Hidden Fees

This is my response to the flash fiction prompt posted by Chuck Wendig on July 26 http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/07/26/flash-fiction-challenge-four-random-items/

I chose road sign, animal skull, leather mask and iron horseshoe.  Posting a little late, but I only found the prompt 3 days ago, been sitting on what I wrote for 2.  Enjoy.

Wet needles slapped Frank as he ran.  The rain slid off him but the plant matter clung, forming a second sodden jacket over his windbreaker.  And still the fire burned, its glow leaving the sky the color of strong sunlight through eyelids.  Copper tang filled the air as the blood pines were charred; over the roar of the flames and creaking of the spindly trees Frank could not hear what followed, but he could feel it.  Thump, thump, thump, the ground announced its coming.  Air like a gas soaked rag, wet and acrid from smoke, punished Frank for every gulped breath.  But he could not stop.  He did not run so much as fall forward, and in every moment he could continue his unbalanced lurch forward or face plant.  So he ran through another fire already blazing in his lungs and legs.

Stinging grass and pear cactus clung insistently upon jeans and boots in the wide space between the pines as if they too hoped to escape the coming blaze, the draining tilt of the hill, his own coarse hair swept into his mouth and eyes, the swinging backpack a thousand small annoyances drowned beneath one thought:  I need a new job.  Frank checked his windbreaker’s pocket with every step.  Mercifully the horseshoe and sugar cube were dry- he could not have bagged them, he would not have had the time to remove them.  Lightning split the sky as Frank crested the hill, revealing forest, slash pine stretching forty feet and scattered oak higher.  The red needles and alabaster bark gave the pines an alien air; if not for the few oaks peeking up it would have seemed a coral forest.  Fire already blazed on the left and right edges of the depression ahead.  Almost simultaneous thunder drove spikes into his ears, but Frank did not care.  There, at the base of the incline, stood the clearing and the way out.

Pitching even more wildly now, he passed over the crest of the hill and began to descend even faster, trees whipping past and undergrowth crushed underfoot.  If pines had low branches they would have scourged Frank raw, yet he heard them snap as the footfalls behind him became audible.    And then he was in the clearing, tripping over the rocks strewn throughout it.  A carpet of pine needles broke his fall and Frank immediately struggled to all fours and lunged forward.  In a strange hunching run Frank made it to the center of the clearing, banging his shins to hell and back on limestone and cinderblock.  Clang.

He had almost walked past it!  Another bolt of lightning lit the clearing as he stepped back.  The yellow diamond road sign and the deer skull affixed above it on the metal shaft were both blackened with char, black horns obvious against the burning umber sky. “Road closed?  We’ll see about that!”  Frank felt a bubble of relief as he fished the sugar cube from his pocket, holding it with his palm down so the rain did not wet it.   The bubble popped as trees shook behind him.  The time had come to leave, and to hell with everything else!  He looked back anyway.

It had a human face.  Stretched taught over a crude wooden frame, strapped to its head as a mask.  Its arms hung to its knees, as massive stained rock clutched in one hand.  Brown fur the same shade as Frank’s hair covered a body at least ten feet tall, the top of its mask brushing a branch overhead.   A whole deer hide was tied around its waist by the rear legs, forming a rough loincloth with the deer’s head almost touching the ground.  The smell of rotting meat wafted from it to Frank, gagging him as he slammed the sugar cube into the skull’s mouth.  Red light from a setting sun poured from the sign.

“Road’s open baby!” Frank yelled as he fell back through the sign.  The sasquatch roared and knocked a massive chunk from the pine beside it as it flailed wildly, blinded by the sun in its eyes.  The needles Frank landed on were blessed brown, not red, and the pines he looked up at from his back were brown with green needles.

“You fell on the eggs!”  Professor Astor wrung his hands, glasses almost flying off his face in agitation.

Frank sprung to his feet.  “I told you to wait at your car!” He lurched around the sign post, wincing as his legs began a thousand years of revenge for what they had been put through.  Though the landscape had changed, the sign and skull remained charred and out of sight of any actual road, though it now read ‘Road Open’.  He levered open the jaws of the skull and began fishing for the horseshoe.

“If you have any less than a dozen, you can forget about payment-“  The professor broke off as the last ten feet of a ghastly white pine tree in mid-fall appeared above the sign and slammed home, the tips of the top needles brushing the man’s face.  He stood there, jaw open, pristine outdoorsmen khaki vest and shorts now covered in blood red sap.  Frank flinched as a roar sounded from the sign and slipped the horseshoe into the deer’s mouth, holding his breath as he let the mouth close.  The sign rippled, returned to its closed state.  Disappointment radiated from the skull at the lack of sugar- experience had taught Frank he was not imagining it.

Roughly shedding his pack, Frank riffled through it, pushing aside plastic bags of sundries until he found the thermos.  Walking over to the professor, he popped it open.  “Passenger pigeon eggs- unharmed, as asked.  I take no responsibility if their origin in another plane causes them to long for the flesh of humans.”

“Ah- perfect!”  The professor shifted from shock to delight Frank wanted to ask if he had whiplash.  ”And you got samples from the blood pine and some sort of primate!”

Frank looked over his shoulder at the severed hand of the sasquatch laying on top of the tree.  Close shave there Frank.  “Those’ll cost you extra.”