Cage [Flash Fiction]

The motorcycle gang was at it again. Cage rolled over, belly to back. He listened to the mindless, formless screams coming from the highway, wordless whooping shouts between men playing chicken or racing or whatever it was they were doing. Keeping him awake, that’s what.
The cat made a noise between a burp and meow as she jumped onto his bed. She’d been throwing up all over his apartment, and he wasn’t sure he should have her anywhere near his bed, but he’d forgotten to close the door and now here she was. He heard the motorcyclists getting closer again. They seemed to loop around the section of the I-whatever it was that was near his place. Cage didn’t drive. He kept track of street names. He knew that Carrigan Way led to Archduke Avenue and that Archduke intersected with the ten plague streets. He knew where he could jaywalk by sound rather than sight and where he should look everywhere because of the twisty streets that drivers zoomed down with no consideration of walkers like him. He knew nothing about highways, except that he hated the motorcyclists.
The neighborhood he’d settled in recently was a strange one. The cat, for instance. She wasn’t an isolated case. There were ferals all over the place. Especially around the ten plague streets, he’d noticed. Some fanatic, a rich one, had erected the city about a hundred and fifty years ago. Who knows what religion the man had believed in, but everyone seemed to think he definitely didn’t belong to their neck of the woods in terms of belief. Cage didn’t know who to believe, but what seemed to be established fact – what everyone agreed on – was that the run-down neighborhood where Cage lived now was the original town that had grown into the city, and that the ten plague streets were the first ones built, all along Archduke Avenue.
They were still tourist draws, too. When Cage went on his walks, he saw people, almost every day, taking pictures under the Blood Street and Frogs Street signs. He noticed, not without a smile, that some people looked up nervously at the Lice Street sign, as if worried that there might be some up there, left by a higher being, or more likely a high school student, just as a prank.
The cat nuzzled her head into Cage’s armpit, which was uncomfortable because of the heat, but he was also much too exhausted to try to move her. He also vaguely feared that trying to move her in any way could induce another round of vomiting. He didn’t pet her, just let her lie there, and listened to the motorcyclists go round and round. The yelping had stopped. Maybe it was just one of them, now. Driving around the highway, lonely.
What am I doing here? Cage thought. What on earth am I doing here?

Golden Morning

Glen unfolded the morning newspaper carefully, making sure not to rip any part of it. He was one of the only people in his building who still got a paper newspaper delivered. He knew this because he was always awake early enough to receive the paper straight from the deliveryman’s hands, and he became friendly with him over time and asked him whether there were many deliveries to be made in that neighborhood. The deliveryman just shook his head and smiled sadly. It was too early for him to engage in conversation and he answered Glen’s questions in monosyllables, releasing the words from his mouth as if they were precious bits of energy that he had to conserve.
Although Glen wasn’t personally invested in any business that had to do with the news – he wasn’t a reporter, nor did he own a publication of any sort – he still felt a deep and abiding kinship that dated back to the days of his early childhood, when he would watch his father iron the newspaper with gloved hands before unfolding it carefully and reading it in its entirety over his long breakfast. The ritual fascinated him as a child, and he saw something sacred in it. His mother had always told him not to disturb his father while he was reading the newspaper, and Glen, always an obedient child, still remembered the hushed mornings when he would play with his heavy metal train set, moving the cars quietly over the little rails and mouthing the “woo-woo!” that, at other times of day, he would shout out exuberantly every time the train ran under the little bridge he’d constructed over it with three hardcover books.
Although Glen didn’t iron the newspaper – he didn’t mind getting his hands a little dirty from the smudgy ink – he read the paper front to back every morning before heading out to work. It took him three cups of milky coffee, drunk slowly as it cooled to room temperature and below, to finish the pages, which, these days, seemed to be filled with more advertisements than articles.
When he finished the paper, he would fold it up just as carefully, and then would go downstairs and put it in the mailbox of apartment 14, where old Mr. Spiegal lived. Old Mr. Spiegal had stopped getting a pension when the company he’d worked for had gone bankrupt and had had to cancel his newspaper subscription in order to cut down on costs. He had been gruffly thankful when Glen offered to give him the newspaper every morning.
Glen’s ritualized morning ended with the action of popping the neatly folded newspaper into Mr. Spiegal’s mailbox. After he did that, he was never quite sure what to do next, and had to improvise every morning anew. He still hadn’t found a new job after the factory had laid him off, and although he continued applying for new positions, there were many days during which his only obligation was to avoid spending more money than he needed to. He had a nest-egg from his parents that he’d never touched until three months ago when he found himself, for the first time since high school, out of work.
This morning, he decided to go for a walk. He had a phone interview scheduled for the afternoon, and nothing else to do until then. The sun had come out from behind the fog that had shrouded it in the early hours and the day was beginning to look like the first real spring day of the year.
Walking down the pathway from the dilapidated apartment building, Glen stretched his arms above his head and tugged each hand with the other, the better to stretch his shoulders. As he turned right onto the sidewalks, he let his arms fall down to his sides, shook his head, took a deep breath, and began to walk.
There was nowhere in town that was unfamiliar to him anymore. He’d walked every inch of it, even ducking into a few private yards, just to see if there was a magic garden concealed by the stocky buildings that his them.
This morning, he decided to take the path that led up to the only hill in town, where the wealthy people lived. He found himself turning to this familiar walk more and more often lately, and he had a suspicion that there lurked in his breast some illogical hope that being around moneyed people would give him luck of some sort.

The Town and the North [Flash Fiction]

Once upon a time, there were train tracks. Along the tracks, somewhere midway between their beginning and end, was a town. It was small and rustic and old, the kind of town where you married the boy you played with when you were four and grew up to be just like your grandparents, grumpily proclaiming that things were different in your day, even though they really weren’t. It was the kind of town that few people left, and if they did leave, you knew they weren’t going to come back. It was the kind of town that could fulfill your dreams; your dreams were small and simple because you didn’t really believe there was a whole world outside of the town, a world where you could do something different than what your parents did before you. It was the kind of town that killed any aspirations you had above your station and strangled your imagination because it interfered with what you were supposed to do to make your family proud.

Nobody in the town knew what the train tracks were. The train that had once run along the edge of town had been diverted to a different route so long ago that nobody in living memory even knew what exactly a train looked like. The children in the town knew that if they ever worked up the courage to leave, they would follow the tracks. On long summer days, they dared each other to go farther and farther down the tracks, always turning away with frightened giggles when they reached Old Gabby’s farm a little outside town. Everyone knew that Old Gabby was crazy and that his dogs were vicious, and whenever the children heard the barks, they would lose their nerve.

They never went the other way down the tracks. That way, North, lay something more frightening than dogs and crazy old men, something that parents didn’t even need to warn their children about; the kids learned quickly enough that when they tried to go North, their skin began to prickle, their hair stood up on their arms, and the world seemed to darken. Nobody every talked about it. It was the kind of town that didn’t like to voice certain things.

That became a problem when one day in late autumn, a woman ran into town from the North and fell, panting and red-faced, onto the mayor’s porch. She managed to scratch a word in the snow before she passed out: “Help.”

Foundling

A baby lay on the wide rim of the fountain in the middle of the town square. It was sleeping quite peacefully, wrapped in tattered green blankets. It was impossible to tell its sex by looking at it, since the only visible part was its face, which was still a little scrunched and red. The baby couldn’t have been more then a day or two old, and Maude Leary was astonished that it was sleeping in such a precarious position, on such a cool evening.

Maude was a sweeper. She walked around town with an old-fashioned broom made with nice long bristles tied well with a metal wire, and swept the leaves from the middle of the sidewalk to the edges. She did this all day, every day, from five in the morning until five in the afternoon. She’d gotten the job when she was seventeen, and even with all the changes that had been made in town hall over the last few years, no one had had the heart to fire her, even though she was the only employee of her kind. Maude was sixty-three now, but she looked quite the same as she had when she’d boldly walked into the now defunct old town hall and requested a job. She was, perhaps, more lined than she’d been at seventeen, but she still had the same sandy hair, the same spattering of freckles over her nose and cheeks, and the same wiry figure. She still wore overalls day in and day out, with a different colored t-shirt for every day of the week.

Today was a Tuesday, so she was wearing her purple t-shirt. Because of the cool weather, she had a scarf wrapped around her neck, too. Her hip was cocked to one side as she leaned on the familiar broom and watched the baby sleep on. “Well, I’ll be,” she murmured to herself. The town square was empty in the quiet before everyone got out of work and rushed on home, and a bird was cheeping absentmindedly in the nearby tree, doing its duty to the setting sun.

Quite suddenly, the baby opened its eyes. Its eyes roved this way and that until it found Maude’s kind, slightly mischievous, face. Her wide eyes met the baby’s and in a moment they seemed to understand each other perfectly. Maude took three steps and closed the gap between them. She saw now that there was a note pinned to the green cloth the silent baby was wrapped in. In big, slightly shaky, letters, it said: I NEED A HOME. Maude clucked her tongue, a habit she’d copied from her mother years ago. “Whoever left you here is a beast,” she informed the baby. A little hiccup came out of the tiny, pink lips. “You can chastise me all you want for it, but I still say they’re a beast,” Maude answered.

The big bell in the church began to toll the hour. Maude picked the baby up. “Our shift is over, little one,” she told the baby firmly. “Let’s go and have some milk, hm?” As the office building spewed out men and women in suits and the church bell continued to ring, Maude stumped off home.

Prisonville

Whoosh

A car drives by, so close to me that I feel the wind it makes buffet me as it blows past. I pull my jacket tighter around me and keep walking. The road’s deserted now that the headlights of the car are gone and its noise is fading away. I miss it a little. I’d tracked that solitary car’s progress from three streets away when it started up in its driveway. There isn’t a whole lot of town here, and you learn pretty quickly to tell where the cars are coming from. I don’t know why, but sound has always traveled particularly far in this place; maybe it’s all the clean mountain air.

Nobody moves here for any reason except the stupid air. I can’t tell you how many times I heard my parents, or my friends’ parents, gush about how clean the dratted air up here is. I’ve heard my husband’s family go on about it, and my friends and my coworkers as well. Everyone loves the air, the air, the air. The clean, mountain air.

Me? I hate this air. I find it oppressive. I feel like it’s closing in on me. Once every couple of months I get a panic attack, and Dr. Greene has to come and inject something in my arm until I calm down. My husband doesn’t get it, but maybe that’s because I’ve never explained it to him. Why should I? He’d laugh, tell me I’m crazy, ruffle my hair in that way I hate and then forget all about me again.

I pass my house again. I’ve been around the block five times already and I don’t feel any warmer than I did when I started. It’s past midnight, and I can’t sleep. As usual. My husband’s still out at the bowling alley with his buddies – well, that’s what he tells me, anyway. I think he’s elsewhere, but I haven’t ever bothered to check. I honestly don’t care about him enough. It’s not like I’ve ever had a relationship with him. We were married two years ago. I’ve known him all my life, of course, just like I know everyone else in this town. If you think your town is small, try to go house by house throughout all of it and see if you know everyone’s names. Can you do that? I can.

I read a book once – or maybe it was a movie, I’m not sure – whatever it was, I remember this place called Stepford, where all the women were exactly the same, programmed to be perfect. That’s what my town is like – everyone’s exactly the same: perfectly nice, perfectly decent, perfectly fair, perfectly dull. Both the women and the men. The only ones who are different are the kids, and they all grow out of it. I don’t know why I’m different, but I just know that I am.

I think I’m the only one in living memory who ever tried to leave this place. But I couldn’t.

Twins

Once upon a time,

there was a girl

who lived in a town

all by herself

and she was fine.

She went to work

every day

and did what she

was told

and went to bed every night

at a reasonable hour.

She was a good girl

this girl.

Once upon a time

there was a girl

who lived in a town

all by herself

and she was fine too.

She stayed in bed

every day

and read a book every night

and she stayed up late

talking to people in her head.

She was a bad girl

this girl.

Once upon a time

there were twins

who lived in a town

together

and they worked some

and they played some

and they read some

and they slept some

and they talked some

and they danced some

and they were happy

and they were sad.

These were just girls,

these girls.

Flash Fiction Thursday: The House on the Hill

There was a house on the hill. It was a run-down old thing, with shingles fallen off the roof, and the door halfway off its hinges. The windows were all boarded up, except for one round window at the top of the house. In front, there was what used to be a lawn. Over the years it had turned into an almost-meadow, high weeds and the occasional wild flowers growing wildly. Then there was the fence. It was tall and made of iron, and not one bit of it was rusted. The strangest thing was, there was no gate. Nobody remembered that there’d ever been one. It was as if someone had left the house to rot and built a fence around it afterwards.

The Hensley brothers sat with their backs against one of the big oak trees that kept their own house separate from the hill behind it.

“You think anyone’s ever been in there?” asked Tommy. He was ten, and his pajamas featured a pattern of Pokemon creatures.

“What, you mean like mom or dad or the kids at school?” answered Jake. He was barely six, and his world view encompassed only those people he knew. He was unfortunate enough to have his mom still picking out his clothing, and his pajamas featured multicolored, grinning bunnies.

“No, stupid, I mean anybody. Anybody in town. One of the older kids or the cops or someone.”

“But how? There’s no way to get in!”

“Bet I can figure out a way.” He got up and yanked Jake up off the ground.

“Tommy? Tommy, we’re not going up there, are we?” Jake’s hand was held so tightly that he was stumbling after his brother trying to keep up and not fall and be dragged on the ground. Tommy marched resolutely upwards, and when Jake started getting breathless, he picked him up gingerly and brought him the rest of the way. He stopped at the tall fence and plopped Jake onto the ground.

“Stop sniveling, Jakey! Look, we could make this place into a club-house, right?”

Jake looked up hopefully, wiping his dribbling nose with the pack of one muddied hand. “Could we? Could we really? With secret meetings and stuff?”

“You bet. Now, all we have to do is this. Look, you see my hands? They’re like a step now, right? So step on, and I’ll lift you as high as I can so you catch onto the top.”

Jake scrambled onto his brother’s cupped hands and held onto the fence rails as he was raised slowly up to the top. He reached out an arm, and caught hold of the one of the raised spiky bits with one little hand. Tommy saw this, gave a whoop and let go of Jake’s feet.

A moment later, there was a crumpled Jake on the floor clutching his leg and a very white Tommy sitting next to him. His mind was very focused on two things at the same time. The first was that he had to get Jake back home quickly because that leg was definitely broken, and the second was how was he going to explain this to Mom??

It was years before either brother went up that hill again.