by C.M. Lanning
Grease popped over the counter as I sat at the bar and waited for a breakfast that’d put my cholesterol one step closer to fatal levels. But I didn’t care. This was the same breakfast I ate every morning. It was what I knew and loved.
Shirley K’s Cafe sat at the south entrance to Jasper, an insignificant town of less than 500 sitting in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. The town was mainly accessible by Scenic Highway 7, and once drones replaced truckers, our traffic dropped significantly.
When drivers come into town from the south, they travel down a steep incline that seems to descend forever. And at last, just when drivers are about to give up faith on there being a town anywhere nearby, the road curves left and right a few times, revealing at last our sleepy little town.
The cafe sits on the right side in a little white wooden building with a century old Coca-Cola sign out front. A pollen-covered white sign with the words “Shirley K’s Cafe, Come on In!” sits over a tin roof covering the porch.
Outside sat a few self-rocking chairs for seniors that lacked the leg strength to rock themselves. They’d sit all day out in the hot humid air in silence, watching an occasional vehicle drive by. Though as gasoline restrictions work their way down the pipe, those vehicles are becoming a rarer sight.
Once in a while, they’d cough and mutter about the state of politics down in Little Rock or Washington. Nothing ever really changes, and if it does, it’s slow to come about.
Shirley K’s great-great granddaughter, the woman running this cafe and doing her very best to keep it from dying like Ozark Cafe did a few blocks over, faced much scrutiny from decades of loyal customers when she replaced the old wooden rocking chairs with the mechanical ones. It didn’t matter she kept the cushions; they were angry. Until eventually one foolhardy old man by the name of Christopher Wait II dared to try a chair.
Cautiously, he positioned his wrinkled rump on the 120-year-old cushion and let the chair adjust to his weight. As it rocked slowly into a comfortable monotonous rhythm for him, detecting his heart rate and oxytocin levels, Chris muttered to the members of the Geezer Breakfast Club that it was. . . perhaps not as evil a chair as he believed it to be.
I watched as Robin fixed my eggs, her short red hair up in a net. The hashbrowns and bacon were already sitting on a biodegradable plate made from leaves. Steam rose from them and wafted toward my nostrils and made my mouth water.
It didn’t matter that this was the 7,000th time I’d eaten this meal. My body hungered for it; the stability and familiarity were drugs I couldn’t pass over. And given that three out of four people in Newton County were addicted to methamphetamine, I figured my drugs weren’t that bad.
Behind me, the Geezer Breakfast Club sipped their coffee. Breakfast finished by 5:45 a.m. for them. One flipped through the Newton County Gazette, a weekly paper. Yes, that’s right, our town still gets its information from ink on recycled paper in the year 2098. He suddenly flopped down on the table dead, but his friends didn’t even blink. Then, a low hum vibrated from his chest as his heart unit rebooted and brought him back to life.
“Third damn time this week,” he gasped, smoothing out the wrinkled newsprint.
Robin put a biscuit on my plate with the eggs on a separate saucer and sat them both in front of me, but not before drenching the bacon, hashbrowns and biscuit in sausage gravy.
“Thanks, babe,” I muttered, adding salt and pepper to my five-star breakfast.
“No problem, hon,” Robin said, topping off my soy milk.
Robin looked at her nails, and I saw her concentrate for a moment, as I had seen her do so many times before. The implants at the tip of her fingers glowed blue for a second before her nails changed from a forest green color to a sky blue with silver sparkles.
I was one of the last children to grow up drinking the good stuff before mad cow type two killed most of the population. Now there are only a few of the majestic milk producing beasts left in zoos scattered along the east coast. God I missed moo juice.
“What time will you be home tonight?” Robin asked.
I looked up at her mid-chew with my mouth open before muttering, “You’re not coming to watch me?”
Robin shook her head sadly before explaining Charlie got sick and could no longer cover her shift.
“We both know how badly I need this shift tonight anyway. I’ll get my credits deposited at 9 p.m. after Rachel does payroll, and I’ll rush to the kiosk to pay our rent,” Robin said.
I sighed, not having the guts to tell her we wouldn’t be able to make rent tonight. That’d require my paycheck from last week to be at home under the mattress, and I knew it wasn’t.
But Robin wasn’t stupid. She was a master of reading people, and even if I didn’t say anything after her rent comment, Robin knew.
“What’d you buy this time?”
I looked at her, finishing my biscuit and sighing, sending crumbs flying across the counter. She scowled.
There wasn’t any use in lying to her. No matter how I tried, she didn’t need upgrades to see through my fibs. That’s what a decade of marriage breeds, confidence in reading your spouse like a bold-font tablet.
I reached into my overall pockets and pulled out a small square box that sat in the palm of my hand.
Opening the top, I revealed a black-market ocular implant that I planned to have in my left eye socket by this afternoon. The polymer eyeball sat in a thin linen wrapper and gleamed in the blue hyper lights above.
Closing the box, I put it back in my overalls pocket. Robin was patient and waited until then to slap me. She wanted to hit me for blowing our rent money, but my wife wasn’t stupid enough to risk damaging the investment I’d made with it.
“Goddamn you, Skuzz! We’re already two days late on the rent. If it isn’t paid tonight, they’ll evict us tomorrow. And then where are we going to live? We’ve been thrown out of every other place in the county,” Robin said.
“This will help me win the match tonight, babe. I promise. And then we’ll pay Mrs. Johnson with my winnings first thing tomorrow morning,” I said.
Robin wasn’t going to cry. She might have the first few times I’d pulled this stunt, but we were long past that now.
My record was far from perfect, having won some matches and lost others. But if I won tonight, we’d have rent money, and I’d have a shot to go pro down in Little Rock at the tournament next Tuesday.
She shook her head and went back to push a button on the coffee maker. Two propellers activated on the coffee pot, and it flew around the room refilling various mugs it detected to be low.
Robin knew I was a risk taker. She knew that about me when I asked her to prom under the southern sky alight with the twinkles of a million diamonds. She knew that about me when she walked into the Newton County Courthouse and became my wife under a very moving, albeit brief by the books, ceremony from Judge Brooke Taylor.
It was perhaps what she loved and hated most about me, that I had the courage to take on giants, but only enough luck to fuel me to a win every now and then.
“Skuzzball” was a name everyone in Newton County was aware of. Did it have any fans or followers? Eh. It might, in the way one is a fan of Mr. Pibb if they’re thirsty enough with their eyes closed.
At 36, I was pushing the age bracket when I stepped into the ring. I wasn’t the strongest or fastest, but my tech was pretty impressive, and that’s what counted. If I did have fans, it’s because when I did win, it was a direct result of me pulling some trick out of my hat the other guy or girl didn’t see coming.
“With a prize fight of 3,700 credits and an invitation to Chokefest in Little Rock, we could finally have everything we’ve ever wanted after tonight,” I said, trying to woo Robin back over to my plate so I could kiss her hand.
She reluctantly walked over, and I kissed the back of her hand right above her tungsten wedding ring. Robin raised that same hand with mine to the side of my scraggly graying beard.
“Or you could get pulverized beyond your wildest dreams,” she said.
I smiled, admiring my devil’s advocate of a wife. And then I began to sing, as I often resorted to when she was upset with me.
Baby don’t you know I’m invincible?
You make me the strongest man alive.
Ozark Hills around me, you’re my sunshine.
Ain’t no other life I’d rather live under the blue sky.
Oh yes, you make me invincible, flying up, up so high.
By the chorus, I had Robin back on my side, as a smirk slowly turned into a predictable giggle.
No monster around can keep me down,
as I rise up from the ground.
That’s what it means to be invincible,
take a punch from anyone aroun’
I slid my right hand to my chest, and it clicked several times as I made a fist over my heart.
“We’re going to win tonight, babe. I’ll make a lot of money, and we’ll pay our rent. Then the two of us will hop into my old Trans Am, mozy down to Little Rock and take a bite out of those so-called professionals. They’ll be so impressed with me at the tournament that I’ll pick up a sponsor, and then we can go anywhere. Atlanta to Seattle, the sky’s the limit when my fights get broadcast on every Wavecom in the country,” I said.
Robin brought her other hand up to the side of my face and sighed asking, “Which eyeball is getting plucked this afternoon?”
“Which one do you want me to keep?” I asked.
“Your blue eye. I like it about 4% better than your brown eye,” Robin said, looking me over with her own pair of brown eyes.
“Will there be a scar?” she asked.
“Yeah. Why, does that turn you on?” I asked, smirking.
Robin scoffed and pointed to a horizontal scar on my left cheek. Then she ran her fingers over my left shoulder feeling for the chip that’d been there since a dull blade jetted out of a man’s hand at 40 mph and landed there about two years ago.
“You’ve made your point,” I muttered.
“What happens to your eye when you get that one implanted?” she asked.
“Doc keeps it in exchange for not charging me today,” I said.
Robin just shook her head, and I knew she wanted to tell me “be careful,” but she was keeping it inside because hearing those words usually made me angry.
Half an hour later I was driving into the big city of Harrison. . . well, it was a big city to me. The place had actually been growing steadily since the 2070s. The Techvira Industries plant I and many others worked at had attracted a population, and that population had attracted new businesses to cater to that population.
See, since we didn’t have truckers anymore, all one needed to start a factory was a sky above them for drones. Unless people were in one of the Appalachian Cave Cities that’d popped up over the last decade, any town could meet that criteria.
The Techvira plant had popped up about 15 years ago, offering a line of cable veins that connected advanced prosthetics to nerves for full movement that was every bit as efficient as the limb a patient had removed for the implant.
Implants started getting popular in the 2050s, but as with most new trends, Arkansans were skeptical and waited another decade or two before really buying in. That, and of course, most of us in the state needed prices to come down before we could afford them.
Now fishermen had reels in their arms, cotton farmers got neural implants so they could mentally command the drones working their fields with exact GPS coordinates, and models, well what few we had over in Bentonville, could change their hairstyle and color with a simple thought. It fascinated me to no end to watch advertisements where a beautiful woman with long hair could simply think, and the hair would braid itself behind her.
As my soon-to-be-illegal vehicle pulled into the southwest part of Harrison, I parked and walked over to a nondescript meat market that advertised to still sell real pork.
My sandals flopped on the concrete floor beneath me as I walked over to the only cash register. Various freezer boxers dotted the 30×30 feet retail space.
“What can I help you find?” an older woman smoking a cigarette asked without looking up from her nails, each of which broadcasted a different tiny soap opera.
Her eyes glowed, zoomed in to watch each screen.
“I’m looking for a chuck roast, but I’m picky about the cut,” I said.
“How picky are ya?”
“Picky enough to be a goddamn guitar player,” I replied.
I heard her foot tap something under the register, and one of the freezers on the far side of the room opened with a TSSSSSSSSSS as brisk air emptied into the store.
“You know the way,” she said, without meeting my gaze.
It was true; I did. This wasn’t my first time here. Doc Chun fitted my right arm for upgrades, and now he was set to do my right eye.
Walking into the freezer past a few hanging sausages, I came to another glass door beyond the sight of normal customers.
Opening it, I walked into a ten feet by ten feet room with a few red chairs against white walls. There was a thin plywood door separating this room from an operating room.
Doc Chun, a shorter man with an impressive thick black head of hair for an 89-year-old man sat scanning a glass tablet.
“Right on time, Skuzz,” the Korean doc said, scratching his chin.
He didn’t waste time asking if I was ready. Chun knew I wouldn’t be here if I had any hesitation. Most that found themselves in this sport had long ago given up their hesitation.
The doc led me into the operating room where a long black sterile bed covered in white paper hovered over a metal floor. The stench of alcohol and other cleaning chemicals hit my nostrils, and I wheezed.
I climbed onto the surprisingly sturdy bed and looked at the six surgical arms suspended above, each containing some sort of scalpel, clamp, saw, or drill.
Chun walked over to the bedside and said, “Scan patient.”
A glass eye on the ceiling ran a red laser over me and a computerized voice from above said, “Patient has 88% chance of surviving this operation.”
“That’s as good as it’s going to get, I suppose,” Chun muttered. “You understand I’m keeping your real eye, right?”
“Yes sir. And that covers the entire expense of this operation?”
“Yes. . . though not enough to administer the really good anesthetic,” Chun said.
“What the hell does that mean?”
The computerized voice above chimed in, “Chance of survival has been lowered to 75%.”
“Hey, relax. I’m only getting one eye out of this deal. Business is business,” Chun said.
“But I’m supplying the parts!” I protested.
“You’re free to take your business elsewhere. Besides, 75% is still probably better than you scored on your GED exam. You’ll be fine,” Chun said.
I muttered and reached into my pocket, handing him the box.
“I’m not happy about this,” I said.
“Computer, note patient’s aggravation on the operation records,” Chun said, unboxing the eye.
The voice from above said, “Frustration has been notated on the record as requested.”
Chun whistled as he sterilized the implant.
“How on Earth did a plant worker like you afford this beautiful little thing?” Chun asked.
“It’s defective. The power unit isn’t efficient, so it drains more energy from the host than normal,” I said.
“That could be deadly in your sport, sudden exhaustion,” Chun said.
“That’s why I had you implant that backup ion power orb under my right shoulder a few months ago, remember?” I asked.
“Playing the long con. That’s bold, Skuzz. You might actually stand a chance against Killshot tonight,” Chun said.
“That’s the plan,” I said.
“Here we go. Begin operation,” Chun said as the arms above came down toward my face. And as the drill bit spun up, a needle was sunk into my arm. The off-brand anesthetic inside was supposed to help, but I got the feeling it wouldn’t really.
As drill met flesh, I let out a piercing scream, the likes of which I’d never bellowed before.
There isn’t much entertainment available in Jasper. Gambling and alcohol are somehow still illegal in Newton County, which houses some of the last churches in the state.
But once a month, a prize fight is held out in Mustard Creek east of town.
It might just be the most backwoods operation in existence, but hundreds drive from all over the county to participate in the greatest show this side of the Ozarks.
There’s a cooking fire with a little lean-to where Chef Bubba sells roasted feral hog and his own brand of ‘shine in wooden tankards he carved himself. It’s really impressive.
There’s a clearing in the creek about 25 feet wide where the water depth ranges from eight feet to nearly bone dry. There’s plenty of moss covered logs in the water with large rocks to leap off of.
The creek is deep in the woods with only a gravel road to access it so the sheriff’s office can ignore our unruly sport. Sheriff Thorncroft turns her head because she knows if she attempted to shut it down, reelection wouldn’t go well.
There’s only one rule in the Newton Fighting League. . . try real hard not to kill the opponent. Wanna fight dirty? Go for it. There’s no such thing as an illegal implant. Hell, Old Man Caesar just shows up with a shotgun and aims for the legs. He’s one of the top contenders in the league with a 12-3 record. My own record was 10-7.
I walked down the familiar dirt path to the creek, still carrying a splitting headache from the operation. I kept my right eye closed so as not to activate the ocular implant.
A few people shook my hand before taking a seat in their rusty lawn chairs. Some people brought their dogs. I stepped down into the creek, feeling cold water come over my toes. As I stood there waiting, I spotted Killshot coming down the opposite way. He was wearing torn jeans and a white tank top. His hazel eyes were full of pent up aggression and revealed his eagerness to put this match in his winning column.
Five minutes later, a gunshot went off, and the match started. Killshot was seven feet tall and weighed 280 pounds. I was about six-foot-three and weighed 210 pounds, so the guy had a few advantages.
Killshot charged me and body slammed me back into one of the rocks as hundreds of people on the creek shores cheered. I rose and swore as adrenaline kicked into high gear.
The battle went on like that for a couple minutes, until I was coughing blood and hurting something fierce. He was big and mean, pounding me right good. I got in a couple punches with my right arm, just enough to let him know I was still breathing.
Killshot wasn’t undefeated, but his record was 14-2. The previous fighters who bested him were just bigger and meaner than he was. And that’s what most had to be to obtain victory in this sport. But not me.
My opponent picked me up by the neck and threw me out of the creek and onto the shore, where I landed face-down in the sand. Then he opened his mouth, and a gun barrel revealed itself, with a red laser aimed straight at my head. This is what gave my opponent his name.
And it was at this moment when he uttered, “Surrender,” as best he could with a gun in his mouth.
Fortunately for me, Killshot’s confidence level was at its highest, and he didn’t see this next trick coming.
I’d studied him for weeks, watching holograms of Killshot’s fights, analyzing his moves, and putting this plan together.
Three slits in my right arm opened, and a rush of fog quickly flew over the area, magnified by the creek water. Within seconds, Killshot and I were invisible to the audience. But most importantly, I was invisible to Killshot.
Once he got his wits about him, he fired the shot, but I was already gone.
I was pretty tired from the abuse I’d endured to boost Killshot’s confidence, but now was the time to act. I slammed an exact spot under my right shoulder with my left fist and felt warmth radiate throughout that part of my body. It was then I opened my right eye, and the new ocular implant came to life.
I felt the energy drain begin immediately, as I grew light headed, but the ion power orb would keep me conscious for another 30 seconds if my calculations were accurate.
“That’s a nice trick, hiding like a coward!” Killshot hollered.
With the ocular implant, I could see through the fog easily as the device combined sound waves, body heat, localized radar, and smell-o-vision to produce a picture of everything around me in my mind’s eye. The sensation was almost overpowering.
Killshot was looking around with fear on his face, about 15 feet away from me. Of course, with this thick fog, he could be two feet from me and not know my location.
A few members of the audience complained they’d paid to see a bloody combat ritual, and with my strategy, they weren’t getting that. One guy threw his tankard into the mist. It landed in the water behind Killshot and splashed, causing the fighter to immediately turn and fire in that direction.
A blue blinking indicator light flashing near my elbow told me the pulse cannon in my right arm was charged. With Killshot turned, I figured this opportunity was as good as any. I charged through the water just as he turned to face me.
I ducked in time to avoid his final shot and slammed my flattened palm into his chest, releasing the mental trigger on my right arm. Right as my palm made contact, a booming pulse blasted the fog away from us, and Killshot flew up through a tree top and smashed into a nearby boulder, falling belly first into the deep section of the creek. I did not attempt to help him up. A few men from the audience went in and fished him out as I closed my right eye, deactivating the ocular implant.
Killshot’s strategy was the same for every match. Dominate, dominate, dominate. The reason he lost tonight was because I realized every match is unique and needs a different strategy.
My opponent was still alive, but he was hauled off onto a stretcher and into a nearby truck. I imagined they were going to the hospital up in Harrison.
As I collected my winnings from Chef Bubba, he handed me a brown envelope with a disc inside. It contained my digital invitation to Chokefest 2098 and my ticket to the future.
Limping back to my vehicle, I met a few fans who again shook my hand and said they couldn’t wait to watch me in the tournament Tuesday on their Wavecom.
My car bounced down the dirt road, and I headed for the cafe.
Walking in with a bloody lip that revealed an impeccable smile upon seeing Robin, I sat at the bar.
She walked over, hands on hips and shook her head.
“What’ll it be, babe?” she asked softly.
“Slice of pie and coffee, please,” I said.
As Robin walked over to a glass case with a couple different suspended pie tins inside, she stopped the top one from rotating for a minute to cut my piece.
While I waited, I sang,
Jaybird singing in the willow tonight, chirping up a storm.
Sweet notes echo through the hollow as everyone hears his song.
Stars dot the evening sky as the jaybird continues to perform.
All is well. All is well. Party’s gonna last all night long.
C. M. Lanning is a transgender journalist in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She has been published in Nebo and Foliate Oak with dreams of one day becoming a published novelist.