Thursday, December 31, 2020

SHORT STORY: Kevin Speaks To The Manager

Kevin sat alone in his study typing at his keyboard.  At forty-two, he had never married, pursued a career or made any genuine friends to speak of.  It wasn’t entirely his fault.  Kevin’s sour disposition and his propensity for abuse made relationships difficult, if not downright impossible.  On this particular day, he was engaged his in his favourite activity – writing.

“Number seventeen: birds too loud and numerous”, he whispered to himself as he fingered the keys of his antique typewriter. 

James Patrik Kevin Speaks To The Manager

Of course, he could easily afford a more modern writing implement, but her preferred the elegance of the typewriter.  They keys made a satisfying “clacking” sound, and they were able to withstand the angry pounding of his digits, the very act of composition often mirroring the ornery content he produced.  Letters to the editor.  Furious rebuttals.  Fashioning his written words into sharpened points, he could sometimes become delirious with rage, lost in the jaunty kinetic endeavour.

“I’ve brought your drink sir”, came a voice from behind him. 

It was Raymond, an obsequious scarecrow, frightened of his own shadow.  He gingerly held a tray upon which some biscuits and hot tea stately sat.  Without looking, Kevin reached out for the cup, accidentally scalding himself in the process.

“I asked you for a cold drink!  Cold!”, he snapped as he snatched the teacup and hurled the boiling liquid onto Raymond’s face.  The poor scarecrow grimaced in pain, determined to preserve what little dignity he had left as the burning liquid slowly seeped into his face.

“I’m sorry master.  I didn’t know”, he cowered as he cleaned the mess up off the floor.

“Don’t you know how important my work is?  Get it right this time, lest you feel the back of my hand again!” roared Kevin as he turned his attention back to his typewriter.

“Yes master”.

Now quaking, Raymond collected himself and scurried out of the room as his master continued typing, pausing intermittently to scratch his chin or correct an occasional mistake.  He knew well enough to take his master’s threats seriously.  In the past, he’d committed heinous acts against him, inspired and fuelled by a never-ending wellspring of anger.

As his archaic word processor made a pleasant “ding”, signifying the end of a sentence, Kevin struck the last key with a flourish before extracting the sheet of paper.

“Let’s see what that preposterous King has to say about this”, he smiled smugly to himself as he folded the paper in three. 

Moving towards his cupboard, he put on his great coat and tucked the letter into one of the inside pockets carefully.  Sliding an old rucksack out from underneath his bed, he packed a small selection of sundry items.  Raymond appeared again, standing in the doorway of his bedroom holding the cold drink that Kevin had both demanded and forgotten about.

“Are you going out, Master?”, queried Raymond

“Now Raymond, you know better than to ask questions above your station.”

“Yes Master”.

“But you’re quite correct, I am leaving the house.  I shouldn’t be longer than a few days.  And I wish to see this house spotless upon my return”.

“Yes Master”.

“And don’t let me find out that you’ve left the house again, or so help me you’ll spend another year searching for your brain!”.

“Yes Master.  Of course not master”, replied Raymond, trembling.

Scooping up his bag, Kevin strode out the front door.  As he bolted it shut (from the outside), he was met with a familiarly irritating annoyance.

“Going out, dear?  Looks like you’re all set for an adventure”.

Oh God.  Not again.  He thought as he steeled himself for another bothersome interaction with his next-door neighbour Mrs Gale. 

“I don’t get out of the house too much these days.  Not since the accident” she continued.

More than a hundred years old in Kevin’s estimation, Mrs Gale spent most of her days sitting in her wheelchair on her front porch.  Starved of attention, she would accost anyone willing to engage her in a bit of amiable conversation.  Kevin often wished that she would simply hurry up and die.  If she caught sight of him, she’d begin pestering him within seconds.  Bombarding him with the sorry minutia of her life and as she sat in her chair, forever knitting with her blasted needles.  What was she making?  No once had Kevin seen her produce so much as a scarf. He had no tolerance for stupid or foolish people - it was bad enough that he had to put up with that loathsome scarecrow. 

“Of course, if I could go anywhere it would be into town to enlist the services of a Metallic Man to come and trim that tree.  Those blessed birds have been keeping me awake for weeks now”.

Unable to resist, Kevin’s vanity betrayed him.

“Well, it might interest you to know that those very birds constitute just one such complaint on my list”.

“List, dear?”

“Yes.  A list of complaints I intend to bring to the King of System”, Kevin extracted the folded sheet of paper from his pocket for dramatic effect.  “I’ve written to him a number of times, but thus far he hasn’t had the decency to reply.  I intend to bring my complaints to his attention personally.  In fact, I’m on my way to his Cloud Palace right now”

“The Cloud Palace?  No one really knows where that is, dear.  Some even say it’s a myth.”

“It’s no myth, and I’m confident I’ll be able to find it on my own”.

“All right, dear.  But be careful.  All sorts of funny stories about the King”.

She was right – the King of System - as he was known, was indeed a figure of great mystique.  In point of fact, his entire existence was shrouded by swirling rumour, innuendo and accusations of supernatural parentage.  Some said he was a sorcerer who had the ability to change form.  Others accused him of engaging in dark magic and occult ritual.  Most outlandish of all the rumours was that he himself, had created the entire world.  As a man of empiricism, Kevin knew better than to subscribe to such fantasies.  In his estimation, the King of System was a man, nothing more.

“I’m aware of such stories.  Quite fantastic.  I’m sure they’re nothing more than idle gossip”.

“Is that so?”

“Yes.  I believe he and I to be two men of equal intellect.  I should think he’d be eager to converse with me”.

“Well I hope he doesn’t disappoint you, Kevin.  Conversation is a blessing, dear.  I should know.  Life gets lonely when you’re old and on your own.  Maybe I’ll pop in on Raymond while you’re gone.  See how he’s faring”.

“Raymond has chores to attend to Mrs Gale, I’d appreciate it if you left him be”.

“As you wish, dear.  I wonder if you’ve heard about-”.

“I’m sorry Mrs Gale, but I really must be going”.

“Oh.  All right dear.  I understand.  You young people are always so busy, rushing about from one place to another…”.

Offering a perfunctory wave, Kevin began walking, glad to be free of Mrs Gale and her endless prattle.  He proceeded down his garden path and into the great swathes of untamed landscape that surrounded his neighbourhood.  He cautiously stepped over the barbed wire fence he’d erected to keep out interlopers and marched confidently into hitherto unexplored territory.  After walking for almost an hour, he paused to unfurl the map he’d brought with him in order to confirm his position at the entrance of the forest.

As he entered the dense thicket, Kevin found the forest no different than any other he’d seen before, with tall trees rising like columns out of the ground.  The terrain was uneven, and large protruding roots made vigilance essential if he wanted to avoid tripping and falling upon his face. 

By his estimation, he’d been ambulating for almost an hour.  The sun had ascended to its midday position when Kevin heard a strange noise coming from up ahead.  Moving closer to investigate, he discerned a faint metallic sound, a sort of “clanking”.  As he reached a clearing, he came across a Metallic Man, sobbing before a grave site.  Startled, the man turned to see Kevin emerge from the trees.

“Hello…”, managed the Metallic Man through his tears.

“Why are you crying?” asked Kevin.

“My human.  He’s stopped.  He was alive for many years and then one day he just… stopped”.

“It happens.  It’s called death”.

“We were together for so many years.  He was the only friend I’ve ever known.  Now I don’t know if I’m able to continue without him”.

It was quite a sight – this hulking silver coloured man – easily approaching seven feet – mourning the death of his human companion.  From the dates inscribed on the headstone, Kevin assumed the human in question had simply expired naturally, leaving the poor Metallic Man alone.

“You shouldn’t cry”, began Kevin, “Grief serves no useful purpose.  It’s better to simply move on and accept things as they are”.

“But…how can I?”, wept the Metallic Man, “I’ve lived my whole life with my human.  I’m scared to be by myself.  My body may be strong, but my nature is gentle.  Will you stay with me a while?  I would value the company of a friend, especially now”.

Identifying an opportunity, Kevin carefully assessed the situation before him.  Metallic men were indigenous to the forest.  Known for their great physical strength and helpful nature, they were regarded favourably by those who lived in the surrounding communities.  Given his emotional display, Kevin felt confident that this particular specimen wouldn’t pose a threat.

“I am growing awfully tired of carrying this bag” said Kevin, “Perhaps you should carry it for me?”

“I don’t understand…”

“I have no need of friends, but I would value a servant” said Kevin coolly as he reached for a nearby oil can resting upon a log.

“Hey!  That’s my oil can!  I need that to live!”

“Your oil is now my oil, by way of my action”.

Pocketing the oil can, Kevin expectantly dropped his rucksack by the Metallic Man’s feet and casually walked away, continuing into the forest.

“If you hope to see any more of this oil, you’d be wise to do as I say”.

Terrified, the Metallic Man obliged, plucking Kevin’s bag up from the ground as he tearfully assumed his subservient new role.  Traversing more rough terrain, the two proceeded through the forest once more, the Metallic Man trailing a few feet behind.  It was Kevin who first heard the faint sound of music coming from up ahead.  The musician was a small round man who whistled a jolly tune to himself as he lay bricks upon a small cottage.

“Ah!  A friend!  And a magnificent Metallic Man!  What good fortune!” said the man excitedly as he noticed them both, “Come closer, so that I might know you better!”

As they entered the round man’s encampment, he welcomed them warmly.

“You’re just in time.  I’m almost finished – only six or seven bricks left to go.  If you stay a while, you’ll see me cross the finish line”.

“Finish line?”

“Yes, I’ve been trying to build my own home.  As you can see, I’m almost finished.  Each and every brick laid with my own two hands.  But, please forgive me – where are my manners.  My name is Severin”.


“Pleased to meet you Kevin”.

The Metallic Man was silent, afraid of being scolded.

 “You’ll forgive me if I continue working while we talk”, said Severin, “I’m trying to finish before sundown.  I don’t have much to go and I don’t wish to lose my momentum!” said Severin as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Not at all, I understand completely”, replied Kevin as the Metallic Man viewed the round man’s house with great interest.

“So, are you lost? “, he asked as he sculpted a small pile of mortar onto a new brick.

“Not really.  I’m on my way to see the King of System.  Have you heard of him?”

“Of course, I imagine everyone has”.

“Then you know how to get to the Cloud Palace?”

“Indeed I do.  It’s not far from here.  Keep going the way you were for a few hundred meters until you come to a rock shaped like a Ram.  Proceed over the next hill after that and you’ll come to the base of the great vine that leads up to the palace”

“It’s a beautiful home.  Why did you choose to build it here?”, offered the Metallic Man sheepishly, finally mustering enough confidence to speak.

“Ah! Thank you, my shiny friend.  I suppose here seemed as good a place as any.  I first came to the forest many months ago.  I was searching for God, but this task found me instead.  Building teaches discipline and patience and is good for the soul.  To create something is so much more difficult than it is to destroy”.

“I think it’s wonderful” proclaimed the Metallic Man in awe as he inspected the house. A testament to Severin’s ingenuity, the tiny dwelling was replete with a small chimney and a fully tiled roof.  With the exception of a front door, which lay open to the forest, it was almost done.

“Pfft.  God”, scoffed Kevin, “God is dead.  Both as a concept and as an entity”.

“Don’t be so certain”, cautioned Severin, “Aren’t you on a journey to see the King of System?  Is he not unlike a God in some ways?”

“Nonsense.  The King is nothing more than a man, no different to you or I”.

“Perhaps.  No one really knows for certain.  But seeking God is a worthy pursuit, so I wish you luck.  And there it is”, Severin declared as he ceremonially set down the brick he was holding, “The final brick.  My task is complete!”.  He stood a few feet back to lovingly admire his handiwork.

“Congratulations, and thank you for the directions” Kevin said in mock admiration as Severin knelt in prayer at the entrance to his new abode.  As he whispered an ancient blessing, Kevin sidled up to the Metallic Man with a conspiratorial glint in his eye:

“Are you able to detach your arm?”, he muttered softly, attempting nonchalance.

“Yes of course I am - why do you ask?”

“Give it to me, I demand it” hissed Kevin as the Metallic Man complied.

With a mechanical clunk, he detached his right arm as though it were perfectly natural.  Unharmed, he handed the inert limb to Kevin whose eyes were wide with ill intent.  Moving softly, like a predator, Kevin snuck up behind Severin as he prayed and struck him hard on the back of the head.  Instantly, the round man collapsed into a heap, his face hitting the ground with an unceremonious thud.  A small pool of blood emerged from the wound and soon grew larger as he lay there, motionless.

“Assist me!”, ordered Kevin, as the now one-armed Metallic Man looked on in horror as Kevin began moving bricks from a nearby reservoir into the empty doorway – Severin still inside.

“What are you doing!?”, he shouted as Kevin gradually turned the newly constructed entrance into a solid wall.

“Isn’t it clear?  He told me the location of the Cloud Palace.  That knowledge is for me alone.  Now his precious home will be a mausoleum”.

The Metallic Man felt nauseous.

“Don’t you have any consideration for others?” he asked in disbelief.

“No. Why should I be concerned about others.  Their free will is no less than mine.  They have what they have, and I have myself.”

After the pair finished bricking up the entrance to Severin’s house, they travelled as he had instructed, the Metallic Man weeping as he walked, traumatised by what he’d just witnessed.  They walked past the Ram shaped rock and over the hill where they arrived at the base of the great vine.  It was nothing like Kevin had imagined.  Reaching up into the sky like a great arm, it was dry and twisted and its base was several meters in diameter.

Unprompted, Kevin climbed onto the Metallic Man’s back, wrapping his hands around his neck, then allowing his body to go limp.

“Climb”, he ordered.

“I can’t climb all that!”

“Fine.  Then I’ll have to climb it alone.  You can stay here without your oil and rot and rust until you die”.

Given little choice but to comply, the Metallic Man began climbing the gnarly vine while carrying Kevin upon his back.  He made his ascent slowly, carefully searching for new footholds with each movement.  As they gained altitude, the air grew thinner, and the possibility of falling grew ever more daunting.  Whether composed of metal or human flesh, a fall from such a height would undoubtedly be fatal for the both of them, so the Metallic Man moved cautiously.

“I’m weary, and my limbs are growing stiff.  Might I have a little oil?” he begged, pausing in fatigue.

“No.  I will return your oil to you when we reach the summit and not a moment before”.

As the pair ascended, the vine itself grew thinner as it reached a thick outcropping of white clouds suspended in the sky.  Grasping at the leading edge of the cloud, the Metallic Man found that it was semi-solid and clawed his way up onto it.  As he collapsed in exhaustion, Kevin clambered off his back and stood proudly on the strange, springy surface.  It had a pleasant texture, not unlike walking upon thick cotton or wool.  Peering over the precipice, the forest looked minuscule, many hundreds of meters below from their vantage point upon a preternatural platform in the air.

As the Metallic Man gathered his strength after the taxing climb, Kevin explored the white landscape in which he found himself.  Cool wind blew tufts of white cloud about the place, partially obscuring his vision, but moving just long enough to reveal a structure not formed by nature.  A building.  No ordinary building, but a castle.  Composed of azure bricks, it boasted spires of dazzling height that seemed to extend up into the heavens themselves.

Reaching into his pocket, Kevin extracted the oil can he’d been keeping and tossed it towards the Metallic Man.  It landed at his feet.

“I have no further need of you”.

A wave of terror swept over the metal man’s face.

“But where should I go?”, he asked, tears again welling in his eyes.

“That’s not my concern”, Kevin shrugged as he began searching for the entrance to the structure. 

Dispirited, the Metallic Man wearily reached out for his oil can, but instead collapsed onto the cloud surface in despair rather than exhaustion.  Using his left hand, he reached across his chest and tore off his right arm.  No longer able to contain the offence at having his own arm used to bludgeon a peaceful man, he cast it aside and let out an ungodly howl before bursting into tears.

What a ludicrous display.  He really should have more control of himself, thought Kevin as he disregarded his former servant and turned his attention to the castle.  After a few minutes, he found a large wooden door.  He rapped upon it resolutely then waited a few moments.  Nothing.  Rapidly growing impatient, he began to pound on the door with his fists.

“King of System!  I have travelled far!”

His impatience turning to mania, Kevin pounded the door a few times more.  He was entitled, he felt, to an audience with the King.  After traversing such a great distance and taking the time and trouble to properly formulate his list of complaints, a few moments of his time was the absolute least that the king could provide him

“Was it as you expected?”

That voice.  That irritating voice.  Kevin turned to see Mrs Gale in her wheelchair emerge from the cloudy mists.

“Is this what you wanted to see?  The great Cloud Palace in all its majesty?” the old woman asked as she slowly rose from her chair, still clutching knitting needles in hand.

“Mrs Gale?  How can you be here?”

“To royalty, all things are possible”

“Royalty?  What are you saying old woman?  Are you saying that you know the King?  If you do then you must beseech him to speak with me immediately!”

Serpentine, she glided towards him, no longer the doddering old fool that resided next door.

Know him?  I am him.  In any form, at any time”. 

“You?”, Kevin spat in disbelief.

“Yes.  Shape is nothing more than a container, dear”, she began, “And I’ve been watching you closely.  You’ve painted your path in blood”.

“Yes.  I let no obstacle get in my way”.

“That’s true.  You couldn’t even make time to converse with a lonely old woman”.

“I didn’t know!  I had to get my list to the King!”, Kevin protested as plunged his hand into his coat and fumbled for the list, brandishing it furiously before the old woman’s face.

“Others seek wisdom, you only seek to complain.  If Karma is action driven by intent, then your intent is corrupt, impure.  My compassion is infinite, but this is a fate of your own creation, and this story could end no other way.  You repayed kindness with cruelty and you responded to wisdom with violence”.  The natural order is for you to return to nothingness”.

“No!  That’s not right!  Speak to me!  Listen to me!”

“The King of System only listens to those whose hearts have been touched.  You have failed to learn this lesson, so I will touch it for you, using the only language you can comprehend”.

Stepping forward, Mrs Gale took one of her knitting needles and in one, short, sharp motion, pushed it through Kevin’s chest – piercing his heart.

Stunned, he simply stared at her – his mouth agape in surprise and terror.  Almost immediately, blood spewed forth from his lips as he clutched the needle inserted into his chest and collapsed onto the fluffy clouds beneath his feet.  As Kevin’s body seized in excruciating agony, Mrs Gale stood over his body, her expression a mask of quiet contentment.

“Not every path ends in reward, dear.  This dialogue in itself is a courtesy”.

“But…my list…I wrote my list…on my typewriter”, he struggled as his blood stained the surrounding clouds pink.

“The King has just such a device himself.  To him, you are but a fiction.  A non-person.  Nothing”.

“Then what am I?”

“A stray neuron.  A thought.  You’re nothing more than the universe staring at its own belly button”

Kevin grew more panicked as he saw more blood now pouring from the wound in his chest.  His extremities began to feel numb and he could feel the moment of his death fast approaching.

“What’s to become of me?”, he asked, his voice now little more than a whisper.

“Nothing.  I’ve already forgotten you were here”.








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