Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

In a workshop recently with the great flash writer, Jude Higgins, we were prompted to list some mundane things from our life. When we had a list, we picked a couple and wrote about them. One of my items was bathing in a bucket and this is the flash piece that came from it.

The news

No estimate on the return of the water, the mayor says on CBC. The sound is tinny, and the mayor’s voice drags, tired and slow in contrast with the newscaster who talks fast, almost breathlessly, over a roll of pictures of the devastation of your town. You can’t see his face, your mayor, because you’re in the kitchen, bathing from a bucket with a dish towel draped over the kitchen window because you never bothered to put up a curtain. Thousands without water or heat, the major says from the living room and since you’re not there to switch it off, the news moves on to another story as people always do.

Flash month is going great. Here’s another rough cut. I didn’t quite get where I wanted with this but it might be okay after editing.

The East Balcony

On day forty-seven of my sabbatical, someone slipped a folded note under my door. Meet me on the east balcony at sunrise. I’ll bring mimosas.  I could do this. I just had to make the first step. I slipped my feet into my house shoes—no-slip soles, no laces, or buckles. The note felt heavy in my hand. Unfolding it, I read it again. The east balcony. No signature. The east balcony was across the building, and I’d have to run-walk to get there before the sun came up even if I didn’t take time to change clothes.

Doctor Fraley’s voice echoed in my head. “Present a good front, Carley. Let them see you’re winning.”

The yellow dress would be a good front, even if it did make me look sallow. A rust-colored lipstick helped the pallor though my teeth looked dirty behind my fake-perfect lips. Drinking mimosas at sunrise. Who wanted a date with me? Since I hadn’t had a shower in three days, I wrapped a headscarf around my hair, feeling suddenly cosmopolitan. For a second, I was back in my old life, headed for a sunrise cruise, drinking champagne in the limo on the way to the marina. Hippies on bicycles waving at us as we rushed by. The man du jour laughing next to me.

I glanced out the window. The first lights were just touching the skyline. I rushed out the door, slamming it behind me.

“Hush, Carley,” the night nurse said. “People are sleeping.”

I gave her a nod and strode down the hallway. Some patients had privileges and could walk the grounds. I wasn’t allowed to leave the building without an aide, but I could go to either of the two balconies. I turned at the B ward and again just before the hallway to the baths. I picked up speed and jogged the last stretch of hallway. I wasn’t worried about being stopped. The only thing down here was the east balcony and there was no escaping that way. I burst through the double doors just as the sun made a glorious appearance at the horizon. Stunned by the sight, I almost forgot the reason I was there.

The man du jour stepped up. “Carley.”

“I’m here.”

He handed me a mimosa. I took it, smiling gratefully. His arm settled on my shoulders as we watched the last of the sun’s colors blazoning the sky. “You don’t belong here, Carley. Let me take you home.”

Home. The flat in London or the ski lodge in Austria? Home with my husband in the castle he casually bought one summer during a trip to Scotland. “I can’t leave.”

“You can.”

He stepped onto the balcony wall and held out his hand. “You just have to make the first step.” Our feet were solid on the wall and his hand felt warm in mine. I glanced down to the concrete below us. A flash of yellow caught my eye. “Just the first step, Carley.”

This was an exercise in writing a crime/thriller – not my usual genre but I enjoyed it.

Her Sister’s Son

Jackie grabbed the boy’s hand, dragging him around the corner. The car zipped by the alley. She heard the squeal of brakes.

“Faster,” she spat, unable to say more through heaving breaths. She veered toward a wall, putting a dumpster behind them. When the car came around the corner, they’d have a few seconds of grace before the driver saw them.

She heard an ear-splitting scraping of metal on brick as the car made the tight corner. She dragged them forward faster, the heavy duffle bag on her shoulder slamming against her leg. The boy’s breath was barely labored next to her and she was near puking.

She scanned the wall and found the door. She kicked the bottom of it, and a panel fell in. She shoved the boy in the hole and dove in after him, yanking her bag in behind her. Scrambling around, she fit the panel back into the door. Outside, the car screeched to a stop. Footsteps crunched on broken glass. The boy was still, eyes wide. The door rattled as someone tried the knob. “Locked,” she heard someone say.

Something slammed into the door, rattling her teeth. She threw a hand over her mouth to keep from crying out.

The footsteps moved away, and Jackie allowed herself a breath. She rested her forehead against the door. The boy fiddled with something in his hands. “Drop it,” Jackie mouthed. God knows what he’d find in here. Old needles, empty beer cans, used condoms.

She motioned for him to keep still. Finally, she heard the car backing down the alley. She stood carefully, pulling the bag back over her shoulder. She took the boy’s hand and crept down the hall, away from the door.

Around a corner, a couple junkies were lying on a dirty futon. They ignored her and she edged past them, heading toward the front door.

A shadow crept from the hallway and even in the dim light of the squatter’s room, Jackie recognized him. She backed away. “I don’t want any trouble, Kade.”

He raised his hands in an innocent gesture. “I’m just happy to see you, baby.”

Jackie yanked the boy’s arm and continued to the front door. As they squeezed past Kade, he slammed an arm against the wall, blocking her path. “Where you going so fast?”

Any sign of weakness would give Kade an excuse to try to reel her in again. She slipped a knife out of her pocket and touched it to his throat. “I don’t need your shit. I need to borrow your car.”

 “How much you got?”

 “Five hundred.”

Kade didn’t respond but she saw his nostrils flare and she knew she had shocked him.

“Where’d you get that kind of money?”

“I can get more if you let me borrow your car. If we make it back, I’ll give you five hundred more.”

He pulled back from the knife and looked her over. “That my kid?”

“It’s not even mine.”

***

The kid sat on the back seat, playing with a plastic figure he’d found on the floor of Kade’s car. Jackie glanced at him in the rearview mirror.

“I’m sorry about your mom. I know we haven’t had a chance to talk about it.”

His eyes met hers in the mirror and for the first time, she noticed the dark shadows under his eyes.

The kid looked away and Jackie shrugged. She turned down W. 117th and made the on-ramp to I-90. She was going to have to see her parents. Even with a duffle bag full of money, she didn’t know what to do. Why had her sister left the kid to her? She couldn’t take care of him. She could barely take care of herself.

She tried the kid again. “Do you know why your mom had so much money in the bank?”

The kid didn’t look up this time and Jackie gave up. She hadn’t seen her sister in years, didn’t know she had a kid. She didn’t even know Sam had died until the lawyer called asking her to come in to talk about the will.

Her sister had left her two million dollars, a note that said Mary Mack, and custody of the kid. She’d walked out of the lawyer’s office with the intention of withdrawing every penny from her sister’s bank account and dropping the kid at her parent’s house. Her head was reeling. How had Sam become a millionaire since Jackie had seen her?

She looked at the kid again. In the dying light of the day, she could only see him in the passing headlights of oncoming cars. His hair was blond and thin, falling across his pale face. He had her sister’s hazel eyes. Her parents must love him, his frailness and his soft voice would fit well in their world. Jackie was the throwback, thick, loud, with dark curly hair that had never been under control, despite the unfathomable money her mother had thrown at posh hairdressers to make it less wild.

By the time she made it to Cleveland Heights, she was dangerously near sleep. She’d kill for a coffee. A car was parked halfway up the long, curving drive to her parent’s house. It looked like the car that had chased her and the kid as they’d left the bank this afternoon.

She passed the drive without slowing. “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,” she sang under her breath.

“All dressed in black, black, black” the kid murmured from the backseat.

Startled, she glanced in the mirror to find him awake and staring at her. “My mom used to play that with me.”

“Me too,” Jackie replied. “We used to play it all the time when we were…” she trailed off. A vision of her sister, laughing as they slapped hands together popped into her head. She and Sam had been best friends. She blinked, shaking away the memory.

She pulled onto the street behind her parent’s house. If she remembered correctly, she could slip between the houses and swing over her parent’s back fence from the back-neighbor’s tree.

“You wait here,” she told the kid. She reached for the door handle and a boom rocked the car. Flames licked the sky above her parent’s house. Another explosion and lights started coming on around the neighborhood. She leaned back against the seat, tears pricking her eyes. She hadn’t seen them in years, not since their last forced attempt at an intervention. Struck suddenly by a wave of regret, she allowed herself a moment to cry. She ignored them, but they were there, they existed. She once believed they’d take her back when she was clean. She had kept telling herself once she was clean for thirty days, then sixty. Then six months. At six months, she had told herself she would approach them all when she’d been clean a year and then she’d gotten the call from the lawyer.

“Hey, Jackie,” the kid called from the back seat. “Are you okay? Was that grandma’s house?”

Of course, he would recognize the neighborhood. He’s probably been welcomed here, unlike her.

“I’m hungry,” the kid said.

Jackie drove back past her parent’s house. It was completely engulfed and the car that had been parked in the drive was gone. She made way for the approaching fire trucks and headed toward the highway. At the first exit, she pulled through a fast food drive-thru and got the kid a happy meal and herself a coffee. She pulled into a parking space and lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out the window.

Why wouldn’t Sam have left the bank account and the kid to their parents? They had a stable life. They knew him, even. She closed her eyes, thinking about Sam. Sam could sing like an angel. Everyone said so. Sam danced lightly when she walked. Jackie clomped. Why are you clomping through the house, Jacqueline? Her mother’s voice flitted through her head, the voice light and musical, belying the sting of her words. Why can’t you be more like Samantha?

The kid’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Are you my aunt?”

Jackie met his eyes in the mirror. “I’m your legal guardian.”

He blinked. “Am I going to live with you now?”

Jackie sighed, exhaling a plume of smoke toward the driver’s side window. “First we have to find out why people are trying to kill us.”

“Because of my dad, probably.”

Jackie turned in the seat to look at him. “Who’s your dad?”

“I never met him. But he gave us a lot of money. We went to the bank every month and took out money. After that, we’d go get pancakes.” He paused and for a second, looked as if he was going to cry. “Mom was always happiest on bank days.”

The coffee was getting cold and the kid was done eating. Jackie needed to figure out where to go. Back to Kade’s? She didn’t relish taking the kid into a crack house and she didn’t trust herself enough to be around it.

She’d have to get a hotel. Thank god she had cash. Mary Mack. Her eyes were so heavy, she just needed to close them for a second. She jerked awake with a sore neck. The kid was asleep, and the sun was coming up. She’d been dreaming of Sam. Dreaming of the two of them making a pinkie swear. “We’ll be best friends forever,” Sam had said. “Forever. Sam and Jack and Mary Mack.” They took off their necklaces, two halves of a heart and put them in a box, hiding them in a hollow in the giant oak in their parent’s backyard.

The oak tree. Jackie turned on the car and beelined down the highway. When she turned on her parent’s street, she looked for the familiar peak of the roof. She parked outside the house and peered up the drive. The firetrucks were gone, but so was the house. There was yellow tape across the drive. “Stay here,” she told the kid. She ran up the neighbor’s drive and slipped into her parent’s backyard. The gazebo hadn’t burned and neither had the huge old oak behind it. She dropped to her knees next to the tree and felt around in the hollow of the trunk. She pulled out a box. Tucking it under her arm, she ran back to the car.

The kid had climbed into the front while she was gone. She handed him the box as she drove away. “What is this?”

“Something your mom left me.” She touched his hand. “I’m sorry about your mom, Matthew.”

She watched him open the box from the corner of her eye as she got back on the highway.

“There’s a letter,” Matthew said.

“What else?”

“It looks like a bank book. And a key. And a really thick envelope”

“Read me the letter,” Jackie said.

“What if my mom didn’t want me to know?”

“I gotta drive, kid.”

He cleared his throat.

Dear Jack,

If you can read this, I’m dead. I’ve rewritten this a dozen times and I have no way of making this clear to you. I made a deal with some people to take Matthew in exchange for a lot of money. And every year that I kept him alive, I got a raise. I knew eventually they would want to end the project, so I set up an escape route for us. All I care about is getting Matt to safety. If you get on a plane and take him to Switzerland, you’ll find a bank account in your new name. All the ID is in safe deposit box 1843. Please get him out of here, Jack.

She pulled over to the side of the road and reached for her shoulder bag and pawed through the papers from the lawyer until she found the statements for Samantha’s bank account, the one she had drained just yesterday morning. Deposit after deposit going back seven years. And so many cash withdrawals. She couldn’t imagine how much money was in the Swiss account. She scanned the papers, looking for a name. Stagg Genetics. She glanced over at the kid who was pale and wide-eyed. “What does she mean she took me?”

Jackie shook her head. She grabbed the cheap flip phone she’d been using since her old cell had died and opened it, praying she’d added enough money last time to make a call. She called information and asked to be connected to Stagg Genetics.

When she was connected, she cleared her throat. “My name is Jacqueline Sullivan. My sister was Samantha Sullivan. I’d like to speak to someone in charge of bank deposits.”

There was a pause and a man came on the line. “Ms. Sullivan?”

“It wasn’t very nice of you to have your people try to kill me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ms. Sullivan, I can help you. Trust me, you don’t want to be involved in this. We just want our child back.”

“My sister’s son,” Jackie said.

“He isn’t your sister’s son,” the man replied. “He’s ours. No one cares about you, Ms. Sullivan. If you drop the boy off, we’ll let you go. You can keep the money and you’ll never hear a word from us again.”

“And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t, we’ll never stop hunting you.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, dreaming of a beach in Belize. She could buy an awful lot of coconut rum drinks now.

“Ms. Sullivan.”

“Where would I bring him and how do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“You can drop him off at the greyhound bus station. Get him a ticket to Albany and tell him to get on the bus. We’ll pick him up from there.”

“And he’ll be safe?”

The man clucked his tongue. “Of course, he will, Ms. Sullivan. We just want him back.”

Jackie hung up the phone and tossed it out the window as she drove off. She’d buy a new phone when she had her new name.

When they got to the Greyhound station, she parked in long-term parking and pulled a wad of cash from her duffle bag. She buried it under the front seat. Hopefully it wouldn’t get stolen before Kade got his car back. Maybe he’d use it to get high, but just maybe, he’d see it as a new start.

She packed everything back into her duffle bag and got out of the car. As they walked toward the depot, she took the kid’s hand. “You ready to go on a trip?”

The kid shrugged. He looked up at the buses. “Where am I going?”

Jackie veered away from the terminal and stopped at the public bus stop. As the number 12 pulled up, she climbed on, helping Matthew up behind her. “The airport, kid. We’re going to Switzerland.”

I wrote this for a quick turn around contest. Story had to be 1000 words and feature both an animal sanctuary and a paddle board.

Paddling Poachers

Ash leaped over gate B and landed in a pile of manure. She slipped to one knee and the brown muck squelched up over her thigh. “For the love of…”

Loud laughter cut her off. Ash turned around to see Kimber deftly avoiding the pile of elephant poo as she followed. She held out a hand and Ash gripped it, allowing Kimber to haul her out of the pile.

Ash managed to avoid the reflex of wiping off her pants. She’d done that instinctively on her first day at the Jolly Jungle Wildlife Sanctuary and had ended up flicking the manure everywhere.  She grumbled as they stomped toward the barn. “Koalas,” Ash muttered. “I had a chance to work with cute little koalas.”

Kimber grinned. “Don’t blame the ladies for pooping. It’s not their fault you can’t stay out of it.”

Ash smiled back. She wouldn’t trade working with the ladies, as they called the six elephants in their care, for anything. The elephants were their passion project. The caretakers worked for peanuts, so to speak, and the place stayed afloat by donations and grants.

Kimber leaned in close, her warm breath dancing across the skin of Ash’s cheek. “You’d be so sexy if you didn’t stink,” she whispered.

Laughing, Ash grabbed for Kimber. “Come here and give me a kiss, baby.”

Arms linked, they came around the last corner to the barn and stopped short. Kimber reacted first, yanking Ash back into the bushes. Two men with machine guns were standing outside the door. Ash sent up a quick prayer that the ladies were all out in the far field today. It would be a couple hours before they started heading to the barn for foot treatments and dinner.  Kimber’s face reflected Ash’s thoughts. “What’s going on?” Ash mouthed.

Kimber gave a grim shrug. “Poachers,” she mouthed back. They backed away. When they were a fair distance from the barn, Kimber whispered, “The lagoon.” They took off running. Ash leapt over a mound of elephant poop as they circled toward the far side of the lagoon. She flashed a smile. “Smooth as butter.”

Kimber rolled her eyes. “The first thing I think when I think of you.”

The banter didn’t quite ease the fear sitting in Ash’s stomach. If the men with machine guns had already taken over the barn, the attendant on duty was likely dead. Kimber carried a handgun, but Ash didn’t have anything but a pocketknife. They didn’t stand a chance.

They reached the edge of the lagoon and circled it until they could see the barn again. They couldn’t see the gate, so Ash didn’t know if the men with machine guns were still there.

“We have to get across the lagoon,” Kimber said.

“Yeah, no.” Ash shook her head. “Hell fucking no.” A few years ago, a clueless patron donated a handful of paddleboards to the sanctuary, along with a box of handmade sweaters, three sheets of mosquito netting, and a record player. “Filthy rich and batshit crazy,” Kimber had said at the time.

“Eccentric,” Ash reminded her. “Filthy rich means she gets to be eccentric.”

Odd as the donation was, the paddleboards were used. Kimber and another attendant kept them all over the lagoon and would often use them to cross the swamp on various trips around the preserve. Ash tried it once. Her squat legs and thick torso meant she had a lower center of balance than her willowy girlfriend, but Ash had enough trouble staying balanced on shore, let alone in the middle of a giant mud puddle.

“We don’t have a choice,” Kimber said. She ran over to the bush and paced around until she unearthed a couple boards. She handed a paddle to Ash. “We’ve got to get over there and see what they’re doing. We owe it to the ladies.”

They dragged their boards to the dark water and Ash grimaced as she knelt on the board. “We’re sitting ducks on these.”

“They won’t see us,” Kimber insisted. “We’ll push to the far side and be protected by the foliage.”

“And eaten by water snakes,” Ash grumbled.

They almost made it across, Kimber gliding smoothly through the water, Ash on her knees, wobbling. She refused to stand, sure she’d take a headfirst dive into the murky water. As they made the far side of the lagoon, Ash overreached with her paddle and the board swayed wildly under her. She overcorrected and in a moment, she was falling. Something brushed against her leg. She bit back a scream as she groped for her board. Kimber circled around. “Stay still,” she whispered. “Be quiet.”

Ash held as still as she could. The sensation of things brushing her legs under the water sent shivers up her spine. She abandoned the board and scrambled for shore. She rushed out of the water, dragging her paddle. Kimber landed next to her. As they climbed the crest of the bank, the men from the barn appeared at the top. One of them pointed a gun at Kimber. “Where are the elephants?”

Ash’s feet slid out from underneath her. She clutched for the bank but found herself sliding down the hill. The machine gun man, starting after her, slid next. At the bottom, Ash gained her feet and swung her paddle. It connected with the man’s face and he fell. Ash dove on top of him.

A gun went off and Ash froze. “It’s okay,” Kimber yelled. “These guys are armed, but extremely stupid.”

Ash got the gun from the man’s hands and pointed it at him. When she managed to get him up to the top of the bank, she saw Kimber had the other poacher at gun point. Ash grinned. “You know, there’s a ten thousand dollar reward out on poachers these days.”

Kimber smiled back. “We could use security.”

“Or medicine for the ladies. A new foot spa.”

Kimber ducked her head and smiled slyly. “Don’t forget a new paddleboard,” she said.

Continuing my stroll down memory lane in old school folders, here’s a Doctor Seuss style poem about literary theory that I wrote for a discussion board during my undergrad years. My professor must have forgiven my sometimes off rhyme scheme because I got an A.

One day Saussuure said, this is what I will do

I will outline this structuralist theory for you

to knock down this formalist hullaballo

We’ll study “la langue” like French and Urdu

And find the connections with Culler’s choo choo

The Russians chimed in, with their folklore and such

To find common factors like heroes who lust

And fair virgin maidens, their hankies they clutch

To their pale, heaving bosoms, some might call their bust

But the point, mainly, find the structure, we must

Then Levi-Strauss laid his tenets down

He didn’t make jeans, but connections profound

And he spoke about myth from a sacred ground

And folks gathered to partake of his mythical sounds

To hear the mythemes from this Frenchman’s mound.

Then Derrida jumped in with his figurative wrench

To beat down the walls of these obscure French

(though he was French, too, but his stock was the best)

But here was his light to show us the blessed

Way to achieve purity in meaningless.

See, Derrida believed in knocking down walls

And not seeing shadows in dimly lit halls

No meaning, no meaning for one and for all

Crush the structuralists by their literate balls

And wipe out logocentrism once and for all

Language is fluid, like milkshakes and sex

And Derrida said to completely tear down the text

And poke your finger into the flaming wrecks

And come up with your own meaning in flotsam and flecks

Before moving on the the next or the next.