This is the Twelfth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 12 Title — Something Wicked… — was chosen by Perry. I’ll choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
This, then, is Gary’s submission.
Here’s the blurb for Gary’s story:
An old soldier turned teacher loses his twin brother. In an effort to rid his guilt and find a new way, he packs his ruck and takes a long journey back to a time when they were happy. It becomes a Shakespearean saga of pain and redemption where real winners have to earn their prize.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Copyright 2023 — R. G. Broxson
(4,800 words – approx. reading time: about 18 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“By the pricking of my thumb,” Rich jabbed his finger with the lancet and grimaced into the bathroom mirror. He pinched his pad and a bubble of blood inflated like a miniature balloon.
“How is it today?” Carol crept up behind her husband and put her arms around his waist.
“Something wicked this way comes,” Rich finished, sucking his thumb.
Carol slapped him with a towel and they both laughed.
He showed her the digital number on the testing device. She gave him a concerned look. He gathered the equipment and began to shove it into an open drawer.
“Aren’t you supposed to sanitize everything before and after you check your blood sugar?” Carol asked, a little more concerned now.
Rich produced a silver flask from his bathrobe and poured two fingers of bourbon into his mouthwash glass. He dipped the tip of the lancet into the drink and swirled it; he then dunked his wounded thumb which he popped right back into his mouth. Rich tossed back the brown liquid, gargled, swallowed, then tried to kiss Carol. She dodged and ran from the bathroom. “Don’t judge,” he winked. “I’m on summer vacation.”
At breakfast, Carol dipped into a tiny tub of low-fat yogurt. Rich sizzled bacon on the stove top and nuked a breakfast burrito in the microwave. “Did you know that the word burrito translates into ‘little donkey’?” Rich asked to the room.
“Yes, I knew that,” Carol replied, scraping the pink from her yogurt tub. “But it also translates into ‘fat man with clogged arteries.’”
“Foul! Flag on the play.” Rich threw a napkin into the air. “Fat man? Really?” He spread his bathrobe. “This is middle-age muscle.” He slapped his stomach with a spatula.
Carol looked at the hairy belly then checked her watch. “My bad, maybe it was Jack Ass, it’s been a while since I took Spanish.” She clicked some buttons and announced, “That thing reminds me, I’ve got to get in a run before work.” She tip-toed up and kissed his cheek and stepped to the door.
“Run. Damn. Me too.” Rich seemed to be recalling something distasteful.
She looked at him quizzically. “Me too?” she asked. “Is there something you need to tell me? Were you sexually assaulted by a Hollywood producer on a casting couch?”
It took him a moment, but he got it and smiled. “I wish,” he laughed. “No, it’s that damn race. You know; the Freedom 5K we do at Fort Campbell every five years. We wear our Super Friends Wonder Twins shirts. I reminded Rob when we talked last night.
“Rob? Run a race? Did you see him at the family reunion last November? He was so proud of his…what did he call it?” She thought for a moment. “His tater—that’s it.” Carol distended her belly and strutted around the kitchen rubbing it with both hands. “He’s the only man I know that has officially named his beer gut.”
Rich grinned at the sight of his wife. “Yeah, you’re right. He couldn’t run to the bath tub if his ass was on fire. He was bending the old elbow when we talked about it last night; he’ll probably forget. But, through thick and thin, he hasn’t missed one yet.”
“Speaking of thick, wouldn’t kill you to run a few miles.” Carol looked at her husband, serious now. “You could join me.” She bent and stretched her legs and fiddled with her laces.
“Yeah, I should. But my knees, you know. The old war wounds and all…” the phone rang and Rich was happily off the hook.
“It’s Lo-lo,” Carol announced, checking the caller ID. “Maybe she’ll know if Rob is still dead-set on that Fort Campbell 5K Wonder Twin run.” She uncradled the kitchen phone and listened. Her mouth suddenly transformed from a mischievous grin to an “oh no”.
Rich read her expression. He wanted to know, but he didn’t want to know, because he already knew. Twins just know—especially when it’s bad. So he froze, and for the first time since he had prayed for a B.B. gun from Santa, he tried to piece some words together for a neglected God. “Please, no,” was the only pathetic prayer he could muster.
Carol looked up at Rich; he saw the tragic news fill her heart with pain and sorrow. He heard Lo-lo crying way out in Colorado and then the phone went dead.
“He’s gone,” Carol said, synthesizing the noise. “Went out for a run this morning and…”
“Jeeesus! Fuck! Christ! No! Jeeesus! This is not happening.” Then he stopped. Rich wanted to panic; he wanted to rant, to scream and cry and blame and ball up. But he refused to whimper. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes. He tasted it. He chewed it like beef jerky. He swallowed it. The truth with a side-dish of death is the worst shit sandwich a man can ever eat. But Rich ate it; his primal mind consumed it all as fuel for something bigger that he could not imagine.
++++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++++++ +++++++++++++
The ruck was heavier than he ever remembered; his boots even less comfortable. After the fatal phone call Rich had slid an old footlocker out from his junk closet. He’d held up the BDUs he had worn last 17 years ago. He shook his head, realizing they would no longer fit his ample ass. Civies would have to do, and of course, the silly Wonder Twin shirt with a weird question mark on his chest. The field-pack, however, was one-size-fits all.
With uncanny clarity, Rich made a mental packing list of items he would need. He’d stuffed the ruck with staples: trail mix, canned goods, bottled water, rolled socks, tees, some hygiene toiletries, and then he had picked through the OD green items that had been locked away in the footlocker for nearly two decades.
Carol had checked on him, but had not intervened. She told Rich that she had to go into the office and take care of a few things before taking leave. She explained that she would book their tickets to Colorado as soon as she got home. Rich had nodded, but didn’t seem to hear anything she had said.
++++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++++++
Left-right-left, Rich whispered to himself as he began a journey. He stepped off the porch in his gated community and walked for hours, past neighborhoods he knew and stores where he shopped. The fresh air filled his lungs with longing, the sunshine warmed his body. He felt good, then felt guilty for feeling good. Rob’s not enjoying a beautiful day, he told himself. Yet he grinded on, no longer able to appreciate the great outdoors.
The rucksack soon became a boulder of Sisyphean magnitude. The dried leather of his combat boots bit into his heels and chafed his ankles. The soothing sunshine had become a magnifying glass and Rich was a piss ant. The fresh air turned rancid as it chuffed in and out of his billowing lungs. Exhausted, Rich folded under the shade of a palm tree; he drank deeply from a plastic bottle. Anyone driving by would have seen a man lounging after a hardy hike.
Just as his head began to loll, a horn shattered his peace. It was Carol. “What the hell are you doing?” she shouted through a rolled down window from the side of the road. He didn’t answer. Carol pulled off the road and onto the shoulder and got out.
“I know he was your brother.” Rich looked up at her. “Your twin brother,” she amended. “But you can’t just…pack up and…just, what the hell are you doing anyway?” she shouted, frustrated.
“I’m sorry, Carol. I should have talked with you—explained. But I can’t even explain this to myself. I just need to go…to walk…to march.”
Rich didn’t, couldn’t answer. He simply pulled a pocket-size spiral Rand McNally map book from his ruck. He flipped to an earmarked page and handed it to her. There was a red circle penned around a point that bordered on Tennessee and Kentucky.
“Fort Campbell? For what? You don’t owe them anything; you retired from the 101st almost twenty years ago.”
“I’m going there to finish the race,” he said simply.
“The race,” she thought for a moment. “You mean the 5K? The one that you and Rob run every five years?”
“Okay. I get it…I guess. Accomplish the mission and all that hooah-hooah jazz. But there’s a better way, babe. Get in, we’ll drive there. We can be in Clarksville by zero-six hundred hours.” She reached for Rich’s rucksack.
“Negative.” He held it tight.
Carol looked at him as though he had lost his mind.
“Rich, think about this. It’s got to be what, five…six-hundred miles to Fort Campbell, Darling?”
“Six-hundred and twenty-three miles.”
“Shit.” She knew then that Rich meant business. No amount of talking would change his mind. She released the ruck strap. “Shit,” she said one more time for the record.
“Well, you’re never going to get there sitting on your ass. Let’s get going.” Carol reached down and Rich reached up.
He groaned and smiled as he stood up and asked with a wry smile that she loved, “Are we there yet?”
Carol laughed, “Honey, you aren’t even off the fucking island yet. You’ve only gone nine miles.”
Rich squeezed her hand and then saddled himself with the ruck. He walked on; thinking to himself, Go west, old man.
“Darling,” Carol said, consulting her phone.
“You need to re-shoot your azimuth, Magellan. It’s best to go north on 17. It’s the fastest route to I-95 and beyond. Capiche?”
Rich looked at his hand map, turning it one way and then another. “Yes, dear.” Then he mouthed the words ‘thank you’ as he crossed the causeway onto the mainland and headed north.
Carol followed him, of course. What else could she do? They had been married for 45 years. She had followed Rich around the world and back again, through good times and a lot of bad. The army had wanted one more desert deployment from the old Master Sergeant, but he had finally tired of playing the game that couldn’t—wouldn’t—be won. After talking it over with Carol, Rich had decided to retire and become a school teacher; simply trading one battlefield for another.
Carol, a special education teacher herself, had coached Rich back into the real world after he had retired from the military. He took several classes online and at the local Junior College using the GI Bill to sponsor his new dream. Rich let his hair grow; he let his guard down, and he let his love for Carol take on a new life of its own—a life without DA orders or capricious commitments.
Rich thought of these things and others as he put one foot in front of the other, keeping slightly to the right of the white line of Highway 17 North. But mostly he thought of how much this was going to suck. He hadn’t rucked in years, had barely trained for the few 5Ks that he and Rob had sucked at together. But somehow he knew this was the right thing to do. Getting onto a plane or accepting a car ride was not how this thing was going to play out. No, that was weak. Rich wanted, no, needed, to be strong; at least once more, maybe not for Rob, but for himself.
After two days, Rich made it to Interstate 95 North. Only half an inch on the map, but 45 miles on his feet. He bathed his sun-burnt face in a rest area sink there as Carol sneaked into the men’s room to administer ointments and band aids to his shredded and blistered feet. She also handed him a razor and told him that he was not going to go all Forest Gump on this road trip. Rich laughed, saluted, and like a good soldier, took the time to scrape away the gray stubble sprouting from his haggard face before getting back to the grind.
“I hate to be Debbie Downer, Rich, but at this rate, if nothing goes wrong,” she paused there to let him seriously consider that possibility, “it will take you ten days to reach Fort Campbell. The race is in eight days. Something’s got give. What do you think, honey?”
Rich did not reply verbally, but his gait hitched, he grunted, and then his pace quickened. It was ugly and awkward at first, but it soon smoothed out. Rich broke into what the old timers used to call the airborne shuffle; a semi-stride that wavered between a walk and a jog. Carol was amazed; Rich seemed to be somehow getting stronger with every mile. She checked her Garmin, shook her head and pursed her lips, “Keep this pace up Richie boy, and you just might get there.” She didn’t have the heart to tell him it was impossible to make the deadline.
Rich felt it early the next morning but he tried to ignore the symptoms. There was the pulsating headache and he sweat from his head to his heals. At first he attributed it to the heat and the unaccustomed exercise. But he was no stranger to this middle-age malady; it was the same hot acorn that he often felt burning in his brain if he demanded too much from his diminished body. It would grow, he knew. It was fucking Arbor Day for this acorn. The goddamn nut would branch into a mighty oak tree of agony in minutes or hours, and remain in his brain for millennia if he did not chop it down now.
Rich shuffled up to the next overpass and ducked into the shade. Carol stopped too and asked if he was ok. She came over and checked his pupils and held his cool hands. “Did you bring your insulin?” she asked, getting laser-focused eye contact.
“Meds didn’t help Rob.”
Carol frowned at this non sequitur. “What did you think, that you could just rub some dirt on your diabetes or walk it off? It’s not a bad hop to the balls, Rich. It’s a disease.” She put her hands on motherly hips.
“I just didn’t think I would need them in my noble quest.” He smiled, and then collapsed under the bridge; his eyes rolled up.
“Shit. Stay here, Rich. I can’t get a signal on my phone and I can’t carry your big ass, but I can drive to a CVS Pharmacy. She pulled his wallet from his back pocket with his ID and prescriptions card and drove desperately to the next exit.
Whiskers tickled Rich’s face. Then he heard the simple onomatopoeia, one he used as an example to his 8th graders—meow. That one expression, like the word groot from that movie, said so many things. He let it soothe him for a while and then it became irksomely insistent. He somehow interpreted the cat’s call to ‘follow me’ as the creature padded silently ahead into the darkness. Rich rose and followed the feline.
Rich smelled the soup before he heard the humming. He was starving and his stomach rumbled. “Sir,” Rich said, “I don’t mean to bother…”
The figure turned around and Rich was no longer sure it was a man. There was a scrappy beard, but there were also some hideous hints of femininity that included outrageously saggy breasts. “Sit,” the raspy voice commanded, still not offering a clear clue to gender.
The stranger stirred a pot of stew that heated over a can of Sterno. It bubbled and steamed as the cook dipped and sipped with a wooden spoon. Rich sat cross-legged near the tiny blue flame. He opened his mouth to introduce himself and the spoon was instantly jammed inside. Hot, salty broth poured down his throat; he coughed and choked as some went down wrong.
The a-gendered stranger cackled, opening a mouth wide to reveal a rotten row of intermittent teeth. “Do you want to see your future?” the stranger asked, peering into the bubbling pot.
The surface of the broth calmed and became reflective. Rich bent to look into the pot.
“Why are you eye-fucking my dinner?” The stranger rapped Rich on the head with the wooden spoon. “Fool. There’s no future in a can of Campbell’s soup.”
“Campbell…Fort Campbell,” Rich muttered. Then more clearly, “That’s my future. I’ve got to get to Fort Campbell, to the Freedom 5K race. I’ve only got three more days to get there.”
“My stupid, hungry, sick, tired friend, you will only get there if Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane,” the stranger whispered. A truck drove over the bridge and muffled most of the words.
“What? What did you say? Did you say Birnham Wood…, really, Shakepeare?”
“Rich, where are you?” Carol called. Her voice eerie under the overpass. She stumbled around in the darkness looking for him, using a tiny cone of dim light from her dying cell phone to guide her until her foot hit Rich’s rucksack. Beside it lay his jacket, but he was nowhere in sight. As her eyes adjusted, Carol saw something dark balled up on Rich’s jacket. Her cell light illuminated two green eyes. It moved a little, then it purred.
“Get out!” Carol demanded, “Get out of that damn spot!”
“Over here!” Rich replied, stepping out of the darkness. “I was just talking to…” he pointed to where the stranger had been cooking—no one was there.
Carol looked down at Rich’s jacket—the cat had also vanished. “Here,” she said, holding out her hands. The Pharmacist was a veteran, like you. I was able to get you a week’s worth of insulin.”
Rich held her face in the darkness and kissed her forehead. “I love you, Babe,” he whispered, “but I won’t be needing this anymore.” He slung the ruck onto his back and started walking northwest.
The unsolicited swallow of soup had been quite energizing. Rich was moving like a much younger version of himself. He walked right through Chattanooga and right through the night.
Somehow, a strange movement had begun. There were flags and banners hanging from the overpasses in Chat-town. Horns began to honk, even in the black of night. Carol implored Rich to rest, to eat, to slow down; but he marched on. She posted his progress on social media and his lore began to grow.
Rich knew nothing of this. But he recognized the impending pain. The first pin-pricks occurred at mile 500, just past Murfreesboro. It was annoying—pain factor three. As mileage increased, the volume of pain matched its intensity. It quickly cranked from Manilow Muzak to Metallica Metal until it attained Spinal Tap eleven.
Goddamn shin splints, Rich grinded his teeth, I haven’t had these since Basic Training. The swelling in his anterior tibialis rubbed like sand paper against his tibia, or shin bone. Each step became a bear trap of pain that chewing aspirin could not quell. When Rich compensated by stepping on the sides of his feet, his knees took offense and began to buckle. His gait and pace faded, yet he moved on.
Carol saw it in his face as they met at an RV Campground for R&R. Rich sat on a stone bench and rolled up his pants legs. His shins were screaming red and she could actually feel the heat emanating from his skin. She looked up at him with pity and he turned from her gaze. “My ruck,” he managed. “Grab me that roll of 100 mile-an-hour tape, please.”
Carol just looked at him, perhaps considering this the last crazy stage before Rich tumbled into madness, or more hopefully gave up this madness. At this point, either would be a relief.
“The tape, baby, please. It can fix damn near anything. I patched up an Abrams tank with it in Kuwait and I saw a medic use it to cover a soldier’s sucking chest wound. It kept oxygen in, and death out.”
Carol plundered the guts of the ruck and pulled out a half-roll of slick, green tape. She held it up like a trophy and Rich grinned his best over the pain.
“Just wrap it around, Babe. Just as tight as you can.” With a cringe, Rich lifted a throbbing leg onto her lap. She got to work.
Wrapped up like a camouflaged zombie from the knees down, Rich got back onto his feet.
There was a deep rumble and blinding flash of chrome as he stood up. “Where you going, buddy?” a husky voice asked from the seat of a Harley.
“Nowhere slow,” was all Rich could manage as he aimed his body at the white line, only 120 miles to destination.
“You a soldier?”
“Usetabe,” Rich huffed as he picked up the airborne shuffle.
“That so. Thank you for your service, brother.”
The biker, a gruff older man with a white Fu Manchu and a red-white-and-blue bandanna, paced Rich for a few more yards, making his bike growl and leap like a chained lion. He glanced at Carol and winked. She smiled, her eyes glistened and her hands fluttered at her heart as she watched Rich run and the biker zoom ahead.
Rich didn’t ask for Carol for distance or any more time hacks. The mile markers said it all. He simply continued his trek. He shuffled and limped along until the pain finally subsided. It seemed to understand that its efforts were fruitless. The pain would not stop Rich, but it certainly slowed him down.
Carol drove behind the lurching soldier, noting every step of progress and pain. His pace had slowed; he had tried to compensate with less sleep but rest deprivation slowed him even more. But Rich was relentless. Each time she tried to tell him the reality of arriving on time, he just pushed harder.
That’s when the skies opened up and Tennessee turned into a blurry, blinding waterfall. A summer squall dipped down from the heavens and showered Rich with wicked pellets of rain and sleet, stinging his sunburnt face.
Even in the deluge, Rich saw him, knew him. “Son of a bitch,” Rich called, his voice raspy.
“Yo, little bro. If I’m a son of a bitch, what does that make you?”
Carol saw none of this. Her windshield wipers on full speed could not keep up with the torrent. She backed off for safety sake.
The pair walked together as they had in days of yore; in fields flushing crickets for bait, on beaches searching for shells, in malls cruising for chicks. For several minutes there was nothing that needed to be said. Togetherness spoke volumes.
“I’m sorry I missed your funeral,” Rich started.
“No worries, bro. It wasn’t about you. This was my moment to shine. You wouldn’t believe all the awesome things people said about me. You would have only fucked it up with the truth.” With that, Rob elbowed his brother.
“I feel bad for the pall bearers,” Rich said, patting his brother’s belly.
“Yep, for a moment there, Lo-lo thought she would have to bury me in a piano crate. As you know, that was my goal all along. Just didn’t stick around long enough to start my Christmas charity: Taters for Tots. Every kid loves fries, right? Stuff them in a stocking and you’ve got a charity, and charities are where the money is. Did you know that most only give 4% to the actual cause?”
“What the hell are you rambling about? Forget Taters for Tots. I thought you would be more upset about being, you know…dead. That’s on me,” Rich wiped the water from his eyes. “I goaded you into this stupid race. I knew you weren’t ready, but I kept poking at you. And it…I…killed you.”
Rich continued. “How am I going to deal with that baggage, Banquo?”
Rob stopped in his tracks. “Banquo? You guessed it. I knew you would; you were always smart like that. The other spirits waiting for ascension said no way, Jose, you’d never connect that throw-away line about Birnham Wood coming to Dunsinane. But I didn’t tell them that you weren’t just any old soldier; you were a British Lit teacher. I wasn’t even sure you heard me quote the line. Yes, that hag with the big droopy tits was me. Wasn’t I Oscar awesome? Always wanted to try Trans; don’t tell Lo-lo.”
The ghost of Rob clasped his hands together and smiled at his drenched twin. “You always loved some Shakespeare, bro, and that was the last gift I could give to you. Now, say goodbye, close your eyes and go to sleep, little brother. Go to sleep.”
“Go to sleep? No, bro…we’ve still got a long way…”
++++++++++++++++ +++++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++++++
“Wake up, soldier. Reveille! The race is about to start.”
A man dressed in leather with a white Fu Manchu moustache nudged Rich with his square-toe boot. “Time to get up, soldier.”
Rich coughed up water. He looked up at the old biker.
“Your wife told me why you started this crazy road march. Said your twin brother wrote you every day when you were in the sandbox. Sent you books to read and Shakespeare tapes to listen to. Said that you two met back up at Campbell every five years or so to run the Freedom 5K. That’s awesome, man. Sorry to hear about your bro.”
The old biker looked upward for a second. “Mine went to the desert and never came back. I’d give anything for another minute with him.”
Carol came running over. “You made it, Baby. You did it.”
Rich squinted into the rising sun. It was going to be a glorious day. He looked down at himself and saw a ravaged man, soaked, taped, gaunt, and glorious. Just like the new day. A streamer hung from an overpass. In crudely printed letters it read: Fort Campbell Freedom 5K.
Rich glanced at the mile marker near the overpass and knew that he was still forty miles from Fort Campbell, his destination, his mission. Then they gathered around him. Dozens at first, then hundreds of runners moved up to the start line. A chip-time mat was unrolled like a carpet. A digital clock was wheeled up to the front. A man wielding a gun and a stop-watch somehow managed a microphone.
A young girl in a cotton dress sang, “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free,” by Lee Greenwood. Many sang along; Rich and the onlookers choked up at the usual parts, remembering the men who died that gave that right to me. The countdown started by the DJ: 5,4,3,2,1, and many guns of all calibers fired. The Fort Campbell Freedom 5K had begun right on time, but at a different location.
With wild cheers and the supreme support of Carol, Rich dropped his rucksack at a freshly painted start line and began the Freedom 5K. He realized as he picked up a descent pace, fueled by the crowd, that Fort Campbell wasn’t just an army base with wire and walls. It was the people, the soldiers, his comrades past and present.
The race pacer, the same man Rich had met along the way, took off on his Harley to lead the pack. The back of his leather jacket bore the insignia of the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. Golden letters formed a wreath around the eagle’s head; it read “Airborne Angels.”
People he had never met before slapped Rich on his back and gave him the thumbs up as they passed him. Kinder words were never heard. But Rich kept looking for someone. Someone who was not there. Three point one miles later Rich crossed the makeshift finish line. The crowd cheered and Carol was right there to hug her man, the returning veteran.
“Now, can we go home?” she asked.
“I feel like I’m already there,” Rich replied to the thrill of the onlookers.
As Carol led her husband to the car, Rich stopped. “Wait, what did I win? Every soldier loves a medal,” he laughed.
The biker guy walked over to Rich and placed a ribbon around his neck. Rich saluted him and admired the medallion. “Second place? I walked 600 miles to get second place.” He feigned anger. “I’ve got to congratulate the guy that beat me. Who placed first in my age group?”
The biker flipped a couple of pages on a clipboard. “He was a big boy, name of Rob that gotcha this time. Had to leave quick. Said he had a flight to catch.”
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link, and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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