Thumb War: My Short Story Of the Week

THUMB WAR

 

She took her seat at the round, wooden table and placed her elbow upon the vinyl pad. Gawking people of every financial tier surrounded her in the basement of a disreputable bar with rotten lighting. As she stared down her opponent, she flexed her fingers and thumb.

The man across from her looked like the plume of smoke after a volcanic eruption. Huge—pervasive—but shapeless. His hands, though … they were the biggest she’d ever seen. He could probably engulf her entire head in one of those things ….

An averaged sized woman, Hannah Cane had been winning tournaments for months. She eased her way onto the scene but quickly dominated with such efficiency that those who cared about the sport nicknamed her “The Machine.” She may have been the smallest competitor, but her intellect, improvisation, and unrelenting willpower put her over the top time and again.

The men didn’t understand how she did it. Most of them were former premier athletes. Once upon a time, some were even professional arm wrestlers. Injury, in one way or another, ruined their hopes and dreams. Their thumbs proved the only part of their body still pain-free. As athletes, they admired “The Machine’s” passion and brains, but those attributes shouldn’t have matched the fact that their thumbs were unilaterally bigger and exponentially stronger than her thumb.

Though clandestine, the underground thumb wrestling competitions paid well. The crowds loved to see their former sports idols up close and, to be honest, a little desperate. The audience betted big, and so the competitors won big. Hannah actually lived off her earnings. After she won the next match, she would be set for months.

The massive creature across from her had once been a lineman in the NFL—Virgil Dunn. He played for the Patriots. No one told her this; she recognized him. She remembered the game in which he got his arm torn out of its socket. Until her own injury, it had been the most gruesome thing she’d ever seen. The television cameras cut away as soon as it happened, but because she wielded a flag on the sidelines, she got an up close and personal view.

“Hey,” she said to him. “I’m Anna.” Of course, her name was not “Anna,” it was Hannah. She couldn’t risk using her legal name anymore.

“I don’t care about your name,” he growled.

The referee approached, which prompted the crowd to grow silent. He leveled both competitor’s hands, made them lock fingers, and then personally lifted the individual thumbs.

As Hannah expected, nothing struck the referee as unusual.

“Let’s a have clean match,” the referee said. “Remember, winner takes all. Must hold the opponent’s thumb down for a three-count. This is not a ‘best-of.’ Again, winner takes the purse upon the first pin.”

“Good luck, Virgil,” Hannah said.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the promoter droned into his microphone, “now is the final moment to place your bets! The match begins in ten seconds. If you’d like to place a final bet, I have assistants throughout the establishment. Are you ready, ref?”

“Ready!” the referee shouted. “Wrestlers!” he yelled. “Get ready!”

The referee paused a moment until both competitors nodded at him. He then shouted, “One! … Two! …Three! … Four! I declare a thumb war!”

º

Hannah studied the specs for weeks before she started tinkering with the prosthetic. With a degree in mechanical engineering and a searing rage at the indignity she suffered, it took all of her patience to review the apparatus thoroughly before attempting any sort of customization.

The doctors taught her the basics regarding the new appendage. They told her everything she needed to know in order to use it to its fullest potential; they gave her a list of items to troubleshoot should any malfunctions occur; they drilled her on how to keep the port clean for the thumb’s remote uplink to her brain. Though the titanium rod connecting the thumb to her hand could possibly get contaminated, the port leading to her somatosensory cortex posed the greatest likelihood of infection.

Once she felt as though she understood the device, she detached it from the rod, peeled back the synthetic skin, popped out the imitation muscle, and then got to work on the motors.

Her commanding officer warned her against doing any such thing—he knew her well. In private, he told her that the Marines were happy to pay for the experimental prosthetic, but if she altered it in any way, they were no longer responsible for the cost of upkeep—a price that would surpass millions of dollars during the course of her life.

She connected both the thumb and the remote sensor to her computer, picked up her tool as best she could with only four fingers, and then stared at the largest motor housed in the thumb’s base. It measured only ¼ of an inch. The motors in the middle and tip of the thumb were even smaller. Limitless opportunities abounded for her to screw this up in no time at all. The minute she touched those motors, the United States government was financially off the hook.

She whispered her favorite motto: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” before getting to work.

º

Hannah utilized her routine strategy against Virgil. She first avoided any contact at all with his thumb. This went on for several minutes. She learned early on that the longer she made a match last, the higher the bets tended to be at the next match. The audience grew to trust that she would always give them an exciting, lengthy bout, and so they placed their bets confidently.

Next, she let Virgil pin just the tip of her thumb in such a way that the slightest squirm would set her free. The crowd loved these escapes, and it typically bolstered her opponent’s confidence. She didn’t necessarily need them overconfident—she needed no mental advantage to secure a victory. The heartbreak in their eyes after being sure they had her beat, though … it never failed to make her heart flutter.

The crowd’s enthusiasm for the partial pins usually dictated how long she would let it go on. Once it seemed they tired of it, she would move the match into its third phase. This involved allowing her competitor three or four pins that would get all the way to the two-count before finally pinning him herself for the impossible win.

Of course, there was nothing “impossible” about it.

Her thumb, a prototype, looked and felt realistic in every way. The government would pay for it on behalf of the United State Marine Corps if Hannah agreed to be the test subject. After what happened, she considered it too good to be true. Of course, she obviously felt no obligation to the Marines or her government after the attack, and so she went underground the minute they turned their backs. They had a habit of doing that to her—turning their backs.

The prosthetic initially exerted the average amount of force consistent with a woman her size. The lab rats took into account her muscle mass, the length of the thumb—it involved a lot of calculations and calibrations. She quadrupled their settings. If she wanted to, she could thrust her thumb through a thin slab of concrete.

Pinning down anyone’s thumb offered no problem at all.

After beating Virgil, the crowd exploded. The promoter instantly handed her a cheap trophy and a lucrative check. Hannah flung the trophy at Virgil, tucked the check into her back pocket, and then started to weave her way through the crowd.

She noticed all of the cell phones recording her—a typical occurrence. This would necessitate the need to change her routine. If someone cared enough to study tape of her, they could figure out she’s doing the same thing every match. If suspected of cheating, this gravy train could come to an end.

“Hey!” Virgil yelled.

Hannah turned and faced him.

“You’re a fraud!”

º

Hannah responded to the three lieutenants cornering her, “I earned this fair and square, guys. No tricks. No alterations. No accommodations. I passed the course.” She tightened the towel around her.

“No way. There’s no way a woman could do it. They want the good publicity,” one of them said.

“Maybe,” Hannah agreed, “but I still passed the course. I’m going to be an infantry officer, and there’s nothing you boys can do about it.”

“The Marines have never had a female infantry officer,” another said.

“There’s a first time for everything,” Hannah replied. “If we’re being honest, you guys sound a little jealous. I take it you all didn’t pass.”

At the conclusion of her statement, one of the lieutenants shoved her against the wall. Hard. It didn’t hurt, but it told her they weren’t there only to talk.

“Look,” she said. “I just got out of the shower. I know I’m the only woman left, but this is still the female barracks. You guys can’t come in here without first announcing yourselves. You’ve broken protocol in a number of ways. I’m warning you—you need to leave. We can finish this in the field.”

“Maybe we should make sure you never make it to the field,” the other lieutenant said. “Be a shame if some kind of an injury got you discharged.”

Hannah narrowed her eyes before hissing, “Maybe you should stick your thumb up your ass.”

The lieutenant pulled out his knife as the other two pinned Hannah’s arms against the wall. Her towel came loose and fell to the floor.

“I think we’ll stick your thumb up your own ass,” he snarled.

º

The surrounding crowd silenced. Hannah sensed tension filling the air as Virgil approached her.

“I don’t know how you’re doing it,” Virgil said. “But you’re cheating.”

Hannah noticed a few guys she’d pinned in previous rounds appearing behind Virgil. It looked like they’d been comparing notes.

“It’s all in the technique, guys,” Hannah said.

“No woman—or man—has a thumb that strong,” Virgil replied.

“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?” Hannah said with a laugh.

The promoter got between them while outstretching his arms. He tried to make it look like he addressed the crowd, but everyone understood he actually spoke to the thumb wrestlers. He said, “Winner takes all, folks. No questions asked.”

“Oh, I’m asking questions, Jack,” Virgil seethed. “No way a little girl like this could out-muscle us.”

Hannah smirked before saying, “First of all—that’s belittling and I take offense. Secondly, I’m hardly out-muscling you. We’re talking about thumbs, here.”

“I want that money,” Virgil said. “And I’m going to split it with the other guys you cheated.”

The crowd collectively gasped. They were in for an even better show than they anticipated.

“No!” the promoter shouted. “This is not happening. The cops have looked the other way, but this could shut us down. No fighting—especially with a woman!”

Hannah walked up to the promoter, placed her hand on his shoulder, and said, “It’s cool, Jack. How about this, though? Let’s give the people a chance to place their bets. Winner takes fifty-percent of your profit.” She next turned to the spectators before thundering, “Sound good to you, folks?”

They roared their approval.

“What about it, Virgil?” Hannah asked. “Me against you and your two friends. Think you can take me?”

“Damn straight,” Virgil uttered.

“Jack?” Hannah asked the promoter. “You down? I hope you say ‘yes’—I could use the extra money.”

The promoter saw Hannah wink at him and his nerves disappeared. He’d never seen such confidence in a person. “What the hell? Let’s do it. Place your bets!”

Hannah immediately started loosening up. She jumped in place while jabbing her arms around. All the while, her discerning eye assessed the enemy.

To escape any suspicions, she’d have to avoid using the prosthetic.

Shouldn’t be a problem. After all, she took down three Marines without a thumb.


Copyright © 2018 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental to the story

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.

 

Faces Unknown: My Short Story Of the Week

FACES UNKNOWN

 

Lois sat in her room, surrounded by such delightful company!  

It was a small space, so most of them stood. With the ease of a skilled debutante, Lois moved in and out of conversations with her visitors, careful to never end a discussion until her conversationalist had sparked a new dialogue with someone else. The space buzzed with adults’ hearty, jocular banter. The lone child among them sat in one of the two available chairs—the other chair still empty—remaining silent and appearing quite agitated.  

Between idle chit-chat with her company, Lois looked at the pouting little girl and said, “I promise, just as soon as they leave, we’ll go out and have fun. I love to play just as much as you do, remember? But we mustn’t be rude to our friends.” 

Just then, a set of knuckles gently rapped upon Lois’ door.

“Come in,” Lois sang over the drone of her gathering.

A woman far older than any of Lois’ other visitors and who looked to be well past seventy entered the room, saying, “Hello, Lois. How are you today?”

“I’m marvelous, thank you for asking! Please, don’t mind the crowd; come in and take a seat.”

With a slight look of discomfort upon her face, the new guest made her way to the nearest chair and began to sit.

“Oh, no! Not there!” Lois called out, losing her composure. “You don’t want to sit on my little friend, do you? Please, use the other chair, the empty one.”

The woman, seemingly mortified, quickly planted herself in the other chair. Lois realized the room had gone silent. She looked to everyone and said, “Now, it was an honest mistake! No harm, no foul!” Lois smiled when the din of chatter promptly resumed.

“So,” Lois initiated, “do you know everyone here? I’d be happy to introduce you to whomever you wish.”

The visitor’s eyes darted away from Lois before she said, “I’m afraid I don’t know who’s with you at the moment.”

“Not to worry, dear. I’m happy to help with faces unknown. For instance, if you look over your shoulder, you’ll see Max Beasley. Can you believe he asks me to marry him nearly every time he visits? I’m not sure how much longer I can keep him at bay.  Though he wouldn’t be such a bad catch, you know. His father owns the corner gas station. Gasoline seems to be a lucrative industry.”

Looking over her shoulder, the most recent guest again returned her gaze to Lois and said, “I knew a man by the name of Max Beasley once, but he was much older than the person you’re describing.”

“Oh?” Lois mused. “Perhaps the person you know is a relative or something. Maybe that’s where Max got his name. I’ll have to ask him later.” Lois then said, “What about Captain Marlow over there? I’m sure you’d love his tales of navigating the Congo River. He keeps promising to ferry me one day himself, but I have such motion sickness, I don’t believe I could stand it! I’ve never been one for nautical travel.”

“Actually,” the woman said, “I came to see you, Lois.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

Lois, in a display of uncommon anxiety, wrung her hands. She studied the woman as politely as possible, then, after a defeated sigh, said, “My dear, I’m afraid I simply can’t place your face. Have we met?”

“Several times. But, please, don’t worry about it. My name is Angelica Black.”

Angelica reached out her hand and Lois shook it with a bright smile.  

“Do you hear that, Angie?” Lois asked as she addressed the little girl, lower lip still protruding. “This nice woman has the same name as you! What an interesting coincidence.”

Angelica mustered all her strength and offered a soft, amiable laugh.

“Angie and I were just getting ready, once our guests leave, to go play at Shallow Creek. Do you know it?”

“I know it like an old friend,” Angelica replied.

Lois and Angelica discussed Shallow Creek, as well as many other local areas of adventurous interests, at great length. Lois had to frequently remind Angie to remain patient, they would be on their way to play soon, but Angie, judging by Lois’ reactions, grew more and more impetuous.

Finally, feeling that she had asked more from a little girl than anyone should, Lois genially requested her guests return at a later time, that she had neglected Angie for far too long, and, in truth, Lois was just as itchy to splash in Shallow Creek’s waters as was her young friend.

Lois stood to escort her callers from out her room, and Angelica lingered so as to be the last to leave—discounting Angie, of course.

Finally, once satisfied everyone else had gone, Lois warmly waved her arm in a gesture for Angelica to also exit.  

Angelica said, “You must love your time at Shallow Creek.”

“Oh, I do,” Lois said. “But it’s really Angie’s company I value so. She’s the best friend I’ve ever had, to be quite honest. The age discrepancy is really no matter. I can always be myself around her, and she never belittles my extravagances. I thank God I have her in my life.”

“I’m sure she’s just as thankful for you, Lois,” Angelica said with her eyes threatening to overflow.

Lois furrowed her brow as though slightly confused, cordially smiled, and then Angelica watched as her lifelong friend closed the door to an empty room.

“Hello, Mrs. Black,” Nurse Nash greeted as Angelica walked by. “My shift just started, and I haven’t yet seen Mrs. Beasley. How is she today?”

Angelica, her cheeks wet, returned, “Lois is with her best friend. She couldn’t be happier.”

A Note From the Author: This story is of particular significance to me as it was inspired by the struggles with dementia my maternal grandmother experienced for the better part of ten years. I often find myself thinking about those intangible visitors she received as well as the obvious happiness they brought her.


Copyright © 2008/2020 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. . This story first appeared in the September 2008 issue of News and Views For the Young at Heart.

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.

Besieged: My Short Story Of the Week

Besieged

 

The small object hit his roof with such force that it crashed right through before slamming into the kitchen floor. He screamed in terror while jumping from his couch and running to survey the damage.

His dog began to bark incessantly.

After reaching the kitchen, he peered through the hole in his ceiling to see the blue sky.

An airport resided nearby that sent planes over his house all day and night. He studied the little crater embedded within his linoleum and presumed he would find an errant bolt or some such thing.

The dog continued barking.

He did not perceive a bolt within the smoking hole, but rather a spider. This wasn’t a spider he recognized, however, and because it scurried on ten legs, he couldn’t even be sure it was a spider at all. However, it disgusted him as all spiders do, and so as soon as it left the pockmark and approached him, he stomped on it.

When he lifted his foot, he saw not one spider, but two.

The dog’s barking intensified.

The two spiders darted toward him. He assumed one of them had been attached to the other before his initial strike. They must have somehow distributed the impact. He brought his foot down upon both of them at once. He pushed hard while twisting and turning to pulverize them.

When he withdrew, four spiders appeared.

Still barking, his dog tried to attack them, but they avoided his teeth and scampered onto his back. The dog yelped, raced to the unlatched screen door, and then burst out into the open air.

He intended to chase his dog outside in order to help it, but two of the remaining spiders blocked his path. He hopped over them and dashed to the screen door. When he reached it, he saw his neighbor bent over the dog and brushing it as though trying to flick away the spiders. Suddenly, the neighbor stood and flailed her arm around. He perceived several specks—the spiders—stuck to her.

His eyes next fell upon his dog. It laid motionless on the front lawn and looked as though it had been … deflated.

A faint pricking sensation agitated his ankle. His eyes bulged when he saw a spider fastened to it. His leg grew numb even as the spider doubled in size, then tripled. The swelling continued until it exploded. Two new spiders emerged and dug into his skin. He stumbled backwards before falling into the corner near his screen door. Through it, he saw his neighbor laying prone, emaciated, next to the dog.

Before he could pull them off, those two spiders burst into four, which soon became eight, which next produced sixteen.

A year later, a single spider remained still in an open field of wilted vegetation. Several hours elapsed, but with each passing moment, a sheath formed around the spider. This resulted in an imperfect, impenetrable orb. Three other spiders did the same at different locations across the planet.

Soon millions of spiders surrounded the orb. Multitudes scuttled beneath it, lifting it from the ground. Others formed a cylinder around it. As the spiders climbed atop each other, the column grew taller and taller. The encased spider elevated as well due to the mound swelling under it.

At last, the monolith ceased its ascent. The human eye could not have perceived the top of the configuration due to its sheer height.

Total silence surrounded the tower. Though it gave not the slightest sign of falling, the surface of the structure trembled as the spiders fought to remain interlocked.

In perfect tandem, the spiders comprising the cylinder’s base combusted. Each and every spider throughout the conduit exploded just as the spider beneath it did the same, which created an upward thrust that propelled the protected spider beyond the planet’s atmosphere.

The three cocoons at the other sites also escaped gravity.

Leaving behind a planet devoid of humanity, they each rocketed into space with a different trajectory.


Copyright © 2019 by Scott William Foley

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.