Project 52: Toppling Atlas

1 short story a week. 52 weeks a year.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Week Forty: November 29th - December 5th

   Profits for Prophets

     Billows of wind hitting your face force you to open your eyes, and see the countryside quickly melting by. You crane your head to the side slightly, and match up the sound of metal on metal with the spinning steel circles next to you and realize you're on a train. Frightened, you try to move your body, but are restrained to the side of the car. Blinking does you no good, for this isn't a dream.
     Minutes pass by with the landscape, and find yourself crossing a bridge over a large body of water. A loud whistle pierces your thoughts, and with a large percussion, everything turns black and white. Time stops, and a small monument on the side rail of the bridge reads “1864: In memory of Clairvoyance, North Carolina. Oculi Caeci Clausa”. Staring at the water beneath you, the charred skeletons of long since burned houses reflect from the lake's silvery surface, but no building are to be seen on land. 
     You scream as your body is ripped from the restraints and you plunge down into still-sitting water. You feel the surface ripple - as if alive – when you come into contact with it, and then everything fades to black. When you come to, you're laying in the street of a dusty little town, full of bright wooden buildings. A banjo twang in the distance sets off a stereotype that makes you name this place south. Two well dressed, yet grimy boys walk in front of you and step into a general store, boldly walking away from a storm of laughter. 
     The eldest boy wore a black derby hat, and a wrinkled, button up white shirt under a tattered black vest. Baggy black pants held up by a length of rope marked them as either hand-me-downs, or stolen property. The youngest brother was much more a sight though. Wearing snugly fitting pants, he had no pockets to be seen on them. Even more peculiar, was the tight, sleeveless shirt, and chalkboard hanging from around his neck. The eldest's eyes spoke of grim determination, and courage, whereas the younger held a ludicrous grin, and distant eyes; almost as if staring off as something unseen, and finding it to be particularly amusing. 
     An elderly man in his best Sunday suit walks by you and says “little fools claim there's a war a comin'”. Spittle leaps from his lips as he roars towards the children. “They said for a pound of sweets and toys, they would tell us where to run. Can you imagine it? Children thinking such ridiculous things. What little cons!” the man says, before turning around to go back to his daily routine. You look towards the general store, and struggle between gnawing curiosity of the boys, and impending fear of where you are. Standing up, you walk to a railroad, and follow it, not knowing where you're going or why.

     Pushing open the door of the general store, a small bell rigged to the frame let out a weak chime as they step into the building. Julius holds the door open as his younger brother Freddy walks in. Pulling out a small coin, Julius grabs Freddy by the shoulder, and looks him in the eye. “Fingers, I'm going to go buy us a gumball and talk to the owner. I want you to stand right here, and don't even think about touching anything!”. 
     When Freddy finally nodded his head in agreement, Julius reached into his bag and pulled out a headband. On top, were fake cat ears, and reaching out, he placed them on top of Freddy's head. “Alright Fingers, I gave you your ears, and told you not to touch anything. I'm serious this time, if you steal one more thing, I'm going to wallop you good.” Attention already gone from the current conversation, Freddy shook his head up and down as he stared at the fake cat ears on top of his head, and waved his hands in a shooing manner towards Julius.
     Laughing to himself once his back was turned, Julius walked to the front of the store, where an old man in a white shirt and black apron stood behind a counter. “What can I do for you boys?” the elderly man asked in a voice that spoke of strength despite all the years resting on his shoulders. Rolling the coin on the backs of his fingers, Julius snapped into character, and set the bait. “I've got a proposition for you my good sir. I have reports that General Sherman is on his way to this very town with a whole platoon of Union soldiers, and for a pound of your finest sweets, and craftiest toys, I will tell you the only way to escape”. Eyes wide in disbelieve, the owner swallowed several time before responding to Julius.
     “That's absolutely ridiculous” the man responds. “My name is Edwin Isaiah Black, and I've ran this store since my father built it in 1803. Never in all my years have I heard such a peculiar thing from a child's mouth. How old are you anyway?” Edwin asked Julius. “Why, I'm thirteen and three quarters I am, sir, and my brother over there happens to be six. I know it must be a lot to swallow, but we are but merely humble prophets, here to speak the truth, and help ourselves where we may.” Julius responded, most charismatically. “Where are your parents?” Edwin asks. Julius breaks character and allows a small flame to show in his eyes.
     Edwin saw the spark, but was surprised at how quickly the young boy composed himself again. “Our parents are a days trip away from here. We walked here on our own accord to help out the villagers, but it seems this town is full of people who don't want it. You however, look to be a wise man, and for only half a pound of the discussed items, I will tell you the information I know.” Julius says, with an air of confidence. “You know the law around these part don't allow orphans to run around on their own, don't you?” Edwin says softly. Years of dealing with the public allow him to pick apart the impressive show the boy was putting on, yet even he was surprised when the boys small hands threw a small display of soap from the counter. 
     “Don't you dare call us that again old man!” Julius shouted up to Edwin. Slapping his coin on the table, he pointed to a small bowl of red gumballs, and said “give us two of those green gumballs, and we'll be on our way”. Puzzled over the boys explosive personality change and overall character, he scratched his head and muttered half thought out words while looking at the bowl. “Son, I don't know who you are, and even though you need to be taught a lesson, I'll sell you the gumballs, but were you talking about the red ones here?”. Face turning as red as the gumballs, it was all Julius could do to stare at the bowl incredulously, and then at the old man accusingly. 
     Crawling up on top of the counter, turning, and squatting down, the younger brother lets out a few light taps as he scribbles on his chalkboard, and turns it to reveal “He's colorblind” printed in dusty white words upon the board. Julius turns and starts to yell at Freddy, but he is already gone from any conversation, chewing on the corner of the board, and silently laughing to himself. Eyebrows climbing to the peak of his forehead, Edwin turns and stares Julius directly in the eyes. “I don't know what you boys are up to, but I want you out of this store, you hear?”. Scowling at the bowl of gumballs, and then the man, Julius snatches his coin from the table, and grabs Freddy by the arm as they storm out of the building.
     When they step outside, Julius looks over at Freddy, and sees him looking away, and fearfully eying the older brother. “Fingers?” the older brother asks. “What are you hiding from me?”. Holding up his hands and looking at both of them intently, and then lifting up the sign to look under it, he looks back up, and with a shrug, smiles and starts to quickly walk away, but is caught by Julius. Holding out his hand, Julius looks at Freddy and says “Fingers, I know you have a problem with stealing things, but you're going to get us in trouble if I don't return everything you take, now put what you stole in my hand!”. Freddy stares at the open palm for a second, and a face-splitting grin starts to grow.
     Opening his mouth, Freddy spits two gumballs and a small coin into Julius' hand. Looking down at his saliva covered hand, he looks up at Freddy's grin, and roughly smacks him upside the head, and turns to wipe his hands off. When he turns around, Freddy is crouched down on his tippy-toes, and is squinting his eyes at Julius' hand and then face, back and forth; the hand holding the gumballs. Shaking his head irritably, Julius throws one to his younger brother and says “Just this once, and only because that old man was so rude to us”. Julius picks up Freddy, and together they walk on down the road.
     Walking over to the telegraph, Edwin sends a message to the sheriff about the boys, and stands in front of his store and watches the boys walk down the road. After a few minutes, a cop car shows up, and a chase starts. The youngest silently screams as he flings his hands out to his brother, but the eldest brother stops for only a second before disappearing inside the large crowd in the street at this time. “Wouldn't even stop for his brother, how shameful” Edwin mutters to himself. He heads back inside, and finishes his day like normal. Julius would never end up knowing how Edwin died that night, but perhaps he wouldn't have cared either way.

     Darkness sleeps over the city, and Julius finds it easy to walk through town unnoticed. While scrawling a message on the front door of the general store, he spots a wagon at the other edge of town, and runs to it, hoping it is the sheriffs vehicle. In the dim moonlight, the writing can not be identified. Dust is kicked up from the shoes of Julius as he charges toward the dimming light of the wagons lantern, until he is close enough to creep along behind it. It isn't long before he finds the police station.
     Inside, the sheriff, and a younger man also in uniform are talking to Freddy, as he kicks his legs back and forth on top of a desk. The younger man has his head down on his desk, and the sheriff is holding his in his right hand, massaging his temples as if developing a headache. “For the last time son, where are your parents?” the sheriff asks. Biting his lip, and staring at the ceiling, Freddy looks to be lost in thought, and then a mischievous grin envelopes his face. Tapping on the chalkboard, after five or so minutes, he turns it over, and it reads “you tell me” with a cat playing with a ball of yarn drawn in the corner. The sheriff throws up his hands in anger, and a groan escapes from under the arms of the deputy at the desk.
     Throwing on his coat, the sheriff mutters something about going out for some fresh air, and the deputy lazily waves his hand in acknowledgment. Fifteen minutes pass, and the soft snore of the deputy can be heard. Julius steps over to an open window, and decides now is the best time to break out his brother. Letting out a whistle in mimic of the Black-capped Chickadee, the brothers favorite bird. Turning around from his seat, Freddy smiles, and gets up to talk to Julius, but sits back down as Julius points his finger through the window. “Freddy!” he whispers. “Quietly grab the keys from his belt, and let's get out of here!” Julius says. And with that, disappears from the window. 
     Freddy waits a moment for Julius to return, and when he doesn't, quietly hops down from his desk, and tip toes over to the sleeping deputy, and locates the keys. The deputy loudly snores, and doesn't move a muscle as Freddy's deft fingers skillfully pluck the keys from the man's belt. Walking over the the door, Freddy starts to tap on his chalkboard as he waits for Julius to appear. 
     Julius finally shows up at the front of the building, and motions for Freddy to hurry up. “What are we going to do, brother?” is written on Freddy's chalkboard, and a small amount of fear shows on his young face. “I broke into that general store, and stole as much as I could, so we should be set until the next city.” Julius replies anxiously. Raising his eyebrows, Julius mutters that his stealing was different from Freddy's own, and luckily before an argument broke out between facial expressions and well articulated words, Freddy snapped out of it. Putting the keys in the lock, and giving them a heavy turn, the clank of the metal falling inside echoes in the room, and the deputy softly rolls open his eyes and sees the boys. 
     “Hey you two!” the deputy shouts, “Get back here!”. Quickly rushing out, Julius grabs the keys, and slams the door shut again, locking it in place. The deputy begins to shout for help, but Julius dangles the keys in front of him, and defiantly laughs as Freddy smiles at the deputy. Gunshots are heard, and both parties stop their shouting to peer at the city, now a burning candle in the countryside.

     “General! We've found confederate soldiers in a general store four streets down.” a nameless soldier shouts to his commanding officer, General Sherman. “Excellent work soldier, has the man responsible for these leaked any more information on the whereabouts of the fractured confederate army we fought last night?” General Sherman replies. “Well sir, that is the issue. We found an old man, the owner, and he swears we're making a big mistake, and... there is something else strange about this too.” the soldier says with his head down. 

     “Well spit it out, boy! What happened?” 
     “It appears as if someone ransacked the place before we got there. Perhaps in a panic more soldiers escaped?”
     “Very possible, is the old man confined for questioning?”
     “Of course sir, but he is very hostile. Follow me and you'll see for yourself.”

     Arriving at the scene, a fierce eyed elderly man writhes on the ground with his hands tied behind his back screaming at the union soldiers around him. “This town's going to burn” is scrawled in hasty handwriting on the broken remnants of a front door. “I don't know what you people are doing, but I want to talk to whoever is in charge. For God's sake, let me go! My name is Edwin Isaiah Black and I've done nothing wrong!” he shouts. Stepping next to his face, General Sherman crouches down, despite the warning from the nearby soldiers, and looks the man in the eye. “Hello Edwin Isaiah Black. My name is General William Tecumseh Sherman, and I'd like to have a talk with you.”

     After calming down, Edwin finally spoke to the general, and despite his best efforts, he could never talk him out of the evidence found at his place. It turns out he was a southern sympathizer, and a broken floorboard in the back of the store revealed a large cellar full of confederate uniforms and weapons. Five wounded soldiers were found in a guest bedroom, and a quick scan of the city turned up 432 other soldiers in hiding. General Sherman was so furious, he set fire to the entire town, and hundreds died in either waves of flame, or showers of lead bullet casing. 
     Although the boys were only lying about the army in order to con items from villagers, it seemed for once their prophecies were true. The city decided that they could safely house wounded soldiers from a nearby battle, but never expected General Sherman to storm directly into their own city. One of the worst massacres of civilians the Civil War saw, and Julius and Freddy were lucky enough to never learn of their unfortunate coincidence, and what followed that horrible night. They would lead happy, albeit poor, lives, and never think about that night again. Some say "as is life" I suppose.

     Days later, you find yourself terribly hungry, and starting to grow cold with the onset of autumn. A whistle behind you announces a train, and you don't even look back anymore; you are much too tired to care. Motion catches your eye as the train begins to pass, and you see the two boys inside one of the cars atop a mound of sweets, toys, and other items. The smaller boy is drawing on the walls of the car with large, blocky colored pieces of chalk, and the older brother is sitting on top as if on a throne, reading a copy of “Les Misérables”. 
     Running to catch up with the boys, you throw your arms onto the train, and start to hoist yourself into the car. Turning your head up, you open your mouth to tell the boys you are sorry the town laughed at them, when suddenly the bottom of a boot meets you between the eyes, and sends you tumbling down the hill the railroad was on. Landing next to a small creek, you rub your face and start to rise, but slip on loose rock, and fall into the water. A deafening whistle covers up the noise the splash should have made, and a loud percussion drowns out your attempt at screaming. The sky turns gray, and a black sun stares down on you menacingly. Like the aperture of a camera, the sky spirals shut, and it's just blackness again.

     “Honey, are you alright?” a sweet voice whispers to a sleeping man. “What? Of course I am Emily, but where am I?” the man responds. Laughing to herself, Emily puts a hand on the side of his face and coos “with the most beautiful woman in the world, on our way to your mothers house for vacation, why do you ask dear?” she replies. Despite the eighty degree weather, he shivers and rubs his arms with his hands. “Nothing, I just had a most peculiar dream is all.” he says. Looking out the window, he sees that same bridge, and looks to the waters. Waves now gently disturb the surface, and fishermen span its length. “How peculiar” he says.
     Looking at his wife, the man kisses her on the cheek and says “You know, my dream reminded me of a story I heard once as a child.” he says. 

     “An accomplished clockmaker in London lived to be 110. He outlived his children, and even some of his grand children, and on his deathbed, he was asked by the local paper if he had any regrets. Looking around his room, he stared at some of the finest made clocks the city had ever seen, and said “despite several lifetimes of good fortune, love, memories, and a passion for clockmaking that has kept me going for so many years, it seems I have ran out of time.” 

Laughing to himself at the silly little story, Emily puts on a serious look, and asks him if he's alright. Smiling, he wraps his arms around her and says “Yes dear, and when I get home, we're going to make some changes. My life could end at any minute, and I plan to make use of every second in between.



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