The Sorrow (short story)

This piece is unpublished until now, and was originally written in 2012, using the “sticks” from The Writer’s Toolbox by Jamie Cat Callan for the “First Sentence” and two non-sequiturs.  These are marked in bold.  I also did one stick for “The Last Straw” which is supposed to introduce a dramatic arc, but it said “the hole in his sock” and though I could have wedged that in somewhere, I already had a dramatic arc that I liked and I almost hated “hole in his sock.

I won’t sing the praises of such gimmicks to induce creativity, but on this occasion, I had nothing to write about and it gave me something to write about. I hope you like it. – ML


Gustav sat down in the middle of the road and began to cry.  It wasn’t an unusual thing for him to do, not if you knew Gustav.   “Emotional and poorly equipped for the stresses of secular challenges” was how his last employer described him.  While that might sound particularly harsh, what pained Gustav most was that it was true.  Mostly.

Girls cry and the world rallies around, consoling and empathizing about… whatever.  A man cries, and the world judges him.  He’s weak.  He can’t cope.  He’s a Susie Sissy-Pants.  So be it, Gustav sobbed.  He’s had happier times.

Seven months ago, we were drinking champagne and losing our shirts in Vegas.  Gustav wasn’t a big drinker, so by the time we cracked open the second bottle, he was blitzed.  The blackjack table wasn’t kind to us, but we didn’t care.  It was our honeymoon, and we were in love.  We left Vegas the next day before we were completely broke.

The plane was two hours late taking off.  Sitting on the tarmac and baking in the desert sun, Gustav’s hangover got the worst of him.  Even though we weren’t in flight, they wouldn’t let him get up and go to the restroom, so he had to throw up in one of those little puke bags they stick in the seatbacks.  Still, it was a happier time for him than now.

Photo by Marina Hinic on Pexels.com

Gustav misses me.  When he turns on American Idol, he gets this vacant look.  He always had a vacant look when watching American Idol.  You know, he hated that show, but he watched it because I liked it and he wanted to be with me.  Now that I’m gone, he still watches it, so that’s how I know he misses me.

I’ll never forget the panic in his face.  His unblinking eyes wide as the distance grew between us; hand reaching out, his mouth gaping as I fell. I saw my reflection on the glass building, falling in tandem as I slid down, down, down to the pavement.  I think the horror of that moment shorted out something in Gustav.  He was never the same after that, prone to emotional outbursts and, often, tears.

It’s been almost seven months now, and the pull of the light is strong.  Soon, I will have to leave Gustav.  It’s not like I can help him, but I think he knows I am near and somehow is comforted by it.  Maybe just a little.  Maybe I don’t help at all, and what he needs is to move on.  I could be holding him back.  I probably am.

Time and distance will grow and blur the memory of me and that fatal moment you tripped, falling forward, knocking me over the balcony.  You never could hold your champagne.

I am cold here, and the light is so warm.  It’s time to forge on without me, my dear Gustav.  Soon, but not yet. Very soon, but  I am not ready to leave you, my dear wonderful, clumsy husband. Now, get out of the road before you get run over.

© 2012, 2021 Mitch Lavender

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

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

Romance–Short Movie made from Chuck Palahniuk’s story

Last year, I posted a link to a video of Chuck Palahniuk, reading his short story, Romance.  The story had been previously published in Playboy.

Andy Mingo made a short movie (26:32) based on this story, and it’s tight. 

This is a true romantic comedy, Chuck Palahniuk style. The author of Fight Club brings you John: a man who feels blessed that, for someone who aimed so low, he got the golden trophy. Her name is Britney. It’s Britney Spears, actually, and she’s just as hot. She may have some sort of drug problem. She seems stoned…a lot of the time. She doesn’t need to be perfect, though. It’s how much he loves her that makes her perfect. Plus, she is the epitome of sexy, using playful language and leaving the end of her sentences hanging in the air all mysteriously. She’s so out of his league. You couldn’t pull him from the clouds; it’s so perfect.

 

Directed and Produced by Andy Mingo. http://www.romancemovie.net

Chuck Palahniuk’s First Published Story

Chuck Palahniuk was first published in Modern Short Stories, August, 1990.  He was 28 years old.

The story is called Negative Reinforcement, and it’s got the trademark Palahniuk voice, if a little rough in places.  It shows that Chuck was refining his work, over six years before his first novel, Fight Club was published in 1996.  It takes a while.

To quote Ira Glass:

“The most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

 

Picture by Murdo Macleod

Read NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT on chuckpalahniuk.net HERE.

Note: Modern Short Stories is a defunct publication, now.

Short Story: The Hinges

This unpublished piece was an experimental, discovery write, and the prompts of “Forest” and “Amnesia” were the impetus.
If you enjoy it, please share

 

The Hinges
by Mitch Lavender

The cover of the book swings open with worn resistance, like a door on oiled hinges. I go through it, into another world, to a mysterious place, where remarkable people do amazing things. I am alone in a forest, the green canopy diffusing the sunlight through the leaves, and the feeling of everything alive. I do not know who I am in this place. Not yet.

A vision of black tower in a field of red roses, but only as it is remembered from dreams and stories told long ago. I have never seen the place I am driven towards. This world is comfortable and familiar but also very different and dangerous. It is wondrous, like pyramids spinning on their points; so many tops, whirled with a child’s glee, endangering each other as they dervish about. The pyramids must spin, and through the door I go to watch their graceful chaos. I love this place – World Two.

Capitan-wierdIn World One, I carved off pieces of my life and sold them to the highest bidder, or sometimes to the most convenient bidder. I gifted pieces to people who did not value my present. One day, I started thinking about it. I started thinking about why my life has any value at all, and why anyone would pay or want a piece of it.

Well, why does anything have value?

I suppose it is because it is useful. Being useful would make a thing treasured. Also if it is lovely, like gold or diamonds, or if it is something exquisite and rare, that would make it valuable. And so quickly, I had my answer: There is only so much of my life to go around and when it’s gone, it will be gone forever. My life has value because it is finite and it is mine.

That day, I stopped selling my life. That was a crazy thing to do, but I did it. I took myself off the market.

Yes, it was crazy, but I’m not afraid of going crazy. As long as I know I’m crazy, I’m in control. I can hide it, and I do. I hide it very well. I wear my suit of aluminum foil that bends the light around it. I cannot be seen, and can go through the door to the forest where I do not know who I am. I can stay as long as I like. It’s so funny to me that others have not learned aluminum foil suits make you invisible. Such a simple thing, I must laugh.

But maybe others do know about it, and they are wearing aluminum suits too, and I can’t see them. Of course there are others, and like me, they are hiding and going into their doors and they just want to be left alone. I certainly can understand that. I’m glad there are others. We can all hide together so we can be alone.

The door opens and comes off its hinges. I go in, and this time, I’m not coming back.

© 2012, 2013 Mitch Lavender

Short Story–Scorched Earth

This is an unpublished short story, written from the prompt, unwelcome guest. 

If you enjoy it, please share.

 

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.

jeffwayne-WotWMy 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.comThere 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.

 

War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells – Kindle Edition (free)

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (Recommended)

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds – The New Generation

 

Short Story: Disappeared

I was digging through my Work in Progress folder, and came across this short story.  I vaguely remember writing it, and I think the prompt was “Disappeared.”   This is a previously unpublished piece.  If you enjoy it, please share.

 

Disappeared
by Mitch Lavender

 

Hello everyone. My name is Trey.

Hi Trey.

It’s been three months, and today was pretty hard for me. I got out of bed. Showered. Dressed. I… I even ate breakfast. I was going to go downtown, you know? It was a pretty day and I thought it would be good to go outside. I started to… I mean… I saw… Saw…

It’s at this point that I start to cry, and not just a tear down the cheek with my voice cracking a little. No, I start blubbering – water works going full blast – right there, in front of the whole support group. I just stand there and bawl, holding a snotty Kleenex up to my running nose, and I do a full-on, gut-wrenching sobfest.

After it’s clear I’m not going to get it together anytime soon, Ned, my sponsor, helps me off the podium, past the folding chairs and crestfallen faces, out of the classroom where the group meets. The fourth branch of the Let’s Love Again (LLA) support group – this bi-weekly meeting is all that is standing between nine people and self-murder.

The dimly lit hallway is empty of people. Rows of lockers line the walls, punctuated by a bulletin board, here or there. A poster printed in marker hangs on the wall across from me.

“I’ve got spirit! Yes I do. I’ve got spirit. How about you? GO COCKS!” with a picture of a rooster. The high school football team is called the Cocks. Unfortunate.

Ned stands with me. He doesn’t say anything, just stands there while I cry it out, my sobs echoing back in the empty hall. He lets me go on until I run dry, drained. Exhausted. I’m like a baby; he’s patently letting me cry myself to sleep.

Ned drops me off at my apartment and tells me that tomorrow will probably be better. Not a lot better, but better. Some better. Maybe. Probably, even.

I watch the taillights of Ned’s Buick tool down the street and make a left, motoring out of sight. Standing there on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, the chill of the May evening causing my breath to fog, I feel like I’m still crying. I’m not. I think I depleted my tear ducts – they are empty. But, so help me, it still feels like I’m crying.

screamI throw my head back to scream, and I want it to sound brutal and angry. I want it to frighten children and send cats scampering for cover under the bed. I want it to bleed with the anguish, pain and hopelessness – to sound inhuman. Nothing comes out. I have no mouth and I must scream, I think, relating to the gelatinous Ted in Harlan Ellison’s tragic story.

I can only conclude that love is a mental illness. You are afflicted with love for someone, so much that – at times – it hurts, and in the troughs of succumbing, surrendering totally to be devoured by it, harsh reality comes in and tries damn hard to knock you out of it, but some people can’t be cured. They are chronic. Incurable. True. Faithful.

But some people can be cured. Ellen was cured. One day, she told me she no longer loved me. She stopped, just like that. She said she hadn’t loved me for a year or more. The love just disappeared. Gone. Poof. Magic.

After she left, I realized what I had lost, and how I begged and pleaded for her to come back. She didn’t hate me – she was indifferent. With no love and no hate – I was ineffectual in her eyes. I didn’t matter to her. Nothing could have wounded me more.

Maybe, someday, I’ll be able to see what I did – or did not – do that resulted in her love disappearing. Maybe I will see there was never anything to do with me at all, and I could never have changed it, even if I had known. Or maybe I’ll see it was exactly what I deserved. I don’t know right now.

All I have is: tomorrow will probably be better. I’ll keep it to that – tomorrow. Maybe it will be better. I won’t worry about anything past tomorrow.

I’ve got spirit! Yes I do. I’ve got spirit, how about you? GO COCKS!

© 2013, Mitch Lavender

Short Story: The Guardian

This story appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One by Pantoum Press in 2012.  When I wrote it in 2011 for a writing prompt challenge from Splinter4All.com – “Who is at the door?”   It did not win, but I remember thinking  I would like to develop this into a longer story or even a novel.  So far, it has not happened.

If you enjoy it, please share.

 

The Guardian
by Mitch Lavender

 

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?

blue crayonErika 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 completely. Quietly running back to the bed and pulling the covers up to her eyes, she watched 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 thing that kept – whatever – from entering her room.

Six minutes more passed of this, and she needed to decide on a new color of crayon to use next. The Aquamarine  worked well, but now was 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 completely or the lock would fail. The lock on the floor was a last defense, and she would have to stand in the center of it to be protected.

crypticSeven minutes by her clock, and she got out of bed and 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.

Mommy and Daddy had been taken up, but she was left. Now, the demons prowled the night hours and it wasn’t safe after dark. She guarded the only entrance to this hemisphere, but she didn’t know that. She only knew she was keeping something bad 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 that 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 just 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 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, she didn’t know how she knew to make the lock or that she was the Guardian of Mankind. 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 would be lost. This was her test and 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.

~~~~~

Short Story: Like Donkey Kong

Like Donkey Kong Previously appeared in Pot Luck anthology from Static Movement in 2011, and in Death Zone and Other Stories by Pantoum Press in 2011.  If you enjoy it, please share.

Like Donkey Kong

by Mitch Lavender

I am two hours into the flight and have two more to go. This is the time where I start to get real antsy; two hours in. I have finished the dull airline magazine and flipped through the catalogue of stuff I will never buy. I have feigned interest in the re-runs of Friends playing on the overhead monitor. I have finished my little bag of complimentary cheese-like snacks and a drink. I have been to the bathroom, stretched and returned to my seat. I’ve now done it all, or at least everything you can do by yourself in coach-class on flight AA-514 non-stop Dallas to Seattle.

Flights were packed these days and the kid in the seat next to me is maybe sixteen. Immersed in his Nintendo DS game, the only thing I have heard him say was, “Like Donkey Kong!”

He said it when I asked him to let me out so I could go to the restroom.  “Like Donkey Kong, Man.”

He said it repeatedly while playing his game with ugly guys who hit each other.  “Like Donkey KONG!!!”

So now, two hours into my flight with two more to go, I asked him what it meant. I am bored and have nothing else to do, so sue me.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt his playing, “but what do you mean, ‘Like Donkey Kong’?”

He looked at me, unregistering.

“What is ‘Like Donkey Kong’?” I repeat, thinking that if I used fewer words, it would be easier for him.

He grinned and said, “Everything.” And then he was back to playing his game about ugly guys hitting each other.

I settle into my seat to stare at the little nozzle overhead that blows air on you. Blown off by this kid, now I am blown off by a little plastic nozzle. I sigh.

Everything is like Donkey Kong. Of course it is, Donkey Kong; a video game. Everything is just like that, I thought disdainfully. I was playing Donkey Kong before this kid was even born. I was his age when Donkey Kong was popular in the arcades. This kid, engrossed in his game about ugly people hitting each other, has probably never even played Donkey Kong.

Original Donkey Kong game (screen from NES ver...

Original Donkey Kong game (screen from NES version) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the day, I shoved many a quarter into the machine, determined to save the princess. Starting at the bottom of precariously tilted girders and climbed to

the top as quickly as I could, trying to avoid barrels being thrown my way. In the game, you have to time things precisely, when you will jump over a barrel or when you will climb up a ladder, always staying clear of the barrel on fire. There was the worry that a barrel would go errant and come down the ladder rather than go to the end of the girder. Eventually, you can grab a hammer and smash some barrels, but this is short lived. That is just like my work, avoiding the unnecessary and handling the challenges that must be dealt with head on. Timing and finesse is everything.

And when you do finally get to the top to save the princess, the victory is short lived. Donkey Kong grabs her and escapes, and it starts over, the same thing, only more difficult. The victories I have and the projects I complete; it is all temporary. When one is done, there is another waiting for me address. I pay my bills. I pay my taxes. I save back a little as I can, investing here and there and planning for my son’s college education. Every month, it starts over and I have to pay the bills, pay taxes, save what I can. Rinse and repeat, just like the levels in Donkey Kong, over and over.

I looked at the kid again, still hitting ugly people in his game, oblivious to everything around him. Maybe he is right.

Everything is like Donkey Kong.

~~~~~

Short Story: Death Zone

Death Zone was previously published with the title,  “Worth Writing About,” in Outburst Magazine, Issue #5, 2011, and in “Death Zone and Other Stories,” from Pantoum Press in 2011.  If you enjoy it, please share.

 

Death Zone
by Mitch Lavender

Imagine putting a plastic bag over your head and binding it closed around your neck. Then, punch a pinhole in the bag where your mouth is and try to breathe. Try to do that for two weeks straight. With a lump of stew you ate a week ago sitting in your stomach. With sub-zero wind constantly buffeting you; so cold, you don’t dare expose naked flesh to it for more than two minutes at a time for fear of extreme frostbite. Wind so loud, you can barely hear what a person is saying, even if they stand right next to you and shout in your ear. If you can imagine this, then multiply by ten and you will get an idea of what it is like at Base Camp 4 of Mount Everest.

The human body is not equipped to survive at extreme altitudes, in sub-zero temperatures and atmosphere so thin your brain is starving for oxygen and your body eats itself because it can’t process the food and water you’ve consumed. You can only nap at ten or fifteen-minute intervals, but real sleep is impossible. It’s an environment that at best is abhorrent and at worst, kills you.

stock-footage-in-the-death-zone-climbing-towards-the-summit-of-everest-climbers-navigate-difficult-terrainAt Base Camp 4, the elevation is about 26,000 feet above sea level and about 3,000 feet below the highest point on the planet, the summit of Mount Everest.

Standing here now, I can’t tell what time it is but it’s very early and it’s still dark. The wind is gusting at gale force and it’s a struggle to maintain my balance. Our team wanted to try for the summit early. We’re all tethered together; all of Team Altitude ‘10, pulling ourselves by a rope, one after the other into blackness that our headlamps barely penetrates ten feet.

My joints and muscles ache. With each step, the stew I ate days ago at base camp three shifts a little. The process is painful and slow. I take a step, sometimes two. Then I hunch over, clutching my knees for balance and gasping for breath. Each step takes its toll on my body as if it was a fifty-yard dash. I check my oxygen bottle and it shows half-full. The oxygen is rationed carefully during the climb, just enough to fend off unconsciousness, just enough to keep the vital organs from shutting down.

Two weeks ago, in Base Camp 2, every sensible thought I had was to go back down. Things were uncomfortable, to say the least, and I knew they would get worse. Still, I pushed on to Base Camp 3 because there was something I had to do. When the team pushed on to Base Camp 4, I was right there along with my comrades; the other fifteen paying customers, minus three, who had enough, tapped out and went back down.

They call this area the Death Zone, between 26,000 feet and the summit. At this altitude, your body does not function properly. Stay here long enough and it will just give up and die, even if the hostile elements don’t get you.

There is another reason they call it The Death Zone – if you die on the mountain, this is where it usually happens. You die trying to get to the summit or trying to get back down. And when someone dies in The Death Zone, they leave them there. Even if the body is discovered, they leave them. Climbers barely have the strength to carry their own weight in this cruel and hostile environment much less carry another person, and the atmosphere is much too thin for a helicopter to fly in and attempt a recovery. The bodies are left on the mountain where they were found or are consigned to a crevasse if one is nearby.

People get very spiritual about this – about dying on The Mountain. They will say, The Mountain claimed another sacrifice, treating The Mountain as if it was a

moody god trying to nap. As if we are all children, trying to sneak past without waking it up. The local inhabitants of Nepal make references to ‘respecting’ The Mountain. If we really respected it, we would go home and leave it alone.

On Everest, Buddhism is common, and I’ve seen my fill of Buddhist altars all the way up to Base Camp 3. Most are littered with weathered pictures of people who didn’t make it back. Pictures of people that, I bet, aren’t Buddhist. Go figure.

English: Tents of climbers from top of hill at... In the 1950’s and 60’s, climbing Everest was something revered. It was something that had not been done by many people. Now, almost anyone with

$50,000 and enough determination can attempt to make it to the summit. There are adventure tours that do this every year. Right now, there are over 200 climbers on the mountain. Most of these paying customers have limited experience with serious mountain climbing. They are adrenaline junkies and desk jockeys, looking for some experience to make them feel alive.

I’m not standing at the foot of the death zone because I want to see if I can make it to the highest point on the planet. I’m not here for the summit. I’m here

because I have something I to do. Something I never would have imagined doing three years ago, when Andrew looked me squarely in the eye and told me he was quitting his job. When he told me he was going to do something with his life, and I should, too.

It’s a long, arduous climb and the images caught in my headlamp seem surreal in the darkness. The sound of the wind as it pummels my body is a constant and disorienting companion. My oxygen-starved brain moves my oxygen-starved body forward mechanically. Step. Hunch. Gasp. Step. Hunch. Gasp.

Eventually, the sun comes up and the bent, bundled bodies of the climbers in front of me cast long shadows on the ice and snow. Looking behind, I see one of the

leaders, Ed Withers. Withers has been to the summit six times out of nine attempts. He knows the way, and he’s watching for stragglers in the group. I’m the last one on the line.

I remove my oxygen mask so I can talk to him. It is held to my face by two elastic straps, but pulling it down from my face was a monumentally complex task to my weary brain.

I take a step over to Ed and yell in his ear, “How close?” I wheeze and hunch over, gasping.

Ed pulls his oxygen mask to one side and says, “Hour.”

He continues past me as I struggled to put the mask back over my nose. I changed the oxygen cylinder and the rope tugs at my waist. I’m holding up the rest of the group. I mechanically take a step. Hunch. Gasp. Take another step. Hunch. Gasp.

I don’t know how much time has passed when Ed grabs me by the shoulder and points to a rock mass sticking in an ice embankment. He unhooks the carabineer from my waist so that I’m no longer tethered to the rest of the group, and we plod slowly toward the rock.

Five feet away, I notice the blue coat first, half buried under the snow. Then I make out the black pants and the icy figure of a man, sitting almost casually against the rock. I look into the frozen face, weathered and bruised by the elements, the contours and eye sockets filled in with snow and ice. Andrew.

Staring at the icy eye sockets, I remember what he said to me the day he quit.

“It’s a terrible thing to hate your job. To hate something you have to do, day after day. There’s something polarizing about it.” He said this with a calm commitment. It was monk-like. He continued, “And the more I resent it, the more trapped it makes me feel. The more compromised I am. Like there isn’t any choice. But I’ve had a revelation – there are options.”

“Fine, but you’ve got to have a plan. You can’t just up and bolt for the door with no idea of what you’re going to do. It’s just not smart,” I reasoned.

“I’ve spent my entire life confined by boundaries that only existed because I have allowed them to. I’ve just been letting life happen to me, or worse, I just let life pass me by. Either way, I am reduced to being a passive element in my own life, and I’m sick of it. I’m going to do something that I will remember forever. I’m going to do something that will be worth writing about – something worth reading about. You should too. Take care.”

Andrew was my best friend. He was an anchor for me while I weathered a nightmarish divorce, and he took me to the hospital when I overdosed on tranquilizers. He was the one I saw when I woke up in the hospital room. He introduced me to Julie, whom I later married. He stood beside me as my Best Man. He even pulled some strings to get me a job where he worked. Through the stormiest period in my life, Andrew was the one constant.

But then Andrew quit his job, cashed out his 401k and bought a spot on an adventure tour to climb Mount Everest. That’s what he did to break out of the confines of the boundaries he allowed to exist. That’s what he did because he was sick of being a passive element in his own life. His words, not mine.

I remember the report of his death and Ed Withers strained voice on the phone. I remember telling Annie, Andrew’s wife, that she was a widow.

Withers said that Andrew was trying for the summit and went missing on the mountain when a storm kicked up unexpectedly. Two days later, another expedition found his body about 600 feet below a treacherous part of the climb near the summit called the Hillary Step. Apparently, he got separated from the group and injured his leg. He froze to death. The climbers who found his body left him there, with the reverence that is bestowed on the people the mountain claims. Ed said this is the way it’s done.

So here is Andrew – where he sat down and never got up. I take the knife Ed hands me and approach Andrew’s frozen body. I clumsily cut open his jacket and rummage around for an interior pocket. His chest was frozen solid. I don’t find what I’m looking for. I cut one of the outside pockets. It was double sealed, Velcro and zipper. Inside, I find a small leather-bound book with a strap tied around it and “Journal” embossed on the cover. It was just as Annie had described.

Ed taps my arm and points towards the group, still visible, heading up the pass. Stepping away from me, he plods after them without looking back.

For a moment, it occurs to me that I had come this far. Why not go to the summit? Why not go all the way? Why not accomplish what Andrew had considered so important he lost his life attempting it? But it didn’t matter to me. What mattered is understanding why Andrew thought it was so important.

I shoved the book into my jacket. Looking up the pass, I see Ed Withers just moving out of my line of sight. The sun is full in the sky, and the wind has dropped to a steady ten knots.

You said this would be a book worth reading, Andrew. I turn and start back down the footprint-laden path; back to life.

~~~~~

Short Story: Detour

This story appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One, by Pantoum Press in 2012.
If you enjoy it, please share.

 

Detour
by Mitch Lavender

 

It was almost unheard of for someone like me to be called to a meeting with the Director of Global Operations, so I made sure I was prompt for our 10 a.m. appointment. The title on the e-mail invitation read, Career Planning, Fiscal Year – 2012, and I dared hope that my years of dedication to the company had put me on the radar with upper management. This might just be it; my ticket to level 16 and a 7-digit salary.

Mary Harlington was waiting for me in the meeting room, attentive to her notebook computer on the conference table. The room could accommodate 25 people, but it was just the two of us. Mary Harlington didn’t rise as I entered, but she did look up.

“Close the door, Mr. Jakobs. I trust your morning has gone well?”

“Hello!” I chirped my voice an octave higher than usual. “Yes, very good, thanks. How was your trip from Corporate?” I knew she had flown in from Chicago early this morning.

“Fine. Thank you for meeting with me. Take a seat.”

Cutting right to chase, nothing less was expected. Mary Harlington was six levels above me, her time too valuable to exchange niceties with the likes of me.

I took my seat where she indicated and opened my steno pad, pen jacked from my pocket and ready to make notes.

“Please do not write anything down,” she said. “Do you have an audio recorder running on your phone? One of those recorder pens, perhaps?”

“Uhm, no.”

She pulled out a small device, about the size of a cell phone and pressed a button. It beeped once and showed a green L.E.D. Her eyebrows raised, surprised that it did not detect any recording electronics, and she put the device back in her bag. Alarms went off in my head, Jacked up! Jacked up!

Folding her hands on the table next to her notebook, she said, “We know about you. We know about your blog.”

The alarms in my head went to giant, red, capital letters. JACKED UP! JACKED UP!

I coughed and said, “You’ll have to explain for me please, Ms. Harlington.”

Jackedup-warning“Jakobs, we’ve read your blogs with interest. You have some strong opinions concerning the direction our company is taking.” She looked me square in the eyes, conveying no emotion or tells. Never play poker with this woman.

“Ah. I… I can explain that,” I began, but she interrupted.

“Some agree with you. If the company continues on this path, we are doomed to failure. Some think it would be one we could not recover from.”

She paused, waiting for my response. I knew this ploy; make the other party acknowledge before providing the next piece of information. It’s a control maneuver, and while I didn’t like being manipulated, I played the game. I had to know where this was going.

I said, “Okay.”

“We think you are the man who can do something about it. Would you like to take an active role in insuring the company’s future?”

There was only one correct answer. “Of course I would.”

She smiled, though the corners of her mouth hardly rose. “Then we will empower you to do just that. On January 12th, you will meet with our president, Stan Balsam. The pretense will be that you are the employee of the year, and as you know, the president always has dinner with the employee of the year.”

Another long pause. I have to acknowledge. “Okay.” The red letters of the JACKED UP! sign in my head started to flash faster.

“You will kill Stan Balsam. You will wear a small device that, when activated, will cause his pacemaker to fail. Are you prepared to take the company in a new direction, and to a brighter future, Mr. Jakobs?”

JACKED UP! JACKED UP! JACKED UP!

I dropped all reserves and spoke openly, shocked. “Why would I do such a thing? Just because I express concerns about the company’s future? Just because I doubt that cloud computing and cell phones are a good investment? You think I would kill a man because of that?”

“You killed your wife for far less,” she said, her poker face giving nothing away.

She paused again, trying to manipulate my response, but I wasn’t playing. Five seconds of silence. Ten. Fifteen. JACKED UP! JACKED UP!

“I see, Mr. Jakobs.” She unfolded her hands and went to her keyboard. After some typing, she turned the computer so I could see the screen. The video that played stunned me.

My bedroom. I am taking a pillow and shoving it down over my sleeping wife’s face, holding it there as I sing, “Goodnight sweetheart, goodnight.” It’s a moment I had blocked from memory, but there it was, in high definition, with low light filters, in the fluorescent illumination of the meeting room.

I realized my mouth was hanging open and closed it, turning my eyes from the screen to meet Mary Harington’s gaze.

“The cable boxes you have been beta testing for the company have surveillance cameras. You conveniently had one in your bedroom. We know what you did. We know what you thought you got away with, Mr. Jakobs. We know what you are capable of.” She smiled that almost smile again, “With the right motivation.”

My eyes were fixed on hers, almost unbelieving. Almost.

“I expect your girlfriend – what is her name? Missy? I’m sure she would appreciate your new salary, quite a bit.  Speaking of which, you would be increased by five levels, to level 18. Right up to $999,999. More than adequate to pay off her student loan, don’t you think?”

I sat transfixed. JACKED UP! JACKED UP!

“Do this, and you are set for life, Mr. Jakobs. Decline and you will go to jail. They have the death sentence in this state, don’t they? Think of this assignment as a detour on your bright and promising career path. One that will lead you to success beyond your dreams. By the way, this meeting never happened. It will be erased from the database and this room was never reserved.”

I adjusted my tie and cleared my throat, trying to compose myself.

Mary smiled that not quite a smile again and closed her laptop. “I have other meetings today. Take care, Mr. Jakobs. We are counting on you.”

After she left the room, I noticed a small device on the table. It had a single button on the front and a clip on the back to affix to the inside of a lapel.

***

Boarding the plane for Chicago, I took my seat beside the window. The flashing JACKED UP! sign began to throw sparks and short out.

 

~~~~~

Short Story: Nothing More Than Feelings

This story appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One, by Pantoum Press in 2012.  It was inspired by a story written by David Yu – Standard Loneliness Package.  I hope you like it, and if you do, please share.

 

Nothing More Than Feelings
by Mitch Lavender

Mari showed up at my cubicle at 10:40 in the morning.

“What’s your eleven o’clock?”

I checked my screen, sorted through my cases and replied, “I’ve got a funeral.”

“What kind of funeral?”

I clicked the case and waited for it open. “Grandmother.” I looked at the description. “Oh, man. And I’m a thirteen year-old girl.”

“Want to trade?” Mari asked immediately.

I did funerals every day. Some days, I had three or four in a row, but a grandmother was a tough one, especially when I’m getting the transmission from a thirteen year-old girl. Mari’s case must be super-bad if she wanted to trade for this. I waited for her to come out with it.

“I’m putting my 12 year-old Golden Retriever to sleep. I don’t think I can do that. I really love dogs, you know?”

Mari was such a softy. I said, “All right, I’ll trade.”

In the cubicle across from mine, Taj had his headset on, working a case, crying and sniffling, blowing his nose into a wadded tissue. Probably a funeral. Most of our cases are funerals.  I looked back at Mari.

“Thanks, Doug. I owe you one,” Mari said with a weary smile. She walked back to her cube.

This job takes a lot out of you and Mari was having a tough time lately. It’s easy to burn out and I’ve seen coworkers get to the point where they couldn’t put the transmission receiver on anymore; most quit before they had a complete breakdown. I think she was close.

Mari and I started working at Sensation Solutions, Limited, about the same time, and we used to laugh about it. We’re paid $16 an hour, plus bonuses, to feel crappy for customers. Basically, people outsourced their bad day to us.

During training, they told us that Emotional Support Technicians (ESTs) weren’t needed for a customer to avoid their bad feelings, but we were a luxury that most would pay to have. A person could just wear the Emotion Interrupter Device, which looks like a small, square patch, placed at the base of the neck, and it would collect the emotional data from a customer and delete it, but when that was done, the customer didn’t appear to have any feelings at all. They would be blank and expressionless, and no one wanted to look like they didn’t feel anything at the funeral of a loved one, so they transferred their emotions to an EST like me, and I felt their sorrow, remorse, regret, guilt or whatever. Whatever I felt showed on the customer’s face. They didn’t feel it, but it looked like they did.

I didn’t understand the pricing structure, but that was negotiated through our sales staff. I think the charges were flexible; how much money the person had, times how badly they didn’t want to deal with their emotions, equals cost of my services for one or two hours. Or something – like I said, I didn’t understand it.

At 11 AM, I was going to feel what it was like to put my dog down. I’ve never done this before, but it couldn’t suck any more than the child’s funeral I did for a grieving parent last week. I swear, I almost hit the abort button on that one. I’ve never hit abort before; it’s considered a failure. No one says it, but you’ve failed to do your job if you abort, and the customer gets a refund, plus compensation. Hit abort too many times and you get your hours cut or scheduled for crappy shifts, or even let go.

I got a certificate and cake for making it twelve months without an abort. It’s thumb-tacked to the wall in my cube. The certificate, I mean. Not the cake.

So I went ahead with Mari’s case and killed my dog. It sucked every bit as much as any funeral I’d ever felt. Seeing through the eyes of the dog’s owner as she sat next to the aged Retriever in a vet’s office somewhere, the animal, its brown eyes rolled up with a whimper. I was very aware of it. This dear animal was in pain, and putting her to sleep was the loving thing to do, but hard.

DOG-EUTHANIZEDI wept and moaned, “Sweet, wonderful girl. You are so loved. I will love you forever. Sweet, sweet Goldie.” These were all emotions from the dog’s owner, transferred to me. After 35 minutes, Goldie lay still on the vet’s table. My customer paid for the full hour, so I stayed on the line.

As she left the vet and went out to her car, I was still feeling immense sorrow and continued to cry. Blubbering, really, snot pouring out my nose and, oh man, the wretched sobbing, but I couldn’t control it. Taj looked across the aisle at me, a silent show of respect that I was dealing with a tough one. He was in-between cases and had a break before his next. I knew it was a divorce hearing, and those usually made him angry. I wanted to be out of here for lunch before he got too far into it.

Sitting in the car, I saw my customer open the glove compartment and take out a gun. It looked like a .22 and was staring at it. I was staring at it, through her eyes. Still jacked in and receiving her emotional transmissions, I felt such complete despair and hopelessness. I couldn’t imagine this emptiness ever being less; this pain would never end.

The gun went up and I felt the barrel in my mouth. Everything was so completely miserable and I was confident it would not stop unless I ended it. I wanted to finish it and make it stop. I wanted to die, like Goldie. I was going to squeeze the trigger and all of it would stop.

Alarm.

suicideI opened my eyes and blinked, wiping away the tears. I realized I was on my knees in my cubicle and Taj was standing next to me. The meep, meep, meep alarm sound continued. Somewhere nearby, I could hear Mari, sobbing like a little girl, still connected to my funeral case.

“I hit your abort,” Taj explained. “Please do not be mad, but I think you were too far in. You might not come back out.”

I blinked at him as he helped me back to my feet. I wiped the snot from my nose. “Thanks, Man. I owe you.”

“Shake it off. Go to lunch early. You don’t have another case until one o’clock.” He smiled, white teeth through his black beard. It was a good smile.

“No, that’s it. I’m done. Tell Mari to meet me outside when she’s finished with her case, would you?”

Taj nodded, still smiling. He handed me a box of tissues and I took several, blowing my nose, then grabbed my jacket and headed to the elevator.

My one o’clock customer would just have to deal with their own feelings.

 

~~~~~

Short Story: Smart Zombies

I originally wrote this story for The Infection Anthology, but it didn’t make the deadline.  It appeared in Untrue Stories, Volume One in 2012.  It’s a very short piece and I hope you dig it.  If you do, please share.

 Smart Zombies
by Mitch Lavender

Smart Zombies, I hate them.

Mind you, “smart” is only in reference to common, everyday zombies. Smart Zombies can open doors and figure simple problems out. The average zombie can’t even get out of a car if the door is closed. It will try to chew its way out, though, breaking teeth and bones in the process and it won’t stop; broken fingers and no teeth, it will keep trying.

Smart Zombies will call others; a raspy, horrible screech. They will organize mass assaults on locked doors or barricades, and stand in the back ordering the hordes of others on to attack; zombie generals of the War on Humanity.

Undead Ed -cropped- editedThe siege has been going on for three days now and we have retreated to floor eight of the Madison Heights apartment building. We lost ground, floor after floor, as they kept coming, defending the stairwells until we couldn’t anymore. Then we would abandon and move up, but the undead were like water flooding a sinking ship and we were fleeing up and up until there was nowhere else to go. With only eight floors in the building, we were making a last stand before retreating to the roof, and if we did that, I’d jump to my death before becoming one of those things. I swear I would.

As we nailed them down the stairwell, the bodies piled on top of each other in the confined space. This gave us a few minutes of relief while the zombies behind cleared them away to try a new assault. They didn’t rest, so neither did we, for forty-two hours straight. My vision is blurry and sometimes I pass out on my feet, to be awoken to the horror we faced and to pull the trigger again and again and again. Only head-shots would put one down. We had ammo, and for that, I was grateful.

A hand on my shoulder pulled me back. “Relief, Corporal!”

Major Jensen took my place at the top of the stairwell and I staggered back, spent. He had been moving the civilians up each floor as we lost ground and had no more sleep than the rest of us. Still, I would take the relief. Just for five minutes. Then I would be back at it. I closed my eyes.

When I awoke, it was daylight, punctuated by staccato gunshots. While asleep, I had heard the same sounds, but I guess I was too tired to notice. It was daylight and we had held them off through the night. Why had I been allowed to sleep so long?

“Back ‘em up!” came the yell from the Sergeant Major and the urgency stirred me to full alertness. This meant we’d lost the floor and only had the roof left. Since I was the one non-civilian not engaged in combat, I hurried the frightened residents up the final flight of stairs. I pushed a boy who couldn’t have been ten-years old, “Hurry!”

He walked a few steps and said, “Why don’t you shoot a car? The alarm would distract them, wouldn’t it?”

Zombies hated loud noises like alarms, and when one went off, they attacked the source with horrible vengeance. It was a good idea, and might distract them from the smart zombie’s orders.

“Move, son!” I shoved him towards the stairs and stepped to a window inside one of the apartments. The streets were filled with undead; packed with stinking, animated corpses that were intent on attacking our building. The zombie general was out of sight but calling them on with his scream. I aimed my M-16 and shot out the windshield of a PT Cruiser; nothing. I focused on an Infiniti G-37 and fired. The alarm blared into life and the zombies around it turned, refocused on this new target that was making so much noise.

I shot out the windshield of a Ford Explorer and its alarm also erupted into life. I did the same with a Mazda RX-7 and a Chevy Tahoe, each one blaring and attracting more attackers. This was working.

Then I saw their general emerge from the building cattycorner to ours. He wore a blood-stained lab coat, but the way he walked with purpose drew my attention, despite the thousands of other zombies shambling around the crowded the street below. He jumped up on a car and screamed again, pointing at our building – a siren to call the others to attack his target. I’ve heard that scream for the last three days and knew it well. He’s the guy.

The boy brought me a gun and said, “Here, stop it here. Stop it now.”

I looked at the gun he held – a sniper rifle, equipped with a scope. Checking that it was loaded, I pulled it up and drew a bead on the general zombie’s forehead, using the windowsill to steady my aim. I fired. His screech silenced and he fell backwards. The hordes turned their focus on the alarms and began attacking the cars.

“They are retreating!” said the Sergeant Major, shocked. Then he fell back and laughed out loud for a moment before passing out from exhaustion.

The waters receded and we took back the top four floors that day. Outside, the streets still swim with the undead, but we live… for now.

 

~~~~~

Short Story: Breaking the Rules

This story appeared issue #3 of Outburst Magazine in 2010, and later in Death Zone and Other Stories in 2011.    It was an experimental piece of flash fiction, using the rules to keep cadence.  At the time I wrote this, I had rediscovered For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, and was impressed with his effective use of short, succinct sentences. I was attempting to replicate that style in this piece.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

Breaking the Rules

RussianRoulRule 1: Check that there is one bullet in the revolver.

Edmond locked the door of the home and pocketed the key, along with the other keys he had collected from the family. He posted the ‘No Trespassing’ sign on the door, and with a sigh, turned around. Facing the family he had just evicted, he said the words he has said hundreds of times before.

Rule 2: Close the revolver and cock it.

“In accordance with the laws of the United States of America and the contractual agreement with your lender, you are hereby evicted from this residence and are not to occupy or stay upon these premises from this day onward. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, including a fine of up to a $60,000 and/or incarceration for up to five years in a state penitentiary.”

Rule 3: Spin the cylinder on the revolver.

He looked at the family in front of him – a man, his wife and two children. They had left the home willingly. Most don’t, and law enforcement has to be called to help complete the eviction.

“Where will we stay?” a little girl asked. She is maybe five years old.

Edmund didn’t answer. He never did. He didn’t have an answer. He walked past the family and past the piles of tattered belongings, clothing and furniture that they had hurriedly carried out of the home after he arrived. He walked to the street and got in the van. His face was grave.

Rule 4: Put the barrel of the revolver in your mouth.

Edmund called the home office to let them know this eviction was complete, and he checked the address of the next. He drove to the next location and parked in front. It was another old home in a poor neighborhood. There were toys in the yard.

Rule 5: Imagine that you only did good things for people, and that you are loved by everyone.

Edmond took the revolver out of the glove compartment. He checked that there was one bullet in it; the same bullet that has been in it for the last seventeen days. As he had done on every eviction for the last seventeen days, he closed and cocked the revolver, and spun the cylinder, listening to the mechanical whhhhhhrrrr until it stopped. He put the barrel in his mouth and thought of what it would be like to do a job where people did not hate you.

Rule 6: Pull the trigger.

Click.

Just as had happened the previous times he had followed this ritual, the gun did not go off.

Rule 7: If the gun does not go off, do your job.

Damn the rules! He pulled the trigger again.

Click.

And again.

Click.

He put the gun down in the seat next to him and began to cry. This wasn’t meant to be. There must be another way. He wiped away the tears, started up the van and drove to a local homeless shelter. Walking up to the volunteer sheet posted near the door, he signed his name and went inside.  If he could not prevent people from being evicted from their homes, at least he could help those who have no homes.

 

~~~~~~

Hope you enjoyed it, and if you did, please share.

ML