Category Archives: Short Fiction

Shaken

Shaken

6/8/2009

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

Each bookshelf held exactly three novels, three nonfiction books and thirty-three magazines–in that order. The books were ordered from thickest to thinnest, as were the magazines. On top of the bookcases stood a feather duster, a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a dustpan.

A fruit basket sat on the table in the exact center of the room. Three apples were aligned due east; three oranges pointed south. Whenever one rolled out of position, the owner of the room would scramble to push it back in place. Around the bowl were thirty chess pawns, each spaced twenty-two degrees apart from the bowl. He had measured the dimensions with a compass

There was not a drop of water, a speck of rug fluff, a stray candy wrapper to be found. The floor tiles were polished with antiseptic once a week. The man screened the shelves daily for dust and other impurities. And he made sure to shower three times a day, lest any germ or virus find its way into his body.

He stood with his knees and hands on the floor. There was a pesky stain on one of the tiles, one which defied his efforts to remove it. He resolved to soak the thing in isopropyl alcohol and rub it off with a sponge. A few more hours sitting there, and it could have given him the flu. Or AIDS, even.

He whipped his head to the rear of the room. One of the books—”Advanced Organization Strategies”—had slipped out of place. He pounced up from the floor, rushed over to the bookcase and slid it back in line.

With his heart pounding, the man opened up his cell phone and called his mother.

“Mom?”

He sighed with his relief upon hearing her voice.

“You’re alive. Okay–I just worried that I might have caused your death. The book again. No, I really was endangering you. Bye.”

He put down the receiver and shook his head. How could he be so careless, especially with his mother’s life on the line?

The man walked back over to the fruit bowl. A piece of hair (ridden with germs, he imagined) lay on the table. He picked it up with a pair of tweezers and dropped it in a waste bin.

He considered himself a bit on the cautious side–and for good reason. After all, any piece of dirt, hair or food could have AIDS plastered all over it. That was why he kept a pair of gloves around; they came in handy for opening doors and turning on the sink.

What he really feared, though, was poor organization. Whenever something was out of place, he had visions too awful to explain: his mother drowning, his aunt dying in a car accident, his sister burning to death. The pictures had begun after his father’s funeral.

He concluded that his lack of organization was endangering his family, something that he could not allow. And so the man ordered as his intuition led him. As long as something was paired in threes, it could not harm his loved ones. And if food was aligned with a compass rose, no tragedy would befall his family.

He took a feather duster and cleaned off the bookcases. No chance for the flu virus to reach him.

The books began to vibrate.

He looked in shock as a pair of cleaning manuals fell to the ground. As he bent down to pick them up, a dustpan fell on top of him, pouring dust and grime onto his shoulders.

The rattling only continued. The fruit bowl clattered to the edge of the table, then spilled its oranges and apples onto the tile with no regard for the compass rose. Another dustbin fell right where he had been sitting. A violent shake threw the thirty-three magazines to the ground.

The man put his hands over his head and screamed. So much disorder! So much contamination! He made a mad rush for the faucet, but tripped over the fruit bowl and fell flat on his stomach. The precisely aligned novels toppled onto the floor.

The rumbling and shaking came to a close, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.

He lay on the ground as a turbulent stream of thoughts rushed through his head. Surely there was an infectious disease in that dust and dirt! Surely his family was dead, now that the apples and the oranges and the books and the magazine were out of position—why, they were probably strangled, drowned, stabbed this minute!

The anxiety had turned into torture. He saw visions of his mom bleeding from the heart. He saw his future self in a hospital bed as doctors explained that he would die within hours. The viruses were already leaking into his head—and his family? He was afraid to call.

Twenty minutes passed. Shouts and sirens sounded from outside.

 

But something strange happened to the anxiety. It began to leak out of him, pool into the room and drain out through the heating vents. The thoughts of contamination proved less and less potent. After half an hour, he was not even fazed by the images of his sister’s death. His mind appeared to grow tired of them.

In time, the man stood up. He looked around the room at the magazines scattered on the floor; the oranges on either side of the room; the chess pawns captured by gravity. There was no urge to organize; no urge to cleanse. He had no idea where it went.

He smiled, broke out into laughter and kicked an orange at the wall, where it burst and leaked juice onto the sanitized floor. He ripped one of the thirty-three magazines in half and threw it at the floor. The fear was gone! And in its place rose a sense of freedom that had evaded him ever since his father died.

The man pulled out his cell phone, dialed a number and pressed the thing to his ear.

“Mom? It’s Evan. Yes—I think I’m okay. I think I’m finally okay.”

 

 

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction

Campfire

Campfire

4/27/2009

Kenneth Burchfiel

Zur Ehre Gottes

Bryan shone the flashlight on his face.

“And they saw a bloody trail leading right out the front door.”

The other kids oohed and ahhed. One of them poked their stick back into the fire, roasting a marshmallow until it burnt. A bag of graham crackers and chocolate sat within reach.

“Mr. Devon, tell us a story!”

“Yeah, make it really bloody. And cool!”

Tall trees surrounded the rocks and logs on which they sat. The fire twisted ash into the sky, now covered by thick, gray clouds.

“Mr. Devon, please tell us one.”

Oscar looked out at his troop. Twelve expectant pairs of eyes stared back at him.

His hands, nearly white, stood out against his tanned arms and legs. The fingers twitched every so often. His faced showed an uncomfortable smile.

“This one, I’ve never told anyone before.”

Bryan and Jacob clapped their hands. Everyone leaned in.

“There once was a man whose middle name was Chadwick. He enjoyed life. He liked playing with his kids and got teary-eyed when they left for college. He and his wife loved to fish and hike.”

One of the kids yawned. Another looked away from Oscar and put their marshmallow back in the fire. Wind shook the trees around them.

“But one day, he had a thought about stabbing his daughter—of slicing her with a sharp knife until blood spurted out from her arm. He could see her humerus under the flesh and muscle. And he yelled out loud, it was so painful an image.”

Bryan drew his stick back, wide-eyed.

“The thoughts continued. Next, it was the man’s son whom he stabbed, this time with a Swiss army knife. He closed his eyes from the pain, trying to make it stop. But yet another image came right after.”

Someone rubbed their arm, as if to make sure that there was no gash in it.

“The man figured that he had some secret desire to kill his children. So he avoided them. When it was family week at Albeit You, he didn’t go—but gave them a brief phone call. During Christmas break, he tried to stay five feet away from them at all times. They were confused, but what could he say?”

A campfire log rolled onto the ground, producing a shower of sparks and snaps.

“I don’t want my parents to stab me,” Jacob whispered. “This is scary.”

“So what did the man do about the thoughts? He washed his hands. If he poured scalding water on his palms, it seemed to wash the images away. If he didn’t clean them, he got nervous—so nervous that the very sight of a knife would make him jump.”

The troop leader bit his lip. Someone shone the flashlight on him, illuminating the lower part of his body. That was when the kids noticed his shaking knees.

“He went to a pastor, but didn’t explain why he was confessing. The priest gave a general absolution, but by the time the man returned home, he wanted to drive right back. The feeling of being hated by Christ was agonizing.

“Work got difficult. He got up to wash his hands; he would skip meetings to call the priest on the phone. Eventually, his employer fired him.”

It sounded like there would not be blood in the story after all. But the kids noticed how uptight Mr. Devon looked; his arms were tense, and his knees continued to wobble. And something looked weird with his hands.

“The man confined himself to his house and blockaded himself from his wife. He sold all the knives he owned, meaning his wife had to cook with spoons and forks. He couldn’t explain to her why he always looked afraid, or why his hands were so white.”

“Are you okay, Mr. Devon?”

Oscar blinked and looked at Bryan.

“I—I…”

The flashlight turned off. He breathed in and out, then continued.

“Now, this man had been a troop leader for some time. One day, he made one of the worst decisions of his life: he chose to go on the yearly hiking trip.”

Nobody had a marshmallow in the fire. All the side chatter had stopped.

“But there were no faucets on the trail; no Reverend Miller to confess to at the campfire. So the images of spurting blood and flashing knives and screaming children made him more and more nervous as the night went on, more and more sinful, until his heart began to thud, his knees vibrated from fear and his head ached with pain. So he left his bag and ran off into the woods, looking for a stream where he could wash—and leaving twelve confused kids who would never understand his campfire story!”

Oscar leapt up, jumped over the log and ran off into the forest, leaving only his bag. The initials on it were plainly visible.

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction

OCD

OCD

Mar. 4, 2009

Kenneth Burchfiel

The room was too dark to gauge its size; all he had for light were two windows. The only thing he could see or feel was the wooden bench below him.

He felt the least bit anxious, as if he had forgotten something on the way here.

“Your mother is going to die today.”

He looked up, startled. That was unexpected.

“Your mother is going to die today.”

He stood and looked around. Hard to tell where the voice was coming from, he thought.

“Your mother is going to die today.”

The noise echoed off the wall. If he ducked or clapped his ears together, the voice continued. Pale-faced, he sat on the bench, afraid that it might come back.

“Your mother is going to die today.”

The less he wanted to hear the voice, the more it continued. The man squinted at the ceiling, then searched for a crack in the wall. This statement—was it possible?

“Hoist that bench, or your mother will die today.”

He looked back at his seat. It seemed irrelevant—but the voice could be right, and if so, he could never live his mother’s death down. Anything to ward the fear out of his mind.

“Your mother is going to die today.”

He ran over to the bench and lifted it up. Solid wood to its core; it required a strongman’s effort just to keep risen. But if the voice was right, he might kill someone by dropping the piece of furniture. And that was what he dreaded.

“Your mother is going to die today unless you carry it to the other side of the room. After that, she will live.”

He walked over to the other side of the room. The chair felt like a boulder in his arms, but he had to carry it.

“Why are you walking? Do you not care about your mother?”

He broke into a sprint. His arms seared with pain as he carried the chair, but the other wall—yes, he could make it out—was barely feet away.

Relieved, he sat the bench down and reclined in it. To think his mother had almost died, and that he was nearly complacent with it.

There was a minute of peace.

“Your mother is going to die today.”

He looked up, confused at the noise. One of the windows had closed, making it near-impossible to see more than twenty feet in front of him. The origin of the sound was a mystery.

“Your mother is going to die today. Did you not hear?”

Fear clouded his vision. The bench—if he could just pick up the bench, maybe she would be all right. Was it really worth sitting here her life was at risk? Even if pain would shoot in his arms?

“Pick up the bench and walk it to the right.”

He gave the voice no resistance, lest his mother die early. A few seconds later, the bench was safely in his arms, and his mother—the man imagined—safe as well.

His arms wobbled with shock. Every beam in the bench weighed his shoulders down and caused his spine to bend. The second window closed in front of him.

After two minutes of labor, the bench fell onto the right corner of the wall.

“That is not good enough. You did not move it to the right enough.”

He began to slide it towards the wall.

“Slide it back and pick it up. This is your mother’s life at risk; it would be deadly to hold back any effort.-

He walked the bench back, heaved it into his arms, wobbled over to the corner and dropped it. That same uneasy peace returned, except this time, there was only darkness.

His arms felt ready to fall off his shoulder blades. His back felt torn down the middle. It was for his mom, he knew. But what did any of this have to do with his mother? The bench was not in her way; it would not block anything from hitting her, or affecting her. But he felt like picking it up would save her from an untimely demise.

“Your mother is going to die.”

He looked at the ceiling, then at the bench, and tried his best not to be afraid of the voice. There was Something inside of him—warm-feeling—that told him to stay, and not to listen to the noise above.

“Your mother is going to die,” the voice repeated, louder.

He stared at the bench. Those beams, those legs; there was no connection between his mother and this piece of furniture. And he felt inclined to listen to the Warmth.

The first window opened back up.

“Your mother is going to die.”

As if walking through gale-force winds, he staggered over to the bench and sat down. This voice knew nothing. The Warmth knew everything, he was sure. And the former was not going to win.

“Your mother is going to die. Your mother is going to die. Your mother is going to die. Your mother is going to die. Within hours. No, within seconds!”

He no longer looked up. He was not going to respond. He was not going to give in. His mother was alive, and would remain alive for as long as God willed it. This voice was a fraud.

“Your mother is going to…”

The second window opened up. And then a flurry of windows and doors burst open, bringing in sunlight so bright that he had to squint. It was enough to make him forget the voice had ever spoken.

“Your mother is… going…”

From across the door walked in a middle-aged woman. She smiled and wove at the man in the bench, who rose up to meet her.

“How are you? It’s been so long.”

“Yes, yes, I know. Not sure how I even got in here.”

Out of curiosity, the man looked up. But all he could see were crossbeams and rafters.

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction

To Bamako

To Bamako

2/3/2009

 

He lay sprawled on the flat-back seat with a newspaper on his chest. The seats were far enough apart that Morgan could barely reach the front page.

John’s eyes opened as she unfolded the paper. “The engines put me to sleep. Did they serve breakfast yet?”

“Whenever you want it. Just press the button.”

John yawned and pulled himself to a sitting position. His Hawaiian shirt was wrinkled at the shoulders. “Bamako. Bamako. I can’t wait to dip my feet into the ocean. Or get a frosty pina colada on the beach.”

She turned to the World section of the Globe. “Look at this. Crippling poverty in Mali; the Red Cross is running low on volunteers.”

“Well, at least we’re not going there on vacation.” John shook his head. “Say, great price on the seats. I didn’t know Air France flew to Bamako for this cheap. Seaside cities are usually expensive.”

“And what else… water shortages have become a problem.” Morgan scanned the article. “Their HDI is one of the lowest in the world.”

He pushed a button above his seat. “I’m sorry to hear that. Honestly. But Bamako is thousands of miles away from that sort of thing. We can worry about countries like Mali once we’re back from vacation.”

A flight attendant approached their seat in a sharp blue dress. “Your continental breakfast, sir.”

“Oh, looks excellent.” John set the plate onto his tray. “Say, what is the temperature at Bamako? I don’t want to go swimming in the cold.”

The flight attendant laughed. “You Americans and your humor. It’s 104 Fahrenheit at our destination.”

John’s eyes widened. He thanked the attendant and looked back at Morgan.

“They say that all Mali needs are a few good volunteers,” Morgan said. “Money isn’t enough. They need people through whom God can answer prayers.”

“But God has plenty of people.” He stuck a fork into a wedge of melon. “And that’s why we can go to the ocean in peace. Did you bring a bathing suit?”

Morgan looked into him. John bit into the melon and blinked.

“Do you care about them?”

“About the folks in Mali? Sure. If you’d like, I can get you a bathing suit there. The tropics always—”

“If you care, look outside.”

John pulled up the plastic covering, allowing a shaft of light into the cabin. He glanced down, then frowned and pressed his head to the glass.

“Where is the ocean?”

He turned back at her. His elbow bumped against the plate.

“As I was planning the trip, God seemed to be putting the same image in my mind. Pictures of ashes. starving children. And I kept saying what you said: ‘I can worry about Mali later.’ But the Lord wasn’t impressed. So I decided that, for once in my life, I would throw away the vacation brochures and listen to God. Actually serve Him.”

John held a piece of pineapple in his mouth. A drop of juice fell onto his Hawaiian shirt.

He reached into the magazine bin to his right and pulled out a route map. His finger traced South America, then moved over to the Caribbean, then swung over to the Indian Ocean. He set the map down and looked at his wife.

“Morgan, where is Bamako?”

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction

The Missionary

1/12/2009

Kenneth Burchfiel fdHG

 

He gently pried the book open. Hardcover. Leather binding. It was the only type he would buy. Paperbacks never held up well to God’s message.

The man reached off his couch and picked up a glass of wine. A stroke of luck that his blanket was deep purple; if he spilled a drop, it wouldn’t show a thing.

It was his intention to make Sunday nights peaceful. There could be social events the other days; these evening hours belonged to God. He skipped past the introduction and focused on the first page.

“What are we, then, as servants of God? It is simple: we listen for the call of the Holy Spirit, and seek to answer it always.”

A rude knocking sound came from the front door. He rolled his eyes and looked behind the sofa.

“Miranda? Miranda, would you get that?”

Miranda’s chair was empty. She had made a second trip to the wine store.

He shook his head and looked back at the book. This was no time to be outside. If more people kept God’s Sabbath, there would be less grief when he wanted to.

“This is an oft-referenced point among Christians, but what does it add up to? I wrote this book because, all too often, members of Christ forget their call to serve the One who bought them into His kingdom.”

The knocks came back again. Hard, brutish pounds on the door. Obviously not from the neighborhood.

“Before we get into the theological material, however, I would like to address what it means to ‘listen’ for the Holy Spirit. Only the reader can answer that question. God’s Love fills some of us in bursts of revelation, as shown in Acts. Others find themselves with a quiet “Inner Light,” namely, those of the Quaker faith.”

And some found the call interrupted by uncivilized people at the door. He wedged a pillow in between his ear and the seat.

It was about time he trained to become a missionary. The church could use a man of his caliber: responsive; intuitive; apt to new surroundings. His best quality, of course, was how he reached out to people.

“Regardless, everyone who seeks Christ hears the call. That is the easy part. More difficult, of course, is heeding it.”

At the moment, he couldn’t hear any call at all; the knocks at the door were too loud. He picked up the wine glass in between his fingers and swirled the purple substance.

His eyes tripped over the same words. The wine glass vibrated in his hand. There was no escaping the dreadful noise from outside. The man groaned, threw off his blanket and walked over to the front door.

The person at the door looked positively foreign. Unkempt white shirt. Pants too large at the waist and too small at the ankles.

“What was all the knocking for? This is private property.”

The loiterer pulled a small book out of his bag. Paperback.

“I don’t want your reading material, whatever it is. I’ve already got books.”

“Sir, do you know Jesus?”

The man looked at the cover. It showed a gold cross against a back background.

“Oh, trust me, I know Jesus. In fact, I’m training to become a missionary.”

There was a strange smell to him. It was no use for this character to proselytize in this part of town. Better that he preach to the slums.

“Well, I give you God’s blessing. I hope you have a good night.”

The fellow took his Bible bag and left. Before he crossed out of view, the man called:

“And what are you doing, walking around on a Sunday night? This is a day of rest.”

He held the plastic bag with both hands. “I was called.”

 

The door shut, and he the night was his again. He would have to read faster to make up for the lost time.

With the blanket pulled up to his waist, he opened up to page two. At least the font size was large enough. His eyes needed to last into old age.

But as he read, the man found that one sentence blurred into another. His eyes bounced from paragraph from paragraph, sometimes going back, sometimes going further. “Holy Spirit,” “service,” “mission,” “commission”– the words blended into one another, but his mind was focused on the plastic bag and unkempt shirt.

He forced his eyes to continue on, but they kept snapping back to the closed door. His legs were impossible to calm. Wine splashed in the glass he strained to hold onto.

And finally, the man threw off the blanket, set down the book and rushed over to the door.

Pulling it open, he raced out into his yard.

“Wait!”

The sidewalk was empty for as far as he could see. No white shirt stood out in the streetlight.

The man stared down the empty street. And then he began to walk.

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction

The Last Forty Years

The last forty years

12/30/2008

By Kenneth Burchfiel
fdHG

 

“I daresay I haven’t changed at all in the last forty years.”

The man in the chair nodded. The barber trimmed the back of his neck, then added:

“I don’t know if anything here’s changed in the last forty years.”

A ray of sun broke through the dense clouds outside. The window, blurred from years of grime and sweat, displayed the same message as it always had: “POHS REBRAB S’UOL.”

“Well, I’ve been watching all those liberals telling me that we need change. Maybe they need change in that crooked east-coast capital, but I sure don’t. Why, all I need is a few ten dollar bills a day and a few heads to shave.”

The man in the seat laughed. Locks of hair slid down the chair and onto the floor.

“Just look at them fancy barber shops across the river, would you? Thirty dollars for a cloud of perfume and a few snips.”

“That’s why I come here,” the man in the seat acknowledged.

 

    The shop turned silent for a few minutes, until the barber commented:

    “Say, do you hear something? Sounds like—”

A five-ton boulder crashed through the ceiling and sent the floor tiles flying. Mirrors shattered and fell on the ground; dozens of scissors and razors and combs fell from their tables; a cloud of hot dust pushed the barber back against the wall.

When the smoke cleared, the man in the seat said:

    “I reckon we just got hit by a meteor.”

    The barber surveyed the floor, tilted his head and nodded.

    “Why, I haven’t seen an asteroid in forty-three years, back when that Eisenhower man was building all the interstates.”

    The patron nodded. “It must have been our first day in Normandy when a meteor crashed right through our bunker. Gave our lieutenant a good scare.”

    “Well, they don’t make asteroids like they used to. When I was a child, the whole town would come out to watch boulders fall from space. Some of us would even skip school to play in the impact craters.” The barber looked at the smoldering rock, then wiped the dust off the man’s head and resumed cutting.

    

    Again, the shop was silent. The dust made it difficult to cut Martin’s hair, but with a little water and some guesswork, Lou could weed out the singed hairs and trim off the grime.

    Both turned to watch a car skid across the parking lot. It flipped in the air, combusted and came to a flaming stop against the barber shop wall. The driver pried open his door and backed away from the vehicle.

    “I’d say that was a mighty fine crash,” the barber said. “Haven’t seen one that good in forty-one years.

    “Well, the flips made it tolerable.” Mark coughed. “But I miss the glory days of vehicle accidents, when chases ripped apart and seat backs went everywhere. Just yesterday, it seems, I was out in Normandy when a Panzer fell off a cliff. Now that was a crash.”

 

    The engine fire gave out, but the roof had begun to creak again. It seemed that the meteor had weakened the very supports holding the ceiling up.

    Just as Lou reached for the hair blower, a twenty-pound chunk of pipe fell on the top of his head and knocked him to the floor.

    “Well,” the barber said, “that was quite a hit.”

    Martin looked over from his chair. “That’s the worst concussion I’ve seen in fifty-two years.”

    Lou looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve had worse. When I was cleaning the chimney as a child, the top gave in and struck me on the head. The doctor said it was a miracle I survived.”

    “That reminds me. Should I call a doctor?”

    “No, no. Don’t trouble him. I’ll just be unconscious for a few hours, if that’s fine with you.”

    The barber stared up at the fractured ceiling. As his eyes closed, Martin could hear him muttering the same thing over and over:

    “Those were the days. Those were the days.”

    
 

    

 

 

 

 

    

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction

Interrogation

Interrogation

12/19/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

“Okay. Please. Let me explain what happened.

“So I was walking down a sidewalk in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Dark as tar outside. All of a sudden, a monitor walks out the front door of a house. Literally. It stops on the front porch and lays down.

“I’m not pulling your leg. And the next thing I knew, this flat-screen plasma follows it out on little television feet. Sony model, I think. Fifty two inches.

“Well, this is a little disturbing, so I walk in to investigate. Italian cookware, alarm clocks, a really nice ring I wanted for my wife—it’s all running down the steps and out onto the front porch.

“And before you know it, a police car pulls up. All the little appliances and cookware and jewelry freeze in place, and I’m trapped upstairs. Talk about a strange day.

“Okay. Okay. I’ll give you the truth.

“Well, I was walking down to my friend Lu’s house. We were getting ready to go skiing.”

“This is Kansas.”

“Well, I know that. We were driving down to Oklahoma to ski. I don’t like the cold, so I put on, you know, a ski mask, coat, pants, boot, gun—cold-weather stuff, right?

“And as I’m turning the corner for his house, I hear this terrible scream from a split level. I run inside to find an elderly woman trapped under a whole pile of things: monitors, a Sony flat-screen plasma, Italian cookware, even a diamond ring. The poor lady couldn’t even breathe! Naturally, I helped get all that stuff off her aching chest. Moved it out to the front porch so it wouldn’t trouble her anymore. And just as I was freeing her ailing body from the plasma television, the police showed up.”

“My patience is running thin.”

“The whole truth this time, I promise you. You’ve been patient.

“Two nights ago, I broke into an elderly women’s house using a gun. Someone tipped me off that she was a wealthy lady, and I was a poor guy looking for a break.

“The door broke open with a kick. It was 2:00 in the morning; not a single witness around.

“Figuring the woman was asleep, I went directly to the entertainment room with the gun in my hand. The door was already open, so I walked inside.

“And would you believe it! Just as I was putting my gloves on, A computer monitor stood up, jumped off the table and walked right out the door.”

Comments Off

Filed under Short Fiction