I’m too busy/lazy to write a real blog this week, so I’m sharing a gently used short story of mine.
Quick backstory with an eerie twist: I wrote this story a couple years ago when I came across a publisher that specializes in fiction about various environmental calamities – climate change, overpopulation, unsustainability, mass extinction, etc. Sort of in the horror/sci-fi vein, I guess. I figured what the hell, I can do that! So, I did. I submitted it, never heard back, and completely forgot about it.
Then this week, since I didn’t want to write a new blog, I figured I’d just dig up an old short story and toss one of those on here. But then it occurred to me that all my old short stories are on my old laptop, which no longer connects to the internet. I didn’t feel like going in with the flash drive and grabbing one that way, so I remembered the name of this short story – “A Nice Refreshing Swim” – and looked in my old email files on my new laptop to find it. I always email myself copies of stuff I write just so I know I can always access it.
Well, get this: The very day I dug this old forgotten short story out of the archives, I finally heard back from the publisher I originally submitted it to almost two years ago. The very same day! The publisher apologized for the late response, and said they couldn’t use the story because it’s way too brilliant and will set the bar too high, but never mind that (wink wink).
The very same day! After nearly two years. How spooky is that?
Anyway, here ‘tis…
The fever arrived mid-afternoon, suddenly and with no warning. None of the usual cold and flu symptoms that usually tag along. Just a rush of heat that hit Brandon’s head and quickly snaked its way to other parts of his body. He was in the back seat of a hired car on his way from the Miami airport to the hotel. Sunshine poured in from all directions, reminding Brandon that he was no longer in icy, miserable New York.
South Florida – God bless it. Could you ask for a more perfect day?
Well, no. At least until the fever hit.
Brandon loosened his shirt collar to let some cool air in. His skin had turned damp and clammy. Where did this fever come from? And why did it have to show up now, just ahead of the symposium? He took another sip from the car’s complimentary bottle of water, a brand called “Karma.” Brandon had never heard of it. A large shadow passed into his peripheral vision. He turned his head and saw a massive wave hurtling toward the car, gaining speed. But then it was gone in a flash. Weird. Probably a tourist billboard. He reached toward the air conditioning vent and pointed it his way, but not much cool air came out. He asked the driver to crank up the A/C a little.
“Of course,” the driver replied.
Brandon heard the A/C kick into higher gear, but the air still didn’t feel cool. Jesus, you pay good money to hire a private car and you can’t get cool air? Brandon made a mental note to fire off an angry email to the car company. No, he’d call directly. No, an email.
“Very hot in Miami,” the driver said. “Only March, already hot.”
He had an accent Brandon couldn’t quite place. European, maybe? Northern European? The driver was pale, early 20s, with the narrow facial structure and cobalt eyes of someone from the Nordic regions. But how many drivers were from those countries? If they came from Europe, it was usually from some downtrodden sewer like Albania. Not that Brandon had ever been to Albania.
“Global warming, yes?” the driver said, chuckling.
“Right,” Brandon said, then quickly added, “Of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s just another hot day in Miami.”
Global warming. How many times had that phrase wormed its way into Brandon’s ears? Too many, too many. People trotted it out the way toddlers trot out phrases like “goo goo” and “doo doo,” mindlessly, effortlessly. Brandon was not the person to whom you cavalierly mentioned global warming. His whole professional life was devoted to disproving it, or at least casting enough doubt on it that the average slob would forget all about global warming and go back to driving two blocks to the grocery store in his gas guzzler, as God intended.
The reason Brandon was in Miami in the first place was for a climate symposium dedicated to the notion that science is for sissies and global warming is bullshit. Brandon’s client was one of the sponsors. They’d paid good money to secure the right lineup of speakers and guests, all important cogs in the machinery of capitalism, none interested in having those cogs mucked up by global warming alarmists.
“I moved here from Norway,” the driver said. “Not so hot there. Very clean, beautiful country. You have been?”
Brandon had to think about that. He’d been to Sweden once on business. Or was it Denmark? Christ, this fever. Where was the A/C?
“I think maybe I went there once,” Brandon said. “Is there some problem with the air cond…”
“I am here as an exchange student,” the driver interrupted. “Florida International University. I thought, if I am going to America, make it a warm city! Land of the brave, home of the rich.”
“Right, good luck with that,” Brandon said. “It still feels a little warm in the car.”
“Yes, thank you!” the driver said. “I am studying marine biology. Organisms, ecosystems. But university is not free in America, so I drive a car part-time. Steady work, lots of customers. Americans love cars. Much more convenient than transit. Business is good. Americans love business. Here, take my card.”
The driver reached a business card to the back seat. Brandon grabbed it and took a quick look:
Call when you need me. You’ll know when!
A phone number was listed at the bottom. No email address or website. Just a phone number. Brandon shoved the card into his inner coat pocket. Kar Man. Klever!
“Call when you need me,” Oskar said. “You’ll know when!”
“Righto,” Brandon said.
When they reached the hotel Oskar parked by the curb. He grabbed Brandon’s travel bag out of the trunk and set it down. Brandon offered a tip, but Oskar waved it away.
“Please, no gratuity,” he said. “Company policy. I hope you enjoy your stay. Make sure you get in a nice refreshing swim!”
Brandon nodded and hustled inside the lobby, dragging his travel bag and fever along with him.
Eight hours later, at the hotel bar, the fever was still there. Brandon nursed a lukewarm lager and watched the man beside him knock back another cocktail, his sixth or seventh tonight. The man was Dr. Bryan Han, a scientist. Brandon’s job was to entertain Dr. Han for the night, keep him engaged, make sure he didn’t go on one of his famous benders.
Dr. Han was a speaker at tomorrow’s symposium. His job was simple: argue against the science of climate change, then sit down. He was an old hand at this kind of thing and came highly recommended. But at the moment, Dr. Han was getting a little cozy with the booze. He apparently was an old hand at this kind of thing, too.
“Say there, Miss,” Dr. Han said, nodding toward the bartender. “Another mojito, por favor. And another beer for my friend.”
“I really shouldn’t…..” Brandon said.
“Sure you should,” Dr. Han replied. “Hell, they’re free, right?”
He laughed and took another swig of his drink while Brandon loosened his tie to let some cool air in. Even the hotel lounge was stuffy, and hotel lounges are usually iced down nice and cold.
Hell, they’re free, right? Well sure, they were free for Dr. Han, because everything was being billed to Brandon’s client: the drinks, the meals, the hotel suite. Dr. Han should be up in that suite now, getting a good night’s rest. The last thing Brandon needed was for Dr. Han to step to the dais tomorrow with a hangover. It would send the wrong message, having him up there slurring his words and swaying back and forth in front of the honored guests, policymakers, scientists, execs, lobbyists, dealmakers and media pricks in attendance at the Liberty Foundation’s 5th Annual Climate Symposium.
Brandon snuck a peek at his watch. It was nearly 10 p.m. and they hadn’t even had dinner yet. The fever continued to swamp his head and body. Every so often his vision would grow fuzzy and his ears would clog up, giving him the sensation of being underwater.
He reached into his coat pocket to grab a handkerchief so he could wipe his brow, but all he found was the business card he’d been handed earlier by the driver:
Call when you need me. You’ll know when!
Brandon placed the card on the bar and reached for a cocktail napkin. He wiped his forehead with it and turned to Dr. Han.
“Maybe we should head to the restaurant, grab a bite before calling it a night,” he said. “Gonna be a busy day tomorrow. We want to be crisp and fresh.”
Dr. Han waved a hand in front of his face. “Oh, no need to sweat that. I’ve been to enough of these things that I got the routine down pat. You give a speech, say something scientific, they clap, it’s done. Then it’s cocktail hour all over again. You only live once, Brandon. Got to drain every last drop of fun out of it.”
You mean the way you’re draining my client’s expense account? Brandon wanted to say. Instead, he took another tepid sip of his tepid lager.
“What time am I due to speak, anyway?” Dr. Han asked.
“You’re up third, so it should be around 11,” Brandon said.
“Who’s up second?”
Brandon pulled a symposium brochure from his coat pocket and glanced it over. “Ummm……a Dr. Armas. Dr. Gabriella K. Armas. From the Institute of Environmental Sciences. She’s the point to your counterpoint. The idea is to get two points of view, for balance. But to always have our point-of-view last.”
Dr. Han stirred his drink. “Armas, Armas. Not sure I know her. Well, no matter. She’ll trot out the latest science, the latest dire warnings about climate change. Then I’ll shift the focus elsewhere. Nobody at the Liberty Foundation gives a crap about science anyway, God bless ‘em.”
Dr. Han slid the symposium brochure his way and read the back page out loud: “’The Liberty Foundation: Freedom to Think. Freedom to Speak. Freedom to Act.’ Hell of a motto, isn’t it? Says nothing at all but sounds awesome.”
He opened the brochure and read the inside. “The theme of the Liberty Foundation’s 5th Annual Climate Symposium is Ideas, Innovation and Implementation. Ideas that address the world’s climate concerns. Innovation that works. Implementation of practical solutions. Our lineup of distinguished speakers will shed light on what we know about climate issues – and separate fact from fiction.”
Dr. Han put the brochure down. “I’ll drink to that.”
He tipped the glass to his lips, downed the rest of his drink, slammed the glass on the bar, and let out a mighty belch.
Brandon wondered, not for the first time, whether Dr. Han was the right man for the job. Not that there were a lot of choices. You try finding a scientist who will challenge the conventional wisdom about climate change, downplay the human impact, say the data are inconclusive.
Brandon’s job was to help deflect attention away from all that data. He was a consultant of sorts, a branding expert, a magician who made problems disappear before they even had a chance to become problems. He worked on behalf of clients who just wanted to earn a little money – ok, a lot of money – by plying their trades unseen and unmolested, free from government busybodies and beyond the reach of liberal do-gooders. Brandon had represented oil companies, auto manufacturers, the chemical industry, Big Ag, Big Coal. You name it.
His client now was an association of large, publicly traded home builders that earned their keep by clearing out great swaths of land and dropping handsome cookie-cutter houses on top. Not everyone liked it. Environmentalists and scientists grumbled about fallen trees, greenhouse gas emissions, non-sustainable materials, toxic runoff. You needed a contrarian voice willing to go against the tsunami-like tide of opposition.
Dr. Han was that voice. He and a handful of others made themselves available whenever corporate interests needed a scientist to speak at a forum, go on TV, or explain to anyone within earshot that climate change was a fever dream ginned up by capitalism-hating academics, hippies, and brats barely out of their diapers.
Whether Dr. Han actually believed this was beside the point. He said it – and usually in a reasonably authoritative voice. Plus, he had a good name for a scientist. “Han” had a certain Asian-genius ring to it. Brandon assumed Dr. Han had Asian blood somewhere along the line, though it seemed to have been washed out over the generations. He had brown hair and the slightest hint of crescent-shaped eyes, but the rest was straight-up middle-aged American white guy: About six feet tall, 40ish, pudgy, pinkish around the cheeks.
Dr. Han served as Scientific Project Manager at The Institute of Reason, a non-profit, quasi-scientific think tank funded almost entirely by corporations devoted to the idea that the most reasonable thing in the world is raking in cash. The job had served Dr. Han well through the years, giving him the chance to travel the world and drink free cocktails at expensive hotel lounges. Like this one.
“Well in any case, we appreciate you coming here,” Brandon said.
Dr. Han shrugged. “All in a day’s work, right?”
Brandon nodded and stared forlornly at his lager, wishing it were colder. For a moment he thought he saw the liquid start to boil and then rush over the rim and onto the bar. He ignored it and loosened his tie a little more. What was wrong with the A/C in here? Where did this fever come from?
He stood up, walked over to the bartender, caught her attention, and told her he needed a tall glass of ice water and a couple of menus. Screw it, they’d just eat at the bar. He walked back to his barstool and grabbed his lager. He took a sip and felt the beer scorch his tongue. He jerked his head back and blew air in and out, trying to cool his tongue off.
“You okay there?” Dr. Han said.
“Yeah, just….beer has a weird taste.”
“I’m not surprised, the way you’ve been nursing it. Probably growing mold by now.”
Dr. Han chuckled as the bartender placed a glass of ice water in front of Brandon and couple of menus on the bar. Brandon took a long drink of the water and felt a flash of molten heat hit his mouth and throat. He gulped in air again, lots of it. Something weird was going on. It was this fever. What had he contracted down here in Florida? Was there a tropical disease going around that Brandon hadn’t heard about?
He shoved the glass of ice water in front of Dr. Han.
“Taste that,” he said.
“Excuse me?” Dr. Han said.
“Sorry, I know it sounds odd. But can you just take a sip of the water? It tastes funny. Hot, not cold.”
Dr. Han glanced around the bar, like he might be eyeing an escape route, but quickly gathered himself. He grabbed a straw from a bar caddy, plunged it in the glass and sucked some water through.
“Tastes plenty cold to me,” he said. “You sure you’re feeling okay?”
Brandon slumped back in his barstool. “I think maybe I’m catching something. A fever.”
“Too bad I’m not a medical doctor, eh?” Dr. Han said. “I get that a lot, you know. ‘Oh, you’re a doctor? I have this pain in my shoulder, maybe you can offer some advice.’ Or, ‘My wife gets this rash in her upper thighs.’”
Brandon heard the words but didn’t process them. He stared at the menu and scanned the choices:
Oil slick sea bass with petroleum and hydrocarbon glaze, served over roasted chemical seaweed
Factory farm breast of steroid chicken in chlorine and bleach sauce
Salad niçoise with methylmercury tuna and anchovies, E. coli baby gem lettuce and perfluorooctane sulfonate eggs in a botulism vinaigrette
Have a nice refreshing swim!
Brandon did a double-take.
“That grilled snapper looks tempting,” Dr. Han said. “Of course, you can’t go wrong with conch fritters, either.”
Brandon gazed at his menu in search of grilled snapper, conch fritters, any dish that might look familiar. He didn’t spot anything. He gently tugged Dr. Han’s menu away without asking and did a quick scan for snapper or conch. He didn’t see them. Instead, he saw a dish called Roadkill venison stew in a savory asphalt broth.
He shoved the menu back in front of Dr. Han and said, “Do you see anything on there that says roadkill venison or petroleum sea bass or the like?”
Dr. Han started to look at the menu but then put it down. He turned toward Brandon.
“Oh, I get it,” he said. “This is a joke, right? Who put you up to it? Was it wooo rowr mottt mmmammmin…”
Dr. Han’s voice had turned to mush – muddy, indecipherable, like it was underwater. Brandon loosened another shirt button to let more air in. What was wrong with the A/C? Why does everything taste boiling hot? Why did his menu have such ghastly items on it? Why had Dr. Han’s speech turned to mush?
Why was black smoke pouring out of the bartender’s head?
Brandon shut his eyes, opened them, and looked again. That’s what he saw, alright. Thick, black smoke coming out of the bartender’s head.
“Wheeph mohhff whaaammmaa,” the bartender said.
Dr. Han opened his mouth and discharged a dark liquid in all directions. A bird landed with a thud on the bar in front of Brandon, covered in black goo.
Brandon shrieked. People looked his way. He tried to maintain his composure, even though he was pretty sure he was having a breakdown, either brought on by the fever, a chemical reaction to something, or a genetic condition his parents never warned him about. He needed to get somewhere private, where he could collect his thoughts, calm down, maybe call for help without attracting attention.
“Listen, I hate to run, but I just remembered an important phone call I need to make,” he told Dr. Han. “In private.”
He picked the business card up off the bar and waved it in front of Dr. Han.
“I need to contact this driver about something I left in his car,” Brandon said.
He looked at the card, making a show of it. He read the words out loud:
Call when you need me. You’ll know when!
Skar Mathi? That didn’t seem right. He looked again:
Call when you need me. You’ll know when!
Brandon looked again, saw the same words, and shoved the card in his pocket. He patted Dr. Han on the back, said good night, and quick-stepped away. He hurried past a woman sitting on a sofa beside a pile of dead fish. The woman smiled at Brandon and said, “Have a nice refreshing swim!”
Brandon hurried to the elevator and pressed the up button. He stepped inside and saw a sign on the wall that said, “Karaoke Madness! Every night at 10 p.m. in Dino’s Lounge!”
A woman stepped into the elevator just before the doors closed. She was tall, brown-skinned, attractive, 50ish, dressed in a smart jacket-and-slacks ensemble. She pressed the 19th floor and Brandon pressed 21. The woman had a small travel bag with an ID tag that seemed four sizes too big. The name on the tag said Sylvia K. Armas. Brandon knew that name. She was one of tomorrow’s speakers.
Brandon felt sweat drip into his eyes as the elevator made its way up. He looked back at the karaoke sign on the wall. It now said “Karao Mad!” Letters were missing. The fever was playing tricks on Brandon’s mind, tricks on his eyes. He felt something wet below his feet and looked down. Water had seeped under the elevator door and into the car.
“What the hell?” he said.
The woman looked his way. Brandon almost mentioned the water but decided against it. Maybe he was imagining it, like everything else. The two made eye contact.
“You’re Dr. Armas?” Brandon said, stumbling on the words. “From the symposium?”
She smiled. “Well, it’s Arma, actually. You’re from the symposium?”
Brandon nodded. Arma? He looked back at her baggage tag. It said:
Via K. Arma
More disappearing letters. More eye tricks.
The elevator stopped at the 12th floor, then the 14th, and then the 16th before stopping there. He looked at the water. It was an inch deep.
“This water,” Brandon said. “You think it’s busted pipes?”
“What water is that?” Dr. Armas said.
“On the floor. On your shoes, on my shoes. On the floor.”
Dr. Armas smiled. “Hmmmmmm. I don’t seem to see any water on the floor. That’s odd. Did you say you’re with the symposium?”
“Yes, I…..what do you mean you don’t see any water? You’re standing in it!”
He jabbed at the button for the 21st floor.
“Very curious that you and I are seeing two different things.” Dr. Armas said. “Are you feeling okay? Do you suffer from some kind of neurological condition?”
“What? No!” Brandon said. “It’s just, there is water right there on…”
Dr. Armas inched closer to Brandon.
“I’m not a medical doctor, but I do read about certain conditions in my research,” she said. “Lately I’ve been reading about this rare disorder. It’s similar to Parkinson’s in that nerve cells in the substantia nigra slowly die, causing malfunctions in movement and perception. Some patients suffer from high fever, accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations. Not much is known about it. But from what I understand, researchers think one of its causes is the ingestion of certain toxins. No synthetic medicines have proven effective. The only treatment that has shown any efficacy at all is an organic compound whose primary ingredient is found in the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. Unfortunately, this particular orchid has been all but wiped out by the effects of development, overgrazing and climate change. Such a pretty little flower, too.”
The elevator finally moved, past the 17th and 18th floors before stopping at the 19th floor. Dr. Armas rolled her travel bag forward as she stepped through the elevator door. The name tag on the bag now read:
“I guess we’ll see each other tomorrow,” she said from the hallway. “You should get in a nice refreshing swim while you’re here!”
The door closed behind her and the elevator went on its way. The water was ankle deep. Brandon reached out to punch the button for the 21st floor but it was no longer there. Neither were any other buttons. Brandon spun around. He didn’t see buttons anywhere. All he saw was the karaoke ad, which now said:
The water kept rising as the elevator moved higher. Brandon tried to pry the door open manually, but it wouldn’t budge. He grabbed his cell phone to call 911 but nothing happened – no dial tone, no ring, no answer.
The water kept rising. Brandon felt dizzy, nauseous, unsteady. His eyes wandered over to the karaoke ad again:
He remembered Dr. Armas’ baggage tag as she left the elevator:
He whipped out the business card from his driver, the guy from Norway. The business card showed only this:
Call when you need me. You’ll know when!
The elevator picked up speed, soaring higher. The water splashed and rolled around, licking up toward Brandon’s stomach. He tried to call 911 again but couldn’t get through.
He looked back at the business card:
Call when you need me. You’ll know when!
The driver. Oskar. He was behind this. The craziness started in his car. The fever, the hallucinations. Maybe the driver was some kind of eco-terrorist. There were a lot of them around. Maybe he spiked Brandon’s water. Brandon punched the driver’s number into his cell phone. He heard a ring on the other end.
“Very hot in Miami,” a voice answered. It had a familiar accent.
“Who are you?” Brandon said.
“Many warm cities in America,” the voice said.
“Look, call 911, have them send someone to this hotel and tell them a sick man is stuck in the elevator. I’ll make it worth your while, pay you a lot of money. Whatever you want, just tell me. I know a lot of important people in the business world …”
“America loves business,” the voice said. “Land of the brave, home of the rich.”
“Jesus, I’m in trouble here!” Brandon barked. “Call 911!”
“Karma,” the voice said.
“Look, what do you want?” Brandon said. “You win, just tell me what you want.”
“Karma!” the voice boomed.
The water reached Brandon’s chest as the elevator soared higher, up and up and up. Water splashed into his face. He felt a strong current begin to drag him under. He heard the voice echo off the walls, yelling “Karma! Karma!” He felt the business card float out of his hand and drift away.
He read the words as he got tugged under.