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Sammy was assigned to guard the Bridge of Long Mouth. His superiors hoped that perhaps the bridge’s name would encourage Sammy to speak up. Sammy was a good kid, they said, but he’d never make it anywhere if he didn’t learn to speak up, raise his voice, and belt it out. Yessir! We can’t hear you. Yessir!!! I suppose that’s better. I suppose that will have to do.
On the other side of the Bridge of Long Mouth was the Casino, which was a valuable entity in the war, because it was where they stored all their diseases. It was like the Fort Knox of the Black Death. And they held the Casino as a secret weapon that, if the war dragged on or got too close, they’d deploy like Christopher Fuckin’ Columbus and smallpox.
Of course Sammy didn’t know any of this secret weapon stuff. He was just guarding a bridge, which turned out to be an exceedingly boring job. He just stood there. Every once in a while somebody would drive up and Sammy would get out and check I.D. It was always somebody Sammy knew. “Oh hey, Greta.” “What? You’re gonna have to speak up. I can’t hear you.” “Hey Greta!” “Oh hey Sam, I’m goin’ to play some roulette.” Or, “…going to try my luck at the tables.” Sammy never asked them what they were doing at the Casino, all he had to do was check I.D., but they always offered it up like he was some kind of gambling border control therapist. Sammy didn’t care what they were doing, or what hole they were trying to fill. He was just trying to do his job. Jobs can be really boring, but he was also rather happy to have a boring job, which was actually a rather cush job, which meant he wasn’t very good at fighting nor very brave, which meant they wouldn’t put him anywhere near the action where he could fuck things up and get somebody killed or disturb the overall balance of sovereignty in this stupid world. That was all fine with Sammy. Just fine. He was guarding a bridge. This was his part in all of it.
Sometimes at night Sammy would turn away from the Bridge of Long Mouth and gaze back at the Casino rising up through the trees like a castle neuschwanstein, a distant warm and noble structure at the edge of the horizon. It made him feel good and happy like he was watching over a fairy tale. Sammy didn’t know that he was staring at the house of deadly disease down in the basement; the storage container for the plague that could eradicate the human species, but hey, it would end the war and they’d win, and then they’d be dead. But first they’d win. So there. Take that! The Casino was a pretty sight on the horizon of the unknown. Sammy thought his superiors simply valued gambling revenue a lot, and he had to admit, it indeed was a pretty, pretty building, and beauty, to Sammy, was worth defending.
Being a Bridge Guard in your hometown came with a few perks. You were a kind of local celebrity, boy-made-good, sort of, but it wasn’t like you did anything important and your old friends who weren’t really your friends, always let you know that. Don’t get a big head, they seemed to say, I made more money gambling tonight than you make in a month. But at least Sammy was a known person.
And the second more important perk of his job was his mother’s homemade cookies. She’d drive them out herself, and she and Sammy would chat for a bit. Before she dropped off the cookies, she always made him speak nice and loud when thanking his momma for the cookies. “Thank you for the cookies, momma.” “What? I can’t hear you.” “Thank you for the cookies, momma!!!” “That’s better, you’re welcome.” This was all prescribed by Sammy’s father as necessary, and Sammy knew his mother was only following orders from his father, who was a big shot commander in the military and who was stationed far away near the center of the war, no doubt ordering people around in a loud, commanding voice.
The cookies were good. Yeah, they were worth speaking up for. They were a good carrot and stick, but Sammy always felt a little stupid playing into this game. What was he, a soft-spoken bunny rabbit? It never made him feel very good. No, not very good at all.
Word must’ve gotten out that Sammy really like cookies, because one day he checked a woman’s i.d. and she gave him a box of cookies. Here you go, she said. Her name was Oswald, and she worked at the Casino in the kitchen. What? Sammy said. Here are some cookies for you! Oswald said. Thank you, Sammy said. And he only had to say it once. She could hear him, she decided she wanted to. You’re welcome, Oswald said. And funny thing, Oswald’s cookies were better than his mother’s chocolate chip speak-up cookies. Oswald’s cookies possessed a delightful salty goop inside with just the slightest crunch on top and holy shit, they were COOKIES. In fact, Sammy made the mistake of neglecting to finish his mother’s last batch of cookies she’d dropped off with him. When mother returned the next week, she of course noticed them sitting in his guard booth. What is that? she said, pointing at her stale cookies like they were her heart in Tupperware. Your cookies, Sammy said, for he could not lie. What? his mother said, I can’t hear you, you’re going to have to speak up! Before he could, she grabbed her Tupperware: “you know what, never mind, you obviously don’t like my cookies anymore, you’ve got better cookies, how dare you, you could’ve at least told me you are now getting your cookies elsewhere and saved me all this slave work baking, wait until your father hears about this, he’s been protecting you, but now that you have disgraced your mother, he may not be able to continue his kindness.”
She left and took her cookies.
Goodness, Sammy thought, Mother can really kick it into full drama queen mode. He almost saw the physical chip on her shoulder as she stalked away and he knew it would remain so for quite some time. He sighed and dug out one of Oswald’s cookies. Damn, they were good.
The note from his father arrived as an official military telegram. “Sammy/Son STOP We have decided to test diseases on Casino, b’c war is too close STOP Must win at all cost STOP Must be strong STOP Grunt STOP You wouldn’t know STOP You weak STOP Have protected you long enough too long STOP Now sending you to front STOP Sink or swim buddy STOP Do or die STOP Ps your mother’s cookies are best how could you STOP Regards Captain Frankenwalder/Father”
Now, his father the Captain was an asshole, but Sammy knew that already. Sammy didn’t like his new assignment. He would surely get his ass kicked. Probably die. What’s worse, Oswald would die as a pointless experiment in the Casino.
He ate another of Oswald’s cookies.
Was he crazy or did he feel immediately and physically better after eating that cookie? It was undeniably a great cookie, but there was something else going on. Damn! Too bad there weren’t very many of those babies left.
Sammy had to think. He needed some time. He finished off the last of the cookies and stayed up all night sitting in his guard booth without a single blip of traffic.
By the morning he had a plan, which was really saying something because Sammy didn’t make many plans in any areas of his life. He usually did the equivalent of standing guard as he watched everybody else go in and out, off and off, the bridge that led to all areas of action.
The blessed moment of the morning after his big planning session was Oswald. She stopped by again on her way into the Casino, and holy shitballs of good fortune, she brought another batch of cookies.
Oswald didn’t say anything, but she smiled as she presented her cookies.
“Oh my god, holy shit, thank you!!!” Sammy couldn’t contain himself. “These are the best fucking cookies I’ve ever had in my entire life! I am so happy to see you!!”
Then she went to work at the Casino.
It all happened so fast. Goodbye? They didn’t even say it. And it could’ve been the last time.
The same Casino that would soon…oh boy, Sammy couldn’t even think of it.
The first part of his plan was to eat a cookie. Bam! What was in those things? His brain tightened itself and did a little sparkle shimmy like it had suddenly and unexpectedly heard its favorite song on the radio.
Time to kick it into gear.
He had energy. Plenty of it.
He had will power.
He had Oswald cookie power.
He took to the telephone. He called the Casino.
“Hello, this is the Casino. How may I help you?”
“This is General Frankenwalder, goddamn it,” Sammy snarled into the phone.
“Oh good morning, General—“
“It’s not morning, goddamnit, it’s 12:15pm. That’s afternoon! Good afternoon! For Christ’s sake.”
“Good afternoon, sir. My mistake.”
“Damn right it is.”
“You sound especially assertive, confident and very loud this afternoon, General Frankenwalder.”
“That’s right! I am very loud. I speak in a very loud voice because I am a bad ass,” Sammy yelled into the phone. He couldn’t help but crack a little smile at the thought of his father at that moment, but he quickly regained composure. “I’ve got to talk to your highest up high up. The Chief Commander. The Head Honcho, goddamnit, there’s no time to waste. There’s a fucking war going on right now and if you don’t patch me through immediately, we might lose it because your stupid ass thought afternoon was morning!”
“Yessir! I’ll connect you with Ms. Pepper right now.”
“Thank you,” and Sammy huffed into the phone in exasperation that his father would definitely be proud of.
“General Frankenwalder, what a pleasure,” a new voice said on the line. “How can I help you this afternoon?”
And he told her what she could help him with.
The Casino glowed different that evening when Sammy looked at it through the trees in the distance. There was a crispness in the air that nickeled his ears. He felt a tear, but he fought it. Had he done a good thing? How much of this would he regret? He ate another cookie, and he thought about breast milk, and how nutritious it was, and how it changed according to what a baby needed and according to what the mother needed and what the mother ate. Oswald’s cookies were his breast milk. What was in these things? Did she lace them with some superfood? Honestly he’d never felt better, if a little exhausted.
Then he saw his father. Or more exactly, he saw his father’s long black car approach his guard booth. The back window rolled down.
“Get in, son,” Sammy’s father said.
“What?” Sammy said, “I can’t hear you!”
His father did not laugh. “Get in the fucking car, you little piece of shit,” his father growled. Sammy got into the car. He didn’t really have a choice. They crossed the bridge and wound their way toward the Casino.
His father didn’t speak for a few moments, only gazed out the window as the trees whizzed by.
The silence was a nervous-glanced spinner for Sammy. His father sighed. It sounded like a general’s sigh, rather than a father’s.
“Guess who called me this morning?” his father finally asked.
“What? I can’t hear you, goddamnit!”
“Nope. Try again.”
“I don’t know then.”
“A Ms. Pepper.” Sammy sat up a little straighter. “Guess what she asked me.”
“I have no idea,” Sammy said.
“I think you do.”
“I really don’t-“
“She wanted to know why the deadliest arsenal was being stored under her casino. She said she’d been taken aback by our earlier conversation, but now she’d had some time to think. She wanted to know how long they’d been there. She wanted to know why I hadn’t told her about the diseases.”
“Huh,” Sammy said. “that’s weird. Is that true?”
“You know damn well it’s true because you called her!”
“Dad, I wouldn’t—“
“Don’t you lie to me, boy! You’ll be court-martialed for this and I don’t care if you are my son, hell, I’ll tell them to be even harder on your stupid ass because of it.”
The limo pulled up to the Casino.
“What are we doing here?” Sammy said, and he was sweating now.
“You’ll see. Get out of the car.” They were at the back of the Casino. They entered through a non-descript door and went down, down down. Sammy heard the sound of machines, the low-level hum of maintenance and cooling fans. Then they were in front of it. The control panel looked surprisingly simple considering that this was supposed to be the thing to bring down everything. There wasn’t much room down there, and Sammy and the General were close to each other. Sammy could see himself reflected in many gold buttons on the general’s uniform.
“Now you’re gonna do it,” The General said. “And that’s an order.”
“You’re going to be the one to press the button to release the test diseases on the Casino. You want to try to stop it? Too late. Stop it? You’re gonna be the goddamn perpetrator. And that’s a goddamn order. Don’t ever try to cross me again, boy, you hear?”
“Sorry, I can’t hear you. All these machines, you know?” Sammy pointed at everything. “I can’t hear you!” He was screaming now. “You’re going to have to speak up, General Dad!” And then sing-song, “I can’t hear you!!”
The look on his father’s face couldn’t really be qualified as rage. It went beyond that into some uncharted basement darkness with machines.
Sammy remembered something at that strange moment. Oswald’s cookies! He’d shoved one in his pocket before they’d left, and now just to pour gasoline on his father’s rage, he pulled it out all casual.
“Want a bite of cookie?” he asked the General. They both stared at Oswald’s cookie for a moment.
The General, trying to hold himself together, quivered. “That. Is. Not. Your. Mother’s. Cookie.”
“No, it’s Oswald’s. It’s the best cookie in the entire world!”
“How dare you.”
And then they were at each other like animals. It was a relief to Sammy that they were finally fighting, grunting, trying to hurt each other, gouge out each other’s eyes. It’s such a relief when fathers and sons finally drop the familial and formal pretense, and just try to kill each other. Get it over with.
The General was, maybe not surprisingly, a dirty fighter. And it seemed like he knew it too, had been a dirty fighter for a long time, and no longer felt any qualms about it. The thought flashed through Sammy’s mind that his father had done a lot of dirty fighting in the rest of his life to get him to where he was. Then the General grabbled Sammy’s nuts and twisted. All of Sammy’s self-reflection about the strangeness and the relief of fighting his father vanished down a tunnel of pain, doubled over and now fighting only for breath.
As Sammy coughed and groaned, the General straightened up. “I can see, boy, that I’m going to have to once again do the job myself that I asked you to do. When will you learn?” He strolled over to the control panel like he was out for a Sunday walk, but his hair was all crazy and his uniform had gotten all fucked up.
Sammy raised himself, hands on his knees, to watch his father. He fingered the cookie in his pocket. It was a damn good cookie.
Sammy forced himself up. From some place down low, he pulled a word. A damn good word, a word everyone needs to be able to wield like a weapon. He shouted it: “Nooooooo!” His voice was soft and loud at the same time. He flew to the control panel and before his father could stop him, he smushed the cookie into the general’s face. Into the holes that were his eyes. Into the hole that was his mouth. And some other holes. That most excellent mixture of flour and sugar and butter gummed and flattened itself into all the creases and cracks. It worked its way on in and down, deeper and deeper, until only then did Sammy truly know the power of a good cookie. He would be going back across that bridge by himself. And he had Oswald to thank for that. He had Oswald to thank for everything. And he would thank her for the rest of his life.