fa-lg Story Shorts Archives - Author Denise McGee
May 302012
 
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You can see forever across a desert. The heat shimmers up from the ground in unending tan waves, broken by the occasional outcropping of rock or straight spear of a cactus.

The sun hurts your eyes as you gaze upon the scrub and the sand. It’s too bright, with no clouds to break it’s assault on your body and it reflects off the unrelenting sameness. You find yourself looking towards the distant mountains to give your eyes some relief. There, at least, there are greens, blues and ice-cold white.

It looks cool and refreshing and I resist the urge to lick my lips.

No moisture in the air makes your mouth dry and it’s possible to talk yourself to death before you know it. I’m glad there’s no one here to tempt me.

I’ve taken shelter under a lonely tree. It’s been twisted by the wind and heat but it provides sparse cover from the sun. It’s not much but I call it home.

Once home meant companionship, non-searing sunshine and a nice house; but no more. The shadow of the tree is my castle, even if my castle does have to shift as the sun crosses the sky.

I take frequent but small sips from my water bottle as I lie in my shady spot. I’d found a small spit of water not far from my new abode which is one of the reasons I’d chosen the tree as my new residence.

If I’d had any moisture in my body when I’d found the tiny flow I’d have cried with relief, but had had to settle for making horrid dry crying sounds that still scared me when I thought about them. That had been the closest call of many.

I’m not sure how long I can survive here. I don’t call it living because I know I’m barely hanging on but it beats the alternative. Besides I don’t think there’s anywhere livable anymore. The best I can hope for is survival.

Sometimes I wonder what’s the point of even that. Surviving, I mean. If there’s no one or nothing to go back to, why do I bother trying to stay alive.

But even here, in this desolate place, with my throat feeling like gravel and skin slowly turning to bad leather I find reasons to keep going. Today I found 3 eggs, not sure from what but I didn’t care. I fried them on a sun-heated rock and thought them the most delicious things I’d ever eaten. I’d thought cooking things with the sun was just an urban legend until I got here. It’s an imperfect way of cooking but for items like the eggs it works just fine.

I do have a fire. I try to avoid it during the day but am glad to have it at night. The sands cannot hold the heat of the day and with the sun gone it becomes bitterly cold. At night I relocate my fire and curl up heated sand. With my blankets and my coat I almost stay warm until morning. Almost.

When the chill finally forces me to move again, and before the sun arises to make the day unbearable, I emerge from my bedding to check my traps and gather the days water supply.

I’ve tried to avoid making a trail but today I see that I’ve left traces that I come this way often. I’ll move my traps to different locations. I’m pretty sure I’ve played out the areas they’re in anyway. This might be a lean day for eating.

I take my time on my rounds, a misstep here means death and it most likely wouldn’t be a quick and painless one. Even something as minor as a sprained ankle can be fatal, there are other dangers in the desert besides heat. Dangers I need to be able-bodied to avoid or fight off.

I try to avoid kicking up dust or making too much noise as I make my way to the rivulet. Attracting attention is a bad way to start the day. I’ve been here 6 weeks now and have gotten good at sneaking, so I made it without any issues.

I refilled my bottles and took a long drink. I should be boiling the water but had so few containers I couldn’t risk ruining any and had been taking my chances. I’d had a day or so of diarrhea at first, losing fluid I really couldn’t afford, but that had passed and I’d been fine since then. I hoped that was as bad as I got from drinking the water straight but had no way to tell. So I drank and prayed and pushed on.

The closest trap to the water hole wasn’t far, but wasn’t nut-to-butt with the water either. I didn’t want some animal looking for water grabbing a snack at my expense as well. I step over the spit of water and climb a short hill, watching where I place my hands and feet. A scorpion sting would be bad enough, but there were also rattlesnakes about. They’d still be sluggish from the cold night but that wouldn’t save me if I put my hand on one.

As I had suspected, the trap was empty. Even the bait, a bit of the egg, is untouched. I dismantle the trap, gather up the materials and start scouting around for a new location. The sun had risen turning the sky red. Yeah, this wasn’t going to be a good day. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. There would be a storm later. Desert storms are infrequent but torrential when they do occur.

A noise I hadn’t heard in weeks drew my attention. It was an engine. A truck or maybe sand buggy from the sound. Did I dare flag them down and find out what was happening in the world or did I stay isolated and safe?

Still unsure I followed the noise, but kept to the shadows and avoided silhouetting myself against the now blue sky. I’d lost time taking apart my trap and was getting farther behind tracking down the motor. The sun would be scorching soon and here I was moving away from my shelter.

Fool! I called myself. A storm coming, the sun rising and I’m checking out someone I may or may not want to talk to.

But still I keep moving. I can see the dust cloud now, it’s coming my direction. I squat down, watching the truck get closer and closer. Flag them down or no?

I hadn’t realized how lonely I was until I’d seen the truck, but now all I wanted to do was wave the driver down and have a conversation with someone other than myself.

I took a deep breath, removed my shirt, stood up and raised the shirt about my head, signaling the driver to stop. For better or worse, my isolation was at an end.

May 072012
 
Toad

Kennedy nursed the back of her reddening hand and glared at Simon, daring him to laugh.

He said, undeterred amusement coloring his voice, “If you didn’t flail your wand around like you’re swatting flies, that wouldn’t happen.”

She transferred her glare to the offending twig she called her wand. Not much thicker than a reed, it had the tendency to whip back and strike her on the back of the hand if she got too enthusiastic with her casting.

“What’s the point of learning this, Simon? If a witch’s power is reflected in the size of her wand, then I’m useless.” She scowled at her wand again. “Less than useless, really. I’d be better off learning alchemy or something.”

“You know once your wand appears you have no choice but to become a witch. Why are we going over this again?”

“It gave me a welt this time!” She showed him the back of her hand.

“Learn some finesse. You can’t charge headlong into things and blast them with a wand like that. You need to think ahead, do some planning. Now let’s try again.” He held up the toad again. It sat calm in the palm of Simon’s hand, looking unconcerned to Kennedy.

Kennedy stuck her tongue out at it but jumped back when Simon lifted the amphibian as if give her a toady kiss. The stupid thing didn’t flinch.

“Eww. Ok ok. I’m going.”

She raised her wand, coming perilously close to ducklips as she concentrated. “Finesse,” she muttered. “I’ve got your finesse right here.” Eyes narrowed, she started a series of small controlled flicks with her wand. Every move flowed naturally into the next, forming an elaborate picture drawn with the end of her wand. Simon leaned forward, hope in his eyes. Maybe this time she’d get it right, she had a tight movement this time.

The toad twitched. Kennedy’s motions increased in speed. This was where she’d lost it last time, she’d gotten impatient and tried to bull her way to the end of the spell. She kept her control this time, speeding up without adding the emphasis that had earned her the welt.

“That’s it, Kennedy. You’re doing great.” His voice was soft but encouraging. He didn’t like seeing her fail over and over again.

The image she’d drawn with her wand flowed towards the toad and settled around it’s head, merging with it’s skin, turning it bright pink.

“I did it!”

She jumped at Simon and he caught her to his chest, smiling down at her. “Yes, you did. I knew you could.”

May 022012
 

“I can’t believe you did that!” Henrietta’s voice was half-laughing half-shocked.

I shrugged, pulling from the parking lot. The act of tossing my milkshake onto the ice cream stand window, my wrong milkshake, was a brief impulse I’d already forgotten about.

“It was strawberry,” was my only response.

“I don’t think you were even mad. You just looked at it, cool as anything, and BLAM it was on the window. You didn’t even say anything.”

I shrugged again. What could I say? I hadn’t been angry. I hadn’t felt anything. I never did anymore.

“You worry me, you know.” Her voice had gone soft, unsure of my response. I looked at her from the corner of my eye, she was biting her lip as I’d known she would be. It was her go-to habit when she felt in over her head. Her lip got bitten around me a lot lately.

“I know,” I said, because I did know. At times I even worried myself. Or I would have if I allowed myself to feel such things.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

I pretended to misunderstand, “I know. I clearly said cherry. I know they’re both pink and all but jeesh.”

“Not funny, Jesse. You know what I mean. Jamie wasn’t your fault.”

“Maybe not, but I’m still the one that got to sit there and watch him die.” I calmly parked the car in front of her house. “You’re home.”

She frowned at me. “I thought we were going to the movies. And you’re not going to avoid talking about Jamie by taking me home. It’s been 2 months now. You need to talk to someone and I’m not going anywhere.”

We sat in silence for a while, the car engine rumbling under our feet. She kept her silence but I knew she’d never drop it now she’d broached the subject. Henrietta could give persistence lessons to a beagle.

I sighed and loosed the secret I’d kept close to my heart. “You know what the last thing he said to me was?”

“No.”

“About time I get to do something before you do.” I finished the sentence on a hiccup that most definitely wasn’t a choked sob. I hadn’t cried since he’d died. And even while he’d been dying I’d pasted a smile on my face and tried to joke with him. Pretending everything was going to be ok. That help would be there any minute and we’d be rock climbing within a week.

She smiled, “That 3 minute difference always did bug him. Remember that time he stole the cookie jar from Mrs. Dailey’s desk and insisted it was you because ‘Jesse is older and therefore taller and could reach it’?”

I smiled too. “He always blamed me for everything. Did you know he deliberately flunked PE because I’d never gotten an F and he wanted to be first?”

She laughed at that “Remember those ridiculous things he bought for his shoes that were supposed to make him taller than you?”

“Oh the lifts! And he fell on the stairs and broke his leg and he even like that because I’d never broken anything.”

We were both laughing then. The next 20 minutes were spent remembering Jamie, his practical jokes (because I was straitlaced), his fanatical exercise regime (so he’d be the ‘buff’ twin) and his addiction to cherry shakes (which I’d hated).

Henri reached across the seat and brushed her fingers across my cheek and it was only then I realized we’d stopped talking and I’d been crying. It wasn’t silent crying either. It was great big gut-busting tears. Jamie had been more than my twin, he’d been the strong one. The one that pushed me to reach beyond what I thought I could do. To stretch my boundaries and always try new things.

And he was gone. Snatched from me by a freak accident while we were tubing.

My head ached and my throat felt like road rash before the tears let up. I smiled at Henri, though. The first genuine smile she’d seen from me in a long while.