Excerpts from Ivana Hruba's novels and short stories


— — —

The outer space smells like a burnt cookie.
How do you know?
I don’t.
Okay, you don’t.
See that, Phoenix?
Over there – it’s the Milky Way. If you squint, it looks like a rainbow.
Billy squints. It looks like a veil. See?
I don’t see but I keep looking.

— — —

Billy was wrong. It wasn’t a rainbow or a veil. It was grief biding its time, waiting for death to be ushered in to tell us that our childhood was over. But we chose not to see. We lay in the grass blissfully happy, looking at the stars twinkling up there like diamonds.

If you could be anything, what would you be?
I’d be rich.
I meant if you could be something other than human.
I’d be a dolphin.
I’d be a bird.
Okay, me too.
What kind of bird?
Billy says nothing. He lies still, chewing a blade of grass. He might be thinking about kissing me.
I’d be a humming bird, I say.
Billy’s eyes are closing. He might be changing his mind. I can’t let that happen. I feel so happy I could fly. Seriously fly.

— — —

I got home just before dawn. I crawled through the window and fell straight into my bed. The mattress squeaked. I listened for a moment to see if I’d woken up Old Shawn but all I heard were his snores coming from Mum’s room. I could just see him, curled up under the blankets like a big old shaggy bear, with the dog at the foot of the bed, looking like a bear cub. The thought of those two sharing a bed made me smile. Saffron had never shown the least sign of affection to any of Mum’s boyfriends until Old Shawn came along.
Old Shawn was different from the beginning. He was clean and well-spoken. He didn’t chew a gum. He wore a tie and a suit, and had money. Lots. He also had a useless foot, a funny-looking withered thing hanging off his leg like some kind of a spent cocoon. I remember looking at it, feeling weird about it, the first time we met, at the pub where Mum worked, where we had dinner, just him, Mum and me. Mum was nervous; she had warned me that Old Shawn was quite unlike any man she’d ever known. He was a man intent on doing the right thing, and she was quite anxious that I should like him.
So there he was, Old Shawn, in his Sunday best, sitting at the table, waiting to make my acquaintance. He got up when we entered and pulled Mum’s chair out for her. She kissed him on the cheek before she sat down. He blushed. Mum laughed and took his hand, held it in her own at the table. Old Shawn kept blushing. I sat there looking at them, feeling a little weird. Mum and Old Shawn made an odd couple. Mum was young and pretty and he old and ugly and a cripple to boot. Of course, when I got to know the old man, none of it mattered because he was so kind.
The dinner went well. Old Shawn won me over with his quiet ways; he didn’t ask stupid questions about me and of me, and I sensed he was a man happy to let our relationship grow in whichever direction I chose. I felt that I could trust him. I enjoyed the evening and when we parted I knew we were onto a good thing.
From day one it was clear that Old Shawn loved Mum to bits, and this never changed even after he moved in. He was nice to me, very polite and a little awkward, always making sure I had nothing to complain about, and never coming between me and Mum when we argued. He bought us whatever we wanted and took us on trips, and generally did everything he could to make Mum fall in love with him. It goes without saying that he paid for everything, bills and the rent and Mum’s car registration. Despite this, I don’t think Mum was ever in love with him. She liked him a lot, maybe even loved him but she was never wild about him, not like she was about Danny when Danny was her man. She never said anything but I knew.
So, Old Shawn moved in after a little while of family day trips and Sunday night dinners. We got to know each other pretty quickly as we spent quite a bit of time together when Mum was at work. She kept her job even though Old Shawn asked her to give it up. Mum told him she liked the work and her independence. Old Shawn never mentioned it again.
Old Shawn and I got on well. As time went by, I got used his being awkward around me and began to like it, and we had a good time together. We played board games and watched movies, and went out with Saffron to the woods, and sometimes we went out for ice-cream. Sometimes, Old Shawn looked like he wanted to drop in on Mum at work to say hello but I discouraged him; I knew Mum would take it badly. She needed her space, from me, from him, from the routine. Besides, they didn’t like family members hanging about at the pub. So I discouraged those visits.
Old Shawn and I talked about a lot of things together. I found out he used to have a job. He worked on a construction site where the building they were working on collapsed one day and everybody except Old Shawn died. Old Shawn crawled out of the rubble, badly injured, with his foot broken. So he got a big payout from the company, but he had to promise them to keep quiet about the incident and sign a confidentiality agreement. Old Shawn talked about it sometimes and drank a bit of brandy to make him forget all his mates who died.
Anyway, our family life was pretty good with Old Shawn in charge of everything and the money on tap. Mum certainly was much calmer and happier in a very unhappy sort of way. I once caught her looking at Danny’s picture that she kept in a locked drawer in her bedroom. Mum was crying. I felt sorry for her but wished with all my heart that she would forget Danny because he had been such a disaster. The man was nothing but a loser who took advantage of Mum’s trusting nature and repaid her with heartache. He trashed our house and took off with some girl the same day. Because of him Mum got into debt and ended up with Old Shawn. I hated Danny for what he did to us; even when I saw Mum crying over his picture, I still wished him dead.
Soon after Old Shawn moved in, he asked Mum to marry him. She said no and he asked her again, and when again she said no he asked her to at least stop working at the pub. That’s when Mum told him she went to work to keep up her skills. Of course, this was a lie and an excuse to keep hanging out at the pub. Mum was simply hoping Danny would one day show up there to play his stupid trumpet. Needless to say she was being foolish; Danny left on bad terms and owed money all over the place, but Mum was a romantic at heart.
After Mum rejected Old Shawn I got a bit worried he might leave, but he didn’t. Even moved back into Mum’s bedroom after two days of sleeping on the couch. Our life went on as before. Mum worked nights as much as she liked, and Old Shawn said no more about it. He bought her a new car and Mum was very happy and kind to everybody, and this went on for so long that I was lulled into thinking we were destined to live happily for ever.

Ether is available to download from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and everywhere else on the net where good books are sold. 

The Dead Husbands Club 


'By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken and to dust you shall return. Amen.’ Father Smogg makes the sign of the cross over the coffin and throws a handful of dust into the grave. The service is over.
The congregation gathered here to pay respects to the recently deceased looks relieved. Thanks God this was short, Lucinda reads in the mourners’ faces. They’re filing past her, shaking her hand, telling her how sorry they are, wishing her luck, then quietly leaving with a kind word or two about her husband she’s sure nobody really means. Soon only the front row, the neighbours and the business associates who owed the dearly departed money, are left. There’s a wake to go to.

Chapter 1

The death of Lucinda’s husband brought joy into Lucinda’s life. She herself would later say that Tony’s demise was the beginning of the life she was meant to have, the life she had always secretly wanted but never told anyone about ‘cause there was no point in bringing it up while she was married to Tony. Tony himself would not have disputed her claim, had it ever been made, ‘cause essentially, Lucinda’s opinions didn’t matter. At the time of his death, Lucinda’s feelings, desires, needs and wants were the furthest thing on his mind as Lucinda had long ceased to interest him in any tangible, material way; after fifteen years of marriage he simply viewed her as a handy household pet, well trained and with predictable responses, and he’d have been much surprised to know that Lucinda was unhappy in their relationship. The idea to ask her had never even entered his mind.
Tony was a man of simple desires. Set in his ways, he saw his life as a chain of meticulously planned and well executed orderly events designed to keep him happy. In this scheme of things, his marriage was nothing but a well-oiled cog in the clockwork.
Tony’s idea of marriage was straight forward. An old-fashioned kind of husband, Tony expected an obedient wife, a home-cooked meal and a clean house. He worked hard for what he got, Tony did, and what he got he deserved — a clean house, a home-cooked meal and an obedient wife. Apart from this, his one desire was to be left alone on the weekends.
Tony’s weekends were spent watching footy. Lucindaah! Tony would shout from the living room where he lay on the couch cracking nuts. Bring me a beer, will you? And Lucinda jumped to it ‘cause that’s how it was from the day they got married to the day Tony died.
The day Tony died was a Sunday. Traditionally, Sunday in Tony’s household was a day of rest. For Tony, who spent it on the couch in the same manner he spent his Saturday — watching footy. For Lucinda, Sunday traditionally was a busy and aggravating day ‘cause there were Tony’s shirts to iron and his favourite dinner to cook — a tedious, drawn out affair with piles of food made just the way Tony liked it and starring homemade sausages, which Tony insisted Lucinda cook from scratch.
The day Tony carked it was no different, for either of them.
‘Lucindaah!’ Tony shouted from the living room where he lay on the couch cracking nuts. ‘Bring me a beer, will you?’
In the kitchen, Lucinda, emitting a sigh, rolled her eyes heavenwards. Elbows deep in sausage meat, she’s busy, busy kneading these stinking sausages Tony insists they have every Sunday.
‘Lucindaah!’ shouts Tony. There’s an intensity to his tone, this time. ‘The beer! NOW!’
Lucinda closes her eyes briefly, gathering herself, gathering her determination to grin and bear it for the good of the afternoon, herself, Tony and their wretched existence together, and all these Sundays she has endured for so long. Only a few hours and it’ll be over, she tells herself; only the footy, the dinner and the evening movie to get through, she thinks projecting herself into the future, into Monday, when she will be alone, cleaning the house and making a home-cooked meal on her own in the welcome, luxurious peace and quiet of Tony’s absence.
Next door, in the living room where the curtains are drawn against the afternoon sun, Tony’s lying on the couch, watching footy on television and precariously balancing a bowl of peanuts on his beer gut. It isn’t an easy task; Tony’s bulging belly button is seriously in the way and may soon cause the bowl to topple and the peanuts to spill. So Tony’s being careful; he wouldn’t want to have Lucinda sweeping up the mess in the middle of the first half, just as it’s getting exciting. So he’s being careful, hardly daring to breathe, waiting for his beer to arrive. The game goes into a commercial, a beer ad of all things, which reminds him.
‘What are you doing in there, woman?’ Tony shouts, grabbing onto the bowl of peanuts just in time. His massive belly button, obscenely huge and almost translucent but for the few grey hairs — yeah, Tony’s getting on — sprouting there on the sides and down his belly, moves, propelling the bowl upwards and to the side. So Tony catches it and puts the bowl down on the coffee table. He sinks back into the couch, and fumes, steaming with anger and vapor ‘cause he is annoyed and ‘cause it is hot in the room.
Tony’s sweating like a hog though he’s not wearing much, just a pair of old Y-fronts which, due to their age and Tony’s reclining pose, are tightly drawn over his tiny small penis but sagging under his great big ass, right under the stain that just won’t go, no matter what Lucinda does with it in the wash. She’s long wanted to replace these unsightly undergarments but Tony won’t have it, is sentimental about them ‘cause they’re his favourite undies to watch footy in, so what’s your problem, woman? asks Tony whenever this topic arises between them, which is often, nearly every time it’s hot. Even today, though Lucinda has said nothing, Tony knows she’s thinking about his underpants ‘cause she’s got that grimace on, those pinched nostrils, which disapprove of him. And the beer is still nowhere to be seen.
Tony gets up, determined to get some answers. She’d better have a good excuse, fumes Tony, ambling towards the kitchen. Maybe she’s dead. She’s awfully quiet in there… thinks Tony, calculating the chances in all seriousness ‘cause it’s really the only thing that would go some way towards explaining why his beer has not arrived.
The kitchen door is ajar. He gives it a shove with his foot and pokes his head tentatively into the interior, expecting to see a calamity of some kind. But nothing out of the ordinary has happened in the kitchen; Lucinda’s carrying on as she always does on Sundays, making sausages.
She has a nerve, Tony thinks, flaring his nostrils into his own disapproving grimace. He could give her a piece of his mind, he could, but he’s determined to rise above it this time ‘cause it’s Sunday and he doesn’t want to spoil his mood; after all, it’s his favourite day — the footy’s on, he’s wearing his favourite undies and he’s gonna have those yummy sausages for dinner. Just thinking about the sausages makes him happy; Tony’s tension is easing and he’s taking a deep breath to savour the kitchen aroma.
To Tony, the sausage meat Lucinda’s making smells delicious; it’s raw and pungent, it smells like a fart — which reminds him… Tony recognizes an opportunity here and decides to get his beer himself. He waddles over to the fridge, opens it, peers in, farts (audibly), takes a bottle out, shuts the fridge door, farts (louder this time), twists the bottle top open and takes a swig. Farts again, a long and drawn one with a stink so strong and unpleasant even Tony’s surprised. He didn’t realize he had it in him, this early in the day, and he looks over his shoulder at Lucinda to see her reaction. She’s busy with her meat grinder, looking like death warmed up.
‘What’s your problem?’ he asks, annoyed at her silence. Stupid cow, has no sense of humour. God, she’s getting on, thinks Tony, noting the lines around Lucinda’s tightly closed mouth, the slight sag in her jaw, the crow’s feet around her eyes. She’s putting it on, too. Tony lets out a sigh of disappointment. And she used to be so bonny, thinks Tony, remembering a much younger, much bonnier Lucinda when she was a perky-breasted young thing who used to make him laugh. Ah, but she’s long gone, thinks Tony, looking at Lucinda’s closed, disapproving face.
‘You got something to say?’ Tony asks. He might just be spoiling for a wee little fight to enliven the afternoon. Tony likes to argue with Lucinda; it gives him the opportunity to tell her a few home truths, to really let her know how he’s feeling about her these days, and for good reason too. But today Tony is feeling a wee bit tired. Maybe later, thinks Tony, multitasking in the middle of this contemplation; he’s glugging his beer and scratching his ass — right on the stain — and managing all this time to scrutinize his wife who, he knows, is quite aware how he feels about her these days. ‘I thought so,’ he mutters when Lucinda declines to comment; instead she opens the pantry, turning her back on him, defiantly it seems to Tony who’s filing this gesture of disrespect for later. He knows Lucinda’s transgression, her turning her back on him, will cost her dearly later on this evening when they finish their Sunday with a wee little argument. Tony will triumph of course; poor old charmless Lucinda will cry. Tony’s quite looking forward to it but right now he has other diversions on his mind so he leaves and returns to the living room, to his sanctuary where the curtains are drawn, the couch is still warm and the second half is about to start.
In the pantry, Lucinda breathes a sigh of relief. The sight of Tony makes her literally sick and the sound of his voice makes her want to drown herself. But Lucinda has developed a coping mechanism over the years; a moment of silence in the pantry is all she needs. A transient thought of a life lived long ago and left behind flits through her consciousness; she sees herself as a young girl, pretty, carefree, laughing on the arm of a handsome young man (not Tony), going out to spend the day in the company of people she likes. But it is a transient thought and it stays true to its nature. Lucinda wipes her hands on her apron, grabs her good luck charm necklace and begins the ritual. She fingers her charms, one by one: the heart, the unicorn, the book, the star, the clock, the bicycle, the seahorse, the thimble… Lucinda’s fingers are looking for the thimble, her most recent acquisition, the newest and biggest charm she’s had but it’s gone. Oh dear, I’ve lost the thimble, but what can I do about it now? I’m gonna have to look for it later, sighs Lucinda and goes on with the ritual, fingering the next charm, a tiny pair of ballet slippers — for the baby girl she used to wish for — and taking deep breaths. She’s feeling okay now; even the feel of those ballet slippers doesn’t upset her; she’s grown out of that desire. In fact, Lucinda’s grateful there’s been no children born to her out of this marriage, and she counts it as a blessing. It would have been awful bringing up children in this household, Lucinda thinks every time her fingers touch the tiny silver shoes, and it gives her comfort. She’s calm now and quite determined to get through the afternoon. Lucinda gathers the few remaining ingredients to finish her sausage mixture and leaves the pantry.
A few hours later, the Sunday dinner is taking place. Tony and Lucinda sit in the dining room — at opposite ends of the long dining table acquired long ago right after their wedding when things were good and children (lots) were on the cards — eating their dinner. The room is filled with the setting sun and the background noise of the Sunday night news. Tony’s chewing is front of house — unmissable, unpleasant and crucial to the proceedings; the intensity of Tony’s chewing indicates his level of enjoyment of the much anticipated Sunday dinner. A lot depends on this and Lucinda knows it. She’s eating her sausage though she’d rather stick to the mashed potatoes and the Brussels sprouts; she loathes these sausages but it would be unwise to let it show so she doesn’t. Lucinda has wised up over the years and for that reason Tony does not suspect a thing; he’s chewing furiously, wolfing down his eight’s sausage and his third helping of mashed potatoes, and a pile of Brussels sprouts saturated with gravy, and he’s doing all right; he’s in heaven, things couldn’t get any better except he’d like another beer. He gives Lucinda the nod and bangs his fist on the table to get her going. His mouth, his stomach and his lungs are full to bursting; Tony’s unable to speak as usual at this point, but nothing needs to be said. He wants his beer. Lucinda knows, is quite aware of the routine so she puts down her cutlery and leaves the table.
Lucinda enters the kitchen. The room is ablaze with light. The setting sun had snuck in through the open window while she was gone and worked its magic to surprise her. And Lucinda is surprised; the space looks so pretty, so warm and inviting, so full of light, Lucinda feels so… she doesn’t know what she’s feeling but knows it’s good and she wants to keep on feeling it. She takes a couple of steps and now she’s in the middle of the room, feeling good. A gust of wind shuts the door behind her, not loudly, only just so. It would be an easy sound to miss if one were not listening.
Lucinda didn’t hear it. She stands in the middle of her kitchen — that drab, dreaded room in which she spends most of her time — thinking how pretty the orange glow, thinking she’d like to look out the window for a bit ‘cause the sunrays dancing about the walls are making her dizzy. But Tony wants his beer, the little voice inside her head whispers, is tugging on her conscience, so Lucinda takes a reluctant step towards the fridge. Just then, she hears something.
She hears music and it’s coming from the window. It’s pipes and drums and trumpets; A marching band! Lucinda exclaims and rushes to the window to look. It is a marching band, complete with pipes and drums and trumpets, playing a familiar tune. Oh, when the saints go marching in … Oh, when the saints go marching in …
There’s red uniforms and silly hats; How pretty! Lucinda exclaims. There’s children running alongside the band; a crowd has gathered and it seems the whole street is out in full force. Lucinda is intrigued; she sticks her head out the window and forgets, for the moment, everything else that’s going on in her life right now.
In her life right now Tony is getting hot under the collar, back in the living room where his Sunday dinner is in progress. He’s down to his tenth’s sausage and getting low on the gravy. The Brussels sprouts are few and far in between, and Tony’s throat is dry. Very dry. Tony’s Sunday is not going according to plan.
Where is that hag with my beer? fumes Tony, chewing furiously, wolfing down his tenth’s sausage. What does a man have to do to get a drink in his own house? Tony grumbles, feeling dry, full to bursting, thirsty and disrespected, on top of everything else. I’m really gonna have to sort her out; Tony bangs his fist on the table with a tremendous force. The gravy boat jumps, falls off the edge of the dining room table, and shatters to bits on the polished parquetry. A small but dense stain is spreading towards the carpet’s edge; dear Lord, it’s reached the fringe! The carpet is officially stained.
‘Lucindaah!’ Tony roars just as the marching band passes by his front lawn. The din is deafening. Tony shoves the last piece of sausage and potato mash into his gob. ‘Lucin—’ Tony chokes. He chokes on the word, the sausage, the potato, the gravy that’s run out and the beer he never got. It’s the real deal, Tony is dying and it’s going down like they show it in the movies. First, he grips the table with both hands, bends over, tries to cough it out. No sound comes. Next, he lets go of the table, grasps his throat with both hands. Nothing happens. He keeps on choking. He’s choking on the sausage, the potatoes, the gravy that’s run out, the beer he never got and every single thing that’s ever made him angry and hateful, and it all comes down to one thing: Lucinda!
Tony’s eyes begin to bulge; it really looks like he’s in awe of the objects surrounding him; the plate, the cutlery thrown carelessly over his napkin, the bowl of potatoes, the bowl of sausages… The veins on Tony’s forehead are pulsating; his head is swimming and his last thought is about to occur. Sausages… thinks Tony, sadly but without regret, who would have thought? He keels over, pulling down the table cloth. The man crashes to the ground like a sack of beans, sags like a bag of wet clothes and lies still, blue-faced, slack-jawed and with eyes wide open, at the foot of his dining table, wearing nothing but a pair of threadbare, stained undies.

The Dead Husbands Club by Ivana Hruba is now available to download from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere on the net where good books are sold. 

Cabbage, Strudel and Trams

  Part I

 CZECHOSLOVAKIA, 1981 – 1983
Things happen. Things you would never have dreamed of. Things you might have thought about just maybe happening on the other side of the galaxy but you’d never imagine them happening in your own life. But they do.

My name is Franta. I live in Vendula’s head. Vendula is a girl who likes to daydream. She conjured me out of thin air like magic when she was just a wee little thing, and we’ve been together ever since. Our life is filled with good moments and good people, and the sum of it, we fancy, makes for quite a good tale.

 - - -

 Chapter one in which the family roasts a chook when Uncle Stan decides to search for greener pastures

I knew Vendula was special the moment I saw her. Clutching a ladybug in her chubby little fist, Vendula sat in the meadow full of blooming daisies. A drunken bumblebee made her laugh, and her voice, like silver bells covered with snow, chimed a quiet, pretty tune. I was enchanted and decided to stay.
At first, living with Vendula was plain sailing. Luck had always followed her like a puppy on a leash. A skip and a sniff and a leg up every so often, we knew where we were going. Vendula, a ballerina in a paper weight world, sailed through life as if every day was a walk through a rose garden where friends gathered like fluffy clouds. But then the summer of ‘79 rolled in and overnight things started to go pear-shaped.
First there was puberty. It came upon us suddenly, like a runaway train, bringing boys, breasts and training bras to cause havoc amongst Vendula’s friends who bloomed alarmingly in the most obvious places while Vendula doodled with her fountain pen.
‘Let’s chuck a waterbomb on the footpath,’ she offered blissfully when the girls came to hang out.
Oh, Vendula. Tsk. Tsk. You’re such a child. Smokes were lit. Heads were shaken. It seemed that a new attitude, new rules of conduct, had sprung up amongst the girls like mushrooms after rain when Vendula wasn’t looking.
Then Sylvie, Vendula’s bestest friend ever, moved away to Cured Ham. Yes, Cured, of all places. Like a stunned pig Vendula sat there when Sylvie told her. I’m moving to Cured Ham. Vendula keeled over. You can’t be, she stammered in disbelief, but Sylvie shrugged. That’s the way it is. Sylvie moved away, leaving a hole the size of the whole world. Of course, the girls wrote a while but you know how it is. Out of sight, out of mind; the friendship died a Cured Ham death.
To top it all, Uncle Stan defected to West Germany, causing a religious conversion in the process. True, the fashion of the day dictated that every thinking, progressive human bean make a stand against the commies; Mother, however, didn’t see it that way when Uncle Stan first called with the news in the middle of the night.
‘You what?!’ Mother shouted, descending upon the telephone like a plague of locusts. ‘Dee-fected?’
We clustered around. A hush of biblical proportions fell as with bated breath we hovered over the receiver like the three wise men over baby Jesus. Mother, for once speechless, listened to the steady flow of Uncle Stan’s words. I’m not comin’ back, sis. I’ve had a gutful of it. All them effin queues and what the fuck for? A miserable loaf of bread and a piece of cheese if you’re lucky. That’s not the way I wanna live. Fuck the communists, they can build their effin communism without me. On and on he went, venting to Mother who gradually lost all colour and sat there gaping wordlessly, as white as a ghost. Indeed, in the feeble light of the night lamp, she looked a fright with her plastered down hair, wide open mouth and bulging eyes, and for a moment she appeared to be frozen in time. Eventually, though, she began to show signs of life. She made a gesture as if she could not believe what she was hearing. Then she made another as if she had no words to express what she was feeling. After that the stupor eased and she let him have it.
‘Do you realize what you’ve done to me?’ Mother screeched, shouting that Pavel was in his senior year at school, and what are the odds he won’t get into college now, and poor Vendula, she’ll have no chance of a proper education at all, will she, she’ll be lucky to punch tickets on the tram, you selfish fool!
In this vein the conversation continued for about fifteen minutes. Vendula and I loitered while Mother and Dad argued. Well, Mother argued and Dad as usual kept calm; nevertheless, a lot of unpleasant things were mentioned before the connection was suddenly terminated. Mother began to weep. Dad stood there waiting for instructions while Vendula nurtured a vision involving a new pair of jeans she dreamed Uncle Stan would send her after he settles in and gets a job, and she was secretly pleased about Uncle Stan defecting ‘cause she was busting to get out of Pavel’s hand-me-downs. However, right then, in view of Mother’s condition (very troubled), Vendula said nothing of this desire. Meanwhile, Mother scheduled a family council for the next morning. Then we all went to bed.

- - -

In the morning Mother broke the news to Pavel who had slept the night through and was just now waking up, drinking a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. He took it philosophically.
‘Hmmm,’ Pavel hmmed without enthusiasm, looking bored. I was not surprised. Having no interest in politics or defecting uncles, this quiet teenage boy could hardly be expected to react otherwise. Still, Mother might have taken exception, but luckily she wasn’t paying attention. She was thinking of her parents, babka Zlatka and deda Anton, who had to be told of this disaster, this dreadful turn of events, this lamentable state of affairs which will prove to be our undoing, Mother orated to herself, staring gloomily into the fridge. Eventually, she took out a chicken and decided to make the announcement over lunch.
After the nocturnal kerfuffle, telling our grandparents was relatively easy. ‘Lord, have mercy upon his soul!’ babka cried, falling to her knees when, after the chook had been devoured and the strudel not yet served, Mother, wearing a slightly constipated expression, stood up and addressed the old folk as Dearest mother and father… It was all over in two minutes.
Babka, the poor thing, cried buckets. Her tiny figure shaking and her ovine face contorted with grief, babka cried drenching hankies, towels, and sheets. Deda, on the other hand, couldn’t have been prouder. Dry-eyed, he sat at the table sipping slivovice, his imposing corpulent self growing larger with every passing moment as he chest-puffed about his son the freedom fighter. Every now and then deda’s nose, that enormous bulbous thing hanging from his face like a good-sized cucumber, quivered and twitched as deda’s suppressed emotions got the better of him.
In this fashion, the afternoon wore on. Babka cried, Mother fussed with her coffee and cakes in the kitchen, Pavel sat somewhere quietly uninvolved and Dad retired to the toilet with the newspaper. Deda Anton cornered Vendula in the living room where he held forth on the family history of freedom fighting, crapping mainly about his brother, known to all as Uncle Bob who, when the commies took over in 1948, had emigrated to Australia where, according to deda, he done good. Throughout this speech babka cried, Mother served hard liquor, and the kids didn’t care. After the coffee had been drunk and the strudel had been gobbled up, the family gathered to pay homage to Uncle Stan.
The way we were going one would have thought we’d lost a truly exceptional human being; a genius of immeasurable talent, a humanitarian worthy of a Nobel Prize nomination at the very least, which, realistically speaking, was not the case at all. Truth be told, Uncle Stan was uninspiring and uninspired. His idea of a joke was to fart loudly and then blame it on Vendula. On a good day, he’d ask Pavel to pull his finger. Thus exhausting his bag of tricks, Uncle Stan would then turn to drink. The kids never gave him a thought. So now, prattling about Uncle Stan’s outstanding qualities, we stressed, most of all, his significance as the family anchor without which our lives were bound to plunge into chaos.
The evening ended when deda Anton, due to excessive intake of slivovice, keeled over and fell face down onto the floor, taking with him Mother’s prized possession, the cigar tree. The cigar-shaped pods of the plant exploded on impact like fireworks, showering the prostrate deda with tiny black seeds from top to bottom. Looking like a giant poppy seed bun, deda snored wedged in the doorway. Well, what can I tell you? All’s well that ends well. We tried to move him, I swear we did. We pulled him by the feet but his head bumped on the doorstep, then we tried pulling his arms but this maneuver caused uproar as deda’s pants began to slip. In the end we left him where he was and everybody we went to bed.

- - -

Chapter two in which Uncle Stan’s foreign correspondence comes under scrutiny, and Cousin Alice ends up writhing on the tiles

Predictably, after the festivities died down, things turned a bit more serious. Before the week was out, Mother and Dad and the old folk had some interviews at the police station regarding Uncle Stan’s departure. As customary in those circumstances, everyone was just devastated.
‘We’d never have guessed he could do such a thing!’ Mother, suitably appalled at Uncle Stan’s behaviour, clutched her head theatrically for the benefit of the interrogators. Bemoaning Uncle Stan’s weak moral fiber, Mother declared his conduct at odds with the strong communist tradition we’ve apparently nurtured.
‘Utterly incomprehensible!’ Mother wailed, proposing diminished mental capacity and citing numerous cases of it in the family. At this point, babka Zlatka, bless ‘er, inadvertently advanced the argument when she piped up about Uncle Stan’s foreign correspondence.
‘What correspondence?’ Special Agent Sharp perked up, taking out his notebook.
‘You know,’ babka nodded to the bewildered crowd, ‘the Bulgarians.’
Interrogations that followed eventually revealed that, when in junior high, Uncle Stan exchanged letters with a Bulgarian schoolgirl, whom he met at an asthmatic children’s summer camp. Despite Mother’s protestations … ‘But they’re ours, the Bulgarians are on our side …’ Special Agent Sharp wrote everything down. Promising to look into it, he terminated the interview. For now.

- - -

September came and with it the start of a new school year. As usual, Vendula hung out with her honorary cousin Alice. The kinship, like their relationship, was defined by its very tenuity. The girls’ family ties dated back to the golden days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Alice’s gr-gr-greatgrandad and Vendula’s gr-gr-greatgrandad had been village idiots together, their combined intellect employed to keep the geese off the village green. The girls’ relationship worked along similar lines.
In the mornings the girls walked to school together and in the afternoons they walked back home. On the way Alice talked and Vendula listened. Frankly, it wasn’t much fun. Alice, a short fat lump of a girl with a horsey face, was conceited and a bit of a bully. She constantly talked about herself; her hair, her face, her make-up, the boys who liked her and the ones she liked, and she also talked about her clothes. Vendula walked two steps behind her, listening and nodding, and sometimes she even said something but Alice always shook her head and said: don’t start with your bullshit, Vendula, not now, listen to this, and Vendula just sighed and kept quiet.
One day I asked her why she put up with it.
I don’t know, Vendula replied, looking grim. It’s the way things are.
Now it was my turn to sigh. Things can be changed, you know, I told her but Vendula just sat there looking like a small sad puppy. To cheer her up I promised her that Destiny would soon lend a hand.
We didn’t have long to wait. The very next morning when the girls were getting ready for school, an opportunity for payback presented itself. Alice was in front of her mirror, combing her hair. Vendula was just then telling her something but Alice wasn’t paying attention. She was busy shaping her fringe. When she ordered Vendula to bring the hairspray, I noticed Alice had forgotten to take out some curlers pinned up on top of her head. Had she not whipped up her fringe into a great whirlpool of curls at the front, Alice would have easily spotted those two fat beauties perched up there, but as it was, she had no idea ‘cause she declared herself ready to go. We walked out into the corridor. Vendula and I were deliberating (I was against telling Alice, the situation had potential) when the door of the apartment directly opposite the lift opened and a tall young man emerged. At that point Vendula ceased to struggle with her conscience and we proceeded to the lifts.
‘How are you, girls?’ asked the tall young man, giving a dazzling smile.
Alice beamed like a lighthouse. Turning to Vendula as if to say: see, I told you he likes me, she winked. Meanwhile the lift arrived. We entered the cabin first, with the tall young man gallantly holding the door open. Then he followed us in, closed the door and pressed the lift button. The lift shuddered, then lurched, and finally began its creaky ride down the nine floors. Throughout all this Alice kept smiling at the handsome young dude who could not take his eyes off her hairdo.
‘Soooo,’ the young fellow said, making a vague gesture towards Alice. ‘New trend?’
‘What? This old thing?’ Alice, none the wiser, blushed, wriggling in her brand new Levi’s. The young man with the engaging smile turned slightly towards Vendula and raised his eyebrows in the way I envisioned people would. Vendula beamed. The two stood there grinning at each other until the lift touched down.
Alice speculated on her chance all the way to school. Vendula was cautiously optimistic; maybe the young man was just being polite, she opined but Alice shushed her.
‘Are you crazy?’ she snorted. ‘Didn’t you see the way he smiled at me?’
Of course, we saw the way he smiled at her. The same sort of smirk she was getting now walking through the school gate, the school yard, the corridor and all the way to her desk. Eventually, someone took pity and tapped her on the shoulder. Alice then fled to the loo where she shrieked writhing on the tiles.
- - -

The girls made up after school on the way home, but only after Vendula promised we’d go past Danek’s house. Danek was Alice’s latest crush, a teenage hooligan she’d been drooling over since last Monday when we discovered him sitting on a park bench, spitting on the footpath.
‘He’s gooorgeous,’ Alice had raved.
‘And so accomplished,’ I remarked before Vendula had time to do anything about it.
Alice looked at her and frowned.
‘Well, all that spitting, you know, it takes some practice to get it just right,’ Vendula offered lamely, trying to save the situation.
Alice rolled her eyes and told Vendula she was a loser.
‘You’ll never catch anyone looking like this,’ Alice smirked, seizing this opportunity to berate Vendula about her being Vendula.
Vendula stared. She had no intention of ‘catching’ anyone. She liked her pigtails and she didn’t give a rat’s ass about what people thought.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Alice threw her hands up in the air. ‘You look like a clown in those pants.’
In reply Vendula shrugged; she liked the braces, they held up Pavel’s trousers nicely and anyway, she felt comfortable so why bother changing anything?
For a few moments Alice was speechless. Then she made one last attempt to set Vendula on the right path. She offered her some old lipstick and eyeshadow just to see what a difference a bit of colour would make but Vendula refused saying that Mother would seriously freak out.
 To this Alice replied with a grimace and a tap to her forehead to indicate what she thought of Mother’s interference in Vendula’s world.
For once, Vendula agreed with Alice. Of course, she would have preferred Mother to be a bit more ‘with it’, a bit more understanding, because, believe you me, dealing with her was nothing but a trial.
Failing to note the passage of time, Mother treated Vendula as if she were still in primary school. Not only did she not allow her to wear make-up but she also argued with her over Vendula’s choice of clothes. To make matters worse Mother insisted Vendula pay attention to her schoolwork, complete all homework and go to bed early on school nights! And that wasn’t all! On top of everything, Vendula also had to do chores and spend time with the family.
In contrast, Alice’s mum was a dream. Aunt Babsie was hardly ever home and when she was, Alice was allowed to stay up as long as she liked. Aunt Babsie never checked homework declaring it a waste of time, and she insisted Alice wear make-up to school. When they went shopping, Aunt Babsie approved everything with anything you like, darling, so the Christmas Alice turned twelve, she bought herself a padded bra and a pair of stilettos.
You’re the best mum in the world! Alice had cried as she wobbled across the living room, trying on her new shoes. Seeing the envy on Vendula’s face, Aunt Babsie smiled. Later she treated the girls to a hot toddy in the kitchen and told them what there was to know about men.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the differing parenting philosophies of the two matriarchs, the ladies did not get on. As a concession to tradition, a nodding acquaintance was kept up between the Zhvuk and the Klutz household, the precarious friendship between the girls treated with disapproval by Mother and casual indifference by Aunt Babsie, who feigned interest in Vendula to pump her for information. On the whole, I was glad Vendula was a Zhvuk and not a Klutz because the Klutzes were an odd pair.
Uncle Klutz, affectionately known as The Old Idiot, was a short, pear-shaped man with a silly birdlike face and a talent for missing the point. A gloomy grumbler, he had but one passion in his life: his Fiat. Unlike Aunt Babsie who took keen interest in just about everything that did not concern her, Uncle Klutz’s world revolved around his garage where he spent all his free time. Of course, Aunt Babsie, after seventeen years of marriage, developed an understanding attitude.
‘He could die in there for all I care,’ she used to tell the girls, ‘and the sooner, the better.’
Yes, Aunt Babsie was nothing if not understanding. Big, loud and ostentatious, Aunt Babsie also had an affectionate family nickname: The Old Cow. Her spare time was spent discussing the love life of teenage girls, applauding boldness and encouraging experimentation in a most unappealing way; still, she understood the passage of time and was popular for it.
Really, you couldn’t find a family more different to ours. Unlike Vendula’s parents whose marriage prospered on the basis of Mother being indisputably in charge, the Klutzes argued constantly. They argued like lawyers; battles were waged about too many things to mention here but mainly they were about The Young Slut Alice. Uncle K., you see, did not approve of Aunt Babsie’s parenting methods.
‘I’ll have none of these shenanigans here,’ he grumbled when he caught us dressing up in Alice’s room. He was going to take action, set up some rules! Uncle K. shouted towards the open door but Aunt Babsie, as usual, swiftly stepped in.
‘Shush, you idiot!’ Aunt Babsie, drawing on years of husband-handling experience, barked. ‘You know nothin’ about nothin’ so keep your trap shut.’
Uncle Klutz took a deep breath.He meant to say something in his defense but Aunt Babsie, well, she had presence, about a hundred and twenty kilos of it, and she knew how to use it. Mustachios bristling, Aunt Babsie put up her fist. That fist, purple, meaty, swollen like a ripe tomato about to burst, she put up very close to Uncle Klutz’s nose, and he, thinking he’d like to strangle The Old Cow, blinked furiously but said nothing.
When the silence emanating from the kitchen became eerie, Vendula suggested we’d go see if he was all right.
‘Ah, don’t worry about him,’ Alice, waving her hands to dry her freshly painted nails, rolled her eyes dismissively. ‘The Old Idiot isn’t worth it.’
What could Vendula do? She had to agree.
‘Certainly not,’ Vendula nodded. ‘Not worth it at all.’

Cabbage, Strudel and Trams by Ivana Hruba is available to download from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and elsewhere on the net where good books are sold. 

 Planet of Dreams: Go West


Chapter 1

A day in the dungeon begins with a sound. It is a distinct and quite unpleasant sound, of footsteps coming closer. From inside the dungeon these footsteps sound like slaps; sometimes I imagine slabs of raw beef are falling on the flagstones. One, two, three, four, five, six chunks of moist sirloin lying on the ground in a bloody mess. Then silence. Hopeful on my side of the dungeon door, indifferent, I imagine, in the corridor. The silence lasts three seconds, at the most. On the other side of the door a key is inserted into the lock, turned, then a chain is pulled and the small metal tray in the door falls open towards you like a drawbridge. In the next instance, your provisions for the day, a jug of water and a bowl of something, a stew or soup, appear. You have exactly ten seconds to take the food off the tray before the tray draws up, closing the opening. The chain rattles, the key turns, leaves the lock. The sound of footsteps resumes. This time the sound has an entirely different tone; this time, sand is squeaking underfoot, on a beach somewhere, in an open, sunny place. One, two, three, four, five, six sandy squeaks, squeaking away until nothing but the sound of your own breathing remains. The entire exercise lasts exactly two minutes. Then it’s just you. To do with yourself as you see fit. And what do you do with yourself for the rest of your dark, quiet day?
You eat. You drink. You sleep. You exercise, walk, stretch — your body and your mind. You pee creatively in your bucket; you’re making patterns, percussive and melodic both, just to hear a sound, a something other than the voice in your head. When you’re done peeing, you daydream. Day and night, you let your imagination run wild ‘cause you’re stuck in this very dark, quiet place with only your thoughts, your bladder and three plastic utensils to entertain yourself with. 

Chapter 2

I was in the dungeon for exactly forty-five days. Only two things worth mentioning happened during that time. Day twenty I managed a thousand push-ups, and day twenty-nine I found a message scratched into the floor under the pee bucket. I glimpsed the words, when the bucket slot opened and the bucket was pulled out to be emptied, in a pool of light in the spot the bucket had occupied. PLANET OF DREAMS GO WEST. Then the bucket returned and the slot closed, and I was left thinking I had dreamt the whole thing. But I hadn’t dreamt it; the message was there two days later, when the bucket was emptied again. This time I saw it as clear as day: PLANET OF DREAMS GO WEST scratched into the stone, quite neatly, in small precise letters, clearly visible from where I crouched close to the light streaming in from the corridor.
For some reason I felt like laughing. Of course, outwardly I didn’t make a sound as making noise was strictly forbidden, punishable by a reduction in rations. I couldn’t risk it so I kept quiet. I gazed at the letters, memorizing them like a poem. PLANET OF DREAMS GO WEST. I wondered about what it meant and who put it there. Was it a message? Was this something I should take seriously? It may have been put there especially for me. Or maybe it was nothing, just a by-product of some poor bugger’s diseased imagination because losing your mind was on the cards for anyone stuck here long enough, and there have been plenty who had gone mad in this dungeon. Eventually they all died in here, alone and stark raving mad. It was only a matter of time before the same thing happened to me. And who knew, perhaps this was my first step towards the inevitable; perhaps this message was all in my head and I was already imagining things.

She stood in the doorway, framed like a portrait. A young girl on the brink of womanhood. She stood there, looking like a flower about to bloom, looking fresh, smelling good. She looked at me and I felt I couldn’t breathe, she was so beautiful. Then she stepped inside the room and took my hand. Her touch was electrifying. Welcome to your Planet of Dreams, Handsome.

I imagined this pleasant scenario over and over, each time adding a new and more delicious detail until I could no longer stand it. It was a productive way to spend my time, that endless stretch of nothingness I had on my hands to mould into whatever I wanted. But I only wanted Her ‘cause she alone made sense to me in my situation: I was nineteen, a convicted felon condemned to rot in a dungeon, and PLANET OF DREAMS GO WEST was the only thing that really kept me from dying on the inside.

Planet of Dreams: Go West by Ivana Hruba is available to download from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and elsewhere on the net where good books are sold. 

A Decent Ransom

A Story of a Kidnapping Gone Right

Like a lotus rising … from the murky depths of the muddy swamp … day forty three begins … to unfold … when along come a few moments … which in hindsight … we should have cherished. … I am seeing … thinking … wishing … and thus I am … influencing the consciousness inherent equally in all life … which is all the things that happen. It stands to reason then … that … to remove the consciousness … is to … cease to be. … However … it is not so … for as long as I am … she continues to exist within myself. … If you accept me … I will continue to exist … if only in your imagination. Accept.

Part I

Dear God,

Please make Kenny change his mind. Please make him forget his plan. I have tried but he won’t listen to me. I don’t want him to kidnap that lady and I don’t want to help him but if you don’t do something, he’s going to make me. Please, God, help me just this once and I will never ask you for anything again. This time I promise.


Chapter 1 - Phoebus

It began with a perfect plan. Shape-wise we had a circle, a simple uncomplicated curve to guide us comfortably from one thing to another, an easy predictable ride promising a natural progression from A to B, C and D, and so on until we reached our destination. But somewhere down that smooth line, I think around F, it all went pear-shaped.
I had warned Kenny before it all started but he wouldn’t listen.
You’ll n–never pull it off, I told him. Kenny’s only response was to burp.
Shirtless, he lounged on the sofa, drinking rum. In between swallows he grinned and pulled at his chest hair; to show how relaxed he felt, he drummed a beat on his stomach with his fingers.
What are you worried about? Kenny laughed, seeing I stood there with an anxious frown on my face. I’ve thought this thing through.
This statement did nothing to alleviate my fears. Indeed, excepting Uncle Clem, there was nothing I ever really feared more than Kenny’s way of thinking things through.
You can’t just k–kidnap people, I said, trying to sound firm. Of course, it didn’t work. In those days, whenever I was upset, my stutter just became worse. Y–you just c–can’t.
Kenny frowned. Suspending the beat, he clicked his spurs and flicked back his sombrero. Fixing me with a stare, he raised his eyebrow and held it there until I apologized. Then he slapped me on the shoulder and went back to drinking. A brief silence followed during which I corresponded with God while Kenny lay there contemplating his favorite tree just visible out of the kitchen window. The moment passed when Kenny cackled, the shrill sound reminding me of our mum, who also had liked to laze about in her underwear.
Indeed, looking at Kenny sprawled across the sofa, I really saw her tipping the bottle, her toothless mouth gaping wide and her cackle ringing in my ears.
Mum left us a long time ago. For a while, I missed her. I wrote to her a lot, always signing Kenny’s name next to mine until one day he sprung me. He punched me in the face, and when I reeled backwards, he punched me in the stomach. As I lay on the lino, choking on the blood gushing out my nose, the consequences of my subterfuge became painfully clear: Kenny was seriously pissed off. He stood over me a while looking grim, looking as if he couldn’t decide what to do next, but eventually he bent to my ear and whispered, his words appearing in front of my eyes like skywriting. If you ever sign my name again, I will do to you things Uncle Clem wouldn’t dream about. The words faded and I promised myself I would never mention mum again. Still, I thought about her from time to time, especially on days like today when Kenny hogged the sofa, drinking and cackling, and looking like a bloated toad.
What are you staring at, you turd? Kenny suddenly asked, noticing that I hadn’t cleared the table. Snapping out of my reverie, I jumped to it. Meanwhile, Kenny continued drinking and when he was done, he threw the empty bottle out of the window. It hit the roof of the crapper and broke into pieces. At the sound, Kenny snapped his fingers. Seeing his mood was darkening, I quickly dropped to my knees and gently, carefully eased off his boots. Feeling more comfortable, Kenny stretched out and soon fell asleep.
I sat quietly by his side, watching over him. As he lay there sleeping, my brother looked to me as innocent as a newborn babe dreaming of good things to come. Relaxed, his face looked peaceful, the scars, the dents and the bumps barely visible; it was as if his real face came out of hiding, showing Kenny the way he was on the inside, a kind, generous and big-hearted man. Seeing him like this, I wished everybody could. However, deep down I knew people would always see Kenny only from the outside.
Of course, on the outside things are always a bit complicated. I had known from the beginning I should have handled everything differently. I should have talked to someone other than God, but the thing is, there truly was no one else. As far as I can remember, we had always lived alone. And I mean alone, with no other people around.
Pristine Mountain, population three, we used to joke, but it was true. Nobody ever came to see us. When I was little, I thought that people didn’t come because they couldn’t find our cottage hidden in the woods, but as I grew older I realized that people didn’t come because they didn’t want to know us. And who could blame them? After all, we were dirt poor, our mother was a drunk, and Kenny a dangerous psychotic beast best left alone. Accordingly, people avoided us like the plague. Even the cops let us be. Only once, when mum was still around, they came to make enquiries after the truck stop down the road from us burned down, but they were dead wrong. Still, they accused Kenny and they wanted to take him away, but Kenny barricaded us in the house and there was a bit of a siege. At first, the cops spoke to him through a funnel; however, as Kenny wouldn’t budge, eventually they took out their weapons.
Kenny stood his ground. Sixteen years old and just four feet two inches high, he looked to me as powerful as God. The very image of brute force, Kenny faced the enemy in all his compact glory, standing motionless under the window. Of course, he had meant to fill the frame with his menacing pose, but being bootless, he had just managed to show the top of his sombrero. Nevertheless, he was terrifying to behold. His trusty sling in one hand and a full beer bottle in the other, Kenny roared at the fat cop who was in charge: come get me, Shorty! All hell broke loose.
When the cops charged, mum and I hid behind the kitchen sofa. Kenny, however, remained at the window, dodging bullets and giving as good as he got. From behind the couch we watched his every move, feeling very proud. Mum especially was deeply stirred. She fell into reminiscing about Kenny’s dad, alleging Kenny had the same irresistible charisma, the kind of animal allure that made women swoon. She also claimed that she really missed him. This I strictly did not believe because when sober, mum maintained that Kenny’s dad had been nothing but a loser. During the siege, though, mum kept drinking.
Takes after his dad, she slobbered, watching her firstborn slinging bottles through the window, and you could see just how pleased she was. Although I shared in her happiness, I hoped her claims weren’t true because Kenny’s dad had left us two weeks after coming out of jail, taking our television and the car. Mum had tried to stop him. She jumped on the bonnet and aimed her shotgun at him telling him to leave our things alone, but he just grabbed the gun by the barrel and knocked her out. Then he left and we never saw him again. Still, mum had a soft spot for Kenny all those years.
Anyway, all this happened a long time ago. The siege had ended after the cops had busted every window in the house. Just as they were about to storm, new evidence surfaced implicating the owner of the shop, and the cops redirected their investigation, leaving us to sift through the debris in peace.
For a while our life went on quite as we were used to. Kenny kept his job in town, collecting garbage for the council, and mum stayed home looking after the house. Well, she was supposed to but she could never manage it, so it fell to me to do the housework after school. Still, we were happy until my dad came to live with us. Not long after he came, Kenny left. I didn’t blame him; it was for the best, seeing father never took to him. He could just tolerate me, father said, but this tolerance did not extend to Kenny who got the strap fairly regularly. After Kenny left, I copped it because father said I was an ugly bastard and he was sick of looking at me. But then one night he broke my arm, accidentally, and by the time the cops brought me back from the hospital, he was gone. Then mum started corresponding with Noah. They fell in love and she moved out of town to be closer to him because he still had a couple of years before parole. So then I was truly alone and I was scared because Uncle Clem kept coming over. After a while I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I tracked Kenny down and he came back to take care of me. Of course, when Kenny returned Uncle Clem stopped coming and nobody’s seen him since.
From then on we lived very well. I mean, we weren’t rich or anything, but we enjoyed being together and doing whatever we wanted. Well, Kenny did what he wanted, and I did whatever he wanted me to do. This was a perfect arrangement for us. Of course, at times Kenny could be harsh, even unreasonable, but to tell the truth, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I always knew that whatever decisions Kenny made, he made with good intentions, wanting only the best for me, and for that I was grateful.
After he got rid of Uncle Clem, Kenny got a job at the truck stop which by then had been revamped and put under new management. Kenny’s job was to put petrol into people’s cars. He also cleaned their windshields and pumped their tires, but only if they asked, and this suited him fine. Turning on the charm, Kenny told everyone there were waterfalls in the mountains. Pleased they’d cottoned onto something that was not in the brochure, the tourists always left a couple of bucks, especially after Kenny told them the waterfalls were pristine, like really clear water which nobody was allowed to see, and he gave directions. Sometimes people came back to complain because, of course, they never found them waterfalls, but Kenny never gave any money back. At any rate, nobody ever asked. I guess they could see it would have been pointless.
Four years went by in this fashion, each year much the same as the last. Then, just before last summer when I turned fourteen, Kenny took me out of school and got me a job at the truck stop too. I didn’t like it at first, chiefly because I missed the library, but as the months went by, I changed my mind. After all, my leaving school had always been only a matter of time.
I had never been any good at school work. During lessons I preferred to do my own thing, either staring out the window or reading novels under my desk. Initially, reading hadn’t been frowned upon, but when it came out that I only read paperbacks about the wild wild west, it was agreed my needs would be better served in Special Ed. Things did not get any better there. I tried to pay attention, but somehow I could never get Uncle Clem out of my head. I kept thinking about how much I hated him and what it would take to kill him. Yes, every day when I sat at my desk gazing into the sunshine, I imagined his death.
The manner of his demise varied, depending on what I was reading at the time. One day he would be hanged, another time he’d die from a gunshot to the heart or lie wounded in the middle of the prairie, bleeding to death like a stuck pig. I liked him to suffer. Some days I felt so inspired I had to kill him three or four times throughout the day, even at lunch, which I spent alone in the library. But Uncle Clem aside, school for me had always been a trial. My teachers considered me feeble-minded and my peers a weirdo to be avoided at all costs. Whenever I approached people, they scurried away like squirrels, or else I was shooed away as if I were a mangy dog. In class I sat alone and as I never said a word, what with my reading under the desk and not being asked an opinion, eventually people forgot I was there and stopped seeing me altogether. Given the situation, Kenny’s decision to terminate my painful existence there was a blessing. The fact was, I never liked anybody from town and they plainly didn’t like me because nobody ever questioned why I stopped coming.
From the first day I started work at the truck stop, I felt happier. I was in the kitchen mainly, washing dishes, but sometimes I was allowed behind the counter and this I liked because I could see Kenny outside, working the tourists over. It was there the Idea first occurred to him.
That day I was out front selling pies. We were busy and Kenny was in good form bamboozling the tourists; at the end of our shift, he had cleared twenty five bucks. We used the money to buy a box of wine and some beef jerky on the way home. We were really happy; it wasn’t often we could afford treats. Kenny especially was feeling on top of the world. In the truck, he kept talking footy and slapping me on the back good-naturedly all the way up the mountain. He asked me about my day and even listened to my replies, wearing such an interested expression that I got suspicious and began to wonder a bit; the last time Kenny had shown such spirits, he finished up in the watch house. He had thrashed Uncle Clem, and although that had been a good thing, there was some unpleasantness. Kenny got arrested and it looked likely he was going to jail, but Uncle Clem couldn’t be persuaded to press charges so the cops had had no choice but to let Kenny go. Of course Kenny gloated, lording it over me, laughing at my fears of losing him and saying he had always known he’d come up trumps. Seeing him so happy, I had gone along with it, pretending I agreed, but deep down I felt wretched, being certain he had just had a lucky escape. And now I was getting the same sinking feeling, that dreaded knot in the stomach telling me that something wasn’t right.
When we got home, Kenny’s good mood continued. Feeling exhilarated, he decided to have a soak; he sat in the bath with the door open, farting under water and cracking jokes while I prepared dinner. Everything was going well, I had the food ready by the time Kenny called me in to dry his back. I fetched his robe and his slippers, and then we sat down to our regular Sunday feed: beans and sausages and creamy potato mash. It was then Kenny made his announcement.
We’re going to kidnap a rich woman, Kenny announced as I carefully ladled the hot beans into his bowl. We’ll clean up! He banged his spoon triumphantly on the table, grinning from ear to ear.
Truly, at first I didn’t know what to say. Having heard a lot of crap from Kenny in my life, I only sighed, keeping my face devoid of all expression. But then as Kenny persevered with the grin, beaming at me expectantly, I ventured to express my doubt.
You’ll never pull it off.
In response Kenny cuffed me, telling me to shut up and listen.
It’ll be a piece of cake, Kenny proclaimed confidently, tucking into his mash. She’s home alone all day. He began to talk about his plan, speaking and eating at the same time, and I had trouble keeping up; he certainly wasn’t making much sense to me. Indeed, Kenny was very much on edge. He tore at his sausages and shoveled the beans into his mouth at an extraordinary speed, shouting and gesticulating, and all the while he never took his eyes off me, gauging my reaction. I tried to look happy but on the inside I felt only dread, which I hoped to keep contained, but eventually some of that dread showed on the surface because all of a sudden Kenny stopped dead in his tracks and rolled his eyes. Clearly he was frustrated with me because he sighed and banged his fist on the table so hard that the dishes shook, and then he ordered me to get him a pencil. I quickly fetched it while Kenny snorted at me to show his contempt, but I knew the worst was over because he began drawing the plan on the tablecloth which, luckily for me, happened to be the paper the butcher used to wrap our sausages in.
He drew the house fairly accurately, I must say. I knew the place from way back when I had a job delivering real estate pamphlets, and I thought Kenny’s sketch was very lifelike. One got the feeling of space and light and fresh air through all those big floor-length windows and the wide porch. I told Kenny they had a pool at the back but he cuffed me again, growling that he wasn’t going to get bogged down in details. He gestured for me to sit down so I quickly cleared the dishes and put a bottle of rum on the table.
Kenny took a swig and tapped the end of his spoon on the butcher paper right in the middle of the driveway on our blueprint, thus indicating that he was ready for dessert. I served the sweets which, as usual, were the leftover cheesecake I got from work on Sundays because they didn’t like to keep it past seven days.
I carved the pie, outwardly keeping calm but on the inside I was growing seriously worried because I could see that Kenny had his mind made up. I knew I didn’t want to do it, but I also knew that no matter what, I would always stand by him. He was the only family I had left and he had always done the right thing by me.
I asked him if the woman was wealthy.
The husband’s loaded, Kenny replied, chewing furiously.
How do you know?
Kenny frowned. I knew he was displeased that I had the nerve to question him, but I was too anxious to think clearly.
They’re worth a bundle, that’s all you need to know, Kenny eventually mumbled, making a sudden movement towards me. Thinking a cuff was coming, I ducked, and when Kenny saw me ducking, he laughed. He had only wanted a toothpick. I scurried off to get one. While Kenny picked his teeth, I opened the box of wine and then we sat around talking. Kenny was in good humor. Several times he playfully tweaked my ear, saying that I was an ugly bastard but even so he was going to make me rich, and I should stop worrying about not having a girlfriend.
I didn’t say a word. I never liked to talk about that. Kenny, however, mentioned it every time he brought a girl home, so a long time ago I developed a strategy, which was to turn a deaf ear. Usually Kenny never noticed my discomfort, and the night he came up with the plan was no exception. Ignoring my pensive mood, he offered to play cards with me and left me some of the cheesecake, and even though things did not progress like we planned, I remember that night fondly.

 Chapter 2

Kenny spent a week checking it out. He told me he wanted to make sure everything went smoothly because there was our future at stake. I knew he meant it because Kenny was determined we wouldn’t end up in jail like our dads, whom he hated and blamed for everything bad that’s ever happened to us. Consequently, we preferred not to talk about them. The most we ever said was when their obituaries arrived.
There goes a stupid fuck, Kenny said, squinting at the notice announcing my father’s death. Heart failure, the note said, alleging a quick and merciful expiry. Kenny, although pleased with the end result, was somewhat disappointed. He would have preferred more pain, some drawn out illness requiring torturous treatment accompanied by slow, unstoppable deterioration of the senses; in short, he would have liked father to suffer.
To cheer him up, I ventured an opinion.
Yeah, a stupid f–f–fuck, I repeated, feeling a curious mixture of relief and regret. Having uttered the word that Kenny had forbidden me to use, I regretted the breach of conduct; nevertheless, I felt the occasion permitted such a lapse. Kenny must have sensed how I felt because he didn’t say a word, just raised his eyebrow and slapped me on the back in a gesture of well done. Still, I knew this was a special treat. Normally, I wouldn’t have dared to swear simply because Kenny couldn’t stand it when I got bogged down in the stutter; what with it being so bad it was ever present, even in my thoughts. Anyway, I didn’t blame Kenny for getting irate; I myself knew that swearing did not agree with me. No matter how hard I tried, everything always came out wrong so one day Kenny banged down his fist and laid down the law, and I was forbidden to ever swear.
At any rate, I got away with it when our dads died. It was uncanny how they pegged out within days of each other, uncanny because they had never had anything to do with each other, or us for that matter, having left our mother before her pregnancies became known even to her. Sure, they came to visit mum from time to time after we were born, but it was mostly to get a good feed or to lie low. They certainly didn’t bother with us; we were good enough to fetch beer but that was about it. That and a kick up the backside was as close to fatherly affection as we ever got.
When, a couple of days later, another obituary arrived, we were stunned. It wasn’t so much the news this time; it was the timing, the apparently coincidental nature of our dads’ deaths coming so close one after the other that had us perplexed. Kenny was the first one to recover his spirits.
There goes the other stupid fuck, Kenny guffawed, squinting closely at the paper to find out the details of his dad’s passing. It appeared the poor sod had died in mysterious circumstances in the communal latrines when a knife had been plunged into his belly while he was doing business. Kenny found it a fitting end.
Indeed, I cautiously agreed, wisely resisting the temptation to swear, being certain it wouldn’t be tolerated a second time. But I was wrong. Kenny felt the occasion deserved to be properly commemorated and pegged the notice to his favorite tree. Then he climbed into the hammock and rocked to and fro, cackling quietly to himself.
Eventually Kenny put both notices in my cookbook, so that I could have our dads’ bad example on my mind. Indeed, as he made me cook all the time, our dads were never too far from my thoughts.
By all accounts, our dads had been losers. Perpetually incarcerated for offenses too pathetic to recount, our dads were the joke of the underworld, perceived as dumb, hapless bunglers given to haphazard executions of opportunistic crimes. This lack of respect weighed heavily upon Kenny, who vowed never to follow in their footsteps.
It’s all in the planning, he declared to me passionately whenever he was drunk, and I never for one second doubted his good intentions. I knew that he desperately wanted to be a hero, a champion of the poor, a real man capable of pulling off the most ambitious, grandest scheme. Yes, my Kenny dreamed of infamy on a large scale, desiring to come up with a tremendous plan, something really special, so utterly monumental, that it would make people’s eyeballs spin. Of course, up to now I had fully supported his dream, thinking it would always be just that. I truly never thought we’d get involved in a kidnapping.
Our fathers’ deaths had put Kenny in a peculiar mood. It was as if he had realized that time was of the essence and if he didn’t act soon, nothing would ever happen. He brooded, full of nervous energy, one minute pacing up and down the room, and the next lying in the hammock, staring into space. This went on for weeks and I worried about him, not knowing how to help, until the day he told me about the plan. As soon as he told me I got that hopeless feeling, the sense of foreboding that I always carried within me intensified, and I knew we were heading for disaster. However, I also realized that resistance would be futile; the wheels were in motion and there was nothing I could do to stop them, so I resigned myself to my fate.
It took him a week of surveillance to decide what the next step would be. Apparently, the woman, our intended victim, lived a predictable life full of routine tasks. A regular housewife, she went out to shop, visit the library and the gym; at home, she spent her time in the garden. The husband was hardly ever there, working at his pool shop or going off on business. There were no children and no neighbors; in fact, the whole thing was set up so beautifully, Kenny was convinced the kidnap was meant to be.
The following Sunday, right after I served the cheesecake, Kenny announced that he was ready for action.
The husband’s away, Kenny grinned into my face, tapping his watch. She’ll be getting home from yoga just about now.
For a moment, I could not think and I swear my knees were buckling under me. I never really thought … ahh … I kinda hoped … Christ …
Seeing the look on my face, Kenny laughed and blew his nose into the butcher paper. Then he scrunched the whole thing into a ball and threw it at me, saying, here, have a swig, you little turd, and then he forced me to drink out of his bottle. The rum burned my throat but didn’t stop my knees shaking.
We got in the truck. Straightaway I saw that Kenny wasn’t joking. He showed me a length of rope, a reel of cello tape, and a ski cap to pull over her eyes. He also had a rag to stuff in her mouth. I felt sick to my stomach at the sight of it. It was the same rag he used to clean out the exhaust pipe. Nevertheless, we set out directly after Kenny found the cricket bat he planned to show in case she had any funny ideas.
Down the mountain we went. Below us the town slumbered; even at this hour there was hardly a light to be seen. Indeed, it seemed to me we were the only people alive and I wondered what the world would be like if we were the only ones left. Plunged into these pleasant thoughts I drove, carefully spiraling through the darkness. It wasn’t until we were near our destination that it suddenly occurred to me that we never made any preparations for her stay. I slowed down.
Where are we going to put her? I asked Kenny, catching him unawares.
What? He mumbled, contracting his eyebrow as if he did not understand what I was saying. I swerved to pull over, but Kenny grabbed the wheel, making me stay on the road. I drove on. From time to time, I glanced at him but he stared straight ahead without saying a word.
She’ll stay in your room, Kenny eventually replied. The way he looked at me clearly showed that he was dead serious so I resigned myself to having her in my room.
When the house came into view, Kenny made me turn off the lights. We parked the truck close to the fence. It was a good thing, Kenny pointed out when he was taking off his shoes, that there was a lot of front yard because she wouldn’t have heard. Keeping close to the ground, we sneaked up to the house undetected. For a moment we stood stock still, hidden under the thick branches of an enormous oak, looking at the house and listening for signs of life from within.
Everything was quiet. The house, a two-story brick building built in the old federation style, loomed over me like a dark cavernous fortress, a forbidding sight indeed, with all the doors and windows shut and not a streak of light anywhere. Looking at it, I remembered the windows being open and the white curtains flapping in the wind as I went past the gate on my bike, back in the days when I had my paper run. I remembered admiring the house, so white and neat and proper, and how I had wondered who lived there, and sometimes I even stopped at the gate, hoping I would see them. I remembered how different the house looked to me then; how, on warm summer days, the drapes in the bay window were drawn back and music, strings and piano, wafted across the lawn all the way down to the gate. Then one day I discovered they had hung a wicker rocking chair from the roof on the front porch, but I never saw anybody sit in it, except once a big blue cat lay on the tartan cushion they had there. Another time the cat had stretched out on the wide front steps which lead down from the porch to the gravel driveway, and yet another day I saw it under the railing next to the flower pots full of brightly colored flowers. I am not a flower person so I never knew their names, but the flowers were big and pretty. Looking at the house now, I remembered how I used to wish that I lived there, and I began to wonder what would happen if I told Kenny I didn’t want to do this anymore. I turned to speak to him but he didn’t give me a chance.
Here, hold this, Kenny whispered as he thrust the rope, the tape, the rag and the hat at me, and I caught everything except for the tape. It fell onto the pavers and made an eency-weency sound. Of course, Kenny automatically cuffed me but remained silent as he crouched to retrieve the tape.
Huddling close, we inched towards the back door, which, Kenny had observed during his stakeout, was never locked until the occupants went to bed. Carefully, quiet as a mouse, Kenny tried the handle. As expected, the door opened and we peered inside into a rather large hallway with an old-fashioned wooden staircase leading to the first floor. Behind the stairs on the right were two sets of doors illuminated by a stained glass lantern mounted on the wall in between them. On the left side of the hallway another door, half-opened, revealed a kitchen bench. The hallway floor was carpeted and there were lots of pictures on the walls; however, it was too dark to see details. The house was quiet except for a low, indistinct sound, like that of a television humming, coming from somewhere upstairs.
We stood in the entrance for a second or two and then Kenny stepped inside, motioning for me to follow. As I tiptoed towards the staircase, Kenny placed his shoes on top of everything I held in my arms and very, very quietly closed the door behind me, and then we got such a fright when a cat appeared at the top of the stairs. Looking straight at us, the cat meowed. I froze. Kenny, too, stood there gob-smacked; it was only when we heard the voice of our intended victim that we were able to move, bolting to the kitchen.
Kleopatra? The woman called from upstairs. In my mind’s eye, I saw her leaning over the banister. Kleopatra? Where are you, my love? The woman called, her voice growing stronger with every syllable. I knew then that she was coming down the stairs because the wood creaked under her weight.
In the kitchen, we stood waiting flush against the wall. Kenny’s head was right next to the doorknob. I stood behind him, feeling such tension I was certain I was going to faint, and, as the moments ticked by and the tension mounted, I began to pray. I didn’t get far. The woman stepped over the threshold and then everything happened all at once.
Quick as a flash, Kenny pounced on her. He hit her on the head with the bat and she went down like a sack of potatoes. As she lay in the doorway, the hallway light showed her features, and it didn’t look like she was pretty, but Kenny had already stuffed the rag into her mouth so I wasn’t able to tell because her cheeks were bulging. Besides, her hair was all messed up, obscuring her face, and Kenny too was in the way, bending down to fasten the tape over her mouth. That done, he pulled the hat over her face.
The rope! The rope, you turd! Kenny hissed up at me and it was then this weird feeling first came over me. In my hands, the rope changed into a serpent. Swaying majestically from side to side it slowly rose, its diamond-patterned skin glistening, and its red, glowing eyes flashing like giant headlights. All of a sudden, its tongue darted out, hitting Kenny on the neck. Wake up, turd! Kenny shouted from the floor and the vision dissipated like a puff of smoke. I handed him the rope. I was reeling; I think I helped Kenny tie her hands and feet.
Finally, we were out of the house. It was a good thing, I thought, that the woman lived on acreage because we didn’t have to worry about neighbors. Still, as we carried her to the truck, Kenny sweated profusely. Even though she was only a slight little thing, Kenny worried about leaving footprints. I pointed out that gravel didn’t show them.
You’d know, wouldnya? Kenny rolled his eyes, saying that these days there were all sorts of technological thingamajigs and whatnots to find evidence. It might be better, Kenny thought, if we walked on the grass where nobody would be able to trace us. We sidestepped onto the lawn. Immediately I got bogged down where there was neither grass nor gravel but a flower bed, and when I told Kenny, he swore at me but, as he had his hands full, he couldn’t cuff me. Still, purely on reflex, I dropped her feet. Kenny then really swore, and I had to move fast to grab her, and then we jumped back onto the driveway. We just managed to get to the truck when the woman moved.
She twitched her head, making a little gagging sound in her throat. Quick as lightning, Kenny threw her onto the back seat and we shot out of there. I drove. Kenny was halfway out of his seat, hanging over her, and he had the bat ready in case she had any funny ideas. However, she appeared unconscious. The poor thing bounced from side to side like a rag doll because I was forced to swerve constantly to avoid the potholes that pitted the back road we took. I would have slowed down but Kenny urged me to speed, thinking we might have been followed. We roared through the night like a fighter jet. Again, I had the strangest feeling. It was as if I weren’t my own self, as if somebody else had jumped into my skin.
When we reached the highway, Kenny finally relaxed. Confident we were past danger, he began to enjoy the adventure, cackling and slapping his thighs and my shoulder. Then he decided to open a new bottle of rum. He drank and joked, and all the way up the mountain he never stopped smiling.
I pulled up at the porch. Hollering you hoo, Kenny jumped out of the truck and threw the now empty bottle into the bushes where it crashed with the other bottles that were already there. Then he did a crazy dance around the truck, shouting repeatedly that we were going to be rich.
Reveling in his high spirits, Kenny bucked like a randy buffalo. Seeing him so happy, I relaxed a little, knowing that we were safe in the woods. Although I shared his hopes, I didn’t holler or throw bottles. I just stood there waiting to see what would happen next.

A Decent Ransom by Ivana Hruba is available to download from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and elsewhere on the net where good books are sold.