Saturday, February 4, 2012

Challenge Story #6: A Previous Engagement

I've got a new story for you today. You can read A Previous Engagement totally free for about a week. After that, you'll need to download a copy to read the rest. I hope you're enjoying the challenge stories so far.

A Previous Engagement
 By Shaun Kilgore

Copyright © 2012 Shaun Kilgore
Published by Founders House Publishing, LLC
All Rights Reserved.

From the shadows of a leafless sycamore, Douglas Finch watched with uncharacteristic interest as movers carried bits of furniture into the small gray-green house across the street. It seemed as though he had a new neighbor. The prospect wasn't especially cheerful. Nonetheless, he found himself outside his own modest, little house on a blustery day to witness the new arrival. A stiff breeze made him pull his flannel coat tight about him and mumble under his breath. Twice he considered walking across the street and asking one of the movers, but had second thoughts. A little waiting never did any harm after all.

Without his watch, Douglas gauged that he had been standing there for less than thirty minutes. The movers continued their lively conversation, heckling each other and laughing, all while hefting what looked like a white leather couch inside the house. Next, they unloaded a pair of gold-gilded lamps, and end tables to match. Douglas had a suspicion that his neighbor was a woman though he didn't want to presume too much. He itched for a cigarette. How long had it been six months or seven? Douglas could almost taste the nicotine. Maybe he should just call it a loss and go back inside. A cup of hot tea sounded like heaven.

Just as Douglas turned to leave, a black S-10 pickup pulled up just behind the moving van. He waited. The driver's side door opened with a squeak of protest from the poor hinges and a woman climbed out. The first thing Douglas saw was her hair. It was blonde, the palest blonde he had ever seen. But this gal was no packaged, platinum beauty. Her silky locks spilled loosely over a weathered, navy pea coat that covered her to mid-thigh and she wore loose fitting whitewashed jeans that bagged at the ankles. She smiled and waved to one of the movers who shouted in response.

"Yo, Abby, me and Tony aren't sure where you want all this stuff so we're just setting it in the living room. That okay with you?"

Abby laughed then said, "Yeah, that'll be great Rick. Where's Tony?"

Tony emerged from inside. "Hey, Abby, how you doing? Was wondering when you'd show. You sure do have a lot of junk here. Me and Rick were thinking about taking some of this off your hands and disposing of it all proper like."

"Don't you touch a thing Tony Barducci! You hear me?" She pointed at the man for emphasis.

Tony held up his hands defensively. "Okay, okay. Somebody's touchy today. Ha, I was only kidding."

Douglas watched the exchange with interest now. No one had noticed him yet. Abby closed the gap still between her and the two burly guys and briefly embraced them both before smacking them each on the arm, and saying, "Now get back to work!"

Douglas found himself smiling. She certainly was a spitfire.

Douglas had known very few women, but knew enough that he most certainly did not generally wish for their company. To say that women complicated life was an understatement and Douglas Finch had taken this to heart long ago. He had no qualms about being a bachelor; he found peace in his solitude usually. At least he did until the moment this woman stepped into his carefully constructed piece of the world. Douglas felt awkward just standing there, gawking across the street. The notions crowding in to his head embarrassed him. Just as he made up his mind to go back inside his house, she saw him. Abby stopped talking and waved in Douglas's direction halting his ragged retreat.

"Hello!" she said.

Douglas could feel his legs trembling. Yet, he was able to reply. "Oh, uh, hello there..."

Abby waltzed across the street, her hair swinging back and forth with the motion. Douglas dropped his gaze to the concrete at his feet. He felt suddenly awkward and the urge to flee from this apparition grew stronger. When he glanced up he found Abby standing just a few feet away. The woman greeted him again with a warm smile that caused her face to glow. Douglas couldn't help but smile back. It was positively odd. He never smiled. The expression felt alien, so out of place after so long wearing nothing but a frown--though sometimes a well-placed scowl--to shake things up a bit.

"My name is Abby Simpson. Looks like I'm your new neighbor. What's your name?"

"Douglas Finch." Douglas replied.

Abby stretched out her gloved hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you Douglas Finch. This certainly is a quiet neighborhood you have here."

Douglas accepted the proffered handshake hesitantly. The woman's hand was so small, so delicate in his monstrous grasp. "Yes it is. It's far enough from downtown to make you think you're in the country, but close enough that you can find almost anything you could possibly need in one of the supermarkets or shopping malls." Douglas couldn't believe he had said so much to a complete stranger. He cleared his throat then said, "At least, in my opinion."

Abby nodded. "Hey, I'll take your word for, it Doug."

Douglas wrinkled his nose. "Uh, Douglas, not Doug. I never liked Doug. Sorry." His face flushed.

"That's okay. I would rather be called Abby any day than Abigail. My dad's the only one who gets away with it anymore." Mentioning her father brought a twinkle to Abby's eyes that held Douglas fast.

"Well, Douglas, again it was nice to meet you. We will see more of each other, I'm sure. Take care now."

"Bye." Douglas watched Abby cross back over and then go inside her gray-green one story.

He let out a sigh and then turned towards his own front door and ambled up the walk, still unable to shake the grin from his lips.

*   *   *

At 7 a.m., the alarm went off and Douglas struggled to untangle himself from his sheets in order to silence the blaring sound. Another day had begun but something was definitely different. More specifically, Douglas realized that the first thing in his mind upon waking was Abby Simpson and that disturbed him greatly. Though, as he went through the motions of waking up, squinting in the near darkness of his bedroom and stumbling to the bathroom to shower to, her haunting face was soon chased from his mind by the day's schedule.

After the shower had removed the last vestiges of grogginess from him, Douglas threw on a pair of sweatpants and a hooded shirt then entered his smallish kitchen. All in all, his house was just big to accommodate him and his elusive cat Felix. But this was fine. It was the way he planned things. Douglas had always been a loner. His thirtieth birthday had just come and gone and he'd spent the time alone, drinking a bottle of vintage wine and playing chase the ball with Felix until dawn. Thus went the life of a wildly successful writer, or so Douglas thought.

His first book, Rose-Colored Glasses stayed on the best seller's list eighteen straight weeks while his second, Salamander was getting rave reviews, having hit the stores just six weeks ago. There were offers pouring in from television and movie markets asking for the rights to make Rose-Colored Glasses into a film as well as a number of signings and book tour proposals waiting for his response. The way his literary agent, Robert Hoskins, talked, Douglas could expect even more success with Salamander than Glasses had garnered.

Douglas realized he was staring out the window and turned to pour himself a cup of fresh coffee. He had to focus on today. There was work to be done. Douglas had already started working on his next novel. He had decided not to take much time off. There were more stories bubbling up inside of him and he needed to get them out.

After breakfast, Douglas wandered around his house, getting himself ready to sit down write. When he walked beside the door to his office, the sound of his computer humming, beckoned him inside. With his cup of coffee topped off, he went in and settled himself into his thick leather chair. Jiggling the mouse displaced his Star Wars screensaver and revealed the cluttered desktop. File icons littered the entire surface of dark blue screen, each of them filled with either half-realized storylines, alternate versions of one or more chapters, and copious notes.

Douglas didn't bother to clean up the mess; it always ended up in about the same state the next day. When he was writing, things were left where they lay. Clicking on the appropriate icon, Douglas opened his latest chapter and reread what he'd written the previous day. He'd had a productive time, churning out seven pages, two pages above his set quota. After ten minutes he was lost in the narrative again, typing rapidly, only pausing long enough to down the rest of his coffee. Douglas continued writing through the noon hour and finally stopped just after 2 p.m. to eat a late lunch. He took a walk to get his thoughts cleared out so he return to his desk and continue.

The neighborhood was quiet, just the way Douglas liked it. Douglas started walking up the sidewalk, his breath clouding before him in the brisk air. Winter was stubbornly clinging on but it was loosing the battle. In two weeks it would officially be spring. His walk took Douglas down to the neighborhood's picturesque park with its thick sycamore and maple trees that provided plenty of shade in the hot summer months and were bustling with children and people out to enjoy the day. He loved the park like he loved the neighborhood. On this particular day though, it was quiet. The skeletal shapes of the trees whispered in the slight breeze, bending and cracking their pleas for new life. Douglas moved in and out of the shadows of those sleeping giants, smiling sadly at the vacant swings moving back and forth in the wind. The urge for a cigarette again reappeared to tempt him. Douglas sighed heavily. He supposed it was time to go back home.

The walk back was slow. Douglas waved at neighbors he barely knew, and children climbing off school buses, some of those he recognized from summers in the park. Minutes later, his house came into view. Just as Douglas entered his yard, a voice called out and startled him.

"Douglas! Douglas Finch!"

Douglas jerked his head around to the source of the voice. He felt his stomach drop. Walking towards him from across the street came Abby Simpson, dressed in a black skirt and white blouse, her hair bound in a tight bun atop her beautiful head. She was smiling as she came closer. Douglas could smell her sweet perfume immediately and, though he tried, he glanced at her shapely calves.

"Oh, hello Abby, I wasn't expecting to see you so soon." Douglas struggled for a moment to speak clearly, hoping that Abby hadn't noticed his wandering eye.

"Yeah, I just got home from work a little while ago and was heading out again to attend a friend's gallery opening downtown. He's pretty excited to have his work on display."

Douglas was intrigued despite himself. "A gallery showing? What sort of work is it?"

Abby smiled, showing brilliant white teeth. "Don is a painter for the most part but he's been doing some amazing sculpture lately. I was able to put together a few snapshots of his work for a portfolio late last year and they were well received. I'm happy for him. He deserves it for all the work he put into his collection."

"Sounds wonderful," said Douglas.

"It will be!" Abby beamed with pleasure. "Would you like to come? I'm going to be a little early as it."

Douglas cleared his throat. "Well I...I don't know. Um, actually I have work to do. I've been on break, but now I need to get back inside. Thank you but maybe next time?"

"Alright." Abby paused with her mouth open then asked, "Douglas what do you, if I might ask?"

"Well...uh...I'm a writer actually."

"Really, what do you write? Articles or books?" She waited for his answer with that implacable smile still present.

Douglas noticed how Abby pursed her lips in something like anticipation and his heart skipped a beat. What in the world is going on with you Finch?

Finally he answered. "I've written both, but I've been having success with novels."

Abby nodded in understanding. "Anything I might be familiar with?"

Douglas almost chuckled. She didn't know him from Adam.

"Yeah, I wrote, Rose-Colored Glasses. He waited for any sign of recognition. Nothing.

"Hmm. I don't think I've heard of it but I will check it out and let you know what I think." With that she said goodbye and went over to her S-10 and drove away, leaving Douglas standing by himself on the sidewalk.

*   *   *

The phone was ringing off the wall when Douglas entered the house. He caught it just in time.

"Hey Douglas, it me Rob."

"Oh, hi. How's it going?"

"Good, good. Listen I was calling to find out whether you looked over the contract info I sent you."

Rob was normally an easy-going sort of guy but Douglas could tell that he was at the edge of his patience. He had been dragging his feet about the whole business.

"Douglas it's been two weeks since you received final materials for film rights. Did you even look at them?'

"Yeah. I did."

"So what do you think?"

Douglas sighed. "I'm just not sure, Rob."

"Douglas, we don't have any time left. We've used up the deadline. The company is waiting for your answer on Rose-Colored Glasses and I'm the one who has to give it to them. What's it going to be? We're talking two million buck here?"

"Okay, Rob, I give in man. Call them. It's a deal."

"You mean it?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Yee haw!" Rob's laughter echoed through Douglas's phone and he had to hold it away from his ear. "I can't believe it. You will not regret it Douglas. You are going to be a rich man, yes sir, a rich man for sure."

"So what is the next step?" Douglas asked.

"Well, the producers want to meet you of course. The studio is going to fly you out to L.A. on Tuesday if everything is set."

Douglas groaned. "Tuesday? You knew I'd say yes didn't you?"

Rob's laughter echoed in his ear. "Naw, not exactly, but I did have a feeling you'd go for it. Why wouldn't you?"

"Well, I guess I better pack then."

*   *   *

Douglas slumped back in his seat aboard the airliner. The plane had reached cruising altitude smoothly enough. He breathed a sigh of relief. While he wasn't technically afraid of flying, he certainly was not that comfortable with the notion hurtling at hundreds of miles an hour in a metal cylinder thousands of feet in the sky. How could anybody really be comfortable with the idea? Dropping the issue, Douglas settled back and let the pilot do his thing.

The trip to L.A. had gone just as Rob said it would. The studio execs had wined and dined him sufficiently enough before getting down to the details. Rob had met him out there having arrived the day before and now Douglas was flying back east alone and his agent was sunbathing on the beach back in Santa Monica. He tried to get him to stay for a few days to enjoy the city but Douglas was anxious to get back to work on a new book. He wasn't one to work away from home. In fact, one of Douglas Finch's writerly quirks was that he could only work on new material in his office on his computer.

The hum of the jet engines was surprisingly pleasant, in a hypnotic sort of way. Douglas tried to stave off sleep but it soon claimed him. When the chiming of the fasten seatbelt sign went off, Douglas jerked awake. He had slept the whole trip home, dreaming a beautiful blond woman. The plane was beginning its descent and the other passengers were prepping for arrival at the airport.

Douglas adjusted his seatbelt and made sure the tray table was stored way like it was supposed to be. His sports-coat was a little rumpled but he wasn't overly concerned. As soon as arrived he would take the taxi back home and peel out of his clothes and find his favorite sweatpants. He could already taste the coffee. Maybe he would run into...

The plane suddenly plunged and the interior lights flickered and went out. The passengers started screaming, panicking and pleading. The sharp incline sent one attendant flying down the corridor to collide with the seats. Douglas was gripping the hand rests in a holy terror, knuckles strained on the plastic to the breaking point. The pitch of the aircraft was turning severe. There was nothing anyone could do. Douglas didn't want to die.

In that moment, he saw Abby Simpson's face. It wasn't entirely unexpected, he had just been thinking about her, but the thought was urgent. He wanted to see her again. No, he had to see her.

The lights flicked back to life and the plane righted its course. Douglas watched the other flight attendant help their injured member up. The redhead had an ugly gash oozing blood from her forehead.

The captain's voice emerged from the overhead speakers.

"Can I have everyone's attention? We experienced some electrical malfunctions just now, but we have the plane under control. We are proceeding with our landing. Please let us know if there is anything we can do."

All around him, Douglas watched passengers voice their complaints, some in anger to hide their own terror. Others suffered minor injuries and needed to be bandaged up. Douglas seemed fine, though his fingers hurt a bit.

For the next ten minutes, the plane gradually descended, here and there the lights flickered again but nothing else happened. The plane touched down with no further incident. Douglas thanked whatever god was listening and waiting for them to arrive at the gate.

The plane connected with the umbilicus and the passengers were released from the "plane of death." Douglas chuckled at the muttered nickname but certainly did not waste one moment getting out and into the arrival area. He had his satchel draped across his body, the only piece of luggage he had chosen to bring along.

Stopping to adjust the strap, Douglas noticed the disarray in the terminal. Airport security was trailing back and forth across the room, tapping earpieces and fiddling with smartphones, confused looks painted on their faces. Looking up at the overhead televisions, Douglas noticed they were down, a lost signal notice displayed on them. Two airport cops broke in on an argument one of the desk workers was having with a customer. The woman behind the desk was shaking her head, apologizing for whatever set the man off. Just then the lights flickered and shut down for a couple of seconds before coming back on.

Douglas kept watching the other people crowded in the terminal, and then glanced at the big screens that listed the arrivals and departures. Every one flashed delay.

"What the heck is going on?"

The entire building shuddered knocking down a number of people, tossing baggage about, and sending carts out of control. The escalators at one end of the room came to halt sending a gray-haired grandma tumbling down. Another woman cried out at the opposite end. A fireball filled the giant observation windows out towards the runway. Douglas gaped. An airplane had crashed just after take off.  Two more explosions rocked the terminal.

"Good God," Douglas said.

The lights went out. Startled cries filled the room. People waited for the emergency lights to kick in but nothing happened. Flashlight beams appeared at different points throughout the terminal as security personnel struggled to get the room under control.

"Everyone, please calm down. You must keep it together, people."

Douglas heard the awful moans of the grandma who had fallen. Flashlights were shining on the medics who were assessing her injuries. Douglas was shaking his head.

"It's a friggin' madhouse," he gasped.

Had terrorists attacked us, Douglas wondered.

A bald man wearing a rumpled suit ran over to the nearest guard. "What the hell's going on? My damned phone isn't working. I know I had this thing fully charged but it's totally dead." His face was hidden in highlighted by shadows and Douglas could see his veins standing out on his neck. "Things are going to hell. You saw what happened. Damn planes exploded! We've got to get out of here!"

"Listen pal, I don't know much more than you do. My radio is dead too. We're trying to get a message to the director of the airport. We will keep you informed. Just calm down."

"Bullshit," shouted the man.

As Douglas watched the two started pushing each other.

Douglas stared on, eyes bugging out of his head. He was paralyzed by what he was seeing, by what was happening. Children were crying, women were crying, even men were crying. At that moment even Douglas felt tears straining to break loose.

The guard quickly had the man down and restrained, binding his hands with a long zip tie, just as another guard rushed in. The two of them hauled the businessman to his feet and drug him away.

Everyone was starting to panic. Douglas could see it happening. He had to get out of there. Then Abbie Simpson's face flashed in his mind.

"Damn it!" he shouted.

Douglas started moving toward the main doors. He had to go through some hastily revised checkpoints and let the airport personnel pat him down since the medal detectors and scanners were inoperable. It was slower than he liked but at least he was allowed to leave. The staff was more than willing to get people moving out of their way so there would be fewer to deal with. The power remained out and people were trying to see in the dim corridors where the light from outside didn't reach. More security guards were moving about, their flashlights darting around to keep tabs on the building. The airport was not incredibly large, but Douglas couldn't imagine coordinating security without a walkie-talkie or something.

Nearing the exits, Douglas slowed down. The drive outside of the terminal was choked with cars. Nothing was moving. Cars, vans, and buses were still. There had been accidents -- fender benders mostly. Some people were walking around with cuts and gashes.

The brightness of the day was a relief from the dim confines of the airport. Yet Douglas was unnerved by the stillness. It was so quiet. Looking beyond the crowded thoroughfare, he stared out towards the city itself. Dark plumes of smoke were filling the skies at various points on the horizon. Turning the opposite direction, he saw the same was true further out. Airplanes. Dozens of them had crashed when power was disrupted.

"All of those people," Douglas whispered.

Turning slowly back towards the city he realized he would have to walk in. It wasn't a particularly exciting prospect. Shifting his satchel again, Douglas made set out, leaving the airport behind and joining a few others who were setting out on foot to enter the city. No one spoke. The only sounds were the steady tap of feet on pavement and the occasional burst of explosion from somewhere ahead. Everyone was in a daze. Douglas glanced around as he continued moving, watching other people check phones or tablet computers. Nothing was working. Would it ever work again?

To read the rest of A Previous Engagement, you can go to the following places:

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