Haiku Flash Fiction- The Guard

#1 On Guard
Walk perimeter.
All secure. Sensed it would be.
Now for alone time.

#2 Unpacking
Some needed down time
Walking through my secure walls
Making sense of it

#3 Off Guard
Alone, insecure.
What time is it? Senses twitch.
Creep downstairs to check…

 

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Picture credit: flickr.com/photos/rockandrollfreak/17097144971

Written for secret keeper’s weekly prompt – SENSE | SECURE | WALK | TIME | ALONE

Steps (Short Story – Pt 5 of 5)

Part One: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-1-of-5/
Part Two: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-2-of-5/
Part Three: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-3-of-5/
Part Four: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-4-of-5/

This is the fifth and final part.

DAY SIX
The man did not sleep, in any meaningful sense. The close, dank air smothered him completely. He felt like a man taken out of time and space, dropped in the void for infinity.

I fell, and am still falling.

He stopped to listen for sounds from above at regular intervals, cupping his hands to his ear.
scratching…
scraping…
slithering…
scuttling… sliding

Am I imagining it?

Fatigue and dehydration were taking their toll. Most times he couldn’t hear anything over his own reedy breath and the ba-boom ba-boom of blood pumping furiously through his head. Sometimes he stopped and didn’t hear anything and in the silence found himself losing consciousness and sleeping as he stood, only to be jolted awake by the sensation of falling.

I am falling. I am fallen.

The excruciating, unrelenting torture of movement.

Step. Drag.

Step. Drag.

He refused to give in, stubbornly continuing down through this lonely pit of Babel. Boots and water bottle were abandoned on the steps, then his shorts and underwear, which had chafed his thighs bloody and swollen. He clutched the lighter in his hand, and carried on downwards naked, caked in dust and sweat and regret.

His pursuer did not seem to be gaining at any pace, but he dared not rest, or sit, for fear of never rising again. Every single atom in his body howled in pain; he slowed to massage his knees at regular intervals, for petty relief. His shins screamed with each jolt forward; head dizzy from the endless pirouette.

Step. Drag.

He paused to look back up the stairwell. There were three swollen heads peering down at him from some way above, silhouetted against the tiny clouds beyond, forked tongues flicking the air. Shadows among shadows.

What the hell is that?

Heart pounding, head thumping, hands shaking, he kept his bloodied feet moving, one hand constantly in contact with the wall for support. For reassurance.

He risked another look upwards. Had he imagined it? He looked down. A dim red glow, faint. The heart of the darkness.

Something.

He took no joy, felt nothing.

At least an end is coming. He stumbled on in the dark, teeth gritted, corkscrewing down through the earth.

DAY SEVEN
Step. Drag.

Pause.

Step.

The man had not slept, drank or ate in a long time. The raging thirst, the hunger in his belly, had gone. Only the numbness of total exhaustion remained. He scratched slowly at his face, prodding at sunken eyes, patchy stubble, cracked skin. The scar.

Willpower kept him going, fear his only companion. He had not heard his pursuer for a while. He was truly alone.

Was it ever there? Is my mind playing tricks on me? Do I even know what’s real any more?

He whispered his thoughts out loud, voice cracked and hoarse, to break the smothering spell of the silence.

What have I done to deserve this? This slow, torturous death, deep in the bowels of the earth. A worm wriggling and writhing upon the hook, with no possibility of escape.

He felt the steps above contracting, closing in on him, throbbing.

It couldn’t be that thing with the girl, could it?

He wondered what the end would feel like, when it surely came, and what lay beyond.

Am I already dead?

Is this my personal hell? Running down through the dark, forever?

Maybe I’m in purgatory…

He imagined the content of his soul being weighed and judged by unseen forces, balanced against his actions that day.

What choice did I have?

He walked, and wondered.

It couldn’t be that.

The light from below grew stronger with each passing flight, giving him the resolve to continue down what had to be the final steps. The stairs had narrowed now to shoulder width, a head-sized hole at the center lighting the stairwell with an eerie red glow. A sudden smell of rotten decay, damp and fusty, filled the air, filled his nostrils. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, then gagged, dry-heaving.

Could it?

Then, after a million steps, the stairs simply ended.

They opened out into a large chamber, bathed in soft, red light. He collapsed to his knees as his legs continued downwards reflexively. Kneeling awkwardly on the cool, hard floor, he sucked in deep lungfuls of rancid air, looking for the long-awaited exit door. In the center of the room, directly beneath the hole at the stairwell’s heart, lay the pieces of his axe head, broken by the fall.

At either end of the chamber was a small, circular room, seemingly identical. One was lit with a dazzling light, the source of which was not visible. The other was in darkness, save for the light reflected from the other. Both rooms contained a six foot bench carved into the smooth gray rock, but nothing else. He looked closely around the chamber. Nothing. No door. No exit. No water. No piles of food. Nowhere else to go.

The man had his first decision to make since choosing to head down the steps all those days and miles ago. He made it in an instant, as if it was no choice at all. It was the choice he always made, now. He dragged himself to his feet, legs groaning against this final effort, and inched towards the dark room. He lay his broken body down on the bench, and closed his eyes.

In the moment before all the lights went out, a slight smile formed on the corners of the man’s mouth.

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Steps (Short Story – Pt 4 of 5)

Part One: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-1-of-5/
Part Two: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-2-of-5/
Part Three: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-3-of-5/
This is part four.

DAY FOUR
He slept badly. The darkness seeped into his dreams, like ink dropped into a bowl of water, while a single discordant note hummed in the distance. Faceless dream-slugs crawled over his body, covering his eyes, filling his mouth… He woke slapping the creatures from his face, choking.

His head throbbed, muscles ached. He rubbed at his feet and ankle, kneading them hard, grimacing at his own touch. The lighter clicked on, and he sat staring into the flame until he burnt his thumb. He looked up at the gray dot of sky, so far away.

Why, WHY? WHY?

In a rage, he screwed his hands into fists, beating them upon the walls. He grabbed the shoes from round his neck, lashing out ineffectually, swinging and slapping them against cold stone. Screaming like a cornered animal, he lashed out at his cage, flailing and wailing, burning bright with impotent anger, then slumping in the dark, sobbing, spent, alone.

Why?

He edged towards the central gap, looking once more into the darkness. He lay on his front and hung his head over the side, feet touching the wall behind him, wondering whether he could throw himself down.

Would I even land?

He stared and wondered, closed his eyes and wondered. He lay motionless for a long time, in silent prayer.

Something struck the back of his head. He instinctively swatted it away. Then something else struck, and again. Plip. Plip. He turned over. A raindrop fell directly onto his face. He experienced a moment of the purest joy, cackling and rolling and stamping his feet. He opened his mouth wide, holding his bottle open by the side of his head to catch every drop of moisture. A concentrated stream of rain, of life, fell straight down the center of the shaft, cleansing him of his sins, and he laughed manically.

The storm passed, the wind above changed, and the rain stopped falling.

He lay there on the step, head hanging over the central gap, for a long time, hoping for more. More. Eventually, he sat up to take stock. He had re-filled maybe a quarter of his bottle. He’d caught some in his mouth, and in that moment didn’t feel the aching pull of dehydration. That purifying, reviving water on his face had been the most refreshing feeling of his life.

I am reborn.

Sitting there in blackness, a thought went through his mind. He lay down on the step again, measuring its width. He couldn’t be sure as he hadn’t measured it at the top, but the steps felt narrower now than when he fell in. They were tapering. That means there must be a bottom.

They must taper to something, right?

He stood up, stretched as many muscles as he could, and resumed down the steps, limping with the effort of each step, but determined to go on. The rain had given him hope, and he walked for hours feeding on that hope, gorged and buoyed with belief.

DAY FIVE
On the morning of the fifth day, he ate the last of the mints, and drank the last of the water. Standing still, body slouched forward, he ran his fingers through his greasy hair, and massaged his neck. After the adrenaline rush of the previous day, his tank was empty.

Step.

Step.

Step, damn you.

Each step was slow, laboured; he grunted in pain. Each step required an effort of will to overcome the crushing weight of a mile of earth above him, the thinning of the air, the rising heat in the stairwell, the hopelessness of continuing…

He fumbled on, smoothed fingertips leading along the wall to guide his way through this dark, silent prison.

A noise stopped him.

What was that?

In the muffled shadows, he had grown used to the only sound being his own labored, wheezy breathing. Part of him enjoyed the silence, had always enjoyed it.

Probably nothing.

Somewhere above him, he heard a shuffle of feet and the sounds of something sniffing the air.

There is a reason that children fear the dark, the monster under the bed, the boogeyman, the enemy unseen…

What is that? It sounds… animal.

Another shuffle, somewhere far off, above.

His heart rate shot up, pounding half out of his chest. He felt sick to his stomach, and stumbled, bracing himself with both trembling hands against the wall.

There’s nowhere left to hide. Nowhere left to hide. Nowhere left to hide.

Chest tightening, gasping for breath, he saw spots in the dark before him, dancing and taunting. He picked up the pace to a hobbled stumble, down and down and down, no longer running towards salvation, but fleeing some-thing, chasing him through the black.

Hope will drag you so far. Fear drives you the rest of the way.

He smelled sulfur in the air. Hell itself was waiting for him, and he couldn’t get there fast enough.

… to be continued

The final part – http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-5-of-5/

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Steps (Short Story – Pt 3 of 5)

Part One: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-1-of-5/
Part Two: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-2-of-5/
This is part three.

DAY THREE
He woke painfully, still clothed in night. The boots were a poor substitute for a plump pillow, the stone of the steps an unforgiving mattress. His leg and back muscles spasmed and cramped.

“Aaaarrrhhhh!”

He screamed, puncturing the bubble of silence, as he stretched his legs and pointed his toes to relieve the pain. His scream echoed oddly, the sound stretching and contracting, stopping abruptly.

He reached for the water bottle, optimistically holding the bottle upside down over his mouth and tapping the base. His mouth salivated in receipt of another mint, but he felt dehydrated, sluggish. Levering himself to his feet using the axe handle, he walked around shoeless on the step to stretch out the cramp. The cold slab felt pleasing against the soles of his feet, and he relished the brief respite from the increasing sensory deprivation. He tied the long laces of his boots together and slung them around his neck.

Onwards, downwards. Can’t be much further now.

He marked the passing of time by the brightness of his window to the skies, each step taking him further from the light, each hour bringing him closer to freedom.

He marched on at a steady pace, pausing frequently for breaks, mindful of becoming too exhausted without water.

Will my boss even notice I’m not at my desk today?
Will anyone think to stop by my house and check on me?
Should I have waited at the top for someone to find me?

No point second-guessing now. He needed to head down, and out.

He tried counting the steps off, but kept losing track, and eventually lost interest. His mind hopped from topic to topic, incapable of deep insight in any one area, conditioned by a life spent flitting from one shiny bauble to the next on the internet. He had no idea how many hours of funny cat videos he’d watched. Too many. He knew where to get the most salacious celebrity gossip. He knew the best free porn sites (rather too well). He knew nothing remotely useful for his current situation.

He reflected on his own, depressingly normal life. A few longish term girlfriends, but nothing had stuck. No great drama, just hadn’t quite worked out. Livvy, beautiful, sweet Livvy… she could have been the one… pity I wasn’t the only one for her. The usual imbalance of love. His parents had separated when he was young: he hadn’t seen his dad for twenty years. Mom had died a few years back, brain haemorrhage in the supermarket, dropped down dead, like a light switched off. He hadn’t thought about her for a while, and felt some guilt about that, but he’d never been one to dwell on the past. – As for work

He focused on the future, his future, with a hot little wife, a couple of kids – one boy, one girl, naturally – and a promotion at work to pay for the modern, classy, spacious house they were all going to live in. Something with high ceilings and natural light. Windows. Lots of windows. As dreams go, it wasn’t much, but it was all his, and all he had right now.

He slouched on down the steps.

He had never been one for religion. Never been to church, except for friends’ weddings. Never prayed. Never believed. Never had faith. He’d seen precious little evidence of any Divine power in his life, and the chaos he’d lived through. He was a man of evidence, of things grounded in the physical world that you could see and taste and hold. But he prayed now. He justified it to himself logically – can’t hurt to try – but it went far beyond that. He was losing hope, losing time. Losing his mind.

He needed to reach out to something.

He reached out, and he prayed. He prayed for his mom, in the way that a five-year old who skins their knee in the playground cries out automatically. He prayed for salvation – a hot meal, a beer, some bandages for my feet. He prayed for relief – a warm bath and a comfy bed. He prayed for forgiveness…

Hands clasped, head bowed, he prayed and prayed, feet taking him automatically, mechanically downwards. The repetition of each movement forward, the clacking of wood on stone, and the all-encompassing dark, had a hypnotic effect. His upper body swayed as the prayer became a chant, while his legs kept on taking him down the endless steps. He prayed and chanted for a long time, descending deeper and deeper. The chant became a rhyme, half-remembered.

In the darkest corners
Of every bedroom wall

In this place where dreams die
And spiders fear to crawl

Something old awakens
The smell seeps through the wall

Time has lost all meaning
His soul will surely fall

There’s nowhere left to hide
Nowhere left to hide
Nowhere left to hide…

He trailed off into silence. The man walked a little more, then stopped, sat, hugged his knees to his chest, rocking slightly.

Nowhere left to hide

Sitting there on the step, the dark seeped in through his eyes, his mouth, his ears, through his skin, and was carried along his veins and arteries into every organ, every cell in his body, until all light was gone, and he was one with the dark.

… to be continued

http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-4-of-5/

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Steps (Short Story – Pt 2 of 5)

Part One: http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-1-of-5/
This is part two.

DAY TWO
He woke in dusky half-light, groggy and disoriented. Massaging his scalp, he could see light gray clouds high in the sky, a world away. Could be any time. His thirst was savage, and it took all his discipline not to finish the remaining water from the bottle.

Better save some water. Might take a while to get to the bottom.

Rustling in his pocket to find the mints, he edged one from the packet into his mouth. He pulled out the lighter at the same time, and lit it. The flash of the flame momentarily blinded him, but after a few moments he explored his surroundings further. He used the lighter as a torch, cupping his hand between his eyes and the flame. Smooth gray rock. Stairs leading down to his left, and back up to his right. That was it.

Should I go back up?

He stared back up and sighed. Somehow he knew that would be futile. The only way was down.

There’s no going back.

He put the lighter back in his shorts, blinked away the blind spot it had left, and stretched his legs. Gingerly, he tested his weight on his ankle, and winced. The weight of those worn, trusty garden boots was not helping, but he’d endured worse.

Setting off at a leisurely pace, he tried to think of songs matching the clack-clack rhythm of crutch on stone. Under pressure, his memory failed him, or the rhythm was just all wrong. Random snatches of nursery rhymes that he hadn’t heard since his own childhood came to mind. Rather a lot of men, and a single dog, went to mow a meadow. A million green bottles were sitting on the wall. He sang three blind mice repeatedly, just couldn’t shake it from his head.

He paused to rest. Calm, gray skies above, darkness below. Onwards and downwards, hour after hour, snatches of song the only breach in the oppressive silence. As he descended, the air became warmer, staler.

Wonder how long these steps have been here?

There was no sign of weathering or wear on any of them. Each step was identical to the previous, same height, same width, same depth, same shape. Utterly uniform. Despite this, he had the sensation of the steps beginning to close in on him.

There’s no way these can run much deeper, he reassured himself. They have to lead somewhere, soon.

This has to be an escape tunnel for some Cold War bunker. Too deep to be anything else.

That would mean food, and drink, a telephone, maybe even running water. His mind wandered…

M.I.C.
K.E.Y.
M.O.U.S.E.

Where had that one come from? A mystery….

Mr. E.

Edward Nigma, from the Batman films. Was that the one with nipples on the batsuit?

M.R.E…

There were few meals he wasn’t ready to eat by this time, freeze dried or not. His stomach growled and knotted in agreement.

He walked and thought, and thought and walked, circling down, step by step by step.

Peering up through his shrinking aperture to the world, the sky grew heavy with slate-gray clouds. Down, still, patient darkness awaited. He had walked the whole day, and seemed no closer to his goal.

Sipping the last of the water, he removed his boots, and sat on the stair, clenching and unclenching his toes on the cool stone. He took out the polished-steel lighter, flicking it open and lighting it in one smooth movement. Utterly uniform. He tore off the paper wrapper from the mints, lit it, and dropped it down the center of the stairwell. The flame quickly burnt through its fuel, revealing another level of steps, but nothing more.

Nothing.

He lay the boots down as a pillow, forcing himself to rest and save energy. He curled up on the step, nestling his head on the tops of the boots on the step above. Before the doubts could take hold, exhaustion won out.

He slept, fitfully and without dreams.

… to be continued

http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-3-of-5/

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Steps (Short Story – Pt 1 of 5)

This week, by way of a change, I am going to post a short story over 5 days (it’s 4500 words in total). Would love to hear any comments or feedback 🙂

DAY ONE
The man leaned on his rake, looking up at his new, old house, browbeaten and brooding, all angles and shadows. He wiped the sweat from his head in the crook of his arm and sighed. What have I let myself in for? If I don’t get this garden finished this weekend, I’ll never even get started on that.

He felt the tickle of a bead of sweat as it broke from the pack and dripped from his nose. It briefly caught the sun as it fell, disappearing without a trace into the soft earth.

He toiled, silently for several hours at a high tempo, shirtless; taut muscles glistening as he methodically created order from the chaos of weeds and nettles at the far end of the – my – garden. Turning the soft soil over beneath one of the bushes, his shovel clanked against rock. He ignored it and continued apace, removing the bramble in sections, piling up rows to burn later. As he continued across the garden, he kept clanking into that same rock. Two hours and five meters later, he reached the far side of the stone.

Intrigued, he brushed the surface soil and remaining weeds away to see its entirety. It was a perfect circle of solid gray rock, weather-pitted but otherwise featureless, save for three small circle symbols at the center. A logo of some sort?

Should I clear this out, or cover it back up?

The man shrugged – it’s probably just the foundations for some old patio – and fetched the large pickaxe from the pile of shop-shiny tools. He stood dead center in the circle, bringing the pick down in the vicinity of the logo with a loud CRACK. His gloved hands vibrated from the shock, but the stone was unbowed. The man swung the pick again, higher and harder. Same result. Panting slightly, and shaking his wrists, the man breathed deeply and swung a third, fourth, fifth time. The rock splintered slightly along its surface.

The man put the axe aside to take a large swig of water from his bottle, and wipe the sweat from his eyes with a rag. Bracing himself for another jarring of his wrists, he heaved the pickaxe high, and brought it down at the same point with all his strength, grunting with the effort. There was another CRACK on impact. A pause. A faint whistling, whooshing noise of ancient air escaping. Pause. A tremendous, crunching ROAR as the rock disintegrated from the point of impact outwards, like a ripple on the surface of a pond. The ground beneath him disappeared, and the man fell into darkness.

He fell for an age, shocked and silent, a pile of loose soil breaking his fall. “AAAHHH!” he screamed in agony as the weight of his body went through his ankle, landing in a heap. A piece of falling rock smashed into his head, knocking him out. Blackness.

Coming to, he felt the lump on his head gingerly, wincing at the touch. At least there’s no blood. He sat up on one of the larger pieces of rock, trying to blow the dust from his nostrils, shaking chunks of rubble from his skin.

He was at the bottom of a circular chamber, the same diameter as the gray rock he’d just destroyed, and a good twenty meters deep. There were no lights, other than the sunlight coming in from above, no markings on the walls, or footholds to get back out. Nothing but smooth gray walls, and steps leading downwards, snaking around a central atrium.

“Help!” he shouted; a reflex. “HELP!”

The only sounds in reply were the birds singing in the trees, harmonious and mocking. His house was fairly isolated from its neighbors, and this end of the garden particularly so. That had been one of its main selling points.

So here I am.

He brushed the worst of the mud off, tossed the gloves to one side, and tried to stand. His ankle throbbed, but didn’t seem to be broken. He patted his pocket for his mobile. “Oh shit:” he’d left it in the shade on the patio, along with his watch. There was a lighter and some mints in one pocket, and half a bottle of water in the other, but nothing more.

He took in the scene around him. The pickaxe had snapped in two. The shaft of the axe lay on the floor near the top of the steps: the head was nowhere to be seen. He realised how lucky he had been, to have escaped the worst of the falling masonry, and to have missed tumbling straight down the atrium. He skirted the chamber, stepping over the debris, using his hands to feel for any clues on the rock. Nothing. No ladder. He glanced down the steps, but couldn’t see far as they spiralled away into darkness. No way out.

“HELP!”

“Anyone?”

“Can anyone hear me? Hello-o?”

Deep breath.

“HELP!”

He sat on a flat piece of rock and shouted intermittently as the sun tracked across the sky, before standing straight, coming to a decision. He picked up the pickaxe handle to use as a makeshift crutch.

Can’t go up. Guess I’m going down.

He carefully started down the steps. They were wide, gray, featureless, and completely regular, with a meter gap at the center allowing light down from above. The man leaned over slowly to peer down the center, but could not make out any details in the darkness below.

The steps have got to lead somewhere, right?

Part of him tingled with excitement about all this – a real life adventure, an exploration in my own garden, a discovery of something… ancient?
A cold war relic?
Something alien?
A forgotten access tunnel to an old railway line? Or sewer?
An impressively organised rabbit hole?

Only one way to find out. He whistled half a tune, a reassuring gesture. Just an exciting little adventure. Wait till I tell the boys in the gym this one!

He looked at the steps, rooted to the spot as the birds continued their spiteful song.

Who dares wins.

He hobbled down the spiralling steps, keeping one hand in contact with the wall at all times, fingers trailing along solid smooth stone. After fifteen minutes (he guessed), only the central section of the steps received any light from above, and with each minute the light dimmed further.

Looking up through the central column, he realised it was getting dark on the surface. The sun had set, and the first, brightest stars could now be seen. I must have been out for longer than I thought. A slight panic overtook him, and he half-ran down the steps, taking them two at a time, breathing heavily, cringing at every lunge forward.

Running through near-total darkness until fatigue kicked in, the man missed his footing, stumbled and fell down a half dozen steps, bruising his back on the sharply defined corners. He sat where he fell, hugging his knees tight to his chest. Exhaustion took mercy on him, and he slept.

to be continued…

http://www.alistairlanewrites.com/steps-short-story-pt-2-of-5/

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99-word story – The Woman on the Train

Staring absent-mindedly out of the train window, Jasmine sighs with all of her body. Arms crossed loosely, her fingers tap out an occasional beat upon her smooth arms, before brushing a mousy brown hair away from her face. A wry smile flickers, and is bitten away. She pulls her i-phone from her bag, fingers sliding deftly over the screen, looking up now and again. Another bite. Long exhale. Coming to a decision, she places the phone face down on the table, straightening the sweet disorder of her floral summer dress.

The stranger opposite smiled to himself.

He’d found her.

aaa