Stories Page 4
Editor's Pick! 2nd Place Winner*****
by Tory Brannigan
It had not rained for three years. Let me correct that. An appreciable amount of precipitation had not fallen for three years. The lack of rain not only dried the ground into immense fields of cracks as the arid land shriveled up on itself, but also seemed to dry up all human emotions. Love, joy, and laughter were the first to go. Could I really recall the last time I had laughed in wild abandon? Lately it had become the mirthless laugh when someone said they thought the clouds looked like thunderheads.
I watched the man I had let into my life five years ago walking up to our house. The first two years our love blossomed between us as the increased rainfall caused the flowers to blossom and flourish. The flowers were all desiccated into dust and blown away by the wind long ago and our love had followed the same path.
I continued to watch him as he advanced across the meadow of dust that had once been filled with swaying wildflowers and native grasses. And I was afraid. I was afraid I could not love anymore. My love dried to dust like the meadow. Other emotions thrived in these parched and dry conditions. Those like fear and hate and despair. Tempers had flared between ourselves and our neighbors and also between the two of us. Once your energy is expended on fear and hate, only despair is left since despair does not require any action on your part.
I switched my gaze back from my inward thoughts to the love of my life. My man that used to walk with a spring in his step and now trudged along with no happiness, dread weighing heavily in his steps. Clutched protectively in his arms was a bucket of water, tightly covered to not lose one precious drop. As he stepped closer, I could see the bruise darkening into the color of a sweet purple plum on his cheek. This is what the drought had reduced people to - bickering and fighting over the last few liquid drops of life.
Even though I attempted to quell the disappointment in my heart, I could not. He only carried one bucket. There should have been two. I did not know what kind of battle he had had to endure to bring home the one bucket full of water, but I still blamed him, even though I knew it was not his fault. I said not a word, but knew he read the accusations in my eyes. His own eyes mirrored what mine held when I went to meet him. We do not accuse with our lips anymore, that also requires too much energy. Instead, we use our eyes and our actions.
He walked past me, no word breaking his cracked and chapped lips. Swinging the kitchen screen door open, he strode to the counter and heaved the bucket up. He stared at it for a moment; shoulders hunched to his ears, not willing to face me, his posture defensive. After an interminable time, I spoke. "Get yourself a drink. It's a hundred and ten degrees today."
"I'm not thirsty," he intoned listlessly. A blatant lie, I knew. We had drunk the last of our water yesterday afternoon. I let his comment slide. Too defeated to want to argue.
I walked over and got myself a glass of water. I let the cool trickles of fluid remove the desert sand from my throat as the stream gurgled down. Like the ground outside, it felt as if my throat absorbed all the water before it even reached my stomach. The greedy cells along the route sucked up the moisture.
Trying to atone for my attitude, I turned Clay's face toward me to examine the bruise gracing his cheek. There was no blood, so I reached for the aspirin bottle on the top shelf of the cabinet.
"It doesn't hurt," he informed me, again using that tone without any inflection, devoid of any emotion. Another lie; I had felt him flinch when my fingers traced the edge of his wound.
Once again we were angry at each other, at nature, at occurrences completely out of our control. I left him there, almost despising myself for not caring enough. Almost, but not quite enough to turn back and comfort him despite the defenses he had erected to protect himself from me. I was tired of being the person I had become. A bitter, unloving, uncaring, bitch. One whose heart had been replaced with all the dried up vegetation that encompassed our house. Maybe it had even metamorphosized into a prickly pear cactus, one of the few plants that could survive, but encased in merciless thorns preventing anything from coming too close. Not embracing others like the meadow grass used to, allowing us to walk barefoot across it, accepting our weight, and not suffering from it.
I used to be like the meadow grass, accepting others, especially those I loved, without making them feel inferior and worthless. I always thought circumstances did not matter. As long as you loved each other, you could overcome any obstacle. Maybe if I was a different person and Clay was a different person, we should have been able to get through this without hating each other. But the drought had done us in. Even so, we stayed together out of habit primarily. Out of laziness for one or both of us to move on, out of stubbornness to pack up and leave to a place with a higher average rainfall. No. We had both been bred in the heat and the sand. We could not leave now. It was tied up in our souls. Our souls which were now shriveled husks when they had once been plump and full of life.
Did our small personal problems amount to much? Not when people's livelihoods were blowing away like the dirt with no plant life to anchor it. Not when wildfires were raging, eating people's homes. The sum of all these things simply made my heart ache. Every new fire that flared up, every rancher that went bankrupt, every meteorological forecast that predicted no precipitation whatsoever, only tightened the vise around my heart. Cinched it another notch until everything had been squeezed out of it. There was nothing left, nothing to sustain kindness or love.
I quit these thoughts and morosely gazed through the dirt-grimed window into the merciless ray of the sun baking the land to ceramic hardness. A plume of smoke rose over the mountains telling of another fire out of control. Woody smoke stench filled my nostrils as the wind shifted and I could hardly stand that smell anymore. I used to love the smell of wood smoke on a crisp cold winter morning. I could not enjoy it anymore after watching wildfires consume everything regardless of what stood in their path. The fires were tricksters. Glancing at the horizon, your heart would swell with hope, glimpsing a humongous thunderhead cresting the dark indigo mountains, clouds billowing and piling one on top of another.
Then, to have all hopes come crashing down as the edges of the "thunderhead" are tinged brown and the tang of burning trees blows toward you on the freshening breeze. Nature plays its little games and jokes. How else can something that destroys indiscriminately resemble something that is life itself?
I tore my gaze from the towering smoke billows that now resembled a mushroom cloud created by an atomic bomb to observe Clay once more. He finally poured a glass of water and gulped it greedily down, holding the glass tight enough to crush it. I noticed new lines starting to radiate out from his eyes, the ones in his forehead deepening with every new worry. I cannot criticize; I have more wrinkles as well. Our skin seemed to be cracking like the dirt outside. Separating away from itself to create furrows, an outward sign of everything that was wrong.
"Clay," I called softly.
He turned to face me, bleakness still lodged in his eyes.
"What Samantha?" he asked, bitterness lacing his words. He only used my entire name when he was angry. The rest of the time I was Sam. I had become Samantha a lot lately.
"Are you okay?" I finally, lamely asked. A little late, but never too late, right?
"Yeah, just peachy." He slammed his glass on the counter, creating a large crack on the side. "Dammit." Clay bit this word off as he threw the damaged glass in the trash and strode outside to his work shed. The work shed where he used to fashion exquisite cabinets, tables, and chairs. Now he sat quietly in the gloom and thought dire thoughts.
Great, another wonderful conversation completed. I began to think that nothing would ever end this drought of nature and of our love. Was it time to simply call it quits? There was no simplicity in forgetting years of time spent together. Shared love, shared dreams, shared memories. One cannot simply shut off memories. They stay lodged in your brain cells waiting to spring at you when you least expect them. Lying in wait to bring depression and more despair. Clay and I were heading for a break-up, but it was difficult to head separate ways, to teach the mind to forget and block out that chunk of time.
Wonderful. Now Clay was moping in the back shed. Pissed at not getting all the water. Pissed at getting into a fight with some ass and then getting beat up. Pissed at coming home to a woman that only accused and did not support. A woman who kicked him when he was down. Damn. This was all so stupid. Clay had never moped in the past, did not have dark mood swings. He had changed. Am I sounding hypocritical? No, I have already admitted to myself that I have become bitter and angry. And I only hurt the one I love the most.
Darkness began to descend in black velvet and still Clay sat in the ever-increasing gloom. The darkness feeding his black thoughts. The black cancer of bitterness eating through his soul.
The wind had sprung up as the sun disappeared on the western horizon, tugging at the brown-tinged leaves on the last of the survivor trees. They crackled in the ever-strengthening gale. The wind blew restless clouds across the sky. Clouds that would rumble and flash with lightning, but only mock with a spatter of raindrops in the dust. Not even enough moisture to faintly wet the ground. Definitely not enough to create mud. I ignored it, ignored the fact that the breeze was laden with the scent of rain. It would not actually produce any precipitation, only tease.
In the last of the twilight, I saw Clay emerge from the shed and trudge through the thick dust toward the house. A flash of lightning crackled across the sky, forking over Clay's head, followed almost simultaneously by an earth-shattering roar. Forgetting our current discord, I raced onto the porch and called to him, "You all right? Damn, that was close. Get inside the house, Clay."
"Yeah Sam," he called over the wild cacophony of wind and thunder. "I'm working on it." He broke into a run and then stopped dead about twenty feet from the house.
"Clay!" I yelled.
Then I heard an almost forgotten sound on the tin roof of the porch. It was a sound of raindrops. Huge, fat sounding raindrops. Not mocking sprinkle drops. Clay was still standing in the yard, his arms stretched out from his sides, his head thrown back with a goofy grin on his lips as he gazed into the sky, water beginning to stream down his face. "Sam, come out here. It's actually raining. My shirt's getting wet."
I ran to him, across the now muddy yard, a small river streaming through it. Rain was pouring down in torrents. I could not glimpse Clay even though he was only a few feet away. His hand reached through the curtain of water and I grasped it to be pulled into his arms. "Sam, isn't it great?" he yelled through the pounding rain. I could not reply; I was grinning too wide for speech.
We stood in this deluge of water, our bodies melting together , as it washed away pain and bitterness, restoring us as a whole unit once again. The ground soaked up the water and sloughed the rest off to stream to the arroyos and eventually to feed the hungry river. We stood, basking in the glorious shower, redeemed into one.
Bio: Tory Brannigan is from Espanola, New Mexico. She currently works part time as a landscape designer and has a degree in Horticulture. She also helps her husband in his business of restoring classic cars. She has had two stories published by Long Story Short and two flash fiction pieces published by SHINE!
The Last Straw
by Janet Yung
It wasn’t the first time he’d been a Rafferty victim.
“What are you going to do?” Maryanne asked James on their way home from school. The patch pocket on his plaid shirt was torn and there were stains on his khaki slacks.
He shrugged. His ears were red where Jack had punched him as he snatched the lunchbox and ran screaming from the school yard victorious. No adult had witnessed the attack which was the only thing keeping Jack from a run in with the nuns.
“Where’s your lunchbox?” was the second question his mother asked as they came through the front door. Right after, “what happened to your shirt?” James had been in trouble more than once for not changing clothes before going out to play.
He stood there without replying, his eyes looking at the tips of his polished, brown shoes. Maryanne volunteered, “Jack Rafferty took it.”
“What?” Mrs. Martin said, her eyes boring into the boy. The lunch box was new, purchased at the start of the school year; still dent free and the thermos’ interior intact.
“Jack took it,” Maryanne repeated. James stuck his hands in his pockets and she wondered if he was going to cry. She’d been impressed he hadn’t when Jack grabbed it and ran laughing, waving it over his head, the thermos bouncing around inside the metal container.
“What?” Mrs. Martin repeated, like she hadn’t heard correctly. Maryanne began to recount the whole incident; her mother held up her hand. “Stop, I’ve heard enough.” An uneasy quiet settled over the room. Maryanne knew her mother wasn’t happy.
Last year, James came home from school with a black eye and Mrs. Martin and the next door neighbor tried to teach James to fight.
“Who did that?” Mrs. Martin asked and he admitted it was Jack.
“I don’t know why he hates me,” James told her, “I didn’t do anything to him.” Maryanne could attest to that. The blow leading to the black eye had come out of nowhere.
It was funny watching the two women dancing around, showing him how to bob and weave and put up his fists to protect himself from being the recipient of a punch while delivering one good one.
“Like this, like this,” they kept telling him, but James hadn’t been the best student.
Maryanne and James were told to change and go outside. Maryanne heard her mother muttering under her breath while she stood at the kitchen sink, banging pots and pans. She banged pots and pans whenever she was upset.
Five-thirty and Maryanne’s father pulled up in front of the house. He’d been working on a job all day, his pants splattered with paint.
“Hi, pop,” Maryanne called as he came up the walk. He waved and went inside. James was next door.
Five minutes later, he was outside again. “Do you knew where your brother is?” She nodded and he told her to go get him.
James returned under protest and listened to more questions from his father, ending with the admonition, “Boy, you need to defend yourself.” With car keys in hand, he waited saying, “Let’s go. We’re going to settle this.”
“Don’t you want to come along?” her mother asked, but James shook his head, racing to the safety of his friend‘s house.
Then they were in her parents’ car headed for the Rafferty’s, Maryanne slipping into the backseat unnoticed. She could feel the tension in the front seat while her father said in a low voice, “shanty Irish” and “last straw”. The voice right before the one that exploded in anger.
“There it is,” Mrs. Martin said as she spotted the white frame house her father was quick to point out was in need of a paint job. The passenger door swung open and Mrs. Martin was half-way up the stairs, husband and daughter trailing.
Two of the Rafferty children were sitting on the porch swing. They were all the same -- round faces, freckles, black hair, blue eyes, wearing perpetually mad expressions. Even the baby. Maryanne recognized Kathleen -- they were in the same grade.
“Is your mother home?” Mrs. Martin asked.
Kathleen stared at her, and for a second, Maryanne thought Kathleen might not answer. Then, clutching the toddler she’d been sitting with, pulled open the screen door and screeched, “Ma.”
“What is it?” a voice called from the back of the house.
“Someone’s here to see you.” Maryanne knew Kathleen was aware of why they were there. She’d been standing off to the side, egging her brother on throughout the melee.
“Is your brother home?” Mr. Martin asked Kathleen while they waited.
“Which one?” She was back on the swing, chains creaking like they might snap at any moment.
Before Kathleen could reply, Mrs. Rafferty was at the door, wiping her hands on her apron, her face flushed, wisps of black, curly air flying in all directions.
“Mrs. Rafferty, is Jack here?” Mrs. Martin sounded angrier than Maryanne had ever heard. Angrier than the time she and James acted up in church and a new rule was instituted not letting them sit next to each other.
Mrs. Rafferty burst into tears, her hands covering her eyes. “What’s he done now?” she managed between sobs. The swing stopped and Kathleen was next to her mother holding the messy toddler who began crying in concert with her mother.
“He stole my son’s lunchbox,” Mr. Martin said.
Mrs. Rafferty excused herself and Kathleen, hanging onto the tot’s hand, glared at the Martins. Maryanne wondered if she’d be targeted next and how long they’d stand on the porch before her father would explode.
“Is this it?” Mrs. Rafferty held up the Gene Autry lunchbox James had chosen. There were a couple scratches running across the front where the cowboy and horse roamed the West. Maryanne spotted a dent on one corner.
“Yes.” Mrs. Martin took it and gave it the once over, clucking her tongue. She looked at Mrs. Rafferty and the peeling paint on the side of the house. There wouldn’t be any point in asking about restitution. James would have to use it till the end of the year and by then, it would look worse.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Rafferty’s eyes were red. “I don’t know what’s wrong with the boy.” Mr. Martin didn’t say Jack was a bully and this wasn’t the first time he’d threatened their boy. “His father will take care of him when he gets home and I promise you, he won’t be bothering your son again.”
“I appreciate it.” Then they left, clomping down the wooden steps.
In the car, Maryanne’s mother lamented the condition of the lunchbox and opening it found the remnants of lunch. “Well, at least someone ate the apple.”
Maryanne knelt on the backseat, watching the Rafferty house as they drove away. She stifled the impulse to wave, while Kathleen stood at the curb and stuck out her tongue.
Bio: Janet Yung lives and writes in St. Louis. Previous pieces of non-fiction have appeared in small, local publications. Short fiction in “Writers On The River” and on-line “Foliate Oak” and “Terrain“.
by Jorge Comte
"What were you thinking, Mrs. Arrogantski?" asked the police officer. There was no response.
"Please, do not ignore me, Mrs. Arrogantski. Something serious has just happened!"
Mrs. Arrogantski did not even notice that there was a police officer sitting in front of her, looking at her record of "ignored" people.
"I have been awarded special permission by the mayor," the lady claimed.
The officer just could not understand how such situations could still happen in our twenty-first century society. But yes, some people have privileges that others don't. That is the case of Mrs. Arrogantski, who has permission from the mayor to ignore any person who stands in her way. She has never liked people, which is why she applied to the benefit of the "ignore-card" as soon as its existence was announced by the mayor's secretary. With this card, Mrs. Arrogantski is allowed to step on, push, slap, kick, cut, and run over anyone.
"What you have done to Phillip is unacceptable," said the police officer.
Phillip was a poor, homeless athlete who was forced to stop running because of his lack of sports shoes. Fortunately, the mayor made an incredible effort and bought him a pair of sports shoes, which took about three years. However, Phillip never used the sports shoes for fear of ruining them. They were beautiful, but most importantly, they were his only shoes. One nice day, though, the sporty homeless decided to wear the shoes for the first time in order to feel some relief on his hurt, dirty feet. While running by Mrs. Arrogantski's house, Phillip was not aware of the big lagoon of melted, previously-chewed bubblegum left on the sidewalk by Osvaldo, the fat man gone skinny, ex-favorite man of the city.
Osvaldo used to receive all of the benefits provided by the city hall because of his morbid obesity. He had everything he always wanted: food, a free house, food, free education, food, women, and more food. Everybody knew Osvaldo and everybody loved him. In fact, he had his own "groupies", who were crazy about him. Who wouldn't be crazy for an obese man who can afford the life of a millionaire without spending any money from his pocket? Osvaldo was unstoppable, except for the heart attack that almost caused his death last year. He became conscious that all the fat accumulated in his body was not healthy and he decided to be thin. Nevertheless, the more fat he burned, the smaller the amount of money he received every month. He became so skinny in one year that now he has to live on less than the minimum legal wage. Besides, he was abandoned by all the women he had.
Even his family abandoned him, claiming that he was a shame. All he could afford now was bubblegum, for bubblegum making was the main industry in the city. Osvaldo grew to hate people with special benefits and started spitting huge amounts of bubblegum in front of their houses, trying to make them drown in the product that gave the city a spot on the map.
And so there was Phillip, stuck in bubblegum in front of Mrs. Arrogantski's house, crying for spoiling the only benefit he has ever received: his sports shoes. It took so long to get them that there was no way he was leaving them there. He even thought of staying there until winter, so that the gum would freeze and he could break free.
Suddenly, the door opened. Mrs. Arrogantski was going out for a walk. Phillip could not be in a worse place. Everybody knew that Mrs. Arrogantski would not see him and the worst could happen. As the lady was walking, Phillip got more and more desperate to get out. He didn't really care if anything happened to him, he just wanted to protect his sports shoes. Mrs. Arrogantski stepped on, pushed, slapped, kicked, and cut poor, helpless Phillip. Nothing would move him. That was when the lady decided to get in her car and run over "the obstacle" that would not let her take her walk in peace. As Phillip's bones flew over the car, the sports shoes remained intact, just empty, no feet to fill them.
"Mrs. Arrogantski, you're under arrest," the police officer said in a heroic tone that would have melted any bubblegum, despite its thickness.
"Let her go," yelled the mayor, extinguishing any flame of justice in the officer's voice.
As Mrs. Arrogantski walked out of the station, the mayor whispered in the officer's ear: "You're new around here. This is the way things work in my city, kiddy."
The next day, the young officer applied for an "ignore-card".
Bio: Jorge Comte. is an English teacher and emerging short story and screenplay writer from Chile, South America. His main influence has been taken from Surrealist South American literature, such as that of Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Magical Realism has also played an important part in his works. Other works include, "The Revenge of the Abandoned Women", "The Closet" (screenplay), and "A Song to Live Again".He uses film, drama, and fiction as tools to teach English to speakers of other languages.