The Enduring Mission

My entry to the 2013-2014 CBC Short Story Contest. The bad news is that it was passed over by the judges. The good news is that you may read it here!

The Enduring Mission

Being in a state of hyper-vigilance, Mitch was forced to watch every person that stepped onto the bus.  He was a stellar soldier.  He could quickly scan and assess any person in about half a second.  His motive was clear.  He knew that it was crucial to be quick when determining threat.

On this bus, in particular, there were two people he did not trust. The teenager in the hoodie, and the young woman wearing a pair of those damn wraparound sunglasses.  Why does he have to wear that hoodie when the weather is so fine? Is he hiding something?  Why does she continue to wear those sunglasses?  She should take them off when she is on the bus. People need to see her eyes. Her eyes will reveal deceit.

Today, Mitch was especially anxious.  The bus was making far too many stops, more than usual. This was worrisome. Each stop meant vulnerability.  Each stop made him more tense, so tense that a bead of sweat was now sliding down his left cheek. He would always sweat when he was nervous, and lately, especially lately, being nervous had become a habit.

Mitch didn’t normally leave his apartment. He tried to play it smart, and he didn’t put himself in such danger unless it was absolutely essential.  However, today, he had ventured out because of necessity.  He really needed to get a job, which means that he had to go to a job interview, and that meant he needed to endure a trip on public transit.

In his mind, logical processes were taking place. However, two voices seem to control the proceedings.  As the bus continued its route, winding through the streets of the city, there was a calm voice that was trying to sooth him. It was his own voice, emanating from the recesses of his mind, and it was reciting a mantra… “Relax Mitch.  There is no need to be cautious. This is Winnipeg not Afghanistan.  Relax.  Relax, and be normal again.  Live your life like a regular person. You’re not Sergeant Mitchell anymore.” 

The soothing voice worked well. His tension began to abate.

However, as Mitch noticed the bus approaching a stop filled with people, his tension began to surge anew.

Now, his soldier voice took command…

The bus lurched to a halt.  As fresh passengers began to board the bus, Mitch began to scrutinize and assess every new person.  First, an elderly woman… she looked harmless. The second person, a teenage boy…  Mitch was relieved to see that he had no backpack, as teenagers often carried.

The third person was a young boy, 10 years old, with olive skin, dark hair and eyes, carrying a soccer ball…

For a second, Mitch just stared at the boy. Then, he blinked once and his mind was suddenly dispatched, overseas…

In Afghanistan there was a young boy that would come around his platoon’s camp.  Mitch’s men loved the boy.  They treated him well, giving him food and candy.  One of the guys, a Private from Winnipeg named Paul Mendoza, even gave the boy a soccer ball. Mendoza and the kid used to kick that black and white ball around in the dirt for hours. The camp would be filled with smiles and laughter when the kid and Mendoza played together.

Then, one day the Afghani boy came around again. However, this time Mitch noticed that he wasn’t smiling and happy.  Instead, he seemed strangely anxious and nervous. In addition, the boy was wearing an unusual winter parka and he didn’t have his soccer ball, all of which seemed to be highly irregular to Mitch.

Events occurred rapidly. Mitch witnessed the boy begin to cry as he opened his parka, then reach inside and grasp at something… A DETONATOR!!! which was clearly attached to a boy-sized vest supporting two deadly Claymore mines!

Sergeant Mitchell reacted rapidly and decisively…

CRACK!

Mitch blinked once more and he was quickly returned to the bus.

Suddenly, it was like a claxon was ringing inside his head.  Mitch sensed great danger.  He wasn’t armed, and he wasn’t exactly sure what he would do, however he knew that everybody’s safety depended on his swift action. Instinctively, he jumped his feet, knowing he had to do something to protect everybody on this bus.

Then, Mitch noticed a fourth person boarding the bus… a young dark skinned man, who seemed to be accompanying the boy… it was Private Mendoza.

Abruptly, the ringing in Mitch’s head stopped. Confused, he plopped back down into his seat with a thump. Breathing hard, trembling and still sweating, he stared, slack-jawed, at Mendoza and the boy as they sat on a bench seat near the front of the bus.

As the bus pulled away from the curb, Mitch was still trying to make sense of the situation. His eyes were wild and his upper lip was twitching. Other passengers, upon noticing his wild demeanour, now began to glance in his direction with dreadful expressions. Awkwardness, permeated with strains of fear, spread down the rows of seats as even more of the other passengers now stared at Mitch.

At the front of the bus, Mendoza too began to notice the unease of the other passengers.  He looked around to see what is occurring, and to his disbelief, he saw his old Platoon Sergeant Mitchell staring directly at him. Instantly, Mendoza’s eyes light up.  He knew Mitchell lived in Winnipeg and he had always meant to look him up one day.

Mendoza smiled and spontaneously nodded a friendly hello to his old Platoon Sergeant.

Mitch did not nod back. He was too distressed and confused.  His mind was on fire, conflicted, switching gears from the past to the present.

Meanwhile, Mendoza arose from his seat, patted the boy on the shoulder, and casually walked towards Mitch. Mitch just stared at him, still slack-jawed, as Mendoza sat down on the seat right next to him.

“Sergeant Mitchell, it’s good to see you. I haven’t seen you for a long time.”

Mitch just stared. Finally, he blinked and said, “Mendoza?”

Mendoza smiled, “Sergeant Mitchell, you do remember me? Private Mendoza?”

“Yes, I remember you.  Of course I do,” Mitch confirmed with a crooked smile.

“Sergeant, I want you to meet my boy, Paul Junior.” Mendoza waved for his son to come over. The boy slowly walked back to Mitch’s seat and stood in the aisle.

“Paul Junior, I’d like you to meet Sergeant Mitchell,” said Mendoza as he placed his hand on his boy’s shoulder.

Paul Junior stuck his hand out toward Mitch. Mitch, still looking a little confused, managed to clumsily take the boy’s hand and shake it gently.

“It’s good to meet you, Paul Junior,” Mitch said.

“That’s my boy,” Mendoza said proudly. “He’s a good boy, and a great soccer player. Aren’t you Paulie?”

Paul Junior blushed and then smiled sheepishly. The boy’s shy smile actually caused Mitch to smile as well.

Mendoza looked over and patted the empty seat just across the aisle. “Paulie, why don’t you sit down here while I talk to the good Sergeant,” he instructed. The boy nodded, and quietly sat down on the empty seat.  He stared out the window and began to roll the soccer ball in his lap while he watched the city go by.

Mitch sighed.  He was more relaxed now.

Mitch nodded toward Mendoza’s son. “Do you know who he reminds me of?”

Mendoza replied, “Yes, I do know who you are thinking of.  I know…”

“I have to admit to you, just now when I saw him getting on the bus I immediately thought of that Afghani kid,” Mitch was choking up a little, as he said the word “kid”.

“Are you sure you want to talk about that?” Mendoza asked.

“I have to talk about it.” Again, Mitch choked up a bit. “I had a flashback when I saw your son.  It was all so real.”

“Really?” Paul Mendoza’s eyes opened wide in surprise, shocked by Mitch’s revelation.

“I can’t believe I did what I did to that kid back in Afghanistan,” Mitch whispered, still choking on his words and attempting not to sob out loud.

“You know you did the right thing. Don’t blame yourself,” Mendoza attempted to provide solace. “Blame the insane sons-of-bitches who strapped land mines on that innocent kid and sent him out to do their dirty work.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  But, I still just can’t stop thinking about that…” Mitch was hanging his head down and away in an attempt to hide his tears.

“You know you saved everybody’s life, don’t you know that?” Mendoza explained. “We all came back home alive because of what you had to do.”

“Yeah, I know,” Mitch was weeping now. “Everybody went home alive… everybody except that poor boy… and me.”

“You?” Mendoza asked.

“I’m still there.  I’ll always be there.”

Salamander People (Short Story)

This is the final assignment for my Creative Writing Class. It is a short story that is meant to be intriguing and very off-the-wall. I am hoping to capture the reader, and lead them through a fascinating story about someone who is having a very weird problem.

  •  *  *  *

Dana was an easy going fellow, though he was sort of a loner. He didn’t have many friends, and didn’t see his family very much. He was twenty-nine, single and his life really only revolved around his job as a computer programmer. It was a good job. He worked mostly on his own and people left him alone.

Other than these facts he was totally average. Average height, average build, average salary, and average life. Average everything.

He was a relatively happy man, up until the day Dana discovered that he didn’t like Salamanders.

It was strange at first. It seemed to happen totally by chance.

Dana noticed that sometimes he would look at a person out of the corner of his eye, kind of at a sideways glance, and he might see something very creepy. Through a sideways glance, some of the people he met would suddenly appear with a face that was amphibian, and kind of round, smooth and dark. He would see their eyes as two dark bulbous orbs and instead of ears he would see gills on each side of the head. Dana thought that they sort of looked like salamanders. In fact Dana started calling these people “Salamander People”.

He had been seeing Salamander People off and on for two months now, and frankly he was growing weary of it. He had first noticed a salamander person when he was at the grocery store. He happened to look at the check-out clerk’s face while he was simultaneously watching the scanner display and that’s when he noticed the weird effect. Of course the first time he saw this he immediately thought he was tired or just hallucinating. The next time he went back to the store he purposefully went back to the same clerk and tried to see if it happened again. It did! When he turned his head slightly and looked at the clerk sideways, Dana was surprised that he was looking at a Salamander person.

Initially, Dana was very disturbed by this phenomenon. He was immediately convinced that he was losing his sanity. Soon he began to look at everybody he met in the same sideways fashion. This made things worse for him because he saw more and more Salamander people in his daily life. The mailman, his next-door neighbor, a woman dog-walker on the street, a different woman on the bus, they were all Salamander people.

Soon Dana had nightmares about the Salamander people. It was like a horror movie. Every night the Salamander People would appear all around him and chase him through the streets. The nightmares happened every night. He was losing sleep and getting very tired.

Dana was a pretty smart guy. This disturbance was enough for him to seek professional help. That’s when he met Dr. White.

Dana told Dr. White all about his problem. Dr. White was a good listener. After a short while Dr. White recommended to Dana that he should admit himself into the Institution for further testing. Plus, Dr. White suggested to Dana that he needed a rest, and the Institution would be a good place to get the rest he needed. So, Dana took Dr. White’s advice and accepted the offer to go into the Institution.

Dana did get the rest he needed in the Institution. For starters there were no Salamander people inside the institution. This one factor alone was enough to make Dana relax and begin to analyze his situation.

While in the institution, Dr. White figured out that it was because Dana got teased about his name when he was young. Now, it was the teasing that was causing him problems in adulthood. Dana wasn’t so sure about this. He recalled that he didn’t like the teasing, but Dana was his Grandpa’s name and he was proud of it. The teasing had stopped when he became an adult and he never really thought about it until Dr. White had brought it up.

Dr. White prescribed Dana pills to deal with his anxiety. Dana wasn’t sure how he felt about taking the medication, but after taking the pills for a few days he started to feel even more relaxed and it was easy to accept the medication as something he probably needed.

Things were actually going well in the Institution. At least until a new orderly named Frank started to work there. You see, Frank the Orderly was a Salamander person.

Prior to Frank the Orderly’s arrival, Dana was starting to think that all the rest, the talking with Dr. White and the medication was solving his problem. But, sure as heck, Dana was now seeing Frank the Orderly as a Salamander person.

Whenever he saw Frank the Orderly, Dana became upset. Soon, when Frank the Orderly came around, Dana would run away and hide. In fact Dana started avoiding Frank the Orderly so much it became obvious to some of the other patients.

Michael was one of the other patients that noticed Dana’s fear of Frank the Orderly. Michael quickly took Dana aside and told him that he too was afraid of Frank the Orderly. Dana did not initially believe Michael. He really didn’t trust him very well. However Dana listened intently as Michael explained in detail that Michael thought Frank the Orderly was likely either a shape-shifter or an alien. Michael admitted that he wasn’t really sure exactly which Frank was, he was just sure that Frank the Orderly was something bad.

Dana thought that this explanation was silly. He looked at Michael, and thought to himself that Michael was truly someone who belonged in the Institution.

One of the things that Michael told Dana was that shape-shifters often had some sort of trigger that robbed them of their powers. Sometimes this trigger could be a bell, a siren, a whistle or even a song. The notion of this intrigued Dana a bit, even though he really thought that Michael was probably full of crap.

Dana continued to avoid Frank the Orderly over the next few days. In fact he was avoiding everyone, Michael included.

It was a few days later that something very interesting happened. Dana noticed that when a certain song was playing on the radio, Frank the Orderly was caused to run out of the room in a huge panicked rush.

The song was Happy Anniversary Baby by the Little River Band.

Dana decided to experiment with this new information. He loaded that particular song in his iPod and he played it on continuous repeat. In fact the song played so much the chorus:

Happy Anniversary baby, got you on my mind…
Happy Anniversary baby, got you on my mi…iiiii…iiii….nd…

…was burned into his memory. However Dana was tickled pink to see that Frank the Orderly never came near him while the song was playing in his iPod.

Things were now on an even keel. Dana was happy. In fact, when Dr. White saw how content Dana was, he was convinced that Dana was getting close to recovery.

Dr. White thought Dana would be okay outside the institution, just as long as he had a job, kept busy and continued to take his medication. Dana agreed. It took him a few weeks but he was lucky to return to a job as a computer programmer. It was a good place to work, and he worked mostly on his own and people left him alone.

The only problem with the job was Dana soon noticed that his supervisor was a Salamander person.

It was on the very first day of work when Dana noticed the boss Mr. Wicker’s salamander-like appearance out of the corner of his eye. Dana was shocked by Mr. Wicker’s oddly mottled salamander skin and especially bulbous black eyes. He was even more grotesque than other Salamander People Dana had encountered.

But Dana did not want to lose his job and he didn’t want to go back to the institution. He tried to keep things on an even keel. He tried not to glance at Mr. Wicker. But soon he found that he couldn’t help it.

Dana decided to try wearing his iPod around the office with the song Happy Anniversary Baby by the Little River Band. The results were immediate. Mr. Wicker would always stay at a distance from Dana.

For several weeks Dana wore the iPod around the office. It was funny because Mr. Wicker would talk to other employees, but he would only communicate with Dana through email.

This was okay for Dana. Things were on an even keel again. Dana recalled what Dr. White had instructed him to do. He had to manage his anxiety. Dana felt that he was managing the problem and doing well, just as long as the iPod and Happy Anniversary Baby by the Little River Band was doing its job. After all, it was a good place to work, he worked mostly on his own and people left him alone.

Then, one day, the iPod broke.

These devices are usually reliable, but not this one. For some reason it suddenly stopped working.

As soon as the song Happy Anniversary Baby by the Little River Band stopped, Dana looked up and he saw Mr. Wicker approaching him from across the office. In fact Mr. Wicker was coming directly towards him.
Dana panicked. He fumbled with the iPod to try to get Happy Anniversary Baby by the Little River Band to play again, but to no avail. He tried looking the other way but he just had to glance back and he saw that Mr. Wicker was still coming directly toward him. In his panic he was thinking, things are not on an even keel anymore, this was such a good place to work, people left me alone! He became flustered as he fumbled with the iPod. What is wrong with this thing? Where is the damn music?!

Then he peered out of the corner of his eye and saw Mr. Wicker standing right in front of him. Dana saw Mr. Wicker as a Salamander Person, and one of the ugliest, bizarre looking Salamander persons that Dana ever saw. His bulbous jet-black eyes reflected the glint off the fluorescent lights.

Dana was shaking and uncomfortable.

Mr. Wicker said, “Dana, I want to see you in my office.”

Dana could not overcome his anxiety. With two hands, he lifted his keyboard off his desk, wound up and pummeled Mr. Wicker with the keyboard on the side of the head, with as much force as he could muster.

Mr. Wicker fell to the floor like a bag of mud. Dana looked directly at him and saw his boss Mr. Wicker not as a Salamander person, but as a regular person. A regular person that he had assaulted, and was now out cold and lying on the office floor.

The rest of the incident was a blur to Dana. His co-workers began to perform first aid on Mr. Wicker, and it only seemed like seconds before building security arrived to whisk him away to a separate location, away from the scene of the crime. Dana knew what was going to happen next. Likely he would go back to the Institution. He knew that Dr. White was going to be disappointed in him.

Dana was in the hands of building security when paramedics arrived to help Mr. Wicker. They quickly assessed the situation. Mr. Wicker was breathing and his vital signs were normal, but he was still out cold. They quickly loaded his lifeless body on a gurney and wheeled him into the elevator for a trip down to the lobby. A few minutes later they were outside the building and sliding the gurney into the back of the ambulance.

A police car pulled up, its siren was wailing loudly.

Mr. Wicker let out a gurgling groan. This caused the lead paramedic to lean over the patient to assess the situation.

“Holy crap”, he said. “What the heck is this?”

Both paramedics looked down at Mr. Wicker. They saw one of the most bizarre things they had ever witnessed. The patient now suddenly appeared with a face that was amphibian looking, kind of round and smooth, mottled and dark. They could see gills on each side of his head and his bulbous jet-black eyes reflected the glint from the flashing lights of the police car.