I'm a published novelist and freelance writer, editor, and audio tech. Check out my journal for creative writing tips, short stories, and news. To learn more about my books or my services, navigate using the links above. 

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Thursday
Jul312014

New Short Story: don't get me wrong oblivion

This week's short story is actually part one of a three-parter. The next two installments will come in the next two weeks, wrapping up right before the launch of my new novel Bulfinch on August 15!

A quick author's note: when I first had the idea to post these stories, several friends very reasonably asked me if the stories I'd be posting would be in the same general tone of Bulfinch, since the point was to generate excitement and interest in the launch of the book. It would probably benefit my career a great deal if I could pick one clearly-defined genre and stick with it. Maybe it's because I'm still young, still a journeyman, but I can't seem to do that -- my imagination roams, and my heart and mind are restless until I give in and follow it.

Bulfinch is a gentle, whimsical tale with a whiff of fantasy. So far, the short stories I've posted here have included a zombie comedy and a realistic, slightly gritty retelling of a fairy tale. Today, I'm sharing a story in a genre that is realtively new to me, but has exerted a strong pull recently: horror. But in my mind, they're not so very dissimilar. Many reviewers of my first book, Queens of All the Earth, praised its innocence. I was actually a little surprised when I first read those reviews, because innocence hadn't been a conscious goal of mine -- I'd just been expressing what was in my heart. Queens of All the Earth, and subsequent works, may appear innocent on the surface, but they aren't devoid of the realities of messy human life (divorce, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism, and violence have all made appearances). I realize now that what may read as "innocence" in the stories I choose to tell is an essential belief in the goodness and open-heartedness in everyone...and the ability of a good story to illuminate that goodness not only in characters, but in readers.

So with that editorial philosophy in mind, I'll share with you something a bit darker and creepier than anything you've probably seen from me yet (unless you're one of a very few who's had a peek at a project I've been working on called Harvest Moon). If you like it because it's a horror story, maybe you'll be disappointed in Bulfinch because that's not a horror story. But if you like it for the heart that's in it, you'll find that same heart in every beat of Bulfinch.

 

don't get me wrong oblivion

Part 1

 

The wizened old man sitting in the corner could be me. We're all the same, like oranges with all the juices squeezed out. What's the difference between one rind and another? You heard about Odysseus. I'm the Odysseus who didn't find home. I still haven't gotten off Circe's island. Damn witch has got me roaming my whole life.

 

It started when I was young. Times were lean and my cousin Jimmy said he had an easy job and an easier life for me out on the North Carolina shore. I'd shack with him and he'd set me up, and then we'd go about living the life.

 

This was all the detail I had, conveyed by post, when I hitchhiked my way out from Milwaukee. I didn't have anything particularly keeping me there except my parents. Parents never keep a young man back, which always causes an old man regret. Jimmy had told me rather optimistically that whenever I arrived I'd find the key under the doormat and I was to await his return from work, at which point we would knock beers like Viking warriors, find ourselves winsome lasses for the evening, and then repeat every night until farther shores cried for conquest. This plan did not require the exchange of travel details or the establishment of a specific arrival date, so I took my time weaving about the small towns of the Great Plains seeing a bit of what there was to see along the way. Jimmy's routine was fairly unvarying and I had no anxiety that we would fail to meet up, even if I dropped into town with no notice.

 

My final lift was with a local, who dropped me at the bus depot and gave me directions to walk to Jimmy's. It was down by the beach, a scruffy part back in some straggling trees on the other side of the dunes. Jimmy’s place as on the second floor of a ramshackle house past saving; the first floor had been vacant for years. Jimmy wrote to me that he had experimented with breaking in to the downstairs unit “to expand his space” but his expert picking skills had all been thwarted. When I got to his house and saw all the lights off, I chose the conventional route and sought the key under the mat where he'd told me it would be.

 

I let myself in, stumbling in the darkness. The hall light was burned out, but in the moonlight I saw the stairs well enough to get my bearings, and shut the front door behind me, climbing up to Jimmy's apartment.

 

I fumbled my way through the door, and switched on the first light I found.

 

It was a shabby little shithole, meeting all expectations. Beaded curtain to the kitchen. Nubbly couches smelling not-faintly of cat and weed. Broken TV in the corner with a massive crack across its screen, now serving as a plant stand to several perishing cacti.

 

I suspected Jimmy had hit the bar after work and would get home when he got home. So I let myself into the spare bedroom – its door was standing open and I saw it was far too uncluttered to be inhabited by Jimmy. I threw the window open, letting in the cleansing ocean air. I could live with Jimmy as long as I had this space, this sparse and pure room. And as long as I could keep the cat out of it.

 

The window of my room overlooked the roof of the back porch. I crawled through the window onto the porch roof. I sat up lazily, back propped against the house, one knee bent. Through a break in the brambles that were struggling to be trees, I could see the dunes that separated us from the sea, bristling with razor grass and cattails. Though I couldn't see the ocean, I could hear it. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.

 

My neatness and his lack of it was the only way in which Jimmy and I differed. Our mothers, high school teachers, looked exactly alike, and so did we, their sons – so much so that people often not only mistook us for brothers, but for twins. My mother married a man named Monroe and his mother married a man named Madison and they both thought it would be noble to name their sons James, so in that we were similar as well.

 

We grew up like brothers, and not like the brothers whose bond is only coincidental. Our brotherhood felt as if something deep at the bottom of our souls grasped the other by the forearm like ancient knights did in greeting.

 

I think sometimes we read each other's thoughts. It was how we managed to cause such utter mayhem in our schools and neighborhood. The keenest most daring prankster has no time to call out directions to his accomplice, but somehow we communicated our directives at the speed of thought. If we were in completely different places I could sense if he was in trouble and I'd go cover for him.

 

When we were eighteen we got tattoos together, our initials on the insides of our wrists. “A proud tattoo,” he'd called it. “No hiding it.” It also hurt like hell.

 

At the time, the pain bound us together, but later it seemed like that was the last time we’d be so close. After we got the tattoos, Jimmy started drifting. I couldn't quite tell what had changed. He went from being my brother to being my cousin, another relative. Then he moved out here, where none of our blood lived, and I didn't hear much from him until this year.

 

I was feeling restless out in Milwaukee. Restlessness does not bear company; it isolates. I began to wonder if restlessness caught Jimmy first, and that's what had severed us, and why he'd gone. Now restlessness was driving me away from my family and I needed a change. That was when the opportunity presented itself to move in with Jimmy. It was not nostalgia for the days of our brotherhood. It was the confirmation that the brotherhood was still strong. The brotherhood of wanderers. He had not drifted away. I merely had to catch up.

 

I fell asleep on the roof of the porch, my tattooed wrist turned upward.

 

 

 

The next morning brought orange-pink clouds and no sign of Jimmy. I stretched, stiff from sleeping outside all night propped against the house. I stared at the dunes. In the daylight, it was possible to see the faint line in the distance where sky met ocean, though the shore itself was hidden from view. Far out on a point, a lighthouse stood tall and crumbling, long derelict. No one sailed to this harbor anymore.

 

I hunted in the kitchen for food, Jimmy’s absence sending an uncanny finger up my spine. It was the first time I’d felt concerned since arriving here, but a long stretch and a big yawn was all it took to shake it off my skin.

 

There was nothing especially edible in the fridge, so I decided to take a walk. As I stepped out, the cat whose scent so distinctly flavored the house twined between my legs. Purring rapturously, she slunk into the rhododendrons.

 

There was no path to the beach, but it wasn’t hard to find through scrubby pine, calling as it was for everyone to hear – whish, whish, boom. It filled me up when food did not. I kicked the sand with bare feet, my shoes abandoned under a tree. Any trace of worry was erased by the sand’s sweet erosion. It wasn’t that I stopped wondering where Jimmy might be; I felt he was right here, that he was me. It was like walking into a party and asking, “Has anybody seen me lately?” It made me want to laugh.

 

I saw a heap of rags on the beach ahead and wandered over to investigate. I walked faster when I saw the heap begin to move. By the time I reached it, a person had begun to emerge. Her hair, long and wet, was ashy blonde, and in the morning light she could have blended right into the sand. Ocean-blue eyes opened wide and wondering. Her clothes, barely rags, hung from soft shoulders and when she saw me she rose and came toward me like an old friend, throwing her arms around me and kissing my cheek.

 

“Uh, hi,” I murmured, finding my cheek resting on her hair as she buried her face in my shoulder. She was top to bottom woman and I didn’t see the point resisting. Her shoulders shook and I couldn’t tell if it was laughter or sobs, but when her face lifted from my chest I saw it was a little of both.

 

“I’m out,” she said, her voice carrying a faint undefinable accent. “Thank you, thank you.”

 

“I’m just here,” I said. “Are you looking for my cousin Jimmy?”

 

This made her laugh harder.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m no one. And you are too.”

 

“You need a cup of coffee,” I said. “You got a home?”

 

The laughter became tears again, as quickly as clouds shifting across the sun.

 

“Don’t make me go back,” she said. “She can’t stop me now.”

 

“Okay, okay,” I soothed. “No one’s making you go anywhere, except the bottom of a warm mug. Can you walk? Did you spend the night out here? Are you hurt?”

 

“I swam,” she said. “Stung by some jellyfish, I think.” She began to lift one edge of the…garment…she was wearing, revealing a creamy pale leg lashed with red welts.

 

“That’s gotta hurt. Jimmy’s probably got something for that.” I laughed. “Who am I kidding. Jimmy’s got nothing. Store first – coffee, vinegar for those legs. Then my place.”

 

I never noticed until later how smoothly, how easily, it became “my place.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED

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