Sketch #2: Dusty Regret

Mostly exposition; flexing the setting description muscles and playing around with some purple prose.

Wind chimes muttered dullness and crackled, flaked with rust and silent age. The barn door slammed shut after creaking with the suspense of an old Hitchcock, and the screen that had once been prim, proper, and clean-cut flapped in rebuke on the front of the little white house. The old yard was the paragon of death, but in essence alive—the breezes stirred the stringy weed-stalks and sent them cavorting in pagan ritual before a masterful oak tree.

The road stretched on to oblivion, bisecting the Burke’s decrepit lot and reaching far behind Martin as though it would slice straight through the horizon. Fallow, yellow land that bordered it gave way to tended fields of corn and beans, green leaves and bushy heads in perfect, parallel lines of slumber.

The sunlight caught in Martin’s passenger-side mirror and blinded his eyes as he scanned the landscape. He reached down and adjusted the mirror for the hundredth time. For the past half-hour he had watched for Roy and Arnold, repositioning his mirrors if he suspected, even for a moment, that he lacked a sufficient view of the dirt road and the empty intersection behind him.

With its whitewashed walls and quaint porch, the house in front of which he had parked bore so much resemblance to American Gothic that Grant Wood could have been inspired where Martin waited. The sun, low as it was in the west, beat dry heat on the semi-air conditioned rental and a consistent sputtering was beginning to jolt the car. Martin flipped down the visor and stared in the mirror at the red face that returned a glare, wiping away the gritty pockmarks of dirt left splattered on his cheeks.

He glanced back and to the side again to look down the road, never trusting the side mirrors, in time to see the liquid shimmer of mirage, and beyond it, a speck of light.

The green Corolla finally pulled up to the intersection with the rigid and studied figure of Arnold in its driver’s seat. Roy sat stiffly beside him.  Within a few moments both of the cars were panting one beside the other. Both cars shut off and three doors hammered closed in the molten stillness of the deep country.

Martin glanced at Arnold, who nodded, then at Roy, who shrugged and lifted his chin, and they all meandered over the bramble-conquered path to the porch. The stoop was made of wooden planks, but the erosion of decades and the stirring of prairie dust from the nearby cornfields had turned it solid henna. The men’s steps sounded dusty and tentative on the floorboards as they trotted up the stairs and marched to the door, which swung almost off its hinge and opened access to the secrets of 813 Patriot Road, Claydale, Missouri.

Martin followed the other two into the little house, which was bedecked in gaudy tones of saffron and scarlet. Figures of roosters chased along curtains, kitchen cabinets, and couch fabric. Scattered scores and dimples from daily use interrupted the smoothness of the countertop wood, and the honey oak flooring was stippled with foot-worn paths.

By the dim light blazing on the floating cinders, Martin took in the beaten dining room table, homemade and hand-built from old wooden crates, nicked and scraped, crippled with age. He glanced about—to the old fireplace with its rusted poker, to the moth-eaten curtains that clung awry to the rods and failed to diminish the heat—and sighed.

A striped tabby startled all three of the men when it leapt onto the table next to a half-dead plant. It purred with curiosity, then bounded into the kitchen, which overlooked the rest of the lower floor; there was a low-ceilinged living room, a closed door that appeared to lead into a bathroom, and the dining room was almost as big as the kitchen. Strewn beneath the couches were Navajo-design carpets worn with traffic and aged with the ruggedness of the Old West—a west that had disappeared into the paintings of the imagination.

Martin had expected something a little more heartening than the cracked walls and sunken ceiling, the kitchen of country chickens and the living room that was for anything but the living, at least compared with that with which he was familiar. One glance at his fellows revealed they had harbored similar expectations, but none of them said a word.

Words: 732

Sketch #1: Then

Just a quick write-up I did last night. No story planned, just an exercise.

There was wood fire smoke in the air.

I turned my face into the wind. The only light was the soft, intermittent burst of cloud-covered lightning. Night thunder rumbled, threatening rain with a growl like mocking laughter, and the dog snorted with derision.

“Shh,” I hissed at her. If there was something untoward in the woods beyond, she would have howled a mighty snarl and taken off in the opposite direction as fast as her mushroom-sized legs could carry her. I had her with me less for defense than company.

No one should be in the woods, save me and the dog. There hadn’t been in a couple of years. There was that one time when the traveler came, but he was dirty and frightening and we had kept our distance. With only the dog for company, I had become wary of anything larger than a raccoon.

Brushfire, maybe? The thought scuttled through my brain and out my ear as fast as the lightning arced overhead. Brushfire would have glowed a handsome—but uncontrolled—orange in the pines. Moreover, I’d have seen the lightning and heard the crack of thunder when it struck. This storm was wavering overhead, not whipping up the skies in a clash of black brass. So why the scent of wood fire?

I clucked to the dog, who followed me through the overgrown tangles of vines and ground brush left to grow wild at the bases of the trees. I picked my way around snake holes, peering into the darkness.

A few minutes later, there was a distinct flicker of flame shadow on the trees around me. The light intensified until a tree shifted to the side and there was the pinprick of fire.

Dirt ringed the blaze, which crackled a threat with each ember it threw into the air. I could see no one nearby, but the dog growled and when I reached down to reassure her, I found that the hair between her shoulder blades had risen stiffly. I stood back up and saw movement; a straw hat with a wide, pockmarked brim settled down in front of the fire. The hand that dropped it was coarse, moved stiffly, and seemed to be missing several chunks out of two of the fingers.

I slipped forward and stood behind a tree at the edge of the opening.

“Mind passing the bread?”

The woman’s voice came from the other side of the circle of fire, where I could only see the roughly lit outline of another person. Chunk-hands, whose sturdy figure I could see more clearly now, rifled through a cloth sack and dug out something that looked less like bread and more like jerky, but it had been years since I had seen bread and I could have misremembered.

“Thanks.” There was a pause. “You’ve been awful quiet lately. What’s wrong?”

Chunk-hands shifted onto his back, sliding his hands underneath his head and gazing up towards the troubled sky above.

“This place just brings up memories, that’s all. Of then.”

Then” was a time of which I could remember only pieces. My then was my childhood: it had smelled of mothballs and sultry southern summers, sounded like droning mowers and gasping cars, tasted like plastic and felt like ice. It had looked like fear, smelled like fear; tasted, felt, and sounded like fear.

“Yeah. I’ve been trying to block it all out,” the woman’s voice continued, interrupting my reluctant reveries. “Only makes me sad. Still, you can’t help but enjoy that you’re back. That we’re running towards home instead of away.”

“If it’s still there,” the man answered in a foreboding tone. There was a moment of palpable tension in the silent air, hanging between them like a storm close to breaking. “Sorry, Meg.  I know you hope.”

The woman named Meg shifted from behind the fire to look at the man, and I saw she was rather young, perhaps a bit older than me, with wide-set eyes and sharp cheekbones. She smiled and I saw that her teeth were intact.

“I do hope, and I am right.” She leaned forward and playfully smacked the man’s shoulder. He laughed, reaching up to push her away. With a bounce she nested into her original place and snickered.

The sound of laughter took me aback, and I stepped backwards, right onto a natural pile of dry twigs. They snapped; the dog barked. I watched in horror as both figures leapt up and faced my hiding spot, but fear kept me rooted.

Fear. The old times. Then. I couldn’t move.

Words: 758