Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Last week I applied for a writing job that asked for, among other materials, a 1-2 page work of creative anything except song or poem that utilized the following words: hump, orange, organ, billion, jam, and bowl.
I didn’t get the job, but I greatly enjoyed the exercise. So, partly to reintroduce myself to the discipline and partly to spark this blog back to life, I’m instituting a regular feature, the Fiction Friday. Each Friday I will post a new work of fiction in any format except song or poem based on the first five suggested words I receive as comments at the previous Fiction Friday post.
One word per person, please.
To inaugurate, below is the story I wrote for the job I didn’t get.
* * * *
by Bilal Dardai
Augie was standing patiently on the blank sheet of butcher paper, watching the red crayon travel the edges of his shoes, when it occurred to him that Lark might not have been telling him the truth.
She looked up at him then with a half-second smile, her hair lashing up, bowl-cut and theater popcorn blonde.
“Almost done,” she said. They were tracing their footprints to be sent off to NASA, where Lark had said they would be used to make their personal, child-sized space suits. “You never know,” she’d said to him, “when you might need them.”
This made perfect sense. Surely this was true. What worried him was another matter entirely.
“Lark?” Augie said.
“Mm-hm?” Lark replied.
“Are you sure there’s a little man inside a camel’s hump?”
“Of course, dummy. He’s what drives the camel. That’s why they walk so funny. Because they’re robots.”
This, too, made sense. He’d just needed to hear Lark say it out loud again. She finished her task, folded the paper up neatly into a small square, and placed it on her kitchen counter for her mother to process. She stood momentarily with her hands on her hips, scanning the world for her next stimulus, before suddenly bolting off through the kitchen door. Augie raced after her, simmering with mild panic. Like a bloodhound with a scent, he knew, Lark had sensed some grand new excitement in the distance, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that she would never stop talking about if he was too slow to witness it himself.
She clomped down the sidewalk on Clydesdale hooves. She’d told him once that if she grew up, because she wasn’t sure that she really planned on it, but if she grew up she was going to be either a baker or a horse, and since her mother wouldn’t let her use the stove yet she had to practice the other. She stopped, finally, in front of Gaffney’s Drug Store and waited for Augie to catch up. His heart thumped back and forth between encouragement and scold.
“What’s…” he panted. “What’s here?”
“The gumball machine, duh,” she said. “I wanted some gum.”
“Oh,” Augie said. “Oh. Oh. Okay. Oh.” His breaths wheezed out like the sad notes of an abandoned pipe organ. He followed her inside.
The gumball machine at Gaffney’s was a clownish red relic, the only thing in the store that had not been extensively remodeled when Mr. Gaffney’s son took over the business. More than one customer had entertained the notion that the gumball machine had been there first, before the town, planted there like an oak sapling, and that Gaffney had built his store around it rather than uproot it. The gum, however, was always fresh, juicy and lively on the tongue.
Lark had once asked Augie to guess how many gumballs were in the machine. He had guessed maybe three hundred and then been shocked to learn that there were in reality close to a billion gumballs, that the reason the machine always seemed full was that the gumballs all came from a direct pipeline that stretched all the way to North Dakota…which was, as everybody knew, where gumballs were grown.
Lark’s quarter netted her a deep purple gumball, which she shined against her blouse like a tiny apple before popping it in her mouth. Augie dropped his quarter in the slot, wrestled the turnkey clockwise, and received a bright orange gumball of his own. Lark’s eyes widened.
“NOOOOO!” she shrieked, batting the gumball from his fingers. He watched it hurtle down the toothbrush aisle, picking up dirt and dust, heading off into the world to its new life as a tumbleweed. He looked at Lark with hurt and confusion.
“Why did you do that?” he asked her.
“Don’t you know?” she said. “The orange ones are poison! I just saved you from poison!”
And while this didn’t make sense to Augie, he understood that since Lark was right about so many other things it was just safer to assume she was right about this as well. After all, he thought, Lark had been the one to explain to him how to tell the difference, just by looking, between jelly, jam, marmalade, and preserves; of course she might also be able to spot a poisoned gumball. He sighed with relief.
“Thank you,” he said, because he’d always been taught to express proper gratitude when somebody had just saved you from certain death.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, because that was the proper response. Lark turned to look at the gumball machine, chewing steadily. She suddenly shrieked again, so high-pitched as to be almost inaudible, and ran behind Augie.
“Look,” she whispered, trembling. Augie looked at the gumball machine. It seemed no different than ever.
“Look,” Lark repeated. “There’s eyes. It’s looking at us.”
Augie peered closely at the gumballs. None of them looked like eyes, in particular, but maybe they weren’t eyes like human eyes. Maybe they were eyes like shark eyes, dark and solid and cold.
“There,” she said. “Don’t you see?”
He looked closer. He focused on the mishmashed pattern of color, looking between the gaps. Finally, he caught a glimpse of what had terrorized Lark—a pair of aquamarine gumballs, suspended at the same level at the glass, a hand’s width apart. They did look like eyes.
“What if, what if this isn’t really the gumball machine?” she stammered. “What if it’s an alien? Or a ghost? Or an alien ghost that can look like a gumball machine?”
The gumballs suddenly shifted. Lark dug her fingers into Augie’s shoulders and Augie did the only thing he could think of to protect her.
He punched the gumball machine. It tipped over, glass shattering as it hit the chessboard linoleum, thousands of potential alien eyes scattering across the floor. He turned to Lark.
“There,” Augie said, as bravely as he thought he should. “No more alien ghost.” His hand ached. The second knuckle bled slowly, like lava flow down his hand. The high school boy behind the counter stomped toward the pair, thunderstorm fury on his face. Augie knew he was in trouble, not just with the store, but with his parents. When they would ask him why he’d attacked the gumball machine he’d tell them Lark saw an alien ghost inside of it.
And Augie knew that when they asked Lark if this was true, that she would look back at his parents and say yes. Anything that had to be true would be true. That was the deal.
Yes, definitely, Lark would insist.
That’s exactly what happened.
That’s the truth.
And it would be.
* * * *
ETA: Next week’s words will be, in no particular order, matchbook, acquiescence, tobogganing, snapdragon, and opulent.