Archive for April, 2010

Phobias

April 28, 2010

You haven’t been to your Phobia support group in a while. But that’s somewhat understandable for an agoraphobic.

But tonight you’ve made it. And you feel right at home in the not-completely-stable folding chair. The buzzing fluorescent lights in the church basement have once again given your skin a jaundiced yellow tone. Plus, you had almost come to miss the tepid, brown water that passes for coffee… almost.

There are smiles and handshakes from the familiar faces (well, those not afraid of smiles or handshakes). Everyone is glad to have you back, everyone except for the new guy John, who happens to be a neophobe.

You’ve taken a seat next to two regulars, Stan and Denise. Stan is overweight and his clothes are a size (or two) too small. Stan had been a firefighter, but retired due to the onset of his pyrophobia. Stan smells, oddly enough, like wood smoke. Stan claims to be pyrokinetic, but you’ve never seen him create fire with his mind. You have asked him, somewhat dubiously, to prove it, but he will only do it outside. And so that’s that.

Denise is a middle-aged woman with closely cut hair and a poor complexion. Denise began attending the support group on the same night as you, and you have a soft spot in your anxious heart for her. Denise is hydrophobic (not rabid, as the term has often come to imply, but simply afraid of water). Not surprisingly, Denise is also an ablutophobe. She claims to have not bathed in over five years. Denise’s aroma is very strong. You don’t, however, find it entirely unpleasant, and her rich, earthy smell reminds you of a time when you were not afraid to be outside. You used to run barefoot through your backyard. You used to love watching the clouds change as they soared through the blue sky. But that was before your mother left. Before the incident with your father…

Your phobia group is smaller than you remember it. There are only twelve attendees tonight, but you could swear that there were at least twenty at your last meeting. Apart from John, you recognize everyone. Their names and fears are like catalogue entries next to their faces:

  • Don is afraid of dancing.
  • Rabbit fears growing old.
  • Susan, Estelle, and Parker are all afraid of touching others, but Estelle is also afraid of groups and public speaking. And Parker dreads women.
  • Hector, the guy with the bags under his eyes, is afraid of sleeping.
  • Chuck sits at the top of the stairs because he’s afraid of basements.
  • And then there is Phoebe. Phoebe’s the group leader, which you find quite poetic. Phoebe, who leads a Phobia support group, is afraid of having a phobia. As you’ve said to Stan before, Phoebe the phobophobe is proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

Phoebe stands and says hello to everyone. She also welcomes you back, and says that she was afraid you had left the group permanently. Her eyes grow watery as she utters the word “afraid,” and she apologizes for letting fear get the better of her. You raise a hand in dismissed acceptance and smile along with everyone else as they return Phoebe’s greeting.

The meeting goes much as you remembered and expected it would. Phoebe nudges and prompts the group to share their successes and failures, but no one really has much to say. You comment on the courage it took to leave the house, how you managed the trip by taking it step after labored step. Chuck commends your bravery and you yell your gratitude.

The group falls silent once again.

And then Stan rises from his chair with a heavy breath. “I started another fire today,” he says. Everyone holds his or her breath. You try to hide your skepticism.

Phoebe nods in encouragement, “And then what happened Stan?”

“It was scary. Horrible,” Stan’s hands are shaking. His face is turning red. “I was so focused on it, you know?”

“Focused on what?” Chuck’s voice bounces along the stairwell and into our ears.

“I’d done so well, not thinking about fire or how that fire was all my fault. And those kids, well I gotta carry that burden too. The guys at my engine house laughed, said ‘Stanley, you’re crazy. You’re a firefighter, you ain’t no firestarter!’ But that was just it! You see? I’d been fighting those fires because I was trying to squash my own fears and demons. But fire sinks into your skin. Your pores get full of the smoke, and it don’t wash out. It don’t wash out!” The shakes have spread from his hands and up his arms. His torso trembles and shivers.

“Stan,” you say, “It’s ok. Just breathe.” You touch his forearm but recoil at the heat of his skin.

“And that fire gets into you. And it grows in you. And it grows in you. And then it wants out. It’s alive! Don’t you see? It’s alive! And I can’t stop it anymore, can’t keep it in. It was me that started my building on fire.”

“S-Stan, Stan, you didn’t start no fires. Nothing’s your fault.” Rabbit’s voice is weak and he’s edged his seat away from Stan.

Stan’s never been on edge like this before, you can’t remember his skin ever looking so flushed or feeling so hot. You’ve thought to grab him a drink, and you’re standing next to the water pitchers when it happens.

Stan’s entire body quakes. He yells, “It’s my fault! Can’t you see that I can’t stop it anymore! It grows in you! It grows in you!” Tongues of yellow fire lick from his cuffs and collar. His shirt bursts into flames, and the fire engulfs his head and upper body. His shouts do not stop, but grow louder. Stan is flailing his arms. He clings to Denise for support and the fire spreads. Her rayon blouse ignites and she begins to scream.

Everyone else stands back in fear. They watch helplessly as Denise and Stan burn before them. Denise pleads for help. She has fallen to her knees. Smoke curls into the air and the basement fills with the smell of hot dogs and the stink of burning hair.

You’re holding two pitchers of water, and they slosh gently in your trembling hands. Stan was telling the truth and now your friends are burning to death. But you’re torn between putting out Stan’s fire and not getting Denise wet.

And then you realize that you’re also afraid of making decisions.

Multiple POV pt.2

April 21, 2010

Creak. Groan. Shlunk. Creak. Groan. Shlunk. The house’s noises never stopped. Footfalls, heavy and plodding, light and fast, would meander to the edge of the stairs and stop. Pipes would bellow and discharge belches of air like a skin-diver bursting through the water’s surface. Devilish chuckling lurked and murmured on the other sides of doors. His familiar, the oil-black raven Werner, was perched on the dying apple tree outside and clacked and squawked in the language of the damned. Something, and it was not the furnace, shifted and rumbled in the cellar. With every window closed, a wind would slip through the house and cause his beard to dance. Spider webs, invisible gossamers of sticky damp, clung to his face at every turn. A heavy blanket of insect corpses and dust covered the woodwork and floor, revealing his pathways through the house and the accompanying shuffles and footprints from visitors foreign and unseen.

Bringing them through was easy.

The summoning was child’s play: A quick sketch of the star within a circle on the ground, a splash of rodents’ blood, and incantations. Some larger summons required the drawing of runes and more elaborate chants, but even then Osmond had the Book. With the Book he held all of the power. The Book gave him confidence. He was the master, the creator, and the dominator. Gone was the man who had spent half of his life hiding from his peers. Gone was the scrawny asthmatic who went unnoticed day after thankless day. Dressed head to toe in black, his acne-scarred face covered by a menacing beard; he was now a Summoner, a conjuror of dark and arcane arts.

With his outstretched hand curled into a claw, he shouted them into the world. And they came! He could direct them, force their actions and impel their movements. He was their god, they had no choice but to obey. And when they tried to disobey, which they always did, he would crush them. He snuffed them out with a simple word and a flick of his fingers. They would shriek and wither and disappear before his eyes, either dying or cast back to whatever realm they had been drawn from.

Bringing them through was easy.

At first they were small, the size of a lobster or a cat. They were covered in scales or tentacles or chitinous carapaces. They would squelch, shudder, and hiss as they stared at Osmond with stalked eyes or a single eye or, once, no eyes at all. These little ones disgusted him, and he would force them to contort their bodies into configurations of pain.

Bringing them through was easy.

As Osmond confidence grew, so did their size. They were the size of dogs, then children, and then horses. They were larger, their wings and talons more deadly, and their eyes and mouths filled with more venom and hate. In their otherworldly shrieks, it was clear that they did not relish their role as Osmond’s marionette. They pulled at their invisible tethers, straining Osmond to the limit of his endurance. He perspired and ground his teeth, and his limbs shook as he struggled against their resistance. He was ever conscious of his feet, for to step outside of the circle would release the being from its already tenuous bonds. Feeling his strength and energy sapped from his body, Osmond would scream the words to dispel them. They did not always go away. His body glowed and crackled with potential energy and he would bellow again. They would howl and grown in response, but then Osmond’s dispel would take effect and they would flicker and fade. And then they were gone in a bamf of sulfurous smoke.

Bringing them through was easy.

Osmond didn’t allow himself to admit that perhaps, just maybe, these things he summoned were beyond even his control. It was arrogance; a lust for power had become an addiction. Somewhere in his mind Osmond was scared of what he was doing, but he could not stop. He would not stop.

As the setting sun bled its red light through the house’s windows, he stood in the center of what was once the dining room. He had drawn the protective circle around him and had scratched numerous runes and charms within and without circle’s boundary. He held the Book open with his left hand and cast out his right. In a low voice he chanted the alien words over and over again. His voice rose in octaves and volume with each verse. The room’s air grew thick, humid with the labor of breaching the plane between worlds. Osmond’s face was slick with sweat. His entire body trembled as he intoned the summoning spell. There was a rumble and the floorboards before him seemed to bend and warp, defying physics and their own geometry. A dull light pulsed from below the floorboards. Osmond raised both hands above his head in a final shriek as the thing lunged into existence.

The air was still and silent. Osmond heaved and shook. The thing’s presence filled the room. Gigantic. A writhing mass of clawed arms bunched above a quartet of tensed limbs, a mouth overfull of slobbering teeth dwarfed its multitude of eyes. Great breaths, like sobs, wracked its entire body. The thing surveyed the room and focused its attention on Osmond. It leaned toward him, easily four times as large, and roared. The roar was deafening and Osmond cowered within his circle.

The thing continued to roar and it advanced on Osmond. With the thing looming over him, Osmond raised the book in defense and took a step backwards. He looked down and let out a cry of despair. His foot was outside of the circle. The thing began to chuckle. Osmond lifted his hand and screamed “No! No!”

Bringing them through was easy.

Multiple POVs (this could use some polish)

April 15, 2010

The Braddock House, a large Victorian, was the oldest house on the block. Built by Argus Braddock in the middle of the 19th century, it was a marvel of urban architecture. Braddock had built it himself, and finances it with money he’d made in the sale of human beings. Braddock had married seven times, but no wife had given him the heir he sought. When Braddock died at the age of 104, the bank purchased it. They sold the house to the school superintendent who turned it into a boarding house for his unmarried teachers. It remained a boarding house until the 1970s when a modernized apartment building was built.

The house had been vacant since then and no one knew why the city had not ordered the house condemned. Its original color, a dark burgundy, was now a coral pink, bleached by the sun and years of neglect. The house sagged into itself; the conical towers on each side collapsed slightly towards the middle and gave the impression of horns. The boards of the siding were peeled and warped. Most of the windows were cracked or missing completely. The lawn was overgrown with weeds and thorns, and a lone apple tree was withered and dying in the front yard.

It was the stuff of dares and legends for the local children. Vagrants moved in and out, but never stayed for long. It was said that the ghost of Argus Braddock walked the halls of the house and would mercilessly torment unwelcome guests.

But then a man bought the house. He paid cash. He moved in the day of the sale and carried only a small suitcase with him. The man was not a local; he spoke few words to the seller of the house and kept to himself. Neighbors rarely saw him outside, except for the early mornings when he would return from an unknown location, but the windows in the house were somehow repaired or boarded over within a week of his moving in.

The man was a mystery and a fitting resident for the Braddock House. He was the focus of speculation, the rumors ranged from his participation in the Nazi party to his fascination with the occult and dark arts.

####

I guess it was the middle of June when I realized that my neighbor was a Summoner. I do realize how strange that sounds. Believe me, it sounds strange to even say it. Put it this way, I read my fair share of fantasy novels, but the last time I actually heard the word spoken aloud was in junior high. And that was from some acne-plagued kids who were crouched obsessively in a circle, rolling twenty sided dice and exchanging hit points. This neighbor of mine was the real deal.

I saw him every morning walking up the path into his house. I never learned where it was that he was walking from, but every morning, like clockwork, he slouched his way through the dense weeds of his overgrown lawn. He was dressed in all black: black slacks and coat, black shoes, black hat, and black glasses. He had a long, gnarled beard that masked the lower part of his face, and a long nose that jutted out from under his glasses like a dorsal fin in the middle of his face. But the weirdest thing about this guy was the large raven that was always flying several feet above and behind the man. And I mean always. When the man went into his house, the bird would land on the dying apple tree. It would stay there, on that tree, preening and cawing for the rest of the day. All of these things might be written off as simple eccentricity, sure. But there was also the yelling and the incanting.

I really don’t know how long this had been going on, but the first time I heard it was in June. It was a gorgeous night and I had turned off the air-conditioning in favor of the breeze. At first I just thought he was listening to some particularly violent metal-core that he had imported from Finland, until I realized that there was no music. It was my neighbor who was yelling. It was loud and completely indecipherable, but there was a rhythm to it. It started just after the sun had set. It built and built, getting faster and louder, until finally there was a shriek. And then there was silence.

But not a good silence.

An eerie silence that didn’t seem natural.

The sound that followed the silence was even more unnatural. All at once it was a guttural roar, a cacophony of pain and anger, the simultaneous cry of eagles and wolves and lions. And behind it all was a raspy chuckle.

I could not ignore it any longer. I rolled from my bed and crept to the window. It was dark inside my neighbor’s house, save for a murky, red glow that guttered and seemed to ooze through the windows. In the red, I could make out my neighbor’s shape. But there was something in there with him. A large mass, vaguely humanoid, quivered and pulsed with the flickering red glow. Familiar with Lovecraft, I pulled myself from the window, worried that my mind would go mad from staring at the unearthly being. I also did not want to be seen.

My neighbor began to yell and shout once more. His voice was urgent, frightened. The unnatural sound came again. I knew at once that my neighbor had somehow managed to usher this monstrosity into the world, but he was now struggling to control it. The unworldly thing bellowed and howled.

My neighbor shrieked and cried out.

I heard him yell “No! No!’ and then went silent.

The bellows ceased.

I chanced another look out of my window. The red glow was gone. My neighbor’s house was black again. I couldn’t make out any movement from inside. I closed the window and locked it. I returned to bed and willed myself to sleep.

I never saw my neighbor, the novice Summoner, again.

A Recollection of Swimming Pools

April 13, 2010

(this is a more finalised version of an earlier post)

It’s hard to think about now. Well, it’s more that it’s hard to remember. The last time that I made a summer visit to my grandparents (my mom’s parents) must have been in 1996. I was thirteen. Now, looking back fourteen years later, things are sort of hazy- a haze that is either the fault of time or the heat of an Iowa summer.

There are several things that stand out, however. I do remember Odebolt, Iowa. Odebolt was an agricultural town, surrounded by cornfields and hog farms. I say was, because even at thirteen I could feel that it was a town on its deathbed. There was little to do in the town where my mom had grown up. There was no movie theater, no great playgrounds, not even a shopping mall. There was a dime store and a supermarket. There was the high school where my mom had been educated. There was a big bank that mom claimed was in some movie.

And then there was the swimming pool. A literal oasis from the dry heat of Western Iowa, its blue water and two diving boards offered hours and hours of entertainment. My younger sister and brother (three years and seven years my junior, respectively) and I whiled away most of our summer visits at the pool. It was cold and wet and fun.

You have to understand that we loved visiting our grandparents. Their house always smelled of baked goods and there was no shortage of cookies or hugs. They had books and board games. My Grandma Max would gladly play the Chipmunks’ Christmas Album in the right season. But theirs was not a house for children. Someone was always napping (my Grandpa Herb couldn’t even be relied upon to complete a game of Scrabble without dozing off) and we were told to either play outside or in the basement.

Their basement was interesting with its swinging doors (more at home at a Western saloon than in a green carpeted Iowan basement) and shelves full of forbidden objects, but there were no actual toys. There was a wicker basket full of wooden spools. There were five or six foam blocks the size of shoeboxes. And there was a pair of boxing gloves. But the three of us could only come up with so many permutations of fun before we grew bored.

There were two giant oak trees in the front yard, but the limbs began too high for us to even attempt climbing. In the cool evenings we could run around and catch lightning bugs. Some bugs were stuffed in jars, creating temporary lanterns, while other bugs were popped open and we smeared their phosphorescent glow onto our fingertips and foreheads. But it was hot during the day. Too hot to do much more than sit under the shade of the oak trees. So we went to the pool.

The pool must have been there since forever, because our mom had learned to swim in the pool and worked there as a lifeguard. It was a big, blue rectangle, with a shallow three feet on one end that sloped to a depth of twenty feet at the other.

The bottom of the pool was not smooth. It was rough like a textured ceiling, and it inevitably tore through the soggy, raisined flesh of our feet as we bounced around in our play. The lacerations weren’t deep enough to draw blood, but our feet always looked chewed on after a day of swimming. The small, red tears would heal overnight, and our feet would be tenderized once again the following day.

There was also too much chlorine in the pool. The tangy, chemical aroma was noticeable from the parking lot. Though the levels were no doubt high enough to bleach hair and clothing after prolonged exposure (as evidenced by photos of my mom in her youth), we were in the pool just long enough that our eyes became a burning, bloodshot red, which caused us to squint even tighter in the summer sun. The chlorine also stung at our abraded feet. But the water was cold, and it was a delightful break from the heat of the day, and, as I’ve mentioned, there were no better options.

Despite my hazy memory, I do remember one day at the pool very clearly. It was during my last summer at the Odebolt pool, and it was the only day that I neglected to slather myself with sun block. As a child, you don’t think about how much sun hits your body while swimming. Sure, there are the children who realize that lying prone on a towel will allow their skin to roast and crisp into an idyllic golden brown, but few are aware that the sun is ever present within the water too.

Standing chest deep in the water, I had effectively placed myself into a convection oven. The sun’s rays reflected off of the bottom of the pool and danced on the mirror surface of the pool’s water. The sun assailed my fair, Dutch-Irish-Norwegian skin from all sides. Of course, as I threw a ball back and forth with whomever (we make friends much quicker, and with much less thought, as a child) my skin’s tone turned from cream to carnation to strawberry to maraschino to burnt. I’ll never understand how some children fail to get sunburn. Their skin darkens and darkens, but it never reddens. It has never been this way for me. I burn and then burn again. My tan is rosy sepia, usually looking more burnt than anything else.

I’m not sure when I became aware of the sunburn, but it made its presence most felt as I toweled off before heading home. The soft fluff of the towel was a rasp against my shoulders and neck. I gingerly tugged on a shirt and leaned forward, off of the seat, in the car ride home.

Of course, the sunburn was bad enough. But it wasn’t until later in the evening that the blisters erupted from my burned skin. They were horribly painful and stretched my damaged skin to its limits. They were an ugly yellow color, like snot, and any contact with them at all caused the blister to weep a runny fluid. These were the biggest blisters that I’d ever seen. They were the diameter of a silver dollar and rose a half inch off of my shoulders. My mom applied ointment to them and tried to pad them with gauze, but it was no use. My siblings went back to the pool everyday, but I was relegated to sitting on the sofa (my grandparents called it a davenport) without a shirt. I couldn’t lift my arms and I slept sitting up.

Eventually, the blisters receded and the loose, dead skin flapped and tore away. But by then we had left Odebolt for Minnesota. And the next time we would visit Odebolt would be under different circumstances. My grandparents got sick and each successive visit was spent at nursing homes and hospitals rather than at the local pool.

I guess it says something that my mind has chosen to remember my pain at the pool rather than my grandparents’ pain as their health declined. Or that I remember the boring toys at their house much clearer than any time spent at the nursing home. I’m glad that I can’t focus on the bad stuff, and that, at least to me, Odebolt will be equated with wooden spools and a swimming pool.

A Hard Boiled Reworking

April 12, 2010

She wasn’t a local.

But she was a looker.

Her look was plucked from a movie, the kind that you would expect on the cover of a magazine: big lips, eyes hidden behind voluminous bangs, a bust that refused to hide behind her blouse. She carried her petite frame in a subservient manner, but held her chin defiantly high. Her outfit of dark wools was out of place in the middle of July and beads of perspiration were detectable on her forehead. As she bit her lower lip timidly, her teeth seemed unusually white against her lipstick.

Andrew Litmus stood as she entered his office. He was underdressed compared to the woman. His coat hung from the back of his chair and his shirt’s top buttons were undone. His tie was loosened and his sleeves rolled to the elbows. He looked the woman up and down and then returned to his seat behind the desk. “I’m closed,” he said.

The woman’s voice was quiet, but assertive, “I saw the light on, and the door was unlocked, so I just thought that—”

“I’m closed.”

“But maybe if you heard me out, heard my story, maybe you’d be inclined to help.”

“Listen ma’am, I gotta stick to my principles. Now, regardless of how much peril you might be in, if I help you after I’m closed… then I gotta help every Joe and Jane off of the street. You see where I’m coming from, right? Try back tomorrow morning, at eight. I’ll help you then.”

“But I won’t make it through the night. They’re after me, Mr. Litmus. And I’m surprised that I’ve made it this long. I just thought that if I could make it here, to Bay City, that maybe the famous Andrew Litmus could help me. Could protect me,” Her eyes glowed despite the dim light.

Litmus gave no indication that the appeal to his ego had worked other than a motion towards the wooden chair that sat before his desk. The woman nodded and moved quickly to the chair. She sat on the edge of the seat, her whole body tensed and ready to spring up again.

“Thank you,” her voice was louder now.

Litmus kicked back in his chair and threw his feet up on the desk. He pulled a cigarette from a pack of Lucky Strikes on his desk. He paused before lighting: “You smoke?”

“Thanks,” she smiled. Litmus lit the cigarette and handed it across the desk to the woman. Then he lit one for himself. Their smoke drifted together to hang above the room in a bluish haze.

It had started raining since the woman had entered. The air in Litmus’s office, previously pregnant with humidity, cooled slightly as a breeze curled under the door. The raindrops tapped a steady rhythm against the windows of the office. Litmus took the cigarette from his mouth and set it, half-smoked, on the lip of an ashtray filled with grey ashes and curled ends of cigarettes. He coughed into his hand.

The woman smoked her cigarette in short, nervous puffs. She glanced around the room and back towards Litmus. Her legs bounced slightly and her hands tightened around the purse that sat in her lap.

Litmus broke the silence, his tone flat, “Look, I’m not making any promises. And I don’t want you to think that I’m taking the case. But why don’t you go ahead and tell me your tale. No guarantees, but maybe I can do something. And by something, I’m thinking like give you some advice, or point you in the direction of someone who would really help. Of course, there will be a consulting fee for the listen.”

The woman was startled and she sputtered through the smoke in her mouth and lungs, “Well I—I—it’s that this means so much— Oh thank you. I’m not sure what’s important—what to tell and what—” She dropped her eyes to the floor, embarrassed.

Litmus chuckled under his breath. He nodded to her noncommittally, and held up his right hand, “I find that it usually helps to start from the beginning. That way we don’t lose anything that might be significant.”

She sat up straight in her chair. She swept the hair from her face and took a long, calm drag on her cigarette. She leaned forward again, through the haze of her exhale, and placed her hands on her knees. “I work nights over in Mainville.”

“That’s a start,” he said.

“At a joint called Vic’s Roadhouse? Nothing sleazy or illegal, just bartending and waiting. I dance occasionally too, for the tips, but that’s not the bulk of my job.”

“I’m not the Morality Patrol, don’t worry about justifying anything.”

“Oh. Of course.”

“So, Vic’s Roadhouse.”

“Anyway, about two weeks ago some gentlemen came into Vic’s. I use gentlemen in the loosest of terms, because the only things gentle about them were their silk ties. There were five men, each fitting the most generic of descriptions: Big, broad, balding, ugly. And they were rude, the gentlemen, and they drank far too much. They would arrive each night around eleven and depart with the rising sun, leaving the Roadhouse in shambles. Never paid their tab either, which is where the trouble started.”

Litmus lifted his smoldering cigarette to his mouth. He smiled at the woman across the desk from him, “Trouble. Thank God for that. Without it, I’d be out of work.”