03 October 2018

Job Hunting

Prompt:  The Robbery | Word Count:  1493 | Genre:  Fiction

Dustin pulled up to the curb at Donnie’s and honked twice.  It was almost dark.  He fiddled with the knobs on the AM radio, then pushed the cigarette lighter in wondering if Donnie would emerge before the lighter popped out, red hot.  

This was supposed to be a solo job, breaking into the back office of the Duffy Butcher Shop, where everyone knew Easy Joe O’Halleran received the weekly pay offs.  Rumor was they were left overnight in the deep freeze, wrapped and bundled in ten piles, a thousand smackers each.

Dustin had been riding along on jobs for a while now, sometimes helping to smash a lock or even kneecaps, more often standing guard or driving the car.

A solo hit on Duffy’s would definitely move him up in the ranks.  

And with Christiana knocked up, he needed money.  A lot more money if she decided to keep it this time.

Pop!  The lighter clicked out and still no Donnie.  Dustin thought about honking again, but felt too antsy to sit any longer.  Exiting the Chevelle, he noticed the bad Bondo job again.  Maybe with his cut, he could also afford to fix it up and paint it. This Chevelle could be a thing of beauty.  All it took was money.  

Dustin rang the bell, and then knocked.  Donnie was supposed to have a gun for him.  A small pistol, numbers filed off and untraceable.  Just in case.  He could ditch it if he had to, but if he needed it, it was easy to conceal.

No answer.  It wasn’t like Donnie to leave him hanging.  Maybe he was over at Yvette’s?  Easy enough to check.  And if Donnie wasn’t there, Yvette would probably know where he was. She kept him on a short leash.

Back in the car and on the way to Yvette’s, Dustin went through the steps of the break-in.  At each one, he paused, considering all the possibilities or obstacles potentially created.  At each, he broke down the subsequent choices and the ramifications of each.  He’d never had to do this on his own, but he’d sat with Donnie playing out scenarios like this.

“Visualization,” Donnie had said, a dreamy look in his eyes.  “The difference between the champion and all those losers.”  At the word “losers” he’d elbowed Dustin in the sternum, almost knocking him over.  Dustin wasn’t a loser.  Duffy’s would prove it.

Almost to Yvette’s, a police cruiser going the opposite way on Spruce Avenue flipped a U-turn and switched on the lights and siren.

“Crap,” Dustin shouted. Perhaps too abruptly he pulled into a gas station.  He realized how grateful he was that he didn’t have Donnie’s gun on him and tried to calm his breathing.  Dustin could see the officer emerging from the vehicle to approach him.

“Do you know why I’ve pulled you over this evening?”

“No sir, uh, why, sir?”

The officer leaned in close, beefy forearms folded on the bottom of the window opening.  He sniffed, then stuck his head inside sniffing more.

Dustin kept his eyes facing forward, trying to hold his breath to keep from smelling the officer’s rancid exhales.

“Turn your damn lights on, son!”  And with that, the officer slapped Dustin’s shoulder and laughed, walking back to his vehicle.  

Dustin watched in the rearview as the fat policeman pulled up his pants, still laughing.  He could feel himself quaking, a thousand thoughts racing through his head.  First of all, he couldn’t afford a single mistake, like not having his lights on. Dustin knew he needed the gun, second. It wasn’t like Donnie not to be home at a scheduled time.  Getting pulled over was bad luck, definitely.  Dustin hated superstition, didn’t believe in it, finding it a lame and ridiculous excuse for poor planning.  But he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t feeling uneasy because of these two events, Donnie not being home, and the cop pulling him over.

Hands sweaty and shaky, he restarted the Chevelle, pulled the knob to turn on the lights and put the car in gear.  At Yvette’s he didn’t even bother to stop.  All the lights were out and no cars in the driveway.  He continued on his way.  Without the gun, what were his chances?  How likely was it that he’d need it?  Again he played out the scenarios, but this time without the pistol.

Twenty minutes later, he was parked a block from Duffy’s.  He’d driven down the alley – a calculated risk, he knew, but he wanted to check if lights were on inside the building, and they were.  It was less of a risk than walking down the alley and having someone able to identify his face.  The Chevelle was ugly enough to be unnoticed.  Not so ugly that it would stand out.  

Dustin drummed the steering wheel, wondering what he was doing and knowing there was no way he could pull this off.  He sat with this weight in his belly, the lights on the street glowing against the overcast night sky.  What did it mean to not do a job?  How would he be viewed? Could he explain that he’d let his level-headedness rule?  That his thoughtful calculations of the situation might lead him toward a different kind of role in the organization?

The decision made not to hit Duffy’s, Dustin felt the adrenaline leaving his body.  He was exhausted and worried.  Rolling down the window, he gulped the cool night air. Instantly he felt better.  He opened the door and stepped out into the evening.  Walking up the block, he turned the corner and broke into a slow jog.  After a few blocks he stopped in front of an ice cream shop.  There were no customers.  One girl worked inside.  She looked bored, sitting behind the counter, her head propped on her hand, a dark hair braid cascading over her shoulder.  

He pushed the door open. It buzzed and the girl snapped to attention.  Silently, she stood and waited for his order.  He scanned the choices of ice cream.  The display freezers were empty except for vanilla and chocolate.  

“Pretty slim pickings,” he joked.  She didn’t react.  “Chocolate milkshake, please.”

She made the milkshake without comment, adding the ingredients and blending them in an old machine that whined and then sighed as it was turned off.  She was pretty but not much on customer service, he thought.

She handed it to him and turned away.

“How much?”  Dustin asked.

She scanned him. “Oh.  You’re not with…”  her voice trailed off.  Then she cleared her throat.  “Three fifty.”

He gave her a ten and couldn’t help but ask, “Who did you think I was?”

“Nevermind, I was wrong.” She blushed and handed him his change, which he dropped in the empty tip bucket.  She was suddenly busy, sweeping the floor and turning away from him, her braid swinging across her back.

“Is it the O’Halleran’s? Do you think I work for them?”

She turned.  “Do you?”

He shook his head.  

“Are you a cop?”

Again he shook his head. “What makes you think that?”

She looked around, nervous. “We don’t actually get many customers here,” she whispered.  She gestured at the shop.  “This isn’t really an ice cream shop anymore.  I hate it.”  

Now Dustin turned on the charm.  He pulled a stool over to the counter and leaned in.  “Are you talking, like real gangsters?”  he whispered, taking a pull on the straw.  He made his eyes big, as if in surprise.  

“I’ve worked here for a year.  It used to be fun.  But they’ve chased away all the customers.  My boss never comes in anymore because she’s afraid of them. She pays themand theyuse heroffice.  It’s so unfair.”

“Wow.”  Dustin didn’t know what to say.

She went back to her sweeping.  Dustin sat quietly, thinking over his milkshake, hatching a new plan.  The O’Hallerans must have become nervous about Duffy’s getting hit – somehow they must have heard rumors – and moved their operations here.  

“You really thought I was a cop?”  Dustin asked.

“Not really.  But I hoped so.”  She kept sweeping, not looking at him.

“Why don’t you call the cops?”  

She shrugged.  

Dustin smiled.  He wasn’t sure he could trust this girl. “You want to bust the O’Hallerans?  On a school night?”  

How she took that joke would tell him what he needed to know.  She stopped sweeping.

“It’s not funny.”  She turned and he could see the color rising in her cheeks.  She was furious, not with him.  

Dustin raised his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it.”  He smiled.

She leaned on the broom and raised an eyebrow. “If you’re not a cop and you’re not with the O’Hallerans, then what are you doing in this neighborhood?”  She leaned on the broom.

He raised the milkshake as if making a toast.

“Fair question.  What if I told you I was looking for a job around here?”

04 September 2018

Like They Never Existed

Prompt:  Delete |  Word Count: 1244 | Genre:  Fiction

What if she hit the ‘delete’ key?  She knew those files were dangerous.  This idea came to her from out of the blue, almost as if this ‘delete’ key had suddenly, miraculously appeared.  

Inez leaned back in her swivel chair and rocked gently.  The trees outside the window were barren.  It would be another month at least before the green leaves emerged, filling in the negative space now occupied with grey sky.  The sky wasn’t grey in Barbados, that was for sure.

Her boss, Mr. Carmichael, didn’t know about the files on her hard drive.  She knew he’d already deleted the same ones from his hard drive and the cloud server.  Jimmy from IT had been involved in that, describing to Inez last Wednesday how he’d scrubbed out the shadows left behind.  Mr. LeGros didn’t seem involved in this business, or at least, not yet.

“Not a trace,” Jimmy had said.  “Like they never existed.”

She’d been so worried that he might suspect she had copies of those documents.  But Jimmy liked her, she’d realized, and suspected her of nothing.

It was clear that the investigation into Mr. Carmichael was deepening.  Inez, at least, would be interviewed.  But lately she was wondering, noticing more details that made her suspect Mr. Carmichael’s claims of innocence were false.  She loved the job – it was fast paced and the tasks and projects she was given as administrative assistant to two senior vice presidents illustrated their trust in her.  But she had misgivings about the ethical side of things.  Maybe it was insider trading, like she’d read about in the Weekly.  Regardless of whether these types of crimes were “victimless,” as Jimmy insisted, there was something about the whole scenario that didn’t sit well with her.

The pay was great, though, and her holiday bonus had included company stock options.  She owned stock!  Pretty good for an immigrant girl from Guanajuato.  And Mr. LeGros had invited her to Barbados next month. He was divorced, she knew, and lonely. She was lonely, too, although she had yet to give him an answer.  But she couldn’t help wonder how her life might change if she went.  Plus, the whole investigation was a bit exciting, she had to admit, like in the movies.

The phone rang, disrupting her thoughts.

“Offices of Mr. Carmichael and Mr. LeGros.”

“This is Agent Mulvaney from the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Is Inez Guerrero available?”

Inez swallowed. “Yes?”  Her voice was too high.

“Ms. Guerrero, your phone is tapped.  This conversation is being recorded.”

Her mind raced, wondering what she’d said to Mr. LeGros, recalling his invitation to Barbados over the phone.

“Ms. Guerrero, we’ve noted some irregularities in your visa paperwork.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been double checking some things for us.”

“What?”  She struggled to grasp the meaning.  “What seems to be the problem?”

“Some minor issues. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed. Can you meet my partner and me for lunch?  At Guapo’s? 12:30?”

Forty minutes later, Inez entered the restaurant.  It was one she went to regularly, although usually not dressed for work as she was today. Paco waved, lifting a tray as she walked by the hostess.  Mulvaney and his partner were easy to spot – the only two suits in the dive Mexican restaurant frequented by day laborers who likely didn’t have the papers for legal jobs.  Both men stood as she approached.  

“I’m Mulvaney,” the taller one said, extending his hand.  

Inez didn’t shake it. “I have nothing to hide,” she bluffed quietly.  “I’m certain my paperwork is in order.  What is this really about?”

Gesturing with his extended hand, Mulvaney indicated his partner.  “This is Wilkins.  Please sit, Ms. Guerrero.”  

Inez stood.

“Please.”  This time it was Wilkins who spoke, gesturing toward the bench seat.

Inez looked at her watch, then sat.  “You have fifteen minutes.”  

“You’re correct.  Your paperwork is fine.” Mulvaney spoke.

Inez felt something cold and hard in her stomach melt at this confirmation.

“It’s your boss. We’re investigating Carmichael.   He’s dug himself a deep hole.  He’s likely betting on your assistance to help him out of it.  You and James Robinson from IT.  James has been busy lately, deleting files like mad.”

Inez couldn’t help but gasp.

“In addition to the phones, we’re watching the entire network.  But what’s brought us here, to you, today?”  Here Mulvaney paused.  “You’ve got an interesting folder on your computer.”

Both men were staring now, seeming to watch her every inhalation.

“But if that folder were copied, say, onto this drive,”  he continued.

Here, another pause, and Wilkins slid a small manila envelope across the table.  “Your visa irregularities would go away.”

“But you just said that everything was in order.”  Inez hated how her accent became stronger with her frustration.

“Sometimes problems come up. We’d hate to hand you over to ICE. In fact, we’d hate for ICE to have to raid this entire establishment.”  Mulvaney looked over his shoulders.  “These people seem like hard-working folk.  It would be a shame.”

Struggling to keep her thoughts in order, Inez wasn’t going to be bullied.  “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’re threatening me.  You’re threatening everyone here.  I don’t even know what folder you’re talking about.  How am I supposed to know what’s going on here?  If my boss is doing something wrong, then arrest him.  Why do I have to be involved?”

Mulvaney smiled as if she were a child.  “Inside the envelope are instructions.  Do as they say.  It’s all there, what files, how to copy them.  What to do once they’re on the drive.”

The three stood to leave just as Paco, the waiter, arrived.

“Hola Inez,” he smiled. “You are leaving?” Paco looked concerned.

“We already ate.” Wilkins laughed.

Back at the office, Inez felt shaky.  What if something was amiss with her visa?  What if this demand for information was only the beginning?  The envelope was in her satchel.  It was light, but the burden of it weighed on her as she clocked back in.

“Hey girl,” Jimmy smiled, leaning on her desk.  “Listen, I need to run some updates and check for some stuff on your computer.  You mind?”

He was already coming around to her side of the desk.  She noticed he had that same small piece of motherboard he’d had when she’d let him into Mr. Carmichael’s office for what he’d called the “cleaning.”

“Can you give me a moment?” She coughed.  “I’m in the middle of a merge.  Maybe an hour?”

“Sure thing,” he walked down the hall.  

Mr. Carmichael had taken the rest of the afternoon off, and Mr. LeGros was in a meeting with the bank, promising photos of the Barbados condo later.  This was probably the longest stretch of time she’d have without either of them interrupting.  She searched in her bag for the envelope, then slit it carefully with the letter file in her drawer.  

Inside the padded envelope was a tiny flash drive.  She’d never seen one so small.  Unfolding the paper inside, her hands were shaking so much she nearly dropped the flash drive.  She read the instructions, which were simple and clear.  Truly, she had no choice, even if all was well with her visa.  Or did she?  What if she went to Barbados and never came back?  What if Jimmy deleted it before she could copy it?  Trembling, she held the drive in both hands, like a prayer.  

08 August 2018

Honey

Prompt:  I never knew | Word Count: 1770 words | Genre:  Fiction

I never knew her real name. I only knew her as Honey, which probably fit her better than any legal name.  

The first time I saw Honey, I almost laughed aloud.  I’m embarrassed to say that today.  But if you’d seen her that day, well, you’d get it.  Honey was riding a bike, and she was wearing a crown of flowers. The flowers were plastic and faded:  orange and yellow and used-to-be-red.  Some had petals missing, and the leaves weren’t so green anymore on account of the sun. I saw her coming and she waved at me and grinned that smile with most of the teeth missing.  And I snickered and giggled a bit because I could tell she was higher than the clouds, but I waved back, too.

She rolled to a stop right in front of my camp acting like she knowed me.  I even wondered if I did know her because I used to drink too much back then.  It was a way of passing those long nights on the edge of the park and quieting those demons inside of me.  But that was before my first moment of clarity.

“Hey, Soldier,” she cooed. “You remember Honey, now, don’t you?”

Now, to be honest, I didn’t know her at all, but sometimes on the street it helps to play along. And she knew my name, Soldier, which is what all the street folk called me on account of my Army jacket. I am not book smart, but I keep learning even if school is in my past.

She rummaged in the basket on the handlebars and handed me a dirty rag wrapped around something small and heavy for its size.  “I probably missed your birthday.”  

She pedaled away, those flowers bobbing with her graceful movement.  I unwrapped the object.  It was a busted watch face, no band, with spidery cracks crossing the face which said 4:13.  I don’t know why I remember that.  I looked up again, and Honey had just turned a corner and was gone.

The second time I saw her, she remembered the watch.  I’d been sleeping one off and she woke me up, shaking my shoulder.

“Hey, do you like the watch?”

“Think I lost it,” I shrugged, in that weird state between drunk and hung over.  I thought she’d be mad.  Usually these women street folk bend to vengeance if you cross them, but not Honey.  In fact, she sidled up next to me, minding my stench less than I did, threw her blanket over us and fell asleep.  In spite of my tiredness, I found it difficult to drift off, so unused to physical company was I.  And her dreadlocked head smelled like yellow grass.  Eventually slumber did come.

By morning, she was gone, but her blanket remained.  Soft dreams of Honey had filled my sleep, but I doubted darkly any future.  The street is no place for romance, and the prospect of more than mere survival is dangerous. Honey sharing space with me meant nothing.  I told myself that all morning.

She didn’t return to claim her blanket for three days, and she was in a bad way when she did show up. It tore me near in half to see her strung that way, worse even than the bruises on her face and around her long neck. 

She wouldn’t talk to me, but we walked to the soup kitchen.  She nibbled at what she could eat with the few teeth left in her mouth. She’d lost that crown of flowers, too. Now, you might be thinking that she was homely.  She wasn’t. Despite her bruises and lack of teeth, when she wasn’t sick, she glowed.  Her cinnamon skin looked lit up from within.  On days like that, she’d dance in the dappled shade of the cottonwoods, moving to music that no one else heard.

Street folk like us are a pretty loose organization.  Someone new is always arriving, others move on.  A few are constant fixtures, like me.  I arrived in ’72 with my wife Janine.  We weren’t street folk then.  We had a little trailer we lived in that we pulled with our car.  Car broke down and I found a job bagging groceries. Janine found work as a crossing guard. But then she got sick.  I lost my job on account of the time I had to miss to care for her.  We had to sell the trailer when she went into the hospital, and I lived in the car for a while, until she was gone. I drank myself to oblivion for a long span.  I was probably trying to kill myself, but I was doing it the slow way.  I can see that now.

Jimbo and Simpson arrived shortly after me.  And Annette has been here a couple years but we avoid her.  She’s crazy like a loon, voices in her head and such, and she lashes out violently if they tell her to.  She gets locked up pretty regular, but always comes right back to the park. Most of us here have issues, but Annette is truly crazy.  We keep to ourselves, mostly, understanding that we’re out here because we don’t fit in with regular society.  We need more space than regular folk.

But Honey shook me up. I wasn’t in love with her, I swear. She was nothing like my Janine.  She was maybe twenty, too young for a geezer like me.  We never talked much.  There was some quality about her, though, that made the light seem different.  You know, like after a summer thunderstorm that ends just before sunset, and everything is clean and golden for a spell.

The last day I saw Honey - that’s where this story was going.  It was getting near fall, the mornings crisp and bright and I was stiff and achy from the night’s chill.  I’d been drinking since I don’t know when with Jimbo.  Honey was walking toward us, quite some distance away.  Even from a hundred yards, I could tell that she was strung again, and limping, too.  She held her head high on that long graceful neck.  

Sitting up, I waved her over.  She approached and I could see then that her ankle was bruised and swollen.  She had a fat lip and a black eye forming.  

“Hey Soldier,” she whispered.

“Sit down, Honey.”  I was trying to stand up to help her, but I wasn’t much help in my drunk state.

She eased herself down, mostly falling.

“I’m so tired,” she whispered, a fresh drop of blood glistened in the split of her lower lip. She was asleep almost immediately. I sat with her, wondering if her john was looking for her and if he was the one who’d beaten her this time.

I covered her with my blankets, but later she was feverish and kicked them off.  I’d never seen her this bad, but by nightfall she was vomiting, nothing but bile coming up.  Her lip had cracked open again and her eye was swollen shut.  I was starting to think her ankle was broken, it was swelled up like a ball and she cried out if anything touched it.  

“She don’t look so good.” Jimbo said, passing the bottle.

I swigged, feeling the relief of alcohol entering my bloodstream.  “Never seen her this bad.”

Jimbo knelt down and starting rocking forward and back, “Please Jesus, help Honey.”  He closed his eyes and murmured, mixing up prayers he’d learned.

“Jimbo, go get dinner. Bring some back for Honey.”

He finished his prayer, nodded, and ran off in his lopsided way across the park.  

Honey was shivering, probably her teeth would chatter if she’d enough of them.  I was getting scared.  I couldn’t keep the blankets on her, so I laid down next to her and threw my arm and leg over.  It felt like she was going to bust apart.

And then I heard Annette coming, fire and brimstone flying from her mouth.  I knew she’d see us, that Honey and I would be attacked by that crazy woman.

“Harlot!” She cried and I sat up.  A rock hit me, square in the jaw, knocking a couple teeth out.

Scrambling up as best I could, I picked up the rock and faced Annette.  Her eyes were wild, spittle covered her chin and her face and arms were covered in scratches.

Honey moaned.  

Annette threw another rock, but this time I ducked.

“Annette, I don’t want to hurt you.  You need to leave.”

I could hear sirens and hoped someone else had called the authorities about Annette.

“I.  Am.  Not. Annette.”  She screamed each word separately and reached into her pocket.  

I was afraid she had another rock, or worse, and so I threw the one in my hand.  It hit her square in the shoulder, knocking her down, but she scrambled right up.  I scanned the ground for another rock, or anything I could use to protect myself and Honey.

From behind me, I heard a voice over a bullhorn.  “This is the police.  Put your hands up!  Now!”  

I was relieved but also afraid.  The police always were rough with us, even those of us like me who committed no crimes. I knew they’d take Annette away and they’d  get Honey to the hospital, but I’d probably end up in County.

I fell to my knees, raising up my hands.  Annette, seeing my vulnerable position, charged me, knocking me down.  She was trying to bite my hands, my face.  The police were there soon enough, hauling her off and cuffing her; they rolled me over and cuffed me, face down in the dirt.

“Please,” I said.  “Help my friend.  Under the blankets.”  

The two officers peeled back the blankets and Honey rolled over, facing me.   She was smiling weakly.  One officer used his radio to call for help, the other knelt and checked the pulse on her neck.  She was turning blue, like she’d stopped breathing.

I cried out, desperate to help her.  I struggled to my feet.  Everything went black.

I woke later in jail; I must’ve blacked out. I don’t remember what happened after Honey had smiled at me. They dried me out in the drunk tank and eventually I went back to the park.  I wish I could say I quit drinking that day, but every day I fight that demon.  I still look for Honey.  It’s been seven months now.  I hope one of these days she’ll ride up on that bike, a new flower crown on her head, smiling that toothless grin, bearing gifts.


20 July 2018

Josie and the Pussycats

Josie latched the kennel door. “See you later, Muffin.”
She stepped to the next one, reading the card on the door. “Hello, Schmoopie. Can I pet you?”
Schmoopie retreated as far back as she could, folding her ears down.
“How about if we just talk instead?”
Josie whispered words of encouragement through the grated door. A moment later, she lifted the latch. Perhaps Schmoopie would be more comfortable now. Gently, she eased open the door, keeping her voice low and steady. Schmoopie’s ears stayed alert, but folded Josie reached inside.
“Ok. If you don’t want any petting, this is not a problem.”
Josie thought about the six months since she began volunteering at Benny’s Animal Shelter. Her life was in disarray: in January, her dad had died. Her son had totaled his pickup due to black ice. He was fine but couldn’t afford to replace it, even with the insurance. And Louis had left her in March. His bass boat was still in the carport but everything else was gone.
But these moments with the cats at the shelter: when she didn’t need to interact with anyone or try to make small talk. The cats needed her. Not her specifically, but someone. And she needed them, both the ones that purred easily and were adopted before she returned, and the tough ones like Schmoopie, going through a rough patch. Mirroring her own self, she thought. They asked nothing from her.
Angie, her best friend since seventh grade, had warned her against volunteering. “It’ll be depressing – all those caged cats!” But it was not depressing. It was very centering, allowing Josie to focus only on that moment and that purpose. She looked forward to it, even, especially with cats like Shmoopie, who would be there a while, and who needed time to build up trust.

13 June 2018

Home Before Dark

Prompt:  Forbidden Places | Word Count: 1800 | Genre: Fantasy

The creature remained, curled into itself, wound tight as a spring, waiting. Sometimes it lost hope, having waited for a millennium already, here in the darkness.  But it waited.


“Now, Ari, don’t you go too far.  I expect you both home before dark.”

Stuffing her backpack with snacks Ari nodded.  “You bet, Pop.  By dark. Gotcha.”

“Ready?”  Phae asked, her own backpack bulging.

“Phae, did you hear me?  By dark,” their father repeated, wheeling his chair into the kitchen.  

“Yeah, bye!” and they were off, the door slamming behind them.  

Yesterday they’d happened to pass the entrance to the tunnel, the bars that usually blocked it had been pulled aside as if by a great force.   They’d explored briefly, knowing they’d need some supplies and food before proceding farther.  Maybe this was the tunnel of legend, the one where the Treasure of Blue Plaines was supposedly hidden.  All their lives they’d heard of it, the treasure buried some centuries before by early settlers:  gold, definitely; jewels, perhaps.  As they approached the entrance now, each girl donned her headlamp.

“You first,” Phae said, making a step for her younger sister with her entwined fingers.  Ari easily climbed inside.

Phae then grabbed the culvert edge and pulled herself up.  An earthen tunnel veered to the right and they took it. Switching on their headlamps after a dozen or so yards, Phae noted the hairy roots snaking along the walls of the tunnel.  Phae followed Ari, stepping carefully along the uneven floor.  Looking back, the entrance was no longer visible, but the light captured the voyage of the motes of dust in the air.  Phae resumed her path, Ari’s silhouetted figure some distance ahead. This was as far as they’d gotten yesterday.

“Another fork,” Ari called back.

“Wait, let’s get the string now.”  Phae rummaged in her backpack, finding what she needed:  a ball of string the size of a cantaloupe.  She tied the end to a long nail, which she easily pushed into the dirt where the wall of the tunnel gradually became the floor. She let out some slack and then dropped the ball into her pack, letting the line feed itself as they walked on, taking the right fork.

The walls grew damper.  In places, muddy puddles sucked at their shoes.  After a while, the tunnel sloped down steeply.  Makeshift steps were slick, worn by the rivulets that streamed down. Except for their footsteps, the girls were silent, grabbing roots when their footing slipped.  The air grew colder as the tunnel floor became more level. After some time, the tunnel forked again.  The girls went right, the drier path more appealing than the other.  They continued.  Soon the tunnel widened.  The girls could no longer touch both sides.  Continuing down the center, they soon found themselves within a small room, but ahead in the glow of their headlamps, an opening loomed darker compared to the glistening walls on either side of where they stood.

Ari grabbed Phae’s hand and they continued, side by side.  Through this opening they went, until the path came to a T, the tunnel continuing at a right angle on both sides.

“Left.”  Phae was adamant.

“Ok.  Turn, though. Let me check the string.”  Ari unzipped the pack, pulling out a small handful of string.  Then she opened her own and found a skein of considerable size.  Knotting the ends of the string and the full skein, she tied them together.  The girls set off on the left of the T.

The wall curved to the right and Phae and Ari stepped into an immense cavern. The feeble light from their headlamps couldn’t illuminate the far reaches, but the walls near the girls were no longer earthen.  Instead, slick grey granite shone.  The walls glistened with moisture and from all around came the trickle and gurgle of streams of flowing water.

Holding hands, Phae and Ari ventured into the chamber.  Ahead a shadowy shape loomed.

Squeezing her grip on Phae’s hand, Ari whispered, “That’s a rock, right?”

Phae didn’t answer, but raised their joined hands to point, nodding slightly.

Still unsure, though, the girls approached cautiously, curious but wary. They circled around the stone.  The air here was cold, puffs of vapor emerged with each exhale.  On the far side of the large stone Phae relaxed her grip.  Maybe this underground landmark would indicate a likely spot for the treasure.  

“Yep.  A boulder.” Ari’s voice echoed in the cavern.

Phae exhaled, the plume of her breath rising.  For a moment, all was silent.  All was still.

Then, a shudder radiated across the floor.  Phae and Ari clammered to hold one another as the large stone before them shook and rippled.

“Definitely not a stone!” Ari shrieked, pulled Phae with her away from the not-a-stone.

The stone continued to shimmer, growing smaller, then larger, then spinning into a whirr of light and motion.  Then, the motion changed, becoming a twisting back and forth, not unlike a wet dog shaking itself dry.  The creature flung sparkled in all directions as it shook.  Each of these sparkles behaved like an insect, a bee perhaps, bumbling in unpredictable flights that vanished after a few moments. The back and forth twirling slowed and fewer and fewer sparkles were emitted until a low groan sounded, coming from the slowed motion.  The groan increased in volume, and the girls covered their ears as a creature grew and unwound, reaching the ceiling with what appeared to be its head and outstretched arms.

Cowering, the girls had made themselves smaller as the creature grew and groaned.

“Your light,” Ari whispered, quickly pressing the off button on her own lamp with shaking hands.  Phae switched her light off, yet the creature glowed in the darkness, allowing the girls to see.

Abruptly, the creature shrank until it was only slightly larger than the girls. It spun itself and as it slowly stopped, it took on a more human appearance in its form, although it still seemed made of the same smooth granite as the walls of the cavern.  

“Welcome,” it called, facing the girls and extending its arms, which stretched and reached to with inches of Phae and Ari.

Terrified, the girls clung to one another.  

“Do not be afraid.”  The hand-like appendages waved and gestured, appearing to invite the girls nearer.

Hesitant, they looked at one another and then stepped forward together.

“Please.”  The creature gestured again.  “Yes. Further now.”

Phae and Ari inched closer.

The arms encircled them and then all three were spinning, twisting into a blur. The girls’ voices no longer worked as the force of the spin forced them closer and closer to the creature until with a pop! they merged.  The three became one being.

Phae felt their motion slowing, could feel her heart racing.  She thought, “Ari, where are you?  Are you ok?  I think I am ok.”

“I am here,” came Ari’s soundless answer.  “I am not hurt.”

And then the voice of the creature again, “Welcome.”

The motion had slowed considerably.  Each girl now emerged, separate from the creature and each other. The motion stopped.

Blinking, reaching toward one another for balance, Phae and Ari shook off their dizziness.  They were no longer in the cavern.  Instead, a stark desert, treeless and expansive stretched in all directions. The creature’s hands rested on their shoulders.  As the girls looked up at it, its granite-like skin changed, matching the scenery, including the cloudless sky.

Phae caught Ari’s eye.  “What is this place?” she sputtered, her voice returned.  “What… Who are you?”

“All in time.  All in time.” The creature steered them and they began to walk through the desert.  It was not hot, but dusty and dry.  There was light, but no sun.  In the distance a building shimmered, appearing and disappearing like a mirage.

“What’s that?” Ari pointed, stopping.  

“Our destination, where you will learn the reason you are here and what you must accomplish before you return to your world.”

“But we didn’t come here to do a job for you.”  Ari said.  “We came here to fi----”

“We came here for our own reasons,” Phae interrupted.

The creature said nothing and they continued toward the building, but Phae looked back, wondering how to return.

Some time later, the doors of the building opened widely as the group of three approached.  Inside, the tiles emitted a refreshing darkness that was cool after the brightness of the desert.  The creature led them to an area that was raised and lit from above by a circular skylight.  It stepped into the shaft of light, and again changed its skin to match the surrounding environment.  The girls watched, mouths agape in wonder.

Phae whispered to Ari, “We’ve got to get out of here.  This isn’t why we came.”

Ari nodded.  “But how?”

“I’m just going to tell it to take us back.”  Phae cleared her throat.  “Uh, excuse me, but we need to go.  We have to get home, you see.”

The creature grew taller and turned its gaze toward them.

“So, um, yeah.  We’re leaving.  Sorry we can’t help.  Uh, bye.”

Together the girls turned and walked toward the entrance, looking back repeatedly at the impassive creature, which became more difficult to see the farther they moved.  They broke into a run, hoping the doors would open automatically as they had when they’d entered.  

“Open…. sesame!” Ari commanded as they approached.

“Please, open,” Phae yelled.

But nothing happened.  The doors remained closed, and the girls forced themselves to stop, nearly crashing into the doors.  Phae pounded on the door while Ari tried prying the other apart.  Ari glanced back.

“It’s still there,” she whispered, grunting.  “It hasn’t moved.”

Phae stopped pounding and looked.  “It looks frozen.  I wonder if we…” She grabbed Ari’s hands and began to spin, as if they were dancing together.  “I wonder if we can spin ourselves back.”

“Let’s try,” Ari said, leaning back so they could spin faster.  

Around and around they went, turning faster until dizzy and tired from the effort, one of them tripped and fell, bringing the other down too.  Phae was laughing and trying to catch her breath. 

“It’s gone.  The creature’s gone.”  Ari was breathless.

“Maybe it’s just blending in.”  Phae got to her knees, swaying a bit.

The girls looked around, searching for the creature that had brought them here.

“I don’t know if I want to find it,” Phae said.  “Maybe it’s better this way.  I think it wants to keep us here.”

“Let’s make a run for it, Phae.”

Phae tried to stand and found that most of her dizziness had left.  Ari pulled herself up with Phae’s help.  

“Look!”  Phae pointed. 

The end of a string was visible, leading down a hall.

16 May 2018

The Fire Pit

Prompt:  Distinctive Markings | Word Count: 1199 | Genre:  Fiction

Janie adjusted the bangs on her wig, pulling small segments between her thumbs and forefingers.  Frowning at her image, she tousled the bangs.  She had not had bangs before the accident.  She turned a bit, to view herself from a slightly different angle, and adjusted the collar of her blouse.  Nothing helped.  The scars still showed.  Again, she began to work on the wig, attempting to better cover what she didn’t want seen.

“Ok, sis, ready?” Tim appeared reflected in the mirror.  He tossed and caught his keys, grinning.  “First day of high school.  My baby sis, so grown up.  If you hurry, we’ll stop at the Donut Shoppe.  My treat.”  

Again Janie frowned.  Her eyes darted to the basket of makeup on the vanity.  Even when all her friends in junior high had experimented with so much makeup, Janie had only ever used mascara.  She didn’t like how makeup felt.  And yet now, it seemed as necessary as armor for battle.

“Nope, no time.  Gotta go.” Tim sighed.  “No amount of makeup will help.  We gotta be realistic.”

“Jerk,” she whispered, pummeling him gently with her fists.  She was smiling a little bit.  The fact that he was teasing her was a reminder of how far she’d come; that he didn’t feel like he needed to be so gentle anymore.

Tim grabbed her hands.  “We’ve been through this.  Everyone knows about the accident.  You don’t need to hide it.”

Janie turned back toward the mirror.  She knew her brother was right.  Centerville Heights was a small town.  Everyone knew about everything, including her accident at the fire pit. Shoot, lots of kids from school had witnessed it.  She and Mary Catherine weren’t even supposed to be at the fire pit.  It was really only for high school kids, but they’d begged Tim until he relented.  She’d told Dad that she was spending the night at Mary Catherine’s; Mary Catherine had told her parents she was staying at Janie’s.  But she could recall nothing of the incident itself.  She remembered it had been a really cold February evening. That one basketball player had been there, the really handsome one.  She remembered seeing him across the fire pit.  She remembered saying to Mary Catherine that she wouldn’t have minded being one with the fire, a bit of hyperbole, a vocabulary word they’d learned that week in English. Janie’s next memory was waking up in Holy Family. Somehow, by then, it was the end of April.

Her lower face was unaffected.  It was the hair, forehead, and her left ear that had been damaged the most, but the burns extended down along her neck to her left shoulder and upper arm.  And then there were the scars from where the doctors had grafted her own skin.  

What she missed most was her hair.  She’d had beautiful wavy hair before, her father calling her his auburn beauty, claiming Janie’s hair even more lovely than her late mother’s.  She knew no one else who had hair that color. All that was left was a tiny patch at her nape, which had been buzz cut short.  The wig she hated, but it was necessary.  She hadn’t worn it much, and not once outside of the house yet.  Her dad had cried and left the hospital room when the doctor said that Janie’s hair growing back was impossible.  And now Dad worked so much, trying to pay the bills. She couldn’t help but wonder if he couldn’t face seeing her, if that was why he was working so many shifts.

Janie felt her eyes welling with tears.  

“Nope, nope. No.”  Tim’s voice was firm.  “Girls never cry in Tim’s truck.  You’re gonna have to find another hitch if that dam spills over.”  He was holding her gently in his arms now, rocking her a bit. Somehow he knew where the nerves were tender, where it was distressing to have pressure, and he avoided those areas. Even the nurses in the hospital sometimes bumped against areas that were too tender for touch.  

“I don’t think I’m ready.”  Janie whispered.

Tim exhaled.  “But if you go today, you’ll get it over with.  What you’re dreading.”  

“I can’t believe Dad isn’t here.”

“You know he needed to take that shift.  You know he’s thinking of you.”  A pause.  “Did you eat?”

Janie shook her head.

“Ok, then, we’d better go.  I need donuts.”

She felt a little better than she expected once she got in the truck, but she insisted the windows all be rolled up.  She didn’t want to risk even one hair moving out of place.  Once they turned from the neighborhood onto the main street, though, Janie was hit by a barrage of memories.  She hadn’t left the house over summer except for doctor’s appointments and therapy.  But now, heading the away from the hospital, she saw places she used to go before, she recalled memories of before, and thought of people she hadn’t seen since before. A flood from before washed over her. She’d spent so much time just concentrating on each present moment, trying to get through the pain and trying to manage the difficulties of her involuntary transformation.  She’d had no time, had no energy to focus much on the past, much less on the future.

Mary Catherine had been away at summer camp, her first year working as a counselor. Janie had a vague recollection of Mary Catherine visiting at the hospital.  But they hadn’t really seen each other since the accident.  Realizing this made her realize how absent Mary Catherine had been.  They’d been friends forever, all through junior high without much drama.  Did they have an unbreakable bond or not?

Tim pulled into the Donut Shoppe.  “You coming in?”

She shook her head, and as his door closed, she checked her wig in the rearview. She could feel herself turning into one of those women who checks her compact multiple times an hour and she did not want to be like that.  But she couldn’t bear not checking, not knowing how badly her scars were showing, what people would see when they looked at her.  

She couldn’t help it, though, and checked the mirror again, compulsively adjusting the wig, pulling and pushing strands of hair this way and that.  As she sat back, she noticed high school students were surrounding the truck.  Some she recognized from her grade and others were friends of her brother.  At the front of the truck, each of them holding a box of donuts, stood Tim and Mary Catherine.  Everyone was smiling and waving to her.

She rolled the window down but couldn’t speak.

“We’re here to welcome you back,” a familiar voice said.  

And Mary Catherine was there, at the door, opening it.  “Tim and I didn’t want you to walk in to school without us.”

Janie stepped from the car and found herself enveloped in a warm gathering of friends, each of them calling out to her.

“We missed you, Janie.”

“So good to see you.”

Tears fell as Tim and Mary Catherine stood on either side of her.

“Now you know why I told you not to wear make-up,” he whispered.