1. GingerCoffee
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    Past Contest Submissions CLOSED for contest #156 Theme: "911... what's your emergency?"

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by GingerCoffee, May 26, 2014.

    Short Story Contest 156
    Submissions & Details Thread
    Theme: "911... what's your emergency?" courtesy of @BeckyJean

    Submissions will be open for 2 weeks.


    IMPORTANT: PLEASE READ!

    If you wish to enter the contest please send your story via 'A Conversation' (aka a PM) to me to enter the story via this thread. Don't post the story here directly or it will not be counted as entered into the contest. This is to ensure anonymity, and to make this contest fairer for all - having each story judged based on their merits.

    This contest is open to all writingforums.org members, newbies and the established alike. At the deadline I will collate all entries and put them forward for voting in a separate thread. The winning entry will be stickied until the next competition winner. As always, the winner may also PM me to request the theme of the subsequent contest if he/she wishes.

    Re the theme: Theme is courtesy of our pending contest winner. ;) Any interpretation is valid, it is not limited to the National Park. Entries do not have to follow the themes explicitly, but off-topic entries may not be entered into the voting.

    Word limit: 500-3000 words
    Deadline for entries: Sunday the 8th of June, 2014 1800 (6:00 pm) US Pacific time

    There is a 10% word-limit leniency at both ends of the scale. Please try to stick within the limit. Any piece outside of the suggested limit may not be entered into the voting.

    If we reach 25 entries, the maximum number of stories for any one contest, I will consider splitting the contest into two. Only one entry per contest per contestant is permitted.

    Try to make all your entries complete and have an ending rather than be an extract from a larger one and please try to stick to the topic. Any piece seemingly outside of the topic will be dealt with in a piece by piece basis to decide its legitimacy for the contest.

    A story entered into the contest may not be one that has been posted anywhere on the internet, not just anywhere on this site. A story may not be posted for review until the contest ends, but authors may seek critiques after voting closes for the contest. Members may also not repost a story anywhere, or bring attention to the contest in any way, until the voting has closed.

    I believe with the new board software, italics and bolding are preserved when I copy/paste, but justification is not. If I have to do too much by hand to restore the entry to its entered formatting, I reserve the right to ask the author to adjust the formatting.

    Please remember to give your piece a title and give its word count in brackets at the top of your story.

    If there are any questions, please send me a PM (Conversation). After the entries close, posting in the thread is open for comments.

    ***And thanks to even more long hours put in by our very special mod/member @Wreybies, winners are now awarded with olympic style medals displayed under their avatars.

    Thanks, and good luck!

    **New information: If you wish to edit your story after you've submitted it, send the newer version to me in your 'conversation'. I will replace it one time with the edited version if submitted before voting has begun.**
     
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014
  2. GingerCoffee
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    Encounter in the Desert [Words: 1507]

    A young woman was cruising home in her precious red car. It was a small two-seater from a short-lived production line that ended more than 70 years ago. Short-lived for reasons, we will soon find out.

    The young woman was on her way home from a dinner with her father. As usual, she and her father had ended the dinner with a quarrel. So before getting in the car she had a little to much to drink, which showed by the way she slalomed her way home on the empty road. Luckily, this was out in the middle of the desert.

    "Who does he think he is?" She growled as she thought back at their conversation. "Not getting any younger? Getting married? Children? Hah!"

    She turned up the volume on the stereo and started singing along to the music that was playing; it was in some foreign language she didn't know, but that didn't stop her.

    She knew she was to drunk to drive, at least legally, but she didn't care, she was angry, and this was the only way she knew how to fight him. If she was pulled over by the law enforcement, maybe that would put a dent in his political career, she thought. Those damn politics! It had slowly consumed him as she was growing up, so that by the time she turned fifteen, he cared more about stopping farmers from growing genetically modified tomatos, that had feet and could run around, than celebrating her birthday.

    Then she thought about her poor mother. Her mother was one of the first ones to fall in the worldwide pandemic, 22 years ago, that killed 32.7% of the world's population.

    She leaned forward over the steering wheel and looked up into the clear blue sky. "Mom-"

    Something slammed with an incredible force into the hood of her car. The wheels screeched against the road as she instincively floored the brakes, and the car slowly came to a stop.

    "Please be an animal. Please be an animal." she chanted as she slowly raised her head from the steering wheel.

    Her face turned white and her blood iced. Through the windshield she saw a naked boy lying in a crater on top of the car's hood.

    "Well, biologically speaking... it is an animal." the teacher in her said.

    She hurried out of the car. At an initial glance, besides being unconsious, the boy looked suprisingly well. His breathing was calm and stable; and he didn't seem to have any bones sticking out of him or any open wounds. If she didn't know better, the boy looked like he was sleeping.

    She looked up into the blue sky, wondering where the hell he came from, but instead of finding any answers, she only mangaged to get herself dizzy and blinded by the desert sun.

    As her eyes returned to normal, she took a closer look at the boy. He looked about the same age as her students, so somewhere in his upper teens, she figured. She brushed some strands of his dark hair to the side to get a better view of what she thought was a small cut, but it was just some dirt. Her cheeks grew warm as she found her hand lingering. His eyes were closed so she couldn't tell their color, but instead she found herself lost in his long eyelashes. His chin, or jaw, looked strong and heroic, and would even make Superman himself jealous, if he was real.

    Leaving his attractive face, she moved on with the examination. She felt around his neck, making sure it wasn't broken. Then she touched along his arms and up to his chest. Firm and smooth, no hair at all. Moving down, her heart skipped as she felt the grooves of his abs. Half-squinting and with tounge sticking out to the left, she moved her hands over his... thing. Pretending she was just a robot, like one of those clawy things at circuses. Almost past it. Just a little more and we're home free. Her face began to turn blue, as she held her breath. It took all her will-power and then some, then her hands finally found themself on safe ground, over his thighs. She examine his legs quickly. She exhaled and began slapping her cheeks rosy red.

    Nearly broke the law there.

    She sighed with relief. She couldn't feel any broken bones, or find any signs of internal bleeding. The boy seemed perfectly fine.

    Feeling a great weight lifting off from her shoulders, she grabbed her cellphone and dialed.

    "911... what's your emergency?" A voice inside the cellphone spoke.

    "..." The young woman couldn't get the words out.

    "The boy is fine, he doesn't need any help," a voice inside her said. "You're under the influence of alcohol, think about your career—think about your father's career!"

    Convinced, the young woman hung up.

    She sat, or leaned, against the side of the car and with shaky hands reached into her jacket's inner pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes.

    She looked at the packet, which she had bought for almost a month's salary. She had found it in one of those seedy stores you only find in dark back alleys, where the typical customer has one or two eye-patches, a long black beard, and a missing hand or leg, replaced with a wooden stick or iron hook. She was particulary proud of this packet as it contained a full five of the original ten cigarettes, and it was also one of the first packets with a display that came out in the year 2024. The display played a warning video of 223 ways of dying in excruciating pain from smoking. Unfortunately the batteries had long run out.

    She put one of the five cigarettes in her mouth, and searched her clothes for a lighter.

    "Damn it!" she swore and accidentally spat out the cigarette onto the ground, where it rolled under the car.

    It took her a whole 13.561 seconds before she realized she had just spat out a fifth of her month's salary.

    Reluctantly, she got down on her knees and tried to reach the cigarette underneath her car, without dirtying her clothes. But it was to far in. As she crawled in under the car, she could hear and feel the pebbles and rocks as they grinded, gnawed, and chewed against her clothes. She found the cigarette, but to her suprise she also found her lighter. It must have fallen out of one of her pockets. She gave a small prayer, thanking the heavens for being so kind to her.

    While still lying under the car, she put the dirty cigarette back into her mouth and lit the lighter. As the flame from the lighter lit up the dark space, she noticed a dark and wet looking patch on the ground. Curious, she brought the lighter closer to it for inspection.

    She watched in horror as the fumes from the wet patch caught fire, and a small cloud of fire get sucked up into the car. In panic she tried to get up, but instead hit the back of her head and blacked out.

    A moment later, the car exploded in a ball of fire and flew and spun several yards into the air.

    As she regained conciousness, her ears were ringing and her head pounding. She tried to get up, but she couldn't.

    She thought she heard a voice in the distance behind the ringing and pounding, and strangely, she thought she could feel that person's breath against her ear.

    It was then she realized, the reason she couldn't get up was because the naked boy was lying ontop of her, weighting her down.

    Wait, naked, she thought.

    A mile away a small black bird took off as it heard the woman's fearsome squeak. Desperately, she tried to crawl away from underneath the obviously perverted and very naked boy while simultanously trying to kick him away. But it was futile. Her feet just dug deeper into the dirt and she came nowhere. She turned to face him. The sun sat like a crown behind his head, and his face, if possible, looked even more attractive in the shade. His two expressive eyes, like two blue galaxies slowly swirling around, looked back at her with curiosity. It wasn't until she saw the deformed metal corpse of her former car with a dark sooty plume of smoke reaching up into the sky, that she realized what must've happened.

    "Y... you s... saved me?"

    The boy just smiled, she wasn't sure he could understand him.

    Their faces only inches apart. His face seemed almost magnetic, slowly drawing her closer and closer, and then.... No, no, no. She shook her head. Damn that law, and damn the school for forcing her to re-read that damn law book every year, to make sure she didn't forget.

    Pouting, she turned her face away from him.

    The End.




    "To hell with it!" she said and turned her face back.
     
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2014
  3. GingerCoffee
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    The Safety of Closets (3024 - Language)
    Chicago, Illinois
    April 16, 2021

    I’m hunkered in a closet pungent with the scent of moth balls and Tide. Pulling things on hangers tightly around me, I work hard to steady my breathing. In the movies, people hiding in closets from monsters or crazy people – they always breathe too loudly. It gets them found. It’s never the safe place they think it is.

    I clamp my hand over my mouth, focused on breathing through my nose. It’s still louder than I’d like, but it’s the best I can do and not pass out.

    I hear shuffling through the door, in one of the bedrooms down the hall. Something is knocked over; it crashes to the floor. Then there’s the murmur of voices. I thought there was only one – one pursuer, one predator. I was wrong; there are two.

    Footsteps approach my hiding place. A hand lands heavily on the doorknob as a voice gets louder. It’s angry, a harsh whisper, as if trying to keep quiet, but too pissed to manage.

    The beam of light under the door brightens the tiny space enough for me to see the clothes flanking me. I peek between a garment bag and a winter coat. The smell of moth balls is overpowering, nauseating. I focus on the doorknob; it rattles and jimmies, but doesn’t turn. Then it stops.

    DAMMIT,” somebody suddenly screams, no longer caring if they’re quiet. I jump at the sound, but more than that – I jump at the voice… a woman’s voice. “I told you to keep an eye on her! Can’t you do anything right?” Her voice is stern; authoritative…and familiar.

    The second voice is quiet at first; shamed into silence. Then, “I-I tried. But she was too fast. She’s here, though. I think she ran into this house,” a meek voice, a young female voice says. “I’m sorry, mama. I’ll try harder.”

    My bowels nearly let loose; I’m being hunted by a mother and child.

    “You’d better. I want that girl!” Mama demands. “Make yourself useful and finish searching these rooms. I’ll look in the bedrooms. Jeremy?” she calls out. “Come ‘ere, son. I want you to look through that shed out back, and search them shrubs.” A third person.

    “Okay, mama.” he says. His voice is deep, maturing, but still south of manhood; a teenager. He’s who I heard earlier, the assumed intruder. I listen as he trots down the hall, past my door, through the house. A few seconds after, a screen door slams. He’s outside, doing as he’s told.

    “Virginia, meet me on the porch when you’re done, unless you find her. But do it right this time! Look everywhere, for Christ’s sake!” she says. And then, under her breath, “God only knows why he burdened me with such a stupid girl…”

    I hear heavy thuds as Mama walks deeper into the house, away from the closet. I wait for Virginia to leave, too - listening for the retreat of light, little-girl-footsteps. But there’s only silence.

    Then something echoes through the door that breaks my heart; the soft, unmistakable sound of a weeping child. It’s so quiet, I barely hear it.

    She must have had to learn this; how to cry in silence, to never expose her belly or show weakness to her wretched mother. I feel sorry for her, I can’t help it. She’s just a kid. But I mustn’t forget; she’s the reason I’m hiding, what chased me into this house.

    Then she takes several deep breaths. She’s probably learned that, too; how to limit her sadness to sixty seconds or less. Finally I hear her small feet taking her away, toward the bedrooms, and am flooded with relief.

    Neither of them thought to check this closet.

    Soon I hear muted voices outside. Five minutes longer; nothing. They’ve gone. Just to be safe, I wait another couple of hours before leaving my hiding place. When I finally crawl out, my legs are cramped and I’m drenched in sweat.

    I make my way to a bathroom. Head down, I splash my face and arms with cold water. I dry off with the towel from the rack and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror; something I was avoiding, something I was trying not to do – see my face, my eyes reflected back at me. If I look, I’ll see what they want – why they’re after me.

    To them, and those like them, they’re like gold coins, diamonds; a commodity – a thing of value. And many are now blind or dead because of it.

    ~~~

    Excerpts from The Chicago Tribune


    October 31, 2019

    Deaths Related to Black-Market Organ Trafficking Reaches All Time High
    The illegal trade in human organs has risen to shocking levels in the last two years. An estimated 40,000 unlawful operations involving black market organs (most commonly kidneys, lungs, livers) take place annually; more than four per hour. The most surprising and recent high dollar ticket item is human eyes. More specifically; those with blue irises. According to sources, a healthy pair has a street worth of $10,000 to $25,000 on the black market– depending on the brilliance of color.



    December 13, 2019

    Doctor Caught in Black Market Organ Trafficking Sting
    Dr. William Nemmers of Madison Wisconsin, a prominent ophthalmologist, was charged yesterday with eleven counts of illegal surgeries and eighteen counts of intent to distribute illegally acquired organs. Found in Dr. Nemmer’s basement were three kidneys, two livers, and thirteen pairs of eyes, all with blue irises. Law enforcement officials speculate the recent increase in murder and mutilations is due to the demand for harvested human eyes. To date, despite repeated investigations, the reason for the growing market is still unknown. Three more Madison physicians, believed to have been working with Dr. Nemmers, have been named in connection with these crimes. He is currently held at the Dane County Jail where he awaits trial.



    February 15, 2020

    Valentine’s Day Massacre at School For the Blind
    In an ironic twist, twenty seven mutilated bodies (twenty women and seven men) were discovered by a custodian in the cafeteria ofWestminster School for the Blind on Thursday morning, February 14. Their deaths were due to severe head trauma, the result of unlawful eye-removal. The words, “An eye for an eye, suckers! Haha!” were painted in blood above the stacked bodies, on the cafeteria wall. The victims, all blue-eyed citizens of Chicago, have been identified and their families notified. None had any connection to the school. There were no witnesses.

    ~~~


    I don’t know when it was that blue eyes became valuable. I still don’t know why they are - who decided it, what they’re used for, who gets them, if they’re implanted, if it’s something in their biology they seek. Or if they’re simply eaten as some kind of perverse delicacy; humanoid escargot.

    The fact that one can get artificially-blue eyes through something as simple as contact lenses suggests there’s more to it than the mere color. But nobody knows yet what that is. At least not anyone that’s talking. For me, the mystery is just as frightening as the threat.

    TV news has made known two kinds of hunters - the rarer but skilled corrupt surgeon, and the more common; street peddlers. Whether one lives blind or lives at all depends almost entirely on who the thief is.

    More and more dead, maimed bodies are being found; people discarded as trash with two gaping holes dug into their skulls. That’s what the truly depraved do; people like Mama – insidious, soulless lowlifes who are sick with greed, caring only for the almighty dollar; the innocent lives of their victims be damned.

    My blue eyes stay camouflaged behind brown contact lenses. But allergy-mucus from high ragweed counts last night gummed them up good, so I took them out... then stupidly forgot to put them back in. I realized it too late; at the store. I was careful to avoid eye contact with others, but wasn’t careful enough. Because now I know - it was the girl, Virginia. That’s who spotted me. It happened on the cereal aisle. She and I both reached for the last box of Frosted Flakes. We looked at each other, laughing innocently. I felt no threat from a child.

    “Your favorite?” I’d asked, grinning at her. She nodded. “You take it, hon. I’ll get something else.” She beamed at me as I grabbed a box of Cap’n Crunch. Then a loud, gravelly voice shouted for her from the next aisle – the same voice I just heard. Instantly, her smile vanished; she took her box and ran. That was four hours ago.


    It’s dark now and I no longer feel safe in this house. It’s my neighbor, Lucile’s home. I’d used the spare key she keeps under the ivy basket on her side porch. She’s in Madison where her daughter and grandkids live. Where she goes every other week… ever since her daughter, Phoebe, was blinded by an illegal organ-thief.

    A corrupt surgeon must have stolen her eyes. She was left sightless, but breathing. Dr. Nemmers, when he testified in court, had the audacity to gloat that although he had left his victims blind - at least he left them alive. He’d deemed his action generous. There is no reasoning with the insane.

    Lucile’s lucky. She has hazel eyes. Nobody wants those. I catch myself wondering about her grandchildren. What color iris do they see through? Are they at risk?

    The twisted irony is that my eyes were saved by Lucile’s closet, and her own daughter’s were cut out of her head. I know I’m not responsible; her loss has nothing to do with me. But guilt finds me anyway. For reasons unknown, it often does – even when it’s not mine.

    Keeping low to the ground, I sneak to my house, across a small alley. The door is unlocked, the way I’d left it when I ran. There’s a chance they’re inside, waiting - assuming I’ll do exactly what I’ve done; return in the dark. But I’m certain they’ve moved on, in search of other victims.

    I got away, I think, smiling.

    Gently, I open my back door. It squeaks, but I know to lift up on the doorknob to silence it. This afternoon, when the intruder was in my house, there was no time to run to my bedroom. But now I can’t wait for the security of my room. It’s a fortress. After I’d learned about Phoebe, I turned it into one.

    Keeping the lights off, I get there and close the door. I twist the lock with the key from my pocket. Then I turn three deadbolts and set up the Big Jammer Door Brace. Lastly, I go to the windows to ensure the steel pegs drilled through the frames are set. Burglar bars cover each window outside. I feel for my cell phone and move it from the dresser to the nightstand, putting the key beside it.

    All is secure; I am safe.

    Without bothering to change clothes, I slip under the bedcovers. Although I’d done nothing but sit in a hot, dark closet– I’m tired. Exhausted, in fact. The adrenalin and terror sucked all the energy reserves from my bones. I have a random thought that maybe I should check my closet, but there’s no need. No one can fit in there. It’s crammed full of junk.

    Within seconds, I’m out.

    ~~~

    “Tie her legs, Jeremy. Virginia, get her hands. Hurry!” a woman’s voice hisses from my opened window, waking me. Mama’s on the other side of the burglar bars, between the house and shrubs. Her head looks like a large, smooth balloon under the gray moonlight. Somebody flips on the light, revealing a round, pudgy face with beady, predatory eyes. From my bed, I see; Mama’s a big woman - easily three hundred pounds.

    Rough hands grip my ankles. I struggle to get loose, but can’t. Then smaller, tentative hands grasp my wrist. I fling my arm across my body, freeing it, smacking who must be Virginia in the head. She’s knocked backwards, into the wall. Instantly I feel badly, regardless of why she’s here. She’s only obeying Mama’s orders.

    “Are you okay?” I ask her without thinking. She looks dazed, her hand pressed to the back of her head. Our eyes meet, connecting somehow. I see the pain in them; pain from what just happened, yes - but a deeper pain that has nothing to do with being hit just now. She seems, looksbroken; internally broken. Her lower lip quivers, like she’s about to cry.

    “Get up, dumb bitch!” Jeremy says through clenched teeth. “And get the rope.” My bedroom door stands open. Mama must have ordered Virginia to let him in for the heavy lifting. His hand is a steel vice around my ankle. I fight against him and he punches me in the face. Tiny dots of light dance and twirl before me.

    “Careful, the eyes!” Mama yells from the window.

    “Sorry, mama,” he mumbles. Then to Virginia, “Help me!”, but she doesn’t move. She looks from him to me and back again, uncertainty furrowing her brow.

    I see that I was right; she can’t be more than ten – maybe as young as nine. I remember being nine. It’s too young… way too young for this. What kind of family, what kind of mother drags her children into this way of life? I glance at the window, at Mama’s furious face.

    “Dammit, girl!” Mama shouts in her croaky voice. “I'll kill you if you screw this up! Get off your ass and help him!” Her two fists grip the iron bars, her heavy cheeks and double-chin jiggling with rage. Even her hair looks crazy.

    Virginia hauls herself onto unsteady legs. She looks at me and then at Mama. “DO IT!” Mama screeches, making Virginia jump. Her hands tremble as she pulls the rope from where she’d been hiding; from my closet.

    Apparently someone can fit in there. A little girl fits just fine.

    She hands Jeremy two lengths of rope. Despite my kicking, he weaves a piece through my ankles and makes a knot. He takes the other and expertly binds my hands. Clearly, he’s done this before. Then he pulls me feet-first off the bed, onto the floor, and drags me toward the door.

    The reality of what’s about to happen nearly paralyzes me. I imagine Mama, a grapefruit spoon clutched in her sausage-like fingers, scooping out my eyes. Petrified, I can barely breathe.

    Virginia just stands there, unshed tears threatening to fall. She looks at her brother, who is adjusting his grip on the ropes at my feet. “Let’s go,” he grunts. I thrash and squirm, my panic renewed. But he’s too strong. Panting, he strikes me again and I stop fighting. “I said let’s go!” he yells impatiently at Virginia, who still isn’t moving. "Hurry the fuck up!”

    Taking a step toward the door, she looks down at my bloodied face. Tears clear a path to her chin. Then her expression changes. I read something in her eyes, but I’m unsure of what to make of the edgy resolve I see there.

    Suddenly, from out of nowhere, she reaches across me. Raising both arms, she follows through with a two-armed, exaggerated karate-chop, right at Jeremy’s hands, breaking his grip. Then, with what must be all of her might, she shoves him with both hands and a foot, out into the hall. Off balance and backwards, he falls down, cursing the whole way.

    Instinctively I fold my legs out of the doorjamb. Virginia slams the door shut, locking the deadbolts. She unties my hands and feet and hands me the key. I replace the bar-brace and use the key in the lock.

    From the window Mama is shrieking bloody murder. Her language is so foul, so guttural; I can barely comprehend it. Virginia, hands covering her ears, rushes to the window. Face averted, she pulls it closed, muffing her mother’s voice. Mama continues to scream.

    Jeremy bangs on the bedroom door for several minutes before giving up and running outside. We see him join Mama at the window. They’re both glaring and cussing at us.

    Virginia looks at me now. She fidgets from foot to foot, her fingers nervously lacing and unlacing. “C-c-can you help me?” she stammers. I’m surprised at her plea, though maybe I shouldn’t be. She’s not like Mama or Jeremy. She’s a prisoner - the worst possible kind; held hostage by an evil family. But I’m not sure what she wants from me. “I can help you, too – if that’s the trade you want.” she finishes shyly.

    “You already have,” I tell her, looking toward the window. Mama and Jeremy are there, facing one another, undoubtedly conjuring a new plan. Without looking at it, I whisper, “Did you see the phone, honey? The one behind you, on the nightstand?”

    “Yes,” she says.

    “Can you call for help?”

    Quietly, stealthily she reaches back, picks it up and pushes the green phone emblem. Then, as if reading my mind, she clicks the speaker button and hits three numbers. We both hear the woman answer on the other end.

    “911…what’s your emergency?”

    “This is Susan Leonard. I’m trapped in my home by black market organ-thieves. I live at 324 Bluebird Lane,” I say quietly, praying she can hear me; praying Mama and Jeremy can’t.

    “How do you know they’re organ-thieves, ma’am?” the operator asks.

    “They want her eyes…they told me!” Virginia says in her little girl voice.

    “Who is with you, ma’am?”

    “That’s…” I hesitate. Then I look into Virginia’s sad, brown eyes. “That’s my niece, Virginia. She lives with me,” I lie as Virginia begins weeping silent, tears of relief.

    “How many assailants are there, ma’am? Can you describe them?”

    “Two Caucasians – an obese woman and her teenage son. They’re outside my bedroom window. Please hurry before they run!”

    “I’ve dispatched two units to your address; they’re on their way. Please stay on the line.”

    And we listen, Virginia and I. The sirens are already drawing near.
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2014
  4. GingerCoffee
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    Axman! [About 2,560 words]

    Ben Grieve slipped the key into the lock, and opened the door. He set down his valise, and turned on the light. Cockroaches scrambled into the corners.

    He closed the door behind him, and locked it. He sat down on the mattress on the iron bedstead and looked around the small room, fetid with the odors of its most recent occupant. There was the bed, a sink, and a little desk with a chair. Above the desk was a large mirror with a diagonal crack in it. There was nothing else, not even a refrigerator or a hot plate. The public toilets were down the hall, as was the pay phone, an old-fashioned box with a rotary dial.

    A single window looked out on a black patch of night. Out there, an air shaft separated his room from the room across the way, part of the same building.

    He drew out a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his rumpled suit coat and mopped his brow with it. Putting the handkerchief away, he loosened his tie and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. The bare light bulb in the ceiling emphasized the dark hollows of his eyes and the sunken planes of his cheeks, making him look older than his fifty-five years. Rubbing the gray stubble on his cheeks and chin, he averted his gaze from the haggard and unfamiliar train wreck of a man on the other side of the cracked mirror.

    In 2008, on the eve of the financial collapse and the Great Recession that followed, Ben Grieve was a married man and a made man. He worked in finance on Wall Street, and lived with his wife and two children in a split-level house in leafy White Plains. But even then he was drinking and doing drugs.

    Six years later he was renting a room in this dismal YMCA in Akron, Ohio. A lot had gone down, he reflected, in those six short years. Down, down, down.

    He mentally checked off his setbacks: Laid off. Check. Divorced. Check. Estranged from children. Check. Foreclosure on the house. Check. Life savings squandered. Check. Alcoholism, drug abuse, a violent crackup and a short stay in the psycho ward. Check, check, check and check again. Release from the loony bin, with a small stipend and a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Akron. Check. Check. Check.

    And now, checkmate.

    Fishing the room keys from his pocket, he held them up and they dangled from his fingertips. Room 5A, a rectangular panel hanging from the key ring informed him: fifth floor, the elevator broken.

    He tossed the keys onto the desktop below the cracked mirror and gazed out the window. A light came on in the room on the other side of the air shaft. The window of that room had no curtains, but the shade was pulled down. Grieve saw the silhouette of a woman. She was undressing.

    He turned off the light of his room and spied on this sinuous shadow, wriggling out of its dress. She had an hourglass figure, but Grieve felt nothing apart from bored curiosity. He had no TV in the room, so this was something to watch.

    Suddenly the silhouette of the undressing woman turned sharply to the left. For a moment the moving shadow disappeared from view, and then the shadow staggered backward, into view again. The woman was holding up her hand in a warding gesture. Her silhouette was then joined by the silhouette of a man wielding an ax. The shadow ax arced down, and was buried in the top of woman’s head. She fell to the floor and out of view. The man then reached down, yanked the ax out of her head and moved to the left, toward the door. He then vanished from view. Stipples of blood were silhouetted on the window shade.

    Taxman, flashed through Grieve’s mind. He had been in arrears on his taxes and the tax man had indeed come calling, literally knocking at his door: “Taxman! I’m the taxman! Open the door, please! The Taxman cometh!” It had been another setback of his, for some reason his biggest humiliation. Check. A big one, to the I.R.S. The Beatles song floated through his mind:

    Let me tell you how it will be,
    There’s one for you, nineteen for me,
    ‘Cause I’m the Taxman,
    Yeah, I’m the Taxman.


    Axman! Yeah, I’m the Axman!

    Jesus Christ, flashed through Grieve’s mind.

    He threw open the window and stretched out over the ledge, gazing at the square patch of light behind the window shade across the way. He noticed that there was no fire-escape landing, either for his room or the other one, where the Axman had just called.

    Jesus Christ, am I hallucinating? Did that just happen?

    He waited for the shadow of the woman to reappear, but it did not.

    He slammed shut the window, opened the door to his room and looked out the hall, up and down. No one was around. He noticed the rotary pay phone on the wall, about six doors down the hall to his left. It was next to the stairs.

    The eerie, oppressive silence of this place disturbed him. He wondered if any of the other rooms on this floor were occupied, apart from his own.

    His eyes went to the pay phone again.

    Then he heard it.

    A footstep.

    It fell on a step of the staircase, some floors below.

    In the claustrophobic silence, that footfall reverberated like the crack of a pistol.

    Then there was another footfall, and another, echoing in the silent emptiness of the Akron YMCA.

    He tracked the footsteps off the stairs and down a hallway, two or three floors below his floor, Grieve estimated.

    Then there was silence. Grieve withdrew into his darkened room and pulled back the door to a crack. He listened intently, his heart hammering.

    Then, from down below, came a brisk rap on a door.

    “Axman! I’m the Axman! Open the door, please!”

    Another brisk rap followed, and then vigorous pounding. Then silence.

    A few moments later he almost literally jumped out of his tasseled leather shoes at the sound of an ax striking a tree. Only the tree had been made into a door. An explosive flying of flinders was followed by a bloodcurdling scream.

    After that he heard a whump, and the scream was abruptly cut off in mid-crescendo.

    To cut off his own scream, he bit down on his tongue so hard that he drew blood from it. His knuckles were white on the edge of the door, and his knees wobbled.

    He heard the footsteps again, followed by more knocks.

    “Axman! I’m the Axman!”

    Doors were broken down, but apparently most of the rooms were unoccupied. A couple of more screams were fainter; apparently the Axman was on the far side of the hall two or three floors down, away from the stairs.

    The footsteps resumed, getting closer to the stairs. Grieve looked at the pay phone, so near and yet so far. He pictured himself making a dash for it and ringing 911, but dismissed the idea, fearing that the Axman would hear Grieve’s footsteps and race upstairs to intercept him. He pictured himself fumbling with that crude rotary dial, repeatedly misdialing as the Axman mounted the steps, footfalls thudding. Then he thought about tiptoeing softly to the phone, but dismissed that idea as well, fearing it would take too much precious time.

    The elevator. He could take the elevator down.

    Then he remembered that it was broken.

    The footsteps fell, fell, fell …

    They were getting louder and closer.

    The Axman was indeed coming up the stairs.

    Grieve visualized a long shadow in a livid light stretching across the wall, the shadow of man holding an ax slowly ascending the steps.

    It was too late to think about the phone.

    Grieve closed and locked the door. He was in complete darkness.

    He switched on the light, and gazed at the mirror. The diagonal crack running from the upper right to the lower left of the glass split his face in two. His face looked as if it had been fractured by an earthquake – or by an ax.

    “Axman!”

    BANG BANG BANG!

    The Axman was one floor below, now.

    Grieve collapsed onto the bed, shaking with terror. He heard more pounding on doors, and more doors being split into timber by the rising and falling of the ax. Occasional screams were interrupted in their shrill, terror-tinged octaves by that peculiar whump sound, like a fist striking a bundle of laundry.

    Bang bang, on the door, baby; BANG BANG!Another song lyric.

    The footsteps resumed, louder, closer.

    The Axman was mounting the steps to the fifth floor, Grieve’s floor.

    Grieve yanked open the drawer of the desk, hoping to find something, anything, that he might use to defend himself. But there was only a Gideon’s Bible in the drawer. He snatched it up and opened to a random page. He read:

    A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.

    He glanced at the window, but then recalled that there was no fire escape. There was no escape at all.

    “Axman! I’m the Axman!”

    BANG BANG BANG!

    On the door, baby.

    The Axman was next door, now.

    Grieve doused the light, and then half-scuttled and half-crawled under the iron bedstead where he curled into the fetal position.

    The door next to his exploded. A scream. Awhump. No more scream.

    He bit down on his hand to keep his teeth from chattering as his own door rattled with the banging of the fist.

    “Axman! I’m the Axman! The Axman cometh! Open the door!”

    Grieve curled up even more tightly, his teeth sunk into the flesh of his hand and drawing blood. He clapped his other hand over his pounding heart and began shaking uncontrollably. He squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for what was to follow.

    The ax ripped through the wood with a thunderous crack. The door exploded. In spite of himself, Grieve’s eyes shot open, and he saw, through the hole in the door, light seeping in from the hallway and paling his darkened room. Splinters of wood from the demolished door were strewn about the floor. He saw two battered, down-at-the-heels leather shoes, weirdly adorned with tassels, and the cuffs of gray trousers above black socks. Then the shoes approached as the Axman strolled into the room.

    His teeth still biting down into his bleeding hand, the curled-up and quaking Grieve held his breath and watched bug-eyed from under the bed as the ax blade swung leisurely above the floor. The blade was soaked in blood, the blood spilling off it and pooling on the threadbare carpet. Blobs of brain tissue clung to that honed metal edge.

    The light was switched on.

    The Axman stopped, apparently looking around.

    Grieve fiercely held his breath. Do not make a sound, he mentally beseeched himself, but his heart was racing, racing. Though not a religious man, he closed his eyes and said his prayers. Then he opened them again.

    The light was switched off.

    The Axman left the room.

    Grieve bit down deeper into his hand to suppress an explosive sigh of relief that might yet betray his presence. He heard the tasseled shoes cracking on the hall floor, and then the Axman was hammering on another door.

    “Axman! I’m the Axman!”

    The Axman broke down four or five more doors, but apparently all the rooms were empty, or maybe the residents, like him, were hiding under their beds. In any event, Grieve did not hear more screams.

    Peering out from under the bed at the gap in his broken door, he saw the tasseled shoes moving by in the hall, and the blood-drenched ax blade swinging as the Axman plodded on. A moment later Grieve heard footfalls on the steps, and it was evident that the Axman’s bloody work on the fifth floor was done. He was going back down the stairs.

    Grieve yanked his hand out of his mouth, and finally blew out that explosive, pent-up sigh of relief that he had bottled up for so long. He was still shaking in terror, however, and he felt empty and spent. He was so soaked in sweat that he imagined himself to have been thrown, fully clothed, into a swimming pool.

    He waited five more minutes until he could no longer hear the footfalls. Then he scuttled out from under the bed.

    He walked through the gaping hole in the door, trotted down the hall, snatched up the receiver of the pay phone and dropped in a quarter. As he had imagined earlier, in his nervousness he fumbled with the rotary phone, repeatedly misdialing. When the 911 operator finally came on the line, he breathed huskily into the mouthpiece, like a crank caller or maybe a pervert: “The Axman cometh.” After hanging up, he retreated back into his room, where he switched on the light and gazed at the cracked mirror.

    He did not see his reflection. The mirror showed only the far wall of the room and the bed.

    Awed, he held up his hand to the cracked mirror, but saw nothing reflected back except for the room.

    He heard the distant whoop of sirens, and turned in the direction of the window.

    Turning back to the mirror, he saw his own fractured reflection again in it, but this time his reflection stood with arms folded across the chest and one hand around an ax handle. The blade dripped blood.

    His reflection in the mirror said, “Axman! You’re the Axman!” Then his reflection raised the ax.

    The mirror blew apart in a spray of shards, some of which whizzed past Grieve and others of which cut his face. The blade stuck out through the broken mirror and hovered above the desk, dripping blood onto it. Grieve staggered back and fell sitting on the bed as his ax-wielding doppelgänger smashed through from the other side of the mirror, kicking the desk aside and knocking over the chair. Within seconds the Axman was standing in the little room, and raising the ax above his head.

    With a quickness and spryness that belied his fifty-five years, Grieve threw himself to one side and rolled on the bed as the ax came down on the mattress and split it apart, the blade ringing off the wrought-iron of the bedstead.

    The ax had actually split the iron slightly, digging into it, and the Axman struggled for a few moments to yank the blade out. Grieve took advantage of this opportunity to snatch up the Gideon Bible and whack his double over the head with it. The sirens grew louder.

    The Axman hefted up the blade and swung it lustily at Grieve, who stumbled backward. It cut through Grieve’s tie just below the knot. The severed ribbon of silk floated down to the blood-stained floor.

    The Axman was lifting the ax again when both men heard the sound of feet thudding swiftly up the steps. They turned to look at the gaping hole in the door, and each man saw the glint of badges, blue uniforms, drawn guns. The ax blade flashed, hissing and spitting blood, and a volley of bullets tore through the room.
     
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2014

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