“True”- flash fiction

This is the result of the “Opening Line Challenge,” where you take someone’s original first line and use it to create your own story.
http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/04/10/flash-fiction-challenge-time-again-to-write-an-opening-sentence/
David Koehn’s line is my first- thanks to him! A character I’ve been writing now and again kept leaping into my head for this one, so I decided to go with it…

 

True

 Ichabod had whiskey eyes no matter the light upon him. Fancy up the description, make it poetic, but the eyes meeting mine across the steel table were a mess; rheumy and bloodshot and yellowed. The orbs of an old man in a head with hardly more than a handful of grey hairs.

Sometimes eyes were a giveaway about the emotional state of a man, and often they reflected the nastiness of the life he’d lived. But always, without fail, the eyes said nothing by the time I was done.

*  *  *  *  *

I’m good at my job. That’s not a boast, and I’m certainly not looking for extra praise, it’s just that in my line of work immediate, discernible changes are valued above all else, and I deliver.

For much of my younger life I didn’t understand my talent and therefore, didn’t nothing to hone it, which made my early twenties a contorted span of self-exploration and fuck-uppery. I spent too much time trying to figure out ways to stop my abilities from exiting my body, and it wasn’t until my back literally started to bend under the strain that I learned the most valuable lesson of my life: you cannot deny who you are.

*  *  *  *  *

“Am I supposed to be scared, you little fucker?”

Ichabod owned his sneer, the laconic curl of his upper lip displaying teeth a shade of sienna similar to his eyes. I could smell the crusted vomit on his stolen clothes from my seat almost four feet away and wished I’d had a few minutes more to eat before they’d brought him to me. I crumpled the paper around my less than half-consumed sub knowing I’d never finish it.

Heels rapped cement in the hall and even Ichabod looked over as several men squeezed through the doorway. Their huddle maintained its shape as they moved behind my chair.

“Prisoner 924,543. Class six offender,” announced the individual at my left shoulder. As the sole man in the room I half-way respected, Blane Jones held the dual positions of Lieutenant and someone I hadn’t known long enough to lose faith in.

“No need to go easy on this one, Voss. He belongs in Hell more than Lucifer himself.” Jones shook his head, gaze on Ichabod’s flat, sloping face.

“I got rights, you goddamn bastards. I got rights.” The prisoner jerked the cuffs binding him to the bolted-down table and offered his unflattering sneer once more.

Technically, he no longer did. Everyone present save Ichabod knew his liberties had been revoked, but I wasn’t about to get into all that with a worthless waste of skin. One of the gathered detectives mumbled something about “beasts” but I ignored him too. It was time to get started.

Leaning away from Jones, I flipped open the view panel on the digital camcorder on its tripod and started to record. Jones restated the prisoner identification, the case number, and date and time. In the meantime I began to probe the air surrounding Ichabod.

Leached hatred had formed a fetid greyish mass behind his head that seemed reluctant to dissipate. Resisting the urge to gag, I gave the cloud a firm mental tap and when Ichabod’s eyes widened and he jerked in his metal chair I heard a detective’s hissed cuss of surprise. Having so many bodies in the room was a distraction, but one I’d learned to work around in order to continue my job.

“Wha, wha, what are you doing?” Voice rising, Ichabod stared at me, and already I could see the fear spilling from his pores. He could hardly handle stage one. I cleared my throat before speaking, allowing part of my focus to return to the room.

“You may want to have the gag handy. I think this one’s going to be a screamer.”

“Sure thing, Voss.” A stirring and the soft slide of shoe soles on concrete followed my warning and in my wide-open state the click of the door latch was like a shot when a detective left the room. Ichabod was sweating and I found my gaze drawn again and again to the beads forming on his formidable forehead. When I heard the detective return I took a long, slow breath.

“I’m going in.”

The room vibrated in my vision, the periphery becoming a blur, and I was surrounded by foul smells and a searing liquid sensation, the cesspit turning my own thoughts turpid. My mind skittered, an instinctual backpedal of self-preservation. I wanted nothing more than to get out of Ichabod’s vile essence but instead I pressed further.

“Nnnnnnnnuhhh.” Ichabod’s teeth chattered, and the moan passing from his lips reminded me of almost every other low-life I’d fixed. No matter how caustic of mouth they’d been, nearly all were reduced to muted mewling. I wanted to speak but my own jaw clenched so hard my molars ached.

“The gag,” I ground out before slipping completely inside. On some level I knew Ichabod was wailing, even felt the tremor of his vocal chords, but my focus had narrowed to the silver sliver before me. A black crust encroached on most of the trembling surface and as I drew nearer I could tell it had actually gone deep, the dense blackness a permanent part. I ran my mind across the inky mass like a blade and watched the sliver pale.

*  *  *  *   *

“You okay? Can I get you some coffee or something?”

Blinking away blurred vision, I looked over at Jones. His goatee was going grey in tandem with his head hair and I felt a somewhat misplaced satisfaction in knowing my own paler crown would keep me from looking older up top for years.

“Sure. That sounds good.” The wall at my back felt hard and cool, and I pressed my shoulders into it as Jones walked down the empty hall. My whole body hurt and if sliding to the floor would’ve helped I’d have done it. Pain seemed to be my pal more often than not lately.

Opposite me, a matte doorknob turned and the door swung inward to reveal two men from the room I’d left, each flanking Ichabod as he shuffled forward. They swung a hard left before me and paused as one detective stuck out his hand.

“I’ve never seen anything like what you did today.” He grinned and his head moved in a half-shake. “Look forward to working with you again.” I nodded once, forever unsure how to respond to compliments.

Observing the listless Ichabod, I saw drool on one side of his chin. The handcuffs were gone, no longer necessary. Law enforcement could cease wasting time on security measures after I’d  been with their prisoners. Ichabod’s looked as though he might have a hard time finding his own mouth at mealtime.

The three of them proceeded around the corner and I stared at pocked ceiling tiles, waiting for caffeine and thinking. My work saved money and prevented felonies and after time with me no criminal was ever a repeat offender. But my purpose was not all roses and rainbows, and my conscious violations of others troubled me more than some of the time. It felt good though, the living true part, and if my fate was to be a damn good SoulBreaker, I just might have to accept.

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Flash Fiction Challenge- Part III of “Shrine”

This is for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge

First 500-ish words are written by “Doom and Gloom in Austin”

The middle 500-ish words by http://almosthuman1blog.wordpress.com/

The final 500-ish words written by me.

Shrine
Part I:

I don’t know why I have come back to this place.  The old two-story building before me has never been a  home in any sense of the word.  It was more of a monument of suffering; a temple of affliction with my father as the high priest.  There isn’t a room in this place that hasn’t been decorated with my blood at one point or another.

Now, he’s gone and this house stands as the last testament to his brutality. So, why am I here?  To find any shred of decency and happiness within and rescue it?  Not likely.  That all died with my mother when I was still an infant.  What, then?  Maybe to get one last look around before I sell it off?  Or maybe, just maybe…to destroy this place.

I push the thoughts of setting the house ablaze aside and make my way up the steps to the porch. My hand grows ice cold with dread as I reach for the doorknob. It turns with a metallic grind and I push the door open.  The smell of age and dust and stale cigarette smoke hits me in the face. My stomach lurches a bit with childhood panic.  My skin prickles in rememberance of each and every cigarette burn mark given to me.

I slowly walk in and look around.  Other than a thin layer of dust, nothing has changed in this place in 15 years.  Every piece of furniture, every picture, every memento is exactly where it was when I was a child. Even the bloodstain on the rug in front of the fireplace is still where I last left it; black with age.  I couldn’t say what I supposedly did or didn’t do to ‘earn’ that particular beating. They all ran together like a flipbook of pain.  Each beating was partnered with the threat of much, much worse if I ever told anyone.

No, I still don’t know why I have come back to this place.  It’s serving as nothing but a bruising reminder of my past.  This place was filled with nothing but rage and fear and, in all the years, I never knew why.

Perhaps it’s best that this place and the past it harbors should be brought to the ground and removed from the world.  Just blow out the pilot lights on the stove and let the place fill with gas.  One spark and this place is consigned to Hell.

My footsteps carry me through the rest of the living room and into the dining room. Like the living room, nothing has changed here.  The familiar setting brings forth the past in my mind once more.  I shove aside the fresh wave of memories and continue to the door that leads to the kitchen.

Pushing it open, I stop short.  Within the center of an otherwise unchanged kitchen is a large, round hole. Cautiously, I approach the edge and look down into the void.

Part II:

The rhythm of ragged breath stutters as the sides of the hole undulate before me.  Heat oozes over the jagged edges and pool around my feet, grasp at my knees.  The kitchen swims around me and I begin to lose my balance.  A hand grips my shoulder, pulls me from the edge.  I am too frightened to turn.  I slide to my knees, hands grasping the edge of the pit.  I almost allow myself to topple forward into the gaping hole, but I pause.  Anger grows inside me and I stand, the hand still pulling at my shoulder, and I allow myself to turn.

“Jacob.”  It was him.  My father, long and thankfully dead, stands before me, hand on my shoulder, smiling in my face as though nothing but love had ever passed between the two of us.  “It’s been a long time, my son.  Too long.”

“Father.”  My tone is curt, cut short intentionally for fear if I allow myself to speak freely, I would unleash years of anguish, terror and pain in a single gasp and our conversation would end.  Despite this man’s horrific actions toward me in the past, I want to hear what he has to say.  I need it.  I crave it.

“I was wondering when you would come back here, Jacob.”  I allow myself to be led to the dining room where my father pulls out a chair for me.  “Please,” he says.  “Sit.”  I, as always, do as I am told.  Now the old man places both his hands upon my shoulders, squeezing, patting as if he were making sure I am real.  He exhales and mumbles something about how good it is to see me here.  The room begins to smell of death and the heat from that hole in the kitchen roils its way into the dining room.  “I suppose you have some things you would like to discuss.  About the past?”

“Yes,” I say forcefully, surprising myself.  “I do.”  I feel the floor rumble.  Hear floor boards crack.  I turn to face the old man, but he turns away too quickly for me to catch his eyes.  It seems his flesh leaves a smear in the air as he steps away from me.

“Your mother and I missed you.  You realize that, don’t you?  She was always so fond of you.  She got so angry when you left.”

My skin begins to flush.  Sweat pops up in beads on the backs of my hands.  Whether it was anger or the rapidly increasing temperature in the room, I couldn’t tell.  “My mother died,” I shake my head, sweat dribbling into my eyes.  “I had to leave.  I had to make your abuse stop.  I had to protect myself.  I had to leave.”  I begin to feel sick.  Father whips around and slams his open palms down on the table before me.  His eyes burn red and his flesh drips from his face.

“What if I told you your mother never died?”

Part III:

The stink of vomit is strong and my eyes leak tears as I bat my lids and lift them. On my knees before regurgitated breakfast, I bend in a salutation to terror, give homage at the shrine of lost hope. I haven’t left the kitchen, and there is no hole, no yawning mouth of Hell with my father guard and keeper. The floor is only floor, a chipped and dull reminder I’m home.

I struggle up from the linoleum feeling fifty years past my age. With one hand on the counter I let my head hang, my eyes close, numbered breaths passing through my nostrils and across my open lips. My therapist gave me this method and I’d become an expert, the stillness and awareness of myself an apt tool to counter the effects of visits from long-dead dad.

This episode has hit me harder, and recovery seems long, and even when I straighten and stare around the mildewed room my mind lingers on the specter’s claim.

Could my mother be living? I want it to be true, want someone I can touch and hear and feel, want it like I want my heart beating. But my father was a liar, untruth in his every cell. Though he is only my own creation now, I cannot trust him still.

My legs are unwieldy rods as I walk the path my old man led me; kitchen doorway to dining room to table, where I sit at my place without decision. The table’s coat of dust is pocked with oases of fuzzy mold and decay seems to thicken the air, yet I touch the surface, run my palms along the edge, watch the tracks follow after my fingers.

In the corner rests my mother’s favorite chair. My father told me she got it from her parents, who inherited it from a relative far in the past, and it’s a solid, dark-stained thing with leaves carved down the legs. Father sat there sometimes, after he’d worked through a mood, and stared, gaze not  present, hand caressing one wooden arm.

I’m going to take this piece of furniture, I decide, and stir up filth as I rise. The chair is grey with dust, yet seems fine under the film and I imagine it will look well where I live. As I lift it, hands at the sides of the seat, a leg comes loose and clatters on the floor, rolling to a stop against the toe of my shoe. Sadness overtakes me, like I’ve let my mother down, and I ease the chair on its back to have a look at what went wrong.

There is something next to the hole where the leg should have been. Dry, smooth, held by a single rusty thumbtack; a folded and yellowed paper, my name in faded blue ink. With effort I work the tack free and open the paper, deep creases like a dry creek-bed through slanted letters that look the same as the writing from the margins of the sole cookbook we’d owned, the one I used to hold and page through when father wasn’t home.

My sweet little one . I love you always. I’m sorry. I hope we find each other someday.

I am filled. First with relief, then hot anger, and clammy despair, and my skin prickles as optimism takes hold inside me like a foreign growth. I will pursue, will follow the longing. I have reason now, and resolve to understand whether the new growth is like a cancer or the beginning of a life far beyond benign.

Part Two of Chuck Wendig’s Challenge: Continuing the story (a.k.a. The Middle 500 words)

What I did to continue someone’s tale. Scroll down to PART II for my continuation of Dave’s story, which I included so it reads well (I hope!) Here’s the link to Dave’s original start to the story and his site: http://www.unfoldingepic.com/flash-fiction-first-half-of-a-story-zara/

Part I:

Zara woke up to a patch of light streaming through her tarp tent. There was a crispness to the air as she wiggled a little deeper into her sleeping bag. Tilting towards the opening she could see the lake she set up camp next to at dusk the night before. Closer to shore she spotted a tent she missed when scoping the area. It made her feel good knowing there would be someone to talk to today.

It had been days since she last saw someone. But that’s the point when backpacking through the backcountry. Only people that are really serious about experiencing the outdoors would be here.

Though late in the season, Zara was happy to still see snow on the tips of the mountains surrounding the bowl shed hiked down into the previous day.

Something scurried across her view, then back, stopping in the center. Just a marmot she thought. Curious, unafraid creatures. Part of the “chill” group of creatures encountered in the woods she always told anyone who’d listen.

Laying there for a moment, staring, waiting for the other to make a move before Zara gave in because nature was calling.

After relieving herself, she gave a big stretch while taking in the landscape. Shattering the silence, her stomach grumbled, reminding her it was time to eat.

Coffee and a package of Cinnamon Pop-Tarts, a hikers breakfast of champions. With her down bag wrapped around her for warmth, she scanned the area.

Besides the tent in front of her, no other sign of humans. Just the right amount she thought.

Out here in the wild, it’s a fine balancing act of solitude and company.

Biting another piece off of the cold, high calorie pastry, Zara’s more mind wandered to who was in the tent. A couple on a honeymoon trip, another solo hiker like herself but probably not a family. She would have heard them. As voices tend to carry when there’s nothing to silence them.

Crumpling the thin foil, Zara pushed it back into her food bag and continued sipping her coffee. The cold night air was finally being chased away by the sun and more forest creatures starting milling about her camp. The marmot was still rummaging around for food, glancing her direction every so often.

Letting out a huge sigh, she reveled in the simple life that happens only when she went backpacking. A hot mug of coffee, shelter and a little food. Not to mention an amazing view. If only it could be like this always.

As Zara finished the last of her coffee, she ran through the days plans. Get water from the lake, pack up, hike to the top of the ridge and camp in the trees. Simple day ahead she thought.

Making her way down to the lake, water bladder in hand, she eyed the tent off to her left, wondering if she’d have the pleasure of meeting the only other soul out here.

The lake was cold, filled by snow melt and crystal clear. Zara filtered it anyway but at this altitude, the water would have been fine to drink straight. A painless precaution she always told herself.

With a bladder full of water, she walked along the shore watching the wind blow gentle waves over the pebbles that crunched under her shoes. When she got in line with the other tent, she stared at it, listening. Backpackers weren’t known to sleep in late.

As she started heading back, she noticed deep red streaks that seemed to lead to the mystery persons tent. As she got closer, it crossed her mind that it was blood, maybe they were a hunter. That wasn’t uncommon in the backcountry.

At the door of the tent the blood was much more pronounced. Her heart leapt into her throat, feeling the pounding of increasing beats. She called out. Nothing.

With her shaking hands she tugged on the zipper a smell of death escaping its confines. A body, dead. She didn’t have to move in closer to see that. Stumbling backwards, she landed in a small bush, twisting her ankle on a rock. Grabbing it she looked around, panicked that there was a bear still lurking around. Looking towards the outsides of the bowl she didn’t see anything. Her breathing was still heavy as she locked onto her own tent. Someone was standing there. She made out the silhouette as it turned towards her.

Scrambling up, she started hobbling in the opposite direction.

Part II:

“Did you see?”

The silhouette spoke, voice breaking, thwarting Zara’s plan to flee. She stopped, turned, and took only a moment to recognize a woman’s shape. One whose hair formed a dark snarl on one side of her head.

“I didn’t see anything.” Zara replied, too hasty, knowing all the while that lying would do no good. As the only two people in the presence of a bloodied tent, upholding denial would be difficult. Moving forward in a shuffle-step, the woman held a limp hand toward the streaked nylon.

“Tracks. He’s in there. I don’t know what to do with him. You’re the first person I’ve seen since, since…” The woman made a sound then, almost a whimper, and when Zara could see her eyes, their red edges, and what looked like old blood or mud on her cheek, her own heart picked up tempo.

“What um, what happened?”

“I don’t know.” The woman shook her head back and forth. “It was dark and, and I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.”

The woman had gotten near enough for Zara to smell stale blood and realize the clump at her temple was a mat of dried gore. The tree trunks and foliage seemed to draw close and Zara’s vision grew sharp.

What happened to Tracks?” she demanded, and took a step toward the tent, wishing now that she’d made herself look before. The woman was freaking her out. As Zara limped sideways, her ankle taut with heat and pain, the woman started to weep, her shoulders shaking, but Zara noticed no tears fell, and she didn’t react, even when Zara bent to slide open the zipper. Rancid sweetness billowed forth when the door flap fell, and covering nose and mouth with an elbow, she dipped to have a look.

Tracks had not passed in peace. Brown stains filled the tent, dried blood so thick in places Zara could see it breaking up in flakes. Short hairs in three colors were strewn everywhere and drifted up in the current from the open door. The devastation hadn’t reached Track’s pointed ears and lush tail though, and Zara imagined the fur would be soft and thick under her hand.

“I’m so sorry,” Zara said as she pulled back from the opening. Sadness and relief stirred her, an awkward mating that came of acknowledging that though the life in the tent was ended brutally, it was not a human one, nor had the end come from a two-legged predator. Zara had no time to explore those feelings or let them take root however, for when she straightened, ready to approach the grieved woman with understanding instead of fear, she found the clearing empty.

She spun, a pained, careful dance using the toes of her injured leg. A complete revolution served as confirmation she was alone with the body of a mutilated dog. Zara heard her throat move when she swallowed, but the ballsy croak of a distant crow was the only other sound.

Many chapters with not many words

The challenge: 1000 words broken up into TEN chapters. Any genre.

 

To Come Undone

Chapter 1
The Plan wasn’t working. He knew it, understood like comprehending the inevitability of a shit after his dose of arrel gel in the morning. But knowing changed nothing, and he wearied of masking sensations he wasn’t supposed to have.

“Attention Twelve Seventeen. Permission to attend controls?”

Sweat broke on his back before she even finished speaking, and he wondered if he felt her enter the snug navigation pod, had gathered for her arrival before she cleared the hall.

“Greetings, Four Thirty-Five. Access confirmed.” He swallowed hard as she lowered to the molded seat on his left. The desire to stare was a pulse in his head, yet he dared not risk sensors noting so drastic a movement.

“Four Thirty-Five requesting latest period report.” She leaned forward when speaking and he removed his gaze from the side of her face before his temperature spiked and set off alarms. He’d been promised this wouldn’t happen, assured of elimination through a regimen of gels, physical challenge and concentration. What a crock, he thought, the comment filling his head. A yellow light sparked on his console as a bead of sweat slid down his spine.

“Period report relayed,” said the mainframe voice, and he couldn’t help but compare the canned femininity to the husky intonations of his co-pilot. He’d dreamed of her voice often, though that wasn’t supposed to occur either.

Four Thirty-Five’s hand spurred the report’s progression, and he had an overwhelming need to watch her slender fingers. The yellow console light flashed red.

“Twelve Seventeen,” chirped mainframe Mother. “We’ve recorded a significant rise in body temperature. Are you well?”

Fuck you, you fucking machine, his mind roared. You don’t give a rat’s ass how I am. He sweated from both temples and would’ve given his rations to be out of the suit hugging his form.

“Twelve Seventeen to Mother. Yes, I feel fine.”

 

Chapter 2
Night had fallen and nothing had changed. He lay in his tube, staring at stars, and sleep, it would not come. He reasoned that the extra gel he’d ingested after evening rations was keeping him awake, but knew that wasn’t true. Even off-duty he thought of her, and recalled her hands, her voice, her form. This wasn’t going to go away, and Colony constraints be damned.

Chapter 3
With a static stutter, the outdated console belched up a vertical screen, an array of graphs, all of them meaningless. The notion was so fierce he wondered if he’d forgotten a gel. He’d been told his work was valuable and thought that he agreed.

“We’re aware of solar storms in system H-4 and we’ve sent new coordinates to avoid contact. Confirm coordinates,” demanded Mother.

The display flickered as though uncertain, reminding him that flying a beleaguered ship was an indication of poor prospects. He’d been an idiot to believe them. Jabbing a hand forward, he slid the unstable screen, fingers brushing Four Thirty-Five’s arm as she moved to do the same. His heart pounded as he looked at the side of her face.

“Confirm coordinates,” Mother urged, flat vocals at odds with Four Thirty-Five’s profile. She trembled, and he was certain her yellow light was crimson.

“Twelve-Seventeen is acting against protocol.” Four Thirty-Five’s back was straight, her voice level, and he bristled at her control.

“Turn your head, Four Thirty-Five. Look at me.”

Her eyes began to water, and more than anything he wanted to know why.

Chapter 4
The room, it could not hold him, nor anchor feelings down. He let his mind go soaring, and in his thoughts he saw her, and touched her, and shared what was in his head. They could give him gels, and push his muscles to exhaustion, but he’d be dead before he released her.

Chapter 5
His head bobbed heavy on his neck. Keeping focused on the console took every bit of strength. He sensed before he saw her, and tried to lift his gaze, but immediately Mother engaged them, and the orders didn’t stop, and when Four Thirty-Five left at shift’s end, he did not even see her depart.

Chapter 6
“You have a message. You have a message.”

The robotic call ceased when he rolled over and mashed the flashing button. A glance at his tube monitor told him shift was hours away and rubbing his eyes, he started message replay.

Chapter 7
There wasn’t any stopping it, no off button he could press. They’d been draining ideas from him and now separation was the rule, and still the emotions were forming. He’d always been persistent, and warned them at the start, but they’d been certain of reformation, and now he’d be the one to pay the price.

Chapter 8
Four Thirty-Five did not see him, her eyes were facing front. The console screen had gone haywire, and he watched her reboot.

He inched along the floor until her seat was right beside him. Her attention was all on Mother, and mainframe’s static-filled confusion, just as he’d hoped. Being so close made his heart skitter. He put a hand on her nearest knee.

Four Thirty-Five jerked sideways, almost falling from her chair. Her eyes hit his.

“Four Thirty-Five to Mother, I do not read you. Repeat command.”

The mainframe burped back only static.

Chapter 9
“They can’t see us, can’t hear us. It’s like we’re not even here.”

Her eyes were large and shining and made up all he saw.

“How can you be sure?”

He smiled, so relieved to let it form. “Solar storms. We’re passing through them. I got an order to enter new coordinates last shift, and I didn’t. I didn’t change them because this is the only way for us to be alone.”

She stared down from her molded seat. “Twelve-Seventeen. Those storms could shut us down.”

“Yes,” he said, moving closer. “But I had to. So I could tell you that no matter what they do, I keep dreaming of you, and ask if you do the same.” His body empty, a locked chest thrown wide open, and yet she sat so silent. He almost couldn’t breathe.

Chapter 10
Around them light was growing, becoming brighter still. Before him she was moving, her hands rising until they rested on his cheeks. Her eyes filled, and overflowed as she spoke.

“It happened to me too, and I didn’t understand. I don’t know what to say.”

Feeling spread through him, as warm as the light. “Let’s not say then, let’s only show.” He grabbed her then, and pulled her in, and felt her arms ease round his own.

 

Flash Fiction: BugPunk

Formicidae Fury

With the Takeover everything changed, and I’m not sure how it happened, even now. People claim it started out of the blue but I wonder if it did, really. For months the scientists talked, and wrote, and put stuff on YouTube, but no one listened, and didn’t care, because hey, the Dow Jones was soaring and Brad and Angelina had snagged a new kid from East Neverheardofit, and so what if ants were multiplying like crazy and growing to three inches long?

Well, we all cared now.

“Hey, Boss. There’s a breach at section eight. You comin’?”

I looked up at the young man leaning around the doorframe. “Right behind you.”

Second breach of the day and it wasn’t even noon, which meant the colony was roving, and that was never good news for us. I left my maps on the desk and grabbed my hat from the back of the office door and as I caught up to my messenger waiting with several men at the end of the hall, I heard mobilizing all over the house.

“What’s colony status?” I checked each tired face around me in turn and got a lousy feeling when no one answered. “Harmon?” The bearer of my message flinched as I stared him down.

“They’re foraging Boss, at level three for sure.” He winced again. “Maybe four.”

“Christ.” I could feel the relief from the guys when they realized I was more worried than angry. We didn’t have much time.

“Okay, I want repellent lines reinforced at every boundary and thirty guys with me to the fore. We throw the bait and fix the breach and then we wait and see. Hit it hard and fast.”

Murmurs and then they scattered, each one an efficient machine, and every time I saw it I wondered how I’d come to lead. These soldiers-boys were the real deal and I, well, I was somewhere in between.

Daylight hit me heavy as we poured out the old front door, and when eyes adjusted I wasn’t happy to see more. The aging farmhouse rested on a hill from which we’d witnessed the valley’s demise, and the sight of brown, dry land and remaining ragged trees made my stomach hurt.

“Harmon,” I said, and soon he was striding at my side. “How’s the cancer-stick water?”

“Low, Boss. Real low. But Wilkens said he heard chatter about a supply drop soon. Betcha we get more if we ask.”

I could worry into nothing or buck up and deal, and honestly, my mind was already made.

“What we need is salt.” I tried to keep from breaking into a run as we neared the boundary. “Send two guys into town. Hit every feed store and clean them out of all the salt they have. Blocks, bags, I don’t care. We want it all.”

Nodding and running, Harmon went, and the boundary rose before the rest of us, a high dirt wall with one portion removed. Not fallen but taken away bit by bit, tidy as can be, and probably done in the blink of an eye. The men fell to it then, shovels wielded in capable hands, yet putting more dirt in place did nothing, it was what we put on and in that soil that mattered.

“I want to take a look,” I announced to no one in particular, yet one of the men jogged over with an ancient wooden ladder a minute later, probably absconded from the barn. We rested the legs upon the dirt wall and to my surprise the aged wood gave only minor protest as I ascended.

What a sight.

Beyond the wall was nature’s destruction; no trees, no grass, not plants of any kind. And not far enough for comfort lay the carcass of a cow, covered in ants. They’d brought it here, I was certain, for we hadn’t observed surviving animals in several days.

Black and orange ants feasted together now, dissecting meat and marching it away, and all of them huge, as long as my hand. They’d changed even more. I sped back down the ladder before they captured my scent with their ever-moving antennae.

“How long has Harmon been gone?” I demanded of the man holding the ladder as I stepped to the ground. He gave me a look of surprise.

“About fifteen minutes, Boss.”

I was getting that sinking sensation again, the one that woke me up at night and set my stomach twisting. “I’m going to get Wilkens to spark up the radio again and see who we can reach.” Without waiting for the man’s reply I sprinted back to the farmhouse, my head starting to ache. Up the stairs and to the right and there he was, my expert in ham radio.

“Wilkens, we need to talk to Boston again, or Manchester, whoever you can get.”

In the midst of making notes in his spiral-bound book, Wilkens pen froze, his wide eyes meeting mine. I saw his Adam’s apple bob.

“What’s going on, Boss?’

“We’re going to get some answers today, Wilkens, and I’m going to make us a plan.”

Switches flipped, and static popped as Wilkens worked his magic. He’d been one of our best resources, and I hoped he knew his importance.

“This time of day I’ll probably get Boston, Boss. You hoping for some news?”

I gave him a wan smile. The cities had been callous, for the lack of nature made them an unappealing milieu for ants. Easy in their position, officials made sure we got supplies, before simply waiting for ants to kill one another, or starve as the population grew, which we’d been assured of. That was over a month ago.

Wilkens had opened the window at his side and through it I heard a truck careen up the dirt and gravel drive. Running to the top of the stairs, I saw Harmon pound through the front door, a salt lick under each arm. His smooth face ran with sweat as he looked up.

“We got it, Boss. Where do you wa—”

The house shuddered, and gave a horrible groan, and as I watched, a crack appeared from stairs to crown molding.

“What the hell?” cried Harmon, but I already knew, and I swear the stairway rippled as another tremor dropped ceiling pieces on my head. Outside men were shouting, and Harmon stared at me, his chin hanging.

“Wilkens!” I called out. “You tell whoever you talk to that the plan is no good. No good!”

Flooring splintered, and plaster tumbled and as Harmon lost his footing and the front door popped its frame, all I could think of was Wilkens’ radio. We had to warn the cities, and let them know the deal, the country containment plan; it was no plan, these formicidae were mad diggers, for real.

Flash Fiction Challenge: Two categories to choose from randomly. 1500 words in any genre

No Better Deal

Death does not make deals.

Warren understood, and knew that midnight wishes and self-improvement promises got you nothing. But just the same he made them, at least until he knew they would not matter, because that’s what you do when you have nothing left to offer, and Warren had that in spades.

Every day he entered the side door, through the smokers hiding there, and lifted a hand to the ward nurses, who no longer made him sign in. They sometimes watched him pass, and a couple even smiled, but that only made him sad, their close-lipped pity, and often he kept his head down. At the room things were always the same- the human smell, but not quite clean, and silence. No television, no second occupied bed, no visitors. Only the body on the bed, a wafer of bone and flesh under covers carefully thin.

And Warren would walk, his one big boot scuffing, until the body appeared before his gaze, and the hand would be right there, so veined, so pale, so still. He could touch it if he wanted, the nurses had told him many times, and he could speak aloud too, but mostly he just stood, his shoulders a scoop of sorrow. He stared until he had to blink, and then he watched the face, in case it twitched while his lids were down, but he never saw it move.

Once he’d been observing when a nurse strode right in with a bucket full of suds. Tender wisps of steam left the water as she set it on the table near the bed and Warren was glad, happy to see baths happened here, and were pretty much the same. But then the nurse drew back the sheet and turned to him, and asked if he wanted to help by holding, and Warren’s head went airy, and he saw grey at the edges of his eyes, and he had to leave the room. He never came at that hour again.

Warren avoided home. He drove or walked until daylight petered out at the blocky skyline, and dark let him raise his head, and see clear again, and move like he had mass. Night brought out blackness in people, the pungent stench of their sin, and in it Warren wallowed, just to know he wasn’t alone.

*

            “It’s been almost six months, Graham. Six months.” The Lieutenant shook his head as he spoke. “Are you aware that there’s very little chance that Lewis will wake up fine, or wake up at all?”

Warren pushed his back into the plastic webbing of the chair and looked at the far corner of the Lieutenant’s desk where paper bulged like white tongues from a stack of files. He couldn’t make his mouth provide an answer.

“Look. Graham. We know how you feel, having a partner go down like Lewis did, but the whole department suffers when something like this happens, and I know some of the guys are worried the way you’ve been acting lately, that maybe we’ve lost you too.”

Warren took in a breath that wasn’t quite even. He forced his unfocused gaze to the Lieutenant’s face. “Tell everyone I need just a little longer. Then I’ll be good. Back to normal. Really.”

Elevated brows indicated his supervisor’s doubts, but the Lieutenant issued only an abbreviated sigh. “You have another week. I can only have so many of these kinds of conversations with you Graham, before decisions get taken out of my hands.” He tipped his head in the direction of the Captain’s office to make his point.

Already Warren was standing, his long frame drooping over the Lieutenant’s desk like a fern. He nodded before exiting to put glass and wallboard behind him, and succumbed to pure concrete under the stiff soles of his shoes. He thought about the Lieutenant’s words as his walk brought him right to the familiar side door. His supervisor might have cut him some slack but he would not find such leniency elsewhere. Death did not make deals.

*

                The guy at Warren’s desk was an officer he barely knew, yet the man grabbed his shoulder like a longtime pal.

                “That is fucking great, man. You got to feel better knowing that son-of-a-bitch got taken out by one of ours, right? Fucking justice, man.” The young cop gave one last ‘hell yeah’ jerk of his head and moved off into the crowd surrounding Warren and Lewis’s workspace. Warren’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing and though he’d made it inaudible he could still see the winking bank of orange lights.

                Engulfed and suffocated was how Warren felt with the veritable mob of personnel congratulating him, and each other, on the killing of the drug-embroiled criminal who’d almost slaughtered his partner. Warren wanted to get out, be free of enthusiasm, and when he finally put his hands on the wheel of a department car, he headed straight for the hospital.

                The nurses could see a difference. They stopped as Warren stalked by, and several followed behind him, as though netted in his wake. When Warren bulled into Lewis’s room the nurse adjusting his IV froze, took one look at Warren’s face, and padded out the door.

                Warren’s thighs hit the bed. He grabbed Lewis’s placid fingers in his, and let out a sob, which sent hands to the mouths of the nurses gathered at the door.

                “We got him, Gian. We shot the bastard dead.”

*

                Sunlight gushed, pouring in over the bed where Lewis lay, his back and head propped, a tray across his lap. He took a bite of hospital sandwich and chewed it slow, and winked at Warren with one exaggerated drop of lid.

                “Now that’s what I call food.”

                Warren smirked despite his pounding headache, and the nurse behind him giggled, as most did when Lewis spoke. He’d always been a hit with gals and even skeletal and pasty he still emitted charm.

                “A good appetite will get you out of here sooner, Mr. Lewis, so you just keep up the good work.”

Another smile and a scribble on the chart and she was gone, leaving Warren and Lewis alone to partake of gorgeous sun and gravid conversation.

                “Can you believe the bellezas working here? And I look like morgue meat.” Lewis rolled his eyes with mock injustice but Warren had to struggle against the tightness in his neck.

                He cleared his throat. “Listen, Gian. About that night, the shooting, I want to—”

                “No pareja.” Lewis held up a finger. “Do not talk about that. You and I know that bad shit happens in this job. That’s all there is to say.”

                Warren could tell by Lewis’s steady stare that explanation wasn’t needed, but not apologizing filled Warren with impotent heat, and made him hollow inside. He recalled Lewis waking, and giving his hand a feeble squeeze, and though the doctors said it was probably just an involuntary reaction to rising from coma, Warren didn’t believe that was all. Not given that Lewis opened his eyes minutes after Warren’s report of the department settling a score.

                “I heard,” said Warren, working to speak without a wave of emotion. “They’re talking about letting you out of here by the end of the week.”

                “Many thanks to God, too, because the department’s covering only some bills, and if I don’t get out of here soon, I won’t have any money left. Then how am I going to buy treats for las damas?”

                Typical Lewis, thought Warren as he blinked against the sun’s painful glare, making fun of dire financial straits when it probably gave him nightmares. He didn’t know who’d been telling Lewis he was on the hook for enormous bills while he lay recovering in bed, but he did know whoever it was deserved a kick to the solar plexus.

                “Seriously, will you be able to manage? Can your family help at all?”

                Lewis chomped diligently on his crust but Warren saw the fear in his dark eyes.

                “Mi mama, she has nothing. Not with Ronald gone.” Lewis shrugged with one shoulder, eyes down. “I don’t know about Lena. Maybe a little.”

                Warren knew Lewis’s Columbian sister not at all, had learned simply that their real father died when Lewis was tiny, and that his mom married a British man who’d adopted them, but by now had passed as well. If Warren had no one, then Lewis was only a step above.

                “Don’t worry, Gian. I think I have you covered,” he heard himself say, and even as Lewis lifted his chin, the plan birthed in his mind. Extended seconds of silence bloomed.

                “What do you say pareja?” Lewis stared with the expression of someone uncomfortably close to hope and Warren grinned, his knowledge of absolution complete.

                “You know me and money, pal. I don’t ever spend and now this situation, well, let me just say I can’t think of a better way to use it. So, like I said. I got you covered.”

                Warren could look at Lewis’s eyes with a smile, yet turned away when they began to fill, and when his friend gripped his forearm Warren shook his head and rose. Promising to be back, he made his way out and for the first time leaving the hospital, Warren stood tall.

He hadn’t told the truth, and didn’t plan to, but once the tumor mauled his brain and his simple will was read, his partner would understand. He walked a while then, one foot dragging, his smile upturned to the sun. He felt light as a bird then, and happy as he could be, because while death didn’t make deals, it couldn’t do a damn thing about superior bargains on the side.

Flash Fiction from terribleminds.com: Random Song Challenge

This week’s challenge is to select a random song and use the title for a 1000-word story, any genre. My song is “None” by Southwire, which is a rather cool tune. If you listen go and listen to it though, don’t expect it to relate at all to what I’ve written!

 

 None

 

            Walking. Forever walking. The cracked skin of our feet no longer bled, and hurt hardly at all, the blood in our bodies slow and thick and ill. We were beyond weary, our bellies just hollows of solid pain, an acidic ache with no promise of easing.

            No one knew the number of days we’d shuffled, the parched peaks of sand all the same, and though only one mentioned we might be lost, we all knew it to be true.

            Each day a shard of sun split open our shivering, broken sleep and we would look up, blinking, into its blinding fury. And each day we slid forward, our toes in fine grains whose glistening prisms gave up ripples of heat so thick we had to lift our hands and push to pass through them.

            And the dying. Only old ones in the beginning, because they didn’t want their ration of water, and became too weak. But soon sips of water weren’t enough for anyone, and many could scarce keep upright. So we left bodies every morning and often in the afternoon, and none had strength enough to conceal them.

            The water wagon left tracks, at first a concern, but we learned not to worry, for each evening brought wind, and by morning the blown, brown banks had changed, and we knew we’d moved the day before only by some footprints and the fresh coat of sand we wore.

            On a dawn such as this, one came to me and tilted to his knees in the sand. His swollen lids shielded bloodshot eyes, and his cheekbones looked wont to split his skin.

            “I had a dream last night.”

            Our sage’s voice was long unused and hard to understand. I reached for his shoulder and my hand looked alien, a roasted claw upon on his dirty shirt.

            “You must tell me.”

            “The desert has an end, and the end can be reached.” He paused to catch his breath and I saw others gather, drawn to the sound of speaking. “The stones are calling, and we must answer. Any who find them are saved.” A fit of coughing struck the sage and as his wiry throat worked the others shifted, and a horn of water appeared in outstretched hands. The sage drank, not a drop wasted, and sat back on his heels. All were quiet, waiting.

            “Where? Did your dream tell us where?”

            A worn gaze met mine and the sage nodded once. “The call comes from under, within the earth, a space without equal.”

            Again the others stirred, and whispered now too, and I could not remember when I’d last seen us so aroused.

            “Then we continue,” I announced, and pushed to my feet. “We go until we find this place, and we will be well.”

            Faces turned toward one another, and voices mingled and rose, and I thought I heard a sob. We swirled the news in our minds, and as the others talked and touched I felt a softening of all pain, and for two mornings and nights all was fine.

            I know, for I had counted from when the sage told his dream and during day number three they shattered. The young other was first to go.

            “I cannot do it anymore,” he barked in a hoarse voice as we shambled. “I will not go on.” He flopped forward in the sand and we all heard as he started to choke.

            “No, no! Do not do this!” One I believed to be his father had stumbled to his side and tried to lift the youth’s mouth from the ground, but the elder’s grip was feeble and at every opportunity the son plowed his head and sucked in more sand. The end was not long in coming.

            With a wail the father staggered up, sickened gaze striking each of us, and we looked away from his sunken eyes. Some glanced at me but I had not moved and nor did the others, not even when the mourning man threw his body on a water cart handle. The end was round and smooth, but the wood was strong and the father screamed as he pummeled his belly again and again. Half a dozen strikes and at last he could not rise. I watched the others move to stare down at his moaning form.

            “You must stop this.” The sage was close, his withered fingers upon my arm.  “The stones still call, and they are near.”

            The words I had been waiting to hear.

            “Do not worry. They will be found.” I called the others and they turned, almost at once, and followed. We left the youth and the father, and knew the dunes would swallow them whole. By night we’d lost three more men to their final sleep and as we finished our evening rations of water, another lost his mind.

            He spilled water over his chest while taking his sips and as the others expressed stunned and muted horror the man dropped the drinking horn, ran to the drum within the cart, and with two hands clasped like an axe, split the overwrought skin. Silence fell as gallons of liquid splashed forth and vanished, every drop devoured by sand.

            And the others went crazy.

            Fingers stabbed, feet kicked, arms and legs slapped with viciousness intensity, and before me people turned to animals as blood flew and bones broke and the men tore each other apart.

            I had only to stand clear and eventually they were finished. But someone crawled out then, from under a body, and merely the sage and I remained, scrawny forms facing one another across a mound of clawed and bitten flesh. The sage was covered in the blood of others while I bore a single watery spray. He was crying, I saw, and the tears turned to pink on his cheeks, but I did not find it moving, and when I went and wrapped my hands around his throat he hardly struggled, and seemed given over to death, which I delivered.

            Easing down the sage’s body, I looked right a short distance away, to the pile of rocks unnoticed by the others, and I walked slowly, and saw the hole. I slipped inside, into the cool, and the dark of the cave and then I understood; the stones called for me alone. My name was spawn for legends and my story would fall from the mouths of children. The others could have told the truth, and spoiled the stories, and when seeking to be a marvel, of spoilers and naysayers there can be none.