This is a short story written for LineByLine, a prompt-based writing community. The community provides one line which much be used somewhere in the piece. This week's line was "It wasn't because of that."
This short story centers around characters that have been popping up in my writings for a while now: a guy named Beck, who dropped out of college to raise his daughter, Tansly, in the absence of Tansly's mother (and Beck's ex-girlfriend) Amanda.
"Man of the House"
The beaten, old couch in my living room sagged under me, even though I was stretched out across it with my weight pretty evenly distributed. Lonnie and Still Wind said it was the first couch they bought after they got married, in the early 80’s, and they hadn’t had the heart to throw it out so they had put it in the little shack. When I had become the shack’s new tenant, I had inherited it. There were strips of duct tape on it older than I was, but for my purposes it was perfect.
I circled another job in the classified section of the newspaper while the radio played another old Rolling Stones song; it was ‘Two for Tuesday,’ so Jumping Jack Flash was the perfect follow-up to Paint it Black. From her crib next to the couch, Tansly cooed and slapped a toy with her chubby pink hands.
“I know,” I told her. “Mick Jagger is still awesome, even after all these years.”
Tansly slapped the toy harder in agreement, and started cooing again. I couldn’t help but smile when she sounded so happy, so I set aside the newspaper long enough to lift her from the crib and lay her on my chest. She slapped my chest in excitement and kicked her feet, one of which struck me a little too hard in the stomach. I grunted through the pain but still smiled at the beautiful little infant. Tansly had Amanda’s eyes, no matter how much I tried to pretend she didn’t. The baby we made was beautiful, no doubt about that. And the pang of sadness was still hard to ignore, no matter how much I tried to convince myself to hate Amanda for leaving.
A wet spot of droll appeared on my shirt as Tansly laid her face on my chest and blew a feeble raspberry. I picked up the classifieds again and held them over Tansly, where I skimmed them with my eyes. Lonnie had told me that he was going to have to cut my hours at the hardware store for a few months, during the off season, so I had to pick up a few extra hours somewhere to keep earning pocket money.
Just as I started to turn the page, I heard something from the kitchen.
Our little shanty in the Mojave Desert didn’t have much, but we got by pretty well. It was little more than a wooden shack, with only the basic necessities. It had electricity but it was temperamental; I could only run one of the window air conditioners at a time without blowing the breaker. The running water took forever to heat up, but I rarely wanted a hot shower. I was getting used to the little noises the house made as the old wood swelled and shrank with the changing desert temperature. And that was why I noticed the out-of-the-ordinary sound.
I had no neighbors. As far as I knew, the closest house was more than a mile away, and the last person who had been in the house besides me and Tansly was Amanda, two months ago, when she had left the baby with me and disappeared into the night. So I felt a little stupid when I asked, “Hello?” into my home. Of course, no one responded. I held my breath and waited, trying to listen over Tansly’s chorus of baby noises. After a few seconds of nothing but the Rolling Stones, I released my breath and looked back to the newspaper.
Thirty seconds later, I heard it again: a shuffling, chittering noise, once more from the kitchen.
My fatherly instincts started to kick in. If there was something in the kitchen, it was my duty to my daughter to kill it. So I set the newspaper aside, lifted Tansly from my chest, and placed her gently back in her crib. “Stay here,” I told her, feeling like a badass cop in a crime movie.
Before venturing to the kitchen, I took my Louisville Slugger from next to the couch and wrapped my hands around it. My footsteps were almost silent as I approached. Just before I crossed the threshold I heard the noise again, though I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
First I approached the refrigerator, thinking that the noise was from something falling from the shelves. But it wasn’t because of that; it was almost empty, because I had put off going to the grocery store for so long. I performed the same search of the cabinets and cupboard, but found nothing out of place.
Just as I was shutting the coffee cup cabinet (yes, I need a whole cabinet for coffee cups; I drink a lot of coffee, okay?), I heard the noise again, slightly behind me. When I turned, I spied the only place in the room I hadn’t yet searched: the squeaky floorboard in front of the stove. I had become well acquainted with the board; when I’d stand in front of the stove, making eggs in the morning, I’d lean to and fro on it in time with whatever song was on the radio. But the board had never made sounds without my weight on it before.
Quickly ruling out ghosts as the cause, I let the bat dangle from my left hand and knelt to the floor. With my knuckles I gave the board a quick rap, which responded with the mysterious noise.
The bat rattled to the floor, and I retrieved a claw hammer from the kitchen junk drawer (we all have one). Cramming the claw into the space between the squeaky board and its neighbor, I craned the hammer back and pried up the board.
Five tiny scorpions, no bigger than my thumb, immediately scurried out.
I screamed, dropped the hammer, and dove away from the opening. The little white arachnids tested the air with their tiny claws and tails, as if claiming this new land as their own.
The end of the bat was just within arm’s reach. I wrapped my fingers around the knob at the bottom and slowly dragged the implement to me, afraid that sudden movements would startle the creatures and they’d run beneath something, where they would plot to overthrow me and Tansly another day. Not in my house.
Lonnie had shown me the correct way to stomp a scorpion without being stung, even while barefoot (which I currently was), but I didn’t feel like testing my skills. I brought the bat down on the first scorpion, and it exploded like an overripe grape. The other four seemed stunned for a second by the sound of the impact, so I capitalized and pounded the rest of them into oblivion.
The board had snapped back into place when I had dove away like a scared little girl. With the bat still in my right hand, I took the hammer in my left and lifted the board again, more carefully this time.
When I had first moved into the shack, Lonnie and Still Wind had explained the problem with scorpions that many dwellings in the Mojave developed, and had explained that the shack was no different. The first three days I had slept in my car, because I was too terrified to sleep in the house. But, after three solid days of killing scorpions every hour, I finally stopped seeing them, and assumed that my scorpion days were over.
But, it turns out, scorpions are like crazy exes: just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, they come crawling out of the woodwork.
Beneath the board I found myself peeking into a meager little crawlspace. And there I saw at least three times as many tiny, white scorpions as I had just pounded into pulp on my kitchen floor. It was a nest. It must have been full of scorpion eggs (just the thinking those words made my skin crawl) when I exterminated all the others from the shack. They must have hatched not long ago.
I quickly slammed the board back into place and carefully cleaned up the smashed scorpions from the floor and the bat with a handful of Clorox wipes. Then picked up the hammer from the floor, picked a few nails out of the junk drawer, and hammered the board so securely into place that it would never squeak again.
The radio had changed songs, and now blared Rock You Like a Hurricane from the living room. Heh. Fitting. I beat the last nail into the board to the rhythm of the music, then stood with the hammer in one hand and the bat in the other, once again feeling like a total badass.
As I stood in the doorway, hoping I looked as awesome as I felt, Tansly burbled happily to me from her crib. “That’s right, baby,” I told her in my best tough-guy voice. “This house is safe for another night. Your dad’s a real man.”