Conspiracy

(Author’s Note: I grew up listening to Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM, that late-night radio staple. He is one of the reasons I have, and likely always will, prefer radio to any other medium. The level of intimacy, the space it allowed for stories and personalities, is without peer.

If you’re unfamiliar, Art Bell was the king of overnights, doing his show from his home in the high desert of Pahrump, Nevada, nearly within spitting distance of Area 51 itself. (A bit of trivia: The place the martians land in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! is labelled Pahrump, Nevada as a nod to Bell and his show.) Every night, he’d have a different guest, and almost all were of a conspiracy, or at least New Age, bent. Anything you care to name, from Bigfoot to UFOs, from ghosts and EVPs to Planet X and the end of the world. Because of the format, we got a much better look at these guests than we would otherwise. Most interviews lasted 2 or 3 hours, with the final segments dedicated to calls from listeners, and Bell was a master of teasing out the crazy stories these people had to tell.

Did I believe them? Of course not. As Bell often put it, he was there for entertainment. Though he would occasionally dump a guest who was obviously spouting complete nonsense, for the most part he played a curious straight man. They had something to say, and he was willing to hear it. The judgment was for the audience to make on their own. And, sure, he was a bit of a believes in some of it, but that added to the fun. For 4 hours every night, I lived in a world where the X-Files was as true to life as the nightly news.

Anyway, I’m just giving some casual background. Virtually everything mentioned in this story–which is a little constrained writing exercise based on some random prompt I saw–comes from my time listening to Art Bell. Look it up if you want, and find the old shows if you can. They’re great fun.)

There were days when tinfoil didn’t cut it, because all the voices came from the inside. Sit there and pretend faith only means something for those suckers who caught religion. The lies we tell ourselves. On those days, I didn’t need Jack in my life to point it out. But if I got what I wanted, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

I was in a small all-night diner downtown when Jack threw himself into the opposite booth, landing in a twitching pile of old, wrinkled clothes, wet and carrying the musty smells of big city rain. It was the middle of the night, maybe half an hour since my last shift, and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d done something to deserve this. But that’s the conspiracy mindset for you.

“I need to talk to you,” he said, low and desperate. It was always low and desperate with him, because that’s how this worked, right? Someone might be listening. I did my best not to roll my eyes. I think it worked. He’s busy cleaning the fog from his glasses anyway.

“Jack,” I said. “It’s cold, and I’m tired. All I want is a bagel, a cup of tea, and a few cat videos before I have to go home and pretend I can sleep. Whatever you’ve got, it can wait. And if it can’t, you can make a forum post.”

Jack shoved the glasses home and reared back, a look of disgust on his face like I’d suggested serving his dog to his mother for her dinner. “You know I can’t post on those forums anymore. They’re filled with government agents trying to false flag with crap about North Korea and feminists. Logging into Prison Planet is like inviting the FBI to set up a base in your living room.” He shook his head. “Besides, this isn’t about me, it’s about you.”

I sighed, but kept my eyes on the straight and narrow. “Sure, Jack.”

He leaned in, dragging a wet sleeve across the table, filling the diner with the clatter and scrape of the metal buttons on his jacket’s cuff. “I heard someone say you’ve lost the plot, man. What gives?”

How do you respond to that? I chewed on my bagel for a bit, stalling. Honesty, right? That’s what this was supposed to be about. But there’s a time and a place for everything. “It doesn’t matter, Jack. Just because I think something doesn’t make it true, or even relevant. It’s an opinion, and nobody cares.”

Like I said, the lies we tell ourselves. And others.

“I don’t get it,” said Jack. “What happened?”

“You want to know if they got to me?” I asked.

Jack didn’t laugh. He didn’t agree, either. He sat up straight, which I hadn’t thought possible, and said, “You know I wouldn’t ask that. You’re my friend. I just want to know what’s going on.”

I shrugged. “There’s not much to tell.”

“You were listening the night that satellite cut the feed from Area 51,” said Jack. “You can recite the names and dates of everything that got dropped into Mel’s Hole, and everything that came back out. Shadow people, JFK, that microphone they dropped into Hell somewhere in Siberia. Nibiru. Skinwalker Ranch. All that classic stuff I looked up when I was getting into this. You wrote the articles.”

“So what if I did?” I asked. The tea was cool enough to start drinking, and tasted slightly bitter. I reached for the sugar.

“You think I don’t have bad days, too?” Jack had a pleading look in his eyes, the look of a man trying desperately to understand something he couldn’t allow himself to believe. “I do. But I struggle through, because I have faith. And you’re one of the reasons for that.”

“I’m just tired,” I said. “Too many shifts, too little sleep. What else can I say? I’m not trying to run out on you, Jack. But I have a life I’m attempting to live, and it goes on whether there was really a bigfoot in Biscardi’s freezer or not.”

Jack was quiet for a long time, staring into space while he traced circles in the water droplets on the table. I didn’t say anything and did my best to enjoy my tea, though it still tasted bitter no matter how much sugar I added. Finally, Jack seemed to come to a conclusion, and brought a fist down on the table.

“I get it,” he said. “There’s something deeper going on. It’s the non-conspiracy. Nobody is in charge, nobody controls it, nothing is real. The world spins, and it’s only gravity keeping us from flying into space. Yeah, sure. I can dig that.” Jack winked. “Your secret’s safe with me.”

I shrugged again. Whatever works. “Not really the point, but sure.”

“I’ll find the evidence that convinces you,” said Jack, standing. “Trust me.” He grinned. “Oh, right. Well, believe in me.”

Jack flipped his collar up, nodded, then left the diner. The bell dinged, and the wind slammed the door behind him.

Then the woman slipped back into the booth. I still couldn’t read her face under the dark sunglasses, but she didn’t seem upset about Jack. “You heard all that?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Not bad.”

“Jack’s a good kid,” I said, and popped the last bite of the bagel into my mouth. “He won’t be a problem.”

“Of course,” she said, then she put an envelope on the table. A fat envelope, the kind you see in movies. She slid it across to me. I looked inside.

“What’s that for?” I asked, because you don’t immediately refuse the biggest pile of hundreds you’ve ever seen. And you don’t take them without asking what they cost, either.

“It’s for the next dozen videos you’re going to make, and the first podcast, and all the forum posts in between.” She stood as well. “We have faith that you’ll tell your audiences what they need to hear.”

I put the money in my pocket as she left, and a few minutes later I started my slow, wet walk home. To my tiny apartment. So I could watch bad TV until my eyes ached, then get up for another double shift tomorrow. Two more weeks of that, and I’d be done. Because, like I said, there are lies we tell ourselves, and lies we tell other people. And, yeah, I’ve got faith, but I’ve also got bills to pay.

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