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The Woods 2-Thirty Years Later.jpg

Two men are standing in the backyard of a small rundown house in an older middle-class neighborhood. One, wearing a cheap suit and shoes not suited to traipsing through grass, is looking at the house with a mix of uncertainty and mild remorse.  He had hoped the house would be in better shape.  The other, in jeans, shirt, and runners, is studying the trees and bushes bordering the back property line.

“I heard a couple of boys vanished in these woods years ago.” He doesn’t turn around to look at the man in the suit, his attention fixed on the trees.

“It’s a local legend.  Brothers, Kevin and Jesse. They were playing in their yard and vanished.”  The man in the suit turns around to look at the trees too.

“This yard?  They lived in this house?”  The man in jeans looks around at the leafy jumble of trees bordering the yard and stretching out past the neighboring yards.  You can’t see through them or tell how far they go.

“Yes.  To be honest, I was going to leave that bit of background out.  It’s not exactly a selling point.”

“How does anyone know they went in the woods?”

“They found one of the boys’ shoes next to an old tree stump.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.  No other sign of the boys was ever found.”

“And the house?”

“Abandoned.  Left to rot.”

“The family just left it?”

“The boys’ mother went crazy, I heard.  The husband wanted to sell the house and move, get away from the memories I guess.  She refused to sell.  She kept insisting the boys were still here. From what I heard she was obsessed with keeping the house exactly the way it was the day they vanished too.”

“Crazy.”

“Yeah, crazy.”

“So, the house is selling pretty cheap.  It wasn’t looked after?”

“The husband left both her and the house.  Walked away and never looked back.  She stayed in the house for a while, until she was committed.  As far as I know, no one has set foot in the house since.  It’s going to be in pretty rough shape.”

“You make one hell of a real estate agent, you know that, right?”

“Ha-ha, yeah, I guess I do.”

“Can I take a look inside?”

“Sure, let’s go.  I have to warn you, this will be the first time anyone has set foot inside that house in thirty years.  I don’t know what we’ll find.”

The house is an average lower middle-class family home.  Smallish, but not quite as small as the low-income homes across the way.  The windows are hazy with the grime of thirty years of neglect and the paint long ago cracked and much of it worn away by the weather.  The windowsills sag with rot, half eaten by time. The shingles are cracking and peeling up and back on themselves like over-cooked sliced potatoes, browned rather than charred and entirely inedible.  The long grass of the yard had recently been clumsily hacked down, hastily driven over by a municipal riding mower, the charge tacked onto the growing bill of unpaid municipal fees owed, including property taxes and the other inevitable costs of home ownership.  It is one of the unasked for services visited on negligent homeowners.

It is these unpaid fees which are the reason the home is for sale now.  The bank had tried to foreclose on the unpaid mortgage almost thirty years ago, only to find themselves tied up in legal purgatory pitted against the municipality trying to seize the home for unpaid taxes.

Lacking much interest on both sides, the issue dragged out and dragged on, court proceedings repeatedly pushed back, and finally slipped through the cracks of forgotten paperwork.  Until, close to thirty years later, when a bored clerk cleaning out the desk of a deceased co-worker took pause to read a page of paper among the stacks being shoved into the shredding bin, and accidentally stumbled on the outstanding unfinished business of this house.

The long forgotten house by the woods.

The bank had long ago written it off, a small piece of millions in bad debts, and the municipal office was granted free title without being aware of it.

Now the house is up for auction to collect the unpaid property taxes and municipal fees owed.

With most of the records from thirty years ago gone, and no one keeping track of this forgotten property, the best anyone could piece together and confirm owed on the property is the cost of the most recent grass cuttings.  The whopping price of fifty-six dollars.  Less than the price of a song and a dance. They don’t know when the taxes stopped being paid. Any taxes owed are moot. Nearly thirty years of taxes adds up to more than the run down property is likely worth, and ownership by the owners was given up long ago.

The place is a steal.

And in this condition, its value is in the land it sits on.  Any buyer would tear the house down and rebuild.

They reach the door and the realtor fumbles with the key safe looped around the doorknob, trying to remember the combination to open it.  It’s a rectangular box-shaped device locked over the skinny part of the knob like a padlock, housing the key to the door.

Finally, he opens it and releases its treasure, a worn looking house key with the color rubbing off and marred with bits of rust in the teeth.

 

*** Watch for the full-length novel ***

 

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Today is anti bullying day.

To help spread the word and in support of the movement to end bullying, I have written a short story.

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This is the story of Sarah Carpenter.

Sarah Carpenter is a teenager with a big problem.  She is being bullied.

With her low self esteem and the stress and helplessness of being a victim of bullying, Sarah has become a suicidal girl whose salvation comes through a promise not to kill herself if only she received a sign through a special gift sent to her in the waves

** All characters and events are fictional.

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Gift in the Waves

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It all changed the day I found the gift in the waves.  But that isn’t what this story is about.

This story is about how I got there.

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If you asked Sarah Carpenter why she felt so unhappy all the time she wouldn’t tell you.  Sarah didn’t know why.

You see, Sarah was depressed and depressed people don’t always know why they feel that way.

Sarah was a suicidal girl whose salvation came through a promise not to kill herself if only she received a sign through a special gift sent to her in the waves.

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That’s me, Sarah Carpenter, the most despondent teenager in town, and this is my story.

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The alarm clock buzzed and Sarah rolled over with a groan, slapping blindly at the clock until she managed to hit the snooze button.

She didn’t get the chance to snooze.

“Sarah, get up.  Let’s go,” her mother called impatiently from the doorway.

“Ugh, five more minutes,” Sarah moaned.  She felt like hell, she was so tired and she hated getting up early.

“Now Sarah!  We have to be out of here in thirty minutes,” her mother said.  Her voice was full of stress.  It always was in the mornings.

Sarah heard her mother leave the room, rushing about to toss stuff together.

Her eyes opened a crack, the glaring orange light of the clock told her it was only six-thirty.

“Stupid early dance class,” Sarah muttered, dragging herself out of bed.  “Just once I wish I could sleep late on a weekend like everyone else.”

Sarah’s life was a parade of moving about from one place to another, school, soccer, baseball, and dance.  She hated them all, but her parents apparently thought the activities would make her a better person.

By the time Sarah was dressed and racing down the stairs her mother was already in the car honking the horn at her to hurry up.

Sarah thought that was very rude.

That the neighbors might be sleeping and disturbed by the horn was just one of many things that never seemed to occur to her mother.  She was too busy rushing everywhere to stop and think about it.

Sarah settled into the car and closed her eyes for the drive, imagining that she was sleeping with the whole day to do nothing else.

The motion of the car would have been soothing if she hadn’t seen her mother’s frantic driving with her eyes open.

The car zipped through traffic, in and out of lanes as her mother jockeyed for position as if she were in a race instead of just going to ballet class. A horn honked as a driver made a rude gesture, angry at being cut off.

They were barely in the dance studio when her mother was already on her phone on a business call, completely ignoring Sarah.

She never stopped working.

Her parents were busy and successful in their careers.  Unfortunately that also meant they didn’t have a whole lot of time for Sarah or her siblings.  They made up for it by buying them a bunch of stuff all the time.

Sarah would rather have a better family.

Sarah survived her class, muddling through pliés and frappés while the teacher glared disapprovingly at her lack of effort.

The other girls huddled and giggled, giving sly looks towards her.

Sarah knew they were gossiping about her.  They always did and it was never anything nice.

After dance were soccer practice and a baseball game.

Soccer wasn’t any better.  Margaret Mansfield tripped her on purpose and half the team laughed at her.  At baseball they put her far out in the left field where she mostly just stood around waiting for the time to pass.  When it was her turn at bat, she got hit with the ball and did nothing but strike out.

When they finally got home Sarah slouched off to her bedroom and closed the door, relieved to finally be alone and away from the comments and looks from all the other kids and the endless chatter of her mother on the phone.

 Sarah was an average teenager with an average family and an average life.  Nothing eventful happened in her life and she preferred it that way.

Like any teenager, nothing ever seemed to go Sarah’s way.  Everyone in her parents circle told her she was pretty, but she didn’t agree.  If she was, she would have more friends like her sister and brother.

She had two brothers and a sister who all seemed to be better at everything than her.

Sarah didn’t really like any of her siblings either.

Her older brother Jordan, the oldest of the siblings, was the family hero.  He was the best at everything, did everything right, was handsome, and everyone was supposed to be just like him.

Her older sister Carrie was taller, prettier, and dressed right.  She was popular and the best boys in school followed her around like puppy dogs.

And then there was Sarah’s younger brother Trenton, the youngest of the bunch.  He was flat out a pest and pain in her rump.  He got anything he wanted by throwing tantrums and always got into her stuff and wrecked it.

Sarah disliked him the most.

But not as much as she hated herself.

She could hear her family off in the house doing whatever they were doing and hoped they would just leave her alone.

With a heavy sigh she grabbed her MP3, plugged the ear buds into her ears, and turned it on, music instantly crashing into her eardrums.

Sitting at her computer, Sarah clicked it on and waited for it to boot up.  She decided to check out her social networking sites first.

Within minutes Sarah wished she hadn’t.  The comments streaming through her feed were peppered with mentions of her, none of it flattering.

“Sarah U R So LAME!” Margaret messaged for everyone to see.

Sarah’s stomach suddenly hurt.  She felt like her heart was sinking right down below her achy stomach.

After that the comments just got nasty.  Before Sarah closed the site Margaret and a few other girls promised to beat Sarah up at school Monday.

“Great!” Sarah muttered.  “Another thing to look forward to.”

Margaret and her friends have been bullying Sarah all year.  They made up mean stories about her, spread hurtful rumors, and were always waiting for her to hurt or embarrass her.

Sarah had tried complaining about it.  She told her parents and they talked to Margaret’s and the other girls’ parents.  She told the teachers at school and her parents talked to the principal.

But telling only made the bullying worse.  Nothing seemed to happen to the bullies and they came after her worse every time she told, punishing her for telling.

Sarah stopped telling anyone.  It was just easier that way.

“Sarah, supper!” her brother Trenton called, opening the door and slamming it closed too hard.

She took her time going downstairs for supper.  She was hungry, but didn’t feel much like eating.

Sarah sat mutely picking at her dinner.

It was the usual dinner conversation.

Jordan and her father bragged about Jordan’s wonderful exploits.

Carrie and her mother talked about shopping and fashions and how fabulous Carrie would look in this and that.

Trenton goofed and burped and farted, interrupting everyone’s conversations with his inane laughter over how funny he was.  He managed to get his elbow in Sarah’s food and seemed to annoy nobody except Sarah.

Sarah quickly lost her appetite and sat there pretending to eat, moving the food on her plate around with her fork until enough time had lapsed that she could ask to be excused.

Nobody noticed how little she’d eaten as she skulked off with her plate to scrape it and put it to be washed.

It was Sarah’s job to clean up after supper.  She started on the task right away so she could get it done and go back to sitting in her room alone.

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Done with washing the dishes at last, Sarah went up to her room.

She froze in the doorway, staring in horror at her bed.

There, in a tattered mess of torn pages blotched with fat ugly marks from a felt marker, was her diary.

Tears welled in Sarah’s eyes and she clenched her fists at her side in fury.

“TRENTON!” she screeched.

Footsteps thudded through the house, approaching as she stepped in on wooden legs, staring at the mess.

The clasp locking the diary was snapped right off the pressed cardboard book cover.

“What happened?!  What’s all the yelling about?!” her father called as he rushed into the room.  Mother, Jordan, Carrie, and Trenton were hot on his heels.

Jordan craned to see past his father, snickering at the sight of the mangled diary.

Carrie gasped and then smothered a giggle behind her hands.

Mother gave Trenton a look.  He didn’t have the decency to look guilty.

Father glared at Sarah, angry at her outburst.

“He destroyed my diary,” Sarah cried, the tears stinging her eyes beginning to flow despite her attempts to keep them at bay.

“It’s just a book!” Father snapped.  “We’ll buy you a new one.  It wasn’t worth shrieking about!”

But it wasn’t just a book.

This was her diary, her only confidant, and where she hid all her deepest secrets.

It was more than the destruction of a part of her.

What if Trenton had read it?!

The thought horrified Sarah beyond what words can explain.

“Clean up the mess,” Mother said more gently than Father’s accusing tone.  “We’ll buy you another one.”

As if that would make it better.

“I don’t want another one!”  Sarah stamped her foot in frustration and hurt feelings.  “I want this one!”

Everyone filed out except Trenton who stayed back just long enough to wait until no one would see and he had a clear escape path.

He pulled a fistful of pages out of his pocket, making sure Sarah saw them.

“Sarah’s got a secret,” he sang mockingly.

Sarah’s eyes widened and she screeched like a wild beast, leaping after her little brother.

Trenton squealed and ran down the hallway, pounding down the stairs so fast he almost slide down them.

Sarah almost caught him twice.

She didn’t know what she would do when she did, but tearing him limb from limb felt like a pretty good idea.

Sarah stumbled on the stairs, catching herself on the railing as she fell and getting carpet burn on one knee.

She looked up to see her parents standing at the bottom of the stairs looking angry.

Trenton hid behind them looking smug.

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Grounded!

Sarah couldn’t believe it.  Trenton was the one who wrecked her diary, stole pages from it, and teased her, causing all the trouble.  And she was the one grounded!

Sarah knew she’d be in even more trouble if they knew she was on the computer, but she was so angry that she was beyond angry.

She felt hollow and empty.  Her eyes still burned with the tears that had run out and her jaw ached.  Her whole head felt stuffed with cotton and her nose wouldn’t stop running.

Sarah was searching the internet for ways to kill herself.

It wasn’t the first time.  She thought about it every day.

“Tomorrow,” she whispered.  “Tomorrow I’ll do it and they’ll all be sorry.”

She knew she would go to Hell.  But she was going to Hell anyway.

Her parents dragged them all to church every Sunday morning.

Tomorrow morning she would be sitting awkwardly in the uncomfortable wooden pew in her Sunday best, feeling small and insignificant in the grand and gaudily decorated building, while the priest commanded them to sit, stand, sing, and chant on cue with a gesture of his hand in between lecturing them on God.

She always felt like he was telling them nobody was worthy of God or Heaven and they were all going straight to Hell unless they smartened up.

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Sunday morning dawned and it was off to church.

Sarah followed her family sullenly, wishing she was anywhere else.

Some of the girls snickered behind their hands, giving Sarah looks that suggested she was funny in an Elephant Man kind of way.  Of course, Margaret was right in the middle of them.

Sarah sat through the endless sermon, not paying attention and turning red with embarrassment when she was caught still sitting seconds after everyone else had stood and started chanting on cue.

Her mother glared at her.  The look said how much of an embarrassment Sarah was to her family.

Sarah wished she would be absorbed into the wooden pew like the gas the old man sitting behind her kept passing.

After church Sarah had to go play a soccer game.  Her father drove her there impatiently and stood on the sidelines looking annoyed that he had to be there.

“Well, I didn’t ask to be signed up for soccer,” Sarah muttered, feeling like he was blaming her for making him waste his time there.

During the game Margaret kicked Sarah in the shin, shoving her down at the same time, and stomped on her ankle with her soccer cleat, drawing blood.

Margaret’s friends snickered at Sarah as she limped off the field.

Margaret and Sarah exchanged looks as she limped by.  Sarah’s was shell-shocked and Margaret’s was smug.

Once home after soccer, Sarah snuck out and wandered off to the nearby beach.  Her house was only a short jog from the ocean.

She wasn’t supposed to leave the house since she was grounded, but her parents were always too busy to notice.

Sarah’s feet slipped and sank as she struggled to walk along the sandy shore line. Even the sand seemed to be trying to knock her down.   Seaweed and other refuse from the ocean was pushed up and up the shore as each wave came in to give it a shove as if the sea were just too tired of it all and couldn’t put any real effort into it.

“I know how you feel,” she said to the ocean.  Sarah felt tired of it all too, like pushing that gunk up the beach was just too much effort.

She plopped down on the sand and just sat there for a while watching the waves and the seagulls.  Clouds tracked slowly across the sky, playing peek-a-boo with the sun.  The sun warmed her when it peeked out, then the breeze cooled her when the sun hid.

“If I just swim out far enough the undertow will take me so far out into the ocean that nobody will ever find me,” she told the waves.

The idea of drowning didn’t really scare Sarah.

She nodded.

“Yes, that’s what I’ll do,” she said, nodding as if the matter were decided.  “I’m going to drown myself.  Today.”

Sarah just sat there and didn’t move.

She imagined everyone’s reactions to her death.

Most of them wouldn’t care at all.

Margaret would be happy.  She’d probably brag to everyone that she did it.

Her family wouldn’t care at all.  Hell, her parents probably wouldn’t even notice she was missing.

Well, Trenton would care, she mused.  He’d be happiest of all.  He wanted her computer and MP3 really badly.  If she died, he would get to have them.

“I should take them with me,” Sarah thought.  She pictured herself struggling through the sand, awkwardly carrying the bulky computer to take them out into the ocean with her.

She almost laughed at herself just seeing how silly it would look.

Her mirth was short lived.

The sadness came over her again, filling her with emptiness.

“I’m just a hollow nobody,” she thought.

Sarah sat for a long time, not thinking or feeling much of anything, trying to not think or feel at all.

It was useless.  She felt like she was so useless, so hopeless.

“No wonder nobody likes me,” Sarah said sadly.

She felt even smaller and more insignificant against the vast sky and ocean.  She was a speck of sand on the beach and nothing more.

She felt like God was up there, his back turned to her, ignoring her.

“Even God doesn’t care,” she sighed.

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On Monday Sarah went to school.  She slinked all the way there, watching for Margaret and her friends, desperately hoping they wouldn’t see her.

She made it to school safely and didn’t see Margaret or her friends until she was heading to her third period class.

Sarah squeezed between bodies in the crowded hall, watching and alert for the first sign of danger.

She staggered from a painful blow to her back.

At the same time a fist crashed into her from nowhere, sending her books flying out of her arms, one smacking her painfully in the nose.  Something also struck her legs, knocking her off balance.

She staggered, trying to get her footing, but couldn’t seem to control her feet.  Something blocked them.

Sarah tipped and fell to the floor with a thud and the raucous laughter of half the school.

She watched helplessly as her books were kicked around the hallway.

Sarah’s face reddened and her eyes welled with tears.  She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have even gotten a paper-cut on one eye when her book hit her.

For the moment Sarah didn’t feel invisible.

She felt like the whole world saw her.

She wished she was invisible.

The bell rang and the hallway cleared quickly.

Sarah got up painfully, rubbing her bruised knee, and searched for her scattered books.

She couldn’t find them all.  She would be in trouble.

Sarah was late for class and tried to slip into the room unnoticed.

The teacher missed nothing.

Sarah tried to disappear into herself as her teacher scolded her in front of the whole class and threatened her with detention for being late.

Her face burned and her stomach hurt.

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Almost the last class of the day was gym.  Sarah hated gym more than any other class.

She felt useless and humiliated by her pathetic attempts at whatever activity the teacher punished the class with that day.

And Margaret and her friends were always there too, making fun of her and everything she did.

At the end of gym class, Sarah tried to hide in the locker room as she changed back into her regular clothes.

She was awkwardly struggling with her pants when she heard them.

Margaret and her friends were somewhere in the change room, laughing.

Sarah froze, her veins turning to ice as dread washed through her.

She felt like she would throw up.

“Hurry, hurry,” she muttered to herself, rushing to get her pants on and finding it suddenly nearly impossible.

And then they were on her.

With one pant leg around her calf and her other foot trapped in the opening of the other leg, Margaret and her friends swooped down on Sarah like a pack of cackling hyenas.

They grabbed her, pushing and dragging as she fought against them, her struggles useless against their overpowering numbers.

The girls dragged Sarah and shoved her through the door into the open gym.

She fell on the floor with an ungainly plop, her legs still trapped in her pants legs.

Everyone who was leaving stopped and stared.

Sarah was horrified.  They were all staring at her in her panties!

She stared back, her mouth working but nothing coming out.

The looks she got ranged from amusement to shock to stunned expressions.

Sarah wished with everything she had that she were dead, that she just never even existed.

Her face twisted with despair and she managed to get to her feet and hobble clumsily to the change room.

Sarah pulled up her pants and hid in the furthest corner, waiting for everyone else to leave.

The embarrassment was too much.  The whole school would be talking about this for the rest of the year.

Worse, the boy she had a crush on had been there too.  The stunned look on his face was like a blow to her heart, crushing it.

She missed her last class, hiding in the gym locker room through the entire period.

Sarah looked at everything she saw, imagining all the ways she could kill herself right then and there.

She felt like she was broken.  Sorrow and despair filled her until it hurt so bad she couldn’t believe the pain didn’t kill her.

When the bell to go home rang Sarah still sat there, huddled into herself.

She was too embarrassed to leave.

She was also afraid.

Margaret and her friends were still going to beat her up today.  They’d promised.

But if she didn’t go she’d be locked into the school over night.

At last Sarah skulked out of the change room, leaving the school by a side door and not even bothering to try to get her books.

She walked stiffly home; sure that everyone on the street was staring at her.  The hot flush of embarrassment on her cheeks would not go away.

A bus came barreling up the road, driving fast, its hulking mass unstoppable.

Just as the bus was passing by Sarah leapt out in front of it.

Pain exploded through her as the front grill slammed into her, breaking all her bones.  She fell to the pavement with a wet sound and the bus wheels rolled over her even as they screeched with the stink of burning rubber as they driver braked to stop the bus.

She was dead before she hit the pavement.

The blaring horn of the bus snapped Sarah out of it and the bus swerved as it careened past her.

She looked up in mute shock.  She was standing on the edge of the road.

She had not jumped in front of the bus after all, but had wandered too close to the road while lost in her daydream about killing herself.

Sarah flushed in embarrassment at the stares from the people around her and she scurried off for home.

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Sarah didn’t go straight home.

She would be in trouble when she got there.  The school was sure to have called about her skipping class.  She would have to explain and the thought of telling her parents what Margaret and her friends did was almost as bad as living through it again.

Sarah went instead to the beach to watch the waves.

She sat there staring at the water in its endless tired attempts to push the seaweed up the sand.

A broken little crab struggled in the sand, a victim of a hungry seagull.

Sarah felt just like that little crab.

Empty and broken and floundering in the sand.

“Why me?” she sobbed, wanting an answer she would never get.

Sarah felt more than ever like killing herself right then and there.

She picked up a broken sea shell.  The flat shell was missing the other half.  Its broken edge was jagged and sharp.

Sarah sawed at her arm, slicing through the skin and bringing up a flow of red liquid.

She sawed at the other wrist until it bled too.

She watched in fascination as the liquid dripped into the sand and was immediately soaked in.

She grew sleepy and weak until she was no more.

Sarah opened her eyes.

She had dozed off.

She looked down at her wrists.

She held the jagged broken shell in one fist.

The other arm was scratched, but not bleeding.

Sarah sobbed piteously, letting herself be carried away on a crashing wave of sorrow.

The broken little crab was gone and that made her feel more alone than ever.

Sarah looked off into the horizon where the sky vanished into the ocean.  The setting sun filled the sky with colors that reflected off the water.

“Even the sky is bleeding,” she whispered. “So why can’t I die too?”

She looked up sadly to the heavens above.

“Please God,” Sarah begged.  “Just let me kill myself.  Or do it for me so I don’t have to go to Hell.  Please just let me die.”  She sobbed harder.

As much as Sarah wanted to die, she was afraid.

She wasn’t afraid of dying.

She was afraid of going to Hell and burning and being tortured forever.

“I’m already in Hell,” she sobbed.  “Isn’t Margaret and her friends’ punishment enough?”

Sarah thought about her problem.  Then she had an idea.

“I’ll make you a deal God,” she said, feeling defiant against this omnipotent being who refused to listen or care about her problems; this creature who had banished everyone to be punished for not being good enough for him.

“If I’m not good enough for Heaven and I’m going to Hell anyway, then it doesn’t matter if I kill myself or not.  I’m going to Hell either way.”

“I’m going to kill myself unless you give me a sign – tonight.  Send me a special gift in the waves to show me that I’m good enough for you, and maybe I won’t kill myself.”

“Do you hear me?!” she yelled to the sky.  “I’m going to kill myself tonight!  I’m going to swim out until the waves take me away forever!”

Sarah put her head in her arms and sobbed like she’s never sobbed before.  She cried until the tears ran dry and she felt like she was floating on nothing but the emptiness that filled her.

She sat there for a very long time.

The sun set and the moon crept across the sky, its reflection dancing on the waves.

Sarah gave up waiting.

God wasn’t listening.  Nobody ever did.  Not her parents, not her teachers, nobody.

There would be no special gift in the waves, no sign.

Sarah got up and stood on the edge of the water, the cool waves lapping at her feet.

She braced herself for what was to come.

The water would be cold.

And then she saw it.

Something dark bobbed in the water.  It broke the moon’s reflection; otherwise Sarah never would have seen it.

She gasped and started wading towards it.

It bobbed and moved with the waves as she approached it.

“What is it?” Sarah asked the ocean.

When she got close enough Sarah reached out, gripping it in her finger tips.

It was too heavy and big.

She waded closer.

It was getting pretty deep and the waves were knocking her around, almost pulling her off her feet.

Sarah felt herself getting sucked out by the waves, dragged further away from shore.  She had to fight against the waves that didn’t want to let her go.  It was harder because she was determined to not lose whatever was floating in the water.  She almost lost the object and at one point was sure she was about to drown, that God was answering her by doing the job for her.

Suddenly Sarah didn’t want to die, not just yet.

Sarah got a better grip the object and pulled it to her, dragging it along as she struggled for shore.

She was halfway back to shore before she realized what it was.

“TRENTON!” Sarah screamed, frantically pushing harder for shore, dragging the inert form behind her.

She almost lost her footing when a bigger wave crashed into her, pulling at her, trying to suck her and her brother out into the ocean.

Sarah kept screaming.

‘HELP!  SOMEBODY HELP ME!  TRENTON!” she screamed over and over.

When she finally made shore, she dragged the lifeless body out of the water, dropping him on the sand.

Desperate and not knowing what to do, she rolled him roughly onto his side, pounding on his back like she’d seen in a movie.

Water gushed out of the boy’s open mouth.

Her mother came running down the bank of sand, screaming.

Distant shouts echoed across the beach and lights bobbed.

Hands pulled her off her brother.

Sarah fought them off, grabbing for him, trying to pound the water out and the air in.

She finally sagged weakly to the sand sobbing as she realized it was people trying to help her brother.

“He must have gone looking for you,” her mother sobbed.  “He must have ended up in the water.”

“Oh God, please don’t let him die,” Sarah wailed.  “Please, I’ll do anything.  I won’t kill myself.”

Weak coughing sounds came from the drowned boy and then his whole body convulsed with hacking coughs as his body tried to rid itself of the water he had swallowed into his stomach and lungs.

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One day, for a lark, I decided to play with a random title generator online.  I clicked the button a number of times, flipping lists of randomly generated titles faster than I could read them.  Then, I picked the three best titles on the list, picked one of those three, and started writing to see what would come of it.

This story is the result.

Stones in the Ships

By L. V. Gaudet

© January 28, 2010

     The wet sound of waves lapping against waves danced with the wind in a unique chorus.

     The world bobbed and rocked drunkenly.  It was dark and dank, reeking of an old dampness that never dried out.  It was the utterly unique odor that only trillions of gallons of water sitting forever in a cesspool of life and rotting detritus being eaten and defecated out by billions of creatures for a couple billions of years could have.

     The cry of a solitary gull that had winged its way much too far from land pierced the air.

     A distant buoy clanged.

     “What are you doing?” a boy’s voice sneered.

     Instantly, the real world crashed back.

     The girl didn’t look up.  She didn’t need to.  She knew who the boy was, and who the other boys that would be with him were too.  She stayed motionless, squatting with her bum barely off the ground, leaning slightly forward, and just stared at her little boats.  They were crude creations of paper and sticks and bits of string that barely resembled boats.  She’d made them herself.

     “What are those supposed to be?” another boy said, his voice full of meanness.  “Boats?!”

     He laughed.  It wasn’t a fun laugh.

     “You’re a girl,” the boy said it like an insult.  “Girls don’t play with boats.”

     “Yeah,” a third boy added.  “Girls don’t play with boats.  Go find your doll-ies.”  This last was sung in a nasty way.

     Tears stung the girl’s eyes, threatening to flow.  She made a conscious effort to hold them back.  Crying would only make the boys worse.

     The boys had circled her, standing over her very close, their shadows chilling her with more than their shade.

     The first boy, Trevor, stomped on her little paper boats, grinding them into the mud of the shallow little puddle they almost floated on.

     Brian “Buster” Brogan and Oscar mimicked his mindless guffaw.

     One of the boys shoved her roughly as they walked away, making her fall in the mud.  Laughing, they went off in search of other victims.

     Laindra looked down at her muddy shorts and legs, then at her boats, now little more than soggy torn paper scraps and broken twigs.  Her face twisted into sadness and the tears flowed down her cheeks.

     A man stepped from the trees.

     “I saw what those boys did,” he said.  “It wasn’t very nice,”

     “They’re mean,” Laindra sobbed, staring at the ruined boats.

     “Let’s see what you have there,” the man said, plucking a soggy paper scrap from the mud.  He looked at it, puzzled.

     “It’s a boat,” Laindra said without looking up at him.

     “Hmm, a boat, huh?”

     “Yeah,” she whispered.  She looked up at the man, and then stood up, shifting her feet nervously.

     “Um, I have to go.  I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”  She ran off down the trail away from the creek she’d been playing beside.

     The man watched her go.  When she disappeared from sight he went too, going the same way he had come, past the trees.

     The next day Laindra was back playing beside the creek.  It was her favorite place to play.  It was usually quiet here.  Nobody, not even her mother, knew she came here.  Well, now those mean boys knew.  She hoped they wouldn’t come back.

     It had rained during the night, and the little puddle had grown wider and deeper.

     She squatted next to the puddle, gently putting the new boats she had made in it.  This time the puddle was deep enough for them to float.  The breeze blew the boats slowly to the puddle edge nearest Laindra.  She blew on them, sending them back the other way.  Too soon the little boats made of paper, twigs, and bits of string became soggy and fell apart.

     She sighed.  The boats never lasted long.  Still, she loved them.  She would remake them again, float them again, imagine life on the sea in them, and watch them grow soggy and fall apart.

     They made her feel closer to her dad.  He had always loved boats, always worked on and with boats, and was often gone for months at a time on a boat.  He had been lost at sea on one of a number of ships that had been rolled and sunk by storm tossed waves.  Her mother was convinced it had to be more than just waves to sink the ship her dad was on, but it was a very bad storm.

     “Did the boys break your boats again?”

     Laindra looked up.  It was the man again.

     “No, they always fall apart.”

     Then her eyes widened and she stared at what the man held.  She was on her feet in a flash, drawn to the man, reaching out a tentative hand, wanting badly to touch.

     He held it out to her.

     “It’s ok,” he said.  “Go ahead and touch it.”

     “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, gently running her fingers along the graceful curve of the wooden ship’s hull.

     “I made it myself,” the man said proudly, “in my workshop just on the other side of those trees.”

     Her face beamed with obvious longing.

     She would need both of her little hands to hold the sleek ship.  Its two masts stuck out proudly, the sails carefully rolled and tied to the beams, ready to be unfurled with the tug of a string.

     “You can have it,” the man said.

     Laindra’s eyes grew even wider.  She stared up at the man in awe, her arms twitching with the desire to take the ship.

     She looked away shyly.

     “I-I can’t,” she said quietly.

     “Sure you can.  I want you to have it.”

     “I have to ask my Mom.”

     The man stared at the boat thoughtfully for a while, and then looked at the young girl.

     “You are probably right,” he sighed.  “Your Mom probably wouldn’t understand.”

     “It’s so beautiful,” the girl said longingly.  “I couldn’t take it anyway.  You worked too hard on it.”  She drew nervous patterns in the dirt with the toe of her shoe.

     “Why don’t you make your own?” the man said.

     She looked at him like he had corn silk growing out of his ears.

     “I’m just a little kid,” she stated the obvious.

     “I could help you.  Whenever you have time, you could come to my workshop.  We’ll build it together.”

     She knelt down, picking at the sodden mess of her paper boats, making a point of not looking at the man.

     “I can’t.”

     “Why not?”

     “I don’t know you.  I shouldn’t even be talking to you.  I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

     “I’m not really a stranger anymore.  I think we’ve kind of gotten to know each other.  You know my workshop and house are just on the other side of the trees, and I know your house is just over the little hill.  We’re neighbors.”

     She dared a quick glance at him, and then returned to staring at the remains of her paper boats.  She really wanted a wooden ship like the man’s, badly.

     “I’m Mr. Collins.  Mr. Jeffrey Collins,” he said.  “But since we’re going to be friends, you can call me Jeff.  What is your name?”

     “Laindra,” she whispered, keeping herself at a safe distance from the man.

     “Well hello Laindra,” he motioned as if shaking her hand.  “I am very pleased to meet you.”

     “I-I have to go.”  She hurriedly got up and ran off in the direction of home.

     Mr. Jeffrey Collins, Jeff to his friends, went back through the trees towards his own home and workshop.

     The next day Laindra was back at the creek with her little paper boats.  This time Mr. Collins was already there, floating his elegant wooden ship in the creek.

     She took a spot some distance away, making a point of trying not to look at the man and his boat.  Before long the little paper boats grew soggy and fell apart.  Then Laindra turned to other games while surreptitiously watching the man with his wooden ship.  As soon as he tried to talk to her, Laindra ran off home.

     They repeated this ritual day after day.

     Sometimes the man brought a different boat.

     Sometimes the mean boys came and tried to tease her.  They quickly learned it was best to just turn around and quietly leave when Mr. Collins was there.

     Laindra stopped bringing her sad little paper boats to the creek.  That was exactly what she thought of them now, sad.  But it wasn’t just the pathetic little creations of paper, twigs, and bits of string that made them sad.  It was what they represented too, the desperate longing for a father she missed terribly.

     And then one day Mr. Collins wasn’t there.

     Laindra looked up and down the creek, but he wasn’t there.  She waited, and waited.  No Mr. Collins.

     Jeffrey Collins stood in his workshop, an old barn converted to a workshop, carefully studying a large chunk of driftwood.  He turned it this way and that, inspecting it from every angle.  Bright sunlight from the open large barn doors flooded the workshop, dust motes danced in the light beams.

     He turned at the slight sound of a scrape by the door.  He smiled.

     “Well, hello there young lady.”

     Laindra stood nervously in the doorway.

     “Have you finally come to help me build your boat?”

     She nodded hesitantly.

     “Well come in then, come in.”  He waved her forward with a friendly manner.

     “Come see,” he urged.  “This here is your boat.”  He proudly held out the chunk of driftwood for her to see.

     She looked at the ugly gnarled chunk of dead wood in confusion, and then looked at Mr. Collins as though he had just sprouted squirrel tails from his head.

     “Oh, I know it doesn’t look like a boat now.”  He caressed the chunk of wood as though it was the elegant smooth side of a boat like the other one that Laindra so desired.

     Drawn by curiosity, she stepped forward.

     “Driftwood is the best wood for making a boat,” he said, ignoring the girl as he studied the wood.  “A driftwood boat can never sink.  It has lived a good life, died a proper death, and cast itself out to sea because the tree just knew that was where it was meant to be, a natural sailor.  Old sailors’ tales are full of the belief that sailors are trees that became driftwood, reincarnated of course.”

     By now the girl was holding the driftwood in her own little hands, looking at it with careful awe.  She was amazed at how much lighter it was than she had expected it to be.  A chunk of wood that big should have weighed much more.  It was still kind of heavy, but not so that she’d have trouble lifting it.

     “Well, let’s get to work,” Mr. Collins grinned eagerly, rubbing his hands together.

     He helped Laindra put the driftwood in a clamp, his larger hands covering her little ones completely as he helped hold it in place and helped her turn the rod to close the clamp securely on the would-be boat.

     He laid out tools, explaining what each would be used for.

     With strong and gentle hands Jeffrey Collins guided the young girl as she slowly drew the boat forth from the chunk of driftwood.  They talked as they worked.  The afternoon wore on, the sunlight grew old, and a slight dimness began to invade the workshop.

     Laindra suddenly noticed the change in light and looked up startled.

     “What time is it?” she asked urgently.

     “Oh, you’re going to be late for supper aren’t you?  You’d better hurry along.”

     She looked at the driftwood longingly.  It didn’t look like anything yet, but in her imagination she could see through its twisted bulk to the sleek hull hidden within it.

     “We can finish it another day.  It will take days to do it properly anyway.”

     Laindra turned and scampered for the door.

     “Um, Laindra,” Jeffrey said hesitantly.

     She stopped, turning and looking at him expectantly.

     “Uh, maybe we shouldn’t tell your Mother about this just yet.”  He cleared his throat.  “Um, about the boat and about us, our friendship.”  He paused.  “She might not understand.”

     Laindra thought about this a moment.  Her Mom was crazy worried about her talking to strangers.  She always had to meet all her friends and their parents, and then told her which ones she was allowed or not allowed to play with.

     Mr. Collins was nice, but she suspected her mom might not approve of her spending time with a grownup instead of kids.

     She didn’t like playing with other kids.  Sometimes they weren’t very nice about her not having a dad.  Sometimes they didn’t even know they were not being nice about it.  But sometimes they were cruel about it on purpose.  And hearing about the things they did with their dads only reminded her that she would never do those things.  Things like going fishing, building a tree house, or … or building a boat like she was with Mr. Collins.

     “Ok,” she nodded before turning and running for home.

     Laindra spent a lot of time with Mr. Collins that summer.  They worked on her boat, spent time down by the creek floating boats, went for walks, or sometimes they just hung out and talked.

     Laindra’s mother noticed changes in her daughter that summer too.

     She spent more time out playing, and when she was at home she seemed preoccupied.

     Laindra had kept mostly to herself and talked little since they learned of the loss of her father.  She had grown increasingly distant from her friends and eventually stopped playing with other children altogether.  When she talked, she talked about her father and boats.

     This was a topic Laindra’s mother didn’t like.  She missed Laindra’s father desperately and talking about him broke her heart.  But even worse was when Laindra sometimes talked as though she was convinced her father was still alive out there somewhere, stranded and waiting for rescue.

     That terrified her.

     It terrified her that Laindra would hurt herself further clinging to an impossible dream.  He was gone forever.  A lot of men on those ships were.

     It also terrified her because the thought tickled at that tiny shred of doubt, that inkling of hope she dared not hope lest it make her go mad.  They never found him.  They never found a lot of the bodies from that disaster.

     Laindra had always shared her father’s love of ships.  Her mother had always suspected it was just because it was the only way the girl could feel connected with her often absent father.

     Since his ship sank at sea the girl had become obsessed with ships and boats.  She spent hours re-reading any book with a boat in it, and even more hours building and re-building those little blobs of paper, twigs, and bits of string that she called boats.

     It wasn’t a healthy obsession, she worried.  Not healthy at all for that child’s mind.  She had tried to put a stop to it, taking away any book with a boat, tossing away the girl’s sad little paper boats whenever she caught her with one.

     It was always a very ugly scene.  The girl screamed as if she were witnessing the death of someone close to her.  She’d bang her head against the walls, smash things in the house, and just scream and scream until she choked on her raw throat and lost her voice.  The hoarse screams that continued after that just sent terrified chills down her spine.

     The doctor had advised she leave the girl to her books and boats, and so she did.  The violent episodes ended, and she watched her baby girl go through her days quietly withdrawn within her own little world.

     But that summer Laindra stopped talking about her father.  She read books about horses and dogs, books without a single boat to be found within the typewritten pages.  And, she stopped building the sad little paper boats.

     Laindra’s mother wondered at the changes coming over her daughter.  Was she finally getting over the loss of her father?  Was she finally starting to adjust, to cope?  But at the same time she worried that Laindra was hiding something; that she was preoccupied with some secret she knew her mother would not like.

     She wasn’t sure just when it began, but Laindra started to be increasingly moody and angry.  Her sad little girl, who had always clung to that shred of hope that shone through her eyes, had turn empty and emotionless, yet always one small trigger away from a furious fit.

     One day she might go into a violent tantrum and throw her dinner plate across the room because her mother asked her to scrape it and place it in the sink.  Another day she’d find Laindra’s toys broken and tossed in the garbage.  When she asked what happened, Laindra would just shrug emotionlessly and answer that she’d cleaned them up.  Was this all part of her adjustment to the realization her father would never return?

     And then came the day the doorbell rang.  Drying her hands on a tea towel, Laindra’s mother opened the door to a frighteningly furious Mrs. Brogan.  The anger lines on her usually stern face looked strung so taut they were about to snap.  Her eyes blazed, lips were a puckered little o, and a tick was gearing up to start twitching her face.

     She was so angry that she couldn’t talk.  Her mouth opened and closed, her jaws clacking, and nonsense sounds squeaking from the tight angry line of her lips.

     Laindra came in the room behind her mother, took one look at the fearsome visage of Mrs. Brogan, and tried to melt into the next room before the woman set eyes on her.

     It was too late.  She turned eyes wild with fury on the young girl.  The ferocity of the woman’s glare pinned the girl in place, freezing her motionless with fear.  She took a half step forward as if to go for the girl.

     Laindra’s mother stood blocking the door, a look of stunned confusion on her face.

     “Th-that that GIRL!” the woman sputtered.

     Laindra’s mother sighed.

     “Now Mrs. Brogan,” she began.  “Surely …”

     “Surely that GIRL should be locked up!” the woman spat, turning her furious look to the girl’s mother.  “There is something wrong with that girl, she shouldn’t be allowed around other children!”

     Laindra’s mother’s blood boiled.

     “That girl…”

     “Now Mrs. Brogan,” she said sternly.

     “…needs to be put away somewhere!”

     The woman’s shrill voice was grating and her insinuation only served to raise her protective mother’s hackles.

     “Now Mrs. Brogan, that is enough!”

     “If you don’t do something about that child…”

     “Either tell me what you think she did, or get off my doorstep.”

     “Sh-she broke my Brian’s nose, that’s what she did,” the woman finally spat.

     Laindra’s mother finally noticed the boy standing behind Mrs. Brogan.  Brian held a bloodied cloth to his swollen tear-streaked face.  This boy, who was so much bigger than little Laindra, suddenly looked much smaller and younger.  She stifled a giggle, which made the furious woman before her even angrier.

     “So, little Brian Buster-the-Bully Brogan got his nose broken by a little girl much smaller and younger than himself,” she humphed.

     Brian hung his head at the nickname everyone knew the kids called him by, but his mother turned a deaf ear to.

     Mrs. Brogan only grew more furious.

     Laindra fully expected to see steam come whistling from the woman’s reddening ears.

     “Your daughter…” the woman spat.

     “My daughter is a little girl dealing with the death of her father, while the whole town knows that your son and those other boys are nothing more than dimwitted bullies that go around picking on anyone smaller and weaker than them!”  She leaned toward the other woman, her fury in return making the woman back down.

     “…just like his all too present father!”

     Without a pause, she went on.

     “Whoever did this to Buster, Mrs. Brogan, you can be rest assured it was well deserved.  That he would blame a little girl much smaller and younger than himself is just pathetic.”

     “But,” Mrs. Brogan sputtered, the wind having been taken out of the fury of her sails.

     Laindra’s mother calmly closed the door in the woman’s face and turned to Laindra.

     “Did you break Buster’s nose?”

     Through the little window by the door Laindra could see Mrs. Brogan cuff Buster with her hand and drag him off while scolding him all the way down the sidewalk and beyond the sight of the window.

     She looked down at her feet and fidgeted.

     “Yes,” she mumbled.

     Fighting an amused smirk, Laindra’s mother asked as sternly as she could manage, “how did you do that?”

     “I hit him,” she paused nervously.  “With a big dead tree branch.”

     “Why?”

     “He broke my boat.”

     She sighed.  So, Laindra hadn’t given up the boats after all.

     “Go to your room.”

     “But…”

     “Go!”

     “But he…”

     “I said go!”  Her heart wasn’t in punishing her daughter.  She knew those boys, and knew that any broken nose one of them got was well deserved.  She was secretly proud of her daughter for standing up to him and fighting back.

     Laindra stomped her foot in stubborn frustration.

     “It’s not fair!”

     “You broke his nose,” her mother said calmly.

     She turned and stomped off to her room.

     “I think you should stay around here for a while,” her mother called to her retreating back.  “You know, stay close to home.  Play in the yard.”

     Laindra froze, horrified.  She turned and stared at her mother as if she’d just turned into a giant slathering fire-spitting poisonous monster with razor sharp claws grasping to tear her into mouth-sized shreds.

     “Don’t look at me like that,” her mother warned.  “You know as well as I do that next time you see Buster he won’t be alone.”

     “But, but,” she stammered, “how long?”

     “A while, until things calm down.”  Her mother shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Maybe until school starts, maybe longer.”

     “No!”

     Surprised, she stared at her daughter.

     “I-I can’t.”

     “Laindra…”

     “I-I have stuff I have to do…”

     “Laindra.”

     “I-it’s important!”

     “Laindra!”

     “I-I…”

     “What?”

     “Ihavetomeetsomeone!”  She spat it out so fast that it was all garbled into one word.

     Laindra’s mother stared at her, sorting the sounds out until they made sense.

     “Meet someone?  Who?”

     “A-a friend.”

     Her heart skipped a beat.  A friend?  Has Laindra finally started doing what little girls are supposed to do?  Has she finally started playing with other children again?

     “Well, who is this friend?  I’d like to meet her.”

     “Just … a friend.”

     “Does just-a-friend have a name?  Where does she live?”

     “Um, he …” she said too quietly.

     “What?”

     “He …” a little louder.

     “Oh, a boy.  Ok, so what do you play?”

     “Boats.”

     Boats, she thought.  Ok, boys like boats.  This might be ok.  She looked at Laindra expectantly, waiting for more.

     “We’re making a boat, a ship, like Daddy’s.”

     Her heart turned to an icy lump in her chest, heavy, a cold dead weight.

     “Did-did you know if you put stones in the bottom of the boat it won’t tip over?  It should work on a big ship too, same principle.”  She stared up at her mom expectantly, hopefully, willing her to understand.

     “Every sailor would know that…”  Laindra looked down at her fidgeting fingers.  “If-if Daddy…”  She fought back tears.  “Daddy would have known that, Daddy, he, maybe…”

     “Laindra.”

     “And driftwood doesn’t sink,” Laindra grasped, desperate.  “Daddy would know … if he had driftwood and stones … he could make …” her voice was trailing off.  “… a … ship … and…”

     “Laindra, enough!”  Her heart dropped in her chest like a stone.  This scared her.  She had thought, hoped, that Laindra was getting better.  Was she dragging this other child, this boy, into her dark fantasy?  Or worse, could she be playing with some imaginary friend, losing herself into this fantasy world, making her father alive and well and building boats with him in her mind?

     Laindra burst into tears.

     “What is his name, this boy?”  She was terrified of the answer.

     “J-Jeff.”

     “Jeff.”  Her mind raced, her heart lurched.  Ok, Jeff, you might be a real boy.

     “Ok, I want to meet him.”

     Laindra just stared at her like she couldn’t figure out what kind of creature her mother was.

     “This Jeff, I want to meet him.  His parents too.”

     Laindra stared.

     “You know the rule.  I meet your friends and their parents.  Before you play with Jeff again, I want to meet him and his parents.”

     “But,” Laindra whimpered while inside she screamed, “I can’t!”

     “He has a phone, I’m sure.  You have a phone number for Jeff, don’t you?”

     “Yes,” she whispered.

     “Ok then.  Invite Jeff and his parents over.  They can come for supper, a visit, whatever.  Or else we can go knock on their door.  Either way, I meet them.”

     Laindra looked hollowed out, like she had been gobbled up and spat out.  This made her mother worry more.

     “I’m glad you made a new friend,” she said gently.  “Now, off to your room.  You still broke that awful Buster-the-Bully’s nose.”  She had to fight a smile when she said this.

     Laindra’s mother was fidgety.  She kept fussing with everything, wanting to make a good impression.  Jeff and his parents were coming for dinner.

     The doorbell rang and she nearly jumped.  She rushed for the door and opened it.

     There, stood a nicely dressed, not bad looking, man.

     “Um, hello,” she said.

     “Hi,” he said with a smile.  “You must be Laindra’s Mom.  I’ve heard a lot about you.  You look even more beautiful than Laindra described.”

     Her heart beat faster.

     “Um, and you…”

     “Sorry,” the man said with a hint of nervousness.  “Jeffry, Jeffrey Collins.”  He produced his hand to take hers in a warm greeting.

     She took his hand and he shook hers.  His touch was gentle and warm.

     “And,” she looked past him, seeing nobody.  “Where is your wife, Mr. Collins?”

     “Oh, there is no Mrs. Collins.”

     Her heart fluttered.

     “Where – where is Jeff?”

     “I am Jeff.”

     She stared, puzzled.

     Laindra burst past her mother, throwing her arms around the man.

     “JEFF!”

     Aghast, she stared.

     “You?  You are Jeff?  The Jeff?  Boat-making Jeff?  Jeff who Laindra has been spending so much time with?”

     He nodded eagerly.

     She stiffened, alarm bells clanging in every part of her being.  Why is this man spending so much time with her daughter?

     “Well, Mr. Collins, this is a bit of a surprise,” she said icily.  “When Laindra said she had a new friend, I just thought …”

     “That it was someone her age,” he finished for her.

     “Yes,” she said curtly.

     “I’m – I’m new here.”  His eyes begged her to wait, to hear him out before closing the door on him and her daughter’s friendship.

     “I live alone, I don’t know anyone here.  I have no friends here.  I-I was lonely.  I saw boys picking on her.  She has no friends her age, you know.”

     She knew.  She knew all too well.

     “Laindra is a remarkable little girl.  I don’t know if you realize just how lonely she is…”  He paused.  “Just how much she misses her father, how badly she needs to fill that … spot.”

     She softened.

     “Come in Mr. Collins.  Supper is waiting.”

     Over the following weeks Mr. Collins used his considerable charms on Laindra’s mother.  They never dated, but he charmed and flirted with her just enough to keep her heart aflutter and confuse her with hopes for something she wasn’t really sure she wanted.

     Laindra seemed to be blossoming in her friendship with the man.  Her need for a father figure weighed against her need for friends her own age, and Laindra’s mother couldn’t bring herself to put an end to her daughter’s friendship with Mr. Collins.

     But it still troubled her.  There were little things, things she just couldn’t put a finger to, things that just seemed a little – off.

     The day they talked about the stones in the ships was a day that changed everything.  That was the day she broke Buster’s nose, the day her mom made her introduce Jeff to her, and the day she made a new friend who would change everything between her and Mr. Jeffrey Collins.

     Mr. Collins was busy.  He said he had things he had to do.  When he wasn’t at the creek Laindra went by his house, just in case.  She knocked on the door and there was no answer.  She went to his workshop.  It was quiet and deserted.  Lonely and dejected, she went back to the creek.

     She had with her a crude little wooden boat she had made herself.  It was the first boat she made all by herself, without Jeff’s help, that actually kind of looked like a boat.

     She sat on a log looking at the crude boat.  It wasn’t pretty or smooth like Jeff’s boats.  She was so eager to show it to him that she brought it along, even though she knew he wasn’t going to be around today.

     “Hey,” a boy’s voice cut in.

     Startled, she looked around.

     “Hi,” a boy said, waving a little timidly.

     Laindra had never seen this boy before.

     “Hey, hi,” she said a little distrustfully.  Would he be like the mean boys?  He was closer to her age, maybe even the same age as her, but that didn’t mean he was nice.

     “I’m Kyle.”

     “Laindra.”

     “What-cha got there?”

     “A boat.”

     “A boat, cool.  Can I see?”

     Laindra scooted over and Kyle came and sat next to her, looking at the boat.

     “I made it.”

     “I like it.”

     “Hey look,” a boy’s voice sneered.”  Girly’s got a boooyfriend.”

     Laindra froze, her heart sank.  “Oh no.”

     Sure enough, Trevor, Buster, and Oscar came out of the bush.

     “Who’s this?” Buster sneered.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

     “That’s the new kid,” Trevor said.  “The little dweeb moved in next door to me.”

     Oscar raised his eyebrows.

     “You mean Sally’s house?  Sally Spooner, ya better run sooner ‘cause Trevor’s got a crush on you, Sally’s house?”

     Trevor glared at him.

     “Ooh, bad luck dweeb,” Buster snorted.  “You picked the wrong house to move into.”

     “Is this your girlfriend, dweeb?” Trevor sneered.

     “He took your girlfriend’s house,” Oscar snorted.  “Maybe you should take his girlfriend.”

     “She wasn’t my girlfriend,” Trevor muttered.  He stepped forward and snatched the boat from Kyle’s hands.

     “What’s this, dweeb?”

     “Is that supposed to be a boat?” Buster snatched it from Trevor.

     “Pretty crappy boat.”

     Laindra watched in horror as the boat was roughly passed around.

     “Maybe it’s a plane,” Oscar laughed.  “Let’s see if it can fly.”  He tossed it straight up as high as he could.  The boat caught in the tree branches and held there.

     “Pretty crappy plane.”

     The boys made a game of throwing sticks and rocks at the boat, trying to knock it out of the tree.  The solid thunk of a large rock finally dislodged the boat.  It tumbled, bouncing off branches, the mast snapping off, dropped, and bounced off the ground.

     Laindra watched the boat fall as if in slow motion, her face so pale that Kyle stared at her with wide eyed worry.  He watched her cringe each time the boat bounced off a branch, despair snapping her with the snap of the mast.

     “Huh, piece of junk!”  Buster raised his foot high and stomped down hard on the little wooden boat.  It cracked with a dull sound under his shoe.

     Laindra screamed.  It was a terrible sound.  It filled the air, the deep guttural animal scream of the desperate, the release of unbound fury and hatred, the primal scream of all the wrongs through the history of mankind.

     All four boys froze and stared at her with slack-jawed faces turned white and drained of blood.

     In a flash of fury fed adrenaline, Laindra was off the log, small fists wrapping tightly against a large tree branch on the ground, and coming up spinning in one fluid motion that would make any action movie actor jealous.  She swung the branch with all the might of her great fury, the adrenaline burning white hot through her little muscles.

     Oscar barely dodged in time, losing a few hairs that were caught in the bark as the branch whizzed past his head, its breeze rustling his hair.

     Standing just behind Brian Buster-the-Bully Brogan, Trevor staggered back even though branch didn’t actually touch him.  He almost fell on his butt.

     Buster wasn’t so lucky.  The intended target of the branch, he didn’t stand a chance.  His nose exploded with a spray of blood as the rough-barked branch connected with a sickening crunch.  He fell to his knees, holding his face, screaming.

     Trevor and Oscar ran faster than they’d ever ran in their lives, the monster that was a little girl chasing them, brandishing her blood-stained branch, screaming like a banshee.

     Gingerly, Kyle plucked the little wooden boat from the mud, turning it over and examining the broken toy.

     “You shouldn’t have broken her boat, I guess,” he said quietly.

     Mr. Collins came home to find a sobbing Laindra trying to float a broken little wooden boat in a bucket of water.  Its hull was cracked, and the mast had been snapped off and tied back together with sticks that looked like they were supposed to be splints.  Every time she let go of the little boat, it immediately tipped on its side, bobbing in the water.  She sobbed anew, scooped the boat up, and tried again.

     A little distance away, a tired looking boy sat quietly.

     He had never seen the boy before.

     Jeff gave the boy a cursory glance, and stared at Laindra with concern.  He approached her slowly and knelt beside her.

     “I-it k-k-keeps t-tipping,” she sobbed.

     “It’s top heavy,” he said gently.  “That’s why.”

     “Stupid boat!”

     “You made it?  All by yourself?”

     She nodded dully.

     “It’s not a stupid boat,” he said gently.  “You just need stones.”

     She looked up at him through her tears as though he’d just turned green and grew an elephant’s trunk.

     “S-stones?”

     “Sure, stones.  Your mast is too heavy.  You have to weigh down the bottom of the boat, and then it won’t tip.”

     “B-but stones will just make it sink.”

     “Only if you put in too many.  Here, I’ll show you.”

     Jeff searched around for small stones, pebbles really, because it was a small boat.  Carefully, holding the boat upright, he balanced pebbles on the crude craft, counter-balancing the heavy mast.  When he was sure it wouldn’t tip, he carefully let go.

     “Wow!”  Laindra stared in amazement.  She looked up at Jeff in wonder, her sobs finally subsiding.

     “How?”

     “Its and old trick every sailor knows,” he explained.  “If your mast is too heavy, it will tip your boat like this.”  He cupped his hands flat, one finger sticking up like a mast, tipping his hands like a tipping boat.

     “But why would they make a boat that needs stones to keep it from tipping?”

     “They wouldn’t.  But a mast is heavy and, if the waves swell too big, the boat goes up and down the waves like this, see?”  He rocked his hands like a boat on a storm tossed sea.

     “If the boat rocks too far, tips over too much, the weight of the mast pulls it down, tipping it over all the way.”

     Laindra stared at him wide eyed, soaking it all in.

     “So, if they know a storm is coming, they’ll go to land and put stones in the bottom of the ship’s hull.  Weight it down, so it can’t tip.  It’s an old sailor trick from the days when all ships had masts.  It’s still used today, sometimes even with ships without masts.”

     “So,” Laindra gasped hopefully, barely able to whisper it.  “My-my dad, he might, he could have …”

     He leaned over with a conspiratorial wink.

     “Maybe.”

     Laindra sat in stunned silence, her mind working through this new information.  She believed everything Mr. Collins said about boats.  After all, you couldn’t craft such beautiful ships without knowing all about them, right?

     The truth about it was that Jeffrey Collins only knew how to build toy boats.  He knew nothing about the real thing and made it up as he went along, all to impress a very impressionable little girl.

     “So,” Jeff said suddenly, standing up, “who’s the boy?”

     “Huh?  Boy?” she said confused.

     He motioned with a nod toward the boy still sitting quietly just out of earshot.

     “Oh, oh that’s Kyle.  He’s new, I just met him today.”

     “What happened to your boat?  Did Kyle break it?”

     “No,” she said sadly.  “Those bully boys did.  Kyle tried to fix it.”

     “I see.  Well, maybe Kyle should go home now.  Then we’ll fix your boat properly.”

     Laindra said goodbye to Kyle.  With a shrug and an uneasy glance at Mr. Collins, Kyle went on his way.

     Laindra and Mr. Collins went into his workshop and he went to work fixing her little boat.  While he worked, he told her more about how sailors used stones in the ships to keep them from tipping and sinking during terrible storms.

     Laindra told Mr. Collins about hitting Buster with the tree branch and how there was so much blood.  It scared her.

     Things were different after that day.  Laindra was different.  Her relationship with Mr. Collins was different.

     Kyle didn’t like Mr. Collins.  He said he was creepy and that he didn’t think Laindra should spend so much time with him.

     This made Laindra feel defensive, protective of her relationship with Mr. Collins.

     The more time Mr. Collins spent with her mother, and the more time she spent with her new friend Kyle, the more she thought of him as Mr. Collins instead of as Jeff, her friend.

     Laindra was jealous.  She felt like her mom was taking over Jeff, intruding on her private friendship with him.  She could tell her mom liked him, but in a girlfriend-boyfriend way, not just as a nice neighbor.  But she knew Jeff really liked her, not her mom.

     She also knew she liked her new friend Kyle.  Sometimes it was good to just be around a kid her age, and Kyle was easy to be around.  He never asked about her dad or why she liked boats, despite her being a girl.  It didn’t seem to matter to Kyle whether she was a girl or a boy.  She felt a little more normal around Kyle.  Around Kyle she was just a kid, not Laindra who lost her dad and had to make boats to hold onto that connection with him.

     She also thought she was beginning to feel the stirrings of a crush on Kyle, although she’d never admit it to anyone.  He was nice, and kind of cute, in a dumb boy way.  At this age all boys were considered dumb boys, because otherwise you might have to admit you kinda liked them.  Although a girl Laindra’s age didn’t really understand those feelings or what to do with them.  It was just puppy play, the natural childhood learning on how to one day be a grown up.

     Her feelings for Kyle really confused Laindra.  Somehow, she felt like she was tricking Jeff, cheating on their friendship.  But there was nothing wrong with having more than one friend, was there?

     Jeff always got mad when Kyle was around.  At first it was little.  He just seemed a little annoyed at nothing in particular.  But the more Laindra went off to play with Kyle instead of visiting Jeff, the more angry Jeff seemed to be, both at her and at Kyle.

     At first Jeff dropped subtle hints that maybe he’d like to do stuff alone with Laindra, like before she met Kyle and they spent much more time together building and sailing the little ships together and stuff.

     That changed as her friendship with Kyle grew stronger and it became more obvious that Mr. Jeffrey Collins had competition for the young girl’s attention.  The subtle hints that maybe Kyle should go do something else somewhere else grew bolder, more obvious, until at last he’d outright order Kyle to leave and to go home.

     Kyle and Laindra sat on a downed tree by the creek, watching the water trickle by.  It was one of those days when Laindra didn’t want to talk.  But that was ok; they were comfortable sitting together in silence.

     Kyle idly broke up twigs and tossed them into the creek.  They both watched them float downstream.

     “Hey there, I found you,” a man’s voice called from behind them.  Mr. Collins.

     Kyle stiffened.  He always got that creepy feeling when Mr. Collins was around.

     Beside him, Laindra didn’t react at all.  But Kyle sensed the increased wariness in her, that today she would prefer it if Mr. Collins just went away and left her alone.  She got kind of moody that way sometimes.

     Twigs crunched under foot as Mr. Collins approached.  His shadow chilled Kyle when he leaned across the downed tree to see their faces.  Kyle’s was carefully guarded.  Laindra’s was blank, empty.

     Mr. Collins barely gave Kyle a glance, staring at Laindra’s face, studying her in a friendly manner.  Friendly, if friendly could hold a trace of jealousy, a hint of anger, and something else Kyle didn’t know what it was.  Friendly, yet a bit intense.

     “Go home Kyle,” Mr. Collins ordered in a soft voice that would not take “no” for an answer.

     Kyle glanced at Laindra.  Her expression hadn’t changed.  Her face was expressionless, her eyes empty.  She was like that a lot.  Sometimes, Kyle knew, it was because she was thinking about her dad.  Sometimes, he didn’t think that was it at all.

     With a shrug that said, “I don’t like this,” Kyle hopped off the log and ambled off, glancing back now and then.

     Mr. Collins watched him go out of the corner of his eye.

     “Hi Laindra,” he said softly.

     Laindra’s mom was kneeling down pulling weeds when she glanced up and noticed a boy standing timidly at the edge of the yard.  She stared at him staring at her.

     “Hello,” she finally said, wondering what the boy wanted.

     He approached hesitantly.

     “Um,” he paused, struggling for words.  “Are-are you Laindra’s mom?”

     “Yes I am.  And who might you be?”

     “Kyle,” he said, almost a whisper.

     “Well, hello there Kyle,” she smiled at him.  “Are you a friend of Laindra’s?”

     “Um, yeah.  Kinda.”

     “Laindra’s not here right now.”

     “I know.”

     Curious, she waited for the boy to continue.

     “I-I want to talk to you.”  He took another hesitant step forward.  “About,” step, “about Mr. Collins.”  He stopped and played with his fingers nervously.

     “What about Mr. Collins?”

     “I-I think he’s hurting Laindra,” he whispered.

     She just stared at him, certain she heard wrong.  After all, the boy had said it so quietly that she barely made out any words at all.

     “Pardon me?”

     “Mr. Collins,” Kyle repeated, “he’s-he spends too much time with Laindra.  He’s a grownup, she’s a kid.  I-I think he’s hurting Laindra.”

     Laindra’s mom was miffed.

     “Nonsense,” she snapped, giving the boy her best Mom knows you’re lying stare.

     Kyle stared back, defiant, afraid, unsure, yet sure what he was trying to do is completely right.

     “What makes you say such things?” Laindra’s mom demanded. “He is a nice man helping a young girl who needs a father figure.”  She sounded a little too much like she was trying to convince herself.

     “Laindra,” Kyle said, “she acts weird after she’s been with Mr. Collins.”

     “Go home Kyle,” she said sternly, turning back to her weeding, making it clear the visit was over.

     With a sad shake of his head Kyle wandered off down the street.

     Late that afternoon, Kyle found Laindra down by the creek again.  She was sitting on a thick branch up in a tree.  He clambered up and sat beside her without a word.

     She seemed off today, again.

     “Hey,” she finally said, quietly.

     “Hey,” he returned.

     They sat in silence for a long while.

     “You okay?” Kyle finally asked.

     “Sure.”

     “Sure?”

     “Yeah.”

     They returned to their silent vigil, the sunlight growing weaker, thicker, as the afternoon wore on.

     “I don’t like Mr. Collins,” Kyle said at last.

     “I know.”  She seemed to have the wisdom of the ages hanging on her shoulders today.

     “He doesn’t like me either.”

     “Yeah.”

     “He acts like thinks he’s your boyfriend or something.”

     She shrugged.  The both knew grownups didn’t think like that with kids.

     “I don’t think you should visit him anymore.”

     Laindra turned and looked at him with her empty eyes.  Behind that dead stare he could see the flash of fury that could erupt without warning.

     “Mr. Collins is not good for you, you know.”  Kyle thumbed his trousers leg nervously.  “He’s not your dad,” he whispered.

     Fury flared in her eyes, her face twisting into a tight angry knot.

     Ignoring her anger, he went on.

     “You act weird when you’re around him.”

     Laindra glared at him, her fists raised as though about to strike out, to attack him with a violent fury never seen before.

     “I told your mom.”

     Her arms dropped to her sides.  Her face paled, the fury draining from it as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a deep sadness and hurt.

     Without a word Laindra climbed down the tree and ran off through the trees. She never looked back.  Kyle didn’t see the twisted knot of grief or the tears streaming down her face.

     Laindra ran and ran.  She ran until her legs felt weak, her lungs burned, and a sharp knot of pain gripped her side, slicing through her with every ragged breath.  Her throat burned raw with every gasped breath.  Her head spun dizzily.  Her heart and mind raced in a thousand directions at once.

     When she couldn’t run anymore, Laindra walked.  She walked and she walked.  The sunlight grew dimmer, thicker, older.  The afternoon quickly waned into dinner time.

     At last Laindra came to her very own secret place.  Nobody knew about it.  Not her mom, or Kyle, or Mr. Collins.

     She knew her mom would be worried by now, supper would be sitting cold on the table, and she would probably be in trouble for being late.

     Laindra didn’t care.  She had something she had to do.

     Her secret place lay on the edge of the sea, sheltered by bluffs.  The sandy soil was mostly soft here, with some large ancient boulders barely peaking the tops of their heads through the soil.  Not far away lay an old abandoned farm house and barn, a treasure trove of treasures laying within.

     Laindra had been coming here secretly for some time now.  She had a project, a big project.

     She was building a ship.

     Laindra collected anything from the old farmhouse and barn that looked usable, dragging them to her secret place.  She tested her treasures in the water lapping at the shore for floatability.  The discards were tossed or shoved into a rough pile, and the useable items crudely tied together to form her ship.  There were pieces of wooden boards, old wooden kitchen chairs, and an old faded steamer trunk among other things.

     “It’s not quite finished yet, but it will have to do,” she thought.

     Digging her heels into the sandy ground and grunting as she strained, Laindra struggled to push the heap of old junk towards the water lapping against the shore.  It got easier as objects began to bob and float in the water, taking their weight off the pile she was trying to push.

     When the whole mess was finally floating in the water, Laindra paused to catch her breath.  She stared at her accomplishment, then back at the shore.

     “Oh, I almost forgot…”

     She hurried out of the water and scampered across the sandy soil.  Laindra grabbed up a long stick that had probably once been a sapling and raced back to the water.

     Her homemade ship had already begun to drift away from the shore.  The tide had started to go out, drawn away from shore by the moon’s cold pull.

     Laindra fought the water that slowed her down, struggling to reach her raft in time.  She swung her stick on top of it and managed to grab hold and drag it back closer to shore where the water wasn’t too deep for her to clamber aboard.

     Once she was perched safely aboard her floating raft, Laindra used the stick to push it away from shore again.

     She was going to find her father.HHHJhhh

     Coughing up water and exhausted from the battle with the sea, Laindra dragged herself from the surf and collapsed on the little sandy beach amidst gnarled clumps of seaweed that had washed ashore.  The world was hazy.  Her eyes drooped and closed.

     “Stones in the ships,” her mind drifted … “I should have put stones in the ship.”

     Her eyes fluttered open.  A vague shape shimmered before her eyes, its darkness playing against the brilliance of the sun clashing against the pale beach.

     She struggled to sit up, to see.

     The shape slowly took form, a human form.

     She stared in confusion.  Something about the form seemed familiar as it danced and shimmered like a mirage.

     It was a man.  He looked scruffy and tired.  His hair and beard were long and untrimmed, and his clothes little more than worn rags.

     Laindra struggled to stand on unsteady legs, eyes glued to the image standing some distance across the beach.

     She stood on the shore, gasping and dripping wet, staring with incredulity.

     “D-dad?  Daddy?”

     Her face exploded in an ecstasy of delight.

     “DADDY!” She screamed, running across the little beach with arms outstretched.

     The water lapped at the shore, carrying with it seaweed, driftwood, and the assorted remains of the homemade ship, shattered and waterlogged.  Among the remains the lifeless body of a young girl was dragged to shore, one swollen hand still tangled in the rope tied around an old steamer trunk.

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Waiting (Short Story)

Waiting

By L. V. Gaudet

© March 2010

     It was a busy street where it all happened.  At least that’s where my earliest memory begins.

     You know the kind of street, where cars whiz by fast, people of every description come, go, or stop a while, and the air is filled with more smells and sounds than the senses can take in.

     We waited in the sometimes shelter and sometimes shade of the concrete at the base of the brick building next to the bus stop.  There was an almost plaza-like feel to the place, with the large open paved area squeezed in among the streets, sidewalks, and tall brick buildings all around.  There was no sidewalk between this particular building and the busy street it nestled against.  Pedestrians trying their luck on the street side of the building took their lives in their hands.  I was surprised by how many people did that.

     It was a very busy bus stop.  A nonstop tide of cars, buses, and people came and went constantly.

     I don’t know how long we waited, but it sure seemed like a very long time.  People came and went, buses came and went, and yet we waited, always waiting.  Would our bus never come?

     My mind felt like I was looking through a fog.  Everything was confusing, my memory somehow lost in a haze I just couldn’t quite see through.

     “Why was I here?  Where are we going?  What bus are we waiting for?  And, why won’t that bus ever seem to come?”

     I remember looking around at the people of our group.  There was a certain familiarity about them.  Standing about, watching for that bus that never seemed to come, watching the people come and go.  Idle chat seemed to be the activity of the day, leaning casually against a wall, sitting on the ground with backs pressed against the side of the building, or just standing around.

This was “our” spot, somehow.  I don’t know how.  It just had that familiarity about it, as if we were always here in the sometimes shelter and sometimes shade of that building’s wall, waiting.

     I knew that I know these people, but I couldn’t find them in my hazy memory.  Rubbing my eyes and shaking the clarity back into my head didn’t work.

     Who are these people?  I know them, so why don’t I know them?

     I couldn’t even tell who among the crowds of people gathered, forever shifting and changing as people got on and off buses, arriving and leaving, were a part of our group.  Was our group small?  The four or five people I suspected might really be all there was to our group?  Or were there more, as I also suspected, but with a sense of confusing doubt?

     There was a couple sitting with their backs against the wall, chatting and seeming oblivious to the world around, except for the occasional glances at people in the crowd.  I thought of them as the “Casual Pair”. A boy and a girl, both teenagers, though I couldn’t place their ages any more than I could their faces or identities.

     There was the “Lurker”.  He was a young man who just couldn’t quite seem to decide where he wanted to be.  He stood leaning against the wall a while, then pushed off and meandered through the crowd to stand somewhere else.  He watched the crowd, the cars, the members of the group, and kept wandering to the edge of the road to look up and down for the bus.

     The worst was when he looked at me.  That was when I got the feel that he was lurking more than he was waiting.  At those moments the confusion spun a little faster inside my head, making me dizzy.

     I got the odd vibe from others that they too were part of the group.  It was a vague feeling, like that feeling someone is watching you when you are sure you are alone. I’d turn to look, trying to identify who in the crowd the vibe was coming from, but, like those phantom movements you catch in the corner of your eye, they just seemed to melt into the crowd, unidentifiable.  That just gave me the heebie-jeebies and made the fog of confusion eddy and swirl in my mind.

     I didn’t know what to call them, or even how to think of them.  The “Crowd Phantoms” might come closest.

     And then there was “The Man”, the watcher.  He was older, though I couldn’t tell how much older.  He didn’t look terribly much older, but he felt a great deal older.  His dark hair hung in longish strands to each side of his face, a short black beard, and Genghis Khan-like moustache.  He wasn’t a bad looking man, but when I looked at him I felt darkness, the darkness of his hair, his eyes, and a dark kindness too.  He watched the crowds, the traffic … and us.

He liked to kneel down on one knee a lot.  That struck me as a little strange, but somehow seemed entirely normal too.  I sensed a feeling of authority about him.  I suspected he was the leader of our group; that somehow he was charged with keeping us together and all accounted for.  Was he a protector looking after us?  A captor guarding us against escape?

     The more I looked around at our group, at the throngs of people coming and going, taking no notice of us, that we were a group, the greater my confusion grew.

     Why did no one seem to notice that we were a group?  Why did I even care?

     Who were we?  Who was I?

     The fog in my mind eddied, swirled, and thickened.

     My mind spun, though my head seemed to stay still.  I started feeling sick.

     A frantic feeling of panic started in my gut, slowly snaking its insidious way up, growing, swelling inside me until I choked on it.  It seemed to fill my throat, blocking it, preventing me from breathing.

     Everything felt wrong somehow.  The light was wrong, the smells, the sounds.

     I glanced at The Man, wondering if he could see the panic in my eyes, willing him not to see.  Somehow, I felt that would be a bad thing.

     He looked up, kneeling again, and smiled at me.  He turned his head away again to watch the people coming off a bus as it rolled to a stop and opened its yawning doors.

     I had to get out of here.  I didn’t know why, or to where.

     It was just a niggling feeling at first; that urge to bolt, to run, to make a break for it.

     The feelings grew.  Panic, confusion, nausea, and the urge to flee; they filled me, overwhelmed me, making my head feel like it would explode if I didn’t get out of there.

     I watched.  I waited.  The waiting seemed as endless as our forever wait for the bus that never came.

     And, when no one seemed to be noticing me; that was when I made my move.  I ran.

     I didn’t really run, at least not at first.  That would have been too conspicuous, bringing unwanted attention to me.  I ducked behind people, moving with the crowd, hiding behind first one person and then a next as I slowly made my way away from the bus stop.

     I kept careful watch of The Group as they became more distant, afraid someone might look my way.  I especially watched The Man, terrified he would sense my intention, carefully watching that his attention was on something else.

     The next thing I remembered was being in a strange and entirely deserted place that had a confusing familiar feel to it.  There was a field, where perhaps kids played sports, though there were no goals or nets or anything else to suggest it was a field for sports.  There was a wooden structure.  It had a narrow L shaped building that perhaps housed groundskeeper’s tools, a canteen, or something else.  The roof of that little building filled in the rest of the square, covering a little concrete patio filled with rows of benches.

     Did people eat here?  Was it some sort of amphitheater, like the kind you find at some campgrounds?

     I had the strange feeling that I had been here before.  With it came a vague sense of horses, although there were no signs that horses had ever been in this place.

     The fog of confusion still filled my mind.  Even the memories of The Group and the bus stop seemed to be growing insubstantial, evaporating, and disappearing like the memories from before the bus stop did.

     Scared and alone, I hoped The Group was looking for me, that they would come here and find me and take me away from this place.  I longed to see the face of The Man, the reassurance of his ever watchful presence.

     I was terrified The Group was looking for me, that they would come here and find me and take me away from this place.  I dreaded to see the face of The Man; that he would come to claim me and take me back to the bus stop, back within the fold of The Group.

     I wanted to disappear within the folds of myself, become invisible, become … not.

     Night came quickly, too quickly.

     I huddled into myself, wrapping my arms tightly about myself, and lay down on one of the cool hard wooden benches.  I fell asleep.

     I awoke with a start to a face close to mine.  My heart lurched, gripped by fear.  I almost screamed.

     “They found me!” my panicked mind cried.  I looked around desperately for The Man, Lurker, and Casual Pair.  A part of me hoped for even a glimpse of one of the Crowd Phantoms; that I was found and my flight was finished.  I could go back to simply waiting, forever waiting for that bus that never came.

     The thought tore at me, filled me with dread.  I was terrified of being found, being brought back to rejoin The Group.  Where were we going?  And why did that bus never come?

     I moved to bolt, to flee, to make a run for it.  Something about that bus, the bus stop, and The Man terrified me.

     Gentle hands held my shoulders.

     I looked up into the face.  He was older than Lurker, younger than The Man.  His eyes and ruddy face were filled with concern.  His light brown, almost blond hair had a slight curl to it, giving it a softer look.

     He stared at my face, into my eyes.

     “Are you ok?”  I could hear the worry straining his voice.

     I didn’t answer.  I couldn’t answer.  I felt frozen, unable to move, to talk, a part of the bench.

     I saw that he could see the fear in my face.

     “Are you lost?” he asked, “hurt?”

     I stared back mutely, unable to respond with anything more than a blink.

     “What are you so afraid of?”

     He looked around, then back to me, staring into my eyes as though if he stared hard enough he might see the answers.

     I shook my head, trying to clear the fog of confusion.  Where were my memories?  Why couldn’t I remember anything before the bus stop?  Why where the memories even of that place, The Group, slipping away?

     I looked past him, dreading seeing any of The Group, hoping and fearing seeing the face of The Man.  I wanted this over, to be back to the place I knew, the only place I knew, the bus stop.  I was terrified The Man would find me and take me back there.

     I saw people beyond this man’s face.  They looked worried too.  They shifted uncomfortably, perhaps embarrassed for me.  They held no familiarity.  They were not part of The Group.  I was safe, for now.

     I looked back at this man’s face, the “New Man” I thought of him as.  I sensed caring, concern.  I felt safer with him.  I liked him for making me feel safer.  I felt strangely drawn to him and sensed he felt the same towards me.

     “I’ll be right back,” he said to me, staring deep into my eyes.  “Don’t move.  I just need to talk to my group.”

     And they were his group, I could sense that.  They were together, a family perhaps, or friends, or maybe a group like The Group.  Only this group didn’t make me feel confused or lost in a memory-eating fog.

     He walked over to the other people.  They huddled around him as they talked.  I caught snatches of conversation, words.

     “Lost.”

     “We can’t.”

     “Scared.”

     “But, what if.”

     “Have to.”

     “No.”

     They were going to leave me here, alone.  I longed for that solitude, was terrified of that solitude.

     “Please don’t leave me,” my heart cried while my mind begged them to just go and leave me alone.

     He came back to me, knelt down, gripping my shoulders again in that firm but gentle grip.

     “We won’t leave you here,” he said.  “I won’t.”

     I hadn’t moved this whole time, still laying there with my arms hugging myself desperately, folding into myself and trying to vanish.

     He gently sat me up, sitting beside me and putting one arm gently around me in a protective embrace.

     We sat there for a long time.  We talked.  His group became impatient, but continued to wait at a distance.

     I can’t remember what we talked about, not a single word of the conversation.  I only remember that we talked for a really long time.  Sometimes we got up and walked off into the field as we talked.  Sometimes we came back and sat on the bench again.  My mind is still full of holes, hazy mists of fog hiding my memories and spinning me in a web of confusion.

     Night came again, much too soon.

     Finally, he looked at me gently and said, “Let’s go.”

     He led me to the group.  They all looked at me, their faces reflecting his concern.

     My heart lifted.  The “New Man” wouldn’t let “The Man” find me.  He’d keep me safe, hide me.  And if he did come for me, “New Man” would come for me, rescue me, and take me back again.  I was his now.  I think I love him, though I only just met him.

     We started to move towards the road.

     Then I saw him, The Man, his smiling face staring down at me.  Just his face, floating in the air above, there but not.

     “No!” I wanted to cry.  Tears rushed to my eyes, burning them.  I wanted to run.

     New Man looked down at me.

     “I’m here,” he said, taking my hand in his, the warmth of it flowing to me with a feeling of safety.

     It wasn’t enough.

     I could still see The Man, his smiling eyes, his lank longish black hair, his beard.

     “You found her!”  I heard The Man’s voice happily call out.

     I wanted to hide, to cry, and to beg New Man to not let The Man see me.

     “She’s safe,” The Man called to someone.  “Everybody, she’s safe, she’s here!”

     Then I saw their faces, Lurker, Casual Pair.  I saw the bus stop with the busy crowds of people who I could never pick the Crowd Phantoms out of, those who I suspected might be part of our group, but just didn’t know.

     I saw the anger in the New Man’s face, protectiveness, the desperate need to hold on to me.  And at that very last moment, the terrible anguish of someone who has just lost everything in their life that mattered.

     Suddenly, I was back at the bus stop as though I’d never left it.

Casual Pair leaned against the wall, chatting idly, their occasional glances towards me somehow feeling nervous now.

     Lurker leaned casually against the wall, wandered to the edge of the street to watch for the bus, meandered through the crowd, ever lurking, careful now to not glance in my direction at all.  I sensed a new jitteriness about him that wasn’t there before.

     The Man knelt on one knee, watching the crowds, watching the traffic and the buses, and watching us.  His glances towards me seemed guarded now, a fear lurking behind the smile.

     I looked around, unsure.  How did I get here?

     I spotted New Man at the edge of the plaza bus stop.  He stood motionless, staring at me, his face filled with concern, longing, and confusion.

     I knew he was afraid to approach.  Afraid of The Man?  That I would reject him?

     “Please come and take me away from here,” I begged silently, my lips as frozen as my ability to speak or act.

     I watched him watch me, both of us desperate, both of us yearning to approach the other, both of us frozen in place.

     I knew he wanted desperately to take me away from here, to rescue me from this place, from the endless wait for the bus that never came.

     I knew he couldn’t, that he was powerless to do anything, that The Man was ever watching, watching me more closely than ever before.

     I turned away from New Man.  I couldn’t watch anymore, bear witness to the helpless concern in his eyes, on his face.

     I longed to run, to make a break for it.  Fogs of confusion eddied around in my mind, eating my memories, dissolving them into wisps of insubstantial fog.  I was losing that place, the hard wooden benches, the feeling I was there before in a place I don’t think I’d ever seen before, the vague sense of horses.  I was losing New Man’s group, though I occasionally glimpsed them hovering beyond the crowds of people coming and going for the bus, carefully staying beyond the plaza.

     I wandered towards the road, the cars, the buses constantly coming and stopping and leaving again after belching passengers and gobbling up new ones.

     I looked up and down the road, cars whizzing by, buses barreling past unstoppable and not stopping.

     I thought about throwing myself in front of one of those buses that never stopped.  Was one of them ours?  Was that why it never seemed to come, but everyone else’s did?

     I sat down on the curb instead.  The Man came and sat down beside me.  He talked to me.  He talked to me of love and loss, games and happy times.  He talked of losing me and finding me.  I have no idea what he said or what we talked about.  It’s all lost in the memory-eating fog.

     I remember his hand accidentally touching mine, his keeping it there after, feeling his entire body trembling through that hand.  Was it fear?  Relief?  Something else?

     I felt confused, lost.  I just wanted to run away.

     Why did no one seem to notice my distress?  New Man’s desperate looks my way?  That we were a group, together?  That we were here always waiting for a bus that never came?

     Then I came to realize.  They didn’t see us.  They just didn’t see us, nobody did.  We were invisible to them, a part of the crowd coming and going, but ourselves never moving.  Why?

     “See us!” I wanted to scream.  “Why don’t you just look at us and see us!?”

     “The bus is here,” The Man said.

     “Finally,” Lurker spat.

     Casual Pair got up and hurried for the bus, its yawning doors waiting for us, its dark interior waiting to gobble us up.

     I felt swept up in the tide of people moving for the bus, unable to stop my forward movement.

     New Man took a desperate step forward, craning to see me through the crowd, one hand silently reaching for me, his face twisted with concern and desperate need.

     The Man smiled down at me as I was swept up into the bus with the tide of people, following Lurker and Casual Pair, unable to stop the tide of people that seemed to push me forward, forcing me onto the bus.

     I turned back, taking one last look at New Man’s sad face as the yawning doors closed behind me.

     He watched the bus lurch away and speed up down the street.

     I watched him through the window, desperate.

     “Save me,” I whispered.

     It was a busy street where it all happened.  At least that’s where my earliest memory begins.

     You know the kind of street, where cars whiz by fast, people of every description come, go, or stop a while, and the air is filled with more smells and sounds than the senses can take in.

     We waited in the sometimes shelter and sometimes shade of the concrete at the base of the brick building next to the bus stop.  There was an almost plaza-like feel to the place, with the large open paved area squeezed in among the streets, sidewalks, and tall brick buildings all around.  There was no sidewalk between this particular building and the busy street it nestled against.  Pedestrians trying their luck on the street side of the building took their lives in their hands.  I was surprised by how many people did that.

     It was a very busy bus stop.  A nonstop tide of cars, buses, and people came and went constantly.

     I don’t know how long we waited, but it sure seemed like a very long time.  People came and went, buses came and went, and yet we waited, always waiting.  Would our bus never come?

     My mind felt like I was looking through a fog.  Everything was confusing, my memory somehow lost in a haze I just couldn’t quite see through.

     “Why was I here?  Where are we going?  What bus are we waiting for?  And, why won’t that bus ever seem to come?”

     I looked around.  Casual Pair sat against the wall chatting, Lurker meandered through the crowd.  The Man looked at me, smiled.  I spun my head to look, a Crowd Phantom?  But I could not pick anyone out of the crowd.

     On the edge of the plaza-like bus stop a ruddy faced man watched me with concern in his eyes and face.  His light brown, almost blond hair had a slight curl to it, making it seem softer.

     I didn’t know him, but he somehow felt familiar.

     The confusion grew as I looked about, at the cars and buses, the people, The Group, the man watching with such worried eyes.  I had a vague feeling that he was an outsider; that he didn’t belong and shouldn’t be here.  I sensed that he was here for me, the tickle of the feeling that almost wasn’t there, of a bond between this strange man and me. “New Man,” the name came unbidden to my mind.

     Why didn’t he approach?  Why didn’t anyone seem to notice him, us, to see?

     A tiny twisted knot of fear began in my stomach.  It slithered its way up, growing, filling me, and choking me.

     I wanted to make a run for it, to bolt.

     Would that bus never come?

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Change

(Draft)

By L. V. Gaudet

© June 2009

     The snow sparkled brilliantly, like billions of miniature carefully polished diamonds, unblemished, perfect, save for three crimson drops staining its otherwise untouched beauty.

     A soft wind blew, gently touching the sparkling snow, caressing over the three stains blemishing its pristine whiteness, and was gone, carrying its despicable news.

     Downwind a dog sniffed the air, his nose twitching wetly at the faint aroma carried on the gentle wind.  He raised his muzzle and began to bay.  Soon the other dogs, bloodhounds, coonhounds, various hunting dogs, were all sniffing and baying to the sky above.

#

     Two men tramped through the low brush, their pants legs drawn tight and tucked into the high tops of their boots to keep out the wood ticks.  They wore the typical hunter’s jackets and hats, old and worn, salvaged from a cottage, and carried rifles carefully rested in the crook of their arms.  They wouldn’t use the rifles unless it was an emergency, there were few shells to be found these days.

     There wasn’t much to these woods, mostly young twig-like saplings, long grass that grew in after most of the trees were gone, and a great deal of low brush and poison ivy and poison oak.  Scattered fallen trees still lay about, rotting and moss covered, soft enough to sink a boot into, little havens for squirming insects.  A few trees still stood tall and proud, testaments to the forest that will take years to grow back, old charred scars still visible on many of these tough survivors.  Years of drought had brought the great fires, fires that raged through forest and grasslands, devouring the land with an unstoppable greed.

     The first man, Joe, stopped in his tracks, holding up a cautionary hand.  Joe wasn’t really his name, but that’s what these people knew him as.  Who he really was would have to remain a well kept secret, at least for now.

     The second man stopped, his head cocked and listening carefully.  He called himself Jacob.  Joe knew that wasn’t his real name either.  He didn’t know Jacob’s real name.  Nobody used real names these days.  It was best to keep one’s real identity and origin to oneself.  You never knew if the people you encountered would have some long standing grudge against your people.  And if things went sour, it kept your people and your family safe when killing you wasn’t revenge enough for what you yourself have done.

     The only sound the two men could hear was the droning of insects.  Joe could swear he’d heard the telltale snap of a branch cracking beneath the foot of something, something silently following them, stalking them.  Something, or someone.

     Without comment the men continued on, tracking through the new growth woods, spreading apart to cover more land.

     “Over here,” Jacob called, beckoning to Joe with a waving hand.

     Joe crashed noisily through the saplings, hurrying over; hopeful.

     “What is it?” Joe asked before he arrived on the scene.

     “Bear,” Jacob said, “grizzly or brown by the looks of it, and a big one too.”

     Joe stopped beside Jacob, studying the remains carefully.

     There wasn’t much left of the bear, a scattering of bones, part of a broken skull, dry and bleached by the sun, mostly chewed and cracked, the delicious marrow long ago sucked out of them.  This was an old skeleton, possibly from winter.

     Jacob nudged the skull with his toe.  Little black beetles scurried from beneath it, disappearing into the tangled grass.

     Joe nodded agreement before Jacob even spoke.

     “Old kill,” Jacob said, “probably from over winter.  This must be what riled up the dogs.”

     The dogs didn’t react to much these days.  They were getting on in years, and losing interest with the lack of much of anything to hunt.  They hadn’t had a successful breeding since the fires.  It didn’t seem like much of anything had been breeding since.  If the dogs howled, it was necessary to investigate, even if it took months to find evidence.

     “Wonder what happened to it,” Jacob said, mostly to himself.

     Joe shrugged.  It didn’t matter.

     “There’s nothing here,” Joe said, “let’s get back.”

#

     Joe and Jacob returned to camp to a flurry of activity.  Willien sat on the ground, arms wrapped about herself in desperation, rocking and wailing, oblivious to everything but her sorrow.  Women scurried about, packing essentials.  Men tore down shelters, careful not to damage the irreplaceable lengths of tree used to frame them.  The few children who had survived the fires stood around, staring mutely and afraid.

     An older man approached the two men, meeting them as they entered the camp.

     “Find anything?” he asked.  This was George, the leader of the group.

     “Just old bear remains,” Jacob said, “probably what got the dogs riled a few months back.”

     “Think she might have killed her child herself?” George asked.

     Joe shrugged.  It didn’t really matter.

     “Possibly,” Joe said.

     It didn’t really matter.  The camp had to move regardless, just in case.

#

     The camp was ready to move.  They all stood, carrying what they could, dragging what they could, and leaving behind what they couldn’t.  They all watched Willien, sitting on the ground, arms wrapped about herself in desperation, rocking and wailing, oblivious to everything but her sorrow.

     “What should we do?” asked Jacob, watching Willien.

     “Leave her,” Joe said with a shrug.  It didn’t really matter.

     “Maybe we should,” George said.

     Willien’s husband Warren stood there, angry.  He stepped forward quickly, his steps angry and purposeful, stopping to stare down at her, his nostrils flaring and breathing heavily with his anger.  Without warning he lashed out, slapping her across the face, hard.  Her head snapped around with the force of the blow, a red hand print staining her tear streaked face, blood oozing from her freshly split lip.  He grabbed her by the arm, dragging her roughly to her feet, holding her ear close to his mouth.

     “Snap out of it woman, before they leave you behind,” he hissed at her through bared yellowed teeth.  He gave her a vicious shake and released her arm, watching her sink back to the ground, now blissfully silent.  He turned his back on her coldly, joining the group waiting to move out.

     George shrugged, turned, and walked to his place in the lead.  He shouldered his pack and started to walk.  The group followed.  The dogs whimpered eagerly at the end of their ropes.

     Jacob and Joe stared at the woman sitting motionlessly on the ground.

     “Should we help her?” Jacob asked.

     “No,” Joe said.  He shook his head.  It was too bad; she could have been pretty in another time, another world.

     They turned and followed the group.

     Warren, Willien’s husband, walked stone faced and angry, his teeth grinding quietly, not once glancing back.  Inside, unseen, his heart broke.  He couldn’t show these people weakness, he needed them.  ‘They’ needed them.

     The group moved on, the sound of their movement growing dimmer with distance, slowly vanishing in the distance.

     At last Willien staggered up to her feet, hollow eyes staring bruised and blindly.  With a whimper she stumbled forward, following the path of the now unseen group.

#

     The three hunters returned to the makeshift camp looking distressed.  George, Joe, and Jacob moved to join them outside the camp where they could talk without being overheard.

     “Find anything?” George asked the men.

     They shook their heads, a little too long for simply coming back empty.

     “What is it?” George asked.

     “She followed us,” one of the hunters said.

     “Where is she?” George asked, looking around as if expecting to see Willien suddenly appear.

     “Wasn’t much left of her,” was all the man replied.

     “No food?” George asked.

     The man shook his head, ‘no’.

     “Guess we’ll have to eat one of the dogs tonight,” George said.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     “You know what this means,” Jacob said, knowing that everyone knew the answer and it needn’t be said.

     “Yes.”

     The group would continue moving, leaving them more vulnerable.  They didn’t feel safe enough yet to set up a permanent camp.

     Joe and Jacob watched George approach the dogs where they eagerly greeted him with wagging tails.

#

     Warren kept mostly to himself after that, going through the motions of living but not talking to anyone.  He had lost both his wife and child now, but did not dare visibly mourn them.  He had seen groups turn on a man for less weakness than that.  He needed these people.

#

     “How long have we been together?” Joe asked Jacob as they sat at the low quietly crackling fire, each sucking marrow from a bone.

     “Since that town in the valley,” Jacob answered noncommittally, pausing to think.  “Jains-something I think they called it.”  He didn’t look up, concentrating on sucking the marrow from his bone.

     “It’s a ghost town now,” Joe said.

     “I know.”

     It didn’t matter.  They were all turning into ghost towns now, those that hadn’t burned in the fires.

#

     “Let’s go,” George said, motioning to Joe and Jacob.

     “What’s up?” Jacob asked.

     “Another child disappeared,” George said.

     “We’re going to run out,” Jacob said.  The children were the lifeblood of the group.  If they couldn’t breed when they came of age the group would be lost.  None of the adults have been able to reproduce since the fires.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     Nobody thought the child could have simply wandered off.

#

     The people huddled together, hiding, clinging desperately to their few remaining children as the raiders ransacked their camp.  There would be little of use left when the raiders left.  If they found the people they would probably kill everyone, everyone except the children.  Children were valuable; they were the lifeblood of their people.

     There must be another camp nearby.  They would have to continue on.  Perhaps they could steal some children from the other camp before they did.

#

     The people picked half-heartedly through the remains of their camp.  They left empty handed.  The children cried.

#

     They slipped into the camp at dawn, shushing their stolen dogs.  Their dogs had dropped by one.  The raiders must have eaten it.

     They moved quietly, searching the sleeping camp, taking back what they could.  It wasn’t much of a camp.  It turned out to be just the raiders they had seen and one woman and child.  They had to kill the woman to keep her quiet.  They stole the child.

     “Wonder why they had no lookout,” George later said.

     Joe shrugged.  It didn’t really matter.

#

     The group moved on, exhausted, forever moving on.

     “I saw a strange bug,” George said.

     Joe nodded.

     “Never seen anything like it,” George said, shaking his head.  “Don’t see much of the usual insects anymore.  Do you think it migrated in?”

     “No,” Joe said.

     They walked on.

     “Plants‘r changing too,” George said.  “Have you noticed?”

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     A noise to the left brought the group to a halt.  They froze in their steps, looking about cautiously.  A Child whimpered fearfully.  The dogs whined eagerly.

     George nodded at the three hunters with the dogs.  One of them slowly leaned in and loosed one dog from its leash.

     Tail high, the dog snuffled about, scenting the air and ground.

     Movement again.  A grizzled old buck, motionless as a statue, broke from his stance and bolted, flying in graceful leaps over rotting fallen trees.  The dog ran in pursuit, baying loudly.  The men released the rest of the dogs to follow, running in pursuit of the baying hounds.

     “Looks pretty scrawny,” Jacob said of the buck bounding away in the distance.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     “Think he’s starving?” Jacob asked.

     “Can’t stomach the new trees,” Joe said.

     “Leaves are tougher,” George said, “more acidic.”

     “Yes,” Joe said.

#

     The buck tired easily.  When the hunters caught up, the animal lay on the ground, its sides heaving as it gasped for air, mouth open, legs tucked under.  He looked pathetic.  Scrawny and worn, bones protruding in big knobby deformed looking lumps, the buck’s coat was dull and dry, bald patches showing through.  His antlers seemed brittle.  His red rimmed eyes had a dull and dry glazed look, as if he were already dead.  He mostly ignored the dogs as they harried at him, nipping his fleshless flanks.  The buck seemed almost grateful when they took his life.

     “Not much meat,” said one of the hunters, looking at the animal that seemed to deflate before their very eyes as he exhaled his last breath with a big sigh.

     “Nope,” said the second hunter, already butchering the animal before its life fully ebbed away.

     “Hey, over here,” the third hunter called from some distance away.  The men looked up curiously.

     One of the hounds had broken from the pack, apparently following another trail.  There, on her side on the ground, her sides heaving desperately, lay a doe even more emaciated than the buck.  She was little more than a skeleton wearing a loose fitting skin, eyes bulging grossly from the lack of flesh on her face.  She gasped, her eyes rolling in her head, staring at the dog and man as they stared at her in wonder.  The dog moved around, snuffling at the fresh gore wetting the ground.  A tiny fawn, still wet with the gore of birth, lay curled up and shivering in the gore of afterbirth.

     Excited, he scooped up the fawn, holding it high for the other hunters to see.

     “A baby!” he shouted, “a baby!  It’s alive!”

     Amazed, the other two hunters sprinted over.

     “Smaller than usual,” one hunter said, studying the newborn in awe.

     “Don’t think the mom will live,” said another as he studied the doe gasping and panting on the ground as though she were the most valuable thing in the world.

     “If she dies, so does the baby,” said the third hunter.

#

     The hunting party tied up the dogs.  Two stayed behind, one butchering the buck, the other doe, who had breathed her last as they watched with baited breath.  The third jogged back to the group to give them the news.

#

     They stood about, staring at the tiny fawn weakly trying to stand, stumbling to its mother being butchered on the ground, searching for its mother’s teat to suckle.

     “Doesn’t look like any fawn I’ve ever seen,” George said.

     “No,” Joe said.

     “It won’t survive,” Jacob said.

     “Should we eat it?” George asked.

     “No,” Joe said.

     Somehow, it felt like eating the infant would be committing some terrible crime.  It was the first baby born since the fires, at least as far as they knew.

#

     A woman and child disappeared that night.  The woman was found, mutilated, almost nothing of her remaining.  The child was never found.  The group moved on, now laden down with the meager meat, hide, and bones of the two emaciated deer.  They brought the fawn with them, nursing it as best they could with anything edible they could find chewed and boiled into mush.  Surprisingly, it lasted a week before succumbing to its unsuitable diet.

#

     The men looked down at the small dilapidated town in the valley at the bottom of the hill.  It looked abandoned.  That didn’t mean it was.

     “Should we go?” Jacob asked.

     “Maybe,” Joe said.

     “They could be hiding,” George said.

     “We should go,” Jacob said.

     “Maybe,” Joe said.

     “They might have children,” George said.  They had three children left, including the one they stole, two boys and a girl.  They needed more if their group were to survive, assuming the children could be bred.

     Joe shrugged.  It really didn’t matter.

     They waited for dusk before entering the town.  It was empty.

#

     “Where were you?” George asked.

     “Down there,” Joe said, nodding toward the ghost town below.

     “Didn’t see you,” George said.

     “I was there,” Joe replied.

     “We lost a man today,” George said.

     “Can’t find the body,” Jacob said.

     Joe shrugged.

     George turned and stared down at the empty town.

     “It’s a ghost town,” George said.

     “They all are,” Joe responded, “they just don’t always know it yet.”

     “It would make a good camp,” Jacob said.

     “No,” George said.

     The group moved on.

#

     The group didn’t talk much as they travelled.  They were visibly nervous.  Their numbers have noticeably dwindled since Joe and Jacob had joined them.

     “George is getting suspicious,” Jacob said, walking alone with Joe.

     “And so he should,” Joe replied, “I would be.”

     “They only started losing people since we joined them,” Jacob said.

     “Yes,” Joe agreed.

     Jacob looked at him thoughtfully.

     “Seems to happen to every group we’ve joined,” Jacob said.

     “Coincidence,” Joe said, not turning to return Jacob’s gaze.

     “I still haven’t figured how you decide which groups to join,” Jacob said.

     “I just decide,” Joe said.

     “Seems like you’re looking for something,” Jacob said.

     “I am.”

#

     “I saw a face today,” George said as they sat at the fire chewing on a piece of deer meat.

     Joe nodded, chewing on his own chunk of meat.  Even charred on the fire he could still taste the off-flavored sweetness of the meat turning.  If they didn’t make camp long enough to properly smoke and dry it, the meat would soon be inedible.

     “It was a woman,” George said.  “I think she is following us.”

     “Possible,” Joe said.

     “Probably hungry,” Jacob said.

     “How does she know we won’t eat her,” one of the hunters said, chuckling at his own joke.

     “She doesn’t,” Jacob said in all seriousness, glancing at Joe.

     “We just might yet,” Joe said, gnawing on his rank venison.

     “She looked very young,” George continued.

     “Wonder if she could be a breeder,” Jacob said.

     “Then we’ll eat her for sure,” Joe said.

     George and the hunters laughed, Jacob and Joe did not.

#

     “It has always been the way of the world,” George said as they trudged on for yet another day.

     “Survival of the fittest,” Joe agreed.

     “New species,” George went on, “they’ve adapted, and they’re always stronger.  They evolve, they move in, take over the territory, take over the food supply, maybe kill the old species off.  The old species have a way of becoming extinct.”

     “Survival,” Jacob agreed.

     Joe nodded.

     “It’s happening to us, you know,” George said.

     Jacob turned and looked at him, wondering what he knows.

     “The deer,” George continued, “you saw them.  Mom is smaller, needs less feed, but was starved worse than the buck.  It was the baby that killed her, took all she had to grow that baby.  It didn’t look right either.  It was too small, colorings and markings were off, even the shape of its head was all wrong.”

     “It sure did like the meat we fed it,” Jacob said.

     “It was evolved,” George said.

     “Baby didn’t kill her,” Jacob said, “starvation did.”

     “Exactly,” George countered, “the plants are changing.  The deer can’t stomach them, they try to eat them but the plants make them sick, can’t get the nutrients from them.  They’re starving.  They have to adapt or become extinct.”

     “Bugs and plants,” Jacob said thoughtfully, “that’s all that’s reproduced since the fires.  Rodents too.”

     “And they’ve all changed,” George said.

#

     A shout roused the makeshift camp from sleep.  The dogs barked and whined.  A woman screamed.  The men scrambled in the dark, looking for raiders.  Somebody was struggling.

     Joe and Jacob ran up with torches lit to see a young woman struggling in the grip of one of the hunters.  A second hunter was tying her hands with strips of deer skin.  She looked dirty and scared and completely pissed off.

     “What’s this,” George asked, arriving on the scene.

     “A woman,” the hunter tying her hands said.

     “Hold the torch to her,” George said, “let’s have a look at her.”

     Joe approached, holding his torch inches from her face.  She glared at him, her eyes rolling like a wild and frightened animal.

     “Young,” Jacob said.

     “That’s the one,” George said, “the one I saw hiding.”

     “Pretty,” the third hunter said, approaching her and reaching out to touch her tangled dirty hair.

     “She’s mine,” the hunter holding her hissed through his teeth, pulling her away from the other hunter, “I caught her, she’s mine!”

     Joe just stared back at the young woman.

     Jacob looked at Joe, then at the woman, and back at Joe, wondering.

     George looked at the woman, stepped forward and studied her carefully.

     She spun towards him, teeth bared.  He stepped back calmly.

     “You can’t have her,” George said.

     The hunter holding her spun towards him, ready to fight for what he thought was his property.

     “She’s mine,” he said again, angrily, “I caught her, she’s mine!”

     “Yes, she is beautiful,” George agreed calmly.  “You can’t have her.”

     The man looked ready to attack George.

     “You want her don’t you,” he snapped, glaring at George.

     “No,” Joe said.

     The man turned to glare at him then back at his leader.

     “Why,” the hunter demanded, almost an angry whine.

     “She’s not right,” Jacob said, understanding dawning.

     Most of the group gathered around looked at him in confusion.

     “He’s right,” George said.  “We have to kill her.”

     The hunter drew the young woman closer, protectively.  He wasn’t about to give her up.  Women were becoming scarce, young ones more so, pretty ones virtually nonexistent.  Even if she couldn’t breed, he wanted a wife.

     She looked quickly up at the hunter holding her, fear in her eyes.  She understood their words.  She leaned into him, seeking his protection, a wordless promise.

     The hunter glanced down at her quickly, noticing the change in her posture, becoming more determined to keep her.

     “She’s mine,” the hunter said again, a warning.

     “No,” George said.

     “No,” Joe said.

     The hunter took a step back, holding tightly to his prize.

     George followed, looking into his eyes, trying to hold the man’s gaze with his own.

     “You can’t keep her,” George said calmly.

     Jacob took a step closer.

     “She won’t stay,” George said soothingly, taking a step closer, “she’ll run away first chance.”

     “No,” the hunter said, gripping the woman closer.

     Joe took a step closer.

     “She’s not one of us,” George said.

     “That’s never mattered before,” the hunter growled.

     Jacob took a step closer.

     “It’s different this time,” George said, taking a step closer.

     “No,” the hunter said, “not different.”

     Joe took a step closer.

     “She’s different,” George said calmly.

     The three men pounced.  They wrestled with the hunter trying to hold on to his prize.  The hunter wrestled with the woman, struggling to escape.  The woman wrestled with the three men, struggling to pull her away from the hunter.

     The hunter fought.  The three men fought.  The woman struggled and escaped, darting off into the scant cover of the new growth woods.  The other two hunters ran after her, capturing her and dragging the woman kicking and screaming back to their camp.

     The hunter, defeated, stood glaring at them, breathing heavily.  Joe and Jacob picked up their dropped torches and approached the men holding the still struggling young woman.  They brought the torches close, studying her.

     George walked up, stopping before her.

     “See what I mean,” George said.

     Jacob nodded.

     “Like the deer,” Jacob said.

     “Like the deer,” George agreed.  “Her color is just a little … off.  The shape of her face, something just isn’t quite … right.  Something you just can’t quite put your finger on.”

     The hunter who first captured her now stared at her with a different expression, one of wonder.

     “She’s not one of us, is she,” the hunter whispered.  “I mean, she is, but she isn’t, not really.”

     “No,” George said, “she isn’t.”

     “But she’s too old,” Jacob said.  “She’d have to be a toddler to be born after the fires.”

     “Not too old,” George said.  “Things have been changing for years.  The plants, the bugs, weather and temperatures; they’ve been changing for decades.  Species began dying off, having to adapt or die, long before the drought brought the fires.

     “She’s a new breed,” Jacob whispered, amazed, not believing it, and not wanting to believe it.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     “She’s not that different,” the hunter said, still trying to claim his prize.

     “Different enough,” George said.

     “She’s not alone,” Jacob said, suddenly studying the darkness shrouding the surrounding brush.  “Is she?”

     “I don’t think so,” George said.

     “No,” Joe said.

     “She wasn’t just following us to steal food was she,” Jacob said.

     “No,” Joe said, meeting the young woman’s stare.

     “She was hunting us,” George said simply.

     “She’s mine,” the hunter tried half-heartedly; “I caught her.”

     “No, she isn’t,” George said, bringing up a knife to kill the woman with.

     The woman looked into his eyes, her eyes widening, she struggled, screeched, fighting for her life.

     The hunter looked on, unsure, wanting to have her, wanting to possess her beauty, yet not wanting to so openly defy his leader, unsure about her.

     George stopped, stepped back.

     The woman stopped struggling.

     They all stepped back except the two men holding her.  They relaxed their grips, turning to stare in awe at the young woman.

     “She’s …” George gasped.

     “A breeder,” Joe finished for him.  He shrugged.  It didn’t really matter, not to him.

     They all stared in amazement, the rest of their group joining, reaching out to touch the young woman, eyes full of wonder and awe.  Their fingers gently brushed the small rounded swell of her stomach.

     George lowered his knife.  She was not one of them.  She was dangerous, hunting his people, feeding off them.  She needed to be killed.  She was a breeder.  You didn’t kill a breeder, not when no species were reproducing anymore, none except the plants, insects, and rodents.

     She stepped away, looked back at the people staring at her, turned, and jogged off into the darkness.

     “You knew, didn’t you?” George asked.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     “This is why you joined us,” George said, more a question than a statement.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     “Are you one of us or one of them?”  Jacob asked.

     “Both.”

     “You’re a hunter,” George said.

     “Yes.”

     “Them or us?” George asked.

     “Both,” Jacob said, staring at Joe, finally understanding completely.

     George turned and stared at him, an unspoken question on his face.

     “He hunts us because they hunt us,” Jacob said.

     “You hunt us too,” George said, turning to Jacob.  “You are with him.  Are you one of him too?”

     “I’m the same as you,” Jacob said.

     “Why?”  George asked Jacob.

     “Where we find you, we find them,” Jacob said.

     “So, you’re really hunting them,” George said.

     “Yes,” Joe said.

     “Why?” George asked, “They’re your own kind, aren’t they?”

     “Yes,” Joe said, “And no.”

     “They’re hunting us to extinction,” Jacob said.

     “Survival of the fittest,” George said.

     “Survival of the fittest,” Jacob agreed.

     “You can’t stay with us,” George said.

     “No,” Joe agreed.

#

     Joe and Jacob watched George’s group move off into the darkness.  Shadows darted within the shadows, tagging along behind, silently stalking them.

#

     “The world is changing,” Joe said.

     “Yes,” Jacob replied, “they couldn’t stop the global warming.”

     “They didn’t cause it you know.”

     “Yes, but they were arrogant enough to think that only mankind could create something so powerful.”

     “Vain.”

     “Yes.”

     “New species of everything are beginning to evolve.”

     “Plants, animals, insects.  It was inevitable.”

     “Inevitable.”

     “The weather, seasons, environment … nothing is what it was.”

     Joe shook his head.  The changes have changed more than could have been forecasted, causing droughts and floods where they never existed before.  Great earthquakes leveled cities and mountains alike, molten rock thrust new mountains reaching into the sky above.  It was a brave new world for those that adapted and survived.

     “Only the new people will survive,” Jacob said.

     “Yes,” Joe said.  He shrugged.  It really didn’t matter.

     “Yes we will.”

Bookmark Change by L.V. Gaudet (Fiction Short Story)

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Little Cup

The extraordinary story of a very ordinary little cup

By L. V. Gaudet

© December 2008

 

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The day was as any other, that day on which a very ordinary little cup was made along with a bunch of other very ordinary little cups. And today, again, was a day the same as any other day. The cups sat in a line on the shelf, rows behind rows of identical plain little tin cups. They were not made to be pretty like the fancy little painted tea cups sitting on a similar shelf with their fancy little saucers. The little tin cups were made to be simple, plain, and durable. They will dent, but not shatter or crack like the fancy little fragile china cups.

.

The bell above the door tinkled when the door opened. It might have been a merry sound, but these days there were very few with reason to feel merry.

.

The shopkeeper watched the mother enter the store with a boy trailing at her heel like a trained puppy. She leaned her bulk on the counter, trying to ease the ache in her sore feet as she watched them. The shopkeeper was a little overweight, but her clothes and face sagged with fatigue and the weight she had recently lost. The weight loss was not the result of prudent diet and exercise. Everyone was losing weight these days, including those who hadn’t the weight to lose.

.

The mother looked tired and worn out beyond her years; her eyes avoided making contact as she entered the store with a slight unsure pause as she did so, head lowered in deference to the world around her. Her jacket did not look warm enough for the weather. It was as worn and threadbare as the woman herself. Her cheekbones seemed a little sunken and her eyes held the furtive haunted look of a rabbit trapped within a circle of hungry wolves. She wobbled a little as she wandered along the shelves of the store, examining the goods, pausing and coming back again to the mostly empty shelves holding meager rations of food.

.

The boy looked too small, his age impossible to define. His jacket was much too big, making the boy seem even smaller within its confines. He looked too thin, scrawny sticks for legs sticking out beneath the jacket and ending in worn shoes that looked too small for his feet; the toes sticking out through holes worn through the tips of the shoes giving testament to that. The boy never looked up, just followed his mother silently, a miniature shadow, seeming almost as intangible as a shadow.

.

In another time, an eternity ago although really little time had passed, this woman would have entered with her head held high, looking the clerk in the eye with a smile and nod. The boy would have eagerly rushed forward, seeking out the candy shelves, begging his mother to buy some. Today the candy lay sullenly overlooked as kids instead eyed loaves of bread, dented cans they normally would insolently turn their noses at, and bruised partially rotted fruit with insatiable hunger.

.

The clerk caught the mother’s gaze, and turned her eyes away in shame, as though she’d just witnessed something very private. Her cheeks colored with what might have been embarrassment. What she saw in those eyes frightened her.

.

Those eyes held the dark bruised look of the desperate, a mother starving herself so that her children can eat what little scraps of food she can get.

.

The mother leaned down and whispered into the boy’s ear. What she said would soon become obvious.

.

The boy shuffled over towards the candy shelf, eyeing the brightly colored wares with a dull disinterested look. The woman behind the counter watched the boy. Gingerly, as though handling delicate crystal, the boy picked up two candy bars and showed them to the clerk. Digging into his jacket pocket, he retrieved a small handful of coins and showed them to the lady. She shook her head, indicating the sparse coins were not enough for the candy. They went through this little dance of charades, the boy showing her his pittance of money and different candies while she solemnly mimed “no”.

.

At last the mother approached the counter. She set on the counter a single dented can and motioned the boy to put the candy back. He gently laid the candy in its place and pocketed his change.

.

The mother at last looked the clerk in the eyes, a shadow of the pride she once had still lingered in those haunted hollow eyes. Carefully digging money from her worn little purse as though those coins were valuable and ancient relics requiring great care, she laid out the money to pay for the can of food.

.

As the mother turned to leave with her single can of food, the clerk leaned across the counter and deftly grabbed the boy’s jacket behind his mothers back. She slipped the coins into his hand and pointed at a candy bar with a wink, the bar filled with nuts, indicating that he should take it. She couldn’t sell the candy anyway. She had seen the mother furtively sneak a few apples into a pocket, while hungrily eyeing a loaf of bread that was too big to hide. She wiped away an unshed tear as the bell over the door tinkled behind the closing door. They would repeat this little dance in exactly one week, and again exactly one week later, as they had in the weeks before.

#

Back in their little shelter where two smaller children, a girl and a boy, huddled against the chill and waited, the mother carefully opened the dented little can. They would eat it as is, cold, shared between them. The mother would pretend to eat too, instead saving her small ration for her children.

.

Nervously, the boy that accompanied her to the store approached his mother. He looked embarrassed, shy. Not sure if he would be in trouble or if his mother would be proud. She looked up at him expectantly. He scuffed his toe, shrugged, and finally dug deep in his pocket. The boy pulled out the candy bar, presenting it solemnly.

.

The mother frowned at the candy bar. Candy was useless. It would not feed their starving bodies. But the nuts blanketed in that rich velvety chocolate were precious life giving little jewels. Protein. She smiled at the boy, hugged him tight. They would save this treat for later, when the children cried in the night from the hunger pains gnawing greedily at their stomachs.

.

The boy shuffled again, looking down at his toes.

.

The mother looked at him, a question in her eyes.

.

At last he dug again in his pocket.

.

Mother’s head tilted, curious, and a little worried.

.

The boy pulled out his prize and held it out before Mother’s eyes, his eyes tearing. It was a very ordinary little tin cup. Plain and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups.

.

“H-happy birthday Mother,” the boy’s voice cracked out.

.

Tears welled at Mother’s eyes and she hugged him tight. Words were not necessary; they would have only diminished the moment.

#

Mother carefully sliced a small bruised apple, putting pieces in the little tin cup, on a large piece of what used to be a larger ceramic dinner plate, and on the table beside where she cut. She ate two small slices, giving the rest to the children. When she was done, she carefully licked the juice from the knife and the surface of the table. They could not afford to waste even those few precious drops of juice from the apple.

.

She stepped outside to see the oldest boy carefully pulling a thin slice of apple from the little tin cup and sharing it with a starving scruffy looking little dog. It was food they desperately could not afford to lose, but she wasn’t angry. The little dog would provide them with meat, either by catching the quick little rodents that scurried about in the dark, or by eating the dog itself. Her children had to eat.

#

Mother lay on the cold ground in an icy puddle of dirty water, her coat stained dark like blood by the dirty water. Her eyes were closed as if in sleep, her hair tousled and spread out across the dirty road. A patch of blood lay streaked and already drying across her face. The muddy tracks of the wagon’s wheels lay across Mother’s coat like the sash of a pageant winner.

.

The children wailed and sobbed.

.

The little dog yelped and cried as the man ran away with the squirming little creature. The little dog would feed his starving family today.

.

The wagon that ran over Mother when the man pushed her to the ground in front of it as she fought to keep him from stealing the little dog just kept rolling on, unconcerned.

.

The very ordinary little tin cup lay forgotten in the mud, spattered and dirty, but not shattered or cracked.

.

A man passing by, unconcerned by the children’s plight, noticed the little cup. He stopped and looked at it, stooped and picked it up. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups. With a shrug he shoved the little tin cup in his pocket and walked on.

#

The wagon wheels growled ceaselessly against the rocks and dirt of the road. It was not a smooth road by any means and the wagon creaked and groaned tiredly as it was pulled along by a pair of tired horses.

.

The driver rocked in his seat with the swaying of the wagon. On the seat beside him a rather plain looking little tin cup sat. It was empty now, but its contents had warmed the man as he sipped it while waiting for the load on the wagon to be strapped down securely. He had picked up the discarded cup from the muck of the street, wiped it off, and kept it. A durable little cup like that came in handy.

.

The thundering of hooves began to descend on the wagon, echoing off the distance like the rumble of weak thunder.

.

The horses ticked their heads up and pricked their ears nervously, picking up on the driver’s nervousness through the long reigns. The driver looked side to side and behind, trying to spot the advancing riders and how far they were. He snapped the reins, calling the horses to greater speed. The wagon wheels wobbled dangerously on the uneven road as the wagon picked up speed.

.

A distant shout.

.

He urged the beasts faster. The wheels wobbled harder.

.

With whoops and yells, the thudding hooves growing closer, the riders chased down the wagon, catching up to it on their faster stolen horses. The ruts and pits of the road slowed down the wagon too much to outrun horses bearing riders only. They surrounded the wagon.

.

One rider leaned over, trying to catch the long rein and pull back on it to slow one of the horses pulling the wagon. If you slow one, you slow them both. He reached and missed, reached again, caught it, and pulled.

.

A sudden lurch of the wagon as its wheel caught a rut pulled him off balance, making him fall from his galloping horse. He tumbled, rolled, and the wagon wheels rolled right over him. The horse continued to pace the horses pulling the wagon in an urgent race.

.

The other men continued to chase the wagon, the driver urging his beasts to greater speed, the wagon wheels wobbling dangerously, and the wagon jostling on the rough road, leaving the injured man laying groaning in the mud of the road behind. They could not lose the wagon. If they did not rob it their families would not eat.

.

The little tin cup wobbled and rolled about the seat, finally rolling off and bouncing against the edge of the wagon side. It fell to the ground, bouncing and rolling, at last coming to rest in the dirt. It lay there in the mud, spattered and dirty, sporting a little dent but not shattered or cracked.

#

Dusk was beginning to close in, drawing a pall of dimness across the world. An old man hobbled down the road, using a cane for support. His stomach had stopped hurting some time ago and now just had the empty hollowness of the starving.

.

Something in the road caught his eye. He stopped and looked at it, stooped with difficulty and picked it up. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups. With a shrug he shoved the little tin cup in his pocket and walked on.

.

The door to the little shack creaked open. The old woman warming herself by a tiny starving fire looked up hopeful, yet a little afraid.

.

The old man shuffled in, closed the door behind him, and slowly peeled his coat off with arthritis stricken fingers. He walked over to the old woman, who looked up at him warmly from her chair.

.

“Happy birthday, Mother,” his voice cracked as he leaned over to give his wife a kiss on the forehead. Carefully, he pulled out the little tin cup and presented it to her as though it were something very valuable and fine.

.

The old woman stared at the little tin cup. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and sporting a little dent and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups. She smiled warmly up at the old man, hugging his arm tight. He helped her struggle out of the chair. She shuffled over to the sink, picked up a worn little tea towel, wetted it, and cleaned the little cup with careful love. When she was done, she gently set the cup upon the shelf beside some pretty little fancy painted cracked and chipped teacups.

#

“Hurry,” the boy urged his older brother as he kept watch. The old couple would return soon. He had seen them searching the edge of the woods not far to anything edible they could find.

.

“I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying,” the other brother spat back as he urgently ransacked the little shack, desperate to find something to eat. Searching the shelf of mismatched cups in case something lay hidden there, he accidentally knocked a pretty little fancy painted teacup off the shelf. It tumbled as if in slow motion as the two boys eyes watched the delicate little cup’s fall in horror. It shattered when it hit the floor. They stared at it mesmerized.

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Finally the older boy snapped out of it.

.

“There’s no food here,” he whispered loudly to the younger boy. The younger boy looked stricken, his hand reflexively reaching for his empty belly.

.

“Let’s get out of here,” the older boy said, looking nervously at the door.

.

The younger boy paused, eyes glued to the little tin cup. His hand snaked out, snatched the little cup off the shelf, and shoved it into his pocket.

.

The boys ran from the house, the old couple yelling at their retreating backs in the distance, having seen the robbers flee from their little shack.

.

The boys ran faster, not knowing that the kind old couple had found food and wanted to share it with the two boys they knew regularly burglarized their home in a desperate search for something to eat.

#

Two boys sat cowering against the cold stone wall, huddled in their ragged clothes for warmth they wouldn’t find. Their limbs seemed strangely long, so stick-like were their thin arms and legs. Between them sat a rather plain looking little tin cup sporting a little dent and kind of ugly. They picked this spot because this was where the people with money came to eat and drink. Their eyes locked on every passerby, following them, pleading, hollow and sunken with hunger and desperation. Later, they would move to the back of the building to fight with other children over the meager scraps from the garbage. The workers in the restaurant mostly picked out anything reasonably edible to bring home to their families before the trash made it to the back ally.

.

A mean spirited woman passed by, not deigning to give them so much as a glance from the corner of her eye, and making it obviously so. Next came a swaggering man, waddling from his obesity and pomposity.

.

After this shuffled a wraith of a woman, scrawny and dirty; eyes withdrawn and empty. She paused before them, not looking at them, and just stood there. At last she turned to stare down at the boys with those empty lifeless eyes. Her eyes scared them. They shrunk into themselves, wishing she would just go away.

.

The scary woman reached into her dirty coat. She knelt down and gently laid a single coin in the little tin cup. With a satisfied nod, she got up with a slight wobble, weak from hunger. The boys would eat today instead of her. She shuffled off down the street and vanished around a corner.

.

The boys stared after her, eyes wide in wonder at the starving homeless woman who gave when even the wealthiest just ignored them.

.

Later, at the garbage behind the building, the younger boy cowered against the wall, the precious coin hidden within his rags of clothes. The older boy rolled and scuffled on the ground with another boy, kicking, punching, and biting. Other children stood around, jeering and cheering. The little tin cup rolled out of the older boy’s pocket, bouncing on the ground with a dull little clang.

.

With a rude smirk one of the spectators, an older boy with a dirty freckled face, kicked the little cup hard, sending it skittering and bouncing and rolling out into the street. It bounced off the wheel of a slow moving car. Cars were relatively new still and very few of even the rich had one. The cup was kicked by a plodding horse’s hoof as the animal pulled a wagon past. It skittered and bounced and rolled, finally coming to rest someplace out of sight.

.

Satisfied, the older boy joined the fight, beating up the boy who lost the little tin cup.

#

A little girl picked up something from the mud. It was so dirty and caked with mud that she had to wipe some of the thick mud off to see what it was. It was a little tin cup. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and dented and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups. She smiled and wiped more mud off.

.

The little girl used the little tin cup to give water to a very thirsty little cat. The little cat purred and rubbed against her legs appreciatively before scampering off. The little girl frowned, sad, and stared at the little cup in her hands.

.

The grateful little cat returned with a prize, dropping a freshly caught fat rat at the little girl’s feet. She set the cup down on a window ledge beside her and stared at the ugly hairy creature lying at her feet. The little cat stared up at her expectantly. The girl’s eyes lit up and she smiled at the little cat. Scooping up the dead rat she ran for home, the little cat following at her heels. Her family would eat meat today. The little tin cup sat alone and forgotten on the ledge.

#

A man walked along, carrying a worn black doctor’s bag. He had urgent business. As he walked he pondered, hoping the family he was visiting still had some meager belongings, still had a shelter and warmth, and still had some kind of little cup or bowl to mix the medicine in a broth to feed the ill father.

.

As he walked, something caught his eye. He paused and looked at a little tin cup sitting forgotten on a window ledge as the world shuffled on by. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and dented and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups. He smiled, picked up the cup, and shoved it in his pocket. He continued on his way, whistling a sad little song.

#

“The doctor is here, the doctor is here,” a little boy came rushing in eagerly. He was little and skinny, his eyes bruised and hollow with hunger.

.

The mother rushed to the door, closing it behind her, confronting the doctor before he could enter. She blocked the door, holding the handle so curious little hands could not open it to see what is going on. She looked frail and frightened, her eyes holding that furtive haunted look of a rabbit trapped within a circle of hungry wolves. Her eyes stared into the eyes of the doctor. What he saw in those eyes frightened him.

.

“We can’t pay you,” she said in a quiet matter of fact voice.

.

He nodded and stepped forward, saying not a word. Words were not needed and would only have diminished the moment.

.

She stepped away from the door, allowing the doctor to enter.

#

An icy rain pelted down, cutting sharply against exposed flesh. It was very dark. Some things simply did not wait for daylight these days.

.

A frail looking mother stood silently in the rain, a little boy standing beside her, his tears lost in the streaming pellets of rain. They watched the men dig, opening a dark hole in the ground, a paupers grave. Silently, the mother wished she could step forward, close her eyes, and fall into that black void with the body of her husband. She looked down at the boy by her side, her hands fidgeting in her pockets, trying to warm them. Her hand closed around an object she’d forgotten shoving into her pocket. She pulled it out and stared at it as though she’d never seen it before. It was a little tin cup, plain and dented and kind of ugly. Her eyes burned with anger and unshed tears. She hated that little cup. The mother turned, wound up her arm like a baseball pitcher, and threw the little cup as hard and as far as she could. She watched it sail through the air, tumbling, and vanishing in the darkness.

.

The little boy’s eyes followed the rolling flight of the little tin cup solemnly, as though this simply were part of the rite of burial.

.

The little tin cup called back its goodbye’s, a tinny echo as it clanged and rolled somewhere in the dark until it came to rest.

#

A figure lurked in the darkness, quiet, treading carefully so as to be utterly silent.

.

A woman waited anxiously, unaware of the man creeping up on her in the darkness.

.

The man’s eyes fixed on the woman, watching her in anticipation as she slowly drew nearer with every cautious step he took.

.

She did not see him, did not hear him, and did not feel his presence in that uncanny way some women have of sensing someone staring at them.

.

The man reached out his arms, eyes glinting, teeth glinting against the distant light as he bared them in a nasty grimace. The knife in his hand gleamed sharply off that distant light. Just one more step…

.

The tinny little clang of the little tin cup echoed like a deafening thunderclap to the man’s ears. He froze, eyes scared.

.

Startled the woman looked up, turned around, and screamed. It was a frightened scream.

.

The man’s feet slapped against the ground as he fled into the dark of night.

.

Trembling, the woman looked down and her eyes caught sight of the little tin cup. She stooped down and picked it up, turning it in her hand to look at it. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and dented and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups. With a shrug, she put the cup in her coat pocket. It would come in useful. She continued to wait, a little more wary now.

#

A worn little wooden crate sat in a corner. It didn’t hold much. A few scraps of worn clothing, some fruit well on the way to rotten, a loaf of hard and molding bread, and one little tin cup. It was a rather plain looking little tin cup, dirty and dented and kind of ugly, but it would not shatter or crack like the pretty little fancy painted teacups.

.

Stuck to the crate was a simple little note.

.

“Orphanage,” the note read in an uneven scrawl.

.

Tonight, the children would eat.

 

 

 

 


Published:

Jan 23/09 online at Patchwork
http://www.patchworkproject.com/lvgaudet.html

 

 


Bookmark Little Cup by L.V. Gaudet (Fiction Short Story)

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Charlie

by L. V. Gaudet

(C) November 2008

 

 

 

 

 

            A large bumblebee flittered lazily around the flowers below the window sill, buzzing softly like a lover serenading his girl.  The flowers gently sway in the light morning breeze as their fragrance is born aloft on the warm air.  The lacy white curtain trembles slightly as a breeze gently slips through the mesh of the window screen, sending a faint patterned shadow dancing across the room.  Wind chimes hanging outside the window tinkle merrily, playing as accompaniment to the love song of the bee.  The sunlight filtering through the semi-transparent curtains glows warmly on the wrinkled face lying in a cloud of grey-white hair.  It is an old face, a spider web of age lines crisscrossing across it like an invisible veil.  Beneath the surreal mask of wrinkles lies the real person, a sad and lonely woman who grew old before she was ready, ever yearning for the youth she still felt in her heart if not in her arthritic limbs.

            A quiet gasp escapes past the age-chapped lips.  Her eyelids flutter open as her mind gropes its way out of a deep sleep with a realization of the silence.  To the old woman, it seems as an almost deathlike stillness.  The silence is broken only by the soft purring drone of the bumble bee playing a duet with the tinkling chimes outside the window.  The old woman is deaf to the subtle sounds drifting in through the window, her ears hoping desperately for other, more domestic, sounds.  Sounds she knew would not be there.

            She sighs depressingly, knowing all too well that this morning will be like all the others.  Her life now is an endless stream of mornings greeted by gloomy silence; suffocating and still, like an ancient tomb where life hasn’t tread for centuries.

            Her thoughts, still fuzzy with sleep, turn automatically to memories of the past, as they do every morning.  Days when each morning was welcomed by the delicious smells of breakfast cooking, the unmistakable sounds of running feet and voices of children laughing, arguing.  Most unmistakable of all to her lonely mind was the gentle voice of her beloved husband.

            Those were the days when she was happy, fulfilled; a lifetime ago.

            Now she lives alone.  Her children are all grown up with children of their own, and her loving husband has been dead for five years now.

            Wearily, she pulls herself into a sitting position, considering whether or not to bother getting out of bed today.  There seems little point in it.

#

            There is a light half-hearted scratch at the bedroom door, then a small meow, and then a Pause.  After a brief moment a more determined scratch came, followed by a loud demanding “Mrraaoow!”

            Lovingly, she looks to the closed bedroom door where Charlie is meowing loudly, demanding attention.  He is her only relief from this suffering loneliness, but somehow not quite fulfilling her need for companionship.

            She slowly twists her body, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, blue varicose veins weaving a rambling pattern down them like a live road map.  Loose skinned and frail looking, her arm stretches out, reaching for her cane, her hand knobby with purple-blue vein bumps.  She gripped the bed post with the other hand to steady herself.  Her silver-white hair, the tangled mane of a banshee, falls across her pale creased face, half obscuring sunken brown eyes.  She mutters incoherently to herself.

            If you saw her, you would wonder if even she knew what she was saying.

#

            Using her cane to pull herself unsteadily to her feet, the old woman slowly made her way to the door with an unsteady shuffling walk.  It creaked slightly as she opened it.  Looking down, she saw a large orange striped tomcat stretching stiffly on the weathered floor at her feet.  The cat was mostly an indistinct blur of orange, a fuzzy blob at her feet.

            He gazed up at her affectionately, meowing his good morning.  An understanding look passed between them.

            “Alright, let’s go and get you looked after,” the old woman said as Charlie rose painfully on stiff arthritic limbs and preceded her stiffly to the tiny kitchen.

            As the old woman was finishing the daily morning ritual of dressing, cleaning, and feeding Charlie and herself, she wondered if she should call her son Dave and ask him to visit.  Still sitting in her favorite chair in the living room, her plate holding a meager breakfast balanced precariously on her lap, she ate with arthritic numbed fingers.  Each bite was an effort to hold with those fingers that couldn’t quite grasp as they should, a faint tremble to her hands.  In this chair she can look out the window and watch the people passing by on the street outside.

            Just as she decided to wait until later to call her son the doorbell rang, its chime calling out urgently through her small home.  Excited at the thought of company, she set her plate aside and pushed herself out of the chair with difficulty.  She waddled like an anorexic penguin slowly to the door, peering through the peephole when she finally reached her destination.

            On the other side a pretty girl stood.  She had the smoothly tanned complexion of youth and long curly dark brown hair.  She is eight years old.

            To the old woman’s rheumy eyes the figure through the peep hole is fuzzy and hard to see.  Straining to reach high enough to see through the peep hole, she can see only a blur in the shape of a human form.  She can see no distinguishing features to tell her who her visitor is.

            “Who’s there,” the old woman called through the door.  Her voice is weak and cracked, an old crone’s voice, as ancient as the mountains.

            “Grandma, it’s me, Sherry,” a soft melodically low voice replied through the door.

            Cautiously the old woman opened the door.  The face is still not clear enough to be recognizable.

            “I don’t know you!  What do you want?” the old woman complained to the girl standing in front of her.

            The happy girl’s expression changed to a crushed one.

            Feeling hurt, Sherry explained.

            “It’s me, Sherry.  You know; your granddaughter.  My dad is your son, Dave.  We visited you last month.”

            “Oh,” the old woman exclaimed, “well don’t just stand there, come in, come in.”  She moved her withered frame away from the door to allow her granddaughter to enter.

            “No wonder I don’t know who you are, when I see you once a month,” the old woman muttered irritably.  Adding as an afterthought, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you dear.  I can’t see a damn thing through these glasses anymore.”

            “Um, Grandma,” Sherry said carefully, “you aren’t wearing your glasses.”

            “That’s because they don’t work,” the old woman snapped.

            Shrugging it off, Sherry suggested as she walked past the old woman into her house, “Well then why don’t you get new glasses?”

            Ignoring this, the old woman turned and walked back to her chair, grumbling.

            “I don’t like being called ‘Grandma’, it makes me sound old.  Call me Eve.”  The chair protested as she settled her slight weight into it.  She motioned Sherry to sit down.

#

            As the ancient clock on the wall chimed its announcement that it is two o’clock, the old woman and Sherry were interrupted by the bing bonging call of the doorbell.  The old woman motioned for Sherry to answer it, complaining about how hard it is on her stiff joints when she has to keep getting up.

            Her sprite narrow frame hopping up from the floor where she sat cross legged in front of her Grandmother, Sherry strolled lightly to the door.

            “Look through the hole before you answer the door,” her Grandmother warned.  The rest was muttered incoherently under her breath, perhaps something about strangers lurking outside her door.

            Grasping the handle she found that, although her grandmother is a short woman, she has to stand on tiptoes to see through the peephole.

#

            On the other side of the peeling door is a tall, slightly chubby man with thin black hair, balding on top.

            “It’s Dad,” she exclaimed, opening the door and eagerly standing aside to allow him to enter.

            Seeing her son, who was a tall indistinct blur to her ill-working eyes, the old woman immediately started on a tirade, preaching about his cruelty to her in being too busy to come visiting more often.

            “It’s been a month since I last saw you!  Are you too busy to see your poor old mother, who raised you and cared for you!” she demanded.  “Or are you just too good now to spare any time for me.”  It was not a question, but a pronouncement.

            Having only begun, she continued.

            “I sit here alone day after day, waiting for someone to bother to find the time to visit me.  I’m not safe here all alone, an old woman like me, strange people lurking out there, coming to the door and trying to trick me into letting them in and at me …”

            Frustrated, Dave cut her off.

            “I have a family to spend time with.  I can’t spend all of it with you.  Besides, why don’t you get out sometime and make some friends.  Then you won’t feel so lonely.”

            “Don’t I count as family anymore?” the old woman muttered under her breath.  When Dave ignored this she continued in a defeated whimper.  “You’re just making excuses.  You don’t want to waste your precious time on a useless old woman.”

            Getting angry now, Dave raised his voice in protest.

            “Stop it Mother!  Stop being so miserable!  If you didn’t complain so much about how nobody has time for you and whine so much about how hard on you we are, then maybe it would be easier to want to make time for you.  You’re just being paranoid that nobody wants you!”

            His anger flared further as he watched the old woman fumbling blindly through her knitting basket, pulling out a large print magazine, and holding it so close it touched her nose as she squinted and pretended to be trying to read it.

            “And for God’s sake put on your glasses!” Dave fumed.

            With a loud “Hhmph!” the old woman snatched her glasses off the little round corner table beside her chair with surprising dexterity that didn’t match her decrepitness and put them on.  As she did so everything suddenly jumped into clear focus.  She squinted at her son angrily through the glasses, wrinkling the magazine noisily as she brought it back to her nose, holding it far away, and back to her nose again, making a show of being unable to read the magazine, proving her point that the glasses don’t work.

            Breaking the uncomfortable silence that has fallen between them, the old woman quietly despaired.

            “It’s true though, nobody wants me.  I’m just a useless old woman,” she moaned.

            Dave sighed with exasperation.

            “We do love you,” he continued, “but you have to make a life of your own.  We can’t all revolve our lives around you.”

            “I did,” the old woman thinks to herself, remembering the years she spent revolving her life around her children, raising them.

            Slouching with dejection and tired of it all, Dave added, “I don’t want to hear any more about how hard up and neglected you think you are.”

            With a hurt look the old woman retreated into silence.

#

            Following an afternoon filled with tension, Dave noticed that Charlie hasn’t been in his usual spot, purring on his mother’s lap.  Hoping to distract his two women from the angry moods they have both slipped into, he commented on the cat’s conspicuous absence.

            “I haven’t seen Charlie today.  He’s always the first to reach the door when he hears the bell,” Dave said.  Thinking about it briefly, he continued,” I’ve never known him to miss out on company.”

            “Maybe he’s taking a nap,” Sherry suggested, her slender arm snaking out to snatch another cookie off the plate sitting on the old age-worn coffee table.

            Thoughtfully, Dave looked at her for a moment.  He shook his head and replied, Beginning slowly, absent mindedly, and almost slurring his words so deep was he in thought.

            “I don’t think so,” Dave said.  “I have never known that cat to nap through company and miss out on being the center of attention, no matter how tired he is.”

            “Yeah,” Sherry agreed thoughtfully, “but he is pretty old.  He must be tired a lot.”

            Not about to miss a chance to suggest that his mother get rid of the ancient feline, whose limbs are now stiff and arthritic, Dave looked at his mother, trying to catch her eye.

            “He is pretty old you know,” Dave said, “I mean, Charlie is already half blind with cataracts and almost crippled from arthritis.  Half his organs are failing with age.”

            Ignoring the shocked looks he was receiving from both his mother and daughter, he continued in a bored lecturing tone.

            “You know, he really should have been put down when that car hit him two years ago.  He never did quite recover from that,” Dave lectured.

            Dave looked quite pleased with himself.  His face suddenly lit up with excitement as he pretended to have just had a wonderful revelation.  Eagerly, he made the suggestion he has tried to find the words for every time he came to visit.

            “I know!  Why don’t we take him to the vet and have him put out of his misery now?  Today!”  Dave’s eyes gleamed with triumph, as though he just offered them the fulfillment of their hearts’ every desire, looking to the two sets of eyes staring back at him in horrified shock,

            It was very badly put.

            The old woman’s mouth dropped open as a blank look of shock claimed her face.  Her jaw opened and closed spastically a few times, the creases around the corners deepening.  Her eyes widened with hollowed shock.

            His daughter, Sherry, gaped at him in shock, disbelieving her own father could say something so cruel.  Poor Charlie!

            “H-How could you suggest a thing?!” the old lady exclaimed incredulously, her voice rising in pitch.  Her shock turned to hurt, the expression of horrified amazement sinking into an injured look and then to a trembling anger.

            “Charlie has been with me for sixteen years now!  It would be MURDER to kill him!”  She would have spit when she talked if her salivary glands weren’t so dried up with age. Her eyes began to shine with the threat of tears.

            Her lower lip trembled and a slight whimper entered her voice.

            “He can’t even defend himself from you,” the old woman said, turning away from her son in angry despair.  Her eyes looked about, desperate for a sign of her cat, feeling the urgent need to protect the feline from her murderous son.

            “Oh how could I have birthed such a horrible monster,” she wondered to herself, “Cruel, cruel, cruel.”

            “Besides, he’s all I have,” she finished admonishing her son, her voice cracking, not turning to look at him.

            “But Mom,” Dave exclaimed, interrupting, “you have us!”

            Angered by this the old woman spun around to face him, rising slowly and unsteadily from her chair, head low and menacing, her squinting eyes burning with anger.  Her anger exploded from her.

            “That is a LIE!”  The old woman screamed.  “I don’t have you!  I have no one!”  Finishing in a sarcastic tone, she continued, “You can’t even be bothered to spare any time from your precious schedule to come see me more than once a month.”

            They stood there in a standoff, staring each other down.  The old woman stood rock solid and breathing heavy.  Dave trembled slightly, the little boy who broke the bad neighbor’s window having to fess up to his mother, who would be angry at having to spend their meager grocery money to repair the damage.

            The old woman’s voice quavered as she continued.

            “Is this what you’re going to do to me?” she demanded, staring down the little boy standing before her, making him shrink within himself, trying to hide from that stare, trying to disappear.

            “Have me ‘put down’ when you’re sick of me?  Is that your solution to anything that gets old and useless?”  Her voice shook with age and anger, dripping with hatred.

            Dave just blinked back at her, still the little boy staring up at his all powerful mother, protector, and punisher all in one, instead of the man who stood before his decrepit old mother.

            Spent and exhausted from her angry outburst, she lost her determined fighters stance, shoulders slumping in defeat.  The frail old woman suddenly looked much older.  Her voice dropped to barely a whisper.

            “I have no one but Charlie.”

            Dave just stood there, voiceless, scuffing the toe of his shoe guiltily on the carpeted floor, toeing the frayed strings of the worn carpet.  His slouching shoulders hunched up protectively like a turtle trying to hide its head, but for some reason can’t pull it inside its shell.

            “You are heartless!” the old woman demanded, almost in tears now.  Her voice stabbed at Dave like a knife.  “You want to take away from me the only one who cares, the only company I have to get me through these lonely days.”

            Dave visibly cringed with every word she emphasized.

            With vehemence the old woman screamed at him again, her anger renewed.

            “You stay away from my Charlie!”  Her dried up salivary glands managed to let fly a loose spittle this time with the force of her words.  She breathed heavily, glaring at her son with a baleful look comparable in potency to that of Medusa, who was notorious for her ability to turn most men to stone with just a gaze, or perhaps the mythical salamander.

            Biting her lip so hard she almost drew blood in her effort not to cry, Sherry looked from her father to her grandmother.

            “Please don’t say these things,” she pleaded quietly.  “Don’t fight like this.”  She begged them with her eyes.

            Ignoring his daughter, Dave sighed exasperatedly.  He did that a lot when he visited his mother.

            “Fine,” Dave said in frustration, “you won’t have to be alone.”  He paused, and then continued.  “I’ll get you a new kitten.”  He regretted the words even as he said them.  He knew his mother would have to go into a home soon, if she didn’t die of a stroke or something before then.  Either way, he’d have a whole new fight on his hands trying to get rid of the new cat against the protests of his wife, daughter, and his mother … if she was still alive by then.  Damned cats!

            The old woman turned her back on him stubbornly.

            “I won’t let you take Charlie away from me,” she insisted, “I won’t let you murder him.”  The hated word dripped with venom.   “I don’t want a new kitten,” she added, “Charlie can NOT be replaced!”

            Through most of this Sherry sat quietly, considering where Charlie might be.  Surely he couldn’t have slept through all this shouting.  She just couldn’t think of any place, and he never goes outside any more.  Finally she interrupted the two arguing adults.

            “Where is Charlie, Grandma?” she asked.

#

            Truly realizing for the first time that no one has seen Charlie all afternoon, they all looked around dumbfounded.  Despite arguing about it, the reality hadn’t really sunk in until now, nor did the significance.  The old woman fell back stiffly into her chair, eyes downcast.

            After a few awkward moments of silence, the old woman pushed herself out of her chair with visible effort, grunting with the pain and stiffness.  Her boney knuckles turned white as the dry papery skin pulled tight over the bones and cartilage of her hands.  Grasping her cane tightly with the anger which still hasn’t left her, the old woman slowly shuffled out of the room, calling Charlie with a dry age-cracked voice.

            “Charlie, here kitty,” she called out, “where are you, you lazy tom.”

            Sherry jumped up, following the old woman to help in the search.

            Dave watched them go, standing stiffly, slouching.  His head hung low and his hands were thrust in the pockets of his trousers like a rebellious boy who has just been scolded.  He shifted uneasily, feeling bad now.

            Finally, Dave moved into action with jerky movements, joining the search for the cat.  He wasn’t really looking, just going through the motions mostly.

            Dave searched the living room while his mother and Sherry explored the kitchen and bathroom.

            “Lucky she moved into a small home after Dad died,” Dave thought to himself.

            After they exhausted the searches in their individual rooms, they switched without comment or even really thinking about the fact that the rooms have already been checked.

            Inside the kitchen, Dave shook his head in disgust at the shallow china bowl of drying canned cat food sitting on the floor in a corner.  The edges of the food looked dried and cracked, darkened.  It looked old and gross, an insult to the delicate pattern of the china that belonged behind glass doors.  Beside it sat a chipped china bowl of a different pattern.  The milk seemed chunky.  A foul odor wafted up on the air from it.  He looked around the kitchen dismally without really looking while Sherry and the old woman frantically searched the living room.

            Still, they had no luck.

            “I’m going outside to look,” Dave declared, giving up the search indoors.

            “But Daddy, you know he never goes outside,” Sherry reminded him.

            “I’ll look just in case,” he said, closing the door behind him.  He didn’t really intend to look outside; he just needed to get out of there for a bit.

            By now the old woman was back sitting in her chair, too upset and tired to continue the search.  Sherry sank down into another chair.

            “Grandma,” Sherry exclaimed, her eyes lighting up, “we didn’t check your bedroom.”

            A glimmer of hope sparked in the old woman’s eyes, blossoming into confidence.

            “Well, that’s obviously where he is then,” she said.  “Why don’t you go fetch him dear?”  She remembered that the door to her bedroom had been closed.  Poor Charlie simply couldn’t get out.  His hearing wasn’t too good these days either, he probably didn’t hear the door and just curled up for a nap.

            Eagerly, Sherry hopped up and skipped out of the room.

#

            Sherry twisted the door knob slowly and swung open the bedroom door.  The door hinges creaked quietly as metal ground against metal; their lubricating oil wearing down.  Entering the room, her eyes darted about from one end to the other.

            A faint sickly sweet odor hung in the air.  The ‘old woman smell’ is present as always, but it seems somehow different, stronger, today.

            “This room smells awful,” she whispered to herself, gasping slightly at the shock of the putrid odor.  The breeze wafting in through the open window did little to stir the air.

            Not seeing the cat, she crouched on her hands and knees to check under the bed, involuntarily holding her breath.

            There is nothing there but a pair of worn pink fuzzy slippers.  They are half bald.

            Standing up, she crossed the room to the closet near the foot of the bed.  Opening the door, she is hit with the overpowering stench of mothballs mingled with other unidentifiable scents.  Sucking in her breath and holding it, she quickly shifted around the clothes hanging on the bar and the few items on the floor.  Her eyes burn and water a little from the odor.  When she didn’t find the cat she quickly closed the door, her eyes had turned a little red from the mothball fumes.

            Turning toward the bed, she noticed the furry tip of a tail poking out from under the tangled bed sheets.  She couldn’t have seen it from the doorway.

            Her face burst into a triumphant grin and she called out happily.

            “So there you are!  You silly cat, were you hiding from us?”  She approached the bed, expecting the cat to sit up or roll over lazily at any moment.

            “Is this a new game you learned?” she asked the silent cat.

            Reaching out, she slowly pulled back the blanket and saw Charlie.

#

            The orange cat is laying half curled, his tongue hanging out slightly as though he were too thirsty and weak to hold it in place.  His eyes were open with a blank, glazed expression, dry and looking more like marbles than eyes.

            He looks kind of flat, almost like he sank or caved into himself, his flesh sagging lifelessly into itself, shrunken.  His once luxuriant fur dull and scraggly with age now looked more like cheap imitation fake fur that has been chewed up and spit out.  He looked stiff, without even having to reach out to touch him and see.

            A foul odor rose to Sherry’s nostrils, making them flare in disgust.  Reaching out her hand tentatively to give the cat a gentle shake, disbelieving what her eyes clearly saw, she noticed the grayish pallor to the skin under the cat’s thin fur.  She also noticed with her eyes and nose both that the feline’s bowels had emptied themselves as he lay there, the mess having oozed out onto the bed.

            Shocked, knowing the truth but unable to readily accept it, she shook him anyway to be sure.  Charlie rocked slightly at her gentle touch, stiffly, like a wooden carving of a cat.  His stiffened joints and flesh didn’t even move.

            Yes, he’d dead.

            Gently picking him up, she cradled him in her arms and dejectedly stumbled out of the room in shock.

#

            The old woman looked up as the young girl entered the room with her grisly cargo.  The expression on the old woman’s face changed from confident expectancy to curious to disbelief, and finally to horror.  Her eyes locked on the bundle cradled in the girl’s arms.  Her head swiveled slowly, following the girl as she stumbled into the room with her terrible burden.

            Seeing that her beloved Charlie seems limp and deflated, yet visibly stiffened, she immediately knew that her only relief from complete desolation and loneliness is now gone.

            Paralyzed with the sudden ache of an intense loneliness that she hasn’t felt since the death of her husband, the old woman would have collapsed to the floor if she were not already sitting down.  She seemed to have suddenly shriveled and shrunk into herself like the deceased feline had as his body sank into the long sleep of death.

            A tremor gripped the old woman’s body.  Shaking and feeling tremendously weak, she wished she could just drop into oblivion.  She stared dully at the door as it slowly creaked open and her son, Dave, walked in shaking his head.  He was about to say something, to say that he searched everywhere and could not find the cat.  He started opening his mouth to talk.

            The old woman glared at him, giving him a bitter “Are you happy now?  You have what you wanted,” look.

            He looked questioningly at her, then at his daughter.  Seeing the cat grasped to the girl’s chest, he knew immediately from the stricken look on her face and the cat’s stiffly unreal appearance that the animal was dead.  His stomach turned with revulsion at seeing his daughter clinging to the dead creature as though it were one of her baby dolls.  He pounced on the girl, knocking the dead animal from her arms.

            The old woman gasped in shock and horror, watching her beloved Charlie falling as if in slow motion, turning and bouncing slightly as he hit the floor.

            Sherry stood numbly, staring into her father’s face, confused and stricken by his angry behavior, shocked as the poor animal tumbled from her grasp.

            Dave sat down heavily on the couch and looked at his mother, making the effort not to stare with grisly fascination at the dead cat laying abandoned on the floor, feeling guilty now for the things he said.

#

            They all sat in silence, trying to avoid each other’s eyes, not knowing what to say.  Charlie lay on the floor, now wrapped discretely in an old towel.

            Finally, Sherry voiced what nobody else wanted to.

            “Charlie is gone now,” she said, looking questioningly at her father, then to her grandmother.

            Timidly, Sherry asked the old woman, “Do you want a kitten now, Grandma?”  Pausing awkwardly, she added, “You were worried about being alone.  You’re alone now … a kitten would change that.”

            “We could take a drive right now to pick one out,” Dave put in immediately, his voice raised eagerly.  He had no intention earlier of doing so, despite making the offer.  But now he was tied in knots with guilt.  He’d do anything to buy his way out of it, even if it was only himself he had to pay off to be rid of the guilt.

            “I don’t want a kitten,” the old woman spat, not pleased with the suggestion.  Her temper flared, and she fought to control her voice as she continued, articulating slowly and deliberately.

            “Charlie … can … not … be … replaced.”  Her voice was firm despite its cracking with emotion.  She crossed her arms over her chest in a gesture of stubbornness, refusing to give in.

            “We’re not trying to replace him,” Dave replied, “We just don’t want to see you lonely.”

            “Is that why you wanted to kill him?” she snapped back bitterly.

            “Come on, Grandma,” Sherry said, desperate to comfort the old woman.  “You don’t have to get a kitten.  Just come for the ride.”

            Finally, they broke through the old woman’s fierce determination to be bitter and sullen, convincing her to ‘just come for the ride.’

            All the while looking at the kittens, the old woman continued to insist she doesn’t want one.  She shuffled along stiffly, sullenly, shaking her head and muttering under her breath, casting angry glares at her son.

            However, there was one tiny kitten whose cage she was a little hesitant to pass by.

            Giving up the effort, the trio stalked off back to the car, Dave and the old woman both angry and stubborn.  A wordless look passed between Dave and his daughter.

            As Dave and the old woman walked to the car, Sherry made an excuse and ran back to buy the kitten.  The old woman’s pause at the cage hadn’t passed unnoticed by her two escorts.

#

            The old woman glared at the young girl as she climbed into the car with the tiny bundle of mewling fur.

            “I said I don’t want a kitten!” the old woman yelled and lapsed into a sullen silence, staring straight ahead.  Then she added more quietly, more muttered under her breath than directed to anyone in particular, “I won’t keep it.”

            Sherry looked down at the shivering little bundle of bones and fur in her lap, pouting her disappointment.

            “Well then just babysit her for me, ok?”  She looked up at her grandmother hopefully, not quite hiding her hurt feelings.  “Just for a few days Grandma, please?”

            The car pulled up in front of the old woman’s home.

            “Why don’t you just keep it for a few days,” Dave suggested, “we already paid for it anyway.  If you don’t want it then, I’ll take it back to the shelter.”

            The old woman glared at him, and then stiffly climbed out of the car.

            “No!” she shouted angrily, eyes burning and teeth clenched.

            Before she knew what was happening, the tiny mewling kitten was thrust into her arms and the car sped away.

            Although upset at the attempt to replace Charlie, the old woman felt inexplicit relief that she won’t be entirely alone.

            Entering her home, she plunked the kitten down on the living room floor and warned it sternly.

            “I don’t want you!  Just stay out of my way!”  With that, the old woman shuffled out of the room to the kitchen.

            Charlie still lay wrapped in the old towel on the floor before the old woman’s favorite chair, stiff, cold and forgotten.  Dave was to bury the old cat in the small back yard of his mother’s tiny house when they returned, but had forgotten.

#

            Round green eyes, seemingly too large for their tiny head, stared in bewilderment at these strange surroundings.

            Tentatively raising a clumsy little paw, the kitten moved to lick it, changed her mind, and lowered it again.

            Confused and frightened, she mewed experimentally.  It was a weak and pitiful sound, barely loud enough to hear.  Nothing happened.  She looked around, ruffled her fur, stretched her head out, and a loud wail expressing all the grief and anxiety she felt trapped inside her tiny shivering body escaped up her trembling throat.

#

            On hearing the kitten’s cry, the old woman set down the small china bowl she was about to pour milk for the kitten into and shuffled in a hurry back to the living room.  She shuffled to her favorite chair, turned around awkwardly, and sat down in her chair.  She used her cane to brace herself with as she lowered her frail body shakily into the cushioned chair.

            With a sigh of defeat and exhaustion, she watched as the kitten clumsily made its way towards her, lifting her paws gingerly and placing them carefully before her as though not sure where to step.

            Feeling a twinge of emotion for this helpless little creature, the old woman leaned forward in her chair, reaching and spreading her fingers to touch the kitten.  She froze suddenly as a paralyzing sharp pain tore through her body.  Her muscles clenched, her eyes widened, her breath caught in her chest and rattled.

            The kitten stretched its tiny pink nose, a little jumpy at the woman’s strange behavior, sniffing delicately at the tips of her fingers, its tiny pink tongue reaching out to delicately tap a finger tip.

            A steady ache replaced the pain running through her chest and down both arms.  A frightening numbness followed, creeping much more slowly, like a jungle cat closing in on the kill, consuming her body.

            Somehow through the pain and numbness the old woman knows that, finally, she will be freed from waking ever again to the gloomy silence that has filled these past lonely years.

            She’s not afraid.

            She struggles to straighten up in her chair, wanting to meet her destiny sitting tall and proud.

            Again, agony wreaks havoc through her body, freezing her in position, doubled over and leaning almost out of her chair as her heart clenches as if being squeezed in an iron hard fist.

            She sees her dear lost husband, Charlie sitting at his side luxuriantly curling and uncurling his tail in a mix of pleasure and impatience.

            I’m coming my love,” she gasps through pain clenched teeth, “I’m coming Charlie.”

            I’m here, waiting,” her husband replies gently.

            Charlie cocks his head then throws it back, his chin in the air.  An expression that has always meant, “Well come on then, I’m waiting.  But don’t make me wait too long.”  The cat has always had a bit of an attitude about him.

            A thin smile crosses her age chapped lips, a look of utter peace settles on her wrinkled time-worn face, the years seeming to magically melt away with the slackening of her flesh.

            Suddenly all is blackness … nothingness.

#

            The kitten looks up at the massive creature towering above her, this creature sitting on a strangely shaped mountain, leaning down with a strange large paw outstretched.

            She takes a hesitant step and falters, afraid.  Her eyes widen happily as she remembers the gentle fingers she has experienced before.  It is not her mother, who already has begun to grow fuzzy in her tiny memory, but it will do.

            Clumsily, the tiny kitten toddles over to her new protector.

            The large creature made a strange gurgling noise, startling the jumpy little kitten.  The kitten stretched its tiny pink nose, a little nervous at the woman’s strange behavior, sniffing delicately at the tips of her fingers, its tiny pink tongue reaching out to delicately tap a finger tip.

            Startled, the kitten paused, crouching timidly, looking up as the woman sitting above her doubled over.  The woman mumbled something unintelligible.

            Slumping forward, the huge body is reflected in the bright green eyes looking up and seeking reassurance.  The old woman slips from the chair, landing with a soft sound on top of the kitten.

#

            A terrible crushing weight pins the helpless kitten to the floor.  Her head and front shoulders barely poke out, front legs splayed out uncomfortably.

            Squirming and fighting desperately to pull herself loose, the tiny kitten starts gasping as it becomes harder and harder to breath.

            She mewls softly, plaintively, unable to do more.  Fighting less and less, her strength diminishing, the breath slowly being squeezed out of her tiny body.

            The tiny kitten wheezed out the last of her air and her beautiful green eyes bulge, mouth open as if to call out one more time, her eyes begin to glaze over.

#

            A soft noise, like warm mud squishing between your toes, emits from the old woman’s body accompanied by an unpleasant smell as her bowels released their contents.

            The smell assaulted the kitten’s tiny pink triangle nose, making her gag.

            Her cries have become silent though her mouth still opens and closes, desperately trying to cry out.  But her frail little body is no longer able to pull sweet air into her painful lungs.  Her glazing eyes are having trouble focusing, turning everything to indistinct shapes and blurs.

            Finally, she stops struggling and looks around hopefully, but no mother cat appears.

            Her small bony frame shudders … blackness engulfs her … nothingness.

#

            Only a few scant minutes have passed since the old woman sat in her chair and leaned over to comfort the little kitten.

            On the floor at the foot of an old chair, an old woman’s body slowly cools.  Beneath it the tiny frame of a kitten, too young to understand what death is, lays trapped and stiffening.  The kitten’s head and shoulders are barely visible sticking out from beneath the old woman, showing bulging green eyes and a tiny blue tinted tongue, a pale bubbly froth at the corners of her mouth.

            A few feet away lay the stiffened body of an ancient feline wrapped lovingly in an old towel.

            A sickly sweet odor mingles with the foul scent of body excrement and ‘old woman’ smell, filling the air, permeating the small old house.

#

            In death, Eve has more companionship than she did in the last years of her life.

 

 

 

 

 

Meow

(End)

 

Bookmark Charlie by L.V. Gaudet (Fiction Short Story)

 

 

Published  May 11, 2010 on Angie’s Diary (blog)

 http://angiesdiary.com/2010/05/charlie/

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