Heaven Help Him

[The challenge today from The Daily Post is to write a story where each sentence begins with the same letter. So here’s what I’m gonna do — close my eyes, spin the keyboard, stop when the TV above me switches to a commerical, and press a key without looking. And the winner is  . . . ]

He pulled the gray metal fencing mask over his ears. Head seeming far too large, the mask stuck at Butch’s ears.

“How’s this supposed to go on?” Heavy breathing accompanied Butch’s futile pulling.

“Hold on,” Butch’s hearing and vision too obstructed to know who was coming to his aid. Hands grabbed the heavy cloth bib at the front of the mask, pulled it forward then down, the gray metal descending like a curtain, returning him to the world of sight and sound.

“Hello!” Half a foot in front of Butch, Rune smiled in response.

“Have to pull out, as well as down. Has to fit tight on your head.” He tapped the top of Butch’s mask.

“He said the bottom fits under my chin,” Butch pointing to the Asian teen who had handed him the mask earlier.

“His name’s Juan.” How Joo-Won’s name was transformed by his Bark Bay teachers despite his efforts didn’t seem important to Rune at the momment. “However weird it may feel, that’s right, the bottom’s supposed to fit right under your chin, like a strap.”

“Huh.” He tugged hard on the mask, swallowed. “Heavens, it’s hard to see out of this thing!”

Haven struggled with masks for a year, Rune nodded. “Help is always a call away.”

Choices and Routes

[The topic for today’s Daily Post prompt response: travel style.]

Turn left at Conover Street. In the passenger’s seat, Butch yelped as if he had been bitten.

“What?” OK slammed on the car’s brakes, the long curls of her red hair brushing against her cheeks.

“That thing!” Butch pointed a fat finger at the phone mounted on the dashboard. “Why do you use it?”

OK stared at her phone a moment, making sure she was looking at the same “thing” which had Butch so terrified. “It’s a GPS. I use it, ‘cuz its useful.”

“But doesn’t it bother you that it tells you where to go?”

OK blinked. “Butch, we’re in the city. I don’t get up here much, and I’m trying to get us home, to Bark Bay.”

“Why don’t we get a map?”

Because — ” she ripped the phone from its mount, thrust its surface up into Butch’s face — “this IS a map, you nimrod!”

“But it only tells you one way to go.” Butch touched OK’s hand, lowered it to the seat. “What if you want to go a different route? Or you don’t like where it’s sending you? It’s just a machine, all it knows is where the roads are, but not what they are. If you use a map — paper one, that is — you can see what all your options are, and you can decide which one you like best. But when you use a machine, you let it make all the decisions for you. I don’t know, I just find that kinda — creepy.”

OK sunk back into her seat, considered calling Double-J and arranging for a passenger swap. She shook her head, waved at the glove compartment. “Old man was getting rid of stuff he didn’t want a while back. Gave me a bunch of old maps, and I was like why don’t we just throw ’em away, but for some reason he insisted I keep ’em.”

Butch opened the glove compartment with the excitement of a toddler at Christmas. “Awesome!”

Loony

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post is to describe the “new you” that appears when the moon is full]

“Butch?” Coach Dan had not known the rotund, tow-headed teen long (this being only the third practice of the fencing season), but was certain that ignoring commands was not in Butch’s nature. And standing no more than five feet away when he asked Butch to get in line with the other memebers of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, he was certain he could have, should have, been heard. Yet even after his coach’s reminder question, Butch continued staring out the large glass windows of the cafeteria.

Rune, who continued to guide his friend through practice like a nervous parent, walked over and laid a hand on Butch’s shoulder. The touch seemed to waken him.

“Oh! Sorry.” He pointed in the direction of the window. “I was just — looking, is all.”

The greasy-haired teen followed the line of Butch’s arm out through the window. Above the tree line of the horizon, the moon shown, fully round and palely white. Rune responded reflexively — “Awooooo!

“I take it you have a fascination with the moon, my friend?” Coach Dan had been drilling the team all afternoon, and instinctively realized a momentary distraction might give his students the energy required to end this practice strongly.

“It’s so powerful.” There was a look of wonder and appreciation on Butch’s face that Coach Dan had not seen before. “You know, the tides, and how it affects people.”

“That’s how we got the legends of werewolves.” Rune sounded like he was giving a lecture. “And words like lunatic and looney, it’s from the Latin — ”

“I hate the moon.” Annie had joined the irregular line in front of the window. “I never sleep well when its full, and — ” she scanned the faces of her coach and the only two other fencers who had been at today’s practice — “well, there’s other stuff.”

“You do know — ” Coach Dan’s voice sounding a little rushed — “that there’s no scientific evidence supporting your beliefs?”

Annie frowned, as she had constantly at practice, her pony-tail lying limp down her back. “For this at least, I don’t friggin’ care what science says.”

“That’s what the moon is, to me.” Eyes fixed on the celestial orb, Rune seemed oblivious to having everyone’s full attention. “It’s got this power, this truth to it, which is stronger and wiser than anything here on Earth. It’s like, God put the moon in the sky, to remind us of how little we know.”

“Wow.” Rune waved greasy locks from his acne-scarred forehead. “That’s pretty deep.”

Butch blinked, stared back at Rune. “Oh! Really?”

A Late Greeting

[Back to Daily Post prompt responses. Going to use these as an opportunity to develop Butch, the character from my novel I’ve done the least with. Today’s topic — animals.]

Butch nearly jumped back when he placed his left foot on the bottom stair up to his family’s front door, the sudden loud barking from inside the house jarring him. Regaining his composure, Butch ascended the remaining two steps of the wooden stairway (creaking audibly under his weight), the barking growing louder with each step, then finally disolving into guttural simpering as Butch opened the door.

“Hey boy.” The enormous Saint Bernard padded across the linoleum floor, thick streams of drool dripping from his drooping jowls as he pounced into the teen’s arms. Butch was the only member of the Goodman family who still gladly accepted the dog’s slobbering embraces.

Butch held the beast by its front legs, let its tongue paintbrush his chin. “You normally don’t bark when I come home!”

“You’re normally not home this late.” Standing at the kitchen sink and rinsing a metal pot, Faith Hutchinson spoke in a tone that commanded attention, even with her back turned. “Ezekiel is smarter than he looks.”

Butch released his left hand, rubbed Ezekiel’s head, the dog picking up the cue to come down from his pounce. Faith shut off the water at the sink, her back still turned towards her son. “And how was your fencing practice today?”

“Oh!” Butch heard something in his mother’s voice that told him she was requesting something more meaningful than a polite response. “It was — good. There’s a lot I need to learn.” Ezekiel whimpered loudly, looking up at Butch, who looked down in confusion.

“How many nights a week do you have practice?” Faith’s voice lifted slightly with each syllable.

“Oh!” Ezekiel whimpered again. “Just Tuesday. Has Ezekiel eaten yet?”

Faith turned on her heels, her arms crossing beneath her chest, a grim smile on her face. “Of course not.”

“Oh!” The dog’s whimper sounded desperate. “I — guess I forgot to tell Asher to feed him before I left today.”

“I don’t care about you’re forgetting.” Faith’s face was cold, like it had never been warmed with a smile. “What bothers me, is you not making sure your chores are completed. Every member of this family has responsibilites, Benjamin, and you’re being on this fencing team does not mean you get to ignore them.” Ezekiel was no longer whimpering. “Do you understand?”

Butch looked down at floor. “Yes, mother.” He walked silently toward the cupboard containing the dog food, Ezekiel padding excitedly behind him. And while he did think of asking if he would be punished for his over failure, he knew it would be wise to not ask a question whose answer was so obvious.

Speaking in Tongues 11

Claire was too despondent to notice the carpeted footfalls in her cubicle. Her meeting having ended early, Purva had returned to follow up on their odd conversation from before. Seeing Claire unresponsive, she placed a hand on her shoulder.

ZAP! Static electric discharges were common in their office, but this spark was visible, Claire catching it on the edge of her vision. Both women recoiled from the impact, Purva nearly backing into the cubicle wall, Claire lurching forward in her chair.

Purva spoke immediately in urgent tones, Claire looking up and seeing the concern on the young contractor’s face. Her friend spoke again, and Claire shook her head.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand — ”

No, she didn’t understand. Claire rolled her chair over to her computer swiftly, called up the company’s web site again, looked at the upper right corner. En Española. She sat back in her chair, relief coming down on her like a soothing waterfall.

“But I thought — you had said earlier — ”

Claire turned to face her confused friend. “I’m sorry, I was just messing with you. I’ve picked up words here and there, and what I said earlier, that was all stuff I prepared ahead of time.” Claire knew her spontaneous tale wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, but felt certain Purva wouldn’t pursue the matter. “Can I buy you lunch today?”

[End of “Speaking in Tongues.” I’ve enjoyed riding this wave out, long enough to realize I should have spent more time on the relationship between contractors and full-time workers at Claire’s office. That’s the beauty of blogging — get your drafts out there, let the larger ideas evolve over time, set yourself up for success when revising. But for now, onto the next experiment . . .]

Speaking in Tongues 10

Claire sat in her cubicle, her mind racing through the events of the previous day, from the moment she gained her ability to speak and understand any language. She’d definitely read during that time, wouldn’t have been able to work half the day like she had; suddenly inspired, she checked the outbox of the email program on her computer, saw that she somehow had avoided sending any messages yesterday. She’d written and edited documents, yes, but hadn’t sent anything out for review.

She thought of all the foreign language programs she’d watched the night before, interrogating her memory for any words she’d read on screen. She’d been focused on the language, the miracle of her comprehensive comprehension; there may have been subtitles, signs in the background, but she hadn’t cared. The only words, yes, that she remembered seeing were the translation (or mistranslation, in her mind) of the South African aborigine during the documentary. The translation was in English . . . she minimized the email program, brought up the company’s web page, there was a Spanish version. She looked at the upper right corner of her screen, found the words En Española. But what she read was Ferment Chopstick. She then frantically retrieved an external web site that offered translations in several languages, her heart sinking as she scanned through pages of comprehensible gibberish, an infection of words signifying only her incomprehension.

Claire closed the web browser in dismay, sat back gloomily in her chair. She still had the ability to speak and understand any language, she’d proven that this morning and more importantly knew it to be true. And she could red her native language. But she couldn’t read other languages, and couldn’t write in any language — without the ability to read and write, was her new talent of any real worth?

Speaking in Tongues 9

A look of resigned sadness swept over her boss’ face as he accepted the letter from Claire. As he turned the letter in his hand towards him and sat back in his chair, Claire thought of her years at the company. Her boss had only started a few months ago, and Claire liked him enough to regret depriving him of her knowledge and experience. Of course she would train her replacement . . .

Her boss’ face contorted in confusion. He looked up from the letter, eyes squinting at her. “What is this?”

Her boss was too straight-laced to be playing with her. Claire extended her arm again, her boss handing back the letter like it was contaminated. She scanned it quickly, confirmed it was indeeed the resignation letter she had printed the night before.

“What exactly do you mean — ” his voice darkly sarcastic — “by, Crocodille linguini blasts orangefully sedans under football?”

Claire stared at the opening line of her letter with eyes widened in surprise. I regret to inform you that my last day  . . . What game was he playing? And then she blinked, remembering her sudden ability to converse in the native language of whatever person she spoke with.

She stuffed the paper back into her fabric briefcase. “It’s — some experimental writing I was doing last night. Just goofing around, on my WordPress blog.” Claire acutally didn’t have a blog, but her friend wrote in his daily. “Its unusual, I know. But I thought, I don’t know, you might like it.”

His shoulders relaxed. “Well, your writing style is certainly — unique.”

Claire thanked her boss, and backed quickly out of his office. Turning swiftly, she saw Purva walking in her direction, a broad smile beaming onto the young Indian woman’s face when she saw Claire. “Good morn — ”

“Purva!” Claire nearly pounced on her. “I need a favor.” She nearly draged the contractor into her cubicle, then retrieved her now mysterious letter. She offered it to Purva, who took it as Claire pointed to the first line. “Could you tell me — what that says?”

Purva suddenly looked too embarassed to speak.

“Just tell me — ” Claire regretted speaking so sternly to her soft-spoken friend — “what language is it in?”

Purva blinked. “It is — English.” Her confidence seemed to come back. “Yes, it is English. Just very — I am sorry, I do not know the word — ”

“What does it say?”

Purva looked back at the letter reluctantly. “Crocodille — I am sorry, I do not know the next word — “

“Linguini?” Purva nodded, then excused herself to attend a meeting.

Speaking in Tongues 8

The following morning, Claire broke from her routine of preparing for work in silence, turning her television to the local Spanish language station. She had studied the language for a couple of years in high school, retaining little other than the words to “Jingle Bells” (Navidad, Navidad, hoy es Navidad). This would be a test of the talent she had mirculously gained yesterday.

“Good morning.” The news anchor’s face turned suddenly serious. “Hundreds of citizens gathered outside city hall last night to protest the proposed civic budget — ”

It was all the proof she needed, but as she turned from the television Claire left it on, her understanding of the language being spoken reinforcing her confidence in the decision she had reached while lying in bed the previous evening.

For the first time she could recall, Claire looked forward to her bus ride that morning. She made eye contact with the elderly Asian man as she passed (he looked away quickly as she smiled, as if snakes had grown from her hair), and took her seat behind two forty-ish women wearing babushkas. They sat in stern-faced silence for several minutes, Claire sensing her opportunity for further testing her skill was passing. But then the woman on the right asked for the time, and her companion pulled on her sleeve to look at her watch.

“Eight forty-seven.” The bus brakes hissed to another stop. “It only seems like we’ve been on this damn bus for an hour.”

She gave the time in English, but then she spoke in — whatever. Claire was certain, and delighted at the discovery of this new twist in her talent.

Minutes later, she arrived at her stop, and made her way quickly to her office. Or rather, her boss’ office. He was sitting at his desk, reading a report, and looked up pleasantly when Claire stepped into his doorway. She asked if she could come in, and he waved her in.

She reached into her soft briefcase, pulled out the single sheet of paper she had printed in her apartment the evening before, and extended it towards her boss.

Speaking in Tongues 7

Claire left the office at noon, did not pick up lunch on her way to the bus, didn’t even think of eating as she opened the door to her apartment. Her eyes scanned her living room, found the remote, which she raced for like a hawk swooping down on its prey. She sat on the sofa while turning on her television, pressed the remote’s Guide button, selecting a category on the screen she’d never chosen before. FOREIGN.

The long shadows of afternoon were fading into twilight’s dusk when Claire’s hunger finally overcame her curiosity.

Every test of her new miraculous talent had passed flawlessly. Several hours of switching through programs — Italian opera, Kenyan news, Indian comedy . . .    anime from Japan, soccer from Holland, a talent show from Egypt . . . a talk show in Russian, a murder mystery in Cantonese, a soap opera in Catalan . . . a young woman reciting poetry in Farsi, a disembodied French voice describing the effects of a devastating drought, a Mexican announcer interviewing a histrionic wrestler . . .  make prepartions for the start of monsoon season in Thailand, Belgium was not prepared for the Nazi invasion, I don’t care who your father is I will always love you — 

The clincher came while watching the documentary on South Africa, one of the few English language channels she had not skipped past. An aboriginal man man was being interviewed, his responses translated at the bottom of the screen. “That’s not right!” She’d nearly thrown the remote at the television. “He didn’t say his family was dead, he said they were lost!”

Claire opened her freezer, grabbed a TV dinner and threw it into her microwave, her concessions to the annoying necessity of dinner. She’d had all the proof she needed, having understod every word in every language she’d heard that afternoon. She didn’t know how she’d gained this ability, but its origin didn’t matter. As her microwave chimed its finish, all Claire could think about was how she could use her new talent for her benefit.

Speaking in Tongues 6

After closing the video, Claire found it difficult to regain her focus on work, this skill she’d developed too wonderous for her to ignore. She bit her lip, then rose from her chair, walked past her boss’ office, asked to take half a personal day that afternoon.

“Everything OK?” Her boss sounded polite but wasn’t even looking at her, his face turned in the direction of his computer’s screen.

Claire said she was fine, and after receiving permission to leave turned to walk away. Then stopped herself, tilted her head into her boss’ office again.

“You were born in Algeria, right?”

Eyebrows raised, her boss turned to her. “Ah — yes. Why do you ask?”

Claire frowned. “No reason, just — what language do they speak, over there?”

She had never seen her boss look so confused. “There’s lots of languages. French, Arabic — I learned some when I was a child, but my family moved when I was three, I don’t remember much.”

“Huh.” She pursed her lips. “So your family, they didn’t speak no French, no Arabic?”

“My parents were missionaries, from Oklahoma.” A chime sounded from her boss’ monitor, and he turned to face it with what looked like relief. “Excuse me.”