?

Please vote for the piece you feel is most deserving:

Poll closed Feb 6, 2009.
  1. Trojan - Price Of A Life

    2 vote(s)
    18.2%
  2. Noodleguy - How Not To Insult Ancient Egyptian Gods of Death

    1 vote(s)
    9.1%
  3. Mello - In a Corner

    1 vote(s)
    9.1%
  4. Penny Dreadful - Our Missing Sister, Innocence

    2 vote(s)
    18.2%
  5. Wreybies - The Great House

    2 vote(s)
    18.2%
  6. Sunset Sailor - Innocence Lost

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  7. wave1345 - Growing Eleven

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  8. Dark Side of the Sun - Justice

    2 vote(s)
    18.2%
  9. yellowm&M - The Game

    1 vote(s)
    9.1%
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  1. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Voting Short Story Contest (37) - The Value Of Innocence

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Gannon, Jan 28, 2009.

    Voting Short Story Contest (37) Theme: The Value Of Innocence

    Thank you for all your entries. The winner will be stickied until the next contest's winner is crowned.

    Voting will end 6th February 2009 to give you all a chance to read the entries.

    It is possible to vote for yourself, but I would hope in the name of good sportsmanship that you would only do so if you have read all the other stories and given them your honest evaluation. You gain nothing if you base your vote solely on how you feel about the author or whether you have personally invested time and effort in the story. In the end, your conscience is your only judge.

    Any entries under the suggested word limit will be flagged as such - they are still entered in to the contest. It is for you to decide whether they are still worthy of your vote.

    Any entry not strictly in accordance with the theme will be dealt with on a case by case basis to determine eligibility. Consider how the author has responded to the theme in making your decision.

    Good luck to everyone.
     
  2. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Trojan - Price Of A Life: Last Breath [Discretion advised]

    To whoever finds this I would like you to know the events that changed my life.

    I was raped December 2006.

    It’s been over two years now. I was just 19 at the time and never believed it would happen to me. I used to walk around laughing about blokes that it had happened to, bragging it would never happen to me and that I would never let another man try to put a finger on me.

    I was walking home from a night out on the town when I was approached by four men. I remember thinking at the time that they were going to try and rob me so I prepared to fight them in my drunken state. Within seconds I was pressed against the wall, hands held behind my back, trousers round my ankles. I pretended to laugh along whilst pleading with them to let me go, I thought it was some kind of practical joke until one of them forced himself inside me. I cried, struggled, attempted to scream for help but none came. I remember them telling me to shut up and stop struggling because they were going to do it anyway. One by one they took their turn having their way with me.

    They threw me to the floor when they finished. I pulled my trousers up as fast as possible, curled into a ball and cried. Just lay in the street and cried. At that single moment I felt scared, weak, pathetic and cheap. My innocence, my pride, my manhood, everything I was had all been stolen.

    Eventually I was found by a police car, they pulled up alongside me and asked from the window if I was OK. I ignored their question and continued to cry. I had been lay there for hours, the sun had began to rise and I still continued to cry. They got out the car and asked again if I was OK. I attempted to tell them what had happened but I couldn’t, the words just wouldn’t leave my mouth, all I could do was sob and make noises that vaguely resembled words but they somehow they seemed to understand.

    The two officers helped me into the car because I couldn’t walk when I got to my feet. They took me to the police station and tried to make me feel as comfortable as possible. It wasn’t long before they wanted a statement, tests, examinations. I had been through the most horrible experience of my life and here I was attempting to cooperate as much as I could and it was almost as if they didn’t believe me, like they wanted to hurt me again. None of them could be trusted.

    There was a huge process to go through. Regularly I was visited by a carer who tried talking to me about what had happened but I wouldn't speak. She always looked at me like I was unimportant, speak to me with a false voice. I was a burden. She didn't want to bother and neither did I. I wanted to be left alone.

    It’s been over two years now and I've rarely left my house. The rapist’s haven’t been caught because I couldn’t provide enough evidence. Every night I go to bed and lay awake thinking about that night, those men, their laughs and how they could be doing all this to someone else.

    All I have now is a leaflet; “Coping with rape, for men”. What else do I have? My friends don’t bother to see me any more, I’m different now apparently, not the same as I was before. Parents act as though nothing has happened. For two years I have been haunted by this with no one to talk to. This is the first time I have revealed exactly what happened and this will be my last.

    I’m sorry.
     
  3. Gannon
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    Noodleguy - How Not To Insult Ancient Egyptian Gods of Death

    Well, it wasn’t exactly the pearly gates. I’d lived my whole life a good Christian, or at least, well, a sort of a decent Christian and now there wasn’t even any god damn pearly gates. It seemed a bit cheap. No, instead I stood before a simple massive stone wall, made of sandstone and extending upwards and in every direction as far as my eyes could possibly see. The wall was entirely covered in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics: a sight I hadn’t expected to see since I graduated from 7th grade Global Studies. There didn’t seem to be any point of entry to me, as I stood before this wall. I nearly laughed at the strangeness of the situation. Just minutes ago, it seemed, I had died. That fact I knew for certain, there was no doubt in my mind of my state. I had just died and now I was…where was I? I pondered this like a grocery shopper who has just forgotten whether they have gone down aisle 13 just yet.

    It’s a funny thing about being dead, focus. Well, there are quite a few “funny” things about being dead, but this was one of them. Nothing in the afterlife there really had detail to me. It was as if I was surrounded by empty void. Then, when I looked at something for a long time it sort of filled in. As if it was too lazy to go on existing without my watching it. When I looked at the ground underneath and around me, I could see that it was thick black sand. Off to one side there seemed to be a grove of ferns and green life. Like the rest of the world, that disappeared from view when I stopped watching it. For some reason none of this seemed to be particularly odd. I just took in all the data and pondered it for a short while. Dead people apparently can think very clearly. It helps not having all that grey stuff in your head obstructing your thoughts. And I was pretty sure that I barely had any grey stuff left in my head at all, what with it being splattered on the pavement of the parking lot and all. Damned drunk driving. Well, my drunk driving, but still.

    Slowly I decided to advance towards the grove of ferns. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do here. As I walked I had the curious sensation that my feet were not quite touching the ground. Or maybe there was no ground at all. What was the difference? Before I could go far though, a Voice from behind me came loud and clear. It clearly was a Voice deserving of a capital “V”.

    “I WOULD NOT,” the Voice came “GO TOO MUCH FARTHER IN THAT DIRECTION.” I stopped dead in my tracks. The Voice had a strong commanding aura about it, and it held contained within it as much power a sheer force as a hundred atomic bombs. I felt that there was no way I could possibly deny that voice. I swiveled my head around and saw the origin of that voice.

    The Voice originated from someone incredibly strange and impressive. If this wasn’t the Pearly Gates, I was even more positive that this wasn’t the Archangel Michael or whoever the hell it was supposed to be here in the Bible. Instead of feathery wings and fiery swords, it was a man approximately twenty feet tall. In one hand he carried what looked like a shortened shepherd’s crook, in the other a massive flail. His skin was a dark forest green color. Oddly contrasting with the rest of his appearance, though, was his clothing. He was wearing an incredibly tacky white suit with a yellow tie. The suit looked so far out of place on this giant’s body I was simply stunned.

    “Ummm, a suit?” was about all I could manage at the moment. In my defense I was feeling rather light headed at the time.

    “YES. I HAVE BEEN TOLD THAT I OUGHT TO ‘MODERNIZE’ THE OCCASION.” The green man said.

    “Osiris, you fool!” came another voice. This one had a harsh, guttural, barking quality to it. “I told you, the mortals always hate the yellow tie! You should have worn the green one, it matches your complexion far better!”

    Soon a body came to match the second voice. Another figure stepped out of the shadows, just as tall as the first. This massive man was, in fact, not quite a man. His head looked like that of a greyhound or some other sort of middle-eastern dog. In the crook of his arm he held a flail, similar to that of the green man. The dog man was dressed equally tastelessly: he looked more like a worker at Hot Topic than anything else. All of his clothing was black, complete with a long silver chain hanging around his neck.

    “WELL, ANUBIS, YOU COULD DRESS A BIT MORE FORMALLY FOR THESE THINGS.” came the voice of the green man. He sounded a bit reproachful. I simply watched this conversation between the giants in awe. The dog man looked like he was going to respond, but before he could he was interrupted by a third figure.

    “Hwell,” came the third voice. This voice was that of an elderly English gentlemen. The H was clearly pronounced. “I do believe that you have sufficiently convinced the Mortal that we are all fools without any sort of fashion sense. Now, could we please, ahem, ‘Get on with it’ as they say nowadays?”

    This figure stepped into line right next to the green man. I half expected from the voice to emanate from my community college English professor, and I half expected to see another giant monster. I got some mixture of both. Equal in stature to his companions, this monumental figure had the head of some kind of long beaked bird. He wore a maroon sweater vest and had a pair of half-rimmed glasses sitting on top of his beak.

    I stepped backwards one step from these massive apparitions, partly out of fear and partly out of shock. A loud growling came from behind me and I immediately stopped and looked back. Crawling out of the reeds was what appeared to be a massive alligator. At least at first glance that is what it seemed to be. In truth it was far too large for that, and I quickly realized that it had thick hippopotamus legs. Its feet were lion’s paws, each with a set of massive claws. Its alligator-mouth seemed to be stuck in a brutish and nasty reptilian grin.

    “Hwell, hyess, this is why we do not, ahem, hadvise Mortals to go that direction. That is, ahem, the Devourer.” Came the voice of the bird man. I gulped. The Devourer? A fairly descriptive name. I already had several unpleasant images involving the monster using my body as a toothpick stuck in my head.

    “NOW, NOW, THOTH,” Came the voice of the green man again. “WE OUGHT TO EXPLAIN THINGS BETTER TO THE POOR CHAP. HE LOOKS TERRIBLY FRIGHTENED.”

    “Yes, not a bad idea at all, for once Osiris,” the dog man said. I now recognized that it was in fact the head of a jackal, not a dog. With that realization I recognized the giants for what they were.

    “You-You’re the Gods of Egypt!” I stammered. “You, you’re Anubis,” I said, pointing to the jackal god. He nodded slightly. “And you’re Osiris,” the green man nodded solemnly, “And you’re…”

    The bird man sighed. “Mortals never remember me. Anubis the jackal headed they remember, yes. Osiris the Judge of the Dead they remember, yes. But not poor…” I cut the god off.

    “Thoth! Thoth, god of knowledge!” I shouted triumphantly. Truly, that course I took in “Cultures of the Ancient World” freshman year of college had paid off, even if I did spend the whole time staring out the window. Thoth looked rather pleased at this. Who knew that knowledge of the Egyptian gods would prove to be so useful in the afterlife? My professor would probably be pleased.

    “Hquite right. And I expect you know hwhy we are here as well. We are the Judges of the Dead.”

    “INDEED THOTH,” came the booming voice of Osiris, “AND ALREADY WE HAVE DALLIED TOO LONG. IT IS TIME FOR THE WEIGHING.”

    In front of Osiris there appeared a huge golden set of scales, several feet taller than the top of my head. The scales were of the old fashioned kind, the kind you see as an emblem of justice everywhere. On one side of the scale their laid a stone shaped like a heart. On the other side their sat a feather. The scales were clearly tipped towards the feather.

    “We don’t use people’s actual hearts any more, it was quite a bit…messy.” Said Anubis. He looked a bit ashamed for some reason.

    “WELL, IF YOU DIDN’T ALWAYS EAT THEM BEFORE THE DEVOURER GOT TO THEM!”

    “Sorry! Sorry!” Anubis squeaked. I wondered if my afterlife was truly in good hands. Quickly though the jackal-god regained his composure and spoke in his normal tone. He spoke in the manner of someone who has said the exact same words many times, in this case for millennia. “Thy heart shall be weighed against the Feather of Truth,” he said.

    “AND SHOULD THY HEART BE HEAVY WITH CORRUPTION IT SHALT BE DEVOURED AND THY ETERNAL SOUL SHALT BE DESTROYED,” Osiris continued.

    “And should ye heart be light with Innocence, you shall pass through the Gates of Yaru to the Afterlife.” Thoth finished.

    “Oh my.” I added, rather cowed by the spectacle. Everything was happening so quickly…and so strangely! I lost my senses and foolishly spoke again.

    “Wait, so, you’re like the ancient Egyptian Gods and all? So the Egyptians were right?” I burst out incredulously. I had been thinking this question from the start.

    “Not ‘LIKE’ the Egyptian Gods we ‘ARE’ the Egyptian Gods. And yes, they were very right.” Anubis said, looking irritated. Whoops. A word of advice to you: never insult the twenty foot all jackal god of death whose eternal soul is in your hands. Never.

    “NOW, YOUR HEART SHALL BE JUDGED.” Osiris boomed. All of us, me and the Gods included, turned to look at the scale. The heart and the feather appeared to be equally weighed.

    Thoth pulled a scroll out, seemingly out of nowhere. He said reproachfully, “You are charged with the murder of no less than Three Point Two persons.” When he said this, the heart sank down on the scale and the feather lifted.

    I was shocked. “Three point two? How is that even possible? And I never killed anyone! I’m completely, utterly Innocent!” Well, that was partially true.

    “Not quite true!” Anubis said, almost gleefully. “The value of your innocence has already been determined at approximately 3.2 grams. The value of your corruption, on the other hand, has been determined at approximately 6.2 grams. These combined, you have killed approximately three point two people.”

    “But…I didn’t do any of those things!” I protested once more.

    “You, ahem, fool!” Thoth said angrily. “Do you think you can lie to the Gods? You’re a con artist! A swindler! A cheat!”

    I was taken aback. Well…that was true. But how could they possibly know? I’d never been caught, as far as I knew.

    “WE KNOW EVERYTHING, MORTAL,” Osiris said loudly. Anubis covered his huge ears miming out pain in his ears. “SHUT UP ANUBIS. AND, YES MORTAL. YOU HAVE KILLED THREE PEOPLE.”

    “You, ahem, have stolen no less than thirty three thousand dollars from stockholders in the company of Herbert Investors in a rather clever Ponzi scheme, if I do say so myself. In doing so you cause the early death of a Mrs. Herbert, widow of John Herbert himself and primary stakeholder in the company. She had a heart attack no less than three years before her time was due.”

    Did I really do that? I remembered the Herbert blow out, it was a brilliant one. The suckers! I had celebrated the deal with my partners over a fine bottle of Yellow Tail Chiraz. It had been one of the defining points of my “career.” Now, for some reason, the victory did not seem so sweet.

    “Hmmm, and that is just the most direct one. You have reduced the quality of life of no less than fourty-seven other people by enough to add up, in fact, to the deaths of 5.2 people. I have to say, you must have stolen rather a lot of money for that to work out that way. Busy career you had, eh?” Anubis said.

    Yes, a busy career indeed. I had lived a life of petty thefts and corrupt business, bribing politicians, moving money around, laundering from companies. It had all seemed so harmless. It was just numbers on pieces of paper, right? Just…numbers. But now the numbers had come back to face me an entirely different way. 6.2. 6.2 deaths. That was the value of my corruption.

    “OF COURSE, THAT’S NOT QUITE THE END OF THE STORY. YOU HAVE SAVED NO LESS THAN THREE POINT TWO PEOPLE’S LIVES.”

    I had a feeling I knew at least one of these.

    “Ah, yes, yes a certain Mrs. Angela Whiter. Age 4. You appear to have donated no less than half a million dollars for her radiation and chemotherapy treatments? An admirable act.” Thoth said, looking down his long beak at me.

    “Errr, well, she is my niece and all. And…there was nothing else to do, y’know.”

    “An admirable act nonetheless,” chuckled Anubis. “And we have it on record that you were an organ donor too. That saved no less than two point two lives, we have calculated.”

    Did it really? I had no idea it would have such an impact. Signing the little card had just seemed like…the right thing to do.

    “THE RIGHT THING TO DO INDEED. WE EGYPTIANS LOOK VERY FAVORABLY ON GIVING UP ORGANS AFTER DEATH, AHA, AHA.” The laughs of Osiris were as mirthful as a suicidal clown’s funeral.

    3.2, eh? That didn’t seem too bad. 3.2 ounces. So that was the value of my innocence. Maybe my life wasn’t worthless after all. Still, compared to my corruption it seemed rather small.

    “Rather small indeed.” Came a harsh voice from behind me. I turned around and, to my horror, saw the Devourer once more. It was slowly walking towards me. I stood, frozen in place, my face a grimace of terror now. But the Devourer did not come after me. It went right past me. Past me to the scales that is. The Gods were gone now; I saw when I turned around.

    “You see, when a heart has been determined to be more corrupt than innocent…” the Devourer said, ending the sentence with a nasty gnashing of its horrible pointed teeth instead of words. I wondered how it possibly could speak with such a strange and awful monstrosity of a mouth. The Devourer turned back towards the golden scales and walked up to my heart-stone. It opened its massive jaws up to their full size, probably mostly for show, but before it could bit down something happened. The scales moved. The heart rose up into the air, out of the Devourer’s reach. The creature stamped on the black sand ground angrily. What was happening? It hadn’t been thwarted for thousands of years!

    Before it could do anything though, the Gods reappeared. They popped into existence as easily and silently as they had left. They looked a little rushed, and Osiris was visibly sweating.

    “WE AREN’T TOO LATE, ARE WE?” he said, looking towards the scales. When he saw that my heart was intact he sighed in relief. “THANK GOD. THANK ME.” He said, chuckling.

    “Har har, that one never gets old, does it Osiris?” Anubis snapped. “This is only a man’s eternal soul we’re dealing with, after all. Nothing important!"

    “OH COME OFF IT ANUBIS!” Osiris said grumpily.

    “Ummm…excuse me, sirs, Gods, whatever?” I asked nervously. “What’s going on? I thought I was going to get eaten now?”

    “Well, hyes, that hwas the plan.” Thoth said. Anubis and Osiris were still bickering in the background but he managed to ignore them. “But, ahem, new circumstances arose. Your hwill. You should have told us about your hwill.”

    I grinned and realized what had happened. “Oh, yeah, that whole thing. Nasty surprise I left my poker buddies, eh?”

    “AND A RATHER NICE SURPRISE YOU LEFT THE RED CROSS!” Osiris butted in, turning away from his argument with Anubis. “A NICE SURPRISE WORTH NO LESS THAN 4 LIVES.

    “Four lives?” I asked, incredulous. “That much?”

    “Four million dollars is quite a lot of money, Mortal. More than enough to buy enough equipment and fund enough research to save four people who would otherwise have died. The value of your innocence has gone up by 4.0 grams to 7.2. The value of your corruption remains at 6.2 grams.” Anubis said, not to be upstaged by Osiris. “And if wasn’t for certain green skinned folk we would have realized this much earlier.”

    “THEREFORE THE COMBINED WEIGHT OF YOUR HEART IS LESS THAN ZERO. QUITE IMPRESSIVE, IN FACT. AND HEY, THAT’S NOT QUITE FAIR YOU JACKAL HEADED FOOL!” Osiris boomed. Anubis made the mocking signs of covering his huge ears with his hands again at the loudness.

    “Never mind them, boy. They’ve been going on like this for thousands of years. Ever since Osiris came down and forced Anubis to share the whole judging the dead thing. Used to be just Anubis’s gig, and he’s resented the Big Boss’s involvement from the start. And I have to be the one to babysit the two!” Thoth said to me quietly, with the air of a conspirator. I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on now, I was so relieved that my eternal soul wasn’t going to be devoured.

    “So, I don’t get eaten then?” I asked loudly, above the din of Anubis and Osiris’s arguing.

    “NO, OF COURSE NOT! YOU GET TO GO THROUGH THE GATES OF YARU. THOUGH I MUST SAY IT WAS A CLOSE CALL.” Osiris said. He waved his shepherd’s crook at the hieroglyph covered wall of sandstone and a vast doorway appeared within it. All I could see on the other side was darkness. I hesitated, unsure of what to do now. Anubis waved his flail and made two massive statues of himself on each side of the doorway. Osiris did the same, although his were much bigger. No wonder this religion had never really caught on: these gods were obnoxious.

    “Hwell, those two are anyway,” Thoth said, reading my thoughts, “But you’d best be going before they change their mind, boy!”

    Heeding Thoth’s advice, I hurried through the Gates of Yaru to the afterlife, leaving the bickering of Osiris and Anubis behind me. And all the while I had a single number stuck in my head. 7.2 grams. 7.2. That was the value of my innocence.
     
  4. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Mello - In a Corner

    Mama always said to be polite when making introductions. That's why I didn't blow the bank teller's head off.

    She was making a real stink about it all, too. The old lady at the bank, I mean, not Mama. Screaming and carrying on as if it wasn't a one-way scenario. As in, there's only one way you're living through this, and that's if you unload the money into this bag. It still took a hit on her head with the butt of my shotgun to set her straight. After that, she got smart and popped open the cash drawer. I remember all I could hear was the clicking sound of those little metal fingers opening and the crisp whisper of the bills flicking against each other as the teller pulled them out of the till. That sound was just grand in my ears. That and the sound of seven middle-aged women whimpering on the floor as Freddie herded them into the back and told them to not touch a thing. Standing there at that moment, I felt near-exalted, far away from myself, watching myself carry out that triumph objectively. I nearly wanted to start yelling to Freddie, telling him that we really did it, that it was gonna be easy living for us till our last days.

    Mama always said the golden rule was to treat others in the way that you'd like them to treat you, so me and my cousin Freddie pledged just beforehand not to shoot a single man or woman, because we sure as hell didn't want to get shot ourselves. We also vowed to split the spoils right down the middle between the two of us, because we were in it together, every step of the way. Even before the pledge, though we knew that the art of robbing wasn't about blowing people away—it was about placing the threat of death on their heads and having them think it over. That was about the only thing we did know about robbing, however.

    Mama always said to never give up, and when you want something you gotta take it, no matter what's in your way. So, when Freddie lost track of the ladies and one of them slipped away and tripped the alarm while I was in the middle of a sentence, I didn't even flinch. I didn't yell at him, or fire a shot in the air, or knock anybody out, or lose my temper in any other recognizable way. I just looked straight in the eyes of that old teller and told her again, to take me to the safe. She told me it'd just been emptied. I said I wanted to see it anyway. Me and Freddie were feeling real mighty, and we figured we'd take as much as we could haul before the police showed up, and then come out just as we came in, quick and quiet. The exalted feeling hadn't left me yet, and if you've ever felt that way, you know that with that state of mind comes a complete lack of critical thinking. Anyone but me and Freddie at that moment would have been able to point out, quick as a bullet, the fact that we were screwed.

    Mama told me that I shouldn't judge anyone, so when I got to the safe and the safe wasn't empty, I didn't think any less of the bank teller for lying to me. I didn't dwell on the negatives of her unfaithfulness for more than a second, because this was expected of her. I knew that with a gun against her face, she was likely to say anything to get herself out from underneath it. I simply took refuge in the fact that there was about twelve grand in bundles of crisp hundred-dollar bills laying just ahead of my frozen, enthralled figure. After examining the reverence of that shining moment, I began to stuff the hoard of treasure into my big, vacant luggage bag, bundle by bundle, scooping the cash in urgently as if it was snow off a car window in January. Then I turned and ran for the front, not caring what the tellers did now, as I had the money and the cops didn't have me. Soon as I was back up front and running for the door, Freddie came up at my side. We were in perfect sync, running into oblivion, proud as could be.

    Mama told me once, after I had gotten into a bit of a disagreement with my sister Caroline at the dinner table, that if I didn't have anything good to say, that I should refrain from saying anything at all. Those words stuck with me just as well as any of her other sayings did, so when the time came and inquiries were made, I refrained from explaining to my aunt Evelyn exactly how her son Freddie had managed to receive several bullets in his face at the finale of our grand attempt at financial salvation.

    Just because I'm speaking of it in such a lackadaisical manner doesn't mean it didn't tear me up inside, however. When Freddie saw the cops pulling up to the curb down the street, he immediately opened fire, as if he had been waiting for the moment to ruin his chances of getting out of there unscathed. I, having dropped my weapon and put my hands up, with no desire to waste or be wasted, had turned and glanced at Freddie incredulously as he, bearing his teeth, pumped round after round in the direction of four policemen now huddled behind their patrol cars. Then, I had taken cover behind a mailbox, screaming to Freddie to do the same, although it was too late. I had a perfect cinematic view of the lead splitting his face open as I crouched and watched on helplessly.

    Now, sitting---lying on the floor of my s**tbox cell in the county jail, I can't do anything but think of my Mama, sitting in her chair in the living room of the beautiful old house where I was raised. Stunned, silenced, listening as the policemen give her the details on just what had happened to me and Freddie. Just what we had tried to do. I'm thinking of how she's going to cry that night after the policemen leave, wondering just what she did wrong to lead her son onto the path to such a bitter future. But the truth is, my Mama didn't do anything wrong.

    Mama always believed, above her belief in herself, even above her belief in God, in the goodness in people's hearts, in their ability to maintain eternal innocence. All her sayings provided me with valuable guidance on the path to that innocence, but in the end, it turned out Mama was just too naïve. I'm sorry to say it, Mama, but you weren't correct in your belief in people. Sure, all people are good at one point in their lives, but then the world gets inside them and twists them in all different directions, like a still water being rippled by an outboard motor. Their goodness gets oppressed by all these well-meaning people who force them into corners and get them to do things they promised they'd never do, just so they can keep on living. Then their lives become these never-ending quests to get back to that time when everything their Mamas told them was the only thing in their world that held any clout, even though her very advice is what they've neglected to heed in the first place.

    Mama, they've forced me into a corner now. I guess you're probably feeling like I've become someone completely different from the boy you raised, you fed, you thought you knew everything about. But it's still me, and you can see here that I remember everything you ever taught me. I know what I did was wrong, but at the time I was too caught up in what was necessary that I forgot all about rights and wrongs. I scared that old lady half to death, and I took all their money, and I watched your dear nephew Frederick die, and I feel one hundred percent terrible about that, but there's one thing I don't regret.

    I'll be damned if, in the whole process of things, I ever neglected one of your rules.
     
  5. Gannon
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    Gannon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Penny Dreadful - Our Missing Sister, Innocence

    “Forty-eight dollars and… nine cents?”

    “What?”

    “The value of innocence; forty-eight dollars and nine cents.”

    “It’s rhetorical.”

    “What?”

    “The question is rhetorical, loved one. Innocence has no monetary value.”

    I rest an index finger on my lips. They’re moist with the atmosphere of the betwixt and in between. A roguish smile twists my mouth and makes me feel every bit the Angel of Bawdiness. “I would pay that much for yours.”

    Charity’s pretty face blanches and her tapioca-shaded, albatross wings ruffle. She closes her big heavy book with a snap. “That’s enough for now, I think.”

    “I’m sorry, loved one. Don’t go.” My hand brushes her arm and the fading shape of her solidifies a bit more at the touch. She still doesn’t do me the courtesy of solidifying completely. No, she stands there, a perfectly rude little ghost in a modest little pantsuit. “I was kidding, only joking! I… I would pay much more.”

    Charity shrieks and begins to fade again.

    “Wait! Wait!” I grip her arm hard this time and again she solidifies only slightly. “But, I’m right… aren’t I? You’ve seen them, haven’t you? On the streets or in nice hotels or in bunk-beds. It’s gone for thousands of dollars and it’s gone for free. Sometimes it’s even gone for more… or less. There’s not enough innocence in their world for her to be one of our sisters. That means there can’t be much.”

    Tears sting my eyes and I look down at my legs. They’re bare and shapely in the darkness, covered scantly by a paisley skirt; a skirt once sketched by a high school boy with too much free time and dreams of high fashion. I think I would fit in with those girls in the nice hotels, but I was made to be arrogant and have no innocence to give.

    Charity has solidified completely now. Without my realizing it, she has knelt down and taken my hands in her own. “Don’t be silly, loved one,” she laughs and I look up. I can’t resist her laugh; so musical and delicate and without contempt. Sometimes I think that her laugh came first and then she took shape around it or maybe filled it up like a mold. Her cheeks blush a soft pink as she continues, “You’re innocence is not… between your legs.”

    I glance to her big heavy book and wonder what page innocence is defined on. “It isn’t?” My gaze shifts through the veil and to the streets. The people there walk by with blurry outlines and even blurrier intentions. I’ve never understood their hearts, not once. But, then again, I wasn’t made to.

    “That’s innocence,” whispers Charity, pointing to someone small. A child, I realize. A child sharing boiled peanuts with someone bigger and older. They sit on a stoop together, cracking open shells with dripping fingers. They suck out the salty liquid then move on to the soft legumes inside. I wrinkle my nose as the remainder is tossed to the sidewalk.

    How sloppy those on the other side are…

    I sigh and relax my hands inside hers, blinking the wetness from my eyes. “The child?”

    “No, the peanuts,” Charity laughs again, and I am presently surprised that she seems to have taken to teasing. “Take it, drain it, share it if you like, then throw it away.”

    I stare at Charity, my mouth open in a single laugh that’s almost a smile. “What are you-“

    “No one needs the whole bag. I say finish most of it and do it quick before moochers come.”

    I hadn’t known she knew a word like “moochers”. Maybe Justice was right. Maybe I really was a bad influence.

    But Charity’s eyes grew sad. Their dark depths looked deeper than ever as she dropped one hand from mine to press over her breast. “These are not times for naiveté, loved one. It’s best one loses most of their innocence early. I feel true sympathy for those who have it all snatched away at once.”

    She pulls me up from my perch and together we began to fade. Her albatross wings stretch like a symbol that only I am there to see. “I feel sorrier still for those who lose very little innocence, should they lose innocence at all. Innocence can fester into wicked things, very wicked things indeed.”

    I glance back to the child and his companion, back to the peanuts in their dripping hands and to the shells littering the sidewalk. “Is that really what you think?”

    Charity laughs her musical laugh. Its all that’s left now that our physical bodies have faded.

    “It doesn’t matter what I think, loved one. I told you, remember? It’s a rhetorical question.”
     
  6. Gannon
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    Wreybies - The Great House

    I don't think I had ever been so uncomfortable in all my life.

    From afar the nobles’ finery had looked so enviable. Brown jackets and trousers. Crisp white shirts and elaborate scarves. Boots of worked leather. I had no idea it was all so impractical and uncomfortable. The clothes, the ritual, the complex hierarchy. All of it itched and chaffed. I was wild to rip the starched collar from around my neck and was quite sure it was going to leave a mark that would never fade.

    Every pair of eyes save one in the dining room lay upon me with disapproval, to include the servants, one of whom was a cousin. I had no business sitting at the great table dressed in borrowed finery being served instead of serving.

    “And what is it that you do, Mentin? It is Mentin, yes?”

    The itch of the clothes was so loud that I had no idea who had spoken to me. I was vaguely aware that the voice was female.

    “I fish, ma'am. I'm a fisherman.” I tried to focus my eyes in the direction of faces which seemed intent on pealing mine away.

    “Ma'am? I think I'm younger than you. No need for ma'am.” One of Brena's sisters smiled at me from across the vast expanse of polished dark wood, crystal, silver, and fine china. It must have been her. She had the kind of grin one wears in the enjoyment of a favorite toy.

    “Yes, Taia. He's a good bit older than you, so leave him be.” Brena cut his eyes quickly at me and carelessly gulped wine from a crystal goblet. Mine sat untouched in front of me on the table. I wanted to down it in one swallow but every time my hand twitched to reach for it the image of the goblet dropping to the floor in a spray of liquid and broken shards flashed through my mind. I was sure the cup cost more than my house.

    “No need to be cruel, Brena.” Lady Petla's voice was like water flowing under a frozen river. “A fisherman, you say, Mentin. How do you come into my son's company?”

    “We shared a drink at one of the inns in town, mother.” Brena's admission was meant to shock. More than one fork paused momentarily on its way to mouth or plate, but not Lady Petla's.

    “An inn? How quaint.”

    Someone cleared their throat over my shoulder and I almost yelped. “More veal, sir?” I looked up to find my cousin standing over me with a silver serving tray in hand.

    “No, thank you.” Sweat was running down one side of my face and I took the opportunity to wipe it away. I glanced at Lady Petla to find her smiling demurely in satisfaction.

    “A fisherman. On one of the large ships? A deep sea barque?” Lady Petla placed her fork in her plate and leaned back in her chair.

    I pushed the food around my plate. “Yes, ma'am. The Northern Wave.”

    “Ah, the Northern Wave. Yes. Beautiful ship. Built in my shipyards. Owned by my brother. Lovely lines on that barque would you not say?”

    “Not much view of her lines from on deck, ma'am.”

    “No, I would imagine not. What is your family name, Mentin?”

    “Clive, ma'am.” I was feeling like a rabbit trapped in its hole.

    “Clive? Your father is the captain of the Northern Wave, yes?” Her right eyebrow lifted with expert independence.

    “Yes, ma'am. He is that.”

    “Then I expect you're no deck hand. You've a promising career ahead of you. Your father is a fine captain. He has done more than his share of filling my brother's pockets.” Her eyes narrowed as though she were trying to see inside of me. “Yes. Clive. Respectable family. Quite respectable.” She managed to say so much in so few words. Respectable. Highest rung on a low ladder.

    “I wouldn't know, ma'am.”

    Brena sighed. “I'm not very hungry mother. May we be excused?”

    “Yes, of course, dear. Will Mr. Clive be spending the night?”

    “Perhaps.”

    “Amila will see to your needs. Make yourself at home Mr. Clive.”

    #

    “Do these hallways ever end?” I could not help but gawk at the heavy ornate woodwork and high ceilings.

    “It's just a house, Mentin.”

    “Yeah, just a house. Is dinner always like that?”

    “Worse. And you wonder why I prefer to eat in town.” Brena smiled and his face relaxed. “I have this whole wing of the house to myself. It's damp and dreary and half of the fireplaces don't work. I love it. No one will bother us.”

    My stomach growled loudly. We laughed like little boys until tears came down. The tension left me and I felt again as I had in the inn, laughing with Brena over beers that he had let my buy. By the second round we were trading stories like friends from the cradle who had been long parted. We had taken a room in the inn as we were both rather drunk but in no mood to part company. Before the sun had come up we had become much more than friends.

    Bleary eyed upon waking early the next afternoon, Brena had offered to pay for the rare treat of a large, heated and scented oak tub bath.

    “You're not uncomfortable about last night, are you?” Brena had asked me.

    It had taken me a moment to understand. “I'm a sailor, Brena. A fisherman. Not many women on them ships. I'm no stranger to a man's touch.” We were each at a loss for words after that and we began to giggle again and then to laugh. Brena yelled out to have wine and bread and cheeses brought to our room. His voice had the sound of someone accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed.

    When we retreated back upstairs to find the wine and food waiting for us, Brena told me who he was. Who he really was. That was almost a week ago.

    My stomach growled again. Louder this time. “You didn't eat a thing, did you Mentin?” I shook my head. “I thought not. I'll have Amila bring something to us.”

    That night as we slept I dreamed of hidden staircases and passageways, boxes filled with magic and fairy wishes.

    #

    I awoke alone.

    The dark wooden architecture of the room reminded me of the Northern Wave. Heavy beams rose to the ceiling like ship masts. The canopied bed was hung with drapes like sails. I could almost hear the creak and groan of the ship as it rose and fell with the swells. There was a light tap at the door. It was Amila.

    “Begging your pardon, sir. Will you be having breakfast.”

    “Where's Brena?”

    “With Lady Petla. She had me fetch him and wait until you awoke, sir. Will you be having breakfast, sir?”

    “Amila, I'm not a lord.”

    “I know, sir.” She ducked her head out of the room to look down the hallway for a moment and then closed the door. “Do you not feel strange with them?”

    “With them, yes.” I waved my hand to indicate the rest of the family. “Not with Brena, though.” Amila tiptoed to the bed and sat next to me.

    “You're not the first lad Lord Brena has brought to the house, but I must say, you are the most handsome. You handled yourself well at dinner, too. Most get confused with all their fancy talk.”

    “Thank you, Amila.”

    She tucked her flaxen hair behind one ear. “There's a plan for you.”

    “What?”

    “A plan. They talk like we're not in the room, but I'm always listening, me. Keep everything to myself. I take Lord Brena to Lady Petla this morning and get them their breakfast. I'm serving them like always and Lady Petla says, 'He's got a talent,' and Lord Brena answers, 'Yes, he does,' in that tone of voice that says there's a double meaning.” Amila tapped one side of her forehead and blushed.

    “Go on.” It was plain that there was a small dam holding back a river of information.

    “Well, I do like always and pretend to pay no mind and Lady Petla says, “Respectable family,” and Lord Brena says, “Quiet respectable,” and then, “No mother, not noble born,” and then Lady Petla says, “Then he is for Taia. Have your fun for now, but don't lose your head. We must bring the talents back into the family, and try as you might, you and he will give me nothing to clothe or feed,' she says.”

    A knot was growing in my stomach. “And what did Lord Brena say then?”

    “Nothing. But the room got so cold, I swear I could have ice skated from there to the kitchen.” She breathed in deeply and then exhaled. The small indiscretion had cost her some courage. “Then they sent me back to see to you. Are you hungry? I don't mind bringing you something.”

    “Thank you, Amila. You're very kind. A cup of tea perhaps?” She blushed again and smiled a pretty smile and I was sure that my plain words of thanks were rare in this house. I was slightly amazed at how quietly she left the room. Not a sound. When Brena and I had come in the night before, the floorboards had creaked and the door hinges had made an awful racket. Amila floated back into the room sometime later with tea and an assortment of sweetbreads, jams, and sliced meats folded and arranged in intricate fans on a silver tray.

    “I brought you some tidbits from the kitchen. Not that awful stuff they seem to think is so grand at the big table. Real food. You tuck in, now.” She looked like my mother just then. I always made a show for mother at dinner. I don't really know a word to describe the look mothers get in their eyes when they watch their children enjoy a well cooked meal. Maybe it's a sin to put a name on something so precious as that.

    “You're a gem. I'm famished.”

    Amila fussed with the bed while I ate. “Lord Brena will be along shortly.” She hesitated a moment. “You won't be telling him what I told you before, will you?” She looked painfully vulnerable.

    “You can count on me.” I pantomimed locking my mouth with a key and throwing the key away.

    #

    “The Northern Wave sails in the afternoon, Brena.” We had quietly been sipping wine and smoking. No good moment had presented itself to inform him.

    “Will you be gone long?”

    “Two, maybe three weeks.”

    “Will I see you again?”

    “If you like. Yes.”

    #

    The salt air was heaven on my skin, in my hair, and through my lungs. A soft muslin shirt and loose knickers are all I wore and I was grateful of their simplicity and comfort.

    “A fine day it is, son.” My father's weather beaten face could not restrain his easy smile or the sparkle in his eye. I loved him fiercely for his love of life and his ability to take enjoyment in very simple things like a fine day at sea.

    “Yes. It is.” I had spoken to him the night before about Brena and my time in the great house and of the things Amila had told me. He had nodded but said nothing. It was his way to mull things over and give his thoughts only when they were carefully considered. He saw into my mind and knew that Brena's face was there.

    “You'll be seeing him again, lad. Guard your heart. You're like your mother in the way you love. Fierce as embers. The great families aren't like us. They don't marry for love. You'll take Taia as a wife and it will be good for you. It will give you position and respect.”

    “I don't need those things, father. I just need this.” I raised my hands and took in the expanse of ocean under turquoise skies, and the sails that swelled with wind like pregnant women.

    “And it will always be here for you, lad, as long as the wheel is under my hand. But this life may not be for your children, aye?”

    “Father, you know-”

    “Yes, yes. I've known since the day you were born. The talents are many and various.” He put an arm around my shoulder. “Have children with Taia after you marry her. Your heart is your own, Mentin. Lady Petla won't care where it takes comfort so long as you give them children.”

    “But father, I'm just common.”

    “Nonsense! The great families put on airs that they're better than the common folk. Half the town is related to them. Not a drop of pure blood to be found on either side. There's more children with talents playing in the town square than ever lived up on that hill. I should know. Now be a good lad and fill them nets for your old man!” He gave me a friendly shove and went back to the wheel.

    I had a feeling that this would be my last trip to sea where everything was simple, pure and real. I vowed to take in every moment to hold in my memory. I looked up at my father and he winked at me and gestured with his head that should I go aft of the ship. I took my place at the stern and spread my arms wide. I lifted, flying away from myself and the ship and dived silently into the great waters. My spirit-self reveled in the deep blue vastness. I passed nameless Leviathans and searched with mercurial speed for the flashes of silver that would be shoals of fish. Finding them, I silently guided the shoals to the mouth of the huge net slung behind the ship. The net grew heavy and I flew back up, up into the air and back into my body.

    “Pull'er in, lads. She's as full as she'll get.”
     
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    Sunset Sailor - Innocence Lost

    It started in the 1980’s. Greed was good. People worshipped money and all its trappings. This decade began the uprising of young urban professionals better known as Yuppies. People were too busy shoveling money from Wall Street and creatively organized Savings and Loans to think about me. I became out of favor, and almost out of a job. I couldn’t get what I was used to, and I started to have unbearable cravings.

    I went after the most vulnerable first. It’s their innocence my appetite requires. Innocence was in short supply, and they were easy targets. I tried it on babies and toddlers first. They would only grow up and give it away anyway. Each generation of children grows up a little faster than the last. No harm. No foul. I’m just speeding up the inevitable a little. Maybe no one will even notice.

    I used a special lubricant to bridge our separate worlds. It was something they knew, and something they trusted making them feel all warm and fuzzy. I almost couldn’t do it. I wasn’t sure if it would work and give me what I need, what I am entitled to. I wasn’t sure what it would do to the child. While no one was looking I sucked a tiny bit of their innocence at first to see if it would work.

    I could tell it was working by the hives. I saw them begin to bubble up on the pale milky skin. Warm bubbles of innocence waved through me. It worked! This could actually be a temporary solution to my problem. The process was symbiotic. They would have hives for awhile and the slight bit of innocence I received in return calmed the cravings. It seemed to be enough, but soon it wasn’t anymore. The cravings got worse.

    I decided swelling would be better. It’s still temporary pain for the child, but it provides more heat for the transfer. Their tongues would swell to twice their normal size. I received a quick burst of innocence to satisfy my initial craving followed by a slow sustaining let down as the swelling subsided. It was perfect for awhile. Then the churches started closing.

    I started sucking it through their breath. The high was faster and stronger. They would have a little trouble breathing for awhile after, and it drugged me with power. Unfortunately, a few times I sucked a little too hard, and they stopped breathing altogether. I wanted to bring them back. With their innocence gone, they were lost to me forever and there was nothing I could do.

    I haven’t been able to stop. Innocence continues to be in short supply, and my hunger must be satisfied. Greed is good. I seem to be increasingly out of favor and even though there are more people than ever, I am still almost out of a job. They wonder why peanut allergies are worse than ever. They wonder what is happening to the babies and toddlers. They wonder why it doesn’t affect the poor kids.

    Hello, my name is God and I am an addict.
     
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    wave1345 - Growing Eleven

    Will Sparrow woke up one morning knowing that something wasn't quite right.

    Of course, that's not what most eleven year old boys would be thinking
    of during summer vacation - especially not on their birthday - and Will was
    not given to being preoccupied with such things. But he was a quiet and
    thoughtful boy and he spent a great deal of time inside his head his
    imaginings, and he knew something was different for him today.

    He could feel it as he rolled off the side of his bed, and he could feel it
    when he was hopping on one foot, trying to pull a sock on. By the time he
    was sitting at the kitchen table eating toast, the feeling had grown into a
    sense of quiet, vague unease.

    "Mom," Will said.

    "Mm?" She had her back to him, washing her own breakfast dishes in
    the sink.

    "Is there something special about today?"

    She turned her head to the side to speak to him. "Besides it being your
    birthday, you mean?"

    "Besides that, yeah."

    "Well, I don't think so. What did you mean?"

    "I don't know." So his mom didn't feel anything. The best hing to do
    was turn her attention away. "I guess I just thought the air felt heavier or
    something."

    "Oh. Well, yeah, it's pretty humid out today isn't it?" She leaned into
    the windowsill and peered up through the butter yellow drapes. "Sky is pretty
    clear though. I don't think it's supposed to rain this week."

    "That's good," Will said. "I was thinking I'd go for a walk later."

    "In the woods?" She knew, because that was where he always walked.

    "Yeah, the woods."

    "Well, be careful when you go. Take some water with you, it's going to
    be pretty warm today. You should go now before the sun gets too high."

    "Yeah." He excused himself from the table.

    "Just leave your plate Will, I'm doing a load of dishes."

    Will found his father in the garage leaning over the work bench with
    the power saw on it, reading a car manual.

    "Hey Dad." He'd be more subtle this time.

    "Hey Will."

    "Mom says the air feels kind of weird today."

    "She does?" He stood up straight at the table. "Well, it's supposed to
    be pretty humid today. We need some rain. Free water!"

    "Free water," Will agreed. But he could tell already that to his father
    today felt like any other day.

    "I should set up the sprinkler."

    "That'll definitely make it rain," Will agreed. He pretended to look in the
    refrigerator in the corner but closed it without taking anything. "I'm gonna
    go for a walk for a bit."

    "Be keeful, boy," dad said.

    "Yeah, I know." The side door in the garage led to the back yard.

    The air was thick and warm, and reminded him of the air at an indoor pool.
    Behind the house, the woods began to spring up right at the edge of where
    his dad mowed the lawn to. The trees there were small and young, but
    beyond that it turned into a forest proper, dark and deep and green.
    Will thought it was a great place, and a little ways in he had a spot, a dried
    up creek bed dotted with stones that he stepped on like a bridge. He would
    daydream while he did it and let his mind wander.

    As he walked in the leaves and shadows and quiet, he thought about
    the dry creek bed and the stones. He usually looked forward to the woods
    like he looked forward to going to bed, feeling curious about what dreams he
    would have as he nodded off. This time he didn't feel much at all as he
    walked. He swatted at a fly buzzing around his head.

    He stopped when he reached his spot. But now the forest didn't seem
    to swallow him like it used to, and as he looked around it somehow seemed
    to be less colorful. But it was very humid, and already he was swetting.

    "This is stupid," he said aloud, breaking the heavy quiet between the trees.

    I'm getting too old to be messing around in the woods like this, he thought,
    turning to look back the way he came. He thought he might like to play some
    video games instead, inside, where it was cool and comfortable. The feeling
    that had bothered him this morning was gone. He couldn't remember why it
    had seemed so unsettling.

    That was the last time he walked in the woods, and when he began to
    go back the way he had come, he left his dreams and imaginings behind him
    in the creek bed.
     
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    Dark Side of the Sun - Justice

    Behind a small suburban bungalow, there is a walled courtyard. It is overflowing with all manner of fauna; in the corner there stands serenely an olive tree, quietly observing the happenings of the courtyard. Opposite to it, some sort of vine creeps across the wall, competing for a patch of sunlight with a handful of other plants. There is a whisper of a breeze that carries hints of the outside world, not enough to pique curiosity, but enough to tantalize the subconscious. In the middle of this courtyard there sits a small boy at the edge of a shallow pond. The boy is silent and still, the insects and amphibians of the pond have grown accustomed to his presence, and pay him no heed. On occasion, the birds of the garden flutter down into the reeds next to him to quench their thirst. The birds have no need to fear the boy; he has never caused them any harm and rarely startles them. He watches tadpoles as they attempt to hide in the most sheltered corners of the pool, every so often darting to a new spot of imagined safety as a shadow passes over them. He is fascinated by the water skimmers skating frenetically across the surface of the water and spies, just below, a water spider spinning her cocoon delicately and meticulously. The boy feels no passage of time, or hunger or thirst and he seems not to age, for he is held captive by the magnificence of the pool.

    But not indefinitely.

    A back window of the house shatters followed by a piercing shriek, and a man stumbles out of it, tripping over the window ledge and falling to the ground. The tranquility is broken; the birds take wing and fly over the wall and out of the courtyard. The boy jumps up, startled out of his ruminations to see his father lying on his back.

    A woman is screaming, she bursts through the door and kneels down next to the man. His face is badly bruised and blood runs freely from the corner of his mouth. The woman is followed out by a tall man who walks casually up to the man on the ground and delivers a powerful kick to the man’s ribcage, causing him to recoil, flipping on to his side and curling into a small ball, as if he could somehow shield himself from the pain.

    “Shut up.” The man who’d delivered the kick drew his weapon and aimed it at the woman. Her voice was already hoarse and though she’d stopped trying to scream, she couldn’t help breaking down into sobs. He made a great show of taking out a silencing mechanism and attaching it to the weapon, first inspecting it, then cleaning it off, getting rid of some unseen dust. He was in no rush, perhaps even taking pleasure in the anguish the couple was experiencing.

    “Just… don’t hurt my boy” the injured father managed to spit out along with a great deal of blood.

    “Of course” the tone of his voice commanded very little sincerity. He motioned to the child who’d been rendered immobile throughout the entire episode, too young to fully understand anything but the fear. “Come here, I’m an honest man, I won’t hurt you.”

    After a moment, the boy tentatively made his way over to the man’s side, his eyes still fixed on his father.

    “Now I want you to understand that there are consequences for everything. Your father has done some horrible things recently, and he seems to be under the delusion that he shouldn’t be held accountable. I’m simply here to set him straight.” Without any further embellishment, he aimed his gun briefly and fired the gun twice into the father’s head. The mother made a strangled guttural noise that was almost a scream before she continued to sob. The boy cringed and looked down, tears running down his cheeks.

    The man turned away from the family he’d just destroyed and began to walk away. Suddenly, the woman sprang to her feet and leaped at the man pulling out a short knife and thrusting it awkwardly into his back. He twisted with a grimace and struck the woman in the face, she stumbled backwards clutching her cheek. Not giving her a chance to recover, the man pushed her back to the edge of the pond and in one fluid motion drew his weapon sending a spray of shots into her. He turned away a second time and staggered out of the garden unable to reach the handle protruding from his back.

    The mother fell limply into the pond, sending water spraying across the grass. There she floated, motionless, centimeters below the surface, her life slowly staining the pond water red. The water skimmers were nowhere to be seen along with the tadpoles, and the water spider and her cocoon had been crushed, unable to move away. The boy stood transfixed, staring at the pool, not moving a muscle.
     
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    yellowm&M - The Game

    Life is hard. Very hard…especially for people like me. People who have very little money and are forced to live in leaking houses, buy from stores that are regularly robbed, and watch gangs kill and steal. Yeah, life is hard. But then again this is just my life; it’s always been my life. For us, it’s just one long, deadly game of survival of the fittest --where book-smarts get you nowhere and street smarts keep you alive. As a young girl I used to dream about getting out of this dump. But the thing is, once you play a game long enough, you forget how to stop playing. You forget that there is anything besides the game.

    By now I’ve been here too long, and this accursed game had robbed me of everything. It’s broken me, beaten me, and taken over me. It’s crushed everything that would let me stop playing: my desire, my determination, my dreams, and my innocence. I’ve seen too many people die and not helped. I’ve shoplifted too many times because I didn’t have enough money. I’ve manipulated too many people to try to help myself. Just like so many others, this game has ruined me. It’s broken me. And it’s possessed me -- me and my pitiful life.

    I used to dream. Dreams of college, exploring the world, finding love and a good home. But that’s all they were; dreams, fantasies, things that could never and would never occur. Instead I’m just another high school dropout. I was madly in love at the time, and he convinced me to drop out and run away with him. He said it wouldn’t affect my dreams; I could still go to college, we’d explore the world together, and when it was the right time we’d marry, have a nice house and a family. I still had a shred of innocence left, enough that I believed him. Stupid, gullible, fool that I was, I believed him.

    So I left school at 17 and ran off with my hooligan of a boyfriend. At first it was pure bliss riding around the county in his broken down truck, spending our nights in cheap motels, and our days driving around all the places I wanted to see. Despite my bliss, however, I hadn’t forgotten my dreams or the promises he had made me, the life that I so desperately craved. So one night I reminded him. I said he could get a job; we could rent a small apartment. I said I could go back to high school, do my senior year; I’d always had decent enough grades, if I worked hard I’d be able to get into an okay college. I said I’d pick up a job too, to help with money. My dreams were so close. I could almost touch them. Elation coursed through me; I would be the one to beat the game.

    After I told him he just stared at me. And then, then he began to laugh, a long drawn out laugh. He asked me why I kept insisting on this stupid dream. I told him it was because it wasn’t a dream; it was my future, and his promises. Then he got angry. He shouted at me. He yelled that I was stupid and naïve. That I would never reach my “dreams”, that I would never leave this place. That I would never leave this life. No matter what I did, I was stuck here, forever. Then he left; he just got up and walked out the door that very night leaving nothing behind but my shattered fantasies, the last destroyed shred of my innocence, and the game that I hadn’t beaten. Two weeks later the game threw another card right at me. I found out I was pregnant. I had nowhere to go except back. I had thought I had left the game behind me, but you can’t outrun it. No matter what you do and where you go, it always catches up to you in the end. No matter what you do, you can’t leave it.

    I went back. I got myself a job at a crappy club; the one thing the game left me was my looks. But it had destroyed me. I managed to scrape together enough money to rent myself a dump of an apartment. I did what I could to make my horrible place somewhat like a home for my incoming baby. I purposely made sure that my child’s father did not know he was a father. He had already helped the game succeed in breaking me; I wasn’t letting him anywhere near my child.

    Nine months later my baby was born. He was a boy, the most beautiful, perfect, innocent thing I had ever seen. I loved him more than I ever thought possible. For the first time in what felt like forever, I truly felt happy. And as I gazed down on his face, and the pure innocence radiating from it, I vowed to never let the game break him the way it had broken me. I would quit my job, and get a real one. I would find another apartment in a safer place. I promised that I would never let my son steal. He would never watch a man get killed without trying to help. He would never manipulate to help himself. I would teach my son the one good thing that the game had taught me -- the value of innocence. But he would learn it, without losing it. He wouldn’t do what I did and run away from the game. The game can’t be outrun; it always catches you. No, instead he would meet it head on. And he would defeat it. He would be someone someday, and he would be the one who won the game, the one who beat the game. I felt tears on my cheeks, joyful tears. Yes, my son was going to be someone someday. And he would be innocent. He would always be innocent.
     
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