The Iron Writer Challenge #173
2016 Summer Open Challenge #10
500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements
The image above
A shoebox with childhood memorabilia
Last sentence must be a question
A Meal of Cards and Ice Cream
W. B. Mayfield
“I think if you’re lucky, life ends with a statement. In those final moments after a long life, some can state, “I did good”. Most of us though? I think we end with only unanswered questions. I’m sitting here thinking about where I took a wrong turn and honestly, I think it was the cards. My ma brought me my secret box of survival stuff from when I was a kid. You know, bent baseball cards, decoder ring, a handkerchief, and my detective comics. My pocket knife was conveniently missing. Maybe she feels like it’ll help me get through this somehow. She tried, god bless her, she really did. But she couldn’t work with her back all messed up. So I had to provide after my dad died in the crash. The airline said one thing led to another and they missed an altitude warning. I don’t know what that means, but it was a tiny issue that cause a huge catastrophe. A simple missed alarm took away my childhood. We were already broke, so we couldn’t afford to wait for the airline’s “I’m sorry we killed your dad” money. I was too young to get a job so I did anything I could to keep bill collectors at bay.”
“Now I’m not saying what happened isn’t my fault. I know it was my hands that built this bed, and I’ll sleep in it. But early this morning I rifled through the box and ended up remembering my Sunday drives to town with pa. He had to go to town once a week for some reason or another. It was never the same thing but we always ended up at Hankman’s Corner Store to get an ice cream cone and a pack of baseball cards. I realized I haven’t gotten new cards since he died. Everything that made me a happy child was buried with my father. And I say it’s the cards because I think they were my altitude alarm, you know, butterfly effect and all that. I stopped collecting dreams and started collecting a rap sheet the same day as pa’s funeral.”
An almost calmingly reassuring touch to his shoulder is accompanied by a gentle splash of water on his head. Water slides down his face and even though it isn’t cold, he shivers. Though he remains motionless, his shoulders begin to heave a bit and tears stream down his face.
“I’m so sorry that I hurt your family. I was driving so fast, my nerves were still on fire, and I couldn’t hear a thing because of that bank alarm. I never even saw Mr Hankman in the road. He- he was always so nice to me and pa. I’ve got no excuses or fixes… I, I just wanted you to know, I couldn’t be more sorry.”
A hood is gently slid over his head. “Inmate 8675309 have you anything else to say?”
“Do you think, maybe I… uh, I maybe should have kept collecting cards?”
He Burnt the Shoebox
He burnt the shoe box by pouring petrol, almost a gallon, with all those locked in childhood memories. He longed for a time when they might have been relevant, but it was too late and cleansing with fire was the only suitable way to dispose of them. He understood his mother was addicted to alcohol and other substances and had been in a secure unit for the last thirty years.
His own personal failure was akin to the ‘butterfly effect’ or was that a cascading failure syndrome that he might well have inherited from his mother or possibly his father. God only knows who he was, because they had never met and his mother refused to even discuss the topic.
She had been one of the first bomber pilots to fly missions over Berlin during World War 2 and had changed the course of history forever.
Things started to go manifestly wrong when his half sister drowned when the aeroplane on flight 631 crashed into a remote alpine valley and the broken fuselage had skidded into an ice cold lake. The crash investigators blamed the pilot and the crew for not heeding the correct flight procedures, but his mother blamed the devil and alluded to the fact that some people had survived.
A newspaper cutting had been in that burnt out shoebox with the headline – ‘Eastern Air Lingus Flight 401-but that was all except for some indecipherable scribbling and what looked like a lipstick smudge on the back.
Edgar Allan, as he had been christened, had been plagued with out of body experiences for as long as he could remember and he certainly remembered every mystifying detail of nightmares and waking moments when relief flooded back into his senses and gazing fixedly into the moonless night would only enhance and reinforce the details that had emerged on his tumultuous journeys into that unknown world of fact and fantasy.
He remembered or half remembered a poem he had scrawled over his text books in school, entitled ‘Dreams ‘
Through iron bars and string guitars
The floating dew
The floating dust
A coating clear that cannot rust
He had been forced to attend a special school where children with behavioural problems and/or strange fantasies were sent for assessment and the search for a possible cure. This project entailed experiments with drugs – some unclassified and untried before, except on mice and guinea pigs
Beneath and beyond ordinary archives including the vaults of the CIA, FBI, and Special Branch, there was in existence a file and a dossier marked ‘Top Secret’ to be viewed for information only, and marked Edgar Allan
What this file contained would have shocked and shaken to the core all the religious and quasi religious establishments of the modern world:-
The last spoken words of Captain Flint on Flight 104 from Heathrow to Los Angeles as recorded by the yellow Black Box recorder were ‘ My God a young boy has appeared on the flight deck and shouted ‘’ Re Connect the Auto pilot’’,
Emblazoned in high relief on the bound dossier was a huge?
Steve wasn’t certain if he was up to be mayor of his hometown, but it’s too late to second guess his decision to run. He won in an overwhelming election – the largest, actually in the history of Fairfield.
He first thought back to how he was voted “Most Likely to be a Politician” in high school, but they quickly shifted to worst-case scenarios: cascading power outages, an unexpected sinkhole swallowing part of Dixie Highway, or widespread floods, like the city to the north had just a few years ago which destroyed dozens of basements.
It had been hours since the end of the election. Hours since his election night watch party guests left with smiles, and hours since his wife went to bed. He was still in his office, sitting behind his desk staring at the results on his laptop screen which started to become unreadable as the light from the sunrise crept through the window.
Steve stood up to close the drapes in the office before finally heading to bed but stopped as his hands reached near their tops. A car pulled into the driveway. He looked at his watch, taking his eyes only briefly of black Dodge Valiant. As it parked, he went out to meet whomever it was that was about to knock on his door at eight o’clock in the morning.
Steve didn’t bother closing the door behind him. “Can I help you gentlemen?”
There were two men in black suits, white shirts and black ties walking up the path toward the door. One held a small, long box. It was an old shoebox. The man without the box asked, “Mr. Miller?”
“We’re here to bequeath an item left to you by Mr. John Smook.”
Steve froze. John Smook wasn’t a name he heard since high school nearly a quarter century ago. They were best friends growing up in Fairfield. After graduation Johnny joined the Marines and Steve went to college where he studied mechanical engineering.
“I’m sorry, you hadn’t heard?” The man closed his eyes and bowed his head for a moment before looking Steve in the eyes. “Mr. Smook was one of the passengers on Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 that crashed in the Florida Everglades last December.”
“I’m sorry you had to hear it this way, but we were told you were notified. He left you this,” the man said, turning to his colleague who hastened toward Steve and handed him the box. “It took a while to find this as he created a bit of a scavenger hunt which delayed us finding it.”
The news numbed Steve, but managed to crack a brief smile. “That sounds like Johnny.”
“We’re sorry for your loss.” The men shook Steve’s hand before departing. They left the mayor-elect alone with the shoebox.
Steve looked at the end. “Still has the picture of our moms at the factory lunchroom,” he said quietly. He headed back inside but lifted the lid as he did so. The curiosity on his face shifted to a nostalgic smile. “Now what do we have here?”
A Pale Yellow Certificate
In a box of memories, Ron sifted through some things- old report cards, a birth certificate, and a pocket knife from his Dad. And then he saw something among those things that stopped him entirely. Although more than forty years ago, he knew it was in there. It stirred up feelings that he could not forget. It was placed in the box under a few old black and white photographs. The paper was aged and turning a light shade of pale yellow.
A marriage certificate.
Ron had not forgotten. He promised her that he would not. And though life had somehow carried on, a part of him was gone. Time had minimized the intensity, but time had never changed a thing. He would remember until his last breath. Death had separated them, but she deserved to be remembered. The fresh flowers on her grave showed he never forgot. It still hurt.
His first love. His first wife. The echoes of the past rang out so loud and clear in Ron’s mind. The Captain’s voice was just as fresh as it ever.
“Welcome to sunny Miami! The temperature is in the low 70’s and it’s beautiful out there tonight.”
At that point in time, everything was fine. At that point in time, everything was beautiful. Life was beautiful. She was beautiful. His memory was crystal clear and often misted over his eyes until the water ran from each.
It began when one filament in a landing gear indicator bulb failed. It was just a bulb. If it had been ignored, and the plane landed regardless, then it would have simply been replaced before the next flight. If things never failed, then this would never have come to pass.
That was not the case.
A dirty chain of events. A rotten spoil of luck. A cascading butterfly effect of epic proportions. The devil himself.
It must have been the devil, for God could never allow such a tragedy to occur- not for the innocent. While Ron and his newly wed wife waited to land in Miami, the crew was vigilantly doing their duty. The Captain suspected the landing gear indicator bulb was merely blown instead of a failure of the entire landing gear. He was an experienced pilot that knew the plane and its system like the back of his hand.
However, one small bump of the yoke and the chain of events were set in motion. The engineer was below his station checking the landing gear when the altitude warning chimed. No one else caught the sound either. The landing gear was down. It was only the light that had failed. Only the light. They would be landing shortly without further issue.
The plane descended further. It was dark. 1500 feet. No one noticed. 1000 feet. No one noticed. Another few seconds passed. 500 feet.
The first officer noted something was wrong. “We did something to the altitude.”
The Captain was concerned. “What?”
Ron smiled at Fara for the last time.
The first officer asked worried. “We’re still at 2,000 feet- right?”
The Captain saw it too late. “Hey! What’s happening here?”
As he sat in front of his computer this morning ready to read about Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 everything was right with the world.
His mother was scheduled to fetch his son and take him to school today. That never happened. Instead he received a phone call. He didn’t recognize the cell number but he knew the voice immediately. His sister.
“We were robbed by men with guns…”
“They took the car…”
“They took our phones…”
“I need to somehow let work know I’m not going to be able to open the office…”
Ramblings. Incoherence. Sadness.
By the time he got to the house the police were thankfully there, amongst the chaos. His first family. His mother, his sister, his other mother, his other sister; all four of them victims viciously violated. His first home. A shoebox filled with childhood memorabilia; discarded and trampled under an uncaring boot.
‘This is the society we live in?’
‘This is Africa’
‘Third World problems.’
They celebrated in the country of his birth when Nelson Mandela delivered such hope to a nation without none. Sadly, today, the highest office of the land is occupied by a criminal, a cascading failure which has degenerated and festered through their society, so that now even the local suburbs WhatsApp Group reports incidents of crime. Daily. Literally. His family now the latest entry.
President Jacob Zuma. Look him up.
05h30. They got his other mother first, fresh out of the shower, only a towel. His other sister, seventeen years old, touched and taunted inappropriately. Tied up in the cottage. His sister awoken by a man standing over her, butting her with a gun which was then pressed to her eye. His mother, her room already in a growing shamble, a gun in her face. Also tied up. They took so much, those three men, their guns, their crowbar.
Thankfully his family all made it out alive. Even more thankfully, the raping of their first Spring morning of the year had left their bodies alone.
Sadly, he is no longer a person who gets to look at the WhatsApp group with pity and detached concern. He no longer has the luxury of thinking about how terrible it would be if this horror had to happen to someone he loved.
This is his greatest fear. Yes, he has the family he’s built, but he knows that if anything should happen, he is there.
But his first family. In the same suburb. Just over the hill. He is not there. That’s his Flight 401-09/01, his greatest conundrum, the focus of his love and protection for family can only be in one place of two.
There was laughter today, there was a lot of adrenaline being burned. There were hugs too. Gratitude. Anger. Fear. But there is life.
As he put his son to sleep he is grateful that he still has a grandmother and aunts he will see again.
As I write this today I think to myself, what my world could be if MY mother had not arrived today and MY phone had not rung?