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This story is in no way related to the horror movie of the same name. This story was conceived many, many years prior to that film's release - and is not even in the same genre, unless you are horrorified by piles of human excrement. Read the blog post on this story...

The Ring

“...I moved to Briarbuckle so I wouldn’t have traffic jams outside my kitchen window. Now a two-story office building is going in my backyard. What do you think will happen to the property values?”

Leonard Lever was inflamed with indignity, and as he took a malignant pause, the crowd of property owners muttered their approval. Artie, his diminutive opponent, sat dead center behind the table for Briarbuckle’s Board of Directors, and in response to this intense, barely civil aggression, he scratched his chin, appearing demure. His eyes flitted to his left to check his fellow board members Mario and Logan, both slouching in scaly silence. He knew they would not intercede.

The crowd hushed again, but the panting Leonard was unable to compose himself for another assault. Artie cleared his throat and said, “The Harlott building will be 750 feet from your property line.”

“How do I know that won’t change?” Leonard asked. “What is 750 feet? Is that even a football field?!”

Mario started drawing on his copy of the meeting’s agenda, rough lines that coalesced into a decent caricature of Leonard’s head. Its mouth was open, and something like excrement was flowing out of it. The Briarbuckle Company had hired Mario to coordinate builders’ plans throughout the Briarbuckle community, so he knew the details for ongoing construction projects. The company had hired Logan to calculate the finances necessary for each development, so he knew the timeline for construction and projected traffic delays. Because of this supposed knowledge, they were required to attend all homeowner meetings. Artie had yet to understand why he was required to attend the meetings, except that he was the only company rep who said anything during these events.

“The Harlott firm is an ideal company for this development,” Artie said, “and we have their assurances they will minimize their impact on the natural environment.”

“And we’re supposed to believe that?”

The crowd muttered again its support for Leonard. Artie sat forward, his hands clasped on the table. “Leonard, the relationship between the residents and the commercial projects in Briarbuckle is like a marriage - both sides have to work and coexist together.”

“I don’t remember ever signing an agreement to this. A marriage needs two willing participants.”

Mario leaned forward.  “They’re not always willing.”

Members of the crowd snickered, and Mario nodded, showed a half-smile, accepting their mild approbation before withdrawing again to his artwork.

The humor did not placate Leonard. His face burned a dark crimson, his pores ready to burst with steam, but he dropped to his seat in deference when Penny Parson stood up. She held a pile of manila folders in her hand, which almost matched her beige pantsuit.

“Perhaps this is not the best time to debate the issue,” she said with her usual commiserative tone. “I have collected multiple testimonials from homeowners about this issue, and the board needs to read them before we discuss the matter further. I’ve made enough copies for all of you, and then we should have an emergency meeting before the end of the month.”

Logan scribbled a note on his agenda sheet and slid the paper over to Artie. It read, That is the fourth one this year.

Artie started cautiously, “The board is always willing to discuss the concerns of the residents—”

“Then it is settled,” Penny said with austerity, as if she were inspecting the work of a housemaid and deemed it of passable quality. “Now, I would like to address the name of our community.”

“I’m not sure I understand your request.”

“I am petitioning the board to change the name of Briarbuckle. A community in Idaho has taken our name. That is not only an outrage, but I doubt they have enough trees in the entire state to do honor to the name.”

“Actually, that development in Idaho is using our name as a tribute—”

“My husband said we cannot sue Idaho because the Briarbuckle Company did not trademark the name. So instead of Briarbuckle, our name should be The Briarbuckle, so everyone knows that we are the one and only The Briarbuckle.”

“You want to mandate the use of a definite article?”

“And capitalize it.”

“I don’t know the procedure on a name change. I imagine it would take quite a bit of time.”

“As residents of The Briarbuckle, we are ready for the challenge. Our children need to know that they live in the best place in the world.”

“Ummm- We will have to discuss this with Bill Buckle.”

“I have petitions.”  Penny bent down to retrieve more folders off the floor, her ballooning rump wiggling in the air like two wide layers of cake pressed together. “I’ve made copies for everyone.” She passed a pile of papers forward, and a still-steaming Leonard deposited them in front of Artie. “Please do not mix them up with the anti-Harlott petitions.”

“Well, umm- I guess I should thank for your attention to detail but—”

Mario sat forward, shooting a poisonous look at Artie, and said, “The board will take it under advisement. The meeting is adjourned then.” He rapped the desk with his knuckles.

****

Artie came home late again. His wife was upstairs, with the TV turned loud. He decided to skip dinner. He sat on the living room. He could hear the late-night chatter from the bedroom. There was a joke, and then another joke, both about the president, about his affair and his semen. Artie lied down. Mario and Logan had swapped the same jokes before the meeting and thinking about that, about all the same jokes being repeated over and over throughout the world, it made Artie tired. He fell asleep and seemed to snap instantly into a dream.

In his dream, he woke up with an incredible hunger. He was in the bedroom, although could not remember getting up from the couch, but he knew where he was by the sound of his wife snoring. His stomach growled as he pulled himself out of bed and went downstairs. He stepped into the kitchen, and the refrigerator started ringing like a telephone. He opened it and started grabbing cans of food. He found Penny Parson Peas with her face grinning on the label. Mayonnaise of Mario, Loaf of Leonard, Harlott Ham. He made a huge sandwich with all these ingredients, but as he went to take a small bite, the whole thing fell into his mouth, as if an invisible arm were pushing it down his throat. His body shook with spasms, and his white belly bloated like he was a day-old fish. In a haze of nausea, Artie tried to put two fingers down his throat.  Then he woke up. He was in the bedroom, although he could not remember going up the stair, and his wife was snoring beside him.

****

Imelda handed Artie a stack of pink messages when he entered the office.

“Leonard Lever has called twice already. Penny Parson called once. Bill Buckle ordered a special meeting for next week.”

“Does anybody ever sleep?” Artie rubbed the messages together while scratching his chin.

“You look tired. No sleep?”

“Hold my calls please.” He started to go in his office. “Um- unless Bill Buckle calls. Or my wife. Or if it’s important.”

Imelda nodded slowly.

“Thank you,” he said.

Artie went to his office and started looking at the architect’s plans for the Harlott building. He could hear the phone ringing at his secretary’s desk. He watched the clock. It rang once every seven minutes. He wrote a reminder to request a raise for Imelda. At that moment, her voice came over the speaker phone.

“I have Bill Buckle on line five. He says it’s urgent.”

“I’ll take it.” Artie took a deep breath and punched line five. “This is Artie.”

“Artie Weld? This is Philip Worthington.”

The voice on the other line was snide, not the booming bulldozer of The Briarbuckle’s founder, and Artie desperately started throwing pencils at his office door. Imelda was talking on the phone and did not notice.

“I moved into Briarbuckle three months ago, and now some construction crews are clearing the lot next door. Am I to understand that you are building a house next to mine?”

“Umm ... Mr. Worthington ... Could you hold please?”
            “I didn’t call to be put on hold. I moved here to get away from the city. Now it seems Briarbuckle corporate wants to force the city on us. Who is going to live there?”

“We have a lot of houses being built right now.”

“So I have to suffer for your fat paycheck.”
            “Could you hold please?”

“What kind of operation is this? My realtor promised me a fifteen-foot buffer. This new house will be eleven feet from my shrubbery. I measured it myself.”

“We are still a growing community...”

“I want my buffer. I moved here for my own personal health and comfort, and I’ve had only one month of true peace and quiet before this started.  Bill Buckle will never stand for this—”

Artie, his finger shaking, put Mr. Worthington on hold. His shirt flapped from the heart slamming the inside of his chest. He took two deep breaths then stepped out of his office. Imelda apologized immediately.

“Mr. Buckle is on line four. I’m so sorry, sir. I was confused. The phone’s been ringing all morning. I’ve already apologized to Mr. Buckle.”

“Tell the man on line five that someone will contact him in a few days.”

“About what?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Artie went back to his office and clicked line four.

“Artie!” Mr. Buckle boomed over the line. “It might be time for a new secretary. Do you want me to call personnel?”

Artie picked up the note he had written. He started to crumple it up but stopped and smoothed it out on his desktop. “No, no, Imelda’s fine.”

“Whatever. I’ve been talking to the people from the Cake Company. They want to move their corporate headquarters to Briarbuckle. Facilities for 5,000 people and three or four buildings.”

“Um, where would we put it?”

“I was looking at the map. There’s an open spot next to a row of houses in the far southern corner. It’s near Briarbuckle Park.”

Artie looked at the large community map on his office wall. “We have- have plans for a swimming pool there, sir.”

“Good. The people at Cake can use it. Of course we go incommunicado to the residents, at least until we have a contract. I’ll have more details by the end of the week.”

“Thank you.” Artie put the phone in its cradle and laid his head down.

Imelda brought in a copy of the Briarbuckle Informer, the community newspaper.  The top headline read, “Weld says community wedded to Harlott.” Artie put his head down again.

After an hour, he threw away all his pink message slips.

****

In the week leading up to the emergency Harlott meeting, Penny Parson ran several ads in the Briarbuckle Informer urging people to attend. By the time the meeting commenced, people who arrived late had to stand in the back, their arms crossed like a team of brooding ushers, as the over-capacity crowd sucked all the air out of the room. Artie sat at the head table, his hands splayed on his portfolio, with Logan and Mario looking bored beside him. The din of conversation shrank the room even more, and Artie could feel the sweat from his palms seeping through the thin paperboard portfolios to the documents within. He announced, with some urgency, “Okay, let’s get started.”

The crowd hushed only when Penny Parson stood up. She had been in the room, at her seat, before Artie had arrived, and he had detected a challenge in her smirk as she watched him stumble to the front of the room, an early salvo in their undeclared heretofore one-sided war. But as she paused to soak up the silence of the room, Artie stole the floor from her.

“The Briarbuckle has analyzed all your comments concerning the Harlott firm, as well as several other recurring issues, and we have found a solution for all these problems.”

Mario and Logan looked equally uninterested, but the room was silent. Artie slid the first large map of out of a portfolio, a top-down view of the various neighborhoods with a superimposed image of black lines touching all the little houses in their rows, with big black circle surrounding the whole community.

“This is our sewer system,” Artie said, tracing his finger around the main circle, a giant pipe ringing the entire development.

 “All of The Briarbuckle is within this circle. All waste materials are fed from the interior sewerage system to this pipe, which eventually pushes it all out through this main exit here where it goes to a waste-treatment plant near Springfield.

“One unique part of this design, if you shut down that one exit pipe, all of these community resources stay in the ring. They don’t leave The Briarbuckle. So, with the pipes filling up, all you have to do is break the seals on the junction pipes, here here and here, and the contents will rise up wherever you want it. I figure, if we release seals at enough points, it would be sufficient to create a barrier around the whole community. No construction. No cost. The barrier would rise up from the ground.

“I also figured, since the presence of such a barrier would mean no more people, no more businesses, this proposal would get unanimous approval. So I already did it. The first wave should reach the surface tonight.”

The crowd was still. Artie slid out his second visual aid, a line chart with two arrows, one going up and the other on a steep decline. “As you can see, the number of new residents and businesses goes down as the amount of sewerage on the ground goes up.” The crowd looked from the diminishing chart to Artie’s haggard face. He smiled, too wide, as if fighting against the dark, lifeless skin hanging under his eyes, pulling down his face. “The Harlott firm will sever our contract once they learn about our sewer border. In fact, with minimal luck, we will reach population stagnation before the circle is complete. Just remember, every time you flush a toilet, you will be doing your part for The Briarbuckle.”

Artie sat down. There was a suffocating stillness to the room. His hands were shaking, and he steadied them by laying them flat on the table top. He stared at the half-moons of dirt under his fingernails as he waited for the explosions of protest, indignation, disgust. He did not risk a glance at the crowd, for he wanted all these elements to react naturally. He stared at his hands until his eyes became unfocused and his mind started to drift. He thought about Idaho. He had never been to that state with its strange shape, tapering to the north like the peak of a mountain. He imagined it had prolific potato farms and giant, silent caverns. He thought he would like to visit Idaho.

“Excuse me,” a voice came from the crowd, “isn’t the eastern valve near Doublebee Road?”

The images of Idaho shattered. It was the right voice, one Artie had hoped to hear, but the tone was wrong. Inquisitive. Empty of rage. Artie looked up to see Philip Worthington’s white head floating over the crowd. Mario took a quick glance at Artie’s map and said, “Yes it is.”

“Hmmm. I have to say that’s a unique idea, very much on the outside border of the box.” Philip scratched his chin. “I can see the benefits. I doubt my new neighbors will finish their house if it is ten feet from the border.”

A pain cut across Artie’s heart, as if it were trying to fold itself in half.

The crowd started a low, indistinct mutter. Stray words bobbed up from the gray noise in the room – “…gold diggers…” “…when it rains…” “…water rights…” “…land surveys…” – detached from meaning and weightless above the din. Artie opened his mouth, but he was a wordless picture, the centerpiece in a landscape of pale faces all talking in a blur.

These free-floating words dropped when Penny Parson stood up. “People, please, now, we have a solution to the Harlott problem. But we must ask ourselves, with this new development, how are we going to maintain it?”

“We need to keep it safe for children.”

“If we have excess, we could sell it to other communities.”

“Can we turn it off for Christmas?”

“If we all add food coloring to our toilets, we could make the border a nice burnt orange for Thanksgiving.”

“Yes, yes, with any new idea come ten more,” Penny said. “So we should form a volunteer committee to deal with all new issues arising from the ring.”

“Sounds more like a job for the board of directors,” Leonard Lever said.

The muttering of the crowd took on a unanimous voice directed toward the head of the room.

“Mr. Weld,” Penny said, simpering, “it appears we need someone from The Briarbuckle Company to head a new committee to organize all these suggestions. Any thoughts?”

Artie’s mouth moved, but his throat was tight, allowing out only a thin groan.

“You are the expert on this new development,” Penny said. “You understand the need to keep The Briarbuckle unspoiled.”

Artie tried to speak, “I… I don’t–”

“The annual bake sale less than a month away, so if we are going to make such change, we need someone with your experience at the helm. I will draft a letter to Bill Buckle insisting he promote you immediately.”

She started to clap. The other residents followed her lead. The applause stitched a steely lattice of nausea at the pit of Artie’s stomach. To calm himself, he reorganized his oversized visual aids and placed them neatly back inside the thin arms of the portfolio.

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