Friday, November 25, 2011

Hail the Victor

Brigit's Flame competitive writing community:  November Week 4 
Compulsory prompt:  The End 
Title:  "Hail the Victor" 
Wordcount:  498

There are still impressions in the carpet from the couch.  He steps around where it used to sit and drops into his recliner, one of the remaining pieces of furniture in the room that now seems much too big.  The coffee table is still there, but its matching end tables are gone.  Their impressions in the carpet frame the couch’s void, making the empty space seem all the larger. 

Of course the television is gone.  He knew he had no chance of keeping that.  Not that it matters; if he still had it, he wouldn’t feel like watching it.  So instead he takes in the rest of the room, much darker now that the lamps that sat on the end tables are gone. 

There, in the drywall, is the patch that doesn’t quite match the rest of the walls.  That’s where he once became so angry at her during one of their fights that he punched a hole through the wall.  He was never able to find the proper paint color to cover the hole, and so the mismatched spot was born, a scar to remind of the wounds inflicted in that argument.

He actually forgot about the spot on the carpet.  Once she got so angry at him that she smashed her wine glass over the edge of the coffee table and threatened him with the stem.  Days later, when things cooled down, they rearranged the furniture to cover the stain that wouldn’t come up. 

Funny.  Now that he thinks about it, he can’t remember what either of those fights had been about.  Actually, now that he’s sitting in the empty room, with the peace and quiet that he spent so many nights hoping for, he doesn’t remember what any of the fights were about.  He supposes that it doesn’t matter, now, what caused the fights, only that they happened, and he and she both fought dirty.  Neither one of them was ever willing to give up ground, to admit defeat, to compromise.  It seems silly that the things that seemed so important then are so pointless now. 

What he does remember is the origin of the small smudge on the otherwise perfect ceiling.  When they finally saved up enough for the down payment on the house, they splurged and bought a bottle of moderately-priced, non-vintage, domestic champagne.  Neither one of them knew how to open it, so the cork had hit the ceiling and nearly put his eye out.  They had laughed so hard. 

Don’t forget about the fights, he reminds himself.  Remember how bad they were.  How loud and violent each of you became.  Life wasn’t nearly as happy as that night with that champagne, so don’t bother kidding yourself. 

The fighting is over, now.  There are no screaming voices, no accusing shouts, no blame being thrown around like sharpened knives.

No happy laughter.  No squeals of joy.  No come-and-get-me teasing.

He presses his face into his hands and his chest shudders.  “Hail the victor.” 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nov. Week 3 Prompt- Conflict. Title: "Man Overboard"

Lom had seen many things on his hobie.  But this was new.

There had been days when he’d been out all night and seen schools of fish that glowed in the dark.  He had once pulled up his line and the fish on the other end had spoken to him, told him that he’d be given a wish if he only threw the fish back (which he had done, and he had been dismayed to find that the only talking fish he had ever met was also the only lying fish he had ever met).  There had been mornings when the bay turned orange with the sunrise and then stayed orange all day for no reason, only to change to indigo with approaching dusk and return to normal the next day.

He pulled his goggles from his eyes to his neck.  They did wonders to block out the sun and salt but were so old that their scratched lenses sometimes played tricks on him.  He squinted against the midmorning sun and saw it again.  A figure bobbed up over the placid waves, like it was trying to swim, but then dipped back below the water again. 

Lom’s pet mudshark, Munchie, dunked his head over the side of the hobie and under the waves for a few seconds to keep his gills wet.  When he was done, Munchie shook his wide head and scattered water over Lom’s legs.  The boy sent an irritated glace to the mudshark, but the creature’s wide mouth seemed to grin wider than normal as he yawned and settled his head on his front legs.

“What do you think, Munchie?” Lom asked his pet.  He squinted again and shielded his eyes from the sun.  “Do you think we should investigate?”

Munchie burped. 

“Yeah, me either,” Lom conceded.  “If it was someone in trouble, they’d be making all sorts of racket.  I know if I was drowning I’d be screaming my head off.  What kind of drowning victim doesn’t try to call attention to themselves?” 

Further in the bay, the form dipped beneath the water again.  This time it took it much longer to emerge, and when it did it didn’t fight nearly as hard or reach nearly as high. 

Lom knew that if he wasted time investing, he’d be in for another long night on the hobie trying to make up for lost time.  That, or he’d be taking out more tourists this weekend to make up to the harbormaster for the catch he hadn’t pulled in.  But, still, he couldn’t just stand there while it looked like someone was drowning.
With his feet braced on hobie’s scratchy board, Lom raised the craft’s small sail and twisted it slightly into the wind.  Slowly he drifted toward the struggling figure.  As he approached, he tried to think of where the figure could have come from.  He had been on the bay all morning and only seen a few other crafts:  one or two other hobies encroaching on his territory, and a larger yacht, obviously owned by a rich sklar.  Not that he’d been paying much attention, but there hadn’t seemed to be anything out of the ordinary going on, and he certainly hadn’t seen anyone flying a ‘man overboard’ flag. 

“Hey!” Lom yelled when he got within a few dozen meters of the figure.  “Stop struggling!  If you keep fighting, you’re going to tire yourself out and drown!”

Two arms thrashed in the water, and Lom thought he heard the figure say something, but it just came across as “Glub glub blub mlub.”

As the hobie approached the figure, Lom slipped the ring of the buoyant rope around his ankle and prepared to jump into the water for a daring rescue.  He hadn’t actually performed a water rescue since his hobie license class when he was ten, three years ago, but he was pretty sure he still remembered how to do it.  If nothing else, the buoyant rope would keep him afloat and attached to his hobie.  But just as Lom lowered his sail and took his jumping stance, the figure’s head broke water enough to yell, “Go away!”

The voice belonged to a girl.  And now that he was within four meters, Lom could see her dark hair billowing in the water around her.  It stuck to her face and hands when she struggled.  “What do you mean, go away?” He cried.  “You’re drowning!”

The dark-haired girl struggled some more, and when she finally got her head above water again she simply cried, “Leave me alone!”

Lom rolled his eyes.  Something in the Cosmos was intent on making his day difficult.  He couldn’t simply turn his back, because the girl was very plainly losing strength.  And she was very plainly not going to be rescued quietly.  Some days it just didn’t pay to get out of bed.

Munchie gave Lom a bored look as the boy jumped into the water and paddled over to the struggling girl.  He touched her flailing hand, and, just like he predicted, she shirked away from him.  “What’re you doing?!” She cried when she could breathe.

“Saving you!”  Lom cried as he snatched the girl’s arm and pulled her toward him.  She tried to pull free, but he held her tight and let the buoyant line hold him aloft.  “Now stop fighting!  Give me your arms and kick with your legs!”

“Stop!” She cried.  She again tried feebly to pull away, but Lom could tell that her limbs were almost out of strength.  The girl choked on a mouthful of salt water before continuing, “I can’t!”

“Yes you can!” Lom yelled.  With a great tug he pulled the girl closer and slipped one arm around her waist.  “Hold on around my neck and kick with your feet!” 

Though he couldn’t figure why, the girl was clearly conflicted on whether or not she wanted Lom’s help.  After tugging her like a dead weight for several meters the girl finally wrapped her arms around Lom’s neck, though he still felt almost no help from her legs to get them to the hobie.  Her damp hair bobbed in the waves like the feelers of a jellyslug and stuck to his face and neck.  

After what felt like years in the water, Lom grabbed one of the handholds on the hobie and pulled himself on board.  He then grabbed the girl beneath the arms and hauled her, sputtering and hacking, out of the water.  Once she was safe Lom collapsed onto his back and let his screaming muscles and lungs rest.  “What’s your problem, anyway?!” He cried to the girl.  “You’re drowning and you don’t call for help, and when someone comes to your rescue you try your darnedest not to be rescued, and then when you decide to be rescued you don’t even kick your legs!” 

The girl said nothing.  Lom could hear her making frantic sputtering sounds and then wretch a few times over the side of the hobie.  It sounded like she was crying.  Lom hated to see anyone cry, especially girls, so he sat up and tried to find something polite to say.

He instantly discovered why she hadn’t kicked her legs.  It was because she didn’t have legs.  She had leg.  Singular.  And the one she had was long and sleek, and as pale as if it had never seen the sun.  The other one ended in a scarred stump, just above where her knee should have been. 

When she finally got her breath, she pulled her long, matted hair out of her face and turned two dark, bloodshot eyes to Lom.  “You fool,” she said with a sob.  She gasped for air before continuing, and her face scrunched with anguish, like she couldn’t believe that she had allowed herself to succumb to the temptation of being rescued.  “You have no idea what you’ve just done.”  

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Blue, Without You" - Part 3/3 of a series

This is the third part to my story about one night in the life of a single father trying to go on a date while still caring for his eight-year-old with separation anxiety.  The first two parts are necessary to understand this weeks' entry, but I think you, as the reader, will have a better understanding of my adoration of the characters if you check them out first.
Part 1, titled, "Dependent":
Part 2, titled, "Damaged Goods":

After I had paid Mrs. Wallace for her time, I sat on the couch with Emer still in my arms.  Charlotte sat beside us.  The woman knew all the right questions to ask about my daughter’s favorite cartoon, and Emer finally started to come out of her shell and answer in sentences that longer than one word.  My daughter still plainly had no interest in the stranger in her home, but, hey, it was a start.

By the time the credits of the show started to roll, Emer’s cheek was rested against my shoulder and she was seconds away from sleep.  She looked like an angel.  “I’m going to put her to bed,” I whispered to Charlotte.  Emer tried to mumble something in protest, but her eight-year-old metabolism had run its course for the day.  A few minutes later I had Emer in her pajamas and tucked into her side of the bed. 

“When’re you coming to bed, daddy?”  She asked, squeezing her teddy bear.

“Soon, honey,” I told her just before I kissed her forehead.  “Good night, Emmie.”  Emer mumbled the best good-night she could as she rolled over, and I took a wistful glance at my daughter before heading back into the living room.

“She’s beautiful,” Charlotte told me as I joined her on the couch again.

“Thanks,” I replied.  I sighed and sent Charlotte a sideways glance as I practically deflated against the couch.  She scooted closer to me.  “You want a beer?  I have Hoegaarden.”  I asked her. 

 “Ooh, beer snob,” she commented with a sly smirk.  “If you had offered me anything less, I might have been insulted.  You can’t get me liquored up on cheap booze.” 

“Look who’s calling who a beer snob,” I retorted, imitating her smile. I stepped to the fridge, pried the lids off of two bottles of beer, and returned to the couch.  Charlotte held it with one finger around its neck, like an old pro, and stretched her feet across my lap on the couch as she took her first drink.

The events of the night rolled over in my head again.  “Thanks again, Charlotte, for coming back here with me,” I told her.  “I’ll be honest; when you asked if you could meet Emer, I was nervous.  She’s sort of… discriminatory when it comes to me bringing a woman home.  Specifically, she never likes any of them. I’m really sorry if she said anything that offended you.” 

“Just how many women do you bring home?” She asked.  My jaw dropped and I sputtered like an idiot for a few seconds, but then she laughed and her eyes softened as she lowered her bottle.  “Relax, I’m just teasing.  Your daughter is a wonderful little person, David.  She couldn’t offend me if she tried.  I don’t blame her for wanting you all to herself.” 

I smiled and tentatively laid my hand on Charlotte’s bare ankles.  She jumped a little from my cold palm, but then smiled as I caressed the smooth skin of her feet and legs.  Her eyelids fell and she took another drink from her beer as I touched her.  “So, Pinkie Pie is your favorite character?” I asked.

“We both like to party,” Charlotte cooed, laughing a little as she set her bottle on the floor. 

I allowed my fingers to walk their way along Charlotte’s leg, to her knee.  She made no move to stop me.  “Oh, do you now?” I said in my most smooth voice. 

Holy cow, was I out of practice.  How many years had it been since I had tried to seduce a woman?  Two?  Three? 

My fingers touched her thigh, and a need awakened inside of me, the likes of which I hadn’t felt in ages.  Come to think of it, how long had it been since I had been laid?  I had very nearly gotten lucky on a date about eight months ago, but a frantic call from Mrs. Wallace about Emer having a panic attack had sent me running home. 

I wanted Charlotte.  Badly.  And, if my skills at reading women hadn’t completely atrophied in the time I had been celibate, it looked like she wanted me, too.

 I leaned down to her, and she sat up far enough to wrap her arms around my neck and pull me into a kiss.  Just as I thought they would be, her full, heart-shaped lips were warm, and excellent for kissing.  As her lips parted and her tongue appeared, the bestial need inside me howled to be released.  I pulled her closer to me with more strength that I thought I had in my right arm.  My left was still on her thigh.  The two of us wallowed in the kiss, each one drawing on the emotions of each other, and my hand crept ever further up her leg. 


Emer’s voice shattered the mood like a baseball through a picture window.  My limbs seized as adrenaline filled them when my daddy-defenses instantly kicked in.  Charlotte slipped from my arm and bounced on the couch, her eyes wide with surprise. 

My mouth worked uselessly for a second as my brain caught up to reality.  The urge to run to my baby girl’s side and the need to be with the woman on my couch fought for control.  Charlotte blinked for a few seconds, then a defeated smile crossed her face and she chuckled. 

“Charlotte,” I said, my breath huffing as if I had just run a marathon.  “Charlotte, I… I….”

“Go to her,” she said with that beautiful, placid smile.  From the couch she stretched as far as she could and stroked my cheek gently with her fingertips.  “She needs you.” 

I blinked stupidly again, wondering if I should make an excuse for being cock-blocked by an eight-year-old or unapologetically run to my daughter’s side.  Still smiling, Charlotte motioned for me to go just as Emer cried out again, “DAD-EEEEEE!” 

After I meandered from beneath Charlotte’s legs I trudged to the bedroom and opened the door.  Inside I found my daughter sitting cross-legged on the bed and clutching her teddy bear to her chest.  The bedside lamp basked the room in yellow light.

“I woke up and you weren’t here,” Emer said.  She batted her big, blue eyes at me.  “I thought you were gone.”

I did my best to resist my little girl’s siren’s song.  “I’m still here, honey,” I told her, brushing back a silken strand of her golden hair.  “Why don’t you try to go to back to sleep?  I’ll be to bed soon.”

She wrapped her arms tighter around her teddy bear.  Its limbs splayed out like she was going to squeeze it in half.  “I can’t sleep without you,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. 

As it does so often where Emer is concerned, my heart broke, and she became that much more difficult to resist.  “How about I get you a glass of water?” I asked.  “That might help you get to sleep.” 

Her little forehead knotted together, clearly displaying her distress, but she replied with, “Okay.” 

When I left the bedroom, I found Charlotte standing by the door with her shoes and jacket on and her purse in her hands.  I froze so quickly that my socks slipped on the hardwood floors.  “Charlotte,” I managed to choke.  “What’s going on?”

For a moment everything I thought Charlotte might have been, every positive vibe I had gotten from her that evening, turned into a spear and stabbed me in the heart.  But just as the cold feeling started to creep into my chest, she smiled her beautiful smile again and stepped to me.  “Maybe we should call it a night, David.”

“But…” I stammered.  “But I’m just getting her a glass of water.  Then… then we…”

She laid her hand on the side of my face, and the tension that had been building in my shoulders was gone.  “It’s okay, David.  She’s wonderful, and you’re wonderful.  And right now, she needs you.  Let’s see where things go from our next date.”

I visibly shook.  “Wait.  You’re not breaking up with me?  This isn’t our last date?”

“No, goofy!”  She laughed.  “Why would it be?”

 I rolled my shoulders.  “More than one woman has turned tail because of how dependent Emer and I are of each other.  I thought you were going to be one more on the list.”

She slipped one arm around my waist and I wrapped my arms around her back.  “I am not most women,” she whispered. 
“Thank God,” I told her, just before I leaned down and kissed her again.  Just before the two of us stepped away she lowered her hand and grabbed my butt fiercely. 

She popped up on her tiptoes and whispered, “Next time, dinner will be at my place.” 

Monday, November 7, 2011


For those of you that don't know, LineByLine is a prompt-based online writing community.  The prompt phrase must appear in it's entirety somewhere in the piece.  This week's phrase is 'long before now'. 

This piece is entitled, "Anonymous". 

The chair is hard under his butt and the smell of magic marker is making him sick.  He regrets putting the name tag so far up his shirt; if he had put it on his pocket, or waited for the marker to dry before sticking it on, he wouldn’t be getting high from fumes.  Better yet, he should have stuck it to his sweatshirt instead.  That way he could pretend to be too warm, remove the sweatshirt, and suddenly become the Man Without A Name.  No one would ever call on the Man Without A Name.  No one would ever ask him to answer questions or try to engage him in awkward conversation.

His cousin had advised him to write a fake name, and he berated himself that he hadn’t remembered the advice until after he had written his own on the name tag.  He couldn’t very well throw the name tag away and make a new one; everyone would have seen him write a different name on the second tag, and then everyone would know that he was a great, big phony.

Was he a great, big phony?  Robert wasn’t sure.  He felt like the fact that he had agreed to come proved that he wasn’t, proved that he understood that it was time to take action and change his life.  Be he, of course, didn’t think his life needed changing; it had been his friends and family that though his life needed changing.  From Robert’s perspective, he was fine.  Did being at the meeting when he didn’t feel like he needed to be there make him a phony?

Maybe he should have risked throwing out the name tag and making a fake one, after all.

Of course, no one in the room would even know that the name on his tag was really his.  They were probably already assuming that he was using a fake name, so it didn’t really matter that he had written his own.  Robert was a common enough name; they would probably think that he had come up with it off the top of his head. 

But if he DID decide to stick with it, the graduation certificate with his real name on it – ‘Robert has successfully completed blah blah blah’ – would be infinitely sweeter than one with a pseudonym written on it.  If he were to go to his wife’s mother’s house with a certificate with someone else’s name on it, his mother-in-law would probably assume that he had mugged some unsuspecting sap and stolen his diploma rather than sit through all the sessions.

He sneers. 

His mother-in-law.  He had never really liked her.  But if there was one thing he had to give to the old bat, it was that she had birthed a wonderful woman.  Laura had agreed to marry Robert against her mother’s advice, and Robert had only imagined the sadistic glee that she had rubbed in Laura’s face when the fights started.  Robert couldn’t understand how such an even-tempered, well-intentioned woman could have descended from such a vindictive old crone.

Any other woman would have followed her mother’s advice and left Robert outright.  Not Laura.  But, despite her indomitable patience, she still had her limits.  It had been days since she had given him the ultimatum and gone to her mother’s house.  He had only talked to her once since then, and he was given explicit instructions not to call her until he pulled his butt from the hard plastic chair at the end of the two hours.  And every two hour session after that.

As the depression sets in again, Robert suddenly doesn’t feel so much like a phony anymore, at least by his definition.  His friends were right, and his family was right, and Laura was right.  This was where he belonged, and he knew it.  The true irony was that the onset of his depressions usually caused what got him in this hard plastic chair in the first place; but since he had actually dragged himself to the first meeting, his usual panacea wasn’t within arm’s reach.  It was something he wished he had done long before now. 

When he shakes himself from his daydream, Robert finds every eye in the room on him.  He had been so absorbed with his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed that it was his turn for introductions.  So he stands, straightens his shirt, inhales deeply (taking in another lungful of magic-marker-laced air) and says, “Hi.  My name is Robert, and I am an alcoholic.”   

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Brigit's Flame - November, Week 1. Prompt: Introduction. Title: "Damaged Goods."

This is the follow-up piece to a short story I wrote about a week ago, titled, "Dependence".   Reading the first isn't necessary to understand the second, but I feel that the characters are really defined in the first.  The first piece can be found here:

Maybe it was the wine.  Maybe it was the Muscles Josephine I had ordered.  Maybe it was Dean Martin crooning softly through the sound system.  Or maybe it was just her.  No matter what was to blame, I was having a wonderful time. 

“Did you have any cute patients this week?”  I asked Charlotte as I took the last sip from my glass.  Charlotte was a veterinarian, I had learned on our first date. 

“Two Saint Bernard puppies,” she said with a smile.  She, too, took the last drawl from her glass of wine, and it showed in her quickly-reddening cheeks.  “The Bob Barker standard: neuter, flea and tick prevention.  But you should have seen how they whined when I put the cones around their necks!  It was precious.”

Charlotte was precious, too.  She was short – shorter than any girl I had ever dated, at 5’2” – and she had beautiful, full lips that made a perfect heart shape as she puckered to raise her wine glass to them.  When she remembered that it was empty she laughed at herself, and gorgeous dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth.  When she set down her glass and turned two blue, hazel-ringed eyes at me, a lock of her sandy-blonde hair fell in front of her face. 

“I wish I could have made it in to see those little guys,” I replied.  “Emer would have loved them.  She wants a dog so badly.”

The waiter stopped by our table with the bottle of wine, and Charlotte and I each took an eager refill.  When the waiter left she turned those beautiful eyes back to me.  “Do you realize you’ve done that all night, David?”
I swallowed my sip of wine, but didn’t set down my glass.  “What do you mean?  Done what?” 

She smiled dreamily and her eyelids lowered pleasantly.  “Brought Emer into every line of our conversation.”

My cheeks suddenly warmed, and I looked shyly to the top of the table.  “Oh.  Um.  Have I really?” 

“It’s okay,” she replied.  “I understand.  She means a lot to you.”  Charlotte laid her hand gently in the middle of the table, and I tentatively laid my hand atop it.  She made no move to retreat. 

“She’s means more than a lot to me,” I said a soft reply.  “She’s my whole world.  When her mother left, it left her broken.  She was so hurt, and every time I leave her she has this little look in her eyes like she’s afraid I’m not going to come back.”  Finally I raised my eyes to Charlotte.  “And even the thought of her feeling that way makes me want to wrap my arms around her and protect her from everything the world could ever throw at her.  It feels like my purpose in life is to protect that little girl.”

On our first date, I obviously hadn’t gone fully into the story of Emer’s mother, Amanda, leaving us.  I had kept the conversation simple, only telling Charlotte that I was a single dad.  It was only our second date, for crying out loud!  Did I want to scare her off?  I might as well have told her that I would never have time for her and she shouldn’t even bother with me.

Charlotte stroked the top of my hand gently with her fingertips.  “When Emer’s mom left… Emer wasn’t the only one that was damaged, was she?”

 Why was I paying so much money to see Dr. Sparkman?  A veterinarian had analyzed me and my daughter after only two dates, and she hadn’t even met Emer yet.  All it had cost me was the cost of dinner and drinks.
Though there was no happiness in the gesture, I smiled and shook my head a little.  “I guess not.  I’m sort of having a hard time recovering from it, too, even though it’s been three years.”

She raised her palm, and as if on instinct mine followed.  Our fingers laced and then rested comfortably back on the table.  “I’d really like to meet her, you know.”    

When I finally looked up to her, I noticed the small diamonds in her ears.  The silver chain that hung around her neck positioned its blue pendant, which matched her dress, seductively between her breasts.  A hint of red had crept across her chest and collar bone.  My God, she was so beautiful.   

Her smile was infectious.  It seemed that she could always find an excuse to smile.  “There still might be some homemade pizza, if you’re hungry.” 

Charlotte finished her glass of wine.  “No, thanks.  I ate the whole appetizer myself, remember?” 

We both laughed.  I finished my glass of wine, paid the bill, and then Charlotte and I left the restaurant, arm-in-arm, with plenty of time to catch a few episodes of My Little Pony before Emer’s bedtime. 

When we arrived at my house, I found Mrs. Wallace sitting on the couch quietly working on a knitting project while Emer lay in the floor, a coloring book and an entire pack of crayons spread out before her.  My Little Pony was playing on the computer, and even though it looked like my little girl wasn’t paying attention I knew that she could tell me exactly what episode she was on and exactly what was happening.  They both looked up at the sound of the door opening.

Mrs. Wallace greeted me with a hello and started gathering her things.  Emer leapt up from her spot on the carpet and charged at me full-speed.  I barely got to my knees in time to take my little girl into my arms, and I cradled her beneath her bottom and clutched her to my chest. 

Yes, I had been apart from her for a little more than an hour.  But I still missed everything about her; he smell, her weight, the sound of her voice.  Of course Charlotte was right about Emer not being the only one that Amanda damaged when she left. 

I spun once with my baby in my arms, and when I faced the front door again I found Charlotte, who had entered behind me.  Emer noticed her, and the little blonde girl almost instantly buried her face shyly into my shoulder. 

“Dad-eeeeee…” she mewed into my ear, plainly distressed. 

I kissed the top of my daughter’s head, which seemed to calm her a bit.  “Emmie, this is Charlotte,” I whispered, loud enough for Charlotte to hear.  “Will you welcome her to our home?” 

Emer squeezed me tighter, as if she could possibly bury herself deeper into my shoulder.  “Hi,” she peeped.
“Hi, Emmie,” Charlotte said in her most welcoming voice.  She was quick; I hadn’t explicitly told her Emer’s nickname.  “I’m very happy to meet you.” 

I bounced Emer’s weight in my arms a little, and the girl tried to rub her face deeper into my shoulder.  “Dad-eeee,” she whimpered softly.  “Why is she here?” 

As much as she tried to hide it, Emer was loud enough for the whole room to hear.  If her comment had hurt Charlotte’s feelings, she didn’t show it.  Instead she gently approached Emer and said, “I heard that you like My Little Pony.  Which pony is your favorite?” 

Emer clutched me a little less tightly, but only a little.  “Twilight Sparkle,” she murmured. 

“Really?”  Charlotte asked.  “Why do you like Twilight Sparkle the best?”

“Because she’s purple and purple is my favorite color,” Emer said, a little louder than before.

“That’s why I like Pinkie Pie the best,” Charlotte replied, taking another tentative step toward me and my daughter.  “Because she’s pink, and pink is my favorite color.  That, and because she likes to party, because I like to party, too.”        

Had I let it slip that Emer liked My Little Pony on our first date?  If I had, had Charlotte been reading up on the show so she would have something to talk to Emer about?

Charlotte glanced at me with a twinkle in her eye when she mentioned partying, and a little smile played at the edges of her lips with her double-entendre.

Ladies and gentlemen, I might have found a keeper.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Brigit's Flame, October Mini-Contest. Prompt: Costumes and Disguises. Title: "Seeing Through the Mask"

Seeing Through the Mask

“Who’re you?” I asked.

I thought I was the only one who used the old oak tree in the middle of the cemetery as a muse.  In the four Halloweens I had been venturing there I had never seen another person.  It was the perfect place to focus on my dark poetry, and Halloween always felt like the perfect time to immerse myself in the macabre.

The tree sat at the top of the hill, overlooking the headstones like an ancient sentinel.  I had created (what I thought were) some truly amazing pieces there, so I could see what it had drawn this newcomer.  Even so, when I crested the hill and found someone sitting at my usual place by the tree’s twisted roots, I was less than pleased. 

Even if she was really cute.   

She was striking.  Her skin was even more pale than mine but her eyes were stunningly blue, like two stars in her face.  Her brown curls were full of body and framed her narrow face nicely.  But the first thing I noticed about her, even quicker than I did her small, heart-shaped mouth or the school uniform she wore, was the fact that she only had one leg.  On her left she wore a long, white sock that came up over her knee and a black-buckle shoe; her right leg was simply gone.  There was only a stump showing slightly below the hem of her skirt.
“I’m Jenny,” she said politely.  She put both hands into the pockets of her pea coat shyly.  “Who’re you?” 

I lowered the hood on my sweatshirt but didn’t take off my backpack.  I didn’t know this girl yet, so I didn’t know if I would be able to create with her around.  “Claire.”

Jenny looked confused.  “That’s a weird name for a boy.”

Yes, I cut my hair short, wore unflattering clothing, and wore almost no make-up in an effort to look as un-girly as possible, but that didn’t mean that being mistaken for a boy didn’t sting.  “I’m not a boy!” I cried.  “I’m a girl!”

At least Jenny instantly looked sorry for her faux-pas.  “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry!  I’m so sorry!  I didn’t mean to… I’d never…”

I tossed my hood back on my head.  There went my Halloween inspiration this year.  “Don’t worry about it,” I grumbled, turning.  “Catch ya later.”

“Wait!” I heard her cry behind me.  “I’m sorry, I really am!  I didn’t mean to offend you.”  When I turned I found her teetering unsteadily on her one leg, using the tree for support.  “Please, stay.” 

A blush crept into my cheeks and I hoped that the shadow from my hood would hide my red cheeks.  Without a reply I unshouldered my backpack and Jenny scooted over on the tree’s roots to make room for me.  Though I wasn’t sure how I was going to get any writing done with this girl looking over my shoulder, I settled next to her and put my backpack in my lap. 

“So what brings you to the cemetery tonight?”  I asked her.  My voice cracked halfway through.  Ugh, I hate being nervous.  Especially around people I thought were cute.

“The creepiness,” Jenny replied.  “It’s Halloween.  It just feels right.”  She turned to me, and her curls bobbed.  “What about you?”

I wrapped my arms tighter around my backpack.  “It’s sort of a tradition of mine.  Fourth Halloween in a row that I’ve come out here to write.  The creepiness, as you call it… it inspires me.” 

“Would you read some of it to me?”  Jenny asked, hunching her shoulders against a sudden, stiff breeze.  “I mean, if you have any of your Halloween stuff on you.  And if you don’t mind.”

I found myself smiling at Jenny.  No one had ever asked to hear any of my stuff before, especially the creepy stuff.  Most of the time the disguise of the unapproachable, independent girl made people leave me alone, and that was the way I liked it.  But I found that mask quickly falling away as Jenny showed interest in my creations, and by proxy, me. 

I started with some poetry I had written the year before.  I saw it as a commentary on the juxtaposition of the simultaneous meaninglessness and importance of life when compared with death, but most people would probably just call it creepy.  I was fully prepared, and okay with the idea, that Jenny wouldn’t fully understand it and would just be a little unnerved. 

She surprised me when she looked up to me after it was finished and murmured, “Wow, that was beautiful.  And deep.” 

I blushed again, and I was certain that she saw it this time.  “Thanks.  That means a lot.”  I shyly lowered my face, and my eyes unwittingly landed on her amputated leg, which I had actually forgotten about while I was reading.  “Can I ask you…”

“How it happened?”  Jenny finished.  “It’s okay, I don’t mind talking about it, now.  But… are you sure you really want to hear about it?  It’s not a pretty story.”

Though the story wasn’t pretty, the girl telling it was, and the more we spoke the more I wanted to know about her.  “Of course I want to hear it.” 

She nodded pensively.  “Do you remember a story on the news, last February, about a criminal the police called Doll Parts?”

I blinked slowly.  The story Jenny was referring to was about the Doll Parts killer, a serial killer who had killed seven girls along the east coast.  Each body was found with a missing limb, and even after the police caught him last May he never admitted where the missing pieces were stored.  My eyes widened as the reality of what Jenny was trying to tell me settled upon me.  “You’re shitting me,” I whispered. 

Jenny nibbled her bottom lip nervously.  “Please don’t run away,” she muttered nervously.  “I really don’t want to scare you, but I didn’t want to lie about my leg, either.”

My breath quickened, but from excitement or fear I couldn’t say.  As my brain was trying to process whether or not it wanted to believe Jenny, a cold hand gently slid atop mine and gave it a small squeeze.  I looked down and found Jenny’s hand, as cold and pale as the rest of her.  There was dirt under her fingernails. 
“This is the easiest time of the year for us to come out,” she began.  “I’m still sort of new at the whole thing.  I couldn’t even dig myself up.  The gargoyles had to help me.”

I looked into her piercing blue eyes and my fear ebbed.  “Is… is it because it’s Halloween?”  I asked. 

Jenny smiled.  “Actually, no.  Tomorrow is the day we’re actually allowed to roam, although it’s sort of tradition to get an early start.  Haven’t you ever heard of Day of the Dead?”

Some of my Mexican friends from school had told me about it, but I had never put much stock into it because it wasn’t part of my culture.  I guess I need to pay more attention to the cultures of my friends and not dismiss them immediately.  My heart rate slowed.  “So… are you the only one walking around?  If this is real, where is everyone else?” 

“Look around,” Jenny said.  “You mean you haven’t seen them before now?” 

I looked away from Jenny and toward the cemetery.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see shapes, like people, moving around the tombstones.  But when I tried to focus on them, they disappeared.  Trying to look at one was like trying to see one particular star, visible out of the corner of your eye but invisible when you try to pick it out of the night sky.  It was no wonder I had overlooked them for so many years.  They were like dreams that I had forgotten. 

“You’re not scared, are you?”  Jenny asked.

For being a dead girl, Jenny had a beautiful complexion.  Her face was smooth and pretty, and her eyes shimmered as she looked expectantly to me. “A little,” I admitted.  “But… I’m okay. I’m going to stay.”
Jenny smiled again, and her hand tightened a little on mine.  It was a welcome gesture.  “I’m glad.  Would you mind reading to me some more?”

“Of… of course not,” I stammered.  “But, would you mind if I did some writing?  I promise to read it to you once I’m finished.  I’m feeling… particularly inspired this year.” 

  Jenny nodded and removed her hand from mine, but slipped her arms loosely through my elbow and settled against her head affectionately against my shoulder.  I didn’t mind that the undead girl was reading over my shoulder as I wrote; normally I couldn’t create if someone was watching me, but I didn’t know how long it would be before I could see Jenny again, so I was willing to put up with it.  My pen flew across the page and created line after line of poetry as the ghostly figures in the cemetery below us became more and more clear.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A not-so-typical zombie apocalypse story: "Quiet Mornings"

For those of you that don't know, LineByLine is a writing community that posts a one-line, weekly prompt that must be used at least one time in your post.  This week's line is the same as the title of my piece:

"Quiet Mornings"

When she wakes, every nerve is instantly on full-alert.  She sits bolt upright but instantly regrets it when she bangs her head on the underside of the desk she’d slumbered beneath.  With teeth gritted she groans and presses both hands to her forehead.  It’s embarrassing, the number of times she’s shaken herself awake and injured one body part or another in her frantic scramble to make sure she’s as safe as she was when she went to sleep.  She was used to it, though, and these days the only thing it hurt was her pride. 

Not that it should matter, since a usual precursor to embarrassment is someone to be embarrassed in front of.  And the only person she traveled with didn’t care when she did something humiliating, as long as she let him sleep. 

Beside her, her companion squirms and fusses, but remains asleep.  With a sigh of relief she bushes two fingers gently across the four-month-old’s cheek, then climbs from beneath her hiding place to find them some breakfast.  What she carried into the office five days ago was running out. 

Her weapon of choice is a Louisville Slugger, the best damn stick of wood on the planet.  Her hiding place is a good one, one that’s given her more quiet mornings than any other place she’s found.  The office of the small, independent grocery store is hidden in the back of the loading dock and is fifteen feet in the air, she assumed so the boss (whoever he had been) could watch over all the peons beneath him.  The only way up to the office is a metal staircase, and the flesh-eaters seem to have trouble with stairs.  If push came to shove and she had to make a stand, there would be no better place.

The grocery store was almost picked clean when she arrived five days ago.  Baby food was one of the first things to go when the looting started; sealed in glass jars, it promised to last no matter how long the world was in total chaos.  Luckily her baby is still months from solid food, and baby formula is one of the few things that remained on the shelves. 

She wraps her hands around the bat and again feels a little guilty that she wants to name the baby.  The day before her son was born she and Kyle, her boyfriend and the baby’s father, promised to compromise on a name before she gave birth.

The following day the plague struck and her son was born.  Kyle didn’t show up at the hospital, apparently lost in the chaos of those first few days.  Without him, she wasn’t able name the baby; and she won’t name the baby until she finds him.

She swallows hard as she pushes the swinging door with her foot and takes a tentative step into the grocery store.  The periwinkle light of mid-morning barely illuminates the ramshackle atmosphere, but her eyes adjust quickly.  Her flats move soundlessly on the tile; she’d prefer the steel-toed boots she pilfered last month, but they’re incredibly noisy and make running difficult.  So she’d settled on the flats because of their stealth, and because she’d never take the chance of fighting a flesh-eater barefoot. 

She avoids what’s left of the canned good aisle; it was the first place she checked for food five days ago, and it was where she found the bodies.  Apparently there was a fight between scavengers for the canned goods, and each of them was too busy arguing to notice the flesh-eaters that snuck up on them.  Sure, the can of green beans they fought over was still there, but she isn’t that desperate.  Not yet, anyway. 

She turns a corner and almost gasps, but she learned months ago that breathing is a luxury, only reserved for times when safety is absolutely assured.  Her quarry is at the end of the crackers/chips aisle, where a box of Goldfish can sustain her for a whole day.  But at some point during their five-day hold out she and her baby ceased to be the store’s sole occupants.  A flesh-eater stands as still as a statue, facing the rack of food like it’s trying to decide what to buy.  

Her heart rate and breathing quicken as adrenaline slowly fills her limbs.  There’s no need to freak out; she’s taken down plenty of these things, and one that hasn’t noticed her will be a piece of cake.  Slowly she raises the motorcycle goggles from around her neck to her eyes and pulls up her bandana to cover her mouth and nose.  Days after the first infections she heard something on the radio about how scientists predicted that those who didn’t become infected after the first month would be immune, since the disease was carried in bodily fluids and was highly contagious.  She very well may be immune, but she isn’t taking any chances. 

She skitters to it as fast as her flats will take her, and just as the flesh-eater is turning its boil-covered, filthy face to her, she takes aim and swings for its neck.  Always the neck, never the head.  Movies and television put too much emphasis on the head.  The head is full of liquids that are ready to spew out with the slightest tap, and liquids carry the disease.  One quick strike to the neck takes them down just as easily and isn’t nearly as messy.

The flesh-eater gives one small grunt of acknowledgement before the bat connects.  Its neck makes a sickening yet satisfying snapping sound and its eyes roll back into its head as it collapses to the ground.  Her muscles warm and breath huffing, she quickly backs away and surveys the scene.  No fluids.  A clean kill. 

Avoiding the thing with her eyes, she takes the remaining four boxes of goldfish from the shelf and slides them into her backpack.  Without removing her goggles or bandana she stalks her way into the baby aisle and finds it empty.  There she stuffs her backpack with diapers and no-refrigeration-needed formula (refrigerated goods were the first to go) and breathes a sigh of relief as she removes her 'infection protection' and makes her way back to the office. 

She would never hear the sound over her boots.  Good thing she chose the flats.

Feet shuffling on metal.  And a tiny voice, crying. 

She’s been so stupid.  Of course if one flesh-eater wandered into the store, two could wander in just as easily.  It was why she always slept with the door of the office locked. 

Did she lock it before she left, looking for food?  No, of course not; she didn’t have a key.  Did she even shut the door, or was she been too complacent, too reassured to bother with necessary survival strategies? 

Damn these quiet mornings. 

She charges through the store and into the loading dock.  Another flesh-eater, one that used to be a woman, has tried to climb the stairs to reach her baby.  Its legs have slipped between the metal stairs halfway up and it struggles mindlessly to get free.  From the office she can hear her baby crying, and with a shudder of horror she realizes that she was stupid enough to leave without checking the baby’s diaper.  Of course he was going to cry, and of course it would attract wandering flesh-eaters. 

She leaps up the steps two at a time, ignoring the piercing sound her footsteps make on the metal, and brings the bat crashing down onto the trapped flesh-eater’s head.  At the last second she turns her head and squeezes her mouth and eyes shut.  A terrible crushing sound, like a prop comic smashing a watermelon, resounds through the loading dock.  She feels her shirt and pants splattered with ichor.  A few wet droplets strike her face. 

How could she be so stupid?!  What if the creature hadn’t gotten stuck?  What if she came back from foraging for food and found…

The thought makes her gag, but with her eyes closed she charges past the dead creature up the stairs, using her hands to find her way.  When she reaches the office she still barely opens her eyes, even though she knows she’s far from the thing’s corpse.  The baby is crying, but she snatches a rag from her stash of supplies, dunks it into her bucket of water, and then wrenches the lid off of the bottle of bleach.  The smell almost overcomes her as she wipes down her face.  She tells herself that she’s not contaminated, that the thing’s fluids didn’t touch her mouth or nose or eyes.  Please, dear God, not her mouth or nose or eyes. 

She strips and throws her clothes out the door and over the railing, then wipes down her hands and forearms with the bleach-covered rag.  Her decontamination is done in ten seconds, but even naked (except for her flats) and smelling of bleach she’s afraid to pick up her baby.  Just as she gets the nerve to pick him up the adrenaline mixes with the panic and she collapses into tears with her son clutched to her chest. 

After a few minutes, after she composes herself, she kisses her son and changes his diaper.  “Damn quiet mornings,” she swears with her bottom lip still trembling. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brigit's Flame, Oct., week 3 - Title: "Dependent"

Brigit's Flame, Week 3 (October) post.
Compulsory Prompt:  "Prejudice" 
Additional Prompt:  "Homemade" 
Title:  "Dependent"

“I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.”

Emer is nothing if not persistent.  Her arms are crossed over her chest in resolute defiance, her bubblegum-pink lips scrunched into a tiny point on her face.
“Oh, come on, Emmie, you barely know her,” I say as I button the last two buttons on my shirt.  “Won’t you at least give her a chance?” 

My eight-year-old daughter scrunches her forehead menacingly.  Her golden eyebrows have descended so much that they almost touch.   Though she thinks she’s menacing when she puts on the tough face, I see nothing but pure innocence and beauty in her.  “Daddy.  I.  Don’t.  Like.  Her.” 

This is the usual story when it came to my dating.  Since Emer was three years old it’s just been she and I.  Emer doesn’t talk or ask about her mother much, and the psychologist says I should encourage her to do so more often.  Dr. Sparkman says that talking about her mother and understanding why she left will help Emer come to terms with her life and may ease her issues with trust, security, and abandonment.

 But honestly, I never want to talk about Amanda, either. 

I button the top button on my shirt and flip up the collar so I can put on my tie.  “What’s wrong with her, honey?”

Emer lowers her eyes.  “Her name is Charlotte, daddy.  That’s not a name.  That’s a city.”

School is a struggle.  I’m there when the bell rings to start the day and there when she comes running out of her classroom at three-thirty, but any longer separated from me and my little girl is a nervous wreck.  “I think it’s a nice name.”

She looks up to me like I’ve just stepped on her heart.  “Not as nice as Emer, right?” 

Without bothering to flip my collar down I kneel and scoop my little girl into my arms.  “Of course not.  If I thought Charlotte was a prettier name, I would have named you Charlotte.  But your name is Emer, because that’s that prettiest name in the whole world.” 

Dr. Sparkman says that when I do things like this I’m not helping her, because it encourages her to believe that we can continue to be the center of each others’ worlds, and that doesn’t allow for independent growth. 

But what does that psychologist know?  I’m her daddy.  Of course she’s the center of my world.

“I don’t like her, daddy,” Emer whispers in my ear again.

I don’t date much.  Between my hours spent and work in the day and being with Emer every evening, I don’t have a lot of time for it.  When I do get time for the occasional date, they’re never very long; Emer gets extremely nervous if I’m gone for longer than a couple of hours.  So it’s always dinner or a movie, but never both.  And I never, ever bring a woman home.  Emer and I still sleep in the same bed. 

Emer was only eight years old, and she’d had a harder childhood than me by far.  It was no surprise that she saw every woman I might want to become involved with as a threat to our relationship.

Still holding my baby, I sit on the bed and place her on my knee.  She refuses to remove her arms from around my neck.

“Do you like homemade pizza?”  I ask her.  She nods into my shoulder.  “There’s some in the fridge.  I made it today while you were at school.  When Mrs. Wallace comes over to stay with you, she’s going to heat it up and eat it with you, and you’re going to watch My Little Pony together.  Does that sound like fun?”

After a moment of silence, Emer whispers, “Don’t go, daddy.”

And just like that, a fifty-eight-pound girl shatters a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound man like a piece of balsa wood.  For just a moment I consider caving, because I would love to spend my evening eating homemade pizza and watching My Little Pony with my baby girl.  But I need this evening out, and, whether she realizes it or not, Emer needs an evening without me.

The doorbell rings.  It’s Mrs. Wallace, right on time, and Emer knows it.  She clings tighter around my neck.  I bite my lip to keep in tears that appeared when Emer broke my heart as I slip my arms under her bottom and carry her through the house.  Mrs. Wallace is Emer’s usual babysitter, and after raising four sons of her own, I couldn’t ask for a more maternal woman.  She smiles at me when I answer the door and gently strokes Emer’s back.

“Hello, Emmie!  I’ve missed you!” Mrs. Wallace says cheerily. 

“Hi,” Emer peeps. 

“Emmie, I’m going to finish getting dressed while Mrs. Wallace heats up the pizza.  How about I watch the first part of an episode of My Little Pony with you before I go?”  I tell her.

For the first time in a few minutes Emer loosens her grip and looks me in the face.  “Will you eat some pizza with me, too?”

I’m going to have to explain to Charlotte why I pass on appetizers.  “Of course, honey.” 

In the bedroom I finish tying my tie and pick out a jacket to match my pants.  With the bedroom door open so Emer can see me, I can hear the whirr of the microwave as the pizza is warmed.  As I find my wallet and cell phone I look at the tangle of covers that my little girl hogged the night before and her pillow case with Twilight Sparkle, the magical unicorn, on it. 

Even on the best of days, my life is complicated.  It would take a special woman to understand and accept Emer.  And Emer would accept nothing less than an extremely special woman.  If Charlotte understood why I had no room for appetizers and why my shirt was wrinkled from the grasping arms of an angel, then maybe she was that woman.

And if not, I just happen to love homemade pizza.  And My Little Pony is growing on me. 

Brigit's Flame, October Week 2 - Title: "Seven Minutes in Heaven"

This week's prompt: That despairing feeling when the bus pulls away from the stop when you’re a street away.
This week's bonus prompt:  Disillusionment
Title:  "Seven Minutes in Heaven"

I knit my hands together as he opens his locker next to me.  Third period will start in exactly seven minutes.  He'll be going to Pre-Calculus, which is in the same hallway as our lockers.  That gives him plenty of time.

Sweat begins to spot my back and beneath my arms.  This always happens when I'm nervous.  It's one of the many things that I hate about myself.  My gigantic butt, fat legs, flat chest, unmanageably frizzy hair, and pudge-nose are at the top of the list, but 'nervous sweater' has rightfully earned its place.

"Hey, Tyler."

Tyler looks up from his locker and makes eye contact with me.  I divert my eyes and pretend like I didn't notice, like I couldn't care less that this gorgeous boy was looking at me.  As I remove my Chemistry book from my locker, I can feel myself sweating harder.

"Oh, hey Penny."

I want to tell him that I love him, that he's the most beautiful and genuine boy I have ever met, but of course I don't.  I never have, and something inside me tells me that I'm a big chicken and I never will.  You won't have to, I tell myself in response.  Today he's going to ask you to the prom.  

"So... um... what's new?" I ask him.

"Not much," he replies.  "Are you ready for the big project due in English III next week?"

Why hasn't he asked me yet?  Third period starts in four minutes.  "Not yet.  I still need to read the last act in Hamlet, and then I have to work on my rewrite of the first act to include the characters from Blood Princess."

Stupid stupid stupid!  He doesn't want to hear about your anime re-enactment of Shakespeare!  Ask him if he's got a date for the prom yet! 

As badly as I want to, I can't force myself to ask him that.  If he has a date and he didn't even considered asking me, I know that there's no way I can deal with the rejection in the middle of the hallway.  If I ask him, it will have to be at the end of the school day on Friday so I can have the entire weekend to cry and console myself.

But if I ask him and he doesn't have a date, I'll look like a desperate, love-sick idiot.

There are rumors going around that he's already going with Jennifer Whitaker, the prettiest girl in our Honors American History II class.  Even thinking her name makes me want to throw up, both from envy and sadness.  But it's okay.  They're only rumors.  

He says something else about our projects for English III, but I'm not listening.  As the seconds tick away, I feel my chances of going to the prom with Tyler Robinson slipping away.

Finally he closes his locker and takes one step toward his class.  "Well, I'll see you in fifth period, Penny!"

Wait!  I plead for him in my  head as the depression starts to set in.  You still have one minute!  But Tyler is already halfway down the hall.  Jennifer Whitaker steps away from her locker and the two of them walk into Pre-Calculus, laughing like they're the happiest people in the world.

He said he'll see you in fifth period, I console myself.  That's a good sign.  Maybe he's going to ask you then. 

I put on a strong face, even though I don't feel very strong.  "Yeah.  Maybe." 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Brigits Flame: Oct., week 1 - Baptized by Fire

The air under the floorboards was hot and cramped.  Every breath I took was just another mouthful of the same stale, damp oxygen, filled with the scent of wood and perspiration and mildew.  The thundering of my heart was so loud in my ears that I swore it would give away our position any minute.  Of course, such a thought was incredibly stupid.  No one else could hear my heartbeat, not even the seven other children crowded into the crawlspace with me.  We were completely concealed.
Unless they had brought the dogs.  God help us if they brought the dogs.

Heavy boots resounded slowly on the floorboards, less than an inch above my head.  They sounded like thunder from a storm still far away, one whose clouds were visible from miles away and whose rain was yet to be felt.  But this storm wasn’t distant, and we hadn’t had such an adequate warning as thunder and lightning and clouds.

“And you have not seen the eight Hofmann children?” Said a rough, gravelly, man’s voice.

“I wasn’t aware that the Hofmanns had children.” Mrs. Schmidt, the clockmaker, was a perfect liar, and could deceive anyone without the slightest waver in her voice. “They lived more than a kilometer from here, and I only saw Mr. Hofmann every few months or so when he’d need his watch repaired.”

No doubt the soldiers had searched the floor for a trap door into the hidden crawlspace, and no doubt they had come up empty handed.  It was common knowledge that almost all older buildings had secret hiding places such as this, but the clockmaker’s shop was a special kind of oddity.  Its hidden compartment was between the basement and first floor, and the compartment was in the basement’s ceiling, forcing one to climb up into the hiding place.  It was why Mama and Papa had asked Mrs. Schmidt to hide us when they left to secure our passage to Mama’s cousin’s home in London.

They had been gone a week, though they told us the trip would take two.  They were still alive, and they would be back for us.  I knew it.

The gruff-voiced soldier hadn’t responded, nor had he moved.  For just a moment I forgot he was in the room, and I became distracted by the sounds of the other soldiers frantically searching the basement for eight hiding children.  “You’re lying, Mrs. Schmidt.”
“I beg your pardon,” Mrs. Schmidt replied, instantly irritated.  “I will have you know that I am a staunch supporter of The Party and have divulged all my ancestry to the authorities.  I would never betray the Fatherland.”

I heard the other soldier ascend the stairs from the basement and I exhaled a sigh of relief, probably the fifth time I had held a mouthful of the same stale air.  I tightened my arm in triumph around my six-year-old sister, Anya, who made a tiny, fearful, mewling sound.  “Sir, we found no one,” one of the other soldiers told the one who was in charge, the one speaking with Mrs. Schmidt. 

A pregnant silence hung in the room, and I wished that I hadn’t allowed myself the small moment of triumph.  A rustling of leather and metal and the ominous clicking of the hammer on a pistol pierced the silence.  The cruel meaning of the sounds screamed louder than their muffled resonances could.  “Mrs. Schmidt, you have only one opportunity to tell us where the children are hiding.”

“S-sir!” Mrs. Schmidt flustered.  “You have searched my home and wrecked my business, and now you threaten my life!  Why, I have half a mind to find your commanding officer and…”

Thunder rang through the house, louder than anything I had ever heard in my life.  The floorboards muffled the sound somewhat, but it was still loud enough to deafen me with a sudden ringing in my ears.  Through the ringing I still heard a limp thump on the floor above us.

Anya curled tighter in my arms and mewled again, but I clapped my hand over her mouth and held my breath to keep my own tears inside.
“The Fatherland doesn’t need liars, pure-blooded or otherwise,” the soldier said, just over whisper.  A second later he said, louder, “Take anything of value, then burn it to the ground.  If they’re hiding here, all the better.” 

The sorrow for Mrs. Schmidt in my heart was instantly crushed with urgency and fear.  I looked to the second oldest, my twelve-year-old sister, Lenora, and found her face streaked with tears and her bottom lip trembling uncontrollably.

Mrs. Schmidt was dead.  I needn’t muddy the details with hope for the soldiers’ mercy.  And mama and papa were surely in London by now, trying to figure out a way to get the eight of us there in secrecy.  There was no one else who could save us.

Footsteps retreated from the house, and when they were gone my younger siblings all started crying, the seven of them together like a flock of wounded lambs.  “Shh!” I hissed at them as I willed away my own tears.  It was so dark between the floors that I wasn’t sure if any of them could see my face, but I glared at their shadows and showed them the sober determination in my eyes.

A lone set of footsteps thumped back into the house, accompanied by a sound of water being sloshed onto the floor.  Liquid dripped between the floorboards and spotted the wood beneath us, and with one sniff I knew instantly that we would not be lucky enough to have the house soaked with water.  The footsteps continued into the basement, and as I listened I pushed Anya out of the way and positioned myself alone on top of the trap door.  It had no hinges, which would have been visible from the outside; instead there were two wooden slats that held it into place, making it all but invisible from the basement beneath.
When I was sure the soldier was beneath me, I rose up on my elbows and toes, slid one of the slats out of the way, and then brought down my full weight upon the remaining slat.  Though I wasn’t a large boy for fourteen, I weighed enough; the wood splintered under me and I held my breath and tensed every muscle in my body as I fell from the crawlspace on the trap door.
When I fell upon the soldier, it felt as though I had been hit by a truck.  Though I had tried to prepare myself for the blow, all the air was ejected from my lungs and my entire skeleton shuddered as the man crumpled beneath me.  For a numb second I lay upon the ruined trap door, too stunned to speak or move, but the smell of gasoline in the basement shook me back to reality and I forced myself to my feet.  From the hole in the ceiling Anya and Lenora looked upon me, a strange mix of heroic elation and revulsion on their faces.
“Don’t lay there gawking!” I hissed at them.  “We have to get out of here!”  One by one Lenora lowered the younger siblings to the floor by their arms, until she dropped from the hole in the ceiling and landed nimbly on the trap door.  There was a satisfied spark in her eyes when her weight fell upon it and the soldier crushed beneath, who hadn’t moved since I had landed on him.

I looked away from the soldier and instead concentrated on the gasoline can he had dropped, which had emptied completely on the floor, and the steel lighter that had skittered from his hand and lay a few feet away.  I snatched it up and approached the stairs.  “As quietly as you can,” I told my siblings.  The younger ones had been staring, dumbfounded, at the dead soldier since they had emerged from the crawl space, but turned their eyes to me when I spoke.

Once I removed my shoes so I would make less noise, I slunk up the stairs and peeked onto the first floor.  It was empty, thank God; if there had been any more soldiers in the house they surely would have heard the commotion.  I motioned for my siblings to follow, and soon seven barefoot children were following me onto the first floor.

Mrs. Schmidt lay in a heap on the floor, between two dark trails of gasoline.  She was curled into a ball away from us, thankfully, and lay in a pool much darker than the gasoline around her.  I snapped my fingers once and my siblings’ eyes shot from her to me, and with my fingers I commanded their eyes not to waver.  Seven scared children all nodded, but said nothing. 

I skulked to the front door, which the soldier had left open, and looked out into the street.  It was abandoned, but I could hear the small group of soldiers in another business a few meters away, no doubt being just as evil and cruel as they had been to Mrs. Schmidt in their pursuit of the Hofmann children.  With a motion from me, Lenora led the six younger children out the door and around the side of the building.

When they were clear I took one last look into the clockmaker’s shop and the motionless woman who had given everything to protect eight children that lived more than a kilometer away.  I prayed for God to receive her and to forgive me for bringing such a fate upon her just because she had the best hiding place in the village.

I struck the lighter and tossed it back into the building, onto one of the dark streaks of gasoline.  A ribbon of fire instantly surged to life and ran across the floor like a wild, reckless child.  Before the fire and sadness and fear could transfix me I darted away from the door and around the back of the building, where I found my siblings waiting for me.  The eight of us ran for the nearby woods as if we had the Fuhrer’s entire forces at our heels.

If we were lucky, we would get to the road to London and find Mama and Papa before the dogs found us.

If we were lucky, word would reach Mama and Papa that the Hofmann children had not been found and were on the run.  

If we were lucky, Mama and Papa had made it to London.

If we were lucky, there would still be a London for us to run to.