Friday, February 26, 2021

Free Fiction Friday: Ghosts of America

Robert Harris has endured the loss of his wife and his only son. He's faced the decline of the United States and banded together the people of his small Illinois town to eek out a satisfying existence with less. Then a politician comes to town proclaiming the return of “American exceptionalism.” Robert Harris wants nothing to do with it.

“Ghosts of America,” by Shaun Kilgore, is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as an ebook here.

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Ghosts of America

Shaun Kilgore

I remember the sound of the planes in the skies. I can still hear the distant rush of monstrous jet engines hurtling the sleek steel bodies above the clouds, ferrying people from one point to another across the great expanse of the United States – and the world beyond. The commercial airliners have been grounded for nearly thirty years now. The big blue canvas of the sky free from the streaks of exhaust fumes that made me stare up in wonder and the massive cabins rusting away amidst the weeds between empty hangars and vacant terminals.
I flew on an airplane twice. The first time was when I was nine-years-old. It had been a short flight out of Chicago over to Baltimore with a change of aircraft in Detroit. I was up and down again before I knew what was happening. I was sorely disappointed. My mother tried to explain how it worked, but I didn't want to hear. I only wanted to soar in the sky – and never come down again. I had my own dreams. I wanted to be a pilot. Of course, that didn't work out. The second flight happened when I was twenty-six. It was 2015 and I was living in Chicago and working as a website designer for a small start-up company that I had formed with my partner (and fiancé) Jessica Hamilton. I flew out of O'Hare airport and across the country to Los Angeles, feeling as giddy as that long-gone nine-year-old as I watched the landscape rush by far below. Jess had asked me to attend a blogging expo in order to talk with some potential clients about building a powerful web presence through social networking. I didn't hesitate. I didn't care what she wanted me to do. I had the chance to fly and I took it. It was the last time I ever did.
It's all gone now. They are just bits of memories that I sift through from time to time though it happens a lot on Sunday mornings. I can remember a time when I would have been watching a football game on television. (Yes, honest to goodness TV!) Jess and I used to have barbeques on Sunday and invite Bill and Amy so we could all gather in front of that enormous glowing screen and watch our beloved Bears play their hearts out.
How long has it been since they pulled the final plug? Probably twenty years ago now. About the time David and the other boys in our neighborhood took the trains south to fight in Texas. I remember sitting in the living room watching the spotty footage from one of the small affiliates still left in operation. We stared on as the fighting with General Juarez's army took a turn for the worse out in the abandoned suburbs of Houston (It was the last of the Texan cities to fall under independent Texan control.) I remember clutching Jess's hand as we watched David's division falter and collapse under the retired general's superior tactics. The old U.S. army just didn't have the resources left to quell yet another upheaval in the South. While Texas got its precious independence, our son's body was delivered back to us in an unadorned pinewood box like so many other identical boxes by those same trains.
It's become so hard to keep track of all the body blows the country has taken over the last several decades. So much has been lost – even squandered – while we came to terms with reality. It's easy to cast blame, to seek out some face to pin the pain I've suffered, that my family has suffered, upon. Especially, when all that is left are the phantoms of long-dead politicians haunting the crumbling halls of Washington government.
Knock Knock.
I put down the pen, letting the journal drape across my lap. "Come on in. Door's open," I said. My voice was weaker than it used to be. I'm getting too damned old.
The door creaked open and Seth Clark walked in carrying a canvas bag heaped with corn and other produce from the farmers' markets in Greely Park.
"Mr. Harris, I've brought you these from Mister Ross's stalls. He says he owes you for helping him get his solar water heater working again."
I nodded absently. "Yes, well, tell him I said thanks for the veggies. And that I'm glad the heater's working again."
"Will do." Seth paused in the doorway. "Mr. Harris?"
I looked up from the journal in my lap. "Yes, what is it Seth?"
"Do you remember when you talked to us at the school? Uh, you know, about the ways things used to be?"
I suppressed a weary sigh. "Yes, I do remember. I'd be hard pressed to forget, Seth."
There was something about the way Seth stood there, a look on his face maybe. "What do you want to know?"
Seth smiled broadly. I've seen the sparkle a hundred times.
I couldn't blame him. Those under forty-years-old have no clue how things used to be before the wars, the unrest, the destruction of the damned global economy. Gives whole new meaning to the term 'old timer,' though I couldn't believe it myself. I was definitely an old timer now. That world was long gone and all we had now were the pieces to pick up.
"Could you tell me about the innerweb?"
I snorted, not managing to hold back my amusement. The jargon was already getting messed up. I wonder what it will be like in another generation or two.
"It was called the Internet, son. Though I suppose a lot of us called it the 'web.' It stood for the World Wide Web. It was a way that we could communicate and share information with everyone all across the planet. It was a revolutionary piece of technology. It profoundly changed the world - at least for a time."
"Until the blackouts, the depression, and all that other stuff," said Seth.
"Yeah, and all that other stuff. There came a time, once we got bogged down in all the fighting and started running low on energy, when the internet and broadcast television were too expensive to keep running. We had to make some pretty harsh decisions. The world had to in order to hold together."
Seth nodded. "Mr. Harris I..."
The high keening sound of a train whistle cut off his words.
"Looks like the train is arriving from Springfield."
"I'm sorry. I've got to get back, Mr. Harris. Maybe we can talk more about the old times later?"
"Yes, later," I said.
The wail of the whistle sounded again and I could hear the hiss of steam being released. The old-fashioned steam engine was still going strong. It had proven to be a vital mode of transportation. I thank whatever unknown politician had the sense enough to get the refurbishment of the rails in our region underway. As supplies of oil became deeply constricted and the hemorrhaging U.S. economy finally succumbed, the need to keep some long distance travel in place suddenly took on a starker significance. We were trying to keep the country together. In large part it was too little too late. The damage of inaction was already done.
I knew I was stirring up a lot of ghosts with my writing and now talking with Seth; it was almost more than I could handle. So I decided to leave the house.
I wasn't an invalid or something. I was really in pretty decent condition for my age. Chalk it up to being athletic and active in my youth. I moved down the sidewalk at a fairly brisk pace, passing the rusting hulks of car frames, the skeletons of the past. They were gutted out and most of the materials were being put to other uses. Here and there I could see the swirling shapes of windmills jutting up from behind the houses in my neighborhood. Half of them I helped rig up myself. Now, John Hershel was doing the work and maintaining them too. Some of the people were using the mills to generate trickle charges for some modest electrical needs, or to juice up salvaged car batteries.
My little walk took me downtown to the train station. I figured I would get a look at the refurbished locomotive; maybe see if anybody was getting off in our little burg. The station itself was a newer building. It had been put up about twenty years ago. At this hour of the day a whole bunch of people were out doing the daily tasks of a much quieter--and slower--life. It was a busy little community. The people actually saw each other every day.
Ambling along, I kept my pace fast enough to discourage people from starting up a conversation with me. I wasn't in much of a talking mood now. A wave here and short 'how's it going' there and that was it. Rounding the corner I entered main area of the station. The train was still emitting plumes of steam. It was amazing to see it, even now. Who would have thought about salvaging an old steam engine from a railroad museum? I'd heard about other areas keeping some of their diesel trains running by rigging up some locally brewed biodiesel or using whatever they could that would work in the engines. People were used to trying all sorts of things to keep long distance transport up. What cars weren't rusting away along the streets weren't used unless there was an emergency or by folks who used trucks to haul produce or other goods to market.
Standing there along the tracks, I waved to the conductor. I actually knew the man. James Pinckney was probably ten years younger than I. I had met him during the town along the line were having open meetings about future use of the railroad. James had been a big advocate of transitioning back to rail for passenger use and for moving merchandise formerly carried by the big rigs.
"How was the trip down, Jimmy?"
Pulling his hat off his head, Pinckney blew out a ragged breath. His face was covered in sweat. "Fair enough, I suppose. The old furnace gets damned hot though. I actually had coal to burn this time. The boys in Davenport managed to get a big shipment of the stuff out of the mines and loaded. Operations there may be slower, but we've certainly got more time now that we've stopped being in such a damned hurry."
"Yep. Oh, hey, have they got the line open to Springfield?"
Pinckney nodded. "Yes sir, we actually brought a passenger down from the capital. Name's Grover, I think. Uh, Mitchell or maybe Michael?"
"You know what this Grover is all about?" I asked.
"Naw, not sure. I think he some kind of businessman, at least by the look of him." Pinckney started inspecting the wheels of the engine. Armed with an oilcan he lubed the various parts. He turned back to me. "Just remembered, Bob. That Grover dude has a guard or cop or something with him. He's carrying a gun. Hell, he may have had a badge on him too. You'll have to see for yourself." Glancing down the line of passenger cars, Pinckney pointed at a small crowd that was made up of the town's leadership. They surrounded a tall man with a wide grin, waving his hands animatedly at the mayor and the rest of the town council. At his side there was bearded man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, his face etched in a frown. "There he is over there, Bob."
"Alright, thank you Jimmy."
"Have a good one," he replied.
I walked down the brick platform, taking my time while the newcomers seemed to roll out a spiel of sorts, the kind of pontificating that belong to the old politicians. The man--Grover--had the look. When I was close enough I started listening.
"Yes, friends, it is true. I've spoken with the governor himself. A convention has been called, a right proper one involving delegates from all of the remaining states in flying the old stars and stripes. That's the honest to God truth."
William Johns, the mayor smiled brightly. "It's good news to hear, I'll tell you that much. Probably the best news I've heard in a long time. You remember that Thomas guy? He came through trying to get recruits to join an army to head down to Texas and take it back. Damned fool, he was. My question, Mr. Grover, is what exactly you are doing in our little town. We're hardly worth the attention of an important man like yourself."
"That's a good question, Mayor Johns. I think the best way to put it is that I'm here to spread some hope, try to get the people to remember a little thing called 'American exceptionalism.' We've take a hard hit, but we're not down for the count."
Raymond Miller, the sheriff, raised his hand. "So you stopped here to give us a pep talk?"
I'd heard enough so I butted in. "I'd say he's just spreading a bunch a nonsense, dreams better left dead. The U.S. had a good run, but you and both know that that world's long gone, Mister Grover."
The man stared at me for a moment. "And you are?"
"My name is Robert Harris."
Grover stuck out his hand. It was smooth. The man hadn't had hand in real work. He was some sort of politician or a man who was used to having others do the grunt work. "Mitchell Grover, representative of the Illinois state government. I'm sorry to hear that you feel that way. I don't think it is a bunch of nonsense but you're certainly entitled to free speech under the Constitution."
"Ha, hell, man. You're still toting that piece of scrap around." I held up my hands to stave off Ray Miller's gaping mouth. "Now take it easy, Ray. I didn't mean anything by it. I just can't stand by and let this boy from the city come down here and sell on the American Dream. No way. We're damned lucky to have what we have around here in this part of country. Things are quiet and stable. We're trading and living pretty well by most standards that matter. It isn't like Mr. Grover's going to get the televisions back on or open a fast food chain in town."
I stopped for a moment. Everybody was looking at me. Even Grover and his man. I had to finish. "I've seen more than my share of the promises of other men, men of power leading what was left of the Army through our town, burning up precious gasoline to do it. I've heard enough of the big words, the fancy speeches, to last me the rest of whatever life I manage to live. I had a son lost in the Texan War and a wife ate up by cancer--the kind that was easily treatable when we were young and before men like you squandered the chance to set things right. You talk about trying to gather men from all the states and talk about uniting again, breathing some meaning back into the country so we can all sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner' during a Sunday baseball game. What sort of dreams are you dishing up, Mr. Grover? Tell me that!"
"Now Jim, I understand what you've lost. You know I do," said Mayor Johns. "But, please, hear him out. I think it is worth at least a listen."
"Sorry, Bill. I better be on my way. I'll see you at the town meeting tomorrow."
Without another word, I left. A glance back confirmed that Grover was watching me go, a frown on his face.
The rest of day I busied myself overseeing one task or another, checking on the progress of different projects that were attempting to make the town more resilient and self-sufficient. More garden beds were being tilled and the younger people like Seth Clark were tending the town's produce. Food production became essential once trucking had been disrupted. It had been a long, hard battle to get people to change their ways. People kept expecting the supermarkets to get restocked someday. Skills were still being relearned; older ways of farming and dealing with livestock were being rediscovered by a new generation. They were the sorts of measures that I had been a strong advocate of in the early days once I realized the direction the nation was sliding in. Grover didn't seem to understand the stakes in times like these. It was about taking care of the people and the land right there. I still believed in that kind of hope. There was a future as long as we didn't get bound up in big politics or try to resurrect the ghosts of the past.
I was worn out by the time the sun was low in the western sky. I had pushed myself too hard, letting anger at Grover and his pretty words burn through me. I soon found myself hobbling back to my small house. Moira Wilson would be there cooking me dinner. The woman had taken to the habit several months ago—despite my protests. Of course, I admit I found it nice to have some cook for me. Jess always enjoyed concocting these sumptuous feasts for David and I. She had been a wizard in the kitchen. I missed her. I missed my boy too.
Sure enough, Moira was waiting at the front door. Her easy smile soothed my mind enough so I could grin back. "Good evening Moira."
"Get in here, Bill, you look like you're ready to fall down now. Bet you were doing too much out there again. You are not a young man anymore. Let the boys take it now. They know what to do."
"Humph. Well, there's fat chance of me hanging it up yet. So what's on the menu for tonight?"
I could smell something delicious cooking on the cook stove.
"I got a bit of beef from Don Cash. He'd just slaughtered some cattle he bought from Matt O'Brien a few days ago. I've cooked a beef roast with potatoes and the other veggies Seth brought you this morning."
"It smells wonderful, Moira. Thank you, hon."
"You don't need to say it, Bill. You need somebody to keep you fed and help you around the house. So I'm here."
I laughed. "Fair enough. Enough talking. I'm ready to dig in."
*   *   *
The church bell resounded across town, but sitting inside the old building, I thought it seemed muted or dull. I had woken early and did some work in my herb garden before walking to the church for the weekly meeting. Every Saturday Mayor Johns and the other members of the council met together and held an open discussion of things pertaining to the welfare of the town. It was one of the better decisions I had taken a part in, at least at the beginning. I served on the council for five years but decided to sit it out this year. Of course, this didn't stop the others from asking my opinions on matters. Age, did have some perks. Since the changes took root throughout the country, the younger generations looked to us for wisdom. It was quite a switch from when I was young when the old were routinely carted away and put in homes until they succumbed to disease or old age.
I waited like the others. I was sure Bill Johns would speak for a minute or two before giving Mitchell Grover the platform. On the opposite side of the room, the two of them had their heads together. Probably discussing that very thing. Maybe I should leave and do some hoeing in my garden. Would be better than listening to Grover's 'pie-in-the-sky spiel.' I'd had my fill yesterday.
For several more minutes nothing happened. There was a low buzz of conversation hovering over the church auditorium. Ray joined the little powwow. Both he and Bill glanced my direction before Ray walked my direction. I waited for him to approach before I said anything. Ray tipped his hat, and tucked his thumbs behind his belt.
"Bob," he said.
"What's up, Ray?"
Well, Bill and I want you to take the stage and have a bit of a debate with Mister Grover. Groves welcomes the chance for your air your opinions. He respects your wisdom and hopes you'll be cool with that. More or less."
I wanted to say 'no' and just walk out but other people were glancing between Grover and me. They knew something was up and were probably looking to me for an example. Damn it.
I nodded. "Yes, that'll work. You want me to go ahead."
Ray grinned. "Yeah Bob, that'd be great." He held out his hand and I took it. The sheriff helped me up and I followed him towards the steps. Bill and Grover shook hands and the politician followed the mayor onto the platform from the opposite side. I heard the murmurs among the people but tried to focus on what I would need to say. I remember being decent in debate back in school, but had been a long time ago.
Grover and I met in the middle with Bill between us. The mayor turned to look into the audience. "I want to thank everybody for coming. This is a real important part of our town regulations. We believe in democracy here and do our level best to keep things fair and square. The meeting allows us all the chance to voice our concerns and opinions on just about anything we feel might affect the community." Bill cleared his throat and continued. "As many of you know, we have a visitor from the state government in Springfield. Mister Mitchell Grover comes here to talk about a coming convention that has been called by the other leaders in the remaining states. He wants to tell us what they hope to accomplish there and also to lend our support in the work of rebuilding the United States of America. Also, our own Bob Harris will be sharing his own concerns about this news. We'll be having an honest debate here today folks. Please keep it down and remain respectful. There will be a chance for questions at the end. Thank you."
Bill stepped aside and Mitchell Grover came to the podium. "Thank you Mayor Johns. I'm delighted to be here in your lovely town. You have much to be proud of. You've accomplished a great deal and are doing very well on your own. The governor of the great state of Illinois charged me with a simple duty. I was to spread the news that we were raising the flag of our beloved United States once again. As I said, there is much that is praiseworthy in your efforts at self-sufficiency. You have done well making use of local resources and have contributed to the building of a reliable trade network with neighboring communities, reestablishing ties across Illinois and even into Indiana. But is it enough in the long term?"
Grover adjusted his jacket, grabbing the lapels. "I know what we've suffered, what America has went through these last several years. I was not immune to the struggles, the war, the starvation, or the disease that killed so many of our fellow Americans. The country groaned and final succumbed to a thousand tiny wounds. But she still breathes, I tell you. There life left, a chance to start over and not make the same mistakes made by our forefathers. We know the time of great industrialism is over. By and large, the cars no longer traverse those ruined highways some of us who are older may have traveled on family vacations as children."
I listened to Grover speak. He was an eloquent man. I was moved by memories of the times when we had so much and thought we would never lose it. America was the center of the universe, or so we told ourselves. There was no way we would suffer the same weaknesses that undermined the empires of ancient times. We were not Rome. We were not the Mayans in their forested temples. We were the greatest country on the face of the earth. 'A city on a hill' as one President said in my grandfather's days shining the light of freedom and democracy around the world.
Grover's next words pulled me back.
"Like Doctor King said nearly one hundred years ago, I have a dream friends. In this time, my dream is one of a new America, a wiser America rising from the ashes of its own destruction and foolishness, a country were we can once again stand up what is a much bigger world again. Technology failed us. We put our faith in a false god. I can see that clearer today than ever before. Bob Harris reminded me yesterday of the empty promises of former days made by politicians whose goals and aims were not the same of those they represented."
"Whatever we might call the American Dream today, it must be one governed by the laws of nature, those laws mankind ignored to their peril. My words are not merely my own, friends. Your governor believes them as surely as I do. Today our concerns are more modest. We need to safety and the prospects for some advantage in life. Will it be the endless wealth and progress we had before? No, not all. We'll have to work hard to deserve it, but we can't work on it separately. Those who wish to reunite do so because they know that as the United States we are stronger, and more secure than if we remain apart. That is why I came here. That is why countless others have been sent abroad to spread the news. A new constitutional convention will be held in Springfield, the home of that great president Abraham Lincoln."
The crowd burst into spontaneous applause. I waited. Grover waved them down. "Please, folks. Please. I know some of you are skeptical. I talk of things that I call 'American Exceptionalism.' Now that meant something else once upon a time. But, I reclaim it for today, in this new world of constraint and limits. We, we can be an exceptional people again. We can survive and thrive once more provided we remember the sins of the past. I want to thank you for the chance to speak with all of you. No, I would like to hear from Mister Harris."
Grover pointed to me and came closer to shake my hand. He leaned in. "I do respect your opinions, sir. I hope you can respect mine and give them some thought too. Thank you." With that, Grover left the platform and took a seat beside Ray and Bill.
It was my turn to speak.
"Thank you Mister Grover for your words. And thank you Mayor Johns for asking for mine." I looked out at the townspeople. They were friends and had become more than that in some case. I caught a glimpse of Moira standing towards the back. Yes, definitely more than that. "I have to say, that your words were not what I expected, Mister Grover. I've done a lot of living. I've seen the kind of changes wrought by the foolish beliefs of governments and regular folk alike. I saw the lies come to light and how we all suffered. I hated everything the United States had become and didn't care much when people stopped mentioning it when we were all fighting to survive without all of the conveniences we once had. It was awful and I'm damned thankful to God or whomever might be watching out for us up there deemed to let us hang on through famine, drought, and terrible winters after the grids went down."
"Amen," someone said.
"Mister Grover. I can see the vision you have far clearer now. I know that you and those back in Springfield have an understanding the stakes. I don't know whether you'll make things happen the way you hope at that constitutional convention, but if what you're telling us is the honest truth, then I could get behind that. I still believe we're Americans. I haven't lost sight of that. Maybe, just maybe, we could have a second chance."
The applause swelled and filled the auditorium again. Women and some of the older guys like me were tearing up.
"Hope's something I haven't had a lot of since my wife and my son died. Ah, but Grover, you've shook up something today, didn't you?"
I started laughing and others did the same. It felt damn good to laugh again.
Grover stood up. "Mister Harris. I have something to ask you." He turned so those sitting in the chairs behind could see him. "As a representative for the great state of Illinois, I formally ask you to come to Springfield as a delegate. Would you be interested in that, sir? I want people back there to hear what you have to say."
I didn't know what to say. Or did I?
The eyes of my community were all upon me.
"Come on, Bob! Go for it!" said Ray Miller.
"You can do it, Mister Harris," said Seth Clark.
Others added their encouragement. Then I found Moira's face again. I looked at her for what seemed like a lot longer. She smiled and then nodded. She mouthed the words, 'Yes.'
I looked back down at Grover. "Mister Grover, I accept your invitation."
Shouting, clapping, and boot stomping filled that old church with quite the racket. Seemed like I had made one of the most important decisions of my life. I hope I can meet the challenge.

Copyright © 2012, 2021 Shaun Kilgore
Published by Founders House Publishing, LLC
All Rights Reserved.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Free Fiction Friday: The Shaldar's Pride

Drawn into a battle he had not sought, Fendreg, the Warrior of Senagra, lends his fighting skills to aid the plight of nomadic Kelvana against the deadly encroachments of the Shaldar. Bringing his knowledge to bear, the pilgrim warrior leads scores of the Kelvana against their enemies. Will they triumph?

“The Shaldar’s Pride,” by Shaun Kilgore, is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as an ebook here.

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The Shaldar’s Pride
Shaun Kilgore


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Friday, February 12, 2021

Free Fiction Friday: Not A Chance

It is not a Merry Christmas for Benny Corelli. He is facing the wrath of a mob boss who wants him to pay his debt. Benny has refused and now his has been targeted by strong arm, Tony Costello—who also happens to be a childhood friend. With his life threatened, Benny tries to get away from Tony, running through the snowy streets on Christmas Eve. What will Benny do?

Death to the Messenger by sci-fi and fantasy author Shaun Kilgore, is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as an eBook through various online retailers here

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Not A Chance
Shaun Kilgore


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