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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Garden of Envy

Barry sat on the warm patio and puzzled over the ups and downs of his life. Fired recently from the Glorious Cat Meat Canning Facility near Willow Street, he had plenty of time on his hands for pondering.

"Fired, Janet! Again, Janet! What's up with that? Why can't I hold onto a job? I'm reasonably able, passably good-looking and as competent as the next guy, so why does the axe keep falling on me?" He glanced sideways at her and then glared down at his hands as though they might be withholding information from him.

Janet sighed, swirled the ice in her glass, and watched the butterflies lazing in the sun while she searched for a suitable answer. She envied the butterflies, they never had to have difficult conversations; ones that started with: "Honey, we need to talk." Sure, she needed to be honest with Barry, but how honest? She had long suspected that
honesty was an over-rated quality but there seemed to be no other course in front of her.

"Honey, remember the other week when we talked about social skills?"
"Kissing up, you mean."
"Well, that's another name for it. There are some people in the world that need a lot of ego stroking and these people usually end up as bosses. No one knows why, it's one of life's little mysteries; a cruel mystery."

"Yeah, well, those people can…" Barry ducked his head suddenly as a large, dark beetle buzzed by closely, obviously hurrying off to some important task. Barry looked after the bug enviously.

"Look at him, Janet," Barry cried, pointing at the beetle's retreating form. "He doesn't have to beg anyone to hire him; he doesn't have a boss to please or co-workers to get along with. He's just doing his own thing, with places to go and people to meet. He's so… so….what's the word? So sufficient, self contained, self…self…self-employed. That's it! He's self-employed! If only I was self-employed," he sighed. So this was what his life had come down to he thought; he was envious of a beetle. Could his life get any lower than that? He shuddered and vowed not to ask that question out loud, best not to tempt the fates.

Janet took a deep breath and tried to look encouraging. "That's a new idea, Barry, what kind of work would you like to do?
"Well, let's see, there's extortion, car jacking, bank robbery…"
"Nothing legal?"
"Legal is boring and it doesn't pay well."
"How about writing?"
"That's an idea, ransom notes don't take long and they get a good return."

"I need something that will put me in charge of my life, you see, instead of being at the mercy of management. Management, Janet, is like a twister in a trailer park; you know some poor bastard's going to get it, you just don't know who it's going to be."

"I don't know, Barry, how about a nice, quiet job digging ditches? Or maybe spend the summer working on Lawyer Sterling's turnip farm? They say turnips are very soothing for raw nerves."
"I hear he's a crook."
"A retired crook, and a rich one, too."
"You should know you defended him."
"Yes, the legal profession's a dirty line of work. Sometimes I think I'd like to get into something cleaner, running a puppy mill, maybe."

"Here's an idea, how about a printing press in the basement? We could print our own money."
"We don't have a basement; and the government gets upset about that kind of stuff."
"There's always robbing liquor stores."
"What is it with you and the liquor store fantasy?"
Barry sighed and shook his head at her lack of understanding. "There's cash and alcohol in the same place, Janet. I really don't understand why I have to keep pointing that out to people. Plus, you make your own hours; and you don't have to wear a uniform, although the little black mask is traditional."

Janet shifted uneasily in her chair, "I think it's too risky, and I don't think you could get away with it."
"You better keep your day job," Barry crowed, "you don't have what it takes to make it as a criminal."

"I resent that," she huffed "I'm a lawyer, you know, I know all about crime. I could be as good a criminal as you!"
"Oh, yeah? Prove it! Rob the Corner Crate with me tonight." He leered at her and waggled his eyebrows. "You'd look hot in a black mask," he whispered huskily. Janet back-pedaled furiously, looking for a way to save face. "Well, well, I…I…have things to do, I can't just drop everything and run off and indulge in crime, you know.
I have a long list of things to do, I have to return those library books, and then wash and wax the driveway."

She looked around for a distraction and plucked up a paper from the table and waved it around. "How about this, honey? It's a seminar over in West Willow." She held out a glossy pamphlet showing a good-looking man with blindingly white teeth and an expensive suit. 'White collar crime for fun and profit', it blared, 'if I can do it, you can do it too.'
"Huh," Barry sniffed and dropped it with contempt. "White collar crime is for wusses. Where's the risk, the danger, the excitement? Besides, if you can advertise in the open like that it's practically legal."
"Is legal so bad?" pleaded Janet.
"Legal puts you at the mercy of other people, crime puts you in charge."
"Except for cops with guns and dogs who come looking for you," Janet pointed out.
"Pooh," said Barry, waving his hand and dismissing the long arm of the law. "They'd never catch me, I'm too smart." Barry paused here and asked plaintively, "Janet, why does the world always fail to recognize my genius?"

Janet rubbed the back of her neck where she could feel a migraine tunneling up from the depths and wondered about that nice boy in high school she used to date. "I wonder what ever happened to Jimbo," she mused aloud.

"What's that?" Barry said sharply.
"Nothing, dear," she soothed him. I wonder if he'll ever be able to keep a job, she worried. Maybe her cousin Eddy could use some help in his 'it fell off the back of a truck' business.

The dark beetle landed on a spicebush branch to catch her breath and groomed her antenna with careful attention. "Look at them," she cried to the butterfly. "Just sitting there in the sun, doing nothing. I wish I could do that. I laid three hundred eggs two weeks ago and they just hatched out. Do you have any idea how much work it takes to ride herd on three hundred young? It must be nice to be a human. I hear they send their young off to be raised by someone else; what a system."

"Look how large they are," the butterfly said wistfully. "If I was that big I'd never have to worry again about getting eaten. They can just sit out in the open like that and no predator will touch them; it must be nice." He slowly fanned his wings and sighed.

The man sighed, the woman sighed, the beetle sighed, the butterfly sighed and even the west wind gliding gently over the little garden in the woods sighed and no one was satisfied. Gardens are pretty but you have to bring your own happiness.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Find Me On Smashwords

Find me on Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/jsking1.

Purchase a download of Jane's Burning Bright House of Joy at
http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/31572

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Racer's tale is available on Kindle

This is a 61-page novella, a light-hearted satire about an evil scientist and his pet hamster.
This book is an e-book, published by Kindle.

Cover art is by Don Robb, WWW.donrobbart.com

How to find my book:
Go to Amazon.com
Go to the Search box
Click on All Departments
From the drop down menu select Kindle Store
Enter B0047DWB94 in the empty box to the right
Click Go
Price: $2.99


Don't have a Kindle? No problem; you can read e-books on your PC with Kindle For PC, a free download. Go here for your copy: www.amazon.com/KindleForPC.

Jane's Burning Bright House of Joy

The First Two Pages


1 Jane pounded her fists as quietly as possible on her keyboard, muttering deep and heartfelt curses at the computer gods and all their kin. Once again, the program had frozen up and stymied her attempts at getting home before midnight.
Jane’s boss, Tad-from-hell, wanted this report on his desk by tomorrow morning and Jane was determined to get it there. Not cheerfully mind you, just get it there.
She rebooted the computer for the fourth time that day and while she waited for it to come back to life she drifted off into a favorite daydream. Soft breezes wafted across her cheek, warm sunshine caressed her shoulders; a sun-bronzed youth leaned toward her offering a glistening cold drink from a silver tray. “Just put it down on the table, I’ve got my hands full at the moment,” Jane said. She swung a sledgehammer in a great arc down onto her computer with all the rage that she could muster. Not a hard task, as quite a lot of rage had answered the call.
“Freeze up on me, will you? Lose my report again, will you? I don’t think so, you worthless pile of circuits!” Jane gave the sledgehammer all she had and delivered some well-placed kicks to emphasize her point. “I’ll…”
“Jane! Jane! Are you all right?” The smarmy, oily voice of Ellen, the office tattletale drifted down onto Jane’s head and brought her back to her drab cubicle. Jane jumped back and twitched away from the sudden intrusion, knocking a stack of files into a trashcan.
“Talking to yourself again? And what’s wrong with your hands, twisting them like that? Some sort of nervous twitch?” Ellen smiled slyly, showing a disturbing amount of yellow teeth. “I don’t know what you have to be nervous about, you should be too busy to be nervous, you know what I mean?” She glanced meaningly at the small mountain of work slumped up against the wall. Ellen’s own file was on top, labeled in screaming pink, DO THIS FIRST!!!!!!, still undone.
Jane scrabbled around furiously inside her head, looked for her 'I-love-my-job smile' and plastered it on her face. Pressing her hands hard down on her thighs to stop them from doing something that would land her in jail, she struggled to find a bright and chipper response to this threat in her cubicle.
Cubicles! What weasely low-life sadist had dreamed up that idea? Jane mentally put that unknown fiend on her list of people she was volunteering to colonize Mars.
“Um, nothing, nothing, I’m all right, I’m fine, fine, fine. I was just thinking of my vacation, you know Italy, We’re going to Italy.” She babbled on, trying to find the right combination of words that would make Ellen go away. “You know, you said that you and Harold enjoyed it so much, that I thought we’d go there too.”
“Harold! That worm! That weevil! That toad!” Ellen spat. “Harold and I are over, done with, finito! That swine!” Too late, Jane remembered that Harold had dumped Ellen in a spectacularly nasty breakup. Ooh, now I’ve done it, she winced; she’ll make me pay for that slip up. But Ellen, for reasons known only to the slime mold infesting her brain, moved on to a new subject.
“I’m going out now with Dave in accounting. You know, the tall one with dark hair and nearly all his fingers; now there’s a man with a future I tell you. By the way, has that husband of yours found a job

Racer, A Hamster's Tale

The First Two Chapters

Prologue
Once upon a time, in a green and beautiful land, there lived an evil scientist and he had a pet hamster. His name was Racer. The hamster, that is. Not that it’s important, just in case you wanted to know.


Chapter 1

Racer ran round and round, round and round, round and round, flying down the pathway to heaven. At least, that’s the way he saw it. To anyone else it looked like a hamster’s exercise wheel, but to Racer it was his outlet for stress. It’s not easy being the beloved pet of a mad scientist.
Lefter wandered into the room looking around for a clue as to why he was there. He was sure there was something he was supposed to be doing, but he couldn’t remember what. But memory lapse wasn’t what Lefter was known for. Lefter had a genetic quirk that urged him to turn to the left whenever he was going somewhere. Lefter wasn’t his real name, of course. No one could remember what his original name was. He was just Lefter. He spent a lot of his life going in circles.
Finally, Lefter’s eyes landed on the box of hamster food and he remembered, feed Racer! That’s what Dr. Cutter had told him to do. Dr. Cutter was Lefter’s uncle and had no patience for his nephew’s mistakes, or anyone else’s. Lefter filled Racer’s food dish, gave him fresh water and a piece of advice: ‘Take a break pal. You’re going to wear yourself out on that thing.’
Racer understood him, but he couldn’t stop. He had a genetic quirk too, and that was to run in circles for hours on end. He had what Dr. Cutter called ‘the round and round gene.’ When other hamsters would knock off for a nap and a smoke, Racer would keep on going. Among the other hamsters he was known as something of an oddball. Across the room, large golden eyes watched the cage on the counter. Squeaker Cat had long had plans to get her claws on that uppity good-for-nothing rodent. Sooner or later someone was going to make a mistake and leave that cage door open; she could wait. She settled herself down into her basket where she could keep an eye on the cage and purred quietly to herself.
~~~~~~~~~
In another part of the building, Dr. Helga Lindstrom and Dr. Linda Lapp slumped their shoulders and stared at each other. Ever since their attempt to clone Alan Greenspan had failed, their stock had fallen in their boss’s eyes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with those Greenspan cells, Helga” complained Dr. Linda. “Why can’t they multiply in a regular sequence like ordinary cells? Is that too much to ask? After all, all those other people we cloned turned out fine.”
“It’s not that they can’t multiply,” replied Dr. Helga. “They don’t want to; they’re using some obscure formula that no one else can understand, not surprising, considering the source. But what about us? If we get the axe, can we take some of this stuff with us? Anthrax, plague, Ricin; what do you think would look good on a resume?” They shuffled their lab notes and checked the wall clock for lunchtime.
“Come on, Linda, if we get sacked, we can at least do it on a full stomach. I hear that it’s chicken pot pie today.” Dr. Linda straightened up and smiled. Maybe there was hope after all.
~~~~~~~~~
Dr. Cutter, the head of Plastic Genetics Laboratory, had been scowling at them in the hallway lately and rumors of layoffs and budget cuts had been flying faster than you could blink. Racer Rumors they were called. Dr. Cutter would be seen petting and talking to his pet hamster and afterwards would be heard talking aloud to himself about “incompetent associates” and “things around here have to change”. No one was sure if the hamster was giving suggestions to his owner or not; however, no one held any grudges against Racer. He was a friendly, outgoing hamster and the lab staff liked him.
Located in the beautiful river hills of Lancaster County, the Plastic Genetics Laboratory-LLC- was cutting-edge medical technology. Dr. Cutter, despite his name, was not a surgeon. No! No cut-and-stitch monsters would be coming out of this laboratory; Dr. Cutter was a geneticist. The mixing and matching of DNA from far and wide was his magic wand, his alchemy. Okay, so the kudzu-piranha creature hadn’t worked out so well. After it had escaped from the lab and eaten a small child, there was no end of trouble hushing the incident up. But Dr. Cutter didn’t allow himself to be deterred by setbacks. There was always another day, always another pairing to try-especially when he had customers with deep pockets to fund his work. Governments too were a steady source of income. Foreign or domestic, Dr. Cutter didn’t care. His mission statement was: Ethics are for sissies!
Chapter 2

At the corner of Park Ave and East 41st St., Manhattan, in a stuffy, opulent study, business leaders were doing what business leaders do best: drinking, smoking and plotting how to transfer money from your pocket to theirs. The Tobacco Overlords, American Division, (T.O.A.D.) meeting had ended and joy had not been dispensed. No matter how you tried to explain it or disguise it, sales were down. Their archenemy, the American Lung Association, was having great success helping people quit smoking. Their latest announcement was a contest to create a vaccine against nicotine.
Burlington Chesterfield leaned back in his chair and eyed his companions with no enthusiasm. They were good enough for drinking and poker parties, but they had no vision, no creativity, he thought.
“It’s not like the old days, Barclay,” intoned Chesterfield. “We can’t go around putting our hands into people’s pockets and taking money blatantly like the IRS does. That would be sweet. What a set-up those guys have! We need something new, Barclay, something so subtle that people won’t even realize that they’re being robbed. No, we have to come up with a new angle.”
Barclay frowned with unaccustomed mental effort. “What about using the candy cigarettes idea, with some real cigarettes mixed in?” he asked. “We could give away free samples at kindergartens, day-care centers and playgrounds. It’s amazing how many parents don’t notice what their kids are doing.”
“We tried that five years ago and the ALA jumped all over us. We need to move into an area that they aren’t watching. I mean, people are going to die anyway, why shouldn’t they have a nice smoke while they’re doing it?” He drummed his fingers on the table and surveyed the blank I-don’t-have-any-ideas faces turned toward him. He sighed; it looked like he was going to have to think up of a new tacitc to pull the company out of its slump.
But he didn’t feel good, not at all. A dull pressure started forming around his heart, growing in intensity. He tried to push the tingling pain out of his mind. Suddenly he grasped his heart, lurching forward onto the long mahogany table with a loud, gasping groan.
“No! No! Not again,” he begged an unknown power. “Why? Why? We only want to make money, is that a crime?”
“Chesterfield, what’s wrong? Should I call an ambulance?” Barclay looked anxiously at his C.E.O. and froze in indecision. Should he reach for the phone or seize his chance and finish the old buzzard off? But Barclay hesitated a little too long and Burlington pulled himself back into his chair and forced his features into a mask of calm control.
“No, no, it’s not a heart attack, another person just quit smoking! It always gets to me like that. What are we going to do? If these damn health people convince the public that tobacco’s bad for them, we’re goners! Call the lawyers! Ever since we tried that marketing campaign aimed at kids, we need to be careful. Damn shame, too; that was going so well.”
~~~~~~~~~
It is at this point, if there are any tobacco lawyers reading this, that they should put down their swords and their cell phones and go back to doing whatever it is that tobacco lawyers do all day long. Possibly working to make the world a better place.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What's Your Sign?

What's Your Sign?

J. S. King

Amber Alice drove at a steady rate down Rte. 272 on her way to work at the Glorious Cat Meat Canning Facility, talking quietly to herself. "And then I'll say," she told herself, "you can take this job and can it, get it? can it and…and…" She sighed as she replayed her favorite daydream.

The sun was shining and it was another beautiful day in Willow Street. The speed limit was posted 45 mph and Amber Alice was keeping her car to a mere 55 mph, to show her respect for authority.

Up ahead, on the right, a battered green pickup truck pulled up and rested at the stop sign on Shiprock Rd. Soon, though, the truck edged forward a little, the driver leaning forward and peering in her direction.

Amber Alice glanced at him casually, dismissed him from the front of her mind and returned to her fantasy of quitting her day job and making her living as a writer. If only editors didn't have such an aversion to schlock, she mourned, her fortune would be certain! She approached closer to the side road, closer, closer, and almost past it. A sudden flash of motion brought Amber Alice out of her daydream into harsh reality. The truck had pulled out in front of her and was moving sluggishly across her forward bow.

Amber Alice slammed on the brakes and wrenched the steering wheel sideways. There was no time to curse or pray; time only to grunt and heave the car off the road into a ditch. Down, down, down, how deep was this ditch? Then a muddy splash and she was thrown back as the car started up the other side.

"Uhngh," she grunted and struggled to take a deep breath, then another and another. She looked around in a daze and saw shrubs pressed tightly against the car windows and her hands still doing a white-knuckle death-grip on the steering wheel. She drew another deep breath, uttered a long stream of words that she knew her mother wouldn't approve of and struggled out of the car.

She turned around and around, throwing her hands up and down wildly and addressed the heavens. "Why?" she demanded of the world. "Why, why, why? Why does every yo-yo in the world want to pull out in front of me? What is it about me that attracts every suicidal pinhead for miles around? Why do they pick me? It's like I have a sign over my head!"

She turned towards her car at that point in her monologue and stared at the vehicle in astonishment. There was indeed a sign, not over her head exactly, but over the car. There, hanging patiently in the air, was a large, neon sign. A border of white lights blinked off and on and a large arrow pointed down towards the car. Bright red letters spelled its message to the world: PULL OUT IN FRONT OF ME! it declared.

"Well, I'll be damned," Amber Alice allowed, "look at that! There is a sign over me! No wonder everyone's pulling out in front of me; they're just doing what they're told. I'm not happy about it, but at least there's an explanation for it."

She shook her head at the random cruelness of the world and called the tow truck.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Happy Police

The Happy Police

J. S. King

Rhonda stared in dismay at the fat, smug face in front of her. "Fifty bucks," she croaked. "That can't be right, I mean it can't be fair." She shook the pink piece of paper at the uniform. "I was just going out for groceries, coffee, ice cream, chocolate, the basics, you ghoul. I forgot to put a smile on, I just forgot. Don't you jack-booted thugs have any mercy?" Rhonda glanced around her, noting the many people passing by. Too many witnesses, she sorrowfully concluded. This wasn't a good time to try out her new blowgun on the problem in front of her.

Sergeant Glimmer grinned and pulled out her ticket book again. "That'll be another fifty for police abuse." She scribbled rapidly, ripped the page off with gusto and slapped it into Rhonda's hand. "Anything else you want to say to me? Go ahead, there's plenty more where that came from." She rocked back on her heels and glowed with the joy of power.
"We rule, Rhonda. We happy people rule and you miserable losers might as well just get used to it. Go ahead, resist; make my day." Sergeant Glimmer polished her badge, resettled her cap, and sighed with satisfaction. She congratulated herself again for joining the Willow Street Happiness Brigade; there was such a sense of accomplishment in spreading joy.

Rhonda stuffed the tickets into her pocket and threw her groceries into the back seat of the car. She ground her teeth, ground the car gears and would have ground the sergeant into the road but the big uniform was surprisingly nimble. "We have rights, you know," she shouted out the window. And we have feelings, too."
"Yeah, but your feelings are illegal, and no, you don’t have rights." Sergeant Glimmer shouted back. "You owe society a happy face, remember that."

Rhonda stood up in middle of the crowded meeting of www.righttobecranky.org and took a deep breath. "Hi, my name's Rhonda and I'm feeling cranky." "Hi Ronda, how cranky are you?" the crowd roared back. "Cranky enough to spit nails," she sang back. "I just wanted to rip that smug smile off of her face and…and…," here words failed her. She waved her arms around and shook the pink tickets at the crowd. "I mean, fifty dollars for appearing in public without a smile! How did we come to this? The constitution says the pursuit of happiness, not having it rammed down your throat. I just want to have a variety of emotions, like a normal human being, not walking around looking like a demented dolphin. Is it wrong to have a neutral expression on your face? Is it a crime against society to be somber?"

"No, no!" roared the crowd. "Fight the smile, feel the pain, no more sunshine, feel the rain." "We need political power," Rhonda pleaded, "someone in office who will fight for our rights. Who's willing to stand up for us?" She scanned the room looking for volunteers and the crowd muttered and shuffled and avoided her eye. "No ones wants to risk it," Amber Iris, her best friend, finally responded, "You know that the last three candidates we backed ended up at the re-education camp at Happy Valley." She shuddered as she continued. "And when they came out, they…they…never stopped smiling. Never; it was horrible." A moan went through the group as people clung to each other for support. "What if the Happiness Brigade raided us right now? We'd all be…." Here Amber Iris was interrupted as the crowd panicked, stampeding out the doors and disappearing into the sheltering darkness.

Rhonda slouched her way across the parking lot, lugging her briefcase, lunch-bag and the fifteen files she'd taken home to work on. At the employees' entrance of Happy Valley Management she put her load down, fished in her pocket, and pulled out her I-love-my-job smile. She carefully positioned it on her face, glanced in her hand mirror, and satisfied, she swiped her badge and made her way down the hallway.

A tall, slender figure clad in a flowing blue work smock strode toward her. Three yellow smiley faces on her shoulder declared her rank of Sunshine Warrior. "Good morning, Jane," chirped Mrs. Longenderfer, "and how are we today?" "Rhonda," Rhonda replied through clenched teeth, "I'm Rhonda and I'm fine, just fine. How was the conference, Mrs. Longenderfer?"

"It was wonderful," Mrs. Longenderfer exulted. "The Sunshine Domination Project is working on a vaccine, a happiness vaccine! Just think, Jane, with the wonders of modern genetic therapy we can make everybody happy. Smiling people everywhere, nothing but smiles on every face you see. No more frowns, no more sad sacks, no more anger. Every one will be smiling, won't that be wonderful?" She beamed at Rhonda, her hands clasped in anticipation of the marvelous future.

"Everybody?" ask Rhonda. "The weary, the discouraged, the disappointed, the clinically depressed? Even grieving people and those in pain?" Rhonda asked. "Isn't their situation different? Wouldn’t smiling be inappropriate?” "Nonsense, Jane" Mrs. Longenderfer replied, tilting her glasses and looking down her nose at her. "They have no business burdening society with their negativness. Brightness and light is what is wanted and they'd better learn to deliver it."

She leaned in closer to Rhonda and scrutinized her closely. "That is a genuine smile on your face, isn't it?" She reached out and tugged hard on Rhonda's face. "I've heard that that subversive cranky group has been producing smile masks to conceal their members. They're dangerous malcontents and they must be hunted down." She gave a final yank to Rhonda's cheek and another piercing stare. "You don't know any of those awful people, do you, Jane? It wouldn't go well if you did." Without waiting for an answer she swept down the hallway knocking Amber Iris into the wall. Rhonda smoothed the smile mask back into place and heaved a sigh of relief.

"That was a close one," she declared to her friend. "I think she's starting to suspect me. What am I going to do? Amber Iris pulled her cavernous shoulder bag around and dug into it, unearthing a small vial of a red, smoky liquid. "Here," she said, handing it to Rhonda. "Vince made this for emergencies. He distilled an essence that allows you to imitate the top brass's mood and demeanor; he calls it 'Chipmunks on Crack.' One dose and you'll be manically chipper for two weeks. Rhonda shuddered as she reached for the drug. "But will I still be me?" she asked. "No," said Amber Iris gravely, you'll be happy instead." Rhonda drank.

Two weeks later the dose was wearing off and Rhonda was dragging herself into work. "I love my job, I love my job," Rhonda chanted as she crept towards her cubicle, praying she wouldn't meet anyone on the way. A cold wind swept in behind her, chilling her to the bone; the lights dimmed and flickered and the spiders in the corners fled. Rhonda looked up and saw the imposing figure of Mrs. Longenderfer looming over her. "How are we this morning, Jane? We aren't looking very chipper this fine day". Rhonda's face twitched as she tried to summon a smile from her last reserves. But two weeks of manic smiling had worn the nerves and muscles to exhaustion, they had nothing more to give.

Mrs. Longenderfer continued, waving a file with glee. "We're ready Jane, we're ready! The happiness vaccine is ready to be deployed. We're going to set up roadblocks on every road in Lancaster County today and treat everyone we can grab. The warehouse downstairs is full and the trucks are waiting to be loaded." She paused and glared at Rhonda. "What's the matter, Jane? Why aren't you smiling?" Rhonda stared up at her and felt the desperation of a cornered rabbit. She looked around for an escape, a distraction, a miracle, no luck on all counts.

Mrs. Longenderfer bared her teeth at her and affected a coy tone. "Now Jane, you know how much I care about you; I'm going to stand right here until I see you smile!" She planted her feet, crossed her arms and prepared to wait. Rhonda prayed as she had never prayed before in her life. 'Please god, take this maniac away from me. Why do they always demand a smile when they know perfectly well that you haven't got one?' Her eyes darted around and spotted a quick movement on top of the filing cabinet. She jumped, and screamed, and pointed. "A rat, a rat! Right there! Oh my god, a rat!"

"Oh Jane," sighed Mrs. Longenderfer, "If you were out drinking all night you only had to say so, you don't have to make up a ridiculous story to change the subject." She laid her purse on the filing cabinet, pulled out her gold cigarette case and lit up. "Really," she continued, waving the lighter around, "Here at Happy Valley we don't mind… " Here she interrupted herself with a heartfelt "Aieeehhhh!" A nimble, sleek, black rat ran out from between the January and February reports of smile arrest reports and leaped onto her purse, up her arm and scrambled to the top of her head. Mrs. L. panicked and beat at her head with both hands, lighter still ablaze.

Three hours later Rhonda and Mrs. L. stood outside the building watching the firemen hose down the smoldering remains. "Gone, all gone," croaked Mrs. L., her head swathed in bandages and a Red Cross blanket wrapped around her. "All the vaccine stock we had and the original recipe too; it'll take years and years to replicate. I don't know if I have the strength to carry the torch forward anymore; maybe I'll retire to my brother's turnip farm." She slumped onto a chair and stared into her coffee cup.

And finally, Rhonda smiled.