Field of Dreams

off-route and in for a slightly spooky night

Photo by Gabriel Hohol on Pexels.com

We were hours off schedule and hours from the nearest motel, or, frankly, parking lot. All we had was the vast empty of the highway. Dan’s insistence on following the schedule to a T was countermanded by his magnetic pull towards the world’s biggest anything. We can’t stop for an unscheduled snack, but we can sure detour a hundred bumpy backroad kilometres off course to visit a Biggest.

Dan’s love of the unique has its ups and downs. We have stopped at some absolutely spectacular restaurants, hidden gems tucked away down back alleys or on the side of the highway and disguised by their shoddy exteriors. We have also borne witness to the biggest mosquito, ball of yarn, goose and apple. The apple was full of pie, though, so maybe that one counts as a hidden gem. I would certainly not have expected good pie out of a giant fake apple.

I definitely considered this to be one of the downs. Marv’s Christian Family Fun Campground and Cabins. It was early October, and most definitely the off-season. I’m not sure whether I’d have found it less creepy if it was full of families who had chosen this campground above the other, presumably less Christian, campgrounds.

I suggested pulling over on a side road – after all, we are literally towing our house behind us – but Dan was adamant that the schedule had us at a place with showers, and this place had showers. Not to mention off-season pricing.

We pulled in at dusk, interrupting Marv’s dinner to get a key to the showers and an assigned campsite. He wished us a blessed evening, and not to go wandering this late at night while an 8 foot tall Jesus loomed menacingly behind him. The neon glow of the giant cross out by the highway gleamed in Jesus’ eyes. Who knew Jesus could have been in the NBA? Or a mob enforcer?

Dan went on a walk after dinner. I’d been invited, of course, but completely unrelated to the threat that seemed to shine from Jesus’ eyes, I decided to stay in and read. I got caught up in the story, and it was only when my bladder alerted me to its needs that I realized Dan had been gone for 3 hours. His phone rang from the drivers’ seat of our minibus, and I resisted the urge to leave a scathing voicemail about the utility of mobile devices when left immobile.

I pulled out my headlamp and the park map Dan had insisted he wouldn’t need, left a note on the door, swung by the washroom (a friendly giant Jesus holding a soap pump) and then set out. With my phone. We were the only guests at the park on a random Thursday in October, but I didn’t want to yell out and disturb Marv if I didn’t need to. It was the polite thing to do. Unrelated to the extra shadow-y giant Jesus at the first intersection I passed, arms folded disapprovingly.

I wandered along the main path down the center of the park, past wide open campsites and sparse vegetation. I trailed quietly through the cabins, calling softly for Dan at intervals. I came to a trailhead, and was ready to turn back down the next row of cabins instead – Dan wouldn’t be foolish enough to go on a forested trail in a strange place at night – but as I turned away, my light caught on a gleam of metal. I backtracked and picked up an old pressed penny, recognizably the one that Dan kept in his pocket to fidget with. He’d gotten it at one of his earliest Biggests – a catfish, in Alabama.

A giant Jesus held a sign board with a large trail map on it, his enthusiastic grin strangely sinister in the shadows cast by my headlamp. It showed a slightly meandering loop, and the trail was smooth enough to walk in the dark.

I shrugged and started on the loop, staying to the left as I had earlier in hopes that Dan, too, would choose counter clockwise.

I soon caught sight of what I presumed to be Dan, but which turned out, horrifyingly, to be another giant Jesus. Posed as though he was taking a stroll down the trail, just a giant man-shape looming out of the darkness.

I reassured myself that the kids probably got a kick out of their lord and savior joining them on a family walk. They probably didn’t look so foreboding in daylight.

The trail map showed it coming out into a large field, but it did not prepare me for what I found there. Hundreds of giant Jesuses (Jesi?), each with a slightly different expression and pose, all at least 7 feet tall. And Dan, his expression even more manically joyful than the time we saw the world record ball of rubber bands, wandering amongst them, headlamp casting eerie shadows.

“Dan, what the hell!”

He trailed reluctantly out from amongst the shadowy figures. “I thought you didn’t feel up for a walk?”

I pointedly raised my phone and called his. Apart from the tinny tone of a phone ringing through my speaker, silence.

“Oh… sorry.”

“Are we here on purpose? Was this your plan?” I snarled, I could hear it, but I couldn’t change my tone.

“What? No! They don’t even advertise this! I mean, why don’t they advertise this? It must be the largest number of Jesus statues in one place, right?” Dan gestured wildly back at the crowd.

“It’s crazy,” I replied, unable to stop myself from panning my headlamp across the multitude.

“I know, it’s amazing!” Dan replied, exuberant.

Jesus’ assorted eyes gleamed erratically under the gleam of two headlamps, randomly catching figures in the far distance in surprising and disturbing ways.

Dan agreed to come back in the morning, thankfully. I could only hope they wouldn’t be so ominous in daylight.

**

I stared at the field in daylight. This is what I got for making assumptions. What could make a dark field of giant Jesuses less creepy than the daylight version? An EMPTY field. Not a single statue to be seen. The soap in the bathroom was on the counter, and no statues were along any route to the trail.

Of course I hadn’t taken any photos.

Dan paced the empty field, muttering and gesticulating for over an hour before we went in search of our host.

Marv gave us a strange look and politely explained that the statue at the entrance was the only one. “Otherwise, what would the kiddies think?” he chuckled, “That there’s more than one son of God? You know, the families that come here, they really just love this guy.”

On a more serious tone, he scolded us for wandering off in the dark like he’d warned us against – we could have gotten hurt stumbling around, must have imagined all that strange stuff with the shadows!

We declined his offer to have our picture taken with the one and only giant Jesus statue in the park.

As we pulled out of Marv’s Christian Family Fun Campground and Cabins, Dan weakly started describing a great little hole in the wall joint we could go to for brunch, only an hour or so away. He stared at the road for a long moment then said, “You know what? How about Tim Hortons.”

Buddy Jesus loves you & wants you to be happy
“Buddy Jesus loves you & wants you to be happy” by Chris Devers is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

PS – It’s fiction, it’s not meant to offend or insult any religions. If it upsets you, mentally replace it with Elvis… Marv’s Elvis Family Fun Campground and Cabins. Problem solved, you’re welcome.

Nan’s House

This was a response for YeahWrite #508:

A teapot

“Teapot with purple steam” by garrellmillhouse is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

***

“Nan’s house is magic, you’ll love it!” Gia was positively vibrating in her seat, straining against her seatbelt like she could make the car speed up and get there faster.

Brody had his doubts about this. He’d found grandparents to be a real sticking point with foster homes in the past. Old people had a distinct preference for kids who were the kids of their kids. Not so much the random one they got saddled with babysitting at the same time. Grandkids are a blessing, but other peoples’ kids were a chore, one rosy cheeked old woman had muttered to her neighbour friend when he’d slunk into the kitchen to ask for a glass of water.

“And Nan’s magic, too!” Gia added. “You’ll love her too!”

“What do I call her?” Brody asked, pitching his voice loud enough to carry towards the Bernardis in the front seats without, he hoped, being obnoxious. This home had so far been too good to be true, he’d do what he could to keep on their good side. If that meant being invisible for the summer so Nan wouldn’t complain to them about the extra work of looking after another child, he’d be the world’s most polite potted plant.

“Nan, of course,” Gia sent him a baffled look before resuming her strain towards the house they’d be living in for two months while the adult Bernardis went away. Mrs. Bernardi had to go to somewhere in Germany for research, and they’d decided to make a vacation of it.

Mr. Bernardi glanced in the rear-view mirror and met Brody’s eyes for a moment. “She’ll likely encourage you to call her Nan, but you can also call her Mrs. Costa if you prefer. Whatever makes you most comfortable.”

Brody was most suspicious of Mr. Bernardi. His eyes were so warm. He was too perceptive. He’d noticed Brody’s interest in the coffee table book about frogs and gotten him another from his office! Later, the man had offered to take Brody to the library! He had looked positively delighted when Brody slipped some books on sharks onto the checkout counter too. Brody couldn’t figure out his angle.

The car pulled off the highway and wound down back roads for another hour, and, all too soon, they were creeping down a winding tunnel of trees and hedges. Nan’s house was small and brick, with a riot of gardens all around it, a huge pond out front and a flock of wind chimes hanging from the wide porch.

Nan herself was a tall scrawny scarecrow of a woman, long white hair frizzing out of a long braid, wearing overalls, birkenstocks and a tee-shirt with a large smiley face on it.

She met Gia halfway, dashing the gangly girl up in a tight hug before pulling her back by the shoulders to do the standard grandkid once-over.

Brody hung back behind the Bernardis, clutching his backpack full of books to his chest and sidling towards the trunk to help with the bags.

He let out a yelp of surprise when he found himself swooped up in a tight hug by the old woman, who had apparently skipped the Bernardis to come and greet him first.

“Brody! I’m so excited to meet you! I’m Nan, and I’m so happy you’re here!”

Brody stood frozen in surprise as she proceeded to hold him at arms length and give him – him! – the grandkid once-over! It was madness! She didn’t even have a previous iteration to compare him to!

“I heard from Dan that you’ve got an interest in aquatic creatures, which is just wonderful, because you’ve arrived at the perfect time for tadpoles!”

She gave him a friendly slap on the back, passed him his bag from where it had fallen, and went to greet the adult Bernardis.

Gia bounded over and started unloading the trunk, her grin a match for the raspy-voiced old woman’s.

**

Brody spent the evening braced for the switch – the Bernardis had left after a hearty lunch in the back garden, which could only mean that Mrs. Costa would soon show her true colours.

So she urged him to help himself to seconds… of dessert. And then urged him to join her and Gia in a boardgame. She gave him extra marshmallows in his hot chocolate later, with a friendly wink and a comment about growing boys. She then gave Gia extra marshmallows with a comment about growing girls. Then added more to her own, with a comment about growing old.

It would happen when Gia wasn’t around, he was sure. Maybe she didn’t want to let her granddaughter know what she thought of the foster kid she was stuck babysitting. Adults were sometimes like that.

Though he was apparently definitely supposed to call her Nan.

**

Brody lay in bed as long as he could bear, hoping that Gia would prove to be more of a morning person here than she was at home. He was wondering how long he could continue only interacting with Mrs. Costa while in the presence of her granddaughter. He liked Nan-Mrs. Costa… he didn’t want to meet only-doing-my-daughter-a-favour-Mrs. Costa.

But it was nearly 8, and he was horribly bored.

He’d just slip downstairs and go explore a bit outside.

Mrs. Costa – Nan – was in the kitchen, eating toast and reading the newspaper. Not absorbed enough for him to slip past unnoticed, however.

“Lovely, a fellow early-bird! I’ve got toast, cereal, and, if you’re up for cooking yourself, there are eggs. Help yourself to whatever condiments – the cupboard by the fridge has nutella and peanut butter, jam’s in the fridge, so’s the milk and juice, butter’s on the counter.”

Brody made himself some toast with peanut butter and jam, uncomfortable in the silence. Nan pulled the comics section from the paper and placed it in front of the seat opposite her. Brody slipped into the offered seat and pulled the pages towards himself. Nan seemed content to sip her coffee and peruse the paper in silence while he ate.

“Gia wants a tea-party this afternoon,” Nan commented, staring into her coffee.

“Really?” Brody asked, surprised. Gia was thirteen – Brody was only ten, but quite sure Gia was long out of the age of tea parties.

Nan raised her eyebrow at Brodys tone – or possibly, Mrs. Costa did, he thought – and he looked away.

“You’re never too old for a tea party, kiddo- nothing makes you feel fancier, or more like a giant than tiny tiny sandwiches.”

Nan then suggested Brody join her in the garden to hunt for toads.

**

The tea party was more of a picnic. They all spent some time prepping tiny sandwiches – cucumber, pb&j, and egg salad – and chopping vegetables and fruit to go with the dips.

Once everything else was packed, they each chose a tea-cup from the many on the shelves, and packed that into the basket. Gia carried the basket, and Brody carried the blanket. Nan pulled down a small teapot and filled it with tap water.

They all trooped out to the far end of the garden, where there was a nice sun-dappled patch of grass surrounded by flower beds and trees.

Once everything was set up, their tea cups arranged on the basket-top, Nan looked at the children with a solemn expression. “And now for tea.”

“Me first!” Gia burst out, earning a reprooving look from her grandmother – not unlike the look she’d given Brody that morning. “Brody hasn’t done it before, he needs a demonstration.”

Nan nodded at that, as though Brody really did need a demonstration of cold water being poured into tea cups.

“Very well, my darling, what will you be having today?” Nan asked, holding the pot poised over Gia’s cup.

Gia scrunched up her face for a long moment in needlessly intense thought. “Raspberry Cordial.”

“Excellent choice!” Nan poured the water, giving it a bit of dramatic flare by drawing the teapot up high so the water cascaded down into the cup.

Gia smiled at Brody after taking a sip of her water. “You can ask for any kind of drink you can think of, Brody! But the raspberry cordial is really good, if you can’t think of anything.”

Brody wondered how he’d already lived with this girl for a whole month before learning she was crazy.

Nan turned to Brody. “And you, sir?”

“Um, could I please have some water?” He did his best to not roll his eyes.

Nan nodded without a comment and raised the pot, but Gia darted her hand out to cover Brody’s cup. “Brody – water’s the most boring thing – you can pick anything, really! It’s no fun if you just pick water.”

Gia looked so upset by Brody’s lack of effort to participate in the game. She was so nice, even if at times more enthusiastic than Brody was used to.

“Um, then how about… um… orange soda? Please?”

“Delightful choice!” Nan crowed, dramatically pouring the water into the tea cup. “In fact, I think I’ll have the same, since I can’t even remember the last time I had orange soda!”

She proceeded to pour her own water as dramatically as theirs, and took a sip. She smacked her lips then burped. “Oh, the bubbles do have that effect! Definitely a good choice, though.”

Brody smiled politely, resting his teacup of water on his knee. He was about to reach for a sandwich when he realized that Gia was staring at him with tense glee in her expression. And Nan was watching him rather intently too.

Apparently playing the game in full was the barrier between him and tiny sandwiches.

Brody lifted the cup and took a small sip of water to appease the others. And gasped in surprise, causing orange soda to fizz out his nose and down his chest.

Gia howled with laughter, while Nan simply smiled, eyes twinkling, and handed him a napkin. “There’s a good lad – I knew you had it in you.”

He did try the raspberry cordial, and it was really quite good.

Brody was beginning to think Gia was right – this summer would be magical.

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A World Apart

Yesterday, I found out that the Chapters nearest me is closing.  EVERYTHING MUST GO, 50% off, SALE SALE SALE!  The remaining books huddle together in a disorganized jumble, leaving the outer edges of the building like a ghost town of empty shelves and dust.  On an unrelated note, this morning I (and most of you) lost an hour, but not in the way that indicates that you’re deep into a really great read.  For Master Class this week, I used the prompt Piquant Libraries, partly out of nostalgia, but mostly because the first definition of piquant I think of is flavorful.  And whether I’m reading a hard-cover book, an e-book checked out from the Public Library’s free online database, or an online story, good books, like good food, are filling in more ways than one.

Click the image below to read the rest of the responses or to submit your own!

master-class-featured-image

Growing up in a small town, Bailey never understood her mother’s love of libraries.  The single small room allocated for books in the town hall was musty and uninspiring.  It had three dog-eared copies of Where the Red Fern Grows, a complete set of Louis L’Amour’s novels, all but the first of the Narnia TV serial on VHS and an assortment of Christian children’s stories.  Not inherently bad, but certainly not the most piquant of libraries.

Her mother had offered up a selection of her own books, Asimov, Heinlein and McCaffrey, the Bronte sisters and Shelley to round it out a bit.  The town council declined, saying there wasn’t much point in overloading the shelves of a government offered service that got such little use.

So Bailey and her mother kept their own library, milk cartons and 2×8’s to support their hodge-podge collection of books.  Angela’s Airplane and Stone Soup from her earliest memories, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys when she first started reading on her own.  A complete set of the Narnia books.  Sci-fi and Fantasy in the kitchen, Romance in the hall, biographies by the TV.  Geography, History and Art by the desk.  Mystery scattered throughout, because a good mystery surprises you.

None of the other kids in her school read much, perhaps unsurprisingly, but when they were required to choose a book to write a report on, they knew who to go to.  Bailey would ask them questions – action? Drama? Love? Space? Cowboys? Knights? Spies? – and provide her friends with a selection to choose from.  Her mother helped her in creating the check-out slips, even going so far as to buy a date stamp.

When the worst came to pass, Bailey and her library moved to the city where her mother had grown up.  Her Aunt Mary helped her set up the shelves and smiled tearily as she recognized old friends from her own teen years.

Bailey buried herself in her books, overwhelmed by her grief and her new surroundings.  The city was too loud, too busy, too chaotic.  Mary suggested an after-school job, made a few calls and gave her an address.

The building smelled a bit musty, but from there it was a world away from that sad room from her childhood.  A winged lion and a gryphon guarded the heavy doors, and light danced through tall windows and down the enormous central atrium.  More than a single room – or even a single storey full of books – the library had storeys of stories, more books than Bailey had seen in her life.

And people – children running down the curved staircases clutching large picture books, people checking books out, dropping them off, standing in the aisles reading the back, and curled up in comfy chairs lost in a book.  The library was so much more than its books, and standing in the quiet vastness of it, Bailey fell in love.

toronto_public_library

“The love for a good story, well told, lies deep in every human heart.” – Lillian H. Smith, Librarian.

As Young as you Feel

Master Class is mixing things up, and doing a somewhat elaborate month-long challenge in which you get to pick and choose from a variety of challenges that will update regularly.  The one-word challenge of the first week is:

Hooligan

It’s such a great word, how could I resist?  click on the link below to go to the page and read the other submissions or post your own!

“Mildred!  If anyone asks, I been out here with you all day!”  Ernie cackled delightedly and pushed the screen door shut with his cane.  He had a newspaper under his arm and two beers.

His wife of sixty-three years was weeding the vegetable garden.  It was a strange garden, with stout banisters  running between the rows.  Their son had patronizingly explained wireless technology to his poor backwards mam when she’d asked how he liked his provider, and, since getting her set up with the device, had received  cellphone calls from across town to ‘help his poor old mamma up from her gardening’. Mysteriously, and entirely unconnected to the fact that he had accidentally made his Outlook Calendar public to his contacts, he was always on his way in for a massage when she called.  He built the fences so that Mildred could pull herself up, and she had thanked him profusely, eyes twinkling.  They made excellent trellises.

Mildred joined Ernie in the shade of their porch.

“Heya toots,” Ernie deposited a sound kiss on her lips and offered up the bottles, “Give us a hand?”

“Your damned arthritis, what good are you anymore?” she chortled, popping the caps off the two beers with a sharp tap to the edge of their cinder-block table.  “What have you really been up to, you old hooligan?”

“Me?  Why, I’m just a feeble old codger.” Ernie took a swig of his beer.  “Not much could get up to, is there?  But might be that the dog walker who called you an ugly old witch and doesn’t pick up after his dogs left his van windows cracked.  And on a completely unrelated note, I cleaned up our front lawn and all down the street, kindly soul that I am.”

“Kind indeed – cheers to being so old that we couldn’t possible have done anything wrong!”

Red Dress Club – A New Road

You can see the prompt from Write on Edge and submit your own by clicking the image below.

I’d also like to mention – I mean no disrespect by using the word Gypsy.  But not using it would kind of take away any level of authenticity from my MC.  After all… what farm boy ‘way back when’ would have known that ‘they prefer Romani’?
  Sam stumbled down the rutted road, shaking in the cold night wind off the plains.

Icy fingers clutched tight at the thin cloth of his coat.  Teeth chattering, he looked longingly back down the road, his entire world out of sight.

The girls would be snug in bed, he knew, their dolls tucked under their arms.  Who’d take care of them now?

He scrubbed at the tears coursing down his cheek and steeled himself.

No going back.  Pa’d always done right by the girls, at least.  They’d be fine.

Sam blew on his hands and broke into a clumsy jog, pain stabbing him with each jarring step.

The moon was nearly set when he saw the fire.  Exhausted and aching, he didn’t try to hide.  They could be murderers as long as they let him die by the fire.

He passed a tree strung up with charms, and even in the thin moonlight, the wagon was brightly coloured and intricately patterned.  Gypsies.

Thieves and murderers, the lot of them, his memory growled in his father’s voice, fetch my gun, boy, don’t dawdle.

Sam shook his head.  Pa’s opinion of good and bad wasn’t very trustworthy.

A branch snapped under his foot and the murmur of conversation around the fire died. One man called out cheerfully,”Ye’re late, lad – what took ye?”

The others around the fire laughed as though the man had made a joke.  Sam sidled forward and smiled cautiously.

“I-you-um…” he stared, wide-eyed, at the motley group and swallowed. “Wha’?”

“She told us to keep dinner.”  a hulking man leaned forward, a wicked scar cutting his face in two, gold teeth gleaming with fire.

A boy about his own age grinned less ominously and added, “Yeah, Shuv’ni shoulda said t’make ye breakfast!”  He nudged the girl beside him, who snorted sourly.

“What do you expect, me reading in a moving wagon?”

Sam blinked at that – Readin’s fer the rich, Pa said.  But what did reading have to do with predicting his arrival?  Magic, his imagination hissed.  He shuddered.

“Come closer, boy, warm ye’self,” an ancient woman with bright birdlike eyes commanded from her rocking chair.

Sam  stepped forward, blushing at the Gypsies’ gasps of dismay.  A woman made a low pained noise, like a kicked dog.  He had a good idea of what he looked like.  Pa never bothered avoiding the face.

The old woman pursed her lips disapprovingly, “Shuv’ni didn’t warn o’ that neither.”

The girl darted forward, grabbing him by the face.  She prodded him everywhere it hurt, making him yelp.

“I need to read the bones,” she muttered, turning away.  Before she disappeared into the wagon she added, “By the by, your ribs’r cracked.  Gran’ll do for ye”

Gran rolled her eyes and said, “Come sit by me, boy.”

“Why… why are you all being so nice?”

The gold-toothed man laughed, tugging a woman out of the shadows.  “We do right by family, don’t we, luv?”

Sam gaped as a ghost from his memories stepped into the firelight.  Wordlessly, the woman hugged him tight.

“Ma?”

This is a pastel and ink drawing by my sister, Doodle. You can see more of her work by clicking the image (it’ll take you to her DeviantArt page). She also blogs over at DrawninandQuartered. I do love having an in-house artist for my stories!

SciFriday 1 – Commute

This piece is called Tracks, by Sandara. Click the image to go and check out more of her work.

Travelling the abandoned byways of this, the ancient home of our foolish godly ancestors, I curse my own foolishness.  The ghostly silence groans with concrete and steel losing to gravity and time.  

The rumbling coo of pigeons  is nerve-wracking.  Massive and wily as they are, my best chance is to take advantage of their poor eyesight – move slowly, steadily.   

My camel’s metal claw rings against buried rail and the birds hone in on the noise.

Next station’s in 2km.  I can see their evil red eyes gleaming.  Too far.

Ducking under the bot’s torso and pulling out my bow, I scan the horizon and pray.

When the first enormous rat bites into my calf, I’m ready with a knife.  Commuting downtown really is deadly.

***

Chris White Writes put out a photo prompt today, more specifically, a sci fi prompt.  I love reading sci fi, but I’ve got to say, it’s not my strong suit.  What better way to improve than by practising, though, eh?

Click the picture to check out the artist, or go to Chris White Writes to submit your own prompt response and read other submissions!

Mob Life

<– Previous story section || Next story Section –>

“Hey, boss, you sure they ain’t on to us?”

“Of course, they’re not on to us, Julius.  How could they be on to something.  I’m just a nice old guy living in his new house, just doing retired guy things.  Ain’t that right, Jimmy?”

The third man looked up from his perusal of the comics, all six feet and two hundred and fifty pounds of him awkwardly curled into a small wingback chair.  “Sure thing, boss.” He rumbled agreeably, “You’re a real old guy.”

Julius snickered from his post by the window.  Tony bristled, but chose to only snap his newspaper straight and go back to reading.  After a few moments of silence in which Julius didn’t move away from the bay window, hand carefully pulling the blind away from the wall to peer out, Tony gave in.

“Why you want to know, Julius?”

“Just that kid, boss,” The wiry man stepped aside to allow Tony access to the wall beside the window.  “I don’t like the look of him.  Or the dog.”

A teenage boy in jeans and a Blue Jays T-shirt stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, holding the lead of a cartoonish dog.  The boy was staring blankly up at the house, and the dog was unnaturally still, like it was a statue of itself.  The boy kept waving his closed hand in the air in front of the dog, like he was reminding it to do something.

As the two men watched, the dog abruptly reanimated, lunged for the boy’s hand, and started walking.  The boy’s eyes became more focused, and he looked right at Tony’s hiding spot behind the blinds.

Tony stepped back, out of the line of sight to the sidewalk.  “Huh.” He said.

“See, boss,” Julius exclaimed, “see, he’s watching us.  I saw him by yesterday, too, twice!”

“He’s just some dumb kid walking some dumb dog,” Tony said, trying to convince himself of it.  “Ain’t nobody caught on to what’s goin’ on here, ain’t nobody gonna.”  He hesitated a moment before resuming his seat for his after dinner snack and added, “Find out who he is, Julius.  Just don’t let on that you know anything.”

***

This is a continuation of the Rhododendrons story.  I’m working on it, along with assorted short things, working towards the goal of 50000 words for Camp Nano.

An Unlikely Team

The Master Class has started making submissions every two weeks for the summer.  This round, the phrase is:

And it could be placed at the very beginning or ending of the piece.

Feel free to let me know what you think, and definitely follow the link (in the picture) and check out the other submissions!

***

“Hey!  You!  Mister!  Mister?  Hey, Mister, sir, hey!  Mister, wait!”

Daniel ignored the uncouth youngster right up until the brat had the audacity to reach a grimy hand towards the sleeve of his charcoal trench coat.  He barely caught the movement out of the corner of his eye in time to whirl and confront the desecrator of outerwear.  He hardly even appreciated the subtle swish of the military style wool gabardine as it fell around him.  He glared down his nose at the urchin with hard eyes and a curl to his lip.

The urchin standing before him seemed entirely un-fazed.  The level of filth the boy was coated in made Daniel’s skin crawl.  Were all children so grubby?  They all seemed somewhat sticky in his limited experience.

“What,” he said, voice razor-sharp, “do you want?”

A sly look crossed the painfully thin face – in dire need of soap, or maybe some kind of industrial cleaner, Daniel mused – and the child said, “Well… a sammich’d be nice, I suppose.”

Daniel reined in his temper as well as he could.  “You chased me down, groped at me with your filthy little hands… for a… a… sandwich?

“What?” the child widened his eyes in false confusion.  “Nah.  You just asked what I wanted, didncha?  I hollered at’cha ‘cause I got sunthin you want.  Leastwise, if yer that poncey PI what’s lookin’ into the Morningside murder.”

The PI – the only PI with a lick of fashion sense in the whole damned city, and, yes, he moisturized, but was that a crime?  And for god sake, could none of the others gather the will to shave on a daily basis?  Was that so much to ask?  And he got plenty of action from the ladies, thankyouverymuch – held the urge to box the brat’s ears in check by a hair.

He settled for saying, “If by poncey, you mean, ‘that PI who doesn’t look like a homeless booze-hound’, then yes.  What do you know?”

Thumbs stuck cockily in the front of his suspenders, the boy smirked.  “Well, now, mister, I recon I’ll remember a bit better with a sammich in my belly… and a spot to lay low for a few days.  Bit of security, eh?”

“Protection from what, exactly?”  Daniel found himself intrigued in spite of himself.  Despite the off-the-cuff seeming request, the boy couldn’t entirely hide the fear behind the façade.

“From who, more like,” the boy replied with a shrug.  “Don’t expect I was supposed to see what I done seen, now, was I?”

**

Everything the boy touched gained faint brown fingerprints. Front hallway, leather sofa-back, kitchen table and chair, all of the washroom, Daniel mentally enumerated the parts of his apartment that would need a good cleaning while the boy devoured a second ham on rye.  Perhaps he’d just throw out that plate and cup.

The boy guzzled back a tall glass of milk, wiping his face with an equally grubby coat-sleeve.  He leaned back with a contented sigh, and Daniel took that as a cue, shifting forward in his own seat.

“What do you know of the Morningside murder?”

“Banker shot dead in ‘is bathroom- onna toilet, hah, what a way to go, eh? – door locked from the inside, and no way anyone could have escaped through that tiny little window.  Police says it’s suicide, but the wife – real looker, big – “ the boy stopped midway through a crude gesture at the look in Daniel’s eye and hastily said “… er… assets… says it’s no suicide, hires you on.”

“If I wanted a news blurb, I’d have gotten a newspaper – would have left a hell of a lot less mess in my house.”

“Newspapers know there weren’t no gun in there with him?”  The boy looked smug when he saw Daniel’s tense reaction.

“Now how would you know that?”

“I saw how it went down, didn’t I?  Know where the gun is too.”

Daniel sighed, seeing that business-like expression return to the boy’s face.  “And you want more than just a few sandwiches and a bunk for a few days.”

The boy’s smile grew predatory.  “I wants me a, whatchacallit – a ‘prenticeship.  With lodgin’s.  And food.”

Daniel frowned at the feeling of indefinite dread rising in his stomach.  “An apprenticeship in what?  With whom?  And what on earth gives you the impression I’ve got that kind of connection?”

“With you, a’course!”

The dread coalesced into a terrible form.  He pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers and closed his eyes.  The case had been going bloody nowhere, but the boy was so very… filthy.  The thought of him hanging about longer than was absolutely necessary was repugnant.  His entire apartment already smelled a bit like the fisherman’s wharf.

“If you’ve really seen something that can wrap this case up for me, get Mrs. Whytham-Jones off my back…”  Daniel struggled to tamp down his trepidation.  Damn, he hated children.  “Then I’ll give you an apprenticeship.”

The boy let out a whoop of glee, and Daniel added sharply, “On a trial basis – and if you give me any trouble, you’re out on your ass.”  He wondered if ‘ass’ was considered a swear word… wondered if he was allowed to swear around children, uneasy that there was some kind of rule about it.  He’d bring it up with his landlady tomorrow.  Mrs. Scheffield had once had children, he thought.  A long time ago, maybe.

“Hell, yeah!”

“And you have to bathe.  Every day.”  Daniel glared at the grinning boy.  He couldn’t even take the young con artist’s words seriously in the state he was in.  The boy was better suited to sewer maintenance than PI work, that much was clear.  “In fact… now.  Go run yourself a bath and I’ll find something for you to wear, and then I want to hear everything you know about that bloody bathroom.”

“Sure thing, Mister.”  The boy jumped up and trotted towards the washroom.  One grubby hand on the door-frame – leaving yet another smear to decontaminate later, Daniel noted grimly – he twisted back to Daniel, eyes sparkling.  “And they call me Scrapper.”

Winning

This week’s Master Class was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  This week it’s being reader-judged, which means, I’d imagine, that the responses of the other people participating will be even better than usual.  You should head on over to  participate or to read some of the other responses, and vote!

I’m not much into sports, but it’s kind of hard to not hear about football lately, or so it seems.  I’m not talking about that in the sense of

“The Grizzlies creamed the Wombats in a double or nothing showdown, and won with a home-run in the final seconds – what a play THAT was, Bob.”

“It was, indeed, Stan – the Grizzlies have really upped their game since that one time when one of their players shot the puck into his own basket!”

… or whatever.  More along the lines of “People who should know better let terrible things be done by football players, or people in the industry, so as not to ruin the game.”  It made me think of how extremely violent people watching sports can become – the kind of aggression that makes some people willing to turn a blind eye to terrible things.

On a completely different note, it seems that I’m doing a terrible job indicating the sex of the characters I write.  Please, if you comment, tell me which you think this character is.  No pressure.  And feel free to leave tips to improve the clarity of my storyline in that regard, and any other.

storch-badge

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

I was surprised that the parents agreed to it, but they’d agreed to a lot since the new Coach took over.

Coach always got his way, and he said his Heroes had to be in peak condition.  He said you couldn’t expect a bunch of paunchy and unfit middle-aged losers to know how to look after athletes.  He called them losers to their faces and they still worship him.

You don’t realize during the day just how echo-ey a gymnasium is.  It took me a while to get used to sharing a room with the rest of the guys from school.  Not to mention Coach’s surprise midnight runs.

I like it, though – I think the special high-protein diet he’s got us on is really improving my performance.  Like Coach says, I want to be the best that I can be.  And slaughter the enemy, too… I guess.  That’s usually the emphasis of his pep-talks.

His eyes glowed with a manic light that caught us up in his words as he paced back and forth in front of us, a commander addressing his army.

“Football?!  Football’s for pansies!  Winning is everything.”  He said the same thing about college.  He had the grass ripped up in the stadium, had us training on the hard-packed clay, under the burning sun, day in, day out.  We were in the best shape of our lives.

I’d always found sports easy.  This isn’t easy, but I’m definitely having a better time of it than some of the guys.  The gym at night is full of the muffled sounds of crying.  I’d feel bad for them, but since Coach stopped football, I figure this is my best chance at greatness.  I don’t exactly have the brains to get into college based on my grades – but as the star quarterback, I stood a good chance of getting scouted.  With the new games, I’m not so sure about College.  Greatness, though… greatness is doable.

Coach says that immortality is within reach of those who crush the enemy.

The town might have complained a bit about the loss of football – we had been all about football, here – but only until they went to that first game.  That won them.  If I hadn’t already seen them at football games, I’d have been surprised at their blood-lust.

It won all of us, I think.  At least, all of us who stand a chance of winning.

I remember the silence as we walked out into the stadium.  The spectators didn’t know what was going on, couldn’t grasp the significance of the new uniforms, the modified protective equipment. They protected our vitals in new, yet familiar ways. The sun beat down on hard-packed earth, the smell of grease and sweat heavy in the air.  It gleamed on our oiled skin, our equipment, and on that of our opponents, across the field.

I don’t think I really understood what was supposed to happen until that moment.  He had changed up the training schedules, pulling us out of classes and filling our days with hours of laps, weightlifting and protein shakes.  Then he’d started us in sparring, hand-to-hand combat, knife drills, spears, swords, and chains.  It was kind of unreal.

The two teams faced each other in tight formation across the wide expanse of sun-hardened dirt.  Us and them.  The enemy.  My body felt wound tight with adrenaline.

The whistle sounded.

I didn’t hesitate, I ran.  We all did.  The clash as we made contact with the other team – brought in from gods only know where – was deafening.  Even over the clamor of noise in the fray, I could hear the panicked screams of the crowd as they realized what was happening.

There was hardly a change when those screams turned to pleas for it to stop, and then to encouragement. My Mom and Pop were almost as obsessed with winning  at any cost as Coach was.

I parried, lunged, hacked at any and every piece of exposed skin.  I didn’t hesitate in taking that opening, going in for the kill. My sword caught for a moment on the edge of his armor before it slid in deep.  He let out a bubbling sigh as he crumpled on top of me, but all I could focus on was getting around him, getting back to the fight.  I’d have nightmares about it later, in the echoing darkness of the gymnasium.

The  next one came easier.  Poor sucker didn’t even bring up his staff to block me, and his head flew off, spattering everyone nearby with scalding blood.  His face still held a rabbit-like look of absolute terror.  Easy prey.

After that first game, after the parents of the dead found out just how much their dearly departed had earned them in just this one game, everyone was on board.  Even if your kid isn’t a winner, you’re a winner in the end, I suppose.

I’m one of the best.  War-matches, one-on-one combat, lions, rabid dogs, two-on-one, three, four, I was winning them all.  Living in the gymnasium took some getting used to, but I definitely got used to being treated like this, a god of the arena.  The cheerleaders certainly made sure we felt appreciated.  Coach saw to everything.

We weren’t the only ones to have our lives turned upside down.  The gods were back, and with a vengeance.  It’s pretty obvious why we were chosen by Ares – who else would we worship after spending the entire district education budget on a 20 million dollar football stadium?

Property Lines

This week, we’re picking up with Agata.  You can probably read this one alone, but I’d suggest reading Crush, the previous one in this series of stories, just to be clear on how things got to this point.  If you want to read the entire series, click on the Fiction Tab above, and you’ll find all the links to the story under Which Witch.  As always, let me know what you think – and how you think it ought to be improved!

I’m using the prompt from Trifecta, and from Write on Edge for this.

Trifecta’s word was

MOUTH

1a : the natural opening through which food passes into the body of an animal and which in vertebrates is typically bounded externally by the lips and internally by the pharynx and encloses the tongue, gums, and teeth   b : grimace <made a mouth>   c : an individual requiring food <had too many mouths to feed> 2a : voice, speech <finally gave mouth to her feelings>   b : mouthpiece 3: something that resembles a mouth especially in affording entrance or exit: as
This week on Write at the Merge, the picture of a crumbling castle was what I took as inspiration.
I highly recommend checking out both sites, to submit your own prompt response or to read some of the great responses other people have submitted.

Agata rolled painfully to her feet, scattering debris.  Dust swirled through the maelstrom of berserker barbarians.  Agata caught glimpses of the ogre, green-gray skin covering boulder-like muscles, eerie catseye gleaming yellow in the dimness.

The battle wasn’t going well.  She sighed, narrowed her eyes, and, with intense focus, shook out an imaginary blanket.

As the barbarians painfully clambered to their feet, dazed and confused at their sudden fall, Agata strode purposefully towards the now-frozen ogre.

“Gragh, is it?”  The creature stared down at her, dumbfounded.  “Yes, you.  Gragh?”

Its voice rumbled thunderously.  “Ya, me is Gragh.  Who you?”

“Agata.  What do you want here?”

“Gragh-”

“It wants to eat us!  Kill it!”

Agata whirled and glared them into silence.

“GRAGH CRUSH!”  The ogre snarled at the barbarians, fighting the invisible bonds.

“But why?

Gragh’s brow creased in thought.  “Gragh want…”

Agata found herself nodding encouragement to the hulking creature.

“Gragh want No Bother GRAGH!”

“You came here.

“Dey is come first to Gragh sleep place and try hurt Gragh!”

At Agata’s accusing glare, the barbarians broke into a cacophony of denials and explanations like children caught with their hands in the mouth of the cookie jar.

“It took the castle on the mount!”  A blonde-haired hulk in a skunk-fur loincloth stepped forward.

“Did he kill the owner?”

“It’s, um, been abandoned for centuries, actually.  Terrible location, no water, no trees…”

“So what does it matter where he lives?”

“It eats people.  And sheep.

Agata turned her scowl on Gragh, who shook his head in denial.  “Gragh no eat animal-things.” He curled his lip in disgust.  “Gragh vegetable-arian.  And rocks.  Rocks crunchy yum.  Fuzzy Baaas no yum.”

“Here’s the deal – you leave people alone, and” she turned to scowl at the barbarians, “people stay away from your castle.  Shake on it,” she barked, commandingly.

Agata watched and spelled every hand-shake before approaching the ogre with a proposition.

In short order they were headed off, a witch and her ogre-guide through the mountains.