June 24, 2015

Sorry guys… took me a couple of days to finish this one….

“Jolene!!”

No response. He tried again.

“Get back here, Jolene!”

Nothing. Just the quiet of the clearing and the passive bleating of the other sheep. Jolene was always trouble. He should’ve known better.

Sigh.

He couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. Jolene did have a tendency to wander off. So-named for her rather unusual affection towards bucks, Jolene was a troublemaker. In a field full of docile, fluffy white things, Jolene was nowhere to be found.

He’d already rounded up and counted all of the others and they were ready to go home for the night. The sun was still high, but not for long. And, independent of spirit though she may be, Jolene needed to be penned with the rest of the fluffballs for the night.

The herd, most of them fairly well-behaved, would stay together.

In a gesture of determination, he hiked up his jeans a little farther and set off to find her. How far could she have gotten, after all? The pasture wasn’t that big. The way back to the farm lay one way and a small copse of woods hedged the other. The sheep usually had enough sense to stay away from the trees, but he didn’t trust Jolene to have the common sense God gave a flea… so to the woods he went.

Carefully picking his way through the undergrowth, he listened.

There. There it was. Soft bleating. Not very far away, but strangely echoey.

At least she hadn’t gotten too far… although, he thought, he should be able to see her by now.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.”

There it was again.

He could hear her… why couldn’t he see her?

Jolene was trouble, but she didn’t have the ability to turn invisible. As far as he knew, it wasn’t a feature sheep generally came with. Maybe, he thought, with a grim smile, it’s something they throw in at extra cost, like a sunroof on a car. New sheep, now with the annoying ability to disappear right when you’re looking for them.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.”

“Dammit, Jolene,” he muttered under his breath, clambering further into the woods.

Was he imagining it? He hadn’t been working on the farm for very long… Was the bleating only in his head?

Maybe he’d come back only to find that Jolene had found her way back to the rest of the flock?

He doubted it.

And he doubted it even more when bleating got louder.

“Dammit, Jolene.”

He wasn’t sure how she’d managed to fit in there, let alone how he would.

The bleating was coming from a hole in the ground. Not a hole, exactly. More like a hollowed-out dip in the earth, tucked under the gnarled roots of one of the old trees. The small gap was completely black, with the kind of terrifying absence of light he imagined you’d only find in the bowels of the earth.

Ok, so it wasn’t the bowels of the earth. It was just a cave. He repeated the words to himself. It’s just a cave. It’s just a cave.

It didn’t help.

The hole was big enough for a sheep to get through… and unfortunately it looked just big enough for him to get through.

“Stay calm, Josh,” he told himself. “You can do this.”

You know things are bad, reader, when you begin calling yourself by name.

Gulping down air, he sat himself in front of the gap and began to scoot in, legs first. He figured if something bit him, he could always pull himself back out. Only…. If something bites your legs off, that makes it pretty hard to run away. He tried not to think about that scenario. He tried not to imagine something large and hungry waiting for him in the darkness, with sharp, blood-smeared teeth. He told himself that he was being ridiculous.

Luckily, nothing bit him.

And after a few more moments of scrabbling across dirt, he found himself on his hands and knees inside the entrance of a small cave. To his overwhelming joy, he discovered it also wasn’t completely dark – on this side of the cave entrance some light filtered through. It was grayish and dull, like light filtering through water, but he was grateful for whatever light he could get.

And he was even more grateful when the space broadened out a few feet ahead of him, allowing him to stand full height.

On further examination, this place was huge. The narrow path he was on emptied out into a large cavern. He could swear he heard running water ahead, along the with Jolene’s familiar bleating.

The rushing of water got louder and he swiftly came to realize that it wasn’t just some tiny underground creek. The noise swept up around him as the water began to soak through his sneakers. He’d stepped up the edge of some vast, underground river. In the dim light, he looked out over the water… and realized he couldn’t see the other side. Nor, he realized, could he find the edges of the cavern. The space seemed to fade into a blurry, yellow-gray at the edges of his vision.

“Meh-eh-eh-eh.”

Back to the reason he was down here. The sound drew his eyes up… and up… and up. Some short way into the river, incongruous in this muddy place, was a yacht. He supposed anywhere else it would be a ‘small’ yacht, but in the cavern it loomed large above him, cheerfully striped in royal blue and white.

And Jolene sat placidly on deck, happily baa-ing her little heart out, under the firm grasp of what looked to be a very old man.

Josh said the first thing he could think of, which was, admittedly, not altogether polite.

“What are you doing here?”

The old man grinned at him, a rictus grin in a hollow-looking face. Deep-set eyes watched him. The old man ran fingers through his long, matted, gray beard. His nails, Josh noted, were long and dirty, almost like claws, and he fought back a shiver.

Incongruously, he wore electric blue-and-green board shorts, revealing skinny white legs and a pair of shovel-sized feet stuffed into a pair of black converse. A black t-shirt featured a bright green tongue emerging from cherry-red lips, emblazoned with the name of a band he’d never heard of.

“I could ask you the same thing,” the man said. “Not many use this entrance anymore. It’s hardly worth my time to patrol it.”

“I… uh…. Well… I…”

Really articulate. Good job, there, Josh. Just ask for your damn sheep back and go home. Unfortunately, he seemed to have a bit of trouble making words come out of his mouth.

“I came down here to find Jolene,” he finally managed.

“This little lady?” the old man stroked her back affectionately. “I see. Well, that’s all right then.”

“It is?”

He didn’t know why he sounded surprised.

“I had been going to ask about her,” the man said casually. “Whether you intended to use her to pay for your passage.”

The man cleared his throat before continuing.

“It’s a relatively recent policy change, you see,” he said. “We no longer accept livestock as payment. Things get messy when transportation of live animals is involved. Particularly in this industry. I think you’d understand the … umm… inconvenience. But we now accept Visa and Discover. And, if you’re approved based on your credit score, we have a variety of amenities to make your journey easier.”

“My – my journey?” he asked. “Journey where? Is this some kind of cruise?”

“Your journey to the other side, of course.”

The man’s expression returned to seriousness as he went into what appeared to be a pre-written corporate spiel.

“We here at Charon Cruises take your afterlife experience very seriously,” he explained. “We understand that this is a difficult journey and provide comfortable, all-encompassing service in your transition from this life to the next one.”

For a price, thought Josh, although he didn’t say it.

“Wait a minute….”

Charon.

Afterlife.

River.

A fleeting vision of his eighth grade classroom bloomed before his eyes, including what little he remembered from Greek mythology.

“Wait…. Charon?”

The rictus smile bloomed across the old man’s face.

“One and the very same,” he said. “Owner and proprietor.”

“The…. The ferryman from Greek mythology?” he asked, vaguely disbelieving the words coming out of his own mouth.

“Glad to be of some renown,” the old man said. “Although I would like you to know, young man, that we here are Charon Cruises do not discriminate based on ethnicity, race or religion. All are welcome aboard our luxurious river-cruise. No longer a service provided exclusively to Greeks, we now provide global access.”

“I see,” he said, the wheels in his head cranking overtime to adjust to this bizarre reality. “But what happened to the whole…. Ferry thing? The cloak and the coins and all that?”

“Eh,” the old man responded with a shrug of his shoulders. “Coins. They get so clanky and loud, you know? And it’s hard to keep organized. Credit is much easier to handle.”

“And the rest?”

The old man looked down at his tropical-getaway outfit and shrugged again.

“We decided to rebrand,” he said. “The whole wooden-ferry and black cloak thing really wasn’t working. Nobody wants to get into a boat with a creepy old man, you know? Especially not kids. Apparently, I was ‘scary.’”

The man lifted his hands in the ‘quotes’ gesture.

“Profit margins were falling and the customer surveys reflected an overall poor consumer experience, so I decided to change everything,” he explained. “You know, get hip with the younger generation. Provide the luxury experience that the modern world demands. For a reasonable fee.”

“I see,” he said. “Good job?”

He hadn’t meant it as a question. But apparently it was enough for the old man to keep going.

“Between you and me,” he said. “The rebranding has made my life a whole lot better. I mean, rowing people in a boat all day isn’t exactly fun, you know? It was murder on my back. And I’m not exactly young anymore.”

“Ah, well. Good for you.”

“It’s more than good,” the old man said. “It’s awesome. Rowing people in a boat all day is boring. Now? I have cable. And Netflix. Have you heard of Netflix? It’s a Godsend. I mean, I just started watching Orange is the New Black. I don’t know how I’ve lived without it all these years. Well, not lived, exactly, but you know.”

“Ah. Good for you.”

He wasn’t sure. That sounded like a reasonable thing to say. What were you supposed to say when talking to the ferryman of the dead?

“So how about it, kid?” the old man asked. “You in? I can have the paperwork filled out in a jiffy.”

“I… umm…. Here’s the thing,” he said. “Is that I really only came down here to get my sheep… And I’m not dead. At least I don’t think I’m dead?”

He really hadn’t meant that one as a question either.

The old man gave him a hard look up and down, frowning slightly. He gave a small sigh and a shrug of the shoulders.

“You’re right,” the old man agreed. “You’re not dead. But that’s really just a formality. I mean, I’m totally willing to looking the other way on that, if you’d like to see what the land of the dead looks like. And, for a nominal fee, I’ll even look the other way on the sheep.”

Silence hung between them for a moment.

“How you get back, of course…. Is your concern.”

This last was stated quietly, almost a whisper.

“Thanks for the offer,” he said. “But really…. I gotta go. I just came down here to get my sheep and I … it’s really time I should be leaving.”

He made a show of looking down at his wrist, which was pretty unnecessary, he realized, as he wasn’t actually wearing a watch.

“You sure?”

“Yes. I’m sure,” he answered. “Now… if you could just….”

He nodded meaningfully at Jolene, still sitting patiently on deck, ready to go on the trip of no return.

“Fine,” the old man said, giving her one last stroke.

Lazily, he lowered a gangplank and guided the sheep onto it.

“It’s really your loss, you know,” he added, watching the fluffball scoot slowly back towards Josh. “We have HBO and Showtime. And when they were installing the cable, they made a mistake, so we get the pay-per-view stuff for free.”

The old man shook his head, slightly disappointed.

“You’re totally missing out,” he finished.

“Thanks,” Josh said. “But no thanks.”

He began shoving Jolene back up the way she came, hurrying her up to the entrance of the cave, as much as a sheep can be hurried, which is, after all, not very much. Which is why he heard the ferryman’s last words loud and clear.

“Thanks for stopping by,” he said. “See you soon.”

Josh turned around to glare at him, only to find nothing there… Just black water lapping at a dirty brown shore in the gray gloom. A shiver crawled down his spine, in spite of the warmth of the day. He shook his head, fighting off the dull grayness of the space, trying to shake off the gloom and the fog filling his mind.

Finally, he pushed the stupid sheep out of the cave and into the woods, following her out into the real world.

Writing Prompt:

Hell Yacht Sheep

Writing Prompt Courtesy of:

http://writingexercises.co.uk/take-three-nouns.php

Image Courtesy of:

Me. I took this one.

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June 18, 2015

The shadow that loomed across his desk was definitely unwelcome, if not unexpected, exactly.

“What now?” he muttered to himself.

The fifth interruption in less than thirty minutes did not bode well for his deadline.

“What was that?”

His boss was not a tall man, but you don’t have to be particularly tall to cast a shadow on the crappy particleboard desk.

“Nothing.” Reluctantly, he spun the wheeled chair around to face his interrupter. “What’s up?”

The slightly wrinkled khakis and white button-down shirt were familiar, as were the glasses and the admittedly admirable mustache … the bouquet of flowers and card, however, were unexpected.

“Those for me?”

The mustache quirked down in frowning disapproval.

“Of course not,” he said. “They’re for Sarah in accounting. Sign the card and pass it on.”

The man unceremoniously dumped the card and flowers on the desk, a good deal less gently than flowers deserve and fled back to his cave of an office.

Oh. Sarah. That’s right, he realized. An office-wide email had mentioned she’d had a death in her family last week, hadn’t it? Had it been Sarah? He couldn’t quite remember.

He shook his head, as if physically joggling his brain would make the necessary details float to the surface. Not bothering to read the other notes, he opened the card and scribbled on some available white space.

People always wrote the same thing on these cards anyway… why bother reading it?

My deepest condolences. So sorry for your loss.

Jim

It wasn’t poetry, but it would do, he supposed, sliding the card back into the envelope and shunting it onto the next desk over.

The colorful envelope and card were long forgotten by the time five o’clock rolled around. Deadlines have a tendency to turn brains into mush, and this one was no exception. By the time a head popped up over the partition between cubicles, he was almost ready to face-plant onto the desk.

“You coming, man?”

Steve had a tendency to begin conversations as if they were already in the middle of one.

“Coming to what?”

“The bar.”

“What?”

Getting answers out of this guy was damn near impossible.

“A bunch of us are getting together for a few drinks for Sarah’s birthday,” he shrugged, as if this information was already common knowledge. “See you there, maybe?”

The head disappeared over the cubicle as quickly as it had appeared. How did that guy have so much energy at the end of the day? He was like a rabbit on steroids.

Then he felt the blood drain from his face.

Sarah.

Birthday.

Shit.

The note he’d left came back to him.

Double shit.

He found himself on his feet before he remembered making the decision to get up. The traitorous feet were taking him down the hallway to Sarah’s cubicle. He didn’t know what he was going to say… but he had to say something, right?

Somehow, miracle of miracles, he rounded the corner without crashing into her, as she stood there, gathering her things and getting ready to go.

“Sarah?”

He sounded out of breath. How had he possibly gotten out of breath from walking down the hall? He hadn’t meant her name to come out as a question, but it had.

“Yes?”

He should’ve thought this out better. Actually, he should’ve thought this out, period. It’s a lot harder to tell someone you’ve messed up when they’re looking directly at you. And it’s especially harder when that someone has long dark hair and bright blue eyes and is smiling at you.

“I just….. Happy Birthday,” he said, lamely.

“Thank you.”

“I just wanted to…. Umm…. Talk to you about your card.”

“My birthday card? Thanks for that, by the way. It was really sweet of you guys.”

Ok. Now the hard part.

“I … just wanted to say I’m sorry, for what I wrote.”

She quirked an eyebrow.

“So… you don’t wish me a happy birthday, after all?”

He felt himself turning bright red.

“No, of course I do… It’s just that I … didn’t mean what I wrote.”

“I see,” she said.

“I actually haven’t read the card yet,” she admitted with a small shrug. “So I haven’t read the horrible, terribly mean thing you wrote.”

Now he was in the odd position of having to defend himself.

“It wasn’t terribly, horribly mean….”

“It wasn’t?

“It wasn’t,” he confirmed. “And I didn’t mean to write it so…”

“You didn’t mean to write it?” she asked. “Were you signing my birthday card under duress? Someone was forcing you to write it?”

“I …” he felt himself turning a deeper shade of red, but forced himself to mumble the words anyway. “I had thought it was a condolence card.”

This got a laugh.

“I see,” she said.

She cast him a fake-somber look.

“So you offered me your deepest condolences on turning 30?”

“Yes,” he said, managing a smile back. “I suppose I did.”

“Well,” she said. “I accept your condolences.”

“Thank you?”

He hadn’t meant that to come out as a question either.

“There is a way you can make it up to me.”

“Yeah?”

“Come have a drink with us,” she said. “The place isn’t far. You can buy me a condolence martini.”

He was prepared to mutter something about being busy, or having an urgent deadline. Instead, he just said yes.

Sometimes, deadlines can wait. And sometimes life is all the better for having missed them.

Writing Prompt:

(write for) 10 minutes * miscommunication * bouquet of flowers

Writing Prompt Courtesy of:

http://panthermoon.com/generators/generator2.php

Image Courtesy of:

http://www.morguefile.com/

June 16, 2015

Things can always get worse.

This is what she told herself as she slowly opened the car door and stepped onto the wet pavement, trying to balance on wobbly feet. Damn, those heels hurt.

She leaned against the car door, standing on one foot and circling first one ankle and then the other. It didn’t help. Her feet still screamed for relief after the long day. She’d worn them with parent-teacher conferences in mind. She’d hoped to look a little more authoritative – more put-together – as she faced a steady stream of parents, each convinced that their child was a genius who could do no wrong.

The fact that little Johnnie consistently shoves all of the other kids when they get ‘in his way’ – well, that must be the other kids fault. Sigh.

And now her feet throbbed.

The parking lot looked dark and forbidding, broken glass scattered across the pavement, shimmering weakly under the dim light of a single streetlamp.

This was not her ideal hangout spot. The bar itself was dim. It looked dirty. Not the kind of place she’d ever go into, especially given the rather intimidating row of Harleys parked out front and the unfamiliar, pounding rock music blaring out from its dingy depths.

But it wasn’t as though she’d had a choice.

After several exhausting hours of parent-teacher meetings, she’d hauled her tired bones into her car… which had gone a few miles before smoke started billowing out from under the hood. She was guessing the acrid smell that filled the cabin wasn’t a good sign either.

And this place, luckily or not, was the only thing still open. She’d barely swiveled her smoking vehicle into the parking lot…. Only to discover that her cell phone, fully charged that morning, was now dead, and only really useful as a tiny doorstop.

Things can always get worse, she repeated to herself again, as she wobbled her way through the door. The sour smell of stale beer and sweat hit her in the face as she moved to the bar, resting her hands gingerly against the sticky leatherette edging. She supposed it was once burgundy. Now it was so cracked and discolored it was hard to tell.

She fought the urge to take her hands off of it and tried to remember if she had hand sanitizer in her purse. Carefully, she clambered onto a barstool and looked around for the bartender.

She supposed she should be grateful it wasn’t a busy night. The place was half empty, with a few guys hanging around the booths in the back, and another handful playing pool. The bartender, young-looking and not nearly as intimidating as half of his patrons, stood polishing glasses at the other end of the bar. Not that the polishing would do them much good, necessarily. But it was something to do.

Focusing her gaze on the worn, scratched counter, she gathered her courage to speak.

“I’m sorry… Can I…?”

The first two words had barely left her mouth as she looked up to find a bottle barreling down the counter at her. Automatically, she reached out and stopped it with the flat of her palm. The glass was cool against her hand.

She looked up at the bartender, now ambling towards her. There was no other way to put it. Some guys just amble.

“What’s this?” she asked, feeling a little stupid for having asked it.

“It’s a beer,” he said, with a calm grin. “You’ve never had a beer before?”

“I know it’s a beer,” she said, meeting his calm, blue-eyed gaze. “But …. Why?”

“Because you look like someone who needs a drink.”

Writing Prompt: 250-300 words * A Teacher * a run-down bar at the edge of town

Writing Prompt Courtesy of: http://panthermoon.com/generators/generator5.php

Image Courtesy of: http://www.morguefile.com/