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Patient Zero — A Free Story

As we announced yesterday, my fellow co-conspirators Joseph Courtemanche and Joe Shaw are providing you with some free fiction during your COVID Captivity. Yesterday’s ABBA inspired story was delightful. Tomorrow Shaw picks up the slack. Today, it is me. I originally intended to update an older story for today’s submission, but yesterday I had an idea and in true flash fiction fashion I wrote it up last night and am sharing it with you today. Next week I will give you a much longer short story, but today is a ten minute read or less.

And remember, if you like what you read from me or the other Joe’s, we’d greatly appreciate it if you’d consider one of our books, but that is not a condition of reading this story. Patient Zero is absolutely free with no strings attached. Enjoy!

PATIENT ZERO

JAMIE D. GREENING

            It is hard for a man from Venus to look human. The higher gravity on the home planet makes them shorter than human beings while simultaneously causing their face to be distinctly more oblong.  The skin is also brighter because of the low oxygen levels and proximity to the sun. People from Venus who live on the southern hemisphere have a light orange color, almost the color of a tangerine while people from the northern hemisphere of Venus have a darker hue, closer to new leather, only more orange.

            Demosh Suffla was from the northern hemisphere, which made blending in among some human populations on Earth easier for him than his cousin who was from the southern hemisphere. His cousin, with his bright orange pigment could only visit places where it was cold. He had to wear clothing over his skin. Demosh could travel to warm climates, for his leather color was passable if he wore a hat and sunglasses.

            The sunglasses were vital, because Venutian eyes were red from the sulphur dioxide in their atmosphere.

            Demosh chose to spend his two weeks abroad on Earth. Most of his friend spent theirs in Alpha Centauri skiing the nitrogen slopes of Wentrali. Demosh wasn’t interested in skiing. He was interested in human culture. The first book he’d ever read as a young larva was The Earth Chronicles about explorers who colonize an apparently vacant earth but discover ghosts living in the ruins of ancient cities. He’d been hooked ever since. 

            His two weeks were almost over. He’d started in Italy and then toured the rest of Europe. He spent most of his time in Paris, and most of that with Parisian women. Now he was near the end, and he was about to cross the last thing off his list: Texas barbeque. 

            He researched this extensively, comparing the relative information about where the best barbeque was to be found. He opted for the rural, authentic setting of the Texas Hill Country rather than a posh urban eatery. Everyone who had been to Earth said the urban eateries were overrated. 

            He arrived in the small town an hour before sunset on his last day, which was the seventh day of September in the year 2019. The motion atomizer brought him out of phase in the town square near a large building with a clock on top. His travel guide labeled this a special kind of civic building called a courthouse where magistrates used laws no one understood to keep the population under control. Demosh recognized every culture on Earth had laws, but he didn’t quite understand how they worked. After having been here, he decided when he got home he would spend more time looking into this practice. The closest analogy he could find to his life on Venus was the Rule of Five which formed the basic organizing principle of society.

            He walked across the town square toward the object of his attention, the eatery called Smokin’ Bob’s Brisket. 

            The weather was warm, and the line formed outside. Demosh cued up. Soon he was standing in front of a large black drum filled with a variety of meats. It was hot. Smoke was in the air. The smell was intoxicating, unlike anything he’d ever experienced. His olfactory senses picked up each aroma; the wood, the flame, the fat from the animal, and the seasoning.

            “What’ll ya have?”

            Demosh hesitated, unsure. He mumbled “brisket.” 

            “How much?”

            Demosh raised his shoulders into a shrug, which was something he learned in Paris as a way to communicate he didn’t know what to do. Usually people decided for him when he did that. That is what the man holding the giant fork did. He cut a slab of meat and placed it on a tray, slathered it in sauce and pointed inside. Demosh knew enough to follow the directions, and he knew to pay. His research told him there would be something called ‘fixins’ inside. 

            After paying he helped himself to the fixins. He was disappointed that the fixins were only beans, onions, and something called a pepper. He’d never seen a pepper before, but he wasn’t excited about it. They looked like pickled slugs that grow under the rocks in Saturn’s rings. 

            The brisket melted in his mouth; and the tangy sauce electrified his senses like nothing else he’d ever tasted. He swore he’d come back to Earth again every year just to eat this meal. He was a fool for not spending the whole two weeks in Texas. He was not the first visiting Venutian to come to that conclusion, and he would not be the last. 

            His brisket came to an end too soon, and this saddened him. He decided to try the beans. He didn’t like them, which he didn’t think he would. The onions too, left a foul impression on him. The syrupy sweet tea helped him forget the awful flavor. It was then he noticed someone had sat beside him on his eating bench. 

            He was not surprised to see his father, who had arrived to take him home.

            “Time to go home, son.” His dad wore a cowboy hat. 

            “I know. But you really should try this thing called brisket before we go.” 

            “I don’t like human food, you know that. It does not agree with me. There is a kind of enzyme in it which blocks my effusion.” 

            Not wanting his trip to end, Demosh lingered. “Let me try this one more item, and then I’ll be ready.”

            “That is fair,” his father said.

            Demosh took one of the pepper slugs, which is how he thought of them in his mind, and wrapped it in a piece of white bread which was on the table. He pushed the whole thing into his mouth and started to chew. Within seconds the heat of the jalapeno burned his mouth and throat. He guzzled the sweet tea, but the fire continued to spread.

            “Poison,” Demosh gasped.

            His father laughed. He knew what had happened. “No, just a pepper. These people from this part of Earth like a little pain with their cuisine.”

            The pug nose on Demosh’s gourd of a face began to run, his red eyes became yellow as tears flowed down his cheeks. He coughed, and then he sneezed. 

            His dad stood up and said, “If you have had enough, it is time to go. We don’t want to miss the transit stream.” 

            He didn’t argue. The two travelers walked out of the barbeque joint and disappeared as the motion atomizer phased them from the black paved parking lot directly into their transport vehicle in high orbit above North America. 

            Back in the restaurant, a man named Simon ate his barbeque with his wife and in-laws. Unknown to him, a droplet of Venutian mucus had landed on his tray when Demosh sneezed. He ran his hand over that tray, and then two minutes later he wiped his own eyes as the pepper he ate caused it to water. Four days later Simon boarded a plane in Austin that would eventually lead him to Wuhan Province in China where he negotiated a deal for his company to purchase green and red plastic cups for various coffee companies back in the United States. 

            During the negotiations, he coughed a time or two and fought back the aches in his muscles which he was certain were from the long plane ride. But it wasn’t. It was from the common Venutian cold, which had never been loosed on Earth before. In time, it would be diagnosed as a novel strain of coronavirus.  

FEED ME

One of the things that I look forward to with our yearly excursion to the Empire of Texas are the foods that I miss so much.  There are many delightful foods in Washington—salmon, fish-n-chips, blackberries, apples, cherries, etc… but I still miss some of the favorites from my youth. 

Barbeque

As I’ve grown up I’ve learned to appreciate the subtleties of different kinds of barbeque; such as  pulled pork or the Carolina golden and the unique zang of Memphis style.  Yet, I am a Texas boy and barbeque to me means brisket, cooked over a slow smoky fire, rubbed (NOT SAUCED) with a unique mixture concocted by the pit-master.  It must be served with white bread, some type of bean, pickles, onions, and ice tea.  No plates, just butcher paper.

 Tex-Mex

I could call this one Mexican food, but that would offend my friends on the west coast where they cook up a variety of yummy Mexican food that I love also—like fish tacos or wet burritos.  My experience is that this ‘Cali-Mex’ is more citrusy, lemony, and fruity.  Mango would never pass muster for Tex-Mex.  Tex-Mex is chili con carne, guacamole, hot jalapenos, cilantro enriched salsa, and chili rellenos that will knock your socks off.  Tex-Mex has a bite that comes from an emphasis upon tomatoes and peppers and spicy meat.  Oh, and don’t forget to deep fry something.

Catfish

My desire for catfish, hush puppies, cole slaw, pickles and onions and tartar sauce is located in my East Texas childhood.  A ‘catfish fry’ is a social event as much as a food event in which family and friends gather around the deep fat fryer and enjoy yummy goodness.  Catfish is not my favorite fresh water fish, that would be large mouth bass.  Yet when deep-fried and paired with hush puppies and tartar sauce (and don’t forget the sweet tea) something magical happens.  The planets align, foes drop their swords, and world peace occurs—at least long enough to shovel in as many filets as possible.

Pittsburgh Hot Links

It is hard to describe the emotions, desire and longing that swell up within me when I think of these beautiful delights.  They are not for everyone, but they are, quite possibly, the best thing I have ever eaten in a restaurant, anywhere, period.  There is only one place I know to get them and that is JB’s Hotlinks in my hometown of Hughes Springs,Texas.  It is a sausage case filled with yummy, spicy sausage and then deep-fried.  I eat mine with chili, cheese, and onions on top and then squirt this outrageously insane good vinegary sauce on it then eat it with crackers.  The best drink pairing with this:  Cherry Coke.

They are called “Pittsburgh” hot links but I do not know if that is Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh,Texas.  I don’t care.  I just want more.  Everyone should make a pilgrimage at least once to go have some in their lifetime.

Yum Yum

Blue Bell Ice Cream

Blue Bell ice cream is simply the best in the world.  I like any of the vanilla flavors along with fresh Fredericksburg peaches.  Yum.  I haven’t had much of this because of the large amount of calories involved; but I have had my fix.

On the way home, back to good old Port Orchard, I think I will have to buy some Alka-Seltzer and update my workout routine.