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Jaskey wasn’t nervous. He had his flashlight. He had a few things to say. The sky felt low to the ground, dark and hazy. People were coming too, and not too many. Jaskey had spent a week putting up handwritten flyers. Skin flaked off the back of his hands like scales. He tried to make the flyers look professional; he kept it short, not like the ravings of so many other latter-day pamphleteers. Time as told by the setting of the sun, every evening until he could perform no more, no admission charge but trade goods greatly appreciated, in the oldest part of the old town. Come and see, come and see. It was twilight and when the last of the indigo was leached from the sky, there was enough of a crowd to begin. Jaskey stepped onto the corpse of a vehicle—maybe it had been a very large SUV or a small Armored Personnel Carrier—and smiled out at the small crowd. His clothes were comfortably loose; dark against darker. The roll of his belly hung over a well-beaten pair of slacks. Jaskey turned on his flashlight; he stood up straight, his left foot ahead. He tilted the light under his own chin. There was a scattering of applause, and of other sounds—flesh against flesh anyway if not exactly palm against palm.
“I am a failure,” he said. “But it is the failure you should all fear. You must know this by now.” He could barely see the audience; they looked like underfed trees, all white branch and bone. “But with every failure, my friends,” Jaskey said, “with every failure my plans come ever closer to fruition. My machinations are nearly complete.” Jaskey’s voice was a growl from the diaphragm. He knew how to project; he’d picked the old parking lot because the ruined buildings surrounding it would help the acoustics, because they towered over the audience.
“There are armed men surrounding you,” he said. “Ready to rain down bullets, fire, bricks, dead cats ripe with buboes, letters by young women from all over this gray and ashen land that will break your very hearts!” He swung the flashlight; audience members flinched and flung up their arms to keep their eyes from the light.
“Do not be afraid,” Jaskey continued, “all is proceeding according to plan. You and I, we are the lucky ones! We have a special mission. The human race, a group to which….most of you belong—” he stopped and waited through the titters, “exists on the edge of oblivion today. I am here today to speak of humanity.
Jaskey again swept the beam of the flashlight over the crowd. “Like most of you, I have two parents.” He nodded, to himself, then added, “Both of my parents died many years before I was born.” Some of the crowd chuckled. “My mother hated me. My father, he was far kinder. A warmhearted man, he only despised me. Let me tell you a story of my youth.”
Jaskey lowered the flashlight. His feet were bare. He wiggled his toes, as if waving with them to the audience. “On one bright day in the midst of winter, when the snow glistened on the streets like great piles of diamonds, my parents brought me before this old man. He was old enough to be my grandmother.” Jaskey chuckled because nobody else did. Finally, someone snorted in support. “And he told me the most horrid tale. When he was a boy my age, he lived in a camp. He was rarely fed. His parents were as thin as sticks. Men in uniforms ordered them about and threatened them with work and rifles. This boy had a job. There was a small stage made of scrap wood, and a frame painted like a proscenium. With some scraps of cloth and burlap, he and a few of the other children were allowed to put on a puppet theater. It was a Punch and Judy show, he believed. He remembered only one routine.”
Jaskey again brought the light to the underside of his chin. His eyes were wide. “Punch threw his little baby, played by a dead and quickly rotting mouse, out the window, and the police were brought forth quickly to arrest him. The judge—another puppet of course, perhaps even an entire sock in order to present as regal a manner as possible—explained to Punch that he was to be hanged by the neck!”
Jaskey raised his arms, his fists tight, “Until dead! Dead, dead, dead!” Then he turned the light back onto himself, holding it arm’s length, like a spotlight, like a firearm at his own head.
“‘Am I supposed to die three times,’ Punch asked in this play,” Jaskey said, his voice a high squeak for Punch’s sides. “‘I don’t know how to do that!’ And then this old man laughed and laughed and laughed. He looked down at me, his young grandson, and asked me a question when he saw that I was not smiling and laughing.” Jaskey shifted his weight to one foot and shrugged. An aside: “I didn’t want to interrupt him, you see. He asked me, ‘Do you get it?’”
Again Jaskey pointed his light toward the crowd. “Do you get it?”
Jaskey sighed and let his arms fall limply at his sides again. “I didn’t get it.” Jaskey shrugged, as his grandfather once did. “‘Well,’ the old man said to me, ‘It was the Holocaust. I guess you had to be there.’”
The audience laughed, though an undercurrent of boos reverberated across the scene as well. A rock clunked against the hulk on which Jaskey stood. “Another failure!” he roared, the flashlight suddenly up again. “Who was it!” He pointed the flashlight at a member of the audience, a man with agitated flippers where arms once were. His face was narrow, too small for his flat head except for the nose, which was piggish. His eyes bulged from his head and glowed starry in the beam of Jaskey’s torch. “It had to have been you! Who else wouldn’t be able to throw a rock well enough to hit me?” For a moment he turned the light off. The click was loud. “You can try again if you like.” Another rock did strike against something in the dark. Jaskey yelped a comical “Owie!” and the audience laughed again. He turned the light back on. In his free hand he held a rock and dropped it against his makeshift stage.
“I could not help but notice that the universe is getting stupider,” he said. There were titters, chortles. Nervous laughter. “Have you noticed it too?” he asked. “Raise your hand if you have?” Then toward the fishy-looking fellow. “My apologies.” More laughter. Even he giggled along, his whole body quivering.
“Yes, it isn’t just us, though of course we humans are getting stupider too. There used to be so many of us—we split up our tasks. Some of us were doctors, others farmers. But could a lowly farmer amputate a limb?” He shook his head no, but then said “Yes! Dozens if he wished to!” Downcast again. “…but grain threshers are not covered by most insurance policies.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Jaskey said, “today we are at our own wits’ ends. We’re taking a nap at the cosmic rest stop of nitwitdom. Half-wits on our way to total witlessness. Why even I,” he continued, bowing deeply and stretching out one arm, “have forgotten to collect your ticket stubs. Some of you may sneak in tomorrow…if there is a tomorrow.” Still bent over, Jaskey craned his neck toward the sky. “But I am afraid that there may not be, for the universe is getting stupider. The heavens mock us!”
Jaskey raised his flashlight high. It was growing dimmer, the beam was thick with orange, but in the particulate-heavy fog it still shone like a pillar reaching skyward. “We thought we were alone, though we did not want to be. We had our satellites, our nightlights, our spotlights, our telescopes and microscopes and Scope mouthwash so we’d be ready to kiss when we found someone else. Anyone else. And oh, they came, didn’t they? But they weren’t looking for us. Instead, they were only interested in making contact with an intelligent species. Such a family of beings is at a premium on Earth. Indeed, only one creature matched the description of wisdom sought out by the Outsiders who came to this world not so long ago. Of all the things that creepeth and flyeth, there was a single animal worthy of the attention of these old, old gods.
“I am, of course, referring to the octopus. Some of them can juggle, you know. You can’t learn that from a book,” Jaskey said. “They’re not too bad for an invertebrate, really. If only we had had less backbone ourselves. Perhaps we would have surrendered, rather than launching our nuclear missiles at ethereal beings from beyond the stars. It was like trying to take out the infamous and illusory pink elephant of a drunkard’s waking nightmare with a flyswatter. You simply end up—” Jaskey brought the light down on his head with a satisfying thump (and he stomped his foot in time as well), “braining yourself.
“Mother Earth herself is an organism. The brave and glorious octopus, the oceans are his. We were, perhaps, the brain cells of Mother Earth. And we’re dying off now, a million a day. Intelligence, at least of the human sort, was an evolutionary wrong turn. We know that now, eh?” Jaskey said.
“After all, how did we hope to solve the problem of our visitors from beyond the stars?” He nodded solemnly. “That’s right—the same way we tried to solve the problem of how to heat up a breakfast burrito: we nuked ’em.” Then Jaskey put a hand to his stomach and winced. “And like that burrito of old, the tentacled Great Old Ones just came back an hour later, this time radioactive.” He burped into the beam of the flashlight; the crowd laughed. “And we ended up more than a little radioactive too,” Jaskey said, giving the flashlight a swing to illuminate the ruins and the deformed audience—a crumbled wall here, a twisted skull only half-covered with skin there.
“Hey!” someone called out in the dark as the flashlight’s beam passed over the audience.
“Ah, a heckler,” Jaskey said. “Finally.” He turned the dimming light toward the crowd, looking for the person who had spoken. “Are you the chosen representative of the audience tonight?”
It was a woman, not quite so deformed as the other members of the audience. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I have to say I found your flyer a little misleading—”
“Oh, madame,” Jaskey said. “I must apologize for that. However, this is all that I have to offer. Failure.”
She waved the paper, a leaf from an old broadsheet newspaper, its printed stories overrun with thick strokes of black ink, over her head. “You said you were going to talk about human achievement! About getting the world back on track. How we could succeed in reaching our potential?”
Jaskey put a palm to his chest, indignant. “But madame, I have. You want human achievement? You want a success story?” He lifted his arms high and wide, “You are positively soaking in it! This is the success story. There’s no food in the cupboard, no mail in the mailbox. It is time for us to embrace failure! We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, now we must fail our way out of this nightmare.
“What you do not understand, madame, is that we—all of us—” Jaskey said, “have a certain power. The power to achieve whatever it is we most desire, so long as we want it and wish for it with all of our might.” Jaskey stomped his foot, rattled the flashlight in his hand till it flickered as if shorting out. “What do you wish for, woman?”
Jaskey’s knuckles were white against the cylinder of his torch. He turned his attention back to the audience as a whole. “I, ladies and gentlemen, have always wanted nothing, and now I nearly have it!” Scattered applause emerged from the crowd. The woman threw her copy of the flyer to the ground and from her waistband produced a pistol. Jaskey gestured toward her. “Ah, ladies and gentlemen, meet my future ex-wife!” The audience laughed and clapped again, but the woman looked nonplussed.
“And now, for my final trick, ladies and gentlemen,” Jaskey said. “The light is growing dim.” He shook the flashlight to get the light to spark up again, but it faded back to its dull orange glow. The woman marched up to him, her arm extended straight out, the gun pointed up at Jaskey’s chest. “Please hold your applause, and assassination attempts, until the end of the performance. Thank you,” Jaskey said with a curt nod.
The woman cocked the hammer on the gun. Jaskey hmmphed in response. “And now, the grand finale!” And with that, he pointed skyward and threw back his head and commanded, “Look!” All turned their heads up; even the fish-faced man, neckless, pushed himself onto his back to see the high black vault of the heavens and the scatter of strange new stars.
The flashlight went dark, like a match between two fingers. A shot rang out. Jaskey was gone, vanished from the rusted stage. Then small envelopes, pinkish in the new light of evening, fluttered to the ground from the windowsill of one of the buildings. One landed at the woman’s feet. It wasn’t addressed to her. Rather it was from her, written in a handwriting she no longer possessed, and had been meant to be delivered long ago to a man she no longer loved, but whom now, at the end of the world, she missed terribly.
For Theodore Gottlieb, 1906-2001
Copyright © 2009 by Nick Mamatas