New Story: Scratch
A short story about a hiker who has an incident with a branch
Hello, friend. It’s Brett. Welcome to the first issue of my newsletter. Thanks for signing up or for being a close enough friend where I felt comfortable signing you up without asking. I’ve been writing stories for a few years now, and I publish them out into the aether known as the internet, but I don’t really share them with anyone. It’s a bit like putting a ship in a bottle and setting it off to sea and hoping someone finds it. But I’ve often thought how nice would it be if I shared these stories with my friends and those who are interested in reading them. I thought a newsletter would be a personal way to do that.
The primary focus of the newsletter is to share my creative works, which will mostly be short stories and flash fiction. Maybe there will be some poetry. Likely some some drawings and comics. Definitely essays and thoughts, like why do dentists insist on asking you questions that require a detailed response while they have their implements in your mouth? But mostly this newsletter will be to share prose.
Enough of this meta talk, let’s get to the reason why I’m sending this newsletter in the first place. I’ve finished a new story, and it’s called Scratch.
Sweat poured down my arms with each step. No amount of tree coverage will save you from the humidity. Focused on my footing, a tree branch smacked me across my right cheek. I immediately became aware of the difference between my right and left cheek muscles, like when you get a filling in one tooth and can’t stop running your tongue along it.
I couldn’t focus on hiking. The area where the branch hit me began to itch. I had no mirror, no phone, no way to inspect it. I ran my finger over my cheek. A clear puss covered the tip of my finger.
I kept hiking, trying to put the scratch behind me. My shoulders stung from the heavy pack I carried. My pinky toes felt like there were no boots nor socks between them and the rocks because I cut my nails too short the night before.
My head began to feel light. I figured I was getting dehydrated. I stopped next to a fallen tree and set my pack down. I took a generous swig from my bottle, not thinking about the seven-mile stretch ahead of me with no streams or springs. Even though the water was warm from the sun, it was still refreshing.
With my mind off forward progress, my thoughts returned solely to the scratch on my cheek. It was taut, like when you’re winking, except I wasn’t winking. I dug my first-aid kit out of my pack. I tore open the small packet of disinfectant, squeezed it onto my finger, and rubbed it into the wound, grunting from the sting. I tore off the backing of a self-adhesive bandage and stuck it to my face. Moments later, the adhesive agent gave and the bandage dangled off. I smoothed it over again, but it wouldn’t stay put. Not wanting to condemn another bandage to the same wasted fate, I put my pack back on and continued to follow the trail with no covering on the wound.
The burning feeling didn’t lessen from the disinfectant—it intensified. I held my hand close to my cheek, and the radiant heat felt like a lighter set at the wrong angle when the flame catches your thumb for a brief moment. I twisted my arm back and slipped out my water bottle. I unscrewed the cap and poured the last of my water onto my face to try to wash the wound and cool it off, but it only made it worse. The disinfectant washed away, and I screamed at the pain from the water in the wound.
I started counting to ten and starting back at one while I hiked onward. I sang the song stuck in my head out loud. I thought about people and places I hadn’t thought of in years. I thought about my family. I thought about the separation. I thought about every single stupid thing I’ve done in my life. But none of it took my attention away from the scratch on my cheek.
Sweat ran down my face and into the wound. The salt was the worst.
Unaware of my actions, I began to scratch the wound. Slowly at first. A brief moment of relief would arise, but then the burning itch returned. So I scratched faster. And harder. I glanced at my right index finger. It was covered in blood. I thought it was sweat running down my face, but I looked down, and the area of my shirt covering my collarbone was covered in blood, too.
I did my best to resist the itch, but I couldn’t. I scratched at it like a dog digging a hole in the backyard. Scratching the itch caused the burning to go away, at least for a moment here and there. Pretty soon my entire hand was covered in blood. Flecks of skin started to come off. I tugged at one piece and it came off just as easy as the bandage, about the same size too. I pulled at it slowly, the air and sweat against my exposed face were far worse than the itch. Then, frustrated, I ripped it off, and that was the last thing I remember before waking up.
The nurse told me two hikers found me passed out and called for emergency rescue. I haven’t seen my face and the damage done by the scratch from the tree branch. The doctor told me it would take a couple months for the pain to go away but that there would be scarring.
My face is covered in bandages. I want nothing more than to tear them off and itch the scratch on my right cheek.
Scratch was written in August 2020. View the story on my website.
Odds & Sods
At the end of last year, Becky signed us up for a pottery date night class. It was fun to get my hands dirty and make something. I struggled to find the patience to wait for the instructor to show us how to do things on the wheel, and instead just went for it…
I made a “bowl” and a “mug” that I’m quite pleased with. The “mug” cracked along the bottom, so my dreams of a large ergonomic mug to drink tea out of were crushed. Its fate is likely that of a pen holder.
Becky really had a knack for it and enjoyed it, so much so that I got her a six-week class with studio time for a Christmas gift. Here’s what she made in that first class:
I’ve been taking an online writing class through the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design (PCAD) about character and conflict. Having to complete assignments and communicate with others about writing has been a positive experience so far. It’s a short class, only four weeks, but that in a lot of ways seems like the right length. I find myself revolted by formulaic nature of some aspects and not just writing 100% based on intuition and ideas, but I hope the storytelling tools I learn will seep in and become second nature. Maybe they’ll also be helpful during revision and editing. Either way, I’m enjoying it. I have an idea for a bigger story that I want to tell, so we’ll see how that develops alongside the class.
Aside from the writing class, winter has been treating me pretty well. I’ve been inspired to cook quite a bit lately—recently trying my hand at making a hot and sour Chinese noodle soup (which was better on the second day). Becky and I have been getting out for hikes and not letting the cold weather deter us too much from getting out and moving our bodies.
We watched A Woman Under the Influence, a film by John Cassavetes from 1974. Becky was not into it, but stuck it out. The acting is a bit over the top, but it felt true to life. I took a lot away from the film, particularly about how men tend to frame their defects as the result of those around them instead of looking inward toward themselves. We also have been on a bit of a Philip K. Dick sci-fi adaptation kick, watching Minority Report (fun but messy plot, and why is everyone chewing gum in it?) and Total Recall (B-movie with big stars and a big budget, good dumb fun and surprisingly more shocking than modern violence).
I’ve dubbed 2022 The Year of the Big Books, in which I am going to try to read longer books to try to break this mentality I have of trying to read as many books as possible thus only reading shorter books. I’ve been chipping away at a 900+ page book called Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman. He’s a Russian author who rose to prominence before and during World War II. He wrote Stalingrad and its sequel Life and Fate as an attempt at making a modern War and Peace following the events of WWII. Much like what I’ve read of other Russian works, I have a heck of a time remembering the characters and keeping it all straight in my head.
Stalingrad is a slow burn, written in a mostly dry prose. But this incredible thing happens where you stick with it and then a chapter comes out of left field that’s a total emotional gut punch, but not in a thrilling way. There’s a lot of exploration of the rise of Fascism and what life was like for Russians during the war. To give a taste of the writing, which is not at all always like this, but does often rise to it, here’s a description of rain a character hears while visiting his family’s dacha (country cottage) alone to pick up some things left behind while on a work trip during the war:
The sound of the drops had not yet tired the ear. Rather than a dull monotone, it was a polyphony in which every drop was a conscientious and impassioned musician, fated to play only a single note in its whole life.
Enough about Stalingrad though. I’m barely only halfway through the beast and haven’t even gotten to the battle starting in the city. I’m sure I’ll have more to say eventually.
I did just finish a collection of a short stories by Haruki Murakami called Men Without Women. Some of the stories in it are quite good, others not so much. A mixed bag. But the ones that stood out really did, in particular Drive My Carand Kino. There’s also a reverse take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis—what if an insect became a man? It was a fun exercise and the descriptions are quite good. Drive My Car has been adapted into a movie which I badly want to see (hopefully soon).
It’s been a great couple of months of music. Standout for me would be the Her (Original Score) by Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett. Some really great instrumental tracks, mostly sparse. It’s been a while since I saw the film, but I really like the soundtrack. It has these tinges of sci-fi in the sounds, but it’s very restrained throughout. Mitski’s new album Laurel Hell has some great tracks on it (“Stay Soft” is so catchy). I love the new Pinegrove album 11:11 (“So What” is a stand out track for me). And the announcement of Bright Eyes issuing compassion EPs of them covering their old songs as they reissue the albums was huge news for me.
What have you been enjoying lately? Let me know!
More to come soon & best wishes,
Great read; I enjoyed your short story and can't wait for more! Also had no idea Owen Pallett contributed to the soundtrack for Her, I listen to In Conflict every now and then.