Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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My Favorite Rapper is a Woman

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Lauryn Hill, Source: The Atlanta Black Star

1.

I have been a music nerd for a long time—it’s difficult to judge my favorite music without waxing nostalgic. The associations that go along with my favorite records and songs are deep and span periods of my life that seem epochal but still tangible. I remember the lost childhood art of boredom and the freedom music provided from it; for instance, long summer evenings mowing the grass with a Disc-man in the pocket of my cargo shorts, or listening to the radio on the bus to and from school while looking out the window. The accompaniment to this impressionable period tends to stick in the mind regardless of its quality.

But sometimes you get lucky and listen to something really good that holds up over time.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one such album which brings to mind long afternoons at my first summer job as a ride operator in a local arcade. The arcade was empty on particularly sunny days—kids were at the pool or playing outside—and the managers, older high school kids, would take long “smoke breaks,” which meant they were going to sneak booze out back by the dumpster, leaving the staff to watch over the tedium of unused games and ugly carpeting. During these times I would sneak an earbud and listen to music.

At the time I had no idea about the political significance of Lauryn Hill, her activism, or what her struggle embodied. All I knew was that The Miseducation didn’t sound like anything I’d heard. The drum kit on the first track “Lost Ones” was aggressive but ambling; a thumping guitar hung on the back of the offbeats like a Bob Marley song, and there was this woman rapping: a tenor voice which was smooth and at ease with itself.

3.

The theme running through The Miseducation is inseparable from its sound. In the opening skit there is the sound of a school bell ringing and a teacher taking attendance. A flamenco guitar strums chords in the background. The teacher calls for Lauryn Hill but she’s not there. “Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill?” he says.

There is no one ‘right’ interpretation of what this means but the implication is: this is Lauryn Hill’s “miseducation,” and in the title track “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” she opines:

I look at my environment

And wonder where the fire went

What happened to everything we used to be

I hear so many cry for help

Searching outside of themselves

Lauryn’s solution is the classic artistic solution—her “miseducation” is individuation. In “To Zion,” an ode to her newborn son and a celebration of motherhood, she sings:

But everybody told me to be smart

“Look at your career,” they said

“Lauryn baby use your head.”

But instead I chose to use my heart

Implicit in the artist’s journey is the belief that the truest expression is the individual’s. When the collective weakens or becomes conventional, the job of the artist is to breathe life back into it with a new expression which is easier said than done. The Miseducation is not just a title but a description of Hill’s mission to revivify hip-hop by weaving together previously unacquainted elements to create something original.

In an interview shortly after the release Hill talked about the personal meaning of Miseducation:

“Every day it means something more, actually. People automatically thought, she must have not done school, or the teachers didn’t teach anything. But that wasn’t it. The meaning behind it was really a catch and me learning that when I thought I was my most wise, I was really not wise at all. And in my humility, and in those places where most people wouldn’t expect a lesson to come from, that’s where I learned so much… It’s contrary to what the world says is education, this education came from life and experience.”

4.

Much of Hill’s solo effort was prefigured in her previous work with the Fugees (reggae samples, mellow beats, and political overtures) who, as a group, were groundbreaking in their own right, but The Miseducation is unobstructed by other voices. Like many artists who are exploring new territory, Hill pushed hip-hop further by critiquing it. She sings in the song “Superstar”:

Yo hip-hop, started out in the heart

Uh-huh, yo

Now everybody tryin to chart

The Miseducation critiques hip-hop in both form and content. Hill raps on most of the songs but not all, and even on the rap heavy songs—“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and “Final Hour,”—she carries a melody throughout. Therefore it’s from both within and without that she’s able to critique, with one foot in and one foot out of hip-hop. The Miseducation transcends genre by blending elements from rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, gospel, reggae, and traditional Caribbean music. No one before or since Lauryn Hill could blend these elements with as much taste and restraint.

5.

Hill is concerned with more than the technical and personal. She is overtly spiritual. Even her most catchy songs find a way to invoke the metaphysical:

Talking out your neck, sayin’ you’re a Christian

A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn

Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in

Who you gon’ tell when the repercussions spin?

Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend

Coming partially from without, Lauryn Hill was in a unique position to express this even deeper critique of hip-hop culture. Instead of focusing on the outward trappings of fame & excess, The Miseducation is a series of introspections, aided in part by allusions to Rastafarianism, Christianity, and personal experience:

I wrote these words (I wrote these words) for everyone who struggles in their youth

Who won’t accept deception, in instead of what is truth

It seems we lose the game

Before we even start to play

Who made these rules?

This was not the first time these themes were explored in hip-hop but The Miseducation was the popularization of a new kind of positivity in a genre that was struggling to define itself (after the violent deaths of its biggest stars, Tupac and Biggie Smalls), and was desperate for a note of hope.

6.

When I was a kid I listened to a lot of bad music—trendy, cheesy, ephemeral—I listen today and cringe. How could I have been so deluded? But there are a handful of artists I listened to that stood the test of time. I listened to many of them in that dusty old arcade. I first discovered Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and John Mayer’s “Continuum,” those lonely summers.

The only time I got in trouble for listening to music is because I got caught listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

I got caught because I was bobbing my head.

 

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