It all happened so fast and without warning.
Lee was sat on the grass at the edge of the park, a can of cream soda in one hand and a sweet chilli noodle salad in the other. Families enjoyed their picnics, children played football and teenagers lazed on the grass, their tinny music drifting in the soft warm breeze. The central tree-lined path was riddled with shoppers licking ice creams and chewing hot dogs.
It took mere seconds for that beautiful Saturday afternoon to plummet into chaos. Lee felt the ground shake and saw the alarm on the faces around him as clouds of dust and smoke belched across the park. H|e heard someone yell out that bombs were going off all over the city. Like an insane Mexican wave, people began screaming and running in random directions. Lee had a stocky muscular build but he struggled to keep from being pushed over by the crowds. Leaves fell like confetti as trees rocked back and forth; their roots broke through the soil and whipped into the air.
His first thought was about his son, Tom, who had been playing football with his friends less than a minute ago. In the confusion he had lost sight of him and like everyone else he called out, hoping, praying Tom would hear his father’s voice over the bedlam. Within seconds his throat burned from the smoke and he started to cough.
Lee grabbed a paper napkin from their picnic blanket and held it against his mouth. The smoke stung his eyes as he shoved his way through the traffic of wide-eyed people streaming around him. He lost his footing and hit the ground. Someone stepped on his hand and another tripped over his feet and landed on his back. He cried out, pushed the body away from him and crawled toward a nearby bench. The smoke and dust had mixed together to create a thick black fog and within seconds Lee was disoriented. He reached the concrete slab but the bench was gone.
A hand grabbed his arm and another gripped his shoulder. Lee looked up through tear filled eyes and made out the grim expression on Caroline’s face.
“Don’t move an inch, kiddo,” she said. “Pop off my break and push me over there.”
Lee would have argued on any other day but he recognised the barely restrained panic in her voice. He unlocked the break on his mother-in-laws wheelchair and rolled her in the direction she pointed, straight into the surge of frightened people. Some forced their way around, half blinded by the darkness, but others saw the wheelchair and stopped in their tracks to let them through. For the moment Lee didn’t question what had happened or why so many people were following each other like an insane conga-line.
When they reached a clearing beside an uprooted oak tree, Lee applied the break and gasped for breath. His lungs burned but he ignored the pain. He handed the napkin to Caroline and pulled his t-shirt over his mouth. He could hear sirens in the distance, the emergency services were on their way but Lee couldn’t wait for them, he needed to find his son. He remembered watching the horror of the fear filled streets on TV of 9/11 and the devastation of the July 7 London Bombings – but he never imagined such an atrocity happening in his part of the world. Somehow terrorists had struck at the heart of the city and Tom was out there somewhere, afraid, hurt or worse.
Lee pushed that thought from his mind. Tom was going to be okay. He was a smart kid, smart enough not to do anything stupid and was likely fighting his way back to their picnic area. Lee stared at the crowds, the volume of people stampeding around the park made the ground tremble. Through the black fog he spotted the remains of the chequered picnic blanket and the blue and white cool box, trampled by the masses. Tom was small for his age and no match for the wall of people pushing and shoving in all directions.
He leaned toward Caroline. “You’ll be okay here for a bit, okay Cal?” he said into her ear. “I have to find Tom.”
“Best you stay here,” Caroline replied. She pointed a shaking finger at the crowds. “Running blind like these crazy fools will get you nowhere fast and it won’t help Tom if you get lost.”
“He could be hurt,” said Lee. “I have to go. No one’s coming over here so you’ll be fine till I get back.”
With a hand on his arm and shook her head. “Patience is a virtue, dearest. The smoke’s clearing up.”
She was right, shafts of sunlight were breaking through the thick fog and people had stopped running. Under the tree it was difficult to see what everyone was staring at. A sudden silence replaced the cries of pain and fear. The smoke and dust faded away as quickly as it had appeared. Lee took a few steps toward their picnic area then stopped.
“That’s not possible,” he said, his voice cracked and quiet. He turned and stared at Caroline. “Can you see that too?”
“I see it,” she replied. “But I don’t believe it.”
Five Hours Before
Thomas Jenkins was in a rush. He was always in a rush in the mornings, there was just too much to do and avoid doing like brushing his teeth and finding his school bag. Stupid homework, stupid pencil case, stupid everything. Saturday’s were just as chaotic. His Dad insisted he ate breakfast, all of it, then brushed his teeth and tidied his bedroom before he was allowed to go and play with his mates. Tom hated tidying his bedroom; everything was where he needed it – on the floor. It was like a giant shelf. It wasn’t as if his Dad needed to find his Xbox games was it? Well, maybe he did, but the floor was the best place to look for them.
So he tidied half of his room by stuffing clothes into draws, clean and dirty alike, and the rest he kicked under the bed. He gave his room a quick inspection and decided it was good enough. I’ll tidy it properly later, or this evening, maybe Sunday evening, no wait, Dad wouldn’t make me tidy my room on my birthday, would he?
In the hallway he thrust his feet into a scuffed pair of Reebok’s, jammed his Nintendo DS into his shorts pocket and grabbed a football from the hall cupboard.
“Boon, did you brush your teeth?” his Dad asked. He was sat in the kitchen sipping coffee.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Tom. He cringed every time his Dad called him that. Okay, you got your wish, but that was ten years ago, Dad, give it a rest. “Check my brush if you want. It’s wet.”
“Doesn’t mean your teeth are clean,” said his Dad with a knowing smile.
“I brushed them, okay?” said Tom, exasperated with every little detail his Dad picked up on. Gotta go Dad, everyone’s waiting for me, less chatter more bye-bye. “I really did brush them. Honest. Scouts honour.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
“I don’t wear knickers,” said Tom.
“I’m not a kid,” replied Tom. He was inching closer to the front door. “I wear boxers now.”
“Of course. Ten is very grown up. You’re practically a man.”
“Ha ha. Very funny. Anyway I’m nearly eleven.”
“Man plus one,” said his Dad with an approving nod.
“Uh-huh. Can I go? Rob and that are waiting for me.”
“Bedroom all tidy?”
Tom checked his mobile phone when it beeped. It was Rob. WER U AT? “Yes. I cleaned it,” Tom replied. He sighed and sagged against the door. “I’ll do the rest later, promise.”
“So it’s not tidy?” his Dad asked. When he saw the smirk on his face he wanted to scream at him.
“It’s half tidy, that’s better than fully messy isn’t it?”
“I’ll give you that one,” his Dad said. “And have you called your Mum? You know she wants to come round and drop off your birthday present in the morning.”
Tommy squirmed. He didn’t like talking about his Mum. “I’ll call her tonight. She’s probably busy anyway. I hate leaving messages because she never calls me back.”
“Come on, Boon, be fair. She does call you.”
Tom picked at the England badge on his football shirt. “When it suits her,” he said.
“She needs to know what time to come.”
“At lunchtime,” stated Tom. “Doesn’t matter if I said eleven past eight she’d still show up at lunchtime. I don’t know why she bothers. Sometimes wish she wouldn’t.”
“She tries, Boon. It’s not easy for her now, with him and that family.”
Tom didn’t want to argue. He wanted to get going but his Dad always dragged up the same old junk right before he was leaving to meet his friends, like he wanted to ruin his day. His Mum wasn’t around, and clearly didn’t want to be. Tom had been reduced to an afterthought, the last item on the list that wasn’t important.
“It’s not easy for us either, Dad. Why do I have to do the calling? If she wants to see me then she should do the calling. It’s not fair.”
“I know it doesn’t seem like it sometimes but you have to meet her half way.”
“I don’t have to do anything.” Tom kicked his football at the door. “She left us, remember? Why do you always stick up for her?”
His Dad sighed. “I’ll call her and arrange a time. Okay?”
“Don’t bother,” Tom snapped. “She’ll only make you cry again.”
They had reached an impasse. Tom wanted to give his Dad a hug but he was too angry to move away from the front door. What was wrong with him? Mum had moved on with her life, why couldn’t he? He wanted to see his Mum but only if she made the effort to put him top of the list once in a while. Was that too much to ask?
His phone beeped again and he sent a text back to Rob. B THER IN 10.
“Can I go now?”
“She still loves you,” his Dad said.
“Sure, whatever.” Tommy watched his Gran roll into the hall and felt guilty for breaking her indoor voices in the morning rule. “Hey Gran, I didn’t mean to wake you. Me and Dad were just talking.”
“Arguing more like it,” said Caroline. She gave them both a stern look. “You ought to give him a break about my daughter’s devilish ways. She’s a sinner and won’t thank you for sticking up for her. And you, young Thomas, stop giving your Dad a hard time. Remember the painting you did a few weeks back? Well when it’s raining we all use the same umbrella, no one stands in the rain, kiddo.”
Tom stared at the faded green hallways carpet. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“No harm done, kiddo. Go on, get out of here and find your friends. Remember, we’re meeting at one in the park. Don’t be late.”
Tom saw his Dad roll his eyes. I’m a kid, I’m always late. There’s stuff to do that’s way more fun than meeting my Dad and Gran for lunch. Tom gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile and yanked open the door.
“Bye Gran,” he called over his shoulder. “See you at the park.”
Four Hours Before
Caroline understood the need for privacy better than most, being confined to a wheelchair for over a decade she had never gotten used to it. She accepted help with reluctance, never made a song and dance about her condition and put on a brave face. No point crying over spilled milk, she would tell herself, what’s done is done and life still goes on, wheelchair or no. But in her quiet moments she often wept, wishing her husband was still alive to give her the strength she needed to get through another day. She never showed those moments of weakness to her family and since her daughter had abandoned her son-in-law and only child, Caroline used all her strength to help them cope with the devastation.
Lee and Tom had been forced to sell their home during the divorce and Caroline did the decent thing by inviting them to move in with her. It wasn’t ideal but she wouldn’t see them homeless or struggling to pay extortionate rent. The question of why her daughter would act so selfishly would haunt Caroline until the day she died.
She never admitted it but she hadn’t realised how lonely life had been since Henry had passed on. Their home felt empty and quiet without his laughter. It was as if she had gone colour blind only not through the loss of sight but loss of emotion, everything seemed stunted and pale like an old faded newspaper confined to a dusty old box. Lee and Tom had brought colour and vitality back into her life. They gave her a purpose, someone to care for and worry about instead of staring at her own bleak future. If only Lee could resolve his issues with his ex-wife, that cloud would drift away and he could move on and be happy.
Caroline was in the back room which had been turned into a temporary studio for Lee’s artwork. As she listened to him talking on the phone she gazed at his latest work, a dull grey landscape of heavy clouds pressing down on a wooden shack huddled in the depths of a valley. The dull blue grey water of the valley river made her feel cold and sad. Despite the melancholy implied in the painting a narrow rickety bridge that spanned the river gave her a sense that Lee wasn’t completely lost in his sadness. Scratched into the painting under the bridge was one word: Grabhorn. Caroline didn’t know if that was the name of the painting or the name of the valley.
Compared to his previous works his new paintings were depressing and filled with misery. There must be some very unhappy folk in the world because those things are going like hot cakes. Lee couldn’t paint them fast enough and his agent said if he painted 24 hours a day he’d be a rich man by the end of the year.
Her attention was drawn to Tom’s classroom painting pinned to the corner of the canvas. Her eyes flicked over the colours and settled on the solitary figure in the yellow coat. He didn’t look cold in the splashes of rain that bled from the trees, but more at ease and accepting of the situation. One hand held an umbrella but the other hung limp at his side, no not limp but…she leaned forward to get a better look. The man under the tree was facing away but Caroline felt he was holding something in his hand when realistically it should have been tucked safe and warm in the pocket of his big yellow coat.
A crash in the kitchen indicated the phone call was over. Caroline didn’t move. When Lee had calmed down she would put the kettle on and they’d talk it through. She knew he didn’t like to talk about it, like it was embarrassing to rage about his ex-wife to her mother. Caroline wasn’t the sort to mince her words, she told it like it is, her daughter was a bitch and would never be welcome back, not while there was breath left in her old body.
Lee shuffled into the studio, a sheepish look on his face. “Sorry about that.” He slumped into an armchair beside her and sighed. “She’s not coming. She wanted to know if next weekend was okay with Tom.”
Caroline smiled and patted his hand. “And you said no.”
Lee rolled his eyes. “Why should he have to wait? He deserves to see his mother on his birthday, not next bloody week.”
“I got the cake,” said Caroline. Lee needed a distraction and she didn’t want to acknowledge what a nasty piece of work her daughter had turned into. “And the postman delivered the game he’s been rattling on about for weeks. It’s all wrapped up. Did you get everything organised?”
“It’s all booked,” said Lee. He looked at his artwork. “The graffiti artist will take Tom and three friends on a whirlwind tour of street art then teach them how to hold a spray can and let them loose in her studio. It’ll keep them amused for the afternoon while we get the place ready for the party.”
Caroline followed Lee’s gaze. “He’ll love it. The boy’s got the touch, can’t say less than that.”
“Boon sees the world as it should be,” said Lee.”Or maybe as he wants it to be.”
For a moment Caroline sensed her son-in-law was on the verge of breaking down and crying. She was ready to comfort him but he sniffed back the tears and stood up.
“When you’re good we’ll head into town,” he said. “I’d like to get some supplies before we head for the park.”
“Okay kiddo. Give me twenty minutes to get myself together.”
Caroline knew Lee had a love hate relationship with his craft. His art flowed out of him and imprinted his mood on the canvas. She wheeled herself closer to the brooding grey painting. She didn’t look at it but at Tom’s classroom painting pinned to the top of the canvas. A few weeks ago Tom came home from school, slapped the painting on the kitchen table, sagged into a chair and aimed a deep frown at her.
After considerable encouragement from Caroline he explained that his art teacher had given him a C- for his painting but Rob, his best friend, had received an A for his painting of a house on a hill.
“A house, Gran.” Tom kicked at the cupboards and scowled. “It was crap, I mean rubbish, really, really rubbish. He even painted a big yellow sun and a bit of sky at the top.”
“That’s where the sky belongs isn’t it?”
She remembered the look of utter bewilderment on Tom’s face. “No. The sky is everywhere. It doesn’t go at the top. And the sun isn’t yellow neither, it’s all sortsa different colours.”
“Did it have a smiley face and a hat?” asked Caroline.
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“Just a guess.”
“He got an A, Gran.” Tom fiddled with his phone, tapping it on the kitchen table. “Even Suzy Becker got a B for her painting of a dog. And it only had three legs.”
Caroline offered a variety of different reasons why his teacher had given him a C- but Tom just frowned and shook his head. He didn’t understand why his painting got such a poor mark. Caroline knew Tom had a different outlook than most kids his age, he was sloppy and messy just like his friends, but when it came to art her Grandson had a gift. That much was obvious. Caroline wasn’t an art expert but she recognised rare talent when she saw it.
Alone in the studio she stared at Tom’s painting. It was a simple yet complex work, a solitary figure in a yellow coat stood beneath a skeletal tree. The figure sheltered under an umbrella plastered with a myriad of coloured rain that dripped from the overhead branches. She was hypnotised by the depth and use of colours, the way paint had rolled down the paper gave the picture a haunted feel. At first glance she had assumed the kaleidoscope of colours were autumn leaves on the ground but each time she looked they seemed to change as if shifting upwards toward the figure. They weren’t leaves but flames. But that meant some of the colour reflected in the branches could also be flames, and the coloured rain was trying to douse them somehow.
When she showed the painting to Lee he agreed it was a fantastic piece of art, worthy of an A+ and nothing less. When Caroline asked him what he thought it meant, Lee shrugged and said it was just how Tom saw things, not as they were but as they should be. Lee had pinned it to his current painting and said maybe it would inspire him to lift his dark mood.
Caroline was not superstitious by nature, but since her husband had passed on she had started to question her beliefs. Nothing as clichéd as ghosts or the afterlife but she spent a lot of time thinking about destiny and fate. Was her husband destined to die when he did or was it a freak accident? If she opened her eyes could she see a pathway set out for her own life?
Tom’s painting frightened her yet at the same time she found it intoxicating and uplifting. Each time it caught her eye she wheeled herself over and stared intently at it until it consumed her every thought. The figure in the yellow coat looked like he was waiting for something to happen, maybe he was watching the coloured rain as it worked its magic on the flames.
Caroline shook herself when she heard Lee talking.
“Sorry, I was away with the fairies,” she said. The strange spell was broken and she blinked to clear her thoughts. “Are you ready?”
Lee chuckled. “I’ve been ready for half an hour.”
“You never were much of a joker,” Caroline replied. She saw Lee’s puzzled look. “I know I’m getting on a bit but it most certainly has not been thirty minutes.”
Lee pointed at the clock on the wall. “Time doesn’t lie, Cal,” he said. He shrugged. “Hey, I take that as a compliment. My latest piece has caught your eye. Come on, I’ll get the car ready.”
Caroline nodded slowly and turned back to the rainbow tree. When the front door opened a draft snatched at the painting and lifted it away from the canvas. Caroline surprised herself with her quick reactions and picked it out of the air. There was no reason not to pin it back up but she hesitated, held it in her hands and gazed at the painting once more.
He sees things as they should be, not as they are.
To be continued.
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.