This is the third round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “D”.
Readers have until the publication of the next story (about two weeks) to vote for their favorite story in each round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the voting rank.
For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “D” as submitted by its author.
WARNING: some of the stories deal with adult themes and events (somewhere between PG and R rating). Plus, one might encounter the occasional use of the more colloquial word for fornicate.
Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson
(2,086 words – approx. reading time: about 8 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Good bye, cruel world. You chewed me up and spit me out. You never gave me a chance. Fuck you, Lance
Lance Williams held up the cell phone to the stars like a middle finger and pushed send to every so-called friend in his contact list. No service. The screen mocked him. Lance could only laugh as he wheeled his chair off the long end of a short pier. He tipped over and hit the water face first. His eyelids split open like skin on grapes.
Sinking, the wheel chair rocked forward and Lance tumbled like a toddler, only in extreme slow motion. The rip currents off Saint Simons Island were strong and hungry and held forever the secrets and silent screams of many weak swimmers. They scooped Lance out of his wheelchair like a hermit crab from his shell. They turned and churned his body like a washing machine on a heavy duty cycle.
Helplessness came hard to Lance, but he relaxed his body and mind and let the ocean own him. He had clawed all his life, first as a soldier, later as a student, finally as a paraplegic. Precious air bubbles bailed from Lance’s dying body like rats from a sinking ship; they tickled his cheeks as they fled. His body quickly chilled, endeavoring to equal the frigid temperature of the deep. Dying isn’t so hard, Lance thought as he drifted down toward a bright light.
Blinking away the fluorescent lights, Lance realized he was standing in front of Mr. Sparrow, his college ELA professor. “Mr. Williams, the mustachioed man said with a Liberace lisp, “perhaps you can explain why you are dripping on my floor.” Lance looked down. His blue jeans were black and heavy. His shoes were muddy and tea-colored water puddled around him.
“I-I’m not sure,” Lance stammered. “Is this heaven?”
Professor Sparrow almost smiled, leaned back in his chair, and twisted the tip of his moustache. “Mr. Williams, I have been teaching the English language and classic literature to buffoons and ingrates for more than 30 years. I assure you, this is not heaven. In fact, Dante would achieve poetic nirvana by creating an additional circle of hell and populating it with educators enduring imbecilic queries such as yours.”
“But I’m standing,” Lance interrupted. “My legs, they’re working.” He slapped his sides and a fine spray of water showered papers on Sparrow’s desk.
“Bully for you,” Sparrow said sardonically, lurching forward in his seat, the springs imitating the plaintive cries of seagulls. “Are you here to turn in your final assignment?” He stared at Lance balefully. Lance reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. Professor Sparrow held out his hand expectantly. His finger tips beckoned once and then remained half curled like a dead spider.
Lance placed the device in Sparrow’s clawed hand. Sparrow took it, leaned back again, and thumbed the phone to life. His eyes danced for a short time, then an actual smile curled beneath his waxed mustache.
“Very inspired, Mr. Williams,” he said, not looking away from the 4″ screen. Then he waved his right hand like a conductor and began reading from the phone.
“Nobody heard him, the dead man, but still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought,
and not waving but drowning.”
“Bravo, Mr. Williams. Bravo! You managed to plagiarize a rather well known poem.”
“But I didn’t, I didn’t…” Lance trailed as Sparrow stood up from behind the desk.
“You didn’t! Mr. Williams,” Sparrow boomed. “You didn’t. You didn’t drown! You didn’t drown! You failed!” Lance looked down and realized the water at his feet had turn dark red and was spreading across the floor.
Lance’s face broke the surface of the inky black water. He sprayed a geyser of brackish liquid from his nose and mouth, greedily replacing it with oceans of oxygen. He gasped, he spat, he coughed, and he breathed.
The salt water was buoyant and Lance quickly realized that by leaning back, paddling his cupped hands downward, he could stay afloat. He looked up at the stars, they seemed to help calm him. They were a constant in a universe filled with turmoil and strife. There, in the warm ocean, somewhere between Saint Simons and Jekyll Islands, light from distant suns had found him, their trillion-mile journey now complete, his only just beginning.
The nearest star—old Sol—woke Lance with blazing beams that irradiated his exposed neck and left cheek. Warm water flowed into his partially opened mouth. Blood, he thought, remembering how the floor had been painted red with gallons and gallons of blood. Again, he heard the shots, the screams. Lance spat, raising his head, waking from the dream that wasn’t quite a dream. He looked around just in time to react to an incoming wave that washed over him, cooling his sun-scorched skin.
Lying on the beach, Lance tried to piece together all the events from the previous night. In his mind he separated reality from insanity, then acknowledged that the two were inseparably linked at common points, thus compounding his confusion. Pounding pints of Guinness and slamming shots of Jägermeister at Brogan’s in the Pier Village was real. This fact was substantiated by a jackhammer inside Lance’s skull. He was all too familiar with this recurrence. Something, however, must have been different last night. What was it? What could have led him to this?
Lance shook his head in an effort to clear his foggy mind. The movement felt good, it felt right. Lying in the mud, he curled his fists under his chin and began using his elbows to pull and drag his body forward, alternating the effort from left to right just as he had in basic training during a live-fire exercise. Only this time, he did not have the luxury of knees and feet to propel himself, now they were useless weight to be dragged along like flesh and bone anchors.
The physical effort pumped fresh blood into Lance’s brain, dulling the jackhammer and clearing his mind. He remembered being called a failure but he couldn’t remember who had said it. Another wave washed over him suddenly reminding Lance why he was indeed a failure. The mission last night was suicide and yet here he was, certainly not a model of premier health, but far from ‘room temperature’ as his army buddies might have said. You fucked it up again, soldier, he whispered to himself, then fell asleep on the shoreline.
The sun blotted out as Lance’s eyes flickered open. Vultures, he thought, pin-wheeling overhead creating grotesque shadows on the sand. Then the squawk and squabble of seagulls rang out and Lance remembered where he was. Thirst burned in his throat, he licked his cracked lips but found no moisture. The sun and sand reminded him of Iraq, and the girl he had met there, but he knew this must be the southernmost tip of Jekyll Island and there was no one to be found on this remote strip of beach.
The girl, Lance remembered. That’s what triggered this permanent solution to a temporary problem. The dark-hair girl he had met at the bar last night reminded him of Alia, a girl he had met and knocked up while he was stationed overseas. The Taliban had used her pregnancy to hide a bomb under her clothing and blow up the base mess hall, killing dozens and wounding even more.
The girl at the club was Sandra. Lance had truly liked her and she seemed to like him. She had a gentle way of talking and an interested way of listening. Around midnight, Lance had asked her if he could walk her to her car. She had nodded, but when Lance reached under the table to retrieve his folded wheelchair, Sandra balked. She suddenly remembered that she had a dentist appointment or that her taxes were late. Lance didn’t even hear the excuse; the look on her face said it all. That look was pity.
The muddy flats were homes to crabs, crustaceans, and marsh grass. Lance clutched a handful of reeds and uprooted the bunch. He chewed the tiny bulbs, the sea-salt mostly filtered out by the long grass. It only made him more thirsty, but it would help, he knew. His mind divided with this thought. Dying was dying. Why not just dehydrate and drift off to sleep. It would only take a couple days in this heat. Lance slathered cool mud over his exposed skin to protect himself from the searing sun; choosing not to die today.
Lance chewed the marsh grass bulbs and caught crabs that investigated too closely. He sucked out the shells and spat out the sharp fragments. He carried on. Days passed. Lance was sinking deeper into the mud with every lapping wave. His face and hands were now the only parts of him exposed.
Lance heard ski boats and fishing rigs drone by but he never cried out for rescue. The nights were peaceful. He looked up at the stars for comfort. Headlights streamed by on the Sidney Lanier Bridge only 3/4 of a mile away, but they may as well had been distant constellations, mythical shapes in the night sky. He watched everything with a flagging sense of ennui, a creature unwilling to live but not quite ready to die.
Before his injury, Lance had run this bridge. Billed as the toughest 5K in the South, runners slowly plodded 500 feet to the peak, then ran headlong downhill at a breakneck pace. He had working legs back then, and they had been good ones. Lance remembered winning the first-place medal in his age group. He was not a failure then, he was a winner.
Lance heard a shrimp boat come in close, but did nothing to alert the crew. The thrum of its engine made him drowsy. Lance slept and dreamed. He was back at Fort Hood in Texas. After six months of counseling for PTSD, Lance was finally getting discharged. His time in the desert had been brief and bloody. He had lost close comrades in a ‘friendly fire’ incident that he would forever blame himself for.
But his counselor had judged Lance fit to return to civilian life. He didn’t argue. He stuffed his duffle bag, said his farewells and entered the out-processing building with his discharge papers in hand. Lance’s counselor, Major Nadal Hassan, greeted him at the door. When Lance raised his hand to salute, the Major raised a handgun and shot Lance point blank without even a look of recognition for all the time they had spent together working through issues. There was blood, so much blood. The floor was painted red with his and other’s blood, and the shooting and screaming wouldn’t stop.
“I’m king of the world!” Lance snapped out of his dream, his haunting memory. There was a silhouette of a man standing on the top rail of the Sidney Lanier Bridge. He was shouting to no one, to every one. His arms outstretched, he looked like a miniature of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. Jumper, Lance thought. If I’d had good legs, that’s how I would’ve done it. Then he chuckled at this silly notion. If I’d had good legs, I wouldn’t need to jump… right?
“Geronimo!” the jumper interrupted Lance’s unnerving logic. The man leaped, gracefully bringing his palms together into a perfect-10 swan dive. Lance sat up, emerging from his shallow grave, the dried mud cracking and flaking from his face and body.
One, two, three hundred feet he plummeted. Four hundred, four-fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, ninety-nine… The man stopped in mid-air. His long hair dipped lightly into the waiting waters. Then, he shot back up into the air, the harness strapped around his feet quickening. The bungee cord recoiled and the man howled, exhilarated. His wet hair sprayed an arc of droplets that caught the emergent starlight.
Baptism, Lance thought. That was the ultimate baptism. A man so close to death, cleansed of his fears, his demons, his sins, raised to walk in newness of life. The last part was a phrase Lance had heard in church as a child. Maybe falling is not failure, Lance thought. Maybe there is hope. He had found it on a muddy shoreline at the edge of life…and death. Now smiling and resolute, Lance sluffed off the mud and crawled back into the warm water toward the sound of a fishing boat.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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