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Snare of the Fallen Mantis - a short story

Snare of the Fallen Mantis is a short-story I penned several years ago. After being rejected by several publications, I'm just going to share it so that SOMEONE gets the chance to read it. If you have any literary prowess, I'd love any critique you have!

Jason Losier opened his eyes slowly and painfully. He heard the freight-train of a headache just a few seconds before it hit him; the blaring horn, tone rising in Doppler approach, reached the apex of crescendo as his pupils first received the morning’s sun. Wincing, he raised himself gingerly to the edge of the bed, and through chipmunk-cheeked puffs of breath he cursed the streaming daylight. As his vision began to clear, his clock came into focus. It wasn’t morning at all. One pm on Saturday.
     Fifteen minutes later, with the remnants of the previous night swirling into the vortex of a porcelain grave, Jason brushed his teeth and listlessly made his way downstairs. Time-faded eight-by-ten rectangles – the remains of missing family photos - peered mockingly at him from the stairway wall, and foreshadowed what he’d see when he reached the first floor. He stopped at the landing, looked out over the railing and sighed. It was just as it had been since Yvonne left him. The living room contained only a TV and a lounge chair. There were newspapers, books, and used plates and tumblers donning the floor, and in the corners of the ceiling cobwebs hung like loose post-holiday garland. Tiny footprints remained in the carpet where the couches and end tables had squatted for years. Standing on that same landing six months prior, he had helplessly watched her family loading a moving truck with the last ten years of his life – his life with her.
     He headed into the kitchen which greeted him with similar disarray. The dishes filling the sink were long overdue for a wash, and the garbage bag was overflowing. With the curtains on the window gone, the room offered little reprieve from the piercing, horrible sunlight, and the incoming rays illuminated a sickly haze which hung in the air. This haze was comprised partly of dust and partly of the ubiquitous exhaust from Jason’s cigarettes. He lit another, took a long, deep drag, and coughed lightly while he exhaled.
     There was no milk in the refrigerator, which didn’t matter because there wasn’t any cereal either, or clean bowls to pour it all into at that. In fact, other than a three-days-old slice of pizza, the fridge was empty. Jason thought he got paid yesterday, but couldn’t recall.

Where the hell did I go last night?
     Alcoholic blackouts were no longer novel for him. They were simply a part of life. Once, a few months back, he had awakened sprawled out over cases of beer in a bar cellar, and when he eventually found his way upstairs it was 10 am, the place was closed, and the doors were all locked. Breaking out a window in the back room had proved to be his only escape. Yet far from bringing embarrassment, he considered this story one of his best, and he’d shared it proudly on several occasions.
     The kitchen window was yellow and sticky from years of exposure to second-hand smoke. It was the stained glass in his personal chapel of despair. Still, the radiance of the Sun was blinding, and it only just failed to shield his view of a fresh calamity in the backyard. Jason squinted his eyes through the solar onslaught, and mumbled a string of profanities under his breath. He limped outside, his head smarting a bit more with the unchecked light of day in his face. One of the garbage cans was overturned next to the fence. The lid had come off and some animal had made a feast of the contents. The light breeze carried tiny scraps of paper and tissue into the sky like a thousand little parachutes. They swirled around and around until they landed in a light snow of rubbish which covered the lawn. The stink of rotten meat permeated the air, and Jason had only come within three feet of the mess before his stomach turned over again. Hands on his knees, bent over in his yard he weathered the dry heaving like a passing storm, and decided the garbage would have to wait.
     He headed back inside, rounding the corner of the house and passing the weed-bed that used to be Yvonne’s garden. Something there moved ever so slightly, yet not enough that he took notice. Poised elegantly on a short plant was a praying mantis. Even there, in such proximity to rural America, the mantis was a creature that was rarely seen. They were certainly beautiful to behold. This one clung effortlessly to a thick stem with its leafy green body held aloft by thin green wires of legs – so thin they were nearly invisible. With its two powerful front appendages the mantis cheerily rubbed its face and mandibles, perhaps cleaning after a kill, perhaps readying itself for one. The magnificent creature, perched proudly on the plant, was the perfect picture of existential beauty, and was serenely unaware of Jason weaving unsteadily back to the house. It was quite possible that it never even had time process Jason’s existence before he unknowingly trampled on the tiny beast as he stumbled back inside. Blades of grass where his heavy foot had fallen slowly and miserably raised themselves to a somewhat erect position, but the broken mantis remained still, cold, in pieces.
Jason found his way back to the kitchen.

“Hair of the dog.” he spoke aloud to no one while he poured a half glass of scotch whiskey. He then weaved back toward the living room. If there was anything that might help him reel in the events of the night before it was a drink and the TV. Occasionally, seeing small things on the television would spark his memory. The pictures would emerge like fuzzy butterflies from whiskey-soaked cocoons in his brain. It had become a regular way to pass the time during hangovers – a trivia gameshow, the answers to which were the details of his actions the night before.
     As Jason passed the front door, his eye caught something out of place through the windows on either side. He focused a dull, glazy stare outside and, viewing a figure perched on his front steps, he unlocked the door and opened it wide.
The fresh air and the sun nearly made him retch again. His head pounded. Swallowing a gulp of Dewar’s, he winced but managed a throaty call to the visitor.

“Hey… HEY!” his voice was dry and croaking.
     She was facing away from him, but she appeared to be a girl in her teens. She was wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans. Her long, blonde hair fell over her shoulders and down her back. She held her face in her hands and was crying.

“Did you hear me?” Jason called to her again. “Hey… What do you want? You hurt or something?”
     She remained motionless, raining tears into her palms. Jason wasn’t in the mood. The neighborhood kids were always up to no good, and were generally annoying even when he wasn’t hung over. Before Yvonne left, the house had been egged three times and the ground lighting had been torn up twice. The police had told him that there was a lot of that going on with the local youth, and that the department was cracking down on it. Clearly the crackdown was failing.
     “Look, Sweetie.” The sneer was audible in his words. “I don’t know what you want, but Halloween is a few months away and I ain’t got time for…”
     The wail that came forth from the girl seized the words in his throat and cooled him right down to his core. It was a horrible cry, razor-sharp and deafening – almost inhuman. Instinctively, unconsciously he stepped back in retreat. Standing a foot into the front hall, looking at the source of the yell, he watched the girl take her hands from her face. They were covered in blood. There came a flutter to his chest and a sinking, sick tingle in his groin but he scarcely had time to process it, for in the wake of that spectacle he heard another sound. From the garage, a thunderous crash arose, nearly shaking the house. He spun towards the garage door, almost falling over in his dizziness. He stared for a moment and then turned back to the bleeding girl. She was gone.
     Jason stood there for a long few seconds. There was no blood, no girl, and not even a trace to indicate that anyone had been there. He craned his head out of the door, bathrobe flowing in the easy breeze, and surveyed the street. The moment was enshrouded by an eerie stillness. No movement. No people anywhere.
     Standing upright he began to feel sick again. He shut the front door and leaned his head onto cool, hard wood, closing his eyes, and steadying himself with a deep slow breath.
     Good God, what did I drink last night?
     After a near eternity, the nausea passed. He opened the door and looked one more time. The pleasant surrounding of the suburban neighborhood was all that he could see. Nervous laughter followed a pregnant pause. He’d never had hallucinations before. He remembered his father having hallucinations in his last years. The alcohol had changed the bastard from a heavy-handed, abusive terror to a feeble, senile shell of a man. Jason had dutifully attended to the old man’s needs in the last weeks of his life, but harbored an understandable, clandestine hatred for him.
Hallucinations now! Fantastic.
     “Like father like son.” he spoke aloud. Raising his glass in a mock toast to heaven, he gave an unspoken, sarcastic thanks to his father for introducing him to this poison called whiskey. He tipped the glass to his lips, but in mid-sip he fell still and stared at his amber potion. Pulling the glass slowly away from his face he realized that lucidity was bidding his attention. He was forgetting the noise from the garage.
     Jason made his way to the back door. The attached garage was home to the only thing that he really cherished in his life anymore. It was the single item remaining that gave him any pride or sense of accomplishment. He had purchased it last year after closing his biggest deal for the firm. A few months later he was fired for gross incompetence following a string of missed deadlines. The alcohol, it seems, had taken his job from him too. There was money in reserve though, and for now he was still making the payments.
     In the dimness of the garage he saw his prized possession – a Jaguar XK convertible. The midnight blue paint hummed with energy. The taillights were slim, horizontal slits that looked like teardrops. Chrome wheels shined even in the absence of light. With the top down he imagined she was a fighter plane, cockpit slid open, waiting on the tarmac to be flown into battle.
     As his eyes adjusted, he examined the corners of the room. Nothing seemed out of place. The outside door, however, was slightly ajar, and as he stepped towards it he heard something sinister. A sudden, evil snickering arose from the front of the car. The tiny hairs on his neck stood upright and he drew his attention towards the sound. There, crouched just to the front passenger side was a figure. For the second time that day Jason found himself unconsciously halted by sudden foreboding.
     “Who the hell are you?!” he demanded as he forced himself forward. The figure rose almost effortlessly to a standing position. It was a teenage boy. His tussled brown hair hung messily from his head. He wore a baseball jersey and blue-jeans. A wry smile came across the boy’s face, and as Jason rounded the front of the car he heard the menacing snickering again. He stopped dead, partly because of the terrifically macabre tone of the laugh, and partly because he saw the worst sight yet of the day. Even in the darkened room it was clear; the hood of his sleek machine was smashed in, the front bumper was mangled, and from the lower edge of the windshield a radiating, spider-web crack bloomed. Disbelief morphed into ferocious anger.
     “What the… Holy Christ, my car!”
     His eyes fired daggers through the boy. Jason made a step for the youth, and in doing so slid unexpectedly in a puddle of something. He went down backwards, landed on an elbow and a shoulder, and ended his descent by bouncing his head off of the concrete floor with a solid, thick thud. He smelt the acrid scent of whatever he had slipped on, and heard a faint dripping sound. Now that he was prone he could see that fluid was leaking from his Jaguar. He lifted his head to see the intruder, but all that was visible was a blurry flash of sunlight streaming painfully in through the garage door. The world became a ship listing uncontrollably in a squall, and while tasting the salt of blood, Jason thought he heard a faint chuckle in the distance. Then there was blackness.
 * * *

     This time, the freight train was bigger and louder than it had been earlier. His headache was commensurately more jolting as well. Jason felt the wetness of his tee shirt and the cold hardness of the floor and realized he was not in bed. He viewed a mangled movie of random images with his memory’s unclear eye. A slice of pizza. Toothpaste. A cracked windshield. Some girl bleeding. None of it made any sense at all. The only thing that made sense was the pain. His head ached, but something else was wrong. His hand automatically probed further. Trembling fingers against his face felt the cracking thickness of dried blood behind his right ear. With further searching he surmised that his scalp was lacerated as well. Slowly the hundred loose fibers of misaligned thoughts began to tie themselves together. He recalled the girl. The crashing sound. The surprise in the carport…
     Little bastards!
     Obviously, the girl on the porch had been a distraction so that the other kid could get into the garage to rob him – or simply vandalize his Jag. He looked at the mangled visage of his car, and felt the anger building. The sun was nearly down. He looked to his watch, but it wasn’t there. Had the kid stolen it? Between the alcohol-induced grogginess and the likely concussion he had, he wasn’t about to try and figure that out.
     Jason achieved an un-athletic jog back into the house, wetted a wad of paper towels, and grabbed his keys. Still clad only in his boxer shorts, tee-shirt, and bathrobe, he hopped into the Jaguar. A bloody finger stabbed the garage remote, and in response the hangar opened for his battle-damaged fighter. The engine roared to life, he pressed the accelerator and chirped the tires as the vehicle lunged forward. One headlight was out and it was difficult to see through the cracked windshield, but he pulled onto the road. He paused looking east and west, and wistfully dabbed his head with the paper towels. The setting Sun was painting pastel artwork in the sky. Reds and oranges and purples and blues were swirled and layered high above the Earth, but he was too angry and maybe still too drunk to care. For no reason other than random choice he turned the vehicle left, away from the oil on canvas sky, and headed east.
     He made a right and another quick left, guided both by blind rage and some strange, otherworldly sense of direction. His face throbbed. His head pounded. He felt sick again and the smell of his fluid-soaked shirt wasn’t helping. He was afraid of what he might do when and if he found the two culprits.
     After a few laps around the neighborhood, he was approaching a stop sign. He touched his breaks gently and began to slow when he saw them in the twilight. One… no - two kids on bicycles. They passed 30 feet ahead of him, slipping through the intersection. A girl with long blond hair, and a boy with a baseball jersey.
     “Son of a bitch!” he barked, slamming his palm off of the steering wheel.
     The engine revved and he sped into pursuit. Running the stop sign, he piloted into a shrieking skid, turning right after the pair. He caught sight of them, heading left two blocks up. They were riding fast now – they must have realized he was on to them. Jason raced through two more stop signs. He almost hit an oncoming car trying to hang the left after the bikes, but for all the cracks in the windshield, it might have been six cars – he couldn’t make anything out through the crazed glass. There were only horns and disembodied voices hanging strands of profanity in the open air.
     The two youths were in the middle of the road now, dead ahead of him. He gunned the car to stay even. Their flight was curiously fast - he was gaining on them, but with an oddly surreal slowness. As the next intersection appeared ahead, a short stone wall appeared just beyond it. Blazing into the crossroad, only twenty feet before him now, the two fugitives hit some grass, dumped their bikes at the stone blockade, and scaled the wall out of sight.
Jason slammed on the brakes, veering into a reckless, left turn and skid at the perpendicular street. His tires screamed and smoked as he barely maintained control, and the vehicle came to a halt crookedly with one tire up on the curb. The door opened before he put the car in park, and he had placed one foot onto the ground when he suddenly heard a shout.
     “Hey! Stop where you are!” called a deep male voice.
     Jason looked up the street and saw the silhouette of a man running towards him, a flood of bright lights behind obscuring his features. There were others running too.
     “Put your hands where I can see them, sir!” echoed the next command.
     Jason’s heart began pounding faster. But what luck! The cops were right here! They’d surely seen the kids go over the wall, and could catch them with no trouble.
     Strong, sure arms seized both sides of his body, and before he could react he was spinning violently towards the front of the Jaguar.
     “Sir, place your hands behind your back right now and lean forward.”

     “Wait!” he pleaded. “My car – those kids… They went over the wall! Right there!”
     Yanking one hand free, he jabbed a cigarette-stained finger towards the wall where the two youths had fled beyond sight, but his animated fervor was met with a sudden, pressing force. Bruised and bloodied from his earlier fall, his face was suddenly pushed hard onto the Jaguar’s dented hood. He saw blood there, but it was dry – not his.
     “Your hands behind your back!” snarled the officer in a sharp, staccato instruction.
     More hands gripped his own and he felt the pulling and clicking of steel cuffs being locked onto his wrists. With his face flat against the engine-warmed hood, he was getting a very close view of the damage. The windshield was indented towards the steering wheel and the wiper blade was sheared off.
     Jason was sick again. The world spun as several people yanked him back into a standing position.
     “What the hell is the matter with you?” demanded an officer. “You came flying around that corner and almost ran us down!”
     Jason looked at the officer, and then convulsively surveyed the general area. He had obviously chased the kids right into some kind of police scene – perhaps a car accident. There were at least ten patrol cars, news crews, and the omnipresent, yellow crime scene tape. The whole thing looked like something from television.
     His throat was dry and hoarse, but he needed to explain – to tell the police about his car. About the young vandals.
     “Those kids…” he panted, “…those two kids went over the wall.”
     A tall, slim lieutenant had made his way over to the Jaguar. He was now standing next to Jason; youthful, square jaw bathed in intermittent flashes of red and white.
     “Yes sir.” said the young lieutenant. “We know they went over the wall.”
     He paused, glancing from Jason to his car and back again. Something ominous flickered in the young man’s eyes.
     “What is your name sir?”
     “Losier. Jason Losier! Those kids wrecked my car!”
     “Mr. Losier…” His tone was patronizing – he was no longer listening to Jason. “The kids did go over the wall. But I’m curious... We’ve only been here a half-hour. A jogger found the kids and called it in. So I’m wondering how it is that you knew they were there?”
     “Are you kidding?!” Jason shrieked. “I watched them go over that wall – after they wrecked my car. Look at my car!”
     The officers and the lieutenant looked at the Jaguar. One shined a flashlight close to the cracked windshield.
     “Some blonde hairs here, lieutenant. And blood.”
     “Mr. Losier, how did this damage occur to your vehicle?” the lieutenant quizzed him. Jason shivered. Something suddenly didn’t seem right.
     “I’ve already told you – those two kids did it.”
     “Can you describe the kids?”
     “Sure! A little blonde with a flannel shirt and a brat with a baseball jersey – blue.”
     The uniformed men exchanged knowing glances. The lieutenant cast his gaze towards the stone wall and shook his head slowly. He looked back to Jason with disgust and then nodded to the officer who still had his hands on Jason.
     “Mr. Losier,” the officer started mechanically, “at this time I am placing you under arrest for leaving the scene of a fatality accident.”

     “What are you talking about?” Jason was flabbergasted. Two policemen began to guide him towards a cruiser.
     “What are you saying? Fatal what?”
     His breathing became heavy – labored. He could feel himself sweating. The world had doubtlessly gone crazy. He had chased those kids himself - chased them all through the neighborhood.
     “You guys are nuts! This isn’t fair!” he cried, his anxiety growing exponentially as he reached the police car and one of the officers opened the back door.
     “No sir… It really isn’t fair, is it?” the officer snapped back impatiently. “Those two kids you described have been dead on the other side of that wall since last night when they were struck while riding their bikes, sir. But I’m sure you don’t know anything about that.” The sarcasm wasn’t even lost on a drunk, head-injured felon.
     The officer shoved him unceremoniously into the back seat. Jason looked up at him, now realizing how tall the man was. From above his glistening badge, the policeman looked down at his prisoner with abject repulsion.
     “At this time I think I should advise you of your rights. You have the right to remain silent…”
     Jason barely heard a word of the officer’s statements. His head was cloudy. His face hurt. His shirt smelled, and his whole body was numb and cold. The patrol car’s back door closed and locked him in, hands and wrists twisted and hurting behind his back. He didn’t understand. This was some kind of horrific nightmare. He had just seen these kids – these little bastards that ruined his Jag.
     He turned to look around the scene again. Night had fallen. Rooftop strobes and camera flashes were his moon and stars. Glancing out of each window, panicked and ill, he briefly thought he could maintain his sanity. Then he heard it. From behind him came an evil but familiar laugh. He spun again and found his eyes locked on the two kids. The boy had that wry smile, peering through the glass of the back door, and the girl was standing next to him. She was really very beautiful – strikingly so. She was so beautiful that for a moment he forgot that she was the cause of his whole predicament. Somewhere in the mysterious labyrinth of his mind a flood of electrical impulses erupted, exploding him into a feverish frenzy.
     “Officer! They are right here!”
     His screech was a primal call; He was a wild animal trapped.
     “Look over here, God dammit!”
     The scene continued to unfold around him, completely unresponsive to his desperate cries. The cameras flashed, reporters mumbled into myriad microphones. Policemen and detectives spray painted and shined flashlights, and passers-by slowly formed a crowd. The two kids turned from the patrol car and began to walk away. Slowly and deliberately they moved further and further from Jason Losier in his snare.
     “Please! Somebody!” Jason croaked, wide-eyed and delirious. “There they go!”
     The pair walked, hand in hand down the road, growing smaller and smaller with each step, until they were like two marvelous, rare insects escaping into the night. He wrenched his hands frantically – felt the cuffs cutting into his wrists. He gasped for air and felt warm blood drip onto his fingertips. His eyes rolled like great, bloodshot marbles while he writhed and kicked and shouted. Everything seemed to be spinning faster and faster – blood and tears were salty on his lips. Hysteria wreaked havoc on him until he suddenly fell silent, as if crushed by a heavy weight from above.
     Jason Losier finally laid face down on the seat, motionless. Outside of the patrol car, blades of grass where the officers’ feet had fallen slowly and miserably raised themselves to a somewhat erect position, but the broken man remained still, cold, in pieces.

THE END

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