Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paragraphs Of Power 2nd Semi-final for August 2012.

 Welcome to Semi-Final number 2 of Paragraphs Of Power contest for August 2012. Submissions are now closed for August. Please support your fellow authors by voting for the entry you consider the best of the 5 submissions below. The top 2 voted entries will go into the Grand Final vote on August 30th. Voting is available to the right of this post.

#6... In The Beginning...

The first thing I remember is the heat.
The searing, blinding obliterating heat.
It ate through me, consumed me until it became me and all that existed was the fire.

The second thing I remember is spinning.
Air rushed around me, choking the flames until I was a husk of burnt out nothing.
Down and up whipped past, creating a void of weightless awareness.

The last thing I remember is dying.
Pressed against the palm of God I was flattened.
Something broke as I screamed, and for the first time, I heard my voice.

It rushes up and slaps me into consciousness. The light penetrating my eyelids forces its way into my dreaming mind, screaming for me to pay attention. Morning doesn’t like to wait. It screams, bouncing on the bed of your sanity, demanding you open your eyes and acknowledge its existence.
That’s how I came to know my very first morning.
Awake, I find moving easy, like liquid my body flows in any direction I imagine. If I think left, my head turns to look. If curious about something, my hand reaches out to touch.
That’s how I came to know my very first lizard.(I don't like this repetition 'that's how I came' – if it was in 'threes', it might seem better)
Hard earth gives no comfort beneath my newly formed bones, so I sit and look around, enjoying the beauty morning had brought. The ground is red and sand shifts above the packed clay. Curious, I touch it. I bring the red dust lingering on my fingers close and taste. Earth.
Life skitters across the ground, bugs and mammals darting from point to point and in the distance I sense something large—something predatory. I smile. Earth and Life and Danger. I am surrounded.
On my hand something crawls: something black with a spiny shell. I lift my arm to look closer and the creature rears back, sinking its venom filled teeth into my virgin flesh. The sting is bright and startling. I crush the insect with my other hand, killing it in it’s attempt to survive.
Death is a waste. The creature attacked only to find its own fate. The Earth will reclaim it; pull its carcass back into her bosom and breathe new life into existence. Perhaps this time it will come back and I will meet it in the road. Will Death remember its bringer? Will we know each other? My first moments combined with its final ones. Perhaps we are bound in beginnings and endings. Perhaps we’ve met before.
I pull my form up to standing, testing the weight I carry. It’s heavy, this attraction to the earth. This gravity. Standing in the open, I am larger than the crouched animals darting around the peripheries of my sight. I am larger than I expected. Had I been smaller before?
My outer layer is smooth as I run my hands over the curves of this flesh. The red stain of earthen clay lingers on my fingers, streaking across the cool paleness. Lines of dust remain behind, branding me, claiming me as a part of this Earth. A part of its people.
I feel a longing. A longing I didn’t know words for. A memory of a love reflected by my internal quiet. I sigh again, to hear my voice, to know its real. I have hope, hope for something outside my reach, something I’d once known, something I loved.
No tangible object presents itself when I focus on this hope. Only a drifting sensation, like a feather falling to the earth and a soft whispered memory. So I search. I walk and follow the movement of my legs with another step. I walk into the morning seeking something true.
I should have known better.

#7...Innocence Rescued from Hell 

Police on the ground return fire as bullets from snipers, located in eves and on top of the roof, ricochet off trees and ping off the vehicles scattered about the perimeter.  Gunshots spew out through windows like eyes flashing their displeasure.  Wood chip fragments burst off shutters and glass shatters as shots are exchanged.  I watch mesmerized as flashes detonate into the night, sparking off and on like angry fireflies.  There is surrealism to the whole situation that my mind can’t quite wrap itself around.  My eyes and shutters to my camera attempt to capture the circumstances, as they happen, to file away for my inspection later. 
Several men, dressed like militias in camouflage jackets and caps, pour out of the house firing high-powered rifles.  The troops outside are prepared and bodies fall like cards stacked too closely together.   As corpses pile, one on top of the other, I recall watching a program about toppling domino displays set up to respond to chain reaction events.  This is the human equivalent.
My camera, an extension of my face, swivels and blinks more often than my eyelids.
I watch, as if in slow motion, one man’s arms fly heavenward.  His body recoils as a barrage of shots ring out, slapping into his chest as he attempts an escape into the woods to the left of the house.  Snapping photos as the scene bursts alive with sound and movement.  I am amazed how much can happen all at one time.  Choreographed movements, like a deadly waltz play out before me, as semiautomatic flashes, resemble a morbid fireworks display, dance inside the compound. 
One team of officers reach the front of the house, launching smoke bombs into the windows as another team storms the barn.  The sound of metal pounding as wood splinters, from battering rams slamming into doors, makes access for troops to secure the outer buildings.  Another group of officers locates and attempts to break through the locked door to the underground cellar, which looks more like an underground bunker. 
The few intact windows are broken out as SWAT throws more canisters of tear gas into the side rooms of the house.  Police continue to shout for surrender but the occupants persist on firing at police until eventually they are overcome by the fumes, filing out coughing, hands in the air.  Police rush forward, bullhorns demanding that the men throw their guns to the side and put their hands into the air.  Like felled trees cleared off a lot, their hands are tied behind their backs with double cuff nylon restraints, and then officers lead them off to be held beyond range.  The SWAT team storms the house.  Soon, more men and woman are being led out of the front of the house by the first team. 
Just when I think the police have taken control where the babies are supposedly housed, I quake as an explosion rocks the rear and flames spew out, lighting up the night in bright oranges and reds.  Bullhorns summon the fire trucks positioned at the end of the drive, blocking the front gates. Sirens split the night as men jump off trucks and begin pulling hoses. Smoke is already snaking into the night sky, dancing just above the flames. Another explosion rocks the ground beneath me as an additional section of the house explodes into flying shrapnel that lands several feet from the source. More than likely, they ran a meth lab out of the same house that held the infants. I can’t imagine there will be many survivors from here.
Apparently, the firemen didn’t think the same as I did, thank goodness, for I stand in astonishment as I watch a squadron of firefighters rush into the front and side doors. This line of men, outfitted in full gear and HEPA filtered masks, disappear into the flames and smoke.  Jets of water discharges from hoses aimed at the inflamed windows as one truck positions itself at the back where the explosion took place. Everyone holds a collective breath watching the doors for anyone to exit. We are not disappointed. Two police and three firefighters file out, each carrying infants in their arms. A cheer erupts as medical personal rush forward to relieve them of their precious cargoes. Soon these brave heroes reenter the burning building, in search of more.  My finger never stops shooting footage.  I swap between my camera and a video recorder with night vision.  I don’t intend for anyone to compare this encounter to the Waco operation.  This is strictly a seek-and-rescue mission and the children are our main targets.
I hear shouting coming from the barns and pen areas.  Swinging my lens direction towards the barn, I notice that this squad has neatly secured their target.  I watch as they lead a scraggly bunch of men out, who apparently didn’t put up as much of a fight as the ones that had been in the house.  One man shuffles by giving me a glazed drug induced look.  One more prisoner is screaming at the officer leading him out about his rights and lawyers.  Still a different man cries like a baby with his head hung down praying. 
Even I am not the only one filming the scene.  I see at least two others taking pictures from different angles.  I stand and watch the front of the large sliding doors to the barn.  As yet, no children are being led out. It is disheartening at just how quiet it is.  No crying or screaming. No child like sounds emerging from the doors.  This is the middle group and their fears will need to be dealt with before they can be moved. Medics, CPS and counselors file in first to assess the children’s needs.  I continue to scan the area while awaiting my turn to go inside.  I finally get a go ahead from one of the lead officers to enter the premises. Nothing prepares me for what I am about to see.

#8...The Beating of My Heart

A door.
Not sure if it signifies the beginning or the end. But I’m glad to see it. It’s been too many years.  The grain is worn, the paint beginning to peel. I draw a reluctant comparison to my own life. I reach for the round handle and turn.
I don’t know if my father will be home. I don’t know if he’ll smile or scowl when he sees me.
There’s nothing but silence as I take my first step over the threshold to my new life, or back to my old life, whichever way you look at it.
I’m not sure where it all went wrong. Not sure if I want to keep analysing or rehashing the details.
All I know—it did go wrong.
I twist a long strand of my hair around my finger and I take one more step closing the door behind me. Now I’m really here. I look around the room. Nothing has changed. Nothing at all. Not one detail differs from my memory of this place.
The same muted coloured cushions randomly spread and squashed into the corners of that old beaten couch. The walls painted in the same grey, the same gaudy framed pictures, motel room replicas—saying nothing, meaning nothing.
The table I spent my life eating at. The orange vinyl chairs pulled out.
The kitchen I cooked in. Dishes, abandoned in the sink. The ancient coffee machine on the bench, the grinds of coffee beans scattered underneath. Dregs in a mug, leaving the aroma of coffee in the air, the only sign of recent life.
I sink heavily onto the couch and squash another cushion. I close my eyes.
I think about Chris. I wonder where he is. I wonder what he’ll say. I wonder if he’ll say anything at all…
It’s been too long. I’ve told myself that repeatedly since it all went to crap and I landed back here.
To this place.
 The place of my youth.
Of my beginning.
A beginning we should have had together, but stubbornness built the wall.
What if? The biggest question in my life.
What if I hadn’t walked out?
What if I’d said yes?
What if…
My eyes flutter open. I sit up groggy from unexpected sleep. My vision blurred. I have no idea what time it is or how long I’ve been sleeping. Then I hear another breath. And it’s not mine.
I blink, and turn my head.
My father.
He’s sitting opposite on the only other seat in the tiny lounge. His chair. There’s no smile. But there’s no scowl either.
‘You’re back,’ he says.
I nod.
It’s been two long years, since I’ve seen him. He hasn’t changed. Stuck in time, just like this house. I expected a bit of grey, a few more wrinkles, perhaps some weight round the middle. But he still has those alert eyes, cropped black hair, tanned skin, the large physique of a man ten years younger than he should. All that hard labour keeping him fit.
‘How long?’ he says bluntly. No reactions. Just questions.
I shrug.
He keeps looking at me. Taking inventory. I guess that never changes with parents. From the time you exit the womb, they are constantly checking you still have all your limbs, you don’t look too tired or hungry or sick. That’s what my father’s doing now, even though there’s little, to no expression.
‘You look good,’ I say.
He nods his head slightly. But doesn’t reciprocate. His inventory has obviously taken in my loss of weight, my tired eyes, my pale skin.
‘Want something to eat?’  He gets up and moves to the kitchen.
 I don’t want to eat. But I know it would make him feel like a parent again. I wonder for a minute if he’s missed that feeling.
‘Sure,’ I say.
I close my eyes once more, and hear the familiar sounds of the cupboards opening and closing. The fridge buzzing, the pans connecting with the stove. The switch of the gas being lit. The chopping, the sizzling, the smell of onions, bacon, spices. He’s remembered. He’s being a parent again. My favourite as a kid was always pasta with a bacon cream sauce. The familiar smell awakens my stomach. It rumbles. That surprises me, it hasn’t rumbled like that since I left.
Plates clatter on the bench, the pans scraped, and a plate full of my childhood favourite appears before my eyes. I take it and smell the memory. The first mouthful is warm and delicious. The second, followed by the third and the fourth, each in turn warming me from the inside out. I haven’t felt this warm in a long time.
‘Good,’ I say.
My father watches me as I suck the last string of pasta up through my lips and scrape the last of the sauce.
His mind is ticking again. I wait. I know the question’s coming. He puts his plate down on the table next to his chair. He folds his arms. I try and scrape more sauce. To make noise.  Any noise, to distract him from asking that question.
 It makes no difference, he asks anyway.
‘Are you back, for him?’
I can’t answer. Because I don’t know the answer. I bite my lip. ‘I don’t know.’
My father shakes his head. He gets up and takes my plate from my lap and puts it on top of his. He lingers, then strokes my cheek. I lean into his touch. I need this. I need this familiar. I reach up and clasp his hand in mine and hold it to my cheek. So warm, just like the food in my stomach.
My father lets go, sighs, and moves to the kitchen.
The running water, the slosh of dishes in the sink. The everyday, the familiar. I’m back. I know now, it’s the right place for me to be. The place I need to get my heart beating again.

#9...Ahlborett-The Courage of the Horde

The sun had almost set when Linus’ shrill cry was heard, carried on the wind to those who awaited its signal behind the safety of the Danestone. As the last rays of the sun disappeared they lit their torches, mounted their horses and with a signal from their diminutive leader the riders began their descent.
Twenty riders came down the hill at a charge, with torches blazing and hooves pounding. Behind them the sound of banging drums, clanging metal and banshee screams filled the air. All the forest folk had gathered at the stone to lend what support they could to their lord. The children banged and rattled whatever they held in their hands and the women keened into the darkness. The torches lit the sky, eerily dancing back and forth and up and down as the riders who carried them, clung valiantly to the galloping beasts. The horses screamed in fear and anticipation, plunging into the darkness anxious to escape the terrible noise from the rear.
The guards at the castle swung their gaze from the screaming child and his bloody finger, to the advancing spectacle and crossed themselves in fear. The vision that stampeded toward them out of the night was akin the devil’s army. Horrifically, lit by orange flames, the horses screamed and pawed the air with their giant hooves. Their flowing manes were stained blood red and their heaving flanks, similarly streaked with white, transformed them into horrific skeletons in the dancing light.
The riders of these deathly creatures were armed to the teeth, with weapons which they brandished aloft. Armoured in a mongrel assortment of styles, each more exotic and horrifying than the next. The bloody skins of animals flapped against the metal and the stench of death clung to them. Each rider was unique in their fiendish garb, yet each wore the same blood red plume which marked them as one entity, one horde. The noise of their approach was both deafening and terrifying.
“Close the draw bridge!” A desperate shout came from within and men ran to carry out the order. But no matter how many tried they were unable to raise it. The mechanism was jammed tight and in the dim light no man could see the cause of its failure. Another turned with an axe and with one swift blow cut through the rope that raised and lowered the port cullis. It dropped like a stone under its own weight until it met with Edmund’s staff and its downward plummet was suddenly stopped by the iron like strength of the yew wood, to leave it hanging impotently seven feet from the ground.
The riders and their fearsome mounts thundered as one mass over the drawbridge. They ducked their way under the port-cullis and then they were in the outer bailey and the men of Ahlborett swarmed upon them…

#10…The Fare 

The call came for Charlie Stead at the end of a slow day. He drove along the pot-holed road. Checking the address, he stopped outside a large dilapidated Victorian property. The gate hung on one hinge. Nature had reclaimed the large garden. Cheered by the thought of a fare he walked up the path, ascended the six worn stone steps and pressed the bell. No noise came from within and he tried again, nothing. 
            Annoyed that this might be another wind-up his fist pounded on the door. Faint footsteps sounded on a tiled floor before one half of the double door opened. She was frail, her face uneasy, grey-haired; her skin wrinkled with time but her eyes appeared youthful. He guessed she was in her late seventies or eighties.
            “Thank you for coming,” she said, her voice soft. 'Would you be so kind as to help me with my case? I’m not as strong as I once was.”
“No problem.”  His eyes adjusted to the dimness as he followed along a wood- panelled hall with doors leading from both sides. An uncarpeted staircase rose into the dark.  In a spacious room sheets covered every piece of furniture. On the dark stained wood floor a small case rested.
            “It’s all I have,” she said.
            Charlie picked up the case and for an instant was staggered by its weight. “What you got in here, love? The Crown jewels.” 
            A thin smile formed on her lips. “My husband died many years ago and we were never blessed with children. In that small case is my life.”
            “Look, love, I’ll put this in the car and come back for you. Don’t want you falling down those steps, do we?”
            She closed the door and locked it. “I’ll wait right here. You are very kind.”
            Charlie ran back and with care took her arm, descended the steps and walked to the car.
             She stopped, turned, tilting her head to the upper floors. She glanced away as if the recollections were sad. Tears formed and ran over her cheeks.
             “Are you going away?” asked Charlie.
            She shook her head as if amused. “Forever, young man, forever. Please,” she fumbled in her purse and removed a card, “take me here.”
            “Lavender House. Not sure where that is.”
            She smiled reassuringly. “Are you in a hurry?”
            “Any reason?”
            Her cheeks flushed. “I was born, grew up, married and will die in this town. Would you drive me along the high street one last time and then on to the park?”
            Charlie checked the time.
            “Sorry, I forget that others have a life.”
            “No problem. A one bed council flat, pizza or fish and chips, describes my existence.”
            A long silence followed. “Can I sit in the front passenger seat?” 
Charlie helped her in and fastened the seat belt.
            The blue Ford Sierra eased along the road while she chatted constantly about who lived when and where. The church where she was married was now a carpet warehouse. He stopped at the park.
            “I’ve asked for too much but I’d love one more go on the swings.”
            Charlie smiled. “And why not? Come on, love, take my arm.”
            She sat on the one swing that worked, gently moving back and forth. “When I was a girl, I’d come here and chat to the boys.”
            The street lights came on as the last remnants of the sun disappeared.
            “It’s time,” she said.
            “Hold my arm,” said Charlie.
            “You’re a good boy. Not many care for an old woman as you have.”
            “You remind me of my old mum.”
            At the car she slid into the passenger seat.
            Charlie found the home and drove up the long winding drive, stopped and helped her out.
            “How much do I owe you?”
            Charlie peered into the car. “Shit,” he muttered, “I forgot to trip the meter.” He lifted his head and smiled. “It’s on me.”
She hugged him and he held her tight. “Take this and thank you.” She pressed a few notes into his hand, turned and entered the building.
            He shoved the money into his pocket and stood there for a few minutes. “I’ll come and make sure she's alright in a couple of days,” he uttered. “Time for me fish and chips.”
            In the caf√© he ordered his favourite, cod and chips with mushy peas.
            The waitress placed the overflowing plate in front of him. “Had a busy day, Charlie?”
            “Bloody awful, Sheena.” From his pocket he pulled the crumpled notes. He stared at five fifty pound notes.
             She chuckled. “Couldn’t have been that bad. Fancy a coffee at my place?”
            That night Charlie couldn’t sleep. He leant against the headboard, his mind in a whirl. By six he gave up trying, he showered, dressed and ate breakfast.
            At Lavender House, he stood at the entrance and removed a buff envelope from his pocket. He checked its contents.  With determination he entered and found reception.
            “Can I help you?” asked a blonde middle-aged woman.
            “I hope so. Last night I dropped a grey-haired woman here at eight. It was dark and she paid too much.”
            Her smile was grim. “You must be Charlie. She said you’d be back and I was to give you this.”
            He smiled and placed his envelope on the desk. “This is her change.”
            The woman grimaced. “I’m sorry, she died during the night.”
            Confused, he picked up the envelopes, thrust them in his pocket and left. Why he ended up in her street was a mystery. He sat back and read her letter.
Dear Charlie, I’m pleased you came back.
To my lawyer, Brian Menges, 10 High Street, Wickham. This letter is my last will and testament. Everything I have is given without condition to Charlie, (a taxi driver) a man who made my final day wonderful.
Three signatures followed with names and addresses in block capitals.
He stared at the sky. “Why me?”      

My thanks to all the folks that contributed to the Paragraphs Of Power contest for the month of August 2012. Two entries have been voted through to the Grand final from semi final number #1. They are #2 Thackery ... and #1 Sand.
Your votes on the new entries below  will ensure that the Grand Final is an exciting one with 5 more great submissions to choose from. Please submit your votes to the right of this post.
As I have been hospitalized for the past five days the 2nd semi-final is running a little late, I do apologize and hope that this has not created an anxious wait for the participants. Good luck everyone!

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