Removing the Rust

This is the second of the stories I wrote for the “story-a-day” challenge last month. I didn’t keep up with the challenge; however, it did start the process of unlocking my rusty imagination.

“Flawless” is too long to be classified as “flash fiction.” But this time, it IS entirely fictional.

Flawless

She’s still flawless. Even in the dark, sneaking a sideways glance as his hands clutch the steering wheel, even though her hair is stuffed up under a hat, he can see that. A silky golden stream trails down her neck, overflowing its hive. She even smells like honey. Her dark eyes are huge and unmoving.

“So where’s your husband?” Simon asks.

“He’s sleeping,” she answers. “At my Grandpa’s old cabin. Remember that place?”

“I didn’t think anyone was using it anymore,” he says. “Except for maybe some teenage partiers.”

“Someone bought it after Grandpa died, used it as a fishing cabin I guess,” she says, “and then they just let it fall apart. But Keith and I hiked out there today so that I could show him the lake, and he had a lot to drink. He’s sleeping it off in the cabin, or what’s left of it. So I trekked back to my car and called you from the visitor’s center pay phone. My cell wouldn’t work by the lake.”

Simon had been shocked to get her call tonight. After all these years. “Do you have children?” he asks.

“A daughter,” Kristy tells him. “Tara. She’s eight. She’s staying with my mother in Nashville while Keith and I take our own trip. He’s lived his whole life on the west coast, he’s never seen the south before.”

They reach the site at midnight. A breeze shudders the meadow grasses. There’s the speckled boulder stark in the full moonlight, and then the trees begin. A vine hangs tangled in a dying cypress, and there he pulls over and stops the car.

“I didn’t remember the way anymore,” Kristina says. He’s surprised by that, but then he isn’t. She’d always had an unerring sense of direction back then, but they’d been to this spot together only once, 25 years ago, and she’d been traumatized when they fled. “Thanks for bringing me.” Simon nods.

He remembers the meadow from the summer they were twelve, how she’d taught him to suck the nectar from clover flowers, their picnic on the boulder under the moonlight, the pale down on her tanned arms, her honey-hued braids and sweet lips and shy breath as they lay hidden behind the giant rock. He remembers her rapid pulse when the motorcycle swooped into the meadow and the men argued, his own fear nearly stopping his heart. He wonders about her memories.

Kristina waits in the car while he removes a collapsible shovel and flashlights from the trunk, then she gets out and follows him. There’s no trail, but he’s memorized the pattern of trees and shrubs that grow along the route. In ten minutes they’ve found the cemetery. “God’s Garden,” it was once called.

“Did you ever tell your parents?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “And they were off in their own world, anyhow. California-bound that week and nothing was going to stop them. Not my little problems, that’s for sure.”

“It was more than just a ‘little problem,’ Kristy,” he says.

“Compared to becoming a Hollywood star?” she says. “Everything else was minute, believe me.”

“And how did that work out for your Mom?” he asks, knowing that he’d never seen Elaine in a film.

“A few commercials,” Kristy says. “Dad painted houses. Then Mom decided to give Nashville a try. She didn’t make out too well there, either.”

The stone wall surrounding the old cemetery has crumbled further. But rosebushes are in late bloom around the perimeter, their petals falling and drifting in the breeze. Mounds of coneflower shadow the graves. He can see that Kristy is startled. And in the corner of the graveyard where they’ve halted, there’s an intact headstone that hadn’t been there when they were twelve.

“It was just me,” Simon tells her. “I fixed things up…I don’t know…to honor Geoffrey, I guess. The victim.  It was a hate crime, you know.”

“What?” she asks. Confusion swarms her eyes.

“It was in the newspapers when the smaller guy, Geoffrey Thompson, went missing. He was just twenty. He and some friends were on an adventure trip, white-water rafting, and they went to a bar afterward. He was flirting with some big guy with a beard, his friends said, and took off on a motorcycle with the bearded man and never came back. You were off to California by the time it hit the papers.

“When that…that bastard pushed me down, he said that finally he’d found some real tail,” Kristina tells Simon. “That the fucking homos didn’t know what they were missing.”

“Yeah, you told me afterward,” says Simon. It was the only thing she’d said to him. She hadn’t needed to tell him anymore, because after the bearded man had shot Geoffrey and carried him into the woods, after Kristina and Simon had argued about what they should do, after Kristy had crept into the woods to see how the murderer would hide the body, Simon had decided that he couldn’t just ride off to the police on his bike and leave her there. It would take too long. He was seething – he’d seen the excitement on her face and was shocked by it – but he’d finally followed her.

She breaks into his thoughts. The ferocity of her scowl makes him take a step back. “So it’s because it was a hate crime that we can call him evil? That’s what absolves us? Hell Simon, I’ve always known that he deserved to die.”

Simon nods. He’d followed her that night, seen the gaping grave holding Geoffrey’s body, seen Kristy naked and the big man on top of her. Simon hadn’t hesitated. He’d wrenched a stone from the fence and swung, hard, the weight of terror and rage behind his pounding.

He’d rolled the body off of her, then turned his head while she rose, gathered her clothes and dressed. She’d vomited when she saw the man’s head, but then helped Simon drag the body to the hole, roll it over the edge and on top of the smaller man, fill the hole and cover it with stones and fallen branches, making it look much like the rest of the cemetery.

“The headstone,” Kristy says now. “Where did that come from?”

“I carved it, about ten years ago,” Simon tells her. “It’s what I do. I’m a sculptor. I work in stone. I thought that Geoffrey needed a marker, finally. Those are his initials.” That’s all the smooth marker says,  “G.T.”, just under the carving of a sun rising over mountain peaks. No dates.

“And the flowers?” she asks. “They’re not only on…on his grave.”

Simon shrugs, embarrassed. “I kept thinking about all of these forgotten people,” he says. “No one was visiting them anymore. Or Geoffrey. If his people had buried him, they would have kept up his grave, brought flowers.” He tries to sound noncommittal, non-blaming. He’d tried to convince her that night to tell the police, that people would be looking for the men, that the victim must have folks who loved him. But she’d just kept shaking her head and crying. He’d rationalized that if he were a young girl, he might have felt the same way.

And he’d been afraid. He’d killed a man. What might happen if they went to the police? So they’d buried the bodies, walked the motorcycle a mile up the road to the nearest precipice, and pushed it over. After that they were in it too deep.

Tonight they cross the cemetery, catty-corner from the bodies they’d covered with earth 25 years before, to the fence corner where a much smaller hole conceals the murderer’s wallet. Simon hadn’t been able to summon the nerve to climb into the grave and search the pockets of the man he later learned was Geoffrey. But he’d needed to know who his own victim was, so found the man’s wallet before shoving him into the hole. The big guy’s name was Carl Stinson. Simon had been shocked at the amount of money in the billfold. Neither he nor Kristy had wanted it then. It had been on his body; it was tainted. And how could they spend it? They’d be caught.

But she apparently wants it now.

Simon unfolds the shovel and pushes the blade into the ground. It takes only a moment to reach the wallet. They’d both been hesitant to let that much money rot, so had hiked back to their picnic spot, found the jar she’d brought tea in, rinsed it out and buried the wallet in that. It’s still well-preserved.

As Kristy bends to fill the hole, her shirt rises and he sees ugly bruises across her back, welts striping her golden skin. She sees him looking and pulls the shirt down, shakes her head in warning. He doesn’t ask.

Kristina offers him half of the cash. He shakes his head. She pockets the wallet and they clamber over stones and downed branches, back to the car. He begins heading toward the picnic grounds.

“Can you take me by the cabin first?” she asks. Of course. She’ll need to retrieve her drunken husband.

He drives up the twisting roads, focusing on the switchbacks until the road straightens for a moment. When he glances to his right, her face is smooth as pale marble in the darkness, her profile regal.

“I caught hell that night, for coming in at 4:00 in the morning,” Simon tells her. “I didn’t tell them anything, not even that I’d been with you.” Kristy doesn’t respond, and he knows that no one had noticed her absence.

They arrive at the cabin and she takes a flashlight, makes her way down a short trail. She’s back in the car fifteen minutes later.

“Is he still sleeping?” Simon asks.

“Yeah, out cold. He’s not going to wake up. Drive me to my car, please?” Her car is parked at the picnic area where he’d met her that night. It’s a relatively short distance away as the crow flies.  Kristy’s sense of direction would have led her and Keith on an easy enough jaunt to the cabin. But by road the journey will take a while. She rolls down her window and stares out at the stars.

They wind their way down the mountain. Simon is focused on the sharp curves and ruts in the dirt road, and it isn’t until they’re on smooth pavement 25 minutes later that he looks into the rear-view mirror and sees flames lighting the sky far behind them, hears sirens beginning. It’s only then, when he gasps and draws in a deep breath, that he catches her new scent. Lighter fluid. His brain begins to buzz.

Simon’s voice is soft. “Keith might have gotten out of the cabin alive,” he tells Kristina.

“No,” she says. “He’s really knocked out. Had some sleeping pills in his whiskey. And he’s drenched in the stuff.”

They drive in silence for a moment, but then Simon needs to ask. “Why didn’t you just leave him? Get a restraining order?”

She laughs and shakes her head. “Restraining orders are a joke. Last week,” she says, “he held a gun on me when I tried to call the police. He said he’d hunt me down if I left. That he’d kill our daughter, too. And he would have.”

“When you get back to your daughter, your family,” Simon asks, “what will you say happened to him?”

“That we were in Florida and he left me,” she says. “That I waited for days, but he never came back.”

“And if they find his bones?” Simon wants to know. “And lighter fluid? They can detect that stuff. They can test DNA. They’ll suspect you.”

“Why?” she says. “Keith and I are in Florida. He’s nowhere near this place. We stopped off here today and took our hike, he went fishing and got drunk like he always does, but we never checked into a hotel. There’s no paper trail placing us here. That’s a fierce fire and the trucks won’t reach it anytime soon. There won’t be any bones. Besides, there’s a wallet down the path from the cabin’s back door, at the lake. It’s by his fishing pole and whiskey bottle – I washed them – no fingerprints, no saliva. The place was torched by an old vagrant no one’s seen for 25 years: the old drunk tried to grill some fish for dinner and grilled himself instead.”

“Where will you go now?” Simon asks.

“Not California,” Kristina tells him.

“You didn’t see me,” she says when she opens the passenger door at the picnic area. “Okay?”

Simon agrees. “I never saw you. Never.”

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A Stab at Flash Fiction…Sort Of

This story is based on a real-life escapade of my beloved Aunt, who passed on a few years ago – just after her new house was built. I loved the old farmhouse, and was saddened that it was beyond repair and had to be dismantled. “Skin” is fictionalized only in the sense that I don’t remember all of the details of my Aunt’s life (did she work at Sears or Montgomery Ward or was it another department store? Was the computer at Harris Bank? I didn’t record the stories, and so my mind is fuzzy about much of what she told me), and can’t really know what her thoughts were. And names have been changed. But I certainly remember her scowl as she told me, “I should have been born a boy!”

Skin

Bonnie Jepperson Vesely

It was time for the walls to come down.

Martha had moved the blue hydrangeas, the day lilies and every other bulb or shrub that could be smothered by falling debris, moved them from the farmhouse over to her Hopewell house, where she could care for them properly while the new house was being built here. When the yardwork was finished, she’d reluctantly gone indoors and begun moving out furniture, salvaging fixtures, woodwork, countertops, everything that could be pried loose. She’d made quick work of it, because she never could stand being indoors. Should have been born a boy. Her muscles were strong and wiry, hips narrow, skin in the summer as tan as any cowboy.

Long ago, she’d had a couple of indoor jobs – a bookkeeping position at Sears, then she’d worked for Harris Bank using one of the first computers, just after the war, after Max had come home and married her. Now there was a story for these youngsters, with their talk of laptops and gigabytes. That early computer had filled half the room.

But after her son was born, she’d become a stay at home mother, like all the other Moms, except not. She couldn’t abide a life of tasks done within four walls, sweeping rugs and arranging furnishings, following the fashion of throwing out and buying new every few years. Old was perfectly good, generally better. She worked in the garden, planted flowers, hounded flea markets and filled the house with piles of bargains: you never knew what might come in handy someday.

She’d raised her boy, who was labeled “slow,” though exactly what was slow about him she couldn’t tell you. Jack’s speech was a little different, like someone who was deaf, maybe, and he couldn’t keep track of his spending – she still had to watch him at the flea markets – but he could read and write well enough. Kept up with the sports scores – he especially loved Dallas, mostly because of those cheerleaders. He understood politics as well as anyone, took to driving like a moonshiner takes to whiskey. Hardest worker they had in maintenance down at the post office, everyone liked him. Mowed the grass and helped out on the farm. He was fiercely affectionate, had a gift for kindness and generosity.

“So where’s the ‘slow’ in all that?” she’d asked Max, when he complained about the boy’s shortcomings.

Now Max had died and she could only keep up with so much; she’d worn herself out caring for him in that last year. Even replaced her old wringer washer with an automatic, because washing all the bedding had got to be too hard. She couldn’t keep up with farming anymore, so now just rented out the fields. It was worth a good amount – she’d leave Jack in fine shape one of these days, had already found an honest lawyer to help him manage it. But she still had her gardens at both homes. For Saturday night dinners with her sister-in-law’s crowd, she could contribute cucumbers and tomatoes, apples and rhubarb and blackberries.

Who needed two houses, though? Like needing two bodies. One was enough to keep up with, and she liked being out here, in the quiet of the country without neighbors to worm their way into her home and goggle at the stacks of flea market bargains. The cost of bringing the farmhouse up to code and making it livable was outrageous, and there was no point in spending a big bite of Jack’s inheritance, so the Hopewell house was going on the market. She’d build a nice, new place for them here. Had hoped to do the building herself, as well as the demolition, but regulations were a maze these days; she’d need to eat her disgust and hire a contractor to do the construction come spring.

But the plants were moved and crops were in, winter was coming and it was time to begin the deconstruction. She took one last walk through the house, the root cellar and huge, sunny kitchen, the parlor and tiny bathroom and six bedrooms. She could almost picture the lives that had been lived in these rooms, the love and birthing, dinners and squabbles and sorrows and holidays and hard work – more than a hundred years’ worth – imagine that! She could feel their spirits, still here. But the spirits dwelt in the spaces, inside and out of the house, not in the walls themselves; they weren’t going anywhere. The walls were the skin, getting as crumbly and sagging as the skin she saw when she looked into a mirror. Well, her skin had housed a history too – the love and birthing, dinners and squabbles and sorrows and holidays and hard work – over almost as long a life as the house, now that she thought about it. Eighty-three this year.

And as for the bones of this house – she’d salvage as much as she could, use what was usable.

She stepped out through the splintery doorframe. “Jack,” she called. “Come on, it’s time.”

They hitched tractor to walls, and began.

Here’s to the Creatively Maladjusted!

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” Those are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, written in 1963. There are many of us who are “maladjusted” to the expectation of conformity; creativity is our way of resisting the “anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority” – Dr. King again – and of answering the call to envision and initiate a world where the human spirit will not be extinguished.

Story enables us to explore the human condition in all its pain and glory. Words, visual arts and music all tell tales, help us find our way to what is most true. Through story we begin to understand the why of where we’ve come from, and of where we are heading. This is the first step toward change: let it unfurl.