Three Hours Before
Tom raced after the football when it shot over his head through the tree trunk goal posts. He muttered under his breath as his friends called after him. They called him Tom Thumb because of his size, and maybe if he wasn’t so small he might be able to save more goals. Tom took it all in good humour, they all burned each other over anything and everything and he knew it didn’t mean anything.
The football bounced over a picnic blanket and Tom apologised to the family as he flew by. When it came to a rest he bent down to pick it up and heard a commotion on the other side of the water fountain. The park was a lively place, filled with shoppers, families, students and sun worshippers, but it wasn’t all happy smiles and relaxed people enjoying their lunch. The area behind the water fountain was known as Hobo Corner, a place where the homeless gathered to enjoy the park but set back from the main throng.
Tom had seen the homeless folk beneath the trees many times, with their bags and shabby clothes, passing bottles of cider to each other and rolling tiny cigarettes. His Dad constantly warned him to stay out their way, there were most likely harmless but it wasn’t worth bothering them just in case. Tom didn’t think they looked dangerous, more lonely and gloomy, trying to stay alive in a world that ignored them.
With football in hand and ignoring his friends calling for him to come back, Tom edged around the fountain to see where the raised voices were coming from. A small group of lads were gathered around a man who was trying to fend them off as best he could. The lads were typical of a sunny afternoon in the park, boisterous and cocky, shirts off, pea sized muscles puffed up with self-importance and arrogance. They weren’t bad lads but it only took one comment to kick-start something that could inevitably lead to trouble.
The homeless man had a ragged beard and lank greasy hair that fell around his face like the branches of a weeping willow. He wore dirty blue jeans, muddy boots and a faded green t-shirt. At his feet was a large backpack, probably filled with everything he owns, thought Tom. The group of lads were interested in something the homeless guy had in his hand. They were jeering and laughing as they tried to snatch it away from him.
Tom had little experience with bullies, a few comments on his size was all he’d ever received, but he knew what a bully looked like. Tom felt a sudden anger rise through him. He glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed trouble brewing, but as always most people ignored Hobo Corner. He hadn’t realised how close he had got until he could hear their voices.
“Come on old man, we’re thirsty,” said a lad with red shorts and a chunky gold necklace. “Share the wealth you dirty hobo, that’s what my Dad taught me.”
The others snickered. “Just grab it, Lance,” said another lad with a black wrist band. “He don’t need it anyway, his mates will give him some booze to quench his thirst.”
“Yeah, that’s all they drink anyways,” said Lance. “You don’t need it, old man, come on.”
As the group of lads shifted around the old man Tom spotted what he was holding, a small bottle of water with a strange logo on the side. He clutched it against his chest and waved his other hand to try to ward them off.
“Gerrof me,” said the hobo. “Taint yours. Taint nothin’ to do wi’you lot. Bug’rof an’ leave me alone.”
“That’s not very nice is it?” asked a lad with tanned arms and white chest. “We asked you nice like and now you’re acting all victimized and shit.”
“Yeah,” said Lance, clearly the leader. “If anything we’re the victims here. We’re thirsty and you’re holding out on us.”
Red Shorts laughed. “Probably a bottle of his piss anyway.”
This brought on another round of laughter. Tom noticed a fourth lad hung back from his mates and had yet to say anything. He wore blue track suit bottoms and a white baseball cap. Tom thought he looked uncomfortable with his mates bullying fun.
“We want your bottle of piss, old man,” said Wrist Band. “Cos we want to pour it over your face, you know, so you can be all refreshed and shit.”
“Jus’ leave me be, ye young fools,” said the hobo. “I ain’t gonna warn ye again.”
“Ooh, he’s giving us a warning,” said White Chest. He poked the hobo with a finger. “What you gonna do about it, old man? There are four of us and just you.”
Baseball Cap suddenly spotted Tom lingering a few feet away. “Guys, there’s some kid watching us. Maybe we should just leave the old twat alone, yeah?”
The others turned to look at Tom and Tom just stared right back at them. Lance stamped a foot on the dry grass as if to scare Tom away. Tom frowned at the gesture but didn’t move.
“Fuck off, shorty,” said Lance. “This ain’t none of your business.”
“Guys, let’s go,” said Baseball Cap.
“Yeah, before he goes and tells him mummy on us,” said Wrist Band. He laughed and the others joined in. “What ya gonna do, shorty? You gonna cry to your mummy?”
“I don’t have a mum,” said Tom.
“Short and an orphan,” Lance said with a sneer.
“I’m not an orphan. I’ve got a Dad and he’ll be here soon.”
White Chest burst out laughing. “What’s he gonna do? Beat us up? Call the cops? Ooh I’m so scared I’ve shat my pants.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Lance. “It’s running all down my leg I’m so frightened.”
“No it isn’t,” said Tom, after a quick glance at Lance’s legs.
“Of course it isn’t you duckweed,” said Lance. “I was being sarcasmic.”
“It’s sarcastic,” said Tom. He didn’t see the look of shock on their faces. “Why are you bullying him? There’s a kiosk over there that sells ice-cold drinks and ice creams.”
Lance stepped right up to Tom and stared down at him. Tom could see dark spots of stubble on his chin and a blackened tooth when he smiled. “Did you call me a bully? What gives you the right to call me names and make me look bad in front of my mates?”
“Because that’s what you are,” said Tom.
Lance raised his hand but held it in the air when Tom didn’t flinch. “Are you stupid or something, shorty? You look stupid.”
“Maybe he’s Forest Gump’s brother,” said Wrist Band.
Tom shook his head. “I don’t have a brother.” He walked around Lance and stood in front of the hobo. “And my Dad won’t beat you up or call the cops either.”
“So what you gonna do then?” asked White Chest. “Fight us all to protect your hobo pal?”
“Guys, seriously, he’s just a kid.” Baseball Cap looked very worried.
Lance waved a hand to silence him. “A kid who called me a bully,” he said. “Answer the question, squirt, you going to fight us all?”
Tom shrugged. He knew this wasn’t the smartest thing he’d done in a while but at least he had evened the odds a bit, four against two looked better even if they were much bigger than him or the hobo.
“Yes,” he said after a moment.
“Kid,” mumbled the hobo. “Taint worth it, leave ‘em be. Let ‘em take what’s comin’ to ‘em.”
“All on your own?” asked Wrist Band. “You against us?”
Tom smiled. “No. Not on my own.”
“Yeah,” said a voice behind Lance. “Now it’s you against us.”
The lads turned to face Tom’s friends and Baseball Cap sighed. Tom’s best friend, Rob, was stood in the centre, looking worried yet defiant.
“Now there’re ten of us against the four of you,” said Tom. “Only we’re not the bullies, we’re the heroes. So, you still want that fight?”
Tom saw their defeat when Lance looked around at his mates. He hadn’t been scared at any point because he was certain nothing bad would happen. He wouldn’t be able to explain how he knew, he just did, like how he knew the sky was blue and water was wet. From the moment Baseball Cap spotted him, Tom knew how it would all turn out as it should, not as everyone saw it.
Lance rounded on Tom, fury in his eyes. “Keep your smelly hobo, short arse,” he said. “I’m bored with him anyway. C’mon guys, let’s leave these gay lords alone.”
The lads trooped away and Tom threw the football to Rob. “Thanks,” he said. “Nice timing.”
“Jesus, Tom, what were you thinking, man?” asked Rob.
Tom shrugged. “They were bullying him.”
“They could have hurt you,” said Rob. He looked half relieved and half scared.
“Yeah but they didn’t,” replied Tom. “Like I said, nice timing.”
“I guess. Let’s go finish the game.”
“I’ll join you in a sec,” said Tom. He rolled his eyes when Rob gaped at him. “I just want to make sure he’s okay. Don’t worry, they won’t come back. I’ll catch up with you.”
Rob and the others headed back across the park and Tom faced the hobo who was stood there, protecting his bottle. The hobo lifted his eyes cautiously and peered at Tom through his lank strands of hair. For a moment they looked at each other, Tom knew what he was going to say but he suspected the hobo was lost for words.
“Are you okay now, mister?”
“Yrrr. It’s safe. Am good. Morons and pipsqueaks is but they are, wi’ nowt but shit fo’ brains and the banter of fools to get ‘em through life.”
“Do you need anything?” asked Tom. He felt sorry for the hobo. “I can run and get you a hot dog if you’d like? They smell great.”
“M’good. Dunt need no junk food,” said the hobo. He slowly lowered himself to the ground beside his backpack. “Shit ain’t no good for ye. I got alls I need right here.”
“Okay then,” said Tom. He looked across the park and saw no sign of the lads. “They won’t bother you again, mister. Hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon. I’m going to finish the game with my friends. Nice to have met you.”
The hobo offered no reply and Tom turned and walked away.
“You saw it as it should be,” the hobo called after him. “Didn’t ye?”
Tom stopped. The hobo’s words ran through his mind over and over like an echo. Slowly he turned and looked at the old man sat on the grass, the bottle of water cradled in his arms.
“That’s why ye did what ye did, ain’t it?” said the hobo. “Because you see ev’rything as it should be seen, not how it is.”
Tom nodded and for the first time was lost for words. He walked back to the hobo and sat down in front of him. He glanced at the bottle of water. It was crystal clear with droplets of water running down the side. That that wasn’t possible. The hobo had been stood there for twenty minutes at least, maybe longer, no way could an ice-cold bottle of water still be chilled like that.
“What did you mean when you said it was safe?” asked Tom.
The hobo showed his missing teeth when he grinned. “This is what’s safe,” said the hobo. He held out the bottle. “G’on, touch it, won’t bother ye none.” Tom touched a finger to the side. “Ice cold ain’t it? Bet ye be wonderin’ how and why and all sorta questions, ye?”
“To them that want, want, want, this could be jus’ water, young Boon. Plain old water. Cold but jus’ water. But fo’ them what need it’s more’n water. Much more.”
“How is water more than water?” asked Tom.
“When it’s life itself,” said the hobo. “Only when it needs t’be mind ye. Without it we’re dry husks, old bark on a dead tree or kindling for a fire. Water is life. It gives us strength, hope, energy, power an’ can be that beacon o’ light amongst the darkness.”
“Water does all that?”
“Not does, can. When the time is right.”
Tom suspected the hobo was either drunk or on drugs. But something in the old man’s voice made him question his assumptions. Why was he telling Tom all this?
“Because ye need this more’n I do,” replied the hobo. Tom felt the hair on his neck tingle. “Fo’ when it happens. Ye will see how it should be an’ how it has to be. Ain’t many folk around who see like yeself, not the reality of the world but the possibilities that hide under the surface.”
The hobo chuckled and coughed. Tom was alarmed to see flecks of blood in his beard.
“Took me a lifetime to figure that out,” said the hobo. “An’ then I finds a kid who knows more’n I do.”
“I don’t know anything,” said Tom. “I’m just playing football with my friends.”
“Fo’ now. But later – “
The hobo was wracked with a fit of coughing. He rolled onto his backpack, arms wrapped around him until he stopped. He held out a shaking hand to Tom and Tom helped him to his feet. A trickle of blood and mucus dribbled over the hobo’s beard.
“Are you okay?” asked Tom. He fetched out his phone. “I can call an ambulance?”
“M’good.” The hobo thrust the bottle of water into Tom’s hands. “Take it. Keep it safe till the time’s right. Ye’ll know the when an’ where an’ how, jus’ don’t question the why, ye get me?”
Tom didn’t know what to say or do. “I think so,” he said. He didn’t get it all. “Are you sure you don’t need me to call an ambulance? It won’t take long. I can wait here with you. I don’t mind.”
“Get off an’ play wi’ ye friends,” said the hobo. He hauled his backpack over his shoulder and stared at Tom with slate grey eyes. “Ye know, for a second or two I weren’t too sure if ye were goin’ to show up. Had me a worryin’ an sweatin’ for a while.”
“Show up?” asked Tom. He was beyond bewildered at that point.
“Yrr, but ye did an’ the rest as they say be history.” The hobo turned to leave then stopped. “Ye make sure it’s a good history, ye get me?”
“Um, okay,” said Tom. Wasn’t history in the past?
The hobo pointed at the bottle in Tom’s hands and smiled. “Like Gandalf says t’Frodo, keep it secret, keep it safe. Ye got hope an’ salvation in there, don’t go wastin’ it on ye thirst.” He pointed to the kiosk on the other side of the park. “Get yeself a bottle o’ Cola if ye thirsty.”
Tom twisted to see where the hobo was pointing. When he turned back the old man was pushing his way through the bushes as he left the park. Tom stared at the bottle of water. The logo on the side was a simple design – a single orange flame reaching up and a blue drop of water pouring over it like the Chinese yin yang symbol.
The strange conversation with the hobo had left Tom rattled and worried. He was tempted to follow the old man and ask him what the hell he was talking about but he doubted he would make any more sense, not that he made much sense at all. There wasn’t much Tom could do other than get back to the football game. Of the many things that puzzled him, Tom couldn’t work out how the hobo had known his name, one only his Dad called him.
Two Hours Before
When Lee wheeled Caroline into the supermarket the air conditioning hit them with an icy blast. Lee was sure the sweat on his face had crystallised. Sure it was hot outside but did the supermarket really need to waste so much energy to create arctic conditions?
They gathered party food, bottles of pop, balloons and party poppers and hung around too long in the chilled foods section. Lee shook his head in disbelief; if they turned off the chillers the air conditioning would keep the food cool all by itself.
“What do you fancy, Cal?” he asked.
“Something colourful,” she replied and pointed to the plastic tubs on the middle shelf. “Sweet chilli noodles look good, the one with the salad.”
Lee placed two in the trolley. “Reckon I’ll join you,” he said. “I could use some colour today.”
They waited in line at the checkout. Caroline took out her purse but Lee shook his head. “I got this,” he said. “Seriously. You do enough for me and Tom as it is. My treat.”
Caroline put away her purse. Lee hadn’t told her yet but he was planning to move out soon into a small apartment near the city centre. The split from his wife and the divorce had driven him to the edge of his sanity but it had done wonders for his art. In the last twelve months Lee had sold more paintings than in the previous five years. He gave Caroline enough money to pay for what they used and a little extra for the luxuries he knew she desired but couldn’t afford.
Lee never believed he would be able to pick himself up so fast, financially speaking. He figured he would always be broken, that his faith in trust and loyalty would remain shattered, but he was determined not to let Tom see that side of him. Caroline had taken them in without question and Lee was feeling guilty about leaving. She thrived on their company and he didn’t know how to break the news to her without appearing ungrateful.
He hoped she would understand but he feared her reaction, but more than that he worried about leaving her alone. Was he doing the right thing? Did he really have to leave just so they could have a place of their own? They were okay at Caroline’s, everyone got on well and shared laughter as well as tears. He could never thank her enough for the kindness she had shown them. And he suspected Caroline was silently grateful for Lee’s company, more importantly sitting with her as she talking about her husband and the grief that had consumed her life.
Maybe today wasn’t the right time to tell her. It would keep.
They loaded the conveyor belt with food and Lee packed bags at the end of the checkout. Caroline pointed to a poster on the wall for Water Aid. It was a simple design; the head of a watering can sprinkled a rainbow of water over the faces of smiling children. It was cleverly made to look as if it had been drawn by children, but Lee knew better. He reigned in his cynicism and decided he liked the poster after all, it was bold and clear in its message and water was a right not a privilege.
“Would you like to give a donation?” asked the check out girl. “Water Aid is our charity of the month.”
“Sure. I’m all for a good cause,” said Lee. He dropped a five pound note in the collection bucket and smiled at Caroline. “Pay it forwards I say. You never know when we might need water aid.”
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 3 photos as a prompt. This SPP had another great twist which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed slipping into Ground Fall.
There’s no Arcane Insane this week, apologies dear blog reader, but the painting at the top of this post (Resilience by Christina Deubel) pulled me in with such force that all I’ve worked on this piece since last Sunday, 24th July. I’ve been kicking a plot idea around for some time but couldn’t find the right way to approach it or how to get it started.
Years ago I wrote a number of short stories between 10,000 and 30,000 words, not realising they weren’t really short stories but novellas. I had plenty of time on my hands and this seemed the right length to tell those tales. Now I’m back into the swing of writing I’m finding the stories take on a life of their own, and Ground Fall is no exception.
Part 1 is around 3,700 words, Part 2 and Part 3 are about the same, Part 4 & Part 5 are roughly 6,000 words each. Part 5 is the conclusion! I estimated the entire piece would finish at around 15,000 words but the final count was 21,000. Ah well, a story tells itself in its own way, who am I to argue! I didn’t want to make you groan with the size so I’m splitting it into chunks, easier on the eyes I hope!
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.