CONSPIRACY (Part 1)
By Joe Bongiorno
Esther was shelving videocassette returns in the Nouveautés aisle when she looked up at the wall-mounted TV set: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Her favourite of the series, she had watched it dozens of times, but this time it felt different. She bit her lip as the image of the Starship Enterprise floating in outer space gave way to the memory of the Challenger space shuttle bursting into an orange and white fireball. She had watched the live broadcast in science class the week before. It had been second period — right before — lunch and she had been itching for the bell to ring so she could skip the cafeteria queue.
And then boom!
“Almost finished there?” Peg asked from behind the counter, hands on hips. Her bicycle chain-like braces shimmered.
Esther nodded. The uneasy feeling persisted. The Enterprise was set to detonate in the next scene; Starfleet would abandon ship, and the seven-person Challenger crew had no clue they were about to explode on live TV.
Done shelving, her spectacled gaze returned to the TV screen at the precise moment Kirk initiated the self-destruct sequence. With each explosion of special effects, she saw herself in the classroom, a spectator to the smoking shuttle debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
end of part 1….
CONSPIRACY (Part 2)
“Peg,” Esther said, snapping out of the daze. “Can we put on something else?”
Peg raised her hand in the Vulcan salute. “As your elder and benevolent leader, I shall grant your request,” she declared, though she was only one year Esther’s senior. “Let’s see here. We’ve got Return of the Jedi, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Flash Gordon—”
“Is there something with fewer, you know, exploding spacecraft? I keep seeing the Challenger disaster.”
“Disaster?” Peg’s brow furrowed. The look on her face indicated the conversation had crossed into serious territory. “Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for the cover-up. The crew is alive and well. They’re probably sipping martinis on some unnamed Pacific island.”
Esther squinted. She tried to figure out if Peg was pulling a fast one, but her expression had not changed. Had she lost it? It sounded to Esther like something her conspiracy theorist grandfather would have said. “What are you talking about?”
“Geez, did you buy the moon landing, too? Everybody knows Stanley Kubrick staged it in a Hollywood studio.” Peg shook her head, sighing like a schoolteacher disappointed with a student struggling to keep up. “You may be a loyal employee, but you got a thing or two to learn about what’s really going on.”
Esther hit the pause button on her Walkman, silencing Dire Straits. She pushed the front door open, removed her jacket and snow boots and walked past her father in the kitchen on her way to the staircase.
“Esther, is that you?” He turned his head, still wearing his garage coveralls. “It’ll be ready soon,” he said, slipping casserole of pâté chinois into the oven. “Don’t forget your sister needs help with her solar system project.”
“Got it,” she answered and started toward the stairs. Pâté chinois again? Dinner had officially hit the single dad culinary ceiling, she thought. Mom would never cook the same crappy dish twice in a row. It had been months since she had seen her. Mom just needed some “space,” her father had explained, like the word contained some secret code. Mom needed so much of it that she had to move to Pointe-aux-Trembles with Aunt Claudette, where telephones were apparently in short supply. Although Esther couldn’t put her finger on it, she felt that she had been left in the dark. Something was going on. Why else would Mom suddenly lose interest in her own family?
Esther threw her knapsack onto her bedroom floor and slammed the door behind her. Her parakeets, Stewie and Bluey, squawked and flapped their wings. She refilled their water and seed feeders and sat on the edge of the bed. She stared at the Wrath of Khan poster on the wall and imagined the Enterprise’s inquisitive crew of scientists and diplomats exploring the uncharted galaxies. She had always preferred Star Trek’s vision of the future to the recent science fiction films in which the world of the year 2000 was a decaying, lawless shithole crawling with robot bounty hunters. The latter sounded like the world Peg believed in, a bleak techno-nightmare.
There was a knock at the door. “Are you coming?” It was her sister, Heather.
“I’ll be there soon. I’m busy right now.”
end of part 2…
Conspiracy (Part 3)
Esther thought of the astronauts aboard the Challenger being launched into space, charged with charting the course of Halley’s comet, a mission humbler than interplanetary peace. Christa McAuliffe, the social studies teacher aboard, was to make lessons for her earthling students. Her body, just like the other six, still hadn’t been recovered and NASA was tight-lipped. Some reports focused on the record low temperature at the time of the launch, while others suspected engine failure. But what was really going on? Esther replayed her conversation with Peg.
“I saw it happen!”
“You didn’t see it with your own eyes, did you?” Peg had dismissed the evidence. “You just have a theory that something transpired on a TV screen. They could have filmed your little sister’s papier-mâché model of Apollo 13 and passed it off as the real deal if they wanted to!”
Esther had been caught off guard. She had not expected to have to prove what everyone on the planet knew had just happened. What concerned her most, however, was the idea that a shadowy and nefarious group was responsible for the act of deception. “Wait. Back up. Who are they?”
Peg had shrugged. “The powers that be, the government, whatever you want to call it. Makes no difference if you ask me. They’re all in on it.”
The government, Esther had repeated to herself, the powers that be. She had remembered eating a bowl of cereal across from Grandpa at breakfast. He would grumble about scheming suits as he clipped newspaper articles from the Gazette and stuck them into his notebooks—the ones piled into a box now marked “Grandpa Stuff” in the garage.
“That’s what I’m waiting to find out. For all we know, the crew was murdered. Whatever the story is, I’m not buying it.”
Murdered? Esther had wondered, trying to understand how Peg had suddenly changed her tune.
What if, for the sake of argument, Peg’s crazy hoax theory was right? Then what else was a lie? She imagined Peg cross-examining and dismissing the truth of everything Esther had ever known to be fact. Of course, she conceded, she was not there, nor could she explain the rocket-science. Still, it sounded downright dumb to doubt what the whole world had just witnessed. Then she remembered Mr. Fleming’s explanation of how optical illusions test the limits of human perception. He had explained how radio waves and radioactivity were imperceptible, but very much real. And what of the murder question? Why have a social studies teacher killed? She listed the counterpoints to herself. There’s got to be some indisputable proof to halt the conspiracy talk in its tracks, she thought.
“Esther,” Heather whined with a second knock. “I’m gonna tell Daddy you’re not helping me.”
“I’m coming! Give me a minute!”
4:12 AM. “I won’t be getting much sleep tonight,” Esther muttered to herself. She turned away from her Aquaman alarm clock, rubbed her eyes and flicked the switch on her bedside lamp. She thought of her grandfathers notebooks, his box full of conspiracy books in the garage. She had always thought he was kind of paranoid. Until now she had never had the slightest interest in peeking inside. Her grandfather, a WWII veteran and former airline pilot, passed away last winter, and now his box tempted her from the basement. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” she remembered him warning while the evening news was on. “Lies and disinformation.”
She threw off her covers, snuck downstairs and carefully dragged the box back to her room. Inside, she found her grandfather’s disassembled telescope and placed the different pieces on her desk, quietly so as not to make her father in the adjacent room. She then laid eyes on her grandfather’s reading material. It was a treasure trove of conspiracies. Mission to the Moon: Hoax of the Century, We Are Not Alone, The Roswell Cover-Up, and Reptilian Agenda.
The margins of Reptilian Agenda were full of handwritten notes. An underlined passage on p. 23 claimed it was they who, depicted as sky lizards in Egyptian hieroglyphics, had overseen the building of the great pyramids. Able to shape shift and control human minds, it was the lizard people who had infiltrated the world’s secret societies and controlled international banking. She skipped ahead to the end of the book and found a folded sheet of paper. It was a sketch of a man’s face, except the eyes were blackened out with a pen. “September, 1982,” it read in her grandfather’s writing. “Man on the bus with black eyes. I can’t be sure if it noticed me. Third reptilian sighting in Côte-des-Neiges this year.”
Esther reached for the telephone on the nightstand. She considered calling her mother, the person who knew Grandpa best, and settle the conspiracy questions once and for all. Her mother would be sleeping, but she owed Esther an explanation about her own cover-up. The dial tone hummed. The last time Esther had called she had not picked up. Click. She would have to figure it all out herself. She would have to find a simple explanation one way or another, and as she drew back, the warm light of her reading lamp grew dimmer. The emptiness of the room—what felt like the dark matter of the universe— expanded, and its darkness she shrank.
Maybe, Esther finally considered, there really was a government conspiracy to hide the truth. How was she supposed to go about proving the non-existence of conspiratorial aliens, colluding bankers, and secret societies?
end of Part 3….
CONSPIRACY (Part 4)
The bell rang. Esther took her seat at the back of the class by the poster of the periodic table.
“Good morning,” Mr. Fleming greeted the class with a cracking voice and straightened his argyle sweater vest. “I would like to begin by saying that if you look up in the night’s sky tonight, you will see Halley’s comet, visible to the naked eye. This event occurs only once every 75 years.” He cleared his throat and clasped his hands. “What happened last week was unfortunate…”
Mr. Fleming, Esther thought, had been acting even more awkward than usual since the day they watched the shuttle blow up. As he spoke, she remembered the faces of the NASA operators at the mission control go from cheerful to horrified disbelief. Were they faking for the camera? Maybe it was one of them who detonated it. Doug, sitting in front of her, had been yawning and making wisecracks at take off. “This bird’s going down!” He had cried before his smirk transformed into a gape-mouthed stare.
“Most unfortunate,” Mr. Fleming continued, looking down at his hands for a moment. His grey moustache wiggled with each word. “But we must carry on with your education so that we may, as scientists, prevent future mishaps. All right? Great! Now, open up to page seventy-five. Who wants to read…? Janice?”
While Janice stuttered, Esther chewed on her pen cap and flipped through her textbook, sceptical of all that she had taken for granted as unquestionably true. Filled with doubt, she suspected lies on every page. She examined the illustration of human evolution from prehistoric ape to Homo sapiens and questioned its validity. Next she opened her history book and fixated on a picture of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. What secrets hid beneath the narrative there?
“Very good Janice,” Mr. Fleming clapped. “This page is very important, class. I guarantee that this will be on the final exam.”
Esther pushed her books aside and noticed something carved into the corner of her desk. She squinted, making out what was the all-seeing eye at the tip of the pyramid. Above it the words, “New World Order” were written in red sharpie.
Esther poked at the clump of microwaved Hamburger Helper on her plate as Heather squeezed a glob of ketchup onto her food.
Her father wiped the engine grease from his cheek and cleared his throat. “Girls, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“Are we going to Disney Land?” asked Heather. She kicked her feet under the table and shook the ketchup bottle.
“No sweetie, that’s not it. It’s serious, so I need both of you to listen. Your mother and I have come to a decision. We’ve decided to get a divorce.”
Heather started to whimper.
Esther shook her head. She had seen it coming, but the blow hurt nonetheless. Was there another man? Maybe she was just tired of us, she thought. He wasn’t telling the full story. The “space” excuse was another lie to add to the list. Did marriage really even matter if a cabal of shape shifting lizards were plotting to enslave the human race?
“Dad,” Esther broke in, unable to restrain herself any longer. “Did Grandpa ever talk to you about mind-reading reptilian aliens?”
He turned away from her crying sister. “Did you hear what I just said?”
“Never mind,” she grumbled. She could ask all the questions she wanted, but would never get any answers.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” he said to Heather. “You’ll see your mother every second weekend, O.K.?”
Popcorn kernels erupted from the kettle as a steady flow of customers browsed the aisles of the video store. Esther was slapping on price stickers on used VHS tapes, trying to connect the dots in her head. The half dozen books she had borrowed from the public library only left her with more questions. One conspiracy led to another. Everybody knew the Vietnam War was based on a false pretext, but she had not read about the false flag operation in the gulf of Tonkin. JFK’s shooting had always been suspicious. Now the single shooter theory collapsed under scrutiny. There had to be a second shooter. If she lived in a world where presidents lied to wage wars and they themselves were shot down in broad daylight, how was she supposed to separate the credible from the crazy?
“Listen to this,” Peg said. She tilted her head back and flung a handful of fresh popcorn into her mouth. Her safety pin necklace jingled. “I’ve got it all figured out.”
Esther froze. She had been waiting for an opening since the start of her shift.
“I’ve been doing some thinking,” Peg began. “I’m gonna save up and buy myself one of the Blockbuster Videos that are opening up everywhere and live off of it until I’m a grandmother with seventeen grandchildren.”
“Oh,” Esther mumbled, disappointed that Peg had not dropped a new bombshell revelation. “Sounds great. Um…Can I ask you something?”
“Shoot,” Peg said.
“It’s about all this conspiracy stuff….”
Peg nodded with a smirk. “Blew your mind, huh?”
“Yeah,” Esther hesitated. “If what you said is true, what do we do about it?”
“Dear dear Esther, it’s just the way it is, I guess. All I know is that nothing’s getting in the way of my Blockbuster empire. I’ve got big dreams, kid. Nobody messes with Peg Sullivan!”
“Huh,” Esther scratched her cheek as the phone rang. She looked down at it. Lights flashed behind the keys. It reminded her of Khan’s Genesis device powering up. She imagined Kirk shrugging his shoulders with a yawn as his nemesis activated Genesis to erase all life in the universe. The phone rang a second and a third time. That wasn’t how the movie ended, she reminded herself. Spock sacrificed himself to save the universe. The heroes prevailed after all.
Esther dragged her grandfather’s conspiracy chest from under the bed. She unsealed the box flaps and stared at the pile of yellow-paged books. So far, she could disprove that a shadowy cabal of reptilians was plotting somewhere. But nor could she prove it. She had hit a dead end of maybes. She was empty handed and Peg didn’t even seem to care.
Esther sighed and reached for the book on her nightstand—The Reptilian Agenda—the book that she had flipped through before bed for the past month. She placed it on top of the pile. Maybe it didn’t make a solid case for an intergalactic plot, she decided, and glanced over at the clock. She had to move fast or risk missing out. Only twenty minutes were left.
One piece at a time, Esther assembled her grandfather’s telescope and set it up on the mount by her bedroom window. She looked through the lens and fiddled with the knobs. The blurry image cleared. Any moment now, Halley’s comet, the oversized snowball of ice, gas and dust would be visible to the naked eye. Looking through the eyepiece, she imagined herself aboard the Starship Enterprise out in the distance, one of the crew serving the United Federation of Planets, getting to the bottom of the next mystery. Hold on, she thought. Is that it? She adjusted the lens to zoom in on the bright, but vaguely perceptible form of the comet.
“Heather!” Esther called out.
A moment later, Heather appeared in the doorway. She snuck up to the door and poked her head in from the corner of the door with her View-Master like it was a periscope.
“Come on,” Esther said, waving her little sister over. “For your project.”
Immediately, Heather put down her View-Master and scuttled across the room to where Esther had set up the telescope.
“Here,” Esther said, lifting her sister into her lap. “Go on, take a peek.”
Heather’s cheeks grew with a smile as she looked through the eyepiece.
“You see that?” Esther said, pointing to the brightest point in the sky. “The next time you’ll see this will be in 2061. Who knows what the world will look like then?”
Joe Bongiorno is a Montreal writer. His pieces have appeared in publications including Geist, Event, Freefall and Broken Pencil. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He is the proud owner of a 1998 Toyota Camry.
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