Friday, October 28, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION: Welcome to the End: Part 4 -- Morning

Our story continues. Catch up on previous installments here.

________

Caroline is hesitant heading back into the stairwell. She chokes the life from the door handle, her knuckles gone white. I wait for her to push the door open, but she doesn’t.

I bend and say into her ear: “It’s OK. It’s day time. They are gone. The freaks only come out at night.”

“Then why are you whispering?” she asks and backs away from the door. “Here. You go first if you’re so brave.”

We switch spots, and I pause a moment before swinging the door open. Evidence from last night’s fight is everywhere. The bodies of the wailers we killed are still on the steps below us, the skin gone grey and the muscles already starting to decay. The number of them, though, is depressingly small.

We step around what’s left of the lanterns that Caroline threw, and I think for a moment about the plans I had for lighting camp up at night. These lanterns were tall. The glass clear. They were going to create a nice pocket of light. A bit of false security after the sun disappeared behind a ragged skyline.

The wingback chair is still on the landing, and, it is, surprisingly, undamaged. Caroline drops into its padded seat.

“Your throne, your majesty.”

I gesture for her to get up, and she stands. I grab the chair and swing it awkwardly above my head. “Let’s get out of here. There’s nothing left that we need.”

Caroline heads down the steps, and we finish the climb down in silence. Back on the street I set the chair in front of me. I drop my pack in the seat, and the casters squeak as I set it moving again. Both Caroline and I pause. We are waiting to hear the wails even though we know they aren’t coming.

We begin the walk back to Fair Park and our little camp. People are waiting.

I can’t hold back the question that I’ve been wanting to ask since last night.

“That thing that we tossed over the railing, your little homemade hand grenade. What was that?”

“Something Mama cooked up.” Caroline readjusts her pack to center it better on her back. She repacked it in rush last night. Items went back in haphazard, and the pack bulges at its sides.

“Cooked up? That doesn’t clarify anything.” The streets of downtown are empty, and it’s more than a little creepy. This is a Tuesday, I’m fairly certain. We are walking toward what was City Hall, entering the heart of what should be a busy business district. There should be cars forcing us to the sidewalk. I shouldn’t be pushing an executive desk chair along the center line of Akard Street.

“It’s a little potion in case we got in trouble.”

“Are you talking about magic?”

“Yes, Sherlock. I’m talking about magic.” Caroline is swinging her machete in broad strokes in front of her.

“Since when did …” I can’t finish the sentence. My voice trails to nothing.

“Since forever.” Caroline says. “We don’t ever do anything with it. Just something we keep in our back pocket for days like this.”

“Seems like a pretty big thing to keep in your pocket, being witches and all.”

“We aren’t witches. Well, she is. I’m not. And she’s not even a witch really. She can scramble together a few spells. Something that came down from her mom and from her mom and from her mom before her.”

I pick up the chair and swing it above my head again. The facade of one of the few older buildings left in downtown has peeled off, and bricks and stone spread across the street in a deep and wide pile.

“What I saw,” I say as we carefully climb this rubble, “the ball and the bang, that was magic.”

“Call it what you want.” Caroline steps off a large stone and back to the street. I don’t say anything for a moment. The combination of the pack on my back and the chair over my head has messed with my center of gravity. Combine that with unsteady footing, and it’s taking everything I have to not go end over end off this heap.

I get to steady ground after a couple of long moments and set the chair back down and drop my pack in the seat. I grab Caroline’s off her back and drop it on top of mine then pick up our conversation: “You can’t do it, you said?”

“The spells?”

I nod.

“No,”she says. “It’s not something that ever interested me. And until now I didn’t know how much it would matter. But anyone can do it. Just have to know what to mix with what and what to say while you’re doing it. It’s just tapping into ancient energies. Stuff like that. I never paid any attention to it when my mom discussed it.” She pauses for a moment. “My sister, though. If you’re looking for someone who can cook you up something powerful, she’s your girl.”

I stay behind the chair and push. “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION: Welcome to the End: Part 3 -- Recover

Our story continues.



Want to catch up on the previous installments? They can be found here.

---

The cries and chattering from the wailers stops. Caroline rolls onto her back and lets out a scream that comes from some place so deep inside of her that I don’t know if she realizes that place even exists. She grabs for her arm, but I stop her. I reach into my bag and pull out an old shirt. I tie it tight near her shoulder — a tourniquet. Thanks, Boy Scouts.


Caroline starts to stand, and I help her to her feet. The burning wailers are giving off enough heat to make us sweat. I pull a canteen off the side of my pack . It’s heavy with water. I pour enough on each of the creatures to give us space to access the stairs.


Caroline lets her arm hang limp at her side. She whimpers. I drape her good arm over my neck and slip a hand around her waist. We move up the stairs.


“Hang on,” I say. “We’ll get you a proper bandage.”


Back in the doctor’s office I lay her on the couch in the waiting room and go dig through bins and drawers until I find gauze, cotton and a sling. I grab more than I need. I’ll put the extra in my pack to take back to the camp.


Caroline is sleeping, and I roll her gently to her side. She’s not more than 17, one of those girls who’s all attitude. Completely unaware that all the boys have a crush on her. I move a messy blonde ponytail out of the way of the makeshift bandage that I put on moments ago. Blood rushes back to the gash in her arm and I push handfuls of cotton hard against the wound. I wrap it tight with the gauze. Caroline pulls her arm away out of instinct but doesn’t wake.


I secure the gauze, drape her arm across her chest, and will let her sleep. We are safe here. I’ve locked the entrance. There are enough dead wailers in the stairwell to keep any others away. Besides, the couch in the doctor’s personal office will sleep better than anything I could find back at camp.


I walk over to the window and look back out at Dallas. The fires. The river that’s overrun its banks. The buildings that were there a few weeks ago, but are either gone or split in half. My mind starts rebuilding all of it, putting the pieces back together, until what I see is the city I moved to just months earlier.


Blue skies replace the smoke and clouds that have been ever-present. Warm sun on my cheek replaces the reality of bitter winds.  Sounds of traffic fill what was a silent doctor’s office just moments ago.  


I see me on the sidewalk 15 stories below. I’ve just exited Union Station, my train depositing me at the edge of downtown, putting me in Dallas for the first time in 15 years. I have a pack over one shoulder and am dragging a rolling bag behind me. It’s the middle of the day and this part of downtown is mostly empty except for a few vacationers looking for the street where Kennedy was killed.


I repeat the address of my new apartment over and over again in my head. I’ve decided to walk there to get a feel for downtown and the city and almost immediately regret that decision. Even in the spring, Texas gets hot. It’s more than a few blocks to my new place, and by the time I get there my back is covered in sweat. My hair sticks to the back of my neck. I need a shower and new clothes, but everything I own that’s not in the rolling bag won’t be getting here for at least a couple of days. At that moment it’s on the back of a truck coming from my place out in California, so I’m stuck sitting under a fan in the living room of my new place stripped down to my underwear and letting the cool breeze cause me to nearly shiver.


Back in front of this window, I ask God to push the cosmic rewind button.  To put me back under that fan shivering in my underwear.


Caroline stirs and calls my name. I step away from the window and back into a darker and cooler reality.


“Mack?” she says again as I approach.


“Yeah,” I tell her and touch her shoulder. She turns her head.


“We need to get back to camp.”


I shake no. “Not tonight,” I drop to a knee in front of her. “Whatever wailers that your little firecrackers didn’t kill are still out there and probably close by. We are better off here for the night. We’ll go back to camp in the morning.”


Blood has soaked the cotton and is starting to come through the gauze. I grab the extra cotton and gauze from my pack and rewrap the wound. A tear drops off Caroline’s cheek and wets the gauze. I look up and she wipes another tear from her eye.


“This hurts, Mack.”


“I know it does. Let me see if I can find something for that.”


I dig through the cabinet that Caroline broke into earlier and find some of that doctor-level aspirin. I bring her a couple of tablets and the canteen from my pack. I tell her that this will help her sleep as she swallows both pills. She stretches out on the couch, and I leave her for the night.


I take my pack with me into the doctor’s personal office and lean it against the arm of the couch. I collapse onto the cushions and pull both boots off. I haven’t been in just socks in days, and I hear my feet thanking me for the opportunity to suck some real oxygen.


I take long and deep breaths, and my vision begins to fade. My body starts to fight off the deep and restful sleep that it needs, and I wrestle with my instincts. “Let it come,” I’m telling my brain. “Let it come.”


I focus on the ceiling fan above me to keep my mind occupied and think about nothing but sleep.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Storytelling lessons from my 4 year old

Ellie is 4 years old, and she's starting to tell coherent stories that she makes up on her own. We play a lot of pretend. I'm usually some superhero and she's a princess. Now, that princess usually has some kind of super power, so she's somewhat a princess in name only. But it's fun.

That playing pretend and storytelling is starting to bleed over into our night time routine, and it's actually teaching me a bit about my own storytelling. A good thing. Not going to complain, even if it was a bit unexpected.

A couple of examples:

I was putting her to bed one night in the last month or so, and she asked for a story. Like I mentioned, she's getting into superheroes. She's not a DC or Marvel girl. If they have a cape or a mask or a cool uniform then she's in. She really seems to like Captain America.

So, this night she asked me to tell her how he was born. So I tell her an abbreviated version of the origin story. Steve Rodgers. Scrawny kid in Brooklyn. Experiments. Boom. Captain America. It was a bit more dawn out than that, and in the middle of it she stopped me and said "Dad, this is boring. Add Elsa and Anna." So, I did.

Then the other night we are sitting in her room, and she tells me that she's going to tell me a story. It involves princesses (her and her sister) and a castle that I made up a couple of years ago. There's a tall tower, a windy staircase, and any time I tell her these stories their mom is making breakfast in the kitchen.

So, her story starts with the princesses waking up and going downstairs for breakfast. Then in the middle of breakfast the evil witch comes and turns her mom into a monster, dad into Captain America, but he's trapped in a closet. She and her sister both get changed into something else that's slipped my mind at the moment. But it was crazy. It made no sense, but she got so into the telling of it that I got wrapped up in the moment. It didn't matter that the logic didn't work. She was excited about it, and I wanted to hear what was next.

Now, here's the lesson, and this for me as much as anyone else.

Get out of your head when you tell stories. Let the story go where it wants to go.

Too often I'll have an idea and then hesitate when it comes time to write it down, either while outlining or drafting. I shouldn't do that. I should let the story go where it wants to go. Let my mind take it to places that may not make a whole lot of sense, because that's where the passion is. That's often where I do my best writing. It's when I've found the flow of the story, and I'm letting it wash around me, not bothering with thoughts of "Does this make sense?"

My favorite reading experiences are the ones where you can feel the author's passion for that particular tale. Yes, we all love our books or stories, but you can tell as a reader (at least I think you can) when a writer telling the story with passion. At least I feel like you can. There's more to the reading experience than just getting things from Point A to Point B. I really believe that passion comes from being fully in the story and letting it go where it wants to go.

Now, you can't necessarily make illogical jumps or ignore natural laws. But other than that, don't let those ideas that seem too weird or too unexpected die on your mental vine. Put them down. Let them run. See where they take you. You can always call them back in the editing process if you find they didn't work.

So, that's it. Storytelling lessons that I learned from my 4 year old. Hope it was helpful for you. It was for me.

Thanks, Ellie. Daddy loves you.





Friday, October 14, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION: Welcome to the End: Part 2 -- Attack

After a few weeks off, our story continues.

Missed Part One? Find it here.

---

Caroline looks to me, her eyes asking “What’s next.” I grab the handle to the door that leads to an interior hall. It doesn’t open. Locked.


“Back upstairs” I say and start taking steps two at a time. Caroline follows. The wails increase with each foot fall.


I check the door on nine. Locked.


Ten, eleven, and twelve. All locked.


“It’s a security thing,” Caroline says. “They lock from the inside. We won’t get in.”


Hard nails skitter down concrete steps. Cries come from below. I push past Caroline and back down.


“Where now?” She asks as I lose sight of her on the steps above me.


“To our stuff,” I shout.


I get to eight and two wailers are already there. Two quick shots hit each of them in the chest because they aren’t more than a couple feet away. They scream and collapse. Their brothers and sisters cry out in response, louder now than ever before.


I look for Caroline. She is coming down the steps three and four at a time, recklessly trying to catch up. Her machete swings wild at her side, a wailer only steps behind her.


I fling my arm up — trying to aim.


Caroline dives to the floor, and I fire. The concrete above her explodes. Shards and dust shower down. The wailer yells behind her and a talon-covered foot lands next to her head. Another shot and the creature falls. Caroline scrambles to her feet, breath racing. I put two more bullets into the creature’s head for good measure.


She pins her back to the wall. Another wailer comes down the stairs, its hollow eyes pinched almost shut by its gaping mouth. Two more are behind it. Before I get the gun up, Caroline swings the machete and draws a gash across the wailer’s chest. Black goo — what used to be blood — cascades down the creature’s front. It takes two more steps then stumbles. Caroline brings the machete down on the back of the wailer’s neck and buries it half deep into the rotting flesh. She struggles to pull the machete from the wailer’s spine, and one of the trailing wailers swipes at her with an open hand. One of the claws catches her arm and slices through her bicep. The machete clatters to the floor.


A quick shot catches the wailer in the neck. It screams out and is matched by what sounds like a hundred similar voices. The wailer tries to lift the arm again but it’s lost function. Another shot catches it square. The thing stumbles backward with two quick steps and falls to the ground, taking down the creature behind it too.


Caroline grabs the two unlit lanterns and throws them onto the stairs across from her. The glass explodes and the smell of oil fills the stairwell. More wailers are coming down the steps when she throws the lit lantern. It breaks into a half dozen pieces and the suddenly loose flame sends the oil ablaze. The two wailers who’d just fallen are also on fire. One is dead. The other quickly dying.


The remaining wailers retreat up the stairs.


I reload my pistol and step to the stair rail. The line of wailers starts just a few floors down, and it’s unending.


Caroline scrambles to her pack and up ends it. The contents scatter across the landing but what she’s looking for somehow rolls to her feet. She grabs the black globes and says a string of words that sound like nonsense. She tosses the globe to me.


“Throw it down the steps. Get it as close to the ground floor as possible.”


She keeps chanting something that I can’t understand. I drop the globe down between the railing and watch as it pinballs its way to the bottom floor, all the wailers distracted briefly from the two people up on eight.


Caroline grabs my jacket sleeve and pulls me to the floor against the wall with her. She doubles over into a ball, and I do the same, interlocking my fingers across my neck like I’ve seen so many kids do in those film strips they showed us in school. There’s a pause then a pair of explosions rock the building.