{the cracked kettle: puzzled}

Admittedly, this is a weird story, but the picture prompt eluded me. And yes, it’s late, but I blame the concert(s) in the last seventy-two hours, the coughing, the ground-glass-in-the-vocal-chords sensations, and the four hours of sleep I had last night. Things should get better very soon, because as soon as I post this? It’s back to bed.

Creative Commons prompt this week courtesy of Flickr user Asja.


© 2012 T.S. Davis

It would be, by the doctor’s reckoning, another week and four days before she got that parasite out of her, but Gillian wasn’t really up to waiting that long.

“Are you sure he said the first of the year?” Gran asked, giving a worried look to the slump of Gillian’s spine. Her own back was ramrod straight, her shoulders flung back with muscular strength.

“That’s what he said,” Gillian replied, leaning her shoulder against the door jamb, wincing at a warning muscle twinge on the back of her neck. “He’s scheduled the surgery for the first Tuesday of the year.”

“It’ll be good to see what you’ve got.” Gran’s eyes crinkles at her brief smile. “Every Hoffsteader has had their challenges, but they’ve seen them through. You get to grips with that chap, and you’ll be on your way.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking. I’d feel better if I could be on my way now…” Gillian began.

Gran’s smile vanished. For a moment, it seemed that there was another head behind her own, peering out from behind the column of her neck. “Gillian. We’ve talked about this – ”

“It’s just so big,” Gillian gnawed her lip anxiously, flinching from the shadow behind her mother’s mother. “It’s huge, Gran. I’ve got to know. How can we be prepared if we don’t know?”

“You’re never given more than you can handle,” Gran said primly, lips stitched into a thin line of censure. “You’re a Hoffsteader, Gillian. A Hoffsteader puts her back into it, and she can accomplish anything.” Gran straightened, chin high, and once again resolved into the tough old lady Gillian had grown up with – a solitary soldier who bore her burden, and never mumbled.

“I know, Gran,” Gillian sighed. She did know – nobody, in all the history of her family, had ever been unable to handle anything thrown at them – any curveball, any hitch, any little difficulty. Bad grades, mortgage bubbles, world wars, influenza pandemics – the family was filled with hardcore survivors who took the problems of the world on their backs and slogged onward. Just look at Gran – she was seventy-eight, and she’d held up her own burden, plus take on her daughter’s child.

Gillian wasn’t sure she measured up to the history. She was a gamer – fond of puzzles and wordplay and hours of being a Seventh Level Elf with mage powers in her online gaming world. Reality was more trouble than it was worth, most days. Who wanted the back-breaking, life-sapping responsibilities of the whole world? Who’d voted the Hoffsteaders into being such stalwarts, anyway? Gillian had never had to put her back to anything. Brute strength was for those who had it – Gillian preferred subterfuge. What else was a sharp brain good for, if not for protecting you from breaking a sweat?

“If you’d ever take things seriously, you’d be just fine,” Gran rapped her misshapen knuckle against the tabletop. “You’re a Hoffsteader, and Hoffsteaders stand strong. Carrying this burden might just be the making of you.”

Or, it might just make her crazy, Gillian decided, but she kept her mouth shut.

The weeks passed, bearing the holidays closer. In return for her moment of doubt, Gran supervised Gillian’s time, leaving her not much for her games – except for the stupid Sudoku from the paper – or even for sleep. Her back was a constant ache. If nothing else, the elder Hoffsteader was grimly satisfied that Gillian didn’t quibble, even over extra errands. It was taking Gran’s beast, Scherzo, to the beast-mender that reminded Gillian that she had other options.

Only a moment of subterfuge – excusing herself to the single bathroom in the back, unlatching a few cages filled with an old paranoia, its razor-edged wings flicking irritably, a pair of abject failures and three hyperactive grouchies – all she’d needed. For good measure, Gillian set a cold and sleepy terror she found on the floor to lend what mayhem it could. She’d sat quietly through the exam until distant screams creased the minder’s face. He’d given her Scherzo’s leash. “Would you excuse me for just – ”

The X-ray machine was old, which was to her advantage. She lined up her spine against the plate, held her breath, and pushed the button. She heard the door rattle and leaned away from the screen, holding closed the door.

object #3: bones

“Just a sec – I’ve got to -this beast!” she exclaimed, and held her breath again as elsewhere someone screamed. The beastmender swore, the rattle ceased, and raised voices echoed down the hallway.

Gillian bent awkwardly, hands pressed against the door, pushed the button again. On the screen behind her, a ghostly image took shape.

The bulge on her spine – the traditional monkey on her back – was only partially visible, its thumbs arched at an awkward distance. Her heart thumped once, hard, then Gillian grinned in relief. It seemed she would be another in a long line of successful Hoffsteaders, even as a fly-by-night, silly girl who frittered away her time with games.

The monkey was already locked into a Chinese finger trap.

May the things which hold you be ever so easily defeated.

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