This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Painting Haiti.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook from Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published in the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology “Paper Cities.”
Some reviewers’ thoughts:
- “Surreal in a lucid way, this story captures the nightmare that Claudia suffers through. A well-told tale with a visual arts sensibility.”
—Marshall Payne, The Fix
- “Other excellent stories are Steve Berman’s offbeat but fascinating “Tearjerker,” a veritable feast of imagination and creativity and the colourful ‘Painting Haiti’ by Michael Jasper, portraying the nightmares and the difficulties to survive experienced by an artist from Haiti emigrated to the USA.”
— SF Site
- “The story is about being a foreigner and recovering your roots, culture-wise. Very interesting magic system and quite nice portrayal of Haitian myth. The end is a delight.”
— Post-Weird Thoughts
In spite of the alarm blaring for the past ten minutes, Claudia kept on working, thinking: just one more dab of color here, one more brush stroke there, just a bit more shadow in the background.
“Malpwòpte,” she muttered, glaring at her old alarm clock and then at her painting.
She wasn’t sure which one she was labeling a piece of shit. Probably both. She could see something finally taking shape there in the brown, blue, and black lines of her oil-based cityscape, after almost three hours of painting and scraping and repainting. She’d been close to giving up on this one, and she couldn’t afford to waste paint.
Repeating the Creole curse word, savoring each spitting syllable, Claudia pulled off her old flannel shirt and scrubbed her paint-spattered hands with it. Dark red, deep blue, and black paint smeared onto her brown skin, leaving a swirling tattoo of tacky oils on the back of her right hand.
She stared at the paint, her eyes wanting to unfocus. The shape reminded her of something she’d seen late the other night while she was at work. Something glimpsed from the corner of her eye as her speeding taxi zipped past a streetlight on a deserted alleyway. A blurred figure wearing a black hat and a dark blue jacket, disappearing down a red-bricked alley. Chasing someone down or running away from someone, she couldn’t tell.
With one last glance at her current painting—”broken” was the word that came to mind when she looked at it—she pulled on a faded NC State sweatshirt, dropped her short-handled baseball bat into the pocket of her winter coat, and locked the door to her rented room.
Jogging down the steps and out into in the snowy, late-February darkness, Claudia kept her right hand tight on the handle to her bat and tried not to think about the story she’d glanced at today, the one about another homeless person’s death. The short notice was buried at the back of the Metro section. She wouldn’t be another statistic; that was why she’d left Port-au-Prince over a decade ago.
The Raleigh Taxi Company sat tucked away in an alley off Blount Street, next to a five-story parking deck and a closed Irish pub. Lenny Akinebosoom, a Nigerian man with skin so black it shone, was waiting for her inside. With his wireless headset strapped to his bald head, he spoke rapid-fire into the mouthpiece. Lenny shook his head at her and handed her a fare box and a list of customers.
Her first fare was due at the RDU airport at seven p.m. The airport was a twenty-minute drive from downtown, probably closer to thirty if one of the city’s few snowplows from hadn’t cleared the interstate.
“Better hope the planes runnin’ late ’cause of the snow ‘n’ all,” Lenny said. “Claudia,” he added, his voice softening, “be safe tonight. People been actin’ crazy in this area.”
Claudia gave him a nod and began pulling out air fresheners for the taxi she was inheriting from big Jake, who always left her with a cab reeking of body odor.
After ten minutes, with two more rides now backed up behind Claudia’s pickup at the airport, Lenny gave up trying to hail Jake on the radio. Cursing in his native language, he dug out a blue plastic key fob in the shape of a number one and tossed Claudia the key to Bessie.
Claudia loved driving Bessie. She always thought of Bessie as a yellow tank topped off with a dusty yellow Duty sign. The twenty-year-old Crown Vic started on the first try, and with a roar the dispatch office was a blurred shadow in her rearview.
Claudia pointed Bessie in the direction of the airport. Snow was falling again, dotting the wide expanse of the cracked windshield. Heat had finally started to sputter from the vents when Claudia saw the red lights a block away on her right.
Just keep going, she thought at first. But something about the way the lights of the cop car ahead of her played with the shadows made her think of the blurred figure she’d seen the other night, a figure that had worked its way into her dreams every night since.
“Jake,” she whispered, killing Bessie’s engine. She stepped outside and lost her breath immediately in the wind.
The cop stood hunched over the taxi, looking through the spider-webbed windshield with his flashlight. The cop’s radio screeched something, mixing with the howl of the wind. She could smell the sickly stink of something harsh, like burning oil. Underneath it was a familiar whiff of body odor.
And then she heard Jake’s voice, screaming.
“Get him out—” she started to yell at the cop, her anger taking her back over a dozen years, to Port-au-Prince, shouting at the rebels and then hiding from them, and then later yelling at the U.S. Marines with their guns and their agendas.
Claudia never finished her sentence. The cop straightened up in one fluid movement from next to the overturned taxi. Claudia’s gaze went from the cop to the fat white hand pressed against the inside of the ruined windshield.
“Move ‘long,” the cop said. “Nothin’ to see here, miss.”
She had to force her gaze away from that hand to look at the cop. He was easily six and a half feet tall, and his black face flickered in the red lights of his sedan. Something about the man’s face was familiar, a tiny detail she couldn’t make out in the darkness. She stumbled back to Bessie, numb with cold.
What made her punch the gas pedal hard was the sound of the cop’s voice. It had carried easily over the wind, touching her ears like a freshly remembered nightmare.
He’d had a Creole accent.
* * * * *