‘I am the sad thing’

I am the sad thing which bids you farewell. Ego and pride were the reasons you failed. As just another detractor offering insincere praise, you’ll cast shade to the end of my days.

I’ve never diluted the essence of truth. Greater clarity comes from the passing of youth. Your dagger dealt me a handful of hurt. On the next downward plunge I’ll be more alert.

Every day is essentially the same. The coin goes in but soon ends the game. Life is really just a pointless arcade. Nothing actually changes from the decisions we made.

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‘Another dream denied’

The foundation of a humble dream was made. The price of admission, paid. All my blood, sweat and tears, accumulated over the years; and yet my dedication never strayed.

The walls were erected with care, and exterior protected from wear. My hope and pride installed, I rose to the occasion when called. This humble burden was mine to bear.

One day the floor began to shake. No defense to the instability could I make. Cracks began to appear, soon it was crystal clear, that my dreams of happiness were at stake.

Down fell my little dream. I asked for too much, it would seem. Being kind wasn’t enough. Life is hard, the breaks are tough. Fate erased my expectations clean.

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‘Ergo, it was ergot’

Imagine finding yourself in a strange place with no recollection of how you came to be there. Now add the element of being completely naked! As if that wasn’t enough to make me rock back and forth catatonically in a corner, I was also forty feet up a dead tree. How any of that came to be, I had no idea. It really wasn’t a typical day.

Getting down wasn’t going to be easy. As a matter of fact, it was the stuff of nightmares. I‘m afraid of heights and there was a serious risk of the top portion of the tree just breaking off. I had to lightly ease down the trunk and test each lower branch with my feet. Chunks of dead bark crumbled in my hands as I descended down. Several of the limbs broke off and plummeted to the ground, far below. Each time that happened I had to grip the sides and scramble to find better footing to keep from plunging to my death.

After a virtual eternity of dangerous, downward maneuvering, I made it to terra firma. My thighs were scraped up from gripping the deteriorating trunk between them. I covered my nakedness with shaking hands and crept through the woods to my back door, hoping no one saw me in such a sensitive state. All I needed was an inquiry from the police.

Inside my home, further mysteries awaited. My furniture had been trashed but it didn’t appear to be the result of an ordinary robbery. Several things of considerable value were still present and untouched. It was as if a grizzly bear or rabid wolves had ransacked the place looking for food. The bedrooms and living areas of the house were undisturbed.

A tell-tale sign also greeted me on the kitchen floor. A pile of clothes was strewn on top of the liberated food from my refrigerator. They were my clothes. The very same ones I’d worn earlier in the day and was now missing from my person. I didn’t want to face what it implied but it was impossible to find any other logical explanation. I was responsible for the chaos around me.

For reasons unknown, I’d undergone a feral metamorphosis and trashed my home. Then I removed all of my clothes and shimmied up a dead tree in an act of textbook lunacy. There was no telling what else I might have done; and I had even less desire to retrace my steps to find out. From the level of madness I was currently privy to, it didn’t suggest I’d want to know more.

Instead, I tried to focus on WHY I might’ve lost my mind in the first place. It was as if I had a complete psychotic breakdown. Those sort of dramatic, life-changing situations are typically triggered by a massive personal trauma (but I couldn’t recollect any events of that caliber). I traced back my memories to the last clear set of events that I could remember. At first nothing clued me in to the bizarre sequence of actions that transpired afterward.

Upon re-examination, I started to recognize a few unusual patterns in the hours leading up to the blackout. I remembered eating homemade rye bread given to me by a neighbor. It was old and I should’ve just thrown it out but I knew she worked hard on milling the grain and baking the loaf. I just wanted to be supportive of her efforts. From that point on though, I started getting violently ill and my memory was fuzzy. I do remember throwing up several times and having some vivid hallucinations. Afterward all of my memory faded away.

On a whim I did a web search on ‘bread poisoning’. It revealed some fascinating facts. There’s a fungus called ‘Claviceps purpurea’ which produces a convulsive disorder called ‘ergot’. It’s known for ‘violent muscle spasms, hallucinations, vomiting, delusions, crawling sensations on the skin, and a whole host of other creepy symptoms. A part of the fungus is even extracted to make the powerful drug ‘LSD’. Suddenly it started making perfect sense. That bread she gave me was tainted with the ergot causing fungus.

It was even been linked to the Salem witch hysteria of 1692! An outbreak of delirium, violent convulsions, incomprehensible speech, trance-like states, and odd skin sensations on several of the Salem village children raised superstitious fears. They searched desperately for an explanation but with no knowledge of biology or fungal infections, they fell back on their beliefs. The dark conclusion was that the girls were ‘bewitched’. This lead to numerous, wild accusations of the townsfolk and eventually triggered numerous public executions.

Luckily, there didn’t seem to be any permanent harm to me. I survived my accidental LSD ‘trip’ and came out of it, just a bit worse for wear. Curiously, I hadn’t heard from the friend who gave me the homemade bread in the first place. When calls to her home went unanswered, I drove over to her place to check on her well-being. Her car was in the driveway but she didn’t answer when I knocked. I might’ve just given up and went home but there was a curious thing on her front porch.

It was animal dung. At least I thought it was, at first. I have a dog so I’m well aware of what dog poop looks like. This appeared to be… of the human variety. I peered in the curtained window. Her living room was absolutely destroyed. It reminded me of my kitchen after I came home. Clearly Linda had sampled some of her own bread. I was worried she hadn’t been as lucky as I had been and had harmed herself during the ergot infection. I called the police but I didn’t try to explain the fungal poisoning. I just told them I had grave concerns about her well being after describing the disturbing scene. The dispatcher asked me to stay put.

When the responding officer arrived, I did try to explain ‘Ergot’. I was afraid I might be leading him into a situation where a wildly intoxicated person might trigger an accidental shooting, in the heat of the moment. I told him about my recent ‘adventure’ and expressed that she could appear ‘rabid’ or highly unstable. To his credit, he seemed to take my precautions seriously. He entered the house and after a thorough search, found her deeply asleep in a broom closet.

She was naked and terrified to be awakened by a uniformed officer with his service weapon drawn. After de-escalating the situation and grabbing her a robe, he called for me to come in and explain (to her) what I’d told him. She sat wide-eyed in abject mortification. She was appalled at the horrific chain of events that she had caused but I tried to reassure her I knew it was an accident. Then I pointed out that neither of us were really harmed but it didn’t seem to calm her down.

I assumed she was embarrassed about the human waste on her front porch that all three of us knew was hers. “You don’t understand”; She began with great worry in her eyes.
“I also baked three loaves of rye bread for the Presbyterian girls annual camping trip in the mountains.”

The officer’s jaw dropped in shock. He immediately pressed the comm badge on his vest. “Get me ‘search and rescue’ ASAP. We have a very probable ‘situation’ on Shadow mountain campground.”

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‘A man after my own heart’

The new neighbors moved in next door but I didn’t think much about it at first. I waved from my porch to instigate friendly relations but I wasn’t about to barge over there and become ‘The welcome wagon’. I’m more of a ‘live and let live’ sort of neighbor, uninterested in embedding myself in other people’s lives. The same was true for my preference about them. ‘Friendly’, but not REAL friends.

Several months went by and I was a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know their names. They had re-lettered the mailbox to say: ‘NATAS’ but I only knew the man’s first name from his wife calling it out from the driveway. Who names their child ‘Lord’, anyway? She was attractive in a creepy ‘goth’ sort of way. I still didn’t know her name. I dudded her ‘Elvira’ until I learned the truth. He’s a tall, snazzy dresser and their kids are average looking. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary.

I thought it was a little bit odd when they put up Halloween decorations right after the Fourth of July, but it seemed harmless enough. Some people really get into party themes. Here was a family living next door to me and I’d made almost no effort to get to know them. There’s a fine line between being ‘private’ and ‘rude’ or uncaring and I felt like maybe I’d crossed it a little. I worried my aloof behavior might’ve made them feel unwelcome.

With a gregarious ambition that I soon came to regret, I went over to introduce myself. ‘Elvira’ answered the door. I made a mental note to ask for her real name so I could stop mock-labeling her, in my head.

“Hello! I’m ‘Lili’. Won’t you come in? My husband should be home from work soon.”

I thanked her and sat down on their couch. The decor of the living room was ‘interesting’, to say the least. Basically it might have passed for more Halloween decorations but it wasn’t cheap ornamental junk. They REALLY went all out on their gothic motif. It brought to mind what you’d expect a medieval torture chamber to look like. Executioner’s axes were on the walls and what appeared to be an inquisition rack for confession was also prominently displayed nearby. I’m sure my reaction to their ‘dungeon’ was amusing.

“Don’t pay our colorful furniture any heed. We are eccentric in our tastes but we rarely sacrifice neighbors on their first visit.”

Her attempt at (what I assumed) was levity fell very flat. I smiled politely at the noble effort but it seemed just like what a real sadist might joke about. It certainly didn’t help reassure me. I went to arise so I could make a hasty retreat from their creepy ‘murder den’ when I heard Mr. Natas’ car pull into their driveway. It seemed that I was going to have to stick around the ‘Addams family mansion’ at least a few more minutes, to avoid being impolite. I silently cursed my mindless desire to introduce myself to them.

‘Lord Natas’ came inside and was immediately notified by Lili of my visit. I introduced myself and made vague apologies for not coming over sooner. I sat back down while ‘Samael’ (as he introduced himself) and I made chit-chat. Lili observed our uncomfortable little interaction from afar. Their children were not yet home from school so it was just the three of us in their ‘living’ room. I tried to think of things to say but I was too distracted by the axes and sacrificial daggers on the wall. Mr. Natas noticed my nervousness and tried to put me at ease.

“We haven’t used those ritualistic daggers in ages.”; He offered with a slight grin. The coldness of his eyes gave me an involuntary shiver. Then he added: “They’re as dull as butter knives so we had to quit using them. We use the axes now.”

Samael glanced over at Lili to gauge her reaction to his provocative jest but she betrayed no emotion. I got the feeling she was distracted by something ‘troubling’. My guess was that whatever it was, would be far more troubling to me, than to them. I desperately sought an excuse to skedaddle out of there but my mind drew a total blank. Try as I might, I couldn’t fabricate a good excuse to facilitate my departure. Short of me abruptly leaping up and fleeing in abject terror, I was going to have to stick around a bit longer and tough it out.

I could tell my morbid hosts were enjoying my wide-eyed reaction. They seemed to be feeding off the growing level of unease. It had the effect of actually encouraging both of them to increase their alarming banter. I was trying to play along. If there’s one think you learn growing up as the victim of bullies, it’s that if they know something bothers you, they’ll do it forever. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me squirm. I did my damnedest to pretend to be amused while sweat beaded on my forehead.

I’m not sure they were fooled by the paper-thin facade but it’s the best I could do. I wanted to turn the tables and creep them out for a change but they had ‘home court advantage’. The two of them kept using clever metaphors and sick puns to vaguely suggest they intended to harm me. I was pretty alarmed by their twisted little mind game but it was never so obvious as to qualify legally as an actual threat. There was always a more innocent interpretation that it could mean.

Any rational person would have already excused themselves and hightailed it out of there, but I was determined to stick it out. I pushed past my paranoia and deepening fear. I had to live next door to these macabre ghouls. If I turned tail and ran, they’d have the upper hand in every future contact I’d have with them. Lili feigned concern about my tense posture and body language. Then Samael asked if I’d ever been on a medieval torture rack before.

Since I’d managed to rebuff their psychological threats, they were systematically pushing me toward more physical intimidation. They worked as a cunning team, all the while with pleasant smiles on their emotionless faces. I couldn’t begin to say what possessed me but I stood right up and volunteered for a ‘chiropractic adjustment’. Both of my hosts smiled at my unexpected acceptance. As she placed my wrists in the restraints, I couldn’t decide if I was incredibly brilliant or amazingly stupid. Upon feeling the device tighten to an uncomfortable degree, I had my answer.

Muscles stretched. Tendons drew tight. The sockets of my bones popped and cracked. I would have confessed to anything, and yet my two sadistic hosts were not officially interrogating me for any stated reason. They were just showing me they were in control. We both knew it. I wanted to scream out. I wanted to piss my pants in agony but somehow I kept it together. Finally Lili released the rack and my body sprang off of it like a rubber band.

I caught the two of them making eye contact. There was an unspoken air of respect, I was sure of it. Intense waves of pain radiated through my body as the tension was released so dramatically but I did my best to pretend I enjoyed the whole exercise in torture. Instead of excusing myself, I sat back down on the couch. Part of that was because I was in so much pain I could barely stand, but I also wanted them to think I wasn’t afraid of them.

The three of us went right back to talking of ‘regular things’ without even skipping a beat. All the while, the most disturbing mind games imaginable continued. Believe it or not, we did have some genuine interests in common and I started to feel my fear and tensions dissipate. Samael asked about my hobbies and pass-times. After relating my interests, that opened the door to reciprocation. I asked about theirs.

Lili spoke up and admitted she had a consuming passion for studying the chemistry of potions and poisons. Samael watched my reaction with obvious glee. I tried to pretend I wasn’t disturbed by her revelation but it became infinitely harder when she offered to mix me a drink from their bar. It had a number of ancient looking blown glass bottles with the skull and crossbones insignia on them. She poured me a tall glass of something that actually bubbled from the top like a mad-scientist concoction.

I downed the strange brew without hesitation and immediately asked for another, with a straight face. The two of them looked at each other and laughed hysterically. ‘Lord Samael Natas’ and his wife finally dropped the spooky intimidation pretense and dark humor. I had rolled with every psychological punch and braved their brazen introduction. In short, I had earned their respect.

“You sir, are a good sport and a man after my own heart.”; He offered earnestly.

I replied. “You aren’t supposed to know that yet. My surgical tools are in my trunk.”

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‘A (p)lot between two cemeteries’

After years of pinching pennies, I sought to build my very own home. Unfortunately properties in the area where I desired to build are pricey. I wasn’t willing to compromise on the location so I had to get a little bit creative in my search. I finally found a spacious lot in my price range but it had one huge catch. Actually, make that two. There’s a very old, colonial-era graveyard on one side; and modern-day cemetery on the other. I never imagined building my dream house in a necropolis nexus but it was the only way forward that I could find.

Obviously it was far from idea but the view of the nearby mountain behind the house is breathtaking. I’m not superstitious or squeamish so that wasn’t a big deal. The contractor broke ground on June the 6th, and completed my custom floor plan ranch in just a few weeks. When it was done, it looked fantastic and I was ecstatic about fulfilling a life-long aspiration. After the grass finally grew in, it was picture-perfect. So much so that I took countless photos and shared them on my social media accounts. Obviously I cropped out the rows of memorial headstones and angelic statuary. I was embarrassed about the huge locational drawback and it would’ve killed the ambiance.

My loose circle of acquaintances didn’t have to know why the land was so cheap, right? It’s not like any of them would ever come to visit, and my true friends would be a little more understanding. They knew how many years I’d skimped and saved to build my own place. They wouldn’t rib me too much about ‘the neighbors’. With them I could relax about the issue and be myself.

On what should have been blissful serenity for the first night in my new home, the peace and tranquility was interrupted by the jarring sound of a massive explosion. I leap out of bed in absolute panic. I wasn’t even sure if it was real or not. Dreams can feel completely authentic in the foggy haze of slumber.

I staggered over to the rear window to look out at the forest behind the house. I was still wide-eyed and disoriented from the percussive shock of whatever originally awoke me, when another blast ripped through the night air. This time there was no doubt. They were definitely real and the powerful ‘booms’ seemed to originate behind the house, near the edge of the woods.

My first instinct was to call the police but my land line wasn’t going to be installed until the next week. Predictably, my cell had no bars either. I thought about making a break for it and racing to my car but a series of escalating rifle shots ringing in the air discouraged the notion. I couldn’t imagine what was going on outside. There was some kind of violent shoot out taking place behind my property!

As if suddenly being startled awake by gunfire and explosions were not enough, what I saw out that window made my knees buckle. What could only be described as a phantom specter walked into the clearing with a musket in his bony hands! He wore a revolutionary war uniform and the accompanying garb. Then he raised his ancient weapon and fired toward an unseen foe. I closed and reopened my eyes several times in rapid succession, hoping sanity would return. No such luck.

The macabre nightmare didn’t go away but I was certain that I was wide awake. Suddenly the ghost soldier was fired upon in retaliation. The top portion of his uniform blew off at the shoulder from an apparent hit. In baffled amazement, I watched this violent apparition grip his fleshless wound in phantom pain. It was surreal. Another undead soldier (this time wearing World War 2 era fatigues) approached from beyond the view of my window and aimed his M1 at the wounded colonial infantryman.

Then, (what I came to realize) as a freakin’ cannon, went off again. By the titanic whoosh, I could tell the large projectile travelled over the top of my house and in the direction of the modern cemetery. Soon, a full scale ghost battle was underway and I was front and center for the spectral siege. Never mind the circumstantial logistics of supernatural warfare, or where their weapons and munitions came from; what the heck were the two factions warring over? Once I got over the shock of seeing long dead men in a fierce gun battle, I had to know the reason for their ethereal warfare.

The problem was, how could I approach them during the battle? Would timidly waving a white flag be enough to prevent those hostilities being redirected at me? Could dead men from two different time periods (in the midst of a spiritual skirmish) even harm a living being? The hail of bullets and cannon blasts certainly sounded solid enough. I didn’t want to take any chances. Out my back door I crept. I waved an improvised white flag as I approached a sizable gathering of focused soldiers. They were furiously loading musket rifles and preparing to fire back at ‘the other side’.

As it turns out, my home was akin the DMZ between North and South Korea. Beforehand there was an unspoken agreement to leave each other alone since there was a land barrier between the distinct realms. By inadvertently building on this ‘no man’s land’, I had offset the fragile peace. Since the construction of my house had bridged the beneficial gap between the the colonial-era phantoms and their modern day dead counterparts, they lashed out at each other in raw impatience.

My actions had enabled the fighting, so I felt it was also my duty to motivate them to find peace. Either that or I’d be dealing with perpetual heavy artillery sounds every night. It’s not like three-hundred-year-old spirits could’ve hoped to win a protracted battle against a modern generation with planes, tanks, and helicopters anyway. I realize they were already dead but no matter what the circumstances, it seemed like a one-sided affair. Surprisingly, the colonial guys didn’t feel that way at all. They were determined.

Of course they had no idea of the technological advancements they would be going up against. In all fairness though, they had a fierce spirit of rebellion that the modern phantoms didn’t possess. They carved out a new nation and were still full of piss and vinegar. I’m not sure that could overcome superior fire power, but the old ghosts were still incredibly patriotic. With no one dying of the battleground anyway, the debate was mostly academic.

Perhaps they’d grown weary of the futility of fighting for it’s own sake. I was able to talk to a contingent of leaders from both sides to meet at my dining room table. There I spelled out the many advantages of a permanent cease-fire. Not the least of which was regaining my sanity. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. Negotiations almost broke down on several occasions. Finally I was able to talk them into accepting a permanent armistice.

Once tempers had cooled a bit, they were able to set aside their petty biases and form some tentative friendships. Some of the modern ghosts bonded with the colonial spirits over the universal factors that make us human. Frankly, I was just grateful for peace and quiet at night. About the loudest they get anymore is a pickup basketball game of 21 in my backyard. It’s a real trip to see a 300 year old patriot specter try to dunk.

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‘Unwanted things’

Proximity awareness is the feeling you get in the dark when you know something is nearby (but you can’t see it). We’ve all experienced that creepy sensation. We blindly wave our arms around a lightless cellar, hoping to make contact with the unknown object, for greater clarity. If we are deeply afraid, we might even pretend there’s nothing there at all.

Denial can be a comfort in small doses but it can’t change reality. If there’s something with you in the dark, then to pretend otherwise won’t help. That cobweb you just walked through probably had a large spider in it. The thing which slithered across your foot in the middle of the night was either a rat or a snake; and the evil presence you feel brooding beside you in the darkness… well, we both know what that is.

I couldn’t explain why I never got around to changing the lightbulb in the basement. Over the years that windowless ‘dungeon’ with creaky hinges and musty odor became the catch-all for every broken piece of furniture or unwanted junk, for three generations. Why my family didn’t just sell, give away, or haul off the mounting collection of unwanted items, was beyond me. Explanations aren’t always easy.

By the time I grew up and inherited the old house, it had already been a long-standing family tradition for as long as I could remember. Grandpa kept the cellar door bolted shut with an iron padlock. He only unlocked it when there was a new item to drag to the basement. My siblings and I would beg him to be the one to take the outdated lamp or broken radio down there. It was ‘spooky’ but that was part of the excitement. It was the only occasion we ever got to see the cluttered mess of discarded furniture and timeless spiderwebs. In truth, the mystique created by that locked door far outweighed the reality.

For both of my grandparents, the reason for saving everything was the practical virtue of ‘frugality’. They survived the Great Depression when times were incredibly hard. They didn’t believe in throwing away anything for fear they might actually need it again. My dad kept their pointless behavior alive because Grandma and Grandpa drove home the importance of saving everything ’just in case’. And so it went that I eventually inherited ‘the tradition’.

I grew up in the time of ‘hippies’ and post-war prosperity. There was no plausible justification for me to save those worn-out rocking chairs with broken rails, or lamps that no longer switched on. I just followed the time-worn pattern of hoarding junk for no real reason at all. It’s what they always did with unwanted things; so it was good enough for me. Not once in all that time did any of us retrieve or reuse an item that was relegated there though. Once I went down the cellar stairs, it was abandoned and forgotten.

For the past year or two, that semi annual journey into the dusty abyss has been carried out by me without the benefit of a light. I always forget that the bulb is blown until I flip the impotent switch and am reminded. Then it comes flooding back to me. Every time it happens I make a half-hearted resolution to stop putting it off, (but then I do anyway since I’m lazy; and also because reaching the bare light socket requires a tall step ladder). The process is a logistical hassle. It’s also impossible to carry a flashlight while carrying armloads of things at the same time. For no more often than I descend down there, I just let it slide ‘until next time’.

Even though I’m a grown man now, I still have to push myself a little to do it. I put one foot in front of the other and descend a dozen or so wooden steps to the hard cellar floor; one blind step at a time. Eventually my eyes adjusted (slightly) until I made out the murky landscape of 70 years of discarded refuse. I scanned the clutter for an unoccupied space to deposit the newest addition to the junk pile but I was distracted by a creepy, uneasy feeling.

In the darkness I sensed something very near me in the walkway. It was so unnerving that I couldn’t shake it. Despite the impossibleness of the situation, I definitely wasn’t alone. The considerable presence in my proximity was both very cold, and yet radiated a distinct level of fury. Whatever it was, It didn’t utter a sound but I knew it was there, and it was very angry. I could feel the unknown entity watching me intently.

My arms were full and I didn’t know what to do. Should I pretend to not realize I wasn’t alone down there? Every instinct I had was to drop the armload of useless junk and run away screaming. Naturally I would have hightailed it back upstairs to the relative safety of the light and slammed the door shut. Maybe the unwanted thing in the cellar, just wanted to be left alone. That would have been the best-case-scenario.

By my stiff reaction, ‘it’ surely knew I was aware of it’s feral aura. It would have been easiest to just set down everything in a nearby corner and slowly back away (in a non-threatening manner). That would have been the safest approach but for some inexplicable reason, I felt compelled to address the unknown thing lurking in my unlit basement.

“I don’t know the circumstances of why you are here, but I mean you no harm and I hope the same is true for you. I only intend to place these old items in a corner and then I’ll be on my way. There’s no reason why we can’t both coexist in peace. I won’t bother or disturb you any further.”

There was an extended silence; made even more excruciating by the chilling circumstances. I was at an extreme disadvantage. I couldn’t see whatever was just a few feet away from me. At last, a hoarse rasp interrupted to offer a détente.

“Just like all the other things down here in the cellar, I am unloved and forgotten. I was never given a name; but I am your uncle. Like the rest of the unwanted things here, I was abandoned many years ago by your grandparents. They were ashamed of my severe physical deformities. I’ve been chained to this floor for more than 40 years while spying on my happy family, from the shadows. I never dared to show my face to any of them or you; lest any of you be frightened or horrified by what you witnessed. I no longer hear anyone else walking above me; and only you make the solo trek down here to discard your refuse now. I can only conclude that the others are either dead or gone.”

I was stunned and completely speechless. I didn’t know how to react to the horrific revelation or how to respond. The fierce aura of animosity I sensed earlier was gone. Perhaps earlier it was misguided fear or shame that masqueraded as rage and contempt. I moved closer to the direction of it’s low, wavering voice.

“I offer you my deepest sympathy. I am sorry for the horrible misdeeds you’ve experienced. Grandpa kept the door strictly locked. All these years, I had no idea you were down here among this discarded furniture and debris. None of us did, but you must already realize that if you’ve listened to everyone talk upstairs throughout the years. Both grandpa and grandma are dead and buried now. My Dad himself died last year and my sister wants no part of this place. Only I know your secret now.”

He was quiet as I spoke. My words resonated in the air. The tormented soul beside me in the darkness offered no immediate response. I hoped my sincere words brought him some solace for the incredible injustice he received and the rage that surely still dwelled within.

“I suppose the bulb being out overhead is no accident either, is it?”; I added with realization. “How is it that you, mummm have ‘survived’ down here for so long?”

“I think you know the answer to that.”; he croaked weakly.

“Indeed I do.”

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‘A charitable offer I couldn’t refuse’

The caller ID displayed a number I didn’t recognize. Sure, it was a ‘local number’ but I let it go to voice mail anyway. I can’t say I was surprised when they didn’t leave a message. It was a telemarketer looking for sales or donations. It always is. The same thing probably happens all day long but most days I’m at work. On the weekends I’m just around more to witness the barrage. Sadly, I still pay for home phone service and the overwhelming majority of calls I do answer are unwanted solicitations.

A short time later it rang again. It was a different ‘local number’ this time. Somehow they can change the number on the caller ID to list a ‘nearby’ area code. It’s a clever ruse to get me to answer the phone out of curiosity but most of the time I resist the urge. I can’t explain why but this time I answered. Perhaps I hoped to stop the pointless cycle by politely asking them to give up.

“Hello, is this ——?”

I replied that I was.

“Hi. I represent the ‘Breast cancer prevention foundation’. We elect leaders that enact legislation to fund research into preventing this terrible disease. With it affecting one out of four women in their lifetime, you surely know and love someone what has already suffered from this devastating affliction.”

I interrupted. She was pleasant and very articulate but the bottom line for me with any ‘charity’ has always been about the ratio of fundraising to actual end-use. If they spend eight out of every ten dollars donated to pay salaries for the telephone solicitors or managers, then they aren’t really a charity. At least not by my definition. That would make them a bloated, inefficient sales racket or outright parasite pretending to be a saint. On the rare times that I do speak with these random callers, I always ask how much of the donations received are used for more fundraising.

That always shuts down ‘the pitch’ because legally they have to admit the truth. Instead of answering my question, the voice on the other end of the line simply waited until I had finished and then she went back to requesting donations from me. I thought it was a bit odd how she indiscreetly sidestepped my question but I didn’t dwell on it. Instead I interrupted again. This time I asked if they used the donations received to support a well-known breast cancer survivor organization.

Again the caller waited politely for me to finish but basically ignored the question! She did reply that they do not support the organization, but reiterated that their focus was in electing leaders who would pursue research into fighting the disease. While her redirect was appropriate this time, it became pretty obvious that I wasn’t talking to a human being!

I was flabbergasted. The synthetic speech was so well-delivered and the interface was so sophisticated that it really was difficult to tell. Whoever programmed the bot just hadn’t been able to anticipate left-field questions like mine yet. It was all incredibly smooth until I posed unorthodox responses. Then the ‘train’ jumped the tracks. I decided to have a little fun with it, even though I was the only human present.

“You’re just a bot! What do you need money for?”

I anticipated a dismissive ‘thank you… goodbye’ response from the AI interface but instead a very different voice responded. This one was so distinctive and colorful that I knew it was real. No one would simulate a thick, angry, Bronx man’s accent.

“Yo! Why you gotta be giv’n our ‘employee’ such a hard time? She’s just tryin’ to raise some cash for this important cause, ya see? What if it was ya motha? We got people near where you live down there that could come by and pick up your generous donation, ‘in person’. They might even teach ya some phone manners. Ya got me?”

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