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6.15.2005

blogthology story: unflappable

Writers Dave White and Bryon Quertermous have put together their second blog anthology, "Going Twice." (The first one is here.) They sent around the story starter idea of using an object found, taken or involved in a police auction. The resulting story had to be less than 3,000 words and posted today, June 15. Twenty-six writers took the bait. A list of all the participants with the URLS of their blogs follows my story below. (If you really don't want to read it this way, but do want to read the story, email me and I'll send you a file.)


Unflappable

Angie didn’t get a B until she was halfway through eleventh grade. After school that day, she went straight to a shop downtown that she’d passed a thousand times before. There were lots of wind chimes hanging outside and the sign in the window said “Mystic Hopes, Pagan Dreams.” A hand-drawn paper banner had been added below that promised “Wicca for Less,” bookended by twisty purple unicorn horns and surrounded by stretchy golden stars.

Angie thought that the owners should maybe be better artists if they were going to make their own signage. She remembered the B——fat, red, slanty across the top of her paper on Romeo and Juliet. She had twenty dollars from her grandmother in her pocket.

When she opened the door, it made a noise like a howling cat.

#

The inside of “Mystic Hopes, Pagan Dreams” was dark and it smelled like hippies. Angie knew what hippies smelled like because her grandmother was one, sort of, according to her mom anyway. Hippies apparently smelled of strong musky odors, smoke and cat pee.

Angie didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but suddenly doubted she’d find it here. Racks in the middle of the store were covered in long, flowing dresses, mostly in black and the same deep purple as the unicorn horns on the banner. There was a wall of black and white T-shirts with slogans like “I Brake for the Goddess” and “My Other Car is a Hearse” and “I’m Cursing You Right Now.” One boasted a picture of a solemn lady dressed like a queen, complete with puffy sleeves.

Angie walked toward it, squinting, trying to figure out if the woman on it was Queen Elizabeth and if so, why she’d be on a Wiccan T-Shirt.

She is the blood countess,” said a voice behind her. The voice was deep and theatrical, very unhippy-like. Angie jumped, startled.

Angie turned and saw the woman who went with the voice. She had on one of the long, flowing black things and lots of make-up. As if she was a kid playing dress-up, really. She seemed less scary than her voice.

Angie said, “They never told us that in school.”

The woman arched her half-moon eyebrows. “They do not tell you many true things in school, yes?”

It was an A paper. Angie nodded, but she still wasn’t convinced. “What did Queen Elizabeth have to do with blood?”

The woman laughed. She had two pointy incisors. Okay, scary again.

“This is Elizabeth Bathory, child. Come, I’ll show you a book.” The woman sized up Angie’s tidy jeans and cardigan, her sensible shoes. “It’s by someone affiliated with NPR.”

Angie had learned her lesson about assumptions in this place. “National Public Radio, you mean?”

The woman said, “No, the Near Perfect Radicals.” Then, “Yes, National Public Radio. Come.”

The bookshelves were next to a wall of dried roots and herbs. Angie saw the words “eye of” but couldn’t make out the rest.

Morticia pointed to The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu. Angie instantly connected the name to a thickly accented voice on the radio, but she was a little disappointed at how obvious the book’s title was.

She shook her head at Morticia, hoping that it wouldn’t prompt another showing of the woman’s fangs. Why would she need fangs anyway? Was it a fashion choice or did she drink blood? Maybe she drank grape juice and pretended it was blood? Angie decided to think about those questions later. She focused on the shelf.

Another book caught her attention. It had a simple cover, the arched back of a swan in gold leaf across red cloth. Angie loved swans, always had. They were so graceful, yet dangerous——grumpy and loud. They would bite you and not worry about what people might say.

She pointed to the book.

“Ah yes,” said the woman, revealing her fangs with a smile. “The Spirit Animal.”

#

The book cost Angie exactly twenty dollars. She half-wondered if Morticia had somehow read her mind and knew that was all she had. Angie skipped dinner, claiming homework, and lay on her bed reading the book.

The scrolly frontispiece gave the title: Spiritus Animus: Identification, Practicum and Transformation.

Mostly, the beginning listed animals and their defining traits. Turtles for instance were sneaky but perseverant. Cows sweet and dumb. Wolves were wise and had the killer instinct. The heavily illustrated text included thumbnail sketches of the history of various native peoples and how they used the power of spirit animals. White people, in general, had been too stupid to realize the importance, even the existence, of spirit animals.

Everyone had one though and it could be any animal that existed. Knowing yours could give you its abilities. Supposedly.

After awhile, she came to a section that seemed more relevant to her situation than what she’d read so far:

Each one of us is imbued with our inner creature at birth. One may discern the nature of one’s animus spiritus of origin, that which lives inside one dating from the womb, through careful observation or use of a scry-glass. However, one may also choose to displace this creature and replace it with a more suitable choice, as need warrants. In extreme cases, one may even wish to become one’s born or chosen spiritus animus.

What Angie took from this was a verdict on how the grade would change her life. It could never be taken back——it was part of her forever, the B.

She looked around at her room. Everything was in perfect order. She thought of her childhood dolls stored in the closet with more jeans and cardigans and button-down shirts, alongside her three pairs of tennis shoes and one pair of uncomfortable heels for special occasions. Usually the idea of the dolls’ pretty painted faces was comforting. Not this time. There was also a box in the bottom of the closet where she kept photographs and scraps that seemed worth saving.

One of the photos was of willowy Melinda Baresca at the eighth grade awards ceremony accepting the Geometry Award that Angie had been robbed of. Earlier that day in AP English, Melinda had seen the B on Angie’s paper. She had smiled and said, “Better luck next time.”

Angie had thought of the photo then too. Melinda was the kind of student who didn’t have to try for her good grades. The only thing she seemed to actually work for was ballet. And she was nice. Angie’s hatred of her was strong and irrational and, she knew, mainly just jealousy at the easy way Melinda moved through the world. There was no way that Melinda couldn’t have known the Geometry Award was rightfully Angie’s.

Angie read the words of the paragraph again, displace and replace growing big and weighty in her head.

The choice Angie was left with was to become something else. Something that would erase the B.

She flipped to the section on Transformation.

#

The next day in study hall Angie sat at a computer station beside Melinda and her boyfriend Alex. She searched “spiritus animus” and came up with nothing. So she tried “spirit animal.”

She took a short quiz at the first link, which was obviously flawed because it told her she was a porcupine. The porcupine in the picture next to the results had beedy eyes and steely-looking prickles raised above its little circle of a body. Angie was so not a porcupine.

There was a link to a chat room on the side of the page and she clicked it. She felt a little criminal doing it, since you really weren’t supposed to go to chat rooms in study hall. But then, shouldn’t they have disabled it so you couldn’t?

The chat room had three other people in it and Angie wondered what they were doing in there during the middle of the day. Were they in study hall too? Unemployed? Old people? Who could know?

They were typing back and forth to each other using numbers and spelling everything wrong. They didn’t seem to be talking about spirit animals at all. She chose the screen name Morticia. She typed.

MORTICIA: I want to be a swan.

For a few seconds, nothing happened, just her words hanging out there on the screen with silence below. Then:

CROWEBOY: Y?
WOLFGRRL: U could B a wolf like me & howl at midnite moon
LETIGRE: Be a were, grrrl. LOL.

Angie watched the blinking cursor. Finally, she typed again.

MORTICIA: You can’t help me, can you?

Another little burst of screen silence.

LETIGRE: No1 can help U, loser.
MORTICIA: You’re a porcupine.

Angie sighed and closed the chat window. Melinda and Alex were watching her.

“Porcupines are depressing, huh?” Melinda’s voice was light and cheery.

Angie kind of wanted to hit her, a disturbing feeling.

Behind Melinda, Alex giggled and pressed his hand into the back of her neck. He was mean. Even Angie knew Melinda was too good for him. It was a small comfort, considering.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Melinda said.

“About what?” Angie said.

“Whatever you’re sweating,” Melinda said. “You should join ballet. It makes everything else fall away.”

She seemed serious, but Alex roared with laughter. He wasn’t a lion though, Angie didn’t think. More of a hyena, arrogant and aggressive. The study hall monitor shushed him.

“Right,” Angie said. Yeah, something I know you’re better at. I’ll do that. “I think it’s too late for that.”

“Probably,” Melinda said. Softer, “But really, anyway, don’t worry so much.”

Her easiness made Angie’s stomach hurt.

#

When Angie got home, she looked up the story of the ballet Swan Lake. She couldn’t figure out why she’d never thought to find out what it was about before. She’d never wanted to be a ballerina, but Melinda had made her think about it. What she really craved was grace.

She clutched the red cloth book to her side, tracing a finger over the gold swan, before putting it aside for one of her dad’s prized encyclopedias.

Swan Lake was about the Queen of Swans. She was a gorgeous bird, except during the night——between midnight and dawn——when a sorcerer allowed her to become a gorgeous woman. While human, she meets a young prince and falls in love… Angie lost interest as the plot details went a little Hollywood.

She put her hand on top of the red book. What they had to say wasn’t so different. But the idea that being a woman, even a beautiful woman, was better than being the Queen of Swans made no sense at all.

According to Spiritus Animus, swans were unflappable, wordly. They could be flighty or emotional, but you would never see it. Swans were always in control.

Angie put the encyclopedia back on the shelf and began making a list of what she would need.

The first thing was to steal her mom’s car keys.

#

Really, it wasn’t technically stealing. There was an extra set hanging off a hook on the fridge, helpfully labeled. Angie put them in her backpack and said she was going out to the library.

Her mom usually spent all day Saturday doing laundry and napping. The silver Taurus was parked on the street. Angie assured herself that it would be hours before anyone noticed it was gone.

Also in her backpack were the book, the petals of five roses, the picture of Melinda and a roll of duct tape.

She parked behind “Mystic Hopes, Pagan Dreams” and decided to leave her backpack in the car. She’d taken another twenty from her mom to pay for the last ingredient. She figured if this didn’t work borrowing a little cash would be the least of her worries.

Morticia met her just after the door’s howl sounded and gave a knowing arch of the overdone brow. She sure liked arching those already arched eyebrows.

“Yes.” Morticia said. Not a question.

Angie wondered how to approach this. She decided to treat it like shopping for school supplies. “I need essence of lavender.”

“Simple,” said Morticia. “But very powerful. You should be careful when working with such ingredients.”

Angie had just about had it. “You talk like you’re in a bad movie.”

That had felt pretty good.

Morticia sniffed. “Twenty,” she said, setting a tiny vial of pale yellow liquid down hard on the counter.

What did Angie have to lose? “How do you know how much money I have?” Angie asked.

Morticia showed one fang. “You live in a big white house, right? On one of those streets full of big, white, houses. You people only bother with twenties. Or plastic.”

She took the bill from Angie.

Angie picked up the bottle, her hand trembling a little. “The book I bought, will it work?”

Morticia showed fang again. “It was in a box of books I bought at a police auction. What do you think?”

Angie left without apologizing for being rude. She stayed calm, like a swan.

#

Angie chose the school parking lot.

Despite what Morticia had said, it was way past the time when she could have changed her mind about doing this. It had been too late when she bought the book.

She did everything the book said. She’d picked the car, because it seemed like it was big enough to work. Failure was not an option.

She rubbed the rose petals between her palms, then put them on the front seat of the car. It took awhile, but she cried one tear and rubbed it against the photo of smiling Geometry Award-clutching Melinda, something that was symbolic of the change she wanted to make. The essence of lavender she poured on the hood.

She ran her fingers over the swan on the front and opened the red book. She read the words aloud.

This, my instrument, to bring forth the spiritus animus,” she began.

She wondered if it should all be in Latin, but saying the words only felt a little stupid. That must mean it was working.

Her voice got louder. “Call forth my swan self.”

Okay, so she still felt a little stupid.

But it was all easier from there on out. She duct taped the biggest rock she could find to the gas pedal, listening to the car roar. Then she yanked the Taurus into gear.

The force as the car took off knocked her backward. She caught her breath and ran.

The car proved hard to catch. It seemed impossible to get in front of it at an angle where it would actually hit her. She knew she’d feel even stupider if there was any time to, if her heart wasn’t pumping so hard, her legs burning from the effort. She was almost there——

“Angie!”

And then came the sickening noise. A wet thud, a thump and the car roared on.

Angie stopped. She was fine. And that wasn’t right at all.

The car kept going, until it skidded to a stop in the ditch between the student parking lot and the marching band practice field and died.

There was a ballerina curled on her side on the cracked pavement. She had on a practice tutu over a pair of jeans. Her ballet slippers had been slung over her shoulder and were twisted across her neck.

Melinda moaned and focused on Angie standing above her. Her throat made a gurgling noise.

There wasn’t that much blood, surprisingly.

Angie didn’t know what to do. She’d killed Melinda. The B seemed so small. She was frozen in place, like an ice princess from a different ballet.

“Melinda,” Angie said.

Melinda wasn’t able to reply, but she tried anyway. The gasp from her throat took on a harsh cast at the end. Her throat was changing.

As Melinda’s body shifted, drew up, lightened, she became even more graceful than before. Her head elongated, became skinny. Her eyes still knew Angie, even as they became inky black ovals.

This was so much worse than the Geometry Award.

The swan fluttered to its feet, tossing the slippers off its long neck, and came toward Angie. It stopped to look at her again. There was less and less familiar in the swan’s eyes with each passing second.

Angie reached out a hand to touch the swan’s head, but it moved before she could. The swan cocked its head at an angle. At least it didn’t run from her. Or bite.

She looked around the parking lot——the car slumped in the ditch, but didn’t seem that much worse for wear beyond a crumpled fender and clumps of mud and grass in the grill. Angie wondered what Morticia would think about this. How would she explain it to her parents? To the police?

Angie pictured herself in jail. From A student to B student to murderer. Who would take care of the hungry, loud, living spirit swan? Could you have pets in jail?

She saw Melinda’s pink ballet slippers in the gravel nearby. There was no blood on them. There didn’t seem to be any of her blood left on anything. The transformation happened so fast, just like the red book said. Melinda had hardly suffered.

Catching the bird was kind of like professional wrestling; it felt staged, but would have looked painful to anyone watching. Angie drove home with the pissed off swan belted into the front seat and a wisp of steam wafting from under the hood.

She looked at the swan——composed face staring out the front window, white neck elegantly arched——and saw only grace that would never be hers.

FINIS

(copyright Gwenda Bond, 2005, do not reprint without permission or you will be cursed for all eternity, you big porcupine!)

Now go read the OTHER stories. Here's the full list of participants:

Bryon Quertermous- bryonquertermous.blogspot.com
Dave White- jacksondonne.blogspot.com
Dave Zeltserman- hardluckwriter.blogspot.com
Ray Banks- thesaturdayboy.typepad.com
Duane Swierczynski- secretdead.blogspot.com
David J Montgomery- www.crimefictionblog.com
John Rickards- johnrickards.blogspot.com
Bill Crider- billcrider.blogspot.com
Gwenda Bond- bondgirl.blogspot.com
Scott Neumyer- www.scottwrites.com/neumyer.htm
Paul Guyo- paulguyot.blogs.com
Stuart MacBride- halfhead.blogspot.com
Gerald So- geraldso.blogspot.com
Sarah Weinman- www.sarahweinman.com
Christin Kuretich- thesecretlifeofmissconscience.blogspot.com
Bob Mueller- bob.ravensbeak.com
Megan Powell- http://meganpowell.net/wordpress
Pat Lambe- http://patlambe.com/Initiation.htm
Steven Torres- www.steventorres.com
Graham Powell- www.myboogpages.com
Jennifer Jordan- humanunderconstruction.blogspot.com
Jon Jordan- centralcrimezone.blogspot.com
Bob Tinsley- theshortofit.blogspot.com
Aldo Calcagno- acalcagno.blogspot.com
Rochelle Krich- rochellekrich.typepad.com/
Alina Adams- www.alinaadams.com

24 Comments:

  • At 7:00 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

    Oooh, I like! So glad you participated, Gwenda, b/c of the different take on things and all.

     
  • At 7:20 AM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Thanks for passing along the invitation. I love story triggers. Now, I'm off to read yours (and everybody else's).

     
  • At 7:29 AM , Blogger CAAF said...

    oh sweets, that's wonderful!!! awesome awesome awesome.

     
  • At 9:04 AM , Anonymous Steph Burgis said...

    What an awesome story! I was just reminiscing with a friend about the awful competitiveness of smart high school girls...but damn, I wish I'd known how to do that as a teenager! (Even if it does lead to terrible results...)

    Thanks so much for posting it!

     
  • At 9:33 AM , Anonymous kdlink said...

    This is fabulous! I love Angie, I love Morticia, and I love poor Melinda. I love the idea of WICCA FOR LESS, and once again, I'm deeply worried about what my spirit animal might be. You made me laugh and snort lukewarm tea. Thanks, Gwenda.

    I'll go around and read some of the others later.

     
  • At 9:38 AM , Blogger Dave said...

    "From A student to B student to murderer" is my favorite line. Plus, great use of an unreliable (yet still sympathetic) narrator.

    Swans are creepy.

     
  • At 10:26 AM , Blogger Dave said...

    Oh, and I forgot to mention: the chat room bit? Dead. On.

     
  • At 10:33 AM , Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

    Oh god yes, the chatroom bit was dead on. I loved that part best. You're a porcupine. hehe.

    And Wicca for Less and the line where Morticia says you live in one of those big white houses, you people only carry twenties and plastic. Wonderful!

    But oh poor Melinda. hehe

     
  • At 10:40 AM , Blogger Jenny D said...

    What a lovely story... You must find a funny quiz for us all now where we can find out about our spirit animals....

     
  • At 11:26 AM , Blogger Richard said...

    Great stuff! Like Chris B., my favorite part was the chatroom. The observation about twenties (aka yuppie food stamps) was right on.

    Spirit animal, spirit animal ... hmmm....

     
  • At 11:36 AM , Anonymous Jeff said...

    Very nice, Gwenda. Great start for my day!

     
  • At 11:52 AM , Blogger Bryon Quertermous said...

    Bravo. I'm so glad you were part of this project. None of the other yokels I asked would have been able to pull off something this cool. :)

     
  • At 12:26 PM , Anonymous thedeepfield said...

    you know how much I love this story. I loved it before it was even famous. that's how much.

    also, I know you totally based Angie on me and now you're getting all the props again. I was supposed to be the swan!!

    congrats, sweetie. you rock.

    -melissa

     
  • At 2:50 PM , Anonymous Guyot said...

    Very original. Nice.

     
  • At 3:48 PM , Blogger Christin said...

    wow, this was great! nice job. very spooky.

     
  • At 3:52 PM , Blogger Megan said...

    "Smelled like hippies." I love it.

     
  • At 5:36 PM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Y'all are too kind.

    So, spirit animal quizzes:

    zenhex
    Gurl
    BB Teens
    Quizilla

     
  • At 5:53 PM , Anonymous Karen M said...

    Juicy read! You work in so many great details and observations throughout, and I love the way you allow these characters to be who they are in all their flawed humanity (or swanamity). Thanks for sharing this.

     
  • At 6:52 PM , Blogger CAAF said...

    I'm a wolf; I'm a dolphin; I'm a wolf; I'm unwilling to do another animal spirit quiz.

    What were you, Bond Girl?

     
  • At 7:13 PM , Blogger Stuart MacBride said...

    different - in a good way ;}#

     
  • At 7:19 PM , Blogger Mari Adkins said...

    I found my way here via Christopher Rowe's blog. This was a great story! Thanks for sharing.

     
  • At 4:06 AM , Blogger John R. said...

    Very original. And I, too, liked the "smelled like hippies" line. Can't go wrong with that sort of thing. Unless you're Bryon, but then we all feel a little sorry for him.

    ;-)

     
  • At 7:31 AM , Blogger Gerald So said...

    Fine job recreating the mindset and surreal atmosphere of academia. I've witnessed a teacher and a student trying to pass themselves off as vampires and a grad student who practiced Wicca.

     
  • At 11:51 AM , Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

    brilliant

     

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