So, a few weeks ago I wrote about the wacky writing experience I’d had with Sharon from my writing group. We’d met up at a local restaurant to chat, eat, and write. What I think started out as a serious attempt to write something good quickly degenerated into fun and nonsense, but the experience was freeing. (Click on the link above to read more about it). Anyway, I’d mentioned that if ever Sharon agreed to it, I’d post the story we came up with. She’s a great sport and agreed. So, I’ve posted it here. Now, please note that this is an exercise. The goal was to reignite the creative juices while feeding off the energy of another person. No editing, no rewrites. Pure expression of thought. Doing this, and seeing the results (which are humbling), just served to remind me that writing for the sake of writing should be fun: I forgot about performance anxiety, the desire to be perfect, and of doing things right. We laughed a lot. Bonus! And, though the story itself isn’t totally comprehensive, I enjoyed trying to emulate as much as I could someone else’s style (maybe we rubbed off on each other)–a means of stretching my own style and voice. And, if I look hard enough at the result, I can pick out many ideas, styles, and themes worth exploring. So, all in all, I thought the exercise was a success. For those who don’t know how it worked, all we did was agree to write 350 words before handing off. That’s it. As there’s no title, I just threw one in. Oh, and there’s a strong language warning: we stayed in character for this one. So, without further ado, please enjoy…
When You Call 9-1-1, Make Damn Sure You Do it Right the First Time
The light from the street light falls across the trees, a burst of light grey quickly falling away into shadow, like dusk. In the alley, I hear the cats mewing, then spitting, yelling and screaming as they begin to fight .They are mean bastards, cats. All teeth and claws. And those eyes that watch you, captivate you with omniscient heavy-lidded knowingness.
I walk faster, away from the alley, across the bridge and away from town . My footsteps echo, and I wonder if they reverberate enough to wake the sleeping troll. When I step off the cobblestones and touch the soles of my feet to the street, only the quiet running of the stream is heard. The troll sleeps. The cats war. Yet I have escaped will walk on.
“You really think you’ll make it out alive, do you?”
“Shut it,” I say, pulling my collar up to my ears.
“Now, now, I’ve held my peace all this time, though it nearly ended me. You have to hear me now.”
“I told you to shut it!”
I stuff my fingers in my ears—childish, but it always seemed to work. He wouldn’t let me be, otherwise. Talk, talk, talk, jabber, jabber, jabber. But that is how my father had wanted it. A conscience, a needle that always pointed north for his wayward son who needed one.
That’s what he thought, anyway.
“That little mess you left behind, Simon, what do you plan to do about it?”
I shrug. “Dunno. They can rot for all I care.”
I sensed him bristle, pictured rather than saw him grimace. I never really saw him, come to think of it. But I knew him, and he knew me, intimately.
“Listen, just go away. I’m almost at the limits, now. Once I cross over…”
“Stay,” he said. “We can fix this.”
“I don’t want to. Tell the old man he can go to hell, too.” Then I thought about it, laughed to myself and blocked him out again. “Well, I guess he’s already on his—“
“LAST LEGS????? Is that what you want, Simon? You want me to spell it out????? L-A – ”
“SHUT UP! I said!” As if the “I said,” adds the emphatic to the first. Pathetic is the ‘ic’, the ‘tic’, that’s what it is. That’s all.
The little mess I left behind. I know what he’s talking about. I turn into a darker-lit stretch of this cobblestone … as if darker even works here. It’s so dark, I’m having illusions, or is that delusions? I see an oasis of light. A pinprick. Yet if I glance above, the orange glow of the street lamps lend enough to this landscape of endless row houses that I could even see the detail of the door, if I wanted to. If I wanted to, I could make out more than the door. I could land myself straight on the window frame and go right through the windows, all two of their double-strength, triple-insulated glass.
I won’t though. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for the kiddies, still awake I see, as I walk by. What time is it? 10, 11, 2 a.m.? Who lets their kids stay up so late? I’m in front of one place now, and through the curtains. They haven’t rolled the whole thing over; there’s a place where the cloth is folded still, too thick, or wrinkled, or something like that, and I can see in.
“SIMON! I’m talking to you! Why do you always pretend, go somewhere else when I’m TALKING???!!!!”
I shake with the intensity of his anger. My collar has fallen, and my ears, exposed. I pull the shirt’s neck up over my ears. Again. Repetition is part of it, I realize. If I repeat, repeat, repeat, maybe I can magic him away. It’s worked before.
“That little mess you left behind. What are you going to do?”
Inside the brownstone there’s a flicker, a flame. From here, I can’t really make out what the source is, but it’s like an insistent candle calling the family into their current gathering. I concentrate on that flame.
There’s a raging beside, behind, probably in front, but I stand on these two feet and give him everything I have. Swaying. Concentrating on that flame.
“If you’d give me a second’s peace then I wouldn’t have to play these mind games,” I finally say, calmer now but still focused. The flame still burned in my head, it’s after image flickering and fluttering, thin like the birth of an idea.
“What are you going to do?” he asks. His voiced is tense. He knows what’s coming. He’s known it since the alley cats, since my footsteps echoed across the lifeless bridge. And because he knows, I smile.
I head towards the house. There’s a stick on the ground. I pick it up, flip it once in my hand, and keep walking. The approaching lawn is well-kept, dark green. Not one weed. Well, not for long.
“This isn’t a game, Simon.”
“Of course it is.” I hurry now, skipping across the grass, dodging the garbage and recycling bins already carefully set out, early. Such good and careful citizens. The lid’s snapped tight. Not even the raccoons can get in.
A dog barks. I duck behind one of the bins and count to twenty, waiting out the following silence, just to be sure.
“I can bind you, you know. It’s painful.”
“I know. Dammit I know!” Other than his voice inside my head, the neighbourhood is quiet. Peaceful. So quiet and peaceful I want to scream just to break it. What I want are the thugs, the angry teens out for kicks, thirsty for trouble like me. The stick feels heavy but right against my palm. It’s perfect for what comes next.
His voice is louder in my head. “Do you think she would want this?”
I grip the stick. I pictured bashing his head in with it, only he had no head, no body. Just this damn annoying voice running like poison water though my head. “She left me, idiot. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Damnit! Ouch! Someone’s left something out here, on this kept lawn. In the light beyond the pulled drapes, I can make out something, like a face. A DAMNED DOLL! What the fuck? One hand on the stick. Safe there. The other I use to pick up this wretched thing, the face peering out, small lips set in a grimace.
There’s a moaning, a grueling kind of murmur, a shudder through my hands. “There you are, Simon. There you are.”
Shit! The doll lands on the toe of my left shoe. Shit!
“What are you doing?”
“Simon, I told you. I told you this is it. The big one. This is what you’re made for. Now, take that stick. No, not like that. Hold it high. This is what you’ve come here for. So what are you waiting for?”
He’s right. I’m struck by how accurate he is. Many years, too numerous to stand here and count, like I’m some rabid mathematical fucking genius in the middle of this lawn with this pursed-lipped doll behind my heels. If I don’t hurry, there will be more than the doll at my heels.
Here I am. At the door. Through the spiral of window on the left, the right, just above my brain, I make out a staircase. That’s right. There are two floors here. No, three. The basement. A finished basement, with a ping-pong table that’s often folded, so that one lonesome can play by himself, back and forth, against the folded green board … teasing him into believing he’s actually playing some goddamned game. Solitaire stuff. And the air hockey table. With the problematic fan that sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t; and when it’s not working, you have to kick the thing, or maybe you’re not a kicker. So maybe you wait, turn it off, on. A million times, every time thinking, “This is going to be it! I can play again.” Thank God, ‘cause what else are you going to do down there?
Down in the finished basement, with the stupid ping-pong paddle in your hand, and the board turned up, so you’re playing yourself, your own goddamned self. Or on, off, flicking the switch on the air hockey set, knowing that the second you try this again, the air will start flowing again and you can throw it at him! More than get it into his goal! You can beat him, beat him with the red mallet, red like cherry pie and things shouldn’t be that red.
Shit. Just stepped on that pursed-lipped doll’s head. It cracked; a round egg with no yolk, pieces bunched on the grass. Good riddance.
“Back to the cobblestone, Simon. Let’s cross back into the centre of town, where it’s safe. You can’t hurt anyone there.”
“Nowhere is safe, Simon. Haven’t you figured even that out yet?”
I kick the door. It flies open. Cheap locks mean easy deaths. I raise the stick and dash into the house.
Or I thought I did. Stupid slick-tongued voice in my head, stupid mind-controlling piece of shit Father-given impulse controlling freak. Living in my head. Deciding what I can and cannot do.
“Fuck you,” I say.
“I warned you. If you fight it, it’ll start to hurt.”
“I’ve always hated you.”
“And I never hated you.”
“Because you’re not fucking real!”
By then, the Father slid into the hallway.
“What the—Gina, call the police! Some asshole has walked into the house—with a stick!”
I hear the woman whimpering in the kitchen, fiddling and dropping the phone.
“For fuck sake, woman! By the time you call we’ll all be dead!”
I’m fighting him. I picture the stick crushing the man’s head, like a real china doll, brains and blood and bone spattering across the white tile. Pain flares up my legs and down my arms, but I use it, fight it, incite it. The wife is in the kitchen, squealing to 911 but the stick bashes her in too, crushing her stupid body against the wall and then, down the hall—
“Gah! Stop it, asshole! It frigging hurts!”
“You’d gone too far. I had to so something.”
Falling onto the kitchen tiles. “I could crack my head!”
“That’s what you want, isn’t it? To crack?”
“What are you doing?”
But it’s not him. There’s a voice outside the one inside. I can barely turn my head, hand’s underneath my shoulder. I’m coiled on the floor. Can’t look. Seems like red is everywhere now. A fucking meat pie or cherry or rhubarb or strawberry or… blood?
“I SAID, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”
The voice, familiar. Like a faraway time. Maybe it’s mine. I swing up on one elbow. There he is, standing in the door frame of the kitchen, the living room light shining against the outline of his face, neck, heavy shoulders. His torso. What is he doing here?
“I told you it would hurt if you continued. I told you.” He’s shaking his head like some grand know-it-all, patronizing the hell out of me.
I see he has the stick in his hand, only there’s only a half of it; it’s splintered, like some Godzilla came around and broke off the top. I think of the air hockey table, without air, the cats fighting out there, I swear I can still hear them. You’d think someone would have put them, the doll, the whole world out of its misery.
And with one eye still turned to the red tiles, I think of the cobblestone street I’d just left. I sense him in the doorway, arms crossed, half of the stick hanging out of one hand. He’s waiting for an answer. To what?
“Honey, the police are on the way.”
It’s the woman. She’s hiding behind the wall, talking to her husband from the safety of the kitchen, where the knives, and vinegar and all the sharp tools are. She’s probably eying them all, trying each one out for size.
I look up, and the man is backing away from me, crab-like, scuttling across the floor, dumbstruck and just looking, dumb.
“What the—who are you people? Where the hell did he come from?”
My head is spinning. My arms and legs are still burning, hot like hell itself had opened up under me; it lava had become my blood. I wipe the blood from my face but more keeps running down from the cut. “He’s my nemesis. The devil. He’s evil incarnate and he’s just saved your miserable, frigging, Ikea-perfect lives.”
He moves from the door, not the crab-man but him, devil-man, uncrosses his arms and grabs me by the scruff of the neck. “Poor boy has no manners,” he says to the stupefied father. “His mother just left him and all. You know, youth, no direction. Lost souls and all that. It’s a terrible epidemic.”
“Piece of shit, no good meddling father!” I swat at his hand, but it grips like an iron collar.
“Sorry for your trouble, sir. We’ll be going now.”
“Honey?” calls the wife. “The police…?”
“Have a good night, you two. I’m sorry for the disturbance.” He drags me along the tiles behind him, we cross the threshold and I’m back on golf green.
“You’re nothing but a party-pooper.”
“That’s my job, Simon. Father’s orders.”
I get to my feet, follow him along the road until we get to the cobblestone bridge.
Here the entrance spreads out to darkness, all the way across there’s the lone street lamp beating down on the other entrance, as if someone’s about to make his grand entrance … or would that be exit, as if the one person on this bridge, under that street lamp is some kind of star of the evening. Some goddamned movie star. But here, there’s nothing.
He’s silent now, my father. Everything is silent now. I touch the stones that make up the hand railing of the bridge. It’s ancient, this thing. Came across a storm a few years back, and almost thought it would suffer from it. But no, still standing.
What are you going to say about a troll bridge after all?
That must be why he’s silent. This is where I leave him, or him, me.
“You got to promise me. You have to promise me.”
“What? What do you want now?”
“That you’ll shut it down.”
“Shut it – ”
“Shut down your mean streak. You have to, before you destroy all of us. Your mother too.”
“What the hell does she have to do with this?”
“You know what she has to do with this!” My father crouches by the entrance, or exit, or whatever you want to call it, of the bridge. Cobblestones. Cobbled together. He crunches up, like a … well, yah, like a troll, and quietly moves along the shredded grass here, to the current below.
“Your mom is feeling it, Simon. She’s feeling it now, and you have to stop this. We’re not getting any younger.”
There he crouches. Troll Father. Waiting for the next traveler to cross.
I’m yelling. “Oh, yeah?! And what riddle are you going to ask now? They’re almost used up, aren’t they? All the answers! We KNOW all the answers! Father!”