A Bone to Pick with You (Short Story)

This story would be weird if you haven’t seen my other short stories “The Cave” and “The Disgraced Ringmaster” (links down below). The inspiration to write this comes from this prompt I found recently: Have the main character in your novel (or short story) write a letter to you. What would they say? Have them write whatever you want.

Good morning, Ma’am, Mr.P here at your service. Look here, the last thing I want to do is to mess up your weekend. But seeing that I’m the first real character you’ve ever created, I think I deserve at least one interruption. I got a bone to pick with you, okay? And it’s not even about me, you know? All I’m saying is that you have got to do something about this guy I just met at the desert, because he’s freaking DYING.

I mean, I got plenty to complain about with my own life. The fact that I am not complaining now should tell you how serious this chap’s condition is. In case you don’t know who I’m talking about, it’s on you. I don’t know his name. You left him in such critical condition that he can barely say anything. The stupid child next to him is as fearful as my old circus crew. He’s just there bawling his eyes out. He didn’t dare to leave his dad alone to ask for help. Can you imagine his horror, Ma’am? Watching his father dying like that?

You probably wonder how the hell I found this dying guy or how did I even get to a desert. Well, after that rainy night you left me in that dirty alley, all beaten up, I got up and went to get some more liquor. (Again, Ma’am, not complaining, I did deserve to be punched every now and then). But then I had no money, as you didn’t let me take the cash that kind bartender offered me. So these crowds got pissed off at me for not paying for my alcohol and they chased me! I had to run all the way to the train station and hop on the train to save my neck, Ma’am. I became a stowaway. It made me laugh when I realised that because most of my circus crew used to be stowaways, too. That was how I recruited them.

Anyway, I must have slept for a really long time. When I woke up, the scenery from outside train had changed drastically. Too much sand for Mr.P’s liking, Ma’am. (Why did you name me that, anyway? A letter? I mean, even you let me named Richie with a full, normal name. Again, not complaining.) I gotta thank you here, though. The oasis town where I hopped out of the train had an amazing tavern. Their local drink was amazing. Again, I forgot I didn’t have a single penny on me. Doubt they’d take any money I had anyway, this place was certainly foreign.

So I ran away again. I thank you for my legs, at least. They’re strong enough from my circus heydays. Soon I realised the sound of my chasers fading, and I was alone in the middle of a desert. What a world you had in your head, Ma’am. It was wild. I don’t want to question you, but I hate that you chose to have this place. It was so hot in the day and so cold in the night. I was just going to rest in a cave I saw. Guess what – that’s where you left this man to die.

Ma’am, again I must implore you here to either save this man or just kill him straightaway. The kid just told me they had been in that cave for close to twenty one days now. TWENTY ONE DAYS! That is insane. I may have caused people to die from that accursed explosion, but I don’t torture them this way! Ma’am, I think something must have gone wrong with your story for this man. Maybe you intended this man to die straight away or something? Either way, he’s not dead. I can tell he’s poisoned. His skin is kind of purple now, with all the veins showing. He is foaming from the sides of his mouth. God! He’s alive but not living. Do something, Ma’am. Do something, please. I cannot see another life suffering like this. He had the same black, big eyes as Richie.

I promise you I’ll swear off alcohol altogether. Do something. There is a child here who doesn’t want to move at all from his father’s almost-corpse body. He hasn’t eaten for three weeks! Ma’am, can’t you do something for these poor people?

Wait. Unless… You put me here to do something? To save them? But, how?

Okay Ma’am, write to you again soon. I must be still drunk after all, I am hallucinating hearing this snake approaching me, speaking!

In the meantime, you know, think of something. Help these guys.

 

Your firstborn,

Mr.P

 


Click here for the original stories:

https://ajumbledrealism.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/the-cave-short-story/

https://ajumbledrealism.wordpress.com/2016/02/14/the-disgraced-ringmaster-short-story/

Yours truly,

M

Five Senses (Short Story)

Instruction: Write a three-paragraph description of a person or a place. Show the reader what it looks like, smells like, feels like, sounds like, even tastes like.

It is not entirely pleasant. One moment I am safe and warm in the dark, and the next moment all I can feel was a sensation akin to having someone tearing apart the canals of my ears. Every single sound is suddenly amplified to a decibel level ten times higher than what I was used to. This is disconcerting since in the past few months, I have grown accustomed to living in the warm spherical room and its soundproof walls, all voices from the outside muffled. Panic grows in me. I can almost feel my eardrums beating faster by the second, matching the accelerating beat of my heart. Luckily, I find her voice among the many sources of sounds engulfing me. Her familiar, calming voice is more melodious with the soundproof walls no longer separating us.

But for a few horrible seconds, the cold of the outside pierces mercilessly through my naked skin, almost convincing me to crawl back to where I was, where warmth was. It doesn’t last long. As soon as she touches my wrinkly skin, a wave of warmth jolts through my body like electricity. She runs her fingertips all over me; rubbing my cheeks, caressing my head, wrapping my arms. I become aware of the very inch of my body only when she touches it. Her touch activates me, awakens me, but her smell is what brought me alive. My nostrils dilate as I greedily inhale her intense odor. At this time, my repertoire of fragrances is too limited to liken her smell to anything else. But I doubt any metaphors or analogies will ever do her scent justice. There is simply nothing else that smells the way she does. She smells like life.

Suddenly, I feel wet. Droplets of water fall on my cheeks and forehead. Her tears? They roll closer onto my gaping lips and enter my mouth. The taste of her tears on my tongue startles me. It is bitter, salty, and foreign. It scares me. I open my mouth wider and let out a loud cry. My tears prompt me to separate my eyelids and finally, at last, there is sight. Before sight, I see only brightness, so blinding and alien to the pitch blackness of the room. But now, I see. I see her. She is a combination of blurred bright and dark dots that slowly form into a shape. Slowly, I distinguish the contour of her face, eyes, and then her mouth – a hazy, curved line spanning across her face from cheek to cheek. Both ends of that foggy line are pointed upward. A smile.

Because I am born.

 


 

Jumbled,

M

 

Four Train Stations (Short Story)

Instructions: Observe other people’s behavior in public place, especially odd or intriguing acts. Create a character and put them in this place, give them two traits: a behavior you observed and a negative trait about yourself. Now, write 300-600 words describing the character in the context of the place without writing anything directly about the character. In fact, write as if the character is not even present at the place during the time you’re writing it. Try to allow the reader to discover both of the character’s traits indirectly. This assignment is about implication, about leading the reader to see the character without directly describing him/her.


 

As the train doors open with a mechanical sound, a familiar pungent smell creeps into my nostrils. Durian. I looked up irritably to get a view of the offender to my olfactory system.  The sole suspect just stepped in, a massive middle-aged man perspiring through his armpits. He heaves breathily as he slumps into the seat directly opposite me, carelessly tossing a big black plastic bag containing the awful fruits in the adjacent empty seat. He unwraps a Big Mac burger, swallows ravenously and finishes it just within the time the train needs to reach the next station. He then reaches into his trousers pocket to take out a palm-size black metallic object.  It takes me a full second to realize that it is a cellphone. I mean, that thing still has buttons.

I keep my gaze at him, feeling amazed as I witness him holding the cellphone with his left hand and then pushes the buttons with his right hand’s chubby index finger. Who does that? He does not seem to notice my voyeuristic stare at all until the moment he presses the phone on his ear and tilts his head up. Luckily, at that moment the train reaches Lavender Station and some new passengers walk in. I divert my gaze to them – a ponytailed woman with huge headphones, a sleepy-looking dude in blue scrubs, and a skinny boy carrying a guitar. Anyone of them is a much more welcomed view than this obnoxious uncle.

My nose starts to get used to the durian smell by the time we reach the next station. I start to ignore the Durian Guy, until a loud “Hey!” comes from his direction. It startles me and by reflex I turn my sight to him again. He was talking to his phone. “Hey, darling!”

Scanning the other passengers, I immediately feel surrounded by faces with irritated look. A plump woman with a baby sleeping in her arms frowns deeply. She makes an approaching gesture toward the Durian Guy.

“Yes, I’m still in office now,” everyone within earshot can hear the Durian Guy says, ”I’ll need to run to a meeting soon.”

The woman with the baby stops her movement and I see her expression changes from irritation into interest. The ponytailed woman pulled down hear headset, subtly. I smirked. I feel my earholes widening too.

“Oh yes, yes, darling,” the Durian Guy continues to talk loudly, but nobody seems to mind it now. The dude in scrubs has fully opened his eyes now.

“You know how I always need to work overtime for this client. Yes. What, Aaron? Now?”

Durian Guy’s sudden panic expression brings joy to my heart. No longer grinning, his eyes roll quickly around the car, as if looking for an answer to give the person on the line. Durian Guy lowers his voice, “Uh, why you wanna talk to him now? I told you we’re going to a meeting soon.”

I feel the train decelerating and realizes we’re reaching City Hall Station soon. I bet the Durian Guy senses this as well, because he quickly yells that he needs to: “run to the meeting now and bye, bye, darling, I love you,” – as if fearing the person on the line will hear the sound of the train’s PA system announcing the next station.

He collects the bag of thorny fruits, raises from his seat and alights off the train car quickly. Too bad the Durian Guy was only on the train with me for four stops. Now I’ll have to sit through another ten boring train stops before reaching home.


I wrote this story with Singapore in mind, but wanted to make this as broad as possible to apply to other cities’ trains, too.

Just some fun facts: In Singapore, you can get fined for drinking or eating on bus / train, unless you do it sneakily. The last time I check, durians are still prohibited on trains, too. Also, these aren’t key to the story, but I thought it’d be fun to share my thought process: Four train stops before City Hall station is Aljunied station – the closest one to Geylang area, a famous red light district. Best durians in Singapore can be found there, too.

 

Jumbled,

M

How You Solve a Problem, Like Maria (Short Story)

The sky started raining the very moment Maria stepped on the ground floor. Maria sighed as she climbed up the stairs back to her room to get her umbrella. It had not even been full two hours since she woke up, but Maria felt like she was at the end of a long day. Her emotional state that morning had transformed from elation to disbelief, to confusion, to sadness, and now to irritation.

As Maria snatched her umbrella from the windowsill, she saw through the misty window her bus approaching the bus stop across the street. She panicked and immediately dashed toward the door and slammed it. As she skipped down the last flight of stairs, she realised she had forgotten to lock her apartment’s door. Angry at herself, she decided against going back up and convinced herself that having nothing worth keeping equals having nothing worth stealing, too. I must text George to lock it, thought Maria, Oh, no! He worked overtime yesterday, he will sleep until noon. I’ll better call him.

George. George had always been in Maria’s life as long as she could remember. He taught her to put the thermometer on flashlight to fake a fever. She taught him how to whistle. He was there when her father went into coma after mercury poisoning. She was there when his mother gave birth to a stillborn sister. Both tragedies could be traced to every drop of toxic chemicals dumped by the gigantic factory residing in their hometown.

They went to high school. They dated. They became adults and moved in together.

Maria almost slipped and fell when leaping on the bus. She exhaled, relieved that she would make it in time for her class. When she slumped into an empty seat, she realised she was drenched. In her haste to chase the bus, Maria had forgotten to use her umbrella. She cursed audibly.

“Miss Rainer!” a syrupy voice startled her, “You said a bad word!”

It was Maria’s student, a ponytailed girl who often took the same bus as Maria to the kindergarten. Maria had asked her parents several times, rather accusingly, as to why they would let a five-year-old ride the bus alone, regardless how close the kindergarten was.

“Oh, Liesl, good morning,” said Maria, patting the empty seat next to her, “Come sit here.”

Liesl hesitantly moved closer to Maria. “Sorry you heard me cursing,” Maria smiled, “I had a bad start of the morning.”

“That’s okay,” Liesl grinned widely.

“Not entirely okay,” Maria quickly added, “You should not follow my bad example, promise me.”

Liesl winked, “Okay, Miss Rainer.”

Maria patted her head lightly. They sat in silent for a while before Liesl took out a coloring book from her backpack and started flipping the pages. Maria took this opportunity to take out her cellphone to call George, gave up after ten rings went answered, then texted him. As she saw his photo next to his name, one of her earlier emotions came rushing back. A pang of inexplicable sadness hit her.

Tonight, George will propose to her.

She found out accidentally. Waking up too early, Maria suddenly wanted to wear her old mustard-colored dress for their date night. She grabbed a flashlight and went to storeroom to find a box of her old clothes. When she turned on the flashlight, she noticed the strange way the light beam shot, as if there was an object inside the flashlight blocking the bulb.

It was a ring.

George must have really run out of place to hide it.

Disbelief. Confusion. And inexplicably, sadness.

“Miss,” Liesl’s voice brought her back to reality, “What are we doing today? Because it’s raining.”

Maria almost cursed again. She had promised the kids to spend sometime in the playground and sandbox today.

“Hmmm,” Maria frowned slightly, “I know! What do you think about watching film instead?”

They will sit in silence and I have some time for myself. To think.

“Great!” exclaimed Liesl joyously, “Which film? Can it be cartoon, please?”

“Sure, why not,” Maria answered, “What about Beauty and the Beast? We haven’t watched it in class.”

Liesl, frowning and pouting her lips, said, “I hate Belle.”

Huh, that’s new, thought Maria. “Really, why? Doesn’t she love books, Liesl? Just like you.” She let out a little laugh when she looked at Liesl’s coloring book, “You even have Beauty and the Beast coloring book.”

Liesl concentrated hard and finally explained, excitedly, “Hmmm, I don’t fully hate Belle. I hate her at the end. I like her at the start when she go around town and sing and like get the book from the old man and Gaston was like, I will marry Belle but no, she wants adventure.”

“I see,” agreed Maria, almost giggling, “But what’s so bad with her at the end?”

“Belle didn’t get her dream at the end,” Liesl said confidently, “Cinderella and Snow White and Aurora want to marry and they get it. And, Ariel, she wants to be human. But Belle, she doesn’t want adventure anymore, she even sings it! She says her dreams were childish or something. She gave up. I hate her.”

Enthusiastically, Liesl opened her coloring book and pointed out how she had colored all Belle’s gowns in blue instead of yellow, including the famously yellow big gown. “Because when she was wearing blue, she still wants adventure,” Liesl smiled, “Oh look! We’ve arrived.”

Maria was speechless throughout the walk from bus stop to their classroom.

As she let the children watched Aladdin, she checked her email and opened the first one that she had seen that morning: a congratulatory email from a university across the country, accepting her into their law school with full scholarship. Elation. Elation like never before.

Her mind drifted back to the memory of her hometown. Her father, being comatose for too long, lost his job. Her friends going to college.  A group of environmental lawyers, showing up too late. The ongoing lawsuit. Her childhood dream.

Maria closed her eyes and made her decision.

That evening when she and George went out, Maria was wearing a new navy tube dress instead of her old mustard-colored dress.


 

I took the characters’ names from Sound of Music, just for the fun of it. March being a Women’s History month and all, I got reminded at how cringe-y I feel now, in my adulthood, when I listen to some of the musical’s less-feminist songs. (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen” was the major offender. Of course, I sang to the tune countless times as a child)

And I intended this story to center around a woman, thinking and weighing and making an important choice. I think Maria in SoM was supposed to embody free spirit and finding her own happiness. But given the period she existed and the prevailing gender notions then, her happiness, her adventure, was defined solely by eventual her marriage to the Captain. (“Gone are your old ideas of life. The old ideas grow dim. Lo and behold you’re someone’s wife. And you belong to him. You may think this kind of adventure, never may come to you.”)

She’s so similar in this regard to Belle in Beauty and the Beast: (“And I– I never thought I’d leave behind. My childhood dreams but I don’t mind. I’m where and who I want to be. No change of heart. A change in me)”. What’s with this notion in the past that a woman’s idea of adventure changes shape completely upon marriage? And typical adventures in faraway places or whatever were dismissed as ‘childhood dreams’?

I deliberately left the ending vague. I like to think multiverse-style: in one, she rejected George’s proposal; in another, they work out a long-distance marriage / prolonged engagement and her studying; in another, George moved; one universe has Maria postponing her enrollment. Whatever it was, I like to think that her choice will matter, the conversation she’ll have with George will be mature and respectful, and her dreams will not be undermined.

That’s my kind of happy ending.

 

Jumbled, sleepy, and yours,

M

 

On Sending Postcards

You remember it only toward the end of the first day. Something about walking back tiredly to your bed-and-breakfast –or whichever cheap place you’re staying for the night – triggers the memory of your to-do-list. Taking a deep sigh, you type it hurriedly on your low-battery phone’s Notepad: BUY POSTCARDS.

As you take a late-night shower, with warm water if you are lucky enough with your choice of accommodation, you forgive yourself for forgetting to buy and send some postcards today.

The next day, as you walk around in the new town, you see a souvenir shop or a street vendor selling postcards. You take about fifteen minutes or longer to make your selection, flipping through almost all designs available, not caring much when the vendor started getting impatient. You hated postcards with corny, neon-colored, big-font words covering up the otherwise great pictures of the city or the landmark. It makes the card looks like it’s designed by your nine-year-old self who just discovered WordArt on PowerPoint.

When you pay the vendor with the foreign-currency coins that are not familiar to you, you’ll take your sweet time – as some vendors love to point out to you.

You then continue the rest of your day. When your itinerary gets more out of shape, tainted with blue smudge from being inside your denim shorts’ pocket for too long, you feel tired and stopped by a café or a pier or a park and finally write those postcards.

And then you’ll realise you don’t have enough.

Maybe you forget your high school friend who lives in the States now. Maybe it’s the old teacher that leave impression in you. Maybe your parents. Or your sisters. Maybe it’s the stranger you met on one of your trips and kept in touch with. Or one of your friends from that time you went for student exchange.

You sit down and start writing and only then you’ll remember the exact people with whom you want to share this experience, this new city, this new mini-adventure via an outdated handwritten medium that will only reach them weeks after you leave the city.

Most people question your anachronistic postcard-sending habit. They love to remind you what year it is currently, as if that strengthens their point. You don’t understand why they bring it up, as they are never are the recipients of said postcards.

After musing for a while, you then realise that you have also forgotten to buy stamps. You sigh again, open up the nasty-looking piece of paper that is your itinerary, and at the bottom of tomorrow’s plan, you write FIND POST OFFICE.

Sometimes, the next day is Sunday and you just curse at your bad luck and go back to enjoying your trip.


 

Jumbled, a Luddite, and yours,

M

The Cave (Short Story)

The freezing midnight wind pierced Omar’s skin. He had been trudging the desert for hours since sunset. The lifeless body of his son on his back felt heavier with every step.

“You madman,” he remembered his wife covered her face with her palms, shaking her head furiously, “He is dead. Please, let me bury him.”

“No,” Omar hugged the corpse tighter, “I told you about the cave before. You have to believe me!”

“There is no cave to revive the dead!” his wife screamed, “You are just doing to spite me. You won’t even let me bury my dead son by sunrise. Omar, you – you cruel, cruel man!”

“There is!” he roared, “I saw it, I swear! I told you this many times – when I was a boy and lost while playing alone, I saw a man and a woman carrying their dead, bloody child in the cave. They waited outside and soon the child came out running! I swear!”

But she wasn’t listening to him anymore, so he went alone.

Omar’s tears cleared his sandy lashes and an image resembling a cave came to his sight. He felt a thump in his chest. Hope. He moved his son’s body to his arms and ran toward the cave as fast as his weak legs could.

Omar stepped into complete darkness as he entered the cave. He gripped his son’s body tighter as his vision slowly returned. As he knelt to ground and lain down his son, Omar felt a misery like never before. He had not let go of his son’s body at all since his death.

He took few steps back to exit the cave when he heard a hissing sound. Before he knew what happened, Omar felt a stinging pain on his ankle, a loss of balance of his body, and a heavy thud on the ground. When he opened his eyes again, a pair of glittery reptile eyes was watching him eerily. A snake slithered its body on his son.

Where is the man’s wife? It did not ask with its mouth, but Omar knew this voice in his head is the snake’s, and it was asking him. He tried to speak but his throat felt like something is choking him.

She did not wish to come, Omar answered mutely, she did not believe in the cave.

The snake looked at him with pity and Omar’s fear of it immediately ceased.

His son will be alive again.

Omar felt a rush of relief and gratitude. He wanted to kneel and bow and kiss the ground, but he could not move his limbs at all.

One mother and one father. The snake looked at Omar with even more sympathy. Half of both lives to trade for a child’s life. The cave will revive the child, alive under sun and moon every day. The mother will live only under sun. The father will live only under moon.

The snake’s head crept closer to Omar now. He could feel his limbs now, but he did not move his body further from the reptile.

One father means his one full life to trade. My poison will take his life come next midnight. If he chooses for his life, I will bite him the second time.

Omar thought of his poor, malnourished wife who was born with rotten luck into marrying him. Omar thought of his clever, curious son who was born with rotten luck into dying so young. Omar thought of himself – a famished, impoverished, old man who was born with tremendous luck of having a second chance in reviving his dead son, of having one more day with his son.

He made his choice in his heart. He had recovered from the initial shock and could open his mouth to answer the snake. But before he could say anything, the snake glided away back into the darkness.

Beside him, the corpse of his son wriggled. Omar smiled.


 

Jumbled,

M