This was supposed to be a piece of flash fiction but it kind of grew in the telling. I went with it.
As ever, I began with an inspirational image (this one courtesy of Eygló Daða Karlsdóttir) and three Key Words:
Leavings, Hustle, Chuck
As the story progressed and the antagonist insinuated herself into my mind, I decided to add a little something more to the image just for the joy of it. That silhouette was created by Jesus Meza.
I would ordinarily post an explanation of my thought processes, but time caught me up, so I’ll present this one without commentary. You are welcome to pose any questions about the piece in the comments below, and I will answer as best as I can.
Anyway, without any further ado, let’s go see what’s happening…
In the Long Grass
I shouldn’t a been there. Shouldn’t a seen what I seen in the long grass—wouldn’t have if I’d listened to mama, but who in the wide world has time? Don’t we sleep for a third of our lives? I’ve been working on that, as a matter of fact – shaving short my nights by degrees so I can squeeze in a few more books – but the clock never stops till it stops us for good. Life’s harsh like that, so I aim to make the most of it. Far as I could tell, I had maybe thirty weeks to live, then I was done.
It shaped up in my brain like this:
At 11 years old, I had three full years of schooling to go then I’d be all grown up, boring my way to the grave. Three years, and one of them’d be lost to sleep! School sucks away forty weeks a year, and it don’t give more’n a hoot whether we’re awake or not ’cept in class. I figured that left me thirty-six weeks of freedom, but even then I still had to eat my meals and do my chores every day; I had to go to church on Sundays, say my prayers every night; and whenever my cousins came to visit I got stuck making nice with them. It just about drove me crazy. I get lost in the math of it, but the point is this: Life flies. You gotta hustle.
My latest gas was going down to the lake hunting for brown recluse and black widow spiders. Rogue golf balls too, if I could find ’em. That was a keen way to make a bit a green, though I had to pick my moments. My kind ain’t allowed at Pine Valley you know, not even to work. Truth be told, I shouldn’ta been near the lake at all, but it all felt safe enough. The little patch I’d claimed was kind of hard to get to from the fairway. All them blue-bloods could do was yell at me from time to time, and toss stones when the gods of golf riled them up. And if I snuck up to the shack at the end of the day I could sell the balls back to those poor caddies who kissed ass for tips. They was young and stupid, kicking divots and dreaming they’d be masters one day.
Sometimes I’d get a little kiss from them myself for a dare and an extra quarter. Don’t go judging me now; it’s different being poor. It weren’t completely gross with Chuck or Blaine, but Mitch made me wanna puke with his French stuff—and what kind of moron keeps a snake down there? I wouldn’t a touched it for a silver dollar, peeping up at me like that. Yech! Might have been fun to drop a widow in though, if I’d had one to hand. I like to set spiders fighting other critters, see who comes out on top. An’ no, it ain’t always obvious. I heard a wolf spider killed a mantis once over in Lakewood if you can believe it, and dragonflies are way meaner than you’d think.
Anyway, it was the middle of summer, and the day stretched long like taffy. Mama wanted me home early but I found a bumper crop of balls washed up – there musta been a real hacker on the course – so I wasn’t going nowhere – not till I turned them in. The air was pressing down on me heavy-like. It was cosy enough on the bank, but humid as all heck, so I lay there awhile watching the course and the leisurely lah-di-dahs through the waving reeds and long grass. After a while my eyes began to glaze over. The birdsong was sweet, the water lapped gently and… yeah, you know it. I drifted off.
A woman’s laugh woke me, light but clear through the evening air. It was cooler now, still hazy but darkening too. I saw the couple necking up against the caddy shack door, and cussed a little ’cause they wouldn’t hardly be doing that if there was anyone else still around. Dagnammit! I’d missed my shot at a sale and now I was later’n late getting back. The man was fiddling with his keys in an awful hurry, but the woman had other ideas. She whispered in his ear and pointed down at the lake, the long grass and me. Not right at me, of course – I was well-enough hid – but they headed my way all the same, hand in excitable hand.
If mama hadn’t got her whalloping stick out yet, she surely would by the time I got home, but every step, every second brought ’em closer, and I started to get awful shy about being seen. Fearful even, and for reasons I couldn’t rightly name. There was a smell. A feeling. Besides, I didn’t want to see none of what they had in mind. I had to get out of there! But as I started to slide myself back, I saw the woman’s face in the light of the setting sun, and I froze. Mrs Liu was her name—all the way from Japan. Well there were all kinds of whispers about her round town, and not just from white folks neither! Mama would never pry exactly, but she collected scraps ’bout newcomers like wisps of cotton, getting to know all she could quiet-like. Safer that way, she said. Wise.
I sucked at my lip and thought on that, because she might go easier on me if I brought a wisp or two back with me. I pushed my concerns to the side and hunkered back down. This woman had no more right to be there than me, and I was pretty sure that weren’t Mr Liu with her – he was a big fat man, I’d heard – so who was this slender buck? He was walking ahead of her now, but backwards see, not wanting to take his eyes from her. He made some comment, she gave him a push an’ then they fell down together in the long grass, all outrage and giggles, and then they started rolling around. I couldn’t see his face, but when she got up top I caught an eyeful of skin, with all kinds of bits bobbling about. Lord! Kissin’ I could cope with, but this was somethin’ else!
They was humping and a-bumping now, groaning and a-moaning; she was facing right towards me but blinded by the sun I guessed—or so I hoped anyways, ’cause I was pushing forward now, half hypnotised with horror. I never seen nothing like this before. They was all arms an’ legs an’ this great heaving mass—and then… then there was kind of a muffled scream. I couldn’t see the man no more – it was like he’d got squished into the ground beneath her – and Mrs Liu was rising up, up ever higher, but where her waist ended there weren’t no pissin’ lips like you an’ me got. It swept back and round like some kinda giant balloon, no—a spider’s body with far too many legs, jointed and splayed out, and it was thrashing up and down on him as she hollered somethin’ awful. Then she kind of upended herself, her human body diving down and she starting tearing into him with her teeth!
If I screamed, I couldn’t hear it amid the crash and clatter of the herons takin’ off. I couldn’t blame them. I’d thrown myself backward fast and dug in deep as I could, terrified she’d come to get me. I couldn’t tell you how long I lay there, palms slapped over my eyes, my elbows pressed into my guts, shaking and crying – so quiet, so quiet – and all the while I was in torment. Every breeze sent little scratches and tickles across my skin. Grasses and reeds I told myself, skeeters and midges, but I couldn’t brush ’em off, I couldn’t bat ’em away for fear of catching her eye. At one point I felt the long delicate legs of a spider alighting on my ear. It crept its way underneath my hair, wandered down the nape of my neck then dropped to the floor and off on its way. They don’t mean to bother nobody, you know that, right?
I saw it go, but somehow my skin felt the tickle for ages after, like it was still in there, makin’ a nest.
Hours passed it seemed, and I was starting to cramp up bad. I had to move, had to get home to mama. If Mrs Liu was gonna get me she’d have got me already, I figured, finding the courage and the strength to shift at last. The moon shone bright now and I peered through the reeds, out across the lake. She was gone. Gone! All that was left over there was this dark depression in the long grass and—was there something else? Someone? I began to be filled with doubts now. They was at a distance after all, an’ those reeds was waving in fronta my face all the while. How much had I actually seen, and how much was imagined? Tired and frightened as I was, filthy and wretched as I felt, I just had to know. So step by careful step, I made my way around the lake.
It was Mitch—the man, I mean. The boy. Her leavings in the long grass. There weren’t enough of him left to be all the way sure, but that was his wrist-watch alright. A flashy tip from some big-time player, he’d boasted. Mitch never took the thing off before, and he never would now. It was cracked and smeared with blood, but still strapped tight round his wrist. The splintered stump that stuck out the end had been licked clean then tossed aside like a chicken bone, along with a whole heap o’ red ropes, and – this make me hurl there an’ then – two feet placed side by side, all neat-like. And you know what else? Laid across his ten toes was Mitch’s snake, a single tear leaking from its bloodied eye.
Well, I ran all the way home and I took my beating with a thank you kindly ma’am and a solemn swear that I’d never be late again.
All those bits was gone by the morning, snagged by critters, I s’pose. No-one missed Mitch; seemed he’d handed in his notice some days before. The scuttlebutt was he’d run off with some mystery lady he’d been braggin’ about, though nobody ever saw them hook up. It was a big secret, he’d confided: a married woman. Love with a capital L, though. he real deal. They’d all be sorry when he was gone, livin’ the high life. Some of those saps actually sighed at his conjured romance, but a mess more of them mocked his memory, decidin’ he’d just slunk off, too scared to be proven a fraud. Far as I could tell only me and Mrs Liu knew what really happened, and we weren’t hardly gonna tell.
I saw her just one more time after that. Mama took me into town one weekend when I’d been out late again – as if I’d ever learn – and she dragged me into this dingy little pawn shop. She said if I couldn’t tell the time by the sun, I’d have to wear a confounded wrist watch. She’d stitch it to my wrist if she had to. Well she ummed and she ahhed as I kicked my heels and wrinkled my nose at the smell. Finally she found a watch cheap enough with a haggle, if only the gosh-darned shop-owner were here. She struck the bell a couple a times and the curtains to the back rustled open at last. I couldn’t tell you how Mrs Liu must have bent to fit her big ol’ body into them clothes, nor where all her extra legs went. (I suppose them big summer dresses have their uses, but I pity the poor kid who runs under there, playing hide and seek.) Anyways, I didn’t stop to think about it, I just tore out of Lulu’s Emporium screaming blue murder.
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