Machine Men

Note: This week’s short story was 100% inspired by the Charlie Chaplin speech from the 1940 film “The Great Dictator.”

Spring Hills, Indiana
2015 

William grunted as he jerked the tubing of the fuel pump out the smoking gear wheel. He wiped his creased, wet forehead, leaving a streak of gray grease. The grease was meant to ensure the machine functioned fluidly. They rarely did. All around him, production had stalled. The other men on the line watched him, some with disgruntled expressions, obviously impatient to get back on schedule to meet quota. Some laughed and joked with their comrades, glad of the brief break.

And then there were those who stared blankly at their feet, no expression, no opinion, no soul. There was one in every bunch.

William swore and inspected the machinery now that it was free of the errant part. The tubes on the pump had somehow become snagged in the gears of the machine that was meant to click the wires into place. What the part had left behind was an obviously disjointed section of the gears where the teeth no longer met up, ensuring the machine would not complete its prescribed task. It would need at least an hour to fix.

The men around him all groaned irrespective of their opinion to the initial pause. They would be forced to stand around while he tinkered with the machine, falling further and further behind their production schedule. If they wouldn’t work twice as hard from then until quitting time, they would be forced to stay after. Though that meant overtime pay, it also meant an extra hour on already worn and aching feet, an extra hour away from families, friends, and an extra hour until they could eat their dinners.

They were already pulling 12-hour shifts, any overtime was both a blessing and a curse.

The men formed small groups and started to chat, settling into their regular conversational cliques whenever a machine broke down. William pulled a little light from his tool bag and shone it into the deeper part of the machine, checking the lines that connected the gears in the front to the larger mechanism in the back.

“Did you hear about that Trump feller, running for President?” one of the men in the group closest to him began.

“Isn’t he a billionaire? Why would he make a run for President having all that money?” another man replied doubtfully.

“He said he was, on the news last night. Called in and said he wanted to make America into what it once was. Rich, put everybody back to work, put more money into the military. Sounded pretty serious to me.” The man pressed, crossing his arms.

“Well, I’d like to see him try it. God knows Hillary Clinton won’t do a damn thing for us. We don’t need no elderly woman running this country. What we need is a man who is willing to stand up and speak out.” Another man chimed in, breaking into a wide grin. A chorus of agreement rose from the group.

William rolled his eyes to the machine. He’d heard that the reality TV host had announced a run for President as well. But he doubted his odds against the dozen or so career politicians he was up against in his party alone. And even if it did come down to Trump or Clinton, surely her past controversies wouldn’t make her lose to a twice-divorced, reality TV star.

His mind wondered away from their conversation as they dissolved into a competition of who could come up with the best Hillary Clinton insult, most of them primarily targeted at her gender. With three young daughters at home, he couldn’t really stomach the wording.

Another huddled group had a more pressing conversation topic. A rumor had started that the factory where they processed automotive parts for a Japanese car company was on the short list for relocation to Mexico. William had heard the gossip before but couldn’t help but clench his gut when he heard the words again. He didn’t know what he would do without this job. It paid well enough, offered health insurance with a moderately affordable deductible, and above all allowed him to live close to the town he had grown up in, where his aging mother still lived alone in an apartment and he could drive five minutes to help her whenever she needed.

His wife, Jamie, stayed home with their young daughters, all three were under five and childcare costs were astronomical for three kids and his wife had no training for a job that would pay more than what that childcare would cost each month. But it worked for their family. She was a damn fine mother and homemaker. He was proud of the work she put in each day, raising their kids, caring for their modest three-bedroom home, and making his commitment to financially providing for them as easy as possible. She was just as exhausted as him at the end of each day, if not more so. There was a woman, he thought, who could run the country and make it better than it was before. He smiled to himself.

“I’d have to move away, for sure.” One of the men was saying when William tapped back in to their conversation. “There aren’t any other options around here that pay as well. I hate to go but how can I afford to eat and keep a roof over my head on a minimum wage, part-time job?”

William feared that would be his only option as well. To sell the house, they had painstakingly searched for and brought three beautiful daughters home to, uproot them all to an unknown town, leave behind his mother who had no one else to help her, and start over probably making less pay and fewer benefits.

Their small town was already next to nothing, coming from humble roots as it was. They had a handful of fast food restaurants, the auto parts factory, and a dollar store. They could be wiped off the map, and nobody would care.

What would he tell his wife if the news came? His mom? How could he live with himself if he couldn’t find another job to support them?

The group echoed his worries, shoulders set in tense lines all around.

He gave a heaving tug on the gear that had offset, the metal ripping beneath his pliers.

“Shit,” William said aloud. “Sorry, guys, it’s probably going to be another hour.”

10 Miles Outside of Camp Dwyer Marine Base, Helmand River Valley, Afghanistan
2010

Sgt. Matthew Garrand lay on his belly along with two other tan camo-clad men on top of a craggy cliff face, hard soil and small rocks stuck painfully in his stomach, elbows, and knees but he did not move. None of the men in the group did. They each peered through their scopes, scanning the low road below. The sun, high and naked in the sky, burned down on their shoulders and helmets. Sweat poured profusely down their faces, over their eyebrows. They blinked rapidly to keep the salt water from stinging their eyes. Not that it helped.

The only advantage to the singing heat of midday was that there were no mosquitos buzzing around their faces or trigger fingers.

A tall, tarped truck rolled into view on the road below and they all tensed. Civilians, Garrand told himself. They were piled into the back, sitting one on top of another, some grasping sacks of food or other personal belongings. Small children sat on the back and floor of the vehicle’s truck bed, faces grubby with the desert dust. They all looked hollow, hungry, and dirty. Refugees, perhaps trying to make their escape for a better life outside of war-torn Afghanistan.

Garrand didn’t blame them. As soon as he was released from service he would never come back to this Hell on Earth.

Then a literal Hell ripped open below them. The force of the blow knocked them all back, Garrand, Staff Sgt. Tanner, and Sgt. Hatton. Only briefly incommoded, they sprang up, looking through their scopes for the source of the attack. There, under a partially concealed cliff, men poured out of the darkness, one in front cradling an enormous grenade launcher awkwardly as he ran towards the vehicle. Those who hadn’t been killed or knocked unconscious from the blast were running, away from the men swarming down on them.

Garrand had been wrong, he thought briefly as he took his stance. The heat had not kept the mosquitoes at bay. While Tanner called the attack in on over his radio, Garrand and Hatton took aim at the attackers, taking them down one by one. They weren’t fast enough, couldn’t be quick enough to defend all of the survivors.

The Taliban insurgents had their own weapons and meters of proximity of advantage over the soldiers above them. An elderly man fell, blood spurting from a gunshot wound to his back. A woman, an infant clutched in her arms, wailing then falling silent as she fell, a grenade catching her feet and blasting them to the afterlife, taking her soon after.

A young boy, the farthest ahead, no more than seven years old, was the last to fall. A man with a machete and a face wrinkled with hatred cut him down as the insurgents overtook the civilians. Garrand, face boiling and eyes bloodshot, put a bullet through the man’s head soon after, a bittersweet grin only briefly touching his lips.

The soldiers hadn’t saved anybody. They rarely could in these ambushes. But they picked off the insurgents like picking maggots off a rotting corpse. What was the point if they couldn’t save anybody?

Back up arrived, finally. An M2-M3 rolled into view over the horizon, moving heart-breakingly slow. Guns from the top of the vehicle boomed through the valley, striking the remaining insurgents.

The men in the vehicle whooped in victory when they drove onto the carnage. No one stirred from the mound of bodies and there was little differentiating between insurgent and civilian. There was only blood and bone and sand.

Capitol Hill, Washington D.C.
2018

Senator Joshua Brantley sat straight in his leather computer chair, his black tailored suit unwrinkled as though he hadn’t moved a muscle since the tailor snipped his last stitch. An email was opened on the sleek silver computer screen before him, the salutation greeting him as the “Most Honorable Senator Brantley.”

His eyes were not reading the words on the screen. They were glazed and red-rimmed from too much scotch. He mused to himself as he avoided answering his constituent’s email, probably just another request to not cut funding for elderly heat assistance or some other nonsense. His red cufflinks, which matched his red tie, clinked against the dark wood of his desk as he considered. His secretary sat opposite him, clicking away with her long, manicured nails on her own computer station. She was young, perhaps in her late twenties, with blonde streaked smooth hair coiled up on the back of her head and pinned. He eyed her long legs beneath her desk, uncovered in her pencil skirt and shapely, the calf muscles developed either from religiously running or strutting about all day on Capitol Hill in her 4-inch heels. Modest enough height with just enough of a hint at what lay beneath.

She looked elegant. A future politician’s trophy wife for sure.

Perhaps not his. He darted eyes at a framed picture on his desk, his wife, brown-haired and slightly rounding out, and son smiled back at him. They looked genuinely happy, and maybe they were. They had a lot to be happy about, living in a large house downtown, attending a private, nationally recognized school, sporting a 6-carat diamond ring on both hands. He snorted angrily and pushed his wife from his mind.

It wasn’t hard to do. Brantley’s secretary smiled up at him, and he grinned back, well aware of the dimple that he sported in one cheek and smiling crookedly to emphasize that feature.

He could have her, he thought, as she bent her head back to her work, noting the rose blush that colored her cheeks. He could have her whenever he wanted her. If he wanted her. He squinted again at his wife, older, heavier. They had been married for nearly twenty years, she had been with him through his entire political career, helping to catapult him to where he sat now as a member of the U.S. Senate. Together they appeared to be the quintessential American family, and he, the quintessential American Father, Hero, and Savior.

It would seriously harm his public image to divorce, no matter his urge to have a newer model to ride.

But a test drive could never hurt.

He leaned back in his chair and linked his fingers behind his head, sighing in satisfaction at his decision. A little proverbial grease on the hands and nobody would ever know. Outside his office, a group of small children awaited their meeting with their representative. Joshua Brantley, devoted family man, church member, and proud NRA A+ rated supporter.

He shifted in his chair, raising an eyebrow at the picture of White Jesus he kept over his door.

“Father, forgive me, but I know exactly what I do.” He smirked again and stood, moving slowly towards the girl across from him.

My Name is Lucy. Have You Seen Me?

The morning began with the air horn alarm on Jessica’s phone. She blinked bleary eyes as she tried to bring herself to raise a hand to shut it off. Jessica felt like it took more time to come back to consciousness each morning, sleep dragging her deeper and deeper under every night since…
Every night since Lucy disappeared.
The tears came every morning when she remembered what had happened. She could not bring herself to accept it had happened. That this hell of a life had become her truth.
“Damn it,” she whispered, wiping her cheeks surreptitiously. Mike’s shoulder loomed behind her and she felt no movement from her husband’s side. She reached for her phone to quiet the alarm. Still no sign of him waking. Or at least of him acknowledging her awareness. He hadn’t spoken to her in three days. Why would today be any different?
Jessica climbed out of the bed, the smell of the musty sheets following her. They hadn’t been changed in weeks. Who cared? Still drying the tears from her face she walked to the bathroom, pausing at the vanity mirror. She didn’t recognize the person staring back. She was thin, sickly thin, her bones protruding and her skin yellowing. She barely ate, her stomach stayed tied in knots constantly. Her husband had also lost a lot of weight. Their nightly family dinners with second helpings of roast chicken were a thing of the past. No matter what happened from this point forward their lives would never be the same.
She had deep circles of purple under her eyes, bruise like and suspicious. Sleep was the one thing Jessica could still do since Lucy vanished. It was her only escape, her time travel to the life she had had before. But she still never rested. Her body ached with the strain of her wishing and the dreams left their marks on her body and her psyche the same as starving.
Jessica had been pretty once. She was far enough removed from her pride now to admit it. And the creature who returned her stare from the mirror world was decidedly not pretty. She lacked Jessica’s smile with the slight overbite, her bright green eyes the color of Spring grass, and her effervescence that allowed her to draw a smile from the most disgruntled resident at the nursing home where she worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide.
No longer. In fact, she looked like she should be a resident at the home herself, emaciated,brows thick with weeks of untamed growth, hair thinning and laying limp over her bony shoulders.
She sighed, glancing away from the red veined, red rimmed eyes that did actually belong to her. She proceeded to go through the motions of getting ready for work, showering, brushing her teeth, and pulling her light blue scrubs on. It took her ten minutes. Jessica could remember a time she would be in the shower for an hour, grooming, styling, applying various creams, and performing a full glam makeup routine. She had taken pride in her appearance, she wanted to look good for her husband, and prove that marriage and motherhood did not a lazy woman make.
Another thing that had gone out the window on that cool, summer night, along with her five-year-old daughter.
She walked through her bedroom, Mike had not moved, but he lay awake, his eyes open, fixed and un-moving on the wall. Unlike Jessica he had not returned to work in the weeks since the police first filed the missing child report. He spent most days at the police station, waiting, watching, coming home at the end of each work day, shoulders sagging a little more.
He talked about the case constantly, obsessed over it. In his evening hours he created his own wall of hints and leads, a timeline of the evening before, a bullet list of every potentially odd thing he’d seen the night before when he returned from work that evening, the last day he’d gone to work.
Jessica listened but wished he would just shut up. Every time he said Lucy’s name a piece of her shattered, she wasn’t sure how many pieces of her were left un-smashed. For the thousandth time that morning she wondered if people really ever died from heartbreak. And would it take her or Mike first.
Jessica left the house, carefully locking the door behind her. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk that led to her driveway, eyes deliberately avoiding the front of the house where her daughter’s window looked out from. There was a black garbage bag over it, though the glass was not broken.
The drive to her workplace was not long, she worked a couple of neighborhoods over from her own, some days when the weather was nice she would walk. Lucy’s daycare was in the same neighborhood and Jessica could remember walking with her daughter along the street in the early morning sun, laughing and pointing out all the dogs in the area.
She arrived at the nursing home half an hour before her shift was due to start but she clocked in anyway. They were always short staffed and needed the extra help.
“Hey, Jess,” another CNA, Judith, ran up to her side, eyes wide with sympathy and possibly alarm at Jessica’s condition. “How are you? How’s Mike?”
Jessica shrugged, her pain was too obvious to politely brush off Judith’s question.
“Well, I am glad you’re here. Carl has been an ass all morning and you are the only one who can handle him like this.”
Carl was nonverbal and bedridden. But he could be as mean as any of the more agile residents. He resisted baths, flailing his arms and throwing punches at the nurse aides. He had always had more of a soft spot for Jessica, a pretty face had a way of breaking down barriers. He was generally her resident during her shifts, in charge of his baths, changing his clothes, and getting him to take his myriad array of meds.
“I got him,” Jessica assured her.
“Thanks, he cold-clocked Anastasia an hour ago, nobody has tried to go near him since. He definitely needs a diaper change. Let us know when you are ready and we’ll send help.” Judith smiled at her again, trying to be kind and left, hustling away to tend to another resident who was screaming about needing to pee.
Jessica sympathized more with Carl in the recent weeks, he had every right to be pissed at the world, robbed of things precious to his humanity. He had been a Vietnam veteran, lost a leg overseas, the other badly damaged and eventually needing to be amputated as well. His nonverbal status was most likely psychological, his doctor had informed them when he was admitted. He hadn’t talked since he had lost his first leg. Likely he would never recover his speech.
Since Lucy had been stolen from her Jessica had been plenty pissed herself. At the kidnapper, at the police, at Mike, and at herself. She wanted to hit somebody constantly too. But she pushed open Carl’s room door and grunted a greeting to the obstinate old man instead.
He grunted back, eyes narrowing at her in recognition. He preferred her company over the other CNAs but he still had never smiled at her. It had bothered her before but not anymore. It was comforting to not feel pressured to smile back at someone. It was weird that during tragedy people smiled at you so much more, when you felt least like smiling yourself.
She sat beside him and patted his arm. He had bruises on his wrist. She raised an eyebrow at him and then looked at the door.
He grunted in admission. He had hit Anastasia then, and hard from the size of the blue splotch spreading over his thin, sun-browned skin. Jessica shook her head and pulled her blood pressure cuff from her pocket. She checked it, making sure his morning antics did not require additional meds to offset the excitement. It was normal, normal at least for a vet with PTSD who couldn’t walk or speak.
She pushed the cuff back in her pocket and leaned back in the chair, momentarily enjoying the solitude that only two people with shattered souls can share.
A food tray sat to the side of the hospital bed with Carl’s untouched breakfast on it. A juice box had been overturned from the tumult of the morning. A covered tray, dense with humidity, blurring the lines of the scrambled eggs and turkey sausage inside. A slightly burnt piece of toast with a corner nibbled off sat on the edge of the tray with an open milk carton beside it. On the back, Jessica’s only child stared back at her.
My name is Lucy.
Have you seen me?
Age: 5
Height: 3 ft 2 in
Weight: 39 lbs
Hair Color: Red
Eye Color: Green
Last seen: Highland Avenue, Park City, Kansas.
Missing Since: 09/08/2017
Carl’s wrinkled hand grasping Jessica’s was the only thing that could have brought her back from the chaos of her mind at that moment. She was thankful she had been sitting, her legs were shaking, every part of her body was shaking. Hot tears pooled in her eyes, stinging them before they overflowed onto her cheeks. She gripped Carl’s hand with every thing she had in her and bent over him, sobbing. His other hand rested on her shoulder and he waited, eyebrows drawn in the same grimace they always exhibited.
She cried hard and like a strong summer storm, it blew out of her quickly, leaving her soaked and limp. She sat up slowly, now her eyes could not avoid those of her daughter’s, her last school photo, the only school photo she had ever taken. She just started kindergarten that year. Lucy had been so excited to take school pictures. She had been absolutely delighted when her mother had shown her the dated ones of her and Mike, goofy toothless grins smiling out of sepia toned photographs.
She wore a gray and yellow striped sleeveless dress with a white lace trimmed cardigan over top. Jessica had braided her hair that morning, both waking up half an hour early to accomplish the look. She had plaited her red locks into three braids and pulled them together in a high ponytail in the back.
How could Jessica have known that would be her last school picture? That it would be the picture the police would request to distribute on social media and the news? That it would be plastered all over the Missing Persons boards at Walmart and rest stops?
“I’m…here,” a gravelly voice crashed into Jessica’s ear and she jerked her head back. Carl was still frowning at her but his grip on her hand was strong and sure.
“I’m here,” he repeated.
It wasn’t enough. But Jessica tightened her hand on his and did something she hadn’t since before she walked into her daughter’s room that night all those weeks ago, pulled by an instinct unlike anything she had felt before and found her daughter’s Doc McStuffins sheets cold and vacant. She forced herself to smile.