From the Archives – “Dig” from 2009

The biggest problem with this story is that the ending is far too abrupt. There’s no clue whatsoever what happened between these two to lead to this ending. That said, I do like some of the descriptions, and I think the dialogue between the two characters flows well.

Warning: There is some violence in the text below.

“I’ve never done this before.” Freddie dropped another shovelful of top soil into the grave.

“Yeah, I’m a pro.” Jason retorted as he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Talk to me like I’m stupid. I just thought you seemed calmer about it than me.” Blood dripped viscously down the handle of Freddie’s shovel as he propped it up in the dirt, leaning on it.

Jason let out a derisive laugh and patted the dirt smooth. “If you’re going to freak out then I need to be the calm one.” He rolled his shoulders back with a grunt and stood up straight. “We better hurry up, sun’s almost up. Got at least half a dozen more.”

“Do you really think this will work?” A fetid smell settled at the tree line, where both men stood beside a burgundy pickup. “Burying them. No one will find out, right?”

A soft scratching sound issued from the bed of the truck. He smiled to his brother and stepped closer, peering over the edge. “Must have just been a field mouse or something. Don’t worry. No one will find out.”

“You’re a good brother, Jason.” Freddie yanked his shovel out of the dirt. His arm swung in a tight arc. The metal spade bounced off of Jason’s head and sounded like a cracked bell. “I always hated admitting you were right because you were smarter than me.”

Jason crumpled beside the truck. His left arm twitched.

Freddie dropped his shovel. “Until tonight.” He grabbed Jason’s shoulders and spread him out. Balancing with his arms out to each side, he carefully paced out Jason’s height. Retrieving his shovel, Freddie began to dig a new hole, five feet and eight inches long.

From the Archives: “Crying Over Spilt Milk” – June 2009

What I like about it: There are vivid, sensory descriptions.

What I would change about it, these nine years later:

  • The ending sentences don’t make sense to me anymore. I’m not sure what I was going for with the bad grades comment–there’s nothing before that to support it.
  • I’d nix the whole “wake from a dream” ending, in fact. It’s cliché, but I didn’t know that back in 2009, I guess.
  • There are too many adverbs.
  • Jake is obviously a sadist. He keeps zombies locked up to feed on unsuspecting students he kidnaps. Of course, he doesn’t actually exist, so maybe Ryan is the sadist since he imagined Jake–but there’s not a lot here to tell the reader about who Ryan really is.
  • Ryan needs a more emotional response; he doesn’t even cry, which makes the title nonsense. I’m guessing he was trying to hitchhike to run away from a poor performance in school–maybe that’s where the bad grades comment came from–but if that’s the case, I would flesh out his motivation(s) more.

Warning: The text below contains some gory details.

Jake Hanley glanced toward the passenger seat of his 1984 Toyota Camry, where a gallon of reduced-fat milk was sweating against the worn leather.  Jake was sweating too.  Though his window was open, his face was red and his shoulder-length hair stuck to his neck.  A seatbelt stretched through the jug’s plastic handle, to the fastening clip, holding the milk in place.

“Shouldn’t be too much longer,” he told the milk drawlingly, nodding with widened eyes and an even wider smile.  Jake’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, his right foot pressing down on the accelerator until the car’s odometer read eighty-seven miles per hour.  The steering wheel shook in Jake’s white-knuckled hands, and even the windshield wipers seemed to bounce in protest.

Jake, the milk and his Camry were only twenty feet from the stop line beneath the red light when Jake pushed both of his feet against the brake pedal.  The brakes squealed and the car seized, leaving rubbery trails along the asphalt.

“There, now is time, my lil’ one.”  He unbuckled the seatbelt around the gallon of milk, hoisting it toward him.  Jake’s tongue traced the outline of his parched lips as he peeled the plastic cap off and raised the jug, taking long gulps.  Some of the milk never made its way past Jake’s lips; instead it trailed along his neck, soaking into his uneven beard, to be stopped only by the plaid collar of his flannel shirt.

Without bothering to replace its cap, Jake tossed the half-emptied gallon behind his seat.  The small glub-bubble sound of the leaking milk was audible only until Ryan Thomas woke as the cold milk flooded around his ankles, his muffled screams filling the modest cabin.

“Hitchhikin’s illegal in these parts, didn’t you know, boy?”  Jake peered in the rear view mirror.  “Ah well, you’ll do I s’pose, a bit on the skinny side but you’ll do.  Shouldn’t be too much longer.” 

Ryan screamed again, tears mixing with the blood that stained the right side of his clean-shaven face.  His body rested against the back of the seats as Jake continued driving.  Ryan glanced toward the milk, his nose crinkling at the smell and sight of the turning curds.  He’d been seat-belted in, just like the milk had been, except it took both seatbelts to hold him across the breadth of the backseat.

A frantic glance revealed to Ryan that the door handles in the backseat had been removed, leaving nothing behind.  He lifted his milk-soaked legs to kick at the opposite door, but it wouldn’t budge.

“No use fightin’, boy.  Not gonna save you from ‘em, and mind you, they’re hungry!”  Jake’s laugh was coarse and cacophonous, overpowering Ryan’s muffled screams.  Jake turned the car left, not bothering to break or signal his turn onto the unpaved, single-lane road.

“Shouldn’t be too much longer,” he repeated, continuing straight along the road until he pulled over in front of a lopsided garage beside a rusty trailer.  Jake unbuckled his own seat belt and turned around to face Ryan.  “Hitchhikin’s illegal in these parts,” he reiterated before offering Ryan a smirk as he turned and slipped out of the front seat.  The car bonged like a steady heartbeat; the keys were still in the ignition.

Jake hummed as he opened the other doors of the car, leaving Ryan in the backseat, seatbelts still fastened.  Jake gathered Ryan’s belongings out of the trunk and started toward the trailer.  Ryan thrashed inside the backseat, throwing himself as close to the door as possible.  He tried to scream again, but his cries barely reached Jake’s ears as soon as Jake had entered his trailer and locked the door. 

A loud buzzing overtook the car’s bonging and Ryan’s screams as the garage door opened, lifting up to reveal seven people.  With broken limbs and hanging skin they slowly moved out of the garage.  One of them turned milky white eyes toward Ryan and released a pitiful moan that caught the attention of the others.

The ghouls approached the car with uncommon speed, and Ryan clenched his eyelids shut.  The last thing he felt before he opened them again was a sharp pain in his left ankle.

“Shouldn’t be too much longer,” a gentle voice chimed nearby.  Ryan looked toward his ankle where two people crouched over him, a man and a woman, both with shining dark hair.  The woman’s deep brown eyes locked onto Ryan, who was coated in a fine sheen.  “You alright, kid?  Did you pass out?”

Ryan shrugged and pulled back from them both.  “Who are you?”

“You were trying to hitch a ride, and you fell just as we were driving by.  You twisted your ankle but we had an ace bandage on board, so you’ll be fine.”

Ryan looked toward the road where their Ford Explorer was pulled over, all four blinkers flashing.  Cars passed by at breakneck speeds along the double-lane highway.

“Do you need a ride somewhere?” the man asked, frowning as Ryan backed away even further.

Ryan shook his head fervently.  “No,” he answered quickly, “Hitchhiking is illegal here.” 

Ryan pushed himself to his feet and ran toward the woods, back onto the trail that led toward home.  Bad grades weren’t worth becoming zombie food…but then again, maybe his mother was right…maybe he did watch too many horror movies.

Fun fact: I remember driving up next to someone at an intersection and glancing at their car only to see them guzzle from a gallon of milk on a hot summer day. Now, all I can think about is this:

 

 

From the Archives: A Fragment-From July 21, 2015

Sometimes I look into older work and discover that I never finished it. Sometimes I never even finished a sentence. This can happen when I’m working on a story or a way of telling a story and I know at some point that I’m just not happy with how it’s going or where it’s going. If memory serves, that happened here.

Kara’s purse swung on her arm too freely, as if filled with feathers. She stopped short, just inside the revolving door; an angry school of people swam around her, spilling into the wide, marble hallway leading to the terminal. She fished her hand into her bag, stabbing into silk pockets. “Oh no,” she whispered to no one. Her tongue darted out to clear the fine sweat on her upper lip. “Oh no,” Kara repeated, stalking over to the wall to dig into her purse again. Her keys scratched her manicure. She flipped through credit cards and old, tattered Metrocards.

“Where is it?” she cried. A few passersby turned their faces toward her, eyes wide, mouths agape, before they walked faster to escape her distress. “Where is my phone?” Kara knelt down. A cold, dull pain radiated through her stockings. Overturning her purse, she corralled lipsticks, pens, and quarters that rolled in all directions. She held her empty bag up over her head, peering into its dark, empty corners.

Beneath her, she felt the telltale rumble of trains accelerating hundreds of people to work. Without her phone, she couldn’t even guess how late she’d be. Kara swept her belongings back into her purse and pushed herself to her feet. A man in a tailored suit paused before her, lips quirked to one side. “Don’t trouble yourself; I’m fine,” she lied. The man shrugged and walked away. Kara wasn’t fine. Her whole life was on that phone.

She started toward the doors, even though she knew that the cab would be gone. Now she could picture it clearly, lighting up with a new email on the cracked leather seat of the yellow cab. Kara stopped at the door and peered outside. A light mist showered the glass–a disgruntled line of travelers, commuters, and shoppers waited on the sidewalk for cabs, huddling under black umbrellas that shed the rain and waterlogged newspapers. Beyond them, the line of taxis slowly inched alongside the curb. Kara was certain hers was gone by now. Who would find her phone? Would someone steal it, or turn it in?

She turned from the door, from the people, from the waiting cabs, and, adjusting her purse on one shoulder, tugged her blazer into place and marched forward, the click-clack of her heels falling into rhythm with the others. She passed stores and bagel stands before the great hall of the terminal opened up before her. The four-faced clock in the center read thirty-seven minutes past eight. By the time she got to her train on the other side of the terminal, she’d have to wait for the 9:02, which meant she’d be at least half an hour late for work. Her shoulders drooped with a sigh–her purse slipped off of her shoulder, catching at her elbow, and swaying into another woman.

“Excuse you,” the woman chided.

Kara glowered. “Sorry,” she replied automatically. Everyone bumped into everyone else here–it was nothing to get upset about.

“You hit me with your bag.” The woman snapped, standing like a tourist in the middle of the street to snap a picture of yet another skyscraper.

“And I said I was sorry,” Kara called over her shoulder. She didn’t even look back–the last thing she needed this morning was to get in a fight with some strange woman who didn’t understand that the city was crowded. She wove through people, dodging elbows,

This is actually where the snippet I have ends. I don’t remember what was going to come next after she dodged all those elbows.

From the Archives: “Moving Out” – Written June 4, 2009

What follows is a snippet I wrote in the past. Looking at it now, I can see many things I’d do differently, not the least of which is reducing the number of exclamation points and gerunds. It doesn’t make sense to me now that the narrator would leave someone else in her apartment when moving out. I’d fix the verb tense shifts–either I’d make everything the same verb tense or break the text out in sections and build it up so those shifts are less jarring. I’d cut the boring part about claiming luggage. I’d fix consistency issues, like where the narrator doesn’t feel jet lagged but then complains to her friend about it a moment later. I’d also go into more depth about the narrator’s motivations, and find some ways to show interiority instead of just having the narrator ask herself a bunch of questions. These are just the changes I’d make at first glance, seven years later.

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            “You can’t just up and leave!  How can you just move your whole life over an ocean?”

            I just wanted to leave the room for now.  I could feel my eyes sting, that familiar sting of tears that I knew I couldn’t stop.  Somehow, I felt as though I owed him some semblance of an explanation.  “I cannot stay here and wait for you to make a decision you’ll never make!  And even if you make it, it’ll always be just what you settled for!”

            “How can you say that to me?  Have I not already made my decision by coming here tonight?”

            “Too late.  You’re too late.  My flight leaves in three hours…I’ve got to go.  Come and visit in Scotland if you like but I’m not staying here another moment.”

            I never thought I would remember any particular sound so well as I remember the brash slamming of the door as I left my apartment that night, as I left him there that night…someone I might have changed my life for.  I thought I had learned, finally, how to do what I needed to do when I needed to do it.

            How did I get into this mess?  Was poor timing to blame or have I become so cynical and untrusting that I can’t even recognize true sacrifice anymore?  Long flights during which thoughts can spin out of control are never good immediately following an argument.  I’ve always been the sensible type.  Never one to start trouble, always willing to just…keep my thoughts to myself.  I was scared of how exhilarating it had been to shout the truth at someone I truly cared about.

            Yes, cared about.  Well, okay, still care about, but not in the way I once did.  I had to stop…when I heard he’d never get over his ex, I knew that I could not allow myself to be hung up on caring for him anymore.  I’ve always looked toward the happiness of others…and I looked toward my own needs.  It felt dangerously good.

            So why do I want to call him?  I know that it’s only the time difference that’s stopping me.  He’ll be asleep right now, I’m sure. 

 

            I hate waiting for luggage.  Just standing there, watching the belt turn, and others rushing past to poke through suitcases and find their own.  I always wait until the end…I see my luggage as soon as it passes but I always wait; I let everyone rush in for their own pieces first.  I don’t like confrontation…I don’t like fighting to get there first; it reminds me of rock concerts when everyone is drunk and eagerly pushing closer to the stage just to be only six feet away from an average human that they’ve elevated to a state of celebrity.

            I wait until there’s no one left waiting.  I see my luggage come around the turn and I step forward.  I lift it from the belt and turn; no one is waiting for me here, but I know my best friend is just past the next set of doors, where we arranged to meet.  Only the push of a button is necessary to lift the handle that allows me to pull my suitcase behind me.  A smirk crosses my lips as I wonder…why can’t all things be so flawlessly simple?

            I don’t yet feel the inevitable jet lag, but can’t suppress the yawn as I start walking.  I need fresh air, fresh, cold air.  I know it will be cold outside and I haven’t even put on my coat.  It’s resting, draped over my arm.  The airplane’s cabin air was stale and dry.  And I need to clear my head.

            I haven’t seen my best friend in months.  Not since she left the United States to start a new life in Europe.  We planned for this, but I do wish I could have joined her sooner. 

            “How was your flight?”

            “Long.”  I let my luggage slide into the trunk of the taxi before walking around the bumper to climb into the backseat.  “Tiring…I think I’ll need to sleep in tomorrow.  Today…I hate jet-lag.”  I click my seatbelt into place and smile.  “Thanks for meeting me.  I’m glad to be here but I don’t think…well, it’s easier having a friendly face to greet, isn’t it?”  I am in transit once more as the car starts to roll into drive.

            “Did you only bring one suitcase?  I thought you were bringing two for now.”

            “Yeah…I packed two, but left in a…hurry.  I’ll buy some clothes in a day or so…hang on, I told my mom I’d send her an email when I arrived.”  As I wait for my phone to turn on, I surrender to another yawn, even as my phone buzzed in my hand.  “Oh no…”

            “What is it?”

            There, on the home screen of my phone, read, “I’ll be in Scotland tomorrow.  Pick me up from the airport?”  It was from him.  And I doubted he was planning to bring me my left-behind suitcase.

The “From the Archives” series involves looking at old writing I did and examining how I would improve it with my current knowledge. This skill is worth honing for all writers.