Flash Fiction Challenge- Part III of “Shrine”

This is for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge

First 500-ish words are written by “Doom and Gloom in Austin”

The middle 500-ish words by http://almosthuman1blog.wordpress.com/

The final 500-ish words written by me.

Part I:

I don’t know why I have come back to this place.  The old two-story building before me has never been a  home in any sense of the word.  It was more of a monument of suffering; a temple of affliction with my father as the high priest.  There isn’t a room in this place that hasn’t been decorated with my blood at one point or another.

Now, he’s gone and this house stands as the last testament to his brutality. So, why am I here?  To find any shred of decency and happiness within and rescue it?  Not likely.  That all died with my mother when I was still an infant.  What, then?  Maybe to get one last look around before I sell it off?  Or maybe, just maybe…to destroy this place.

I push the thoughts of setting the house ablaze aside and make my way up the steps to the porch. My hand grows ice cold with dread as I reach for the doorknob. It turns with a metallic grind and I push the door open.  The smell of age and dust and stale cigarette smoke hits me in the face. My stomach lurches a bit with childhood panic.  My skin prickles in rememberance of each and every cigarette burn mark given to me.

I slowly walk in and look around.  Other than a thin layer of dust, nothing has changed in this place in 15 years.  Every piece of furniture, every picture, every memento is exactly where it was when I was a child. Even the bloodstain on the rug in front of the fireplace is still where I last left it; black with age.  I couldn’t say what I supposedly did or didn’t do to ‘earn’ that particular beating. They all ran together like a flipbook of pain.  Each beating was partnered with the threat of much, much worse if I ever told anyone.

No, I still don’t know why I have come back to this place.  It’s serving as nothing but a bruising reminder of my past.  This place was filled with nothing but rage and fear and, in all the years, I never knew why.

Perhaps it’s best that this place and the past it harbors should be brought to the ground and removed from the world.  Just blow out the pilot lights on the stove and let the place fill with gas.  One spark and this place is consigned to Hell.

My footsteps carry me through the rest of the living room and into the dining room. Like the living room, nothing has changed here.  The familiar setting brings forth the past in my mind once more.  I shove aside the fresh wave of memories and continue to the door that leads to the kitchen.

Pushing it open, I stop short.  Within the center of an otherwise unchanged kitchen is a large, round hole. Cautiously, I approach the edge and look down into the void.

Part II:

The rhythm of ragged breath stutters as the sides of the hole undulate before me.  Heat oozes over the jagged edges and pool around my feet, grasp at my knees.  The kitchen swims around me and I begin to lose my balance.  A hand grips my shoulder, pulls me from the edge.  I am too frightened to turn.  I slide to my knees, hands grasping the edge of the pit.  I almost allow myself to topple forward into the gaping hole, but I pause.  Anger grows inside me and I stand, the hand still pulling at my shoulder, and I allow myself to turn.

“Jacob.”  It was him.  My father, long and thankfully dead, stands before me, hand on my shoulder, smiling in my face as though nothing but love had ever passed between the two of us.  “It’s been a long time, my son.  Too long.”

“Father.”  My tone is curt, cut short intentionally for fear if I allow myself to speak freely, I would unleash years of anguish, terror and pain in a single gasp and our conversation would end.  Despite this man’s horrific actions toward me in the past, I want to hear what he has to say.  I need it.  I crave it.

“I was wondering when you would come back here, Jacob.”  I allow myself to be led to the dining room where my father pulls out a chair for me.  “Please,” he says.  “Sit.”  I, as always, do as I am told.  Now the old man places both his hands upon my shoulders, squeezing, patting as if he were making sure I am real.  He exhales and mumbles something about how good it is to see me here.  The room begins to smell of death and the heat from that hole in the kitchen roils its way into the dining room.  “I suppose you have some things you would like to discuss.  About the past?”

“Yes,” I say forcefully, surprising myself.  “I do.”  I feel the floor rumble.  Hear floor boards crack.  I turn to face the old man, but he turns away too quickly for me to catch his eyes.  It seems his flesh leaves a smear in the air as he steps away from me.

“Your mother and I missed you.  You realize that, don’t you?  She was always so fond of you.  She got so angry when you left.”

My skin begins to flush.  Sweat pops up in beads on the backs of my hands.  Whether it was anger or the rapidly increasing temperature in the room, I couldn’t tell.  “My mother died,” I shake my head, sweat dribbling into my eyes.  “I had to leave.  I had to make your abuse stop.  I had to protect myself.  I had to leave.”  I begin to feel sick.  Father whips around and slams his open palms down on the table before me.  His eyes burn red and his flesh drips from his face.

“What if I told you your mother never died?”

Part III:

The stink of vomit is strong and my eyes leak tears as I bat my lids and lift them. On my knees before regurgitated breakfast, I bend in a salutation to terror, give homage at the shrine of lost hope. I haven’t left the kitchen, and there is no hole, no yawning mouth of Hell with my father guard and keeper. The floor is only floor, a chipped and dull reminder I’m home.

I struggle up from the linoleum feeling fifty years past my age. With one hand on the counter I let my head hang, my eyes close, numbered breaths passing through my nostrils and across my open lips. My therapist gave me this method and I’d become an expert, the stillness and awareness of myself an apt tool to counter the effects of visits from long-dead dad.

This episode has hit me harder, and recovery seems long, and even when I straighten and stare around the mildewed room my mind lingers on the specter’s claim.

Could my mother be living? I want it to be true, want someone I can touch and hear and feel, want it like I want my heart beating. But my father was a liar, untruth in his every cell. Though he is only my own creation now, I cannot trust him still.

My legs are unwieldy rods as I walk the path my old man led me; kitchen doorway to dining room to table, where I sit at my place without decision. The table’s coat of dust is pocked with oases of fuzzy mold and decay seems to thicken the air, yet I touch the surface, run my palms along the edge, watch the tracks follow after my fingers.

In the corner rests my mother’s favorite chair. My father told me she got it from her parents, who inherited it from a relative far in the past, and it’s a solid, dark-stained thing with leaves carved down the legs. Father sat there sometimes, after he’d worked through a mood, and stared, gaze not  present, hand caressing one wooden arm.

I’m going to take this piece of furniture, I decide, and stir up filth as I rise. The chair is grey with dust, yet seems fine under the film and I imagine it will look well where I live. As I lift it, hands at the sides of the seat, a leg comes loose and clatters on the floor, rolling to a stop against the toe of my shoe. Sadness overtakes me, like I’ve let my mother down, and I ease the chair on its back to have a look at what went wrong.

There is something next to the hole where the leg should have been. Dry, smooth, held by a single rusty thumbtack; a folded and yellowed paper, my name in faded blue ink. With effort I work the tack free and open the paper, deep creases like a dry creek-bed through slanted letters that look the same as the writing from the margins of the sole cookbook we’d owned, the one I used to hold and page through when father wasn’t home.

My sweet little one . I love you always. I’m sorry. I hope we find each other someday.

I am filled. First with relief, then hot anger, and clammy despair, and my skin prickles as optimism takes hold inside me like a foreign growth. I will pursue, will follow the longing. I have reason now, and resolve to understand whether the new growth is like a cancer or the beginning of a life far beyond benign.

Part Two of Chuck Wendig’s Challenge: Continuing the story (a.k.a. The Middle 500 words)

What I did to continue someone’s tale. Scroll down to PART II for my continuation of Dave’s story, which I included so it reads well (I hope!) Here’s the link to Dave’s original start to the story and his site: http://www.unfoldingepic.com/flash-fiction-first-half-of-a-story-zara/

Part I:

Zara woke up to a patch of light streaming through her tarp tent. There was a crispness to the air as she wiggled a little deeper into her sleeping bag. Tilting towards the opening she could see the lake she set up camp next to at dusk the night before. Closer to shore she spotted a tent she missed when scoping the area. It made her feel good knowing there would be someone to talk to today.

It had been days since she last saw someone. But that’s the point when backpacking through the backcountry. Only people that are really serious about experiencing the outdoors would be here.

Though late in the season, Zara was happy to still see snow on the tips of the mountains surrounding the bowl shed hiked down into the previous day.

Something scurried across her view, then back, stopping in the center. Just a marmot she thought. Curious, unafraid creatures. Part of the “chill” group of creatures encountered in the woods she always told anyone who’d listen.

Laying there for a moment, staring, waiting for the other to make a move before Zara gave in because nature was calling.

After relieving herself, she gave a big stretch while taking in the landscape. Shattering the silence, her stomach grumbled, reminding her it was time to eat.

Coffee and a package of Cinnamon Pop-Tarts, a hikers breakfast of champions. With her down bag wrapped around her for warmth, she scanned the area.

Besides the tent in front of her, no other sign of humans. Just the right amount she thought.

Out here in the wild, it’s a fine balancing act of solitude and company.

Biting another piece off of the cold, high calorie pastry, Zara’s more mind wandered to who was in the tent. A couple on a honeymoon trip, another solo hiker like herself but probably not a family. She would have heard them. As voices tend to carry when there’s nothing to silence them.

Crumpling the thin foil, Zara pushed it back into her food bag and continued sipping her coffee. The cold night air was finally being chased away by the sun and more forest creatures starting milling about her camp. The marmot was still rummaging around for food, glancing her direction every so often.

Letting out a huge sigh, she reveled in the simple life that happens only when she went backpacking. A hot mug of coffee, shelter and a little food. Not to mention an amazing view. If only it could be like this always.

As Zara finished the last of her coffee, she ran through the days plans. Get water from the lake, pack up, hike to the top of the ridge and camp in the trees. Simple day ahead she thought.

Making her way down to the lake, water bladder in hand, she eyed the tent off to her left, wondering if she’d have the pleasure of meeting the only other soul out here.

The lake was cold, filled by snow melt and crystal clear. Zara filtered it anyway but at this altitude, the water would have been fine to drink straight. A painless precaution she always told herself.

With a bladder full of water, she walked along the shore watching the wind blow gentle waves over the pebbles that crunched under her shoes. When she got in line with the other tent, she stared at it, listening. Backpackers weren’t known to sleep in late.

As she started heading back, she noticed deep red streaks that seemed to lead to the mystery persons tent. As she got closer, it crossed her mind that it was blood, maybe they were a hunter. That wasn’t uncommon in the backcountry.

At the door of the tent the blood was much more pronounced. Her heart leapt into her throat, feeling the pounding of increasing beats. She called out. Nothing.

With her shaking hands she tugged on the zipper a smell of death escaping its confines. A body, dead. She didn’t have to move in closer to see that. Stumbling backwards, she landed in a small bush, twisting her ankle on a rock. Grabbing it she looked around, panicked that there was a bear still lurking around. Looking towards the outsides of the bowl she didn’t see anything. Her breathing was still heavy as she locked onto her own tent. Someone was standing there. She made out the silhouette as it turned towards her.

Scrambling up, she started hobbling in the opposite direction.

Part II:

“Did you see?”

The silhouette spoke, voice breaking, thwarting Zara’s plan to flee. She stopped, turned, and took only a moment to recognize a woman’s shape. One whose hair formed a dark snarl on one side of her head.

“I didn’t see anything.” Zara replied, too hasty, knowing all the while that lying would do no good. As the only two people in the presence of a bloodied tent, upholding denial would be difficult. Moving forward in a shuffle-step, the woman held a limp hand toward the streaked nylon.

“Tracks. He’s in there. I don’t know what to do with him. You’re the first person I’ve seen since, since…” The woman made a sound then, almost a whimper, and when Zara could see her eyes, their red edges, and what looked like old blood or mud on her cheek, her own heart picked up tempo.

“What um, what happened?”

“I don’t know.” The woman shook her head back and forth. “It was dark and, and I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.”

The woman had gotten near enough for Zara to smell stale blood and realize the clump at her temple was a mat of dried gore. The tree trunks and foliage seemed to draw close and Zara’s vision grew sharp.

What happened to Tracks?” she demanded, and took a step toward the tent, wishing now that she’d made herself look before. The woman was freaking her out. As Zara limped sideways, her ankle taut with heat and pain, the woman started to weep, her shoulders shaking, but Zara noticed no tears fell, and she didn’t react, even when Zara bent to slide open the zipper. Rancid sweetness billowed forth when the door flap fell, and covering nose and mouth with an elbow, she dipped to have a look.

Tracks had not passed in peace. Brown stains filled the tent, dried blood so thick in places Zara could see it breaking up in flakes. Short hairs in three colors were strewn everywhere and drifted up in the current from the open door. The devastation hadn’t reached Track’s pointed ears and lush tail though, and Zara imagined the fur would be soft and thick under her hand.

“I’m so sorry,” Zara said as she pulled back from the opening. Sadness and relief stirred her, an awkward mating that came of acknowledging that though the life in the tent was ended brutally, it was not a human one, nor had the end come from a two-legged predator. Zara had no time to explore those feelings or let them take root however, for when she straightened, ready to approach the grieved woman with understanding instead of fear, she found the clearing empty.

She spun, a pained, careful dance using the toes of her injured leg. A complete revolution served as confirmation she was alone with the body of a mutilated dog. Zara heard her throat move when she swallowed, but the ballsy croak of a distant crow was the only other sound.