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Flirting with the Dark

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Old 01-31-2012, 08:17 AM
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Default Flirting with the Dark


Hey guys. This is a complete short of 2,000 words. I think it's the 3rd draft. Critters, I'd like full complete honesty, please. Don't hold back. Any comments, suggestions are welcome.

Thanks!


Flirting with the Dark

April had to get her daughter away from this farm.

Her husband, Frank, and his father—Papa BB, he insisted on being called—were preparing to brand the new herd of cattle. Soon there would be sounds of pain, the smell of burning flesh. April had seen a branding shortly after she married Frank, halfway through pregnancy, and the image of it never left her. Frank huddled over a prostrate cow, sweat dripping from his face, features tight and intense. April still dreamed of the smoking iron advancing on her, aimed at her swollen belly.

She went outside, heading for the large pen where Frank and Papa BB were wheeling out the portable furnace and laying out the branding irons and ropes. Spring was on the air. Like a hint of something sweet and fresh. Something that promised to clear away the stagnancy of winter, as a warm hug cleared away despair.

Papa BB was out in the field rounding up the herd. Frank leaned against the pen's steel railings, cigarette in hand. He let the smoke slither up from his lips and over his thick ugly mustache. It was unfashionable, the 'stache, one that college kids might grow as a parodical gag. But Frank didn't see the humor. He liked to think of himself as the only true cowboy still standing in the tamed west.

“Whatchya bundled up for?” Frank said as April approached. “Y-you wanna help?” He grinned as though April were a very small child, incapable.

“Just came to say I'm taking Mel down to the beach.”

Frank nodded. “You know one day she'll have to see.”

“She'll decide when. I explained again last night what you were doing. She doesn't want to see.”

“Oh yeah?” He pushed off the railing and staggered toward April, his bad leg dragging in the mud. “And what'd you tell her? That I hur—that I h-hurt the cattle?” He took a long drag. The smoke clouded his face. “That what you said? You tell her I like to hurt? I enjoy it?”

April watched the cigarette's amber tip and, unconsciously, rubbed at the tiny scar on her forearm. She shook her head. “No, I didn't say that.” She watched the cigarette carefully.

Frank chortled without mirth. “I'm not gonna b-burn you.” He tossed the butt and waved April away. “Get outta here. You're gonna spook the herd.”

On the upward trek, April decided that today she would finally broach, with Melanie, the subject of marriage and love. She tried to prepare the right words in her head. Marriage isn't always forever. (No, too direct.) You see, honey, two people can love and still hurt each other. (Not gentle enough.) April never was much of a word-smith.

I'm leaving your father and you're coming with me.

She found Melanie sitting cross-legged in her blue-wall, black-ceiling bedroom, drawing on her arms with Magic Markers. “Come on,” April said. “We're going down to the ocean.”

Melanie's eyes widened. “Can we bring a picnic?”

“Sure.”

She dropped the Marker and dashed off to find her little woolen pony, which no doubt was suffocating in some dirty crevice under the couch or in back of a cupboard. Melanie and Tickles “The Pony” McScratch played hide-and-seek often, and Tickles usually managed to evade capture for days at a time. Melanie claimed he changed places while she looked.

In a wicker basket April gathered homemade cheese and dried fruits and a few packets of ketchup that Melanie liked to spread on apple slices. And the pair set off. April made Melanie hold her hand while they baby-stepped along the ice-patched drive, which sloped gradually. This despite Melanie's argument-from-maturity, that an eight-year-old who walked to the bus stop alone by herself, and did like really grown-up things at school, and hadn't actually seen a cougar but was completely prepared to see one and confront it if that's how the cards were dealt—that this near-adult figure shouldn't be forced to do anything, unless she wanted to that is.

When the drive levelled, April let Melanie scamper ahead at her own pace. There were hundreds of dandelions and other nameless weeds poking up through the gravel, and April began timing her strides inconspicuously to step on as many of them as she could. This gave her great pleasure. Not only the precise placement of her feet and the little twist of the heel as she flattened each organism, but the secrecy of it. She stopped considering why a long while ago.

The main road was like a serpent. It twisted along the coastline endlessly, the pavement cracked and flaking from decades of harsh weather. And the evergreens lining both sides of the road rattled and hissed, shaken by the ocean breeze.

Melanie pointed up at a douglas fir. “Thomas at school said these are called monkey trees, because monkeys like to live in them.” Her expression became grave and almost cynical. “I said, 'Thomas, no they're not called monkey trees. They're dugglefurs. My mom told me and she knows every tree.'” She took April's mittened hand and squeezed it. And idly she asked, “Have you seen a monkey—like, in real life?”

“My father took us to the zoo once, and when everyone went to the monkey hut I stayed behind. I didn't want to see them.”

Melanie looked genuinely perplexed. “Why?”

“I think it's wrong to keep such smart animals in a cage.”

“Oh.” She tightened her grip on April's hand and fell into a thoughtful silence. “But at least they'll never get eaten by crocodiles.”

April shrugged. “Yeah, at least that.”

Heavy wind swept across the beach. It rippled the water and combed the tall grass down smooth. It shook the blackberry bushes lining the shore, producing a dry rattle like that of a poltergeist's breath. Across the water, above the long peninsula jutting out into the ocean, a score of crows played on the air-currents, dive-bombing each other in mock battle.

“Stay close, all right?” April tried to affect a degree of sternness. “I'll be right here looking for stones.”

Melanie helped enthusiastically for awhile, bent way low in like a sort of chicken walk. She presented to April first what she called a world rock, which was blue-green swirled and ovular from certain angles, and then a host of other stones Melanie pretended would power an anti-pollution machine, that cleanses the air and churns it out minty-fresh, like toothpaste breath after brushing. When she considered her mission complete, Melanie took off toward the peninsula's tall grass, Tickles “The Pony” McScratch in tow.

April watched Melanie run with her arms winged out at her sides, long hair floating and twisting in the wind. Not for the first time April thought this is how a mother bird must feel, watching her baby take successful flight from the nest. An oil-water combination of pride and loss. April had been so young when her stomach tell-taledy ballooned and her feverish hormones came into context. That slight bulge in her mid-riff wasn't a child in her mind. It was an iron prison-ball she carried inside of her. The chain, invisible, extended to Frank's hand, and he could tug at her whenever he pleased. But when Melanie was born, those feelings had disappeared for a time. Frank had somehow become tolerable.

Now, April felt as though she and Melanie both were prisoners. Or cattle. Just two more heads under Frank's scrutinous watch. Letting the days idle by. Waiting for slaughter.

In some timeless breadth of concentration, April filled two tall mason jars with distinct stones. She would sell them at market as necklaces, or bracelets, or perhaps fitted as the twinkling eyes of a wood-carven cat. Her stomach gnawed at itself as she set the glass jars carefully into the wicker basket. She set off toward the peninsula, where Melanie had just moments ago wandered out of sight.

“Me-el,” she called. “Your picnic's getting eaten!”

The scream, moments later, was like glass erupting. The sound of it hung in the air for a long distended moment and echoed around the bay and came back faintly. April froze mid-step for just a fraction. Another scream, this one muffled. April threw the basket off to her side and ran like fire was at her heels, toward the peninsula where a flock of crows was exploding into the sky, blackening it, as Melanie's screaming continued, shattering the silence.

April found Melanie scurrying through the tall grass, low to the ground, and two crows tearing down toward her. The crows finally scattered as April reached Melanie. There was blood all down her arm. The gash—ripped by beak or talon—ran long and deep. Melanie's whole body tremored as she looked unfocused up at April. “There was a baby bird,” she said. “I was only trying to help it.”

April, slipping out of her sweater, told Melanie to be silent. “We're going to get you home,” she said. “Don't talk. We're getting you home.” And she wrapped the sweater tight around Melanie's upper arm, tied it off, and the blood still flowed strong. The wound ran deep as bone. It was too wide. Melanie's face had already paled. She shook as though every bit of warmth had bled from her.

April tore across the beach with her baby cradled in her arms. She was numb to the pain in her lungs, and all the colors were too bright like a technicolor dream, and everything became two-dimensional. “Don't talk,” she said breathily. Melanie was squinting up at her. “Don't—don't say—anything.”

When April burst into the farmhouse five minutes later, Melanie's eyes were closed.

“Frank!” she screamed. He came running from the kitchen.

“Oh my—f-fuck,” he said. “What have you—”

“Shut up! The keys, Frank. Give me the keys!”

“Hold on!” He took Melanie's pulse at her neck. “She's in shock already, her heart's barely there.” April tried to say something. “No, April—the hospital's almost an hour drive. You know that. We have to stop the bleeding.”

“We have to leave now!”

He grabbed her shoulders roughly and shook her. “She'll die in the car if we don't stop the bleeding. Now give me my little girl.”

It seemed to confirm what April already suspected. She handed Melanie over—part of the dream, part of the nightmare—and Frank wheeled through the front door and took off toward the barn. April followed, stumbling over her own numbed legs. She followed him to the large pen where the furnace still smoldered, a few branding irons submerged in the embers. He lay Melanie down beside the furnace.

“What are you doing, Frank?”

He untied the sweater. “I'm cauterizing the wound.”

April flitted around to his back and grabbed one of his arms. “She'll bleed out if there's no pressure.”

He fought against her grip.

“Frank, she'll bleed out.”

And Frank pushed his weight back against her, elbowing, and sent her sprawling back into the mud. Frantic, she grabbed one of the branding irons from the furnace and moved around so that he could see her brandishing it. “Get away from her!” she screamed. “Stop what you're doing!”

He finished exposing the wound, and the blood continued to flow. Frank stood to his full height and glared at April with animalistic intensity. His voice was barely more than a whisper. “I will kill you, woman, before I let my daughter die.” His eyes were moist with tears. “She'll die if we don't seal the wound. Now put that down and help me.”

Part of the dream, part of the nightmare. April dropped the iron, numb, and went to Melanie's side, sobbing quietly now, while Frank retrieved the other branding iron and brought it over. The tip, a huge cursive F, glowered redly at April.

“Hold the arm still now,” Frank said. His voice warbled.

Part of the dream, part of the nightmare.

The iron came down.

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  #2  
Old 02-01-2012, 05:39 PM
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There's a lot going on here with symbolism, but you pull it off gracefully. Good description, particularly of the little girl (so hard to do without sentimentalism). Interesting twist too.

Something that promised to clear away the stagnancy of winter, as a warm hug cleared away despair.
Eh.

It was unfashionable, the 'stache, one that college kids might grow as a parodical gag parody. But Frank didn't see the humor. He liked to think of himself as the only true cowboy still standing in the tamed West.
She dropped the marker and dashed off to find her little woolen pony, which no doubt was suffocating in some dirty crevice under the couch or in back of a cupboard.
This despite Melanie's argument-from-maturity, that an eight-year-old who walked to the bus stop alone by herself, and did like really grown-up things at school, and hadn't actually seen a cougar but was completely prepared to see one and confront it if that's how the cards were dealt—that this near-adult figure shouldn't be forced to do anything, unless she wanted to that is.
nice but awkwardly phrased

There were hundreds of dandelions and other nameless weeds poking up through the gravel, and April began timing her strides inconspicuously to step on as many of them as she could. This gave her great pleasure. Not only the precise placement of her feet and the little twist of the heel as she flattened each organism, but the secrecy of it.
nice

Melanie looked genuinely perplexed.
April had been so young when her stomach tell-taledy tell-taledly ballooned and her feverish hormones came into context rephrase.
Part of the dream, part of the nightmare.
This line was alright the first time (though you could have done without it). It weakens the climax though, so there's no need for the repetition.
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  #3  
Old 02-01-2012, 06:19 PM
kmz
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This is a wonderful story! I love it. I would say it is mostly complete, save for a few little things to fix. It's twisted and a little strange and hits all the right notes for me. I edited the entire text and added/subtracted/noted places that should be changed.

Edited


Of course, these are just my opinion on what would make it stronger, but I hope my critiques are somewhat useful.
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Old 02-02-2012, 08:05 PM
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Thank you, both. You've given me a lot to work with. I'm revising the story tonight and your feedback will be invaluable. Thank you again. I'm in your debt.
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Old 02-05-2012, 09:28 AM
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Keep writing!
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Old 02-07-2012, 07:55 AM
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Wow, really nice writing! I wonder, though if you meant, here, "Melanie claimed he changed places while she looked." to say "while she wasn't looking"? You hooked me quickly. I would love to know what happens next... Keep writing!
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Old 02-18-2012, 09:17 PM
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Thanks, you two. Imquil, I meant "while she looked for him." I'll change that, thanks.

I'm getting ready to submit this piece. Any last comments/suggestions? Anything would be hugely appreciated!
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Old 02-23-2012, 10:11 PM
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I loved the Dream/Nightmare aspect of it
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