Flash Fiction, Shorts

Scratching the Itch

The door to the place is locked when I arrive. I press the buzzer and a voice crackles back seconds later.

“What?”

“Mr. Wiggins? We had an appointment.”

There’s a buzz and the click of the door unlocking. I climb up the narrow staircase, stained with who knows what on the sticky steps. Rent’s probably cheap, but it’s as good a place as any for a small, freelance business. Still, it’s not in the best neighborhood, just south of downtown, where the buildings are old, the streets bare, and the people desperate. Not ideal, but it’s the only place in Middle America where you can hire someone crazy enough to chase tornadoes with you.

The door at the top of the stairs has hastily painted white letters on the glass that read, Jim Wiggins, Adventure Travel.

Jim Wiggins is sitting behind a small desk in the cramped room. An open bottle of Jack Daniels sits on a file cabinet. Some cigarette smoke escapes through the door, but when I go to close it Jim stops me. He’s already standing, and stubs his cigarette out on his desk.

“Well.” he says, sizing me up. “You got the look of a kid with the heart for this kind of thing. Remind me of myself when I was your age.”  

“Thanks,” I say. “I think I’m ready.”

“No time like the present.”

 

Jim is gunning his beat up Jeep at sixty-five down an old county road. The sky is gray and smeared with cumulonimbus giants. I can tell it’s quiet outside, but inside Jim blasts classic rock on the radio. Black Sabbath. He taps his fingers on the wheel to the beat, and nearly has to shout to be heard above the distorted guitar.

“You got the itch, I can tell.”

“What do you mean?”

“The itch. That feeling you get when you’re cooped up all day and just want to live.

I nod but don’t respond. I’d felt something similar before.

“Fight or flight, man,” he goes on. “You gotta scratch that itch to survive.

We pull over in between two wide cornfields and step outside. The sky seems still if you only glance at it, but really the stretched clouds glide over the horizon, like water on a slow-moving river, and closer to the ground than you’d expect.

We end up waiting for over two hours without the faintest hint of a funnel cloud. Jim keeps checking the radar on his phone, and paces back and forth, chain smoking Camels. He’s impatient, but seems anxious for something other than the storm. I don’t press him. So another hour passes, and our conversations are short and pointed. We both know what we’re waiting for.

Eventually we give up and start driving back. Jim leaves the radio off, but keeps the constant Camel at his lips. He mutters to himself and I can only make out a few broken phrases and curse words. I’m a little disappointed too. I expected excitement and danger, not a restless man and cornfields.

As we start driving through town it begins to rain. First a few sprinkles, but within ten minutes it’s a full downpour. We missed the tornado, but there was still a very real storm coming through.

Jim seems unconcerned, and is still going nearly fifty down the busy streets. The cars in front of us cast waves onto the sidewalk, and the Jeep follows suit. Every couple of seconds we see the bright red shine of brake lights, and are forced to slow. I learn quickly how liberal Jim is with his horn.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be going so fast,” I say.

Jim turns to me and grins. I can see the fire behind his eyes; the wildness of a man bent on self-destruction. A man who has to scratch an itch. Here is a real storm chaser, outside of the romanticized image I had in mind. “Don’t you feel it?” he says. “We gotta get something out of this day.”

Without any more warning Jim makes a sharp right turn. I feel the wheels hydroplaning. Then I see the wrong way signs on either side of the road.

“Are you in—” I can’t finish. My senses are overloaded with stimuli. White lights of approaching cars blend with the flash of lightning. The blaring of horns sound with the rumble of thunder beneath. Above it all I hear the maniacal laughing of Jim Wiggins.

Then a screech and a crunch of metal. We stop hard and fast. Head, meet airbag. The seatbelt cuts into my shoulder and I’m thrown back against the seat. We aren’t moving anymore, and I can’t tell which way is up.

I look over at Jim and his face is all cut from the broken windshield. The blood comes down his face in strings, making the resting grin on his face all the more unsettling.

As a fog of darkness settles over my vision I can hear sirens and shouting in the distance. Never again, I vow to myself. I don’t have the heart for this line of work.

And yet, as I close my eyes I smile, and a little voice inside whispers.

Maybe.

 

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Shorts

Tommy Had A Secret

Tommy had a secret. He liked to watch people. Most wouldn’t consider people watching a secret so much as a casual hobby, but Tommy treated it like it was a true calling. He watched strangers on the bus, stared at lone movie-goers, and soaked in as much as he could from every diner waiter or waitress he ever had.

He liked to watch people he knew most of all. He once followed his friend Brian home from school, just for fun. Tommy walked two blocks behind Brian the whole way, and Brian never noticed. He crouched behind a hedge and watched Brian greet his family through a window in the kitchen. Then he went home. The next day at school, Brian asked him what he did yesterday, and Tommy said, “Not much.”

A few weeks later, their class received a new student, whose family had moved to town from Michigan. Mrs. Korzybski brought her to the front of the class and introduced her. Tommy could immediately tell that the girl was either poor, or didn’t know how to take care of herself. Her dirty blonde hair was a matted and greasy shag that ended just above her shoulders. Her clothes were faded and stretched, and her jeans had a yellow bandana patch on one knee.

When Mrs. Korzybski asked her to tell the class her name, she said, “Trish,” and sat back down. She didn’t speak to anyone, and no one knew anything about her. She was the most mysterious figure at school, and Tommy could not resist.

At the end of the day, he kept Trish in his sights as he and the other students were carted off to the buses. If he could find out what bus she rode, he could find out where she lived. As fate had it, Tommy watched as Trish walked over to Bus 314. His bus. Congratulating himself for this stroke of luck, Tommy followed. He picked a seat two back from the dirty shag of hair, and waited.

Trish was dropped off several stops from Tommy’s home. He watched her get out and walk across a yard of dead grass and up the porch of a small house. There were beer bottles on the porch, some empty, others half-full and attracting flies in the heat. The bus pulled away as the front door opened. Tommy could just make out a vague, shadowy figure inside before the house passed from view. His brain itched, and his curiosity welled.

Tommy tried to get off at the next stop, but the bus driver held him back. “This isn’t your stop.”

“I can walk the rest of the way, it’s fine.”

The bus driver shook her head. “Sorry. Parents like to know where their kids are being dropped off. If you wanna walk, walk. But when you ride my bus, you get off at your stop.”

Tommy sat back down and brooded for the next five minutes until the bus stopped at his street. He pretended to tie his shoe until he saw it turn onto the next street. Then he stood up, turned around, and started walking.

He found the house quickly enough, though it was surrounded by others just like it. As Tommy walked toward it, he realized this was maybe what his mother had meant when she told him not to wander. He shook off the thought, and slipped behind the fence and into Trish’s backyard.

A line of trees and withered shrubbery along the fence provided good cover for Tommy as he staked out his new classmates’ home. He positioned himself directly across from the sliding glass door that looked into the kitchen. A man and a woman sat at the table. Both of them had a bottle in one hand, and were gesturing wildly with the other. Tommy imagined raised voices, and loud music to drown them out. He kept watching. Occasionally, the man would stand and open the sliding door to toss out another bottle. The first time he did this, Tommy nearly jumped for fear he’d been discovered. After the third time, he relaxed, but kept his eyes peeled for signs of Trish, who he still hadn’t seen.

By this time, Tommy was beginning to think he should just give up and go home. His legs were starting to hurt from crouching, and the sun was getting lower. As he made to start crawling back around the line of trees, the faint murmur of voices behind glass exploded into a shouting match. Trish was standing in front of the table and yelling at her parents, who were giving it right back. He couldn’t make out what they were screaming, but their faces said enough for Tommy to know that he’d seen plenty. He was starting to feel uncomfortable, which wasn’t right. This was supposed to be his fun little game, not something that made him feel guilty or embarrassed.

As the shouting continued, Tommy started crawling. He needed to get out of here, needed to get back home. He’d already have some explaining to do when he showed up over an hour after his bus was supposed to drop him off. But he could make something up. At the most, he’d get a stern talking-to.

Tommy was only a few feet away from the gate when he heard the glass door slide open. He froze, and watched as Trish stepped out, giving the sliding door as much of a slam as she could. Then she sunk to the ground and put her head in her lap. Tommy could just make out the faint, gasping sobs from where he crouched.

But he was so close. Tommy eyed the gate, started inching towards it. He lifted a foot, set it down, lifted the other. He’d almost reached the end of the line of trees when he heard the snap of a dead branch crack underneath him.

“Who’s there?” The voice didn’t seem like it belonged to the sad, lonely girl Tommy had just heard crying alone on the ground. But when he turned to look, he saw Trish standing tall, with a hard look in her eyes. She had a bottle in her hand, and held it above her head, ready to throw.

Tommy stood as still as he could. He didn’t blink, and kept his breathing as shallow as possible. She was staring right at him, but he was sure she didn’t know whether he was there or not. His eyes flicked over to the gate again. If he ran, he could make it. He glanced at Trish, who took a hesitant step closer.

Tommy bolted. He heard a cry and an explosion of glass behind him. She’d missed. He nearly laughed at the thrill of it. His hands hit the gate, and he opened it.

“Hey!”

Something stopped him from just running. No one had ever caught him before. He had to take another look, had to see the expression on her face. Tommy looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a mixture of confusion and admiration splattered across Trish’s features.

Instead, he got a broken bottle to the face.

He blacked out from the pain. When he woke up, the world looked flat and narrow. He put a hand to his face, and felt the gauze and tape blocking his left eye. The doctor told him it was still possible to save it, but he didn’t want Tommy to get his hopes up too high. Tommy’s mother told him they would be having a long talk when they got home, but she was glad he was okay. Tommy didn’t say anything.

When he went back to school, no one asked him any questions. No one told him they’d heard anything. As far as he knew, Trish had stayed quiet. It was a small favor to Tommy, but he was grateful for it. Sometimes they would make eye contact across the lunchroom, and Tommy knew, and Trish knew, but no one else.

Tommy still had a secret, but he didn’t want one anymore.

 

Flash Fiction, Shorts

Winter Blunderland

The early morning January sky was dark. The only sound Astor could hear in the biting cold was the sleet as it slapped against the icy parking lot, the frozen husks of cars, and the top of her head. Why did she have to be out here now? Why did she have to work a job that made her get up at this ungodly hour?

When she tried to open the door of her old rusty, red Jeep she was met with resistance. The door wouldn’t budge. Typical. Sighing, Astor walked around and yanked on the passenger door. It too, was frozen shut.

Astor shoved her freezing hands into the folds of her overcoat and stamped the numbness from her feet. It was no use. Even if she went back inside to get hot water to pour over the door, the damn thing probably wouldn’t budge for at least fifteen minutes. She could walk to work, and be there in the same amount of time. It was shaping up to be yet another fun fun day.

As she crossed the street outside her apartment complex, Astor’s foot caught on a patch of ice. She felt her legs slip from under her, but managed to catch herself before hitting the ground. There weren’t any cars on the road, and she made it to the other side without another incident. The wind tore at her exposed face, and within minutes she was sniffing back snot. She kept her head down, focused on her feet, and did nothing else but will them to continue walking.

This is crazy. Even if I do make it on time, there’s no way anyone will come in for coffee in this mess. 

Astor turned onto the rail trail that ran across town. It was her usual shortcut to work, but she preferred taking it in the summer time, when the leaves bristled from the welcome, cooling breeze. Currently, the trail was covered in four inches of snow and slush that had already soaked through Astor’s boots and socks. She tried to think of how welcome a nice hot latte would be once she got to work, but it did little to comfort her in the moment.

The trail led Astor through a field, across from which were several abandoned warehouses. There was a light in one of them, coming from the third floor. Astor glanced at it curiously, and felt her legs give out once again as she slipped on a patch of ice. this time she hit the ground hard, scraping her bare hands on the slush.

There was little pain, but Astor felt the tears coming anyway. Those warehouses were only a five minute walk from her place, but it’d easily taken her twice that long to get this far. The palms of her hands were red and raw, her toes numb and distant, and even the tears she was crying hurt as they froze halfway down her cheeks. Still, she had to get to work. So, wiping away the icicle tears, Astor picked herself up, and kept walking.

After another ten minutes of trudging through the thick slush, the sleet turned to a thick curtain of snow. Astor’s world was filled with static and grainy, white noise. Her thin frame rocked with each new gust of wind, but she pressed on.

Up ahead, Astor could just make out the faint outline of the Midtown Cafe.  There weren’t any lights on, but that was usual at this time. They wouldn’t be opening for another hour. She only hoped that Pete or Melissa were there to let her in, as she didn’t have a key. The numbness was spreading to her legs now, and she couldn’t feel her hands.

As she approached the door, she noticed a little sign on the window. It read: Closed due to weather. Will open tomorrow at regular business hours. No. Astor pulled at the locked door to no avail. Then her legs gave out, and she sunk to her knees in the wet snow. It was going to be a long walk back.