Posts Tagged ‘Tree’

Blood & Stuffing (Short Story)

March 26, 2015

blood-stuffingFrom the journal of famed adventurer, Max Condor, circa 2015:

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a velveteen nightmare? Well, I have–and I assure you, it’s not pretty. The first time you’re cornered by a vicious, rabid Plushie, and you have to stare into its black, beady gaze, you know the true meaning of the word fear. And here on Teddy Bear Island, fear is woven into the very atmosphere. You breathe it like oxygen. You learn real fast to either embrace it and let it motivate you to survive, or it’ll clog your lungs like mothballs and force you underground.

Strength through fear, or death through unwillingness to adapt and survive. On Teddy Bear Island, that’s the only choice you get. Luckily for me, I made my choice a long time ago.

But…who are the Plushies? What are they? Where did they come from? How did they come to power? I guess nobody knows; nor does anyone know who built that accursed Teddy Bear Temple. For myself, I just know that I’ve lived in that evil Teddy Bear shadow my whole life. And from everything I’ve seen and experienced in this place, I can honestly say one thing for certain: the only good Plushie, is a dead Plushie. Because that’s the bottom line. We humans are now the hunted…so it’s us, or them…in a war to the death…

That’s how I’ve come to find myself hiding in this musty cave a few miles south of The Temple. No food, no water. A tight ball of fear in my stomach. Waiting for death, so I can join my comrades in the afterlife.

You see, I’m the only one left. One of three. Max Condor; brigand, scout, and expert with the longbow. Phoenix Kline; adept of the mystic arts. And Raven-In-The-Wood; warrior, and master of the sword. I’d known Phoenix since childhood. Raven I met one day while exploring. The three of us quickly formed a partnership; venturing out to wage a guerilla campaign against the Plushies. We’d figured at the time that three was the magic number. Too small to draw much attention, but enough to get ourselves out of any trouble we might stumble into. Three was perfect for splitting the overnight watches on our campouts, and each of us felt safer knowing he had two other professionals watching his back. Not to mention that our combined talents made us more resourceful than twice as many average explorers.

In short, we were the best. We made names for ourselves very quickly. Everyone knew us, far and wide, though very few actually knew our faces. We gave the others hope. Hope that the Plushies wouldn’t prey on humankind forever. Hope that one day all of the evil on Teddy Bear Island would be vanquished. And with every mission, with every success, the flame of humanity began to burn higher, and ever brighter.
But this time, something went wrong.

It began with the amulet. Early in his training, Phoenix had heard whisperings of the “Baal de Fuego,” a powerful amulet that gives its possessor ultimate control over fire. Phoenix, in his study of mystical lore, had specialized in the summoning of elements. Wind, lightning…and fire. Especially fire! Nothing scares the hell out of, or utterly ruins a Plushie quite like an open flame. Unfortunately, summoning elements is quite taxing and dangerous to those who wield those powers. But, supposedly, this Baal de Fuego grants its owner the power to summon, control, and intensify any fire with frightening ease. Only a trained spell caster can touch it without erupting into flame, and in the hands of an elemental sorcerer it could turn our war against the Plushies around.

I have to admit, I lusted after that amulet almost as much as Phoenix did. I love the smell of charred Plushie in the morning.

So, after many long hours of poring through ancient spell books, contemplating the riddles offered by his mentors, and studying maps, Phoenix–and subsequently, Raven and I–came to believe that the Baal de Fuego had been either lost or buried somewhere within the web of caverns in which I now hide. It didn’t take long for us to agree on the course of action which ultimately led to our destruction. But there was no way to know that at the time. All we knew was that the Baal de Fuego belonged in no wizard’s hands save Phoenix Kline’s, and we meant to find it!

Fortunately, the caverns we sought were but three days journey from Canary La; a small village we’d passed through many times before. The locals knew us, and our reputations could buy most anything we’d need at a fraction of the cost. So we made our way there, slowly, carefully, avoiding trouble and rationing our supplies. Once at Canary La, we rested for two days, stocked up, and finalized our plan.

The first day went smoothly. We left just before dawn, invigorated by the slight chill, and comfortable in the shadowy wilderness. Most of the creatures around us were asleep, or drifting in that direction. The trail was familiar and well-worn, and nothing arose to disturb us. As we walked, Phoenix kept watch straight ahead. Raven, bringing up the rear, watched behind us. I, of course, kept my gaze slightly elevated, scanning the trees for any Plushies crouching on the limbs. At midday, we stopped at a clearing and ate. When we finished, the sun had moved, and we found ourselves walking in the shadow of the Plushie Temple. And though we’d grown used to it, the deep shadow served as a constant reminder that walking death lay all around us.

That night, we all felt so good that we walked an hour past our agreed stopping point. We made camp in a small grove near several large trees. After dinner, we extinguished our fire and camouflaged our makeshift beds with leaves and sticks. Raven, spry as the devil, had taken first watch, followed by myself, then Phoenix. Each of us slept soundly in our allotted time, and awoke refreshed and ready.
I can’t speak for my fallen comrades, but I know that first night I dreamt of fire. A whole mountain of flames, cascading down like an avalanche and sweeping up every last Plushie in its scorching wake.

It was a good dream. Probably my last.

The second day, things changed. It had been warm and sunny, but a certain stillness settled around us. The woods were silent. No wind. No birds. No Plushies. We all felt uneasy, but ultimately chalked it up to good fortune. No obstacles meant we’d find the Baal de Fuego sooner.

A few hours in, the trail we were following…just…ended. Disappeared; as if no one had ever gone any further than that desolate spot in the forest. Here, we found ourselves at the base of a small hill. Nothing we hadn’t tackled before, though. So we dug in our heels and made our own trail. The ground became rocky about halfway up, dust swirled around our faces, and still…no signs of life anywhere.

We’d planned to stop and eat at the peak, but that quickly changed.

At the base of the hill lay a short field. Beyond the field was another dense wood, leading to our destination. We’d expected the hill. We’d expected the forest. What we hadn’t expected, was the carnage below…

Looking down, we saw a horrid sight. Truly horrid. It looked like a dumping ground for corpses. Not human, thankfully. But, perhaps more disgustingly, Koboldian. To me, Kobolds are nauseating creatures–even when alive. Short, mongrel-headed, bestial, and smelly. And now, I was facing a small field littered with their remains. Bodies piled upon bodies. Some of them headless, with large, ragged wounds adorning their necks; as if their entire skulls had been bitten off. Severed arms, legs, hands, and feet strewn about the blood-soaked earth. A massacre. A slaughter. And pervading this grisly tableau, a gigantic cloud of black, buzzing, flies.

“We stand at the threshold of hell!” Raven cried, recoiling from the sight.

“Steady!” Phoenix soothed, placing his hand upon Raven’s shoulder. “Once we’ve passed through this wicked place, and the Baal de Fuego rests in my palm, I shall set it all ablaze! We’ll watch the filth burn to ash and be scattered by the four winds!”

And I? Well, I simply stared in mute shock and fought to keep my gorge from rising. But then more unpleasantness arose. It brings to mind the Zen riddle about the tree falling and no one to hear it. Ascending that rocky hill, we’d heard no sound whatsoever. But standing there, gaping at the fly-speckled field, we heard a sudden roar of insect wings. It felt as if we had thousands of flies, mites, and bees buzzing inside our heads, and it struck us all with preternatural fear.

From stone silence to a whirlwind; as if the haunting sound only manifested once someone actually saw the grotesquerie on display.

Pondering that still makes me shudder.

I shall now spare you, dear reader, of the horrors–both visual and nasal–that we endured whilst trekking through that plain of rotting Kobolds. Suffice to say that we did this with great alacrity, hurrying with all the zeal of scared rabbits at the sound of thunder. And, disturbingly, once we’d slipped across the threshold into the dark forest beyond, the terrible buzzing faded from our ears as if it had never been. Out of sight, out of mind. No one to hear it any longer.

And from there, things only worsened. The wilderness we found ourselves in was dense with gnarled trees, sharp rocks, and a putrid, rotted smell. Like a dry swamp. And all about us, the sounds of a savage jungle. Skittering behind every bush. Fluttering in every tangle of branches. Snarls and growls echoing in the distance. The odd sound of heavy footsteps thumping into the earth.

“Merciful fate,” Raven whispered. “I have never felt so menaced as I do now.”

Silent, Phoenix and I nodded without looking at our friend. We’d heard the fear in Raven’s voice; neither of us cared to see it in his gaze.

What Raven had specifically referred to was the undeniable feeling of being watched. Something out there was stalking us. Something big and deadly. Tracking our every move. Perhaps more than one. Perhaps we’d been surrounded and just didn’t know it.

We were very near that wicked Temple, which only added to our unease.

Still, we pushed onward. Stealth no longer mattered, so we picked up the pace, marching single file toward our destiny. With every step, the ground became harder, the stench worsened, and The Temple’s shadow darkened. Time itself began to unravel. Night descended upon us like a tidal wave, and before we knew it, we were huddled around a fire, eating quietly and struggling to keep our fears in check.

That night was a mellow disaster. Nothing came alive or attacked us, but we were weakened, nonetheless. All of us slept fitfully, and our watches were plagued with incident. For Raven, it was an extended flurry of those heavy steps, as if several Plushies were hurrying toward us. It prompted him to rouse Phoenix and I, only to be embarrassed when we heard nothing save the night wind. For Phoenix, a dreadful moaning arose from the shadows, as if someone desperately needed help. Refusing to wake Raven and I, the sorcerer resolved to find the source of the anguish without aid, allowing himself to be drawn further and further away from camp…’til at last he realized his folly and rushed back. For me, I had to contend with the appearance of a large viper near the fire pit. How it slithered in unnoticed, I shall never know. As luck would have it, however, I caught the creature as it coiled near Raven. It bared its fangs and struck as I approached, but I dodged and beheaded it with my trusty dagger.

Thus, tired and aggravated, Phoenix, Raven, and I greeted the dawn with sighs of relief, packed our gear, and trudged on.

Unfortunately, nothing in the hellish forest had changed. In fact, it had worsened. The gnarled trees looked gnarlier. The sharp rocks were sharper. The putrid reek was the apotheosis of putrescence. Skittering, fluttering, snarls, growls, thumps in the distance; as if every living thing was agitated at our presence. And still, we saw nothing. Still, we felt watched.

How my flesh crawls just remembering it!

Ah, but the allure of Baal de Fuego drove us onward. Once found, we believed, the Plushies would fear our merry little band and we’d be the saviors of humanity. It was an honest, exalted dream, but ultimately doomed to fail. I just hope that within our failure others may find something of value to learn…

So. With our failure not quite realized and our dream intact, Phoenix, Raven, and I reached what seemed like a suitable clearing to stop, rest, and eat. Here, the terrain seemed less menacing, less…hostile. Yet we still felt ill-at-ease as we dropped our packs and settled down for a hearty meal of bread, nuts, dried beef, and water. Normally on our treks, we’d hunt for edible leaves and berries along the way. But there, in that terrible place, none of us dared.

And what happened next was my worst nightmare come to life.

No sooner than we’d fished out our provisions, there came a thunderous roar. All eyes snapped upward. All jaws dropped. A massive pink body hurtled toward us, followed by gray, then powder blue. A Plushie sneak attack. Bunnies. Floppy eared, buck toothed, and clawed. Huge. Enormous. The biggest damn Plushies any of us had ever seen. But the insidious thing was that they’d been stalking us from the trees. Some unholy charm had rendered them invisible, and only then, at the moment of attack, could they be seen.

“Hellfire!” Phoenix screamed, raising his arms.

A moment later, Pink landed, knocking Raven over with a sweep of its gigantic claw. Phoenix and I leapt to our feet as Gray and Blue thudded into the earth. Phoenix had no time to begin a spell, so he pulled his short sword and, in one deft maneuver, sliced Blue’s left floppy ear off and dove into a nearby bramble for cover. Blue howled in agony and stamped its ugly feet. Bow in hand, I notched an arrow and, with one eye on Raven, fell into retreat.

All would-be adventurers take note: Plushies are strong and vicious, but slow and dimwitted. So I, not being the most formidable warrior, rely on treachery. And as Gray lumbered toward me, I spun and sank an arrow into Pink’s back as it swiped in vain at Raven. Pink straightened, screamed, and Raven seized the opportunity, drawing his broadsword and leaving a large gash in Pink’s chest. Gray, meanwhile, rushed me as I notched another arrow. Raven’s face already showed signs of the heavy blow he’d taken, but otherwise my friend was in rare form, ducking Pink’s claws and dealing savage blows in return. I managed to sink an arrow in Gray’s belly and thumped his head with my bow, but paid for it when his claw swept my right leg out from under me. And Phoenix, as usual, had scurried off so that he could put his sorcery to good use. One-eared Blue, however, had turned its attention toward the battle between Pink and Raven.

It should here be noted that Plushies don’t die easily. One of my arrows to the chest would kill a man, but these giant, stuffed, monstrosities must be hacked and slashed several times over to stop them. It’s the main reason they’re so tough to fight. But I digress. The end is night; let me get these words onto the page before I lose my chance.

So there I was, at the feet of Gray. Snarling, drooling, bleeding, Gray was enraged, trying to decapitate me. I rolled; once, twice, and again, putting distance between myself and the damned bunny. It was enough. I notched another arrow, and this time I scored a direct hit to the face! Gray shrieked as scarlet teardrops tinged its fur. I then unleashed my dagger and rushed in for the kill, stabbing Gray’s soft belly again and again. Somewhere behind us, I heard Raven’s grunts of exertion and Pinks howls of misery. I knew Blue was also closing in, and though I’d often seen Raven defeat two Plushies at once, these two were enormous and no doubt able to sustain an incredible amount of damage. This I was finding out as I took another swipe from Gray. Angered, I responded by gouging its throat, and at last, Gray sank to its knees and collapsed.

Gasping for breath, I turned to see Raven in full melee with Blue. Pink’s ruined form lay behind Raven, limbless and lifeless. We’d all but won. I knew what was coming, but even so, I notched an arrow and sank it into Blue’s left flank. Blue stiffened, squealed, and was run through by Raven’s ruddy blade. Then, before Blue could even blink, he burst into flames. All thoughts of attack left Blue’s evil brain as it fell flailing to the ground. Smirking, Phoenix appeared from the forest depths, and the three of us surrounded the dying Plushie. Silent, solemn, we watched without pity as that bloodied, flaming, bunny died its slow, painful death. We could’ve hastened its end with a few quick slashes, but we didn’t.

Finally, when the flames died, we looked around, taking in the awful sights. Three dead Plushies littered the clearing, blood and stuffing all around. Grinning, we breathed a collective sigh of relief…but before we could even begin to understand what had happened, we heard a heavy thump quite near us.

“Oh, no!” I wailed. “What have we brought upon ourselves?”

What, indeed? Because there before us stood another blue rabbit. Gargantuan. Snarling. Claws flexed and ready to rend. And behind it, another Gray.

“Then the legends are true!” Phoenix replied to me. “But I never, ever would’ve believed–”

I don’t know how Phoenix meant to end that sentence. Before he could finish, a roar arose behind us. And there stood another Plushie, this one brown and just as angry as its brethren. Beside it stood an orange teddy bear, grinning that idiot grin which all teddies seem to have.

Thus, four more Plushies–with more on the way, I’m sure.

“RETREAT!” Raven yelled, already running from the horrible scene. “FALL BACK!”

“INTO THE FOREST!” I added, following Raven’s lead.

Phoenix, muttering an incantation, broke into a run beside us.

And there we went. Running blindly, foolishly, into the wilderness. Into The Temple’s malicious shadow. But also, toward the caves we’d originally sought. Flames leapt up around us as Phoenix unleashed his innate powers in a frenzy. Phoenix had poor control while in such a state, but I hoped as I ran that the flames would spread and burn the whole damned forest to the ground. Maybe even spread to that accursed Temple and burn the Plushie idol to ashes.

That’s the only thing which would make this doomed expedition worth the sacrifice.

Now, crouched in this cave as I am, starved, exhausted, and hopeless, my memory fails. All I recall from my dash through the trees–aside from the flames–is the odd streak of brown, blue, pink, orange, green, gray, and black in my peripheral vision. Roars, screams, and–oh, God–the sound of bones crunching in my wake. I ran and ran and ran until I fell and began to crawl. How I ended up in this cavern, I honestly can’t say for sure. I just know that I woke up in a pool of my own vomit; a symptom of my extreme exertion. I crawled to the mouth and found that night had fallen. A full moon has risen, granting me the light to at least write by. Luckily, my journal was still in the satchel I carry around my waist.

So here I am. For all I know, this cave belongs to one of those gigantic Plushies. It’ll lumber home soon, and tear me to pieces. I still have a slim chance of survival, I suppose, but that’s contingent upon me sleeping, healing, and ultimately finding food. At present, I’m too frightened to sleep, and too injured to even attempt to forage outside. I have no weapons. My heart is heavy for the loss of my dearest comrades, and the will to go on is waning by the second. I’ve even begun to doubt the validity of the legend surrounding the Baal de Fuego. Perhaps it was all a ruse by the Plushies to lure us into this blighted place…

Perhaps I’m losing my mind. Or have already lost it.

No matter. Before my body follows suit, I’ll again write the names of my fellowship. Phoenix Kline. Raven-In-The-Wood. Never let their sacrifice be forgotten. Never let their deeds go unrecorded. They fought the good fight ’til they could fight no more, and ’til their hearts failed to beat. Let their deaths be forever etched into the conscience of humanity, and may humanity never fall to the savagery of the Plushies.

As for me…well, who knows what terrors this night may hold?

Who, indeed…?

–March 26th, 2015


If you enjoyed this short story, please subscribe, like, and share.

“Blood & Stuffing” is original fiction based on the Escape From Teddy Bear Island Role-Playing Game, published by Orcs Unlimited Games.

Buy Escape From Teddy Bear Island here: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/121543/Escape-from-Teddy-Bear-Island

Thank you for reading!

JLR

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Appleton’s Abode (Novella Excerpt)

September 28, 2014

Prologue: A Storm In Oak Park

1.

My Dearest Baxter,
Ah, Bax! Ah, my boy! How art thou? Now there’s a good lad! If you are indeed reading these words, then it can only mean that the inevitable has happened and I have passed into the Great Beyond. And not a moment too soon I trust. For the way my life is going at present, I cannot conceive of myself possibly dying from anything other than old age. I have no enemies to speak of, so who would want to kill me? I do not travel much in the conventional way, so the likelihood of an accident is also rather slim. And that is why I place my bet against The Grim Reaper’s that when the bony fellow comes a-knocking, he will stamp my ticket with “NATURAL CAUSES” in bright red ink–
Ah, but was I right lad?
Was I quite right?

2.

Donald Baxter Page looked up from the letter in his hand. Clad in a gray parka and tan mittens, Baxter stood by the front window of his suburbanite home in Oak Park, Illinois. Pain engulfed him as he stared outside. Looking past the oil-mottled driveway, he saw no children in the street. No traffic. Just an empty gulf of black asphalt; gritty and lifeless. Across it, the neighborhood trees shook in February’s brittle wind. Waving at him. Perhaps expressing their condolences.
It didn’t help.
Although Baxter had known about his friend’s death for over a week, he’d never expected a posthumous letter from the man. Never in his wildest dreams. So just imagine Baxter’s initial shock upon finding that missive in his mailbox. Then imagine the high tide of emotion as he’d dashed into his house, ripped open the envelope, and rushed to the window–anxious as hell to read anything his dead friend might have to say.
And, man, what an opening paragraph! Jaunty, effusive, and colloquial; everything the man had been in life. Everything Baxter had loved about him from the moment they’d first met. It read, felt, and sounded as if the man now stood before him, striking up a conversation like the old days.
An effect both comforting and cruel.
Damned cruel.
As the wind gusted, Baxter returned to the letter. Faded black ink on elegant, unlined stationary. Words gleaming from the glare in the window. A ragged sigh escaped Baxter’s lips as his eyes searched for and found the spot where he’d left off. The grieving man cleared his throat, then pressed his lips into a thin line. A single tear fell from his right eye. You were right, he thought. You were right, Corny…
But God damn it, anyway.

3.

Ah, no matter. I am sure that dreadful day is far off. Presently, as I write this confounded letter, it is my 85th birthday and I feel utterly vibrant! Fit as a fiddle! Healthy as a horse! Tip-top condition! Why, I am almost certain that I could even beat you in a footrace, Bax!
At any rate, I know that my inking these thoughts down is long overdue. I should have set myself to it perhaps ten years ago, but even now I don’t feel it overly urgent. I just want to get the blasted thing done for my own peace of mind. I mean, the way I feel just now, I am certain that I shall live to see a full century pass before by aged and sparkling eyes!
But! I must now confess, my boy, that a rather morbid sensibility does accost me from time to time, causing me to wonder just how far I will make it. At 85, I would be a fool not to at least pay lip service to the fact that I might hear that fateful knock upon my door at any moment.
At exactly what age do you suppose I will expire, Bax?

4.

“A hundred-and-one,” Baxter muttered, grinning as another tear fell. “You made it, you old coot. You surely did…”
Outside, the wind settled. The trees ceased waving. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Baxter glanced up again. Gray clouds now mottled the sky like the oil stains on his driveway. A storm descending upon Oak Park. A storm for sure. A nasty one. Both within, and without.
“Yeah…” Baxter said, lowering his eyes, hearing the crinkle of elegant paper in his trembling hands. “A hundred-and-one, Professor Appleton. That’s how far you made it.”

5.

Dear me, lad! I wrote that down as if I were talking directly to you, didn’t I? As if you could somehow respond, when in all actuality that dreaded event must have already occurred. Otherwise, you would not be reading these words right now.
Sorry, Bax. Forgive a foolish octogenarian for lapsing into whimsy from time to time…
And now, dear boy, like Odysseus lurching into Ithaca, I come to my grand destination. The real point of it all!
But first, I must ask that, if you are at present standing, you must seat yourself, Bax. Please. Sit down before you read any further. Take a deep breath–perhaps a stiff belt of your favorite libation, as well–and gird yourself for what may come as quite a shock.
Trust me, lad. It is for the best that I ask you this…

6.

Tearing his gaze from the letter, Baxter sighed and turned to the mauve couch in his living room. If the old man wanted him to sit down, then he’d sit down. Simple as that. Cornelius Appleton might’ve put on theatrical airs from time to time, but when he got serious and changed his tone, all theatricality melted away. That’s when you wanted to shut your mouth, open your eyes, and listen with both ears–
Because you just never knew.
“Okay, Corny. Gimme a second to get comfortable.”
Baxter set the pages on his coffee table, then donned the reading glasses he’d been too manic to remember when he’d rushed inside. Peeling off his mittens, he used them to mop the tears from his face before tossing them down. Next went the parka, revealing a navy blue turtleneck sweater beneath. All set to sink into his couch and continue reading, Baxter paused, turning toward the kitchen.
Perhaps a stiff belt of your favorite libation…
Another sigh. The grandfather clock hadn’t even struck noon yet, but a drink did sound excellent. Even his mouth agreed, beginning to water in anticipation. He liked cognac; his wife liked Schnapps; they both liked spiced rum and Cabernet Sauvignon. Right now, the kitchen had all four. Right now, either of the four sounded good and warm on a cold and miserable day. And with Rita and the twins out running errands, Baxter had the whole house to himself.
Well…tempting, damnit. But, no. It’d be too easy to get started and keep going. Besides, if Rita came home and found him smashed–or even just smelled booze on his breath–she’d come unglued. Then the never-ending questions would begin, followed by her constant bitching and moaning and needling. But Baxter didn’t have a drinking problem. Far from it. Rita just had a habit of seizing upon anything she didn’t like and turning it into a major ordeal. And Baxter knew from experience that Rita didn’t like him drinking without her. Lord knew why, but she didn’t. He also knew that, once enraged, Rita would follow him around the house, unleashing her discontent at every turn. Nowhere would be safe; like living in a war zone.
Then he’d have to hear about it all night.
“Okay, scratch the drink for now, Corny,” Baxter muttered as he sank down, preparing for whatever news lay ahead. “But I’ll be sure to toast your memory after dinner, old friend. I promise.”

7.

Now, if all has gone to plan, buried beneath these pages you should find an exact duplicate of my Last Will & Testament. Knowing you, Bax, you will be sorely tempted to begin reading this document at once–

8.

“Bet your ass!” Baxter erupted, eyes wide, digging into the thin stack of pages. Sure enough, toward the back, he found it:
~The Last Will & Testament Of The Late Professor Cornelius Appleton~
And began reading:
“I, Cornelius Appleton, being of sound mind and body on this day, do hereby decree that the following represents, in toto, my final thoughts, wishes, and words upon this mortal coil…” in a low whisper before regaining his senses–
HOLY SHIT!
–and flipping back to the sentence he’d left behind.

9.

–but I must beg of you; please, lad, read the entirety of this letter before doing that! Just exercise a bit of your dogged determination, and I assure you, all will be revealed, Bax.
All will be revealed.
Now, prepare yourself for yet another shock:

10.

“Another shock?” Baxter said, rattling those frail pages. “Another shock?”
The incredulous man leant back, bellowed laughter.
“First, you go and die on me! Granted, you were over a century old, but still, Corny, you caught me by surprise on that one! Then you send me a letter from beyond the grave! Are you kidding me? Only you, Corny! Only you could, and only you would do something like that to a person! Then you tell me you’ve sent me a copy of your fucking will? And now I suppose you’re finally gonna tell me what this is all about, huh?
“Well, go right ahead, Pop! Lay it on me, Daddy-O!”
Teeth grit, hands clenched around the pages, Baxter snickered to keep from screaming.

11.

Simply put, Bax, I’m leaving it all to you.
Everything!

12.

“WHAT?!”
Leaping to his feet, Baxter’s jaw dropped. He looked like a game show contestant who’d won the grand prize. And in a very real sense, he had.
“Oh, no! No way, Corny!” Baxter gasped between sobs and barks of near-hysterical laughter. “This…this has gotta be a joke, right? I mean, you can’t…you can’t do this to me, Corny!”

13.

That is right, my dear boy! I’m leaving the house, the land, the library, and all of the trinkets I have amassed over this past century (of course!) all to you! Ah, but more importantly–most important of all–I am bequeathing unto you all of the magic that is “Professor Appleton’ s Whimsical Abode Of Curiosities!”
Every. Thing.
The entire legacy.
The whole ball of wax, Bax!

14.

Still clutching the letter and will, Baxter turned, right hand running through his thick brown forelocks. Now he faced the kitchen. Sweat stood out on his brow. More tears slipped from his eyes as his troubled gaze fell upon the pantry door.
Perhaps a stiff belt of your favorite libation…
Cognac. Schnapps. Spiced rum. Cabernet Sauvignon. Each of them beckoned, but one in particular sounded perfect:
Screw Rita! Baxter decided, heading straight for the unopened bottle of Bacardi Oakheart.

15.

Yes, sir! That is how I want it, and therefore, how it must be. For you, Bax, have been like a son to me all these years. In fact, you are the closest thing I have, and shall ever have, to a son. Surely, you can see that.

16.

“Sure,” Baxter said, shaking his head. “Like a son. Even though I haven’t been back to the Appleton Woods in almost twenty years…”
Choking back more tears, the unnerved man retrieved a short glass from the cupboard with his shaky right hand…and almost dropped it.
“Haven’t written you a letter in ten years…”
Baxter set Professor Appleton’s letter aside and gripped the rum with both shaky hands. Though his right hand slipped on the first attempt, the cap came loose with little effort on the second.
Thank God.
“Haven’t even called you in over five years, Corny…”

17.

’Tis of no matter to me that we haven’t stayed in close contact as of late, either. I am a grown and elderly man. You are a grown and stately man with a wife and children. It is thus only natural that we should drift further and further apart in this vast ocean we call life. As such, I will not tolerate any self-deprecating nonsense from you! You are worthy of this gift, dear boy. Most worthy!
So be sure to do me the courtesy of honoring one of my last requests, and please refrain from marveling at the pitiful generosity of my will.
Agreed?

18.

Tink!
Tink!
Two large ice cubes now sat in the short glass, waiting to be bathed in alcohol.
“Aw, hell,” Baxter said, grimacing at the letter as he tipped his bottle. “I wouldn’t even presume to question your infinite wisdom, sir.”

19.

I am sure I needn’t remind you of the boon you once did for me, Bax. But since these are my last words, I think it would be rather uncouth to pass over this final opportunity to give hearty thanks and appreciation to you, my talented friend. I think you would agree; ’tis not every day that someone writes an award winning play about your life, now is it?

20.

“Award winning?” Baxter wheezed, half choking as a healthy dose of rum warmed his throat. “Award winning, did ya say? Right, Corny. The Life and Times Of Professor Appleton didn’t impress hardly anybody except you and a few small theater companies in L.A.”
He paused, letting the alcohol soak into his gut.
“Okay…maybe a few small theater companies in L.A. and Chicago. And Portland. And Seattle. One, that I know of, in New York…”
Baxter took another sip, coughed, shook his head.
“Still…I don’t think Shakespeare’s rollin’ over in his grave, Corny. Besides, that was…Christ, twenty years ago.”

21.

And don’t kid yourself, lad; your other plays were every bit as brilliant. More so, even. ’Tis a shame that they were not recognized as such. But no matter. I have the utmost faith in not only your writing abilities, but in you as a person. I feel very strongly that one day you will write a fabulous novel that both young and old can enjoy. Then your talent will be fully recognized.

22.

“HA! A novel, huh? That’s a laugh…”
Frowning, Baxter drained the glass. His belly now felt like a furnace; his gullet, a chimney. But already the tears had stopped, and a pleasant fog had settled in. For some men, alcohol just intensifies whatever emotions may be fueling their desire to drink. For Donald Baxter Page, however, it acts as a barrier between mind and heart, dulling–even numbing–the pain.
A very good thing, indeed.
“Ah…maybe several years ago, Corny. Maybe. But now, at forty-one, with a full time job, two teenage daughters, and an ever-cranky wife? The Great American Novel? No way. Ain’t happenin’, sir. I, uh…I just don’t have the time.”
A lie. Baxter knew it; knew that Professor Appleton wouldn’t buy it, either. In fact, no one would except Rita, who’d never cared for his writing in the first place.
“Oh, well,” Baxter moaned, reaching for the bottle. “At least the old man died believing in me and my work, eh?”

23.

Now, I don’t mean to write my very own novel with these pages, Bax, but before I conclude this document, I have a few more things to discuss. Things of the utmost importance, I assure you. They pertain to the property I am bequeathing unto you, so please pay close attention. The orchard, the house itself, the library, and the stuffed animal zoo; all of them come with their own special set of instructions that absolutely must be followed, especially by he who owns them.
Understand, to shirk this responsibility would be dangerous to both you and your family, Bax. So be sure not to rush through or merely skim over these next few paragraphs. Read them only when you know you will not be disturbed. Just sit down, relax, and take your sweet time–

24.

But for Baxter, time had run out.
The familiar throb and thrum of the Page family minivan jerked his attention from the letter. Shit! he thought, looking up. They’re home already?
With haste, Baxter raised his glass in a half-assed salute to his deceased friend, tipped it back, and swallowed the rum. The furnace within roared as he turned, again setting the papers aside. He rinsed the glass with cold water, then placed it back on the shelf. Then the incriminating bottle of Bacardi returned to the pantry with a dull thunk!
“There, now! All ready for company!”
The rattle of loose pages filled the kitchen as Baxter gathered the letter and will. Catching a glimpse of Rita and the twins lifting grocery bags from the minivan, the panicked and disheveled man hurried into the front room and plopped onto the sofa. For a moment, Baxter considered rushing outside to help–
But, no. That’d just make Rita suspicious. Better to sit here and let her discover me on her own…
Face flushed and wet, nose running, Baxter knew he looked both upset and guilty–which Rita would seize upon as soon as she walked through the door–but hoped it would add to the effect when he explained. He didn’t know how she’d take it, but more than ever, he needed her sympathy; needed his wife’s loving support.
For a change.
Thus, heeding Professor Cornelius Appleton’s advice, Baxter refused to read any further. Instead, he returned to the beginning of the letter, and sat hunched over the pages with a look of intense concentration. Awaiting the moment when the door opened, Rita emerged from the cold, and the real storm began.


“Appleton’s Abode” is available in digital and paperback here:

https://jlrucilez.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/appletons-abode-official-page/

Thank you for reading!

JLR


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