Leave it to me to finally complete a “Writer Wednesday” post on an actual Wednesday the week before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest times of the year! This is likely only happening because I’m not hosting (but I am cooking … a little) and because what I want to share with you lovely, lovely readers is something I already wrote.
I’m B E Y O N D excited about studying abroad at the University of Limerick in Ireland, starting in September of 2020. In my last post, I shared some reservations about my next steps, but I’d be a big, fat liar if I didn’t admit that the first step was nerve wracking. I had to apply – no big deal, I’ve done that before – but I also had to submit 3,000 words of original writing as it’s a creative writing program. I haven’t published anything since 2010 despite my best efforts, and I worried my writing wouldn’t be good enough. I was terrified I’d face another rejection.
But my 3,000 words worked; I got in! And so, I’d like to share them with you. Please read them and please let me know what you think! How’s the characterization? Does Duke actually sound like a guy, or does Duke sound like me trying to sound like a guy? Is it too melodramatic? Please, please, please let me know!
Suffice it to say that Duke was a troubled man. Without getting into everything right away, without immediately investigating all of the tragic elements that composed his character, let it be known that simply put, Duke had a shit ton of emotional baggage. Quiet rage constantly bubbled just beneath his surface and whenever it boiled over, the damage was swift and devastating. Duke was cognizant of all that, and so he did his very best to stay calm. He practiced yoga in the early morning hours, before coffee and cigarettes. He quoted Buddha’s teachings when he needed to remind himself to be peaceful. Duke would do anything and everything to maintain an even keel, and that is why he found himself on the beach in February.
It was too cold to be on the beach, but Duke didn’t care. The sky was gray and miserable. The clouds were so thick in their misery that the sun had no real chance of poking through. Still, Duke sat in the frozen sand, his ass becoming numb. His heels were firmly sunk in with his toes pointing upward and slightly outward in opposite directions. His knees were bent, and his long arms curled around his knees with his chest resting against them. He was compact, trying to take up as little space as possible to keep warm. Duke wasn’t an idiot, though he certainly couldn’t be called a scholar, so he dressed appropriately for the weather. His wool beanie cap and long, corduroy jacket with the fleece lining did the best they could, but the wind whipping onto the shore from the bay was fierce and freezing. It unapologetically stung at the exposed bits of Duke’s skin and his jeans suddenly felt thin and worn.
But truth be told, he didn’t even mind the wind coming off the water in rowdy gusts. He breathed it all in deeply and with squinted eyes, Duke surveyed the flat landscape before him. He was reminded of that one poem from high school, the one with the famous line about water being everywhere but there not being a single drop to quench thirst. Duke was not a scholar, not by any stretch of even the kindest imagination, but he knew that poem was talking about saltwater; the stuff Duke’s chalice of salvation would be filled with. He had journeyed to the bay in the middle of February, trampled across frozen sand, just to be near his beloved mineral. Duke was cold, and knew he wouldn’t last out there much longer. But Duke also knew that he needed the sea; it calmed him.
The dark hair that escaped his beanie whipped around his face (he always kept his hair longer than what was considered fashionable) but Duke did his best to keep his eyes that were like drops of milk chocolate open, and his gaze steady. He watched the rolling waves with slightly parted lips, hoping to taste the salt in the air on his tongue. He firmly believed in the beneficial uses of sea salt and he knew that it calmed him when nothing else could. Aurora, his best friend, had once explained the romanticism of his beliefs, of the irony of it all, but that seemed like forever ago. It was lost on him then, and it was lost on him now; nothing changed. There was something futile and defeating in that train of thought, so Duke steered clear of it. He took a deep breath, breathed in all the salty air he could to completely fill his lungs, and closed his eyes.
He wanted so desperately to clear his mind.
He wanted so desperately to be at peace.
A single tear rolled down Duke’s cheek, reddened and raw from the incessant, frigid wind. He knew this wasn’t working and popped his eyes open. His muscles had tightened from the cold and the frigid weather seemed to stiffen his joints. Plus, he had been all curled up on the sand for the past half-hour, so it took him longer than he liked to get up and get moving. He needed to be Zen, to be calm, and if the sea proved disappointing, if sea salt let him down, Duke only knew of only one other place he could go.
Duke’s heavy boots caused the wooden floorboards of the deserted outdoor patio to creak loudly in the wintry silence. The Anchor Inn was open all year round, but did its best business in the summer when thirsty tourists were a dime a dozen. As the season progressed, the neon lights downtown became familiar and lost their appeal so that even the least adventurous made their way to the Anchor Inn in search of authentic local flavor. However, during the middle of the day (a day in the middle of the offseason), the local dive was empty except for town drunks needing a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream to function normally, and those battling or embracing the kind of existential crisis that always seems to blindside the blissfully unaware on a random weekday afternoon. And it was in this very establishment, this very environment, where Duke could find his one other source of solace – as long as she was working.
The lighting was terrible and dim, as it usually is in such dive bars, and it took Duke’s eyes a moment to adjust and see the surroundings clearly. No one looked over when he walked in; despite being clean for three years, Duke was still considered a regular. So no one noticed Duke stroll over to the main bar and take his usual seat on a rickety, uncomfortable stool made of wood. The whole place was that way; rickety and uncomfortable and made of wood. The bar shrank and expanded with the seasons so that now it seemed small and cramped and cold, despite it being empty of clientele and in spite of the fireplaces roaring in opposite corners at the far end of the building. Duke was unaware of the less than appealing aspect of the place, felt comfortable enough for a prolonged stay, because he found what he was looking for. With a small smile, Duke enviously watched Aurora lose herself in some paperback novel. She had folded the cover back and was chewing her bottom lip as she read. She was leaning on her forearms that were resting on the bar top, and her one leg was just a few inches in front of the other and slightly bent at the knee so that her whole posture could be described as bent. Duke wondered not only how Aurora could possibly be at ease in that position but how long she could endure such a position. Duke observed his friend for just a minute more, still smiling in a muted way, tracing his mouth and chin by moving his thumb and pointer finger along his thin mustache in opposite directions, down along the laugh lines that formed parentheses around his mouth, and reuniting his fingers below his pointed chin in the short hair of his trimmed beard. Musing complete, he let his hands come together and folded them on top of the bar. “Hey Aurora,” he greeted in his low, sturdy growl.
Startled, she looked up quickly but once she realized who spoke, she relaxed. Aurora, whom everyone else affectionately called Rory, straightened her posture after closing the book and slipping it onto a shelf beneath the bar. Smiling wide, she said, “Well hey there, Duke. What are you doin’ classin’ this place up?”
“It’s my day off – thought I’d stop by and see you.”
Aurora was pouring Duke a tumbler full of ginger ale, already knowing to hold the whiskey. She was eyeing him cautiously but her playful smile hung around her lips. “Oh yeah? You need money or something?” She shot Duke a wink and slid the glass over to him.
Duke was relaxing. “Can’t your best friend say ‘hi’ for no other reason than to be friendly?”
“Best friend,” Aurora repeated in mock skepticism. She was leaning her weight on the bar top with her palms splayed wide. “Laying it on kind of thick, aren’t you? Must be after a small fortune from me; use and abuse, that’s you all over.”
“Fuck off,” Duke said with a soft laugh. He brought the glass to his lips and sipped.
Aurora’s smiled faltered nearly imperceptibly and she leaned closer to Duke. “You okay though? Seriously?”
Duke shrugged and dropped his gaze. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just –” he was about to use the word “needed,” but didn’t like how it would likely ring in Aurora’s ears later, so he decided against it – “just wanted to see you.”
Aurora paused to think for a moment, but her expression remained the same. She squeezed Duke’s hand that was free of the glass and said, “I’ll be right back with some pretzels for you.” She moved somewhere to the right, off into some room Duke couldn’t see and in her absence, Duke released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in. He shook his head from side to side once, telling himself “no” in response to a question no one asked.
To announce her return, Aurora chucked the bag of pretzels at Duke. “Day off, huh? Must be nice.”
“First one in a long time; you know I never take time off.”
“Maybe you should,” Aurora advised.
“Are you working all day?”
“Kid cancelled tutoring, so I picked up another shift here.” Aurora busied herself with wiping glasses she’d already wiped clean. “Why? Did you want to do something?”
“No, but,” Duke paused to breathe, “do you care if I hang out here today?”
“Of course not,” Aurora laughed, “even though I can’t figure out why. Nothing’s going on here, man. I’ve cleaned these same glasses six times and,” she turned to look at the handful of customers scattered along the bar and raised her voice, “no one’s tipped me yet!” The patrons all knew Aurora, all liked Aurora – everyone liked Aurora – and so they only smiled, raised their glasses to her, and promptly returned to ignoring her. She rolled her eyes to Duke in exaggerated disdain for her beloved locals.
Duke wasn’t as comfortable as Aurora was around people in the town so small it was actually claustrophobic. He knew exactly what people thought of him. Duke did his best to avoid undue attention, whispers so loud they were intended to be overheard, and knowing, disapproving glances. So he lowered his voice and changed the conversation, asking, “What were you reading?”
Aurora snorted dismissively. “Some book I found in my basement. There’s lots of gun play and forced characterization and no real depth, but it’s entertaining as hell.” She shrugged. “You can borrow it when I’m done if you want.”
“Thanks anyway. I don’t really read.”
Aurora nodded. “Yeah, I remember doing your English homework for four years.”
“Don’t get mad at me because you were a nerd desperate for attention from a really cool, really hot guy.”
“You called me your best friend when you walked in here, dick,” Aurora laughed as she swatted Duke’s arm. She moved down the bar to check on her other customers, still looking for tips. Duke watched her go and felt himself fill with appreciation. She never asked for anything and saved the lectures but was always willing to kick his ass if he ever needed it. She loved him, was unfortunately in love with him, and Duke loved her but was not in love with her. He wondered how long such a relationship could last. It had been over ten years. Duke worried he might be pushing his luck.
Aurora sauntered back to Duke. “It’s dead here, and George is in the back. I’m going out for a smoke. Wanna come?”
Duke nodded. He slid off the stool and followed Aurora out the rear exit. She pushed the heavy door open with her hip, slipping her coat on as she moved outside. “Fuck, it’s cold,” she complained through gritted teeth.
“The wind’s picked up some since I came in,” Duke said.
“Shit,” was all Aurora replied. She didn’t have gloves so to save her fingers, she pulled her sleeves past her fingers and used her hands as claws to hold and open the pack of cigarettes she retrieved from the back pocket of her jeans. To continue to avoid using her fingers, Aurora bit down on a cigarette and pulled it from the pack using her teeth. Duke watched with real amusement and Aurora winked. “Give me a light, fucker.”
Duke stepped forward and flicked the lighter. Aurora puffed and pulled until a thin tendril of smoke circled to the sky. “You could have said ‘please,’” Duke admonished.
Aurora removed the cigarette from between her lips. “Yeah, and I could have said ‘thank you,’ but you know that’s not how this friendship works.”
“Yeah, right,” Duke laughed.
Aurora took a few steps closer to Duke and pursed her lips to exhale the smoke away from Duke. She looked up into his face very seriously. “So now that we’re alone and you’re more comfortable and more likely to tell me things, tell me what’s going on with you.”
Duke looked back at Aurora just as seriously. “What makes you think something’s up with me? Why can’t I just spend time with my best friend?”
“I’m touched, Duke, but you know that I know that you’re full of shit. So talk to me, okay?”
He lowered his face closer to Aurora’s. They were just inches apart. “Leave it alone, Aurora, please. I’ll come to you when I’m ready. I always do, so don’t push the issue.”
Duke was confident Aurora would oblige him, and she changed the topic of conversation. She tried to play it off like she didn’t just do whatever he asked and pretended to be suddenly distracted. She acted like she hadn’t even heard what Duke said, but Duke knew better than to believe her sudden change in interest when she asked, “What’s that around your neck?” Aurora reached out and touched the vial that hung closely around Duke’s neck.
Duke looked down. “What do you mean?”
“What’s in there?” Aurora asked as she gingerly handled the vial with one of her sleeve-covered claws. “It’s beautiful, really awesome, so I feel like it’s too pretty to be cocaine or something like that. What’s it filled with?”
Duke rolled his eyes. “It’s sea salt.”
Aurora was so surprised she didn’t know what to do, so she laughed. “Why sea salt?”
“It calms me,” Duke said. “Maybe all your hippie bullshit swayed me. I was inspired by that lamp you bought me when I came home from the hospital.” He laughed softly through his nose. “Just trying to keep the inner peace.”
Aurora nodded, taking a drag of her cigarette. Smoke curled above her head as she answered. “Matt and Eric told me you’ve started to really get into yoga lately.”
Duke momentarily clenched his jaw. “Yeah, so?”
Aurora smiled, shaking her head. “Don’t let them give you shit for it. If you’re happy, I’m happy.” She quickly kissed his cheek.
“You know, I guess it started way before that, though.” Duke was becoming nostalgic, so his tone wasn’t exactly filled with humor and his shoulders shifted awkwardly, like the conversation had become uncomfortable and he wanted nothing more than to get away from Aurora. “Do you remember when I went to the beach with Uncle Rick when I was in elementary school? And I was out for a couple of weeks?”
Aurora nodded. “You guys had a bad car accident or something.”
“Well,” Duke began hesitantly, “Uncle Rick and I loved looking for fulgurites. Rick liked it more than I did, but I was happy to tag along, so- “
“Wait,” Aurora interrupted, smirking. “What’s a fulcrum thing?”
“Fulgurite,” Duke corrected. “It’s petrified lightning.” Aurora’s face was still blank. “It’s what happens when lightning strikes sand. Uncle Rick said it was like a permanent record of the path of lightning on earth, and the fulgurites are hollow, glass-lined tubes with sand stuck to the outside. We went to the beach for that specific reason all the time, but this time, we misjudged when the storm was going to hit and we were on the sand when the lightning struck.” He looked away from Aurora. “There was no car accident. I was struck by lightning.”
Laughter erupted from Aurora. “No way,” she argued. “There is no way you got fucking struck by lightning.” She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “We would have known about it.”
“I made Uncle Rick promise to keep it quiet. I was embarrassed and so was he, and we were afraid my deadbeat dad would hear about it and try to get custody or money or both. I went for all these tests on my brain after and I was afraid you’d think I was crazy or weird.”
Aurora was sad. “I would never think anything like that about you.”
“You might have when you were seven.”
Aurora tossed her cigarette and stepped closer to Duke. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, it was like twenty years ago.”
“No lasting side effects?”
Duke shrugged. “They were monitoring my moods and sleep pattern for a while, but then they stopped. All I have to prove it even happened are some really light but crazy scars on my back that sort of loop to my chest.”
“How come I’ve never seen them?”
“They’re really light, like I said. You have to get pretty close to see them.” He cleared his throat and didn’t particularly care for the way Aurora was looking at him, like she’d never really ever seen him before. He wondered if she was changing her mind about him. Duke decided he didn’t want to know, so he decided to change the topic of conversation. “What are you doing Friday night?” Duke asked.
Aurora blinked twice and refocused.