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The Story Collector: Escape. Short Horror Story

I run on stories. I require filling with new tales just like a car needs refueling with gas, or a water barrel needs replenishing with rain. If I don’t get to slip into that place between bone and skin where the stories live in the soft delicate mush of the flesh, I wither and shrink and start to decay. I need to feel their fragile mariposa wings spreading out fluttering and vibrating with the love and the loss, the pleasure and passion and pain of it all. All I need is a touch, a brief graze of my hand against their skin, and I can pluck the story right out from its housing and pin it in my book.

Some are scared when I come to visit, or our paths cross in an obvious way, and they are quite right to be fearful of that which they do not know, that which is other to them. I am not the same breed. I am not of their kind. I have a job, one that is almost as old as the word and the world that grew out of that initial thunderous proclamation that brought about all the life, for the good and evil of it all. Los Angeles tells many of these stories, real and confected. I might be the Story Collector, but they are the grand distributors.

 I am no evil doer. I am no fallen angel. I simply have a very unpopular job. Occasionally it is not just the stories I have to pluck. It isn’t easy harvesting the constant crop of souls that march inexorably onward through time, fleeing for all they are worth from the cradle into the grave like lemmings over a ledge, or buffalo over a jump ready to be processed into flesh and fur. At least I have the stories to keep me moving forwards. The constantly changing infinite variety of all the good and evil, interesting and mischievousness capers that humanity gets up to never ceases to amaze me.

I am not alone. The globe is too large a stage for one Story Collector and not every soul gets the personal treatment. The Collectors are many, if strongly antisocial. It comes with the territory. There are no alumni get togethers, no meet ups or parties, no support groups or collectives. I drifted west with the push towards America. I was there when the Titanic dove into the depths. I was there when the Donner Party decided that long pig was the way to go. I was there for the long wagon rides and the cattle drives. I was there when the piles of buffalo bones reached mountainous proportions. Yet even the main players of the biggest tales get the cold hand on shoulder sooner or later.

There are ways to repel us, but the best way to keep on living is to have a storyline too rich to cancel, and that is the truth of it. I have turned a blind eye to being called just so I get to see how the story ends. Being boring can be lethal to the mortal.

No-one ever found a good story by staying still. My job requires a lot of travel. I don’t choose where to go: where to go chooses me. A place name scratches itself into my skin in inky colors or monochrome stark commands. The letters carve themselves into my flesh, only to disappear once the job is done and a new location is carved out. I am not a picky traveler. The quality of the story does not depend on the size or beauty of the setting. Stories are worth the pain and the miles.

Los Angeles has some of the best stories. From the steep sanctuary of the Laurel Canyon to the flat environs of the Sunset Strip L.A.  stories form organically as the palm trees and sagebrush grow. From Skid Row to Rodeo Drive, and all the sprawling busy emptiness that is filled with so much waste, so much richness just out of reach, there is a rich seam of telling to be told.

Mundanity stretches out for miles and miles and more lonely busy populated teeming miles. The mundanity tentacles anchor Los Angeles to California like long skinny Freddy Kreuger claws, slicing down into the natural world to anchor the dreamworld kingdom onto the landscape. They pin down the dreams to the place; dreams which otherwise would float off into the ether like a child’s balloon leading the hapless little soul to run across the freeway, not heeding the inevitable big bang smash of steel and speed against fragile bone and skin. Sometimes one of these balloon-runners makes it to the brighter side of the road. Mostly they do not.

Los Angeles gives up her stories willingly if you have the money, or if you have friends good enough to leave the door ajar to the inner rooms or to point the way down the alleys where the underground denizens of this town plan and suffer together, leaving a little blood-and-suffering trail on their way back to Skid Row to score another bag.

Some cities have threads of stories that can be picked up and woven into the tapestry of life. Some places have shards which pierce the sky and ground and leave stigmata on the hands and feet of those who crawl towards them. LAX calls for tourists and chancers to come on in, for good or bad, for win or loss. Dreams and dreamers are made and more often broken in unequal measure.

The City sells stories like a form of sanctuary – an escape from the mundane evil of the world around. Smaller less lavishly interesting places have their stories too, but there is a certain panache to the gossip of who did what to whom where, and all the heart attacks, the massacres of hopes and bodies, and the telephone conversations that tell stories of various profitability and rarity, selling them by the inch of celluloid and the soft yellowy cream typewritten page.

Last Tuesday I woke in a rest area somewhere a little north of Ashland, Oregon. It had been one of those trips – an unremarkable little story on the outside, but a complex tale of murder and jealousy in the center of it all. Buried bodies in a green and white 1969 Chevy Super Sport. All of it under ground – flesh, bone, shame, jealousy, car, dogs and all. Only the kilo of biker crank made it out before the backhoe started filling in the hole, and that evidence was quickly split up, cellophaned and properly disposed of in the arms and noses of Nevadan chancers, movers, shakers and losers. The old murderer who had buried the car barely knew I was there to collect. He saw me, shrugged his shoulders, and was grateful to finally give up the tale of what happened to those boys out there in La Pine in late ‘69.

I find most of you want to confess. Sometimes I get one who resists my advances and uselessly tries to fight me away from their dirty little secrets, but I always win in the end. The game is skewed that way. It is futile to resist, but that doesn’t stop some of you. I pulled out the wriggling little moth-like soul-creature from his guts, where it had settled to hide that cool late summer’s night. It had a death’s head decorating its muddy brown wings, and Super-Sport-green sparkling eyes. Jewels of blood dripped from the mariposa dainty feet and smeared itself on its fuzzy body. It only took a small brass pin to secure it between the pages, and nothing was left except another cold good ole’ boy, rotting in his own garage, with a photo of his high school sweetheart in his left breast pocket and guilt hanging in the air.

I woke up to find the word Ashland written in a lurid green had disappeared from my hand, and the faint pricking of a new word starting in my thumbs and scratching its path along my palm. L-O-S-A-N-G-E-L-E-S in bright blue script decorated with Angels smoking joints and carrying surfboards decorated my skinny wasted arm.

Driving south from Ashland down the 5 is never much fun. Northern Californian towns come and go, with Shasta dominating the horizon. You don’t have to drive too much past Klamath Falls to see the scenery transform from Oregonian high desert into Northern Californian woody desperation and charm.  Sparsely populated dying conurbations decorated by ramshackle buildings and trailer park people driving expensive fast cars, whilst living with no discernable means of income fill the space. Every man seems to have a pit bull and a pouting hard-faced woman that he doesn’t deserve. Every woman seems to be working in a greasy diner, serving stale pie and burnt coffee to the same parade of people every day. This fluctuating scenery of various fortunes merges with sweet tourist spots sporting vineyards, good restaurants and pretty scenery. Sacramento passes by in a fug of multi-lane misery and pharmaceutical dishevelment: Sacramento is sometimes the question, but rarely the answer to anything.

It is all smoking-glass shops, coconut paletas, strip malls, strip bars, strip lights and railroad cars, cups of coffee and tasteless fast food. This is America. This is where lives write themselves into and out of existence.

I was hoping it was not some coked up actor I was heading to visit, or some hapless actress who had a few too many liters of fat pumped out of her stomach and into her own ass in a redistribution of the wealth in some kind of unequal approximation of zaftig comeliness. They sometimes end up bleeding out on the table of one of those human cut-and-shut merchants in sketchy Hills adjacent clinics. These chop shops disappear as quickly as they get established, taking their medical licenses and their malpractice suits along with them. Those stories are two a penny. Those stories will not make the pages of my book flutter in my chest.

Despite my reservations I stayed on that same old 5, all the way down from southern Oregon to Southern California. As soon as I stopped for gas just outside of the City of Angels, I felt that inexorable pull towards my final destination. I like to think it is not only me who feels that way, and that the soul I am headed towards and those in between me and them can sense that uneasy feeling of Death heading into town, ready to give someone the personal treatment.

I forgot for a moment that California allows drivers to pump their own gas and waited at the wheel for some wan faced sufferer of acne with incipient facial hair and amusing cartoonish amateur tattoos of skulls and Disney characters in compromising positions to come and put gas in the tank. In my younger days I drove black maria’s and racing green Harleys, after the ole pale horse became an anachronism. I had a young soul’s desire for style over functionality and discretion.

The Californian early spring sun hit my face with the intensity of somewhere that never truly cools down. The very earth here is baked. I got the urge to flee,  and death rarely flees. I got the urge to run run run as fast as I could and never look back. To run away from the heat and away from the crowds, away from the suffering, away from California and all the living richness of the earth that brings out the sweet and the vibrant and sets it upon the table for those already rich to gouge themselves on until all the fruit hanging from the vine weighs them down into a bloated fatty mess of desires-fulfilled and vices-indulged. My target was clearly on the run, their story already bleeding through and saturating my thoughts.

I brushed past a man in his early 30s, not making any eye contact, merely registering his sturdy frame, his unkempt appearance, and lack of personal hygiene. His story flooded into my mind’s eye: a blue-collar high school glory days tale of quarterback prowess and won High School area Championships. A steady flutter of girls and bases, open legs and closed minds. This one peaked at 18 and was trapped by Debbie-Jo getting knocked up in their first year after high school, a shotgun marriage and gradually all the color drained out of life for him and sweet little Debbie. He hated her. She detested him. He owed money on more cards than he even remembered having, his truck payment was way past due, and he was apparently trying to develop a drink problem just for something to do other than spill his guts and soul every day at the warehouse job he was disappearing in.

The only hint of happiness was a yearly fishing tournament, and obsessive googling of fishing guide jobs in Alaska. I like to fish, and a man who appreciates the finer points of casting a line is someone I try to take a little time over. In exchange for his unwitting passing over of the memory of the best day in his life, when he was out on a lake alone, and caught the biggest, most fearsome northern bass I have ever seen hauled out of the water, I planted the seed of a crazy plan to leave Debbie-Jo and John-Jr. and jump on a slow boat to Alaska. I gave him the urge to just do it and live rather than simply kill himself in a few years’ time; fat and greasy, hopeless and hated.

He decided to leave and not return then and there with a little psychic prodding from me. A small nervous smile crept across his face and extended to at least three of his multiple chins. I was going to get myself in trouble one day, interfering in the lives of men, but at least it would make for a better story. I leant a little towards him to speak to him conspiratorially.

 “Gotta follow your dreams, gotta run while you still can. Soon enough you will be an old man like me, John. You only get one life” He stared back at me, wondering when he told me his name and how I knew what he was going to do, seeing only an old man in a plaid shirt and smart black pants. He nodded his head, got in his truck and headed north up the I5 and towards Alaska.

Clichéd platitudes can be meaningful, even if they are universal. I went and paid for my gas and a packet of Marlboro cigarettes. 

Creeping up my arm in scratchy letters were the words Laurel Leaf Motel, East Olympic. I didn’t have to appear aged and wrinkled. I didn’t have to show the years and the miles, I could have appeared as a young man, a stocky Adonis with piss and vinegar in his veins. I could have been dressed in a sharp suit, a ultra-white smile and shoes shined by someone else. I could have been a bum, or a thin wild liquid young man with a shock of curly hair and a Rimbaud stare. It suited me to be the grey man. Grey hair. Grey personality. Grey pallor. It served me well to be not seen as a threat or a challenge, but merely a man who had seen some time, hard and otherwise and was now not looking for a fight or a good time, simply passing through. People came away with the impression I was in town to visit some family, or to take a trip down memory lane to do some fishing at a lake that held some personal significance after the loss of a loved one. I was only a retiree from some boring white-collar job or other that I had been inexplicably devoted to. Utterly normal. Totally mundane. Absolutely benign. It served as an excuse for my fatalism and an explanation for my outwardly dour temperament. Camouflage as I liked to call it. 

East Olympic did not want to be found. It hid from me, fleeing me like a deer from a wildfire leaping towards it. Even Death gets trapped in the Los Angeles traffic and confounded by the one-way roads which present as a puzzle to be solved, sliding blocks over and back again in a vain effort to get them all to fall into place and end up in the spot one had or wanted to be.

I pulled into the Laurel Leaf Motel, a white concrete building, somewhat less uniform than the general big chains with numbers in their names that invoked bad vibes. No one goes to those places for a vacation: people go there to hide, to die, to get high, or to get off the road when there are no other options. That is not to say people are not grateful for a place to stop and sleep which is out of the snow, out of the heat and safer than a parking lot, at least some of the time. A roof is a roof, and there are generally at least a few TV channels, a bathroom and a bed, even if actually taking clothes off and sliding unprotected between the sheets is a danger sport. The Laurel Leaf was no Hilton, not even a boutique little place that is made for relaxation. It was more somewhere between a biker hang out, a porn movie set, and permanent accommodation for the not destitute but insecurely housed. Clean enough, if a little threadbare, not truly earning the 3 stars it posted on its glass door. 

The parking lot, bordered by a few small palm trees, was mostly empty, and filled with motorcycles, older model cars, and one large and beat up RV, missing a side panel, proper plates, instead displaying a paper print out saying the plates were on the way, and sitting there forlorn and mysterious. I am not sure I would want to stay in it either, if I had the choice.

Everyone in this city is running from something, whether it is themselves, failure, success, money, or any one of dozens of reckonings that catch up and overtake lives without mercy. The story is brutal that way. It does what it will do, the plot line moves on, with no regard for the pain, or the extremes of experience it demands of the players within its grasp. Even I am a servant to The Story. The tale is greater than the telling, it is simply that the telling keeps the Story alive. Stories are living breathing creatures. They are symbiotes, that can only weave their way in the world as long as there are people to live them. Stories do not exist in a vacuum, and each one of them has little hooks which they throw out, drawing in the outside world, other people and the Big Picture, weaving each tale, little and big, into the fabric of existence. We are all servants to The Story.

I walked inside to get a room and look for the soul whose story I was sent to collect. A skinny woman with overly inflated bosoms was working the front desk. She wore a cheap black polyester suit, her brassy bleach blonde hair scraped back in a severe chignon in an approximation of professional panache. Her face was heavily made up and set off by a cheeky slash of cheap crimson lipstick which colored both her lips and front teeth alike. A small woman in her late 30s with long brown unstyled hair, wearing a long black and white striped dress and plastic $5 sliders was evidently trying to check-in. The prospective guest had the nervous air of someone trying to pull off a coup, or at least survive another night. I feared that another night was not on the cards for her. She bristled with nervous energy and fear, whilst trying to appear to the cheap suited officious Keeper of the Keys as just another tourist with a travelling kind of story.

“I don’t have the credit card with me that booked the room, but I do have a photocopy of it. My husband booked the room for me and our children. Is that ok?” A hint of desperation dripped from her voice. She pushed over her passport when asked for ID then turned around, feeling my gaze at her back. She brushed away the start of a tear and threw me a polite smile. “So sorry this is taking so long. I do apologize.” Her voice sounded like she was from somewhere far away where the living is generally smaller, gentler and more restrained.

“No problem at all. Take your time, Miss.” I replied, putting on my best avuncular demeanor. The words engraved into my arm burnt. This was definitely who I was here for. I noticed a faint yellow and blue bruise in the latter stages of disappearing under her left eye, and as she moved her arm I noticed thick ugly scars crisscrossing her pale skin. She had the full lips and dark hair of her ancestors, and eyes that shone green like the Chevvy that got buried out in La Pine. She was a woman who had been buried by life. She did not look like a soul who was considering running, but instead someone who had decided to try and live and was on the run already. I held out my hand for her to shake.

“My name is Bill. Nice to meet you.”

It was not my most surreptitious of story collections, but there was no choice, I needed to know fast what I was dealing with. I hate these jobs. The ones where the person is young, and so desperately trying to cling onto life. I am not meant to get involved. It is not my job or place to help people escape the reaping, but we cannot all be Good Collectors, I suppose. 

“Becca.” She replied, shaking my hand gently. “Nice to meet you.” She had old world manners. The cheap black polyester suit coughed and slid over two room cards. “Becca. You are going to be in family suite 11, just down the corridor to the right.” Becca smiled, victorious. “And the RV…?” Becca replied. The cheap suit sneered back pityingly. “Wherever you can fit it in, is fine. We are not busy.” As I shook Becca’s hand a rush of story formed a flickering high speed film show.

I left home aged 17. Wordless pictures of a fat man with black hair and a shotgun in his hand, beating her, hurting her, climbing on top of her, his hands round her neck, his weight on her tiny body came tumbling towards me. A thin woman called mother with a reedy voice and pinching fingers, as maternal as a barbed wire teddy bear, stood at the door laughing menacingly.

I ran. I ran away. Dirty tower blocks. Shuffled post card images of bottles of booze, bags of brown powder, little printed blotter squares of LSD, hurtled from her mind into my own. Many, many more men all continuing the heaviness of their abuse on her body and soul. And still she persevered.

Then I met him. The story moved continents. A marriage. A man. Then the beatings started. Chairs broken over her: knives and fists, slammed to the floor and kicked. She restarted life again and again, fought through, all the time avoiding death-by-husband by inches at best. Babies and beatings. Rapes and escapes. Finally, her grand play for a future, a leap into the unknown away from the brute of a husband that abused her so terribly. A camper van. A friend. Her children. She was running for her life. She had saved her children, and taken them with her.

The story always ends, one way or another. The future flickered before my eyes:  a crash of metal and speed, run off the road, losing control of the 30 foot of camper van on the freeway.  I shook myself back to the present. Two small children, aged about 5 and 7 skipped in alongside an elderly man with a marine tattoo. “Mommy! Mommy!” This dark-haired woman with the pale sallow skin, the barely healed bruises and two small children had not come to L.A to seek her fortune, to live out dreams of fame, nor to throw herself onto the decadent and depraved underbelly of everything corrosive that the City of Angels has to offer. She had come as a launch pad for her great escape, and I was about to put an end to it.

You see, when Death comes knocking for a closer walk with thee, it is not Death’s job to judge the fairness of it. I am the messenger boy, not the decider. Free will and all that jazz. Still, I can fudge the odds sometimes, and when one wants to live so much, and turning a blind eye would be neither suspicious nor obviously damaging, sometimes I let the story continue and see what shakes. You would think I would learn my lesson, but even time cannot change me from the admirer of guts and verve that I always have been. They say Death is the great equalizer, and they may well be right, but if I don’t sway the odds now and again, do the occasional good deed, and encourage some stories onwards, then I fear I would fall completely into darkness. Still, the world beyond the veil was still waiting for a soul, and though they might be able to be fooled, but can’t be completely ignored.

I pulled two caramels from my top pocket and gave one to each child. “Is it ok if they have these, Ma?” I asked quietly. She nodded, half unsure, feeling the ice of my gaze on her soul. I went up to the old man. I was meant to be seeing him too in the not-too-distant future and made up my mind to give this strange little family a chance at some happiness before what comes after all this living. I was not going to take Becca, not yet. That accident would never happen.

“You take care of them, you hear? Remember you are bigger than most things on the road. Drive that thing like you mean it, Buddero,” I half-whispered to Becca’s protector. He smiled blankly back at me. As they walked off, I paid for my room, and asked the woman in the cheap suit to pay for theirs for another night too.

As Cheap Polyester Suit leant over and handed me the key into my outstretched palm, I was overcome by the sheer hatred she had for life. Cocaine and nose jobs, porn films and casting couches. She had come here when she was still fresh and got used up hard and fast. They will never ever learn. Los Angeles takes its toll and there is nothing else for it except swim or sink and she was sinking fast. Female. Late 30s. She would do. She would pass in the parade of endless souls headed that way uptown. Not bad, just lost. It is a shame, but she didn’t have long left anyway. Her heart was imploding under the weight of the cocaine and the endless biker parties she persuaded herself that she enjoyed.

When I went to visit her later that evening, back in her shitty condo near the Anaheim cemetery, she was not even surprised. Just tired. Every soul has a butterfly. Some of them are bright and vigorous. Some are weak and dully patterned. Hers was sick and small. Her shiny suit, a Ross $39.99 special, was slung over a chair, and she sat on the edge of the bed in grey cotton underwear. A mirror and a smear of white powder on her bedside table. With her was a burly middle-aged man with a soul like a swarm of mosquitos rising around him in a cloud. Only she saw me as I went to collect. Her heart merely stopped, and everything she had ever been ceased, and everything she ever wanted to be, was completed. A line drawn under all the “what could have beens” and “should have beens”. Norma was about to become a has-been.

A final reckoning of decisions and choices. Neat. Clean. She rose above her body, and the nasty little scene that was playing out and walked through that open door full of light and uncertainty. She walked through with the wrong name pinned onto her. It said “Becca” instead of “Norma”. Her butterfly story plucked out from her chest, dressed in scarlet and black leathery wings, with a pale grey lace woven of shattered dreams and nameless sorrows. She was more than a cheap suit in a crappy motel out on Olympic. She was free.

I slipped back out, unseen, leaving the biker taking off too, riding his Harley off into the warm southern California night, away from the hassle and trouble that always accompanied dead bodies in his world.

I walked back into the hotel and walked past room 11. Sounds of an acoustic guitar, laughing children and a woman’s voice singing Blue Bayou, drifted down the corridor. “I don’t know about fishing boats and happiness, kiddo,” I said to the corridor and the florescent strip lighting, “but I sure hope you enjoy the trip. Happier times, people…happier times…” And the singing and laughter continued as I walked away. It was the best I could do. I always did enjoy a good Californian escape party.

If you see me, don’t run, don’t try and hide, don’t fear the Reaper…and most of all don’t worry. when I tell your story I will be gentle about it, and fair too. I’ll keep it safe next to my own.


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