|Photo credit: Nicholas Tonello via Flickr CC 2.0|
(originally published July 2, 2015)
Another irresistible writing challenge from the inimitable Chuck Wendig. The theme: random song title—shuffle your playlist and write a story inspired by what shows up. For me, it was “Six Bells Chime” by Crime and the City Solution.
Mackenzie was too wild for the city. The crowds confined her spirit; she hated how people judged her for being from the country. They always said country with a drawl to mock her.
It all fell apart when she cracked a beer bottle against a financial analyst’s nose at a club. He said something about wanting to be her cowboy version of Christian Grey. I would’ve hit him, but she was quicker.
Outside, she pounded the graffiti-covered wall with frustrated fists until they bled. “Get me out of here,” she said. I kissed her bloody knuckles and promised to take her wherever she wanted to go.
So we packed up everything and hit the road.
Mackenzie calmed as tangled expressways became solitary highways. She pushed the passenger seat back and planted her boots on the dashboard. She napped with the brim of her hat over her eyes. The sleeves of her black t-shirt were rolled up, and a thumb hitched in a belt loop. She didn’t wake up until we were surrounded by fields and the occasional farm. As the sun warmed the truck’s interior, the smell of old clove cigarettes infused the air.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked her when she finally woke up.
She pushed the brim of her hat up, bleary eyed and smiling slightly. “Broken places. Let’s just wander for a while.”
“I know what I want to find; I just don’t remember where to find it.”
“Home,” she said, squinting off into the distance. Dark clouds of a thunder storm passed miles ahead of us.
I gestured toward the windshield. “Nice to be out here again. Seeing the big sky.”
Her smile broadened. “I feel like I can breathe again.”
|Photo credit: Robert Couse Baker via Flickr CC 2.0|
We were good traveling companions. We knew when one or the other of us needed some quiet. Neither of us were very talkative to begin with. The more remote we got, the more interested Mackenzie was in the landscape. Sometimes we slept in the back of the pick-up, philosophizing or recalling old memories as we counted shooting stars.
“Wish I could see an aurora,” she mused, braiding with her long blond hair in the darkness.
“We’ll drive north if you want to, sweetheart.”
“Not yet. Not until I find it.”
“Can you give me a hint?”
She fell silent for a moment. A flash of flame appeared in her hands. The paper on the tip of the joint flared and broke away. “Nope,” she said on the inhale. “Jake, you know me better than that.”
“Queen of mystics,” I said, laughing as she passed it to me.
“A Sufi nomad with Taoist leanings,” she reminded me.
A shooting star ran long across the sky. It seemed to move in slow-motion—a fiery trail blazing toward a broken place Mackenzie wanted to call home.
Then came a long string of visits to the abandoned souls of the American heartland. The dilapidated barns and sagging farmhouses that had been neglected for years. She stepped in each one like she owned the place, exploring even the most dangerous structures that I didn’t want to set foot into. I followed her, though, rather than be called a chicken.
“What are we doing?” I asked, picking up a rusted shovel that disintegrated in my hands.
“Chasing memories.” She threw a rock at the one remaining light in the ceiling of the barn.
Days passed and we kept driving. Our world turned grey when the rain came. She traced the lines of drops along the windows as we rolled down the road. Cracks of lightning illuminated the sky.
The sky stayed grey for days after the storm. We ate lunch in a rest area and watched as crows wheeled and cawed as they chased a hawk from their territory.
“Six crows,” Mackenzie said. “We’re close.”
The music matched the mood. Darker shades of rock, punk, and Goth that we loved. It was a perfectly composed soundtrack to accompany our journey.
|Photo credit: Vincent A-F via Flickr CC by SA 2.0|
A tree-lined road finally led us to her destination. A hopeful but almost teary smile haunted her features. “This is where it started,” she said.
A burned-out truck disintegrated next to an old one-room schoolhouse that also served as a church in this small town I forgot the name of as soon as we passed the sign. The building was in bad shape. Scorch marks from the truck’s fire clawed along the side of it. The steeple was open on one side, the planks probably torn off by a storm. Mackenzie stepped out of the truck and walked as if she wasn’t sure this was reality.
Her hands were up, her fingers seemingly tasting the air—she stared and closed her eyes by turns to drink in the environment. I heard her humming a favorite tune. She ascended the small steps of the building and ran her hand along the wooden railing. The varnish, if it ever had any, was long faded away. Her hands came to rest on a platform of bells. Each varied in size.
“It was like Morse code,” she said. “The ringing meant all kinds of things.” She struck them—six bells. A languid clangor, one after the other.
“What does that one mean?”
“I reclaim this place. I’m home.”
As she turned around and walked in the front door, I wondered if I would ever learn what that meant. A murder of crows flew out of the steeple and announced her arrival to the turbulent sky.
And for those curious about the song, it was featured in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous 1987 film, Wings of Desire (originally Der Himmel über Berlin):