Monday, December 19, 2011

Bill & Other Stories

Bill: Seen on the Purple Line to Linden at about 8:30 a.m.

Bill clutched his cup of coffee and stared out the window with sad eyes, searching for something he’d lost. It was hard to tell if he was sad because he missed the thing he’d lost, or if he couldn’t remember what he’d lost. The latter seemed more probable; his gaze leapt from one window to the next, from the faces of fellow passengers to the ceiling of the train. It was as though he hoped something would jog his memory. But Bill was old, and his mind was old. He had possessed many things, loved many things. Loved too many things—they were squeezing out through the folds of his brain. He knew he’d probably never find what he was looking for; he hoped that it was worth the trouble. 

I thought you might also like to read my rejected Machine of Death 2 story. I never did post it to that tumblr.... Anyway, the title of the story has to be the death prediction, so this story is called "Suicide":

Roseanne isn’t very old, but she is old enough to know that she and her family are harbingers of tragedy. She spends most of her days huddled in a plain wagon with her mother, watching the horses kick up dust as her father drives them from town to town, bringing his message and The Contraption.

Her father is a missionary; he helps people accept God’s will. Her family travels to villages along rivers, at the bases of mountains, lost in prairies, on top of fault lines. As soon as they arrive, the curious citizens fly from their homes and clamor for The Contraption, desperate to know their fates. Roseanne prefers not to look at The Contraption. Its glass vials, brass cranks and gears, and its long needle draw her mind to torture devices rather than God’s saving grace. Instead she watches the soft paper money slip from people’s trembling hands into her mother’s outstretched basket. Sometimes she stares into the eyes of the frightened children and tries to comfort them with a smile.
 
She has noticed that in the towns selected by her father, the people tend to die in similar ways. When they are near rivers, the predictions read “flood”; near mountains, they say “avalanche.” Her father’s sermons are perfectly crafted to these natural disasters. After everyone is tested, her father stands on the back of their wagon and speaks to the people. His voice is like a torrential downpour--the importance of his words soaks through the skin of his audience and fills them right down to the marrow. When he encounters those who are to be consumed by wildfires, he encourages them to let the light of Jesus burn in their souls. When he encounters those doomed to die in a flood, he preaches that they must let God’s Word rush through their hearts like water. When he encounters those who will be crushed in earthquakes, he reminds them that God can make the foundations of their sinful lives crumble so that they can be born again.

As he speaks, the people cling to the slips of paper on which their death predictions are printed, nervously folding and twisting them. When he is finished, they scream “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” Some speak in tongues. They give him more money, and offer him provisions for his journey. Roseanne feels bad for them. She knows that The Contraption can lie. A few years ago it told the dusty coal-mining people of Candor that they would die by hailstorm. But in reality, hailstorms destroyed the crops in the towns below. Heading into winter with no food, most slowly starved to death. 
 
Roseanne confronted her father about this. Her throat tightened as she asked him why, despite the predictions of The Contraption, God had left Candor so unprepared for its death. “God did not leave them unprepared,” he calmly replied. “He gave them plenty of warning. If they were unprepared, it is because they did not believe enough in Him.”
           
“Father, why won’t you let us test ourselves? Why can’t we use The Contraption?”
           
His back stiffened, and his eyes narrowed. “There is no need to test ourselves, for our fate is already clear. We are called to bring The Contraption and God’s Word to the people. We will die doing God’s work.” Her mother sat silently in the corner and stared at the hem of her dress. Roseanne wanted to reply, but could think of nothing else to say. Her father went back to his map, plotting their course.
           
This is the memory that is currently keeping her awake. It is a cold night, and she is bundled in hand-stitched quilts from various grateful women. She is not certain that she wants to spend the rest of her life doing God’s will. She tries to imagine herself handing people their predictions, pressing the paper into their palms with a compassionate firmness. She mentally composes speeches, telling people that their fortunes are not so horrible as they seem; with complete trust in God, they can weather any storm. Her stomach hurts. No matter which way she turns, she cannot make herself comfortable.
              
As her parents sleep, Roseanne wiggles her way out, crawls into the wagon, and uncovers The Contraption. The moonlight makes its brass parts seem duller, but its needle glistens and appears sharper than ever. She pricks her finger without hesitation and turns the handle. Minutes pass, and her arm tires, but she continues. Finally it emits the small strip of paper: SUICIDE. She feels vindicated.
 
Yep, so...there's that. I still like it, even though it did get rejected. As a last little treat, I've been working on my flash fiction using Rose Metal Press' Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Each section has a little exercise at the end. The first challenge was to write a story only using "he said, she said," etc. The two had to be having an argument, and their had to be a subtext. Here's mine:


He said I should have some cotton candy. She said I'd spoil my dinner. He said it wasn't a real county fair experience without cotton candy. She said he was being ridiculous. He said it would just be this once. She said he always said that. He said nothing. Nobody asked me.

So I cheated a little at the end...oh well. Anyway, hope you're all having a good day!

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