Anticipating the thaw

Short fiction

By Jeremy Podolski

Eli snapped the frozen stalactite from its moorings on the gutter overhead and raised it in a fencer’s salute, eyes fixed on Sasha.

“Olé!” he offered before attacking the space in front of her with a flourish, like a maniacal poet inking stanzas in the cold, empty air.

Sasha’s shrug was hardly visible through the winter parka and layers of knit sweaters keeping her warm, but she added a deliberate eye roll for good measure.

“Don’t you mean ‘en garde?’” she snarked.

“Touché,” Eli replied with raised eyebrow. He held the tip of the icicle against the dull light of the ebbing sun, as if examining his blade for imperfections, then abruptly bit off the tip and chomped it noisily.

“You are so weird,” Sasha said, turning her back so he wouldn’t see the snowball she was shaping between her purple, fur-trimmed mittens. “What time’s the truck coming?”

“Four. But with the weather, they’ll probably be late.” He quieted then, drumming the shortened ice spear against his leg.

“You know, my iPod better not be in one of those boxes. You said you were gonna bring it over yesterday, but I never saw you.” She heaved the snowball at his chest then, and it exploded in a nebula of powder and ice. The glimmering dust settled on Eli’s dark hair and lashes, salt and pepper lending comic contrast to his young face.

“Well, you’re not getting it back now,” said Eli, straight-lipped, looking professorial. “Besides, I want something to remember you by.”

“You need that to remember me?” Sasha said, feigning injury, surprised to find she actually felt a bit injured.

“No, I’d just rather have your iPod than your ferret or your Vampire Weekend T-shirt.” He glanced around, as if looking for a place to sit, but the narrow strip of yard between their two houses was smothered in undulating, wet snow. He was glad he was still holding the icicle. It gave him something to do with his hands.

“What’s winter going to be like there?” she asked after a long silence.

“I don’t know. Not like here,” Eli said. “I heard it rains.”

“Eli!” An echoing interruption, the husky voice of his father. “Come help me with this sofa!”

“Sorry,” Eli said quietly. “I’ll drop off your iPod before we leave.”

He tossed the icicle toward her, and she clapped her mittens together, clumsily catching the tapered end while the wider base broke under its own weight and disappeared into the drift near her feet. She waited for him to lob an insult, the perfect opportunity to mock her and run, but Eli had already vanished around the corner of his garage, his boots now clomping on the bare concrete.

Rain instead of snow. She’d hate that, she thought. The cleanliness of the white soothed her, hid the desolation left in the wake of autumn. Snow spread like a glaze of perfection over the dead, blemished landscape. Its only drawback was its transience.

An icicle’s existence was even more fleeting – born only in the right conditions – a modest thaw, a precarious edge, a sustaining freeze. She plunged her hand into the snowbank, suddenly anxious to locate the rest of the sunken icicle. It should have been easy; the impression in the snow created by its falling was obvious. All she had to do was grab it. But as she tried to dig, the snow just compressed, becoming like ice itself, camouflaging the object to sight and touch.

The faster and more frantically she searched, the more impossible the task seemed, as if she were trying to differentiate one gallon of water in the ocean from another. Her perspiration chilled her as it mingled with the falling temperature. Sweat and melted snow soaked her mittens until she ripped them off and cast them to the ground. With her bare hands, she reached into the hole she had burrowed to find its walls as smooth and hard as glass. She scratched at them with her fingernails but only came away with thin curls of ice that bit at her numbing skin with frosty malice.

Kneeling now, Sasha looked to the gutter overhanging the side of her home. At least thirty icicles clung to the roofline, virtually identical, none more distinct than the next, but the one she wanted was trapped out of reach. For the moment, it was preserved in its frozen vault. By tomorrow, it would be a casualty of the thaw.

Short fiction: Rules of Mortality

By Jeremy Podolski

I won’t tell you how I died, and they can’t tell you why. The debriefing, though, was harsh. I expected St. Peter and a handshake, maybe a glass of wine and some beef Wellington, but apparently the dead are far from heaven’s upper class.

Instead, I got the penitentiary treatment, whisked down a gutter gray hallway by two burly escorts whose violent shoves were so frequent that my obedient march looked more like a drunken gallop. By the time we reached a windowless door, stamped with the word “ANOMALIES” in bold silver, I was sore and ready to spit fire.

The door swung open with no more than a glance from the oaf on my right, who thrust me into an unfurnished room that smelled of overheated circuitry. The enclosure was seamless, like the inside of an egg, and not much bigger than a minivan.

“Go to hell!” I yelled, but they were gone before I could turn around.

I dropped hard to the concave floor in a tangle of tawny arms and legs. After minutes that felt like hours camped in blackness behind covered eyes, I raised my lids to notice I was wearing the same dark jeans as the day before. The pair with the cigarette burn on the right thigh and (fishing into the back pocket on the same side) six neatly folded bills – $600 in all.

“Huh,” I said out loud. “I guess you can take it with you.”

I was contemplating possible conversion rates for my liquid assets when I felt the floor – no – the whole room moving. My egg-cell pivoted until it was on end, and I slid like a greasy yolk to the wide bottom. The light, which was already an uncomfortable glare, intensified to the point I shielded my face out of reflex, but it did little good. I could barely stand or see.

The first blow caught me by surprise, knocking me off my unsteady feet and causing an awkward fall that forced my chin into my own knee. Pain like electricity shot through my jaw and reverberated off my clenched teeth. Still blinded, I sensed the hand that reached for me, but I had no evasive maneuver to consider. I only tried to brace myself with an outstretched arm. Around it wrapped long fingers like hot knives that seared my skin down to the nerve endings, and I collapsed to the floor in a heap.

“You are not supposed to be here,” said the owner of the hand still squeezing my forearm like a tourniquet.

Although the pain warped my vision as much as the light, my eyes were beginning to adjust. I stole an upward glance, expecting to see a menacing archangel or a creature born of vengeful imagination. Finding an ordinary-looking man leaning over me was uniquely unsettling.

Remaining supplicatory, I growled, probably too defensively: “You think I’m in control? I’m not the goddamn queen bee, here. This isn’t my show.”

“LIES!” His voice projected like a turbine, launching me into the curved wall behind, and I struggled to gain my footing as the room shuddered in the wake of the eruption.

“I don’t think we’re working from the same script,” I said, slowing my speech, trying to strike a compliant tone. “I may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who knows, maybe it was the right place at the wrong time. But shit happened, and I’m here. And, to be honest, I’m starting to think this place is a few heavenly choirs shy of utopia. Where am I really?”

The man clasped his hands at chest level, as if praying.

“Let’s just say you’re on a detour as opposed to… the grand tour,” he said, slightly calmer but still smoldering with concentration.

“Riddles. Beautiful. I suppose that’s why I’m tasting blood instead of gorging on ambrosia or whatever you guys eat up here?”

He took a half-step closer. A surprising hint of lavender wafted from the wide, charcoal lapel of his sharply cut suit.

“Your death was… unexpected,” he said after a palpable pause. “That means protocols were broken. And when protocols are broken, someone is to blame.”

I started circling then, hoping to maintain ownership of my space. “Well, I don’t know who would have the ability or the nerve to sidestep your operation. This is a maximum security outfit. Nobody’s hacking it.”

“True, we are adept at enforcing our rules. Yet, we’ve built our walls around a jungle. So, every now and then a snake,” he stopped to inspect me from head to toe, “may slip between the cracks.”

The temperature of the room was escalating, but not a single bead of sweat formed on the smooth, bronze head of my captor. He simply continued his unabashed stare.

“Whether or not I’m a reptile is debatable, but any crack I slipped through wasn’t of my making,” I said. “I understood I’d be exposed to risk. I didn’t sign on for treachery.”

He grabbed me by the bare shoulders. This time, his hands were cold as ice.

“Then why are you here,” he hissed, “when there is no basis for your demise, no itinerary for your arrival, and no knowledge of your destiny having changed?”

“Listen!” I shouted, whirling out of his grip. “I can’t be the victim AND the villain!”

And I knew, then, that I had him. It wasn’t that my lie was particularly convincing or that it was delivered with indisputable authority. I could just feel the momentum of the confrontation change. I caught a tremor in his steely gaze. A twitch in the muscles of his taut forehead. There was some key connection he failed to grasp, a critical gap in knowledge he could not bridge. He no longer had a choice.

“Go,” he said. And nothing else.

The new corridor I entered appeared endless, but I could tell that it widened as I walked toward a warm light in the distance. I was alone, so I took off my black tank to wrap around the burns on my arm. I doubted they would ever heal in the conventional sense, but I didn’t think I needed to worry about that anymore.

Much of my life had been hijacked by worrying. About others. About myself. About the rules. The worry cripples you, and the rules keep you from ever healing. And you believe that’s just how it is. There is no alternative. That’s life.

But the truth is, despite what they tell you, there is more than one way to get into heaven. Flash Fiction Opening Line Challenge
This short story is a response to a November 2013 flash fiction challenge posted by Chuck Wendig on his Terrible Minds blog. The opening line of my story was contributed by Allison Rose. Thanks, Allison, wherever you are.

Short fiction: Unhinged

By Jeremy Podolski

Allie tried to remember who had given her the key, but the thought absconded. It felt not faded, as memories are prone, so much as slipped like a magician’s tablecloth from beneath undisturbed place settings. She could find no grave from which to exhume the chain of events that brought her to crouch before a squat metal door embedded in a shoulder of rock that interrupted the slope of a heavily forested ravine.

The key was obviously betrothed to the door. The patina that gave each a stately, if abused, look bore the same shade and sheen. A matched set. The only question remaining was whether or not she would consummate their marriage. Conventional wisdom, she supposed, would suggest action posed a greater risk than abstinence, but Allie tended to greet convention with a shrug or a lowered shoulder.

The air’s stillness lent a sensation of artificiality to the scene Allie only now paused to observe. Neither trilling insects nor deciduous applause infringed on the silence. Even the cadence of her breathing seemed dampened despite her eager inhalations.

The dress she wore, a shimmery silver that hummed blue notes in the passing daylight, didn’t quite sweep the moss-covered path when she walked, but her position now caused the hem to rest in uneven folds across the roots of dehydrated oaks and loose soil that owned this isolated acreage far from any trail.

At this height, Allie could see the individual nicks and scratches surrounding the embellished keyhole, seemingly caused by hasty attempts to secure access to the door and what lie beyond (or, she thought with sudden trepidation, to keep what’s on the other side in its place). The generous opening should have allowed for a clean view of the space behind, but Allie saw only a dance of flashing color against the black, an imitation of the kaleidoscope one produces when squeezing her eyelids tight. As the unknown incited a riot between her curiosity and anxiety, she tried to steady her hand as she raised it.

The key’s weight seemed to double as she aligned it with its counterpart. The concentration required was disproportionate to the task, and when an image of her brother appeared without warning in her mind’s eye, it was as if it had been extruded by the effort.

As his voice ambled into her consciousness, she recognized his words as the few he spoke on the day she left home, more than a year ago.

“You are running out of daylight,” he said.

“That’s why I’m leaving now,” she heard herself say, “so I don’t have time for long goodbyes.”

“I’m not just talking about today.”

“Are you worried for me?”

“I’m afraid of what your leaving will do to this place, to everyone.”

“Does that include you?”

“Home will always include me.”

“I could never stand so still. Don’t you feel the pull? It’s like gravity is out there, beyond us, rather than beneath us.”

“I think you spend too much time looking for new stars to orbit. You don’t need a map or a compass to discover what’s extraordinary.”

A momentary flare of sunlight infiltrating the dense canopy caught Allie’s attention, breaking the daydream spell and awakening her senses to the tightness in her jaw and the cramping in her hand. She relaxed her grip on the key, which the door had swallowed to the bow, and grimly admired the ghostly impression of that forged loop ornamenting her palm.

She reached forward, bracing herself against the door, which moments ago had appeared so formidable but now felt brittle and vulnerable. Just a simple movement of her hand would neutralize the lock, removing the last barrier between the world she knew and the one she imagined. At last, a resolution to her perpetual running.

But Allie had reached this threshold before, only to find the path beyond unremitting upon crossing. How many mirages had she scattered with stumbling steps and flailing arms, passing through their promise like a beggar through the fog? All were ostensible conclusions exposed as well-dressed apparitions. She could judge herself harshly for lacking perception, but from afar, few can differentiate a shadow from a silhouette.

She bowed her head and felt a newborn breeze softly kiss the droplets of perspiration from her nose and nape. As her exhaustion gradually painted over her waning exhilaration, she again saw her brother against the backdrop of her shuttered eyes. His face was close, the dirt of a day’s work spread over his brow and the first hints of erosion at the hands of age gathered beside his temples. Deep, methodical breaths resonated like husky whispers, but Allie heard no voice. She simply read in his eyes the answer to her wandering: “You journey to a place. Not from one.”

Allie let her arm fall limply to her side. It felt detached, as if the key had been its source of life and energy, rather than her body. The pierced lock held her gaze, the key camouflaged now against the pitted steel, and she wondered if anyone wandering through this lonesome landscape would notice that entry was theirs for the taking.

She straightened her back and combed her fingers through a nest of hair that had grown too long for the shape of her face. The strands were coarse and unfamiliar, and they ensnared her fingers in angry snarls.These, she shook loose, twirling her body and losing sight of the door just long enough to grant her the courage to take a step in the other direction. Then another. And another, through the disintegrating brush and into an open space with a clear view of the sky.

The stars wouldn’t be shining to orient her for another hour, perhaps, but she could get a head start. She was pretty sure she knew the way.