So this week I am pleased and honored to be included in a tradition that started a few weeks ago over at my friend Crow and his friend Robin’s blogs. They’ve since added Caiti into the mix, and this week they’ve been nice enough to invite me as well.
The idea is pretty straightforward: each week, someone picks a rule, which can be anything at all, and everyone writes a short story based on that rule. Rather than telling you what it is, the idea is for you, the loyal reader, to read all four stories and then use the comments to guess at and/or smugly reveal that you have deduced the rule. So after you’re done with my story, head over and read everyone else’s (here are the links again: Crow. Robin. Caiti.).
The night of the telling, frost covered stiff grass along the streets outside. Inside, a fire cackled and a song punched through the dust: “red-red-yellow, the heavens bellow.” The sober cringed at James’ voice, raspy and weighted by the stench of yellow teeth and too many cigarettes. The rest were in no condition to listen.
“I been in a bad place, see,” James explained. “Drifting. Lulled to sleep by waves.”
“So that’s how you blue boys get to sleep, queers.” It was Aaron, sneering from the end of the counter. James cleared his throat.
“It’s a metaphor.”
“Whatever floats your boat.” Aaron’s round belly jiggled, and James stared down into the depths of his half-empty highball glass.
Drifting. A dull clanging cut through the salty ocean mist. Blood soaked the rope, wind tore through his hair, but James kept to his task unfazed, staring at the horizon. Colors rose above the setting sun.
The night of the telling, James left the bar a real mess, surrounded by a crowd well-wishers bidding him a safe journey home. They watched as he stumbled across the curb and down Coral Road mumbling that wretched song. A few lean punks in an ally across the street followed James, waiting for his inevitable collapse. He should never have made it home.
The bartender, William Jr., looked for James in the surrounding streets the next day; he was nowhere to be found.
Drifting. A midshipman tore off his white shoulder and handed the cloth to James. “Red-red-yellow,” he croaked, and then turned away, leaving fresh blood on uneven planks of wood. In the little dinghy, James watched as three nimbus clouds gathered to a point, a crimson stain on the horizon.
The night of the telling, James described it as a “peculiar red dot.”
”Do you get it?” he asked. Aaron finished off a pint in response, leaving a layer of white foam above glistening lips.
”Haven’t been listening since you said ‘metaphor.’”
Drifting. On the second day, the dot appeared to the Northeast. James pointed the boat’s nose and sang to keep himself awake. His voice bounced away on the chop.
The night of the telling, the punks followed quietly in James’ wake as he tripped down forty-eight blocks of Coral Road before turning left onto Cherry Street. They shivered as James crooned into the night, but looked on, their blue eyes growing wider with each unfailing step.
“He’s making it,” said the small one.
“Not a chance,” said the bigger of the two. “Even a small breath going to knock him right over.”
Drifting. On the third day, the sky was clear and still. James watched as the sun sank like a stone into the water, finding neither sign nor inspiration in its descent. For the first time in half a week, he took the white cloth from his pocket and unraveled it on his palm, seeing only buttonhole and creases.
“Red-red-yellow,” he said again.
The night of the telling, James spoke to a growing number of listeners about the dilemma of being stuck out at sea. If he was lost, he said, he desired not to live on in false hope of rescue.
”So what?” said William Jr. “You were going to off yourself? Pish tosh!”
”Is that so hard to believe?” James choked down the final dregs of another ale. “Hell, I’d off myself here and now to prove it if I wasn’t enjoying this attention so much.”
The listeners laughed heartily at this, and James jumped when one of them slapped a coin down on the counter to pay for the storyteller’s next drink.
Drifting. The golden sun peaked just above the cloudless horizon. James stared directly at the semicircle, not noticing the sting in his eyes. A cold wind began to bite at his neck, and as he went to gather his uniform about him, the breeze whipped the white cloth out his hands. It hung for a moment on the horizon before dipping into the cold blue ocean.
The night of the telling, James paused right at the climax for dramatic effect. His audience grumbled, which he responded to with a widening grin. He greedily kept his secret for just a little bit too long.
“It turned yellow,” came a knowing coo from the end of the bar. Aaron must have been piss drunk by then. “Yellow in the sun.”
James smiled. “Almost.”
Drifting. For less than a second, the cloth separated James’ eyes from the sun. Pure yellow light streamed through the buttonhole.
The night of the telling, James made it another twenty-six blocks along Cherry Street before finally collapsing among a collection of burlap bags set out on a stoop. He lifted his head to the sky and belted into the night.
“Red-red-yellow, the heavens bellow!”
The punks were still discussing how James had come so far when his song snapped them into action. As they swiftly descended on the defeated drunk, a flickering, unsure light came on in the building that towered over James.
“Shut up, you drunk bastard!” came the tired yell from above.
James looked up, and saw pure yellow streaming through the window. He rose unsteadily to his feet, and tried his key in the building’s heavy oak door. When it closed behind him, the punks stood frozen in disbelief on frost-covered grass. The smallest of them looked up at the other.