This is an unpublished short story, written from the prompt, unwelcome guest.
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Scorched Earth (War of the Worlds)
by Mitch Lavender
When I was seventeen, my hand was nearly ripped off. As I write this, that now mostly-dead hand lies limply on the desk as I write with the other. It’s not a story I’ve told before, but I need to tell someone.
It was a cool night in April of 1981, and my parents were arguing about what to do with the vacation cabin outside of Glen Rose, ninety minutes’ drive from our home in Fort Worth. Dad wanted to sell it and reinvest in his dumpy bar, and Mom wanted to fix it up and rent it out.
“I can fix the cabin up,” I said. “I’ll be out of school in June and I’ll live out there while I’m working on it. I’ll get it in shape before Deer Season opens in August.” I was so excited at the prospect of getting away, even if it meant a lot of work.
My parents fought into the night, and the outcome was that I would fix it up and they would rent it or sell it if renting didn’t work out. I would be allowed to live at the cabin alone as long as I was working on it, and my older brother, Desmond would check up on me to insure I was getting things done.
Desmond was twenty-three and bagged groceries at the local Albertson’s. He paid $40 a month in room rent and the cash left over was spent on weed, girls and his Harley.
I did not look forward to him checking up on me at the cabin. Still, I wanted some privacy very badly. In English class, we learned how Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden in a cabin, furnished only with a bed, table, desk and three chairs. I imagined this was my opportunity to write my Walden and was enamored with the idea.
The first weekend in June, I packed up my ’73 Ford Maverick with my clothes thrown in the backseat, my pale blue Royal typewriter and a carton of paper. I drove away on a Saturday morning without a single family member wishing me goodbye.
The cabin was in catastrophic shape. The white paint was peeling on the outside, and inside, the bare plywood floors were littered with dead June bugs and cockroaches. The carpet was removed when the septic tank backed up and hadn’t been replaced.
The land though, was luxurious. The river was only forty yards from the house and rushing water was an ever present sound. The trees, some of them magnificent and towering, shaded the house in even the most brutal Texas summer. There were no other houses around for almost a mile. Private.
The first day consisted of sweeping out the cabin and washing all the bed clothes at the laundry mat in Glen Rose. I fixed tomato soup on the old stove and ate it straight from the sauce pan. I then put the old typewriter on the kitchen table and loaded a sheet a paper.
While I aspired to write my Walden, I lacked the confidence and aptitude. I listened to the 8-track tape of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of Worlds on my drive to the cabin, and had finished the novel by H.G. Wells only a week before.
In this, I had a great story and an interpretation of it as an example to follow. That is what I would do – I would write my version of War of Worlds.
My version rarely strayed from the original text, but it was liberating and as I wrote, my story slowly gained resonance and a voice of its own, departing from the original story. The narrator, Michael (nameless in H.G. Wells’ original), was now fleeing across the country with his wife. The Martian Tripods drew blood through needles in the bottoms of their feet as they stomped humans. The Red Weed was no longer benign and had vampire-like tentacles that also tried to suck blood from anyone in reach.
I banged the pages out, blasphemously rewriting a science-fiction classic. During the day, I would dutifully work on the cabin – scraping paint, spraying toxic mold-killer or scrubbing some hopelessly filthy sink, tub or faucet. Each night, I wrote, sometimes by candlelight or oil lantern, since electricity was sketchy. Finally, I replaced the wiring to fix this. I put down new carpet. I reroofed the home and repainted the interior. I found time to walk in the woods during the less hot mornings, but still, I wrote each night.
Then Desmond showed up. I heard him coming for ten minutes before he arrived, sitting atop his Harley. He had two cars and a Winnebago following his lead. I was splattered with paint, having almost finished painting the outside of the cabin.
Desmond got off his motorcycle as his friends drove their vehicles behind him. Pulling off his helmet, he swaggered towards me – me, still holding a paint brush in one hand and a can of paint in the other.
“Hey, Brother. Nice work.” Desmond surveyed the outside of the cabin. I said nothing and he went inside. The interior was already painted. The new carpet was cheap but fresh and unstained. Coming out, he was grinning. “Damn. Aren’t you just the worker bee?”
“What’s up with them?” I nodded to the nine people that piled out of the cars and RV, watching from a distance. A dog was barking from inside the Winnebago. I had a bad feeling about all of it.
“We’re going to do a little camping here. Time for you to go back home.” Desmond was grinning, and I remembered my father using the term, “Shit-eatin’ grin.” I didn’t understand it when my father said it, but I understood it now.
“No. This is my cabin, not yours. You are not welcome.” I thought back to the War of the Worlds, and the Martians invading England. My protest was as ineffective as the humans, battling the technologically advanced Martians. I dropped the paint and brush and curled my hands into fists.
“It’s mine now, Little brother. I’m renting it,” Desmond said.
His friends – some girls, some guys – stood back, arms crossed or thumbs cocked in pockets, watching.
The door of the camper banged open, startling me. A huge, black Rottweiler emerged from the camper. This was the dog I heard barking earlier, and I only glimpsed it before Desmond swung his helmet around and hit me under my chin. I felt my feet leave the ground and imagined wings, gently unraveling, spreading, flapping and me, rising up and up and up. My body went limp, ready to rise up and up and up. Then the ground hit me hard.
Laying there, almost unconscious, the hell-dog clamped down on my hand and demons surrounded me, cheering in excitement or screaming in horror or perhaps, both. With each shake and tug on my hand, the world came back into focus a little more.
Finally, the dog was dragged away from me, but not before it gave one last jerk that pulled my hand free from my wrist, except for some veins and muscles. My hand dangled by shreds of flesh. The spray of blood was horribly beautiful to watch.
My brother’s friend drove me to the local hospital, which was ill-equipped to deal with an almost severed hand. They did the best they could. My hand was reattached to my wrist, and I was lucky the primary veins had not been severed, but the connecting nerves and muscles were hopelessly detached. It was the best they could do.
In my version of The War of the Worlds, the Martians didn’t succumb to disease and illness as they did in the original. They dominated the planet and the remnants of mankind lived underground, in the sewers. The Martians completely decimated the planet, ruining it completely, and with no more resources to plunder, they moved on, leaving scorched earth to the surviving humans. That’s how it ended.
Now, it’s 2013. Desmond is out on parole and needs a place to call home. I hold the keys to the cabin on the Paluxy River – the cabin my father left to Desmond in his will when he died in 2008, but Desmond could not claim it because he was in prison for second degree murder of his girlfriend.
I give Desmond the key with my dead, scarred hand. He looks at me, past me – vacant. Inside, I wanted him to act like a brother, even though we are both middle-aged men, now. I desperately want him to become Wally on Leave it to Beaver – Gee, Beav. Thanks for the key. I guess I was just being goofy, after all.
Desmond says nothing and takes the key to a door that has washed away in the rainy season of 2010, along with the cabin. Most of the property had eroded into the river, but there was still dry spot or two left. Desmond walks away and doesn’t look back, and I let him.
© 2013 Mitch Lavender
For those interested, Jeff Wayne has produced another musical version of of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation. Details at www.thewaroftheworlds.com. There is a link to a music video of the song, Forever Autumn, (originally performed by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues), now performed by Gary Barlow. The video features Liam Neeson and Anna-Marie Wayne.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (Recommended)