Fantasy Fiction posted June 5, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
Part 1 of a short story with a fantasy aspect

Keep Breathing

by dweigt

The noon whistle blew as the shop steward walked into Whitey's, that little dive across from the plant. He spotted me at the bar nursing my third beer and hoisted his fat butt onto the next stool. "Figured I'd find you here, Carter."

"Buy you a beer, Lou?"

"Coffee. Black," Lou said to the bartender, then turned to me. "I'm going back to work after lunch, even if you ain't."

I belched a sigh and half smiled. "They fired me?"

"Nobody's fired. Not yet. Your foreman wants you gone but I told him no way. You got twelve years seniority and the brotherhood ain't letting the suits fire nobody without going through the full grievance procedure. But this crap has to stop, Carter." He shook his head. "The union won't keep backing a guy who curses out his foreman and takes a hammer to the time clock."

"I wanted to take a hammer to the foreman."

"You done that, we wouldn't be talking." Lou nodded as the bartender dropped off the coffee and waited until he left. "Look, I stepped up for you, Carter. I told them to cut you some slack on account of your years of service and your situation. Everybody knows you been through a rough ti-"

"I don't want your sympathy."

"Good. Because you used up your quota, and then some. You got to get it together, Carter. Find some way to suck it up and deal with it." Lou pulled out a business card and pushed it along the bar to me. "They ain't firing you, this time. And they ain't pressing charges for destruction of company property. You'll get another complaint in your file. They'll dock your pay for the clock. Whatever. But they want you to get some help."

"What kind of help?" I looked at the card. It was from some social services center.

"Grief counseling, some sort of anger management therapy bullshit. This place does group sessions. You go, you listen, you talk, you do some touchy-feely role-playing crap, look like you're making an effort and keep the suits happy."

"No thanks." I flicked the card back to him.

"It's like this, Carter. Do this, or don't come back to the plant." He pushed the card under my coaster, tossed a couple of bucks on the bar, and walked out.

That evening I drove across town and found the address on the card. It was a low-rent neighborhood; lots of shops with bars across the windows, topless joints, tattoo parlors, and a place selling Japanese comic books. Trash crunched under my tires as I parked in front of a low building, a big square doughnut with office suites opening onto a central courtyard. An iron gate covered the courtyard entrance, half open, with a heavy chain and open padlock hanging from it. I went in and found the suite I was looking for.

The door was locked.

I yanked on the handle a few times, and pounded my fist on the door. Nobody answered. I wished I had the hammer I'd left at the plant. I pulled my foot back, ready to kick in the damn door, but didn't. Instead, I walked around the courtyard trying each knob and beating on each door. The whole place was deserted and locked down tight.

What a waste of time. I was steamed. I thought about going back to the car and getting the tire iron. I turned toward the entrance. In the ruddy fading light, someone sat in the center of the courtyard. He hadn't been there when I came in.

"You here for the group session?" I called out. He didn't move. "I guess they're late. I give them five minutes. If the doors aren't open by then, I'm leaving."

He didn't answer, didn't even look up as I walked over. He was even older than I had thought at first. His black skin was wrinkled and dusty looking, like he'd been sitting there for years, and his woolly hair all gone to gray. Smudges of color streaked his cheeks and forehead, little dots of color in his gray beard, like weeks ago he'd smeared paint on and hadn't touched it since. He looked up, his dark eyes meeting mine, unblinking. I froze. He looked at me like he knew me, knew all about me, like my secrets were tattooed on my face for him to read. It would have scared me, if not for his friendly, toothy grin. Dizzy, maybe still a little buzzed from my liquid lunch, I blinked and looked away, avoiding his eyes.

The lights around the courtyard switched on, buzzing, snapping and flickering as they warmed up. We were in a pool of light, the rest of the world lost in shadows. Two wooden posts lay on the ground in front of him, about four feet long, six inches across at the base, tapering to half that at the other end. The posts were painted, wild colorful designs; snakes, birds and lizards that seemed about to jump off the wood.

"What are those things?" I asked, not really interested, but not wanting to look in his eyes again.

"Didgeridoo." He picked one up and I could see it was hollow like a pipe. He brought the narrow end to his lips. I stepped back when he started to blow and this low warbling drone came out.

He stopped and looked at me. His eyes were clear and bright against his dark face, but not hypnotic like before. He blew into the air, his lips buzzing. He blew into the didgeridoo and again I heard that weird, moaning hum. He stopped, nodded toward the other didgeridoo and looked at me.

I picked it up. The narrow end had a waxy ring for a mouthpiece. I wiped it with my palm, and lifted it to my lips. I blew. I made a rude noise; something between an elephant's trumpet and a whoopee-cushion. The old guy grinned, blew a noisy raspberry and nodded. I relaxed my lips a little and tried again.

Had I made that sound? I almost dropped the didgeridoo. The old guy laughed and nodded. I blew again. The didgeridoo hummed in my hands as some unseen force set my lips buzzing. As I blew I heard this sound, deep and low like a big pipe organ. Not just a simple pure note, though, but full of earthy overtones and alien harmonics, like a whale song on acid. The sound wasn't just in the didgeridoo, but in my throat and chest, in me. I heard it in my bones.


Didgeridoo is a fun word, don't you think?
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