The Conferment

I learned today that my short story made it on to round 2 in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2017, placing 3rd in my heat. This is an international writing challenge, where writers are given a genre, a subject, and a character and they have a set amount of time to enter their stories. (8 days for round 1, 3 days for round 2, and 24 hours for the final round). My assignments was:
Genre: Political Satire
Subject: Guns
Character: a middle man
Here is my short story.

The Conferment

Forty-six year old Eddy Young was exhausted. His wife had nagged him until close to two a.m. and it took him three hours to get to his assigned elementary school. He was tired of everyone telling him what to do. He hated being assigned to the “resister” schools. They were so unreceptive, and sometimes downright rude. He much preferred the “cooperative” schools. They made him feel like a hero. Several weeks earlier he had been assigned to a school in Texas where they had a parade in honor of the occasion. Kids were dressed in pro-gun t-shirts and hats shaped like bullets. They carried signs with slogans written in heart bubbles- slogans like “Safety 4 Kids” and “Babies Need Bullets”. That principal had ordered pizza for all the new gun conferees, and the day was a true celebration- a rite of passage.

This one would not be like this. He would be greeted with cold judgment. He would not be welcome. They would fail to realize that he was just the intermediary. He didn’t set policy. He just delivered the goods. The Boss made the decisions.

He pulled up to Sunshine Elementary school, and a sliver of dread strangled a beat from his heart. He was only three months into this new role as the middleman between the government agency and the schools.  While he really didn’t like having to give these guns to the kids, he didn’t feel passionately either way, and he needed the money. He really didn’t feel passionately about anything. He was not a particularly kind or polished man, and he relied heavily on the scripts provided by the Boss in order to make it through these deliveries and presentations.  The Boss told him to “just be fast and professional- in and out”, and that “there would always be people who would resist the new laws. They just needed time to adjust.”

Eddy needed to simply ignore the day’s disapproval.  As the Boss explained, this was the law. Every child deserved to have the same level of security, and every child had to be trained as young as possible. The voters obviously agreed that it was far better to prepare our children than to leave them helpless. This was for everyone’s safety. Really, he was doing a great service.

Eddy opened the back hatch to his government-issued van and lifted out the dolly. He loaded the eight massive black bins onto the base, shut the hatch, and began wheeling the cargo to the front door. He got to the security panel and pressed the red button in order to have the doors opened for him. A woman’s voice came over the speaker. “State your name and business, please.”

“I’m Eddy Young with the Department of Youth Artillery Training. I have the new weapons for the five- year olds.”

He imagined her sucking in her breath. Although it had been almost a year since the new laws passed, the anti-gun fanatics were still in disbelief that all public school children were now required to carry handguns. “When you hear the chime, you may open the door,” the woman responded flatly.

The chime sounded and he entered the lobby. A faded mural of children playing hopscotch was barely visible on the left-hand wall, indicating days when recess allowed for such mindless, physical activities.  The opposite wall was peppered with security monitors recording every hallway in the building. Facing the screens sat the doorkeeper, a round-faced woman with stringy, gray hair, in a desk surrounded by tempered glass. Her eyes continually scanned the monitors. She leaned toward the glass and pushed a button. “Mr. Hope will be right with you,” she said, her eyes steady on the screens.

Eddy was greeted by Principal Hope in less than five minutes. “Hello,” Mr. Hope said in a formal welcome, one devoid of any pleasure. “Please follow me to the lunchroom, and we’ll prepare for the afternoon demonstration and conferment.”

Once they were in the cafeteria, Mr. Hope told Eddy that the seventy-eight children would be coming in at 2:00pm. “Many of these kids are very uneasy about today,” Mr. Hope told Eddy. “Hopefully you will ease their minds a bit before you hand out the guns. They are practically babies, after all.”

Eddy looked at this principal, who’s oversized bifocals and pleated pants placed him in another time, and told him exactly what he was trained to say when these resistant school officials tried to steer his focus.“ I will provide very clear instructions before distributing the weapons. They will be trained with the utmost detail to ensure safety for all,” said Eddy. He realized how sterile his words sounded, but didn’t attempt to nurture when he added, “There is no reason to create sentimentality, Mr. Hope. These are guns, not teddy bears. The point of the guns is for protection and safety, Mr. Hope.  I will make sure they understand that.”

Mr. Hope tilted his head to the right and looked critically at Eddy Young. “How do you do it?”

“How do I do what?” Eddy asked, dreading any questions that strayed from his script.

“How do you sleep at night knowing that you are perpetuating violence in our youngest citizens? You deliver these couriers of death, these guns, to our babies! I just don’t know how you live with yourself.” Principal Hope shook his head and frowned, his face reddening.

“It is my job. I don’t make the laws, Mr. Hope,” Eddy explained with all the confidence he could muster. “I’m just the middle man. I follow orders and do what I’m told.”

“Just do what you need to do. They’ll be in here in about 30 minutes,” Mr. Hope said, with an audible sigh of distaste. “I’ve got to make sure the paramedics are on their way. Last week, three kids were shot during a conferment down at Elks Elementary. I’m not taking any chances.”  He turned and walked out of the cafeteria with his head down.

“Well,” Eddy yelled to him, “I haven’t lost one yet. The safety is our main concern. I trust our training so much I don’t even worry about my own safety! Kids learn quicker than adults!”

Eddy opened his black cargo bins and carefully removed the small, sealed gun boxes that were inside. He unsealed each box with his box cutter, and placed one box at each seat along the cafeteria tables. He set up his projector and connected his laptop. He opened his presentation and took his notes out of his laptop bag.

Mr. Hope returned first. Then the five year olds began to filter in behind their teachers in perfect lines. They stood behind the seats at their respective lunch table and only sat once their teacher permitted it.  Once all four of the kindergarten classes were in and seated, Mr. Hope greeted them and introduced Eddy.

“Good afternoon, boys and girls,” Eddy said to them with a practiced smile. “I’m Mr. Young, and I’m here to walk you through the important steps of owning your first handgun. Before we start, I need to go over some safety precautions.”

`One girl shot her hand in the air and waved her arm to get his attention.

“Yes?” Eddy asked, staring at the little girl.

“My name is Cindy, and my mom said I might could have a pink one! Can I have a pink one? I want it to match my dresses!” She smiled at him with her best tooth-missing grin.

“I can’t promise you a pink one, young lady, but I promise you a gun that will work and protect you,” explained Eddy with a superficial grin.

“Now boys and girls,” Eddy asked his audience of kindergarten kids, “How many of you have shot a play gun before?”

Nearly every hand shot in the air.

“Great!” Eddy responded with encouragement. “And how many of you are excited to get your very own, brand new 9mm Glock pistol today?”

Again, nearly every hand shot in the air.

“Fantastic,” Eddy said, clearly ready to move past the introductory rah-rah. “Please look at the screen, as I walk you through some important safety information. The first thing you need to know is that these guns are not toys. They are real, and if you pull the trigger, a real bullet comes out. These are meant to protect you, so they will kill a person if you aim at their heart or their head.”

“You must never use the guns unless an adult tells you to. You must wear your guns in the security holster that is provided, and you must wear it anytime you are out of your home.”

Three hands shot up in the air. Eddy called on a tiny freckle-faced boy with curly golden hair. “Yes?”

“Even when I go to my fwen’s house?” he asked.

“Yes. All the time. It is for your protection,” said Eddy. “Now, let’s save questions for the end. I want you all to go ahead and remove the cover from your boxes. You’ve all passed the oral exam over the gun terminology, so you know what I mean when I say we will be using hollow-point projectile ammunition. Who can tell me why we use that type of ammunition?”

He looked at his audience and saw several little boys wiggling in their seats, debating whether or not to venture guesses. He opted to tell them the answer. “We use this type of ammunition because it does the most damage. These bullets have little air pockets inside that cause the bullet to expand when it hits something. The idea is to make sure you shoot to kill someone who is threatening your personal safety.”

After instructing them in how to clean and lubricate their guns, he said, “Here is a short video to show you step by step how to release the magazine and load the ammunition into your pistols. By the way, the children who made this video were the winners of the nationwide ‘Guns for Kids Safety’ contest last summer. They got to go to Camp Glock, where they helped create educational materials, and learned to fire more powerful guns, like AK-47 assault rifles. Some of you may be interested in this opportunity for next summer. You have to be at least six years old to apply.”

Eddy pushed play on the video.  The children watched in silence, some with fear in their eyes, others with the excitement of Christmas morning.  When the video ended, Eddy asked that each child proceed to press the side button on their guns to release their magazines. He instructed them to load two rounds of ammunition, rounded side first, then click the magazine back into the handgrip, and secure the orange safety lever on the back left side.  Clicks began to echo throughout the cafeteria. Several girls with particularly tiny fingers struggled to press hard enough to produce the “click”, so their teachers had to help them.

Once every student had a loaded gun, Eddy told them it was time to head outside for their test-fire training. He instructed them to secure their pistols in the provided holsters, butt end down. The children lined up, filed out the door to the adjacent playground, and stood in ready position. Eddy directed them to remove their guns from the holsters.

“Now push in the safety lever to disengage the safety function,” Eddy instructed the seventy-eight youngsters. “And raise your gun in the air, careful not to touch the trigger until I tell you. It is going to be loud. We purposely train you without earmuffs so you will be prepared for the real world.”

The children raised their guns. Two unplanned shots fired their deafening pop, causing a parade of screams to pierce the silence.

“Do not shoot until you’ve been instructed,” yelled Eddie. He was agitated, but used to this. There were always a few kids who didn’t listen.

“Now, with the gun pointing straight up, put your index finger on the trigger, and, when I say shoot, you will pull the trigger and shoot into the sky. Ready… set… SHOOT!”

Shots fired from their tiny hands, causing many of the children to stagger at the powerful kick back. A couple of little girls began to cry. Teachers helped a few individual children with guns that didn’t fire properly. When the shots were rendered, Eddy told the children they would next shoot their second round, which should have automatically loaded, since these were premium semi-automatic Glocks.

The children lifted their arms again, preparing to shoot. Before Eddy could say “shoot”, however, a stray bullet flew from what must have been one of the children’s guns. Eddy felt it penetrate the soft spot between one of his left ribs. Then there was blackness.

The next morning, Principal Hope looked at the front page headline in the newspaper on his desk. It read, “Local Kindergartener Wipes Out the Middle Man.” No one was in his office to see the hint of a smile that crept across his lips.

A unique, special “kneads” bakery in Lawrenceville, GA is making a world of difference

Here is another article I wrote in the OUR TOWN MARCH 2017 – GREEN edition. (https://issuu.com/ourtownmag/docs/otm_mar2017_green_web) This is an article about a VERY unique, non-profit bakery that hires only special needs adults.

Special Kneads & Treats bakery offers employment to adults with special needs

By Heidi Campbell

“Everyone kneads to be kneaded.” Those words are stenciled across the wall inside Lawrenceville’s most important and inspiring bakery: Special Kneads and Treats bakery. Numerous magazines, newspapers, and even the Today Show told of the January 2014 opening of this unique, delicious eatery. The non-profit bakery, opened by Michael and Tempa Kohler, was their vision for not only helping the less fortunate, but also securing job opportunities for special needs adults. “Our twenty-seven year old son has special needs,” explains Tempa. “He has Fragile X Syndrome, so we moved to Gwinnett County for their great schools. After he graduated from Grayson High School, he completed his four years in the Strive program, and then there was nothing. There are so few job opportunities for these special adults, and so we decided we’d open this bakery and he could work there!”

While hiring adult special needs employees is their business model, the heart of the Special Knead’s mission  is to provide a birthday cake for any child in the area who wouldn’t otherwise have one. They provide gift certificates to numerous local food banks, as well as organizations including Rainbow Village, DEFACS, Uniting Hope for Children, Bethany Christian Services, C.C. Services, Wishes for Me Foundation, and, most recently, the Partnership Against Domestic Violence. The organizations then give the gift certificates to clients who call the bakery, with twenty-four hour notice, to order their birthday cakes. They receive a 9×13 sheet cake with their choice of four different designs.

The bakery’s donations don’t stop with the birthday cakes, however. They reach out to as many charitable organizations as their donation intake allows. They recently donated four hundred cupcakes to the Village of Hope, which is a non-profit organization that helps the homeless in Lawrenceville.  They also donate cupcakes to several events honoring veterans, they donate to Night to Shine, which is the Special Needs Prom program that Tim Tebow developed, and they donate to Gwinnett County’s  sherriff, police, and fire departments.

The shop features a delectable selection of cakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes, cookies, and “choc-corn”. Their cupcake selection includes twenty-six heavenly flavors, including salted caramel, Mississippi Mud, and German chocolate, with options for vegan, gluten free, and sugar-free dietary needs. They have eight flavors which they change out monthly. This month, they featured a “New Year’s Resolution” cupcake for those watching their calories. One regular customer, Justin, a special needs adult who works at Kroger, helps them create new cupcake ideas. His sixth and most recent idea, the Peppermint Bark Cupcake, is currently in the mix, and it features a vanilla cupcake with a mint chocolate ganache center, topped with white chocolate cream cheese icing and red and white chocolate shavings on top.

The “choc-corn”, available in small, large, and even a $100 bag, may be their most unique and popular item. People rarely leave without a bag of the white chocolate coated corn puffs. “We had a customer who was here from out of town,” recalls Tempa. “He tried our choc-corn and loved it so much that he went and bought a suitcase so he could bring home twenty bags!”

The bakery employs twelve special needs adults, ages twenty-two and up, who begin as volunteers.  They also welcome seven volunteers who come in to help out with the large special orders. According to Tempa, they have a waiting list of 130 special needs adults who would like to secure a job at the bakery. “We are actually in the process of opening a new, larger location,” shares Tempa. “This will be off of Scenic Highway, and we plan to move in by the end of April. Once we have more space, we hope to really work down that list of 130 special needs adults looking for work.”

The bakery’s employees do all sorts of jobs in the shop, with the exception of using the ovens. They fold boxes, greet and help customers, attach date stickers to liners, decorate cakes, sweep, bag choc-corn, and chop pecans. “To see the expression on their faces when they do something they’ve never done before is amazing,” beams Tempa. “They are so proud of what they can do. One of our employees, Scott, who uses a walker, was 52 years old when he started working here. He’s now 54 and lives with his parents.  When he got his first paycheck, he was so excited that he cashed it and took his dad out to lunch.”

This bakery truly has it all: heart, a higher purpose, and delicious sweets. The bakery is equipped to handle all orders large and small. Along with normal cake orders, they also do multi-tiered wedding cakes and have successfully filled numerous large orders; the Pigs and Peaches BBQ event in Kennesaw ordered 1,000 cupcakes. “The adults who work here are amazing employees. They take pride in what they do, they are always on time, and they love their paychecks!” explains Tempa. “We need to educate the public that these adults can do so many jobs- all they need is a chance.”

Visit http://specialkneadsandtreats.com/index.html to learn more about this special bakery or to donate to their worthy cause.

 

I love big books and I cannot lie…

Here is an article about some of my favorite books!  I wrote this for the March 2017 issue of OUR TOWN -Blue edition .(https://issuu.com/ourtownmag/docs/otm_mar2017_blue_web?reader3=1)

Top 5 novels to escape into on a chilly winter afternoon

By Heidi Campbell

Book enthusiasts love to curl up on the couch, layered in fuzzy blankets, and disappear into the lives of intriguing characters and fictional plots. Although the spindly fingers of social media threaten to ravage pleasure reading, there are still hoards of people who will never give up on the world of fiction and reading for pleasure. Book clubs still thrive in our communities and authors continue to sell millions of books.  As a true book nerd, book club member, and 23-year, veteran High School English teacher, I find inner peace and relaxation in the pages of a good book. A good book has great power, for a reader comes away from the pages a changed person. My grandmother used to say, “Oatmeal is good for you! It sticks to your ribs.” A good book, then, is like oatmeal.  Here is a list of my top five contemporary novels to enjoy as the winter months persist. Every one of these books will stick with me forever.

  1. A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, is, hands down, my all-time favorite novel, and one that I’ve gifted and had two different book clubs read. Set in India in 1975, it is 603 pages of literary genius. The character development and realism found on these pages has been compared by most critics to that of Charles Dickens. The story of Om, Ishwar, Maneck and Dina is one that defines the caste system and its harsh permanence, while shining a fleeting light on a developing friendship, one which rises above the societal standard. The writing is real- and it is not for those seeking a happy ending. This is one that makes a reader truly grateful for freedom, safety,  and the pursuit of dreams; and heartbroken for injustice, hatred, and poverty the likes of which most Americans will never understand.
  2. The State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, is the perfect title for this imagery-filled, brilliant novel in which readers are wholly struck by wonder until the last page. Scenes from this novel are unforgettable- including a terrifying battle with an anaconda and a fertility ritual involving the Lakashi women and a “special” tree. Set deep in the forests of the Amazon, the story blends the demands of the pharmaceutical world with the passion for science and discovery. With suspenseful twists and turns, deadly insects and snakes, and a culture of cannibalism and mystique, the story is at once shocking, thought-provoking, and heart breaking.
  3. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philip Sendker is a story that manages to make even the most skeptical reader believe in a bit of kismet. The storytelling in this novel, as well in its sequel, A Well Tempered Heart, are reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson classics that have captured readers for centuries. The story begins with the disappearance of a top-notch New York lawyer. When his daughter, Julia, uncovers a hidden letter from his past, she sets out on a journey to find him in Southeast Asia. U Ba, an endearing elderly Burmese man, weaves a backstory of loss, love, survival, human connection, and passion that astounds both Julia and the reader.  This is a mesmerizing story that can be read over and over.
  4. The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall, is an engaging novel which I mistakenly read as a memoir and only realized near the end that it was fiction. Readers should be warned that this is a wild, often unsavory ride. Udall’s style refuses to sugar coat anything, which is also clear from another of his novels: The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. The main character, Golden, is a tormented, worn-out polygamist who must juggle four wives, twenty-eight children, a girlfriend, religion, and his career. With a mix of both humor and heartbreak, Udall reveals human weakness and triumph in just over 600 remarkable pages.
  5. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, and there is no doubt that it was deserving of such an honor. The book is set in North Korea, a land that most Americans know very little about. The story, rich in realism and imagery, takes the reader on a journey with Jun Do, a man who will do unthinkable things to survive. The reader steps into a life governed by unfairness, where humans lack humanity and people live in perpetual fear; certainly not a sought-after existence. The insight into a country of such governance is both terrifying and insightful. This is a very tough, traumatic, yet important read.

 

Look for additional Top 5 Book Recommendations in future issues of Our Town, including “Top 5 Authors”, “Top 5 Memoirs”, “Top 5 Humor” and more.