Training

The first short story I ever submitted for publication.  It’s the story that launched my career into super stardom back in 2007.  It was such a huge success, that my University creative writing newsletter paid me 35 bucks for it.  It’s been read literally dozens of times.

*****

Even from across the road the heat is intense.  People are everywhere, staring in horror.  I walk toward the burning house.  A girl screams into a cell phone.  She is telling someone that one of her roommates is still inside.  Next to her a girl about the same age stands wrapped in a blanket.  I tell her to give it to me, and she woodenly obeys.  I ask where the other girl is.  She points to a window on the second story above the garage.  I walk toward a man who’s hopelessly trying to fight the blaze with a garden hose.  I yell for him to hose me down.  He stares at me for a second, and then turns the water on me, soaking me from head to toe.  I put the blanket around me and he douses that too.  I move toward the front door.

The heat pummels me as I kick the door in.  I enter the house and walk up the stairs, my feet moving me down the hallway.  Flames lick the moisture out of the blanket exposing me to their hot tongues.  A door at the end of the hall is ajar slightly.  Smoke blinds me but I know where to go.  The room appears empty, but somehow I know that the girl crawled under the bed when the smoke and fire came into her room.  I throw the mattress aside, revealing the girl.  She looks dead, but I know she’s not.  I wrap the wet blanket around her, and my skin immediately begins to burn.  I throw a chair out the window and a million glass shards reflect the red-orange fury closing in behind me.  I pick up the girl and step out the window onto the roof.

The cool air feels like paradise, the room behind me feels like hell.  My skin continues to burn as I make my way across the roof to a point above a Jeep in the driveway.  I hold the girl in front of me and I fall backwards onto the roof of the Jeep, which collapses to absorb the impact of our fall.  People rush over to help us off the Jeep.  I tell them to take her to the safety of the neighbor’s lawn.  I collapse on the lawn next to her as I hear the sound of sirens coming down the street.  I know I have third degree burns and few broken ribs, but I also know that I have saved the girl’s life.  That’s when I wake up.

 

Dr. Fields looks up from the account of Cody’s dream.  “How long have you been having this dream?” she asks.

“Every night for eighteen months,” Cody answers.  He looks haggard.  This is the third shrink he’s seen in a year.  Somehow he knows she can’t help him either.

“Have you tried altering your sleeping habits?” she asks.

Cody rolls his eyes.  “Of course.  I’ve tried everything,” he answers.  “It’s all in my file.”

“Alright, alright,” she says. “Well I have a few ideas.  I’m going to do some research and work them out.  For now I want you to keep taking the medications Dr. Saunders prescribed.  We’ll go over a strategy next time.”

Cody mutters something resembling gratitude as he gets up from the chair and walks out of the office.  He can’t stand his medication and the headaches that accompany it.  As he gets in his car he lets out a sigh. Once again, he asks himself why he keeps doing this, why he pays some quack to tell him that there is something wrong with him, only to prescribe more worthless pills.  He puts the car into drive.

The idea of going home is almost as bad as his sessions.  Home is where he sleeps, and sleeping is the most exhausting ordeal in Cody’s life.  As he leaves the parking lot he decides to turn the opposite direction from his apartment.  Anywhere is better than his dreams.  Besides, it’s been a while since he just went for a drive.

As he drives he enters unfamiliar neighborhoods. He isn’t paying attention to where he’s going or what he’ll do when he gets there.  The car makes one random turn after another, going who knows how far, until it brings him to a familiar site.  It’s then that Cody realizes he must have gone home at some point, and now he’s asleep.

The scene is the same as it has always been; the same people gawking at the same burning house.  He steps out of the car and approaches the girl with the blanket while her friend screams into the cell phone.  The man with the garden hose douses him and the blanket before Cody turns towards the house.  Just before he kicks the front door in, he pauses.  Something is different.  It takes only a fraction of a second for him to realize what it is: he’s not asleep, and he doesn’t have to do this.  He doesn’t have to walk into that inferno.  Then his thoughts turn to the girl upstairs under her bed, the smoke suffocating her and burning her lungs.  Cody knows she’ll die if he hesitates.  A second later he’s in the house.

He runs up the stairs, down the hall, through the door and to the bed, just like always.  His instincts have been fine tuned for this moment, and like a machine with a single purpose, he does what he has been conditioned to do every night for a year and a half.  He throws the bed aside, wraps up the girl, and throws the chair out the window.  Just like his dreams he feels his skin melting, but just like before he doesn’t let it slow him down.  He carries her out the window and jumps down onto the Jeep, her small body only breaking a few of his ribs as they hit the vehicle’s roof.  Neighbors help them across to the cool grass of the lawn.  Above the clamor, Cody can hear the familiar sirens approaching.  Waves of exhaustion sweep over him, but just before he blacks out a thought crosses his mind: Dr. Fields is never going to believe this.

Finding Nemo

A short story I wrote for a science fiction contest.  The rule was to take a movie title and write a story based on it, but not on the movie.  So this is definitely not about fish.

*****

Nemo swore and pulled his foot out of the puddle. The pothole had been hidden, like a bear trap made to consume high tops. They weren’t real Jordan’s, but it pissed him off nonetheless. Last thing he wanted right now was a soggy foot.
He shook the sneaker before continuing down the street. Boarded up windows acted as a canvas for graffiti artists on the brick buildings around him as he limped through the urban canyons. Every other step was accompanied by a squishy slurping noise.
Momma told him this would happen. She said he’d be back on the street a week after getting out of jail. In fact it had only been five days. But a man had to eat, and nobody wanted to hire a repeat offender. Only halfway through his twenties and already out of options. He grunted. Maybe this time he’d be a little bit smarter and get away clean.
It looked like it would start raining any minute. That was good. Rain meant people would hurry from place to place, not paying attention. He pulled his hood up tighter around his face and looked for a place to wait.
He spotted an alley between an apartment complex and a grocer. It was dark down there, which was good. And it had lots of dumpsters and blind spots, which was better. The heavens opened up, and heavy drops of rain splattered down on the pavement. It was perfect. Maybe he’d gotten all the bad luck out of his system when he stepped in that puddle.
He walked over to a recessed doorway of a boarded up house. It was directly across from the alley, and he’d be able to corner somebody as they hurried through the rain. Nemo was not tall, but he was built like a bulldozer. He could get them into the alley before they knew what was happening.
Once he was under the shelter of the doorway he pulled out a carton of Marlboros and lifted one to his lips. He dug a Bic lighter from his pocket and flicked the wheel several times before he coaxed a flame out of it. No one would pay attention to a guy hiding from the rain on his smoke break.
The instant he took his first puff a skinny man in an expensive suit and fedora came around the corner. The man kept his head down, hiding his face, and carried a silver briefcase. Everything about the man seemed wrong, like he’d gotten off the subway in the wrong neighborhood.
Nemo didn’t waste time worrying about why the man was here. He was walking fast, and Nemo had to hurry to intercept him in front of the ally. He stepped out into the rain, tossing his cigarette aside and patting the hard metal of the .44 in his waistband. The man didn’t look up as Nemo approached.
Just as Nemo was about to run into the guy, the man with the briefcase quickened his pace and turned into the alley. Nemo smiled at his luck once more, and followed the stranger deeper into the darkness.
A few paces into the ally Nemo pulled out his revolver. He looked down to make sure the safety was off, and when he looked up he just about ran into the stranger. The man had turned around and planted his feet in the middle of the ally. His hat still covered his eyes, but Nemo could see a thin smile on the man’s narrow face.
For a second neither of them said a thing. Nemo recovered from his shock and lifted his revolver toward the man’s chest.
“What you got in the briefcase, man?”
The stranger’s smile grew until it revealed perfectly white teeth beneath his lips.
“You’ll find out soon enough, Nemo.”
Nemo blinked, bowing his head to try and see the stranger’s face beneath the Fedora.
“Do I know you?”
“You don’t know me, Nemo. But I most certainly know you.”
The rain drizzled down and rolled off the brim of the stranger’s hat, which slowly started to rise and reveal the man’s face.
Nemo recoiled when he made eye contact with the stranger. The eyes swirled with yellow, orange and red as if on fire. Nemo lifted the gun and backed away.
“What are you, man?”
The stranger took a step forward, and Nemo pulled back on the hammer, making sure the man could hear the click of the gun cocking.
“Don’t move. I ain’t afraid to put a hole in you.”
The threat did nothing to slow the man down. He strode forward as casually as someone walking through a park.
Nemo felt terror rising in his chest. He pulled the trigger and felt the gun jump in his hand. There was a puff of smoke, but the stranger didn’t even slow down. Nemo fired again, and again. He fired until the revolver clicked, nothing more than a hunk of metal in his hands.
Nemo’s knees buckled, and he fell to the ground. He opened his mouth to scream, but only managed a weak moan.
The stranger stopped, towering over Nemo, and opened his briefcase. He set the open case down on the ground, and Nemo saw that it was empty.
“N-n-nothin’ in it?”
The stranger smiled. “Not yet.”
The briefcase shuddered, and Nemo felt his body vibrating, followed by the sensation of being crushed. His body started to slowly implode on itself. He tried to scream again, but there was no air in his lungs. He began floating in the air, drifting over the case, and down into it. The last thing Nemo remembered was the sound of the locks clicking, then darkness.

The man with the silver briefcase strode out of the alley, head down to hide his eyes. He lifted his watch to his mouth and spoke. “This is Silver. I’ve got him. I’ve found Nemo.”

Children of the Void