Good things often come in threes, stories included. So, this week we’re sharing three brand new stories from Sunday Writers’ Club members for your reading pleasure. As with all the creative writing on this blog, the stories are inspired by our unique Sunday writing prompts. A big thank you to Eleanor Keisman, Connie Phlipot, and Jonathon Pickering for their contributions.
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt:
Roll a die to choose randomly 2 of the following statements. Write 1 story which combines 2 statements and gives an explanation for both.
3 – Why he won’t let them cut down that tree; 6 – Why he can’t sleep without that soft toy.
The Oak Tree
By Eleanor Keisman
“This world spins very fast on an axis. Faster than anything you can imagine. We find it so odd when something turns up in a place that it doesn’t belong. But is it really so odd? Spinning as fast as we do, it seems perfectly sensible that things would be blown and tossed about, originating in one place and popping up in another. You may even say that the strange part is that it doesn’t happen more often! But I say that what’s truly strange, is that people don’t notice how very often it does happen.”
Count Max Sheranov, Master of the Hunt, 1840-1912
Boris Sheranov heard the first crack of the axe as he pulled up his pants; he thought it best not to wake up his sister as he rushed downstairs. Buckling his belt with one hand and grabbing his hat with the other, he stepped into his boots and shuffled quickly toward the front door. It was only just October and winter had already taken a firm footing. The sky was the color of cement and the ground seemed compacted under the weight of it. The soldiers stood outside in a circle around the oak tree that sheltered the family plot. One of them held an axe and, seeing Boris, smiled a toothy, drunken grin and shouted, “ Oh my, did we wake you? Go back to sleep, your highness!” Boris winced at the sight and tripped over his untied boots as he started out the door. He kicked them off and ran barefoot over the cold ground as the axe man took another swing and the rest of the men cheered.
Boris ran to the tree and touched the place where the axe had ripped away the bark. He wanted to call them all bastards and ask how they could do something so cruel to something so beautiful. He wanted to order them off his land. But it wasn’t his land anymore. His tongue felt fat and dry in his mouth. He held up both hands and shook his head rapidly from side to side. It wasn’t often anymore that he needed to speak, and at that moment, even if he could let out a sound, he wasn’t certain that he wouldn’t just cry. At home with his sister, things were ok, but speaking to anyone else, he felt as though the words bottled up in his throat, turning to ice and choking him. His parents sent him to doctors and speaking coaches, but what little improvement he showed dwarfed the grueling hours of practice. After one particular training session in which he was drilled on the names of animals, Boris’ mouth was so sore that he could barely sleep. To soothe him, his mother knit him a stuffed toy that resembled a mole. It was the only animal he could pronounce without stammering.
He wrapped both arms around the tree and pressed himself against it. The men laughed and the one holding the axe began poking him with it. “What a fucking idiot!” Another man shouted, “The little prince doesn’t have shoes. You learning the value of a day’s work done barefoot, your highness?” The sound of clicking artillery made Boris start. Something poked him in the back of the head. Hard. “Tzarist scum! Get away from the tree.”
“No! Stop!” A hand grabbed his, pulled him away from the tree, and a pair of arms embraced him.
“You can take the tree.” Boris struggled against her words, but Vanya held him even tighter and put a pair of boots in his hand. She hissed in his ear. “Put these on now!” He quieted himself and stuffed his socked feet into his boots. Eyeing the soldier, Vanya repeated: “You can take the tree.”
“And where did you come from? All of a sudden?” asked the soldier, with a smirk.
Vanya put her hands behind her back and looked at the ground. “I’m just a farm girl, comrade. I live nearby.”
He spoke quietly to a few of the men and cackled before taking a drag of his cigarette. Turning back to Vanya he said, “Maybe we just started on the tree to lure him out. Maybe that’s what we all came here for. We didn’t know you’d be our guest as well! But not to worry, I’m sure we have enough bullets. And everyone knows, give a farm girl a bullet and she’ll give you twice as much fun!”
He pulled a taller comrade with a thin face towards him and frowned, jutting his lower lip out. “It was even his idea! We all drank to it last night when we started on the wine cellar. You want to hurt his feelings? Besides, you don’t even know him, right? Seems strange to endanger your life for a perfect stranger, for this aristocratic piece of human garbage! But it’s no matter. We have a lot of guns, and there’s still a lot of wine left.”
Vanya looked at this man’s slovenly dress, his unshaven, thin face, red nose and dirty skin. Under the tzarist general’s coat he wore, his tunic was frayed at the edges. His trousers were loose and rolled up at the bottom, and his leather belt was well oiled and fastened with a gold buckle. Most of the men were dressed in a similar fashion, “uniforms” cobbled together out of whatever they could find, or in most cases, steal. The only soldier who stood out was the taller one. His uniform fit. It made Vanya remember something their father had told them many years ago.
People don’t notice just how often things pop up in one place, that actually belong in another.
“I am only a simple, uneducated farm girl. My family and I—”
The soldier reached out and touched her cheek, and then slapped his knee. “Come on!” he bellowed. “What game is this, you little rabbit? Shall we see if you fuck like one too?”
“Sir, I am to marry the butcher’s son.” Her breath caught in her chest and her cheeks turned red.
“Oh, the butcher? Oh, really? How did you meet him? He must be disappointed that he’s getting such a stringy meal as you!” He grabbed her by the arm, and at that, Boris sprung forward. He heard a muffled thud as another soldier’s fist made contact with his face. He held on to the tree for support while the world shook.
“You deserved that, you aristocratic shit. Now, farm girl,” he dragged her to a few gravestones that sat near the tree. “Who’s buried here? I mean, we’ll probably find good treasure when we dig up the graves right?” Boris whimpered.
After death, all that’s left to define a life is a name. Vanya stood before her parents’ names, carved in granite, and felt her veins on fire. Every hair on her head stood on end, ignited with rage against these men, with their torn clothes and stolen guns. Most of them probably couldn’t even read.
The soldier’s breath made her neck hot and damp. “Read, girl, or we will end you, and Boris, and we will cut down this tree just for the fun of it.”
“N-n-n… N-n-NO ! C-c-CAN’T!” Boris’ thin face was red, his mouth open and the corners pulled downward. His arm outstretched, he strained against the bodies of two soldiers who dragged him away from the tree.
“Boris, enough? Why, Vanya Sheranova, it is you after all! You had us all completely fooled! Yes you did!” He pointed at Vanya and shouted so the rest of the men could hear. “The fools don’t even know how to lie! Did you actually think I believed you?”
The soldier took a step toward Vanya but before he could reach her, she broke off into sprint. Voices cried multiple variations of Stop! A few men began running after her, a few other men fired their weapons. Perhaps it was due to the lack of sunlight and shadow which made it difficult to see, perhaps it was because most of the men were hungover from the night before, or perhaps it was that even she was surprised by the frantic nature of her flight, but Vanya managed to reach the house without even a graze.
As she ran through the doors, a body fell on top of her and together, gasping for air, they hit the dusty, wood paneled floor. Seeing the hand which fell on top of hers, she knew in an instant that it belonged to Boris. He was always such an annoying little brother, following her everywhere, imitating everything she did. With his tongue sticking out to one side, he’d trail behind her, trying to hold on to her skirt, and she’d do her best to ignore him. When he finally caught up she’d turn and groan, as if hoping just for a moment, that it was anyone other than him.
“Door!” she croaked. The two scrambled to their feet, shut the doors, and put their full weight against them as fists pounded the other side.
“Boris Sheranov! Vanya Sheranova!”
“Why didn’t you let them just cut it down?”
“You are both under arrest for crimes against the people of Russia!”
“But f-f-father p-p-planted…”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a stupid old tree and you were stupid to go out there today!”
“You will open this door immediately!”
“D-d-don’t say stupid…”
“Boris! Go upstairs.”
“The crime for resisting arrest is immediate death!”
As soon as Boris and Vanya took their weight off the doors, the men burst through. But the siblings were already halfway up the grand staircase. Bullets ricocheted off the marble banister and chipped the ornate frames that once held family portraits. They ran past their old bedrooms to the far end of the house, and into their father’s study, which had been turned into a hideout outfitted with beds and several sturdy bolts on the door. A few precious family mementos and books had been kept safe on the shelves. Vanya and Boris bolted the door and sat down to catch their breath. The fists eventually stopped pounding and the shouts grew fainter as the soldiers moved to another part of the house, away from the study door.
“D-d-do you really think they’ll c-c-cut it d-d-down?” Boris sat on his cot and began taking off his boots.
Vanya’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head. “I can’t understand how you’re able to go on believing that story.”
“You have b-b-been c-c-calling father a liar for years. Since b-b-before he died. I c-c-can’t listen to it anymore.”
“That tree has been there for ages, and when father told you that he planted it, he was just trying to—”
Boris put up his hand. “Trying to instill a faith in g-g- …faith in God in us!”
“God? Look around you! Where is God while all this is happening?”
“That t-t-tree is where we came from. D-D-Don’t you remember what father said? How he found it in the middle of a b-b-birch forest, this tiny little sapling of an oak tree? That t-t-tree was a blessing from g-g- …blessing from God, and it watched over him, and then over mother, and then over us. It b-b-brought us to father and mother!”
Vanya wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and sat by the fireplace. There were a few embers still burning but they’d have to wait until later to sneak out for more firewood.
“Have you seen that tree, Boris? It’s enormous. It’s a grand old oak tree. Oak trees don’t get like that in a single lifetime. They just don’t. It takes ages and ages. It’s possible one of our ancestors planted that tree, but more likely that it was already here when our family bought the land.”
“B-b-but, how? That seems even more unlikely. We’re surrounded by b-b-birch forests. There aren’t any other oak t-t-trees in this area.”
“There might be. But that’s not the point. Remember what father said about the earth spinning? How things get blown around and tossed around, how it makes perfect sense that some things would originate in one place and show up in another. Do you remember?”
“Of c-c-course I remember! That’s not what he meant. He was explaining how he came to find the t-t-tree, how it c-c-crossed his path.” Boris looked at Vanya. Her eyes were dark and worried. “What are you t-t-trying to do?”
Vanya shifted in her seat. “I’m trying to tell you the truth. This is no time for carrying useless baggage. I’m trying to help you to put some things down that may no longer be of any use to you.”
“How c-c-can you say that when we have so little left?”
They heard the sounds of breaking glass and a few shouts. “Ok, I think they’re in the sitting room,” Vanya said. “I seem to remember a bottle in there. It should keep them occupied. Distracted, at least. Did you get the gun?”
Boris reached under his bed and pulled out his stuffed mole. One of its eyes had fallen out, and it didn’t have many whiskers left. If it once looked like a representation of a mole, it now looked more like the essence of a mole. An oval shaped, brown, furry thing, which, as it would have done anyway, had it been a real mole, was kept under Boris’ bed. With a small knife, he undid the stitching. Inside, protected by fluff, was a revolver and a small sack of bullets. He loaded the gun and set it down on the bed.
“The next time they try to c-c-cut down the tree, I’m g-g-going out there with this.”
Vanya moved closer. “Please listen, Boris. Listen to me. That tree out there? It’s just a grand old oak. Father did not plant it. You and I did not come from it. It did not protect us in any way, except for a little shelter when we got caught out in the rain.”
Boris looked at her, unblinking. Vanya took his hands in hers. “Father and mother couldn’t have children, and there was nothing that anyone could do about that. Not doctors, not God, and not the oak tree.
“Mother told me, just before she died…there was a peasant family. They got very sick, and died, and left behind two children. A baby boy and a girl, about a year apart. She said it seemed like some divine plan. They didn’t tell anyone, and no one came asking about them. Mother and father loved and raised those children as their own, and those children…” she sat up a little taller, “they have grown up and become us.”
Boris dropped her hands, stood up and walked over to the window. He watched the oak tree, standing proud and bare on the land that was once the great Sheranov estate. He watched as the soldiers stumbled out of the house, toward the oak and the family plot. In particular, he noticed the taller soldier, the one who’s uniform fit. His face was thin, like Boris’ face was thin. His eyes were dark, like Vanya’s eyes were dark. He inhaled and then exhaled, deeply and silently, through his nose.
“I’m going out there,” he said quietly. He picked up the revolver from the bed.
“Boris, no, there’s nothing left out there.”
He put his face very close to his sister’s and began to speak. His voice was deeper than he’d ever heard it before. “Do you have any idea what you are saying? If it were true?”
Vanya’s eyes got wet. “But…it is true. It is! Why else would mother have told me?”
“Because she was insane!” Boris paced around the room.
“Insane? Do you hear yourself? And is it sane to believe that you were born of a tree?”
Boris began to unlock the bolts on the door. Vanya grabbed the hand he held the gun in.
“Stop, please Boris.”
“Let go of me, you LIAR! BLASPHEMER!”
They pulled each other in close, each resisting the others’ reality. The struggle for the revolver lasted until it went off, the sound of it paining both faces as Vanya collapsed on the floor.
We find it so odd when something turns up in a place that it doesn’t belong.
Boris stepped over Vanya and went out into the hall. With the revolver in his pocket, he walked down the staircase he used to play on as a child. He past the empty frames which once held portraits of people he’d known as his parents. Exiting the front door, daylight surrounded him and he saw the tree. The tree that had been planted by someone, somehow, as all trees were. Boris was certain that he was the son of whoever planted it. Perhaps he wasn’t the son of the man he’d known as his father, but the oak tree took care of that discrepancy.
Is it really so odd?
I Love You
By Connie Phlipot
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt:
Write a love story with the opening line being “I love you” spoken by one character. And the line “I love you too”, spoken by a different character, being the story’s final line.
“I love you.” He held her hand, bones encased in a mottled white tissue paper wrapper of skin. Her rings moved easily around her fingers, only the swollen knuckles keeping them from sliding off into her lap. Those rings that once strode proudly on her hands. He had loved to watch the light spark from the diamond engagement ring when she cut vegetables outside on the porch on a hot summer evening. The diamond now faced inward, hidden in the nearly non-existent padding of her palm. Years ago, when her fingers had swelled, the gold bands cut into her flesh. Only soapy water would free them. Now they spun meaninglessly, forgotten, as she twisted her hands in her lap.
He rubbed the tip of his finger over the dark brown spots on her hands. She had come of age when women wore gloves to protect their hands from the elements when they went outside, but by the time he was born, she had shed that convention along with hats, high heels and stockings with seams up the back. He tightened his grip on her hand; she didn’t respond.
His high school and then college friends gushed about his wonderful mother, who invited them into her home, listened to their problems, lent them money. “If I had a mother like that….” his first girlfriend, Alicia, said time and again, but she never finished the sentence. If only they knew. Yes, she would kiss him lightly on the cheek when he came home from university and cheerfully tell him, “Just leave your dirty clothes there. I’ll wash them later,” but then she would return to the kitchen, without giving him a chance to speak. Worries about his school work, his fear of ever getting a job, the cruelty of the upper classmen, was stinging bile he wanted to spit out. To tell her that he was not happy, hoping she would soothe him and say everything would work out. But she never said that. Not even when he was ten or twelve and had come home from school, his face damp with snotty tears. “The other kids don’t like me. I’ll never have friends.” “Just make an effort,” she said, not looking up from her dust cloth. He stopped telling her anything was wrong. It was a 1960s family sitcom where everyone was good, happy and loving. Later, when he graduated at the top of his class, she smiled proudly as her friends congratulated him, but scowled at him for not wearing a better pair of shoes at graduation. As he walked home after a graduation party where his friends had toasted him and joked about how rich he would become, he had wanted to smash himself against a concrete wall. He was a worthless, empty vessel without the only affirmation he really wanted and needed.
They played their roles for years. The successful businessman and obedient son, the tireless mother and homemaker. Neither ever disclosing to the other they were sick or lonesome. He moved to another continent, coming home only for major holidays. On one of those trips, he suspected his father was losing his mind, but he couldn’t ask his mother what was wrong. They might have been able to help each other, instead of pretending everything was fine. Until it was too late.
A few months ago he found notes she had written in a notebook, the kind she used for jotting down recipes she had seen on TV. In her beautiful penmanship learned before word processing or even typewriters became widely used, she wrote of her fear of what was happening to his father and the horror of seeing the personality of her husband dissolving. Worse than the sadness was the helplessness, she wrote. The box also contained photos, black and white snapshots from the late 1940s and early 1950s. His mother was stunning in the style revered in those days. Hair carefully waved, nothing flamboyant, stockings smooth. And always posing. Not one shot taken spontaneously, catching her with her hair in curlers or in faded, torn blue jeans. As if always on stage. For a second, he wondered if she had ever been an actress. Of course not. She had gone to secretarial school, working in a safe job typing other people’s correspondence, keeping their desk tidy, their files organized. A child disturbed this orderliness. The snap shots of him shouted the messiness of childhood — splashing water in the tub, standing naked in the living room or pulling the dog’s tail. Maybe the only way she had reconciled the divergent aspect of life was the facade he had resented but also adopted as his own.
The wall shattered last year with no help or encouragement from him or her. It was as if one day she no longer had the strength to keep all the bits of her life neatly packaged. For months she cried uncontrollably, then she went silent, creeping back inside herself. Except when she saw a child sobbing, heard a dog howling in loneliness or suddenly felt cold or damp. Then the tears trickled back down her cheeks. She cooed and reached out to pat dogs or babies. Completely vulnerable to every passing emotion.
She looked up at him and smiled as if she had just realized he was there. “I love you” he said again, and she mouthed the words back at him.
By Jonathon Pickering
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Write a story or a poem title Shallow People
How many times does history have to repeat itself before we learn from our mistakes? How many times has an invention or discovery been hailed as a great benefit to humanity, only for the powerful and the ruthless to turn that wonderful gift into a weapon? Even before the current dark times society was crippled by social media platforms, which were themselves responsible for so much pain, so much death. Another gift to the world had been weaponized, only this one would touch almost everyone. Truth was the first victim, followed by decency. And tolerance, that eternal spring bud that never quite managed to bloom, withered away as winter set in.
It is here, 60 years in the past, that one man set out to change everything. Unfortunately, he succeeded. Professor Edward Carrington, a world renowned chemist, set out to create a drug to solve the worst of society’s evil. He developed a treatment for those violent criminals so despised and feared by the masses, one that would make them safe to the general public, and useful to society.
This treatment dulled emotions, eventually destroying them completely. Anger, hate, fear, greed, envy – all were erased from the patients, making them safe to walk amongst society once more. They retained their skills, but became little more than human machines. This revolutionary treatment was adopted globally by justice systems – no more would costly prisons be needed to house those most dangerous felons, only a single dose of an ever more cost-effective drug. And for a time crime fell, and the world was at peace. But then everything changed. Everything.
It might sound like a perfect world with the death of hatred and violence. But at what cost? Professor Carrington’s drug was a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Not just the baser emotions were eliminated, but all – these unfortunate criminals felt no love, no joy, happiness, or even simple contentment. They were shells, hollowed out. Language evolved to describe them, they were called The Shallow, the silent ones, or, simply, the Hollowed. In truth, they were nothing more than slaves, not able to protest about how they were treated because they were unable to feel what they were subjected to.
As time progressed, the drug was used as a punishment for more and more minor crimes, until most families lost loved ones to the hollowing. Protests began, calling for the cruel practice to end, led by Professor Carrington himself, who was horrified and guilt-ridden at what had become of his gift to the world. Then came the suppression. They put the drug in the water supplies, in foodstuffs, until more and more were mentally castrated by the drug. Eventually only the elite, the rich and powerful, remained unhollowed.
And us. The resistance. We are in hiding now, staying one step beyond the suppression teams sent to hunt us down. We gather strength, and knowledge, seeking a way to break the elite cartel that has enslaved humanity. I lead these people, hoping to save as many as I can, hoping to destroy those very elites who subjugated the world. There are not many of us left, maybe 300, to fight a worldwide cartel that hides behind its meat-shield.
That is what the rest of humanity has become. The severing of their emotions is permanent, the damage caused to the brain incurable. All they do is eat, sleep and work, doing whatever their masters order them to. They have become a renewable resource, so that those in power can live in luxury. And they hunt us relentlessly. Imagine it, soldiers who know no fear, no remorse, no morality, merely following instructions without hesitation. They are like drones in service to a queen bee, sacrificing themselves for the hive, not ever knowing why.
We don’t think of these poor victims as human anymore, it is too hard to continually put them down if we acknowledge what they once were. No, we call them meat-sacks, or simply meats. That is what they are to each other – the dead drones are processed and fed to the living, reducing the amount of food needed to be produced. All the while the elite dine on the finest steak and drink the most prestigious champagne. These rulers might still be human, and not like the shallowed people who serve them, but they have still shed their humanity, becoming little more than parasites, vampires. I plan to be the cure. Cut off the head and the body dies. There is no salvation for the Hollowed, only the freedom a quick death can bring. Without the elites they will fade and die. And humanity can start again. The world can start again.
I am the leader of the free world. My name is Alice Carrington. Professor Carrington was my grandfather.