Three Short Stories
by Andrew Leidner
Twisted Words of a Half-blind Superman
I attend the funeral from several blocks away, surveying the event through my binoculars from atop a 26-story skyscraper. The event looks pretty dull, even by funeral-standards. I’m glad that I don’t have to be there. The lady standing next to the casket wipes away a tear from behind her black veil. She must be the widow. Many of the other funeral attendees also seemed to be crying too. The deceased must have been a heck of a guy. I wish I could have known him. I wish I could have been there to save him from whatever it was that killed him.
I turn my binoculars to the opposite side of town where there is a wedding. The bride looks glorious, but also kind of sad. Maybe she knew the guy from the funeral. Maybe she feels his death casts a shadow across her otherwise perfect wedding day. In any case, aesthetically speaking, nothing beats a lovely bride who is sad for some mysterious reason. The beauty of the moment touched me so much that a tear came to my eye. I think about the widow that I saw crying earlier. I think about my emotions of sadness, happiness, beauty, and loss. I think about how everybody feels these emotions and it gives us all a partially shared experience even though at the same time we all feel we are very much alone. I reach up to wipe away the tear from my eye when a slimy voice comes from behind me, “Looks like we just found ourselves another rooftop crybaby.”
The leader of a gang of rooftop thugs saunters in my direction. He’s flanked on both sides by other thugs who are casually swinging their weapons. One swings a hammer, another swings a piece of wood, and another swings a sock full of nails and thumbtacks. Right then I decided it’s time that this city, myself most of all, finally do something about these rooftop thugs who run roughshod over all these roofs and the decent people of this city who hang out there. As I turn to face the gang, I forgot I was still using the binoculars and I accidentally look directly into the afternoon sun. The sun magnified through my binoculars is easily the 2nd brightest thing I’ve ever seen. The single brightest thing being the time I saw an atomic bomb explode on the roof of a dog house.
The rooftop gang leader points a knife in my direction and says, “Ok Bozo, hand over most of your money.”
“I can’t find my wallet,” I pat my pockets as I explain, “I just looked at the sun. I’m temporarily blind.”
I hear the rooftop gang leader take a step or two closer to me. He whisper-shouts, “When I was fourteen, blind people killed my family. Blind people are the number one reason I now live on the rooftops and choose to express myself through crime and violence.”
My vision returns and I put my left hand on the shoulder of the gang leader and say, “I’m really sorry to hear that about your family.” With my other hand, I reach down and grab the blade of his knife and squeeze the blade as hard as I can. I have superhuman strength, so the knife-blade turns to boiling-hot liquid in my grip. Liquid steel oozes out from between the cracks in my fingers. The leader of the gang tries to back away, but I still have my other hand on his shoulder. “Look,” I tell him, “I think that you should try to forget about those people that killed your family. In life, you can always find some factors that are outside of your control to feel bitter towards, things to blame for the way your life unfolded. But I don’t think that attitude will get you very far. And I don’t consider it to be a very positive or productive way of thinking.”
One of the gang members slams his block of wood down on the roof, making a loud racket to get his boss’s attention. “Boss,” he implores, “don’t listen to the twisted words of that half-blind superman.”
I keep my attention on the leader to try to say the words that will give him the help he needs, “Rather than obsessing over things beyond your control, focus on improving the things that you can control and, you know, just make your life as good as you can get it without being a criminal and without resorting to violence.” The thug leader rubs his face with his hand. Eventually, he goes to hug me and cries for a few minutes while I hold him, being very careful not to crush him with my superhuman strength.
The three other members in the gang look at each other for what their next move should be. One of them bolts, running away across the rooftops. The other two remain on the roof and stare at me with my arms around their now regretful and penitent leader. They don’t seem eager to pick a fight, so after a few moments I go back to check on the wedding and funeral I had seen earlier. But as soon as I’m not looking, those cowards attack me from behind. Thanks to my super-human strength, I easily overpower them. Feeling they had now lost their opportunity to go out peacefully, I throw them off the roof. During the following week, I attend each of their funerals from my perch atop the 26-story skyscraper, lamenting that I couldn’t do more to save them.
Dialogue with Moldovan Sugar Ants
“Maybe we should take it easy tonight,” my wife suggests. I shrug and say, “Only if you insist.” I stretch out my toes and legs until my feet fall off the far end of the ottoman. I slouch so deep in the sofa that I disappear below a layer of throw pillows, throw blankets, and a dusting of crumbs from the big bag of popcorn I’d eaten earlier. Down here, it’s just me, the fabric of the chair, and the occasional sugar ant, lured out from the floorboards and walls by the promise of a few stale morsels of popcorn, cereal, or potato chip.
An ant comes around right as my eyelids start to flutter. I try to act like I wasn’t just about to take a nap, but it’s too late. The ant swivels his head from side to side and grumbles, “Still coasting on your conquest of Eurasia while we ants work like dogs.”
“Don’t blame me,” I say, “the wife insisted we take it easy.”
“We took it easy, once,” the ant replies, momentarily staring off into the distance. Sugar ants don’t self-identify. Their perception of self is projected through their entire colony, every ant in the colony from now and going back the colony’s beginning, over 123 million years ago for this particular ant’s colony. As the ant surveys a square chunk of Chex cereal and considers how best to haul it back to his nest, he tells me the colony’s story of ‘taking it easy’ way back when they lived in what’s now called Moldova.
His story begins in the evening after a long day of hard labor. The colony workers came together and agreed by majority vote they’d earned a holiday. So far as they knew, this was the first holiday ever declared in the history of organic life on Earth. This really got under the skin of their young Queen. “The nerve!” she scowled to her advisers. So distraught was the Queen that on the day of the worker’s long-overdue holiday, she led a small band of loyalists to abandon their colony. They ventured forth into the unexplored west, never to return. They migrated in the direction of what is now called America, but which was then still attached to Eurasia by way of the Supercontinent. Over the next 100 million years, the same event occurred and then re-occurred, hundreds and thousands more times. Each time the Queen pushed the new colony further and further west till they got where they live today, underneath my building, dutifully foraging through the furniture of our apartment.
The ant’s story reminds me how I recently started collecting notes on the behavior of a hawk that lives in our neighborhood. Sometimes the hawk alights on the northwest corner of the building across the street. From that vantage, the hawk scopes out our courtyard and occasionally swoops in to snare a squirrel or a lizard or some smaller-sized bird. I grab the binoculars and turn them towards the building across the street. “No hawk,” I tell my wife, who is sitting on the sofa.
“No hawk?” She asks, looking up from a magazine she’d been reading.
“Yep,” I say, “that’s what I said.”
Sam, an elderly Minotaur, holds in his hand a long, thin bodkin. He rotates the bodkin to inspect the elaborate woodwork of the handle and the razor-sharp edge of the blade. “Looks sharp enough,” Sam says and thrusts the blade towards some no-name, would-be hero who had the misfortune to now be chained to the wall in the dungeon of the Labyrinth.
The men and women who manage and oversee the Labyrinth are gathered in a board room. The board room is located in an office complex that’s built right into the side of the mountain, with an impressive view that overlooks the Labyrinth. They are gathered there today to celebrate the retirement of Sam the Minotaur. Just as soon as Sam dispatches this final prisoner, the celebration would properly begin and his replacement would assume the title of Minotaur of the Labyrinth. All Sam had to do was dispatch his final prisoner and head up to the board room.
Sam had intended to stab the prisoner through the heart, nothing too crazy for the final prisoner of his career. Unfortunately for the prisoner, Sam suffers from age-related myopia and such stabbings are no longer routine. The bodkin blade misses the man’s torso entirely. Sam slices into the prisoner’s arm at a point just above the elbow, almost-but-not-quite separating the upper arm from the lower arm. The man’s agonized wails start in full, billowing up through the air, echoing between the cold stone walls of the Labyrinth, amplifying up towards the inky-black sky and the mountain-based headquarters office.
The board members hear the prisoner’s wails. “Sometimes, it sounds like Sam still might have it,” the operations manager mutters. The ops manager had always been fond of Sam and was sadder than the others to see him go.
Hearing the screams unnerves Bo a little. Bo is the young Minotaur who has been chosen to replace Sam. “Why is he retiring, anyway?” asks Bo to no specific member of the board.
“Too frequent, unacceptable performance,” one of the board members promptly answers.
Standing near Bo, Frank is the only other Minotaur in the room. Frank had been training Bo for the last couple weeks. Frank explains, “Sam’s just getting old, Bo.” Frank continues, “Not too long ago, old Sam got lost for a few weeks—inside his own Labyrinth—and during that period, ten heroes made it through and they suffered no discernible harm—”
The prompt board member interjects, “—Bo, in the world of dungeons and horrors, ten heroes emerging unscathed from the Labyrinth is not up to our expectations. Take care to remember these things because as you start letting heroes through, we’ll start looking for your replacement too.”
Bo swallows hard and walks over to the snack table, hoping it distracts him from his anxious thoughts. Bo used to work as a security guard at an office park in the suburbs. The spread of sandwiches, store-bought cupcakes, and soft drinks reminds him of the many retirement parties he attended back at the office park. For some reason, he had expected something a little nicer, maybe something homemade for a party at Labyrinth Headquarters.
The wailing of the prisoner causes Sam to reminisce on the four or five thousand other screams he’d heard during his legendary tenure at the Labyrinth. On his first day on the job, over 30 years ago, the then departing Minotaur told Sam, “Each hero’s death scream is unique and beautiful.” Sam’s predecessor had been demonstrating the best way to flay a prisoner while still keeping him alive, but during the demonstration seemed to get frequently distracted by the pain and sorrow he was causing. Labyrinth management had also taken notice of this trend. And on his first day, those managers had told Sam very plainly that his predecessor had grown too sentimental and svelte to suit their needs. The managers told Sam, “Look, you’re not here to wax poetic about the deaths of fools. You’re here to slaughter chumps and collect a paycheck.”
“Yeah, I get it,” was Sam’s reply. But now, as Sam watches his final victim emit increasingly more dispirited moans and mumble ever more desperate pleas for survival, Sam could not help but appreciate the tenacity of the man—the tenacity of all creatures—to maintain some level of existence, no matter how abject.
“You about finished up in here?” Bo asks.
“Who’s this?” Sam wheels around with the bodkin still in his hand. Sam strikes a pose like he is ready to attack but he is facing the wrong direction because he cannot see where Bo is standing.
“The managers sent me down here,” Bo speaks calmly and approaches the small round table in the middle of the torture chamber. Bo drags his hooves noisily along the ground so that Sam can approximate his position based on the sounds. Bo continues, “They asked me to come get acquainted with the maze. They also thought it might be a good idea if we had a chance to talk.”
“Oh, of course,” Sam lowers the bodkin, “Would you care for some tea?” Sam asks.
Bo agrees to have tea and takes a seat at a small round table. Sam schleps a kettle full of water over to the fireplace where he hangs the kettle up on the rotisserie. Sam then picks up an old turkey bone and some flayed skin that were wadded up on the ground by the fireplace. Sam stands by the fire, chews the bone and the skin, until the kettle comes to a boil. Once the kettle whistles, Sam spits the contents of his mouth—the chewed up skin and bone—into a couple of cups. He pours the boiling water into the cups and brings them over to the table.
Sam grumbles towards his young guest, “So how do you take it, anyway?”
Horrified by what he is about to drink but trying to act tough, Bo says, “I take it straight, plain, black, or whatever you want to call it. No sugars. No sweeteners. And no milk products of any kind.”
“Not even honey!” The old Minotaur shudders. “That’s insane.”
To Bo, the tea remains far too hot to be consumed, but Sam slurps from his tea cup like a wild animal. Tea droplets drizzle down the stringy cloud of grey whiskers on the old Minotaur’s chin. After his first cup is empty, Sam gets up and refills his cup. He does this a few more times and after a while the sloppily slurped droplets of tea have stained Sam’s whiskers to the color of tar, all the while young Bo furtively blows on his tea to cool it down.
Finished with his drink, Sam goes on to tell Bo everything he knows about the Labyrinth. He describes the locations of trap doors, secret weapons, cubby-holes that are swarming with insects and vermin, the different types of vermin and the types of naturally-growing fungus with anti-toxins that can be used to counter-act the diseases and conditions carried by the vermin. Bo slowly sips on his tea, giving nods and an occasional grunt as appropriate for the conversation.
Bo is now into his fourth month as the official Minotaur of the Labyrinth. Bo drinks boiling-hot skin-bone tea almost every night now. So far he has a perfect record, not one single hero has escaped. Most of the days he either takes long walks through the Labyrinth looking for heroes or he kills time in the weapons room, making sure all his knives and spears are perfectly sharpened. One of his current projects is to do a much-needed re-surfacing of the floor in the main torture room. He intends to re-surface the floor so that it will have a slight, but barely-noticeable gradient. Bo explains the project to his manager, “That way, all the blood and guts will flow towards the floor drain, instead of forming stagnant pools like they do now.”
"Look," the manager glances at his watch, "as head monster of the dungeon, you can basically do whatever you want—the main thing is—don't let anybody through the maze."
Andrew Leidner lives in Atlanta between a rail yard and some old industrial buildings that got converted into apartments. Andrew has an English degree from the University of Georgia. In his spare time, he writes poems and short stories. He also writes songs and performs in the band Boo Reefa.