Unhappy Holiday: short fiction

 

Disclaimer: as the title says, this is fiction, NOT a reflection of  my feelings about Christmas or a disguised memoir. (People keep asking.) My mind wanders to dark places, what can I say?



Don’t expect tidings of joy from me. I can only be merry when Christmas is over. Call it my yearly offering to the gods of Family or my annual sacrifice on the altar of Home, but there’s nothing happy about it. Every year it tears my heart out and leaves me bleeding.  That’s the reason for the season in my family.

Every Christmas I join with my sister and brother (plus spouses and offspring) and we celebrate the birth of Our Lord Jesus together with the man and woman whose blood runs in our veins. Each of us was a fresh disappointment to them from the first day we drew breath, and we have never failed to let them down since then. They taught us self-reliance and set our feet on the path to independence so they could be rid of the shame of us.

As soon as I could stand on my own I ran as far from them as I could go, just as my siblings had before me. But every Christmas season we return like salmon fighting upstream on instinct, unable to deny that self-destructive call. We seek out home for the holiday, even knowing the trip will kill us someday. We sleep in our childhood beds and revisit our childhood traumas, and we remember anew why we left in the first place.

Every year we vow never again, and next year in our own homes, but the next year comes, and we trudge back to the old stomping grounds. The night before Christmas,  all through the house, everyone is stirring. And drinking. And fighting. And shouting. Because that’s what family does. It’s all about tradition.

* * *

Christmas Morning always begins the same way, with a thump and a shout. Mom or Dad pounds on the bedroom doors onee-two-three, and the words, “Get out of bed, or we’re going to be late for church!” wash away dreams of glitter and gifts with a sour rush of adrenaline.

We are never late for church. Every year is a tragedy of tardiness waiting to happen, but the crisis never comes to pass. Never have we missed the morning service, not once in all my thirty-something years.

But every year, we all wake to the reminder of our faults and the expectation of failure.

Once everyone files through the two bathrooms in birth order, the next generation of children is tucked into holiday finery with care, and somehow, despite the initial panci there is always time for breakfast around the big table as a family.

Christmas breakfast never varies any more than the wake-up ritual. Cinnamon toast with extra sugar and bacon barely cooked, served with a side order of clock-anxiety. The coffee is always too hot or too bitter, and the pitcher of orange juice will never be enough to go around if each of us takes that much.

(It’s the same coffee they use every other day of the year, and the juice never runs out early.)

The food is heaped onto chipped, worn holiday plates gritty with dust from storage, and insults about our collective failures are poured into our ears. The grandchildren get bonus treats: big helpings of the same divisive, half-truths that kept their parents competing with each other instead of allying against our oppressors.

Someday one of us will snap over breakfast, but it hasn’t happened yet.

* * *

Church: candles, decorations, sparse crowds, and infinite boredom. I tolerate ritual observances of a faith I never felt. Stand up. Sit down. Sing off key. Mumble half-remembered phrases on cue. Shake hands. Doze off. An hour spent missing cues, attracting glares, and mumbling. At last we drive home in the minivan that was old when I was young, me crammed into the back-back seat with sister and brother-in-law and a smelly-diapered baby with sticky fingers. The whole way there and the whole way home, Mom talks about who was sinning this week, and who was sinned against. None of the names are familiar any longer. Sister and I make faces. The car smells of peppermint candy canes. Joy to the world.

* * *

After church, the distribution of presents wrapped in layers of obligation begins. Every year we promise to limit gifting to the youngest generation. Every year, the promise is broken, and the Christmas litany is recited anew.

“I hope you like it. It was expensive, and I had to special-order it.”

“You can take it back if you don’t like it.”

“You’ll find a use for it, I’m sure. You do like it, don’t you?”

We shield the next generation from as much damage as possible,  my sibs and I and their spouses, but I do worry. How much of the ego poison is absorbed on contact? Will these innocent children learn to mistrust and dread gifts as I often do?

I hope not. Now they shriek and shout and bounce with happiness, and I soak up as much of the happiness as possible by osmosis. Once the kids have their atention buried in toys or books—or are put down for naps—the booze come out again and the real fun begins.

* * *

Dinner preparation is an exercise in crisis management.

The ham is forever too big or too small, the bone splintery or the slices uneven. It will never be right. It wouldn’t be Christmas if it was right.

The potatoes are undersized or overripe. The beans are tough. Or rubbery. A vital ingredient is missing. Last minute trips to the store are suggested, rejected, and finally allowed. Everyone offers to go, but I’m usually the only one sober enough to drive.

Before the last casserole goes into the oven someone will slice a finger or nick an arm, and there will be gauze and vapors and the mention of an emergency room. We are a clumsy brood, and we’re drinking. It happens, every year without fail.

By the time we sit to supper—with silver polished, candles lit, and grace recited over the beautiful dishes that once belonged to a reered great-grandparent—the mood is surly and our appetites have long since vanished.

We eat all the same. Someone compliments the store-bought rolls, and Mom’s tears flow, but the pumpkin pie makes up for everything.

Then comes eggnog and awkward conversation, and the last opportunity for sniping assaults. Someone always slips a dagger in. Guaranteed. When we are done staggering through the gauntlet of disappointed tears and judgmental silences, when we’ve torn out the last shreds of ourselves and offered them up in the service of filial obligation,  we will be allowed to crawl back to our bedrooms to bleed out in peace.

I cry myself to sleep under the old faded posters on the walls, and in the dead, empty space where my heart should be. I cling to one shining spark of good cheer: Christmas is done for a whole year.



copyright 2014 K. M. Herkes all rights reserved.

note 1: My fictional protagonist’s unhappiness is mild compared to the pain and sadness many feel in this “season of joy.” Please be kind to those who struggle.

note 2: this story was originally published on Readwave.com, which no longer exists.

Character Interview!

Character’s Name: Jack Coby. You can see him in action in the Rough Passages tales Powerhouse, Nightmares, and Lockdown, stories you can buy online in all kinds of formats now.

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The Set:

Television talk show set lit at “intimate conversation” levels. Live audience.

The players:

One, a bespectacled, earnest male interviewer sitting in an easy chair grinning ear to ear. Blond hair in a spiky moussed cut, heavy beige face makeup, gym-lean body clad in double-breasted dark pinstripes. He looks like a child next to the man sitting on the heavy steel bench opposite him.

Two, a giant dressed in a crisply-starched white dress shirt and black dress trousers, but ordinary clothes cannot disguise his eight-foot height or his stiff, thick skin. He is sporting a black baseball cap and mirrored sunglasses, and he has a case of the fidgets. (above you can see what he looks like when he’s ready to play beach volleyball. (art credit: Adam Withers) 

Scene begins:

<perky theme music swells and fades>

Host: Welcome to the Brian Grimm show. I’m Brian Grimm, but of course you all know that. <leans forward towards his guest while audience laughs> Hi, there. You’re my biggest interview ever, you know that? <more audience laughter>

Brian: What should I call you? I’m not very knowledgeable about the military. Ranks and all that. I want to get it right.

Guest: You can call me Jack.

Brian: Oh, please. Come at me with the whole deal. Name, what you do, all of it. My viewers like to get all the juicy details.

Jack: Full name and rank? Jack Coby, lieutenant, retired, United States Marine Corps. Gateway Company, Mercury Battalion. I work for the Department of Public Safety now. Not a lot of employment opportunities for an eight-foot tall armor-plated dude. I don’t think you need my serial number on top of all that, do you?

Brian: No, that is quite complicated enough. So is it Jack like Jack and the Beanstalk, only you’re the giant? <pause for more audience laughter> Jack is usually a nickname for something else.

Jack: No, I’m Jack, not John or Jackson or anything else. My only nickname…can I say Jackass on TV? That’s the only other thing people call me.

Brian: I wouldn’t dare call you that. I was delighted when the Department approached my producers about having you on the show, but I confess you are one scary fellow. Will you tell us more about your powers? What’s it like, being what you are?

Jack: Getting nervous, are you? I read somewhere you test positive for R-factor yourself. Is that true?

Brian: <squirming> Ah—yes, it’s true. Someone leaked my medical records. Hazard of being a celebrity. I haven’t rolled, though. Not yet. You don’t have to answer, of course. I didn’t mean to be insensitive. <clears throat.>

Jack: Didn’t you? Isn’t that your job? That sure sounded like a soft-pitch so I could reassure you that you’ll still be human even if you end up like me.

Brian: Errm. <audience titters nervously> Maybe? I confess I have my moments, wondering what’s going to happen to me when I get older.

Jack: <Smiles wide enough to show large, curving, sharp canine teeth> Relax, man. You’ll probably never tansition from latent to active. Most poz don’t. Less than 5 percent of the overall population, if I remember right. Even if you do roll, you probably won’t end up like me. T’s, P’s, and R’s are super rare. And Tee’s are the most extreme.

Brian <leaning forward> Which brings us back to my question. What is it like, if you don’t mind sharing? Are you typical? I’m told you’re pretty rare even for a Tee.

Jack: Yes and no. I’m T5, in the middle for power, with a Y-variant, so I still look mostly human. Minimal armoring, no horns or major spines, and claws not much longer than fingernails. I’m also photosensitive, so I’d appreciate the camera light aiming a little higher, thanks. The prime Tees are twelve feet tall at baseline, and bigger yet in rampage high-power mode.

<stock video imagery comes up on the rear walls of the set, showing cut shots of troops advancing on a jungle position, with uniformed giants marching alongside armored vehicles and normal-sized infantry.>

Jack: Oh, hey. That was an exercise in Hawaii. I remember that. I’m the little guy there by the rightmost troop carrier. See the difference? I’m only big and have the turtle-skin. Oh, and we’re all nearly impossible to kill between the armor and the regeneration. But the thing that makes me rare? I hit rollover at fourteen instead of forty or older like most people. Only ever been a couple of early-onset Tees who survived rollover. That’s what most people obsess about.

Brian: Fourteen. When the average rollover age is forty-seven? Remarkable. That must have been such a shock. Your family, how did they handle it?

Jack: Don’t know. Haven’t seen my parents since I rolled. Something about me being a murderer and a monster and all that.

Brian: …

Jack: <sighs> There’s no way you didn’t know that, but fine. I agreed to be on the show, this is outreach, so here’s the story. I had a big brother. He’s one of four people I killed during rollover, when the first rampage hit and I was out of my mind with disorientation. I got a choice: execution or redemption in service. I chose to put on the uniform and swore the oath.

Brian: You are an astonishing young man. Thank you for sharing that. Now, about rampage mode. That’s unique to Tee’s, correct? How does it work? Can you demonstrate for us?

Jack: Do you have something handy for me to demolish? No? Okay, then. No rampage. If I call up the energy, I have to expend it. It isn’t a rage thing. Couldn’t be good soldiers if we were always going crazy, could we? It isn’t unique to Tee’s, either. It shows up as a variant in a bunch of other series. . Uncontrolled emotion makes anybody dangerous. There’s a feedback loop for us. Fight-or-flight impulses can trigger a power burst and increase in abilities. A lot of variables can bring it on. Rampage mode is just one more power we learn to control and channel.

Brian: And you do marvelously. Speaking of soldiering…you certainly had a busy time in uniform. Maybe you’ll tell us a little about that? And you hold the world record for age past rollover, too, don’t you?

Jack: Oh, heck, no. Alice Akiyama is the record-holder. She was in her sixties when she rolled on First Night, back in ’43, and she hasn’t aged a day since. She’s a hundred something. But for early-onset cases? Yeah. I break that record every day I wake up. No big deal.

Brian: No big de–How can you be so calm about it? Nothing shakes you, does it? I’m in awe, honestly. The Crisis Night incident, the Elgin School bombings, the Gulf rescues…

<New images come up on the set walls and flash by one after another–clips of text headlines, running children, walls of flame, uniformed soldiers and police officers, blanket-covered lumps in rubble, smoking craters, crowds holding hands…>

Brian: Look at all that. You and your unit, they saved so many lives. Your bravery is just mind-boggling.

Jack:I never felt brave. I do seem to end up in the thick of things a lot. I volunteered for most of those missions. My CO said it’s an early-onset thing. He says because we know we won’t be around for long, we either go in hard or check out. Mostly I feel like I’m a regular guy. Dying young? That’s the straw I drew. Getting upset wouldn’t change it. I like to have some fun, have a few drinks, goof off. You know, regular stuff.

Brian: So would you say you’re someone who can handle pressure?

Jack: Pressure? Sure I can handle it. Oh– you’re fishing for a story again, aren’t you? My interview coach told me you people like stories. Okay, how about this thing my Mercury squad handled a few days before Crisis Night, what, a year ago or more now? It’s the kind of thing Mercury Battalion handles ten, twelve times a year, all over the country. No privacy violations, I won’t name names or places.

Brian: <rubs hands together, leans forward> This sounds good already. Go on, do.

Jack: This lady, she and her whole family were members of some Denial group. She refused to report to internment camp when her R-factor spiked, and she started rolling hot at home. Worse, you know how one house in every block is the one where all the kids go? Her place.

<Jack pulls off his sunglasses, squints at audience before replacing them> You all know what hot means, right? Someone rolls from poz to active in hours, not weeks or months? It can get gruesome when there are physical changes or elemental powers involved. She rolled full pyro. Prime pyro. P-1A’s like that–back on First Night those hot rollovers left Saint Louis and Spokane in ashes. And from the time they start glowing and showing, it’s maybe an hour to full uncontrolled ignition.

Brian: Oooh, I can’t even imagine. <Looks up> do we have pyro stock footage? Can we roll that? <The back of the set lights up with images of people incinerating buildings, trees, and bushes, melting steel beams, causing explosions…>

<Jack watches the images as he continues speaking> Yeah. Like that. The lady’s kids called their Dad. One of the neighbor kids ran home, told his mom, and she called the Department of Public Safety. The DPS scrambled a Mercury team for containment. Dad was driving off with Mom when the primary team teleported in. I do not know where the man thought he was going. Deniers. Who can figure? Panic. Anyway. The primaries weren’t in position to pursue, not with a burning house and a horde of kids right there to contain. My squad gets teleported on-scene expecting to be back-up, but there I am with a car driving off and smoke billowing out, neighbors screaming and getting in the way, and who knows how long before the whole block, maybe the whole town goes up in a firestorm.

Brian: Wow. <shivers>

Jack: Yeah. Tell me about pressure. It’s all about keeping your head. There’s a standard procedure, believe it or not. I called the play, Corporal Amy Goodall picked me up and launched me after the car — I was the smallest Tee in the squad, she’s the largest, twelve foot plus, no big deal — I land on the car roof, it crumples and entraps, my ‘porter sends me and it to the secured containment block back on base, and containment techs pulled the dad and me from the cell before the mom ignited. Boom, major crisis averted.

Brian: How close was it?

Jack: Ten seconds. She melted the containment block. Any hesitation from us, and she would’ve leveled ten blocks and killed hundreds of people. I guess she did good, once she got with the program. She ended up in reboot camp for Mercury once she got minimum control of course Talent like that always goes through the military first.

Brian: Not everyone does so well. How do you feel about the public anger directed towards the government’s Public Safety policies?

Jack: I was a Marine, ma’am, and now I work for Public Safety. It’s not my place to have feelings about policies. I go where I’m ordered. Mercury Battalion is a specialist unit, they handle the R-factor breakouts and containment and do a lot of R-null population outreach with the DPS, but we’re soldiers, first. Bottom line, all enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic, they’re my business.

Brian <mugs surprise and disappointment for the audience, who groan in unison> Seriously, Jack? You’re going to feed me the official line and nothing else?

Jack: …

Brian <waves off the uncomfortable moment> Fine, fine. Never mind. We’re running low on time. I’ll give you an easy one. Suppose you could wish for any power you wanted, change any one thing about yourself…

Jack: That’s a joke, right? Look at me. You think I wouldn’t rather be normal size, lead a normal life? You think I wouldn’t rather live longer than–hell, do I even know if I’ll wake up tomorrow morning? What do you think I would pick? I would wish to be for plain old regular human, null-factor, no chance of rolling over. That’d mean I would have a chance of seeing twenty-five, maybe even getting married and have kids or something someday.

Brian: That was…honest. Brutally honest. There I was thinking you’d toss off a joke. <nervous laughter from the audience.>

Jack: <laughs> Oh, well. If I only get to pick power-powers, then I’d love to be a ‘porter. One of the variants that only needs a visual aid for a targeting reference. Traveling the world whenever I was off-duty, that would be pretty keen.

Brian: That does sound fun. Now here’s one question I ask all my guests. Will you tell us a secret?

Jack: No. If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, would it? <grins>

<audience laughter and a patter of applause>

Brian: <waits for noise to quiet> Well that brings us right to the end of our time. Jack, you’ve been a good sport about all this. Really great. Can I throw one more at you? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. But the one question request that scores highest on every poll is this one: what’s your biggest fear?

Jack: Oh, that one I don’t mind at all. I have two big fears. First, look at me. I can bench-press a pickup truck, and I’m bigger than two bulls stacked on top of each other. I’m afraid I’ll hurt someone innocent by mistake. That’s a no-brainer, that one. My other fear? I’m afraid of people being afraid of me. Frightened people attack in self defense. Frightened people lash out. Some people really don’t think the poz are human. They see monsters when they look at you, Brian, as much as when they see me. And that–that should scare you a lot more than rollover itself. That’s what keeps me awake nights.

Brian: …

<audience silence>

Brian: <sits up straight as perky theme music comes on> And that’s another great show, everyone. Educational and entertaining, plenty to think about as always. Thank you all, and good night!

* * * *


Some of my books have torn down the walls of Jericho Amazon and escaped the confines of exclusivity. You can get ALL the $0.99 Rough Passages stories for Nook, iBook, Kobo, and more. Here are the links:
1. Extraordinary: https://books2read.com/u/4N19e6
2. Powerhouse: https://books2read.com/u/3kZ1VW
3. Nightmares: https://books2read.com/u/3yPExv
4. Lockdown: https://books2read.com/u/3GM2Xn1

Imaginary Interview 1

Situation: Cruel author decides to put her characters through interviews for the heck of it. Despite there being tons of interview lists available as writing exercises, she decides to picture some unnamed, unspecified talk program and plant characters across from an equally ill-defined celebrity host who has done some background and wants to see a ratings spike.

First victim: Justin Wyatt.  Major character, Controlled Descent & Flight Plan. Member of the supporting cast in Joining in The Round

Fancy Celebrity Interviewer: Tall, blond, well-tailored individual with stiffly-coiffed hair, straight teeth and perfect skin.

Setting: a private studio set. Camera-neutral chairs and carpeting, dark, matte-finished table with random lump of sculpture and mugs no one uses. Bright lights & other hanging equipment overhead, technical crew and a few onlookers in the shadows. We join the interview in progress, after the  handshakes, jokes and mugging for the cameras.

Fancy Celebrity Interviewer (FCI): When we put out the call to our followers for questions and stories about you, we received quite a lot of interesting material. I know I introduced you to everyone, but despite this , I have to start by asking, What is your name?

Justin: You’re running the interview. You don’t know who I am? We’re in big trouble. Ha. Just kidding. Sorry. I’ll behave, I promise. Justin Wyatt is the name you probably know.

FCI: Yes, exactly, that’s the name everyone knows, but your full name…?

Justin: Oh someone has been telling stories. Which name do you want? The one on my birth certificate? Geraldo Justin Romero. The one on the first patent I filed, the one that made me obscenely rich? Justin Clooney. I was underage and couldn’t apply without a guardian, so William adopted me. Long, funny story.  The name on my first business license was Justin Lewis Wyatt, and I stuck with that one for a while, but I’m thinking of going back to Romero.

FCI. So with all that, do you have any nicknames?

Justin: None I’ll admit in public. Seriously, though. I had a lot of nicknames growing up, but no one’s said them to my face since I earned my second million. Except Tyler. He’s allowed to call me anything he wants. And Alison. She calls me an idiot when she gets aggravated–hi, Allie. I see you back there behind the lights with Serena. Don’t shake your head at me. It’s okay. I am an idiot sometimes, but you’re the one who said this would be a good way to get in front of the rumors.

FCI. Yes, about those.  It’s being said you have some special gifts that aren’t entirely human. Is that true?

Justin: I’m as human as anyone. All the freaky-ass abilities come from…honestly, I have no fucking  idea. Oh. Sorry. Probably shouldn’t swear. You call it gift. That’s one word for it. Something lives in my skin. Not entirely sure where it came from, but it started with a comminuted tibia fracture that left the inside of my leg exposed to the outside. Then we wrapped it in experimental fungal cultures because that’s all we had handy, and then we camped out in sub-zero temperatures under starvation conditions for a few weeks. It wouldn’t be easy to reproduce that experiment even if I had samples of the material, which I don’t. I doubt I’d get a lot of volunteers. Being mostly invulnerable isn’t all that useful anyway. I don’t want to talk about that any more.

FCI: Yes, all right then. How about a little history? Where were you born and so on, how did you get from there to where you are today.

Justin: I was born in  Omaha, Nebraska, fourteen years before Omaha’s entire population dropped dead, my parents and little sister included. But today?  I have no idea. It’s one of those days, so I honestly have no idea how I got here. OR where here is. I also have no idea who you are, for that matter. Serena and Alison are standing behind you giving me the thumbs-up, so I’m trusting this is something I agreed to do when I was having a good day. Your job is to ask me questions, do I have that right?

FCI: Okay, um…okay. Yes. Maybe we should stick to general topics. Here’s a question from a fan: do you believe that you are a good person?

Justin. What a weird thing to ask. I’m good at some things, rotten at others. I’m really good with mechanics and engineering, especially making new combinations of things no one else thought of putting together. Remembering shit, that’s not one of the good–oh for fuck’s sake, why are you waving your hands at me, Serena? Oh. No swearing zone? Right. Yes, I remember. Sorry. What was the question again?

FCI: I think we should pause for a break here.

<Interview resumes. Mugs are in different positions, sculpture has been replaced by flowers, Fancy Celebrity interviewer’s perfect hair is beginning to droop.>
FCI: All my followers are eager for you to tell us more about yourself. How would you describe your personality?

Justin.  This one again? I hate it. I’m always wrong. See, I think I’m pretty likable and laid-back, but whenever I say that–see? Listen to Serena laughing at me back there. I don’t know. How would you describe me?

FCI: Would you say you’re someone who can handle pressure? What’s a good example?

Yes, I am. A good example? Seriously? How about surviving a plane crash that killed three other people, spending three days in a coma and then another six weeks in the Arctic? How about surviving an ex-wife who tried to kill me not once, not twice, but four times? How about escaping from–oops. Sorry, no. That’s still classified, judging from Alison’s panic face. Never mind that.

FCI: All right then. Moving on to unclassified things. Would you say get along well with others?

Justin: Most people. Most days. Don’t try to steal from me, don’t harm me or my family, and we’ll get along fine. Why? Are you planning something?

FCI: Ha-ha-ha. No. Someone as rich and secretive as you are must make enemies. Is there anyone in particular you keep your eye on?

Justin: It’s a long list. Reputation and money equal power, and some people always want more. I’ve outlived a lot of enemies at this point. Two of them blew each other up, another blew himself up, and the Feds made one—what’s wrong, Alison? Oh. That never happened. I remember. Never mind.

FCI: No, this is going out more or less live.  How about allies? Do you want to give a shout out to anyone while you’re here?

Justin: Allies. That’s a cold word.  I have friends. Two of them are right there. They have names. Please don’t ask me who they are, you’ll embarrass all of us and make the short one mad at me. Most of the time I still remember their names. This is an interview, right? Not an interrogation? I’m not tied up, and everyone else looks confused now, so I’m shutting up before I screw up even worse.

FCI:  Uh-huh. That was an interesting answer.

Justin: I excel at interesting. Are we done?

FCI: That’s up to you, of course. I have a lot more questions. Here’s one that got a lot of votes: what are your plans? Is there one thing that you would like to do in the future?

Justin: Hey, I’d love to know where I am and why I’m here. That’d be a great start. Wait. I see Alison there. Hi, Allie. Have I mentioned how much it sucks to be losing my mind? Hey, Serena. Yes, I know you, too. Don’t get all worked up. I think we should leave now. Is that okay? You know, I don’t care if it is. I think we’re done.


And there you have it.  Here’s my favorite visual imagining of Justin, courtesy of the talented Daniel Govar.

FCJustin

If you’ve stuck around this far, stay tuned for the next edition, which will happen the next time I feel like slacking. Probably next week, the way things are going.  I’ll interview Jack Coby, a recurring character from my Rough Passages series. Maybe next week, maybe not, but eventually.

Decision Point: a bit of flash fiction

This short piece was first written for an online site a few years ago. I recently converted it to first-person present tense for the fun of it. Verb tense does change the feel of the story.  Not sure if it works or not, but it’s done, so up it goes. 


 

We don’t belong here. This rocky path high in the San Bernardino Mountains is no place for city slickers like us. We aren’t dressed for the weather or the terrain, we have no maps, canteens, or first-aid kits, and no one else in the wide world knows where we are.

We don’t belong, but we’re here. The trail goes two directions: forward or back. The sun is glimmering behind a seductive green fringe of pine boughs, the cool breeze perfumed with the scent of pine is rustling sweet meadow grasses, and the trail is a dusty-brown invitation to continue into the shadowed forest again. Forward or back: decision time.

We decided once already. That’s how we got this far.

A few hours earlier we were all lounging around a hotel pool in the blistering mid-summer heat of California’s Central Valley. There are five of us: Dru, Gary, Alexis, Kyle and me, co-workers by necessity, friends by serendipitous chance. Our company pulls together its best people to set up new locations, and the job involves a month of six-dat workweeks where the shifts routinely top twelve hours. We were enjoying the twenty-four hour break between week two and three, recreating as hard as we could in floating chairs with umbrella drinks, when Dru found an idea in her third mai tai.

Dru is short for Prudence, but I’ve never met anyone with a less appropriate name. Moderation is for monks, she says, laughing, and she has a sunny persuasiveness that makes the most ridiculous ideas seem reasonable.

“Let’s go for a drive,” she says, and that is that. Alexis the designated driver chooses a route titled “Scenic Byway” from the rental van’s GPS, and off we go.

Eight clogged lanes of highway become four, and then two. Brown, withered plains give way to scrubby hills, and the roads empty out. Twenty miles from millions of people, we are the only souls  in the universe.

West Coast - 67

The road shrinks again to one lane with narrow shoulders, and the route twists  and climbs uphill through tall trees as straight as telephone poles. Drifts of snow huddle at the tree bases, gray in the shade. Gary opens the windows, and we shiver in our tank tops and shorts. “National Forest,” declares a faded wood sign.

Conversation quiets to murmurs of “I’ve never seen so much green,” and “I wonder what kind of bird that is.”

Kyle, ever the curious one, checks online. “Steller’s Jay,” he says, but we are happier when his phone loses signal so we can christen the world for ourselves.

Ship-mast pines, old-man bushes with clumps of leaves like shaking fists, and bat-squirrels who cling upside-down from branches. We laugh at every new discovery claimed, and then we run out of road. No tire tracks mar the smooth gravel of the turnaround. A trailhead beckons to us from the far side. Fallen pine needles lie thick on the path, undisturbed by any travelers. The sign beside the entrance is unreadable, paint weathered off, surface sanded flat by time’s passage.

I trace the carved symbols by hand, but their meaning is long gone. Dru says, “Let’s see where it goes.”

That’s the kind of suggestion that gets people killed in these wild places on the edge of civilization. Nature doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hypothermia, dehydration, starvation–all those deadly fates are one injury, one slip, one wrong turn away. People die every year because they mistake proximity for safety. I know how stupid this idea is.

I say, “Great idea.”

It’s stupid, but risk is part of life. We live, we dare, we head into the woods. Dru skips along in her flip-flops, Gary grumbles about blisters, Kyle and Alexis complain about sweat, but no one wants to be the first to give up. Then Drew stops at a narrow cross-trail, looking tempted.

There’s stupid, and then there’s stupid. “No turns,” I say.

She walks on, but she asks, “Why not?” so I tell gruesome stories about people dying lost in the woods. Survival is about choosing risks. All decisions have consequences.

A snide remark from Alexis and a joke from Gary lead to an unforgettable discussion about survival and the human spirit. The conversation meanders like the trail. We walk, and we talk, and we soak up the joy that comes with baring your heart and past to friends while getting grit in your teeth, twigs in your socks, and sunburn on the tips of your ears.

One more curve, we agree every time we come around a corner and the trail goes on. One more, until we reach this overlook where the smoggy human grid of the valley spreads out below us. We joke about zombies and escaping the apocalypse, we admire the way the trail dives back into the trees at the far end of the soft forest grass—so enticing—and we look at the sun, not setting yet but soon.

Do we turn back? Or do we toss the coins of our lives onto luck’s table and gamble our futures for the thrill of new and now?

Life never lets us see the endings we don’t make. That’s what stories are for.

Do we walk back safe with full hearts and no regrets? Do we retreat with the itch of what if scratching at our souls for the rest of our lives?  Or do we freeze in the dark, caught by a late-season blizzard blowing off the Pacific? Maybe we fall to our deaths, first one alone, the the rest in a tumble of screams when a rotted slope crumbles beneath us. Perhaps adventurers from a generation not yet born will find our starved and withered corpses lost deep in the heart of the wilds.

We stand in a meadow bathed by golden light and weigh a simple choice that is not simple at all. One decision will create a whole ever-after for each of us.

What would you choose?


Photo credits: William Morris, private collection

 

Spooky Flash Fiction

These were written for a Halloween contest I did not win, so here ya go, world. Trick or treat. A sea monster story, a devil dog story, and a story about demons. Sort of. Count on me to mess with the concepts.

Grief’s Reward


I heard her call, in the chill night after an autumn storm, and I went to her. How could I not? She sobbed as she sang, and her lonely pain plucked at chords within my empty heart. She sang my pain, and it touched me as no one else ever had.

The surf was cold, roaring high, and the stones tore my bare feet to shreds. I bled into the salt foam between land and water, before she rose to embrace me. There was beauty in her coils of iridescent scales, and she sang of joy and warmth beneath the waves. She tied me to her body with strands of kelp, and she tied me to her soul with song, and her sharp fins cut my flesh as she took me under the sea.

She brought me deep, where lay the bones of those gone before, but I did not care. They had fallen prey to her frustration and rage. This time happy accident brought a widowed fishwife when she called, not the tall fishermen her lure had ensnared in the past. She had sought always the biggest, strongest mates, not understanding how my kind differed from the creatures of the sea, and she laughed, when I explained. We shared that joy and more until dawn came, when she brought me safe ashore.

She left me, but I am no longer alone. I watch the sea in springtime now, under warm hazy skies, and life grows inside me. I watch the surf, and I hope for storms.

Good Dog

Dog was adorable when he was a baby. When Jim looked over the litter of nine–born who knew where, abandoned at the animal shelter–the pup was a palm’s worth of black fluff, with shiny button eyes and a tiny pink tongue that got stuck between his teeth when he barked. Jim tucked him into a coat sleeve for the bus ride home.

The shelter said he would probably grow to fifty pounds. Perfect, Jim thought. Fifty pounds was the perfect size for a country boy who was willing to admit that he wanted protection on the mean city streets. No mugger would ever beat him again, not with a dog like that. He named the puppy Dog, because nothing else fit. Dog grew. He read training books. Dog grew. They attended obedience classes. And Dog grew.

Devil dog, the landlady called him, and made evil-eye signs at them in the hall. “He’s a good boy,” Jim would say, and she would spit on the floor.

By six months, Dog had left fifty pounds far behind. He was big enough to pull Jim off his feet and run loose to chase rats in the alleys. When Jim would catch up to him, Dog would look up from his prey and let his teeth show. His eyes would glow red, above his red-stained muzzle. He looked evil, when he wagged his tail.

Evil? No. Not my dog, Jim would tell himself as he picked up Dog’s leash. He can’t be evil. He’s a good boy. “Who’s a good boy?” he would say, and Dog would let his pink tongue loll out between his bloody teeth. He never left a scrap behind.

When he was a year old, he killed his first mugger. “Who’s a good boy?” Jim said, and he smiled when the landlady opened her door.

Thresholds
 
Once upon a time, when I used to hike the woods at night, I saw portals on every trail. Every gap between curving beech trees was a gate into another world. Every fallen tree hid the entrance to some strange place filled with ancient, forgotten treasures. I walked through each archway and listened to things rustle in the undergrowth with hope in my heart, praying that this time it truly would be a gate to Beyond.
I wanted those other worlds to be real, when the pale bark of the beeches glowed white by moonlight, and each firefly blinking in the darkness promised magic. When I was young and innocent, when I still walked outside after sundown, I saw passages to worlds wondrous and strange everywhere I looked.
There are doorways between worlds. There are. I did find them, in the end. I was right about that, but I was so very wrong about the rest. When the gates opened, when the hunters came through, I saw–oh, what I saw–and I knew my error. Too late.
Now I pray that those gates close, because those other worlds are filled with horrors. I have seen them. They came for me, with eyes glistening, and the skins of their victims buckled around their slimy throats. They heard me; they heard me calling, there in their dark lairs, and they came.
They sit outside my door, when the shadows grow long, and they rustle in the bushes.