to sell him camping gear. He had plenty of money and most of the people he saw didn’t really want to be camping anyway.

It was early morning by the time he began setting up camp. There was no way anyone would be able to find him. He basked in that peace for two days, surviving off the fat of the land and drinking from crystal springs. But then he approached his campsite one night and heard voices.

Abandoning his gear, he immediately turned around and headed toward the nearby mountain. He walked through the night and didn’t stop until the sun had set again. When he gave up trying to sleep, the sun was rising. He walked toward a cliff to check his surroundings. As he admired the beauty of this national park, his phone rang. He pulled it out and answered.

“Hi, Lucia.”

“Sweetie! Where have you gone?”

Adam pulled the phone away from his face and bellowed. “You’ll never find me, you devil.” He threw his phone as hard as he could, watching it sail into the distance, and shouted after it. “I quit!”

The Edge of Sleep

Half-dreamt thoughts on the edge of sleep. Little things seen out of the corner of your eyes. A double-take revealing nothing extraordinary. A memory of a moment in the future, forgotten until it happens.

“Anxiety” they said, “manifesting as insomnia and psychosis.” Sleep studies, sleeping pills, and sleep aids.

“You brain is just firing neurons. There’s nothing to worry about.” Pills, therapy, and even meditation, all to fix an imbalance that never budged.

“It’s a form of schizophrenia. We can figure it out.” More pills, more therapy, but also a treatment center this time.

Whispered conversations on the edge of hearing. Reports handed to parents with only the occasional word revealed to me. The knowledge they talked about me like I wasn’t there anymore and there was nothing I could do to convince them otherwise.

But it was all real. There were cracks in the world, slowly letting the magic and majesty of the old world back in. Atlantis had sunk, but not in water.

Now, after millenia, it was coming back, guided by creatures that looked like the worst nightmares of the woman in the cell next to mine whose wordless screams of pain and fear no words could have described better.

There was one other girl who knew. She showed up after I did but her family never visited. They kept us apart. “It just feeds your psychosis” they would say.

By the time they believed us, it was too late. The wards were sealed and they waited for the Atlanteans to get around to them before taking out the only people who could have stopped them.

It was easy. We were locked in cells and restrained in jackets. A flash of light and it was over.

I have that memory-dream every night, but no one believes me.