Archive for December, 2011

25th December
2011
written by amber

The Banquet

We weren’t at Base for Christmas, but the brass sent us enough food for a feast. No turkey, but lots of canned ham, canned yams, canned peas, canned gravy, canned cranberries, instant mashed potatoes and canned plum pudding. But when we went into the cook tent to enjoy it, our mouths all watering, it was gone. Cook was sitting on a crate, drinking a beer.

“Musgrove,” was all he said, but that was enough.

The weird kid. Should never have been a soldier.

“Was that him, just driving out?” I’d wondered who was taking a jeep out just before our banquet.

“Yeah,” he said, and we were off, all crammed into the remaining jeep, chasing Musgrove’s dust. It didn’t take long before we realized where he was headed – the village we bombed last month. Musgrove’s been spending all his free time with an aid worker there.

When we arrived, the villagers were in the main square, laying out our banquet on tablecloths on the ground. Musgrove intercepted us the minute we jumped out of the jeep.

“Now guys, don’t be mad. They know this is a holy day for us, but on their holy days, the tradition is to share everything.”

“This isn’t sharing, this is stealing,” Hardy protested.

“You’re invited – why do you think I drove back to show you the way? I took all this stuff last night.” Musgrove pushed us into the square where kids grabbed our sleeves and pulled us to a spot at the head of the improvised table. We sank down, all of us scowling. The meal before us bore no resemblance to the banquet we’d been anticipating. Chunks of ham swam in some kind of yellow broth, the cranberries and peas were tossed with greyish rice. The yam had been mashed and spread on flat bread. I couldn’t see any potatoes, but I thought I could make out bits of the plum pudding in the ham stew.

Hardy stood up and walked back toward the jeep, saying, “This is crap!”

I followed, put a hand on his arm. Musgrove joined us, speaking to me instead of Hardy. “Sir, they have almost no food. Their fields were burned, we bombed their granaries. They’ve been eating moldy rice for weeks.”

I looked at the dingy rice pilaf heaped on plates. “Why don’t they go to the Aid Camp?”

“The men and older boys were run off by the rebels before we even got there. When we bombed, there was no one left in the village besides women and children. They’re waiting for their families to come home.”

I looked back into the square and saw that he was right – there were no men or teenage boys among the villagers.

“Sit back down, Hardy,” I suggested, with just a hint of command. “I’m about to say grace.”

The Story 365 project is a year-long marathon of short story writing, with a new story for every day of the year and posted on this website from May 1, 2011 – April 30, 2012. Stories must be a minimum of 200 words. Please help me by adding first line or topic suggestions in the Comment section of any story. If you’d like me to use your name in a story, I’d be happy to do that.

Merry Christmas to everyone!

24th December
2011
written by amber

Silent Night

Don woke from his nap. The perfect nap. An afternoon of Christmas eve nap alone in the house while his wife and children shopped.

He and Nancy always joked that they had the most practical arrangement – he went out every day and earned money. She went out every day and spent money. An old-fashioned marriage. A happy marriage. Twenty years and three great kids.

He woke and the house was dark and quiet. It was late, past six. Their Christmas eve chili simmered in the crock pot. What was keeping them so long?

He checked the phone for messages, then called all their cells. If the system had been down, he wouldn’t have worried – that happened a lot – but every phone rang. And rang and rang. That was odd.

They’d taken the big car, but he still had the little truck, so he headed out to the mall, noting some houses in the neighbourhood were dark, some had lights, but he couldn’t see anyone inside, or any sign of the carollers who usually came around. Nor were there any other vehicles on the streets, which was unimaginable.

The mall’s parking lot was jammed with cars, but again, there were no people to be seen. He threw caution to the wind and parked in the ‘No Parking’ zone right next to the front doors. His wife’s favourite shop was Continental Ladies’ Wear so that’s where he ran first, his footsteps echoing in the wide empty concourse. Continental was empty, but the legs of a fallen woman extended from inside one of the changing rooms. Heart in his throat, he flung open the door only to find what he should have recognized – the legs were stiff and plastic, a mannikin.

Don’s next stop was the speciality hardware store where he knew Nancy planned to buy the tool he’d asked for. He didn’t run there. He trudged. He didn’t know where everyone was but this mall with its festive music and over-abundant holiday decorations was clearly deserted. At the hardware store, as empty as he’d expected, he tried his cell and found it dead. So was the telephone behind the counter.

He went to an electronics store, hoping to use a radio there to see if there was any sort of emergency broadcast, but that end of the mall had no power. He decided he’d return to the parking lot and use the radio in his truck. The entire mall was dark and quiet as he headed back, and things seemed different – many of the decorations sagged from the walls, the fountains were dry and dusty, merchandise spewed from shelves and racks onto the floor.

When he opened the doors and saw the wreckage lot of rusted and burned out hulks, bones strewn about, he remembered everything. He jumped into the truck and drove towards his house, hoping he wasn’t too late.

This was the anniversary of the day he’d been woken from his Christmas eve nap to find the house too quiet, too empty; the day he’d driven to the mall to encounter a raging battle in the parking lot, a battle from which he’d barely escaped. The day he’d found his family waiting on his front lawn when he returned, in the company of the very group who waited now, alerted to his presence by the lantern he’d carelessly left lit.

The carollers, slavering and staggering, flesh hanging from their faces and arms, their clawed fingers reaching toward him.

The Story 365 project is a year-long marathon of short story writing, with a new story for every day of the year and posted on this website from May 1, 2011 – April 30, 2012. Stories must be a minimum of 200 words. Please help me by adding first line or topic suggestions in the Comment section of any story. If you’d like me to use your name in a story, I’d be happy to do that.

Perhaps this tale was a little bit influenced by The Walking Dead?

23rd December
2011
written by amber

King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

No, dammit, you call that ‘deep and crisp and even’?

It was true that Jorge had had a last minute impulse to act out the old carol, inspired by his absent son’s suggestion that he do something fun ‘like we used to do’, and it was true that his neighbours didn’t want winter in their part of the asteroid, but what good was personal climate control if your snow wasn’t deep and crisp and even? He stomped a few steps into the yard. The snow was maybe six inches deep, hardly crisp and as uneven as the surface of the moon used to be.

Fix it, he commanded his house, then cued the song to begin again.

The second stanza was disappointing, as he’d expected, since true night never descended on his side and the lunar illusion was obviously fake, but when he stepped outside again, the temperature was indeed ‘cruel.’

You’re supposed to be inside when you see the old beggar gathering firewood, the house reminded him, so he went back inside, curious to see how the house would manage to create the two subordinate characters in this pantomime.

The poor man, shuffling through a sudden flurry of snow flakes, was remarkably convincing, as was the young man dressed in medieval garb who appeared at his side. The man waited silently, then cleared his throat a couple of times before Jorge remembered that the next line was his.

Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou knowst it telling. Yonder peasant, who is he, where and what his dwelling?

Even though the page was already standing next to Jorge, he made a delightfully subservient bow, and made his reply, to which Jorge answered.

Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I shall see him dine –
He couldn’t recall the rest of the line, but the page was hurrying off to do his bidding, so it didn’t matter.

Since the weather truly was cold and the blizzard raging harder than before, Jorge stood in front of his closet and commanded, Warm coat, then reached in and removed the garment.

When he got to the door, the page was dressed as before, but carrying two large canvas bags full of logs, wine bottles and cracker boxes. Jorge resisted the temptation to poke the page and see if he was hologram or hasty construct.

Let’s go, Jorge said abruptly, and stepped into the storm. This wasn’t as much fun as he’d anticipated. He’d play it out, but he wanted to get it over with. A slap of wet snow collided against his face, but he stomped off in the direction he’d last seen the beggar, the page struggling along behind with realistic sounds of strong exertion in the difficult footing of the drifts, which now were indeed crisp.

Jorge’s part of the asteroid didn’t cover a large area, but in the blinding maelstrom and the deep snow, it took them a long time to come up against the fence, and they had not found the peasant.

He must be over there, Jorge said, and veered back in the direction where he thought his house must be. If they didn’t find their quarry, he was going to call it off. After a long time, they still had not reached the house and the page was panting heavily.

Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger; fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.

Jorge recalled that this was the part he’d been most eager to act out. Back on earth, when he did it with his family, the magical effect of the saint’s warming footprints had not been possible, but here – even if the man he saved was artificial, it would be satisfyingly real as the ground heated up to melt the snow from beneath the drifts.

Mark my footsteps, my good page.

Good, my page, the fellow muttered, not my good page.

Okay, mark my footsteps good, my page. Tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the winter’s rage – the man hadn’t moved. He was moaning. Jorge commanded, get up.

I think I’m too cold, Dad. Surprise, I came home for Christmas. I think you’d better have this blizzard turned off right away.

The Story 365 project is a year-long marathon of short story writing, with a new story for every day of the year and posted on this website from May 1, 2011 – April 30, 2012. Stories must be a minimum of 200 words. Please help me by adding first line or topic suggestions in the Comment section of any story. If you’d like me to use your name in a story, I’d be happy to do that.

22nd December
2011
written by amber

Verna and the Christmas Tree

Verna hadn’t set out to kill anyone that day. All she wanted was to find the perfect Christmas tree.

She’d found the perfect apartment three years ago, in a grand old building downtown, with four bathrooms, bay windows, parquet floors and fourteen foot ceilings. And for the last two holidays, Jeffrey brought home a tiny little tree, less than seven feet tall, a tree for a much lesser residence.

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, so Verna is picking out the tree this year. She told Jeffrey as he was going out the door this morning, “When you get home from work, the perfect tree will be here.”

And all he said was, “Fine, dear.”

As she was finishing her coffee and before she’d put on her hat and coat, she called down for the doorman to have her car ready at the front door. The man was quite inefficient; he never did anything in a prompt manner. Sure enough, the car wasn’t there when she arrived in the lobby and she had to wait five minutes while he went to get it. She advised him that she’d be coming back in an hour or so with a large Christmas tree that he’d be expected to assist her with.

Fortunately, the business of acquiring the tree was accomplished easily. At the lot which one of her friends had recommended, there were excellent firs. When she specified that the tree must be over twelve feet in height “because we have fourteen foot ceilings,” the attendant guided her to a corner and pointed to one tree.

“That’s the biggest tree we have,” he drawled.

“How tall is it?”

He looked at it, stepped nearer and looked some more. “Oh, between twelve and thirteen feet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. That one there is eleven feet and this one’s a lot taller than it is.”

Verna walked over to the tree and attempted to judge its size. Although it was trussed up and leaning against a wall, it did seem very large. Already she could see it in her dining room, framed in the bay window and decorated with all the new ornaments she’d bought. “I’ll take it.”

The young man tied the tree to the roof of her car with such a lackadaisical air that she worried all the way home, seeing the tree’s vast crown sweeping behind her, red flag waving merrily, but it stayed firm. Of course, the doorman was nowhere to be found. She had to call three times before he answered his cell phone, and then wait another fifteen minutes before he deigned to show his face in the lobby.

He’d been off helping the doorman in the neighbouring building, and now the favour was to be returned, as it took two of them to manhandle the tree into the service elevator and up to her apartment. They attached the tree to the stand, stood it up, and …

it was too short.

A good three feet too short.

So they removed the tree stand and took the tree into the elevator and back down to the lobby.

When Verna arrived at the lobby, she expected to find her car out front with the tree once again tied to the roof. She did find her car, and the tree atop it, but the two doormen were not there and the tree wasn’t secured. She phoned her doorman and was told he’d had to go help someone with a plumbing emergency, but that he’d return “as quickly as I can.”

She waited and waited, but he didn’t come back and she was starting to worry that she wouldn’t have enough time to return this disappointing tree and then find the perfect tree. Tying the tree down hadn’t looked that hard, so she did it herself, carefully attaching the red flag.

She felt like a one-woman parade as she sailed down the street, driving carefully and slowly. Some people waved, but one car zoomed up behind her at top speed, braking and honking and then veering around her, the three men inside glaring at her as they passed. So rude! She was determined to get their license number, so she drove a little faster as she tried to make it out. She didn’t need to write it down. She had an excellent memory.

PON 397… The last digit was smudged, but she almost had it when a sudden blare of sirens announced the precipitous arrival of a police car from an alley, directly into the path of the rude men’s car.

They hit their brakes, and she had to do the same, since she’d allowed herself to get too near.

A dark shadow zoomed over her head and flew into the back of the rude men’s car. Her tree, too small to be perfect, but large enough to pierce the back window and crush the head of the man sitting there and explode a bag of money, hundred dollar bills falling into the street like snow.

The Story 365 project is a year-long marathon of short story writing, with a new story for every day of the year and posted on this website from May 1, 2011 – April 30, 2012. Stories must be a minimum of 200 words. Please help me by adding first line or topic suggestions in the Comment section of any story. If you’d like me to use your name in a story, I’d be happy to do that.

This story owes a debt of gratitude to Margaret Atwood, as it was inspired by the first two lines of her story in this week’s New Yorker.

21st December
2011
written by amber

Zanzibar

He came in from a late night jog, tired to the bone. He threw his clothes on the floor, sank onto his bed and allowed late night TV and a generous slug of whiskey anaesthetize him into sleep.

In danger of being late for work the next morning, he didn’t pick up his jogging pants until he got home at four and rushed around tidying while his dinner heated in the microwave. The pants weren’t where he remembered leaving them, in a heap outside the bathroom door. Instead, they were on a chair next to the bed, the cuffs damp and coated with white sand. That was strange, but he didn’t think too much about it as he tossed them into the hamper on his way to open the beeping microwave.

He jogged again that night, longer this time, achieving enough natural tiredness to fall asleep without assistance. And he woke before his alarm sounded, feeling more rested than usual, with a dim recollection of a dream, a tantalizing remnant of a journey, perhaps a quest. A pile of white clothing lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. It was the cotton pants and embroidered shirt he’d worn for his wedding on the beach in Mexico with Sabine. He didn’t even realize he still had them. At this point, they’d been with him twice as long as Sabine had. He hung them up again, noticing more white sand, but that could be from Mexico.

Then he heard the coins jingling in the pocket. They looked very old, with denominations like 1.5 and 4.5, images of palm trees and lions and faces too worn to make out. The only letter still intact was a ‘Z.’ He knew he hadn’t gotten coins like that in Mexico. He recalled getting the outfit cleaned – possibly someone at the dry cleaner had coins from their native country, but why put them in his pocket?

At work, he asked the guy in the next cubicle, “Where’s Zanzibar?”

“Some country in Africa, but I don’t think it exists any more.”

They googled it; they googled images of the coins of Zanzibar. None of them matched the ones he had.

When he woke the next morning after sleeping for 12 hours, he looked around the bed and found a light jacket that he couldn’t recall ever seeing before. In the pocket was a post card with a picture of an anonymous tropical beach. On the back was a hand-written message and a stamp bearing nothing but the picture of a red and yellow bird. Despite spending all day searching and risking the ire of his supervisor, he wasn’t able to find anything on the internet matching the writing or the stamp.

He left work early and went to bed the minute he got home, without changing or eating dinner. In the morning when he woke, he turned over and plunged back into sleep. He still couldn’t remember his dream, but the lingering fragments of it were more compelling than his real life.

He woke in the afternoon with a feeling of dread and the sense that he’d just been involved in a battle for his life. He staggered into the bathroom and in the mirror saw his once-familiar face now with a terrible jagged scar incised from forehead to left ear, and a dark hole where his eye once had been.

The Story 365 project is a year-long marathon of short story writing, with a new story for every day of the year and posted on this website from May 1, 2011 – April 30, 2012. Stories must be a minimum of 200 words. Please help me by adding first line or topic suggestions in the Comment section of any story. If you’d like me to use your name in a story, I’d be happy to do that.

My son, Ryan, gave me the idea for this story – he really did find a mysterious coin in his pocket.

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