Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alone in the Rayne

"Alone in the Rayne" was written at some point when I was in college, I think. I'm actually not completely sure when, but I think around 2004, maybe.

Also, for those of you who don't know, this will be my last short story post until the Blogject is finished. Next Wednesday's post-- Jan. 6, 2010-- will be the prologue for the novel I will be posting chapter-by-chapter. The plan is to post a chapter every week, and calculating the number of chapters I have planned, the project will take me all the way until mid-December 2010 to complete it. In order to make things go a bit faster, I'm hoping that when I have some shorter chapters, I'll post two in a week, probably on Monday and Thursday, but we'll see.

See you next week for the beginning of the Blogject!

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Alone in the Rayne

The farm was a flurry of activity. Every member of the four living generations of the Herda family was busy gathering things and loading them onto the few wagons and carts they owned. Everyone from frighteningly bald Carl with his walking stick to little toddler Missy was carrying something or out gathering the flock. The wagons were almost completely loaded, and many of the men and strong young boys were loading themselves with all they could carry, and even some of the women and older girls were doing the same. They had been packing for only an hour, and though almost none of the family members had ever traveled beyond the nearest town (and certainly none had ever gone further than twenty miles from home!) they all seemed eager to be away.

Elana, middle-aged mother of nine and self-proclaimed coordinator of the loading and traveling, strode swiftly through the rooms of the big farmhouse, making certain that nothing of great value or need on the road was being left behind. Satisfied, she herded everyone out to the wagons to wait for the younger boys who were bringing the flock.

They did not have to wait long. Over the hill that led to the pasture soon came the heads of the sheep, along with the six sweaty boys who tended them together: Hadwin, Kaden, Miki, Lorenzo, Rayne, and Gray. Lorenzo and Hadwin led the flock, the other four followed, making sure none of the sheep strayed too far. Of the boys, two– Miki and Rayne– were Elana’s own. The rest were nephews or cousins, but all were between seven and ten years old.

The stubborn old wheels of the wagons and carts began to turn as the donkeys and the two horses owned by the Herda family began to pull, led by some of the loaded-down teenagers.

Few members of the family rode in the carts. The youngest children did, obviously, as well as the heavily-pregnant Devora and the invalid old Piers. A number of women had infants in their arms as they walked alongside the wagons, and a rather brave and stubborn boy, Nye, carried his younger sister on his back atop the bundle of blankets and cloaks that had been strapped to him.

Elana walked nearest the wagon that held Devora. She was due to have her baby any day now, and though it was not good for her to travel in her current condition, it was either travel and live or remain at the farm and perish.

“Where do we go, Elana?” Devora asked, her voice shaking from the jostling of the wagon on the uneven dirt road.

“Where can we go but to Little Hillridge? If we must go further, we can at least stop there.”

“But will we be safe in Little Hillridge?”

“Let us worry about getting there first.”

Thio, Elana’s husband, drifted backwards from his position at the front of the procession to Elana and Devora. “How long before they attack the farm, do you think?”

“An hour, perhaps more. Please, Thio. I don’t wish to think about it.”

As if to deny her that privilege, there were suddenly the raucous sounds of a mob not more than two miles down the road, where the farm they had so recently vacated lay. At first, only the sounds of yelling reached them, but soon, the smell of wood burning drifted to their noses. Looking back, a thick column of dark smoke rose from the farmhouse like a sickening balloon. The entire Herda family stared back as their home was destroyed. Somewhere along the line of travelers, an infant began to howl. The cry was taken up by many of the other infants and even some of the younger children.

“Hush now! Do you wish to call the Ripgloves down on our heads?” Almost immediately, mothers, sisters and aunts began attempting to soothe the criers.

Elana pushed roughly at Thio’s shoulder. “Get the front wagon moving again. We cannot dawdle here any longer.”

The little procession of carts, wagons, people, and sheep moved on along the dry, cracked road. There hadn’t been any rain for weeks. The crops were doing poorly, but that mattered no more. The fields were probably being burned along with the house. The Ripgloves were not known for their mercy.

Night fell, and the Herda family halted their traveling. They built a small fire and ate what fresh fruit they had managed to carry with them. Nervously, wondering if the Ripgloves would come upon them in the night and slaughter them all, much of the family fell into a disturbed slumber, leaving a few men and older boys to keep watch.

Everyone woke early the next morning, and they were on their way again even before everyone was completely alert. A few of the children stumbled wearily along the road, kept moving only by gentle prods (and some by more harsh shoves) from their mothers or older sisters.

It was still midmorning when Devora gave a cry that fell over the whole family.

“Mama! Aunt Devora is about to have her baby!”

Elana hurriedly put down the still-half-asleep Brylie and rushed to Devora’s wagon. It was no lie; Devora was going to have her baby today. Probably within the hour. She must have been hiding the pain for some time.

“Devora, I need you to push when I tell you! STOP THE WAGONS!”

The wagons slowed to a stop, and the family gathered around the outside of the wagon, waiting to hear the cries of Devora’s newborn.

“Push, Devora! PUSH!”

Elana’s coaching and Devora’s screams were suddenly covered by the thudding footfalls of hundreds of people... no...

“Ripgloves! Move! Move!”

The thuds of the feet of the Herda family soon joined the Ripgloves’ footsteps, and the wagons lurched forward. Devora’s screams pierced the air, shrill and pained.

She was still screaming when the Ripgloves reached the back of the flock. The hulking forms concealed completely in midnight blue cloaks seemed to appear in the midst of the four boys who ran behind the flock, unnoticed until that moment. The flock immediately scattered as the boys began to scream in terror and ran for the front of the flock. A huge, black, cruelly twisted hand emerged from one of the deep blue cloaks and swiped at a sheep, making deep gashes in the poor creature’s side and sending it flying across the flock. In a matter of seconds, the entire flock was under attack, with the sheep bleating uncontrollably in panic as thirty Ripgloves tore through them one by one.

The wagons raced forward, rocking and shaking dangerously on the uneven road as the donkeys and horses were whipped to go as fast as possible. It appeared that the Ripgloves were happy decimating the flock for the moment, so the Herda family tried to put as much space as possible between themselves and the monsters.

The grueling pace was kept up for the better part of two hours, until the Ripgloves were well out of sight and the entire family was nearly collapsing from overexertion. As they slowed to a stop, a new sound was suddenly noticed: the crying of a newborn.

“Karia!”

Elana emerged carefully from the wagon, a tiny babe wrapped in a soft blanket lay crying in her arms. She spent a moment showing her off to the family before taking her back to her exhausted mother.

The six shepherd boys suddenly became the center of attention as mothers and
sisters rushed to check and make sure none of them had been harmed by the Ripgloves.
Thio was one of the first to get to Miki and Rayne, and he quickly checked both boys for injuries. Satisfied that they only suffered fright and the effort of the running, he began to listen to what the boys were saying through their tears.

“Papa, we lost the flock...”

“They just appeared... I’m sorry...”

Thio hugged his youngest sons close, muttering words of encouragement and telling them that compared to their safety, the safety of the flock was practically worthless.

Night fell, and a tension settled over the Herda family’s wagons. Few managed to sleep, afraid that the Ripgloves would return to kill them all. But it did not happen, and a weary family continued down the road the next morning. Mile after mile passed down the dry, dusty road, and no sign of the Ripgloves was seen.

Night fell again, and the tension of the previous night lightened a bit. Hours passed with still no sign of the Ripgloves. Two, perhaps three more days would see the train at Little Hillridge. With a renewed outlook and energy, the family pushed forward again, ready to reach at least temporary safety at the little town.

The day passed again without incident, taking them a great deal closer to their destination. They made their little camp and slept again, knowing that even if they didn’t reach the town tomorrow, they would at least be able to see it by sundown.

But the Ripgloves came in the night. One wagon was suddenly overturned and almost immediately set on fire. Children were grabbed and carried away, screaming in the deformed, black, clawed hands of the monsters. Men and boys who took up small daggers or knives to fight back were slashed and pushed back.

Rayne took up a walking stick and beat at a Ripglove trying to make off with one of the two horses. A twisted hand swiped at him, making deep triplet gashes across his face. The nine-year-old’s blood began to stain the ground, but he still swung wildly at the beast in a vain attempt to save the horse.

He didn’t see the Slaughterwing until it was almost on top of him. The great dark bird the size of a pony swooped down and seized his shoulders in its razor-sharp talons, picking him up and flying over the rest of the wagon train. Rayne kicked his legs and beat at the Slaughterwing as well as he could with the stick, but it did him little good. He dropped the stick.

In a last desperate act, Rayne turned his head and bit the scaly foot of the Slaughterwing that carried him. An all-too-human scream came out of the great bird’s mouth, and it released its hold on the boy. Rayne plummeted to the ground, landing amidst the tall grasses of the plain perhaps a mile from where he had been picked up. Exhausted, bleeding, and dizzy from the battle, the flight, and the fall, Rayne passed out in the grass.

He woke with a headache and the taste of blood in his mouth. The sun had risen ans was almost halfway to its peak as Rayne picked himself up and began to trudge back towards the road. He was dizzy, and his throat was dry. Dried blood covered his cheek where the Ripglove had torn his face, and there were dark, stiff spots on his clothing where the Slaughterwing’s talons had dug into him. But he was alive, and that was saying something.

When Rayne reached the road and saw what was left after the battle, he fell to his knees and began to weep. The shredded corpses of the donkeys and horses littered the road by the charred remains of the carts and the family’s belongings. Thankfully, though, there were no remains of people. They might still be alive somewhere.

A shrill crying sound reached his ears, and he got shakily to his feet and stumbled towards the sound. One of the wagons hadn’t been completely destroyed– only about half of this one was burnt. Pulling back the rear flap that covered the wagon, Rayne saw the three-day-old baby, Karia, covered in blankets and screaming at the top of her lungs. He gently reached in and extracted the bundle of baby and blankets from the back of the wagon.

“Karia, I’m going to get us to Little Hillridge. I promise.”

Even though his legs felt made of rubber, and moments before, he had been ready to give up and lay in the street until the Ripgloves came back, Rayne began to walk towards Little Hillridge. The baby’s screaming continued, shrill and unpleasant, until Rayne began to sing to her... badly. Somehow, his out-of-tune voice put the little baby to sleep, and he walked on, talking softly to her.

“I know you’re hungry, Karia. I am, too. But I’m not stopping until we get to town, and then we can find someone who will feed us. I’ll take care of you, I promise.”

He wearily forced his feet to keep moving along the road, dreaming of a tall glass of water, of goat’s milk, of a bowl of stew, of lambchops and corn. Dozens of meals played in his head, each one more tantalizing than the last. He didn’t notice the sun set, nor did he notice the dim silhouette of town on the horizon. He trudged down the road, half-asleep even as he pushed himself forward. It was Karia’s waking and crying that pulled him from his daze when he was no more than a hundred paces from the town.

“Karia! We made it!”

Rayne meant to scream and take off running for the town, but his voice barely managed a hoarse whisper, and his legs felt wobbly beneath him, so his run was more of a walk. It was well after sundown when he finally reached the first building in Little Hillridge. All the lights were out.

Exhausted, he walked on until he found the only inn in the town, the Hawk and Cat. There was light from only one lantern glowing inside, and the front door was closed. Groaning from exhaustion, Rayne managed to lift one hand and knocked as hard as he could on the door, which ended up being only a light tap.

There was no answer.

Rayne knocked again, forcing his hand to hit the door harder. He still didn’t manage much sound. But it must have been enough, because he heard footsteps. He heard the sound of a latch being lifted, and the door opened a crack, revealing the face of a man of middle years. Wavy dark brown hair dangled before brown eyes that scrutinized Rayne and the crying bundle he held.

“Please, sir, we need food and rest. We were attacked by Ripgloves, and... and...” The stress of the last few days all came bubbling to the surface, and tears began to fall down his face.

“We’re closed for the night,” the man said roughly. He was about to close the door when a woman’s voice broke in.

“Cainsley! You know we don’t turn anyone away at our door! And did I hear something about Ripgloves?”

The door opened wide, and a delicate-framed woman with thick, braided strawberry-blonde hair stood in the opening. Her small aquamarine eyes didn’t take but a moment to look over Rayne and his gurgling bundle before she ushered him inside and had him in a chair.

“Now you build a fire. Nice and warm, Cainsley. And see if you can find some of that chicken for him. And some milk, too.”

The man, Cainsley, limped to the fireplace and after a few moments, had a fire crackling happily. Then he limped off into the kitchens.

The woman pulled Rayne’s chair closer to the fireplace and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. Taking one look at his face, she fetched a bowl of warm water and a cloth and began to wash the blood from his face. The whole time, tears still fell from his eyes, and his body shook with sobs.

He was clean and the sobs had slowed by the time Cainsley returned with a plate of warm chicken and some milk. Rayne was hesitant to relinquish his hold on Karia to eat, but the woman, Madynn, reached out with gentle arms and carefully relieved him of the tiny burden. Satisfied that she wasn’t going to take the baby anywhere, he began to eat, and the chicken was hardly half gone when the warmth and his exhaustion took him, and he fell asleep in the chair.

***

Rayne woke in a soft feather bed and almost immediately panicked, looking around for his baby cousin. In a moment, he remembered where he was, and he got out of the bed, nearly falling over on his overworked legs. He left the room he was in and stumbled down the hall, supporting himself on th wall. He heard soft melodic singing coming from down the hall.. He found the sitting room, where Madynn was walking around, straightening chairs and the like with one hand while holding a cooing Karia in her other arm. Breathing a sigh of relief, Rayne entered the room and approached Madynn.

“Thank you, for giving us a place to sleep.” He reached for his cousin.

“You don’t need to thank me, son,” she said, setting Karia into his arms. “But why were you out there all by yourself? I heard you muttering something about Ripgloves?”

Rayne nodded and told her about leaving the farm, the attack on the flock, the attack on the wagons, and his journey alone with his cousin. By the end, he was almost in tears again, and Madynn was just as close to crying.

Without warning, a shadow fell across the doorway, and a figure cloaked all in dark midnight blue stood there.

“It’s a Ripglove!”

Rayne rushed to the back of the room, as far from the door as possible, holding Karia as close to him as he could. Madynn picked up a wooden chair and held it in front of her for defense. “Stay behind me, Rayne.”

The Ripglove entered the room, followed by three more, all cloaked in the deep blue that obscured everything.

“Rayne?”

A rather exhausted voice came from under one of the cloaks. One of the cloaked figured sank into a chair.

“I know that voice...” Rayne tentatively stepped towards the cloaked form that the voice had come from. “Papa?”

A hand appeared from under the cloak– not the black, beastly hand that belonged to the Ripgloves, but a hand, calloused and worn from years of farming. The cloak fell off the form, revealing a very bruised and filthy Thio.

“Papa!” Rayne ran to Thio and threw one arm around him.

The other three cloaks were removed, revealing two of Thio’s brothers and Hadwin, one of Rayne’s cousins and fellow shepherds. The tears that had almost escaped Rayne’s eyes when he told his story began to fall as he hugged his cousin and uncles so tightly he was almost afraid they would crush Karia. But the little baby wasn’t about to let that happen. She began to wail, as if to make her presence known.

“Rayne, you have Karia!”

Rayne nodded. Thio reached for her, but Rayne hesitated to give her to him.

“Papa, why were you dressed as in a Ripglove cloak?”

“Oh, Rayne, we tried to fight them off, but some of the beasts ran off, dragging your mother and a lot of the others with them. We went after them, of course, and attacked them with whatever we could find. Sticks, mostly, but we had one of our pitchforks, and Burlin had some shears on him. We took the cloaks of the ones we killed in hopes they wouldn’t attack us again.”

“What do they really look like, Papa?”

Thio shook his head. “That’s not something you want to know, Rayne.”

Rayne furrowed his eyebrows but dropped the subject.

***

The people of Little Hillridge helped Rayne and what was left of his family build a little house for them to live in while they stayed for the next few months. Thio and his brothers managed to find work with some of the nearby farms, and Rayne and Hadwin did errands for townspeople to keep food on the table.

The parched summer turned to a rather windy autumn. The memories of the attack began to slowly fade from Rayne’s memory, but the cuts and gashes from the Ripglove and Slaughterwing seemed relictant to heal. The triplet slashes that adorned his cheek appeared as fresh as the day he had received them, and though the pain had faded with his memories, he still had to be careful, lest the scabs broke open and began to spill his blood again.

Towards the beginning of winter, Thio and his brothers began talking of moving on from Little Hillridge to find new farmland near some other farmers and begin a new flock. They decided to set out in the spring to find a new home.

Spring came, and with it came time for the remains of the Herda family to leave Little Hillridge. They had managed to purchase one wagon and an ox to start their farm, and the townspeople were generous enough to give them a few sheep and goats and food for the journey. There had been no sign of Ripgloves and no sighting of Slaughterwings for their entire stay in Little Hillridge; they were believed to have moved on to another part of the country.

On their second day traveling, the sky opened and began to pour down rain, slowing their progress over the muddy road to all but a stop. In trying to protect the handful of sheep and goats they had gotten, Rayne came down with chills and a fever. The wagon was stopped to wait out the duration of the storm and Rayne’s illness.

The rain lasted two days before it finally began to lighten, though a halfhearted drizzle continued to fall, doing nothing for the mood of the six people in the wagon. Karia wailed almost incessantly, and Rayne’s condition didn’t appear to be improving. He was pale and tired, despite the hours he spent sleeping. His forehead burned, and his torso froze. The three slashes across his cheek remained ruby red, giving his face an almost scary appearance.

The drizzle showed no sign of stopping, so Thio and his brothers decided it was best to continue on and look for shelter. Progress was slow– the wagon wheels kept sinking into the mud, and the ox was having trouble making his way through, as well. On one occasion, the wagon lurched terribly and the two front wheels sank into the nearly knee-deep mud and refused to move any more. Karia wailed, and a pained groan came from Rayne, who lay covered in blankets and the five Ripglove cloaks they had saved.

Pulling back the flap on the wagon cover, Thio saw that the cuts on Rayne’s face had broken open, and they were oozing not blood, but a thick black liquid that might have been blood at some point. The boy’s face was spotted with dark red, and he shivered violently. Thio pulled back the cloaks and blankets. The boy’s hands were clenched tightly and held close, his legs were tucked under him, and he shook with cold. Thio touched the boy’s arm. It was cold as ice. Even his arms and neck were pale and spotted with the dark red. He covered him up again with the blankets and cloaks and called to one of his brothers.

“Morse! Rayne is getting worse! I’m going to carry him back to Little Hillridge and see if there’s anyone there who can help him. I’ll be back as soon as I can!” He gingerly lifted the boy’s body. It felt much lighter than it should have. It almost made Thio want to cry. “Do what you can with the wagon. Once I can, I’ll come back to help.”

“Take care of yourselves, Thio.”

Thio began to squelch through the muddy road, heading back towards Little Hillridge. The drizzle didn’t give, nor did it show any signs of getting worse. Rayne felt like a lump of ice in Thio’s arms, shaking and shivering with what strength his little body could muster. It was hours before Thio was far enough down the road that he couldn’t see the wagon anymore. By then, it was nearly dark. He pressed on through the mud as the sun completely disappeared and the moon climbed sleepily into the sky. The light fall of rain continued through the night.

When morning came, the rain began to strengthen again. Drops that fell onto Rayne’s face did nothing to clean the cuts that still oozed the thick black liquid. The dark red spots that covered the boy’s face skin were beginning to grow even darker. Patches of the boy’s face, particularly around the triple cuts, were beginning to turn a sickly black. The boy’s nearly constant coughing was raspy and hoarse, and even his coughs were growing weaker. The sickness was sapping all the strength from the boy.

Thio tried desperately to go faster, but the thick mud that caked his legs made it hard going. More than once, he nearly fell forward as the mud refused to release its hold on one of his legs. By noon, the rain was a downpour again, and a particularly deep patch of mud in the road did make Thio fall, and he dropped Rayne into the mud in front of him. The blankets and cloaks that covered him began to blow away in the wind, quickly becoming even more soaked with salty rainwater than they had been.

The sky was dark; layer upon layer of thick clouds obscured the sun. Tho almost couldn’t see Rayne, even though the boy was barely three feet in front of him. The mud pulled at Thio, and he began to sink– up to his thighs, then to his waist. He tried to get purchase with his hands to pull himself out of the mudhole, but there was nothing to grab onto, and the mud beneath his feet was no help to getting him out of the hole.

A flash of lightning danced across the sky, lighting up the area for a moment. Through the rain, Thio saw several large, shadowy shapes emerging from... nowhere. The rain didn’t seem to touch he figures as they approached the unmoving Rayne. Lightning flashed again. The figures were gathered around him. Deep, guttural growls emerged from blue-cloaked forms in a sort of language. A twisted black hand reached out towards the boy. There were four Ripgloves around Rayne.

“No! Leave him alone! Haven’t you done enough damage already?!”

For a moment, lightning lit up the sky again, and thunder rumbled overhead. The four Ripgloves seemed to be looking at him from under their hoods. They turned back to Rayne, and the cruelly malformed hands reached for the unconscious boy.

“Leave him be!” Thio was sinking deeper into the mud. It was nearly up to his chest now.

The four Ripgloves picked up Rayne together, and they collectively settled him in the grip of the largest one. Another flash of lightning lit their way as the monsters left with the boy in tow.

Thio began to weep bitterly as the mud crawled up to the middle of his chest. The rain began to let up, almost instantly, and it finally stopped, allowing the evening sun to make an appearance. Night came and passed, cold and lonely for Thio, and the sun crept into the sky again, bright and warm, almost mockingly so. The blankets and midnight blue cloaks that had fallen off of Rayne still lay discarded in the road, muddy and drying, but now a few Ripglove footprints violated the blankets and the ground around where the boy had been. The rain had somehow not washed them away. The warm spring sun began to dry the mud that encased most of Thio’s body, and towards the late afternoon, he managed to get enough grip to pull himself out of the hole. He left the fallen blankets where they were and began to trudge dispirited back towards where the wagon was. There was nothing he could do for Rayne now.

The wagon wasn’t too far from where Thio had left it, and with the drying road making his walking easier, he reached his brothers by the next afternoon. His brothers didn’t need to ask to know what had happened. They could see it in his face.

***

Thio and his brothers built a farm just outside the village of Thornfield. They tried to put the horrors that had befallen their family behind them, but even in five years, the pain had not eased, despite the absence of Ripgloves.

Five-year-old Karia Herda strolled along the edge of one of the wheatfields, picking the wildflowers her uncles allowed to grow, as long as they didn’t intrude on the planted ground. Her uncles and cousin Hadwin were working on bringing in the wheat harvest now. The sheep bleated in their nearby pasture pen. It was a beautiful day.

Looking up from the little bouquet of flowers she was gathering, Karia saw a dark blue-clad shape at the edge of the Herda property. It moved slowly towards the field where she and her uncles and cousin were.

“Uncle Morse! Uncle Thio! Someone’s coming!”

The sweaty men straightened from their work, groaning as their backs protested. They turned and looked where Karia was pointing, and almost immediately, they dropped their tools and began to rush towards the house.

“They’re Ripgloves! Karia! Come on!” Thio called to his little niece.

Karia stayed where she was as the blue-cloaked figure approached. There were half a dozen others approaching, all concealed in midnight blue cloaks, so she couldn’t see hands, faces, or any parts of them.

The first Ripglove, the one she had first seen, was barely two feet from her in moments, but the little girl stared up at it, unafrais. The Ripglove seemed to stare right back.

“Karia! Run! Those things are dangerous!”

Karia looked up at the Ripglove. A twisted, black hand emerged, reaching for the little girl.

She looked at the hand, then squatted down and inched forward to peer under the cloak’s hood.

“I know you! You carried me!”

The black hand paused in its reaching. A moment passed, and the hand reached for the girl again.

“Uncle Thio told me stories about you. You’re my cousin! Rayne, right?”

The hand stopped again. A guttural moan escaped from the hood. The hand disappeared. The Ripglove slowly turned and began to walk away. The other Ripgloves followed suit. In moments, the cloaked forms seemed to disappear into the nothingness from which they appeared.

Karia waved. “Bye, Rayne! Thank you!”

The Herda family never had problems from Ripgloves again.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Phantom Legs

Like so many other stories I've been posting lately, "Phantom Legs" was written during that odd short story spurt in late 2005/early 2006. The only reason I've been putting up so much old work is because my focus has been on getting ready for the Blogject (starting right here Jan. 6, 2010) and I haven't been turning out much of anything new lately because of that.

Frankly, I'm not too fond of the very beginning of "Phantom Legs". It was a pathetic attempt at making it seem like the main character, Henry, was singing in the car.

This story was a sort of experiment in lots of dialogue, as well as in dream sequences. That part of it, I do like.

Anyway, enjoy!

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Phantom Legs

“I give you my love!
“I give you my life!
“I give you it all!
“You’re my love and my everything!”

He didn’t hear the honking of the car that was headed right for him over his singing, nor did he react quickly enough to avoid hitting it when he finally noticed it.


He woke up in the hospital three days later to see his parents, his twin brother, and his younger sister and brother by his bed.

“Carly! He’s awake! Mom! Dad! Gerald! He’s awake!”

The sound of twelve-year-old Russell’s voice seemed to give focus to his thoughts, and he was actually able to respond with s gesture when his mother asked him if he was in pain and where. He hated his family seeing him like this, especially Russell and ten-year-old Carly, since they were so young.

“Henry, there’s something else,” his father was saying.

“Huh?” He was surprised his mouth worked. It felt dry and kind of slow, like his jaw was stuck in jelly. It was hard to move it. His tongue felt heavy.

“Both your legs were hurt pretty badly in the accident. They... they had to amputate them. There was no chance of repairing them.”

If he had had the energy or the strength, he would have thrown the blanket from over his body, but his arm felt too weak to raise. He tried to wiggle his toes, but nothing happened. He looked down at where his feet should be, but the blanket rested flat on the bed. The bumps made by his body ended just a few inches past his hips. His father wasn’t lying; his legs were really gone.

He broke down and cried.


He was let out of the hospital and given little hope of ever walking again.


The countless weeks confined only to bed, the days and days of physical therapy, and the hundreds of shots and medications all finally turned into infinite hours spent in a wheelchair. He had a great difficulty in getting to the second-floor bedroom he shared with his twin brother Gerald, and taking a shower was now out of the question. Just sitting up was hard, with his torso ending just below his hips.

Returning to school was harder than returning home. The once-popular baseball player was no longer able to play, invitations to get-togethers and parties slowed to a stop, and the loss of driving ability killed his social life with surprising efficiency. Even navigating the halls to get to class was a trial.

He was fortunate that his brain was left undamaged. He possessed a great mind, and now it finally began to show in his schoolwork. The loss of his baseball-playing ability was both a blessing and a curse in that. But now, rather than spending all his time at the practice field, he started to spend his evenings with his younger brother and sister, tutoring Russell in math, playing Scrabble with Carly... and he was suddenly quite glad the dog actually knew how to play fetch, and enjoyed playing for hours at a time.


And for the first time in his life, he started to dream... and remember his dreams. Or dream, since there was only one, and he had it almost every night.


The field went on for miles uninterrupted, until the trees began, almost all at once, turning from flat, empty grassland to dense forest in the matter of a few yards. Wildflowers– shades of blue, purple, orange, white, pink, red, and even some colors he didn’t know– dotted the plain in small bunched and broad clumps all the way to the treeline. The air was perfumed naturally by the flowers, which despite the wide array of colors, shapes, and sizes, seemed to all have the same sickeningly sweet scent.

Something– not a voice... not an intuition... not something he could really identify– pulled him to the trees. He ran, his legs carrying him over the grasses faster than he had ever run on the baseball field. He reveled in the feeling of his legs moving under him, carrying him across the grass and flowers in great bounds, knowing he would not– could not– misstep. The wind blew on his face, ruffling his hair. He could feel the soft ground give way slightly under his weight. He always wore soft boots in this place, but his feet never hurt.

He reached the treeline and slowed to a halt, peering into the darkness of the leaf canopy. It was not pitch dark in the forest; patches of light streamed almost enchantingly through gaps in the leaves. He stepped into the trees, following the thin and almost invisible path that led into the depths.

He reached the clearing: a beautiful, almost perfectly circular open space in the middle of the trees that seemed a haven of sorts– the ideal retreat from civilization. A crystal-clear stream rippled across the clearing, ending in a deep pool that played home to fish and frogs, the splashing and croaking of which sent a delightful music through the air to his ears. A single tree dotted the clearing, not quite dead center– a majestic oak, big enough around that it would take at least five people to surround it, if not more. Or was it an oak? It resembled an oak, but a succulent-looking fruit with smooth purplish-blue skin hung off the branches, each one at least as big as his fist, the lowest ones just barely out of reach. Dew dripped from the tree’s leaves and from the fruits, despite the midday sun. A ring of unidentifiable crimson flowers surrounded the regal tree, and they sparkled in the sunlight as if covered with silver glitter.

He jumped across the stream, not wanting to mar its perfection by tramping through it while wearing his boots. The flawless deep green grass gave way under his footsteps, springing back into place, unbent, after he moved on. There was never any sign that anyone came here.

A stone, just big enough to sit on and flattened by age, lay just outside the ring of flowers by the tree. He sat. And waited.


“He has come back.”
“Yes, he has.”
“He comes back almost every night, now.”
“He used to never come here.”
“But he is here again. Now. On the stone.”
“Shall we speak to him?”
“Yes, we shall.”
“Let us speak to him.”

Three people, each of them only as tall as his hand, floated down to hover barely two feet in front of his face. Each had delicate wings: one of a dragonfly, one of a butterfly, and one of a bird.

“You have come back.”
“I have.”
“Why have you come back?”
“Yes, why?”
“You have not found the one yet.”

He closed his eyes and hung his head.

“The one who will give you what you most desperately want.”
“No... I haven’t found the one yet.”
“Why have you come back?”
“Where can I find the one?”
“The one to give you what you most desperately want...”
“The one to give you what you most desperately want...”
“What you most desperately want...”

He whispered, “My legs...”

“He wants his legs.”
“His legs.”
“He must find one willing to trade. Legs for legs.”
“And bring the one here.”


He woke, sweating, and reached down under the covers to where the remaining stumps of the legs that used to be were all he felt.


“So how were everyone’s days today?”

The family sat around the dinner table, going through their thrice-weekly dinner report. As dumb as he thought it was, it was something his parents insisted on, and he was not one to argue.

“We had a spelling bee today, and I got third place!” Carly proudly pulled a white ribbon from her pocket and showed it off.

“Gerald?”

“In gym, we played dodgeball against the JROTC kids. We creamed them!”

“Russell?”

“I had the weirdest dream last night. I was running through this forest on a path I could hardly see, and I was completely lost. I kept hearing Henry’s voice, calling me, but every time I would get close, his voice moved to another direction, and farther away.”

“Henry?”

He stared at his little brother, the rest of the family forgotten.

“Henry?”

His mind suddenly snapped back to where he was. “Oh, sorry. Uh... I’m almost finished with my still-life painting in art class.”


“Henry, can you help me with my math homework? We’ve started putting letters with it, and I’m completely lost.”

“Actually, Russ, I wanted to ask you something about your dream...”

The field went on for miles uninterrupted, until the trees began, almost all at once, turning from flat, empty grassland to dense forest in the matter of a few yards. Something– not a voice... not an intuition... not something he could really identify– pulled him to the trees. He reached the treeline and slowed to a halt, peering into the darkness of the leaf canopy. He reached the clearing: a beautiful, almost perfectly circular open space in the middle of the trees that seemed a haven of sorts– the ideal retreat from civilization. He jumped across the stream, not wanting to mar its perfection by tramping through it while wearing his boots.

A stone, just big enough to sit on and flattened by age, lay just outside the ring of flowers by the tree. He sat. And waited.


“He has come back.”
“Yes, he has.”
“He comes back almost every night, now.”
“He used to never come here.”
“But he is here again. Now. On the stone.”
“Shall we speak to him?”
“Yes, we shall.”
“Let us speak to him.”


Three people, each of them only as tall as his hand, floated down to hover barely two feet in front of his face. Each had delicate wings: one of a dragonfly, one of a butterfly, and one of a bird.


“You have come back.”
“I have.”
“Why have you come back?”
“Yes, why?”
“You have not found the one yet.”

He called. “Russell! I’m here! Follow my voice!”

“I can’t find you!”

“He is calling for someone.”
“Has he found the one?”
“The one to him what he most desperately wants?”

“Russell! Follow my voice!”
“I can’t! It’s dark, Henry! I can’t see!”
“Follow my voice, Russell! I’m here! I’m right here!”
“Henry, it’s too dark. I’m scared!”
“Just follow my voice! Follow it, Russell! You can find me! You can!”
“Henry!”

“Is he the one?”

Russell burst into the clearing and almost fell onto the ring of flowers.

Three people, each of them only as tall as his hand, floated down to hover
barely two feet in front of his face. Each had delicate wings: one of a dragonfly, one of a butterfly, and one of a bird.


“Are you the one?”
“Are you the one?”
“The one to give him what he most desperately wants?”
“Yes. I am.”
“You will trade? Legs for legs?”
“Trade?”
“Legs for legs?”
“Yes.”
“The fruit!”
“The fruit! The fruit!”


A single piece of the fruit with smooth purplish-blue skin hung down just in front of his face. He plucked it, and the branch that had supported it disappeared upward again.


“Eat it!”
“One bite!”
“One bite!”


He took a bite. It was sweet and sour at the same time. The flesh was firm but soft enough to swallow whole. Dark ruby juice dripped down his chin and dotted the grass before sinking into the earth below. From each drop grew a deep purplish-blue flower.


“He had tasted the fruit!”
“No turning back!”
“The one must eat, too!”
“Eat it!”
“One bite!”
“One bite!”


Russell took the fruit and bit into it. It was bitter and salty at the same time. The flesh was soft but had to be chewed to soften it. Pale sapphire juice dripped down his chin and dotted the grass before sinking into the earth below. From each drop grew a bright reddish-orange flower.


“He has tasted the fruit!
“No turning back!”
“The one must speak!”
“Speak!”
“Speak what you will give!”

“I will give... my legs for his.”

“He must speak!”
“Speak!”
“Speak what you most desire!”

“I most desire...”

He woke, sweating, and reached down under the covers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Sound

All I remember about the creation of "The Sound" is that it was written some time during my freshman year of college, probably in late 2003.

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The Sound

David was alone again. He’d thought the neighbors would never leave. He waited five minutes to make sure they weren’t coming back for any reason, then he went to the window and waited for another five minutes. He wasn’t expecting anyone, but he wanted to be certain no one was coming uninvited. Having someone drop in would be bad; having his door locked when he was supposed to be open to visitors would be bad. Being caught would be unbearable.

David left the curtains open– no need to encourage a curious neighbor to come find out why he was being inhospitable– but he locked and barred the door. His bachelor-house was small– he had only the parlor, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom. And it was designed exactly the same as the thousands of other bachelor-houses in the city. Finding a place to hide his possessions had been virtually impossible.

The curtains in his bedroom were still open, for the same reason he left the parlor curtains open. He peered into his room, looking out the window to make sure no one was in the street to see what he was about to do. Satisfied but still wary, he slinked along the wall and into the closet. The closet was barely big enough for David’s eight sets of clothes (a luxury, especially for a bachelor) but David wasn’t worried about how cramped it was inside. He pushed the clothes out of the way and ducked behind them. He kicked his heel into the corner of the wall, and square-inch panel slid aside next to his hand. He pulled a thin strip of metal from his pocket and slipped it into the panel. He heard a click and the entire wall slid aside. Leaning back to take another quick glance out the window, he went through the opening and down the stairs into the ground below.

As far as David knew, his was the only bachelor-house with a basement, and that was because he had dug it out and built the room, stairs, and secret panel in the closet himself. If anyone– co-workers, friends, neighbors, or the authorities (especially the authorities)– knew about this, it would undoubtedly be the end of his life. He couldn’t imagine living without the items he had hidden down there.

The stairs ended in a small tunnel, which stretched about ten feet before ending at a door. David unlocked it with a key he kept around his neck. The room itself was tiny; David had had to build it in a hurry so he could hide his things. He closed the door behind him and smiled broadly. In the corner of the room were two musical instruments. One was gold (or had been some years ago) and was very long and curved. David didn’t know exactly what it was called– such things weren’t spoken of in this day and age– but he called it a ‘bone. He thought it had once been called something like that, but he dared not try to find out. The other instrument was silver, all curves and had four pistons sticking out from the top. He called it a yoof. He was sure there had been more to the name, but once again, he didn’t dare to research it.

He had found the instruments tucked away in the back of a closet when he lived with his parents as a boy. He had been intrigued then; but his parents knew nothing of them. David wasn’t sure exactly when instruments had been outlawed, but it had been sometime in his early childhood. His parents had managed to keep them hidden during the raids, but the last few had been too close for comfort. David had taken the instruments with him as soon as he moved out. Working furiously, he had dug and built the basement in two weeks.

The most important thing about this basement was that no one could hear him down here. Most of what he had learned had taken years of experimenting. David had no idea what a legendary piece of sheet music looked like, or what a piece of music was supposed to sound like. He made it up as he went along, creating a sort of code so he could remember and play the “piece” again if he was ever free to play above ground. He tried to play both the ‘bone and the yoof equally, mostly because he was not entirely sure which he liked better. Today he picked up the yoof. Putting his lips to the mouthpiece– he knew that term for sure, since the intercom systems everywhere had similar devices– and out poured a full, silken sound David never tired of. His first attempts at playing had yielded only squawks and burbles. He could only imagine how music must have sounded back in the days when it was common to play. He wished he had been alive in those days. It must have been wonderful.

David heard a loud ruckus from upstairs. He had been found out! He gently set the yoof on the floor but was barely to the door when two black-clad authorities burst in. One quickly pinned David’s arms behind his back while the other seized the ‘bone and yoof, holding them both at arm’s length as if they were poisonous vipers. Without a word, both authorities left. David fell to his knees and wept.



Two days that seemed to take months passed. Everywhere he went, David felt eyes on him. His co-workers and friends commented that the usual proud glint in his eye had gone, the spring in his step had vanished, and he never looked anyone in the eye anymore. It was all true. David was lost without his instruments. He finally returned to his empty-feeling bachelor-house one evening with the intent to take his life. He tied a sheet to a sturdy pipe on his kitchen ceiling and had all but put his head through the loop when there was a knock at his front door. Purely out of habit, David answered.

His usual evening guests, the men from the next few houses in both directions, were crowded on the tiny porch. “Come with us,” one man said.

They herded David out of his house, and David let them lead wherever they wanted. He didn’t care anymore. The yoof was gone, almost certainly destroyed by now. The ‘bone, too. David hated to think what would be made of their melted remains. The next gun he saw could very well have a barrel made of the ‘bone. The sound of the gunshot would do such injustice to the sound the instrument had once made. The thought made David want to throw up.

He managed to hold the queasy feeling in check as his neighbors ushered him into one of the children’s schools. Through hallways, up stairs, through hallways, down stairs, and through secret panels hidden in closets and classrooms they led him, finally stopping before an unmarked door. David’s next door neighbor Mike– David didn’t know why he thought of the name now– knocked. Three quick raps on the door. A boy cracked the door open. “What?

“I find it beautiful,” Mike said clearly.

The boy opened the door fully, showing a large room. Instruments lined the walls: all sorts of instruments David could never have imagined. Two dozen people were standing in a group, each holding sheets of paper or instruments. Among them were the two authorities that had taken David’s yoof and ‘bone.

“We had to make sure you weren’t found out,” one of the authorities said. He was holding a silver rod with lots of interesting holes and buttons. “Sorry to torture you like that, but we had to save the instruments first. We didn’t have either of these types until now. The authorities,” he chuckled, “the real authorities suspected you.”

David was awestruck.

Mike had gone to the wall and returned with the ‘bone and a tarnished metal instrument that was fairly small with three pistons at the top. He held the ‘bone out to David. “Will you play for us?”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Stick Man

"The Stick Man" is roughly based on a true story, in that everything in this is true up until I see the second flier. There was no second flier.

This was written at Halloween 2003, my and Travis's freshman year at MTSU.

Enjoy, and as always, feel free to comment.
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The Stick Man

Looking into a practice room, I saw my buddy and fellow music theory/composition major Travis plinking away on a piano, no doubt working on one of his brilliant pieces of music. How does he do it? He has a million ideas! He’s always working furiously on some awe-inspiring idea while I’m whiling away my hours on the word processor of my computer. Why can’t I get ideas for music the way I get ideas for books and short stories? I’d be all set then.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had a small number of great ideas for pieces of music, but Travis has three dozen for every one of mine. In truth, I admire that. Of course, if you look at it one way, he and I are going to be competition someday. We’re both composers, even taking into consideration that we’re just college freshmen, and we’re both barely scratching the surface of what we will undoubtedly be able to do someday.

I was so deep in thought that I hadn’t noticed Travis get up from the piano and open the door to the practice room. “Hey, Gus.”

“Hey, Trav. Working on your march?”

“Nah, just messing with one of my other pieces.”

See what I mean by a million ideas?

He motioned to the euphonium case in my hand. “Practicing?”

I set the case down. “I should be. I have a lesson here in about twenty minutes. Hey, how’d you do on that theory test earlier?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Meh.” Just like Travis to not divulge his grade. I’d surely find out later.

“Well, I guess I’ll catch you later in Symphonic Band, man. I have to warm up for my lesson.”

“See ya, Gus.”

“See ya, Travis.”

He closed the door and went back to his piano.

I re-adjusted my backpack, hefted my euphonium up and headed into the next empty practice room. Just a quick warm-up, then to my private lesson.

I left the practice room ten minutes later, euphonium back in the case, backpack on my back, and headed for the stairs to the second floor of the music building. If you’ve never lugged a euphonium upstairs, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you don’t know what a euphonium is, look it up; I won’t go into a lengthy description here– once you get me talking about my instrument, it’s hard to stop me– but I strongly suggest educating yourself. My instrument is really of little importance, but if you’re like me and love knowing stuff, do a little research and find out what a euphonium is.

Anyway, the stairs are the kind that go up about five steps, turn 90 degrees, go up five steps again, turn 90 degrees again, and so on. There are four sets of five stairs in the stairwell, so there are a few little landings where you have to turn. The landings are also places where lots of people put notices for upcoming recitals and concerts and things, and the Halloween Flute Concert was coming up, so seeing an orange piece of paper taped to the wall of the first landing was no surprise. On the piece of paper was a drawing of a little stick man. It was just a circle with arms, legs, and a stick body. No face. “HEY, YOU!” was written in big letters. That was it.

I figured it was a little setup for another piece of paper on the second landing, that would say “Come to the Halloween Flute Concert” or something like that. But when I got up to the second landing, I didn’t see anything. Maybe on the third landing I told myself. Taped to the door was another orange piece of paper with the same faceless little stick man, only this one said “YEAH, YOU!” I looked down over the rail to the first landing. The first orange piece of paper was gone. Instead there was a flier for some guy’s composition recital on Sunday.

Now when I’m confused (which isn’t very often, thankfully) I tend to tilt my head towards the floor, furrow my eyebrows and shift my eyes left and right until I figure out what’s going on. This I did for a moment, and I figured that the first paper had been my overactive imagination. Looking back up at the door, I saw the same piece of paper and the same stick man, but now the message said “I’M TALKING TO YOU, GUS!”

Using one of my catch phrases (Holy crap!) I threw open the door and quickly left the stairwell and got onto the second floor of the music building. In an attempt to calm my pounding heart, I took a few deep breaths while walking the six steps to Dr. Loucky’s office. Dr. Loucky is my euphonium professor (and one of my two favorite teachers, for that matter) and I have a private lesson with him for half an hour each week. I was early, as usual, so I sat on the floor outside his office and tried to calm down.

My lesson went well– as they usually do– and as I left his office, I was suddenly reminded of what had happened on the way up the stairs. Now I had to go back down. There were around three or four stairwells and an elevator in the building, but I don’t really like elevators, and I figured that one stairwell is just like any other, so I walked the six steps to the door leading to the stairwell and opened it slowly. I poked my head into the stairwell and craned my neck to see the other side of the door. Nothing. Stepping fully into the stairwell, I peered over the rail at all the landings. The walls were blank except for the bottom one, which had the composition recital notice.

It was just the creativity of an overactive imagination. I have been stressed these last few days.

I went down the stairs as fast as I could– which isn’t very fast when you’re lugging a full backpack and a euphonium– and heaved a sigh of relief when I reached the first floor. Taking a deep breath to regain my composure, I went to the instrument locker room and unlocked my locker. I put in the euphonium and set my backpack on the floor. Unzipping one of the compartments, I took out my four method books and put them in the locker, too. Then I finally looked up to close the door, and taped to the back wall of the locker was an orange piece of paper.

“HELLO, GUS.” The stick man, who up until now had been faceless, had a tiny little smile.

Using my catch phrase again, I slammed the locker shut and hastily closed the combination lock. “What do you want from me?” Looking back on that moment, I realize that that was one very overused line. I grabbed my backpack and ran out of the instrument locker room.

I went to my other classes, and eventually to my acting class, where my mind was drawn completely away from orange paper and the stick man. I was deeply immersed in my monologues and watching the scenes my classmates have been working on.

After acting class I have Symphonic Band. That meant I had to play. That meant I had to open my locker and get my euphonium and music out. It wasn’t until I was standing in front of my locker that my thoughts went back to the stick man and the orange piece of paper. I stood in front of the locker and stared at the combination lock for what seemed like a long time. Finally, I reached out a shaking hand and turned the combination. Clamping my eyes shut, I opened the locker.

I don’t know if I was expecting a monster or something to jump out and attack me, but when nothing happened, I forced my right eye open and saw only my euphonium and the books and things in the locker. No orange paper. I grabbed the folder with my Symphonic Band music in it and my horn and hurriedly slammed the locker shut. I went to my seat in the rehearsal hall and set my music folder on my stand. Kneeling next to my case, I opened it, and inside, sitting on top of my horn was an orange piece of paper. Now the horn is a tight fit in the case, and whenever you put a piece of paper on top of the horn and close the case, the paper gets really wrinkled; I’ve done it before. This piece of paper was smooth, as if it had just been taken out of the package. The stick man was still there, just a stick body and a smile, and now he said “I’M GETTING CLOSER.”

I grabbed the paper and crumbled it into a little ball, then I threw it into one of the trash cans. Shaking, I returned to my seat and started warming up for rehearsal. I lost myself in the music until rehearsal was over. I dreaded putting my horn away, but nothing happened when I opened my locker. I put away the euphonium and my music, and there were no little stick men or orange pieces of paper there when I closed the door and locked it.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and jumped. I spun around, and there was Travis, trumpet case in hand.

“Whoa, Gus. You jumped a mile. Are you okay?”

“Walk with me.” We went out to one of the music building lobbies and I told him about the stick man and the orange paper.

“That’s freaked out, man.”

“You have another class now?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to go to English, but I’m going to skip it. I was up until two last night studying for the theory test this morning.”

Crap. I was going to see if he wanted to go get some dinner. I hadn’t eaten since seven that morning. “I guess I’ll see you in theory tomorrow morning, then.”

“Yeah. See ya.”

“See ya.”

I left the music building, got my bike from the rack and rode as fast as I could to my dorm. When I got to my room, I tossed my stuff on the bed and turned on some music. I was going to relax if it killed me. I sat through that song, and another, and another before getting up and leaving to get some food. After eating, I returned to my room and sat on the bed to do some homework. I opened my backpack and got out my notebook. I had some assignments in my literature class, so I decided to get them out of the way before studying for tomorrow’s music history test.

But when I opened the notebook...

“I CAN SEE YOU!”

The stick man had eyes and angry eyebrows now. I snatched up the paper to crumple it up and got a paper cut. The tip of my first finger started to bleed. I looked down at the paper. The stick man had a little knife.

“I GOT YOU!”

I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the paper into confetti. I threw some in my trash can and some into my roommate’s trash can. Then I ran across the hall to the bathroom and flushed the rest.

“There,” I said. I washed my hands and put a little band-aid on the paper cut. It stung.

I went back to my room. Tacked to the cork board above my bed was the paper and the stick man. He still held the tiny knife. “DID YOU REALLY THINK THAT WOULD WORK?”

“What do you want?” I screamed.

The words faded and more appeared. “YOU KNOW ABOUT HORROR STORIES.”

“What?” I screamed.

“MONSTERS DIE HARD.”

I grabbed my scissors again. “What do you want?”

The window in my room suddenly flew open, letting in the chill air of the late October night. The papers on my cork board fluttered, and the orange paper came off the board and fell onto my bed. It rippled from the wind gusting into the room, and I suddenly saw something rising from the paper. It was a little black figure, about an inch and a half tall. The stick man. He jumped, and the wind carried him all the way to me on the other side of the room. I heard his tiny battle cry as he landed on my shoulder. My body tensed in surprisingly excruciating pain as the stick man plunged his minuscule knife into that soft spot between my collarbone and my neck. I swatted at him, but he hung on, pulling the knife out and plunging it in again. I brought my hand down on him– pushing the knife farther into my shoulder– but I managed to get a hold on him and pick him up. He squirmed in my hand.

Moving to a mirror, I carefully located the knife and plucked it from my shoulder. The knife was about as long as the first joint of my pinkie finger. I crushed the stick man in my hand. His head and arms were sticking out of the top of my fist, and he was trying to pull and push himself free. I took the tiny knife and used it to cut his tiny head off in a last act of desperation. The body fell limp in my hand. The head fell to the ground. There was no blood, but I don’t know why I expected any.

I crushed the head under my foot and twisted it into the floor. When I picked my foot up, the head was in tiny particles, like when you crush a dry leaf. I dropped the body and knife to the floor and crushed them under my foot, as well. I gathered the dust onto a piece of paper and flushed it. When I returned to my room, the orange piece of paper was gone from my bed and the window was closed and the blinds were drawn.

I went to fencing club like always on Tuesday night, and when I came back, I studied, watched TV, and went to bed as usual. Nothing strange happened with orange paper or stick men, and I fell asleep worry free.




From the thoughts of Travis Clem

10/29/2003

One of my classmates died last night. Gus was the other freshman music theory/composition major, and we shared a lot of ideas for pieces, and we joked around in theory and music history.

They say she died in her sleep. Like she had one of those dreams where you
die, and she just didn’t wake up. I know better. She was attacked. Of course, if I were to tell what I know to the police, I would probably be put into a mental institution. It’s a secret I’ll keep forever.
I’m saddened by Gus’s death, but I have another idea for a piece:

Gus and the Stick Man.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Triple Homicide on Train FA-7

"Triple Homicide" was written for the first line fiction contest (http://firstlinefiction.com/) in early November 2009. On December 1, 2009 the results for that contest were posted. "Triple Homicide" won 2nd place.

Enjoy!
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Triple Homicide on Train FA-7

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. Then I read about it again on the news banner that passed in my vision, directly on my retinas. They really wanted this guy caught, if they were beaming it to me. Triple homicide. Not quite what you would call a "savory character." Jon Fredericks was not the kind of guy you wanted to take home to meet the parents.

The subway was crowded, and every eye on every passenger twitched left to right in a quick saccade as the headline passed directly in front of all of them, visible to each individual as clearly as if a max-def computer screen were an inch from his or her face, but invisible to everyone else. This was no hologram, not display on one of the hundreds of hand-sized panels that lined the ceiling of the train. Okay, so the Department of Criminal Control hadn't beamed it directly to me alone; I wasn't being singled out to bring this bastard down. Maybe I would actually have a normal day at work for once: a cup of coffee, maybe a doughnut just to keep to the old cop stereotype, sit for a few hours at my desk and SURPRISE! do some paperwork. It had been days, weeks even, since I had even seen my IN box, and frankly, I was a little afraid of what I would see when I got to it.

The train jerked to a stop and the doors whirred open. People pushed and jostled their way through the crowd to get out, some of their eyes still flicking to read text from individual news reels and other beams they subscribed to as they passed in front of their eyes. An advert for deoderant flew across the train ceiling in foot-high letters. I licked my lips as more people shoved their way onto the train. The doors thumped shut. Two more stops and I would be to HQ.

"Nobody move!"

I groaned. Tell me this wasn't going to be like one of those cheesy media shows where the criminal showed up in public where a cop just happened to be.

Fredericks's "nobody move" comment wasn't obeyed very well; the second he shouted and his voice was followed by the sound of a gun cocking, the bulk of the passengers hit the floor. Well, they really fell into a pile; we were crammed so close together it was hard to just drop. So train FA-7 to downtown became home to what was quite possibly the world's biggest spontaneous dogpile. And at one end of it was triple homicide Jon Fredericks. At the other end was me.

I waited for Fredericks to play the scene like those media shows that dominated the entertainment industry in this part of the world. He didn't disappoint.

"Hands up, buster, or I start shooting into the dogpile around your ankles!"

He called it a dogpile too. I wondered if he was considering beaming out to the Book of Records about it, like I was. The mass of arms and legs around my ankles wriggled and writhed, obviously trying to find a place a little farther away from the fool who was staring the murderer down-- me.
"I said hands up. Trust me bub, you don't want to be a hero. I got a bomb, and I WILL blow this whole train straight to Hell!"

The whole pile of people filling the train car began to scream. It was the weirdest chorale I had ever heard. I wondered if the Book of Records would give us credit for the world's biggest spontaneous singing dogpile. I was looking up the beam frequency when I heard the gun cock again, and the barrel of it was staring me in the face.

"On the floor, pal."

He interrupted my train of thought. And now he was pointing a gun at me, less than an inch from my face. He must have stepped on a lot of people to get all the way across the train like that and right in front of me. "I'm a cop, you know. Captain Rainey, D.C.C." I flashed my badge at him, just for effect. Might as well play it like the shows, if he was going to. I know he got a glimpse of the gun at my hip, too. I was not unarmed.

"You ain't going to pull that on me, bub. If you're a cop, you ain't gonna do anything that makes me wanna hurt these people. So just hand me that gun and then put your hands up."
I slowly took the gun out of its holster. He jerked when I moved my other hand toward it.

"Hey now!"

"I'm just turning on the safety so it doesn't go off accidentally and hurt one of these innocents," I said slowly. I held out the gun.

A shot went off.

Fredericks fell to his knees then flat facedown on top of the dogpile. I flicked the safety of my gun back on and put it back in the holster.

"It's alright, everyone. He's subdued. Dead, in fact. Unless his heart is on the right side of his chest, he's defintely dead."

Shaking and with more than a few whimpers, the people got to their feet and scrambled to get away from Fredericks's body.

"You shot him!" someone said.

I rolled my eyes. Of course I shot him. In real life, you can't just negotiate with criminals. That gets people killed. This isn't a story.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Focus School

"The Focus School" was written during that huge sprint of writing I had in late 2006/early 2007. I believe it was one of the first ones I wrote. The idea for it came from a dream I had the night before.

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The Focus School

Neil was a special and privileged young man. His parents made enough money to send him to a very exclusive and reputable boarding school: The Academy of Concentration for the Creation of Well-Rounded Individuals. That was the name the brochures said, and it was the name many of the parents of students used when asked where their children were taught.

The students just called it the Focus School.

Neil found out very early why it “the Creation of Well-Rounded Individuals” was part of the Focus School’s name: at the Focus School, no one was special. Oh, everyone had their talents and their skills, their gifts and the abilities that set them apart, just like at any other school. But unlike any other school, the Focus School had the Repressors.

Almost immediately after he was dropped off his first day at the Focus School, Neil was fitted with a Repressor. It was a black band about two inches wide that strapped around his waist like a belt, but it was pulled tightly and in direct contact with his skin at all times. And it wasn’t quite around his waist. The Repressor was designed to be worn just below the ribcage.

It was uncomfortable, and Neil didn’t like it. Worse, it couldn’t be removed except by the Headmaster. He didn’t quite understand the purpose of the Repressor until he met the three boys he shared a dormroom with. Neil entered their room, which was small but comfortable enough for four boys, dragging the few things the school allowed students to bring from home. The room was narrow but high, since all four bunks were stacked one on top of the other. A single ladder went up the side of all four.

Charles, handsome but a little overweight with long, streaky light brown hair, lay on the bottommost of the four stacked bunks. Wil, was probably the skinniest person Neil had ever seen, and his dark red buzzed hair stuck straight up, giving him the illusion of height, as well. But his height was just an illusion. He peered down at Neil frm the very top bunk, well over Neil’s head, which almost made Neil dizzy thinking about it. Vaughn was also skinny, with greasy black hair that hung limply just past his ears. He sat in one of the four small padded chairs that were (thankfully) on the floor.

Vaughn grinned. “I didn’t know if you wanted the second or third bunk, so I haven’t picked yet.”

Neil scratched at the Repressor, which was digging uncomfortably into his midsection. “Thanks. I’d rather the lower one, though.”

Vaughn let out a cheerful little whoop and practically flew onto the second-highest bunk. Neil set his few things on his bunk and stretched out uncomfortably.

Charles leaned out and up, his head appearing just in Neil’s sight. “The Repressor bugging you?”

“Yeah. I don’t get what they’re for.”

“What do you know about this school?”

“It’s supposed to make us ‘well-rounded individuals’. That’s all anyone’s told me about it,” Neil replied.

“Charles is already well-rounded!” came Vaughn’s rather high voice from above them.

Charles shook his head. “Make us just like everyone else is all that means. You’re here. That means you’ve got something that makes you special. Really special. Is that right, Neil?”

Confused, Neil nodded. “I was the fastest runner at my old school.”

“Bet you broke a lot of track records, didn’t you?”

“Tons of them.”

Charles stepped out of his bunk and lifted his shirt to reveal a ridiculously muscular torso. He wasn’t overweight– not in a bad way, that is. The black band of the Repressor stood out against his muscles. “I didn’t do anything to earn these muscles. I can lift a bus full of people over my head and walk around with it like it’s a balloon. But now...” He picked up a discarded soda can and squeezed it with his hand. He strained for a moment before the can finally got a few finger-sized indentations. He dropped the can. “This thing makes me weak as water. I can’t stand it!”

“So these things... the Repressors... we have no talents? Is that what you’re saying?”

Vaughn nodded and jumped out of his bed. “I can shrink. Or... could. Now I’m stuck at this height, and it’s awful. I used to hide behind pieces of cereal in our pantry and ride cockroaches and mice.”

The look on Neil’s face was scary. “You mean... I can’t run anymore? This thing makes it so I can’t run?”

“You’ll be lucky if you can jog more than ten feet,” came Wil’s voice.

“What does this thing stop you from doing?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

***

Wil was right; Neil could hardly jog anymore, or even manage a fast walk. Few of the other students at the Focus School were as willing to talk about their gifts as Charles and Vaughn were. They said it was pointless trying to keep the charade that they were special. They were freaks, which was why they were in this school in the first place. Better to accept their normality and get on with their lives than indulge in fantasies.

Neil was in his fourth week at the Focus School when the teachers began to force him to run. He ran races with other students and lost every time. Many times, he was lucky to finish the race before everyone else got sick of waiting for him.

“They’re trying to break you, Neil,” Vaughn told him while trying to catch his breath after one race. “They do it to us all. They’re trying to make you think you’re not special, that there’s nothing to you.”

“But why only to me? Why don’t they humiliate the other students like this?”

“They do. Weightlifting contests... for strong guys like Charles, trivia competitions for the smart kids, long jumps for... people who could jump.”

“What about you? How do they make you feel bad that you can’t go small anymore?”

Vaughn sighed and ran a hand through his greasy hair. “Limbo, Neil. Limbo.”

“This is just wrong.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. But you have to wonder if your parents knew what this place was really like before they decided to send you here. I know for a fact that you’re not the only fast kid here. Sable, that girl who... I eat lunch with a lot... used to run. Like the wind, she said, over hills, so fast her hair would stay pushed back all day after she ran.”

“But why are we here?”

Vaughn shrugged. “My guess is to have the specialness stamped out of us. I’ve heard of people who graduated this school. There aren’t many– this school’s only had three graduating classes so far– but I think that all the exposure to the Repressors kicks the ability out of you for good. Either that, or you don’t get it taken off even after you graduate.”

“Do we not get it taken off when we go home for the summer?”

“Go home for the summer? We don’t get to do that, Neil.”

***

Wil and Vaughn were asleep, and Charles was snoring loudly below him as Neil tugged at the Repressor. It was hard enough getting a single finger underneath the hideous black band, much less pull at it with enough strength to get it off. It was hopeless.

***

“So what is it that makes us special?”

Charles shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“I mean, do you think it’s mutated genes, or extremely recessive traits, or what?”

“Like maybe we’re all products of some awful government experiment and now they’re trying to cover it up,” Charles laughed, but his face suddenly went serious, and he squinted at Neil. “What do your parents do for a living?”

“Mom teaches college French and Dad’s a surgeon.”

“They’re not secret government agents?”

Neil raised an eyebrow. “Are yours?”

After a moment of silence between them, Neil and Charles burst out laughing.

***

Neil had been at the Focus School for what seemed like most of his life now, but it had only been two years. He had finally and grudgingly accepted that he would never run again, or at least not as fast as he used to. But that didn’t mean he liked it. And it didn’t mean that the races against the other students stopped. He, Charles, and Vaughn almost never talked about the gifts they had had anymore, and Wil was as antisocial as ever.

At the “end” of every year (the first really hot day of July was considered the end, since no one went home for the summer anyway) the entire school participated in a mass spirit-breaking marathon of events designed to make every student feel horrible about himself or herself, including footraces, strength and endurance contests, mental tests– at least one event for every possible trait a student could have excelled in before. It was an agonizing day for all concerned. Every student failed miserably at something because of the unmentioned but always thought of Repressors. Many of the students who had any spirit left in them tried to act like there was no importance to the mass events, but they competed anyway, trying to win.

The end of the week would be Neil’s second End of Year Event Marathon, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.

“Ready to lose a bunch of meaningless contests again this year, Neil?” Wil remarked as he passed by at lunch one day.

“Shut up, Wil. You’re going to lose, too, you know.”

Wil was already gone, and he probably hadn’t heard Neil speak.

“Wait...” A glimmer of spark of a thought was forming in Neil’s head. He quickly sought out Vaughn.

“Hey, Speedy,” Vaughn said emotionlessly.

“Vaughn, why do we compete?”

“Because they make us,” he replied around a mouthful of some rather unidentifiable food.

“But why do we try?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“Vaughn, we need to get a message out to all the other students. This could be the most important thing we ever do in our lives.”

***

End of Year Event Marathon morning dawned, and Neil woke feeling happier than he had in a long time. At breakfast, some of the other students were actually smiling, if rather glumly.

The first event was a trivia contest. The questions were always simple, but the students who had once prided themselves in having quick minds were always sluggish thinking and never managed to think of the answers before someone else answered. But this time...

“What is the square root of sixteen?”

The big room was silent. The ten teams of students, grouped together seemingly at random, all appeared to be thinking. In truth, they were grouped by former ability, and they knew it. It was just a matter of waiting now.

A buzzer finally went off. A girl named Tomo timidly answered, “Four?”

“That’s... right...” the teacher didn’t look too happy, knowing exactly which team Tomo belonged to.

Question after question went by, and after each one, there was a long silence while everyone thought. It was always the team of formerly intelligent students that answered.

The trivia-off ended, and the victorious team looked over to the formerly fast students. Neil shot Tomo a wink.

She mouthed a “thank you” back to him.

***

The second event was a weightlifting contest. One by one, the students went up to lift as much weight as they could, and nearly everyone pretended to strain just to lift two hardcover textbooks. Charles, a girl named Jelani, and a number of other formerly strong students lifted far more, even if it was only by lifting five hardcover textbooks.

***

Event by event passed, and the students who normally came in last won the games they should have been winning all the time.

***

The teachers were all eyeing the students skeptically as they lined up for the long footrace. The race began, and Neil began to jog, already feeling that stitch in his side that was the Repressor’s doing. Sable, another formerly fast student, was right next to him, huffing but still jogging. She smiled at Neil. “This was a wonderful idea.”

The finish line was still far ahead of him when Neil had to stop jogging and walk. Glancing behind him, he could see the other students advancing at snail’s pace. He smiled. Even at this rate, he would still be among the winners, as it should be.

The stitch in his side disappeared, and he managed to jog a little again. The wind came up behind him, making him feel like he was going faster.

Wait... he was going faster. His legs were covering ground at a fast jog– no... at a run.

He felt a loosening around his lower torso, and heard a loud snap. The black strip of the Repressor fell out of his shirt and landed on the grass beneath his feet.

It took him a moment to slow to a stop. Sable was right next to him, disbelief evident in her smile.

Behind them, the other students were standing in what seemed like a sea of black strips. They looked around at each other in disbelief, and a few students even picked up the fallen bands to inspect them.

Charles was at the forefront of the lagging students, and he picked up a Repressor and pulled on both ends. A tense moment passed, and a resounding snap filled everyone’s ears as it tore in half.

In a matter of seconds, the race field was in chaos. Students were dashing about, shouting complex scientific theories at the top of their lungs, pulling up huge clods of dirt with their bare hands, and dozens of other things, all at once.

In the chaos, Wil walked up to Neil. “I thought I’d never be able to do this again.” Without another word, he crouched at the knees and jumped straight into the air. He didn’t come down, but hovered over Neil’s head for a moment before shooting off across the sky.

“I’m glad I was able to help you do it,” Neil said as he took off across the field.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Undestiny

"Undestiny" was written tonight, immediately following my completion of my NaNoWriMo project for this year. I'm not really sure how to introduce it, since it's not... really... a... short... story...

Just... yeah. Welcome to my world, I guess.

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Undestiny

Day One

It was only a child, yet it was a beginning. There was nothing surprising about this child, not like other stories. So many great tales begin at the birth of a chosen child, and from the beginning, the greatness of the baby is made known. There is something about the cry of a child of destiny that sets it apart from other newborns. As for this child, it was only a child, indistinguishable from any other by cry or look. It was only a child.

I decided early on that there would be nothing to set my main character on the path of destiny from the very beginning. No special events at birth, no demonstration of unnatural power in the newborn babe, no loss of mother in childbirth. Granted, there were many books I enjoyed reading that had those kinds of things in them, some special circumstances surrounding the birth of the hero that would all come to the forefront later in life and be completely obvious then, proving to a doubting character that he was, indeed, the chosen one.

Hell, why even bother with there being a “chosen one” anyway? It’s been done to death. I suppose there has to be one, though, or else anyone can fit the job. If the regular people didn’t know what to expect, then just anyone could speak up and claim to be the one doing… whatever heroic deeds needed doing. People will cling to anyone who seems to know what he’s doing, who seems to know what’s going on, even if it is just an act.

Unless… someone just fell into the middle of the action and did the deeds without knowing it. Then what? Does that mean he was chosen anyway? Or was it simply chance? I scratched my head and took a bite of the now-quite-melted candy bar next to the keyboard. After years of writing, I’ve developed a taste for melted candy bars. There’s nothing like them. I licked the chocolate off my fingers, poised my hands over the keyboard, and thought some more.

Of course, at that point I had lost my train of thought, because I wound up searching the interweb for funny pictures of cats, and then my own cat distracted me, and then my neighbors started shouting obscenities in the walkway between buildings of the apartment complex. They always do that at the worst possible times. Fine, I’ll go to the bathroom while you finish your little curse-fest and go back inside. Kay? Kay.

Day Two

A child… but not a chosen one. Just a birth. But then won’t that make readers believe what they’ve been fed through the media a hundred times, that writing about the birth of this particular child means something? “Everything is there for a reason,” has been a mantra of mine for years. If I went back and read something about a birth like this, I would expect it to mean something.

Okay, scratch the birth process, and go ahead and skip the whole normal-seeming childhood peppered with strange occurrences, because that would make me expect the same thing. Predestination is not something easily worked with… well actually, it’s really easy to do. I guess that’s why so many people have done it. Well, I’m not going to. I need some time to think. I’ll go get distracted again.

Day Three

Okay, there’s a man, not a child. His childhood was exceedingly normal and boring… but way, that might be cause to suspect. Who really has a normal childhood? Damnit!

Fine. He’s always been pretty boring until something very strange happened! Aliens invaded… no. That’s been done. His parents die. Okay, that hasn’t been done to death. Yeah, right. Um…he loses his… no. He gets a… no. A truck full of toxic waste… no, he’s not a superhero.

This is getting frustrating. Everything has been done. More than once. Everything. It’s practically impossible to really have an original thought.

Oh, hi kitty. Be right back.

I’m back. My cat went away. By went away I mean decided to lie down right next to me and attempt to hit the delete button at every opportunity. Cats are not very good at constructive criticism.

So where am I now? No surprises at birth, because it’s been done. I don’t want to do a completely uneventful childhood, but any events that might make it interesting have already been done. So… we’re at square one. I have a character. And he’s just… going about normal life, until he suddenly finds himself doing deeds foretold long before he was born, even though he’s not the one foretold to do them!

Yeah, right. Foretold deeds have been done and done and done, too. So no prophecies. He’s just… doing deeds that… will save the world. Because the world needs saving.

Right. Every world has some huge cataclysm about to happen unless someone-- not a child of destiny, mind you-- steps up and does something. And that person just… falls into doing it, because that’s totally believable. I can just see that under-enthusiastic lady from the gas station on the corner suddenly finding herself saving the world even while she goes about her regular, everyday life. It would be a far-fetched set of circumstances indeed that would draw her into a world-saving endeavor. You know what, I’ll do this later. Where’s my candy bars?

Day Four

I’m really going to write today. I promise.

So we have a John Everyman with no surprising childhood, nothing special about him at all, and then… something… and happily ever after.

You know, what? I’ll deal with him later. World-saving. Let’s deal with that. Every world has a problem, right? Like our own. We totally have Armageddon-inducing problems right on our doorsteps. Like, if someone doesn’t do something, we’re all going to die in a year, because… we just are. That’s the way events have been playing since the beginning of time, all just looping and spiraling and shooting straight to right now, this moment, when if something certain doesn’t happen, everything just… poof!

I’ll believe that when I see it. Real life doesn’t have those villains, not like the media paints them anyway. I mean, a real life murderer is one thing… but for all the murderers in the world to be part of one big plot to overthrow all the governments of the world at exactly the same time, and then there will be a big coup while no one normal knows what’s going on…

Stupid interweb. I just got distracted again. Apparently I had mail. Heh. Heh heh. Now my train of thought’s gone again. Damnit!

Day Five

I am not dealing with this today.

Day Six

Nope.

Day Seven

I will write something eventually, I swear.

Day Eight

Day Nine

Day Ten

Okay, I’ve decided. I’m writing. And guess what! It’s going to be just like everything else out there: full of clich├ęs and ideas that have been chewed up and spat back out by Earth’s media for decades, centuries! It’s going to be the same old ideas tossed together in the same old ways, with the same old characters facing the same unbelievable problems that we’ve all come to expect.

But guess what? It’s going to stand apart, because I wrote it, and no one’s written like me before.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Lord of Darkness

"The Lord of Darkness" was written at Halloween 2003, my freshman year of college. I had a quote I wanted to use in a story (it's the last line of the story) and friends I wanted to use in a humorous story. I just realized I really should have posted this two weeks ago as a Halloween thing, but oh well.

Enjoy!
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The Lord of Darkness

“Happy Halloween!”

Daniel woke to see his little brother Jeff jumping on his bed, dressed in a Superman costume. “Wake up, Danny! It’s Halloween!”

Daniel sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Halloween’s nothing special until it gets dark, then you go trick-or-treating. Don’t get worked up this early, Jeff.” He reached over to the night stand and got his glasses.

Jeff jumped off the bed, landing squarely on his feet. “Mom says you’re taking me this year.”

“What?” Daniel jumped out of bed and rushed to the kitchen. His mother was busy frying eggs and bacon. “Mom, you’re making me take Jeff out tonight?”

“Danny, you know your father and I are having guests over. Don’t be too upset, please. You’re wearing a costume today anyway, aren’t you?”

Daniel nodded dejectedly. He and some of his college buddies were dressing up as the Greek gods just to freak out all the Greek society on campus. They had picked names out of a hat to see who would be what god. Daniel had drawn Hades, god of the underworld. He had a black toga with gold trim and flames rising from the bottom. His girlfriend’s mom was a master of the sewing machine and had made it for him. He had black sandals with laces that ran up to his knees, and he even had a small pair of horns to put on his head. He wore his contacts instead of his glasses, and he used a tiny bit of hair gel the edges of his eyebrows to turn them slightly upward. It was a cool costume, but he didn’t want to wear it outside in the neighborhood– only on campus with his friends, where he wouldn’t look like a dork. He made that very clear to his mother.

“Danny, since you’ve started college, we haven’t asked you for much. And you know how much Jeff looks up to you. Could you just do this one little thing for us?”

Daniel sighed and noticed movement in the corner of his eye. Jeff was standing in the doorway, his bottom lip in full pouting position and his eyes big like a sad puppy’s. Daniel rolled his eyes. “Oh, all right!”

“YES!” Jeff did a little victory dance.

A half hour later, Daniel was in toga, sandals, and horns. He drove the twenty-five minutes to get to his college campus and met up with his buddies. Anthony was Zeus. He had a sky blue toga and a golden plastic lightning bolt in his hand. Joey wore deep blue and had painted his face, arms, and legs blue. As Poseidon, he had a trident. It would have been a great costume, but Joey had a very odd sense of humor, and he had black swimming flippers on his feet.

“What? He’s the god of the sea. He’s a fish-man!” Joey alone laughed at this.

Michael was Hermes. He wore pale green and even had the winged cap, staff, and sandals. Greg was Apollo. He was in all gold and had painted himself with paint that reflected gold in the sun. He had even sprayed his black hair with gold coloring.

Daniel’s costume was by far the best. He had a very mean look about him, and the horns added a very demonic effect. There were five guys in all, and as they strolled about campus, there were a great number of whispers– some good, some bad.

The usually quiet Anthony suddenly spoke up. “Hey, guys! What has four legs, is big and green, and would kill you if it fell out of a tree and landed on you?”

Daniel, Michael, and Greg shrugged. Joey tried not to laugh; he knew this joke.

“A pool table.” Anthony’s face remained perfectly solemn. Joey burst out laughing. After a moment, so did Daniel and Greg.

“I don’t get it,” Michael mumbled.

***

In an extremely distant and remote location, a child-sized human mutation ran as quickly as he could– on his three legs– to the Fire Throne. A normal-looking guy sat there. But this was no ordinary man. He had a pair of black horns on his head and a long, pointed black tail. He looked down his long, pointed nose at the mutation cowering at his feet. “What?” His voice was deep and guttural, and the mutation fell to his knees.

“There is... important news from above, O Great Lucky.”

The man seized the mutation by his sparse hair and jerked him to a standing position. “I have told you to never call me Lucky! It’s Lucifer!” He dropped the mutation to the stony ground, where the mutation quickly fell into a series of praising motions.

“It is not my will, Great Lucky. The will of your predecessor was that you be called Lucky. My mouth tries to form your right name, but it cannot.”

Lucky growled under his breath and leaned back angrily. “What is this news?”

“The Pantheon has returned.”

Lucky jumped to his feet. The mutation cowered and clasped his hands over his head, fearing he would be lifted by his hair again. But Lucky didn’t move to grab him. “What did you just say?”

“The Pantheon has returned, Great One.”

“The whole Pantheon?”

“No, O Masterful Lucky. Only five so far have revealed themselves. Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes... and Hades is among them, My Lord.”

Lucky kicked the mutation and sent it flying. It landed about ten feet away. Lucky’s angry scream boomed throughout the whole Underworld. He stormed to the Observatory of Death (all things in the Underworld have such names) and stood before the window that floated in the center of the room. Lucky drew back the torn black curtains and thundered, “Show me Hades!”

The window opened and a chill wind blew through the Observatory of Death. Lucky gazed out the window and into the bright daylight of the world above.

***

Daniel and his friends were the only people wearing costumes in their music theory class. Still, it had been fun seeing their classmates’ reactions (and their professor’s reaction) when they filed in together, five togas all in a row. Dr. Linton had chuckled, made a snide comment, and immediately started the lecture. Now the five of them left the room and parted ways. Daniel was finished for the day, but Joey, Anthony, Michael, and Greg still had classes to attend. Daniel went straight to the parking lot and got into his car.

***

“Hades in the twenty-first century! And driving an automovehicle! But he’s still wearing that ridiculous robe! You’d think he’d have gotten with the times!”

“I believe it’s called a car, Great One, and he’s wearing a toga.” The mutation shuddered as he spoke.

“Quiet, Runt! Don’t make me kick you again.”

Runt fell to his knees. “My apologies, Mighty Lucky!”

Lucky snapped his fingers. The Fire Throne appeared behind him, and he sank into it, chin rested on his fist. He closed his eyes and sat deep in thought for a moment. Runt looked on in interest.

“I’ve got it!” Lucky yelled so suddenly that Runt jumped in surprise and scurried behind the Fire Throne. Lucky reached an arm behind the Fire Throne and grabbed Runt by the scruff of the neck. He pulled Runt around and held him up until they were eye to eye.

“Hades is back to usurp my throne, right?”

Runt was unsure, but he was too afraid to disagree, so he nodded.

Lucky dropped him. “But if Hades were to die, he would be sent straight here, right?”

Runt nodded again.

Lucky stood. The Fire Throne disappeared, and Lucky started pacing. “If he came here, he would be under my jurisdiction. I could control him. You know what this means, Runt?”

“Uh... yes, but you say it first.”

Lucky grabbed Runt by the scruff of the neck again. “All I have to do is kill him, and he’ll be mine!”

***

Daniel sat idly in his unmoving car. “I can’t believe there’s this much traffic this early on a Friday! It’s Halloween, for crying out loud! Shouldn’t you people be at home putting up decorations or carving pumpkins or something right now?” He pounded the steering wheel with his fist. The horn honked, and that set off a chain reaction of angry people honking their horns.

The light turned green, and the long line of cars in front of Daniel pulled forward. The truck in front of Daniel finally started to move, and Daniel smiled. As he neared the light, it changed again. Daniel stopped once he saw the light change. The truck in front of him had kept going, and Daniel had front row seat as an airplane fell out of the sky and landed on the truck.

Daniel stared, his mouth hanging wide open. If I hadn’t stopped, it would have hit me, too, he thought.

***

In the Underworld’s Observatory of Death, Lucky pulled at his hair angrily and screamed. “Who’d have thought Hades would be such a safe driver?”

“Not so easy, is it, Lucky?”

Lucky turned around. He knew that voice. Standing in the doorway was a very smug-looking man with gold-colored hair, black eyes, and eerily white skin. There were two quarter-sized bald spots on either side of his head just above the hairline. He smiled, showing sparkling white teeth, two of which were almost like fangs. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest.

“What are you doing here?” Lucky snapped.

“Can’t kill Hades, eh, Lucky? Can’t prove what you claimed all those years ago?”

“Shut up, Satan; I don’t want to hear it. Get back to your chamber!”

Satan strode up to Lucky. He attempted to put an arm around Lucky’s shoulders, but the chains on his arms wouldn’t allow him to stretch far enough. At best, he would have strangled him. Satan gave up and crossed his arms over his chest again. “Are you forgetting how you got here, Lucifer?” Satan spat out the name like it was something dirty. Runt had cowered before Lucky before, but now he sought refuge behind Lucky’s legs. He clasped Lucky’s ankles, shivering violently. “Did I not give you this job? I can take it back if you don’t prove yourself a better Devil than I was. If you lose Hell to that bloody Greek...”

“I said shut up! And it’s the Underworld, not Hell!”

“Lucky, Lucky, Lucky. Sometimes I forget how young you are.” Satan shook his head.

“I’ve been the Devil for six centuries!”

“Compared to my two milennia? Or Beelzebub’s sixty-five million years? You’re young, Lucky. And you don’t have what it takes!”

Lucky hung his head. “Then can you help me?”

Satan put a hand on Lucky’s shoulder. “I thought you’d never ask.”

***

Daniel was still shaking in fear when he got home. He told his mother what had happened, and once she realized how close he had come to being killed, she hugged him tightly and covered him with kisses. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Mom.”

“Are you sure? You might have internal injuries.”

“I’m fine, Mom. Really. I’m just kind of scared and tired. I’m going to take a quick nap.”

“Didn’t get much sleep last night?”

“Nah.” Daniel retreated into his room. He changed from his costume back into his pajamas and curled up in his bed. He fell asleep almost instantly.

Daniel had been asleep for a very short while when his mother left the house to get Jeff from school. It was a half day for the elementary school kids. The classes were having little Halloween parties and then leaving. Daniel’s mother wouldn’t return for half an hour with Jeff, and while they were gone Daniel was deep asleep, so he didn’t hear the door to his room open.

A small, dark shadow entered Daniel’s bedroom. A pistol was silhouetted in the shadow’s hand. The shadow crept up to Daniel slowly and silently, then pressed the pistol to his head. There was a brief moment of stillness, then the shadow pulled the trigger. Daniel shot awake and a hand flew to the side of his head. His fingers came back wet. The shadow was nowhere to be seen.

***

“A water gun?! You shot him with a water gun?!” Satan gnashed his teeth.

“It... looked real,” Runt stuttered, shivering violently from head to toe.

Satan grabbed Runt by the neck and lifted him. “Where did you get that pistol?”

“It was in one of the other rooms. On the floor.” Runt’s voice came out raspy and coarse. His hands flew to Satan’s trying desperately to pry them away.

“Was it the room with the cartoon character posters on the walls? And the sky blue paint? And was the bed shaped like a race car?”

Runt nodded, unable to speak.

Satan dropped Runt with a thud. “That was the little boy’s room! You honestly thought a kid’s parents would leave a pistol sitting on the floor in his room?”

Runt shrugged. “It is America.”

Lucky kicked Runt. “Idiot!” He sank into the Fire Throne. “We’ve got to get Hades to die! Do you have any more bright ideas, Satan?”

“Only one, but you’ll have to take my chains off and let me go topside.”

***

The rest of the day went by quickly and without anymore odd events. Daniel soon found himself back in his toga, sandals, and horns, leading SuperJeff around the neighborhood. The sun was nearly gone, but the streetlights still hadn’t been turned on, leaving the streets dark and creepy-looking. Costumed children and parents moved in clusters, and “trick-or-treats” chorused up and down the road. Jeff was carrying a pumpkin bucket with a lot of candy in it. Daniel towed around a pillowcase. Whenever Jeff’s pumpkin was full, he emptied it into the pillowcase so he could go back for more. It was a very big neighborhood, and Jeff had emptied the pumpkin at least three times already.

“Isn’t this enough, Jeff?” Daniel held open the bag so Jeff could make
another deposit.

“We haven’t even gone through the whole neighborhood yet!” Jeff whined. “We still need to go down that road.” He pointed toward one of the side roads that led further into the subdivision.

At that moment, all the streetlights turned on, bathing the neighborhood in a ghostly yellow glow. Only the road Jeff was pointing to remained dark. Some of the lights on that road flickered weakly, but most of them didn’t even try to turn on. One by one the flickering lights went out for good.

“I don’t think we should go down there, Jeff. Not while it’s this dark.”

Jeff pulled on the sash that cinched the toga around Daniel’s waist. “I see some porch lights on down there! They have candy!”

Daniel finally gave in, and the brothers walked down the dim side street. An owl hooted, and Jeff clutched Daniel’s leg tightly.

“You scared, little buddy?”

“N-n--n-no.” Jeff’s voice shook, but he loosened his death grip on Daniel’s leg.

They stopped in front of the first house with a lit porch light. Daniel stayed on the sidewalk while Jeff went up and knocked on the door. Daniel watched as the door opened, but he was distracted by the sound of breathing behind him and a tap on his shoulder. He turned sharply and saw a man dressed in red pajamas with red horns, a red pitchfork, and a red tail. He had goat’s legs instead of human legs, and a thin black mustache and pointed goatee adorned his face.

Daniel screamed. So did the guy behind him. The devil-man drew back his pitchfork, and Daniel realized it wasn’t made of plastic, but red-hot iron. He punched at the devil’s face with all his might. The devil fell backward and disappeared a split second before he hit the ground. Daniel was breathing heavily, nearly petrified with fear.

“Danny? Can we go home now? All the houses around here are giving out stupid apples and pennies.”

“Yeah... yeah. Let’s go home.” They had just turned and started running
toward their house when the streetlights on the road poured forth a hearty yellow glow. They didn’t stop until they got to their house.

***

Lucky was throwing a tantrum. “I can’t believe that didn’t work! You almost had him!”

Satan stepped out of the devil costume and shrugged. “It used to work, back in the day. You should’ve seen the early Catholics when I used to do that to them.”

Runt was giggling like a little schoolgirl– uh, mutation. Yeah, a little schoolmutation. That’s it. “You went down like a sack of potatoes, Satan. One punch, and KA-POW! Down for the count!”

Lucky shot an evil glance at Runt and another at Satan. Runt cowered. Satan’s chains reappeared on his wrists. “What else can we try?”

***

A veritable mountain of candy flowed forth from the pillowcase, and Jeff practically dived into it.

“Now share with your brother, Jeff. Remember, he did take you out tonight.”

“Yeah, I know.” Jeff started sorting through the pile of pre-wrapped sugar and tossed a small package of candy corn to Daniel. “Here. I hate candy corn.”

Daniel, on the other hand, loved candy corn, and he immediately ripped open the package and popped a piece into his mouth. It caught in his throat, and he choked to death instantly.

***

Whiteness surrounded Daniel. The walls were white, the furniture was white, and even his clothes were white. And there were other people of all ages around, sitting in chairs, standing and talking in groups. They all wore white, too. Cheesy waiting room music was playing softly in the background.

A receptionist sat at a desk in the corner. Daniel walked up to her. “Excuse me?”

“Welcome to Purgatory. Please wait until your name is called.”

Daniel sank into a squishy white chair. Next to him was an old woman. She smiled at him. “What happened to you?”

“What?”

“How did you kick the bucket?”

“You mean I’m dead?”

The waiting room went silent for a moment. Even the cheesy music stopped. Then everyone burst out laughing.

“Of course you’re dead, young man. You see, I’ve been attached to life support for three weeks. Someone tripped over the cord and cut me off. That’s how I died. How did you die?”

“I choked on a piece of candy corn.”

“Tsk. Tsk. It’s always sugar with you young people.”

The music came back, and people resumed their general conversation. Daniel heard his name called, and a man dressed all in black appeared before him. A hush fell over the waiting room. “Come, my son.” The man reached out his hand.

Daniel took the man’s hand and was pulled violently away from the waiting room. He was immediately surrounded with bubbling lava and fire.

“Welcome to the Underworld, Hades. I am Lucifer.”

“You mean I went to He– “

”SHH! We don’t call it that here. I’ve legally changed the name. It is the Underworld now. Hell is such a strong word.”

“Why did I come here?”

Lucifer motioned to the wide expanse of the Underworld. “I want to offer you a job.”

“What?”

“I need an assistant who isn’t an idiot. I’ve tried three times to kill you today, and each time you foiled me. I need a mind like yours to help me reap souls.”

Daniel crossed his arms. “What’s in it for me?”

A microphone appeared in Lucifer’s hand. “Tell him what he’ll get, Satan!”

Satan appeared, also holding a microphone. “Well, Lucky, if Daniel chooses to become your assistant, he will NOT be doomed to spend all eternity in a pot of boiling lava filled with ravenous piranha and sharks while being poked in the butt with sharp metal objects!”

From somewhere, Daniel heard a crowd go, “Oooh! Aaah!”

“He will also become your successor should you ever fail to accomplish your duties or retire!”

The invisible crowd began to cheer and applaud.

The microphone in Lucifer’s hand disappeared and was replaced by a sheet of parchment and a quill pen. “Do we have a deal?”

“Between a tortured eternity and becoming the new Devil? Duh!” Daniel seized the quill pen and signed his name. But instead of “Daniel” the name “Mephistopheles” appeared on the contract.

Lucifer shook Daniel’s hand. “You’re now officially Mephistopheles, my successor. I’m retiring now. I was never meant to have this job.” He popped out of sight, and the contract drifted down, landed on the Fire Throne, and disappeared. Satan approached Mephistopheles and shook his hand.

“Hello, Devil. Welcome to Hell.”