Poof!

by Mark Griswold

The young reporter was being put to sleep by the event he was covering. He was kept awake only by a soda from a handy vending machine. When the reporter first started working for the city's largest newspaper, the Herald, he had imagined himself writing stories of profound importance. Stories which would quickly thrust him into the limelight as one of the up and coming luminaries of journalism. It took natural disasters, sensational murders, juicy political scandals and high-level corruption to turn anonymous pool reporters with no bylines into household names. Those were the things he wanted to write about, not boring dog shows, insipid shopping-mall openings and tedious charity parties. But these were exactly the events he was covering as the newest member of the paper's staff. Even worse, his editor always launched him on each inane assignment with a hearty, "Welcome to journalism, kid! Time to pay your dues!"

The reporter shook his head. Someday he would stumble onto something really big and then-- He cut off the thought. No reason to get angry, he reasoned. All he could do now was bide his time, ride out the banal assignments and hone his art until the proper moment came. Because sooner or later, it would be his turn.

"Death Speaks" copyright Duncan Long

But not tonight. He sighed as he looked around the seedy gym crowded with booths. A high-school science fair was in full swing. Could he sink any lower? The only bright spot was that the governor was supposed to make a brief appearance later in the evening to award the first-prize ribbon to the happy winner. The reporter hoped he could manage a brief word with the man and get a good quote on an important topic to salvage his story. But only if he could bull his way past the PR flacks! The reporter crushed the empty soda-can and pitched it into a box of dirty sweatshirts. Then he went to work.

"Did anybody help you with this?" It was one of the few questions he could think of to ask the contestants. He had used it over and over again in the last hour, aware that it made him sound like a judge.

"A typically chauvinistic response to a woman's achievement." The speaker was a thin girl with big glasses. Her project, labeled in huge letters across a large banner, was entitled, "Backward Speech in Audio Recordings of Romance Novels, Coincidence or Oppression?" The booth looked like a professional studio. Strange noises came out of a pair of massive speakers.

The girl then shrugged. "Well, I guess my mother did." She grabbed the reporter's arm. "You should put her in your story, too. She's championed this issue for years as an activist with the--"

"Indeed," he said before the girl could finish, pretending to make notes on his pad. He quickly pulled free and moved to the next booth before he gagged. At least its creator did not appear to be as obnoxious. He was a fat, pimply-faced boy who slouched in a folding chair playing a hand-held video game, oblivious to everything around him.

His project consisted of one card table with an erector set upon it. The reporter studied the contraption, puzzled. A funnel full of tiny screws dropped its contents one-by-one onto an upward angled conveyor belt suspended beneath a model crane. Upon reaching the end of the conveyor, the screws simply fell several feet onto a metal plate, bounced in the air and--more often than not--rolled off of the table and onto the wooden deck of the gym. Dozens were under his feet. He had to watch his step, lest he slip. The infernal machine was powered by a battery-driven electric motor, apparently salvaged from a cheap toy.

A crudely-stenciled title on a pasteboard sign mounted at the back of the booth read, "A Dynamic Test Illustrating the Propensity of Small, Dropped Objects to Exit Normal Space-Time Under Nominal Conditions." The reporter snorted. He had gone to college for four years and then interned for another in a hick town to cover this idiocy? The boy responsible for the farce did not look up at the expression of disgust.

The reporter tried to decipher the felt-tip pen scrawl that covered the balance of the pasteboard beneath the title. The handwriting was atrocious. So was the text. It was a lot of gibberish about peak acceleration, mass density, integration times, loading spectra, incident angles, unsymmetrical pressure distribution and center of gravity. It all culminated in the most complex equation he had ever seen, full of Greek letters, numbers that were either point zero-zero-zero something or raised to the power of another, square roots, tangents, logarithms, dividing lines and brackets.

As best as he could make of the whole mess, when all of the factors were just right, a dropped screw--or any other small object--would be propelled into another dimension by a multitude of converging forces. The reporter laughed out loud at that. So, what was he supposed to do, just stand there for hours on end in front of this stupid doohickey until a screw bounced into the air and disappeared before his eyes? Plink! Poof!

The boy never looked up from his video game as the reporter kicked a swarm of loose screws back into the booth and stalked away. Kids today! He needed some air.

Outside, he greedily sucked down the evening breeze blowing across the athletic field behind the school. The gym had smelled like dirty socks. This assignment had to be rock bottom! What was he going to write about? The glowing future sure to be secured by today's youth? Ha! Then the reporter noticed an intimate couple strolling through the adjacent student parking lot.

The girl was obviously a student. She was wearing a cheerleader's outfit. The male--an older man--was most likely her father, picking her up after practice. But why were the two so lovey-dovey? And the man did look familiar. On a hunch, the reporter ducked into the shadows and watched the couple approach an idling limousine parked well away from the school.

Then it hit him. That man was the governor! The pair disappeared into the long, black car with the tinted windows. It didn't move. There was no doubt what they were doing in there. The reporter was dumbstruck. But only for a second. This was his chance! He would get a weekly column out of this, at least. If he had proof.

Photographs! The neighborhood bureau of the paper was only a few blocks away. He had to make a call and get a photographer on the spot, pronto, before the tryst concluded. But he had left his cell phone in his car parked out front in the teachers' lot and there was no time to retrieve it. The reporter raced around to the side of the school where the phone bank was located. Sliding to a stop, he yanked a receiver off of the hook and fished the last quarter out of his pocket. He attempted to jam it into the slot, but too much adrenaline caused him to miss the narrow opening. The coin rebounded off of the face of the telephone and flew through the air. The reporter clumsily lunged for the quarter, but muffed the catch. It hit the ground with a plink...*

Story copyright © 1999/2000 by Mark Griswold

Artwork "Death Speaks" copyright © 1999/2000 by Duncan Long <duncan@kansas.net>

 

 

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