Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Strings"

By Michael F. Mercurio






How does one define “random?”

The Encarta Dictionary for North American English states the following conditions:

1.       Done, chosen, or occurring without an identifiable pattern, plan, system, or connection.

2.       Statistics relating or belonging to a set in which all the members have the same probability of occurrence.

In a world where the actions of people play off of one another in a cascade of élan vital, the “randomness” that we are witnessing lies only within the realm of cause and effect – not the strings themselves that bind cause and effect together – played upon by the unconscious hands of seven billion cellists.

 *****

Harper Clarkson muttered to himself in irritation as he walked the four blocks to the nearest gas station.  He was freezing his ass off.

He swore the first thing he did when he got home would be to yank his eighteen-year-old son out of bed and put the fear of God into him.  He told him a million times not to leave the tank on empty.  This time he would lose all rights to drive the car for at least a month, without exception.  Maybe that would finally beat the lesson into Joshua’s thick skull.

Harp sighed, but half smiled to himself.  It was so like Josh to have his head in the clouds, and most of the time, he forgave him for it.  Hell, he could have ended up with a worse kid – like the one who shot up that school in Michigan just a month or two ago.  Still, he had to learn that his actions carried consequences.  It was the job of any father to teach that to their kids, so Harp believed.

Shoving his hands deeper into his pockets, he rounded the corner to the station and approached the convenience store.  He shivered as he opened the door to walk inside, the electronic tones signaling his entrance.  Nodding to the clerk who was preoccupied with a disheveled homeless gentleman, he searched around for a portable gasoline container.  He didn’t see them right away, so he approached the counter to ask the attendant.

Unfortunately, the attendant seemed to have his hands full.  The disenfranchised individual was flailing his arms, ranting on and on about a piece of paper he found lying on the ground outside.  He thrust it into the attendant’s face.  The paper was crumpled and blank, but that did not apparently alleviate the gentleman’s excitement over the object.

“Don’t you see?!  With this, you could be rich!  We could ALL be rich!”

The clerk sighed, apparently trying desperately to ignore him.  Maybe he thought if he did so, he would simply go away and he wouldn’t have to call the cops, Harp mused.  He imagined there was a ton of paperwork involved whenever the need to call the police arose – incident reports and whatnot, which protected him from liability.  Then, Harp saw him finally turn his attention.

“Yes sir, did you need help with something?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for a gas canister.  I left my car about four blocks from here, and I’m out.”

“Oh sure, not a problem.  I keep them in the back.  Give me one second and I’ll grab one for you.”

In the back?  What if it was an emergency and the store was closed at the time?  Oh well.  Maybe they were open 24 hours a day, Harp mused.  He had never been to that station past ten o’clock before.

“We could all be rich!  Richer than Richy Rich!  I’m not lying!  All you have to do is take this, and tape it to the door handle!”  He pointed wildly to the small, unisex bathroom door.

The attendant scowled at him as he moved toward the back room to retrieve the canister.  “Sir.  If you don’t get out of here, I’ll have to call the cops.”  With that, he disappeared in the back.  Harp hoped he wouldn’t be gone for long.  He wasn’t comfortable being left alone with that person.

“You!  You believe me, don’t you?!”

“Hmm?  Oh yeah, sure.”  Lovely.  Okay, keep it brief and distant, he told himself.

The man looked him up and down.  “Are you able to see it too?  Do you have a rock?”

Harp was becoming increasingly nervous.  He wished that attendant would hurry up.  Seriously, how long could it possibly take to retrieve a stupid gas container?

The gentleman squinted his eyes.  “No.  No, you don’t it yet, do you.  Would you like one?”

“Um…no thank you.”  Great.  Now he’s offering me drugs.

The clerk came out from the back room.  “Here we go.  Sorry about that.  Hey, I thought I told you to leave.  I’m not kidding you know.  Get out now, or I’ll have the cops here.  I don’t want you harassing my customers.”

Harp was incredibly thankful, yet he felt sorry for the poor wretch, despite himself.  Clearly there was something wrong with him.  Maybe he wasn’t on drugs.  It could have been a condition.  Whatever his apparent issues were, it was a shame he couldn’t get him the help he needed.  If he wasn’t broke himself, he would have given the guy a couple of bucks at least, even if it meant risking further engagement.

The man was close to tears after that.  “None of you ever listen to me!  Ever!  I’m only trying to help you, but you all just think I’m nuts.  Every fucking time!”

With that, he stormed out of the store.  The clerk cleared his throat.  “I’m really very sorry about that.  This neighborhood,” he sighed.  “I swear, it’s getting worse all the time.  I keep getting more and more people like that hanging around here.  It’s a real problem.”

“It’s okay,” Harp nodded in understanding.  “Times are tough.  It can’t be helped.”

“Anyway, you want me to fill this for you, or you got it yourself?  It’s $53.98 for the container after you fill it up to the top line.”

“I can fill it myself, thanks.  I’ll take it to the top.”

Harp fished his back pocket for his wallet and dug out his credit card, which was the only form of currency it contained at the moment.

“Yeah, times are tough alright,” the clerk continued as he took the card from his hand and swiped it.  “I don’t know what this world’s coming to.  We just had that kid down in Michigan...what was his name?  Dan Ro-something?  Shot up that whole school.  I tell ya, people are going nuts.  Hell, just the other day I had a guy out by the pumps who punched a lady in the face, knocking her down.  Then he just ran off.  Can you believe it?  No reason for it.  None at all.”

“Are you serious?  When was this?”

“It was literally just two days ago, in broad daylight.  I was working the noon shift and was here when it happened.  Had to call the cops.  Luckily, the woman was more confused than she was hurt.  She was bruised up a little, but not too badly.  Still, it makes no damn sense.  She even had her kid sitting in the backseat at the time.  Slept through it all.”

“Jesus,” Harp exclaimed in disbelief.

Handing his card back to him, the clerk continued.  “Yeah.  The world’s turning into a real nuthouse I tell you.  Heh.  I wish that bum was right and I could tape a piece of paper the bathroom door and become a billionaire.”

“Oh yeah?  What would you do with all that money?”

The clerk thought for a moment.  “Hmm.  You know what?  I’m thinking I could do some real good with it, you know?  There’s a recession going on, and a lot of people are hurting.  Hell, that’s probably why so many are going nuts.  I don’t know, maybe I could help some folks out with it or something.  Anything would be better than standing behind a counter selling lottery tickets and cigarettes.”

Harp smiled.  “It’s nice to meet someone who feels that way.  I was expecting you to say you would buy a mansion or something.”

“You know, it’s funny.  A few years ago, I would have.  But after working here for so long and seeing so many miserable people come in…well…it gets you thinking, ya know?”

Harp smiled again.  “Well I’ll tell you what.  If you ever do make it big, keep me in mind, will you?  My eighteen-year-old is eating me out of house and home, and I could use a few bucks,” he chuckled.  He reached for the attendants hand to shake and stated “I’m Harper Clarkson – ‘Harp’ to my friends.  Don’t forget that when you make your billions,” he grinned.

“Roger Ford,” the clerk grinned back, shaking his hand amiably.  “In the meantime, stay safe out there on the way back to your car.  I’d offer you a ride, but I can’t leave the store.  Do you have someone who can pick you up?”

“Nah, but that’s okay.  I don’t mind the walk, and I don’t expect to get mugged for a can of gas.”

“You’d be surprised, Harp.  Anyway, take care of yourself.  Don’t be a stranger.”

He waved goodbye to Roger as he walked out the station door.  It was already starting to get dark out, and he wanted to hurry back down the four blocks to his car before it became difficult to see.  He filled up the canister and sealed it when the pump shut off.

It was snowing this time of year in Vermont, and the flakes were just beginning to fall.  The roads were well cleared on the way up, but Harp knew they wouldn’t stay that way for long now.  He started grumbling to himself about Joshua again, wondering why the kid had been so bloody absent minded lately.  It seriously felt like he was on another planet sometimes.

About ten minutes into his trek, he heard a commotion that was becoming louder as he neared the intersection.  Horns were beeping frantically, and then he saw an emergency vehicle rush past.

Good thing I’m not driving right now, he thought to himself.

As he got closer to the traffic lights, he saw a whole line of cars on the other side.  An ambulance, a fire truck, and two police cruisers had blocked off the entire section on that end.  He wondered if someone had been hurt.  Maybe a car lost control on an icy patch.

His car was on the side of the road just a block further, past the line of cars on that same street.  Checking carefully from side to side, he crossed the intersection towards the ensuing chaos.  Fortunately, that road had a sidewalk, so he wasn’t too concerned that an impatient driver would run him down.  As he made his way across however, a police officer flagged him down.

Raising a questioning eyebrow, he walked over to the cop.

“Um…sorry, did you want me?”

“Where are you coming from, sir?”

“The gas station just up that way.  Why?”

The officer scratched his head, looking him up and down.  “Are you…Harper Clarkson by any chance?”

A feeling of dread overpowered Harp.  Was his son hurt?  No, that didn’t make sense.  Why would he be out here?

“Y-yes, I am.  What’s this all about?”

“Well…it’s a bit strange, to be honest.  There’s been an accident over here involving an older gentleman.  We were unable to find any identification on him, but we were hoping you would be able to ID him.”

Wait, older gentleman?  Harp was somewhat relieved, but still bewildered.  “Me?  Why me?”

“Like I said, it’s strange.  We assumed he’s related to you somehow because of the note.  We found it in his jacket pocket, and it’s apparently addressed to you.  We were hoping you could make sense of it.  In the meantime though, would you be willing to make the ID for us?”

Harp was feeling incredibly anxious.  While it may not have been his son who was involved, one way or another he apparently knew the person whom was now concealed in a black leather bag just up ahead.  Another officer was unzipping it when they arrived.  Harp looked down and his trepidation abated slightly, but he was more confused now than ever.

“That…that’s the homeless man who was at the gas station.”

“So you have seen him before?”

“Yes…only less than an hour ago in fact.  I don’t know who he is.  He was harassing the gas attendant when I got there.”

“So wait.  You’re claiming that you’ve never met him before today?”  The officer was incredulous.

“That’s what I’m claiming, yes.  It’s the truth.  Why, what’s going on?  What happened?”

“Well apparently the gentleman decided to run out into the middle of traffic.  The driver who hit him said he was just standing there, almost waiting to be run over.  Other witnesses say they saw the same thing.  The driver couldn’t stop in time because of the slick road, and skidded into him.  By the time we arrived, it was already too late.  We searched him for any sort of ID, but all we found was this note…addressed to you.”

The officer handed it to Harp.  “Can you please explain this note, Mr. Clarkson?”

Harp looked at it, curiously.  The handwriting was badly scrawled, and he could barely make sense of it – even less so, once he actually read it.

 

If anyone finds this, please make sure it goes to Harper Clarkson.  He should be walking down this way from the gas station at about 5:20 PM.  He will be wearing a light blue winter coat, brown pants, and black shoes.

Hi Harp!  I’m pretty sure that’s you now.  I saw you before but didn’t recognize you in the station.

The rock makes you crazy when you use it for a very long time.  Makes other people think you’re crazy, too.  Be careful.  It’s worth it though.  You can fix things with it.  It won’t look like you’re fixing things, but you are.  Just don’t go too crazy before you do.  I was getting crazy, so I had to finish it.  You can have it now.  It says it’s your turn anyway.

Be careful with it!  It’s a big job!  BIG job!  Too big…

Anyway.  Time to go!

 

Harp turned the note over and over again in his hand.  Then, he looked up at the police officer.  “I…I’m sorry.  I wish I could explain this, but…I really can’t.  Honest to God, I never met this guy until just a short while ago.  I don’t even know how he could have gotten my name.”

“I see.  Did you leave anything behind he might have picked up?”

“Not at all.  In fact he left before I did.  That’s why you saw me coming just now.  I wonder if maybe he heard me tell my name to the gas attendant.”

“So the attendant would be able to vouch your story then?”

“Definitely.  The man was there when I got there, made a bit of a scene, left, and then I was there a bit longer, chatting with the attendant.  Um…what was his name…?  Roger Ford.  That was the clerk.”

“Okay Mr. Clarkson.  It sounds pretty cut and dry.  He must have overheard your conversation.  The fact is, we get stuff like this all the time.  Just to be safe though, do me a favor and give me your contact information, in case we need to ask you anymore questions.  Do you mind?”

“Yeah sure, no problem,” Harp said nervously.  The officer handed him a form, where Harp wrote his name, address, phone number, and a brief description of his encounter.  When he handed it back, the cop looked it over and nodded.

“Okay Mr. Clarkson, thanks again.  Do you need a lift back to your car?”  He indicated to the gas canister Harp had placed on the ground between his legs when he filled out the report.

“No thank you, Officer.  My car is on the side of the road, just past this line of other cars.  Luckily, I’m headed in the opposite direction.”

“Alright then.  Take care of yourself, and sorry for the frayed nerves.  There’s a lot of nut jobs out there these days.  Oh, and I’m going to need that note back for evidence.”

Won’t my finger prints be on it now, he wondered to himself as he handed it back to the cop.  Gotta love small towns.

Even as he began making his way past the cars, they were starting to move again.  They were still being waved through by hand, but it didn’t take long for only a single cruiser to remain.  By the time he reached his own vehicle, even the cruiser had left, and it seemed things were back to normal.

Rubbing his hands briskly for warmth, he opened the fuel hatch on his Buick Regal.  He then opened up the trunk, rummaging around for a funnel.  When he found one, he closed the trunk.

And then he opened it again.

What the heck was that doing in the trunk?

A smooth, round stone was lying next to where the funnel had been.  It was glowing a soft, red color.

What in the world?

Without thinking, he reached out with his hand to palm it.  As soon as he made contact, he jerked back, falling to the wet snow behind him.  His butt was numb from the cold as he was overcome by a series of images.  He began to sneeze profusely, but not from the cold.  It was uncontrollable, and somehow related to the massive headache he was suddenly experiencing.

The stone continued to glow and pulse inside  his mind.

He saw people.  Places.  Events past, present, and possible.

He sneezed.

 

*****

 

Dan Romano sneezed.  He saw what he had to do, and it nearly made him shit himself.  For days he cried until it felt like his eyes were going to bleed.  As far as he could tell though, there just wasn’t any other way.  That was the problem with the damn thing.  It showed you a few choices you could make, but ultimately it rested with the person to make the decision.  And the damnedest thing of all was, he probably wouldn’t even have any memory of it once the deed was done.

It was sick.  Meaning would eventually be ascribed to the action, as if what he did was somehow validated.  But people needed to have meaning now, and there was no way he could ever give it to them.  Any attempt to state reasons – by anyone – would only be seen as tremendously poor in taste at best.

He saw how his life brought him to this point, and it disgusted him.  He understood why he was in the place he was in now.  Every past decision, every memory, every experience – all leading to the formation of the person he was today:

Sick and twisted.

And it couldn’t be any other way.

He saw what the future would bring. 

Without the debate on gun control happing this year, there would be a mugging on January 8th, 2019, at 7:52 PM.  A woman will have been shot.  Said woman would have otherwise given birth to a college instructor.  The instructor would get married, and have two children – a boy and a girl.  The girl would follow in her father’s footsteps and become a school teacher.  The boy would become an accountant.

In 2041, a new disease will emerge, threatening the entire planet.  In 2039, the school teacher will have made a passing comment to George, the janitor, about how protein affects muscle growth.  That same day, George will order a shipment of one-hundred protein bars to his house, hoping to benefit.  After seeing very little result, he will write a letter of complaint to the company who sold him the merchandise.  The complaint is a common one, with George’s in particular making national attention.  This will eventually lead to shutting down the company that produced the protein bar.  Four years later, another upstart company will take out a loan to start a similar business.  In order to avoid the same mistakes, research will be done to find out where the last version of the supposed muscle builder went wrong.

While researching protein bars, a cure for the disease will accidentally be discovered.  The world is saved.

But then it isn’t.  Because in 2019, a woman is shot.

So many images.  So many events swirled around Dan’s head like a cyclone.  He sneezed again.  This time there was blood in the mucus.

He knew it was time.  He saw each thread.  He knew there was only one he could pull on to keep it all from unraveling.

Picking up his gun, he cried again as he made his way to the school in Michigan.  At some point, the stone must have fallen out of his pocket.  He was thinking much more clearly then.  Not remembering why he was about to do what he was, he felt almost calm.

All he knew was that he had to do it.  His course was set, and he followed it with a crazed serenity.

 

*****

 

The first thing Salty Jake had to do was get the rock to the kid.  It was time to get it passed on again, and he had to hurry if he was going to make it to the scene.  He still had time though.  There was a guy who worked the pumps.  If anyone should benefit, it ought to be him.  In fact…

Jake squinted.  The images hurt his head, but he held onto them.

Yeah.  That was it!  The clerk!

He hurried to the gas station.  He figured he could get there in about a day or so on foot.  By that time though, the stone had already left him.  He had long since forgotten about it – let alone where it was going.  When he arrived at the station, he could barely remember what he was doing there.  He knew he had to do something with that blank piece of paper he was holding in his hand.

That’s right!  The clerk!  If he puts it on the bathroom door, that would change everything!

The clerk wasn’t believing him though.  Damnit.  He forgot.  Robert Ford wasn’t where he was supposed to be yet.  And Jake was running out of time for the girl!

But that’s when he came in!  The strings!  That’s right! The strings on the Harp!

Damnit, he thinks I’m crazy too.  None of you ever listen to me!  Ever!  I’m only trying to help you, but you all just think I’m nuts.  Every fucking time!

Whatever.  There wasn’t enough time right now.  He had to get to the intersection, quickly!  But wait…what if he left a note?  Of course!  That’s how the harp gets the notes!  He laughed wildly as he scrawled the message on the paper as quickly as he could.  It wasn’t easy.  His hands were shaking the entire time.

He shoved it into his coat pocket, and finally made it to the intersection.  Out of breath, he smiled, and walked out into the road.  He closed his eyes.

Finally…he thought to himself.  And then the car hit him.

 

****

 

Seven cars down the line, a mother inside a minivan was upset.  She was late bringing her daughter to her soccer game.  Police had the traffic at a dead stop, and she should have already been on the highway by now.  It’s good that she wasn’t, because there was no way the weight distribution of the van would have been able to keep the vehicle stable during the swerve when a merging semi-truck would have forced them off the road, killing them both.  Everything Dan Romano did two months ago would have been for nothing, if Soccer Girl didn’t make it to 2019.

A different cop was on the scene than the one that responded to the incident at the gas station two days ago.  That was good.  The one who responded to the assault on the customer would not have given Harper Clarkson the note left by Jake.  Fortunately, the incident had disgusted him enough to call in sick that day.

 

******

Joshua Clarkson had been very absent minded lately.  He wasn’t sure why.  He was sneezing a lot, and began to wonder if maybe he was catching a cold.  He remembered taking his dad’s car out somewhere.  At some point, he opened the trunk and put something into it.  Later that day he wondered if he remembered to fill up the gas.  The last thing he needed was another lecture from his father about responsibility and consequence.

*****

Harp slowly stood up from the ground.  The back of his pants were completely soaked, and his entire backside was numb with cold.  He looked in wonder at the stone in the trunk, and began to understand.  He wasn’t sure he liked where things were going, but he knew it was ultimately for the best.  In the meantime though, there was something simple he could do.  And it was something he was actually looking forward to.

Taking the stone and placing it in his pocket, he finished filling up his tank, and then got behind the wheel.  He started the ignition, turned the car around, and headed back to the gas station.

 

“Hello again, Roger.”

“Back already?  What happened?”

“Sad news I’m afraid.  You remember that guy who was in here earlier?”

“The homeless guy?  What about him?”

“Turns out he was just hit by a car a short time ago.  He didn’t make it.”

Roger Ford gasped.  “Jesus.  Are you serious?”

“Yeah.  Cops made me ID him.  I’m surprised they haven’t been by here, actually.”

“Well…” Roger sighed.  “The truth is, they probably won’t follow it any further than that.  He was homeless so…yeah.  They probably figure he’s just some nobody.  Nobody important, you know?”

“That’s…not a fair thing to say about anyone.”

“Yeah, I know.  I don’t like that either.”

Harp paused for a minute, then began.  “Hey listen.  I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, you remember how he was going on about putting a piece of paper on your bathroom door or something?  Well I was thinking maybe you could put one up there.  As like a sort of memorial, you know?”

“Heh.  Sounds silly, but that’s not a bad idea.  If anything maybe it would give the poor bugger some peace.”

“And who knows?  Maybe it would make you rich someday,” Harp grinned.

Roger chuckled.  “Wouldn’t that just beat all?  If it does, I’ll definitely split it with you.”

 

*****

In 2043, Jonathan Clarkson, son of Joshua and Elizabeth, will use a portion of his family’s vast wealth to start up a business.  He had heard from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend that there was money to be made in protein bars.
 
 
 
Copyright 2014
Michael F. Mercurio
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