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Archive for the ‘Short Story’ Category

New Project: Excerpt

The taillights faded, their reddened glow swimming into a pinkish hue before succumbing to the darkness.  The shrill pierce of the screams fading along with the color.

From the hill top, an open mouth gaped into the darkness, the pale of his eyes interrupted only by the blinking of his lids.  Humor had vanished, leaving only an empty churn deep in the gut.  Bitter bile flooded his throat, foreshadowing the rising tied, and he doubled over.  The contents of his dinner, a double bacon cheeseburger and a watery lite beer, the pride of Elton’s Diner on the edge of tiny Carleton Crest, soaked the gravel shoulder of the highway.  His stomach clenched once and then again, until only a coughing rasp escaped.  Still it heaved again.

“We’re so stupid,” the blonde had laughed when he had finally delivered them to the rust-colored Honda Fit, sitting in the darkened gravel parking lot.

He’d laughed, less out of amusement than awkwardness.  “Nah, people get lost out here all the time.  Y’all take care now and next time you think about hiking ol’ Yellowtail, bring a map along with ya!”

But people didn’t lose their way all the time.  In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even seen a stranger hiking the trails that wound their way up the sides of the half-domed granite peak like the knot of a drunken sailor.  To be honest, he didn’t even know if there were trail maps available.  But one would hardly need a map, anyway.  There was but one side up the rocky incline, beyond which a sheer cliff cascaded straight into the surf below.  Oh sure, locals were occasionally found dashed along the rocks at the base of the cliff, particularly high schoolers, unable to hold their liquor and overflowing with adolescent invincibility and lust.  It was a potentially deadly combination to which Carleton Crest youth were too often not quite immune.  Why, just last year a couple of star-crossed high school lovers had disappeared over the cliff, although whether the tragedy had been accidental or a suicide pact had stoked the town’s gossip mill for months.

Strangers were a different matter, though.  Outsiders simply didn’t come to Carleton Crest, let alone get lost hiking the hills.  And yet, they had.  These three, all of them in their late twenties, he would have guessed.  The man, a quiet one without much to say at all.  Sort of non-descript, except for the scar that scrunched up his cheek, but that didn’t detract from his overall attractiveness.  The two others – women.  One blonde, with wavy bangs that just poked out from beneath the front of the blue bandana she wore like the Aunt Jemima character on the syrup bottles.  The other a brunette, her belly swollen considerably with expectancy.  Seven months, they’d told him.  Nope, no father in the picture.   He hadn’t pried further, and no explanation was given, only a raised eyebrow by their male companion.

It had been their yells that had piqued Roderick’s ears earlier. Not panicked cries, but more a sing-song yodeling that had wound its way amongst the scraggly evergreens and invasive kudzu that dotted the hills surrounding Yellowtail.   His hearing only revealed long enough to reset the playlist on his iPod, but long enough to hear the voices.

At first, it hadn’t registered that what he heard were even human and not the random howl of coyotes that could increasingly be heard in the area these days.  He’d never seen the coyotes himself, but he heard them aplenty.  And their scat littered nearly every trail in and around the checkerboard plots of state forest and private preserves that dotted the coastline.  He hadn’t heard them as a child, although he’d roamed these hills and woods daily, it seemed.  No, the coyotes had arrived more recently, slowly moving in as the urban push from the larger metropolises of Silver Springs and Gauntlet increasingly intruded into their natural domain.

Tires clawing at the loose gravel, followed by a slight popping sound.  That’s all he’d heard before the deep splash as the Honda’s front end hit the water.  He’d turned, and through the shadows, the taillights had move away from the shore, but only about six feet before settling into the still, deep water.  Screams.  Then nothing.

He’d taken two steps toward the boat ramp, an instinctual, heroic urge to sprint to the rescue.  But something in his mind held him back, a split second of self-preservation that swept over him and halted his movement.  In an instant, he crouched down into the kudzu.  And in the next, a slight breeze kicked up around him, and he felt slight movement.  He spun around, all senses on high alert, his eyes scanning left as the dark shadow drifted right.  By the time his eyes moved back in that direction, it was gone.  But the eerie cold remained high in his chest, where his heart beat a staccato rhythm.  The adrenalin surged through his body, and he felt his stomach clench once again.  But this time, he wrestled the retch back down.  And slowly, he raised back up to his feet.

The water was still once again, where the stubby little car had disappeared.  The night air was strangely silent.  Even the evening birds had gone quiet, as if no one wanted to admit to what they had seen.  Still, Roderick remain motionless, his ears straining to pick up even the slighted sound.  Little more than a flutter could be heard at all, as if a lone bird had taken flight from the frightful scene of the accident.  Within moments, even the fluttering was gone.  Then just a void.

Without another sound, Roderick slipped silently back up the trail, his smooth gait moving quicker and quicker with each passing minute, until he too had left the shoreline far behind the distant bluffs and he disappeared into the wood line of the forest preserve.

________________

High above, a solitary figure waited patiently for the man in the kudzu to depart.  In the green haze of the night vision goggles, he watch the man begin moving, slowly and deliberately at first, but building up speed as he went until finally, he disappeared into the dense forest.  That had been close.  Too close.  How had he missed seeing the man on the hilltop, until he had been nearly on top of him.  A quick tuck of his feet, and a bit of luck as the man turned left instead of right, and he’d swept just above and beyond.  Yes, far too close for comfort.

The figure let out a silent sigh, one that had been held inside for far too long.  His temples pounded, as he slowly turned counterclockwise and drifted down the coast line.  Reaching up to the lanyard that hung limp from his left shoulder, he slid a darkened bead down the nylon cord.  And with his fingers, he traced up from the bottom.  ThreeThree down and counting.  Fifteen to go.

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Lucy

In the shadowy twilight, she lay in silence, awakened by a faint rapping.  Rolling over on the discolored mattress, her soporific eyes sought out the culprit.  The colored remnants of summer’s foliage, dried and dying in the cool autumn air, tap danced wildly against the warped glass with every gust of the wind.  Soon she would need to be heading home, she knew.  Still, she didn’t move.

The lone visitor to a dwelling long bereft of any human attention, Lucy often returned to explore the hidden nooks and dusty crannies of the aging estate.  Today had been no different.  Sun-drenched adventure spawned by a nimble escape from home had soured with the near run-in with the Terrell twins, irreverent in their sophomoric humor and intolerant of all else.  Only a quick detour through the damp alley that ran from Tremont Street to O’Malley Boulevard had averted disaster.   But the chase had left her exhausted and scared.  Hidden beneath the old sycamore, she had caught her breath before tiptoeing up to her favorite haunt.

The old Reynolds estate, that once had played host to gala social parties, now stood rotting, a decrepit wooden box sandwiched between opulent brick homes and three-car garages.  Surrounded by weed-covered paths that wound through knee-high crabgrass, its once brightly colored siding had faded, along with is majesty.  Condemned by the neighborhood and city alike, the dilapidated structure seemed to sense its fate, the sagging porch expressing its ultimate dejection.

An eyesore to most, Lucy found respite in the old house, a solitary comfort and peaceful escape from the bustle of a neighborhood increasingly impersonal and cruel.  Not that Lucy opposed the steady march of progress.  She didn’t.  Her preference, rather, lay with simpler pleasures, lazy strolls through the pastoral meadows and the freedom of unrestrained adventure.

Rising to her feet, Lucy yawned and stretched.  She shivered as the chilled tendrils of the seasonal  wind snuck through the old window and between the ramshackle boards of the door.  Only the spot on which she had laid was still warm, and she knew she couldn’t stay long.   She would be expected at home. 

Balancing on the edge of the bed, she carefully stepped down amid the remnants of window panes long ago shattered by thrown rocks of delinquents.  She knew right where to step, a visible path of petite footsteps imprinted on the dust-covered floor.  It was a trail she had used many times, a frequent sojourn across faded parquet floors that had once ornately decorated the parlor.  Now only dust bunnies waltzed to the whistling wind that wound through the empty corridor.

A dank, mildewy odor emanated from a soggy sofa, the only furniture that remained in a once-grand living room.  Following the hall past a door that hung awkwardly from one twisted hinge, Lucy cautiously crept into the kitchen.  The refrigerator was empty, she knew, having explored its innards on her first visit to the old house.  Nor did she pause as she passed the upturned pot that lay in the center of the tiled floor.  A warped and blackened cast iron reminder of past culinary concoctions, it too had outlasted its owners.  Its only service now as a reminder that dinner would be waiting at home.  Hunger drove her thoughts now. 

Dark clouds were gathering overhead, obscuring a waxing sliver of pale moon in the evening sky as Lucy squeezed through the small opening where vandals had once tried to break into the house.  She could smell the brewing storm and quickened her pace.  At the corner to the alley, she hesitated, memories of the delinquent youth vivid in her mind.  All was clear, though, and she quickly sped along the cracked cement, leaping stagnant puddles of water that gathered at the base of drainpipes.  Soon the rainwater would run steady from the rooftops, and she was determined not to be caught in the storm.

With hardly a glance in either direction as she exited the alley, and with a burst of speed between two parked cars, Lucy sprinted across the last stretch of asphalt.  Easing to a walk on the leaf-covered lawn, she heard the slam of the porch screen door.  Crouching down, she glanced toward the kitchen window, wondering if her afternoon absence had been noticed at all.  She crept forward slowly, confident in the concealment provided by the darkness.  As she neared the back porch, she froze.  There in the doorway stood a large woman, silhouetted against the light from the kitchen.  In one hand she held a meat cleaver and in the other a small bowl.  Squinting into the darkness, the woman reached to the side of the door and instantly the backyard was flooded in light.  Lucy flattened out along the ground, but it was no use.  The old woman had seen her.

“There you are, Lucy.  Back from your adventures just in time for supper, huh?” said the old woman, smiling toward her prone figure.  Swinging open the screen door, she set the bowl on the edge of the porch. “Well, come on.  It’s your favorite…tuna.”  Lucy purred in appreciation.

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The Willow

Swaying greenish hues of new growth accentuated the chalky blue sky beyond the tallest reaches of the old willow.  Or so Megan imagined.  From her vantage point, she was aware of only the chilling spring breeze that snaked between the drooping, long-leafed branches, tickling her exposed, pale neck.  Lying amidst the twisted roots that extend from the thick and deeply scarred trunk, her head lay hidden beneath a patterned polyester scarf of navy and jade diamonds, twisted into a macabre pattern across her face.  The rhythmic pulsing of the cloth where it obscured her mouth marked her shallow breathing, and a barely perceptible pulse fluttered inches from her exposed clavicle, disappearing beneath the slender curve of her jaw.

A meditative mood gripped Megan, brought about by thoughts of an imperfect life tangled in a pirouette of loss and recovery.  Her stubborn survival reflected in the nearby water, a warm pocket of comfortable numbness.  And yet this was not a senseless contemplation, a shield of defensive passivity, but rather a deliberate, spiritual acceptance of the ebb and flow of emotional tides that had long defined her existence.

Months had passed since her last visit to the old willow.  The long winter months had never before kept her away, she reflected, content to attribute her absence more to the long and frigid seasons than to anything more innately personal.  In reality, the past six months had marked a turning point in Megan’s adult life, a turbulent period of intensely passionate and hauntingly abusive realizations.  Her return to the banks of the slow river and to the gnarled and protective limbs of the aging tree signaled the end of a search for unanswered questions of her past.

A slender finger hooked the ragged and worn edge of the scarf, pulling the humidity dampened cloth from her mouth.  The raspberry tip of her tongue flicked across the edge of her small mouth, retracting slightly from the faint saltiness of perspiration trapped among the invisible hairs of her upper lip.  The corners of her mouth turned up slightly as she inhaled the cooler, dry air and exhaled humid warmth through her nose.  She had missed the subtle aroma of springtime, the earthy mixture of dew and thawed decay that signaled new beginnings.

Reaching up with blind fingers, Megan felt for the damp, waxy leaves that cascaded from the overhead branches almost to the shaded, naked ground.  Weaving her fingers through the long, slender tendrils for which lazy willows are known, she remembered a distant time when as a young girl, she had sought refuge under this very tree for hours.  Her father frequently joined her in its shadow, his hands stroking her waist-length, flaxen hair as together they absorbed the whispers of the wind through the young branches,  a sound that always reminded her of fingers across silken dresses.  The memories of the bond forged between father and daughter, precious and fleeting, had been dormant far too long, she realized, the smile on her taut lips obscuring the teardrop that threatened to overflow  her dark eyes.

The single, resounding bark of a distant dog interrupted her reflective moment.  An instant surge of startled adrenalin coursed through her young body, a dreadful emptiness, rooted deep in her core and emanating in nauseous waves through each extremity.  Its gnawing sensation transported her to her mother’s farewell confession, a dying plea for forgiveness that had served to simultaneously wound and heal Megan’s teenage soul.

A single father wracked with guilt and insecurities brought about by the failure of an immature marriage, Megan knew he had tried his best to be a supportive father.  His handicap, however, was the stereotyped boundaries of emotional rigidity.  She had long understood his struggles as a divorced dad, silenced from full participation in their lives by the decisions of an unhappy and recklessly flawed mother.  But it was the quenched flame of her mother’s influence, Megan knew, that had forced an inexperienced and uncertain father into the role of sole provider and ill-equipped comforter to a troubled and rebellious teen daughter.

Despite this, he had been there for her through it all, holding her and drying the tear soaked cheeks in the months that followed her mother’s death, patiently encouraging her as she navigated the treacherous waters of adolescence.  And when she had fled his arms in search of her own life adventure, he had bravely smiled and backed into his own solitary world once again, content to provide distant comfort across the phone lines, a bystander and silent partner.

In her father’s later years, Megan knew, the willow had become his private sanctuary, shaded from the prying eyes of outsiders and from which he could escape the pressures and judgments of others, as well as those he tragically held for himself.   On her monthly visits Megan would often find him under its outstretched arms, surrounded by his watercolors and rickety easel, painting away the tears and heartache borne out of the ominous, grayish-green storm clouds that stained his soul.  She looked forward to her own silent retreats to the lone guardian of the river, to reflect and restore the confidence that too quickly evaporated with her return to the bustle of city life.  In a strange way, this unusually common tree provided a healing force from which Megan found repeated inspiration in the darkest moments of her life.

And then suddenly, her father was gone.  Megan learned of the cancer only after his death, assuming instead that he had succumbed to the same despair that had claimed her mother.  The revelation not only served to ease her sorrow, but to elevate her respect for the stoic manner in which her father had lived his life, content to hide his own suffering from the others to minimize theirs.  Only in his death did Megan understand how strong his influence on her life had been, and how much she would miss his quiet, loving talks and knowing guidance, rarely spontaneously offered, but available when requested.  Although her selfish wounds had healed in time, the decision to once again visit the willow had taken longer to reconcile.  His final wish, expressed in a shaky, handwritten note was found next to his bedside.  When she had first read the slightly crumpled note, she had cried, not tears of sadness but in response to the reflected sentiment and deliberately vague description of his desire, instructions only she could comprehend.  Tears running down her face, she had resolved to honor him his request.

And so Megan returned, parking beyond the bridge and carefully making her way along the meandering river and around the final hillside, spotting the willow that seemed even taller and more majestic than she had remembered.  It was almost as though the tree’s timeless beauty had grown statelier since her father’s passing. Within its inner sanctum, she reclined and covered her face, content to relive snippets of the experiences they had shared there, father and daughter.

Megan rolled over and slowly pushed herself to her hands and knees, pulled the scarf from her face and rocked back into a crouch.  The breeze hit her overheated skin, strands of hair stuck haphazardly to the thinly beaded sweat on her forehead, and she shivered.  She had always felt protected within the interior branches of the tree, obscured from the outside world in a tent of green leaves and yellowing, flowing branches.  Reaching out she parted the swaying foliage, her face barely visible to the outside world, the way a shy toddler hides behind a parent’s legs, timidly curious about those she may encounter.  High atop the hill stood the old farmhouse, silhouetted against the cloudless sky.  For Megan, the clouded memories of a tragic childhood made her turn away, her brow furrowed like the plowed fields before her.  The willow itself had grown up at the edge of the farm, casting a long shadow across the banks of the shallow river, its normally clear water muddied by the seasonal thaw.  Only its proximity to the river had kept it from being plowed under like the others, the steady expansion of tillable dirt on which corn rows would soon appear in their annual thrust toward the heavens.

From nature’s hiding place, Megan doubted the current owners would mind her trespass.  After all, she had offered them a bargain for the small farm, although at the time it had seemed a fair price, a mere transaction in her mind of memories for money.  At first, Megan had missed the farm, with its rolling, golden brown prairies and supple pine forests. Its haunting memories accompanied her always, her constant and at times unwilling companion in the city.  Yet, she longed for solace amongst the branches of the towering willow, its leafy arms that had soaked up her tears and patiently born her mournful cries.    The words of her father echoed in her thoughts, “The tree is our refuge and our salvation.  It breathes life into us and takes little more than our sorrows in return.”

Reaching out, Megan hoisted the small backpack onto her lap, careful to avoid jostling its contents.  She paused and pulled open the zipper of the main compartment, exhaling and pausing momentarily as the indigo fabric gave way to the blackened interior.  A cold sensation swept over her, causing her to tremble and hunch her shoulders in uncertainty.  With shaking hands, she withdrew a hand-crafted, dark grained wooden box.  Crawling to the edge of the river, still under the overhanging willow fronds, she gently unclasped the top.  With her left hand, she grasped a hold of an outstretched root of the big tree, seeking reassurance and comfort from her old friend.  Holding her breath in anticipation, she squeezed her eyes shut, as if in a last attempt to hold onto the past.  Then, with three deliberate shakes of her wrist, she emptied the contents of the urn.  Opening her eyes, now wet with tears of relief and sadness, Megan watched the ashes disperse into the wind beyond the swaying branches, some alighting on the current of the river, the ash quickly transforming from a light grey to a muddy brown as it mixed with the spring thaw.

“I love you, Daddy,” she whispered in a barely audible voice as a gust of wind swept around her body, its fingers lifting her hair in a joyous dance.  Closing her shining eyes once more, she felt the strength of her father’s embrace in the gently swirling wind.  Climbing to her feet, her peaceful face bathed in the warmth of the setting sun, the last rays of an ideal spring afternoon.  She smiled and ducking her head slightly, pushed aside the willow’s leaves, as an actor parts a stage curtain, appearing before the audience to announce the coming performance.  The willow branches closed behind her as she stepped forward, content to leave her past amongst its whispered leaves.

The reason for her visit complete, Megan slowly made her way back toward the parked car, pausing once to look back at the deeply bending tree, its leaves turning faintly orange in the light of the setting sun.  Pressing her lips together and tilting her head back, she gazed at the wispy cirrus clouds overhead.  Placing a hand on her swelling belly, she felt the swimming push of her unborn child, an elbow or knee as it flipped within her, a reminder that the torch of nurturer and comforter would soon be passed.  It would be her role to embrace, much as her father had for her.  Warmth enveloped her, a feeling of fatherly contentment and confidence that marked the beginning, not the end.

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