Issue #90

Spring 2024

Camping on the River of Blood and The Chaos Builders

by Kurt Newton

Camping on the River of Blood

Every year it's the same. We pull our motor home into the slot, connect the water and sewage lines, then pour ourselves a stiff one over ice and sit.

"Is that it?" I asked one night, beneath the same old stars, the river a smooth, black, slow-moving body of water that hasn't seen a ripple or offered a croak or quack since I don't know when.

"What do you want? We're on vacation!" my wife trumpets.

"Vacation from what? Life?"

She gives me that look. She stares at the river for a moment. Spotlights illuminate the water's edge, and reflect off its mirror-like surface. At night, it appears as if there are stars twinkling in its inky depths. It's like watching snow fall, or a house burn. She turns to face me. "Okay. Tell me what you want to do?"

It's a test, I know it. She does this from time to time, one eye squinting like a professor calling a lazy student's bluff.

I stare at the river. It makes no sound, and yet it moves. "Let's go swimming," I say with a smile.

She sits back as if struck. "You know we can't do that. They say specifically we're not supposed to go into the water."

"We're not supposed to litter or make loud noises, but we do. They do." I gesture in the direction of our neighbors, who have arrived in similar motor homes, and sit with similar drinks in their hands along the grassy lip of the river, staring into its opaque depths. "I'm going. You coming?"

Surprisingly, my wife is speechless. She watches me stand and peel off my Hawaiian shirt. I drop my Bermuda shorts and begin walking toward the river in my not-so-tighty-whities.

"Bill! Get back here! Everyone's watching!" No matter how hushed my wife tries to speak, it comes out shrill.

She gets up. I've left her no choice but to chase after me. I enter the water. It's cold. The cold is soothing, numbing. A few more feet and I feel my legs disappear. My arms float atop the surface of the water as I slowly drift away.

My wife stands at the river's edge, hands on her hips. I can see in her expression the anger, the hurt. But I also see relief.

I want to tell her "It's okay" but the water's temperature has numbed my vocal cords. I feel a distant buffeting, as if my body has encountered a series of small obstacles.

In a matter of moments, it feels as if a great weight has been lifted, removed.

I slip under and see more than I ever expected.

***

The Chaos Builders

Geoff typed in the previous set of six numbers. The random generator spun like an old-fashioned tumbler (except pixelated), a new sequence of numbers appearing one by one. The program chimed when the last number was selected, in case Geoff was away from his station and yet still within earshot, which was seldom. His job required a multitude of regulated actions, each equally important. Timing was everything, from the moment he sat, to the correct keystrokes, to the moment he engaged the pull knobs on the four-foot-by-four-foot board in front of him. At least, this is what he was told. During his interview he had asked: What about mistakes? A shrug. Mistakes were bound to happen. There would be consequences, inquiries, but, in the end, the random nature of the mistake could easily be disavowed.

When Geoff went home at night to his apartment, the evening news showed all manner of catastrophes and atrocities. Some of it appeared random, some of it not. He ate precooked dinners and tried not to guess. Mornings brought the same routine: shower, shave, off to work, basement garage, key card entry, long narrow hallway, small room, dark except for the keypad, the view screen, and the array of one thousand numbered pull-knobs.

Geoff reached up and pulled the knobs that correlated with the new sequence of numbers. When the last number was pulled, he waited for another chime to sound. When it did, he pushed the knobs back into place, then entered the sequence into the random generator, which spun until a new set of numbers were chosen.

This went on throughout the day, day in and day out, week after week, until one day something in Geoff's brain decided it could no longer comply. Repeated repetition was the death of organic thinking. The brain knew better even if the brain's host did not. At first, Geoff pulled the knobs in sequence except for two of the numbers, which he transposed. The chime still sounded but the tone was slightly different. On the next set of randomly-generated numbers, Geoff rearranged three of the numbers when pulling the knobs. This time the chime sounded slightly shrill. Then the phone rang. Geoff didn't even realize there was a phone in the room as it had never rung before. Geoff ignored it. On the next set numbers, Geoff pulled four of the knobs out of sequence. The chime sounded like a fog horn. There came pounding sounds outside the door to his office. Geoff had barricaded it with a chair wedged beneath the handle at the outset. On the final set of numbers, Geoff pulled all of the knobs out of sequence. The chime produced an ominous air raid sound. There came a rumble beneath his feet. Geoff sat on the floor and ate his lunch as the walls around him began to crumble.

Author Bio

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Kurt Newton's short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, The Fabulist, and The Dark. His Five Stories appeared in Issue #76 of The Cafe Irreal.