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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In Memory of my Grandpa, Marvin C. Raether

Christmas Eve 1997

Ever year just before Christmas we piled into a tan conversion van and drove from Cincinnati to Wuakesha, Wisconsin. Apparently it hadn’t gone too badly because we had all survived and were now just a few minutes from our destination. We drove slowly so that the tires crunched on the snowy roads and then we turned into a trailer park tucked between pine trees. Grandma and grandpa’s street wasn’t a cul-de-sac. It was a dead end. The street just stopped and at the end of the street was a pile of recently plowed snow reaching almost to where the branches of the pine trees above it began, covered yet again with a fresh coat so that the pile was a hilly smooth continuation of the snow around it, twinkling in the light of street lamps. To this day when I hear the lyrics walkin’ in a winter wonderland the picture that comes to mind is of my grandparents’ trailer park.

Meanwhile at the last trailer on the right, grandma and grandpa were surely waiting for us. We hurried out of the car, skillfully ignoring dad’s calls to help carry bags inside, and we rushed to the door where, sure enough, they stood. Immediately grandma hugged us. She smelled like flowers. We hugged grandpa too. But his hug was more like an elbow grab. His hands were very strong and his hair was a smooth backwards-dancing white swoosh. His face, my mother told me, was just like an older version of my face. He had deep set eyes. He was lanky and his walk was just like mine, meandering and wide-legged. But the most important similarity was that his head was too big for his body. He was always leaning it slightly forward as if to hear you say something in confidence or to say something himself, although he wasn’t a man of many words. He could be in the room with you but not always in the room. He would sometimes seem to be somewhere else and then come back just in time to answer a question you’d asked.

Whether in the trailer or out on a frozen lake or at the bottom of a sledding hill, grandpa’s way of relating to us was very tactile. This was in keeping with his personality. He always kept a small notepad in his front shirt pocket with pens lining it on either side and a red Swiss Army pocket knife. These were important items. The pad and pens were for writing down little ideas for us, maybe about how to crack a walnut. The knife was inherently interesting because we weren’t allowed to play with knives unless it was grandpa’s. He would proudly show us the extensions inside—the little scissors, wood-saw, and can opener. We were slightly abstract little children raised with video games and TV, but Grandpa wasn’t an abstract man. He once showed us what baked Coca-Cola looked like. Out of the oven, all that was left in the pan was a sludgy disgusting looking paste. This is what you’re really drinking when you’re drinking Coke, he said. Every emotional bridge to him was via some real physical object or scientific predicament. To grandpa a knife was important because it was a tool; but to us kids that same knife was important because it was an excuse to get him talking. He of course knew this and would extend his explanations of how to crack a walnut beyond what was necessary and if we were lucky he would slip up and show his wry sense of humor or make a more general comment about something else. When I think about him now that he’s gone, the memories that come to mind are these little vignettes.

As Christmases came and went, grandma and grandpa moved from Wisconsin to Cincinnati, close to us, and the nature of our relationship changed.

For one thing, the more I saw grandpa the more I came to realize that when he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head and squinted at the ceiling, he was often slyly still listening to the room. Sometimes it only looked like he was gone on some vacation in his head, and really he was there, and would pipe up with some surprising comment or a joke when you least expected it. This happened more and more and I began to realize how little I actually knew about him. As his grandson after all, I could only bear witness to the twilight years of his life and only ever from a certain angle.

In the later years I was able to see that grandpa’s apparent distance wasn’t really distance, or, if it was, it was a complicated distance. I don’t think he was ever for a single second indifferent about anything my siblings and I said or did. He would look you in the eyes and say, how’s it going?, and he would physically hold on to you until you told him. He didn’t like small talk. He didn’t want a line. He really wanted to know. And when you told him, if you weren’t giving him a line, or could muster something half-genuine, he’d smile and let you go. I don’t know whether this change was only apparent because I’d grown old enough to see it, or if grandpa had actually changed, or both. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, but what I do know is that this change caused me to think differently about him. No longer was he a far away mythic grandpa; he was my personal grandpa, my mom’s dad, right around the corner, there every Sunday at church, there for every birthday and holiday, there for my wedding, there to see me become a father, and there to know my wife and son.

These changes came quickly and with them came a realization. I had my direct experiences with him, sure—very precious memories to me. But every grandchild must realize at some point that their grandparent isn’t simply a background character in their life, and if they seem like the background that’s only because the grandchild fails to notice the very terrain they’re walking on. Indeed, now that I have a child, I see grandparents have a double influence. Once through direct experience, and then again millions of indirect times through the influence on their children, who happen to be your parents. In my own case this is my mother. Every interaction I have had with her is in some way a response to the cumulative experience of her life, of which my grandpa played no small part. These millions of conversations, gestures, and events, both conscious and not, form an invisible imprint passed down from grandpa, to my mother, to me, and to my own children, and so on.

This is why to me grandpa isn’t really gone. The effects of his life, this imprint, were there even before I knew about them and will continue to be felt even when I’m not thinking about them. This is perhaps what has always been meant by the word ‘ghost’, a clumsy metaphor for how scary it is that we are all basically making it up as we go along, and no matter how hard we try not to effect our children, in the end we will. Good or bad, our presence will be felt and responded to and the outcome of this transaction will live on whether we want it to or not.

For me the most valuable imprint came at the very end of grandpa’s life. The family was there with him when he was dying. Standing at the foot of his bed, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was all very unreal. Grandma leaned over gently and explained the situation to him. His life support was delaying the inevitable. There was no way around it. And you know what? The man didn’t bat an eye. He matter-of-factly faced down his own death. I saw a truly peaceful look on his face. He was brave and never uttered a single sentimentality, even at the very end. This and the birth of my son were the two realest things I’ve ever seen. When all pretense was stripped away grandpa allowed me to see what was necessary to do a thing like that. Call it German reticence or introversion if you like. But to me it was grace.

At week’s end, after those early Wuakesha Christmas visits, and after grandpa’s many subtle designs to catch our interest, we all piled in the van again. We pulled away and grandma and grandpa waved to us as they stood in the doorway. The plowed mound of snow at the end of the street–a once shimmering pile of possibilities–had inevitably, over the course of our stay, been mutilated by our footsteps and converted into a snow fort. Eventually grandma and grandpa receded out of sight and then the mound was out of sight and we were officially on the trip home. We turned out of the trailer park and onto the main road. Now, I sat down and relaxed in my seat. This trip would be much shorter, smooth sailing, really, because we hadn’t yet learned the art of anticipation. Home was nothing. The seven hours in the van would seem like nothing. And when we got home we would have all year to wait to take the long trip again, and every Christmas thereafter.