Heart-warming stories?… …(…) … Er …

Not long ago, I discovered how much I enjoy presenting my work to an audience (thank you, Out Loud Santa Barbara!) and I’ve been looking for other ways to do that. So I was jazzed to hear about a call for submissions for a couple story-telling events. Except.

Heart-warming. They want heart-warming personal stories.

I did much wracking of ye olde brain to come up with some. Any. Still trying. Heart-warming isn’t a tag in my memory filing system. I’ve missed one submission deadline; maybe I can conjure some heart-warming in time for the 2nd.

Meanwhile, I happened upon the last notice for a contest that would close in hours. Write a 500 word story using a theme of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Why, I had just been ogling the fantastic woodcuts by Lynd Ward in my own hardcover edition… I’d never entered a writing contest before but this sounded like fun.

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A story made a quick ascent from the depths and I got it written and submitted with an hour to spare. I don’t know details of the contest (when they decide winners, are there prizes, blah blah); for me the event made a terrific writing prompt and now it is over. (Lately I’ve been trying to separate my writing from outcomes.)

Below is the story I came up with.

Heart-warming… heart-warming … … … hmm …

The Open Gates

Dear reader,

You are in danger! Unimaginable danger. Run. Hide. Now!

I don’t believe in God or luck, yet here I pray to both: let someone survive to find this warning. If one survives, then others might and perhaps those few can keep it alive. It. Us. The human race.

Stop reading this until you’re safe. Get away from other people. Look no one in the eye. Let no one get close. They need to be close to take you over.

The first irony. The only hope of saving what’s left of the human race is to isolate every survivor.

Here’s another. I did what I did for the good of humanity.

My ambition was always to make a lasting contribution. I would dedicate my extraordinary intellect to do science so important that my name would live forever. My focus was the human mind, a stimulating challenge. Despite centuries of scrutiny, understanding of consciousness remains elusive.

I happened upon an obscure study. In it, the author detailed a modestly clever experiment to locate consciousness. What was remarkable was that one subject died during the experiment and the researcher tracked consciousness — after death.

An absurd claim, yet something in it spoke truth to me. I couldn’t believe it but I couldn’t let it go. Eventually, I tracked down the author, retired from a third-rate academic career. I still cannot confirm whether he was collaborator as well as victim.

I was not trained to respect instinct, so I dismissed the uneasiness that swept me when he answered his door. I now know that feeling well. It is the first sign that a gate is open nearby.

Within each of us is a gate to a beyond. I have not determined whether that place is our afterlife, but it is a wild treacherous place we cannot enter or survive. We can only live with our gates locked tight.

His gate was ajar.

Horrible things wait on the other side. They wait to cross over and take us. They are — evil. I have never used that word except to describe them.

Get too close to an open gate and your gate opens, too. Another thing comes over, another human is lost.

The author had long been a recluse, struggling to lock his gate again. His efforts to warn me away used too much energy and attention. They took him while I observed. His eyes went blank, swiveled, discovered me with a flash of hungry curiosity.

They’re slow when they first come through. I ran away that day.

I’ve studied them ever since. I’ve slept too little and learned so much. But not enough. Their spread has accelerated. Suddenly they’re everywhere.

Some of us seem to be immune to them. Perhaps we can hide, repopulate, come back against them.

If only I had sounded an earlier alarm. Perhaps someone would have believed. I thought I could solve this problem without destroying my work, my reputation. Instead, I kept their secret.

Forgive me.

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The Gift of Joke-Telling

The ability to tell a great joke is a wonderful gift. I wish I had it. My problem is that I can never remember the damn joke. I remember who told it, how hard I laughed, where I was when I heard it, and tantalizing snippets of the set-up or the punchline. But never enough to tell the joke well. Just the other day, a friend told me a swell joke. It’s already slipping away so let me get it down quick.

A man inherited a parrot when his aunt died. The bird had been his aunt’s great joy and he felt responsible for keeping it, and keeping it healthy. However, it was an unruly and obnoxious bird that spewed expletives at guests and woke him every night with loud chatter. The man made many efforts to control the bird – he covered the cage, he relocated the cage, he offered treats and praise for good behavior, scolds for bad behavior. None of it worked. Finally, in desperation, he stuck the bird in the freezer for a brief time.

Much to the man’s surprise, the parrot emerged a changed bird: humble, chastened, polite.

“I’m sorry I had to do that to you,” the man told the bird. “I hope I never have to again.”

“Understood!” the parrot replied. “And might I ask …