This is the ninth 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 this round, it’s the letter “I”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, 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 first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “I” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(3,144 words – approx. reading time: about 12 minutes based on 265 WPM)
What’s happening? Where am I? I can’t move. God, help me!
Sorry, dear. It doesn’t work that way. God’s busy wrecking Haiti with earthquakes and aftershocks. What, with this cacophony of grief and human misery, your sad little prayer is a squeak in a thunderstorm.
I hear you. But I can’t see you. Please, whoever you are, help me.
You don’t remember a thing, do you, dear?
No. Maybe. Yes, I remember ditching my residency at Saint Lazarus Hospital. Grabbing my passport and backpack and catching the first flight to . . . to . . .
Yes, because there was . . . something . . . a disaster.
As I said, earthquakes and aftershocks. Tens of thousands dead, dying, and displaced. This place is a fright.
Yes you did, Claire. You wanted to make a difference? You believed Mr. Roger’s quote: ‘In the wake of a tragedy, where is God, where is love, where is compassion? Look for the helpers,” he said. ‘Within those that are willing to help, there you will find God.’
I have that quote on my refrigerator . . . in my apartment, in Boulder. How could you know? Who are you, and why can’t I see you?
Because I’m invisible to humans, of course.
Who are you?
So rude of me not to introduce myself. A thousand apologies. I am Drexxle Slydraggon. I am a Redeemer. I’ve been dispatched to collect and transport.
You, Miss Claire Godwin. More specifically, your soul.
(Laughter) This is . . . I can’t think of the word . . . a joke . . . some prank. Have I been drugged? I can’t feel my feet – hands – nothing. I’m starting to panic. I-I-I I’m going to scream.
In limbo, Miss Godwin, no one can hear you scream.
I-I-I don’t know what you mean! Can you – can you pleeeeeease tell me what’s happening? I’m so afraid.
(Pause) I suppose we can discuss some of the details. It’s frowned upon by the Celestial Judiciary, but I do love a good story, and yours is a doozy. You’re cataleptic, Claire – conscious, but utterly immobile. You can do little more than lay there and half-remember quarter-memories. This will continue until . . .
Dear, Claire. Brace yourself. Until . . . not sure how to say this gently . . . until your body is loaded onto a conveyor belt and cycled through the brick incinerator . . . and cremated. Not to worry, the temperatures exceed sixteen-hundred degrees. Your fleshy bits will melt away, your fluids will boil, your organs combust. The remains of your charred bones and teeth will then be pulverized to grist, producing approximately six pounds of carbon ash. More than enough to fill the urn. To whom would you like to bequeath your remains, Claire Godwin? Your estranged sister?
This can’t be happening. I’m dreaming. A lucid dream – a night terror.
To you, perhaps. But to me . . . well, it’s not in my nature to brag, but your soul – a soul of exceptional quality – will put me past Daedalus Bane – top Redeemer for the last two millennium. No three-peat for you, Daedalus! Suck it.
Please don’t cry, dear. I can’t abide the human yowl. Let’s make a deal. If you stop crying, I’ll tell you everything I know about your case. What do you say?
Okay, I’ll try.
You were born twenty-six earth years ago. You have an identical twin sister named Sarah. The two of you grew up in a foster home. Both received prestigious scholarships. Both crushed the MCAT. Sarah went into sports’ medicine; you pediatrics. Both are four-year residents at Saint Lazarus Hospital in Boulder, Colorado. Until recently, you two were inseparable. It was as if you were one person – sharing thoughts, emotions, goals – sharing life. Yes, inseparable . . . until last March. That’s when Sarah stole your boyfriend, Chad. If you ask me, she did you a favor. Chad Stark is a jerk. And, according to Accounting, he’s set to expire in three months – a base-jumping accident. Looks like Sarah will have to deal with the grief of his death . . . having not gotten over yours. Sad, that.
Am I dead?
No, dear. Not yet – you’re cataleptic. Death awaits you in the incinerator. We’ve been over this. Haiti has been so devastated by these recent, ahem, acts of God, that they are disposing of bodies by means of rapid cremation to forestall the spread of disease.
All this talk of death – you’ve distracted me. Let’s see, where was I? Sister, boyfriend, betrayal . . . oh yes, your medical residency. One month ago, you took a hiatus. Unheard of. The Chief Resident railed against it. Called it career suicide. You pointed to a plump, privileged child suffering from thumb-cramps caused from video games and said, “I think the children of Haiti need me more than these coddled American kids. I’ll be back when I’m back.” Powerful, I must say. And brave – considering this was only your second trip abroad. You’ll recall the trip you took with Chad to Acapulco. On your dime.
No, I don’t recall. Gladly.
Do you recall your sister?
Yes, there’s something there, in my brain. A face. My face. A voice. My voice. Sarah.
Twins, they say, have a preternatural connection. Is that the case with you and Sarah?
I think so. With my mind . . . it seems that I can . . . reach out . . . call for help. Sarah. Sarah. Help me, Saraaaah!
Okay, okay, do you want to hear more? I’ve not even gotten to the good part of your story.
So tired. Must sleep.
Curses. I wanted to tell you about the toxic pufferfish.
No kidding. At least you’re under a sheet. I’ve waited by your side for 33 hours, freezing my horns off. They put you in a refrigerated truck, along with two dozen corpses. Once it’s full, it’s off to the incinerator.
You’re Drexxle. The Redeemer. The character I conjured in my dream.
I am he. But I assure you, dear, I am no conjuration.
I can’t move. It’s dark and I can’t see.
I pulled the sheet over your face and closed your eyelids, dear. Your eyes were drying out. Not a pleasant sight. Would you like for me to finish the story?
The story of you, dearest Claire Godwin. Of you and how you arrived at this calamitous state.
I’m not sure of anything.
Very well. The moment your feet hit Haitian soil, you went to work. Tirelessly, you bandaged wounds, splinted bones, dispensed medicine, and gave succor. It was truly inspirational to watch. It prompted me to ask the Ombudsman why you were selected for harvest. The old boy just shook his heads and shrugged his wings and said, ‘Judiciary.’
I remember. There was a village boy. Jean-Marc. He lost his sister. His twin sister.
Yes. You two had quite a connection.
We spoke. Jean-Marc and I. Without words. We spoke. Like Sarah . . . like you. Like I’m speaking to you with my mind.
Please don’t derail me from pufferfish. It’s truly a riveting plot point.
As I said, you were truly heroic: setting up triage tents, overseeing sanitation and water purity projects; all the while winning the hearts and admiration of the poor, beleaguered peoples. This would certainly have ended better for you had you not crossed paths with Madam Marcella Trouilliot, the village Bokur.
Yes, think of it as the village doctor – a doctor that practices voodoo. Madam Trouilliot is not one to be trifled with. She’s a mean old witch, and she felt that you undermined her authority with the villagers.
How? What did I do?
You embarrassed her.
Yes. It involved the boy, Jean-Marc. He complained of abdominal pains, fever, and diarrhea. You suspected typhoid from contaminated water. Madam Trouilliot suspected something similar . . . a water demon. You recommended rehydration and antibiotics; she, on the other hand, insisted on scorpions.
She said that if the child drank her tincture of scorpion venom, goat urine, and nightshade, the water demon would flee. You were exhausted and your fuse was short. Publically, you berated her, told her to leave your hospital, and leave medicine to you.
Yes. I could’ve been kinder.
You humiliated her.
But the boy . . . Jean-Marc . . . I saved his life.
In so doing, you humiliated Madam Marcella Trouilliot, a powerful voodoo priestess. A Bokor.
What did she do to me?
This state? Catalepsy? How?
Seven nights later, she got revenge. Connivingly, she expressed regrets. She implored you to visit her, to dine with her, to establish a rapprochement. At this point, you’d worked sixteen-hour shifts, twenty-seven days consecutively. The thought of a home-cooked Hattian meal appealed to you. Additionally, you were attracted to the old lady – culturally, ethnologically. Despite your differences, there was commonality. You are both healers, women of medicine.
The pufferfish. She poisoned me.
Now you’ve done it! You’ve leapt ahead and ruined the denouement. Yes, Madam Trouilliot poisoned you. Happy?
No. Not at all.
Well, she did. She dosed you with a nostrum of pufferfish and toad toxins . . . to this end.
What is this end, exactly?
To this end, dear Claire. That you are now ostensibly dead. Not physically. We both know that you are in there . . . trapped . . . unable to signal the external world. But dead you are, and dead you will remain. The irony is that Madam Trouilliot signed your death certificate.
It’s an ancient art, Trouilliot practices. A dark art from the Dark Continent of Africa. Did you know it was used to create zombies? No, not the shambolic, brain-eating brutes in pop culture. The original intent of zombification was more, shall we say, utilitarian, capitalistic. A shaman would occasionally dose captured enemies from warring tribes and turn them into mindless slaves. Then, the shaman would sell them as laborers.
They worked? I can’t even move my tongue to shout.
Oh, yes, I skipped that part. The catalepsy lasts approximately three days – depending on the dose. This is why so many victims were buried . . . and subsequently, resurrected. If not deeply interred or incinerated, the victim will eventually emerge compliant and amnesiatic. The slave owner can keep them in this state with a regimen of low dosages, sold to him by the shaman. Capitalism at its most macabre.
Will I emerge? Become mobile?
It’s unlikely, dear. Time is not on your side. You can’t feel the rumble, but the truck is now moving. They are taking you and these other sad chaps to the incinerator in Port-au-Prince. The good news, however, is that I will remain by your side the entire time.
To harvest my soul.
You make it sound ghoulish. Redeeming is actually an honorable profession. All the more honorable if one triumphs over the great Daedalus Bane.
That’s what I am to you . . . a contest? A point for Drexxle Slydraggon?
Points, Claire! Plural. Yours is a selfless soul – highly valued, highly compensated. Besides, once your soul is liberated, you’ll wonder why you clung to your body so long. Trust me, you’re better off without it.
What happens to me after? To my soul?
Sorry, Claire, that’s above my pay grade. I redeem souls. I do not involve myself in the sordid bureaucracy of the Celestial Judiciary.
So there is a God? An afterlife? Judgment?
We’ve arrived, dear. The truck has stopped. The doors are opening. Bodies are being hauled into a long block building with a belching smokestack. The air is sodden with putrefaction. You’re fortunate to be bereft of olfactory senses.
What’s happening? What’s that noise?
It’s me. I’m gagging. The stench inside the crematorium is unbearable. Human flesh does not burn aromatically.
I feel something. Motion. As if I’m being transported.
Oh, that’s not good. That means that the zombie-toxins are wearing off. This could mean . . . well, I shouldn’t say.
Okay. But you insisted. It means that you’re regaining physical sensation.
That’s good. I could signal. Wiggle my fingers. Get attention. Be saved.
That’s one scenario, Claire. Preposterous, but possible. I was more worried about the pain. It was my hope – because I’ve come to adore you so – that this dying business could be conducted painlessly. And now, I’m not so sure.
I feel heat.
That would be the incinerator. You’re on a conveyor belt. There are three bodies ahead of you – spaced four meters apart. At this rate, I estimate that you will be fully engulfed in the chamber in fifteen minutes. Let’s hope that your central nervous system remains dormant. It’s my understanding that death by fire is quite horrid.
My sister. Will you tell her? The thought of her not knowing . . . kills me.
Again, dear. I’m only a Redeemer. A damned good one, mind you. But if word got out that I fulfilled last wishes, I’d be flayed. Not only that. I’d be disqualified from Redeemer of the Millennium considerations.
If not that, could you pull back the sheet?
Why, dear? This is a ghastly scene. There’s nothing but carnage and immolation and sadness. There’s nothing to see.
I want to see you.
Yes, you’ve been kind to me. As kind as you are . . . I think . . . capable of being. Can you reveal yourself?
I can, but I fear that my countenance will only exacerbate your anxiety, child.
Please. I need to know who it is that I call a friend.
Yes. Without your voice, your explanations, your friendship, I’d be lost. Please, lift the sheet so that I can say goodbye to my friend, Drexxle Slydraggon, Redeemer of the Millennium.
I guess it couldn’t hurt.
No, it couldn’t hurt.
You won’t tell anyone . . . the Judiciary, I mean . . . will you?
No. I swear on my life.
You’re funny, Claire Godwin. I like you. I really do.
It’s getting very hot. There can’t be much time.
No, not much. Only one body ahead of you – a fat man.
Do it now, Drexxle. Lift the sheet and open my eyes, my friend.
Oh, I really shouldn’t. But okay. Can you see me? I am revealed.
I can. I can see you.
Do I frighten you?
No. You are devilishly handsome.
(Laughter) When I take you, Claire – take your soul – I will be swift. I’ll take it early, so that you will not feel the sting of death. And when I redeem your soul, I will recommend you to the Judiciary. I will tell him what a truly beautiful human creature you’ve been. I think this is for the best. Best for you. Best of me. Don’t you?
A scream arose above the roar of the fire, above the mechanical clacking of the conveyor belt, above the sweet, cerebral conversation between the woman and the Redeemer.
“That’s her!” Sarah shrieked. “That’s her face, there! That’s my sister! That’s Claire. Stop this goddamn thing. Stop the conveyor. It’s her!”
The boy named Jean-Marc raced with Sarah, holding her hand. He echoed her demands in blended French, remonstrating wildly to the Belt Operator.
The operator cursed in Creole. He was burly and sweaty and irascible. Reluctantly, he pushed the red button with his palm and the conveyor stopped.
Frantic, Sarah passed directly through the invisible Drexxle Slydraggon as she approached her supine sister.
“Claire,” she wept, cupping her sister’s still face, “I heard you. You called to me and I came. When I landed, Jean-Marc was there. He heard you too. He brought me here. Oh, Claire, am I too late? Are you alive?”
Claire summoned all her strength, then doubled it, trying to signal her sister.
“Don’t do it, Claire,” Slydraggon growled.
Claire clenched her brain and focused on motion: a wink, a twitch, anything.
“Please, Claire,” the Redeemer pleaded with his mind, “I thought we were friends.”
The Belt Operator pushed past the boy and gripped Sarah’s shoulders. In Haitian Creole, he shouted: “She’s dead. The Governor has given orders to cremate. You can have what’s left.”
Jean-Marc translated for Sarah.
“Jean-Marc,” Sarah said, “tell him to wait. Tell him that I think Claire is alive. I feel her. I sense her.”
Jean-Marc tried to explain the mystical concept, but failed. The operator called two security guards. They apprehended the intruders and began dragging them out of the facility.
“Nice try, Claire,” Drexxle Slydraggon spat. “That’s why you wanted the sheet lifted. Some friend. For that, I’ll not take you early. Feel the burn.”
The conveyor belt engaged, transporting its inert cargo into the hurricane furnace.
Claire tried again to shout, to show any sign of life. But she failed. The toxins’ grip would not relent. Her senses were returning. She could smell the fat man cooking. She could hear her sister wailing and wrestling with the guards. She could see Drexxle Slydraggon, smiling, anticipating his celestial accolades. But she could not move a single muscle.
As the breath of the fire singed her lashes and eyebrows, she screamed one last seismic, psychic alarm. Sarah, I love you!
Sarah grabbed her head, shaking it like a dog hearing a pitched whistle. When the guard’s grip weakened, she bolted and charged toward her sister. The Belt Operator caught her and hit her. Sarah did not fall or falter. She charged again. The operator hurled curses and slammed her to the concrete floor.
She was a berserker, a soldier, a sister. She sprung to her feet and flung her entire bodyweight into the man’s abdomen. The operator rocked backward and tripped over his heels.
Sarah leapt across her sister’s body, shielding her from the fire. The guards and the operator pounced, prying her, pulling her away.
“Shame it had to come to this,” Drexxle tsked. “Such an ugly scene. Not exactly the memory one wants to cherish for eternity; is it, Claire?”
The boy, Jean-Marc, shouted and pointed at the paralyzed woman. “Pleurer! Pleurer!” All eyes went to Claire’s eyes.
“Oh no,” Drexxle said, recognizing the French word.
“The lady,” Jean-Marc repeated to the stunned men, “she’s weeping.”
The operator rushed to the button and slapped it twice. As he crossed himself and kissed his crucifix, the belt stopped and the iron door fell.
Sarah looked into Claire’s brimming eyes and matched her tear for tear. Recognizing his defeat, Drexxle added tears of his own.
In a still, small voice, Claire looked into her sister’s face – her face – and said, “You can have him.”
“What?” Sarah cried, thinking she’d misheard.
“Chad. He’s all yours.”
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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