Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hell or High Water

The writing challenge continues from Indie Ink. You know the drill: we writers swap challenges and write about them--we have until 11 p.m. on Thursday evening to meet these challenges or bad things happen! New contestants are always welcome to join by going to the link and signing up!

Welcome to my week 7. As always, feel free to leave comments, suggestions, and other neuronically-fired feedback either in the comments here, or on Twitter or Facebook!

Week 7.
My Challenger: LifenBits
My Challenge: You take the train from California to Seattle and have to deal with a tsunami.
Who I am Challenging: My Plaid Pants
What I Challenged Them With: Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, "Pulling Heaven Down" by Blue October. Tell me what your favorite song is, what it is about the song that speaks to you... You could even incorporate this into a fictional piece if you so desire.
Previous Challenges I have answered:
[Week 1.] [Week 2.] [Week 3.] [Week 4.] [Week 5.] [Week 6.]

Hell or High Water

Earthquake in Hawaii--Depressing... Click. Ugh... Economic Depression Still On... Click. Woo-hoo! Another "behind-the-scenes-story" about the royal wedding--puh-leeze!

Eric snapped the laptop shut and left his gaze drift out the window, feeling more than listening to the soothing rhythm of the train as he stretched out his legs and rested his neck on the blue-patterned seat.

Click-click... Click-click... Click-click...

Like a heartbeat, he thought. Twelve hours in, and he was pretty sure they had to be over the Oregon state line by now. He never quite realized until now just how far he had moved when he left home in Seattle for the great life in L.A. How long had it been since the space needle graced his horizon? Fifteen--no, wait. Sixteen years?

Sixteen years... He wouldn't even be thinking about this now were it not for the blasted phone call. Fucking technology. Intrusive as fuck, really. Gone were the days where months and years could roll by, noting nothing more than the changing seasons that affected your world and only your world. When what the neighbors were up to was big news.

He let his gaze drift upward, taking in the majesty of the Rocky Mountains... Were they even called the Rocky Mountains here? Or are these the Cascades...?

When mountains just used to be mountains--those were probably the days. Except for that nasty Donner party incident, of course.

"They're certainly beautiful, aren't they?" a wrinkled old lady one seat away practically whispered.

"Excuse me?"

"The mountains. Every year I make this trip, and every year, they just seem so much..." She shook her head as though there weren't enough words.

"Mountain-ier?" He suppressed a smile. His girlfriend had recently told him his least attractive feature was when he laughed at his own witticisms--especially when they weren't all that witty.

But she cackled like a witch finishing a nasty revenge spell. "My, aren't we the funny one!" She clapped her hands in delight. "Yes, 'mountainier' is an adequate word!" Her shoulders continued to jump up and down in now-silent laughter.

He tugged at his shirt collar. It wasn't that funny. He smiled and nodded, then turned his attention away toward the view out the window once more.

"You see, this was my honeymoon," she continued.

Sweet Jesus, not one of these people... Eric pulled his polite smile out of reserve just as his head nodded back toward the old bird. "You don't say?" Your husband was El Cheapo?

"Yes. Seventy years ago, that was. Of course, the train wasn't this fancy, or this fast. But then again, the sleeper cars were so much nicer, and the dinner cars? Oh, even New York City restaurants today couldn't begin to compare!"

Eric nodded again, turned away, put the smile away, and prayed for that to be the end. Aren't old people supposed to be sleeping on train rides? Or--in a home?

What if she escaped from her home! He glanced sideways, but didn't see any kind of hospital bracelet dangling from her wrists. But he knew he saw that on an episode of Golden Girls once. Or was it Designing Women? The fact that he was even thinking this was proof he really needed to take the remote control away from Savannah more often. It was his big screen television, after all. The one he went to law school for, was in debt up to his eyeballs for, why he worked 12 hour days, six days a week for. What did she do all day? Yoga? Granted, she had a killer bod, but that was certainly not work. Not the kind of work that earned you the remote control on Sundays, that was for damn sure.

"--and he said, 'Mildred, it's okay, everyone gets a little travel sick at times!' Oh, how I laughed. So that's when I told him we were pregnant! Right here on this very same train route!" She sighed the sigh of the old and senile and content. "That was our third time on this trip, you see."

"Hmm." There, he thought. Get the hint, grandma--not in a chatty mood here, trying to sleep and relax!

"So, Mr...?" the old gecko hinted.

"Oh, sorry. Eric. Eric von Grueben." He held out his hand which she gingerly accepted and shook.

"Mildred Pierce. 'Von Grueben,' eh? Sounds so dignified! What a glorious name!" Mildred replied, before starting up that insane sounding laughter once more. "I, well, before I was a Pierce, I was a Buttz. Can you believe it? Mildred Buttz. Oh, how I loathed my father for years for that name!"


"But really, how mad could I stay at him? So I decided to be mad at my grandfather instead!" More laughter.

Someone overdosed on their happy pills this morning. Eric shifted in his seat, becoming more uncomfortable the more she babbled.

"Are you traveling alone?" Mildred queried. "Such a trip up the coast is always best enjoyed when in good company, I always say."

"Yes, hmm. Would you excuse me for a moment?" Eric started down the aisle, toward the dining car. If you can't beat 'em, go drink. That's what I always say.


As he closed the door behind him, shutting out the bustling noise of the wind created by the speed of the train, he noticed something odd. Everyone was glued to the television sets over the bar area.

What the... He pulled up a stool and flagged one of the bartenders. "Ginger Vodka, please. What's going on?" he then asked, motioning toward the television sets.

"Huge earthquake, man!" the young man replied as he broke out a glass and some bottles. "They say there's a mega-tsunami heading right for the west coast!"

Eric laughed in spite of himself. "Oh, okay then." He left a ten on the counter and ambled closer to the screen behind the gawkers.

"...and U.S. officials are warning the entire west coast, particularly those areas north of Bandon, Oregon, all of Washington State, Vancouver Island, all the way up through the Alaskan pan handle. Get to higher elevations..."

"Oh, come on. That kind of stuff--"

"Shh!" one of the others turned, finger to lips, with an angry stare.

" least a 40 foot wave is expected to hit around 10 a.m. Pacific time, starting at it's most southern point near the Oregon/California border..."

"Whatever," Eric said to no one in particular. Tsunami's on the U.S. coast--bah! He took a seat at the table opposite the bar, once again taking in the mountainous view.

"Those, young man, are the Klamath Mountains," Mildred stated as she sat down across from him.

"Oh, uh..."

"I remember one year the train broke down right about this very spot. So Walter and I decided right then and there to go see that big waterfall they have. After all, no one knew when the train would be repaired anyway, so we hired a driver to go to the park, found a hotel. I think that was the first--and only--time we didn't make it all the way to Mount Vernon. That's where his family originally hailed from, you see."

"Uh, yeah..."

"But we had fun nonetheless!"


"Mr. von Greuben, could I trouble you to get me a Tom Collins?"

"A wha-- Oh, yes, uh... Tom Collins?" Eric sat up and walked the three feet to the other side of the dining car and flagged down the bartender from the television once more.

"It's not often you see a young man having a drink with his mother," he replied. "Very sweet, if I do say so."

"Oh, no," Eric replied. "She's not--"

"Hey, Gabe! Look at that!" shouted someone, and the bartender turned to stare at the television. "Sweet Jesus..."

Eric also turned. Video images were flashing across the screen of what had apparently used to be Hawaii.

What had used to be Hawaii...

"Holy fuck..." he muttered.

"Oh, Mr. von Greuben?"

Eric waved in her general direction, never turning to look, a dismissive gesture if he had ever given one before. The current video was being taken by helicopter, showing the spewing volcano of Hawaii as it apparently was being deluged by masses of water... you know, Mauna Kea, Hawaii's tallest volcano, which was thought to be quite dormant, stood at 13,796 feet above sea level. It unexpectedly and terrifyingly blew it's top off today, so who knows what the elevation is now, but the giant crater it has left is being pummeled by the waves the volcano itself created when at 5:15 pacific time, the volcano erupted with a ferocity...

"Mr. von Greuben."

He still didn't turn to look, but as he went to wave at her dismissively once more, he ended up slapping her in the face. "Oh, wha--"

"Eric Stiles von Greuben!" came his full name from the lips of this old, withered stranger.

And he turned to look.

"How--" Mildred Pierce no longer stood before him--well, it was still Mildred Pierce, only it wasn't Mildred Pierce... His brain scrambled and reached for a sane, reasonable, logical way to rectify this conundrum and arrived at complete failure in nanoseconds. "Wha-- I mean, how--"

"Time is of the essence, Eric. And before that time arrives, I'd like my Tom Collins! It's been ages since one of those graced my lips. Now, chop-chop!" Gone was the sweet my-life-was-so-sweet-and-boring old lady, and in her place stood a listen-or-die old commando.

"I think that's the sweetest thing you thought of me all morning," Mildred said as she gently took the glass from Eric's quivering hands.

"I--" Eric stammered.

"Sit down, you spoiled brat." She gestured toward the chair opposite herself, then smoothed her own skirt beneath her legs as she sat herself. She leaned forward and, with a straw, began sipping on her drink, eyes closed, lips forming a smile as they sucked down the alcohol. "Whew!" she replied, eyes wide, as she released the straw from her mouth. "They certainly make them stronger these days!"

Eric plopped down across from her as his brain began to function once more. "Who are you, and how do you know my name--my full, actual name?"

"Oh, Eric... Let me try to summarize this quickly and neatly. I'm what you call your Last Chance Angel, or, as I like to say, your Hell or High Water Angel." She laughed, slapping her withered hands on the table. "Very appropriate for today, I think. Oddly enough, I'm also your grandmother on your mother's side, but I passed on before you came along. Shame, seeing as how I probably could have whipped some manners into you before this time came." She sighed and brought her glass to her lips.

"You're a loon," Eric stated flatly. "Why do I always get stuck on trips with the batty ones?"

She stared balefully at him over the rim of her glass, her lips never leaving Tom.

"I'm going back to my seat. Good-bye, crazy."

"Eric. Listen carefully now. In exactly half an hour, that wave is going to come crashing up the Oregon coast. It will easily travel up through the Rogue River canyon, wiping out every city and town--and train--it comes across."


"Twenty-nine minutes. That's how long you have to make your case."

"Excuse me?"

"Why you should continue to live."

"I'm going back to my seat. Don't follow me, you old bird."

She waved. "Last chance, Eric. Another Tom Collins, please, barkeep."


He kept glancing at his watch. Couldn't help it, really. Hell or High Water Angel--Ha!

But if it were true, he had just under 10 minutes to live now.

Eric wiped the sweat from his brow, glanced at the Rolex again. He picked up his laptop. Just send a quick email to Savannah--tell her to enjoy the big screen. He quickly slapped it shut again. A morbid, from beyond the grave email? Was he really buying into this crap?

Why did he always get stuck with the crazies on these trips?

"I thought I was a 'loon'," Mildred said, setting herself down beside him.

"Why me? Why aren't you torturing some other poor sap?"

"That sounds like 'buying into this crap,' if you were to ask this loon," she replied, her eyes looking past him toward the mountain range beyond the glass.

"That's a nice parlor trick, pretending to read my mind." He wiped his sweaty palms on his pant legs, then ran his hands through his hair. "You could probably make a few bucks doing that back in the dining car, you know."

"Oh, Eric," she sighed. She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them intently. "What can I say? I don't like this anymore than you do. But the fact remains, you need to tell me, truly and honestly, why your life should be spared this oncoming disaster!"

"Why don't I see other people having these conversations with other passengers, eh? If this is true, doesn't everyone get a chance to say why they should live? And, anyway, why should anyone have to die! This--this is preposterous!"

She patted his leg. "Let me tell you a story," she said, "to help explain this a bit. Now, you see, there was once a man who had three daughters: Victoria, Veronica, and Virginia."

"Are you kidding me with this?"

"Hush. Now, all three girls were special in their own way. Victoria could play the piano like nothing doing. A genius on the keys. Veronica had a sweet, gentle soul and a way with animals. Could even heal the warts on a toad. It was whispered it was witchcraft, but it wasn't. And lastly there was Virginia. Slow, stupid, 'touched,' I think was another word for it. She wasn't stupid, mind you, just a bit slow, but more talented than the other two sisters combined--she was just never given the chance, and she had no desire to outshine her sisters, such was her deep and abiding love for them...

"Anyway, disease struck the family--the entire town, honestly. The doctor came to their home, but had only enough medicine to save one of the three little girls. The father was torn apart, wracked with guilt and grief. After all, how can one choose? They were all three his daughters! But choose he had to, and choose he did."


"Well?" Eric asked, trying to suppress his exasperation.

"Well what?"

"Which daughter did he choose?"

"Eric, that's not the point."

"What?! You're telling me I only have three minutes, give or take, to live, to tell you why I deserve to live, like I'm on trial or something, and you want me to solve RIDDLES?!"

"Sometimes you remind me so much of your father." She sighed. "Listen, the point is, sometimes we are given seemingly impossible choices. Call it fate, destiny, luck--whatever. But, having been given this choice, of whether or not you feel you are even worthy of being given such a choice, will you make the choice? Take the choice?"

"I'm still not sure I understand."

She suddenly placed one arm in the air while placing the other directly on Eric's chest. "It's coming," she whispered.


"The water is coming. There, look." She pointed one crooked finger out the window, rearward, toward a gap between the distant mountains. "The water comes."

"But--I'm not ready! I'm not ready to die! I'm only thirty-five, for fuck's sake!" Eric was screaming now, full panic mode.

"Who ever is? Eric, look, I'm not the one in charge of deciding whether or not you do, in fact, get to live through this. I'm only a messenger, the vial of medicine in the doctor's bag, if you will. Just give me a reason--any reason, be it honest and true, and I will do what I can to make sure you do not die today."

"Isn't not wanting to die reason enough?"

"I don't know. Is it? Only you know the answer to that. Is not wanting to die reason enough to live? For you? For anyone?"

"I'd like to think the fuck so!" Eric shouted.

"Anything else you'd like to add to that?"

"The train--it's speeding up!" Eric noted hopefully. People were now rushing through the aisles between the seats, not that there was anywhere to go. Panicked conversations floated past Eric's ears, with one another and on cell phones.

"The conductor has been told the water is coming, but he can't go fast enough soon enough. Its too late for the train, and for most of the people on it," Mildred said sadly, shaking her head. "I'm not sure who gets to live and who gets to die. All I know is I was sent to ask you. You, Eric. Why should you get to live?"

"I-- I don't know." He slumped back down into his seat and stared at the panicking passengers around him. The sobs and screams as people saw the water rushing up from somewhere behind the train. Mobs of people were now rushing mainly forward, shoving and pushing their way toward the engine.

Mildred placed her hand on Eric's. "I'm sorry, my grandson."

"I'm going to die, aren't I?"

The train lurched. The lights flickered. People screamed. A quick glance out the window. and Eric saw the ground beginning to lift away--or was that the train simply beginning to lean sideways off the tracks as the water lifted and slammed it?

As he turned his head to once again speak to Mildred, he noted he was now quite definitely looking down toward Mildred. He grabbed the railing, the arms of his seat, anything to keep from falling on top of her. She seemed quite unfazed by any of it. She still wore a faintly sad smile.

"I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" he screamed over the noise.

Water suddenly seemed everywhere. He no longer knew which way was up. All noise was silenced through the filter of water in his ears, over his head. He felt his body slamming into objects, people, things. He tried to focus his eyes on something, anything, his hands grabbing and grasping for something solid, something not wet, something not moving...

Grasping for life, come hell or high water...


Marian said...

ah jason, so riveting! i was hanging on every word. oh i want more of this! please tell more of the story. ack! and, really truly, excellent. whoosh! whoosh.

supermaren said...

I loved it! This kind of writing is so your forte. I really want to see you write a novel. Seriously, Jason. This is fantastic stuff.

K said...

Another great story! I was glued to the screen, riveted. Your characters were so strong, the narrative so creative. Thank you for a great read, well done!

janani said...

Wow this was really great! Like Maren said, you really should write a novel. Awesome story.

Lazidaisical said...

You're great at this stuff! I'd find a way to cop out! Sidenote: your Hunk Du Jour to my right was fighting your story for my attention ;)

Jennifer Gage said...

i have been thinking about this story ever since I read it. I listed it among my favorite posts of the week on one of my blogs, and thought you might want to know.

my writing blog is here:

Mandy said...

This was great, Jason! Kept my attention the whole time. I'm with the others! Write a novel!

Jason Hughes said...

Thanks so much everyone! I *am* looking into rewriting my challenge from Week 1 and reworking it for magazine publication, so *fingers crossed* perhaps in a few weeks I'll have some good news along those lines?

As for writing a novel? I've got MANY I've started writing--but first we'll see how the magazine thing goes first. You all are inspiring me creatively in so many ways--I'd never have considered this but for you all and this challenge!! BIG HUGS!!!

Jennifer Gage said...

i have been thinking about this story ever since I read it. I listed it among my favorite posts of the week on one of my blogs, and thought you might want to know.

my writing blog is here: