Ponderings from a Procrastinating Prognosticator

SHORT STORY: THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE

Posted by samatwitch on November 29, 2011

I wrote this for a local newspaper contest, where you had to include the words I put in the first sentence.  The whole thing came to me as I was at work and when I finished for the day, I sat down at the computer and typed it out in about half an hour.  I knew it wasn’t really the type of story the contest liked, but I entered it anyway and after the contest, I entered it into a national short story contest where it made it to the finals.  The first judge really liked it; the second not so much. 😉

THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE

“I had no idea the capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbataar.  Did you, Dave?”

When she didn’t receive an answer, Claire looked up from the large atlas she was consulting to find the last two letters for the crossword puzzle she was working on.  She could just see the top of Dave’s straight brown hair as he slouched on the sofa watching another car race on TV.

“Dave, did you hear me?  Did you know the capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbataar?

A grunt that sounded vaguely affirmative answered her this time.  Claire tucked her long blonde hair behind her ear and studied the atlas once more.

“How on earth did you know that?”

“I must have read it somewhere,” came the mumbled reply.

“But where?  I don’t remember ever reading anything about Mongolia since whatever we took in geography in school and I certainly don’t remember the capital.”

“What difference does it make where I read it?”  Dave was clearly impatient.
“I’m just curious.  You know how exotic places fascinate me.”

“Nothing exotic about Mongolia.  It’s cold and dry and barren – very unfriendly.” Dave spoke absently, his concentration on the coloured blurs that were the race cars.  “ At least that’s what I’ve heard,”  he tacked on.

Curious, Claire stared at him.  “You sound as if you’ve been there.”

Another mumble from the couch.

Claire got up from the table and walked around the couch to plant herself firmly in front of Dave.

“Claire, move, I can’t see the race.  They’re down to the last 20 laps.”

“I don’t care about the stupid race.  I want to know why you never told me you’d been to Mongolia.”

“I didn’t say that I had.”

“You practically did.  Have you been to Mongolia?”

“Yes, if you must know, I have.  Now will you move so I can see the end of the race.”

“No.”  Claire stood firm.  “I want to know why you never told me you’d been to Mongolia.”

“It never came up.  Now will you please move?”

“What do you mean, it never came up?  We’ve known each other five years, we’ve lived together for four, you know how much I want to travel to foreign countries and you never once told me you’d been to Mongolia?”  Claire’s voice rose with her agitation.  “How could you not tell me?”

“Could we discuss this later?  I want to see the end of the race.”  Dave leaned around Claire trying to get a glimpse of the TV.

“No, we can’t discuss it later.  It’s already later.  I can’t believe you never told me this.  What else haven’t you told me?  Where else have you been?  And why is it such a big secret?”

“Look, I haven’t told you everything I did in the 30-odd years before we met and I don’t expect you to tell me everything, either.  I don’t see what the big deal is.  There’s nothing special about Mongolia.”

“Then why you were there?”

“Okay, if you let me watch the end of this race, I’ll tell you later.  In the meantime, you should calm down.  It’s no big deal.”

“Fine.  Watch the end of the damn  race.  I’ll be in the bedroom when it’s finished.”  Claire stomped out of the room and slammed the bedroom door behind her.

Dave’s eyes narrowed as he watched her leave.  He thought hard for a moment, nodded, then went back to watching the race.

Ten minutes later, the race ended.  Dave sat for a few more minutes, considering how to appease Claire’s curiosity and anger.  The anger he could deal with – he’d dealt with it before.  But her curiosity was something else.  There wasn’t really anything he was able to tell her that would satisfy her and she would just keep nagging at him until he slipped up somehow.  Look at how much trouble he was already in, just because he hadn’t paid enough attention when she had been talking to him.  He knew better than to let his guard down like that.

Dave heard the bedroom door open.  He turned off the TV and glanced down the hall.

“Claire,” he called, “how about I fix you a special drink before we talk?  Maybe it will relax you and we can talk calmly about this.”

“I’m perfectly calm,”  Claire said indignantly.  “I just don’t understand why you never thought to tell me that you’d been to an exotic country like Mongolia.”

“I keep telling you – there’s nothing exotic about Mongolia.  It was cold, that’s all.”

“Dave, “ Claire said with exaggerated patience, “I find anywhere outside North America exciting.  And Mongolia: Genghis Khan, nomads, the steppes, caught between Russia and China.  How can that not be exotic?”

“See, you know more about it that I do.  There isn’t anything I can tell you that you can’t find out in books or on the Internet.”

“How can you say that?”  Claire burst out.  “You were there.  You must remember something about the way the country smelled, what their food was like, what the people were like – if they were friendly or hostile.  I can’t learn that from books or the Internet.  Were you in the country or did you get to any cities?”

“What difference does it make?  I wasn’t even there very long.  Just in and out in a few days.”

“Well, what were you doing there?  If it was so ordinary and forgettable, why were you even there in the first place?”

That was the question Dave had dreaded.  Now what could he say?  Claire wasn’t one to stand for evasions.  She’d just keep asking questions until he gave in.

“Oh, I just wanted to see what it was like.”  Dave was deliberately offhand, hoping Claire would stop asking questions before she got into big trouble.  No such luck.

“And what was it like?”

“I told you!  It was cold and dry and barren.”

“There must have been something else.”  Claire was clearly exasperated with him but wouldn’t give up.  “Why would you go halfway around the world to a country like Mongolia for no reason?”

“I didn’t need a reason.  I just wanted to travel to another country.  It’s not a crime, you know.”

“I never said it was…”

“Well, you’re making me feel like a criminal.”  Taking the offensive was usually a good strategy.  Not this time.

“Don’t be silly.  I just want to know all the details.  Did you travel alone?”

“What difference does it make?  Can’t you let it be?  It was no big deal.”

“It is a big deal.  You’ve been keeping this a secret from me for years and I want to know why.”

“Fine.  I was in the USSR and figured while I was there, I’d wander into Mongolia to see what it was like.  I didn’t like it and I didn’t stay.  End of story.”  Dave hoped that would be the end of it.  He was running out of patience and ideas.

“What were you doing in the USSR?  It must have been a few years ago, if it was still the USSR.”  Claire was trying make sense of the whole conversation, but the more Dave told her, the less she felt she knew – of his experiences and of him.

“It was.  I was there because my family is originally from northern Russia.”  It wouldn’t hurt to give her that much.  After all, almost everyone in this country came from somewhere else.

“Northern Russia!  Do you mean Siberia?”  Claire was even more astounded.

“Yeah, somewhere around there.”  He shrugged carelessly.  “I was younger and thought it would be interesting to see where my family came from and while I was there I went to Mongolia.  Are you satisfied now?”

“No, I’m not.  Everything you say just makes me more curious.”  Dave had been afraid of that.

“Dave, I’ve asked you about your family and all you say is that they’re all dead.  You never mentioned where they were from or that you had been to Russia to find your roots.  Whenever I asked you where you got your dark eyes and high cheekbones, you just shrugged it off.  It’s obvious they come from your Slavic heritage.  Why the big mystery?”

Dave rolled his eyes.  “There is no mystery.  I just don’t like to talk about myself or my family.  It was fine with you yesterday, why can’t it be fine today?”

Claire just stared at him.  “I just don’t understand why there is all this secrecy between us.  It’s not like you were a spy or something.”  A brief flicker in his eyes made Claire gasp.  “That’s it, isn’t it?  You were a spy.”  She looked at him in shock and disbelief, as she sank into a kitchen chair.

“For Pete’s sake, Claire, don’t get carried away.  Why would you think I was a spy?”  Dave was becoming desperate.

“It’s the only thing that makes any sense:  why you never told me your family was from Russia, or that you’d been to Mongolia.  You were sent there, weren’t you?  That’s why you were there and never talk about it.”  All the pieces seemed to be coming together, yet the whole picture remained unbelievable.  She was an ordinary person, Dave was an ordinary person – a bit secretive, maybe – but he had a normal job, worked out regularly, went to the movies and loved car racing.  How could he possibly be a spy?

Dave could see the wheels turning in Claire’s head and knew what her next question would be – which side was he on?  He watched her silently for a minute, then made his decision.

“Why don’t I make you some special herbal tea I have?  It was the one thing I did like about Mongolia and I had some shipped in.  It will calm you down and then, if you promise not to tell anyone – and I mean anyone – I’ll tell you the whole story.”

Claire just nodded.  She was still trying to assimilate what she knew already and wasn’t sure if she was prepared for more, but if he was willing to tell her, she would listen.

While Dave filled the kettle and plugged it in, Claire continued to sit in stunned silence, staring at the man in front of her who had suddenly become a complete stranger.  Everything she thought she knew about him was now suspect.

Dave glanced at Claire as he reached behind the seldom used glasses on the top shelf for a small bag of herbal leaves.  He added a few to the teapot, paused and added a few more.  “It’s a long time since I’ve made this mixture, so I hope it turns out.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Claire roused herself to say.  “What is it?”

“I don’t know for sure.  I was given the ingredients and told how to make it, but I haven’t actually had it myself.  I did see it’s calming effects on others, however.”

“I don’t know if I need to be calmed.  I seem to be very calm,” Claire stated.

“Yes, you are now, but I want you calm when I tell you the whole story.”  As he talked, Dave reached into the cabinet under the sink and pulled out a small packet of dried herbs.

“Where on earth did you get that?” asked Claire.

“I had it sent to me recently.  I didn’t want you to use it accidentally.  It’s expensive and it doesn’t taste good unless mixed with the first herbs.  I thought that was the safest place to put it.”

“Meaning, I never go under the sink to get cleaning supplies,” Claire said sarcastically.

“No, I didn’t mean that,” Dave assured her.

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?  I clean the bathroom in exchange for you cleaning the kitchen.  Works for me.”  Claire was returning to her usual feisty self.

“And it works for me.  We have a good arrangement.  I don’t like to think of anything upsetting that.”

“Is that all you can think of – upsetting our ‘arrangement’?”  Claire was back.  “I thought we lived together because we cared about each other.  I didn’t realize it was just a convenient arrangement.  Maybe you’re hiding from something or someone.”  Her voice took on an accusatory tone.

Dave didn’t answer until he had poured a cup of the steaming brew for Claire and put it in front of her.

“Here, drink that while I’m telling you the whole story.”  He poured a cup for himself and sat down across the table from her.  He watched as she took a sip.  “What do you think, Claire?  The next hot product on the market?”
“It’s not bad.”  Claire sounded surprised.  “Very light, but with a different fragrance. ”  She took another sip, then looked at him expectantly.  “So, what’s the story?  Are you a spy?”

Dave watched her carefully before replying.  “You must promise not to tell anyone anything I tell you.  Not only your life and mine could be in danger, but many others as well.”

“Aren’t you being just a little melodramatic, Dave?  After all, you’ve been living here for several years and nothing unusual has ever occurred – not that I’ve known about anyway.  Although, given the current circumstances, I may not be the best judge.”  Claire took another sip.

“No, you’re right, Claire, nothing unusual has happened in the last few years, and I’d like it to stay that way.  I’m not what you would call retired, it’s more like I’m inactive at the moment.  With the political situation such as it is in Europe and Asia, they don’t need me and my talents right now.”

“Who’s they and what are your talents?”

“They are the KGB or perhaps I should say the former KGB.  They’re not really gone, just gone underground.  And my talents are that I can speak Russian fluently and pass as a citizen of Russia or many other Slavic countries.  I can slip in and out and plant rumours that can bring down governments or stir up turmoil.  By the time I went to Mongolia, however, the people had already decided to become a democracy.  Tired of being pushed around by the USSR and China, I guess.”

While he was talking, Dave watched Claire closely.  The tea seemed to be working.  Her breathing had slowed and her whole body was lax.

“I was sent to the States to be educated, so I could pass as an American.  That way no one ever questioned why I turned up where I did.”  He paused and watched dispassionately as Claire slumped to the table, a final look of surprise on her face.  Noting the unfinished crossword puzzle, he reached over her lifeless body to fill in the final two letters.

“I’m sorry, Claire.  You should never have found out that the capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbataar.”

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5 Responses to “SHORT STORY: THE CROSSWORD PUZZLE”

  1. ooh, Sams, I like it!

  2. saalon said

    Yikeso! After the run of cute and fun animal-related tales, I was definitely not expecting a turn for the murderous! Good work! Caught me off guard, you did!

  3. Hey, I was never able to find your blog until you commented on mine and then I find THIS!!! As soon as he started offering her drinks I was going oh nooooo. Awesome :).

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