Short Stories

Not the First Nor the Last

March Roundup Contest Entry 2015

Prompt: In 250 words or fewer, pick a quote from a published author or book and write about it.

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“Sometimes you have to do what’s wrong in order to do what’s right.”

Peter F. Hamilton, The Dreaming Void

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“Hey, I’m so glad to see you.” My tone is a manic mix of light-hearted optimism and inconsolable fear.

I grip one hand with the other to stop the shaking. There is nothing I can do about my head. It irritates me endlessly. Whenever I’m stressed, there’s a slight vibration in my neck. I’m sure I’m not the only one who notices it.

She steps through the door and looks at me with hollow eyes. “Let’s sit down,” she says.

“Sure, of course.” I signal to my room. No roommate anymore and no more furniture leaves the place almost empty, just a bed and memories.

We both sit and I begin. I am a bursting fountain-head of cliché: “I love you. We can work. I’m begging you. You’re my soul-mate”. I’ve made it harder for her. In the end I hurt her more.

But her words are absolution: “I don’t. No we can’t. I don’t care. You’re not mine.”

Inside, whatever dignity I had is swept away. Grief strips me. I am nothing. Outside, my shell persists. Discontent with leaving any scrap behind, I negotiate my pride: trade reality for one last illusion. When she’s walking to the door, I’m almost optimistic. Maybe there’s a chance. Maybe it’s not over. Maybe when I leaned in for that last kiss before she left, those lips weren’t dead.

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I’d Rather Be Nowhere

All The Bright Places Contest Entry 2015

#BrightPlaces

The bright place that has most inspired me in life is paradoxically many yet one: with the people I love.

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“They’re at it again.”

“Like clockwork eh?”

I tip my beer and smile. “Like clockwork. Come, join me for the show. It’s about to begin.”

Devon is sitting at his desk surrounded by mountains of high-end recording equipment. Taking a drag from his cigarette he ambles over the to the windowsill and takes a seat next to me on its generous ledge. Our view from his luxurious second story downtown apartment in Vancouver grants us a perfect vantage point from which to watch the city’s nighttime animals tear each other apart.

“The brightly coloured fat one looks about ready to pounce.” Smoke trails behind my hand as I gesture at two members of the inebriated nightlife.

“Think he’ll win?” says Devon.

“Only because he’s to drunk to know he’s already lost,” I laugh, pausing to take a swig of my beer. The fight is swift and fierce, and as with most real violence—lacking skill and over quickly. “Damn it.” I stub out my cigarette. “Bright colours in the wild usually indicate danger.”

Devon nods slowly. “So we gonna finish this tonight?”

“Of course.” I jump up. “Where are we?”

“The first verse,” Devon chuckles while taking his seat again and putting on one ear of his studio headphones.

I slap him on the shoulder. “We’re gonna change the world right?”

 

Sprawled on the leather sofa Lloyd steeples his fingers. “And why are they afraid of the rain?”

“It’s acid rain,” I answer quickly.

“And it’s acidic, why?”

“Because we destroyed the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Late day light pours through the slatted blinds of the studio apartment, brightening the opposite wall’s red to a crimson glow. A half eaten loaf of bread, (Lloyd’s baking) sits between us, along with a wisely chosen cheap bottle of red, (Lloyd’s purchasing). I break off a hunk of the fennel encrusted herbaceous loaf before leaning back in my weathered leather computer chair.

“The new society of course doesn’t know that,” I add while munching on the bread.

“I see, and you’re thinking they evolve a religion around this?” Lloyd leans forward to pour out the last four fingers of wine in our two glasses. He gives the empty bottle a rueful look before returning it to the table.

“That’s right, now keep going,” I say with a grin. “With your questions it writes itself.”

 

We both lie silent. A tangle of tired limbs and restive smiles. From the window I can hear the breeze. It blows just so, rustling the leaves and vines on trees nearby. Amidst strands of raven black hair, nestling my nose into the honey brown of Cristina’s exposed neck, I make contented sounds. I can feel her smiling. From upstairs the clatter of cookware and pleasant muffled chatter just barely reaches our ears. We’ll return to the mainland soon. The vacation at my old friend’s home draws to a close. I think of the days and all we have done: wonderful meals enjoyed together by those in attendance, fishing, wake-boarding. Cristina got up her first time out, That’s rare, I think. She rolls over to face me, her foreign dark eyes sparkling.

“Why are you laughing?” she demands playfully in the accented tone I’ve grown to love.

“Because … I’m happy.”

Chapter.4 Hiding in plain Sight

In the first weeks of his new school Daniel developed a routine. He would wake long before anyone in the house. After wishing the farm on his wall a good day, careful not to make any noise, he would rush a barely warm shower and get dressed. Then, tiptoeing lightly down the hall past his parent’s bedroom, he’d descend the old wooden stairs that led to the kitchen and receive there the warmest greeting he’d ever known. Lincoln waited for him each morning, in a bed they’d set up next to their ghoulishly coloured yellow refrigerator. Always awake, standing at attention. When Daniel entered, his tail would begin to wag in a steady beat—thump, thump, thump—hitting the side of the fridge, like a drum-beat summoning soldiers to war. Daniel would then invoke the ritualistic question which preceded all their walks: “Who’s a good boy?” Lincoln’s joyous reaction, wherein he leapt up on his owner nuzzling and licking his face affectionately, predicated the truism, he—most certainly was.

They’d lap the block once or twice, depending on Lincoln’s energy level, then return to the house to meet Kate sitting on the steps of their home, usually shaking her head in disbelief.

“You’re crazy,” yawned Kate.

Daniel ceased twirling Lincoln’s leash. A game which left the dog comically walking in a diagonal line at his side. “You know,” he said solemnly, stopping to strike a pose, chest puffed out like a Saturday-morning-hero from the nineties, “they say love is crazy.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “Well then, you’re madly in love.”

“Oh, I am, dear sister,” said Daniel. Pulling back Lincoln’s ears, he planted a kiss on the adoring animal’s head. Kate had a special name for this particular canine expression: bliss in a slipstream. “It’s alright though, I don’t expect you to perfectly understand what it’s like to love a beast.”

“I love you, don’t I?”

“You’re hilarious.” Daniel gave his sister a lop-sided grin. “Just wait a moment. I’ll be back. I’m gonna top off Lincoln’s food bowl before we leave.” Their morning ritual replete, critical banter and all complete, the two set off for school.

Bam!

Daniel jolted upright, hand pressed to his stinging forehead. The students were giggling; everyone turned in his direction. On the verge of sleep when he’d lost consciousness, his face had slid from its precariously balanced position on his palm to smack into his desk. Judging by his teacher’s sigh and head shake of resigned indifference, it might not have been the first time. He glowered round darkly at those who laughed. That was, until a gooey spit ball wetly smacked the side of his head.

“Don’t be so glum, chum. Trouble in paradise?” said Milton, a twice failed older classmate. In the first weeks of Daniel’s arrival Milton had tried unsuccessfully to acquaint himself. He’d mistakenly approached the friendship in a traditional way: too kindly and without expectations. Daniel never trusted those who offered kindness without weighing return on investment. That’s not how kindness worked.

“I’m fine, you dick, just bored.” Daniel peeled the sticky wad of paper off his cheek and flicked it back at his classmate who made a show of dodging the projectile.

Milton jabbed a confident thumb towards himself. “Well, you wouldn’t be bored if you’d hang out with me. If there’s one thing I understand, it’s a good time.”

“Right…” said Daniel cupping his face, this time in both hands. Daniel turned from the moronically beatific smile of Milton, attempting to take something from the lecture. It never did any good. The harder he focused, the more his teachers words became a blur. The more he just felt like going to sleep. He sighed. what’s wrong with me?

Bam!

Daniel’s face smashed against his locker.

“How’d that taste, loser?”

Daniel turned, the warm coppery tang of iron filling his mouth. With one arm he clutched his textbooks. The free hand he pressed against the backside of his weeping lip. Drawing it away slowly, examining the ruby-red that smeared it, he licked his lips. “Delicious,” he laconically answered the three boys standing over him at his locker. His unnerving reply caused their leader to screw his face up in disgust.

“You’re a freak, you know that right?” He shoved Daniel back into the lockers with a loud clang. Other students in the hall hurried past, heads down; hate and cruelty are always hidden in plain sight.

“I do,” came Daniel’s answer, equally terse.

“That’s good.” The leader made a show of nodding around at his compatriots, keeping up the bravado. But, Daniel could tell he’d rattled their hollow confidence.“Just here to remind you, it’s the usual deal.”

Daniel simply nodded. The boys departed giving Daniel a final shove. It sent him sprawling and the books taken from his locker skidding across the floor.

 

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“I don’t get it?” Kate whined. “Why do we always have to take separate paths home?”

“Because, we have separate paths to walk in this life, young one.” Daniel deepened his voice and pretended to pull a cape in front of his body.

“You are a brutal nerd—seriously…” Kate bobbed along next to her brother laughing. “I hate walking home by myself, it’s dangerous; you’re failing to protect me.”

Daniel kept his voice deep and the cape held in front of him as he walked. “You—are an idiot, young one; you do not walk home alone; you walk with Sandy.”

“Stop talking like that!” Kate batted his arm down, destroying the imagined cape. “I do, but I would rather walk with you. Promise me one of these days we will walk together.”

Daniel acquiesced. “Sure, just not today, Okay?

“Okay,” said Kate.

The exit of the school was barely that, just a road that met another road. Its only semi-significant characteristic was a middling sized leafless maple tree. Before the two parted ways under its barren branches, Daniel gave his sister a kiss on the head, hugging her and wishing her well. Watching her leave he took a seat at the base of the tree on a serpentine thick root. One of many that emerged from the earth, like the coils of a sea monster. Resting his back against its ridged trunk, he waved perfunctorily at his sister in the distance as she met with her new friend, Sandy.

The girl wore an intractable smile plastered to her face at all times, like the personae of Greek theater. But her sad eyes belied that smile, and told the truth that lay behind them. Daniel wondered what drew his sister to a person like that—but perhaps not—he knew of nothing more seductive than a lie.

His sister and Sandy soon disappeared out of sight around the corner of the block. Daniel took that as his cue to stand up. He brushed off the dust and debris of the ground and grabbed his backpack. He’d lain it next to the tree. Throwing it over his shoulder he took from his pocket his Swiss army knife. When sitting next to the tree he’d noticed inscriptions carved into its trunk. Like any prophet of the school, he wanted to forge his own. Between the timeless wisdom of “Claires a slut!!!”—incorrectly punctuated he noted—and, “Brandon and Josh forever”, he added, “Daniel was here”, an epitaph worthy of a king. Finishing his work he blew on it, removing any last clinging wood-chips. A stubborn sliver of bark resisted his breath and disrupted the proper reading of “here”. To correct the offending chunk of wood, he dug in and leaned hard on the blade. It cut loose with a twang, but the sudden release of pressure popped the blade out of his hand. It fell bouncing down the tree trunk coming to land in the dirt with a plop. He bent over to pick it up; doing so brought his eyes level with an inscription unseen from any other angle: “What matter where if I be still the same”. He read it multiple times. Deep, he decided. Whoever said that had their shit figured out. Standing up to stretch, he pressed his knuckles into the small of his back. He groaned, enjoying the release of pressure. It was time to go.

Except for the main street entrance, the playground was waiting for him penned in on all sides by low-cost cement-grey residential towers. No one was playing on its grounds when Daniel arrived: no one ever was. The small area hosted several physical distractions: a rusting jungle gym for kids to climb and practice breaking limbs on; a set of drooping spring-loaded sea-animals with their paint flaking off for night-time drunks to ride, bend and wear out; and the feature Daniel most enjoyed using, a three-seater swing set. Whistling to himself Daniel took a seat on the middle swing and set his bag on the ground. He built up an arc pumping his legs. As he gained height, with each pass of the parabola’s bottom, he’d kick up a spray of bark mulch on his way to the sky. At the top, he’d smile.

As the three boys entered the park he slowed the swing to a stop by digging in his heels. Thommy Humphreys was an angry-faced, straight-haired, pear-shaped boy. His waist— grotesquely ballooning at such an early age—foreshadowed opponents to come; opponents he could not beat with fists.

Loping along at Thommy’s heels came Dean Beakman. A gangly, tall, back-woods boy with straw blond hair, moved from a place named after an animal’s body part to the city; Dean exemplified willful ignorance. He was fond of telling childhood stories, wherein inter-species relations passed for rites-of-passage. Born with a tin of chew in his cradle, Dean had developed a mild celebrity around the school for his digestive tract’s capabilities. His esophagus and bowels, inured by years of use, allowed the boy to munch on the acrid cud without spitting. Instead, he swallowed the acidic juice, like bitter medicine.

Rounding out the wayward trio was one of the school’s rich elite. Chris Branch, a neurotic tick ridden boy who, in another time, might have been referred to as “prosperously plump”. Not so fat as his companion, he lacked the certainty of a cardiac ward in his future. But soft easy living had molded the boy in its image: fragile and temperamental. All three boys belonged to a different social strata, and formed an uncommon alliance; anger, with its power to bind those of like-mind in common-cause, had brought them together. Surrounded by all three, sitting still on his swing. Daniel found himself the object of their inimical attention.

“Why do you always come here?” Thommy asked. He breathed heavily while gazing round the empty play-ground. “Looking for kids to fondle?”

“Ya disappointed, D? No kiddies today?” chirped Branch, snickering. He wore a glossy red chromatic t-shirt with the word “What” emblazoned across its front. Looking from Daniel and back to Thommy he itched at the exposed skin of his arms while shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. Beakman on the opposite flank of Thommy stood silent and expressionless as a cow, the only audible impression of his presence, the constant grinding of teeth as he worked away at the protrusion of tobacco held in his cheek.

Daniel kicked his legs, causing the swing to sway slightly. “Maybe I enjoy irony?” he spoke to the blurred ground rushing under his feet. Wasting words on people who wished him harm was exhausting. Digging pointed toes into the mulch he stopped the rocking of the swing. Hopping off his seat he then picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. He kept a level eye on all the boys aside from Beakman who stood taller than himself. Taking his back-pack from his shoulders he held it in front of his chest with both hands and looked at it quizzically. The odd gesture drew everyone’s attention to its matte black shape. “You know, I never thought this brand was ever any good, but my sister kept insisting, it’s the best. Costs three times more than the no-name version that looks similar—did you know that?” Daniel looked round at the trio, holding out the bag.

Thommy’s brow furrowed. “The hell are you on about?”

“No really, it is,” said Daniel, holding out the bag with a salesman’s can-you-believe-it expression and tone, “and you know the dumbest thing?”

Branch’s eyes shifted from Daniel to Thommy and back. “Seriously the fuck are you on about? We don’t give a shit about-”

Daniel interrupted, “The dumbest thing is, I’m such a huge nerd, I checked up on the manufacturer, and would you believe—it’s actually the same bag? Here look.” Daniel lobbed the bag at Branch. Instinctively the boy raised his hands to catch the thrown object. With his hands up and his guard down, Daniel kicked, hard as he could, into the boy’s unprotected groin, sending his nuts—Daniel hoped—somewhere up near the back of his throat. The boy went down making a sound akin to a pinched balloon releasing air. Shaken by their fallen comrade’s demise the two standing boys looked at his curled form. Daniel just shook his head. “I know… It’s ridiculous…”

The sudden ferocity of Daniel’s attack had momentarily pacified his assailants, but once the initial shock had worn off, rage replaced complacency, and they pounced.

The blows fell and Daniel reflected on what had brought him here. It was strange how violence could—at times—make perfect sense. He didn’t blame them.

He’d fought Thommy but the boy had knocked him down and his excessive weight kept him pinned to the ground. This allowed Beakman to beat away at his unprotected face. Without needing to look, he could tell the mounting damage was something he wouldn’t be able to hide from his sister—this time. Another fist connected with the crown of his skull and it rebounded off the ground behind his head. Pain blossomed behind his eyes and he saw stars: flashes of light. With his vision blurring, he fully expected a final concussive impact. Daniel kept open his swollen eyes and waited for the final strike. He wanted to see the end coming. Wished for it to release him from misery, into black nothingness. But Dean paused, fist raised, his face overcome with an idea.

“I think our boy looks thirsty.” Humphreys grunted in acknowledgment from atop Daniel. “I think he needs a drink.”

“You’re sick!” spat Daniel. New fear sobered his mind and he thrashed and flailed under his heavier opponent’s rolls of flesh, but Thommy was immovable. He achieved nothing.

“Pinch his nose, Thommy,” Beakman commanded in his woodsy drawl. Humphrey’s fat fingers stinking of onions clamped Daniel’s nose. Beakman started making sounds at the back of his throat like a clogged sink draining the last of its water. “Hold him still,” said Beakman, through a mouth half of equal parts spit and chew juice.

The last burst of resistance had drained what little energy Daniel had left. Accepting the situation’s futility, he chose to lie still as possible extending how long he could hold his breath, but the urge to breathe became overwhelming. A fire soon burned in his lungs, desperate for air. Anticipating Daniel’s breaking point, a leering Beakman positioned over Daniel’s head drew one final disgusting pull of air through his nostrils.

“I got your drink ready, D, say-”

He never did finish his sentence. Daniel was just able to register in his vision’s periphery the swinging fist. It slammed hard into Beakman’s temple. The blow connected so fiercely Beakman’s head cranked to the side and the boy dropped unconscious. The light in his eyes extinguished. His head landed next to Daniel face down. No longer in control of his jaw the vile liquid intended for Daniel began to pool around his face, draining slowly from his mouth like an oil spill, soaking the mulch he’d passed out in and leaking into his blond hair. Thommy who’d until this point focused solely on keeping Daniel pinned, looked up.

“What the fu-” He was the second to not finish his sentence. The boot connected flat with his face. Daniel could hear the wet snapping of cartilage and breaking bone, watched as the boy’s nose exploded, felt the spray of blood sting his eyes. Thommy went tumbling backwards off him, clutching his ruined face. “Here little pig pig piggy pig, come ere boy.” Daniel identified the taunting voice of his savior. Milton. Stepping over Daniel he leapt on Thommy, who’d fallen on his back. Descending into a crouched position with a foot on either side of his victim, Milton grabbed a fistful of Thommy’s shirt, using it to pull the disoriented boy off the ground. He began swinging. Thommy feebly attempted to block the onslaught with an arm but Milton easily passed the guard and punched through it, again… and again… and again…

Daniel watched from propped elbows in disbelief as the older boy turned the other’s face into a horror show. Watching the carnage Daniel’s stomach churned. In no version of his desired revenge was there ever this level of ultra violence.

“Pu… Pu… Please,” a battered Thommy pleaded through blood and spittle. Milton’s face, which had remained chillingly impassive during the course of the beating, split into a wide toothy grin.

“You’ll have to speak up—what was that?” Milton took the boy’s stained shirt in both hands and pulled him upright. Cocking his head to the left he brought Thommy’s lips in line with his ear. “Again please, did you need something?” In a heart-beat Milton had transformed: remorseless reaper became attentive angel. Allowed enough time to catch his ragged intermittent breath, Thommy wept.

“We didn’t know,” he began to sob, “We’re-”

Milton savagely backhanded the boy, cutting him off. He then drew their faces closer still—nearly touching—and screamed.

Cringing, Daniel slammed his hands over his ears. The loss he felt when Milton cried out was terrible, like dreams, still-born. Overwhelmed, Thommy’s eyes bugged in their sockets and rolled back; he went limp. Holding the boy for a moment, no longer screaming, Milton then let the dead-weight slip from his fingers. The body hit the ground with a loud thwump.

The sound managed to pierce a paralyzing fog that had rendered Daniel’s brain a mute observer. He sharply inhaled, having forgotten to breathe somewhere amidst the madness. With his hands flopping from his ears to his sides, on his knees he took in the playground around him: Beakman face down, black tar oozing around him. Branch curled in a ball moaning, grasping his genitals. And Thommy, looking like several stacked bags of flour laid out on his back, blood running freely from his broken nose and ruined features.

“Need a hand? You look like hell.”

“Huh… what…?” Dazed, Daniel looked at the outstretched hand in front of him.

“Your face man, those bastards really laid a whooping on you before I showed up.”

“I… Yes, thank you.” Daniel touched a hand to his face and pulled it away fast. It hurt, badly. He took the bloodied slick hand of Milton and stood up. He felt strange, light-headed, grateful, horrified. A wave of nausea tossed his stomach and he pressed both hands to his knees. Hunched over he closed his eyes to stop the spinning. He did not wish to join the others on the ground. Speaking sideways he asked, “Why did you help me?”

Milton cracked another famous grin and smacked Daniel on his hunched over back. “Well, I’m just your guardian angel, buddy.”

Daniel raised his head, looked into Milton’s radiant smile—and threw up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter.2 Family Reunion

Daniel watched as the window’s cold early light crept across his bed covers. He imagined it as some hungry beast, consuming his body. First his legs, then his chest. Given time, it would devour him completely. Kate stirred in the bed that sat next to him, rolled over, but never woke. She could always sleep longer than him. Sharing the room with her irked him. He hated giving up his privacy. In their previous home, before the court case, he’d had all the necessities: walk in closet, walk in shower and king sized bed. A home so big he could actually go the whole day without ever having to see anyone. Although he only ever avoided Grant.

Tossing off the covers, he grimaced as his bare feet touched the cold wooden floor boards. Add another thing to the list of past comforts gone. No more heated floors. On his parents list of prerequisites for their new place they’d written only two: cheap and can we move in now? Looking around his room, he was sure they’d succeeded in checking off both. The previous tenants, swiftly ejected for defaulting on rent, must have dreamt of turning this room into a nursery, but they’d succeeded in only half accomplishing the project. One wall showcased an amateurish collage of farm animals. A happy smiling cow stood next to a tree in a green field. At its feet, a family of six happy smiling yellow blobs marched in a line. Or, chicks maybe, he couldn’t tell. Above, in a too blue sky, a happy smiling bird with no eyes flew over their heads. Everything happy. The other three walls they’d not even started. They retained the colour chosen by the tenants before them. Black.

He remembered standing in the room with his mom when they’d first come to look at it with the building manager. Daniel was certain, listening to the two women talk, he’d never heard the word potential used so many times. At least it came with the two steel frame beds and a large dresser with a mirror. They needed anything they could get after Grant had sold all the furnishings in their last home to cover as much of the debt as possible. He hated how Grant always called it that, the debt. As though he, his mom and Kate had all together racked up the additional costs that sank them so badly after people first started getting sick. He’d bought it all: fancy cars, business trips to warm places, endless designer clothing, and always for the same reason. Grant would say there was a certain lifestyle expected of him. He had to keep up appearances. From a young age Daniel always wondered, how when he grew up, would he afford all the appearances? Turned out the answer to that question is most people can’t, unless by fraud.

After an insufferable shower where the water took two minutes before it heated up, Daniel got dressed and made his way downstairs. In the kitchen, Kate, his mom and Grant, all sat around a square table with round metal legs. A plastic stapled-on table-cloth decorated with oranges covered its surface. Leftovers again from the previous tenants, the table and the cloth.

“Hi, honey, did you sleep well?” His mom beamed with a smile that put the farm animals to shame.

“Still a little tired actually.” He pulled out the last remaining chair next to his sister and sat down.

“What’s for breakfast?”

“Just the basics I’m afraid: toast and fruit,” she chimed, pushing her chair back on her way to the kitchen. “But I can go shopping today. I want to take a look around the neighbourhood anyways.”

“It’s alright, Mom. I like toast.”

“Liar,” said Kate. She’d spoken with her head down. Eyebrows furrowed, focused on her e-reader. Swiping intermittently from right to left to turn the page.

“What are you talking about? I’ve always loved toast.”

“You love toast so long as it provides a medium for peanut butter. You love peanut butter, not toast.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” After a pregnant silence, Daniel added, “Do we have any peanut butter…?”

His mother, slicing an apple, answered from the kitchen. “Well no, honey, that’s on the list for today. We have butter though. You like that don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah sure, no problem.” Daniel smiled at his mom, crushing the despondent feelings welling up that would prove his sister right. He attempted to ignore the smug expression she now wore while reading her book. “I really don’t mind you kn-” The doorbell rang.

Dropping off Daniel’s plate of toast and sliced apple in front of him, his mom stepped lightly by the kitchen table. “I wonder who that could be?” she said, her voice irritatingly coloured with a timbre that hinted she already knew the answer.

The door opened inwards and blocked Daniel from seeing who his mother spoke with. Grant, who’d been muttering angrily behind his newspaper, lowered it. Even Kate, whose attention could be no more ripped from a book than a sword from a stone, looked up in curiosity. It wasn’t possible. Daniel’s heart raced. Grant had told him it was necessary. He’d even said goodbye. But there was no mistaking that hopeful jingle of metal. That happy panting behind the door. He ran from his seat nearly knocking his mother over. “Lincoln!” he exclaimed, elated. The black lab stood outside the door. Upon seeing Daniel he wagged his tail so hard it bowed his whole body back and forth. Taking the leash from his mother as she scratched a signature on the delivery man’s paper, he led the dog inside. “Can you believe it?” he said, wrestling the dog to the floor behind the door while it licked his face and nipped him affectionately.

“No, I can’t,” said his sister, sounding worried, looking at Grant.

“That makes two of us.” The anger evident in Grant’s voice was barely contained. The happy reunion ended as soon as the door closed. “Beth, what the fuck did you do!” The pleased-with-herself expression slid from her face as though she’d never known it.

“I thought we could afford it, Grant? Lincoln’s a part of the family. We kept the Lexus. I thought we could keep Lincoln,” she offered with wounded hope, “for the children?”

“I need the Lexus, Beth, for appearances. That dog is useless. It’s just gonna cost us money we don’t have.”

“Lincoln’s more useful than you,” said Daniel, jumping up to stand protectively in front of his pet. The dog cowered behind him, confused and worried by the raised voices.

Grant stood up. He slammed his hand on the table, rocking the glasses set out for breakfast. “You spoiled little shit. I got that dog for you.”

“So you could give him away, because you got caught for approving bad drugs. That’s crueler than ever having him.”

“How dare you. I put food on this table. You owe everything you’ve ever had to me.”

“Grant, please.” Beth stepped between the two. “We can make it work.”

Grant moved threateningly from the table towards the door. Standing in front of his wife he held up his index finger inches from her face. “No, we can’t, Beth. We can’t make it work. You’ve fucked us. Now we’re even more screwed if I don’t find a job this month. Get out of my way.” Beth stood aside, back to the door with her head down, hands clasped in front of her. “Now I’m going to get changed and go out to look for a job, so this family can continue to eat. When I get back downstairs you kids better be gone for school. It’s enough you’re ungrateful; I’m not gonna raise idiots.”

Daniel stepped forward confronting Grant’s anger. Blocking his way up the stairs. “You think you’re tough, because you yell, because you can make people feel horrible.” He jabbed a finger into his face, as Grant had to his mother. “You’re just a coward, a coward with a loud-”

Grant slapped the hand out of his face and grabbed Daniel by his neck slamming him backwards into the wall.

Beth screamed.

“No, you little idiot,” said Grant, choking his son and forcing him down the wall. “I’m tough, because I’m bigger and stronger than you. You better be gone when I get downstairs.” Grant released his grip and stood up. “Or I swear to God…” With his path clear, he stomped up the stairs.

“Excited for school?” asked Kate from the table.

Daniel, rubbing his raw neck, hunched over on the floor, looked at Kate. She sat with her face propped between balled fists. The ghost of a wan smile on her lips.

Chapter.1 Killing Dinosaurs

charlesjameson

Also available on Wattpad and Figment

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…

Charlie Chaplin, “The Dictator”

 

Rain smacked the windshield with fat heavy blobs. It fell in a constant dull thrumming rhythm. Thunk, thunk, thunk. No matter what speed the wiper blades passed, the view of their outside surroundings only ever lasted a second. The briefest glimpse, then all the shapes and colours would melt, bleeding into each other, washed away again in the next wave of downpour.

Not that it bothered Daniel. He had no interest in what was outside. They’d been driving through the city for hours. Boredom and resentment painfully stretched his patience, like a balloon ready to burst. Making up his mind long ago that he would hate it here, block after block of interminable grey cement had done steady work to ensure that opinion became a fact. He’d grown accustomed to the sylvan surroundings of their forfeited home, beautiful and priced to make you bleed. Here, he found the over-bright colours of storefronts garish by comparison, ostensibly designed to sucker those too world-weary to care if the advertising was false.

An old friend had suggested guided meditations on YouTube might work when he felt like this. He’d practiced a few, liked them. Even if they only seemed effective when he was already happy. He tried to imagine one now. Okay. First step. Think of your breathing, that felt good. Okay. Second step. Fuck the second step. His mom wouldn’t shut up. She prattled away in the front seat. Her words shaded with an optimism her voice didn’t believe.

“You’re thinking too much.”

His sister’s voice floated across to him in the back seat of the car. All around, boxes filled with items took up the available space, artifacts from a life left behind on their way to the next. “How can you say that? You can’t even see me through all this shit.”

“Daniel, don’t swear.” His mother scolded from the front of the car.

“I can barely breathe back here, Mom. You expect me to be all happy go fucking lucky when I’m gonna die from lack of oxygen.”

His father added to the chorus. “Shut-up, Daniel. We’re almost there. You’re being dramatic. What you’re referring to as shit back there, is everything for the kitchen. So unless you want to eat off a newspaper, stop complaining.” Continuing he muttered to himself. “This whole thing would have gone smoother if we could’ve afforded a moving van.” Daniel could see enough of the front seat to watch his mom fretting and wringing her hands.

“Grant, you know I’ve been trying to get a job while you’re between yours.”

“I’m not between anything, Beth. Those fuck-ups at Balanced Life threw me under the bus.”

“I just wish you’d try to relax. We are doing the best we can.”

“Yeah and we’re doing great aren’t we? Chewing through my savings and renting when we were on our way to owning. Everything is fucking great.”

Daniel let the arguing of his parents become a buzz in the background and occupied himself by tunneling a path through the boxes to his sister in the seat opposite. Finally, shifting enough out of his way, he spied her small form, curled up next to the window, reading from an e-reader. “I can’t believe you like that thing so much. What ever happened to books? People just appreciating paper pages?”

Kate looked up from her reading with a smile on her face. “When’s the last time you read one, Daniel?”

He chuckled. “Good call. Well whatever, they’re a fad.”

“Like social media?” she offered, still smiling.

“You’re a smart-ass. You know that, Kate?”

“Better than a dumb-ass.” Kate went back to her reading, leaving Daniel glaring through the tunnel at her.

Sighing resignedly he sat back in the seat, crossing his arms, and went back to looking out the window. Kids could be so mouthy sometimes.

 

———

 

Daniel woke up groggily; the vehicle had stopped moving. He didn’t know when. The rain still pounded down outside but at a short distance from the car. They’d parked under a small roof’s cover which created a dry patch.

“We’re not there yet are we?” he said to no one in particular. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes he tried to make out where they’d stopped.

“No, but almost,” Kate answered.

His senses returning, Daniel could see his sister with her back to him on her knees looking out the window.

“We just stopped for gas and Grant had to go to the bathroom. Mom says we are about ten blocks away. This is actually where our new school is. You can see it out there.” She pressed a finger against the fogged glass of the window.

Uninterested in the school, mention of the bathroom called attention to his bursting bladder. He really had to piss. “Wait here okay. I’m just gonna take a leak.” He stumbled out of the car, not realizing how numb and cramped his legs had become from sitting too long. Stopped, rubbing and slapping his thighs to bring back the feeling, he scanned the parking lot.

The school sat across from the gas station. It took up the adjacent two blocks with its unimpressive single story of conjoined rectangles. Its walls were a standard dirty cream with orange trim, endowed with just enough windows to keep construction costs down; every inch of glass desperately needed blasting with a power-washer to remove the build-up of winter gunk and mold. At one end of the school a basketball court sat vacant. Its puddle-pocked uneven cement and torn nets provided a meager space for recreation. At the other, a parking stretch filled with tacky, leased for life cars. The highest achievement of mid-life mediocrity. Pretty much what he’d come to expect from an inner-city high-school. On the other side of their aging black Lexus his mom stood, pumping the gas.

“Honey, did we wake you up? We were trying to be quiet so you could sleep.”

Daniel waved a hand. “It’s fine, Mom. Where’s the bathroom?”

She pointed at a metal door on the side of the gas station, its bottom half green with algae. “Just over there, your father should be coming out soon.”

Daniel loped over to the side of the building, stamping out the last pins and needles from his feet. Before he could grasp the handle, the door swung open nearly knocking him over. His father, standing in the open frame, frowned down at him.

“Watch where you’re going, Daniel.”

Ignoring him Daniel pushed past, letting the door slam shut behind while his father’s disapproving eyes drilled into his back. With the door closed, he pinched his nose, hating the smell. Always, in a public washroom’s air he could taste it: that sickly sour lingering scent of chemical cleaning products, never quite doing their job. Sidling up to the nearest urinal, he made an effort to touch nothing. He never did believe those checklists assuring you the staff cleaned the place every hour. Releasing his pinched nose to unbutton his pants he breathed a contented sigh, able to relieve himself.

A lone goofy poster above his chosen urinal caused him to smirk. It colourfully advertised the gas-station’s two for one deals on super mega slurpo slushies, great to beat that hot summer heat. Now he knew they never cleaned in here. Advertising always took precedent over cleanliness, and if that wasn’t up to date, well. Doing up his pants, laughing at the sign with its cartoon dinosaur riding down a wave clutching a diabetes inducing sugar drink in its hand, he noticed a curious detail jutting out from behind one of its curling brown edges. A portion of carved writing with thick deep lines, as though someone had dug into the wall with an index-finger-sized nail. He could make out three jaggedly carved capital letters: ART.

He would have walked out there and then but burning foolish curiosity got the better of him. He could not resist taking a quick peek at what lay behind. What if it were a code for some millionaire’s bank account with enough money to make him rich? He could hire someone to kill his deadbeat dad and live happily ever after. He wished that thought weren’t so appealing. After throwing a quick check over his shoulder at the door to make sure no one had come in, he went to pull the poster off the wall. Gripping the edge nearest to the letters and pulling lightly, he’d expected it to peel off easily. Instead, only the corner’s brown flakes came away, crumbling to dust in his hand.

Why had someone fastened this to the wall? He took from his jeans pocket his trusty Swiss army knife. A gift two years prior from his father for his twelfth birthday. He knew accepting it meant accepting the constant reminders of Grant’s bottomless beneficence, but he didn’t mind. It was worth it to cut stuff. Selecting its blade, he tried again. This time edging the corner of the blade where the brown flakes had fallen away. The paper wouldn’t budge. What the hell is this thing stuck on with? He tried at the opposing corner where the curling brown paper still folded over intact. Eureka. Jimmying the blade behind the paper, this section, unlike the other, peeled away with some effort. More letters dug into the wall revealed themselves. An S, then an E, and finally a T—SET. Interesting enough to warrant more work. After a few more minutes of scratching and scraping he managed to reveal two more letters. An M and an E—SETME. What was that supposed to mean? Brown coloured stale paper continued to gather at his feet until another set of letters became viewable. He could now read: SETMEFREE. Well it’s more interesting than the usual dick jokes. It sounds more like a rock song, but no bank account. He sighed.

His progress had scraped off the top quarter of the poster, leaving a strangely macabre looking decapitated dinosaur riding a wave. The next section proved more difficult than the first. But, with determination, he could pry off little by little the paper so strangely affixed to the wall.

The door burst in loudly behind him. “You little shit!” his father raged, forming a black silhouette as grey white light poured in behind him. Standing on the shredded remnants of a now extinct smiling dinosaur, Daniel knew how he must look. “We’ve been sitting in the car waiting for you for over fifteen minutes, and you’re in here, vandalizing the bathroom!”

Daniel had no reply. Had he really been doing this for that long? “Sorry, Grant, I just had to pee and-” Not letting him finish his father crossed the bathroom and smacked him upside the head. Hard. He grabbed hold of him by the neck of his shirt and yanked. Cursing and choking as his feet slid across the floor, dragged out of the bathroom, Daniel read the last letters of his work. IAM.