Today is technically the last day of my Preptober Prompts week, so before we get into it, I think I’d better explain what’s been going on with my weird posting schedule, and why I’m proving to be such a shabby host.
Basically, writers’ block.
(Blame it all on writers’ block.)
No, but seriously. When I committed to this, I hadn’t yet started my job and had NO idea what kind of bite it would take from my time. Everyone deals with first-job time management problems, and I’m already in the process of straightening mine out, but when writers’ block hit, I was unprepared, already stressed, and lacking the time to actually sit down and get this thing done.
Thus, these last two weeks have been a crazed whirl of spending every spare second trying to grind my stories out and keep my commitment. (Thanks, mom, for washing the dishes for me so I could have more writing time…) Even then, I’m not doing a terribly good job of it. God kept forcing me to make terrible decisions: Work on my stories, or spend the evening with an elderly lady from church? Work on my stories, or have a long conversation with my mom about Spiritual callings and the future? Work on my stories, or paint a Psalm for the struggling girl at work?
God won out most of the time. But I may or may not have had a few nervous break-downs in between.
SO. This is the last day of my Preptober week. I stayed up until 3 AM last night to get Story #4 done, but Stories #5 & #6 still aren’t finished. In light of this, I’m going to post the last three prompts today, but release the corresponding stories when I actually finish them. (Sometime in the next few days, if all goes well.)
Alright, we all clear on that? Let’s do this.
(This is the story I’m releasing today. )
And the last two prompts–
Desert dust and the prickle of sagebrush against her ankles gives an odd sensation — an out-of-body experience, Liriel thinks, that’s what this is. The sun is the same as it always is, except somehow not, somehow bigger and whiter and hotter than she ever remembers it before. Everywhere she looks, she sees red. Red in the cracked asphalt and red in the dirt. Faded, burgundy hues in the sagebrush that stretches on to kiss the sky. Blood from her blisters and rust on the engine steaming beneath her hands.
Lotch’s shrill voice needles the sun-soaked stillness. “How’s it coming?”
The engine sputters, hisses, heaves like a dying man — and cuts out.
Liriel grits her teeth. “Go away, brat.”
Two hours ago when the engine first spluttered and Liriel maneuvered the old, ocher-colored van onto the side of the road, Aven piped up from the backseat with, “Where are we?” But there’s no answer to his question. They are here, which is nowhere. Taillights dark and engine silent, hood propped open and trunk overflowing with more musical instruments than anyone knows what to do with. They are here, which is the dirt strip in between a forgotten highway and plains of sage. They are here, which is the last place Liriel wants to be.
“Toss me that wrench,” says Sley.
They are here, and so is he.
As always, his voice makes her jump, awakening the little part inside that still insists he shouldn’t be here, this isn’t safe. She can’t forget the day they met — in the heart of December (oh so many months ago), shivering on his front porch and singing “Away in a Manger” horribly off-key. She still remembers the wolf in his eyes, the untamed creature inhabiting a face of scruff and stone and too many frightened lines.
“Wrench,” he snaps again. “You got cotton in your ears?”
Nothing much has changed.
That day, that impossibly cold and unpardonably fateful day in December — Lotch asked him a question that day. “Who be you, mister?” she’d said, her eyes wide with innocent perception. “Why did they run away from you?”
“People are just like that, kid: Stupid.”
“Am I stupid?”
He looked at her long and hard, his shoulders folding in and body tensing and arms tightening across his chest. “Probably.”
She beamed. “Then you is stupid too!”
That was a long time ago. Eight months have come and gone, eight months since Liriel lost her temper and stormed back onto his porch, demanding (against reason) to know why he’d pulled a knife on her cousin.
(“He took my hat,” Sley said. “My hat. And then laughed about it, the little twerp.”)
(And Aven, flushed and indignant— “How was I supposed to know it was some kind of deep-rooted psychological safety blanket? I don’t even know you!”)
(“So, what, you just nab things from random strangers?”)
(“Dude, c’mon, it was funny.”)
(“Hence the knife,” said Liriel dryly.)
Eight months have changed things — Sley, Aven, herself, their situation. She’s no longer the unhappy owner of a floundering music shop. The little upstairs apartment was long since emptied, and Aven had the idea to take their business on the road. “We’ll be the next Von Trapp Family Singers,” he’d said, even though most of their group was related by shared insanity only — no family ties, no decades’ worth of friendship. They don’t even know each other’s birthdays. No one’s really sure where Lotch comes from or if it’s even legal to bring her with them, but she’s here now and Liriel’s trying her best to not think about it. (Or the possible charges of kidnapping.) Emolas came despite being tone-deaf, and makes himself useful by nagging everyone to stay hydrated. And Sley…
Well, she’s still not sure why Sley is here, or why he even agreed to come. Some brilliant fancy of Aven’s, most likely. (“We need someone to play the tuba,” he said, even though Sley most definitely cannot do so.)
So. Here they are. All five of them, in an ocher-colored van with cracked windshield and blown-out taillight and their supposed name, “Glenborn Groop,” spray-painted onto the side by Lotch’s hand. (Whether she was trying to spell group or goop is still up for debate.) After two weeks of driving, the crudely sketched route on their map lands them somewhere in the middle of Arizona, fifty miles from a service station and eighty miles from the nearest town, an infinitesimal dot on the paper named Grasshopper Township.
Here they are. Going nowhere.
“Liriel! The wrench!”
She hurls it at his face.
(“Ooh, score one for Liriel!” screeches Lotch, perched cross-legged on top of the van with a corn-dog in one hand and a kazoo in the other.)
Sley dodges (flinches), unfolding himself from where he hunched over the exposed engine. He towers above her, a pony-tailed mammoth in plaid shirtsleeves and dingy grey beanie soldered to his head with sweat. Engine grease smears his nose.
“Wrench,” he says quietly, tersely. “Give it here.”
She juts her chin. “You’ve been at this for the last hour and thirty-seven minutes, but it’s still not working.”
The lines in his face tighten — almost stretch, like cellophane-wrap barely containing the churning darkness within. “Listen here, Snowball, I don’t care what you think you know about cars—”
“Which is nothing,” Aven chips in, lying on his back in the middle of the road and staring at clouds.
“—but I’m the one fixing this thing, so you can take your pretty little stuck-up nose and stick it back in your own business.”
“I beg your pardon, sir.” She jabs a finger at the smoking engine. “But this is my vehicle, which therefore makes it my business.”
(Aven coughs into his sleeve. “Actually, it’s my vehicle…”)
“I don’t care whose business it is,” Sley growls, advancing a step. Power shivers in his arms, in the clench of his fists and bulge of his veins. “This is pointless and you’re ticking me off.”
In moments like these, when he stares at her with such intensity his eyes glimmer like polished embers beneath the shadow of his hat, Liriel remembers why he should frighten her. He is too big, too erratic. Impossible to contain and control, impossible even to understand. Aven may find it easy to overlook Sley’s past violence, and Emolas at least tries to keep an open mind, but she is not Aven, and she is not Emolas. Mercy is not in her nature.
“Get lost,” Sley snaps.
Mercy is for those who want it.
Doing what he says isn’t surrender, and leaving when he shouts at her to isn’t cowardice — or so she tells herself as she stalks away, reciting it over and over again until it becomes a tribal-like chant in her head. She wrenches open the passenger door, clambers inside, slam — and she isn’t afraid of him, really, as she watches him through the protective barrier of the windshield. She isn’t. Even though his instinctual response to anything is reaching for the knife in his back pocket, even though she’s caught his gaze lingering on her with unidentifiable hatred, even though his hands are the perfect size to fit around her throat, even though his eyes are so beautiful, blast it, so beautiful and horrible and depraved and—
She isn’t afraid of him.
“I like mayonnaise,” says Emolas.
Liriel jumps, whirls, and gets her hair tangled in the seatbelt. Tiny prickles needle her scalp. “You,” she sighs.
Emolas gives a half-smile, more a smirk than anything. He sits cross-legged on the van’s solitary bench-seat, his legs folded like a spider’s and green hair reaching for the staticky ceiling. Their little red cooler is open in front of him. Lunch-meat and slices of bread are spread out on either side.
“Would you like a sandwich too?” he asks, proffering his beloved jar of mayonnaise.
“To be perfectly frank, an assassination would be more appreciated.”
He retracts the jar. “Whose assassination? Yours, Aven’s, or Sley’s?”
“I trust your judgment.” One strand at a time, she separates her hair from the metal seatbelt buckle. “You can choose.”
“Well in that case, I think I’d rather just assassinate myself,” he says, and dips a knife into the mayonnaise. “How are the repairs coming along?”
She returns her gaze to the window. Sley is back at it, hunched over the engine with sleeves rolled up and arms covered in grease, scowling at the rusty car parts like the flames of his wrath will somehow meld them back together. Lotch frolics in the background, chasing a tumbleweed.
Liriel sighs. “The town of Grasshopper is quickly fading into the ashes of a forgotten dream.”
“That was mildly poetic of you,” Emolas notes. “Are you certain you’re properly hydrated?”
She isn’t certain, but it really doesn’t matter. If Sley can’t fix the engine, they’ll be stranded in this desert for at least a night, and she wants to conserve their water supply in case of that eventuality.
The grunt is uncharacteristic, even for a person as quiet as Emolas, and she turns again to look at him. He stares, as she was just staring, out the windshield — at the sky without beginning or end, at the fine-toothed comb of cliffs marring the far horizon, at tumbleweeds and crimson dust and engine grease and Sley. A furrow mars the space between Emolas’ brows.
“You don’t like him,” Liriel says. It isn’t a question.
“It isn’t that I don’t like him—” Ah, he’s pleading now, trying to remain objective— “I just don’t… fully comprehend his motives.”
Emolas picks at the crust of his sandwich. “He keeps a switchblade in his back pocket. Do you know that?”
“I want to trust him,” he says, “I do — or at least, I think I do — but there’s a beat in my head I can’t seem to shake, and every time I look at him, it… the beat…”
He leaves his words hanging there, incomplete. Liriel doesn’t ask him finish. Liriel thinks she knows.
Emolas smiles, big enough to crinkle around his eyes and scrunch his nose and almost, almost hide the anxiety dropping over him like shades of melting sunlight. “Let’s wait until we reach Grasshopper to make any judgments.”
She dips her head. “I don’t know if that’s possible. But I will try.”
The glove box falls open at her touch, revealing the miscellaneous odds and ends they’ve acquired during their few weeks on the road — ticket stubs and carry-out menus from the assortment of restaurants and 4-H fairs Aven’s had them perform at. Nestled in the garbage is a stained red book. Liriel fingers it.
She doesn’t slam the door quite as loudly when she clambers out of the van. Schooling her face into neutral iciness, she approaches Sley, taps him on the shoulder, ducks as he flinches — his hand flies to his pocket, as always — and waits until he stops swearing to hold out the book.
He flinches again. “Um?”
“Narkle’s Guide to Auto-Repair,” she says. “Lotch brought it.”
Sley scowls at her, scowls at the book, and slowly, hesitantly, reaches out to take it. (Are his hands trembling?) “What am I s’posed to do with this?”
She rolls her eyes. “You could try reading it. That might be helpful.”
He flips it open. The pages are stained with coffee spills and crudely sketched hangman games — Aven’s work, most likely. Sley snorts.
“Hey Liriel!” Lotch bounces over, sweat plastering her hair to her forehead and dripping off her chin. Her face is the color of a rooster’s comb. “I learnt how to play something on this kuzco thingie!” She fits the kazoo to her lips, puffs out her cheeks, and blows. (Liriel plugs her ears.) “See? Ain’t it great?”
The van door slams, and Emolas appears around the side. “It’s better than I could do,” he tells the child, though that isn’t saying much. Sley hums disinterestedly.
He’s back at it, leaning over the engine and focusing his intensity on the metal beneath his hands. The book sits open next him. Liriel joins him, peering down at the rust and oil, and maybe she imagines it, maybe she’s overthinking, maybe her mind still filters the world through the subjective lens of her dislike — maybe he doesn’t really scoot a fraction of an inch away, his shoulders hunching and fists tightening and arms coming up to press against his stomach.
“Don’t stare at me,” he says. “It’s creepy.”
Emolas appears on his other side, so unabashedly taller it might have been funny, except it isn’t. She’s really not imagining things now when Sley flinches again. His eyes tighten, his arms tense. He picks at the unraveling edge of his beanie.
(“A hat?” Liriel said on that fateful day in December. “You almost knifed my cousin over a hat?”)
(“If it’s so much of a problem, you can have mine.” Emolas dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a lumpy, misshapen wad of yarn Lotch had crocheted for him. His knuckles were white as he shoved it toward Sley, and face whiter. He’s angry, Liriel realized — angry in the way Emolas always was, but never showed.)
(Sley took the hat. His hands trembled.)
“Why do you wear that?” she asks now, tipping her chin at the yarn beneath his fingers.
Her jerks away, spits a curse, and plunges his hands back into the machinery. “Mind your own business.”
“You’re going to get heatstroke.”
“I said shut it, lady.”
“I think—” she begins, but never finishes, because something sparks, white hot, and then Sley yelps, and grabs her, his fingers twisting around her wrist, and the last thing she sees before red explodes is the reflection of fire in Emolas’ eyes.
Sensation returns in slow breaths, first a buzzing in her mind, then a roar. She wonders what happens, even though she knows. She wonders where she is, even though she recognizes the ‘nowhere’ of her surroundings. The world reassembles itself, pieces slotting together one at a time:
Sley’s hand still on her arm, his fingernails digging into her skin.
Needles in her brain.
Lotch, wide-eyed and breathless, her mouth forming a perfect O.
Chalky heat waves warping the air.
Flames in the engine.
(“Alternatively,” Aven says, “we could call a tow-truck?”)
And Emolas, standing where she’d left him before she’d been yanked away, his hand raised in front of his face as he surveys burnt flesh.
Static fizzles. Liriel’s ears pop. And when she calls (screams) Emolas’ name, the words on her lips don’t touch her ears.
Things to take away from this story:
- I know nothing about cars and the likelihood of an engine actually exploding is very low.
- I hate titling things.
- None of these derpy kids are musically gifted.
- Emolas likes mayonnaise.
If you want to follow along with Preptober Prompts for the last three days of October, head over to The Happy Hedgehog blog tomorrow. As for myself… I’ll see you soon, kiddos.