The Guardian (short story)

This is a short story I wrote in 2011 that was first published in “Report,” an ezine. I polished it a little, but the story remains the same. I always intended to expand on it and never did. I hope you like it.


Photo by Aidan Roof on Pexels.com

The rapping at the closet door started just after midnight, as it always did.  Who – no, not who – what could it be, inside the closet?

Erika had been repeating the steps of jumping out of bed, grabbing a crayon from the nightstand, and running to the door to redraw the strange symbols around the door’s frame before they faded entirely. Then, quietly running back to the bed, pulling the covers up to eyes, and watching the door with fear.  She did this every seven minutes, and each time, she was careful not to disturb the intricate design she had laid out so carefully on the wooden floor.  It was made of lines of carefully poured, pure white sand, and she knew that stepping on it or severing one of the lines might unseal the lock. 

Rap, rap, rap. 

Not like someone beating on the door and not even a full, adult knock.  It was just the whisper of a knock, barely audible but still there, then a pause of maybe twenty seconds, then coming again.  Patient.  Determined. Firm.

The magical cryptograms on the floor and door frame were the only things that kept – whatever – from entering her room.

Six minutes more passed of this, and she needed to decide on a new crayon color to use next.  The Aquamarine worked well, but now just a nub.  She could use Salmon or Bittersweet Orange, but she was afraid.  She had never used colors in the red spectrum to lock the door, and they might not be effective. 

Pulling a light blue one from the box of 64 colors, she read the name written on the side:  Blizzard Blue – it was close to Aquamarine, but lighter and lighter colors seemed to work best.  The Robin Egg Blue was great, sealing the door over eleven minutes at a time, but she had used it up the other night.  Sky Blue was another good one, almost nine minutes for it.  It might have lasted longer, but Erika was afraid to test it.  When the seals started to fade, she couldn’t let them disappear entirely, or the lock would fail.  The lock on the floor was the last defense, and she would have to stand in the center of it to be protected.

She got out of bed after seven minutes,  tip-toed over the sand pattern on the floor, and began retracing the symbols on the door frame again.  It was 6:53 AM, according to her clock, and sunrise was just minutes away.  Then, she could sleep.

The Rapture had taken Mommy and Daddy, and she was alone.  Now, the demons prowled the night hours, and it wasn’t safe after dusk.  Her closet was the only entrance to this hemisphere, but she didn’t know that.  She only knew she was keeping something inside from getting out, and in the daytime, there was nothing to worry about.  She could open her closet and even play in it if she wanted.

She had already decided she would use violet next, that upcoming night, and see how that works.  After the sun was up and she slept, she played with Barbies and went out to swing.  She collected the manna that fell from the sky, and while it was bland, she could dip it in honey or pour sugar on it, and it tasted better.  When the sun started to set, she took her bath and dressed for bed, violet crayon clutched tightly in her hand.

Erika’s father had read the bible to her before he was taken up.  She knew the story of Job in the bible and how God allowed him to be tested by the Devil so that Job may demonstrate his faith.  He also read to her of Lot and his family in Sodom and Gomorra.  If only one faithful person was present, the destitute cities might be spared. 

At only nine years old and still fancying Barbies, she didn’t know how she knew to make the lock or that she was The Guardian of Mankind still on earth.  She did not know this was her test.  Wherever she moved, whatever room she was in; that was where the portal would be, and she must guard it, or all of mankind would be forsaken.  This was her tribulation; this was her cross to bear.  She didn’t understand, but she had yet to curse God, so the rapping at the door would continue again tonight.

© 2011, 2021 Mitch Lavender

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Seventeen

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Episode Seventeen

 

I was always awkward but had learned to adapt, and by the time I was graduating high school, I was in the top of my class.

“The future rests on our strong and capable shoulders. It will be our generation that will herald in the new age. It will be our generation that will face and resolve the problems of our time.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes.

My speech is so much better. I had written and submitted a speech for this year’s graduation but Mr. Duncan, the principal thought it was “not in keeping with tradition.” I clutched a folded-up copy of the speech and sat quietly.

The audience was made up of the graduating class; a hundred or so students all in maroon caps and gowns, and their friends and their family, of course. My mother is present. Finally, the speech drew to a close.

“Congratulations to you, the class of 2001! The future is what we make of it!”

All of my classmates jumped to their feet. I looked at the response of those around and slowly got to my feet, too.

They all scream, “Hooray!” I just didn’t feel it. Along with the rest of the class, I took off my cap and threw it in the air. It was a unfulfilling event for me, but everyone around me seemed truly excited and caught up in the moment. Proud mothers were dabbing away their tears of joy with white handkerchiefs, proud fathers heartily shaking the hands of their newly emancipated sons. I finally just quit trying to fake it, and as my classmates were doing high-fives, I stepped away from the crowd, wanting to distance myself from them.

It startled me a little when there was a touch on the shoulder. It was my mother.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said with a sweet and reassuring smile. “Your father would have been, too.”

I smiled back, still clutching my speech.

We walked arm in arm toward the car and my mother was beaming with pride. I wasn’t sure what I had done to elicit such a swelling sense of satisfaction in her. There was nothing unique about my academic accomplishments. I had simply shown up, listened, and on test day, I regurgitated what I had heard. Nonetheless, I was glad to see her so happy. As we walked past a trash can at the edge of the parking lot, I tossed my speech into it.

“I know you’re going out with your friends to celebrate, but drive me home first. You can take the car.”

She tossed me the keys. More and more, I noticed that my Mother didn’t want to drive. That’s fine and I didn’t mind, but it was clear she wasn’t comfortable behind the wheel anymore. It was a long drive, almost an hour, and I wasn’t talkative.

“Something the matter, Bobby?” She asked. It had been over ten minutes where neither of us had said anything.

“Just thinking about what’s next.”

“Don’t you worry about that.” My mother’s face still showed distinct pride. “I’ve spoken to Philip Crenshaw, Jonah’s father. He’s agreed to give you an internship in the research department at Trust Media Group. The pay is not much to start, but Trust Media Group is a very big place, with subsidiary companies in lots of other things besides magazines and television. It will get you started. It’s the kind of company you can stick with your entire life, retire from. And they’ve got good benefits.”

They used to call this a grind. Now, it’s obligation. Now, it’s opportunity. Now, it’s life.

“Really,” I said without enthusiasm.

Trust Media Group was a huge media conglomerate, but I knew that Phillip Crenshaw worked for one of its smaller divisions, The Trusted Authority, a weekly tabloid newspaper that is on every supermarket checkout stand. The cover story was often something to do with aliens, subterranean humanoids living in the sewers who snatch babies or maybe just a slice of life from Paris Hilton’s routine. You know, stuff that is hard to believe. It was journalism at its most yellow .

My mother continued, “You’re father had always wanted you to have a good job… a white-collar job. He wanted you to achieve more than he did.”

She wasn’t the sort to come out and say it, but I also knew that she was having a tough time making ends meet. My father’s lingering death and prolonged hospital treatment had left her with more bills than the small insurance policy could cover. If I was earning, I would be able to help her.

Still, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of working for Jonah Crenshaw’s father or TMG. Besides that, I disliked the idea of being an office boy. But this job didn’t have to last forever, maybe just a year or so. That would be enough to help pay off the debts my mother had, but there were other ways to make a living.

“Sounds great. Not,” I said, eyes fixed straight ahead on the road.

In the driveway, I helped my mother from the car and walked her inside and followed her into the kitchen as she put a kettle on for some tea. I stood silently in the kitchen doorway watching her fill the kettle and then place it on the hot stove.

“Mom, I can’t do this, this new job.”

“Trust Media? Of course you can. They have a training program. Orientation, Mr. Crenshaw called it.”

“Not what I mean, Mom. I don’t know what I want to do yet, but this isn’t it. I’ll find something else to do. I would really like to write.”

“Well, you can still write. It’s good to have a hobby.”

I felt annoyed, angry and frustrated, all at once.

“I will not work at TMG!” Tears welled in my eyes.

“You’re a dreamer, just like your father. Look where that got him!” She was upset and her head shook when she spoke. She raised her hands up as if calling on help from above. “You can’t make a living from dreaming. You’ve got to get a real job. It’s time to stop being a child and start being an adult.”

“I’ll pay my way. I’ll find something to get me by, but I’ve got to have time to figure things out. I’m not going to work for TMG, and that’s final. Not you or anyone is going to make me work for TMG! You hear me? No one!”

I braced myself for the anticipated, harsh words I was certain would come but when my mother opened her mouth, nothing came out. She just stood there, statuesque and poised, and then she gasped.

It was a ragged drag on the air, and I noticed the look on her face, now. It wasn’t anger and resentment. It was fear. She stumbled back on the stove, and her outstretched hand clutched her chest.

I moved to catch her and she screamed, shrill and high pitched. Only it wasn’t a scream. It was only the sound of the kettle whistling.

~~~~~

My mother had a stroke. She’d been working too hard since my father died, doing various housecleaning jobs as she could get them. She was also getting older and couldn’t keep up the pace. She recovered, but not fully, and now needed full-time medical care. I went to work at TMG to support her. Years later, I am still at TMG and still supporting her.

I left the cemetery and drove back to the office. I had a full inbox but I didn’t get any work done. I had my performance forms to complete, calls to make, a meeting to go to. I did none of them.

 

~~~~~

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Sixteen

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Episode Sixteen

 

I withdrew after my father died.  I was never outgoing but now, I was more introverted than ever. I had a lot of trouble making friends and interacting with others.

I remember Ms. Hall’s 3rd grade class – I would sit at my assigned desk, just like the other children sitting at other desks in the room. We were supposed to draw what we want to be when we grow up; it was supposed to be a fun assignment. I had a manila piece of paper in front of me.

The kids at the desks around me were busy coloring with crayons. Some were drawing guys building houses, driving cars or piloting airplanes. One was drawing a rocket ship. The page in front of me is blank except that I had put my name at the top left corner. ‘Bobby’ in purple crayon, and written at a slight angle.

Ms. Hall, a 40-something school teacher, strolled around, observing the students and nodding with approval at their projects. She came by my desk and stopped, assessing the blank paper in front of me. I didn’t look up, but I felt her presence. After a moment, she sighed and moved on.

They used to call this Art Class. Now, it’s Defamation. Now, it’s Biased Judgment. Now, it’s life.

The other children were engrossed in their creations, so I turned my attention back to the blank paper in front of me. Picking up a green crayon, I put it back down and then got a red one. I started marking on the page.

When art class was almost over, the teacher came back around to me, smiling. Like the other kids, I had finally drawn something. As she approached, her smile faded and her brow creased a bit. The page was covered with words. In fact, the paper was full of words, telling a story about a man in jail. She looked over my shoulder and picked it up. She flipped the page over and noticed that the words continued on the back. She turns the page back over, and scrawled at the top of the paper in red crayon it reads, “Trapped.”

“Bobby,” she said in a deliberate and kind tone, “why don’t you go outside and play with the other children.”

“But I’m not done with my story.”

“That’s ok. You were supposed to draw a picture. We’ll write stories another time,” she urged, looking at the paper with concern.

I got up and left the room, but not before I saw her take my paper and put it in the top drawer of her desk.

 

~~~~~

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Fifteen

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Episode Fifteen

 

It took a while to find my father’s grave. It had been a while since I had visited. Odd, the things you choose to remember about people when they are gone.

A frail and withered man lay sleeping in an oxygen tent. His breathing was shallow and uneven, and the medical apparatus in the room had tubes and wires that connected them to the man in the bubble. The machines beeped and clicked.

I was seven years old; looking through the clear, rectangular material at what my father was reduced to being. Were it not for the medication, oxygen tent and the other machines, my father would have died months ago. The tumor had been growing out of control for a while, but this last month had been the worst. The doctors weren’t sure how much longer he would hang on. I looked  at him as he breathed uncomfortably and a tear rolled down my cheek, unhindered.

They used to call it a deathwatch. Now, it’s visiting hours. Now, it’s quality time with Dad. Now, it’s life.

My father looked different, distorted by the plastic sheet of the oxygen tent, so I cautiously bent down and stepped inside the tent, careful not to disturb any of the hoses or wires, practically tiptoeing around them to get a better look, and as I did, my father’s eyes fluttered open to a semi-conscious state.

He pulled a deep breath and strained to say, “Hey there. I got you something, Chief.”

It was a muffled whisper that I barely understood. His hand rose slightly from the bed and he was holding a Rubik’s Cube.

He knew how confining a hospital must be for a kid my age. He had asked a nurse to fetch something from the gift shop to keep me busy and keep my mind on something else other than his condition.

I took the toy, smiled and said, “Thanks Dad.”

He had already slipped back into unconsciousness.

I went back and sat in the chair, the only chair in the room, and focused on the Rubik’s Cube, slowly and deliberately turning the rows of colored cubes. I knew the goal was to get all the same colored cubes on each side, but the distraction of the toy was comforting, and I was really just going through the motions of turning and turning and turning without thinking about it.

beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

The sharp, sustained noise startled me, and I realized the EKG machine connected to my father is showing a flat line. Another machine started a lower-pitch Beep! Beep! Beep! and about twenty seconds pass with the noisy alarms filling the room before anyone came in to the room. I sat there, watching.

Finally, a nurse came in and hurried to the oxygen tent. She checked the tubes and wires. A doctor and another nurse join her, the doctor opening the tent and putting his stethoscope on the man’s chest. They go through the process of trying to revive my father. Preoccupied with their tasks, none of them noticed me, sitting quietly in the chair, watching. Still clutching the Rubik’s Cube, my knuckles were white.

 

~~~~~

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Fourteen

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Episode Fourteen

 

I drove around for a while. I didn’t see any point in going back to the office, and I wound up at Rose Hill Cemetery. It just seemed like the right place to be.

On the hill was a gathering of about twenty people. Dressed in black and seated on wooden folding chairs, they stood out in stark contrast to the green grass, perfect rows of granite markers and blue sky. A few cars and a limousine were parked on the nearby street.

It was a burial of course – a graveside memorial. I cocked my head to one side as I watched. The casket was a pewter-colored box on a pedestal or something.

I parked and got out of the car, moving closer – discreet but attentive to the memorial. Someone is saying some kind words about… Whoever. The casket is open and I can see the body inside is that of a middle-aged man. Even from this distance, it’s easy to see that they went too heavy on the rouge, his cheeks almost red on his otherwise pale face.

I realized that I was intruding on a sacred and personal event, and the friends and relatives probably would not appreciate my staring, but no one seemed to notice me, as usual.

When the ceremony ended, they lowered the casket into the ground. I watched as everyone rose from their chairs and filed back toward their cars, in pairs or sometimes alone. One woman stepped to the edge of the grave and tossed in a flower – a rose I think. After a moment, she turned and walked back towards the parked vehicles.

Once everyone had made their way from the grave site, I slowly approached,  stepping to the edge and peering into the hole. At the bottom lay the pewter box with a single white rose resting on its lid.  It looked so serene.

Sitting down on one of the folding chairs, my jacket rode up on one side and something poked me in the ribs. Reaching around, I pulled out the package I had picked up at the post office, still wrapped.

I tore the paper off to reveal a rather plain black book with an elastic band stretched around it. Embossed in gold on the cover it had one word:

Journal

I removed the band and opened it. The cover creaked a little with stiffness as I turned to the first page and read it.

“This is the Journal of Jonathan Bocks.”

This was my father’s. I never knew he kept a journal. I flipped a few pages and read the heading:

“Went out for the swim team. Failed.”

Apparently, my father had started keeping this journal on or shortly after his sixteenth birthday. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I was excited about something. I could hardly wait to read the book, not only that it was my father’s journal, but a long time ago, my father, or someone, had arranged to have it sent to me now.

I leafed ahead sixty pages or so and stopped on a page that read, “Today I became a Father.”

“Red and wrinkled, the newborn baby wriggled in the hospital crib under the harsh fluorescent lighting in the ward. Everything is white except his little blue stocking cap. The label on the crib reads, ‘Robert Bokes’ written in black marker. That is my son.

Next to him and all around him are identical cribs with nearly identical little red and wrinkled babies wearing blue or pink stocking caps. The babies all seem so isolated in each little crib, compartmentalized.’

I stopped reading and looked at the grave in front of me. It was hard to see any difference between the beginning and the end.

“Excuse me.”

The voice startled me and I stood up from my seat to see a dark haired woman in her twenties.  I recognized her from the funeral – she dropped the rose in the grave. I was caught off guard and didn’t know what to say. I just stared at her.

“I forgot my umbrella.” She said, pointing down next to the chair I had been sitting in.

I was paralyzed, partly with fear from having been discovered next to a stranger’s open grave and partly because I was always awkward around women, especially women this pretty. Except for Tanner, – she was the one exception, the one woman that I didn’t feel the need to try to be something other than myself.

When I didn’t move, the woman reached down and retrieved the umbrella resting near my feet. “Did you know my father well?” the women asked.

“No, not well.” I replied.

The woman nodded her head.

“Neither did I.”

This seemed a very personal thing to tell a stranger and now I was really unsure of what to do.

“It was a nice ceremony though – very… pretty.” This was all I could think of.

“Yes it was.” The woman looked around the cemetery. “I’ve always liked the fall. The changing colors, it’s so beautiful.”

She picked up a bright red leaf sitting on the chair next to her. She held it by its stem and twirled the leaf by rolling the stem between her finger and thumb. “I wish the leaves always looked like this.”

I was trying to think of something appropriate to say and blurted out the first nearly relevant thing that came to my mind. “They do!”

The women gave me a puzzled look.

“The leaves – they’re always that color. Each leaf is red or yellow or orange, but you just can’t see the color through all the green chlorophyll. When the cold weather starts, the tree prepares for winter by drawing the chlorophyll back in to the trunk, and that exposes the color that was always there.”

The women smiled at me. This time, her smile was not sad.

“Then the leaf… dies, and falls off,” I added, realizing that I should have stopped while I was ahead.

“Well, it’s too bad we don’t get to see its true colors until its life is over.” Her sadness seemed to return, but then she added, “But I’m glad it makes that last effort. It’d be a shame if it died without at least giving us a glimpse.”

After an awkward pause, the woman gestured toward the other guests milling next to their cars and said, “Well, I better get back. Are you going?”

I was enjoying talking to this woman, uncomfortable though it was. I almost forgot that I was in a cemetery. I had forgotten what Dr. Maddox had said. The reality though, was that I had more in common with the residents of the cemetery than with those who attended the service.

“No, there’s someone else here I need to visit.”

“Well it was nice meeting you. And it was very informative,” said the woman, flashing a charming smile.

In a different place, with different circumstances, and if I were a different man, I might have asked her to coffee or dinner.  instead, I smiled and nodded slightly.  She extended the leaf she was holding to me, and I took it.

I looked at the leaf in my hand and then up at her as she walked down the hill toward the waiting group. I absently slid the leaf between the pages of the journal and walked away in the opposite direction.

 

~~~~~

 

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Thirteen

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Episode Thirteen

 

At 3:15, I am finally called from the waiting room to see the doctor. I sat in the chair opposite his desk, putting my hands in my lap to avoid fidgeting.

Dr. Maddox flipped through a file folder. On the top was the paperwork I had filled out.

Dr. Maddox removed his glasses and began cleaning them with a monogrammed handkerchief. He held his glasses up to the light.

“I just can’t keep these things clean!” He complained, wiping the lenses again.

He wasn’t really speaking to me, but I was the only other person in the office. I looked around. A degree from the University of… wherever, hung on the wall, along with other awards and accolades. Pictures of his kids were on the ornate wooden bookshelves, along with a picture of his Porsche and a picture from a deep sea fishing trip. And there were books; lots of books and medical journals.

“So anyway,” Dr. Maddox returned his glasses to his face and continued, “I’m sorry to inform you that I agree 100% with the findings of the four previous neurosurgeons. There’s no way to know exactly how much longer you have. There have been some attempts to remove the malignancy in similar cases, but none have had successful results.”

“I don’t understand.” I looked away from the doctor and down at his hands. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “I feel fine, just headaches. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer. Causes eye strain… headaches. You’re saying there’s more to this than that?” This has been my routine comment when doctors hit me with the bad news.

“Yes, quite a bit more.”

Dr. Maddox resented this part of the job; having to speak in terms that his patients could understand. He would have to go into what he liked to call talk-down mode. Telling me I was dying was easy. Telling me in layman’s terms was annoying. On top of that, I was expecting him to do something to stave off inevitable death; to cure my illness and save me. This is déjà vu for me.

Dr. Maddox said, “Your brain will be systematically shutting down as the tumor spreads. Considering the location of the tumor, and considering your otherwise good health, you’ll probably be fully functional right up until you are very close to your death.”

I gaped at the doctor. He was going through his routine. I was going through mine.

“Is there nothing you can do? My Father died of a tumor almost 20 years ago. There’s been research… new treatments… there must be something you can do now.”

Dr. Maddox sighed heavily. “A tumor is an unnecessary growth of normal or abnormal cells. Some tumors are treatable and some are not. Tumors are graded on a scale. One, for benign and treatable tumors, to four, for rapidly growing and malignant tumors. The tumor you are afflicted with is a grade four tumor.”

Dr. Maddox took out a prescription pad and scribbled something on it.

“I’m going to give you this for the headaches. As they get worse, you can take this for the pain. I allowed for one refill, in case you need it.”

He tore off the top sheet of the pad and handed it to me. I just stared back at the doctor, blankly, hoping for something. For some sign of hope, some chance that this could all just be a terrible mistake. Like I said, I’ve been through this before and I had my routine.

“You understand Mr. Bokes, there really is no way to tell in these cases. It could be a week, it could be a year. It’s not treatable and it is always terminal.”

 

~~~~~

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Twelve

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Episode Twelve

 

As I sat down in the seat of my car, I heard a crumpling sound. I reached under my butt and pulled out a slip of paper.

I had forgotten about this – it’s reminding me to pick up a package at the post office. It required a signature. No idea what this is – I haven’t ordered anything from Amazon or another online retailer lately, but I think I can take care of this and make it to the doctor on time.

The line at the post office moved along slowly. This was taking longer than I expected, and I nervously checked my watch. I didn’t want to be late for my appointment with Dr. Maddox; he might make me reschedule.

Finally I was next in line. After milling around for a few minutes, the man behind the counter at the post office motioned for me to come forward. The patch sewn to his shirt read ‘Ed’.

“This slip was left in my door. It says I have a package waiting.”

I held out the yellow slip of paper and Ed took it, raising it to within inches of his glasses.  He looked it over for at least a minute before moving slowly to a back room and out of sight. He eventually emerged with a small package. He pushed a form across the counter to me.

I looked it over. “So… where do I sign?”

Ed pointed in the direction of the bottom of the page and said, “There, in the box.”

“Right!” I agreed, signing it quickly and handing it back to Ed.

“That’s it,” Ed said, handing me the package and then returning his attention to his portion of the paperwork.

It was a small package wrapped in heavy brown paper. The wrapping was fastened with tape that had turned yellow with age. I took it and looked at the label. Odd. It was apparently mailed almost sixteen years ago, but had instructions that said it was not to be delivered until this month.

“Delivered at 1:52pm,” said Ed recording the time and date on the form.

I looked up from the package. “What did you say?”

“The time. 1:52pm,” said Ed pointing to the form.

I looked at my watch nervously. I was going to be late. I shoved the package in my jacket pocket and hurried out to my car.

I made it to the doctor’s office at 2:05. Not too late. The woman at the front desk slid a square clipboard under the Plexiglas window and I took it.

“Fill out all three pages and sign in the box.”

I looked over the paper work.

“Excuse me, but I filled this out last time I was here.”

“You have to fill out a new one every time so that we’re current.”

She said this without looking away from her computer.

“Look, it was just last week. I had some tests done. I’m just here to get the results.”

“You have to fill a new one out every time.” She spoke more slowly and deliberately now. She glanced at me as if maybe I had a learning disorder and hadn’t understood her the first time. “So that we’re current,” She added.

When I started to say something else, she added, “No exceptions.”

My headache was throbbing and I surrendered. I sat down in the waiting room and filled out the forms. Again.

 

~~~~~

 

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Eleven

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Episode Eleven

Later that day, we were trapped in the usual meeting with management to remind us of how insignificant we are. Even the recognition given for accomplishments seemed to underline the fact that we were not important.

Snavely was going through a hand-full of recognition awards for vague things like “cross-teaming” and “customer focus.” Then he announced that the “Research employee of the month” is Tanner Orb.

I tried not to look shocked or disappointed, but how did this happen? Tanner cleared the most articles in the shortest time with the most direct quotes. The award is the employee of the month parking spot. My parking spot.

“Bobby, it looks like your prodigy has usurped your throne,” Snavely said with a smile.

I wanted to punch him in the face. I wanted to punch myself. This award was so stupid, why did it matter to me?

I smiled and shrugged.

“What can I say?”

After the meeting was over, I left the room and headed back to my cube without talking to anyone. I had a terrible headache so I opened the aspirin bottle I keep at my desk, but there was only one pill left. I took the pill and opened a new bottle of 600; I’d been buying aspirin in the big, economy bottles. While I was fumbling with the safety seal on the bottle, Tanner showed up.

“Tough break on the Employee of the month thing, but your streak had to end sometime, Bobby.”

“Right. Don’t worry about it. You earned it but just take good care of my parking spot. I’ll be parking there again next month.” Then I remembered something. “I finished that book you loaned me.” I pulled the book out of my briefcase and gave it to Tanner. “I couldn’t put it down. The author had a real talent for weaving a story that was intricate, yet easy to follow. I felt like I was right there with him, climbing Everest. You were right, it was… inspiring.”

“I know! I loved that book. It’s almost like some incurable disease these guys get – trying to climb Everest. Interesting stuff.”

I noticed that Tanner was carrying another book.

“What’s that?”

Tanner held up the book: The Cream Rises. It was some corporate business book written by an ex-CEO about power lunches or something. “Gotta go! Duty calls.”

As Tanner walked away, I mused over how she had changed; how she had adapted to the Research Analyst role. My thoughts were interrupted by an irritating beep from my computer. It was a reminder from my calendar that I had a doctor’s appointment.

 

~~~~~

 

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Ten

 

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Chapter 6

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

I listened to the alarm and sat up in bed. The clock read 6:30. I smacked the off button  and the shrill sound stopped. Yawning, I started for the bathroom to begin my morning routine.

In the kitchen, I dropped the bread into the toaster and pressed the lever down. On the counter next to the stove sat a small clay pot with several cooking utensils sticking out of it. I absently reached over and pulled out a large wooden fork and placed it next to the toaster.

I looked out the window. Weeds had overtaken my small back yard. Let them, I thought.

The toaster made its loud “chunk!” noise, but as usual, no toast popped up. I picked up the wooden fork and dug around inside the toaster, fishing out two pieces of toast and then sat at the table.

I am going to die, soon. I should do something.

The thought wandered across my mind as it often does. And as it had done each time before, it was pushed out as I began thinking about my workday.

Later that morning, on my way through the office, I stopped by Tanner’s cube to say hi. She had her headset on. Leaning back in her chair, she repeatedly squeezed a spongy stress ball with the TMG logo on it as she spoke to… whoever.

“But you do speak to military personnel regularly, correct?”

This was a common ploy used to manipulate the individual into saying something we could use. Tanner’s eyebrows raised in anticipation of an agreeing statement.

“I see. And what do you talk about with the lieutenant, then?”

Tanner listened for a second then sat forward like a fisherman with a nibble on the line, preparing to set the hook and reel in the fish.

“Uh huh, confidential, I see.”

Tanner scribbled something on the notepad in front of her.

“So, what you’re saying is that in all your conversations with the military they never mentioned the existence of any time machine, right?”

Tanner paused and listened, but you could tell that she had already decided what to say next.

“So it’s safe to say that you can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a time machine being tested by the US military?”

There it was – It was a question but the way Tanner said it, it sounded like a statement.

“Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”

Tanner spat out the entire sentence almost as one word. She quickly punched the orange release button on the phone, disconnecting the other person.

“Hey, Bobby! Hold on a second and let me get this down.”

Tanner typed the sentence:

Confidential sources in frequent contact with the military say they cannot deny the existence of the time machine.

Tanner closed the file folder on her desk and placed it in the Outbox. The Inbox was a short stack of folders.

“Good morning, Master Baiter,” I said. “I’ll let you get back to your tasks.”

“Sorry so busy. I’ll catch you at lunch, OK?”

I waved and moved on as she pulled another folder from the stack and dialed another number.

“Yes, Mrs. Wheeler?” Tanner scanned the file.

“Hi, I’m calling about the unusual lights you saw in a farm field about 3 weeks ago…”

Tanner picked up the stress ball and started squeezing it rapidly again.

“OK, but even if that did turn out to be the source, wouldn’t you say that it was ‘unusual’ for a farmer to be driving a tractor at night?”

I rounded the corner and went to my cube.

 

~~~~~

 

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet (Web-Novel) Episode Nine

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Episode Nine

Chapter 5

 

“Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!”

I listened to the alarm as I sat up in bed. The alarm clock read 6:30. I smacked the off button on the top of the clock and the shrill sound stopped. With a weary sigh, I started for the bathroom and began my morning routine.

In the kitchen, I dropped the bread into the toaster and pressed the lever down. Waiting for the toast, I looked out the window and noticed the grass had gotten tall. Great. I would have to mow it soon. Summer yard work seemed to be a continuous and pointless cycle. You watered the lawn so it would grow but then you would cut the lawn because it had grown. Then you would water it again.

The toaster made its loud “chunk!” noise. I continued to look out the window, flipped the toaster upside-down, and shook it over the plate until the bread fell out. I put the toaster down unceremoniously and took my plate of toast and burnt crumbs to the table, sat down and opened the paper. This is just another day I would let slip by on my prematurely shortened, agenda-less life.

Later that morning, as I walked to my cube, I passed Tanner’s cube and snagged one of the Velcro darts from her desk. Without stopping, I threw it at the felt globe-dartboard. After I got a few cubes down the aisle, Tanner yelled out, “Afghanistan.”

That’s where the dart landed. I shouted back, “Destitute homeland of terrorists. Got it!”

Once I got to my cube and logged in, I did a search engine look-up on the Internet for Afghanistan, but my phone rang before I could click any of the links that Bing brought up. The LCD display on the phone showed it was Tanorb.

“I’m looking already!” I said, answering the phone.

Your objective, should you chose accept it, is to find a story from Afghanistan.” After a pause, she added, “A dirty limerick doesn’t count.”

“Yeah, I already used that for Sweden, anyway. I think finding a dirty limerick from Afghanistan might be a tad hard to come by. But it’s not hard to find a news story from there, these days.”

Tanner was quiet for a few seconds too long, and then I heard her say to someone else, “Yes sir.” Then back to me, she said, “I’ve got to go. Mr. Snavely wants to see me.” Click.

I found out later that Snavely chewed her out for being too conscientious about researching the stories. Snavely views this as a volume business. At first, I had doubted that Tanner would cut it here. She just didn’t seem to be able to unplug her logic and integrity while on the job, and it tripped her up over and over. Now, two months later, she is still making the same mistakes.

 

~~~~~

 

Life in Sixty-Four Square Feet

©Copyright 2015, Mitch Lavender

Rubik’s Cube® used by permission of Rubiks Brand Ltd.  www.rubiks.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead or undead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Excerpt 3 From My Novel, “Find my Baby”

This is an excerpt from the first act of my recently published novel, Find My Baby, available on Amazon Kindle and other fine book sellers.

I hope you like it, and if you like it, please share.

 

FMB-promo-shirt-trans

The dark room was illuminated by the monitor. The man staring at it was pensive and intense as he read the news story from the Korean text on the screen:

Sentia Solutions Patches BEATTHIS Exploit.

“Sentia Solutions of Dallas, Texas announced today that it has patched the code exploit that caused hundreds of email servers to crash three weeks ago. Zachary Foxborne was credited with leading the team that engineered the patch. Andre Gomez promised the signature update would be available Monday for Sentia Sentinel, the anti-virus software used by millions of computer users.”

He stopped reading there. Leaning back in his chair, he tented his fingers before him and thought. Had only this Ratmir Misko fellow had the diligence to complete his assignment sooner, this would not have mattered. If only Misko had not been so brazen as to demonstrate in such a public forum, this might not have gotten the attention it did that resulted in the patch. As it was, Misko’s code exploit was useless to him now. He only wanted it to deliver the payload rootkit to the South Korean servers, but now, it could be traced. He didn’t dare try it now.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Enter.”

“Excuse me, General, Sir,” the uniformed man said, entering and saluting.

“At ease. What do you want?”

“Your presence is requested in the briefing room.”

“Inform the Chairman I will not be attending.”

The officer paused, not sure what to say.

“I will not attend!” he repeated forcefully.

“Yes Sir. I will tell him, Sir.” And he scurried out the door and closed it softly behind him.

Staring at the screen, he said aloud, “Who are you Zachary Foxborne? You are only a man, are you not?” And he leaned in and opened Bing.com to do a search on his name.

Wikipedia pulled him up and he read:

Zachary Foxborne (born May 25, 1979) was accused of creating two computer viruses in 1996 that exploited pedophiles and violators of bestiality laws.

The first was a simple macro exploit of Microsoft’s email program. The email, sent with the title, “Nude pictures of Jenny – 14 years old and HOT!!!” containing an attachment that, if clicked, executed a macro that sent emails to the first 100 members of the users address list, replicating the message. It also emailed FBI.gov with a different message, titled “I am a sex offender. Stop me, now!”

The Jenny virus continued to proliferate on The Internet for more than a year before it was stopped. It also led to the investigation and arrest of over 300 suspected sex offenders, 122 who were convicted.”

Fascinating – a vigilante hacker, seeking to exploit the perverse parasites on society. And this was when he was only a boy of seventeen. He read on:

“The macro code for the Jenny Virus was used for multiple other exploits by other, unidentified sources for various means, but Jenny Virus is recognized as the original code.

The second exploit was known as the Chancy McChancy exploit. Using similar code, it replicated itself by a macro, sending to the first 100 addresses in a user’s address list when opened. It also contained a link and the text: See a woman DO IT with a horse!!! It had a link clearly identified as: SexWithFurryAnimals.com.

If the user clicked the link, they went to a website that displayed their personal information and threatened to send it to contacts in their email list, spouse, employers and legal authorities, saying they ‘like sex with furry animals’ unless they donated $50 through PayPal with the comment, “Donated by Chancy McChancy,” and returned to the site to enter the payment verification information.

The threat to follow through on notifying the parties mentioned was later determined to be invalid, but over 20 thousand dollars was donated to The Humane Society from sources claiming to be, “Chancy McChancy,” during the years of 1996-1997.”

The General laughed at this. The man even protects the sheep in the field, he thought. Animals have no rights, but men who set the bar so low as to have sex with an animal should be killed.

He read on:

“Zachary Foxborne was brought up on charges for the damages done by both of these viruses, estimated at over 2.2 million dollars. He was acquitted in an undisclosed out of court settlement on July of 1998.”

Interesting. The US court system had an opportunity to make an example out of him, punishing him to the full extent of the law, but they didn’t. Why?

The General scrolled the page down to see the rest:

“During his months pending trail in 1997, Zachary Foxborne worked feverishly at translating the arcane text of the Heusel Manuscript. His translation was later confiscated by the NSA and sealed as top secret.”

Now that is interesting, isn’t it? Thought The General. ‘Heusel Manuscript’ had a link to it, and he clicked it:

The Heusel Manuscript is a handwritten book thought to have been written in the early 16th century and comprising about 240 vellum pages, some with illustrations of what is believed to be stars, deserts and constellations. Although many possible authors have been proposed, the author, script, and language remain unknown. It has been described as the world’s most mysterious manuscript.

Generally presumed to be some kind of cipher text, the Heusel Manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British code breakers from both World War I and World War II, yet it has defied all decipherment attempts, becoming a historical cryptology cause célèbre. The mystery surrounding it has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript a subject of both fanciful theories and novels.

In 2009, University of California researchers performed C14 dating on the manuscript’s vellum, which they assert (with 95% confidence) was made between 1404 and 1430. In addition, the McCrane Research Institute in Chicago found that much of the ink was added not long afterwards, confirming that the manuscript is an authentic medieval document.”

Tenting his fingers again, the General wondered why Foxborne’s translation attempt was taken and sealed as top secret. What could it contain that the US government did not want it known? That alone was enough to want it.

He clicked the back button on the web browser twice and looked at the listing from Bing.com for matches for his search: Zachary Foxborne. Most just looked like old news reports, but there was one for Facebook.

He clicked it, but couldn’t see any information without being a friend. Backing up again, he saw Lucy Foxborne’s Facebook link in the listing. Clicking it he saw her Facebook wall and what was written there. One post by Lucy particularly caught his eye.

“Adoption papers for Ukraine submitted. Now, Zac and I wait.”

“Foxborne,” he said the name aloud. “I want this translation of the manuscript.”

If you are truly born of foxes, then I will need a bloodhound to seek you out. You are going to Ukraine for a child, are you? He stroked his chin and then opened a new email message. “Maybe I still have a use for you, Ratmir Misko.”

*****

“Ah, brother. We will have our revenge.” Ratmir grinned.

Viktor said nothing but looked on. When his brother spoke of ‘we’ he really meant him. He would have his revenge, whatever that might be. Ratmir hated so many people, it would be pointless to guess whom he referred to.

“That prick Foxborne is coming to Ukraine to adopt a child. We will make sure he pays for the problems he caused us! And we will make a pretty coin in the process, getting some manuscript from him.”

Viktor nodded and smiled. He really couldn’t care less. Tonight, he would see his love and that was what kept him going.

Short Story: Shadow Man

This is an unpublished story I wrote in 2013 for a writing challenge with a photograph as the prompt – a woman, standing alone, gazing out on a frozen lake.   I call the story Shadow Man, and I hope you like it.

Januarysnow-Photo prompt

 

Shadow Man

It happened so fast. There was the telltale cracking sound, but only for a second, and then the ice beneath Jim broke and he, and the baby he held, dropped out of view. From the shore, Shelly witnessed this horror and the sight chilled her to her core.

There were two other skaters on the lake – a man and a woman, and both moved quickly to the hole to help, farther out on the thin ice than they dared skate normally. Carefully approaching the hole, the man took off his scarf and threw it to Jim splashing helplessly in the freezing water, dragging him out and onto the ice.

The cold was like nothing Jim had ever known. As the blood instinctively withdrew from his extremities to retain the heat in his torso, it was like being eaten alive. Like some vicious monster was chewing his fingers off, moving up his wrists and then his forearms. It was excruciating. He tried to breath, sputtering and cold. Through it all, he could only think of Molly – lovely, seven-month-old Molly, who loved to be held as he skated, had laughed and squealed with glee as only a child can do. Jim found  his daughter’s glee intoxicating, and he would do anything to make his little girl laugh.

The two skaters were attending to the hole after Jim was pulled to safety, but there was nothing else. Shelly watched, unable to move from the place on the ice near the shore, hands covering her mouth. When the minutes multiplied and there was no sign of Molly being pulled from the hole, she dropped her hands and stood, motionless and vacant.

Jim survived, and one week later, he and Shelly attended the memorial of their daughter, Morgan Annabelle Lancaster, and known lovingly as Molly. Divers had found Molly under the ice, not far from the hole where she had vanished.

Friends and family comforted them and brought food. Winter in Michigan is brutal, and when the snow got too heavy and the roads weren’t passable until they were plowed, which sometimes took a week or two. People stopped coming by to see how they were doing.

During this time, when friends and family were not present to ease the grief, Jim and Shelly did not talk. Shelly never seemed to focus and would sit and stare into space, expressionless. She had yet to cry for her lost child.

Jim, awash in guilt and regret, relived the moment over and over in his head. Why had he taken Molly out on the ice like that? What if he had fallen? She could have been hurt. And why, oh why, did he skate so far out, where the ice is thinnest? It was so stupid. It was so avoidable.

Weeks became months, and Jim had not returned to work. Phone calls from concerned friends were regular, but Jim was despondent and Shelly never talked. Neither of them went out, and routine things like washing and eating had been forgotten. Slowly, they were dying – eroding.

Shelly noticed something strange, but didn’t care. A shadow seemed to hang on Jim, cast around him like a cloud. While he was sitting in a chair, the chair appeared in normal light, but Jim was in shadow. It was faint, but grew darker with each passing day. After four more days, Jim’s emaciated form was all but obscured by shadow, a darkness that enveloped him and only him, but not anything around him. It heaved and rocked gelatinously when Jim moved, which was very little.

The misery, regret and guilt had become all that was Jim, and when every other part of him was gone and that was all that was left, he exhaled and died, sitting in the chair by the window.

With oily cadence, the shadow lurched, pulling free from Jim and stood in the room, a shape like a man, but not a man. Shelly watched this with disinterested eyes; her gaze was set a thousand miles past the shadow, Jim’s dead body or the room. The shadow, faceless and ephemeral, turned and walked through the door without opening it.

For the first time since standing on the shore of the frozen lake months ago, Shelly thought of something other than her dead child. Jim’s body, withered and destitute, sat across from her. Quietly and dismissively, she rose from the couch and took wobbly steps upstairs, where she brushed her hair and tied it back behind her head. She put on clean, warm clothes that hung loosely on her frame, now. Checking herself in the mirror, she walked to the door, opened it and left the house.

It was overcast but the light still hurt her eyes. The air was still and cold, and snows had blanketed everything in pristine white. She had to lift her legs high to stride through it, and in her weakened state it was exhausting. She took the path to the road, recently plowed so walking was easier, and proceeded the quarter mile to the lake.

In March, the ice on the lake had begun to thaw, but this didn’t stop Shelly from marching into it with a splash. The cold made her gasp, but after a pause she took four more steps out, until she was up to her thighs in the freezing water. She stood exactly where she had been on that day her daughter died.

In this spot, almost three months later, she gasped and screamed, “Jim, you are too far out. Come in closer, please. Molly. No!”

And finally, a tear rolled down her cheek. Then another and another and she wept. Shivering from the cold, she cried and looked around, but no one was there. Panic overwhelmed her and she had to go out and save Molly. This was her baby. She must do something. She rushed forward, deeper into the cold water, but something held her back. Though she jerked and kicked, she was being pulled back by someone, who dragged her out of the water and onto the shore, where she fell backwards, gasping.

Through her tears and alarm, she looked up at the faceless shadow man standing over her, still holding her arm. She felt the utter despair of the creature. It was so empty of joy, but the most overwhelming feeling was that of guilt. She felt how remorseful he was for this terrible accident. She knew, really knew, that he would do anything if he could bring Molly back.

Sitting up, shivering, she reached out to touch the shadow man’s featureless face. Her hand felt the dark coolness of his cheek and caressed it gently.

“I forgive you,” Shelly said.

The words felt good to her. They were liberating, not because it made her powerful, but because it lifted a weight from her. She had blamed Jim for the accident. She was so angry at him that she would not even speak to him. It felt good to forgive because that, above all else, is what people who truly love each other do – they forgive, and in forgiving, release themselves of the burden.

The shadow man released her arm and stood, still looking down at her. Shelly thought there might be the hint of a smile, but wasn’t sure. Then, he turned and went into the lake, disappeared below the surface, and was gone.

 

© 2015, Mitch Lavender

Get a free copy of my new novel, Find My Baby (ends July 30)

I’m looking for honest reviews for my new novel, Find My Baby.

FindMyBabyTransparent - work

I’ve received a few reviews on Amazon and Goodreads but would like to see more.  Many prospective readers look at the reviews of book to help them decide if it right for them or not.  This is particularly true if the author is unknown, such as I am.

If you are willing to take a chance on my book and leave reviews on Amazon or Goodreads,  I’m willing to give you a copy in e-book format.

I’m offering 10 free copies to anyone who agrees to this, and will provide the book in PDF format, which is readable on e-book readers, tablets and PCs.

Find my Baby Synopsis:

Zachary and Lucy Foxborne have everything they want except a child. As they begin navigating the legal and bureaucratic maze of international adoption from Ukraine, they could not imagine their newly adopted child would be held for ransom by a brilliant and demented cyber-terrorist, bent on revenge and even darker motives.  Finding their baby could cost them everything.

Mitch Lavender is an accomplished author of short stories and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies from Static Movement, Pill Hill Press and Pantoum Press. He worked for Microsoft Corporation for over 18 years, happily married 25 years and is the father of a son, adopted from Ukraine. With this background, it makes sense that his first, published full-length novel would be a high-stakes thriller interlaced with computer espionage, set with an American couple, attempting to do an international adoption.

Book Promo–Find My Baby

Contact me at mitchlav@outlook.com if you are interested and I will send you the details.

Thanks.

Excerpt from Undertaking Hartford–It Sucks to be the Bull

UH-promo-bc

I’ve been working on on the first novel in The Risen Series, called Undertaking Hartford.  It is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie western.

In a corrupt world where lifespan can be endlessly extended, the price of immortality is tapping into the residual deposits of life-force left behind in places where people have expired. The dead are not amused.

When the spirits of violated dead begin possessing corpses and rising to take vengeance, it is a group of specially trained mercenaries called Undertakers that stand as the sole protection to preserve the living.

This is an excerpt from the work in progress and is a scene from a storyline I may cut from the first book.  If you enjoy it, please share.

It Sucks to be the Bull
Excerpt from Undertaking Hartford

 

This troll looks odd.

No, odd is the wrong word. Empty. That’s it. This troll looks empty.

Dark, unfocused pupils blinked from beneath the grey brow that overhung the troll’s deep eye sockets. It blinked its yellow eyes again and then a third time. Other than this, it was motionless.

“That’s the one,” the boy said, standing upright and tall for the age of only thirteen. He had been crouching because trolls can’t make you out so easily if you are close to the ground, not that it seemed to matter with this troll.

“Are you sure you want this one? We have much better stock. This one is slated to be euthanized this evening.” Joyce’s voice was incredulous. As a Slaver, he had much finer specimens to show the boy; ones that would fetch a much more handsome price from the deep pockets of his customer, Jürgen, The Grand Inquisitor’s seventh son. “Allow me to show you another one,” he pleaded.

“Enough. This one. What is it called?”

Checking the tattered inventory sheet and running his finger to the bottom, Joyce flipped the page over and found what he was looking for. “its name is Club, Master Jürgen.”

“Bind it and have it delivered to The Octagon by pre-dark, two nights fore.”

“Certainly, Master Jürgen. There is but the matter of payment.”

“How much?”

Joyce paused, just enough to clue Jürgen. “Four, matched, retreaded tires and forty field rations.”

Jürgen’s gaze shifted from the troll to the Slaver. “And for that price, I expect it bathed, dressed in clean loins and well fed before delivery. Is that clear?”

“Certainly, Master Jürgen.” The grin was slight on the Slaver’s face. A mongrel specimen, sold for a premium price. “It will be done.”

“Well fed, Slaver. Proper granite, not the dirt clods you commonly fill their bellies with. I will have the feces checked and there will be issue between my father’s house and yours if it is not granite.”

“Certainly, Master Jürgen.” Granite came at a premium and Joyce silently counted his diminishing profit but was still very much in the black considering the broken troll was to be destroyed anyway. Any profit was more than he would have had. He forced a smile at his young client.

As they walked away, the troll called Club continued to blink, unfocused and oblivious.

~~~~~

Undertaking Hartford-killer-cover-smallA yellow bus sat upright and half buried in the courtyard. It was once used to dispatch children to institutions of learning, but now is a rusty centerpiece of the courtyard of Erred Yester, the Grand Inquisitor of Hartford. The bottom half of the bus was buried and the front half, some twelve feet or so, stuck upright. With some effort, you could pull yourself up to the opened door and get inside of the bus. If you did, you were rewarded with the musty smell of earth and rust, ripped seats and a cavernous 42 foot drop to a pit where the door at the back of the bus read “Only open in case of emergency.”

Jürgen’s favorite place to think was on the second row seat on the driver’s side in the upright school bus. From here, he would sit and look out the window, past the courtyard in front of his home that faced out toward the town’s square. He would let gravity pull his head back, hanging over the seat, the blood draining from his legs and into his core, eventually rushing into the lowest center of gravity in his body, his cranium.

Sometimes, he burned the Sweat Leaf to help him relax and free his mind to wander but not now. Soon, he would raise the curtain and expose the mighty Oz for all to see, but more importantly, he would show his father exactly how his seventh son saw him.

Would it matter? Jürgen was sure it would.

~~~~~~

Jürgen is too young to remember that bull fighting was a traditional spectacle in Spain, when there was such a place as Spain. The bull fighter, or Matador, would stand in the arena, cheered on by spectators, as an agitated bull repeatedly charged him. He stepped aside at the last possible moment, avoiding being gored on the horns of the bull, risking his life. As the exhibition went on and the bull made several unsuccessful passes, a horseback rider entered the ring to stab the bull in the back with a spear, weakening it. Now with this injury, the bull could not hold his head high and is handicapped.

Then, three banderilleros enter the arena and each attempt to plant two banderillas, sharp barbed sticks into the bull’s shoulders. These anger and invigorate but further weaken the bull that has been tired by his repeated attacks and the blood loss from the injuries.

Finally, the matador re-enters the ring with a sword behind an ornate red cape and attempts to stab the bull through the shoulder blades as he passes. A strong thrust at a perfect angle would go straight into the beast’s heart, killing him.

Here’s the thing, and it’s important to Jürgen though he doesn’t know it yet. Sometimes, the Matador killed the bull. Most times, in fact. But sometimes the bull killed the Matador. In such a situation, the bull was to be released to live out his life as a stud, but that’s not what really happened.

Once taken out of the arena, they killed the bull. No matter what, it sucks to be the bull.

These days, bulls are scarce. When you do have one, you need him to stud. But we do have undead. We have lots of undead, and that’s what we put in the Octagon. That’s our bullfight.

Most undead, when a spirit inhabits and animates a corpse, it’s in a horrific frame of mind. They scream and attack, clawing and biting and kicking. I think they are in the frame of mind they were in just before they were killed – trapped in that moment, forever feeling the fear and horror that dawns on a person in the seconds before they cease to exist. Unable to move past that, they are driven crazy.

Or something. It’s just an idea. No one really knows why the zombies act like they do but it’s not their fault they are the way they are. They had no choice. Not like the grey skinned, deformed trolls.

In the days during The Decent, there were some people who kept jacking-in to rejuv over and over, despite the damage it was doing; the released spirits and Risen resulted from the process. Over time, it fried their brains but left them with an amazing capacity to heal rapidly and the ability to digest stone. Their teeth and digestive system were inexplicably strong, but they had toasted their brains and possessed the intellect of a deranged infant on a perpetual temper tantrum.

Violent and incredibly difficult to kill, Trolls have always scared the hell out of me. I think it’s the eyes. The grey skin and extended brow don’t help but the yellow eyes just freak me out. Well, that and the fact that you can blow a troll’s head off and it will still fight for three or four minutes afterwards.

There are the rare trolls that don’t act frenzied and wild. Once, Magnus tried to train one to help him around the shop. Just fetch tools and things. Magnus reasoned that they were only human or at least, once were. I miss Magnus.

~~~~~~

I don’t usually go to the games at the Octagon but Master Jürgen wanted an undertaker as a bodyguard. So many undead around makes some folks nervous, even when they are corralled like broken horses. I don’t mind, really. It affords me the opportunity to watch the elite of Hartford that I am tasked with protecting. They are far more dangerous than the risen in the arena.

Grand Inquisitor Erred Yester and his young wife discussed the weather – it is hot isn’t it? Humidity more than the heat, I think. This is the sort of thing they said to each other, like strangers passing in the city courtyard. The banal conversation came and went throughout the bloody spectacle in the arena below – an unarmed man, convicted of stealing knife – left to fight ten zombies with the knife he stole. It was a butter knife.

Master Jürgen sat quietly, unmoved by the cheers of the crowds and life and death struggle in the arena below. I assessed him as the most dangerous of them all. Watching intently over tented fingers, he is a most peculiar boy.

Everything went as expected until the third fight when Master Jürgen’s troll named Club was brought in, chained to the back of a horse-drawn wagon. Club stumbled and fell, dragged for a few paces before pulling itself back up and stumbling more. When the wagon suddenly stopped, the troll banged it’s head on it, soliciting laughter from the crowds. Master Jürgen did not laugh.

Club was unchained and the wagon was pulled around and out of the arena. Club stood still, blinking. The announcer’s voice crackled from the speakers placed around the Octagon. It was a raw voice, primed and keen like a well-oiled meat grinder.

“The next fight comes courtesy of Master Jürgen of the venerable house of Yester. A troll – the ultimate source of the Risen! The cause of the plague on humanity – will face a lawful fate!” The crowd cheered and the Grand Inquisitor clapped, albeit absently.

“You see, Father? I have bought a troll. A troll to be slain for your birthday present.” Jürgen climbed into this father’s lap even though he was much too big and kissed his father’s cheek.

“A fine present, son. Trolls are a blight on us all and they fight well in the arena. I will enjoy it.” He was shoving the boy out of lap as he said this.

The gates opened in the arena and some thirty risen shambled in, some running and others, more decimated, just shuffled. One crawled. Club stood motionless in the center of the arena.

“Look closely father. Look closely!” Master Jürgen’s boyish voice rose. He grabbed his father’s shoulder and pointed. “Do you know this troll, father?”

Grand Inquisitor Erred Yester leaned forward then. He looked toward the troll with newfound interest, but only interest and nothing more. Then his jaw dropped open and he screamed. Standing from his seat in the box overlooking the arena he yelled, “Stop. Stop it now!”

But it was too late to intervene and the risen closed in and attacked the stationary troll who collapsed to the ground and then was obscured beneath the undead, piling on. A grey, severed arm flew out of the pile.

Grand Inquisitor Erred Yester stumbled back and fell into his chair, his young wife asking what is wrong. The crowd cheered at the spectacle.

Yester didn’t answer his wife and instead grabbed his son by the scruff of the neck and pulled him down close. “That was your mother!”

“And curse her loins, Father. Curse them to hell. And curse you!” He jerked away and stormed out of the box and down the stairs.

I followed since I was hired to protect Master Jürgen. He went out of the Octagon and past the square. He didn’t stop until he got to the bus in his father’s courtyard. He jumped up and pulled himself in the door and I followed, taking a seat opposite him, dangling my legs into the dark abyss below.

Master Jürgen sat there, breathing hard but saying nothing. It was not my place to speak unless spoken to, so I remained quiet. Finally he said, “Only open in case of emergency.”

His eyes were wet with tears as he looked across the aisle and I didn’t understand, so when he rolled over the edge of the seat and fell some thirty feet into the back of the bus, I was shocked.

Doc Trene tried to save him but Master Jürgen did not survive his injuries. It was a bitter day in the Grand Inquisitor’s household and I was most grateful that the blame of Master Jürgen’s death was abated and I was allowed to leave. Still, a thirteen year old boy had died unnecessarily.

Even when the bull wins, the bull dies.

© 2012-2013, Mitch Lavender