It’s that time again. Flash Fiction challenge is up on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. This week it’s Antagonist/Protagonist as a theme, and the idea is to write half the story from the perspective of the antagonist and the other half from the protagonist. So here’s my contribution to that, which I like to call “Juggling Is Hard, And Also Murder.”
Juggling Is Hard, And Also Murder by Shoshana Kessock
There’s a technique to juggling, they say, and Robert Fagan knew he didn’t have it. He stared hard into his reflection in the mirror and tried a basic hand-off without looking. The ball in the mirror went from his right hand to his left with careful fluidity. His doppleganger made it seem a lot easier than it felt. Robert frowned, then tried the pass again. His fingers fumbled on the ball and found purchase; no drop. Still, it wasn’t clean, wasn’t smooth. He tried it again and his thumb fumbled, wouldn’t close over the sphere, wouldn’t complete the movement. A phantom pain juked through his knuckles and he fought the urge to wince. He’d been practicing for too long.
“I’ve got four days to learn to juggle,” he said over his shoulder. “Four days. God had more time to invent the world.”
Behind him, the only response was the uncomfortable shuffle of feet. Robert grinned into the mirror, sheepish. “Sure, I guess that’s a bitter analysis. God had a lot more to put together than a simple three-ball toss. Still, God at least had the tools when He started out. He had the design knowledge, one would expect, for life and the totally-phenomenal cosmic power workbench from which to launch Universe 1.0. All I’ve got are three balls and a fourth on the side that’s never going to get used.”
The word never hung in the air thicker than Robert liked and he turned from the mirror. Behind him, Carina stared at him with her impossibly wide eyes. She shuffled her feet but otherwise sat silent, still.
“Do you think that’s stupid?” Robert asked. He held up the ball in one hand. “I can’t help but imagine that I’m overstating the importance of this, but you do understand, don’t you? They’ll hire someone else if I don’t get this. Then where will I be? Jacky Hardooley is just waiting for me to fail because he wants to get off the midway. He wants into the tent and if it means manipulating the Boss Man into unrealistic expectations-“
Robert stopped, then ran a hand through his hair. “What am I saying? What am I doing here?” He threw the ball up in the air and caught it with a satisfying thwack. “Last year I was at Fordham, now I’m here. Last year I was debating where I’d go for my PhD for Chrissake and now-“
He tossed the ball up in the air with more force. It came down, a loud smack on flesh. Carina winced.
“I’m sorry,” he said and found, strangely, he meant it. He set the ball down on the worn dresser that rounded out his battered, road-worn furniture. As he did, Carina tensed and Robert saw her eyes track to the ball and then back to him. “I’m talking too much about this, aren’t I? I’m just under so much pressure. I shouldn’t talk so much about myself.”
He knelt beside Carina’s chair and his knee kicked up a cloud of dust. Robert hesitated, then put a hand on her slender, perfect foot. The charge of skin on skin contact made him shudder and he heard her whimper. It sent a jolt through his blood and he looked up at her with barely masked adoration.
“You’re just so easy to talk to,” he confessed, then set about checking the rope around her ankles.
Talking, Carina thought. The key was just to keep him talking. That’s what they said in all the shows, but how did one do that without being able to talk back? How did you make small talk, build empathy, with a dirty pair of Jockey’s shoved in your mouth?
The eyes. Windows to the soul, weren’t they? Carina’s heart rate rode high in her ears, her blood pounding, and her mind fragmented into a million cliches: windows to the soul, home is the place your heart is, grass is always greener, and all that jazz. She felt crazy, the taste of cotton and sweat in her mouth driving home the inevitability that said she was seeing, for the first time, the real face of this rodeo clown Devil’s Rejects escapee.
He talked. He talked for hours. When he wasn’t speaking, he tossed that ball. She watched the ball because as long as it was in his hand, he didn’t have a weapon. Only his words. Only his hands.
Carina wasn’t sure how long she had been in that chair. She knew it was long enough for her to have to piss so badly that she’d nearly cried. He’d brought her a bedpan and humiliated her by smiling kindly into her face while she used it. Had he been a nurse? She saw the scars on his knuckles and thought better of it. Boxer? MMA fighter? The thought made her cringe. He had barely used his hands on her when he’d carried her from the midway at the close of the day. Could he do more? Was he trained? Was he capable?
He kept talking and Carina watched the ball in his hands, reading his words and not his body language. He was calm and she wanted it to stay that way. Gain an inch, she might get a mile in return.
She shuffled her feet; there were the cliche’s again.
Her eyes widened as he turned to her with those too-wide eyes. He earnestly asked her a question and knelt beside her chair. It took everything she had not to scream when he touched her foot and she felt the eager tremor in his moist grip. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and steadied herself.
If she was going to embrace cliche, she’d stick with something about darkest being before the dawn. She prayed, hope against hope, that he wouldn’t figure out the ropes were loose.