Meet My Friend, Mr. Cliff Hanger

So, here’s the first . . . dose, I guess you could say, of fiction for the first week of the year 2014 C.E. by yours truly. A day late, I suppose, but much less than a dollar short, I hope! Throughout the year, I hope to present a myriad of fiction, perhaps even the occasional poem and definitely a nonfiction piece (especially on the craft of writing, publishing, language, and the like), though I expect the format and other things will fluctuate and be refined as I gain experience and skill with blogging and other matters. Coincidentally, this story dovetailed with a lot of reading I’ve been doing the last 2 weeks on the Internet, most notably The Daily Post at WordPress, which is holding a cliffhanger challenge this week. Do check out the challenge, for you will be fascinated, shocked, overwhelmed, touched, awed, and more by the smorgasbord of posts on the lengthy blogging banquet table. Here’s my offering to the trial-fires of the challenge; I am hopeful it will be neither the nadir nor the incineration of my fledgling 2014 blogging adventure. In advance, I should also add: criticism always welcome, and I hope to read more from you.

When We Were Handfuls of Dust

© Leigh Ward-Smith, 2014

Genre: Probably teen fantasy/paranormal? Possibly straight-ahead “modern” fantasy fiction or paranormal

N.B.: Contains mild profanity


From the time I was little, I could always tell when Momma was mad. Her lips would get real thin and pale, looking for all the world like two snakes stretched out side-by-side, coil-for-coil, on a hot rock. I’ve never seen a pink snake, though, so I could be wrong. But things had changed since Daddy was furloughed—that means he wasn’t working anymore—and Grandma came up from Kissimmee to live with us. Even if I switched the forks with the spoons, putting ’em in the wrong slot of the dishwasher, Momma didn’t notice. My latest report card, a light-green monster as I thought of it, sat on the dining room table that we didn’t eat at anymore, just under a pile of hardback books, rolling out like a taunting tongue. Old mail crinkled its plastic when I sat down and my feet fidgeted, and I started to wince in the way I used to, with my scared shoulders bunching up and my nose feeling like it had become a vortex into which all the other features on my face was sucked. And that’s when it happened. As Momma snapped her head up from the yellow notepad where she wrote equations all the time, she stared in a scowling way. It kind of felt like normal again, and I was about to smile. That was until she walked up to my swivel seat and put her hand out quickly, straight through my chest, reaching to grab her monogrammed purse that was slung over the chair.

I bobbed my head in disbelief and felt the inky black curls jitter around, as if sand in a hurricane. In one swift second, less than a blink, I think, my body had seemed to disappear. Or maybe I’d started the process of unexistence, somehow. Between you, me, and the fence post, I began to shake and sweat beaded all over my body at the same time, almost instantly. But for all the, um, moisture, tears wouldn’t come out; they felt frozen in place—and I did, too, though I was rocking in my Keds.

“Mom?” came out a little more froggy than I had hoped. I was glad Donny from down the street wasn’t here to rib me about this un-toughness.

Nothing. She had moved back around to her seat and was now scribbling on that pad. Then she looked up, and I almost got religion—or a kind of belief; the faith of having hope—but it was squelched when she only raked her eyes across the crowded table. “Dammit! Where the hell is that calculator,” she interrogated the air and slammed a fist down near the ice-popping drink Dad had just poured for himself using a velvety purple bag. In her rush to find the calculator, she shoved Reader’s Digests, a couple magazines with Sylvester Stallone snarling from the covers, old notepads full of strings of numbers curled atop numbers, and still more mail announcing “You’re a Winner” over the rounded wooden edge. The avalanche took a glass salt shaker with it, and the container smashed when it hit the floor, sending up a tiny puff of dust. I don’t know how it missed the existing mess.

I was more than a tiny bit surprised when she ignored the sound and turned the fury of her attention to the countertop in front of the coffeemaker.

“What was that?” Grandma’s voice carried from the living room and down the hall.

“Nothing!” was the reply, but it seemed by that point that I was watching a kind of TV program, not living anymore, but not exactly dead. Had I disappeared? If I had, was I some kind of superhero? I began to try to move my legs, move toward Momma or something concrete and in that world—my world—but nothing happened as it typically had. Instead of walking, I just kind of arrived at a spot by thinking about moving in that direction.

This can’t be real. What is going on? I spoke out-loud, not really shocked when no one looked in my voice’s direction. Just then, our boxer dog Katie-Bee (I mostly called her K.B.) trotted through the kitchen and into the dining room. The clicks on the peach tiled floor preceded her entrance. Dad, who’d been sitting silently at the dining room table and eating, didn’t bother to look up.

Sniff, sniff, snorgle.

Get away, K.B.! I pushed her brindled snout from the hand she was snuffling against. Usually I’d welcome her devoted puppy-love, but today had just . . . exploded in my face like a firecracker in a toilet. I don’t know what had triggered it, but everything had changed for me in one afternoon.

I arced a hand in front of Momma’s face to test it, knowing she’d be mad as all get-out but figuring any punishment’d be worth it if only to confirm my existence.

But it didn’t work. Or it did, depending on your perspective. That was it. I was officially one of the Unexisting. I just about tripped over my own feet—invisible though they might be to everyone who had been anyone to me, save one faithful furry friend—as I rushed downstairs to sulk.

* * * *

It’s odd how that word, unexisting, has “sting” in it. It’s fitting, I guess. I’ve had a little while to think things over now, and that is my thought—it hurts like hell to suddenly and definitively be invisible. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Null. Nuttin’. I mean, I’d felt low before. Real low. I don’t want to make a big deal about it, but those times Momma snapped at me to “shut your damn smart-mouth” when I asked her to roll down the window to let out some smoke because my asthma was flaring . . . those were sad, but I just didn’t know it at the time, how it really felt, because it didn’t fully settle into my brain or heart. “Oh, Momma’s mad at me; what’s new,” I guess was my attitude. Then, over the next few years as I met different kids and experienced more, it started to dawn on me like a dew descending on the blades of weeds that shot up through the dirt-spots in our yard to slice defiantly at the Carolina sky: I don’t think I meant much of anything to anyone. Well, not to anyone human; K.B. loved me, that much I knew. I was quite possibly the only person who cared about me. Teachers and coaches were one thing, but they didn’t live with me every day, my good and bad sides, didn’t hug me at night or tell me stories to help the time pass. They cared about me the same way they cared about each of the other kids. I guess what I’m saying is, I felt just like any other crater face orbiting them, a small, inconsequential foreign body in their grand universe.

I’ve never told anyone this before, but I used to take Daddy’s leather belt sometimes and purposefully aim the sticky-outy part that closes it up, thorn-sharp, into the flesh of my back. When I was alone. At night. During the day. Weekends. Weekdays. No limits. Not real often, but enough that I was sometimes worried somebody in the locker room might notice. I hated swimming weather; it was the worst, because I had to make excuses as to why I was wearing a T-shirt again. Fortunately, even though there was Choctaw background in the family (so I was told), I was pale, so I usually complained that I didn’t want to get burned again. Most people I knew didn’t argue with that; hey, they were Southern people, like me, so they were generally only genteelly argumentative, if at all.

Then one time Donny commented on the marks. “Dude, what is it with your back? You been pretending to be a gladiator again?” He snickered, but I think I pulled off the scam. “Har-har. That was so funny I forgot to laugh!” He snorted. “Nah, I’ve just been practicing with the nunchakus again.” After a brief pause, he rolled his eyes as he punched me in the arm, then I figured all was right with our teen-aged world once again.

I wonder what he’d say now. If he knew that I, Sam Blinn from down the street, unexisted. Could I even communicate with him now? Only K.B. seemed to notice I was in the house. No one else appeared to have taken note that I wasn’t there anymore. I thought someone would at least be a little concerned. The next question, which clamped onto my stomach and wrenched it as if it were the neck of any mouse Grandma’s cat Pepper might find, was whether I had ever existed or if I had existed for a while then just completely  stopped existing in this time and place. Maybe I’ve somehow entered a new realm or dimension or somethin’? If only I’d read more science fiction books before this had happened, maybe I’d be able to come up with a better rationale for my . . . disappearance! I mouthed as I mulled it over from one of my favorite locations in the house–the basement where K.B. was kept–sitting on her dog bed with toys scattered around me. Her fuzzy chin rested across my legs.

I hit upon the idea, next, of checking out my bedroom for any discoveries that might come to light. K.B. click-click-clicked along behind me, and I noticed she’d left a trail of slobber while following me down earlier. I guess I hadn’t been down there as long as it felt like, because the wet dots were still pooled; without a watch but with a big problem like unexistence, time seemed to have even less meaning, if that were possible.

If I’d had a younger sister or brother—I almost did, once, but that’s another story for another time—their room would probably have been downstairs just off the basement. But since I didn’t, I had to go upstairs to my bedroom on the main floor of the little brick bungalow on Homewell Road.

It is a wreck of a room, I’ll admit, but I’m willing to show it to you since you’ve come this far with me. When I cautiously move through the open door, stepping carefully to avoid tipping over a pile of comics or tripping on the tennis shoe Momma threw at Dad yesterday or something, a surprise springs in front of me. The door is opened into what looks like a small informal library. Momma’s romance novels and other books are stacked about chest-high (my chest, not yours, if you’re an adult), three deep, around every wall of the room. The center is mostly empty except for a hastily dragged-over stack of books and milk crate, probably used as a chair and table, respectively.

Ffffft—boom! I jerk my head at the sound. It looks like the tilting tower of The_Faerie_Queene_frontispiece-Jan. 8, 2014books in the corner near the front window has fallen. As I walk over, something strange starts to unfold. One of the books seems to be moving up and down like a wave, but very slightly. The pages even ripple just a little. I mean, I’ve heard of books so good their characters appear alive—I’ve even read a few of those in my 13 ½ years on Earth—but I don’t think I ever expected one to seem to breathe or move.

I edge closer, and it stops moving.

As I stoop down and reach for the book, The Faerie Queene, which is turned upside-down and looks like the roof of a gingerbread house dreamily decorated with a myriad of animals . . .