September 28, 2007

Fiction Friday: Newlyweds

This Week’s Theme: Give a virtuous character a sordid past.

"Shh!" Karly stopped in mid-moan, her breasts glistening with perspiration in the moonlight filtering through the rattan blinds. The blinds rattled a little when the ocean breeze came up, a sort of lonely sound that made it feel like we were alone in a beach hut, not on the third floor of a full service resort. So far it was a great honeymoon, and I had no interest in shushing right at this moment.

"Seriously, Tom, stop." An edge I had never heard in Karly's voice before chilled me, and I stopped moving and tried to slow my breathing so I could be quiet for her. Even in the darkness of the room I could see her intense frown, a look of sheer concentration in her eyes. Her warm weight on top of me was tense, absolutely motionless.

"What the..." In a swift move that only an Olympic gymnast could have managed, Karly slid off me and rolled off the bed, landing silently in a low crouch just next to the window. She glanced briefly back at me, where I lay on my back feeling pretty naked, then lifted the rattan blinds a half inch and peeked out. "Oh, shit."

"What?" I whispered it, barely breathed it. Something in the way she crouched looked catlike, predatory. Something in the way she'd said "shit"--the first time I'd ever heard her curse since meeting her three years earlier--announced danger.

Without answering, she stood and padded without a sound to the closet. She rummaged in my suitcase and threw my blue sweatpants and my black fleece jacket at me. "Put those on." Her voice carried to me with urgency and precision. Then she was in something black herself, and she was hissing at me to hurry as she moved to the door.

I sat up and swung my feet over the edge of the bed, pulled on the sweatpants. I had heard of new brides going a little nutso on their honeymoons, but this was new. Maybe she wanted to take our lovemaking out to the beach. Maybe this was a kinky side of her I didn't know about before. Maybe this elementary school librarian had a sexual appetite she hadn't shared with me. I had to admit that I found it a bit exciting. But the way she was going about it was weird.

Pop, pop-pop. A noise outside, somewhere on the resort grounds, sounded like someone had just let loose on a snare drum buried under a pile of leaves. Then there was a yell, a man's deep grunt of a syllable. And I looked at Karly.

"Russian," she said. "I think it's an AK-47. That's what they'd have. Probably." She glanced at the window. "Hurry up."


"Hurry the fuck up, Tom." She said it casually, like a drinking buddy eager to get out to a party and being held up by his friend combing his hair or something. She raised one eyebrow at me. I slipped the fleece over my head. "Forget shoes. Too much noise. No time." She pushed open the door to the hall and walked out. I followed, trying my best to remember how I used to pretend, when I was little, that I was an Indian and able to walk silently through the forest. I never could then, and now I found I was just as noisy in a carpeted hall. Karly made no noise whatsoever. If I didn't know she was right in front of me, I could have stumbled past and never noticed her.

We took the stairs to the ground floor, then went through the deserted kitchen and out the back door of the hotel into the service parking lot. Dark trucks huddled around us, and every few steps Karly stopped to listen. I felt like a puppy on a leash, or maybe like a five-year-old following his mother. Or following a stranger after picking the wrong pair of legs in a crowd.

As we hustled and paused among the trucks, then across the pool patio among the umbrellas and lounge chairs, then on into the tropical garden that bordered the jungle, I watched her. I'd known her four years. We met through one of those online dating services. She was young, only twenty three when we met, only a year out of Berkeley and newly hired as the school librarian at my nephew's school. Four years later, here we were on our honeymoon, and she was acting like some sort of soldier of fortune, leading me into the jungle, talking about foreign firearms.

Suddenly she stopped and put one hand out behind her in a clear signal for me to stop and be quiet. My breath was heavy again, but not like it had been in bed just a few minutes earlier. With a glance, she indicated I should come up next to her and look at something ahead, just inside the jungle, just outside the resort compound. I looked, and at first I saw nothing. Then there was a brief flash of something in the moonlight, and my eyes found it in the darkness: A man, holding something that glinted black. He wore dark clothes, maybe even camouflaged. He moved the black thing again, and I realized he was whispering into a walkie-talkie.

Karly made some hand signals that I interpreted as "stay here, don't move, don't make any noise." OK, I figured, but what are you going to... then my eyes went wide as I saw her do that gymnast thing again and slide silently between two low hedges, coming up on the man from behind, and doing something to his head or neck. He fell backwards quietly into her arms, and she lowered him gently to the ground. Within seconds she was back at my side.

"Twelve others, I'm guessing. Eight inside by now, and three others stationed at the obvious watch points. I'll take care of them first. You. Do. Not. Move." Her whisper was a hiss I could not disobey even if I wanted to. But I was distracted by the pistol in her hand. I felt like my heart had stopped and my breath would never come again.

Karly noticed me staring at the pistol. "Oh. Yeah." She hefted it. "Not mine. His." She jerked her head in the direction of the man she'd just apparently overcome. She grinned in the dark. "You didn't know I shoot lefty, did you?" As she sped off across the pool deck again, I observed my brain trying to grab hold of the scene. Yeah, that was her left hand. I think it was her left hand. I didn't know she shot lefty. Jesus, I didn't know she shot at all.

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September 21, 2007

Fiction Friday: Oh no, it's velcro!

This Week’s Theme: Pick an unusual phobia and explain why a character has it.

It's that sound, you know? That tearing sound that makes your teeth sweat, like the sound of tendons ripping away from bone. But sounds will do that to you. I was told that smells bring back the strongest memories, but I don't believe it. Sounds, man.

Think about it. Any good thriller or horror flick. What makes it scary? You know the stupid bimbo who just ran out into the deserted forest in her nightgown is about to get filleted by ten inch knife. It's the soundtrack. A good soundtrack is what makes that scary. There's no smell but popcorn in a movie theater, but you're still scared shitless.

Sounds. Like the sound of a dripping faucet in the middle of the night. The drops echo, and you open your eyes to the darkness and think there's water dripping over by the TV, or in the closet. Makes you disoriented. Where the hell am I? What's that noise?

You'd think I'd hate pocket knives, or sand paper. After all, that's what the sick bastard used on me. Somehow he always found me. Seemed to know, every day, where I was hiding. I had some good hiding places, too, but damn he found me every time. Every time. Scars in hidden places, patches of pinker skin where no hair grows even though I'm forty-six. Mom never realized what her "boyfriend" was doing in those hours late at night when she was off working at the hospital. Not til that night she got laid off.

What could I do? I was eleven, scrawny, bookish. He spent his days tossing luggage at airplanes and his night tossing back Millers. I hid. He came after me. Always had a reason, even if he had to make it up. Maybe one night I didn't wash all the dishes, he'd say. Or I left the toilet seat up, he'd say. Anyway, I needed some discipline, and by God he was going to give it.

He wore a back support harness, one of those things that looks like some freakish neo-Nazi Blade Runner fashionista interpretation of lederhosen. Black, it was. He'd wear it all day at work, throwing luggage around. Even wore it in his pickup on the way home. He'd open the door and come in, and I'd be buried in a book, maybe already hiding, and then my world would freeze and the air would turn solid in my lungs and I'd hear that ri-i-i-i-p of the industrial velcro straps being rent away from him, releasing him into the house.

She came home that night. It was a Thursday. She looked sad when she walked in, then confused. She saw him over me with the pocket knife, my own cub scout knife, open and drawing a fine, crimson line down the left side of my back. My hands were held behind me, wrapped tight by a black velcro strap.

I saw her eyes. He saw her eyes. He lost it, lunged at her. He knocked her down... I don't remember too much. I looked away. I was crying, I know that. He was nuts. He'd gone nuts. Lost it completely. I remember more sounds of velcro, and then Mom lay beside me, her mouth strapped shut with a thick, black velcro strap, another around her neck. Her hands were wrapped tight, and she was bent in half, unnatural. Her eyes looked scared, and she stared at me. Then I felt the knife touch my back again, this time burning and, I could tell, cutting deeper. I tried to block it all out, closed my eyes so Mom wouldn't see the pain I felt growing in my legs and back and wrists, bound too tight.

When I looked again, Mom's eyes held no more fear. She still stared at me, but her gaze was vacant, her eyes glassy and unfocused. It was then I noticed she wasn't breathing.

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September 7, 2007

Fiction Friday: Three wishes...

This Week’s Theme: A character gets three wishes...

Her mama called it ghost breath, this late September fog that lifted from the nearby pond and swirled slowly around Clara's ankles and calves. It was thicker over near the old, wooden bridge where the stream came down from Parker's Hill and fed the marsh that became Braden's Pond. A ghost breath night, Mama used to say, was a sure omen of death. Soon the ghost breath would swell until Clara couldn't see the stooped, stubby trees across the old gravel access road. Already the bridge had been swallowed up by the silent mist as darkness gradually defeated a reluctant twilight.

Clara sat on the embankment, the train tracks a few feet behind her, and watched the pond disappear into the darkness. Gravel poked through her thin skirt, but the night was warm and she didn't mind the mist seeping through her threadbare school shirt. The moisture gathered and made the shirt cling like a second skin to her shoulders and breasts. Clara closed her eyes and imagined Mama out there gliding across the pond, floating above it in the air like a graceful dancer, pale and white and glowing. Maybe Mama was the lonely soul bringing the ghost breath with her tonight, back to visit the living. Maybe she'd come to take Clara away with her.

Clara opened her eyes and was startled to see the fog glaring bright-white at her from the direction of the old bridge. The brightness was moving, slowly, creeping closer and growing. Her heart jumped and thumped as she held her breath and barely dared to think of Mama coming to her as she'd just envisioned. The feeling lasted only a moment, though, as the brightness clarified into two burning white dots ringed with rainbow coronas: headlights. And now she could feel the vibration of its motor not far off, now sense the rumble of its tires on the gravel road, coming nearer.

For a moment, she hoped the car would drive on by and not see her. Her white shirt might blend in with the fog, her gray skirt with the gravel. But it was Friday night, and as the car lurched to a halt only ten yards away, Clara knew it was already too late to try to run away. She watched the driver's door open, saw Charlie step out and say something. Nick popped out from the other side, laughing with his evil-looking sneer. Finally, Bill slid out from the back, pushing his greasy, black hair back and slouching behind Charlie. The three boys sauntered toward her.

Sometimes, Clara knew, her deafness could be an asset. Now she tried not to imagine all the things the boys were saying to each other. Even ten feet away the stink of bourbon flaked off them and melted into the mist swirling around them all. Maybe she could run after all. Maybe she could make it to the marsh and they'd let her go.

Without hesitating more, Clara pushed off the embankment and drove hard past Charlie, straight into a pounding run aiming for the bridge. They would catch her if she didn't get a good head start into the darkness, into the ghost breath. She passed Charlie, but Bill lashed out with his foot. Pain seared into Clara's shin, and she fell, her hands ripped open by the sharp gravel of the road, her knees ground into the dirt. Then they were on top of her, before she knew what was happening, and they hit her, hard in the legs, or maybe they were kicking. The pain in her leg and now a new wet pain on the side of her head dazed her, and she was only partially aware of the skirt being torn from her amid the stench of new sweat and stale cigarettes and bourbon. She was pushed and rolled and yanked like a rag doll, and every inch of her hurt so much.

Mama, she thought, Mama please come help me. Please come take me away with you.

She closed her eyes and retreated inside herself, clinging to the vision of Mama gliding across the pond, a shimmering vision of death, vengeance--salvation. Unable to hear, choosing not to see, Clara shut out the outside world and ignored her body and what was being done to it. She imagined Mama coming to her, kneeling beside her, hugging her like she used to. She felt Mama's arms around her, felt Mama's heartbeat, Mama's warmth.

"Mama," Clara whispered to the vision, "Mama take me with you. I wish I was dead. I wish to be with you."

Her mama looked her in the eye with sad calm. "Hush, Clara. Don't say that. Why, you're just fourteen. You've got so much good ahead. Don't wish that. Wish something else." The vision embraced Clara again, this time with strength and solidity.

"Then Mama," Clara whispered, "I wish Charlie would die. I wish Nick would die. And I especially with Bill would die."

Mama pulled back from Clara and looked into her eyes again, sadness now mixed with that look she used to give when she was very proud of Clara. Mama nodded slowly and began drifting away, backwards so they kept looking into each other's eyes, until the bright figure merged into the mist and faded into the brightness that now was all around Clara.

Later. How much later, Clara had no idea. She had fallen asleep. No, she had passed out. She knew because she felt the pain growing as she became aware, as she floated up out of the depths of unconsciousness. The pain, everywhere, so intense she could barely gasp in enough breath.

Then, a familiar rumble began building in the ground under her. The gravel vibrated beneath her, and she opened her eyes. In less than a minute, the freight train would barrel past. All was darkness around her. The mist still loitered, now still as a frightened rabbit, waiting for something. The train would stir up the mist good, Clara thought.

In the distance, she saw the glimmer of the train's headlamp glowing small and orange-white, a little sun in the dark mist. It was going fast tonight, Clara could feel it in the vibration of the gravel. She pulled herself to her knees, then stood up. The car was no longer next to her, but the stench of bourbon still lingered. She felt her head, found the blood still sticky in her hair.

Fifteen seconds, perhaps. The train was heavy, too. It was an insistent rumble, an unstoppable determination. She looked at the tracks on top of the embankment, their rails black as onyx, almost sucking what little light there was around her. Then she saw it. The car. Parked on the tracks. She could see the boys' heads through the windows. They looked asleep, maybe.

As the train bore down on the car, Clara realized it was too late to save the boys. She felt a shudder through her chest that must have been an urgent blast on the train's whistle, then a grating grinding as sparks leapt from underneath the engine. In the bright white of the train's headlamp, the car became a brilliant centerpiece in the black surroundings. Charlie in the driver's seat, asleep. Nick in the passenger seat, asleep. Bill in the back, lifting his head, his eyes growing wide as he watched his million-pound death pour down upon him at eighty miles an hour...

Clara did not close her eyes at the impact. She did not flinch. She watched in vague curiosity as the car first buckled and shrank, then sprang away from the train like a bead of oil off a hot griddle, up and away, off the tracks into the night beyond.

Limping, she turned to the gravel road and began slowly trudging toward the bridge where the ghost breath still lay thicker than anywhere. Away in the distance, over the pond, she thought she saw a shimmer of pale white gliding away from her and disappearing into the mist.

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Write Stuff Short Story Contest Entry

See the other entries and vote for your favorite (which would be, of course, ME) at the Write Stuff page!

What Goes Around
By Peter Dudley

"Didn't you used to work there?" Dawn's two-packs-a-day voice rasps across a wide, stainless steel counter as my knife slices, swish-click, through sausage after sausage. I enjoy her Tuesday summaries of the business section while I prep for the lunch rush in the shelter's kitchen. Dawn is surprisingly well read considering she dropped out of middle school and had to sell herself just to survive. That was ten years ago, though she looks much older than twenty-three. "Those college-ass pansies blew a hundred million bucks in two years? God damn. They could have given it to me and had lots more fun.” She sits cross-legged on the end of the counter.

I hold my tongue, which is not unusual. I'm sick of talking about my old boss David and his lying and backstabbing. Thank God he fired me before his shit really hit the fan. My friends still try to convince me it's not too late to sue for a "hostile work environment." They tell me I could get a lot of money in court. Dawn absently twists her long, wheat-colored hair, exposing a jagged scar stretched across the back of her neck. I wonder if my friends have any idea what a "hostile work environment" really is.

Dawn slides off the counter and wipes her sleeve under her nose. "That asshole boss you told me about. What’s-his-name. They gonna send him to jail, like Martha?” I’ve learned that shrugging gets Dawn moving on. As Dawn helps me haul the sausage tub across the kitchen, the first hungry people shuffle in. I admit to myself that I'd love to see David hauled off to prison.

The people file past, one by one, so lonely they aren't even acknowledged by each other. Some smell like the foul public toilet up the block. I take my place behind the counter. Today I'm slopping out mashed potatoes while Dawn delivers hunks of fresh bread.

As each blank face passes by, it’s hard to keep smiling. Most look down at their trays. One guy wearing a gray sweatshirt glances up, and when our eyes meet my blood runs cold. I want to grab the newspaper, hold up the headline for him to see. I want to point and say, "Didn't you used to work there?" But I hold my tongue. David turns away with his tray, and I turn to the old woman in line behind him. She gets double mashed potatoes because she has no teeth.

September 4, 2007

Ten on Tuesday: Fire! Fire!


10 Things I'd Save in a Fire
So I probably would only check to see that my kids and wife are safely out of the house and just say "screw it" to the rest of everything in the house. Even though some things can't be replaced (one-of-a-kind photos from the 1920s, for example), they're just not worth the risk. In the spirit of the meme, however, here are the noncritical things I would try to save:

  1. The old photos. My photo albums from when I was a kid.
  2. The other old photos. These boxes are kept in a different place from the first group and are really really old photos of my wife's extended family.
  3. My writing. I have several old stories I wrote on a typewriter twenty years ago that have not moved into the electronic age. Some are even worth keeping.
  4. My wallet.
  5. My journals. Mostly for a few entries such as my trips to Japan and Germany and England. The rest is utterly useless.
  6. My anti-Alzheimer's box, which contains random things that seem utterly useless but which tend to spark memories.
  7. The kids' school boxes, which contain the artwork we didn't throw out from preschool up to today.
  8. Our address book.
  9. Um, the cats. Maybe. Probably.
  10. Our "important documents" box. Deed, insurance policies, savings bonds, etc. This is last because it's actually in a fire-safe box, though it might not be locked.
This is a good time to think about preparedness and to make sure that emergency kits are up to date and that you have all the important documents and phone numbers stored off site in a safe location such as a safe deposit box. Also not a bad idea to back up photos and such to an online service, particularly one whose servers are in a completely different part of the country.

September 2, 2007

Lake Shasta

At the Sugarloaf Resort. The lake is very low, but it's still a ton of fun.