Better than Starbucks Fiction
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When Tyler’s mom died, he was left to go through her things. The middle child, he said he was always the one left holding the bag, in trouble for shared childhood crimes he and his older brother and younger sister partook equally in like the time they tried to cook French fries and set off the smoke detector, or the time they brokeg into the liquor cabinet. Of the latter incident, Tyler told me, “Nick got in his car and drove off—drunk, I might add—a half hour before Mom and Dad got home, and Carrie fell asleep, so I was the only one to yell at when they saw the empty bottle of Jim Beam.”
Carrie cried ferociously at the funeral, but skipped town without saying goodbye—better than Nick who explained things were too busy at work to come back at all.
I told Tyler he was a good son to take care of details, not to mention to serve cheese and crackers and wine to the extended family at the little house his mother had died in.
He shook his head and told me she would have been prouder of the other two. She’d always said no one should live their whole lives where they were born.
I met him at the house to help clean. I expected he’d want to take a lot of things back to his apartment, but when I got there—early, I thought, with coffee and doughnuts for the both of us—he was already at work, filling boxes with books and DVDs to be donated, trash bags with ceramic cat figurines his mother had collected, with a family photo album.
I asked him, “Don’t you want to keep some of this?”
He kept working. His coffee went cold.
I found the manuscript. A manila envelope filled with old printer pages—the kind with the perforated borders. The title page: Tales of Curiosity by Wendy Wright.
“She wrote all of these stories for us.” Tyler didn’t even look at it, sorting through a stack of CDs for anything he would keep or else sell. “Just bedtime stories at first, and she said she couldn’t remember them so she had to write them down and her handwriting was horrible, so if she was going to read them aloud she had to type them.”
“That sounds sweet.”
He dropped a handful of CDs into a trash bag where they fell hard and it was impossible to tell if he’d intentionally thrown them down, or if that were just how they’d fallen. “It was nice when we were little.”
He’d told me stories before, about his mother who meant well, but who could never leave well enough alone and came into his room to tuck him in sometimes, even when he was a teenager, and even when he was in college, once coming in without knocking while he was jerking off so he stopped and lied as still as possible and pretended to be asleep while she straightened his blanket over him and he thanked God it was a cold night, so he’d been hidden beneath those covers.
“Mom kept trying to tell us stories even after Carrie was way too old. She tried to make it a thing that she’d lead off Sunday dinners by reading a story, but they were all bad. I was a little jerk back then and I laughed at one of them, midway through, this one about a rabbit who got lost and couldn’t find his way home, because she used the word impressive when she meant impressionable.” He sifted through the next couple CD cases. “I was a jerk.”
I leafed through those first pages, to a table of contents where there was actually a story listed, “The Rabbit Who Got Lost and Couldn’t Find His Way Home.” “Where should I put it?”
Tyler haphazardly dumped the CDs in his hand into the trash bag so he’d have both hands free to hold the bag open wide.
“You’re not going to keep it?”
He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t like it while Mom was here. I’m not going to like it now.”
I put the pages back in their envelope and thought I might keep it, because maybe he’d want it later. But he was waiting and snapped the bag, opening it as wide as it would go, flipping trash that had been caught in the folds free to fall all the way to the bottom. Slowly, I reached into the bag and placed the envelope down inside.
Once it was there, Tyler moved back to the CDs.
It was nearly an hour later when he brought up the book again. “She sent it to publishers,” he said in a similar way to how he described the time he got busted for shoplifting, because the one time he stole, because he didn’t think to look for a security device on the Sega Genesis games. That same inflection, as if it were something stupid to have even tried, let alone to think she might have succeeded at. “They all rejected it. She spent a year sending the whole book out to all of these publishers and of course no one took it.”
How many people got from thinking they could write a book to actually doing it? From writing it to actually trying to get it published. Wasn’t it worth something that she’d tried?
“Mom was crazy,” Tyler said, stretching the a sound as if the longer he said the word, the more true it would be.
We spent the day there, from eight in the morning to nine at night, picking off doughnuts and tap water between sorting his mother’s belongings, and sweeping and dusting. At some point in the night, I fell asleep on the couch—that thick, wide monstrosity, covered in a floral print, we could only assume was too wide to get outside without taking the front door off its hinges and that’s if the two of us could carry the thing that far. We decided early on we’d leave that for Tyler and whatever friends he could wrangle together the next day.
I don’t know how long I was out for. Short enough that it was still dark through the window when I woke. Long enough that I’d been dreaming—dreaming of Tyler and I arguing about something, driving fast on a highway.
And Tyler was turned from me, seated on the floor, back against the sofa. Old printer pages in a sloppy pile on the floor next to him, other sheets propped up against his thighs as he read a story about a rabbit.
I pretended to go back to sleep, pretended not to have woken at all as I listened to him put one page down and grip the next in his fingers. Those pages his mother had once held herself. Those stories she’d once read to him.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is an alum of Oregon State's MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Iron Horse, Front Porch, and Bellevue Literary Review. He works as a contributing editor for Moss.
For those who can't make it to the mecca that is Kelly Writers House, we gather once per month, in a traveling show sort of migration around South Florida to enjoy the companionship, the intellectual stimulation and the pure exhaustion of the mental challenge of a live close read!
7:38 from Bunker Hill
George Tandle stood, waiting for the 7:38 from Bunker Hill to Hardchester. From the vantage point of the station, he could see nearly the entire village spread out below. He was so lost in admiring the view that he didnt realise, at first, that his train was late. 7:42. This was peculiar. He then noticed it had started to rain. What began as a light shower quickly became a downpour, and George was, for once, without his umbrella. Where the devil was this blasted locomotive?
He jostled with the other commuters, all attempting to find shelter beneath the inadequate station house awning. Rain poured from the brim of his bowler hat and ran down his shoulders in great streams. His suit would soon be ruined.
He glanced around at the others he stood elbow to elbow with. Two near-identical schoolboys playing tug-of-war with a sodden textbook. A vicar regarded them with suspicion. A gaggle of WI members, brown paper parcels half-concealed beneath their flowery frocks. The rest, like George, all suits and ties heading into the big smoke.
The rain had stopped. Everyone drifted out from beneath the awning, stretching arms and legs as though they'd been stuck in a lift. George inhaled deeply as he strode from the shelter, an acrid tang of smoke hitting the back of his throat. Perhaps old Rathbone was having one of his impromptu bonfires. No doubt he hadn't bothered to get permission.
Next thing he knew, an enormous fireball streaked across the sky, illuminating Bunker Hill in an eerie blood-red glow. Debris from the flaming projectile rained down over the village, smashing through roofs and setting flowerbeds ablaze. Everybody screamed as the meteor struck the hillside above with rending of earth and crackle of flame.
A great cacophony from the tunnel then drew George’s attention, as the 7:38 tore out of the darkness, bathed in orange and yellow. Pistons pumping, the blazing engine screamed through the station, the drivers drunkenly lurching from the cab. As it flew past, a blast of heat threw George’s head to one side as though he had been punched. His bowler was blown off and landed in a windowbox behind him. He spun back around, eyes streaming, just in time to watch the demonic train careen around the bend, carriages beginning to topple as it disappeared from sight.
A few seconds passed, everyone on the platform rooted to the spot, before chaos descended. An explosion shook the village, causing the windows of the station house to shatter outwards and cover the shocked passengers with chunks of broken glass. One or two people dropped to their knees, hands over their heads and remained unnervingly still. Whether they were injured or merely acting on instinct, George couldn’t say. All he knew was that he had to get out of there. He scrambled towards the arched gateway of the station entrance, crouching down to avoid any more flying glass. A brief glance to his right and there was the vicar, lying prostrate, arterial blood jetting from a deep gash on his thigh, whilst one of the WI attempted to stem the flow with a torn scrap of her frock. One of the schoolboys looked on, grey-faced, vomit dribbling onto his blazer.
George reached the entrance and vaulted neatly over a dry-stone wall. It was only then that he was able to comprehend the extent of the destruction to the village. Looking down into the belly of Bunker Hill, he first saw the post office ablaze, thick black smoke billowing from the gaping windows. Mr and Mrs Henderson, faces blackened by ash, huddled together out front, weeping uncontrollably as their livelihood was consumed by flames.
A fire engine flew past, sirens screaming, and collided with the butchers van, catapulting Mr. Graves through his windscreen and onto the tarmac, where he lay motionless. Heavy-set and pale-skinned, he resembled one of his own pork chops. Inside the cab of the fire engine, a voice said, "Just leave him." With a squeal of tyres, it veered off down the lane.
Elsewhere, terrified villagers ran in all directions, each desperate to return home and see their loved ones. A thick coating of ash had begun to settle on the streets and houses, transforming the once pretty hamlet into a modern Pompeii.
George hurried towards his house, hoping that it was still standing. He reached the bottom of the hill and turned the corner to see a bright blue Morris Minor lying on its side, flames gently licking the passenger door. As George cautiously approached, the window on the near side smashed and a fist emerged, clutching crazily at the air.
George sprinted towards the capsized vehicle, shrugging off his jacket and tearing loose his tie. Scrambling onto its side, he ripped the sleeve from his shirt and wrapped it around his hand before punching the rest of the glass out from the twisted frame. Whoever was inside yelped as the shards rained down upon them, but a second later a bruised arm re-emerged tentatively through the gap and George grasped it. He reached down into the darkness for the other, and then began to pull with all his strength.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the flames had now crept around to the rear of the car. Turning his head from the searing heat, he planted his feet against the charred wheel arch and used it as leverage to gradually lift the person free from the wreckage. A head emerged, hanging downwards, the hair matted and tangled. It was followed by a floral print dress, torn down one side. As the girl’s legs appeared, she used the last of her strength to push herself free and sprawled onto the side of the vehicle, gasping loudly with the exertion. The petrol cap was now on fire.
In one surprisingly easy movement, George threw her unresisting body over one shoulder and clambered down the car before hobbling for cover from the blazing wreck.
The ensuing explosion threw him onto his front and sent the girl tumbling out of his grip like a rag doll in a hurricane. He was unable to hear or see anything. His gasps for air only filled his lungs with dust and smoke. With his last ounce of strength, he rolled over onto his back and looked up into the sky.
George could see only a face, a vast, terrible face looking back down at him with silent amusement. The mouth was twisted into a horrific facsimile of a smiles, the slimy lips exposing the yellowed teeth, each one the size of a truck. The eyes shone with primitive hatred, and the pupils burned like the fires that had claimed much of the village.
George fixated on the smile as the mouth opened wider, like a portal into Hell itself, and waited patiently for Death to be upon him.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Alan stumbled into the basement, the final step evading him, and groped for the light switch. Bunker Hill appeared dimly under the dusty bulb, and he stood blinking for a moment, struggling to recall its layout. He hadn't visited in a long time. At the turn of a dial, the village sprung to life. Lights flicked on in the shops and houses, the bandstand erupted into song, and the trains began their circuits around the track.
Alan watched, a nearly empty bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm as he pulled a sheaf of papers from a manila envelope.
Today, there will be a 100% chance of rain, he said through gritted teeth, tipping the remainder of the bottle over the diorama. He then pulled a box of matches from his pocket, spilling half of them onto the ground in the process. Finally striking one after several failed attempts, he watched the white flame for a moment, burning far brighter than the bulb hanging over his head. Then, as it began to consume the matchstick, he touched it to the corner of the papers. Instantly, they shriveled up like a dying spider.
"What the fuck made you think I was ever going to sign these, Roberta?" he hissed. Just before it claimed his hand, Alan launched the flaming fireball across the room. It sunk into one of the Plaster of Paris hillsides with the sheer force of his throw, before the spilt liquor ignited and blackened shrapnel was flung all over the model village. Alan looked on as one of the projectiles struck a train and set it ablaze. It carried on around Bunker Hill, melting the tracks behind it with the heat.
He grabbed the dial again and turned it as far as it would go. The speed of the trains increased, until they were little more than brightly coloured blurs torpedoing around the track.
Were now making up for earlier delays, he muttered, watching impassively as the flaming locomotive ran out of track and plunged over the edge of the display. It scattered its passengers far and wide over the basement floor before smashing into pieces upon impact.
"Sorry about that folks, leaves on the line", he whispered.
Alan stood, towering over Bunker Hill, seeing the destruction he had wrought upon the previously tranquil village. It was nothing compared to what they had done to him. His eyes rested on a little businessman, lying near a burning Morris Minor. He began to smile, baring his teeth like a chimpanzee.
I bet you anything I’m having a worse day than you, he said to the tiny figure.
Suddenly he heard heavy footsteps above his head. He glanced at his watch. The son of a bitch was early. Very early. He grabbed at the dial and everything went silent.
Still, having a better day than him.
He stooped to snatch the empty bottle off the floor. Creeping up the basement stairs, he switched off the light and held the bottle above his head like a club. Then he waited by the door, half in the light and half in the darkness for Paul to appear around the corner.
Sam Smith is a former Creative Writing and Script writing student, and dabbles in both community radio broadcasting and stand-up comedy.