Thursday, August 15, 2019

2 Minutes. Go!

By the time they rang the brass bell, Jep Winters was dead, his wife was no longer a virgin, and Sam John was wearing the leather winner’s belt, standing in the center of the ring and laughing. The maidenhead had nothing to do with Sam. It was a direct result of a repressed homosexual boxer who never tried women and a spurned wife who had never tried liquor. The death was tangentially related. None of it mattered in the grand scheme of things except to the old woman. The old woman smiled.

It took a while to sort out. New champion, death, and hymen destruction – that’s a lot to pack into the VFW on a Saturday night. All the yardmen were there. Plus there was a carnival in town. The carnival was full of junkies and miracles. People loved the carnival. They loved to fight and fuck and die there just like anywhere else.

Old man Porter, the mayor, liked to dress up in women’s clothing, but no one knew it except for Father O’Leary.

Jep’s body was burned. What was left of it. His wife ended up birthing a bastard right around the beginning of Spring, but she told everyone that it was Jep’s last gift to her. Sam John retired after his championship fight. He lived out his days eating pureed vegetables and shitting himself, the title belt around his soft waist. No one boxed in town after that night. Everyone figured the devil was going to the fights, and, in some ways, they were right.

Father O’Leary preached about the sins of the flesh, while he kept the secrets of his congregation in the back pocket of his pants to tinker with when he got bored. His diversions were God-sanctioned after all.

The old woman returned to the trees and vanished.

No one was around to see it.


  1. I love the matter-of-factness in the tone, and the horrors hidden in the closets, and the mystery of the old woman. Well told.

    1. Love it! Fascinating characters.

    2. Matter-of-fact definitely sums it up. It's a different tone than usual, really downbeat and like the narrator has given up on the people around him. But then it's also really funny: new champion, death, and hymen destruction – that’s a lot to pack into the VFW on a Saturday night. And who is the old woman? :)

  2. A writers’ conference, hosted by a kindly author of cat and dog mysteries. He wore the uniform of writers of a different age: a well-worn tweed jacket with elbow patches, a black t-shirt, and jeans with more holes than denim.

    From behind the curtain, he looked out on the would-be writers who awaited some genuine and metaphorical truths to pour from his lips, truths to change their desperate lives into the presumed Paradise that all real writers must experience.

    He walked out on stage, took a drink of water from one of those horrid plastic bottles, and began, “All good stories have a natural end. Plot points resolved, good guy gets rewarded, bad guy gets his just desserts.”

    “But better stories have tension, tension that only the reader can resolve, after the last page is read.

    “And the very best stories have conflicts that neither author nor reader can completely resolve.

    “Life is the best story of all. We think we know the good guys from the bad, wearing their imaginary white and black hats, yet which of us has not been surprised by a kindness offered by one of those black-hats? And who among us has not wept upon discovery that a white-hat has a dark secret, or that their hugs could crush us?

    “Now, I need a volunteer to help me prove this point. You there, with the red hat and the indecipherable message. Come up, don’t be afraid.”

    The young man in question felt his heart race. To be so close to greatness was more than he might have hoped for.

    The lecturer continued, “We’re all accustomed to the notion of heroes, and let me add heroines so you don’t think me some antique sexist, and villains.” He fidgeted a bit as the young man joined him on stage.

    “What’s your name?”

    “Billy. Billy Thornton.” His face was nearly as red as his baseball cap.

    “A good strong name. I might have to use that in one of my stories. Now, Billy, do you imagine yourself a hero or a villain?”

    “A hero, I guess. I always try to...”

    “Rescued any damsels—or gentlemen—in distress lately? Slain any dragons?” He winked at the audience.

    “Well, no, I...”

    “It’s okay, Mr. Thornton. We live in an age bereft of dragons, and there are far too many in distress to rescue. We live in an age where it is enough to simply declare ourselves heroes. No one asks for any proof.” He chuckled. “And what about me? Do you think I am a hero or a villain?”

    “You’re my hero, I’ve read every one of your books.”

    “Well done, Billy. Thank you. But you’ve presented us with a conundrum. Two heroes and no villains on our stage. What are we to do?” He turned to the audience. “When we have created too many heroes in the story we’re writing, we must reveal one, at least one, of them as villains.”

    The audience was silent.

    The lecturer fidgeted again and turned his back on them just for a moment. When he turned again, he moved fast as lightning, and the poor misguided boy screamed and clutched at his stomach, blood on his hands.

    The teacher held his bloody knife up and spoke to his bewildered students. “Now. There. We have one hero and one villain. But which is which?”

  3. “I don’t need you.”

    “No, I suppose you don’t. No one does.”

    “But I want you.”

    “You’re the only one then, I’m pretty sure. But if you don’t need me, taking care of a want is a relatively simple fix. Temporary, too.”

    “Why must you always look at things so squarely, so black and white? Can’t you just live for the moment?”

    “I tried that and ended up worrying how long I could do it. Figured until Thursday next. Nope, mindfulness didn’t take.”

    “Oooooh, you’re so exasperating. I don’t know what in the world I saw in you.”

    “Couldn’t have been my sterling personality. Though the snappy repartee has its merits.”

    “You think this is ‘snappy?’”

    “We’re at least talking. Can I hold your hand, too?”

    “Um, sure. I’d like that.”

    “I don’t think I ever realized this about your hands. Soft here, firm here, and the nails…”

    “Okay, I chew my nails. It's cheaper than Xanax.”

    “That might be true. I wonder which is harder, quitting Xanax or chewing your nails.”

    “I don’t know. I’ve never tried to quit Xanax. The nails I’ve tried since I was eight. My mother and the nuns...”

    “Takes discipline and maybe a lot more want-to than you might be willing to give.”

    “Like I said, I want you. Maybe that’s where all my want-to goes.”

    “It really doesn’t have to take all that much.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, I kinda want you, too.”

    “You do?”

    “I’m still here talking aren’t I?”

    “True. How much do you want me?”

    “I want you more than… Well, let’s just say I’m the one who needs you, maybe even more than I want you. And that’s plenty.”

    “That’s kind of confusing, but also kind of sweet…I think.”

    “I know. My communication skills aren’t as polished as yours. And I have more rough edges than I should. But you smooth a lot of them down.”

    “I like you smooth. Like your skin. I noticed you shaved.”

    “Yeah. I hoped maybe we might be getting a little closer after we had this talk you wanted.”

    “Why don’t we get out of here and go to my place and continue this talk. First though, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

    “Okay. The men’s room is down there on the right. Where that hot guy with the bubble butt just came out.”

    “So much for the smooth portion of tonight’s programing, Jennifer. I’ll be back in two minutes.”

    “Bobby, when we get back to my place, I’m gonna show you something you really need. Five feet, three inches of smooth.”

    “I’ll be back in one.”

    “That’s my boy.”

    “That’s my girl.”

  4. You clamber down the embankment, under a squeal of rail. A blaring assemblage sparks and screams above. How soon until your ears bleed?

    Jaquinta knows your story. For a good price, she might even give it up.

    Things might escalate, although they might not.

    Love the aftermath. The silent hiss of conifers, under a windless sky. Why is it they still hiss, even in stillness? Their very tops somehow moving while the evening settles so quiet, a scattershot of dogs barking hollow in the throat of this valley.

    Back in my dream, Jaquinta, you told me something, and I heard it, and to this day I want that story spilled over eggshells crackling alive, overrun with raccoons ruining a coop.

    “I don’t care where you bin,” you say, so quietly, and a cloud of bright parakeets flutter from a nearby roof, and you dream the same hoarse breath. “I just care where you at.”

    Ain’t none of us one thing.

    These glittering cities. Emerald Seattle. Quicksilver Vancouver. The glistening infernal Bay. We rooted them in beauty. We sang their swollen choral praises. And they abandoned us. We, the workers, the dreamers, the pragmatists, the saints: you don’t get to hate a thing until you love it.

    The shriek of the train trails into a lingering tail, a dwindling lonesome coda echoing across the hallowed plain.

    This is a story clinging to the coattails of another, and one day I’ll muster the cojones to tell that one too.

    1. Oh, so gorgeous. And this: "you don’t get to hate a thing until you love it."

    2. Damn! I got to get here before Boris next time. Love that line. Also the spare, strong language

  5. Part 1 (Part 2 in comments)

    The crumbling house in the woods was enveloped by vegetation and time. Edgar found it while he still worked for the government; he’d been tracking a runaway and noticed the anomaly. There’d been no heat signature in the mound of overgrowth, other than small blips which might have belonged to chipmunks or squirrels, so he’d moved on. But when the emergency had passed, he’d returned. He poked around the vines, some as thick as his wrist, until he found a window. Dull with centuries of dirt and pollen, slightly thicker at the bottom. Glass is essentially liquid, he’d learned in some long-ago seminar on architecture and American history. You could guesstimate the historical era by the windows, and nearly all colonial structures showed a similar settling over time.

    We all settle, he thought.

    He was loathe to break the pane; from his youth he’d retained a respect for antiquity. But he did note the coordinates. He had a strong sense that one day he might need this knowledge.

    Then that day had come. Technology had made him redundant; tracking was done through satellites and artificial intelligence on the ground.

    They’d named the first trackbot Edgar. Not because the concept had been his idea or his invention, but because he’d been good at his job. Too good. Searching for a runaway, he’d stumbled on to a scandal that went high up the ranks. Those high ranks hadn’t liked it. In dastardly Orwellian fashion, they turned the truth on him. He lost his job. His pension. His fiancée. His home. His dignity.

    Now Edgar was a runaway. The hows, the whys, the what-nexts…he couldn’t waste brain power on those. They were hunting him. He had to find shelter. The downpour and heavy cloud cover that helped conceal him from the sensors wouldn’t last much longer. His chest and legs ached from running; he’d twisted an ankle in the sodden undergrowth; he needed to get to the food and water and dry clothing in his pack. And his own cloaking device. Assuming the equipment he’d stolen before he escaped would do what he needed.

    He was close; he could feel it. Up the next rise and down, near a fallen oak and a stout maple with a double trunk. There.

    He whipped a knife from a pocket and loosened the vines enough to get to the window, in a place that could easily be re-covered. Trying not to think about snakes or spiders or whatever else might have made the overgrowth its habitat, he slipped inside the vegetation and flattened himself against the disintegrating brick and went to work on the pane. He couldn’t chance breaking it. Couldn’t leave an opening for the trackbots. The grout was degraded enough to chip away. The rain helped. Heart pounding in his ears and ordering his fingers not to shake, he freed the pane as quickly and quietly as he could. Then…success. The pane came away whole in his hands. The dim light revealed a simple, one-room cottage, mostly empty. Maybe it had been raided long ago, before the forest had claimed it and infused it with a fetid smell of decay. Worry about the accommodations later, he warned himself. Now he had to get in and seal the place back up. He eased the pane against the brick and climbed inside. Reached back through for the glass and angled it in after him. Beneath the rain he could hear the faint whup-whup-whup of the tracker drone. He had to work faster. He set the glass down. Pulled the curtain of vines closed. Dug for the roll of duct tape in his pack. Braced the pane in position and taped it in place.

    But he wasn’t safe yet.

  6. Part 2

    He moved himself and his pack to what he remembered from his brief glance at the layout was the center of the cottage. The device was about the size of a pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t sure which battery it would take, so he’d stolen a range of them, and then played a terrifying game of which would fit and which might damage the device beyond use.

    The first battery did nothing. The whup-whup-whup grew louder. He dropped the second one and felt around the filthy rotted wood plank floor until he found it. The tiny beep was his reward. He hadn’t worked with this model in years, but he was grateful for what was left of his memory. He set the range and frequency, hit “go” and it went. The gentle hum had him sighing in relief. He lay back on the floor to catch his breath, to evaluate his chances, to figure out what came next.


    He leapt into a battle-ready crouch.

    The sound had come from the southeast corner of the room. It was too dark to identify the shape. When he’d first glanced through the open pane, he thought it had been a chair draped with fabric. But he knew that voice. Small, breathy, almost broken. “Lucy?”

    “Yeah.” The shape in the corner rose and moved closer. “What took you so long?”

    “Oh, the usual. Traffic’s a bitch. How the hell did you esc—”

    She was close enough now to identify the unwashed scent of her apart from the vegetative rot.

    “We don’t have time for backstory. The trackbot’s coming closer. I can get us out of here.”

    His eyes had not yet adjusted to the wan light filtering through the vines, but still, he could imagine no way out except breaking through a window or door. Even then, that would leave them exposed. The best he’d hoped for was the seventy-two hours of cloaking the battery would provide. By then the trackers would have surely moved on and he—they—could figure out their next move.

    “How?” he said.

    She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I stole the prototype.”

    He gasped. How she’d done that, after security had barred her from her own project, would definitely be a longer story than they had time for. But if it worked as she’d intended, it could phase them into the no-extradition zone.

    Vaguely he saw her arm lift, a squarish device in her hand. “Do you trust me?”

    He smiled in the almost-dark. She’d asked the same question the night he proposed. He answered as he had then: “Do I have a choice?”

    “Ride or die. But you have to turn your cloaker off.”

    His smile fell. “What?”

    “It won’t work otherwise.”

    Whup-whup-whup almost overhead now.

    “On three,” he said. “One.”



    A blinding flash. An ungodly roar.

    Then, nothing.

    He blinked. Blinked again. Gradually he sensed a warm breeze against his face. The tickle of rough sheets beneath his body. An arm across his chest. And over him, blue sky through a clean, open, unsettled window.

    “Good morning,” a voice said. It sounded so far away, even though she was right next to him.

    He labored to get his mouth to work. “Are we…

    She was smiling. “Yes. We are. So, are you gonna marry me or what?”

  7. Wednesday

    He never knew why she chose to hang out the washing at four-thirty in the morning every Wednesday, clothes dripping on the ground to the rhythm of the dawn chorus. He imagined the birds hopping to and fro as she sang to herself, oblivious that he watched her, the thin painted fingers pegging the wire with no mind to the weather or season. In the summer, he almost envied the thin cotton of her dresses, sliding like water to the grass. In winter, he was left to remember the features of her fine-boned face, concealed beneath a mass of wild red curls and a woolly hat.

    She never knew he set his alarm clock at four-twenty-five in the morning, every single Wednesday of the year. Sometimes he’d forget to set the machine to record his favourite programme, and he’d mumble his stupidity and forget it in a second, but he took care never to miss his appointment with her, his mood lifted by the little sprigs of colour dotting the width of the garden next door. The time called for him once a week and he obeyed it, perched on his window seat, leaning a little back from the gap in the curtain, not wishing to alarm her with his ordinary face.

    They met once in the corner shop, completely by accident. There was no alarm clock involved, no intrigue, just coincidence. She was leaving and he was arriving, and he opened the door for her as she swept past him. A rush of oranges, pepper and vanilla. He thought she wouldn’t notice him as he never felt noticed, but she looked up and smiled, her curious eyes brightening. The words locked in his throat. And then she was gone while he continued to stand there holding the door. At least two other people walked through, but he was oblivious until Elsie, the shopkeeper, laughed.

    He never knew how she came to be crossing the train tracks that morning, so early that no one would notice for hours. He only knew that she didn’t hang out her washing that day. Even the birds fell silent and the clouds came to rest.


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