Project 52: Toppling Atlas

1 short story a week. 52 weeks a year.

Friday, October 12, 2012

New Short Story: Blackbird 10.12

     Somber tones from a piano compete against the frantic hustle and bustle of the Eastboro Shopping Mall on a cold night in northern Connecticut. Holiday decorations cover the length of the mall, and the aggressive – or rather, “jolly” - attitudes of the crowd mingle into a collective mindset of task-orientation. Every single shopper seems to charge into a perfectly calculated route, with half-thought out smiles on their faces.
Perhaps the only person standing still in the entire complex - an older man - sits at a piano; trails of cigarette smoke linger around his head like a halo before disappearing. His suit, a sort of pin-striped black, with a white undershirt, stands out against the backdrops of green and red painted in every direction. His five o-clock shadow and calloused hands seem an odd combination for a piano player, but you'd never guess from the sound pouring from the instrument.
     It's actually kind of funny, how hundreds of massing people hearing the piano, but not a single one of them listening. If any of them were, you could easily pick them out of a crowd, because they surely would have stopped to stare. The music was haunting in a way that was more beautiful than I could ever possibly describe. Hearing the holiday songs being played with such melancholy notes was like seeing a man trying his best to smile while delivering the news of a recent job-loss to a wife, or a doctor having to break terminal news to a unfortunate patient somewhere. There's a lesson in all this though, no matter how loud you speak, no one is ever listening. At least not for Freddy, the “Holiday night-shift pianist for the Eastboro Shopping Mall in Connecticut”. It was a cruel joke that his honorific was almost as grand as his own piano.
     When the mall finally closed up, he strolled into a back room, and was waved over by a small man in a Santa Claus outfit holding an envelope in his hands.“125 bucks, just like I promised Freddy.” said the man at the table. Walking to the table, the piano player took the envelope, and tucked it into his coat pocket before turning around to leave. Stopping at the doorway, he looked back at the man, and gave a weak smile, before turning to head through the doorway.

“Freddy... “, the man asked after a moment of hesitation. “What do you plan on doing with that money?”
“I 'spose I'll buy a little holiday cheer on my way home, boss”
“Alfred Turner. I told you this was the last time I could throw you a bone. There won't be any more money after this one!”
“I know Greg, I may not be all that bright, but my hearins' fine.” Freddy said from behind a coy smile.
“Damnit Freddy, when are you going to pick yourself back up? We've been out of Germany for 8 years now.”
“Goodbye Greg, give my regards to the missus.”

     One arm thrown in the air in dismissal, Freddy turned to leave, but was stopped at the doorway. “Freddy” Greg said in a low voice. Turning in the doorway, his monstrous stature nearly filling it, he turned and looked at Greg. “Yeah?” Freddy asked. ”Nothing, nevermind. Take care, ya bum.”

     Heading towards the exit of the mall, Freddy paused as he walked by his piano. Stepping over to the instrument, he sat down, and pulled up the fall board. Running his fingers down the span of the keys, the sad sounds of the piano matched his smile. He played for what seemed hours, and didn't stop until the glare of a passing janitor caught him. “Get out of here, Freddy” the janitor hollered from a back door; “Everyone's already left. Go home and enjoy the holiday!”. “Don't sweat it, I'll lock her up tonight,” Freddy called back. Shaking his head, the janitor strolled out of the building without a second glance.
     “Goodbye ole girl” he said to himself as he looked up at the vaulted ceiling of the shopping mall, and back down to the grand piano in front of him. Tracing his hand along the bottom board of the instrument, his hands fell on a crude carving of a blackbird in the mahogany frame. “I can't sing with you anymore darlin', and I'm afraid I'm not strong enough to let somebody else sing for me.”

     Walking out of the building, his breath turned to sheets of mist in front of his face, Freddy got in his old pickup truck, and slammed the door, only waiting a few brief moments before reaching for the glove box. Pulling out a large, unmarked amber bottle, he started to drink heavily from it, only setting it down when only a little to a fifth was left. Rubbing his eyes to try and knock out the double vision he was seeing, he looked out of his rear window for a few moments before stumbling out of the vehicle. Pulling up a corner of a beige cloth tarp lashed over the bed of his truck, Freddy clung to the side, and leaned into the vehicle to get a closer look at the contents.
     Twelve jerrycans of gasoline sat in the bed, and a small bundle of clothe inside of a plastic bag stinking of gasoline sat on the bed. Strapping the tarp roughly back into place, he staggered back into the vehicle, and started the engine up with a loud roar and sputter. Moreso swerving than driving, Freddy made his way through the parking lot up to the large window that overlooked the lobby where his piano sat. His hand reaches for the still open door of his truck, and comes up short, falling straight onto his face. A bloody nose scribbles a quick message onto the concrete.
     Picking himself up, He shook his head, and nearly fell back down as a irrational laughing fit took over him. Finally making his way into the still running vehicle, he clung to the steering wheel with one hand, and threw his arm about in frantic waves until he found the door to pull shut. His laughing is silenced as he presses the gas, and turns the vehicle towards the window. Slamming the pedal into the dirty floor mats of the truck, the vehicle bursts through the glass, and skids to the side for a few feet before tipping sideways, and falling onto the freshly waxed tile of the mall floor. Crawling out from the busted driver side window, one arm dangling weakly as a large shard of glass sticks out from his shoulder, he tumbles from the truck, and trudges his way over to the bed of the vehicle.
     Most of the gas tanks lay busted and strewn upon the floor, with only three seen to be fully intact. Stuffing the plastic bag under his coat, and grabbing the three, he made his way to the piano. Soaking the instrument in an entire can of gas, he took the other two, and made trails to the walls, where bulky curtains, decorated for the season, sat in the shadows. Soaking the bottoms of the curtains in gas, and then laying the cans tangled up in their folds, he walks back to the piano, and falls to the bench, blood loss turning the edges of his vision black.
     Opening the bag, he pulls out the material, and flings it in the air, exposing it to be a dark brown scarf, covered in years of soot and grim. Holding it in both hands, gasoline dripped from its length and fell onto the keys. Clutching the scarf to his face, Freddy started sobbing, the tears having nothing to do with the fumes stinging his eyes. “I'm so sorry” he sobs into the material. “I'm so damn sorry”.
Tying the scarf to the lid prop and striking a zippo lighter, Freddy set the scarf on fire and sat back down on the bench. The cuts all over his body throbbed in pain as the gas covering his own jacket found its way into the wounds. Wincing, he dropped his feeble injured arm, and his still functioning one onto the keys, and started to play a song.

     “Symphony of an Old Soldier” he howled to himself, as laughter and erratic tones floated around the empty mall. As the fire reached the truck behind him, the explosion would silence both offenders who ruined this silent night, but as the fire tore into the building, everything from the tearing of curtains, to the popping of moisture trapped in the piano all created both a terrible, and wonderful melody. For the finale, a quartet of sirens in the background fell upon Freddy's ears. “Beautiful” he thought to himself in his last fleeting moments; “A masterpiece”. The charred remains of the scarf where picked up by a gust that blew in from the broken window, and swept them out into the night sky where they disappeared, probably settling in a nearby field somewhere. Just like Freddy, they too would find rest.

     Now that I have told you how Alfred James Turner died, allow me to tell you the story of when he stopped living, and why a scarf and a blackbird could leave the charred skeleton of a busy shopping mall, on a cold night in northern Connecticut.

     Erratic caws from a group of bloated crows compete against the frantic shrieking of gunshots and humans of the Katyn Forest on a cold morning in northern Poland. Steel-marred trees stand quivering in the cold winter wind that whips scraps of torn clothing around motionless bodies littering the forest floor like leaves. Soldiers walk in front, and disappear behind trees, making them appear as monsters from local folklore, combing the landscape. Every single soldier seems to march in a perfectly calculated route, faces set in grim determination.
     Laying low in a natural dip in the forest floor, two men clutch rifles to their chests as they gasp for air. One is bandaged – a drying stream of blood runs from his mouth - but the other seems generally untouched. Despite showing no visible wounds, he looks out wild-eyed with the same attentiveness of a caged-animal. Peeking up over the small mound they are hiding behind, the soldier reaches down and shakes his bloodied companion. “Clancy, stay with me, we have to keep moving.” Looking back down, he shakes the other man a little rougher and whispers “Clancy! Stay with me boy! Hold on,” but the hoarse rise and fall of the other man's chest is no longer showing signs of strain. His body lay limp and drained of color. Shouting the man's name, the living soldier experiences a sharp strain to the back of his head before everything goes black.
     Officer Alfred James Turner was a fine soldier, as loyal and strong as they come, but humans are not made of stone the way the statues commemorating the dead are in this country. We are instead closer in similarity to rubber bands; we are constantly changing our shape and bending, but a breaking point always exists. When Alfred broke, he walked around for many years trying to fix himself, to no avail. No matter how hard he tried, he could no longer bend, he could no longer change. Alfred James Turner was garbage that wouldn't be thrown out for many years to come. Many unhappy, unbending, and unchanging years.

     Screams from an adult male escape from small slits in a concrete bunker, tucked away in the woods. Inside, Alfred sits strapped to a chair as a man in a black buttoned-up medical coat crouches in front of him, a steel rod red with heat pressed onto the webbing of his toes. Howling in pain, Alfred's convulsing body collapses into a sweating, panting pile as the instrument is pulled away. The door into the small room is thrown open, and in walks a man in a high-ranking black suit, with tall, turned-down boots, and a double handful of metal badges decorating his collar.
     Senior Command Leader Gustav Amsel strolled leisurely into the room with his arms tucked casually behind his back. “Guten Morgan, Herr Turner. How are we doing today?” he said while looking over a small script of paper sitting on the lone table in the room. Although faint, the German of his accent poked through, signifying a man who is probably educated, and spent some time abroad learning the language. Ever the soldier, turner unconsciously tucked away this information, hoping to one day use it to help him escape.
     Opening his mouth and spitting at the man, Gustav blocked the saliva, and delivered a head-jarring backhand in one swift motion to Alfred's face. “You're getting sloppy mein friend, but you're not defeated that easily are you?” he says to the hanging head of Alfred. Clapping his leather gloves together, the doctor in the room grips the man by the hair, and wrenches his head back, so as to face Gustav. “No, I can only assume this to be a ploy at some ridiculous escape attempt. “You Americans are quite cunning, and you are one of the best I've seen yet,” he says while pacing back and forth. Gustav's face appears the model of serenity: cold, calculated, and unchanging. “Do you have anything you'd like to say?”
     Alfred's throat muscles clench in preparation to spit again, and finally managed to get what he achieved for. A irritated twitch of the Commander's eye is all that broke free from his ironclad composure, but it was enough for Alfred. A howling enters the room again, but this time in the form of laughter. Unfortunately, victory is short-lived, as a boot quickly plants itself fiercely into his chest, sending both the chair and himself crashing to the ground.
     Regaining his breath, and running his hand through the hair recently fallen onto his face, Gustav stands over Alfred, and crouches down to the side so that he may look him in the eye. “tsk, tsk, tsk Alfie. I had hoped to receive ze location of your battalion the easy way” Gustav says sarcastically. A blissful smile peeks onto his face – similar to a child awoken in the middle of a Christmas night by rustling in the living room. Looking Alfred in the eyes, he says “When was the last time you had a meal?” Try as he might, the mention of food made Alfred dry swallow, and a terrible noise rose from his stomach. Standing up and clapping his hands together, Gustav let out a terrible laugh. “Gut! Good, good, good. I thought as much. We're going to play a game, you and I. The good news is that win or lose, you'll be receiving a feast.”
     Alfred can only see a small portion of the room now, but watches as Gustav walks near the edge of his vision, and whispers to the doctor. Nodding his head in agreement, he hollers in German into a small tin radio, and the sound of marching feet echo in the hallway. “Bis gleich, mein freund” Gustav says as he strolls from the room, laughing light-heartedly. Alfred was a strong man, but weakness overcame him. Quivering on the floor – be it from fear, or malnutrition – Officer Alfred James Turner passed out as the boots of soldiers came stomping into the room.

     It felt as if hours for Alfred, as he sat floating through a never ending expanse of ink. “I've finally died haven't I... and this is heaven? Perhaps... perhaps it is, for a soldier. Fitting.” he said to nobody in particular. Exhaling, he rests his head back, and surrenders to the feeling, allows himself to just float through the darkness that surrounded him.
     Things went on in this manner for what felt like an eternity, when suddenly a jolt ran through Alfred's spine. Familiar scents started to flood his nose: the smoky scent of thick-cut sausages, the aroma of bread with the smooth smell of butter. Savory stews, fresh picked fruits and vegetables, and the hopsy scent of cold ale flooded light through the shadows.
     “Ah, good morning Alfred,” a voice chimed. Everything was a blur to him, but slowly, shapes started to focus and fall into place. He didn't need his eyes to know if was Gutav speaking to him now, though. He cautiously tried to take in his surroundings, but was pulled instantly to the table in front of him. It had to be his hunger, but the steam of fresh and hot food felt like the delicate outstretched fingers of a woman, as it softly touched his cheek, and passed across his lips. Taking in a deep breath, his hands jumped forward of their own accord. It was at this moment he realized he was tied to a chair, and the explosion of laughter from the Germans sent him into an embarrassing fit of wailing, as blubbery tears raced down his face.
     After the Nazis had their fill of laughter, Gustav's hand yet again gripped Alfred by the hair, and pulled his head back, so as they could see eye to eye. “Here is the deal,” Gustav said, his voice so cold, you could have believed the man had never laughed in his life, even after hearing his deep laughter only moment ago. His accent was now impossible to pick out, as calculating eyes bore holes into Alfred's head. “We are at the house” - the sneer he made at the word “house” suggesting what he actually thought of the poor, thrown together building - “of the Boskos, a little family from this area,” he spoke. “Tell me friend, do they teach you the etymology of surnames before they let you loose on our soil?” he asked, the mocking tone of his voice clearly speaking rhetorically. He continued, not allowing Alfred a chance to speak, although both men knew the tied up soldier had been broken at this point.
     “Bosko” comes from the Slavic word “bossy” which means “barefoot”. “Fitting, isn't it, that such a poor family would carry such a poor last name?” It's at this moment, Alfred heard a whimper, and craned his neck around to focus on a family huddled in the corner. If it wasn't for the flickering eyes, he may have passed them off as nothing more than ap ile of filthy rags. The father had his head hung in humiliation, and the mother sat staring off into nothing in particular. The worst sight, however, was the children shivering, while trying to hide inside their mother's bulky skirts. Occasionally, one of the children would peer at the food hopefully, only to bury their faces once again. The look on Alfred's face set such a fire inside Gustav, that his voice started to slip back once again into accent.
     “Now zat you are caught up to speed, allow me to tell you the game we'll be playing. The food you see in front of you is all this family has to last them through ze bulk of winter. Whatever you don't eat, they may have,” Gustav said, his grin nearly reaching his eyes. Shaking, Alfred tried to turn his head away, but his eyes turned sharp and predatory, while unconsciously licking his lips. Gustav continued talking, but it was all mute noise to Alfred's ears, as he felt the braces on his arm open up. He threw himself at the table, and began wolfing down as much food as he could possibly gather. It all seemed a blur, and when he finally took control, he sat back in the chair, and looked at his hands for a long time.
     The greasy collection of colors and textures on his hands spoke of a feast for a king, and when he looked at the table, the mess he left seemed a corpse, picked over by scavengers. With his mouth quivering, he turned his head to the family in the corner, the father now openly weeping into his palms, and the mother's lips twitching into a smile as she stared into that nothingness she had been looking at earlier. What words could possibly make up for what he had done? What kind of an apology could possibly excuse his crimes? Setting his head onto the wooden table, Alfred cried, but not as he had before. It was no longer a loud, wailing noise. No, it was now soft, and slow. It was nothing – Alfred felt, Alfred thought. Alfred was nothing.
     Alfred felt a tugging at his sleeve, but couldn't up the courage to look. Whatever his captors were up to, let them have him he thought. Finally turning his head around, his eyes fell on the youngest son of the family. The boy held a smile that roared passionately of the heroes from stories, those brave men who never faltered, and would never stop fighting for what was right. This young child walked over with all the power and innocence of youth, and held a scarf out to Alfred, directing it to his filthy hands. Alfred just stared at him, while slowly grabbing the scarf – a grimy, brown thing – and started to scrub it around his hands. “Thank you,” he spoke, the child nodding without actually having to understand English to get the message. Few things are as universal as genuine appreciation.
     The look in Alfred's eyes were in stark contrast to Gustav's. Whereas his own eyes rippled like that of a calm pound, light reflecting off its surface – Gustav's was a roaring fire. The click of a gun is heard, and a scream tearing from Alfred's throat is drowned by the heavy explosion of a bullet tearing through the barrel of a pistol, followed by a sickly sounding pop as the child's head splashes onto a nearby wall. Alfred's face was now covered in blood, and the mother began to shriek, never moving her head from the corner of the room she was staring at. “rennen sie alle!” Gustav shouted, and whipped out of the room in a flurry, the multitudes of his jacket whipping about. His soldiers trailed after him, and closing the door, the sound of a heavy metal bolt falling into place announced that they were locked in. 
     The accusatory glare of the father would be found at the bottom of every bottle, until the end of Alfred's days, and he knew this. Alfred James Turner welcomed the fire, relishing in the heat and heavy smoke that started filling the room. “A butcher being cooked, now this is a wonderful joke” he said, laughing to himself. His howling drowned out the noise of the daughter banging her fist against the walls, and of the father throwing his body against the door.

     Coughing, Alfred opened his eyes, and sat staring at the sky in confusion. A cold wind swept handfuls of ash and soot in front of him, and the sharp caws of crows rang in his ears. Sitting up, he looked around, and realized where he was for the first time. He lay alone on the floor of the forest, looking around for a sign of human life – of which there was none. A coughing fit took him, and for a few moments, aggressive barks poured from his throat, and emptied onto the ground, sending out dusts of soot. Another sharp cackle of a crow brought his eyes to one of the birds picking at a charred mound. It took a moment, but he finally realized what it was he was looking at: that small child that had given him the scarf. Throwing a plank of wood, Alfred caught the bird mid-flight as it tried to run, sending is sprawling to the ground. Puncing on the bird, and hammering it into the ground, a scream to come out of his mouth, but only produced a wheeze from his smoke-damaged lungs.
     Flinging the black and red bundle of a crow behind him, Alfred took up the child and tried to brush the hair out of his face – hair that snapped like straw and wilted away from the gray and porous skin on the child's face. The sun had moved methodically across the sky before Alfred stopped sobbing, and held the child in his arms. A trained soldier, he started south, heading towards the direction his platoon would be.
Perhaps miles had passed before he found an area that wouldn't contain the heavy roots of the old-growth forest around him, and he set the child down, softly of course, and began to scoop dirt from the ground with his hands. Evening came before the hole was ready; Alfred's hands bloodied and black, he sat in the hole for awhile, wondering if he should just stay in. “No, you've taken enough from the boy, don't take this too, you son of a bitch!” That was right, wasn't it? Alfred was a son of a bitch, a monster, any sort of despicable creature from Hollywood, as bad as any German soldier. Shaking his head, he climbed on out. “Don't you feel sorry for yourself, you piece of shit.”
     Lowering the child into the hole, he tried his best to give a fitting eulogy. Alfred sank to his knees, and spoke to the patch of turned soil on the forest floor. “I have no doubt you'll be embraced with open-arms in the afterlife. You were braver than I have ever been. I know a hole in the ground isn't a gift, but it's all I can do. I'm sorry... even if sorry isn't good enough, know it's there. Know that it will always be there. I'm so damn sorry”. With that, Alfred turned around, and headed through the forest. In a few days, he would stumble upon his old platoon, and they'd cheer and drink heavily in glee that one of their own made it back. Not everyone at the celebration was smiling.
     He was awarded many medals, but whenever mentioned, he would start to cry, eventually resulting in a debriefing and discharge. From that moment on, any city Alfred lived in would see a sharp spike in alcohol sales until he was run out of town. Alfred James Turner knew exactly who he was, and never changed. It was to everyones mutual benefit that he died, all perhaps except for that small, nameless boy. If he were alive, he could perhaps tell him “it wasn't your fault. Sometimes things happen. Please, you need to live on, honor me in this way, live enough for the both of it!”. Alfred would never hear this though, because of him, that boy wasn't around to tell him so.
     The sun rose that morning, and just like that awful day ten years ago, the wind swept ash and soot across the sky. A murder of crows sat perched on a telephone wire and eyed the charred remains of a mall, and the circus of men and women cleaning up the mess. A van drove past, and a woman looked out from the passenger seat at the ruins. “Heard it was a suicide” the husband said matter-of-factly. “Now where are we supposed to go shopping?” the wife said, clicking her tongue in exasperation. “What kind of a person would do something like that around Christmas?”

What kind of a person?”
What kind of a person?”
What kind of a person?”

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