Tag Archives: alternate reality

The Immutable Mr. Jenkers


Chuck’s challenge for the week: The Opening Line challenge. I took a few weeks off from the flash fiction game, but it’s time to saddle up again. The task at hand: choose an opening line from another author and build it into a 2000-words-or-less story.

I took a line from a guy calling himself Nicholas. The first line is his. The rest is all me.

The Immutable Mr. Jenkers

The 3rd time I killed Mr. Jenkers I knew i had a problem.

Not because he came back to life. That happens all the time. Once is rarely enough when you start talking about quantum murder. Sorta like fixing a wobbly chair. You shave a few millimeters off one leg, then it’s wobbling the other way. Go back and try again. Or like swatting cockroaches. Sure, you get that one, but there’s a thousand just like him in the walls just waiting to pop out. That’s why there aren’t too many guys working solo like me anymore. Murder’s one thing, but that’s one universe, one reality. You want somebody well and truly wiped out, it takes legwork. Timelines have to be rewritten, sometimes memories have to be wiped, hell, I once had to take a two-hundred-year detour to make sure this one woman didn’t date any men from India, so that her descendant’s bloodline could be clean enough for her to marry into a rich family. People ask for the craziest things. And I’ve been back and forth across time so often, sometimes it feels like I’m older than the dirt itself.

Certainly felt like that after Jenkers. Who hires a hitman for a cat, I should have asked. Why not just, you know, stop feeding him, or drop him off across town. But it’s a hard thing to say no to a hundred thousand credits. And besides, how hard could it be?

I should’ve asked around before I took the job. I did, after the fifth try. Turns out, this cat’s been around for over three millenia, and maybe longer — they just don’t have good records going back past ancient Egypt. And no, I’m not making that up. Best I can make out, there have been over 800 documented attempts on the life of this particular feline; most of them successful. But like a bubble under a static sticker, you squish it down, it just pops up somewhere else.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The owner’s this sweet old lady. ‘Bout 60 or so. All white hair, glasses on a chain, looks like a librarian except for the dark circles under her eyes and the smell like she hasn’t bathed in a few months. And she wants Mr. Jenkers whacked. “Do it humanely,” she asks. On account of she still loves him, despite the fact that she’s pretty sure he’s eroding her sanity. Those were her words. “He never sleeps,” she says. “He just watches me all the time. Like he’s accusing me of something. Like I had tried to kill him and he knew all about it.”

I know, right? She didn’t get the irony, and I guess that’s fair. I didn’t get it right away either, but of course she was trying to kill him, and he absolutely knew about it.

I’m getting ahead of myself again. It’s a hazard of the job.

Protocol says you always go the straightforward route on the first try, because you never know when once will do the trick. So — that afternoon, picked up a cat carrier, came by Harriet’s place (her name is — was — Harriet). Jenkers in the carrier along with a couple of bricks, and into the river he goes.

Next morning, he’s back. I fire up the ReClocker and arrive at her house a day earlier. No frills, just a hammer to the back of his head. Get back to Now, the cat’s still there. I try this a few different ways, go back a few years on the cat, come to find out she adopted him fully-grown from a shelter. So I go back further. Try to kill him every time, naturally, but sure as the sun, there he is every time I go back to Now. Trace him back to another family. Two kids, picket fence, and this psycho-eyed cat. Thing is, though, I’ve gone back five years now, and the cat looks exactly the same. Killed it over a hundred times, now, and every time, he’s back. Mr. Jenkers. Orange stripes, big chunk missing from his ear, eyes sparkling like black diamonds. And now, Harriet’s words are in my head, and I feel like when he looks at me — in the past, you know, not in the Now — he knows what I’m doing.

I go back ten years, and there’s Jenkers. Same as ever. I go twenty years back. Same old Jenkers, same old scar on his ear, same evil eyes. He’s living with some World War 2 vet, and I can’t bring myself to kill him in that timeline, so I go back even further. Thirty years. Then fifty.

When you first suit up in this line of work they tell you not to go getting crazy notions in your head about drastically altering the flow of history. Can’t go back and wipe out Hitler, for example — something’s broken on that guy’s reality and he always comes back. Can’t scrub out Mussolini, or Pol Pot, or Rasputin, or any of those guys that the history geeks would really like a crack at, right? Thing is, those guys — and I’ve gone back and messed with them, who wouldn’t? — they at least exist in a normal timeline. They’re born, they turn into big world-altering jerks, they die. And you can’t erase them from the Stream, but at least they’re just little contained pockets of horror and atrocity.

But not Jenkers.

This thing is beyond anything I’ve ever seen, beyond anything the Bureau’s ever seen, and maybe beyond anything the universe has ever seen. You go back to the Renaissance, Jenkers is there scratching at the edges of a Botticelli painting. Go back to the Middle Ages and Jenkers is chasing plagued rats down alleys. Ancient Egypt, like I said, was a good time for the old boy — they worshipped cats back then, you know, and with his eyes like eternity, well. You think cats get spoiled now when they end up with somebody like Miss Harriet, it’s nothing on Egypt in the pyramid days. He had his own entourage.

Suffice it to say, as far back as we can go — and we can go pretty damn far — I can’t find an origination point for this cat. For all I know, he’s existed since life first crawled up out of the swamps. He can’t be killed. Can’t be erased. Can’t be unmade. He’s like a scar in the fabric of the universe.

So what else could I do?

I adopted him from Miss Harriet. Took him back to my house. Bought a bunch of toys, you know, feathers on strings, little jingly balls. Found this guy on the internet who sells catnip by the pallet — god knows Jenkers will go through all of it.

It was unnerving at first, coming home every night to those empty black eyes staring at me like death itself. But he grows on you after a while. I always laughed when people said their cats had personality, but Jenkers… he’s got a sense of humor. Like, he’ll run under my feet when I’m coming downstairs in the morning. As if he were trying to kill me, to get back for the thousands of times I killed him. But it’s all in good fun. Late at night, he sleeps on my feet. When I’m reading, he’ll nose under the book and demand to be petted, with that one floppy, chewed-up ear.

I still kill him at least once a week. Just to see what happens.

But he always comes back. Dependable as the Sunday paper. Watching me with those eyes like midnight at the bottom of the ocean.


The Equal Amateur


A Random Title Challenge from Chuck this week.  In keeping with my last several posts, I thought long and hard about how to attack this prompt, and then realized that the right way was literally right under my nose.

Here, then, is The Equal Amateur, a tale of a cold and heartless world where all your efforts and learning and experience don’t mean sharknado next to the bright and talented young upstart.

 

The Equal Amateur

“Son of a bitch,” Nick thinks, casting a subversive eye at the lump of protoplasm squirming in the holding unit at the far end of the cell.  “What’s happening here?”

It’s swatting at imaginary flies now, but that always precedes the screaming.  Sure enough, after just a few moments of flailing its stubby suggestions of arms (they look more like tiny, squishy marshmallows conglomerated on sticks to Nick), the lump begins to wail, a wordless, plaintive cry that somehow seems to permeate his consciousness.  He sets down his brightly colored blue plastic floor-smasher and stares at her.  He almost sighs and shakes his head, but he hasn’t yet learned the significance of such a gesture.  “It’ll never work, kid.  Words.  Words are the future.”

But even as he thinks it, one of the Keepers hops up from the sitting apparatus and hurries — practically sprints — to the lump, scoops it up in loving arms, and begins to babble incoherent speech at it in a tone Nick sort of remembers in his own unfinished cortex.  A tone of soothing, of comforting.  Nick’s mouth hangs open and he stares, astounded, furious, perplexed.  “I’ve got to throw myself on the ground outside — get all that painful red smeary stuff on my parts — to get that kind of attention.  And the lump just has to whine a little bit?”

Time was, Nick reflects, that seniority spoke for something around here.  When he could get the Keepers’ attention with just a cock of his head or an insignificant, purposeless spasm of his fingers.  He’s put in the time learning their language, learning where the food is kept, learning which of the animals can be safely ridden and which scream and yowl when touched.  Now all the Keepers seem concerned with is shoving a variety of foodstuffs under his nose or into his hands, removing the smelly brown goop from his privates when it inexplicably shows up, and making sure he sleeps more than he would particularly care to.  Sure, they laugh and clap when he manages to pronounce some new word in their alien tongue, but their joy is fleeting and quickly forgotten.

Then there’s the lump.  The lump has been in the detention center for only a few days, but has already started throwing her weight around.  For some reason Nick can’t wrap his tiny cranium around, the Keepers respond to every twitch, every whimper, every little thing the lump does with a care and affection and concern he’s not known since he can remember, although to be fair, the rapid expansion of his brain and the constant barrage of new interesting information — new things to ingest, new words to try out, new colored sticks to rub against the walls to mark the period of his imprisonment — doesn’t leave a lot of room for memory and reflection.  Still, it seems unjust.  He’s put in two years with the Keepers, knows their routines, knows how to get a rise out of them, knows how to get them to leave him alone.  Knows that if he ululates at just the right frequency, he can get the male’s eye to twitch, and then he can get anything he can find the word to ask for.  Unfortunately for him, he only knows words like “popsicle” and “string cheese” and has not yet learned the words for “existential fulfillment” or “the sweet relaxing freedom of a nap among the daffodils.”  Knows that if he pretends to be hurt, the female will hug him and squeeze him and tell him that she loves him, and then it’s time to ask for more popsicles.

No, the lump doesn’t even have to ask and they’re showering her with clean dressings.  The lump needs only twitch and they pick her up and bundle her close.  Should the lump begin to cry, they lock down the unit and find a way to make her happy, even going so far as to put her in the Swing.  The thought makes Nick’s blood boil.  He doesn’t fit in the Swing anymore, and they haven’t shown any signs of getting one that fits him.  Funding, probably, or maybe they just don’t care.  He’s tried to sneak into it anyway but the Keepers shout at him and threaten him with solitary confinement: the dreaded “Time Out.”   Much though he loathes them, is frustrated by them, attempts to find ways to skirt their authority, the thought of their separation is more than he can bear. He shudders and bites back the bubble of indignant anger that chokes his throat.

The lump has quieted.  The female Keeper puts her back into the holding unit and returns to her vantage point, failing to acknowledge Nick at all but for glancing in his direction to make sure she doesn’t step on him.  He wistfully holds up a crayon to her, willing her to understand his plaintive desire to tell his story, to connect with another like him, to step outside and taste the freedom and run in circles until his tiny legs can no longer support him.  “That’s a good crayon, Nicky.”  The male keeper is falling asleep at his post.  Typical.

Then it dawns on him.  Maybe it’s not that the Keepers don’t love him anymore.  Maybe the lump is just better adapted for the world than he is, for all his practice.  Equal to him, perhaps, without the cumbersome training.  He watches her with suspicious eyes.  Is there something to learn from her?  Fewer words, more inarticulate screaming?  Less intelligent manipulation of the environment, more flailing and stomping and smashing?  It’s a disquieting thought that all he’s learned can be overthrown by one tiny little infant, but it’s hard to argue with the results.  With dawning terror, he realizes that he has a lot to learn from the lump.


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