The Iron Writer Challenge #199 – 2017 Summer Equinox Challenge #5

The Iron Writer Challenge #199

 2017 Summer Equinox Challenge #5

500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements

The Authors:

Vance Rowe, Elaine Johnson, Emma Crowley and Bethany Totten, Bertram  Allan Mullin

(Authors names will be posted to their stories next Thursday, after the voting is concluded.)

The Elements:

Gov’t processed cheese.

Coffee Grounds

Ice cream

Wealth

Think It

She dipped into her banana split, tapped the spoon so the hot fudge wouldn’t drip, flicked the tiniest bit of dazzling white whipped cream over the nuts, and paused with the spoon mid-air. “Did you know that the government issued cheese for those in need?”

He sniffed the coffee beans, nodded, set the machine to fine, and started the noise. After a moment, he dumped the grounds into the coffee maker and got the thing started. “You mean now or back in the day?”

“I’m sure they do it now, but in 1954,” she was quoting her cell phone, “government cheese was issued in a brown wrapper.”

He sat back from the granite counter in their new McMansion and studied the pool reflecting just inside their backyard, right next to the cabana and hot tub. “Cheese is cheese, if you get hungry enough.”

She finished the last of the delicacy and settled the glass container in the sink. The party would start in an hour or so, so she added some Brie and Gouda and Provolone to the groaning platter of fruits and muffins, and stuck in back in the cooler. “Hard to argue with that. It stinks to be poor.“

The coffee maker was just about done. He pulled his favorite mug, the one that said, “Wealth Starts Here”, added just the right amount of hazelnut flavoring, and moved back to his office. She hardly saw him anymore, and after this contract was signed, he had two more clients waiting.  She stared at the pristine granite counter, at the caterer scurrying around, and strolled through the place one more time to check that the decor matched the image she’d tried so hard to cultivate.

They went to that conference last year, the one that permeated all their plans. It was why they were in this house in this part of town.  “You have to imagine your goals if you want to achieve them.” That was one motto from the first speaker. “If you think it, you can have it” was another.  They needed to cultivate the Right Mindset, so the last speaker insisted.  So here they were, in a magnificent house with vaulted ceilings, far from their friends and family, but in the right side of town, with just the right decor. Their first party would be a magnificent celebration of what they were; of where they were going.  She’d eaten a minimal breakfast and lunch to splurge on that banana split so she’d be happy and sated during the party. She wasn’t sure who half the people were, but they certainly expected to eat well. She studied the groaning covered plates on the serving table. That website kept haunting her.  Imagine eating government issued cheese.  Imagine being that poor.  She shook her head.  What you think might come true. She needed to think prosperity and wealth. She studied the pristine golf course and smiled.  Just think it to make it happen.  Wealth was coming. She knew.

WARNING: THIS STORY HAS RACIAL SLURS AND OTHER “COLORFUL” LANGUAGE!

Monopoly in the Hood

“You ‘bout to be bankrupt Tariq,” Big T said to his friend with a laugh.

“She-e-e-e-t nigga, you talkin’ crazy. I’m gettin’ mines. I got dem houses on the BW, man.”

“Yeah but you fittin’ to lose that shit too though.”

“Big T, man, you smokin’ that rock? I’m ‘bout to get my wealth on. As soon as you niggas start landing on that shit, you all done. It will be back to eating dat gov’ment cheese for alla y’all. Yo Luke, roll the damn dice man. It’s your turn, nigga.”

Luke rolled. Landing on a Chance card spot, he picked it up and read it, “Advance token to…shit.”

“Yeah, bitch. I tol’ you. Put that shit right on thereon Boardwalk and gimme my fo’teen hunnit dollars.”

Luke counted out the money and handed it to Tariq and Tariq said, “Now Imma put a hotel on that bitch and alla y’all goin’ to pay me.”

“Tariq, dat’s about all da money you gots. You better not be blowing that cheddar so soon.”

“Yo Cheezy, tell your moms that and mind yo’ bidness. You goin’ to be turnin’ dat corner up there on your next roll and will be comin’ down here to pay me too. Only you will forking over 2 G’s when you do,” Tariq laughed and picked up the dice. He landed on the “Go to Jail” spot.

“Here are some words you will be getting’ used to, Tariq. Go to jail, bitch,” Big T said with a laugh.

“Yo T, you want me to say hi to your pops while I’m there?” Tariq laughed in reply.

The three boys laughed at Big T’s expense and he said, “Dat’s okay. You all goin’ to be bankrupt soon and will have to use dem old coffee grounds over and over.”

Big T’s grandmother called out to him and asked, “Tulane? Do you and your friends want some ice cream?”

The three other boys looked at each other and in unison asked, “Tulane?”

They laughed and T pointed at them with an angry look on his face. Then he shouted, “No Gramma. Nobody wants ice cream.”

“I want some ice cream,” Tariq said with a smile.

“Nigga shut up. We ain’t got no ice cream. Gramma’s a little crazy in her old age. And alla y’all keep on calling me T. If I hear my name being mentioned by any y’all, I will bust a cap in yo’ asses. You feel me? Now, someone roll the damn dice.”

“It’s your turn Tul…er…T,” Tariq said with a chuckle.

T growled a bit, picked up the dice and rolled them.

“Boardwalk, bitch. Pay me.” Tariq said with a laugh.

Angered by being picked on a little too much, Big T said, “Know what? Alla y’all niggas need to get up from my crib. Take ya narra asses home.”

T flipped the game board and stormed out of his room.

“Geez, what’s eatin’ him?” Luke asked.

“He’s mad because he lost his money and has to wait for the truck to deliver his gov’ment cheese now,” Tariq said.

The three boys laughed and left Big T’s house.

The Barrel

No one wanted to approach the barrel now. Instead they leave it alone in the center of the darkened bunker, watching with bated breath as a cloudy white liquid began to creep across the ground. My heart still pounds as I kneel next to Meecah. In the crowded room, he was the only one npt watching the barrel; instead he stared down at his shaking fingers.

He had been the only person brave enough to approach the barrel after the search team had brought it underground. We had been waiting eagerly; every so often they’d return with arms full of food, but today, they dragged in a metal barrel, something that they had proudly stolen from a rebel convoy. The rest of the underground colony did not see the barrel as a sign of wealth as the search team did; to us it was nothing more than another three days of eating only government processed cheese. Nothing more than a disappointment

Until they opened it, that is.

Few brave souls dared to approach it after the lid was removed; Meecah one of them. He traded his swagger for cautions steps as he neared the barrel, hand pressed over his mouth and nose.

“It’s filled with white stuff,” his shout echoed around the packed bunker. Slowly he reaches a hand out over the open barrel, drawing a collective gasp from the room.

“Don’t touch it Meecah! It’s not worth it!”

Voices filled the air as Meecah’s hand begins to shake over the barrel. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd, getting a glimpse of the fear in his face. He lowered his hand into the barrel.

He let out a blood curdling scream as soon as his skin touched the white substance inside. Meecah dropped to the ground before me, letting out a wail as he curled his body around his hand. Screams echoed in my ears as the room erupts into chaos.

I force Meecah’s hand open and squint down at his shaking fingers.

“It burned me,” he whimpers, “I just brushed against it, and it burned me!”

I turn his hand over. His fingers are pristine. There’s no sign of a bruise, a burn, anything–

“What is going on here?” The whole room turns as Janice, the bunker’s oldest survivor, wanders into the room.

“Nothing, Janice, just a strange find from the search team,” I reach up to grab the sleeve of her nightdress, but somehow she slips away, leaving only the bitter scent of coffee grounds behind her.

Twist around, I stare into the crowd. Why is nobody stopping her?

A shout startles me, but it’s not full of pain–

Janice is laughing.

“It’s ice cream! I haven’t felt anything this cold in decades!” She scoops it from the barrel onto her shaking fingers. “Hurry, before it melts!”

Soon it’s my turn to scoop from the barrel, the feeling is incredible. The strange liquid fills my body with the most delightful chills.

Janice laughs as she watches us eat..

“One would think you have never been cold before!”

I glance at Meecah; as children of the apocalypse, we hadn’t.

Two Differences from Japan and America

Before moving to Japan, I noticed a problem with wealth in America. Not to say everyone’s rich. There were poor snobs. This created a big problem in the service industry: employees believed because they got paid little they could say whatever they wanted and get away with their behavior because rich owners were afraid to fire and get sued.

I had lived with my dad, who was sick with diabetes. He needed someone around. I’d spend several hours at night working on my novels and helping him. Sometimes I spent days without sleep. Often this would take me to Starbucks.

Better than sugary ice cream.

Obviously sleep wasn’t an option during the daytime because I had good ideas to be written and deleted during edits. Plus, there was no point in sleeping throughout the day.

An afternoon like any other, I walked into Starbucks nearby. The smell of the coffee grounds alone were enough to give me a slight jolt. Yet, I was pretty much a zombie to the world.

The girl at the counter asked for my order outright, not very welcoming.

No big deal.

Figured she was living off government processed cheese and whatnot. Decided to be nice and feigned my best smile to cheer her up, which was actually an exhausted line.

She grimaced. “What would you like to order, sir?”

“Caramel macchiato. Large.”

“Um, did you mean venti?” she asked with a judgmental undertone. I understood. Grande meant large and the former equaled twenty ounces in Italian. She likely assumed I didn’t see that movie too.

Venti.”

She sighed to imply I did something wrong. “Anything else, sir?”

“That’s all.” I could have said, “Thank you.”

Nope.

People should earn such words. I still felt bad for her. She had to deal with tired assholes such as myself all day and I’d bet worked a double-shift tonight. So I tossed my change in the tip jar.

While I walked out, she yelled, “Good luck with that attitude—” in Texas, the equivalent of: “Go fuck yourself.”

I almost turned, said something.

My decision was to leave with my beverage in hand, pretend to not hear. What bothered me most was I tipped. 

The situation could have ended there. Instead, the thought of whether to call her boss and district manager juggled in my mind for the day. My concern was the stuck up employee would speak this way to another customer. “Do you realize baristas like her hurt your business?” Had to be said.

To my reluctance the district manager convinced me to have them send two free drinks my way. I received a formal apology from the company. Gave the freebies to my dad before moving to Japan.

When I walked into a Starbucks there tired out of my mind, the cashier’s joyful smile makes me forget any of my troubles each time. Moreover, there’s usually a happy face, and “Thank you,” with a cute cartoon drawn on my cup. I love the customer service where I live now. Another difference is Japan uses real cheese, not government processed junk.

Trash

The house had certainly seen better days.  The paint was chipping and starting to peel, the shingles were starting to fall off the roof, and the plants were over grown and dying.

Of course the inside was far worse.  Piles of old newspapers and unwashed clothes were piled ceiling-high in nearly every room of the small three bedroom house, leaving only enough room for a tiny walkway throughout.  Old food wrappers, some several years old, take out containers, unopened mail, and various books and magazines dotted the area as well.  To be blunt, it looked like a landfill.  No sane person would ever dare go inside let alone live there.

Yet, it was someone’s home, least it had been.  The former inhabitant was now sadly deceased; years of smoking coupled with undiagnosed cancer had taken their toll and unfortunately caused their end.  While the death was expected, the details weren’t as easy to deal with.  The bulk of it was finished yet the worse remained, cleaning out the house.  The one thing the family was dreading.

“I can’t believe she lived like this,” Margo commented as she walked through the house followed by her husband Craig and her nephew, Daniel.

Craig grimly nodded in agreement.

The trio made their way into the kitchen.  Suddenly, the smell of rotting food hit them.  Margo and Craig covered their noses while Daniel hurried out of the house.  He sat down on the front steps and rested his head in his hands.  He was beside himself that his mother lived like that.  Hells, he was beside himself anyone could live like that.

He had hoped that his mother would have tried to get her hoard somewhat under control years ago when Daniel went to live with his aunt and uncle but she seemed to get worse, especially mentally.  She had started to get paranoid and was convinced she was being spied on by the government, first by them going through her garbage then with her food.

“I don’t want that darn government food,” Janet, Daniel’s mother, used to say.  “They spy on you with that processed cheese.  That’s how they know what you’re thinking.”
Daniel had been beside himself with what to do with her the last years of her life.  He had tried to get her house cleaned up somewhat before he went off to college but she fought him every step of the way.  He eventually gave up, secretly hoping she would do it on her own but she got sick before that happened and now, well, she was gone.

Margo came out and sat next to Daniel, placing her hand on his shoulder.  “You want to come back tomorrow and try again?” she asked.

Daniel shook his head.  “No, let’s just get it over with.”

He stood up and went back inside.  Before long, they had managed to get one room somewhat cleaned, throwing out a pile of trash.  Including some darn government processed cheese.

Beer and Cheese

Bud Hankins sat down at the bar with a heavy sigh and ordered a beer. “Hey, Dave! Lager!” Dave smiled and replied, “Bud, you already owe me. I told you you don’t get served here until you pay your tab!” Bud’s shoulders dropped as a frown spread across his face. “Aw, come on, Dave, you know I’m good for it.” Dave rolled his eyes, “Yeah, right. I know your game. Now pay up, or shut up. You can sit here as long as you like. I ain’t gonna throw you out, but all you’re gonna get to drink is water; all you want.” Bud looked down at the floor to avoid eye contact and seemed to retreat into a little pity party. Without looking up he moaned, “Dang it! I wish I were rich. Dave, how come I ain’t rich? I meet all kinds of rich people. I know there’s plenty of money out there. How come I ain’t got any of it?”

Dave smiled as he wiped the counter with a damp cloth. “Bud, you ain’t got any money ‘cuz you come in here and drink it all. You ain’t looking far enough down the road.”

Bud looked confused. “What?”

Dave went on, “Besides, you don’t wanna be rich, Bud. You wanna be wealthy.”

Bud looked puzzled.

Dave continued, “ See, rich people have money, but they have expenses, too. They can’t stop working because all that money they have will get used up too soon, and they’ll be broke. But if you were wealthy, you could live a long time on the money that comes in without you working.”

Bud squinted in confusion.

“Let’s say you owned a $1000 of ice cream. Would you think you were wealthy?” “Yeah, I could sell it all and make a lot of money.”

“But could you sell it all before it melted?”

“Well, no.”

“Okay, then you’d have to go right back to work, so that’s not wealth. What if you owned $1000 of Coffee grounds? That stuff is useful to a lot of people.”

Bud smiled, “And it doesn’t go bad nearly as fast as ice cream.”

“Yes, Bud, but you’d still have to keep going out to collect more, and the supply could become short.” “So … that’s not wealth either?”

“No, you’re still having to work in order to keep up your standard of living. But what if you owned all the surplus government processed cheese in the world? That stuff lasts forever.”

“I’d get old and die before I sold all of it.”

“And you’d get someone else to sell it for you, so you don’t have to work. Now that’s wealth.”

“But, Dave, I still wouldn’t have piles of cash sitting around, just piles of cheese.”

“Probably not. You wouldn’t be rich, but you’d be wealthy; you could live pretty well and not have to work.”

Bud smiled, “Hey, Dave?”

“Yeah.”

“Where can I find me some of that cheese?”

“Not in here, Bud. Not in here.”

Iron Writer Challenge #192

 The Iron Writer Challenge #192

2017 Spring Equinox Challenge #13

500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements

The Authors:

Richard Russell, Elaine Johnson, Josh Flores, Emma Crowley

The Elements:

Any verse from the song Nightmoves, by Bob Seger, or scene in the video.

The Moon King

A pair of well-worn cowboy boots

A friendship that breaks up

The Faithful

Richard Russell

Outside, the autumn wind flowed through the trees with the force of a mighty river.  Caught in its relentless momentum, brittle leaves relinquished their hold and were hauled away as gleanings after the harvest.  Inside, Ben Chalmers lay on his bed at home and watched nature proceed through a cycle long since set in motion. The bright, warm colors of fall had faded to gray-blues of winter; the once-lush abundance of summer had dwindled to a stark simplicity of hibernation.

Ben averted his eyes from the scene unfolding outside.  His room was bare and simple, yet tidy. On the dresser sat his old brown wallet, key ring, and a small ceramic dish of loose change.  Hanging on a wooden peg behind the door, his faded winter coat with patched elbows and mended rips from snagged briers waited patiently. Atop the coat, a sun-scalded baseball cap stained with the sweat of his brow held the dirt from his hand on the visor’s right side.  On the floor sat a pair of worn cowboy boots; shiny, pristine shafts at the top, scuffed and dull uppers separating stiffly from cracked, tread-less outsoles at the bottom. 

Turning his head to the nightstand, his alarm clock with worn buttons sat faithfully beneath a dusty reading lamp. Ben looked at the photo of his late wife, Clara, and sighed.

Hours passed; Ben lay still as the sun sank slowly on the horizon, the light in his bedroom slowly dimming. Several more hours passed; gradually the moon encroached upon the darkness and took command of the scene outside. Higher and higher it rose until his bedroom was flooded with a cold, bluish glow.  He felt a presence in the room – it was the emissary of the Moon King; she had been expected.

“Well, here we are at last, old friend,” she smirked. 

“You are not my friend,” Ben replied. 

“You thought it would go on forever, didn’t you?” she teased as she circled the room hungrily. 

Ben fixed his gaze straight ahead. 

She proceeded to harangue, “It’s all for nothing.  All your hopes and dreams …It all comes down to nothing.  All the work you did, the choices you made, all the happiness and sorrow, joy, sadness, anger, and love … all for nothing!”

Ben stared ahead as his mind reeled under doubts that assaulted him, then asserted, “That’s not true!”

Leaning in close to his ear, she whispered menacingly, “He’s coming!”

A chill ran through Ben’s worn-out body; she leaned back and smiled triumphantly. 

In seconds, another presence was in the room. Its desperate, bony fingers crept over Ben and clasped him firmly.  Just as the hard, cold fingers were about to rip Ben from his bed and whisk him away to a darker, place, a brilliant light flooded the room; a mighty voice calmly claimed, “He’s Mine!”

In terror, the bony fingers released their grasp and fled away.

The warm, powerful voice called out, “Ben Chalmers.”

At that, Ben rose from his bed and the two entered eternity together as friends.

Never Forget, Never Forgive

Elaine Johnson

The lyrics were just a little too loud in the half-empty room as I leaned against the bar and surveyed the crowd.    He wasn’t there, not that I expected to see his well-worn cowboy boots across the wooden floor, but still.   This is where he came every night after pulling his shift.   

We might have been friends since grade school, but no more.   Not after this.   The volume on the jukebox seemed to increase:     

“We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young and restless and bored”

That about summed it up.  Friends don’t do friends the way he did me.   A friendship that spanned decades could wilt on the vine with two short words.   There are some things you never come back from.   I thought I’d known this guy.    I thought he’d had my back, starting from the days when the other kids stole my milk money.  The truth cut like a knife. 

I shrugged.   I just wanted to drink a few beers, play some pool, listen to the band, and support my sister, the lead singer.   This was her lucky break, or so she insisted.    

Sis touched me on the shoulder.   “Now don’t go making any trouble tonight.   Promise?” 

I couldn’t believe my bum luck when the door opened; he saw me, started, then grinned and came over.    

“I didn’t think we’d see you here anymore.”

Why punch him out?    You argue to resolve differences.  You fight it out if you’re trying to keep a friendship.  I nodded, my eyes flickering between him and the boxing match on Channel 6, high on the wall.   He waited, then waved to a friend and left just as the surround sound cut off mid-note.      

Sis was adjusting the mike, making it screech a little as she scanned the crowd.  She noted him and brightened, then picked up her guitar with a nod to him. 

How was she to guess?   From Little League on, we’d played together, cared together.   Nobody would suspect it of him.   No one.   Not her, not me, none in our family, no one in our community, not a single  of the old men with trembling hands and just one hope.  I pulled a long swallow.  It would destroy folks if they knew, sure as if he’d pulled a trigger.  I‘d never reveal his treachery.  I’d carry the bitter truth to my grave.   

His words burned in my brain.   Two words that, even if he took them back, would always be there, like a snake whose venom burns deep.    Two words that nobody who lives by the river that winds through Georgia could say – not in good times, not in bad times, not when the home team faced the New England Patriots.  It didn’t matter that he was drunk and mad at his girlfriend, second cousin to the starting quarterback’s high school sweetheart.  There’s no way to forget, no way to forgive.  You just can’t make this state your home and ever yell, especially on Super Bowl Sunday: 

“Go Patriots!”         

My Moon King

Emma Crowley

Six months ago I might have thrown an arm across the passenger seat as my car jerked to a stop, but today it doesn’t phase me when the boots clatter to the floor, thrown by their own momentum. I can feel a smile tugging at the corners of my lips as I reach over to pull the parking brake, gazing down at the well-worn leather now speckled with dust and grime from the floor of the car. The stiff leather now creases as the cowboy boots lay in a messy heap. Crumpled, broken, abandoned; if I could turn the mess of emotions inside of me into an object, the result would look a lot like the scene in front of me.

I grab the boots by the tops, so that the spurs knock together as I lift them. I can’t help how the jingle of metal against metal makes my heart lift, the perfect accompaniment to any song. Even during their very first ride on my inexperienced feet, somehow the jingle of spurs made my jerky steps sound as graceful as a ballet dance. Perhaps that was why he let me wear them, he didn’t need any tool other than his own two feet to show off his grace and talent.

My fingers trace over the letters stitched into the worn leather, something they had done hundreds of times before. ‘The Moon King’. The boots had belonged to his father, the one who had founded the square dancing club where our hands first met; he had been the original master, the original Moon King. I remember how he had smiled at me when he first saw the boots on my feet instead of his son’s; the same kind expression will fall on the boots’ next wearer, whoever that may be.

I hope it isn’t her.

I finally drag myself from the car, being none too gentle with the shoes as I carry them up to his front porch. I reach up to brush my hair back behind an ear, but my fingers freeze as I see him through the front window, one arm draped over her shoulders. Her blonde hair showers over her shoulders, something mine could never do. Not that it was a competition, it never was. I think our favorite song, Night Moves, said it best, we weren’t in love, oh no, far from it. We were just young and restless and bored. She is his girlfriend, I am his best friend.

Was his best friend.

He stopped coming to dance practice when he took her hand. The music left his eyes, and all I can see in them now is her. His body has lost its grace, he trips and tumbles over his own two feet to impress her. He didn’t even ask for his shoes back.

I drop the cowboy boots on the step and wander back to the car with my hands shoved deep in my pockets. As I back out of the driveway, I pause for one last glance at the boots.

Even if nothing changes, I hope they remind him of who he once was. My Moon King.    

Memories

Josh Flores

Nothing like good time-worn leather to keep a person safe and warm. Especially handy in the chilly summer-to-autumn nights of Chicago. The wind doesn’t  bother me much on such evenings, but the near-frozen ground does. As I walk to my car from the drive-in concession bathroom, the crunch of gravel and dirt shoots up shards of vibrations. If it wasn’t for these leather boots, my feet would be freezing and legs would be shivering.

All of the drive-in movie theaters have gone out of business. The one I am in is no different. There is no movie playing, me and my car are its only occupants. Only one reason to be here: Memory.

This drive-in is my go to . I would drive myself, alone, in my van, to spend a few hours, but only to see the movies of one actor, even if he only played a minor role .  He was my first love. My only love. He will never know .

Images of Popeye, Garp, Genie, and the Moon King flash across the grey-white concave wall lit by the full moon. He always made me laugh, even when we were kids in school. We were best of friends until his family moved to Detroit in 1963, when we were twelve.

We used to sneak into this theater late Friday or Saturday nights to catch a movie. We would sit on the grass. He would sometimes break into imitation of a character in the movie. Laughter was second nature to him. Making it come out from me made him happy. I loved him for it. I wish I could have told him.

“I think, therefore you is.”  Oh, how I wish this was so. My favorite line from his Baron Munchausen role as King of the Moon. He is in front of me. He is smiling in that way of his, just before he is about to go crazy.  I think. Therefore you…  no… he isn’t. At least not physically.

The big screen, chipped and graffitied but majestic, stands watch over the lot, over me standing next to my van The speaker posts stand in neat rows, sentinel guardians of imaginations and millions of secret rendezvous in back seats.

I started humming a song from 1962 as I climbed into my van. Funny, I know the tune, no lyrics, no title, and no artist, still it is catchy.
The engine purrs as it seeks to warm me up. The stars and moon perform a slow waltz which somehow my mind can see.  Strange how the night moves, with autumn closing in.

Moving to the back seat, a brown web of crocheted yarn envelops me. The warmth it brings, like the touch of another’s skin, my body welcomes. The dvd player comes to life.  I imagine the small screen projecting onto the big screen outside.  The movie comes on. I let myself go into the world which the movie tells me is true. I wait for what dreams may come.

The Iron Writer Challenge #188 2017 Spring Equinox Challenge #9

The Iron Writer Challenge #188

2017 Spring Equinox Challenge #9

500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements

The Authors:

Vance Rowe, Elaine Johnson, Emma Crowley, Zac Moran, Sozos Theofrastos, David Jobe 

The Elements:

‘And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made.’

The setting is you are at a last place where you were hurt, for the first time since you were hurt.

A homeless child

A slum

Homeless

David Jobe

“You need to come now.” His voice cracks. It never cracks. 

“Am I coming to say goodbye?” I already know the answer. 

“I think you might be.” He starts to sob. He never cries. 

The first time he had said that, it hadn’t been true. The second time, the same words, had been pure gospel. The too few months that existed between those two held a nightmare of heartache and wretched waiting. Of doctor’s visits and house calls. Of hospice and homecomings.  More ups than down than a rollercoaster, with one final inevitable drop. Cancer starts with silence, and so too must it end. 

Standing underneath the halo of a streetlamp I take in the stark difference between the rolling green hills before me and the tattered rundown buildings behind me. I am not lost on the irony that the dead live in a better place than the living here. Once again I wished I had gathered enough money to have her buried in that place up north. I should have sold my car. Something. At least then it had been running. 

I steel myself against the cold and damp, pulling up my collar as I step across the broken cobblestone street into the Pastures of Eternal Paradise. My memory flows back to the last time I was here. We buried her that day. We buried a piece of me with her. The walk to her stone is short, as her eternal resting place is nearer to the road than I like. The grass is unblemished. Coming back here hurts just as much as that day, maybe more. At least then I was not alone. Tonight, my only friend is the darkness. My only solace is the silence.

Up on the nearby hill the church sits in all it grandeur. Marvelous in its splendor, the bright neon blue glow of their cross blinking as a beacon for the lost. The way the gravestones rest on the hill, makes me feel like I stand among hundreds of bowed bodies, praying to the glowing cross. Standing while they kneel, I am reminded of how much of an outsider I am. An only child to an only parent, we had been a team. Us against the world. Only, the world had defeated one of us. Perhaps both of us. Cancer kills more than its host. 

I kneel down to place the flowers that I brought, already wilting. Money is sparse and these were on sale. She won’t care. She never liked me wasting money on flowers anyways. Thrifty my mother had been. We existed on less than I manage now, and she had at least kept a roof over our head. I will never live up to her standard. I am not sure I want to try.

They say that home is where the heart is. What if your heart is buried in the fragile dirt, six lonely feet down? 

Is the graveyard to be my home then? Or am I truly homeless?

The Sound of Silence
Elaine Johnson 

She took a deep breath and walked into the bar, refusing to glance at the side table at the end, the one in the corner that was so private, where people could talk.  Their space.   

It was empty.  He was undoubtedly out, perhaps with another person.  Probably.  It was none of her business, was it?   Of course not.      

It was like riding a bicycle. You just get back on again.   And that was why she was here, waiting for the bartender to finish whatever he was doing so she could order a drink she didn’t really want.       

She pulled out her cell phone, so it didn’t look like she had nothing to do and no one to talk to, and flipped through CNN.com.   Homeless children. A bomb in a slum.   Refugees.  War.  She clicked it off, picked up the menu and flipped through the plethora of food choices.    And desert choices.   And beverages.   She’d steeled herself for this for days.    Here it was.  Just do it.    

Some guy with a guitar in the other corner was playing that old song.   What were the words?   She hummed along to the second stanza, “And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made.”  

She idly swiped through the phone one last time, until the bartender came over.    She smiled and ordered white wine.  Chablis, then settled in her seat, crossed her legs, and flicked the stiletto heel.  Once she’d have pulled out a cigarette, but she’d quit and couldn’t smoke in the bar anyway.     

She kept reminding herself that she was an adult, a lady, and this all-consuming rage was beneath her.   She was an educated, cultured person in control of her emotions.   Fury did not belong.  Let the vindictive spirit pass.  Let the urge to ruin him forever slide off.   The slime ball.  

Two guys walked past her.    She evaluated both and dismissed them, then flicked a strand of hair back.     Twelve years in a relationship.   She felt a wave of panic.   

Instead of drinking her wine as a beautiful mystery woman, she gulped it and signaled for another.    Men.  They drive you crazy and take over your heart and mind and then they tell you they never meant it to happen.     

She lifted her chin.   You just have to keep getting out there, be available.   You never know.   Look at her cousin.   She nodded to thank the bartender and this time really did sip the drink.  She steeled her soul and studied the shimmer on the glass.   He never was coming back, was he? 

Another Victim of the Street

Emma Crowley

I knew I shouldn’t have come back here, but now my body is no longer under my control. It feels as if my feet are being pulled down the road by the devil himself, each step echoing against the crumbling buildings that surround me on either side. Even in the dim glow of the shattered street lamps, I can see long shreds of peeled paint and chipped bricks falling away into the darkness, threatening to pull the whole block into oblivion. Good. If I ever see this slum again, it will be too soon.

My fingers trace a path along the metal fence, one that they had travelled hundreds of times before. Finally, my feet fall still, and I am allowed to take a look around me, not that I want to. From the second the burnt stench of ash hit my nose, my heart had begged me to flee, yet some part of me asks to stay. It is time, that tiny part of me whispers softly, to face it once and for all.

Tears run down my face as I wrap my hands around the metal fence, surveying the charred skeleton of a house that lays just beyond. I can almost still feel the heat of the blaze, hear the screams. My hands clench around the cold metal, but can only feel the chill against my fingertips. Not only had the fire stolen my family from me, but it had also cruelly taken the feeling in my palms, scorched away like the rest of my life.

A sob escapes me, and I fall to my knees on the ashy pavement. Everything and everyone I loved now lay in the ashes that tickle my nose as I gasp for breath. I am alone.

Lights flicker farther down the street, melding from one color to another in an almost alien way. I wipe my eyes, getting to my feet. It seems to be coming from an open garage door a few houses down. Desperate to wipe the blaze from my mind, I go investigate.

Inside I find a drug induced wonderland illuminated by a criss cross of battered neon lights. And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made, or at least their slumped bodies looked that way.  I weave my way through comatose bodies, some with needles still in hand. Something moves, a child. I crouch as I near her, so that my eyes are level with hers.

“Hey, it’s going to be ok. Let’s get you out of here.” I offer a hand, but she doesn’t move, regarding me with scared eyes. 

“Are you hungry?” I try again, but to no avail. “Are these people your family?” She shakes her head.

“Do you have family?” Again she shakes her head. I sigh, looking down at the ground. 

“Me either.”

When I look back up at her, she has pulled the blanket from her face. “I’m hungry.” Her voice is barely louder than a whisper.

I reach for her hand again, and this time she takes it. I’m not letting this street ruin another life.

Graveyard/Disturbed

Soz Theo

The unyielding, deafening, sounds of silence that slumber in this once sacred space hold no visible hint of the debauchery, hedonism and chaos that had thrived in defiance within her walls.

He had but only thought of this place for the last twenty years. Now, finally returning, Malcolm stands alone within this once teaming skeleton, long since abandoned and left to decay among the surrounding slums. 

Turning slowly, he absorbs as much as he can while reflecting on his surroundings, searching for remnants of himself, certain that they must be imprinted upon her walls. Even now, as in his memory, as in her prime, she’s a seductive siren. He had always loved this floor, without the roof they had rhythmically writhed, exposed, as the sun, and sometimes the rain, beat down on them in tandem with the hypnotic beat. 

Still she has managed to stand, a silent witness to the mischief and mayhem that were the psychedelic tapestry of a misguided youth. It was here upon her floor that Love had flowed, without boundaries, uninhibited, often induced; this place had encouraged mass elation and ecstasy.

This is where his heart had been broken for the first and last time. He has returned to face this place, to face her, to face himself. Closing his eyes, Malcolm succumbs, allowing the unedited memory to envelop him; reality unfolds around him, dissipating with each deep, slowed, deafening breath; venturing back to when he was an enslaved, entranced, water drinking wraith, ululating in time to the emanating energy and cacophony of sweat, bodies, smoke, alcohol and altered minds.

Their generation was one which had undertaken the meaning of life though ironic antonymy, Malcolm had been one of its most fervent followers, forcing music into submission and invoking unity through the sharing of consecrated chemical experience. But not even the most fervent follower was prepared for the realities of that day.

It had been a scorching summer, the blazing sunlight bore down upon the pulsating party, primed to create nostalgia. They prepared for the festivities with the ritualistic meticulousness which accompanied the style of the scene. Top to toe perfection, a mass of stories to be told, and all in attendance, players there to play.  

The day had been full of promise, the people had bowed and prayed to the neon god they had made, as torrents of enchantment emanated from the speakers and connected directly with their souls. But betrayal was brewing in the air, a love too long harboured, and a friend named traitor forever after, were about to destroy the sanctity of this spiritual home. It had hurt. Fort twenty years, through the tears and pain a promise was made and kept with the words, Never Again.

He has never returned to this place until today, a child without a home, having never faced his circumstance or actions, dead inside, never allowing himself joy, happiness, love. A single moment, a lifetime of pain, a symphony of monotony. With his eyes closed, locked in memory, his hand fastened tightly around the handle of the gun, Malcolm says “I love you and I want closure…”

Bloody Memoir

Vance Rowe

“I can’t believe I am back here again.”

“Is this where it happened?” the journalist asked as he scribbled something down in his notebook.

“Yes… it is,” he replied with a sigh.

“Tell me about it.”

“Look at this place. I can’t believe how much it changed. This place used to be a slum. I-I-It was the heart of the ghetto. Now it is luxury apartments. Unbelievable.”

“How old were you when it happened?” the journalist asked, getting somewhat impatient.

 “Look at these people around here. All dressed in suits and nice clothes. People like this used to get mugged and robbed here and now they own it,” he responded, interrupting the journalist.

“Is this the first time you been here since it happened?”

“Yes. It will be the last too.”

“Tell me about it, Jim. What exactly happened that caused you so much hurt?” the journalist pleaded. “This is an important story for your memoir.”

Jim looked at the building and remembered the hurt. He vividly remembered the night his father came home drunk and when his mother got mad, they fought. His father beat his mother like she was a bad habit. This wasn’t the first time either. Finally she had had enough. She pulled a large knife from a drawer and began stabbing him furiously. The floor where he lay was covered in blood. Her face and hands were covered in the crimson liquid as well. 

“I ran from the apartment and banged on my neighbor’s door. When she saw me crying and pointing at my apartment, she walked to it and was horrified when she saw my mother still stabbing the dead body. She ran back to the apartment and called the police. They came and took her away. I guess she went to some hospital because she had lost her mind.”

“Jim, that’s awful. I am so sorry.”

“I still can’t listen to the song the “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. It was on the radio when my neighbor answered her door. I remember staring at her radio when the line ‘The people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made’ and wished there was a god to come and help me.”

“That is when you became homeless?”

“Yes, sir. The police tried to take me but I ran from them and hid for several days. I was twelve years old and was homeless for the first and last time in my life.”

“You eventually were found, right?”

“Yeah, the police found me sleeping behind some garbage cans one night. They brought me to child services and was soon put in a foster home. I prospered there and went to school and then college, determined to make a better life for myself. I did. I became a famous author and now here we are.”

“This is going to be quite a memoir. You will have to tell me about your life in foster care too.”

“I will but that’s another chapter for another day. I am whipped right now.”

“After reliving that part of your childhood, I completely understand. We will pick this up tomorrow, my friend.”

Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

Zac Moran

Los Angeles, CA – November, 2061

A line of tarp and plywood huts lined the concrete river bank next to a set of rusted train tracks.

I run messages for a living. Not the best job for a thirteen-year-old, but it keeps a roof over my head. Not that the orphanage has much of a roof. There is one major downside of the job though. I’m usually getting shot at.

A boy climbed down from the second story of a caved in building on the other side of the tracks. He crept towards the hovels and a few small animals scattered.

This was home for a while, but I haven’t been here since my parents and I were caught in the soldier’s crossfire. My parents didn’t make it. Damn war.

The boy walked into the hut and sat down amongst the rubble. He glanced around the small room.

I’m surprised it’s still standing. There was a lot of explosions. Wait, is that my music player? These are easy to come by, but it’s hard to get one with music on it. Mine had all the best songs. I wonder…

“And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made!” came a voice from the device.

“What was that?” said a voice outside.

Son of a-

“It came from over there!”

Multiple sets of heavy boot steps drew close to the shelter. The boy bolted through a small hole in the back, but was grabbed by his shirt and pulled up.

“I’ve got him. Looks like a runner!” yelled the man who had grabbed him. The guy was wearing a bulky vest and carrying a rifle in his other hand.

Great. Alliance troops.

Another soldier came around from the front of the shack.

“Well look at this. So what kinda message you carrying?”

A message for Nun’ya. Nun’ya Business.

The boy kicked the shack, which fell over in a cloud of dust. Then he pulled a knife out of his belt and buried it in the soldier’s arm. He was promptly dropped as the soldier howled. Without hesitation, the boy sprinted across the train tracks and into the building. 

He turned a corner inside and ran down the hall. Hearing the other soldier closing in behind him, he jumped, put one foot on the wall, and bounced off the wall towards a hole in the ceiling. He grabbed onto the ledge and pulled himself up in one fluid motion. He continued running and heard several bursts from the floor below, followed by holes exploding in the floor around him.

They always resort to bullets. Can’t ever have an honest race with these guys.

The boy sprinted to the end of the hall and dived through the broken window into the next building over. He then proceeded to the top of the building and made his way over several rooftops before he stopped, ducked down, and looked back. He saw the soldier exit the first building and go back to help the one with the knife in his arm. Shortly, a medical vehicle picked them up.

Yeah, get out of my neighborhood.