“Pull Up A Pencil”

It was late. Very late. But there was homework to do before tomorrow. It was the big contradiction of my freshman year of college. I always finished my homework, but I never started it before midnight. Either doing it earlier or not doing it all would have been better for my health, but I had too much fun socializing to seriously consider the former, and the latter was ruled out by my sense of responsibility for school, such as it was. So I was often up until four in the morning, trying to get things done before my 8 AM class.

Tonight was no different. My roommate was already asleep in our room, and there were people still watching TV in the lounge. As a result, I retreated to the only relatively quiet place I could find, the lobby.

It was getting hard to focus on the words, so I decided to take a break. I stood and walked around the lobby trying to wake myself up a bit. Near the door to the building sat the nightguard. They were on duty all night to make sure only residents or their guests entered the dorm. Her head was down, pencil in hand, working on something.

Without thinking about how creepy it might seem, I walked over to see what she was doing. She had a book of logic puzzles open, and she was working on one. When she noticed me, she slid the book over some so that the right hand page wasn’t in front of her. “Pull up a pencil,” she said as she held one up.

I had loved logic puzzles for years, so I took the number 2 and kneeled down in front of the book. She continued working on her puzzle as I made my way through the one she had offered me. When I finished, I thanked her and walked back to my actual homework.

And that is how I met one of my very best friends.

Broadcasting

He grabbed a can of pasta and sat down. Taking a bite while turning on the power, he quickly backed away from the microphone to avoid the initial feedback. Next he checked the meter; there was enough power for about twenty minutes of broadcasting. The transmitter warmed up, he leaned forward in his chair.

“Good morning, listeners. Can’t talk long today. It’s been a bit rainy here on top of the mountain. Solar panels trying to grab what they can. But we’ve got a few minutes, at least.

“Today is,” he paused to check his notes, “looks like it’s April 4th. 2 years and 136 days into this new world. Of course, standard caveats apply. I may have screwed up at some point, so feel free to add or subtract a day or two. But it’s definitely spring. The rain leaves little doubt about that.”

He stood up to look out the single window set high up the wall and then came back to the microphone.

“Just checked. It’s still raining. I’d complain about someone setting up a transmitter running on solar panels in the Northwest, but at least they still provide some juice out here. Don’t think I’d be talking to you without them.

“Of course, I guess I can’t be sure I’m talking to anyone.” He looked morosely at the phone. “I’ve got a phone, but I don’t know the number. And the line has been dead since almost the beginning. And I have no receiver, so I don’t know if anyone else is transmitting.

“I suppose this is as good a time as any to welcome new listeners. I’m James Demi, and I broadcast every day on this channel. Always an hour after the previous day, to try to catch people who may be trying to find a signal at different times. I’m not asking for anything from anyone. Just trying to let anyone else know that they aren’t completely alone in the world.

“I do have to say, though, I’m getting tired of hearing my own voice out loud. I used to rant about the people that created the mess we live in now, but I lost steam on that. My days are pretty boring, so I’m kind of running out of things to talk about.

“Those are words my family would never have expected to hear from me. I was always the talkative one. People couldn’t shut me up. They thought I could talk forever. Turns out, forever is only about two and a half years.

“Still, I can talk. And it use to get me in trouble. In fact, there was this one time. My dad was dating this woman. She was very nice, had a daughter a few years older than I was. They were over at our house just before Christmas, and I mentioned to the two of them that I wanted to get an album. I can’t remember, now, what album it was. Anyway, the mom whispered in my ear that her daughter had the album, and I excitedly asked her to borrow it.

“It turns out, the mom had gotten her the album for Christmas; I had misunderstood what she had whispered. So my penchant for talking and not listening spoiled her Christmas surprise.”

As soon as he finished, he felt silly for telling that story.

“See? I told you I was running out of things to talk about. But don’t worry, I’ll still keep broadcasting. It’s not like I have anything else to do.”

He looked at the clock and checked the meter again.

“I’m nearly out of juice. So I’ll mark down another day in my notes. It’s 9:15 am Pacific time right now. I will come on tomorrow at 10:15, if you have any means of keeping track of time. I think tomorrow I’ll start reading through one of the books I have here. Give you all something other my rambling stories to listen to.

“I’d ask you what you thought about that idea, but we’ve already covered that. Instead, I’ll just wish you all a good day, wherever you are. Whoever you are.”

He flicked the board off. There was maybe a minute or two of power left. Another day done with little else to do. He hung on to the belief that people were listening. The alternative was too depressing to consider.

Thankful for Something

The door to the small, dark cell opened, and a guard threw a tray of food on the floor. “Happy Thanksgiving.” His gruff voice was the first sound from another human I had heard in a long time.

“Is it really Thanksgiving?”

The guard shrugged. “Maybe. What do you care? You’ve got nothing to be thankful for.” Done with me, he slammed the door shut and left.

Once more, the light shrank to whatever filtered through the small, barred window on the door. Still, it was enough to see that the food was the same gruel trying to pass itself off as stew. I ate every bit of it because there would be nothing better. The guard had probably lied about it being Thanksgiving.

Besides, he was right, what did I have to be thankful for? Left in this underground cell to rot, the only light coming from a low-watt bulb in the corridor. The food barely deserved to be called that. No human interaction. I wasn’t even certain I remembered what crime I had committed to be thrown in here. Nobody even bothered to torment me. I was certain I was fed only when someone remembered I existed. That’s how I would die; they’d just forget to feed me, and I would starve.

Still, it was tradition. Surely I could think of something to be thankful for. I was alive. I had a roof over my head. Food in my belly. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t muster any thankfulness for any of it. The food was horrible, and the roof felt more like the lid to a coffin. And frankly, I wasn’t certain I was even alive.

“I think he was lying about Thanksgiving.” The voice seemed to come from the wall behind me.

“Who…?”

“I’m in the cell next to yours, I think.”

There had never been anyone else in here. “Are you real? Or am I imagining you?”

“Good question, but I’m real. Are you?”

How do you know if you’re real? Except for this disembodied voice, and the occasional grunt from a guard, no one had acknowledged my existence for as long as I could remember. Maybe I wasn’t real…

“Hey! You there? You know I can’t hear your thoughts. You gotta talk out loud.”

“Sorry. I think I’m real. Why haven’t I heard you before?”

“Same reason I hadn’t heard you until that guard talked to you. No reason to say anything.”

That made sense, I supposed. “How long have you been here?”

“Six months? Maybe. I was brought here in January, so I don’t think it’s November already. How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know. I’m not even sure when I came here anymore. Pretty sure it’s been longer than six months.”

“Wow.”

Silence came rushing back in, much louder than before. I tried to remember how to have a conversation, to keep the other person talking. I didn’t care about what, and that made it harder to think of something to say. But I needed to hear a human voice, even if it was just my imagination.

“How… Why did you get put in here?” I asked the first question that popped into my head.

“Boring story. You don’t want to hear it.”

“I do. Really. Even if it’s boring.”

A pause before the other spoke again. “Okay, but I warned you. It started with a broken headlight…”

Judgment Day

“So on Judgment Day,” he could hear the preacher pronounce those capital letters, “God will confront you with all of your sins. Only those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior will be admitted into Heaven. Everyone else will be condemned to Hell for all of eternity.”

On the way home, he kept thinking about what the preacher had said. Finally he asked his mom about it.

“Mom, am I going to Hell?”

She looked at him in the rearview mirror. “No, honey. You’ve been saved. You’ll go to Heaven. You don’t have to worry.”

“What about you?”

“I’m saved, too. We’ll be together in Heaven.”

“Is Dad saved?”

There was a pause before she answered. “No, honey. He isn’t. But that’s why it’s important to witness to him, so that you might get saved some day.”

“Oh.” He didn’t ask anymore questions after that. But he also didn’t stop thinking about it.

Later that night, he made up his mind. When Judgment Day came, if his dad wasn’t saved, he would insist on going to Hell in his place. It was the best solution his eight-year-old mind could come up with. The only worry he had was that God would allow it, but insist that the person whose place he would take had to be randomly chosen. He would still make the trade, he decided. If his dad wasn’t going to be there, then he didn’t want to be there, either.

Last Night

It snowed last night.

It hadn’t snowed in years. We had been told it wouldn’t snow again, but last night, Mother Nature managed to eke out another inch or two.

The kids went outside to play in it with a sense of wonder. Almost intuitively, they made snowballs to throw at one another. They even attempted to build a snowman like the ones they had seen in story books, but there really wasn’t enough snow to make anything very big. Even though they had to come in after about an hour because their t-shirts and shorts weren’t enough to keep them warm, they had a grand time.

I stayed up all night watching it fall as the whole world slowly turned white. It took me back to my childhood, and I recalled even having school canceled once because of it. But that had been years ago, and those old memories paled next to the visual treat I witnessed last night.

The sun burned away every trace of snow when it rose in the morning. The kids, excited to have been outside the night before, asked if they could go out again. I had to explain that the snow was gone and the sun was back, so it wasn’t safe to go outdoors.

The looks on their faces nearly broke me. It had been cruel, I realized, to be given that taste of how things used to be, only to have it snatched back right away. Still, I hoped it would be a memory they would cherish. And someday, they could tell their children that they had seen real snow.

The Offer

There was a knock on the door just before it opened. A middle-aged man walked into Jacob Lott’s office.

“Hello, Jacob. Good to see you again.” He extended a hand.

Jacob took the man’s hand and shook it before inviting him to sit down. “Have we met? I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”

The man chuckled. “You did have a lot to drink last night, so it isn’t surprising that you might forget.”

“Last night…” Jacob vaguely remembered going to a bar, but much of the rest of the night was a blur. “I don’t really…” His memory finally dredged up something. “You… were sitting next to me…”

“Indeed. I listened to you most of the night.”

“… While I complained about the state of the world, the mess it’s in. The way we’ve screwed up the planet, ourselves, and society.”

The man smiled. “For as drunk as you were, you were also very articulate. Until you passed out.”

“Very sorry about that. It’s been a rough week.”

He waved away Jacob’s apology. “I could tell. Happy to lend an ear.”

“So… how did you happen to come by my work?”

He pulled a small white card from his pocket. “You gave me your business card.”

“Oh. So you have work for me?”

“No… Well, not exactly. I have a proposition for you. I can give you the tools you need to make the world a better place.”

“Well that sounds… implausible. You shouldn’t start your sales pitch with such grandiose hyperbole.”

“It’s not a sales pitch. And it’s not hyperbole. I really listened to you last night. You seem to genuinely care about this world. I want to help you set it right.”

“And how would you do that.”

“I can give you power. Resources. Whatever you need.”

“And the price for all of this?”

“None. You just have to try to fix the world. I think that’s price enough.”

Jacob eyed the man sitting across from him. He didn’t trust him, but he couldn’t figure out his angle. What was he after? He just sat there, a mild smile on his lips as he waited for Jacob to respond.

“What’s your name?”

“I’ve had many names. At the moment, I go by Lucas.”

“Lucas? But your original…”

The phone rang.

“You should get that.” Lucas stood to leave. “Think about my offer, Jacob. And I am very sorry about your sister.”

“What about my …?” But Lucas was gone before Jacob could finish his question.

The phone rang again, and he picked it up. “Hello?”

“Jacob. This is mom.” Her voice sounded weak, as though she had been crying. “There’s been an accident.”

“An accident?”

“Yes. Your sister. She’s been…” His mother started sobbing.

Haunted House

No one ever saw the couple that lived in the old house at the end of the street, but every year they put out an amazing Halloween display. And they gave out the best candy. Despite all the effort they put into decorating, though, they always wore the same costumes: just simple white sheets over their heads to be basic ghosts. Everything else about their would-be haunted house was perfect, so no held the rather uninspired costumes against them. Indeed, the house was the highlight of the holiday.

This year had been no different. Jack-O-Lanterns were displayed in every downstairs window. Ghosts and demons – incredibly life-like – peered out of upstairs windows. The porch was covered in cobwebs, and the lawn was covered in a mist, allowing only hints of the beasts that seemed to roam the yard. 

Inside, however, the spirit of the season was rather absent.

“I hate this time of year,” he complained. “All this work, and for what?”

“You know very well for what,” she chided. “People appreciate the house. Doing this pacifies them into leaving us alone the rest of the year. Do you want people coming by all the time?”

“No!” The terror is his voice was obvious. “That would be worse.”

“Exactly. This gives us the peace and quiet we enjoy the rest of the time.”

“But the kids frighten me.”

“I know. Still, one night a year is better than the alternative. You can manage.”

Just then, the doorbell rang.

“You don’t have to say anything. Just put on your sheet…”

“I know, I know.”

He stood up from the chair, walked over to the door, and grabbed the sheet from the coat rack. He threw it over his head before opening the door and placing candy in each child’s bag. Just the sight of them scared him, and he barely heard their thanks. He replaced the sheet and slumped back down into the chair.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It was horrible. You didn’t see them.”

She sighed but said nothing more. He would be disagreeable all night, just like every year.

The doorbell rang again.

“I can get this one,” she offered.

He waved her down. “No, you’ve already done so much. I’ll get it.”

Picking pieces out of the bowl near the door, he opened it find another group. As he went to place the candy in their bags, one of them let out a scream of terror. They all ran from the house.

The sudden shriek made his blood freeze, and he slammed the door closed. He wanted to run and hide.

She came into the entry way from the living room. “What was that?”

Trembling, he managed to say, “I don’t know. They screamed and ran. I told you I hate this. We never decorated and gave out candy while we were…”

“You didn’t put on your sheet.”

“What?”

“You forgot your sheet. All they saw was floating candy. Of course they got scared.”

He looked down and realized she was right.

“Oh no.”

“Don’t worry. They probably just thought it was a trick. I’m sure no one will think there are actual ghosts here.”

“What if they do?”

“They won’t. Just be sure to wear the sheet next time.”