No Silver Linings

“That cloud looks like Mike Tyson,” Sheena said, poking me in the ribs.

She was always poking me in the ribs, but I had nowhere to go. We had been shoved together in the backseat for five hours straight, and if I thought she was annoying in a room, Sheena in the car was worse.

“That cloud does not look like Mike Tyson,” I responded without looking.

“You didn’t look!” she squealed. “Joey didn’t look!” she told my mom, who also didn’t look.

Honestly, I don’t even think my mom wanted to go on the trip in the first place, but Barry insisted on it. He and my mom had been together for two years, and I felt like he was pushing it a little bit, with those stupid family trips. Sheena was his kid, a little brat who never stopped talking.

“You missed the cloud that looked like Mike Tyson,” she said, pouting. Continue reading “No Silver Linings”

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Flash Fiction Challenge #1 (Candy Apple Red)

flash-fictionI started out as a short story writer. The first story I wrote was called “The Sinister Smile,” and it was constructed when I was between seventh and eighth grade. I look back at it now and I see so many holes in its construction. I see wooden, two-dimensional characters who had set ways of being that never deviated throughout the piece. It was less than 1000 words, so I figure it would have been considered flash fiction if it were written today.

That first story, even though it was very raw, whet my appetite for the genre, though, in a way that has never truly gone away over the years. Even when I’m writing longer pieces I often go back and complete a shorter piece just to keep me connected. Sometimes the pieces even complement each other. But oftentimes my shorter fiction is standalone, and that’s fine with me too.

Recently I saw a challenge somewhere on the internet. I don’t remember where it was. Perhaps I should have bookmarked the page. But I do recall seeing it, and even though I don’t want to pay $50 bucks to enter it, I like its premise. The point is to complete a series of short stories that may or may not have connections between them at intervals, and utilizing certain prompts.

So I’m co-opting the challenge for myself. I’m going to dig deep, count words, and keep each of my challenge stories below the 1000-word threshold.

The first prompt: Candy apple red.


There are 24 colors in Lenny’s crayon box, but he only really uses three: Overly Onyx, Hydrangea Blue, and Candy Apple Red. He got the box for his birthday, but he can never remember which one, even though his mother keeps reminding him. While the other colors are in pristine shape, the three he uses most often keep wearing down into nubs that eventually find themselves in the trash bin. His mother dutifully replaces them at the Crayola Store downtown, purchasing multiples of the three colors as reserves for when Lenny inevitably uses the last vestiges of color in each.

Lenny likes the original box, though, because he likes things in perfect order, so he slides the new crayons into the holes left by the previous ones, keeping them all lined up perfectly, just as they were when he originally opened the box. Every one of those 24 colors looks the way it did on the day he first slid his finger underneath the cover, lifted the lid, and gazed at their perfection. But he still only uses the three colors, even though his mother has tried her best to persuade him to try something different. He sticks to his routine, though, because Lenny is a creature of habit.

Every morning Lenny gets up from his twin bed, in his 12 x 12 room, on the second floor of his house, he places his feet into his fuzzy slippers, and he heads into the bathroom. The trip always takes him exactly 24 steps. He always brushes his teeth exactly sixteen times, and turns off the faucet between brushing and rinsing. Then he sits on the toilet for his morning constitutional, which always lasts five minutes, at which time he folds the toilet paper into a perfect square and finishes the process. His shower takes an additional ten minutes, and he arrives at the breakfast table exactly on his schedule. Every single day.

His favorite color is red. He has red hair, a bright shade that most people mistake for some type of hair dye, but it is natural. His mother tires of answering the question, because Lenny doesn’t talk. Lenny has never talked, even though he is twenty years old, and odds are that he will never talk, no matter how many years he lives. At first it was difficult on his mother, but she has learned to adjust to most things. She has had to adjust to most things because she is a single parent even though it was never her choice.

Lenny likes to color on the walls, and his mother lets him. She has always let him, because it’s the only thing that he enjoys doing all of the time. Sometimes he likes to read. Sometimes he likes to ride in the car. But the one thing he can always get absolutely absorbed in are his murals. He’s really good at drawing them too, even though his mother swears no one in the family has the same skills. She has always been in awe of his talent, but she will never tell him this because he doesn’t take well to praise.

You see, Lenny likes to take his frustrations out on himself. He can often be found hitting himself, or punching himself, or attempting to strangle himself even though this is impossible to do with his hands. His mother has had cameras installed throughout the house so that she can monitor his movements, so that she can save him from himself if it becomes necessary. It has been necessary before. She is at her wit’s end, but she cannot imagine a world where Lenny doesn’t live with her, so she never thinks of putting him in a facility. Well, almost never.

The murals on the walls of their home are all depictions of people interacting. There are Hydrangea Blue people, Overly Onyx people, and Candy Apple Red folk. Each one of the colors is distinctive in the characters he represents using it. All of the Hydrangea Blue people are women, who have a particular lilt to their heads, obsessively long hair, and large eyes that seem to take in everything in the room. There are no Hydrangea Blue people in Lenny’s bedroom. The Overly Onyx people are all looking down, as if they’ve all just done something they’re not proud of, and they hope no one ever finds out. They are all men.

But the Candy Apple Red people are the ones who always make his mother stop and stare whenever she encounters them. They are few and far between, but Lenny makes up for it with the detail he puts into them. They are so realistic that his mother sometimes fully expects them to peel themselves off the walls and begin walking around the house. She thinks she would embrace them if that ever happened because they seem to calm her son down when he is in one of his moods. They are both women and men.

Even though there are fewer Candy Apple Red people in the house, for some reason that particular crayon wears out more than the other two that Lenny uses. His mother thinks he creates murals elsewhere that she doesn’t get to see, and that every single one of these hidden murals is done in red. She can never be sure because Lenny will not let her search in the shadows of his room, but she is still fairly certain. Which is fine with her, because she knows her son needs those private moments, to bleed red, to get out the emotions that have to be brimming at the surface, biding their time when he seems so calm. She hopes it’s enough.

Detours: A Pseudo-Excerpt

51wtrHagooL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_December 23, 1996 (10:55 p.m.) – With Angela

The whole of Maryland is quiet tonight, or at least it seems that way to me as I sit on this perfectly made bed and stare at the wall. It is nearly Christmas and I’m not with my family for the first time in my life. That talk was an exhausting one, when I told my mother I wanted her to drop me off here, that I wouldn’t be going with them to West Virginia to visit my family. But I’m an adult now, and I firmly believe that love conquers all, except that I’m not sure, except that I’m deathly afraid that love won’t conquer even this, much less whatever comes after.

I have already gone through the rack of CDs by the stereo on the far side of the room and mentally placed each one into genres — soundtracks, gospel, rock and roll. It was something to do on a Monday night, far away from home, in a house as silent as a tomb, but I wouldn’t dare go out into the hallway. Angela’s mother could be out there, waiting in the dark, ready to pounce on me if I were to venture forth. So I sit here on this bed thinking about my innermost fears, healthy or not.

When we got here my mother insisted on coming inside, on meeting the woman I might someday call my mother-in-law, because I think she sees what’s so obvious to me, that I’m crazy for this girl. Sure, the timeline is off, somehow sped up in this age of instance, but the emotions are real, for both of us. I’m sure of it. And my mother wanted to size hers up, to see where she stands, how solid she is in the midst of this sudden love. There is one check in her favor because she offered to let me stay for a week, a boy she had never met before we arrived in Maryland two days ago.

There is a creaking in the hall, not unlike a door being opened, or perhaps it is my imagination running wild with me. Since ten o’clock I have been shut in here with only these CDs to keep me company, as I was last night, and the night before. It is Angela’s curfew, the time at which she must be in bed, and although I don’t have to follow that schedule, I cannot disturb her. Rules of the house. But I cannot sleep, and I couldn’t last night, or the night before, because while I am here this week it is the last I will see of the girl I love for five months.

This seems like such wasted time.

Then I see a beautiful milk chocolate hand wrap around the corner of the door as it eases open and makes no sound. Perhaps the sentry has gone to bed herself, but I don’t even care. I am just so overjoyed that I can have a private moment with the love of my life, with the girl I hadn’t even known six months ago but who now takes up the entirety of my existence. She leaves the door open as she slips inside and flops down unceremoniously on the guest bed, the one that was so pristine before she showed up but that now resembles the aftereffects of a thunder storm. I have never been so proud of such destruction. She smiles at me, and my heart melts.

“Midnight is where the day begins,” she says, quoting our favorite band.

“But it’s not even 11 yet,” I reply, feigning shock at her entrance.

“Yeah, I couldn’t wait so long to see you again,” she admits.

I wrap my arms around her, because I know these moments are fleeting, that these moments are like glass, that we may not have this time again. At the same time, as I look into her eyes, I can see our future reflected back at me, and I feel it can be spectacular. If we can only make it past the next five months.

Sam

Purchase Detours, a novel by Sam McManus, from Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com today.

The Haunting

alone-on-the-playground
Photo by Michelle Weber

The old playground is usually empty this time of day, especially after Old Man Farthing hung himself with an extension cord from the swing apparatus a year ago last Tuesday. They say his ghost still haunts the swings on occasion, the village gossips do, Verena Stone and Jill Swingholm. The two of them sit on Verena’s porch most days regaling anyone who passes with stories, both factual and fictional, but even they don’t know which are which. Their favorite story is the one of Old Man Farthing, though, and the swings that still swing when there is no wind and no children on them to make them creak as they do.

And these days there are no children on the three swings that make up the playground’s west corner, or on the large slide to the east, or even on the merry-go-round that completes what used to be the meeting point for children from the three villages nearest to Atlanta, Idaho. Now people pass by Verena Stone’s porch, hear the tales of bloodless ghosts, of hangings and desperation, and they move on. Sure, sometimes they venture near to take photographs if they dare, but that is as close as they usually get.

But today is different, a feeling in the air that seems to shimmer with a new energy. It is so palpable that rumors have already started going around in and around Atlanta, that the ghost of Old Man Farthing might rock the swings tonight. Indeed, a vigil has been organized by none other than Jill Swingholm, to be started at ten o’clock in the evening, the alleged time of the grisly suicide. She is renting her folding chairs for two dollars apiece, and Verena is just slightly jealous of her friend’s one-upmanship. Just slightly.

He had a first name, you know. He wasn’t always Old Man Farthing. In fact, he had been quite beloved by the town as a war hero when he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam. His name was Thomas, and he had been born to an older couple who thought they would never have children of their own. In fact, they had adopted several children before Thomas arrived. He was their miracle child of their old age, and they never let him forget it. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Thomas Farthing had lived a quite charmed life until he decided to go to “that godforsaken ‘Nam,” as his father always called it, for better or for worse. That one choice was seen by his family as a refusal to appreciate his miracle status, as a death wish of sorts, and eventually even though he returned physically unscathed, it drove a wedge between him and his father, who died mere months after the United States pulled out of the war. When Thomas’s mother followed his father to the grave after another year, the recently decorated war veteran became the village hermit, the Boo Radley of Atlanta.

And so began the stories, all of them elaborate, and every single one of them would have been unbelievable if they had been about anyone else. But Thomas Farthing was an enigma, a man who had become larger than life, definitely larger than the little village of Atlanta, Idaho, population 216. By holing himself up in the small house his parents has owned, and reportedly only coming out at night to do god knew what, he unwittingly confirmed every single one of the stories told about him. This went on for several decades, until that fateful evening when he left his house by the back door, leaving it unlatched behind him, walked to the playground in his owl-themed pajamas, and strung that extension cord from the now-infamous swings bar.

Two young boys found him there that next morning, Thaddeus Young and David Goudy, both twelve years of age. They had come to the playground early that following day to play on the adjacent basketball courts. Even though their ball was partially flat, they had no pin by which to fill it with air, so they did their best to play with it anyway, hoping to save money by mowing lawns to pay for a pin at the general store two villages over. In the meantime they got out early and did their best to at least practice shooting with it. According to Jill  and Verena, the scene was so stark and grotesque that both boys vomited at the same time upon seeing the body.

By the time the sheriff and county coroner arrived, a crowd had assembled on the front lawn of a neighbor who lived across the street. Among those to witness the hanging body of Thomas Farthing were many children under the age of 10, a travesty indeed. While you and I know that young children should be shielded from such a traumatic experience, their parents believed it would serve as an object lesson of what not to do.

And so, slightly over a year later, they all gather once again across the street from the old playground, not to witness a man past the point of no return this time, but instead to observe what they thought would be a reckoning of sorts. As they arrive and purchase seats from Jill Swingholm, several people look over at the playground and receive a jolt because the playground is not empty. Two large streetlamps cast an ominous glow over the merry-go-round that is standing still as it always does. But on it sits a small, dark-skinned girl with Hello Kitty jeans and a bright white shirt that shines even in the gloom. She looks nonchalant, as if she has no care in the world.

She is not from this village, or from any of the surrounding ones, either. In fact, no one in attendance recognizes her in the least, but they all see her sitting there, an amalgamation of dark and light, both inspired by the scene and inspiring it at the same time. She closes her eyes and hums softly. At the far end of the playground across from her the swings start moving of their own accord.

Sam

@ Spanky’s Pub

She often came into the bar around nine thirty, give or take a few minutes, dressed to the nines in stiletto heels, some type of short, form-hugging skirt, and a barely there blouse. It was almost like she shopped exclusively at Victoria’s Secret, which was just fine by me. I would usually be seated at the far end of the bar, nursing a gin and tonic, my drink of choice on Thursday nights when things were decidedly slow at Spanky’s. In fact, the only real excitement on Thursdays were usually the occasional fight or two — it was in a decidedly seedy part of town — or if Thursday happened to be ladies’ night. As far as I was concerned, it was always ladies’ night when my vision in stilettos strolled in.

Spanky’s was one of those places that always smelled of piss and beer, a tantalizing aroma of scents that brought increased ambiance to its patrons. The barkeep often told anyone who would listen that the bar had been around since prohibition, which of course made no sense, but they all seemed to believe him. It had that timelessness to it that was undeniable. It’s what brought me back every night for a drink or two, that and the possibility that I would see the heavenly vision who only came in at nine thirty, but I never knew which night. It would sometimes be three nights in a row, and sometimes it would be a week between visits. So, I was there every single night, inhaling the scent of fresh piss and beer, at the far end of the bar that had become my home.

And she came in that night, sliding through the door at exactly nine thirty looking more radiant than ever, wearing those black heels at the end of her impossibly long legs. As she passed by the four other bar patrons, their heads swiveled around in her wake like caricatures in a funhouse, their impossibly large eyes following her every move. She pretended not to notice as she came right over to me, almost as if we had made a date. And in a way we had.

She was a dusky brown color, and I imagined I could see every pore of her flawless skin when she sat down next to me on the adjacent bar stool and ordered some type of amber beer, that when it arrived I realized matched her skin tone perfectly. Almost as if she had planned just that effect. A couple of guys were over by the small stage attempting to sing “Free Bird” — it was karaoke night — but I hardly noticed them in my periphery.  I was busy inhaling the sweet scent of something like jasmine or sandalwood emanating from the angel in close proximity to me.

With her left hand she reached for her glass that had already begun to produce condensation near the bottom, leaving a perfect ring imprinted on the cardboard coaster. I noticed a wedding band on her ring finger, and I wondered if she always used her left hand to hold beer mugs. My breath caught in my throat as I wondered if I could go through with what I imagined to be happening between us, that subtle chemistry in the heat between our bodies. I placed two ten dollar bills on the bar next to her hand, nudging them up against her smooth skin, sliding my eyes up to meet hers and nodding slightly. She looked at me over impossibly long eyelashes and nodded in response. And the dance had begun.

Sam

Detours: A Pseudo-Excerpt

July 16, 2008 (8:15 a.m.) – With Charisse

The heat is stifling, I think, as I get out of our red SUV and go around to open the door for Charisse. She doesn’t like it when I play the chivalry card, except in this one thing. I think it’s really about making me do something I don’t like, although how she knows this is the one thing I detest is beyond me. Perhaps she reads my Facebook status updates after all, even though we aren’t “friends.” She just turned thirty-two, and I think she’s finally being confronted with her own mortality, something that happened to me about a year ago, after what we only refer to now as the Subaru incident.

It was an old car, but I don’t think it had anything to do with it. The conditions were icy, but I also think that had a minimal impact. What really happened was due to my new cell phone and a lack of patience on my part. Luckily I was the only one in the car at the time. I had just gotten a text, one that I had been waiting for all that day, so instead of postponing a glance at the display I looked down while making a right turn. Just in time to slide across the lane and hit the car that was solidly in that lane, spinning my car out, slamming up on the sidewalk and crashing into an electrical pole. I was lucky to survive with a concussion and a few broken ribs. And from then on out, Charisse never let me drive by myself.

As I close the door behind my girlfriend, I notice her expanded figure, something I would never tell her for fear of reprisal. She was always the one to obsess over her weight, and I didn’t want to add to it. Especially since she was pregnant, which I thought was an excuse to gain some weight, but not for her. If anything, she has gotten even more fanatical about it. I wonder, not for the first time, if it was a good idea to decide to have a child, because that’s what we did. This was no shocker, but maybe we should have done some more thinking before we made the decision. It was an ultimatum is what it was. She challenged me to basically put up or shut up, especially since I refused to get married, even though we had been together for two years by that point, and if you count the fact that we have had sexual tension since we were young, and that we already have a child together (Aaron is sixteen now). So, I said yes, we would try for another child, because I didn’t want to let her go, not after all I gave up for her.

We walk down the street, me in my plaid shorts that she calls my “old guy” shorts, and she in her jeans that must be making her sweat, but she doesn’t say a word in protest. She says no one should have to look at her spider veins (that I can hardly see, by the way), so she always wears long pants, or at the least capris, whenever we go out. I look at her in my periphery as we approach the doctor’s office, conveniently located on the ground floor of the clinic, and I notice she is starting to get crow’s feet around her eyes. Something else I would never tell her about for fear of her wrath. That’s when it hits me, how large the list has grown of things I could never talk about with her. What was it about her that attracted me in the first place? Not for the first time I contemplate this as she looks my way and I look away. It wouldn’t do to be caught staring, I think, as we are enveloped in the air-conditioned atmosphere of the clinic and I put on my fake smile that is becoming harder to fake.

Sam

Purchase Detours: A Novel by Sam McManus, from Amazon.com.

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