Thursday, June 26, 2014

#FridayFlash - In The Weeds

Maxwell Waters, or “Mac” as the jarhead buddies used to call him, owned the premiere manor in Hacienda Estates, a pleasantly gated community north of San Antonio. Half stone, half stucco, with archways, semi-circle windows, and a clay tiled roof the color of sunset, the house sat on a full acre tract of carpet quality grass that sloped down to a stand of Bald Cypress trees separating the estate from the Guadalupe River. It was, he believed, the iconic symbol of his life—a standing monument to the relentless pursuit of success over the course of forty years.

Mac would be the first to admit success never came easy. Nothing that took decades to achieve could ever be dubbed as simple. If it were so easy, then why did it take so long? No, Max won his success only through a series of hard fought battles, one right on the heels of another it seemed. That was the way, though, and today proved no different.

On this bright Saturday morning, the sun a lonely orb in the sky, Max walked across his stone backyard patio. He was dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt and a pair of sandals. He took one look at his yard and muttered a deep, drawn-out curse.

“Where’d you all come from?” he added.

Recent rains had not only raised the waters beyond the riverbank and into the stand of trees, they also gave more life to his ongoing battle against the weeds. Crabgrass, Pigweed, and Dandelions were just a few of the little mercenaries. They weren’t the worst of the bunch, though. Mac reserved most of his rage against the two weeds that caused him extreme heartburn: Silverleaf Nightshade and Goatheads. The Nightshade was a particularly miserable plant because it's roots corkscrewed into the dirt, making it difficult to yank out by hand (and if a person did so without gloves, the thorns in the stems would give him a bite he wouldn't soon forget). And as far as Mac was concerned, Goatheads were a creation from hell itself—the devil’s scat soiling the landscape. They looked innocent enough, with foliage like palm leaves, but appearances were only a sleight of hand. These plants could produce a fruit that hardened into tacks sharp enough to bring down any unsuspecting barefooted soul.

When Mac took in the weeds and the assault mounting against him, he poured out his coffee and marched into the garage. He grabbed a hoe, a one-gallon pump sprayer, and a thirty-two-ounce soldier of last resort: glyphosate. Very few weeds could stand up against the golden colored agent.

Weeds were like any other obstacle in his life: enemies to be plucked out, torn out, burned out, or otherwise removed. You had to be decisive about it, too; if you weren’t—if you didn’t fully eradicate the problem—the problem would always find the will to regroup, resurge, and retaliate, causing you more of a headache later. Good God, just look at what was happening right now in his own back yard. The commie bastards.

Mac started with the hoe first, hacking away at this and that, knocking down as many of the smaller weeds as he could. For the larger ones, he poured the glyphosate into the tank and filled it up with water. At the backyard, he gripped the handle and hammered down several times on the pump cylinder to build up pressure. Smiling, he turned to spray the first Nightshade he came to, a beast of a plant already standing a foot high, its regal flower opened up like a harlot.

“Here y’are, you little whore,” Mac muttered.

He squeezed the control valve to release a dose of killer spray. The Nightshade flower snapped shut as the poison jetted out from the nozzle. Not sure what he just saw, Mac released the control valve and watched as the Nightshade shook its serpentine head and then hissed at him.

“What the…?!”

The Nightshade tore itself from the ground and leaped. Mac tried to jump out of its way, but the nasty thing latched onto his leg and drove several spikes into his flesh. He howled in pain and shook his leg, trying to unlatch the demon weed. As he did, a crop of Pigweeds raced toward him like spiders in pursuit of prey. They scaled up his legs, and he dropped the spray tank, his mouth open to scream. No sound came, though; one of the weeds stuffed a spearhead of seeds into his mouth.

In his panic, Mac turned to run. He made it only two feet before he tripped and fell. That’s when the largest Goathead he ever saw whipped back and slung hundreds of spiked nuts at him. They cut through the air like Chinese stars and lodged in his eyes, his cheeks. Mac screamed and tried to rise up on his knees. As he did, he heard the most awful sound. Something was slithering across the grass, getting closer… closer… closer…


“And here is the backyard,” the realtor said. She led Daniel through the gate and across a walkway of decomposed granite and stone. “I know it doesn't look good," she said. "The weeds have kind of overrun the place. With a little imagination, though, you can see the possibilities.”

A young lawyer from San Antonio who liked to investigate everything, Daniel stepped out into the brush and walked toward a lonely topiary tree.

“What happened to the owner?"

“Nobody really knows,” she said. “He just disappeared. After several months without payments, the mortgage company finally foreclosed and here we are.”

Daniel nodded and stared at the topiary tree.

“Such an odd looking thing,” he said. “Almost looks like a man, but not really.”

He looked down, saw a weed, and reached out to grab it. With a firm tug, he pulled it out. The root twitched in the hot air, and that’s when he heard something that sounded like a snake.

Friday, June 20, 2014

#FridayFlash - Mountain of Power (conclusion)

As they moved from the atrium to a small, one level tract home, the old man's sandals made a whispery shsh-shsh sound as he shuffled forward.

"Most men seek strength and power," the old man said. "Few ever seek right kind."

Lucas stared at the man's feet, hypnotized by their sibilance. "Right kind."

"Man want to defeat other man, for gain or prize. But man, and prize, only transitory."

Lucas frowned. "Transitory?"

"Temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow. Most men never seek to defeat greatest enemy."

"What do you mean?"

They entered a living room that smelled like oranges. There Lucas saw plants in pots with Chinese writing on the side. On a table, a figurine of a fat man, legs crossed, held an incense stick. A tendril of smoke snaked into the air from its still-burning tip.

The old man said, "Death is man's greatest enemy."

Lucas nodded. Here was the story, just as Li Huang promised. "Yeah, okay," Lucas said. "But no one can really defeat death."

The old man shot him a look that Lucas had seen before on the faces of many teachers, a look that showed contempt for a lack of knowledge.

"You have never heard of Xu Fu and his quest?"

Lucas shook his head. Li had told him the story, but he didn't want the old man to know.

The old man turned and stared at a portrait on the wall. In it, Lucas saw a man whose appearance was similar to that of the old man. In the crook of his right arm, the man in the portrait carried scrolls; in his left hand, he held a walking stick.

"Many years ago, Xu Fu served as sorcerer for Qin Dynasty. One day, Emperor Qin send for Xu Fu. 'I do not want to die,' he say. 'Tell me. How do I defeat death?'" The old man turned to face Lucas. "Xu Fu tell the emperor about legend of elixir of life. He would need to climb Mount Penglai, the mountain of power, and talk with Angi Sheng, an immortal believed to have already seen one thousand years. Maybe, with enough money, he could convince Angi Sheng to share knowledge."

"And did he?"

The old man closed his eyes while he talked.

"Xu Fu left with three thousand boys and girls, to seek out what the Emperor desired. But that wasn't all. Xu Fu wanted the knowledge for himself, so he could share it with Emperor's daughter. Maybe then they could live together, forever."

"But he never found it," Lucas said, "Did he?"

The old man opened his eyes. "Found it he did. In fact, he killed Angi Sheng to get it. Froze him, and then ate him. That was the way, though it was never permanent." He shuffled over to a bar and opened a cabinet from which he produced several bottles and an empty cup. As he poured and mixed contents, he continued his story. "When Xu Fu returned, he discovered Emperor's daughter already given to another man. So Xu Fu never shared the knowledge. He lied and said he could not find the mountain of power. Years later, the Emperor died."

Finished with his mixture, the old man turned and handed the cup to Lucas. "For the power you seek." He nodded at the drink. "Waste not, want not."

Lucas stared at the cup. "Tell me," he said. "Whatever happened to the children?"

The old man frowned.

"You said Xu Fu left with three thousand boys and girls." Lucas looked the old man in the eyes. "What happened to them?"

"The same for all children. Some grow old and die. Some not."

Lucas stared into the cup again. Li Huang told him not to drink it, but only to have the old man mix it and pay attention as to how it was done.

He shook his head. "Unh-unh. I'm not drinking this."

"So... Li told you, did he?" A dark expression covered the old man's face. "But did he tell you everything?"

The question sent an electric current through Lucas's body. Li had said the old man was smart, but with a little luck they could outsmart him. Now, though, Lucas questioned who was who, and what role would he eventually play. And to think, it was all for a girl.

A smile curled at the corner of the old man's mouth. "Fine," he said. "You not drink, then I take cup."

Before Lucas could react, the old man grabbed his hand—lightning fast, which was confusing because of the way he shuffled earlier. Was that all for show? Lucas felt a sharp prick, and everything turned to ice—his hand, his arm, his chest, even his legs. He couldn't feel or move anything, but he could see and hear everything.

"Come out, Li," the old man said.

From around the corner, Lucas saw the young boy with the elven face enter the room, his hands behind his back. "Master Xu Fu."

"You disappoint me."

The boy looked at Lucas.

"And such a nice boy, too," Xu Fu said. "Such pretty eyes and delicate ears." He reached up and snapped off an ear. Lucas didn't feel it, but he heard the crack. Xu Fu put the ear in his mouth, like he would a potato chip, and chewed.

"It was never in the drink," Xu Fu said. He showed Li a stem with thorns on it.

"I know that now," Li said.

"Tell me. Is the student now to be the master?"

From behind his back, Li produced a gun. The loud crack pulsed through Lucas's frozen body. Xu Fu fell to the floor. He coughed once, twice, and died.

Li Huang walked over and stood in front of Lucas. Sadness filled his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I've been doing this so long, I honestly thought it was the drink." He reached up and snapped off the other ear. "Still... Waste not, want not."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

#FridayFlash - Mountain of Power

As he stepped into the aviary thick with humidity and the sounds of chattering birds, Lucas thought about the words he never spoke to Alyssa. Though never breathed into life, they were the words that compelled him to approach her, the words he wanted to tell her: about how he felt, how his heart raced and he couldn't take his eyes off of her whenever she was near, how he couldn't stop thinking about her whenever she was wasn't, or how his body yearned to catch just one more whiff of her powdery sweet smell. Maybe he wouldn't have shared that last part—she probably would have thought him a weirdo, and even called him a creep, for saying such things—but he felt it nonetheless. He couldn't help it. Weird or not, he liked her smell.

As promised, Lucas found the old man near the back of the building. The man was always there, Lucas had been told; all he needed to do was look around. As Lucas approached from behind, he noticed the man clipping on a bush that looked like roses.

He cleared his throat, and said, "Uh, excuse me."

The man turned around, and Lucas almost gave up right then and there. The Chinese man wasn't just old, he was a relic. Images of horror movies streamed through Lucas's mind: of leathery faced monsters with ghostly white hair, dressed in long robes and sandals, and probably carrying samurai swords. Fleeting thoughts toyed with his motives and questioned his resolve—maybe this wasn't worth it, and maybe he should turn around and run—but the thoughts of Alyssa and the things he wanted to say to her overpowered everything else, so Lucas held fast.

Dark eyes, mostly hidden behind slatted lids, stared down at him. The dusty brown face showed no expression.

"I, uh..." Again, Lucas found himself at a loss for words, and he hated himself for not being able to spit things out. "I was told you could help me."

The lids squeezed tighter. "What is it you want?"

"I need to be strong."

"Then lift weights, do work."

The man started to turn around, and Lucas reached out a hand to stop him.

"No, you don't understand."

"What is there to understand?"

"I need to be strong now. Today."

"You not strong now?"

"No, not strong enough."

The man considered him for a moment, and then said, "Why need you to be stronger?"

This was the part that Lucas dreaded. He suspected he would have to address the question, but suspecting didn't alleviate the fears. It wasn't easy to acknowledge weakness, not for anyone he supposed. He looked down for a moment, again not sure whether it was worth it, but the face of Alyssa tapped into his mind's eye. He saw her again and the mesmerizing way she looked at him before Tommy Moldono showed up and punched him in the face.

His two buddies told him to forget it. Making a play for Alyssa would only go down in flames.

"Dude," Michael had said. "You lost your mind or something? She ain't never gonna go for douche like you."

Lucas ignored the slur. It was just one of many terms that Michael liked to throw around, trying to be cool. He never accomplished his goal.

"Besides," Dillon said. Lucas turned and saw his friend running through a new set of baseball cards he purchased. Unlike Michael, Dillon knew how to restrain his tongue. "Have seen what Tommy can do to guys like us? I mean, he's like notorious for pounding dweebs into pulp. Heck, he even does it to his own friends."

Lucas didn't care. He walked up to Alyssa anyway and started to talk. And things were going quite smoothly, too, until he saw Alyssa's eyes flit to the side, looking past him, over his shoulder. He turned around then to see what he had feared would happen. Standing almost a foot taller than Lucas, and weighing at least twenty pounds more, Tommy didn't have to say anything; his presence alone was enough to intimidate everyone else on the playground.

The look on Lucas's face must have said it all because Tommy cocked his arm, balled up his fist, and slammed it across the bridge of Lucas's nose. Lucas fell on the playground gravel. He was dazed.

"Don't ever let me catch you near her again," Tommy said. And that was that.

Lucas shook off the memory and looked back up at the old man in the aviary.

"You see, there's this girl—who has this boyfriend, and—"

The old man cut him off with a wave of a gnarled hand. "Ah, love then," he said. "And not just love. Young love." Then he shook his head. "I not help you. Go find other girl."

He turned to walk away again, and Lucas blurted out the only thing he could think of.

"Li Huang sent me. He said you could change things."

The old man turned back. He stared so long and deep that Lucas was afraid he had just said the wrong thing. Maybe it was time to leave after all.

The man cocked his head to one side, muttered a "Hmph," and then cocked it to the other side.

"Li sent you, did he?"

Lucas nodded.

After Tommy had leveled him on the playground, Li Huang, a spry asian kid with short clipped hair and an elven face approached. He pulled a rag out of his pocket and handed it to Lucas. "For your nose," he had said.

Lucas took the rag. He dabbed away fresh blood and listened as Li Huang told him about the old man who had helped many boys and girls over the years, and how he might give Lucas some help, too.

The old man muttered again, this time in Chinese, and then nodded.

"Maybe," he said. "Maybe so." He turned. "Come. Follow me."

Lucas smiled.

(to be continued...)

Okay, I did it again. I started on a story, only to get slightly carried away. Along the way, I did some interesting research for this one, which I'll reveal next week as I wrap this up. Stay tuned...

Friday, June 6, 2014

#FridayFlash - What Gladys Wants

Regardless of how he felt about Gladys, Toby had to hand it to her: after all she'd been through—the early pregnancy, an unwanted event resulting from a drunken binge, leading to more binges as a result of an unwanted marriage, the beatings, the midnight cries, the divorce, the pain of raising a colicky child all on her own, and now the looming end from years of one cigarette after another—she still had a lot of fight left inside. Maybe she had been born with it, one clinched fist in a mound of fiery hair, pulling herself through the pelvic gate of life, screaming all the way like a viking goddess marching to the sea for war. Maybe she inherited it from her own nagging mother, or maybe it grew out of the bed of bitterness and hatred that festered from the constant wounds a soulless, grunting father gave her. Whatever it had been, whether just one thing, or, more likely, multiple trespasses upon her heart, Gladys Lynne McCreedy could still hold her own, even at seventy-two with one lung completely gone and the other gasping its way to the finish line.

She squeezed tears from her eyes as the latest blast of coughing racked her tired body. Snatching a tissue from the Kleenex box, she hawked once, spat, and then looked at the gooey mess she had just given life to before wadding it up and tossing it away in the waste can next to the end table.

"Promise me," she said, her voice as thick and deep as a man's. She took a couple short breaths, and the oxygen tank beside her recliner hissed. "Promise me I won't fry."

Toby glanced at her, thinking: Geez, woman, give it a break, will ya? Instead, he said, "Gladys, I already told you once, didn't I?"

He called her Gladys instead of Mother or Ma because she liked it that way. She'd read somewhere that children who grew up too nurtured in old traditions were less likely to think for themselves, less likely to be independent. He didn't know about any of that, but he probably would have use her first name anyway.

Gladys said, "Well, tell me again, then."

He looked away and sighed. She really was going to press him on this.

She had already made him promise not to put her through the crematorium, but that wasn't enough. He had to hear why because she believed he didn't know what happened in there, what it did to people. She did, of course; she'd read up on it. First, the skin boiled up—boiled and sizzled like some hog's backstrap. "Then, they turn up the heat," she said. "Turn it up so high, it literally vaporizes the tissues. Skin. Muscles. Organs. Everything. In fact, the only thing left when they's done with ya is nothing but a dried up skeleton, which they then pulverize. That's what you get in them urns," she added. "Not actual ashes, but powdered bones."

He tried to reason with her once, show her how much it cost to bury a body, and how the body slowly decomposed over time rather than out-and-out destruction in a matter of hours. All his efforts failed to cut through her defenses, though; Gladys only hardened her tone and reminded him that she, not he, had the right to say what happened to her remains.


Her voice pulled him back to the present. He looked at her and saw that she was still waiting for him to repeat his promise. In fact, if she were still allowed to smoke, she probably would have pointed at him with two fingers, a burning cigarette scissored between them, as if to say: That's right. I'm talking to you.

"Of course, Gladys," he said. "I promise not to put you in the crematorium."

"And the house?"

What he did with her remains wasn't the only thing she made him commit to. Not only did he promise to keep her out of the fire, she also made him promise not to sell the old house.

Toby sighed again. Looking around, there was nothing here he wanted. Not the photo-op pictures. (They were nothing but a load of crap) Not the furniture. (The stuff smelled as bad as her ashtray). Not even the cheesy herons sculptured out of glass. (Those things creeped out everyone else who stopped by to visit. It was no wonder he could never find a girl).

Even the house itself held nothing for him. The old place was just a reminder of his life growing up, living in the high court of retribution, always paying the price for the failures of his father—and all the other men who ran out afterwards.

He opened his mouth to give her what she wanted, but just then another coughing fit racked her body. After she finished, her breaths coming in and out in shallow wheezes, she looked at him, ready to hear the words.

Good God, he thought.

"I promise," he said, and hated her for the words. She always had to be in control. She always had to have her way. "I won't sell the house."

With that, Gladys leaned her head back. She closed her eyes and slept.

An hour later, or maybe it had been more, he noticed that her breathing finally stopped. He looked at her, saw the waxy complexion of her face, and knew it was finally over.

From his pocket, Toby pulled out a pack of Winston Lights, her favorite. After lighting the cigarette, he gently placed it between her cold fingers. It fell in her lap, smoldering on her clothes.

Gladys wasn't allowed to smoke anymore. The doctors had told her as much, but everyone who knew Gladys also knew she did things her way. As Toby left the house, he could smell the faint hint of burning clothes. He smiled. At least he kept his promises.