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Friday, October 25, 2013

Emily Bronte, Mormon Women, Samurai Warriors, and the Vegan Black Metal Chef: It’s Nanowrimo Time!

November is “National Novel Writing Month,”  “Nanowrimo” for short.  You set a goal to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in thirty days.   You create a profile on the Nanowrimo website, and officially begin to write on November 1st.  Upload the words you write each day, and the site keeps track of how many more you need to write to reach your goal.  At the end of November, you have written a future bestseller. ..or something like that.  J  Easy, right?  Er…not really, but I was game.  Hey, I’m a wannabe writer, right?  So, a couple of years ago, I took the plunge.

Enter LaNelle, a young, attractive Mormon woman who speaks Swahili and hates her dead-end job.  Enter Dagger, a young metal music aficionado, gourmet chef and lover of Italian food who is trying to emulate his hero, the Vegan Black Metal Chef.  (The “VBMC” is a real guy; check out his website.  It’s hysterical!!  And, his recipes literally rock).  These first two characters are from our own time.  The next is not.  Enter Kenji, a seventeenth-century Samurai warrior about to commit ritual suicide.  How do the paths of these three characters cross?  More importantly, what does Emily Bronte have to do with all of this?

Here’s the deal.  I hate Wuthering Heights.  It’s not a love story, as so many movie and TV adaptations would have us believe.  In my mind, it’s a story of revenge among selfish, small-minded characters.  I decided to mock it.  Yes, I know, some people consider this to be one of the greatest nineteenth century books ever written.  And yes, I think the Bronte sisters are all brilliant.  I don’t care.  I hate Catherine and I hate Heathcliff.  I’m glad they both died in the book.  Negative, much?  Of course!  But when it’s Nanowrimo time, you can do whatever you want!

LaNelle, Dagger and Kenji are snatched from their own times and homes and plunged into the world of Wuthering Heights, where they interact with each other and the classic book’s characters in interesting ways.   My writing was terrible, my plot went nowhere.  I didn’t get to be a “Nanowrimo Winner,” by reaching 50,000 words, having only reached about 40,000 by November 30th.  But I had fun.  I even plan to finish the story.  Some day!

Here’s the website if you decide to take the plunge and write your own novel.  Come on, I dare you!  And, following is an excerpt from my own pathetic attempt at novel writing the first time I “did Nano.” 

www.nanowrimo.org

PS:  Please don’t think that my description of LaNelle is meant to mock Mormons.  First of all, I am one!  What I wrote was more my way of mocking myself and some less-than-positive attributes I sometimes see when I gaze into the psychic mirror.  Greatly exaggerated, of course.  :-)

 

HOUSE ON A WINDY HILL:

(NOT A LOVE STORY)

By:  Rebecca Bischoff

August 21st, 2011
7:15 p.m.
Allentown, Pennsylvania        

Dagger adjusted the flame and tossed another handful of sliced garlic into the pan.  The eerie yet head-splitting strains of “Haunted Mama” by Outer World, his favorite band, pounded in the background, beating in time to the winter storm that rattled the glass in the window frames and howled with a desperate cry.  Dagger could have sworn the storm sounded like a giant, starving animal trying to claw its way inside the cluttered kitchen.

Onion and garlic sizzled in extra virgin olive oil.  Dagger took a deep breath, savoring the pungent scent that filled his mouth and nose, whipped long, midnight black hair out of his eyes and screamed:

“NEXT, ADD THE BASIL AND TOMATOOOOOOOO…”

The words hurtled into the air as Dagger looked directly into the web cam, attached to its wobbly tripod.  His blog:  “Dagger:  Purveyor of Ancient Wisdom, Metal Music Maniac, Italian Gourmet Chef and Notary Public” was becoming more and more popular.  He had a total twenty-four followers now, not counting his mother, and he’d been dying to add another cooking demo video to his blog. 

“NEVER CHOP THE GARLIC FOR THIS DISH, ALWAYS SLIIIIIIIIIIICE!” Dagger sang.

His fresh tomato and basil pasta sauce was coming together nicely, and Dagger head-banged in time to the music, pausing once to pull a fallen hair out of the frying pan.  His mother kept telling him to wear a hair net while he cooked.  As if.  He checked out his reflection in the shining door of the microwave.  A hair net would completely ruin the look he had long ago perfected.  Long, straight, black-dyed hair framed a face that had been artfully painted white, with eyes and lips painted as black as his hair.  He smiled at himself.  The white makeup accentuated his long, hooked nose, which Dagger had always thought of as heroic-looking and masculine, and the eyeliner made his dull brown eyes seem mysterious and brooding.  He turned his smile into a snarl and swiveled his face back toward the camera.

“SERVE OVER YOUR CHOICE OF PASTAAAAAA,” he sang/screamed, “ALWAYS COOK YOUR PASTA AL DENTEEEEEEEEEE!  SERVE WITH FRESHLY GRATED PARMIGIANOOOOOOO!!!!”

He switched off the camera and turned his music up.  Another video to upload to his blog.  Another sure hit, maybe even more popular that his “mushroom gnocchi with sautéed spinach” video had been.  And soon, he’d have so many followers his blog would go viral.  He’d be famous.  So, fame wasn’t really what he was after.  He truly didn’t care how many other people on the planet were aware of his existence.  But the power that went with fame, well, that was another matter.  If he became famous, maybe someone would finally listen to him. 

Not bothering to wash his face, Dagger shoved aside old lesson plans and high school history textbooks to clear a place on his kitchen table, and sat down to eat his well-deserved meal.  He sighed as he bit into his first bite.  Ah, perfect.  Wind continued to howl, sounding vaguely like a chorus of voices singing his favorite medley of metal music hits from the eighties.  Well, howling, he had to admit.  His second bite was halfway between the plate and his waiting mouth, but the perfectly al dente pasta never touched his lips.  At that exact moment, the wind struck Dagger’s tiny box of a house with such force that all the eastern-facing windows exploded inward, sending minute, razor sharp bits of glass flying.  Shrieking in terror and ducking under the table, Dagger cowered and screamed. 

And in a second, it was over.  Silence fell suddenly, with a sense of finality, like the fall of an executioner’s ax.  Well, silence would have reigned, if it weren’t for the fact that Dagger was still screaming, a high-pitched, terrified sound, like that of a squeamish little girl fleeing from a worm.  Finally realizing that it was silent, Dagger allowed the screaming to trail off with no little amount of embarrassment.  It finally ended in a soft squeak. 

Glass crunched beneath him as Dagger slowly edged out from under the table and got to his feet.  There was no more wind.  It was still dark, but a strange, pale glow illuminated his ruined kitchen.  The smell of garlic cooked in oil, and of freshly torn basil leaves and sautéed tomatoes mingled with a pleasant, rich odor of wet plants and damp earth that wafted in through the empty window frames.

Dazed and more than a little confused, Dagger shuffled his way through broken glass and scattered cooking utensils and opened his front door.  And screamed, again. 

 

August 21st, 2011
7:15 p.m.
Three Pines, Washington

           LaNelle took a deep breath and stood.  It was time for her special Sunday fireside presentation to the local Young Women’s organization, and she was anxious to start.  Her lesson was carefully prepared and displayed on the screen of her new smart phone.  Her iPod was propped up on a little lace cloth-covered table, playing appropriate soft Church music for background atmosphere.  The quotations she’d printed out were already given to the somewhat reluctant girls who would read them when asked, her list of twenty-two scriptures was neatly printed on the board, and a little white basket holding a pile of googly-eyed wooden frogs covered in handmade lace stood proudly on the table, next to the iPod.  Each girl was to receive a frog at the end of the lesson as a reminder of what she had learned.  The tiny sign:  “Accountable Amphibians Never Frog-get to Choose the Right,” was attached to each amphibian’s backside.

Nine pairs of eyes, belonging to nine young girls, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, stared up at LaNelle.  They’re so young, she thought.  LaNelle considered herself to be much more mature than any of the girls who sat before her.  After all, she was twenty-five.  At her age, she’d earned a college degree (liberal arts), had a career (checkout clerk at the local grocery store; liberal arts degrees don’t get you very far) and had even served as a missionary in Kenya, where she learned to speak passable Swahili.  (Learning Swahili was a bonus, but still didn’t help advance a career much when living in a small town in the United States). 

Only nine girls, LaNelle thought, as she double-checked her lesson on the screen of her phone.  This class is so small.  We used to have at least forty girls when I was in Young Women’s.  I’m sure more girls are supposed to be here, she concluded critically.  Well, she’d soon fix that.  This must be one of the reasons she had felt so sure her recent impulsive move from Utah to this tiny town in Washington was heaven-directed, and decidedly meant to be.  She was sent to help these girls.  After class she’d get a list from the Young Women’s president of all the girls and make sure every single one made it to class next week. 

LaNelle cleared her throat and attached her best “I’m so happy to be here” smile onto her face.  Some of the faces that looked back up at her appeared friendly, but most of the girls’ faces wore looks of impatience and boredom.  Well, LaNelle would change that as well, she thought, no doubt about it.  It was her job today to teach them the importance of making choices.  Well, of making the right choices.  And the “making of right choices” was apparently something that was completely foreign to these girls, thought LaNelle, as she critically surveyed the girls’ clothing, while attempting to keep her expression neutral.  Most girls wore outlandish outfits that were either too short, too tight, too revealing, or a combination of all three.  LaNelle was uncomfortably reminded of the contestants of a reality show she had glimpsed the other week.  She’d watched for about five horrified seconds before she’d turned off the TV.  The contestants of that show seemed to be trying to wear as little clothing as possible without getting arrested.  She’d instantly fired off a long email to the network, demanding they immediately remove that show from the airwaves.

  Help me, Heavenly Father, knock some sense into the girls’ heads,” LaNelle silently prayed.  And she began to speak, trying to ignore the vacant stares from the few girls who looked in her direction, the complete lack of interest from the remainder of the group, and the wild howling of the wind outside as it tore against the church building, rattling the windows, like a vengeful Satanic beast trying to claw its way inside.

“Who has quote number forty-five?” LaNelle asked, sweeping her auburn hair back from her perspiring forehead.  This group was a tough one, tougher than she’d anticipated.  She forged ahead, knowing how important her lesson was.  She finally thought she’d started to make some headway when one of the girls raised her hand, but the girl only asked to be excused to go to the bathroom.  When all twenty-eight of the other girls raised their hands in unison, LaNelle felt a dark, swelling sense of frustration and anger build inside her.  How could these girls not understand how important it was for each one of them to be here?  They were so obviously making some very, very wrong choices.  The wind increased in intensity outside, causing many of the girls throw worried glances toward the windows. 

“No, you may not all go to the bathroom.  You’re old enough to hold it for a few more minutes.  Now who has quote number sixty-seven?”  LaNelle shouted.   The girls rolled their eyes and settled back down into their seats.  LaNelle was about to go in search of the bishop, sure that he could talk some sense into these girls, when a window blew open and a strong gust of air tore into the room.  Girls screamed and popped out of their seats, tripping over each other as they raced for the door.  LaNelle gripped her phone and grabbed her iPod, stumbling against the little table as she did so.  Tiny lace-covered frogs bounced from the basket and were caught in the whirling air, flying all over the room.  The frogs pelted the still-shrieking girls who clawed each other out of the way as they tried to escape. 

“Wait, girls, at least take one of the frogs,” LaNelle shouted, “take an accountability frog!”  The wild wind whipped her hair around her face and roared in her ears, drowning out all other sounds.  And then, suddenly, the wind was gone.  Silence rang in LaNelle’s ears, a thick, complete, almost reverent silence.  LaNelle clutched her phone and iPod in one hand and reached up with her other, trembling hand, to unwind her hair from around her face.  Where were the girls?  Did they all leave?  Finally managing to pull a final, uncooperative strand of hair from over her eyes, LaNelle blinked, looked around her, and gasped. 

“Oh, my, HECK!”  she shouted.

 

August 21st, 1579
7:15 p.m.
Kobe, Japan

            Kenji sat cross-legged before his little writing table.  A breeze kicked up and shook the thin walls of his house, causing him to lose concentration and glance around in surprise with furrowed brow, as if he had forgotten where he was.  Exhaling slowly, he dipped his brush into the pot of ink and continued to write, forming the characters slowly and with precision.  Composing his final poem of death had been far easier than he had thought.  Finished, he set paper, pen and ink aside.  He felt calm, almost empty, as though all emotion and thought were draining from his body, drop by drop, like the crimson blood that would soon flow from his self-inflicted wound.  He was glad for the feeling of numbness that enfolded him, shielding his wounded heart as his armor had once shielded his body.  There was no more pain, even at the thought of his wife, fled to be with another.  There was no more pain, even at the thought of his son, whose black eyes glowed with mirth and whose smile…a sharp twinge, like the knick of a knife blade, stung Kenji’s heart, and he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.  He knew he was lying to himself.  But that didn’t matter anymore.

            His tiny bird, Shiro, flittered about and chirped in his cage, possibly agitated by the still-rising wind, which now howled and moaned like an angry demon god, demanding blood as payment.

            Yet my death is just.

            I should never have faltered.

            The howling wind knows.

The wind will have its payment, Kenji mused.  The Samurai who dislikes battle does not have his heart in the right place.  He raised his short sword and turned it this way and that so that the blade caught the light of late morning.  A true warrior should never turn his back on his master’s commands.

He opened his robe and bared his chest and stomach.  Kenji did not fear death.  He knew that a samurai should never allow the moment of his glorious death to pass by, holding his own life too dear.  He was a warrior, born of a long line of great warriors.   He owed a great debt to his ancestors, and to his master.  His actions had dishonored them all.  He would reclaim that honor with this act of seppuku, the ritual taking of his own life.

            Shiro chirped wildly, now flinging its tiny winged body against the sides of its cage which hung from the ceiling, so that the cage wobbled and swung from side to side. 

            “Courage, my little friend.  A warrior knows when it is time to die.”  Kenji heard the soft chuckle in his own voice and vaguely wondered at it, but dismissed the questioning thought as soon as it entered his mind.  He whistled softly to his caged songbird, a few notes, low and sweet.  The tiny bird calmed enough to settle down at the bottom of his cage, but puffed its feathers and twittered anxiously as the wind increased in ferocity outside. 

            Kenji raised his short sword.  His death would not be quick.  He had no friend, no witness with him to deliver the decapitating blow that would mercifully hasten the end.  His lifeblood would drain away slowly, and he would likely die in agony.

            So be it, he thought, tensing his muscles in preparation for the mortal blow.  As he did so, the wind shrieked like a furious dragon.  Shiro frantically beat against the sides of his cage.  Kenji closed his eyes.  In one quick movement, his sword descended.  The sword descended, but he felt no pain.  He felt the muscles of his hands and arms move as he plunged the short blade into his stomach, but there was no other sensation except for the sudden buffeting of a cold, cold wind that whirled around his body, lifting him into the air.  Then, suddenly, the wind stopped.  In a death-like silence, Kenji was falling, falling, falling.  Into nothingness.  So this was death.  But then, in an instant, sensation returned.  Kenji felt cool, damp earth beneath his feet.   He clasped his hands, feeling for his sword.  His hands were empty.  He reached out before him and felt moss-covered rocks beneath his fingers.  Birds cawed noisily overhead.  He breathed in the scent of rain-dampened earth.  He opened his eyes, and gasped.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

So This Time I Really DID Mean to Go "All Paranormal" On You!


Halloween is almost here, and I’m looking forward to pilfering the good chocolates from my daughters’ “trick or treat” stashes.  It’s the best part of the holiday, really.  But I also look forward to ghost stories.  I dig the paranormal.  Maybe it comes from childhood sleepovers where we’d scare each other silly with goofy whispered tales about men with hooks for hands, or maybe it has to do with Edgar Allen Poe and the dang bird that wouldn’t shut up.  Whatever the cause, I do rather relish stories about “ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night.”   I suppose that’s why the very first book I wrote a few years ago involved the supernatural.  So, here is the first chapter from my first attempt at writing a novel.  It’s a “young adult” novel, but since I’m the one who wrote it, it’s tame compared to a lot of what’s out there.  No horny teenage vampires or children killing each other for sport.  Sorry.  J

 

NO GHOSTS ALLOWED

By:  Rebecca Bischoff

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

A Former Tenant Has Refused to Leave

My name is Harley.  Harley Davidson Colburn. I was named after a motorcycle.  (Thanks Mom.  Really).  Most people don’t look twice at me. I’m fourteen years old, in the ninth grade, and average in everything:  grades, height, and looks.   I’m the kid who flies under the radar, the middle of the road one who teachers mainly ignore because I’m not brilliant, but I don’t need extra help, either.

So, most people don’t look twice at me, but that’s because they don’t know anything about me.  Like my motorcycle name, for instance.  I’m honestly happy to keep that little secret.  But there’s also the fact that sometimes I know when things are going to happen.  I have premonitions.  And what’s the most unusual thing about me?  I see ghosts.  Well, so far, only one ghost.  This is new.

I first saw the ghost the day my family moved into our new/old house.  Until about a month before that, I never even knew we owned a house.  My parents never talked about it.  It’s an old house Brian inherited, and he rented it out for a little money.  That was, until things changed and we needed a place to live.  My mother, brother and I, that is. 

Our house is eighty years old and looks like it.  And smells like it.  It’s a plain white box made out of rotting wood, with a rickety porch stuck onto the front.  It crouches on a corner lot, at the edge of a busy street, with a narrow triangle-shaped yard, surrounded by a sagging chain link fence.  Not my idea of a great place to live.

It hadn’t taken us long to unpack.  Most people have moving trucks full of furniture and boxes when they relocate.  But we’d moved twice already over the past few months, and we’d already sold a lot of stuff.   We’d ‘downsized’ our lives, like my Mom, Stephanie, kept saying.  Parent-speak for: ‘We’re broke, so we’re selling the big screen TV, the good furniture and the Wii.  Get used to it.’

A group of four teenage boys had watched us from the porch of a house down the street as we unloaded our pathetic belongings.  I recognized one of my brother’s friends from school.  The one with the weird new-agey name.  Zen, that’s it.  Ha.  He yelled ‘hey’ to my little brother and my brother waved back.  Not one of the boys offered to help.

Cigarette smoke floated in our direction on the icy wind, along with occasional shouts and a lot of laughter.  I heard one of the boys take bets on whether or not my mother would make it inside; or if she would drop the heavy, ancient computer monitor she carried.  I’ll admit that at first, I decided it would serve her right if she did drop it, since she’d kept that antique piece of crap and sold the big, and I might add, light-weight, flat screen monitor.  But the moment that thought flashed to my mind I also felt terrible for having thought it in the first place.  Anyway, my mother is pretty strong.  She struggled into the house without dropping anything.  The smoker boys were disappointed.

So it took us all of twenty minutes to unload the miniature U-Haul attached to our dented 1993 Mercury.  The winter sun was low in the sky, and soon it was hidden behind some charcoal clouds.  Our new street got dark.  Most neighborhoods in Twin Falls have street lights.  Not mine. 

The smoker boys went inside their house to find someone else to annoy, and I fished the last box out of the U-Haul and lugged it up the creaking porch steps. I had to kick off my shoes inside the front door; since my mother had steam-cleaned the carpets and they were still drying.  Once inside, it didn’t take long to get to the back of the house.  It’s easy to navigate through empty rooms.  Of course, since I am a tiny bit clumsy, it was also easy to bump into the one obstacle in the otherwise empty hallway.

 “Oops, sorry Steph—Mom,” I said.   Uh oh.  Another slip-up.  But this time, all I got was an evil-eyed stare and Steph just stalked down the hall to her room.  I’ve been thinking of my mother by her given name for a while now.  Why?  I’m not totally sure, although I know the mental shift started a while ago, after Brian died.  Steph hates when I don’t call her “Mom.”  I have to be careful. 

Oh well, off the hook this time.  I shuffled past the two bedrooms along the narrow hallway.  Stephanie was in the biggest one.  Her door was open and I peeked inside.  She sat cross-legged on the floor with a humongous pile of envelopes in her lap.  A mail carrier had brought them the moment we’d arrived, in a huge plastic bin.  I think the lady was waiting for us.  She seemed glad to get rid of all those letters.  Well, bills, actually.  I recognized the “official-looking” white envelopes.  Hospital bills.  I figure this is why we’ve moved so much lately.  Maybe Steph thinks that if we move enough, the bills will stop following us. 

Steph stared down at the stack of bills, with deep lines between her eyes.  I know what she’s thinking, and I agree.  It isn’t fair.  It seems like when the patient dies, you shouldn’t have to pay the hospital.  I mean, they didn’t do their job.  They didn’t keep their patient alive.

I moved away before my mother saw me and continued down the hall.   My brother, Jax, got the next bedroom.  The second biggest.   He’d claimed it before I could.  He was already inside his room, too.  The door was closed, but I heard him finger his electric guitar and run through the chorus of a song he’d written.   I continued on through the kitchen and the little laundry room.  My arms were about to fall off, but I finally made it to the door of my bedroom.  Yes, my room is in the back of the house, and to get to it, I have to go through the laundry room. 

Aching arms finally gave way and the heavy box I’d been carrying began to slip from my grasp.  Something hard flew out of the box and landed on my foot.   I yelped and dropped the entire box, which landed on the same foot, so I plopped down onto the carpet to rub my throbbing toes.  The hard object at fault was a small metal wrench that somehow ended up in my box of books.  It was the wrench Brian gave me for my tenth birthday.  I should just throw it away.  Rubbing toes and blinking back tears, I kicked the wrench away with my uninjured foot.  Suddenly I had two injured feet.   I forgot I’d taken off my shoes thanks to the damp carpet.

I blinked away my pain-caused tears and looked around the tiny rectangle of a room.  It was so much worse from what I had remembered seeing the other day, when I’d taken a quick peak from the outside through the grimy window.   There were faded curtains that covered the row of four small windows that lined up along the outer wall.  The curtains had roosters on them.  My room was decorated with farm animals.  I made a mental note to redecorate.

Despite its recent cleaning, the still-stained carpet looked like a bacteria farm.   I felt something rough under my left foot and scooted back.  The spiky patch of carpet I’d felt looked like something sticky had been poured onto that spot but never cleaned, so that it had  hardened into this greenish mass of petrified carpet fibers.   I jumped to my feet and backed away. 

How was I supposed to sleep in this grungy room?  I took a deep breath to make myself calm down, but smells flooded my nose and I wanted to puke.    The odor was a bizarre mixture of dust, mildewy wet carpet and rotting vegetation, but with a tiny hint of something sweet, like a bouquet of flowers in the middle of a garbage dump.  My stomach clenched and my heart pounded.  The smell scared me.  The combination of rot with sweet.  It reminded me of things I didn’t want to think about. It reminded me of funerals and goodbyes.   It reminded me of Brian.

“Mom?  Mom!”

No answer.  I rolled my eyes.  Of course, no one would hear me back here.  Certainly not Stephanie.  My mother wasn’t deaf, but I’d swear she pretended she was.  Maybe it was easier that way. 

“Why are you screeching like that, Harl?”  My brother’s voice was loud in my ear and I yelped. 

Jax’s head and shoulders poked through the inside wall of my room.  He looked like a creepy hunting trophy mounted onto the cracked wall.  I had to laugh.  I’d forgotten about the open window that joined my room to my brother’s.

“Ouch!  There’s glass down here!”  Jax scooted back and fingered the bottom edge of the open window.  At one time, the square hole in the wall had been a window to the outside, but at some point a previous owner had decided to add another room.  Hence, my closet-sized bedroom.  They stuck this tiny rectangle onto the house, but left the window in the wall.  And, apparently left some glass stuck in the bottom of the frame. 

 “Did you cut yourself?”  I asked.

“Aw, so nice for you to be concerned.”  Jax’s amber eyes sparkled and he grinned his Cheshire cat, toothy watermelon-slice smile that girls at school seem to go crazy over. 

“But no worries.  I like it.  This will be my ‘no trespassing’ warning to a certain person on the other side who might be a little too nosy for her own good.”   He wiggled his eyebrows.

“Right, like I’d ever want to go in your room.  It probably stinks.”

“Can’t smell as bad as your room does.  What is that stench, anyway?”  Jax asked with a wrinkled nose.

“You smell it, too?”  I asked. 

 “This house is heinous,” Jax said.  “It smells like old people.”  He laughed and I had to join in.  Jax did that to me.  He could make me laugh even when I was ready to scream at the world. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep in here.  The smell is horrible, and I don’t even have my bed put together yet,” I said.  “I can’t believe Stephanie is making us go to school tomorrow.”

“Come on, I’ll help you.”  Jax said.  He does stuff like that.  Jax is pretty decent for a little brother.  At least he doesn’t mind when I use his nickname.  Only our mother calls him “Jackson,” his full name.

He dove forward, caught himself with his hands and made a clean somersault before landing on his feet in my room.  I don’t know how he manages to do things like that.  I would have impaled myself on the shards of broken glass or ended up on my head.

  We’d gotten most of the bed frame together, but were missing a couple of pieces.  That’s how we ended up rummaging through piles of clothing, tangles of computer cables and boxes of kitchen utensils in the front room.  And that’s when I first realized that someone else was in the house.

It started with a feeling.  Not an emotion or a thought like:  ‘oh my, I sense a presence from the other side,’ or anything lame like that.  It was like static electricity, a series of tiny shocks that I first felt on my arms.  I dropped the plastic measuring cups I’d fished out of a box and stared down at my arms.  Each tiny hair stood on end, and my fear rose at the sight.  The prickly sensations surged from my arms and climbed down my spine. Then, I felt the electric buzz over my entire body.  And, I understood.  The thought came to my brain and in an instant it was knowledge, not simply an idea.  I just knew.   I mentioned my premonitions before, didn’t I?  Someone, aside from my mother and brother, had entered the house.  I started to shiver.  What was worse:  I also knew that this someone was waiting for me.  I gulped.

The electric feeling intensified until it was painful.  I reached with a shaky hand for my brother and grabbed his arm. 

 “Jax?”

“Yeah?” 

“Don’t you feel that?”  I said with an embarrassing tremble in my voice.

“What, your death grip?  Geez, Harl, let go, you’re cutting off my circulation,” Jax said.  He didn’t even look at me.  He wrenched his arm away and turned back to the box in front of him. 

“Sweet, my favorite shirt!” he said, holding it up.

 I read the words:  “Celebrate the radness of me,” printed in blood red letters on the black t-shirt.  From behind, I heard someone laugh.  It wasn’t Stephanie’s voice, and it certainly wasn’t mine.

I whirled around.  No one else was in the room, but from the doorway of the kitchen an intense, silvery light spilled out and glowed so strong that I had to squint. 

Before I could decide what to do, my mother lurched into to the front room carrying the heavy old computer monitor. 

“Time to set up the computer.  Help me out, guys,” she said.  She puffed and panted and lugged the monitor toward the kitchen. 

“Stop!  There’s someone in there!”  I shouted.

Stephanie stopped so fast she stumbled and nearly dropped the monitor. At the same time, Jax jumped to his feet.   

“What are you talking about, Harley?”  My mother’s earrings jangled when she turned her head toward the kitchen.

“Hello,” she called out.  “Anybody in there?”

The silvery light still sparkled in the kitchen, but the laughter had stopped. 

Stephanie turned back to me and smiled in the way she does when she’s annoyed, with her lips pressed into a thin line.  I get that smile a lot. 

“Not funny, Harley.  It’s been a long day, give me a break,” she said.

“Hey, maybe the crack-heads are back!  We can call the cops,” Jax said.  He seemed excited at the prospect.

“If anyone’s here, it’s probably the cable guy,” Mom said.  “Our former tenants are long gone, thank goodness.”  She shuffled again toward the kitchen.

“Mom, no!  Someone’s here!”  I shouted.

Stephanie ignored me, and my brother laughed.  “Lame-o, Harl.  You can come up with something better than that,” he said.

“I’m serious!  Don’t you see that light?”  I shouted so loud my voice cracked.

“Come on, Mom, if there’s an intruder, let’s call the cops!  They’ll get here fast, cops are always cruising around this neighborhood,” Jax said.  He bounced on his heels like a little kid and smiled at the prospect of getting the law enforcement involved. 

“I’m not calling anyone,” Stephanie said.  At least, that’s what it sounded like she said.  I wasn’t sure because she spoke with her teeth clenched together, like her jaw was wired shut.  I was also seriously distracted by the bizarre light shooting from the kitchen, and the fact that I felt like I’d stepped on a live wire.  My body was about to fry.

“I’m going to Zen’s house, maybe he’ll let me use his phone,” Jax said.   He bolted to the door.  

“Jackson, stay here!  Don’t—”

The door slammed shut.

My mother glared at me.  “Thanks a lot, Harley.  Cut it out and please help me with this, okay?”  She hefted the monitor higher and stumbled into the kitchen.  The silver light swallowed her.

“Uh, Mom?”  I managed to say.  My voice was only a hoarse whisper.

“Come on, Harley, I could use some help here,” my mother called from the weirdly glowing kitchen.

I had to go in there.  There wasn’t any other choice.  I picked up the first thing I could reach and clutched it tight.  I guess I thought I needed something to hold on to.   So, with an orange coffee cup gripped in my hands, I started to walk, or really, shuffle forward on the damp carpet.  I stopped right before the kitchen entryway and felt my head spin.  I’d forgotten to breathe.  I took a shaky breath, closed my eyes and scooted forward a few final inches.   When I stepped onto the green linoleum floor, the electric feeling was even stronger.  I felt as if every frizzled hair on my head had to be standing on end, so my Medusa waves would look like stiff needles.  The bright silver light pierced my closed eyelids.  I opened my eyes and dropped the cup.

 A woman, or what seemed to be the form of a woman, sat at the scuffed wooden table with a magazine open before her under the yellow light of the lamp.  She hummed to herself as she looked at the pictures.  Her body shimmered, or wavered, almost like I was seeing her underwater.  She had that weird light all around her, the silvery, sparkling glow I saw coming from the kitchen.  I had been absolutely right.  There was somebody inside my house.  And that somebody was a ghost. 

This particular ghost seemed to have dark hair.  Long smudges of darkness flowed down her back and some of the dark smudges hung along one side of her face.   Something about the clothing she wore seemed strange, but at first I didn’t understand why.  I was focused on something else that caught and held my eye.  This shimmery ghost sat with her chin in her hand, and I could clearly see a large silver ring with blue stones in the shape of a flower that nearly covered half of her ring finger.  The ring freaked me out.  Why could I see it clearly?  It sparkled, almost glowing with its own light, standing out in sharp, vivid contrast to the rest of the blurry ghost.

 “Pick that up!” my mother said.  “You’re lucky it didn’t break.”  She didn’t look up at me but kept fooling with the cables that connected the monitor to the computer tower.  She was practically right next to the ghost, inches away.  She seemed totally oblivious to the sparkling spirit-person next to her.

 The ghost woman at the table raised her head and looked at me.  At least, I think she looked at me, but I couldn’t be sure.  Her face was a blur, smeared like a child’s finger painting.  Her features were unrecognizable.  Then, she smiled.  Or, I think she smiled.  I opened my mouth to speak.  I squeaked.

The ghost looked back down at her magazine.  At that moment, I realized why her clothing had seemed strange to me.  She wore overalls. Long dark hair, silver turquoise ring, overalls.  What?   It didn’t compute.                   

 “Harley, pick up that cup you dropped!”  My mother, again. 

“Uh, Mom.”  I gulped and tried to breathe.   I could not believe my mother didn’t see the ghost.  She had to.  “Who is that?” I asked.  I dropped my eyes and pointed directly at the ghost.  Was it still rude to point, even if the person you were pointing at was dead?   My hand and voice shook.  Then I looked back at the ghost and gasped.   The woman was gone.  Her chair was empty. 

I saw a flash of movement and light from the corner of my eye and turned just in time to see the ghost woman walk out through the back door.  Her bright silver light moved with her, glinting off the square window in the the door as she passed.  She didn’t float through the door, or glide like you might think a ghost would; she opened the door and walked out like those of us who are still alive.  The door closed behind her with a soft click.  I felt the cloud of frigid winter air that invaded the kitchen.  A faint, silver light glowed for a brief moment from the other side of the window in the kitchen door before it flared out.  The electric feeling in the room was abruptly gone, as if a switch had been turned off. 

“Who is….where did that draft come from?” my mother said.  She finally looked up from her computer.  Then she walked over to the back door and grabbed the handle.  “Hey, this door was left unlocked,” she said.  She glanced back in my direction and pushed in the tiny button.  “We all need to remember to keep the doors locked.  Especially in this neighborhood.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said.  I didn’t believe it.  Stephanie hadn’t seen the freaky light or the creepy ghost woman.  Only me.

“Come on, pick up the cup you dropped,” Stephanie said.  She turned back to her computer.  “Jax should be home by now.  I swear, you’ll both be the death of me,” she muttered.

I grabbed the cup from the floor and plopped it onto the table. The magazine still lay open where the ghost had left it.  Fluttery from head to toe, I glanced at the picture.  It was a photograph of an elderly man standing by the doorway of a low adobe building.   His copper skin glowed in the sunshine.  His long graying hair was pulled into a pony tail behind his head, and he wore a cowboy hat, a faded red Western-style shirt, jeans and boots.  The scent of sagebrush floated into my nose for a second, but was gone as soon as I was aware of it.  I read the caption below the picture, and learned that the man was Navajo.  The immediate feeling that this was important seized me.  It was as if the ghost had wanted me to see that picture.

 “Harl, go get me the printer.  It’s in the front room,” Stephanie said.

I grabbed the printer from the floor of the front room, set it onto the kitchen table next to my mother, blurted:  “I have to finish unpacking, Mom,” and ran to my room. 

I closed the dusty rooster curtains against the darkness and the possibility of silvery ghosts outside, and then I dug through my box of books and found what I needed.  Whenever I have to think, I write.  I grabbed my journal and my pen.  Then, I turned back to the book box.  Underneath the top layer of books was my stash box, carefully labeled as “school supplies.”  Whenever I really have to think, I eat chocolate. 

With a Milky Way sticking out of my mouth like a big chocolate cigar, I picked up my pen.  While I wrote, I gripped the pen too tightly and my hand shook.  It made my handwriting look like someone else’s; like some alien force had taken over my body. 

Journal Entry:  January 11

I saw a ghost in my kitchen!  She was wearing overalls.  Overalls?  And she had this silver ring I could see clearly, even though the rest of her was blurry.  She was sitting at the table and looking at a magazine.  I didn’t know ghosts liked to read. 

 

Friday, October 11, 2013

I don't know how they did it...

I've been thinking lately of all the people I know who have lived and continue to live through impossibly hard things.  Cancer.  The loss of a child.  Dying marriages, families breaking apart, the death of a spouse, economic hardships.  Recently I wrote another short story prompted by my friend's wonderful blog, "Write Now Anyway," and again today I've decided to post this one.  The story of a neighbor's ancestor came to my mind when writing it.  That ancestor was part of the Mormon migration that headed west during the mid 1800's.  The woman, whose name I've forgotten, made the journey alone, as her husband was called away to serve as a missionary in Europe.  While traveling, this woman endured giving birth in a covered wagon.  As in my story, her child did no survive.  This woman, like countless others throughout history, had to bury her baby, then walk away. 

As I have thought so many times before in my life, I wondered:  "how?"  How do people deal with such horrendous things and then go on with their lives?  So, this story was my attempt to understand that.  All I could really come up with was that "moving on," to use a popular phrase, begins with a single step, and a lot of faith.  Faith that things will get better, that we can endure the hard things, because we have to.  And that life is still beautiful.

A happy note:  my neighbor's ancestor made it to her destination, the Salt Lake Valley.  When her husband finally arrived a couple of years later, having finished his missionary work, she met him at the train station driving her own buggy pulled by her own horses.  She drove her husband to the little house which she'd had built.  She'd earned the money that paid for it all by teaching piano lessons. I'd like to think that the Anna in my story had a future like that.   And that the midwife in my story was captured by centaurs and carried away in the Forbidden Forest.   :-)
 
 
A Single Step

Anna didn’t know how she would do it. 

She was still weak.  Weak from the long, weary walk from Illinois that stretched across the state of Iowa; from breathing in the dust of the journey as she stumbled along, growing heavier each day with the child who was to be born without a home.  And she was weak from the frightening, lonely hours filled with pain as her child had struggled to come into the world; while she longed for Ephram’s strong hands to hold hers and to hear his voice, telling her all would be well.  But her husband was gone; called to sail away on a ship to England so that he could preach his new faith to the people there.  He’d left before the frenzied mob had forced them all to abandon their beautiful city and begin their journey, as best they could, with hardly more than the clothing on their backs on a freezing February day.

Anna shivered and pulled her tattered shawl more closely about her.  The early April wind tore at her soul.  It was still so cold!  How could she leave him?  She barely registered the light touch of a hand on her shoulder.

“Sister, it’s time.  We must go,” a gentle voice murmured.  Anna heard the slight tremor in the voice of the woman who spoke.  It was soft-spoken, kind Sister Humphreys, who had run nearly five miles to the nearby town to fetch a doctor.  All she had been able to find was the sour, sullen woman with stone-grey hair and chips of ice in her eyes, who came resentfully to the Mormon encampment to assist with a difficult labor.

Blood.  Blood and terror and pain; and the hard countenance of the woman who helped birth her child were what Anna recalled most.  Last night was a timeless mixture of images and sensations.  There were hours of frightening pain, and the fruitless pushing, but finally, mercifully, a sudden tearing; excruciating but brief.  Then the tiny form was placed in her arms.  Gratefully, Anna had sunk down, cradling him close.  She recalled hearing a single whimper, the merest of sounds, then, nothing more from the child.

“How you gonna pay me?” the grey woman had muttered.  Anna had looked up in shock, still reeling with pain and fear, and the wonder of giving birth to her first child.

Sister Humphreys had pled, as she wrapped the quilt about Anna and her son, that they had no money, but would find something.  Somehow, they would repay her.  “Only let me go ask the others,” Sister Humphreys begged.

“I’ll take that quilt,” the woman retorted, whisking it away from Anna and her son even as she spoke the words. 

“No,” Anna had breathed. 

“It don’t matter, no how,” the woman had said as she’d climbed down from the bed of the wagon, clutching the quilt in her arms.  “You and that brat will both be dead by morning.”  And then, she was gone.

 Anna had wept.  The quilt, a red and white Bethlehem star, was her only link to her former life.  Her mother’s wedding gift.  At night, alone in the cold wagon, she ran her hands along the soft fabric and felt her mother’s love in every tiny stitch.  And now, it was gone. 

And, it was all she had to protect herself and her child from the cold.

Sister Humphreys had found something to cover her and wrap the baby in.  She worked to stop Anna’s bleeding.  She always found a way to help. 

But the cruel woman’s prediction came true; at least in part.  The baby didn’t survive the night.

“Anna?”  Sister Humphreys said once more.

Anna closed her eyes.  Sharp air, smelling of campfires and damp soil tore at her clothing.  She felt as if the wind echoed inside her hollow, empty body.  She was a shell, a dried husk.  Nothing was left.  Ephram was across the ocean.  Who knew when she would see him again?  Her home, her family, her only child…gone.  She felt as if a single step would cause her fragile body to crumble to dust. 

Have faith, Anna.  Our God will never abandon us, Ephram always said. 

Faith? 

Anna breathed in.  She spoke the word aloud.

“Faith.”  She believed in God.  She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t.  What’s more, she knew that God believed in her. 

One step, Anna told herself.  Begin with one step.  She trembled all over.  Grief, fatigue and the loss of blood took their toll.  But she would do it. 

“I’m ready,” Anna whispered.  Taking one more look at the tiny grave at her feet, she dropped the twig sprouting a few green leaves she had found.  A poor memorial for her son.

Until we meet again, she promised her child. 

Then, she turned her back.  And she walked away.