Election Day

Posted on: October 26, 2016

My nostrils register the stranger before my eyeballs get a chance. The morning breeze, warm for early November, wafts a musky scent, along with a faint hint of woodsmoke, across the mountaintop. My fingers head straight for the canister of bear spray attached to my belt as I scan the clearing. About twenty yards away I spy the origin of the odor; a man, perched like a bird, on a decrepit old log. He stares off over the eastern rim, the sky awash in swirls of pinks and reds, as the sun gets ready to peek out over the horizon.

I take stock of his clothes and gear. His pack sits next to him, covered with the grime and dust that one can only get after serious time on the trail. Matted hair sprouts out from under his knit hat. Though filthy, it all appears to be top of the line, expensive stuff. I have no idea if he knows that I am there. I try to figure out whether or not to beat feet back down the trail when he jumps up, arms outstretched, like some sort of crusty-chic Christ, his crucified silhouette a sharp contrast against the sanguine sky.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains,” his voice booms and cascades down the valley in front of him.

I turn to run. The snap of a twig under my foot sends him spinning around.

“Oh, shit.” He tumbles backwards off the log, his face turning a shade of pink not altogether dissimilar from the early morning sky.

“Are you okay?” I ask, my hand still on my bear spray.

He responds with a cackle as he claws his way back onto his perch.

“I think so,” he says. “Nothing busted but my pride.”

As I approach I get a better look at him. White male, probably early forties. His eyes dance behind Burberry frames and his beard, brown shot through with flecks of gray, frames a beatific smile. There is something oddly familiar about him.

“How about you?” he asks. “Sorry for my little outburst there. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.”

“I’m fine.” I decide that I like this stranger. “What was that? Thoreau?”

“Not a bad guess, but no. John Muir. The grand old man of these hills. And boy did he get it right. Not a better sunrise in the world that the one up here. It hits me everyday.”

I glance again at his gear. It has seen a lot of miles.

“You doing a thru-hike?” I ask.

“Nope. Just kind of wandering.” He bends over and reaches out, his fingers gingerly caressing a delicate orange flower that I hadn’t noticed until now. He pulls it close to his face and buries his nose in it. There is something about his innocence that is staggering. “You?”

“Just looking for a little peace and quiet.”

He inhales deeply from the flower again.

“And you had the misfortune to run into a crazy like myself.”

“You’re a whole lot less crazy than what’s going on back down there today.” I jerk my thumb towards the metropolis I fled well before dawn. “It’s election day. Time for the people to roll their bones and cast their stones and decide the fate of the free world.”

The stranger stands up, his face switching from serene to sullen.

“Oh wow. I guess I lost track of time.”

He looks at me and it suddenly hits me who he is. The face staring at me, sans beard, had been plastered all over every screen I’d looked at for the past month. A high ranking official in the Democratic Party, his disappearance had fueled wild conspiracies from both sides of the campaign. Especially when his car was found, ransacked and vandalized on a lonely stretch of Highway 30 up near Big Bear.

Before I can say anything, he speaks.

“My first job after college was in car sales. And man, I was good at it. It got to the point that when a real pile of shit car would come onto the lot, everybody bet on how long it would take me to unload it onto some hapless rube. And then one night, I’m driving home, I see this young girl on the side of the road. I recognize the car as one I’d sold. And I remember her dad, how he’d scraped together everything he had, all to buy her a ‘dependable’ car so she could get back and forth to college. I remembered the look of pride in his eyes, and the look of love in hers. And I remember the laughter in the sales office after they left.”

He reached out for the orange flower again, his fingers tracing the petals.

“Seeing her stranded, I got this pain in my gut. Worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. So I pulled over, wrote her a check for two thousand dollars and never went back to the car lot. And the pain eased up. I decided to dedicate my life to public service, to help people instead of fleecing them.”

He takes a deep breath and continues.

“And so it went for a number of years. Just like at the car lot, I found my niche, and I leapt up the rungs of the ladder, all the way to inner workings of the party. I felt like I was making a difference. But then one day, a couple of months ago, I opened my eyes and the message seemed to have changed. Somewhere along the way we switched from being a beacon of hope to a machine that churned out nothing but fear. And my job went from telling the world about the good we were trying to do, to feeding into some sort of collective anxiety. And all of a sudden, the pain returned and I felt like I was selling used cars again.”

“So what are you going to do now?” I ask.

“I guess that depends on you,” he said. “Are you going to go running off and tell people you saw me?”

I laugh.

“There’s a reason I hike alone,” I say. “I’m a man who values privacy.”

He smiles and picks up his dusty rucksack.

“Well, if that’s the case, I will once again quote the estimable Mr. Muir, 'The mountains are calling and I must go.'”

Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Fabrice Poussin

Last Christmas in the Desert

Posted on: October 19, 2016

It was a damn beautiful sight, being home, Theodore Saunders and the rest of The Cosmic Cowboy Gang, home for the holidays, top of the charts to happiness, with a bullet. Christmas in the desert was Geronimo in boots stepping on rattlesnakes, Sticky Fingers with a new floozy, dressed in rags, sans-makeup, and him saying over and over again, mantra-like, “She’s as beautiful as a sunset,” so much so that surely he was on something. “Give me some,” I told him and he handed me purple pills, which I gulped down with a tumbler of Rye as Sticky Fingers’ girl winked at me. “What’s your name?” I asked her. “Phyllis,” she said. “Really?” I laughed. “What’s so funny?” “Nothing,” I said. “I guess I just expected something different.”

MacDougal Franks, Theodore Saunders, Geronimo, Sticky Fingers, and me, myself, I - The Cosmic Cowboy Gang, home for the holidays, like I said. Franks turned up the radio and The Castilles played groovy chords, CGE, over and over again, and then THEM came on the radio and finally, lastly, last song before the sunrise, was “Feeling Like a Million Bucks,” by The Albatross Society, guest vocals by Raymond Feelgood.

We’d all stacked into the car like canned tuna, a beat-to-shit Corolla that someone’s mom had bought used, cash-only, on Craiglist. It was born red, but the desert had its way with it and now it was pink in its old age. Sometimes it smoked, and it always jarred and buckled like a mustang from the nineteenth century, but most of the time it rode and this time it rolled us down the slope of Old Man’s Bluff, to the Valley of the Dead Crickets where Geronimo once claimed to have seen a UFO, and to where I can attest to seeing roughly one million dead crickets in the early morning hours of November 9th, the first of many plagues to wipe shit-eating grins off orange oompa-loompa motherfuckers and their disciples.

All the crickets were gone now and in their stead was red earth, blue sky, yellow sun - all of it so settled into a cosmic grace that it was impossible to disturb, it’s fantastic indisputable, it’s hypothetical smile beaming and clean, bright and shining, tie-dyed in the colors of the desert. It was a beautiful sight in an ugly world.

The purple pills took over and blanketed us all in a hazy gospel of good-times, and Sticky Fingers went off with Phyliss to howl wolf to the sexual skies, and Geronimo stumbled into The Valley to find rattlers, and Macdougal Franks and Theodore Saunders and myself climbed up Old Joe’s Bluff to paint our masterpiece on the blank sky. Cowboy boots lack traction so we slipped and slid on loose rubble from age unknown until we reached the crest, and looked out over The Valley of the Dead Crickets, where the sun came up on the good side of the world. It was Christmas official, and in the muted sunrise it began to snow on us, trinkets of grey gold, acid and mushy on the tongue, and with the snow it became impossible to forget that the world around us burned, that on our tongues was no doubt someone’s arm, eye, shoulder blade, breast or heart, lungs, someone’s face or even someone’s tongue - the last meaning that in our version of these end days we’re french kissing with dead strangers.

For years our radioactive society had been scheduled for disintegration. The Lord works in mysterious ways, but each Christmas will be our last, until there are no more places like Old Joe’s Bluff, no more Cosmic Cowboy Gang, no more time for creatures, cultures, or cunt, it finally, at the end, being more convenient to list the things that remained than the things we’d lost. But what do we know? We’d still ride the rollercoasters of our purple highs, we’d still pack the Corolla, we’d still fancy sunrise over sunset, refuse to bury the optimism that comes with the beginning of a day, the freedom of future, and an unlit matchstick. There’ll come a time to burn, but not yet baby, not yet.

I emerged from my druggy reverie just as Sticky Fingers, Phyllis, and Geronimo reconvened the circle of us on the top of the bluff. The sun was high up in the sky then, and afternoon approached. “Why’s the sky blue?” Phyllis moaned, stretching her arms out to meet it, to sink her slender fingers into a cloud. I told her that Aristotle believed that all air was blue. But it was a wispy blue. A slight blue. And only when all air stacked on top of itself did you get the colors of our overhead skies. “If you go to the top of the world, above the clouds,” I said, “the sky would get paler and paler until finally it gets close to white, and that’s when you get to heaven, not a white, just the lightest shade of blue.”

“That ain’t it,” Geronimo said. “It’s the refraction of sunlight. That’s why the sky is blue.” Phyllis shook her head. “That’s how the sky gets blue,” she said. “I’m asking why.” Geronimo started to speak but stopped, unable to corral whatever epiphany lay dormant inside himself, and nobody talked for a good while. I decided that I wanted to believe Aristotle’s reasoning, and that we were seeing the best sky, as it lived its bluest self, science be damned.

When it came time to go the others hopped in the Corolla and I stood outside it, my body a shadow on the desert rocks, silhouetted by the Corolla’s single headlight. “Let’s go,” they chorused, but I waved them off. “I’m going to stay,” I said. “Someone needs to stay outside.” A few of them laughed and asked what I was talking about. But how could I explain to them what I could not even understand myself? Some neolithic organ inside my gut, some nameless constituent of my soul, knew then that it would be our last night, and that as the birth of that day’s namesake marked the beginnings of our Anno Domini epoch, its death would come then, same day, new hour, two thousand-odd years in the making, and that for us, for everyone, it was the last Christmas in the desert.

As they drove away I could see a growing fire stretched across the whole of the horizon, getting bigger. It changed the color of the blue sky and turned it black. I stayed outside.

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

American Terror

Posted on: October 12, 2016

Vincent is breaking up with Jack.

He sits in the car, staring at the green doors of his high school. Jack will be done with track practice at 6:30 PM, and Vincent will drive him home. Jack will blabber on about Demi Lovato supposedly quitting music while Vincent bites his cuticles and steers with his left hand. He will pull up in front of Jack’s house, and Jack will try to kiss him. Vincent will not reciprocate, and then he will end their relationship.

Because it’s that easy.

Vincent and Jack grew up going to school together. When they were in eighth grade, Jack asked Vincent to be his date at the winter formal. Jack wore an ice blue tie with a white button down shirt and navy suit. Vincent wore a red suit and black button down because why not? They shared their first dance and their first kiss. They went to Waffle House with some friends after the formal, and then they made out in Vincent’s car until curfew at 12am.

Jack’s father was some big shot at a steel plant, and he’d hire Jack to work during the summers. He would take Vincent up to the rooftop of one of the abandoned warehouses, and they’d drink root beer and eat beef jerky. That’s where Jack said, “I love you,” for the first time, and Vincent said it back even though they were only sixteen years old. You gotta fall for somebody sometime, right?

Jack opens the passenger door and sits down, his hair wet from a locker room shower. Vincent half expects a peck on the cheek, but it doesn’t come. They pull out onto the highway as the sun starts to set. Vincent asks if Jack would like to get something to eat, but he declines. The silence is palpable; Vincent’s heart pulses a little faster because he feels like Jack knows he’s going to break up with him.

“Vince, I think we need to talk,” Jack says.

Vincent forces his eyes not to widen as he asks, “What about?”


Jesus, he does know, Vincent thinks.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what our future looks like,” Jack begins. “We’re juniors now, and senior year is gonna be so busy with college applications and SATs and all that.”

He’s going to do this for me, Vincent thinks with George Costanza charm. He nods, furrowing his brow to show he’s hurt, but understands.

“I just think - Vince, stop. STOP!”

A skunk is walking across the road, taking its time in the dark. The beams from the headlights reflect off the white stripe down its back before Vincent runs over it. They feel the skunk collide with the bottom of the car, and then the odor pours in through the vents. Vincent does not slow down.

The silence and stench held onto each other for what felt like hours.

“That was horrible,” Jack says.

“Ugh, yeah, that smell?” Vincent replies.

“No, Vince. That you killed it. You fucking killed it when you could’ve stopped.”

Vincent stares ahead, unsure of how to respond. He’s thinking about the blood that might be on the car, and if the smell if going to go away anytime soon.

“I thought the car was higher. I wasn’t trying to kill it.”

Jack scoffs, folding his arms over his chest and shaking his head. “You thought the car was higher.”

“Whatever. God, I’m sorry.”

Vincent turns into Jack’s subdivision, driving past the neighborhood pool and clubhouse. There’s an older couple out for an evening walk with their golden retriever. He pulls up to Jack’s house and puts the car in park. Jack doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t move.

Vincent has been spending time alone, pouring over news and Wikipedia articles about guerilla warfare. It’s hard being seventeen and feeling like the only way you can change the world is through violence. Vincent was breaking up with Jack because tomorrow he will detonate the bombs he planted beneath the stage in the gymnasium of their high school. Republican vice presidential nominee Governor Sarah Spoke will be there, and her death will be a great victory for the LGBQT community. How could he ever forget the leaked audio recording of her hatred for “fags and their ilk?” His classmates and teachers will be a necessary sacrifice.

“Hey, I really am sorry for hitting that skunk. I didn’t mean to, I swear,” Vincent says.

“Vince, we need to break up. It’s not just because we’re going to be busy next year. It’s because you’ve been really weird. I mean, I know you’ve been at the school in the middle of the night. What the hell are you doing?”

Vincent feels his heart pounding in his throat. His palms are slick with sweat and he presses them against his thighs, staring at the clock of his dashboard.

“Why were you spying on me?”

“Spying?” Jack asks. “Why the fuck would you share your location with me if you didn’t want me to know where you were?”

Vincent had completely forgotten that they had toggled their phones to share their locations. After months of preparation, he never once thought about Jack wondering what he was doing.

“Forget it. You’re right, Jack. We probably don’t need to see each other anymore.”

“Are you even going to tell me what you’ve been doing at school at fucking four o'clock in the morning for the past two weeks?”

“I’ve been hooking up with Sam Guest,” Vincent blurted out.

Another immeasurable silence before Jack says, “I see. Well, no use crying over your backstabbing ass.”

Jack gets out of the car and shuts the door, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he walks up the driveway to his house.

Vincent thinks about Jack’s dad’s plan to surprise him tomorrow with a trip to the mountains, and how they’ll be three hours up the interstate when the bombs go off and make Vincent a hero in the war against intolerance.

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

The Apartment

Posted on: October 5, 2016

The rickety elevator reached the ground floor with a noise reminiscent of the carriages on the train station. Afra stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the eleventh floor. The elevator started moving upwards with a mighty sound.

Zahir sat at the edge, with his legs dangling pondering about what sort of work would he have to start looking for in the coming days. He had come across the abandoned, naked building while walking on the western fringes of the city that was once known for its skyscraper-studded skyline.

The door moved with a crashing sound. Afra walked into the room with a view that even the best penthouses could never afford.

"I managed to get enough food for the next two days. We just need some hot water to heat it up", Afra said while putting down the bags on the floor.

“Did you get enough rest today Zahir? My work was deadbeat. I had to transport some goods from one end of the city to another. The pay wasn’t bad. It was enough for food at the trader’s place.” She sat down on the deteriorating couch and started fiddling with her screen.

"Why don't you go and get some hot water from the people at the top floor like last time, if you don't feel like going down all the way." Afra knew Zahir hated the topic but she was in no shape to do anything after a day’s work.

"They might not let me in, Afra. I messed up their computers last time when I tried connecting my devices to their network."

"They don't know it was you."

"Who else comes to this building anymore? Have you noticed anyone around? It's obviously one of us that tried connecting to their network."

Afra sat down on a couch, torn all over the place. "What do you think they have up there exactly?”

"I'm not entirely sure, but they do have a strong satellite web connection. I worked for them a few times before you came here. They would ask us to code stuff in an extremely modular fashion. It was a bit difficult to make sense of the overall aim of what they really wanted us to do."

"What made you stop working?"

"I didn’t. They just stopped asking people to work. That's when the others started leaving the building. I waited long to see if they would hire again. They are very different than us Afra. They can’t seem ever to be satisfied.”

* * *

The night was cold and dark, but the sound of the sea crashing into the shore put both Afra and Zahir to sleep. There were no sounds of distraction tonight.

Zahir woke up and took a quiet walk to the elevator, then ran down the staircase. The ground floor was empty except for the sleeping dogs. He picked up his bike and rode to the nearest light post. There were some bodies huddled together under the light. He approached them, switched on his storage devices, took out his screen, connected to the mesh network and started syncing data on the storage devices.

The older unmarked data would be removed to make space for the new stuff, so he quickly reviewed all the older batches he had marked for deletion. It took close to twenty minutes for the data to get synched.

Zahir started westward toward the abandoned building. On his way, he stopped at another spot and synced some more data.

While climbing the staircase of the building he took note of the fact that the top floor with the furnished apartment was not drawing generator power. The silence of the generator was rare.

"Afra, sync your devices, I have fresh batch data." She woke up at his request and took out all her storage devices from her bag and started switching them on.

"Did you manage to go through last week's data?" she asked, while reviewing her existing data on her screen.

"Not really. Most important thing I came across was news about establishment of some sort of a socialist state in the north."

"Okay. I'm going to review what you got today. You can go to sleep if you want," said Afra.

Zahir laid down on one of the mattress and turned towards the dark sky as he fell asleep.

Afra's storage devices blinked the green lights as the network completed syncing with Zahir's. She started going through the data. There was a ton of video footage, some low res, some hi. She started sorting the videos by geo-location. Nothing interested her much. She entered the directory containing news pages, articles, and reports. She quickly did an analysis of the text and found that Masdar was trending heavily in the news.

The city-state of Masdar in the west had sustained some sort of carbon footprint attack. The news suggested that unknown groups or individuals had let massive oil spills burn in the desert within the territory of Masdar. Masdar had lost large amount of its wealth in blink of an eye as its carbon footprint soared. In a news connected to this incident she read about rogue groups profiting from the carbon trading speculative market.

Reading these pieces stirred something in Afra. She woke Zahir up, "What is it exactly that you would code for the guys up there?"

"I don't know Afra, it mostly had to do with a lot of number crunching."

"What kind of numbers?"

"Various sorts. Sometimes I only worked on trade histories of essential commodities, then I did menial work like cleaning, reviewing weather data every day, and some other days I did server maintenance. It wasn't always coding precisely."

“They must have access to data that the street meshes simply could never have right?” Afra couldn’t help but think about all the reports she read throughout the night. They always seem to have fragments and nothing more when collecting data from street meshes.

She held Zahir's hand and told him "I'm going to work for them, whatever menial work it may be."

Before Zahir had the chance to respond, she fled up the staircase and knocked on the door of the apartment. It opened.

"I want to work."

Written by: Debarun Sarkar
Photograph by: Matthew Wiebe

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