Plugs

When you sit down next to him you feel immediately uncomfortable. You tell yourself it’s just the amount of data streaming through his young body. It’s the potential radiation. Not the eerie way his pale skin seems almost translucent. Not the way he stares at the seatback. Not that with one glance he can know everything about you.

Couldn’t be that.

You were happy to get an exit row – one small luxury – until you spotted him. If it weren’t a full flight, you would ask to move. Instead you fasten your belt and hope he can’t tell what you’re thinking.

“Everything will be fine,” he says. His voice is quiet, distant. He looks out the window as the plane pushes back.

Your eyes dart his way.

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t worry. That’s what you want to hear, right?”

You poke through the in-flight magazine, try the crossword. What’s an eight letter word for paranoia?

On take-off, the hair stands up on your neck. The data makes you feel weird. They say you shouldn’t be able to feel it.

He’s looking out the window and you know he’s communicating with the rest of them, one in every plane. They do so much to keep you safe. Route your flights, help land in bad weather, keep everything running smoothly. And they watch everyone.

They watch you.

Back when you could afford it you flew first class so you didn’t have to see them. You could believe they were a cost-saving experiment, a safety contingent, a necessary evil like full-body scans or strip-searches or profiling. You could pretend it didn’t concern you.

When you level of at thirty-seven thousand, out over the ocean, he puts a pill in his mouth and dry swallows. He leans toward you, still not looking your way.

“We’re all going to die,” he says.

“Someday,” you say.

“Some sooner than others.”

The silence is as total as it’s possible to be given the roar of jet engines. You grip your armrests until your fingers ache.

“Your seat cushion functions as a floatation device,” he says. For the first time, he looks your way. “Please don’t hate us.”

“For what?”

“For stopping you.”

Looking into his eyes, you know he sees everything. Fake Canadian passport, real name, identity as an early test subject for the Airborne Defense Node project, bad dreams, bomb smuggled into cargo, microtransmitter in your molar.

Your first urge is to run, but you’re on an airplane. Your second is to bite down hard.

“Don’t,” he says. “It needs to be done another way.”

You barely breathe.

“Tired,” he says. His eyes close and the lights in the plane flicker, the plane lurching to one side. His eyes flutter open again and the lights return. The plane stabilizes.

“If you survive,” he says, “tell them it was too much to expect us to save them all.”

His eyes close and the feeling of pulsing data fades amid the darkness.

I thought I saw something bright green moving in the leaf-free branches of the crab-apple tree. It was another gray December day in New York. The strip mall parking lot was full of holiday shopper’s cars. A bunch of day laborers bundled against the cold waited near the entrance of Home Depo, despite the mid-day hour, hoping that someone would come needing work.

 I found a parking spot under the tree. A green bird swooped from the sky into the branches. A parrot. The tree was full of them. A few dozen tropical birds feasting on the fruit that was still hanging on the tree. A few sparrows and blackbirds were in on the action, looking dull and drab next to the bright green and electric blue feathers.

 I tried to get a picture on my crappy cell phone. Were these the descendants of escaped pets or a lost flock, very far from home?

 There was a commotion by the day laborers. A man in a pickup truck was taking pictures of them.  He wasn’t a cop. The cops mostly turned a blind eye so long as the laborers just waited in the lot without causing incidents. Some of the laborers turned away or pulled their hoods down over their heads. Others paid no mind. And others posed, taunting  the man in the pick up.  

 I just had that bad feeling that something was going to happen. I knew I should be on my way. But the tree was alive with a tropical murmur and layers of sound from the birds. One was taking apart a crab-apple in the branch only feet above my head. I couldn’t help but stand and stare at the delicate lines in the bird’s green-blue tail feathers.

 One of the day laborers walked over to the tree. Paying me no mind he lifted his hand. The bird above me flitted away from its meal and on to him. The man said something to the bird and stroked him gently, like a child. the bird took to the sky, ignoring the free feast and its flock and disappeared high into the gray. My Spanish isn’t so good, but I thought the man said something like, “Go home for me, brother. Tell my wife and daughter I love them.”

 The man in the pick up was out of the truck now. He had a gun instead of a camera in his hand. The group of laborers were backing away from him, fanning out into the street. Nothing had changed but everything had changes about the sound of the wind and birds, the murmur in Spanish and the suburban afternoon buzz. I braced for the bang I knew was about to come.

-END-

The RV belonging to the guy who knew everything was parked behind the old building supply place off River Road, and the line to its door already stretched halfway across the parking lot. It was just after 2:00 on a hot Thursday, and the sun blasted me as I got in line.

I was surprised at how quickly we moved, but as I got closer to the RV I figured out why: most people were being turned away. A tall Chinese guy in a cowboy hat stood at the door beneath a camera pointed at the line. Next to the camera was a loudspeaker.

The tall guy must have had an earpiece or something, because as each person came up, he’d tilt his head, then say “Sorry, he can’t see you today,” or just “Sorry,” or sometimes something like “Get out of here, you son of a bitch.” He spoke in a twangy accent.

Three people in front of me there was a skinny woman in her 50′s with red hair, and for her the tall guy just stepped aside. She went in silently. Two minutes later the door burst open and she ran off across the parking lot, crying.

The tall guy, expressionless, closed the door, then turned his attention back to the line.

“Sorry,” he said to the next lady, then to the guy after her, “No.”

The guy in front of me wasn’t having it. “I just–”

“Please clear off before we have to get rough.”

“Don’t you threaten me! I’m seeing him, God damn –”

A nondescript, midwest-accented voice blared over the speaker. “Chad MacIntyre is the one who defaced the war memorial last summer. The spray paint cans are still in his garage.”

The guy in front of me turned white as paste and began backing away across the parking lot. “That’s a lie!” he shouted. “That’s a goddamn lie!” Then he ran for his car, gunned the engine, and tore off.

I was next, and I looked up at the tall guy. He tilted his head, then looked back at me and grinned.

“Mike says go on in,” he drawled. “You get one question, so don’t ask why he’s living in an RV or anything stupid like that, OK?”

“OK,” I said, and stepped up to the door, my heart hammering. My question suddenly felt small and sad.

Making Divinity

The Cabbage-Patch God
The Dolls’ Crusade
A Natural Attraction
A Remarkable Reaction
*Bradley the Magnificent

Brad felt good, really good, as he got out of his red Mustang coupe. Why Officer Kelly hadn’t given him a speeding ticket he had no idea. He would’ve bet on Kelly ticketing God Himself for going 90 in a 45 zone. My mojo kicks ass, he thought. His grin faltered as he stumbled over the weirdly cracked and rippled pavement in the middle of the school parking lot. The pavement that, he told himself firmly, had NOT spontaneously shaken itself last week into an uncanny semblance of his own face. He scowled in concentration all the way up the front steps. Behind him, the parking lot smoothed out like the still surface of a pond.

When Brad walked into school at 8:04, Assistant Principal Goodwin was waiting in front of the office, arms folded.

“Bradley Jones,” she said, shaking her head as though looking at something disgusting left by a puppy, “I told you yesterday …”

“I am not tardy,” Brad said.

“…that you are right on time. Keep up the good work, young man.” She wheeled around and marched into the office, the door swinging shut behind her.

Wow, it worked on Goodwin, too. Somehow he’d acquired supernatural powers overnight. Brad’s grin was back. As he strolled toward Mr. Datta’s math class he wondered, did a God need algebra? Did He even need high school?

At lunch, that stupid freshman Kayla whatshername stared at him with an intensity that was truly unnerving. He could feel her gaze from three tables away. “Seriously creepy,” he muttered. She had become obsessed with him lately, and no matter how rude he was it made no difference. “I wish she wasn’t interested in me at all,” he thought. There was a noiseless thump, and Kayla looked away. Good! But he was momentarily nauseated, and so dizzy he had to grip the edge of the table till the room stopped whirling.

“You alright?” Chuck asked, “Brad?”

Brad waved him away and stood up quickly, but all afternoon he felt odd.

Driving home as fast as the Mustang would go, Brad found Officer Kelly waiting for him. This would be no problem. But Kelly hit the lights and pulled him over. No matter what Brad said, thought, or did, Kelly took out his ticket book and wrote a $238 ticket, which Mom would not pay for.

end

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