I had this short story published in an online horror fiction forum for writers some time back. I wanted to write something dark; something not me. This was only my second attempt to write something frightening or disturbing. I think its good to explore other sides of the writing world.
I had this short story published in an online horror fiction forum for writers some time back. I wanted to write something dark; something not me. This was only my second attempt to write something frightening or disturbing. I think its good to explore other sides of the writing world.
Story on a theme: Bottle
Darby Winslow always displayed a flair for the dramatic. At seven years of age he wandered off from the family beach excursion to travel the world and disappeared for nearly twenty four hours. During his adventure he found an old bottle with a cork buried beneath some dried out palm leavings. Having found no way to open a coconut, his only source of food, he thought for sure he was a goner. With his last piece of paper and a broken crayon he’d saved to try and fix once they got home, he scribbled out his SOS message, resealed the cork snugly into the bottle and threw it back out into the lagoon.
The bottle floated unmoved, as if suspended with opposing forces laying siege to it from all directions . Darby picked up a big rock and threw it into the water close to the bottle, hoping the ripples would send it on its way. The bottle only inched out a fraction further into the water. Eventually Darby became bored and wandered back to the beach front where he remained until he was rescued the following day.
Slowly the bottle ebbed and flowed until it finally reached the tidal current. The tide happened to be heading out at that precise moment and the bottle bobbed under the water's pull as it headed out to sea.
The bottle remained in the shipping lane for countless months as it worked its way further and further out to sea until the wake from a large container vessel pushed it into a secondary current where it ultimately drifted out of the shipping lanes and into a vast unvisited portion of the ocean where it floated lifelessly under a scorching sun for years uncounted.
One day a tropical storm sparked to life from the South and as the sky blackened into a false night, waves grew and circled from a wind that was berthed under the conditions. Each wave pushed the bottle out of its invisible cell and further along its random pathway. Eventually the bottle hit another shipping lane and followed the tide until a trawler scooped it up during a fishing excursion.
Back at port, one of the fishermen untangled the bottle from the netting and plopped it off the back of the boat where it floated under the dock until it was picked up by a homeless man scavenging for recycling revenues in the hopes of a hot meal.
At the recycling center, the temporary volunteer for the day thought the bottle interesting looking and scooped it off the conveyer belt bound for glass crushing and ultimate meltdown. She took the bottle back to her beach home and placed it on her back deck as a garden décor piece.
A fall hurricane broke over the beach barrier and took the beach house into the sea; battering every possession the woman owned among the rocks and debris. The bottle got carried back out to sea and drifted for years until finally coming to rest on the beach shore.
Darby Winslow grew up with an insatiable urge to travel and explore the world but at the age of seventeen got his girlfriend pregnant. Though friends and family were against it, he married young and settled down to raise his unexpected son. Though the years were tough, they had somehow bucked the odds and stayed happily married. He taught Geography for twenty-five years before retiring himself. His son had grown up and gone off to serve his country but caught a land mine during his final three months on tour and died alone, thousands of miles from his family and friends.
The news had hit Darby and his wife hard. They spent years working through their grief only to be besieged by the deaths of their parents, one by one until there were none left to care for. The final straw came when his wife passed away in a terrible drowning accident at their beach house.
Darby often went for walks along the beach after the incident; grieving that all he had and all he cared about were gone. It had been exactly a year to the day that his wife passed away that he noticed a bottle washed up on the sand. He pulled it off the beach and inspected it. The bottle was quite old and there seemed to be something inside it. Opening up the green stained bottle, his face flushed as he read the inscription penned in crayon.
“I am lost, do not forget me. Darby Winslow”
That evening, he pulled his suitcase from the attic where it had been collecting dust for over forty years and made one-way airline reservations bound for the unknown.
Simon wandered into the bathroom and gazed in the mirror as he began his morning routine. He examined the creases stretched out across his forehead as if they had just appeared. “That’s odd,” he thought to himself, “I swear I look ten years older than I did yesterday.”
“And these can’t be my clothes,” he mumbled in a frantic search for his favorite cardigan sweater. None of his clothes looked familiar but finding nothing else recognizable in his closet he went ahead and put some on. They fit perfect.
Time was running late, he had to get going or he’d be late for his classes. The campus was within walking distance but even still he worried that there wasn’t enough time to make it into class. When they start class, nobody goes in late and he couldn’t afford any more absences if he wanted to do well on the final.
“What the hell?” Simon stared through the sun’s rays into a world he didn’t recognize.
“What is that?” he asked a stranger as a car passed by.
“You kidding, buddy? That’s a Mustang Convertible. Wish I had enough to get me a new one of those!”
Everything looked different. The people walking the street were dressed unusual. Crewcuts gave way to longer hair that hung over ones eyes. Skirt lines shortened.
“Am I in the future?” he thought as he made his way on to campus. Though everyone around him dressed and acted foreign, he nevertheless made his way to his first class. The classroom was empty.
“I’m sorry sir, the class you’re asking about hasn’t been offered here since the late 50s!” said the admissions assistant shaking her head.
Simon left the campus, his head whirling with confusion and questions. “The mirror,” he thought, everything made sense until I looked into that damn mirror.
“I’ll bet if I look into it again tomorrow morning it’ll propel me into the future once again,” he thought as he slipped into bed for the evening.
Sure enough, when he woke up in the morning and inspected himself in the mirror he was shocked to see more wrinkles. And he was getting gray hair. Again, his clothes were completely different. His favorite Turtleneck was nowhere to be found. He had bell bottom pants and a polyester shirt in his closet. With nothing else to wear he went ahead and tried them on. They fit perfect.
“That mirror is teleporting me into the future. My life is slipping away before me!” he screamed as a giant jacked up Cuda passed by on the street. Afraid to go anywhere, he stayed inside, mesmerized with the TV offerings.
The next morning he was afraid to go to the mirror. Where in the future would it take him? But after going to the bathroom, his autopilot routine kicked into gear and the next thing he knew he was getting ready to brush his teeth while gazing into the mirror. The very same mirror he was trying to avoid. The reflection back was shocking.
His hair had receded back and was nearly white. His face looked aged and care worn, as if it had been paid back for years of hard labor outdoors on a fishing vessel. He seemed more hunched in his reflection and it made his back ache.
In his closet he found that his favorite bell bottoms were gone, replaced by brightly colored parachute pants and designer exercise outfits. He tried them on and they fit perfect. “Must be the stretchy material,” he grumbled as he peeked outside the window to see a DeLorean drive by. He stopped going outside. The future was too much for him to handle.
Each morning was the same. No matter what he tried to do to avoid the mirror, somehow he managed to find himself standing in front of it without realizing he’d even gone there. Habits and routine are hard to break and he felt it was costing him his whole life.
By the seventh morning his reflection showed a bald, hunched over old man in the mirror. He had to be in his 80s. Saddened by the reflection in the mirror, he spent his day wondering why the mirror had taken so much of his youth and propelled him into his own future without the benefit of experiencing everything in between.
He drifted off for the final time and wasn’t discovered until his sister came by with her husband that evening to check on him.
“It’s such a shame about Simon’s memory condition,” she lamented to her husband, “Something in the house seemed to be an anchor that wiped his recent memory experiences clean as if he were still living his life from ten years prior.”
“I remember that,” said her husband, “He always seemed to be at least a decade or more behind the times, as if he thought he was from the past or something.”
“I tried to get him to move but after awhile he refused to even leave the house. Years went by like this,” said his sister, “the doctors never could determine what was causing the condition.”
On his tombstone they placed, “Here lies Simon Coother, he lived 30 years of his 82 years of life.”
“You show up late one more time and you can forget about showing up at all!” That was last week and my boss still hadn’t lost that twitching anger eye from the experience. This was really my last chance and I was running dangerously late again.
“Damn,” I screamed while seated in my car nervously gripping the steering wheel until veins protruded across the back of my hands as if some road map had come alive on my person, guiding me through the path of least resistance.
I didn’t understand it. I’d given myself ample time to get to work but there were sixteen traffic lights between my home and my work and I’d already missed the first ten. Every single one of them was red when I pulled up! Red!
“They’re not changing!” I cried as I pulled up for the eleventh light, breaking my own personal bad karma record.
With each light staying red I had to make a decision. Should I just run the red light? Should I risk a policeman catching me? That would guarantee I’d be late and fired. I couldn’t afford to be fired. Not in the current economy. It might be two years to find work again in this town.
I slammed down on the gas pedal and screamed through the red light, wincing over my illegal shenanigans. Surely this has to end badly for me.
Another red light! They’re all red. Every light in the city is red. If I’m late my boss must understand that something has happened to the entire traffic grid system. That’s got to have made the news. Perhaps I’m in the clear. I turned on the radio for hope but the news offered no solutions to my dilemma.
Tick, tick, tick. Time was running out. I again punched the gas down and screamed through the intersection as I invited another hidden cop to my moving violation performance.
Three minutes and counting! I still had three more lights before the parking lot. Wait! That’s it: The parking lot. If I turn right and cross the street and take the parking lot back I could avoid running the next light.
"I can’t take it." I was at another red light and no trickery available this time. “Screw it,” I shouted as I took off through the light. Cleared it! There was only one light left standing between me and my job.
As I pulled up to the last red light before work, a cop approached from the other way. This was it. Ninety seconds left to get to work and I couldn’t run the red light. What were the odds of this happening?
I waited and waited for the cop to either turn or drive out of reach. Sixty seconds left. Sweat was trickling down my forehead and into my eyes. I took my glasses off and wiped the sting away.
“Holy crap! It’s green,” I screamed upon the realization that I finally had a green light. Screeching the tires, I made it across the intersection, into the parking lot and over to my parking space.
Twenty seconds left. I could make it. I leaped to the door and inside with mere seconds to spare. I’d done it. The boss wasn’t firing this employee today.
The receptionist looked at me and said, “Oh, your boss called in sick today and your wife left a message.”
“What was the message?”
“She said you grabbed her novelty rose-colored glasses instead of your glasses this morning. She’ll bring yours by around lunch.”
The story slowly became a legend. Over twenty people disappeared after somebody uncovered a Tashan while digging a latrine. After each one disappeared, a Tashan was left for the next victim. Closing the compound was the only way to break the chain.
“I’m not going in,” stammered Bart as he nervously eyed the imposing iron gate.
“Oh come on, you can’t stop now.” Korgan gripped the rusted black vertical bars, wedged his Danner boots between them for stability and slowly inched his way up and over the gate.
A gust of wind looped around the iron bars. It smelled of dead crow. “It’s not worth it.” Bart shivered but automatically followed Korgan’s lead.
Korgan stopped to catch his breath, “You did the same damn thing when we went after that rare ironwood stump in the depths of the Amazon. All that voodoo crap led to nothing. You still transformed it into your prized coffee table without incident, other than when somebody tries to set something on it!” He rolled his eyes at the darkening clouds. "Of course, I'm going to have to be the one to slice through all this bullshit. Let's go.”
A dullish thin light from the moon eked through the darkness and mist in a manner unwelcome. The brothers would have preferred the blackness and a flashlight over this eerie backdrop.
“They closed this compound for a reason,” whispered Bart as he followed Korgan across the chunky overgrown cement. Thirty years had taken a toll on the playground and nature looked poised to win this duel over man.
The old school house rose up before their dim view, dark and deteriorating with black silent windows broken out and glass lying across the weeded walkways below.
“It’s creepier than I imagined,” mumbled Bart. His chest felt heavy, constricted. “We have one possibility according to my research. It’s where old man MacTaggert got thrown out of the window and burned as he hung from a noose outside this school.”
“That’s just a legend,” interrupted Korgan.
“Then what’s that mark up there?” said Bart pointing to the second story window.
On the second floor window was the outline of charring as if something on fire had burned a line into the school siding that extended down below the window frame for about four feet.
“I’ll be damned.”
The two brothers cautiously wound their way through the debris and into the school. As they made their way with flashlight in hand toward the grand staircase a slow wailing rose up from somewhere on the second floor.
“What the hell is that?” Bart fought back nausea.
“Just the wind, keep going.”
“There wasn’t any wind. We had mist rising just outside the school, remember?”
The reality weighed heavy as they crept up the staircase. Halfway up, scrawled with something dark on the side of the wall was a giant message that read “LEAVE NOW.”
Bart’s stomach dropped and he started to shake, “Is that written in dried blood?”
“You might be right,” whispered Korgan nervously. Korgan rarely sounded nervous but the dread permeating from this place was even getting in to his psyche.
Step by step the air grew thicker and more stagnant. Their steps seemed heavy and slow as if time were purposely stretching out against them.
“Are you sure you know what this Tashan symbol looks like?” asked Korgan.
“As near as I can tell, it’s a broken circle of willow reeds all wrapped up. It’s one of the most sought after mysteries out there.” answered Bart.
“Willow reeds? There aren’t any Willows around for hundreds of miles.”
As they crept closer to the window sill they swept the light for any sign of a Tashan lying on the floor. There in the very corner was what they sought. Korgan went over and picked it up and held it for Bart to see, a smile of success beaming from his expression.
Korgan abruptly fell to the floor and was being dragged with increasing velocity down the school hallway as he screamed and then disappeared into the darkness.
“Holy shit,” jumped Bart in shock. He listened and called for Korgan but only the ever increasing sound of wailing could be heard. That certainly wasn’t Korgan.
Bart started to go after Korgan when the floor gave way and sent him plummeting down to a hard landing on the first floor. He could feel the surge of blood and pain as his leg impacted into itself and buckled up.
“Aiiiyeee,” he groaned and then shouted for Korgan. But instead of hearing Korgan’s voice in the distance, he heard something much more troubling. Something was crawling towards him and either there were a lot of them or it was large.
Cold sweat beaded up from his forehead and dribbled down his face as he lurched and drug himself toward the front door with the sounds of crawling intensifying behind him.
Somewhere in his deepest recesses he conjured up the strength and determination to drag himself across the compound and up over the Iron Gate to safety.
A coordinated search of the compound turned up no signs of Korgan and the police agency shook their head over the brother’s stupidity to go in there at all.
Four months slipped quietly by after Korgan’s disappearance and the nightmare was just fading from Bart’s memory as he wound his way up the pitted cement stairwell and into his apartment. With his eyes adapted to the light he noticed something on his prized ironwood table. There, lying in the middle of the table was a Tashan made from willow.
I didn't have a lot of time left in the contest so I did a story improv and just quickly tweaked it to stay within the word count and ensure proper grammar and spelling. It didn't garner any placings in the contest but I had fun.
So the hunt begins with a long sweeping curve across the outermost boundary of his domain. Rising ever upward as if to penetrate the very roof of the sky, he hovers to obtain an optimum vantage point.
Down across the barren terrain he gazes at nothing in particular but detects everything. His next meal awaits somewhere below; inevitable as the path he will repeat over and again until it is so. The chill in the air reminds him that this is the time to be patient. So confident is he in his skills of the hunt, the pursuit is merely a necessary exercise to a forgone conclusion.
He circles back and forth in an ever tightening pattern. His muscles are calm but aware, awaiting the split second calling at the precise time of need. No prey, no competitor within his sight can match his speed of approach.
Across the flats, barely perceptible, he catches the movement of a dull shadow permeating out from behind an object obscuring his direct contact. This is it. His muscles grow tight as he dives down, contorting his body into a missile-like form. The speed is relentless and his heart beats crazy as he races against his fellow competitors toward the kill until at last he arrives.
“Good morning,” he says, “That’s a fine automobile. I have the keys right here. Why don’t we take it for a test ride?”
His prey securely in his talons, there will be no escaping on this particular morning.
“Hey Johnny, get up, you’re going to be late to your debate meeting for school,” said his father.
Johnny stirred from under the covers, “Oh dad, come on, I’m always late to that meeting and it hasn’t hurt my debating at all."
“Let me tell you a little story to help you understand better,” began his father.
“Robert was a stockbroker and he was never late to anything. He prided himself in being punctual. He felt it was important. One night he had a premonition that something terrible was going to happen and he should take his money out of the market. The next morning he promptly sold off everything at the initial buzzer of the market. About a half an hour later the entire market began to collapse and panic ensued. The day was October 29, 1929 and was infamously known from that point on as Black Tuesday, the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression here in the United States. Had Robert not been on time on that day our family fortune wouldn’t exist. Robert was your great grandfather."
“That’s very moving, Dad, now let me share a story with you,” replied Johnny as he forced himself out of bed.
“Tony was a salesman at a large firm and though he kept terrible track of time, he was nonetheless very successful at what he did. He was always in the top five percent in the sales force. When he did finally make it to the bigger meetings he always contributed something worthwhile. On what seemed like just another morning at work he had decided that getting there wasn’t a big priority and so he slept in and didn’t get up until 9:00am. As he got ready he turned on the TV. The day was September 11, 2001 and was infamously known from that point on as 9/11. Tony worked in the North Tower of the Twin Towers and he wouldn’t be alive today had he not been late to work."
His father quietly slipped out of Johnny’s room and let him get ready and never said another word about his debating ability or his lateness.
Thick tarry smoke billowed upwards in an expanding dance across the unbroken sky. Hugo surveyed the carnage of blood and muck across the field to the North where they had attempted their final stance before fleeing into the nearby forest. For a fourth straight year the Royals had marched in and decimated their village taking everything of value and burning what they couldn’t take or didn’t care for. He’d had enough of the routine and next year they’d be in for a surprise.
Hugo sent word through the forest and across the valley urging all oppressed and rightful land owners to an immediate meeting. Though weary and in need of healing, Hugo’s leadership brought hope and the news of a plan raised curiosity to a level that set a chain reaction across the land and nearly every resident made the journey to meet and hear of Hugo’s solution.
“My fellow leaders and countrymen,” he began, “each year we strive to build up our communities and get ahead for the coming year and each year the Royals march in and take by force what we have worked for. I’ve been through the forest to the stone fields beyond. There is enough stone there to build a massive fortress so high and so thick that the Royals wouldn’t be able to touch us no matter how large their sea of soldiers be."
“But Hugo, what you suggest is impossible. We don’t have the tools or the strength."
“The combined strength is right here before us. The trees and the vines will provide our tools and help with our speed. We’ll build a castle fortress where we can live without the fear of the Royals and be free on our own land."
And while Hugo’s plan was inspired and generally accepted by all, he needed an extra bit of help to finish the task before the following year. He sent a courier to find his old friend Elias. Elias and Hugo had grown up together and while both men’s hearts were in the right place, they each had different views to interpret them. Elias ran with a band of gypsies and was constantly on the move, owning little to nothing and keeping his troubles from catching up with him.
The villagers moved quickly with their plans. Using some trees to provide a path to bring the stone from the natural rock quarry, they began laying the foundation for their castle. Elias arrived with his gypsy friends and was happy to lend a hand for awhile. Being old friends, Elias was also quick to warn Hugo that building his castle was a bad idea.
“I humbly implore you to rethink this castle idea,” he cautioned.
“The size and strength of this castle we’re building will guarantee our safety and allow us to finally get ahead, free of the Royals once and for all,” replied Hugo.
“Hugo, how often have I counseled you to keep mobile and your troubles will not catch up with you?"
“Yes, old friend. I know your position and while we both want peace and happiness, our approach is much different. I am not one to move around. I prefer to stay rooted and build from there."
“Suit yourself. You know we’ll help until its time to move on. Perhaps someday you’ll see the wisdom in my words and choices."
Working nearly around the clock the collective of all the people built a massive castle nearly 100 feet high and four feet thick. They built a deep water moat around it with a door and drawbridge made of only the thickest trees from the area. In selecting the thickest trees, they thwarted any attempt at splintering the door apart with another tree used as a battering ram. They then reinforced the door with metal and put a metal sheeting across the entire outside of the door to eliminate the possibility of burning the gate open.
Finally, they stockpiled enough food to last for months should they need to. They even planted all of their needed crop food items inside the inner garden.
When they finished, Hugo and Elias made their farewells with Elias again trying to persuade Hugo to think about it differently. But Hugo was so confident in his impenetrable castle that he wouldn’t listen. They parted friends as always and the villagers moved into the castle and awaited the coming of the Royals.
When the Royals arrived, they were astounded to find a castle where once a simple grass village stood. As Hugo had predicted, the Royals were unable to penetrate the castle. It was simply built too tall, too thick and too ingenious to breach. Giving up the seige, the Royals sent out messengers to bring more reinforcements. Instead of trying to take the castle by force, they would simply move in around the castle and wait.
Their plan caught Hugo off guard but nonetheless, he’d prepared for this. They had their food reserves and could grow most of their crops without leaving the castle. But as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months he began to realize that his castle wasn’t a castle anymore. The Royals had turned it into a prison. He was interned into the very monstrosity he designed to keep would be enslavers out so that they would finally be free. Only when it was too late did he realize that his old friend Elias had been right all along.
I walk through the silent empty neighborhoods of my youth. A whisper in the air tells me to savior the sunshine and warmth as autumn draws down perhaps its final curtain call of the season. It is a mid-week day and the working class not home; only reminders of activities spent here with the closest of friends I no longer know.
I cruise the boulevard from Friday and Saturday nights long ago; up and down in a redundant pattern as I take in each business, every sign, every bus stop and every back alleyway. The cars full of teenagers hoping to be noticed are not there anymore. Nowhere are there hints of the eclectic mix of irreverent young hanging out because they don’t know where else to go or what else to do.
I stop by the mall and perch at the sides of the ice rink, staring into the myriad of tracks cut into the ice from the steel edge on the skates. Sounds of music playing through speakers no longer there take me back to endless days and evenings circling around and around with my friends; checking out what girls had come to skate or shop on that particular day.
I tread down the path through the firs and cedars as I hop across small streams working their way down their gravity drawn route to the river below. I pass campgrounds I’ve stayed in and adventures I’ve experienced with companions long ago; eager to get away into the wild and be free for a moment in time.
I am a collector of memories; rediscovering the simple pleasures of who I was and what I did that make me who I am and what I do. This is a part of my collection.
“Man, I feel fresh. I feel great. The weather is perfect and my backpack isn’t uncomfortable. It’s time to charge ahead to the lake and make camp,” I think as I begin the hike. I’ve only got twelve miles to get to the lake and the first part is going to be very scenic.
Walking with a fresh zip in my stride I attack the trail, whizzing by other lesser hikers that get into my path. I’m alive; invincible and on a mission to camp. The sun begins to arc higher across the blue sky and the sweet smell of the forest permeates down onto the trail. Droplets of sweat bead up under my pace. I’m making excellent time. I stop to take a few pictures of the waterfall across the canyon.
The terrain turns rocky. I force my gaze downward, ahead on the trail in an effort to keep from tripping. The seemingly endless rocky sections are taking a toll on my feet. With every awkward misstep from a rock, my ankles twist with a twinge of pain over their sudden abuse. I take in some water to cool down and look at the time. It’s nearly lunch time; I’ll try and press on a bit further before I enjoy my lunch.
“I don’t understand why I continue to make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches when they always do this,” I mumble while staring at the flattened soggy sandwich I’m faced with for lunch. Even the fruit I brought tastes drab. I hurry through the meal; glad of the time to dry off my sweat-soaked back and relieve my aching shoulders from their weight burden.
Continuing back on the trail, I move back to my methodical pace. The zip in my stride is gone; replaced by a never ending repetition of one foot in front of the other. Passing away from the canyon and onto the hillside, I stop. The terrain is now quite steep and switchbacks to ascend the hilltop.
“The lake must be over the hill,” I think to myself as I try and find a comfortable position with my backpack and begin the ascent. Up and up I go; as if this hill were some sort of major mountain. “Why couldn’t they have lengthened these switchbacks and not made this so steep?” I question to myself as I round yet another steep switchback on the trail. I’m sweating heavily now and it’s rolling into my eyes and burning them. I forgot my handkerchief to wipe the sweat off with.
Ascending the hill finally, I smile at the notion that I will be approaching the lake very soon. The trail winds through a dense forest and begins uphill steeply again. “What? Another hill? Oh; the lake must be just over the hill,” I tell myself in an effort to convince me that this is justified and ok. Slowly, with a tired step, I plod on upward.
The pack is now heavy and uncomfortable. The sun’s heat is near zenith and growing uncomfortable. Each switchback is a disappointment that the hill continues on. After what feels like forever, I finally summit the hill only to find another waiting for me on the other side.
“It’s got to be over the hill,” I question myself in a dejected effort to continue on but realizing my fitness isn’t what I thought it was and that the miles are taking longer than I expected. Each and every hill I do the same thing: Ask, “the lake must be over the hill” and each and every summit yields to a bigger, steeper hill than the one I just encountered. Finally, with the sun waning and my thoughts dulled to the point of only being able to move forward I stumble into the lake “just over the hill."
The evening would be spent cooking and recuperating. The next day would be spent complaining about the endless descent back to the car. The next week would be spent retelling the adventure. With each passing week, month and year the actual trip would be blurred into a lovely picturesque adventure of ease and tranquility.
“I don’t understand it,” sobbed Becky as she began to close up her booth. It was a kissing booth; one of two outside the school park designed to generate the most funds toward class president and despite Becky’s incredible looks, nice personality and popularity she was losing the competition badly.
Jenny was indeed beating her badly. Her booth had boys lined clear down the block whereas Becky only had an occasional drop in. Sure; Jenny’s booth was a high tech marvel more like a private oversized art deco phone booth compared to the meager open wooden lemonade stand one Becky had put up.
Was technology really this effective? Becky had great posters and spent a lot of time talking with people personally to attract attention. Jenny had done hers through a private blanket text via gender attribute to the junior class. Only the boys received it and once read it was automatically deleted.
Only Becky’s twin brother would listen to her lament. “I don’t understand it,” sobbed Becky. “She’s not good looking. Her teeth are their original color!” Two years ago Becky underwent a level 14 laser polished whitening process.
“She still has a slight hair lip,” Becky continued. All of the extraneous hair on Becky’s body had been surgically and chemically removed last year. Her skin was moist and smooth.
“And have you smelled her breath? How can they even stand it?” she added as she thought about all of the lip moisturizing injections she endured so her lips would be supple and pleasing. She had certainly kissed boys at the school and word had gotten around about how terrific her kissing was.
Her brother just stood there smiling wryly. He had received her private text. He’d waited in her long line. He knew the answers. He simply smiled at her and said “who said she was kissing lips?”
Our story begins in the small village of Twang deep in the heart of China. Now the town folk of Twang were all thin; having only meager rice and spring water to sustain them. In the village there also lived a seamstress named Chin. Chin was an exception. Chin was fat; very fat. It was commonly believed that if it were not for her stubby arms and legs protruding from her body that she could be rolled down Wi Lai hill and not stop until she reached the Jung Valley ten kilometers below the village.
Growing up was difficult for Chin. The Loo brothers were incessant pests during her primary school years. She could recall their taunting as clearly as if they were happening to her now; eight years later. “Hey double Chin, we need to roll you around over here to smooth out the soccer field,” Water Loo would shout as his brother Lu rolled on the field laughing.
Chin had turned to sewing as a refuge against the seemingly endless smirks and taunts the villagers gave her over her weight. Her mother had a large wicker basket full of buttons. Chin had never seen so many lovely and amazing buttons in her life. These buttons were beautiful. They ranged from very petite golden ones to large square buttons. There were many sizes, shapes, colors and textures to observe in her mother’s button basket.
She was never allowed to wear buttons after the incident when she was three and she had bulged out so much her button on her jumper suit shot off and hit Uncle Feng right between the eyes. After that incident, none of her clothing ever contained a button again. She was, however, allowed to sew the buttons on spare fabric at her aunt’s seamstress shop. It was the same shop she ultimately took over after primary school when her aunt grew ill.
The eight years after her primary school hadn’t been any easier in the village. She’d been promoted from “double Chin” to “triple Chin” by the Loo brothers recently. It seemed that nothing would ever change for her. And in the course of those eight years she took the basket of buttons that her mother had given her at her graduation and slowly began sewing them onto a shirt and pant set that she kept at the seamstress shop.
The button outfit was the talk of the town. Crazy fat Chin was randomly sewing hundreds of buttons on some ugly outfit. Customers would snicker when they came into the shop. They would come up with cruel little jokes like “button up your lips, Hung, it’s not nice to stare,” while they giggled amongst themselves.
Over the eight years Chin had saved up enough money to leave the village in the hopes to find happiness somewhere else. But she wanted to wait until the annual Rice O Roni festival at the end of the growing season. Nobody in her family could understand the logic for this. “Chin, you’ve got the money to find happiness. Why do you stick around for a festival you’ve been tormented at by the villagers every year since you were little?” her mother would ask.
But Chin just smiled. She had a plan. The day of the festival, her bags all packed and loaded up on the carriage; she took her button outfit and put it on for the first time ever. There were seemingly hundreds of buttons on it by this time. In fact, there were so many that it was difficult for Chin to even move under its bulky weight.
Outside among the villagers at the festival, Chin was the main attraction. All the villagers had gathered around to laugh at Chin’s ridiculous button outfit and the immense girth she displayed within it. The Loo brothers were right there too, encouraging all their old classmates to come closer and see what crazy fat Chin was up to now.
Chin was different though for this festival. Rather than dropping her face down in shame and shying away from the forefront of the crowd as in years past, she was encouraging them around her, even ensuring they had a full circle and that everyone got a decent look at her button outfit. And they did! The villagers were ecstatic watching her as they laughed and got closer.
It was right then that Chin finally got her revenge. She summoned up all her energy into one giant heave of her girth and expanded her button outfit to the point that every single button on the outfit exploded from the pressure of her blubbery contortions. The buttons flew off as if they had just been launched by individual sling shots. And as she had planned, she single-handedly got even with every single villager that had gathered and laughed at her all of her life. The buttons had hit all of them like a hail of bullets and they were all lying on the ground in the village writhing in pain
Chin smiled at the carnage around her and she stepped over their welted bodies and onto her carriage and proceeded down to the Jung valley. News of her plan traveled through China faster than her horse could take her. When she finally settled in a town not too far on the other side of the Jung valley, the town folk were already in awe of her legendary feat and nobody ever bothered her about her weight again.
Slide, step, ball change. One, two, three. The rhythmic beat accompanied his flawless dance performance. Jorge squinted with a discerning eye onto the stage for the last time. “Not a flaw, not a single flaw,” he mused as the audience erupted in a hail of claps. Slowly he made his way down to the awards podium for another obvious second place award.
With ribbon safely in hand he dejectedly crept back to his dressing room. “Eighty five times in a row!” somebody yelled from outside the room. Indeed, his once friend and now rival couldn’t be beaten. Every dance competition played out the same; a great performance on his part but a flawless performance for Patrick.
“Life isn’t fair,” he grumbled as he made ready to leave, “How did he get so good? He couldn’t even dance when I met him; he had no rhythm at all!” Indeed, ten years earlier Jorge watched in amusement as Patrick stumbled his way through a dance number. Now ten years later he was flawless. Dance came naturally to Jorge; it was his passion. If it weren’t for Patrick, he wouldn’t even have to practice; he was that good. But not good enough; Patrick beat him six years ago and hasn’t lost since.
The competition discouraged Jorge. He was a shell of his former self. Once he was full of optimism and encouragement, but no more. Patrick managed to suck the very life out of him with each and every win. He felt cheated but unable to take it out on Patrick as Patrick was truly one of the nicest people he’d ever met. That reality only made it more unbearable.
Jorge slipped quietly into the seedy bar he began frequenting of late in the hopes to escape his plight via the bottom of a bottle. A gentleman approached him from the other end of the bar. “I just saw you at the dance performance; you got second place,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Don’t remind me,” mumbled Jorge in the midst of a double-shot. “It’s the story of my life now.”
“How’d you like to make a lot of money and win a competition again?” the gentleman asked.
“Sounds illegal; I don’t participate in illegal activities.”
“Oh, this is totally legal. I have information that can help you and you have the resources to help me.”
Jorge pulled his head out of the whiskey glass and looked at the gentleman closely. “Ok, for the sake of argument, why don’t you just tell me what this whole little game is so I can enjoy a laugh and go home.”
“I want to split a very large bet with you but you’re going to front all the cash. $20,000 worth,” said the gentleman unwaveringly.
“$20,000 cash?” laughed Jorge. “Are you crazy? That’s about all I have; I’m a dancer you know, not a prize fighter.” Jorge pushed back the stool to go.
“I’m serious. The odds on you winning the next dance competition are 100-1. If you win the competition, that’s 2 million dollars. A fifty-fifty split and you have a million dollars in the clear.”
“I’m not going to gamble away my savings on a no-win proposition.”
“There is no gamble here. Like I said, I know information. If you want to deal, I can guarantee you will win.”
Jorge sobered up slightly, “What information do you have that guarantees that?”
“If we have a deal, I’ll give it to you.”
“If you can convince me that it is foolproof, then sure, we have a deal.”
The two shook hands. “Patrick has no rhythm.”
Jorge stood there and smiled. “What? That’s it? Listen whoever you are, Patrick has been flawless in the last 85 competitions; he’s got rhythm. Now if you’ll excuse me, you’re wasting my time.”
“He’s cheating. He doesn’t have any rhythm and I can introduce a song number to the next competition that will guarantee he can’t dance.”
Jorge thought about what he was saying. It made total sense to him. Deep down he knew Patrick wasn’t a dancer and yet time after time he was the one in first place. Perhaps this was his chance to prove to the world just who the natural dancer was. “Let’s do it…” shouted Jorge. He got off his bar stool and headed home.
The plan was to introduce a secret song that no contestant knew about into the competition and showcase their improvisational skills along with their normal dance routines. Only Jorge and the gentleman from the bar knew about it.
Sure enough, when the competition came around, Jorge placed the bet and prepared for his number. As usual, his performance was stellar; near perfection. Going on last, Patrick performed flawlessly and effortlessly through the entire performance until the improv song started. Suddenly, his entire composure fell apart. He looked awkward; mechanical. The crowd hushed in disbelief. “It’s true, mumbled Jorge, he had been cheating. He doesn’t have rhythm!”
Jorge won first place and Patrick’s amazing 85 competition win streak ended that night amidst embarrassment and shame. As promised, Jorge went on to split the bet money with the stranger at the bar.
Life collapsed for Patrick. He never performed again. His fans abandoned him as a phony and one late night he took his own life in despair.
Jorge, back on top of the dance circuit, went to his funeral and the memorial. Patricks mother came up to him afterward, “Patrick always wanted to thank you for the gift you’d given him in the appreciation of dance. As you know, he never had any rhythm and so the fourteen hour practice days were necessary for him to be competent on any of the dance songs. He memorized what to do for every single one of them.”
Jorge stared at her in disbelief, “Do you mean to say that he memorized every move to every song by rote?”
Patrick’s mother smiled, “Of course he did; he didn’t have any rhythm. Singers do the same thing when they can’t sing in a foreign language. They learn it phonetically.”
“But I’ve never heard of anyone doing something that complex with dance. You’ve got to have the internal talent too.”
“Oh no, that was Patrick’s gift, you know. He was a perfectionist and a tireless worker. There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t practice every single song used in dance competitions so that he would be ready for anything.”
The realization of what he had done was too much for Jorge. He’d taken a good friend and destroyed his life. He was the cheat. Patrick was legit. He’d done the work, he’d performed the show and he’d been flawless. Was it really fair of him to alter the competition format to expose something that wasn’t even part of the competition? He’d been tricked after all; by a stranger looking for profit and his own ego and competitiveness. It cost Patrick his life!
Jorge took a turn to despair and drink that ultimately cost him his own life. He saw the gentleman at the bar only one other time shortly before his own death from an alcohol related accident.
“You lied and deceived me,” shouted Jorge.
The gentleman looked at him and in his cold matter-of-fact tone said, “Souls are so easy to bargain with when jealousy and competition are involved. Two-for-one scenarios are just so hard for me to pass up.” He smiled a devilish smile and left the bar, never to be seen there again.
“Where are my ideals; my zest for life?” he thought as he recalled the footage of his life. It was an effort on his part to make sense of things. Boredom, divorce, layoff, confidence; they were signs of something inherently wrong with his life. They key, he convinced himself, must surely lie in going back to the beginning.
The confidence; it was a reflection of the trust he’d put into so many important things in his life. Each trusting choice rife with his own sacrifice; choices he made in order to move forward in the life he was led on to believe was the right one to pursue. One by one as each trust broke, his fragile confidence slowly eroded and crumbled. Gone were the days he felt free and invincible; as if he could do anything and those he chose to be with felt the same.
The layoff; it forever shattered his conviction that working for a cause while remaining selfless justified itself in the end. With each and every year, the perception of excitement laid against the effort to succeed spread further and further apart. In the end, nothing about what he did meant anything. His self value in the eyes of his superiors didn’t exist. He was a number; a tool. And he knew it.
The boredom; it began when his real passions were put to the side. His sailing, his surfing, his composing; all of the things that made him who he started out to be had slowly and silently been replaced by the routine of work and family. And for what? In the end, those had collapsed too.
The divorce; it came without warning. In reality, the warning signs were there all along. The long hours, the focus on kids, the lack of focus on the relationship, the loss of his own happiness and confidence were all neon signs upon his road to ruin. He blindly drove that road to the very end.
Going back to the beginning was the redemption. He moved back to the big Island upon which he grew up. He pursued all of his former interests again: sailing, surfing, composing. For awhile it worked. The experiences of living again were real; tangible. It felt good to do the things he loved.
After awhile; something felt off. Something was missing. Nearly all of his former friends he grew up with had moved on. The one or two that remained didn’t seem to be going anywhere and he knew it. He felt unchallenged; as if everyday were a rewind of the day before. It was as if he had entered into the same mundane routine pattern that drove him to boredom before. How could this have happened? These were the things he loved; these were the things that made him who he was.
Then it occurred to him. Going back to the beginning wasn’t the answer at all. If all of literature were to teach him anything, the one lesson he needed to learn is that you can’t go home again. The answer wasn’t’ going back to the beginning, the answer was to start a new beginning. A beginning based upon his choices now not his choices 30 years before. He needed a beginning full of excitement into the unknown; something fresh and challenging; something that did interest him and brought life into him.
A smile crept onto his face. He realized that a beginning is simply a point in time and that he could start one at any time he chose. That was the simplicity of it. That was the beauty of it. He would be alright after all; he’d figured it out in time.
Jordon made his way across the steamy pavement hoping to avoid the next downpour of summer rain. Slipping over the crest of the hill and heading down the steep contour on the other side, a long black limo slowly pulled up beside him.
The windows were blackened out to avoid being seen from the outside. Everything about the limo was black and it evoked a shutter while gazing through to his reflection as it slowly inched by him. The wheels rolled on with a crunching from the debris on the side of the road. They stopped just ahead of him as if the limo was waiting; hunting a prey.
He swung cautiously to right as he approached. The rear window slowly receded into the door and he could make a shadowy figure seated in the back. “Step closer,” the man in the back called to him. His curiosity trumped his mortal caution and he leaned into the window for a closer look.
He gasped as he looked upon the man seated in the back. He was looking directly at himself. The recognition was immediate but the details took a moment to absorb. He looked different; older, more careworn, dispassionate. He smiled back and introduced himself. He was from the future and had been looking for young Jordon for some time.
His future self explained that he’d aggressively pursued his career and the reward paid off; he was rich and powerful. Young Jordon despondently took in all that he said and all that he saw. The limo was lonely; empty and concealed. This wasn’t what he aspired to be. There was no ring on the man’s finger; he casually wondered if his future self had ever learned to love along the way. He had no interest in power and expensive commodities. No, his future self showed no life at all. To young Jordon, the limo may as well have been a funeral Hertz.
“While I applaud your conviction in seeking me out; you and I are not alike. I’m sickened by your mere existence. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date to meet and a joyous sunny day to experience,” cried Jordon as he turned and skipped merrily down the hill; each step feeling lighter and more carefree the further he got away from the limo.
The future forever altered, the man in the limo just smiled. Suddenly he didn’t exist. He was finally free.