Short Story Competition 2: Sixth Round is Open for Voting
Alright folks, it is time for another round or short stories. If you haven’t read last week’s round, check it out. The winning story was hilarious, titled Orange Bubble Power.
You have until the midnight of next Sunday to vote on today’s stories. One story wins each individual round, and at the end we make a grand finale with the round winners, declaring the overall winner and awarding the prizes.
1. Final Flight by Yonatan Lew
She stood at the corner of forever and nowhere.
A fly buzzed around her head, but she made no effort to chase it away. Mina watched as it flitted lazily about, noting with envy how free of boundaries it was. I was like that once, she thought. It was then the pain hit her chest, doubling her over.
She stumbled over to a large rock outcropping and sat down, leaning back and letting the tranquility of nature wash over her. She listened to the chirps of the birds, the buzz of insects. She could even hear the beating of her own heart, its rhythm slowing to a crawl as the pain subsided.
The morning was brisk, and she zipped her jacket against the wind, the chill air biting into her soul.
A rustling filled the silence and she glanced up at a murder of crows. One after another, they alighted themselves on the trees, seeming to surround her in a flurry of feathers and cawing.
The largest of the flock spread its wings, and the entire community, the entire forest, silenced. Even the wind died down, as if following some unseen command. The eyes of the large one never left her.
The pain came again, but it came expected and she was able to shut it out, as she had done for the majority of her life.
“My clan has been expecting you.”
She looked up, the pain forgotten as she gaped at the voice, which flowed through the air with grace. The crow who had been staring at her flitted and landed before her; the voice belonged to him.
“The wind and the trees have told us of your arrival.”
Mina squeezed her eyes shut. She was sure that the pills were bringing her visions.
“You are in much pain.”
It was not a question, but she felt compelled to answer.
“Yes,” she breathed. “I have been in pain for a long time. Since I was very young. I…have lived more then 20 years with never-ending pain, I have spent more time in hospitals then my own home. I have become a burden to my family…I…”
She couldn’t go on and felt the tears come. Mina made no movement to stop the flow and let them drip to the forest ground. The thoughts of the life she would miss, the life she never had, and never could have, drifted like flotsam through her mind.
The crow sat, not moving an inch; the others stayed still, silent observers to her decimation.
Finally, the tears stopped flowing and she raised an arm to wipe her face. She then spoke with purpose.
“I shall not be a mind trapped in a broken shell. I would rather my soul free of the encumbrance of this…form.”
Mina began to shake and she slid from the rock, resting her head at the base of the rock, her body settling on the felled leaves. Mina’s eyes, however, never stopped moving, taking in the woods she had grown up with.
“When I was very little, my mother used to bring me here. I would bring breadcrumbs with me, like Hansel and Gretel, making sure I had a trail to follow back home. My greatest fear was getting lost, of being so disoriented that I would walk out of life into a world that I didn’t know.
“My parents died last year in a car accident. My brother and sisters are all grown up, married. They have a life of their own. I have no right to infringe this broken body upon them.”
Mina turned her head towards the bird, who sat listening to her.
“As I grew, so too did the pain. I began to relish the idea of losing myself to a world of peace,” she said, as colours danced across the trees, painting the black crows who sat there. It was a rainbow amidst the pain.
Her voice cracked and she whispered, “As a child I wanted nothing more then to make sure I couldn’t get lost. Now I pray to lose my pain, to lose myself. I came here because it is the last place I can remember with no pain.”
The crow jumped onto her chest. She didn’t register the weight; she couldn’t feel anything below her neck.
He peered into her eyes, and said softly, kindly, “The forest remembers. You were a happy child once and it pains us to see you like this. You have a spirit which should not be kept in a leaden tomb, but should be free to fly with the wind. I offer you a chance to fly free, as you were always meant to.”
Mina stared into the pool of black light reflected in the crow’s eyes. The woods were melting away faster and faster, details slipping through her mind.
With tears and with desperate hope, she said, “I would be honoured to soar free.”
The crow’s expression did not change, but she saw the compassion in his eyes.
He rested his feathery head against hers.
“Rest, child. Rest.”
And Mina closed her eyes.
Mina’s body was discovered by a hiker a week later. Her face was a picture of peace and serenity.
At the funeral, her family cried, laughed and consoled each other.
Her niece, who had admired Mina greatly, her strength and her courage, went outside of her aunt’s former home, which looked out across the woods. Through her tear streaked vision, she saw a bird, black and beautiful, stare at her unmoving. The bird opened its mouth and cawed, spreading its wings and taking flight.
The niece watched it until it was a speck in the distance, and she felt her soul lighten. She went back to the wake with a memory, a smile and a fluttering of wings.
2. The Flash by Shirley van de Graaff
This had become their evening ritual. Waiting for the miracle of ‘the flash’ to light up the Atlantic Ocean’s horizon for a brief and brilliant second. Invariably it got the old man reminiscing about an extraordinary event in the Karoo, so many hundreds of dry miles away from Cape Town. Sometimes it could be triggered by a bitter-sweet fragrance that wafted up from who-knows-where. Sometimes by a light mist he could feel prickling his arms like the fine Karoo dust. Sometimes by a single sound.
“You know, girlie, for me even the thought of the Karoo conjures up that unique scent of sweet life fighting for survival in that dust-drenched land”. His cataract-clouded eyes became a pale, opaque blue which reflected a sense of peace, as if he’d stepped back in time to an enchanted place.
“How people malign the Karoo,” he continued, “describing it as flat and desolate, like the Free State. But it’s not, you know. Those dark, dolomite hills break the bleakness, giving the land a sort of brooding beauty. And a mystery.” His eyes seemed to come into focus like an ephemeral Turner painting as he turned toward Siobhan. She knew she was just an outline, a shape, to him, but she also knew that in his mind she was as vivid as her grandmother had been when she first came to this country so long ago.
They were sitting on the small porch of her Mouille Point flat. She felt a tightness as she watched the late, Cape sun go down, waiting in hope for the fabled green flash to hit the sea as the sun’s blood seeped into the ocean. She hadn’t seen it yet and wondered if she ever would.
Reading her mind, the old man remarked with a slight laugh, “You will see it, I promise you, me darlin’ girl. I have seen it. Twice. And, of course, each time it has taken me back to that strange event in the Karoo.”
On that long-ago evening Cillian Mooney, a strapping young man whose Irish father had come to South Africa to help the Boers fight the Brits, and his young bride after whom Siobhan was named, were sitting on their veranda watching the sun plummet toward darkness. For a fleeting moment before the earth swallowed that ball of heavenly hell, there was a streak of silver then an emerald green flash that lit up the horizon momentarily.
The Flash 2
There was a long silence as the couple tried to come to terms with what they’d seen. They both knew that such a flash happened only on the sea. It could not happen here, in the Karoo, where the dust storms would send huge balls of tumbleweed cart-wheeling across the veld and that distinctive, pungent perfume would fill the air. Where flaming, round, coral-red bushes would appear out of nowhere and as suddenly disappear. Where the sky was velvet black until a trillion stars pierced the fabric of the night and a triumphant moon would bathe the landscape in a luminous glow. Where rain was a blessing, prayed for and revered when it came. “No,” the old man said out loud, “that green flash could not happen in that place the Hottentots named ‘Thirstland’.
It was a story he’d often told his granddaughter, but never finished. Suddenly, just as the Atlantic claimed the sun, she saw it – the dazzling green flash on the sea’s horizon. “Oh, granddad, I’ve seen it!” she gasped with excitement.
Turning to her, his face lit up like a morning sunrise. “That’s wonderful me darlin’ girl. Now I must finish the story of our green flash ― your grandmother’s and mine.”
“The morning after we’d seen it, about three kilometres after we’d set off on our usual morning ride, as the sun peeped over the horizon, there it was again. But it stayed, a glittering and shimmering emerald mirage. We galloped toward it and found the most fantastical thing. There was an enormous, perfectly circular, deep depression in the earth. It must have been ten metres across. What was even more weird is that it was encircled with a heaving, moving mass of what I soon realized were living organisms which were being sucked into the earth at a great rate.”
Reaching for his granddaughter’s hand, he continued. “Remember when we used to go to the beach and watch the periwinkles being sucked into the wet sand as the sea receded?” Siobhan nodded. “Yes? Well, it was exactly like that. Except that, amazingly, these were penetrating the rock-hard Karoo ground. I don’t know how long we watched,
The Flash 3
mesmerised, before I had the courage to pick one up. Then the most astonishing thing happened: as I touched it, it literally petrified – became glass-hard.”
“Mysteriously, inexplicably, I knew what they were. Barnacles. Space barnacles on a space ship. Only these had been shaken free when it landed. Or perhaps when it took off again. As the sun climbed higher, there seemed a frenzy to escape its rays.”
“I picked up another. And another. Each turned to stone. A blindingly beautiful, clear emerald stone. Just before they all disappeared, I grabbed a handful of them – earthly evidence of an unearthly event.” The old man chuckled.
“What happened to them?” Siobhan asked, curious to bursting point.
“Eventually I took them to an old German jeweller in Beaufort West to have them set. ‘Where on earth did you get these?’ he asked in awe. ‘I’ve never seen such exquisite stones.’ I just smiled. He wouldn’t believe my secret anyway.”
Siobhan’s eyes opened wide as the truth hit her. “You mean, those are… “
“Yes, me darlin’, those are the glorious ‘emeralds’ my beloved Siobhan is wearing in her portrait. And now it’s time for me to give you that necklace. Mark me words darlin’, whenever you wear it someone is bound to exclaim “What magnificent emeralds. They look out of this world”. And it will be your turn to smile, secretly.
3. Crash by Tanya Alderman
It is 11pm. I can’t sleep – again. Sitting by his side, I stroke his fragile hand—the one not invaded with an intravenous needle. Puncture wounds discolor his tiny hand with putrid shades of blue, green, and brown. The last time the nurse probed his veins, he didn’t shed a single tear. He stared into my eyes and watched the tears spill from me instead.
His hand feels cold. I curl my hand around his and swallow up its frailty.
I can’t drown out the rhythmic tit-tat, tit-tat of the monitor and I don’t want to—the promise of life is in every beat. If only I could hold more than just his hand. There are too many tubes, too many wires.
Surgical staples, recently cleaned with iodine and covered with new gauze, invade the length of his chest. There is a feeding tube down his nose, a catheter to collect his urine, a chest tube to drain fluids, an IV in his leg, and another one in his other hand.
I want to talk to him, but I’m too tired to speak and I’m not sure he can hear me or even understand. I stare out the window into the starless night. A faint glow from the parking lot below provides some illumination, but not a clear view. His previous room didn’t have a window. I would spend hours staring at the sterile white walls because I had run out of words to pray. Only the occasional interruption of nurses and med techs would bring me out of my trance.
I should be catching a few hours of sleep, but I don’t want to leave his side. I don’t want….. Beep! Beep! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!
Jerked to attention by the alarm screaming over my son’s head, I spin around and gasp as all color drains from his face. His lips start turning blue and my knees begin to buckle. “I NEED HELP! SOMEBODY, PLEASE,” I shout into the hall. “Oh, dear God, he isn’t breathing!”
I hear the sound of the medical team running, skidding across the ICU floor. “Code blue,” is announced through the intercom. In seconds, my son is surrounded and I am pulled away from his side and deposited in a corner. Nurses frantically execute all the commands being fired at them by the resident doctor.
I know if I stay quiet they will let me stay in this corner; they won’t make me leave. I watch as they put a tube down my son’s throat. A nurse pumps air into his lungs while the doctor does compressions on his heart. I can’t move even if I wanted to. I want to cry out, but I know I have to stay quiet, very quiet.
My heart is pounding out of my chest. I bow my head and clench my fists, desperate to touch heaven. Please God, don’t take him from me… please not now… not like this! The alarm is still screaming. Where is the tit tat, tit tat? If my soul could be heard by the human ear, the whole world would bear witness to my agonizing, desperate plea for tit tat, tit tat, tit tat.
The doctor calls for the paddles. My head snaps up. Is this the end? Don’t let this be the end. They’re going to shock my son. My vision is blurred by uncontrollable tears. I hear, “Charging! Clear! AGAIN! Charging! CLEAR!” The doctor sounds so desperate, “Come on little guy, not tonight,” to the nurse, “One more time! CHARGING! CLEAR!” The electricity courses through his little eight pound body. The doctor is frozen, paddles in the air, as he stares at the line on the monitor, a line so vulgar, so flat. One second, two seconds…then, “tit… tat, tit… tat, tit tat.”
I exhale the breath I’d been holding as I collapse to the floor. Silently I thank the Lord for just a little more time. I thank Him for every tit tat that doesn’t just sing in my ears, but wraps my soul in a symphony only God could write.
After what seems like hours, the doctors and nurses finally clear out of his room and I am back at his side. I hold his hand a little tighter and let my lips linger on his forehead a little longer. I stroke his tiny head until I fall asleep where I sit.
In my dreams, he’s nestled in my arms. There are no more wires or tubes, no more bruised hands. He smells like baby lotion instead of alcohol swabs. I sigh as I listen to his rhythmic breathing. I rock him to sleep in my favorite oak rocking chair, keeping time with the cadence of his heart.
4. Addicted To Love by Angi Payne-Sutton
I didn’t hear the phone ring the first time. Caught up in my own thoughts as I ran the vacuum that morning I guess I wasn’t really listening for it anyway. The voice on the other end of the line was my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother. We’d only talked occasionally and not ever without a specific reason.
She began talking almost before I said hello and I found her words difficult to comprehend. “Angi? I’m calling to let you know that Ashley is at the hospital at Cape having a baby.” My heart was beating wildly and my mind was making a desperate attempt to process what I had just heard but it was unimaginable! “So, Ashley’s pregnant? She’s going to have a baby?” “No!” she said, “She’s having a baby! Right now!”
What she said made no sense. I had seen Ashley only the day before. She was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans with a grey pull-over hoodie I had seen her wear a million times if I’d seen her wear it once. If she had been about to deliver a baby, I guess I would have known. After all, I am her mother! When she left, she bent and hugged me as she always did, kissing me on the cheek and telling me she loved me. I was looking right at her and had my hands on her tiny body! How could I have missed something so important? But a subsequent call approximately ten minutes later confirmed that I did indeed have grandchild number three and grandson number two.
I don’t remember now why she had stopped by that day. She was living in Cape Girardeau about twenty-five miles away to be near the college campus and I didn’t see her often these days. Having begun college with several credit hours toward her degree, she hadn’t done so well during her first semester and probably wasn’t interested in hearing my lectures on the matter. She had hopes of becoming a lawyer but it didn’t appear she was off to a good start. Though the initial reason she came by that day escapes me at present, it was likely money related. As a typical college student, it was the only time I saw or heard from her.
Our relationship had been strained for some time and I tried hard to pick my battles. I knew I had spoiled her. Smart and articulate, she knew how to get what she wanted. She also knew how to point the finger back at you any time you drew attention to any issue in her life that needed correction. Any engagement with her was a definite battle of the wits and she was a prodigy!
We were concerned about her but at first we thought she was simply spreading her wings like any normal college student. Warnings about the reputation and character of the boyfriend she had chosen and further pleading regarding their choice of living arrangements fell on deaf ears. Obviously, it was her desire to lead a consumptive lifestyle of good times and self-indulgence. Was I happy with it? Of course not. Could I do anything to change it? Apparently not. I cried, I begged, I pleaded, I prayed, but nothing seemed to change her choices.
My concern about her relationship increased when I began dreaming frequently. I always dream when someone close to me becomes pregnant. Not just your average dreams but crazy wild dreams that put me on the alert to be looking out for the arrival of a new family member. Months earlier after one of my crazy dream spells I cornered my high-spirited high-school graduate and asked her whether or not she could be pregnant. Laughing out loud she denied the allegation and quickly pointed a finger at the possibility that her sister, thirteen months her junior might be pregnant – again.
Oh, yes. I was a veteran in the grandma department. My younger daughter had blessed me with my first grand daughter at the ripe old age of thirteen and then a grandson at age seventeen. Soon after that, she informed me of her choice to marry a full year before she graduated high school. But, in spite of all of that . . . a mother knows . . . and she wasn’t the culprit. Not this time.
Despite my begging Ashley to come clean, nothing would bring her to confession. Eventually, the dreams subsided and I made the heart breaking assumption she had aborted the baby I was certain was growing within her frail little body. My heart ached at the choice I feared she had made but there was nothing I could do.
Then one day in February, the phone rang.
But, I didn’t hear the phone ring the first time. Caught up in my own thoughts as I vacuumed that morning I wasn’t really listening for it anyway. The voice on the other end of the line was my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother. “Angi? I’m calling to let you know that Ashley is at the hospital at Cape having a baby.” “So, Ashley’s pregnant? She’s going to have a baby?” “No!” “She’s having a baby! Right now!”
Rushing to the hospital nursery I laid eyes on an almost five pound stranger who would become one of the great loves of my life. His name is Brody. He’ll be two in about six weeks. He was born addicted to drugs. Prescription pills to be exact. But through much love and many prayers he has proven to be as sharp witted and beautiful as his mother once was. With the hand of God watching over him and all the love and discipline Poppy and I can impart to him, we pray he will grow into a mature young man who refuses to be sidetracked by the same demons that still haunt his mother. For her . . . we continue to hope, believe and pray.
5. Gas Station by Spentmiles
After work, I stopped at the gas station to fuel up and buy a lottery ticket. The pot was up to fifty-two million and I’d had a dream the night before that I’d won it all. I didn’t believe much in such signs, but the dream was odd enough. I usually dreamt of having sex with other women as my wife looked on. At the pump, I paid with my debit card and then went inside to pay cash for the ticket. I filled out the form – 8, 14, 3, 13, 30, 36 – and got in line at the counter. There were several people ahead of me, tired people, just off work, but things were running seemingly smoothly.
I was a regular here, but behind the counter was a guy I hadn’t seen before. You usually can’t tell much about a person with a glance, but I knew, at least, this guy was an old homosexual. He was worn and tired but still had the aura, that shawl of life that had seen the sunrise in Key West with a snootful of cocaine and two Haitian boys that knew the parties. He was overweight but tan, with gray, gel-spiked hair and a stretched hole in his empty ear.
The line moved up and off and then it was my turn. The old queer didn’t look up as he took my form to the machine. This was hell for him. He missed the Keys. I sensed his thinking: how had I gotten so far north? I don’t belong to these stiffs.
He ran my numbers and came back to the register.
“Four dollars,” he said.
I gave him a ten. That started the trouble. He rang in one-zero-dot-zero-zero for the total instead of four. Seeing what happened, he tried to clear it out. He hit the big red key, the one marked VOID, but nothing happened on the little screen. Then he hit more keys, random keys, but still, nothing happened. He hit the other keys, none of them the transporter to Key West, faster and faster without pattern or melody or sequence. The screen blinked and the total jumped to fourteen. He was losing ground. People were lining up behind me, the same tired people with gallons of milk who were temporally between bosses and kids. But his old queer fingers kept working, with pinky ring and filed nails, he pounded the buttons, but still nothing happened.
It was rude to stare at the drowning, so I distracted myself with the cigarette rack, amusing names of off brand packs – Cowboys, Lobos, Marathons. And I imagined the cowboys chasing the wolves over twenty-six miles of barren Texas desert. While in the background, the plastic buttons clicked and clacked. I might have gotten annoyed, but I was used to this sort of thing – broken shoelaces, flat tires, traffic jams. Life wasn’t fatal, it wasn’t predetermined, it wasn’t based on fate, not at all like I wanted. It was a line for a rash treatment at best.
Then the old queer breeched frustration. His tan face turned red and I saw the empty hole in his ear open a bit wider, as though it had teeth, teeth that could mash the world into a mix of papaya and pulled beef. But his ear was toothless without the earring. And his frustration ran through the line like a current, like a rip tide that sucked patience out to sea. We, the clerk and the line, were all used to getting screwed, though each person had different sensitivities. One guy pronounced an audible sigh. Another squeaked his sneaker against the linoleum. And against the storm, the old queer battered the same key, over and over, harder and harder, but the fourteen dollars wouldn’t go away. The machine, the technology, it stranded him old and foolish. Foolish, he might’ve withstood, but old was not something that the old Key West homosexual could not bear.
I felt an outburst coming, a great, big “God damn it!” from the clerk’s wrinkled mouth, followed by a hot stomp to the back office, a quasi-surrender that would be cooled only by a hotly smoked Virginia Slim and a berating call to someone back home, whom he imagined with a young Haitian and a margarita, on a beach, with a thong, without a hint of stranded in the air. Something had to give, but the machine was entrenched and the line was piling up behind me.
It was just then that another clerk, much younger and much more local, finished wiping down the coffee station and came behind the counter. He picked up the newspaper, with as much mocking nonchalance as a Haitian boy at the start of tourist season. And he pretended to read. Of course, he knew who was drowning, which tourist was succumbing to the waves. Of course he knew. And the people on the line grew more impatient, audibly impatient, angry that the beach was not in their life. But the young clerk wouldn’t save anyone without a call for help. He needed this little importance like the rest of us needed our jobs.
Finally, the old queer turned and said, “This thing is acting crazy again.”
Nonchalant, the young one pushed off the wall, strolled up, hit a button, and all was right again. The drawer popped and the old queer began to make change. Ten minus four, that’s six. It said so on the screen. But though his hands were moving, he wasn’t drawing any bills. The money, too, was acting crazy again. Then the young guy budged him away and drew a five and a one, handed it to me, with a little smirk.
“Have a good afternoon,” said the old queer.
I walked into the dark with my six dollars, a full tank of gas, and a chance at fifty-two million.
6. The Pants by Yasehwa
It’s been ten years … longer, and suddenly I remembered.
Walking with deliberation, moving down the street with no idea where I was going; only knowing I felt free for the first time. The prospect of a different life wasn’t in my mind though I had to know it was a real possibility. Perhaps it was the only possibility. Things change.
How did that day start?
It was a typical late Spring Saturday morning. The sun was shining in a clear sky. The air was crisp but warming. My brothers and I had completed our indoor chores, cleaning our bedrooms, dusting the tables in the living room, washing breakfast dishes, and the like. It was time for the external chores – a visit to the cleaners, supermarket, and laundry mat. Somehow I always felt as though I got the brunt of the chores whether internal or external. My brothers always found a way to escape the tedium or conspired to half do what was required and disappear only to have me forced into completing the job. Sometimes they would start a fight merely to be sent to their room, of course, leaving me to finish whatever was yet to be done. More often than not, I would end up with a belt across my back, an extension cord whipping my legs or fists pummeling my head. Why? Well, because early on I developed a bad habit of rolling my eyes or sucking my teeth when told to complete a chore that was not mine to do. This would send my mother in search of the belt, extension cord or broom. Frankly, she grabbed whatever was handy and could cause pain.
Over the years, I had become so accustomed to beatings that I stopped crying … not a tear … not a sound … I would not even try to ward off the blows. “Go ahead beat me until I’m dead. You’ll never break me.” The thoughts raged through my mind. Meanwhile I learned to stare – remove myself from the pain, trance-like I would pull out my turtle shell and retreat to warmth and safety.
On this day, we walked down the street me pulling the shopping cart, my older brother carrying his pants. Our first stop – the dry cleaners. We had barely walked one block when he claimed he had to go to the bathroom. How could it be that a 15-year-old could leave the house and walk one block and suddenly have an urgent need to relieve his bowels? Not for one minute did I buy that line of crap. No pun intended.
Here, he said handing me the pants, you keep walking and I’ll catch up.
No, you take the pants home with you. I thrust the pants in his direction but he let them fall to the ground.
I have to go to the bathroom, he claimed.
Then go. But take the pants with you. I am not taking them to the cleaners. I turned to walk away, pulling the cart behind me.
The pants were still on the ground.
Grabbing the pants, he strode towards me and attempted to put them in the shopping cart. We got into a bit of a scuffle pushing and pulling the cart, the pants, and, each other. Finally, he threw the pants onto a nearby fence and turned to go home.
With the time it took for us to bicker and scuffle, it’s a wonder he didn’t crap his pants right then and there. But he didn’t. I took this to be more proof of a plot to escape a chore.
I sat on a bench close to the pants waiting for his return. It’s always the same story – older brother gets away with murder because he is the oldest. Youngest brother gets away with murder because he is “still a baby” and doesn’t know any better. Middle child gets stuck being the responsible one. No wonder people say middle children are odd. Sandwiched between the privileged, the odds are against them.
Well enough was enough. Why should I do his chores? Why couldn’t he carry his own pants to the cleaners? So silly and trivial. Yet, I wanted nothing more than for him to take responsibility. I waited and waited. The afternoon grew warm but he didn’t return. Different people from the neighborhood passed by, a few asked, what are you doing sitting out here. “Waiting,” was my reply.
I waited and waited some more. Gradually the realization dawned on me; He was not going to return. Oh what to do? Now, I was late and I had not completed my chore. Well, I couldn’t complete the chore of going to the supermarket because I didn’t have the money for the super market. I wasn’t old enough to be trusted carrying more than a few dollars. So I only had my allowance ($5.00). And, well, in honesty, I could have gone to the cleaners but … it was a matter of principle. Why should I do big his work?
As the afternoon drew on, I began to feel alone but unburdened. Looking back, I think I knew things had changed. I changed.
As the sun began to set and still there was no sign of him. I moved the cart near the pants and slowly but surely walked away. I had my allowance, the clothes I was wearing, and the certainty that no one would ever make me do anything I didn’t want to do again. A girl – 13 years old with the world in front of me. I walked along the railroad tracks as the sun set hoping to spot a place to stay. Just ahead I saw an abandoned shack. I climbed through the boarded window. In the dim light I saw a mattress, filthy but it was better than nothing. As I lay down, bone weary, a thought crossed my mind – Hmm … what color were those pants?
7. The Forest by Tom Rooney
Rain falls and dampens the leaves leaving the forest smelling fresh. I inhale and smell it all; the crisp bite of the cool fall air, the foul dying gasp of fallen leaves, and the proud defiance of those leaves that still hang on. The rain will make it easy for me to conceal the sound of my steps on the forest floor.
I step out from behind the tree just like he taught me; slowly, placing my weight first on the outer bridge of my foot then carefully rolling over to the ball, not until I can feel the forest under my sole, checking for any buried branches that may snap under strain, do I put all my weight forward.
‘It’s an old Indian trick,’ he had said. ‘Deer know the sounds of the forest and the sounds of Man.
Snap a twig too close to a deer and they’ll be gone before you even see ‘em’.
I had listened to his soft words float out from behind the thick salt and pepper mustache. I had soaked his words up like a drought riddled field after a fresh rain.
My usually stoic father came alive when he set his worn steel-toed boots on the dusty dirt logging roads that wove their way intricately through the forest like a spider’s web. Work was from seven o’clock Monday morning until three o’clock Friday afternoon, earlier if he could pull it. The weekend was meant for the woods. In the woods he wasn’t ‘Maybe -We’ll-Throw-the-Ball-Tomorrow’ Dad, he was ‘Let-Me-Show-You-Something’ Dad.
I scan the tree line for movement moving only my eyes and keeping everything else steady, smooth, and my outline hidden behind a tall oak tree. Yellows, reds, and oranges dotted the tree lined ridge and blended with the watercolor sky. A setting sun cast a shadow at our back creating the kind of scene that an artist dreams of and the very best only come close to capturing. Motionless I watch and wait. I hold my breath, listening for anything and hearing nothing but the soft patter of rain. Soon all I can hear is my own pulse as my heart begins to work harder under the strain. I exhale slowly and we began to move again; slowly, always slowly, refusing to be rushed by the shadows of the coming night.
We had made camps, always small, always under the same stars as the deer we hunted. Sitting beside my father under the colander pattern of stars and sky, we talked. We talked at home too, but at home we talked like Father and Son, at home he rolled up the sleeves to his red and black plaid flannel – the one with a patch on the back – and he’d yell a little and tell me what my punishment was.
God, I hated that flannel. School plays, football games, baseball games, always embarrassing me in that damn flannel. I have an old picture I drew in pre-school of him and I; me in shorts and a tee-shirt with a soccer ball between my legs, and him holding his mug of coffee and wearing his flannel shirt.
‘You find something that you like and you hold onto it,’ he said, and that was that.
Around a campfire though, he kept his flannel sleeves rolled down to keep out the chilly Wisconsin air, and we talked like men. For me, every significant life lesson has come from one of two sources: experience or sitting around that campfire, which is an experience all itself I suppose. I would watch the campfire dance with the starlight and he would tell me things, and pass on the kind of knowledge a Dad imparts on his son, and I would listen. And I would tell him things, the kind of things a boy tells his best friend, and he would listen. And when I was done he would place his hand on my shoulder and squeeze. It was a good squeeze, a proud squeeze, and if you boil down any young boy’s needs and wants, all he really needs is food and shelter, and the thing he wants most is to make his father proud.
My dad wasn’t an emotional man, nor am I, but I can count the number of times he said ‘I love you’ on two hands, yet I knew all the same. I was getting ready to board a plane to California once, when he told me – I think because he was scared of flying himself – then he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
When I got my first deer, a small, fork-buck with a spindly rack, he had placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
Up on the ridge we stay low, being sure to hide our silhouette from any deer down in the valley. Quick, at first, then repeated in the dusk light, I see the soft flicker of the deer’s golden brown tail.
I motion subtly at my side for him to come up to my position. Slowly, he moves, the excitement in his eyes shining so bright it kept the night sky below the horizon. I show him the deer, inviting him to follow his sight along my finger. Shifting his weight to get a better view a twig snaps, not loud, but in the forest…
‘Snap a twig too close to a deer and they’ll be gone before you even see ‘em’
We watch the deer bound away, tail raised exposing a bright white underside; a signal to any other deer that danger was close.
“I’m sorry Dad,” he says, staring a hole through his boots.
It had been a long day and he had done well – much better than I had at his age.
“It’s OK,” I say, and I reach out and squeeze his shoulder, forcing him to raise his head so he can see the pride in my eyes.
8. Welcome to the Circus by Ted Dong
It is already my third week on the job and still I have much to learn about the business of entertainment. Having been fascinated with animals for as long as I can remember, this occupation seemed at first, destined to suit me; but nothing is ever what it seems. With that in mind, I set out on my first show of a month-long tour.
I enter today’s performing venue through the backstage, to a blaring chorus of elephants, which drains the Sunday morning drowsiness right out of my system, as their trunks rain a storm of noise into my eardrums. Having been crossly ignored my first two weeks, maybe this is a sign that they have accepted me into their world. I graciously accept this welcome without daring to second guess myself, and pat one of them on the trunk in return.
The elephants’ pen is strikingly claustrophobic, as most of the animal areas are. We are amidst the vast expanse of a dome-like tent right now, but the animals are condensed into cages and stables backstage. Standing around each are groups of trainers, now feeding the animals their first of two meals for the day. They give such minute servings it is a wonder how these animals manage to continue performing. I walk past a pair of my colleagues feeding the birds, and into the nearest bathroom, where I change into my drab uniform.
I head over to the lion’s den, which is really a series of claustrophobic cages now, in which each lion is separated from its counterparts. This is the area where I have been spending most of my time, assisting in the preparation for their upcoming act. Out of all the other stations, though, this one intrigues me the most; how these fearsome, courageous kings of the jungle have become squalid, helpless peasants in this new kingdom of ours. Still, I suppose it would be more accurate a statement to say that they are really coerced jesters in our royal court. What an honour.
Roy, my mentor greets me warmly with a grin and says, in his southern tongue, “People are gon’ start packin’ this place up in about an hour, you wait ‘n see. Ready for your first show, kid?” I can’t say I am.
Sure enough, after sixty brutally anticipated minutes I bring myself to peer out of the backstage curtains, to see a horde of people migrate their way into the stands. Most of them are small children, accompanied by their fervent parents, who hold their hands like escorts to a ball. They have entered the royal court.
It is a different place out there from when I first entered the tent. The performing area is now a magical realm, isolated from the outside world. The stage lights brilliantly illuminate the entire tent, as their golden beams dance off the walls like tiny ballerinas. The tent in and out of itself has become a solid, scintillating ball of wondrous excitement. The crowd attempts to sit in patience, but the children have become restive and their parents equally as antsy.
I look back inside the curtains to see that all of our performers have taken up their respective positions backstage and aloft, some of them appearing so inconspicuously that I hadn’t even noticed them before. It seems that I am the only person out of position, so I quickly retreat to find Roy and the rest of our entourage, nearly toppling over the clowns as I make my way to the lions.
The lion-tamers and I move to the designated entrance, where we are to make our sumptuous entry later in the show. I peer out again, to a now silent crowd of hundreds. The lights have dimmed and the spotlight has come on. I feel a sharp pang in my stomach, as the butterflies start to pervade.
“And now, ladies and gentleman… Michael Jordan!” thunders the ringmaster’s voice, which chops through the air of silence. The crowd cheers in euphoria.
To my surprise, a single cub stumbles out onto the performing area, led by the two trainers, one of who pushes along an undersized basketball hoop. The cub is dragged along by a leash, wound upon a grimy, rusted ring that has been pierced through his two nostrils. They force the young cub to stand, uncannily on his two hind feet. At first he stands there, inert; an expression on his visage I can only describe as apprehensively confused. They shove a dirty basketball into his chest so hard that it ricochets up and hits him in the ringed nose. The audience, children and their parents alike, cackle at the helpless cub as he sneezes. He waddles towards the hoop and drops the ball through. They roar in delightful amusement.
After the cub is finished, the ringmaster screams through his microphone, unnecessarily loud, “Welcome to the circus!”
The audience screams back in jubilance; the children clapping their hands, their parents cheering along. Out of nowhere two trapeze artists swing from aloft, nearly crashing into the ground before exchanging swings with each other in midair, soaring back to the ceiling. More deafening roars from the audience, as the exhilarating acrobatics continue. The show has begun.
I see a mother in the audience pick her son up and embrace him in her arms, as she rises up to give a standing ovation. She beams at her son, conveying a proud sense of love and affection, as if nothing in the world matters more. Then I peep backstage to see the cub fiercely tugged back to his cage by the leash, so hard I fear his nose is about to peel off. I see his mother in a separate, solitary cage, dressed ignominiously in a navy blue sailor’s suit. They stare at each other for a moment, their eyes radiating affection. But this warm moment is brought to an abrupt halt, as a trainer drags the mother away by an analogous leash.
Welcome to the circus.
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