A.J. is a writer and English teacher from Chicago. He specialized in the study of speculative fiction while pursuing his M.A., and now he writes both SFF criticism as well as his own short fiction ... [+]

Image of Short Circuit - Short Circuit #06

Jude always ordered hot coffee when he was falling apart. He leaned back in his booth and pressed his hands into the porcelain, trying to drink in the heat through cold fingertips. He couldn't taste it anymore, of course, and he could just barely feel it, but the ghost sensation of heat helped anchor him in the present, the here and now in the Denny's on Sunset. It was the only thing that felt real when everything else was coming undone: the capillaries unravelling, tendons fraying at the ends, his bones riddled with worm holes like old, old wood. The synapses in his brain weren't firing right, so the entire diner appeared in a haze—golden light from the windows sticking stiff and solid in the air like steel rebar. The bars were solid but slimy, their light coated with oily LA smog. A waitress walked through the light past him, and Jude watched the structure burst into a million tiny fractals.
Jude rubbed his eyes and tried to focus on his agent sitting across from him, talking, talking, talking.
". . . and I'm thinking if the box office doesn't take a dump on us, then the agency might be able to renegotiate for a little more on her next couple flicks," said Marty. "Honestly, it's scrabbling for peanuts compared to what we could be making off her if she'd just suck it up and do a comic book movie. But no no, Ms. Dicarmine is an artist! Only weird biopics and pseudo-art films!"
Marty leaned away from the gnawed remains of a tuna melt, composing a quick response to some email or sext while he talked. This man was older than Jude's father, but the grey hairs and liver spots on his thumbs didn't keep them from dancing like ballerina feet across the touchscreen floor. Jude himself had a flip phone; a smartphone's screen would never respond to his dead touch.
Marty glanced up. "It's pretty bad today, huh?"
"Yeah," said Jude.
"Looks like it. When's the last time you saw your Life Coach?"
"Life Coach" was the term of art for the Brazilian Necromancer down in Santa Monica that Jude had gone to see every other week or so for the past four years.  She was the one who'd brought Jude back after the accident, and he still needed her to do regular maintenance on the intricate matrix of spells stitching his body together. He tried to construct the sentences in his fevered brain to explain to Marty why he had not been to see her for two months now.
"Oh, look. Just got a message from the Chicago Underworld people," said Marty. "They say thanks again for letting them steal you. They're in post now, just marveling at your performance. Say they just can't get over that dead look in your eyes. The Macintosh gaze wins 'em again!"
Jude pushed his sunglasses up on his face, sensitive of his cataracts. Every girlfriend he'd ever had before the accident used to talk about his blue eyes, his perfect, pretty blue eyes, his You should go to Hollywood and become a movie star! blue eyes. "Wasn't much of a performance, really," Jude said. "Just lying there. I'm always just lying there."
"Don't undersell yourself, you play the best dead man on T.V.!" said Marty. "By the way, Gun & Gavel called, they want you to play a John Doe. And the Monmouth Files asked for you as well, or one of your arms, anyway. I think we can maybe hang you two jobs at once if we find someone who wants to take the rest of you while the arm's off working for them."
Jude had been waiting the whole conversation for an opening to tell Marty he wouldn't be taking any more jobs. It was the entire reason he had asked him out here, but Marty had this way of sweeping up any possible counterpoints in the constant stream of agent-speak coming out of his mouth. Jude finally just decided to out and say it.
"I'm going back to Indiana, Marty."
"Oh, that's nice," said Marty, still texting. "Visiting family? You'll have to bring me back a jar of something good. What do they jar good in Indiana, anyway? Blueberries, maybe?"
"No, Marty, listen. I mean for good. I'm out."
The dancing ballerina thumbs tripped. Marty put down the phone (he picked it up again just to finish off one last quick text, but then it went away in his pocket) and looked straight at him.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Look, I got into acting because I wanted to mean something, to touch lives," said Jude. "I'm not doing that typecast as a corpse for crime dramas."
"Kid, we've talked about this," said Marty. "Your options are limited here. Since the accident, a lot of roles just aren't available for you anymore."
"Yeah, I get it. And I'm not interested in the roles that are, so what am I still doing out here?" The coffee in Jude's cup had ripples from his hands shaking. Jude thought it was probably just nerves, probably just his rotting synapses shooting off bolts into his twitching fingers.
"Kid," said Marty. He reached over the table to touch his hand, but stopped just shy. "Kid, listen, I know it might not seem like it, but you've got a good thing here: steady jobs, decent pay, people like working with you. I know these aren't the dream roles, but they're something, right? Got a roof over your head, money in your pocket . . ."
"I can't even feel sunlight or rain anymore, Marty," said Jude. "What's a roof mean? What's money mean? Can't taste it, can't smell it. The work's all I've got left, and now the work doesn't mean anything, either."
"If you're sick of doing the cop shows, you know I've got other parts for you. Exciting parts," said Marty. "Did you ever look at that Bone Grinder script I sent you?"
"Yeah," said Jude. "I even printed it out so I could burn it."
Marty threw up his hands. "Actors! What's wrong with it? It's a named character, plenty of close-ups. You even get a speaking role."
"I scream out ‘BRAINS' before I rip some extra's throat out," said Jude. "That's not the kind of work I want."
"So what?" asked Marty. "Hop a bus back to Bumpickers, Indiana and then what? What's waiting for you back there?"
"Yellow Birch," said Jude.
"What? That some kind of tree?"
"It's a cemetery."
"Jesus, kid."
"The family cemetery," Jude continued. "Mom and Dad said I was dead to them ever since I was brought back from the accident. I think it's time I finally gave them something to bury."
"Jesus, Jude. Jesus," said Marty. "You can't just . . . die, man."
"Why not?" said Jude. "I already play the best dead man on TV."
Marty called the waitress over and ordered a slice of blueberry pie. Jude had been with him long enough to know that whenever a crisis hit—divorce, audit, bad film flop—Marty ordered blueberry pie to cope. Jude supposed he should have been flattered.
"Go see your Life Coach," Marty finally said, halfway through his pie.
"I'm not going to her anymore," said Jude.
"You didn't let me finish," said Marty. "Go see your Life Coach and give me at least a week before you go back to Indiana. I'll see if I can't pull some strings, find a better role for you. Happy?"
Jude settled back in the booth.
"A real part?"
"No zombies," said Jude. "No crime dramas, no slasher flicks."
"I'll see what I can do," said Marty.


Marty picked at some of the fries remaining from his Mega Philly Cheese Melt and scrolled through his phone. It was mostly just the usual garbage, but then Marty refreshed and there it was, rising like a vision of pure beauty out of his feed: the first advertisement for his new film.

Coming this fall to a theater near you . . . they thought they had all the time in the world . . . until one day when tragedy struck! Now he's gone, but she's not ready to let go. She will keep him right where he belongs . . . her dirtiest secret . . . her darkest fantasy . . . and anyone who tries to take him away from her again . . . Will. Pay. The. Price. This October, Janice Dicarmine and Jude Macintosh are . . . DEAD IN BED!

"Will we be having some pie today?" the waitress asked.
Marty shook his head and smiled. "Just the check, babe."

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