This week's Fiction Weekend prompt came from the Writer's Digest website: A character is having the worst day of his/her life when someone calls and changes it for the better. Who calls, what’s it about and what series of events causes the transformation from worst day to best day?
As some of you know, lately I haven't posted much fiction on OS. There are a lot of reasons for this, mainly that I've been too busy to really write a fiction piece I felt was worth readers' time, and also because I'm trying to focus what little fiction mojo I have on a long-term project I'm currently working on. But our pal Seth James told me I'd better post something this weekend - and having read some scary stories by him, I don't want to get on his bad side....
So I found a compromise: This piece is one I wrote several years ago, but crazy enough, it totally goes with the prompt! I hope you enjoy it. And please remember, Fiction Weekend is open to anyone who wants to participate. To find out how to announce your story, and/or to read the other stories posted this weekend, please click here.
"How ya doing? You just asked me to call you back…what's going on?"
"Yeah, yeah, I just can't sleep again." He tried to clear his head. "Real Won"? When the fuck had his mother ever called him that? With her, it was always Nelson. That was all. And fucked up as she was, that was something reassuring, even if it was also something that rushed back old memories that weren't so old, but seemed like they came from a million years ago. Ancient history. But that might all just be lack of sleep. Everything seemed to be coming to him from the end of a long, thin tunnel that constricted his eyes. "So tired of tryin' not to see the lies in your eyes when you're talkin' to me." No, forget that. No -- maybe work on it later, when things would get worse.
"Baby? You still there?"
"What's going on, baby? I haven't heard from you in a long time. Things with Carrie still bad?"
Shit, didn't she fucking read the tabloids?
"I don't even want to get into that, Ma"
She's callin' out insults, sayin' her shit's cool, this bitch I don't wanna get over, just wanna get into.
He finished scribbling, tried to crawl across the tunnel back to the conversation.
"Yeah, sorry. So what you been up to?"
"Well, Jake and me --"
"-What, Jake that drunk-ass guy?"
Now there was no noise. His turn: "You still there?"
"Jake's not perfect. But at my age, no men are. He makes me feel good. So we're moving in together."
"Oh yeah?" He sat up straighter. "His place?"
"Well, actually….I wanted to ask you something…" The noise ran up the tunnel like a strong wind: her whole heart hanging on her breath.
"Shit, Mom, why can't he pay for it?"
"He was shot out of a helicopter in Vietnam."
He waited for her to go on, but she didn't.
"What the fuck? That was like decades ago. What, he's been falling out of the helicopter since then? That was pretty damn high. You sure it was a helicopter, not a spaceship?"
"He was shot out of a helicopter" -- not even a laugh, like most girls would have done -- "And he's been disabled ever since, so he can't really work."
"What, you mean in a wheelchair like fucking Lieutenant Dan?"
"No. He just has a lot of back pain. His doctors say he can't do heavy lifting."
Strange how his mother's conversation went from time period to time period like there was no time. "What are we in the Stone Age now?" he asked aloud.
"You telling me all the jobs out there require heavy lifting? Because I mean, the last time I checked, there were some occupations where, like, you could sit behind a desk on your ass for eight hours and get paid."
"Well, sitting for that long hurts his back."
"He could be a bartender then. That way, he could stand. Plus, that's his area of expertise." But his last words were blurred.
"Why'd your voice get all funny?"
"I have to go, Mom."
"Well, call me back when you can, and let me know if you can help out."
The pills were kicking in now, as he'd been sort of worried they would, and sort of glad. And it's ill, with these pills, the shit just bleeds away. He carefully concentrated his effort to hang up the phone.
Why he even took the pills wasn't supposed to be to make things disappear. He had other stuff for that. It was just to sleep. A good eight hours. He couldn't do it anymore on his own, it seemed like. He could tell other people why, or tell himself, but what did he see when he closed his eyes but horrible things? A fist meeting his face, a bullet going in and out of his best friend's skull (how stereotypical, he often thought ruefully, a bitter aftertaste to the memory), his daughter laughing, him not being able to join in.
Above all, though, there was boredom. He'd done it all. He'd gotten out of his old life, yet somehow, he was always connected to it, with that thin tunnel that now he could see. He'd had hits, money, women. But the women didn't matter as much as one woman, who was now so fucked up with coke and sleeping around, that she wasn't even a woman to him. Just a distortion of something that was once straight and normal, like an image in a fun-house mirror.
But God, for all of this, he was bored. He'd said what he needed to say, he'd written his lines and still kept writing, waiting for the next hit, and those were coming fewer and farther between. He didn't know what he wanted anymore. That was the thing, too. Maybe he just wanted something clear and simple. His notebook was full of blank pages, and the sentences that were there were like pathetic worms that had dried up on the sidewalk. He could work them, but he just didn't care.
That was the wrong number to get a call from right then. His mother was almost always a wrong number. But the more literal wrong number came a few nights later.
This wasn't his name, either. Not even a stage name, or something from one of his songs. He checked his cell. He didn't recognize the number. But that didn't mean Trey couldn't be playing a trick on him. That fucker did some far-fetched shit sometimes. Calling from a payphone or something would be nothing to him.
So, "Yeah?" he played along.
"I'm sorry to call you after hours, but I just wanted you to know: Sir Muffins has pulled through! You can come and pick him up tomorrow morning."
"Uh….All right, whatever." He took a breath. "Yeah, where you at?"
"Um," the caller's tight-sounding voice escalated with every word, as if scaling the Mount Everest of outrage. "This is Dr. Brennon? You know the address, right?"
His sleep was like wax paper. When his alarm clock rang the next morning, he was already awake, just keeping his eyes closed. He got into his Escalade, closed the door, vomited on the seat, and decided to take the Jeep. Twenty minutes later, he was at the address he'd gotten last night. It was stupid to take things this far, but what the fuck else did he have to do these days? He was taking a break from the whole thing, the whole life. Ellen didn't come on for a few hours, so he had time.
The place was a veterinarian's office. He snorted. He'd expected a psychiatrist, or an abortion clinic or something. Trey was a sick fuck. He let his tired, tunnel-gazing eyes stumble over the parking lot. Trey's car wasn't there. Neither was any other car he recognized. There was only a respectable black BMW with a vanity plate: CATMAN. What the fuck….
So why not take this further? He walked up to the glass doors and tried to open them. Shit, he pulled when he should have pushed. He hated that shit. He pushed, and the doors still didn't open. The hours were listed on the door. The place must still be closed.
Back in the Jeep, he veered around till he spotted a Taco Bell. The bean paste and unidentified meat always made him feel better. His sick stomach was miraculously and sort of paradoxically calmed. A quick glance at his watch told him the vet's office would now be open. He swung back around to the parking lot and went to the door, which he made sure to push this time, and not look like he was thinking too hard about doing it.
Inside, the office was neat and brightly lit, with a faint odor of animals under the cleaning products, like a mouse hiding in a hole. Somehow, that brought back memories of his last single. The numbers hadn't been so good for that one, was how you’d put it. "See she be hidin' like a rabbit in a hole, I'll come by slyly, make her lose control." Another thing to forget.
"Uh," he approached the counter where a girl in scrubs and a ponytail was writing something on a clipboard. Her nails were rough and she was unmade-up. On her cheeks and chin, purplish rubbly acne scars shone in the bright light like mountains on a relief map of the world. He wondered what she looked like when she went out. Probably all right. "I got a call last night --" he started to explain to her.
"Oh! You're Mr. Stevens! Hang on one second, okay?" She moved calmly to a door behind her, then opened it and went through. He strained to see what was there, but only empty metal cages came to his eyes.
A few minutes later, a man in a white lab coat strolled out. His hair was wavy and set on his head with gel, like Clark Kent. He had a sturdy, rugged look to him but his wire-framed glasses made him look intelligent and well-behaved. He was holding the handle of a large portable square metal cage in one hand.
"Hello Mr. Stevens. I'm Dr. Brennon." He put the cage on the counter, and reached out his hand to give a firm shake.
For a split second, the reflex came and he wondered why neither the doctor nor, especially, the receptionist, recognized him. But then he remembered: he'd gained about 20 pounds since his last TV appearance, and his hair was dark instead of bleach-blonde. And then there was the goatee. Sometimes he wondered if he should shave it off, but it made him crack up every time he looked in the mirror.
"Here's Sir Muffins," the vet was saying. "He made it through. I wasn't here when you brought him in the other day, but I can assure you Dr. Yang took great care of him. You know," he went on, "we could tell you were nervous. When you wrote down your number on the form, we couldn't make out if the last digit was a one or a two! Lucky for me, I got the right guy!"
But Nelson was hardly listening. Now he was too busy looking at the animal known as Sir Muffins. An immaculate white Persian cat -- "It's a little dirty near his nose, but I'm sure you know how to clean that," the vet was saying --Sir Muffins stared haughtily back at him.
"Uh, yeah, thanks for taking care of him."
"It's an honor, Mr. Stevens. We've heard about Sir Muffins' success at the shows. He's really a great example of the breed. The best, I guess." The doctor laughed. "The next show is in two weeks, right? At least, according to the American Cat Fanciers' Association website." The doctor smiled brightly, happy to talk to an expert.
"The next show is in two weeks." Nelson nodded and tried not to make it sound like a question. He carefully took in the information, prepared to Google it when he got home. "How much do I owe you?"
"Five hundred dollars."
Somehow, this was better than his mom's call. He took out his wallet. "Cash okay?"
He didn't look up to see the doctor's raised eyebrows. "Haha," Dr. Brennon laughed like he must laugh at dinner parties, "as long as you don't give me only hundreds. I hate having to break them!"
Nelson took the handle of the cage and gently lifted it down to his side. He and Sir Muffins exited the vet's office, the bright light turning them to shadows when they reached the door.
It was only as he reached the Jeep that he started to realize he had no idea what had just happened. The cage handle was starting to dig into the bones of his hand. He opened the passenger door and put the cage gently down onto the tan leather seat. Carefully, he closed the door and hoped Sir Muffins wasn't too disturbed by the noise.
Now he found that he could drive straight. He had no idea about the days or months ahead, but he was weirdly sure of one thing: he and Sir Muffins were going to win that cat show.