He could not sing but he did it anyway. In the solitude of his empty apartment. In his car on a road trip. On a road trip was best. Zipping down the highway, back straight, eyes forward, one hand tapping out the drums on the steering wheel, the other ready in case it should be needed. It was possible to turn the volume up loud enough so that the outside sounds were drowned out and all that remained was the belt of the singers and his own voice. He was always a moment behind the lyrics, except during the chorus, and it did not matter if some of the words were butchered. He sang in a voice deeper than the one with which he spoke. All notes were sung in that tone. He had no range.
Open road. He in a pocket of sound. A microcosm. Isolated. Sheltered.
There. A lone wolf walks through a field. It sniffs the ground and pays no mind to the car as it passes. He, the driver, reacts to the sight of the wolf. An alertness returns. The wolf looks out-of-place. That is not a field in wilderness. That is cultivated land. That is people land. Not wolf land. His reaction to the wolf– this desire to take note of it; to remember it– is a sign of how isolated from nature he has become. He is fascinated by the squirrels in the backyard, at play, at the feeder, dashing along the fences as if those were highways built for their use.
He recognizes these squirrels even when they are squished on the road.
There is a beat to the music that fuels him. Foot on the pedal, he wishes for more turns in the road. Some movement other than forward to confirm that he is indeed going somewhere. Small town hugs the road. Gas station. Gas station. Restaurant. Convenience store. Ice cream stand. Locals gathered in the parking lot of crushed gravel. Girls in short shorts. Kids with mussed hair. Guys leaning against their trucks.
In the city there is an ice cream stand. The scene is similar but with more people, and a middle-aged woman no one notices. She has a shopping cart. It is loaded with garbage bags, green. She removes articles of clothing one at a time, tenderly, and drapes them over the metal railing separating the ice cream stand from the parking lot of the neighboring building. She surveys her work. She takes no notice of couples with ice cream, parents making memories with their children, and teens lost in themselves.
The road hums by.
His fingers touch his face, tracing the edges of the bones beneath the flesh. He maps his skull. He then seeks out his scars. Physical evidence of a life lived. He looks at himself in the mirror. There was a time when he could not see in the mirror, and he remembers fondly the time when he first saw the reflection of the strands of hair on the top of his head. No cares then. Just the desire to be taller so he could see in the mirror.
Racing through the grass, shirt unbuttoned, his friends following at his heels. All running. In their minds, he was the leader in this game. In his mind, he was the hero. He believed it.
What he believes now is this: If the music is loud enough, the road long enough, and his tone low enough, his singing ain’t half bad.
[20 Minutes is a self-imposed ritual in which I write, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes a day. No self-editing is the goal. Just 20 minutes hammering on the keys. After the 20 minutes, I am allowed to clean up spelling and grammar errors, but the rest must stay as is. 20 minutes a day. Every day. Today is day 12.]
[This instalment of 20 Minutes requires an explanation. On Friday over a pint of Guiness, a friend challenged me to write an 8-page comic script about “a secret society”. I accepted the challenge on the condition that he read the script and provide me with feedback. To prepare for this, I did some quick research on secret societies for women during which I hit on an idea that resulted in what you’re about to read. This was written in 1 hour and edited for an additional 15 minutes.]
PAGE 1 (4 panels)
Panel 1. A wide shot to set the scene. The ancient Roman countryside. It is an idyllic place– tall grasses, flowering bushes, some trees. It is a sunny day. AELIA and JUNIA are walking ahead of SECUNDUS and LUCIUS. Each is dressed in typical Roman attire. AELIA and JUNIA are smiling and excited. SECUNDUS looks annoyed. LUCIUS is game.
CAPTION: Outside Rome.
CAPTION: 196 BC.
SECUNDUS: I grow tired of this game.
AELIA: It is no game, Secundus. You need only be patient. You and Lucius shall be the first men to attend the festival.
Panel 2. LUCIUS is leaning toward SECUNDUS, speaking quietly. SECUNDUS is scowling. LUCIUS has lust in his eyes.
SECUNDUS: I do this for you, Lucius, because this Aelia has made you lose your wits.
LUCIUS: Don’t look so glum, friend–
Panel 3. We’re watching AELIA and JUNIA walking. Their backs are to the reader. Up ahead is a copse of trees.
LUCIUS (off panel): –if nothing else, we get to spend the day in the countryside with two beautiful women.
LUCIUS (off panel / linked): Junia wanted Adelia to invite you.
Panel 4. AELIA and JUNIA close together, hand in hand. AELIA is giggling. JUNIA is looking over her shoulder toward the reader. There is a dark look about her.
SECUNDUS (off panel): I do not trust that woman. And you would do well to get Aelia away from her.
PAGE 2 (2 panels)
Panel 1. AELIA and JUNIA are in the background where the trees are thinning. SECUNDUS and LUCIA are in the foreground, approaching the two women. JUNIA is motioning toward the clearing beyond the trees. AELIA looks expectantly gleeful.
JUNIA: Secundus. Lucius. Welcome to the–
Panel 2. Big panel. SECUNDUS and LUCIUS have stepped into a large clearing. AELIA and JUNIA are behind them. The clearing is surrounded by trees, but there is plenty of space. That space is filled with GREEK WOMEN of various ages (but no children and no elderly) in various states of dress and undress. Some are drinking from goblets. Some are kissing each other. Others playfully paw at each other. In the background there are blankets spread out on the ground and some cushions. FEMALE SLAVES wander through the crowd, filling goblets.
JUNIA: –the Bacchanalia!
PAGE 3 (4 panels)
Panel 1. LUCIUS’ eyes are wide. He gawks at the flesh on display around him. SECUNDUS too looks on in disbelief, but there is no lust on his face.
LUCIUS: Secundus, I cannot believe my eyes. What paradise is this?
Panel 2. A WOMAN in a state of undress and intoxification runs her hands along LUCIUS chest as she walks by. Wine sloshes from a goblet in her other hand as she does so. LUCIUS is lustful. SECUNDUS looks concerned.
LUCIUS: And us the only men in attendance!
SECUNDUS: Yes, the only men, and the first two bear witness to what until now occured in secret.
Panel 3. AELIA is leading a very happy LUCIUS away. She has a jug of wine in hand. SECUNDUS has the attention of TWO WOMEN but he is wary.
SECUNDUS: I hestitate to call this paradise.
Panel 4. AELIA is sitting on the ground, swigging from the jug, her clothes slipping off her shoulder. She beckons to LUCIUS.
LUCIUS: Ha! If you will not then please keep silent so that you do not spoil my enjoyment!
PAGE 4 (4 panels)
Panel 1. In the foreground, LUCIUS is having wine poured into his mouth by a half-naked, sauced AELIA . In the background, the MAENAD enter the clearing. At the head of the line of five women is JUNIA. The MAENAD are dressed in fawn skins. Each carries at thyrsus– a staff entwined with ivy at the top of which is a cluster of ivy. JUNIA wears a ivy wreath on her head.
Panel 2. SECUNDUS watches as SLAVE GIRLS take up percussion instruments and gather in a group.
Panel 3. In the background, the SLAVE GIRLS play the instruments. The SLAVE GIRLS are standing still, playing with little energy. The MAENAD and JUNIA have started to dance. No others can be seen. Everyone has made way for the MAENAD.
Panel 4. JUNIA dances. Her body is contorted as she does.
PAGE 5 (5 panels)
Panel 1. The SLAVE GIRLS play their instruments with more vigour.
Panel 2. The MAENAD (but not JUNIA) are given torches by WOMEN. The dancing is more energetic now.
Panel 3. JUNIA’S eyes are fixed on SECUNDUS as he makes his way quickly through the watching, cavorting, half-naked, drunk women.
Panel 4. SECUNDUS pulls LUCIUS off AELIA.
SECUNDUS: Lucius, we must go! This is no place for us. No place for man!
Panel 5. AELIA , sitting up, naked, drunk, fury in her eyes, hisses and thrashes wildly at LUCIUS and SECUNDUS. Both men look startled.
PAGE 6 (5 panels)
Panel 1. The dancing MAENAD surround LUCIUS and SECUNDUS.
Panel 2. ONE MAENAD douses her torch in a basin of water carried by a slave girl.
Panel 3. LUCIUS and SECUNDUS watch with wide eyes as the torch is taken out of the water. The torch is still lit!
Panel 4. JUNIA is thrashing about in dance. AELIA has joined her.
Panel 5. SECUNDUS and LUCIUS back away in surprise and horror as a large bull is lead into the clearing by WOMEN.
PAGE 7 (4 panels)
Panel 1. Big panel. The MAENAD dance. JUNIA rushes toward the bull. AELIA is on her back on the ground, trashing about. SECUNDUS and LUCIUS cannot believe what they see.
Panel 2. JUNIA attacks the bull with her bare bands.
Panel 3. JUNIA tears the flesh of the bull with her hands.
Panel 4. JUNIA approaches SECUNDUS and LUCIUS. Her clothes are falling off her. She is bloody. Her hands are full of bull meat. Behind her the MAENAD have fallen upon the bull and are tearing at it with hands and teeth.
PAGE 8 (5 panels)
Panel 1. JUNIA is inches away from LUCIUS and SECUNDUS. A bunch of WOMEN are behind the men. JUNIA is eating the bull flesh.
Panel 2. The WOMEN knock LUCIUS and SECUNDUS to the ground. Hands tear at the men’s clothes.
Panel 3. The two men sputter as wine is poured on their faces, down their throats. WOMEN crawl all over them.
Panel 4. There is a mass of WOMEN on top of the two men. Limbs, arses, boobs, legs. This is not violence. The men are not being killed. They are, however, being forcibly convinced to take part in the orgy. Not much can be seen of the men. Behind them, JUNIA contiues to eat the flesh of the bull.
Panel 5. Close on JUNIA. Her face is bloody. Her eyes are empty.
CAPTION: the end
[20 Minutes is a self-imposed ritual in which I write, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes a day. No self-editing is the goal. Just 20 minutes hammering on the keys. After the 20 minutes, I am allowed to clean up spelling and grammar errors, but the rest must stay as is. 20 minutes a day. Every day. Today is day 11.]
There is no 20 Minutes 10. Today is the day I rest.
“There be a lot of rules to bein’ a ghost,” said The Skid. He gave the appearance of being seated across the table from The Hook. What he was doing, in fact, was hovering his body a hair’s width above the seat. It had taken him many hours of practice to perfect the manuever, but he certainly did not lack for time to practice.
“Oh yeah,” said The Hook. His voice was as flat as roadkill. He ate his breakfast cereal with a solemn look on his face. Milk drizzled down his chin and got soaked up in his whiskers.
[20 Minutes is a self-imposed ritual in which I write, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes a day. No self-editing is the goal. Just 20 minutes hammering on the keys. After the 20 minutes, I am allowed to clean up spelling and grammar errors, but the rest must stay as is. 20 minutes a day. Every day. Today is day 9.]
[This instalment of 20 Minutes requires an explanation. Last night via Facebook, I asked my friends to provide a noun and genre, stating that I would randomly select three nouns and two genres and use those in my writing for this evening. I let the suggestions accumulate last night and today. I numbered each noun and genre and rolled 2D6 to select. The results were “squirrel” + “road” + “retirement home” + “trashy romance” + “adventure”. What you read below is the result. This was written in the flavor of 20 Minutes, meaning powering out a short fiction in at least 20 minutes of focused writing, no self-editing. This one was written in about two hours, and edited for about 30 minutes afterward.]
She loved his nuts. He was fond of her bush.
It was not love for him. He did not love. He was not interested in love. He was a loner, a wanderer. He did not settle. He would not settle. But he would visit. A pause here, another there. A sharp set of eyes looking down at him. A long, chestnut tail darting under a hedge. A slender set of front paws, and a shapely curve of the rear quarters. The complimentary jut of teeth. A flash of white belly fur. An eager scent on the wind. What caught his attention was different each time. He did not understand it. It was instinct.
What caught his attention that day was the startled mew that erupted from the ferns. The sound was sharp and quick, equal parts surprise and fear. The musk he did not recognize. Intrigued, he skidded to a halt, nose testing the air, eyes searching. He dropped the peanut he was carrying. To his immediate right, the ferns were thick and high. The leaves were bright green under the glare of the late morning sun. Soon it would be too hot. He had been returning to his nest to find coolness up in the trees. But there in the shade of the ferns, perhaps, would be an alternative. With a twitch of his nose, he edged closer and poked his head into the foliage.
She was only a fresh juvenile when she first saw him. She had only been out of the nest a handful of days. Her mother kept a vigilant watch over her and her siblings as they explored with trepidation the area outside their home. She had been the last to emerge, hanging back and watching her more curious brothers and sisters sniff the leaves that blanketed the ground. They grew more bold with each discovery and did not notice that she was still tucked inside the shadows of the barrow’s mouth. Her mother had declined to comment, so intent was she on keeping a watchful eye for predators. Seeing that no one was going to coax and reassure her, the young female ruffled her fur with a shake of her body and stretched a paw into the light.
That was when the sky fell.
There was a ruckus in the tree branches far overhead and a split second later a snapped twig crashed to the ground. She jumped back in alarm. Her siblings darted in all directions, disappearing into the bushes and flowers. Their mom snapped to attention, chattering, tail flashing in anger. The noise continued high up in the trees. Something was moving up there, moving with speed and certainty. From where she was crouched in shadows, she could see out the entrance of the nest and into the tree branches overhead.
And she saw him.
He was slender and quick. Sure-footed, he darted along a thick tree branch. The passing of his feet and the slash of his tail dashed petals from blossoms. Nature’s confetti drifted slowly to the surface, the petals twirling and shifting to and from shades of pink as they floated in and out of shafts of sunlight. As she watched, he leapt. His body stretched. He arched in the open space between trees. Too far. He had misjudged. He would not make it. He was lit by the sun and his coat was a striking red.
He landed with ease and disappeared. His stride had never faltered.
It was only when she released it did she realize she had been holding her breath.
Her mom was staring at her, the look in her eye and the twitch of her tail both a warning and a sign of worry.
Several months later, the winding down of autumn brought shorter days and cooler airs. The nest had become uncomfortably full. Her mom had sired another litter in mid-summer. As a result, the young squirrel found herself spending more and more time away from the nest. She had little interest in the chasing and tumbling enjoyed by her three siblings. She preferred instead solitary exploration. She had grown from an overly cautious juvenile to an inquisitive near-adult. She knew for certain it had been the sight of that majestic male squirrel racing through the trees that had invoked the change within her.
She wanted so desperately to see him up close. It was this thought that had caused her to finally take her first step out of the nest. Once out and once comfortable with the area near her safe home, she ventured further. At first, always with her siblings and under her mom’s protection, but later on her own and out of sight.
It was on one such foray that she found the first nut. It was a smell that led her to it. She sniffed the path and finding the spot, dug with her paws, dirt scattering. She did not know what it was she uncovered. It was brown and rough, oddly shaped. The scent was unlike anything her mom had shown her. With not much hesitation, she picked it up and cracked it open with her teeth. Inside was a crunchy, succulent food wrapped in a red, brittle skin. The outer shell of this object was inedible but she found the skin and nugget inside most pleasing.
Finished with one, she sniffed the area until she picked up the scent. That led her to another hidden cache. More digging and she uncovered another treat. This she ate, too.
She returned home after that. Her mom was waiting just outside the barrow, tail twitching. Her mom caught the scent of something odd on her breath, but said nothing.
For many days afterward, she would rush out of the barrow as soon as the sun started washing away the dark. She would dash to the location of her last find and take up the task of finding the tasty nuts. What she did not expect to discover was that whoever buried the food had returned to some of the spots, no doubt looking for a snack or for confirmation that the goods remained.
She grew scared, but managed to push it aside.
It was on one such day that she heard a rustle in the distance. She darted into cover beneath a flourish of ferns. She was still and prepared herself for flight as the sounds grew nearer.
When he appeared out of the brush, she squawked in surprise.
His brown nose and long, straight whiskers broke through the greenery first. This was followed by his clear, sharp eyes. Those fixed on her. There was no surprise on his face as he found her. It was as if he already knew she would be there in the cool shadows. He settled on his haunches and surveyed her with interest. She, for her part, became acutely aware of herself under that gaze. It was an uncomfortable feeling because it was a unfamilar one. She curled her tail around herself for comfort. Her tail was long. The fur was thick. Auburn. As it settled around her body, a fire was lit in his eyes.
But did not resist.
She felt a tingle in her cheeks as his whiskers brushed hers. She had never been touched like that before. The tingle spread down her neck. She felt the fur on her body stir as the tingle raced down her spine. Her tail switched. He put a reassuring paw on it.
Her whiskers bent as he continued forward. Noses touched. His paw slipped through the dense fur of her tail. She flinched as his fingers found her nakedness beneath.
This was wrong. She was not yet an adult. He was twice her age, at the very least. This close, nose to nose, she could see gray furs among the brown of his ears. This was forbidden. He, a squirrel of the trees. She, a squirrel of the ground. There was no future in this. She knew that.
But this, she also knew, was the present. And the present was what mattered.
She pushed back from him, tenderly, that, in itself, a signal for her intent. She lost sight of him as she turned. Her heart was pounding. She had made herself vulnerable. She was certain he would take her. It was his way.
“Fucking squirrels,” said Harold.
“I think you’re right,” said Murray. The two men were looking down at two squirrels that had spilled out from underneath a patch of ferns. If Harold understood what Murray was insinuating, he gave no sign.
“That’s the little prick that’s been eating the birdseed,” said Harold, with heat in his voice.
Murray looked at the writhing squirrels. “Well, he ain’t eating seed now. How about we leave the little feller alone and go get some lemonade.”
Harold shook his head. A vein was rising to the surface of forehead. Murray knew what that meant.
“Fuzzy Nuts has had his last meal from these feeders,” said Harold. The old man’s knees popped as he bent down and scooped up a handful of rocks from the path that meandered through the extensive gardens of Shady Pines retirement home.
It was the shadow that saved them. She and he were lost in the moment of being one. But then something large blocked the sun. She looked over her shoulder, looked past his body that was mounted on hers and she saw a towering figure in motion. In a beat of her heart the spell of passion was broken. It was replaced with terror.
The thing was hideous. Tall and lean, pale and fleshy in places but draped with loose, colored coverings in others. It was the face that was the worst. A face full of spite. A face of accusation. But also glee. And that was the worst. This thing meant them harm and it was happy doing so.
The thing was swinging its long, fur-less appendage. Fingers opened and rocks flew outward. Sharp rocks. Rocks that would bruise and cut.
She chirped and bucked in alarm, breaking whatever spell the male squirrel was still under. He sensed the danger. As his weight lifted off her, she rushed forward.
The rocks tore up the ground where she and he had been one only moments ago.
“Take that you rodents!” screamed the thing. “Get out of here, you thief!”
She saw the male disappear under the fern. She chattered as the thing raised a giant foot and brought it crashing down onto the plant. She leaped forward, a terrible fear crushing her heart as surely as that foot crushed her lover. Blind with a rage she did not know she could possess, she jumped and clung to the white flesh.
Harold screamed as the squirrel attacked his leg. He pin-wheeled his arms in an effort to maintain his balance, failed, and went down with crash.
“Jumping Jesus!” yelped Murray, unable to catch his toppling friend. Harold kicked and thrashed. Ferns were shredded but the squirrel clung tight.
“Get it off me!” squealed Harold.
The ground and sky grew confused as she was bucked about. In the fury of the motion though she saw the male leap clear of the fern. The thing’s thrashing foot just missed the male as he darted along the ground. He glanced back as he did so, and in seeing her tossed about like leaves on a wind, chirped, flashed his tail and beckoned her to run with him.
She felt the rush of air through her fur. She arched her back like he had done when leaping from tree to tree that first time she saw him.
She landed. She skidded, scattering leaves.
Behind her, the thing got to its feet. It was loud. It was bellowing. And it was coming through the garden. It was coming to get them.
Harold took off after the squirrel. Murray had never seen his friend move so fast. Black-eyed Susans. Echinacea. Tulips. All mowed down under the onslaught of Harold’s ravings. ‘Christ,’ thought Murray. ‘He’s going to have a stroke if he keeps that up.’
He was fast, but she kept up. Behind them the thing was hot on their heels. Its appendages lashed out, destroying plants, the bits and pieces of which rained down on the two squirrels. They dodged as best they could. She took a glancing blow, but kept running, her eyes on his tail up ahead.
What was that? Not too far now, something rising out of the bushes. Something not as tall as the tallest trees, but something far wider. Flat.
It was a fence. The end of the world as she knew it.
He sprung. Almost straight up. He hit the fence, front and back paws scratching against the wood for purchase. He was slipping, sliding down. But then he stopped.
Behind them, unbeknownst to either, Harold snatched an ornamental sun from where it hung on the trunk of a tree and in one fluid motion flung it with all the might an 80 year-old man could muster.
She sprung. Her legs were not as strong as his, but she was confident she could do it.
The sun exploded inches away from where she hit the fence. Terracotta shrapnel arched over her as she dug in her claws.
The male paused on the fence. She chirped him to go. He took off running along the top rail even as she cleared the summit.
Harold ran parallel with the fence and the fleeing rodents, hurling curses. Murray was shouting for help. Gray heads on the patio turned. Card games were interrupted. Staff started to appear.
Harold stumbled on the uneven ground. His weight hit the fence.
The shock of the impact caused her to lose contact with the rail. She hung for a moment then landed, her feet finding not air but wood. She regained her stride. Picked up speed. Up ahead, just past the male, she could see the end of the fence. There was nothing beyond it. Emptiness. The ground beyond the fence was black. Hard. A yellow stripe running down the middle. She was aware of much yelling now. Aware that there were more things behind them. And aware too of an approaching roar.
He leaped again when he reached the end of the fence. She was a split second behind him. She took flight with him. Time slowed. He was beautiful. His fur rippling, his paws wide, the muscles of his body extended. He was perfection.
They landed together, one behind the other.
A roar rocked her body. She jerked her head and saw a large, angry mass bearing down on her. Its eyes were huge, widely spaced, shimmering. Soulesss.
The thing passed over her. The rumble shook her bones. Threatened to tear her apart with its sound.
But the shadow passed. The wind of its passing almost pulled her off her feet.
Then he was there. Running up to her. Skidding into her. Chirping. Warning.
They took off together, side by side, across a stretch of blackness that was hard and hot beneath their feet. On the other side was a patch of grass and beyond that green was a bush of considerable girth. Safety.
But they had to get there first.
Another roar. This one from the other direction. She and he looked together and saw another beast racing toward them. The green was close. So close. The monster was fast. Straight ahead. Straight ahead. Don’t stop. But it was still too far away. A black, spinning mass was coming down on top of her. This was it.
Then there was a squeal and the black was gone. The sun was back. She flashed a look over her shoulder and saw the full bulk of the metal , four-wheeled abomination. It had veered off its course, and had lost control of itself. And beyond it she could see the pale thing that had followed her and the male onto the black.
There was a terrible thump.
Her paws touched grass. She slammed into the male. He had stopped and looked back to see if she had made it. Behind them, the terrible noises had ended.
She looked at him. He looked at her.
Then a mouthful of teeth slammed into him, bowling him over. He and the teeth smashed into the perfectly round bush. Patches of his fur hovered before her eyes, but a wind rose and tore even that away from her.
She found him lying in the centre of the bush. He was shaking himself when she rushed up to him. The teeth had done him no terrible damage. She had licked what wounds he had, and he, in turn, had tended to hers. They spent that night together, curled up under the shelter of innumerable branches and leaves. There had been a siren song shortly after the attack of the teeth, and sobs from the tall things, but those had eventually fallen silent.
In the morning, he was gone. Beside her, she found a nut.
There was a natural hole among the raised roots. She scratched out a barrow. It became a good home.
He visited. He brought nuts. She offered him a place to sleep and warmth in the night.
[20 Minutes is a self-imposed ritual in which I write, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes a day. No self-editing is the goal. Just 20 minutes hammering on the keys. After the 20 minutes, I am allowed to clean up spelling and grammar errors, but the rest must stay as is. 20 minutes a day. Every day. Today is day 8.]