2019-01-12 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Market

"There has to be more than one girl. It can't be the same one we saw here in the market years ago, she was so young," Taryn said.

Millr straightened some of the things on the shelves behind them. All of it antique. Radios, miscellaneous appliances, a few tools like drills and popular repair kits, manual typewriters, some cleaned up, early era electronics, eye glasses, and an array of worn, weathered boots. If you wanted a ReeL, which many people did, you had to ask, all of that was done in the back.

"I can't explain it, it's her though," Millr said.

"I'm not disagreeing with you," Taryn said.

"Maybe mothers and daughters? I'm at a loss to explain it. You remember her, at the market, with the bag, the what do you call it—"

"A seed fiddle. A newer kind of seed fiddle anyway," Taryn said.

"And there was a bounty on her," Millr said.

"I'm surprised she showed up here, everybody knew she was wanted," Taryn said, "maybe she needed to be seen."

"I'm even more surprised she showed up in a ReeL," Millr added.

"Where'd you get it from?" she asked.

"Usual place. That kid Willm. I guess he has a new source. He seemed excited about how much he could get for them," Millr said.

"There's more than one?" Taryn asked.

"Yeah, but I haven't brought it in yet, I wanted to see how the first one did to figure out if I could charge more," Millr said.

"And you haven't watched it yet?"

"Not yet," he said.

Millr and Taryn heard a large crash, then the descending clattering of objects settling. They stuck their heads out of the kiosk, looking down the lane which was crowded with shops on both sides. Deputies were hovering over the contents of several shelves of stuff from Mr Wlkrsun's place. The sheriff stood in front of Mr Wlkrsun, between him and the deputies, with his hands on his hips, his uniform a bit grubby, a bit ill fitting, his gun belt drooping drastically, held up perhaps only by stubbornness.

"They're early this month," Millr said.

Taryn groaned. "How much will it cost this time?" she said.

They could hear the sheriff progressing up the lane, small rustling, a few tense words but no more torn down shelves.

"Millr," the sheriff said as he and his deputies came to his kiosk, the last on the end, before they would proceed up the opposite lane.

"Dck," Millr said. He'd known Dck since high school. They didn't get along then, and they didn't now, however time and age siloed their dislike of each other into relatively moderate exchanges. Dck never addressed Taryn, this would've jeopardized this sufficiency.

"Governor's undies are in a twist," Dck said.

"Well ain't that sumptin," Millr said.

"There's a ReeL going around that has people worried. Inflammatory. Anti-Shrub," Dck declared.

"An illegal ReeL?" Millr said, mocking surprise.

"You wouldn't happen to know where something like that comes from, would you Millr?"

"No sir, I would not." Millr slid a billfold across the counter towards the sheriff. Dck reached out with familiarity and confidence, examining the contents of the wallet. A deputy behind him yawned.

"Good man. I can always count on you Millr," the sheriff said, removing the bills and stuffing them into his pocket. "But let's just say, if I was the kind of guy distributing stuff that gets the governor agitated, I'd probably try to avoid it and go back to selling Heckle."

"That's good advice," Millr said.

The sheriff gave Millr a final noncommittal glance then summoned his deputies with a lazy wave and moved around the corner.

"He's going to start asking for more," Taryn said.

"Yup," Millr said.

"Because of that ReeL," Taryn added.

Millr said, "If it wasn't that, it would be something else, he won't change."

That was it, he thought, people needed to see the ReeL because it would change them. He was sure of this, but without precisely understanding why. Instinct, he supposed.

"You're not going to stop selling them are you?"

"Nope," he said.

2019-01-02 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Popular

"You got any ham today?" Willm asked.

"Yup," the owner said.

"Ham and cheese sandwich. Mustard. No mayo," Willm said.

"Good, we're out of mayo," she replied.

Finally, what has it been, two months? Willm thought. As he waited for his sandwich he heard the door open behind him but he didn't look around. Two men sat down, one on either side of him. He knew one better than the other.

"Willm," Mrko said.

Mrko was only slightly older than Willm but he got the sense that Mrko had lived hard. Mrko ran one of the smaller ReeL teams.

"And you know my associate Lrz," Mrko said, gesturing to the large man on the opposite side of Willm. Lrz said nothing, he did not smile.

Willm looked around nervously.

"Don't worry, don't worry, no exchange of goods today. We would never do business here. This is more of a social visit," Mrko said.

"Oh?" Willm said. The owner of the diner put a plate with a ham sandwich on it down in front of him. He looked at the sandwich with regret.

"Yeah," said Mrko, "so how's the ReeL trade these days—you sell stuff to that guy at the market? Millr?"

"That's right, Millr," Willm said.

"Newest ReeL is popular, very popular I hear," Mrko said. He ran his finger down the five or six items on the menu in front of him.

"Oh yeah? Didn't know that," Willm said, glancing sideways at Lrz, who remained expressionless.

"That's the word. Problem is, from my point of view anyway, is that it's not one of ours," Mrko was grinning.

Willm felt uncomfortable. Lrz reached over and picked up half of Willm's sandwich. Willm didn't look but he could hear Lrz biting and chewing.

"Lrz is hungry I guess," Marko said offhandedly. "I'd love to meet this new ReeL maker, something this popular. There are probably a ton of things I could learn from them. Who did you get the ReeL from?"

"Bug," Willm said after a brief pause. He considered lying, but realized it was futile. Mrko would find out eventually, and if Willm lied he'd get a bad rep. Everybody knew what everybody else was up to.

"Bug," Mrko repeated.

"Yeah I'm guessing he knows the makers, he seems to know a lot of people," Willm said, glancing down at his plate.

"He does. We know Bug too," Mrko said. He tapped the menu absentmindedly. "Well, thanks Willm. We'll ask Bug about this rising star. There aren't many of us that do this, you know? We've got to stick together."

Mrko stood, slapping Willm on the back. Lrz stood, and placed unfinished crusts from the sandwich back onto Willm's plate.

"Lrz thanks you for lunch," Mrko said. "Alright Willm, we'll see you soon I'm sure, have got some great stuff in the pipeline."

"OK, see you," Willm said.

After they left he mechanically ate the remaining half sandwich and paid. The owner raised her eyebrows at him.

He knew that ReeL was something special, just like he told Millr. The price would go up, maybe a lot. He wondered if he could find Bug before Mrko did. He'd see if there were any more ReeLs, he didn't have any idea about how quickly these new makers worked. And he wondered what Mrko would do. He had resources, maybe he'd buy all the new ReeLs that he thought were competition and sit on them. Certainly wouldn't be the first time something like that happened. But this one was special. Willm couldn't explain it. He wanted everybody to see it. He didn't want these kinds of ReeLs to disappear. He didn't know why it was important, but it was important.

Outside the diner he sat on the stairs and retied his sneakers, securing the laces tightly.

2018-12-31 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Machines

Millr lowered the heavy, slatted wooden partitions over the two exposed sides of his kiosk, then secured them with several thick, weighty iron locks. He was lucky to have gotten this kiosk at the end of the block—a triangular space where the two major foot paths merged. He'd won the space in the lottery, and he'd won the lottery by a very generous payment to the man running the lottery. Business was good.

He took a couple of small bags of trash and placed them in the cart attached to his bicycle. Everything would be reused, recycled or composted. He said goodnight to his neighbor who responded without turning around, thrusting a waving hand up into the air.

There were plenty of shops that stayed open at night. The market lit up with paper cages full of fireflies and strings of recycled diodes that lacked any consistent hue. Big, graphic banners offered food and drink, or semi-legal repair jobs, or black market recombinations.

You will not create more machines. The third Shrub law.

Recombiners brazenly ignored the thousands of pages of guidelines by the provisional government about how to follow the law. Their argument, when they were occasionally arrested, was that nothing new was invented, nothing new came into existence, they were merely swapping, repurposing, reconditioning. And yet there wasn't much they couldn't make if the parts were available.

The slabs that ReeLs were put on were different—complex micro-circuitry built by a multi-national before Surrender and designed with every intention of thwarting reverse engineering. But it was only a matter of time, Millr thought, before the Recombiners make something that works out of old broken toasters and antique handsets. It won't be pretty but he bet somebody would get it done. Then what would he do? He made a nice income this way, everybody came to him, maybe he'd have to start over, maybe he'd have to negotiate with the Recombiners and that little shit Willm. That kid was viciously smart, and maybe nuts, but that could just be age talking. He didn't know what would happen, but he knew he had to expect change. Twenty years ago he thought he had it all planned out, then the Shrubs happened.

Millr pulled his bike, hauling the trash, up to the market bins. This was part of the agreement of market business, you gave them your trash and they got everything out of it they could. Trash was gold. There was always someone watching over the bins, the people in charge doled this job out as a coveted reward to the low level denizens of the system. It was an easy job and you could get first pick.

Today Blly was the guy watching over the bins. Blly had no front teeth and consequently tended to spit on you if you were standing closely, particularly if he was worked up by any number of constant inequities.

"Millr," Blly said.

"Blly," Millr said.

"That new ReeL, Millr," Blly said.

"Yes, Blly," said Millr.

"Anymore like that?" Blly asked.

"Oh, I don't know, I get what I can. You like it?" Millr said.

"Yeah. I like it. A lot. You seen it?" Blly asked.

"A couple minutes. Pretty busy, can't see them all," Millr said.

"A lot. I liked it a lot. You should see it," Blly said.

"OK Blly, I will."

Millr emptied the cart with Blly's help.

As he rode home he thought about this brief exchange. Blly wasn't, how you'd say, a connoisseur. He preferred guffawing at Heckle, those short ReeLs with dumb, repetitive jokes or footage of people doing painfully stupid things. Often Heckle was simply a rearrangement of stuff already in other Heckles. They were very popular. Millr was surprised Blly had this latest ReeL, he was even more surprised Blly liked it enough to say something. Millr told himself he would watch the entire thing when he got home.

As he neared the outer edge of the market he had to navigate through clusters of incoming crowds. Night people coming in, day people going out. He walked his bicycle and tried to keep the pedals from snagging on other bicycles or peoples' bags. Yeah, business was good, plenty of people came to the market. When he was a child there used to be shopping malls and his memory of them was of strange, vast sterility, places that were abandoned financially but had yet to become actually decrepit. You could wander in the large, climate controlled halls and hear the echo of your own footsteps, maybe punctuated by an electronic ping from a lonely, nearby machine. These places would've disappeared one way or another, Shrubs or no Shrubs, he thought.

Once the market faded behind him he could get some more speed on the bike, feel the wind in what was left of his hair. There were copious properties on either side of him, empty, vines and trees having taken over the land and the buildings so that they looked like noble, ancient creatures, moving slower than could be perceived, towards spawning grounds somewhere far up the street.

The buildings thinned out and there were fields. Probably houses were once here, he thought, but now the land was used to grow food. He passed a few then turned off onto his road.

At the front of his own house was ample evidence of at least three unfinished projects. He saw Taryn in the back, moving compost. Trash was gold.

He went into the house and put his bag down. He'd traded for a decent bottle of wine and he opened it. He had work to do, to prepare things for market tomorrow, but he was eager to see the ReeL, the newest one he'd gotten from Willm that Blly liked. He took the bottle of wine to the basement. In the back, next to his work bench, he stooped down and removed a section of the uneven flooring. Inside were dozens of ReeLs, leaning together neatly. He extracted one at nearest edge. Yup, that was it. He always copied the latest ReeLs that came through, for himself. Copying was relatively straightforward. You placed the source at the bottom, then an identically sized, proprietary copier slab on top of it, which was black, not gray. Then the destination slab was put on top of that. Press the appropriate corners and the top slab will match the bottom one—whatever ReeL that was on top will be replaced, gone. Copier slabs were uncommon. He had two. One he kept locked in the kiosk, the other here. He constantly worried about losing them or them breaking.

Of course the harder part was producing the ReeLs in the first place. You needed special, old, pre-Surrender equipment for that. It was still a mystery to him who did actual production. He knew there were three, maybe four, crews that produced the black market ReeLs. The ReeLs created by the government weren't worth consideration, they were consistently terrible, laughably awful.

He placed the ReeL on the table, turned it on and sat back. He'd seen the first minute or two when Willm gave it to him. His initial impression was negative because the lighting was so dark, he preferred ReeLs that were big and bright. But as he watched, there was something about this one, a closeness, a richness. It quickly drew him in. Perhaps it was relative contrast but the few colors here were intense. He suspected immediately that they had shot this with a different rig. A couple minutes after this, he was positive. His pulse quickened. Where had they gotten it? Was it one of the old indie rigs or had they actually figured out how to make their own? Visually it was more impressive than anything he'd seen in forever. And nobody else would've seen anything like this in decades. He remembered the early ReeLs, the ones that were art, the great ones, but that kid Willm wouldn't know about anything like those, they were all gone, almost all gone. Only the most insipid, crowd pleasing junk had survived on the dwindling set of hardware, an unfortunate devolution.

The atmosphere here is dense, I can taste it, I can feel the texture of it. And where was it set? It looked like they were in a Shrub field. A power field. The rocking motion of the tall, huge solar leaves created an oscillating effect, giving it a disquieting impression of being underwater. Things swooshed, back and forth. The sound, he realized, was loud, but in the background almost pure droning.

We followed a girl through the field, at dusk. Was she running from someone? There was an urgency in her movement, she weaved and dodged. She came up out of the field onto a hill. The ascent had a revelatory feeling. In the distance he could see a Shrub citadel—the green, jagged, amorphous mound likely a hundred feet high at its peak, as if a giant gardener had dumped a huge pile of sticks and leaves on the horizon. Parts of it glistened with wetness. Other parts seemed to move slowly, a time-lapse of creeping vines, the slow motion of an opening flower which you're internally aware of but hesitant to declare as motion. It changed, it shifted.

The girl stood there. We were standing to one side of her, but slightly behind. So far we haven't seen her face. The human dwellings around the citadel stretch almost to the hill. The girl raises her arms, holding them to the sky, which has become darkly clouded. In the distance we can see something on the Shrub citadel. A spark. Then fire. The citadel begins to burn.

When the ReeL ended Millr realized he was covered in sweat. He heard Taryn's voice at the top of the stairs.

"You down there? Awful quiet," she said.

"Yeah," Millr said.

"You OK?" she asked.

"Yeah," Millr said.

"Ah. OK. Really?" she asked.

"I think you should see this," Millr said.

2018-12-25 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Blank

Willm darted around the corner, the crunching sound of dry scrub and gravel from this his shoes dampened by the building's white-washed wall. He built up some speed and made a running jump at the tall wooden fence next to the building, flinging himself up and over it. This was a game he would play when he was little, navigating through town by unusual paths as quickly as he could. He didn't want to be seen coming from Millr's. He didn't necessarily think anybody was following him, who would really. But it was fun, he could move across obstacles faster than he ever had, he was bigger and stronger, the patterns he'd performed a thousand times came naturally. Up, over, under, across. It made him feel alive.

He emerged, sweating, onto the street near the center of town. It was almost noon and the sun was hot. Weeds coming up through the cracks in the pavement carpeted the lesser traveled areas in lush green. A few trees had grown up through the rusty skeletons of dumped, broken cars. Since the surrender they weren't allowed to build any new machines so year by year there were more that couldn't be repaired. Always more car husks.

He felt the slight weight of the blank ReeLs in his bag. He would deliver them today, after he had lunch. He walked towards the diner, he walked down main street because there was no traffic. There was rarely traffic anywhere. Sometimes trucks. Although in the distance he saw a bicycle. Was that Jynes? Looked it. Men withered in the noon day sun, old Jynes was still hale and hearty though. Some curmudgeonly secret of longevity.

The door of the diner clanged loudly behind Willm. He went to the counter and sat down. The owner, a gruff middle-aged woman with tattoos covering both arms, gave him a customary, muted greeting then asked what he wanted.

"Got any ham yet?" he asked.

"No, no ham. Chicken. Just chicken," she said.

"It was pigeon last time," he said.

She shrugged.

Muscle can eat muscle. The second Shrub law.

"OK," he said. He was ravenous. Pigeon was fine.

As he ate he kept the strap of the bag across his arm, protecting the blanks. Of course nobody knew what was in his bag, or that Willm even dealt in ReeLs, but if he was careless, he thought, he could fuck up a nice business. Like Millr kept telling, once they were gone, they were gone for good. He ate his sandwich bite by bite, it wasn't great, it was tough and had an aftertaste. French fries though, he savored them. Even with the Shrubs there was still plenty they could grow, although not enough for all the animals they used to keep and slaughter.

You must never eat from our fields. The first Shrub law.

He finished up, clearing the plate of every crumb and believing he could eat another sandwich. He paid. He was making decent money these days, he'd become used to the expense of the diner. Not like growing up, things were harder then. As he left the diner he looked over his shoulder. Who was there when he arrived and who was there when he left? The same cast of characters from town. He liked to keep track of these things. He liked to keep an eye out for change.

Being caught with blank ReeLs would be a mark against him. It was illegal to alter the slabs in any way. Only official provisional government programs could be put on them. You were supposed to bring them back to the local programming office where the new content could be imprinted. But of course there was the black market. It was too large for the government to battle, and most of the people in those offices watched illegal ReeLs off hours anyway.

He walked around the side of the diner to the back, past the garage, through the vacant lot, past the ancient gnarled tree. He started down the dirt road, fields on both sides of him. That's the way the Shrubs usually did it, cluster the undesignated fields around towns. Deep in though, far in, where the real industrial farming used to be, it was all worked by the Shrubs for themselves, for whatever they wanted to grow.

At the place where the fence looked collapsed, maybe from a car accident, Willm cut off the road and went into the field, jogging down off the shoulder, momentarily kicking up dry dirt behind himself. Even if there was traffic, they wouldn't see him. He was in a little ways and he could see the house from here. It was a brick house with wood trim once white, now rotting and abandoned. Some of the windows were intact, some weren't. He didn't know anything about who used to live there, he bet it was already abandoned before Surrender.

He avoided the front, with the leaning, cracked door and went around to the back. Wisps of torn screening dangled like flaps of skin on a sagging porch that must've once contained the usual summer activities. The porch was missing its door, and the house door was hanging open on one hinge. Willm wondered how many animals must come through the place. Maybe people did too, like himself, but they didn't stay. There was no shortage of housing. The green-skins said everybody was better off under the Shrubs, he wondered if that was true.

Willm walked through the hall to the front stairs. He heard a voice from the second floor. "I'm up here." It was Thmpsun, he was the blanks dealer.

Willm went to the top of the stairs, avoiding several treacherous gaps and saw Thmpsun in a large room to his left, the copious dust illuminated by the sun.

"Probably used to be pretty nice here. Big house," Thmpsun said.

You had to be a slightly weird to deal in blanks, Willm thought. Thmpsun dressed the same way people used to dress, his suit though had deteriorated over time, becoming a haunted kind of shabby. There was an uneasy ghostliness about him. Willm wondered if this is what Thmpsun was wearing on the day of surrender—time had stopped in his head, he was still a younger man.

"I used to do real estate," Thmpsun said.

"Yeah, you told me that before," Willm said.

"But you have to keep on top of new opportunities," Thmpsun added.


"How many blanks do you have for me today?" Thmpsun asked.

"Two," Willm said.

"That's all?" Thmpsun sighed. "Seems like there are less in the supply these days."

"Maybe you should go back into real estate," Willm said.

Thmpsun ignored the comment, it had never been said. Willm took the two slabs out of his bag as Thmpsun futilely tried to get dirt off the lapel of his jacket.

"Thank you," Thmpsun said, taking the blanks from Willm and putting them into a large, fat, worn leather satchel. "I can give you one for both this time," he said.

"But aren't there less? You just said there are less now," Willm said.

"Ebb and flow. There are probably more ReeLs in production right now. One for both this time, more next time."

Willm frowned tightly, letting the moment of uncomfortable silence linger as evidence of his displeasure.

"Alright," Willm said.

When the exchange was complete Willm walked out into the weedy, overgrown back yard, past remnants of a metal swing set, a collapsed shed, back through the fields. Next week he would pick up new ReeLs from production, the good ones, the crazy ones.

2018-12-15 10:00 fiction reel

ReeL Fresh

Willm took out two, thick, gray slabs from the old military bag slung over his shoulder. The slabs were identical in size, but each had a messy strip of off-white tape along the edge with varying handwriting in black magic marker.

"Two? That's it?" Millr said.

"Yeah," Willm said, "but they're fresh. Good. Special."

Willm, a lanky teen, held out the gray slabs with arms delineated by prominent tendons. He was covered with scratches from recent salvaging.

"Like those other ones? People complained about those," Millr said.

"No, really. New crew, new production. Very slick." Willm handed Millr the slabs.

"OK, let's see what these ReeLs have got." Millr took one and turned it sideways, he pressed with his thumbs on both ends of the colorless slab. Then he put it down on the rough, cluttered work bench in front of himself. A light inside the slab flickered, irregularly, but grew so that the entire surface glowed.

Millr stared for a few minutes, motionless, rarely blinking, looking at the ReeL playing somewhere in his head, the light from it illuminating his face. Then he placed his thumbs again on the corners, repeating the movement, until the light dimmed and disappeared.

"Yeah, it's good. Different," Millr said. "I think people probably want something different these days, whether they know it or not."

"Did you get to the part about the Shrubs?" Willm asked.

"Yes, I mean, Shrubs don't care if we make fun of them. Shrubs don't care about anything except growing," Millr said. "Was good though. I'll give you one and half each for them."

"No way, two each," Willm replied strongly.

"Come on. I'm not doing this for free. Look, you keep getting these, good ones, and they build up an audience, then I'll raise my prices and I'll give you two," Millr said.

"Alright," Willm said after a pause. He folded his arms resolutely. "But next time, two." He tried scowling but it was clear he liked the offer.

"If there's an audience." Millr took the two ReeLs and put them into a large felt pouch clearly designed for this purpose. "Also, and I've said it before, you gotta be careful with these—if you break any that's less we have in the pool. The Shrubs won't let us make anymore." Millr reached over to the side of the bench for another bag, opening it, and from a selection of seemingly identical slabs took out two and handed them to Willm. "Here's the blanks," he said.

Willm took them, mocking delicacy.

"Arsehole," Millr said, "you don't remember what it was like before Surrender."

Willm rolled his eyes. "I remember," he said.

"What? How old were you?" Millr asked.

"Five, six. I don't know," Willm said.

Millr grunted. "Things are going to fall apart. Someday soon. Won't be able to fix everything anymore. No more machines. No more ReeLs."

"That why you collect on the side?" Willm said.

"Damn straight," Millr asserted.

"I don't think the Shrubs will be here that long."

"Oh, here we go," Millr shook his head.

"Think about it. Why'd they come here in the first place?" Willm asked.

"I dunno. To grow. Cuz they couldn't grow where they were before. Nobody knows. It doesn't matter much at this point."

"Maybe they're gonna grow enough here to keep going, maybe they've got a home to go back to. Maybe they're gonna, like, flower. And then they won't be Shrubs anymore. They'll be something else," Willm said excitedly.

Millr laughed a little, "You're talking crazy."

Willm appeared offended, roughly readjusting his shoulder bag with the blanks inside. "You'll see, not always gonna be like this." Willm went to the stairs, huffing.

Millr shouted after him as he left, "Just keep getting good ReeLs."