Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dark Days, Lighter Nights

I flicked the lighter open and watched the flame dance in the wind.

Sitting on this curb was hurting my arched back. At my gritty shoes was a box of old newspapers, some little bits of grey matter, crumpled and shredded into meaningless words, a pile of filth and ink on wasted trees. I held a fist full of it to the light, inched the paper towards the soft orange edges, until a tiny spark caught on, licking hungrily, singeing their corners black.

Dropping it to the ground, I watched silently, as the paper ball crumpled, blackened, and folded under and over, caving into itself. Those dark words, so bold and thick, became unreadable - a sad "RPE DIE" of what once was, bent at its half-eaten corners, until finally, disintegrating. Embers, bright and majestic, floated above me like fireflies, carried off by a gentle breeze and disappearing into the night.

What is it about fire? I am admiring the little flame, still whisking and burning, jumping in spite.

The flames, light and innocent, curl and waft to the wind, as if thin and harmless - barely a breath's touch. And yet it destroys. It feeds and sucks up life with that touch, ruthless as toxic leeches, stealing oxygen, until there is nothing left.

With a snap, I kill the light. My father is calling me to come inside. Brushing off the powdery soot, I slip the chrome Zippo in my sweatpants pocket and bend down to carry the old cardboard box inside.

I love the sound of gravel under my shoes. The way it crumbles against each other, bustling along with your every movement, following in your stead. They are but murmurs, a light crunching of granola. It is peaceful out here. Quiet. I wish my walk up this cracked driveway were longer.


I let the screen door clang shut, ignoring my megaphone of a father. The box is shoved awkwardly under the crook of one arm. I see him sitting there, as always. In the dimly lit living room. On that mustard leather couch with craters of peeling skin. Holding a beer bottle in hand, stuck to those clammy desperate palms.

His back is to me. His eyes, enraptured by that boxed TV screen. He doesn't notice. He doesn't notice me stomp up the stairs, doesn't hear the uneven creaks of the aged sandpaper steps.

I am upstairs. Safe behind my bedroom door. My nostrils scrunch up at the stench. I haven't slept here in days.

Quickly, I click on my desk lamp and shove the box amongst the hoarded clutter on my desk. I knock over a few pencils and a small orange vial rolls to the floor, clambering noisily against the wood, the sound making me cringe at its harshness.

I hear shuffling coming from downstairs. "DOM! Get down here!" I jump, startled. I don't usually jump. These ears of mine have been tuned to his volume.

I look down. My hands are sweaty, shaking uncontrollably. Grabbing my things, I leave my room behind, without looking back.

Down the stairs I go, stumbling and carrying my bulky bags. I grab a jug from a large duffle bag and uncap it. Now was the time. Today was the beginning. I water the potted plant - its leaves forever drooping - for one last time.

It was time to leave. Time to leave this hell of a house.

His back is still turned, his eyes still watching the TV.

This time, he hears me coming. "Hand over my lighter you piece of - " he starts to say. But he stops short. His head jerks suddenly, his eyes snapping into focus, like dirtied, unused binocular lenses. He is seeing me for the first time in weeks. And for a brief moment he looks sober. But only for a moment.

All his attention is on me now.

You see, I am not just watering the plant. I had too much in my jug for that single pot of dead leaves. Glug, glug. I am watering the floorboards. Glug. Glug. Watering the soiled "WELCOME" mat that had been thrown off to the side for the winter. Glug. Watering the bookshelf, stocked overflowing with liquor bottles. Glug. Watering the skinny wooden chair that has been crippled for years. Glug. Until every last drop is gone.

He is frozen. Unable to move. The drunkard's face is plastered on and polished, eyes wide and fish-like, his mouth hanging out dumbly.

I am at the doorway now. Safe behind the threshold. My right hand clenches tightly around the cold metal resting in my pocket. Pulling out the lighter, I flick it open again. My thumb scrapes against the rough gear, in the same way that I have practiced for hours, for days. A sharp flame shoots up, obedient and eager.

"Dom, Dom. Son, just give me that," he pleads. His arms are outstretched, but he won't dare to cross over the carpet and onto the wet floorboards. I stare blankly at him, my eyes parched and angry.  No more beatings. No more drunk characters. No more scapegoating for his financial troubles.

This lighter will grant me my freedom. Today was the day. I let the metal slip from my hands, hear it clatter to the floor, watch the fire come to life. Brilliant and bright. Carpe. Diem.

And I was already out the door, ignoring his screams as I always do.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Flash Fiction: The Switch

Here's my flash fiction for Chuck Wendig's opening line challenge. Two weeks ago, we had to create our own gripping opening lines. This past week, we had to choose someone else's opening line and write a story based off of that. I chose Nora's: "All she had to do was wait." If you're reading this, do give me feedback as this is my first flash fiction. (Also note that I wrote this late last night and probably confused myself writing it - yea, I know, I should really edit. But maybe another day.) Here it is, "The Switch":

The Switch
All she had to do was wait.

Sitting on a rusted metal bench, Sara stuffed her hands deep into the warmth of her coat pockets. Wind, cold and unkind, bellowed and stung against her cheekbones. She shivered. She wanted to stand up and go home, or run inside the nearest convenient store – to be anywhere but here, waiting at this bus stop. But no. She ignored her instincts and continued to sit, looking down at the crusted mud on her leather boots.

She closed her eyes, touching the ridges of her bracelet, hearing his voice again, remembering his words. Gradually, the panic subsided and she could breathe again.

Splitting the fog and gloominess, a pair of dim headlights approached, spanning the length of the curbside. The bulky transit bus pulled up, moaning as it braked to a stop. The doors hissed open and an old man and a young couple shuffled to climb aboard. Slipping her backpack limply across her right shoulder, she stood in line. Hesitant, she turned back and looked up the street, not sure what she was expecting.

“Miss, are you getting on?” the bus driver growled, showing no effort to mask his annoyance. His mustache bounced up and down on his upper lip and seemed to have a life of its own.

“Yea –,” she said.

The bus smelled of sweat and hamburgers. She made her way to the back, making sure to avoid eye contact with the other passengers. As she reached a seat, the guy across from her suddenly stood up. Their eyes met for a split second before he brushed past her, hurrying to get off the bus.
“Hold up!” the guy exclaimed. “This is my stop!”

The bus driver muttered a string of unpleasant words under his breath and though reluctant, eventually opened the doors to let him out.

She watched numbly from her seat as the scene played itself out. Hugging the bag against her chest, she couldn’t forget the look in his eyes – the adrenaline, the fearlessness. The guy walked off with a confident stride, fingering the bracelet in his hand. By the time the bus pulled away, all she could see was his slim figure, with a backpack hanging off from one shoulder, stopping short as a black van pulled up next to him. She forced herself to look away then, knowing it would be the last she would see of him.

Time passed slowly and painfully and she couldn’t help but sit at the edge of her seat the entire ride. The air on the bus was sickening. Or maybe it was just the heavy weight on her lap.  

Finally, at last, the bus pulled to its last stop.

The streets were silent in this neighborhood. There were no street gangs lurking in alleyways, no drunken men straggling about. Only the stray cats roamed the streets, hunting for prey.

Sara slipped into the shadows with ease. Her expertise was disappearing and her second home was in the dark. She wished she could disappear forever, but knew she had to keep moving.

The apartment building at the end of the block looked like all the others. It had the same blackened bricks and stood at the same height as its neighbors. It appeared mundane and dull, except for the fact that it didn’t exist during the day.

The old lady opened the door before Sara even reached the house, ushering her in with urgency.

“Helen,” she whispered, her voice cracking after hours of not speaking. She followed the old lady inside and they walked over to sit next to the fireplace.

Helen smiled broadly as she poured the warm tea into two cups. Setting the tea pot down on a coaster, she paused and sighed. “So. Did all go well?”

Meekly, Sara nodded, pulling up the bag and setting it on the table. Delicately, she reached in and pulled it out – the cursed stone, the unwanted treasure.

Helen’s eyes gleamed at the sight of it. She chuckled softly, delighted. “A dragon’s egg.” She slurred the words together, as if drunk with amazement. The silver egg sparkled against the firelight, which flickered and swam and swirled in its presence.

Sara struggled to hide her disgust. In that moment that Helen was distracted, she managed to slip her hand back under the table, unnoticed. “I brought you what you wanted,” she said, putting on the bravest tone of voice she could manage. “Now fulfill your half of the deal.”

Helen’s eyes flashed with a piercing glare. Her pleasant old lady demeanor had vanished without a trace. There it was: the demonic, preying Helen that Sara knew– the one that haunted her with nightmares.

“First, let’s celebrate awhile, shall we?” Helen grinned, trying to hide her sudden shift in personality. “Drink with me this last time.”

The weight of her words felt like lead – heavy and deadly. The pain set in like needles and threatened to stop Sara’s beating heart. She gasped, struggling to breathe again. No matter how many times she experienced the pain, she could never brace herself for it. She was forced to obey. Her head pounded and throbbed. She had to hurry before she would lose control and Helen’s spell would take over.

“One last drink and I’ll be free?” she added.

Helen waved her hand nonchalantly. “Yes, yes. One last drink and you’ll be free.” She spoke as if she had the upper hand, unaware of just how careless her words were.

So they drank and drained the cups.

Helen sat back in her chair, placing a hand on the dragon egg, savoring her prize. She looked at Sara with eyes of ice and held her chin up, as if challenging, waiting.

The bracelet on Sara’s wrist glowed for but a second, hissed, and broke into two distinct pieces that lay lifelessly on the table. After all that – years of torture and enslavement, Jake’s sacrifice - she was free.

And in that moment, a gasp slipped from Helen’s curled lips. Her hands were shaking; her forehead was coated with sweat. The cup in her hand fell to the floor, shattering into a million pieces. There was something different in her eyes. Something vulnerable: fear.

Sara stood up, feeling stronger than ever. The tables had turned. She grabbed at the egg, sweeping it up in her arms and moving to the other side of the room.

“How did you – when did you?”

She looked back at Helen and saw only a dying corpse. There was no remorse, no glory. No feeling at all. “I did what Jake told me to do.”

“Jake! He’s dead! Since the moment he stole that egg!” Helen shrieked, hysterical. Never had she been faced with defeat. Never had she felt inferior to any living creature.

The shadows were moving, stirring around Sara, as they engulfed her in their cloak. Helen lunged at her, only to come up empty handed. The spell had been broken. Sara was already slipping away, dragon egg in hand. And as she made the finishing touches of her disappearing act, she smiled, for the first time in years.

Jake was right. Helen had tried to double-cross them. 

But all she had to do was wait for the right moment. And everything would fall exactly into place.