Saturday, January 9, 2016

"Starting Over"


I ventured pretty far outside my normal 'Fantasy' genre with this week's story. In fact, I'm not really sure what genre this story would fall in at all. It was written for my short story group's recent prompt: "Starting Over". It is always interesting trying to write something outside of one's normal type of story. I'd love to get some feedback and find out what you think.

The English Paper's Inspiration
by James J Meadows III

Damien extended his foot, placing it firmly upon the road, with a confidence missing to his head.

No, that was a lousy opening. Grabbing the scrap of paper in his hands, Justin squashed the page into a crumbled white ball before launching it at the trash can, missing by about half-a-mile.

“Good to know I suck at two things,” he groaned.

Justin rose from his chair, resigned to the inevitable act of crossing the room to pick up the sheet of paper. He grabbed the rolled up paper ball, cramming it with all his might on top of the trash with the plethora of other attempts he had made on the story, each as feeble as the last.

His English assignment for the Christmas break involved writing a short story about “starting over”.  Such assignments always acted upon Justin’s normally imaginative mind like some perverse form of kryptonite, draining away all traces of creativity, originality and motivation, leaving him little more than blank-minded zombie, fumbling through a selection of story ideas capable of making his mother beg for mercy.

Why did teachers make them do stupid things like write stories? It wasn’t like he was some sort of famous author, or would ever be a famous author for that matter.

Justin plopped back down into the chair, running his hands up his forehead and through his hair, praying that some inspiration might strike him. Unfortunately, inspiration rarely operated on demand and it certainly wasn’t doing so on this occasion.

The chime of the family clock echoed its familiar Westminster theme, proclaiming the arrival of 8:30pm. Sunday night football was about to start and Justin’s favorite team was playing against a division rival, with playoff implications on the line. He wanted to be in there watching it but, if he didn’t get this assignment finished before tomorrow, he was going to be dead-meat when his parents saw his English grade.

He gave a long frustrated groan, leaning back in his chair, arching his back and stretching his hands toward the sky.

“Starting over, starting over, starting over,” he mumbled to himself, as if simply repeating the words might solve the challenge of find a topic. “What sort of things start over?”

His junior year might start over from the beginning if he didn’t get this paper written. He wasn’t going to write about that, though. Relationships started over; though, apparently not his relationship with Megan, his long-term girl-friend, whose departure last week had done little to help his concentration or fuel any enthusiasm for writing the paper. As a matter of fact, he didn’t have much enthusiasm for anything. Even the football game, as much as he wanted to watch it, had lost some of its appeal, since he had spent every other game this season watching with her. Watching the game alone would be a real drag.

Sitting upright, Justin shook his head, trying to clear his mind, and retrieved his badly-chewed pencil to begin another round of failed attempts.

Damien stepped foot outside the rehab clinic for the first time in over a month, savoring the fresh air as though it were nectar. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so free: Free from the clinic, free from his past, and free from the marijuana which had so long controlled his life.

Justin placed the pencil back on his desk, staring blankly at the words upon the page. Marijuana – the source of all his problems. He didn’t do marijuana, of course, but it was marijuana that had caused his breakup with Megan.

Megan had made the cheerleading squad for the first time this year, quite an accomplishment in a school of over five thousand students where only ten made the team. She was eager to impress her fellow squad members, who had treated her as an outsider most of the season, and especially excited when she received an invite to attend their ‘private’ New Year’s Eve party. Neither he nor Megan knew, or even suspected, that they would arrive to find an unsupervised party, without any parents or adults, characterized by half the girls and their boyfriends getting stoned beyond recognition.

Justin had refused to stay, wanting nothing to do with the scene. Megan, however, was afraid of what the other girls would think or say. She wanted to stay, a decision which quickly dissolved into an all-out fight between the two and a black-eye from one of the cheerleader’s boyfriends when Justin threatened to call the police. In the end, Justin’s promise, that he would drive straight to Megan’s house and tell her parents if she didn’t come back with him, was the only thing that got her to leave. She hadn’t spoken to him since and he was too nervous to call her. Both of them had said some unnecessarily ugly things to each other during the fight, and she had made it quite clear their relationship was over.

Snatching the paper from his desk, he crumbled this new paragraph into another ball of trash, to join the rest of his attempts. He didn’t want to think about marijuana, cheerleaders, Megan or any of that stuff right now. He grabbed his pencil, beginning again with fresh enthusiasm, determined to write something to take his mind off Megan. Video games, he thought. Surely he could write about video games without thinking about Megan!

The words, “The End” flashed their bright white letters across the black television screen, adding emphasis to the musical dirge ringing from the video game’s console. Damien frowned; slamming his fingers against the reset button for what must have been the hundredth time.

Why do I keep using the name Damien? Justin wondered. Surely there are other names out there that are just as good. Oh well.

The entry screen flashed back to life, providing the now familiar option to either enter a save code or start from the beginning. Damien selected the beginning. Save codes were for wusses.

Justin paused, staring at the words for a minute, before slamming his head down on the desk. This had to be the lamest story, ever! Who wrote stories about dudes playing video games? Closing his eyes, he took a deep breathe before burying his head in his hands, as if hiding from the assignment might make it go away.

“Oh, don’t you dare look back; just keep your eyes on me…”

Justin’s fingers parted, revealing his now opened eyes, as an eruption of music sounded from his nearby cell phone. He knew that ring tone! His eyes darted toward the phone on his desk. It couldn’t be! There, smiling up at him from her picture on the front of his phone was Megan’s face.

His hand drifted toward the phone, shaking uncontrollably. For a moment, that seemed like an eternity, his hand hovered over the green answer button, seemingly unable to complete the normally simple task of sliding it over. What if she was still angry at him? Gritting his teeth, he pressed down against the green touch screen and slid the marker to the side. Picking up the phone, he held it to his ear.

“Hello,” he said, his voice sounding slightly higher than he remembered it being.

“Hey,” ventured a shaky voice at voice at the other end of the line, as though it were even less confident than him. A light tremor in her breathing hinted that she had been crying.

“Hey,” he responded, too dumbfounded to know what else to say.

There was a moment of silence.

“Are you watching the game?” Megan asked.

“No,” he replied. “How about you?”

“No, I’m not. I mean…I’d like to but…I mean, it’s…I…it’s just…not the same without you.”

The last words were blurted out as though they took all the strength she could muster to say them.

“Look,” she continued. “I’m sorry for the way I treated you. It’s just…I mean…I wanted them to like me, you know. And I didn’t…I mean, I wouldn’t…It’s…oh, God, I sound like an idiot.”

There was another moment of silence. Justin could hear her fighting off sobs. He didn’t know what to do or say. Something told him, he was better off not saying anything. He followed that instinct and, after a second, she spoke again.

“You were right about everything,” she said, her voice sounding more composed. “If I have to hang around drugs for them to like me, then they aren’t worth being friends anyway. I mean…you are worth more to me than a hundred of them…you know. And…what I’m trying to say is…I’m really sorry…and, you know…if you’ll forgive me…I mean…I’ve really missed you.”

Her voice lost its composure toward the end, cracking completely with the last words. Justin jumped in, eager to console her, unwilling to risk missing this opportunity.

“I’ve missed you too!” he said. “And I do forgive you. I’m sorry too, for all the things I said!”

“So, we can start over again?” she asked, her voice growing a little brighter. “You still want me?”

“Of course, we can start over,” he said. “There is no one else in the world that I want!”

“Thank you so much,” she said, her voice cracking into sobs again, this time much happier. “I’ve wanted to call you for days. I just didn’t have the courage.”

Justin sat upright in his excitement. All his weariness seemed to melt away as his lips curled into a smile, his face brightened, and the sparkle, missing from his eyes for so many days, glistened through the budding tears of joy, which he fought with all his might to restrain.

“I’ve wanted to call you too!” He said. “Did you want to come over and watch the football game together?”

“I’d like that very much,” came the soft response.

“Great!” Justin said, jumping to his feet. “I’ll grab the car and be right over to pick you up!”

“That sounds wonderful,” she responded. “I’ll get cleaned up and meet you out front when you get here! See you soon!”

“See you soon!” Justin cried, unable to control his enthusiasm any longer. He hung up the phone and shoved it into his pocket, diving across the desk for his keys and wallet. As he did so, his eyes fell upon the partially written paper on his desk. Tossing it aside, he grabbed his pencil and scribbled down several new sentences, on a fresh piece of paper.

Still reeling emotionally from his recent break-up, Damien’s long session of dejected moping atop his bed, was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. Answering the phone, he was greeted by the voice of his recently parted girlfriend, asking if they could give their love another shot.

Justin looked at the words, smiled, and raced from the bedroom, eager to see how the story would finish.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Starting A New Year!


Happy New Year Everyone!

From a new marriage to a new daughter, this year promises lots of exciting and wonderful things for me. I am also holding a sweepstakes in honor of my novel, "Tyrants, Torments and the Tiara"! I encourage everyone to check it out!

Also, in honor of the sweepstakes, this week's story is a prequel/background story based upon the novel. This one was recently rewritten for a rather unique short story challenge, where the contestants were provided a selection of quotes and had to build a story which used them. (Which is kind of tricky to do without sounding unnatural).

Let me know what you think!

James Meadows

Death of a Cemetery
by James J Meadows III

     The perfect night for a moonlight stroll was one with no moonlight. That was Caleb’s opinion, at least. Tonight was one of those nights. A thick mist clung to the ground, as the dark clouds slithered down from their lofty posts, masking the world from heaven’s prying eyes. The swirling haze, caressing the young man’s skin like ghostly hands stretching from the graves beneath his feet, provided the perfect cover for a discreet rendezvous among the tombs.

     “Are we supposed to be here?” Xana asked, trepidation evident in her voice. Caleb gave her a mischievous smile.

     In stark contrast to the unfortified city around it, Buried Grove cemetery was practically impregnable. It’s gloomy and forbidding fortifications loomed over the countryside admonishing all who might approach to abandon the foolhardy trek and flee before the mighty stone bulwarks. A legion of battle-hardened sentries dressed in dark armor patrolled miles of spiked parapets and arrow holes, clutching their readied blades tight in hand. Anyone their beady eyes caught lurking inside the battlements was unlikely to set foot outside.

     Caleb studied his red-haired teenage companion with a smug indifference to the risks they faced.  His eyes ran up and down, scanning her lithe shapely body wrapped inside the black traveling cloak. He studied the outline of her chest inside the low cut gown, visualizing the tender breasts beneath. Lust burned inside him like the flames of the sentries’ torches as he took in her soft white skin and thin red lips.

     She did not share his ease. Her gaze remained fixed upon the nearby fortifications. Caleb felt a pang of amusement as she shrank away from the lights of each passing sentinel. He knew no one could spot them through a fog this thick.

     “Maybe not,” Caleb acknowledged, finally addressing her question. “But when one’s mother is high priestess, and father is captain of the world’s oldest knightly order, there are benefits.”

     This was true. No one reveled in these benefits more than Caleb. Spoiled and rich, he enjoyed the high rank his father’s order bestowed upon him, more for nepotistic reasons than true skill. Sharing his mother’s good lucks and charisma, he further savored the pleasures of the numerous young pilgrim ladies he so often lured and seduced inside the seclusion of the fortified walls.

     Caleb squeezed the young woman’s hand, pulling her close as they strode toward the heart of the cemetery. She made no effort to resist, though her body trembled as they moved deeper into the realm of the dead. Caleb watched her gaze around the graveyard with wary eyes, his own fixed upon her with greedy desire.

     He had spotted her that morning. She arrived in town with a group of travelers completing a pilgrimage to the sacred site. He always monitored groups of visitors, seeking beautiful women to fulfill his carnal cravings. With her tantalizing beauty and alluring physique, Xana was just the type of prey he craved.  Caleb turned all his charms upon the desired prize and, after a full day of crafty courting, the spider had lured the fly into his sanctum.
     Xana came to a sudden stop staring upward with a look of horror and disgust.

     “What’s that?” she asked pointing to the sky.

     Caleb followed her gaze and smiled. A white marble statue glittered in the dim glow of the distant lights, its bust stretching more than twenty feet into the air. It showed a powerful paladin adorned in the regalia of the Knightly Order of Buried Grove. In its hands it hoisted a severed head complete with dangling entrails running down a bloody sword.

     The sculptor was clearly not content with the grotesque display on top, however, for he had further embellished the bottom with even more gory details. The knight’s right leg rose in an arrogant posture, propped on top of a skeleton’s head while his left leg stood on the body of his headless victim. The artist carved massive amounts of blood oozing from the gaping wound, staining the victim’s long robes, and trailing down the statue into a pool on the ground.

     Xana stared, clearly appalled by the horrific image molded into the glimmering canvas.  Caleb smiled, fighting to suppress a laugh at her mortified expression. Most women were disgusted by the grotesque scene, which was part of the reason he made a point of leading them past it. It played a crucial role in his intrigue.

     “This is the Monument of the Undying Order,” Caleb said. He hoisted his body upright, thrusting out his chest and using the fake awestruck voice he always employed during this phase of his routine.

     “Oh,” Xana said. “Our guide mentioned the statue. He said we wouldn’t get to see it.”

     He could hear Xana’s forced attempts to sound unbothered, yet her face betrayed the revulsion she felt.

     “They won’t,” Caleb said. “Visitors are not allowed inside these sacred grounds. Only you will.”

     He tried to make it sound like a great honor, which to some people it probably was, though any such magnificence was lost on Caleb. To him, it was simply part of his act. Caleb lifted his hand to Xana’s cheek, turning her face away from the monolith and toward his own; his eyes staring deeply into hers.

     “I’m sorry if the statue upsets you,” he said. “I know you traveled far to get here. I just wanted you to have the full experience of this sacred site. I want your time here to be special, because you’re special to me.”

     Xana looked down as though hiding a blush and pushed her hair behind her ear with a flirtatious smile. The two pressed close together as they glided down the path.

     “Why did they have to make it so gruesome?” Xana asked, taking one last look at the monument.

     “It’s a warning,” he answered, injecting a false pride and fearlessness into his voice. “A threat. A declaration to our enemies that we, who’ve sworn to defend this holy site, will triumph over all foes.”

     “I don’t understand,” she replied, “The holy texts say the site is blessed by the gods. All buried here will live in eternal splendor in the afterlife. Who would want to defile such a hallowed place?”

     “Necromancers,” Caleb said grimly. “For over a thousand years people from across the land have brought their relatives and friends here, paying great wealth for the opportunity to inter them in our sacred soil. Many vile and evil creatures who profit from the theft or animation of corpses would love to gain access to the tombs.”

     “That’s horrible,” Xana said.

     They were far from the lights of the towers now, hidden from all eyes within a curtain of darkness. Caleb knew the grounds well enough to find his way, even in pitch black. He guided Xana to a small garden surrounded by tall bushes commissioned many years ago by an ancient nobleman and his family. The secluded area provided the perfect spot for Caleb’s devious plans. He slowed pace, coming to a stop inside the heart of the enclosure.

     “You don’t have to fear such things,” he answered. “Not with me around. For over eight hundred years our order has lived here in Buried Grove protecting the land. No necromancer will ever profane our shrine. The walls are enchanted so no one can scale them and no army can defeat our soldiers. Even the great Arch-Lich Allidian, who once led a thousand undead to siege the fortress, never planted a foot inside the divine sanctuary before his fall. Like our ancestors, my men and I devote our lives to protect this ground.”
     “You’re so brave,” Xana said, turning and looking at him.

     He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close to him. He had worked all day for this moment. Every move, every sentence was carefully rehearsed, the tricks of a master artist, working his charms and skills to create a carefully planned climax. Now, he would savor the fruits of his labor.

     “I believe a person should be fearless when it comes to defending the things they love,” he replied. He gave a small pause, gazing into her eyes, allowing the tension to build.

     “And, who they love,” he said.

     She leaned into him, pressing her lips against his. They embraced, kissing passionately. First one kiss followed by another. The man raised his hand to her cheek as her breathing grew heavier. She placed her hands on his waist, running them slowly up to his chest. She lifted her head, her eyes closed, a smile crossing her lips, as his lips ran down her neck. Then her eyes popped open, her head lowered and the smile vanished.

     “Desecria,” she cried, her voice assuming a cruel, icy tone.

     Strands of black lightning burst from Xana’s hands, their tendrils whirling through the air, sucking the surrounding light like miniature black holes intent upon consuming every trace of joy and hope. Their energy surged into Caleb’s body, ripping through flesh, blood and bones with the ferocity of a hundred obsidians arrows, decimating everything they touched.  Caleb gasped, his eyes widening in terror and his body twitching in agony as deadly magic coursed through his veins. The spell faded, Caleb ceased twitching and his body slumped into a lifeless mass on the ground. There he laid unmoving, wisps of smoke rising from charred flesh.

     Xana smiled coldly, gazing at his corpse. After a moment, she sat down, reclining leisurely upon the cold grass.  She sat there for several moments, reflecting upon her achievement.  She remembered the young man’s words, “we, who’ve sworn to defend this holy site, will triumph over all foes.”

     “Words from a bygone era, belonging to a bygone era,” she said. “A new era awaits a new voice!”

     That which force of arms and magic had kept safe for a thousand years, human weakness had collapsed in one night. She grinned. A millennium of corpses lay at her mercy, just waiting to be transformed into an army her contemporaries could only dream of controlling and a force that all men would soon fear. Buried Grove had fallen, at last.