My favorite part about Twitter has been the discovery of some amazing authors. When I contacted fellow Minnesotan Troy Blackford about making guest appearance on my blog, he asked if he could post an original short story. Specializing in horror and sci-fi, Troy has seventeen published short stories, and six longer works available for Kindle and in paperback, so I was thrilled by the offer!
I'm honored to give you Pulling at Threads by Troy Blackford.
Jake Tannenbaum spent the morning of his big mid-term presentation on the Civil War for his eighth-grade history class not in preparation, but itching away at his arm, which felt like like the most popular dish at a mosquito buffet. His flesh tingled and burned, and no amount of fevered scratching would put an end to the suffering. Underneath his sleeve, the skin on his forearm was as red as an embarrassed squirrel.
The other kids on the bus on the way to school has shot him strange looks, even when he tried to conceal his desperate itching. He dug his nails into his flesh and scratched away, trying to use his overloaded backpack to hide his furtive motions. It was little use: people weren’t just staring. He heard Jenni Taylor talking about him to a giggling group of six near the back. He groaned inwardly: video of his itching fit was probably already uploaded to Vine and shared on Instagram. The discomfort of the crawling sensation in his arm grew so sharp, he gave up caring what his classmates thought of him. He couldn’t help it. To not scratch his arm would be to welcome insanity.
Not that scratching helped. When he got to the tall, boxy building that housed the Daniel D. Tompkins Middle School, a few minutes remained before the start of Jake’s class. He took the opportunity to dash to the bathroom, where he could itch away with some privacy before he had to make his big presentation. He locked himself securely in a stall, where no one could see him, and rolled up his sleeve to get a look at the damage.
His forearm was the color of a stop sign, with a giant bump like a mosquito bite, up by his elbow. He dug at it with especial vigor, and to his dismay he saw a small, flat ribbon-like object protruding from its center. It looked too thick to be a hair, but Jake couldn’t think of what else it might be. His mind raced over a number of distasteful options: some kind of tapeworm, a dead blood vein. He didn’t know. He wasn’t a doctor.
And, judging from the feeling of disgust he felt deep in his guts, he didn’t have the stomach to be one. He grabbed ahold of the end of the small, white ribbon-looking thing and began to pull. Jake expected it to hurt, but it didn’t. He also expected it to eventually come out of his arm, but he was disappointed there, too.
He watched with dismay as inch after inch of the strange, string-like ribbon came out of his arm. He pulled and pulled, and soon he had over two feet of the stuff coiling into a spiral against his arm. It showed no sign of coming completely out. The only change, Jake noted, was that his arm no longer itched as badly. That, and he now felt completely sick to his stomach.
He fought his overwhelming disgust and kept pulling at the ribbony thread, certain that it must eventually reach an endpoint. Instead, it merely continued to coil as he pulled it. He soon had a bobbling twist of at least four feet of the stuff coming out of his arm, with more apparently to spare. Jake began to panic: what if this was some of his important bodily tissue, like tendons or nerve ganglia or something, and he was setting himself up to be paralyzed for life in his right arm? Or worse?
The stuff certainly looked organic: like a wide, flat strand of spider’s web. It was even a bit sticky, though it looked smooth and dry. He tried pulling some of it apart, but even with all his force, the thread remained stubbornly cohesive. Jake fought the panic that rose inside him, and struggled to think what he should do. Before he had a chance to gather his thoughts, the door to the bathroom opened.
That brought him back to the present. He had to get to class. If that bell rang and he wasn’t in his seat, he’d get an automatic zero on his presentation. When that presentation counted for almost a quarter of his grade in that class, being late wasn’t an option. And history counted for a lot here at Tompkins Middle School, or else they wouldn’t have named it after a Vice President only known to Jeopardy championship winners. His parents would never understand that he failed the most important assignment of the year so far because a seemingly endless thread wouldn’t stop unspooling from his skin.
Besides, his arm seemed to have stopped itching. The immediate issue was solved, anyway. Jake rolled his sleeve down, and saw that he had another problem: feet and feet of loosely coiled thread hung out of his sleeve as though someone had sprayed two whole cans of silly string up his shirt. He began to furiously stuff the waxy, flat thread back up into his sleeve, having neither the time nor the inspiration to think of anything better to do with it.
The strange filament bunched up as he stuffed it into his sleeve, making it look like he had jammed handfuls of paper towels around his arm in an effort to look like a weightlifter. On the right side, at least. The overall effect was more than faintly ridiculous.
Jake panicked, not seeing what else he could do. Insane arm string or not, he had to leave. He flung the bathroom stall open and glanced in the mirror above the sink.
Jake thought his reflection looked like a kid who’s just been told his parents had been in a car crash. With the added benefit, of course, that his right arm seemed to be puffily expanding. He snorted a gust of exasperated air through his nose and turned to exit the bathroom.
Reggie Lafayette stood in front of the far sink, staring Jake down in the mirror. Jake realized with a jolt how strange he must look to Reggie: coming out of the stall after no flush, not washing his hands. Just staring at himself in the mirror and leaving.
“You alright, bud?” Reggie asked, sounding both cautious and concerned.
“Oh, yeah,” Jake blustered. “I’m okay. I just...”
He trailed off. Just what? Just yanked thirty feet of string out of my arm, with no end in sight?
“Thought I might throw up there for a second. I’m pretty nervous about the presentation.”
Reggie nodded at this. Jake breathed an inward sigh of relief. He may have just provided the only reasonable sounding explanation for his behavior.
“My dad tried to tell me it’s not a big deal,” Reggie said. “To just get up there and not get all nervous about it.”
He shook his head, flicked the water off his hands, and grabbed a few sheets of the brown, pulpy paper towels from the dispenser.
“I wanted to ask him if twenty-five percent of his year’s pay at work every depended on one five minute presentation, but the idea of saying that to his face made me even more nervous than the presentation.”
Jake managed a weak smile.
“I’m sure you’ll do okay. It’ll be over before you know it.”
“Yeah, you too. Will do okay, I mean.”
The pair left the bathroom, Reggie never commenting on the giant, lumpy bulge in Jake’s right sleeve.
"And that,” Jake said from the front of the class, his right arm clamped behind his back, “is how the U.S.S. Alligator, the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, was lost at sea before ever having an official maiden deployment.”
The class clapped with surprisingly genuine appreciation. Jake felt relieved. Though the story of the failed attempt to use the first U.S. Military submarine to fight the Civil War had seemed interesting to him, he didn’t really know how his classmates would take it. Even Mr. Fridley seemed impressed.
“That was very interesting, Jake. Good use of research.”
“Thanks,” Jake said, gathering his notes from the podium.
“Even if your choice of posture was a bit unusual.”
The class snickered.
“Yeah, well, I’ll remember that next time.”
Jake quickly moved his stack of papers so that they awkwardly blocked the majority of his bulging sleeve. The report was over, but Fridley’s remarks had brought unneeded attention to his arm. It felt like every eye in the class was hanging on him like an ornament.
He plopped down in his seat and put the papers across his arm like a little paper bridge. It didn’t really help. It only made him more noticeable. Jake slid down in his seat, miserable. Before he could start feeling too sorry for himself, Zoe Winters had walked up and taken her place behind the podium. The pressure was off Jake. Nobody would pay any attention to him for at least five minutes.
She began a speech about Sherman’s march to the sea, a far more conventional topic than Jake’s submarine presentation, but that wasn’t why people were paying attention. Zoe was widely regarded as the cutest girl attending Tompkins. Jake sighed with relief, but it was short-lived: he realized with dismay that his arm was itchy again. He reached up and discreetly tried to scratch his arm.
It wasn’t working. The thick layer of thread was getting in the way. He grunted in frustration. To his dismay, Zoe stopped in mid-sentence to fix him with an angry gaze--an expression which seemed to say “I didn’t grunt during your speech!”
A moment later, the loud wailing of the fire alarm filled the class room. Everybody jumped at once from their seats. Every fire drill the school ever held had been a greatly orchestrated thing, announced to the students well in advance. No one had warned them about the alarm sounding now.
Some of the more level-headed students glanced at the clock. It did not give them good news. Past fire drills had fallen at times like ten o’ clock sharp, twelve fifteen, or one thirty. Nice, clear cut times. The time now was nine twenty two. Hardly the kind of time to hold pre-planned fire drill.
“Calm down, everybody!” shouted Mr. Fridley, who looked more than slightly perturbed himself.
He walked over to the door and grabbed the knob, only to hiss sharply through his teeth and pull his hand away as though he had touched a hot stove. Without saying anything to his students, he used his suit coat as a makeshift oven mitt and gingerly attempted to open the door again.
The instant the door swung open, flames leapt through the frame and into the classroom. Mr. Fridley jumped backwards like a startled cat. Students gasped.
“Don’t worry!” said Donny Fitzwick. “I’m calling the fire department right now.”
“The fire department already knows!” rejoined Greg Terrell. “What do you think the alarm is for?”
Donny lowered his cell phone, his face crumpling in fear. Mr. Fridley flung the door closed again. Smoke started to pour underneath it.
“Alright, kids. Stay calm. Don’t panic,” he muttered in a sort of half-hearted mantra.
“Why not?” said Zoe. “We’re on the fourth floor. We can’t get out through the door or we’ll burn alive. And we can’t go out the window without splattering.”
“Maybe we can,” said Jake.
People wheeled around to look at him.
“What are you talking about?” asked Reggie and Donnie at the same time.
Jake reached into his sleeve and began to pull out the thread.
“I know it’s really thin, and it might be hard to hold onto, but this stuff won’t break.”
Jake still hadn’t revealed that the stringy stuff was coming out of his arm, only that it was up his sleeve.
“What the he...ck,” Greg said, catching himself in time, “is that?”
“I don’t know,” Jake said truthfully.
“Who cares what it is!” cried Hannah Gallup. “It’s gotta be better than burning to death.”
The class tended to agree. Mr. Fridley opened the windows as Jake pulled feet and feet of thread out of his arm. More than he thought he would need. When he got to a point where he had over a hundred feet of the stuff, he pushed six desks together with Mr. Fridley’s big desk, and wound the thread around and between the legs of all the desks. It created something like a giant, bound together life raft of desks.
He caught Mr. Fridley looking at him with a perplexed expression.
“For ballast, or anchoring, or whatever,” he explained.
“Oh, I understand what you’re doing. I just don’t understand where you’re keeping all that thread. Let alone why you brought unbreakable thread to your history presentation.”
Jake said nothing, but continued to wrap the thread tightly around the desk legs.
“Okay, the smallest people should go first. That way, if this isn’t enough weight to hold you, we’ll be able to hold it and stop you guys from dropping.”
“Oh, man,” said Hugh Deckard, the obvious smallest person in the class. “I hate heights.” He stared out the window, at the ground below. “I can’t do this.”
A giant tongue of flame shot under the door and set the nearby walls smoldering.
“Okay, okay!” he said, grabbing the thread.
He got a tight grip and began to descend. The desks didn’t budge.
“Alright, Zoe’s next,” Jake said.
Soon, all but four students and Mr. Fridley had made it safely down to the bottom. The fire by the door had spread, and the room was filling with a haze of smoke. They had to hurry.
“You’re a go, Greg,” Jake said, motioning the larger boy over to the window.
This time, when Greg made his way down the strange lifeline, the desks began to scoot towards the window. They heard Greg give a little yell out the window as he lurched swiftly towards the ground.
Mr. Fridley flung himself in front of the desks and dug his heels in. The extra weight was enough to stop the forward progress of the desk-anchor.
“Oh man,” said Donny, as the next two students descended the line. He, Jake, and Mr. Fridley were putting all their efforts into holding the desks in place.
“You know what this means, right?” he asked. “It means that I’m going to crash like a ton of bricks.”
Sweat stood out on Jake’s head. He had never suspected this. He had thought the desks he had lashed together would be enough. Clearly he was wrong.
“Here, help me heave these to the window,” Fridley said, panting.
“Of course!” Jake said, pushing them along.
If they got the desks to the window, their size would prevent them from flying out after Donny and Mr. Fridley. Jake, who wasn’t particularly large, would go last as it was his thread.
“You’re a genius, Mr. Fridley!” cried Donny.
“I’m not adding any points to your presentation for that, you know. But thank you.”
Soon, Donny had safely joined the others on the grass outside.
“Your turn,” said Jake.
“Not so fast,” Mr. Fridley said. A gust of smoke made him cough for a moment before he caught his breath. “You know I can’t go before one of my students. That would be wrong. So tell me: what is that string, Jake? Why are you so desperate to hide it from me that you want me to go first?”
Jake, reluctant but moving quickly because of the spreading flames, rolled up his sleeve. When he saw the thread issuing from Jake’s arm, Mr. Fridley gasped.
“Yeah, that’s about what I thought when I saw it,” said Jake glumly. “That’s all the more I know about it. Now go, okay? I don’t feel much like broiling today.”
Mr. Fridley, still visibly rattled, had no choice but to comply. The smoke had grown thick and the flames were steadily approaching the cluster of desks. There was no time to argue. He too, had soon made it to the ground below.
Jake climbed up on the desks, took as firm a grip as he could on the sticky thread, and lowered himself. The third story windows passed him by, then the second, and finally he had made it almost to the ground. A big loop of thread ran from his arm, up to the third floor, and then back down to his hands, where he still gripped the lifeline tightly.
Just as he set his sneakered feet on firm soil, the thread popped out of his skin with a plosive sound.
“Wow!” Jake said, pulling his arm back.
He moved it around a little. No itching at all. He looked at the thread hanging from four stories above. It was finally out!
A second later, these thoughts were driven from his mind as flame burst out of the fourth story window he had just climbed down from. A moment longer getting out of that window, and he would have been done for. He gulped loudly at this sobering thought.
A moment later, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to find Zoe Winters smiling at him.
“That was really smart of you,” she said, “to keep that much fishing wire with you in your backpack. Or, you know, whatever that was.”
“Thanks,” he said, trying to sound nonplussed. “Yeah, you never know when things like that might be useful.”
She blushed and turned away. He was matching her on the blush front. Reggie came over and whispered out of the side of his mouth.
“You got me off the hook, too,” he said.
“Oh, it was nothing,” replied Jake. “I wasn’t going to let the whole class burn to death.”
“Not about that,” Reggie said. “Though I do appreciate it. I was just scheduled to give my speech next, and I was freaking out. Now I won’t have to do it for at least a week.”
“Don’t thank me for that!” Jake said, laughing. “You’ll have to give credit for that to whatever started the fire.”
He was already forgetting the horror of finding an endless string coming out of his arm. When he first caught sight of Mr. Fridley staring at him with wide, startled eyes, he misunderstood.
“Yeah, that was a close one,” he said, addressing his teacher with a reassuring tone. “But we got out in one piece, after all.”
Mr. Fridley pointed at the dangling thread hanging from the fourth story window.
“Two pieces, if you count that.”
Jake wheeled around, saw what Mr. Fridley was talking about, and spun back around, wearing a sheepish face.
“Our little secret, okay Mr. Fridley?”
“Of course I won’t tell anyone!” his teacher said. “You think people would believe that? I like my job, thank you very much.”
At least, Jake reflected, as the fire trucks rolled up, the maiden--and he hoped only--deployment of ‘mysterious, unending arm string’ had been more fortunate than that of the ill-fated U.S.S. Alligator.
Troy Blackford is a 29-year old writer who lives in the Twin Cities. He currently has seventeen published short stories, five works available on Kindle & Paperback, and a host of short stories on his website.
He's married and his first child was born in July 2013.
He likes reading. He likes writing. He likes cats.
He's reachable at this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org