Monthly Archives: August 2014

School for Heroes

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This is my entry for the Writers Digest Prompt of the week.

It had started when the power went out, three days ago. Once the back-up generators ran out of fuel the pupils and teachers of Midvale High had begun to worry. Cell phones had lost charge, but in the final moments before they went dead it was clear to James Fergusson, school head, that things were worse on the outside; the screams and incoherent sobbing which had formed that final phone message were sufficient to draw that conclusion.

Food and water weren’t a problem. The school was small, 150 souls, the supplies would last a while yet. Supply cupboards had been raided, candles, torches, batteries and long forgotten bulbs rooted out of science lab corners, alongside boards and nails from the woodwork shop. The latter were used to close off windows and doors when the screaming and gunfire started somewhere in the distance.

It was one of the younger pupils, Ginny Davis, who first heard the sounds. On the second day, pretending to play cards whilst effecting deaf ears to the screams, explosions and mayhem beyond the school gates, she’d heard a scratching beneath the gym floorboards. She’d called for hush, a couple of teachers backing her with sharp reprimands when older kids made fun of the blushing kid.

Before too long everyone could hear the scratching, followed by a pause, then a low rumble, then more scratching. Fergusson had thought the gym, built in the basement with toilets and showers, the safest spot. He’d had his charge hole up with food, water and supplies. Only one entrance, but as the sounds continued, growing closer, uncomfortably near the surface, he was beginning to fear he’d made a mistake.

A low moan from Miss Clarke, closest to the wooden stairs, was the first indication something was wrong. Distracted by the under-floor sounds, no-one had heard the strange humming threading through the stairs. Watching in disbelief, they could do nothing as their only exit crumbled to dust, and a million tiny specks, like soot spots scattered under the flooring. To Daisy Childs, science teacher, they looked like the nano tech she’d read about in a recent science journal.

Day three had dawned, silent, but expectant; a brooding sense of impending action sat over the gathered souls in the gym, none of them surprised when the scraping, scratching sounds resumed, and the gym floor began to ripple and shudder as if in the grip of seismic shifts, concentrated in a strip which divided the gym neatly in half. Fergusson was not to be caught unprepared again. Splitting his people in two, they were stationed either side of the heaving, thrusting, growing schism in the floor, armed with craft knives, chalk and eraser slingshots, broken off chair legs, a couple of mops with kitchen cleavers duct taped to the ends, and a single flame-thrower Daisy had cobbled together from an aerosol and sundry science supplies.
The floor exploded up and out…

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Computer troubles

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This came about from a prompt on a new website I discovered.

Melanie clicked the ‘shut down’ command and waited for a few seconds, glancing around the office, then at her watch. The computer seemed to be taking an age to turn off, the light from the screen the sole point of illumination on the deserted floor. Mel clicked impatiently, trying for any response and getting none, just the shut down screen, stuck doing nothing. Wrapped in the Simons account she hadn’t realised she was already an hour later for her mother’s birthday party.

She cursed, thumped the keyboard, shook the mouse, clicked several times and gave a sigh of exasperated relief. There were a couple of clunky noises from the hard drive, a momentary blank screen swiftly replaced by a black one with a command prompt. In frustration, Mel yanked the plugs out of the wall and bent to pick up her bag. The little white cursor was still flashing.

“How are you doing that?” she muttered, then remembered her laptop had a battery. Not particularly tech savvy at the best of times, Mel allowed herself to accept that explanation and concentrated on rummaging through her bag for her phone. Her mother was going to kill her; at least if Mel rang, made some work excuse, the blow might be softened.

‘Stay low’
For an instant, Mel didn’t believe what she was seeing. She re-read the words on the screen several times, but could make no sense of it. Feeling extremely stupid, she bent over and replied.
‘Why?’
‘He is on your floor’

Melanie dropped behind her desk, wondering why she was doing what a computer told her, and attempted to lean around the partition to get a look down the central aisle. The third floor was laid out in blocks, four desks facing each other, a partition, then a side-aisle, followed by more desks, all connecting to the wide aisle running down the centre of the office. Her heart raced as she leaned slightly around the partition, flicking her eyes back to the computer.
‘Do not move. Stay low’
Before her hasty withdrawal from view, Mel was sure she saw a figure at the far end of the room.
‘What do I do?’
She typed softly; terrified the clacking keys would bring the unknown into her world.
‘Wait for me’
‘Who are you?’
‘Mike, in the closet’

That one threw Mel. Mike had to be Michael Dewson, tech whizz who worked on the floor below, which would explain his being able to talk via some remote computer wizardry on a system he’d designed and installed, but why was he in a closet? What closet and where?

She was about to type again and ask when she heard furtive shuffling from a couple of blocks over. She froze in place, certain this unknown ‘he’ would hear the thundering of her heart. She shoved a hand over her mouth as she released a gasping breath, unaware she’d been holding her breath, and then stilled again. Ears straining she thought, maybe, she heard something further away, like a door hinge. Mike? Maybe he’d seen the ‘he’ and dived into the closet where they kept the printer ink and general supplies. Maybe that was him trying to reach her.

She desperately wanted to lean out, try to catch a glimpse of him, or at least check the mystery person wasn’t as close as that shuffling had sounded. The flashing prompt caught her attention.
‘Coming up the left aisle. Don’t make a noise when I get there.’
Seconds later, Mike came round the partition on hands and knees. Mel grabbed him, yanked him close and whispered in his ear.
‘Who is it?’
‘Someone with an agenda. He has a package and he’s been going floor to floor looking at all the desks. Our guess is he’s looking for someone in particular.’
‘Our guess?’
‘People have been informed’
‘People? What people?’

The room suddenly flooded with light. Stunned into immobility. Melanie flickered a glance at Mike and realised he was smiling, trying desperately to hold back laughter. He rose, despite her flapping her arms trying to semaphore him into staying down, and drew her up. He spun her around and she came face to face with Paul, her boyfriend of three years, also grinning like a fool. Beyond him stood the majority of her family, friends and even a few co-workers. Paul dropped to one knee, thrust a ring box at her and gave her his best puppy dog eyes;
‘I’d like to see you occasionally. I reckon a husband might have a better chance of prying his wife away from the office on a regular basis. Marry me, Mel?’
Caught between incoherent rage – she should have realised something was up; Mike was Paul’s best friend – and overwhelming surprise, Mel nodded, a roar of approval coming from the gathering.
‘You will pay for this some day, Paul Grayling’ she chuckled against his ear as he slipped the ring onto her finger.

Emma goes to school

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This is an excerpt from a work in progress, one which is nowhere near finished, but I thought this piece fitted with this prompt – Write about you or one of your characters walking through a place that was once filled with activity and now is deserted. Be sure to describe the feelings that are there now compared to the ones felt when it was active. which I found at Yeah Write on Tumblr.

So, meet Emma…

Emma’s voice was jittery, her teeth clacking against each other and she was contemplating breaking into one of the houses when she spotted a school. It was small, just a single storey with a yard not much bigger than the one she’d left behind at the family home. She slipped around the wooden gate, loathe to crack it open further; somehow, the thought of a creaking hinge in the vast silence was too sad and Emma didn’t want that, not when hope had so lately returned. She tried the double doors and found they swung open easily, and silently. Stepping inside she found herself wondering if there had been a school bell or one of those annoying electronic buzzers to summon the kids from the yard. She remembered how that strident, repetitive buzz had brought silence to 150 kids at her school, stopping screams, laughter and ‘outdoor’ voices in an instant. Had it been the same here? Well, probably not so many kids, she thought, as her explorations revealed just three rooms; two classrooms and a cafeteria.

It was equally silent though, and felt horribly wrong. Schools were supposed to be loud. They were supposed to sound like suppressed giggles, eager answers, teasing, shouting, whispers, strict rebukes and gentle praise. They were supposed to smell of school dinners, chalk, paper, sweaty socks, break-time fruit, coffee from the teachers lounge, sawdust, overused toilets and illicit candy. Dripping her way through the empty rows of dining tables, the wrongness deepened. There were few smells, one Emma knew but wanted no part of. Someone had died close by, recently enough for the decay to pervade the cafeteria. Aside from that only the blessed scent of falling rain and the smell she had come to think of as emptiness, a dryness like blowing dust, stirred her senses.

She hurried back to the smaller class. It proved to be a preschool room. The walls were filled with slowly fading pictures. A painting entitled ‘My Mum’ depicting a purple blob with yellow whirls coming off the top. A chalk drawing of something that looked like a deformed cow but the teacher’s clear printing asserted was ‘Daniel’s Dog’. Chalk, paint, sand, glue, paper, coloured pencils and building bricks lay scattered across tables and a carpeted area as if the children were out in the yard, at play.

Emma slumped into one of the miniature chairs, folded her arms to form a pillow on the table, lay her head on them and cried. She cried for Daniel who was probably long dead before he could really be alive. She cried for the mum who probably watched her child die. She cried for the teacher who couldn’t educate survival. She cried for every person she knew was gone, for her friends and family. She cried for the loss of children’s laughter and school and play and even detention because she finally knew and accepted that it was all gone and might never be again. And finally she cried for herself, for all she would never be and for the person she might have to become to stay alive in this new world without schools and people and laws and the protection of family.

No Soup Today

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Another prompt from Accentuate Writers. My words begin after ‘Instead…’

“Hey, mom, could you pass the soup?”
Gail passed the bowl down, but there was no soup in it. Instead…
there was a momentary absence. Later, Gail would describe it as the sensation that the world’s pause button had been pushed for a single second, put on hold whilst a minute adjustment was made. When the world resumed the bowl was empty and her family, daughters Hannah and Ruth and husband David, sat around the table with almost identical expressions of vague confusion.

Hannah was the first to break the stillness. She shook the bowl, held it above her head and laughed.
“Come on, Mom, what is it, one of those trick bowls that lets the stuff drain to an inner lining? Very funny, but I’m hungry!”
Gail retrieved the bowl and examined it, glancing round the three expectant faces with no hope of an answer.
“Not me. You guys?”
Ruth and Dave shrugged, nothing to do with them.

Gail trotted out to the kitchen, aiming to refill the tureen. The stove-top crock was as empty as the bowls on the table. Insanity seemed to be the order of the day. Gail’s mind simply couldn’t grasp how the soup had vanished before their eyes. Her inability to comprehend this strange event sent her into mother mode, foraging to put food on the table for her ever more vocal and apparently starving young.
“You have no idea what it is to be starving” she muttered into the complaining voices as she rummaged through the cupboards. Packet after jar after bottle came up empty. It seemed that every comestible in her home had evaporated without trace. Gail had no words, her mind a whirl of increasingly impossible scenarios as she returned to the dining table and the questioning gaze of her family.

“What do you mean there’s no food?” Dave scoffed, well aware of how well stocked his wife kept the pantry, not to mention the cupboards, fridge, freezer and even a few ‘spares’ in the cool of the cellar. He left the table and headed down there; maybe she hadn’t found the boxes after he’d moved things around a couple of days back. Gail told the girls to get their coats and boots. A trip to the store was in order, maybe a take-out. She felt wholly inadequate to the slew of questions coming from Hannah and Ruth, eventually clapping her hands over her ears;
“I don’t know what happened!” she shouted, Dave returning, his frown speaking his lack of success. He snatched up the car keys and sent the girls out to wait in the car, turning to catch Gail close.
“We’ll find out, girl, no fretting. Someone in town will know what’s going on, and we can get something to eat there. Probably some stupid practical joke down to Jeff.”
Jeff was their best friend but he had a terrible reputation for suddenly deciding to play pranks on townsfolk. The possibility of so simple an explanation made Gail feel better. They joined the girls, Gail apologising for snapping at them, and drove the couple of miles to town.

Pulling up outside the store, Gail’s apprehension returned with a bang. The lot was littered with people and the contents of the store. They didn’t need to get out of the car to know that all the containers were empty. The mixed fury and confusion of the townspeople was writ large in their every gesture and expression. Dave wound down the window a little, Gail’s anxious hand on his arm preventing him getting out or opening the glass more than a crack.
“Tom! Hey, Tom!” Dave bellowed at the store owner, sat with his head in his hands on an upturned garbage can, “What’s happening?”
Tom looked up, shook his head and then rose, limping slowly to the car. Dave thought a man that beaten and wearied was going to be no threat, winding the window down fully. Tom leaned on the rim, nodded to Gail, tried to smile at the girls and then shook his head.
“End of the damn world, David. The food’s gone.”
“All of it?” Tom nodded, Dave sharing the beginnings of panic with Gail in a glance, “Gone where?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. It just upped and vanished, every drop and bite. I’ll tell you another thing” he leaned in, lowering his voice as a distraught woman passed by clutching an empty pack of Cheerios to her chest, “John Cramer, over at Dale’s farm? He rang me, said every crop in the fields is gone. Just rows of empty earth. How ‘bout that?”
Dave sunk back in his seat, winded, the seeds of fear uncurling in his stomach and fingering their way up to his heart. Tom wandered off trying, for what vain reason who knew, to gather up the empty containers. Dave watched the milling townspeople and had an unnerving flash of every zombie movie he’d ever seen. He wound up the window and backed rapidly onto the main road. He took off, curled onto the freeway and aimed the car at the next major city, stopping once to refuel at a gas station awash with empty food litter.

They traveled in silence. Finally, having checked to see the girls had drifted into uneasy sleep, Gail voiced her immediate concerns.
“What if it’s everywhere, Dave?”
“It can’t be hun. The government has contingency plans for this. There’ll be military aid and stuff in the city. I know it.”
Gail smiled fondly, but shook her head.
“You know no such thing. That is the kinda thinking you get from watching too many disaster movies on late night cable. If there are any such plans, they won’t be for the likes of us. The bigwigs and hobnobs will be down in those bunkers, but you know something?” she paused long enough to take in the sight of two men standing forlornly under apple trees full of nothing, “I wish them well of it. You want to know what I think?”
“Probably not, but I’m guessing you’re gonna share anyhow.” Dave tried to smile but he was too scared her thoughts were the concrete echo of his shadows.
“I think it’s all gone. Every seed, every drop, every plant, fish, fowl and flesh that ever fed the human race, gone. I don’t know how and I don’t know where, but I reckon even those bunkers aren’t safe from this. Here, stop.”

Dave pulled over, aware as they drifted to the dirt verge of what she was aiming to show him. Careful not to wake the girls, the couple walked to the edge of the stream. It wasn’t there. It was the clearest, purest, water in the area, always so full of fish you could lie on the bank and hook ‘em out with your fingers. It was gone. Gail looked up, watching the sun slowly sinking down the sky, aware of the vague shimmer there. Somehow knowing the ocean was gone too. Dave caught her thought, as he often did.
“You think the oceans are empty, dried up? Why?”
“Because we’re human beings and we are smart. We could or already have for all I know, find a way to make it potable.”
“What about all those seed banks, experimental facilities with GM foods and that?”
Gail turned and lay her head against his shoulder.
“You’re clutching at straws. It is all gone and we are going to follow… unless.”
“Unless what?”
She shook her head, refusing to face that thought; at least not yet.

They holed up in a cabin in the woods. The fear and panic had led to every imaginable atrocity, the world gone insane with the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of everything which could nourish human life. No plants, no animals, birds, fish, insects, no water. Before long it began, people killing people to drink their body fluids, eat the flesh, but it couldn’t last. Gail watched Dave and the girls die, unable to do what they knew they must.
The day Gail buried her husband, the last to go, she stabbed the spade into the soil, dropped at the head of his covered mound and wished for tears. She had none to give. Rage flooded through her emaciated frame and she shook her fist at the sky, screaming for an answer.
“Why? Why do this?”
She didn’t know who or what she was raging against but it made her feel slightly more alive to let the anger course her veins.
“It was an experiment.”
Gail held off a second, pretty sure she had hallucinated the voice, but the urge to understand burned strong in her heart.
“Are you real?”
“That depends on what you believe” came the reply, “You are stronger than I thought. There are more like you.”
The voice echoed in the small clearing, at once everywhere and yet only in her head.
“Like me?”
“Those strong enough to do what they must to survive. Most could not, like your children, your mate.”
Gail hitched dry, exhausted coughs in place of the sobs she wanted, visions of the meals she had eaten, sustained by her dead children, her beloved David, burying their bones with as much reverence as she could, her iron will forcing her to do the unthinkable.
“Why?”
“It was time to change. The world would not do it alone. I helped. Do better, you strongest that remain.”

At the exact moment she was aware the voice had departed it began. Suddenly there were insects sounds, bird song, a scatter of some small animal nearby and tantalisingly close, the soft splash of a renewed stream racing over its pebble base. Gail drank, caught a rabbit and ate, then began the slow walk to find others. Finally, she cried.

Satisfaction

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A blog prompt from Accentuate Writers

The moment I knew I wasn’t satisfied was… when her head bounced off the platform a second time. Corpses could be incredibly frustrating, as I was learning with depressing regularity. Was it too much to ask, a little poise, a little co-operation?

The exhibition was opening in six hours and the damn corpse simply would not stay in the position I required. How could ‘The Art of the Theatre Macabre’ be the critical success I needed if corpses started slumping out of place or, worse yet, onto champagne quaffing critics?

I grabbed a handful of elaborately coiffured hair, tugged determinedly and finally got the gently decaying body of a minor blonde starlet to drape poignantly over the lap of my Romeo, who had a tendency to give off a rather pungent aroma of putrification, having been shot by an extremely angered critic during a lamentable performance of the Bard’s romantic epic.

The tableau finally as I wished, I stood back and surveyed the results of my labours. Seven scenes from various staged efforts by the Theatre Macabre Company, each of which had ended with the spectacular, and actual, death of a cast member; not all planned, but all wonderful publicity. They were at the height of their fame and I had eagerly jumped aboard the gravy train. This latest show, my agent assured me, would catapult my name into the annals of art history.

Everything was in place, right down to the face masks to be handed out with the champagne as guests arrived; there was no denying the vitality of the performers’ scents. Still, something was off and I could not feel the sense of satisfaction which only came with the perfection of a job completed beyond parallel. I trailed around a couple of times, adjusting a drape to hide the unidentified fluid draining down the leg of one artiste, combing hair over the maggot infestation in the eye socket of another, but no, something screamed its absence.

With the clock ticking faster than I believed possible I decided to rise above, quite literally. I clambered up the scaffolding which gave onto a platform overlooking the exhibit in its entirety. Sidling across the narrow walkway, I grabbed the rail and peered over. I’d forgotten how much I had handled the essential essence of my subjects, their fluids and fats coating my hands. Too late now, my hands slipping, my body sliding under the rail and free-falling into the air.

My last thought, as my throat constricted, caught in the table of wires fueling the lighting rig was; ‘I am God, surveying my creation and deeming it good.’