Free Fiction Friday: “Visions of Suburban Bliss”

UnWrecked Press presents: Fiction Friday

This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Visons of Suburban Bliss.”

UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.

“Visions of Suburban Bliss” was inspired by some long days at the day job, and some commutes back and forth to the day job that somehow felt even longer. It was first published at Gothic.Net, June 2002, and it was an Honorable Mention story in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror vol. 16.


Visions of Suburban Bliss

Richard Tolliver was proud of the fact that his was the first black family to move into the Olde Carriage Ridgewood subdivision in Cary, North Carolina.  His job as an electrical engineer at Implement Telecom in the Research Triangle Park, nestled between the three cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, had allowed him to spring past his childhood neighbors from the housing projects of Southwest Raleigh.  Many of his old neighbors were still living there, either working one to two hourly, minimum-wage jobs, or working the streets, hustling crack or coke or bags of pot.  They’d all been going nowhere fast, Richard knew.

But I made it out, he thought, enjoying the power he felt sitting up high in his Ford Expedition, crawling through eastbound I-40 traffic after work, only seven short miles from home.  It was a drive that averaged thirty-five minutes, one way.  After escaping the slums of Raleigh, Richard was proud to be able to call himself a resident of Cary.

Richard rolled up his windows and cranked the AC.  The humidity of a Southern summer was fast approaching, and he wasn’t ready for it.  He’d put on fifteen pounds since moving into the management job at the telecom company, spending more and more time in front of his computer, reading status reports and timesheets instead of working on switches and routers.

But the money was worth it, he’d told himself so many times he thought he’d print it out and tape it to his office monitor.  Larissa loves the new house.  And with Junior on the way, we’ll need all the extra dough we can get our hands on.

Richard Tolliver leaned back in his massive sports utility vehicle, letting his foot off the break every fifteen seconds, inching closer to his new home in the gated community of Olde Carriage Ridgewood in Cary, North Carolina.

* * *

Thirty-nine minutes later, after creeping through stop-and-go traffic (“Onlooker delays for a three-car accident at the Harrison Avenue off ramp has traffic backed up to the Page Road exit,” the radio announcer shouted every five minutes), Richard waited to make the left turn into his new subdivision.

Gonna need a stoplight here soon, he thought, watching the unending line of cars coming at him.  He’d never seen so many Beemers, Mercedes, and Lexuses since moving to Cary.  He rolled forward until he was halfway through the intersection, hoping the cars would relent long enough to let him dash across the road.

As the light slipped from yellow to red, Richard punched it.  He blasted in front of an oncoming Cabriolet that had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him head-on.  A white hand with the middle finger raised shot out of the honking Cabrio.  Five cars behind the Cabrio joined in the raucous chorus.  Richard turned hard into the main entrance of his neighborhood, the Expedition rocking like a trailer in a tornado.

Three Mexican men from the landscaping company contracted by the subdivision – operating a lawn mower, leaf blower, and weedeater, respectively – looked up from their equipment for a long moment to stare at Richard.  Their gray shirts were stained with sweat, and their dark faces were lost in shadow under the lowered brims of their matching caps.

Richard nodded at the three men and stopped at the eight-foot-high black gate that sealed off his neighborhood from the rest of the small city.  Fumbling for his key card in his back pocket, he dropped his overstuffed wallet onto the floor.  Credit cards, licenses, and photos spilled out, hitting his dress shoes and sliding under the seat.

The Mexican men had returned to their work, motors buzzing like oversized insects.

“Crap.”

When Richard bent to pick up the key card, his right foot slipped off the brake, and he had to slam his foot on the brake to keep his Expedition from running into the gate in front of him.  The SUV jerked to a stop, and he smacked his forehead on the steering wheel.

“Crap!”

For a split second, Richard saw stars.  Blinking hard and shaking his head, he put the car in Park and bent carefully to pick up his key card from the spill of cards around his feet.  As he was bent over, he felt the blood rush to his forehead.  His vision went black for a moment, and then went white.  Finally things came back to normal.

“Oh boy,” he muttered, holding his head.  He reached the key card out the door and aimed it at the reader.  With his suddenly-blurry vision, it took three tries to get the magnetic strip of the card through the narrow slit of the reader.  The gates slid open toward him.  He backed up his big SUV to allow them to open all the way.

What a day, he thought, shifting into Drive, his head throbbing.  In the rearview mirror, Richard Tolliver saw a faint lump begin to rise on the dark skin of his forehead.  It’s enough to make a person lose his head.

* * *

Read the rest of the story as an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords.

Richard Tolliver was proud of the fact that his was the first black family to move into the Olde Carriage Ridgewood subdivision in Cary, North Carolina.  His job as an electrical engineer at Implement Telecom in the Research Triangle Park, nestled between the three cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, had allowed him to spring past his childhood neighbors from the housing projects of Southwest Raleigh.  Many of his old neighbors were still living there, either working one to two hourly, minimum-wage jobs, or working the streets, hustling crack or coke or bags of pot.  They’d all been going nowhere fast, Richard knew.

But I made it out, he thought, enjoying the power he felt sitting up high in his Ford Expedition, crawling through eastbound I-40 traffic after work, only seven short miles from home.  It was a drive that averaged thirty-five minutes, one way.  After escaping the slums of Raleigh, Richard was proud to be able to call himself a resident of Cary.

Richard rolled up his windows and cranked the AC.  The humidity of a Southern summer was fast approaching, and he wasn’t ready for it.  He’d put on fifteen pounds since moving into the management job at the telecom company, spending more and more time in front of his computer, reading status reports and timesheets instead of working on switches and routers.

But the money was worth it, he’d told himself so many times he thought he’d print it out and tape it to his office monitor.  Larissa loves the new house.  And with Junior on the way, we’ll need all the extra dough we can get our hands on.

Richard Tolliver leaned back in his massive sports utility vehicle, letting his foot off the break every fifteen seconds, inching closer to his new home in the gated community of Olde Carriage Ridgewood in Cary, North Carolina.

# # #

Thirty-nine minutes later, after creeping through stop-and-go traffic (“Onlooker delays for a three-car accident at the Harrison Avenue off ramp has traffic backed up to the Page Road exit,” the radio announcer shouted every five minutes), Richard waited to make the left turn into his new subdivision.

Gonna need a stoplight here soon, he thought, watching the unending line of cars coming at him.  He’d never seen so many Beemers, Mercedes, and Lexuses since moving to Cary.  He rolled forward until he was halfway through the intersection, hoping the cars would relent long enough to let him dash across the road.

As the light slipped from yellow to red, Richard punched it.  He blasted in front of an oncoming Cabriolet that had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him head-on.  A white hand with the middle finger raised shot out of the honking Cabrio.  Five cars behind the Cabrio joined in the raucous chorus.  Richard turned hard into the main entrance of his neighborhood, the Expedition rocking like a trailer in a tornado.

Three Mexican men from the landscaping company contracted by the subdivision – operating a lawn mower, leaf blower, and weedeater, respectively – looked up from their equipment for a long moment to stare at Richard.  Their gray shirts were stained with sweat, and their dark faces were lost in shadow under the lowered brims of their matching caps.

Richard nodded at the three men and stopped at the eight-foot-high black gate that sealed off his neighborhood from the rest of the small city.  Fumbling for his key card in his back pocket, he dropped his overstuffed wallet onto the floor.  Credit cards, licenses, and photos spilled out, hitting his dress shoes and sliding under the seat.

The Mexican men had returned to their work, motors buzzing like oversized insects.

“Crap.”

When Richard bent to pick up the key card, his right foot slipped off the brake, and he had to slam his foot on the brake to keep his Expedition from running into the gate in front of him.  The SUV jerked to a stop, and he smacked his forehead on the steering wheel.

“Crap!”

For a split second, Richard saw stars.  Blinking hard and shaking his head, he put the car in Park and bent carefully to pick up his key card from the spill of cards around his feet.  As he was bent over, he felt the blood rush to his forehead.  His vision went black for a moment, and then went white.  Finally things came back to normal.

“Oh boy,” he muttered, holding his head.  He reached the key card out the door and aimed it at the reader.  With his suddenly-blurry vision, it took three tries to get the magnetic strip of the card through the narrow slit of the reader.  The gates slid open toward him.  He backed up his big SUV to allow them to open all the way.

What a day, he thought, shifting into Drive, his head throbbing.  In the rearview mirror, Richard Tolliver saw a faint lump begin to rise on the dark skin of his forehead.  It’s enough to make a person lose his head.

# # #

Richard kept his window down as he drove toward his two-story house at the end of his cul-de-sac.  Down Bent Tree Lane, toward Forest View Heights Avenue.  On his right, five black men were working on a brick wall separating the Emerson’s back yard from the Andrews’ lot.  The wall was half done, and skinny, blonde-haired Nancy Emerson sat on her back deck, watching the men and sipping a glass of iced tea.  Richard felt his face grow hot at the sight of the men working hard in the hot sun.  He gave a quick wave and sped up the tiniest bit.

Half a block up on the other side of the street, Tim Johnson was watering his dark green lawn again, just as he was every afternoon.  Johnson was a day trader, and he’d made a killing two years ago flipping Amazon, Cisco, and Microsoft stocks all day long, just before the downturn of the past few year, to the point where he’d moved his office and his computers to his house and never left home.  Richard watched Johnson, in a baggy pair of jeans shorts and a sleeveless white T-shirt, yammering into the cell phone in his fat hand.

His fat, black hand.

Richard hit the brakes of his SUV, staring at Johnson.

“What the hell?” he said, forgetting his window was open.

Tim Johnson turned to look at him, his dark, curly hair sticking up in spots.  Nappy, Richard would have described it, if his attention hadn’t been caught by the color of his neighbor’s skin.  The pigment of Johnson’s face seemed to darken even more from its already-deep-brown color as he looked without recognition at Richard.

“Got a problem?” Johnson said.  His eyes were bright white in contrast to his dark skin, widening for a second before narrowing with suspicion.  “Can I help you?” he said, his voice deepening, with a slight twang.

“You’re not…” Richard tried to say.

“Fuck off,” Johnson said, turning the hose on Richard and his SUV.

Richard recoiled from the icy blast of water that hit him through his open window.  The sudden movement made his head spin again.  He closed his eyes and felt the world go sideways.

Was this their idea of a joke? he wanted to scream.  Are they trying to make some kind of point here?

A second later he opened his eyes.  Wiping his face, he turned back to Johnson, who had dropped his hose and was running up to his car.  Richard fought the urge to punch the accelerator.  By the time Johnson reached the side of his SUV, Richard could see that it was Tim Johnson after all, big, unkempt, white Tim Johnson.

“Ah, gosh,” Johnson was saying, panting for breath.  “I’m so sorry about that, Mr. Oliver!  I mean Tolliver.  Hose got away from me for a second there.  I’ll pay for a car wash for you, is that okay?  I’m so sorry.”

As Johnson spoke, his cell phone beeped twice and went dead.  Richard looked closely at the big man next to him, squinting slightly.  What was I thinking?  This guy’s as white as Wonder Bread.

“No problem,” he said at last.  “Don’t worry about it.  It’s just water, man.”  He gave Johnson a big smile and waved, spattering water onto the steering wheel.  “I’ve gotta run.  The wife is making spaghetti and meatballs.  Can’t be late.”

“Sorry,” Johnson said again as Richard pulled away.  He held the hose in one hand and his dead cell phone in his other, looking very much like a little kid waiting for his punishment.

“Jeez,” Richard said, glancing at the man receding in his rearview mirror.  “Crazy fella.”

# # #

Richard wiped the last of the water off his face at the Stop sign at the end of Bent Tree Lane and caught his breath. He looked at the knot on his forehead, which had almost doubled in size.

Crap, he thought.  That’s going to leave a mark.

He was about to turn right onto Forest View Heights Avenue when he hit the brakes again.  If he would have pulled forward any further, he would have run into a dark blue low-rider pickup that had come out of nowhere.  The pickup now sat sideways in the street in front of him.

Before Richard could back up, three long-haired boys leapt out of the door on the opposite side of the Nissan pickup.  All three wore dark, loose-fitting clothes, and in each of their small hands was a gun.

Richard punched first the button to raise his window, then hit the button to lock the doors.  In his rearview he saw another pickup slam to a stop behind him, close enough to touch bumpers.

Carjacked! his mind screamed.  I’m being carjacked!

Larissa had told him all about the reports of the gangs running through Southwest Raleigh, stealing cars from foolish drivers on the wrong side of the city.  For some reason, she had told him, most of the carjacking was being done by gangs from the Chinese section of the projects.  They only stole American cars, and they had a preference for Ford’s line of sport utility vehicles.

Before he could activate his hands-free cell phone to dial 911, six guns were pointed at him from outside his window.  Dark-eyed faces looked at him from under their hoods.  This was one of those gangs – all the faces were Oriental.

“Get out the car,” one of the boys shouted through the glass.  His accent was thick, making his English sound choppy and harsh.  He tapped on the glass with his gun.  “Give us keys!”

“This isn’t happening to me,” Richard muttered, taking his hand away from his phone.  He’d only managed to hit the “9” before being caught.

“Get out the car!”

Richard nodded and opened his door.  Each movement took most of his strength, and his head throbbed with every shallow breath he took.  He stepped down from the heights of his SUV.  How did these kids get in here, past security?  Especially with those awful low-to-the-ground pickups with the tiny wheels?

“Keys!  Now!”

Richard looked at the six boys standing next to him.  All of them were a foot shorter than him, if not more.  But the guns in their hands looked huge, almost as big as each boy’s head.  He looked down at his empty hands.  He’d left the keys in the ignition.

“No fun stuff,” the boy said.  “We watch you close!”

“Let me get them,” he said, moving back toward his SUV.  As the boys lifted their guns higher, pointing them at his face, he leaned up and in to get the keys.  He heard words that could only have been Chinese curses coming from the boys below him.

I’m going to throw these keys as far as I can and run for it, he thought.  Soon as I lean back out of my Expedition.

But Richard, once he’d made up his mind to act, couldn’t move.  With his hands wrapped around the keys still in the ignition, he stood half in and half out of his SUV.  He could feel the slick leather of his Implement Telecom key fob, next to the key to his house, the key to their storage units, the key to his tool shed, the key to Larissa’s parents’ house, and the slick plastic of his MVP card for Harris Teeter.  He leaned on the leather seat, one hand on his keys, the other hand on the hot door frame.  He couldn’t move.  He closed his eyes.

“Hey!” a voice shouted.  “Mister!”

Richard waited for the bullets to enter his soft body.  I’m gonna throw these keys, he thought without energy.  But I know before I run, they’ll shoot me in the guts and watch me bleed.

“Mister!”

When bullets failed to pierce his body, Richard opened his eyes.  He looked down at four small boys and two girls, staring up at him with a mixture of fear and impatience.  They all had brown eyes and a dark tan tint to their skin.

“I think he’s havin’ a heart ‘tack,” one of the dark-haired girls said.  Like the others, she looked Oriental.  Maybe Chinese, maybe Japanese, Richard thought.  “My uncle had two heart ‘tacks, then he had a highway bypass put in him.”

Richard let go of his keys and pulled himself out of the SUV.  After another head rush, he looked around him.  A red kid’s bike with a black, banana-shaped seat lay in front of his Expedition.  There were no pickups, anywhere.

“What are you kids…” he said, trying to catch his breath.  I am not “havin’ a heart ‘tack,” he told himself.  “What are you kids doing in the street?  It’s not safe out here.”

“Duh – my mom says this is the safest neighborhood in Cary,” one of the boys said.  Richard recognized him as the Lawrence boy from three houses down.  “The chain on Janey’s bike came off, and we couldn’t get it back on.”

“Can you help me fix it?” the blonde little girl who had to be Janey said.  Tears had worn two clean trails down her dusty white face.

All these kids are white, Richard thought with something close to shock.  Why did I think they were Oriental at first?

“Well,” he said with a smile.  “I’m a little late for dinner, but I think I can help you fix your bike.  You see, you have to get the chain on the sprockets at the back first, then you take the wheel and…”

As Richard, still talking, walked away from his Expedition and led the children and their bike to the safety of the grass next to the road, he felt the pain in his head begin to lessen.

Everything’s okay, he told himself.  The heat was making my imagination get away with me.  He chuckled softly in the middle of his bike-chain lesson.  I should know better than to think such things could ever happen here.

# # #

At the intersection of Forest View Heights Avenue and the entrance to Lakefront Trail, Richard’s cul-de-sac, someone had set up a sweat lodge.

Richard realized that the sight of the low, domed teepee made of canvas and bent branches next to the road didn’t even surprise him.  Not after the strange things he’d imagined already today.  He took a tentative lick from the sucker in his right hand, a gift from one of the kids for helping with their bike.  “I only licked it a coupla times,” the blue-eyed boy had said.

He parked his Expedition next to the curb and, sucker in hand, walked up to the smoking structure sitting next to a humming electricity box.  Low chanting came from inside the front flap.

“This should be fun,” he said, bending down and lifting the flap.  He crawled inside.

Through a haze of smoke and steam, perched on the far side of a fire made of green sticks piled onto a metal garbage can lid, sat a wrinkled, brown-skinned man.  The man had wiry gray hair tied back with a piece of leather.  Three white feathers stuck up from behind him, jammed into the piece of leather and his hair.  The man stopped chanting.  He nodded and, without a word, motioned for Richard to sit across from him.

Richard started to sweat even before he sat down next to the fire.  The teepee seemed much bigger on the inside than it had on the outside.  He felt like he was shrinking.

The man across from him wafted smoke from the fire into his sweat-stained face and breathed deeply.  Trying to cool off, Richard pulled his dress shirt over his head.  Before inhaling the smoke, he passed the Indian the barely-licked sucker as barter.  The man across from him smiled as he took the gift, then closed his eyes.

Richard did the same, still breathing deeply.  Sweat had already covered his chest and soft belly, trickling from his armpits onto his pants.

When he exhaled, he saw a vision.

A white man on horseback chased a brown-faced woman, heavy with child, his gloved hand reaching down for her.  The image blurred and coalesced into an ancient wooden boat, listing badly as it pulled into a port city, thin black hands reaching out into the air from the barred windows of the ship.  The image changed into a scene of nimble, black-haired men scurrying with their hands over their ears onto an unfinished railroad track, just in advance of a dynamite explosion that opened a gap through a mountain pass.  The explosion melted into a cluttered construction site just outside a gated community, where Spanish-speaking laborers in plain white T-shirts carried heavy panes of glass with suction cups held in strong hands up five flights of stairs.  The reflection off the pane of glass morphed into a ghetto in India, where a gang of boys tormented a thinner, older boy carrying math books and his passport through the dirt streets.  A worn, rectangular sticker bearing the image of the American flag was plastered to one of the boy’s folders gripped in a dark hand.

I know you, Richard whispered inside his own head.  I know all of you.

Then the images faded away, and the thick smoke was gone.  Richard was still sitting cross-legged, but he could feel bright sunlight on his eyelids.

He opened his eyes and saw two brown faces staring at him from less than a foot away.  His shirt was off, and he was sitting on top of a rickety, sticky card table.  The sucker was stuck to his forearm.

“Are…” he whispered, his throat painfully dry.  “Are you boys Indians?”

“We are from India,” the older boy said with a lilting, staccato accent.  “But my father says we are Americans.”

“Uh-huh,” Richard said.  The sun was so bright he could barely see.  “So where’s your sweat lodge?”

The boys gaped at him without responding.

When he tried to move, the card table under him groaned.  His legs were asleep.  Richard moved to the table’s edge, slapping life back into his legs, and in the process he spilled a pitcher of lemonade onto the table, soaking into his dress pants.  He lost his balance and pulled the card table over on top of him, the plastic pitcher landing on his hand.

“Shit!” he shouted, bringing his headache back with a vengeance.  “Shit shit SHIT!”

The two boys ran off, yelling something about a “crazy black man wrecking our lemonade stand.”  Richard could plainly tell that the boys were light-haired and white.  Just like all the other kids in the neighborhood.

He eased himself off the card table, put his shirt back on, and pulled off the sucker that had been attached to his forearm.  He walked back to his SUV, his face burning and his pants dripping with lemonade.

I really need to get out of this sun, he thought to himself.

# # #

When he at last made it to the front door of his house on Lakefront Trail, the door was locked from the inside.  Richard didn’t even bother to swear.  Fumbling in his pocket, he set down his briefcase and pulled his keys from his ruined dress pants.  Inside the house, someone walked up the hallway as he unlocked the lock in the door and twisted the deadbolt.  Larissa was coming to greet him, probably ready to explain why she had the house locked up tight in the safest neighborhood in the greater Raleigh area.

He opened the door, inhaling the warm, spicy smell of spaghetti and meatballs, and was met by the double barrels of a shotgun.

“Who the hell are you?” a woman shouted.  Inches in front of Richard’s face, the two barrels of the gun never wavered.  “And how did you get my husband’s keys?”

“Larissa?”  Richard felt the sweat falling from his face as he blinked hard.  His eyes were burning from the bright sunlight.  His headache had returned.

“Get back!” the woman screamed.  “I’m pregnant and emotionally unstable!”

That was Larissa’s voice, Richard thought.  He barely even registered the shotgun pointed at him.  This was just another weird illusion from my headache.

“It’s okay, miss,” he said, squinting into the darkness of the house.  He could barely see the woman holding the gun.  It looked like Larissa.  He smiled.  “I’m just a lost black man, that’s all.  Trying to find his way home.”

The shotgun wavered.  “What are you talking about?  How did you get past the gates?”

Richard felt himself relax.  What a day, he thought.  Larissa and I are gonna laugh about this tomorrow.

“I snuck in after a fat white man in his Mercedes,” he said, stepping closer.  “I’ve got your white husband tied up in the back of your Expedition.  When I’m done jumping your bones I’ll let him out and you can live happily ever after.”

Richard could see the woman just inside the door.  It was his wife, and it wasn’t, just like everything else he’d seen and done since entering the gated community of Olde Carriage Ridgewood that afternoon.  But it was okay; he understood the rules now.  He reached up with his hand – his black hand – and pushed the door open further.

“I knew it,” the very pregnant white woman said, pulling the triggers of the gun.

Richard felt white-hot pain for a split second, his head rocking back as twin blasts of exploding metal pierced his skull, spreading the contents of his head onto the front lawn like strawberry preserves.  Then Richard Tolliver knew no more.

# # #

“Crap!”

Larissa Tolliver rubbed her shoulder where the butt of the shotgun had recoiled into her.  Richard always told her to be careful of that, but she hadn’t been thinking straight.  The man on her porch had shifted her into protective-mother mode, and all rational thought had taken a hike.

When the pain in her shoulder began to lessen from its original white-hot level, Larissa lowered the gun and set it on a chair.  She caught herself before peeking out the front door.  I just shot a man on my front steps, she thought.

Rapist.  Robber.  Thief.  Murderer.

We’re safe now, she thought, rubbing her belly with her left hand.  She pulled her cell phone from its waist holster with her right and punched in 911.   The skin of her hands, along with the skin covering the rest of her, was a deep brown color.

Her headache from the past few days returning, Larissa hit Send on her cell phone and stepped heavily back to the kitchen to take the spaghetti out to drain.

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