Wednesday, September 24, 2014

WOK A-Z: C is for Choice

Choice (a very short story by Anna K. Stewart)

                Caleb cringed as Thomas let loose with another harsh squawk, the younger boy’s eyes alight with the newness of it.  Thomas knelt on the floor in front of Aunt Aggie’s worn loveseat, commanding tiny shreds of shadow into a makeshift circus with the strained squall of his new voice.  Dribs of darkness formed themselves to a train of elephants on the floor, the proud mane of a lion, a silhouette in top-hat standing center-ring.  Thomas chortled over them, a muffled honk through a nose turned suddenly sharp, its tip curved down to a point over his lips.  Aunt Aggie watched it all in indulgent periphery, her hand skittering in haphazard lines over the journal in front of her. 
Liza had drifted to a lazy sleep at Aunt Aggie’s side, blanketed by the excess skin gathered beneath Aunt Aggie’s left arm, the little girl’s lidless eyes flicking unseeing over them all.  

Caleb retreated slowly, careful to avoid all of the others with their half-formed faces, shadowed limbs.  He moved to the window, peeking carefully through the blinds and into the sun-bright day.  He could just see the bus-stop if he pressed his face to the corner of the window and his nose into the glass.  And, if he turned his head all the way to the left, he could even see the man who sat on the bench, the wild sprigs of hair which burst in curls to either side of a worn baseball cap, his back to the house where Caleb watched.  

Caleb tried to imagine the man’s face, whether his chin were square or pointed, lips thick or thinned against the press of the sun.  Invariably, Caleb found himself imagining the man with no face at all, just the blurred suggestion of eye or darkened indication of mouth, just like any one of the dozens of Aunt Aggie’s half-formed creations.  Except Caleb knew this was not true.  He had watched the man at the bus-stop every day for as long as Caleb could remember, had watched the man jump into shadows that only Thomas would have dared touch, had watched the man’s clothes change but never those sprigs of hair, never the rough shape.  

And, as happened every day when Aunt Aggie’s anniversary clock chimed in solemn notice of the three o’clock hour, the bus came.  And the girl would appear, a vague blur of braids and out-flung arms.  Sometimes, the man would rise from the bench to meet her.  At other times, the girl would grip him by one arm and the two would wrestle until the man stumbled to his feet.  And the two of them would walk along the sidewalk in front of Aunt Aggie’s house to reach the yellow stucco house next door.  They walked together most of the time, sometimes holding hands and sometimes not.  Sometimes, the girl would run out ahead of the man for a few feet only to pause upon reaching the end of some invisible tether.  And she would spin, arms wide, laughing.

Caleb liked those moments best.

Today was not a spinning day.  The girl trudged off the bus with her hands clenched around the straps of her backpack and paused at the bottom-step for a full minute before stepping off onto the sidewalk.  She handed something to the man on the bench before continuing her sullen march toward the yellow stucco house that waited for them.

Caleb continued to watch the man, the sprigs of curls, the dusty baseball cap.  The man spent a moment at the bench before getting up to follow the girl, a rolled up sheaf of papers in his hand like a baton.  Caleb did not wait to see if the man would catch up, knowing that, whether he did or didn’t, the two would be reunited in the house next door.  The very idea made something in his chest ache and he spun to sit on the ground, back pressed to the wall beneath the window.

“Your heart,” Aunt Aggie murmured softly, words slipped with care between rounds of Thomas’s excited squawking.  She peered at Caleb over the edge of her journal.  “I wanted you to have one.”

“I don’t like it,” Caleb complained, pressing one hand against the hurt.  “Make it stop?”

Aunt Aggie sighed, pausing in her writing to brush the stray hair away from Liza’s sleeping face, away from the lidless stare that never failed to raise goose-bumps on Caleb’s arms.  “It’s already written, child.”

“Then…?”  Caleb didn’t know what he wanted to say, what he wanted to ask.  His chest hurt and his belly felt tight.  

Aunt Aggie’s eyes fixed on him.  “I could…make them yours,” she suggested.

And Caleb could see it, in his mind’s eye, just as clearly as if he were watching through the window once more.  He saw the girl, her hair a braided tangle, thunking down each step of the bus to reach that sidewalk…except he was watching from behind this time, his own feet echoing her movements.  And the man, baseball cap and sprigs of curly hair, would rise from the bench to greet them both.  He’d tug at one of the girl’s braids with one hand and swipe at Caleb’s own messy shock of hair with the other.  And the two children would race down the sidewalk laughing, hands gripping the straps of their backpacks heedless of the man’s shouts, their father’s shouts, behind them.

Caleb felt something in his chest stutter, flutter almost.  His heart?  He swallowed and looked over at Thomas who was still chortling and burbling at his shadow circus.  A tiny shadow flickered over a nearly invisible high-wire.  Liza’s snorted awakening caught the tiny figure by surprise and it tumbled into the safety net of Thomas’s hands.  And Caleb knew that neither he nor the girl with the braids would ever pause to look at Aunt Aggie’s house with its peeling blue paint and rusted mailbox.  They would fly past, laughing, to see which of them could beat the other to the yellow stucco house just beyond it.

Caleb rubbed at his chest.  “No, Aunt Aggie,” he said.  “Please don’t.”  He thought of the girl and the man and the yellow stucco house.  “Not yet?”

Author’s Note:  C is for Choices and Choosing and Caleb.  I think most writers are at least a little fascinated with the concept of choice, why people stay, why people go, why I am sitting here at 6:33am trying to type out an author’s note on the fly because I want to get the story posted before work and I feel the need to have an author’s note.  Why is that?

As it is, I am still playing catch-up (more Cees!) but still having fun.  Perhaps that’s why Aunt Aggie is back, why Caleb, why a lot of things.  Happy Wednesday to the lot of you!  J

Thursday, September 18, 2014

WOK A-Z Challenge: B is for Bugs

Bugs and Bygones

                "I'm dying!" Becca declared, pushing past Meggy to press up against the mirror in the girls' restroom.  She stared at her reflection in horror.  It was worse than she'd thought.  She could hear the tone of her own voice climbing the scales.  "I've got boils!  I'm infested!"  

                The moist red lumps on her face had ballooned overnight from pinprick red dots to grotesque milk-white bubbles.  The worst one crouched over her left eyebrow like a miniature frog at the edge of a muddy river, or a third eye.  She touched it with a finger, grimacing at the oil-slick surface, the subtle give at its apex.  "I'm dead."

                Meggy did not roll her eyes.  Instead, she let her nose twitch, just once, just a little.  It was actually more of a nostril flare.  But it signified the same level of contempt.  "They're called zits, Bec, and if you'd actually listened to me-!"

                Becca groaned.  "Enough about the Mad Meggy Make-over!  I tried it!"

                "You didn't-!"

                "I did!  I put the lotion on my face and I put the cucumber on my nose and I smushed a friggin' banana in my hair and..."

                "Once," Meggy interrupted, coolly shifting her body forward and in front of Becca's to resume her own grooming, using her fingers to smudge her eyeliner, an artful display of casual disregard.  "You tried it once and you said, I quote, 'If Jackson doesn't like me as is...'"

                Becca glared at her friend.  She reached up to squeeze at the frog-like lump of zit over her eye.  "It's true.  I don't need anyone that shallow!"

                "He's not though," Meggy mused, still smearing at her eyeliner.  "He's actually a nice guy." 

                "How would you know?"  Becca grunted at the sudden release of pressure, the spurt of white into the sink in front of her.

                Meggy flicked at an errant lash, its end turned up instead of down at the end.  "I talked to the guy...?"

                Becca didn't answer.  She stared down into the sink in front of her, the tiny white bug that wriggled its way from back to belly before slinking toward the drain, an oily trail of white pus marking its passage.  She felt sick.  "Meggy?"

                Meggy glanced down at the sink and grimaced, flicking her hand briefly over the faucet's motion-detector and sending a stream of water to wash the skittering bug down the drain.  "You should just ask him out, Becca.  I mean what's the worst?  Right?"

                Becca reached up to touch the deflated lump over her eye, swallowing hard at the dull pain, the small hollow in her own skin.  She felt her breath quicken, moved her fingers over to the next lump, a smaller one tucked into the divot above her left nostril.  She could feel something moving.  "Meggy?"

                Meggy heaved a sigh and dug into her purse, pulling out a small tube of flesh-colored make-up.  "Yeah, the zit thing isn't going to win you points but a little bit of cover-up and..."  Her voice trailed away as she looked up, squinting into Becca's face.  "Becca, what...?

                That's when Becca felt it, the small tickle of something moving near her ear.  Slowly she reached up with one hand, fingers patting desperately at her skin until they brushed up against something small, wet and clearly alive.  She shrieked and flung it away from her with a harsh swipe of her hand over her cheek.

                Meggy squealed, staring in horror at the small white grub that had landed on her sweater.  She gulped and backed away from Becca slowly, trading stares between the insect on her sweater and Becca's face.  "Get.  It.  Off of me!" she grit out at last.

                Becca felt her eyes steam, her cheeks flush.  She blinked back tears and took a step forward.

                Meggy squealed again, eying Becca's face.  "No!  Stay back!"   

                Becca could feel a pulsing in her chin, an itch to the left side of her nostril.  She hiccupped as the tears spilled down her cheeks.  She could feel the warm drops slipping around the lumps on her face.  She stared back at Meggy with her artfully smudged eyeliner, her delicately pinked lips.  "Meggy!  Help me!"

                Meggy stilled for a moment, then her nostrils flared and her lower lip lifted.  She brushed the tiny white bug off of her sweater with a flinching twitch of her fingers.  She backed away slowly, shaking her head whenever Becca made a motion to follow.  When Meggy reached the bathroom door, she ran.

                The guidance counselor came for Becca eventually, touching her face with gloved hands and muttering about budget cuts and school nurses.  She gave Becca a copy of the school paper to hold beneath her chin while she waited for her mom to pick her up.  Becca shuddered at each wriggling plop on the paper. 

                After, when the last bell had rung and the janitor had shut off the lights, two shadows shifted in the corner, splitting to a pair of mismatched silhouettes.  The shorter one crouched on the floor, nosing at a bit of smashed maggot on the floor.  "Was that necessary?"

                The taller shadow drifted toward the mirror where two girls had pressed their faces just that morning.  It pressed itself close as if imagining its own reflection in the dark.  "Hardly."

                The shorter shadow lipped at the mashed bug, then wrinkled its nose in distaste.  "Then why?"

                "Recompense."  A short answer. 

                "Revenge?"  The smaller shadow perked up, suddenly interested.  It shuffled toward its companion.  "I like revenge!"

                There was silence, then a soft slow chuckle.  "Not even that.  Not yet.  There are others more, this was...a bit of fun."

Author's Note:  B is for Bugs, Beccas...and a Belated Blog.  I have my excuses...among which are Birthdays, Baking and Busy Bee Syndrome.  Okay, I made the last one up...but life has been rather full of late.

So, this was...a bit of fun.  Not entirely sure what I was thinking or where I was going...or whether this does anything other than call into question my sanity.  I will say it is my second effort at a B blog.  The first one rapidly turned into a short story that had very little (read nothing) to do with the letter B.  This one...went to crazyville.  Maybe should have saved it for C?

So...on this night of fairs, failings and frustrations...a blog post...about none of that.  Be glad!  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

WOK Blog Entry #1: A is for Awake

Awake (A Very Short Story by Anna Stewart)

                The shadows stirred with the morning, their limbs unfurling from the night's enfolding weight.  They slipped beneath tables and chairs, leapt to explore the underside of the drawn blinds as, outside, the great dark shattered to fingerling fragments in the shade of the old Sycamore.  

                The children eyed the shadows, wary fingers tucked into pockets and armpits and the odd sucking mouth.  They stepped where the shadows were not, toes curling into the worn carpet as they edged closer and closer to the old loveseat where Aunt Aggie was sleeping.  

                Against the reddish-brown burr of the upholstery, Aunt Aggie's pallid flesh seemed to mushroom against its surface, the conical upward thrust of an elbow against the varnished wood trim, the rounded edge of a heel protruding from the arm-rest, the spotted pink flush of chin and cheeks around the dulled brown nub of her nose.  

                "Is she awake?" Liza asked, pulling a handful of fingers out of her mouth to do so.  She kept them curled against her chin as she leaned over the back of the loveseat for a better look.  Her forked tongue flicked idly in and out of her mouth, around her fingers and back again.

                Caleb looked up at Liza from where he stood directly in front of Aunt Aggie, then he looked down at Thomas who was crouched on the floor, peering under the loveseat and into the shadows that waited.  He flicked at the younger boy's ear, impatient.  "Stop that!"

                Thomas glared but pulled away from the shadows, turning to rest his shoulder against the curved wooden leg of the loveseat, his lip thrust out in petulant dissatisfaction.  Caleb pretended not to notice when one of the shadows slipped out from under the loveseat and into Thomas's pocket.  The younger boy slipped it bits of carpet fuzz and his own dried skin whenever he thought Caleb wasn't looking.

                Caleb didn't dare sigh.  Everyone was waiting for him, Liza and Thomas and the as yet unnamed others.  They were remnants, all of them, leftovers of a night's sleep and an old woman's dreams.  He leaned forward on his toes, hovering his hand over but not quite daring to touch Aunt's Aggie's shoulder.  "Aunt Aggie?"

                Aunt Aggie groaned and stirred, rolling over to press her face more fully into the decorative pillow.  She caught an edge of brown lace in her mouth and started to chew, lips smacking and teeth grinding just a little.

                The room darkened and Liza gave a muffled shriek.  Thomas flinched, hand curled protectively around the shadow in his pocket.  Around them, the other children shuffled and cried.  They didn't have names yet.  Most of them didn't have faces.

                Caleb pulled at a child's hand, an elbow, a girl standing too close to the shadow cast from a scuffed plastic book-case, another too near the leafed impression of a houseplant.  "Away from the shadows," he reminded them.  "There you are dreamt and forgotten."

                He turned back to the rounded lump on the loveseat, Aunt Aggie's thick legs tangled up in her nightgown, arm hanging limp toward the floor.  A tiny shadow sniffed at the woman's hand.

                Caleb gathered his breath, all too aware of the lungs she'd allowed him, the voice.  "Aunt Aggie!"  He yelled, clapping his hands and stamping his feet.  "Wake up!  Wake up!" 

                "'M awake!  I'm awake!" she gasped, startling up and out of her pillow.  She blinked at the children, at Caleb.  "I'm...awake?"

                Liza crawled over the back of the loveseat, plopping herself firmly into Aunt Aggie's side.  She pulled her fingers from her mouth again and smiled, tongue flicking after.  "I like my tongue, Aunt Aggie," she whispered and snuggled down till her head rested at the woman's hip.  The girl's eyes closed.  "I can find things super-fast!"

                Thomas stayed where he was, hand still flexed over his pocket, but he smiled when Aunt Aggie looked at him.  "And you, Thomas?"

                Thomas kept smiling at her, relaxing his hand and letting the tiny shadow in his pocket tumble out.  He snatched it up in one hand and held it up.  It rumbled and purred in his palm.  Thomas didn't say a word.

                Aunt Aggie sighed.  "That's right.  Your voice."

                Caleb looked around at the others, the as yet unclear faces, some of them nearly shadows themselves.  He stepped forward, flinching when Aunt Aggie made as if to touch his cheek.  He shook his head and nodded to her notebook, nearly invisible beneath the pillow that Aunt Aggie had been chewing on just a few minutes earlier.  "We're not finished yet, Aunt Aggie."

                "No," she sighed.  "No one ever is."  

                And she picked up her pen.

Author's Note:  WOK A-Z challenge.  What to do?  What to do?  Whatever the heck I want to!  Seriously, every time I try to get theme-y, I have problems.  So...I thought I'd go with the moment this time.  And so you get something of a story.  I've had Aunt Aggie in the back of my mind for a while...decided to put her on paper.  Not sure if it works.  It's too new for me to judge.  So feel free to.  I appreciate honest feedback and criticism.  

Going forward, we'll see where the alphabet takes me.  :-)

Now to check out what the other WOK people are up to...