I entered what was called a story hackathon run by Owl canyon Press in the US. It's an interesting concept, a short story of exactly 50 paragraphs, each one no less than 50 words, and you are given the first paragraph and a choice of 2 for the 25th paragraph. The other 48 you are free to compose as you like, but the whole must form a coherent story. My story wasn't chosen for the anthology, but I thought I'd upload it here to given you an idea of the concept; sort of like writing with one hand tied behind your back! Or what's called mandated writing. Enjoy.
Thursday, 28 February 2019
Strata 1: Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!
Strata 2: Five youths in maroon jump suits filed out of the bus down on to the sidewalk. As he stepped down, the smallest of them noticed the writing printed on the side view mirror: Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. He speculated whether that went for the writing incised into the glass surface as well? Maybe that message was actually imprinted on your eyeballs, but with refraction it only appeared to be stamped into the glass.
Strata 3: Rather than thick metal links yoking them together, this virtual chain gang bore plastic coated electronic tags. Not quite an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, on account of their youth, nevertheless, a tag for a tag. That on the toe of their victim, reciprocated with the one around their ankle binding their liberty. Save for T.J., whose victim down the morgue lacked for a toe tag. On account that T.J. had cut off both feet for some reason known only to him. Everyone reckoned T.J. stood for Toe Jam, though none would dare say that to his face. Nor let him catch sight of their feet in the shower.
Strata 4: The runt of the litter considered his tag. Somewhere its electronic signal was being monitored, geolocating him precisely here. So he was actually an object much further away than he appeared on some screen somewhere. He was being bounced off a satellite in space.
Strata 5: Juvie was a crime finishing school for those who never got to graduate High School. Working their way up to the full orange of the adult offender. A progression like martial arts belts. Funny how the two nominated colors of the criminal justice system matched those of robes worn by non-violent Buddhist monks.
Strata 6: The runt was so small, his voluminous jump suit made him look like the Michelin Man’s mini-me. He could just have easily donned one of the refuse bags they’d brought with them, probably fit him better than the jump suit. Reminded him of his puffer jacket in which he used to stuff his ill-gotten booty. He left each house like a piñata, just awaiting the billy club of the cops to split him open.
Strata 7: Candles, flowers, teddy bears, the familiar iconography of the street slaying. Each of the other four had prompted the occasion for just such rituals in other parts of the city. The runt was the only one without a kill to his name. Likely because he was the only one not affiliated to a gang. The runt was just an honest, industrious, workaday robber. Grand larceny they called it, when the definition of grand was fixed at about sixty bucks a pop. Daylight robbery. His arms were too small to carry off anything of real value.
Strata 8: “Okay you maggots, up against the wall and spread ‘em!” barked the warden through the bullhorn. He’d drawn a long straw for today’s work detail, but snapped it in half, such was his alacrity to get the assignment. Two short straws readily out-trumps an ill-disposed single, and so he landed the gig. Four teddies were trodden under Juvie issue boots with the precision of a carnival target stall. “Not this side! Go round to the other- show some respect, someone died here!” crossing himself as he passed the shrine.
Strata 9: The five mooched round the wall. Turned out there were no other sides attached to it, so it was just free standing. The other face was smothered in flyers like the telephone pole. As louche and defiantly as possible, they spread themselves against the papered over concrete. Legs splayed, arms outstretched above them, asses tucked in, heads hung high except for the runt’s who was bowed. With the letters CJD stenciled on their jump suits, they looked like a punk rock band posing for the cover of their next single. County Juvenile Detention. On a continent over the ocean, such letters stood for Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease. Mad cows. Mounds of culled animals burning on pyres. Sort of like the justice system in the Lone Star State.
Strata 10: What could be dumber than frisking for weapons, when there was a whole arsenal of lethal instruments heaped on the sidewalk there? Caustic chemical sprays and scrapers sharp enough, that they’d rank as the gold standard in the prison steel shiv stakes. Five scrapers in the box carried out of the bus, how many would be going back in it for the return journey?
Strata 11: Noses pressed to the wall, what the hell was it doing here? As in, for what purpose was it erected? Wasn’t to contain anything. Wasn’t dividing anything from anything else. Sure as hell wasn’t screening anything from view. Didn’t seem to be the last limb standing of a building, since where it came to an end was smooth, rather than showing signs of having been wrenched away. The runt knew from his oldest brother what a blast wall was, but America’s inner cities hadn’t sunk that low just yet.
Strata 12: The runt remembered from his final day of school, before it was abruptly terminated by his court sentencing, the Drama teacher talking about the fourth wall of theater. Perhaps this was it. He’d actually really gotten into the concept of watching through an imaginary fourth wall, despite never having been inside a theater in his life. Not even to rob the concession stall, let alone to assassinate a President.
Strata 13: For nothing beat the sensation of being inside someone else’s house. Seeing how other folk lived. Bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen were the best for providing that sort of picture. Not so much the family rooms, since they tended to be dominated by plasma TVs too large for him to steal. He took their game consoles instead, but really only to save them from themselves. To give them their lives back. Didn’t have to smoke crystal meth to be a tweaker. The Judge didn’t see it that way though.
Strata 14: “Okay maggots, back round the other side and fall in”. Bozo must have thought he was in the army. Sure sign he failed the entry requirements that he ended up merely a Juvie warden. With neither overt nor covert signs of coordination, the boys had managed to station themselves in the exact shape of a pentagram. The warden was too busy once again crossing himself to notice.
Strata 15: “Today is part of your rehabilitation. I looked the word up when I joined the service. Re- to repeat, to do over, and habilitate, from the Latin-” Kevin spat- “meaning to make fit. So rehabilitation is to make you fit for society again-” “This ain’t no Rehab, we can get whatever drugs we want in the Hall” sniggered Seth. “Wise guy huh? See you and I have a similar outlook on all this. I don’t believe you can be re-hab-il-itated, because that assumes you slugs were ever once fit to live in society in the first place. There’s no re- about it”. The faces were as blank as the desired state of the wall by the end of the day.
Strata 16: “About turn to face the wall and tell me what you see?” “A shit piece of wall that wouldn’t keep no one from crossing into Texas!” snarled Kevin. It was unclear if his animus was meant for the warden, or the migrants he was imagining a few hundred miles to the south. The warden scythed through their formation and stopped by Brian at the pentagram’s apex. He inclined into his ear as if to whisper but barked “What does that word say worm?” He’d picked the one of their troupe least able to furnish him with a reply, on account that Brian couldn’t read or write. Couldn’t even represent gang signs, because that involved the letters initializing their name. Which is why everyone called him Brain. Though not to his face.
Strata 17: The warden marched up to the painted word and rapped it with his gloved hand. With military precision, the boys raised their fingers in the direction of his back. A pair of devil’s horns; a conjugation of flipped birds; a brace of fingers as pistols; an intricate origami of a gang sign (not Brain obviously); and the runt slipping his fingers into the belt loops of his jump suit to hitch it up from gathering around his ankles. Runt never understood why they had loops, when belts were forbidden for fear of suicide. Yet he was grateful enough for them all the same.
Strata 18: “This… this here graffiti. It’s an abomination! A blasphemy!” All the boys screwed up their faces in bemusement. Graffiti was taggers’ names or gang signs. It wasn’t whole words. That was English like in books. School, not street. The warden spotted that he’d scuffed his glove on the coarse concrete and dusted it with the other one. He snapped his head back up, “This is a site of death, what is there possibly to rejoice about it?” Four of the boys furnished answers in their heads.
Strata 19: “Your job is to remove it, together with all the layers of paint, and the flyers on the other side, and restore this wall to its white concrete pristinity (he hadn’t looked up that word, or he would have seen it didn’t exist). This is the public service you will render to your community as part of your restitution for the crimes you have committed against it”.
Strata 20: “It’ll be two this side for the paint, three for the flyers”. Now how was this going to shake out? Would the goon go for the safe option and pair two each from the same gang? Or would he relish a little bit of tension, by hitching one from each gang together and the runt tacked on in the middle of a potential war zone? Fortunately he seemed after an easy life and kept the gangs apart. The runt was on the flyers with Seth and T.J., Kevin and Brain on the paint. had the chemical spray. As they gathered up chemical spray, scraper and vizor, they resembled nothing less than the secutor versus the retiarius in the Roman amphitheater.
Strata 21: The warden started tossing seeds of some sort into his mouth. Then he spat their shells out. Now he must have thought he was coaching baseball. There was a little too much salacious enjoyment in his motion of spitting. Perhaps he was imagining he was chewing up and spitting out his charges. Over a continent away over the ocean, in the game they more accurately called football, you could karate kick an opponent’s head and no one would much bat an eyelid, but if you spat at an opponent, that was punishable by death.
Strata 22: Before they made the first incision on the impromptu wallpaper, the runt’s little brother appeared on his side of the wall. Little in age, but taller in stature. “Hiya Big Bro-” T.J. gave a snort “-I brought you some of Ma’s dogs for breakfast. She’s worried about you not gettin’ enough nourishment in Juvie”. “Aw thanks dude, dogs with lashings a’ catsup just how I like it”. “Cat’s sick more like it sneered T.J.” “So you don’t be wantin’ one then?”
Strata 23: Neither Little Bro nor Ma could possibly have conceived how difficult this act of kindness was to navigate for the runt. Juvie was all about keeping your meager possessions safe from theft. It was not about sharing, and yet sharing was what marked them as the type of human beings that were supposed to emerge from Juvie. Rehabilitated. Seth was right, Juvie just reinforced behavior like an addict’s.
Strata 24: From the other side of the wall was heard “What’s all this jibber-jabber?” accompanied by a heavy running tread. As the warden hove into view, he dropped the bullhorn which hit the sidewalk with a piercing electronic squeal. “Give me those!” as he snatched the dogs from the runt’s querulous hand. “Hey!” exploded Little Brother, “You can’t do that!” His face was the color of the catsup with his ire. “Who the hell are you-uuu? spluttered the warden with a similar squeal as that of the horn. “Contraband!”, his face the same complexion as the wiener meat. Rubberneckers began to gather at the commotion. The warden began to stuff his face with a dog. Little Brother darted to snatch up the bullhorn.
Strata 25: The kid got up onto a milk crate and raised his hand. A murmur went through the crowd and then it fell silent, except for a few people shouting words of encouragement at him. The kid acknowledged them with a nod and a shy smile. In the full light of day, he looked less angry and more beautiful. He waited until people stopped shouting. A siren could be heard, maybe five or ten blocks away. The kid raised the bullhorn, pressed the button, and began to speak.
Strata 26: “They give him a uniform and a badge to uphold the law. So how come he gets to break that law at liberty?” “Because I am the law!” barked the warden through mouthfuls of meat. “That man there stole my brother’s hot dogs-” “Contraband! Not allowed” “-taking food form the mouth of a child”. The crowd cried out with catcalls and hoots of “Shame!” The goon weighed up whether he was going to weigh in to bring this sideshow to an end, but wasn’t prepared to sacrifice the last vestiges of the delicious second dog and licked his fingers instead. “That man should be stripped of his uniform, thrown into the back of the bus and put into incarceration for grand larceny!” The runt quickly calculated that the dogs probably cost five bucks, even factoring in his Ma’s time, so that it probably didn’t merit as grand larceny.
Strata 27: “Okay, okay, let me through here. Show’s over, nothing to see. You want to talk about theft, then how about you stealing my bullhorn? C’mon, give it back now, give it back. Or you’ll be the one down the road with your brother”. He aimed a kick at Little Bro’ who skipped away easily and ceded the crate. He tossed the bullhorn to the runt and took off with a breezy “See ya Big Bro’, take care of yourself now”. The rubberneckers wound their elasticated necks back in and went on their way. The runt sheepishly placed the bullhorn into the outstretched paw of the warden as he turned to yell at Little Bother’s receding form “I’ll be seeing you real soon I expect. You got the family’s criminal genes. Right, fun house is over, let’s get actually started on what we’re all here for shall we?”
Strata 28: The swoosh of the spray started up unseen the other side of the wall. The runt thought of the painted word Rejoice! presumably being erased. Had it been someone welcoming the fact that the deceased had been removed from, and thereby spared, the hell that is this world? There will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons. Rejoice. Repent. Rehabilitate. Restitution. That’s a lot of Re- words tossed about today. But not for him, a repeat offender. Nothing would stop him on his quest in other people’s houses. Until he found what he was looking for. Whatever that was. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
Strata 29: The runt contemplated the flyers confronting him. Some were printed with sharp resolution from a computer. Others shoddily Xeroxed. Several were handwritten. All preserved the boldness of their color as they jostled for attention. He guessed that’s why they were on this side of the wall, they were fairly well sheltered from the blanching of the sun’s rays. Also they were spared fading under the assault of exhaust fumes.
Strata 30: A motor bike for sale; The picture of a lost earring, modest reward offered (sentimental value); Transcendental meditation with a cartoon man floating off the ground; Work from home with tear off strips bearing a cellphone number (the runt did work from home, just they were other people’s homes); A print shop advertizing its services, including competitive rates for printing flyers; Something in Spanish he couldn’t read, but was accompanied by a crude illustration of mule or a piñata.
Strata 31: It all struck the runt as odd. Seemed to him like the community had made the wall their bulletin board. Not only with the shrine, but the flyers. By removing all that, seemed to him like they would be doing the opposite of a service for the community as the warden claimed.
Strata 32: Seth had already begun his assault on the flyers. He had no method, just scraped away at whatever level the blade of the scraper landed on. The runt wondered if he should suggest to him to look for the borders of the flyers and try and lift the whole from that. But he knew that would make Seth look dumb. He was already madly tearing into a Missing poster, gouging the countenance of the person, as of now indeterminately male or female. A loss of face for Seth was in no way going to help save this faceless person from being forever lost.
Strata 33: The runt removed a wad of flyers stuck together, to reveal the next one beneath for a local punk band, who were all spread-eagled against the wall in maroon jump suits. The stenciled acronym they each shared was not CJD. Nor was one of their members considerably smaller than the rest of them.
Strata 34: “Ow shit motherfucker!” T.J.’s own fevered strokes had led to the scraper slipping in his hand and slicing Seth’s exposed flesh operating next to it. Seth held his hand at the wrist while the blood dripped to the sidewalk, as both he and T.J. regarded it like some sort of biological specimen. The runt thought of the runnels of red paint on the other side of the wall under the action of the chemical stripper. He studied Seth’s face, but the only teardrop to be seen was the one inked beneath his eye.
Strata 35: “What’s all this commotion then?” emitted the headless stomach of the warden which emerged round the wall before the rest of him. “Okay, I’ll get the first aid kit out the bus”. “I can’t carry on Warden Sir.” The warden ceased in mid-stride. “Oh no you don’t maggot. You’re not weaseling out of this detail. You’re the kind of snake who would have shot his toe off to get out of the Draft”. Oh man, don’t give T.J. any ideas. “Now pick up your scraper and get ready to get back to it.”
Strata 36: “Goddamn, that’s how they caught me man. You stab so much the knife gets slippery in your hand with his blood, and you end up cutting yourself. Then they got your DNA…” “Strap every time man, I keep tellin’ ya…”
Strata 37: The warden returned, medical bag in one hand, an apple in the other. He passed the bag to T.J., “Here, get your girlfriend to dress you”. The warden bit into the apple, chewed just long enough to atomize the segment, before spitting the flesh out all over T.J.’s attempts to bandage Seth’s wound. The warden tossed the apple to the ground. “There was a worm in it. A motherfucking worm!” Score one to the maggots then.
Strata 38: “What you gawking at?” snapping his fingers at the runt. “Put those flyers, and my apple, into the refuse bag. I don’t want no mess left”. Then he stomped off. The runt opened a bag so it billowed agape in the breeze. It had a different stenciled acronym to that on their jump suits. W likely would have be for Waste, but he couldn’t figure out what those two other letters might have stood for. He searched for the flyer of the punk band, but their acronym didn’t match either. Didn’t even have a W.
Strata 39: Some of the detritus felt more like cardboard than paper. He reckoned that was the effect of rain wrinkling the paper, then being dried out by summer’s heat and setting stiff. Add in the effect of being compressed under the weight of those on top, plus the paste used to stick them to their fellows and you get this hardening and corrugation. Sort of how Juvie worked over a body too. Beaten to a pulp, you had no choice but to toughen up your skin.
Strata 40: As the runt returned the refuse bag to the sidewalk, he heard a strangled snuffling. He knew better than to directly seek the source of the sound, but as he picked his scraper back up he glimpsed T.J. and Seth each wiping sleeves across their faces. They were both gathered in front of the the same flyer. The runt could see it was an appeal for the return of the photographed missing pooch. Ambling as insouciantly as possible up to his station at the wall, he clocked that there was a real liquid tear superimposed over Seth’s inked one.
Strata 41: How many damn layers were plastered here? He seemed to be making no progress. The whole thing was like an archeological dig, Each fresh strata revealed something from its era. A roller disco night; Someone offering a reel-to-reel recorder for sale. An alarm clock that brewed you your morning cup of tea. He wouldn’t have been surprised to hit a layer with an advert for The Pony Express, a handbill demanding the Abolition of Slavery, and then others below calling for Enlistment into the Minutemen.
Strata 42: His wrist was getting tired so he swapped over the scraper. But his less favored hand couldn’t wield the tool with any control. He stopped and waggled his sore hand. T.J. snorted and waggled a lewd gesture at him. “Thought that’s the one place you’d have well-developed muscles at least wiener boy!”
Strata 43: For his part, Seth had rolled up his sleeves. Dried blood caked his tattoos, eclipsing them. The runt thought about tattoos, how the needle had to pierce so many layers of skin to make it permanent. Pretty much like the layers on this accursed wall.
Strata 44: Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Not the objects stuck on here. Things missing, things for sale… Loved but absent, or unloved and all too available. But not the objects themselves. Flat, two-dimensional reproductions of them. Long forgotten about. Even if the item was found, or sold to a new owner, it still remained broadcast here. No one ever followed up by removing the flyer. No case closed. That’s what the boys were doing, junking all the cold cases of domesticity.
Strata 45: The runt whirled his neck to shake out some of the stiffness. He regarded the wall towering above him. There were even some flyers pasted up there. Fewer admittedly than at his level. He not only wondered how the posters got them up there, but how they expected anyone to be able to read them usefully.
Strata 46: The opportunity of a lifetime, don’t miss out. The runt wasn’t able to see what was on offer, since the rest of the poster had been ripped off when whatever was lying above it came away from the wall. The opportunity presumably had long since passed. The question was whether the lifetimes of those being offered it, and the poster himself, had also expired.
Strata 47: Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, yet still no glimpse of the concrete below. This undertaking was beginning to seem like Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale. To scrape all the human barnacles caked and caulked to this concrete hide. This task wasn’t about flyers or the wall, it was to do with surfaces and depths. Only the runt could see this.
Strata 48: The runt had developed a pressure blister from the scraper. He held his finger up so that the bulging skin was transparent as the light passed through it. Below he could see the flow of the clear liquid as he wiggled his digit. His plasma no less imprisoned than he was. He had located the source of his juvie-Nile. Blood, pith and plasma. The stuff all too easily spilt in the Juvie dorms and exercise yard.
Strata 49: The edge of his scraper told the runt that finally the flyers were thinning out. The downside of that was that these were the ones most stuck fast. They could only be removed individually. Wait was that Little Bro? Or himself even? Captioned by a Wanted, Dead Or Alive motto. Sure bore a family resemblance. But the poster must have predated both of their own births, while the family hadn’t been in Texas for more than a single generation. Then there were posters of stolen game consoles, that also must have preceded their actual invention. The pictured missing jewelry also looked familiar to him. He begun tearing feverishly at them with his hands, scraping the skin from his knuckles. In no time at all he had them all off and the white concrete glinted at him. Just for a split second at least, for then there was a rumble and shouts of “Get back, she’s gonna fall!” Car horns sounded in the near distance and indeed the wall did come crashing down.