Thursday, May 23, 2019

On Human Trafficking and Pornography

            I have found myself wondering lately, concerning the attention our culture pays to slavery of the past, while we seem to dismiss most discussions of slavery today. Don’t get me wrong – the slavery of our past was indeed a terrible thing, and we should never forget the magnitude of human suffering it caused. 

            Part of never forgetting, though, is that the memory of past transgressions, should always keep us mindful that we do not allow them to be repeated. Unfortunately, while we have enacted numerous laws against slavery in its various forms, we have not eliminated it. Slavery is still a thriving business, right here in the United States and other ‘First World’ countries. 

            We have moved slavery under a broader category of Human Trafficking, and while the modern term seems to imply gentler connotations, the reality is just as brutal. Human beings are captured, using various means, and subjected to a life of forced servitude. In over 90% of human trafficking cases, this servitude takes the form of sexual slavery.  

            The statistics are not encouraging in the least. The majority of human trafficking victims are female, with the preferred age range being under seventeen, but those outside of those demographics are by no means safe. Young women subjected to sexual slavery, usually as prostitutes, have a life expectancy averaging six to seven years. The hazards these women face include violence from both their pimps and their ‘customers,’ disease, and the effects of long-term substance abuse, as narcotics are often used as chemical ‘chains’ to keep the victims trapped in their situation. 

Current estimates are that, worldwide, over four and a half million people are trapped in slavery, with again, over 90% of those victims subjected to sexual exploitation. Less than 10% are enslaved in more conventional forms of labor. Human trafficking is the fastest growing segment of organized crime today, with profits estimated in the billions of dollars. 

            But prostitution is not the only venue of sexual slavery imposed on the victims. Pornography use has skyrocketed in the internet age, and the demand for ‘adult media’ far exceeds the capacity of studios utilizing willing performers to fill. The majority of women who willingly perform in porn movies quit after one or two movies, citing the experience as one they have no wish to repeat.  

            The market, however, demands new content, and one rule of market dynamics is that, if there is a demand, someone will find a means to fill it, if one exists at all. This is true whether we are talking a capitalist system, a socialist system, or the strictest communist system. When there is a demand, there is the potential for gain in filling that demand, even if it is illegal. When there is potential for personal gain, there are those who will pursue that potential. 

            It’s not difficult to understand the demand for pornography. It offers sexual gratification without coercion, without commitment, and without condemnation. Whatever the viewer might find exciting, porn never reviles the viewer. Instead, it figuratively says, “That? Oh, that’s right over here. Enjoy!” Pornography viewing has reached unprecedented levels, even among those that, historically, were not considered the typical audience for such media. Forty years ago, pornography was considered primarily a man’s vice. The accepted view was that women were not as ‘visually stimulated’ as men, and therefore, not susceptible to porn’s allure. The internet, however, has proven that conclusion wrong. 

            Porn viewing by women has increased by magnitudes in the internet age, because the World Wide Web offers the feeling of anonymity in viewing. What inhibited women from viewing porn before wasn’t that they were not curious about it, or that it wasn’t exciting for them, but rather the perception that would be concluded about them, were they seen buying porn or going to an ‘adult theater.’ Considering how often women must deal with ignorant assumptions being made about their sexual proclivities due to such innocuous things as how they dress, or even that their smile was misinterpreted as a ‘come on,’ we can only imagine what they would have dealt with, had people found out they enjoyed watching adult movies. 

            Other segments of the audience had similar inhibitions to porn viewing before the internet. Men who needed to maintain a certain image of moral respectability, for example, would not want to be seen patronizing any segment of the porn market. Today, a disturbingly high percentage of Christian pastors admit to struggling with porn addiction. When it’s as close and as easy as a couple of clicks away, and we assure ourselves that no one will know, it can be a powerful temptation. 

            Many of my Christian readers, at this point, may be expecting a thesis concerning the moral dangers of viewing pornography. Such aspects have already been addressed and disputed in countless formats, and I suspect that, were I to rehash such discussions, it would be to an audience of individuals who had already made up their minds how they feel about the issue. 

            Instead, my point in this blog post is to address that hidden cost of pornography – that which is not so much the effect on ourselves, but rather, on those victims that we may not realize are victims. 

            It’s difficult to estimate the percentage of pornographic media available that is made using willing performers versus those using sexual slaves. Criminals do not tend to advertise their criminal endeavors, as that tends to attract unwanted attention from law enforcement authorities. The videos are not going to announce that the performers are victims of human trafficking, essentially being raped for the entertainment of the viewing audience. Instead, they want to promote the image of free-spirited people enjoying uninhibited sexual encounters. Even videos that portray rough encounters imply that the participants are willing and enjoying themselves. That’s part of the fantasy. 

            The reality, though, is that anyone who has watched internet pornography has a high likelihood of having seen media containing victims of human trafficking. Whether we like it or not, supporting the pornography website by visiting and viewing, supports the human trafficking industry. The website makes money by number of visits, and those supplying the content share in that profit. Even if the site provides “free” videos for viewing, they are making money on the site via one means or another. The cost of hosting such a site isn’t cheap, between sufficient storage space for many gigabytes of video data, the servers to recall those videos seamlessly for viewers, and the internet bandwidth to accommodate multitudes of viewers at any given time. For a small, personal website, such costs are minimal, but for a site hosting volumes of video content, those costs are too much for someone to absorb just because they might like hosting a popular site. They have to recoup those costs, or shut down the site before it bankrupts them. To keep the viewers and the money flowing, the site owners must regularly add new content, and for that, they must get it from those who produce it. 

            And many of those who produce it, do so with slaves. 

            It’s not a pleasant thought, that a private indulgence is likely contributing to the ruining of someone’s life. We’re not talking about a temporary inconvenience. We’re not talking about a job that was unpleasant or humiliating, but which the person has the choice of whether they will ever do such a performance again. We’re talking someone who faces a strong likelihood of an abbreviated life of degradation and abuse. Even if they beat the odds and survive to be rescued, they face the long-term effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, possible lingering physical injuries or disease, and the fear of someone recognizing them from a video they were forced to make. 

            Refer back to that market dynamic of supply and demand. Most law enforcement efforts on human trafficking focus on the supply side – those who are abducting people or trading in victims. For every one they convict and imprison, however, there are others ready to step up and fill the market. With money to be made, the lure is powerful to disregard the laws and – more importantly – human decency. 

            Where the real attack on human trafficking must come from, is the demand side. We, as a culture, must ask ourselves if we are willing to refuse an indulgence that feeds this market. We must decide if the allure of porn is more important to us, than the freedom of innocent people being enslaved to make it. We must realize the video fantasy being enjoyed, is the result of a living nightmare for those being watched. It’s not enough to indulge the delusion that the videos only feature willing participants. That isn’t the case, and in the absence of the ability to accurately determine which are voluntary and which are forced, we must default to the side of compassion and safety. We cannot assume the best in this case, for doing so only perpetuates the problem.  

            We can decry the slavery of yesterday, but if we do not take even the most basic steps to combat the slavery today, then future generations will look on us with the same disgust we look upon the societies of the past that tolerated slavery. It’s not enough to demand more laws, or tougher enforcement. We need to eradicate the demand, and it starts on our own computers. 

            Don’t wait until it’s your daughter, or your sister, or the nice girl you went to school with, that you see in the video, before you accept the reality of sexual slavery in pornography.


Friday, November 3, 2017

Friday Fiction for November 3, 2017

It’s the first Friday Fiction in November, which means, it’s NaNoWriMo! If you don’t know about NaNo, it’s an annual writing challenge, wherein participants seek to start and complete 50,000 words of a novel within the month of November. We don’t compete against each other. We compete against the deadline, against our own doubts, and against the distractions that would pull us away from the joy of creating.

My NaNoWriMo story this year is “Blue Fish, Red Fish.” The story begins about nine years after the close of “Marta’s Pod,” following Josh and Marta’s son as he heads off to public high school in small town, Texas. This story has been mulling about in my mind since I first mentioned this period in Marcel Cardan’s life in another story, and I decided it was time to finally write it.

We’re still running a slow start on Friday Fiction, but feel free to participate if you have a fiction piece you’d enjoy sharing. Just add your link to the Linkytool below.

Blue Fish, Red Fish

By Rick Higginson

Chapter 1

            The airliner taxied to the gate and eased to a stop. Many of the passengers immediately stood and retrieved their carry-on luggage from the overhead bins, only to wait in the jammed aisle for the door to open.

            The teen-aged boy in seat 29-E remained seated, earning him an annoyed look from the passenger in the window seat as she climbed over him to join the unmoving queue in the aisle. He gave her displeasure little thought, as he hadn’t seen her so much as crack a hint of a smile since she’d boarded the aircraft, nor extended even basic courtesies to the flight attendants or other passengers.

            As the line finally started to move, the man who had occupied the aisle seat next to him caught his eye one last time, and shot him a politician’s smile. “You think about what I told you, okay?”

            “Sure,” he replied, holding up the man’s business card. “I’ve got your number.” More important, I’ve got the number of just how big a scam your marketing scheme is, and I’m sure they don’t recruit fourteen-year-olds into the ranks, even if I wanted in on it.

            “There ya go,” the man said before heading for the exit.

            He continued to wait in his seat until the crowd thinned to allow ample room in the aisle, and only then did he rise. A tall woman gestured for him to go ahead, her smile as warm as the businessman’s had been phony.

            “Thanks, but I still need to get my bag,” he said.

            “This blue one?” she asked.


            She pulled it down and handed it to him. “Y’all go ahead. You’ve been so patient, waiting here, and I’m sure you’d rather be off’n this thing already.”

            “Thank you, though, really, I’m not in any hurry.”

            “I ain’t, either. I’ve got about five hours or so ‘till my connecting flight, so I’ve got plenty of time to kill.”

            He held the bag in front of him, making his way up the narrow aisle towards the exit. The flight crew smiled and extended the obligatory parting greetings as he turned towards the exit. The moment he entered the jetbridge, the heat and humidity of the late Texas summer hit him. As if I needed another reason to think this wasn’t such a great idea. His dark glasses slipped down his nose, and he pushed them back up with one finger.

            The air conditioned terminal was almost as much of a shock. Many of the other passengers seemed to relish the cold air, lamenting the upcoming moment when they would again step outside.

            He bypassed the baggage claim area, heading instead for the nearest area outside the security screening stations. An old man stood a short ways farther, watching the passing crowds with attentive interest. He waved to get the old man’s attention, dodging through the hurrying bodies to reach the man. “Hi Grandpa. Been waiting long?”

            His grandfather drew him into an embrace. “Not too long, really. I had some time for a cup of coffee and to read the paper. It’s good to see you, Mar- Paul.” He shook his head. “That’s gonna take some getting used to.”

            “Tell me about it.” He shifted his bag to his other shoulder. “Did my stuff reach you okay?”

            “Yeah, it got there on Tuesday. It’s still sitting in the entryway, since neither of us felt up to trying to carry it to your room.”

            “I’ll move it and get it all put away when we get there.”

            Grandpa turned and started walking. “We better get going. We got over a hundred miles of driving, once we get out of the airport traffic mess, and I’m not supposed to be driving after dark anymore.”

            Outside the terminal, the heat and humidity hit him again, and by the time they reached the car in the parking lot, he was wishing to be home again, where the sea breeze kept the days cool, and the air smelled of brine instead of jet exhaust.

            Paul slid into the passenger seat. “This is nice. I don’t think you had this the last time I visited.”

            Grandpa snorted. “I made the mistake of mentioning to your Uncle Mark that my truck needed some work. He and your mama decided we needed something new and reliable, and bought us this. It’s easier for your grandmother to get in and out of, and gets much better mileage than my truck ever did, so my early objections have kinda vanished.”

            “Where is Grandma? I thought she’d want to come out to meet me, too.”

            “She did, but she threw her back out yesterday, and when that happens, she needs to lay flat as much as possible for a few days.”

            Once they were finally away from the airport, his grandfather heaved a sigh of relief. “Well, at least that much is behind us. Are you hungry? It’s a couple of hours to home, and then it’ll be a little while ‘till dinner.”

            “Yeah. I had a late breakfast before getting on the plane, but that little bag of snacks they give you during the flight, doesn’t do much.”

            Grandpa pulled into a fast-food drive-through. “Know what you want?”

            He looked over the menu. “How about the Number 3, with coke for the drink.” He started to pull his wallet from his pocket.

            Grandpa waved him away. “Don’t worry about it. Your Dad’s sending us money to cover your expenses, and knowing him, it’s going to be more than needed. In the meantime, I can buy my grandson a hamburger and fries.”

            He ate carefully while they moved along the highway, doing his best to not drop anything on the clean car interior. When he finished, he put the trash back into the bag, and placed it between his feet on the floor. “So, how are you both liking the new place?”

            “It’s nice, so far. Rancho del Torito is just big enough to have what we need, but still small enough that it doesn’t have the big city problems. Small town problems, yeah, but not the big city ones. It’s mostly quiet at night, and folks tend to watch out for their neighbors.” He cut a quick sidelong glance towards Paul. “I was told to stress to you, though, that you need to be real careful to keep up your identity as Paul Lawton, and not let anyone know that it’s not your real name. One of the things that small towns tend to be real good at, is gossip. If someone finds out who your parents are, it won’t be long until the whole town knows it.”

            Paul grunted. “Maybe then, I could just go home.”

            “You need to think of this as home for a while.”

            “Sure, that’ll be real easy. What is it? Five hundred miles to the nearest ocean?” He stared out the window at the passing scenery. “I’ve never spent more than a couple of weeks away from the ocean before.”

            “It’s a bit under four hundred miles – I checked.”

            “Four hundred miles. I feel much better, then.”

            “You know, kiddo, if you give it a chance, you might just find that there will be things you like about living in Rancho del Torito.”

            “I might like it better if it’d been my idea and my choice. I was asked what I thought of the idea, but the decision wasn’t mine.”

            Grandpa let out a long sigh. “I know your parents discussed it with you, and explained their reasons. You need the chance to live like a normal kid for once, instead of always being the ‘Mermaid’s son.’ If you’re going to attend any kind of college or university, you also need to know what it’s like to attend a conventional school with typical classes, instead of the way Angela Williams handles things out there on the island.”

            “I like the way Mrs. Williams does her classes.”

            “I was told this was discussed before your sister was born. Your mother realized it was important for you to learn how to live like regular people, before you became so ingrained with how things are in the Pod, that you can’t function in the real world.”

            “I can function in the real world just fine.”

            Grandpa gave a wry smile. “Then you shouldn’t have any trouble proving it out here. Besides, you coming here isn’t just about you. Whether you want to admit it now or not, you did say you would be willing to come out here and help your grandmother and me with things we just can’t do as easily for ourselves these days.”

            He nodded, though the admission was reluctant. “It – just sounded easier when it was just discussed as a possibility.”

            “Don’t forget, either, the deal your Dad made with you. You graduate High School out here with reasonable grades, you’ll get your own sailboat.”

            “That’s another thing I’m going to miss. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t go places on The Bitter Pill. I think Dad’s boat feels as much like home as the family room.” He looked at the land off the highway. “It doesn’t look like there’s much place to sail a boat around here.”

            “There are a few decent sized lakes nearby. It might not be exactly the same as ocean sailing, but I suspect the basics are the same.”

            “Not that I have a boat out here.”

            “Are you going to find something wrong with everything I suggest? Dang, I can’t believe I forgot just how negative a teen-ager can be. Did you talk that way around your Mama and Aunt Eva?”

            He chuckled. “Not very often.”

            “And you’re not thinking to yourself right now, just what they would say to this conversation?”

            As soon as Grandpa suggested it, his imagination went to the two matriarchs of the Pod. He could hear their voices in his mind, with his mother’s gentle, but unyielding, encouragement, and his aunt’s firm, no-nonsense admonitions. “Well, I was managing to avoid it, until you brought them up.”

            “You think about what they would say, and don’t give your grandmother or me any reason to call them up and bring them into any disagreements we have, and I think we’ll all get along just fine. Your mother told us to not hesitate to call if we started having any trouble with you, but I’d like to avoid that if we can.”

            “Me, too.”

            They were quiet for a while, and Grandpa turned on the car stereo. The station displayed as “Classic Rock,” which seemed like a nice way of saying, “moldy oldies.” Paul watched the Texas landscape pass by. He’d been to visit his grandparents before, when they still lived in a suburb of Dallas, but they’d never driven much outside of the city. It was one thing to look at a map and see how big Texas appeared, compared to the other lower forty-eight states. It was another to speed along a highway, and realize for the first time, they could drive at this speed for hours and hours, and still not leave Texas.

            He finally broke the silence. “Why did you and Grandma move to Texas, anyway? Didn’t you two live on the east coast before?”

            “We had a couple of reasons. One was the weather. The winters here don’t get quite as cold, which makes them easier on our arthritis, and two, the cost of living out here is lower than what we were paying before. Our retirement account stretches a lot farther here.”

            “Not that Mom and Dad would ever let you two go without.”

            “When we first moved to Texas, we didn’t know about your Mom.”

            “It’s hard for me to remember when the Pod was still secret. I vaguely remember when the secret broke, but I wonder sometimes if I’m actually remembering it, or if I think I remember it because I’ve heard the story so many times.”

            “Well, I remember it pretty clearly. Finding out you have a daughter you never knew about is pretty significant. Finding out that daughter is a mermaid? Mermaids have been real to you for your whole life, but for the rest of us, they were the stuff of fantasy and mythology up until ten years ago.”

            Grandpa steered the car down the off-ramp. “Back roads from here on out.”

            They rolled between cultivated fields and expanses of wild trees, far removed from the dense neighborhoods of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolis. The air smelled different from either the urban areas or the island, and he wondered how long it would take for him to acclimate to the point of not noticing any longer.

            A few miles and a couple of turns later, they passed the sign marking the town limits for Rancho del Torito. Large, generously spaced houses lined the main street. At the third side street from the town limits, Grandpa turned right, drove three short blocks, and turned left. At the second house from the corner, he steered into the driveway, hit a button on the overhead console, and then waited while the garage door opened. “We looked at a nice two-story house here in town, but decided stairs might not be the best with our arthritis. Plus, if Mark comes out to visit, a single story will work better for him, too.” He parked in the garage, pushed the button again to close the door, and shut off the engine. “Though I might have been better not bothering to park in the garage yet. Unless your grandmother’s back is feeling a lot better than when I left, I’ll probably need to go get all of us some dinner somewhere.”

            Paul opened his door. “If you have food in the fridge, I can cook dinner.”

            Grandpa stopped halfway out of the car to look at him. “You can cook?”

            “Skip has been teaching me. I started hanging out in the kitchen to listen to his Navy stories, and started asking questions about what he was doing. He figured if I was going to spend so much time there anyway, I might as well learn a useful skill.”

            “So you like cooking?”

            He shrugged. “I like eating, and I gotta admit, it is kinda cool to actually cook something yourself and have it turn out great.”

            “Well, then, we’ll see how Grandma is feeling, and then see what’s available, and if it’s something you know how to cook.”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Excerpt / Friday Fiction for October 29, 2017

This is posting late for Friday Fiction, so it’s kind of a combination of Friday Fiction and Sunday Excerpt. “The Historian Project” is likely going to be on hold for a little while, since NaNoWriMo begins this week, and my writing attention will be devoted to this year’s project, “Blue Fish, Red Fish.” If you’d like to participate, please add your link to the LinkyTool below.

My first NaNoWriMo was in 2006, and my project then was the third story in the Pod series, “The Daedalus Child,” about a young man with his arms engineered into functional wings. This still remains one of my favorite stories, and since Hallowe’en is this week, I thought this excerpt would be appropriate. It's a bit long for my excerpts, but I think the chapter is best shared in its entirety.

The Daedalus Child

Chapter 5

            Janice’s opinion of Park security changed over the remainder of the summer and into the fall.  She had expected them to tolerate her one dinner, but to resist any attempts for future visits with Bobby and Helen.  Instead, they smiled and made no notice of the growing friendship.  The number of evenings she could be found at the apartment, playing games or watching movies with the Malachs, became more frequent and just another part of the routine.

She sat with Helen one afternoon on her day off while Bobby was performing in the live-action show.  “Do you think he would enjoy getting out among regular people for an evening?”

            “I’m sure he would,” Helen said.  “Not that I think he would be allowed to, or that he’d be able to walk around unnoticed.”

            “I’ve thought about that, and I have an idea.”  She explained her thoughts, gratified to see that Helen’s smile indicated she liked the plan.

            A few weeks later, she waited for him in his apartment, watching the Park crowds through one of the small windows.

He returned in the late afternoon, commenting on how it seemed the Park got stranger every year for the Halloween season.  “At least it will be over tomorrow,” he said.  “They’ll start getting all the Christmas decorations in place, but the weird stuff will be done.”  He looked around.  “Where’s Grandma?”

            “She’s taking Kyle around trick-or-treating tonight.”

            He finally noticed her outfit.  “You’re in costume, too.  What are you wearing?”

            “It’s my Renaissance Faire dress; do you like it?”

            “It’s nice, but why are you wearing it?”

            “It’s Halloween, and you and I are going out to a movie.”  She pulled a long black hooded robe from a bag. 

            “Going out?  I thought the plan was to just watch movies here tonight.  They’re never going to allow this.”

            “They won’t even know,” she said.  “You’ll put this on; it has a skull mask to go over your face, so no one has to know who you are except me.”

            “But they’ll see us going out through the employee exits.”

            “And why would you need to go out through any exit?  It’s almost dark; all you need to do is fly out after sunset and meet me nearby.  No one is going to question me walking out by myself; you meet me, put the robe on, and we drive to a theater where no one is going to think anything strange of a couple in costume on Halloween night.”

            “Can we really get away with this?”

            “Why not?  You’re not going out as Daedalus, so what worry is there of your possibly doing anything to detract from the image of the character?  Tonight, you’re going out as Death, and it’s really hard to damage his reputation.” 

            He smiled as he warmed up to the idea.  “Okay; let me eat some dinner, and then I’ll take the elevator to the roof.  Where should I meet you?”

            “A friend of mine works at the hotel across the street.  She gave me a pass key that will let me get on the roof.  That will be a good place to meet with minimal chance of anyone seeing us, and also provide a good place for you to take off from to fly back here afterwards.”

            “This is crazy, but I like it.  I mean, a real theater; wow.”

            “With a 3-D movie, even,” she said, and smiled.  “I’ll see you across the street in a few minutes.  I’m sure it will take me longer to get there than it will take you.”

            She rode the elevator down and headed for the employee exit.  No one paid her much more mind than simple greetings, other than the normal check of her bag at the door to be sure she wasn’t taking anything out she shouldn’t.

            She pulled out of the parking lot onto the busy boulevard, and took longer to drive the short distance to the hotel than it would have taken her to walk it.  Parking in the visitor section, she proceeded to the elevator, where her key allowed her to select the roof.  She stood in the dark for a few minutes before Bobby dropped down beside her.

            “This is the first time I’ve been outside the Park without a handler since I signed that contract,” he said.  “Man, it feels good.”

            She took out the robe and helped him into it.  A full-length zipper closed it in front, and once she had the skull mask on his face, the hood went over the top of his head.  “Can you see through the mask all right?”

            “Just fine,” he said.

            They rode the elevator back to the ground floor, and blended in with everyone else in costume in the lobby.  It was tricky getting him into the car, considering the length of his arms, but with the seat reclined a bit and pulled all the way back, they managed.

            “Are you okay like that?” she asked, as they merged onto the freeway.

            “It feels strange riding like this, but I’m not uncomfortable.  Does my grandmother know about this?”

            “Who do you think helped me set all this up?  She made your robe, and that’s why she has Kyle tonight.”

            “Jan?  Is this a date?”

            “I suppose it is, if you want it to be.”

            “I’ve never been on a date before.”

            “Then, sure; it’s a date.  I haven’t been on one in a couple of years, either, and it would be a shame to let this year go by without both of us having one to remember.”

            With tickets already in hand, she led him past the line of other moviegoers, many of whom also wore costumes.  The only statement she heard in reference to the two of them was one person wishing they’d thought to buy their tickets in advance.

            They took seats in back of the theater, and when the reels started she slipped the mask from his face and put the 3-D glasses on him.  He made occasional appreciative comments on the effects, but other than that they watched the movie without conversation.

            She’d seen it before a number of times, and even in 3-D, but based on his reaction it was the first time he’d watched that movie.  His fascination with it renewed her own enjoyment of the show, to the point she thought the end credits appeared far too soon. 

            Removing the glasses from his face, she replaced the mask before the lights came up in the theater.  While the chance of someone recognizing him outside the context of the Park was slim, they both agreed it was better to not risk it.

            As it had been in the hotel lobby, the crowds in the theater paid them little notice, and more often than not when someone did look their way, they were gawking at her bosom, pushed up by the tight bodice she wore.  More than once, she caught his eyes straying to her bust.  She smiled.  Once in a while, it was nice to be admired for her appearance, and most of the time he gave scant indication that he thought much about how she looked.

            They got into the car, and she looked at the time on the dashboard clock.  “Are you ready to go home yet?”

            “Can I wait until the stroke of midnight and see if the car turns into a pumpkin first?”

            “Well, I have to work tomorrow, so I really can’t be out that late.  We could stop and get a milkshake, though.”

            “I’d like that.” 

            She searched for and found a certain fast-food place, and pulled into the drive-through lane.  “Two pumpkin pie shakes,” she ordered, and proceeded to the pick-up window.  She placed the shakes in the cup holders, and headed down the freeway once again.  When she selected an off ramp, it was to park at the beach.

            They sat in the front seats with the windows rolled down, shivering slightly from the cool ocean breeze and the cold milkshakes they were drinking.

            “You know, the first time I ever saw the ocean was from a helicopter?” he said.  “That same day was the first time I ever went swimming.”

            “It’s hard to picture you swimming.”

            “It’s hard to say no to Brenda.  She was pretty persuasive at getting me into the water.”  He lifted the milkshake to his face, holding the cup between the heels of his thumbs.  He drew in a large mouthful through the straw, savored it for a moment, and swallowed.  “She convinced me to dance with her, too.  If you have a hard time picturing me swimming, imagine me dancing in the water with a merrow.”

            “A merrow?”

            “It’s what the Pod call themselves, instead of mermaids and mermen.  Brenda is one of them, and she was the one that told me I should get an agent and try to make a living off my wings.”

            “You sound like you have a girlfriend; are you sure you’ve never been on a date before?”

            “I don’t think she qualifies as a girlfriend.  We write to each other a lot, but we’ve never even so much as hinted at a romantic relationship.  She was the first girl about my age that I ever talked to, though, and it was nice that she understood what it was like to have been engineered to be so different.”

            “She sounds nice.”

            “She’s a lot of fun, and around her was the first time in my life that someone besides my grandmother and Tina made me feel like I wasn’t some hideous monster.  From the moment the Pod saw me, they just accepted me for who I am.”

            “I can’t imagine why anyone would think of you as a monster.”

            “Listen to that preacher, Rusty Phillips.  He thinks I’m some kind of demon-spawn.”

            “Phillips is a lunatic; don’t pay any attention to him.”

            “He may be a lunatic, but he does have a point.  Admit it, Jan; if I’d put on red body-paint tonight and a pair of horns, I would have looked perfect as a devil.  Angels are drawn with gorgeous white-feathered wings, while demons have fleshy, bat-like wings.  People who buy into the traditional imagery are going to think I look evil.”

            “How do they know angels don’t have bat-wings?  Who’s to say what an angel’s wings look like?”

            “You don’t have to convince me; I don’t see something evil when I look in the mirror.”

            “I don’t see something evil when I look at you, either,” she said, and then laughed.  “Though in that black cloak and skull mask, you don’t exactly look benevolent, either.”

            “Maybe not, but you were right; it worked.  No one gave me anything more than a passing glance tonight.  For the first time in my life, I’ve been out among regular people and I didn’t have to worry about what they might think of me, or if I’m going to terrify someone.”

            She checked the time.  “We better get back; it’s going to be hard enough getting up in the morning as it is.”

            They drove back to the hotel, exchanging small talk.  The lobby was mostly deserted when they entered, and the desk clerk looked up just enough to register their presence before going back to whatever he was doing on his computer.  She used the key in the elevator again, and they stepped out into the cool night air on the rooftop.

            “I had a great time this evening, Jan; thank you.”

            “I had fun, too.  It’s too bad Halloween only comes once a year.”  She flipped the hood back from his head, and unzipped the front of the cloak.  “You won’t have any problem finding your landing spot in the dark?”

            “I’ve done night-flights before when I’ve had problems getting to sleep.  I can find my rooftop without any trouble at all.”

            “I’ll be over to pick Kyle up in a few minutes, so I’ll see you at your apartment then.”

            “Is the date over now?”

            “I’m afraid so, Bobby.”

            He sighed, and started to turn away.

            “Well, except for one thing,” she said, touching him on the shoulder.  She turned him back to face her and slipped a hand behind his head.  Giving him a quick kiss, she looked into his eyes with a smile.  “You know, you’re supposed to kiss back when someone kisses you.”

            He hesitated, and then brought his lips to meet hers, wrapping his wings around her body.  His kiss was tentative and unsure.  “I really don’t know what I’m doing,” he whispered.

            “It’s okay,” she said.  “You’re doing fine.” She kissed him again, putting more feeling into the gesture.  When she drew back, she said, “Now the date is over.”

            He smiled and drew his arms away from her.  “I hope we can do this again sometime.”

            “I do, too.”

            He went to the edge and stretched his wings a few times.  Crouching down first, he leapt off into the dark.

            She returned to her car, and sat in the parking lot for a few moments, sorting through her thoughts.  The kiss had never been part of the plan.  They were supposed to just go out to a movie, maybe get something to drink, and then come home.  The beach; the kiss; she’d made it into a real date.

            She turned on the lighted visor mirror and looked at herself.  “Is that really what you wanted all along, Jan?  Did you just convince yourself you were doing something nice for him, when all along you wanted to remember what it was like when a guy wanted to go out with you just for you?”

            Someone had warned her when she was pregnant with Kyle; having kids changes things.  People treat you differently.  She hadn’t wanted to believe them, but learned all too soon the truth of it.  So many guys that were charming and wonderful ran like scared rabbits the moment she uttered the words, “my son”.

            Not Bobby, though.  He’d included Kyle in his first invitation to her.  He was crazy about the boy and enjoyed hanging out with him.  A small voice echoed in her mind.  Don’t fall for a guy just to get a daddy for Kyle.

            Why did life have to be so confusing?

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Fiction for October 20, 2017

Friday Fiction this week is hosted by the talented and imaginative Sara Harricharan, over on her blog. If you haven’t been over there yet to read her story, make sure you don’t miss it!

This week is the third part of “The Historian Project.” I’m not sure how long this story will end up being, but I’m enjoying where it’s going so far.

The Historian Project, Part 3

By Rick Higginson

            “No, the red compact should be my brother Sid.” Manziel walked to the window and looked out. “Funny – even at this speed, he still seems to move slower than most people. Sid was never much of a go-getter. I think he’s spent more time on unemployment than he has being employed. If I remember right, this was his first – and last – year of college, after goofing-off for two years after high school. Mom and Dad told him if he didn’t improve his class attendance and grades, they were not going to pay his college expenses any longer, and he dropped out shortly thereafter.”

            “Then I think we can maintain this review rate a while longer.”

            The two men continued to watch out the window, and before long snow began to fall. At the accelerated review rate, it looked much like a torrential rainfall, only boldly white.

            “I shouldn’t be much longer now. I seem to remember something when I arrived home that year, Mom said it’d only been snowing for an hour or so.”

            The door to the bedroom opened and closed, the sound like a firecracker pop at the accelerated rate. Manziel’s face twisted in confusion. “What’s Sid doing in here?”

            Kallas looked at the arrival impassively. “System, normal rate. Let’s watch, shall we?”

            Sid had already moved to the dresser before the system restored the rate to normal. He opened the drawers slowly, then quietly moved about the clothes in each.

            Kallas walked over next to him, and peered into the latest drawer. “Any idea what he might be looking for, Dr. Manziel?”

            “Are you sure he can’t hear us?”

            “If he could hear us, then he could also see us, and if that were the case, I doubt he would be searching your room.”

            “No idea.”

            Sid went next to the desk and pulled open the drawers, followed by the closet, looking in boxes on both the shelf and the floor, and then checking coat pockets and the dress coat. Still not finding what he was searching for, he dropped to his knees and looked under the bed, then ran his hand between the mattress and box springs.

            He stood suddenly and hurried to the window. He muttered an expletive, and then left the room.

            “Can you contact your brother?”

            “Yeah, I have his number. He calls from time to time when he needs something.”

            “Whether we determine what happened to your grandfather’s watch, you can ask your brother about this search, and see what he says.”

            He snorted. “I wouldn’t bet on him admitting it, even if he remembers it. He has a notoriously bad memory for anything negative in his past.” Manziel went to the window. “Ah, that’s why he cut his search short. I just got home.”

            “Would you prefer to wait for yourself up here, or go relive the homecoming downstairs?”

            He thought a moment. “Up here. I think I’m already closing up on nostalgia overload.”

            It was only a few minutes before the door opened again, and the younger version of Dr. Manziel walked in. He dropped a heavily-packed duffle bag on the bed, kicked off his shoes, and flopped on his back beside the bag.

            “Damn, I never realized how much I looked like a kid back then.”

            His younger self remained on the bed for only a few minutes, before getting up. He removed the items from his pockets, including an antique pocket watch, and set them atop the dresser, before changing from his traveling clothes into clean jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. He replaced all the items into his pockets, save for the watch, which he placed in his top dresser drawer.

            “That was the last time I remember seeing the watch. I still don’t remember whether I took it with me back to college, and lost it there, or forgot it in the drawer, and something happened to it while I was gone.”

            “Then we watch the drawer, and see what happens from here. Do you need a break, Dr. Manziel? We can have the system ‘bookmark’ this point in history, so that we can return to it later.”

            “How long have we been in here now? I mean, even at the accelerated rate, it has to have been some time, hasn’t it?”

            “System, real time passage of this session?”

            The same voice from the control room sounded inside the bedroom. “Session duration currently thirty-four minutes, thirty seconds.”

            Manziel shook his head. “It seems it should have been longer than that. I mean, even at thirty times faster than the normal time passage, we got here at noon, and it’s now almost evening.”

            “At thirty times passage, five hours pass in ten minutes. We spent longer watching your brother search your room, than we spent waiting for him to arrive.”

            “Can we set a time limit we are here?”

            “Of course.”

            “Okay, we’ll call this session at one hour of real time. We can accelerate again to watch the drawer, right?”

            Kallas didn’t answer. “System, notify us when our session is approaching one hour of duration.”


            “System, fast forward at thirty ex.”

            The room grew dark as night fell. The younger Manziel came in once and grabbed a coat, before leaving the room in darkness again.

            “I remember now, I went out to see some of my friends that night.”

            He had barely finished saying that, when the door opened again. Sid came in, leaving the light off and closing the door quickly.

            “System, normal rate.”

He went to the window and pulled the curtains open, allowing the streetlight to add a faint glow to the room, before opening the desk drawer again. He then returned to the dresser and pulled open the top drawer. As before, he shuffled things around, and then suddenly pulled his hand up, smiling. The pocket watch dangled from its chain, catching the scant light in the room as it swung and spun, before Sid stuffed it into one of his pockets.

            “Sid took it? Why would he take it? He’d never expressed any interest in it when our grandfather was alive.”

            “System, return to control room.”

            The scene faded to the plain blue of the control room.

            “Do you understand, now, Dr. Manziel, the value of the Historian System?”

            “This is still so hard to believe.”

            Kallas sighed. “Call your brother tonight and ask him about the watch. You should return tomorrow for another session, after which, I believe, you will understand the true difficulty of the Historian Program.”

…to be continued…