Oops! I had some problems updating the previous post, so I decided to start over and post my short story in its entirety at the following LJ cut. I apologize if it's a bit too esoteric, but if you can, let me know what you think! Again, PG-13 warning for some language. :)
On a clear moonlit night, Harold’s Bar and Grill, the urban oasis of Antioch’s modest downtown, appears on the outside to have closed its doors after a busy night. But through the darkened dining room full of upturned chairs, one can still find behind a pair of large metal doors the only sign of life where one person still stirs. His name: Brock Beard, the restaurant’s lone busboy, wiping the dried dishwater caked onto his oval glasses with the end of his worn brown apron. Under the constant buzz of the florescent lights overhead, Brock walks across his stifling workstation to shut off the large steel dishwasher while muttering under his breath the jazz beat still fresh in his mind: do—duva-duva—duva-duva-duva—duva. After a deep yawn interrupts his rhythm, Brock picks up the beat once more with a small strut as he turns to close the open door to the alley behind him when a sharp tapping sound makes him to freeze in mid-step like a prisoner caught escaping. Looking back, Brock meets eyes with a waitress no older than himself clutching the edge of a steel rack with her red fingernails.
"Mwahaha! There is no escape!" the woman says with a sinister voice. Continuing to feign malice, the young woman flips her long, black ponytail behind her while walking slowly towards the busboy.
"Oh, hey, Karen—" Brock says with a barely perceptible smile while closing the door. The waitress stops and exhales.
"Carol," the waitress corrects in her normal higher voice.
"Aw, man, I-I’m sorry—Carol," the busboy answers hastily, his voice trailing off as he avoids eye contact with the waitress. "I’m just awful—with names." The waitress sits on a nearby footstool and crosses her legs.
"That’s a major party foul, Brockie-boy; I thought I taught you better than that." Brock yawns once more.
"My bad, I—didn’t sleep that well last night."
"Look, maybe you just need to try and think of something that reminds you of my name. Like, well, when we had to memorize each other’s names in Mrs. Gerrity’s English class way back when and yours came up, I thought of broccoli, you know?" says Carol quickly. "Well, it’s not like you reminded me of a vegetable, but, you know, the name is pretty—similar." Brock’s smile shifts to the left. "What?!"
"Bullshit, nothing," she answers playfully, "what’s that smirk of yours for?"
"You’re always looking out for me—"
"Now, don’t start that again—"
"I’m just saying you’re so social, why do you bother hanging out with someone like me?"
"Because you can learn to be social, too, Brock; I was like you once." Brock looks at the glitter shimmering off Carol’s large multicolored scrunchie and raises an eyebrow. "You know what I mean, dammit."
"No—not that, it’s just—real hard to picture." Carol sighs and twizzles her hair, separating a clutch of it into individual strands.
"In elementary school," she says reflectively, "I felt the need to by shy; just kept my feelings locked up ‘cause I was afraid of being hurt."
"I’m not afraid, I’m—"
"Look," she loudly breaks in, "just hear me out, ‘kay? Lemme say something, here." The busboy abides and Carol regroups. "When I came to middle school, I just decided to put myself out there ‘cause I thought well, hell, what’s life if you choose to numb yourself from the world around you, you know what I’m sayin’?" The busboy blinks and the waitress drops her hands in her lap. "Fuck, I’m starting to sound like an after-school special. What I just want to say is that I really think you’d be happier if you became more comfortable with yourself; there’s a lot more to you than you think." Brock makes a small laugh.
"Y-you really think so, huh?" Brock asks.
"I know so. Trust me."
"Look," Brock says methodically, "it’s great that you were able to change and all, but I can’t do that."
"Why the hell not?"
"I’m telling you, I just can’t; we’re graduating in just a few months; if I tried that now and didn’t act like I’ve always been around you and the others at school—" Carol shifts her weight on the footstool.
"—then you’d be acting like you," says the waitress, now softly touching Brock’s cheek, "and I’d love to see that." Carol leans forward and closes her eyes, but Brock turns away.
"Uh, I need to—go home—and—do—stuff—" Carol sighs and slowly stands up from the stool.
"Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow," she says with effort as if her voice were also rolling its eyes. Left shaking his head as the waitress walks out the door, Brock only gives a small nod while rubbing his forehead. A few moments after hearing the front door close, however, Brock suddenly stands up, hurriedly shuts off the lights and opens the front door only to see Carol’s battered red compact car already halfway down Brunwald Street, a narrow slope of weary asphalt resting in the darkness in anticipation of the morning’s commute.
"See you—later," the busboy says to the pair of taillights heading downhill, but his only response comes as his own voice bounces back from the walls of the man-made canyon of old wooden buildings which surround the street.
Returning to lock the restaurant up for the night, Brock retrieves a large key ring from his apron whose discordant jangling causing a pair of pigeons above him to scatter. For a few moments, he looks up in silence at the nest of dried grass and newspaper curiously wedged in the "o" of Harold’s cursive neon logo and shakes his head. Then, gradually, a sound begins to disturb the still air. A dull, rumbling sound.
"Aw, man, not another storm," says Brock to himself, forcing his trembling hands to search even faster for the right device.
As if prompting the busboy to take another guess, the rumbling slowly intensifies into a steadily closing roar which gives him pause. All of a sudden, a piercing screech punctuates the tremor so violently that Brock’s gaze snaps up the street just in time for him to be confronted with three rows of fierce yellow lights growing larger by the second. Working to keep his footing as the horrific symphony sends a shiver down the sidewalk’s concrete spine, Brock can hardly hear his key ring fall from his hand as the cacophony materializes under the glow of a streetlamp into a massive tractor-trailer hurtling down the street. Swerving back and forth, the truck ricochets off the stalwart cement planter on the far side of the street before lurching back near the center to continue its perverse slalom downhill in a cloud of exhaust. His eyes following the truck’s path, Brock happens to see past the vehicle’s bright chrome tanker to the three-way intersection at the bottom of the hill. Waiting at a stoplight for a large bus to negotiate the tight turn, a small red dot shines under the glow of several streetlights as it idles behind the crosswalk’s illusory barrier. Before the busboy is even able to interpret the dot, he instinctively starts running down the sidewalk.
"Carol? CAROL!" Brock then yells between breaths, waving his arms madly before the semi’s momentum shifts once more, the back of its tanker blocking his view of the intersection completely.
Despite running downhill, the busboy’s pursuit becomes incredibly demanding. Distracted by the burning of his lungs, the bouncing of his large stomach with every step, and the unpleasant feel of his mouth becoming a cavern of chalk, the busboy helplessly watches the chrome tanker continue to shrink as it skips merrily down the street behind its kamikaze master. All the while, the busboy’s agony continues to feel raw, exposed, and above all, never-ending, making his pace fluctuate from one moment to the next. Panting heavily and sweating profusely as his loose dress shoes carving blisters into his heels threaten to derail the poorly planned workout entirely, Brock feels on the verge of collapsing into a heap when a strong warmth fills him. All at once, a strange tingling sensation steadily descends down his body like a copier scanner, erasing all feelings of pain in its wake. The world now beginning to flash past him much faster than before, Brock darts off the sidewalk and onto the street to avoid hitting a fire hydrant and surges onward with eyes fixed to the tanker now growing larger with every light step. As the breeze rushes by the busboy’s face and whistles through his ears and the recurring contact of foot to pavement becomes hardly noticeable, Brock notices the back of the chrome tanker suddenly shine with an eerie green glow which brightens as he closes. Trying to pass the trailer before it can swerve once more, the busboy makes a sharp right-hand turn out of the semi’s draft and into an invisible wall of air that slackens his pace. Leaning forward to return to his original speed, Brock hears the semi’s engine suddenly grow louder, then quieter as Carol’s red car now begins to take shape out of the red dot in front. With the intersection only a half-mile away, Brock stands up straight to stop in the middle of the street and cups his hands over his mouth.
"CAROL!" he yells, "WATCH—" Brock begins when the rig slams into him, pushing him downhill with his heels digging into the street. Transfixed by Carol’s car growing larger by the second, the only thing Brock feels is the truck actually begin to decelerate, the deafening screech of eighteen mammoth tires accompanied by the clatter of chunks of asphalt pelting the underside of the rig. Closing his eyes and impulsively firming up his stance, the truck slows so fast that the resulting force seizes its iron heart in one thick detonation, the truck grinding to a reluctant halt. After a gust of wind reeking of burnt rubber and oil rushes past both sides of the rig, the busboy hears only the squeal of the truck’s slowing tanker swerving harmlessly into the empty lane.
Then, the trails of smoke and steam pouring from the semi’s undone engine gradually subside until the street falls silent once more.
* * *
Catching his breath, Brock senses someone walking towards him and looks up so quickly that he bangs the back of his head on the semi’s grill. Peering through the fading condensation on his glasses, the busboy’s momentary anger turns to surprise when he discovers that he is not only standing so close to Carol’s car that he can make out her "My Other Car Is A Unicorn" bumper sticker in the rear window, but the waitress herself walking towards him with a stunned expression. With the busboy’s pulse quickening, Carol leans in and looks over him with her deep blue eyes.
"S-sir? How? W-Who? I, uh, just, uh—" the waitress starts before Brock jumps toward her and kisses Carol passionately on the lips. The scene, combined with Carol’s smell of bubble gum and flowers, overwhelms Brock so much that he can’t keep himself from crying and hugging her close while allowing his voice to gush a series of ramblings.
"Carol! Carol!" the busboy blurts out. "I thought I’d lost you, I-I that truck, and-and-and your car, and, you just, then-then I thought—" The waitress, surprised, takes a step back.
"Hey, hey, uh, thanks, but, how’d you know my name, buddy?" Carol says. Perplexed by the irony of this statement, Brock squints his eyes inquisitively when one of the rig’s front tires explodes, making him jump straight into the air. Now hovering just above Carol, Brock begins to take several shallow breaths when the sound of closing sirens fills the street.
"Like Christmas Carols," Brock says quickly. The sirens growing ever louder as red and blue lights reflect off the windows of the pet shop down the street, the busboy flies straight into the air before swiftly merging with the night sky. Moments later, three patrol cars and an ambulance arrive at the scene with Carol staring upward, her hand on her forehead.
"Broccoli?" she says softly.
As an EMT reaches Carol, one of the policemen runs out of his car and climbs up to cab of the stopped semi, shining his flashlight into the driver’s side window. Slumped over the wheel, the truck’s heavy-set driver suddenly wakes up and feels his face and chest before staring into the officer’s blinding light. Blinking a few times, the driver cranks down his window in three frantic pumps.
"Oh, God, I fell asleep, didn’t I?" says the panicked driver, "I-I heard this song on the radio and just rested my eyes for a sec back there and, oh, no,—I-I didn’t hit anyone, did I? Oh, God, please, no!" The policeman gives a puzzled expression then calls back to his colleagues.
"No, you didn’t hit anyone—Hey, Murray, the driver was still asleep when I got here!" says the officer.
"Then how the hell did he stop the truck?" Murray answers. A third officer walking behind the rig trips on something in the street. Dusting off his slacks as he stumbles to his feet, the officer looks uphill to see the lane divided in half by two long grooves torn into the asphalt.
"Guys," he says, "you’ve gotta come and see this."
* * *
Crashing through the treetops and landing hard on the concrete in Knoll Park across town from Harold’s, Brock emerges from his small crater and runs into the lighted bathroom building near the playground, pushing closed its door riddled with graffiti. Leaning against it with hands to his face, the busboy shakes his head as the evening replays itself in a continuous loop, each sequence more jarring than the last: Carol, the semi, the wind, the sirens. Finally, as the world stops spinning, Brock lowers his hands only to jump back at what stares back at him from the cracked mirror across the room.
"What the—" Brock starts as he walks closer to the image.
Under the glow of a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the busboy sees that his entire uniform, the pair of sagging slacks, the sweaty dress shirt and the brown apron, have somehow been completely replaced by clothes he had never seen before. A green t-shirt wreathed by a bold black stripe embraces his upper body while a pair of tie-dye pants in swirls of red, yellow, and blue stand beneath, their closeness revealing that Brock had also somehow assumed a much leaner, more defined frame. A pair of white running shoes, not only undamaged from their intimate encounter with Brunwald Street, but glowing in contrast to the dirty floor, have stepped in for his problematic dress shoes while black and pink striped wristbands encircle both his wrists. But the alteration that garners most of Brock’s attention comes from the backwards pink baseball cap now on his head, the busboy playing with the large "X" at its center where some of his short brown hair had inexplicably lengthened into the shape. The busboy’s brow furrows.
"W-What?" he asks himself, barely cognizant of the sound of footsteps running up from behind, "What’s happening to m—?"
Unable to react in time, a black trenchcoat-covered arm suddenly wraps around Brock’s throat and yanks him back, the mirror capturing an awkward scene: the scarred face of a menacing bald man looms over the busboy’s right shoulder, a man wrestling for control of Brock’s flailing. Whipping out a rusty switchblade knife with his free hand, the man stops the busboy’s movement cold.
"Your ass is gettin’ jumped, that’s what," the man’s gruff voice spits into the busboy’s right ear. "Whaddya think you’re doin’ here this late, you goofy-ass fuck?" Brock can only watch as the assailant brings the knife up to his face. "Yeah, big fuckin’ mistake. Now, gimme your goddamn wallet!" Knowing his wallet was in his slacks, the busboy struggles harder for an adequate response with his gaze glued to the knife.
"Hey—buddy," the busboy says, gulping for breath, "I-I don’t want any trouble—"
The man’s arm tightening, Brock stops in mid-speech when he hears the wind whistle through an open window near the ceiling. In desperation, Brock quickly tries to jump towards it, an attempt which not only launches the two into the air but completely misjudges the height of the bathroom, causing the robber on Brock’s back to slam into the concrete roof, lose his grip, and fall limply onto the floor. Pulling himself up to his feet after a moment, the man looks up at the wide-eyed and multi-colored specter floating near the window, the two in a silent stalemate of fear.
"I’m—," Brock starts, but the man in the trenchcoat simply whips around, rushing out the door and into the night. Moments later, as the door’s pneumatic brace draws the door closed, Brock floats down until he is standing on the floor, staring first at his hands, then at his assailant’s crooked knife now resting on the muted tiles below.
Moments later, the busboy steps back out into the empty park and onto the sidewalk where, years before, he had gone on walking field trips with his kindergarten class. Under the glow of a few dim lights, he looks over the colorful jungle gym, the swing set, and the monkey bars with nostalgia, but when he sees their shadows on the sidewalk appear as only dark, distorted forms, he shudders. After pulling on his t-shirt and letting it go with a snap, Brock steps into the middle of the park with the gaze of a woefully lost tourist. Then, in one movement, he then springs himself into the sky and out of the city.
With the loud call of a crow swooping past, Brock awakens so abruptly that his eyes must fight to adjust to the sunlight which glows through a thin layer of clouds above. Under the sound of rustling branches and nothing more, the foreground comes into view first, allowing Brock to see that he is laying in the grass wearing his Harold’s attire just as he remembered it last, the brown apron still adorned with the splattered remnants of Friday’s Scampi Night. The busboy gives a small laugh while arching his head back.
"Just a dream; must’ve—crashed out in the yard after—" The busboy says before catching sight of a large beige building resembling an ice cube tray, "—work?"
Looking all around him, Brock sees that he is not only sitting in a yard much larger than his own, but one surrounded by several more bizarre beige structures resembling various rectangular appliances, each more unfamiliar than the last. Feeling a strong pain in his upper legs, Brock grasps onto one of the many strategically-placed trees to get to his feet before seeing he is all alone in the middle of a massive park.
"Hello?" Brock asks, but the alien landscape gives no response.
With his pace increasing in sync with his heartbeat, Brock walks clumsily across the grass to a damp pathway nearby. Following the path on autopilot while looking elsewhere like a nervous pigeon, the busboy unwittingly bounces off a soft obstacle and jumps back. Adjusting his glasses, the busboy holds his hands up defensively at a round older woman holding her Styrofoam cup of coffee out of harm’s way.
"Oh, gee, ma’am," Brock says between breaths as if trying to calm a giant beast, "I’m—sorry about that, I was just—"
"Not an issue, sweetheart," the woman says with a measured tone. "There is certainly no harm done to my legally addictive public inebriation device, as you can observe." The busboy blinks.
"Oh, uh, good," Brock says, extending his hand. "Uh, Mrs.—"
"Professor Jacqueline Mullins," the woman answers, completing the handshake. "Though I would prefer if you call me Jackie. And you?"
"Brock," the busboy answers after bringing a jack-o-lantern to mind, "Brock Beard. Uh—Jackie, wh-where am I?" The professor laughs spontaneously, her frazzled dirty blonde hair twitching in the air.
"An out-of-towner, I see; not too many voyagers choose to enter this hamlet in the course of their respective odysseys seeing as most of the locals depart on the weekends. Sweetheart, let me be the first to tell you that you are at the University of California in the city of Irvine, southern California’s haven for inverse enjoyment through quaint homes with mammoth price tags." As the professor snickers at her observation, Brock looks past one of the beige buildings at the mountains in the distance, shaking his head at the thought of how far away home must be. "Are you entering UCI this autumn? I am teaching a new course." The busboy snaps his attention back to the woman.
"Uh, no," Brock says quietly. "No, I’m afraid I have—other plans." Seeing the hint of disappointment in the professor’s expression, Brock hastily fires another salvo. "But, uh, what are you going to teach here?" The way in which Jackie’s face lights up tells the busboy he has hit his mark.
"As I am a professor of sexual multicultural methodology, the lesser-known segment of humanistic inquiries which deals with the establishment of a comprehensive history of orgies, sexual deviance, carnality, and promiscuity to better understand the conditions under which we humans reproduce as, shall we say, ‘civilized beings,’ revealing that civilization is rooted in human ingenuity and creativity, not predictability, I am teaching a three-part course to elaborate upon this schema. I must say, my work yields such fascinating tidbits of knowledge. The first segment, taking place this autumn, shall be entitled: ‘The Danger-Fun Zone: Gendered Depictions of Eroticism in the 1970s.’" Standing still, Brock tries to come up with an appropriate response, but runs out of steam. "Harold’s of Antioch, California?" the professor reads off Brock’s apron, "Is this establishment catering the R-Bot’s test flight this morning?" Trying not to arouse suspicion, Brock decides to play along.
"Uh, yeah, I’m—" Brock glances down over his work clothes, concerned by the heavy grass stains burned onto his white dress shirt. "—on my way. What is this R-Bot thing for again?"
"Ah, I see you must have been sent on short notice. The R-Bot, sweetheart, is the product of an epic project to create the world’s most, shall we say, efficient mobile robotic security system. For the past five years, our own robotics scientist, Professor Ward, has been singlehandedly working on the project with funds from around town. Today is the test of his first prototype, the R-Bot 486, at the old airfield."
"Hmm; are you going to that?" The professor sighs.
"No, sadly, the demonstration is exclusive to members of the city legislature and the media. It is a real shame, for I greatly admire Professor Ward for the prestige his work has brought this university."
"Oh, so, you know him?"
"Why, yes. Ever since we first met in our undergraduate days at USC, I adored being with Jeffery, I mean, Professor Ward. His passion for what the future holds for humanity and the prospect of creating a world free of crime and vice inspired me in my own work. While I had my women’s studies courses and he had his bio-engineering, I felt that we truly shared a common bond both academically and personally. Yet—"
"Yet?" Jackie’s eyes water as she gives a faraway glance toward the mountains in the distance.
"Yet, since he began the R-Bot project all those years ago and gained corporate funding soon after, I have never been able to reach him." Brock bites his lip as Jackie looks back at him. "I am, however, hopeful that with the project coming to an end today, he will become just as accessible as he was in the past; he worries me when his work absorbs him so completely." Seeing Brock look a bit anxious, Jackie takes a deep breath to compose herself and extends her hand once more. "Well, I am sorry to abbreviate our encounter, but I must hence to the library to complete my studies on the libido according to Maplethorpe; I must say the quiet nature of this city makes it easy to do research. Pity you will not be coming here this fall, Brock, but, if you get the chance, please tell Professor Ward I send my, shall we say, ‘Felicitations.’" The two shake hands and the professor disappears into the campus park below.
A few moments later, as Brock continues to look around the empty campus, he turns toward the mountains and shakes his head.
* * *
"Please, everyone," says Mayor Londi from his podium near one end of the expansive hangar, "it’s important that you stay calm. The situation is perfectly under control." As the clutch of concerned dignitaries and reporters continues to stir about their immaculately-prepared tables, the Mayor, illuminated by the sunlight coming through the new gaping hole at the top of the hangar, flashes a deadly stare down at the two men looking over a series of large computers below. After exchanging words for a moment, the larger man in a pinstripe suit yanks at the collar of the other man’s white laboratory coat.
"What do you mean it’s out of control?!" the pinstripe suit whispers harshly into the ear of the gaunt Professor Ward. "My company didn’t subsidize your project for you to let the goddamn thing to take off on its own! And don’t tell me those parts were supposed to fall off like that!" Standing unsteadily while going over his notes, the professor exhales dejectedly before hunching over the radar screen to try and make sense of the small green dot dancing crazily over its surface.
* * *
Along the concrete banks of the smooth four-lane asphalt river, one whose solid black waters are only occasionally troubled by sports cars taking advantage of the placid atmosphere by performing impromptu time trials on circuits known only to their drivers, Brock continues on foot to try and find his way out of Irvine. All the while, the thin clouds from the campus continue to thicken and merge into a dense blanket of murk so complete that the busboy feels utterly isolated in a massive graveyard whose tombstones are several unremarkable office structures. A modest breeze, the only noise accompanying the static of a distant freeway, sweeps from a lonely golf course and ruffles the busboy’s matted hair, drawing his attention to the empty lot beyond whose flora had been forcibly stripped down to the gravel and replaced by signs reading in bold red, white, and blue print: "Keep Irvine Quiet: Londi For Mayor." Still unable to recognize a single landmark, Brock takes another sip of the drink he carries with him and swallows it forcibly.
"Bleh, fruit punch nothing," he says. "How do people drink this sport drink stuff?" Tossing the bottle into a nearby garbage can, Brock turns to go down a steep side-road which shows more promise. Finding only steep cliffs covered in weeds and no pay phone, however, the busboy next unfolds a small piece of paper pulled from his wallet before looking over the photograph inside of he and his family standing at the entrance to a Victorian garden.
"Well, I’ve got some time; better start practicing. Hey, Mom," Brock says to the photo, "bet you’re wondering why I didn’t come back home from work, huh? Well, you see, I—" Brock shakes his head and stuffs the photo in his back pocket. "What a mess," the busboy says out loud to the sloping street, "How am I gonna explain to them that I not only left to go to the dullest city on earth, but I have no idea how I did?!" The busboy quickly feels the top of his head as if swatting a fly perched in the middle, but still feels nothing more than hair.
"Is someone playing a trick on me? I mean, that dream felt so real, you know, could I really be—No, no, it can’t; nobody would believe me anyway. But, then how’d I end up—" Brock stops in his tracks when a thought flashes across his mind. Seeing that the hill has led down to a concrete trail beneath, the busboy takes a deep breath and begins walking faster along its flat stretch. Gradually, Brock forces his lumbering pace to increase, but his right dress shoe wobbles so violently that his foot slips out, making him trip on the resting shoe and fall hard onto the gravelly concrete. As Brock pushes himself to his feet, a tear comes to his eye.
"Just a dream," he sniffs. "Not that it would matter here anyway." Nursing his right arm for a moment, Brock dusts off his soiled shirt and retrieves the shoe. Stooping over to tie it on once more, the busboy stops when the familiar cinching of his shoelace is joined by the odd click of a small plastic object landing on the ground a couple feet in front of him. Picking it up, Brock finds that the object is a key chain with a car’s small remote control on its loop. Although no vehicles can be found around the trail, the busboy pushes the smaller of the two buttons on its face. To his surprise, Brock hears two muted beeps of a horn which, curiously, appear to be coming from the sky. Intrigued with eyes glued to the low ceiling of the homogenous grey yonder, Brock turns around, steps back a couple feet to where the sound seem to project, and pushes the larger button marked "Panic." This time, the beeps continue in rhythmic pulses from the sky, but with dissonant tones as they appear to be coming closer to where he is standing. Suddenly seeing a pair of flashing lights flash through the foggy sky, Brock draws a breath as he takes a few steps backwards.
A split-second later, just before the next pair of beeps, a large sport utility vehicle smashes itself nose-first onto the trail with such force that its mass crumples the entire machine into nothing more than a reddish-brown ball. Knocked off his feet from the resulting burst of air, Brock steps up only to see several other objects begin to form out of the fog like large, metallic drops of rain. Trying to run away from the scene along the trail, a pick-up truck, then a sedan, then a mobile home, smash around the busboy in various spectacular dances of death which force him to dart one way, then the next. With the fog preventing him from seeing any visible safety ahead, Brock feels his body begin to protest the speed he runs when an orange coupe bounces off the bank to his left, somersaults inches over his head, and splashes into the reed-filled bay off the side of the trail, obscuring thoughts of such pain with the veil of fearing his own imminent death. Amplifying this horror is an odd whirring sound that not only begins to eclipse the vehicular carnage, but appears to be closing in from behind. Not daring to look behind him, much less slow down his run, the busboy’s mind now begins to torture him further with images of what the noise’s form must be as sounds of the touch-and-go grinding of steel and the grunting drone of an engine at full throttle become more pronounced by the second. The thought occupies him so much for so long, in fact, that after an unusual breeze comes over his entire body, the busboy is surprised to find himself completely surrounded by grey. In a series of rigid movements, Brock feels the fabric of a baseball cap on his head and, in doing so, sees his forearms complemented by pink and black wristbands rather than dirty white sleeves. Then, Brock’s interpretation of these observations comes just in time for him to smash face-first into a towering cliff that reveals itself a moment too late.
Tumbling down amidst several clay rocks, Brock lands on a muddy beach flat on his back just as his whirring pursuer quickly buzzes overhead. A split-second later, a thud from above causes a large rectangle to materialize out of the air and plummet quickly towards him. Not knowing what to do, Brock flinches and curls himself into a ball before barely sensing a slight pressure on his forearms and shins. Immediately afterwards, the whirring sound fades into the air. Trying to calm himself, Brock takes a few deep breaths and looks up only to see the underside of a car resting evenly on top of him so close that he can smell its fuel. Panicked, Brock rolls out from under the vehicle and into the water lapping nearby, allowing it to land awkwardly behind him. Dusting himself off, the transformed busboy sees that the car is a bright yellow taxi, though one with its roof pinched into a point as if it had been placed in a large vice.
"Goddammit, get me outta here!" the voice from inside yells.
"H-hang on," Brock says. Looking around for a moment, the busboy is about to call for help when he catches sight of his tie-dye pants just as they appeared in his "dream." Timidly reaching toward the twisted door, Brock tugs on the handle, but it does not budge. Reefing on it a few more times, however, the door suddenly bursts off, revealing the taxi’s driver laying prostrate on his fully-reclined seat.
"Hey, careful with the door, okay, I just had it—wait, how’d you do that?" The busboy wonders the same.
"Uh—I, er, are you okay?" The driver, having stepped out of the car to inspect the damage, only shrugs before sitting on the hood and lighting a cigarette.
"Well, I guess you could say that; I’m goin’ over to the Spectrum to pick up somebody and suddenly this damn thing comes by, sweeping up these cars and droppin’ ‘em everywhere!"
"D-Do you know what that thing looked like?"
"Beats the hell outta me, it just—" The driver pauses and looks overhead, blowing smoke at the sky thoughtfully.
Suddenly, the whirring returns, clipping off the top of the cliff and sending a pile of rocks crashing towards the two men. Instinctively, Brock tackles the taxi driver onto the beach just before the boulders smash onto the crippled taxi, pummeling the yellow shell into the turf.
"Aw, man, fuck this," the taxi driver says, jumping up and running off toward the marina. With the whirring sound intensifying further, Brock looks toward the sound to face his nemesis now floating over the water only a few feet away. The object appears to be a large owl, perhaps twelve feet long, though one with its broad wings held rigidly outward in a taxidermist’s pose, revealing a series of small rockets at the base of each wing sputtering flames which scorch the water’s surface into steam. The entire creature is a deep brown, yet the upper half is so heavily scratched and covered in concrete dust that it reveals the muted silver of what appears to be a metallic skeleton beneath. All the while, the owl’s tattered head moves statically back and forth with a pair of fierce red eyes until it stares down at Brock, setting off a series of clicking sounds from all over its body.
"Uh—hi?" says Brock feebly as he floats up to meet the object at eye level.
The owl’s feet, originally coiled up into small balls at the base of its legs, spring open, revealing a set of three-pronged feet with large talons jutting from each appendage.
"Airborne missile. Must destroy." A sickening electronic voice spews from a source near the device’s neck. In a flash, the owl rocks back and launches itself feet-first at the busboy, only for the busboy spring over it, causing the robot to dig its feet into the sod cliff behind. Now hovering behind the robot as it works to free its claws from the cliff side, Brock looks around him for somewhere to hide only to be promptly snatched up in its feet. Now flying sideways into the fog, the busboy feels a weird twisting sensation come over his mid-section as the owl tries to contort him into uncomfortable positions, all the time blurting the word, "Disarm." The busboy grunts as he tries to free himself by forcing himself downward until finally, a muted explosion causes a piece of metal just above him to fly off, forcing the robot to descend rapidly through a steeply banked curve. All at once, just as the owl begins a somersault, the ground reappears and the two slam into a large crater which bursts sand in all directions and separates the two. Seeing the robot not moving, Brock unsteadily gets to his feet and runs across a flat expanse of compacted sand and dirt toward a shed, though does so with difficulty as one of the owl’s feet is still wrapped firmly around his torso. Just as he reaches the shed’s door, however, the claw around him comes alive once more, squeezing Brock like an orange and sending him tumbling down a wooden dock before the claw opens, clamping him onto it.
Now fighting a more severe case of dizziness as the dock’s swaying subsides, the busboy sees a large oar resting nearby half-buried in the water. Grabbing the handle, Brock successfully pries the claw off of him and flicks it into the water. The busboy’s relief is short-lived, however, for only seconds later the robot owl, dismembered, rattling, but undefeated, is again floating in front of him. Catching his breath with oar still in hand, Brock tries to ward off the owl with the object, but is unprepared to contend with the ten-foot length which lies beyond the tiny handle, causing the blade at the far end to swing directly into the owl’s remaining claw. Instantly clinching onto the blade, the owl then wrenches it to the side, slamming the handle into Brock’s stomach. Holding firmer to the handle to keep his footing, Brock unwittingly finds himself at the light end of a see-saw which the owl uses to swing both man and oar behind itself before hurtling them into a steep arc extending through the fog.
Whirring over the silent bay, the war-torn robot follows the noise of the "missile’s" yell and finds the oar floating on the surface below. The robot owl floats down until he is hovering over the scene and is about to turn around when the water boils near the oar over what appears to be a bright green stove top. Immediately, in a blast of spray, the green glow shoots into the air like a laser, revealing Brock floating in mid-air and grasping the oar like a large baseball bat. Swinging the oar behind him and diving toward the robot, Brock unleashes a brutal cry.
"AAAAAH! FUCKIN’ KILL!" Brock yells, swinging the oar this way and that in a frenzy of action which dices the robot into several chunks of useless metal. As the parts hover in mid-air among the frizzing wires for a moment, the machine’s trademark whirring intensifies until in one incredible blast the remnants explode into a massive fireball. As the debris trickles back into the water and the smoke disappears, Brock hovers in mid-air, taking deep breaths in silence. Gradually, however, a new feeling washes over the busboy as a small laugh finds its way out of his mouth. Taking deeper breaths, Brock’s laugh increases exponentially into a boisterous noise of excitement as he shakes the oar over his head like a madman. Eventually calming down for a moment, the transformed busboy next slings the oar over one shoulder and looks over his clothes admirably, noticing how their wetness has made them hold even tighter to his body. This close proximity excites the busboy immensely as it has made every muscle’s presence known to their carrier: their feel, their bulk, but most importantly, their existence and potential power.
"Hey, not bad," he says to himself, flexing. "I wonder what else I can do." Looking around in the fog for a moment, Brock flies off once more.
* * *
Under the echoing commotion of the councilmen hurriedly filing out of the hangar and reporters calling their offices, Professor Ward tries to bring the green dot back to life by tapping gingerly at the side of the radar device when he sees the Mayor step out from behind the row of large computers with a large walkie-talkie in hand.
"Mr. Ross," he calls to the man in the pinstripe suit before he joins the Mayor behind the computers. The professor, while marking the last location of the R-Bot in his notepad, listens intently to the conversation between the two.
"What’s the news?" asks Mr. Ross.
"I just got the word: that damn thing just exploded in Newport Harbor." The professor drops his pen.
"Fire department’s headed to the scene; the Department of Fish and Game called in saying they’re furious about the debris the explosion left in the back bay." The professor begins to hyperventilate, removing his laboratory coat as if it were a noose.
"Fuck me with a broomstick; what are we gonna do?"
Stunned, Professor Ward looks around, grabs a briefcase, and manages to follow the crowd out undetected.
* * *
"Very strange," a man’s voice says, "I was just rowin’ out there in the single scull when I see this flash of light, you know, and this guy yellin’ and swingin’ an oar and then, KA-BOOM! Man, that was something else."
"Have you seen this person before?" another voice asks.
"Naw, never— But, hey, are you saying this guy who saved that taxi driver is the same guy who totaled that R-Bot thing?"
"That seems to be the case; thankfully, it exploded away from any residences."
"Wow. So this ‘Rower X,’ is kickin’ ass, eh? I wonder what his splits are?"
"Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Owens. We’ll release a statement this afternoon to keep everyone posted."
"‘Rower X,’ eh?" says the subject of the conversation standing behind the shed he saw moments earlier, squeezing the water out of his colorful suit. "Bitchin’. Now, just leave, you two, so I can grab a bigger oar and take out more of those motherfuckers." Hearing one vehicle drive off the island followed by closing footsteps echoing from inside the shed, the altered Brock gives a devious grin.
"Okay, then I guess I’m gonna have to teach you—" Choking up on the oar and holding it over high over his left shoulder as the footsteps draw nearer, the oar suddenly snags the back of Brock’s hat, causing it to fall off his head. Immediately, another strange sensation comes over the busboy’s body as his clothes revert back into his Harold’s attire, the hat disappearing into thin air.
"Oh," Brock says unenthusiastically, feeling his scalp back to normal. "Great." With one hand off the oar, the unwieldy blade quickly slams onto the dirt behind him, causing the shed’s occupant to step up even faster to him. The busboy frantically tries to regain his grip on the oar, but the handle teeters back and digs into the dirt just in time for the footsteps to stop next to him.
"Hey, careful there, buddy," a tall man in a large jacket and blue jeans says. "You don’t want that oar handle dragging through the sand."
"Oh, er, sorry about that," says Brock, continuing to struggle with the unwieldy object. "I—er—found this oar lying nearby; is it yours?"
"Ah, looks like it," the man answers, retrieving the oar. "The freshmen must’ve forgot to put it back in the boathouse again." After dusting off the handle, the man looks back at Brock, now walking away from the shed. "So, what’s your name?" The busboy turns around.
"Uh, Brock—Brock Beard."
"Ah, so I take it you’re here to try out?"
"For the rowing team." Brock looks over his work clothes once more.
"Yeah, you; what are you, 6-1?"
"I think so."
"Hmm. C’mere, Brock, lemme show you something." As the man walks across the concrete pathway marked with a logo of a capital "I" in black and yellow, Brock is unable to look away from the oar in the man’s hands, especially the telling scuff marks at the end of its green blade. Walking down the swaying dock, the man stops at an old wooden contraption resembling the inside of a rowboat that sits bolted to one edge. Placing the oar in a plastic guide extending from one side of the device, the man feeds the oar through until the blade rests on the translucent water. His feet resting on one end of the device, the man sits down on a small wooden seat and slides it back so that its four squeaky wheels roll all the way back up a pair of parallel metal tracks. Taking the oar handle and bringing it to his chest, the man turns to Brock.
"You see," the man continues, "height like yours really helps in rowing." While pushing the oar handle forward by straightening his arms, the man leans forward with a straight back, bends his knees, then pivots to the left to allow the bottom of the oar’s blade to drop into the water behind him. A second later, he then forces his legs down by kicking his feet against the edge of the contraption, pulling the oar smoothly through the water before leaning back and bending his arms to pop the oar out again, leaving a small round puddle drifting through the water next to the dock. "Nice and easy; it’s all about having complete control over your body and be efficient with your power," the man says in the general direction of the busboy as he repeats the motion, "Catch, send. Catch, send." Satisfied, the man stands back up. "Here, you give it a try."
Uncertain but intrigued, the busboy takes the man’s place on the device. "Good, now put your hands on the handle." The busboy obliges, gingerly attempting to imitate the man’s example. "Okay, now push the hands forward—that’s it—bend the legs—there you go—and drop the blade—" Twisting very slightly toward the water, Brock feels his body shiver from tightness as he anxiously awaits relief from his lack of flexibility. "And, kick!" In an attempt to kick as hard as his teacher, Brock is surprised to feel his legs move much faster than his arms, the oar ripping out of the water. The busboy gives a small laugh and the man smiles approvingly. "There now, try it again, but this time stay smooth so the oar stays in the water."
After proceeding through a few more tentative strokes, the two walk back out of the fog and into the lighted shed. As Brock looks over the two large racks of long, white, narrow boats resting upside-down on either side of a concrete bay, the man gives the busboy a business card reading in bold blue text, Dan Owens, Novice Rowing Coach, University of California at Irvine.
"If you’re interested, practice begins here at the boathouse this fall. I’ve been gathering some other prospective students together for next season’s crew." Brock’s eyes widen.
"This is—a college team?"
"Is there a problem?" Simultaneously excited by the opportunity but intimidated by the coach’s expression, Brock decides not to mention the details of his visit in the face of something less damaging.
"Just, well—I’ve—never even been in a sport, though; just the band."
"That’ll help with the rhythm. Getting eight guys to work together requires it."
"Absolutely. You see, there’s no experience needed in crew, just a good work ethic, toughness, and what I like to call an ‘X-factor.’" Brock looks up at the man while the day’s events flash back into his mind so vividly that he fears they are being projected for the coach to see.
"Absolutely. Anyone can have an ‘X-factor;’ it’s just an inherit passion to push yourself beyond anything imaginable. If someone has this, the strength and conditioning needed to row well will come naturally."
"S-So, even someone like me could have this ‘X-factor?’" The coach smiles.
"How about you come to our first practice and we’ll find out, okay?"
* * *
"Jeffrey," the voice from the answering machine echoes off the walls of the cavernous darkened room, "it’s Jackie. Are you there?" Sitting at his desk, Professor Ward remains hunched forward over a series of blueprints covered with eraser dust, his head in his hands. The voice on the machine increases its urgency.
"Please, please, pick up, Jeffrey, you must be there. I gained the news of what occurred at the airfield; I am so, so sorry, but talk to me, please." The man’s right arm falls limp just inches from the phone, then slides down the side of the desk until his long fingers tickle the steel handle of the third drawer down.
"It was not your fault, Jeffrey, but if you do not converse with the authorities, it is only going to get worse. They do not know about the pressure the Mayor put on you to finish before the election." Shifting his head in his left hand to look toward the now-opened drawer below, Professor Ward sifts through the legal pads in the drawer before feeling a cold metal object near the back.
"They do not know about your commitment to the city." Taking out the handgun, the professor sits up to pop out the clip and look over the eight copper casings lined up inside.
"They do not know the man I knew and talked with at USC. Your dreams, your plans, your vision." The man slams the clip back into the gun’s handle and ratchets the barrel back and forth.
"Do you not remember?" Turning the gun around, Professor Ward jams the barrel of the gun into the roof of his mouth, his tongue cringing back and forth at a similar rate to his shivering right arm. Sensing his gag impulse setting in, the man’s index finger begins to inch toward the trigger. The answering machine voice is now screaming.
"But please, Jeffrey, if you are still the man I knew, I implore you, tell them, Jeffrey, tell them these things; they will all understand, I swear it. Otherwise, they shall only continue to interest themselves in this flying rower—"
All at once, Professor Ward feels time slow down in his laboratory to the point that every word that Jackie recalls of the police’s statement sends a separate shock through his frail body. Then, the world moves once more when Professor Ward slowly removes the gun just as the voice on the answering machine winds down.
"—You be careful, Jeffrey, for me, if you can hear this, please, just be careful." When the phone clicks off, the professor merely puts the gun away and walks over to a massive object in the corner whose brown left wing protrudes out from under a dull grey sheet.
* * *
"No, no, no. Something’s wrong. Brockers wouldn’t do shit like that," Brock’s mother insists, temporarily halting the porkchop dinner. "He’s quiet, sure, but it’s stupid of him not to call, just stupid. He better not do this when he goes to college this fall, goddammit!"
"I wouldn’t blame him if he did go nuts at that high school, I’ve heard that place is a friggin’ prison camp," says Brock’s younger brother sitting her left.
"But you’re my good son, Miles, you won’t up and leave me like that, will you?" his mother asks eagerly.
"I’ll take The Fifth," Miles says flatly.
"Eat your asparagus," his mother says, shifting gears once more, "He’s probably had the crib death, I’m convinced of it, that’s why he hasn’t called. Either way, I’m still gonna beat his dog!" A tear comes down her cheek, but her eyes widen suddenly when the news strikes up.
"Oh, now, don’t say that. The police said to give it one more day and they’d scour the earth to bring him back here, that’s all we can—" her husband starts.
"Shh-shh, hey, shut up, I wanna hear this," his wife interrupts, turning up the volume on the remote control.
"Officials in Irvine are still baffled by a bizarre incident this afternoon when an out-of-control security robot was destroyed by a yet unknown third party, according to police." The report then shifts to a tape of Irvine’s chief of police issuing a statement. "At approximately a quarter past two this afternoon, the R-Bot 486 prototype, after having dropped several parked cars into Newport Harbor, exploded away from homes before it could cause any serious injuries. According to the only two witnesses who have thus far come forward, we have learned that another flying security robot, which we are currently naming ‘Rower X,’ managed to intercept and destroy the R-Bot with a large oar." The three snicker, though little does Miles know that Rower X is really his older brother Brock who flew away from home many hours ago.
"Faster than a speeding jetski—" says Miles.
"—More powerful than a current—" adds his mother.
"—Able to leap wide lakes in a single bound—" adds his father just before the phone rings, turning down the television’s volume before picking it up. "Hello?—It’s Brock!"
"Give it to me, give it to me, goddammit, give it to me!" his wife says earnestly. "Brock?"
"H-Hi, Mom, it’s me," says Brock on the other end of the line from a pay phone outside of an Irvine hotel. Choked up for a moment, his mother quickly regains her footing.
"You never call! You never do! Where the hell are you? Are you okay? Some sick fuck didn’t have his way with you, did he? ‘Cause if he did—" she asks with feelings of joy combating her frustration.
"Whoa, whoa, I’m fine, Mom, I’m fine—"
"Oh—oh, God, we feared the worst, you scared the shit out of us leaving like that!" she says before calming down, "It’s okay, it’s okay though, I’ve been taking it out on your Chihuahua. So, you’re out with your friends, yes?"
"I-I’m in Irvine."
"How the hell did you get there?"
"I—flew." Brock is unable to hold back a snicker.
"You—euh, should’ve told us! What the fuck were you thinking going out on your own like that?!"
"I–I don’t know, I—I guess I—it’s—"
"What’s it like down there?"
"What’s it like down there?"
"Uh, pretty ordinary, I guess—not many people on the weekends."
"That’s not what I heard; tell me more about this ‘Rower X’ thing?" Brock is silent.
"‘Rower X,’ the guy who flew around Irvine today."
"Aw, man, you missed it? They say this robot went apeshit in Irvine before this flying rower-bot took it out. And from the artist’s rendering, they say he had like a pink hat on and tie-dye pants and stuff; you can’t make this shit up. You keep your head up, though, they say this Professor Ward guy who designed the first robot is still at large." Brock gulps.
"Oh, don’t worry, honey, he’s not looking for you. Oh, thank God. I’m so glad to hear from you again. Now COME HOME!"
"Well, I—" All at once, a large cabin cruiser shatters into a pile of plastic, iron, and glass on the street not far away, causing a speeding sports car to slam on its brakes.
"What was that?" Brock’s mother asks. There is a pause as the busboy looks up at the sky, a dark object whirring through a break in the fog far above.
"Sorry, Mom, I’ve—gotta go," Brock says, untying his apron and throwing it on the ground, "Dinner’s burning."
"Okay, but you call us, goddammit, and you come back—Brock? Brock?"