Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Weekly Story #47: Fire

This week's story was written after the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt—who led a life of debaucherous promiscuity, only to have an experience at the Holy Sepulchre that led her to repent, then go to the desert near Jerusalem to spend the rest of her life as a hermit. She's commemorated during Lent as an example of extreme repentance and asceticism. (Here's an interesting article with a "trauma informed" interpretation of her Life.)

So for this story I word-associated from "Virgin." That led quite naturally to a story of destructive lust... though I tried to work in as many other Deadly Sins as I could in the main character's temptation.

Why no, I would not in fact call myself "sex positive."


FIRE

The firefighters had been working hard, but the building still collapsed, destroying six apartments, Maria's included. Every item of furniture, every article of clothing, every memento was now gone. All she had left were her purse, her cellphone—now with a crack across its screen—and the shirt and pants she had on now. The sky was pitch black. Children cried around her as tenants from the other buildings in the complex came out to gawk. Everyone seemed to have gotten out safely. At least, no one acted like anyone was missing.

Something flew out of the blaze and fluttered through the air to Maria's feet. A postcard. There was nothing written on it except "Love you, praying for you — Albert" and a neighbor's address. On the other side was a photo of an image of the Virgin Mary in which she inexplicably had three hands.

The card was addressed to a Dorothy Winston, from apartment 1338. Maria remembered an older woman living there. She would greet Maria every time they passed by, whether Dorothy was just getting her mail or Maria was coming back from a night out.

But where was she? The elderly couple from 1334 was all right. So was the young family from 1331. Maybe not everyone was as safe as she thought. She ran to the elderly couple. "Excuse me, do you know Dorothy Winston? Have you seen her?"

"Dorothy?" the husband said. "Don't know no one named Dorothy." His wife shook her head. Maria went to the father of the family from 1331, but he didn't know Dorothy either.

"Does anybody know if Dorothy's okay?" If she was, then surely she'd be happy the postcard survived. It seemed like an important memento, perhaps a note from a late husband, a lost lover, an old friend.

And if she wasn't…

Maria put the postcard in her purse. When she got the chance, she could turn it in at the front office. Perhaps Dorothy was out of town, and could come back and claim it. Or, her next of kin. There was simply no way to be sure at this point. Right now, Maria needed to figure out what she herself was going to do for the night. She needed a place to stay.

She checked her contacts. Not her mom, especially not tonight. Krista and Stieg were in Spain together. Wanda had no room. Coworkers… none she liked or trusted enough…

Serena? Of course. She was just a subway ride away, and lived in a nice townhouse in Eastmont. Maria gave her a call and told her what happened.

"Oh… Oh my God," Serena said "Are you all right? You're not hurt?"

"Y-yeah, I'm fine, but… it took everything. I don't suppose…"

"Are you kidding? Come on over. I've got family visiting, but I can roll out the sofa bed downstairs. Stay as long as you need to. God, I am so sorry."

"Thanks." And Maria headed out to the sidewalk, down the next block to the station. She stepped into a Starbucks and ordered an iced mocha. When she got her total, she reached into her purse, and…

…it wasn't there.

"No!" She had her phone, an electric bill, the Virgin Mary postcard, a broken necklace chain, three mini-bottles of Smirnoff, and her makeup… but no wallet.

She'd taken it out to order something online just a few hours ago. She never put it back in the purse before she ran out. Her ID, her cards, her cash… all gone.

"Never mind," she told the barista. "Thank you. And sorry."

She skulked back to the dull light of the street lamps. With no money, she couldn't buy a ticket. And she'd forgotten to take the postcard to the apartment office. She couldn't even get a simple thing like that right.

Maria called Serena again.

"Okay, don't worry," Serena said. "I'll come get you… Wait, actually, I just remembered, my brother's in town, and I think he's close to your neighborhood right now. I'll see if he can come get you."

A spark lit up in Maria's chest. "Eddie?" As in, the man whose torch she'd carried all through high school, and off and on since? "O-Okay, I guess."

"I'll have him meet you at the station. It's Sable Street, right? I'll text you once I've heard back from him."

"Thanks."

Maria stood in a daze. Eddie. Plenty of men had stumbled in and out of her life over the years, but they were all fleeting pleasures, good for a little fun until she got tired of them, or vice versa. When they were gone, it was Eddie she'd dreamed of—his touch, his kiss, his tender voice. Only she had never told him how she felt. Now he was engaged to some girl he'd met in grad school, forever out of Maria's reach. It wasn't enough to lose her apartment, was it? Now she had to spend a train ride with the man life had denied her.

She got a text from Serena a moment later. He was on his way.

Maria drifted across another street and waited at the top of the steps at the station. She drank one of the mini-bottles, thinking of a fantasy she'd once concocted, after a breakup with… oh, some loser. Her: lost on the highway, needing a ride. Eddie: the Good Samaritan, offering her the passenger seat. Her: inventing ways to repay him.

Eddie called out to her as he turned the corner, and ran up to the steps. "Serena told me what happened. I'm so sorry."

"It's okay. Thanks for coming out on such short notice."

"Anything for an old friend."

They took the stairs down. Eddie used a card to get Maria through the turnstile, and the train arrived in only a few minutes.

They took a seat. They were the only people in the car. Maria had a nice buzz going.

She took the vodka bottles out of her purse. "Want one?"

"No thanks," he said, "I've already had enough for tonight."

"Suit yourself." She downed one of them. In no time, she felt like she had a nice comfy cushion inside her head.

Maria sat with her elbows on her knees, her eyes on the man beside her. There were two stops on the way to Serena's. It would take seven minutes to arrive at the second stop. Eddie had gotten out his phone, and was writing a text message. At first Maria thought it was to Serena, but the name on top was Lenore.

Right. His fiance. Her previous messages, all heart emojis, were dead giveaways. Even her name was prettier. Eddie sent a text, mentioning "My sister's friend." When Eddie was done, Maria saw his home screen, a photo of himself with Lenore. Everything about that woman said prom queen, valedictorian, gold medal.

Never more.

She drank the third bottle.

Her life was just rubbing it in now. All she could think about was the sort of things Eddie and Lenore might do together in bed, and the fact that she, Maria, wasn't doing them. She'd done everything right in her life—graduated from college, got a nice job, lived on her own—so didn't she deserve better? Didn't she deserve something for herself?

Her greatest dream was right next to her, and yet forever out of reach.

Or was he?

The train stopped, and opened the doors, but no passengers came in, at least not into this car. Maria had never seen the subway this quiet.

Five minutes before the next stop… How much could she do until then?

The doors slid shut. Maria began to rest herself on Eddie's side. What else did she have to lose?

"Kiss me," she said.

"What?"

"Kiss me," Maria said, laying her arms around his shoulders. "And don't stop there."

"Whoa, hey." He wriggled aside and pushed against her, not too hard, but enough to separate them, just as she was about to touch her lips to his. "What are you doing?"

"I want you." She got her arms around him again, and kissed his neck. "I want you so bad. I always have. Make love to me. Please."

Eddie made a sudden scoot back, bumping his shoulder into a pole. "Whoa!" He flashed the back of his hand, the diamond ring sparkling on his finger. "I'm engaged! Didn't Serena tell you?"

"Lenore doesn't have to find out. Besides, you deserve something for all your help."

He stared back, his face red, moistening with sweat. "Well…"

"You're thinking about it." Maria crawled on the seats toward him. Her purse fell onto the floor. "Come on, we don't have much time." She rose up on her knees, laid her hands on his shoulders. "Or we can start here and—"

"Stop!" Eddie shoved her back and marched over to the opposite side of the train. "I just can't do this!"

"Why do you have to be so selfish?" A sob forced its way through her throat. "I'm drunk and homeless and horny and trying to show you my gratitude and… I've loved you all these years and you're just throwing it right back at me and… agh…" She spoke through heavy moans, barely coherent even to herself, until she couldn't even speak anymore. Of course he wouldn't want her now, not with her face red and twisted and covered with tears and snot. "I get it. You don't want to take advantage of me. But I'm begging you. Please. Take advantage of me."

Eddie didn't say anything. He stared straight ahead, jaw clenched.

The items in her purse were scattered on the floor, not that there were many of them. She wiped her moist face on her arm, got down on her hands and knees, and gathered them together.

"Nobody has to know," Maria said. "Really. It's just… All I have left in the world is all this. I'm gonna have to start my whole life over again. I need something. I need you. I'm just asking for a little favor."

Eddie sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "This isn't what either of us needs right now."

Maria let out one last groan. Last on the floor was the Virgin Mary postcard, for Dorothy from Albert. Dorothy, who for all Maria knew could be alive and safe, or who could be a charred corpse beneath a collapsed building. Maria started crying all over again. If things had gone differently, she might herself be buried under smoldering rubble right now. And what was she doing now? Forcing herself on her friend's brother.

There was no time left. Even if they started now, they'd miss the next stop. Whoever boarded would deserve an explanation. He wasn't any more likely to say yes when they got to Serena's.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I feel like such a piece of shit."

Eddie helped her to her feet, and they held on together to the hanging loop. "You've had a bad night."

Her lust was still simmering, still searing her from within. Just a few minutes ago, she'd felt like a femme fatale seducing the man of her dreams. But she'd also had enough drunk guys pawing at her and rubbing against her over the years to know what she must have looked like. She probably reminded him of Gollum clawing after the Ring.

She still ached for him, though. "You must really love Lenore."

"She's everything to me." He was clutching the loop with all his strength. "Did you mean what you said? About always..."

Maria nodded. "Ever since high school. I was just too shy to say so."

"Huh. So if we had..." Eddie gazed at Maria, and she thought she could see some hint of desire, some lingering worm eating at him. But he shook his head. "No. We'd just be hurting each other."

The train stopped, and the doors slid open. Two older men and a pregnant woman, each of them alone, walked in. Maria and Eddie walked out.

A few stars managed to glimmer through the city's haze. Maria wasn't sure how she'd be able to look Serena in the eye, though right now she was so bleary she could drop right on the couch without speaking to anybody and not need an excuse. Who knows what kind of fallout she could have caused if she got what she wanted, if he'd jeopardized his relationship with Lenore? Maybe it wouldn't cause as much damage as the fire. Or maybe it would cause even more.

On the way to Serena's townhouse, Maria took the postcard out of her purse and gave it another look. She supposed she owed Dorothy, or maybe the Virgin, for slapping her back to her senses. And Albert, whoever he was.

"You were looking at that on the train." Eddie said, "Where'd you get it?"

"I found it after the fire," Maria said. "It belongs to a neighbor from my building, and… I don't know where she is. I want to get it back to her, but I don't even know if there's anybody to give it back to. I meant to take it to the apartment office. It slipped my mind."

"Wherever she is, I hope she's all right," Eddie said. "There's always tomorrow."

Maria slipped the postcard back into her purse. "Thank you. For everything."

"Don't worry. Nobody has to know."

They arrived at the front gate of the townhouse complex, and Eddie walked her to his sister's front door. Maria dropped right into the unfolded sofa bed downstairs. The same heat that had nearly driven her crazy still simmered deep within, just a little. But it was no longer a raging fire.

By morning, it had gone out.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Weekly Story #46: The Neighborhood Games

And now here's my take on the post-Battle Royale/Hunger Games genre of kids in the not-too-distant future being forced to compete in demented tournaments. It started with one more word-association exercise, this time from "Ladder"—after St. John Climacus, who was commemorated that Sunday. It developed into a comment on where I think many of those dystopias have their appeal: the pressure kids often have from their parents, schools, or ambient cultural norms to stay busy and compete.

I should note that I've only ever read the first Hunger Games novel.

 

THE NEIGHBORHOOD GAMES


1

April 19th, 20XX

Gold Aura Recreational Center

Joni Littgen stuck her number to her chest. Her heartbeat was nothing but dull thuds. She would be number ten in the Over-Twelve division, the Twelve-and-Under division having completed its tournament earlier that day. She'd watched the whole thing. She'd never seen such brutality in her life.

As she waited her turn on the platform, a high school freshman named Dudley took a blow to the face, and with no railing on the catwalk, fell into the Pit. Four rottweilers chained to the wall growled and barked at him, and if he didn't watch out, they'd latch their jaws onto him. No armor; the beam surgeons on the sidelines could heal injuries so rapidly it was like they never happened. From the Pit, Dudley could push a button to forfeit or free-climb an artificial rock wall to rejoin the queue and fight again. If he were to fall back in, he'd be eliminated. With the fire hose aimed at the wall, getting back up was easier said than done.

That morning Joni had watched two eight-year-olds fling bare-knuckle punches at each other, bloodying their noses and lips until finally they started pulling their hair, then tumbled together into the Pit. One rottweiler wouldn't let go of the girl's leg until the boy gave it a sharp kick in the side. They both forfeited.

By now those kids' injuries were healed. Not all the scars, but then, some scars are never visible.

Dudley made it past the rottweilers, and leapt at the wall, as Kanesha from down the road took on the winner.

2

February 20th

Littgen Residence

Joni's parents didn't know about the games before they moved to the subdivision of Gold Aura. Neither did Joni, though she had always heard that kids from that neighborhood seemed a little off. No one knew exactly how. Well, her parents would say, we're all made in the image of God, so let's give them a chance.

A week after they moved in, the head of the neighborhood association knocked on their door. A spritely, skinny woman with bright hair and bright teeth, she introduced herself, and after discussing the neighborhood watch and bake sales, she took a look at Joni and said, "And are you going to be competing in the Gold Aura Games?"

"What're they?"

"Just a little friendly competition we have for our kids every year." The head of the neighborhood association slid some paperwork across the table. "A fun way to keep everybody active. I guess you'd be in the over-twelve division. Any little brothers or sisters who might be interested?"

"Nope," Joni said. "Only child." She folded up the paperwork. The image on the front made it look like a triathlon or an Iron Man event. She'd taken Aikido since she was seven, but she was rusty since before the move and needed to get her blood pumping. "I guess I'll think about it."

"Wonderful! My son was last year's champion. Application's due March 1st."

As the head of the neighborhood association left, Joni saw two boys from Biology jogging past. They looked as if they'd been jogging all day.

3

April 19th

Community Center

Kaneisha won by knock-out. Her brass knuckles probably didn't hurt her chances too much. Contestants could bring any blunt object that could be held in one hand. One kid behind Joni was holding a steel chain. A fifth grader that morning had brought a baseball bat.

Joni had already decided that whatever happened, she would not bring any weapons. Just her two hands and her brain. She would have to take whatever was given to her. She wasn't here to prove she was the strongest, or the most aggressive, or the most wily.

She was there to show who she was.

Dudley reached the top of the rock wall, and marched to the back of the line.

Joni heard a scream. Kaneisha had fallen into the pit, and a dog had bitten onto her wrist. Her best hope would be to take the bottle of pepper spray hanging on a string from the wall. If she could reach it.

Joni muttered, "How do you do this every year?"

The boy in front of her answered, "Same reason as anybody else. Gotta make our parents proud."

Joni's heart pulled itself down. On the stands, parents and siblings were cheering, holding up hand-painted signs, some covered with glitter, others with LEDs.

"Plus," the girl behind Joni said, "there's the trip to Disneyworld. All expenses paid, FastPass, and! It'll get my dad to shut up about the money he spent on Krav Maga classes."

"I'm thinking I'll take the trip to Orbitville," the boy said. "I've always wanted to go up into space."

"Lame."

Joni kept her eye on the stands. As she hoped, her parents were nowhere to be seen. She had never told them that she'd decided to compete after all. They were both disgusted with Gold Aura, and Dad was already looking for a new place, with great difficulty.

A roar went through the crowd at another victory. Drones hovered over the field recording the action. A beam surgeon readied his Regen case, to close up any wounds, mend any fractures, and regrow any tissue.

All that was missing was the Emperor, to point his thumb toward a gladiator's fate.

4

February 24th

Littgen Residence

Marilyn was the first friend Joni had made since moving to Gold Aura. The two were watching videos up in Joni's room when Marilyn saw the papers the head of the neighborhood association had given. "Are you competing in the games?"

"Oh, that?" Joni said. "Actually, I forgot all about that. What're they like?"

"Did you…" Marilyn leafed through the papers. "…not read this?" She passed them over. "Take a look."

Joni started reading, straight from the beginning. When she got to the part about the Pit, and the rottweilers, and fire hose, she shot to her feet, goosebumps raised. "People do this? To their kids?"

Marilyn flinched as if Joni had thrown a punch at her. Her sleeve fell back, and Joni noticed the ragged scar near her elbow. "Oh my God…"

"They're not that bad," Marilyn said. "I mean, look at those prizes. That's gotta be worth a little pain, right?"

"A little—?" Joni's own breath knocked itself out of her. "I'm not doing it. How is this not illegal?"

"Don't ask me. And anyway, aren't you a martial artist?" Marilyn gestured at the trophies on Joni's dresser.

"Of course, but the whole point of Aikido is to minimize harm. You just kinda let the flow win the fight for you."

"Okay. No reason you can't compete that way. I mean, you can win a match just by pinning the other person down for three seconds. I'm serious, this'll be a great way to get to know everybody."

Joni stared at the stock photo of a marathon runner on the front page. That lie to entice her into joining a gladiator match. If the way to get to know everybody was to bash their faces in, she wanted no part of it.

But now she knew where the rumors came from, why the kids from this neighborhood always seemed so skittish, so evasive. Every one of them had competed.

And why not? So much of the boilerplate on these papers was more for the parents than the children. The parents were the ones who got the discounts at local businesses, who got their names on the championship plaque along with their kids. And under the photo of the runner, a caption read:

SHOW THE WORLD WHOSE CHILD IS THE BEST!

 

5

April 19th

Community Center

Number Eight went up. He was only in seventh grade, but was tall and looked tough, and came armed with a bokken. His opponent was in fact Marilyn, who had just laid the previous winner out with a few well-placed jabs to the jaw, stomach, and groin. She belonged in an MMA cage. At least MMA fighters didn't have to deal with rottweilers.

By now two people had managed to climb back up to the platform. Two had forfeited. One had tried and failed the climb. Marilyn had the first KO.

She also wound up having the first pin. She swiftly dodged the sword, seized the wrist and elbow, slung him face first into the grating. Three seconds later, she'd won. The boy sulked to the other side of the catwalk, and climbed down.

Joni knew Marilyn could fight, all right. Despite her objections, she'd managed to let Marilyn rope her into helping her train, usually by holding a padded shield and absorbing her punches and kicks. It was like being buffeted with endless Major-League baseballs, and she couldn't imagine taking one unprotected.

"Guess I'm up," the boy in front of her said. He was unarmed, just like Marilyn. Just like Joni.

The head of the neighborhood association yelled from the stands, "Good luck, son! We're all counting on you!"

He waved uneasily.

6

February 27th

Littgen Residence

As soon as Joni's father finished reading the paperwork, he slammed it on the table. "You are not doing this."

"Thank you!" Joni said. "It's absolutely insane!" She leaned against the back of the chair, finally able to relax. She'd been worried for days about asking her parents. Part of her thought they might have known all along, and were willing to go along with it.

Mom picked up the description and skimmed through it. "Who'd come up with such a thing? This… It's just monstrous."

Dad stroked his beard. "It reads like it was written by someone who thinks of kids like glorified show dogs."

Mom read aloud from the paper. "'You dress them in the latest fashions, put them in the best schools, provide them the finest health care, because you know they don't just express themselves—they express you." She put it down and shuddered and made the Sign of the Cross. "And you're friend's competing in this?"

"She does every year," Joni said. "Won the whole championship when she was ten."

"The whole…?"

Joni tapped the relevant paragraph on the paper. "At the end, the winners of the Junior Division and the Youth Division fight in a sudden-death match. Only one of them gets the prize."

Neither of her parents believed it until they each read it for themselves.

"I'm calling the police." Dad stood up and went to the next room, where his phone was charging.

Joni and her mother sat in silence.

"You can't get Marilyn to withdraw?"

"I tried. But her parents have her practicing every day. All the kids do. Even the kids who are already in clubs at school. For once in my life I'm glad to be left out." Yet even as Joni said that, something still gnawed at her…

"Who in God's name would sponsor this?" Mom checked the fine print. "I've never heard of any of these sponsors. Why do I get the feeling they're all shell companies?"

Dad returned with only a frown. "They acted like they didn't believe me. Made it sound like I was a jerk for objecting to 'extracurricular activities.' I knew something was off about this place. The price… the location… the school… they seemed too good to be true."

"Well we're not going back to Highpark Cove," Mom said. "I guess we're starting from square one. Joni, you can hang out with these kids as much as you want, but other than that, we're boycotting these games. Everyone agreed?"

"Yes."

"Double yes!" Joni said. At the same time, though…

Somehow her enthusiasm felt hollow. It seemed wrong to walk away, or to sit at home quietly protesting, when so many of the kids around her, of her new friends, stood to suffer. She couldn't leave them behind. She had to do something. Especially for Marilyn.

7

April 19th

Community Center

As Marilyn slammed her back of her fist into the boy's jaw, Joni heard someone shouting her name. Her parents were in the stands, hands on the fence, crying out to her.

"Don't do it!"

"Joni, we love you! Get out of there!"

"Please!"

Joni waved at them, trying to manage a smile. She hadn't meant to hurt them. She still felt the same way as the night Dad tried to call the police. But she couldn't leave Gold Aura without making some sort of statement for her friends. She couldn't leave without showing the other parents what she really thought of these games. She couldn't leave without proving to herself what she was capable of.

Otherwise, this day would haunt her forever.

The boy fell into the pit, and as Joni stepped onto the catwalk, he limped over to the wall and started climbing. Some of the water from the hose sprayed up onto Joni.

"It's okay!" she called back to her parents. "I know what I'm doing!" She'd filled out the application and snuck it into the mailbox just after midnight, the night before they were due. It was a spur of the moment decision, but she never once thought about taking it back.

She took her position opposite Marilyn.

They bowed at each other.

Marilyn raised her fists. "I knew you couldn't stay away."

Joni raised her fists. She'd wanted this to be a surprise for Marilyn. "Think of it as solidarity." She put in her mouth guard.

The horn blared.

Marilyn took a moment sizing her up. Joni waited for her to strike. She'd seen, felt how Marilyn could move. And Marilyn would know that Aikido is usually more defensive.

Marilyn threw her first punch.

Joni took it right below the eye.

Marilyn jumped back with a gasp. "Are you all right? I-I thought you'd…"

Joni kept her hands up, her face burning. "I'm fine. Come on."

Marilyn clenched her fists again. She threw another punch. Well telegraphed. Trying to signal to Joni when she could make her move.

Joni let it hit in her side, below her rib cage.

"What the hell are you doing?" Marilyn whispered. "It's not a fight if you don't fight back." Marilyn punched Joni's shoulder—this time softer than her other blows. "What, you not as good at Aikido as you told me?"

Another punch, and Joni slipped around it, caught it, caught Marilyn, maneuvered her around, whirled her off balance, but not enough to send her over the edge. By the time both regained their footing, they had switched sides on the catwalk.

"Okay," Marilyn said, "so now you're ready."

Two more punches. One in Joni's jaw, one in her stomach. For a moment Joni couldn't see anything. She pressed her tongue against her mouth guard.

Again she straightened up and raised her fists.

"Come on, Joni," Marilyn said. "This isn't fun."

"No," Joni said. "It isn't." She had a feeling it wasn't fun for the crowd, either. She didn't hear any cheers. No chants. Just the barking of dogs and the rushing of hose water. They'd come to watch their children fight. They got a young girl being senselessly assaulted. It would be up to them to figure out the difference.

"All right," Marilyn said. "I get it." She grabbed Joni by the lapel. She swept her leg out from under her. She pressed her face down on the ground. She held her there for three seconds.

She helped Joni back up.

Joni still didn't hear any cheering.

"Seriously, Joni, what the hell was that?"

"Sorry." Joni spat out her mouth guard. "I'm just glad it was you. Good luck. You're doing great."

"Sure." Marilyn let Joni go so she could climb off the platform. "If I win the trip to Disneyworld, I'll see if you can come with me."

Joni's side ached as she climbed down the ladder and the horn blared for the start of the next match. The parents of the other kids, and even some of the other contestants from earlier, now stared at her in horror. Marilyn could take her to a county fair with rickety rides, for all she cared. Joni had never tasted such a sweet victory.

Her mother and father waited at the fence, a doctor with a Regen case by their side. In mere moments the pain would be gone.

Joni hooked her fingers onto the chain-links. "Mom… Dad… Get me out of here."

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Weekly Story #45: Getting to the Last Laugh

As of this week, I now have fifty-two short stories completed, with the remaining seven just waiting for revision.

Today's story was written after the Sunday of the Holy Cross. I wound up latching on to two incidents from the same day back in 2008 that were about equally unpleasant. I had actually written a separate story with the same premise a few years ago, but decided to start fresh.

This week's story is brought to you by the letter H. Which is the letter on my laptop's keyboard that broke off before I could write this introduction.

 

GETTING TO THE LAST LAUGH

"Oh for the love of God," Marlene said on the other line. "That was our ride. That was my ride."

"Glad to know you're so concerned about my safety," Stan said. He could still see the sheen on the knife that the carjacker had pointed at his heart earlier. The police officer he'd reported to had just driven off. "I could have died."

"Right. I know. Sorry. It's just, we've already been through so much hell getting ready for this gig. This is just icing on the cake."

"You think I don't blame myself enough?" If Stan hadn't forgotten his bass, he'd never have left the show, never have stopped for gas, never have a knife-wielding weirdo ask for his wallet and keys. Now he was waiting for an Uber in a gas station parking lot with no idea where Marlene's SUV and car keys had gone. "How long do we have before we're supposed to start?"

"The opening act's about to go up, so about an hour."

"Know if they're any good?"

"The bass player's good at chugging IPAs."

Stan's stomach hurt just thinking about it. "Look, it'll be fine. Shows at Last Laugh never start on time." His phone shook with a new notification, and a tan Honda rolled into the parking lot. "Hey, my ride's here. See you soon."

"Just get down here, okay?" Marlene said.

Stan hopped into the backseat. "The Last Laugh, down on 9th, and step on it."

"Sure thing." The driver entered the location on his phone, and it picked up the directions. "Okay. That shouldn't take us too long." He had a shaved head and flecks of gray in his beard. "Name's Bill. How's your night been?"

"Could be better," Stan said. "Car got stolen."

"Aw, no. Nice car?"

"Wasn't even mine. It was my bandmate's."

"Bet he's pissed."

"She is. And—" Stan slapped his leg. "And my bass was in there. The entire reason I left the Last Laugh in the first place. The cops better find it soon. And the creep who took it. I hate tonight so much."

The car turned onto Holtz Avenue, and slowed down a good distance from the next stop light. "Uh oh," Bill said.

Stan dropped his head into his hands. "Oh come on. Doesn't your app warn you about traffic?"

"It's supposed to. Damn thing doesn't work half the time. I'll see if I can find an alternate route."

Stan looked ahead out the window. The line of cars stretched from here all the way to the exit and on down the Interstate. "Must be some kinda wreck. I better let the band know."

He sent a text to Marlene.

She wrote back immediately:

You're lucky I don't kill you as soon as you get here.

I'd borrow somebody from the opening act, but good lord they suck.

As if the traffic jam and carjacker were his fault. Right now all he could do was sit back and wait for any suggestion of movement. These side roads wouldn't help, because the venue was on the other side of the Interstate. Bill would have a tough time finding that alternate route. Heck, half of this jam was probably people squeezing under that bridge trying to avoid that exit.

"So you're in a band?" Bill said.

"Yeah. Bass."

"No kidding. I play bass, too. My buddies and I played at the Last Laugh back when it was the Iron Lion."

"You don't say. What was it like back then?"

"Pretty much the same. That chameleon mural still there?"

"Sure is."

As they came to the next block, Stan began to hear a buzzing, like a voice out of a distant loudspeaker. Further onward, and it turned out that was exactly what it was. A scrawny man stood in front of a vacant pawn shop ranting into a mic, his voice blaring indistinctly out of the distinctly red speaker beside him. In his other hand was a leather-bound Bible.

The man who'd held Stan at knifepoint was listing off all the people who were going to hell, from Catholics to gays to libertarians. "For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God!"

The loudspeaker still had Marlene's Bonnaroo sticker on the side. And that was her SUV parked nearby with the headlights blazing.

"Man, it's one thing to see those guys at events downtown," Bill said. "But who looks at a traffic jam and thinks that's an opportunity?"

A friggin' car thief, that's what. Stan took a picture and sent it straight to Marlene, who replied:

OMG!!! WHAT THE HELL?

Now the question was, what was Stan supposed to do? He couldn't go out and try and take the SUV back. The cops were still looking for it, and it'd probably be suspicious if someone found him with a stolen car, especially one he himself had reported stolen. Besides, the man out there may be wiry, but Stan wasn't exactly a fighter. He had no guarantee he could take this guy in a fight.

He still had the card from the police officer who'd taken his report. The sensible thing to do would be to call up and let him know.

The car was rolling up right in front of the preacher. Stan rolled down the window.

"… and you shall know that I am the LORD. And… You, citizen!" He gestured his Bible at Stan. "Do you have any prayers you'd like to offer?"

"No, I'm good," Stan said. The guy probably couldn't see him too clearly. "Just…" He leaned a little out the window and took some more pictures of the preacher. He pointed at his phone. "You forgot something at the gas station."

The preacher gritted his teeth. "And this is just the sort of thing the Lord God warned us about. Overreliance on smartphones. Slavery to technology! Attachment to apps!"

But the preacher's voice was shakier now. He was stuck and he knew it. There were no side streets around the pawn shop. It only let out into the jam. Even if he did try to drive off, he'd have to take the same side roads as everyone else or wait until a gap opened across every single lane for a left turn. And how was he supposed to know he'd run into his own victim just a half hour after they last crossed paths? Stan guessed the preacher got stuck in traffic too, and decided to pull over and indulge in a separate hobby, annoy the people around him in a different way.

Stan called up the officer. "So this might be hard to believe, but I'm in that traffic jam on Holtz, and I just found the guy who stole my car. You know the abandoned pawn shop near the Wendy's? He's parked in front of it."

"Wait, that's him?" Bill said.

"Thanks," the officer said as Stan nodded to Bill. "We'll get here as soon as we can."

Luckily the left lane was all clear. "Man, what are the odds?"

"I know, right?" Bill said. "When my car got stolen, it took three months for anyone to find it. Turned out the thief had had it repainted. By then I didn't even want it back."

"Yeesh."

"At least you found it quickly. Want me to find a place to pull over until the cops arrive?"

"Yeah, might as well." If Stan was going to be late, at least it'd be because he was getting everything back. He just hoped he'd still be in shape to play tonight's set. He'd never had such an exhausting stop at a gas station in his life.

Oh well. Shows at the Last Laugh never start on time.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Weekly Story #44: The Doohicky

Continuing with last week's Lent connection, this one came following the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, who defended Orthodox teaching about the Uncreated Light. So I started the word association out of the word "Highlight." As you can probably tell by the opening line, unlike "Icon," this one's keyword managed to survive into the full story.

After the previous story focused on sisters, I decided to focus on brothers for this one. I also liked the idea of writing something with all the really off-the-wall stuff happening in the background.

One important update: As of this writing, as of this coming weekend, I will have 52 stories either published or cued up for this series. The last story should come up the second week of July. Excited? I know I am!

 

THE DOOHICKY

Ray started off by highlighting each of his lines. His character only appeared in two scenes, but he was determined to get it right. Just because he was an amateur didn't mean he had to sound like one. The thought of auditioning had just hit him out of the blue a week ago, and while he didn't get the part he tried out for, the fact that he got a speaking part seemed encouraging.

The problem now was just where to rehearse in private. He shared the house with his mom and his three brothers, and they could crowd him out fairly easily. Mom was out bowling with her book club, so at least tonight he didn't have to make any demands on her. The others all stayed home. Neil, the oldest, agreed to leave him alone. His day job at Best Buy had worn him out enough that he just planned to stay in his room all night. That left the other two.

Ray went upstairs and knocked on their door.

"Come in." Bart and Drew were tinkering with one of their new gadgets in the corner. Drew had joined his high school's maker club, and Bart wanted to start one at his middle school. Seemed like they were always working on something these days. Drew was even saving up for a 3D printer. Their gadget glowed with an eerie color. "What're you guys working on?"

"We're not sure yet," Drew said. "I got this doohicky from somebody at that maker faire last week, and I'm just kinda slapping parts together to see what they do."

"They do anything interesting?"

"We're not sure yet," Bart said.

"Got it." Ray held up his script. "Well, listen, I got a part in that play I auditioned for—"

"Oh cool," Bart said. "You playing Swinson?"

"I didn't get that part. But rehearsals start tomorrow, and I do need to practice my lines, so if you could do me a solid and—"

"We'll be quiet," Drew said. "We were just gonna keep working on this stuff all night."

"Right." Ray backed out of the room. "Don't call unless it's an emergency."

"Sure thing. Mind closing the door?"

Ray did so, and returned to his room. Those two had gotten a lot closer, and a lot easier to handle, once they found a hobby to share. And he trusted them well enough. He just wanted to be sure.

He went to his bedroom and locked the door and sat down at his desk. His character first appeared in Act II, Scene 3, so he started reading from there. Each highlighted line he recited out loud. Once he got through the scene, he started it over, to make sure he got the enunciation and emotion right.

The entire house shook with several loud booms and shouts coming from the boys' bedroom. Once Ray's desk stopped rattling, he rushed out to the hall and banged on their door. "Drew! Bart! You all right?"

Drew opened the door a little and peeked out. "Um, yeah. We've got everything under control here. Sorry about the noise."

"You sure?" Ray said. "What about Bart? Is he okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine." Bart looked through the crack in the door and waved. "Just a minor accident. Totally fixable."

It was hard for Ray to tell through the crack, but certainly they didn't seem to have any cuts or bruises or anything. He pushed in. "You sure everything's safe?"

"Totally," they both said, pushing back.

"All right then." Ray backed away from the door. Neil had come out of his room and was looking at Ray with worry. "They say they're fine," Ray told him. "And they seem fine."

"Well." Neil nodded. "I sure hope so. How's the rehearsal coming?"

"Not too bad, at least until those two ripped open the spacetime continuum."

"All right. Break a leg." Neil went back to his room, and Ray went back to his.

Ray started from his first line, and got to the end of the scene. Just as he uttered the last word, another noise came from the boys' bedroom. This one was more of an oscillating warble. It faded out after a few seconds, then Bart chimed up, "Everything's fine!"

Ray moved on to the next scene.

More noises came from down the hall, each more unidentifiable than the last. What on earth were those kids doing in there? None of their video games sounded like that, and there was no way it was coming from their little tinker-toy. At times he wanted to check on them, but then, he did tell them they could come get him if it was an emergency. They hadn't come to him, so maybe it wasn't an emergency.

Then the house shook again, this time together with the warble.

Ray got up and hurried to the boys' door and threw it open without knocking. To his surprise, most of their stuff that wasn't already on the floor was still off the floor. The device they were working on was still glowing on the desk. All that was missing were the boys.

Neil came to the door and shoved around him to get in. "Where are they?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Ray said. "You felt that, right?"

"I think they felt that across the state line. Okay, Drew. Okay Bart. You can come out now."

Ray wouldn't have blamed them for trying to hide when they were shaking the house off the foundation. "Don't worry, we won't tell Mom." He was about ready to take that doohicky away from them, if it weren't glowing like that. Anything to get back to the play.

Ray checked under the beds while Neil looked in the closet. "Where the hell are they?" Neil said.

"They couldn't have gone out the window," Ray said. "It's still locked from the inside."

"You didn't hear them run out, did you?"

"No. But where could they have gone?"

"Let's look."

Neil stayed upstairs and searched. Ray went downstairs and checked the living room, dining room, and kitchen, but found no sign of the boys. No one could have broken in. None of the doors or windows were damaged. The boys' shoes were still sitting by the door, too. Unless they'd gone out barefoot, they should by all logic be somewhere inside.

Ray looked into the garage, but the boys weren't there, either. Forget rehearsals—how could he think about acting when his brothers were missing? If they didn't turn up soon, he'd have to call the director and drop out of the play.

What would he and Neil tell Mom?

He heard a warble from the living room, followed by Drew's voice. "We made it! Bart, we're home!"

Ray rushed in. Both of them were covered in dirt, their clothing frayed, their hair gone wild. Drew was holding a broadsword, Bart a spear. Drew dropped his sword with a clatter and threw his arms around Ray. "Ray! I thought I'd never see you again!"

"Wait," Bart said, "how long have we been gone?"

"I, uh…" Ray could only estimate. "About ten minutes?"

Bart whistled. "Only ten minutes? It took, what, three hours just for you to save me from the—"

"Whoa, quiet." Drew broke away from Ray and pressed his hand over Bart's mouth.

Neil came down the stairs. "Oh. There they are. Where the hell did you get those weapons?"

Drew slowly lowered his hand. "Would you believe… the kingdom of Ishkoth?

"Look," Ray said, "I don't care where you got them or what anyone does with them. You've been making noise all night, and it's got to stop. Now, I've got to read my lines, Neil's got to rest, and Mom's got to come home to a house that hasn't been blown to smithereens."

"Okay, okay," Bart said. "We'll stop working on that thing. Piece of crap's been nothing but trouble anyway."

"We understand, Ray," Drew said. "And frankly, I feel like I've been swinging a sword around for hours, so I just wanna lie down. Please don't tell Mom anything happened, okay?"

"We won't," Neil said. "We're just glad you two are safe. You had us worried for a minute there."

"Yeah, sorry about that. I swear, if I ever find that guy from the maker faire again…"

And everyone went back upstairs, with Neil taking the weapons so he could stash them in the attic. Ray watched the boys take their doohicky apart, then headed back to his own room to practice.

Shortly after he started his second scene, Drew knocked on the door, yelling, "Keep it down! I'm trying to sleep!"

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Weekly Story #43: Pest Control

Okay, so it turns out my introduction from last week was a little bit off. This is the story where the word association started with "icon." How did I get from "icon" to a story set at a diner? That's the beauty part of word association, you never know what you're going to get.

 

PEST CONTROL

It was a diner much like many others. Open from seven AM to nine PM, Irene's served the truckers, travelers, families, and factory workers of the humble town of Constance. Now that summer vacation had arrived, her daughters were helping out with waiting tables, except Taylor, who preferred the kitchen. Sylvia, the youngest, had just scribbled down an order from the couple at table five, when she happened to glance outside, and spotted a familiar car rolling in. She passed the order slip to Nora, the oldest. "Looks like Mr. Sprite-Coke's here to see you."

Nora let out a long, long groan. "It's the third time this week. When is he going to take the hint?" He had been showing up at least once a week to see Nora ever since midterms, as if one more visit was finally going to sweep her off her feet. So far, no.

"I could always—"

"You are not—" Nora switched to a whisper. "You are not spitting in his food. It was hard enough talking Taylor out of it." She poured the root beer and coffee for Sylvia's order. Taylor set a tray into the window and rang the bell. Nora gave the drinks to Sylvia and took the tray to the table in the corner.

The door opened with a jingle, and Martin Wolf strutted inside. "Afternoon, Sylvie." He took a seat on one of the barstools. "I'll have—"

"Half Sprite, half-Coke?" She bristled at the sound of "Sylvie." Made her feel like a little kid whenever she heard it. She was almost a teenager, dangit. "On its way." She laid a menu in front of him and went behind the counter for his drink.

Nora headed down the aisle behind him.

"And how are you today, Nora?" Martin said. "My lovely, my sweet?"

Nora kept going. She had another order to take.

"Ouch."

Sylvia gave him his drink. He tipped well, but she remembered a time when Nora actually liked working here.

He sucked an inch through the straw. "Something wrong with her, Sylvie?"

"Yeah, she's got a pest that won't leave her alone." Sylvia kept her voice low so other customers wouldn't hear. She straightened up the condiments to look busy. "Can't figure out how to stop it."

"No kidding." He took another sip. "Is it like, a mouse? Roaches?"

Sylvia's hand lingered on the mustard bottle. She'd been wanting to try grossing him out forever. It was no spit in his drink, but why not see how far she could take it?

She lowered her voice further. "A rat. Actually, a lot of rats. Big ones. And they leave their droppings everywhere. Kitchen floor, seat cushions, you name it."

"Ew." Martin glanced at the menu. "I'll have a Philly cheesesteak. With fries."

Sylvia wrote the order down and passed it through the window to Taylor. "Cheesesteak! Fries!" The man must have a stomach of steel. "But yeah, I went to her place last week, and there were little bitty turds all over the place. Just a nightmare all the way."

"Has she been leaving traps?"

"Oh yeah. And we caught a few, too. It was actually pretty freaky." In real life, the only rat infestation any of them had ever dealt with was in the diner itself, years and years ago, and it was Dad who disposed of the one rat the trap caught. Then they found the hole it crawled through and had it sealed up. Not a single rodent since. "The first one we caught was still breathing. I wouldn't have known what to do, but Nora, she just took it out of the trap, picked it up, and gave its neck a quick snap. And that was the end of the rat."

Nora came behind the bar and rang up an order on the register. Sylvia couldn't tell how much she'd heard.

Martin gave the straw another drag. "Wow. Now that is hardcore."

"I know, right?" Sylvia said. "She was like an assassin. You wouldn't think from looking at her, would you? A sweet little thing like that?"

Nora looked back with a smirk, then went into the office.

"She's tough," Martin said. "Dunno if I could ever do that."

"Yeah, well, it hasn't stopped them. She wouldn't have this problem in the first place if she just kept her apartment clean. It's the worst! Dirty clothes, empty wrappers, pizza boxes. She's a total slob." Something told Sylvia he was the kind of guy whose ideal girl was a glorified maid. "She hardly even cleans her own bathroom."

"She and I got that much in common," Martin said.

Sylvia wished she could unlearn that. If he could handle that, then she was going to need to come up with some better ideas. "Well, your cheesesteak should be ready any minute. Let us know if you need anything."

"Can't wait."

Forget steel, this guy's stomach must be Space Titanium.

Sylvia went to the office, where Nora and Mom were chatting together by the desk. "I hope I'm not overdoing it," Sylvia said. It was actually starting to hurt to lie this much about her own sister.

"I only heard little snippets," Nora said. "Did I really snap a mouse's neck?"

"A rat, and you did now. You're also a colossal slob, but I'm a little worried he likes that."

"I didn't know you could think on your feet like that."

"I dunno," Sylvia said. "Once he brought up mice and bugs, I just thought, Okay, let's go! No filter!"

"We'll have to look into improv classes. Mom? Any ideas?"

Irene tapped her fingers on her desk. She preferred to ban customers only as a last resort. The last two were a guy she caught with a stolen credit card and another who made lewd comments at Taylor. As annoying as Martin was, he hadn't crossed that line yet. Yet. "Obviously spitting in his food is out."

"You sure?" Sylvia said. "If we put it to a vote—"

"I'd like to stay on the health inspector's good side," Irene said. "But I like your approach. Nora, you have any moles or scars he should know about? If not, could there be?"

"Um…" Nora backed up from her mother's desk. "Okay, now I think we might be overdoing it."

The bell rang from the kitchen. Taylor had finished an order. "I got it," Sylvia said. "And Mom, you've given me inspiration."

Nora said, "I think we created a monster."

Sylvia hurried out, grabbed the plate from the kitchen window, and took it to the couple at table five. The bell then rang for the cheesesteak. She ran back and laid it in front of Martin. "Much obliged," he said. And he took his first bite. After everything Sylvia had already said, he was still willing to stuff that hunk of bread and meat down his throat. She half expected his Space Titanium stomach to start shooting lasers and rockets.

Strips of roasted dead flesh hung off the end. A hunk of cheese oozed out of the bun onto the plate, bringing an onion down with it. The onion looked almost like a worm crawling in slime.

"Something wrong?" Martin said.

"Wha?" Sylvia forced herself to tear her eyes away. "I just—never mind. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Get me your sister's number?"

"Seven."

"Ha."

She started to move away from him. She needed to take her mind off of that cheesesteak. But no, not yet, not when she still had her mission for Nora. "Actually, that cheesesteak reminds me…" Just as long as she didn't yark while saying it. "Nora also had this nasty boil on her leg recently."

He stared back at her, but kept chewing.

"Yeah," Sylvia said, "about the size of a quarter. Nora couldn't even shave her leg while it was there, and it got so hairy. She finally had a doctor lance it, and she said there was so… much… pus…"

Her eyes stayed on the cheesesteak, that moist, viscous cheese dripping onto the plate. Her stomach felt like it was trying to strangle itself.

The front door opened, the bell jingled, and a woman with three kids came and claimed table four. "Well, I gotta get that," Sylvia said.

"Nice talking to you," Martin said, then took another bite. With his mouth full, he added, "Hope Nora feels better."

"Uh, thanks," she said. As she turned away, she muttered, "I hope I feel better."

She took menus to the family that had just entered and took their drink orders. As she poured their sodas and iced teas, she made a special point of not speaking to Martin, even when spoken to. And he did speak to her. "My compliments to the chef. This cheesesteak is fantastic."

Sylvia just nodded in response. Taylor would probably be happy to hear it, as long as no one told her it was Martin who said it. But where was Nora? Was she just going to stay in the office until this guy left?

Sylvia took the drinks to the mom and three kids, and asked what they wanted to eat. Their order was: two plates of chicken strips, one with fries, one with tots; tomato soup and Greek salad; and… a Philly cheesesteak.

"Great… choice…"

"Well, that man over there was raving about it," the mom said. "So I thought, why not?"

"All right," Sylvia said. "Your food will be ready shortly."

She passed the order slip over to Taylor, and went back to the office. "I overdid it. Nora, can you take over table four?"

Nora said, "Is Martin still here?"

"Come on, I don't even wanna look at food right now. It's my turn to take a break."

"You're about due for one anyway," Mom said. "Go ahead and take five, Sylvia. Nora, you're up."

"Sure," Nora said, "I—"

The doorbell rang not once, not twice, but three times.

"Aw no," Sylvia said. "Okay, I'll help take these orders, but then I'm definitely taking a break."

"What'd you tell him?" Nora said.

"I don't wanna talk about it."

There was now a trucker with a newspaper sitting a few seats to the left of Martin, an elderly regular named Joan, and a man in a black suit at table two. Nora offered to take the trucker, and Sylvia could take the old lady. The black suit would get whoever got to him first.

Joan just wanted her usual, some water and a grilled chicken with rice and chili. The black suit ordered a cup of coffee and asked about the pie selection. On her way back to the kitchen window, Sylvia heard the doorbell ring. But this time it wasn't a customer entering. It was Martin leaving. A twenty dollar bill sat next to his plate.

"Holy crap," Sylvia whispered. "He left?"

"I don't believe it," Nora said. The two of them turned away from the customers. "Barely said hi to me, then looked at his sandwich, put it down, and walked out. I've never seen anything like it. What did you say to him?"

"I'll tell you later." Sylvia felt one last pang in her stomach, then reached for the coffee pot. "You think he's gone for good?"

"I don't know," Nora said. "But at least he's out of my hair today. Thanks a lot. Tonight, whatever dessert you want, it's my treat."

"Thanks." Sylvia took the water and coffee and started back off for the tables. Something was crawling up her throat. "I'm sure I'll appreciate that eventually."

Oh, the sacrifices she made for this family, for this diner.