Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Weekly Story #34: The Painting

I grew up in an artistic family--both my mom and grandfather were painters, and I dabble in drawing myself on occasion. I've also noticed I have a tendency to base the evil in my stories on the things I find good and right and just in the world. Evil is, after all, a privation or twisting of the good; it has no inherent existence of its own. The antagonist in Thresholds of the Grand Dream, for example, resembles a priest, and his goal is a corrupted version of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. And here, we have an evil painting.

 

THE PAINTING

Judging by the layer of dust, the shoebox had been lying underneath Grandmother's bed for several years. It was one of many items the family gathered up the night after she passed away. Olivia couldn't say what drew her to it when she saw it on Grandmother's kitchen table, unless it was the sheer ordinariness of it. There were only a few things inside: a blank postcard from Seattle, the head of a Barbie doll, and a small painting of a young girl in profile.

Olivia took the painting out, holding the edges by her fingertips so as not to smear the paint. "When did Grandmother get this?"

Her father reached for it. "Let me see." When Olivia handed it over, he checked the front and back. "Can't say. It's not the sort of painting Mom usually bought." He pointed at the Cezanne landscape on the wall. "All these are prints. This looks like an original. I can't tell, is this oil or acrylic?"

"You're asking me?" her mother said. "I wonder who made it. I don't see a signature."

"Or a price tag."

Olivia said, "Maybe Grandmother painted it herself."

Her mother shook her head. "Sweetie, your grandmother was many things, but she was not an artist. Maybe this picture's a gift from someone." She turned toward the living room, where Olivia's uncle and cousins were straightening things up. "Anybody ever seen this painting before?"

Everyone said no.

Olivia's father passed the painting back to Olivia. "It's too bad Dad isn't here. He probably would have known."

Olivia let out a sigh of regret. Grandpa had died only last year, a few months after Olivia turned fourteen. Grandmother had basically given up after that. Hopefully at least they were together now.

The painting didn't seem altogether special, at least on the surface. It was just a girl in a blue dress shown in profile from the waist up. The girl had jet-black hair that draped down to her shoulders, with white streaks depicting the reflection of light. In the background was a window looking out on a cloudy sky. It didn't seem special, and yet…

"Whatever it was," Olivia said, "it must have been pretty special to her, for her to keep it in such a safe place. Can I keep it?"

Her parents looked at each other. "Don't see why not."

So that evening, when they got home, Olivia placed the small painting on her desk, where she could see it whenever she went to sleep and whenever she woke up. A little reminder of Grandmother that would never leave her.

Snow fell the following morning. At any other time, the sight would have delighted Olivia, but now the snow just emphasized how gloomy the world was now that Grandmother was gone. At least the painting was here.

But once she got up and took a closer look at it, something wasn't right. Or maybe it was her imagination. At any rate, she didn't remember the girl's lips being so bright red the day before. Maybe it was the difference in light, but Olivia thought she would have noticed the girl looking like she'd just lovingly applied some lipstick.

On the other hand, Olivia did still feel raw over losing Grandmother. She used to sleep over at Grandmother's every few weeks until she turned twelve. Over the last few years she'd started helping out with the yardwork for some extra money and some of Grandmother's sausage and biscuits. Then they lost Grandpa, and then the cancer took hold, going straight to her brain along with the painkillers. Olivia hadn't had the chance to visit as often as she would have liked, so it seemed like one day Grandmother was as bright and lively as ever; the next, too weak to get out of bed; the next, gone. Olivia still didn't feel like she'd gotten a proper goodbye. Of course she'd miss a detail in a painting she'd only discovered yesterday.

The snow didn't even get her out of school, just a two hour delay.

When she got home, she found polka yellow dots on the girl's dress.

She took it to the living room to show her mother. "Notice anything different?"

Mom put down her iPad. "Can't say I do."

"You sure? Look close. See those dots?"

"What about them?"

"Were they there yesterday?"

"What are you talking about? Of course they were. That's how it was painted."

Olivia took another look at the painting. The dots were added with the same paint as the rest of the image, and had dried the same way, as if they were dabbed on at the same time. Same with the girl's lipstick. "But that can't be right."

She showed her dad, who was on the couch reading a magazine. "Looks just like it did before." He gently touched her hand. "Look, this has been a painful time for everybody. There's nothing wrong with getting a few details wrong."

"That's what I thought, though," Olivia said. Back when it was just the lips that changed. Still, her parents had their own ideas, and weren't going to let go of them, so she headed back to her room to start her homework. She placed the painting back on its original spot.

Only now Olivia could hardly concentrate. All her attention was on the painting, in case it changed again out of the blue. The girl's hair might turn red, or a werewolf might appear in the window, or who knows, maybe Grandmother herself would turn up somehow. After the homework was done, Olivia then tried distracting herself with her phone, checking messages from her friends and funny pictures online. But the painting was always in the corner of her eye.

She went to bed a full hour later than intended.

The next morning, a new snowfall overnight had refreshed the blanket of white on the ground. The world outside still looked gray and dead. The funeral was tomorrow, a Saturday.

And the painting had changed again, this time even more drastically. The girl's dress had switched from yellow dots on blue to blue stripes on yellow. Not only that, but the sky behind the girl had turned blue and clear.

Olivia took a picture with her phone. If anything changed, she'd now have proof.

She went to school, checking the picture on her phone every so often in case it changed, too. So far, it was still the same. But now she couldn't concentrate during class. The readings in English were just collections of words. The x's and y's in Algebra might as well have been ancient Assyrian for all she knew. Even her friends noticed. On the way to Biology, Cassandra came up to her and asked, "Are you okay?"

"Huh? Oh, I guess." Olivia had been checking the picture yet again.

"You've been out of it all day. Is it your grandmother? I know you miss her."

"My grandmother?" Now that Olivia thought about it, she'd barely thought about Grandmother since waking up. It was all the painting. "Y-Yeah. I do. It's just…"

"Maybe you should talk to the nurse. She might let you go home and get some rest. If you're that depressed…"

"It's not that," Olivia said. "It's more…" How to say this without sounding like a lunatic? "You ever feel like something just isn't making sense? Like it's actually trying to make you crazy?"

"Like gaslighting?"

"No, not even that. It's like… Ugh, I don't know. Look, I'll probably be okay after the funeral. This's all just a lot to process."

"Will you talk to the nurse?" Cassandra said.

"I think so."

And to Olivia's surprise, the nurse was perfectly sympathetic and let her call for a ride home. Olivia never mentioned the painting.

"I understand," Mom said as she drove home. "I'm not really sure your father should have gone to work, either."

"Mmm." Cassandra checked the photo again.

When she got to her room, the girl in the painting was now facing the other direction and wearing a red gown.

Olivia opened up her phone. Finally, the proof she needed. All she had to do was compare the photo to the painting, and…

And the girl was facing the other direction, wearing a red gown.

Olivia let out a howl of the deepest rage, threw the phone at her bed, flung the painting across the room, and fled out to the hall. Her mother rushed to her and grabbed her by the arms. "Olivia, what's wrong? What happened?"

"It's that painting!" Olivia screamed. "I can't stand it anymore! Every time I look at it it's different!"

"Olivia, what are you talking about? That painting from Grandmother's?"

"Yes! That one! I hate it! I don't want it anymore!"

"Y-you sure? But you loved it so much the other night."

"I want it out of my room!"

"Okay, okay, if it's got you that wound up, I'll put it away."

As Mom went to Olivia's room, Olivia pulled her hair out of her face and rubbed her eye. "Thanks. God. I'd sure love to find out who painted that thing."

"Maybe somebody at the funeral would know. Ah, here it is." Mom came back out to the hall, holding the painting. "It's too bad. It's a perfectly good painting."

"Wait," Olivia said. "I need to know… What color is the girl's dress?"

"Red."

"What color is the sky outside the window?"

"Blue."

"Which way is she facing?"

"She's looking at me." Mom giggled. "And she looks kind of grumpy, if you ask me."

"What?" Olivia seized the painting from her. "No it can't be. I—"

The girl was now indeed looking at the viewer, not straight-on, but no longer in profile, either. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips curved into a vengeful frown, as if someone had turned off her cartoons while making her pose. But there was something about those eyes…

Terror gripped Olivia right in the throat. Somehow, the girl didn't seem to be looking at some generic viewer. The girl was looking at her, Olivia, right now. And hidden behind those eyes was hate for Olivia, for what she had just done to the painting.

Her mother remarked, "I do remember thinking it was an odd thing for you to pick out, with an expression like that."

"No… No, it was different. She was different."

"Olivia, are you feeling all right?" Mom placed her hand over Olivia's forehead. "It's just a painting. It's not going to hurt you."

Olivia jerked herself away. "Keep it away from me." She left the painting on the dinner table, ran back into her room, and shut the door. That wasn't just a painting. It was alive. And she was the only one who knew… or at least, the only one allowed to know. She buried herself under her comforter. What if Grandmother had seen the same kind of transformations in that painting, felt the same unnatural life? What if that was the reason she'd left it under the bed so long? Out of sight, out of mind?

Later on, her dad knocked on the door. It was time to go to the viewing. At that point, Olivia had no choice but to get up. On the way out, she spotted the painting on the dinner table. Mom had never put it away. She must have forgotten. Her parents probably thought she was out of her mind right now. Either way, she'd feel safer once that painting was out of her life once and for all.

There were so many people at the funeral home, so many relatives she hardly ever saw. Both her great aunt Gretchen and her great uncle Buddy were there—Grandmother's last remaining siblings. Grandmother lay in the coffin, her face crunched up, as if she had difficulty resting in peace.

Olivia forced herself to check the photo on her phone again, and the scowl on the girl's face. It wasn't as intense now, probably since it was a photograph. But while Olivia and the girl stared at each other, Uncle Buddy passed by. "Where in God's name did you find that?"

"Huh?" Olivia nearly dropped her phone. "Uncle Buddy! Y-You know this painting?" But how, when it didn't even look like this a few hours ago?

"Oh, I know it all right, and the sunuvabitch who painted it. Where'd you find it?"

She handed the phone over to her great-uncle. "I-it was in a shoebox under Grandmother's bed."

"So she kept it all this time?" Uncle Buddy sighed. "Poor thing. Probably never decided what to do with it."

"Who's the… um, sunuvabitch… who painted it?"

"This man who lived in our neighborhood growing up, about two houses down. Painted that just for your Grandma when she was about, oh, nine years old. Then we come to find out he… he…" His face tightened into a hateful grimace. "He was not a good man."

"Oh my God." Olivia's blood became as cold as the snow outside. She turned to her grandmother. "He didn't—"

"Hurt her?" Uncle Buddy said. "I dunno, and I don't wanna know. I like to think we put him away before he got the chance. But we all trusted him… And I still ain't forgiven him." A tear ran down his cheek.

"Uncle Buddy…" Olivia laid a hand on his arm. "I never knew."

"Must have haunted her all her life. Where's that painting now?"

"At home. It was in my room, but…"

"My advice? Get rid of it. Nothing of that man belongs anywhere near this family."

"Oh. Okay, sure," Olivia said. "One more thing. Who is this girl, anyway?"

"Really?" Uncle Buddy said. "You don't know your own grandma when you see her?"

Olivia looked at the photo of the painting again, and over at Grandmother, and shuddered.

That night, Olivia waited until parents went to bed, when the rest of the house was empty. The painting still lay on the dinner table. Mom must have forgotten all about putting it away. The girl now had a fierce glare on her face, and wore a black dress. As if for a funeral. It was snowing outside the window behind her.

"I'm not dead yet, you little brat." Olivia grabbed the painting and marched to the garage, where she found an empty paint can, some lighter fluid, and a hand torch. She put on her jacket and shoes and took them all out to the backyard, placed the painting in the can, sprayed the fluid on it, and lit it up.

She sat on the back porch watching it burn for an hour, then watched it smolder for another before squirting with the hose.

Before going to sleep, Olivia checked her phone one last time. The photo once again looked the way it did in the morning. She deleted it.

If her parents found out what she had done, she knew just what to tell them. She simply didn't think Grandmother would have wanted her to keep it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Weekly Story #33: Olafson's Medal

This time, a little goofball story about island castaways. For a while I thought about tying it in with a novel-in-progress that is also set on a deserted island, but decided I couldn't do it without rehashing everything. Even now, I keep picturing the Captain as an oddball version of Jean-Luc Picard, and the First Mate as Riker.

 

OLAFSON'S MEDAL

The mutiny began and ended in almost an instant, with the Captain and the First Mate being led at gun- and sword-point to one of the lifeboats and cast adrift on the open sea. The wind blew with a wintery chill. The stars sparkled in grand clusters before the Milky Way. The Captain said nothing. Even with the fastest boats, they were about a month from the nearest known land. The First Mate wondered how long it would take before he breathed his last.

He didn't want to believe it was true. He'd thought the crew was loyal, that he and the Captain had given them the best ship they could hope for. When the Captain asked "Why," the mutineers answered that the Captain had broken his promise. What promise, they wouldn't say.

Now the Mate could only mutter to himself, "Scoundrels. Vicious animals. Must have planned it from the beginning." So he and his Captain were left to die, and a band of pirates was on the loose. "What are we going to do?"

"Don't worry," the Captain said. "We're close."

"Close? Close to what?"

But the Captain didn't explain further.

Eventually, while staring at the crescent moon, the First Mate drifted off to sleep.

He woke when the boat jolted against something, and the Captain cried, "We made it! Just as I thought!" The Captain sprang to his feet and jumped out of the boat ahead of the Mate. They had run aground on sand in a small bay, with thick woods behind the beach, all lit by a bright sun. Waves whispered gently around the boat. The Captain ran to the top of one of the dunes and called back to the Mate, "Come on! We're safe!"

The First Mate lowered his foot into the water, let it sink into the sand, and staggered out of the boat. "Where are we?"

"Some uncharted isle. Well, almost uncharted. If my estimates are correct, at the time we were so unceremoniously expelled from our ship, we were only a short distance from an island that has only ever appeared on one Spanish map from a hundred years ago. The Spaniards described it as a place of incredible bounty and beauty. Oh, those bastards think they've killed us, but they've only blessed us!"

"It certainly is beautiful," the Mate said. "Not sure I see the bounty."

"We just need to explore a little." The Captain headed toward the forest. "This way!"

The Mate followed him through the trees. This island definitely seemed abundant with life. Many insects big and small buzzed among the shrubs, many rodents climbed the trees, and many birds of many colors flew over the canopy. When the Mate stopped to relieve himself, he nearly did so on the head of a black snake, but it just flicked its tongue at him and slithered away without any agitation.

"Ah, here we are." The Captain reached up and twisted a bulbous yellow fruit from one of the trees.

"Captain, are you sure that's a good idea?"

"If we're stuck on this island, we don't have many options. And there's only one way to find out." The Captain took a large bite. "Not bad. Try it."

The mate received it and took a bite of his own. It had a consistency somewhere between an apple and a potato, and somewhat of a tangy aftertaste. "All right. I suppose we can manage."

The two combed most of the island before nightfall, enjoying various fruits and berries along the way, and drinking from the streams. There were no major hills, and no mountains or valleys. The streams flowed out from a lake in the center. As the sun set, they gathered sticks to use for kindling and to build lean-tos by the lakeshore. The First Mate caught some fish for them to eat.

"So the Spaniards found this island?" the First mate said, tossing aside the remains of his fish. "But no one else?"

"None that I can find. It shows up on no other maps. They wanted to keep it away from prying eyes and destroyed whatever evidence they had. Before we set sail, I happened to acquire one of the surviving maps."

"How did you get it?"

"Cards."

"Aha. Well, I suppose it's just a good thing those would-be pirates haven't found it. But if we're the only ones who know about this island, how will anyone find us?"

"All in good time," the Captain said. "All in good time."

The First Mate had difficulty sleeping. Part of it was the discomfort of lying down on bare dirt beside a tree with only some sticks to protect him from the elements. The other part of it was the nagging questions he had about this island. Why did the Spanish not only abandon it, but try to erase it from memory? And how was anyone supposed to find him and the Captain and rescue them if no one knew where it was?

One thing occurred to the Mate first thing the next morning. "Captain," he called out, still lying in his lean-to, "that map of yours. The one that told you where this island would be. Where is it?"

"It's in my quarters, back on the ship," the Captain said from his own lean-to.

The Mate crawled out into the open. "And how well hidden is it? Would any of those pirates know it's there?"

"It's among my other papers, not that hard to find. But you'd have to know it's there."

"I'm just thinking," the Mate said, "there's a chance they might find that map, and come here looking for that 'bounty and beauty.'"

"Perhaps they will."

"You don't seem altogether concerned. If they find us, they might finish the job they started. Do you value your life?"

"Of course I do. But I don't think they'll kill us. It won't be possible to kill us." The Captain crawled out and sat up. "Because we'll have the treasure of this island."

The Mate shifted closer. "Treasure? This is the first I've heard."

"I play my cards very carefully. You see, the map came with a journal by a captain… oh, some Spanish name or another. They found something on this island that made whoever wielded it impervious to harm, as they learned when a tree fell on someone's head, but only ruffled his hair."

"And you believe this fairy tale?"

"I won it from the man's own grandson." The Captain lifted himself to his feet. "He said the crew came to believe the enchantment was demonic in nature." He put his boots on and went to the lakebed. "And in their superstition, they left it here, so no one would be 'corrupted' by it. Or, rather, they left it…" He gestured toward the lake. "Here."

The Captain waded in through the shallow waters, searching below, as if browsing for trinkets at a market. He bent down, reached into the water, and picked up a small disc, a medal made of still radiant gold.

"Right here, to be precise. Olafson's medal."

"Olafson? Doesn't sound too Spanish."

"No, the journal suggests it and other artifacts were left here by Vikings." The Captain carried the medal back to the shore. "And if so, they must have been some powerful Vikings. Hit me, Mate."

"Hit you?"

"We have to make sure it works, don't we? Grab a stick and whack me."

The First Mate picked up a tree branch. The Captain stood smiling with the medal in his fingers. But the Mate could never strike him. It was ludicrous. It would leave him little better than those mutineers back on the ship. "You can't ask me to—"

"This is an order," the Captain said. "I am still your captain, aren't I?"

He was, and the First Mate would sooner have died than disobey a direct order. That, at least, did put him above those treacherous pirates.

The First Mate gripped the stick with both hands, swung with all his strength, and hit the Captain across the shoulder.

Or, rather, a small distance away from the shoulder. Just before the stick would have made contact, it cracked, and half of it flew off, as if bouncing off of some invisible barrier. The Captain himself was unchanged, still smiling, still holding the medal. "Was that supposed to hurt?"

"Incredible," the Mate said.

"Let the pirates come," the Captain said. "Once they see I am invincible, they'll have no choice but to obey me again. They'll wish they listened to me when they had the chance."

The Mate followed his Captain through the woods to forage again for food. He couldn't deny anything about the medal, but something about the Captain bothered him. What did he mean by the crew members 'listening' to him? Somehow it sounded different from referring to regular captain's orders. The mutineers said he'd broken a promise. What could it have been?

More importantly, how much could the Mate himself rely on the Captain's invincibility?

Over the next week, the Mate began to reconstruct a possible scenario. One in which the Captain tantalizes some of the lower-ranked crew members with stories of an island containing a secret treasure. A treasure he has no intention of sharing with anyone—probably not the Mate, either. At some point, the crewmen realize the Captain's true intentions. In their anger, they start a mutiny. One that envelops the First Mate as well, despite his ignorance.

But now wasn't the time to suspect the Captain. The important thing was keeping their bellies full, so each day the two of them went through the woods scrounging for fruit. The Captain kept the medal in his pocket. The First Mate kept an eye on him.

On the eighth day, a ship appeared over the horizon. The First Mate watched it approach. The sails now had crude skulls-and-crossbones painted on them, but otherwise, he knew his own ship when he saw her. The pirates must have found the map and the journals.

The Captain grinned confidently.

The ship rolled in a little farther, then sent out a skiff. It was manned by four of the former deckhands, led by the leader of the mutiny, a man named Darby. He differentiated himself by wearing a red hat with a large feather in it. He must have assumed the role of captain.

"Welcome to our island," the Captain said. "How may we help you?"

Darby pulled out his flintlock, aimed at the captain's head, and fired.

The Mate jerked away at the burst, but the Captain remained standing. The bullet hit a tree instead.

"By God," Darby said, his arm going limp. "How?"

The Captain took the medal out of his pocket. "I assume you're here for this?"

The men behind Darby murmured among each other. Olafson's medal was now common knowledge, it seemed. Darby hostered his gun and took a step forward. "Then that's the treasure."

"The very same," the Captain said.

"The treasure you promised us when we started this damn voyage."

The First Mate moaned. "I had a feeling…"

"If I can't kill you…" Darby pointed his gun at the First Mate. "Turn it over or I put a bullet in his brain."

The Mate put his hands up and froze. "I swear I didn't know—"

"Shut up, I'm talking to him. C'mon, Captain. What're you going to do?"

"Now, there's no need to get aggressive." The Captain strolled across, and stopped right between Darby and the First Mate. "Now, since you're not the one with the enchanted artifact, you're not exactly in a position to make demands, are you? Take me and my first mate back onto your ship, or you get nothing."

"Nothing, eh? Sounds like what we're getting anyway."

"Are you? You have the only existing map to this island. You can come back here any time you want. Seems like a perfect safe haven to me." The Captain twirled the medal in his fingers. "Who knows? There might be even more treasure the Spanish never found."

Darby nodded, checked back to his crew, then looked back at the Captain. "That's a thought. I just still want the medal." Darby tossed his gun to the Captain.

It landed in the Captain's arms, and in the confusion, the medal dropped to the sand.

The First Mate shoved the Captain aside and scooped up the medal. At the same time, Darby had grabbed his gun again. Just as the First Mate brought himself upright, he found the barrel of a gun pressed to his chest. Darby fired..

The First Mate felt nothing. As the noise faded, he looked down, expecting blood pouring from his heart. Instead a black char radiated from the spot where Darby had aimed. The gun lay on the ground, its barrel split wide open. Darby was clutching his hand, now dripping blood, as his men clustered around him.

"Sorcery…" Darby said. "Vile sorcery…"

"Whatever it is, I'm not letting you have it," the Mate said. "Take me back to England, and end your aspirations of piracy, and I promise I'll forget all about your little mutiny. You'll all go free as soon as we reach land."

"Splendid!" the Captain said. "Just what I was thinking. Great minds, and all that."

"Who said I was bringing you?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Mr. Darby," the Mate said, "I'm to understand that he told you about this island and promised you a share in the treasure?"

"He did." Darby groaned in pain. "And then conveniently 'forgot' not long after."

"Just a slip of the mind," the Captain said.

"In that case, here." The Mate pressed the medal into the Captain's hands. "It's what you came for. I think you should keep it. Mr. Darby, shall we go?"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Darby said. "I don't care anymore. Let's go. Men, don't we have bandages on the ship?"

The First Mate followed the would-be pirates onto the skiff, with the Captain running after them. "Wait, what about me? You can't tell me you trust those criminals!"

"At this point," the First Mate said, "I trust them about as much as I trust you. Enjoy your treasure."

The First Mate and the crew cast off, leaving the Captain alone on the island.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Weekly Story #32: The Field

I don't really have much to say as far as introductions go, but that doesn't mean I didn't have a good time with this story. The hard part was just figuring out what kind of haunting these kids would run into.

THE FIELD

Strange things were said to happen on Creed Field.

Once, it had hosted the Rehnquist High School Panthers. The school had shut down a decade ago, and the field had been left abandoned ever since. Creed Field was now filled with dry patches of grass and weeds, and the concrete bleachers were cracked and chipped like ancient ruins.

Rumor had it that the field was haunted.

One night, three kids from the neighborhood, enticed by those rumors, came to sneak in.

The property was so run down that even the fence was falling apart. Twelve-year-old Geoff pointed his flashlight at the gash in the chain links. Thirteen-year-old Esme ran through without hesitation. Her little brother, Eleven-year-old Ira started after her, but then halted after one step. Geoff pointed the light at him. "Come on, what're you waiting for?"

"Y-You sure this is a good idea?"

If it weren't so dark, the others would have seen Geoff's eyes rolling. "Not again."

"It'll be fine," Esme said from the darkness. "If we get caught, I'll just tell Dad it was my idea. Now get over here!"

Ira ducked down and ran through the gap in the fence. Geoff went in right behind him.

"Honestly," he said to Ira, "you're lucky we're letting you hang out with us."

"Right," Ira said. "Wouldn't want to ruin your date."

"Does this look like a date to you?" Esme said.

Geoff stung in his chest as if she were talking to him. He couldn't even bring himself to tell her he wanted one, not as long as she made Ira tag along. As it was, to her Geoff was just a kid she played with, and the idea of them getting together was just one of Ira's jokes.

It wasn't even as if Geoff didn't like Ira. They got along pretty well, actually. But it also wasn't as if Ira liked coming with them, either. Even now, Ira was muttering to himself, "…could be reading right now…"

Geoff whispered to Esme, "I thought you said he'd like this."

"I thought he would. Probably just nervous. I… didn't think it'd be this dark."

The three of them gathered at the nearest goal post. Most of the paint had flaked off. They could barely see anything, except what the flashlight showed them. On the wall under the bleachers was a mural of a panther, with half its face peeled off, surrounded by ten years' worth of graffiti. A full one hundred yards stretched ahead.

"All right, we're here," Ira said. "Now what?"

"Okay," Geoff said, "so the way I understand it, this ghost won't let anyone make it from one endzone to the other. But between the three of us, one of us has to be able to make it across." That, and if he himself could do it, Esme might see that he wasn't just another kid.

Ira said, "A-and what kinda stuff does this ghost do?"

"I heard it throws you fifteen feet in the air," Esme said. "Or slams you to the ground."

"Yeah, I heard that too," Geoff said. He heard Ira whimper. "I also heard it's just that there's a weird echo because of the way the bleachers are built. I dunno. I just wanna see for myself, ya know? I don't even believe in ghosts."

"Your loss," Esme said. "So we just run from here to there?"

"Run, walk, whatever. This ain't a race." Geoff turned off his flashlight. In the dark, he could still barely see the bleachers and the opposite goalpost in the hazy light from the road in the distance. "Ira, you ready?"

Ira groaned. "As I'll ever be."

"Then… go!"

Esme broke off running with her usual track team speed. Geoff ran in a more leisurely jog, while Ira had a more unsteady trot. Their steps kicked up clouds of old dust and dead grass. Esme stopped about a quarter of the way and looked toward the bleachers as the others caught up. "Anybody else hear that?"

"Hear what?" Geoff said.

"Where are you?" Ira said. "I can't see anything!"

Geoff flicked his flashlight on and waved it. "Over here!" He asked Esme, "That better?"

"No, not that," she said. "From the bleachers. For a second, I thought I heard people… cheering."

"What, like, 'Go Esme!' 'Go Ira!' Something like that?!"

"I heard something too, but it was real faint," Ira said. "It was a whole crowd, like we were in the middle of a game."

"I didn't hear a thing," Geoff said. But why only him? He wanted to believe something was here, if only so he could share it with Esme. "Let's keep going."

This time, Geoff walked, keeping his flashlight forward. He wanted to be sure if anything happened, he could stop and check it out. But so far the field was just as dead as it had always been. The floodlights were all rusted, the lightbulbs gone.

Esme stopped at the center, where the fifty-yard line might once have been, and yelled, "Hello? Hello? Hello?"

"What are you doing?" Geoff said.

"Checking for the echo, like you said. But I'm not hearing anything special. Ira, how you holding up?"

"I'm okay. I was just thinking… Did you know somebody died here?"

Geoff's flashlight shook. "Died? Here? On this field?"

Esme said, "Now that I think about it… But I thought it was over at Midtown."

"I looked this place up online before we came out," Ira said. "And I found an article from twenty years ago. Turned out the Panthers quarterback had a heart condition. Dropped dead right in the middle of the game."

"Oh God, that's awful," Esme said. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I thought you knew. But if this place is haunted, maybe that's the reason why."

"Maybe." Geoff looked out at the expanse still ahead of him. Just fifty yards. Wasn't really that much when you looked at it. But still… Knowing someone's life ended on this very field… No wonder it was abandoned. How could anybody play here again? "Maybe we should go back."

"Oh no you don't," Esme said, starting to walk again toward the goal. "Not after you spent all week hyping this up. What's the matter? Afraid something'll jump out and yell 'Boo!'?"

"It's not that!" Geoff saw Ira trailing behind his sister and shot out after them. "I—I just kinda wonder if maybe this is… disrespectful."

"Disrespectful? It's not like that QB's buried here. Besides, it was twenty y—" Esme shuddered. "Did it just get really cold all of a sudden?"

A wind blew with a harsh moan. Geoff wrapped his arms around himself and saw a tiny cloud puff out of his mouth. It was the middle of summer, yet he shivered as if it were the middle of winter. "Agh—yeah, I feel it."

"Where's that coming from?" Ira cried. "I can't stand it."

Then, just as suddenly, the wind stopped, and the summer heat returned, as much a relief as a warm blanket. The air still made a strange noise, though, almost like static on an old TV.

"What was that?" Esme said.

"What're you asking me for?" Geoff said. "Ira, any ideas?"

"Don't ask me! Except…"

"Except what?" Esme and Geoff said in unison.

"Except the article I found about that quarterback… It was written in middle of January."

The floodlights flashed on.

Geoff, Esme, and Ira could all see each other clear as day. They were all standing on green, full, living grass. Bitter winter air blew against them. The static sound grew louder and louder, coming from the stands. Only it wasn't static, or wind, or anything like that.

"There it is again," Esme said.

And now Geoff could hear the crowd roar. The stands were empty, yet something about them seemed more alive than ever. The paint was clean and fresh. The panther's face was restored. Even the floodlights had shed their rust.

A strange mist gathered between them and the next endzone.

A football was falling toward them.

It hit Esme in the back and bounced high in the air, into Geoff's arms. As she doubled over, a strange urge began to come over Geoff. The ball was still in play. A voice rang in his ear, belonging to no one he'd ever met. "Run!"

But which way? Both goals seemed open, and Geoff didn't know what team he was on. He wasn't even wearing a uniform. All he knew was the clock was running.

"Geoff, are you okay?" Esme said, still rubbing her shoulder.

The mist gathered closer. As it did, some shapes began to form… the shapes of helmets, of shoulder pads, of solid walls with arms and legs.

Geoff screamed, and clutching the ball, made a mad dash into a gap in the mist. It was still cold, enough to sting all over, maybe even enough to snow. But Geoff had to keep running. Players three times his size were after him. But Geoff had to keep running. His legs almost seemed to move by themselves.

He looked back, and saw Esme watching him, and began to run faster. This would show her what kind of man he was!

He took a dive over the line and rolled to a stop. A horn blared. The crowd let out a frenzied cry.

The floodlights went out. The football vanished. The summer heat blew the cold away. The ground around Geoff was once again patchy and dry. Esme and Ira came running toward him.

"I—I did it! I did it, didn't I?"

"Did what?" Esme bent down over him. "I just saw you run like crazy after those football players appeared."

"I got the ball." Geoff got to his knees. "I got it… Are you okay?"

"Yeah, we're fine," Ira said. "Those guys were just fog. All we did was get a little chill."

"But I got the touchdown. I got to the end. I crossed the field."

"No you didn't." Esme helped Geoff to his feet. "Look."

She pointed at the bleachers. They were in the same position as when the three of them started.

"You ran back the way we came."

Geoff saw the distance that now lay between himself and the opposite goal post. "Oh. Dammit. I was so sure."

"It's okay," Esme said. "We were all pretty freaked out. But we saw what we came to see. That was actually a helluva run. We should have an actual race sometime."

"You're on the track team, you'd mop the floor with me." Geoff's heart was still pounding so much, otherwise Esme's suggestion might have kicked it up. "But sure… Just name the time… and place. Just the two of us…" Did she hear that last part? It was so dark, Geoff couldn't tell.

"Anyway, I think we should go," Ira said. "The whole city probably heard you screaming." He turned on Geoff's flashlight. "You dropped it when you got the ball."

"Right," Geoff said.

On the way back to the fence, with their bikes waiting on the other side, Geoff asked Ira, "So did you have at least a little fun tonight?"

"Maybe a little," Ira said. "Me and my sister got to hear you scream like a little girl."

Geoff was about to give him a smack in the back of the head, but then thought better of it. "Let's see you get a touchdown in the middle of January."

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Weekly Story #31: The Survivor of Ornhuist

And so we come to a new phase in this project. Stories are no longer prompted by improv-style suggestions. Now I'm experimenting with a word-association style of brainstorming similar to what Ray Bradbury describes in Zen and the Art of Writing. I don't even remember what the word was that I originally associated. This story feels like sort of an anomaly. It's probably the most revision I've had to give a story in a while to bring it to a level I'm satisfied with. It's ostensibly a fantasy, but mostly just in the sense that it's a different world with its own history—the same as "The Last Battle of Monument Beach," just a century or two earlier. I also noticed while getting this one ready that I wound up with two stories in a row about a father-son conflict. My dad and I haven't butted heads in a long time, so I imagine this comes from somewhere else. One thing that did run through my mind while writing it was that it's like if Shinji Ikari had literally anyone else for a father other than Gendo. I pronounce "Ornhuist" as "Orn-whist." Hope you enjoy it!

 

THE SURVIVOR OF ORNHUIST

Every step through the town square felt like it was weighed down with lead. Jason treaded through the crowds, toward the Ghoti Building. He hadn't told anyone about his decision yet, not even his mother. Master Poe was the one who made the offer, so he would be the first to know. Jason just wasn't sure he would be able to say it. He had spent most of the night trying to think of the right words, even writing them down, only to tear them up in the end.

He stopped and took a deep breath before opening the door.

The lobby inside was full of witches using their auras to work through their files. A clock—one of the designs that had made Master Poe his wealth—hung on the wall. One of the witches looked up and saw him standing there, then whispered something into thin air.

A set of doors on the opposite side swung open. Master Poe spread his arms wide. "Jason, welcome. I've been expecting you. Right this way." He turned around and walked back into his office, expecting Jason to follow.

And Jason did. It was better to talk without anyone listening.

The doors swung shut behind him.

"Coffee?" Master Poe said. "Or tea? Or… I forget, are you old enough for beer?"

"I'm fourteen," Jason said. "But I'll take a coffee."

Master Poe poured two cups and served one to Jason.

Jason blew on his. "Master P—"

"Ah ah ah." Master Poe wagged his finger. "We've known each other long enough for you to say who I really am."

Jason nodded. "Father." He watched Master Poe's smile. Easy for him, when he couldn't remember his own son's age. Jason had only met the man who called himself Master Poe a week ago. Until then, he'd only ever known the father of his brother and sister, whom Mother had married when Jason was three, and who had died when Jason was nine. But Jason had never known his own father. And no one knew where he'd gone after Ornhuist. "I've been doing some thinking."

"As have I," Master Poe said. "We have a long journey ahead of us. We're heading for a colder climate, so I'm thinking we should stop at a tailor to get you a new coat. I have a friend down in—"

"No."

"No?" Master Poe set his coffee down. "What do you mean?"

"I'm not going." This wasn't at all how Jason rehearsed it—it was more elaborate in his head—but now that the opportunity had arisen, he had to say it. "I'm staying here."

Master Poe's thick brows furrowed. "You can't be serious."

"I am. I'm fine with the apprenticeship I have with the blacksmith. It may not be glamorous, but it's important. And I think Mother needs me more than you do."

"What does she think?"

"I haven't told her yet. She's still as enthusiastic about this as you are. But I think she'll understand."

Master Poe lowered and shook his head. "You understand where I'm taking you, right?"

"Of course," Jason said. "To Halleant, to learn your clockworking methods. But look—these are already blacksmith's hands. They're not made for something that delicate."

"Oh, Jason. You think I'm only trying to make you my apprentice?" Master Poe stood back up. "Jason, you're my son. I don't want to be a mystery to you. I'm doing this so we can get to know each other. I may have helped bring you into the world. But I can't truly be your father unless I'm a part of your life."

"That's just it. You've never been a part of my life. You're my father, yes, but I don't really know who you are." Jason took a seat opposite his father. "All this time, I thought you were dead. We all did. So many people died at Ornhuist… So many of my friends don't have fathers. Now all of a sudden, you turn up alive, and well, and rich. So where have you been all this time? How did you survive?"

"Has your mother never told you?" Master Poe said.

"No."

Master Poe stood gazing out the window. "You want to know how I survived the Battle of Ornhuist? The truth, Jason, is that I am a coward."

Jason sank into his chair a little. It couldn't be…

Master Poe continued, "At Ornhuist, we were up against an army with a line of Effka witches. There are many myths about the Effka, but one of them is true. They are most definitely ruthless in battle. We had one witch. So the night before, I deserted."

Jason leaned forward in his seat. All his life, he had heard the Battle of Ornhuist mentioned in hushed, mournful whispers. Out of General Einsley's ten thousand troops, only a few hundred survived the slaughter, and of those, only a few dozen without injuries. "You were a fugitive."

"A lowly deserter from a battle that should never have been fought. I had to build a new identity, a new life. I had to learn a new trade—and even I'm surprised at how well I took to clockwork. With General Einsley still around, I could hardly show my face here."

"I… I think I do understand. I had no idea. Escaping Einsley…" When that brute was alive, he had Ornhuist deserters hunted down like wild rodents, blaming them for his own defeat. One such man had encountered Einsley's troops right across the road from Jason's home. Sometimes Jason could still hear that rifle burst. "You're lucky to be alive."

"You don't see me as a coward?"

Jason had no answer to that. "Cowardice" wasn't the right word, and neither was "courage." The thought had crossed his mind before that his father was a deserter, but that made it even more surprising he was still alive. "Why come back now?"

"Oh, in a way I've been back for a while. Your mother has been able to save quite a bit for a widow raising three children, hasn't she?"

Jason had never thought about it. Never even questioned it. Mother had never said anything. But Father was right. They were never hungry, never wanting for clothes, never concerned about rent. "You…"

"Even if she did remarry, I knew I could trust her," Master Poe said. "She did think I was dead, after all. But it was only recently that I believed I could trust this city. Now that General Einsley is safe in the ground, I can simply be Master Poe. I can be your father. But only if you'll let me, Jason."

Jason looked up at his father, and saw the ache in his eyes, and knew he meant every word. But could he really leave all this behind? "What about Mother?"

"I offered to bring her as well, along with the children," his father said. "We had a lengthy discussion about it, and she told me she's more comfortable here. It's the only home she's ever known. She's more concerned with your opportunities. She'll still have the other children, and her job in the blacksmith's shop, and I'll continue to send her my contribution. You can write and visit at any time. She wants you to go, doesn't she? We're not abandoning her."

"Still," Jason said. "I can't help feeling like I would be. This is the only home I've ever known, too."

"Of course." Master Poe stroked his chin. "Though I'm sure that when you see Halleant, you'll never want to leave."

"It just feels like too much too soon."

Master Poe nodded. "Are you saying you still wish to stay?"

"I don't know. If you'd explained sooner, I…"

"You understand why, right?"

Jason did. There was still enough of a stigma against Ornhuist deserters, even after Einsley, even after the amnesty, even knowing how awful Ornhuist truly was. You still didn't go blabbing about it in public. "I think so." Jason rubbed his head. "Maybe I could go with you for a little while. Maybe… until Silver Day? If I want to stay by then, I'll stay. If I want to leave…"

The smile returned to Master Poe's face. "Nearly six weeks. You think you'll have your decision by then?"

"I think so," Jason said. "And even if I come back here, no reason we can't write and visit, right?"

"Of course." Master Poe rubbed his eyes. "Forgive me. You're turning out to be quite a man, Jason. Just let me know if there's anything else."

"Just give me a chance to tell Mother."

"Go. Quickly. The train leaves in"—Master Poe glanced at the clock on the wall—"one hour."

"Thank you." Jason rushed to the door, and ran on feet as light as a feather back to his mother's home.