Morton

Holly liked his biscuits and gravy. That would be her reward this morning, Morton thought, peering through his kitchen window where the morning sun bathed his backyard more white than yellow. In the distance past his privacy fence, he could see the top of his neighbor’s bald head bobbing to the beat of a loud, blustering push mower.

Morton frowned. The morning would otherwise be serene were it not for the rackety noise his neighbor was making. Oh well, Morton thought, rubbing his index fingers against his thumbs, a gesture he would do before preparing fine cuisine. Why not? Holly deserved the best. She was eating for two now, after all these years of trying. Soon, Morton’s family would be complete — something he’s wanted his whole life. Family.

A booming series of knocks jarred across the hallway behind Morton. Now what?

Morton wheeled around and jutted his head forward, as if to lengthen his vision and hearing. Another jolt of thudding knocks filled the house, and Morton could actually see the front door across the hallway shudder with each pounding knock.

A man’s voice growled from the other side, though the speech was muffled, undecipherable. Except, no. Part of it was clear. Morton’s name.

“MORTON!” the man yelled. “MORTON CHILDRESS!”

A door creaked opened in the hallway, and long, rippling hair flowed out. Holly’s eyes sparkled between the strands of her dark hair as she stared at Morton.

“Who is that?” she hissed and then stiffened as the front door banged again with more knocks.

Morton marched down the hall, agitated. Whoever the asshole outside was, he had not only woken up Morton’s pregnant wife, but had managed to upset her with all that belligerent knocking.

Holly stepped back into the bedroom as Morton approached her. She straightened in her nightgown, the swell of her round belly stretching the floral print at her midsection.  “He sounds angry,” she whispered, cocking her head as if remembering some long forgotten song. “Who is he?”

Morton shrugged. “He’s someone who’s about to get his ass kicked,” he said. “Go lie back down. I’ll get rid of him.” He kissed the softness of her right cheek while placing his hands gently over her belly. As she retreated back into the bedroom, Morton closed the door, hoping she would be able to go back to bed after he’d send this jerk on his way.

“CHILDRESS!”

“I’m coming!” Morton yelled.

He stomped toward the front door, meaning to yank it open, but then tendrils of uncertainty cooled his blood. He peered through the brass peephole and saw the fish-eyed view of an old man’s reddened, pinched face glaring back at him. Who the hell was this? Morton wondered, but then there began a tickle of recognition, something about the shape of the old man’s raging eyes.

“I see you now, you son-of-a-bitch,” the old man said and raised a hand holding a gleaming, rectangular object. It was a small LCD screen, displaying a blotchy green image of two black lines. The black lines shifted as Morton shifted and he instinctively looked down at his bare feet. A small, black snake head poked from the bottom of the door between his feet. Morton looked back up through the peephole, seeing the black lines move as he moved his legs.

What the hell is this? Morton tried to say, but before his words could come out, the door shook loud; a small mouth splintered opened from the door’s center.

Morton fell, only it didn’t feel like falling. It felt like the ground rose up to meet him. Three more gaping holes exploded from the door, letting in shafts of morning brilliance.

The smell of spent bullets and the dust of chalky drywall filled the room. Morton tried to scramble backward with his legs, meaning to crabwalk away. Nothing. No feeling down there. He looked at the dark red drenching the lower half of his t-shirt, almost tasting the iron and meaty aroma of blood. It was then that he registered the burning pain in his stomach.

I’m shot, he realized and then thought with incredulity not that he was shot in broad daylight but on a Saturday morning.

Morton’s wife was crying. He could hear Holly’s weeping over the buzz of his neighbor’s lawn mower.

He twisted to fall flat on his stomach, meaning to crawl away from the door with his arms, but the excruciating ache in his navel forced his arms to curl into his chest.

More shots fired into the door. Morton could hear the whipping of bullets slap the carpet fabric near his right ear. He craned his neck up, ignoring the searing pain inside him. A portion of Holly’s tear-streaked face peeked out at Morton from the bedroom door. She was eye-level, low to the ground like he was. Did the bastard shoot her, too? Did he hurt my family?

“Get back in the bedroom, Holly,” he cried. “Lock the door.”

And call for help? No phones in the bedroom. No phones in the house at all.

Holly gave a small nod and pulled back out of sight. Was she smiling? The bedroom door slammed shut.

From behind Morton came the cracking of faux wood as the center of the front door caved in from a long, booted leg. This set Morton tadpoleing fast on the ground, digging his elbows in as he dragged himself forward. Get to the kitchen.

Another gunshot cracked from behind. Morton heard a sickening, wet plop as the bullet entered somewhere below in the part of his flesh that he’d never feel again. He plowed forward across the hallway, his pace quickening with his grunting breaths.

A flood of outdoor light invaded the house, the front door no longer holding the old man at bay.

Morton could no longer hear the sound of his neighbor’s groaning mower. And as he hoisted to a sitting position using the lip of the kitchen counter to pull himself up, he heard the mewling cry of sirens coming from far away.

He fumbled at a drawer with a hand, entering a code on a nearby keypad. Hearing a lock unlatch, he fished blindly inside the drawer for the large shark-tooth shaped knife he was fond of. Pain throbbed below his chest and he could smell the foulness of his innards coming through the bullet wound in his stomach.

The old man kneeled in the hallway, embracing Morton’s pregnant wife. There was a squabble of bass and treble as the two voices spoke over one another with urgency.

The large revolver dangled low in the old man’s hand, next to Holly’s hip.

Guns. Morton hated guns. He only understood knives, their quiet play he had learned early on as a child. But not guns. A gun threatened only from its black eye, while a good knife gave nuances of fear to every inch of its blade.

The old man stood up from Morton’s sobbing wife, and a question formed in Morton’s mind. How long has it been since Holly had last seen her father? Three, four, maybe even five years?

As the sirens grew louder, the old man walked slowly toward Morton.

“You don’t deserve a trial, you kidnapping son-of-a-bitch,” Holly’s father said. The old man pulled the trigger.

Morton smiled, grateful for the hollow click of the gun. His searching hand settled for a serrated steak knife in the drawer above him. He pulled it out and sat back against the kitchen counter, his resting hand over his stomach. He pointed the knife out at the old man.

“I took care of her,” Morton said, but then a pang overcame him as he looked deep into the old man’s hateful eyes — those eyes the same as those of Morton’s sweet wife. It had to be her, Morton wanted to plead. He didn’t want to trick her and steal her away all those years ago, but it had to be her. Out of all those that he had followed and shadowed, she was the one he chose to make his perfect family for him.

And now, seeing the disappointment on the old man’s face – the disapproving eyes of a parent — did Morton truly understand. The old man had become part of his family, too. Morton had put them all together: father, wife, child, and Morton.

Morton never had a father. But he could claim the old man just like he claimed Holly. Was it really that simple? Yes. It was.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Morton said and felt the pain ease inside him.

The old man’s thick brows furrowed in puzzlement, joining into a white caterpillar above his hardened eyes.

“I love you, Dad,” Morton said. “Holly…”

Sirens stopped and tires screeched outside.

Morton raked the blade of the steak knife gently over his neck, scrubbing the serrated edges until he hit the life artery underneath. He choked and coughed for a moment, catching glimpse of the gout of blood that poured out.

He smiled.

He was with his family.

What better way to die?

 

THE END

 

Jack Lee Taylor © 2016

Weirdbook Magazine #32

My parents did not play the guitar.

Nor can anyone in my immediate family make it gently weep (not yet, at least… I’ll be waiting on one of my youngins’ to grapple the six-string-relay baton from my cold dead hands one day and speed forth).

Yet, progeny aside, it’s interesting to see other parents out there validate the “born-not-made” principle, a debate I really don’t pay much cause to. But still…

Case in point.

Currently reading the new Joe Hill novel, The Fireman.

I’m a fan of his since the 20th Century Ghost days, before I even knew who his father was. And now that I know, it begs the question: Do the parents pass the ‘awesome-sick-talent’ gene along? Don’t know — but I guess it doesn’t really matter. What’s in my reading hands right now is well worth the read. That’s point enough for me. Regardless of how you were made, even with test tubes and Bunsen burners, you alone make you happen. And this boy Hillstrom did just that. Bang on!

But strange that I think of this now because I’m thinking about the latest short story I did that recently hit the public along with writers-greater-than-me. My little daughter asked to read it. I declined. Not that the content is sexually perverse or gore-ensued, but I just want her to find her own way right now and not be manipulated by my fledgling efforts. So far as eight-year-olds go, she’s well on her way without my interference.

Interesting side note to Clay Baby, which is the name of this particular tale released in Weirdbook Magazine #32.

I follow Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com.  Why? Just because he digitally yells a lot and uses a lot of colorful metaphors that Spock would approve. Also, he’s a great writer (and screw you Aftermath haters).

Mr. Wendig challenged his crew with a writing prompt. I’m not a jump-right-in type whenever it comes to writing prompts. I often scoot my chair back and say, “Maybe not right now.” Yet I jumped in on this one several months back. The prompt was: Take a random picture posted by other fellow writers and come up with a string of words on your own.

I scanned through several pictures. Many were dark and disturbing, showing shadows and hidden etches of life well left hidden. Others were enchanting, showing picturesque moments of nature or florid captures of flowery lands.

Then there was this one picture posted by the talented writer, Diedra Black. It was a strange picture of some clay happy thing on a table.

I immediately thought: Okay, crazy psycho kidnaps family and this clay thing will somehow save their lives. But that didn’t work. So how about a kid comes home from school and sees this thing on the table, and it comes to life like a Smurf — zip-a-dee-do-dah. That sucked. I went over and over, trying to come up with something remotely worth writing. Couldn’t plan it. Couldn’t plot it.

In the end, I just let the words come out, and the result pleased me as much as it pleased the folks at Wildside Press. Glad to have it aboard (especially on a mag that Joe Hill’s father might remember back in the early 80’s).

It’s a short piece, though above the threshold of flash fiction.

If you’re into weird, speculative fiction, you may check it out at:
WEIRDBOOK MAGAZINE #32

Special thanks to Ms. Black for her picture contribution!

Love you guys!

weirdbook-32

Saffron

Here’s Chuck Wendig’s latest ball-buster challenge (X meets Y). I had to shave a lot of darlings to get the word count down. Hope you enjoy.

*********************************


Saff stared far into the sky, seeing the dark shape of the Grandfather pace about inside his floating sphere. Years of my home-sector’s pain and suffering done by just one man, she thought.
 
She looked away, regarding the other Fate-warriors around her, all of them suspended within the dark void of the time-arena. Saff felt vertigo creep back as she fought for balance inside her timepod. She pushed the dizziness away just as Verek glided toward her.

“Are you ready, young one?” he asked. Saff nodded, a little disturbed by her Fate-partner’s exuberance. Verek had reveled in being chosen for the Fate wars, howling the name of his home-sector Nagryaal with pride when he was picked. Saff, however, felt dread when her name was called by the Speakerlock. Nagryaal was the only sector that never had a champion survive the Fate wars, never earning the prize of the gifted timeline where the Grandfather would alter the future of the winning home-sector to flourish each year, extending life and economy under his rule.

“Here, take this,” Verek said, slipping the air blade into Saff’s hand. She welcomed the familiar feel of it but said, “Fate-warriors are not allowed weapons.”

Verek grunted. “You’ve never seen an actual time battle before, have you?”

Saff shook her head, tucking the blade into the sleeve of her Fate-warrior suit.
 
Verek frowned and then forced a grin. He knows I won’t last, Saff thought.
 
“We’ll be fine,” Verek said. “Just remember after the first clash to stay back. Reset if you must, and stab anyone who comes close — except for me, young one. And remember, if you can materialize into any of them, do it fast before they’re aware, or else you’ll be ripped apart by their counter-attack.”

He means the Dispersal, Saff thought and then felt for the soft buttons of the keypad on her timepod. One button to reset backward in time. One button to go forward. And one button to obliterate your opponents by tracking their wormholes and then taking over their point in space.

The Speakerlock floated down from the Grandfather’s sphere like a spectre. Saff flinched, finding the Speakerlock’s face hideous. It’s not a face at all, she thought. It’s a head made of smoke.

“Fate-warriors,” said the Speakerlock in a guttural voice, “the Grandfather gives you all his blessings. We are ready to begin.”
 
“What about the Bralen?” asked a booming voice. Saff looked past Verek to see a tall figure glide toward the Speakerlock. It was an intimidating Fate-warrior wearing the red colors of a northern sector.
 
“Ah, First Xeeren of Plen,” said the Speakerlock. “Brave of you to interrupt.”
 
“They should not be allowed to fight,” Xeeren said, pointing to a pair of Fate-warriors donned in gold colors.
 
“That idiot,” Verek grumbled. “The Bralen are my first target. By drawing attention to them, he makes them more wary.”
 
“The Bralen have earned their right to immortality, Fate-warrior,” said the Speakerlock, the mist of his face swirling into a black, scowling hole. “This should goad all of you to know how a sector can be rewarded. But fear not. The Grandfather’s gift of time is greater than any gods he creates. Nothing is immune to the Dispersal
 
“ENOUGH!”
 
Saff winced at the sound of the Grandfather’s thundering voice coming through the sphere.
 
The Speakerlock’s face fell out of shape. “As you command, Lord. Let us begin. Good fate for our sectors!”
 
Several cried in answer: GOOD FATE FOR OUR SECTOR!
 
“Remember, young one,” Verek said. “Wait until after the first clash.”
 
Saff rested back against her timepod, breathing out slow to calm herself. She hated the way the timepod felt against her body, a restrictive cocoon-like bed of metal that pushed against her arms and legs.
 
She looked out into the void of the time-arena. The Grandfather had blackened the walls, keeping the Fate-warriors bounded within the arena, blind and deaf to the cheering spectators outside in the Grandfather’s temple. Is my father out there watching? The thought of her father made Saff think of her little brother Yaren, how he hugged her so tight before all of this.
 
“How far back can we go?” Saff asked, hovering closer to her Fate-partner.
 
“We can only reset to the start of the battle,” Verek said. “And you can only go as far forward as the wormholes available to you. You know the teachings of the infinite stream?”
 
Saff nodded, thinking back to Ladywise Fal’s teachings. One stream can become many, but all are of the same stream.
 
“That teaching will not work here,” said Verek. “You cannot duplicate yourself in time. And don’t hesitate when making a jump. The wormholes are countless and if you wait too long, you’ll miss your chance to move to the most favorable timeline. Remember young one, if you die before a jump, a reset won’t help you. You’ll no longer exist.”

“SEAL THE FATE OF YOUR SECTORS!” the Speakerlock cried and then flew up toward the Grandfather’s sphere. The arena vibrated as the sphere floated out through the wall of the time-arena, disappearing like waning moonlight.
 
At first there was silence, all of the Fate-warriors frozen in place. Before Saff could even react, the arena exploded with light as Fate-warriors collided into battle. The first clash, Saff thought, listening to the war cries and the clanging of metal.
 
Smoke filled the arena. Saff coughed, feeling a burning in her eyes, the space in front of her blazing with fire.
 
“A fire-cluster!” Verek screamed. “RESET! RESET!”

Heat. So much heat! Saff twisted in her timepod, pushing frantically at the buttons on her keypad, but she could not make out the wormholes that appeared through the smoke.
 
I’ve lost, Saff thought with despair. I’m sorry, Father. Yaren. I tried. 
 
She pushed frantically at the buttons on her keypad. The heat intensified no matter how far back she glided away from the flames.
 
I will die with honor. Saff shifted forward, going into the flames and hoping she would not suffer for long. Only, instead of burning, she was falling.
 
Saff had never traveled through time before. Nagryaal was against the Grandfather’s magic since he first arrived with his machines. Saff’s teacher, Ladywise Fal, had told Saff that time should be one song, never to be resung. “Such was the way before the Grandfather came,” Fal had said. “A time of Healers that gave us endless life. Now the world is split into many, granting all power to the Grandfather whether we wish it or not. The Healers have been erased.”
 
“But the Grandfather gives a gifted timeline to champions,” Saff had argued. Fal scoffed at that. “Young one, there is only one gifted timeline: one without the Grandfather. Strange that such a timeline has never been asked nor gifted.”
 
There was no heat inside the wormhole. No more fire. Saff opened her eyes to see a dark tunnel, a single bead of light far ahead.
 
Back, she remembered. I’ve reset. The small bead of light suddenly engulfed her and she found herself back in the arena. She saw the Fate-warrior woman in eastern yellow colors glide toward Verek, holding the fire-cluster bomb. No! I didn’t go back far enough.
 
“Verek!” Saff yelled. “Behind you! A fire-cluster!” Verek had been the one that warned me, Saff thought with wonder. She thrust her timepod toward the woman, but Verek dove forward from his timepod, leaping out into the woman.
 
“NO VEREK!”
 
The fire-cluster exploded within Verek’s warrior suit, tearing both him and the woman into burning bits of cooked meat. And then they vanished from the arena, the smell of their burning gone.
 
BACK! BACK! Saff reset, taking the closest wormhole she could find.
 
She jumped through and then gasped with surprise, but not because she couldn’t find any trace of Verek.
 
So many gone, Saff thought, looking around the near-empty arena. She remembered Verek’s words: If you die before a jump, a reset won’t help you.
 
But your wrong, Verek. You do still exist because I’ll never forget you.
 
A timepod glided toward Saff. A Bralen. Something silver gleamed in his hand. Saff tensed, rubbing at her sleeve for the air blade Verek had given her. No! They cannot be killed. She reached for her keypad. Forward. Try forward. But she hesitated, unable to comprehend what she was seeing.

The Bralen’s timepod began to ripple, stretching out of true. The Bralen screamed, his immortal body separating into bloodless pieces. The Dispersal, Saff thought. She hovered back as she watched Xeeren of Plen materialize into the space that once held the Bralen.
 
“Could it just be us now, Nagry-child?” Xeeren asked. He hovered in front of her, his eyes curiously gentle.
 
Saff glanced around, keeping the Plen close to her sight. Xeeren was right. There was no one else in the arena. How? How could she have made it this far without even engaging an opponent?
 
“What is your name, little one?” Xeeren asked.
 
Saff did not answer. How do I fight this man? If she could get close and use the air blade across his neck. Then he counters with the Dispersal.

Then I’ll be dead.
 
“Third Saffron of Nagryaal,” Saff said.
 
Xeeren nodded with a slight smile. “Well Saffron, we’ve played the Grandfather’s game long enough. With respect to Nagryaal, I will make your death swift.” He raised a hand and yelled, “For Plen!”

Xeeren disappeared. Saff twisted, spinning around in her timepod. Her opponent was nowhere to be found. He’s moved forward, she thought. She pushed her forward button, eyeing several wormholes sprouting in front of her. It was difficult to see which wormhole showed Xeeren. Then she felt a tingling in her stomach.

He’s using the Dispersal!
 
Saff jumped into a wormhole. Forward. Back into the empty arena. Still the strange tingling inside her. He’s tracking me. Forward. Again. Backward. She grimaced, feeling pain bloom within her midsection. Backward. To the beginning. The room still empty. The burning growing stronger.
 
Keep jumping! Backward. Forward. The wormholes looked like mirrors all showing the same empty room.
 
Then another jump and something grasped hard around her throat, making her eyes bulge.
 
“Enough running, little one,” Xeeren said in a gentle voice. He stood over her, standing on the base of her timepod, his own timepod hovering somewhere in the distance.
 
Without thinking, Saff pulled out the air blade from her sleeve flicker-fast and slashed underneath Xeeren’s forearm. The Plen pulled back in a hiss, releasing his choking hold of her. Saff lashed out again, missing Xeeren’s neck but leaving a red line across his chest. Instead of sending him back, Xeeren charged forward, catching Saff’s blade arm and cramming her fist into her belly.
 
Saff gasped in pain as she felt her air blade sink deep inside her.

“You fight like a true Fate-warrior,” Xeeren whispered. “Plen will remember Third Saffron of Nagryaal.”
 
He released Saff’s right hand. She dropped it back down on her keypad, her air blade still stuck in her midsection. With a trembling hand, she pushed the forward button.

“You are done,” Xeeren said, but before he could stop her, they both moved forward.
 
An infinite sea of wormholes bloomed in front of Saff. She jumped through them randomly, never stopping once to see the blackness they ended in. They all lead to death, Saff thought.

Forward. As far forward as she could go. There. The Speakerlock appeared, reaching out to stop her, but she jumped forward past his reach. Forward. Into darkness. So much darkness.
 
Xeeren clutched tight to Saff’s timepod. He was screaming at her, but she could barely hear him.

Forward. Forward. Until she saw it. A new bead of light. She passed through and paused at the end of the jump. Her vision blurred, but she still marveled at the sunlight around her. Through the mixture of colors on the open field, she could make out the crumbled ruins of the Grandfather’s temple.

Is this it? she wondered. Is this the timeline without the Grandfather?
 
“Fate’s door!” Xeeren cried. He released his bloody arm from the timepod, enchanted by the openness around him.
 
Saff breathed in deep, feeling the deep ache of the blade burn inside her. She focused and then pushed hard two-handed against Xeeren’s chest. He fell out of the timepod and into the soft grass.
 
“Forward,” Saff said, her voice sounding distant. Why? Where am I going?
 
“Wait!” cried Xeeren and then Saff was back inside another wormhole.
 
Forward. Forward.

She stopped, slumping inside her timepod. Her knees folded; she spilled out of the timepod. There was no ground to meet her. Only arms catching her. Holding her.
 
“Is it her?” a child’s voice yelled. More voices. Children’s voices in full laughter. And then an old voice.
 
“It is, child,” said the old man. “Third Saffron of Nagryaal. Bring the Healers.”

The old man touched Saff’s cheek. Those same gentle eyes. “Don’t worry, Grandmother. The Healers will take care of you. I’ve waited a long time for this.”
 
“Xeeren?” Saff said in a weak voice.
 
“Yes,” Xeeren said. “I am so sorry. If I had known. If we all had known…”
 
“Gentlewise Xeeren,” a young boy said, “The Healers are here.”
 
“Good, young one,” Xeeren said and then placed a withered hand over Saff’s hand. “You found it,” he said. “You found the true timeline, the one meant for this world. No one had ever dared go so far, so perilously far.”
 
Xeeren raise up slowly, letting the Healers fall in. Saff noticed he wore a Gentlewise robe, those worn by ancient scholars from long ago. He looks nothing like the man I fought in the time-arena.

Hands encased Saff’s forehead and she felt instant relief. She couldn’t even feel pain when one of the hands pulled the air blade out from her gut. More hands pushed on the wound on her belly, healing her from within. It was as if fresh life was poured back into her. Healers of Old. The ones the Grandfather took away long ago.
 
Saff sat up, bemused. I’m alive.
 
“Now, Grandmother Saffron,” Xeeren said, “you must go back. Claim your prize from the Grandfather. And then use it to find us. To build for us.”
 
Saff was led back to her timepod by a crowd of children dancing around her. She smiled instinctively at them and then looked up at Xeeren, who stood back to watch her leave.
 
He waved at her.
 
She stepped back into her timepod, hovering a few feet to call out to Xeeren. “How will I know what to do?” she asked.

Xeeren smiled. “How did you know to come here, Grandmother? You will know. For you know how to control your own fate. We will meet again soon, Grandmother.”
 
A tear fell down from the old man’s face. Saff watched him turn and walk away. He was once my enemy, she thought and then looked around. Here there were no enemies. Here there was only life and praise for existence, for being alive and enjoying the world that was given.

 She leaned back in her timepod, adjusting the head strap. She looked down at the children once more, laughing and waving at her, calling her Grandmother.

All this from a push of the button, Saff thought.

She pushed the button.

 Backward.


THE END

 

© Jack Lee Taylor 2015