Blink, Part 3

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The scratches clawed with long sweeps and short taps across the surface of the door. It was same kind of noise Barnaby made with his nails when he chased a bug across the floor. Fear suctioned the breath out of her. The scratches moved faster and became louder, the door shook against the hinges. She squeezed her eyes shut and clamped her hands over her ears. If she couldn’t see or hear, none of this was real. That’s right, it was all a ridiculous figment of her imagination. A sleep deprived hallucination at the very worst.

And then it stopped. Silence enveloped the room – not even the usual noises that came in through the window dared to make a peep. An eerie chill trembled through her spine and down to her toes. She tried to breath, but only gasps stole from her lungs. The silence was so unnerving she almost preferred the scratching. The absence of those haunting sounds  made not knowing their origin unbearable, signaling a masochistic curiosity. She had to prove there was nothing there, that it was all in her head.

She moved closer to the door, cautiously eying the peep hole. The locks would stay locked, the doorknob unturned. She folded her arms as her nose just cleared the door in front of her. The smell of musty wood and old varnish filled her nose. She hesitated in peeking through the small glass hole, afraid of what she might or might not see. What sounded like fingertips began to drag in long strokes down the face of the door. Intermittent squeaks followed the strokes, where skin would catch on the grain of the wood. Something was most definitely out there.

She gulped the breath she should have taken and centered her eye over the small lookout into the hall. At first, she saw nothing. The idea of relief was on the cusp of reality. She looked up and down, side to side; seeing only the hall’s white wall and dark walnut banister rail.

The “fingertips” kept moving until their swishing and squeaking honed in on a central target – the peephole.  The silence returned and her heart thudded against her ribs. There was nothing there, yet she felt an ugly presence. She closed her eyes in one long blink salvage the last of her courage. Within seconds of opening them again, she knew her attempt was futile.  Terror seized every nerve as hundreds of pairs of eyes stared at her, unblinking, angry, frustrated, and determined to . . . get her.

She jumped back and tried to scream, but tentacles clamped around her throat. The eyes had found her. They weren’t part of some phantasmagorical realm. They were real. And it was only a matter of time before they found their way in. Once they did, they would torment her her with a glare so penetrating and terrifying her instincts screamed with the premonition of pain.

Claws dug at the door, again, desperate to find a way inside. To her.

She ran to the window and slammed it shut. She fumbled with the brass lock, it’s hinge tight with disuse. She ran to all the windows and fought with all the locks. A shaft of light struck the corner of her eye. The crack between the floor and door was unguarded; a perfect gateway for them to enter. The scratching intensified as they clamored towards the slit where they could easily seep.

She darted to the couch and grabbed Barnaby’s favorite blanket. She jammed it tightly into the crack, hoping it would be enough of a barrier. She snatched Barnaby and sprinted to the bathroom. She closed the door behind her, leaving only the dim glow of a night light to show the way. She dared not turn on the rest of the lights. Another crack beneath another door was another place for the eyes to break in and find her. She rammed the bathmat between the floor and the door.

Barnaby balled up behind the toilet, low growls bellowing from his throat. Besides a crumpled up bathmat, he was her only ward. She hunkered down in the bathtub, hugging her knees to her chest. She heard nothing, but it didn’t stop the fear of knowing they were out there and they would find her again. She kept her eyes squeezed tightly shut to hold off the inevitable, to hold in the tears.

The tea kettle screeched it’s alarm, startling her eyes to open. She was not alone. The eyes surrounded her; watching her from every angle. The whistle kept squeeling; the eyes moved in closer and closer cocooning her in their grip. The largest pair of them all stared at her front and center. They were her own – blue and bright – the same ones she saw in the mirror this morning. Only they were sharper. Something dark lurked in the pupils. Something hopeless and terrifying. Something derelict and devoid of life. It wasn’t her but then it was or could be. She screamed as they descended upon her. Flecks of blue and black encroached and devoured her whole.

- Finis

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Blink, Part 1

Blink, Part 2

Thanks so much for stopping by to read the final installment of Blink. This story started as a few scribbles in my journal and it’s been so exciting to watch it grow into something that so many readers enjoyed. The experience has inspired me to start writing short stories again after a long spell. Stay tuned as more shorts are sure to come.

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c.b.w. 2014

Blink, Part 2

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The stairs leading to her flat were never so steep or plentiful, nor was the lock on her door so difficult to unlatch. Shaky panic-stricken fingers dropped the keys twice. She slammed the door behind her and spun around to lock all three locks – the chain, the deadbolt and doorknob. Air refused to fill her lungs, a stitch stung her side. She turned her back and slid down the door, landing weary and broken on the floor.

The eyes were gone. The only thing surrounding her was the small and familiar space she called home. The dark wooden floors stained and nicked. The white wash walls mottled with faint water stains. Three small square windows that offered perfectly framed views of aged gray bricks. One window was cracked open allowing the sounds of London to waft in – distant car horns, a slight rustle of leaves and the mist of humidity floating with a wisp along crooked streets. Everything was just as she left it this morning.

Barnaby sat on the edge of her slip-covered sofa, eying her with intense curiosity as only a cat can embody. The fat orange tabby tilted his head and flicked his tail, no doubt demanding an explanation for her odd behavior.  She detached her battered body from the floor and sat next to him. Fur swallowed her fingers as she scratched his neck. It wasn’t long before he started to rumble with a content purr. Another sign that she was home, where nothing had changed.

She closed her eyes waited for the calm of relief to settle her nerves, but it did not come.  The couch didn’t feel the same under her numb legs, Barnaby’s fur felt strange through still trembling fingers. It was still hard to breathe through exhausted lungs.  Lingering fear resided on the edges of her mind, poised to strangle her senses. She opened her eyes determined to convince herself  she was safely surrounded by familiar walls.  The same Barnaby sat beside her, her beloved bookshelf crammed with books stood her left, while the ivy plant she watered this morning was still green in it’s planter. She was safe.

It was just a trick of the imagination, she told herself. A very realistic trick. She wasn’t entirely convinced, but decided a hot cup of tea might smooth out the tension locking her body. As she got up from the sofa, an unnerving paranoia tickled the base of her skull. She stopped just short of the kitchen, wary of what could be hiding out of view.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but that didn’t mean anything. She glanced at an old horseshoe hanging on the wall above the entryway to the kitchen. A gift from her mother – an eternal ranch hand who still scratched out an existence somewhere in Texas. It was supposed to bring luck.  She never gave it a second thought, but after recent events, she decided it couldn’t hurt. She reached up and rubbed her fingers over the rough metal.

Hesitantly, she craned her neck around the door frame. Nothing. Just the usual teeny tiny kitchen that barely had enough room to house her dishes. A breath she didn’t know she was holding puffed her cheeks. She grabbed the tea kettle and filled it water, feeling a little silly. Everything she thought happened this afternoon was ridiculous. Perhaps all the result of not sleeping well the past few nights. She smiled at her own stupidity. Sleep deprived minds tended to confuse reality with imagination. There was nothing strange going on except the regard she gave to her illusions.

She put the kettle on the old stove and turned the knobs. It was just another afternoon and another beginning of an ordinary cup of tea. She turned to the cupboard to grab a cup, but as always misjudged the tight squeeze. Her elbow banged into the lever handle on her refrigerator. It hurt like hell every time. She rubbed the stinging pain on her way back into the living room. Barnaby was curled up on one of the couch pillows, perfectly content in his little nest.

While waiting for the kettle to whistle it’s tune, she decided to find a new book to read. The act of standing in front of the bookshelf gave further assurance that she was perfectly fine. As always, books were rammed into any available space, bowing the shelves into unnatural curves. She groaned at the thought of her lost copy of Benjamin Lebert’s Crazy. By now it was a soaked pile of mush – lost forever in a dark alley. A book should never meet that fate. She hoped another one of Lebert’s books was hidden in her collection to take the place of the one she so stupidly dropped.  Enough! she thought. It was time to stop chiding herself. Everyone had moments they wish they could take back – her nonsensical terror-filled dash would be that moment. It belonged to the past; not to be trifled with again.

From the kitchen, she could hear the slight hum of the water as it began to heat. Warmth spread through her body at the thought of a steaming cup of tea. Her eyes started scanning the spines of the books on the second shelf, when a different sound crept into her ears. She wasn’t certain, but it sounded like a fingernail dragging across the door. Barnaby heard it, too.  He stood on the arm of the couch with his back arched; his hair spiked into a cat mohawk. His eyes were trained on the front door and so were hers. There was more than one nail, more than one scratch assaulting the other side of the door.

- – -

Blink,  Part 1

After posting Blink, I was asked by several people if there was another a chapter to the story. I was not expecting that question and was therefore planning to keep the next two chapters safely tucked into my journal. However, after such an encouraging response to Blink, I decided to pull out those chapters. Like the first installment, this is the result of a free write, so I did very little editing to preserve the original words and feeling of this piece.

Part three will be posted next week. Stay tuned!

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c.b.w. 2014

Blink

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She sat alone as a matter of preference.  Every afternoon she stopped by a small café nestled in one of London’s hidden side streets.  She settled into a tabled tucked in the back corner, far away from everyone and everything.

Her table was always empty; the regulars knew to steer clear and the wait staff kept patrons off her turf. Here she could think and be still. The practice of being alone was not subject to question, much like gravity’s pull.  She couldn’t be the only one.  She wasn’t that different from anyone else.

The afternoon held the usual London spring air – a slight chill touched by fits of warmth through a wispy gray sky.  Her fingers wrapped around a particularly good cup of cappuccino that steamed just enough to keep the chill at bay.  Her eyes hovered over the second chapter of a book that had the potential to be a great read.  It was a day like any other, blanketed comfortably in the peace of routine and self imposed exile.

The street was quiet, while the café bustled with the clamor of conversation and clanking of cups on saucers.  Yet, she was immune to it all, hearing only the words that spoke across the pages of her book.  A fictional escape where she could travel without being seen.  How easy it was to move from one world to another!  With one flick of a mental switch, she could be somewhere new.

The brief interruption of turning one page to the next created a small breach, just enough to for a window to open.  Through such a tiny gap, her make-believe world collapsed with a deafening slam.  She blinked and nothing was the same.  Until this second, this segment of a minute, she never noticed she was the only person who sat at a table by herself.   This was not a new occurrence by any means, but the wave of self-consciousness that accompanied this snap observation was revolutionary.  They sat in pairs, in groups, and large parties.  Everyone except her.  In just a flicker, her solitude gave her a new name.  Outcast.  A word she’d never used to describe herself.

A lifetime of unequivocally knowing herself had been undone.  In a horrifying shift, she was flung into peering at herself from a point of view other than her own.  To a foreign pair of eyes she was meek, skulking in a dark corner of a cafe.  Clueless as to the reasons why the chair across from her always remained empty.  Answers were excuses, excuses were answers.  Nothing made any sense.  An alarming question oozed from forgotten depths: Did she know herself at all?  A silent scream tore through her insides.

As she slid a bookmark in her book, her newly paranoid eyes scanned the crowd once again.  There had to be some mistake.  If there was anything she knew for certain, it was herself.   How many hundreds of times had she sat alone in cafés, bookshops and parks?  Countless, countless times.  And never once did she feel conspicuously alone.  Never once did she think of herself as a person who needed to be fixed.   Even if that were the case, she didn’t want to be fixed.   All she wanted was to dispel this awkward awareness of what everyone might be thinking of her. Those wicked thoughts of abnormality they were all sure to be entertaining.

She was alone and everyone knew it.  Her corner of the café shrank, the presence of the crowd crept closer and closer to her sphere.  Hunters seeking to reform a dissident.  She looked down, her head weighted with crippling uncertainty.  The norm of quiet corners had suddenly become criminal and she was guilty beyond defense.  She didn’t belong here and it was like every person was asking her to leave.

No one was looking at her, but they were all staring.  She could see their eyes.  Each pair seemingly locked on her with unflinching focus, even when cast elsewhere.  Tiny radars sensing her every irregular behavior.  Listening to her every thought.  She most definitely had to leave; get away from the scrutiny.   She slowly got up, aiming for a stealth retreat.  Away from eyes that refused to stop watching.

Her sandaled feet carried her down an empty narrow lane.  Uneven cobblestones dug hard into the balls of her feet, but the slap of stone to sole went unnoticed.  Instead she hastened her steps, wishing she could run right out of her skin.  Flower boxes filled with red geraniums sped past her in a blur; velvet red streaks smelling of spice.

Her steps became less and less careful.  The cobblestones more crag-like and treacherous; their peaks and valleys ready to snare her feet into a trap.  Inexplicable fear clenched her beating heart, stifling her pulse into a coma.  Something was chasing her.  She could feel it. . . them.  The eyes.   They were following her; still watching and criticizing her oddness.  She was a freak.  A social misfit who had no right to wander off the beaten track.

Growing fear locked her feet to a short stop.  She was paralyzed; her fingers and toes ice cold.  The book in her hand slipped and fell and into the street.  The spine ricocheted off the cobblestones, the cover flew open as it landed in a puddle.  She closed her eyes and braced herself to absorb the trepidation that threatened all rational thought.

The gutters dripped from the roofs to the ground.  Droplets of water plunked into shallow pools; some even splattering on her fallen book.  But nothing else made a sound.  Not the air.  Not the city.  Not even her.

The eyes.

They were here; stalking her.  From the shadows they lurked, eying her isolation; devilishly reveling in it’s implications.  Ready to pounce the moment she least expected, when she was unguarded and unsuspecting.

It couldn’t be real.  She took a deep breath and let the air reach into her fingertips.  She was poised to open her eyes and prove it was all in her head.  That all she’d see were brick walls, geraniums, and wet cobblestones.

One, two, three.  Eyes open.  The promise of sanity was broken.  Hundreds of pairs of eyes floated in midair the way a spider hangs from a web. They besieged her unblinking and ogling, scoffing her very existence.  She bolted.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted a short story. This particular story has been in my journal for quite a while and I was inspired to post it as a result of last week’s fascination with the free write. Blink started as a free write and has only been slightly modified. This is one of those pieces I was surprised to find hiding inside of me.

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c.b. 2014

Downpour

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Rain falls for the first time in months. Dry, cracked sand turns into mud, sidewalks transform into mirrors of slick water, and thirsty trees drink until their roots swell. It’s too late for the brown grass and wilting weeds. They gave up the fight long ago. Did they really belong, anyway?

The cacti are the only ones complaining. Drowning is all to easy when roots run deep and there’s no way to move.  Days like this are all about holding on for dear life and praying for the sun.

None of the stones cared. Their lives continue much as they had before, only now they are wet. A new temporary color gives them something new to talk about and maybe a few friends will follow the stream and land in a new place.  The pebbles always love the ride, while old boulders grip the ground with all their might. There’s no way in hell they’re moving.

Gray clouds weep and weep until they run out of tears. Sorrow for what, no one knows. Perhaps it’s the ever-changing scene from above. All they see are bunch of ants building colonies and destroying the land.  So, they send downpour to flood them out and clear their mess.

Blue skies return, shining light on the wounds. The air is clear, but the ants return.

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c.b.w. 2014

Grocery Shopping In London

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Every evening at about six-thirty, I walked through the doors of  the local food store on Muswell Hill Broadway.  During my extended stay in London,  it was my evening ritual to pick up something for dinner and a snack for the next day. While I fell into the groove of a London grocery store rather quickly, the first few days were an interesting experience of learning the norms of a different culture.

Back home, grocery shopping is usually a once a week thing, but I realized very quickly that weekly shopping in London does not work.  First, like many Londoners, I relied on walking and public transportation to get around town, which makes carrying a week’s worth of groceries next to impossible. Second, the house where I was staying had a teeny tiny refrigerator that I had to share with another roommate and the homeowners. It was about the size of a mini bar, so I had no choice but to adopt the London lifestyle of daily market trips.

There were two grocery stores in the Muswell Hill area: Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s. I went with M&S mainly because it had a large array of fresh produce and a healthier variety of food products. And it was cleaner.

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My “local” grocery store on Muswell Hill Broadway
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

My budget constraints left me with about £10 a day for food, which  included my daily Cafe Mocha, (£2.90).  Breakfast and lunch were a snap –  a bagel smothered with Nutella in the morning and a fresh apple in the afternoon. Those two meals together cost me about £10 a week.

Dinner, however, was a bit trickier.  All I had to cook food was a microwave and a toaster, which was actually more restrictive than the budget! Thankfully, Marks and Spencer carries a wide array of frozen prepared meals that are reasonably priced and somewhat healthy (few preservatives or artificial ingredients). If I could get to the store before 6:00 p.m. I picked up a freshly made sandwich or salad. They were just as inexpensive as frozen dinners, but they were in short supply! Just ten minutes past six meant an empty shelf.

I think I tried just about every variety of the single-serve frozen dinner. The store brand chicken casserole, bangers and mash, and shepherd’s pie were my favorites, though I’d stay away from anything Italian (the noodles never cooked right). For £2.29 - £3.29, I got a pretty decent meal with enough left over to get a little dessert.

The candy rack is usually where I found that dessert. Candy bars are typically Cadbury or Mars, but in varieties that were totally foreign to me, (see The Junk Food Tourist for a complete rundown on my candy adventure).  Depending on the brand or size, they go for about 55p or £1.00.

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nom-nom-nom . . . The Double Decker is my favorite!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Shopping in the store is about the same as it is in the U.S. It’s crowded, people don’t always move, and it has that urban food smell that dominates all grocery stores. However, things get interesting when it’s time to wait in line and pay. British people take waiting in line (or queuing up) pretty seriously. There is no whining, line cutting, or standing too close to one another, nor is there tolerance for obnoxious conversations on a mobile phone. If any of these unspoken rules are broken, the British are not shy about voicing their disdain.

What I found most fascinating was the courtesy of placing the conveyor belt divider for the person standing behind you. Whether I was carrying one item or five, the person in front of me never failed to  place the divider. It didn’t take me long to adopt the policy both in London and back home. A little kindness goes a long way.

The cashiers sit instead of stand as they scan purchases. They sit on ergonomic stools that actually looked really comfortable!  People either bagged their own groceries or the cashier took on bagging duties once money changed hands. Bags are not free, but rather optional and for a fee, (5p). It didn’t take long for me to wise up and bring my own bag in order to avoid being charged extra.

After a while, I got to know the cashiers and I no longer got lost trying to find the snack aisle. I knew the left door always got a little stuck when it slid open and there was always a huge puddle in front of the exit after it rained.  I’ll bet if I went back today I could still find the Nutella and the best frozen bangers and mash a girl could ever want. This little store, along with so many other things became part of what I call my “new familiars.”

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Just curious:

As this series progresses, I’ll being using this section to ask questions to clear up my own curiosities. However, please feel free to leave your own questions and comments below.

Are small refrigerators common in London homes?

What’s the story behind having to pay for a bag?

How would locals describe food prices – high or reasonable?

Londoners, what did I get wrong?

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c.b.w. 2013