Crusaders for Humanity (a love story)

Crusaders for Humanity (a Love Story)

Dedicated to Alan, aka “The Albatross,” aka “Z”

Today, she was going to do it.


Call him on the phone. Invite him him to her apartment — no, to a public place. A coffee shop. A park. It would be better that way, with other people around. Avoid a scene.
She gripped her phone tightly. I’m sorry, Oliver, she would say. I can’t do this anymore. No more secrets. It’s better if we go our separate—


The phone began to vibrate. It was Oliver.


She took a deep breath and answered. “Hello?”


“Come over tonight at seven,” he said. “I’ve been unfair to you lately, I know. But tonight, I plan to make it up to you. I’ll explain everything, I promise.”


It’s too late, she thought. “I’ll be there,” she said, and hung up.


Twenty minutes, she decided as she showered and shaved her legs. She would stop by for only twenty minutes. She would tell him that she could no longer trust him. For months, he had lied to her. Told her that he was going out with the guy, for “poker and beers.” But that one night, while filled with suspicion and jealousy, she had traced his location. It was surprisingly easy to do. A small, round disc, which she’d purchased on Amazon and hidden in his car, after she’d connected it to a tracking app on her phone.
His “poker night” was not at Patrick Harrison’s house, as he’d said, but in an abandoned warehouse somewhere on the seedy side of town. What he was really doing in there was a mystery. Was it a brothel? A meth lab? A squatting facility for druggies? Whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly be good.


“So, did you win big?” she asked the next day.


“‘Fraid not,” he’d said with a tired smile. “Chuck Riley was the big winner tonight. Wiped our pockets clean.”


“I see,” she said.


The warehouse wasn’t the only strange thing she’d come across. There was that mile-long receipt from the Home Depot on his kitchen counter, filled with lumber and PVC pipes and a load of other things she couldn’t identify.


“It’s for a project my humanitarian group is working on,” he explained. Ah yes, his humanitarian group. Crusaders for Humankind, they called themselves. A sort of mercy group, whose aim was to help humankind to thrive.


“So what do these crusaders do?” she asked him. “Help the poor and needy?”


“Something like that.” He didn’t offer any other details.


Lately, he’d been edgy. Distracted, too. The last time they’d met, his eyes kept shifting to his phone, to some invisible spot over her shoulder, everywhere but on her. He’d snapped at her, too, when she asked him what was wrong.


“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s fine, okay?” He’d pounded a fist on the table, just hard enough to slosh their drinks. It filled her with unease. Either something was very, very wrong, or she was getting her first glimpse of a side of him she’d never seen. A side she wasn’t sure she liked.


So this was it. She would tell him before dinner. Before he could charm her into staying the night, distracting her from her purpose. She pulled on a dress — the purple one that he liked, and a pair of heels, then applied her lipstick. She may as well look nice for the breakup, right? Then she slipped her phone into her purse and drove across town. There was a lot of traffic, and by the time she arrived, it was already after seven.


Oliver’s house was dark. She let herself in, flicked on the living room lamp.


“Hello?” she called. No answer. Leaving her heels by the front door, she padded into the kitchen. On the counter was an empty crystal vase surrounded by a ring of flickering tealight candles. Next to this was a frosty cold wine goblet filled with rosé, her favorite. Despite her resolve, she picked it up, took a sip.


That’s when she noticed it.


A trail of soft pink rose petals led away from the kitchen, toward the french doors, which were open to the backyard. She followed it. The trail continued across the patio, into the lawn, toward the garden shed, whose door was wide open. She took another sip and smiled, then crossed the lawn, relishing the feel of grass beneath her bare feet.


To her astonishment, the shed was empty inside, except for a flight of stairs leading underground. Oliver had never mentioned that he had a cellar. Was it a wine cellar? More petals were sprinkled on the metal steps. Bright lights shone from down below.


“Oliver?” she called down. Then she descended. When she was halfway down the stairs, there was a loud, metallic bang from. Gasping, she turned around. A panel had slid shut behind her, sealing the opening she’d just passed through. She swallowed the sudden feeling of anxiety that bubbled in her chest.


Just then, Oliver appeared at the base of the stairs. “Hayley,” he said. He was smiling, happy to see her. He held out a hand, and she took it, trembling.


“What is this?” she asked. They were in a large, bright room filled with comfortable seating. A kitchen area took up one corner of the room, including a large dining table, where a number of people were gathered. The walls were covered with a combination of beautiful artwork and large TV screens, each of which was playing a different movie. There were doorways, too, branching off toward hidden areas of the cellar. If you could call it a cellar.


“We call it The Retreat,” he said, leading her to a couch, where she sat and took another sip of wine. “Those people,” he said, motioning toward the dozen or so men and women gathered around the dining table, “are my fellow Crusaders for Humanity. We are preparing to launch the world’s largest effort to save humankind. And I’ve decided to include you in our effort.”


“Me? But…” she gaped, unsure how to tell him that she really just wanted to call it quits. It was over. They were finished.


He sat beside her and took her free hand in his. “I know that I haven’t been open with you. But I’d like to change that, beginning right now. You see, the Crusaders and I have been working very hard to do the right thing for all of humanity. And we decided together that the thing that humankind needs most is less humankind.”


She frowned. What on earth was he talking about? “Oliver, I need to talk to you in private.”


Just then, one of the men jumped up from his seat at the table. “Oliver, sir. It’s beginning.”


Oliver rubbed his hands together and turned toward one of the TV screens. Hayley turned, too. This was not a movie, she realized, but a camera trained on a plaza filled with real people.


“Ten thousand capsules,” said Oliver. “Planted in strategic locations by fellow Crusaders, all around the world. Each containing a deadly toxin. Once released into the air, the toxin will attack the vital systems of every unprotected human. Not pets. Not animals. Only humans.”


Hayley stared at him in horror. “What will it do to them?” Her voice cracked, throat dry.


“Kill them, of course. Except for us. And other Crusaders. We are all safe in our various retreats. We have enough food, water, and supplies to sustain a small community of people for the next five years. By then, the toxin will have become inactive. And we—” Again, he motioned toward the group of Crusaders, all of whom were smiling and nodding. “We will repopulate the planet. But this time, we will get things right. Humanity will thrive, and the world will become a much better place to live.”


Hayley felt like all the air had been sucked from her lungs. She set her glass on the small table beside her, then bent forward, resting her head on her knees.


“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Oliver’s hand stroked the back of her neck.


Hayley sat up and looked at him, eyes wide. “So then, you’re not a drug user? You don’t run a meth lab?”


He gave her a quizzical look. “No, of course not.”


“You don’t engage in human trafficking?”


“God, no. You know how I feel about such vile practices.”


She stood, waving her arms toward the TV screens, which flash to scenes in India, China, Australia. The invisible toxin is beginning to fill the air. People are choking, clawing at their chests, dropping to their knees. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time when you said you were going out to poker night with the guys?”


He hung his head, expression sheepish. “Yeah. I’m sorry I lied about it. That was pretty crummy of me.”


The cameras show London, New York City, Rio de Janeiro. Panic fills the streets. People are screaming, trying to outrun an enemy they can’t see. More bodies drop to the ground.


“It’s just, you know, a relationship can’t thrive when two people can’t be honest with each other.”


“She has a point, Oliver,” a woman piped up from the dining table.


Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm.


“From now on, you have to open up to me. Share your hobbies with me instead of hiding everything. If you don’t talk to me, then I’m left to wonder what you’re up to, and I might jump to the worst conclusions.”


Oliver stood and wrapped his arms around her. “I promise, from now on, I’ll do better. I’ll be your dream boyfriend, okay?”


Hayley cocked her head to one side, considering. Then, over the terrified screams and gagging sounds of most of the world’s population dying at once, she said, “Okay. I’ll give you a second chance. Don’t blow it.”


“I won’t.” He kissed her then, and for that one brief moment, life was perfect.

Plant (a Sort-of Short Story)

For Alan (because I promised him a short story for his birthday. Sorry it doesn’t have a shiny happy ending.)

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Plant

 

I’m in a hospital. The word flared across his mind, then quickly faded. No, that couldn’t be right. A hospital had nurses that checked your pulse every ten minutes, and noisy machines that blipped and beeped like video games. This place was calm and white. Blazing white lights. White, sterile walls stretching up toward a high ceiling. White tile floors that felt cool and hard under his bare feet as he dangled his legs over the side of his cot. A long mirror ran across the wall opposite him, reflecting the sparse room, and him – a middle age man with a paunch and hair that resembled a dried-out lawn in need of mowing.

Is that me? He frowned. Were his eyes always ringed by such dark shadows? How had he ended up in this room? What was his name? He clenched the edge of his mattress, straining to recall any details about himself. But there was only emptiness.

He stood, approached the mirror. It reminded him of something he’d once seen. An observation window. Somewhere behind the glass, someone was watching him, maybe taking notes.

“Hello!” He rapped his fingers against the glass. “Is anyone there?”

No response.

He wandered around the room, searching for a hidden door. But the walls were smooth, blank. No way out. But if he got in here, then there must also be a way for him to get out, right?

In one corner of the room, a low privacy wall separated a toilet and sink from the rest of the room. Resting on the sink, a metal cup. He pressed a small button to activate the sink, cupping his hands beneath the thing stream of water and splashing it on his face. Then he explored the rest of the room, which didn’t take long. There was his cot in the center of the room, metal legs bolted to the floor. A few feet away sat a narrow desk with an attached swing-out stool, also bolted to the floor. On the white laminate surface sat a white book and pencil.

He perched on the stool and opened it, hungry for words of instruction, or a written explanation as to why he was confined to this strange place. But there was nothing. Every single page in the book was blank. He looked at the pencil. Were they expecting him to keep a journal? To write a confession for some crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t remember?

He twisted around, facing the mirror again. “Hey!” He waved his arms, certain that they could see him. “Is this some kind of joke? What is this?” He picked up the pencil, threw it across the room. Then he hurled the book at the mirror. It glanced off and landed against the floor. Thwack! “I want out of here! Do you hear me? Let me out of here!”

Still, no response.

The next day (Or was it a day? He couldn’t be sure), his throat was parched from yelling at no one, his hands red and sore from pounding on the glass, on the walls, on the floor. As he sat up in bed, his stomach let out a low, angry growl. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember.

“Are you going to feed me, or what?” His voice came out in a croak. Didn’t matter. No one responded from behind the glass. Maybe he’d been mistaken to think that someone was observing him from the opposite side. Maybe there was no one. Maybe they, whoever they were, had locked him in here and left him alone. The idea lodged in his throat, too big to swallow.

It wasn’t until after he’d used the toilet and gulped down two cups of water from the sink that it occurred to him. Something in the room had changed. The white notebook and pencil once again sat on the little desk. And in one corner of the room, where before had been nothing, sat a potted plant. It was knee height, with glossy, arching green leaves that reminded him of something. Tree. He closed his eyes, savoring the brief flash of memory. Outside. Trees. Gardens. He’d had a garden at his house! His heart accelerated. A garden with plants like this, sprouting from the ground. Flowers, too. And a tree that burst with orange, sweet fruit. His stomach rumbled again.

Could he eat the plant? He ripped off an experimental piece of leaf and chewed it. Then he spat it out, retching from the bitter taste. The plant was useless.

He stood and began to pace the room, until hunger made him so weary, he at last sat at the table. With nothing else to do, he opened the notebook and lifted the pencil. He intended to write his name, but it still eluded him. Instead, he sketched the plant. It wasn’t a great sketch – maybe he’d never learned how to draw well. But the moment he finished and set the pencil aside, there was a small whoosh sound as a small panel opened in the wall across from him. As he watched, openmouthed, a tray loaded with food slid toward him. Shaking with relief, he pounced on the tray and ate every morsel.

The next day was the same. Only this time, the food didn’t appear until after he’d drawn several pictures of the plant and given it a drink of water from the metal cup. On the fourth day, he filled the entire notebook with sketches and words – rambling, almost childlike writings about the plant. His plant. His living, growing, leafed companion. He was rewarded with more food than he could eat, so he saved the scraps on the edge of the sink.

The day after that, the scraps had mysteriously vanished. And like before, there was a fresh, empty notebook and new pencil. But though he filled the notebook as he had before, no food appeared.

“How do you like that?” he said to the plant, fists balled in frustration. “Now what do I have to do?” No sooner had he spoken than the wall panel opened, whoosh. “Talk? All I had to do was talk to you?” he said to the plant.

He spent the next few days engaged in one-way conversation with his plant. As faded memories returned, he told it all about his life. His lucrative, though unfulfilling job at the bank. His black and white cat, Panda, who curled in his lap as he sat reading in his favorite chair. The strong black coffee he ordered every morning from Java Hut. His routine had been so simple, comfortable, dull. But he ached to return to its familiarity. He longed to sleep in his cozy bed, lulled into drowsiness by Panda’s purr. As he spoke, Plant listened, but of course, never responded. He sometimes offered it water, even reached out to stroke its smooth, rubbery leaves.

One day when he woke, a large pair of scissors sat gleaming on the desktop. He stared at the, puzzled. Were the rules about the change again? “What do they expect me to do now?” he asked plant. When food didn’t come, he turned the scissors around in his hand, feeling the cool, heavy blade. When at last his stomach began to grumble, he lifted the scissors, opened them, and snapped the blades together. A hunk of graying brown hair floated, featherlike, to the floor.

Still no reward.

At last he collapsed on his cot from exhaustion, mad with hunger, the cold floor littered with tufts of hair, white scraps of notebook paper.

He rose with a sick feeling, knowing what they expected him to do. Before he could think, before he could allow himself to feel, he grabbed the scissors and raised them to his plant. Snap! One shiny green leaf dropped to the floor. Snap! Another. Then another. When at last his plant was stripped bare, doomed to die of starvation, the wall panel slid open. He ate, hating himself for his own desperate hunger, tears seasoning each bite. Then he buried a handful of leaves along the scissors, beneath his thin mattress, and slept.

He awoke with a lead heaviness in his chest, not wanting to open his eyes to see the lifeless plant in the corner. But he opened them anyway and yelped with surprise.

Someone else was in his room.

Several feet away, a second bed was now bolted to the floor. In it, a bearded, gray-haired man was sleeping.

“Hey,” he said aloud. Beard stirred. “Hey!” Louder this time. Beard startled awake, confused brown eyes meeting his. In seconds, he was on his feet, backing away, looking around the room with a wild expression on his face.

Guy held up his hands, like he would to calm an agitated animal. “It’s okay,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

Beard shook his head and spouted panicked words some another language. Russian? Slovakian? Guy had no idea. He watched from his cot as Beard went through the same desperate gestures, feeling the walls for a hidden exit, pounding on the observation mirror, yelling what sounded like a stream of foreign obscenities, complete with hand gestures.

“They won’t answer,” he said. Beard ignored him.

Hours later, when Beard was rocking on his bed, holding his stomach, Guy tried to draw pictures in the white notebook to show Beard where the food came from. But he had no idea how to explain the unpredictable things he’d had to do to earn it. Nor did he know what they were expected to do now.

The next day, Beard turned his back to him, and to the mirror. Guy tried to talk to him. Then he tried singing songs. Were the Food Givers fond of eighties pop tunes? Folk songs? Dancing? He tried everything he could think of, until he was weak with hunger. He even drew lame pictures of Beard in the notebook, and then on the walls. But there was no food. That is, until Beard hurled the notebook at his head, then kicked the pencil across the floor.

The panel slid open.

The next day, Beard destroyed the notebook and cracked the pencil. When he was not rewarded, he took out his frustrations of Guy, pinning him against the desk and twisting his arm behind his back. The resulting tray was piled high with food. Beard left him little.

Guy’s anxiety rose like a swarm of insects, stinging his insides. Whoever was watching was obviously thirsty for blood. Sadistic, the word came to his mind. He couldn’t remember, but he somehow knew that outside these walls, he was not a violent person. He was patient, cool-headed, even under pressure. But this went far beyond pressure.

Beard barely waited for Guy to awaken each morning before the beatings began. Afterward, Guy would collapse on his cot, weakened and bruised, listening to the munching noises as his stronger opponent ate all of the food.

One day, Beard struck him with a blow to the temple that made his ears ring and his vision fade to black. When he awoke, he was lying on his cot. Beard was straddled on top of him, face screwed into a frightening leer. As Guy held his breath, waiting for the next blow to come, Beard lifted a pillow and held it above Guy’s face. Then he brought it down.

Lewis! Fight back! A voice said in his mind. Guy kicked and struggled, trying to shake the pillow from his face. But Beard was too strong. Guy was suffocating, he knew, tiny white points sparking in his vision. He was going to die, just like Plant.

Plant!

                Somehow, Guy managed to slip his hand beneath the edge of his mattress, where it closed around a hard metal object. They hadn’t taken the scissors away. With his last ounce of strength, he thrust the point upward, felt them penetrate the pillow.

No, not the pillow. Beard’s body jerked, then went slack on top of Guy’s. The pillow slipped to the floor, and fresh air filled Guy’s lungs. Still gripping the handle of the scissors, Guy pushed upward, until Beard’s body rolled off of his, landing on the floor with a thud.

Blood, so much blood. Warm and sticky on his hands, on his clothes, on the floor. Still gushing from Beard’s abdomen, where the scissors were still planted. Bile burned the back of Guy’s throat. What had he done?

He clambered off the bed, crawled across the room, retching. What had he done?

“I couldn’t be a soldier. I could never kill someone,” his own voice had said once.

“Anyone could kill a person if your life depended on it, Lewis,” another voice had said.

“Not me.”

The observation mirror slid down like a car window, revealing a dozen watchers in lab coats, all applauding. At the same time, the impaled man on the floor vanished, as did the traces of blood. When the large panel door opened, and a medical team entered to retrieve Guy, he still sat in the corner of the room.

“Lewis,” he said, still clutching the lifeless plant. “Lewis. My name is Lewis.”

 

 

Whatever Happened to Neverland?

20130908-225452.jpg My birthday is one of the days I dread most each year. I know. That is the opposite of what a birthday should be. Birthdays should be the happiest day of the year. Just look at the Facebook walls of ordinary people, filled with the greetings of friends, family, and strangers, all wishing a Happy Birthday.

Treat yourself, we say. Enjoy your special day, we say. Hope it´s happy, we say, wih all sincerity. And we bake them cakes and we throw them parties and we spoil them with gifts and shower them with attention, because everyone deserves one day to be special, one day to be the King or Queen of the World.

My birthday was a few days ago. I opened my eyes and thought Well. Looks like I´m now 38 years old. But it did not feel any different than being 37. Or 36. Or even 30 years old. Honestly, it is all the same to me. It was not for dread of aging that I trudged through my special day with a heavy heart. It was not for mourning a loss of youth that I spent most of the day alone in silence, staring mindlessly at the television.

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¨Did you get my card?¨ my mother asked on the phone. Yes, I had received her lovely annual greeting card and displayed it on my desk.

¨Don´t forget to treat yourself today,¨ said one of my sisters when she called to wish me a Happy Birthday. And so, I treated myself. I bought Mongolian Grill Chinese food and donuts for the kids and me, then ate way too much. And so, I ended my birthday feeling overly full, yet incredibly empty. Just as I did last year. And the year before that. And so on.

I do not know when the magic disappeared from birthdays. My childhood birthdays were colorful cakes and balloons, magicians and clowns and a houseful of family and friends, and so much love, you could almost scoop it up in your arms. But one day, I guess I grew up. And maybe it is the being grown up that takes the meaning out of birthdays. Maybe it is the being grown up that steals away the magic and makes me feel sad instead of happy on the day that is supposed to make me smile the most. Maybe every other adult in the world feels the exact same way when they wake up on their birthday, but no one says so, because birthdays are supposed to be like a return to Neverland, where mermaids swim and pirates fight and fairy dust still makes you fly if you believe hard enough.

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Or maybe everyone else flies to Neverland for a day while we cynics are left behind with no magic, because maybe we didn´t believe hard enough. Or maybe we got lost somewhere along our way to the second star from the right. Or maybe, just maybe, it is about people. Maybe it is people who are the fairy dust that put the magic in birthdays. And no matter how many cakes you bake for yourself, no matter how hard you try to treat yourself and to enjoy your special day, without people, you are stuck sitting in silence, staring morosely at the television, and wondering why your birthdays are the opposite of happy. Perhaps the people who celebrate the happiest birthdays are not those who believe in fairies, but the ones who are brave enough to believe in people, and lucky enough to have people who believe in them.

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