When life sends you locusts, eat the locusts.
Nature’s nature is to nurture. But, my goodness, does it get twisted along the way.
Pain chases pleasure. Ugliness disfigures beauty. Weaklings demoralize against struggle. Rumormongers double down on gossip. Cowards attack the brave. Gluttons devour the endangered. The powerful corrupt and abandon consequence. Even a simple pursuit to help, educate and heal gives way to the frustration of wasting time on the careless, uncouth, and unimpressed.
You can sacrifice. But would anyone care? Whatever you do, it’s wrong. Unless it’s true. And even then, was it worth it?
“Only the selfish survive,” he reminded himself. “Be practical.”
The recipe to perfecting human alchemy exists in a lonely kitchen. Ripe with life, it knows many flavors.
Steady sorrow salts the finish line as time steals back its gifts. Tangy at first, tart by the end as family and friends bury into clay. There’s the acidic rancor of devastating inequity, the umami of ensuing insanity, and the sweet lives of significance a single moment of discovery shares. Yet one flavor is more sensitive than all the others.
Bitterness is a taste that develops with age, and Roland knew it well. He had learned to appreciate its purpose as a harbinger, the herald of toxins, but the succulent art of poison goes beyond milking venom. One does not pause to consider the ramifications of eating fugu. The dish is the decision.
Years of practice had qualified him to remove the polluted organs of a soul. Most of the time he rehabilitated, convinced them they were on the level, taught them how to be successful in a macabre world. Most of the time it helped that his disposition was hobbled—it’s easier to trust what appears weak. Most of the time.
Today’s meal presented a challenge; it would take a forked tongue to convince a snake to eat its own tale. Luckily, solitary confinement and self-delusion are powerful ingredients to cook with. A sommelier of survival, Roland was a chef licking his lips at the pratfalls of his profession. An aged yet sophisticated palette needs enough reason to drag itself out of bed. But bitterness mixed with sweet? Red honey is too tantalizing a flavor to not attempt and savor.
“Do you know what U.S.A. stands for?” Mr. Green asked. “Liars With Money. What’s your excuse for not being rich?”
Honesty has its time and place. Observing as much under a faded star and stripe, the blue uniformed gendarme sat at his desk thirty feet away nursing a thousand-yard stare. Cycling through illegal surveillance like it was cable, he found an episode he liked and started removing the items encumbering his waistline. Ergonomically it was necessary to remove firearm and radio before being seated. What followed was an identity parade of serve and protect. Flashlight and nightstick, taser and pepper spray, cuffs and a pair of magazine clips—each discarded to the other side of that thin blue line, a symptom of girth getting the better of responsibility. Finally able to hook his thumbs into the vacant notches of his nylon duty, he leaned back to enjoy the show.
Mr. Green was used to the type. A perk of his job was abusing the natural suggestibility of man, pressing the occupation’s sense of entitlement towards a plantation of exploit. For the better part of the week he plied his target with the best tool in his trade box: the bludgeon of human condition. It was all he had left to distract from his.
Humored the first day, impatient the next, he stewed and marinated in his own juices, tearing himself apart as day three stormed furiously into day four. Day five paced and seethed in silence. Six breathed repent. By the seventh, well what else was there left to do.
But now it was day eight, and the rest was forgotten. Present anger roiled through the iron bars, blistering air with heat distortion. Flies of discord gathered upon his open casket, seeding worms of doubt that began to feast on his future. He had been left to rot in the open, a funeral under a fallen sky. The slippery slope of liberties taken had now roosted to peck his eyes, tongue, and liver. Too used to having his way, Mr. Green had long ago ruined the number one rule of survival: give yourself something to live for.
On the other end of the room, a landline stirred the law out of its seat. The voice at the other end perplexed his sour dough complexion with change, and he bumbled out of the room only to return with a guest following at chest height. Mr. Green smiled at the novelty of his cavalry.
“You’ve got a visitor,” Officer Thompson said. “I’m supposed to give you ten minutes.”
He slunk back into his cushioned absolution.
Holding up an index to silence, Mr. Green waited for the officer to settle in to distraction. After a beat, he addressed his handicap.
“Rollie,” Mr. Green said. “Took you long enough.”
“Hello Darren,” Roland replied. “How’s the grub?”
“Stillborn. Lifeless. Like your legs.”
Roland heard the comment and cocked his head. Nostrils flared at the verbal malodor. He backed his way towards the exit.
“Hold your horses,” Mr. Green’s voice reigned. “You didn’t roll all the way here for a how-do-you-do.”
With a pivot of the wheel, Roland returned.
“There’s a good dog,” Mr. Green sniped. “Now do your job and get me out of here.”
Roland cleared his throat.
“I’m not going to rescue you Darren. I’m here to accept your last rites.”
Mr. Green’s lit up like Christmas.
“Indulgences aren’t really my thing Rollie,” he said with a smile. “Wouldn’t even know what to do with one.”
Roland licked his lips.
“In the dialogue between God and man, think of a conversation between a mountain and an ant.”
“Spare me your po-mo New Age bullshit,” Mr. Green pleaded.
Roland paid him no mind.
“The mountain towers above, sublime and still, while the ant spends eternity sifting grains of sand—each ignoring the other while doing what is necessary.
“Eons later, as the sun swells and the atmosphere burns, the two finally share a heart-to-heart.
“I sheltered you, stood the test of time by you, just so you could watch me crumble at your feet,” the mountain said. “Why did you have to make it so hard to love you?”
“That’s funny,” the ant replied. “I was going to say the same. Until I moved you.”
Roland paused. Mr. Green bunched his eyebrows and pursed his lips.
“I don’t get it.”
“Sure you do. We do what we must to detail why it matters. Because one day, it will. If not for us, then for God.”
“The mental gymnastics you do to get yourself out of bed,” Mr. Green chortled. “You gave up the little you had so you could play pretend with piety? Anything to not realize the truth of this country: no good deed that goes unpaid goes unpunished.
“No, I gave up on God long ago. Found me something real I can believe in.”
“And what’s that?”
“Poor timing and just because,” Mr. Green said, shooting an imaginary bullet at Roland. “Case in point.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Sure you do. Poor timing found you, defined you, and ruined you. Just because it could.
“Now, you’d think people would care. But you learned too late that the extent of their empathy is to say they feel bad, listen to the echo and then gawk from the shadows. They’re addicted to molesting lights they can hold in their hand, worshiping a distraction that learns everything about them.
“The only truths are nihilism and possibility. How you frame yourself between those two bookends of reality defines your existence. I call that peace of mind heaven. And I had mine. Until this infernal company of cowards had to pry into my life for the sake of their conversation. Instead of living in a heaven of our own creation, they play gods while financing us to push people into hell.”
“That’s what I am here to offer, Darren. A way out.”
Mr. Green raised an eyebrow.
“A hand reaching out from the abyss, is that what you think of me, Rollie? You might as well etch me in stone, encase it in salt, and submerge the whole thing at the bottom of the sea.”
Roland bit his tongue. Mr. Green was just warming up.
“I trust pain more than I trust pleasure. So, I get it. But you? You gave up standing just so the voices in your head would switch off. Only it wasn’t your conscience that told you to do it. It was your weakness, an inability to discern what you see from what you were told. Please, go ahead and delay your gratification. The rest of us will be out here, chasing it like we were born to do. I hope the rest of you follows suit before it dies.”
Roland singed from the needle, the comment chilling severed vertebrae. He raised his hand to slow the flood.
Mr. Green was having none of it.
“What, you don’t want your medicine?” Mr. Green teased. “Too bad. I’m shoving it down your throat.
“You thought the world was built on promise and honor, that if you worked hard, acted kind, and did as you were taught on Sunday you would prevail. But nice guys finish last for a reason, Rollie. Once you figure out what people are, the whole concept becomes a whole lot less charming.
“People are a commodity of hunger. Something to keep the economy moving. Men want women. Women want babies. And if you give both what they need, they’ll do as their told. Nothing else matters Rollie. It never did.”
“Only now it does,” Roland countered. “We are both here, granted on opposite sides of the same coin, to document the next and maybe last miracle of our species. Don’t you want the last thing you do to matter? Don’t you want to save your soul?”
“Miracles are advertising Rollie,” Mr. Green sneered. “Visit any holy city and I’ll show you vendors willing to sell you a dozen rosaries for the price of entry. That’s the bible business model, where capital is greater than the constitution. There is but one true god, and the economy does not wait for any man, woman, or adolescent freak show. We were paid to scout the latest untapped resource, and you know as well as I do what these barbarians will do once they mine it. You’re better off staying on the right side of that margin, Rollie. Wouldn’t want the rest of you to get scorched from the Earth.”
“What about sacrifice.”
“What about it?”
“This world was built on it. Leaders sacrifice.”
“I’m no leader. I’m a recruiter. And my pitch is better than yours. You know why?
“Because we are here to ruin or be ruined. Humanity was sacrificed for the corporate entity, a law held up by the court supreme, all so we could keep our cottage industry built on schadenfreude. The altruists have been sacrificed. All that’s left are cowards chasing the devil’s laughter, desperate to be saved, running in a stampede from a forest fire. The world burns and people trample. Meanwhile, the powers that be get to pick who survives. Just the way they like it.
“We’re all guilty, Rollie. All our masters do now is find those who are willing to take their place. Your sacrifice, your leadership? I’m sorry you fell for it. I’m not going to.”
“Ten minutes are up,” the officer shouted, slouched out of lumbar support.
Roland backed away before turning to Mr. Green one last time.
“When you’re willing to break the world to find out why, the world is happy to return the favor,” Roland said. His massive arms hooked hands behind his head. Albeit seated, he looked like Atlas vaulting the sky. “Maybe I realized too late that the key to life was leverage. But right now? You have none. I’d offer you good luck, but I’m terrified of what you would do with it.”
“It’s alright Rollie,” Mr. Green said. “I’ve got something better than luck.”
“And what’s that?”
“Self-reliance in my knowledge of our fellow man.”
Roland sighed before moving on.
“Funny. I was going to say the same.”
Want to know how to kill a ghost? Want to know how to poison the soul?
Offer a taste of the divine, make it believe in something greater than itself. Tell them they are here to save the world. Wind them up and watch them try. They’ll show you how special they are.
Until they stop, look back, and watch the wake of the world come crashing down.
“So, you’re a recruiter, huh?” Officer Thompson asked.
Mr. Green turned his head to the source, a sly grin over his lips.
“I am,” he replied. “I used to be one of you, a boy in blue.”
“You were caught impersonating an officer.
“So was the other guy. Where’s the scandal over him?” Mr. Green then leaned against the door of his cell. “Where’s the outrage over the kid? Where’s his mom? Do any of these details concern you?”
“My sergeant told me to focus on the task at hand.”
“Which was …?” Mr. Green spread his arms out in a mocking gesture.
“It’s what my sergeant told me to do.”
“And flipping through surveillance feeds, is that your job?”
Thompson’s face turned to vermilion. Mr. Green plowed on.
“Don’t get too bashful. Like I said, I used to be you. Now I do something similar, only I get paid for it. Anything good on the illegal feeds?”
“What was your background, Detective? Private contractor?”
“Something like that,” Mr. Green nodded. “Psyops.”
Officer Thompson whistled before squeezing out of his seat and walking to meet Mr. Green face-to-face.
“Tell me a story and I’ll feed you a fact.”
“What do you want to know?”
“How do you get from me to you, minus the whole detained bit.”
Mr. Green scratched at his chin, mulling his method. His eyes shown with realization.
“If your boss was a problem, would you tell him that?”
“Of course, no. You don’t tell him they’re the problem. You take advantage of the problem.
“For example, let’s start with your boss the sergeant. What he has here is a boondoggle of a problem. How do you let the boy get away with a stranger only to have me arrested me with no due process?”
“He told me no one would come looking for you.”
Mr. Green quickly changed the conversation.
“You have no idea what’s going on here, do you?”
“What is going on here?”
“That is on a need-to-know basis. Right now, we’re negotiating who needs to know. I’d like to pick you. Because you and I, we’re going to become partners.”
Officer Thompson’s cheeks glowed bashful. Mr. Green’s eyes narrowed.
“But first, how come you aren’t rich?”
“You say it like it’s easy.”
“You never answered my question,” Mr. Green called out to the police officer. “How much money do you make?”
“Enough to be happy?”
“Happiness is a state-of-mind. I’ve learned to take what I can get and make the most with it.”
“My fickle friend, you get one life. And you’re living it to the tune of, what, fifty, sixty thousand a year? You come work with me and that becomes your pay per week. All you need to do is give up that thing you are supposed to do when no one is looking.”
“Integrity. Due process is no longer relevant. You know that. But you know what is? Opportunity. But it comes at a cost. You can’t sit on your ass and expect to be wealthy. Nor can I start my recruitment without knowing your motivation. How am I supposed to work with you if we can’t assure this is a win-win?
“It’s not survival of the fittest anymore, it’s survival of the richest. And when everyone is dirty, no one is too clean for a handout. You see, people want what people want. And people ruin once they get what they want. To be successful you need to provide something that benefits people. So, give them something to ruin: other people.”
Thompson’s grin started slow, but its growth could not be impeded.
“So, what happens now?”
Mr. Green then slumped back into his cell.
“You’re not stupid because you can’t figure things about. You’re stupid for not thinking of the next move.
“When you get to my level, when you’re working with people with millions to spare and billions to own, the trick is to validate their most basic of impulses. Tell them that they are special, that they are entitled to this privilege, and they will be eating out of your hand. Because in truth, they are as fragile as a fern. But do you know what the construct of a fern is? A fractal. Forevermore repeating the same pattern. That’s how you pull the strings without ever getting caught. We maintain the status quo. That is our job. You job is to give me a reason to allow you to move up a rung or five.”
“At least, that’s what I used to be able to do. Now I’m stuck in a holding pattern for reasons I don’t even understand.”
Officer Thompson eyes squinted before shuffling back to his desk. Typing away at his keyboard, he looked up and nodded his head.
“Darren Green, right? This is the Schuylkill County jail. But we share it with our neighboring county Columbia. The sergeant had your incarceration listed under the town’s shared county Columbia, which technically doesn’t have a detention center. It’s a move that kept you off the ledger.”
Mr. Green’s eyes widened.
“What a brilliant asshole your sergeant is.”
The phone rang again. Officer Thompson stomped over to answer the call.
“Thompson here,” he answered. His eyes then grew wide. “He’s back? Where?”
He hung up the phone.
“That kid. Ethan Sonder. He’s back.”
Mr. Green nearly yelped.
“Cameras spotted him coming from the bus station.” Thompson said. “What happens next?”
“You let me out and we go get him.”
“What guarantees do I have that you won’t ruin me?”
“The cost of opportunity is the guillotine of reality,” Mr. Green sighed. “Either you make a move, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Thompson though for another second, then opened the jail cell door. Mr. Green walked out, smiling.
“Moving forward, the agents of history will either be signing on the dotted line or burning it,” he said, rubbing his hands. “You and I, we’re just ahead of the curve.”