Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Novels are Coming! . . . And a short story.

The novel I promised to pry my fingers from and share with the world via Project Gratitude 2018  [ here ] is finally on the virtual shelves at Amazon. If you were a letter recipient last year, your copy should be on the way soon.

To tide you over, here's a short story that I wrote a few months ago for the 2018 Winter Hackathon by Owl Canyon Press. For the Hackathon they provide the 1st and 25th paragraphs and you take care of the rest for a strictly 50-paragraph short story. I've highlighted the seed paragraphs below.

In the Shadow of the Wall
By Tex DeJésus

Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!
            The street art was exactly ten weeks and one day older than the modest temporary memorial. Sixteen-year-old Hannah Southworth knew this because her safest route to school each day, whether she caught the bus or walked, passed right by the singular cinderblock plane in a debris-littered lot where a grocery store stood twenty years ago.
Hannah watched with excitement as the commissioned street art took shape. A philanthropic initiative to mask the less-tasteful tags and gang symbols that covered a lot of crumbling infrastructure in the borough was set in motion just in time for the holiday season. The wall seemed to turn from gray to gold overnight. Hannah pressed her forehead to the bus window and tried to guess what it was going to say as the letters appeared over the course of days. Repo? . . . Recoil? . . . Rejoin? . . . Rejoice!
Then, in stark contrast to the cheery display, Hannah’s 19-year-old sister Lola’s lifeless body was found sprawled out at the base of the wall just a week before Christmas. Hannah felt hollow as the improvised memorial sprang up and gradually grew through Christmas Eve. She participated in two vigils and a funeral service, showing just enough emotion to appease her mother, Freda.
Snowfall in mid-January buried the withering installment to the candlewicks. The masking came as a relief to Hannah, but the fresh white blanket melted within weeks. Heartfelt letters turned to pulp. Endearing plush toys appeared more morbid than innocent as they emerged, muddy and contorted—especially those from which crows harvested eyes.
By May, a stranger might not realize that amidst the rubble there had been a memorial at all. Funding for neighborhood art projects dried up as fast as the ten cases of spray paint that it bankrolled. The glaring red “Rejoice!” was to be a seasonal installation. But even as the dandelions reared up through the gravel in the shadow of the wall to shake their manes in the spring breeze, it screamed irony across the urban landscape. By day, the freelance installment of a crude green cock-and-balls, underscoring the word, distracted passersby from the candles that still stood at the foot of the wall.
Hannah struggled with a deep sense of loss. She didn’t miss Lola, as a sister, in the slightest. The unforeseen involuntary forfeiture of things that depended upon her sister formed the void. The heaviest cross Hannah shouldered came from the guilt of not feeling how the world expected her to feel. Her role in a stage play with no end—being disingenuous day in and day out—was draining. But pretending to miss Lola was a critical front. Her mother’s sanity hung on the perpetual charade.
Between five and six years ago, Hannah lay in the top bunk above Lola in the smaller of an apartment’s two bedrooms. Hannah’s father, Greg, and Freda yelled at each other in the kitchen. Surfaces of containers and cabinets made contact at high speed for emphasis. It had something to do with money. Canned grievances became weapons of war, with their bearers drained of any temporal capacity for nuance. It didn’t matter that Hannah didn’t understand the finer details of the initial argument, or the depths of the mud slung. The tone was enough to terrify her.
            Lola suddenly kicked the bottom of the mattress above her as hard as she could. Hannah nearly flew over the side-rail. It was more than the little girl could handle, and she began to cry. Cold as ice, Lola warned her, “If your dad hits Mom, I’ll make him pay.”
              Hannah never witnessed physical violence between her parents. Though sweet harmony was a rarity between her parents, she couldn’t comprehend Lola’s brazen resentment of Greg. Sure, the man drank almost as hard as he worked to keep the family afloat, but he kept them in the black. As far as anyone knew, he was faithful to Freda. He took time to play with both his daughter and stepdaughter. That was more than could be said for Lola’s father. Ska just gave Freda her first child along with a side of Hep C and flew the coop.
            The way Greg seemed to favor Lola made her obvious distaste for him even harder for Hannah to comprehend. Sure, Lola was older, more mature, often better-behaved. But Hannah was a smart kid. She didn’t get into much trouble at school. She was also Greg’s flesh and blood—his baby girl. She loved him too much to hold the jealousy against her dad.
Lola got more hugs, more lap time, and regular “daddy-dates.” Greg would often drive away with Lola in his Ranger. Sometimes he let her ride right next to him, perched high on the armrest with the seatbelt across her knees. Upon their return, Hannah would run out to greet them and right into his open arms. Lola usually retreated quietly to her room with a new toy in-tow.
Eager to hear about the fun they had, Hannah would beg for details. Did she get to play in the ball pit? Did daddy go down the slide with you? There were visions of sugarplums since Greg promised her that, when she was just a little older, she could go. Lola tortured her by divulging very little. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” she often stated blandly.
Greg’s last day happened to be on an outing with Lola. He never drank on those trips. The autopsy couldn’t pin the horrific wreck that killed him on a stroke or a heart attack, either. The truck was so mangled after it clipped a backhoe parked in a construction zone at high speed and cartwheeled down the freeway that a mechanical failure couldn’t be proven. So everyone held to that theory.
Lola was in the hospital for over a month. Both of her little legs were broken. She didn’t seem to remember anything leading up to the accident despite multiple therapy sessions over the following years. Hannah couldn’t shake how her sister avoided eye contact in the hospital, even when she brought Lola a giant stuffed rabbit that she bought with her own savings to try and lift the poor girl’s spirits.
 Greg’s extended family was desperate for his stepdaughter’s suppressed memories of his last moments after the man’s sudden departure. Some from Freda’s side of the family questioned why Lola had on nothing but a bloody tee shirt when she was pulled from the tangled nest of bent steel and shattered glass. “I must have blacked out,” became her tagline. The way she would later come to say that, through a half-sneer with circles under her eyes as dark as her purple lipstick, made Hannah uneasy.
The unexpected loss of Greg was even harder on Freda. She, after all, had to weather the financial implications head-on. Life insurance through Buckhorn Construction, Greg’s employer, helped cover Lola’s hospital bills. But Freda made weekly trips to the local food bank by the time her daughter came home.
Freda had to find a job to keep their heads above water. She ended up with a rotating shift on a tight circuit, caring for the basic needs of homebound hospice patients. Her empathetic nature was a perfect fit from the perspective of vulnerable people yanked back and forth between agony and the euphoria of painkillers near the end of their ropes.
In hindsight, a job that forced her to accept the rapid-fire fading of people she cared for, even as she bonded with them, wasn’t the healthiest career field Freda could have chosen right after her husband’s death. Depression set in. The power of the medicine she regularly administered to dull pain was too effective, too available, to resist. Soon, it just wasn’t enough.
Hannah thought she might be going crazy. Lola’s funeral was months ago. The memorial at the foot of the wall was scattered—disintegrated, looted, and composted, but for the candles. The candles, despite the snow, the time, and the vandals that defaced the “Rejoice!” lettering beyond legibility, were still in place. On some days, through the school bus window, Hanna could make out slight variations in their heights or formation. It was as if someone still burned and replaced them regularly.
            Hannah chose to walk to school the following Monday. She stopped to take an up-close picture of the candles with her phone. Friday, she walked again. Trembling with excitement as she knelt before the shrine, she pulled up Monday’s photo and confirmed her suspicions. Not only did some of the candles melt down further, some were taller. There were five on Monday, and now six—someone maintained the shrine. Hannah decided then to do her homework at the bus stop across the street the following Monday, and stake out the scene as night fell.
Three and a half years ago, Lola walked her sister home from school. They made a routine stop in the shadow of the wall, then an evolving rainbow of backjumps, tags, and grey patches from short-lived municipal buffing campaigns. Lola always made Hannah stay near the crumbling sidewalk and “watch for pigs” while she held a rapid-fire series of brief meetings with individuals loitering in the lot. One day she returned to Hannah to find her crying. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked testily, her head making an involuntary jerk sideways.
“I just remembered . . .” Hannah sniffed, “It was three years ago today that you and Dad—” Lola rolled her eyes with a huff and brushed past her sister. Hannah yelled through undiluted grief as she hurried to catch up, “Don’t you miss him? What’s wrong with you?!? . . . Seriously! Lola! Are you even alive!?”
            Lola turned to face Hannah. She leaned forward menacingly to bring them nose-to-nose. That’s when Hannah saw her sister’s everyday-self buried treading water several miles deeper than usual in a boiling emotional and chemical slurry. It only surfaced in the bloodshot around the open windows of her dilated pupils. The sudden flash of concern Hannah reflected was enough to tell Lola, even on a high, that her cover was blown. She hissed, “The world is a better place without that monster. You’re welcome.”
Three days later, an automobile pulled up and parked beside the concrete wall. The driver opened the door, but did not get out of the car. Although her face was in shadow, it was easy to tell she was sad. There was something about how she turned away from the sun and rested the weight of her hands on the steering wheel. Something about her silent composure caused Hannah to sigh. The young girl watched the driver lean out of the car and stretch her hand out toward one of the burned out candles.
            Under a streetlight on the other side of the road, Hannah’s commitment to memory of the capitols of eastern European nations went on hold. The blemish-free dark blue BMW looked quite out of place. Class tribalism quickly snuffed out the whiff of empathy sparked by the woman’s wistful silhouette. Hannah slid her geography textbook into her backpack in exchange for an empty glass Topo Chico bottle, and zipped up.
Hannah hoisted her book bag over her left shoulder. Through a break in traffic, she ran across the street, hurdling a pothole. She rounded the rear bumper of the sedan and jumped into the car behind the stranger. Slamming the door behind her, she quickly pressed the mouth of the bottle firmly against the driver’s neck, “Who are you, and how did you know Lola!?”
The woman shrieked. A box of matches flew into the passenger seat as her hands shot up. Her eyes locked onto the girl’s in the rearview mirror, “Hannah! Oh my God! You really scared me! Your sister is probably laughing at me right now.” She lowered her shaky hands to her knees, and relaxed slightly with a sigh, “You know—I can see your bottle in the side-mirror. You can put it down. . . Let’s go for a ride.”
            With that, the woman stomped on the gas. Gravel peppered the undercarriage as the sedan’s wheels spun under sudden acceleration. Hannah lurched back against the leather bench seat, wide-eyed. She yanked at the door handle. It refused to open. For a split second, she weighed smashing the window with the soda bottle. Her wheels spun as the car rolled onto city streets. “Let me out!” She yelled, “Who are you?”
Almost a year ago, Hannah peeked through security bars of her family’s first-floor apartment and tried to discern any movement behind the curtains. No signals offered. With the piece of butcher’s twine around her neck, she pulled a key out of her gray V-neck and unlocked the front door.
The familiar warmth of stale tobacco-tinged air caressed her cheekbones as she stepped into the unit. Her mother was on the couch near the door, her feet planted as far apart as her short skirt would allow. Head cranked back, her eyes and mouth chomped sporadically at the ceiling. She gulped air between unintelligible strings of syllables.
            Lola sat next to Freda on the stained floral upholstery accented by burn holes. Hannah noticed the seat cushion and skirt beneath Freda were soaked with piss. Lola held her mother’s hand and stroked her arm, “It’s okay, you’re doing great!” she said soothingly, even as her fierce green eyes flashed Hannah a stern warning.
            The young girl’s stomach turned and churned. Indignation and anger gained quickly on her fear and anxiety, but couldn’t catch up to incredulity. She met Lola’s icy glance with her own signature ocular firebrand, “What did you give her, Lola?! Is that what you’ve been selling? Are you going to fucking kill everyone that I love!?”
“You can call me Carla.” The driver offered, “I’m glad to finally meet you, Hannah. And yes, I knew Lola well—she showed me pictures of you on her phone. I was able to pick you out of the crowd at her memorial service. I can pull over and let you out right now if you like, but if you want to know more . . .”
Curiosity overpowered Hannah. With skeptically pursed lips, she nodded reluctantly at the sad, mascara-shaded blue eyes begging for consent from the mirror. “About Lola?” she asked, “Okay—tell me what you know, then. I heard once that she had a girlfriend. . . . Was that you? Mom would so flip out.”
            Carla nervously cleared her throat, “My father was dying from stage-four colon cancer, and Freda was his hospice caretaker . . . or supposed to be. I went to check on Daddy one afternoon and found Lola administering his medication. I threatened to report her when she couldn’t show me any credentials. She was still honest enough to tell me that Freda was the person swallowing his pain pills when she made the house calls.
“She also told me that, without your mom’s income, you would all be living on the street in a matter of weeks. I decided to let Lola stand in for Freda until Daddy passed. She even came to his funeral. We grew very close after he died . . . then someone took her from me!”
Carla wiped watered down eyeliner from her face and rambled on, “The city just mopped up and left. They don’t care. I’m following up on her case. I send letters to officials. I try to keep her memory alive with candles at the memorial. . . . I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you, Hannah. Lola told me things . . . things she didn’t tell anyone else. But she refused to tell me where you lived. I’ve been worried sick for you, since she isn’t here to cover for your mom anymore. How are you getting by?”
City lights, pushing harder through nightfall, scrolled past the car window and Hannah’s glazed-over eyes, “Mom got how important insurance is after Dad’s wreck. She talked about it all the time. She paid extra to get us all covered once she got a job. We’re okay. She doesn’t even pretend to work now.”
Carla was visibly relieved, “Oh! Wow . . . That’s so good to hear . . . Are you hungry? Can I take you to dinner?” Hannah shook her head as the woman drew to a stop on the shoulder and turned on her hazard lights, “I can take you home, then. Would that be okay? Just tell me where to go!”
“Lola wouldn’t tell you where we live. You think I will!? I can get myself home,” Hanna said, defiantly testing the locked car door again. Carla’s arm reached back between the seats with a roll of cash in her hand. Hannah hesitated. It was the familiar look of the bills, tightly wound and circled by a lavender elastic hairband that gave her pause. “I don’t want your money. Let me out!”
            “It’s not mine, Hannah. Lola wanted you to have it if anything ever happened to her. I think she knew, somehow, that she was short on time. I don’t know about her source of income. . . I know she wasn’t a whore. I also know that she cared deeply for you. She said she didn’t think you would ever understand her completely . . . that’s why she needed me . . . but I know she loved you more. You don’t know what you had. Take this, please, and I’ll let you out.”
Hannah lay in her upper bunk, looking for familiar shapes in the lumps of popcorn ceiling a few feet from her nose. The mental scavenger hunt helped distract her from the haunting image firmly stamped into her psyche. It always seemed to boot up when she wanted to sleep—when there was no work, conversation, or music to flush it away.
The room seemed colder, if safer, without the familiar flicker of Lola’s smartphone reflecting off the walls, or the rhythmic sound of her breathing. Rambling intonations of late-night infomercials, for which Freda developed an impressive level of tolerance, blended with traffic noise outside to form a new audio baseline.
Hannah rolled over and squirmed into position to descend the wooden ladder. She walked over to her fading pair of black denim jeans piled on the floor and dug the money roll out of a pocket. Quietly, in her socked feet, she skated down the hallway to peek into the living room. Freda sat on the unsoiled side of the couch. Her chin, pressed against her chest, served as a kickstand for her head. Saliva had barely breached the sagging corner of her mouth—a sure sign she would sleep for at least a few more hours.
Back down the hall and into her mother’s cold, seldom-used bedroom, Hannah lowered herself to her knees before her father’s old wooden chest of drawers. She carefully worked the bottom drawer outward to avoid squeaks and clanks. A King Edward cigar box covered with crayon scribbles snuggled with dress socks and a few rolled-up leather belts inside. Hannah carefully lifted it out and set it on the floor. She swung open the lid and tucked the cash into the carton alongside a black subcompact Glock pistol and a handful of loose hollow-point rounds.
Hannah picked up the handgun and deftly removed its empty magazine. It seemed much heavier than a week ago. With the front of her nightgown, she polished the cold metal surfaces, the smooth parts and the knurling. From the muzzle to the handgrip, she massaged the piece. With her sleeves pulled over her fingertips, Hannah reassembled and returned the pistol to its place. She closed the box, and then wiped down the exterior. Struggling to breathe, she carefully placed the container back in the drawer, and pushed the drawer closed.
The strength Hannah needed to make her routine ascension just wasn’t at her disposal when she reached her room. She rolled onto the squeaky springs of the lower mattress. The sudden, familiar scent of Lola’s mango mist body spray, embedded in the sheets, overwhelmed her.
Grief and remorse struck like fangs of a newly awakened viper. They ripped into her heart with a precise and unrelenting ferocity. Hannah curled into a ball and silently wept with the subliminal hope that she might drown in her tears before the shadow of the wall swallowed her whole. How else might she free herself from the loop of film that whirred constantly in her conscience?
At the foot of the golden wall, near where the candles would burn, Lola’s blue hair feathered out on the dirt and amongst the weeds like cotton candy stolen and rejected by a playful gust of wind at the county fair. Agony etched terror into disbelief on her face. Her cheeks grew paler by the second. The hole in her stomach dribbled and gushed, as if the bright crimson “Rejoice!” overhead was destined from commencement to melt and drain through Lola’s person. Tears saturated her closed eyelids. They pooled there to plummet from the bridge of her nose to Earth and form a solitary freckle in the dust. Hannah turned and walked away.

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