Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Terrible Minds Challenge: "My Slowpocalypse"

Chuck Wendig, aside from being a jack of all trades and a master, well.... of some of them, regularly posts flash fiction challenges when he isn't busy wiping butts (or changing his infant son's diaper). This week's challenge is to write about an apocalypse, but to write about it in a new and different way- a way that hasn't been covered a million other times. I'm not sure how close I got, but here it is, anyway: "My Slowpocalypse"

I had to assume it happened for me the same way it happened for everyone else. You have to assume that about everything. You can never know if Kobe Bryant feels the way you do when he swishes a 20 footer, or if Phil Mickelson feels the same as you do when he knocks a 5 iron within inches of the flag. You can't know if your wife's headache is worse than yours, or if your kidney stone hurts worse than her experience of childbirth. You can't know how anyone feels about anything.

But I can assume, pretty safely, that everyone is pretty miserable at the moment.

It started, as you might expect, with the very fastest among us- people who had to make split second decisions. Elite athletes, race car drivers, pilots, all suddenly found their honed reflexes off by just enough to cause disaster. The first story I heard on the news was of a crash at JFK- an absolutely normal flight from London, due to get in early on an ordinary Wednesday, suddenly does a face plant into the ground at 100+ mph. From there, the news multiplies, a total of 34 crashes worldwide within 30 minutes before panicked authorities close the skies. At a Formula One practice lap outside of Calais, France, a driver with 23 years experience suddenly misses a turn, plowing into a safety barrier without warning. In Philadelphia, a Mets-Phillies game is cancelled when pitchers can no longer even lob the ball over home plate.

The Internet is alive with speculation- it's a chemical weapons attack, it's a vision destroying virus. Rumor follows upon speculation, officials urging calm while citizens show anything but, raiding the grocery stores and sending markets gyrating wildly. Every TV channel has its own experts, who were holding forth on contrails, and ultraviolet radiation, and time warps, and whatever theory they could cook up on such short notice.

As the chaos continued, the answer emerged, as so many things do, from YouTube. A 14 year old kid calling himself "clarkgriswold" played a video of himself, one month ago, racking up a high score on "Guitar Hero". He then cued up the same song again, "My Apocalypse", and the viewer could then hear the atonal beeps and snorts as the game proceeded to register his inability to mash the colored buttons in time with the music. "I think," the fuzzy lipped Memphis teen said haltingly, "everything is moving at the same speed it always was, except, like, people."

It was the first theory that was easy to grasp and simultaneously explained what was happening. The authorities met it with derision and disdain, until first one scientist, then another, began running simple tests against known quantities or recorded performances that proved the kid right. YouTube filled with other teens repeating "clarkgriswold"s work, just as the traffic accidents began to pile up, thousands dead before authorities closed the roads and only police vehicles were left to slide into ditches, unseen and with noone coming to their aid.

I turned off the TV about that point, unwilling to watch and listen to the spreading chaos, and it wasn't long after that when the power went out. I assumed some tiny adjustment- shifting burden from one system to another, or regulating load on one part of the city versus another, had gone awry, and the slowed reactions of the human who was supposed to catch the error couldn't move quick enough. I started to notice it in my own movements, too- my brain would tell me to get out of the chair, and a minute later, I would rise. It didn't feel any different, it was just that every motion, every effort I made was suddenly, impossibly, exponentially harder. You adapted subtly- you know you can't do something, so you stop trying.

It was oddly quiet- the power was never restored, and my neighbors, similarly afflicted, could do nothing to make noise. You would hear the occasional crash, as someone made their way to a car and tried to drive, only to find out that their dull senses couldn't negotiate even the slightest curve. Sometimes you could hear someone screaming, or the crackling of another building consumed by fire. First the bathroom became too far, and then the kitchen. I started fading in and out of consciousness, too tired to do anything but endlessly breathe.

As I sat there, everything collapsing around me, I was thinking about my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Turner. He used to talk about all sorts of things that weren't on the syllabus, and one of the things he used to quote to us was from an old movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". "Life moves pretty fast," he used to say, "if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Indie Ink Writing Challenge: How Do You Sleep?

On this week's Indie Ink Writing Challenge adventure, Stefan gives me "Some people wonder how I sleep at night. I tell them I just close my eyes,". I am challenging Tara.

(I don't think I should have to say this, but I will anyway. What follows is fiction. It is loosely based on the governor of the state that I reside in, but only in the sense that he was in my mind's eye as I was writing it. I hasten to add that I do not feel the way this character feels- it would be much more accurate to say that I feel the exact opposite way that he does.)

Sara leaned her head in my office door. Her ponytail, coming undone after her day's exertion, was starting to fray. I could see the blond hairs clearly against the dark cherry wood. "Was there anything else, Governor?" It was nice to hear a somewhat friendly voice- it seemed like everyone had been mad at me today.

"No, Sara," I told her. "You can go." With that, she ducked her head out, letting the door latch gently behind her. She was my right hand, aide de camp and all purpose problem solver. Some days, I saw more of her than I did of my long suffering wife. Ann and I heard the whispers about Sara sleeping her way into my office- it wasn't true, but I couldn't deny it felt a little good that people thought it might be.

My wife Ann would never put up with an affair- she'd be on Good Morning America before I got my pants on. Right now, she is furious at me, but thankfully, not about that. Her dander is up about the cuts I made in this year's budget: after school programs, food programs, health care. The last time we spoke about it at any length, she roared at me, "How do you SLEEP at night?" I didn't answer. Her side of the bed didn't get slept in that night.

Back in the 1980s, when I was starting out, there was a marginally famous standup comic named Bill Hicks, and I remember he had a routine where he described a ritual he imagines every new president goes through. The president is led into a room where there is a long conference table, where a number of portly industrialists are sitting. The industrials play for the new president a full color print of the Zapruder film from the opposite angle, thus implying they can easily have the new president eliminated if he doesn't toe the line.

Once I got into politics seriously, I learned how close to the truth that was. Nothing that serious, but you very quickly learn who controls the purse strings. And as the new Golden Rule goes, those who have the gold make the rules. So I cut taxes, first, last and always, the way the people who donate to my campaign want me to, and then cut services that few people notice to make the books balance. I'm not proud of it. I always shift a little uncomfortably in my seat when Father O'Brien intones about Jesus serving the downtrodden and despised. But I do it, because this game that I play, pitting both sides against the middle, is the only thing I'm really good at.

Raising taxes doesn't create any jobs, right? And if some older folks have to cut back here and there, and some kids don't get to go to preschool, that's just the way it goes. What part of broke are you having trouble understanding? If preschoolers were that important, they'd have a lobbyist the way Green Chemical and the O'Brien Auto Group do. People have to understand, we have to tighten our belts.

I hear them, believe me. Calling me a monster, a butcher, a whore of the rich and powerful. I see the signs. I read the editorials, calling me short sighted, greedy, a tool of powerful interests. I listen to the radio, hearing the well fed professors telling us about the doom that will befall us when Willie can't go to preschool. Well, that's a shame- but the numbers are what they are. I can't change them to what I'd like them to be. And to all those protestors- your boss? He loves that I cut his taxes again.

So in terms of sleep, Ann? I sleep fine. Not that you'd know. And if I want to continue sleeping where I sleep now, I cut what they say to cut. It's not very Christlike, but who wants to be a Christian if you have to act like Jesus? That guy was broke all the time anyway.