Room of Doom

September 21, 2010

The beginning of April was spent in the Eastern portion of Ukraine. Since my school had suffered a quarantine (remember that? It seems like so long ago,) the administration decided to merge our Easter break and our spring break. This placed my vacation at an awkward Wednesday (of one week) to Friday (of the next.) I caught the nearest thing that the railway of Ukraine has to a Red Eye and shipped out.

The Red Eye train is actually a combination of two trains. It departs Lviv at 7:30PM and arrives in Kyiv at 5:30AM. There is then a hour wait before I jump onto an “express” train from Kyiv to Kharkiv. The “express” train arrives at noon. From Kharkiv I took a bus to Slavyansk, the large city near Raihorodok (which is where my friend Travis lives, and where I would spend my break.)

Now, let’s get something clear:
I like to say that I live in a village. And at 7000 people (small for Ukraine) I am usually justified.
But Travis lives in a VILLAGE. I think there are maybe 5000 people there on a good day. He has no gas. He draws his water from a well. He has an outhouse.
People like to give Travis a hard time because he smells like campfire. Well, that’s probably because he heats his house with a coal/wood burning contraption called a pechka. Yep, he has to shovel the coal (but not before he sifts out the pig iron) and chop his own firewood. In fact, after my twelve days there, I smelled like campfire too. I also just smelled bad.

Since Travis has no running water, the act of bathing is a time-consuming activity. We drew the water from his well (and if my computer weren’t dead, I could post pictures of this… damn) and then put the water on his electric hot plate. Once the water was heated, we poured it into a big metal tub. And once there was enough water, we, one by one, sloshed around and tried to come clean. What really happens is that you get really soapy and then fail to rinse off completely. It’s not clean.

We “celebrated” Easter in Travis’s village, which meant that his students gave us several loaves of Pasky (sweet Easter bread) which we ate. We also had some hard boiled eggs. That was the extent of our Easter celebration.

Our time passed in the village. Travis and I ran a few times. We had dinner with his host family. We had another dinner with his host family’s grandparents. I went to Travis’s school. It’s a lot like mine. He’s got some students who care and a lot of students who don’t.

On the day before Travis and I were going to leave the village and go to Kyiv, we were in Slavyansk. While using the internet there, we met one of the students who had been at Travis’s camp last summer. She was excited to see us and wanted us to come with her and meet her friends. Travis and I have decided that we’ll never turn down a free lunch (read into that as meaning we don’t say no to a possible adventure) and so we said yes. We finished up our internet business and then followed Alyona, her name.

Alyona led us down a street away from the internet cafe. We thought we would be meeting with her friends outside of the cafe, perhaps in the square. This was apparently not the case. Nervously, I asked where it was that we were going. Alyona responded that we would see.
Travis and I exchanged looks.
She veered off of the main street and walked us down an alley.
Travis and I exchanged looks.
“I think we might die,” Travis said.
I nodded. We continued down the alleyway and emerged into the courtyard of an apartment block. There were several “business” fronts around the courtyard. They shared entrances with the apartments themselves.
“Where are we going?” Travis asked.
“We’re going to my friend’s apartment. Sergey wants to meet you,” she said.
Travis and I exchanged looks.
We entered an apartment and ascended the stairs. “Who is Sergey?” Travis pressed.
“My friend who wants to meet you,” she said.
Travis and I exchanged gulps.

///Allow me to interject. This is the kind of crap that happens in horror stories, or in the Twilight Zone. Real people don’t actually get led into crazy apartments where they are then ritually slaughtered by men named Sergey. Not real people.///

We entered an apartment, but did not enter an apartment. The apartment was just a long hallway with doors on both sides. It seemed to take up the entire floor of the building. On the door opposite from the entrance was a sign. The sign had a Triangle on it and the name “Meridian International Group” From down the hall came a woman. She smiled at the three of us and said (in Russian)”Travis, Casey, nice to see you. Please come this way.”
Travis and I exchanged gulps.
“Um, how does she know our names?” I asked.
“Where the hell are we?” Travis asked.
“What’s going to happen here?” I asked.

Travis turned to Alyona and asked (in Russian) “What do you want with us?” (exact translation)
Alyona just smiled.
So, we were obviously confused. We were obviously worried. And we were obviously aware that there was not going to be a free lunch.
We were led into a room that was maybe ten feet by eight feet. There were four desks around the walls and there was a person at a computer at three of the four desks.

Travis leaned over to me and said, “This is the kind of room in which you usually end up selling your soul to the devil.”
I nodded.

We were told to sit at the open desk. We did. There were posters all over the walls. Some of them were the triangle logo. Others were photos of people with labels like “Crystal Member” and “Gold Member.”

Alyona and the woman sat across the desk from us. Travis and I were sitting in the corner with our backs to the wall. We were trapped, at the mercy of whatever foul intentions the people in the room might have had. The woman smiled at me and said (in Russian), “So, Casey, you are from Lviv, no? How do you like the East?”

I looked at Travis, a look that meant why does she know I’m from Lviv?
“The East is nice. I have been here before. My Russian is not so good, but it is nice,” I returned the smile, weakly.
(in Russian)”Alyona, who is this woman?” Travis asked.
“She is my mother,” Alyona responded.
(in Russian)”And what are we doing here?” Travis asked.
“Our friend, Sergey, would like to meet with you.”

Travis and I turned to look at Sergey. He was a tall, skinny man with a greasy black ponytail. His adam’s apple extended as far as his nose. And at the end of his long fingers were long fingernails (I’m not making that up, I swear.) Sergey was currently in the middle of a conversation with two young men. He was speaking to them about something (very quickly, and my Russian is not very good) and they were listening silently.
“How do you like our business?” Alyona’s mother asked.
“Business?” Travis replied.
She indicated the photos on the walls. “Many of them are from Russia. It is a good business. Sergey would like to talk with you.”
Travis looked at me, “Do you realize what this place is?”
I nodded, “Pyramid scheme.”

////Pyramid schemes are blowing up all over Ukraine. The idea of a big payoff for little work is attractive to Ukrainians. Whether it is perfume, makeup, or vitamins, in almost every village/town/city there are people peddling their wares. My post office is always full of boxes from Avon and Oriflame. I confiscated over a dozen Avon catalouges from my students last semester. The schemes are everywhere, and apparently they had set their sights on us////

It then became clear that Sergey and all of the other people in the room were selling something or convincing others to sell something. “Travis, we should get out of here,” I said.
He nodded and said (in Russian) “We have to go. We’re meeting a friend soon and do not want to be late.”
Alyona’s mother nodded and said, “Just one moment. Sergey really wants to meet with you.”
“Who is Sergey?” Travis asked.
“Sergey is a professor of Ukrainian Sciences,” she responed, as though that explained everything. It didn’t. I still don’t know what a Professor of Ukrainian Sciences would do.
Alyona’s mother then stood up at moved over to Sergey. She said something to him, I assume about hurrying up his salespitch.

At that point, Travis and I exchanged looks and stood up. (in Russian) “We really have to go. Maybe another time?” Travis said as we pressed our way to the door.
Sergey stood up and moved into our path. He said, in English, “I would really like to meet with you. It would be interesting for me. When is the next time that you will be in Slavyansk?”
Travis shrugged, “Maybe in a few weeks?”

“Please, come back here so that we might meet. In a few weeks,” Sergey offered his hand. It was moist and limp, but we each shook his hand. We smiled at Alyona and her mother, said thank you and then backed out of the room. Once we were out of the apartment and into the stairwell, we broke into a run. We took the stairs four steps at a time. We did not stop running until we reached the square.

We survived with our lives.
The rest of April passed without incident.

(This is a blog post from one of my former lives. I’d almost forgotten about this wild, skin-of-our-teeth adventure. Are you new to my catalogue and want to see more of this previous life? [or perhaps you just want to revisit the path that I once walked] Walk This Way)

Cairo, 1894

September 20, 2010

The waxing moon cast a weak light over the abandoned streets of Cairo. It was three in the morning and the city was asleep. The heat of the day had abated and a cool wind blew, kicking up dust and dried palm leaves. Doors were bolted against intruders, but windows were left ajar to catch the breeze. And in a certain building at the end of a certain street, a light burned in a second-story window.

Several large rats were on the street below the window, and they busied themselves with the fallen debris of the previous day. Suddenly, the rats froze. Their ears perked up and their whiskers twitched instinctively. Though there had been no sound audible to a man’s ear, the delicate sensors of the rats had detected furtive movements. Their fight-or-flight mechanism kicked in and, knowing that there would be scraps elsewhere, the three rats scurried away to the safer darkness between buildings.

The rats’ senses proved correct, and the cause of their flight appeared moments after the rats had fled. Two men slinked silently from the shadowy street opposite the lighted window. They were big men, but not muscle-bound. Their lithe forms, wrapped from head to toe in black fabric, moved like smoke over water. The black fabric on their foreheads was adorned with a silver pyramid, but there were no other markings on their bodies.

Their eyes reflected the moonlight, but only one man had the dark eyes of the race of pharaohs. The other man’s eyes were a vibrant blue, more befitting a northern race. Their legs were slightly bent, and they moved quickly toward the lit window. Their hands were empty and held out from their sides as though to prevent collision, but each man had two, formidably sized knives strapped to a baldric across his chest.

The lowing of a camel shattered the night’s silence and the two men threw themselves to the ground. In the pale moonlight, their prostrate forms looked like little more than shadows on the street. When no camel or man approached, the two men returned to their feet. They nodded at one another and continued toward the building.

They reached their goal and wasted no time with the ground floor. They did not try to force the door or either of the lower-level windows. Instead, they began to scale the flat surface of the building. They pressed themselves to the wall and climbed hand over hand, moving like the desert lizards that were often found skittering along walls and ceilings. In almost no time the two men were at the lit window. The first man poured himself over the window’s edge and into the building. The second man followed behind him.

The room was empty save for an oil lamp on a table near the window.

And a masked man.

He leaned casually against the wall, as though he had been waiting for them. Behind the mask, the man’s green eyes flashed furiously. The sharp lines of his face gave way to a smirk and he pushed himself off of the wall. Standing straight, he was an intimidating sight: The man was easily six feet tall and looked chiseled out of stone. The spread of his broad chest and shoulders stretched his oxford shirt to its limit, and the rolled-up sleeves revealed the cords and tendons of his forearms. He held a snub-nosed revolver in his right hand.

“Only the two of you?” His voice was deep, but calm, “You should have brought more.” He crouched slightly and beckoned the two men with a wave of his left hand.

In a flash, the dark-eyed intruder drew his knives and rushed at the masked man. The masked man also lunged forward, raising his left hand above his head. His fist struck the intruder underneath the jaw, and the intruder reeled backwards. As the dark-eyed intruder fell backwards, the blue-eyed intruder slashed with his knives. The first knife caught the masked man on the thigh and his canvas pants bloomed red with blood. But the masked man did not stagger; he feinted to dodge the second knife and swiped at the blue-eyed intruder with his revolver. The intruder leapt back and the barrel of the revolver hit only air, causing the masked man to lose his balance. He tottered forward, but caught himself from crashing to the floor.

The dark-eyed intruder raised himself from the floor. He shook his head once and lifted the knife in his left hand, making to throw it. Wary of the blue-eyed intruder to his right, the masked man turned quickly on the balls of his feet and leveled the revolver at the dark-eyed intruder. He pulled the trigger twice, the gun’s reports were nearly deafening in the small room. The first bullet buzzed past the intruder’s head and punched into the wall behind him, but the second shot caught the man in the throat. The intruder gasped and sputtered, his dark eyes going wide. The knives clattered from his hands as his body dropped to the floor.

From the corner of his eye, the masked man saw the other intruder moving at him. The masked man ducked and pivoted, and then brought his bloodied right leg up to plant it into the intruder’s midsection. With a wheeze, the blue-eyed intruder doubled over and dropped his knives. The masked man followed him to the floor and drove his knee into the intruder’s chest. There was a crack as the man’s ribs broke under the pressure, but the intruder did not cry out in pain.

The masked man’s hand trembled slightly as he aimed the revolver at his foe’s head. “You’ve seen that I’m not afraid to pull the trigger. But dead men can’t talk and I’m going to need some answers.”

“I’ll say nothing. To die in the service of The Sphinx is a great honor.” The voice of the intruder was flat. His blue eyes were emotionless.

The masked man flipped the gun in his hand and struck the intruder’s temple with the revolver’s handle. The intruder’s blue eyes rolled back into his head. “I might be new to this, but I’ll get you to talk. Don’t let anybody tell you that Osiris Flint can’t learn on the fly.”

Oasis over coffee

July 25, 2010

‘So to hear Bruin tell the story is one thing, but I’ll do my best.’ The truck driver sat behind the steaming mug of coffee. Her hair was limp under a stocking cap, even though it was the middle of June. She wore coveralls with no sleeves and her brawny arms were painted with indecipherable tattoos. Her dark, close-set eyes never broke contact with Worm’s. ‘Really, if ya want the whole story, ya gotta find Bruin. Course, I couldn’t find him even if I was looking for him. Ya know?
‘Anyway, so it’s a dark and stormy night. No, really… those storms come up on ya quick out here on the plains. And anyway, Bruin’s just pulling offa the freeway and into an Oasis when—BAM!’ Her hand smacked the table, causing Worm to spill coffee onto his lap ‘BAM! His rig is blindsided by this little two-door thing. Bruin said he couldn’t tell ya where it came from, though maybe from outta the fields, but it hit his rig and there it died. Following protocol, he gets out and approaches the car. He checked for flames or smoke, but didn’t find none. So he opens the passenger door. And holy hell, he says, there’s blood everywhere. I mean, to hear him tell it, Everywhere. Like it pours outta the car onto his boots, ya know? A-and some kid or something is wailing in the back seat and there’s the driver, Bruin ain’t sure if it’s a man or a woman, slumped over the steering wheel not moving.
‘So Bruin, still following protocol, asks if the driver’s okay. But he don’t get no response. And the kid in the back is screaming to beat the band, so he turns to the back and tells the kid ya gotta shuddup. But the kid he keeps on screaming and the driver ain’t moving none either, so Bruin gets back into his rig and gets on the horn. He calls up the sheriff and says they gotta get down there. There’s blood everywhere and somebody is probably dead and the other is dying.
‘So Bruin gets off the horn with the sheriff and he goes back to the car. But this time, ya see, he goes to the driver’s side. And he opens that door. Well, sure enough, he can hear the driver breathing, but just barely, so he starts pulling the body outta the car. All a sudden the body starts screaming even louder than the kid in the back, but actual words. Bruin said the body was a man and he was screaming about his wife. “They’re gonna eat my wife,” he says, “they’re gonna eat my wife!” So Bruin pulls the man all the way out and sees that the blood is covering him, but not coming from him. And the man keeps screaming about his wife. So Bruin, he smacks him across the face, real hard, like to clear him up, ya know? And the man stops screaming, he’s so stunned that he just got hit.
‘And Bruin asks him where the wife is. The man says that it’s her in the back seat. And Bruin tells the man that the sheriff is on his way, just hold tight. And Bruin looks back into the car and looks at the wife in the back seat. She’s got blood coming out of her from all places, but she’s not screaming any more, ya see? So Bruin, he looks closer and he sees that, and I swear this on my dead mother’s grave, the wife, she’s missing both of her arms. Cut clean off, Bruin says.’ The driver paused and finished her coffee in one large gulp.

‘And?’ Worm couldn’t find anything more intelligent to say.

‘And that’s it. The sheriff, he shows up. But the wife she’s dead from losing too much blood. And the man, well he’s in such shock that he can’t even say his own name. So Bruin, he followed protocol and handed the accident off, so he gets back into his rig and continues onto the Oasis. That’s it.’

‘But cannibals? How do you know it was cannibals? That’s the stuff of movies, not reality.’

‘Look mister, I appreciate the cup of coffee, but I’m not pulling yer leg here. This ain’t no Hills Have Eyes, or whatever them movies about the cannibal mutants was called. This is the real thing. Some nice couple got themselves lost on a lollygag drive offa the freeway. They ran themselves into some folks who was hard up for food. That’s that. Desperate people don’t follow no ethics code. They do what they gotta do to survive.’

‘And it was a Dead Town where these people ran into their troubles?’

The driver stood up from the table and pulled her stocking cap over her ears, ‘Mister, ain’t ya been listening? Dead Towns are evil places. All the good went and left years ago. Nothing but bad news. I’d recommend ya stay away from them, even if yer doing a story.’ She turned and walked out of the Oasis, leaving Worm alone in the booth….

Rejected!

July 20, 2010

Hi Dr. Pizza,

First of all, our apologies for taking so long to get back to you! We have been frantically busy working on our second print issue (http://www.paperdarts.org/issue). We have reviewed your submissions and we will unfortunately not be pursuing to publish the pieces at this time. Thank you again and we wish you the best of luck!

Sincerely,
Paper Darts Magazine

Singularity

June 14, 2010

Parker sat in the passenger’s seat of his dad’s car. As the car backed out of the garage, he admired the sparkling-lightning-bolt laces that adorned his red, high-top Chuck Taylors. The laces were a gift from his mom. She’d given Parker a lot of gifts lately, and for no apparent reason. But Parker liked gifts, and he didn’t complain. He was ten.

*

His dad had frowned when Parker asked for help replacing his old and worn-out gray laces: “I hope you know it more than gifts, kid. I hope someday you realize that.”

“Realize what?” Parker couldn’t stop smiling as the new laces threaded through each shiny, metal grommet.

His dad raised his sad eyes and looked at Parker’s beaming face, “Park. Park. Park. You’ll be the coolest kid at school with these new lightning laces. I bet everyone will think they’re pretty shocking,” and he reached up to tousle his son’s curly brown hair.

“Shocking lightning! Ha!” Parker couldn’t stop giggling.

*

Parker loved how the lightning seemed to flash when he bounced his heels off each other. And so he had his head down when his five-year-old sister, Tank, yelled from the backseat, “It’s Mom! Dad! Park! Hi Mom!”

Parker looked up and out the rear window as his mom turned her car into the driveway. Her car was yellow and flashy. It had two doors and no room for Tank’s booster seat. His dad drove a tan station wagon, which had plenty of room for everyone, but Parker liked his mom’s car better because it looked fast.

Parker’s dad stopped their car and shook his head. In a low voice he said, “Shit Dana. You’re early. Shit.”

“Whadyousay Dad?” Tank had begun to swing her feet and kick the seats in front of her. Parker felt the jolts rise from the bottom of his back into his head. His dad put his head between his knees.

“Tanya, stop kicking the seats ok honey?” His dad’s voice was soft. Tank didn’t stop kicking.

“Tank! Dad says you gotta stop kicking! You’re giving him a migraine. And me too. Right dad?” Parker glared at his little sister as he put a hand on his dad’s back.

“Thanks Park,” his dad looked up at Parker and smiled. “I’m ok now. All right. Let’s go to Grandpa’s house. Wave goodbye to your mom.”

*

The plan to visit Parker’s grandpa came at the drop of a hat. It was only a weekend trip, leaving Saturday morning and getting home on Sunday night. The trip meant that Parker would miss flag-football and he was not happy about it.

“Why do we have to go to Grandpa’s this weekend? Football is done in two weeks. Let’s go then,” Parker had asked during dinner on Friday night.

“I know you’ll miss your football. And I’m sorry for that. But we have to go this weekend,” his dad took off his glasses and looked across the round table at Parker.

“Yeah, Park. We have to go this weekend,” Tank said through a mouthful of spaghetti.

“That’s fine Tank. He heard me the first time.”

“But can’t I just stay here with Mom?” His mom was not at dinner with them. His mom had not been home for dinner in several weeks. Parker saw her folding blankets on the couch every morning while he ate breakfast and then she would drive him to school, but that was it.

“I miss Mom,” Tank said through another mouthful.

“Tanya, we don’t talk with our mouth full.”

“Dad. Why can’t I just stay with Mom? You and Tank can go to Grandpa’s house without me. Grandpa played football, he’ll understand.”

“Park,” his dad took a deep breath. “Part of the reason that we’re going to visit Grandpa is because your mom wants to leave. And when we get back from Grandpa’s she won’t be here anymore.”

“My mouth is not full. I miss Mom,” Tank said.

“She won’t be here anymore?” Parker was confused.

“That’s right. She won’t be here. It’s going to be a big change for all of us,” his dad smiled, but Parker saw that his eyes did not match his mouth.

Parker thought about a book his mom had given him. It was about black holes. Black holes, the book said, were created when a star collapsed, or went away. Black holes were strong enough to swallow light, the fastest thing ever. Black holes, the book said, were a kind of singularity. Singularities, the book said, were disruptions in the fabric of spacetime. Parker knew what disruption meant: it was when Phil Sandell talked out of turn or threw spit wads while Ms. Anderson was trying to teach.

Parker thought that his mom’s disappearance would be like a singularity in his life. It would be a big disruption, and there would be a black hole to take her place. That black hole would swallow him up and it would swallow up Tank and it would swallow up his dad. It would swallow up their whole entire world, because nothing, not even light, was fast enough to escape black holes.

Parker nodded at his dad’s sad face and said, “Ok Dad. We’ll go to Grandpa’s house. I like Grandpa.”

*

His mom had climbed out of her car and was standing at its front. The wind stirred her long hair and she pulled her leather jacket tight around her thin frame. She smiled at Tank, who was waving from the backseat. Her smile dropped, however, as the car began to reverse. Her eyes narrowed and she approached the car swiftly. She looked at her husband and motioned for him to roll down the window.

He slowed the car and rolled the window down halfway. “You’re early Dana. I thought we agreed that it was better if—”

“No, Jim. You told me that it was better if I wasn’t here when you left. I didn’t agree,” she placed her left hand on the window. Parker noticed that she wasn’t wearing her favorite ring. His eyes did a quick check to his dad’s hand: there was still a ring.

“Fine. You didn’t agree. But at least you could respect my request. The counselor suggested that it would be too confusing for these two if they were here while you were packing up,” his dad sighed.

“Conf… Confusing? They are my kids too Goddammit!”

“Mom! That’s a bad word! Don’t say the bad words,” Tank leaned towards the front seat.

“Sorry baby,” his mom lowered her head to make eye contact with Tank.

Parker looked at the faces of his family. Tank was smiling at their mom. His mom was frowning and looking at his dad. His dad was staring at their house and breathing loudly through his nose. Parker followed his dad’s lead and looked at their house. The windows looked like mirrors reflecting the cloudy, gray sky. The flowers and plants his mom planted at the beginning of the summer had all withered and died from neglect. A strip of siding near his bedroom window was peeling, and it flapped in the wind. Their house looked quiet and sad and abandoned.

His dad broke the silence, “Dana, I don’t think you deserve these kids.” He rolled up the window slowly, so that she could withdraw her hand.

“Jim! Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare just leave!” Tears were standing in his mom’s eyes. She looked scared and her eyes danced back and forth between Parker and Tank.

The window was closed, but his dad muttered, “No, you just left.”

The car rolled backwards and his dad let out a single sob. It sounded to Parker like he was gulping water, or gasping for air after waking from a bad dream. Parker looked at his dad and then at his mom. His mom stood in the middle of the driveway with her arms at her waist. Her hands were opening and closing, like she was trying to hold the air around her. Her face was slack and she shook her head back and forth. Parker thought she looked like he felt when Phil Sandell had told him that Santa Claus was a fake.

“Mom?” Tank asked from the back seat.

“You’ll have to see your mom later, honey,” his dad reached a hand back and patted Tank’s knee. Tank began to cry.

“I want Mom! I don’t want Grandpa! I want Mom!”

Parker’s dad was crying too. The car reached the end of the driveway and his dad turned the wheel as they began to drive away. Tank kicked the back of the seats again, but Parker did not feel it. He pressed his forehead against the window’s cool glass and watched his mother in the driveway. He waited for her to collapse and disappear. He waited for the disruption to create a black hole.

And he crossed his fingers and wished that their car would drive faster than light.

***********

(I’m calling this a middle draft. I’m calling it that because it’s polished from the rough draft, but there are still some big changes that I’m envisioning. Unfortunately, I don’t have the energy to put in the time on those changes right now. They’ll come later, I promise. ~Dr. P)

Rejected!

May 3, 2010

(From The New Yorker)

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material.  Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.

Sincerely,

The Editors

(Well, it was worth a shot…)

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.