A collection of authors share amongst themselves a first line. Where the story wanders however, is entirely up to them….
The Devil’s Fingers by Chris Thompson
Tags by Michael Bradford
Jettison by Douglas Grant
Assailant by Tom Rau
The Secrets We Keep by Heather Fawn
The Backup Plan by Michael Shields
The Devil’s Fingers by: Chris Thompson
They wandered the coast for days, seeking signs of the assailant. There were three of them, always traveling single file, and they had with them a Tracker, of that much Marco was sure…
“What’s a Tracker Papa?”
“Now Niko, you keep interrupting me and we are never going to get to the end of this tale. I’m sure that if you wait, the story will tell us exactly what a Tracker is.”
“I know Papa. I know. It’s just that I’m so impatient, I wanna know the answer right away. These old books aren’t like the holo-films, they take such a long time to get to the point.”
“True, but you must be patient my son. Books are different because they allow you to use your imagination. To be creative and to let the story expand into the corners of your mind. As for films, well, they are just one person’s version of the story. One fellas interpretation of how a character or setting should feel. Reading a book, however, is more intimate, more personal, because it solely exists within the fathoms of your mind.”
“Well, in my mind then, Marco is seven feet tall and has brown hair that falls into his eyes just like yours dad.”
“He can look and act however you want him to, the story only provides a framework for the character. In your imagination is where Marco truly lives. Now shall we read on and find out what exactly this Tracker is?”
“Yes, Papa. Please do….and I’ll try not to interrupt.”
“Okay then, now where was I? Oh yes…”
…There were three of them, always traveling single file and they had with them a Tracker, of that much Marco was sure. From time to time he would hear its rotors buzz as it rocketed up into the sky and scanned the surrounding lands, its great mechanical eye searching out for the infinitesimal signatures that would betray Marco’s whereabouts. A sloughed off skin cell, an errant hair, the casual exhale of a breath. To the Tracker’s supersensitive glare these were red flags, definitive signs of Marco’s existence. When weighed against the backdrop of these barren, tortured lands, they were a roadmap to his whereabouts. Whispering a silent prayer for the hundredth time, Marco hoped that the Tracker would not be able to find him. Not yet. Not before he was able to finish what countless others before him had tried and failed to do. There was just too much at stake.
Marco’s presence on the restive surface of this planet was deliberate. He had an agenda, a mandate passed down to him from his ancestors, and surviving to see it through was his inheritance. His entrance into The Cull was his birthright. His gift to those who came before him as a thank-you for their sacrifice. If he survived long enough the payout would be immense. Comfort. Riches. An assured place in the upper echelons of society. But above all else, he would be accepted into the Chosen Few. The ranks of individuals who had stared down these barren lands and survived. To achieve this grandeur, all he had to do was risk the greatest thing that all living creatures possessed, their life. But Marco took comfort in knowing that he was born for this task. He would survive. And when he did a new future for his descendants would await.
The Cull had been going on for as long as anyone could remember. Ever since the sun had exhausted its fiery warmth, reducing its essence to a dull-red cinder. The lessening of its warmth had laid waste to the planet and forced the people to burrow deep underground to survive. Resources were few and competition was fierce within those cavernous halls, and there was never enough of anything to go around. So the Great Council created The Cull in hopes of reducing this strain. Like a stopcock on a pressure valve, The Cull was a societal release for the people’s anxieties, their fears, and the Chosen Few were created to give them hope. To inspire them to believe that their lives held worth, that their existence was no longer held in vain. Anyone could enter into The Cull and if you survived, the remainder of your life would be written out in comfort and ease.
As Marco gazed down at the trio of Hunters searching for his trail, he reflected on what it had taken to arrive at this place. His ancestors had been hard at work for generations, carefully selecting breeding partners from within the teeming masses of huddled people. Thier goal was simple, produce an offspring with the proper set of characteristics suited for surviving The Cull. And now, hundreds of years later, Marco found himself realizing that goal, the living embodiment of its scruples. He would bring honor to the Apollon name and by doing so pay his respects to all those who had come before him. Marco was not bred to disappoint and so like he had been trained, he steeled his nerve, removed emotion from his reason, and returned to the task at hand. It was a simple cost-benefit analysis to survive this game. If he wanted to make it, to get off the surface of this godforsaken sauna he merely had to outlive the individuals who were chasing him. Trade their lives for the survival of his. But this trio of Hunters were determined. They were veterans of The Cull and they had in their possession a colossal advantage, the flying bloodhound with its red, unblinking eye. The Tracker.
It had been three days since the Tracker had first found Marco’s trail and so far the Hunters had showed no sign of relenting. They were elite. Hand-picked from previous winners of The Cull. Adrenaline types who had become restless and bored with the spoils and riches heaped upon The Chosen Few. And even though Marco’s maneuvers since first being discovered had paid off, he knew that death came quickly in a place like this. That it was only a matter of time before he, and the Hunters following him, ultimately came face to face.
As he looked down again from his vantage point high-up upon a razor-thin ridge, Marco took in the sweeping vista spread out far below. Blue and ochre-colored pillars thrust themselves up into the sky everywhere he looked, their wide bases wrapped in billowing clouds of sulphur-tinged steam. Great heaving glooms that churned up from the cracks in the dry, ragged land. This was once an idyllic place, full of warm seas and tropical lands. But the shrinking of the sun had changed all that. Now it was nothing more than a smouldering plain of fire and smoke. A rocky, barren land choking on its own gaseous ruin. Yet even here, to Marco’s fascination, there still existed life. He watched as strange flying creatures, like rocks with membranous wings, soared up and down on the warm currents of air. They were called Janko’s, and to The Chosen Few they were considered an omen of good luck. Lost in a moment, Marco watched in fascination as they fed repeatedly on the elemental gases pouring forth from the tortured earth. Up and down they swooped, following the thin tendrils of noxious fumes. Marco recalled from an ancient map he had memorized, one aspect of his life-long preparation for The Cull, that these lands were in a region called Karta-te, a word in the Old Dialect that meant “The Devils Fingers” and as he took in the fuming vista of broken land Marco considered it a fitting name…
“Oooo, The Devils Fingers. I like that Papa. It’s scary. And Janko’s, boy do they sound odd.”
“Yes, yes they certainly are. Shall I stop here or do you want to go on? It’s getting late and I can see it in your eyes that you are getting tired.”
“No, no Papa! I’m not tired. The story is just picking up speed. You’re right, I can see it all in my mind. The smoke. The stone fingers pointing up into the blood-red sky. They are like melted candles in my mind and each pillar is topped with a blue, flickering flame.”
“Okay…well, I’ll read on for a little bit more if you promise to stay awake.”
“I will Papa. I promise. Do you think that Marco will survive?”
“Perhaps Niko, perhaps. Now lay back and relax…”
…Marco eased himself back from the edge of the ridge. He had lost sight of the Hunters in the low-lying clouds and was anxious to get off the cliff. As he turned to make his descent, sliding down the loose, pumiced rubble on tattered hands and knees, Marco first heard, then saw, the Tracker rocket up into the sky. Its battered, metal frame burst forth from a thick blanket of smog like a fist punched through a strong current of water. Its sudden presence caught Marco by surprise and it caused him to instantly freeze as he struggled to choke back an exhaled breath. So focused was he on the Hunter’s pursuit that Marco hadn’t noticed the Tracker get close. He could almost smell the exhaust as its four rotors buzzed in the thick, choking air, darting the machine back and forth as it struggled to steady itself on the shifting breeze. The Tracker’s great red eye swung wildly around its axis, searching out the lands far below. It was unaware of Marco’s whereabouts but he knew that at any moment it could again pick up his scent. He was on the backside of the pillar, downwind from the Tracker’s probing glare. But he needed to act quickly if he was going to escape without being found. Swiftly jumping to his feet, Marco threw himself over the edge of the rock and began a frenzied descent down the side of the jagged pillar he had climbed. As he lowered himself frantically hand over fist, his left foot dislodged a large section of crumbling rock. Down to the valley floor it fell, colliding with and dislodging several additional boulders on its long, tortuous path down.
Instantly the Trackers great eye alighted upon the sources of the sound. Quickly it analyzed every aspect of its surroundings, weighing out all possibilities for the origins of the clamour. It measured wind-speed and moisture, barometric pressure and temperature. It compared a recording of the falling stone’s sound against a pre-recorded database in its mechanical mind. It sampled the atmosphere, sniffing out the tell-tale signs of Marco’s presence and above all else, it signalled to the Hunters, relaying to them its position and updating them on what it had found.
Marco froze himself to the side of the pillar, making himself rigid and unmoving so as to not be detected. He fell back into his training, lowering his heart-rate by mental acumen alone. He imagined himself as just another rock, another immutable object surround by his brethren of stone. In his mind he prayed again to the spirits of his ancestors, pleading for their guidance, for their steadying hand, and asking above all else that he would not be found. No sooner could he finish his thought then he heard the Tracker emit a plaintive, mechanical howl. It was The Sound. The sound that signalled to its masters that it had found their prey. Turning his head to look over his shoulder Marco watched as the Tracker drifted down to hover before him, its great red eye reflecting the fear in Marco’s face. At once he threw himself down the side of the pillar, more falling than climbing. Moving as fast as he could, dodging in and out of the often choking clouds of gas, desperate to put as much distance between himself, the Hunters and their terrible, wicked machine…
“Niko…Niiii-ko? Are you awake?”
“Really? Because I just heard you snore.”
“Let’s go to bed son. We’ll pick-up where we left off tomorrow night and then we’ll see if Marco can survive.”
“Ok Papa, you’re right. I’m very tired….goodnight.”
The Father rose gracefully from an ornately-carved chair besides his son’s enormous bed. He handled the book gingerly, running an index finger over its leather-bound spine, and placed the tome carefully back upon its shelf. Leaning over his sleeping son he lovingly tucked the fine, silken covers around his form, kissing him softly upon the warm skin of his cheek. Walking towards the bedroom door, his golden robes flowing with ripples of light, The Father gazed out the bedrooms wide, curving window, out upon the dazzling splendor of the surrounding structures. Intricately carved statues of marble and gold adorned their facades. Their roofs were soaring domes encrusted in gems and light. Their walls were glowing sheets of silver and platinum. There were sidewalks paved in copper and avenues laid in gold. Everywhere The Father looked there was elegance and riches. Sometimes, The Father thought, all this extravagance was painful to behold, to dizzying to comprehend. But that thought only existed for a moment, a fragment of his former self clamoring to be heard.
Closing the door to his son’s bedroom, The Father walked slowly down the hall, lost in the deepness of his thoughts. Hung on the walls as he passed were abstract pieces of art. Great, surrealist investigations that reminded The Father of his past. There were paintings that suggested suffering and of struggles experienced en masse. There were paintings that conveyed victory and triumph against long odds. There were paintings that resembled strange creatures and devices made of steel. The Father was fond of this collection, and taken in full he considered them an allegory of his life.
Entering his own master bedroom, The Father hung his robe upon a jewel-encrusted hook. He gazed upon his wife as she slept peacefully in their bed. Watched as the satin sheets shimmered in rhythm to the rise and fall of her breath. He drifted over to a series of long, curving shelves flush with an impressive collection of relics and souvenirs. Reaching up his long, bronzed arms, The Father pulled down an object that was dull and out of place among the tokens of splendor. It was a Tracker, its mechanics long since dormant and dark. As The Father beheld the machine, his long fingers caressed the curves of its dented, weathered sides. The Father walked over to the mirror and took in his reflection, still holding the Tracker delicately in his hand. At seven feet tall he was a giant amongst the people of this land and with his long brown hair and rippling musculature, he stood out amongst the cowering survivors of the dying sun. Raising his hand to his breast, The Father ran his fingers across the bold, black letters tattooed across his chest, mouthing the words silently as he read:
Marcus “Marco” Apollon, 129th Victor of The Cull
Legion of The Chosen Few
Tags by: Michael Bradford
They wandered the coast for days seeking signs of the assailant. The boys fresh off unloading their big season haul were back in the water without so much as a beer at the pier. Everyone knew they had a much better chance by boat, but this had been an all hands on deck deal from the jump off and not a soul walking the beach had breathed a word of throwing in the towel.
It was Day 8 since the lights went out.
Tall tales had slipped down south to the summer spots but with most of them boarded up ghost towns, the leftover locals – never really knowing Sue – couldn’t care less and few posted signs.
It was the freakishness of the thing that had a lot of those other folks talking, in hushed tones, about coroner’s reports, security cameras and ex boyfriends with felony assault charges. Not to mention all the other garbage that goes on in those types of sewing circles.
And every whisper that caught a gust strong enough to reach the north hamlet, brushed up a new itch on the small of the whole town’s back that they all knew they could scratch if they just tried a little harder. Reached a little further. Stayed at it a little longer.
Just months earlier, the biggest news in five counties was the success of the newest public green space – a tract for which, ironically, Sue was entirely responsible. Quietly, and behind the scenes, was not her style and she made sure the Governor had come to cut the ribbon and all the usual suspects sent representatives to hail the delightful progressiveness of it all. Those were happier days.
Then came the first strike. An eight year old boy from somewhere in Eastern Europe. His family was on their way to Disney World but had been held up due to the storms and even though they were champion swimmers, no lifeguard was called to help and no one even got his name. When it was evident he would live, the family was given a free limo to the airport within the hour.
The second was a town drunk and he was treated with less attention than the boy, despite repeating effectively what the Ukrainian translator later confirmed was the eight year old tourist’s only word after the attack– Mitkn – TAGS.
The third finally raised an eyebrow, if only half-a one. There was not a scratch on the supposed victim but with a father in a prominent seat at the local commissioners office, his report was at least given an inch and a half of ink in the Teepart Town Tribune. In the dismissive set up, the line item read “a thirty something disheveled and seemingly confused out of work glass blower claims to have been ‘circled and herded back to shore’ after swimming out past the safe zone towards the long abandoned Naval Radio Tower.”
A day later an even smaller blurb recanted the story after a “standard drug test” came back positive for psilocybin; the effects of which claimed to “often produce hallucinations of aliens, monsters and….sharks.”
And then there was Sue.
Ten years earlier, Sue had been a missionary in Eastern Uganda and after four years of outstanding service to her church and the local town as an English teacher was promptly deported after the US Embassy was informed that, aside from normal activities sanctioned by the UN, she had been conducting “alternative” sex ed classes in the English language.
She returned completely distraught and entirely beside herself with anger. The incumbent chief of state himself had apparently been involved in the final decision making process, and some say she spent many nights in the Teepart Tavern, stewing over what she deemed a fate best described as getting the business end of the superpowers’ shaft stick.
After an especially dark turn tethered by the Tavern taps, she finally shook it off and after making a few inquiries, found that the Old Naval Radio tower a mile off shore was set to go up for auction. Favoring spectacle over practicality, she made a formal parade of philanthropic grandstanding to raise the capital in order to publicly purchase the entire island, its administrative buildings and all its equipment, under the auspice of creating a marine research laboratory.
The Tavern locals claimed otherwise, and swore that Sue meant to use the whole set up as an outpost to broadcast the very same “questionable” sex education classes to the furthest reaches of the Third world. Considering the fact that the tower stood upwards in height of a Manhattan skyscraper, albeit in provincial contrast, it was a theory never debunked.
Despite her own enormous inheritance fully capable of the asking price, all efforts to purchase the behemoth military dinosaur were thwarted by “local” officials. While the government claimed the tower and surrounding buildings on the island remained defunct – and now suddenly too dangerous for re-appropriation – every night Sue made a trip to the beach and with her binoculars noticed “strange activity” all over Radio Isle.
Just what kind of “strange” changed with every rehashing.
Every night after her walk, she returned to town and drunkenly sounded off at the Teepart Tavern. And every night, Rodney the bartender let her go on and on for an hour with her theories but after five midori sours he would ask her, politely, to take it somewhere else, knowing full well there was no where else but home. He would have taken her home himself some nights but as her ex-boyfriend, they legally were not even supposed to be in the same room.
If there weren’t only five other regulars there every night, Rodney never would have even let her in. That’s what he told the cops anyway.
Truth was she tipped extremely well, and between him, the regulars and the lamppost- sometimes, on a weekday night at closing, he did take her home.
Eventually, Sue bought the Lighthouse in town to keep it from closing and moved in to the living quarters on the ground floor. That year she also built three schools, renovated the VFW and donated enough money to put in street lights on all the side streets in town, as well as snowplows for the winter. She built a park on the grounds around the lighthouse and then upon it’s opening, became a veritable shut in.
You could see her light on in the downstairs parlor and sometimes Rodney would make a drunkenly daring stagger down the long narrow pier to get there, and you could tell when he did because the parlor light would go out – briefly. Very briefly. But then on his equally treacherous walk back home, the light would snap back on and it would stay that way. Day and night.
Then one day Sue appeared at the Tavern, “like she was on fire – literally,” according to one of the more regular of the Regular 5. Rodney had the day off and so she left suddenly but then reappeared and made a big scene about finding “the man that made the rubber suits.”
Sue would find the local dive shop and while she was not certified, Cliff was well aware of what Sue had done for the town and he was not about to be the only business owner on the North Bay that did not show his appreciation. He sold her everything she needed for a week of underwater diving and before he could tell her it was half-off, she paid him double and left with a smile and a thank you.
One week later, the lights in Sue’s parlor began to go off and on a lot more frequently. And with Rodney at the Tavern six nights a week, there was a bit of chatter around the wharf.
And then one day the lights went off. And they stayed off. And after two days, Rodney broke in the parlor door and searched all the rooms only to find a single open diary with huge scrawling handwriting:
METAL DORSAL FIN
Jettison by: Douglas Grant
They wandered the coast for days seeking signs of the assailant. They were headed due south, relying on suspect information given to them by a handful of locals. The man who’d attacked Ricky had made off with both of their bags, but Ricky had had enough money stashed in his sock to last them another week. He and Alyssa skirted the ocean, going from beach town to beach town, in search of the teenager with the long goatee who rode the green moped.
“I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’m dirty,” Alyssa moaned while pressing her palms into the small of her back. “And we have to keep moving, keep budgeting, and keep settling on these roach motels all because my boyfriend can’t stand up for himself.” She tilted her head back and rotated her head, stretching her neck muscles. “Aaaaaaaaaa…”
They marched on, their hair matted and their clothes soaked through with sweat from the humidity. They had just come up a rise in the road, and Ricky leaned over and put his hands on his knees, panting from the exertion in the summer heat.
“Oh, poor baby,” she mocked. “Are you already out of breath? Maybe that’s why that twerp got the best of you.” He said nothing, rubbing his shirtsleeve on his forehead and then wincing a little when the cotton made contact with the region around his right eye. The black eye still smarted from the punch.
It had all happened so fast, and yet everything leading up to it had seemed to have unfolded in slow motion. He’d been standing on the corner, looking at a map with both of their bags on either side of him, while she was purchasing an orange soda from a street vendor. The punk with the long dark hair and goatee had slowly and deliberately rode his bike alongside the curb. Leaving the engine running, he’d casually dismounted the moped and then walked right up to Ricky, eclipsing his sunlight. By the time Ricky had lifted his head to acknowledge the newcomer, the fist was already coming at him. The next thing he remembered, he was staring up at the blue sky when Alyssa’s face appeared. “You let him get away with our stuff! What’s wrong with you?”
The degenerate had taken off south on his bike. The locals who’d helped Ricky to his feet said that he was a bold one, that this kind of thing happened to unsuspecting tourists all of the time. They told him that the robber was probably heading south.
“What is your plan, exactly?” she pressed with scorn in her tone. “They already told us the local police won’t help us. I think we both know you won’t be able to just take our stuff back.”
Remaining silent, she scanned the road ahead, and just before the next bend was a cantina sitting tucked back into the palms about 300 feet away. The foliage here was thick, and with twilight setting in visibility was dropping. This would be a good place to stop. But Ricky pressed on, and she reluctantly followed.
When they were almost upon the cantina, Alyssa continued badgering him. “None of my ex’s would have let that little pipsqueak do that to them. They all would have put him right through the street. Not you though, Ricky. My girlfriends all told me, they said, ‘He’s a big pussy, Alyssa. Is that really the kind of guy you wanna be with?’ And I stuck up for you. I must be stupid.”
His lack of reaction infuriated her, and she shouted, “Aren’t you going to say anything? Tell me how you’re going to make this right!” But he was focused on something else now, and was acting like she wasn’t even there. She followed his line of sight to the cantina, to the group of motorbikes parked out front. To the green moped. “Oh my god! There it is. It’s him!”
Ricky marched into the cantina, scanning the crowd for the man who’d knocked him down and stolen his possessions. Failing to locate the youth, he moved toward the back patio just as Alyssa was catching up with him. “Ricky, wait. Where do you…“
But he was already outside, scanning the beach below. It was getting dark out now, and he spotted a group of youths gathered around a bonfire. There was a man playing a guitar, holding a captive audience. A man with long dark hair and a goatee. Ricky spun to his right and descended a flight of wooden stairs to the beach. Alyssa struggled to keep up. “What are you gonna’ do?” she called after him.
Ricky sauntered right up to the bonfire, just a few feet away from the youth who’d given him this nasty shiner. The kid was seated in a wooden beach chair, singing and strumming the guitar. Apparently he was serenading the girl a few feet to his left and utterly oblivious to Ricky’s presence. “Hey,” Ricky called.
The assailant paused and turned his attention to Ricky, and when he did Ricky used his toe to kick at the coals, sending burning embers up at the thief. His hands went to his face as he cried out, shooting up out of his chair and dropping his guitar into the sand. The girl next to him screamed, and the group gathered around the fire quickly scattered.
Momentarily blinded, the youth clawed at his face, and Ricky closed his hand into a fist and hit him with a right cross that sent him flying back onto his chair, shattering it underneath him with a loud crack of splintering wood. When Ricky glanced over his shoulder and looked at Alyssa, she was breathing heavily and grinning. There was a twinkle in her eyes. She opened her mouth to say something, but Ricky turned his attention back to the coastal marauder. “Where’s our stuff?”
Lying supine on top of the broken wood like a dead body on the funeral pyre, the teenager moaned and pointed down the beach toward a pitched tent. Ricky immediately started off in that direction, putting his right foot through the boy’s guitar as he departed. As he drew nearer the tent, Alyssa—in a state of extreme excitement—said, “You did great, baby! You kicked the shit out of him. I’m so proud of you. Oh, Ricky, I can’t believe you just did that.”
Ricky crouched down and disappeared inside the tent. He returned a moment later with both pieces of luggage. Alyssa clapped her hands excitedly, bouncing up and down on her heals and giggling. “And the passports?” He reached into a side compartment and withdrew their passports. She smiled up at him with a playful mixture of pride and lust in her eyes, and was about to say something to him when she noticed that the twisted smile he returned at her appeared sardonic. That’s when he reached his arm back over his shoulder and tossed her passport as hard as he could right into the ocean. “What the . . . ? Ricky! Why did you do that?”
But Ricky didn’t answer. He’d already turned his back to her, bag in hand, and was briskly walking northward along the beach.
Assailant by: Tom Rau
They wandered the coast for days seeking signs of the assailant. They would never find him. He doesn’t exist. Never did. Not that he wasn’t responsible. He absolutely was. Give him the poor, the rich, the young, the old. He isn’t choosey. There is no prejudice, no color, no sex. We are all the same in his eyes. All you have to do is believe. Open up your heart. Rip out your soul. Join the fucking army. Win the war. Over a billion served and counting.
They still search for him now. They will continue to search for him. Like time, the search is infinite. Like time, the search is meaningless. We all search for meaning. It is the ultimate form of circular logic. We search for our salvation, but ultimately we only ever find the destroyer. He is an idea. A medicine. A placeholder. And he has been both fueling, and killing humanity since we became self-aware.
But what if we could stop searching? What if we could simply accept ourselves as part of the whole and nothing more, just an individual fiber within the composition of the blanket? What if we didn’t need a Hollywood ending, a fantastical afterlife, to give our life meaning? What if we never had to ask the question? We just accepted ourselves as a incomprehensibly minuscule piece of the vast infinity. What if we acknowledged that doing good for the whole is more important than doing good for ourselves?
We are snowflakes, nothing more. Each of us unique, but none of us special. We fall from the sky. By chance, we may find a body. And when that body wilts we return to the earth. Eventually we dissipate into billions of pieces and disperse throughout the universe. But there is never a moment when we cease to exist. We are just part of the cycle. And this spaceship we call a body, and a self – it’s a fucking rental.
Once we were nothing but animals, all instinct and survival. Then we woke up. There was a single burning question. Why?
All they had to do was simply stop searching and they would see. There was no he. No it. No she. They would kill for the answer. They did kill for it. They speculated, they worshipped, they fought wars, they partook in genocides. But maybe “why” was never a question. The question itself was the awakening. It’s inside us. It’s the everything that they seek. We can call it by a thousand different names but it’s still just a simple question. “Why” is the assailant. And it lives inside us.
They continued walking down the coast. For millennia they watched the waves crash and the tides change. They watched mountains rise from the sea and cities crumble to dust. But not for the briefest instant did they ever stop searching for the assailant.
The Secrets We Keep by: Heather Fawn
They wandered the coast for days seeking signs of the assailant.
He was alleged to be a big fellow, wearing a tight-fitting v-neck sweater that emphasized his muscular physique. They were told he wore dark-colored jeans of an expensive, designer brand. He was wearing gaudy white cowboy boots, and he stank of too much cologne. He had a five-o’clock shadow and a thick head of straight dark hair that he combed to the side. Hair like those Rockabilly guys from public school. You know the ones I’m referring to, I’m sure.
But in a cottage in New Hampshire, in the thick of the woods that ran alongside the highway of a small town outside of Portsmouth, they should have been looking for me.
I was the one who had made the 911 call. I was the one who drove, shaking and half-frozen, to the cottage before dumping the stolen pickup truck in a ravine. The one I never got to tell anyone about. I dragged myself to the cottage in the damp pouring rain. I’m still here now, and it’s been a week.
I didn’t want anyone to know what I’d done, so I made someone up. This guy was obviously a sleaze ball. He could take the rap for being stereotypically, categorically, terrible. I figured he wasn’t the nice guy my sister, Jean, would take home to meet Dad. Wasn’t the kind of guy I’d want to have anything to do with. So I improvised, and there he was.
My good friend Petey is worried. He’s been texting me, but I’ve been vague about my whereabouts. He knows sometimes me and the folks don’t get along the best, so he’s performing some kind of investigation without them, I’m sure. Marta is probably somewhere with that ugly Orange County fuck…what’s-his-face. As far as I’m concerned, they deserve each other. Up the nose, kids. Have all the coke you can stand, and then have some more. You know, come to think of it…the “assailant” I described is a lot like what’s-his-face. I wonder if he got called in for questioning. That’d be hilarious.
Anyway, my family still thinks I’m away at boarding school, too busy to return their calls. It’s spring break right now, but it’s almost over, and they know I was planning to study for the SATs, so they are giving me space.
But I’m not, you guys. I’m not at school, and I’m not studying, and I’m not entirely sure how I will explain things to my friends.
All I know is that someone is dead. Or about to be.
Metaphorically speaking, anyway…
I couldn’t, for the past week, let anyone know where I was. I had too much explaining to do, and not a lot of time left to get it right. The problem was that I really didn’t know how to explain it, if I ended up having to. It’s sort of one of those things where if you weren’t there, it’s impossible to understand.
I made friends with a guy at school, his name is Geoff. He’s into all kinds of New Age crap. He wants to SLC Punk the system by working on it, “from the inside”. He’s an idealist who wants to save the world. I think he’s in for a lot of disappointment, but he insists that he wants to help refugees in the future. He’s convincing. Sometimes, I almost believe him.
Anyway, me and Geoff went to the beach last week to chill. We’d just finished exams, and needed to unwind. Geoff planned on bringing his friend Bax along. I’d never met Bax until the night that everything went down, but Geoff described him like this, “You know that friend who wrecked themselves with partying? Like, just destroyed their bodies? That’s Bax. Only now, he’s really into working out and veganism. But he still messes with drugs. I think he injects his melon balls with heroin or something weird like that. His poor girlfriend still has no idea. He’s the healthiest sicko I know.”
Why I agreed to meet this guy on a night that was supposed to be relaxing is still a mystery to me. I am biased when it comes to any drugs – the whole thing sketches me out. Everytime I see someone do a line of coke in movies, I shudder. I would never be cool with injectables. All I can think is, “How fantastic you need to feel depends on how badly you hate yourself.” Apparently that’s not true, but I’ve never had a good experience with someone who crossed over to the loathe-and-love of treating themselves like a walking voodoo doll. Especially ‘cause watching people abuse themselves hurts me. Physically.
But I trusted Geoff, and we were just supposed to hang out and talk about immigration reform, and quiz each other on the answers we gave in the exams, and try to come up with another song for the band we were trying to put together. I think he didn’t want it to feel too bromantic, so he brought in a wild card.
I was sitting on the edge of the pier with a bag of junk food and a can of sweet tea when Bax and Geoff showed up. Bax immediately pulled out a joint and asked me if I wanted to smoke.
“Are you kidding me with this?! It’s the middle of the day – someone is going to see you!” I smacked it out of his hand in a panicked rush to hide it as he was putting it to his mouth. It flew away in the breeze and landed in the water.
“Who the hell is this asshole, Geoff? I thought you said he was cool!” Bax glared at me while he yelled to Geoff, who was still walking toward us.
“I’m cool, dude. That’s just a stupid thing to do when there are people around.”
“Well, I see you two have met,” Geoff called.
Bax rolled his eyes at me and shook his head as he walked toward Geoff. They exchanged a few heated words in low tones before Bax shoved his hands into the pocket of his jacket and walked off. I could only feel relief to see the guy with a lanky stride and chin-length curly blonde hair skulk off in the opposite direction.
“Why was it you wanted us to meet?” I asked when Geoff casually walked up beside me.
“I dunno man, I thought he’d be less of a dick today,” he shrugged and stared off over the water.
“You bring your notebook?”
“Yeah,” he pulled out a beat-up black notepad, and for the rest of the daylight hours we discussed endings for the lyrics of our new song, “Beast”.
Just as it was getting dark and we were getting ready to retreat back to the school’s campus, Geoff’s phone rang. He made a sideways smirk and showed me the name on the screen. It was Bax. I shrugged, and gave him a look that said I didn’t care, and he answered it.
“You know, you can be a real…” he began. Then his face dropped. He looked at me with a fearful expression.
Then I heard it, through the phone, and way down the beach.
Someone was screaming. I felt ice in my veins as soon the sound hit me.
We were in a fairly secluded area, now that the sun had set, so there was no one but us to respond to the scream. Having no idea what was going on, we didn’t think to call the cops just yet. We exchanged brief, wide-eyed looks before sprinting in the direction of the bellowing.
Not knowing what to expect, I braced for an armed robbery or some kind of fight. I am a scrawny guy, even though I play sports in the spring. I am not a fighter, but I had to steel myself for the possibility.
Geoff got to him first. It was completely dark now, but the moon was full and it illuminated our path. I saw him drop to his knees with his hands on his head when he got to Bax. It was about a mile from the pier, right next to the woods.
Bax was lying face-down in the sand. He wasn’t moving. Geoff wheezed his name, but he wouldn’t get any closer to him.
I immediately tried to think of what I’d learned in the introductory EMS elective I’d taken last year. I gently rolled him to his side, tucking his leg up to keep him in position. When I bent closer to him to position his arm and check for breathing, his eyes popped open, his mouth twisted into a sinister smirk, and he popped me hard in the face.
“Haha, that was awesome!” He spat, gleefully.
“Duuuuuuude,” Geoff breathed, “What the hell is your problem?!”
I blinked back the water that had started to collect in my left eye, near where I’d been hit. I was furious, but I said nothing. I’d jumped back in shock when he punched me, and I stayed where was, motionless, glaring darkly out over the sea.
“Come on man, you gotta admit I got you good!” Bax bleated.
The prank wasn’t funny because we’d run a mile into the darkness toward blood-curdling screams. A million scenarios had run through my head about danger and mayhem. Nothing that I’d prepared myself for included being punched in the face while checking to see if someone was still alive. My heart was pounding in my chest. I couldn’t laugh it off. Bax wanted to get under my skin, and he’d succeeded. I was livid.
Meanwhile, Geoff was, in jest, but forcefully, punching and shoving Bax. “You asshole! You piece of shit! What the hell’s wrong with you? I almost pissed my pants! You’re a terrible human being, and I’m going to kill you for real!”
They were both laughing, and I vaguely heard the sound of punches connecting with skin, the shuffle of loose change and the laughing and panting of two dudes losing the chill of the night air by fake-fighting on the beach.
I thought about how I knew Bax’s type, the kind who, if you didn’t play along with his sick game, would keep fucking with you ‘til you snapped. I didn’t care if it was the first time he and I had met. I’d already had to deal with things I’d tried to avoid at the worst of times. I’m a 17 year old kid who was trying to stay out of trouble, and I hated being manipulated.
So I snapped. Geoff had seen me do it before, but it had never been directed at him. Once at the dorms, a kid was talking about my sister’s hearing impairment. After my family left to go home after visiting me, some ugly jock came up to me and loudly proclaimed, “Since your sister is retarded anyway, you probably wouldn’t mind if I…”
He didn’t even have time to finish his sentence before it began. I didn’t say a word, I didn’t move, I simply stared at him in a disinterested way, but he started to choke. I knew his tongue was frozen up against the roof of his mouth from the curve of the word, “I”. Suddenly, everyone in the leisure room saw his tongue flatten out before his jaw opened wide and then slammed his teeth into the pinkish meat. Again and again he gnashed at his own flesh until blood and saliva splattered down his chin and onto the floor, along with that disgusting tongue that had tried to say something fucked up about my little sister. He groaned like he was really out of it. People freaked out and ran for the nurse. I stalked out of the room behind them, turning in the opposite direction toward my dorm room, while the ugly jock groaned and breathed bloody spit bubbles in and out of his flared nostrils. I knew he was choking on his blood, and it made me feel horrible, but at the same time I felt justified. Geoff asked me what I thought of the ugly jock’s weird “mental episode”. He told me he didn’t believe I’d had anything to do with it until he flew off the top bunk onto the floor. Then he asked me if I could do that sort of thing to his step-dad. I asked him why, and then he told me about the kind of person his step-dad was. I planned something really outrageous for the man, and then the bastard ended up in a 20-car pile-up on the highway right before Christmas. He didn’t make it. Trust me, everyone is better off. I know it sounds really sadistic, but there’s no place for someone like him in society, let alone in my best friend’s family.
I guess it was karma.
Bax, like Geoff’s step-dad, wasn’t a simpleton jock with a big mouth. He was a skilled manipulator whom I couldn’t believe Geoff would even attempt to associate with. He reminded me of the “friends” I’d known in school, in the days before I cleaned up my act. He was a toxic scumbag, and he needed to be dealt with.
After they’d gotten it out of their systems, Bax stood up and helped Geoff to his feet. They were both laughing and panting, but he bent over with a hand on one knee while staring at me with this icy look in his eyes – a gesture of contempt that his laughing smile didn’t soften. They both started to walk towards me, shaking off sand and adjusting their jackets, but when Geoff’s eyes met mine, he immediately sobered up. “Perrin. Don’t!” he mouthed, putting his hands up to signal that he had no control over the situation.
I couldn’t believe he was going to let Bax get away with being such a tool. I imagined all of the ways Bax would manage to screw over Geoff, and perhaps even me, during the duration of their friendship, but I wanted to respect my friend’s wishes, so I planned to back down.
But Bax just had to say it.
“C’mon, man, are you gonna be butt hurt about it all night? It was supposed to be funny. I know I slapped you like a little bitch, but I didn’t think you actually had a vagina.” He tried to pat my shoulder and I jerked it away.
Geoff gave me a pained look and shook his head at Bax.
He snorted. “Whatever man. Geoff, you’re gonna need to control your girlfriend. I think she got some sand in her vagina from running down the beach in her little skirt. I’m outta here. That’s my ride,” he gestured toward a beat-up pickup truck on the other side of the rusty fence that separated the beach from the picnic and parking area.
He walked a few yards up the hill beyond the beach and tried to hop the fence, even though there was an exit a little ways down, by the woods. I looked up at the sky at that moment, because the light had disappeared. The moon was covered in clouds, and the wind was picking up. A fat drop of rain splashed over my eye, momentarily cooling the sting from being punched. Then it started to pour. Thunder erupted from every direction like a bad omen. When I looked back at Bax, he was in the middle of swinging one leg over the side of the fence. He turned to give us the finger when suddenly he screamed in real pain, arching backward and clutching his chest. Then he hunched forward, head down, his stupid curly hair hanging over his face, and fell chin-first into the tall grass before rolling limply downhill toward the beach. He came to a stop at Geoff’s feet, his mouth involuntarily spewing a spatter of blood onto the sand. The wind picked up, pushing sand into Bax’s gawping mouth. Geoff promptly lunged at me.
“Why the fuck did you do that man? Why couldn’t you just let it go? It’s gonna look like we did this!” He growled between clenched teeth.
“We’ll just call the cops and say it was an assault from a drug dealer,” I said dully over the wind. I felt like I was saving Geoff from a lot more trouble than trying to shrug this one off.
“You’re a real liability sometimes, dude,” he went back to check Bax’s pulse, eyeing him closely with the flashlight of his smartphone before walking back over to me. He put his hands in his jacket and shrugged against the wind.
“I think he’s still alive.”
“I’ll make the call,” I said. “You get out of here.”
“I fucking hate you sometimes,” he pulled his hood over his soaking hair and gave me a grim look before trudging off in the direction of his car.
I walked back over to Bax and felt for his cell phone. I took it and and hunched against the freezing rain and the deafening thunder. As expected, the rusty truck door was unlocked. I plopped into the seat and felt for the keys, which were in the ignition. Too easy.
Then I used the emergency dial to unlock his phone.
“Um…Hi. I was walking my dog and I saw this big man jump this kid and run up the beach. I’m near the pier by the Fisher’s Delight,” I made my voice sound senile and old-ladyish. Then I pretended I couldn’t understand the dispatcher and hung up the phone. In reality, the Fisher’s Delight was probably 5 miles away, but I needed time to leave.
I started the truck, turned on the headlights, and looked back at the beach. A flash of lightning illuminated Bax’s motionless body. Then I looked down at the gear shift. Another flash of lightning showed me a roll of masking tape, a pair of handcuffs, a bunch of panties scattered over the floor of the passenger’s side, and a digital camera. I picked up the camera. I had to. On it were a bunch of blurry photos of girls in their dorm rooms, girls in their bathrooms, and pictures of some girl while she was sleeping. Bax was an even worse human being than I thought. It had nothing to do with the drugs. I knew that from my past. It was just that he was a piece of shit.
I angrily shoved open the passenger’s side door and stretched one leg across the gear shift to kick all of the disgusting evidence of Bax’s sick personality out of the truck. Then I slammed the door. I felt sick. I couldn’t just let this bastard wake up with a sore jaw and a broken leg now. But I didn’t want to kill him either. I was also running out of time before the police showed up. The first thing I had to do was get rid of his phone, so I put it under the wheel of the truck, where it would be crushed when I drove away. Then I concentrated, until I could feel his presence. I decided to keep it with me. The next time he tried to pull some sick shit, I would be waiting, and I would have had time to decide exactly what his punishment should be.
I drove to Grandma’s cottage, the one she left to me and Jean in her will. I dumped the truck about a mile south of the woods. That ravine is pretty deep, and this area only has a couple people living here, so they might not even notice it for awhile. The storm was insane. I barely made it here, since I couldn’t see anything through the torrential rain splattering the windshield. Then a couple of tree branches almost maimed me. I always carry the key to the cottage around my neck, along with a locket with a picture of my Gran and Gramps in it. No one knows I do it, so it’s no big deal.
I had one of those solar chargers in my inside jacket pocket, so my phone has been on this whole time. Geoff has been yapping my ear off about Bax’s recovery and how we’re probably never gonna get caught. He was totally on board for everything that went down that night after I told him about what I found in the truck. I know it was stolen because Geoff said that Bax was bragging about it to him last week. I read on the local news that Bax lost five teeth, fractured his sternum, and dislocated his knee. Too bad.
Bax doesn’t remember shit, by the way. He told Geoff he remembers us meeting earlier in the day, and he remembers “leaving” after messing with us. That’s pretty cool. Geoff and I are pretty happy that we have an alibi. Our stories are synced in case Bax’s memory ever comes back: we left before the drug dealer came, and heard about him getting jumped later the next day, just like everyone else. Bax is actually a rich kid with nice enough parents, Geoff tells me. I have no idea why he’s such a psychopath.
I’m about to go back to school. I’ll walk to the Center Market and hitch-hike back to the dorms. It’ll be no big deal. Everything can just go back to normal. Bax is definitely alive, no one can find his attacker, and Geoff isn’t going to freak out and tell anyone what happened. Not that he would have much of a story, since I never actually hit Bax to begin with. I’m not trying to be some vigilante, I think I just don’t know what to do with my anger. I plan to work on it.
But you know, I’ve got this feeling…Bax is gonna sneak into some girl’s hospital room tonight and go through her stuff while she’s sleeping.
And I know exactly how he should be punished.
The Backup Plan by: Michael Shields
They wandered the coast for days seeking signs of the assailant. With that the tale began, and it barged forth with a head of steam. It was a fantasy piece, a story of a quest, a manhunt for a killer. It dabbled in magic, tinkered with mysticism, was flush with heroes of all shapes and sizes, and it offered a message about the perils of ultimate hubris. That there is danger in presumption, in haughtily believing the righteousness of your crusade trumps all reason, and its importance ascends the cost of human life, including one’s own. It was my contribution to “The First Line” project at Across the Margin. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Channeling Melville, this tale told the story a man so hellbent on revenge that he put his life, and those amongst him, recklessly at stake. Ignoring all logic, our hero’s bloodlust, and aura of immortality, threatened to damn the mission from the onset. Vindication was his White Whale, and anything that restrained him in attaining this ambition became collateral damage, irrelevant hurdles that were rendered lifeless in his ruinous wake.
And the villain, he was a piece of work. “The Man in the Yellow Suit” I called him. In fact, that was the title of the story. He was the intrigue. And his dialogue was a joy to write. He was heinous of course, a true enigmatic menace. And he was my “assailant,” who slashed an innocent woman’s throat without even a hint of remorse. But he was elegant, and witty, and somehow I found a way to make him likable. If not likable, then at least someone you would respect. He had a certain air of smugness about him, yet his assumption of sovereignty proved to be authentic, and in that reality he became a larger than life figure. In his hands the destiny of the story was held.
For fun, all the characters were named after basketball players on my favorite team. Not the stars of course, that would be too obvious. No, an arrangement of bench players. I thought that was pretty clever. And luckily, it seemed to work. Names such as Brimah (the main character, he had a skull shaped like a tortoise shell), Kromah (Brimah’s younger but more imposing brother), Lenehan (the most able scout in the pack, they called him “Pointer”), Watts (silent but deadly), Tolksdorf (the muscle), and Facey (we learned very little about Facey, but he had one grand concluding moment). An embattled troop of five men, trudging across a rugged coastal plain, through a fog so dense it wrapped itself around them like a frosty wet blanket, on a burdening quest to find a shred of retribution via retaliation.
Admittedly, I find fantasy pieces challenging to write. And due to this fact, often more fun too. With the expansive catalog amassed through centuries, all so beautifully written, often reading like poetry, it is a fine and concise art. One that I notice takes a great deal of time as I labor through each paragraph, arranging words around like ambiguous puzzle pieces where you haven’t even had the opportunity to gaze upon the completed image prior to assembly. I am way out of my league, and upon completion of penning “The Man with the Yellow Suit”, an arduous but gratifying endeavor, it hurt so much to watch it slip so easily through my hands.
It was just like a movie. I’m not sure which one exactly, but the sort where the action is propelled as something goes wrong at exactly the worst moment. The exact instant I placed that concluding dot on the final sentence, and captained the cursor over to the save button to seal the deal, the computer screen went blank. Where a carefully vetted and organized grouping of words once sat – a story I was actually very proud of (a very infrequent moment for writer’s I assure you – rarely are we content) – now postured an ivory screen, with an icon in the center that casually yet deliberately blinked on and off with a question mark. A dangling piece of punctuation that taunted me while I came to grips with my newfound reality. My computer had crashed.
I have found myself carrying a lot of heavy things around the city lately. Just a few weeks back, if you were lucky enough, you could find me traipsing through midtown with a large glass bowl of loose change which I had amassed over the last five years. And atop my burdensome, hefty bounty, I had a smaller bowl which accommodated the goldfish my daughter lovingly christened Boom-Boom. These were the final two items left after clearing my apartment for a move, and I collected more than my fair share of double takes and smiles as I transported these two finishing, yet pivotal items to my new abode.
And now, following this unfortunate demise of my cherished electronic writing pad, I found myself lugging my iMac through the city on an impressively brisk day, carting my perishing patient up to Apple Tekserve in hopes of recovering “The Man in the Yellow Suit” as well as a generous amount of other tales and important files. But for now the contents within that once animated box are adrift. Lost in the seas of electrons and bits. The techs I entrusted my computer with are pros, and I have no doubts I have committed the vitality of many of my thoughts over the last few years in the right hands. But the loss has been a difficult pill to swallow. They are saying there’s a chance. A little hope never hurt anyone.
To conclude my tale I had a plan, one that was possibly a little too cute, but I was dead set on seeing it through. My idea was to tie the closing sentence of the piece in with an Editor’s Note about “The First Line” project. In closing one of the characters, Kromah, pleased to find himself walking away from what appeared to be certain death with both life and limb, remarks to his weary companions following a heated exchange of verbal debate, “Well, that was an amusing exercise, wasn’t it?”…….
Editor’s Note: An amusing exercise indeed. It is astonishing to witness the varying paths each journey commenced upon when building off the identical foundation of words. Each submission was eagerly awaited upon with immeasurable enthusiasm, as experiencing the diversity and uniqueness of each other’s approach was fascinating. Assembling the pieces together was an engaging process in itself. It was akin to working together a mixtape. You’re gifted with a group of work, all with their own mood, tempo, and message. And you weave them together as meticulously as possible, to invoke an overall stream of feeling. A mixtape – stories presented to you the reader as songs! A very cool idea if you ask me. Authors (and creative like minds) should, in an ideal world, be the rock stars anyways. They’re the voices really saying something, attempting to capture and describe the anomalistic world we call home. They should be revered, and hoisted upon pedestals for all to celebrate. The true ones, anyhow.
With “The First Line”, Across the Margin celebrates its Two Year Anniversary! We would like to thank anyone who has chosen to spend some time with us, to pass the hours away getting lost in our divergent brand of storytelling. Thus far, it has truly been an amusing exercise. ((I would also like to extend a special thank to longtime collaborator, and lifelong friend, Larry Thacker at Cre8ordie, and David and Robbin LaBounty at The First Line.))