Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Strain! Oh, the Strain!

Through the ill health and the pain medication of recent months, I've found that the only thing that can chase me away from my wordprocessor is eye strain.

Living with sight in only one eye sucks. Not as much as being totally blind, of course...but it still sucks.

THE NEW ECOLOGY OF DEATH, yet another excerpt
By James Robert Smith.

Mark Wenzler went to school with the rest of his pals every morning, riding the school bus. Most of the kids of Mark’s age couldn’t recall what it had been like before the infection had caused the government to change the way almost everything was done. If you were younger than ten or so, it was hard to recall that once upon a time either your parents took you to school and picked you up, or you rode there in a normal bus that wasn’t almost an armored tank.

And even though he’d been just a little kid, only in first grade, Mark remembered those days well. It was because he had loved his father so much that mixed in with the general fog of the past were very bright memories of the times he’d spent with his father. Even though his stepdad was a neat guy and was great to have around, he wasn’t Mark’s real father and never would be.

Mark wouldn't say that to Davis Cotter. He didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and sometimes Mark had to admit that it almost seemed like Davis really was Mark’s dad. But then he’d remember something funny his father had said to him, or some goofy thing his father had done to amuse him, and he’d laugh and forget about his mom’s new husband.

Remembering, he turned to Betsy Polk who was sitting just behind him.

“Hey, Betsy!”

She frowned at him, knowing something was coming and never being able to figure out just what it might be. Sometimes Mark Wenzler made her laugh, and sometimes he was interesting, but most of the time he was just gross.

Turned in his seat, his hands on the padded bar and looking down at Betsy sitting alone, Mark suddenly belched. But instead of just a sudden burst of air, he turned it into a word. Instead of a burp, he said it:

“BART,” pause, “Simpson.”

“Oh, Mark Wenzler, you are just gross! That’s what you are! Just gross!” Then she pulled her backpack to her stomach and bent over it, doing her best not to laugh. Because that was one of the funniest things she’d seen him do in a day or two. She could feel him hovering over her, looking down, waiting for her to break, so that he could gloat over the fact that he’d made her laugh with his gross joke.

But then the call came from the front of the bus. “Mark Wenzler! You turn back around in your seat and stop bothering that young lady right now!” Fred Drake’s voice was like a foghorn, and Mark did as he was told, turning and collapsing back into his spot facing forward before he could taste the victory of having seen Betsy Polk laugh at him. He liked her, and he liked making her laugh.

Once, seeing Mark talking excitedly to Betsy at a PTA event, Davis had walked up to him later and said, “So, you like the shiksas, do you?”

That was the only time Mark had gotten really angry with his stepdad. He knew what shiksa meant. It was not a nice word and he didn’t like it being used about any of his friends, especially not about Betsy Polk. Instead of saying anything that day he had just glared at Cotter and  he ran off to be with some of his pals.

Facing front, Mark watched Mr. Drake’s eyes dart to him for an instant, just to make sure he was behaving, and the driver went back to paying attention to the road, pulling up to the next bunch of kids waiting with today’s adult volunteer. Every bus stop had at least one adult supervisor since the infection days. Sometimes they were either police or deputized citizens who were allowed to have a gun. Mark had never seen a gun with one of them, but he knew they had them, concealed somewhere. Once he had seen a bulge under the jacket of Betsy Polk’s dad, in fact, and had known immediately that it was some kind of firearm. Maybe it was a .45 like the soldiers in World War II used to shoot the Nazis. He sure would have liked for Mr. Polk to have shown them the gun, but he knew better than to ask.

The bus came to a halt and the armored door opened with a pneumatic hiss. Kids climbed aboard, filling the last few empty seats. Mark recognized all of the kids—no big surprises there. He could feel another belch rising naturally in his gut. This one was for real, and not a fake one like he used with Betsy. One of the kids was coming close to him. Now was his chance.

“Hey, ART!” He belched the name at full blast, greeting Art Wallace, the red-headed menace of gym class.

Behind him, Betsy Polk could not contain herself and the laugh bubbled out of her.

That’s all he wanted. Despite the playful but sharp punch in the arm Art delivered with martial excellence to his shoulder, Mark smiled in triumph, and none of the kids knew exactly why he was so happy as the door sealed shut and they pulled away, headed for school.

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