Survival (Part I)

Editor’s note: When William Masters first submitted “Survival” to us several weeks ago, we were naturally shocked by its content. Was the author really confessing to murder? And why do so on our little blog? In the interest of full disclosure, in the weeks to come we will publish our lengthy correspondence — with the author, the San Francisco police department, with bottled water experts (oh yes!), with friends, and each other — about the claims made in this story. But for this week, we present you the original story without comment.

by William Masters

The author as a young man

The author as a young man

At sixteen, my older brother Mike was tried as an adult and sentenced to a year in the lock-me-tight for splitting from the Scottish fast food joint without paying for his order. After a month’s incarceration, he gained 11 pounds. For the first time in two years, he no longer went to bed hungry each night.

At eleven, as soon as the cast came off my younger brother Sam’s left arm, he hopped a freight train to St. Louis. After a month, most of his cuts and bruises healed and faded enough so that he could wear a short-sleeved shirt without having to answer questions or attract unwanted attention.

At fourteen, panicked at being left the sole target for my parent’s attentions, I drained the brake fluid from their car on Thursday night. Desperate, and hoping to survive until Friday morning, I locked the door and barricaded myself in the empty pantry.

The next morning, I heard my parents shout obscenities, blaming each other for the empty coffee canister. One of them threow the canister against the pantry door… followed by an uncanny silence, during which my body shook as I watched the pantry doorknob move from right to left.

“Oh Steve… come out, come out so I can punch you good-bye,” my father said.

“Oh Sweetie… come out, come out and give mother a kiss good-bye before the house burns down.”

I climbed up on the canning table that stood beneath a port sized window and waited… I waited until I saw my parents finally leave the house and climb into the car.

As soon as I saw the car drive away, I released myself from the pantry and rushed through the great room, which reeked of the beer my parents had substituted for the missing coffee , walked out the front door, sat down on the porch swing, and watched the car drive past the first turn.

With sober anticipation, I imagined my father’s surprise as he tried to apply the brakes to the first hair-pin turn as he drove down the steep mountain road. As soon as I heard the explosion, I took a deep breath and exhaled. A few minutes later, too far away to see any flames, I watched a plume of smoke appear, straighten out and rise vertically into the sky. The smoke congealed into a single, dark grey mass, split in half into a pair of clouds, then floated together along the line of the horizon until the November breeze snuffed them both out.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon when two cars arrived, one from the sheriff’s office and one from Child Services. Still hungry, after eating a can of tomato soup and a small packet of saltine crackers, the only food left in the house, I asked the sheriff if he had a candy bar. His deputy pulled a tootsie roll out of his jacket pocket and tossed it to me. I thanked him.

Child Services looked at both the policemen, then scanned a file folder, and then looked at me. “You don’t want to spoil your dinner with that candy bar, do you… Steven?” Then Services blandly informed me that both my parents had been killed in a car crash that morning.

My body twitched as I concealed my joy in the confirmation.

Then Child Services gave me an empty box with a lid. “You have fifteen minutes to pack one suitcase and fill the box with your belongings before I transport you to a temporary holding area pending your assignment to another location.”

Ten minutes later, I stood silently, holding all my clothes and possessions in my mother’s suitcase. Standing absolutely still in the main room and kitchen area, I felt trapped between the empty frying pan on my right, and the sight of Child Services I saw through the window on my left.

As I touched the back pocket of my Levis to make sure I had my tiny address book, I gripped the suitcase and moved through the front door which Child Services held open for me, and headed to the police car. Like an act of telepathy, the deputy opened the car’s trunk for my suitcase.

Child Services vigorously protested and waved a paper at the two policemen, demanding that they move my suitcase into its trunk and escort me to the backseat of its car.

Silently I stood my ground. I looked the sheriff in the eye, belligerent and pathetic. The sheriff opened the back door of his car for me and told Child Services, “I’m just following protocol.”

Apparently, though still a minor, I needed to make a formal statement at the station and had the right to make calls to anyone I chose to ask for assistance before Child Services could claim me.

As I sat in the backseat, my muscles relaxed and my respiration returned to normal. Ignoring further protests from Child Services, the policemen got back into their car. As the deputy started the engine and shifted the car into gear, the Sheriff offered me a bottled water.

“Here kid, you look like you could use a drink.”

About the author

After the incident, the author spent four years in a group home, then received a scholarship to UCSB, and lived happily ever after, so to speak. No one ever found out about the brake fluid. He lost the copies of the death certificates that were given to him when he reached 18yrs old. “Survival” is part of William’s unpublished anthology, Portraiture: A San Francisco Story Cycle. About 14 stories from the anthology have been previously published in various magazines.
***
So, readers, what do you think? Please weigh in in our comments section below…

True Stories with Richard John: The Camera

by Randi Lee

IMGP4476

“Hey, let’s go raid that abandoned house that caught fire,” my big brother said to me one day.

Naturally, I responded in the manner in which I always responded when he proposed a situation that would potentially get us killed.

“Yay!”

How could I say anything else? Big brother wanted to play with me. RJ wanted to play with me! The strong wind in my lungs drove me to stand. My head smacked against the ceiling with enough force to generate a nearly instant lump, but I didn’t care.

“Grab your backpack and let’s go,” he said. I stopped jumping on the top bunk of our rickety bunk bed, brushed ceiling bits from my hair and did as I was told.

Our first stop was not the condemned house, but the playground. “Strength in numbers,” RJ always said. In RJ-nese this meant, The more people who are involved, the more people I have to blame it on if we get caught.” Given the amount of times we got caught, it was a solid plan.

In the end, three kids joined us. There was Jordan the Strong, a.k.a. The Bully of Worcester Road; there was Corey the Slick who could rig his way out of any situation. And then there was Will the Paste Eater. The slowest of us in every way, Will was typically the one to take the rap. That’s why RJ liked to say him: “We can’t do it without you.”

The abandoned house was at the far end of South Road, the closest house to the cliffs everyone referred to as The Big Leap. It was a pity of a home—a white bungalow with peeled siding and rotten windowsills…Not the kind of home a newlywed couple would be interested in, but perfect for a vagabond bunch like us with the energy and exploratory nature of youth.

We snuck around to the back of the house, near the kitchen door. RJ retrieved a butter knife from his bag and handed it to Corey. Corey stuck the knife between the two window panes and slid it back and forth until the lock on the window came undone. He opened the window and, one by one, we filed in.

The kitchen floor was primarily missing. Exposed nails stuck up in every direction, ready to puncture our feet. Jordan, Corey, Will and I stood against the kitchen wall, our eyes wide and our foreheads sweaty. RJ scanned the floor and carefully placed his feet in the small pockets were there were no nails. Once he was halfway through the room I swallowed hard and followed, mimicking his steps. Jordan, Corey and Will came too.

When we made it to the safety of the hallway, we selected to divide and conquer. Corey followed Jordan into the living room. Will wandered down the hall into one of the bedrooms. I moved toward the other bedroom, but stopped when RJ said my name.

“I bet there’s something good up there,” he said, pointing to the stairs.

I bit my thumbnail and nodded.

With a Come on, then,” he stepped on the first tread. It creaked and shook under his weight. So did the next eleven steps he climbed up. Above, the floor moaned as if alive and in pain.

My nail remained firmly clamped between my teeth while I made my way upward. My other shaking hand clutched the banister. A splinter stuck into my palm; I stifled a shout. Up I went, tears welling, teeth clenching, until I reached the last stair.

That’s when my foot fell through.

RJ grabbed my arm and pulled me up before the rest of me went down. He yanked so hard that we fell down, arms and legs jumbled together like sailor’s knots. A crash resounded behind us. We untangled from our web of limbs and crawled to the edge of the staircase. The top two treads were missing.

“H—how are w—we going to get down?” I stuttered.

“We’ll figure that out later,” RJ said dismissively.

The furniture in the second floor bedroom was either burnt or worn down by age. RJ immediately went for a cobweb-covered dresser in the far corner and rummaged through the drawers. I looked about, staring from the dresser to the bed with an exposed mattress, to the nightstand with a melted alarm clock, to the desk by the window. My eyes lit up at the sight of it. I just knew there were treasures waiting inside.

I was right. After sifting through the drawers for a moment I found the most interesting thing I’d ever seen: A camera.

A camera!

I’d wanted a camera for so long but my mother always told me that I was only ten and she didn’t want to spoil me. This one was great! It was big and clunky, sure. It had a cracked lens, sure. The battery looked corroded, sure—but none of that mattered. Not when I finally had my own camera.

While I put my camera in my bag I heard a noise coming from outside. Looking through the window I found that not one, but several cars were parked around the exterior of the lot, and so was—oh, snap.

“R—RJ,” I said with my mouse-squeak voice. “L—l—ook.”

“Not now,” he replied. “I’m doing something.”

“R—RJ,” turn around, blast it. Turn around! “You n—need to see this.”

After several more requests RJ walked over to the window, looked out, and dropped his bag.

“Oh, snap…” he said, followed by “Run!”

RJ grabbed my hand yanked me toward the stairway. “Let’s go!”

I stumbled as I tried to keep up, feeling as if my arm was going to be ripped clean off. But shouting, “Slow down!” or “Let me go!” were not options I could afford—not with the bulldozer quickly advancing on the front of the house…and us. Hand in hand, we hurried along to the other side of the room until we reached—

—The stairs. Two treads were now missing at the top. Oh, stars. Oh stripes. Our only way out was ruined! I turned to my brother, my eyes as wide as silver dollars, hoping he would tell me that he had one of his plans.

He did.

Unfortunately, it involved him picking me up and throwing me over the hole in the floor as if trying to sink a basketball. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t blink. All I could do was spin my arms in pinwheels in an attempt to keep my balance.

My rear end touched down on a tread in the middle of the stairwell. The rotting board broke instantly, causing me to stumble down the remaining stairs and face-plant at the bottom. It hurt. It stung. My ten-year-old mind was sure I’d broken my face in at least sixty-three places—but I was down the stairs, at least.

But what about RJ? The stairs were ruined! How was he going to make it down? I couldn’t just leave him behind to die. Ma would kill me! Or worse, she’d take away my Nintendo games! Praying for a miracle that would preserve Link—I was already up to the Fire Temple, darn it—I pushed myself up off the floor and spun around…

…Just in time to watch him jump over the stairwell like some sort of crazed billy-goat leaping around a mountainside. He landed somewhere in the middle and leapt up again right before the stair below him collapsed.

“Get out of the way!” he shouted a little too late. I didn’t have time to brace myself before he slammed into me like an angry buck slamming into a much more frightened buck. For the second time we collectively tumbled to the ground.

“I swear to God you’re the stupidest person I’ve ever met,” the fifteen-year-old who had said, Hey, let’s go raid that abandoned house that caught fire,” told me.

Shouts from the hallway caught our attention. We picked ourselves up and ran to the entrance of the kitchen to find the other boys pointing at the kitchen’s floor. That’s right…the maze of nails. It’d taken us a good five minutes to cross it the last time. The sound of the bulldozer crashing into the front of the house alerted us to the fact that we didn’t have five minutes this time around.

“Just go for it!” RJ shouted. He pushed the others aside and sprinted across the kitchen, miraculously missing every rusted nail on the way. Jordan and Corey followed, leaving Will and I at the kitchen’s entrance.

My stutter scratched at my throat as I tried to utter, You go first.” The paste eater beat me to it and pushed me through the doorway. Letting out a yelp, I grabbed hold of a rogue chair and balanced myself before my face landed on the bed of nails. Behind me, the roar of the bulldozer shook the walls as it landed another strike. Ahead of me was RJ calling my name, and salvation—salvation! With careful steps I dug my chipped nails into my fists and made a mad dash for the other side of the kitchen.

Everything was going well until that stupid paste eater sprinted forward and collided with my back, disrupting my concentration, and my footing. A sudden sharpness shot through my toe, over my foot and up my leg. I looked down to find a nail sticking straight through my shoe.

I screamed more out of disbelief than out of pain. I was stuck, trapped by that nail tacking me down while the walls shook and the roof threatened to fail and the sixty-three broken parts of my face continued to swell.

“Idiot!” RJ screamed. “Don’t just stand there!”

Wait, where’d he come from?

He grabbed my arm and pulled me through the kitchen, me shrieking and limping all the way. When we made it to the door he picked me up and slung me over his back. I looked back over my shoulder as the bulldozer crashed into the house, which didn’t put up too much of a fight. The kitchen wall fell. The roof caved in. A symphony of snapping beams and shattering glass surrounded us.

RJ made sure the other boys were with us, then they all ran and ran until we were again in the safety of the neighborhood playground. He dropped me in the sand by the chain link swings. Each winded, the boys sat around me, taking turns between high-fiving and forced shouts of, “That was awesome!” and staring at my white, blood soaked sneaker.

“Take her shoe off!” Jordan said. “I want to see!”

Despite my pleas, RJ removed my shoe and sock. The boys gasped in chorus. RJ told me to look down. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t! I—oh my stars, there’s a hole in my foot. There’s a hole in my foot!

Jordan stuck his head a little too close to my wound. “Can I poke it?”

“No, you can’t poke it!” RJ growled.

“I promise I’ll be gentle,” Jordan whined.

“No poking.”

“What if I use a stick?”

“No poking!”

“What if I took my own shoe off and used my toe, or—”

A slap to the back of Jordan’s forehead. “—No poking!”

“She’s hurt bad,” Will said, examining my foot. “How are we going to explain this?”

“It’s Will’s fault,” RJ said when we got home and Ma rocketed out of her chair at the sight of me. “There was this board with nails on it. He dared her to press the nails down with her foot. She did and when the nail went through she fell flat on her face and bruised it up good.”

“My poor baby,” Ma cried, placing her hands on my shoulders. “My poor baby!”

“You know how impressionable she is,” RJ continued. “And then with peer pressure and bullying these days? I don’t blame her for trying, if I’m honest. You shouldn’t, either.”

The last bit about bullies and peer pressure nailed any of Ma’s disbelief into a coffin. She called Will’s parents, threatened extensive violence and gave us treats to compensate for our troublesome afternoon. Having successfully passed the buck for the umpteenth time, RJ the snake charmer stood tall.

I stood tall, too—at least, I would have stood tall if there wasn’t a massive hole in my foot—because something came out of that day. You see, hidden in my backpack resided the camera, my camera, the one I’d always wanted. So, in the end, the house, the stairs, the bulldozer and the nail were totally worth it; I had my very own broken camera and Zelda wasn’t going to get taken away.

The night ended with a trip to the hospital and a shot. Afterwards, Ma took us out for more treats. We smiled to ourselves as we sucked down our sugar and high fructose corn syrup, pleased with the fact that we’d lived to lie another day.

About the author

Randi Lee is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator who specializes in writing news articles for her Firm. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in several publications such as Crack the Spine and Pure Slush, and her most recent work was featured in a print anthology.