This is the ninth round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “I”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “I” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — (added after voting closes)
(3,266 words – approx. reading time: about 12 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Carson, as editor-in-chief of The Examiner, it is your duty to crumple this up and bank-shot it into file 13 (you are no Jordan, maybe let your secretary take the shot). As my friend, I beg you to keep an open mind as you read. You, more than most, understand that my job as provocateur is not just my way of making a living and selling newspapers, it is my way of life. I work hard and am proud of my column. Last time I checked, “Rick’s Write” was the most popular segment of the paper, drawing equal amounts of praise and rage from our readers, and still selling papers in the age of the internet. I’m not saying you owe me, but you owe me. Give me a chance to tell the truth, the real truth. So, please, no matter what happens, believe what I am about to tell you.
Dearest Readers, in addition to my day job as a journalist, I am a role-player. Go ahead and pick your minds up out of the gutter—no, I don’t dress up in a cowboy hat and chaps and rope the rancher’s daughter with my love lasso—I work for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, or FLETC (Flet-see) way out here in Artesia, New Mexico, just 50 miles south of Roswell (Yes, that Roswell).
Role-playing is kind of like adults playing cops and robbers, but hard to explain without context. You see, the students that go through FLETC are learning to become law enforcement officers and agents. They go through rigorous training and testing, but mostly in the classroom, gym, and pistol range. However, the agency directors have decided that there should be a more realistic element to their training. That’s where I come in. I most often get to play the bad guy and the students get to go through the drill of dealing with a complete asshole, this prepares them for the real world.
I have been interrogated, handcuffed, beaten with a baton, pepper-sprayed, tackled, and shot so many times I’ve lost count. But as they say, ‘Safety is no Accident’. The shooting is done with Airsoft pellets or blanks and we wear Redman padded suits before we get clubbed like baby seals. But not all is on the up and up. There was an old cop once, coming in for refresher training, that happened to shoot me while I was handcuffed and in a position of disadvantage (POD). The instructor, upset with his student, asked, What are you going to do now that you’ve shot an unarmed, handcuffed suspect. The veteran cop, true to his New York brogue, replied, This is when I uncuff’im and plant da’ gun. That got a good laugh from the other students, a head-shaking from the instructor, and a theatrical groan from the suspect turned victim—me.
But there are other aspects to role-playing that are even more intriguing. One such perk is the Wet Lab. It sounds salacious, and it is. A group of role-players, three males and three females, are brought into a remote trailer and given measured amounts of alcohol to imbibe. Periodic breathalyzer testing indicates the desired blood alcohol level. When reached, we drunks are herded outdoors and seated in pre-staged vehicles. The officers-in-training are tasked with observing, approaching, and eventually field-testing each role-player to determine if they are illegally ‘driving’ under the influence. This is a coveted role by some, disdained by others. As for me, I relish the idea of getting paid to drink, cuss out cops, and generally act a fool with impunity (unless you count the subsequent hangover).
But this particular Wet Lab was very different and is the reason I am breaking with protocol and journaling this bizarre event. Like Fight Club in Las Vegas, there is one prevailing rule for Wet Lab—What goes on in Wet Lab, stays in Wet Lab! I have seen role-players get buck wild in the questionable company of Jim, Jack, and Johnny. Inhibitions fade fast and true colors flair faster. As we sit and drink at the table, waiting for the training to begin, role-players talk trash, sing badly, tell stupid jokes, and play board games. Some get flirty and frisky, some get argumentative, and some just throw up.
On this particular day, I had a provocative agenda. In an effort to push a few buttons, I wore my Darwin tee-shirt. It is simply a black shirt with the white silhouette of Charles Darwin stenciled onto it. In the real world it goes mostly unnoticed. In the middle of Wet Lab it becomes a lightning rod for religious outrage. For those of you that regularly read my Rick’s Write column, you know that I can’t pass up an opportunity to stir the pudding.
As the instructor refreshed my Solo cup with Scotch on the rocks, I casually took off my jacket, revealing my Darwin tee-shirt. “What’s that all about?” Nickie slurred through pursed lips, sipping rum and Coke through a straw. I played the role of confused guy and asked, “What, this old thing?” It was on! A dynamic debate began regarding God, monkey’s uncles, evil-lution (as Nickie expressed it), and soon devolved into the unanswerable question as to whether or not dinosaur fossils were placed in the earth by Satan in order to confuse and corrupt the minds of men. I had tossed a match onto ninety-proof alcohol and I sat back and warmed my hands to the flames.
Nickie was about to bludgeon David with a Monopoly board when the instructors finally called out, “In-Role!” This was the universal signal to get our shit together and start training FLETC students. We stumbled out the door into the New Mexico sunshine. We shielded our eyes like B-movie vampires and made our way to our assigned vehicles. I climbed into a Silverado and cranked up the radio. After a few minutes, a group of four students dressed in full cop garb sidled up to my window. The lead student tapped the glass with her expandable baton and motioned for me to roll it down. I ignored her and sang loudly and way off key to an old David Alan Coe song, “I was drunk, the day my mama, got out of prison…”
I finally let her get my attention and I buzzed the window down. The student explained (because this was in her script) that she had seen me swerving back down the road a ways. In my best redneck, explained to her that I was an animal lover and that I was dodging a possum back there (not in the script). She asked me if I had been drinking. It takes practice and timing, but I was able to belch in her face on that cue. It was an incriminating answer.
While the other students observed, the lady cop got me out of the truck and explained the rules of a field sobriety test. We would start with the turn and walk. She placed two orange traffic cones about twenty feet apart and asked me to walk heel-to-toe from one to the other in a straight line without stopping or using my arms to balance. I was pretty good at this one; I had practiced it a lot. I started out a little wobbly but practically ran through the last several feet, did an about-face and zoomed back to the first cone. To celebrate my success, I kicked the plastic cone across the pavement and made a Y with my arms. The students were shocked, the instructor was amused; I was having fun and getting paid.
The second test involved me raising one foot six inches off the ground and counting to 25, inserting Mississippi’s in between numbers. I did it easily but insisted on saying One—I want a lawyer; Two—I want a lawyer; Three—I want my mommy… and so on. They jotted this deviation down in green Memoranda notebooks as an indicator that I may be inebriated or perhaps brain damaged.
The third and final test was one I couldn’t beat or cheat my way out of. They call it the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) or sometimes just the ‘eye test’. The lady officer told me to stand still, face forward and not move my head. She then pulled out a ballpoint pen, clicked it with her thumb, and told me to follow the silver tip with my eyes only. By observing my pupils at their extreme limits, students can see them start to jerk involuntarily. That’s a sure sign of intoxication. The lady cop was very short and I’m just over six-feet. As she started waving the pen back and forth I couldn’t help but mention to her that from this vantage, I could eat an apple off the top of her head. That was it; I had finally pushed the right button.
The lady cop clicked her pen again and slipped it back into her shirt pocket. She pulled her telescoping baton from her utility belt and flicked it to full length. She stepped to my side and whacked me as hard as she could with the metal rod. Pain erupted in the back of my legs and I folded like a cheap lawn chair. On my knees now, the lady cop looked down her nose at me and said, “Apples, huh, how do you like them apples?”
At that point I looked around for the instructor and uttered the magic words that would stop this brazen brutality: “Out of Role!” It had always worked in the past. It was the role-players’ safe word and was supposed to freeze all action immediately. It didn’t. The other student cops grabbed me under my arms and started dragging me back toward the corrugated trailer where we had begun the day’s day drinking. They carried me past the admin office where the instructors kept track of role-player progress. I saw my name and five others handwritten on a white board. In graphed columns, numbers indicating height, weight, number of ounces consumed, and Breathalyzer results were printed neatly. It was just a quick glimpse, but as they hustled me through the room I am sure I saw a tiny smiley-face emoji crudely drawn beside my name. Then my lights went out.
“You owe me five bucks,” was the next thing I remember hearing. All of us role-players were seated around the drinking table where two greasy pizza boxes were centered.
“What?” I asked, still woozy.
David said it again. “You owe me five bucks. You were out of commission back there in the darkroom, so I ponied up your share to pay for these super-supreme pizzas. He folded a slice and jammed it into his mouth.
This was another perk from Wet Lab. After finishing with the students, we got to order out and chow down on whatever alcohol absorbing, carb-rich carryout we could agree on. There were never any votes for salads or sushi while coming down from a good sloshing. I paid David and looked at the pizza. Unbelievably, I had no appetite. A first for me, but David and the others were quick to take advantage of my fast.
It didn’t take long for my Breathalyzer results to drop below .05, earning me a ride home by way of Uber. Just as well, I felt out of sorts. Never had I blacked out during a Wet Lab, not even from those Spring Break binges back in my college days. According to the white board, my Breathalyzer numbers had peaked at .09, barely over the limit. I should have been as fine as wine, pardon the pun. When I got home, I went straight to bed.
The next morning my head was banging like bass drum. This hangover was accompanied by a new band member—a fever. I could feel my forehead heating up and my skin tightening over my skull. I decided to take the day off from the newspaper and work from home. I still had my column to write but I could do that on the back porch where I hoped the cool breeze would sooth my humors.
I got settled in with my laptop, a bottle of aspirin, and a cup of coffee when I noticed a large spider hunkered up high in the eaves of my porch. Not a bug fan, I hiked back to the kitchen and grabbed a can of Raid from under the sink. Armed with the aerosol arsenal, I approached the spider’s nest. I aimed, started to press the nozzle, and then stopped. Strangely fascinated, I stood there, frozen, watching the creature work its web. A moth had ensnared itself in the gossamer mesh and the spider moved with preternatural speed to capture it. With a blur of bristled legs, it spun the moth into delirium, wrapping it tightly into a straitjacket of spun silk. Then it began eating the moth’s exposed eyes…
It must have been twenty minutes I stood there watching the entomological nightmare. All the while, my mind was starting to piece together the events of the previous day—the Wet Lab. Thoughts, images, fractured memories came flooding back. Some of my readers know that I have an eidetic memory. Curse or blessing, all my life I have been able to recall anything and everything I have read, heard, or viewed, with little or no effort. That’s why this supposed black out troubled me so much. It was the first time I have ever experienced a hole in my mind. But now it was filling back in. All of it.
I now remember looking back at the white board as the students dragged me into the darkroom. The crude smiley-face emoji next to my name was actually tear-shaped and inverted. The eyes were more than dots; they were almond-shaped and elongated. There was no smile on Mr. smiley-face, only a slit. Living 50 miles from Roswell, this was a familiar icon. That’s when I began to struggle and was immediately stunned from behind with a Taser.
I must have been semi-conscious, because I now recall the students, under the direction of the instructor, strapping me onto a raised stainless steel bed. Like the moth in the web, I was immobilized, helpless, and awaiting the spider. Two of them appeared directly as the students and instructor backed away into the shadows. The darkroom earned its moniker due to its intense darkness broken by even more intense flashes of red, blue and white strobes simulating a patrol car’s LED light bar, the ones that ping the pucker factor of tipsy drivers on a Saturday night. The two ‘things’ that approached me were illuminated by these rhythmic beams. The lights actually shone through them, their bodies were translucent, and I could see the shadowy shapes of indescribable organs clumped and pumping under their silvery skin.
Like the spider, the aliens worked quickly, placing clamps around my eyes to keep them pried open when closing them would have been a mercy. Lightweight instruments whirred and smoldered as they opened my chest and abdomen. My head was secured to the slab and I was unable to see all the operations they were conducting but occasionally they would lift up and closely examine a particularly interesting organ from my opened cavity. I felt no pain. They would discuss my body parts using sharp clicks and soothing hums, and then return the item to its natural place. Their eyes were huge with curiosity. They seemed to be filled with hundreds of smaller eyes, bubbling around inside the opaque sclera. I imagined a hive of bees swarming inside a clear balloon.
My eyes were similarly fascinating to the aliens. One bent over me and examined my baby-blues. I could see my own reflection in his vast orbs as he inserted a thin nimble finger into my socket. I watched as he carefully coaxed my right eye from its orbit. He rolled it around with spindly fingers and examined it as the other continued to tug at my insides. Then, distracted by a click from the other, he dropped my eyeball and let it dangle by the optic nerve onto my cheek. My mind immediately split into two. I could still see straight ahead with my left eye, but was picking up strange telemetry from the one hanging out of its socket. My brain worked feverishly to reconcile the refracted images.
After a lifetime it seemed, outside the darkroom I remember hearing a distinct call from one of the instructors: “Out of Role!” This signaled to all the role-players that our work was done and it was time to come indoors and order lunch. White light shone briefly in through a wedge in the doorway as my instructor and his students, accomplices I thought, slipped out of the darkroom and back into reality. I envied them.
This must have also signaled to the aliens that their time was nearly up. They clicked and hummed at each other and produced more instruments that hooked and tugged at my opened cavity. As they concentrated on buttoning me up, I focused my left eye at an oblique angle. From the counter, behind the aliens, I could see an assortment of test tubes and ampules each time the strobe flashed a white light. Like a bad 8mm film, I pieced together the images aligned on the counter. The letters on these vials were not alien. As they flickered, I read the labels carefully using my side-eye. One read C-16, the next C-17, then C-18 and the last one was C-19. This one was open and an inhaler, the kind they use for asthma, lay beside it.
The duo finished their examination just as quickly as they had begun. After re-inserting my eyeball, one of them placed a mask over my face. Lights out. That’s when I remembered David telling me that I owed him five bucks for some pizza that I didn’t even want.
So, Dear Readers, what does it all mean? That the cheese has finally slipped off Rick’s cracker? That I have finally found proof of malevolent extra-terrestrials? Maybe both; I’ll let you decide. But I call on you, the people of this great nation, to rise up with me and ask these questions and more before… before something happens that we can’t fix.
Carson, I just read this over. I was there and I know this happened, and I can’t even believe it myself, so don’t feel too bad if you think that I’ve gone nuts. But as long as I’m crazy and a bit paranoid, I might as well go all the way. Don’t look for this column in your email in-box. Just in case they are watching the ‘web’, I am going to fold this puppy up and slip it into the mail box. Flag up. The old fashioned way. If it gets to you before I do, don’t worry, I’m still fighting this flu crap. I should be back at the office later this week.
Letter from the Editor,
To all the loyal readers of Rick Witticker’s column Rick’s Write, know that I have published Rick’s column in its entirety, unedited and uncensored (may the FCC forgive me). It is with heavy heart that I announce that this will be Rick’s final article. Refer to page 6b for my friend Rick Witticker’s obituary.
Editor in Chief of The Artesia Examiner
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