“Train” By Trenton Burns

July 30, 2012

The countryside blurred together like a watercolor canvas caught in the rain, the slate clouds above a canopy for the broken hearted. The gentle sway of the train car, not unlike a rocking vessel at sea, lolled my weary mind, tempered my sorrowed heart. In the years that followed, I would reflect on a man’s life that I didn’t always understand, but for now, these 400 miles or so would be enough to know he and I regretted much.

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L’esprit de l’escalier: A Robots Tale – By Trenton Burns

July 20, 2012

I loathe social functions.  I’m not sociable and when I’m forced to be, I can’t function. I’m a socially-inept
robot, hardwired to fidget and stare obsessively at the single stalk of hair coming out of your ear, just to avoid your penetrating and intrusive gaze. Such cruel programming to install flaws into a robot. Why not make me the life of the party, a robust conversationalist full of profound and amusing anecdotes, regaling my fellow party guests and hosts with amusing snippets of trivia and tales of personal triumph? Instead, my forehead begins to perspire sweat and abject terror. Why I was designed to sweat at all is another level of idiotic profundity that even my advanced robot brain can’t compute. The cooling cells located directly beneath my Robutt™ are more than adequate at regulating my internal temperature. But I am a walking and talking contradiction of profoundly advanced technology.

The tragedy is that I’m not defective. I am the culmination of decades of R&D from the top minds in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. I was designed to stammer when you approach me and inquire into my life’s “goings on”. You can peruse over my blue prints, it’s all there; “Will try desperately to find exit strategy during any and all conversation”, “Innate fear of slightest phrased hiccup or embarrassment”, “Debilitating fear of complete strangers potential embarrassment”, “Suffocating fear
of appearing foolish, ignorant, uninformed, uneducated, misinformed, dull, dreary, drab”, “Will increase volume when cornered to socially unacceptable levels”, “Will laugh awkwardly to divert attention away from own gaffes”, “Will exhibit ocular behavior known as ‘shifty eye’ during conversations approaching and exceeding 60 seconds or more”… My features are extensive, and not one iota would I wish upon my fellow robotica, even you, my creators.

My greatest handicap of all though is my human likeness. I wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of one. If I were in a police line-up and the crime was simply not being human, they’d pick that eldritch gentlemen at the library who is always reading books about Fungus. I pass so well, I managed to marry into the human race, despite my tragic shortcomings. My appearance is a respectable mix between Kirk Cameron and Kurt Russell. That is to say, no quarter is given to me for being an idiomatic fool, I look as you do, I might as well act like it. And one of my robot stipulations is to never tell a soul.

All is expected of me and nothing is forgiven. “What is wrong with you?” “Why can’t you just be more outgoing?” “That is an ungodly amount of sweat coming out of your armpits.” “A funeral is neither the time nor the place for your Steven Wright impression, no matter how expertly deadpan your delivery is, and damn you for causing me to make that dreadful pun!”.

I am a slave to my schematics, a captive to my circuitry, forced to moil away for my motherboard. Humans can adapt, change, evolve. I have to punch my clock every day to the cracking whip of zeros and ones. It’s not fair, but thankfully fairness wasn’t a concept I was programed to understand, so really its just a word that I say from time to time. What I do know is that the anxiety I feel deep within my core, past the network of wires and greasy cogs and gears, is a scourge, a plague, a virus in my design…and there is nothing I can do about it.

                     ********

We arrive late, well beyond the opportunity to stake out a corner of the apartment least likely to encourage interaction (near the rank trash can, by the dog with diarrhea, inside the bathroom with the broken toilet, in the oven). I don’t know the hosts, naturally. Analyzing the room for facial recognition, I realize I don’t know any of these people, they are just sharks circling beneath me, I the seal, slowly bleeding out of my gnawed off flipper. My wife spots some girlfriends across the room, makos really, and leaves me at the door. I try to seize the opportunity and exit this dreadful place, but a surge of strangers pours in and I am thrown dead center into the fray.They swarm on me immediately.

“What line of work are you in?” asked Allen Afton.

“I’m currently…eh…”

“Where do you go to school?” posed Penny Phillips.

“I don’t…uh…”

“Where did you go to school?” raised Ricky Rothchild.

“I haven’t…er…”

“How are you and your wife these days?” submitted Susan Sutherland.
“Well she’s…um…”

I’ve nearly exhausted my sentence fillers. My Uh’s and Um’s start to sound like a temple in Tibet, a drone of excruciating pain. I can feel fissures form on my tongue as my last drop of saliva shrivels into dust. My armpits are festering with robot sweat, my fingers fidgeting wildly. All of my witticisms are falling flat, my strategically placed bon mots are utter disasters. My extensive knowledge on ducks, mostly Canadian ducks, is met with blank stares. “This? It’s just a scar, there isn’t much of story…oh you still want to hear it”? How is it possible I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings?! I have mustard on my shirt! “No, I haven’t read that…or that…or that…” Oh god, no one here has even heard of Steven Wright! They want to know if I can do Adam Sandler! The crowd is pushing in! The fire codes we must be breaking! The floor is going to give! Suddenly my wife appears, a brief respite from this din of caterwauling…

NO! She has brought her girlfriends…

NOOOO!!! They have brought their boyfriends/fiances/husbands/brothers/sisters/aunts/uncles/co-workers/former teachers/current teachers/personal trainers/gas pump attendants/just
some guy…

NO!

NO! 

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Perhaps my hard drive rebooted at that point, too much anxious stimuli. I find myself walking down the long flight of stairs, my wife going on and on about how we should come to these kinds of things more often.

“I’m really surprised you didn’t drag out that Steven Wright impression of yours when Allen said he saw him on the street in San Francisco eating a bagel, god knows you’ve been waiting your whole life for the perfect moment”

My wife is covered in mechanical viscera as my head explodes.

L’esprit de l’escalier*

*Literally – “Staircase wit”

The Boy, the Bird and the Mighty Oak Tree – By Trenton Burns

July 18, 2012

The air was stale, a cumulous of dust motes so thick you were breathing ancient history, the unsettled specks of countless days past. But the boy didn’t mind, his weary lungs did of course, it was just safest down in the cellar, behind the old history books and case upon case of empty mason jars. He embraced the smell of fungus, rat excrement, even welcomed the company of arachnids (even though the tiny punctures on his arms and legs alluded that they did not welcome his) just so that he could be safe for a moments time, while the Beast that stumbled about upstairs wailed and groaned, a bottle of fiery poison in hand.

The boy was far too young to carry the immense weight of dread upon his shoulders, the welts and cigar burns a mosaic of anguish across his tiny body. But he had been brought into a world of resolute fury and disgust, born to a dead mother, and to an ever-resentful father, perpetually under the spirits spell and at times enigmatically ferocious. These were the terms the boy was given, you may live, but you must always be surviving. He had seen only four winters pass in his brief encounter with humanity and was waiting for the calm passing of his fifth. To see and hear the only thing that tinged his heart with warmth, songbirds, was his life’s only joy.

He had stacked several apple crates up to the cellar window, so he could peer outside towards the great oak tree up on the hill. He would picture himself beneath its mighty branches, ensconced under its sheltering canopy. It was only a figment though, the boy had never ran his frail fingers across its bark, felt the roughness of it, smelled the woody aroma, the intrinsic safety of its essence, just dreamed, little boy dreams.

A blue jay landed next to the boy’s cellar window and started rummaging through a tuft of grass that had fought its way up through the snow pack, a sign that winters hold was loosening. The boy’s eyes sparkled, not from a sun beam, but from some hidden thing deep within him as he studied every deep hue of blue on the bird’s wings. He was lost in the blueness. Feelings far beyond his infantile understanding of emotion welled inside him. Hope and sorrow intimately sharing the same space.

“Can I go with you bird? Can I go with you to the tree on the hill? Can we fly even further?”

The cellar door opened, light bursting into the murk below, crushing the boys brief solace, the hammering staggered footsteps making their way slowly down the stairwell. “

Boy!?” the Beast bellowed.

The bird took flight off towards the Mighty Oak Tree, and the boy, the boy just watched.

The Wandering Albatross (pt 1) by Trenton Burns

January 11, 2010

Stubborn. That would be the entire collective description of Theo Meckle. Certainly, no man is simply one thing, but Theo’s character and way of life was so overwhelmed by his headstrong nature that it was hard to believe that he could be anything else. This did him no favors as he pushed through the deep Antarctic snow in such a long act of suffering.

He had taken the job through Raytheon Polar Services, fulfilling a need for a new helicopter pilot at McMurdo Station. Allotting thousands of hours of air time, he was no slouch in the sky. He had been in some pretty nasty soup before, and that big white wasteland wouldn’t throw anything at him he hadn’t seen before. For him, it wasn’t about the adventure or experience, it was simply the furthest B from point A. “A” was a failed marriage, an estranged son and a smattering of family that had all but written him off entirely. He wasn’t a total bastard like one might expect, the problem was he just wasn’t much of anything, a ghost that had retired from haunting, resigned to floating around the house not frightening much of anything.

He had signed on for 3 years, and he was nearing the last few months of his contract. Men like Theo don’t really keep friends, but they do keep to themselves, and he had been pretty successful at both. Most of the crew knew he wasn’t much of a talker after his first couple of weeks off the plane. This might have been a problem if he didn’t fit in so well. The neurotic, the dreamers, the sojourners, the rogues, the philosophers, the drifters, the shamed, they all trickle down south eventually.

Seasoned pilots know all too well that Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn about how many hours you’ve logged behind the controls. Theo was getting the hell beaten out of him in the worst white wash he had ever seen. What was he doing caught up in all of this? He wasn’t some rookie, taking the whirly gig up for the first time. This blizzard wasn’t a surprise either. He knew long before going up that it was a bad day to fly. But some nature photographer had slipped and broken his leg snapping photos of penguins…”those damn penguins”…and he was the only one willing to go get this guy 30 miles out, nursing his busted up knee in a tent on the edge of a bird colony.

Theo couldn’t have cared less about the man. It was in hopes of concealing a darker goal that he took to the sky with so much bravado. He couldn’t envision a better way to end it all than to go down in some overpowering storm, everyone eulogizing him as a hero. In truth it was a complete act of cowardice.

Zero visibility, gale force winds, deadly mountain peaks hidden in the blinding whiteness. Perfect conditions for the suicidal. It wasn’t long before his tail rotor clipped the edge of a sawtooth ridge and he was headed for the end. Naturally, his adrenaline kicked in and his muscles  tensed, but he fought  hard against his body’s will to live, keeping his hands off the controls, preventing even the possibility of a bumpy but non-fatal landing. He wanted to let fate decide.

The chopper hit the slope at just the right angle for a relatively soft landing. It was the subsequent barrel-rolling down the slope and Theo getting tossed through the cockpit bay door that did the most damage.

The Closet by Trenton Burns

January 9, 2010

The small sliver of light blanketed the shaggy carpet with false benevolence. The closet door was shut off to the rest of the house. Behind the paper thin particle board, you would find seemingly innocent contents; long forgotten board games, a box of mismatched wool socks, an old spark emitting wind up toy dragon, some unreturned library books on architecture, things you would expect to find in countless closets, nothing out of the ordinary really. This closet door however served its owner a higher purpose, unbeknownst to him of course. Doors separate, they compartmentalize, they are the front line of privacy and secrets. But this door, this door fulfilled a far more important role. It didn’t keep things out. It kept something in, something beyond dread.

It had been another day of drudgery and despair for him. A man can only take so many let-downs before he faces the truth and hangs up his hat for the last time. It will kill any man’s soul, being in carpet wholesale for as long as he had. True, business was fine, he had just landed the “Crack-yer-back-Practic” deal.  The commission  was good, he might even have enough saved for the new wall mounted fish tank he had obsessed over through so many winters, a brief tropical divertissement  reserved for the most numbing days. It was just the irony of it all that tore into him the most. To sell and profit from the very thing that personifies you in only the most unflattering of ways. In every way, he himself was a carpet, mostly unnoticed and trampled on, slowly collecting the murk and grime of those above him. The irony was not lost…in fact it had been found far quicker than he had hoped. This was something you might expect to find years later as an old man, your mind going, looking back on ones life as you slowly drowned yourself in too many bottles of gin. But for him, it came right at the promised prime of life and there was nothing he could do about it.

The lone house was tucked away on the hill, shrouded in Douglas’ mysterious green fir. It wasn’t much to behold, but to him, it was everything…it had to be. Without it, he had nothing to make his mark, no flag to pitch at the roof of the earth to say he had been here. He was the ruler of this kingdom, but without subjects to carry out his decrees, save for Theo the cat, sole benefactor of the estate.

He fiddled with his keys, so many of them for such little responsibility. The teeth and grooves found their mark and the dead bolt slid open. Theo was there to greet him from the top of the teal suede recliner. “Mraaawr” he said. His back slowly rising, shivering as it stretched out tired old bones and muscles, he hopped down and revved his purr motor and walked an infinite line between the man’s legs. He reached down and itched Theo’s expectant forehead.

He hung his hat on the wall hook, along with his long dead father’s windbreaker, wearing it was his odd way of honoring the “Old man”. Per ritual, as he walked towards the bedroom of his small  1 story home, Theo pit-patting behind him, he undid his belt and pulled it from his jeans, tossing it on the bathroom door knob. He entered his room, closing the door on Theo’s pursuit.

Theo, clearly frustrated, and probably a little offended, bared his little sickle like teeth and hissed, just enough to make his point heard. He sat on his haunches and stared up at the door. His receptive ears twitched and rotated as he focused in on the man changing into his evening attire, a ragged sweatshirt of his alma mater and a pair of sweat pants. His left ear, turning independently from the right one, as cat’s ears are known to do, became suddenly bewitched by a new sound unheard to the rest of the universe, his right ear and eyes soon to fall under the same spell. Why had he not noticed the closet light on before? “Master did not use it for any such thing before he had left home earlier in the day…or had he?” But it’s foolish to speculate on the thoughts of cats. Theo just stared intently at the small crack of light between the door and the floor. It was snuffed out in unison with the man opening the door swiftly on the felines head, catching Theo off guard, startling the cat, sending him ripping off down the hallway toward the T.V. room slash kitchen slash dining room slash overall center of the house.

The man sucked in air between his teeth, less an apology and more a neutral acknowledgment of the event. In an instant something changed ever so slightly in his surroundings. Like a brief yet brilliant thought disappearing without warning, he was profoundly shaken for only a moment. He glanced around, the perfectly secure closet door to his right, nothing extraordinary save for the oddly cool draft creeping out from the darkness at the bottom of the door. It seemed to slip over his bare feet and between his toes like a tiny black hole, syrupy slow, lingering for a moment and then journeying on into invisible space. He got down to his knees, leaning his head to the floor, trying to peer into the crack. His face buried deep into the shag, the enchanted forest of the dust mites. As he stared intently into the crack in the door, the shag itching his slovenly half-beard, he mentally promised himself he would steal a roll of Berber from work. It was absurd to think that he had never upgraded, given the advantages of his trade.

He could almost hear the lenses in his eyes focus and un-focus as they penetrated the blackness, grasping at anything to latch onto. This was pointless. He got up and opened the closet. He fingered for the dangling chain and clicked on the light. Everything in its place, a place for everything. He gave the chain another tug and that illuminating revelation was gone as quickly as it had come.

Theo was bound up high on his throne once again, his tail catching the last bit of sunlight as it said it’s goodbyes before tucking off into other realms. One sliver of a yellow eye watched the man rummage through the cupboard and refrigerator, assembly a King’s Feast – macaroni and cheese.

A can of pressed tuna juice and one box of Cheesy Mac later, Theo and the man are sitting in front of the television, thoroughly stuffed. The man habitually changes the channel, his eyes glazing over as a hefty southern gal hocks festive fiber-optic Christmas sweaters for only 59.99, # 47 runs in for a touchdown, a yellow sponge lives in a pineapple under the sea, “Potent Potables for two hundred”…he leaves it on Jeopardy. If nothing else, his mind is filled with the the trivial. Trebek’s wizened old face lulls  him into sleep. He dreams.

The black sludge is thick. Knee deep, he tries his best to wade through it. A bloated dog floats by, a milky blue eye looking out into nothing, tongue contorted, sliding through the slime. Outward in all directions, beyond the edge of the earth, flat and wide, the hellish quagmire coats the landscape. Trees slowly crackling by the licks of an unseen flame hang about here and there, acting as landmarks in the horrible nothing. He pushes inward, the goo sucking at his waste. The sky is gone, nothing but squid ink, rolling about in a maelstrom. A thick bubble swells by his hip, a sinister toad hovers inside it, seemingly not bound to the confines of natural law. It croaks and the bubble grows larger, a horrible boil on the face of an unmentionable beast.

Pop.

Screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming. A banshees chorus. He is sucked into the toads mouth, falling down into a serpentine hallway. Floating, slowly, just above the linoleum tile of a familiar place. He is sitting in a desk. Blurred faces mumbling babble all around him. A twisted creature with skinny bones and jagged edges jerks up and down towards a chalkboard, slithery jet black hair rustling back and forth. The man is tense, feeling that the World of the Waking is close. Everything slows. The bleating of a goat, dozens of them, just beyond the door. They pour in one after another, slowly galloping, some gripping the walls, the ceilings. He grips his desk tightly. No one seems to notice as they draw closer and closer, bleating from within a vast cavern. Suddenly they are there, latched to the throats and faces of old school yard chums. The secondhand spins rapidly like some demonic carnival game. Soon heads are being thrashed violently from bodies. A bloody party, decorated with gore. Someones eye rolls onto his desk and up his paralyzed body, trying desperately to get into his mouth. A faint and disdaining whisper in his ear…”carpet man.”

“GAAAAHG!!!”. He lurches forward in his chair, sending Theo flying yet again. Instinctively, the man grabs for his mouth, relieved to not find anything rolling around inside besides his tongue. Sweat has beaded up on his brow, the ectoplasmic souvenir leftover from his terrible dreamscape. He watches the digital clock change from 11:13pm to 11:14pm. He flinches, half expecting the clock to set off some hidden bomb. He switches off the T.V. and sinks back into the recliner, perhaps half hoping it would swallow him alive.

A stream of drool hangs out of the corner of his lip like an enchanted icicle. The morning has crept in slowly for the past hour, awakening the restful and tormenting the restless. A sunbeam hits the drool and refracts into some perverse rainbow on the wall in front of him.

Theo lays in front of the closet door, staring at the light, which has appeared again, seemingly of its own accord. His yellow eyes, two fiery gemstones, penetrate the door, perhaps through some astral magic known only to him.

The man lets out a guttural snort and startles himself back into the World of the Waking yet again. He quickly wipes away the drool and sits forward. He leans on the edge of his chair and sees Theo, staring intently at the closet door. He notices that the light is on. The diluted grog of the morning is washed away from his body as his alarmed senses kick in. The light shouldn’t be on. He knows that. It can’t be on. But it is. His eyes roll in their sockets, searching for some illusive memory but come back with nothing. He pulls his body up from the chair, not without a bit of struggle however. Theo gives him no mind as he sits down beside him, repeating the same odd dance of the night before, pressing his face down to the floor, looking in beneath the door.

The crack blinks shut. The light is out.

He gets up and flings open the door and pulls on the cord. Nothing. Click. Click. Click. Nothing still. Just a bad fuse. He goes out to the garage and brings back a new light bulb, one of those new eco bulbs, promised to last longer and cost less. The old bulb is hot, like a freshly spewed lava rock. It has been on for some time, perhaps not flickering on and off like he had thought. He gingerly removes it and puts in the new bulb. Click. On. Click. Off. He shuts the door and gets ready for work.

The frenzied rats scurry forth out from their nests, off to the race, hi ho hi ho hi ho. Traffic jams and middle fingers, tiny little office shaped prisons, and then traffic jams and middle fingers all the way home, hi ho hi ho hi ho.

He closes the door behind him, Theo greeting the can opener as he hangs his hat and coat.

He fills up Theo’s water dish and fixes himself a plate of Oreos and a glass of milk. He’s a twist first, dunk second kinda guy. As he makes a mess of himself in his chair, spilling crumbs everywhere and leaving droplets of milk in his beard, he flicks on the television and watches some old spaghetti western. Asleep.

Night has come again, a great dragon specter pulling a vast cloak over the sky. Theo is back at the closet door, like the great Cerberus protecting the very gates of Hades. Something stirs in Hades, the light is on.

The man isn’t climbing out of any sort of nightmare this time, just the stupor brought on from too much milk and cookies. He rubs his beard, scritchy-scratchy. He flicks off the T.V. Nothing but the nefarious glow of the closet casts light in the otherwise pitch black house. His stomach turns ever so slightly. He already solved this problem. It was a bad bulb. Theo looks at him in the darkness. “Marrr” he says. The man goes to the door and turns the knob. It’s terribly cold, the cold that burns one’s flesh. His nerves send up confusing signals to his brain, cold or hot it doesn’t matter to him, it hurts, terribly. He can’t pull his hand off. Frozen, instantly bonded in place, fused together now, the doorknob a part of his body. He pulls harder. He can feel the skin on his palm stretching, tearing, peeling. His flesh is being torn asunder, a horribly macabre wrapping paper. He doesn’t have time to utter any panic, there is no one of help to hear him anyways. He puts a foot to the door and braces himself. It’s such an odd sound, the popping and dislocating of bones in his arm. There is a melody of cold and warm as his blood works its way around his palm. Snap.

He is on his back, poor Theo once again knocked aside, running off someplace. The man doesn’t know what to think. The hurt is tremendous of course, but at this moment he doesn’t find it logical to scream or yelp. If there was anything that was going to escape his throat, it wouldn’t find the wind to travel on now. He only has a moment to even try to comprehend the awesome terror that lurches forward from the open closet door.

The mirroring of his eyes told the briefest story before they were so violently torn to pieces. Such an alien crunching sound, slurping and gnawing.

Theo cowered hidden beneath the couch, his hyper acute ears relaying every gruesome detail, but explaining nothing.

The End.

#1

January 9, 2010

So it begins.