Friday, August 10, 2012

Terrible Minds Challenge: "Louder Than Anything"

Chuck Wendig, the best hope for a US medal in penmonkery in a generation, issued another Flash Fiction Challenge this week, 1000 words with one of three sentences provided as your lead. This story is called "Louder Than Anything".

Everyone else remembers it as the day the saucers came, but I remember it as the day a man in a suit shot my father. It wasn't normal for a 37 year old man to live with his father, but he was the only person who would take me in. He lived by the side of a busy highway in a crappy apartment that used to be a lousy hotel room. There were three rooms, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a living room with a kitchenette, but neither of us needed much. He paid rent and bought sandwich fixings, lottery tickets, and whiskey with his pension check, and when I managed to sell a story somewhere for enough money that my ex didn't take it all , I treated us both to a diner meal.

I had been up late, so I was asleep when it started. He was an early riser, because 48 years of punching a clock didn't leave you overnight, but he was kind enough most days to step outside to let me get a few more Zs. I dimly remember hearing the door open and shut again, then just as quickly open again.

"Steven!," my father said. "Get up! You have to see this!"

We were men, so we didn't talk much. "Do you want the rest of these chips?" was a monologue. So it was surprising for him to say that much. I swam my way up into consciousness, and fumbled for my glasses.

"See what, Dad? What's going on?"

"Just get up so I know I'm not dreaming. Great Caesar's Ghost, I've never seen anything like this."

I found my glasses, jammed them on my face and stumbled to the door. To say I was struck dumb, or stunned, or taken aback by what I saw is to do great violence to the language. There was a golden metal disc, maybe as long across as a semi trailer, floating in the air, as if Sir Isaac Newton had never been born, maybe 30 feet above the dirt patch that served as a parking lot for the inaptly named Chateau Apartments. It was making hardly any noise- a gentle hum, lower in pitch and somehow smoother than the regular drone from the highway. There were also four smaller discs, the same yellow color, about the width of a small car, that were floating around the larger one in tight concentric circles. The only thought I could form at first was, "no wonder he didn't say what it was. I'm not sure I could describe it either."

The cars on the highway weren't stopping- either they couldn't see it between the tree cover, or it was such a bizarre sight they convinced themselves they hadn't seen it. I looked briefly around the parking lot. There didn't seem to be anyone else around, save for Mr. Patel, who emerged blinking from the office, which was really just the nicest and largest of the apartments. None of us said anything, staring up at the floating discs, wondering when Michael Bay had taken over directing our lives.

I heard screeching, followed by the rumble and grind of tires on dirt. Suddenly the lot was filling with police cars, lights flashing, and other official looking sedans. Men and women in black suits started pouring out of the cars, the police mostly staring up at the discs, the suits fanning out quickly, knocking on doors, moving with brisk efficiency.

A man and a woman walked up to my father and I. The man looked sweaty, skinny and blonde with some stubble, a messy haircut and looking uneasy. The woman seemed much cooler, shorter than him but boxy in that way women do when they won't buy the right size. Her dark hair was pinned back and her face and square shoulders were all purpose.

"Uh, er, FBI," the man stammered. "Do you have any telecommunications devices?"

I thought about lying, or demanding ID, or saying anything, really, but the woman swept in behind me, snagging my ancient laptop from my duffel bag, and coming back out to stand behind her partner.

"I have to take this," she said. "You'll get it back."

That seemed to rouse my father from his stupor. "Who are you," he snarled. "You can't do this." He was a pot smoker from way back, and he instinctively distrusted authority.

"We're the FBI, sir," the woman said calmly. "We can do this, and we will. National security. Your son will get his laptop back. I promise."

"Fuck you, promise," my father said, and took a step towards the two. He was as gentle as a butterfly, but years of working with his hands made him look menacing. "Show us some ID or hit the streets, fuzz."

The dorky one took a step back, drawing a weapon from a shoulder holster, his manner suddenly smooth as glass, his hands rock steady. "Take two steps back, sir," the kid said loudly. "Right now, sir." I didn't know guns, but it was black, and full of menace.

"You think a gun scares me, boy?," my father said loudly. He took another step towards the pair. "I was shooting people before your Daddy got his hands inside your Mama's shirt. Now show me some-"

His words were cut off by an explosion from the kid's gun. It was loud, louder than it seemed like anything had any right to be. I heard a wet smacking sound, and part of my father's chest seemed to dissolve and become a dark hole. I heard my father's shuffling footstep as he took a step backwards, still looking at the kid, then fell over onto one side and let out a moan. "Jesus Christ, Thompson," the woman said.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

SPE: "Cement"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Eric Limer gave me this prompt: Write something about someone who establishes a new, important relationship and then immediately has to strain it -- almost to the breaking point -- by asking for a huge favor. I gave November Rain (k~) this prompt: "My dad's thing was, You know the thing you really know? That you never ever know." -Randy Jackson]

I'm not a crier. I'm really not. I'm not saying that I never cry. I have cried in the past. I just don't make a habit of it. It doesn't feel natural. Now Eric? He cries at the end of movies, when he spills coffee on the table, when clouds slip in front of the moon. He cries at the proverbial drop of the proverbial hat. Which is annoying, but it's fine. When you love someone, you love them, and the little things are just that: little things. He hates that I won't put DVDs away and that I take too long in the shower, and he manages to put up with me.

So it was weird that I was sitting on a bench in front of my building, bawling like I had lost my last friend. The call had come in, Claudia at my attorney's office telling me, in her quiet, officious way, that Sandra, the 34 year old mother of three, had backed out at the last moment and would not carry our child to term. It wasn't the end of the world. We had enough money, and in another month or two or three, another woman would be found and the process started over again. I don't know why the news hit me so hard.

Eric didn't ask me for much, but the longer we were together, the more he settled on one singular idea. He wanted to be a father, and the more we thought it over and talked about it, the more sensible and reasonable it sounded. We were far from the first gay couple to make this decision, so we went into the months of testing, references, and payments- payments on top of payments on top of payments. Eric got truly excited as we got deeper into the process, and the glow on his face made me fall in love with him all over again. Lots of people adopted, and there wasn't anything wrong with that, but something about a baby that was part of Eric, his blood, cemented the decision.

I had tied myself in knots looking forward to the process beginning this week, and the call shattered me. I wanted this for Eric, for us, and while I knew this wasn't the end, the buildup of hope leaked out of me like air from a leaky bus tire, and the emotional crash just overwhelmed me. Eric was waiting upstairs for me, expecting me to return after my jog, and I had to tell him, but I didn't want to face him with the news. I hated disappointing him, hated it more than anything.

I was winding down, my sobs giving way to snorts and sniffles, looking down at an ancient cigarette butt between my feet, when she came up the street towards me.

"Paul?" she said. It was Emily, who had moved in down the hall from us at the beginning of the summer. She was studying drama, waiting tables and slinging coffee like a million other girls her age, their eyes on Broadway and their hearts set on marriage and a house in White Plains or Bedford. It was cliche to befriend a straight girl, but she was kind, gentle and generous with her time. They met by the mailbox and became good friends. they watched Mad Men together, shared at least one dinner a week, kept spare keys, and would sign for each other's packages, all the tiny little gestures that made city life just a little warmer.

"Paul? Honey? What's wrong?," she continued. She shared the ups and downs of our relationship, and she gossiped with us about her own misadventures on the dating scene.

She knew what we had been working on, and has eagerly shared in our joy over bagels and coffee the morning before. I told her about the call, observing that while this wasn't the end, we had to find another woman and go through the testing all over again. She sat on the bench beside me, her shoes with their cute buckles lined up evenly beneath the hem of her long peasant skirt. Her hand found my sweaty back, and she rubbed gently in small circles. She wasn't Eric, but the tiny gesture warmed my heart.

"How long before you can find someone new?," she asked.

"At least a month. Maybe more," I said.

"Well," she said slowly. "What about me?"

I blinked and turned my head to look at her, her makeup subtle, her smooth face young and perfect. She crossed one firm bare leg over the other.

"What? What about you?," I said.

"What about me? To carry the baby?," she said. We both looked down at her midsection imstinctively, flat and broad beneath firm breasts and above comfortably wide hips. I never understood the appeal of women, but I had learned what instinct taught straight men to want. Emily's appeal went beyond her positive, fun outlook, her body advertising fertility to the trail of boyfriends who beat down her door.

"I couldn't possibly ask you to do that," I said. It was an enormous sacrifice.

"You're not asking," she said, her voice brightening. "I'm volunteering."

"Oh, Em. That's so sweet. But no. We couldn't."

"Why not?," she said. "It's not like I'm using it."

"Using what?"

"My uterus," she said with a soft giggle. "I'm young, healthy. I'm single. I eat well. I'm in good shape. And I'm nearby."

The idea stirred in my heart. "It's such a huge thing. Such a...burden. Such a sacrifice."

"I know," she said cheerfully. "My aunt had a baby last year, and I heard all about it on Facebook. She said over and over that she wished she had kids when she was young and strong. I think she was trying to tell me something."

"I'm pretty sure this isn't what they mean," I said.

"Sure," she agreed. "Mom wants me to get married off and start pumping out grandchildren, no doubt. But I can still do that later."

I grasped for the words. "You need to get blood tests, and take hormones, and..."

"I assumed," she said. "Who knows? Maybe I'm the wrong blood type, or who knows what. But I'm willing to try. It's a lot of work, I understand. Huge changes in my body, and in my life. No boyfriends, of course, for at least a year, and lots of explaining. Crying, throwing up, all that. And some real risk, of course. But I want to. It's something I can do for you. Something special I can do that you can't do for yourself. Something holy, something real, something meaningful."

I looked at her face, the smooth lines of her body, the earnest, emotional smile she was beaming at me. I thought about Eric, the crushing blow I was about to deliver suddenly tempered by Em's shocking offer. I wanted to tell her no again, that I would feel guilty for imposing the swollen burden onto her young shoulders. But we were asking someone to go through this for us, weren't we? Why not someone we already knew and loved?

"Let's try," she said, a single tear forming at the corner of her eye. She stood up, looking down at me, my face still puffy and raw from crying.

"Really?," was all I could say.

"Yes," she said, holding a hand down. I took it and stood up, and we walked inside together.