Patti Abbott issued a flash fiction challenge for today: write a story about a man and a white van. So here's mine. As a bonus, I included a second...well, let's be polite and call it a story. Patti will have the links to other responses to her challenge at her blog pattinase. Check them out.
1. THE WHITE VAN
The old man had been dead for close to a month before I found out. I had come home for break and my father told me. "Mr. Carruthers died last month. Just keeled over. Guess how old he was?" I shrugged. Eighty-five, ninety...way up there, anyway. "He was only sixty-seven. Can you imagine that? I thought he was much older."
Mr. Carruthers looked much older. A wisp of a man, he was bent over with arthritis, had a deeply-lined face, and his liver spots rampaged over his thin arms and body like a Mongol horde. I don't think he owned a decent set of clothes; I never saw him in anything that wasn't worn, frayed, or stained. I always thought he had cut his own hair -- what little he had of it. Most of the hair on his head sprouted from his ears.
As unconcerned as he was about his appearance, he was the opposite about his property. He lived four houses down from us, his house set way back. His lawn, house, and the fence surrounding his back yard were always immaculate. I should know. For four years, from the time I was twelve, I did much of the work for him. Mowing and trimming in the summer and shoveling in the winter. By the time I turned sixteen, I was also doing the painting and the gardening. He paid me well, far better than anyone else in the neighborhood did. He was surly and cranky and exacting and, because he paid so well, I put up with it. Besides, I figured he had a right to be mean as he was; you could just tell that every step, every move he made, pained him.
"What about his van?" I asked.
Dad hurumphed. "His mystery altar? Funny thing. Martin Schroeder" -- Schroeder was a local lawyer, and evidently he was Mr. Carruthers' -- "was telling me that his will specified that the damned thing be destroyed right off. Junked and crushed with all its contents. Thing's already a cube of metal. That's where he died, you know, his heart just blew as he was going into the thing, his body just laying there half in and half out."
The van, an old scratched and rusted white van on blocks, had been the only object in his fenced-in back yard. Dad was right in calling it his mystery altar. It had some sort of claim on Mr. Carruthers. It possessed him in a way I could not understand, although over the years I had developed many theories.
For me, it had begun six years ago, back when I had mowed his lawn for the first time. It was a hot Saturday afternoon and for the last half hour I had been dreaming about swallowing my body weight in cold Coke. I had seen the old man go into the van about a quarter hour before. I had no idea what he was doing in there but he must have been hotter than I was, sealed up in that thing. Every window in the van was tinted so I couldn't see inside. I went up to the van but was hesitant to knock, but I wanted to get paid and leave. To be frank, Mr. Carruthers scared me. Then I scared myself when I could not hear anything from inside the van. What if he had collapsed from the heat? What if he was in trouble? I knocked on the van door, "I'm done, Mr. Carruthers." The response was immediate, "Not now!" Those two words reminded me of a growling dog, protecting a meaty bone from all comers. I turned and ran home. Later that evening, Carruthers came to our house and handed me a dirty envelope with my money.
That summer, I learned about the ritual. Every day, rain or shine, Carruthers spent an hour or so alone in the van. It didn't take me long to realize that this always happened around two o'clock in the afternoon. It took me longer to realize that the ritual took place each afternoon at exactly seven minutes past two. Summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter. As far as I knew, Mr. Carruthers didn't miss a single day, not even when it was storming. After the first big winter snow, I had shoveled his walkway and driveway. (He didn't drive and had no car in his garage, but he insisted the driveway be completely cleared.) I asked him if he wanted me to shovel a path from his back door to the van and he looked at me strangely. After a few seconds, he only said, "No, no. Not necessary." I found out later that he had walked through the snow to his van that day and every other day.
Carruthers and his van were a frequent dinner topic at our table. I had laid the mystery before my parents and my father came up with all sorts of imaginative theories for me. My mother would giggle a little and say to him, "Oh, George." Anyway, that's how the white van became the mystery altar to our family.
Once, that spring, a cab pulled up and he went off for an appointment somewhere. After he was out of sight I couldn't resist and I snuck into the van. I'm not sure what I thought I'd find; my imagination covered the gamut from drugs, alcohol, and porn to a radio set where he would be relaying information to a spy network. Needless to say, there was nothing of that sort there, just an old chair in the back of the van and a black and white photograph of a woman hung on the van wall. The photo was old -- not really, really old, but pretty old just the same. Even at thirteen years old, I could tell that the woman was beautiful, with long flowing hair, a welcome smile, and eyes that seemed to sparkle from the dark walnut frame. A wife? Sister? Girlfriend? Lost love? Who knew? Whoever the woman was, she was important enough to claim him every day for I don't know how long. I never told Mr. Carruthers that I had seen the photograph and he never gave me the slightest hint about it.
Really, that's about there is to the story. Except, perhaps, for Alicia Carter. Alicia was a girl in my class. I really didn't know her that well. She was gangly and had unruly hair. I remember that, despite her large teeth and small jaw, she had kind of a sweet smile. She was just begining to blossom into adolescence when she was killed when we were fourteen. She had been riding her bicycle through an intersection when she was hit by a speeding car. The story (which I later found out to be true) was that she was decapitated. I felt a little bit of sadness and a little bit of horror, but I was fourteen and my friends and I tried to be blase about it. Then, coming home from school, Meagan Miers told me that Alicia had had a crush on me. "She never dared say anything -- you know how she was -- but we all knew," she said. But I didn't know how she was. I really didn't know her at all. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. It wasn't quite guilt and it wasn't quite remorse. It was the sudden realization that someone whom I did not really know had been connected to me and was now gone, that somehow I had lost something important and didn't even know what it was. Part of me was beginning to realize how interconnected we all are and I didn't like it. That afternoon and that night I would break out in tears and not really know why. I must have looked a wreck that day when I was working in Mr. Carruthers' yard. He came up to me and said, "Hear you lost a friend." That was all I needed to start sobbing. He looked at me for a moment with his sharp eyes, then put his bent hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. "They die. They all die too damned young," he said. Then he turned and walked away.
I stopped working for him when I was sixteen and was beginning to help my father out at the store. I turned my lawn mowing customers and my paper route over to my younger cousin Luke. He kept it up for four or five months until something else caught his interest. Once in a while I'd see Mr. Carruthers in his yard and I'd wave and he'd give a curt nod and that was that. I don't think I had thought of him or his white van for over a year.
And now he was dead and his secrets and the van's secrets had died with him. I hope it was true that he had died while going into his van. I hope that when the final blackness overtook him and he fell that a young woman with flowing hair and sparkling eyes was there to catch him.
The doors to the van were open and they had teeth, large sharp teeth as white as the van. Nothing could be seen inside the van except darkness, although a long skeletal arm reached out from it. A man reached out to the arm as it helped him inside to the darkness. Just before he was swallowed by the dark, he turned around and smiled. The he was gone and the doors closed.
That was the first dream, so vivid and real. The strange thing was that Mortimer recognized the man in the dream: it was one of the starters for the Bengals. That evening, when Mortimer read that the starter had died in a motorcycle accident, he really wasn't sure what to think.
Three days later he had another dream. Same van, same bony arm, but this time when the person entered that van and turned and smiled at him, he recognized her as a troubled starlet, one that many felt was doomed if she did not kick her habit. That evening on the news he heard that she had overdosed.
A week and a half later, the person entering the van in his dreams was a well-known United States senator. Television coverage that night was about his assassination.
Two days later, Mortimer dreamed his Uncle Lee entered the van. He was expecting his Aunt Dorothy's call when it came that night.
Mortimer tried real hard to dream about his boss The Bastard, but it did not work. He couldn't control his dreams, but the dreams kept coming on their own. Politicians, celebrities, neighbors, acquaintances, world figures -- even a Pope; all entered his dreams and all died the following day.
One night the figure entering the van turned around and smiled, and Mortimer saw himself. Sure that he was going to die, Mortimer spent the day in a funk. And the night. The next morning when he found himself still alive he was amazed.
Even more amazing was that Mortimer never had those dreams again. In fact, Mortimer lived to the ripe old age of ninety-two. So this is just a story that has no explanation and no reason. It's a story without rhyme or reason. Of course, it was strange that when Mortimer died it was because he was hit by a white van.