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Short Stories, Writing

Scarry Night: The Tale of the Tape

02.27.11 | 5 Comments

So a few weeks ago Patti Abbott issued a new flash fiction challenge: incorporate the sentence “I really don’t mind the scars” into a story of 800 or so words. An idea came to me in a (heh) flash. So without furher ado, I present:

The Tale of the Tape

by Graham Powell

“I really don’t mind the scars.”

He turned the shuttle wheel and jogged back ten seconds, pressed pause, and noted the time on his pad. A smile as he played it forward again, scribbling down her words. That would make the cut for sure.

The woman was saying, “I tell myself it was a trade – yes, I got this” – she waved a hand at the mottled blotches that ran from under her collar, across her cheek, and to the side of her head, covering a ruined ear – “but I also saved a child’s life. I mean, who wouldn’t take that deal?”

She was good, really good, modest but not shy. She didn’t acknowledge the scars again, but you couldn’t look away from them, the plain evidence of what she’d done.

He sipped his coffee and squinted at his pad. The editing booth was dark except for the light from the monitor. Aside from the scars, the woman was cute in an 80s sort of way, hair teased and hairsprayed, cheeks with just a hint of baby fat. She looked like Markie Post on Night Court, circa 1988.

No one remembers Markie Post, he thought.

Now she was looking down at her hands in her lap as they twisted round each other. When she looked up her eyes were wet. Her voice cracked as she said, “I only wish I could have saved them both.”

Gold, that was pure fucking gold. There was an award out there somewhere for this. He could see it on his desk already.

The dipshit host nearly let her off the hook then, taking a break to let her regain her composure. It was his first interview, he was young, inexperienced, didn’t know when to step on the gas. A twist of the wheel and footage of the woman smiling ruefully as she wiped away tears, sipping water, a PA fixing her hair and makeup, all flashed by at the speed of a Keystone Kops movie.

As she settled back in her chair and began speaking, he slowed the tape to normal speed. “…so I was out jogging, like I do every morning,” she said. “I’d seen the new family there, seen the kids playing there in the street, so when I saw the fire…” She shrugged. “I knew I had to do something.”

That shrug. He paused the tape and looked closer, at the modest little smile that pulled at the scar tissue. She loved the attention. Loved it. This was going to make her a star.

He spent an hour logging the rest of the interview then popped out the disc and loaded the surveillance footage.

There was a convenience store on the corner, just half a block from the house, and it had caught most of the action. A digital readout in the lower right-hand corner displayed the time. He jumped ahead to 5:45am.

Even in black and white you could tell the old Victorian had seen better days. The side yard had been covered in gravel for use as a parking lot, and held an assortment of junkers, beat up old imports and big American land yachts that had been new when Kojak was on the air.

5:52am. There was a flash in a window near the back of the house, down near the ground. He knew from the police report that this was a basement window, where the water heaters were. A gas leak, maybe. The window brightened slowly, almost imperceptibly, until the flames themselves were visible, licking up the side of the house. And here came the woman, sprinting into the bottom of the frame.

She banged on the front door, wrestled it open, darted inside. At 5:56 she reappeared, and elderly woman shuffling along behind her in a gown and slippers. The grandmother, he knew. The whole downstairs was brilliantly illuminated now, but the grandmother pointed back into the house, and the woman went.

Nothing for five minutes. Then, at 6:01am exactly, the upstairs bedroom at the front of the house collapsed into the entry hall, and nine-year-old Jasmine McDonald died.

Two minutes more, and the woman managed to crawl through the wrecked front door with Jasmine’s sister Angela tucked under her arm.

He hit rewind and picked up his pad. And managed to dump hot coffee directly onto his crotch.

Cursing, he jumped up and swatted at his pants, brushing most of the coffee to the floor. Much of the rest he blotted up using his cuffs. When he saw the display still zipping back in time he slapped at the pause button. It stopped at 3:15.

His eyes narrowed. No way.

Rewind to 3:13. Play.

No fucking WAY.

A familiar figure stole up the street, keeping to the shadows. In her right hand was – what? A gas can? It looked like a gas can.

Up to the house, but this time around to the back. The figure disappeared, down a flight of stairs to the basement. She was in the house this time for three minutes and forty seconds, then up the stairs, down the street, out of the frame.

He sat back, pulling at his lip. An extreme case of Munchausen’s-by-proxy – she got to play the hero. The fire, though, wouldn’t follow the plan. A child was dead, and the woman scarred for life. But that wasn’t so bad, not if she wanted attention. She’d have all she wanted now.

More than she wanted, when this tape hit the air.

He smiled. Pulitzer, for sure.

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