Sunday, January 27, 2008

Giant Cicadas and Other Odd Indignities

By Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Life used to be a lot simpler when the cicadas came out of the ground only once every seventeen years -- you could depend on things like that. Not anymore. Not since they dropped those nasty radiological dirty bombs on the East Coast. We didn't get hit directly here in North Carolina, but you could say we've been dealing with fallout of sorts for years.

The cicada which clung to the fake Grecian column on my front stoop, the column Martha insisted on putting up when we redid the siding a couple of years ago after I retired, was one of the smaller ones. But its glassy red eyes, big as the carriage light globes on either side of my neighbor's front door, why the damn stupid thing just sort of stared at me while I got the mail from the box.

"Martha!" I said when I got back in the house. "Will you get on the net and find out when those cicadas are supposed to come back? We've got a seven-footer on the front of the house."

"In a minute, dear," came the reply.

"Never mind," I said. "I'll do it."

I dialed up the National Mutant Biologicals Database and sure enough, Greensboro NC was listed in red for an outbreak of giant cicadas. Guess I don't have to worry about making that suggested second application of Scott's Turfbuilder Weed-n-Feed this weekend, if car-sized insects are going to crawl out of my lawn.

Of course, we don't have it bad compared to some. I hear the gangs of killer squirrels have made it almost to Chicago now. Who'd have thought the red and black little furry buggers would join forces to fight their treacherous gray cousins? I just wish they'd find the fool who taught squirrels how to shoot so they can try-n-fry his ass. It's possible the liberalistas, torn between opposing the death penalty and opposing guns, might even approve. We really don't need gun toting animals on the loose. And the vampire rabbits out in the hills of West Virginia? That's just plain wrong.

If I hadn't seen the first one, I would've completely forgotten about the cicadas in my lawn until that perky little newsgirl on WXII -- The First News Of The Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point Triad -- came on and reminded us. They do so love to tell us the bad news while grinning and smiling. But now I've actually seen one, my first thought was to go next door and pester Greg Crenshaw.

"Yo, Greg!" I said.

"Oh... hi, Red," my sometimes neighbor said, looking up sheepishly from under the hood of his Buick. The man hasn't figured out how to fix his car ever since they stopped making carburetors and possibly never will.

"You hear about the cicadas coming out again?" I asked.

The momentary look of fear on Greg Crenshaw's face was just about worth any price of admission.

"I seem to recall you moved a bunch of them there shrubs and trees a coupla years ago," I added helpfully.

"Yeah," Greg said, knowing what I was getting at.

"Seems to me you better figure out where those little buggers got to," I said. Me? I'm not so stupid as Greg Crenshaw, not when it comes to cicadas. Of course, I don't go gallivanting all around the damn world all the time on business like Greg Crenshaw either. Or bragging about it hither and yon.

It was about then, I watched the one I saw earlier climb off my roof and onto that poor, sorry looking dogwood tree which had all the ice damage last winter. A couple of small branches cracked and fell, and I made sure not to laugh as old Greg ran into his house to call the lawn radar people and get his cicadas mapped. Bet he'd have to pay premium dollar to get the job done now they were emerging.

Sounding sort of like a sick chain saw starting up, my giant cicada began to sing for a mate. I did not stay to see if it found one. But if it did, I'm kind of hoping it takes out that dogwood. I know it's sacrilege in these here parts, but I never did like dogwood trees. They're too low to mow under and those pretty little blossoms everyone goes gah-gah over are only nice for a few days, then they fall into brown mush on the ground. And you just can't rake their damned leaves -- they just sort of jump in place and slip between the tines of the rake. So I was kind of hoping a cicada would come along, split the trunk in half and take that sorry old dogwood out. Put it out of its misery -- and mine.

Back when I was a kid, of course, we had the regular cicadas -- the ones my granddaddy always called seventeen-year locusts, even though they weren't rightly locusts. They'd come out of the ground every seventeen years just like clockwork and oh the racket they'd make in the neighborhood. Thousands of 'em, millions probably, would buzz and buzz, and the sound would waver in volume for a bit, then it'd all die down for a rest. You could hear the ones in the next streets winding down off in the distance, too. It was magic back then, especially in the days before we closed up all the houses tight with air conditioning all summer.

Anyways, when the bugs came out of the ground, they'd have to molt and you'd find these thumb-sized cicada shaped carcasses clinging to the bark of the trees in the back yard, with clear little bubbles where the eyes went, kind of like the Plexiglas gunner's bubbles you'd see on B-17's in old World War II movies. And each shell would have a big split down the back. Never caught one emerging, but we'd collect the best carcasses and save 'em for torturing the girls at school in the fall. Must've worked -- Martha married me in the next cicada year.

The city's Department of Sanitation will schedule a pickup of the empty giant cicada shells probably on Tuesday and Fridays. I think they composted them the last time, after running them through one of those chipper/shredder things they tow behind a dump truck. I don't want to even think about the mess when the adults start dying off after they've mated and made more giant cicada babies.

The ones which'll come out of the ground in the next giant cicada year.


On Tuesday I ran into my first of the just-chartered-in Japanese tourists. Practically knocked one over, coming round the Jeff-Pilot Insurance building. It was probably my fault. Not getting much sleep with all the damned cicadas all the time, and my car is tore up from where one of Greg Crenshaw's brood came out and collapsed part of my driveway and my insurance company is fighting Greg's. Plus I had to come downtown to City Hall to get a building permit to put in a carport on the side of the house -- tired of the berries from the trees baking into a sticky mess on the car as the summer sun and humidity do their worst. You have to park away from City Hall, because the meters right in front are set to expire in oddly short time intervals, just to make you get a parking ticket. I'm smart enough to avoid their mean little games.

Anyway, here was this man with a Sony Multicam peering straight up the side of the tall building. Naturally, I had to look, too. Big cicada slowly climbing up -- about a thirty-footer. It sure was impressive. Probably gave some of the office workers a scare. Can you imagine glancing out the window to see a giant cicada go by?

The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce keeps trying to remind us about the millions of dollars these tourists are bringing in, but I'm just seeing the damage and destruction everywhere. And all the racket! The cicada above let loose its rattle. Then I heard a diesel engine gunned and the beep-beep-beep as an earthmover backed up while trying to level a hole in the big city flower beds across the street. Then brakes squealed followed by sickening THUNK as one car stopped suddenly to avoid a cicada in the road and the next car plowed into the first car. I tell you, the whole damned city is beginning to fall apart.

Somewhere in the world there are places that not only have never heard of giant cicadas, the ground won't support 'em. Like Reykjavik. In Iceland. I saw it on The History Channel last night. Just before the cable went out when one of Greg Crenshaw's bugs got caught up with the wires at ten o'clock at night.

And right in the middle of that thought is when I saw it. Right at the edge of the park. Two black squirrels dragging a revolver into the bushes. Damn! I didn't know the squirrel gangs had made it south of Gaithersburg. Pretty soon it's going to become a Wild West shoot-out in the Gate City and people are going to get hit by stray bullets. It's inevitable -- the damned squirrels can't shoot all that straight. The birthplace of Dolley Madison and O. Henry is going to go the sorry way of Pittsburgh and Columbus, I can see it now.

Two blocks over I saw another tourist bus disgorge a couple dozen more Japanese, gawking and pointing and taking pictures up a storm.

"Godzilla!" the tourist I almost ran into said to me, pointing up with a big old smile on his face. "Ookii Gojira semi no mushi."

He seemed pretty excited. I smiled and bowed back to him, and tried to be polite. But all the time I'm thinking, if they like 'em so much, why don't the Japanese just take all these damned Godzilla bugs back with them when they go? Finally bring all those movies and manga to real life in their own damned backyards.

Can't they? Please?

I pulled out my cellphone to call Martha and tell her to start packing. Maybe we can still move to Reykjavik before everyone else gets the same bright idea. Pressed and held the "2" key to speed dial home.

Boo-doo-WEE. I'm sorry, your call on the network cannot be completed at this time due to disruptions in the network's tower and cable systems during the current cicada weather. Please try again in a few hours.

When I get home, we're heading straight out on Bryan Boulevard, right to the PTI Airport. And taking the first available flight anywhere.

God's truth, officer, that's why I was speeding. It's time to get the hell out of here.

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo MI. He is also working on the Great American Science Fiction Romantic Epic and attended (with several other LiveJournal'ists) the 2004 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop. He strongly believes that there would be less trouble in the world today if the People In Charge would've just asked him first, before doing something really stupid, annoying, inconvenient or threatening to end All Life As We Know It... but Dr. Phil has no strong opinions on anything.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


by Frank Roger

A beam of sharp sunlight hits my eyelids, pierces its way through : there's my free wake-up call, delivered daily at sunrise. I open my eyes, stretch my cramped legs and arms, and crawl into an upright position, groaning, shaking off the last vestiges of sleep. Even at this early hour, people are already on the move, going to work, clutching briefcases, their faces contorted into their usual no-time-to-lose-expression, moving hurriedly but making sure not to trip over my body and my encampment made of cardboard and discarded newspapers.

About time I get out of the way, before the subway entrance grows dangerously bustling with activity and I would run the risk of getting trampled. But I'm clever: I know where to set up camp at night, I know where exactly the rising sun will send down its slanting beams of light, so I make sure my eyes are in their path. It's a flawless method, and it's absolutely free! It took me quite a while to hone it to my present level of perfection, though.

I gather my meagre belongings, and move to the side of the subway entrance, resting my back against the graffiti-smeared wall, allowing the quickly swelling stream of passengers to flow past unhindered.

Deep down in the back of my head, something is winking on and off, trying to draw my attention to a fact that just has to be of tremendous importance, but I can't seem to grasp it right now. Wait a minute, wait a minute! Could it be...?

Well, there's only one way to find out!

I clasp the tattered bag containing all my belongings under my arm, and go up to the surface, my legs still a bit wobbly. My empty stomach isn't exactly helping much, my haze-clouded mind even less. I know there's a newsstand close to the subway entrance. I emerge in full daylight, and I stand still for a few moments, allowing the light to wash all over my body, an invigorating shower of warmth and brightness. Then I head for the newsstand, its decoration of magazines flaunting their gaudy and garish covers waving invitingly in the wind. But it's not the magazines I need to see, the dazzling toothpaste smiles gorgeous women flash at me leave me stone cold, as do blitzy sports cars, shiny futuristic computer hardware, exotic travel pictures and even voluptuous bare-breasted girls from silicon heaven. What I need is one glance at a newspaper, one fleeting glance.

The man behind the counter notices me, understands right away why I'm heading for him, and as my presence might prove bad for business he shouts what I need to know.

"Hey, pal, it's your lucky day all right. Last day of the month. March thirty-first, to be precise. So don't come any closer now, go where you're expected. I'm sure you don't wanna be late, do you?"

I nod, wave at him gratefully, and turn around. I was right: last day of the month! That means best day of the month! Off I go, my wobbly legs and misty mind forgotten. But not my empty stomach. But then again, that problem is about to be dealt with. Last day of the month! Long live rich people! Long live fat rich people! Long live fat rich people who don't wanna die! Off I go, cavorting like a madman.

It takes me half an hour to reach Thomas More Square, in the heart of the business district. On any other day of the month I wouldn't exactly be welcome here, but today my presence will be tolerated. Many homeless guys and winos and society's other dropouts are already gathered here, and more are bound to join the crowd.

We exchange warm greetings, even though most of us don't really know one another. We embrace total strangers, slap each other on the back, some even hug and kiss. This is after all a day of celebration, of happiness, of fulfilment. But, just like on any previous occasion, I gaze around and wonder at the disparity between the opulent, baroque buildings circling the Square and the motley crew gathered in its midst : this is the time and place where both ends of society's spectrum meet in perfect unison... only to be flung back to their respective extremes tomorrow, until the next day of celebration dawns on us.

Some of us wait patiently, others sing and dance with wild abandon, while the preparations for the great event are being made. Our attention is riveted to one, and only one of the towering, overwhelming marvels of dazzling architecture gracing the area: the majestic building of the Eternal Life Cryogenics Corporation, and the scaffold structure erected in front of its massive entrance, a sculpture of glass and metal of rare beauty, sparkling and scintillating as if with a life of its own.

The gathered crowd erupts into cheers and applause as a man in a red-and-white uniform appears on the scaffold, and the name of the organisation he represents is chanted as if this were some religious ceremony: "Intensive Care, Intensive Care,..."

When the ovation has died down, the man grabs a microphone and addresses us. "Welcome, dear friends, welcome on this last day of March. As has become a tradition, Intensive Care will once again provide an invaluable service to those among you who are deprived of the most basic…"

Once again cheers and shouts go up, making it impossible to understand everything the man says, but who needs to hear his words? We know what he's saying, what he's repeating month after month. Do the good people of Intensive Care (God bless their souls) think we're guilty, and our guilt has to be eased? Come on, fellas! So these rich guys paid huge amounts of money to be frozen in liquid nitrogen (or is it ammonia? or their own urine?) until they can be resurrected and resume their spoiled-brats' lives, and now a few of them are again (after a mild contribution by Intensive Care to the ever-so-slightly-corrupt Cryogenics Corporation) pulled out of their tanks (coffins?) to be thawed and sliced and roasted (and well-seasoned!) and distributed free among us poor guys. So what? We're not guilty, just hungry! Let lunch come our way! Pick some really fat ones this month, please. Many of these rich guys were fat, and that's how we like 'em best.

"...and yet," the man continues his sermon, like a preacher desperately trying to convert a flock of heathens, "the people who are to be sacrificed presently are not being cheated. Little did they know the technology to thaw them without causing extensive and irreparable brain damage was never to be developed, leaving them doomed to remain frozen forever..."

Who cares about brain damage, pal? They've got more than enough body parts that are bigger and tastier, believe me!

"...the eternal life they paid for will not be within their reach anyway... unless one considers this ultimate sacrifice, this yielding of their mortal flesh as food for their less affluent fellow men a form of resurrection. So in a sense, they will live on in your bodies, and hence one could posit they achieve thus what they paid for, albeit in a way different from the one originally intended..."

Applause and cheers swell into a deafening roar as three bathtub-like contraptions are rolled out of the Cryo Corp building. Through the din I can catch a few words, while the three chunks of meat are being prepared for the final phase of this gastro-religious ritual.

"Brothers, sisters, think of the symbolism this event is laden with while you eat. These people's riches have by no means been spent idly. Their highly cherished dreams are about to come true. They will live forever inside all of you. Thank the good people of Eternal Life Cryogenics Corporation for parting with three more of their clients, thank our sponsors for making this Intensive Care action possible, thank all of you for coming, and... be sure to be back here on the last day of April!"

And now those smells are reaching our nostrils, our jaws and palates tingle with anticipation, our hands tremble with expectancy. Stomachs growl, saliva drips, teeth are eager to sink into tender meat. Cryolunch is coming! Cryobarbecue is here again! Long live rich people! Long live fat rich people! Long live fat rich people who don't wanna die! And you bet we'll be back on the last day of April, you bet...

Frank Roger is a Belgian author with more than 500 short story publications (including a few short novels) to his credit in more than 20 languages.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Southern Writers

By Charles Langley

Let me tell you about Southern writers. They are different from you, and from everyone else. For one thing Southerners start living life much earlier than other people. Twelve year old boys operate farm tractors. Fourteen year old girls raise their siblings and keep house while their mother joins Dad in the fields. So when you have a Southern writer and one the same age from any other section of the country, the one from the South likely has more years of experience to write about.

Then there's the thing with words. Southerners have love affairs with words. People sometimes think they speak slowly because they think slower or because they are naturally lazy. Not so. They speak slower because their love of the words is so great that they can't stand to part with them. They caress them, massage them, polish them and linger over them lovingly before allowing them to go on their way with a lilt and an inflection found nowhere else in our country.

They care about things deeply and when they talk about them they use words unfamiliar to you. Sometime these words are right out of Elizabethan speech or are borrowed from Shakespeare or from works that Shakespeare borrowed from. Other times they are brand new, coined for the occasion, but perfectly understandable because they are crafted to fit the context in which they are used.

My mother used language which, when I was an ignorant, callow youth, I took to be the result of lack of higher education. When I later saw the same phrases in Shakespeare or Marlowe I was amazed that she had allowed them their use. She never came up short for a word to express any scene or any emotion because she so readily invented her own. "Any damn fool can use words they get from a book but it takes a fine mind to design words that are needed and will be understandable to anyone who reads them, she said." Others have said similar things, but I would bet that my mother beat them to it.

Southern writers have a way of putting a distinctive twist on their writing. Others write about a subject. The Southerner will write around it. Like a singer sings the note while a bel canto singer sings all around the note, the Southern writer will go so far afield in his or her embellishment of the writing that the meaning lies not in the lines but between the lines.

Actually, most Southern writers are not writers at all, but story-tellers who just happen to tell the story in writing. So you can ordinarily look for a rhythm and flow in the writing not often found in that of writers from different areas.

William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe wrote in sentences that seemed to run on for half a page. It wasn't that they didn't know the ban on run-on sentences. I'm told it was because they had the habit of taking a sip of the elixir of life at the end of each sentence, and if the sentences were too short, so would be the story for they couldn't survive very many hours of short sentences.

I once asked a novelist friend of mine who had similar writing habits "How long is your latest book?"

"About a quart and a pint," he told me. I read the book. He was only off by two sips and a swallow.

Some time ago I watched an interview with an author who happened to be head of the Atlanta, Georgia, bureau of the New York Times.

He said he was insulted when people assumed that his grits and gravy speech patterns and his down-home vocabulary were affectations designed to make him a marketable commodity. "My ignorance is just as genuine as anyones," he said, not necessarily in those words. I'm not sure I believe him. I think he goes back to his home state university about once in three years to take a refresher course in "Illiteracy 101" and renew his popular appeal. Having everyone underrate your intelligence and learning can be helpful. You have a head start when no-one around you feels threatened by your intelligence so they just ignore your presence while you sneak around them to the head of the promotion list.

Me? My ignorance and illiteracy will hold their own against anybody's. They're as genuine as the snake-skin belt I have that's made out of plastic. Can't be many things more authentic than genuine plastic snakeskin.

Since returning to writing five years ago after a fifty-nine year hiatus, Charles Langley has published over one hundred and twenty five short stories, poems, or articles in print magazines, ezines and books. Two years ago Gannett Newspapers gave full-page, nationwide coverage to his time as cub reporter at the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann in Flemington, NJ in 1935 for the kidnap/murder the infant son of Colonel Charles Lindbergh.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Three Rams of the Beckwith

by D.N. Drake

She mixed the biscuit batter slowly in a reflective metal bowl. Her eyes were nowhere special, they just found something to do as her mind went to work.

Gnawing and gnashing at angry images. They’d been put there. She never wanted this life.

“Hey sweetie.” A man in a dark grey suit came in and gave the back of her head a kiss.

Yes, the back of my head. Don’t look me in the eye like a human.

“Work really smacked my ass today.”

She kept on stirring. I’m peaceful. I’m alone in here. He’s out there.

A bird swooped and hit the kitchen window in front of her. It dropped to the ground outside and rustled down through the bushes.

“Damn, that scared me!” Her husband stood up on his toes and leaned passed her to glance out the window, “Poor little guy.”

Blood flushed her face like she was hanging upside-down. Her stirring motion became that of a loose jointed animatronic doll.

“Should I go check to see if...”

A cutting board hit him in the face. He stumbled backwards into the stainless steel island. His eyes tried to rationalize the pain.

Again! The board hit him in the face. This time his nose was bent sideways. A red ooze came from his visible nostril. He wiped it and looked at his wife as her arm stretched back far over her head.

Again! The board broke in half with the final hit and the mans head was flung back on his neck like a hinged counter-top. The body fell forward onto its knees before hitting the linoleum.

The woman dropped the remaining bit of the cutting board to the ground. She walked out from the kitchen into the living room and sat at the piano.

A tune, she thought. Her fingers found the keys that had been burned into her mind so many years ago.

“Play the song you wench! Play it!”

Moonlight sonata. It eased no tensions nor raised any questions. It kept it the moment at bay. She looked up at the Wysocki on the wall. What a whimsical world that man lived in. Where were his dead birds and bludgeoned men? Where? Maybe on the other sides of the buildings.

The phone rang. She stood from the piano bench and picked it up.

“Mrs. Beckwith?”

She didn’t answer.

“Mrs. Beckwith?”

She remained silent.

“Mrs. Beckwith! Answer me!”

She hung up the phone. What? What do you want, she thought. She stepped to her dark leather sofa and sat, hands folded on her modestly clad legs. A house-dress with a flower print. She turned her neck to face the big picture window to the left.

The bird. It was in the middle of the floor and moving ever so slowly. One slight motion of the wing. Slide. One slight motion of the other wing. Slide. The neck of it was twisted so its head was backwards. It came closer. Closer to her feet.

“What?” she shouted.

It stopped and turned its broken head to look at her.

“What!” she shrieked as her legs curled up under her.

Its beak opened slowly as if it was going to utter a reply, but Prometheus, the family cat, snatched up the bird as he passed through the living room.

D.N. Drake recently sold work to PostScripts SF, FoliateOak, and 6S. He is also the editor of The Courier, a quarterly PDFmagazine.