Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Monday, October 30, 2017

Answered Prayer — Another Original Short Story for Halloween

ANSWERED PRAYER
A Short Story by Tim McMullen


A loud rumble of thunder was punctuated by the emphatic
crash of a slamming door. It had started to drizzle a few
minutes earlier, and the grass and the sidewalk glistened as he
walked toward the car. The door handle was wet, and he brushed
his palm on the seat after hurling himself down behind the wheel.
Mumbling angrily, he turned the key in the ignition. The car
engine raced, and he slammed the gear-shift into reverse.

Glancing over at the front door of his house, he had an
impulse to return. Then, staring in the rear-view mirror, he saw
her face; it was only for an instant, but it was Marjorie,
looking the way she had looked just moments ago when he had
growled out his oft-repeated warning, “You just try to leave!”
As always, the “ … and see what you'll get!” was implicit in his
tone. The vision vanished as the tires squealed on the damp
pavement.

At this time of night, very few cars were on the road, and
within minutes he had passed the outskirts of town and was on the
road leading out into the desert. How many times had he had made
this night drive, letting the road and the sky dissipate his
anger and frustration?
It was always the same. Marjorie, with her frightened,
mousey eyes; her stupid, mousey excuses.
“I'm sorry dinner's late. Lisa had a meeting after school,
and then my mother called. I told her I'd call her back, but it
was real important,” she had whimpered. “lt'll only be a minute
longer. Why don't you go in and relax?”
He could see the apprehension in her eyes, and he could hear
it in her voice, and that made him even madder.
“This is the second time this week that we've had to wait
for dinner! What did she want this time?"
A loud peal of thunder startled him, and he relaxed his grip
on the wheel. That meddling old biddy had done everything she
could to discourage his happiness, and he had about had it.
Maybe he should do what he'd already threatened--forbid Marjorie
to talk to her mother at all. Maybe then she'd be able to get
the dinner ready on time. He smiled a smile of decision.
“As good as done,” he said aloud and then glanced again in
the rear-view mirror. Again he saw Marjorie's face, now superimposed
over the wet, desert highway; her cheeks glistened like
the roadway receding in the moonlight. Unconsciously, he looked
down at the knuckles of his own right hand and was surprised to
find what appeared to be blood. He brought his fist up to his
face, stuck out his tongue, and licked the spot. The blood
disappeared.
"Maybe I overdid it a little this time,· he said, speaking
confidentially to his knuckle, "but God knows she deserves it."
In fact, she had been getting worse. Just last week, he had told
her that he'd be home by eleven-thirty, and that he wanted
something hot for lunch, yet she'd been gone when he arrived. A
plate of food in the refrigerator and a note on how to use the
microwave were all she'd left. He had really blown up on that
one. Still, it was his fault; he'd been too soft, and she'd been
taking advantage of his generosity.
A truck thundered by and splattered his windshield like a
drive-through car wash. "Big Jerk,· he muttered and turned the
wipers on high. When the wiper blades began to squeek against
the dry window, he realized that the rain had stopped.
Yes, it was time to really put his foot down and have done
with all her nonsense. The Lord said, "Wives, submit yourselves
unto your own husbands ... and he shall rule over thee," and that
was how it should be.
He pictured her sitting there at the table serving him his
dinner, trying to please him, asking him about his day, listening
patiently and sympathetically while he told her all about the
jerks that he'd had run-ins with at the plant. Those had been
good times, and the only way to get them back was for her to
change back. His horne was his castle, and he was the King. The
Bible said as much; besides it made sense. You can't have two
masters. Man was born to lead; woman was created to follow, to
be a help-mate, to support and nurture; not to argue or disobey.
He had been watching the highway more carefully. After a
couple of random turns, he was now on a stretch of road which was
unfamiliar to him, and he felt a little uneasy. Up ahead, in the
elusive shimmer of the cloud-covered moon, he saw a peculiar
glare on the pavement.
“Must be a patch of oil,” he whispered under his breath,
"could be slippery in this drizzle."
The whole thing was stupid. Why was he out here driving
around in this weather? She should have to leave ... not him!
Next time, she'd go.
Suddenly, her face was there in the mirror, but it looked different. 
Her head was cocked at an odd angle as she lay on the
floor, her eye was puffed closed, and blood gushed from her nose.
He felt a surge of pity and remorse at the sight, but the remorse
turned almost instantly to rage.
It was her own fault! He wouldn't be driven to hit her if
she just did things right. He worked like a dog to provide for
her, but when he came home, demanding nothing more than for his
house to be in order, all he got was, “Sorry, dinner's late!” He
had a good mind to go back right now and get it over with once
and for all!



He'd been watching the dark patch in the highway since it
was just a speck on the horizon, but now its swift approach
startled him, and he decided to slow down. He was already on the
patch by the time he hit his brakes, and as soon as he touched
them, he knew it was a mistake. The rear tires lost traction
instantly, and the car began to fishtail. He tried to compensate
by turning the wheel slightly, but this just threw the car into a
spin. He clenched his fists on the steering wheel and uttered a
few quick phrases of prayer as the car jerked off the pavement
and the left tires reared up off the dirt of the shoulder.
Oh, God, it's gonna' roll, he thought. “No!” he screamed.
The car careened down the steep embankment and tore through the
scrub brush. His breast slammed against the steering wheel, and his 
head crashed against the windshield and blasted him into 
unconsciousness.



 Before his eyes opened he heard the sound of frying bacon.
It sizzled and popped in such a way as to invite his eyelids
open, but the pounding in his head petitioned him to keep them
closed. Slowly, the sound won out, and he pried one eye open.
His unfocused eye came to rest on a splash of dark which
eventually became the floorboard of his Plymouth. 



“W-What the… ?”
Only then did he remember the spot of oil, the spin-out, and the
crash. That, of course, explained why he was now lying on the
front seat of his car—in a ditch—in the middle of the night.
However, it did not explain why someone was frying bacon on the
hood. As he raised himself up on his right arm and looked out,
he was blinded by a brilliant burst of light and sparks.
When he opened his eyes again, his sphincter convulsed and a
violent and involuntary tremor coursed up his spine, raised the
hairs on the back of his head, then raced back to bring a quiver
to his loins. His breath caught in his chest, and he lay,
propped on his elbow, frozen in fear. He instantly apprehended
the situation: Staring him in the face, only inches away, was the
ragged end of a broken power line. This clearly was the source
of the sound he had mistaken for sizzling bacon. Now it just
lay there. The sparks had apparently subsided with the last big
flash.
Instinctively, he retracted his limbs as he frantically
searched the car. He was looking for exposed metal. He thanked
God that there was a moon tonight. He might already be dead if
he hadn't seen that downed wire. But was it possible to get
electrocuted through the car? It was probably insulated. The
tires were rubber—they’d keep the car from conducting
electricity. But the wire was making contact with the hood, so
maybe it was hot? It wasn't sparking anymore, though. He wished
to the Lord that he knew more about electricity!
The light in the car had been gradually fading. From his
awkward position he tried to catch a glimpse of the moon, but he
found only a large bank of ominous storm clouds which had
apparently begun to cover the moon. Only then did he realize
that the car had hit a huge power pole. His door, the driver's
door, actually rested against the pole itself. There was no
getting out that way! Then the light was gone.
For many seconds he could see absolutely nothing; slowly his
eyes adjusted to the new darkness, and his thoughts raced. He had to
get out of there! Maybe he could just drive out from under
it ... if his car still started. He reached over to turn the
ignition then pulled back violently. Was he crazy? If anything
could electrocute him, it would be the key in the ignition.
Apparently, he wasn't as calm as he'd thought.
Maybe he should just sit and wait. The line he knocked down
must have cut out power to somewhere. The line crew would track
down the problem soon, and they would find him and get him out.
He looked out the window, trying to find where the line went.
Through the cloud-shifting dark he made out a small structure in
the distance. With his gaze fixed on the building, his hope
leapt.
“Help!” he screamed. “Help!” But he knew instantly that it was hopeless; 
all the windows in his car were rolled up tight. Nobody could hear him yelling,
and he didn't dare roll them down because of the metal handles.
He couldn't honk the horn either. Exasperated, he sat and
anxiously watched the structure in the distance. A triangle of
silvered moonlight suddenly fell on the building, and his spirits
plunged. The roof of the shack had fallen in, and one side of
the building had collapsed. It was obvious that no one had been
there in years.
His hands were sweating now, and his eyes felt like they
were being held in place by fish hooks. A pounding at the back
of his skull had become so excruciating that his helpless stomach
threatened to vomit every few moments.
Then, as suddenly as the crash itself, his panic subsided.
A moment's reflection assured him that he had no need for it.
When Marjorie realized that he hadn't come home, she'd worry.
He'd never stayed out a ll night on one of his "cooling-off"
drives, so she would certainly call the police to search for him.
They'd be out in an hour or two and he'd be alright. But how
would they know where to look? Where could she send them?
"Where do you go?" she would squeek.
“For a drive…around!” he would say, glowering to shut her
up and to make it clear that it was none of her business.
So how were they going to find him? The way the shoulder
dropped off so steeply where he'd gone over, nobody was going to
see him from the road. In fact, he hadn't heard a single car the
whole time he'd been down there. It could literally be days
before anyone came across his car. Then he remembered Marjorie
the way she had looked when he left. !t wouldn't look too good
to the police. Of course, she would clean herself up, but it
would be hard to hide her eye. He took in a large gulp of air.
"Don't you go to anyone!” he had told her repeatedly over
the years. "This is between a man and his wife; it has nothing
to do with anybody else. Don't you dare call the police!" Then,
he'd stomp to the door, shake his fist, and say, "You just try
to leave…and see what you'll get."
She's so stupid, he thought, she'll probably let me sit and
rot out here without telling anybody, just so I won't be mad.
Clenching his teeth, he sat back against the seat.

It would be daybreak soon, and unconsciously, he began
praying for rain. Except for this freak thunder shower, the
temperatures had been in the high hundreds for weeks, and here he
was sitting in a car in the middle of the desert with all the
windows cranked up tight. He had once seen a Collie that had
been left in a car all day in the desert sun. Apparently it had
battered itself to death trying to escape, but it had lain long
enough for its eyes to literally explode in their sockets.
He slapped his palms against his own eyes to drive out the
vision, and then clapped them over his mouth to squelch another
wave of nausea. Obviously, he would have to get himself out, and
he would have to do it now.



"God, please keep the rain coming!" he pleaded.
Randomly, his eyes took in the rear-view mirror. He winced
and looked away. Finally gathering courage, he looked back. In
the mirror he saw the roof of the car, and beneath that, the
shadows of the clouds moving across the face of the early morning
sun.
"Whew!" he sighed aloud, "At least she's gone." His words,
though uttered in relief, were not reassuring. Another shiver
traveled up and down his spine. He raised himself to a sitting
position, carefully pulling his legs up onto the seat in a
further effort to avoid touching any metal, and he peered into
the mirror again. There was a face, but it was his own. In the
shadowy light, beads of sweat glimmered from his quaking forehead.

Suddenly, he had an urge to see Marjorie. He consciously 
tried to call her face up in the mirror, but he just couldn't get
it. He could remember what he'd seen; he could verbalize it in
his head: his wife, Marjorie, tears streaming down her face; her
face, spots which would soon be bruises just beginning to show;
the floor; the blood. The weird thing was that these were only
words; there were no pictures in his mind. It was ridiculous.
The woman had lived with him for almost nine years. She had had
his child. He tried to picture Lisa, his daughter, but he
couldn't find her image either.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on pulling in his
favorite picture of his wife and daughter , the one that sat on
the television set. Marj was wearing her blue sweater, the one
he liked so well; funny, she had stopped wearing it. Lisa had on
a white party dress; the picture had been taken on her fifth
birthday. He remembered all these things in explicit detail, but
he could not recall the actual images to mind.
Without warning, the cable flexed, emitted a shower of
sparks, and came to rest a few inches closer to the windshield.
“Oh, Jesus, please help me. Get me out of this, Lord,” he
cried, his hands clasped in fervent supplication. “I've always
been a good Christian…I’ve raised my child in the path of
righteousness. We've tried to have a Christian family. Please,
Lord, do not forsake me. Have pity…Lord, Jesus, Save me!”
A huge drop of water splattered on the windshield, followed
by several more. He thought of Marjorie's tear-stained face, and
he waited for it to reappear in the mirror, but it didn't.
He had a thought. Maybe he could break a window and crawl
out? He gave the interior of the car another quick inspection.
Nothing. He had often bragged to Marjorie and his friends about
the fact that he kept his old Pontaic cleaner than Marjorie kept
the house, but now, there was nothing he could use to break the
window. He could try to break it with his hand or foot, but the
glass they used in cars nowadays was reinforced; he'd probably
just break his hand. Besides, how could he get out any of the
windows without touching the car? No way! No, he had to open
the car without touching the metal, but how?
“Dear Lord, please show me the way. Help me ... Please ... 
Help me escape,” he pleaded, tears of frustration stinging his eyes.

All the metal in the interior of the car seemed to gleam in
the moonlight. The knobs on the dash, the horn bar on the
steering wheel, and the chrome around the mirror all twinkled
ominously. The door handle looked particularly menacing.
“Oh, my sweet Jesus …!” he said, “I swear….” As he said
these words, he placed his hand over his breast, and there, in
the breast pocket of his coat, was his little personal Bible. He
pulled it out and kissed it, exclaiming, “Thank you, Lord. Oh,
thank you. You've given me a sign and shown me the way. I
promise you: More than ever, the Lord's will is my will, the Good
book is my book ... and Marjorie's! So help me, God!”
Having raised the Bible up in his right hand as he spoke, he
leaned over to the passenger side of the seat and examined the
door handle. He thanked God that he had neglected to lock the
door when he had driven out into the night. All he had to do was
use the Bible to push the handle, and the door would open. He
gripped the top edge of the Bible tightly with both hands and
ever so slowly, but confidently, moved it toward the handle. When
it had come within a quarter of an inch of the handle, he felt
his whole body convulse. His hands shook so violently that he
had to pull them back. The sweat dripped off his forehead and
landed on his arm, startling him.
“C’mon…c’mon…c’mon!” he whispered, reassuring himself.
The Lord was with him. He had shown him the way. All he had to
do was open the door and carefully walk out.
Again he moved the Book toward the door; again he felt the
fear; again he felt the sweat, only now it was trickling down his
side, under his shirt, but he managed to overcome the shaking and
push the book forward. He braced his mind and body for the
impending contact, but something was nagging at him. It was the
mirror. He had an overwhelming urge to look in the mirror.
“No! No! No!” he cried loudly, then he touched the book to
the door. “Ahh!” he gasped. He followed this exclamation of
terror with a torrent of laughter. It had worked! He could get
out! He was alright!
“Praise the Lord!” he cried. “Thank you, God, thank you!”
Only now did his gaze fall on the rear-view mirror. There
she was again clasping her upraised hands in supplication. Those
treacherous woman's tears running down her face. He felt the
heat at the back of his neck, the warning signal of his rising
anger. Then he laughed loudly right into the face in the
mirror. 
“You almost killed me, you …you….” He struggled to
find the right word. BITCH! screamed in his head, but he
never used that word. He was a good man, a righteous man, and he
did not use profane language. He kissed his Bible, shook it at
the mirror, and laughed again.
Now confident, he quickly, but cautiously, pushed the book
against the handle. He was surprised to see the Bible begin to
bend as he applied more pressure, and he was momentarily
dismayed, but by placing his left hand against the back of the
book, he was able to make the handle begin to move.



It seemed minutes before he finally felt and heard the
click of the latch. While pushing outward with both hands behind
the Bible, he began to open the door. He breathed a huge sigh
when he felt the door crack open, revealing a sliver of space
between the door and the car. Encouraged, he put his body behind
the effort. He nearly tumbled onto the ground when, after
opening only a few inches, the door lurched and swung open wide.
The Bible fell from his hands and made a splashing sound. 
It was all he could do to keep himself from plunging headlong after it.
What was that water doing there? He peered out of the car
door, and as he did so, the tip of the rising sun emerged from
behind a cloud.



Water! 

The Bible had already been washed away. He and his
car had landed in the middle of a flood channel. He'd seen these
channels carved all over the desert basin, caused by flash floods
as they sought the path of least resistance. And this one was
filling up rapidly. The water was already within inches of the
open door.



A giant thunderclap drove him back to the middle of the car,
and as the rain began to beat down, he could see and hear the
torrent growing as it swept around and beneath his car. A bolt
of lightning crackled brightly, and as if in answer, the wire,
which he had almost forgotten, crackled and swayed.
“Oh, dear Lord," he cried. "Please don't! Please ... PLEASE
DON'T!"
In the mirror he saw his own, pleading face become
Marjorie's face, and his words were her words which he'd heard so
often.
“Please…PLEASE DON'T!"
Now it was his face again: frantic, pleading, terrified,
looking for a way to escape. Finally, he poised himself on the
edge of the seat facing the open door. The water had already
submerged the floorboard of his car. He crouched ready to leap
into the torrent and take his chances. There was no other way.
As he crooked both elbows behind his back, preparing to plunge
forward, the car door slammed in his face. 
Cringing on the seat, he stared at his reflection in the window. 
With its hand upraised and its fist clenched, the reflection glared down 
at him and shouted, “YOU JUST TRY TO LEAVE!”

©1985 Tim McMullen
   All rights reserved

The Hill - A Short Story for Halloween

THE HILL
A Short Story by Tim McMullen

This is a preview of an eleven story collection of humor, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and satire entitled, So It’s All Done With Mirrors? That’s No Reflection on You! The collection was originally submitted as my final project for the completion of my Master of Arts in English, with an Emphasis in Creative Writing, from CSU Fullerton.
The Hill” is an attempt to continue a line of stories that have a similar impulse. Ray Bradbury acknowledged his debt to the lineage in his introduction to The Collected Stories of John Collier. The original story that Bradbury cites is “Sredni Vashtar” by Saki; I would argue, however, that this piece is preceded by several of Ambrose Bierce’s stories found in his brief collection, The Parenticide Club, including “Oil of Dog” and “My Favorite Murder.” In the continuum, the Saki story was followed by Collier’s “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” Lewis Padgett’s (pseudonymn of husband and wife writing team, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) “Mimsy Were the Borogroves,” and Bradbury’s own “The Veldt,” “Zero Hour,” and “The Small Assassin.” My piece is a bit more ambiguous than these pieces, but I think it explores a similar experience although perhaps from a rather different point of view; i.e., not the kid!
For those who will be wondering, the literary catch phrases in this story are from the following pieces, in order of appearance:
The Little Engine That Could” or “The Pony Engine,” the Children’s Tale
The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Rapunzel,” the Fairy Tale
Most Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes
The Three Little Pigs,” the Fairy Tale
Little Red Riding Hood,” the Fairy Tale
Little Red Riding Hood,” the Fairy Tale
The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Snow White,” the Fairy Tale
The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Chicken Little,” the Fairy Tale
Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg from
The Wizard of Oz, the Movie
Alice, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Jack and the Beanstalk,” the Fairy Tale
Billy Goat Gruff,” the Fairy Tale
Alice, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg from
The Wizard of Oz, the Movie
Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg from
The Wizard of Oz, the Movie
THE HILL
A Short Story by Tim McMullen ©1982 Tim McMullen All Rights Reserved

The picnic was her idea. One last attempt at a reconciliation, she had told herself. I think I can…I think I can….
Jeff, of course, was overjoyed at the suggestion.
That’s the ticket, Jody,” he said, his initial surprise instantly effervescing into an almost adolescent joy. “That’s just what this family needs—a little frolic—a day in the park!”
He slapped his knee lightly with the Sports Illustrated held been flipping through and then dropped the magazine into the rack beside his recliner. His drooping, rust-blonde, “Wild-Bill” mustache twitched up and down as his tentative grin flickered itself into a full-faced smile. Secretly, Jody had hoped that the suggestion would coax one of Jeffrey’s smiles, and, moth-like, she fluttered toward him.
I’ll go and tell the munchkin to get ready,” he said as he raised himself from the chair.
Nol” she cried; then, realizing how it must have sounded, she tried to soften it by adding, “Wait just a minute, okay?
Let’s just sit and talk for a few seconds before we get ready to go.” There’s no place like home...there’s no place like home....
Regaining the recliner, he perched on the edge and regarded her quizzically.
Okay, shootl” he said.
She walked over and knelt down beside him. She didn’t really want to talk; she just wanted.... Wondering up into his face, her eyes glimmered confusedly from beneath their lashes. His mustache now framed a careless, beach boy grin.
She followed the lines of that grin to his temple. Only a few weeks earlier she had found several white hairs sequestered in his sideburns. She wasn’t sure why, but she had chosen not to mention them to him. She found the hairs again instantly, but this time she smiled to herself. These singular, hoary intruders were like a lone blanket of albinos surrounded by a beach of sun-bronzed surfers. Flecks of gold shimmered from the feathery blue depths of Jeffrey’s eyes, but a triple furrow ruffled his brow. Unable to alleviate his look of bemused confusion, Jody simply locked her arms around his legs and rested her temple on his knee. He responded warmly, letting his fingers trail gently across her cheek.
It’ll be alright, Hon,” he said, smoothing an errant strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “We’re not gonna’ let fourteen good years go down the tubes for no good reason!”
She nearly corrected him: Eleven good years, you mean. A foreboding tremor pulsed through her body, and Jeff eyed her curiously. Twisting toward the entryway, she clutched at her abdomen as she heard him speak.
Hello, Sweetheart! Come here, you little munchkin. What have you been doing?”
The sudden, anticipated pain seared through her midsection. Clutching tighter with her useless hands and gasping silently for breath through clenched teeth, Jody crept away as their diminutive daughter trundled toward Jeffrey’s chair. He reached down and pulled the little creature up to perch on his knee, the same knee that had supported Jody’s cheek only moments before. The child sat facing away from her father who bounced her gently. She giggled light, infectious laughter. Jeffrey laughed, too.
Goodbye, Mommy!” said the little girl, and she waved jovially. The mirth in the child’s voice and gesture was belied by the glaring disdain which Jody read in her black eyes. Jody’s momentary joy, ignited by her closeness to Jeffrey, now flared into a self-immolating flame of anger and frustration. Her daughter’s long, ebony hair floated as she bounced up and down on her father’s knee. Rapunzel… Rapunzel….
Goodbye, Mommy!” the child repeated jovially.
Jeffrey laughed again and swung her around.
Cassie, you little silly!” He chortled and hugged her to his chest. “You mean ‘’hello,’ not ‘goodbye,’ ”he explained.
Bugs Bunny, chomping on a fiery orange carrot, wisecracked, “Eh, What’s up, Doc?” in white letters from the child’s pale blue pajamas. The little girl wriggled around and looked intently at Jody.
Goodbye, Mommy!” she repeated emphatically.
Oh, Cassandra,” Jeffrey smiled, “You are such a stubborn little scamp.”
The child squirmed, and he placed her on the floor.
Inexplicably immobilized, Jody groped for a look of amusement for Jeff’s sake, but she had great difficulty finding one.
Guess what?” she heard him say. “Guess what we’re gonna’ do this afternoon, Sweet-pea?”
Go somewhere?” came the reply.
That’s right,” he said. “Now, guess where.”
Picnic?” said the child.
Jody’s jaw tightened, and she dug her nails into the flesh of her palms. Heat flushed her face.
HOW do you do that, Munchkin?” He looked over at Jody for the first time since she had left his side. “That’s one heck-of-a-kid you got there, Mommy.”
Cassandra! Were you listening at the door?” Jody snapped accusingly. Even to her own ear, her voice sounded shrill and pinched, but she couldn’t help it. “Did you hear your Daddy and I talking just now?” she demanded in clipped staccatos. I’ll huff… and I’ll puff….
The child sat motionless and stared at her mother. Jody raised herself from the floor and moved toward the little girl menacingly.
Did you hear us?” Jody demanded. “Did you? Tell me!” she cried through clenched teeth.
NO, Mommy,” her daughter calmly replied, “I just guessed.”
Jody was suddenly aware of both pairs of eyes glaring at her. What big eyes you have... All the better to see you with…. She looked from one to the other, and again she felt the crimson rising in her cheeks. Both pairs of eyes continued to stare: Cassandra’s showed that maddening, defiant amusement, and Jeff’s filled with the rising anger that had become so commonplace in the last four years. She saw the knuckles of his large, rough fists whiten as he moved to rise.
I’m sorry, Sweetheart,” she said quickly, desperate to force sincerity into her voice. “You know that it’s wrong to listen to other people when they don’t know that you’re there, don’t you?” What big ears you have…All the better to hear you with….
I know,” came the reply, “But I didn’t listen—I just guessed.”
Alright then…that’s a good girl,” Jody added as she moved toward the kitchen. “Let’s get ready for the picnic,” she said, carefully avoiding Jeff’s eyes as she disappeared through the door.
Once in the kitchen, the unbearable confusion began again. How could she feel so un-motherly toward her own child, her baby, after all this time? She gazed down at the ripe, red tomato that she had started to slice; she stared into its open face for a moment, and then crushed it savagely in her hand. The bursting was accompanied by a satisfying, snapping squish. Jody stared disconnectedly at the orange-red ooze dripping from between her grinding fingers. Curiosier… and curiouser…. Rinsing her hand in the faucet’s cool stream, she directed the remains of her handiwork down the drain. The disposal growled for an instant and then whirred complacently. As she wiped her hands on a paper towel, she realized that the ache in her abdomen had completely disappeared.
A perfect pregnancy,” the doctor had said.
Perfect. What did he know? He couldn’t even explain the pain in her gut that was ripping her insides apart and driving her crazy. What could any man know? Not even Jeff could understand.
A movement at the edge of her eye drew her gaze out the window toward the garage. She felt the corners of her mouth rise slightly as she watched Jeff readying the car. She loved him so much—she had always loved him so much—she could never bear to lose him!
Suddenly, the yard grew dark, and she refocused on her own face reflected in the pane. She had never been one of those vain, fragile women who agonize over every sign of life in their vapid faces, but now, she peered into the dim reflection. Mirror, Mirror on the wall…Who’s the fairest? Her hair draped her shoulders, and in the darkness of the pane, she was alarmed and horrified to see her mother’s face, pinched in resentful frustration and despair. She squeezed her eyes tight and held her breath. Opening her eyes, she found her own face again, but the rage and despair remained, spectre-like in the shadowy glass.
My God!” she said aloud, “What is happening to me?”
1 know,” said a voice from the door.
Jody dropped the paring knife she had been holding. It grazed her foot as it thudded dully on the cushioned linoleum.
Oops!” exclaimed the voice playfully. “I know, Mommy.”
She turned to see the Cheshire Cat smiling smugly.
By-the-bye, what became of the baby, said the Cat. I’d nearly forgotten to ask.
It turned into a pig, Alice answered very quietly, just as if the Cat had come back in a natural way.
I thought it would, said the Cat, and vanished again.
I know, Mommy,” the voice repeated.
You do?” Jody said, fear and menace mingling in her own voice. “What do you know?”
I know where for the picnic,” Cassandra exclaimed gleefully. “The Hill…Daddy’s Hill.”
The mother turned quickly from the child’s expectant gaze and bent down. The glint of the knife blade drew her eye, and her breath caught in her breast as if pinned there by a blade thrust through her heart. She grasped the knife, and, still crouching, she looked into the eyes of her daughter. The blood surged audibly through her temples, but the handle, hard and cold in her trembling hand, was comforting as she moved toward the grinning pajamas. Off with her head… OFF WITH HER HEAD….
Suddenly, she turned away and leaned against the counter for support.
That’s a good idea, Cassie,” she choked. “You run and tell Daddy, and I’ll finish up here, okay?” With unseeing eyes, she felt her heart attempting to pound its way out of her breast.
Goodbye, Mommy!”
Jody jerked her head around angrily, but Cassandra had already disappeared from the room.
It’s me, she cried silently, it’s got to be me. As her eyes closed, her chin fell heavily to her heaving breast, and her mind whirled in a jumble of swirling colors and darkness. Her shoulders shrugged deeply, trying to accommodate the breath that raged into her lungs. When she finally opened her eyes, she found the knife still clutched in her rigid right hand and flung it away, her fingers outstretched in horror.
As they rode in the car, Jody sat in the back seat and stared vacantly out the window. The giggled games of father and daughter faded from her consciousness as she thought about the hill. It had always been “Our Hill” since that day, fourteen years earlier, when she and Jeffrey had spent their first afternoon together; there, at the foot of the hill, they had fallen so deeply, so wonderfully in love. Two years later, as she glided on the swing and listened hypnotically to the metallic squeak of the chain and the abrasive crunch of Jeffrey’s thongs on the sand, he had suddenly caught her in mid-swing and proposed marriage. In fact, it was there on the crest of the hill that she had first suggested that they ought to have a child. That last. What perversity, what insanity, had prompted her to want a change?
You can’t improve on perfection,” they had always said, whenever the question had arisen. But she had been suddenly possessed by an unrelenting desire to have a baby. She and Jeffrey had joked about her ·biological clock, but why, as they stood together on the brow of the hill, had she suddenly been so insistent? So positive?
As the silent question insinuated itself into her consciousness, another image emerged. The day had been so perfect. They were celebrating Jeffrey’s promotion to assistant buyer. He had worked so hard and had been so worried about both the job and Jody’s pregnancy; they were relieved and overjoyed when he got the good news. As if to join in the celebration, the jacarandas were in full bloom, and their flowers burst in purple explosions against the verdant hillside. The sun melted warmly through the still morning air. The fierce kick from within had so surprised her that she had dropped to her knees. At that same instant, a fierce wind had startled the jacarandas into exaggerated motion and the sky darkened ominously.
Jody had yelled, “Jeffrey!” and had turned to see him standing at the very top of the hill, silhouetted against the gray-purple sky. He made no move. He just stood there, looking down at her from that distant spot. Suddenly and inexplicably terrified, she called to him again. He came running down the hill to her side. In his bright sunlight, the shadow and the fear had simply vanished. She had never even thought to ask him why he hadn’t answered when she’d called, but it seemed suddenly important enough to ask him now.
Looking up, she felt a shadow fall across her face. Startled, she looked out past the front of the car. There, looming before them, was the hill.
We’d better hurry,” Jeff said. “The sun’s already starting to sneak down behind the trees.” He stopped the car and unfastened his seatbelt. “Is Daddy’s best girl ready to go?” He repeated the ritual as he unlocked the door.
Oh, yes!” came the anticipated answer. “Is Cassie’s Daddy ready to go?” she cried and leapt down from the seat.
My God, thought Jody. My God, there it is. Doesn’t he see? The sky is falling… The sky is falling….
Jody took the picnic basket out of the car, walked to the picnic table, and began laying out the food. As she picked up the large carving knife to slice the ham, she looked around. Some things never change, she thought. Same old grassy knoll; same old ravine; same old—she stopped. Terror. There was a name for the pain that was wrenching her insides. Ever since that day, that first day when Jeff had stood at the crest of the hill, that first day when Cassandra had made herself known, the Hill had become an unconscious archetype of her singular, obsessive terror. The terror had crept in, and their marriage had gone mad.
Though steeped in despair, she had clung to the desperate hope that motherhood and the birth of their child would destroy the deadly, debilitating dread. The worst part was that she had no one in whom she could confide. How do you tell a joyous father-to-be that his wife is afraid of their expected baby, frightened nearly out of her wits? How could anyone explain it? She had not been afraid of childbirth itself; that might have made some sense. She was afraid that the child would live, for she already sensed that the monster writhing within would surely destroy her if it were allowed to live. But it had lived, and she had lived with it…and lived with it….
Goodbye, Mommy!” rang in her ear. They had yelled it in unison as they galloped up the hill, her hill, together.
A shudder ran through her as she underwent a paroxysm of the most intense loneliness and isolation. When she could move again, she immediately turned her gaze to the top of the hill.
It had gotten darker in the last few moments, and it took her eyes several seconds to adjust. They were there at the top of the hill, standing together, looking down at her. Jody fell to the ground, just like the last time, shaken by a violent kick from inside her abdomen; that struggling, writhing, malevolent entity was mocking her, reminding her of the last three years. She screamed his name.
Jeffrey!” echoed beyond the hilltop. She shot a glance in the direction of the hill and saw a lone figure standing on the crest. The little figure waved ominously. Which old witch? The wicked witch….
A sudden rage metamorphosed itself instantly into sudden resolve, and a powerful courage coursed through her being. The time has come, the walrus said.... Her eyes searched until they found the evil thing silhouetted against the dusk-stained sky. BEWARE THE JABBERWOCK…. It stood there calmly waving, silently directing the scene below. SHE TOOK HER VORPAL BLADE IN HAND…. Raising the butcher knife over her head, she lurched toward the hill. FEE…FIE…FOE…FUM….I’M BILLY-GOAT-GRUFF….
Good-bye, Mommy!”
A wraithlike scream escaped Jody’s lips, and she fell to her knees, beating furiously at her stomach, her hands clenched together, pounding and pounding. SNICKER-SNACK…. This time she knew she would kill it and be finally free. Again, she plunged her hands deep into her abdomen, but the pain wouldn’t stop. Finally, she looked down at the wet warmth that had become her hands and gazed at them in wonder. Gore-drenched, they gripped the blood-soaked handle of the blade which protruded from the pulp that had been her belly.
A mindless, sense-shattering shriek, like that of a stricken, helpless animal burst forth from her own subconscious as she drooped, gurgling, onto her side. Then she heard a childish, playful little voice echo from the hill.
Goodbye, Mommy!”
Which old witch? The wicked witch…
Good....”
DING DONG….
“…bye!”

©1985 T. McMullen
All Rights Reserved


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Crack-Up—Another Original Short Story for Halloween

CRACK-UP 
by Tim McMullen

"One...two...three candles!" cried Jenny Ashton. "C'mon, everybody, let's sing. Then you can blow the candles out, Willie." Her thin lips punctuated around a wide grin, she raised her slender, mauve-tipped hands in unison and then dropped them for the downbeat. "Happy Birthday to you .... " 
On the cul-de-sac where the Ashton family lived, Willie's older brother, Jeffrey, with his precocious, "TV kid" quips and his dark, tousled hair fringing grinning grey-green eyes, had achieved something akin to "star-status." In this new tract, where ancient oaks had ultimately acquiesced to a baneful sprawl of beige boxes, Jeffrey had been the first of the block's new batch to walk, the first to talk, and, by the age of three, the first to read. At about this time, perhaps even in celebration of his future brother's feat, little William had been conceived. 
Gazing up from his infant's crib on his first day home from the hospital, Willie had gurgled happily into his brother's anxious face. Jeffrey proffered a tentative finger to the tiny pink alien, and it grasped the extended digit in its wrinkled little fist and bubbled with delight. 
"This baby is my brother," a beaming Jeffrey had announced to his elated parents. 
From his earliest months, Willie had loved the sound of people. Music boxes, rattles, musical mobiles, and other devices designed to engage infant attention were equally ineffectual. For this reason, story telling emerged as a major preoccupation for the Ashton household. 
A discomfited, wailing Willie became a cooing, sedate Willie at the drop of a "Once upon a time...." Although initially entranced by all the stories which were recited to him, first by his parents 
and, later, by his brother Jeffrey, the toddler became especially enchanted by the fantastic visions of Lewis Carroll and the Brothers Grimm. His narrators, particularly Jeffrey, responded by filling his nighttime wanderings with dragons, goblins, beasts, and monsters. 
By the time he was two years old, Willie had been initiated into the Secret Society of the Supernatural; its founder and only other member was his brother, Jeffrey. Starting with traditional superstitions like ladders, black cats, and sidewalk cracks, Jeffrey quickly became expert at inventing little diversions of imagination which could utterly thrill and, ultimately, terrify his little brother. Jeffrey was both his teacher and his tormentor. Willie knew that Jeffy had been scolded repeatedly for "scaring the pants off" him, as well as the other neighborhood kids, but the scoldings neither deterred Jeffrey's creations nor jaded William's credulity. 
Despite the air of festivity and excitement surrounding Willie's third birthday, Jeffrey seemed distracted; he even mumbled to himself, as if he were trying to recall some misplaced or forgotten something. Willie had wondered about his brother's curious behavior several times. At dinner he had almost asked Jeffrey why he was looking at him so funny, but his father had asked him a question and the moment passed. 
Willie was very excited at dinner, and he received several jovial reprimands about speaking with his mouth full. Despite his obvious anxiety, it had been decided that the dinner dishes should be cleaned up before Willie opened his birthday presents. 
While the others were busy, Willie sidled in and surveyed the shared kingdom of his and Jeffrey's bedroom. His blue, He-Man blanket dripped a corner off of the bottom bunk and onto the floor. He crossed to the bed, lifted the wayward corner, and pulled the blanket toward him. Draping it over his shoulders, he tied two of the ends around his neck and flung the rest of the blanket cape-like behind him. 
Alone in Castle Greyskull, he again turned his attention to his surroundings. Before him loomed the magical enchanted tower where the evil ones held the princess. Grabbing his sword, HeMan made a daring leap for the ladder that lead up to the tower. His foot slipped on the rung, and he nearly plunged down into the moat where the alligators and dragons swam hungrily, but he clung bravely and began to climb. At the fifth rung he stopped and turned his head to look over his shoulder. 
"Wow!" he gasped under his breath. 
Willie had never viewed his world from the vantage of his brother's top bunk. This ascent had been strictly forbidden by both his parents and his brother, and he had never dared venture up the ladder for fear of being caught; the height of the perch had also been a significant deterrent. But the cape and the sword had propelled him upward, and now he gazed out on virgin territory. 
He eyed the dresser with particular interest. The dresser top was too tall for him, so he kept his bank and his other personal possessions on the little orange plastic table beneath the window at the foot of the bed. Occasionally, he had pulled out the bottom dresser drawer and used it for a step up to the top, but he'd never dared more than a few seconds' peek before he jumped down. Now, from the top of the bunk ladder, he could see everything. 
Jeffrey kept a blue pig filled with pennies and nickels; it was there in the far corner standing guard over Jeffrey's possessions. A plastic tortoise-shell comb and brush set nestled beneath the pig. To their right lay a pile of objects. Willie couldn't identify everything, but the ring of keys, the marbles, and the bits of string suggested the probable importance of the other objects. Suddenly, though surrounded by the other things, and undoubtedly hidden on purpose, a black plastic whistle poked its snout out from the pile. It looked like a real playground whistle, the shrill warbling kind like they used at the park. 
Willie found that his feet were entangled in his cape as he hastened to descend, so he paused for a moment, untied the blanket, and let it drop to the floor. Birthday avarice in his eyes and the whistle in his mind, he pulled out the first two drawers in stair-step fashion and clambered up onto the dresser top. He carefully extricated the whistle from beneath the pile. It had a cord looped through the hole at the end, and he delicately slid his head through its noose. He let the whistle dangle on his stomach for a moment, then he brought it slowly to his lips. The whistle wheezed a muffled chirp from Willie's breathing, and he quickly clapped his hand over it. Carefully holding his breath, he clamped the whistle tightly between his teeth and looked at himself in the dresser mirror. 
Hey, you kids, stop that, he shouted silently, then he held the whistle and blew an imaginary blast on it. The kids stopped instantly, and Willie viewed himself proudly in the mirror. 
"Watch out, Willie!" Jeffrey suddenly cried from the doorway. The whistle shrieked in Willie's mouth, and he nearly toppled off the dresser. 
"You must be crazy! Did you check for cracks, Willie? Did you?" Jeffrey demanded in frightened tones. 
"Wha...what?" whimpered the confused child, spinning from the mirror in alarm. 
Jeffrey grabbed Willie, pulled him down from the dresser, and placed him emphatically on the floor. 
"What cracks?" Willie ventured hesitantly. "The cracks! The mirror cracks! They might have got you, Willie. You might have been a goner if I hadn't caught you!" 
The little boy's face worked and wrinkled itself to the verge of terrified, trembling tears, but the older boy put his arm around his brother, reassuring and calming him. 
"It's okay now, Willie...it's okay," he whispered earnestly and hugged his shoulder. "It's okay. I was just afraid that that might have been one of the mirrors of death." He paused to allow the weight of his words to sink into the credulous consciousness of the little boy. 
"M-M-Mirrors of death?" came the inevitable reply. 
"Sure, haven't you heard of them? I guess nobody told you 'cuz you were too little. They don't get little kids. They can't get you until you're at least three years old." After another pointed pause, he continued. "That's why I shouted 'cuz now you're three, and they can have you if they want!”
"Who? Who can have me, Jeffy?"
"The people in the mirror. The...uh...mirror monsters!! The ones who've been trapped inside and can't get out."
"Inside the mirror? How, Jeffy? It's too thin, isn't it?" he asked, regarding the mirror warily. 
"Jeffrey! Willie!" Their mother's voice startled them, and Willie jumped. "What are you boys doing? You're so quiet!" 
"Nothing," Jeffrey answered, "We're just playing." There was a long silence while they listened to their mother puttering in the kitchen. 
"Willie, you remember Wonderland, and Alice and the White Rabbit, don't you?" 
"Y-Y-Yes...."
"Well, don't you remember her other story of the Looking Glass room, where everything 's backwards?" William nodded, and Jeffrey continued, "Well, that was just a story, of course, but some of those things are true. About the mirror was real, only that's not how it happens. Inside the mirror world it's not as happy as Alice, and you can't just step through like she did; but on the other side, they sit and watch and stare at us, just waiting for someone they can take." 
"H-How do they do it?" William had taken several steps back from the mirror, and he now gazed intently into Jeffrey's earnest face. 
"They do it like this," said Jeffrey. "They watch and wait for something to happen. They wait for a mirror to crack, or if they are really strong, they crack it themselves from the inside. They try to keep the cracks as small as possible so's no one will notice." 
William sat with his back against their bunk bed and began to cuddle himself into a blue He-Man cocoon created by the blanket which he had plucked from the floor. He sucked on a soggy satin corner of the cocoon, eyes widened in unquestioning incredulity. 
"Then, when someone comes up to one of their mirrors with the little cracks, they get ready. If the person gets too close or stays too long, then they've got him." 
Jeffrey grabbed William's arm. The little boy jumped and sucked in breath between his teeth. 
"You can't get away, and they hold you and pull you until they suck you right into the mirror. But that's not the worst!" The younger boy trembled, and Jeffrey released his arm. "When they suck you through," he whispered, "they like pull you all inside out!" Jeffrey accompanied this narrative with a pantomime of frantic tugging and a graphic slurping noise. "Your brain and...and your guts and everything are on the outside of your body. Then you have to be with the people on the inside... always." 
"Why don't we just break the mirrors so those people can't get out?" asked William, squinting hesitantly from the depths of his blue cocoon. 
"What, are you crazy? That's seven year's bad luck! You know why? Because when you break a mirror, you let the mirror people have a lot more power," Jeffrey snorted condescendingly. 
"Then, what do we do?
"Just be careful! Don't look too long or stand too close to a mirror, and don't be BAD...because they always take mean, bad people...and always remember to check for cracks. Anyway, this mirror is okay, because I've checked it carefully now, and it's okay."
William sat thoughtfully, without speaking, and filed away the information in his three-year-old brain. He glanced sideways at the mirror and then back at his brother. Jeffrey had to look away to keep from laughing, but Willie read the gesture. 
With a particularly dramatic facial contortion meant to convey his deep disgust, Willie emitted a condescending snort of his own and then clucked his tongue on the back of his teeth in a "Tsk" of disbelief. 
"Willie!" his mother cried suddenly from some distant room. "Come in here, Sweetie, let's open your birthday gifts.
"Okay!" the little boy yelled. He flashed an angry look at his brother, and Jeffrey burst into hysterical laughter. Willie turned and left the room, but he snuck back stealthily and peeked around the door jamb. 
Jeffrey stood looking into the mirror, and Willie knew that Jeffrey was ridiculing him. He was pretending to be his little brother, and he approached the mirror with a look of mock dread. He inched closer and closer, laughing aloud at his "Wary Willie" imitation. Finally, he pressed his nose against the glass and leaned his right brow against it as well. 
"Hello! Is anybody there? Come in...come in...HELLO!"
Humiliated, Willie turned from the doorway and retreated from the sound of his brother's derisive laughter. 
"Stupid Jeffrey! I'll never believe him again, not ever!" he whimpered. A sharp pain swelled in his throat and a tear pooled in his eye as he relived his betrayal. "I hate you! I hate you and I wish you..." Willie stopped himself. Never before had he uttered such angry words, and as he spoke, he felt the hatred flow from his body like the oil he had seen his dad drain out of the car. He ungritted his teeth and unclenched his fists, but the ache in his throat merely crawled down into his chest, and he stopped at the end of the hall and cried softly. 
When it came, the scream was so incomprehensible yet so overwhelming that Willie was reflexively flung against the wall. The sound conveyed a sense of pain so much beyond human endurance as to be inconceivable, yet before it had ceased its wail, Willie was on his feet and sprinting for his room. 
Without thinking, he ran to the dresser and climbed up on the bottom drawer which he had left open. By this time only one leg barely protruded from the mirror above the dresser. Willie grabbed for it and clung on with every ounce of his three-year-old might. The leg recoiled convulsively, as if trying to kick free, and Jeffrey's shoe carne off in his hands as Willie tumbled backward onto the floor. 
When Jenny and Alan Ashton came running into the room, they found Willie sitting at the foot of the dresser, sobbing, with Jeffrey's dirty sneaker pressed to his chest. 

©1985 Tim McMullen
   All Rights Reserved