As a rule, I don't do commission work, I told him. Why not, he asked. Well frankly, I just don't have the time. I work full time as a videogame designer, sometimes more than full time. I have to carve out whatever spare moments I have to do my own personal art work. So I really just have no extra time on top of that to do artwork for others. Sorry.
Heck of a thing, Ol’ Bess just showed up one day, hovering low by the barn. She was tired, hungry. Didn’t eat solid food like the other sharks, wasn’t built for it. Eugene strapped Gus’ old saddle on her, gingerly climbed on, and led her out across the pasture. She took to the bridle right off, barely needed a tug to move her around.
Some industrial pig farms were just over the road, their waste ponds always covered in skeeters and other bugs. Before long she figured out how to scoop ‘em up right out of the air, and after a few trips she could find the ponds herself, had all she could eat when she needed. Eugene figured that’d be the end of it, she’d be off, no more Bess. But as the months passed she kept on, happy to go on long rides or just float around with the goats. Heck of a thing.
The alarm came on slow, from quiet to loud, until Frank couldn’t ignore the yelling radio mouths anymore. He dragged himself out of bed, shuffled to the bathroom to empty bladder, went to kitchen to make coffee. Out of coffee. Forgot the drawbridge went up thirty minutes early, would definitely be stuck in traffic. Air conditioning broken at work, he sweat through his shirt before lunch. No taco truck today, had to eat out of the vending machine. The ancient sandwich tasted like grass.
Frank woke with a jolt, realized he dozed off while eating. He looked around the barn, relieved everything was how he left it. Even the dry hay and damned scratchy saddle felt good compared to that nightmare.
"Do you think it's too much," he asked? "Is what too much," the producer replied, without looking up from his clipboard. "All this. the backdrop, the desk, the music. Don't you think we're getting to a point, possibly, where no one will take us seriously?" The producer, annoyed, looked up from the clipboard. "Well sir, we're more popular than we've ever been. The set, the music, this persona we've created, they all help the audience connect with you. Who cares if they take you seriously? We just want them to watch. Now sit please, we're on in 30." A little dejected, he sat at the desk and waited while the producer ran through the checklist.
"Cue American Flag Background!"
"Cue American Flag LCD Left!"
"Cue American Flag LCD Right!"
"Cue Desk American Flag LCD!"
"Cue Background Trumpets!"
"Cue National Anthem!"
"Ok Mr. O'Reilly, we're live in three.. two.. one…"
Papa promised a trip to Disneyland. It would have been the first trip away from their tiny town. All of their school friends had been there, and talked of the endless acres of fun. But Disnee-Lande was not the same. It was a dusty lot off the highway, in the middle of the desert. Luis tried to explain to Papa, but it wasn't getting through.
"There are rides," Papa said.
"That is a burro tied to a stake, Papa. I could feel his bones when I rode him," Luis replied.
"There was a parade," Papa said.
"Those were the workers starting their shift," Luis explained. "And the burro."
"Your sisters are laughing and having fun," Papa said.
"Yes but they are too young to know better," Luis reminded.
"You are right, Luis, they are too young," Papa said, quiet so only Luis could hear. "Too young to know that we can't have the things your friends have, that I am too poor to pay for real Disneyland. They are too young, but you are not. So. Now you can go tell your sisters."
Luis looked over at his sisters, playing on the burro. It was the happiest he had seen them in forever.
"No Papa," Luis said. "I will not tell them. I'll never tell them."
"Good boy," Papa praised. "How is your ice-cream?"
"It is really good," Luis said with a smile. And he had to admit, the ice-cream was really good.
I asked if she had voted yet, she replied no. Shopping and soccer practice and dinner came first. She said she would do it tomorrow. The ballot sat on the table.
We took the square again, and demanded the dictator leave, and called for real elections. Secret police were everywhere, beating people, women and children.
I asked if she had voted yet, she replied no. The commute was awful, and the evening was for some wine, and a bath. The ballot sat on the table, under the mail.
A gas canister hit him in the face, fired from only feet away. He lost the eye, and most of his hearing. He marched with us again the next day.
I asked if she had voted yet, she replied no. She didn't really know anything about who was running, and the ballot was lost. The ballot sat in the trash, out in the yard.
The secret police attacked the foreign journalists, beat them, destroyed their cameras. They wanted the world to forget we were here. We are still here.
I asked if she had voted this morning, she replied no. The lines at the polls were long, and it was raining. She would do it in the evening.
We found our voice, and our will. If they refuse us a ballot, we will vote with rocks and bricks and fire. But we will vote, and we will be heard.
I asked if she had voted this evening, she replied no. She had forgotten.
Oh, yeah sure that makes sense, he said. I'm sorry to have bothered you, I just think you're an amazing artist, and my stunningly beautiful girlfriend and I were hoping you would sketch her nude.
Obviously, as it turns out, it's more of a guideline than a rule.
"As to the second part of our bargain," She continued, "Well you still failed to kill me. So my ninjas are not yours. But they will be gone from your city before the dawn. I promise on my honor."
That was the last George heard from her, until they bumped into each other outside the music store twenty five years later. They had been arch enemies for years, yet never knew they liked the same 80s synth-pop. While George still protected the city most evenings, Nina had given up on the world domination, and instead went back to school for her masters in interior design. After dating for three years, George was finally ready to ask her to marry him.
At the moment however, he just wished she was there. And that she still had some of those ninjas.
It was stupid, crawling under the truck, gas leaking, pieces falling off, just to hold her hand. But it was important. Even as young as I was, I knew it was important. There was no fixing her, no worrying if only medics could get there on time. She was beyond repair, her heart just didn't know any better to stop yet. And I didn't know any better but to stay with her until it did. I stayed with her for the rest of her life. She will stay with me for the rest of mine.
"Rrrraa!! Fire BAD! FIRE BAD!!" Frank screams, startling the pub patrons. He flails behind the table, trying to pull away from his own hand, still stubbornly holding onto his fiery fear. Abe and Louis slide their chairs back, giving him room. Tears stream down his face, he whimpers and sobs and pleads for it to stop. But his trembling hands bring the flame even closer, until finally the tiny terrible fire licks the tip of the cigarette still dangling from his lips.
Frank hungrily sucks in air, sending a plume of smoke deep into his patchwork lungs. He flips the lighter closed and throws it to the table. Exhausted and trembling, he steadies the cigarette against his mouth and takes a long, inhumanly long drag. He closes his eyes and holds it, until small wisps of smoke begin to escape from the staples along his throat. Abe and Louis move back to the table with their drinks.
"This is my place," he told her. He proudly revealed it cost him $30,000hkd, a tenth of what a similar sized place would cost below, but with a much better view. She smiled nervously, confused. She really liked the boy, but this was the first time visiting his home, and now she saw why he waited so long. "But we're standing at the top of the stairs," she pointed out. Three children ran past them laughing and kicking a small football. "Isn't this a walkway?"
"When I'm not here it is," he explained. "But when I am here it is my home." He demonstrated by leaning a small board against the top of the stairs, unfolding a small table and two chairs and placing them in the middle of the walkway. "Here see now it is my living room. Sit please and I will make you some tea." As she slowly sat he stood up and slid open an accordian door, revealing a shallow cubby space in the wall opposite. Inside was a small table with fold-out shelves, a sink, stove, oven, microwave, rice cooker, blender, television, dvd player, radio, laptop, books, bedroll, wine rack, pantry, clothes and shoes, and a small assortment of spices. He busied himself with the tea, while she looked up and down the passageway, listening to his neighbors and their lives. The small football rolled near her feet, yet the children stayed at the end of the hall, stopped seemingly by an invisible wall.
She nodded to herself and stood, kicked the ball to the children, and began to help with the tea. She could not imagine what life would be like here above. But he was a very nice boy, and it really was a wonderful view.