Ah, heck, Halloween’s coming. I think I’ll toss out a ghost story and call it good….
In the neck of the woods where I grew up is a hill known as Breakneck. In the horse-and-wagon days it earned that name because the road carved into its steep slope could be treacherous. A tomato-canning factory operated at the bottom, and it was said the horses sometimes fell and broke their necks when laden wagons pushed too hard on them.
Places where trouble (and maybe tomatoes) tends to brew will inspire a few stories … none of them particularly pleasant. Even after the factory shut down and automobiles began replacing equestrian roving, Breakneck’s reputation didn’t fade.
One night a fellow drove his Model T Ford (or its equivalent) down Breakneck hill. Well, almost….
His horseless carriage got a flat tire. Now this was on a dirt road in the early 1900s, but dirt is an imprecise description. The Ozark hills are eroded mountains, so we’ve got plenty of rocks, one of which might have been the culprit that caused the flat.
And in those days you didn’t just swap the flat tire out with a spare. You removed the inner tube from the outer tread of the damaged tire, aired up a new tube with a manual pump, and put the whole caboodle back together again.
Our hapless motorist was in the middle of pumping air into the tube when another gentleman walked past him. This in itself was a bit startling, since he thought he was all alone. As he looked up, the gentleman calmly told him, “Good evening.”
But there was something very wrong with this gentleman.
He was holding his head in his hands. No, his hands weren’t raised to cradle his cranium. Instead, he was toting his noggin at waist level, much like carrying the biggest tomato you ever saw.
The gentleman continued trudging past and disappeared into the night….
I was never told the details about what speed our traveler employed, but he proceeded to pack the tube, the pump, the tire and the jack back into his car. He then drove home on the rim. Not the scariest ghost story you’ve ever read, but odds are the next time you get a flat tire during the night on some quiet back road, this gentleman, or a tomato, just might come rolling out from the back of your memory … so Happy Halloween!
No, this isn’t an autobiography, although it would be a good title for one. And many would say that’s sort of the state we’re in right now….
’Tis nut-gathering season in my little corner of the world. Some of the native species that contribute to the harvest include pecans, certain hickories, and hazelnuts. But the moneymaker is the black walnut.
In my unemployed youth, black walnuts literally provided the money I needed to buy Christmas presents. Every fall there would be at least one day that I’d rise before dawn, dress in layers, and pack myself, a jug of water, and a sandwich into the old pickup truck.
I’d then drive out to our stands of walnut trees to begin picking up nuts from the ground just as it began getting light enough to see (it’s nice to be able to tell the difference between a nut and a rock before you pick it up). I would do this all day long, shedding layers as the temperatures grew warmer, and not quit until I ran out of either nuts or daylight.
The activities of the day included climbing trees that some nuts were still attached to in order to shake them off (I include this in my long list of Things I Survived from My Childhood). Five-gallon bucketful by five-gallon bucketful, I’d dump walnuts into the bed of that pickup truck until it was (hopefully) heaping full.
Within a day or two afterwards, I’d enlist the aid of a licensed driver to take that pickup to the feed mill where the huller was set up every year. I’d shovel nuts into the trays of a conveyer belt that dumped them into a masher to remove the green(ish) hulls and deposit those to one side. The nuts, their shells blackened from the squishy hulls (thus the name) dribbled into mesh bags that got weighed.
And then I was paid my hard-earned money.
These days my nut gathering is confined to home use, but a trip down memory lane prompts one to contemplate the present. In a nutshell it would appear that 2020 is the year of going nuts. Travail hit us early, we’ve been shaken from our complacency, and it looks like there’s still a long haul ahead.
Good news, folks, we’ve weathered storms like this before.
Our youth may add the year 2020 to the long list of Things I Survived from My Childhood, but this blotch within history-in-the making should eventually pass like all the others. We just have to keep hauling those nuts by the bucketful until the day comes we get “paid our hard-earned money.”
After all, every mighty oak was once a nut that stood its ground….
As explosions and crackling erupted in every direction of the underground habitation, the com patch near Deuce’s left ear rarely fell silent. Reports from all fronts kept streaming in, and if he wasn’t so busy evading IMP2 while trying to help with the evacuation, he could have appreciated pride in his troops.
The men he’d trained were already battle-hardened veterans; Deuce only polished some skills and introduced others, and the new weapons also proved effective. The original ranks he’d led from the city had managed to regroup, keeping the invading cyborg armies from swarming the area and hold them to a manageable standoff.
But his success at keeping ahead of IMP2 caused concern.
Standing orders had always been to kill a deserter like him on sight. And it wasn’t luck that allowed him to consistently escape or terminate troops that tried to close in on him. The enemy was trying to capture him, which made their job harder….
“We’ve got one group left!” A distraught voice rang from the com patch. “But a hatch near the western exit is inoperative and they’re caught behind it!”
Deuce was close enough to that location – and just finished mowing down a platoon of cyborgs with his improved breaker-blaster – to limp that direction to provide assistance. The charred wound on his right calf afflicted gait but not speed, and within a minute he reached the dozen soldiers leaning against a round, studded metal door that rotated from below.
With a bark of orders to allow him access, Deuce positioned himself at the crux point on the opposite end of the barrier. Bracing his good leg against the terminal wall, he pushed downward with the other men to force the door open enough so the remaining evacuees could escape.
Strength was one of his genetic enhancements, but the door was designed to resist such effort. When it budged, he heard cheers from behind it, and realized the evacuees were also pushing from their side, and the door hadn’t been designed against that.
Surely he didn’t recognize one of those voices…?
He pushed even harder, and as the barrier slowly rotated into the floor, the top of the portal cleared first. From the corner of his eye he noticed upswept auburn hair on the other side.
It never occurred to him Ita would stay behind to help evacuate, and she was pushing on the door, opposite from him.
The impulse to chastise her for taking this risk was easy to suppress – Deuce needed to focus his energy on pushing the door, and he knew better than to challenge her on anything. But the project he had been assisting her with was the last chance of survival for her people, and her role was too important to gamble her life like this.
She also realized who was opposite of her. As the gaze of the woman who knew he’d killed her father locked on his face, her eyes flickered like emeralds reflecting firelight.
Her attention shifted to the top of his head as she reached down. When Deuce realized she snatched the blaster that became a permanent fixture on her hip when he began working with her, he had to suppress the impulse to duck.
He knew she despised him for what he’d done, but he’d also been impressed by how much restraint she always showed. Surely Ita wouldn’t choose now as an opportunity to claim revenge–
The zap from the blaster rang in the same ear that felt the heat of the charge hurtle past.
Immediate commotion thirty meters to the other side of him provoked Deuce to glance that direction. In the midst of a cyborg platoon that had been advancing toward them, IMP2 tumbled backward as sparks flew from his head.
Ita’s shot had struck the technological augmentation that covered half his face. But she had only a standard blaster, not an exotic model like Deuce’s, so he knew the commander was only wounded.
Soldiers not as crucial for door-duty fired a volley into the cyborg troops that swept around IMP2 to cover him. Some of the charges fired back struck the door and a couple of men, but purposefully missed Deuce. He leaned against the barrier even harder, and it spiraled down enough for people of all ages to scramble over and gallop to the pod that would jettison them to safety.
Ita was the last one out, and Deuce suppressed yet another impulse. Instead of remaining to fight with his men, he decided it would be wiser to join the evacuees. What was left of the cyborg ranks might withdraw if he vacated the premises, especially with IMP2 temporarily out of commission. And he would also be on hand to defend the last pod should it come under attack.
He stayed near Ita – while keeping respectful distance – and guarded the rear of their group, getting off a few more shots of his own to thin the diminishing cyborg ranks. The group bustled into the escape pod, which then bolted into the network of tunnels.
He sat across from Ita, who kept her focus on the rest of the evacuees. Admiration intertwined with trepidation as he contemplated how great her shooting had been.
“Thank you.” He knew it was best to keep his interaction with her brief.
“You be quiet!” she snapped, and then grumbled, “I’m still not convinced I shot the right IMP.”
He gazed out the back of the pod, but could only discern ripples on black as it plunged away from their enemy. Why had they tried to capture him? Had they gotten wind of the project? Did they suspect he was involved?
And if they did capture him, he wouldn’t be able to hide what he knew from their central data core. They would learn about the project. They would then destroy it, and ultimately, destroy all these people.
Deuce stared into the darkness behind them and also began to question if Ita shot the right IMP….
So here is my contribution this month for #BlogBattle and the prompt word this time was Exotic. Although I consider the whole location and premise of this story arc to be exotic, I decided the new weapons best fit the definition: “strikingly or excitingly different or unusual.” Be sure to check out the other stories because they’re bound to be exotic, too!
If you’re new to this little novella in progress and want to catch up, go to my Blog Battle Short Stories page. Stay happy and healthy!