And it’s Day Two of the ClarksonPunk October Flurry! Today I’m conducting an experiment on you, Dear Readers; feel free to call me Herbert West! Seriously.
Writers generally fall into two broad categories: those who feel most comfortable in a long format (like a novel) and those who feel most comfortable in a short format (like a short story). I’ve always been in the first category; stories have a tendency to grow on me, sneaking in a little plotlet or a character side-story very time I turn my back to fetch a sandwich. This is not to say that a writer can’t learn to cross back and forth between the two sizes; they totally can, and do most successfully. I’m just saying that one feels more natural and comfortable than the other.
I don’t like writing just novels. Yes, they’re wonderful. But you are married to that damned story for at least a year and sometimes a lot longer. Sometimes it’s nice to just jump in, tell the story and out again in less than a year. So I’m trying to learn to write shorter. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m starting to get the hang of short stories, so learning the flash fiction style — a story between 300 and 1000 words, generally — is the next logical step.
And that’s where you come in. The story below is my first ever attempt at flash fiction. If it works, yay! If it doesn’t, sorry. Okay. That’s all the prelude I got. Enjoy.
Despite feeling hot, feeling sweat on his brow and under his arms, John couldn’t stop shivering. The blanket across his chest itched more than it warmed, the bedsheets were tangled under him, but he didn’t have the strength to push them away, and when he tried to ask the nurse for help, his words came out, “aaaahhhhhrrraaaa.” His mouth was parched, his lips cracked and swollen, his tongue tasted like bile. His head didn’t precisely hurt, but an odd pulling sensation tickled the bridge of his nose, as though his thoughts were being forcibly siphoned out from between his eyes.
He could hear Sally’s voice nearby, how close he couldn’t tell. Sometimes she was whispering softly, talking to the nurses or maybe the kids. Mostly though, she was just crying. John tried to reach for her hand, to comfort her as he had done for all the years of their marriage, when her mother died, when he lost his job at the power company and they had no idea how they were going to pay their mortgage. But he couldn’t lift his hand to catch hers; he couldn’t open his eyes to look for her. He could only lie there and listen to her muffled sobs.
Just below the sound of Sally’s voice was a soft beeping, metronome-even. How long had it been there? John couldn’t remember noticing it before, but somehow it had always been there. As he listened, it started to speed up, the even measures becoming jittery and irregular. What did it mean? John felt a heaviness in his chest. The heaviness became an enormous pain, like getting punched right on top of the sternum. John’s breath came in quick, short pants, and still he couldn’t get enough air. And even now, as he struggled for breath, he could hear that the beeping had become an alarm, and the room was filled with the sounds of running, of many people talking, shouting.
Somebody was shouting his name; it was Sally. She sounded hysterical. John opened his mouth to tell her to shut up already. But when he tried to draw in a breath to speak, no air came into his lungs; he couldn’t do it. There was about three seconds of panic before everything faded away.
* * *
“I’ve tried adrenaline, no response. Continue CPR, and get that damned doctor in here, we need him stat!”
Somebody was shouting. Stop shouting, John, thought. The shouting seemed to come from a great distance, out of the fog that surrounded his mind, and there was a weird, thumping sensation in John’s chest, but he didn’t know where it came from. It didn’t matter, did it? John relaxed and let the fog roll back in….
* * *
“…. –ty percent of his heart has been damaged by this latest coronary, Mrs. Carmody. I think you need to prepare yourself for the worst.”
“How long?” That was Sally’s voice coming out of the fog in John’s mind. She sounded like she’d been crying again.
“We don’t expect him to survive the night, ma’am.”
Who? Who were they talking about? Was it one of the kids? John tried to turn to Sally to ask, but the effort set off another explosion of agony in his chest and the world faded away again.
* * *
“Remember not, Lord, the offenses of Thy servant, and take not vengeance on his sins.”
The voice was one John didn’t know, but the words he recognized. A priest was reciting the Extreme Unction. Somebody was dying. Who? He tried to remember if anybody had been in an accident, was sick. But it was hard to think, like his thought were running in slow motion. So he gave it up.
He’d only heard the Extreme Unction one time before, when his mother was dying. He didn’t feel the usual pang of loneliness and loss when he thought of her, and was relieved by its absence. She’d been gone twenty years, and he still missed her. She’d been a good, God-fearing woman, going to Mass twice a week and playing piano for Sunday School classes. When he’d been a child, Mama had not bothered telling him about the pearly gates of Heaven, or walking on streets of solid gold.
“I can’t wait to go hear the angelic choir,” she’d said a thousand times, with the same wistful expression on her face. “An infinite number of voices, all perfect, all raised in song all the time? Won’t that be a marvel to hear?” And John, eight years old and madly in love with anything that made his mother smile, was quick to agree. It would be wonderful. He’d even dreamed of it from time to time, a thousand angels, all wearing choir robes and holding little books just like the choirs at school and the altar boys at the church, singing a song so beautiful it would make you cry just to hear it.
“By the Sacred mysteries of man’s redemption may almighty God remit to you all penalties of the present life and of the life to come: may He open to you the gates of paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.”
“Amen,” John tried to say. It didn’t come out, but it didn’t seem to matter, so he ignored it. John felt a warm, damp finger touch his forehead, his eyelids, his dry, chapped lips. They were anointing him with oil. He was the one dying. The thought didn’t seem real, so he ignored that, too and floated away again.
* * *
The fog was gone. He was in a different place, John was sure of it. The uncomfortable bed, the tangled bedsheets, the smell of disinfectant, the beeping sounds, all were gone, replaced by cold and dark. Even his clothes had changed, the feathery touch of a hospital gown replaced by something heavier, scratchy, like his best wool suit. Had he been dreaming? Was he dreaming now? He tried to open his eyes, but that, at least, had not changed. His limbs were numb, leaden. He could still hear Sally sobbing softly, as though from a great distance. The priest’s voice was still there, too, but he couldn’t make out what the man was saying; stupid priest, he mumbled through the liturgy half the time, too.
There was something new. Voices, droning in the background. For an instant John thought of his mother’s talk of the choir eternal, and rejected it as fantasy; this wasn’t beautiful song, this was like a distant wail.
“As we gather to commend our brother John to God our Father and to commit his body to the earth, let us…..”
John? Did they say John? Was he dead? John didn’t feel dead. Not that he knew what that was supposed to feel like. The pain in his chest was gone, which was good. His arms and legs were numb, leaden, immovable. Should he be frightened? He didn’t feel that either. He felt relaxed. Calm. Ready for what came next. He’d see his mother soon. He’d be with his best friend Davy, who’d been hit by a car and killed instantly two years ago. He’d finally get to hear the angelic choirs he’d dreamed about all his life.
“Go in the peace of Christ,” the priest said, and a small choir of voices responded with, “Thanks be to God.” John said the words himself automatically, though his lips wouldn’t move. There still wasn’t any white light, choir, the face of Christ. Not yet. Maybe it would come soon.
Movement. He could feel movement, jostling and a sinking sensation, like being on an elevator. They were lowering him into the ground. And still he wasn’t scared; part of him thought he should be, but he just waited. As they lowered him, that odd monotone moaning in the background grew louder. Was he moving closer to it?
Now the chorus became more clear: it was screaming. Some voices were just shrieking incoherently, some were babbling out prayers and calls to God, to family members, to just anybody. And it was loud now, a heavy sound that bored down on John’s mind, pushing out other thought. Some of the voices were accented, some weren’t. Children, women, men, all mingling together in cries that spoke of broken minds. One voice, the one closest to him, sounded so familiar; John couldn’t quite place it.
Suddenly John realized where he’d heard that voice before. Mama. Oh, God. There was no salvation, no streets of gold, no pearly gates. But the choir eternal, that was real: the screams of minds trapped in holes in the ground, raising up their voices in shrieks of madness. John felt a new kind of terror well up inside him: there was no salvation; there was only the choir.
John raised up his voice and joined it.
This story is the property of AJ Clarkson, and is protected by U.S. copyright laws, 2014. This story may not be sold or reproduced in any format or media without the express written permission of its owner.
This short story came from a very strange, dark place in my real life. Would you believe that I once had a psychotic episode? For real. It’s called “brief psychotic disorder” and it’s a real condition, last anywhere from a few seconds to a month. For me, it lasted about two minutes.
My father died when I was twenty-six. He’d been ill for a long time, and we’d known it was coming. But I was young, and I was very very close to him; no freaking way was I prepared for his passing. So when it came, I didn’t cope well.
The episode happened at his funeral. We were standing there, listening to the preacher do his thing, and suddenly, I was sure — really sure — that Daddy was alive in there. His body was dead, but his brilliant, wonderful mind was still alive, still thinking, and desperate to escape the rotting corpse. He knew we were out there around the coffin, he could hear us, and he was shouting at us, trying to get us to notice and do something before it was too late.
I’m not exaggerating. I really truly believed it. I have no idea why, I have no clue where it came from, I just knew it was absolutely real.
I must have reacted without being consciously aware of it, because my husband knew in an instant that something was wrong. He’d had his arm around me the whole time. But now he clamped down hard, pinning me, and he started whispering in my ear. I don’t recall what he said, but it stopped me from doing something stupid (though what that might have been, I couldn’t tell you. I was so messed up with grief, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me I stripped down nekkid and started dancing the Funky Chicken). By the time he let go a minute or two later, the delusion had passed, thank goodness.
Okay, the delusion may have passed. But the memory of it never did. I have dreamed about it off and on over the last twenty years. The idea for this story came to me a couple years ago, but there wasn’t enough to it to make a proper short story, it was too odd and disconnected to plug into a novel, and, as I said earlier, I’m just now learning the flash fiction format, so I couldn’t write it in that format. But now I can, so here it is!
Well, that’s it for me. Please let me know how you liked my first attempt at flash fiction? Tweet, comment, share, email me with any recommendations you have for Fun Friday.. Which is tomorrow! Yay! See you then!