This is the first of the Open Prompts stories, a story written using elements suggested by other bloggers. Here are the included elements:
1. Kermit, a klutz (suggested by me)
2. Spelunking (suggested by April)
3. Bobbie Sue (one leg), Grandpa (an alien abductee?), Big Al (the hero), Tookie (a stoner dog) (suggested by Christopher De Voss)
4. A dark tone (suggested by The Bumble Files)
5. A neon-pink umbrella (suggested by keep your youth forever)
6. Nisha, Kermit’s exact opposite (met in a hospital) (suggested by originalS)
Kermit Allan Mercer lay in a hospital bed, trying not to listen to the maddeningly incessant beep of the equipment that stood around him. Both his legs were broken and four ribs were cracked. But he had had worse injuries in the past, and considering he had been hit by a bus—tripping on the curb and falling into its path—he couldn’t complain.
“Hey, Big Al!” he heard a voice say from the doorway. It was his grandfather. Grandpa Spencer had always hated the name Kermit and insisted on calling him by his middle name. “Hey Big Al!” Every time. With Grandpa Spencer’s accent, it sounded like Abigail.
“Have they cut them off yet?” Grandpa Spencer asked, indicating Kermit’s legs. He laughed and walked in, followed by Kermit’s sister, Bobbie Sue, who wheeled herself in in a wheelchair. Her right leg was missing.
“Why are you in the wheelchair?” Kermit asked. “Where’s your prosthetic?”
“Aw, I put my foot through the weak spot in the porch and cracked it off again,” Bobbie Sue said. “I got an appointment with the doctor tomorrow. Hey, we brought you Tookie.”
She pulled out a small, scruffy dog and placed him on the covers. The dog blinked a few times and promptly walked off the bed, landing with a thud on its head. It lay on its back with all four legs in the air for a moment before getting up and wandering around listlessly in a small circle.
Grandpa Spencer and Bobbie Sue only stayed for twenty minutes but it was still enough time for Bobbie Sue to accidentally run her wheelchair into a cart of lunches and knock half the trays to the ground. Kermit was almost relieved when they left: there were just too many things to go wrong in a hospital. They left Tookie, although Kermit was pretty sure it was against the rules.
They had only been gone a few minutes when a girl appeared at the door. She was cute, with short curly hair. She was wearing camo pants and a black T-shirt and was carrying a neon-pink umbrella.
“Hey, I’m looking for my grandfather,” she said, sticking her head in the door. “Is he here?”
“This is a private room,” Kermit said, with a gesture that asked her to consider if he looked like her grandfather.
“Ah, sorry,” she said, but then she looked at him closely. “Hey, aren’t you Kermit Mercer? I saw you on TV, on that documentary.” She laughed and then pointed at his legs. “So, what’s the damage this time?”
“Please, just shut up,” Kermit said. He had enough comments like that from the doctors when they were treating him; he didn’t need it from random strangers too.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to make fun or anything,” the girl said. “I’m really sorry— it was just a surprise to actually see you. I’m Nisha, by the way.”
She came in another step and twirled her umbrella absently. “So, is it true that your whole family is cursed with klutziness? Sorry if that’s the wrong word for it. Is it just bad luck?”
“Well, there’s nothing good about it,” Kermit said, relenting a little from his first impression of her.
“How many bones have you broken?” Nisha said, coming closer, a look of fascination on her face. “More than ten?”
“38 bones, including these. I perforated an eardrum, cut off the first knuckle of my baby finger and had seven concussions. That’s nothing though: my younger sister tripped going over the railroad tracks and got her leg cut off. And of course, my parents…”
“Yeah, I heard about them on the documentary too. I’m really sorry about that.”
“Thanks, but they died when I was only five, before I even knew anything about the so-called Mercer Klutz gene. I grew up with my grandparents—my mother’s parents, of course. Grandpa and Grandma Mercer both died before they turned fifty, by falling onto or into things.”
Nisha came and sat down by the bed. “Well, I think—oh my, is that a dog? Is it high or something?”
Kermit looked over the side of the bed to see Tookie standing with his head to wall, walking steadily forward but not moving at all. “That’s just my dog, Tookie,” he said. “His mother had her puppies in our garage, right by some paint cans. The fumes killed all the puppies except Tookie, but he’s never been quite right either. I guess we even pass our bad luck off on our pets.”
Nisha put a hand on the covers and brushed against Kermit’s. He started to pull away but then stopped. “Sorry, force of habit.”
“Sorry if I startled you,” she said.
“No, it’s just that most people don’t want to touch me at all. They see that stupid documentary on how scientists are trying to isolate the Mercer gene for extraordinary klutziness or bad luck or whatever and then they think it’s transferrable, like the plague.”
“Is it?” Nisha asked.
Kermit looked at her bleakly. “I don’t know, honestly.”
“Well, do you know what, Kermit,” she said, giving him a dazzling smile. “I think I’m immune. I have never been in an accident, I’ve never had an injury, and I have wonderful luck. I met you today, didn’t I?”
Despite the cheesy line, he smiled. When she left a few minutes later—with another knee-weakening smile and a promise to return the next day—he hated to see her go.
The next day started badly. Tookie wandered off and got himself stuck with a syringe of morphine. It took some hurried intervention by Grandpa Spencer to keep him from being sent to the pound. Nisha arrived just as Grandpa Spencer was carrying off the sleeping, smiling dog, and Kermit introduced them.
“He seems nice,” she said, after Grandpa Spencer had left.
“He’s great,” Kermit said. “He raised me, after all. Of course, he does believe that he was abducted by aliens that live under the sea. I guess no one’s perfect.”
“So…no scuba diving then?” she asked and he laughed. “Seriously though, I wanted to ask you something. When you get out of here, do you want to go spelunking with me?”
Kermit studying her face for a moment. “You mean caving? Are you making fun of me?”
“No! Of course not. Look, it’s safe and I’ve done it lots of times. There are helmets and ropes and—”
“Look at this!” Kermit said, pointing to his legs. “I did this waiting for a bus. How do you think safety ropes are going to help?”
“But you’ll be with me,” Nisha said. “I’m good luck, I swear.”
“You don’t understand,” he said with a groan. “Danger surrounds me every day. It finds me whether I like it or not. I don’t go seeking it out on my own.”
“Well, maybe you should,” Nisha said, standing up. “Take the offensive for once in your life. Laugh in the face of death. Anyway, I gotta go. Maybe I’ll come by tomorrow. Think about it, at least.”
She did come again—several times a week, in fact, and Kermit did think about the idea. He could admit to himself that he was afraid—terrified, in fact—but he didn’t like being afraid. He hated it. His whole life had been one big defensive maneuver, dodging one potential danger after another—or as often as not, not dodging it. Finally, the week before he was released, he told Nisha that he would do it. He would go spelunking with her.
They went together a month later. Nisha picked him up and they drove for three hours out into the mountains on a dirt road. That ended and they walked another half hour to a dark cave mouth protruding from a moss-covered hillside. After they were suited up (Nisha triple-checked Kermit’s harness, with a wink and an amused smile), she led the way down into the darkness.
For Kermit, the initial climb down into the flashlit abyss was a mixture of terror and wonderstruck incredulity—terror that he might die at any moment, and incredulity that he had not already died. He fell down four times before they reached the first rest point, but although he was dirty and scraped, he was not bleeding or incapacitated. It seemed like a miracle.
Then came the big climb, an almost vertical drop of a hundred feet. The foot of the cliff sat next to a still pool of dark water.
“Do we have to?” Kermit asked, feeling faint at the mere sight. It made Russian roulette look like a safe bet.
“Well, we didn’t have to come down here at all,” Nisha said. “Don’t worry—there are lots of handholds and I’ll belay you down and up again. Okay?” He desperately wanted to refuse, but in the face of her indomitable optimism, he just nodded.
Somehow, he made it to the bottom. She lowered him slowly while he scrabbled ineffectively at the crevices and cracks in the rock face. She climbed down effortlessly after him and they had a snack at the bottom. After walking around and exploring a little, they decided to go back.
She was tying the rope onto her harness when she looked at him and asked, “Do you remember the Gray family?”
The shock Kermit felt could not have been greater if she had suddenly kicked him into the icy water behind him. “Why would bring that up?” he asked. “Oh God, why would mention that?”
She smiled, but her smile suddenly didn’t seem as pleasant. “So, you must remember George and Bertha Gray, whose son Brett you accidentally knocked under a school bus. You guys were in Grade 10, right? You remember the investigation, when the police acquitted you of any wrongdoing?”
Kermit just stared at her. “Why are you saying this?” he asked faintly. “Do you know how many nightmares I’ve had about that? It haunts me every single day.”
“Well, it haunts George and Bertha Gray too,” Nisha said. “They still hold you responsible. They had petitioned the school to have you removed on the grounds that you were a danger to the other students, but no one listened. And then you killed Brett. Anyway,” she continued, when she saw she wasn’t going to get a response, “the Grays paid me quite a bit of money to make sure you stay down in this cave. For Brett, but also for everyone else you are going to hurt or kill in your life through your…klutziness. Feel free to explore, but this cave has no exit except up this cliff. Okay?”
“Not my real name. Anyway, take care. Gotta go.” She started to climb, leaving him behind in the darkness.
For a moment, he watched her ascend, moving away from him. He had no ropes—not that it would have mattered if he had. He considered his options.
He would surely die if he stayed in the cave. He would surely fall if he tried to climb up. Dying by falling would be quicker and the further up he got, the more chance that he would die on impact. He took off his helmet and started to climb.
It was strange to be climbing without hope, to be climbing up only because it was the fastest way down. He searched for handholds in the dark, not worrying about how close he was to the top, but only trying to get a minimum distance from the bottom before he fell. Several times, he slipped, but he hung on and pulled himself back up. After a few minutes, he reached up and felt something hard and rubbery. It kicked when he grabbed it. It was Nisha’s boot. He had caught up with her.
“What are you doing? Let go of me!” she cried, kicking down at him more ferociously. Her heel smashed against his forehead and he fell back, grasping blindly as he did. He grabbed her boot and heard a shriek as she tumbled over him and down into the darkness. He heard a snap as the rope pulled up savagely on her body and slammed it into the wall.
Kermit opened his eyes to see that he was clinging to the rope that was now stretched taut from Nisha’s weight. He also saw that he was within three feet of the top. Miracles abounded that day: he made it to the top.
“I’m sorry,” he called down. “I think some of my bad luck rubbed off on you after all. Maybe we just traded.” Then he felt bad and climbed out and called 911.
* * *
The paramedics came, eventually, and incredibly, Nisha was not dead. A day later, Kermit was in the hospital waiting room with Grandpa Spencer and Bobbie Sue while Nisha was being operated on. Tookie was chewing thoughtfully on a nearby plastic plant when a surgeon came out.
“Well, she’ll survive,” he said. “We repaired a lot of the damage, although her spinal cord was broken—she’ll never walk again. Actually, I’m surprised she survived at all. She’s incredibly lucky.”