Saturday, August 27, 2016

Short Story: Playing Chicken

Mama folded her silky things and stuffed them into her largest suitcase. She didn't pay me any mind as I stood near her bedroom door, too anxious to ask questions. My stomach tied itself in knots at the site of her mismatched set of luggage she'd placed on the bed, open and ready for filling. I bit my lip, knowing what it meant, and tried to steady my insecurities.
After she walked into her bathroom, I peered into each suitcase, wondering if this time she'd saved room for me. My hands carefully sifted through the piles of clothes and shoes, but not even the smallest part of me remained.   
She hurried out of the bathroom, her arms cradling a blow dryer, curling iron, and a giant can of aerosol hairspray. "Go get your bag." Her head jerked toward the door.
My heart leapt with desperate joy, and I couldn't help but smile. "Where are we going?"
"You're going to Nan's for a while." She didn't bother looking at me as she crushed my short-lived happiness with a few measly words.
I wanted to throw myself onto the ground and scream for her to take me with her, but too much experience and disappointment sent my feet racing down the hall and into my room. I collapsed onto my bed and scooped up Clementine, the stuffed elephant my father had given me during our one and only visit three years ago.
"I hate her," I whispered into Clementine's large floppy ear, but she already knew that.
"Fifteen minutes." Mama poked her head into my room. She pulled her brassy blonde hair back into a ponytail, doing her best to smooth out the tangled mess. "Damn it, Kellie. You haven't even started."  
I stared up at the ceiling above my bed and pretended she wasn't looming over me. Fifteen minutes before the landlord came, most likely. Chasing evictions. Burning bridges. Story of Mama's life. Her life would never mirror mine. I was going to make something of myself, and I wouldn't rely on my tits to get me there, well, when I grew tits anyway. Some eleven-year-olds at Jefferson Elementary already had them, but I was still as flat as flat could be.
"Fifteen minutes," she said again, but with crisp insistence.
"Fine." I grumbled and sat upright.
My validation was apparently enough. She hurried out of my room, leaving me to pack what little I had. I crammed a sport's duffle with the clothes that fit me best, Clementine, my journal, a Rubix Cube, and my memory box. The box was filled with things Mama had saved from when I was a baby: newborn cap, hospital tags, rattle, scrap of cloth, photos, and ceramic cast of my fist. I found it in the garbage two apartments ago. Maybe it was a mistake that she'd thrown it out. Maybe it wasn't. I didn't focus on the reason why she discarded it; I was just happy to know it existed at all.
I kept my head held high as I carried my things to our rusted out piece of crap Oldsmobile Cutlass. No matter what, I wasn't going to let her know I cared what she did—at least when she could see me anyway.
She started the car then glanced in the rearview mirror and wiped at the black sludge under her eyes. The consequences of her night out at the bars, probably spending what little rent money she had, no doubt. "Why are you looking at me like that?" She turned to face me, her expression filled with mock-hurt.
"I'm not looking at you. I'm looking through you," I said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
I shrugged and stared out the window. "Nothing. It means nothing."
The ride to my grandma's farm stretched into an eternity. I wondered where she'd gotten the gas money for the three-hour trip, especially since the only food I'd had in the last two days was a couple bologna sandwiches, a toaster waffle, and a can of New Coke. Each bounce and bump stirred resentment in my empty gut. Resentment for being Hazel Petty's daughter. Resentment for not speaking my mind. Resentment for calling 9-1-1 the last time she took too many sleeping pills.
"Nan bought three new calves. She said you're big enough to help feed them now. Doesn't that sound like fun?" Mama wrapped her lips around her cigarette and sucked in the poison as if her life depended on it, then tossed the butt out the window.
I waved off the smoke, turned my head, and stared into the vast yellowing fields stretching for miles. When I felt her hand at the back of my head and to my shoulder, my eyes instantly closed. Why couldn’t she just love me a little more? Hadn't I been helpful? Quiet? I wasn't a whiny baby. I was old enough to take care of myself.
Maybe she'd sensed my disappointment or simply felt her own stabs of guilt in her selfish heart and thought she'd better act like a loving mother. She was a horrible judge of character, and she usually showed no remorse for leaving me, so of course it had to be about her.
"I'm doing this for us," she said, eager for sympathy. "It's been hard since Axel left. I can't do this alone. I need…."
I counted the rolls of hay sprinkled across the landscape and let her words fade to nothing. Axel wasn't my father. He was another somebody in a long line of somebodies pretending to be my old man. He started off okay; they all did. The way to a man's heart was through his stomach, everyone knew that. But for a single mother, the surest way to a woman's heart was through her kid. Love the kid and you were in. He spoiled me with attention and presents for a little while, but he lost interest as soon as Mama started acting all emotional. He went on his way, like the rest of them.
When we finally pulled into the long graveled driveway of Nan's farm, I'd settled into survival mode, and in my mind, I'd already said my goodbyes. I focused on the barn and out buildings on Nan's property, plotted new adventures, and remembered the old. Adventures I'd always taken alone.
I didn't say a word as my mother kissed the top of my head and gently tugged on one of my braids. Plus, I knew how my silence rattled her so.
"Tell me you love me," she said in a coaxing way. When I didn't look at her, she forced my chin upward. "Tell me… you love me."
I stared into her eyes, those beautiful blue eyes I'd longed to truly see me. "I love you," I said the words, clear and cold. As long as she had the words to cling to, she didn't seem to care how I said them. Either that or she was ridiculously stupid. Sometimes, I wondered.
Nan come out of the house and onto the porch of her doublewide mobile home. I liked to think she hung back purposely because she was disappointed in her only daughter, but I sure could've used her support right then. An arm around me to show that I wasn't a burden, that if Mama didn't want to fight for me, she would.
As I trudged up the wooden steps, weathered and in disrepair, to my grandmother's home, I stopped. I usually didn't like to see Mama pull away or feel the finality as she did, but for some reason, I turned for one more look. In the past, she would've waved and smiled. This time though, she paused at the end of the drive, her hand tight around the steering wheel. She stared back at me, her face solemn. I willed her to come back, to take me with her, but the longer she stared I knew I'd probably never see her again. As horrible as that assumption was, I had to prepare myself for something far more challenging—Ernest.
When I caught sight of him in his tatty green recliner, I gripped the handle of my duffle bag a little tighter and held it in front of me. Nan had married Ernest Klinger when Mama was teenager. He was cold, aloof, and hid many secrets behind black, horn-rimmed glasses. One couldn't meet the man without getting a heavy case of the hebbie jebbies. Mama warned me about Ernest long ago, his moods, his temper; so, I avoided him the best I could anytime I'd visited before. He'd left me alone for the most part.
"You're mom up and left ya again, huh?" He forcefully folded his newspaper and tossed it on the side table next to him. He didn't want me there, no big surprise.
"Leave her alone." Nan scowled and pulled me in for a hug. "Kellie's welcome any time, ain't that right?"
 "Just stay out of my room," he grumbled.
Nan kept an arm around me as she led me to her sewing room that also doubled as a small guest room. "Ignore the old grouch," she said. "You and I are going to have so much fun. Did your mom tell you about my baby cows?"
I nodded and managed a smile, which quickly faltered as I caught Ernest watching us walk away.
Ever since Mama left, I tried my best to avoid Ernest. I decided I wasn’t scared of the putz or let his words bother me. I mostly hated the way he looked at me, part judgment and part interest. I hadn't had much of a father figure in my life, except for Larry, husband number one who was a bit touchy feely if you know what I mean. Then there was Bill who got a kick outta playing "let's see how fast it takes you to get me a beer." John. Kent. Axel. What a bunch of jackasses.
All Mama's relationships failed. After she sucked them in with what she proclaimed the sexiest ass in town, they'd follow her anywhere.  Once her insecurities decided to surface they'd bail, leaving her feminine wiles behind, and leaving me with Ernest.
Every night after dinner, he retreated into his office. The lazy rat didn't work, so I don't know why he needed an office, or why he locked it. I tried peeking through the windows once, but the small crack in the curtains didn't do much but tick me off with what I couldn't see.
I'd waited until Nan was out playing pinochle with her church ladies and Ernest MIA to put my plan into action. Not that I had a plan, just an unquenchable case of curiosity. I had to know what was inside that room.
An hour shot by while I tore through the house looking for a key or something to jimmy the lock, but all that accomplished was making my insides boil over with more contempt. Damn Ernest. Damn my mother.
With my patience running amuck, I uncoiled a couple of paperclips and forced one into the lock, twisting just so, then popped in another one. I didn't know what the heck I was doing, simply motoring on instinct. Supposedly, my real father mastered the art of the break-in, so it should've come naturally. I mean, I should get something more than a stubby nose and a stuffed elephant from the sperm donor, right?
"What in God's name do you think you're doing?" Ernest said.
Busted. Dang. My hands dropped from the doorknob and sent the paperclips into the gold shag carpet at my feet. I took my time standing, no point in running from the firing squad. They'd come soon enough. I gulped then turned around, feigning as much resolve as I could.
He put his hands on his hips and glared at me. "Well, answer me. What are you doing?"
"Nothin'." My facial expression probably didn't convince him much.
He canted his head, wisps of black hair blowing upward from the breeze of the oscillating fan. I stared at those bobbing strands, up and down, up and down, while silence filled the space between us.
Ernest scratched the graying stubble on his chin. "You aiming to steal something?"
"Nope. I thought I heard one the cats meowing. Like it was trapped or somethin'." Nan had a crapload of cats, so it wasn't a farfetched idea.
Another clump of hair joined the others, bobbing up and down in some sort of dance. I couldn't help but chuckle a bit.
"You think this is funny? I bet your grandma won't think it's funny."
"I ain't done nothin'." I folded my arms and glowered through my furrowed brow.  "Like I said, I heard somethin'."
He bent over a bit and leaned in close; his eyes scoured mine more than they usual, but I didn't budge. He stared at me so long, I thought I might pass out from holding my breath, but then he stood upright and looked at me sorta like he was more amused than pissed.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, and waggled it in front of my face. "Why don’t we rescue a cat, huh?"
I shrugged and nodded. "Oh yeah, great idea. I bet it's Pearly, she's a curious girl."
He twisted the knob and stood to the side, his arm made a sweeping gesture to welcome me into his sanctuary. I should've known better, trusted that faint voice telling me to walk away, but I didn't. I walked right into Neverland willingly, and it didn’t take me long to realize what a stupid mistake I'd stepped in.
Posters of naked women in precarious positions covered the walls. They were beautiful and gross at the same time. I couldn’t help but stare, spinning around the room, taking it all in. An old desk and a twin bed filled the space, which felt cold and lonely and nothing like a bedroom. For as much time as he spent in this room, it smelled musty and old. Two things I knew about from bouncing from one place to the next.
"No cat," he said, not that he believed there was one in the first place, I was sure. He shut the door behind him. His fingers pinched the lock on the doorknob, pausing for a moment before sealing my fate. I stood rooted in place, my eyes drifting from the contents of the room to the lock. He settled into his office chair and reclined back. He steepled his fingers while a suspicious smile pulled at his thin lips.
Instinctively, I started for the door. "Well…" My arms swayed back and forth out of nervousness and anticipation. "I'm just gonna—"
"Wanna see something?" his voice was low, but painted with subtle excitement.
Heck no, I thought. I needed to get the hell out of there, but then he pulled out a blue fabric binder with a bit of fraying at the edges from a desk drawer and held it in his lap, tempting my interest once again.
"Do ya?" he prodded.
I shrugged and inched forward, eyeing the folder. Once I got within a foot of him, he flipped it open and his face took on a quality I hadn't seen before nor could fully explain. His stare bore through me with an intense knowing, while his grin curdled the contents of my stomach. I forced my eyes from his, but couldn't tear myself from the contents of the binder. Picture after picture of little boys and girls about my age smiling, as if they were getting their picture taken for a class photo, burned through me. Innocence. Trust.
"Who are they?" I asked.
His grin broadened. "Old friends. Just like you and I are gonna be old friends." His tongue rolled over his front teeth. "Isn't that right?" He flipped the pages toward the back where a new set of photos emerged. Photos of the same children, only now fear drenched their expressions. Their pleas screamed at me, silent but ever-present. I can't describe what I saw. I don’t want to. Not to anyone. But let me tell you, it isn't easy breaking the spirit of children. Whatever he did, he accomplished just that.
He closed the binder, reached into his drawer, and pulled out a Polaroid camera and a knife. He place them on the desktop, next to one another as if they were as ordinary as a set of salt and pepper shakers, rarely seen apart. "I bet you're just like your mother, ain't ya?" His gaze travelled down my body.
"I'm nothing like her."
"Why don’t we find out, hmmm?" He went to stand as I matched his movement with a step backward. He wanted to hurt me, and I was dumb enough to let myself believe otherwise. Fear Ernest. Fear Ernest. My mama used to pinch my chin and prod it upward, insistence saturating her voice and settling deep in her eyes. "Stay away from him," she'd said. "Fear him!"
But she left me? She knew who he was and she left me here. I continued to match his steps backward until I'd bumped into the door. I searched for the lock behind me. He could've pounced, but he liked the chase I was certain. The smarmy look on his face proved that. I've never seen him happier.
My head thumped against the door as I withdrew from his imposition, his smell. I'd never imagined someone so disgusting could smell so clean. The over powering smell of Ivory soap clung to me, making me question everything, my thoughts, my fears, the complaints about my life and those filthy apartments I'd reviled, and of course, my mother: would she knowingly leave me with a dangerous man?
Maybe this wasn’t what it seemed.
Ernest reached for his belt and loosened the clasp.
Fear Ernest.
"Anybody home?" Nan bellowed through the small house.
My body slackened at the sound of her voice—my hopeful freedom. Ernest held up a finger to silence me, not that he needed to; my words had long since vanished.
"Yeah, I'm here," he said with a calmness as pristine as his scent.
"Well, get yer ass out here and help with the groceries, will ya?"
He scowled down at me, a look of warning burned through my soul. We walked out of that little room without saying a word. He didn’t have to say anything, I knew. As I watched him close the door and ensure it was locked, I couldn’t help but feel like I'd left something behind.
The moment I was able, I dashed through the back door and ran for the pasture. I didn't look back. Even when Nana yelled after me, I kept running. I shimmied through the wood fence and tore through the fields. Nan had five acres and a lot of junk, which made for endless hiding spots. I made my way to the rusted ol' bus, climbed inside, and hunkered down between two rows of seats. Ernest wouldn't come looking for me, at least not right away. He probably expected me to hide, which would give him time to wrangle some story to tell Nan.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Nan married the son of a bitch. Didn't she know what a freak he was? Or what he did to my mother? Those kids? Thoughts twisted in my head, images of Mama and Ernest. I hated her more than ever. I clenched my arms around my knees, squeezing away the mental torture ripping through me. Stop feeling sorry for her. Hate her.
Fear Ernest.
My heart thumped wildly, so much so I struggled to breathe. Tears filled my eyes, but I quickly forced them away. I had no use for them, but no matter how hard I tried to curb them, they crashed down my hot cheeks and clouded my vision. The loss of sight did nothing to obscure the images from their relenting pursuit.
The day my mother left me burst through the other crap pummeling my mind. It was front and center—my crux to bear. I played the moment over and imagined words I'd feared saying but should have. Each scenario grew bolder, angrier. Pained thoughts spurred me forward, begging me to act out what I should have long ago.
Show rage. Show power.
Fear Ernest.
Fire lit through me as I bolted off the bus and straight for the barn. I reached up on a rusted nail and pulled the hatchet from its cradle. The splintered handle scratched at my palm, but I didn't mind. The more pain I felt, the more courage brewed within me. Before stepping from the barn, I closed my eyes, took a breath, and wiped my eyes. No turning back. No fear. Not anymore.
I walked slowly, one calculating step after the next though the field and back to the house. The sun dipped into the horizon, painting the sky in a brilliant red. I stopped to appreciate the view, the colors. The peace. I didn't know what would happen next, but I trusted my instincts.  
I made my way to the house and stopped near the back door. Nan must've recently scattered chicken feed for her noisy brood of prized hens moments before. I bent down and picked up Molly, the fattest of the bunch. I stroked her back, smooth and warm against my palm. As my hand smoothed over her feathers, I hummed the only real tune I knew. Some lullaby my mama had sung to me at one time, but the words were as lost as I was.
The chicken clucked and struggled in my grasp. When I couldn't hold her anymore, I brought her to the chopping block. Then slowly, to savor the delicacy of the moment, I raised the hatchet into the air and thrust it down on the chicken's neck. I cocked my head in wonderment, as the chicken's body didn't simply collapse. It sputtered and moved, its nerves causing spasms and feigned life.
I swept my hand across my shirt, leaving a bloodied path in its wake. I'd never killed a living thing before—besides an insect or a spider. Killing Molly relieved something within me. I don't think words existed to describe how I felt in that moment, except calm. Utter and complete calm. A tear cascaded down my cheek as I stared at Molly. I brushed it away and silently thanked her, thinking briefly that the tear should've been for her. But it was for me—my celebration.
Nan called out to me again.
I reached down, picked up Molly, and carried her and the hatchet back into the house, to the kitchen where Nan and Ernest sat at the table for dinner.
"Oh my God!" Nan grasped and stumbled back against kitchen counter as she saw me standing before her in a blood-covered shirt, carrying the hatched, and her prized hen. "What have you done?"
I glared at Ernest, who looked on with shock so delicious it triggered my smile.
"What have done?" Nan screamed again.
The pieces of Molly and the bloodied hatchet fell on Ernest's plate in a glorious thud I'd never forget. Blood spattered his face and the dancing wisps of hair. I settled onto a chair and began dishing up meatloaf and potatoes. Nothing further to say. My game of chicken complete.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Edge of Redemption: Chapter Two Kenna

Chapter Two

No matter how hard I tried, I could never recreate that day—the day I burned.
The heat of the flames licked my face, encapsulating me with a force I'd grown to savor. Tainted smoke filled my lungs, but my memories remained locked away as if it happened to someone else entirely.
It always began innocent enough with the deceptive smell of campfire wafting high in the air and bouncing toward me in a playful dance, confusing my memories with that of willow sticks and marshmallows, goodness and life. But I knew better. It was only a precursor. The old barn, abandoned fifty years before, popped and cracked. Its final battle lost and swallowed by a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, and red flames. A cloud of black smoke filled the sky, but still, no new memories were triggered. No part of me, changed. As glorious as it was, it was all routine.
It was strange to think I'd just set my fourteenth burn, well, my official burn. The rest of my fires had been discarded long ago as simply a child's curiosity, but Cal knew the difference. He knew I was searching, and he wanted to protect me from myself.  Maybe that was why he encouraged the burnings in the first place. I bet he never expected it'd turn into this.
Even now as I played the part of showman and waved at the crowd, I recognized no one. My fans for one day. These faceless people in a crowd. My teachers. Old friends. My first love. I'd never gotten used to the spectacle, but simply tolerated their prying eyes. It was easier being the freak.
The people's chants and shouts of encouragement reeked of selfish intentions. If the billowing stench of molted flesh hadn't soured my stomach, their false sense of support would have. The fires eventually always smelled of death and decay. Maybe that was my curse—my one memory.
I heard the chief calling out to me, warning me to back away, but I chose to ignore him. I'd always pressed it until the last minute to savor each moment in hopes that the fire would never be in vain. The skin on my arms and face grew hot, but it was a heat that fueled me. Almost there. A little longer.
Shouts of warning had little effect on me. I lit fires for Christ's sake, big ones, I wasn't afraid. Besides, if I pushed just a little longer…  Mom? Did I even call her that? Why did it seem like a foreign word, tasteless and cold?
"Kenna. Pull her back. Now!"
And just like the thirteen burnings before, I came up short and retreated to the arms of the men leading me away.
A few onlookers remained in the dwindling crowd; I could see pity in their expressions. I must've been obvious nothing had changed within me.
"Next year, Kenna. I can feel it," someone called out, as if I wasn't more than just a thing to them—their creation—and an annual plaything.
Kenna Doe. God, how I hated who they'd made me. They might as well called me Brown or Green, something ordinary, something that anyone or anything could've been.
"You okay?"
I closed my eyes at the sound of Whit's voice and leaned into him. The other hands around me gave way, and eventually, I only felt his touch. I let him lead me, pretending he provided some sort of comfort, while I searched my brain for anything—even an afterthought of my former life.
"Are you okay?" he asked again.
It was times like these when I wished I could still cry, but it seemed with each added burning, my tears dried up completely. "I'm fine. I just want to go home."
"Let's get you some water," he said quietly. "Do you want to sit?"
I nodded and reluctantly opened my eyes. I'd forgotten all about the amateur preacher who'd requested I speak with him, but as I looked at him, standing next to me, in his bland short sleeve oxford shirt, my stomach turned. I wasn't in the mood for talk of God—of the Savior who allowed my mother to die.
"This is Duncan Cane," Whit said almost enthusiastically, as if this little prick held some sort of power. Like a goddamned medicine man come to banish the devil out of me. Been there. Done that. No thanks.
I didn't mean to study him as I did, but he didn't look like any student of God I'd seen, with his black framed Wayfarer glasses and trendy hairstyle. He looked like some rich kid who thought a lot about himself and wanted others to know just how little his shit stunk. No God-loving, seminary student could possibly be so shallow, even in a bad shirt.
"Sorry, Duncan Cane. I'm not interested." I turned to Whit. "Take me home."
Whit scratched his head and looked over my shoulder with a look of apology that made me want to scream.
I didn't always act like such a bitch, but burnings got the better of me. No matter how much I prepared for the letdown, I couldn't help the inevitable rage that stirred.
"I appreciate your willingness to talk to me," Duncan said.
"You know, maybe it isn't a good time."
Whit sounded nicer than I would've put it.
"I wasn't expecting what I saw today and I'll completely understand if…if—"
"If what?" I whipped around to face him.
He swallowed then stared back at me almost as if he'd slipped inside my thoughts.
"I'm sorry," he finally said, "about your mom."
I couldn't deny the concern in his voice. I guess I hadn't given those simple words of condolence much thought until then, when it felt like I'd heard them for the first time, seen it on his face.
"Thank you," I said.
Wait. What was I doing? Why did I have to continue the charade? But the truth was, as I looked back at Duncan my mind filled with things I hadn't seen before. Plain white shirts with short sleeves. Flashes of images—of people. Faces drawn and somber just like his. A large cross behind a pulpit in a little church. Singing. There was singing.
I laughed. I wasn't sure what was happening.
Duncan glanced from Whit and back to me. A stunned expression twisted his boyish face.
I couldn't help it. I laughed again.
"Is everything all right?" Whit took my hands and peered into my eyes. "Is it the fire? Do you remember something?"
"No. I don't know. Maybe."
Whit and Duncan exchanged glances.
The images continued to flicker. Numbers. One-five-seven. Two-Three-Eight. I laughed, but the images slowed. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. Hands tight around the pulpit.
My heart began to pound.
I am one of the wretched. The words pierced through my thoughts. I am one of the wretched.
"Kenna, did you hear me?"
I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt.
I jumped, but Whit's loud voice did little to curb my thoughts and speculation. Insistent. Foreign. Mine. I turned on my heels and started for my car. I had to get out of there. For the first time in fourteen burnings, I remembered something. But, it wasn't the fire that fed my memory.

It was Duncan Cane. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Edge of Redemption Chapter One

Edge of Redemption

Chapter One

Born of fire.
At least that was the tale. Elaborate and rambling. Far fetched, yet mystical. Or maybe, just maybe, the whole story was utter bullshit. I tended to believe the latter, but there I stood, waiting for the show, my camera in hand, my eyes searching the scene. Scratch that. I should be honest. It wasn't as if I arrived in Redemption by chance.
I came to this place, somewhere between backwards and normal to land Kenna's story. The real one. Minus speculation. Minus fantasy. The tricky part would be getting her to tell me anything at all.
It didn't help that I was a journalist, especially in this town. From what other saps like me reported, folks hadn't embraced my sort (soul-sucking media hound) or the stories I wished to tell (the kick ass variety). Didn't you hear the one about the journalist who walked into a bar? Spend five minutes in a town like this and you would, if there even was a bar.
Redemption did have small town appeal set in a backdrop of rugged mountains sprinkled with the last bit of winter snow. They stood like looming guardians protecting the town. Old brick buildings, grandfathers of today's towering giants, lined the main street. Imagine the stories they could tell—the secrets. I was born an Army brat so I'd been shuffled all over the world, been to places large and small, but none felt as timeless as this one or as creepy.
"It's a good day for a burning."
The line bounced around me like an annoying game of Keep Away. Me, grasping and reaching, desperate to know how seemingly good people could celebrate the worst moment in a girl's life over and over like an Independence Day celebration. Complete with cotton candy and corn on the cob.
"Are you Duncan?"
I turned toward the deep, authoritative voice. "Yeah, I'm Duncan." It was only after I said my name that I actually noticed who was asking. I recognized his face from the one news report about Kenna that came out of these parts.
"I'm Bodee. Bodee Whitaker. Most people just call me Whit." He jutted out his hand with such enthusiasm, I half expected a "put 'er there, partner" to follow.  
I probably stared back at his splayed mitt as if I was some sort of freaking germaphobe. It wasn't that, but could I really trust a man who'd let all this sideshow crap happen to his girlfriend? Did I want that bad juju rubbing off? Nonetheless, I slipped my hand in his and squeezed tight, as my old man taught me. I even did the lean-in, no back slap, just a lean. Damn, he had a grip too.
"Have you talked to Kenna yet?" Bodee rested his hands on his hips, his elbows pointed east and west in perfect superman pose. He was that typical jock I hated in high school complete with overly gelled hair and a frequent flyer gym membership. He was everything I wasn't or cared to be. I was okay with nerdy. Nerdy was popular. Nerdy got me laid.
"You're a fireman." I motioned to the emblem on his shirt.
"Yeah, kinda ironic, considering."
Kinda, disturbing, really. But I gave him an agreeable nod as if I knew what he meant and wasn't bothered by it.
"So have you talked to her?"
"No, I was going to wait until after…." I glanced around, not sure what to call this impromptu fire festival in the middle of some old farmer's field.  
Bodee scratched at his chin and chuckled. "After the show?"
"Something like that." I smiled, still trying to mask how shitty this all made me feel.
Faces of the people milling about the yellowing field caught my eye. Everyday individuals. No one particularly unique. I watched them stare, with their hands shielding their eyes from the setting sun. They focused on the weathered barn in the distance, two story and leaning slightly to one side, barely holding on, like an old man with one last sunset to take in. A million questions jumbled my mind. I had to bite my lip so I wouldn't start rambling. Those questions would have to wait until I could talk to Kenna.
"Well, if you're looking for a better seat, I can take you near the front." Bodee pointed at the fire truck parked in the prime location between the barn and the gathering spectators.
"Yeah, that'd be great. Are you sure I won't be in the way?"
"Nah, we've been through enough burnings. Nothing ever happens. Plus, you've got it in with the man upstairs, right?" He gave me a shoulder slap with a bit more force than I would've imagined necessary. Again, nerd here, not a jock or even a half a jock so I wasn't sure his gesture was some sort of male bonding thing or if Bodee was smarter than I thought.
I nodded and smiled, not ready to confront my lie. Yes, I was a complete jackass for saying I was a seminary student, but the truth wouldn't get me the story of my career—at least my college career. For today, or until I fleshed out Kenna's tale, I was Duncan Cane lover of all things Godlike, or God-ish.
Oh, I suppose I didn't mention that I wasn't a legit journalist with the degree and my Daily Planet name badge. Nope. I was a college journalism major, but don't judge. I was damn good at it. My soon-to-be-realized career was going to be big. Ask any of my professors, any except Professor Crow, who thought I was a little wiseass without talent. He was wrong. I was a huge wiseass and as far as the talent… well, I shouldn't brag.
Kenna Doe's story was big and soon, it'd be mine. Crow would have to swallow his words with his Metamucil chaser. GIRL RESCUED FROM BURNING SHACK AND ADOPTED BY PYROMANICAL TOWNSPEOPLE. How awesome was that? I needed to work on the tag line a bit, but first, her story—the real story and not what The Redemption Society wanted everyone else in the country to believe. And even if pyromanical wasn't a real word, it should be.
It will be.
Bodee weaved me through the crowd of people who looked at me with wonder, yet despite their curiosity nodded a hello and wished me a good evening. It made my gut ache a bit thinking of the lies I'd have to tell. My fake background. My self-serving intentions. It wasn't as if I hadn't gone through it before. Made a few enemies. Broke a few hearts. Life moved on eventually. It always did. My responsibility to the truth weighed more on my mind than a few superficial relationships anyhow.
"Is it always like this," I called after Bodee, but kept my eyes on the people around me, some in folding chairs, others standing with a child on their shoulders. They shifted their weight right to left, left to right.
"What's that?" He turned his head slightly my way but kept trudging toward the fire truck.
"This"—I made a gesture with my hand to indicate our surroundings—"is it always like this? I mean… with the whole town?"
Bodee smiled and nodded.  "Not everyone supports Kenna. There's quite a few who don't think kindly of her. Think she was brought to Redemption by evil, but they stay away for the most part. I think more out of respect for my uncle. He rescued her, ya know."
"Calvin Whitaker's your uncle?" I said, as if I didn't already know. Considering they had the same last name, my fake surprise came off a bit dodgy. I'd watched a local interview with him, not about Kenna, but about the reintroduction of wolves in the area and the effects on the cattle. He had that Wyatt Earp kind of air about him. Made a man want to stand taller to avoid drowning in his shadow as he passed. I couldn't imagine what'd be like being son or nephew. He seemed like a whole lot of man to live up. "Are you two close?"
"As close as anyone is to him. Most just call him Cap or Captain. On account of his time in the service. He's a great man."
I bobbed my head, speculating, filing questions about Ol' Cappy for later. "That must be hard for Kenna. People not supporting her—judging."  
Several people in the crowd started to cheer and clap.
"She's an amazing person." Bodee had to raise his voice above the noise. "Not much fazes her, as you can see."
We neared the truck and I finally understood the rush of excitement that hit the crowd. I'd seen pictures of Kenna, mostly from a few years back when she seemed like a less than ordinary girl with frizzy hair and a face sprinkled with freckles, but the years, holy shit, were they kind to her. I couldn't help myself as I stared back at her—I actually laughed this freakin' schoolboy doofus kind of laugh.
"You okay," Bodee asked with a slight laugh of his own.
"Yeah. I'm good." I closed my wide mouth and shook off my complete look of awe at sight of her, but I could see clearly in Bodee's expression, I was too late.
He nudged me. "You can say it."
Silence. What the hell could I say that wouldn't result in Bodee popping me in the eye?
Bodee folded his arms around his chest, which made his biceps seem even larger than they were, and me, as small as ever. "I think this is the part where you tell me I'm a lucky guy," he went on.
I turned to drink her in. It was as if I was looking at a woman for the first time and my body was feeling it too. I wasn't one for freckles typically, not that I had a lot of choice with the women I'd been with, but there was something about the randomness of those light brown flecks kissing her creamy skin. Her long, wavy red hair rested just at the small of her back, above an ass that… I ran a hand over my face and laughed again. My heart raced. This was either the best assignment, or the one that would ruin me.
Bodee was right. He was a lucky guy.  
She looked my way—okay, Bodee's way—and smiled. It wasn't a full mouth smile, but one of those barely there, subtle sideways glances that instantly made my mind bound with curiosity. She tucked her hair behind her ear as her smile fell. Sadness pulled at her eyes, no matter how hard she tried to appear otherwise, she was broken and I had to know why.
A lanky man with salt and pepper hair and pristinely tailored fireman's dress uniform wandered over to Kenna. I assumed he was the Fire Chief by the way Bodee and his comrades tightened their expressions as he took center stage. He held a wireless microphone in one hand and smiled less like the protector he should be and more like a politician. A wave to the crowd. A nod. God, the dude was smarmy.
"Good evening, Redemption." His voice echoed and cracked which prompted him to adjust the mic from his mouth. "I want to thank you for coming out tonight to celebrate and to offer support for one of our own." He turned and winked at Kenna. "It's been sixteen years since Kenna came into our lives. I still see that little four year old when I look at her sometimes. She may have not been born to any of us, but she is ours. In our hearts."
"We love you, Kenna," someone shouted and triggered applause.
"That's right," the chief said. "So, in honor of the day this precious girl came into our life, we celebrate with fire. May it cleanse you of the past and help you understand where you came from."
Bodee sidestepped around me and started forward, a blazing torch in his hand. He passed it to Kenna with little ceremony or affection I would've thought appropriate. She situated it in her grasp, her back still facing the crowd. I almost expected her to turn and raise the flame high in the air, like an Olympian or a Gladiator. But she slowly made her way to the barn, looking smaller with each step. She paused only a moment before tossing the torch inside.
She didn't back away as the flame flickered and grew, but dropped to her knees. No fear. No hesitation. Smoke filled the sky. The brittle wood spit and popped. It was all strange, and I felt guilty for watching. I turned to a man next to me and wanted ask him what the hell we were doing? What this all was for? But as I returned my attention back to the flames, I swallowed, mesmerized by her. The wind tossed her loose curls about—a firestorm of its own. In that moment, I understood nothing but couldn't turn away.
"It's pretty incredible, don't you think," Bodee said as he returned to my side.
"This happens every year?" The disgust in my voice was unmistakable. 
"This is what Kenna does." Bodee came back with his own defensive tone. "This is what she'll always do. At least until…"
I couldn't bear his pause. I had to know. "Until what?"

"Until she remembers who set the fire that killed her mother." 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Caretaker: Chapter Three

Keep in mind, this is a work in progress. Editing issues will be addressed later.
Chapter Three

Hagan licked her lips as she slowly awakened. A heavy metallic taste coated her mouth and the smell of sulfur mingled in the air. She struggled to force her eyelids open. Each time they gave a little, their weight eventually sent them crashing down again. Only intermittent flashes of light broke through before the darkness inevitably took control.
“Why is it always the last damn match that lights?”
Leonard. Her chest tightened at the sound of his voice. She held still and allowed her eyes to relax. No sense in fighting her body when the real threat loomed so close. As she lay silent, listening to her surroundings, her reality began to settle in. She’d been kidnapped.
“What else did you give her? She’s been out for hours.”Not Leonard. This new voice was low, controlled. The man in black, maybe?
“Ah, come on, Slick, it ain’t gonna hurt her.” Heavy footsteps clomped forward.
“There are rules.” The other man’s voice grew louder, more insistent. “If you can’t—”
“Shut the hell up. That’s my rule numero uno. And numero two, you don’t get to tell me a goddamned thing. How ’bout that?”
“I’m warning you.”
“Warning me?”Leonard laughed. “I’m the one with the most risk in this chicken shit outfit. She’s seen me. Shoot, they’ve all seen me and my car. I liked that old car.“
            She tensed her fists beneath the scratchy blanket draped over her body.
“You knew what you were getting into when we hired you. If I have to—”
“Why don’t you do us both a favor and take your scrawny ass outside for a smoke. I’ll stay with our girl.”
Our girl? She waited for the man’s refusal, but after a moment of pause, she heard a door open and close. Her body tensed. As strange as it was to wish for her other captor to stay, she didn’t want to be alone with Leonard. He was right. He had the most to lose: no disguise; the bookstore employees could identify him in a line up; and Hagan had taken down his plates in the logbook the first night she’d met him—a standard procedure for all suspicious lurkers of the bookstore.
“Hey,” Leonard yelled, “make me a turkey sandwich.” He muttered something about respect then shuffled closer to where she lay. “Don’t let the kid scare ya. I just gave ya a little somethin’-somethin’ to keep you relaxed. It’s good shit too.” He snorted what sounded like a thick glob of snot. “A girl like you knows her way around pharmaceutical. Am I right or am I right?”
Such a pig. She didn’t move. Maybe if he grew bored, he’d leave her alone. Why couldn’t it be as simple as that? He’d eventually leave and she’d find her way out of wherever she was. She’d be okay. She’d be—
“Ha-gan. Why don’t you wakey wakey so we can have ourselves a little chat?” Thump. “Hagan Hagan Bo Bagan . . . Remember that one?” Thump. “Chuck Chuck Bo Buck . . .” He yawned, exaggerating the sound.
Thump. Thump.
What was he doing?
 “I bet if I came over there and”—thump—“touched those titties of yours”—thump—“you’d wake up.”
She swallowed. Go away. Please.
“I’m a leg man myself, but your rack could change a fella’s mind.” Thump. “I still have dreams about that little black tank top of yours. The one with the sparkly skull on it.” Thump. “Tight enough to show just how round and firm those babies are. Loose enough that the straps fall off your shoulders . . . damn, girl.” He whistled. Thump. “Didn’t you’re daddy ever warn you what happens when you dress like a tramp?”
His footsteps grew louder, almost as if he was pacing right in front of her. The intermittent thumping sounds sent her mind racing with wonder.
“Old slick probably won’t be back for a while . . .”
What did he mean by that? Should I open my eyes?
A thick, calloused hand cinched around her ankle and sent her skin afire with a million goosebumps. He applied steady pressure as he pulled off one shoe, then the other.
She held her breath and listened for the sound. A ball? The sound came from a ball! For a fleeting moment, she felt something other than defeated—her senses had won. But the image of her captor tossing a ball around the room quickly washed away any trace of her meager triumph. Her nostrils flared as the musky smell of sweat and yeast grew potent. His breathing became louder, more labored—he was near. She could sense his leering eyes all over her body. Silence toyed with her mind. His breathing. His smell. What was he doing? Just go. Please just go. Go.
The blanket slowly drifted off her body almost as if he was trying not to wake her. His hand brushed against her skin at her navel. Oh, my god. He fumbled with the waistband on her jeans and as the clasp popped, she opened her eyes, drew back her legs, and kicked as hard as she could at the shadowy haze at her feet.
“No,” she screamed. Her eyes fluttered through the fog, while her hand instantly went to her head in attempts to mask the sudden throbbing.  
Leonard groaned. Stomped his foot. “Stupid bitch!”
She scooted against the wall and sat upright. Her head thundered from the quick change to a sitting position. She could barely make out his shape before he lunged and clutched her throat in his large hand.
“Don’t make this easy,” he seethed, his rank breath hot on her skin.
She clawed at his hand, gasping, flailing. She tried to scream, to plead for her life, but only her garbled pleas answered back. I can’t breathe. Help me.
“Consider this a freebie. Next time, I will slit your throat. Capish?”
His spittle peppered her face. She couldn’t nod. Couldn’t speak. Yes. Yes. Please. I don’t want to die.
A far off look darkened his eyes, and as she stared into them, a rush of warmth filled her pants.
He lessened the pressure he had on her throat, pulled his hand from her neck, and stared at the growing wet spot on her jeans. “Looks like we understand each other.”
She collapsed onto the mattress and began coughing, deep and painful coughs. Her face and throat burned from the strain. “Please.” She took several breaths. Her eyes locked on Leonard.
He bent over at the waist, hands on his knees. He took several breaths of his own. “I should’ve known you . . .” He stood taller and grabbed his crotch. “Stupid bitch.”
She hugged her knees to her chest. Waves of nausea rolled in and out. She would’ve thrown up if she had a moment to process what had happened.
He turned toward her suddenly as if he’d charge again and pointed a finger. “You’re lucky.”
“I’m sorry.” She wasn’t sorry. Would never be sorry. She hugged herself tighter, the smell of her own urine reminding her just how bad her situation was.
He glowered at her for a moment then cocked his arm back and chucked the ball hard against the wall behind her. She jumped at the loud thud, then watched the ball bounce and roll backwards on the dirty wooden floor. He scooped up his ball and silently walked out of the room. The only sounds remaining were her whimpers and the door locking behind him.
She sobbed into her knees. Thoughts of her family snuck through her fear and panic. Fight. You have to fight. She sniffed and wiped at her tears as she sat upright. She looked around her shabby surroundings. Weathered, wooden walls and floorboards mirrored how she felt inside, worn and broken. The room was the size of a small bedroom with only the dingy mattress she was sitting on and a lopsided metal folding chair as furnishings. Add a workbench and some tools and it could’ve passed as her father’s carpentry workshop.
She pressed a hand to the wall for stability and slowly stood on wobbly legs. She took a breath and began wandering the room.  From a support beam in the center of the room, a lantern hung on a rusted and upturned nail. She stared into the modest flame of her only source of light. Her mind focused on the steady flicker while her thoughts drifted to survival. How far would she have to go to stay alive? What would she have to do?
“Hel . . . hello?”
Hagan gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. She turned toward the voice—waiting, listening. This was a trick. A reaction from the drugs.
“Is someone there? Anyone,” the voice called out again.
She held her breath as the words melted over her. A female voice?
Hagan walked toward the wall from where the voice carried. She stared at the barricade for a moment, then gently laid a hand against the splintered wood.
She was not alone.