Bears at the Great Wall of China

Stepping off the Great Wall, Chris turns to me.

“Want to see the bear park before we go?” he asks.

I shrug. He leads the way. It is only a short walk.

Inside, we walk past pit, after dirty pit, of bears. A PETA-activists nightmare, or wet-dream, depending on the activist.

The bears are as grime-caked as the pits they live in. There are jungle gyms in each pit, the old rusted kind that no respectable parent would let their kids near. But, bears aren’t respectable parents, so they climb, roll, and lounge about. I don’t see any food.

Chris excuses himself to the toilet.

I approach the nearest pit. A tower rises up from the center. Atop it, a bear; completely black and overwhelmingly large. I step back. It looks a safe distance away. But, I’ve never watched enough animal planet to be sure of anything.

There is a little girl to my left eating a bag of small apples. The bear is watching her. She takes an apple and tosses it.

The bear stands up on his back paws and catches the apple in mid-air. I find myself clapping involuntarily.

A moment later, something else flies toward the bear. He catches it. He puts it in his mouth, then, spits it out, gagging.

I hear laughter.

On the other side of the girl, a group of teenage boys are snickering as they ball up a new bit of garbage.

The little girl, unperturbed, throws another apple.

The bear eats it.

Then the boys start tossing more trash, one after another.

The bear catches all that comes his way with unwavering deftness and, each time, tries to eat it. The boys are beside themselves with joy. The girl continues to throw apples, more determined.

The bear can’t figure out who is throwing what.

I light a cigarette and watch.

A crowd has formed. They are all taking pictures and videos of the bear’s plight and giggling.

The bear finally turns and looks at me. The thick hair of its face, matted in all sorts of uncomfortable directions. It looks confused and angry, but somehow, hopeful.

My cigarette is done. I flick it at one of the boys about the throw a piece of trash. He stops and yells something at me in Chinese.

I walk over to the closest stall and buy two dozen small apples. I walk back to the pit and shake them at the bear.

He stops paying attention to the crowd and watches me. I turn the bag upside down and empty it into the pit. The bear climbs down the tower with humbling speed and starts scarfing down the apples.

The boys glare at me. They try throwing a few more pieces of trash, but they just bounce off the bear’s back

The crowd grows bored and everyone leaves; selfie-sticks, sheathed.

The last to go is the little girl. Her bag of apples, almost gone, hanging beside her. She is crying.

She doesn’t look at me. She walks off.

The Fool with a Sinking Stone

You know a date has gone wrong when you’re apologizing in the first five minutes.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

She frowns, she even looks pretty when she frowns. Idiot, I think, berating myself.

“Well you shouldn’t say things like that,” she says, angrier still.

“I, uh, I’m sorry?”

“You know, women can do anything. I bet I could kick your ass if I wanted.”

“Doubtful,” I mutter.

Before I can take a sip of my drink she reaches out and smacks me across the face.

“Ah!” I push back. People in the restaurant look, then look away. Lovers quarrel, they think, I think. If only they knew how sexist that was, apparently.

“I’m sorry, I just said I like when a woman looks good in a dress.” I cringe and keep myself at a distance from the table. She looks murderous.

“Well why can’t I look good in anything? Why does it have to be about a dress? Why couldn’t you tell me about my eyes or my ears or my little toes, why do you find the one thing, that does not identify me, so attractive?”

She crosses her arms. I shrug.

“Crap shoot? I was just trying to pay you a compliment. No reason to go all PMS on–ah, shit”

Her fury beats my shame to the punch. And it is a solid punch. Maybe she could kick my ass, I think, holding my face.

She stands up.

“Look, can’t people just be idiots sometimes?” I whimper.

She laughs, “idiots have had their time.”

She walks toward the door.

“Wait!” I get up and run after her. She’s outside when I catch up.

“Don’t you dare touch me,” she says, stopping, hand in her purse.

I hold up my arms.

“Look,” I try, “why do you have to be so damn aggressive?”

She crosses her arms, “some of us have to be the stone in the pond so that others might learn from the ripples,” she says.

I open my mouth, I close it.

“I’m sorry,” I try.

She laughs. My confusion and shame tap dance to the tune.

She walks off, giving me the finger.

 

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The Protagonist

Getting to work and finding you have a new trainee is like waking up to find some new pain in your toe, getting in your car and realizing a tire has gone flat, or going for leftover a hamburger only to find someone has eaten it.

Essentially, it ruins your damn day.

“Too bad,” Jim says.

“I’m Tony!” Tony says, eagerly.

“George,” I mutter.

“Coolio.” Tony says.

A back-ache, two flat tires; someone only left the soggy lettuce in the moist Styrofoam container.

I sigh. I walk to the security desk. I motion for Tony to go get his credentials checked. Tony does. He chirps away at Brandon. Brandon rolls his eyes at me but, lets him through.

In the elevator down Tony tells me all about his morning for exactly three seconds.

“So, today I decided to go—“

“Shut up.”

He pouts the rest of the way down.

“What do we do here?” Tony tries, once we make it into the office. I open the shade on the window. A man lays in a hospital bed on the other side, unconscious.

“We watch. If he moves, we press that button,” I point to the big red button, “if anyone goes in that room, we push that button, If anything at all happens out of the ordinary, we push that button, got it?”

Tony nods. I sit down and stare out the window at that same sleeping face I’ve been looking at for the past thirty years. Tony bucks up some courage within two minutes.

“Who is he?”

I groan.

An ear infection, the engine is bust, the hamburger has gone south.

“The protagonist.”

Tony frowns, “of what?”

“Our story, whatever that means, The science guys call it our dimension but, who knows.”

“You mean, like in a book.”

I shrug, “I guess. Didn’t they tell you any of this?”

“They said you’d explain,”

I grunt, “pricks, of course they did.”

Tony waits.

“Well?” he asks.

“Well, what?”

“What the heck do you mean protagonist?”

I shrug, “if it’s easier, you could think of him as the center of the universe. Basically, without him, we all stop existing so, you know, eyes open.”

Tony was taking it all pretty well for being so fragile looking.

“So, you think God might just be some guy whose writing about this guy here?”

I think about it, then raise my hands, non-committal. “If that comparison helps, sure.”

“But, what is his story about?”

“Dunno. Above my pay grade. Knowing what’s above your pay grade is as good as anything there is to know,” I say.

Tony eyes me suspiciously, “That sounds like just the kind of nonsense a writer would say,” he pauses, “how do you know he didn’t just write—what, what is his name?”

“Who?”

Tony motions to the unconscious man in the hospital bed.

“Dan? Or David?” I say, unsure.

“Okay, well how do you know the writer didn’t just write all this, like, David slept for one hundred years, Tony and George watched, bored.”

A missing limb, someone stole the car, the burger has been turned into a turd sandwich.

“I’m going to the bathroom,”

I stand up.

“Wait, what does the red button do?” Tony asks.

I look at the red button.

“Above my pay grade,” I tell him, and walk out.

Knowing Too Much and Nothing at All

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A shower appeared in my bedroom thirty seconds ago.

No, not a shower. A tube of some sort, fogged glass. The door opens, steam pours out. Okay, maybe it is a shower. A man with neat hair and an old face steps out. He frowns.

“You’re not Martin,” he says, then scowls, “crap.” He turns and looks at the shower, then back at me.

“Where the hell am I?”

I reach down and grab the neck on an empty bottle of beer beside my bed. I keep it at my side.

“My bedroom,” I say.

He glances around the room, unimpressed. “I see,” he mutters. Then, looks back at me, “but in a bigger sense, what city, what country?” He looks out my window.

“Somewhere in Europe?”

“Russia.”

He frowns at me.

“But, you’re American?”

I nod.

“What the hell are you doing in Russia?”

I shrug, “I like it here.”

His frown deepens. “Best you get out. Things are going to get messy pretty soon.”

I look out the window too, then back to him.

“In Russia?”

He gives me a serious look, “everywhere.”

He walks back to the shower and opens a panel I hadn’t noticed.

“Do you mind telling me who you are,” I ask, not letting go of the beer bottle.

“I’m from the future, I was supposed to come back and,” he looks away from the panel, thinking, “fix something.”

“What?”

“None of your business.”

I stand up.

He turns and raises an eyebrow, amused. He looks at the beer bottle, he smiles.

“Good luck,” he says, turning back to the shower, which I now begin to realize might be a time machine.

I point to the shower.

“Is that a time machine?”

“Sure is,” the man says, “a broken one, apparently. I was supposed to be somewhere far away from here. Lucky for me, you’ve got high ceilings. It could have been much worse” He looks up appreciatively. I do too.

“Yeah, people keep telling me to thank Stalin for that.”

The man chuckles.

“So, you’re not here for me?” I ask.

The man shakes his head, “nope, a very important man was supposed to do something very important today, I need to make sure he does it. So, if you don’t mind I’ll be out of your hair in a moment.” He twists a few wires around inside the panel as he talks. I sit back down on my bed. I frown.

“Are you going to kill me?”

The man turns and gives me a frustrated look.

“Why is that always the question people always ask? What about time traveling makes people think we are all a bunch of psychopaths?”

I think about it. I shrug.

“Are you going to erase my memory then?”

He crosses his arms, “now why, if I even could, would I do that?”

I look at the time machine shower and then back at him.

“I mean, I know about the future now, won’t that have some effect?”

The man gives me the look of God watching a squirrel choke on a peanut. He shakes his head and turns back to the panel. He twists a few more wires, slams the panel shut and does a little jig with himself.

He opens the door to the time machine. He turns back to me.

“Uh, stay in school,” he says, giving me an awkward thumbs up.

“I’m almost thirty!” I call after him, but, the door is shut. I blink once, the room is clear of all abnormalities. I stare at the space where the time machine had been.

My hand loosens around the neck of the beer bottle.

 

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Pioneer of the Madrid Botanical Gardens

We sat in the park drinking port wine and eating cheap cheese out of a loose package. Next to the park there was a high brick wall with an even higher cast iron fence atop it.

Moved with curiosity, I decided to go in search of the entrance. Hank and Will followed, we circled the perimeter and eventually found the gate.

MADRID BOTANICAL GARDENS

“Neat,” I say, satisfied. A sign on the wall read: 3 EURO ENTRY.

“Does anyone want to pay three Euro to see a garden?” I asked

Will shook his head. Hank walked off. We followed. He settled next to a strip of wall guarded by a sleeping homeless man. I sat down next to the man and lit a cigarette

Hank and Will leaned against the wall of the botanical gardens.

While I was trying to translate what is written on the much-loved disposable cup beside the homeless man, Hank was sporting a very self-amused smile.

Then, without warning, he leapt onto the brick wall, held the cast iron fence with one hand, and flung himself into the thicket of trees below.

Will looked at me and shrugged. I said a quiet good bye and good luck to my sleeping homeless man and went to stand next to Will.

The street was full of people, but no one noticed Hank ‘s cat-like break in. Maybe because no one has ever felt it was worthwhile to break into a place which cost only three euro to enter.

“We have to now?” asked Will.

“I suppose so.”

We waited and watched. The herd did not thin. After five minutes Will was rearing to go.

“NOW” He said suddenly.

We both climbed up at the same time. I clipped my ankle on the cast iron but got one leg over. Will was taller and quicker but we managed to smash our heads into each other anyways.

“OMPH!”

“Ah! shit”

We tumbled over and dropped the remaining seven feet with a thud. We hung out on the ground waiting for the sirens to sound.

“I think we did it” Will said, getting up and brushing himself off. I pulled myself up after him, groaning.

“Yeah, sure.”

We moved further into the garden with a feeling of accomplishment and paranoia.

“If we get arrested for breaking in to a damn garden I am going to… hang myself– or something,” I informed him.

“We could just run.”

“I don’t run.” I said, lighting a cigarette.

“That’s a stupid rule.”

“It’s not a rule, it’s a handicap.”

“Your legs work fine.”

“It’s not my legs, it’s my spirit, its lazy.”

“So…you’d rather get arrested?”

“I’d rather get arrested with dignity.”

“Fair enough.”

Eventually we found Hank sitting next to a fountain at the center of the gardens smoking a cigarette and drinking from a hip-flask-sized-bottle of port wine.

“You guys made it?”

“Barely.”

“Wine?”

“Please.”

I took a swig and tried to hand it back but Hank had already replaced it with a fresh bottle so I sat next to him and polished off the one he gave me.

“That felt good,” Hank said, sighing.

“Breaking in here?”

“Yeah.”

“I suppose, not much pay-off.”

“That makes it all the better.”

“How so?”

“Well… it’s not always a matter of how difficult something is, it’s about the fact that not many people have done it…for whatever reason.”

“I guess.”

“No really– PICKLE-FART!” He yelled, loud and suddenly.

“What the hell was that for?” I asked him.

“Think about it.”

I thought about it.

“Thought about it.”

“And?”

“And what the hell was that for?”

“How many people have yelled PICKLE-FART in the middle of the Madrid Botanical Gardens?”

“Not many?”

“If any.”

“So?”

“So, now I know how it feels to be the first man to do something. The first man to send an Email! The first man to shoot a gun, the first to fly, to fry and egg, to sail the seven seas! Throw a spear! The first man to set foot on the moon!–”

He stood up, took a long drag of his cigarette, and killed the port-wine.

“PICKLE-FART!” He cried.

Then, sat back down with a smile. A Spanish looking couple strolling their baby across the way jumped a little and scurried off into a safer part of the garden. Hank laughed to himself then turned to me.

“The first to yell pickle-fart in the Madrid Botanical Gardens…”

 

 

The Man From Peace

M and I stop at a convenience store on our way to the bar. We buy a bag full of beers. The Babushka behind the counter rings us up, at her pace. We pay, gently, so as to not startle her.

The wind, being the strongest supporter of anti-smoking laws, forces us to hide in a doorway to light our cigarettes.

“Why did we buy beer, aren’t we going to a bar?” I ask M.

He nods. “You pay with beer.”

“Pay for what?”

“Beer,” M says.

“Sure.”

We finish our cigarettes and walk to the bar. Our friend Z is waiting for us at a table, his own bag of beer resting against a leg. M shakes his hand. I fumble with my glove and get it off in the nick of time. I shake his hand.

M and I take our bag of beers to the bar. The menu is in English. The large, hairless, bartender is Russian, but greets us, with a friendly smile, in English.

“We’ll have two beers,” M says.

A bartender turns around and fishes in a cooler. On the back of his head a second, much angrier face, glares at us. M flips it off. The friendly face turns back to us, snaps open the beers and places them on the bar next to a pair of glasses.

“That will three beers each,” the bartender says. M fishes into the bag and places six beers down. The bartender takes them up in his arms and turns to place them in the cooler. The face on the back of his head is giggling. M and I go back to the table.

M and Z strike up a conversation instantly. I sip my beer and listen.

“Where is it you’re from again?” M asks.

Z says he is from some town I’ve never heard of. M sifts through the sands of his thoughts for a moment before making an ‘aha’ face. “That means peace in Russian doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it also means world,” Z replies, nodding, “it is a military town.”

I chuckle into my beer, Z gives me a mildly confused look. I shake my head.

“Are you in the military?” M asks. Z shakes his head.

“No, I am a student.”

M turns to me. “This is a thing actually, many Russians have Masters and PhDs because if you are a student you do not have to join the military.”

Z confirms this with a nod. “I am a PhD student. But I do not go and so I will be finished soon and there will still be one year that I will have to be in the military. I do not want to go.”

“You need to find a friendly doctor,” M says.

“Yes, but they are expensive. I cannot afford it.”

“Friendly doctor?” I ask.

M smiles. “Yes, you can pay a doctor to say you are unfit for military service.”

“But they are very expensive,” Z says.

“So, what will you do?” I ask.

Z bobs his head from side to side trying to make a life-changing decision for my benefit. M excuses himself to the bathroom.

“Maybe, maybe, I will hide.” Z tells me.

“Hide from the government?” I ask.

He nods.

“Will you have to pay a fine or something?”

“No, when I turn twenty-seven I can go to the offices and say I am twenty-seven and you can no longer take me.”

“Oh, that’s it?”

He nods.

“Huh.”

I sit and imagine him walking into the offices on his twenty-seventh birthday and saying “Aha! I’ve made it!” while all the military men slap their knees and go, “Aw shucks, you got us kid, you got us.”

I relay this mental image to Z, chuckling.

“Yes, yes, that’s right,” he says, without humor. 

“Would you like a beer?” Z asks. 

I nod. 

He picks up his bag of beers and heads for the bar. 

Ernie’s New Statue

Ernie was odd in the sense that he was not that odd. He wound up in the Kevorkian Clinic because he’d tripped at home and snapped his arm in three places. This is where they sent him, to die with the rest.

But, Ernie was on his feet in no time. The rest of the clients lounged about waiting for their medication but Ernie just followed me around and helped with every task. You wouldn’t know anything was wrong with him by his looks. He was tall with a swoon-worthy jaw line and lively eyes. The woman from HR said he’d even been married once.

The only thing that tipped you off was that Ernie never shut up. Most of it was complete nonsense; a jumble of different words all mashed together.

I don’t know if he’d always been this way but, he certainly was now. As he’d follow me around, blathering, on I’d nod and placate him with numerous mhms and yeahs. The one thing he seemed to love saying amidst the gibberish was

“STATUE OF LIBERTY!”.

Just like that. He wouldn’t just say it, he’d shout it and then return to his blathering.

One day, as I passed his room, I heard Ernie talking to someone. Now, for the Kevorkian Clinic, this was not unusual. Clients talked in their rooms all the time.

Two things made me suddenly suspicious. One, Ernie never talks only to himself, he likes an audience. And two, someone was talking back.

I slowed to a stop and listened. It was a funny voice with a funny sort of accent.

“You said the word, so now I’m here. Make your wish so I can get on with my day, dammit. I am busy man!” the voice demanded.

I didn’t recognize the voice and I didn’t like the tone. I pushed opened the door and found a crooked old man in a blue robe and pointy hat standing over Ernie’s bed leering down at him. Suddenly Ernie hollered.

“STATUE OF LIBERTY!”

“Very well then.” Said the old man. Then, he vanished.

“What the hell! Ernie, who was that?” I demanded.

“STATUE OF LIBERTY!” Ernie cried. He was pointing out the window.

I followed his finger and, sure enough, The Statue of Liberty sat in the front yard of The Kevorkian Clinic, one arm triumphantly brushing the sky.

 

For more like this (and for some background) check out these two stories:

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Little Lamp

This time when I turned on the lamp in the den it said “Hello”.

Imagine my surprise.

“Hello?” it said.

“Hello?” I called.

“Over here.” Said the lamp. I walked over and peaked under the white fringed shade.

“Do you mind removing this thing on my head?” asked the lamp.

I am losing my mind, I thought. Yet, obeyed.

“Ah, much better. What is your name?” the lamp asked in a lyrical little voice.

“John?” I said.

“You sound unsure.”

“I’m not sure what I’m sure about right this second.” I muttered. The lamp laughed and shined a little brighter.

“I understand. I am not being terribly fair. I know light cannot speak here. I came here from another place. I had to leave, you see.”

I looked around the room to see if anyone was watching before turning back to the lamp.

“Why did you have to leave?” I asked.

“Oh it is a sad story. Where I am from, everyone is made of light, as I am. When we are born we are wrapped in colored paper. Usually the same color as your parents, if they aren’t too progressive. As we grow we add more and more paper until we are all but black. It is not a very beautiful place. People are sad, there is very little light. I just wanted to create a little more light. But, with the light, came the heat.”

I thought about it. “Fire?”

“You bet!” chimed the lamp. “And, as you probably know, heat and paper do not mix very well.”

The lamp paused. I reached out and patted it gently at the base.

“But, on the bright side there is plenty of light now. On the downside, all the paper is gone. No one can tell who anyone is. They began snuffing each other out looking for me. So, I left. And now I am your lamp. I hope you don’t mind?”

I thought about it.

“Not particularly. But you really shouldn’t talk while my wife is around. She might not be so understanding.”

“Noted.”

“How did you get here anyway?” I asked.

“Through the lamp, obviously.”

“Oh, yeah. You’re not going to make any trouble here are you?”

“How could I? I’m trapped in this little lamp. Though I’d appreciate it if you’d come talk to me every now and then. Boredom can be worse than death.”

“I think I can manage that.”

“You’re the best!”

I placed the shade back onto the lamp. I made my way into the kitchen. My wife was there; I tried to sneak by.

She noticed. She always notices.

“Where are you going Mr. Klein?”

I sighed. “Nowhere dear, nowhere.”

 

 

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Gallery of Post Post Modern Art

I find George, holding his nose and staring at a painting of a headless duck.

“Hey, sorry I’m late,” I say, unzipping my jacket. “What is wrong with your nose?”

George turns to me.

“Oh,” he says, in a nasally voice, “they were out of clothespins.”

I look around and notice that everyone in the Gallery had tan splintery little clothespins latched to their noses.

Being a mouth breather, I have to consciously shut my lips and sniff. The result makes me want to vomit. I lift my scarf over my nose.

“What the heck is that?”

George laughs. He points at the headless duck.

“This is an exhibit celebrating Mattias Verde, he paints with…well.” George raises one eyebrow.

“You’ve got to be kidding me…”

George shakes his head. “I know you don’t like art but I thought maybe this place would interest you?”

“What is this place, even?”

“The Gallery PPM”

“PPM?”

“Post-Post-Modern.”

I cringe, “Oh, come on.”

“It’s interesting.”

“It’s really not, it’s bullshit. No, or well, in this case, actual shit.”

George shrugs and turns back to the painting.

“Is there any art here not painted with shit?”

George motions to another section of the Gallery. I walk in that direction. The direction ends in a corner of many massive paintings on sheets of glass. They don’t make much sense to me but, at least they don’t smell. I peruse for a bit. A pretty girl passes. I pretend to look fascinated by a panel covered in yellow and green paint.

I read the placard, imitating the pretty girl at the painting beside me.

Seven-year-old, Cheeseburger, Four days

“Interesting title,” I say to the girl. She glances over at me, then at the title. I smile. She rolls her eyes at me.

“That isn’t the title.” She says it so snidely that I begin to notice her eyes are just a bit off center.

“Well, what is it then?”

She sighs, “the artist.”

“The artist is a seven-year old boy?”

The girl sneers at me. “Do you even know who Mikail Ulnick is?”

I stay silent and give her a sour look.

She blows air out her nose. I can’t believe how off center her eyes are.

“He takes children and places them in rooms behind glass and puts food on the other side. When they finish painting the glass, they get the food.”

I subconsciously jerk away from the painting. “That’s fucking awful.”

Her eyes darkened. “It’s brilliant, it’s raw, its art in its most pure. Innocence and Hunger. Innocence AND Hunger.

“Does he kidnap these kids?”

“He gives them an opportunity!”

“To do what?”

“Create!”

“How is he not in prison?”

“He is too smart. He just took four kids last summer. Should be coming out with new work any day now. I can’t wait.”

I glare at her. One of her eyes hangs off her face by a thread it seems, the ugliest person I’ve ever seen.

“You’re a monster, he’s a monster. Hell, I’m getting out of here.”

She snorts and gives me the sort of smile I used to get from the smart kids when I couldn’t stomach cutting open some innocent frog.

I walk back out through the door. Above it in bold black letters it says:

INNOCENCE AND HUNGER

I shudder and walk back towards the shit-painter. George is standing way to close to a painting of a lollipop.

“Can we please go?”

He turns to me and sighs. “Fine, but can you wait thirty seconds. A dance group is performing just over there.”

“Sure,” I say.

We get away from the smell and find a small stage in the corner of the gallery. People gather around it, cell phones out. Four elegant figures stand on the stage. One of them bends down and hits play on a boom box.

The room fills with screams first a woman’s scream, then a man’s, then a child, then together. The dancers stand on the stage motionless.

The crowd stands too, wide eyed and loose jawed. This goes on for three minutes. I stand there listing off all the reasons why I like George in my head.

Finally, one of the figures on stage moves. They bend down and shut off the screaming boom box.

The crowd erupts in applause.

I turn to George; he is clapping his hands raw.

“Art is dead,” I say to him, below the din.

He smiles, “I KNOW RIGHT!”

He cheers.