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."