How the Internet Can Stop Hurting its Own Cause with Net Neutrality

Despite an outpouring of emails, phone calls, virtual signatures, and–more prevalently–Facebook posts, tweets, and comments in Reddit threads, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to open up discussions on a proposal regarding net neutrality. This is the part of the proceedings where things get interesting, though the internet seems to have already come to a conclusion about the eventual outcome.

Popular Twitter account @YourAnonNews tweetedFCC votes to KILL #NetNeutrality” in response to the decision. Reddit’s /r/Technology subreddit pushed a thread to the front page of the website titled “Today, the FCC will destroy the internet. It’s been fun.” Defining net neutrality and preserving it in a way that ensures an equal and open internet is abundantly important. But if the internet wants to protect it, expressing their wishes through hyperbole isn’t the way. For people who aren’t paying attention, it now appears like a decision has already been made. It hasn’t. Here’s a few ways that the internet can better achieve its goal of maintaining net neutrality so we don’t get this far down the road the wrong way in the future.

Spread Accurate Information

Much like the sensational language of internet activists in response to the FCC’s proposal, some information passed around prior to the decision caused more confusion than clarity. Combating that going forward is one of the best things those who want to preserve an open internet can do–and that should be all of us. As visually effective as scare tactics like images of packaged website subscriptions and the like may seem, they don’t accurately reflect the current conversation. The linked image specifically dates back to at least 2009–and let’s be honest, no one is going to pay for Friendster.

The proposal put forward by the FCC may, through a long and slippery slope, eventually lead to a worst-case scenario that resembles cable television packages, but it looks paranoid when FCC Chairperson Tom Wheeler promises, “There is one Internet. It must be fast, it must be robust, and it must be open.” It’s easier and more relevant to the conversation to discuss the immediate concern: Internet fast lanes, or paid prioritization. Were this to be allowed, it would allow internet services providers (ISP) to charge companies more for faster connections to their consumers. This directly effects the content providers, which could pass the prices on to consumers. It makes for a pretty easy flow chart, even if it doesn’t look quite as intimidating as the packaged websites graphic.

But, and this is the important part, the FCC isn’t directly proposing paid prioritization. It was believed that an earlier draft included the fast lane proposal, but it’s presented differently in the final document. “We ask the question, should there be a ban in paid prioritization as an action of blocking?” Wheeler explained. That doesn’t rule it out either, but it does make it easy to target directly. It’s one of the major issues the FCC is calling for public comments on.

And it’s worth noting that this is already happening. Netflix has already had to pay up to Verizon and Comcast to ensure it had the fastest connection to consumers as possible–a practice already essentially allowed and unchanged by net neutrality regulations thanks to a practice called interconnection. It’s necessary to comment on and defeat paid prioritization by the FCC’s definition, but the practice won’t be stopped without broadening the regulations to also deal with interconnection.

Which brings us to the next step.

Setting Good Rules will Prevent Bad Rules

The internet has spent most of its time reacting to proposed regulations, working itself into a frenzy every time a new proposal threatens the idea of net neutrality. Killing these harmful acts as the arise is only effective for so long–eventually you have to stop trying to kill pests with a fly swatter as they come in and just shut the door. The best way to do this is to stop reacting to bad rules and start implementing good rules. The lack of net neutrality regulations is what allows ISPs to violate the principle in the past.

Take, for example, the court case between the FCC and Comcast in 2008. After discovering Comcast was actively interfering with peer-to-peer file sharing users, using fake reset packets to trick connections into believing their peers had hung up, the FCC attempted to sanction the company. Comcast sued, arguing that net neutrality rules weren’t formally filed and weren’t legally binding, and the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed with the service provider.

Part of the problem with net neutrality thus far has been the framing of the regulations. The last set of rules put were put in place under former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. Dubbed the 2010 Open Internet Order, it required increased transparency from ISPs, prevented service providers from blocking content, and prohibited network owners from “unreasonable” discrimination. The lack of clarity in the rules led the DC Circuit Appeals Court to strike down the order after Verizon challenged it. And, with those rules blocked, ISPs can now block whatever they choose. In theory, as University of Virginia law professor Tim Wu explains, AT&T could prevent people on its network from communicating with T-Mobile users.

This can and will continue to happen if more clear and effective legislation isn’t enacted.

The easiest way to do this is by…

Declare the Internet a Utility under Title II

As difficult as it will be to politically, the best thing the FCC can do is to reclassify broadband under Title II, making it a public utility the same way telecommunication is. This ensures that public networks are open and available at the same rates without discrimination–thus preventing the fast lane fear.

This was how internet services were initially classified back when most connections were accessed via dial up from common carriers. It changed when cable companies began to offer their own internet services, the FCC under the Bush administration made the decision to designate both cable and DSL as “information services” rather than “telecommunications services,” thus removing the common carrier label. It’s that decision, made over a decade ago now, that has put the FCC in its current predicament –though failing to attempt to rectify it sooner is the fault of the current administration.

While political opposition to this decision is strong thanks to the deep pockets of ISPs who want to keep their freedom to restrict web usage as they please, there is one thing that is working strongly in the favor of this motion: The courts. While the D.C. Court of Appeals has ruled against the FCC in the past–the two cases mentioned previously both were ruled on by the same judge, Judge David Tatel–they have been rather clear within the language of those rulings as to what the FCC needs to do. Judge Tatel went as far as to agree with the FCC’s policy goals and stated, “broadband providers represent a threat to internet openness and could act in ways that would ultimately inhibit the speed and extent of future broadband deployment.” There’s more than a hint toward openness to reclassification if the FCC is willing to attempt it.

As mentioned, there will be plenty of opposition to this idea, and the last time the idea was raised it was promptly squashed. And it’s not all political positioning. It’s important to acknowledge that…

There are Legitimate Arguments Against Net Neutrality

As cut and dry as this whole thing seems–and for the most case, is–there are some concerns regarding net neutrality that are worth consideration rather than immediate dismissal. The internet changes constantly and crafting regulations to tailored to it will prove increasingly difficult as it evolves. Hell, the Title II solution uses language that was put in place back in 1996 and is already out of date in how it defines telecommunications.

There’s also a fear that regulations will discourage both innovation and growth in network infrastructure. Forcing networks to treat all internet traffic the same eliminates the ability to experiment with premium services. Heavy traffic users pay the exact same as lighter users and companies that account for more internet activity pay the same for connection speed as websites that sit dormant and without traffic, and one could make an argument that this is unfair. Additionally, if rules were to cost service providers profit, they would be less likely to invest in upgrading their infrastructure–a process that requires billions of dollars to build and expand.

It’s easy to argue that the benefits of net neutrality greatly outweigh the theoretical concerns–telephone companies seem to be doing just fine despite being common carriers after all–but it’s important to understand the worries of those wary of regulation. Now that we know both sides of the debate, it’s easier to go to bat for net neutrality in a way that addresses opposing view points. So…

What Do We Do Now?

The second phase of the fight for this particular proposal takes place in two parts, both taking place for a 60 day stretch. The first will serve to collect initial comments on the proposal; The second will serve to take comments that respond to the first round of discussion. That’s enough time for some opportunistic opinion swaying.

All of those petitions you signed, form letters you sent, and links you shared? Get ready to do it all again–just remember how effective it was last time. (That is to say, not very.) Those tactics are fine starting points, if not a bit passive. Improving upon those methods is imperative to this part of the proceeding.

Here’s how to step it up:

1. Email (openinternet@fcc.gov) or leave a comment on FCC Docket 14-28.

When doing so, make it a unique. Do not send a single line comment and do not just copy and paste a pre-made script. These will get lumped into the category of mass mailers and while the committee will be able to see the total number of times a generic comment has been submitted, it appears underwhelming. Imagine a single people of paper “x1,000″ on it to signify it was sent one thousand times as opposed to one thousand individual pieces of paper stacked up.

In addition, try to address specific parts of the proposed rule. State objections to specific rules and convey why you object. It contributes to the conversation and makes your comment more likely to be read. Also, make sure to offer support for parts of the proposal that you agree with. Remember, setting up good rules is the best defense against bad rules. These are the questions the FCC is asking the public. Try to answer them:

  • Should there be an outright ban on fast lanes?
  • Should broadband access be classified as a Title II common carrier?
  • Should the new Open Internet provisions also cover wireless (mobile) broadband?

If you don’t want to write a unique message yourself, grab one of those scripts and throw it in a content spinner so it at least looks like you made an effort.

Oh, and remember to be civil. You fucks. Every comment is in the public domain after the proceeding and if you just curse out the committee you’re going to look like an ass.

2. Don’t forget that social media posts are awareness rather than participation. Spreading the word to as many people as possible is important to make sure the dialogue includes as many people as possible, but the FCC isn’t recording your Facebook posts or tweets (that would be the NSA that records that information), or in my case, blog posts.

3. As always in these situations, contact your representatives. Make sure they know your position as a voter and as their constituent. If there’s one thing elected officials fear, it’s no longer being an elected official.

If you don’t know who your elected officials are (First consider taking a few steps back from “What is net neutrality?” and start back at “What is a representative government and how do I participate?”), then you can find out who they are and how to contact them at WhoIsMyRepresentative or at ContactingTheCongress. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has even made it easier. Enter your zip code and phone number and they will connect you with your representative’s office.

Is There Anything Else?

Sheesh, I don’t know. I guess not. I feel like this is quite a bit. A good start at the very least, wouldn’t you say? I mean, I don’t even know how you got this far. Did you skip stuff? Don’t skip stuff. Go back and start again. Also this is my way of telling you I have no clue how to close this thing, but I’m pretty much done. So, yeah. Scram, kid.

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F(uck) Scott Fitzgerald

Update March 20, 2014: The bill was modified in the Assembly, will be sent back to state senate. Also, I’m sorry for the terrible pun on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s name.

On Tuesday, March 18, the Wisconsin State Senate managed to pass a bill that would make chemotherapy drugs in pill form available to cancer patients. Specifically, the proposal would require health plans to offer the same coverage for the oral chemotherapy drugs as is offered for chemotherapy treatment administered through IVs. It passed by a vote of 30-2, presumably because it’s a no-brainer to support a bill that makes cancer treatment more affordable.

I said “managed” to pass it because it had been blocked from being voted on up until Tuesday by State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Why did the Republican representative try to keep cancer patients from being able to receive a more affordable treatment option? Well, it depends on the day that you ask him.

On Wednesday of last week, he cited a lack of majority support within his caucus. But when the bill did finally come up for vote just six days later, it received majority support among Wisconsin Senate Republicans–and unanimous support from Senate Democrats. The two votes against the proposal were from the GOP ( Senators Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa and Paul Farrow of Pewaukee) but it turns out 2 people don’t make a majority in a group of 18.

It’s possible that there was at one point a silent majority within the GOP who had expressed their intention behind closed doors to oppose the legislation , but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that 13 of 18 Republican State Senators had publicly spoke in support of the bill. So, maybe not so much.

Fitzgerald changed his talking point on Friday, March 14 after the facts got in the way. In a stunning display of both total awareness of the situation and a complete lack of giving a shit about it, Fitzgerald switched up his rationale for blocking the bill from reaching the Senate floor.

“As far as scheduling a bill that doesn’t have unanimous Republican support within the caucus, there is no hard and fast number in terms of senators opposing the bill, it is taken on a case-by-case, bill-by-bill basis,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. Presumably if a bill that offered something important to Fitzgerald like legalizing ripping the wings of butterflies or kicking small animals, that’d move to the top of the docket.

So the bill went from being blocked because it didn’t have majority support among Republicans to being blocked because it didn’t have unanimous support among Republicans. Presumably if it had unanimous support, it still would have been blocked because anything that is universally accepted should be questioned and the bill shouldn’t move forward until someone is willing to stand against it. Someone brave enough to stand in front a group of dying cancer patients and tell them, “No, you can’t have affordable costs for this life-saving drug.” Someone like Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald also added in his statement from Friday that he, “expect[s] a lengthy discussion on this bill in (our GOP) caucus on Tuesday.” No one spoke out against it on the Senate floor according the the Associated Press’ account.

We’re oh-for-2 on Fitzgerald provided excuses for blocking the bill, so perhaps it’s best to look elsewhere.

Now that the bill has passed the Senate, it sits in front of the Wisconsin State Assembly and Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos. Vos is in opposition to the bill and, like Fitzgerald, believes a majority of his GOP caucus oppose it as well. He blocked a companion bill and intended to do so until the session ended on April 1. This despite the fact that the bill’s sponsor is Pat Strachota, the second ranking Republican member of the Assembly.

Vos promised to bring it to a vote on Thursday but was considering making changes to the proposal. Altering the bill before the vote would require it to be sent back to the State Senate, which would likely prevent the bill from gaining majority approval before the end of the session. On Thursday he followed through on those considerations and made modifications to the bill, sending it back to the Senate and effectively tabling the proposal until the next session unless Fitzgerald allows a vote before April 1.

So Vos is in on the game. He’s bound to have some insight into the reason why this proposal–did I mention it’s a bill that would provide cancer patients with an affordable treatment?–is being blocked.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Vos said, “In the past, I have not voted for any mandates that would increase the cost of insurance plans in the private sector that’s already too expensive. So I guess I will wait to see what happens in the Senate, but I have serious concerns.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Vos doesn’t want to place any mandates on the insurance companies for fear of increasing the cost of insurance plans. That sounds valid enough–if not completely misguided given that insurance companies already cover the same treatment when its provided through IV, and the oral chemotherapy pill means less time in the hospital, fewer side effects, and just generally less unpleasantness.

Let’s see how the argument holds up.

29 states have already passed similar legislation, so there is plenty of precedence for the effects on insurance premiums. The Washington Department of Insurance found an increase of 0.2% on insurance premiums as a result of the law. The Department of Insurance in Indiana found no increase. None of the 29 states have reported any sort of significant increase in premiums.

Meanwhile, nearly 25% of all planned anticancer drugs will be orally administered according to a National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Task Force report. In clinical tests, oral drugs have shown significant advantages over the IV and injected forms of cancer treatment and in some cases are the only viable option. However, the cost for these drugs can reach over $100,000 per year, a burden that the patient must bear without legislation requiring insurers to help with the cost.

As it turns out, increased insurance premiums aren’t a viable reason for blocking this bill and the only people suffering a financial penalty are those suffering from cancer. But it feels as though there’s something to this “cost for insurers” argument. After all the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans, an HMO trade group, opposes the bill. They probably have a good reason.

Maybe it’s because the contract lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans happened to be Jeff Fitzgerald. That last name isn’t a coincidence; Jeff is the brother of Wisconsin State Senator Scott Fitzgerald. The great mystery has been solved. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t oppose the proposal because it lacks majority support among state senate Republicans, nor does he oppose it because it isn’t unanimously supported. He opposes it because it doesn’t have the support of his brother.

According to Follow The Money, the two biggest donors to Scott Fitzgerald’s campaigns since 1998 are from the “Health Professionals” and “Insurance” industries. They make up nearly 1/4th of all donations to Fitzgerald, totaling $254,953. That is conceivably the amount of money a cancer patient could end up paying in an effort to simply continue living. Instead, it’s paying for a state senator to block cancer patients from receiving affordable treatment methods.

What is almost equally as frustrating as Fitzgerald’s clearly misplaced loyalties towards donors and a lobbyist family member is that it stems beyond Fitzgerald. Robin Vos used similar tactics in the Assembly and Governor Scott Walker has stated he has no opinion on the bill–No opinion on a piece of legislation that could lessen the financial burden of people suffering from cancer and save lives. (He has since revised his opinion and said he would sign the bill, because, well, duh.)

At the risk of being repetitive, this is a bill that requires health insurers to cover a treatment that they already cover in a different form; a treatment that saves patients time, pain, and trips to the hospital; a treatment that will become increasingly more accessible and prevalent as medical advancements are made and implemented; and a treatment that has little to no impact on insurance premiums.

This is easy. Pass the damn bill.

This is the contact information for the Republican leaders who have done all they can to prevent this bill from becoming law:

Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau),
sen.fitzgerald@legis.wisconsin.gov, (608) 266-5660

Robin Vos (R-Rodchester)
Governor Scott Walker
govgeneral@wisconsin.gov, (608) 266-1212
Contact them and tell them to do the right thing. Or tell them how awful they are. I don’t care which.

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Rejection Pile | Hero Academy

Here’s a short story I wrote for an anthology where every story has the same first line. I “modified” mine by making my first line dialogue, which I did not know was illegal. Turns out it is. Also, it’s probably a little too campy. I don’t know. I liked the concept while writing it, though. But yeah. For the time being, I don’t know what else to do with it. It was written for a specific purpose, it did not serve said purpose, it goes here. Welcome to the rejection pile, Hero Academy. Others will join you soon.

“I came of age in a time of no heroes. Their absence had been long developing over the years. Nightly news broadcasts featured fewer and fewer stories of good Samaritans. People no longer experienced random acts of kindness, so they had none of their own to pass on. The disappearance occurred slowly, but continued to dwindle until there were no heroes left.”  Omar Mehari looked down at the notes scattered about on the podium he stood behind and quickly glanced over the seating chart for the audience in front of him. Returning to his speech, he made sure to make eye contact with the students with whom he thought his words would resonate the most. “It made for unmitigated hysteria. Mugging attempts in broad daylight went unhindered.”

In the third row from the front, Ralph Tully stopped scribbling in his notebook. From under the brim of his ball cap, he looked up at the man at the pulpit and swore he was looking right back at him.

“Cats stuck in trees remained there until willing to venture down on their own and dogs ran stray with no one attempting to return them to their owners.”

The mention of an animal in peril made Elise Edwards perk up. She had sat with a solemn expression on her face, but it softened immediately and nearly melted to tears as she imagined a street lined with trees filled cats stranded on branches and dogs aimlessly wandering below.

“The concepts of courage and bravery disappeared entirely, relegated to being the stuff of fairy tales and spoke of as if they were super powers possessed only by people involved in freak chemical spills or born of another planet.”

Peter Rutledge shifted in his chair. An open textbook that sat upright on his desk hid the majority of his face. It also acted as camouflage for the comic book he snagged from a box in his old man’s closet before being sent off to school. Peter’s eyes moved from the page to the podium.

“According to the National Parks Department and Departments of Tourism across the United States, wilderness paths have barely been touched and almost no exploration has occurred in over twenty years.”

The heel of the leather boot on Hallie Price’s foot dropped to the floor, an involuntary reflex caused by her shock at the stat. She was wearing a flowing skirt and a stylish blouse, both looked as though they had just come off the store rack, but her leather footwear showed more than enough wear and tear for the rest of her outfit. They were made to get dirty and she put them to good use.

“The parents and grandparents of my generation spoke of heroes. We simply expected they would come for us, too. They didn’t, because we never became them. We just kept waiting. Your generation cannot afford to be so passive. That is why you’re here.” As he finished the sentence, the man pressed a button on a small remote that sat alongside his notes. The movie theater-size projection screen that painted the wall behind him lit up with a few flickers before an image appeared steady on display. It read “Hero Academy” and was shaped like a badge that begged to be earned.

The man took the moment of unveiling to wipe his brow. He was not a particularly strong public speaker. In fact, he hadn’t spoke in front of an audience since his required oratory class in high school, and even then he faked sickness long enough on the final presentation that the teacher finally allowed him to film the speech from home. He was afraid of speaking up then.

He was afraid of speaking up now too, which is why the pilot run of Hero Academy was assembled in secret. It was less an official institution and more an obscure experiment, reaching just enough people outside his circle of friends to assemble the thirty-four students who sat in the seats in front of him. It would be his job to equip them with the skills and knowledge they would need to leave the school and enter the world ready to act and, if all went right, inspire.

“I am Omar Mehari, and I will be your professor through this course. You are the first class, meaning you a unique opportunity in front of you. Most people go to school, get a degree, and spend an inordinate amount of time looking for a job in their field. You won’t have that problem. All the world has openings for people like you and no one to fill them. Job prospects don’t get much better than that.

“If you reach under your desks, you’ll find a backpack. In it, as some of you have already discovered,” he said as he looked to Peter, who had the contents of the book bag spread across his desk, “is all of the material you will need for this course: Notebooks, textbooks, reading material, films. How we will work through this material is laid out in your syllabus. The first case we’ll be studying is–”

“Indiana Jones!” Peter exclaimed.

“Who’s that?” Elise felt as though she was missing out on something based on Peter’s joy.

“You’ll find out when we watch the film,” Professor Mehari replied with a smile in the corner of his mouth, partially from Peter’s enthusiasm and partially from the rest of the class’s ignorance.

“Is it a documentary?” Hallie asked.

“Something like that,” Professor Mehari said out of his grin.

#

Over a month into the course, the students were buying into the program to different degrees.

Peter was always eager and interested in the next heroic subject to study. He revealed to Professor Mehari during a post-class meeting that his father used to show him much of the same material they were examining. “I remember watching Golden Eye with my dad and any time Bond would do something awesome–which was constantly, of course–my dad would shake his head and say, ‘We need more people like him,’” he explained. “I want to be that.”

Hallie shared the enthusiasm, though hers was more focused. Seeing characters taken to exotic locales and interacting with the terrain was as important to her as the action or dialogue. Even as the class read passages from the various books assigned, she would sigh at the description of a mountain range or the grainy sand of a conquerable desert. And she excelled on the small field trips the class would take through the several acres of forest surrounding the campus. Her boots always came back muddy, her hands with new blisters and cracks–even during what was supposed to be a simple walk.

“Guys! You guys!” her voice found the group, calling down like a bird’s chirp from a treetop.

“Where are you, Hallie?” Omar asked. “We can’t see you.”

“Look up.” Even those who couldn’t fully spot her saw an arm extender further than any branch, waving.

“She makes me nervous,” Elise Edwards whispered to Omar.

“Me too,” he replied, “but appreciate her adventurous streak. We need people like her.”

The bushes next to the group began to rustle and just a moment later, out popped Hallie with a newly acquired scratch on her cheek and her hands clutched around something. She held her arms out and undid her folded fingers to reveal a small bird with a wing that wouldn’t flutter when the other did.

“I found him at the base of the tree,” she said. “He musta fallen. I think I saw a nest a couple branches under me when I was up there.”

Elise rushed over, moving so fast that she swallowed her own gasp of horror at the thought of an injured animal. She examined the wing, then turned back to Professor Mehari.

“Do we have a first aid kit?” she asked, the words falling over one another to exit her mouth.

“We do back at the school.”

“Can we go back?” Elise asked. “And can someone stay so we know which tree to bring him back to?”

“I know the one,” Hallie promised, “and I know the way back. I never forget a good climb. We’ll have him back in his next where he belongs.”

Professor Mehari gave permission to the two girls to return for the first aid kit. Before the two took off, he mouthed, “Told you” to Elise, and she nodded in agreement.

Others, like the permanently stone-faced Ralph Tully, were less enthusiastic. He showed up for every class, something that couldn’t be said for every enrolled student, but he rarely participated and gave little indication as to his feelings toward the class. He made no mention of it, but he was still somewhat shaken by how Professor Mehari made eye contact with him while talking about muggings. It was something Ralph experienced first hand while walking home from eighth grade. Two older kids–likely high school kids but Ralph’s memory made them appear like ageless giants–stopped him and knocked him to the ground, kicked him a few times, and stole the few bucks he had on him and the keys to his house. Ralph limped his way to a general store to call his mother to pick him up, afraid the attackers might follow him home if he continued on foot. The store, recently a victim of repeated thefts by the same kids who jumped Ralph, had instituted a “No Children Unless Accompanied by an Adult” policy. It was not a fond memory for Ralph. But he thought sticking in this class might help keep it from happening to him, and help him keep it from happening to others.

Still, there were some holdouts and skeptics. In the middle of a second week lecture on the philosophy of Robin Hood, a hand shot up in the front row. It belonged to Nathan Braswell. The first name told far less than the surname, as it was shared by a popular cleaning solution known best for the obnoxiously catchy slogan that played at the end of all the company’s commercials. Nathan was the heir to the fortune built on sparkly bathroom floors and animated dancing bubbles.

“What makes you qualified to say what he was doing was right? He’s still stealing.” It was unclear if Nathan’s snobbish tone was simply perceived because of his family’s enterprise or if he truly was a stuck-up rich kid.

“That’s a fair question,” he replied calmly as he stepped out from behind the podium. He appeared to shuffle and by his first fully revealed steps, it was clear he was dragging one of his legs with him. He stopped and leaned back against the stand behind him. “I was born in Eritrea. My family fled when I was just a child. On the trip over, I fell victim to a bacterial infection that took most of my leg.” He tapped his thigh and it responded with a metallic clanking to confirm his story. “It could have been worse but my father, he had absolutely no conscience about providing for his family. He took everything he needed to keep me alive. Perhaps it wasn’t right of him, but we all survived, everyone on board. I think what he did as admirable, but I am biased. You are free to draw your own conclusion, as you are with everything we discuss here.”

#

      With just two weeks left in the course, the students who remained were preparing to take on their final exam. The anxiety of not knowing exactly what the assignment would entail was eating at their sanity. Details from Professor Mehari were slim, which meant the information spread by students was as plentiful as it was inaccurate.

Facing a fear was the consensus opinion, though everyone’s fears were different. Peter was nervous he’d fail to live up to the hype he made for himself. He assumed the expectations for him were high given how active and engaged he was in class. Ralph thought he’d have to confront the people that wronged him. Hallie worried she’d have to take an exam at her desk rather than put her physical skills to use. Elise thought all of these scenarios were equally terrifying.

Rather than testing on the theories taught during the class with a standard exam or an essay, Professor Mehari decided a more applied approach would be better. The assignment was broad and open-ended. On the last day of class, the students were given a piece of paper with three words on it: “Be someone’s hero.”

#

      As the years passed and the first students of Hero Academy got further in time from their lessons, they continued to practice all they learned under the tutelage of Professor Mehari. He continued the school, taking new students in every year. There was even a waiting list for prospective pupils who wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into the next semester’s already full class.

Hallie Price was surprised to find a letter awaiting her when she returned to a tiny village from the untamed terrain of sub-Saharan Africa. Usually the mail came in bulk, weeks worth that piled up in the mailboxes at Peace Corps offices. Hallie sat at the handcrafted table and carelessly tore into the envelope without checking the return address. Inside was a newspaper clipping with a picture of her and some of locals she had lived with for a time. They were standing near a just-completed water well. Wrapped around the article was another piece of paper of a heavy stock.

It was the same one that arrived unexpectedly on the new desk of Ralph Tully. He had recently received a promotion within the police department for the success he had on his beat. The paper wouldn’t remain on his desk long, though, as Ralph had almost immediately left with the weighty sheet to find a craft store that would help him pick a frame for it.

Elise Edwards had the same idea. She displayed the paper with pride on the wall of her office, though unlike Ralph’s that tilted slightly, Elise was able to hang it perfectly straight without needing a level. It was the first thing clients and patients alike saw after entering through Elise’s door, though the patients were less likely to read it, being animals and all.

Likewise, Peter Rutledge took great pride when he received the paper. He imagined it would have been hard to deliver it to a globe-traveling secret agent or a mystery man with hundreds of identities. Luckily, it found Peter easily as he was neither of those things. It was delivered to him by hand from Professor Mehari after Peter wrapped filming at Hero Academy. The school and its only teacher were the subjects of the latest documentary that Peter was producing, part of a series that followed everyday heroes. He looked down at the flimsy lined paper Professor Mehari handed to him. It was a list of all his classmates and their contact information, written out in clear handwriting by Professor Mehari. Attached with a paperclip behind it was the heavy paper that brought his peers such satisfaction: A diploma.

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks In | Anti-Hero

Shit got weirdly sociopolitical in here. Sorry about that. It’s just how this character happened to develop. I don’t have any control over these people. They just happen.

I think it’s time we redefine “mad.” I see it thrown around too liberally these days. And this isn’t just a personal vendetta, though I’d be ignorant to not acknowledge its usage in reference to me.

I am not “mad.” By all accounts, I am a rather happy person. Perhaps my social life isn’t as involving as others’ and maybe I’ve been too distance from my family in recent years, but I do what I love. I find my work entirely satisfying and full of gratification.  I am not “crazy.” I’m an Ivy League educated scientist with a PhD in Biophysics. I wouldn’t imagine anyone would associate such an achievement with anything other than intelligence. I am not “deranged.” That should be a word reserved for mutts run amok in the street or the mentally disturbed coming off the hinges and behaving irrationally. There is clear logic behind every action I take, even if others find it disagreeable–even detestable.

Those are not the words I check on my legal documents. They are not in the drop down menu of any online form. So why do I find these words attached to me so regularly, as if those were the titles I earned instead of “doctor?” The lack of respect and the flippant use of such language is plain distasteful.

And they wonder why I come off so unlikeable.

I sit and read scrutiny of my every action day after day, vilifying me for my experimentation, for my efforts to achieve things that those who comment on it never could. Have some lives been lost in the process? Yes. Yes, of course. But they are simply a side effect of life, anyway. When scientists search for a cure for one disease, they often wind up stumbling onto the solution for something different entirely. My experiment has yielded the antibody that wipes out the disease known as humanity, curbing the excesses of existence.

We all acknowledge we have a population problem. Economists, scientists, doctors, sociologists all agree on this. Normally when we have a problem, we attempt to find a solution. But everyone treats this with such delicacy. “We’re going to talk about the sanctity of human life. Everyone put on your kid gloves and handle with care.” Life is not sacred, it is not blessed, it not even earned. It is given to us and can be taken just as easily. I’ve opted to take it.

It should not be thought that I do this task indiscriminately. I am not attempting to play god by eliminating all those who I please for no particular reason. I have a process, a system. But I’m also a fan of proficiency.

In order to serve both these masters, I had to come up with a way to eliminate a large chunk of population that meet certain requirements. One cannot eliminate a single race of people or the detractors will cry out about genocide. Nor can one focus on a country or region in particular, lest you want to induce the wrath of nationalism and the scorn of neighboring countries and allies. It must be a diverse group of people spread across the world.

This is, I believe, where the biggest misunderstanding of me comes from. Because I have touched people of all races, of all cultures and backgrounds, people with varying levels of education and wealth with no regards for borders, my actions are often viewed as random. I am a bringer of chaos in their eyes. No specific target in sight but still willingly firing.

But what I’ve done has far more focus than they could ever imagine. I was able to harness the contagious nature of a very common, essentially harmless microorganism and infuse it with a virus that only affects the people I decided would be the best to do away with: Those who can’t access the cure.

These people are an anchor tied to the ankle of the rest of us. And clearly they are a vulnerable populace, otherwise my virus wouldn’t have been so effective. One could critique this for being an attack on the poor, but rest assured there are plenty who have money but cannot afford to be saved. Ask the various cabinet members of British parliament or the several millionaires who didn’t even have time to will their fortunes to their next of kin and so on.

They’ve perished because their money turned out to be no good to the holders of the antidote. In each population center, syringes full of the cure belong largely to the poor. Dropped at the door of homeless shelters and temp agencies for those without basic needs to take hold of and determine the worth of. It can be traded for more money than they would likely earn in their lives working minimum wage jobs or rattling change in a cup in hopes of getting a person to add to the clanging. It can be traded for promise of work, of meals, or benefits that felt more like fantasy to them. They hold the cure to save someone’s life, and it could be the cure to their own ailments as well. Or it can be the key to their revenge if they feel wronged by those who come to try buy their livelihood from a person they would otherwise never acknowledge.

There will be a lot less of us all soon. How we get there? That will be the interesting part. And my finest experiment yet.

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks In | Who Wants to Live Forever?

It was 5:37am on a brisk September morning and still dark, even in the Arizona desert, a place that becomes hard to imagine without the image of a brilliant sun beating against the sea of sand. The only thing interrupting an otherwise perfect desert scene were two silhouettes, standing side by side and facing the horizon. Though they were several miles from the nearest thing resembling a footpath, there wasn’t a single footprint to speak of leading to their location.

One checked his watch. Exactly twenty minutes until sunrise.

He sighed.

“So how does this work, exactly?”

“What do you mean?” The one standing next to him asked without ever breaking his cement-sealed stare directly ahead.

“I mean what happens?”

“Well, the sun will rise and chase the darkness off and with it goes us.”

“I get that. That’s the romantic part. I want the clinical explanation.”

“It’s the sun and we’re, you know…”

“You don’t know, do you?”

“What we are?”

“No, what’s going to happen to us.”

“I know what will happen. I don’t know how it happens. It’s been a long time since the analytical stuff mattered. I just know what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not.”

“And this is what we’re not.”

“Well, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, I suppose. But generally, yes, this is frowned upon.”

“Frowned upon? Suicide is just frowned upon?”

“Hey, most things we do are frowned upon by people who aren’t like us.”

“You have a point there,” the first one said. He breathed in and exhaled for what felt like forever, except it couldn’t have been because he checked his watch again and there was still fifteen minutes to wait.

A good portion of them would be spent in silence. Early morning on a fall weekday isn’t a time that generates a lot of conversation on its own and when you’re spending the last few moments of your life at that hour, you’re not looking for much in return from it. The silence in those moments is like dipping toes into the pool–just adjusting before jumping in.

“Do you think we’ll see it?” The one asked while fiddling with the watch around his wrist.

“Hm?”

“Do you think we’ll be alive long enough to actually see it?”

“The sun?”

“Yeah. The sunrise. I’ve never seen one.”

“Neither have I. I’ve never done this before.”

“You came close, though? Before this?”

“Yes. A long time ago.”

“Do you regret not going through with it?”

“That’s a complicated question.”

“But you can give a simple answer. Just yes or no.”

“No, because it took me this long to ever try it again. Yes, because here I am.”

“Were you scared?”

“Then? Yes.”

“Now?”

“No. Are you?”

“A little.”

“Death isn’t anything new to us, you know. We’ve been dead for longer than most people are alive.”

“I know. It’s not the dying that scares me.”

“What is it then?”

“The sunrise.”

“It’s just new, is all. You’ll only have to feel it once.”

“I know, that’s what I’m worried about. What if it’s beautiful?”

“Beautiful?”

“What if it’s so beautiful, it’s something worth living for? And we’ll only see it long enough to know we’ll never see it again.”

“Then go back. Race it across the sahara until you reach shelter or it reaches you.”

“You know we’re too far for that. And even if I made it, then I have to go on knowing the only thing I’ve seen in centuries that makes me want to live is the one thing I can never experience.”

“Well it sounds like there’s no reason to go back then. We’re here.” And so, too, was the sun. As he finished his sentence, a radiant light began to rise across the skyline.

The one’s watch read 6:03am, right on time. Both looked down at their own feet and watched as the light crept up to them. Rather than run from it, they both stood firm and waited to be painted in light, a decision akin to raising guns to one another’s head. Had anyone been watching, the silhouetted figures would have begun to take shape as the sun unveiled their unusually pale skin and similar markings on their neck.

The one who had never gotten this far before stretched his arms out to greet his demise.

“You wanted to see the sunrise? There it is. Right in front of us. Look at it and tell me if it’s everything you thought it’d be. Tell me if it’s worth living for. Because from where I’m standing, it sure looks worth dying for.”

“Oh. Wow.”

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks In | New Pet

“What is that thing?”

“It’s not a thing. And he’s not a…or she’s not a…Well, I guess it is an it, but it’s definitely not a thing.”

“Well, it doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before.”

“When I got it, they told me it was a guinea pig.”

“A guinea pig?”

“That’s what they said.”

“Have you ever seen a guinea pig before?”

“Best I can tell, I’m looking at one right now.”

“That is not a guinea pig.”

“Oh, and you’re a zoologist all of a sudden? You know every species in the animal kingdom?”

“I know a guinea pig when I see one.”

“So you know what you’re looking at right now.”

“I know it’s not a guinea pig.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“It has 6 legs.”

“So two are spares. That’s not unnatural, it’s progress. Forward thinking. Guinea pig-ian ingenuity.”

“You think it has six legs because, why, exactly?”

 

“I don’t know. Evolution. Survival of the fittest.”

“I don’t see how two extra limbs would make a rodent more fit.”

“Have you seen him on the exercise wheel? I’m pretty sure the cage has actually moved a couple feet from where it started from all the momentum.”

“Yeeeah. And the wings?”

“Huh, I guess I never noticed the wings.”

“You didn’t notice them? They’re protruding out of its back like some sort of flight-worthy humpback.”

“Yeah, you’d think they’d draw the eye more. Well, it’s never used them. Do you think they were clipped?”

“I don’t plan on ever being close enough to it to find out.”

“Really? Man, I guess that answers the question I was going to ask you.”

“And that was?”

“If you would watch it for me next weekend when I’m out of town.”

“I don’t want to seem to harsh about it or anything, but the only way I will ever be alone in a room with that thing is if there is a 3-foot thick wall of steel between us and on its side of the wall is an uncontrollable flame.”

“Are you threatening to murder my pet with fire?”

“Well, when you put it like that I seem like the bad guy.”

“Also, if there was a steel wall between you, wouldn’t you technically be in different rooms.”

“Take it as my way of saying I’m not watching your monstrosity.”

“Monstrosity? That’s a little rude, don’t you think? You don’t even know it.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry. What’s its name?”

“I haven’t picked one yet. I figured it would be best to go with something general neutral, what with not knowing what it’s packing and all, but I didn’t like any of the names that could be used for a girl or a guy.”

“Well, personality traits always help. What’s it like?”

“It likes to run and eat. Oh, it really likes to poop.”

“Poop’s not a great name, honestly.”

“More of a cat name, I think.”

“But Run and Eat aren’t any better. Does it make noise at all? Is it talkative?”

“Oh, yeah. Actually, let me grab some of its food. It can really sing when it wants to be fed.”

“Are you sure it’s hungry right now?”

“It’s never not been hungry. Hold on, if I just dangle this over the cage…”

“Oh god. Oh god, what is that sound? Is that coming from it?”

“Yeah. Kind of sweet, right?”

“I. I’ve never felt so…unnerved by a sound before. My skin feels like it’s peeling off and my mouth feels like I was chewing on sand. This is the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been. For the love of god, just make it stop.”

“Ok, ok. Sheesh, you drama queen. Let me just feed it one of these things and then–”

“Wait, what is that you’re feeding it?”

“This? Oh, the store I got it from gave me these, all wrapped up like this and everything. Just have to take the paper off it and drop it in the cage.”

“You asshat.”

“What?”

“You’re feeding it guinea pigs.”

“What?”

“I have to leave.”

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks in | Into the Wild

The Appalachian Mountain range stretches for over 1,500 miles. It extends into 18 states and two Canadian provinces. The highest point in the entire range is located in Yancey County, North Carolina. Mount Mitchell has an evaluation of 6,684 feet, over one and a quarter miles straight into the sky. The view from the top is said to be breathtaking.

We never got that far.

It’s an interesting thing about mountains, these masses of earth that formed millions of years ago. While we’ve managed to move most parts of nature that inconvenience us in our endeavors to build more skyscrapers and lay more roadways to get from one overcrowded city to another, mountains have proven one of the harder of Mother Nature’s creations to work with. So, much to the chagrin of land developers and real estate agents, the mountains often are let be.

That’s what made our trip so surprising. We arrived in cleated boots and athletic shirts, ready to spend a day walking upward. This was the highest point east of the Mississippi River, but it wouldn’t be the peak on a map made up of mountains we’ve climbed. It was set to be a casual climb accompanied by a couple energy bars and canteens of water but little else.

Kat got out of the car, touching down on the gravel with exuberance. Every one of her steps throughout these hikes was like that. She breathed in deep through her nose, pushing her chest out as she went to indicate just how much of the rich, wilderness winds she had taken in.

“Don’t you just love the mountain air?” She asked with a radiant smile that gave away her answer.

“You know we’re at the same elevation at home, right?”

“Shut up, you know what I mean. It’s different here. You can taste it. You can smell it. It’s rolling down the mountain to us. We don’t have to take a single step up it to feel it.”

“We don’t? Well shit, bag some of that air up and bring it home. It’ll save us the trip next time,” I said.

Her response was to toss a canteen at me. Filled with a quart of water and thrown with the force of an irritated woman, it had impact even after I braced my hands to catch it.

“I was just joking, you know,” I said.

“I know. So was I.”

“It was harder to tell with yours.”

“Well, you’ll just have to take my word,” she said with a grin. “Thanks for taking the canteen, though.”

Always the opportunist, Kat was. A little fake anger and she was able to delegate the task of carrying the canteen without giving me any say. It’s an important job–you always want to stay hydrated or at the very least have the choice to hydrate–but it’s an inconvenient one. It occupies hands. Once you reach the top of the mountain you want to reach into the sky with open palms, not air out the water bottle.

“Why don’t you take it and just clip it to your backpack?” I asked.

“Hey, there’s an idea.” Kat slipped the straps of the backpack off her shoulders like they were spaghetti straps on a sun dress. There’s nothing she doesn’t do with grace. Well, almost nothing. There was little graceful about the way she handed me the backpack and a carabiner clip to link the canteen with–just a look that told me she bested me.

“And make sure you clip it properly,” she said as she started into a quick set of warmup stretches, now free of any extra baggage.

In most cases, securing a clip of top priority. Rock climbing, strapping furniture to the top of a car, anything that could put one’s self or others at risk, a double check is necessary. Making sure the carabiner looped through a ring on the container and onto one of the backpack straps? That’s luxury. And one that I couldn’t afford with toe-touching stretches coming. Hydration was important and that could make my mouth water.

“I can feel your eyes,” Kat said as she looked back at me, her head upside down and framed by her legs.

“Would you prefer to feel my eyes or my hands?” I asked, wiggling my fingers to prove them capable. She chose neither by ending her routine, though her face was stretched enough that she was able to unleash a look shaming glare.

“If I roll an ankle today, it’s your fault,” she said

“Something tells me I’d land the blame anyway, so I’ll take the risk.”

It only took until the second resting spot, about 1,000 feet up or so, for me to earn some blame. Kat’s ankles were fine, but the canteen wound up rolling down a slope thanks to some less than attentive clipping.

“Really?” It was all Kat had to ask. She didn’t need to add any specifics to the question as the situation was clear. While there was a split second where I thought to ask if this was technically her fault–if I could be blamed for an injury because I interrupted her routine, couldn’t I blame her for distracting me from double-checking the clip?–I thought better of it and decided to go fetch my mistake.

“I can see it from here,” I said as I stood looking down from the small cliff. “I’m just going to slide down and grab it, then walk it back up.”

“Run it back, you mean?”

“You pick out my words way better than I do.”

“I know. Now get going.” Her encouragement was punctuated with slap on the ass. Another double standard, but I’d have to deal with it some other time.

The slide down the slope was ease enough. I was able to dig in a little and kick up some dirt to slow myself instead of falling end-over-end, a far less pleasant though probably faster approach. The problem was once I had arrived onto the little plateau where I thought the bottle had fallen to, I realized I was wrong. It had taken a bit more of a tumble than I could initially tell, as it slid onto a narrower landing covered by trees. The angle from above must have been misleading, or I may have bumped it with some of the gravel I had kicked forward during the descent. Either way, I was getting the canteen back. Now it was just going to require a bit more balance.

I leaned over the edge to see if I could get it with just the length my arms, but it was a out of reach. Inching forward, I finally snagged my finger around attachment that prevented losing the lid. At this point, the part of me on solid ground was well below the waist. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that I slid off as soon as I was able to get to the bottle, the force of swinging my arm to grab the canteen was enough to tip me over. I looked up, planning to look for a place to climb back up. Instead, I found a door.

We were surrounded by trees on this climb, but none with the rich color and texture of the mahogany door that rested right in the side of the mountain. Around it was a thin door frame and shining gold hinges, free of any sort of effects caused by the elements. Either it was an entirely new door–which was possible because how often does a mountain need to have its door replaced?–or it had been so hidden and shielded it just never aged. While it’s interesting to wonder how a door avoids standard wear and tear, the more pressing issue here is probably the fact that the door in question is installed in the side of a mountain.

“Hey Kat?” I said as I wrapped my hands around my mouth in a cone shape to amplify the message.

“Yeah?”

“You think you could come down here?”

“For real? Can you not find it?” She asked. I could hear her voice more directly, so she must have been leaning over the edge.

“No, I found it. And something else.”

“I can’t see you. Where’d you go?”

“I fell a little further than expected. I’m ok. I just think you should come down here.”

“If you’re sure,” she said. A few seconds later, I could feel small rocks and dirt roll over top of me as she started her descent.

“Ok, where are you?” she asked.

“Down here,” I said. I was unable to really describe where “here” was but I knew she needed to be there. It took just a moment for her to be standing over top of me, looking down and unsure of what I was doing.

“How did you wind up there?”

“The bottle rolled and I followed it. Don’t worry. Just come down here.”

“And go where, exactly?” She had a point, there wasn’t a lot of space.

“Pretend for once that physical contact with me doesn’t disgust you and slide down in front of me,” I said. “Trust me, it’ll be worth it.”

“Well if that doesn’t sound like a come on.” She smiled and started to put her feet in position. With a small jump, she landed right in front of me and stayed tight against me on the narrow platform. “Now why did you bring me down here?”

I turned her head to where I was looking, to the wooden door. She saw it. I knew she saw it because she didn’t say anything. There wasn’t an audible reaction built into our brains for a sight like that. After a couple beats of silence, she asked the obvious but only possible question.

“Is that a door?”

“It looks just like one doesn’t it?”

“Is it locked? Did you open it?”

“No, are you crazy? It’s a door on a mountain. I’m not just going to open it.”

“You’re right,” she said. “We should knock first.” She approached the door, a hand outstretched as a fist to deliver a knock. She hesitated, but her curiosity wouldn’t allow her to stop. She knocked three times, all of which carried a slight echo through the otherwise unoccupied air. It was entirely silent, not a bird singing, a fly buzzing, a cricket chirping. Just the faint sound of the knocks bouncing off the rocks.

There was no answer so Kat knocked again. This time with a little more aggression, as if she were an impatient guest waiting for her host to let her in. It hadn’t been two minutes that she knew of the existence of the door but now she had to know, more than anything else, what was behind it as if it was the whole reason she made the trip that day. Her answer wouldn’t be handed to her by whoever may have occupied the space behind the door, as her knocks again went unanswered.

“I wonder if it’s just unlocked,” she said. Her hand started for the door knob but my hand reached her wrist first.

“Is that really the right idea?” I asked.

She thought for a moment. I could imagine all that was running through her head at the time: The possibilities of what was behind the door, the risk of finding out versus the disappointment of never knowing, the potential negative effects of finding out. All of it was weighed and processed and spit back out in the packaging of a brash decision: Open the door.

If you ever find yourself on Mount Mitchell, climbing to the highest peak on the east coast of the United States, stop about 5,000 feet short of your destination. Get off the trail and see if you can recreate the accident we made. You just might find yourself staring at a mahogany door in the side of the mountain. Open the door, but knock first. You never know what–or who–might be behind it.

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks In | A Deal with the Devil

I went dialogue only thinking I’d just write a quick story for tonight. I’m not typing on my normal keyboard as my laptop is in for repair, so I wanted to keep it short and sweet. Instead I have 1,000 words of a long back and forth conversation between two people that ends with a joke that damn near requires a rimshot. Anyway, words and stuff.

“I have to say, we’re a little confused by this entire proposition, but we’re very interested.”

“Of course you are.”

“The details. We’ve gotta hammer out the fine points of all of this. I know that probably seems silly to you but it’s standard procedure.”

“I understand. You people are all about the minutiae. You put a lot of time and effort into it. It’s silly, really, if you think about it. But you don’t.”

“We think about it quite a bit in a case like this. An interview, especially one with someone of such, such–”

“Stature? Supremacy? Celestial-ness?”

“Is that a word?”

“Can I not make it one?”

“I suppose you can. You came to us, I have to imagine for a reason. So I have to ask, is there a host you’re looking to conduct this? Do you have someone in mind that you’d like to be at the opposite side of the table with you?”

“Are you sure all of your hosts would be willing to sit across from me? Would none of them feel uncomfortable?”

“I can’t imagine one who would pass this up. This is career making. This is life making.”

“I’ve been known to jumpstart a career or two, but I’m really more in the life-ending business.”

“You’re not planning on murdering one of my employees on the air, are you?”

“Of course not. This isn’t a stunt, David. This is genuine.”

“So why us, anyway?”

“Was that the only detail you needed from me, then? No murder, that’s the only line?”

“No, no. Details later. We still need details. But I can’t stop thinking about it. This is a big thing, here. This is life-altering for a lot of people. A lot of them. Why go through channels like this when, I have to imagine, you can just broadcast your message to everyone at will.”

“This isn’t a movie, I cannot simply transmit my image across all of the electronic signals that are passing through the airwaves at any given moment. I’m just like the rest of you, here. But to answer your question simply, I do get cable and I quite like your programming.”

“I…Well, thank you. That’s a compliment I never thought I’d receive.”

“Are you sure it’s a compliment coming from me? Are there no moral implications that you’d like to read into here, perhaps some sort of righteous indignation you should feel about me complimenting you?”

“I should probably feel those things, yes. But I just genuinely appreciate the endorsement.”

“It’s exactly why I’ll be seeing you well after this is all said and done.”

“You being serious?”

“No, David. I have no inkling one way or the other as to your fate. It was a joke.”

“We ought to get through the details of this before the process itself kills me.”

“A bus will kill you on July 23 fifteen years from now.”

“Really?”

“No.”

“Details.”

“Let’s.”

“Who do you want on the other side of the table, asking you questions?”

“Give me William Donavon. He seems like he’ll sweat nervously the whole time out of fear of higher judgement. Just the thought pleases me so.”

“That’s not exactly putting a check in the ‘well-intentioned’ box, but Will it is. Katie, want to go tell Will the interview is his tonight? And grab the paperwork as well please? Ok, is there anything you don’t want to talk about?”

“Sports.”

“Sports?”

“Sports. They do not interest me, I do not participate in them, I do not gamble on them, and I’ve no interest in watching them.”

“No sports then, though what you just said would answer the questions of bookies everywhere.”

“They deserve to keep guessing.”

“Anything else?”

“God.”

“Come on. You won’t talk God?”

“No. If you want to talk about God, get God.”

“You can’t set us up with an interview with Satan himself and expect us not to ask about God.”

“I can. I do.”

“Why won’t you talk God?”

“Because the guy’s a jerk, first of all. And second of all, no one will be pleased with what I tell them.”

“Because you’d tell them…”

“No one has it right.”

“None?”

“Not one.”

“And you don’t think that would be handy information for them to have? That they are all wrong?”

“You think hearing that from me won’t just strengthen their resolve? That they won’t think I’m simply lying to make them abandon their faith and they must now believe even harder with my existence confirmed?”

“But some would change. Some would stop fighting.”

“And others will fight harder to make up for it. No God stuff.”

“Fine, fine. No God stuff. Hell stuff?”

“Hell stuff is fine. You all need some clarity on it, anyway.”

“More fire or less fire?”

“No fire.”

“Yeah, we’re way off.”

“Indeed.”

“Is there any way we can accommodate you otherwise? Do you need wardrobe, makeup, is there specific food we can get you before the show?”

“Mixed nuts of any variety as long as there are no almonds. Clothes and makeup should be no concern.”

“Why no almonds? Some sort of ancient text that dictates the Lord of the Underworld can’t consume particular kinds of nuts?”

“I’m allergic.”

“Oh. Ah, and there’s Katie with the contract. We just need you to sign off to be on the show and allow us to use your image and–”

“Please, do not waste your breath. I wrote contracts that were the basis for what your lawyers have drawn up here.”

“So the deal with the Devil thing, that’s real huh?”

“Very real. Though I do not acquire souls. There’s no no real use to me. Also, they become incredibly difficult to store.”

“Huh. I wouldn’t have guessed that would be the issue. So what do you trade for?”

“A percent of lifelong earnings, and if they have a stage name I am allowed to choose it.”

“So are you the reason for all the rappers with ‘Lil’ in their name?”

“That is all of their own doing, I’m afraid.”

“That’s a shame. Oh, hey, one more question: How do you get cable in Hell?”

“Have you dealt with cable providers before? There was no way the executives at those companies were coming anywhere but Hell.”

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks In | Buried Alive

I could feel the dirt start to slip in, searching for safety from my frantic hands under the cover of my nails. It’s an unpleasant feeling, knowing dirt is becoming that intimate with you, but seeing it is far worse. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy getting your hands dirty, there’s something a little unnerving about seeing crud penetrate your protective surfaces. Lucky for me, I guess, I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything, for that matter–I could just feel more dirt. Tons of it. Piles of it. Fresh, too. I could tell because of the texture in my hands. Recently turned soil was far more malleable. Were this the sun-baked, hardened earth, I wouldn’t be fighting back against my own burial. I’d have been dead a long time at that point.

You’d think I was dead, given the scenario. The last texture I felt that wasn’t the crumbling dirt slipping through my fingers like running water was splintered wood I made the–pardon the pun–grave mistake of trying to kick. It may have been a warped plank that wouldn’t be fit for a wood chipper, but was also fending off what seemed to be a perpetual pile of dirt. If you ever find yourself buried and would like to expedite the dying process, remove the one layer separating you from the earth and let it just take you itself.

I wasn’t about to call it quits, though, so that wood would have to become a tool. Breaking off a piece would have been easier were it not for the abundance of nails around all the edges of the casing, but I figured better to outline my box in nails than my body in chalk. If they’re willing to take their time to draw around you, odds are good you aren’t coming back. But extra nails in a coffin? That’s just the opposite. They might fear your return.

One of the boards I broke loosened enough from its fastenings that I was able to take it with me and use it like a poorly designed shovel. It did enough to push the dirt away as I tried to make an indent in it I could push my body through. It was a little like trying to change the flow of a river by pushing the water back at it. I got to a point were the board felt a little futile and I felt a little desperate. That’s when I ditched the wood and resorted to my hands. It was a more physical labor, and my motions were more aggressive than digging. Clawing, really. And it’s a good way to get dirt under your nails.

I kept pressing on, my hands clawing away soil only to be followed by more soil until one motion was free from resistance. I’d have fallen forward from the unexpected change were the rest of my body not still suspended under the earth. I pushed my other hand up after the first, both rising to the surface to announce my arrival. I could feel the crispness of night air brush against my palms and couldn’t wait to hold some in my lungs. It wasn’t long until the rest of me cleared the dirt, though I took a thin layer of it with me blanketed on my skin well enough that if you squinted from a distance, you might think I’d been laying out in the Sahara sun for the past month and got a char instead of a tan.

Once on sturdy ground, I started brushed off my pants with my hands. It was a reasonable response of a person that prefers not to feel filthy, but it wasn’t two or three swipes into the process that I realized how fruitless an effort it was. I looked up upon giving that up to see a shadow sitting on a tombstone not more than a few feet from the one marking my grave. I looked at it expectantly as a flashlight in one of its hands lit up to illuminate a stop watch held in the other.

“Thirty-seven minutes and seventeen seconds,” he said, raising the cone of light to reveal his a smirk on his face and head full of dirt-matted hair above it. “I win.”

“I know you put extra nails in my coffin,” I said. The accusation was met with a laugh.

“You think I need to cheat to win? You haven’t beat me yet.”

“It’s a dumb game anyway,” I replied.

“Yeah, it is,” he said, then paused for a beat. “Want to go again?”

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‘Til the Melatonin Kicks In | Plausibility

Slightly silly and maybe a little preachy at the end? I don’t know, I’m still getting my head back from sickness. Trying stuff out, seeing what fits.

“I’m still upset I sunk 96 hours of my life into that show.” Chris raised his coffee cup to his lips and took a sip without blowing on it. The drink was still too hot to enjoy, but he was too frustrated to notice. “96 hours. Do you know what I could do with 96 hours? I could have read multiple books. I could have learned new skills. I could have volunteered at a soup kitchen.”

“You could have watched 96 hours of some other TV show,” Donald said.

“Most likely that, yes. But it’s 96 hours. Four days. I could have, I don’t know. I could have planted trees,” Chris said as he threw his arms up overhead.

“How many trees do you think you could plant in four days?,” Donald asked.

“I don’t know. Dozens. Maybe more. Maybe hundreds.”

“I think you’re straying from the realm of possibility a bit, don’t you?”

“You mean like that abomination of a show that spent the entire final three seasons unraveling everything it established at the start?”

“No, but are you proud you set yourself up for that little jab?”

“I’m not ashamed of it, I’ll say that,” Chris said.

Donald worked a wooden stir stick around the edge of his mug though he wasn’t mixing anything into the drink, a practice that annoyed Chris on days that other things weren’t irritating his sensibilities. Today, the unneeded stirring was low on the chopping block. Top priority went to shaming his favorite television program which had come to a close the night previous. It was unclear if Chris had slept at all between credits roll and this meeting. Every episode over the last few seasons of the show made Chris feel as though there were popcorn kernels stuck in his teeth, as he would walk around the house with a scowl trying to pick out each annoyance that the show had left him with. One by one, his watching parties dwindled, partially because of the quality of the show and partially because of the quality of the company. But not one to give up on a cause–at least one that he had no effect on–Chris roughed it to the last aired moments of the show. Perhaps it was the closure that made him feel safe in unleashing every complaint he had been harboring.

“It was a load from the very start, honestly. I mean, looking back at it. I was disillusioned at it all. Caught up in what I thought was an intricate plot line that would reward me for following it through until the end. But no. I followed that thread until my own shirt unraveled and I stood topless in front of everyone who made the show as they took that fabric and knitted the words ‘Fuck You’ into it.”

“You can’t deny the influence the show had on you. I mean, look how melodramatic you’re acting,” Donald said, finally removing the stirrer from his drink and enjoying a sip.

“None of the time travel adds up. I mean, they established rules just to break them later. ‘Oh, we can’t go back in time and interact with ourselves. Except for when it serves as a stupid plot device to manufacture irrelevant tensions.’ Idiots. And. AND,” the second and was always louder during these rants. It was Chris’ indication that the next point is even more important than the last one, and the last one was pretty important already in his mind. “Lockett’s original motives are completely thrown out during the last season because they’re afraid to ever actually challenge him and make him a human-freaking-being. No, he’s gotta be above the fray at all times like some sort of super hero who’s power is finding a way to abandon his own child but not make anyone hold him accountable for it. ‘Yeah, I’ll just fake my own death so the Clan stops chasing me except I won’t tell my wife about it and she’ll have to raise a child alone.’ It’s all incredibly stupid and, even worse, entirely unbelievable.”

“It’s unbelievable?”

“Entirely. Unbelievable.” Chris punctuated his words by tapping his fist to the table with enough force to send a little coffee out of his mug and onto the table in a splatter. He thought more of it was gone at this point. It usually would be, but he had gotten caught up in laying out every issue he had decided to take with the show.

“You’re familiar with how fiction is supposed to work, right? You suspend your disbelief. Everything is believable. You buy into it.”

“Well I don’t buy into this bull. There’s no part of it that is possible. Unbelievable.”

Donald rolled his eyes before turning them to the window and looking up at the sky. It was especially blue on that particular morning and looked as though it could go on forever–For billions of lightyears through galaxies that contain billions of other planets with a similar size, shape, and structure as but not exactly like the one that was home to the very coffee shop that Chris and Donald were sitting at. Unbelievable.

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