Ellen DeGeneres walked into the room and cleared her throat. “I’m very annoyed with you, buster.”
I quietly slid aside my Kindle, upon which I had been perusing one of those tawdry erotic novels that you hide in the Amazon cloud upon finishing, lest the wrong people review your Kindle books out of sheer boredom and discover that you’re a big ole pervert. I looked up from my desk. “Why are you always showing up when I’m doing something that has nothing to do with you?”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “Like I’ve never heard that line before. You think I got where I am today by waiting to be asked to join the party? Of course not. Now, why haven’t you finished off the matter at hand?”
I blushed slightly. “Actually, I was just reading something about someone who was trying to do that very thing. Are you also a fan of the Lonely Mountain Men of Montana series?”
Ellen sighed. “That’s the kind of wretched dialogue that keeps people from coming back to your blog. Speaking of, and more to the point, why haven’t you posted the latest entry in the 3-Word Challenge? I know you’ve had one in your inbox for over a month. And please, don’t use that last sentence to launch another Mountain Men reference.”
I was startled. “How do you know what I have or haven’t done?”
She sighed again. “You really don’t get out much, do you?”
I rolled my own eyes. “Actually, I just got back from Spain. So, yes, I do get out. Not like you on the cover of Time magazine, how can you top that, but I get around.”
“Apparently you don’t get around to your email.” She suddenly snatched up a rubber duck from my desk and threw it in a corner. (There was a small squeak upon landing, followed by one of the cats ripping it to shreds in a frenzy of suddenly-released primal instinct. Just like Jake, the self-loving mountain man in Volume 3, a story entitled Oops, I Did It Again.) “Sorry, that thing was on my nerves and I was tired of looking at it. Now, how do you plan to get out of this pickle of not doing what you should have done when you should have done it?”
I made my final move on the chessboard. “Well, what usually works for me when I’ve been irresponsible with my blogging responsibilities is that I write a humorous little intro, sometimes involving a celebrity that I don’t really know, and I hope that the whimsical dialogue will somehow assuage both the readers and the person I done wrong by not posting in a timely manner.”
“Oh,” said Ellen, processing this intel. “So, you basically used me in a power play to your own advantage.” (Over in the corner, the ravaged duck gave a final squeak and then moved on to the rubber factory in the sky.) “Well done, my friend. I’ll just let myself out. Portia is waiting in the car and we’re late for an Indigo Girls concert. I know it’s a cliché, but damn, those girls know how to give a show.” She turned to go and then turned back. “Wait, there’s one more thing.”
Me: “I’m quivering with anticipation.”
Ellen: “Do you validate parking?”
Artiste: Flint at “The Kettle Clicks…”
Three Words: muse, counterpoint, breathing
Medium: Short Story
And here we go…
Nat scooped up a finger-full of dirt and smeared it on the wall of the giant beetle shell she hid inside, …In broken bodies… she wrote in slimy uneven lines, …hear us weakly wail… the dirt, sandy in its coarseness but also viscous like mud, left dark marks on the iridescent carapace. Her poetry felt like an incantation.
Wail… pale, or sail, or trail. Or maybe even rhyme wail with gale. Is a gale suitable imagery? No, not really. She murmured; chewing over her thoughts. What is our life now? What is our hope? What is our situation? How do we cope?
She paused, tapping a grimy finger against her grimy chin. A thought struck her, not for the first time, humanity may have come full circle, having risen from hiding in caves and trees only to be reduced to hiding once again; this time inside incomprehensibly big beetles. No, stop thinking about that, Nat! She quickly began the second line of the poem; deciding it would be an elegiac quatrain, …inside the darkness… but, Nat did not know what had become of the species and home world she left behind. Nor did she know how much responsibility she bore for their fate.
Another warning in Nat’s mind told her to stop thinking about such things. Contemplating the possibilities caused her anxiety. Thinking about poetry kept her mind focused. “So, what should the next line to be?” She muttered. “Muse,” she asked, “inspire me! Stop my thoughts from wondering.”
Exactly at that moment Nat heard movement outside. A crashing and crunching of something clambering across the endless landscape of empty beetle shells: it was not the creature as it made a bigger sound, if it made any sound at all; it was not a beetle, they foraged as they went; no, this was a smaller thing. Daniel returned.
I must make him happy. She thought, rubbing the sand from between her fingers, then he’ll be calm, and might allow me to finish outputting my thoughts in poetry. Nat glanced around their shell residence, considering its cleanliness; Daniel easily found things messy. The shell comprised of two parts, a smaller thorax where legs were once attached and a larger abdomen roofed with hardened wing casings. Similar to Earth’s beetles, but still wholly alien. Mud lay scattered across the breastplate of the thorax area and quickly Nat stooped to brush it out through one of the ten empty leg sockets. Now they could stand or sleep without fear of shell fractures lacerating their skin. She hoped Daniel considered their camp clean enough to remain calm.
Nat returned her attention to her writing on the wall; longing to sit and focus on her quatrain and hoping her commander would respect her concentration, but that hope caused a twinge of pain, a dull anger really, she knew he didn’t understand; poetry was therapy, and it was futile to try and explain. Maybe he’ll soften with time? She thought, And maybe I have time to finish this poem before we move on. They had lingered in this beetle longer than most hideouts, for which Nat felt grateful; her weary ankles throbbed and the notion they would never find the arrival site again, was beginning to sink in.
The wider opening, where once a head was likely attached, inexorably drew her attention; as Daniel clumsily approached, crunching shells beneath him and disturbing the resting places of the empty Ghost beetles. They named them Ghost beetles on the first day the sun broke through the perpetual cloud cover, revealing the bugs were not made of solid black shells, like how they appeared in the dark, their casings were opaque, and sun light illuminated movement embedded in the layers. A swirling, writhing, painful movement like a thousand trapped souls locked inside for all eternity.
Daniel’s worn engineer boots thudded down in the sand outside the neck opening, his tatty grey uniform clinging to him with sweat, a gash bled on his right leg. He slung a good-sized bug head into the beetle; it clattered and crunched along the breastplate floor. Daniel clamoured in after it. “Get the meat out!” he demanded, gesturing at the hard black orb which now lay between them. “I’m fucking starving.” He sat himself down and began dressing the bleeding gash at his ankle, using a line of cloth torn from his already ragged ScienceX uniform.
“Let me help you with that.” Nat naturally moved in to assist with the bandaging.
“I said, get the meat out! I’ve been risking my life out there to bring back something to eat, now it’s time you did your bit.” Daniel’s hand moved like he might strike her, but the distance between them was too great.
He’s hungry and correct, he has been risking his life, she thought, stepping back, people get grumpy when they’re hungry. Her belly rumbled, making its own demands. “Yes sir. Of course, I’ll get you something to eat.”
Nat scrubbed the sand and slime from her hands, refreshing herself from the muggy air with water collected in an overturned shell, she joined Daniel sitting on the smooth underside of the carapace, and rolled the globoid head onto her lap; caressing its solid exterior. Staring into one of its beady black eyes, Nat briefly wondered if these beetles perceived colour and movement in the same way humans did, “Don’t you think it’s exciting that these beetles don’t have compound eyes?”
“You say that every time. Food!” Nat knew it was true, she was stalling. Her inspection of the head brought her to that dark opening at its base. Presumably, a spinal cord of sorts had once attached there, but it had been ripped from the body by that veracious creature outside, conveniently leaving enough room for a small hand to slip inside.
“What do you think an Earth entomologist would make of them?”
Of course. Apprehensive, Nat slid her arm down the neck aperture, caressing the inner opening of its skull, the gap felt about three fingers wide, tight, but not too tight. She imagined getting her hand stuck inside this head, a head even the creature couldn’t crack open, well, Nat took that thought and put it into the waste disposal in her mind, returning her concentration to sustenance retrieval. Pushing gently, her hand scraped snugly into the central cavity of the skull and her fingers sunk into the pulpy bug brain therein. It’s cafeteria scrambled eggs again, she told herself and ladled a few handfuls of the mass onto shell fractures they used as plates. Then they ate, bolting down the food in a speedy unrefined manor. Nat closed her eyes and plunged her mind into poetry, Wordsworth’s Daffodils providing her escape this lunchtime.
As the pair ate, the familiar pitter-patter of rain began. Gently at first, then stronger and faster, until it drummed on their home in dull beats, rivulets slithered down the carapace to catch in shells, which overflowed to soak the earth like a cascading ornamental waterfall. The weather here is not so different to Earth, it regularly rained, and storm clouds swirled overhead in gloomy moods. Lucky, she guessed, to find a world with liquid water; and a source of protein; enough of the fundamental needs of life to survive.
“I saw the creature again,” Daniel said, as he sucked the brains from his fingers. “It marched along the horizon like an army general. Nothing stood in its way.”
“As long as it stays on the horizon, we’ll be free to search for the arrival site.”
“It will find us one day, just like it found these bugs, just like it caught Patrick and Jordan. We’re powerless to stop a creature so magnificently skilful. We should surrender to the thing we can’t defeat. Humanity has been picking the winning side for all of its history. We gravitate towards strength. That’s why you love me.”
“I pity the thing. It’s all alone. There’s nothing but carcasses as far as the eye can see. Life is desolate and empty and as far as we can ascertain, it’s responsible; a victim of its own success.”
“Oh, but it is very much the king! It has no rival, no equal, no challenger, it has succeeded in becoming the master of its world. And has done so spectacularly! It’s the same as me back on Earth, I never had a rival in anything I did.”
“It has succeeded in becoming master of a graveyard! What kind of king has no subjects to rule over? I think it’s a spectacularly failure.”
“No, you are wrong. I will show you why you’re wrong.” He began to strip off his shirt revealing his muscular body. She knew then he wanted sex.
“The counter point to your admiration is that the creature has likely destroyed itself. How can it be successful if it’s the last of its kind?”
“We know it’s not the last of its kind.” He approached her then, opening his trousers. She let him do what he wanted to do. It will make him happy, she reasoned, and he’s calmer when he’s happy. Nat still felt pleasure from it; being a grown woman she knew how to enjoy sex. Plus, there was precious little else to live for. Daniel would be calmer after, and that was a good thing.
Nat sat, chin on knees, arms hugging her legs, gazing at the words she’d smeared, …left to calmly seethe… Daniel slept curled up in a hollow where the bug’s shell formed a deep ovoid dish. She had not bothered to replace her clothes; her words captivated her, and she desired to finish this poem before they continued their search for the arrival site. The cold shell numbed her bottom.
…our dreams… she commenced again, gulping down a lump in her throat …soon shattered… Stooping to fetch a fresh handful of sticky sand, Nat winced, a sharp pain shot up her arm. She instantly put her finger in her mouth to soothe the cut. Needing to know what had hurt her, she leaned through the socket and found a slither of shell protruding from the sand like a shark’s fin. She rolled onto her knees and began to dig the offending item from its hiding place. If either of them trod on this fragment it could prove fatal. Even though a serious accident felt inevitable in this world of splintered bug shells, Nat still felt compelled to clean it up; maybe buying herself a little more time before something truly disastrous happened.
Except, disaster had already happened. They were a long, long, long way from those happy days, those exciting days, those days of discovery and wonder, when every hour in the lab rewarded their efforts with results. In those days Daniel never uttered a swear word and behaved as calm and focused as a monk. He had been charming and encouraging. Pushing her to excel in mathematics. Leading their team in their goal to open, what they now called, the Metagate. And he had brought her coffee just as she solved that final equation. They revelled in that victory, making love in an office shower cubical, not knowing how much life was about to change.
She carefully scooped away the sand, excavating this laser thin fracture of shell; it was tiring work in the humid conditions, but as Nat dug she found this splinter increasingly fascinating. Comprised of many layers of thinner shell which had built up one below the other, each layer shimmering like an inky soap bubble, it demonstrated the beetles ability to metabolise food into larger shells as they developed into adulthood.
Finally, Nat plucked the fracture from the earth. She turned it over in her hands, it thinned to a point about a foot long and was shaped like a scalene triangle, though its wicked sharp edge made it look like some nightmarish dagger. Seeing this comparison, Nat gripped the shard by its thicker end as if by a hilt.
She extended her arm and pointed the blade in some imagined dueling challenge; squinting one eye down the length of her arm, sizing up the weapon’s value.
She swung it. This blade could slice bacon; it could effortlessly pass through any flesh.
Nat froze. Mesmerised. Why wait? She thought. They had little chance of finding the arrival site again. The world of beetle shells and creatures as big as buildings seemed to drift away at that moment, leaving her alone in a bubble of solitude with only a knife as company. It could open her veins with such ease. A painful minute would follow, but she could focus that pain, absorb it throughout her being, adore it as she slipped into sleep, with no more worries. An easier option than waiting to be eaten, or starve, or bleed to death, or whatever else she might die from. Do I wanna live forever?
Nat turned over her wrist, her veins pumped healthily, da-dum da-dum da-dum; her heart thumped, da-dum da-dum da-dum; and the song it sung possessed poetry, do-it do-it do-it. She moved her sharp new friend to her wrist.
Bang! Something crashed down into the shell debris outside their camp. Nat snapped back to the moment. Daniel still slept. There was only one reason for noise outside. The creature had found them.
The friend in her hand could now serve a new purpose, she realised.
There was another way to end this.
Naked except for her boots and armed with a single shard of ultra-sharp shell Nat slid to the neck opening and moved to confront the creature. She would go down fighting. It might eat her, it might not. The consequence mattered very little.
As she stepped into the open a blast of fresh air swept her body. The mugginess she had grown used to suddenly washed away leaving cold beads of sweat glistening on her skin, shuddering from the surprise, Nat defiantly stood to meet their hunter. And indeed, it had found them.
It stretched to far greater heights than Nat had ever realised. Moving above, way above, walking on many legs that splayed out in all directions. The thing had a mouth at its centre. Alien arms held a beetle there and every crunch that sounded was accompanied by a shower of shell fragments.
Nat stood close to one of the creature’s great limbs, and as she braced herself for an attack, it lifted, taking a step, revealing a spiked foot which left deep holes in the sand as it walked; the leg quietly swung over Nat’s head and majestically placed itself between some larger shells. She beheld a creature made of a substance more like steel than flesh. Glands or vents opened and closed along the length of its leg, jetting cold air into its surroundings. The foot alone was twice as thick and twice as high as she. Nat’s arms went limp. She realised her deadly blade would not so much as scratch this creature and the weapon slipped from her hand to stick point first into the sand. She quelled back, cursing; one moment of carelessness had put her in danger, why on Earth had she stepped out of their hiding place? It would see her now, surely, and move in to devour her like a bug. Nat’s knees weakened and she sank to the sand, as she did so a tentacle like a whaling harpoon missiled into the surrounding beetle landscape, then retracted, lifting a boat sized bug, frantically scrambling, up to its doom. Nat, slowly and pathetically crawled back inside the imagined safety of their shell like a humble puppy slinking back into its basket.
“I bet Science-X is going bat-shit crazy! There’s no chance they can operate eleven Higgs field manipulators without me leading the team. Do you want us to escape here or not?” Daniel demanded, his expression conveying utter disgust. “Move your fucking arse!”
“Of course, my dear. Why stay?” Nat, now dressed in her grey Science-X uniform, still contemplated the final line of her poem. Her encounter with the creature had filled her with emotion; when presented with a way out of this life, she had not taken it, and now desired to channel that sudden burst of feelings… “I’m alive!” Maybe being alive was a clue to her final line?
“We’re leaving now!” Daniel slung their minimal belongings over his shoulder and crouched at the neck opening. “What if Earth has re-opened the gate? By some anomaly of a chance they might have managed it. We might be sitting here waiting for you to finish your, oh so important, scribble. When we could be getting home! Do you want me to be stuck here forever?”
What if Earth is destroyed? She thought, we know a creature got through, “I’m coming…” Nat trailed off, refocusing on the final few words of her scribble. In the background Daniel persisted like a bluebottle.
“You’ll thank me later. In fact, you should be thanking me now.”
“Thank you,” she said, not really listening.
“Damn right! You’ve written enough, a simple X is sufficient to stop us walking in circles. I’ll give you one more minute, but you owe me for my kindness.” He ducked out the opening to check the way was clear. It likely would be, the creature had wondered away while Daniel slept and Nat had kept the encounter secret.
…to strive and stumble on… she smeared. That’s what they must do! Just keep going until they could go no more. Quickly, Nat reviewed her writing so far…
In broken bodies hear us weakly wail
inside the darkness left to calmly seethe
our dreams soon shattered with your power fail
to strive and stumble on…
The end of the third line she added after her encounter with the creature, she couldn’t remember why she wrote it. In the moment those words in that order had seemed important, something had bubbled up from deep inside and sculpted her thoughts in a fresh way. Then, just as quickly as the feelings occurred, they faded. Leaving her grasping for one final important thought which now eluded her. Nat puffed; if she could just finish this poem before she ran out of time, then she would be happy.
But something wasn’t right with the poem, she needed to rework the quatrain once all the lines were complete, maybe changing our to my, or… “Oh damn it! The first two lines start with in. That will have to change! And I’m lacking some coherency in meaning, too, maybe I should stick to mathematics?! But no, the final line needs to start with destined or maybe even condemned, yes, condemned is a much better word!…”
Then, how to complete the fourth line struck Nat like a gong, she laughed, “It’s so obvious now!” and quickly sketched in the final words …while we still……
Her finger reached up to paint the last word, but her head was jerked back; Daniel grabbed hold of her hair. Nat stumbled and the sticky sand dropped to the floor with a soft splat, leaving her line unfinished.
“I said we’re leaving now!” He dragged her towards the exit, pulling her through the neck of the long dead beetle.
This piece has been nominated in the following categories:
The Ray Bradbury Award for taking us where we didn’t know we could go.
The Meet the Beatles Award for Unexpected Album Title References.
The Maya Angelou Award for Creating Poetry During Unsatisfactory Predicaments.
Gratitude Award from the founder of Bonnywood Manor.
You can review more of Flint’s portfolio by clicking here.
Ellen, poking her head back in my office door: “Wow, that was one long-ass post. Do you think anybody is still reading at this point?”
Me, not poking: “Maybe, maybe not. That’s just how it goes at Bonnywood. End of the day, it’s all about helping other writers find an audience. We all just want a little validation.”
Ellen: “That’s pretty deep.”
Me: “Does that mean you might need me as a writer on your show?”
Ellen: “Gotta go. Cheers.”
Note: Opening image is an un-restored outer wall of the Cathedral of Malaga. The texture just felt right for this story.
Categories: 3-Word Challenge