The Iron Writer Challenge #212
2017 Autumn Equinox Preliminary Round
500 Words, 5 Days, 4 Elements
Jennifer Worrell, Richard Russell, Moira McArthur, Geoff Gore, Dani J. Caile, Vance Rowe
A key to a locker at the bus station
A cat that is allergic to humans
A sock with a hole in it
A gift from a stranger
Strangers Linked by a Common Thread
Mona lapped the froth from the lid of her to-go cup, conscious of the looks from other customers. A thick strand of hair falling forward from a clasp, hid any hint of unusual features. Placing the licked clean lid by her side, picked up six papers of brown sugar. Torn and held as one, their dark crystals cascaded into the coffee. Mona watched in fascination.
Lid back in place, Mona placed the cup in her left hand. An untidy pile of bags at her feet were clumsily gathered by the searching fingers of her other hand. With a shake of her head, Mona headed for the door. Arriving at the same time, another customer relieved her of the need to shoulder open the door. Nodding a thanks, she gained the comparative privacy of the crowded mall.
Finding a ‘You are Here’ map, Mona quickly located the bus station. Heading off in the direction, she took a quick slurp of her sweetened coffee. The undissolved crystals making a syrup within the liquid. Twenty minutes brought her to the bus station. She took a quick trip around its exterior. Her mode of transport lay hidden by an old tarpaulin.
Last time, she’d just locked it down, when the sudden appearance of a stranger stepping from a blue lit doorway, had startled her. He’d handed her a box with the words, “Go on. Take it. A companion for journeys. Doesn’t like humans. Positively allergic to them. That’s why it’s been safe in my keeping.”
Walking back inside, today, she stepped over to the wall of lockers. Putting down her bags, a rummage in her right hand pocket produced a small sock with a hole in the heel, from which hole she extracted a key and pushed it into the lock directly in front. A small mew greeted her.
Best Laid Plans
Tarck urinated over his fifth fire hydrant this morning and trotted off to the rendezvous. With a full stomach and an almost empty bladder – he tinkled on another streetlight – he had nothing new to report.
“Where the hell have you been?” screamed his comrade standing on a trash can. Tarck chose the form of a dog, whereas Kreta had no alternative but to choose a cat.
“Sorry, I was waylaid by the amount of things I had to pee on,” he said. It was true. “You know, if your DNA was compatible with the humanoid species on this planet, we could’ve transformed into those.”
“However, it is not!” Kreta meowed. “A cat and a dog will suffice. Besides, these forms are better than those hybrid monkey slaves created by a deceased Annunaki surveillance crew stranded on this rock. We can move around unnoticed and observe without any imposition.”
“Says the cat who’s allergic to humans,” said Tarck under his breath.
“What was that?”
“I said I got some sausages from a guy down the road. They were lovely.”
“You know the rules! Never accept gifts from strangers! They could have been poisoned! And then where would we be?” Kreta coughed up a hairball. “Damn things!”
“Isn’t it time to go home yet? I haven’t got anything new to add,” said Tarck.
“Me, neither. This race of beings only plunder and kill their own kind while destroying their habitat. Ignorant skinbags. I will approve the order to re-terraform.”
“Good, I’ll get the key.” Tarck sniffed behind the trash can.
“Key? What key?”
“The key to the locker at the bus station where I stored the transponder.”
“Really? And where is this key?” purred Kreta.
“In my sock.”
“Sock?” Kreta hissed.
“Yes, my sock. I had to put it somewhere, I mean, do I look like I have pockets?” He sniffed around and picked up the sock. “Oh.”
“It has a hole in it.”
“What did you say?”
Tarck pushed his face through the sock making him look ridiculous as the size 38 flopped on the end of his nose. “The key, it’s gone.”
“Are you telling me that our transponder is in a locker at a bus station and you’ve lost the key because you put it in a sock with a hole in it?”
“Yes,” nodded Tarck. Kreta went ballistic.
“How could you? You know this ‘superior’ race can’t make good clothing!”
“Smells like stinkfoot to me,” sneezed Tarck.
“I don’t care! Find the key!”
Tarck stood on the spot. “Ah.”
“Well, I put the key in this sock at the bus station and carried it here, so…”
“…it could be anywhere?”
“Along that route, yes.”
Kreta howled. “Ahhh! I don’t want to be stuck here forever!”
“Then let’s go and find it.” Tarck made a start but Kreta slumped down on the trash can. “Well? Look, if we work together we…”
“We? I have more important things to do,” snapped Kreta.
Kreta yawned. “Licking my genitalia and having a long nap.”
Tarck groaned and began his long search. Alone.
Three a.m. was Larry’s favorite time to come out from behind the dumpster and scavenge through the bus station for scraps of food. The fetor of his unbathed condition preceded him, but he wasn’t much of a people-person anyway, and besides, he didn’t care.
Delighted at finding a half-eaten hamburger in a sack with several burst ketchup packets, he perched on a low retaining wall and slowly savored every bite. Staring across the vacant terminal, he thought, “It’s gonna be a good day.” Larry fondled the locker key he kept in his pocket. A gift from some do-gooder, Larry knew what was inside. He could access the locker anytime, but … not tonight.
Larry froze as a ruckus erupted down the alley — shouting and a cat screaming. Jumping up, he turned to see a gang of boys emerging from the shadows. They surrounded him despite his words, “I’ll leave; I’m going.”
“No, you’re not!” They shouted and began to hit and kick Larry. But before they really laid into him, a police car came around the corner and chased them off.
Bleeding from his head, Larry took deep breaths and crawled back into the alley before the police returned. Catching a whiff of something burning, he came upon a mother cat, dead, still smoldering. Nearby, her barely weened litter lay scattered about, stomped to death, save one with a broken back leg, missing its tail. Larry scooped the kitten up, carried it to his cardboard box and set it down gingerly on some rags before falling asleep. When he awoke, the cat was gone.
As he sat on a curb months later, someone handed Larry a breakfast meal and hot coffee. As he savored the warm food, he spotted a young cat watching him. Smiling, Larry opened a coffee creamer, set it on the curb and scooted away. The wary cat eventually crept over to investigate the offering. When Larry registered its lack of tail and gimpy leg, he pulled a piece of sausage from his sandwich and tossed it over. The hungry animal moved in and devoured the tempting morsel. Larry tossed another.
Days passed; Larry developed a sporadic routine of saving bites of meat and dribbles of milk for the cat. It became his purpose to nourish the tenacious survivor, but the feline acted like it was allergic to humans, timid and suspicious; much like Larry.
One day Larry finally managed to get ahold of the cat. He slipped it into a sock, sliding its head through a large hole in the toe. With the furry parcel secured, he reached into his pocket and grasped the key. Once opened, the locker yielded a change of clothes, toiletries, and some cash. Larry took the locker’s contents, and the cat, to the YMCA, where they both had showers. Larry shaved, put on the new clothes, and bought some kibble and a half pint of cream.
All dressed up with no place to go, Larry was feeling … responsible.
What he needed now was a job.
A Gathering of Irons: Part I – A Bump in the Road
Geoff turned the ticket over in his hands. A worn gift received long ago from a man he’d never actually met, but it had been a hell of a journey. He checked his watch. “How much longer?”
“Cannae tell”, came a disembodied reply. Two legs protruded from beneath the bus. “Thing’s been goosed a wee while, but ah think we can keep it gaun if we can just find summut to stop the whining.”
“I’ll check with the others.” Geoff shuffled back to the shelter of the building. Inside the remaining few huddled around a struggling heater trying to keep warm in the frosty night air.
One of them looked up from a half-eaten bowl of soup. “How is it?”
“Christina thinks it can be fixed, but we need something to stop the noise.”
Laying across a wooden bench, Vance glanced up from the tattered sheet of paper he’d been crossing through with thick pencil. “Tell Christina to put a sock in it.”
“That’s not helping Vance.”
“Go back to your borsht Ian, I wasn’t talking to you.” Vance removed his shoe and rolled down a dirt stained holey sock. “Try this.”
Geoff gingerly held Vance’s sock at arms-length between his forefingers and carried it back to the bus with all the care of someone disposing of a live bomb.
Vance returned to his tattered paper. “Someone’s gonna move up the list for this for sure”, he muttered. “Things were different when Brian was in charge.”
From the bathroom a toilet flushed, followed by a loud clunking. Eventually an armoured figure clanked into the atrium.
“Behold”, the figure announced, “I am the bearer of a golden ticket to a quest in the name of the Guild of Iron Writers.”
“Sit down Weaver, we’ve all got one.” Vance waived his own pass wearily.
“What’s with that cat?” Asked Sarah.
“You’re still kinda new aren’t you?” Said Vance. “Weaver always dresses like that. I think he’s allergic to people or something, but he grows on you slowly.”
“Like a favourite sweater.”
“More like a migraine. But he’s harmless enough, so long as you remember…two ‘T’s”
A slender woman with big auburn hair emerged from the bathroom in a snug fitting driver’s uniform.
“Y’all ready?” She asked in a thick southern drawl.
“I’m in”, Jennifer replied, throwing a bag over her shoulder.
“Wait a minute”, said Vance, “Who said you were driving?”
“Does anybody else want to take over?”
“Ian’s probably been here the longest.”
“We can’t even agree where we’re going.” Ian protested.
“It doesn’t matter where were going, it’s the journey that counts”, replied the woman in uniform. She hesitated catching Vance’s eyes lingering just a little too long and quickly did up the top buttons of her uniform jacket.
“The bus is broken down anyway”, said Vance.
There was roar from the road outside the windows. Geoff reappeared. “Christina’s got it going!”
“Right, that’s settled, y’all get aboard.”
“Guess I won’t be needing this after all.” Vance folded the paper in his hands and pulled out a key to the bus station lockers. “I’ll leave it here for safe keeping…for now.”
His wife told him that she was going out for a bit and asked him if he would do a load of laundry. He said he would without taking his eyes off of the computer screen. When she arrived back home, she found the laundry wasn’t done and she got angry. She went into the bedroom and slammed the door shut.
There was a knock at the front door. With a groan, he paused the video he was watching about the cat who was allergic to humans. He looked out the peephole only to find no one there. Slowly he opened the door and peeked outside. A dog barked in the distance but there was no one around and no vehicles out on the street. Opening the door enough to walk outside. He spotted an envelope lying there. He picked it up and felt it. There was an object inside of it. He looked around again but darkness had enveloped the area and he could not see very far. He closed and locked the door behind him and walked into his office. He sat down at his desk with the envelope in front of him. The envelope was parchment-like, thick and secured with a wax seal.
He picked up his letter opener and twirled it around in his fingers as he continued to stare at the envelope, wondering if he should open it or not. He sighed as curiosity got the better of him. Slowly, he lifted the wax seal with the letter opener, pulled out a piece of parchment paper and dumped the rest of the contents out onto the desk. A key. It looked like a key to bus station locker. Unfolding the piece of parchment paper, he was quite surprised to see a poem written in exquisite calligraphy.
The poem read:
You do not know me for I am the arranger
The absolute life changer
If this quest you decide to choose
You must follow the clues, but,
Be wary of the danger
Consider this a gift
From a stranger
The letter has his full attention now.
He got dressed and drove to the bus station.
He found the locker and looked around to see if anyone was watching, him.
He put the key into the lock and pulled the door open. Inside was a sock with a hole in it and another parchment-like envelope. It was closed with the same wax seal. He opened it, only to find another poem inside.
You found the sock with the hole
You are almost at your goal
Now go home and find the scroll
He raced home, afraid that this stranger was in his house. There was a note on the door telling him to follow the trail and to gather the things up. It was trail of dirty laundry. Curious, he gathered the clothes up as he followed them to the laundry room. He found a scroll on the floor.
He was hoping it wasn’t another cryptic poem. It wasn’t, but it also wasn’t what he expected.
Dump the clothes in
Add a cup of soap
Turn the machine on
You big dope
Keep the Change
Licking the toe pads of one paw, Snowcap stared up at a man gnawing a cigarette and leaning against the bank of lockers. Hands stuffed in his pockets, eyes shielded by the brim of his fedora, his posture suggested he was watching the buses lined up outside, oblivious to the black-and-white cat at his feet.
As instructed. Good boy.
Snowcap thrust his face forward, fixated on something across the bustling terminal. The man stiffened and looked around nervously. Out the side of his mouth, he whispered, “Psst! Hey, kitty.”
Now I have the upper paw. Snowcap darted across the terminal and pounced, returning seconds later with a mouse in his jaws. He dropped his victim on the tile. “I wasn’t leaving.”
The man resumed his posture and twisted the damp cigarette butt in his fingers. “I got the stuff.”
“Is it good?”
“Jigglypuff told you it would be, didn’t she?”
Of course it was high quality; Jigglypuff knew her stuff. As far as alleycats went, she was the most reliable. But batting this guy around like a ball of yarn was standard procedure. Can’t let the humans think you’re a pushover.
“Where is it?”
“Locker 285, ‘round the corner, other side.”
“You got it.”
Snowcap swung a satchel from his back and pulled out a black bundle with his teeth. It was his human’s. As much as he hated to turn it over, it wasn’t doing him any favors. He let it go, but not before his eyes turned red and watery. Half a dozen sneezes exploded from his petal-pink nose. He shook his head to reset his coif and sneezed again. “Goddamn human dander.”
The man unfurled the bundle—a tube sock—plunged his arm into it, and waggled two fingers through the holes in the toes. “The hell is this?”
“Give me a break, I’m a cat. That’s my most prized possession.”
The man twisted his arm around like he was modeling fancy duds. “Probably my wife could darn it,” he muttered.
Snowcap stood and stretched one back leg.
“Say, what do you want an allergy cure for anyways? You’re an outdoor cat, you got connections—why don’t you just cut out?”
Snowcap paused to lick a shoulder. Never reveal your emotions. Be furtive with details. “Meh…I got it pretty good. My human’s a decent guy, doesn’t like dogs, real reliable with meals. Beats hunting.”
“Brother, I hear ya. Hey, c’mere. Little extra treat.” He fumbled in his pocket and crouched beside the cat. Snowcap retreated a few inches. The man held the key in his fist, along with a tiny plastic bag. Snowcap’s pupils dilated in ecstasy at the minty herbal scent. Damn involuntary reflexes!
The man scratched Snowcap’s scruff until he purred as loudly as the bus engines, slipping the catnip and key into the satchel. Snowcap nudged the mouse forward, bumping it against the toe of the man’s shoe. “Keep the change.”