This is the twelfth 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 “L”.
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 “L” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(3,363 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Fa and Te were excited and exasperated. Their parents were leaving for a weekend getaway to the Andromeda Galaxy. “We trust you,” their mother said, hugging the twins. “I don’t,” their stepfather countered, glowering. “No friends, no parties, no fun.”
“Gah-rel,” the kids moaned. They refused to call him Daddy, Dad, or even Father.
“Remember this one rule,” Gah-rel said, “if you’re having fun, you’re probably breaking a rule. So, no fun.”
“He’s kidding,” their mother said, tossing their suitcase into the trunk of the family Galacta-Glider.
“I’m not kidding,” Gah-rel insisted. “If anything is missing, broken, or out of place, you can forget about getting your pilot’s license this summer.”
The brother and sister protested, stamping their webbed feet. “What are we supposed to do for two whole days?” they cried.
“Ask your mother,” Gah-rel said. “I did my part. I told you what NOT to do.”
“Mo-hom,” they cried.
She huddled the teens, drawing them close, and whispered. Furtively, she pressed a sleek piece of computer hardware, called a dongle, into Fa’s palm. When the huddle broke, the kids seemed placated, even elated.
“Have a great trip,” they called, waving as the liquid, crystal ship slipped between the seams of space.
Once Gah-rel had programmed the course and engaged the light-drives, he asked his wife, “Just what did you say to the children to change their sour mood?”
“One word,” she answered. “LIFE.”
Fa and Te rushed upstairs and ransacked their parents’ closet. They tossed their stepfather’s auto-swing golf clubs aside, flung their mother’s form-correcting yoga mat, and there it was – a large black box with the logo of a pale blue dot.
“L.I.F.E.!” the kids squealed. They gamboled about the room, reveling in freedom, anticipating the thrill of playing the grown-up game officially known as Lowly Inhabitants From Earth: L.I.F.E.
Bounding downstairs, they placed the box on the dining table. Reverently, they separated the box top from the base. They marveled at what they saw.
“Do you know how to play it?” Fa asked Te.
Te scratched his head and said, “Kind of . . . no . . . maybe we should read the rules and instructions.”
CAUTION: L.I.F.E. is an Adult Game (Must be 17,184,757 Comet-Cycles to play). Those that do not meet this criterion are urged to abstain and/or seek adult supervision. WARNING: Failure to follow protocols could result in SERIOUS INJURY, DEATH, or WORSE!
“Ribbits!” Te said, “that’s scary. Maybe we’re not ready, Fa. Maybe we shouldn’t” –
Fa punched Te’s shoulder. “Don’t be a tadpole,” she chided. “We’re almost 15,000,000 Comet-Cycles old. Besides, Mom wouldn’t have given us the dongle unless she thought we were mature enough to play. Keep reading.”
Te traced his finger over the words and spoke slowly.
L.I.F.E. is an Enviro-Bio-Anthro-Entropy Game in which the Players are given maximal powers to intervene, intercede, and impose their wills and whims upon Lowly Inhabitants From Earth – a primitive planet selected for its entertaining wildlife.
Simply chose a Human from the Homo-Gallery or create your own. Once selected, spin the Wheel of Misfortune and mete out the calamities and catastrophes indicated.
How to win? Simple, the player that creates a situation so unbearable that the Human destroys him-or-herself, wins!
“Sounds easy enough,” Fa said. “What should we play for?”
Te scrunched his face. “A treat,” he suggested.
“Okay,” his sister said, “but it’s got to be a really, really great treat. Maybe a Felch-Fly?”
“I know. A Snargle-Darx Pie . . . from the Sagittarian Swamp Moons? It’s made from Sugar Slugs and Custard Crabs.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Te rejoiced, licking his green lips with his black tongue. “Snargle-Darx . . . slimy, spiny pie!”
Fa ran to the kitchen, programmed the Nutri-Duplicator, and pushed the start button. “It’s going to take an hour,” she reported. “Snargle-Darx has a complex molecular structure.”
“That’s what makes it so yummy-licious,” Te concluded.
Fa peered through the Nutri-Dupe’s green window, watching laser wands knit with electric chemistry. “Okay, let’s play. I set the timer. The pie should be finished when we are.”
Fa pushed the GO button on the L.I.F.E game. There was a hum as the gameboard booted. The kids’ six eyes widened as a clear dome arose from the base.
Te retrieved two controllers, handing one to his sister. “Let’s pick a human,” he said, already smelling the Snargle-Darx Pie.
Fa scrolled with her controller, cycling holo-graphs of humans under the clear dome. “They’re so ugly,” she said.
“Yeah,” Te said. “Look, they only have two eyes.”
“What are you thinking?” Fa asked. “The male kind or the female kind?”
Te shrugged. “Does it matter? It’s going to end up dead anyway.”
Fa shook her head. “You don’t get it, Te. The fun is not in the death of the Earthling – the fun is in the suffering. Watching it wallow in misery.”
“Oh yeah,” Te said. “Then maybe we should pick a human that looks like someone we hate.”
Fa’s face lit up. “You’re so smart, little brother! I think we should choose a human that looks like Gah-rel.”
“Yes,” she croaked. “If it weren’t for him, Mom would have never divorced Daddy.”
“Yeah,” Te agreed. “Gah-rel broke up our family.”
Fa scrolled through the entire Homo-Gallery, viewing humans of all sizes and stripes. She started with the most modern humans, cycling through the popular male categories of lawyers and politicians and doctors.
“Boring,” Te said. “Let’s change the timeline. Set it back 100 earth years.”
She did, and the selection shifted to a sturdier, if not dirtier, brand of man. “That one,” she said. “That farmer. He looks like Gah-rel. His beard looks like Gah-rel’s feelers.”
Fa toggled her controller and retrieved the farmer’s biography.
“Says here,” she read, “that his name is Joab. He’s an early 20th century wheat farmer in Oklahoma. Says he’s a Godly man, and that he’s been blessed with a large family and prosperous crops.”
Te laughed and wrung his hands. “Ready, Player One?”
“Ready,” Fa said, setting the profile to Level 1 and spinning the Wheel of Misfortune.
Hot from the fields, Joab entered the cabin through the back door. It was Ruthie’s wishes that he and the boys do so.
“Knock that dust off ya,” Ruthie called. “Wash them hands in the water trough and then sit yourselves down. I made ya favorites.”
Joab splashed his whiskered face and smiled. “Venison?” he asked.
Ruthie scuttled into the kitchen and retrieved and covered platter. “The back-strap of that doe you shot,” she concurred. “Snap beans, cornbread, baby taters, and squirrel gravy. Pie for dessert.”
The boys roared and whooped. The only girl, Sharon, trailed her mother, presenting a steaming rhubarb pie.
They all sat and Joab said grace.
“Dear Lord up in Heaven,” he said, “we thank ya kindly for the provisions and prosperities you’ve bestowed upon us. More than that, we thank ya for our health. In your precious name we pray” . . .
“Amen,” the family said.
A mighty wind swept across the plains as the pie was cut. The wind seemed to target the cabin. Joab put his fork down and stared at the logged wall. Granules of sand seeped through the creases, as the wind whistled and wailed.
“Get under the table,” Joab said calmly and sternly.
Sharon balked. “What, Papa? Under the table?”
The boys and Ruthie complied, scrambling for shelter. Joab grabbed Sharon by her long blond plait and pulled her under the table. As he did, the west wall collapsed. Without loadbearing support, the roof followed in fashion, crashing onto the oak table, smashing it to splinters. Three of the four boys died instantly. A beam struck Ruthie’s head, concussing her.
Joab thanked God for sparing the lives of his wife, his son, and his most beloved, Sharon.
“Papa,” Sharon cried in the night. “Smoke. I smell smoke.”
Joab leaped from the bed he shared with Ruthie. The cabin was still in disrepair, but its backrooms provided warmth from the cold and shelter from the rain. Joab lit a kerosene lantern and stepped outside, into the darkness.
Except there was no darkness. Lighting had set the crops alight. The horizon blazed with billowing blacks and aggressive reds and lashing yellows. Joab could hear the popping of corn and the wilting of wheat.
“West,” he said. “Grab what ya can. Load up the truck. We’ll head west, to California. There’s work out there. Honest work for honest folk.”
“But Papa,” Sharon said, “this is our home.”
“Darlin’,” he said, stroking her hair and gazing at the encroaching fire-line, “in one hour they ain’t gonna be nothing left of our home.”
Nine billion lightyears away, on the Jovian planet of Fraugg, two teens, Fa and Te, played a game and contemplated their hunger.
“Smell that?” Te asked, rubbing his scaley stomach.
Fa rolled her eyes back and slobbered, “Of course, I smell it. Can’t be long now, and that Snargle-Darx Pie will be ready to gobble. We better jump to Level 20 and finish this game.”
Te’s stomach gurgled. He tweaked his controller. “Level 30,” he said, “I’m starving.”
“Okay,” Fa said, “but let’s not get crazy. Remember the Warning. Some levels of L.I.F.E. aren’t exactly safe.”
Ruthie rocked to the rhythms of the Model A Ford. The old truck bucked and bounced on the wind-stripped hardpan roads, its stiff suspension jolting the bones of the fleeing family. The pace was painfully slow; the truck little faster than a lazy dray horse.
Mostly, Ruthie slept. But when the dreams and demons beset her, she’d fly into fits. She screamed at her dead boys, telling them to wash the blood off themselves. Tell them to stop acting the fool, and to stop scaring her.
Joab rubbed her sweaty neck and coaxed some water into her, but it did little good to settle her.
“She ain’t right, is she Papa?” Sharon asked.
Joab dipped his whiskered chin, the stiff brim of his black hat resting on the steering wheel. His posture said it all.
“That lick on the head,” Sharon surmised, “it knocked all sense out of her . . . out of Mama. She’s jabberin and twitchin and seein things that ain’t there.”
“The lick on the head,” Joab agreed. “And the loss of Jake, Caleb, and Seth. No mother should have to bury her brood.”
Tobit stuck his head into the front cabin. “Is it a curse, Papa? We wuz doin so good . . . then outta the blue, the Lord forsook us.”
Joab cracked the lad with the back of his hand. “Don’t never blaspheme the good Lord, boy. Times is hard, but it’ll be the Lord that’ll deliver us.”
There was loud pop and a louder crack. The tire had blown and an axel had snapped.
“Collect up our essentials,” Joab said, “we’re walkin from here on.”
The essentials included a tin of food and water, a leather purse with cash money, and a Winchester rifle.
“I’m hungry,” Tobit said, as if it were a novel thought.
“There’s some deer jerky in the tin,” Joab said. “Say grace before you eat it.”
“Why, Papa?” Tobit asked. “You killed that deer. Mama cured that meat. What’s God done for us?”
Joab stopped, turning sharply to his son. “On your knees, boy,” he commanded. “On your knees and ask the Lord for forgiveness, or so help me I’ll” –
Ruthie spoke up. “Touch my boy and I’ll shoot you dead,” she said, pointing the Winchester at her husband. She cocked the lever with wicked quickness.
“Mama,” Sharon cried, leaping and reaching for the rifle. It went off. Gray smoke and red dust clouded the scene, causing chaos and confusion. When clarity came, it was Ruthie that was dead. A single .44 grain rim-fire hole in her already broken heart.
“We heard a gunshot,” the dark man on the pale horse said.
Joab pushed Sharon and Tobit behind him as he addressed the four horsemen. “So ya did,” Joab said.
“Being concerned and all,” the dark man continued, “we thought we’d check it out. There’s Injuns out this way – them savages wouldn’t think twice about taking scalps.”
“We know the risks,” Joab said. “Lord willing, we’ll be in California in two days. Thank ya for your concern.”
The dark man dismounted. Joab’s grip on the hot Winchester tightened. The dark man handed his canteen to Sharon. “Hot out here, hon. Thirsty?” he asked.
Sharon looked to her father. Joab nodded and she drank.
The dark man smiled, showing his red, dust-colored teeth. “I’ll take a kiss for that swig,” he said. “Fair price, wouldn’t you say boys?”
The three horsemen laughed and agreed and slapped their chaps.
“Papa,” Sharon cried, burrowing into his black coat.
“There’ll be none of that,” Joab said.
“None of what?” the dark man asked. He reached and stroked the girl’s long blond plait with his black glove.
Tobit sprung and bit the man’s hand, severing the pinky finger. As the dark man jived from boot to boot, Tobit kicked his crotch and shouted: “Don’t touch my sister!”
Three guns from three men on three horses took aim at the boy. Three bullets tore through his back.
As Tobit spun and fell and died, Joab shot his son’s killers. Only the dark man remained.
“You,” Joab said, “you brought this evil on us.” Joab pointed the Winchester at the dark man’s face. “The wages of sin is death.”
Joab cocked the lever and pushed the steaming ring of steel into the dark man’s eye.
“Don’t,” the dark man pleaded.
“Gimme one reason,” Joab demanded. “And make it your best.”
“I – I – I’m innocent,” the dark man stammered. “I was working as a Ferrier in yonder town, minding my business, when I was directed to saddle up and ride out. These fellas joined me. I never met ‘em. Same thing happened to them.”
“Directed?” Joab asked. “By who?”
Tears cut the dust on the dark man’s face. “Fa,” he said. “Fa and Te. I don’t even know what that means, but it’s the truth.”
“You’re a liar,” Joab said, his finger twitching as hot blood flowed from his cold son.
“I swear on the blood of Jesus,” the dark man cried, falling to his knees.
Joab grinded his teeth. “Thou shalt not,” Joab quoted, “take the Lord God’s name” . . .
Sharon yanked her father’s coat and cried, “No Papa, no.”
“In vain,” Joab finished. And pulled the trigger.
“That man said our names,” Te said. “Is that right? Is it part of the game?”
“That was weird,” Fa agreed. “Let me check the instructions.” Fa scoured the text on the game box for salient information. “Here’s something,” she said, then read: “When Players reach or exceed Level 30, they may experience real-time two-way co-conscious connectivity with Lowly Inhabitants From Earth.”
“What does that mean?” Te asked.
“Ribbit if I know,” Fa said. “But the pie’s almost ready and I’m getting bored. Let’s crank it up to Level 40 and finish.”
“What makes you think I’ll give you any pie?” Te said. “Winner takes all.”
Indians descended upon the father and daughter.
Joab considered shooting the lead warrior – the one he presumed was the chief – gambling that it would demoralize the war party. When the numbers doubled from 5 to 10, he stood down.
“I have money,” he told the chief.
The chief, his face emblazoned with a red slash, took the leather purse and shook out its contents. With bare feet, he ground the paper into the dust of the earth.
“Gun,” he said, pointing his spear at the Winchester.
“I can’t do that,” Joab said. “It’s all we got . . . me and the girl.”
“Gun,” the chief insisted, thrusting the spear.
Joab shook his head slowly. “Meat, in that there tin. Venison. My wife Ruthie cured it. It’s good. Take it. But no gun.”
“Gun,” the chief repeated, pressing the flint tip into Joab’s breast.
“Give it to ‘em, Papa,” Sharon said. “They’ll kill us if you don’t.”
“They’ll kill us if I do,” Joab said. “Listen to me, Sharon. Listen close. I’m hoping their English ain’t so good. When I start shootin, you start runnin. Follow the sun. It’ll take you to the Golden State. If the Lord wills it, I’ll join you. On three, okay?”
“No, Papa, just give them the gun.”
“Please. I can’t do this. Not without you.”
“Papa,” she said, drawing in a hot, dry draught of desert air. The seconds stalled and stretched. Serenity filled her. “Papa,” she said, “I love” –
“Three,” Joab said, blocking the spear with the rifle barrel, sweeping the feet of the chief with his boot, shooting as many savages as one man with one gun could.
“So ribbity cool,” said Te.
“So ribbity bloody,” Fa said.
“Yeah,” Te said, “the old farmer is a bad-ass. Nothing like Gah-rel.”
Uninterested, Fa said, “The Snargle-Darx Pie is almost ready. Let’s finish this.”
“Ok,” Te said, “Let’s just speed it up, kill him off, and split the pie.”
Te increased the speed as Fa selected the highest, and most extreme level: Level 42.
Joab awoke to discover he’d killed 8 of the 10 Indians. He’d taken a tomahawk to the head and had lost consciousness. He couldn’t account for the other 2 savages. He prayed that they scattered in the fog of battle, and that they did not pursue his sweet Sharon.
With his rifle in hand, he ran west, dragging his shadow behind him.
Searing heat and a sense of dread, caused delirium. As he ran, he felt he was being watched. He even heard the voices of joyous children.
“The lick,” he told himself. “It scrambled your brains, Joab. Keep runnin. Sharon’s out there. Lord, please keep my child safe. This, I ask, in your blessed name, amen.”
It was two hours later that he realized the worst – his last and most powerful prayer had been wholly ignored.
He came upon the gruesome scene in progress. The two cowardly Indians were in the act of violating his beloved daughter. One was scalping her and the other was raping her. Joab shot them with two of his last three bullets.
Joab knelt next to his dying daughter. She was in agony. As he placed his black hat over her bloody face, mercifully suffocating her, he heard laughter.
He looked up.
In the zenith of the western sky, he saw faces – alien, amphibian faces – faces of a race unknown. From their glib and gleeful mannerisms, he understood that they were juveniles.
“What are you looking at?” he shouted into the sky.
Fa looked at Te and laughed. “I think he sees us. It must be a feature of Level 42.”
“What are you laughing at?” he shouted again. Sharon’s body went limp in his arms.
“You,” they sang in harmony. “Kill yourself – we’re hungry.”
Joab stood and shook his fist. “Why?” he shouted. “Why?”
The twins looked at one another, reflecting. “Because we were bored,” Fa said. “Because it was fun,” Te added. Their laughter fell upon him like a hail-stones from a thundering cloud.
Without thinking, Joab raised the Winchester and shot his final bullet.
The twins flinched and all six of their eyes blinked. Fa touched the starry chip where the bullet had struck the dome. He scratched it with his talon.
From earth, Joab heard a sound both foreign and familiar. It was a rending sound, the sound of breaking glacial ice, the sound of breaking bones, breaking families, breaking faith – the sound of a million-million breaking human hearts.
The dome shattered and cratered. The barrier was no more.
Suddenly, Joab was on the Jovian planet of Fraugg, in the dining room with the alien twins that had tortured him and destroyed his family. With the bloody blond braid of his scalped daughter, he strangled the children, Fa and Te.
When a timer sounded, he stepped into the kitchen and helped himself to an entire pie
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