3:04

A fictional short story by Robert M. Roberts

Laura Castle bolted up in bed. As her heart pounded and she gasped for air, she looked at the alarm clock at her bedside. It was 3:04. The alarm had not sounded. She had set if for 6:00 a.m. It was another horrific nightmare that had caused her to wake up, just one of many terrifying dreams that she had been having every night for several days in a row. Each dream was different, but always carried the same theme of her pending death. This time she had fallen through an ice-covered pond, and just before drowning she suddenly woke up. The other nights she was either being stabbed to death or was in a car crash, but she was always saved by waking up, and it was always at 3:04 a.m.

What in the hell is going on? she wondered. The lack of restful sleep was physically and mentally draining, and was starting to take its toll. This was the last thing she needed in her life right now. She was up for a big promotion in her job at Lone Star Life and Casualty Company in Dallas. She had worked hard to get ahead in the company, but her lethargy and forgetfulness was beginning to affect her daily job performance, and could jeopardize her chances for promotion.

When Laura arrived at work later that morning, her co-worker was the first to notice her dragged-out appearance. “Dang girl!” The outspoken Jasmine commented. “You got circles under your eyes like a raccoon. You party all night?”

Laura rolled her reddened eyes at Jasmine and shook her head. “No. I just can’t sleep these days.”

She began to tell the quizative Jasmine about her ongoing nightmares. After venting for several minutes, Jasmine said, “I think you should see a doctor.”

“Oh, my doctor would just give me some pills and that would make it worse,” Laura replied.

“No, I mean a head doctor,” Jasmine clarified.

“A shrink? No way! That would definitely kill my chances for a promotion. If the big shots found out I was seeing a psychiatrist. . .no, that’s out of the question! I’ve worked my butt off for that regional job, and I’m going to get it!”

Jasmine could see Laura’s determination. “Well, I tell you girl, you better take those nightmares as an omen and watch your step.”

“Do you really think it could be an omen about something?” Laura asked.

“Well, I’m from Louisiana. We take omens as serious as a heart attack,” said Jasmine.

“Thanks, now I will worry,” Laura frowned.

Laura’s phone started ringing. It was her boss, Gerald, wanting to see her in his office. As she reached his door, he motioned for her to come in and take a seat across from him at his desk. She felt uncomfortable as he stared at her, and wondered if he noticed the tiredness in her face.

“Laura, as you probably already know, we have been considering you for a promotion for quite some time now.” Her heart began to sink as she waited for him to tell her she was not going to be promoted. “I just want to tell you how pleased I have been with your hard work and dedication to the company. I have been in touch with the home office and a regional position has opened up in the Southwest. I have recommended you to fill that slot.”

Laura began to beam from ear to ear. “The Southwest? Oh my gosh! That would be wonderful!”

“I know this is short notice but could you fly out tonight to San Francisco and meet with the directors at the home office first thing in the morning?” he asked. “It’s just a formality. They like to personally meet new appointees, and welcome you aboard.”

“Oh sure. No problem. I can’t wait!” Laura replied.

“I’ll have my secretary make your travel arrangements, and congratulations. You deserve it!” Gerald shook Laura’s hand.

“Thank you, Gerald!”

Laura returned to her cubicle and told Jasmine the good news. They agreed to celebrate with a drink when she returned from San Francisco. With all the excitement, Laura forgot how tired she was as she finished up her afternoon at work. She was too excited to let sleepiness damper her elation. Before she left, Gerald’s secretary called and told her the travel arrangements were made for an 8:10 p.m. flight on Delta. She said she would send an e-mail to Laura with the specific flight information.

Laura arrived home to her apartment around 5:30 and began to pack an overnight bag for the trip. Later, she called her mother in Fayetteville, Arkansas and told her the good news. Not wanting to worry her elderly mother, she specifically didn’t mention anything about the nightmares to her. Her mother told her she was so proud of her and that she intended to notify her friend at the local newspaper, so she could write a piece about the promotion of her daughter.

After a quick shower, she drove to the airport and parked in the parking garage across from the terminal. As she rolled her carry-on bag across the street, she looked at her watch. It was 6:40. Perfect timing, she thought.

The line at the Delta counter was fairly short. Laura handed her driver’s license to the ticket agent. “Yes, I have it right here, Ms. Castle. Round trip to San Francisco, departing Dallas at 8:10 p.m., Delta flight #304, arriving San Francisco at 11:32 p.m.”

“Flight #304?” Laura blurted out.

“Yes, that’s correct. Is something wrong?”

Laura started sweating and could barely speak. She was having a panic attack. “I can’t take this flight,” she uttered. “Is there another one?”

The bewildered agent typed on the keyboard. “The only one is the redeye departing at 12:15 and arriving at 3:37.”

“What’s the flight number?” Laura asked.

“#512,” the agent replied with a perplexed expression on his face.

“I’ll take that flight. Change my ticket please.”

The agent made the ticket change and didn’t ask any questions, but it was obvious to him that this strange passenger had a problem with the flight number for some reason. Another weirdo, he thought. It must be a full moon out tonight.

With the new boarding pass in hand, Laura took a seat in the terminal area to gather her thoughts. Jasmine’s voice echoed through her mind. . . “We take omens as serious as a heart attack.”  Well, I took this one serious too, Laura thought. What was the odds of the flight number being #304? Better safe than sorry, she assured herself.

She had so much time to kill before her flight, so she decided to get her car and go out for a bite to eat on the way to Wal-Mart just down the road. She made a list that included lip gloss, Visine, Tylenol, and a magazine. She stuffed the scribbled list into her purse and grabbed her rolling carry-on and headed for the exit door of the airport. Her cell phone beeped with a text message as she walked. She reached into her purse to check the text. It was from Jasmine and said to have a great flight. Laura stepped off the curb. Tires screeched and a horn blared as the vehicle impacted her. Laura became airborne. Her body smashed the windshield and was thrown over the top of the car and landed on the trunk lid. She slowly rolled off onto the pavement. Blood was pooling from her head. A shaken cabby exited his vehicle. Bystanders screamed in horror and ran to the scene to try to help the stricken Laura, as faces of strangers gawked from the terminal windows. Sirens screamed in the distance as Laura drew her last breath.

The coroner arrived and pronounced her dead and the police officer began his report. Eyewitnesses stated that Laura was looking at her phone as she walked straight into the path of the oncoming taxicab.

An investigation at the scene was conducted and the tragedy was ruled an accident. No charges were filed against United Cab Company or the driver of cab #304.

Facing the Beast

Some time ago I entered a writing contest sponsored by Writer’s Digest. The criteria for the contest was that the entry had to be a short story of no more than 750 words with an opening sentence of “It was on a bright, starry night. . .”

Although I didn’t win, it was a fun exercise. Perhaps, if I had spent more time than a whopping thirty minutes writing it, I might have placed in the contest. Anyway, I thought I would share my story with you.

FACING THE BEAST

By

Robert M. Roberts

It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. The train car slowed. Quentin looked out the window as the buildings and houses came into view. Just another town and another show, he thought. Just like the thousands of others the circus had been to over the years. However, this one seemed eerily familiar, but he was sure they hadn’t been there before.

The sign said Peaceville, Mo., Population 8,433. Such a small town. Hardly worth the trouble of setting up before they reached Kansas City. Oh well, money is money, and the struggling Schofield Brothers Circus sure could use some, he thought.

As the train came to a stop just north of town, he changed into his work clothes and set out to check on the lions. They hadn’t eaten since morning when they stopped briefly in Texas. He had to get them fed and watered so they would be in a calm mood for tomorrow night’s show. He never let anyone besides himself tend to the animals. He didn’t want to interrupt the trust between him and the felines by allowing other humans to interact with them.

As he rolled back the tarp of the train car, the mighty animals roared as they paced back and forth in their cages. He turned on the water faucet to fill the drinking tank, and began poking chunks of raw meat into the cage. The hungry lions tore at the flesh as if they were starving and hadn’t eaten in days. Lily, his favorite of the four lions, made a swipe with her paw at the others, and then took the first piece of meat. She could be the most affectionate of the animals, but also the most unpredictable, and Quentin was always on his guard around her.

He awoke the next morning with the anticipation of the upcoming performance. Although it was a small town and would draw a sparse crowd, he would give an entertaining performance as if he were in a metropolis. After all, he was the greatest lion tamer in the world, and was envied by his rivals.

It only seemed like yesterday to him, that he ran away from home to join the circus. Only twelve years old at the time, it was his only way out of a miserable existence. His mother had passed away when he was six, and he was the target of constant verbal abuse from his alcoholic father. So, when the circus came to his town, he hopped on one of the cars and never looked back. The lion tamer at the time, a gentleman named Raphael, from Spain, took young Quentin under his wing and made him his assistant. He taught him how to feed and care for the big cats, and prior to his death, mentored him in the art of lion taming.

Evening finally arrived, and it was showtime as the curtains opened and the lions ran into the arena and took their places on the half barrels. Seconds later, Quentin entered the arena donned in his white jumpsuit, and cracked the leather whip. The lions let out deafening roars as they traded places on the barrels and swiped their paws through the air.

Just as Quentin made a loud crack with the whip, everything under the big top went silent. He could hear absolutely nothing. He put his index finger in his ear, trying to open up the passage. Had he suddenly gone deaf? he wondered. He began to feel faint and walked to the edge of the arena to lean on the rail in front of the spectators. He looked out at the crowd. They acted as if nothing was wrong, like they didn’t even notice him. They just stared and clapped their hands at the activity in the ring. Quentin turned and saw someone else performing with the lions. He ran toward him and shouted, “Who are you? What is going on here?”

The strange man continued to command the cats as if Quentin didn’t even exist. He ran back toward the crowd and overheard two people having a conversation. “I remember about twenty years ago when the last circus came to town, a young man was killed by the lions.”

“Yeah, a fellow named Quentin. I remember it well,” the other man said.

Suddenly, Quentin realized he was facing the beast called death. After all those years, it was time to cross over.

If I Only Had A Rock

Being afraid of the dark is a common fear of most young children, and ten year old Billy Sampson was no exception. When the dreaded 9:00 p.m. bedtime arrived, he slipped into his bed, while leaving the overhead light on and the door shut. No sooner than he had closed his eyes, the door creaked open. He opened his eyes to see the figure of his father looming in the doorway.

“Damn it, Billy! How many times do I have to tell you to turn the light off? Electricity isn’t free you know.”

“I forgot,” the sleepy eyed Billy replied, not about to confess to his dad that he was afraid of the dark.

His dad quickly flipped off the switch. “Goodnight,” he said as he shut the door.

Now it would begin…another night of terror as Billy’s young imagination began to visualize the monster in his closet. It made no difference if the closet door was opened or closed, it would be there. Its glowing red eyes with black vertical slits pierced the darkness. The monster had drooling razor-sharp teeth that were yellowed with stain. Horrified, Billy clenched his eyelids shut until they hurt, because he was certain the creature would be there if he dared to open his eyes. He remained very still and thought to himself. If I only had a rock, I would smash his face in. The one time he did bring a rock into the room, his mom had found it and scolded him for bringing the dirty thing into the house. The nightmares of the closet creature raged on in his mind. Billy hid his face under the pillow and finally drifted off to sleep.

Fifteen years later, Billy now went by Bill. He had matured into a nice looking man of twenty-five. He was a college graduate and the same good-natured person he had always been. The one thing that remained constant was his secret fear of the dark, and the constant nightmares of the closet creature still pursued him. The fear was as strong as it had ever been, and he had put off getting therapy way too long. He had just married his fiancée, Deborah, and so far, had managed to keep his phobia a secret from her. It was a short, but romantic, engagement of the two, and I guess you could call it love at first sight. The two had met at work, a large insurance firm based in Boston. Unfortunately, due to the heavy workload at the office, their honeymoon to Jamaica had been postponed for a week.

The couple leased a new apartment and looked forward to their life together. The first night in their new surroundings flashed by as they unpacked boxes and nibbled on a delivery pizza. They discussed the upcoming honeymoon details until almost midnight, when the exhausted couple went to bed. Bill tossed and turned throughout the night with horrible dreams of the closet creature. When the alarm sounded at 6:00 a.m., he opened his eyes and reached to turn off the blaring alarm clock. There was something in his hand.

Bill stared at the bloody stone clasped in his hand. “What the hell?” he yelled. He let out a deafening scream as he looked at Deborah. Her face was a bloody mass of bone and flesh that was hardly recognizable as a human being.

Months later at Bill’s murder trial, his defense argued a plea of insanity. It was denied and the jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Billy arrived at the Massachusetts State Prison to serve his lifelong sentence. An important question loomed in the back of his mind as the prison guard led him to his cell. “Do you keep the lights on at night?” he asked.

Last Flight of Mary Sage

A fictional short story by Robert M. Roberts

Mary stood patiently in line waiting to check in. The terminal was a beehive of activity that Monday morning, as groggy travelers sipped on coffee and rolled their luggage a foot at a time toward the counter. Finally with boarding pass in hand she went through security and then headed to the boarding area.

This was the typical routine of the start of another work week on her commute from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. She couldn’t believe it was already July, 2012. Her new position as CEO at Five Star Records had been an exciting adventure thus far, and she was determined to turn the struggling recording company around. Mary’s partner and founder of Five Star, Barry Cronin, had died from a cocaine overdose four months earlier. His expertise for signing new talents to the label had evolved from looking for talent, to their ability to access narcotics for his uncontrollable addiction.

Now Mary was in charge, and her latest scouting auditions of new rock groups in California had produced a top ten hit on the Billboard charts. By doubling her efforts, she hoped to put the dying record label back on top.

Passengers crowded to the pedestal and handed their tickets to the agent as the door in the waiting area opened and it was time to board the plane. With only an average of four hours of sleep most nights, it was never a problem for her to sleep through the entire flight. The plane had barely become airborne when Mary drifted off to sleep. Five hours later she awoke just fifteen minutes before touchdown. Stretching her arms she felt refreshed from the much needed sleep. Now she had the energy and vitality to seek out the next big talent.

By the end of the week, she was certain she had succeeded by signing a new group from San Diego called Cloud Burst that specialized in a unique mix of southern rock and rhythm and blues.

She felt ecstatic as she boarded the plane from LAX for home, and was soon fast asleep as the plane ascended into the sky. Mid-flight, somewhere over the state of Iowa, she was suddenly aroused by the Captains loud, but calm voice coming over the cabin speaker. He was instructing the passengers and crew to prepare for crash landing. She was confused as she looked in terror around the cabin. Everything was different. The plane and the people looked different. She could smell cigarette smoke permeating the cabin.

“What’s going on?” she screamed, but none of the passengers looked up from their crouched positions.

Had everything before been just a dream, or did she have a glimpse into the future of what might have been? You see, Mary was not the CEO of a record company but instead was a college student on her way to visit friends. It was not 2012, but July 8, 1989, the day 198 people on Trans America Airlines flight 412 crashed in an Iowa cornfield. 102 people survived, while 96 perished. Mary Sage was listed among the dead.

The Boxer

Pedro’s gloves were smeared with the blood of the Irishman. His lightning left hook followed by a right cross had landed with pinpoint accuracy. The Irishman stumbled backwards and then lunged forward with an explosive haymaker that connected with Pedro’s temple. The crowd roared as Pedro “The Puncher” crashed to the center of the ring like a fallen oak. The referee shouted the ten count with his arm flailing at the downed boxer.

Pedro’s chin reverberated off the canvas as the Irishman stood in his corner smiling sardonically with his bloodstained mouthpiece. “The Puncher” was in a dream state as the referee’s count reached six. Suddenly, his arm began to move and his mind flipped back and forth from the past to the present. Was he still that frail, skinny boy in Ecuador, or was he really Pedro “The Puncher” fighting for the championship at Madison Square Garden?

Unfortunately, neither was true. These were only the fleeting thoughts of a dying murderer as the deadly cocktail of drugs passed through his veins at the Florida State Prison.

Some say justice was served as Pedro took his last breath. Far removed from the small innocent boy of his childhood, he didn’t become a boxer, but the victim of a violent world.