Tag Archives: Baseball

The Sky Below (Chapter Eight)

Well the production schedule is back on track. Today we check in with our baseball players in the aftermath of losing one of their number, and Bethany and Claudia go out of the donut shop and into the fire.

You can download the full eBook (Chapters 1-8) in Kindle, EPUB and PDF formats. Or you can go to the book’s landing page here.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Eddie looked down at the dead young man and felt nothing. His act had been merciful, a hastening of the inevitable. And if not merciful, it had at least been just. Franklin still lay in a bloody heap behind Eddie, his blood and brain matter plastered all over the back wall. This young man had shot his teammate. It didn’t really matter if he’d meant to do it, or if Franklin had goaded him into it, the young man had taken a life and so his was forfeit. Accounts were kept short at the end of the world.

If Eddie felt anything it was anger, but not toward the young man at his feet. Conesta had been the one to deliver the truly fatal blow. Rather than face his actions and take some share of the responsibility for what to do next, Conesta was curled up in a far corner of the concession stand, rocking back and forth with his head in his hands.

Stankowsky wasn’t acting much better. He hadn’t curled into a ball, but only because his body was frozen in place. His arm had been limp when Eddie dressed it, and now hung uselessly at Stan’s side. Eddie knew the wound hadn’t been that bad; Stan’s arm worked. But Stankowsky didn’t seem to think he had any use for it. He just kept staring at nothing, trapped several inches deep behind his eyes.

These two men had seen the lives of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, all snuffed out in an instant. What did one more matter?

Eddie shook his head. He couldn’t believe the way he was thinking. He wondered if they all could see it on his face. Was that why Manny wouldn’t look at him?

“What are we going to do with the bodies?”

The question had come from Belanchek. He’d been crouched next to Conesta trying to get him up, and had given that up to walk over to Eddie.

“Nothing we can do. We leave them,” Eddie answered flatly. His dead tone snapped Conesta out of his daze.

“What the hell, Eddie? What if that was you lying there?”

“I’d expect you to leave me too,” Eddie replied.

“You heartless…” Conesta had gone from being withdrawn to being on the verge of tears in a matter of seconds. Eddie hadn’t really realized before just how young Conesta was. He was maybe five or six years older than the kid.

“Hell of a time to be talking like that,” Eddie continued. “You and Stan didn’t seem to mind turning this kid into a human piñata. And don’t pretend that any of you would have gotten too sentimental over me if I’d been the one to buy it instead of Franklin.”

Conesta seemed about to protest, but instead looked down at his feet.

“What would you have us do, anyway? Do we drag Franklin and this kid back to the stands and toss them into the sky? We can’t bury them, and we can’t hide them. This stadium is a tomb, and we’re grave robbers trying to grab whatever we can before this place comes down around our heads. Franklin understood that much at least.”

Conesta had shut down, and Stankowsky just kept staring blindly forward. Eddie could feel Manny’s stare without turning around, but he suspected, hoped, even Manny knew he was right.

All of a sudden Belanchek got a wicked grin. “You’re wrong, Eddie. Franklin wouldn’t have left you. He probably would have eaten you.”

Eddie raised an eyebrow, “Excuse me?”

“Better WE eat you than somebody else,” Belanchek replied. “Meat’s not going to be easy to come by.”

Eddie chuckled, “When did you get such a sick mind, Bellie?”

“I’ve always had a sick mind; I just kept it to myself. And it’s Bella, not ‘Bellie’. Y’know, like Bella donna.”

“You’d rather we called you a beautiful woman?” Manny asked.

Belanchek shrugged, “Better than being called a stomach or a tiny bell.”

They all laughed. Eddie should have felt terrible, yet if felt good to get some kind of a release. If he couldn’t laugh he’d become bitter like Franklin, or broken like Stankowsky and Conesta.

He turned to Stankowsky and clapped him on the shoulder. Stan’s eyes refocused abruptly, like a room full of static resolving into a single note. “You okay?” Eddie asked.

Stankowsky swallowed. “Yeah,” He said hoarsely. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The ramps to the skybox seats were about fifty feet out and around from where they were. They had a gun but they were already down six bullets, and they still had little in the way of water or medical supplies. For those things they’d need to go down before they could climb up to whatever safety the sewers offered.

The ramp was smooth cement, lined on either side by tight meshes of rubber coated squares. Long electrical line pipes ran down the middle, broken up by evenly spaced bulbs in cages. The floor above them was rougher, designed for the slow shuffling of hundreds of pairs of feet on their way to the upper decks before making the rest of the schlep up to the nosebleed seats.

Eddie was surprised at how reluctant he was to take that first step down. They’d all felt relatively safe nestled in the cement hallways of the stadium, which looked largely the same right-side up as down. But now Eddie was convinced the floor could crack at any moment. Despite the ramp’s gentle slope, he took every step cautiously with both arms outstretched, and the rest of the team followed his example.

They climbed down three levels before Eddie suggested they take a break, stepping off the ramp and back into the catacombs of the stadium. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he leaned against a wall to try to focus on something solid. His mind was creating all sorts of nightmare scenarios. His hands were tingling, and he told himself it was just his own blood rushing through his palm and not the building beginning its death throes. What if he was right about this being a tomb, their tomb?

Belanchek shouted, and Eddie’s eyes snapped open. Even though they were only a few levels down, the distance between the ramp and the seats was a lot smaller, and he found Belanchek standing right on the edge looking out. Eddie walked up beside him and Belanchek turned, a rueful smile on his face.

“Wives, girlfriends and mistresses,” He muttered, shaking his head back and forth.

“What?” Eddie asked.

“Down there’s the complimentary seats. Y’know, for our families. We couldn’t see them from the dugout, never even saw them go.”

Eddie frowned. He’d given his seat to a woman he’d been dating for three weeks, one of the few moves he had left to impress anyone. And for the life of him, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember her name.

* * *

The service hallway was dark, the only light cast by the exit signs in dim red flickering cones. Several 50 gallon trash cans had toppled over, spilling garbage everywhere. Each step brought another new sound and another unpleasant sensation on Bethany’s stocking feet. She’d left her shoes behind in the donut shop. Heels weren’t very good for climbing, but they were better than bare feet for stepping on half-eaten pizza. Claudia gave Bethany’s hand a reassuring squeeze as they moved slowly down the hallway. Her hands were smooth and felt like they had a permanent thin layer of flour from hundreds of hours of baking.

The service stairwell was about 100 feet down the corridor, but it felt like it had taken hours to reach it. Bethany turned back to look at the small circle of light at the other end of the hall. She told herself that no one could see them even if they were looking, but she wasn’t so sure. Claudia, meanwhile, was examining the double doors to the stairwell before letting out a snort in disgust.

“Locked,” Claudia vented. “We can’t go back out there and look for one of the maintenance guys with those maniacs running around.”

Bethany replied calmly, “It’s alright; let me give it a try.”

“You hiding a crowbar under that skirt?” Claudia whispered, her voice tense and coming out in bursts.

“Not exactly,” Bethany said as she produced two small pieces of metal. The first was slightly curved and flexible, the other firmer and straighter. “Never had to do this upside-down before, but I think the concept should be pretty much the same.”

Bethany inserted the thin piece into the lock, and started probing gently. Claudia’s face was a mixture of surprise and amusement. “That something they teach all lawyers?”

Bethany shook her head, “It’s something you’re expected to know before you go to law school. I learned from my mom, actually, or rather from her keeping a lock on the liquor cabinet. A determined teenager with an afternoon to kill can accomplish wonders in the face of such adversity.”

She smiled as she remembered Grace taking the brute force approach, pulling on the lock until her hands were sore and sweaty. Bethany on the other hand, had been calm and methodical, and had the lock open in less than ten minutes with a couple of hairpins. The memory of what happened afterward was largely obliterated by the quantity of gin consumed, though she did remember her father trying to hold back both of their hair as one threw up in the bathtub and the other in the toilet.

A satisfying thunk indicated success. She pushed the door open triumphantly, only to take in a sharp breath of air as she looked down.

“That’s not a skylight down there, is it?” Bethany whispered.

Claudia looked over cautiously, “I don’t think they build skylights in maintenance stairwells.”

Bethany looked down, speaking almost absently. “Either the stairs are going to fall out from beneath our feet, or they won’t.”

Claudia frowned, her mouth pulling to the left in consideration, “I guess you’re right. Lawyers first.”

Bethany took a deep breath and sat down on the door jam. The ceiling was low in this part of the building so from a sitting position all she had to do was hop down about a foot. The cement was slick and she almost lost her balance when she hit the ground, but Claudia steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. When Bethany was sure of her footing she stepped to the right, leaned on the wall for support, and put out an arm to catch Claudia as she jumped down.

The floor was definitely moving. One of Bethany’s first temp jobs had been on the second floor of an office building. There was a passageway next to her cubicle and every few minutes when someone walked by, her monitor, the desk and the floor moved ever so slightly. By lunch her stomach was often queasy from all of the low-level earthquakes. This floor felt like a hundred people were running a marathon down that passageway.

She took a tentative step toward the stairs, then stepped back as she nearly lost her balance again. The stockings weren’t going to cut it. She’d never much liked going barefoot as a child, but even she could admit the evolutionary advantage bare feet gave her over slick nylon. She hiked her skirt up around her thighs and tried pushing the material down. She hadn’t realized until that moment how much she’d been sweating, and the nylons were stuck to her like a second skin.

Claudia let out another grunt of disgust and without any warning stuck one of her long fingernails about an inch down Bethany’s thigh. She pointed her finger outward and pulled, the sharp nail tearing a hole about the size of a quarter. She took both hands and tore downward till the material split at Bethany’s foot. Another tug upward and she tossed the stocking unceremoniously down the center of the stairwell.

“Bet Jared wishes he could see us now,” Claudia smirked as she worked on the second nylon.

Still a little surprised, but grateful to be free from the clingy and slick material, Bethany flexed her toes and felt the cool metal and cement beneath her feet. The climb was much easier, her foot almost sticking to the stair with each step.

“Can I ask you something?” Claudia said as they climbed onto the next landing.

Bethany chuckled, doubting an answer of no would actually stop this woman. “Sure.”

“Why donuts? I mean, you don’t exactly have the figure of someone who eats the food of the common man.”

Bethany smiled, “Just something my dad and I used to do when I was a kid. He worked long hours, 12-14 hour shifts to be able to provide for all of us. He’d get off work at one in the morning on a Friday, and be waking me up around 5am to go with him for a donut and coffee. He should have been exhausted, but he was always so excited for the opportunity to spend time with his girls. We’d sit in the donut shop and talk for hours, watching the sun come up.”

“That’s nice. All my dad ever did was sit on the couch in front of SportsCenter. My mom used to say that keeping a constant vigil wasn’t going to give the Browns a Super Bowl.”

“Or the Cavs a national title. I wonder if King LeBron is happy he came back,” Bethany said.

“Miami has too many open spaces. He’d have been a goner for sure,” Claudia answered.

Claudia and Bethany were nearly out of breath by the time they reached the top of the stairs. Bethany leaned against the wall for a moment, taking in air in big gulps before pushing tentatively on the double doors. To her surprise, the doors swung wide open, and she fell forward on her face.

Looking up she could see thick black boots mostly hidden underneath baggy jeans. A young man in his teens with a buzz cut and scraggly facial hair gave her a toothy grin. Flanking him on either side were two equally unappealing characters. One had a noticeable red stain over the whole front of his shirt, and the other was running his hands up and down a baseball bat like he was trying to rub it out.

“Well,” the young man said softly, crouching down so he could meet Bethany’s gaze directly. “What do we have here?”

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Is Software Ethical?

CORRECTION: This was a WOSU (my home station) story, not an NPR story. I will direct my complaints in the appropriate direction. Here’s a link to the WOSU audio. Original post follows.

I heard a comment on WOSU this morning that really kinda pissed me off.

* GETS ON SOAPBOX *

* PUTS ON NERD GLASSES *

The comment was the button at the end of a story about software being used to write articles for the Associated Press and other news organizations (mostly for sports and financial stories and other statistics heavy articles). The question was asked: Can robots have morals or ethics in writing news stories?

Answer. No. Robots cannot have any ethics or morals. Morals are a human thing.

Here’s what annoyed me about this answer.

1) Robots: The term robot or “bot” has been colloquially used to refer to any automated process, whether it was ChatBots from the old IM days, or algorithms like this one. As an engineer “robot” has always seemed like a misleading term because it conjures a lot of images in people that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Robots are hardware, we’re really talking about software, and if we want to get technical, we’re talking about intelligent systems.

Intelligent systems are not AI or at least not in the sense that the general public would think of AI. Intelligent systems take a lot of forms, but basically they take in data and respond with a diagnosis, a solution, or a news story. What distinguishes Intelligent Systems from AI is that they’re not generalized. An Intelligent System can be complex, but it is essentially a bunch of algorithms designed to tackle one kind of problem, in this case, how to write informative, brief, and factually accurate news stories.

2) Ethics: To say that software doesn’t have ethics is like saying that a book doesn’t. Software is another form of human expression. It is written by a human (hey, like me), the requirements for what the software should do are all determined by humans, and it is evaluated by humans.

What are ethics anyway? Well in this case our interviewee was referring to a code of journalistic conduct, where the important morals are objectivity, lack of prejudice, and a basic understanding of what humans find important or insensitive.

The specific example discussed was a baseball game in which a pitcher pitched the first no-hitter game for a team in over a decade. The software wrote an article that had this information in the second paragraph. To me, that just sounds like a bad case statement, not an unethical or insensitive piece of software. The human writing the software needs to write code to look for instances we find significant (no-hitters) and what increases their significance (time since last no-hitter). If it crosses a certain threshold, it goes in paragraph one. Easy.

robot

Image Source: Yahoo Sports

 

How are ethics and morals implemented in software? Complex mathematical algorithms and/or a bunch of if-then statements.

Good intelligent systems are able to start from a set of rules, and modify (learn) new rules by doing. If there’s human feedback on the articles produced (or if there’s some other acceptable metric that can be tracked through a website: traffic, comments) software can determine what outputs worked better than others.

It’s an old joke among software engineers that “software can do anything”. It’s not true, except everybody thinks it is and so we have to figure out a way to make it true. But to me, a code of journalistic ethics sounds a lot like a requirements document. A good engineer will figure out a way to take that code, and write those evaluations into decisions the software makes. He or she has ethics, therefore the software does, or at least has morals implemented.

One last thing: Software might actually be better at getting rid of institutional prejudice based on age, gender, skin-color, etc. Even the best of us as humans have to get over how we thought about things before. We have to decide we’re not going make decisions about what we write based on any of those factors and we still might have underlying prejudices we can’t even acknowledge. In software, you just take those evaluations out. They’re gone forever. Software can be truly impartial.

Next time you’re doing a story like this one, get an engineer in the discussion. Don’t just ask a writer. We’re easily frightened.

And lose the term “robots”.

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The Sky Below (Chapter Six)

Well, it’s been a few weeks but the new chapter is finally here. If you’re wondering what the heck this story is all about, you can start from the beginning here, or download the whole book including the new chapter here. As always you can get to the main landing page for this book by clicking the cover on the right, or by clicking here.

WARNING: This chapter contains some offensive language and violence. For more information see last week’s post.

Can’t remember what last happened with our baseball player or the good reverend? Check out the second half of Chapter 3 for where we left Reverend Marcado, and check in with Eddie in Chapter 4.

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CHAPTER SIX

The basement was hardly as Reverend Marcado remembered it, to the point he hadn’t been entirely sure it was there. Though he was at the church daily, most of his time was spent either in the sanctuary or his office. The AA meetings he attended once a week used to meet down there, but that was at least a decade before his time. This particular church basement was like any other, relics of decades of church plays scattered amongst old choir robes and stacks of retired hymnals and Bibles, all covered in a thin layer of dust. The unceremonious flipping of ceiling and floor had littered their path with all sorts of random fabric, torn pages, and broken props.

He had no idea where he should go next. The basement was a labyrinth, as most church basements are. Somewhere would be a service closet that should have the sewer access that was their next logical step, but Marcado suspected it would take hours of wandering randomly through these corridors to find it. Marcado and his young companion walked slowly and silently, the younger man shuffling in a daze, the older lost in thought. Disasters were like that. In the moment things are moving too quickly for you to do anything but act on instinct. But after the immediate moment of danger there is so much time and silence.

Marcado was thinking about his wife and daughters, something he hadn’t had time to do while he was counseling this young man. The kid at least had the certainty that his girlfriend was dead and maybe in a little while the comfort that there was nothing he could have done about it. Marcado was not so fortunate. He didn’t know if he should be mourning his family, or desperately trying to find them.

Like most professional men, Marcado saw the world and what was happening in it largely in terms of its relation to himself. He was going to be at the church until the late afternoon, so he didn’t need to remember the movements of his wife or his children unless it directly affected him. What did it matter if his wife went to the store or the mall, or if she had just stayed home as long as he knew where they’d be when he got home?

His children’s lives were fairly regimented between school and extra-curricular activities, but what if one of them had become sick during the night and stayed home? He hadn’t seen them since about 9pm last night. In the early morning he’d made coffee for himself, eaten breakfast alone, and left without waking anyone, not even turning a light on in the kitchen, like a thief in the night.

If his wife hadn’t left the house then she might already be dead. The foundations of this old church were already beginning to creak ominously. A two-story home, even one with a basement, wouldn’t hold up long under these conditions. Even if she had wedged herself in the crawlspace, she would probably only have extended her life by a couple of hours.

His eye caught the open page of one of the fallen hymnals and he chuckled bitterly to himself. The foundations of faith may be built on the word of God, but even stone buried into bedrock wouldn’t hold against these forces for long.

His children were probably in school and safe in the care of others. They might even have an easier time getting into the sewers than he was having in this maze of a basement. If his wife … If Rachel … had gone out she might be safe as well.

But what if they were dead and he was left alive? What was he supposed to do then? What were any of them supposed to do? Marcado had never contemplated suicide, but there were times in his life when he hadn’t been particularly interested in living. There’s a hole in everyone that needs to be filled with something for us to be complete. Marcado had tried the bottle first, and when that finally didn’t work he tried God. God gave him a wife, a family and a purpose, and now he’d taken it all away.

Some people would consider it blasphemous to be angry with God. Everything that happens is part of his plan, meaning that everything terrible happens for a reason. Some people are comforted by the notion that bad things are either part of a divine plan, or punishment for sin. Marcado had a different view. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen in the world, he just makes the best of a lot of bad situations, starting with us. But sometimes it was okay to be pissed off at God for not stepping in sooner. God wanted to have a relationship with his creation, and people in relationships fight.

So how was God going to make the best of this bad situation? Was Marcado supposed to save this unbelieving kid, all while skirting around the issue of his girlfriend having died without faith? What kind of salvation did he exactly have to offer? The world seemed to be operating on Old Testament logic again.

“I thought only Catholics used the real thing,” the young man said abruptly.

“Excuse me?” Marcado said, shaking his head out of a thick fog.

“This,” the young man said, holding up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. “Must’ve survived the fall by landing on someone’s old vestments.”

Marcado scanned the small pantry and found several other bottles and a jagged corkscrew dangling from the wall. Like everything else in the basement, this little corner had been long forgotten.

The young man frowned, “I probably can’t drink any of these, can I?”

Marcado shook his head, “That’d only be a problem if the bottle was specifically blessed, which typically doesn’t happen until shortly before the service. And we haven’t used real wine for communion in all of the years I’ve been preaching here. They’re probably older than you are.”

“Hey, anything’s good as long as it’s not Manischewitz,” the young man exclaimed.

Marcado chuckled, “People still drink that stuff?”

The young man nodded, “Mostly college students trying to show a sophisticated side on an unsophisticated dollar. Better than a 36 pack of Nattie light I suppose.”

Marcado had been more of a whiskey man himself, but like all good alcoholics he’d known times of not being choosy. Without realizing it, he noticed he’d been holding one of the bottles in his left hand, finding the familiar weight an odd comfort.

“What d’ya say rev? A toast to the end of the world?”

Leaving aside the fact he hadn’t had a drink in eight years, he didn’t think it was the best idea to dull his senses when they were having a hard enough time finding solid ground. Even when the rest of the world was falling away, sobriety and faith were things he could hold onto.

“Yeah,” Marcado nodded, “I could use a drink right about now.”

* * *

“Ya think ‘cause this jersey has my number on it, I’m entitled to it, right?” Franklin asked as he pulled hangers off a flipped circular rack.

“You want the child sizes,” Conesta said. “They’re in the corner behind the t-ball sets.”

“Fuck you,” Franklin said casually as he kept flipping through. “Hey, Eddie! I think I found one of yours.”

He held the shirt up and examined the tag, “You’re in luck, Eddie. It’s marked down 95% clearance so it practically isn’t even stealing.”

“Knock it off, Franklin,” Manny said impatiently. Franklin just kept chuckling at his own joke.

“We’re not here to loot,” Stankowsky interjected. “A souvenir shop is not a place to find food.”

“Not unless you like big league chew,” Conesta quipped.

Franklin stuck out his tongue, “That stuff’s worse than chewing on toe-jam. Where do they get off claiming that stuff tastes like grape?”

“I’m sure there are trace amounts of grape, and 79% used shoe leather,” Conesta retorted.

Stankowsky just shook his head, “Come on, there’s a concession stand just around the bend.”

Franklin picked up the bat he’d leaned against the rack, but not before stuffing a couple of the jerseys into his bag. He tossed Eddie the jersey he’d found, laughing and patting him on the shoulder as he passed. Eddie rolled the jersey around his hand before letting it fall in a tight crumple.

The concession stand was a mess. Popcorn from oversized poppers had spilled all over the floor, mixing with a noxious looking yellow substance. Conesta picked his shoe up in disgust. “What the hell is this stuff?”

“Nacho cheese,” Eddie offered.

“Yuck! Better it’s on the floor. That stuff always tasted like warm jizz anyway,” Conesta said, scraping his shoe against the pricing board.

“And you know this from personal experience?” Franklin asked.

Eddie cracked a smile. He didn’t like vulgar humor especially, but right now it was just good to get a laugh from something.

The pricing sign was soon torn away from the ceiling and tossed casually on top of the layer of nacho cheese and popcorn. The plastic creaked with every step as they piled behind the counter. Most of the hot dogs had been in sealed steamer containers. Eddie wasn’t too sure how long the dogs had been soaking in their own juices, but he was too hungry to care. He cracked one of the latched doors, letting the juice and hot steam flow out onto the floor and mix with rest of the mysterious liquids at their feet.

Once the stream had stopped, he slid a dog out into his palm and latched the door shut again. The dog tasted thin and limp, but it sat somewhat satisfactorily inside his stomach. The rest of the guys started taking dogs out for themselves, finally dumping the contents into a flipped over baseball cap.

Everyone ate with abandon, with no thought to rationing or to the limits of their stomachs. With no refrigeration the dogs would spoil in half a day anyway, so it was better to eat what they could now. It was the best meal any of them were going to have for a while.

They hadn’t given any particular thought to their surroundings, or to the noise they were making. Most of them had dropped their bats against the back wall, far out of reach. When a quiet voice asked them for a hot dog they didn’t even hear it at first.

The gunshot that followed was heard by all.

A young teenager, not older than 15 or 16 was holding a pistol unsteadily in their direction. His first shot had embedded itself in the wall about six inches from Franklin’s head. Rather than being scared, or grateful for being alive, Franklin was furious.

“You nearly killed me, you little shit!” Franklin spat.

The kid’s aim was shaky; the gun was twitching to the side every few seconds from trembling hands. An unlucky spasm might cause the gun to go off again.

“I said I want a hot dog,” the kid replied with surprising bravado, even for someone holding a gun.

“Where the fuck did you get the balls to fire that thing anyway, cause yours certainly haven’t dropped!”

Franklin had more to say but Belanchek put up an arm to silence him. “It’s alright, there’s plenty for everyone.”

“The hell there is!” Franklin said, “Who’s he to threaten us?”

“He’s not threatening,” Belanchek said calmly, “he asked nicely before and just lost his patience a bit. Isn’t that right son?”

The young man’s grip was loosening slightly, but Eddie could see the tension in his shoulders. Unless the kid had somehow snuck the gun past security, there was only one way he could have his hands on one now. A closer glance at the kid’s shirt and knuckles gave some hint as to how he had come by the weapon.

“My sister’s hurt. She needs something to keep her strength up. I just need some food and maybe a little water so I can help her.”

“Bullshit,” Franklin said, “We’re supposed to buy whatever sob story you make up just because you’re waving a gun in our faces.”

The kid lowered his gun a few inches, “I’m sorry about that. I just … look she’s really hurt.”

“I bet you don’t even have a sister. I bet you just want to stuff your face, you fat fuck,” Franklin said.

The kid’s grip tightened again, “Are you gonna help me or not?”

“You want a hot dog so bad? How about you suck my….” Franklin was cut-off mid-sentence by the top of his head splattering against the wall. He’d had more colorful things to say, but at least he’d gotten his general point across before sliding into a lifeless heap amidst the hot dog juices.

Conesta screamed in anger and grabbed the kid’s arm. The gun fired wildly, ricocheting off the metal grill and refrigerator before striking Stankowsky in the arm. Belanchek stepped forward and chopped down hard with his right hand into the back of the kid’s elbow, loosening his grip and sending the gun clattering to the ceiling.

Stankowsky was running on adrenaline, not even noticing the new hole in his arm as he picked up a bat. He held the bat by the middle and swung wildly at the boy’s ribs. The young man crashed into Conesta under the force of the new onslaught. Conesta managed to roll out from under the kid while Stankowsky took a few steps forward to stand over him. The boy lifted his left arm to protect himself, which Stankowsky swiftly broke with his next swing.

The blows fell quickly after that, alternating between the ribs, knees and any available soft tissue. Conesta had regained his feet and picked up his own bat, joining in on the festivities by shattering the boy’s right collarbone before swinging the bat down hard on his throat.

Belanchek pushed Conesta back but the damage had been done. His last blow had collapsed the kid’s windpipe. His eyes bulged from lack of air and he convulsed violently, each jolt of pain from his freshly broken bones sending him into a new fit of spasms.

Eddie picked up the gun, the grip sticky with yellow slime. He raised his arm calmly, and without a word fired three rounds into the kid’s chest. With a final spasm the kid kicked up and collapsed back, dead.

Eddie handed the gun to Manny and quietly took the bat from Stankowsky. The ball in Stankowsky’s throat looked like it was about to burst its way out. He just kept staring blankly at the slowly growing pool of blood as it started to mix and swirl with the yellow liquid on the floor. As he kept staring, Eddie pulled one of the jerseys out of Franklin’s bag, tore a section out of the middle, and started to dress Stan’s arm.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Sky Below (Chapter Four)

In this chapter of The Sky Below, a baseball player copes with the loss of the Kielbasa Kid and kielbasa and we start to get a vision of what this new world will look like, besides showers coming out of the floor.

If you missed Chapters 1-3 you can download them and the latest chapters from this page. As always The Sky Below is available in a variety of eReader and tablet friendly formats. So if you don’t want to read a whole chapter on the computer (and who does really?) be sure to check these out. Maybe something to curl up with over the long cold weekend.

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CHAPTER FOUR

The world was fuzzy and out of focus; colors blended into each other like a watercolor painting. This trick of vision would have made sense to Eddie if he’d been crying or gotten a bit of sweat in his eye. The truth was he’d just been staring too long. His eyes were dry from the wind, and his face was cold. It was as if he wanted to burn an image into his brain, but his eyes couldn’t or didn’t want to focus, so his mind just took one blurry picture after another.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there. It felt like days, though it was probably only a couple of hours since the sun was still up. Still, there was no way to be sure. If gravity couldn’t be counted on, maybe the sun couldn’t either.

Someone finally spoke, Eddie didn’t really hear who, but whoever it was had had their fill of sitting around moping and was trying to stir the others into some kind of action. None of them seemed to have the energy to object, but neither did they show any enthusiasm, choosing only to shuffle mechanically toward the far end of the dugout.

Eddie thought about ignoring the voice, continuing to sit there and stare until the sun went out or he lost his vision. Then there would be nothing to keep him from stepping over the edge, which seemed to be calling him with every passing second. That big open sky was getting inside him, goading him to permanent and maybe inevitable action. After all, how long did any of them really have?

It was Manny who finally broke him out of his stupor, tapping him on the upper arm. Eddie grunted, his muscles stiff from sitting on hard cement, and shuffled in the same direction as the rest of his teammates.

At the end of the dugout a door opened into a short corridor that led to a secondary locker room. The area mainly served the other events hosted on the field, though occasionally during long games the players would take advantage of the proximity to towel off or re-tape a foot. The locker room was small, maybe twenty feet by thirty feet at the most. Along the right wall were a line of open lockers and above them in the center of the room was a set of long wooden benches.

A rack of bats hung near the door, most of which had surprisingly not fallen to the floor. Some had flipped and were hanging by their grip, while others had slid straight down and become stuck. Eddie reached an arm up and pulled a metal bat down, flipping it over so he could hold the grip in his right hand.

Slowly he ran his hands over the black and blue paint. There were a couple of dents and a few chips he could feel with his palm, but the balance was still good. There was no space to swing in this small room, so all he could do was turn the bat over again and again in his hand. He remembered the feeling of electricity, the power when the ball made contact with your swing in just the right spot. You could feel everything the pitcher had put behind that ball, and how it was fighting against the muscles in your arms and shoulders. When that momentum was pushed forward it felt like a release, like something almost spiritual. After every swing like that, Eddie could feel the light tap of his bat on his left shoulder, a reminder that maybe it was time to start running.

He was never going to have that feeling again, or so he imagined. Though if he was being honest it had been a while since he’d felt it anyway.

Everyone was still silent, even the young man who’d been shouting at them to move, who Eddie now recognized as Stankowsky, a rising star who’d come up from the Clippers just last year. Stankowsky was pacing back and forth across the ceiling floor until he tripped on something. He swore as he turned around to see the shower head sticking out of the floor. Some of the other guys chuckled for a second before the room was quiet again.

Stankowsky just stood and stared at the shower head. At first Eddie thought the kid was angry, but after looking closer he could tell that Stankowsky was trying to work something out. His features were sunken in, and he shaved his head every couple of days. A thin growth of mustache hung above his upper lip, though it was usually hidden from view by Stan’s pursed lips. His neck looked like he’d swallowed a baseball and with the way the kid mouthed off sometimes during practice, Eddie had thought about taking a swing at that ball more than once.

“We’re gonna need water,” Stankowsky said finally.

No one had really been paying attention except Eddie, but Manny was the first to reply, “What’s that, Stan?”

“We need to raid every snack bar and vending machine in the stadium, all the way down to the upper decks,” Stankowsky replied, ignoring Eddie’s obvious scrutiny.

Manny raised an eyebrow and the rest of the team seemed to be largely ignoring the conversation. Franklin for his part seemed to be wondering how Stankowsky could be thinking of food at a time like this, which was understandable for a guy who’d spent the last half hour revisiting his lunch.

“All of you need to look around,” Stankowsky said, raising his voice slightly but remaining calm. “This stadium is upside down, probably the whole city, maybe even the whole damn world. Lake Erie is now a cloud of mist floating up into space until it freezes. Same goes for the Cuyahoga River and every fountain, well and puddle. The only water there’s going to be is what we’ve bottled.”

Franklin smirked, “Haven’t you always been a doomsday prepper, Stankowsky? Isn’t the first thing you guys do is horde a stash of water?”

Stankowsky shook his head. “It’s in my bunker out in Garfield Heights. Might as well be on the moon for all the good it’s going to do us here.”

“Well, I guess we’re really screwed then,” Franklin said dismissively.

“You guys don’t get it do you?” Stankowsky said, “Whether this thing lasts another hour, or another year or a whole century everything’s going to be different. The only way we’re going to survive is if we embrace the reality of our situation before anyone else does.”

“Aww, you’re full of crap, Stan,” Franklin scoffed.

Eddie wasn’t so sure. They’d survived the first wave of this thing basically on luck alone. But there was only so far luck was going to take them.

“You should listen to him,” Eddie said. “We’re probably not the only ones who survived. We were down 4-0 in the fourth inning. I’m betting people didn’t wait for the seventh inning stretch to go for another beer. There’s probably people right below us walking around trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“I guess our losing streak saved a few lives,” Manny observed.

“Yeah,” Franklin sneered, “If ‘ol Eddie here had been able to keep a count alive longer than three pitches, maybe Alfonso would still be with us too.”

“That’s not funny, Franklin,” Manny said.

“Just making an observation,” Franklin said, leaning back on his elbows.

Eddie wondered how many of the men standing in that room had made the same “observation”. Hell, he’d been thinking it too. If they’d had a choice between him and Alfonso, even Manny wouldn’t have picked Eddie.

“Why do you want to go down to the upper decks anyway, Stan?” Their second baseman, Conesta, asked. “We’ve got no idea how long those levels are going to stay structurally sound. We should get what we can from this deck and head up into the sewers.”

“Conesta’s got a point,” Manny observed, “We all saw what happened to the pavilion. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of this place peels away.”

Stankowsky shook his head again. “We’re going to need more than just water. We’re going to need a way to defend ourselves.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Manny asked, his voice growing colder. “Defend ourselves from whom?”

“Everyone else,” Stankowsky replied flatly.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” Manny fumed. He looked to Eddie like he was about to leap forward and shake Stankowsky by the shoulders.

Stankowsky continued, ignoring the question and any imminent threat, “I’m just expecting people to be people, in all their flawed, crazed and animal ways.”

“You’re the animal, Stankowsky!” Manny said, “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people out there who could be hurt and suffering.”

Eddie’s blood should have been boiling at the same temperature as Manny’s but somehow he was remaining calm. It was possible that he was just numb after what he’d seen, but he suspected it was something else.

“You’re right,” Stankowsky said, “And I feel for all of them, really I do. But is there going to be enough water for all of us?”

“Fuck you!” Manny cursed.

Stankowsky for his part remained stoic. “Fuck you too, if it’ll make you feel better. I’m just being realistic. We’re going to need to cooperate to survive, but not with everyone. Do you know what we are, Manny? Do any of you?”

He scanned around a room full of blank or angry stares.

“We’re a tribe, and a tribe looks out for their own. We don’t know who we’re going to meet out there, in the stadium or anywhere else we go. We don’t know what they’ll become. But we know each other.”

Eddie didn’t like the man saying those words, even if he knew they needed to be said. But that was the problem with hard truth. The people who came to the hard conclusions were hard people.

He put a hand on Manny’s shoulder, “Stan’s right, Manny.” Manny’s muscles loosened slightly, but his face still bore a dangerous expression. Manny hadn’t liked Stankowsky much when they’d been teammates, and he probably liked him less now that he was trying to be some kind of post-apocalyptic tribal chief.

Eddie turned to address the rest of the people in the room. “We are a team, even if there’s some of us we can’t stand. Now I want to try to help anyone we can, but part of being able to do that is being able to take care of ourselves.”

“Is this the part of the movie where we all put our hands in the center and shout ‘go tribe’ or something?” Franklin’s voice slithered out from where he was leaning against the lockers.

Eddie smiled, “You know what? You’re right, Franklin. This is some kinda movie. Probably one of those crappy horror flicks they used to show on Big Chuck and Lil John.”

“Yeah, like The Ground Above or Topsy-Turvy-Terra,” Conesta offered.

Manny chuckled, his face softening, “What does that make Franklin, the Kielbasa kid?”

“That’s good,” Eddie laughed. “And I’d always had Stankowsky pegged as a certain ethnic.”

The three men started laughing uncontrollably until Stankowsky cut them off. “What the hell are you guys talking about?”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re from down south,” Eddie put his arm around Stankowsky. “If YouTube somehow survived this catastrophe you should watch the certain ethnic lays carpet.”

“Or the certain ethnic movers,” Conesta added.

Manny laughed, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that one.”

“Anyway,” Eddie continued, “Stan’s right about one thing, there are supplies in this stadium we’re gonna regret losing to gravity if we sit around here all day.”

“Holy shit!” Conesta interrupted.

“What?” Eddie asked.

“All the cows and pigs, they’re probably floating in low earth orbit by now. No Kielbasa kid after all.”

“At least they’ll be well preserved,” Manny said, chuckling again.

Eddie grinned, “Probably, though I for one am grabbing a hot dog when we go downstairs.”

He grabbed a sports bag that had been crumpled in the corner and tossed it to Stankowsky. He tossed another at Franklin before handing a few more to Manny, Conesta and Belanchek, their pitcher.

“What if we run into trouble?” Conesta asked. “It’s a long way between here and the security office.”

Eddie looked down at the bat in his hand, then back up at the rack above him. He’d been in fights as a kid, but that was using your fists and feet, not a weapon. He’d seen the damage a gun could do, but that had felt cold, almost distant. Even as he contemplated their goal he found himself realizing he could fire a gun. That wasn’t personal. But beating someone with a bat, the electricity of impact of metal against bone … that was taking something he had loved since he was a kid and perverting it.

“We’ll use these,” he tossed his bat to Manny, then started taking them down for the rest of the players. It was funny; as he watched them toss the bats from one hand to the other, adjusting their gloves and trying out the grip, they almost looked like ballplayers again. His eyes turned to Belanchek, who was pocketing a couple of balls and tossing a couple more in his pack. Who needs a bullet when you have a 97 mile per hour fastball?

Maybe Stankowsky was wrong, maybe they wouldn’t need any of this. Maybe people would look in the face of this tragedy and decide to help each other out.

‘Yeah, when pigs fly,’ he thought, ‘though come to think of it, I guess they are.’

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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The Sky Below (Chapter Two)

What would you do if your world turned upside down?

Every other Thursday I’ll be presenting the next chapter in my serialized novella, The Sky Below. You can read the first chapter of the story here or you can download the up-to-date novella from the Internet Archive in a variety of tablet and eReader friendly formats.

Full Novella (Chapters 1-2) [MOBI, EPUB, PDF]

Chapter 1 [PDF]

Chapter 2 [PDF]

Comments and questions are always welcome. Enjoy!

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CHAPTER TWO

Eddie fought the impulse to scramble for the edge of the dugout. Against all logic his mind was telling him that he would fall just like Alfonso if he went over that edge. The weightlessness had passed and gravity had reasserted itself, but in the wrong direction. This had to be some kind of sick dream. Maybe the last pitch hadn’t sailed by him after all.

Yeah, that was it. He’d been hit in the skull and this was just a concussion induced nightmare. Eddie shook his head wildly, trying to shake reality back into something sensible.

But the pain in his shoulder was real; it felt like he’d come down with his full weight. He swung his left arm across his body and rolled onto his belly. Something about burying his face in the cement ceiling made this all a little less surreal. Sub-consciously he knew the bench was somewhere above his head, but he was trying not to think about it. The open air over the edge taunted him just a few inches away, and against the protests of his body he nudged himself forward.

The wind nearly blew the cap off Eddie’s head as he inched his nose over the side. The ceiling was on a slight incline toward the back wall, so he was able to still any immediate thoughts of falling. He looked down cautiously, then snapped his head back violently at what he saw. The sky was maddeningly blue, the clouds moving perceptively but leisurely despite the gusting inside the stadium. It looked like any one of dozens of lazy summer afternoons spent lying on his back looking up; except now he was on his belly looking down.

Eddie eased backward, breathing out slowly as he moved. He rested his chin on his hands and looked across the stadium. The stands were mostly empty, though a few people were swinging precariously from railings or clinging to the backs of their seats. Most fell after a few seconds, falling quietly below his line of sight. A few were followed by a sickening thump, the sound of their bodies hitting the upper decks or the pavilion shell.

He watched helplessly as a mother reached out for her two children. The daughter had managed to weave herself through the bars at the edge of the field, but the son was too far away. In his right hand he wore a baseball glove and was trying to grip tightly to a chair, but Eddie could see his hand was slipping. He wanted to shout, to tell the kid to ditch the glove and get a better grip, but it was too late.

The glove slipped, and the kid’s right arm hung uselessly at his side. The effort of trying to hold himself up had probably exhausted him. He dangled loosely for another few seconds before his left hand gave out. The mother tried to reach for him but he was already gone. She turned to look across the field and for a brief instant her eyes met Eddie’s. Then, without a sound, she let go of the chair and dropped out of view.

Movement to his right drew Eddie’s attention, and he turned to see a young man trying to shove his way past a middle-aged man and his wife. The older man was heavy, but strong, and was not about to yield an inch of ground. Eddie closed his eyes, and when he heard the thump a few seconds later he didn’t look to see who’d won.

He buried his head in his hands and cried silently, not wanting to see any more.

“Eddie?” He felt a warm hand against his right calf. He bent his knees and rolled back onto his side. The speaker put a strong arm around his back and helped him toward the wall. The rear of the dugout was a mess, a pile of bats and helmets and other random bits of detritus.

Eddie opened his eyes to see his teammate, Manny, who up till this point hadn’t said a word to him in weeks. ‘Guess there’s no reason to worry about my slump rubbing off anymore,’ he thought.

“Are you alright?” Manny asked.

“I’m fine. I just hit my shoulder. You okay?”

Manny nodded, “Banged my shoulder pretty good too.”

The rest of the lineup were scattered against the back wall. Some hung their feet over the side, while others crouched down, pressing as close to the back wall as possible. The whole scene was playing out before them in panoramic view, but nobody wanted to look at it for very long, choosing instead to huddle together in groups of two or three.

Eddie looked over at Franklin, who was puking his guts out in the far corner. He’d been next at bat and would have been standing in the on deck circle if he hadn’t had to re-lace his shoes. Their coach had been standing at the end of the steps, leaning against the pads on the railing and making his wishes known to the base coaches. Eddie hadn’t seen him fall, but he didn’t see him here either. It was ridiculous the difference a couple of steps made.

“This isn’t some x-man thing, right?” Manny said, breaking the silence.

“Excuse me?” Eddie said.

“Like the end of that one movie. That magnetic dude picked up RFK stadium and dropped it next to the White House.”

“What’d he do that for?” Eddie asked, relieved for any kind of distraction.

Manny shook his head. “I’m not sure. I mean it’s impressive like, flying through the middle of DC carrying a big building. But then he just drops it to keep people out who might spoil his plans. If you need a wall, why don’t you just make one out of metal?”

“I don’t know,” Eddie said, “I’ve never seen that movie.”

“You think we’re flying, Eddie?”

“I don’t know.”

‘God I hope so,’ he thought. At least if some telepathic force was picking them up, it could put them down again.

His thoughts were broken by the sound of wrenching metal from somewhere below. He’d been able to tune out the individual screams, but the collective wail beneath his feet was impossible to ignore. He scooted up from his crouch and looked over the edge again.

Below, the solar pavilion had torn itself away from its moorings and was curving outward like a long ribbon. All along its ridged surface people clung desperately, trying to climb as the metal tore away faster and faster. One would lose their grip, and knock down the three below them. They were all fighting a losing battle.

The noise went on for countless minutes, the tear growing longer, twisting in the wind and bucking savagely. The stadium below the dugout shook and for a moment Eddie was afraid their tiny perch would be pulled down as well.

But then, just as quickly as the noise had begun, it stopped.

* * *

Kammie looked up at her feet and wondered where the hell she had put her shoes. The rest of her was covered in boxes, and she felt thin metal cutting dully into her back and shoulders. Her head rested on top of something that felt like thick cork board that cracked as she turned her head.

At first she thought she had lost her balance and knocked over one of the shelves. She groaned at the thought of all the noise she must have made. There was no way she was going to get this mess cleaned up before one of her supervisors found her.

But as her memory returned her brain offered up another suggestion; one neither of them was too happy about. She remembered floating for the briefest of moments, and could recall her feet leaving the floor. What she couldn’t remember was if she’d fallen back down again.

Suddenly Kammie was more thankful for the darkness than she had ever been in all those solitude seeking moments. Her back and shoulders were telling her that what she was laying on felt a lot more like the ceiling frame than the tile floor.

‘Alright,’ she thought, ‘the ceiling’s collapsed. The building’s only a few years old but maybe there were some material flaws.’

She slid one of the tiles aside with her hand and probed for the floor below, but instead felt textured metal. She wasn’t certain, but it felt like the plating above the ceiling. If the ceiling had fallen on her, then the plating would be sitting on top, or still be hanging from the ceiling.

So what was hanging above her?

Her senses were feeding her information in small pieces, knowing that she needed time to comprehend the full reality of the situation. She pushed down, the tiles bending under her weight until they met the plating. She put her arms behind her and slid backward, moving her legs down carefully from where they’d been elevated. The frame had collapsed to the plating around her head and upper back, but the rest was still about a foot and half in the air.

Kammie pulled her knees up under her chin and breathed in slowly. She polled her hearing for information next, trying to recall if there had been any kind of rumbling or shaking that might account for this upside down closet. Northeast Ohio had been getting some minor earthquakes lately, supposedly due to fracking in Pennsylvania, but the worst of that hadn’t registered above a 4 or a 5 on the Richter scale.

The floor, or ceiling, below her was perfectly level. If the building had collapsed or even toppled over she’d be on some kind of an angle. But the room had been flipped 180 degrees.

It was the sound of someone yelling that broke her out of her thoughts. Unless she was dreaming, and that was a real possibility, this room wasn’t likely to be the only one that had gone topsy-turvy. She grunted as she pulled herself onto her feet, assuring herself that some of the cracks she was hearing were coming from the tiles and not just her knees. She brushed off some of the accumulated dust, and ran a hand along her back where the metal had been pressing in. She felt no obvious cuts, at least where she could reach, though she was bruised in a couple of places.

She took a tentative first step, and nearly fell back onto her hands as the frame caught her below the knee. Most of the tiles had fallen out of the frame, but a few clung on stubbornly. It was almost like walking through a foot of snow. Sometimes the material was packed enough that Kammie could stand and pull herself forward, only for her next step to sink her down again. After a few minutes of this, Kammie reluctantly determined that the best way through was to crawl underneath the frame on her hands and knees.

After another couple of minutes of crawling like this, poking her head up every couple of feet to make sure she was still heading toward the door, Kammie reached the far wall. The handle of the door was a little above eye level. She reached up and pulled down, but the handle wouldn’t move. Panic seeped in for a few fleeting seconds as Kammie thought she might be trapped in this room.

She pushed up on the handle and the door swung open.

Kammie crawled over the doorframe, the ridged metal pushing into her stomach. She hung half-way through for a couple of seconds before falling back below the tiles, like a fish diving below the surface of the water. She stood angrily, breaking through the tiles above her head and plastering her hair with dust and cobwebs. She cupped a hand to her mouth and shouted, “Anybody alive out there?”

“Over here!” a faint woman’s shout came from about fifty feet down the hall. “I’ve got someone hurt!”

Kammie crouched down below the surface of the tiles, crawling for about thirty feet before bumping up against a wall. The voice was coming from the direction of the visitors lounge, and the ceiling abruptly changed to smooth, thick plaster. Kammie surfaced and crawled up slowly, spreading herself wide to distribute her weight evenly. She moved forward a few feet at a time by alternately kicking with her feet and pulling with her shoulders, like someone crawling across a frozen lake.

The young woman was leaning against a pillar and pressing her sleeve against the forehead of a woman in her fifties. The older woman’s face was obscured so that Kammie didn’t recognize who it was until she was right in front of her.

Margaret Benson had been one of the nursing staff who had first interviewed her, and had been the one who gave Kammie that nick-name. Her full name was Kamyra, and for most of her life she’d been insistent that others pronounce it fully and correctly. But whenever Margaret had called her Kammie it had sounded warm and affectionate. When Kammie had tentatively called her Margie for the first time she’d been treated to a smile so wide it nearly made her giggle.

Margie’s breathing was shallow, and she’d lost consciousness. Kammie felt for a pulse, but it was thin and weak.

She looked up to the young woman who was fighting back tears. She was cradling Margaret in her lap, her one arm pressing down, and the other lightly stroking her cheek. Kammie had remembered seeing the young woman around the floor for the past couple of weeks, mostly in room 3, mostly arguing with the other members of the nursing staff. It never ceased to amaze her how hard and how fervently people fought to control uncontrollable things.

“Can you lift your arm?” Kammie asked, putting a comforting hand on the woman’s shoulder. She nodded, and Kammie tore the sleeve off her scrubs. Margaret was going to need antibiotics either way for the infection, and getting the bleeding contained had to be the priority.

“What’s your name?” Kammie said as she started to work.

“Grace. I was trying to call my sister before…”

Kammie nodded, “I know. I’m not sure what to call it either.”

Grace shook her head, “No, it’s not that. My mother’s sick.”

Kammie tied off the dressing. The bleeding was starting to slow down, and Margie’s breathing seemed a little better, but Kammie was still concerned. She looked up to see that Grace had started to cry.

“I just wanted her to hear Bethany’s voice one last time,” Grace said.

Kammie put an arm around Grace’s shoulder, and the young woman buried her head in her chest.

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Massey (Part 2)

“I don’t know. If I’m going to be giving you all my Lego blocks, I think I should get something in return,” Michael, an older boy in Daniel’s school said during recess.

“But you don’t even play with them anymore,” Daniel said. “You just said so.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t,” Michael said, the words weighing from one side of his mouth to the other. “You know how it is. I’ve got something you want, and you’ve got something I want. Nothing in this world’s free.”

Daniel knew what Michael wanted, his 1970 Reggie Jackson card. In 1970 Jackson had a batting average in the low .200s and a little over 60 RBIs. Just three years later in 1973, Jackson led the league in RBI’s with 117. Arguably, 1970 had been one of the worst years of his career. Daniel liked the card for that reason. It reminded him that even though sometimes things get hard, the best is yet to come.

Michael had lost the card to Daniel some months back when they’d been flipping them out in the gravel behind the school yard. Michael didn’t really want the card back, he just didn’t like the idea of losing to somebody smaller than him. If the card had sentimental value to Daniel, all the better, since it would make giving it up all the harder.

Daniel sighed and opened one of his notebooks. He’d slid the card in one of the pockets, and had taken to looking at it during especially hard math tests or whenever the teacher or his father had just been yelling at him. Reluctantly he handed the card over to Michael, who tossed it in his bag without a second thought.

“I’ll bring the bricks over to your house tonight,” Michael said. “What do you want with ‘em anyway?”

Daniel shook his head, “Nothing. I just really like Legos is all.”

 

Daniel had made a dozen such deals in the space of a week. Rather than meet him up by the house, he had the children deliver the bricks to an old tarp he’d set up at the back edge of his father’s fields. The planting for that section had been done for weeks and he’d volunteered to take care of he watering and feeding of that section to save his father from having to go out that far.

Lester had been proud to see the boy take some responsibility, and in truth was dog tired from the last days of digging and hours of lying under a hot greasy engine. His hands and his face were black, and the tractor was no closer to moving than if he had just pushed it.

At night, long after everyone had gone to sleep, Daniel would sneak out to the field with a flashlight and an old picture he’d taken from one of the albums from when his father had first bought the tractor. The Colorado sky was big and full of stars, so bright that sometimes Daniel didn’t even need the flashlight.

Some nights a few of his friends would come by and help with the work, sorting bricks into colors, helping him balance sections while he built the underlying support structure.

“Why does the outside have to be all red bricks?” Lucas, one of the boys in his grade asked him.

“You ever see a Massey Ferguson any other color but red?” was Daniel’s reply. When he ran out of red bricks, he took to painting the other colors, finally applying a coat to the whole outside of the frame to keep everything smooth and consistent. Some of the pieces he had to glue together for the extra support.

He’d drag himself back to the house a couple of hours before sunrise. By the end he could practically sleepwalk to his bedroom. His mother looked concerned when she came up to wake him every morning. Usually, all she had to do was shout that breakfast was ready, and Daniel would tear down the stairs. But now she practically had to shake him just to get him moving.

Fortunately school was almost over, so his grades didn’t suffer too much. Some of the other kids even took pity on him during some of the tests and let him copy their answers, though for some this was better charity than others.

 

The last Tuesday of May was the hottest all month, getting to nearly 90 in the heat of the day. Lester’s legs were rubber, and his face was leather from spending all day in the hot sun. When he licked his lips he could taste the salt of his own sweat. Daniel was waiting for him outside the house, his hands clasped behind his back, his face looking down in the dirt.

“What’s the matter, son? Why are you standing out here when you should be helping your mother with supper?”

Daniel’s voice was small, and Lester didn’t hear him the first time he spoke.

“What was that. Speak up boy!”

“I said I had something I want to show you!” Daniel finally yelled. Lester couldn’t remember a time when Daniel had yelled about anything. That alone was reason enough to be just a little curious.

Daniel took him out toward the fields he’d been taking care of that season. Lester assumed that Daniel wanted to show off his handiwork, maybe to get some advice from his old man on how he could make the crops grow just a little bit higher. He got confused when he saw an old brown tarp draped over something taller than Daniel. It had a familiar shape but he couldn’t quite place it.

Without a word Daniel took one end of the tarp and pulled. It seemed to take all of his strength for just a moment, before the tarp popped off of something that had caught it, and sent Daniel stumbling back a few paces. The sight in front of Lester nearly did the same.

Standing before him, in perfect detail was his tractor, rendered in thousands of tiny bricks of plastic. He ran his hand along the top of it, and found it as smooth as the metal on his old rig.

“I sanded down the pegs on the outer bricks,” Daniel said.

Lester just stared aghast. Finally he said, “The ‘M’ and the ‘E’ are missing.”

“Of course,” Daniel replied, “this is your tractor.” He got a little twinkle in his eye as he saw genuine admiration in his father’s eyes possibly for the first time in his life. Dad had always preferred Jimmy,not for any particular reason other than he’d known the boy longer.

“Hey Dad, watch this,” Daniel said, jumping up on the black seat.

He turned a golden rounded key to the right and on cue an engine roared to life, kicking back a little smoke at first, but then running smooth, smoother than Lester remembered even on his tractor’s first day.

Daniel kicked a lever into gear and inched the Lego rig forward around his father. He patted the space behind his seat.

“Hop on Dad, we’ve got to get back to the house. We’re already late for supper.”

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