SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 23, 2010

Author’s Note: Whenever possible, I try to avoid being a big fat insufferable whore. This has not made me popular among publicists. So in the spirit of goodwill, I’ve decided this small foray into whoredom wouldn’t leave me feeling too filthy inside. On June 1, I’ll be releasing my new book, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and Other Fairy Tales (Simon & Schuster, $14). Between now and then, Electron Press will be running a few stories originally intended for the book, but not included in the final collection. The hope is that if you like these stories, you’ll like the ones in the book even more, thus feeling compelled to buy several copies. So please don’t hold it against me.

 

The Night of Broken Glasses

 

It was a moonless black night a long, long time ago, and all the people of Fraidiland were sound asleep. It was not a community known for its nightlife. These were hard-working, terrified people who hit the hay as soon as the sun set, and arose with the first cock’s crow at dawn. In between, they slept hard and well behind locked doors and barred windows.

            That particular night, they were sleeping so soundly, in fact, that not a single one of them noticed when the storm rolled in.

            Now, this was no ordinary storm, see, and if any of the Fraidilanders had been awake to notice they would have seen just how different this storm was from any other storm that had ever blown through the kingdom. The sky rumbled with great crackles of echoing thunder, but there was no lightning and no rain. The ground remained dry, and the sky remained black. There weren’t even any clouds, though if anyone had looked they would have seen the stars rippling like reflections on the surface of nearby Lake Millie. Perhaps strangest of all—and no one in Fraidiland would have believed it had they seen it—for one full hour all of the animals in Fraidiland‚ the cows and pigs and donkeys and sheep, the dogs and cats, the squirrels, the ducks and even the fish floated upside down in the air. Just quietly bobbed there upside down for an hour without making a noise. In the morning the animals were a trifle dizzy and wobbly on their feet, but otherwise unharmed. They went about their normal beastly business, not even bothering to discuss the strange events of the previous night among themselves.

            That’s not the important thing, though—just something I thought was worth mentioning. Something even stranger happened that night.

            After the unusual storm passed and the dawn broke as it always breaks, the people of Fraidiland opened their eyes and learned one by one that something had gone terribly awry.

            “Where the hell are my glasses?” a dairy farmer named Ludwig asked his sleepy wife moments before planting his soft and dainty bare feet in the shattered bits of glass and plastic on the floor next to the bed.

            “Yowch!” he screamed.

            A similar scene occurred in nearly every household of the kingdom. Every single bespectacled resident awoke to find their glasses—which would normally rest safely on the bedstand all night—shattered into a million pieces on the floor. Likewise, those who wore contact lenses awoke to find their lenses were no longer soaking in the conditioning solution they’d prepared the night before—or worse, had completely dried up and shriveled away. And those poor folks who had been blessed with perfect 20/20 vision awoke on the morning after the storm to find they were quite suddenly and severely myopic.

            Word quickly spread that as of that morning everyone in Fraidiland was half-blind.

            By the laws of chance, if this had happened to two or three people over the course of a single night, it might have been understandable. But everyone? How was that possible? They locked their doors and barred their windows. They weren’t by nature a group of fitful sleepers. It was all quite confounding, I must say (and everyone in Fraidiland agreed).

            Strange and disturbing as it was, Fraidilanders were a stalwart and level-headed people, not prone to superstitions or crazy conspiracy theories. At any other time this might have represented nothing more than a curious coincidence and a mighty fine day for local opticians. Sadly, this wasn’t one of those other times, for this was the day the people of Fraidiland were set to go to the polls and choose a new king.

            (Before you go opening your big yap, I’m fully aware that kings are generally appointed, not elected. But this is the way they did it in Fraidiland, so just shut the hell up.)

            With everyone in the kingdom suddenly blind as a bat, choosing a new king became much more difficult. You see, the two candidates they were going to choose between looked and sounded an awful lot alike. The things they said and promised were very similar as well. They both said they were going to lower property taxes and fight crime and improve the schools. Even their names were similar—one was named Edmund, the other Edward.

            But the two men were not alike at all deep down. Edward was not only bone stupid, but cruel and evil on top of it. And while Edmund was just as evil as Edward, at least he wasn’t so obvious about it.

            Or maybe he was less conniving and evil, but just as stupid. Or maybe I’m getting the names completely switched around. Nobody was really sure anymore. All they knew was that one was definitely bad news, and the other one only . . . well, less so.

            In an emergency secret meeting, both candidates agreed that a minor inconvenience like millions of pairs of mysteriously busted glasses should not, even for a single day, delay the ascension of one or the other to the throne, so they issued a joint decree stating that the election would go on as scheduled.

            So that day the people of Fraidiland stumbled and bumbled their way over to their local polling places and took their best shot. A few people ended up in ditches, one in a laundromat, a couple in the local hardware store. But for the most part everyone made it to the polls eventually.

            In the weeks that followed, those who had lost their glasses or contact lenses that strange night had them replaced, those who had become terribly nearsighted adjusted to new lenses of one kind or another, and Fraidiland’s optometrists became very wealthy indeed.

            It was only after the people could see properly again that they realized they had in fact chosen the man who was both evil and stupid to be their new king.

            (It was Edmund, by the way, if you were curious. And boy was he a stinker.)

            But even after recognizing the error of their ways, the proud people of Fraidiland were far too embarrassed to admit it to anyone, insisting for the awful decades that followed that they had in fact chosen the right king, and that the other guy, Edward (who had been executed by royal order the day after the election) would have been far, far worse.

 

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