Category: Series (Stories): Go West Or Go Weird

Collection of short stories.

Executive Fear, Part 1 of 5

We now enter Part Too: Go Weird, of my book, Go West or Go Weird. And we begin with Story #9, Executive Fear. This is my longest short story of all, at more than 8,000 words. That’s pretty long for a supposed “short” story, and you may be feeling some fear yourself, at getting involved in it. So to make it less intimidating, I’m breaking it down into five, easy to swallow parts, for your reading digestion.


Backstory:

I originally wrote this long, short story back in the 1980’s, but it’s been a work in progress ever since. That’s because I can’t keep my obsessive-compulsive, wordsmithing fingers off of it. So it’s received a few revisions. Which perhaps are improvements. One improvement was to scratch out references to the old stone and chisel way of doing things, that preceded 1990, and update this manuscript to today’s technology.

This tale reflects my inner sentiments about our modern, so-called civilization. In fact, I first penned it to paper (yes, good old-fashioned treeware) when I was living in my underground log cabin in the middle of the Mojave desert.

As I sat in my log cabin, wondering why I had to go to such great lengths to get away from that great monster known as civilization, which dehumanizes people and destroys the environment, I had plenty of time to think. And my thinker came up with a theory.

I reasoned that there are invisible forces at work that make our world the way it is. And these invisible forces are the executives who head big businesses, such as banks and large corporations. They stay hidden in their high-rise offices, out-of-touch with humanity, and far away from the primitive appeal of nature. And in a cold, machine-like way, they use paperwork to pull the strings and levers that make everything function the dysfunctional way things function.

And it occurred to me that maybe these executives hide in their offices out of fear. They’re afraid of humanity. They’re afraid of the outdoors. They shun reality. And they’re phobic about being anywhere away from the safe cocoon of their homes or corporate offices.

This is radical thinking, I’ll admit. And I’ll also admit that I lived in my underground log cabin in the Mojave at the same time that another radical thinker lived in his own little cabin, in the woods of Montana. His name was Ted Kaczynski.

So I’ve sometimes wondered if maybe I’m just as nuts as Ted.

But while he was mailing surprise packages to executives and academics, as the Unabomber, I approached the problem from a different angle.

I simply wrote this story.

Executive Fear (Beginning)

 

Otis Felp was a frightened man. Always. Always there was the fear. Lurking just outside. Ready to pounce. Fear stalked him. It waited for him to leave. It waited for him to return. It waited for him to be caught unawares. It was always around. Somewhere around. Just outside those doors. Stalking and hunting him like a cougar sniffing out a wounded deer.

Every day.

Every day of his life from the time he was born.

Crippling, destructive, inner fear. Fear that assaulted his soul and body, worming into his heart and hollowing out his worried eyes.

His soul was condemned to a constant hell by this stalking fear. And it left him with no heart for enjoying life.

He was also desperate. Desperate for an escape from the terror that always awaited him.

But he saw little opportunity for hope. No, there seemed little hope for an escape from this phobic paranoia. Little hope for an escape from the phantom fright that constantly breathed just outside. No, he saw scant opportunity for this kind of hope.

But he did see one opportunity.

Small? Yes it was.

But it was still an opportunity. It was a slight chance. As slight as the little tin of brown powder he now held in his hand.

He sat at his desk and fiddled anxiously with the tin. He had been told not to handle it much, but he was so desperately excited he couldn’t control himself.

It was yellowcake.

Yellowcake is a powder produced from crushed uranium ore. It is used for manufacturing enriched uranium-235, which in turn is used for making nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons. And in spite of its name, it is neither yellow nor cake-like. Rather it is brown and powdery.

It had taken him awhile to obtain this uranium-rich powder, but he had been persistent. His client had hesitated, had hedged, had put it off, but had finally given in. His client brought it to him secretly. As a present. Or as a gratuity. Just yesterday—the day after the loan was approved—his client had walked into his office, set his briefcase down on the big, expansive desk, opened it a slight ways, and removed the tin of brown powder.

He began to act as if he had committed a great crime. There was a big, guilty smile on his face as he palmed the little tin toward Otis Felp. “Here you go, Otis, just what you were asking for,” he said in a low voice. “Now don’t go advertising what it is, and don’t say it came from me. Just stick it on a shelf somewhere and don’t handle it too much. I think it can hurt you if you play around with it a lot. Remember, don’t say you got it from me.”

“I don’t intend to ‘play’ around with it,” Otis said, stiff-lipped, “I just want it as a souvenir.” Then he let himself smile a little. “But thank you, thank you very much. I appreciate the gift. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what it is. I want it as a personal souvenir only. A keepsake, so to speak. Thanks very much for your trouble.”

That about concluded Otis Felp’s deal with the president of Loplite Mine Enterprises. The miner had received his loan—and at a very reasonable rate—and the bank manager had received his little tin of yellowcake.

That was yesterday. That evening he had gathered together other needed materials for his experiment, and had prepared his lab in the garage. Now, tonight, he would take his yellowcake home and try his experiment. Tonight he would put all the elements together and—poof!—see what would happen.

Perhaps nothing.

Probably nothing.

But then again, one never knew.

In his office he felt no fear. Behind the big sign that said “Manager”—that sat squarely at the head of his big, expansive desk—sitting in his big chair, with a big, important look of concern on his face—he felt no fear. He felt perfectly safe. No jitters. No trembling hands. No darting eyes, nothing.

Nothing.

It was a secure feeling to be an important bank executive.

Even out there in the lobby it wasn’t all that bad. But that’s because he was treated with respect by his employees. They respected him very much, and feared him even more so. It was the fear, really. They showed him respect, but felt fear.

Whenever he came around he sensed there was an instant change in the demeanor of his employees. A hush came first. Then darting eyes. Then a flurry of busywork.

He loved the employees best who stammered. “Uh, uh, yes sir, y- yes Mr. Felp. Y- yes of course. Sure. Th- thank, uh, thank you sir.” He loved those employees. They made him feel that everything was going okay. That the bank was still functioning properly. That he was still, definitely, in control. That nothing would cross him or cause him any kind of harm while he was in the bank. It was security.

And that big pile of paperwork in front of him. Now that right there showed just how important his job was. No one could question that he was an important man when they came into his office and saw all the paperwork he had to do. People would roll their eyes and say, “Boy, I’m sure glad I don’t have your job, uh, sir.” He would just smile and keep on working.

Or maybe he’d say, “Sometimes I wonder how I put up with it myself.” No sense making people envy his job. Let them be scared of such importance. Let them lose their ambition. Then they would be less of a threat. The less people who wanted his job, the more secure his job was.

But the paperwork had a greater value than just that. Most people bemoaned having to do paperwork. He didn’t like it much himself, but it did have a hidden value that many people seemed to overlook. It was the ultimate in power. It was power at its best. Paperwork was power. Paperwork was the power that made minds rule over backs. It always seemed to be the case. The ones who did the paperwork always had control over the ones who did the backwork.

Otis Felp was an expert at paperwork. Because of this he thought of himself as an invisible force of power. Like the Emperor of Japan, who for many centuries was not allowed to be looked upon by the common people. Otis was hidden behind the walls of his office, behind his big, expansive desk, out of sight, making deals on paper that could shake the entire city.

The average citizen depended on him to make sure the wheels of finance moved smoothly. To make sure jobs were available, and that businesses could operate. To make sure progress was made. And yet Otis Felp was virtually unknown to the average citizen. He was an anonymous man, hidden in an office somewhere, doing whatever anonymous, important men and women do. To the average citizen, Otis Felp was virtually invisible.

And that’s the way he liked it. He liked exercising his power anonymously. And he could do that with paperwork. There was such little risk. He could control his outside environment without actually going out into it. He could initiate a form, sign a sheet, or send a letter, and wheels would turn somewhere. He didn’t have to go out there and turn the wheels manually, and take all the chances that could entail. The chances of—who knows?—God knows—what could happen to him. No. He could sit inside his safe office and just do some paperwork. And then someone else—someone out there—some poor fool—would turn the wheels for him.

Paperwork was so much safer. With paperwork nothing wrong could happen to him. He was so safe. An anonymous but safe, secure, powerful man. A man who pushed paper, while others pushed their luck.

After filling out a few more forms and signing a few more signature blocks, he turned his attention back to the yellowcake. Tonight, he thought, it would be tonight. He turned the tin of powder slowly in his hands.

Perhaps it would work, perhaps it wouldn’t, but at least he would try.


End of Part 1. Come on back tomorrow, for Part 2.

A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert

This is Story #8, entitled A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. This will be the final story of Part Won: Go West. After this is Part Too, where we go Weird.


Backstory:

It was summertime, and baking like a pizza oven outside. Made us desert rats hungry, so my wife and I took my 89-year-old father-in-law out to a specialty pizza cafe.

The swamp cooler wasn’t doing much good inside that stuffy little pizza cafe, as it rattled and strained under the July sun, while competing against the work of the ovens. As we sat at a picnic table, I watched the young lady behind the counter swelter away while taking orders from a queue of sweaty customers.

She was plain-looking, but possessed of a spirit and attitude that drew my eye and made her attractive to me. She had a straightforward gravity to her demeanor, and a careful presence that held the attention of each customer she waited on. I felt enamored just watching her. And I wondered if I was falling in love with her.

Problem was, she was young enough to be my granddaughter. And besides, I was married. And if I gawked at her any longer, my wife and father-in-law sitting next to me, might notice. I had to shake my sunbaked head and take a sip of my cold soft drink, to bring my overheated brain to its senses.

I then realized that what I was really falling in love with was a time so long ago when such treasures as her were available. A heady time when life was starting out, and couples my age were beginning long journeys together. I missed the feel of that, for just a few brief fleeting moments. And I wanted to return, but knew I couldn’t.

A young paramedic walked in and stood in line. And watching him, and observing her, it occurred to me that maybe something more than pizza could result from their encounter. It probably didn’t, but I imagined it could.

This modern Western is about that imagined encounter. It’s a romantic vignette about heat, chemistry, and the reaction they might set off, between two young strangers in the moments before they meet.

A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert

 

It was high noon at the High Moon Pizza Cafe. The desert sun outside desiccated the rocks, cacti, and Joshua trees. But inside, a swamp cooler purred away, refreshing each new customer who staggered through the front door.

It was 98 outside and 88 inside. The swamp cooler only shaved ten degrees off the heat. But it felt like the Antarctic for those seeking refuge from the flaming overhead sun.

This refuge was her place of employ. While El Sol baked brains outside, she baked pizza pies inside. And she waited on zombies. The zombies were her customers. They were the desert rats who staggered through the front door in a state of brain-baked dyscrasia, and as delusional as the heat haze on the horizon.

She was practically a zombie herself, from the effect of the pizza ovens. This heat on the brain plays tricks on people. It boils the cerebral hemispheres, fries the neurons, and sizzles the synapses. And it makes possible a phenomenon between two encephalons that is known as a spontaneous chemical reaction.

Her 22-year-old face and figure were not beautiful, just pretty. Plainly pretty. And then only under cooler circumstances. Today all shreds of prettiness washed away from her.

Her face was enwreathed with sweat. It dripped in beads down her forehead and stung her eyes, burning them red. It formed droplets under her nose, lips, and chin. And it ran rivers down her bare neck, shoulders and meaty arms.

She wore a thin, green, cotton tank top, soaked in moisture. The decolletage of this bodice exposed a hint of sweaty cleavage. Below this beaded valley rolled sweat-stained green hills, and below each of these hills, trapped heat unleashed runnels of perspiration that streaked the fabric of her top from her bosoms to her waistline.

He poked his head through the cafe door, attracted by the 20% discount he’d heard about, for First Responders. Then he wiped the sweat off his brow with the palm of his hand, and staggered inside to join the zombies waiting in the queue. He stood behind two other customers and slowly shook his head a bit, trying to clear and orient his heat-hazed mind.

She glanced over their heads and caught sight of the face of this man who was last in line. It struck her with a shot of adrenaline. Her heart flip-flopped. A mysterious, volatile element surged through her internal chemistry.

One millisecond later: Flashpoint!

Then: Explosion!

And suddenly she knew she had glimpsed the face of her future husband.

He was 24 years old, of towering stature, and in peak physical condition. He sported upside-down sunglasses perched atop sweat-soaked auburn hair, which was neatly trimmed around salty wet ears.

He was an EMT, dressed in a close-fitting blue shirt, mottled with blotches of moisture. A black web belt cinctured the narrow waistline of his pants, which stunk of perspiration. A 2-way radio clipped to this belt could quickly drag him back outside into the smoldering heat, to assist at the next car wreck, heat stroke, or other emergency. He prayed to all the gods that this wouldn’t happen until he’d had at least 30 minutes of respite in this cool refuge.

He was a handsome man at other times, when his sudoriferous skin did not pour waterfalls all over his body. He was for sure much better looking than she. And his income as an EMT was far higher than her fast-food slave wage.

He was cool, magnetic, and possessed of savoir-faire in other seasons. But not so much during the withering heat of the desert summer. However during the fall, winter, and spring, this young man had much more going for him than that young woman.

His zombie eyes were transfixed on the hot pizzas in a glass display, and failed to notice the overheated young lady standing behind them. She finished with a customer. He moved up a step in line, and as he stepped he directed his bleary eyes over the head of the zombie before him, and focused on her perspiration-pocked face.

An electric frisson traveled up his back. He suddenly felt a little queasy and faint. His knees buckled, and the upside-down sunglasses dropped off of his head. He caught them with clammy hands, and fumbled nervously with them, almost jabbing out an eye, until he finally gave up and stuffed the shades in his pocket.

He was plunging into love. He knew it. But he couldn’t explain why. And he couldn’t stop it. His heart practically pounded out of his chest. He couldn’t pry his eyes off of this woman swimming in the product of her own sweat glands.

EMTs are expected to be calm and unflappable in the face of any situation. He wondered what was happening to him. How could such a plain-looking, sweat-drenched woman unhinge such a powerful response in him? Was it the heat?

Of course it was the heat. Heat that induces spontaneous chemical reactions.

He’d managed to remain single up until now, but this happened too quickly to put up any defenses. Besides, he felt too weak from the heat to resist. Nature, in her enigmatic, ruthless ways for ensuring reproduction of the human animal, was winning.

She finished with the customer, then caught his eye. She smiled with a twinkle of excitement, as beads of moisture dripped from her chin.

“Sir, may I take your order?”

Click to the next story, to read Executive Fear.

The Empty Purse

Today I offer a scary story, to help you get into a Halloween mood. This is Story #7, entitled The Empty Purse, from my book, Go West or Go Weird.


Backstory:

I always carry a few gallons of water in my car. That way if my car ever breaks down in this convection oven I live in, that we call a desert, I can survive for a few hours before my brain boils like an egg, and my body turns into a slab of beef jerky.

I’m surprised at how few people take such lifesaving precautions. And it seems to happen a few times a year, in our neck of the Mojave, where a driver gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, and wanders away in search of cool, clear water.

It can take months for search and recovery to find their bodies, if they ever are found. So I wrote this modern Western as a warning.

But I also wrote it to win a prize. This is the only short story I have ever written for a contest. Contestants were required by Writer’s Indigestion magazine, to pen a story about a woman who empties out all the contents of her purse.

My submission did not win first place.

The winning entry was a parable about a woman who overturns her purse to find something helpful for some poor bastard in need. And I understand why it won. What a unique idea. Who would have thought about actually overturning a purse to empty it out?

My story came in 3,919th place. Which ain’t bad for a nationwide contest, don’t you think? So I thought its level of appeal would make it fit right into this book.

The Empty Purse

 

Her car bucked and banged over the dirt road. Rumbled over washboards. Swished through sand. Sank through sand. Slowed. Stopped.

Too much sand.

A back and forth. Wheels spinning. Sand spraying. Sinking deeper. No go.

Stuck.

Mojave desert all around . . . nearest paved road about seven miles away, as the raven flies. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a slightly trembling finger.

She had always heard that the best thing to do in a situation like this is to stay put. Sooner or later someone would come looking. Her best chance of being found was to remain with the car and not wander away.

But that highway back there. If only she could make it back. There were cars she could flag down. Out here . . . who knew how often any car made it this far. There were no tire tracks in the sand in front of her. And hers were the only tire tracks behind her.

That pavement would be more than 10 miles away if she walked back using the meandering dirt road. Just not enough water. Footwear was okay—her sneakers could do it. Legs had the strength. But the water probably would not hold out.

Now, cross-country—only maybe seven miles. But kind of rough country. She squinted her eyes northeast, using her hand as a visor. Looked walkable enough. Seemed like it was all downslope, and she could bypass around the boulder-stewn inselbergs. And no problem crossing those dry washes. After all, they were dry. Unfortunately.

She had a map. And she had a pretty good idea where she was, on the map. She had a half-drank one-liter bottle of water from the Circle K store. A Three Musketeers bar was melting in her purse.

And yes, her purse!

Lots of small items in the purse! The idea smoked in her head, then caught fire.

She left a note on the dash, and at ten o’clock in the morning, headed out. About a hundred feet away she stopped in a clearing where all the winter’s cheatgrass had wilted away. She took a shiny pair of fingernail clippers from her purse and placed them on top of a white quartz stone.

And on she hiked.

Every hundred feet or so she extracted another item from her purse and posed it on top of a rock, or on bare ground. Conspicuously. In open areas between the creosote bushes or cholla or bunched up galleta grass. Any clear spot where someone searching for her could notice it from a distance, and follow her trail.

A brown hiking boot came down beside a lipstick tube of brass. A man knelt and lifted it. Wiped the dusty surface off on his jeans and examined it. Clicked his radio and announced, “Found lipstick. Let’s keep heading northeast.”

The search party was arrayed like a comb. A turkey vulture wobbled its wings overhead and watched as the figures moved in one general direction, during the hottest part of the day.

But late in the afternoon they broke formation. Each of the figures seemed to take on independent movement. One ambled about here, while another headed straight out there, and another veered off in the opposite direction. It was as if they’d lost their direction, and didn’t know which way to travel next.

One of the figures stopped beside a yucca and lingered. Then one by one the other figures gravitated to the yucca.

They congregated and studied a black object hanging by a black strap on a green blade of the Spanish Dagger. They muttered among themselves, until one of the men slid the black object up and off the blade.

A mile away, a turkey vulture plunged its beak between two ribs, prying, twisting, widening the gap that barred access to the dead, but tasty internal organs within.

The man examined the black object. It was a purse. He pried the leather edges of the purse apart and peered inside.

It was empty.

Click to the next story, to read A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of the Desert.

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