Bicentennial by C.J. Swift

“Mr. Michael,” the nurse said to me. “Would you like to buy another pain block for lunch?  We have both Indian Opiate and the Canadian Cocktail; the opiate is highly discounted this week, if you have a Social Security Company K coupon.”

I blinked my eyes against the logy atmosphere of the home’s lunch room. The air handler in the room sounded like the bridge of the Enterprise, and the odor they were pumping into it today, had to be eau de Pine-sol. Several of my fellow residents were quietly drooling or not so quietly screeching. I was an in-betweener; not a quiet drooler, and not an obstreperous screamer.  I mumbled, “Not…suscriber. The kidsss game ma a prefilt K card.”

She leaned over me, “You used that up last week, Mr. Michael, sorry.  I can give you a cup with ice in it to suck on, that sometimes helps.”

I shook my head and vainly tried to wave her away, “Loss awl…all my…lost all my Social Security Company benefits in 23, when they sequenced my genes an…”  I wanted to say more, but I just gave up.

“It’s OK Mr. Michael, here’s your ice,” she said, hurrying away with her credit verification cart. It groaned under the weight of all the drugs she was offering. She was already at the next resident when a wave of pain shook me. I could just see the news feed wall scrolling the date. “July 15, 2039”, the logo “Eldercare Safe” took up one corner of the image. The president was assuring all of us that no more immigrants, especially the French ones, would be allowed across the Canadian border.

“No more American jobs will be lost to illegal European Union refugees,” she said into the camera, she had only three lip rings and a tongue stud today. Her beloved “Screw the Bitches” tattoo was covered with a fine lace bodice today. I watched the date scroll, barely believing it could possibly be 2039. Through the pain and waves of nausea I thought about 1964.  God, could that have really been 75 years ago?  Today was the Bicentennial of Fieldville; I had been there for the 125th.

—CLICK—

Janie and I had been running around all summer. We were thirteen and didn’t really fit into sullen teenagership, or childhood.  The Beatles were still singing “Love Me Do” along with Peter and Gordon singing “A World Without Love” on the radio. Janie and I got a lot of crap from the “About-to-be-junior-highers”, but I hadn’t yet capitulated to the adolescent need to care about what peers thought, at least not much. Janie was cool she could do a wheelie on her bike as well as any boy I knew.

“Janie, want to go down to the creek?  I got some Black Cats from my dad’s drawer.” Black Cats were small very unpredictable firecrackers.

“Dufus head,” she punched me in the shoulder.  “They’re setting up the carnival in the square today.  They’ll give you stuff if you hang around.  I seen that they got somebody who bites the heads off chickens, oowh,” she said spitting on the street.

“It’s all fake, they’re not real chickens,” I said.

“The only real chicken is you Mikie, you’re chicken to go up there and see what’s up there.”

“Am not!” I said jumping on my bike and pedaling toward the square.

“Are too!” She said easily passing me.

—CLICK—

The President had been replaced by an “Eldercare Safe” interactive sitcom.  It was the “Community”. It was a stomach turning family of brave elders who were eking it out in an abandoned gated community in what had been Miami. If I had had enough credit I could have gotten a tongue strip and signed in.  Then, I could have had a gator or something, eat one of the bastards, but instead I saw them jerking around with the lame-ass interactives, dancing, and screwing and whatever else the Eldercare interactives’ fantasies were.

—CLICK—

Janie had gotten to the square way ahead of me and she was standing near a grimy booth talking to a greasy carnie.  I rode my bike up between them.

“Watch it kid!” the greasy carnie said.  “Your girlfriend here wants to know if there is anything she can do for us.”  The leer he was giving Janie was really pissing me off, but I thought of it then as “really making me mad”.

“We can help,” Janie said. “We helped with the circus back in June and got tickets…”

The carnie sneered, “Them bums.  We got us a real extravaganza here. We ain’t got no stupid clowns or horses.  We got some stuff that will make this little town’s eyes pop.” He wiped his nose on his bare arm, stared at the smear, and continued. “You kids ever hear of a geek?” He pointed at a crude painting on the canvas side of his booth of a hairy man-like thing with a chicken in its paw.  There was a creepy pink snake thing around its legs.  The snake thing had skin not scales – you could see blue vein behind the sallow pink flesh.

Janie squirmed as she said, “That’s the guy that bites the heads off chickens, right?”

“Yeah, they’re live chickens, but that’s not all he does.  If you two want to help me with my booth, well, I’ll take you back behind and let you see what he does when nobody’s looking.  You’ll remember that all your life, I guarantee.”

“Michael, what are you doing?” it was mom standing right next to the J.C. Penney’s store and yelling at me. Mom never did anything like that. She always told me that folks that did that didn’t have any couth, whatever that meant.  But she was yelling at me now.

“C’mon,” I told Janie, “I think we’re in trouble.”  We got on our bikes and pedaled across the street. Mom was standing on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips tapping her foot.

“Michael Lee Ames, what do you think you’re doing talking to that man?” she said, looking over my shoulder at the greasy carnie.  Without thinking I looked behind me and saw the greasy carnie wave at my mother and then spit a brown glob on the street.

“Mom, we were just seeing what they were…”

“Michael Lee Ames you will promise me to stay away from those people until the carnival starts, and there are adults around,” her face was flushing, as she said it.  She turned to Janie, “Janie you make sure he stays away from those people, can I count on you?”

Janie looked down to her toes and her braids fell forward, “Yes Mrs. Ames.”  Moms always took the girls’ side.

Just like I thought, mom took Janie’s chin in her hand and said, “Janie dear, take Michael over to the Korner Kreamery and get both of you a nice triple scoop.” She handed Janie a dollar and said, “Keep the change, you two can use it when the carnival really starts.”

“Yes, Mrs. Ames,” Janie said.  “Thank you.”

We rode off to the ice cream store. When we got out of earshot of mom, I said, “Janie you’re what my dad calls a kiss ass,” I said peddling past her.

“Yeah, well you’re what my dad calls a dumb ass.” She peddled past me and we weaved through the parked cars on the square.  When we got to the Korner Kreamery, she dumped her bike and walked into the cool air of the shop.

—CLICK—

The dumb asses in the “Community” sitcom were jerking and screwing against the backdrop of canned laughter, dystopian Miami ruins, and product placement. The Eldercare logo blinked a few times and what passed for news came on the feed wall. ““Lite News”, the most trusted news source in Eldercare brings elders a quarter hour update after this message.”

A cowboy with a ponytail was straddling a very old fashioned Harley, “Elders,” he said in a fake western drawl. “if you are the victim of Viagra or other Erectile Dysfunction scams from the 90’s and 2000’s – contact Smith, Smith, Smith, and Smith LLP for a free consultation and the chance to score big on a really sweet settlement.  Remember, it’s not whether you took the drugs, but whether you think you did, that makes you eligible for the settlement.” The cowboy twirled his hat in the air and drove the Harley into the sunset.

There followed, the disclaimers speeded up to just beyond recognition – “Smith, Smith, Smith, and Smith LLP, is a legally constituted company under the Canadian Pact of 2030, and does not represent plaintiffs that do not hold Social Security Company benefit cards. If you or anyone you know have been denied benefits for any reason what-so-ever by the Social Security Company all claims are null-in-void.  Smith, Smith, Smith, and Smith LLP does not make any claims to those that have experienced involuntary oily discharges or sudden death.”

The announcer for Eldercare Lite News appeared on the feed wall in a crescendo of nonsense new music.  Against all common sense, he looked like any of the snot-nosed grandson that never visited Eldercare patients.  He had no visible tattoos or piercings, that spoke of a holier than thou attitude against his parents – “Do the President and Prime Minister of America think they are above the law? Updates in fifteen minutes…” The crescendo of nonsense new music swelled and the stupid sitcom started with a scene of the elders behind piles of tires shooting illegal French immigrants in Apache (pronounced ah-PAHSH, not uh-PATCH-ee) Dancer outfits, as they tried to invade their gated community.  The laugh track roared its approval.

—CLICK—

The Korner Kreamery was packed with kids getting out of the heat and waiting for the matinee to start at the Fieldville Theater across the street.  Janie was up at the counter with the dollar in her hand when the jerk-off Tom Buttercap said, “Hey which one of you has the dick, you or queer-boy Mikie?”  Tom Buttercap said to Janie. He was the kind of kid that would later be lauded as an athlete by many of the numbskulls in town. Next fall he would be holding court in the boy’s locker room snapping jock straps and generally being a donkey’s ass.  Today was just practice, but then, he didn’t have a clue that his jock-snapping junior high days would be severely curtailed.

“Buttercrap,” Janie said, purposely mispronouncing his name. “You sure are a butt head.”  Buttercap started to move in to surely give Janie a punch.

“Buttercap, you’re out of here.  This is number three, that’s three strikes now you’re outta here buddy,” the high school kid behind the counter said. This doesn’t mean you can hang out in the parking lot either.”  He came around the counter and grabbed Buttercap by the elbow.  The door was open and Buttercap was gone.

“I’m going to kill Buttercrap, he’s a butt head, and nobody likes him,” Janie told the high school kid.

“You don’t want to think that little girl.  Don’t ever wish somebody to die,” the high school guy said.  “What do you guys want?”

—CLICK—

The cast of the “Community” had captured a French immigrant and were kicking the ever-loving shit out of him.  “You damn Frenchy,” the matron of the clan said, as she punctuated each word with a kick in his kidneys.

The immigrant’s beret rolled off his head – the laugh track went into uproarious laughter, and the matron’s daughter rolled her eyes, “Mom he’s a person, just like those poor people who have to live in California.”

“I don’t want to hear any talk like that from you missy.  You don’t remember when we didn’t have to have all the signs in Frenchy.  You could walk down the street and read every sign, just as sure as you please, and without a god damned dictionary,” the matron said, as she landed another kick in the kidneys.  The canned audience exploded in applause and catcalls.

In the lunchroom a few of the residents made vague sounds that could have been interpreted as agreement with the cast of the “Community”, that is, if you had quite a good imagination.  I raised my cup of ice chips to my lips; it was already empty.  The nurse’s large white butt was just disappearing out of the lunchroom door.

—CLICK—

My lips were still sticky from the triple cone when I got on my bike, “Janie, we gotta watch out for old Buttercrap, he’s going to be waiting for us somewhere, you can bet on that.”

“So what,” Janie said. “He’s just a big dumb head.”  Once again she passed me and turned into the alley next to the Korner Kreamery.  She stopped near the street leaned her bike against the back of the J.C. Penney’s building.

“What are you doing,” I said, when I caught up.

“What’s it look like, dummy?  We’re going to hide our bikes and go back and talk to that creepy guy. He said that he would show us stuff and we didn’t get to see anything.”

“My mom’s going to be right there on that corner and then what?” I said, hiding my bike next to hers.

“Don’t be such a chicken; she’s not going to be.” She ducked around the corner and was gone.

As I rounded the corner I could hear the first signs that there was really going to be a carnival tonight.  Some of the rides were being tested and their music and grinding gears were echoing off the stores that surrounded the square.

Janie wasn’t anywhere to be found.  How had she got around the other corner already? I turned the next corner.

“Lookie here, it’s the dickless sissy.  Hey Ames, where’s that smart mouth girlfriend of yours?” Tom Buttercap said, looming over me.  He had several of his mouth breathing friends who shuffling around behind him trying to leer like him. He grabbed my shirt and dragged me back around the corner into the alley.  His mouth breathing tribe closed around him so that the growing crowd couldn’t see Buttercap drag me off the square.

“Scream, and I’ll kick those BB sized sissy balls of yours,” he said, as if he was anticipating my next move. “I’m just going to kick your ass a little; just enough to show that skinny little girlfriend of yours that she needs to learn not to mess with Tom Buttercap.”

The tribe helped drag me into the alley and Buttercap gave me a hard kick in the ass. I fell on my face on the alley’s cement surface.  My cheek burned in pain. The tribe had now formed a circle around me, laughing and egging on Buttercap.  I rolled on my back and saw that they were all staring down at me. I touched my cheek and my hand came back bloody.

Buttercap licked his lips, “Now how does that feel, Ames?”  He was balling his fist getting ready to punch me. “This is just a taste, the next time…”

His eyes rolled back in his head and he fell on the cement next to me. His tribe looked up and saw Janie swinging an impossibly large chrome wrench. She was swinging it with both arms. She just nicked one of the mouth breathers on his elbow.  The boy yelped, turned, and ran.  The rest of Buttercap’s group did the same.

“Get up, we got to get out of here,” Janie said.

I got to my knees and my cheek felt like someone had dragged a red-hot wire across it. “Jeeze, did you kill him?”

“He’s still breathing,” she grabbed my arm and tried to pull me up.  “When he wakes up he’s going to be mad I bet,” she said, laughing.

I was on my feet and saw that Buttercap was starting to stir. “Where do we go?”

“I got to take this tool thingie back to that creepy guy.  He told me that I was going to need it,” she said pulling on my sleeve. A black shadow passed over the alley, I felt a shiver run down my spine, but I didn’t look up.

—CLICK—

The wall feed went blank, lights died, and the air handler stopped.  A feeble protest went up from the residents; I couldn’t believe that it was time for the 2:30 power outage. Two nurses’ aides came in with flashlights and pulled up the blinds.  Sick yellow light streamed in through the windows.  Within minutes the air began to grow thick with the odors of pungent drugged sweat of my fellow residents.

“O.K. people,” the head nurse said. “We all know this is just the 2:30 power outage.  It’s just a little early today. We’re not going to open the windows today. Homeland Security and Comfort issued a “Yellow Warning” this morning.  We all know what that means people, don’t we?  We’re going to keep all that yellow outside,” she folded her arms across her chest.

The sour humid air closed around me and I wished I had at least a cup of ice chips to suck on. Several of the “screechers” had started up, and it seemed it was going to be a long outage; I could feel it in my fragile bones. The nurse moved to the front of the lunchroom.  “O.K. everyone, time for a sing-along,” she pulled out a sheet of paper and squinted at it in the semi darkness. She shook her head and said, “Today’s song is “Purple Haze”, O.K. now everyone one…two…”

—CLICK—

Janie got us back to the carnie’s booth.  The creepy guy stared at my aching cheek. “Get on the wrong side of something kid?” He took the big wrench from Janie, wiped some blood from it on his pants, and tossed it onto a pile of other tools.  The clatter rang out in the canvas back of his booth. “I think you kids ought to stay in here for a while. At least until the contest starts, then nobody is going to be paying attention; they never do.”

Janie looked at him, “What contest?”

“Oh Missy, we always got us a special contest for all the towns we go to, this one here’s going to be really special.  It’s going to be the kids and everybody doing this one.  Hey kid,” he looked at me.  “Even your mom’s going to like this one.  Over in Illinois we had one town that it lasted for three days, but I think this here town’s going to be even more special.”

“What happens in it?” Janie said, looking at the pile of tools more closely.

“Well Missy that depends on the town” he picked a scab off the back of his neck and flipped it into the tools. “Sometimes it’s just a bit of horsing around, but sometimes it’s really something.”

I looked at the pile of tools.  Some of them I recognized from what dad had in the garage, but other ones didn’t make any sense. “Mister, do you have a bandage or something for my face, it really hurts.”

That set him off. He put his face next to mine, I could smell what he had for lunch and it was nothing that we ever had at our house, it made me think of what it smelled like back behind the Fieldville Café on hot days.  His gray and yellow eyes stared into mine. “Kid, the last thing you want to have is a bandage.  Bandages attract them like crazy, you don’t want them pink things noticing.” He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, “Promise me now, you ain’t going to have no bandage, not ever, not even where people can’t see them, and not your little friend here either.”

“Er, no sir, I…”

“That’s good if you know what’s good for you, you want to win the contest don’t you?” He let go of my shoulders and laughed. “You kids want something to eat, I got meat hen sandwiches, they ain’t bad, if you put a lot of ketchup on them.” He dug around in a pair of coveralls that were hanging from a nail at the back of the booth and pulled out a soggy sandwich.

I had never heard of anything called a meat hen and if his breath was anything like what a meat hen was, I didn’t want anything to do with them. “Um, no thanks, maybe we should just go home and get something.”

“Don’t be a dummy Michael, you can’t go home looking like that.  We need to stay here until the contest starts,” Janie said taking the meat hen sandwich.

“I got to go finish setting up. If the boss comes in just tell her that you’re going to help with the contest.  The boss is the one that comes up with the rules, and she might let you help her, if she has a mind.” He went out the back of the booth through a canvas flap.

When he was gone I turned to Janie, “What are we going to do now, we are so in trouble.  We don’t know if Buttercap is in the hospital and all his friends saw you hit him with the wrench.”

“Oh, is that what it was?  Look dummy, Buttercrap isn’t in the hospital, did you hear any sirens?  He’s probably looking for us, but he’ll never find us here.”

—CLICK—

“…oh, help me now, help me…” the lunchroom sing-along finished the last strains of “Purple Haze”.

“Very good people,” said the head nurse. She fanned herself with the paper in her hand. The grisly yellow light still poured through the windows. The power flickered and the air handler started, but sputtered out as the power gave up again.

“We’re all going to hell,” screamed one of the louder screechers. “We’re all going to hell like that nasty boy in the church…”

“Wilma, don’t upset everyone. It’s just the 2:30 power outage, it will be over before you know it,” the nurse said.  Another nurse had come up behind Wilma and slapped a patch on the back of her neck.  Wilma sagged in her chair.

I thought screeching something would be a good way to a free drug patch. It would be a hiatus, from what Wilma had actually described well.  But I just didn’t have the lungs for it anymore.  The best I would be able to do would be a middling mumble – you didn’t get “shut up” drugs for that.  The residents did increase their mumbling as a result of Wilma’s outburst, and the head nurse had to bring out the heavy guns.

“People, people, we know that Wilma sometimes is not very social, but we all want to be social don’t we? Ida,” she said to another nurse. “It’s time to bring out the Old Testament. I think today we should do Sodom and Gomorra.”

—CLICK—

Janie finished the meat hen sandwich and belched, “Too bad there was only one. You’re going to get hungry before the contest.”

“How did you even eat it, I can still smell it.”

“It wasn’t so bad after the first bite, better than what you had, which was nothing.”

“Janie,” I said. “What do you think that contest is?”

“Don’t know; bet it’s going to be fun. Sounds like we may get to do all kinds of things.  I hope I get to use that tool thingie again. Bet Buttercrap has got a headache.”

“Man Janie, you could have killed that big dummy and then what would happen is they’d send you to the electric chair…”

“Mikie, sometimes you really are a big dope.”

I gave her the, I’m serious stare. “Thirteen year olds that kill other kids go to reform school,” I said.  “And then they have to smoke cigarettes and get tattoos.  My dad says that it’s…”

“Dads always say stuff like that,” she said, belching again.  “And what’s wrong with smoking cigarettes?  If we had some here, I’d smoke them; I bet they’re good, my mom always has a Kool in her mouth.  Don’t be a chicken, everybody knows they can’t do anything to you if you’re a kid and you kill somebody – that’s the law.”

I bet she had more to say, but there was a squeal of feedback and a female voice said, “HELLO FIELDVILLE!  In twenty minutes we will be announcing the rules to Fieldville’s very own contest. It costs you absolutely nothing to enter, but there are many BIG prizes.  And at the end we will crown a King or Queen of Fieldville. Don’t miss this opportunity – remember it costs nothing to enter and there is so much to gain.  Please meet me at the bandstand in twenty minutes to enter. Only those officially entered will be eligible for valuable prizes.” There was a squeal of feedback. It echoed against the buildings surrounding the square.  That was all; then there was only the sound of early cicadas to break the silence.

“We got go get in line,” Janie said, as she disappeared through the canvas flap.

—CLICK—

The nurse had almost finished. She was to where Lot’s wife had just looked over her shoulder at the doomed city…when the power sputtered back to life and cool dry Pine Sol air started flowing again.  The fluorescent lights flicker on and the lunchroom returned to normal.  The nurse closed her Old Testament. She and the head nurse left the room.  Now it was just the normal mumbling and screaming.  The feed wall came to life and “Community” started in midstream.

—CLICK—

Janie was at the edge of the bandstand right in front of the microphone stand. I got up next to her and the woman on the stage said, “Well hi there kids. You anxious to start the contest?” Behind her were stacks of boxes.

“You bet,” Janie said. “You’re the boss aren’t you?”

The woman laughed, “Some people think so.” A dark shadow moved over the stage floor and the woman looked up. A pigeon fell dead at her feet.

Janie started clapping and jumping up and down, “That is so cool – how do you do it – can you show me?”

The woman looked at us, “My, you two are anxious. You just stick here right by my toes,” she wiggled them for us in her sandals, “and I guarantee we’ll have some fun with this contest.”

It started to get crowded and people started pushing a bit.  I saw that Buttercap was trying to make his way toward us.  Most of the polite people that lived in Fieldville let him through, but not all of them.  I pointed him out to Janie. She rolled her eyes and resumed staring at the woman behind the mike.

Buttercap finally made it to the front and balled up his fist to show me what was going to happen.

“That’s a nasty bump on your head child,” the woman said from the stage.

“Yeah.  Well it’s his fault… er um and her too,” he said pointing to Janie.

“Now you can’t really expect me to believe that dear.  These kids are going to be special in our contest in a few minutes.” She winked at Buttercap and his hand went to the back of his head.

“Ow, what did you do to me?” he yelped.

“Why dear, it appears you do enough to yourself without me doing anything. Now be a nice child and get in the back of line like you’re supposed to be.  You wouldn’t like to find out what happens to line jumpers during a contest,” she shook her head, “No you wouldn’t want to find out.”

I looked behind me, it seemed like everybody in town was back there, and Buttercap was going to have to go all the way back.  I saw my mom and dad and Janie’s parents were in line with everybody else, that was weird, mom never liked things like this, but there she was standing next to dad.  This was turning out OK after all.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am Madam Diamond, and I will be your guide tonight through the most thrilling night of your very lives.  Ladies and gentlemen I say this with no risk of disaccreditation or rebuff. Ladies and gentlemen what I say will not reach into the realm of hyperbole, that is, ladies and gentlemen, because every word I say tonight is the naked truth and nothing but the truth. Not since the times of the Pharaohs and Atlanteons has the contest been played – that is, not until now.”

She paused, and I looked all around the park and the square. This time I was sure the whole town was there, every eye was on Madam Diamond. Nobody stirred; they were all waiting to hear what she was going to say next.

Madam Diamond waited until the crowd got restless, and then one beat more. “Ladies and gentlemen, the contest is as old as humanity itself – but it reached its apex in those days of ancient Egypt and Atlantis. Tonight we will all experience its wonder and power. Now let me explain the rudiments.” Here she paused again. She had the crowd almost breathing in unison by the time she started again. There was something weird about listening to her. I sort of forgot I was standing in the park.

“We have two captains; they are standing in front of me right now. OK kids, I want you to come up here and stand by me,” She pointed at Janie and me. “Let’s hear it for our captains. One of them is going to be King or Queen tonight.”  She lifted her arms in the air and there was a smattering of applause.  “Ladies and gentlemen, you can do better than that.  Your captains will direct you and all the fabulous prizes you see behind me will be given out tonight.  Let’s hear it again!”  This time the applause was louder.

Madam Diamond grabbed the microphone stand in both her hands and shook her head, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have color TVs, transistor radios, musical instruments of all kinds and of the highest quality. We have hi-fi record players, dishwashers, automatic washers, driers, refrigerator/freezers, window air conditioners with Magic Flo ventilation, and much, much more. All the rewards of our superior way of life can be yours.”

This time the crowd cheered until Madam Diamond had to finally calm them down.  “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we will have two teams – the Michael and the Jane Team. The last one standing will be either King or Queen Ed, bring the rope,” the creepy carnie, who had been hiding us in his booth, dragged a large rope up to the stage.  One end had been tied to a light pole and he was holding the other.

“Everyone on the left side of the rope is on Michael’s team – everyone on the right is on Jane’s team. Ed and my other assistant Fred will come by and get your signatures.  In the meantime let’s make sure that no one tries to change sides,” Fred, who looked exactly like Ed, or was it the other way around, handed her the rope. She shook the rope and as it vibrated, it changed into a writhing pink snake. Its pink-skinned sides heaved with muscle twitches.  Blue veins could be seen through the skin, and there were splotches of discolored poxy hide.  People screamed and people clapped, but they sure the hell didn’t cross the snake thing.

She threw her hands in the air and slips of paper snowed down on the crowd. “I think you’ll find a pen on the ground near you, just sign the paper and hand it to Ed or Fred when they come by,” she said. “We only have a few minutes for this, so I will send my other assistants Ed and Fred into each side to help Ed and Fred.”  Two more lookalike assistants came out and started working the crowd.

“Oh dear, I guess I’ll just have to have all my assistants help with this,” several more pairs of Eds and Freds came out of behind somewhere and moved among the crowd.

“Janie,” I whispered to the other side of the stage, “did you see that?”

“Which that are you talking about – the snake, the paper, or all those Eds?”

“Having fun kids?” Madam Diamond said to us, turning away from the microphone.  “We’re just getting started.”

I looked out at the crowd, and realized for the first time that I was in front of the whole town, I could feel a cold sweat pop up on my arms and forehead.  My knees went weak.

“Just relax dear, we can’t have you leaving the party so early,” Madam Diamond touched me on the shoulder and I stared into the crowd, it didn’t bother me anymore.

“Mikie,” Janie whispered back to me, “I told you it was going to be cool, the snake thing is growing and shedding on the grass.”

The snake was sloughing off layers of pink flesh onto the grass and the flesh was steaming, it smelled like the creepy carnie’s sandwich.  The Eds and Freds were making their way back through the crowd with all their slips of paper.

Madam Diamond stepped back up to the mike, “Ladies and gentlemen thank you for your patience. Jane, please step up to the mike.”

Janie stepped up to the mike. Madam Diamond leaned over and whispered something in her ear.  Janie nodded and stepped up to the mike, “Uh hi everybody we’re going to start with a race between my side and Mikie’s side.” She looked over at Madam Diamond.  The woman looked at Janie and motioned for her to continue. “Mm, Madam Diamond says that the first one from the either side to reach the fountain wins a color TV. She said I need to count to three and then everybody run. One…two…” She looked over at Madam Diamond. Madam Diamond wiggled her fingers.

“Oh yeah,” Janie said, she wiggled her fingers at the crowd. “THREE.” As she wiggled her fingers the crowd began to wail.  They began to shrink right before my eyes.

“Now Michael,” she said. “Let’s throw in a brand new Ford Fairlane hardtop convertible to the winning side. But let’s make it a bit harder.” She leaned over to me and said, “Wave your arms in the air, that’ll make them jump and hop.” She laughed as I waved my hands in the air, like an idiot.

The darkening sky grew darker. From the west came a dark cloud. I stared at it until it became clear – it was a huge cloud of crows.  The crows swarmed around the square and landed on the fountain.  The tiny people of Fieldville were now moving back from their goal.

“Oh, let’s throw in a new sewing machine and a year’s supply of frozen cakes. Nobody doesn’t like frozen cakes, right Michael.” She motioned to her Freds and Eds, they opened boxes of rats.  The rats poured down the stage and headed for the increasingly terrified crowd.  Now the shrunken crowd was hemmed in between rats and crows. There wasn’t going to be much left of Fieldville after tonight.

“Stop it,” I screamed at the woman, “you’ll kill them all.”

“Well, well Michael, you know what they say – you can’t make hand grenades without a few hands – or something like that.  A contest is no fun without a little challenge.”

“Stop it,” I screamed again.

“Well, what do you think Janie, should we stop it?” Madam said.

“I don’t want any of my friends to get hurt, or mom or dad…”

“What about Buttercrap, isn’t that what you call him? What about him, didn’t you say you were going to kill him earlier today.  Didn’t you hit him in the head with Ed’s wrench?”

“Yeah, I don’t know…”

“Dear, either you’re a player or just one of those little people out there with the rats. I can’t have a King or Queen that’s afraid to break a few eggs…yeah that’s what I meant to say earlier.”

“Leave her alone, you bitch,” I said.

She turned and stared at me, “I see. It’s me this, me that, neither of you are willing to play along with me. Well let’s see if we can fix that,” she pointed to the pink snake thing and it began to writhe.  It swept its great pink body until it was hovering over me.  It continued to writhe and began to crush people in the park.

“Stop it,” I yelled to the woman. I could feel the snake’s breath on my face.  I looked over to Madam Diamond and saw that the other end of the snake also had a huge mouthful of teeth hovering over Janie.

“You two kids can stand around and let the entire town be crushed by my pretty friend, or one of you can sacrifice yourself to my friend, it’s your choice.  The last one standing is King or Queen.”

Janie inched closer to the mouth of the snake – I did too.  Now I could smell its breath, it smelled like a meat hen, and something else I didn’t want to think about.  I couldn’t make myself get closer to that mouth. “Janie, no!” I screamed, as I watched her step right up to the fangs. I jumped and tried to grab her, but it was too late. The mouth came down and swallowed her. “Nooo,” I said.

I turned and pushed Madam Diamond into the other mouth. She wobbled and cursed me, I wheeled around and pushed her harder.  The other snake’s head grabbed her all the way to mid-torso. I heard a sickening crunch and a tearing sound.  The snake shook her violently, and then she was still. It pulled her off the stage and began to shrink back into itself.  Next came the Freds and Eds, they were swept off the stage and into the ever shrinking space that used to be the pink thing. Last a whirlwind of appliances and luxuries flew past me. The last thing I remember from that night is one of the boxes gouged a line down my left arm and another knocked me off my feet.

—CLICK—

The credits were rolling on the “Community” and the nurses were rolling meal trays around the lunchroom. The head nurse said, “People in honor of Fieldville’s Bicentennial we have a special treat for you: Pink Spotted Meat Hen.”

I summoned all my strength, “Nurse Diamond,” I said, with surprising clarity, “You’re still a bitch.”  I looked at the faded scar on my forearm and thought – being King sure isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

One Response to “Bicentennial by C.J. Swift”

  1. I really wanted to learn more about the future world the author built — it was far more interesting than the backstory, and I enjoyed all the little details.

    The “big reveal” at the end didn’t do it for me, and the story needed a lot of copyediting, but the details made it interesting and the carnies (and snake) were vivid and gross.

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