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  1. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Past Contest January 2018 Short Story Contest

    Discussion in 'Monthly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Tenderiser, Jan 2, 2018.

    This month is an Open Contest - no prompts. Give us the best your imagination has to offer.

    Requirements
    • 1,200 - 5,000 words
    • Any genre
    • Any style
    • Polished to the best of your ability
    • One entry per person
    How to Enter

    Post your entry as a reply to this thread. It will be automatically anonymised. Please title the story and include the word count.

    You will be able to post entries until 14 January at 23:59 GMT.

    Voting

    Voting will run from 15 - 31 January. There is no fixed voting criteria: voters will choose the story they think is the best.

    Winner

    The winner will be announced on 1 February. He or she will get a shiny medal under their avatar, automatic entry into the annual Hall of Fame contest, and their winning story featured in the WritingForums annual ezine.

    Get writing!
     
  2. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Testing the anonymiser
     
  3. Night Herald

    Night Herald They're real Dickens.

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    Of Goats and Gentlefolk (2881 words)


    One day, while dusting the mannequins, I heard a terrible commotion from outside. Our street was always busy on market days, so I paid it no mind, but the noise grew and grew until it climaxed right on the steps of the Edling Kalibrandt State Emporeum of Gentleman's Finery, where I apprenticed. I turned just in time to see a party of men barge through the door, hounded by a clamoring throng of adoring, or else very angry, commoners.

    The men who had come in were of a strange sort. They looked like aristocrats attending the carnival as assassins, or like assassins who had done a slapdash job of their aristocrat disguises. They looked not a bit friendly, either, nor did the rapiers and daggers in their belts. The largest of them was quite clearly in charge, and he looked like all the world's sin wrapped tight in expensive silks; or like two sausages forced into the same casing. He had the ample belly of one who gorges on meat and fine cheeses while the commons starve, and the spindly legs of one who goes everywhere by litter or carriage. I never saw a man look so mean, and I grew up in Cutthroat Alley.

    “Might I assist the gentlemen?” said I, though there was nothing gentle about them.

    I must have dropped the feather duster, for my hand was suddenly empty and quite clammy. The large man ignored me, looking about the shop, his jowls jiggling as he turned his head. The shape of said head made me think of those plump birds served on the Feast of the Oak. I did not want to laugh at this observation, so I clenched my teeth quite hard.

    I thought perhaps he had not heard me, but before I managed to repeat myself I found him frowning down at me as though wondering whether or not to step on a particularly ugly bug. His expression made me think that he would have done just that, had he been wearing less spectacular shoes. They were of the supplest tanned leather tipped with ivory. He wore coat and trousers of shimmering burgundy—last year's vogue color—with a sash that seemed to be spun from emerald. Around his great waist was a broad belt with a gold-framed ruby for a buckle. Big as my fist, I swear it was.

    Apprenticing for Kalibrandt, I saw a lot of very fine clothing, and I knew quite well what was and was not fashionable. By themselves, the items were most tasteful, but as an ensemble wanted for harmony.

    “I am in need of new garments,” said the man, in the nasal drawl of the most elevated classes. “Are you the proprietor? I had not expected one so young.”

    I had never been mistaken for Kalibrandt before. I smiled and made a deep bow, like the Master had shown me. “I am only his humble apprentice, my lord. The Master has retired for the day, and asked that he not be disturbed.”

    “Then pray wake him for me.”

    “My most abject apologies, my lord, but the Master was quite firm in his instructions. I am certain I could assist you in figuring out a most fitting wardrobe for your splendidness. I am an accomplished tailor in my own right.”

    At that, the man got so red in the face that I feared he might catch on fire and burn the whole shop down. I felt very small where I stood. The man's entourage inched forward, and they looked nearly as unhappy as he did. Now, I was a scrappy lad, or at least that was the case until the Master civilized me. I still had my sharp, shiny shiv tucked in my boot, but the brand of trouble now brewing was too rich for my blood, which I preferred to keep in my veins.

    “I will speak to Kalibrandt direct, you insolent sprat. Is that understood?”

    “Perfectly, my lord.” I went behind the counter and pulled on the rope. A bell chimed from upstairs.

    “The Master will be down shortly,” said I. “Please make yourselves comfortable, and feel free to browse the fabrics. We have just received a shipment of the finest Cantalantene silks.”

    The man wedged himself into the largest chair we had, and waited.

    I will say this for Master Kalibrandt; he was not easily swayed by any force of man or nature, least of all the bell he had installed for summoning him. Years of failing health had not made him any less stubborn, and since two winters past he had taken to walking with a cane. Much time passed before we heard him come down the creaking stairs, from the attic which he refused to leave in favor of a downstairs bedroom.

    He hobbled into the shop, cane tapping on the floor. His thin mouth, narrow face, and limp white beard had earned him the moniker “The Old Goat”. He had clever eyes, the dark blue orbs of a young, hungry scholar; but even they were beginning to fail.

    He adjusted his spectacles to better see his customers. He scarcely even acknowledged me. “Back to dusting,” was all he said.

    I was quick to obey. Silently, I prayed that the master was in a good mood, though I had not witnessed such a one since he picked up the cane, nor for a fair while before that.

    “And whose flute do I have the pleasure of dancing to this day?” Said Kalibrandt. “I do believe I spy the honorable Marquis Le Vandallè. How good of you to come in person, for a change.”

    Kalibrandt had taken up position behind the counter and flipped open the ledger. “I had such a pleasant dream, didn't I just... of customers with coin in their pockets, and long gone the days of lesser nobility paying with promises. Tell me, Marquis, am I still dreaming?”

    “Marquis no longer, sir. I have recently been appointed High Justice. I shall need new garments for the ceremony.”

    “Very good, but though titles change, my ledger does not. I see here that a sum of money is owed. Quite a substantial one, at that.”

    I positioned myself strategically behind the mannequins, whistling. I wanted desperately to be quiet, but I always whistle when I'm nervous. I could almost feel the heat coming off the Marquis, who had turned red again, but it was the Master's temper I most feared. I never believed the rumors about him, but there had not been a single robbery in this street since he set up shop all those years ago, so clearly, somebody bought them. The chief thing was, no matter how angry the Marquis might get, I would be rid of him the moment he stepped outside. I still had to live with Kalibrandt.

    “Where did you come by those absurd rags, good Marquis?” said Kalibrandt. “That colorblind hack, Rumiel of Vaal? That spastic has-been Hreinar Thoren, who should have had his scissors confiscated the day he turned senile? Did both of them come together to craft that repugnant vessel? I weave worthier fibers when I move my bowels in the morning.”

    “My good man, you overstep your station. The debt will be settled when and if you deliver what I ask for.”

    “Quite the other way around, in fact. I shall put my talents to work when the gracious Marquis pays what is owed—sixteen thousand, four hundred and forty-nine flors, with interest. Furthermore, this new order and any subsequent ones shall have to be paid in advance.”

    The Master rose slowly from the stool, clearly in pain. I would have gone to steady him, but every time I tried that he would swat me with his cane.

    By now, the Marquis was more or less the same shade of burgundy as his clothes. “Enough with your blasted insolence! Enough, I say! You will do as I command, or I will see this hovel burned, and you and that worm both dancing in the gallows!”

    I suppose I was the worm. I valued my neck, thin and brittle though it was. I had done nothing to deserve the rope, but I understood politics well enough to know how little that mattered. A Marquis could get away with much; the High Justice could hang anyone up to and including a Duke on very thin accusations.

    “I shall pay when and if I decide that you have earned it,” screeched the Marquis. I supposed that was the civilized way of saying “you are being robbed, get stuffed, yours truly, the Marquis Le Vandallè”.

    Kalibrandt was smiling, for some reason. When the light from outside caught in his glasses, his eyes seemed to be on fire.

    “I shall need two weeks at least, High Justice,” said Kalibrandt. The Marquis seemed to like the sound of his new title. “Is this acceptable?”

    I had never known the Master to spend more than a day of two on any of his so-called artworks. Either he had something truly spectacular in mind, or he really was getting old.

    The Marquis seemed pleased enough at that. He slumped back in the chair, which to my eyes now appeared slightly crooked. He sighed loudly. Being that angry must be exhausting.

    “I suppose... Though the ceremony will have to be postponed. The result had best be worth it, or else my earlier promises will seem a serenade. Do not let me down, tailor.”

    He left shortly after, his retinue filing out after him like the ducklings I've seen in the city ponds.

    “Master?” said I, absentmindedly resting my hand on the chiseled shoulder of a mannequin. It was cold and slick like marble, but with a very fine texture almost like real skin. Their forms and faces were lifelike enough to rival the best sculptures of Simoni or Bardi. Awesome craftsmanship, no doubt from Cantalan, Land of Artificers. They must have each cost half a fortune, so I assumed.

    Master Kalibrandt looked resigned. Perhaps the weight of illness and the Marquis's threats had finally overwhelmed him. At least that's what I thought, until he looked at me. That was far from the face of a broken man. He grinned as thought the Abyssal Mother was wearing him like a glove. His eyes shone with malice.

    “Keep dusting,” said he. “I will make the good Marquis such a garment that he will never take it off.”

    The following two weeks were a time of nightmares. Kalibrandt never left his workshop in the attic, and I was even less permitted to enter it than before. The air of our shoppe changed in a way I could not put my finger on. It seemed thicker, somehow, and when I drew breath it was as though my lungs wanted to reject it. Strange sounds were afloat, as of furniture shifting, twisting wood, strange and wordless whispers so soft I could never swear that they were real. It was colder as well, much too cold for summer. I took to wearing my coat indoors. The nights were the worst. I would lie in my cot with one eye open, a hand on the shiv that I now kept under my pillow. The Master seemed to be yelling at himself, or to someone in the room with him. There were several stories between us, so I could never hear what was being shouted. I did not get much sleep during those days.

    Two weeks later on the day, I awoke to find Master Kalibrandt standing in the shop. So frayed were my nerves, and so used was I to being alone that it gave me quite a fright. I almost reached for the shiv that was no longer in my boot. He had his back turned to me, but I thought he looked more stooped that usual.

    When I greeted him, he turned around, and I am quite sure that I gasped at seeing him. His hair had thinned, his skin had gone white, and his face sagged like a slow-boiled rubber mask. He looked like he had not slept at all; but he looked pleased. Happy, even.

    “Dear boy, I have done it. My finest work to date.”

    “Master, are you well? Shall I fetch food, water—”

    “No time for such nonsense. Pen a letter to the Marquis. Inform him that the order is complete.”

    I was curious, almost frightened, to see what Kalibrandt's divine hands could craft in two entire weeks. I went behind the counter for ink, parchment, and quill. The Master had taught me to read and write, but I was still unpracticed; I had to stop and think, spell out the words in my head. Once the letter was complete, I asked the Master if I might be permitted to see the splendor.

    “So long as you keep in mind that one sees with the eyes and not the fingers. I don't want you rumpling the fabric, is that understood? Do not, under any circumstance, touch it.”

    That was no surprise to me. It was only recently that I was let near the expensive fabrics, and even then I was not allowed to handle his finished works. Kalibrandt went away and returned a short while later with a wooden mannequin mounted on a handcart—he reserved the good ones for display in the shop. This mannequin was dressed in the most glorious thing I had ever laid eyes on, and I lived surrounded by costly luxuries.

    That jacket was of the deepest, darkest shade of purple I ever saw. The cloth was alive with lighter shades, a misty swirl that never seemed to decide what color it most wanted to be. Everything was perfect; the cut, the seams, the golden trim, the tanzanite buttons... The Master's finest work, indeed. I may have wept at the sight. There were trousers to match, and carefully selected accessories.

    “Master, you have outdone yourself!”

    Kalibrandt nodded. He seemed lost in the patterns of his creation, as though trying to recall the techniques he had employed. I left him to it, and went to prepare breakfast. When I returned, I learned that the garment had been collected. No payment had been left in its stead, as I, and no doubt the Master, had suspected. Even so, he kept smiling.

    Over the course of that day and the next, the illness that had plagued the Master caught up with him, and fast. His mind began to wander more and more. He seemed happy, though, which I suppose it the best that one might hope for. I tended to him as best I could, and listened to his ramblings about the afterlife during his more lucid moments. The things he said frightened me; or, rather, I was frightened by his utter conviction that these things were true. It was as though he stared clean across to the other side, and saw nothing there that surprised him.

    He died in the night, and was laid to rest on the third day after completing his greatest work. Some bureaucrat stopped by to inform me that in lieu of heirs, the shop had been left in my care.

    I laid my plans quickly and with enthusiasm. It would not be the same without the Master, but I would get an apprentice of my own to help fill the big house. I would sell off most of the fabrics in the warehouse, and live off those profits while I perfected my craft and taught my apprentice. In the years to come, I did precisely this. I plucked a clever young lass from the slums and gave her a chance to build a proper life, just as Kalibrandt had done for me all those years ago. It shames me to this day that I never thought to thank him. The girl, Ishilla, turned out not to be much of a tailor, but had a real head for book-keeping and a good hand with the customers. I later took her to wife, but that is neither here nor there. After the children were born, we had brief talks of rebranding the shop and putting up a grand new sign, but decided against it. Kalibrandt deserved that much of a memento, and his named carried weight even when he was long gone.


    On the very same day that the Master was laid to rest, I received news that the Marquis Le Vandallè had been murdered during the ceremony. By witchcraft, no less. He had been holding his speech from the balcony of the royal palace, accompanied by the king and queen themselves. He had begun to sweat profusely, it was said, and to scratch himself about the neck until he drew blood. Howling like a madman, he had turned to stone in view of a hundred thousand shocked citizens.

    I had never believed the rumors they told of Master Tailor Edling Kalibrandt. More fool I. Where I grew up, we never even believed that Warlocks were real. I got rid of the five storefront mannequins as soon as I was able. I could never stand to look at them again.
     
  4. Ellbell Schnieder

    Ellbell Schnieder New Member

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    More Than Your Scars
    (1,890 words)


    I walk down the hallway, trying to seem confident, but cowering nonetheless. As I scuttle past the lockers, people stop speaking. An eerie hush follows in my wake, because I am Vanessa Seawell, the girl with the scars. The hall stretches on before me, looking more like twenty miles instead of twenty feet. Calm down. I tell myself. You're almost there.

    Finally, I reach the end of the hall, ducking into the counselor’s office. Mrs. Beslow, a plump, jolly lady, isn’t here yet, as usual. I sit down on the overstuffed chair in the middle of the room. I’ve probably got three or so minutes before she’ll come bustling in, bumbling on about how she got caught in traffic. She seems to think that rambling on and on about her life will somehow cure all the problems with mine.

    But no one can fix my problems. Not after what happened to me. As I trace the scar that runs down my face, I am pulled back in time to that horrible night…

    I’m in the living room with my little sister. She turned four just a week ago and she is so proud of her age. I sit her on my knee, bouncing her up and down as I hum a little song. She turns around and looks up at me with her big hazel eyes, grinning. She’s so cute I almost can’t stand it! I grab her under the arms and lift her up, making her squeal with delight. I hear a noise behind me and turn to see my mom, who smiles at me.


    “Hey honey!” she says. “Are you sure you’re okay with watching your little sister tonight?”

    “Yes, Mom!” I say with a smile. I turn back to my sister on my knee. “We’re going to have lots of fun, aren’t we, Angelica?”

    “Fun! Fun!” she babbles happily. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when her angelic little face wasn’t covered with a smile.

    “Okay sweetie,” Mom says. “But just remember, there’s food in the fridge, and the emergency numbers are here next to the phone. And remember, if there are any accidents, you call--”I cut her off.

    “911. I know, Mom.” I roll my eyes and then smile at her, letting her know I’m not really annoyed. She smiles back.

    “Alright, I get it. You're the big sixteen year old who’s watched your sister a million times. But you're still my little girl and I still worry. After all, that’s the job of a mother!” She grins and kisses my head.

    “Jim!” she yells. “We’re going to be late for our reservation! Hurry up!” My dad comes running out with his shirt half buttoned and a tie in his hand.

    “Darlene, can you help me tie my tie? I can never figure these things out!” He cries.

    “Oh, Jim.” She laughs as she walks over to him. “I’ll help you, but you're gonna have to pay!” She ties his tie, then pulls him in for a kiss.

    “If this is the price, then I’ll have to wear ties more often!” He remarks, and they kiss again.

    “Mom! Dad! Save the mushy stuff for your date!” I yell. I act like I hate it when they kiss, but I’m secretly really happy my parents love each other so much.

    ~~~

    It’s a few hours later, and Angelica is finally sleeping. She may be a little angel most of the time, but her attitude completely flips when it comes to bedtime. My parents shouldn’t be back for another hour or so. I’m on the couch, watching some dumb flick while I wait for the Pizza Bites I put in the oven to cook. The couch is comfortable and I had a long day. I close my eyes, just to let my brain take a little rest. Within a minute, I am asleep.

    I am jerked awake by a loud crash from the kitchen. I jump to my feet, but pause when I smell… smoke? Why would there be- No! The Pizza Bites! I left them in the oven! I rush to the kitchen as fast as I can and am horrified by what I see. The entire back wall of the kitchen is covered in flames, and it’s spreading quickly. Some of the wall has collapsed. That must have been the crash I heard.

    I hurry over to the telephone and pick it up. All of a sudden, I hear a squeal. Angelica! Her room shares a wall with the back of the kitchen, the wall that has partially collapsed. Why aren’t the fire alarms going off?!

    I run around the corner, yelling, “Angelica! It’s okay Angie! I’m coming!” I hurry to her door and pull on the handle. Locked. Of all nights, why tonight?! She has found out how to lock her door from the inside, but she doesn’t know how to unlock it. Dad was going to turn the doorknob around tomorrow. Angelica wails, terrified. “It’s okay Angie!” I yell, pounding on the door.

    Over the crackle of the flames, I hear my parent’s car pull up. They must have seen the flames through the window, because they rush in as fast as they can.

    “Vanessa!” My dad yells. “Where are you?”

    “I’m by Angelica’s room!” I scream back. “She locked herself in!” I run back and race toward the door, kicking at it with strength I didn’t know I had. The door crumples, and I push my way in. It’s even worse here than in the kitchen. The fire has spread across the ceiling, and the floor too. Angelica is backed in the opposite corner, screaming in terror.

    Without thinking, I surge forward. My only thought is to save my sister. I barely notice my skin burning as I reach through the flames to her, begging her to come to me so I can pull her quickly through, before she is hurt. My dad rushes into the room. When he sees Angelica in the corner, he races through the flames and gathers her into his arms. My mother pulls me back from the fire, slapping at the flames that are eating their way up my sleeves.

    I finally take a breath as my father steps forward, carrying Angelica. Just when he is within my reach, the ceiling collapses, burying both him and my sister in a pile of fire and rubble. That last moment will haunt me every day for the rest of my life: my father, reaching out to me with my precious little sister in his arms.

    My mother falls to her knees, clasping her hands around her head. I stand there, frozen. My brain finally grasps what just happened and I, too am on my knees. They can’t be gone. They can’t! I scramble forward, pulling at plaster and burning wreckage. Another piece of the ceiling falls, and I look up at the last second, paralyzed. The sharp edge of the sheet rock lands on my forehead and slices down across my face to my chin. In shock, I look down at the bloody white chunk, then keep digging. They had to be okay. If I could just dig them out fast enough, they would be okay.

    Firemen finally arrive and pull me and my mother from the room. I fight them with supernatural strength, needing to get back there, needing to save them. It takes three men to pull me out to an ambulance. They strap me down to a gurney and wheel me off to the hospital.

    I spend weeks there, moaning in agony from the burns that cover my body and the even greater pain that rips at my heart. My mother refuses to speak to me, or even see me. I am sent to a neighbor's house, my mother still in the hospital. She has recovered from her physical injuries, but the fire set something wrong in her brain.

    She still, to this day, will not speak to me or look at me. I haven’t seen her in three months…


    I am pulled from the bonds of my memories by the sound of a doorknob turning. Mrs. Beslow must be here. I am a mess, curled up in a ball with tears running down my face, rocking back and forth. The door opens, but it’s not my counselor that walks in. It’s Jackson. He’s the only friend that didn’t abandon me when I came back, my face and arms forever turned ugly by the jagged scars on them. He’s the only one that doesn’t cringe at the sight of my face.

    I’ve never told him about the episodes I’ve had since the fire, memories pulling me away from reality and reducing me to a pitiful sobbing puddle. I was afraid that if he knew how messed up I am, he would abandon me like everyone else. He sees me curled up in the chair and rushes over, kneeling beside me.

    “What’s wrong, Vanessa?” he asks, concerned. I straighten out my legs and wipe the tears from my face, taking a deep, ragged breath.

    “I-I,” I sniff and wipe my face again. “S-sometimes, I get me-memory flashes from the fire. They keep coming ba-ack and back and I can’t - I can’t stop them.” I burst into a fresh round of tears.

    “Oh, Vanessa,” He says gently. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

    “I-I was afraid tha-at you would l-leave me, li-like everyone else d-did!” I cry.

    “Vanessa,” He says, holding my face gently in his hands and lifting my chin so I have to look into his eyes.

    “Listen to me.” his thumb brushes just under my eye, wiping away a tear.

    “I will never leave you.”

    “Never?” I ask. Our faces are inches apart, his breath tangling with mine in the space between us.

    “Never.”

    He leans forward, and his lips brush mine, just barely. My belly fills with a tingling warmth that spreads out through my body, deliciously warm. I pull back suddenly.

    “Why are you doing this?” I ask. “Why are you kissing me instead of some girl who’s kind and sweet and beautiful?”

    “But--” I cut him off.

    “No! I’m not kind or beautiful, so don’t you try and tell me that. I am hurt and ugly and scarred! Why would you want someone like me?”

    “Because,” He says gently, pulling me closer again.

    “You aren’t just some soulless animal.” He looks into my eyes.

    “You are more than your scars.”

    I sit completely still, held in place by so many emotions I can’t place. Suddenly, it all releases, and I’m the one that leans forward this time, kissing him again. I slide my arms around his neck, suddenly deliriously happy. There is a small click that I barely hear, and then,

    “Oh my stars! Oh my, oh dear, oh my!” Jackson and I break apart and turn to see Mrs. Beslow covering her eyes and exclaiming,

    “Oh dear, oh my gracious! Oh goodness!” I look back at Jackson and start laughing. This moment is so absurdly funny that I just can’t stop. Soon, both Jackson and I are laughing so hard, tears roll down our faces. As my new tears of joy wash away those of sadness, I begin to feel like maybe, somehow, I will find a way to truly live again.
     
    Outdoorman likes this.
  5. Kenosha Kid

    Kenosha Kid Active Member

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    Plans for the Day
    (4,955 nervous words)

    'She's looking worse,' Daniel said as he climbed under the sheet beside Annie. 'Did you see her?'

    'I did,' Annie answered. She looked up at her husband with painful sympathy. 'I brought her her milk at seven. She was moaning like she was awake, but she didn't look like she saw me.'

    Daniel lowered himself down to her level and kissed her. 'I hope she's right for her birthday. We ain't missed her birthday once in fifteen years.'

    'You thinking we go ahead with it? I don't think we can get her out of that bed; she ain't left it in a week.'

    Daniel pondered a while. Miss McCoy had said at the end of many of her birthday celebrations that it was the best day she'd spent in a long time. Elizabeth was only five but she remembered the last one and was excited about this week. And Daniel and Annie always enjoyed the park more with her than they could by themselves.

    'Well, I hope she's all right for it.'

    ***​

    Annie brought Miss McCoy's breakfast to her the next morning as always, and she seemed to her much improved, responding to her 'Good morning, Miss McCoy' with a bright 'Oh good morning dear, is that coffee I smell? You're such a darling to me,' as if this were the first time.

    Annie placed the breakfast tray on the end of the bed and helped her sit upright, adjusting her pillows behind her. 'Shall I open the curtain, Miss McCoy?'

    'That would be lovely, and open the window a crack too will you, it's awful stuffy in here. It's on account of my being bed-bound, you understand. I'd like to get up and take a bath and some fresh air. Maybe tomorrow, what do you think?'

    'I think tomorrow will be the day, Miss,' beamed Annie as she forced the sticking window open, then pulled it back ajar. 'You're looking much better this morning. The colour's come back to your cheeks. You look quite handsome.'

    'Well isn't that a nice thing to say,' Miss McCoy exclaimed. 'Yes, I think I will go out tomorrow. Today will be better for having that to look forward to.'

    'And if not tomorrow,' Annie offered, placing the mug of coffee on her bedside table and lifting the breakfast plate onto her lap, 'there's always your birthday. Are you looking forward to your birthday?'

    'Oh yes dear, my birthday.' Miss McCoy struggled to cut the bacon with her knife and fork, as if they were unfamiliar implements to her. She put them down on the plate and sighed. 'It's such a beautiful day, isn't it?'

    'Yes Miss McCoy,' Annie said smiling, as she lifted the knife and fork and started cutting the food into smaller pieces. 'There's a cooling breeze and hardly a cloud in the sky.'

    Miss McCoy skewered a piece of bacon onto her fork and started to raise it to her mouth, her hand shaking visibly. She put the fork back down on the plate.

    'Would you be a dear and send Daniel up to discuss the plans for the day?'

    ***​

    Daniel knocked at the door and waited for Miss McCoy to sing her 'Come in', a three-note refrain that she greeted him with every morning. He entered the room and the spirit of the game. 'You sent for me, Miss?'

    'I didn't interrupt anything important did I?'

    Daniel noticed the full plate lying next to her atop of the duvet. 'No Miss, I was just pondering what to do next.'

    'Well let's put our heads together, shall we,' Miss McCoy rejoined, her hand fumbling blindly for her spectacles on her bedside table. 'Now let's get a look at you. How is little Elizabeth?'

    'She's doing fine, Miss,' Daniel beamed. 'Her reading's coming along a lot better than mine did, and faster too.'

    'Oh, she's a sharp one, that girl,' Miss McCoy laughed, 'and pretty too. Takes after her mother. And her father.'

    'Now you just be careful, Miss,' Daniel grinned. 'I'm a married man and you should know better than to start flattering a married man. At your age!'

    Miss McCoy roared with laughter, while Daniel chortled behind the palm of his hand, his eyes moistening with mirth.

    When the laughter settled down, Daniel said: "Oh it sure is good to see you in much better health. Annie and me was awful worried about you.'

    'Nonsense, boy, nonsense,' Miss McCoy responded, waving his concern from the air in front of her. 'I'm just old is all. We need more rest at my age. I was just saying to Annie, tomorrow is the day I'm gonna go down them stairs and breathe the fresh air. It'll do me good, the air and a little exercise.'

    'Seeing you now, I think you're right. Was there something in particular you wanted to see me about, Miss?' Daniel ventured.

    Miss McCoy's attention had wandered for a moment before she snapped back into the conversation: 'The garden! How is the garden coming along?'

    'Why it's coming along fine, Miss McCoy,' Daniel grinned, brimming with pride. 'The cabbages and carrots are almost ready to harvest, and a fine crop we have this year. I planted the lettuces and some new peas, and some radishes last week.'

    'Oh lovely, lovely,' sighed Miss McCoy. 'Are the apple trees setting fruit?'

    'That they are, Miss.'

    'I was thinking about the fence,' Miss McCoy said, her eyes closed as if she were seeing it in her mind for want of reaching a window.

    'The fence?' Daniel looked puzzled. She had never brought up the fence.

    'The fence, Daniel. I seem to remember some disrepair, and I'm sure it would better for a new coat of paint, don't you?'

    Daniel moved over to the window and looked out. 'Well I'll be,' he muttered. 'Fancy you noticing that and not me.'

    'Thought you could take advantage of my poor turn of health, eh?'

    Daniel turned his head to her in confusion, but found her sniggering at her play.

    'Thought you could slack off while I was stuck up here, eh?'

    Daniel put his hands in the air in a mock shrug. 'Come on, Evelyn! How was I supposed to know you were gonna get better?'

    ***​

    After a day of repairing and repainting frost-damaged fences, Daniel cleaned himself up and went up to his family's room, hoping to see Elizabeth before she was asleep. She and Annie were saying their prayers when he entered, kneeling down on the bare timber floor, their hands clasped and elbows resting on the mattress of Elizabeth's bed.

    He waited until they had finished, then kissed his daughter on her head. 'Good girl,' he said, smiling warmly. Later, when Daniel and Annie retired to the bed next to Elizabeth's, Daniel sighed loudly through his nose.

    'What is it?' Annie asked.

    'I dunno,' Daniel replied while he clarified his thoughts. 'She's brighter today, I'll give you that.'

    'Miss McCoy?'

    'But I dunno,' Daniel continued, not hearing her. 'Something's wrong.'

    ***​

    Miss McCoy did not go outside for her walk the next day, nor the day after that, nor the third day, and the fourth was her birthday.

    'What are we going to do?' Annie asked with disappointment.

    'Let's just take up her cake and see how she is.'

    Annie had started making the birthday cake the day before, spending hours creaming the butter and sugar together to get as much air into the cream as she could before emulsifying them with eggs, but she frosted it fresh that morning.

    She placed it on the glass cake stand and stared at it awhile while Daniel put that morning's newspaper on the breakfast tray with Miss McCoy's coffee, four plates, four forks and a knife.

    'It's a beautiful thing,' Daniel nodded. 'She'll appreciate it, I reckon.'

    'It's the nicest cake in all of Virginia,' agreed Elizabeth, who had only seen Annie's birthday cakes for Miss McCoy and the cakes in the store in Fredricksburg town.

    They walked up the stairs in a line: Annie carrying the cake, then Daniel carrying the breakfast tray, then Elizabeth. At the door, Annie stepped aside to let Daniel knock.

    'Happy birthday Miss McCoy,' Daniel bellowed as he let Annie past into the room.

    'Happy birthday Miss McCoy,' repeated Elizabeth, although her eyes barely left the cake.

    'Oh my friends, that is lovely!' exclaimed Miss McCoy, overcome. 'Lovely!' But then a frown descended on her face. 'Oh but you've made a mistake. Today is not my birthday.'

    Thinking she was playing a game, Elizabeth giggled. 'Yes it is, Miss. It's the eleventh of June!'

    'It's a beautiful cake,' Miss McCoy said, unsure of herself now. 'But I do think you've got it wrong.'

    Daniel placed the breakfast tray on her bedside table, took the newspaper from it and showed it to her. 'You see, Miss?' he asked. 'Eleventh of June, just like she says. Even I can read that.'

    Daniel chuckled, and Miss McCoy waved her arms in exasperation.

    'What do you know about that?' she laughed. 'You know, I thought it was tomorrow, although the last one seems just like yesterday. Do you remember Daniel, do you Annie, when we went to the park, the three of us? We saw Mr. and Mrs.. Jones and their dog, and damn me if that dog didn't take a liking to you Daniel.'

    'But I was there too, Miss McCoy,' Elizabeth protested.

    'Of course you were, dear,' she stuttered.

    'I don't remember the dog though,' Elizabeth frowned, looking at her feet. 'But I do remember the park. That was my favourite day. Are we going to the park today, Miss?'

    'Why that's a splendid idea, my girl.'

    'But do try the cake first, Miss McCoy,' Daniel interjected. Daniel cut and plated a slice of the cake and passed it to Miss McCoy along with a fork.

    'You have this piece dear,' Miss McCoy said, passing them straight to Elizabeth. 'A smaller piece for me, Daniel.'

    Daniel cut her a smaller slice. She took her fork and carved out a mouthful, and paused. 'Well aren't you and Annie going to have some?'

    'That's kind of you, Miss,' Daniel said, and proceeded to cut two more slices.

    Miss McCoy took her long-awaited bite of cake. 'Mmmmm!' she sounded through her closed, full mouth. She finished chewing and swallowing, not taking her eyes of Annie, and when she was done said 'Annie you are an angel. I wouldn't be lying if I said that was one of the finest cakes I've ever tasted. Now you all better run along if we're going to go to the park. It takes an old lady like me a long time to get ready.'

    ***​

    Daniel, Annie and Elizabeth were finishing their cake in the kitchen when they heard the loud thud from upstairs. Daniel fled from the kitchen, up the stairs and into Miss McCoy's room without knocking.

    'Evelyn?' he shouted. 'Evelyn!'

    She was lying on the floor by the side of her bed, having taken a fall trying to stand up. He ran over to her and helped her to her feet.

    'I'm all right,' she protested. 'I'm all right. I just need to sit down for a moment.'

    He helped her back into bed and pulled the sheet over her legs. 'Miss, maybe I should send for Doctor Taylor.'

    'Nonsense, you silly boy, nonsense,' she objected, waving him away. 'I just need to catch my breath, and...' She sat silently in bed; Daniel stood silently beside her. Eventually she spoke. 'I'm sorry, Daniel.'

    'You're sorry?' Daniel asked in surprise. 'What you sorry for?'

    'Elizabeth was looking forward to the park, wasn't she?'

    'We'll take her soon,' Daniel assured her.

    'I know, but... Listen to me Daniel, there is something I need you to do for me. It's very important.'

    'I'll do anything for you Miss, you know that.'

    She closed her eyes and sank a little further into her pillows. Her voice became quieter when she spoke again. 'I need you to send for my lawyer, Mr. Taylor.'

    'Surely you mean Doctor Taylor?' Daniel asked, confused. He'd never heard of a lawyer named Mr. Taylor.

    'No, no, my lawyer, Mr.... Oh damn it to hell, what's the man's name?'

    'I didn't know you knew a lawyer, Miss,' Daniel admitted, while he searched his mind for what she might need with such a man now.

    'I have correspondence from him... somewhere,' she breathed, not fighting the call of sleep, but trying to get her thoughts out before it came. 'Where escapes me.'

    'Don't bother yourself right now,' Daniel said soothingly. 'You rest.'

    She smiled with her eyes closed. 'It'll come to me, my boy.'

    Daniel went back downstairs to the kitchen where he found Annie making soup.

    'I'm sending for Doctor Taylor.'


    ***​

    After Daniel had shown the doctor to Miss McCoy's room, the doctor waited for Daniel to leave and then closed the bedroom door behind him. Daniel thought better of it than to linger outside the door eavesdropping, but the anxiety at her prospects made sitting and waiting difficult, so he went to the garden to start harvesting the cabbages.

    He found himself doing nothing at all but leaning on the hoe staring at the cabbage patch, at which he chastised himself and resumed work. He carried on in this vein, taking an hour over that which should have taken him a quarter, until Annie called him from the door. She had heard Miss McCoy's door open and the doctor's voice was now audible.

    Daniel rushed into the house and up the stairs in time to see Doctor Taylor leaving her room.

    'How is she, Doctor?' Daniel asked, sweating and still carrying the hoe. 'Is she going to be all right?'

    The Doctor frowned at him as if personally affronted. 'I hardly see what concern it is of yours.'

    Daniel stood silently, stunned, as the doctor walked past him and made his way down the stairs. Then he jolted back into life and ran down after him.

    'The thing is, Doctor,' he explained, 'me and Annie and our girl are all very close to Miss McCoy's heart. We've been with her a long time, and we're very fond of her too. She thinks of our Elizabeth as her own granddaughter. So you see, as queer as it might sound, we're like family to her, and she to us. Do you understand? Sir?'

    The doctor looked Daniel up and down sternly before replying.

    'Yes, I think I rather do understand,' he hissed. 'And I will tell you what you need to know: prepare for the worst.'

    The doctor spun on his heal and stepped quickly to the front door, which Annie had just closed after Daniel and now opened again for him, finally closing it behind him.

    Daniel and Annie looked at one another aghast in silence for a minute. Daniel's chest heaved with his hard breathing, adrenaline burning through his body, his head pouring sweat. Annie began to shake and, feeling suddenly weak, slid down onto the floor there in the hallway beside the front door.

    'What becomes of us?' she asked of no-one.

    Daniel started to speak, then remembered his proximity to Miss McCoy's room and checked himself. He rushed toward Annie and grabbed her by the arm, dragging her along the hallway so bruskly that she never found her feet; it was all she could do to stop herself from falling.

    In the kitchen, Daniel slammed shut the door.

    'Miss McCoy spoke of a lawyer,' he informed her, his eyes fixed in determination. 'She asked me to send for him. But...'

    'But?'

    'She couldn't remember his name.'

    Annie shrugged.

    'Somewhere in this house she has correspondence from this lawyer,' Daniel continued. 'Now I got a feeling, and it's just a feeling so I don't wanna say it, but I got this feeling: we have to find this lawyer man.'

    'What for?' Annie demanded.

    'I don't wanna say, we just got to find that letter,' Daniel instructed. 'Look everywhere. Everywhere she ever kept a scrap of paper. Look for something that sounds... lawyer-like.'

    'I don't know what lawyers sound like,' Annie protested.

    'Me neither,' Daniel admitted. 'But we got to know it when we see it.'

    And so Daniel and Annie searched the house for the rest of that day and the next, collecting together everything that seemed to them might have been written by a lawyer. It was the next day that the neglected Elizabeth found them kneeling on the floor, staring at a piece of browning paper.

    'There you are!' she exclaimed crossly. 'Why are you both kneeling on the floor? Are you praying for Miss McCoy?'

    Daniel and Annie looked up at her, Annie filled with the shame we feel when we've been caught doing something we shouldn't, but Daniel with a look of inspiration.

    'You know what a solicitor is?' he asked.

    Elizabeth frowned at the question and twisted her body back and forth as she puzzled over it.

    'Daniel, what on earth?' Annie hissed. 'Where in God's name is she going to have come across that word?'

    'It's like a lawyer, isn't it?' asked Elizabeth.

    ***​

    Daniel crept up the stairs as quietly as he could, avoiding the places he knew would creak the loudest. At Miss McCoy's room, he rapped the door lightly with his knuckle and whispered her name, loud enough to hear if she were awake, but quiet enough not to wake her if she were asleep, or so he reckoned.

    Hearing no reply, he careful turned the knob of the door and edged it open, the solicitor's letter in his other hand. Tip-toeing toward the window, he stopped for a moment to watch her face. Fifteen years he'd served her in this house. It was under this roof he had fallen in love with Annie. It was under this roof their marriage ceremony had taken place, with Miss McCoy as witness. It was under this roof their daughter had been born. All of his happiest days under this roof, with Miss McCoy as his benefactor of contentment. He'd never known peace or happiness without her.

    It was on thinking of those days he realised how small she'd become, how thin and grey, how old. He looked at the letter in his hand and back to her moonlit face, agonised even in sleep. Then he placed the letter on her bedside table, kissed her on the forehead as he kissed his daughter whenever he missed her bedtime, and tip-toed back out of the room.

    ***​

    Miss McCoy might have noticed the letter earlier, but for three mornings Daniel was summoned up to her room to discuss the plans for the day, and on each of those three mornings he returned downstairs without her making reference to it. On the fourth day, she waited until they had finished their morning meeting before picking the letter up.

    'I think I spoke to you about my lawyer, Mr. Johnson,' she said, as if his name had never left her. 'I need you to send for him at once. I have matters to discuss with him.'

    Daniel nodded, but said nothing, so she continued.

    'The address is on this letter. Simply give my name and address, and explain that his visit is necessary and urgent.'

    ***​

    Mr. Johnson arrived four days later. Daniel was the first to see him, and was at his most obliging: opening the front door for him, taking his coat and hat, offering him refreshments, and eventually showing him to Miss McCoy's room. Mr. Johnson seemed to Daniel thoroughly the gentleman, courteous but serious.

    He and Annie sat in the kitchen, awaiting the end of the meeting with intense apprehension. The meeting took nearly four hours, during which neither of the two of them left their seats despite the protestations of their daughter.

    When he heard Miss McCoy's door opening, Daniel leapt to his feet and hurried up the staircase, in his eagerness not yet reaching the landing before he once more offered Mr. Johnson refreshments, which the latter declined without looking at him. The solicitor passed Daniel on the staircase without looking at him too, accepted his coat and hat likewise, and bid Daniel good day and left without a glance.

    Annie came into the hallway. They looked at each other cluelessly. Daniel shrugged and returned to the garden.

    ***​

    Daniel, Annie and Elizabeth returned to the house after the funeral, Annie in tears, Elizabeth cried dry, Daniel in a tense daze. They had walked alone across the two fields that lay between the house and the church. They had not been invited into the church itself, but had been permitted to witness the burial, and to pay their respects afterwards.

    They had nothing to do when they reached home. There were no more plans for the day. The days themselves were uncertain. They sat for some hours in their room, Daniel perched on the end of the bed, his elbows on his knees, his head resting against his clenched fists. Annie sat up, her back propped against the wall by a pillow, gazing at the ceiling, lost. Elizabeth slept in her bed.

    Quietly, without being asked for or offering an explanation, Daniel arose and left the room. Annie heard him moving downstairs, then the front door opened and closed. She couldn't see him directly, but she could picture him out there, harvesting the carrots, what he would have been doing anyway were Miss McCoy still around. That would have been that day's plan.

    Daniel worked on the harvest at a heightened pace, but he didn't seem to notice where he was or what he was doing, as if his body and mind had gone their separate ways. They converged again only when Mr. Johnson arrived at the gate carrying a case, with three men whom Daniel had not seen before.

    Mr. Johnson opened the gate and passed through, followed by his companions, without greeting him, and proceeded up the path to the front door as if he were not there. In no rush this time, Daniel rose to his feet, and followed them inside.

    He found Mr. Johnson in the hallway giving instructions to the others, who proceeded to move about the house from room to room, scribbling in books.

    'Will you take refreshment?' Daniel asked.

    Mr. Johnson did not turn to look at him and, without answering, proceeded toward the kitchen. Daniel followed him through, and then Mr. Johnson spoke.

    'You are aware, I imagine, that Miss McCoy has no living heirs?'

    Daniel considered the question and his wording before answering. 'I know she never married, and was an only child.'

    'You know wrongly,' Mr. Johnson retorted. 'She had a brother who died in childbirth.'

    Daniel silently cussed himself for his error. 'Yes, I remember now. Samuel.'

    For the first time since he arrived, Mr. Johnson looked straight at Daniel, appraising him. 'She told you about him?'

    Daniel nodded. 'Consumption got him. A sad thing.'

    'There are worse things though, aren't there Daniel?' the solicitor said.

    Daniel had no answer, and Mr. Johnson turned his back to him before speaking again.

    'Since she has no living heirs, her property in its entirety is to be auctioned by the state, who will take the value of it, after my company's fee of course.'

    At that moment, one of Mr. Johnson's subordinates entered the kitchen and started making notes. Daniel began to form a question, but Mr. Johnson gestured to him to be silent. The three of them remained in the kitchen in that state of silence but for the sound of kitchenware being moved and a pencil jotting descriptions of the items and their state of repair, until the subordinate moved on from the kitchen some twenty minutes later.

    'Before you ask,' continued Mr. Johnson once the man had left, 'you will recall that I met with Miss McCoy a fortnight before her death, and once more a week later. Did she give any indication as to the matter of our business together?'

    Daniel shook his head.

    The solicitor placed his case on the kitchen table, opened it, and removed three pieces of paper.

    'Do you know what these are?' he asked, waving them at Daniel, who shook his head and looked to the kitchen floor. 'Two of these are deeds of manumission for yourself and your wife Annie, which would apply also to your issue. The third is the last will and testament of Miss Evelyn McCoy in which she names you, Daniel, as the sole inheritor of her estate. Do you know what manumission deeds are?'

    Daniel looked up at the man and nodded. 'Free papers?'

    He began to feel weak. At first he thought he was falling and reaching his arm out to protect himself. Then he realised he was walking toward the solicitor and reaching his arm out for the three documents, mere leaves of paper that would save their lives. And then he stopped and, with his arm still outstretched, frowned.

    'So how is it Miss McCoy's house is being taken from us?'

    'A deed of manumission, by law, requires a minimum of two witnesses, neither of which may be the person entering into the contract, or the person drawing up the deed. Miss McCoy did not believe that she could produce any two such witness.'

    Daniel stared at the man bemused.

    'In short, we forged the signatures. If someone were to attempt to verify them, they would be rendered null and void, and I would be put in prison. You are aware also that she was visited by her doctor, a Mr. Taylor, some time before this will was drawn up?' He paused to satisfy himself that Daniel recalled the visit. 'Deeds of manumission and testaments are legal documents, Daniel. The legality, and therefore the validity, of these documents depend on a number of things, one of which is the soundness of mind of the person entering into the contract. After consultation, it was Dr. Taylor's considered opinion that Miss McCoy was not of sound mind when she had me draw these documents up, and therefore the legal position is abundantly clear.'

    Mr. Johnson opened up his case again, replaced the three pieces of paper, and shut it tight.

    'These documents have no validity, Daniel. As such, you cannot inherit the late Miss McCoy's estate I'm sorry to say, you, your wife and your child will be put to auction along with the rest her inventory. These men will take the three of you into town. From there you will be taken to Washington DC where you will be sold at auction, with the proceeds going to the state.'

    Daniel's eyes squeezed tight to shut in the pain in his head, and his panicked thoughts went immediately to his wife and child upstairs, but he could not move or speak to find them to tell them to run. Why had they not run already? Why did they ever come back? Why did they even attend the burial? He had placed all of his faith on a meeting, the result of which he had never learned.

    When the screaming of his brain subsided, Daniel opened his eyes and found the solicitor still there, not looking at him.

    'Sir, may I ask one question?' he pleaded. Mr. Johnson turned to him and nodded his assent. 'Will I be able to stay with my wife and child?'

    The solicitor's face grew grave. 'It's possible,' he replied, 'but extremely unlikely,' he finished.

    'Sir, may I ask one more question? Why did you make the bad deeds?'

    Mr. Johnson picked up his case and started toward the door.

    'Because for a moment there I was convinced that there was an opportunity to do something right in this very wrong world. I'm sad to say I regretted it after. I came close to burning them. Let's just say it was a close friend's dying wish.'

    ***​

    Throughout the first two years of Daniel's bondage in Mr. Morris' tobacco plantation in Richmond, Daniel dreamed of escape, and he dreamed to see his wife and child again. He would pray to God upon awaking each morning, he would pray to Him before sleep each night, and he would pray to Him during every quiet moment alone that he found himself in.

    In DC, Daniel had been the first of them to be sold, to a man named Mr. Morris who was only in the market for males, and so he did not see what became of Annie and Elizabeth.

    Close to the end of his third year on the plantation, he did not pray for these things any longer. He dreaded sleep because he dreaded waking up to begin the whole day over again. This dread gave rise to new thoughts: thoughts of not waking up anymore. For some time, these two notions, escape and oblivion, had contested with one another in his mind, but he had now been in Richmond long enough to know that they were the same notion, executed by different means: one cruel, and the other ungodly.

    But on going to the shack he had until recently shared with Ben, Daniel still prayed, and prayed hard, and he would do so when he awoke in the morning, and whenever he found a quiet moment to himself. He prayed that Annie and Elizabeth and he would be together again, just not in this life. Work hard, don't draw attention, suffer what you must: this was the plan for each day.


    End​
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2018
  6. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
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    Genre: Horror
    Warnings: Violence




    Yeah,... That (4255 words)


    That.
    Yeah,... That is the best way to describe what happened. Everything about those events had some awful aura of that. That school in that town on that day. That kid, that teacher, that horror, that… that. An unspeakable evil washed over the town that day.

    *** 12:46 ***

    Alicia Thompson, (yeah, that Ms Thompson,) a 26 year old math teacher, sat at the supervisory faculty table in the cafeteria of Lincoln High. She tossed her cell phone in her purse with a sneer. Her boyfriend just broke their date. It wasn’t his fault; he was a second year resident at the local hospital, and rarely in control of his own schedule. Still, she was annoyed. The day before, she’d gotten her hair and nails done. She had a new black dress draped across her bed at home waiting for her: a slutty one with a long slit and a plunging neckline. Gosh darn it, I shaved my legs for nothing?

    With a text message her plans had changed from a much needed date night with her boyfriend to diddling herself in the bathtub with a glass of Merlot... again. Ugh, am I supposed to feel this alone when I have a boyfriend? She irritatedly looked up at the clock and rose to get to her classroom before the bell rang.

    *** 12:56 ***

    “You got nothing!” Sophomore Jason Pittman taunted his best friend Bruce in the most isolated corner of the cafeteria.

    “Shut up, man. You know I got this,” Bruce stared at the paper football on the table. It was halfway between the two of them. He lined up his wrist behind it and gently cocked his middle finger to flick the object towards his friend. When he let it go, the triangular, folded piece of paper spun around on its flat side towards Jason. It stopped about halfway between where it had been and the edge of the table.

    “Ha! Fourth down, bitch.”

    Bruce concentrated. The goal of the contest was to get the paper triangle to peek over the edge of the table, without falling off. He had four touches to do so, and this was his last one. He needed the touchdown to win. “Watch this shit.” He flicked it again. It slid towards Jason and eventually teetered on the edge. Bruce thought for a moment that he may have flicked it too hard, but it hung there, just barely clinging to the surface of the table.

    “Yes!” Bruce raised his pudgy arms triumphantly.

    Brrrrrrriiiing. The school bell rang.

    “Ah nuts. You win.” Jason conceded the match. Lunch period was over.

    “At the buzzer!” Bruce gloated. He snatched the paper triangle and shoved it into his jeans pocket. Most of the other kids around them put away their cell phones.

    Jason and Bruce had phones too, but they usually played games with each other on or with a sheet of paper and their imaginations. They’d been neighbors and best friends since before either of them could remember and were the rare breed of kids who seldom used their phones. Their families were lower class, so neither of them even had had one until they were freshmen. Still, Jason would rather let the other kids see him playing with paper than his Nokia brick. Hipsters who are too cool to care about what anyone thinks play oldschool games. Poor kids play on Nokias.

    Outside, a storm was coming.

    *** 1:08 ***

    Jason sat down in his awkward wooden desk for pre-calc with Ms Thompson. Who were these desks even designed for? He fidgeted uncomfortably in the combination three-quarters-desk and three-quarters-chair. Like, does anyone fit in these stupid things? He looked around at his classmates. Bryan, the big jock, sat sideways, struggling to write and sit at the same time. Jamie, the tiny cheerleader that Jason had a crush on (one of many) sat cross-legged, adjusting her skirt and bumping her knee on the metal support bar. Chubby Bruce, who alphabetically sat in the front row had his stomach squeezed into the seat like sausage in a casing. Literally nobody fits in these things.

    Jason was a scrawny kid with a minor acne problem, but bright and sarcastic. He got along well with most other kids, and had a self-deprecating sense of humor about his cheap clothes and small stature which disguised his insecurities. He did well in school, but would have the occasional report card that he hoped wouldn’t come.

    Ms Thompson leaned up against her desk at the head of the classroom. She was young and pretty. Most of the male students, Jason included, had crushes on her. She kept her black hair in a short, neat bob, and always wore bright red lipstick. This contrasted sharply against her pale skin. Jason thought she looked like one of those nuclear pinup girls from the fifties. She dressed like one too, though more conservatively. She had a stack of papers in her hands and her purse was slung over her shoulder.

    “Today we’re going to use Matlab to visualize how complex functions behave in imaginary space, then I have a packet for you.” She smiled and displayed the papers in her hands.

    She was an energetic teacher, but awkward. She hadn’t quite come into her own yet, and wasn’t sure how to keep the student’s interests through the whole period. She could feel boredom from some students, leering from male students (and maybe one of the girls?), frustration from struggling students, and just all-around apathy when it came to education from most of them. She wasn’t a bad teacher, just inexperienced, and relied heavily on the guidance of the senior faculty. “Okay,” she smiled and asked everyone to gather their things to migrate to the library.

    The students followed Ms Thompson down the long, third floor hallway. Then down the stairs, back towards the cafeteria from whist most of them had just come. She gave a friendly wave to the principal as they passed the office. He gave a simple nod back. He was a terrifying, towering, disciplined man. He had the respect and fear of most of the student body. Behind his back, they called him “The General” and there were lots of stories among them about his service in Desert Storm. Everything from him being a bloodthirsty monster, to action-movie-like feats of selfless heroism. He didn’t address the rumors among students, he enjoyed the clout of mystery. The truth was fairly mundane anyway (heroic, but mundane.)

    *** 1:16 ***

    Ms Thompson opened the door and shepherded her group into the library... That library. Jason and Bruce sat down at computers next to each other. They didn’t wait for instructions, their computer routine was like muscle memory by now. They both opened Matlab and Chrome. They synchronously clicked on the address bar and typed hidemyass.com, then navigated from there to Facebook and Imgur, bypassing the school’s firewall for both. They immediately started competing against each other in digital chess while they waited for Ms Thompson to hand out the worksheets. It was a normal day in the library.

    *** 1:22 ***

    Then there was a strange sound. Like a car crash, but louder. Nobody was really sure what it was, nor did they give it much thought. Half of them delved into the work while the other half got lost to the depths of the internet. Ms Thompson continued distributing the classwork.

    Then the sound happened again, and then one more time, accompanied with the sound of people yelling. Some students looked up at Ms Thompson.

    Jason was one of them. What is that? Are the shop classes doing something cool? Maybe the chemistry class is making dry ice bombs. Maybe there was an accident.

    Then, in an eerie hum, the cell phones around the room started to vibrate. The first few were ignored for fear of the device being confiscated. When most of them started going off at once however, some students started to answer them.

    A female student stood up. “Ms Thompson! Alicia says the school exploded!” This started chatter which deafened the room. Nobody was sure what was going on, but in an instant, a hap-hazard game of telephone had spawned multiple rumors.

    Ms Thompson wasn’t sure what to do. She held her hands outstretched and attempted to quiet her students down. “Everyone, listen,” she pleaded, but the room bustled. “Look, I’ll go see what’s going on,” she calmly walked to the door of the library and opened it. I hope nothing serious happened. That was a big boom, maybe a gas line exploded or something. Geez, I hope nobody was hurt.

    She saw the principal peeking his head out of the office door. He was on the phone with somebody. They caught a glimpse of each other.

    “What’s going on?” She said calmly walking out of the library to approach him. She stuttered in concern as he waved her back. He seemed to be listening to the phone and assessing the situation. She shrugged her shoulders at him and moved her hands to express her question silently. What was that? He clearly heard it too.

    The principal shook his head to indicate that he didn’t know what was going on, then seemed to spy something of interest down the hallway. He came out of the office and walked slowly in Ms Thompson’s direction. She thought, at first, he was coming to her, but he turned and headed down the other hall, around the corner from where she was. She took a step forward to go with him, looking back at the door, unsure if she should leave her class. They were probably already using the computers for things that they weren’t supposed to.

    “Hey! Get to class!” She heard the principal yell to someone. Followed by “Hey, what are you doing?” Ms Thompson heard silence for a moment, not even the principal’s footsteps. She started walking towards the corner to see what was going on.

    “Hey, stop!” She heard the principal shout, which froze her in her tracks. She only realized that the command wasn’t for her when the glass of the office shattered and she heard that blast. She saw a gentle shower of red mist fall on the tiles in front of her accompanied by an inanimate thump.

    Her eyes widened, fixated on the droplets on the ground. Mr Roberts? Oh god! Run! Her feet didn’t cooperate with her brain. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go forwards and see what happened, or retreat because deep down she already knew. She definitely already knew. The decision paralyzed her until she heard something new. Ka-chunk. Then footsteps coming towards her.

    She ran back to the library to hide. She turned her back to the door and suddenly remember that she had a class full of kids. Inside, her students all looked to her with concern. They’d heard it, but none of them were sure what it was.

    Ms Thompson’s face had turned ghostly white and she was shivering in fright. Her wet, wide eyes darted around at her students and her lips quivered. What do I do? Oh god, what do I do? Her more perceptive students noticed her distress and their concern transformed to full-fledged horror. “Hide,” she finally uttered out. “Quickly.” She rushed away from the door and followed her questioning students as far back into the library as they could go. Some of them scattered to individual hiding places, but most moved as a flock.

    Ms Thompson heard another gunshot behind her. Oh god, he’s shooting at us! Oh my god, he’s going to get me! I’m trapped, where do I go? OH NO I’M TRAPPED! There was a scream, followed by another gunshot. Oh no, he’s killing them! Then four more in rapid succession coming from the administration office.

    BANG! Ka-chunk. BANG! Ka-chunk. BANG! Ka-chunk. BANG! Ka-chunk. That sound was almost as dreadful as the silence that followed. The silence lingered, it had a presence. Still, even that wasn’t as bone chilling as when the soft echo of footsteps resumed: Pat. Pat. Pat.

    Ms Thompson held her ears and kneeled behind a desk. No no no no no no no no no. Jim, Carol, Rob... Her throat felt tight and she put her hand over her mouth to keep from screaming and hyperventilating.

    Jason and Bruce fumbled along with the crowd to the back of the library and huddled between 300 and 400 of the Dewey decimal system. Oh shit. What’s going on? Someone’s shooting. That is a gun! That is a gun! We have to get out of here. We’re too close. That is a gun! Jason’s eyes searched for a better hiding place. He was scared, but panic had not fully taken his faculties yet. He patted Bruce on the shoulder. “Over there,” he pointed to an open door of a small computer lab where old Macs decayed.

    He wasn’t the only person to notice the door. Ms Thompson quickly hurried three other students inside. Jason and Bruce readied themselves to go too, but both froze in terror and sunk down as a blast rang through the library. The door sprayed splinters then swung open menacingly.

    Onto the library carpet stepped that kid. Victor Davis, a notoriously bad-attitude senior. His tormented, though largely blank eyes scanned the sprawling room. In his gloved hands, he held a Remington ten gauge, pump-action shotgun. On his back, there was a bookbag full of buckshot, pipe bombs, and handguns. A Glock 9mm was tucked into the back of his waistband which he planned to kill himself with when he was done. Fuck it all! Fuck not being able to graduate! Fuck this school! Fuck you, Dad! Fuck dealing with the bullshit anymore! Fuck everything!

    The room was mostly silent except for the gentle hum of the computers. A cell phone on the first desk vibrated. Victor watched it. The word “Mom” glared up from the screen as it ceaselessly buzzed. Throughout the room, multiple caller IDs displayed some variant of the word “Mom.” No mothers got any answer.

    Victor stared at the empty desks, then at all of the bags, phones, and books around them. “Get up!” He shouted. Jason trembled and watched Victor over the tops of some books, not moving, and ducking any time it looked like Victor might turn his way. Victor waited patiently for a moment. “Then I guess the hunt is on,” he said dryly. He walked to a pair of bookbags and kicked them to try and determine who was present. He picked up Bryan’s football hat with the barrel of the shotgun. “Come out here you jock piece of shit,” he called.

    Jason looked around. Please just leave. I wonder where Bryan is, please don’t let him find him. Bryan’s a nice guy. Please just leave. Please just leave. Jason repeated to himself over and over again, trying to rationalize out of the situation. I’m not a jock. I was never mean to anybody. Jason’s throat lumped up and he fought back the urge to cry and stared white-faced at Bruce for comfort.

    Inside the Mac lab, Ms Thompson’s eyes were locked on Bryan the jock’s. They were both looking to each other for help. Oh no. He wants to kill him. Bryan looks so scared. I’m so scared. The library is small, he’s going to find us. If he finds us, he’ll kill us all. Why me? Why him? Oh god, please make him just go away.

    There was a moment of silence as Victor waited again. “Guess I’ll just have to find you.” He stepped forwards and blasted the front of the first desk. Jason just watched from behind the books, flinching each time the gun went off. He could feel the reverberation in his chest, and could smell the smoke from the powder. He didn’t know where anyone was other than those he could see.

    Victor moved towards the center of the library and fired at the second row of desks. From behind it, there was a scream as the shrapnel splintered into young Judy Dumphrey’s legs. She cried out in agony as her muscles shredded, then cried softly and covered her mouth. She laid face-down on the floor. “No, no, please don’t,” she pleaded through the tears as Victor stepped up to the desk. Her friend Ashley cowered away to the far side of the desk as he rounded it. Judy screamed again as Victor brought the barrel up to her.

    Jason didn’t want to see, but could not turn away either. Oh my god, he’s going to kill her. No, please just leave. He’d never forget the image of the blood splattering from her back. It was enough to break his fragile mind and make him sit down hopelessly and cover his head in fright.

    Ashley screamed as she watched her friend’s body convulse with the shot. Then she looked up at him.

    Her eyes locked with his. She saw that they were emotionless and self-possessed. She looked deep into those eyes. Into the rage. Into the pain. Into the evil that lurked deep beneath them. Into that. She knew that she was next. She cried and jumped up, trying to dive over the next row of computers. She wasn’t fast enough, he swung the gun around and caught her in the stomach with a spray of buckshot. She landed flaccidly over the computers, suffering, only able to gurgle and cough up blood. He calmly walked around to face her as she tried futilely to breathe.

    “Quit your bitching,” Victor snarled as she gasped, drowning on her own blood and bleeding out through her guts. She twitched and gasped for a few more moments before fading away.

    Victor started slowly walking around the room. He approached a wooden desk where he could hear a girl whimpering. He waited in front of it for a moment. She could see the bottom of his boots from where she was and prayed to God for help. In one motion, he grabbed the desk and flipped it onto its side, exposing Jamie the cheerleader in a puddle of urine.

    “Pathetic,” He said softly.

    She screamed and cried, bowing her head down and shaking, unable to do anything but pray.

    Victor poked her in the shoulder with the hot, blood-soaked barrel. “Do you believe in God?”

    With tears streaming down her face, she just held her head and shied away from the black steel.

    Victor stomped on the ground and placed the barrel of the gun flush against the back of her neck. “I asked you a question!” He roared with the rage of a decade of pent-up aggression.

    “Yes!” She finally choked out through the tears. “Yes,” she said again whimpering and sunk her head crying.

    Victor took the gun from her neck and knelt down in front of her, placing the sight against the red and blue LHS athletics logo on her chest. He sneered at her and brought his head to her level. “Why?”

    She slobbered and sobbed, but couldn’t utter a response. Victor pushed her with the gun again.

    “I have good news for you,” he said gently, with a sheepish grin. “You get to find out if he’s real today.”

    Jamie hadn’t finished processing what was said before she ceased to be. Her last vision was not of God; instead she faced The Devil. The buckshot tore through her and ripped through the books in front of Jason.

    He shook and covered his head. Oh my god, I’m going to die. I’m going to die! He almost got me, I almost....

    His train of thought was abruptly interrupted by Bruce’s agonized scream behind him. The two friends looked at each other. There cover was blown! Bruce had been struck in the arm by a single ball, but he didn’t know that. He didn’t know where he’d been hit or how badly, he was just sure that he was about to meet The Reaper. His wide eyes looked down at himself, covered in the blood spray and the continuous stream from the hole in his shoulder.

    Victor ominously approached. Jason and Bruce just stared at each other in fright. They were pinned down. If they moved, they would be heard, if they stayed… that. Jason frantically looked around for help. The door to the Mac lab was still cracked open, he remembered that Ms Thompson was concealed within. Please help me. He mentally pleaded with her.

    She could only listen to what was happening in horror, kneeling down next to the door with her hand firmly pressed against her mouth and covered in saliva, snot, and tears.

    Victor turned around the corner and looked at the two. Bruce was catatonic, convinced that he was already fatally wounded and Jason was bawling, too scared to move. Victor pointed the shotgun in Bruce’s face. His bottom lip quivering was his only movement; he couldn’t do anything but stare into the dark barrel. Into the eternal blackness. Into that.

    “Please... don’t. We’ve always... been good to you,” Jason brokenly pleaded through sobs.

    Click.

    Victor’s weapon didn’t fire; he’d emptied it. Bruce was so far gone mentally that he didn’t even flinch. He sat staring up at the barrel, slack jawed in wet jeans. Jason found it in him then to run. Victor held the shotgun in his left hand and drew the Glock with his right. Jason didn’t see him execute Bruce, he thought the shot he heard was taken at him instead. He burst through the door of the Mac lab and slammed it behind him.

    His eyes locked with Ms Thompson’s. Help me! She grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to the ground, then pushed him away towards the desks. She slowly reached up and locked the door.

    They ducked and flinched as a trio of 9mm bullets tore through the door.

    All four students in the room went to the windows. They were on the second story, but a fall to the ground was preferable to that so they frantically pulled them open. In the distance, sirens blared as the full fleet of the small town emergency vehicle force converged on the school.

    Behind them, the doorknob jiggled. The lock held it shut, and everyone held their breath as Victor’s footsteps meandered away.

    Ms Thompson and Bryan the jock pushed a pair of desks against the door. The windows would not open far enough so they got up on desks and kicked them out by the frame.

    The urgency increased as they all heard the familiar ka-chunk of the shotgun. Now fully reloaded, Victor fired at the lock.

    “Go go go,” Ms Thompson urged her students to jump, physically pushing one of them out. Oh shit, he’s going to get us! Please hurry, get out!

    The first girl out fell onto her side, buckling and breaking her arm under her. She hobbled up in agony and ran towards the parking lot as the cops’ tires squealed into position.

    With a second blast, the door knob dropped to the floor and Victor pushed on the door to find it barricaded. He pulled back and thrust his shoulder into it. The desks scraped against the floor and gave a few inches as the second student plummeted from the window.

    Oh god, no! Please just leave. Ms Thompson threw her weight against the desks and pleaded with her students with her eyes for help. Bryan came to her aid, but they both jumped back as another blast tore through the door and splintered the desks in front of them.

    “Go! Get out!” She screamed at them, anxiously pushing them, waiting for her turn.

    Jason stared down at the ground. He’d watched two other students plummet like stones, hit with a thud, then run off screaming in pain. He dangled his legs out the window. He knew what awaited him if he stayed, but still, he hesitated.

    Bryan the jock sat down on the window sill next to him, also weary of the fall and swinging his shoes. They looked at each other.

    Victor pushed on the door again and Ms Thompson pushed her weight against the desks. I can’t hold it!

    “We gotta just go,” Bryan said as Ms Thompson rushed to the window. Jason nodded and closed his eyes. He and Bryan instinctively grabbed ahold of each other as they fell. As they exited the window, they heard another blast and Ms Thompson’s scream.

    They collapsed on the ground and fell into each other. Jason’s ankle rolled under him and he landed hard on his ribs, but he was more-or-less okay.

    Above him, Ms Thompson, oozing blood from her chest, rolled herself over the broken glass and dropped like a rag doll to the ground, bouncing once at the feet of Bryan and Jason, who ran in opposite directions. She didn’t run, she didn’t move at all. Her heroism saved the lives of those kids, but had ultimately doomed her to the grips of that.

    *****

    Inside, that terror continued for nineteen more minutes before Victor Davis decided to end it. All in all, that day took the lives of fourteen students and seven faculty members. It branded the town as that Lincoln for a hundred years. It sparked another national debate about guns, mental health, and underground music.

    That evil then went dormant again, but it’d never be gone for good. That is deeply interwoven with humanity itself. Across eons, generations, and cultures, that will forever lurk.
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2018
  7. srwilson

    srwilson Active Member

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    2800 words

    The Man-dream

    Bruno Durham leaned forward more than he'd intended, almost losing balance and toppling from the sofa to his host's feet. He was intrigued by the idea, yet couldn't quite shrug off the absurdity. He listened intently, as if there were a great significance, something that should mean more to him than he could understand. He watched his friend's goatie wag the words from his mouth.

    "The theory - well, the concept at any rate - is pretty simple. Everything has its own sort of consciousness, a bit like the old idea of spirits of the air and in the stones. Like what the Pagans worshiped, I think. But in this theory, some things are more conscious than others."

    Durham felt a connection with the idea; perhaps he'd read about it in his student days, the ones which now seemed so distant as to be a dream. Forty-seven years of existence gone in a flash, almost as if it had never happened. Perhaps it was a sign of middle-age that he couldn't even remember when he'd first met George. The earliest memory seemed to be of visiting the gallery where they'd gotten lost, but even that seemed obscured by time. Is that where they'd met? As to what had started them talking together, Durham could only guess, the most obvious explanation being some of the more bizarre exhibits that were on show or the discovery that they were both students from the same university.

    "Well, it can't be much of an existence, being an inanimate object," Durham quipped wryly, a little too loudly. He pushed back into his seat and sipped coffee from a mug with 'Led Zeppelin' spiralled around the edge and a chip in the ceramic lip. Was it just him or was the sofa too hard? Either way, he needed to stretch his legs.

    ____________


    That night was the first time he'd started to worry about his sleep. Neighbours kept banging around behind the walls and the air was unpleasantly humid, but surely they weren't to blame for the strange feelings that he couldn't quite place.

    It started with a general restlessness and eventually led to obsessive thoughts, going round and round like a rat in a maze. The repetitive feeling was itself not so strange. He'd noticed that feeling before, now and again, when he'd been cramming all evening in preparation for exams. He'd discovered how too much concentration on difficult problems when the brain is tired can have a negative effect on the mind. How, lying in bed, the feeling of trying to work it out can keep coming back, as if part of the brain has gotten stuck in a loop and can't stop until a solution is found.

    But now it was different. He hadn't been over-taxing his mind that evening - far from it. Yet some indefinable puzzle demanded attention, the result being a new sensation, even less describable except in the most vague analogous terms.

    It was like everything had become… very HARD, for want of a better word. The bed, the sheets, the mattress - all were like stone. Not as if he were in actual pain or discomfort from lying on the hardness - it was not in his sense of touch at all, but rather more abstract than that. But what concerned Durham most of all was that the strange feeling terrified him, as if some nightmarish horror were unfolding, yet remained hidden from plain view.

    He finally jumped out of bed and paced the room, startled by how loudly several of the floorboards creaked. He grabbed a bottle of juice from a dressing table, took three gulps and stared between a gap in the drapes. A crumbly grey rock hung against the black sky. Durham stood stone-like wondering whether the full-moon was affecting his sleep. He considered what George had said about inanimate objects having a consciousness, but then had to convince himself that it was he who was watching the moon, not the other way around. For some reason he had a hard time comprehending how something so heavy could apparently float there instead of sliding down to the horizon and cracking open.

    ____________


    Next morning Durham felt tired and fragile, and his knees ached while he stood at the sink to wash. Then his fingers behaved like a bundle of sticks, dropping the phone twice before managing to select the right contact for his workplace. He told the voice that he was ill and wouldn't be attending.

    He had wanted to get some fresh air from the local park until he realized just how drowsy he'd become reading a newspaper over breakfast plates. At first he was thankful when he was finally able to sleep, despite interruptions from the clatter of his letterbox and the exchange of barking that echoed from outside his bedroom window. It was only after a period of deeper sleep that he awoke in a panic.

    That he'd been dreaming, he was quite certain, but the details were soon snatched away by a half-waking nightmare. At first he thought he'd seen faces that had stared and whispered, appearing and disappearing like drifting ghosts. He had tried to move, but had no idea how to do so. Then the image faded and a dim blur filled his vision. He couldn't be sure whether he was awake, but had the impression of lying, unable to move, staring at a dark figure which loomed somewhere beyond his bed.

    A physical self-awareness slowly unfolded - that he was surrounded by a granite-like solidity. His own body felt like a block of stone pressing down on a solid surface, encased in a blanket of rock. The dark figure never moved, yet Durham felt threatened by his own paralysis and inability to act. A kind of mental struggle spread a wave of panic over him, like thick tar.

    When he could move at last, he seemed to be in slow motion. His eyes focused properly to reveal the black overcoat hanging on a stand - just as always. Yet the realization didn't quite relieve the panic that had seized him. That stubbornly ebbed away, eventually leaving him dazed.

    ____________


    Although by afternoon he had shrugged off the nightmarish experience, he couldn't quite shed a disturbing brittle sensation that invaded his body, nor the lethargy that had overcome him. Everything seemed to be fighting him as he tried to concentrate on getting the phone number for his doctor's surgery.

    Moving the computer mouse to guide the cursor around the screen suddenly became like an alien experience. Even the thought of the words seemed alien - was it called a mouse? No, surely not! Mouse… Mouse, he repeated drunkenly. But his mind went blank when he tried to think what the correct word could be.

    Once he'd succeeded in turning the 'pointer' the right way round, figured out how to move the little arrow to the right places and found the contact information, he was finally ready to make an appointment.

    ____________


    Durham sat stiffly in the waiting room, feeling scrutinized by a wall of patients. The problem with having to wait was that it allowed his mind to dwell too much on what to tell the doctor. He was just starting to have second thoughts when his name lit up the display.

    The plastic chair in the small room groaned painfully under his weight. He described what he could to the doctor: the disturbed sleep, the odd feelings, the sleep paralysis. If Dr Chrystal was amused or puzzled, he did an impressive job to hide it behind a vacant face. "What do you do, Mr Durham, do you work?"

    "I'm a security guard," he said hesitantly, as if he wasn't quite sure. Had he really lost so much sleep that his mind was messing up his memories? The only image he could conjure from the job was of standing still and watching for long periods of time. All the other details had simply blanked from his mind. And what did he see? People, he thought… or empty rooms, or were there exhibits? He was relieved that the doctor didn't pursue that line of questioning.

    "Well, Mr Durham, sleep paralysis can certainly be distressing, but it's really nothing serious. If you're genuinely worried about loss of sleep, I could give you something for that, but I suggest you give it a few days. See how it goes."

    ____________


    Durham stood in his living room and stared out at the grey drizzly street. He thought about how much he disliked doctors. All they ever did was give him pills and, as the song goes, now the drugs don't work, they just make you worse - though Durham was never sure whether drugs meant DRUGS. Sometimes he had felt that getting help was like banging his head against a wall, only now that seemed more true than ever.

    As he snapped out of a daydream, he suddenly became intensely aware of his stillness - and it frightened him. Perhaps it reminded him of being unable to move when he had awoken that morning. Perhaps it was just restlessness, but he somehow had the impression that if he didn't keep moving, he might lose the ability to do so.

    That night, Durham had what he could only describe as one of the worst nightmares he could remember. Once again he was unable to move, but this time he was certainly asleep and it was only a dream. He knew this because not only was he immobile, but he was trapped, encased within some kind of glass cage. A small girl was staring at him and pulling faces. She suddenly burst into tears. Something had frightened her. Then when he tried to look down, which took an immense effort, he felt his jaw grind on his neck and seize fast.

    He woke suddenly before he could see whatever had terrified the girl and what might have terrified himself. His joints were so stiff as he dressed that he wondered how he'd ever managed to dress before. It's like riding a bike - you never forget, he told himself, trying to remember the last time he had done so and even whether he could actually ride. And the more he thought about it, the more it worried him.

    He put the phone to his mouth and spoke into the display, feeling slightly silly. "Hi.. erm… George," he said, repeating the name that he'd found in his contacts and which seemed to ring a bell in his glazed mind.

    "Yah, hi. Who's that?" said the unfamiliar voice.

    "It's me. It's… Rn… Ron… Rod. Sorry, it's me."

    "Is that you, Bruno?"

    "Yeah, it's Bruno. Bruno… err… Bruno Durham. How you doin'?"

    The voice on the line laughed. "Are you sure, buddy? You sound funny, Bruno."

    Durham stuttered, spitting spots onto his screen. "Can I see you? I don't feel too good."

    "We'll be here all evening. Come any time. Hope I can help."

    Durham closed the conversation and grabbed his jacket.

    ____________


    He stood before George's brick fireplace, half hypnotised by flickering blue and red tongues of flame. "George, am I going crazy? You know the feeling you get when you've been out in the cold for too long and your face has gotten so cold that it takes great effort to move your mouth and you can hardly speak? I seem to get that… impression… all the time. I need to keep moving. When I stop, I think something bad is going to happen."

    George settled back on the sofa and smiled. "You just walked from your house, didn't you? So you got a bit cold. I think you're just getting confused, Bruno. I didn't see your car outside, so sure, you've been out there in that chill. More coffee?"

    Durham leaned towards the flames. He couldn't seem to feel the heat as he would expect to. He tried to answer George's question. Had he indeed walked the quarter mile from his house? Obviously his mind had been so preoccupied that he had done it in a trance, since it was as if the period between calling George and arriving at his house didn't exist.

    Could he have driven so quickly that he'd forgotten the whole journey? As he fought with his own mind he nervously brushed aside the idea that he couldn't remember ever having driven a car, nor even how to drive. He looked away from the crackling fire and faced the room, his eyes still full of imprinted light.

    He hadn't noticed George's wife enter the room. She held a tray of cheese and crackers. "Edam? Gorgonzola? Stilton? Roquefort? Wisconsin Brick Cheese?"

    Durham slightly shook his head. It felt like a block of stone grinding on boulder shoulders. George and his wife stood close together, speaking softly. "Looks more alive every time we visit," she almost whispered.

    Durham tried to understand what she could mean, but staring at the fire must have made him sleepy. His mind wandered. He felt tired or just overwhelmingly sluggish, heavy as rock and equally immovable. "I think I need to sit down," he said, but couldn't feel his lips move. It hardly mattered, as no-one was paying attention.

    He thought he had only closed his eyes for a second. Then why hadn't he noticed the new people enter the room? The two had approached from somewhere behind George and his wife and then stood, staring at Durham. The woman, with short black hair, grimaced and spoke. "Volcanic, said the label. Stuck together from bits of lava basalt. Not very pretty."

    Was she talking about something she'd seen? Certainly an alarm had rung in Durham's brain - that he could remember such a phrase, even familiarity, but somehow the memory was unwanted, almost terrifying. He tried to push it back into obscurity, to focus on why he was unable to speak or so much as move a muscle. Had he stopped for too long? Had the nightmare literally caught up?

    He tried to stifle the image that forced itself painfully upon the surface of his brain - the exhibit in the gallery where he'd first met George. Or had he? He could see George in his mind's eye, but where was he himself in this vision? Not with George, who was with someone else, a young lady. They had been talking together and he had watched. But as for himself, now he was somehow missing from that memory - just an unconnected observer. No! He must have been there, because they had spoken to him! Well… no, not quite. They had spoken at him, then walked away.

    What was that exhibit? Something horrible, he was sure, but no picture came to him, only what George had said - ancient, prehistoric, constructed from volcanic rock, loosely of a man. An idol, a primitive deity. Durham tried to forget, to focus on the present.

    His senses returned to George's living room, where the unknown couple were drifting away. But the room was much bigger now, with wooden benches and wooden floor. George and his wife were also walking away. They disappeared beyond Durham's scope of vision, which remained fixed ahead of himself. More people filed past, some stared, others glanced and some stopped to take photos.

    Soon the lighting changed, revealing the sheen from thick glass set across his vision. If he could have reached out an arm, he might have felt its thickness, heard the tinkle of fingernails on the surface. If only he could do that simple thing. But he tried with his mind, only to find how inanimate he had become.

    If Durham's face could have drooped it would have done so, but as it was, it felt more rough and solid than ever. Perhaps his soul had sagged. Certainly something vital within him had withered hopelessly. He felt he might scream - and in a way he did, yet it fell inwards. Could such a scream exist that intensifies the exact horror which it was meant to release - a 'negative scream', black and suffocating?

    He waited. He prayed for the nightmare to end, to return to his life, to the home which he could not remember buying, to the car that he never knew he had driven, to the friend he had never met. He tried in vain to recall the details of his job - but he knew it had never been his job, that it had been nothing more than watching people pass by.

    Soon the faces stopped coming and the lights dimmed in stages, darker and darker, until there was nothing. Durham - the entity that thought it was called Durham - didn't close his eyes, because he had none to close, only small stones that resembled eyes.
     
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2018
    newjerseyrunner likes this.
  8. Joe Palmer

    Joe Palmer Member

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    GEORGES (3,006 words)


    I liked Georges. Or rather I empathized with him. We had a lot in common. We were the same age although despite my own limitations he was by far the worse for wear. He, too, was a teacher and our characters were likewise distorted: we both needed an audience; we needed to instruct those around us; we were always right and we needed applause. We were pedantic and both of us, he more than I, had an immense reservoir of stories, anecdotes and sayings to cap any conversation. We were both split between two worlds. I was born English and many years ago had made Spain my home. He was born and raised in France to Catalonian parents. In the autumn of our years we were both reverting to the culture of our origins. Occasionally we crossed swords, especially on the subject of English grammar, but in that I always came out on top, and so he learnt to avoid the subject. I, in exchange, learnt not to intervene and let him have full rein in most discussions.

    But we weren’t identical twins. Professionally, I had been a bit of a maverick while he early on had sold his soul to the civil service. This meant that while I had always lived on the edge of the razor, so to speak, he had been secure and well paid. In subtle ways this made our outlook different. Secondly, I had always been married to the same woman, and happily so, for more than fifty-five years. Georges had had five loves. He had married two. Then, twice bitten but thrice shy, he had, as he put it, lived in delightful sin with another woman. Then came a forty-foot ketch. In her formidable bosom she had rocked him to sleep, she had tossed him from side to side, lifted him up and plunged him into a thousand foamy valleys, she had mesmerized him with the sound of water lapping against her side and maddened him with rattling stays as she ran close to the wind, and she had groaned and moaned as she held him safe against the elements and carried him home. Georges had been plying the seas for twelve years when I first met him. Finally, though, his mistress had become too much for him and he had sold her in La Rochelle. He admitted to me he felt so guilty he sometimes took a walk along the marina and surreptitiously glanced to see how her new owners were treating her. Understandably, then, he was now alone. And lonely. That is why I empathized with him. You may have noticed I have written of my feelings towards Georges as if they, and he, only existed in the past. It seems befitting that this should be so, for of him or from him I have had no news for a long time.

    He and some friends came to lunch one Sunday. It would be fair to say we had eaten and drunk heartily and, still at table at five o’clock, I suggested tea or coffee. Georges declined both, saying he never drank tea, nor for that matter any infusion. We all expressed surprise at such an admission so Georges, who never lost an opportunity, offered to tell us how this came about. I thought I heard a communal sigh of resignation but luckily he didn’t and straight away he launched into his story.

    Georges had been born during the war in a small provincial town on the edge of the Massif Central. The family lived in a house where the town dissolved into the surrounding farmland so as a young boy there were plenty of fields in which to play and get wet and muddy. I could see him perfectly in my mind’s eye: a pale little fellow of nine or ten with tousled hair, buttoned-up jacket too small for him, knee-length trousers and laced-up boots too big for him. I could also see the little liquid drop at the end of his nose, and hear his mother scolding him in Catalán when he wiped it with the sleeve of his jacket. In fact his runny nose lasted the whole winter from the middle of October when the frosts first came until the end of March when the sun began to peep out timidly at the dark plowed fields. His mother had tried all sorts of country remedies on him from mustard poultices to rosehip syrup. One day a well-meaning old lady in the market had suggested chamomile tea. The boy had not taken a second mouthful before vomiting on the floor of the kitchen. From then on his stomach refused any hot brew – except mulled wine.

    The nearest other child of roughly the same age was the Percepteur’s daughter and, despite the obvious differences, the two of them became very close friends when she came home from her school in Paris for the summer holidays. He was never invited into the house but the little girl had a wonderful garden full of ‘fancy’ flowers, bushes and trees among which the children played hide-and-seek, musketeers and explorers. Best of all, Madeleine had a swing for which they invented ‘special’ games like ‘winding up’, ‘swinging together’ with her sitting and him standing, or ‘jumping off’. Madeleine was just as much a daredevil as Georges. Sometimes they would go for a walk down to the river to throw stones into the water.

    There were only perhaps ten days left before school started again and Madeleine did not come to the side door when Georges whistled from behind the wall that surrounded the house. He went down to the wall at the back of the garden to see if she appeared at her bedroom window as she sometimes did if she was forbidden from going out. He imitated the blackbird again but there was no sign of her. He sat down in the afternoon sunlight with his back to the wall so that nobody could see him from the house while he waited playing with his penknife. He was stabbing it into the pile of garden litter someone had thrown over the wall when a blackbird, a real one, took flight squawking in fright as it flew over his head towards some trees. Madeleine, he thought, was in the garden looking for him. He got onto his knees to peep over the wall without, he hoped, being seen. Instead of vaulting over the wall, D'Artagnan with his penknife become a sword, Georges remained transfixed. Walking straight towards him was a vision he would never forget. A young woman whose golden-auburn hair shone in the sunlight forming an aura around a face such as none the little boy had ever seen in real life, only in his beloved illustrated stories of waifs and princes. She was wearing a white cotton frock with a blue ribbon sewn around the skirt at about the height of her knees and around the neck and sleeves. A row of bright blue buttons running from the neck to a thin blue belt at her waist gave relief to the bodice of the frock. Georges ducked down and scrambled along beside the wall as far as the trees bordering the field. The frightened blackbird flew back towards the garden.

    In the days that followed Georges spent his time crouching at the wall around the Percepteur’s house, not in the hope of meeting his play-friend but of glimpsing the vision that had taken possession of his ten-year-old mind. He saw her once walking in the garden with the Percepteur’s wife, once gazing out of an upstairs window, surely her bedroom. He followed her, stealthily like a Red Indian brave, down to the meadow near the river where she sat on the grass and pulled up the skirt of her frock to expose her golden legs to the sun while she read a book. He forgot Madeleine altogether, unaware even of her departure back to Paris. One day his mother sent Georges on an errand to the grocer’s in town. Just as he was about to go in, his vision glided out in all her glory. He stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide open in admiration and surprise. “Bonjour, mon p’tit! Merci!” gliding past him and along the pavement. She had seen him, looked at him! Even spoken to him! Hot, feverish dizziness invaded him as his face reddened and a sensation of elated frustration filled his head.

    School started as usual. It was raining and the youngsters were herded into their classrooms without the planned assembly outside in the yard. Georges and his unruly lot were quickly and firmly subdued by an exceptionally harsh old arithmetic teacher who took charge of them right up until the mid-morning break. After this brief half-hour (brief especially to the teachers in the staff-room) of running in circles, screaming and fighting in the drizzling playground, the children found the Headmaster waiting in their classroom. He announced that this year they would be learning English, a language ... import ... future ... life ... pro ... ... .. . . Blood rushed to Georges’ cheeks and up into his brain, the wild thumping in his ears preventing him from clearly hearing the Head’s words. His vision had glided into the room as if on cue and was now looking down at him in the second row, her lips pursed in amusement at his half-open mouth.

    Mlle D’Amboise was well ahead of her time as a language teacher. She believed the children should have some idea of the people and customs of the country the language of which they were to learn. She had lived in England for two years, at first in London improving her knowledge of English and then with a family in a large country house in the north where she worked as governess to three children. Georges hung on every word she said in her fluted voice about the people, the parks, the beautiful countryside, the rain, the village churches and the huge cathedrals, the cemeteries and, of course, the food, which wasn’t as good as French food but wasn’t as bad as people said either. In fact, one of the things she liked best about England was “five o’clock tea”!

    That evening after the afternoon session had finished, instead of fooling around with the boys, he rushed straight home. His mother was in the kitchen when he ran in quite out of breath and announced, to her surprise, he wanted a cup of tea. A cunning woman, she said nothing knowing an explanation for this change in the boy would come out in the end. She found a little tea in a tin that had been at the back of the cupboard at least since the end of the war and stewed it for him in some boiling water in a mug. Georges pushed it back saying he wanted a little cloud of milk in it and some sugar. He held the mug in both hands and blew on it just like Mlle D’Amboise had said English people did. Then he took a very little sip, then bravely a gulp of the brew. And then ran out into the garden, even faster than he had run in. From that day no infusion of any sort had passed his lips. But he did become a teacher, and an “amateur” of pretty young women with blue eyes, although, he insisted, he had always been extremely wary of such creatures and what they professed.

    Perhaps a couple of weeks after that meal, Georges asked my wife and me to go down for lunch the following Sunday to the fishing village where he stayed a few months every year in order to escape the “Rochelle Winter” as he called it. He rented a flat in a rather neglected tourist complex and we were to ring him with our mobile when we arrived since the electronic porter no longer worked. “No later than two o’clock,” he had said because he liked people to be punctual for his cooking. We confirmed this a few days before and duly got there on time. I called but there was no answer to his ringing phone. We began to get worried when he had not appeared after half an hour. At a nearby restaurant where he ate most lunch times they had not seen him since Friday. We went back to try to find a caretaker or someone in charge of the building but it was Sunday. Finally we were able to contact the owner of the flat he had rented and she obligingly agreed to send a key round to us in case something had happened to Georges.

    The door had not been locked and the yale key turned easily. The flat was silent. There were a couple of dirty saucepans on the American-style kitchen top in the sitting room. The television was switched on to some sort of stupid show that surprised me of our intellectual Georges. A few books and magazines lay scattered on the sofa and the low table in front of it. The glass door onto the balcony must have been closed since the linen curtain was not moving despite the strong breeze outside. We turned our attention to the two bedrooms. One was small with two bunks and Georges obviously used it as a storeroom. The larger bedroom had a double bed, unmade, and very little else in it apart from more books in little piles here and there. Here the glass door was open, the curtain flapping happily and the bright sun streaming in. We went out onto the balcony. There was a brightly coloured deckchair beside a small round table with a half-empty bottle of white wine on it. A long-stemmed glass, knocked over by the wind, nestled on its side against a rather thick open book, perhaps a dictionary, with thin pages turning back and forth. On the other side of the deckchair stood a small steel barbecue grill on tubular legs, its charcoal black with flecks of white that despite the breeze had not been blown off. There was something unidentifiable, black and shriveled, on the flimsy grill. Georges was clearly not on the premises.

    The police took us more seriously than I had expected. Perhaps a missing foreigner offered the prospect of a more interesting case than the island’s usual drunken-driving and sheep-stealing reports. They sent officers to interview all Georges’ acquaintances that we knew of and then came with us, and of course the landlady who would not have missed the event for anything in the world, to inspect the flat. They came to the conclusion he had probably rushed out of the flat for some reason and found himself locked out: the keys were in a dish on the bar of the American kitchen. They took interest in the books in French and English and looked through the drawers in the bedroom and his small backpack. They found his wallet with some twenty Euros, a variety of credit cards and his Spanish identity card. The officer in charge read out Georges’ name on the document: “Jordi Margall Puig. He’s been pulling your leg! He’s not French at all. He’s Spanish.” Perhaps he had not brought his French documents, something I found strange knowing Georges but I didn’t bother to say anything. I left the police playing with Georges’ laptop and went to join my wife inspecting the junk in the small bedroom.

    Behind the door there was a trunk, a bit like a pirate’s treasure chest, the top of which was partly covered with a red cloth with tassels. We had thought it was part of the flat’s furnishings, especially as the landlady had said nothing about it – she had her reasons, I suppose. I moved the cloth. The letters JM left no doubt as to the owner. I called one of the officers who pulled it out from the wall and threw the lid open. The trunk was full of packets of tea. Perhaps they were hiding something else so we started emptying it. There was Ceylon Tea, Gunpowder Tea, Lapsan Souchong, Earl Grey, Prince of Wales, Darjeeling, Oolong, Coronation, Assam, English Breakfast, Russian Caravan, Sencha, Formosa, Kenya … The further we got down into the chest the more illegible became the labels, then came small packets wrapped in the thick grey paper once used in French groceries, then it was just a mess of dark powder, leaves and bits of disintegrating, stained paper that made the officer and I sneeze.

    We stood up, totally bewildered. I don’t know why I went to shut the now almost empty chest. We always look for something in boxes, never on boxes. Pasted on the concave inside of the lid there was a photograph. It was rather discoloured, the original black, greys and white now brownish and here and there yellow. Nevertheless, I could clearly make out the three rows of children, some twenty or twenty-five in all. For some reason they all looked slightly cross-eyed. They were smiling genuinely – at least some of them – while others grimaced, the girls in what might have been a sort of apron and the boys in badly fitting short trousers, ties and jackets. The boys’ hair was invariably smarmed down across their heads from left to right. On the right of the group was a self-important little man, barely taller than some of the boys, proudly displaying his watch-chain and waistcoat under the jacket of his suit. His face was very white (even in the photograph) with a thin moustache and hair parted in the middle and combed back. On the left of the group – on the right in the photograph – there was a young woman in what had perhaps once been a white frock. Her features were difficult to distinguish as though years of fingering had almost obliterated her, leaving no more than a dull suggestion of her ghost.
     
  9. Kerbouchard

    Kerbouchard Member

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    Gone to California (2,480 words)


    Look at him over there, sittin on the front porch chuckin rocks into the dirt patch. Watch him how he keeps an eye out for Mama who’ll nail his hide to the well house if she catches him. She can’t prove it, but she knows he’s the one who shattered the kitchen window the day before.

    That’s a sharp wind up from the south.

    Hot and dry and stings the face. Leaves you thirsty for somethin cold and wet.

    The boy’s gettin up now, see him? Bored. He looks down the two-rut road, just waitin there for his daddy to come back from town. Heard Mama and Daddy talkin before it was light. Then Daddy fires up the ’22 Ford and rumbles down to the highway. Mama snifflin in the kitchen.

    Look at that cloud of dust, will you. Bears down from the north. Can’t compare to that a month ago. Had grit in their teeth for a month solid. Silt so fine it clots under your armpits after a hot day and down between foot and sock. No, this cloud’s different. Daddy’s come back, bumblin slow. Pulls the truck up at the pole fence and leaves the door open a crack. Door won’t shut proper anyhow.

    The boy goes up to meet him half way. Could be Daddy’s toted along some sweet or chewin gum from town. Fat chance, but he’s hopeful. No, Daddy walks on by, eyes lookin around all nervous. Sisters screech inside the house. Empty bellies and grit in their mouths and ears. Hold me, Mama. I’m hungry, Daddy, it hurts. The boy stands outside the busted window and hears it all. Sisters start to cry, scared by Daddy’s words.

    Mama orders him out. ‘Leave now and don’t you even come back.’

    Daddy’s different. Steps outside and sees the boy propped against the side of the house straight as a rake. Hands in his pockets.

    ‘Get in the truck,’ Daddy says.

    The boy does as he’s told.


    //​


    ‘California.’ Daddy tastes the word as he drives.

    The boy’s lookin out the open window. Wasteland beyond. Somethin like the moon might look. Topsoil’s all been blown back east, the newspapers say. New York City lawyers made to shake Oklahoma red dust off their top hats.

    ‘Where’s that,’ the boy says.

    ‘Some long ways off.’

    ‘It far from here?’

    ‘Real far.’

    ‘You ever been there?’

    ‘Never.’

    ‘Then why you takin us so far away if you ain’t never been there.’

    Daddy pulls the Ford off the gravel county road onto a two-rut path covered in sand. Fence posts and barbed wire catch the windblown topsoil and collect it in drifts like snow till only the top strand of wire and the points of the cedar posts are visible. There’s a farmhouse and stock pens ahead. Daddy kills the engine and coasts the truck to a stop. The boy follows him around to the pens where there’s a gang of men standin by, each with a foot on the bottom rail, hats cocked to one side. They all look at the boy, and he goes off to hunt for rocks while Daddy talks business. Gets bored and goes back to the truck to sit in the shade.

    Daddy comes back with hands in his pockets, head turned down against the wind. Sits and looks over the slip of paper in his hand. Mumbles to himself and slams a fist into the steering wheel. ‘So help me I’ll skin the bastards.’

    ‘Who, Daddy.’

    He shakes his head and stuffs the slip into his breast pocket. ‘Don’t none of it matter now. You just sit there and shut up.’ He turns the engine over and wheels through the sand, back to the two ruts that’ll take them to the highway. The boy counts the fence posts outside the window. Trains his eye past his bare feet to the hole in the floorboard.

    Daddy looks at him. ‘Folks say California’s real green this time of year.’

    ‘Don’t lie. You ain’t no good at it.’

    Daddy takes his hat off and scratches his crown.


    / /​


    Look up there at the happy family. Movin day’s come. The boy and his sisters climbin all over the back of the truck same as monkey’s in a tree. Mama sits silent in front with the baby. Daddy locks the door to the house. That wind again. Whips up from the east and whistles through the broken window.

    Daddy pins a note between the doorjamb. Gone to California. Post no bills. And you can tell Roy Bridgewater and the lot they can rot in hell.

    Planks under Daddy’s feet creak as he steps down into the dust.


    / /​


    Mama cooks a stew of potatoes and onions over a fire the boy’s made on the roadside. Sisters play in the bar ditch, catchin lizards. Daddy tinkers with the truck engine, the hood propped upright with a broom. The boy scrounges for firewood. Sticks and the like. Too damn hot for a fire, even after dark, but Mama insists on scrubbin her babies. She’s grown thin in the face and shoulders. All can hear her wretchin in the early hours. Hasn’t spoke for three days complete. Won’t eat a bite, just let’s the baby drag at the tit. Daddy sits at the fire and counts their money. The boy tries not to watch but can’t help himself.

    Sisters prance around the family at the fire eatin their dinner. Whoop like Indians and tap each seated there on the head as they pass. Daddy gets up and walks down the road in the close dark. The boy’s got a mind to go after him, but he’s scared of the night and the big country Daddy’s plunged them into. Sisters sleep on a blanket in the weeds underneath the truck. The boy sits up till the fire dies in the hot night. Stretches out with his spare shirt for a pillow. Looks up at the stars and learns then just how small he is against that giant void of dark and mystery.

    Two or three trucks lumber past: California orchards or bust. Truck beds loaded and top heavy.

    Family wakes and gathers up as thunder rolls away in the north. A few drops come down, but all the family can afford is a cold wind charged with dust and grass.


    / /​


    Abandoned trucks left by the wayside. Some four or five since leavin Oklahoma. Daddy stops the truck at each and he and the boy scavenge what can be used. Mostly picked over, down to the brake cables. The boy’s suckin on the end of a hose and can’t help but wonder over the fate of those left without. Gasoline comes up from the tank, and he scurries to capture it in tin cans.

    Careful you don’t slosh any or Daddy’ll be cross.

    He won’t let it happen to us, the boy thinks, climbin up into the back of the truck. Not way out here he won’t.

    Texas behind them, New Mexico to go. Then what?

    Thoughts and questions. Worry and sunburn.

    ‘How long till we see California,’ the boy asks Daddy that night.

    ‘You keep an eye on your sisters. And keep em from leanin over the edge, like I seen em before. It ain’t safe.’

    ‘We been drivin eight days. Ain’t much closer now is it.’

    ‘I told you I ain’t never been there. We’ll get there when we cross the river and all the signs read Welcome to California and we smell them ripe oranges. That’s when you’ll know.’


    / /​


    Mama smells somethin like fire or smoke and tells Daddy to stop the truck. Sure enough. Daddy drops the hood shut and orders the boy and his sisters out of the back. Two days walk back to Albuquerque. The boy sits in the grass with his back turned as Mama and Daddy squabble over what to do next. Mama steers as Daddy and the boy push the Ford off the road onto a dirt track away from traffic. No supper that night. Daddy walks down the lane, and the boy follows after as far as the dark will let him. Mama’s in the cab nursin the baby when he gets back.

    She opens the door and says, ‘He comin back?’

    ‘He wandered up that road a piece.’

    ‘You didn’t follow him?’

    ‘Why would I.’

    ‘Could be he’ll get himself lost or killed, one.’

    ‘It got dark, so I came back.’

    ‘You came back cause you got scared. Get back out there and find him and don’t you come back till you do, you hear.’

    The boy looks around at the dark. Can’t see five feet in front of him.

    Mama slams the door shut and says from inside, ‘Get now. Go.’ Her voice scares the baby who cries and the boy stumbles through the dark. Makes it so far as the barbed wire fence before he sits in the dirt. Can just see the truck and the highway. He’ll sit there and wait for Daddy to appear.


    / /​


    ‘I do like the desert,’ Daddy says, next day. The boy’s helpin his sisters up into the back of the truck.

    ‘Why so, Daddy,’ Sister says.

    Daddy’s got himself a smile. ‘Desert’s clean. Real clean. Engine’s cool by now.’ Daddy’s found some green water in a draw and fills up the radiator. ‘Searched to hell’s half-acre to find it, but I did and now we can scoot.’

    On the road. Endless hills. The boy sits in the sun despite the early hour and picks at a toenail. Family makes twenty miles before nightfall. Engine stalls twice climbin mountain grades. Daddy waves down a truck and gets a pull to the top where he can ride the Ford down and give the engine a charge to start up again. Sun beats down hot, and the boy peels off his shirt and ties the arms overhead so he and his sisters can have some relief.

    Just before dark, Daddy slows down and the truck backfires. Under the hood again. Daddy says, ‘Can’t see shit in all this dark.’ Tells the boy, ‘Go fetch your Mama’s pistol and shoot the damn thing. Hell, shoot me, too, and be done with it.’

    He knocks the broom loose and the hood slams with a thunderous clang. Sisters hit their heads on the truck’s underbelly and cry out for Mama. Daddy takes off walkin up the highway. Mama gets out of the cab and leaves the baby screamin for milk to chase after Daddy. The boy sushes his sisters and tells them to go back to sleep, Daddy’s just fixin the truck. Gets up in the cab and sticks his thumb in the baby’s mouth and the screamin stops.


    / / ​


    Mama’s sittin in the dirt, back against the wheel, bony knees drawn up to her chin. Sisters huddle around her, tear streaks on their dirty faces. Baby’s asleep in the cab. The boy climbs down and Mama looks at him. ‘Daddy’s up and gone and me in my state.’

    ‘What state, Mama.’

    ‘You stupid or you just don’t know.’

    ‘I guess I just don’t know, Mama.’

    ‘Your daddy done had his fun and left me another child soon to be screamin like these here. Go down that road and find him. He’s the only one knows how to start this heap of steel shit.’

    ‘Well, which way’d he go, Mama.’

    ‘You get after him or I’ll turn loose on you like I did him, now get.’

    The boy puts his shoes on and walks up the highway till the truck’s out of sight.

    No sign of Daddy. Sees a truck appear, hears it change gears. The boy flags him down.

    ‘What's the problem,’ the driver says.

    The boy’s near tears and tells him all that’s happened.

    ‘Your daddy quit on you, did he.’

    ‘Yes, sir.’

    ‘Climb in and let’s see what we got.’

    They find Mama in the cab nursin the baby.

    ‘Heard you need some help, ma’am,’ the driver says through the open window.

    The boy gets out and hurries around to the other side.

    ‘Where’s your daddy,’ she says. ‘Told you go find your daddy, not some truck driver with evil in his mind.’

    ‘Couldn’t find him, Mama.’

    The driver says, ‘Ain’t no trouble, ma’am. Mind if I take a look under the hood? Could be it’s an easy fix and your boy can drive you on down the road. There be a little Indian garage up the road twelve miles or so.’

    Mama nods and the driver gets out. The boy shows him the broom and helps prop up the hood. The driver says, ‘Go fetch your mama.’

    Mama gets out. ‘Well, what of it.’

    He sets down the hood and looks at her. ‘Said your man’s done left you and the kiddies. Anyone else about?’

    ‘Just us left,’ the boy says.

    ‘Shut your mouth,’ Mama says. ‘Can you fix it or can’t you.’

    ‘Nah, this here’s out of my league.’ He paused and looked around. ‘Could be I can give you a lift. Your boy there’s able to watch the babies. Won’t take you an hour.’

    Mama opens the door to the cab and draws her brother’s .38. ‘I’ll punch a hole straight through you, you take one step closer.’

    The driver’s eyes go wide, and he raises his hands. ‘You’re bat-shit crazy, ma’am. Put that down and I’ll be on my way.’

    ‘Mama, put it down,’ the boy says.

    Mama pulls the trigger and sends up a cloud of orange dust from the bar ditch. The driver ducks and bear crawls up into his truck and roars down the road.


    / /​


    Takes two days spent sittin roadside in the heat for Mama to trust the next truck to turn off.

    ‘You ever been to California,’ the old man says.

    ‘Never been.’ The boy’s sittin with Mama and his sisters in the back of the truck, watchin Daddy’s rig disappear behind the hill.

    ‘No, me neither.’

    Truck sputters and coughs to climb a hill. Wind whips up and casts orange dirt up and over them.

    The old man looks at Mama asleep with the girls. ‘You folks come a long way?’

    The truck hits a bump and jolts them upright. Pots and pans clank in their boxes.

    ‘Couldn’t say.’

    ‘Figure your daddy’ll find you?’

    ‘Daddy’s gone to California and left us to ruin here in the sun.’

    ‘Left you to your own doin. All of you, alone.’

    The boy looks at him. ‘Mama’s got three shots left, so don’t none of you cross her or me.’

    The old man nods thoughtfully. ‘We’ll sure bear that in mind.’

    ‘She’ll have herself a baby. Couldn’t say how soon.’

    ‘That so? Goes to explain it, then.’

    ‘Explain what.’

    ‘Why your mama’s so angry.’

    ‘That ain’t the reason.’

    ‘No? She always look so angry when she’s asleepin?’

    ‘She’s angry cause she’s got murder in her heart.’
     
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2018
  10. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Car Crash With A Suitcase And A Painted Face

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    The Blonde in the Corner

    (1240 Words)



    I remember the night my fiancé and I met The Blonde.

    It was our first holiday season together, and we’d just got engaged. We were Christmas shopping at an outdoor mall, on our way to a jewelry store. He’d asked me to marry him on the fly, and he wanted to buy me a proper ring.

    We’d had the typical mild California Thanksgiving a couple of days before, but now, as if on cue from some weather-god-turned-production designer, it was the first cold night of the year. As the sun went down, dry fallen leaves blew across the sidewalks, and before we knew it, with no cloud cover overhead to seal in the warmth of the Valley, the wind cut through our leather jackets like icicles.

    Holding hands and laughing, we found ourselves hustling into the nearest store for shelter, our cheeks pink with cold and the flush of being in love.

    It was there that he spotted The Blonde.

    “Over there, in the corner, do you see her?” he asked, trying not to gaze at The Blonde too hungrily.

    It would have been hard to miss her. She was lithe and curvy, and gorgeous and cool. She looked like a high maintenance type of girl. To be honest, she looked downright expensive.

    I could tell my fiancé was thinking all those things about her, too.

    “She’s beautiful,” I agreed.

    He turned to look at me, but only briefly, before gazing in her direction again. “You think so?” He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

    “Of course. Anyone would. She’s gorgeous.” A lightbulb of inspiration flashed in my head. “You should go over to her.”

    He stopped looking at her just long enough to do a double-take before looking at me. “What?”

    “I think you should go over and check her out. Go on,” I nudged. I want to see your moves. It’ll be fun.” I gave him a mischievous smile.

    He studied me as if I’d lost my mind, then laughed incredulously. “No,” he said, almost blushing. “No way.”

    “I’m serious. Just go over and see what happens. “I’ll wait right here.”

    “You’re wild,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling. But his blue-grey eyes were shining with glee, and I could tell he was considering it as he glanced over in The Blonde’s direction again.

    I looked at him and smiled.

    “You won’t get mad?” he said finally.

    “Of course not. You know I don’t play games. Go on. It’ll be fine. Really.”

    He gave me a strange look and sauntered off toward The Blonde. It was funny watching him try to be cool, when it was obvious all he really wanted to do was to get his hands on her. He tried to play it off, though. He was just a little too obviously-trying to be polite.

    He was standing with The Blonde when the owner of the store approached them. They exchanged pleasantries, the store owner asking how he could help them that evening.

    Then The Blonde spoke. She had a beautiful voice…clear and beautiful and mellow, all at the same time.

    My fiancé laughed with delight. Even from far away, I could see his eyes twinkling at The Blonde, that flirt. He really wanted her.

    I wasn’t the only one who could see it. The owner of the store saw it too. He even glanced nervously toward me, to gauge my reaction to all this.

    I returned the store owner’s look with a nod and a smile. He raised his eyebrows to me, as if to confirm, and I nodded and smiled again. “Yes, I’m all for it,” I tried to convey. “Really.”

    The store owner finally got the message, and I saw him lean toward my fiancé to say something encouraging to him. Meanwhile, my fiancé had edged closer toward The Blonde.

    My fiancé smiled. Usually confident, his smile was almost a shy smile. It was the same smile he had when he asked me out on our first date, and while I hadn’t quite fallen in love at first sight, he at least had won me over.

    Then the store owner said something in my fiancé’s ear. Whatever it was, my fiancé looked surprised…shocked, really, then he looked at The Blonde. The store owner laughed and looked toward The Blonde, then toward me, clearly telling my fiancé I was fine with it.

    My fiancé looked toward me, smiling, his eyes full of mischief, as if to say, “Should we?”

    Catching his eyes directly with mine, I nodded as if to say, “We should.” Then I turned my head and raised one eyebrow and gave him a lascivious look, my eyes signaling anticipation. There was no mistaking what would happen when we got home.

    The Blonde ended up coming home with us.

    We made a strange little trio, a curvy ash blonde, a medium sized redhead, and my tall, handsome, husband-to-be. It was now dark out, and the wind made walking difficult. I was wearing high-heeled boots, and the uneven sidewalks were doing little to help us avoid falling, even though we were all sober. Somehow, we managed to get back to the apartment unscathed.

    “Are you sure about this?” My fiancé came over and put his arms around me, his eyes full of concern, while The Blonde stood warming herself in the far corner of the living room. “It’s not too late, you know. You can still change your mind.”

    I let his words hang in the air for a moment, considering them.

    “Do you want to change your mind?” Wanting the unvarnished truth, I looked into his eyes. His eyes could never lie to me.

    I could see him turning the question over and over in his mind. “No,” he said quietly, playing with the ends of my hair as he sometimes did when we were having a serious discussion but trying to pretend we weren’t.

    I smiled up at him, my arms still around his neck. “Then neither do I. It’ll be good for us, don’t you think?”

    He looked surprised, pulling away slightly. “You really think so?”

    I nodded. “I really, really do.”

    “You won’t regret it later and wish we hadn’t done this?”

    I thought it over for a moment, more because he was expecting me to than from actually needing to. I was afraid he wouldn’t believe me if I answered too soon. “No, I really don’t think I’ll regret it. You?”

    He kissed me. “Not as long as you’re OK with it.”

    “I am.”

    He pulled away and took my hands in his, sort of swinging our hands and arms together nervously. “So, we’re really doing this, then? Last chance to back out...”

    I leaned in to kiss him. “We really are.”

    He returned my kiss, then pulled away and went over to The Blonde. My fiancé looked almost shy, as if he couldn’t believe this was really happening.

    “Welcome to our humble little abode,” he said, tentatively reaching out to touch her neck as I stood by, smiling. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.” Then, almost as if on cue, he picked The Blonde up and carefully held her in his arms.

    Then he began to play the latest song we’d written together.

    Having purchased her instead of my engagement ring that December, from that night forward, The Blonde acoustic was jokingly known as “our engagement guitar.”
     
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2018
  11. GB reader

    GB reader Senior Member

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    Location:
    Uppsala, Sweden
    The Smoking Lantern (~2100)

    Marim had been on the road for more than seven weeks when he reached the small town. After saying farewell to his fellow travelers he looked for a place to spend the night. The tavern he found was simple, but the food was good.

    In the evening he walked around the town looking for a place to perform. He found it on the outskirts of the bazaar, some dozen steps from the main path. His voice would carry over the sounds of the market.

    He woke up tired. The room was filled with snoring guests, and the floor was hard. After his breakfast, he sat on his rolled up rug outside the tavern. He knew that he had to announce himself. It wouldn't be enough to roll out his rug and wait for people.

    Further down the street, there was a young boy that looked curiously at him.

    “Young man, come here.”

    The boy hesitated but came closer.

    “I see that you are curious about the rug and probably about me,” said Marim.

    “Hmm,” said the boy.

    “Do you know this place?”

    “I know every place here.”

    “Do you have a lot of friends your age?”

    “I know everyone my age,” said the boy.

    “I am Marim, and I am a Story Master. If you help me you can make some money. Walk with me.”

    The boy’s name was Amed, and Marim told him to find all children and tell them about the Story Master. When they reached the place where Marim would perform he turned to the boy.

    “This is where I will be.”

    He picked a small coin from his purse and gave it to the boy.

    “Now, run along and tell the children.”

    Marim rolled out the rug that had served him for many years. Countless times it had been his stage, and many times had it been his only comfort against a hard floor or the rough ground. He saw all the stains and the repairs. We are getting old, he thought. We are getting old. The bazaar slowly came alive with sounds and smells, people and goods. This was the place for a storyteller. This was Marim’s reward for the days on the road.

    Amed had done a good job. Several children appeared. Marim smiled as he knew that they would quickly spread the knowledge about him through the bazaar. Later, there would be people that would toss him a coin or two after hearing his stories.

    “Welcome children. I will tell you some exciting stories, but after that you must help me a little. Will you do that?”

    He got a positive response, and started to tell them the story about the smoking lantern. The story was designed so that they would understand what happened a little before the grownups in the story. They would laugh at the silly shopkeeper that didn't understand where the smoke came from. Making fun of adults was always popular. Everyone smiled when he finished the story.

    “You can help me by telling everyone that I am here. One hour before noon I will tell stories that grownups can understand.”

    Marim looked at the children and whispered.

    “I will not tell them about the lantern, they wouldn't understand.”

    He waited for laughs to calm down and told the story about the goat that lost its ears.

    Marim went back to the tavern for some some lunch. He had told the children that next session would be stories related to buying and selling things. He hoped to attract merchants that delivered goods to the shops in the bazaar.

    His young helpers had done a good job. There were already several people waiting. After many days on the road he felt lonely, he needed company. Marim decided that he would try to hint that in the comfort of a friendly home, after a good meal, there were even more incredible stories. He could tell them the story about the friendly neighbor or maybe the one about the dying merchant. Those stories inspired people to be friendly.

    But first, a short simple story to get the audience in a good mood. He used his hands to signal silence, and told them the story about the golden tent. More people arrived as he was talking, and they sat down to listen. The story had a happy ending so his audience was in a good mood.

    He drank some water and prepared himself. Many of his stories were like old friends to him. Now it was time to introduce them to this audience.

    “I am Marim, and I am a Story Master. I know more than a thousand stories. I have stories about love and hate, about happiness and grief. Some of them are short, some of them are long.”

    He looked at each one in the audience.

    “As this is a well-respected bazaar and trade is important, I have many stories about successful traders and prosperous shopkeepers.”

    He paused.

    “In a town, very much like this, there was an old man living in a small house. He didn't talk much with his neighbours, and he lived a slow and quiet life. His daughter came now and then and made sure that the house and the small garden were in order. But the man died, and his daughter sold the house to a new family.”

    You could hear the sounds from the bazaar in the background, but Marim had a clear and distinct voice. He told them the rest of the story about the friendly neighbor. No one said anything. They wanted more. Marim raised and took a few steps stretching his body.

    “You all know that life is not always easy. There is both happiness and sorrow. Let me tell you about the dying merchant.”

    He had gotten his audience where he wanted them.

    “A long time ago there was a man called Larem. He was a merchant, and he had three young daughters. But he was dying. He had been ill for more than a month and he was getting worse for each day.”

    Marim made a pause, drank some water and sat down on his rug. This gave a more closed atmosphere. His listeners got drawn into the story. For a short while, he lowered his voice to make them to listen carefully. After a few sentences, he was back to his normal voice, but the audience was still listening closely.

    It was a sad story. Everyone sat quietly for a long time. One of the men looked in his purse and picked up a small but shiny coin.

    “Well done Story Master, that was a sad and beautiful story.”

    The man tossed his coin on Marim’s rug, and other coins followed. His audience silently stepped away.

    But no one asked him to eat or stay at their place. He rolled up his rug and went to the tavern.

    Marim knew that in the afternoon there would be more women listening. The stories to tell would be more about love or running a household. Stories about children were also popular.

    To find lodging for the evening this session was more difficult. Only a few of the women would invite him without consulting their husbands. But he had to try. ‘The enchanted cook’ was a good story. It made the narrator look like someone that knew a lot about cooking. They might invite him just to learn how to prepare fantastic dishes to please their husbands.

    The women were usually less reluctant to part with their coins so this session was usually the best for Marim. But he had to give them a story that they really liked. Maybe he should try ‘The lost pillow’?

    When he finished the first story he saw a woman hurrying towards him. She had been there the earlier session.

    “Good afternoon my lady. I see that you didn’t get enough of my stories,” said Marim.

    “That is true. I persuaded my husband that he should listen to your stories but he is busy the whole day so I am to ask you to come for dinner, and stay the night at our house.”

    “I am honored to be your guest. Sit down, and I will tell you about the enchanted cook.”

    Marim smiled to himself and to the audience. Sometimes life was good. He told several stories, and he was well rewarded with coins. His host described the way to the house where he would have supper. She also told him that her husband delivered fruits to many customers in the town.

    Marim was a little concerned as he knew few stories about fruits. The only one he could remember was the story about a fool that tried to grow figs in the desert. But that one was mostly about the fool and very little about the figs. He could, of course, tell the one about the hundred dates.

    The evening with his hosts was pleasant. Warm food and friendly people to talk with. Before he fell asleep that night Marim realized that it was time to go home.

    The next morning he thanked his hosts for their hospitality. He was certain that several of the children would be looking for him. He rolled out his rug and sat down. The children came alone or in small groups. They promised to help him find out about traveling companies leaving the city. Marim felt at ease. He was going home. He told the children several funny stories and some really thrilling ones. He remained sitting for a long time after the children had left. As he rolled up his rug a boy came running.

    “Story Master, Story Master.”

    Marim waited for the boy that stopped just in front of him.

    “There is a party leaving in an hour for Opan.”

    Marim tousled the boy’s hair. Opan, perfect he thought.

    “Thank you, my son, can you take me to the place where they are gathering?”

    He had to be accepted as a companion, but usually this was not difficult. A good story eased the tensions after a hard day's journey. And a storyteller was also the bringer of news and knowledge from faraway places. He had no problem to join the merchants.

    It had been a hot day, but in the evening the darkness came fast, and they made camp in the harsh landscape. After dinner, most of them would gather around the campfire, and Marim would tell his stories. But it was a cold clear night, and the moon was just a thin sliver in the east.

    “Everyone brings a blanket and something to put your head upon. We are leaving the campfire to lay down and look at the stars, and I will tell you about the woman who wore no clothes but was the most respected person in the village.”

    The naked woman got many comments, some of them not for the ears of children. Marim knew that the men would be a little disappointed. The story was not what they might have hoped for.

    Marim loved the times when he could give a performance like this. He knew a lot about the stars and the planets, and he tried to teach his audience about the constellations and the names of individual stars. Tonight he had already seen that it would be easy to find the Svan with the bright star Deneb. He had a story about two birds* that he usually told after he had finished his lecture.

    As the last story to tell he usually picked some reflecting story, something to think about before going to sleep. Even Marim, who had told the story many times before, would be affected. The whole company rested on the ground for several minutes before they returned to the campfire.

    As he tried to fall asleep Marim thought about the next day, when they would reach the city of Opan. There he would find the beautiful Naima. She would insist on him having a real bath before even getting close to him. He would have to tell her about everything he had seen, and he would have to tell her a new story about love and hope and longing. Then, but only after that, she would take him by the hand and lead him to the bedroom.

    “Now, my husband, you say that you have missed me, but don't tell me, show me.”

    END


    *) In Chinese astronomy mythology, the star Deneb is part of a bridge between the stars Altair and Vega. This bridge is used by two birds in love. But we don’t know if this was the story that Marim told.
     
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