Monday, February 26, 2024

MY SUITCASE OF MEMORIES: Where Is Harry?

 WHERE IS HARRY?
by
Al Bruno
 


On this rainy day, I found myself at Guido's place. He was running another game of Dungeons & Dragons. For those of you unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons, the best way to explain it is to imagine a Fantasy Football league crossed with the Lord of the Rings trilogy with all the arguments of a game of Monopoly added in for spice.
 
*
 
So it came to pass that the dwarf, the elf, the ranger, and the wizard arrived at the ruins of the temple of Fructose, the High Lord of the Reverse Hobbits...
 
*
 
"Woah woah here," I interrupted by putting my thumb against my forehead and waggling my fingers, "Fructose? Where the Hell did you get that name."
 
"Research," Guido said as he looked up from the back of his soda bottle.
 
"You're not making this up as you're going along, aren't you?" Gordon asked as he copied my gesture.
 
"I'm offended."
 
"Hey guys!" a voice, "Hellraiser II is on!"
 
Guido turned in his seat, "Goddamnit Harry get back in here!"
 
*
 
The cries of ravens filled the air, and the ragged remains of previous adventuring parties littered the ground.
 
The three heroes started walking again, then doubled back to drag the near-comatose Wizard With No Name along with them. The doorway that led to the cursed inner chambers of Fructose the High's temple hung open but showed only darkness.
 
They stood there in silence for a time, especially the Wizard With No Name. Bruce spoke first, "We need to establish a marching order."
 
"The dwarf goes first," Chemlar snorted, "he's got the best Armor Class..."

 
*
 
"You know better than to break character without doing the hand sign," Guido said, "that will cost you 1000 experience points."
 
"No fucking way!" Daniel said, "And those hand signs are stupid."
 
"You want to lose another 1000 experience points?"
 
Daniel sighed with resignation and put his thumb against his forehead, "I think the dwarf should go first. He has the best armor class." His finger waggling was half-hearted at best
 
*
 
The four heroes marched into the ruined temple, tunnels had been carved into the walls. "These were made by Kobolds," Thad observed. His dwarven vision allowed him to see perfectly in the dark. There was nothing the shadowed tunnels could hide from him.
 
Bruce lit a torch, temporarily blinding the dwarf. The dwarf blundered backward into the wizard. The Wizard With No Name panicked and cast a magic missile down the Kobold tunnel.
 
Before the thief could stop laughing, dozens of Kobolds charged out of the mouth of the tunnel. The ranger cursed, the dwarf called upon Odin to guide his still-blinded eyes, and the thief tried to take cover. The wizard said, "Just a minute, I have to go to the bathroom..."

 
*
 
Everyone else immediately raised thumbs to their foreheads and started waggling away. Gordon said, "That's gonna cost you 1,000 experience points dude."
 
"Whatever," Harry shrugged as he stood.
 
"Should we just go on without him?" I asked once he was gone.
 
Guido shook his head, "Nope. This is a scenario designed with four players in mind."
 
"Designed?" I said, "You can't really expect me to believe you aren't making this up as you're going along."
 
"What are you talking about?"
 
"First - you're pulling the names out of your ass; otherwise, why would Princess Solo be asking us to travel to retrieve the Graven Eye of Timor from the temple of Fructose, the High Lord of the Reverse Hobbits?"
 
Guido said, "Sounds like a standard D&D campaign to me."
 
"Sadly, you're right."
 
Guido looked around, "Where the Hell is Harry?"
 
We took a vote and sent Daniel to the bathroom to find our fourth player. He wasn't there, a brief search revealed his car was gone
 
*
 
Undaunted by the wizard's strange disappearance, the three heroes engaged the kobold hordes in battle and made short work of them.the passageways of the temple ruins were becoming clogged with bodies. The dirt floor was swampy with kobold blood.
 
Chemlar the elf announced, "I see a glow up ahead."
 
The cries of yet another kobold war party filled the air. "Here we go again," the dwarf said.
 
The kobold horde drew closer, and the pale silver glow became brighter and brighter. "What are they carrying?" Bruce asked, "Lanterns?"
 
Chemlar narrowed his eyes, "They're too sharp-looking to be lanterns, and that glow is magical"
 
"Magical?" Thad croaked, "are those vorpal blades?"
 
Bruce staggered in shock, "One hundred and twenty kobolds wielding vorpal blades?"
 
The dwarf cast an angry glare to the heavens, "It is almost as though the very gods themselves are trying to kill us out of spite..."

 
*
 
Guido was happily rolling critical hits, "Ab3 your character loses his shield arm at the elbow and the elf loses both his ears."
 
"What?" Daniel held his forehead, "What's the point of playing an elf without pointy ears?"
 
"What did I miss?" Harry walked back into the room.
 
"Where the Hell were you?" we all asked.
 
"I went to get something to eat," Harry sat down and picked up his dice, "Let's kill something!"
 
*
 
And just when everything seemed lost the Wizard With No Name charged into the chamber. His exhausted and partially dismembered companions looked up at him. The kobold army paused, uncertain what to make of this new stranger.
 
The wizard paused dramatically, "Uhm I cast I cast FIREBALL!"
 
"A fireball?" The ranger shouted, "Did you read about the dangers of casting fireball in an enclosed chamber?"
 
"You fool!" the elf cried, "Even if I make my save, I don't have enough hit points to soak that kind of damage."
 
"Damnit!" the dwarf cursed, "You do not know how to roleplay."
 
In the half-second before the ruins of the temple of Fructose the High Lord of the Reverse Hobbits was consumed in a mushroom of mystical hellfire each of the heroes grabbed their chests with the pain of losing another thousand experience points...


Sunday, February 25, 2024

MY SUITCASE OF MEMORIES: The Best Worst Day Of My Life

by
Al Bruno III

Fall 1981

Let me take you back to the nostalgically idealized decade of the 80's. The year 1981, to be precise. I was fifteen years old and about to begin the first day of my second time through the ninth grade. That's right, I failed the ninth grade. Let me share a little background so you'll understand how.

From a young age, I spent more time reading and creating stories than hanging out with other kids. Constantly spending time with adults left me with a sense of humor and vocabulary about two grades ahead of the other kids. In other words, when I started kindergarten and started talking, the other students looked at me like I was from another planet. And a very loquacious and verbose planet at that, but still.

Couple that with the problem of my Kindergarten teacher. She knew my Mom was divorced and believed that children of divorce had behavioral problems, so she actively campaigned to have me removed from her class, and when she couldn't make that happen, she treated me awful. One time, she grabbed me by the back of my hair and dragged me across the classroom; another time, she had all my classmates scold me for her. And let's not forget the time she threatened to pull strings and have Santa Claus skip my house.

Charles Dickens had nothing on the Albany School System in the 1970s.

But what does all this have to do with me failing ninth grade? Maybe everything, maybe nothing. All I know is that from age five, I was marked, by staff and students alike, as a loser, an outsider, a subversive element. What followed was ten-plus years of varying misery. Sure, sometimes I would get a teacher who delighted in my presence. Sometimes, I would find a friend out on the fringes of the playground, but the older I got, the less interested the school system became in dealing with bullying and the more interested the bullies became in kidney punches and sharp objects.

Eighth grade was when it all got to be too much. I reached a point where I'd start feeling depressed and anxious on Saturday nights, knowing school was just one sleep away. So, at the end of that academic year, my parents—Mother, Father, and Stepfather—moved Heaven and Earth to get me into a fancy schmancy parochial school with strict academic standards and a stricter dress code. My family and I were convinced that this would be a chance to begin all over.

What no one in my family or I seemed to realize is that an oddball outsider trying to escape his problems is still an oddball outsider. The scenery changed, but the story stayed the same. But by November, I found myself back in the familiar territory of being treated the way I had always been. Except now, instead of exasperating underpaid civil servants, I was exasperating members of the clergy. Instead of trying to protect my dental work from middle-class kids, I was being tormented by snotty rich kids who dutifully said the Lord's Prayer in Homeroom every day before heading out to pummel me in gym class.

Despite all that, maybe things could have worked out; at the end of the second semester, some of the kids who had openly disliked me for most of the year started being genuinely nice. Unfortunately, I was done in by my own intellectual shortcomings. See, I wasn't a dumb kid, but I wasn't smart. I was clever.

Clever enough to coast through the public school system with a solid B minus average but not smart enough to realize this simply would not fly with my fancy schmancy new school. I crashed and burned. I crashed and burned so hard that I set records that still stand decades later.

In fact, I crashed and burned so hard that in August of 1981, my parents got a letter telling them I flunked out, not just out of the grade but right out of the school as well.

It was a painful and valuable lesson, painful to my smug little ego and valuable to my parents because they had spent a minor fortune to see their son end up right back where he'd started- Walking through the big ugly doorway of Dirt Lake Junior High.

No, that isn't really the name of the school. In fact, before we go further, I want to inform you that the names of every institution and person mentioned in this story have been changed so no one gets offended or confused. And while some characters and events may have been altered for dramatic effect, the heart of what I am telling you is true. As true as any memory can be anyway.

I don't know how it worked with other school systems, but in Albany, the eighth and ninth-grade students were warehoused in an L-shaped structure that had all the charm of a Russian tenement house while the tenth to twelfth graders occupied the building across the street, that was larger, better equipped and looked like an actual high school.

Familiar faces started noticing me as I walked through the building. On one hand, the teachers and administrators were looking at me with a mixture of amusement and pity; on the other hand were the students I had gone to school with for most of my life, who were now a year ahead of me.

None of them said a word to me, nor did I say a thing to them. What would I have said anyway? "Hey, you remember me? The kid that said it would be a cold day in Hell before you ever saw him again?"

Turns out it wasn't a cold day in Hell, in fact, that September morning was positively balmy. That morning in September, I felt humiliated, defeated, and hopeless.

I spent the first ten minutes of the morning struggling with my locker. Despite years of practice, I always forgot how to use them over the summer. Was it left, right, then two turns to the left, or was it two turns to the right, then left? Sometimes, I suspected they changed the pattern every summer just to mess with us.

WHAM!

Suddenly, I was on the floor, seeing stars. Someone had come up from behind me and body-checked me into my locker. Who had done it? A jock? A stoner? A mean girl? A rogue hall monitor with something to prove? I never found out, but thanks to them, I stumbled into Homeroom with a padlock-shaped indentation on my forehead and a fresh new headache. I made it to my assigned seat just as the bell rang.

Homeroom itself was a relatively quiet affair, except for the fact the teacher was the same Homeroom teacher I'd had from 1979 to 1980, and she freaked out a little at the sight of me. As I waited to be dismissed, I checked over my schedule. It was all basic high school freshman stuff except for the second to last class. I had taken an elective.

Do they still have electives these days? Just in case they don't, please allow me to explain.

Electives were these special classes that weren't reading, writing, arithmetic… gym… or industrial arts. Some of the classes covered home economics or different types of literature or typing. There was even a class on camping! Obviously, some classes were there to prepare us for the workplace or being a homemaker, and I'm sure that some of them probably rounded out a high school transcript very nicely. Other classes were a little useless.

"I signed up for Drama, one of the useless classes. Why? Because I was convinced I was going to be either the next John Belushi or the next Frankenstein Monster. Hell, maybe both. My first-period class was math with Mr. Crok. Normally, the first day of class should be devoted to the teacher outlining what material would be covered and what his expectations for us would be. Mr. Crok, however, spent the first forty minutes of our relationship regaling us with stories of his experiences in the Vietnam War. Riveting stuff, to be sure, but what I really needed to know was what kind of school supplies my parents needed to buy, not how to properly arm a claymore in enemy territory.

Speaking of enemy territory, the second period was gym class.

Ah, gym class in the 1980s, one part Lord of the Flies, one part dodgeball with just a little bit of rope burn thrown in for good measure. It was here that I first crossed paths with the Terrible Trio - Chuckles, NoNeck, and Stabby. Chuckles, the son of a state trooper, was gifted with the looks of a college student and mild fascist tendencies. NoNeck was the jockiest jock in the ninth grade; he did track, he did football and he seemed to believe that basic human empathy was dangerously high in caloric content. And Stabby? Stabby was a ticking time bomb in so many ways.

But more on him later someday, so much more.

While the rest of the students in the class were plodding through a game of kickball, the Terrible Trio were sizing everyone up, deciding who might be worthy to join the ranks of their followers.

It should be no surprise to any of you that I was not asked to be one of their followers. It should also be no surprise to you that the gym teacher did nothing when kickballs suddenly started flying at my head. But I wasn't alone in this spherical assault; there was another kid running for his life. He was skinny with white-blonde hair and tinted horn-rimmed glasses. Like any good nerd, he was also pale-skinned from lack of sunlight. Put it all together, and he looked kind of like an albino Roy Orbison.

You people still know who Roy Orbison is, right? Just in case you don't go listen to him, your ears will thank me later.

Anyway, after gym class, I introduced myself to the kid. "Hi," I said, "my name is Ab3."

“I’m Guido,” he said,  “Guido Jones. Are you new here?"

I shrugged as we walked together into the hallway, "Yes and no."

"Do you play D&D?"

"I've got the books," I said, "I dabble."

And by dabbling I meant that I spent many a lonely Saturday afternoon rolling up characters and then having them fight random encounters as they made their way across a randomly generated map. I'm not sure, but I might have invented open-world gaming years early.

"You gonna be in AV Club?" He asked as we huffed and puffed our way up the stairs to the second floor.

"What's AV club?"

And in the precious few moments before English class, Guido explained that not only was AV Club a great way to escape the doldrums and occasional terrors of Study Hall, but it was also a great place to learn how to use film projectors, audio equipment, and the school's slowly growing collection of VCRs and Video Cameras.

We promised to talk more later.

It was obvious we had made a connection. We both knew we had found a kindred spirit, someone more interested in Action Comics than AFL football, someone who preferred curling up with a good book over physical activity., someone who knew what it felt like to weep at the end credits of the Empire Strikes Back.

I made it to my next class in the nick of time. It was English class and was taught by a tiny and cranky woman by the name of Miss Lattrex. As she explained her plans for the first part of the semester, I realized I was going to have to study SE Hinton's The Outsiders all over again. My heart leaped because I realized that I still had the essay I wrote at my previous school somewhere in my room. It was a good one and had earned me a rare B minus.

Was I going to rewrite it and hand it back in again in a few weeks? Hell yes!

Stay Gold Miss Lattrex.

Fourth period was social studies. To my complete lack of surprise and interest, I found out that we would be studying American History from Plymouth Rock to the Election of Ronald Reagan. Covering all that in two semesters may sound ambitious, but back in the 1980s, we really streamlined things by just focusing on white guys. Don't get me wrong, we would cover topics like women's suffrage and slavery, but just in the context of how they impacted white guys.

And wouldn't you know it? This teacher assigned us homework, complete with chapters to read and questions to answer. For God's sake, it was the first day. Was nothing sacred?

After that, it was lunch, and lunch that day was a square slice of pseudo-French Bread coated with sickly sweet tomato sauce and covered with a thick layer of processed cheese. Each serving of this treat they brazenly referred to as pizza was cooked to a state of being mouth-burningly hot on the outside yet slightly frosty on the inside.

Carrying my tray, I navigated from the bustling kitchen to the cafeteria, desperately scanning the room for a safe haven. It was too early in the year for any of the factions to have staked out any territories. All I could do was make a wild guess and sit near the most average-looking kids I could. It was the social equivalent of playing Russian roulette but there with five bullets instead of one.

I took a seat, offering polite nods to the guys on my right and the girls on my left. I didn't actually speak, I didn't dare, a Doctor Who reference or pun might fall out of my mouth and ruin everything.

Yeah, maybe I would become known as a student of few words, the suave, silent type. Was this my chance to reinvent myself? Maybe I could become known as 'the Quiet Guy.' Maybe all the girls would become enamored with my aura of mystery. Maybe the yearbook would end up voting me Most Likely To Stare Meaningfully Into The Distance. Maybe-

"Hey Kid!" The guys sitting across from me shouted, "Are you a VIRGIN?"

Suddenly, everyone was looking at me. Suddenly, a hot blush was working its way across my face. And for the record, yes, I was a virgin at the time, but I don't believe that the guy who asked wasn't either.

And that is what I should have said back. Why didn't I? Why didn't I bring his mother into it? Why didn't I insult his stupid face? Or his lousy Up With People t-shirt? Why in the name of God's green earth did the brain that had been getting me into trouble with snarky comebacks for over a decade suddenly choose that one moment to fail me?

Guess what I actually said after a long and uncomfortable silence?

"That's for me to know and you to find out."

ARGH! Even now, four decades later, it still makes me cringe.

Okay, enough. Let's go to fifth-period science class before this memory renders me catatonic. The curriculum was named Earth Sciences, and it covered every aspect of our natural environment, highlighting how profoundly our species had screwed it up. Sometimes, I would read through the materials given to us and lose myself in wonder at all the things that might kill me. Pesticides? Radiation? Biohazards? Truly, I say to you, my doomsday chalice runneth over. It was scary and sobering stuff, and I think it is a big reason why so many members of my generation abandoned the cold, unreasoning world of science for the gentle comfort of Internet conspiracy theories.

For sixth period, I left the world of science behind and entered the one class I had been looking forward to: Drama Class! If my parents had realized I was going to waste a precious hour of my day prancing around on a stage, they would not have been happy. They had spent most of the summer trying to beg, order, and bribe me into promising to be 'more normal' this year.

And as you folks can see, I tried to be normal all damn day. I tried! And what did it get me? Minor head injuries and major humiliations.

Drama class was led by Mr. Ainley, who primarily taught twelfth-grade English, so I guess this was his elective too. Despite his calm demeanor, there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. I think he recognized a kindred spirit in me, which meant he knew he was in for a rough ride.

The thing about high school drama class is that there are two kinds of students there, attention seekers like yours truly and kids looking for an easy grade. Mr. Ainley understood that the best way to distinguish between the two groups was to invite each of us to share something about ourselves at the front of the class. And after a brief discussion of our syllabus (there wasn't one), that is just what he did.

We went up in alphabetical order, and as my last name is the second letter of the alphabet, I got to go first. I didn't do an introduction; I did a stand-up routine. For over a minute, I rambled like Rodney Dangerfield on acid. I said things like I was born in a log cabin I built myself, and I had once tried to start a chicken farm, but I accidentally planted the chickens too close together.
My performance wasn't a complete disaster—some of the students laughed—but as my parents and so many teachers would ask, 'Were they laughing at me or with me?'

My answer would always be, "Does it really matter?"

The more they laughed, the more I continued; one minute became two. It was really obnoxious, but Fortunately, Mr. Ainley was among those laughing. He was even laughing as he shouted for me to stop talking and sit the Hell down.

Next came the other students. First, there were the two girls who had been gossiping throughout the entire class. Then, there was the boy who apparently never washed his hair, followed by the wannabe jock. Finally, the band nerd who believed Western culture had died with Benny Goodman.

Then SHE stepped to the front of the class.

There are moments in everyone's life when their world changes utterly and completely, and that's what happened the moment I saw her bright blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. Everything changed forever.

Her name was Lilly Sunshine. Well, not really, but since I'm changing everyone else's name, I might as well change hers, too. I don't remember what she said that day, but I know I was hanging on every word. I watched her intently, my whole body tingling.

When she was done, she went back to her seat. She took the long way so she could say to me, "I thought you were funny."

And my brain exploded at a million miles an hour. I stared numbly at her and said something like, "Wasavusa vasa?"

Smooth Ab3, really smooth.

The final period was study hall, but I was in too much of a daze to study anything more than the clock. I spent the whole bus ride home thinking about her and also wondering why this girl had me so bedazzled. I mean, I always liked girls, even when I was at the age when boys were supposed to think girls were gross.

On that note, here's an amusing story. Back in fourth grade, I used to tell the girls all about Harry Houdini and the amazing things he did. I claimed to know some of his escape artist tricks. Of course, they didn't believe me. So, during recess, I would dare them to get some jump ropes and tie me to the jungle gym. I know that's some pretty advanced perving for a ten-year-old. I guess I enjoyed those comics where Catwoman tied up Batman a little too much. Anyway, the teachers saw. I went to the office. My parents were called and I got a good talking to.

Trust me, you haven't lived until you've been kink-shamed in the principal's office.

Now, where was I? Ah yes, love at first sight. That's what it was, love at first sight. No, it was more than that. It was recognition, not a recognition in the sense that I knew her. It was a primal thing, mystical, spiritual, and fundamentally life-changing.

Also, she turned me on. I mean, holy cow, fifteen-year-old boys are horny in general, but I was so riled up that I think I was abusing the privilege.

About halfway through the bus ride home, a half-eaten apple came flying at my head. I ducked instinctively, but it bounced off the window and hit me on the side of the head. The bus erupted in laughter and jeering. My heart sank, my swelling went down, and suddenly, I remembered who I was. I was a loser and a dweeb, and guys like me never get the girl.

Especially not a girl like her.

The bus dropped me off right in front of my house. It was easier than dropping me off at the regular bus stop a block away with the other kids. When that happened, I would end up getting wedged and chased home. I had gone through a lot of waistbands back in 1979.

My Mom was home taking care of my brother Monty and sister Mable; he was 11, and she was 10, so they got home an hour before I did. Because of that, they already had control of the TV. I didn't complain, I already had homework, and my parents were damned if I was going to fail another grade.

I suppose I could have lied and said I didn't have any, I suppose I could have goofed off, but I was damned if I was going to fail another grade again, either.

That was my intention anyway, but for an hour, I sat in my room pondering this humiliating day and shuddering at the thought of the next ten months.

Then my thoughts turned to Lilly, and they stayed there. I couldn't stop thinking about her, even while staring intently at the opening chapter of my social studies textbook for over an hour. Maybe I didn't think girls were gross, but damn if they didn't think I was. In fact, ever since the Valentine's Day Incident of the third grade, I had resigned myself to the idea that, unless that one cute cousin of mine moved back to town, I would never have a girlfriend.

But there I sat, considering how I might be able to get a date with a girl I had just met when, only a few nights before, I had been trying to decide from which country my inevitable mail-order bride would come.

Obviously, I couldn't just come into school the next day and ask her out to the movies. I had to be patient, and I had to have a plan.

I didn't hear it when my Mom called me for dinner, and she had to send my brother to get me. I didn't react to Monty's voice or presence either, and it must have worried him a little. He knew how much stress I was feeling because he didn't slap the back of my head nearly as hard as he would on a regular day.

One fistfight later, I was at the dinner table. My stepfather immediately turned the conversation to our first day of school. Mable was very excited that her fifth-grade classroom had a hamster in it; she couldn't remember the teacher's name, but she knew everything about the hamster. Monty was excited that he had ended up in a classroom with all his friends from last year. He wasn't excited about having to write a short essay about his summer vacation. I can totally understand; how can you stretch out 'tormented my older brother' to three paragraphs?

Then, all attention at the dinner table turned to me. My stepfather wanted to know if I was going to buckle down and fly right this year, which led to me questioning how I could buckle down and fly at the same time.

My Mom brushed that little bit of sarcasm aside and cut right to the heart of the matter. "What did you learn in school today?"

I paused thoughtfully, considering that it was just the first day, and the teachers typically didn't start real teaching until the second day. However, I had learned a lot. I had learned about the combat tactics of the Vietcong, I had learned that SE Hinton's full name was Susan Eloise Hinton, and I had learned what the AV Club was.

All good stuff; however, I had learned something so much more valuable than that and couldn't wait to share it.

"I met the girl I'm going to marry," I explained.

"Her name is Lilly."

The four other people sitting at the table, with ages ranging from thirty-two to ten, all groaned. My siblings mocked me; my mother told me I was far too young to worry about girls, and my stepfather scowled and said it didn't sound like I was buckled down at all.

Well, the joke is on them. In the end, I did marry Lilly. It only took forty years for it to happen.

I admit it took a little longer than expected, but then again, so did high school.

Friday, February 16, 2024

FRESH OFF THE BUS FROM CREEPYTOWN: Neighborhood Trash

 
By
Al Bruno III
 
 
Week One
 
 
He woke to the sound of engines and the flashing of lights. Was it the police again? It seemed they got called to this godforsaken neighborhood every night. Rolling out of bed, Gabe walked to the front window and shifted the curtain aside just enough for him to peer outside.

The first thing he saw was the moving van pulled right up onto the sidewalk; its motor coughed and belched, and its hazard lights blinked mindlessly.

New neighbors, he realized. Of course, he didn't remember the previous residents moving out, but that was a pretty common occurrence in this neighborhood, too, along with drunken arguments, drug deals, and missing children. The trash that had lived above Gabe had skipped out on their lease the day before Christmas. The speed and skill they'd employed to empty their belongings into the back of a pickup truck was almost dizzying.

The digital readout on the VCR told him it was a little after five in the morning. Who moves in at this hour on a Sunday? Gabe wondered as he tried to see what the new arrivals looked like. The van's back doors were almost flush with the house across the street, so all he saw were shadows stepping from the back of the truck onto the darkened front porch.


Week Two



Tomorrow was garbage day, so Gabe dutifully dragged his two well-worn aluminum cans out to the curb. He hated those two dented husks of rusted metal, but he knew better than to purchase new ones. They tended to disappear on him. It was just that kind of neighborhood. Gabe looked up and down the block, at the dirty children screaming and running from yard to yard, at the washed-out-looking adults that sat out on their front steps smoking and drinking with their music turned up too loud. At the lawns that were either un-mowed or had half -junked cars parked on them.

It hadn't always been this way; he'd had a house in the suburbs, a wife, and kids, but they were long gone now, and he was trapped here. Trapped here by child support and payments on a house he was no longer allowed to live in. All he could afford for himself now was this, the bottom floor of a run-down two-story tenement.

Gabe shook his head, trying to clear away the unpleasant thoughts; he knew where this would lead, where it always led- to him half-drunk at his kitchen table, glaring at the sheaf of divorce papers and restraining orders. He looked up at the house across the street; his new neighbors were bringing out their trash, including a ratty-looking old couch, a bureau, and a few armfuls of clothes.

They were a good-looking couple with white-blond hair and striking features. They looked like movie stars; Gabe wondered what had landed them here on this dead-end street. Had the Husband's drinking gotten him fired? Was the Wife spending cash as fast as the family made it?

 Maybe, he thought as he watched them maneuver a stained mattress out onto the curb. Maybe they just want to renovate the place. Maybe they think they can turn this neighborhood around. Good luck.

The Husband spied him watching them and offered a genial wave, "Afternoon."

"Afternoon," Gabe called from across the street.

The Wife came out carrying a pair of dripping garbage bags. Her smile was dazzling. "We're remodeling," she said.

"Good for you," Gabe said with a wave. He headed back into the house. They seemed like nice people but a little too chipper for his tastes.


Week Three



It was raining and miserable, and Gabe had left his umbrella back at the office. Shivering and cold, he walked the four blocks from the bus stop to his apartment. The sidewalks here were as run down as everything else. The cracked pavement fostered wide puddles. With every step, his shoes and socks were more and more soaked; with every clammy, he tried to calculate how long it would be before he could afford another car.

 Two years for a junker, longer if I want something nice.

The bags and cans at the end of every walkway reminded him that it was garbage day. He groaned at the thought of dragging the two cans out from the back.

As if I'm not soaked enough.

The pounding noise told him that the morons that were into rap music had cranked up their stereo. Of course, that meant that the half-wit that lived next door to those morons would soon be blasting the screeching speed metal they loved so dearly.

His pace slowed as he approached his house; the couple across the street had their garbage out already. It looked like they were cleaning out their basement; an old washing machine, a love seat, a waist-high pile of books, a few broken chairs, a chest of drawers, and a birdcage were on the curb.

He stood there contemplating the washer for a moment, wondering if it still worked. If it did, it would sure as hell save him his weekly trip to the laundromat.

Why would they throw it away if it wasn't broken? He chided himself and headed inside. The trash could wait till morning.

Week Four


 Another couch. Gabe stood there marveling at it, Another goddamn couch.

But it wasn't just a couch; there was also a cabinet, a lone snow tire, and a box of melted-looking action figures. Gabe glanced at their mailbox; it was still blank except for the dull metal numbers. He wondered what their family name was; it must have been Rockefeller, considering the amount of furniture they went through.

It wasn't that he cared what they did, but still, it was a little odd. So much stuff. Well, at least they picked a good neighborhood for it. He thought. Back in the suburbs, there had only been one or two days a year set aside for heavy trash pickup, but here, the garbage men seemed willing to take away anything at all. Maybe, Gabe thought. Maybe they do it because they know that if they don't, this crummy little town will start looking like the full-fledged junkyard it really is.

The front door swung open, and Gabe quickly pretended to be adjusting his cans. It was the Wife. She was wearing a clingy top and a pair of white shorts. She bounded down the front steps, got into her minivan, and drove away.

Damn, but her husband's a lucky guy. Gabe thought.

"Whatchoo lookinat?" his boozy next-door neighbor called at him.

"N-nothing," Gabe said. Blushing furiously, he retreated back inside. When the door was safely barred and bolted behind him, he allowed himself to whisper, "Nothing, you scumbag."


Week Five


From the first moment, the blind date had been an unmitigated disaster. From Gabe's first look at the woman, he'd known it would go badly. What had Homer been thinking?

Gabe sat in the back of the taxicab, fuming. He was almost mad enough to call Homer right now. When he'd described her as having a wonderful personality, that should have been warning enough, but Gabe decided to try his luck anyway. He'd been away from the dating scene for too long.

The cab slowed before his house. Gabe paid the fare and strolled up the walk. He wanted to kick something. He couldn't believe the bitch turned him down. How could she afford to be discriminating? Of course, she waited until after he'd picked up the tab from dinner before she dropped that little bombshell.

Speaking of bombshells. Gabe thought as he paused on his front porch. His eyes strayed across the street. He wasn't sure what they did, but every light in the house was on till all hours of the night. Whenever Gabe peeked out the curtains, he saw silhouettes flitting across the Venetian blinds. It was almost like they were dancing. Sometimes watching them, he imagined he was up there with the Wife and the Husband living down here in this crappy tenement.

Embarrassed at the thoughts filling his head, he turned to enter his front. His keys fumbling in the lock, he took one last longing glance at the house next door and did a double take.

Was that another couch he saw sitting on the curb?

Gabe couldn't help himself; he crossed the street and gazed at the cigarette-burned Davenport sitting there; one of its cushions was missing; in its place sat a record player that looked to Gabe like an antique. A bureau with wobbly legs rounded out this week's pile.

He paused a moment, thinking to himself, This is nuts. What if someone else sees? But the impulse was too crazy, too strong for him to deny it. He walked up to the bureau and pulled out one of the drawers.

It still had clothes in it, all neatly folded. Panties and socks, were they hers? How could that be? How could he not know she was tossing out all her undergarments? This was too weird. Gabe glanced up at their house, wondering if they had seen him out here. Wondering if they'd care the man from across the street was going through their garbage.

It was just their garbage, after all; if they had really cared, they wouldn't have put it out on the curb, would they?

He pulled out the second drawer, more clothes, sweaters and ties, expensive looking by the feel of them. The kind he used to be able to afford.

Not certain what he was looking for, he pulled the third drawer out. A gagging scream caught in his throat. He shoved the drawer closed again and stumbled back across the street, tripping on the curb. Sobbing with fear, he scrambled to his feet and ran into his house, where he slumped to the floor and tried not to be sick.

"It was just a toy, just a toy…" He whispered to himself, "It was a trick of the light. It didn't move."

There was a knock at the door, and a neighborly voice was calling Gabe's name.

 

THIS IS CHANNEL AB3




EPISODE ONE



EPISODE TWO


EPISODE THREE


EPISODE FOUR


EPISODE FIVE


EPISODE SIX


EPISODE SEVEN

 

EPISODE EIGHT


 


 



Thursday, February 15, 2024

FRESH OFF THE BUS FROM CREEPYTOWN: Grave Robbers From Outer Space

 

By

 Al Bruno III


Five figures stood around the cold metal table. Everyone else in the morgue of Bodie Village General Hospital had been ordered away. Dr. Gerald Becker, consultant for the Center for Disease Control leaned over the body on the table watching as its mottled gray flesh puckered around the tip of the scalpel and slowly gave way. Blood, long gone cold welled up half-heartedly around the edges of the wound. With practiced ease he made an incision from sternum to pubis. Returning the scalpel to the tray-table he grabbed the rib spreader. This, he thought, this is where one of these Department Of Defense bastards faints.

But, as the bony cage snapped and yawned open, not a one of the four men observing the process fainted or even so much as stifled a gag.

With the ribs spread wide, Gerald lifted the lungs from the within the chest, letting them hang over the edges of the cavity, then he removed the heart, liver, and stomach. There was a scale beside the ray table, he piled the organs there and stepped back. “There’s your evidence gentlemen.”
    
The government men stepped forward in unison and peered thoughtfully into the chest cavity. The four of them could pass for brothers, each of them tall and broad-shouldered, with pasty complexions and stark expressions on their nondescript faces. They each wore charcoal-colored suits and sunglasses. Only the leader of the four, Special Agent Douglas stood out, and that was because he wore a dark brown fedora that didn’t really go with his ensemble. Gerald wondered if the man was trying to look like some kind of old movie detective or if he was going bald.

After about five minutes of staring intently at the body Agent Douglas asked, “How did you find out about this?”
    
“As you know,” Gerald couldn’t believe how calm they were acting but then again maybe this wasn’t their first autposy, “I was dispatched here to investigate an outbreak of what appeared to be a new strain of Cholera. At the time my superiors weren’t sure if this event needed a full team. After all, Bodie Village is a small town and the infection only seemed to be impacting the elderly.”

Agent Douglas adjusted his hat and commented “I’ve read your report on the subject.”

Gerald looked back to the other three Department Of Defense agents, they were watching him- No, not watching, studying him. It was like college all over again, a team of professionals waiting for him to say or do something dumb.

“Please continue Doctor Becker.”

“When I arrived here I got right to work, I didn’t notice anything odd at first I was too busy trying to explain and deal with this new strain of Cholera. It wasn’t until my third night here that I realized what was happening…”

Agent Douglas stared into one of the refrigerated cabinets used for storing bodies. Its door had been torn off and there were bloody fingertrails all along the inside of the cubicle.
“Please go on."

Gerald continued speaking, “Twelve people had died by then, and I was exhausted. My motel was in walking distance so I decided to try and wake myself up with a brisk walk back. I was tired and I wasn’t really paying attention to my surroundings. Someone was walking down the middle of the sidewalk and I never even saw them. They knocked me on my ass and kept going. I would have said something but I recognized them. How couldn’t I? It was an old fart I’d performed a postmortem on a day ago!”

“Did you tell this to anyone? The local police or the hospital staff?” Agent Douglas asked.

Gerald shot him a glare, “Tell them what? That the dead were coming back to life?”

“What did you do next?”

The other Department Of Defense agents were wandering about, one was flipping through Gerald’s papers, another was using the phone and the third was looking at the other samples that Gerald had floating in formaldehyde.

“I don’t remember inviting you to go though my notes.”
    
Agent Douglas walked into Gerald’s field of vision, “Did you contact the local authorities?”

Gerald shook his head, “Didn’t have to. They contacted me. After what I saw I turned around and headed back to the hospital. The Sheriff was there. The power had gone out in the critical care wing. For some reason the back-up generators had never come on line and eight more patients had died. The Sheriff was there and he told me that he was dealing with a rash of home invasion style robberies. The mayor’s family and several other prominent townsfolk were missing.”

“Had there been any ransom demands?”

“No, and at this point we weren’t expecting any.”

Special Agent Douglas regarded the doctor oddly as he itched under the brim of his fedora, “Why?”

“It made no sense, why kidnap the citizens of a tiny little Oregon town? Certainly not for money. The Sheriff and I both suspected something far worse.”
    
“And when were those suspicions confirmed?”
    
“The next morning. At the cemetery.”
    
“The grave robbings.”

“Desecrations,” Gerald spat, “Every grave less than a decade old had been dug up, the coffins destroyed the bodies removed. I knew it was all connected somehow.”

“Intuition?”

“Exactly.”

Agent Douglas frowned, “I don’t believe in intuition.”

“Good for you,” Gerald peeled off the stained surgical gloves, “Why are you so damn calm? What’s our next course of action? The dead are coming back to life and attacking anything with a pulse!”

“I understand you helped the locals find a way to kill these beings?”

Gerald growled with frustration. Was this guy even listening? “It all started when I was talking to one of the Sheriff’s deputies. We were all milling around the hospital conference room. Then I noticed that the pinky finger on his right hand was bent at a weird angle. There was a nub of bone protruding from the skin. He was just standing there casually talking to the receptionist girl. She had just brought us some snacks.”

“That must have looked odd.”

“Very odd. When I confronted him about it he tried to put his hand behind his back but I grabbed it and got a better look. The fingertips were blue and his lips were a pale color. He was dead. Dead and talking about the weather. I shouted for something to restrain him. That’s when he went crazy.”

Agent Douglas nodded thoughtfully, “And that is when Jessica Zelman was killed?”

“Yeah, the receptionist. The dead deputy hit her with so much force it broke her neck. She wasn’t even blocking his way, he just did it. The Sheriff didn’t even think, he just drew his revolver and opened fire, The first shot blew a hole right though the dead deputy’s head. It should have killed him but instead he started running. The Sheriff fired twice more, hitting the son of a bitch in both legs. He went down but he still kept moving, crawling away. The Sheriff and the other deputies caught up to him. They emptied their revolvers into the dead deputy. That stopped him. One of the bullets blew a hole into the small of his back and out the stomach. That’s when we saw the foreign matter. There wasn’t much but I preserved it as best I could.” Gerald nudged the body on the table, “You can get a better look at the creature in here.”

Agent Douglas looked again into the body, staring dispassionately at the ugly shape wrapped around its spinal cord. The creature was like a cross between a centipede and a lobster. He said nothing.

“You’ve…” Gerald felt his intuition kicking in again, “You’ve seen this sort of… this sort of corpse-thing before haven’t you?”

“I can’t comment on that.” Agent Douglas almost smiled, “But please continue with your story.”

“After that the Sheriff deputized a bunch of good old boys and got to work. They set fire to the funeral home and captured or killed as many of the corpse-things as they could. I kept cutting them up as fast as the deputies could get them to me. It didn’t take me long to realize that these bug parasite things were enough like insects that they might be vulnerable to chemical attack.” Gerald Becker gave the agents a self-satisfied smile, “We got a volunteer to get up close to some of the corpse-things and spray them with a mixture of DDT and other dangerous chemicals. They collapsed within ten seconds of exposure. We commandeered one of the trucks they used for the annual mosquito spraying and got to fumigating.”

Agent Douglas frowned, “Weren’t you worried about the after effects on the population?”

“Look what we were up against!” Gerald stood next to him and pointed at the thing entwined around the corpse’s lower spinal cord. It didn’t look dead as much as it looked coiled, prepared to leap out at them in retaliation for being disturbed. “We had to act quickly before they spread. Think about it, we could be fighting an enemy that would never need to eat or sleep and could replenish its ranks by simply by raiding the local cemetery or murdering anyone they came across!”

“Do you or the Sheriff or anyone else have any idea where the things are coming from?”
    
“No,” Gerald waved his hand dismissively, “That’s why I called my superiors but all I got is you… And I gotta say so far I’m not impressed.”

One of the other agents spoke, it was the first time Gerald had heard his voice, it sounded like a wet cough, “Then the queen is safe.”
    
“Queen?” Gerald eyes flared with rage. That rage faded once he realized the other agents were began closing in on him, “You do know what’s going on here!”

Special Agent Douglas removed his hat revealing that the front third of his skull had been torn away. The exposed ridges of his skull were yellowish-gray. His brain had become a writhing nest of maggots. They boiled out of the wound to crawl down over his pasty features. He said, “Bodie Village was merely a test to see if our invasion plan was feasible for a species like yours. It is obvious that despite our growing control of your civil authorities the capacity for your species to combat us is going to make our invasion a considerable challenge.”
    
There was a crash as Gerald brushed past over the tray table in his attempt to run. The four corpse-things caught him easily and pulled him down to the floor. They held him fast. Their cold hands tore at his clothes stripping him to the waist. The corpse-thing that called itself Special Agent Douglas retrieved the dirty scalpel from the floor. “I do this out of respect for your intelligence.” He said as he loomed over Gerald raining grubs onto the struggling man’s bare chest. “We release you from the burden of having to see your woefully limited species conquered and enslaved. You may rest in peace.”
    
The quivering pink flesh of Gerald Becker’s neck puckered around the tip of the scalpel and slowly gave way.




This is Channel Ab3 Episode Eight: Grave Robbers From Outer Space


"...now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal: the incidents, the places. My friends, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?"

'Grave Robbers From Outer Space' was written by Al Bruno III

It was read and produced by Auravoice

Our unpaid scientific advisor is Adam J Thaxton

The Channel Ab3 theme was written and performed by Rachel F Williams

Channel Ab3 logo was designed by Antonio G 

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Friday, February 9, 2024

THE BINDER OF SHAME STORIES

 

The RPG.net Rants
Uncensored, Unforgettable and Uncorrected

2002 was the year I first started to post stories for the amusement of others. (Aside from that shameful X-FILES fan fiction of course.) I began with these gaming anecdotes that I shared on the forums of RPG.net, a relatively safe haven for me at the time. They were strange little tales told in a kind of screenplay format that I used when I sketched out story dialogue.

The first one was pretty simple but as they went on they became more and more grandiose but they were raw and fun little bits of humor. I never bothered to proofread the things or set up any real kind of coherence or internal continuity- although snippets of these tales do show up in PRICE BEAKS AND HEARTACHES.

I'm posting them to the blog so I can add them to version of THE BINDER OF SHAME I keep here. I will do the first two today and then set up one a week until they're all there.

I've moved on a lot since I first created them but many of the folks that first came to know me through them are still reading my work now and they still keep finding new readers all the time.

If you have no idea what I am talking about prepare to be amazed, amused and offended.

And be warned these stories appear exactly as I did when I posted them on the forums. I haven't tried to edit them for fear of diluting their raw power.

Also I'm pretty damn lazy...







The Binder of Shame 
The Second Edition

 

The Binder of Shame 
  Unfinished Campaigns