by Tarl Roger Kudrick
The sheep problem began with graffiti on a men’s room wall. “Muncie Harwitz loves sheep,” it said, right where Gary was pretty much forced to stare while using the urinal. At the time, Gary was just glad the graffiti provided no further details or helpful diagrams. He flushed, washed, thanked the owner of the sports bar for use of the bathroom, got back in his delivery truck, and didn’t waste one more brain cell thinking about Muncie Harwitz.
He did notice, though, that the clouds that April day were unusually white and fluffy.
Somehow or another, Gary had reached adulthood without achieving his childhood goal of becoming Batman. That bothered him more on some days than others. Today was one of the “more” days. His old Ford had broken down again and payday was next week, so he was taking the bus to the job he was too embarrassed to talk about with his friends who had remained in, or were still in, or who would probably end up teaching in, college.
While waiting for the bus, he tried not to stare at the very wrong sky. The only other person around was a tall Hispanic woman at least twice his age who smelled like the back of his delivery truck after a Volvo had rear-ended him and shattered a case of Jack Daniels. She didn’t seem like the best person to convince him he was still sane, but it was her or nobody.
“Excuse me,” Gary said. “You notice anything weird about those clouds?”
She looked up.
“Don’t they look an awful lot like sheep? I mean, like, realistic sheep?”
If anything, he was understating his case. The clouds had legs, tails, snouts, and big happy smiles. He counted eight of them floating like balloons in a Thanksgiving Day parade.
“Looks normal,” the woman said.
That was the one response Gary hadn’t expected.
“That’s not normal.”
“Course it is!” She giggled. “You ever been to the ocean?”
He’d grown up in California. “Yeah.”
She leaned to him and whispered, “I hear it’s wet nowadays.” Then she laughed so hard, she leaned against the bus stop for support.
Gary didn’t ask anyone else on the bus about the sheep-shaped clouds, but he mentioned it to a couple of co-workers, and after they thought he was joking — like how could he possibly not have noticed clouds look like sheep before — he stopped talking about it. It felt like too much like school. He continued, however, to look up at the sky once in a while. The sheep kept looking back down.
Gary was loading crates into his truck and trying not to think about sheep when his sales manager, Carol, handed him a printout.
“Hey, good driver.” She called him that. She didn’t call the others that. “You’ve got a new client. Make sure you deliver this one before noon.”
More clients meant more money, so this was a reward. He read the sheet — some new bar and grill on Ovis Street. He didn’t recognize the address and their trucks didn’t have GPS.
“Where’s Ovis street?”
“About six miles south, as the sheep flies.”
Gary put the paper down. “As the what flies?”
But Carol was already rushing towards a ringing phone in her office. It was almost certainly the district manager, who called at eight a.m. every day, and Gary wasn’t stupid enough to interrupt that conversation.
Gary turned on his smartphone’s maps program. Ovis Street was right where, just last week, Adams Street had been. Major streets in downtown Phoenix were named after early US presidents: Jefferson, Washington, and…Ovis? On a hunch, he looked up “ovis” in an online dictionary. “Ovis” was part of the scientific classification for sheep.
He still didn’t think about the bathroom graffiti.
Gary completed his wine and beer deliveries, including to his new client, the Shropshire Bar and Grill. Before going home, he went back to Carol’s office, but it was locked. A poster on her door showed a sheep wearing a black leather jacket and Terminator-style sunglasses. The poster said, “I’ll be baa-aa-aack… tomorrow.”
Gary went home to clear his head. He found the lamp on his living room table was now a ceramic sheep sitting cross-legged, staring at the ceiling, with a light bulb in its mouth.
Four objects stood between Gary and the bathroom: his sofa, a bookshelf, a doorless archway, and the bathroom door. He banged into all of them on his way to a sink where he could splash cold water on his face.
After drying off, he noticed his t-shirt no longer said “Budweiser.” Now it had a picture of a grinning sheep standing on its hind legs with a beer in one hoof while the other front hoof formed a remarkably good thumbs-up sign. Text underneath said, “This Bud’s for Ewe.”
If Gary had learned anything in college, he’d learned he wasn’t the smartest person in the world. But he knew mixed-up crazy when he saw it, and this was it.
His head pounding, he grabbed a basket of dirty clothes and rode the elevator down to the laundry room. He shoved his clothes and some detergent into a dryer, shut the door, put the money in, turned the dryer on, went back to the elevator, stopped, and asked himself what the hell he had just done. Then he ran back to the laundry, found it was too late to retrieve his money from the dryer, yanked his clothes out of it anyway, found a washing machine, and started over.
Through all of this, a little girl in the laundry room sang off-key: “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little –“
Gary couldn’t take one more wrong note.
“No she didn’t!” he shouted. “She had a dog!”
The girl cried and ran off. Gary rubbed his temples. He felt like his brain was a driver’s seat and the little girl had been kicking it for five hundred miles. He went back to the elevator, leaned against its door, and fell in when it slid open.
He slept poorly that night, but never even considered counting sheep.
Gary woke the next morning feeling worse than Michelangelo might have if, after finishing the Statue of David, someone had said, “You know we wanted him to be wearing clothes, right?” He tried to find solace in the shallowness of early morning cable TV.
MTV was showing children singing “…and on this farm he had some sheep, E-I-E-I-O! With a Bah! Bah! here…”
Cartoon Network was running a “Sheep in the Big City” marathon.
On ESPN, the commissioner of the National Football League was declaring that all NFL teams would now be called the Rams.
Gary called in sick and dug out his copy of the Yellow Pages. The “S” section was much thicker than he remembered. He didn’t dare look at it. He dialed emergency mental health care centers until he got an appointment with a counselor for that afternoon.
Now the TV was showing highlights from last night’s baseball game between the Texas Ruminants and the Chicago Wool Sox. He turned it off and looked outside.
In the space where he’d parked his old Ford last night, an even older, different car now sat. He went out and took a good, long look. It was a mid-1980’s Dodge Aries. His car keys fit it perfectly, and its motor wasn’t making any funny grinding noises. It was, in fact, in perfect condition.
Gary began counting the minutes until his mental health appointment.
The counselor was a tall, prim woman who reminded him of an old-fashioned schoolmarm, not a sheep. Her name was Dr. Ammon.
Gary sat down and wondered how to begin.
“Lately,” he said, “everything seems to be about sheep.”
He rattled off examples, including the “sheep-pedestrian accident” the radio had announced as he’d driven to her office. He was about to mention the swimsuit issue of “Sheep Illustrated” someone had been reading in the waiting room when the counselor’s phone bleated.
Dr. Ammon said, “Please excuse me.”
She picked it the phone and said, “Hello? I’m with someone right now… Yes, I’ll see you tonight. Goodbaa.”
Gary rocked back and forth in his chair. “Dr. Ammon? That phone? The sound it made?”
“Didn’t it sound… like…”
“And the way you said goodbye!”
She leaned forward. “Good what?”
“Gary, are you telling me you don’t like sheep?”
Her stare seemed more threatening than an onrushing bus. He couldn’t stand it, and stood up.
“Um, I’ve got to go to work. Sorry…”
She didn’t try to stop him. Instead she picked up her phone and punched a red button. As he left he heard her say, “I need to report an emergency…”
Gary ran out of her office, dashed down two flights of stairs and through the glass doors, and then… then he couldn’t find his car. He was so used to his Ford Escort, he passed the Dodge Aries twice before remembering. By then, white cars with darkened windows had screeched into the parking lot, and men in white wool suits and white sunglasses were climbing out of them.
Gary smiled and put his hands on his head.
“Now officers, I’m not going to cause any trouble.”
“You sure aren’t,” one of them said. They pulled out spray cans and blasted a white fluffy fog into his face.
Gary woke up tied to a chair. He was outside, at night, in the middle of the desert. Two huge generators chugged along, providing power to a row of theater lights at the top of a makeshift stage that seemed to be hundreds of wooden crates placed together. A heavy-set man with white curly hair, wearing a white curly fur coat, was on stage, bellowing into a microphone. Stacks of speakers large enough for a Metallica concert blasted out his voice: “Even in kindergarten, they called me mad! Of course that was my name back then, so I changed it!”
The audience, which was mostly about a hundred men in white suits and ties, applauded. The only other people around — a husband and wife with two little kids, and an elderly gentleman holding a sign Gary couldn’t read — did not applaud. The white-suited man kneeling next to Gary clapped politely. He had a generic, office-supply-store nametag on his suit jacket. It said “Stanley,” and that name was handwritten in black marker. The handwriting looked familiar.
The man on stage continued.
“I’ll admit, not all of my ideas have worked out. Especially my patented health plan, ‘Cure Your Peanut Allergy by Eating Lots of Peanuts.’ Oh, the lawsuits! But now peace and happiness will be ours. The sheepification of the universe is nearly complete!”
Batman would have known what to do. Gary didn’t. He leaned towards Stanley and said, “Who is that?”
“Dr. Harwitz,” Stanley whispered.
Gary remembered the bathroom graffiti and understood why he thought he’d seen Stanley’s handwriting before.
“Muncie Harwitz? The guy you write about on walls?”
Stanley smiled. “Yup! The graffiti was his idea. He said traditional advertising doesn’t work in a world where children wear shoes.”
“Normal people like us can’t expect to understand a genius.”
On stage, Harwitz kept yelling.
“Tonight, my brilliant mastery of science, combined with the natural alignment of every star in the universe…” Harwitz licked his thumb, held it up against the sky, and squinted. “Yes, every star, will solve all problems forever!”
The wife of the four-person family called out, “Where’s the food?”
Harwitz looked at the audience. “What?”
The woman shouted, “The guy said there’d be a buffet!”
“Wait a minute.” Harwitz’s head snapped back and forth as he surveyed the crowd. “Where is everybody? This is my crowning achievement! Where are my adoring fans? It’s just you guys!”
Stanley stood up, cupped his hands, and shouted, “We couldn’t sell any tickets!”
Other men in white suits were saying similar things.
“I don’t believe this,” Harwitz said, marching back and forth on stage.
“There’s no buffet?” the woman asked.
“No, there’s no buffet!”
The elderly gentleman with the sign shouted, “Pigs!”
The woman said, “Well, we’re hungry! The guy said there’d be food!”
“I, Dr. Muncival Harwitz, the greatest intellect in human history, have finally solved all problems everywhere by aligning the universe with sheep, and you want food?”
“Pigs!” the elderly man shouted, louder. He waved his sign.
Gary writhed against the sheepshank knots keeping him in the chair.
The woman shouted, “What are you talking about? What aligning?”
Harwitz screamed into the mic, “Haven’t you noticed how everything in the world relates to sheep now? Look at the moon!”
Gary looked up. The moon was round, white, and fuzzy. Right in front of his eyes, it was growing legs and a snout.
The woman’s husband shouted at Harwitz, “It’s always been like that!”
“No it hasn’t!”
“Yes it has! You think we’re stupid?”
Harwitz stamped his feet. “I did that! Me!”
The woman laughed. “I’m pretty sure the moon was there before you!”
The elderly man wailed, “PIIIIIIGGGS!”
Harwitz yelled, “Will you shut up about pigs?”
“I want to know where the pigs went!”
“You can’t have pigs in a sheepified universe. The math proves it.”
“But pigs are beautiful creatures! They’re smarter than dogs!”
The woman, flustered, said, “What are pigs? What are dogs? Are you even speaking Sheepish?”
“I want pigs!”
Harwitz shouted, “Silence that man!”
A dozen or so of the white-suited men came for the elderly gentleman, who ran in circles, fighting them off with his big sign that Gary could now see said, “Pigs are people too.” The men in suits seemed a lot less tough to Gary than they’d been when they’d surrounded him in the parking lot. They ran off when the man bashed them with his sign.
Gary wasn’t sure why he wasn’t hypnotized like almost everyone else. Maybe he wasn’t smart enough to be hypnotized? He thought of an idea.
Stanley was still at his side. “Yes?”
“Do you know how much danger we’re in?”
“Oh, no, Dr. Harwitz thought of everything! All of our problems will be solved any minute now.”
“But haven’t you heard? There’s something wrong with the sheep. Don’t you think we should tell Dr. Harwitz?”
Stanley stared at Gary as if he were the only person on Earth.
“He’s busy! Tell me. Tell me.” Stanley grabbed him by the shoulders. “We’ve got to save the sheep!”
“Okay! Look. I’m not what I seem.” Gary took a moment to think. “I’m an undercover operative. For the NSA.”
Stanley blinked. “You work for the National Sheep Agency?”
Gary was so glad he’d chosen an organization with an S in its acronym.
“Yeah. See, uh…”
He had to keep it sheep-related. Anthrax? That came from sheep, but it hurt people. Did it also hurt sheep? Stanley was shaking him again, begging him to say something. All he could come up with was, “It’s Dolly!”
Stanley let go. “You mean the first cloned sheep?”
“She died years ago!”
Gary had forgotten that. “Uh, no. No, that’s what we wanted you to think. She’s alive, see, and she’s gone rogue.” The idea in him kept building. “You don’t really think science has advanced to the point of cloning, do you? It’s all part of the invasion!”
Stanley’s wide eyes were bigger than the moon. “Invasion?”
“Yes! Everything in the universe is becoming sheep, right? Even aliens! But these aliens were already sheep!”
“They’re using the sheepification plan to hide their invasion! Dolly was created by their alien science and…”
Stanley’s voice went up two octaves. “Alien-sheep hybrids!”
“Yes! And… and they’re robots, too! They’re going to replace all sheep on Earth! And then…”
Gary hoped Stanley could think of something, because that was all he had.
Stanley was quivering like a struck tuning fork. “But… Dr. Harwitz was so careful…”
“I’m telling you, it’s an alien invasion! Why else do you think I dropped out of college?”
Stanley just stared and stared. Then he said, “It makes perfect sense.”
Gary almost said, “It does?”
Stanley untied him. “C’mon!”
They raced to the stage, as Harwitz screamed insults at the men in white suits who were now scared to go anywhere near the elderly pig man. The pig man shouted, “Oink! Oink!” and whirled his sign around. The family of four was heading back to their car, which was parked next to a row of white limousines.
Gary leaped onto the low stage. At the back of the stage, a beagle-sized glass statue of a sheep glowed like a light bulb. Wires connected the glass sheep to one of the generators. The sheep was pulsing like a heart, giving off even brighter light with every beat.
Harwitz said, “Don’t touch that!” and raced towards Gary.
Gary hurled the glass sheep at the nearest generator. It cracked like an egg. He felt his mind tingle a bit, but everyone else, especially Harwitz, flew back like the stage had just exploded.
Gary ran to Harwitz and listened to the man’s ragged breaths. Harwitz was okay. He leaped off the stage and checked out a few others, especially the family of four. They were all unconscious but alive. The only person still standing was the pig man.
“What a bunch of hooey,” the pig man said. “Now they’ve all fainted.”
Gary looked at the moon. It was round, legless, and snoutless.
Gary asked the pig man, “Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Just north of Yuma, maybe twenty miles or so. I’m goin’ home.” The pig man pointed at a Harley Davidson “hog.” “You need a ride?”
They were probably a hundred fifty miles from Phoenix. Gary’d never ridden on the back of a motorcycle for a hundred fifty miles before, but he was willing to try.
It took Gary a few days to convince himself everything was normal. But it was. His car was a Ford again, and still parked by the row of little offices where Dr. Ammon had been. Except now, the sign on her door said Dr. Westerly. Gary’s delivery route took him to the same addresses it always had, plus his new one, now called “Irish Tom’s.” The world was no more sheepy than usual. And none of his co-workers seemed to remember anything about it.
His boss told him he seemed more at ease with himself.
“Did you do something good?” she asked.
“Yes,” Gary said. “I think I did.”
When he felt the threat was truly over, Gary searched the Web for “Muncival Harwitz” and found the man’s blog. He read it from the beginning. Entry after entry ranted about the magnetic resonance of the Earth, human brainwaves, quantum probabilities, molasses, and the world’s largest paper clip collection. One entry was an extended argument with some other blogger about which classical composer — Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach — could belch the loudest.
Gary skimmed entries until he found one dated three weeks ago that said, “Of course! The answer is sheep.”
That was the second most recent entry. The most recent had been published just four hours ago. It said, “My previous attempt at saving the world contained a critical error. The true answer is walruses. Giant, cybernetic walruses.”
Gary read that entry a second time. Then a third. As he read, his sense of dread surrendered to an almost pleasant anticipation.
He looked out his bedroom window, at the world that so desperately needed him. He had to wonder if he felt the way Batman did on those evenings when the bat-signal lit up an otherwise dark and empty sky.
Yes. Yes, he did.
TARL ROGER KUDRICK‘s short fiction has been published in Chizine, Anotherealm, the Town Drunk, and others. Since 2006 he has been the chief editor and co-publisher of the web fiction magazine “On The Premises” (www.OnThePremises.com).