Toy Soldier

“Of course, of course I shoot. Of course I kill. In the war. I kill because if I don’t, they kill me.”
He had big, watery eyes, and his irises were golden-brown, as if the color of dead leaves stained with blood had become entrapped there. He sat hunched, in a constant flinch. His hands were oddly quiet and still – but it wasn’t calm that made them so, but rather the tension of imminent fight or flight. Even though both his buttocks were sunk deep in the armchair, he seemed to be on the edge of his seat. If he’d have wanted to, he would’ve been able to be up and running before the woman across from him knew he’d left his chair.
“It was war – you had to shoot. You wanted to live.” The doctor’s soft voice was melodic and almost too soothing for him. He had known women who looked like her once, and he had seen them contorted in shapes that this doctor couldn’t even imagine. He couldn’t meet her eyes. He was scared that if he did, she would be able to see his commanders grinning at him, calling him a good boy, and giving him a small, unripe fruit as a reward for the work he’d done during the day. And then there’d been the better reward, the reward that he even now craved and wished he could get again, even though they – the new they, not the old they – had explained to him that it was bad for him and that he couldn’t have it anymore. It had taken him days to get out of bed, he’d felt so rotten without it all, but he felt alright now, though the thought of that reward still made him twitch at times.
The silence had stretched on until he couldn’t stand it, so he broke it again. Those golden-brown eyes of his looked at the corner of the room, where a spider had made an elaborate web. He had good eyesight, and he watched the spider move across the web to fetch its dinner. It must have been an old spider because it moved slowly. “Yes. I wanted to. But it was bad. It was very bad. But they promise – they always promise it would be last time.”
“And you hoped, every time, that maybe this time they meant it.”
The spider had reached its meal and it began to detach the wrapped, cocooned insect from the man web so that it could hold it in its front legs and hold it up to its mouth. He watched it. He almost thought he could see it smiling.
“I liked it. Sometimes.”
“It?”
“Shooting. What they gave me after.”
There was another long pause, but this time the woman broke it, her voice so gentle and careful that he looked at her for a quick moment just to make sure it was really her speaking. “You liked it just like they wanted you to like it.”
“Yes.” He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, but his voice came out that way, raspy and deeper than usual. His voice hadn’t changed yet. He hadn’t thought about the impending joys of manhood since he’d been a little boy admiring his father’s chest hair. He hadn’t really thought about growing up in years. He hadn’t been sure that he was going to grow up. He still wasn’t.
“Am I bad?”
“Do you feel bad? Do you think you were bad?”
“I was. But I didn’t want to be.”
“So maybe you were’t, really. Because you didn’t want to.”
“And now I can be good. Right?” He wasn’t sure if the question was the one he wanted to ask. It wasn’t really about being good. It was about what being good meant. Being good had meant shooting just a few months ago. Now being good meant something different, he thought, something that he remembered from those early years before they – not the current they, but the past they – had moved into his life. What scared him was that being good was going to change again, soon, and that he wouldn’t be ready for it this time. If he couldn’t keep up with being good for whoever the future they were going to be, then he would die. And he knew, although he couldn’t quite put it into words, that he’d done too much by now to be able to retract his decision to live, no matter what.

Foghorn

Jack stood on the edge of the cliff, his hands clasped firmly around the thin metal rails that were all that separated him from the fifty foot fall down a hard rocky edge into the raging iron-gray sea below. He gazed out, refusing to look down at the turmoil of waves, spray and jagged rock beneath him. In the distance, a small off-white spot was most likely a cruise ship. Jack watched its slow progress along the horizon and wondered what was happening on the massive hotel-boat, if indeed it was a cruise. He thought enviously of the warmed dining rooms with tables spread in white and set with silver, the sumptuous smells that rose from platters of roasted duck, tureens of gravy and baskets of freshly baked bread. He pictured the heated pool on the seventh floor where children would swim, bouncing a beach ball between them, giggling and watching the storm raging outside the porthole set underwater for their enjoyment. Most of all, he yearned for one of the comfy cots piled with blankets in cabins warmed by central heating and pillows changed and plumped once a day by pretty maids.

The knuckles of his hands were white with pressure when he finally looked down at them. He focused solely on them, ignoring the flashes of dark blue and gray beneath that were blurry and inviting at the edges of his eyes. Slowly, deliberately, he forced his palms to loosen their grip. It took a full minute to pry them loose, but when he did, he turned the usually-white palms towards him and saw that the itching he’d been feeling was due to the rusting flecks that came loose from the rail. It’s rusty, it’s no good, it’s not even a real rail, not really, he thought, words tumbling themselves into a panic so that it seemed as if neon lights lit up his mind with NO GOOD and RUSTY and NOT REAL.

As if the sea were a magnet and his eyes were metallic orbs; as if the sea was a hypnotist and Jack a willing supplicant; as if the sea was a naked woman and Jack was fourteen again, he had to look. He fought the urge and closed his eyes, but they snapped open again, and he watched, mouth stretched wide in a silent scream. The water looked like a violent creature, surging and jumping to reach him but never succeeding. The distance between Jack and his nemesis grew and shrank, his eyes playing tricks on him so that one moment the cliff seemed to rise into the clouds and the next sank like Atlantis into the beckoning ocean.

Pressure fell on Jack’s shoulders. A body, warmer and less wet than his, clung to him. “Come inside, Jack,” a voice murmured. “Stop torturing yourself and come inside. The foghorn’s been going all morning and soon you won’t be able to see your way home.” Jack nodded mutely, his eyes still fixed. A finger turned his chin away, until finally his eyes, strain as they would, couldn’t find the water. He realized suddenly how very drenched and cold he was, how foggy his surroundings were. He realized that the rain was pounding him less because a bent umbrella was being held over his head by a woman. Her eyes crinkled in a smile that was impossible to see because her face was wrapped almost entirely in a hand-knitted scarf.

Jack took a deep, shaky breath and bravely smiled back. He allowed her to take his hand and lead him away from the edge of the cliff.

Remember Where You Came From…

Pat clutched the phone and slammed it into her ear with her long fingers. “Hello?” she barked.

“Pat? Patty?” The voice on the other end was more than a whisper, but barely. It was hard to distinguish whether the speaker was male or female, such was the rasping quality of the words.

“Yes?” Pat drew a long drag of her cigarette into her mouth. She watched herself in the mirror, and couldn’t help admiring her own red lips curling around the end of the thin white cylinder that was held in her talons, the nails of which were painted ruby to match. “Hello?” she added, annoyed, distracted from her own wonderful image.

“Remember where you come from, Pat.”

The line went dead. Pat took the phone away from her ear and looked at it for a moment, as if it would reveal who the caller was and what he or she had meant. Slowly she returned the pink receiver to its cradle. She blew smoke out of her mouth slowly, watching the dramatic effect of her open mouth filling with blue-gray tendrils. Remember where I come from… she thought.

The mirror seemed to shift and waver in front of her, and she was confronted by an image that it took her a moment to recognize. The girl across from Pat was was about fifteen, wore a sweater that was clearly knit by hand and fit rather badly, had too much bright pink lipstick smeared on her mouth (and some on her teeth) and had more acne than seemed possible. Pat stared in horror and clutched at her own face; the image disappeared and she saw only herself as she was now, fifteen years later, smooth-skinned, fashionable, beautiful.

Jumping to her feet, she hurried to her address book and flipped through it quickly until she found the correct page. She opened up her laptop and began frantically typing an e-mail to her youngest sister, a girl who was, as Pat always moaned to their mother, a completely hopeless case and who would end up a spinster working in back-rooms so that no one could see her.

Her life was different after that day. She remembered that she’d had flaws once too, found a therapist, and began to work on what everyone around her knew to be her painfully inflated ego. It took her many years, but she became less judgmental, more accepting, and happier for it. She spent less time staring at the mirror and actually lived her life. She often wondered, and spent many fruitless hours with her therapist obsessing over the matter, who had called her with such a poignant message that day.

It was probably better that she didn’t know who the mysterious caller was. She would have probably been frightfully disappointed if she’d discovered that seven other people got the same mysterious phone call that day, and that twenty-two others got a similar call with the message “Seven days…” and another thirty-four were told that “I’ll always know what you did last summer…” Pat really wouldn’t have appreciated the two fourteen-year old boys who’d spent a lonely, boring afternoon ringing up their parents’ phone bills.

Horror

Horror doesn’t only happen at night, you know. It happens on the streets of London and in the slums of New York. It happens in the homes of the rich and the poor alike. It happens in your back garden when you’re not looking, or right in front of you when you’re trying not to see. Horror is everywhere.

Believe me, I know. Why? I’m not sure you’d understand. I’m not sure you really want to know. See, there’s a problem with you people – you always say you want to know, but then you cringe and cry, snivel and beg, and I need to deal with it. It all gets very tiresome. So if you want me to tell you why I know about horror, you need to promise me that you can deal with what I’m going to tell you. Well?

Ah, there, I knew it. Once you’re confronted with what happened to everyone else who asked the same question, you back off. That’s smart of you. Sometimes you people actually do learn something. I like that. There’s nothing fun about playing with your food if it doesn’t know what the outcome is. The mouse, for instance, instinctively knows that the cat wants to eat it, so when a cat’s paw descends on its tail, it’ll bit that bit off in order to get away. Of course, once it does that, the cat will catch it by its body and eat it anyway. But the point is, the only reason it’s fun for the cat to play with the mouse is because the mouse knows what’s coming. And now, you do too.

Now, now, don’t give me that look, please. You knew from the moment you called for me what was going to happen. Yes, remember? You’re the one who called me here. You called horror upon you, and horror comes in the guise you gave it. It’s time for you to live with it simply being your own fault. You think you’re dreaming, I know, and maybe you are! But tell me… Right now, does it matter whether or not you’re dreaming? I’m pretty horrible either way.

 

Robin

I’m not sure that I’m ever going to do anything with this, but I’ve had this character floating around my mind for over a year now, so I finally decided to write a little introduction to her life.

At the age of twenty-four, the thing Robin loved most in the world was her house.

It was tiny, painted blue with white framework on the doors and windows. There were flowers in the three windows that faced the street, and a garden leading from the front door right down to the small white gate. There was even a lone tree in the yard, one that had grown enough to give a little shade during the long, hot summer days.

The house was on a small residential street in Studio City in Los Angeles, which was another thing that Robin loved about it. She loved being so near a happening area and yet snug in her own little space, the picture of suburbia. She had a Mr. Horns to her left in a small yellow house, with a rather large yellow Labrador named Puck, while the house to her right was empty, a big “FOR RENT” sign the only inhabitant of the fading lawn.

Robin had acquired this house in a strange set of circumstances. It had, belonged to her great-aunt Lucinda, an eccentric woman who had lived in a nursing home for the last twenty years of her life. The family was under the impression that she’d sold it years ago, but, as she wrote in her will, she’d left it empty, freshly painted and clean, ready for her great-niece, who had only just been born, to grow up and receive it. When Robin turned twenty, Lucinda passed away and the house was discovered in the will.

Robin couldn’t believe her luck. As a university student, she longed to leave the dorms behind her and live in a space all her own. She had no desire to return to the poisonous environment that was her parents’ house. She’d suffered enough hardship over the years, and having finally escaped by earning a full scholarship, she had no intention of ever going back.

Halfway through her Junior year, she moved out of the school dorms and into her new home. It had needed much airing out after twenty years of standing empty, and furniture, too. She’d scoured both the flea markets and the Internet for cheap, secondhand stuff, and she  sanded, repainted and lacquered some of the wooden pieces she’d found. In fact, she’d spent her entire winter break on making her new home as perfect as could be. This was another reason why she loved it so.

Another reason was that she was hardly ever in it. The commute to school on two buses, the time she spent in classes and in the library studying, as well as her job at one of the administrative offices kept her so busy that she would normally arrive back at her house at ten and leave the next morning at around seven. Out of those nine hours, some six were spent sleeping, and one was spent in a morning haze of coffee, toast, shower and make-up.

The two hours she had to herself every night before she fell exhausted into bed were her treasures. She didn’t allow herself to study, review material or read anything that had something to do with her major – which was history – or her minor – which was philosophy. She spent the time reading comics online, watching films or taking a long, hot bath.

It was a perfect life, really, and she often felt ridiculously lucky.

But everything changed when her brother got out of prison a week before graduation.

On Command

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Lyle was practicing in front of the mirror again. He had on the army uniform costume that he’d worn on Halloween, and he’d stolen the medal out of his mom’s sock drawer. It was draped around his skinny neck, the gold-colored part resting somewhere around the level of his belt. He marched up and down in his room, trying to make his limbs as stiff as possible, and then turned back to the mirror.

“Sir-yes-sir!”

Under different circumstances, the sight of an eight-year old boy wearing a Halloween costume and walking like a robot would have been amusing. But as it was, it made Robby, Lyle’s older brother, throw his backpack violently across the room. It hit Lyle, who went down right in the middle of another salute.

“Shut up, you idiot, mom’ll be home soon!” Robby gave his brother an extra shove and went to the bathroom to shave. He’d been with his girlfriend after school, and she’d told him she didn’t like his itchy stubble. Trying to calm himself, Robby took out the old razor and placed it on the sink. He lathered his face with lotion, and began, with hands still trembling with anger, to scrape the old, thin blade across his cheek. He managed not to nick his right cheek, his upper lip and his chin, and moved on to the left cheek.

A scream seemed to tear the house into pieces. In the bathroom, Robby cursed as the razor blade cut into his cheek and blood started to seep out of the thin slice. It mixed with the shaving lotion until the lower half of his cheek looked like a marshmallow. Rinsing himself off, Robby got a wad of toilet-paper and held it to his cut as he opened the bathroom door with a crash. A horrible scene met his eyes.

Lyle was face down on the floor, his mother leaning over him. She had the ribbon the medal hung on in one thin, wasted hand, and she was pulling at it, hard. It was still around Lyle’s neck.

“Mom!” Robby dashed forwards, and forced his mother’s hand to let go. He heaved her backwards, away from Lyle, pushing her until she was leaning against the far wall. Her eyes looked dead, and she made no move to go back to strangling her son, so Robby left her and bent over Lyle, turning him over. He was breathing – crying, choking on his mucus and tears, but breathing nonetheless. He huddled in Robby’s embrace, hiding from their mother. Flashing a look of scorn towards her, Robby picked him up and carried him to their tiny, shared room. He took the medal off of him, got him out of the costume and put him in bed. He drew the covers over him and tucked them snug. Lyle was already asleep when he left the room, curled up into a ball.

“How could you, Mom?” Robby faced his mother, who still hadn’t moved from where he’d pushed her. He held the medal forth. “This is what you want? This stupid piece of tin and some gold paint? Take it! Here, take it!” He threw the medal at her feet. Her eyes moved towards it, and she finally moved, kneeling down to pick it up. She looked at it lying in her hand, caressed it, and then held it closely to her breast. Raising her eyes, she gave Robby a withering glare. He didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.

“You never – do you hear me, son? You never talk about your father’s memory that way again.”

She rushed into her bedroom, closing and locking the door, before Robby could scream at her that his father was dead, that he died in a stupid war, that the medal didn’t really mean anything, that his father’s memory lay nowhere near the stupid thing. He slumped against the wall. It was too much, suddenly. It was all too much. His mother had never gone this far before. And Lyle – Lyle was just like her! Why did her need to steal that thing out of her drawer every other day?

Trembling, forgetting about the tissue that was still stuck to his face, Robby went down the hall to where the phone rested on a small table – his father had managed to get a great bargain on it at the flea market, Robby remembered that day… Without dwelling too long, though, he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Aunt Jenny? It’s Rob. Robby. My mom – she – Lyle – I just… We need help.”

Flash Fiction Thursday: Shana, Sorority Girl

Shana laughed, throwing back her head and opening her mouth wide. She had a laugh like no other, an uproarious, full-throated, loud laugh. At parties, people always looked behind them to see who had interrupted their shallow conversation so rudely, but then they saw Shana. After they watched her laugh, they couldn’t stay irritated.

“Are you, like, coming onto me?” Shana’s eyes were bright with mirth, her laughter having just subsided. She stared at the weedy, scrawny, pimpled freshman standing in front of her. He was resolutely holding up a bottle, ready to refill Shana’s shot-glass. It had taken mounds of courage for him to come up to her and ask, with what he thought was a sly, alluring smile, if she wanted a refill, babe.

“Well?” Shana’s eyes were already wandering, looking for someone else, someone cool and trendy and beautiful to talk to. There was quite a pick of young men – lots were in togas, this being their yearly let’s-crash-the-sorority-girls’-party-without-underpants-on event. Pimply freshman forgotten, she wandered over to where some tasty looking guys were gathered.

“Yo, hey, can you fine fellows pour a girl a drink or what?” She smiled coquettishly, her naturally blond hair flipping over one shoulder in an expert move to show off her bare shoulders. A black haired, toga-clad frat-boy turned to look at her. Shana’s smile disappeared. Her face fell, mouth hanging open stupidly, a look of shock stamped into her usually lovely features. The frat-boy looked her up and down, deliberately slowly, and grinned, revealing very pointed canines. When he spoke, Shana could feel the shiver creeping up her back like a line of ants.

“Hello, my heart. I told you we’d see each other again.”