Archive for August, 2012

This is an entry for a blog contest on TERRIBLE MINDS, the home of Chuck Wendig, freelance pen monkey etc etc.

5th and West

Ben Dodge

 

“He’s going off the charts!”

I thump the blood bag, keep the stretcher steady as our maverick of a driver wheels the ambulance around in a gritty parking lot so hard the wheels scrap tobacco-encrusted pavement from the tar.  The doors ahead swing open; offering more light than green LED’s and instrument displays.

“Fuck!”  The blond, petite trauma nurse grabs the paddles.  My team straps the man down, collectively holds their breath as the twenty-something shudders under the recoil of 5,000 volts.

“Check?”

I tap the monitor.  Nothing.  A spark.  The alarm stops shrieking.

“We’re unsteady, but his heart’s pumping,” I gasp into the pregnant silence.  Blood drips from my hands, across the casualty’s hoodie and jeans.  It’s his, not mine.

He’s lying strapped to the gurney, frothing at the mouth, hands bruised from the defibrillator’s shock.  In the dark, his skin’s so white it’s pasty, like baking dough.  He’s lost a lot of blood.

I check the readout as the trauma teams outside practically throws their gurney to a halt outside, bouncing with the roughness of the ‘lot.  He’s lost nearly two litres to be exact.  It’s 3:04 am.

My shift started eleven hours ago.

I hop out, help the crew slip the patient onto the wheeled stretcher.  The night air catches at my throat with the usual inner-city smells; pollution, smokes, the septic smell of a squatter community, blood from more recent arrivals.

“Who is he?”

I shrug, grabbing the edge of a gurney as the five of us haul ass to the open door.

“No idea.  A bystander we found near 5th and West.  Caught in some kind of crossfire.”  I gestured to the man’s over-sized black hoodie, where four .22 rounds had caught him across the lower ribs, stomach, naval, and crotch; neatly placed.

The double-doors bang open, throwing light into the inky blackness of the parking lot.  There’s no streetlights, and the glittering of skyscrapers isn’t enough to light up by, let alone tape up an assault victim.

I snatch up the bag of plasma as we roar through the peeled-paint halls, past the results of a dozen stabbings, shootings, domestics, police interventions and OD’s.  The lobby nurse waves us through the mob.  I stand beside the man, shielding his face from the morbidly curious throng.

I know him, you see.

He’s a cousin of mine, goes by the name of Weasel.  He isn’t a bystander.  He’s a gangster.  He also wasn’t caught in a crossfire; he was targeted.  Deliberately.

He’s family.

I stumble briefly, just in front of the emergency operating theatre to pull off his patient I.D.  The team swings past and they’re gone.  I’m done for the night.

My shoulders sag as I begin the long walk out, through the lobby to the open double doors.  I snatch a Belmont from my pocket, flip a Zippo as the door bangs open to reveal five of them.

Journalists.

“Sir, is it true that you’ve just brought in the criminal known as Weasel?”

“Sir, can you confirm-“

“Sir, can-

“Sir-“

I elbow past all of them, lighting up.  I relax as their shouts grow dim and the embers-

smoulder

as I try to relax.  My pistol shakes in a death grip as I lean in a bare-brick alley, just off of 5th.  Cars zip by.  Cops wail past like the metallic banshees they are.  Sobs shake the apartment above.  Loud music echoes like an anthem, a beat-driven memento to the fallen.

My cigarette drops to the curb.  I step out, pull up my hoodie, walk down the rows of shitbag tenements and trash-filled rows where the junkies hang thicker than the flies.  I elbow past two of them, watch their tracked-out veins wave as they beg for a loaner.  The .22 hangs in my waistband now, heavier than a death sentence.

It could be a death sentence.

There’s no way I can walk through the police tape.  I can’t waste all the cops here.  Nothing I can do about the evidence still there.  The .22 casings are in my shoes.

An ambulance came by, picked him up.

I didn’t finish him proper.

I’ve got debts, see?  Three grand is on the line, and I would have lost my place in the crew if I didn’t pay up by tonight.  With this, I lose my debt and any opposition to crew boss.

I turn at the corner of West.  The hospital isn’t far.  I’ve still got eight rounds.

I sprint down the spit-trodden sidewalk, bump past two bums and a dealer, hand around the handle of my .22, thumb around the hammer.  There’s an ambulance; a guardian angel unloading its latest victim at the parking lot.  There’s a trauma team, a few unmarked cars, but no cops.

One street to go.   A taxi looses it’s fender as I-

-roll-

-my shoulders and try to relax, try to unwind after a long shift.  The nicotine calms my-

-nerves-

-as I leg it past a local beat patrol.  They start in their parked cruiser, coffees spilling across their uniforms as one goes for the wheel and the other goes for the radio.  Or a shotgun.

I can only keep moving.  They can’t spray and pray, they won’t with civilians all around.  My hand whips out the .22 as a man with a cigarette finishes up and takes a step aside, to go back inside the hospital, inside an open door and harsh lights.

I saw him brush past a few men and women in suits.  Reporters?  Seems this guy-paramedic, probably- doesn’t want to be bothered.

I know him.  Its Weasel’s cousin; the smart one.  He’s covering for his coz, again.

So am I.

He turns back, by instinct, stares me down as I stare down the rocking barrel, fingers squeezing the trigger fast as I can

-sprint-

through the double doors.  Six rounds bounce off the pavement.  The nurse screams.

A shotgun blast echoes through the cold, dark night

-rushes-

­-over my eyes.  It’s all over.

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The second entry in my little flash fiction series.  See “Drive” for an explanation of the collection’s premise.

Smoke fills the room.

Across bare brick, hard ash, cold concrete, the layers of a thousand cheap snapshots flitter and wave in the stuffy smog outdoors.  It’s a Friday.  Neon whips by in solid lines beyond the kicked and battered door.  It’s done so for hours.

The establishment’s quiet; waiting and sipping drinks with a blue-collar weariness famous the world over.  Leather jackets wear smudges in the cheap upholstery.

Across one end of clippings and cheap ink is a bar worn by years of pounded fists, slapped palms and blackjack hands.  Stained glasses hang overhead in their dozens.  A few sit or slouch across its polished face with hands on their drinks and their pay stubs in the bartender’s greasy hands.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.”

The baritone voice drifting from the speakers is raspier than usual and washed out.  It’s the static, though the three single-malt slugs before didn’t help.

Heads turn.  Who is he kidding?

Out of key.

He kicks the stand aside, wishing it would burn.  The old days would have him blowing this one to electronic catatonia in the space of a single set.  He’d burn a dozen out before the end of the night.  The killer ‘chords he’d tested in his youth were still strong and still steady.  The embers had ripped at his heart in time with the drums and the drugs and the deafening baying of a bloodthirsty mob screaming their hearts out before him were silent now.

Stagnation had buried them.  Age had said a few words over the remains.

Those days of sold-out amphitheatres are over.  The after parties and fast sex have blown his brains and his sense out long ago.

Nothing left to do but play.

The gloom of the room flows across the myriad of slouched backs and bundles across the floor.  Nobody but the man is without Belmont’s or d’Lauriers; a nicotine-inspired parody of a candlelight vigil.

He strikes up a tune, fingers groping the E, reaching up to the G with a lag he hasn’t shaken since his lock-up days.

Too soft- the receptor is barely picking it up.  Shit equipment, as always, but beggars can’t be choosers.  His coat-tail flips from the stool’s back end- jet black and caked with the leavings of his apartment’s rotting plaster.  A single red strip chases its way up the old coat’s outer seams to his high collar.  Despite the bulk of the coat, there’s a vast hollow space beneath.  He isn’t well-fed, muscled, or wiry.

A hand thumps the table before him.  A shaven-headed fifty-something with anchors across his arms and intoxication stitched across his face yells out a syllable.  It’s indistinct.

A word?  An insult at least?

He can’t tell over the faint twanging, but his mates’ reaction isn’t much better.
Dockworkers, all of them.  It might have been their girlfriends and sisters keeping him up in his slowly rotting apartment last night.  Pen had tried to move across his staff paper for the first time since leaving the clink.  It had ventured past the first two bars and stopped, dead.  Unfair.  Weaving notes hadn’t been hard before.

It hadn’t been agonizing.

Thumps and muted moans had shattered his concentration.

When in the last three decades had he ever concentrated?

“Piss off” murmured one of the dockworkers.

He sighs, shakes his head slightly.  His steel-grey hair flips from behind his coat, tied tight with the few spare strings he keeps.  Eyes green as neon flickers in the smoke and the dust.

Everything is a haze.

Everything is a goddamn haze.

A pick slips into his hand.  A paw would be a better description.  Worn away by scars, battered by beers and handshakes, sweetened by under-the-skirt caresses or soulful twangs, burned by the unceasing dancing of the strings.

They define him.

More can be said about his hands than any other part of his body.  Veins seem to break the skin.  They are rough, but how they dance.

Correction.  How they danced.

A pluck slips into a short chord.  He’s getting back the muse, but for how long?  Is it a quick kiss over a smoke or a long, sleepless night?

He grins, though anyone looking up from their pints would call it a grimace.

Both eyes close.  The pick between his hands slips to the floor.  All five fingertips quiver.  They’ve done this before.

Though he can’t see a thing, his left hand presses lightly across the fret board.  This old Gibson has taken him places.  It has thrust him before thousands.  It has bought him fuck-buddies, agents, and fame.  It has slashed airwaves and amps to pieces with punkish impunity.

It is only a guitar.

It’s only an instrument.

This is only a bar.

He is only a channel.

Slowly, he lets the chord build into a construction.  His fingers barely know when to land next.  His index finger is everywhere at once.  The sting of strings after so long is a sweet pain.

The dark wood and dark red body of the guitar shakes, quivers with the violence of his strumming.  It’s taken worse during its time in bars, bedrooms, and back alleys.

He hasn’t.

For so long, this has been stuck inside his mind, in smoky bars and blasé crowds and the uncaring rumbling of the world outside.  These tunes are being swept up off the floor and squished and moulded together into something useful.  It isn’t choreographed.  It isn’t work shopped.

It simply is.

The tumble of notes falling from the amp is growing, changing.  He himself is only a spectator.  It is out of his hands.

Gliding crescendos pitch to snap-quick taps.  He feels the fret board bend under his fingertips.  It can take the strain.  Heaven knows he has.

A low bass grumbles into life.  It acts as an anchor, keeps his frenzied but sober escapade level and steady.

He looks up for a moment.  She wasn’t beside him.  She was stuck in a different smoky bar in a different part of town.  Unlike him, she was playing a tune she loathed.

Behind that, the gunshot-quick crack of a drum keeping time.  Nobody is filling that role so far, but who is he to complain of the muse’s gifts?

It’s all in his head.  Despite the insanity of it all, it was a delusion he surrenders to.
Worse yet, it will all die as soon as the strings vibrate for the last time.  He knows he can never write this.

He won’t presume to try.  Gifts from a muse are rarely anticipated.  They only drink themselves to death in their endless repetition.

Hard riffs blare across his boots.  A throwback to his old life, a petty time of calculated fury and choreographed violence.

That life doesn’t stand a chance in a smoky room.

Applause shakes him from his revelry.

He doesn’t remember stopping, staring, and snatching up the beer beside him.  Nor does he remember exactly what he says.  What he does remember doing is staring at a mug, clutched by a blushing college girl looking to score.

No matter the dark of his coat or the darker man beneath, the red of his Gibson still glows.  It always has, and likely always will in the cafes and bars beside the dirty dockside blocks that are his stomping grounds.

Red lace always borders his throat.

This is the first entry in a series of flash fiction that encompasses the musings and writings of a man stuck in an alley’s overhang during a downpour with nothing more than a typewriter and ideas…or memories?  

I have by no means finished this- only 3/4 of the stories are done.  The narrative with the man will be done last.  Below are the storiesI have completed:

“Drive” is a character sketch of mine that went on to win a Daily Deviation for Deviantart on July 26th, 2012.

“You ready to go?”

It’s with sodden hands and soaked-through boots that he climbs into the back of the faded old pickup.  Red paint’s peeling off everywhere, but he barely cares.  Bullet holes and scattershot clusters show every few feet, but he still loves his ride.  Despite the shattered world and slightly shattered rear-view mirror, it still takes him places.

He’s got a gruff voice; his baritone erupts from his throat like gunfire or gravel across a chipped highway.  Torn rubber boots slosh in the highway’s broken shoulder.  A burning wind catches his hair, runs through his stubble and down his open shirt.  Runoff from the road splashes his faded jeans.

His coat whips in the wind, green and patched more times than he can count on his fingers.  At least he has all of them; staying intact is an odd bonus in his line of work.  The tools of his trade click and shift in their holsters just above his wide hips- twin .44’s tempered smooth with hundreds upon hundreds of quick-draws.

Ash crosses his tongue; the leavings of the burning city behind him.  No point in turning around.  Eight hours of his day have just been spent cramped inside his cab, gripping the wheel, feeling the gearbox grind and the shifter disintegrate under the adrenaline, the pressure, the fury of the ride.  Guns have been fired, blood has been shed today, and all he can do is sit and stare into the blood-red sunset.

He reaches into a pocket.  An old, faded silver Zippo, salvaged from a dumpster somewhere, snaps into his rough-shod palms.  Snaps.  Embers flare to his cigarette.  It’s the last one he’s got.  The settlement trading post will have more, down the road and behind a proper rampart.  Cannibals crawl this country and slither through the remains of suburban basements.

He can’t stay long.

“I’ll be there in a sec” he calls over to the top of the cab.  He’s had a hard bitten, hard-talking, hard fighting life, but tearing him away from a sunset is as impossible as dragging his six foot two, hundred and ninety pounds of muscle soaking wet.

If there are cannibals, they can wait.  He’s dealt with them before and can deal with them again.

It’s only as the cigarette drops to the road that he asks himself why he’s still running a truck, running goods, killing, and getting paid for it.  He should have left those days in the dust.  He’d run over his dog days spent drinking and fighting long ago, when he’d been young and the world’s wounds were still fresh.

Its ’cause I’m scarred over, he reminds himself.  It’s because I’m forgetting the pain, and testing my own nerves as I grow old.  I’ve got to see if I can stay going.  My younger self won’t ask for less.

After the memories had washed away like the rain upon the hood, he slipped his legs in and slammed the truck into third.

Its only ’cause I enjoy it, isn’t it?