Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fifth Saturday Fiction

The first of many
(short story)


By Bob Boldt

Overhead, bullets whistled past me in the cold darkness and the falling drizzle. Some shells made a complaining, metallic clank as they struck the side of the overturned dumpster I had scrambled into. I was trying to dodge the first barrage that had made the street a sudden killing zone. In the process, I smashed my head on a large hook that protruded out of the side of the damned thing. Doing my best to ignore the stinging pain, I cautiously ran my hand up the side of my face, hoping for the best and dreading the worst. Moisture. Not the wet water of the falling rain, but a thicker substance. Blood? I licked my probing fingers and the warm, salty, iron taste on my tongue confirmed my fears. “Damn!” I quietly cursed to the darkness and the flying shells. My temporary home smelled like shit and sour urine. The holes in my crummy shoes began soaking up the dank water, causing my feet to become freezing cold. As my calves and thighs started shivering, I thought, This is a fine mess, if the bullets don’t kill me, the cold soon will.
    I looked around the edge of my metal hiding place. The sound of an armored police cruiser siren cranked on, tore through the night, and gradually subsided in the distance. Several others ran swiftly by in the rubble-strewn street. They wore the swathed head scarves and the fringed jackets of The Pikes Gang. These were the ones who probably had drawn police attention to this disserted industrial neighborhood. I was relieved that the gunfire seemed to have nothing to do with my presence. A dull pop instantly followed by a bright, bursting spray of blood was caught in the glare of a remaining street light. One of the Pikes dropped as if invisible strings had been cut. What did I care? Not one of ours.
    As suddenly as it had begun, the gunfire ceased. For a long time nothing and no one moved. The rebel lay like a rag doll deserted under the now failing, sputtering street light. Dropped by the last bullet. Too fucking bad, I thought.


My name is Frederic Doyle, formerly of Evanston, Illinois, and my life has not always been like this. I have pretty much lived a charmed life. Even the Market, I knew when to get in and when to get out. I don’t know if it was in my stars or what, but last year on my big three-O birthday, I figured I had made it. Even now I suppose I should still consider myself fortunate. It’s amazing how one acclimates to even the most horrific circumstances. One day you are sickened at the sight of blood when your cook accidentally slices herself cutting carrots, and the next you are crawling over dead and maimed bodies, thankful just to be alive and to be allowed to escape from one hell into another.
    It seemed like only yesterday. October, 2018. The pandemic they had predicted hit like a freight train. In only two weeks the whole country was immobilized. Those who weren’t dead or sick were taking care of the stricken. Commerce halted. The fragile bonds that tethered the uncivilized impulses were loosed and torn away completely. Those lucky enough to survive, if you can call it that, were forced to kill and loot just to last from one stolen meal to the next.
    I counted myself among the dubious lucky. A lot of the earliest victims were able to fight off the plague due more to chance than anything else. I was among the first of many who were fortunate enough to have endured the worst of my symptoms in a well-stocked hospital with a diminishing but adequate staff. It seemed that some who contracted the flu during its earliest stages and survived developed an immunity to the virus that so rapidly mutated into a far more virulent strain. Ironically my wife, Bonnie, and my two beautiful, young children, Mark and Ali, were to succumb to the new, lethal, mutated strain barely a week after I had endured my worst. Needless to say, I was too overcome with soul-crushing grief to care about anything, least of all my own survival.


“Fred!”
    Desperately, I looked around for the source of the sound. The pain at my temple had spread, causing my whole head to throb. The rain was now falling like someone had opened a huge damn in the sky.
    “Where? Where?!” I shouted at the darkness. Lightning – or was it mortar rounds? – silhouetted the skyline. Before it faded I could just make out the familiar face of Bernie Worm, my second in command, frantically gesturing from the cave of a punched out warehouse wall. I sloshed through the mud and garbage and was pulled into the dry interior.
    My best friend, Dr. Bernard Werner – later our gang nicknamed him Bernie Worm – was an epidemiologist whose family had migrated to the North Shore of Chicago from Austria in the nineteen sixties. A lean, vigorous, fifty-year-old bachelor with seeming unlimited energy, Bernie was my next-door neighbor. I was a more sedate family man, short, a little on the chubby side, restive, introverted in my personal life, and a book worm. In spite of our being mirror opposites in every way – he was a survivalist, physical fitness buff, and gun nut – we got on famously. Bernie had also survived the pandemic due to having received a dose of the vaccine that was being sold by his survivalist contacts on the black market. It was the same stuff they were secretly distributing to police personnel and the Academi Security Services paramilitaries who were charged with maintaining order.
    Bernie helped me get myself together after the death of my family. By working in concert, we were able to recruit twelve or so rag tag survivors and a couple of police deserters into our own well-stocked survival club. Our compound was the old Sphinx Moving and Storage building on North Clark Street, Chicago. At the entrance, over their door, were decorations with faux Egyptian hieroglyphics and a cartouche encircling the ironic words, “Your Possessions Preserved Eternally.” We called ourselves the Sphinx Gang.
    “You don’t look too good, Fred.” Bernie’s face hovered over mine. His look was grim. “I wish I could give you something more for the pain. It’s going to be hard to keep that wound from becoming infected under these conditions. We used the last of our antibiotics on you yesterday and we lost Chucky and Fist in a futile raid on a pharmaceutical supply house to get morphine.”
    “I’m just so cold.” The pain on the side of my face had subsided to a dull, drumming throb. My mind was now on a cold rock-like pain deep in my gut. “Am I going to make it?”
    “Don’t worry Fred, the doctor is in.” Bernie’s grim look did not fade.
    “If you just pull that sheet up a little higher, it may make me a bit warmer.”
    When Bernie pulled up my bed clothes, I was surprised that he didn’t stop at my chin but continued as if he were about to cover my whole face. I tried to pull up my hands to protest, to say stop, but found I couldn’t move them. Also I noticed, as the foul sheet began to cover my face, that it gradually lost every stain and any sign of blood, discoloration, and filth. It even smelled as if it had been freshly starched and laundered. I moved my lips to speak, to complain about the overhead fluorescent light someone had suddenly switched on. It was too bright, too glaring, even through the white, smothering sheet. No sound came forth from my open mouth.
    “He’s gone, Bonnie,” Dr. Werner said. “You’d better take the children home where it’s safe. You have to look out for them now. They are saying this bug that hit could be the big one. Poor Fred might just be among the first of many.”


Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt

21 comments:

  1. Blew my mind, Bob. Thanks for showing another short story writer how it's done!

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  2. I have been inspired by three other mind-blowing fiction works that deal with a survival instinct that can maintain an illusion of self-preservation and identity up to the very door of death itself:
    There is "An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (made into a couple of filmed versions);
    Tobias Wolff's short short story, "Bullet in the Brain" expands further the theme;
    and the last sentence of William Golding's novel length story, "Pincer Marin" hits the reader like the proverbial ton of bricks.

    I would appreciate it if any of our readers and contributors know of any other stories on this theme.

    https://vimeo.com/15147706

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    1. Wow, "La rivière du hibou" graphically portrays the illusion, indeed. My brain is nudging me with a sense that I have read something along this line, but it isn't identifying it for me.
          Bob, please provide more details about the way the three identified works inspired you to write "The First of Many" (and how much time was involved; i.e., when had you read the works, had you made notes for your own story at the time, how long transpired before you actually wrote your own story?).

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    2. I think the story my brain is remembering was about an execution by way of guillotine in the French Revolution.
          Hmm, now I'm wondering what illusions dominate the minds of men and women on America's death rows as they are strapped down, at the point when they no longer believe in the telephone call that will reprieve them?

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  3. Tobias Wolff "Bullet in the Brain"

    http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_27/section_1/artc2A.html

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  4. Great story Bob. I am so glad you joined us. Always remember you are among follow assholes. Welcome home.

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    1. Ed (and/or Bob), please expand on how labeling us all "assholes" is telling it like it is. I mean, just what does that say about what things are?
          This reference to assholes reminds me, for some reason, of est Training, which was big in California in the 1970's, I didn't take the training, but a friend did, and he manifested a grand sense of liberation after a training session in which he and his fellow trainees were persuaded that they, too, were assholes, and that was all right. ("est" stood for [Werner] Erhard Seminars Training; the Wikipedia article linked to does not use the word "asshole," however).

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  5. Bob this is off subject, but do you have the same feeling about Donald Trump that was around with George Wallace? I remember the crowds Wallace drew. Did you cover him at all back then?

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    1. Good question, Ed, and I very much hope that Bob did cover Wallace and has a story or two to tell us.

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  6. I wish I could oblige about Wallace. My journalism career fell between his two most famous appearances on the national political stage 1964 and 1968. By the last date, I was well out of TV news. All I know about the man is what I read in the funny papers.

    I took EST back in 78. I don't recall the asshole part. I found much of value in the training but disliked their continual urging that those of us who got "It" proselytize all our friends and family. Folks used to refer to the second best time in their life was the day they joined EST. The greatest day in their life was when they finally wised up and left it. Anyone who has been involved with Werner or Tony Robbins and the host of other New Age self-help gurus, will really enjoy the satirical film "Semi-Tough" starring Jill Clayburgh, Kris Kristofferson and Burt Reynolds. It takes on the whole Human Potential movement in some hilarious ways. I am no longer as impressed with that whole Human Potential crowd as I once was. In fact I have come to regard many of them as potentially worse than snake oil salesmen like Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh."

    My current position relative to Tony Robbins, Werner, Oprah, etc is pretty eloquently expressed by Chris Hedges in this clip.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRIctlb3xa0

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    1. Thanks, Bob. While I didn't take est, I did read a lot of Tony Robbins and, on the whole, found his teachings empowering. Chris Hedges rightly points out that a person's actual situation (poor, uneducated, dysfunctional family, poor schools, no jobs in the area) renders "positive thinking" akin to magical thinking. Yet, with a basic support group in place, a person can find power in positive thinking, reframing, etc., all of which can be approached realistically, in a thoughtful way, or "magically," as when a person does nothing more than recite "affirmations," expecting that the mantra "I will be rich" will itself bring riches.
          I note that you significantly qualify your critique of the Human Potential Movement: "not as impressed as you once were," "regard many of them [but not all]...." So I'm sure that you would agree that, like so much in life, "it depends."

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  7. Morris being an asshole is not so much a bad thing. If indeed you have opinions that differ from others, then there will always be people who view you as an asshole.

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    1. Ed, I think you are distinguishing between BEING an asshole and BEING THOUGHT (by others) TO BE an asshole. Is Bob among "fellow assholes" in the first sense, or the second?

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    2. Ed, I feel the need to add that I don't mean to be argumentative. My question about which category of assholes Bob now finds himself among is purely a request for information. It looks as though you might have meant the term in the second sense all along, right from the beginning. But I interpreted it in the first sense, which is what made me think of est, for I understood my friend who took est to be telling me that the training had persuaded him he and everyone else in the training were assholes in THAT sense – not just thought to be assholes by someone else.

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    3. And now I'm wondering whether Werner meant THOUGHT-T0-BE-AN-ASSHOLE assholes and was just trying to train people to accept that everyone's an asshole to someone else, so don't let it bother you. Ha! That's probably what Werner meant, seems to me now. THANK YOU, Ed, for occasioning this long-delayed realization.

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  8. Glad I could help you see your better side. (smile)

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    1. Altogether, it was a favorable outcome! Thanks for your assistance <no pun intended; "ASSistance" was quite by accident>.

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  9. Damn Bob, every time I discover something new (or old) by you I am thoroughly impressed. The ensuing discussion of assholeness was interesting as well.

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