Mark Me Tardy But Present

It Came in the Mail Flash Fiction Contest

(500 words or less)

I didn’t win and I didn’t make the short list, but I did make the long list. As a rank amateur, I’ll take it and crow! 😉


Mark Me Tardy But Present

Opening my mother’s mail after she passed felt like an overstep of boundaries, but it was left to me to tie up these strings of her estate. Even three months later, it remained an uncomfortable responsibility. Mother had cherished her privacy and autonomy.

They arrived bundled, envelopes of differing size stuffed inside a large bubble mailer. Eleven total. All but one displayed the jaundiced touch of age and carried the dusty scent of decay. The postmark was local, the same zip code as mother’s, but offered no return address. The smaller envelopes were not addressed or stamped. Each one simply bore my mother’s name,  Mrs. Perdue, in the same large, studied hand.

The first one, I chose by bulk. Though the size of a standard greeting card, its bulging middle begged investigation. The gummed flap parted at the pressure of my fingernail with something akin to a sigh of relief.

Inside was a carefully folded paper napkin. A piece of yellowed tape had been placed at its bottom to seal the sides, but had long since detached. With care, I unwound the napkin to reveal its mystery.

Despite the sender’s attempt to preserve it, the cicada nested in the folds had been visited by the harsh hand of time. The mosaic of its wings had disintegrated into shards and its corpse had collapsed in on itself. By some fluke, its red eyes were still intact.

The second envelope contained two squares of cardboard: one humble five cent Mallo Money token, the other a more impressive twenty-five.

Five Bazooka Joe comics were enclosed in the next envelope, one with the fortune “You can count on others, but it’s better to use your fingers and toes.”


 At first glance, the next two envelopes seemed to be filled with a modest amount of pot. It took a moment to realize they were the ghosts of wild flowers, wasted to shadow by neglect.

Seven conversation hearts filled the smallest envelope: Be Mine.

Next: a pristine plastic whistle sporting the Trix rabbit, three fossilized pixie sticks, fused together, and a mood ring, its cheap metal band flattened and tarnished to brown, the crown’s crystal stuck at Stressed.

The last envelope contained a card. Its cover featured a teacher with signature apple. Inside, in a tighter, more mature version of the now familiar script:

Mrs. Perdue,

I was out of the country and didn’t hear of your passing until a few days ago or I would have been at the funeral. Please mark me as tardy but present.

I’m paying my respects and giving you all the gifts I was too shy to give you then, when you were my teacher and savior. You taught me to read when others gave up. You changed my life and have remained with me throughout it.

Your faithful friend forever,

Anthony Bartelli

At the next visit to mother’s grave, I left the card and gifts save one conversation heart which I stood and sucked until it was gone.

   

Dude Seems Squirrely to Me

This was written for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2016 Challenge

This was the Round #2 criteria for my heat (#33):
Genre – Science Fiction

Setting – A Hunting Lodge

Item –  A prosthetic limb

Dude Seems Squirrely To Me

We all go through awkward transitions in life. Why should extraterrestrials be any different?

 

Prixxod landed the zipcraft and winced as it docked to Hunting Lodge #7’s charging portal. The hammering vibration during connection meant he’d berthed poorly and evidence of that would be on the craft. Evidence his parents would notice.

Not a good start to his virgin solo flight.

Inside the lodge and divested of his flight suit, he stretched his cramped muscles and powered up a nearby console. The hunting ground popped into view.

Prixxod made use of one extruded prosthetic limb to hook to a nearby fluid-protein hose as he used two others to navigate the viewer’s controls. He zoomed in on the blue and green planet’s western hemisphere and tapped in population density queries. Yet another prosthetic scratched idly across a series of inflamed eruptions on his face as he checked the data. Once each completed its task, they reabsorbed.

He practiced a few transformations to mimic various humanoid configurations and called it good.

Fifteen minutes later, he entered the energy sheath connecting the lodge to the planet below. His descent speed increased beyond his calculations and halfway down he realized with sinking hearts his second virgin solo might also leave evidence of his ineptitude. But in a much more painful and personal way.

In a flash of reverse energy just before impact, Prixxod dumped into the spindly limbs of a small, city tree. The bows snapped under his weight. They, plus one angry, red squirrel and a surprised homeless man, cushioned his fall.

Other than his ego, very little was bruised and no limbs, prosthetic or otherwise, were broken.

#

A bottle blond in a red bandage dress nudged her friend and gestured with her chin toward a nearby table. Over the thump of bass, she shouted, “What about him, Hannah?”

“Are you kidding, Courtney? He looks homeless. And -” Hannah squinted through the pulse of lights, her nose wrinkled in disgust, “are those fur gloves he’s wearing? Super tacky.”

“You’re way too picky.” Courtney met the man’s eye, wrapped plump lips around the straw in her glass, and sucked down half of the second drink ordered that evening. An exhale of satisfaction feathered her fingers as they fixed her lipstick. “It’s called ‘grunge’. He’s cute.”

Hannah frowned as the man put his hands in his lap and bowed his head. “Who comes to a club alone?”

“He’s confident. No posse needed.”

Hannah didn’t reply. The lights had gone down as the DJ transitioned to the next song. Under the dim light of an exit sign, the man in question seemed to waver. “That’s weird.”

“Plenty of people go to clubs alone. It doesn’t mean they’re desperate or anything.”

The lights flared white hot then began pulsing at rainbow intervals. Hannah leaned forward. “What the –? Didn’t he just have a scraggly pube-beard?”

Courtney shrugged. “It’s the lighting. It plays tricks on your eyes.”

After a long pause, Hannah leaned back. “Well, at least he took the gloves off. They were creepy.”

“I didn’t see any gloves.”

“There were definitely gloves on his hands. Red fur.”

“It’s spring. No one wears gloves in spring.”

“Homeless men and hipsters do.”

Courtney raised her glass at a passing waiter. Satisfied she got her request across, she turned to roll her eyes at Hannah. “He’s not homeless.”

“He’s wearing a trench coat.”

“Businessmen wear trench coats.”

“It’s wrinkled and stained.”

Courtney’s heavy sigh was lost in the cacophony of dance music. “Are you a cyborg or something? How can you tell it’s wrinkled from here? You thought he had a beard a minute ago!”

The club was thrown into deep shadow for the length of a long bass line. When they spiralled back to life, Hannah’s hand clamped hard over Courtney’s forearm.

“Ouch! What the hell, Hannah?”

“Courtney, his coat.”

“What about it?”

“It’s clean and pressed now.”

“Oh my God, Hannah. You need to relax.” Courtney flapped her hand at the waitress. “Jameson’s!” She mimicked throwing back a shot and held up three fingers. “When the shots come, we’re going to invite him to join us.”

#

Hannah slumped against the door as Courtney fumbled with the key.

“The place is small. And the property manager lives right next to us, so we’ll have to be quiet.” The door swung open, Hannah landed with a thud, and Courtney whispered through a fit of giggles, “Oh shit. Shh. Pick her up off the floor? I have to pee.”

Prixxod watched the blond disappear down a hallway then extruded two additional arms to pick up the unconscious female and place her on a raised surface.

Her eyes fluttered open and she let out a drunken squawk of surprise. For an instant, Prixxod’s arm erupted into a mass of startled, bristling squirrels before he got his damaged prosthetics software back online. Mercifully, the female once again blacked out.

His parents had just had the software installed in him for this first, solo data hunt. He was so screwed when he got home.

“You guys, you have to be quiet!”

Prixxod whirled and retracted his arms as Courtney entered the room. She stopped, her eyes widened, and then she broke into another fit of giggles. “Not on the kitchen counter, silly!” She gestured a few feet to her right. “Put her on the couch.”

#

Courtney wasn’t sure what he’d said his name was. The club had been so loud, it had sounded like the chatter of an angry squirrel when he’d told her. Then when she’d asked in the cab, his hand had been up her skirt and all she remembered was that it sounded Russian. Or maybe French. It didn’t really matter in the end.

What mattered was that the guy was eager as hell and had foreplay down to an art form. Her head was reeling and she could barely catch her breath. He had moves like an octopus!

So who cared he smelled a little like a homeless guy. Or chattered during sex?

Hannah was too picky.

No Way Back

Flash Fiction Challenge 2016

(criteria listed below)

Round #1
Genre: Horror
Location: A pottery studio
Object: A brain tumor

Number of words: 1,000 or less

Synopsis: Bob is desperate and grasps at the unimaginable suggestions of a specious advisor to solve his problem.

No Way Back

It only took the police two bodies to recognize the serial nature of my kills. They dubbed me ‘The Surgeon.’ In the news, reporters warned the audience that “some content was not suitable for all viewers.” Expert consultants gravely diagrammed the way I’d accessed my victims’ brains via a small incision below the eyebrow, through the eye socket, to remove portions of the frontal lobe.

I didn’t relish this violation of an individual’s autonomy, but I needed their frontal lobes to combat my increasing episodes of memory and vision loss. The squirrel who routinely visited our bird feeders explained this to me.

You can imagine my initial surprise when this wild creature stretched out across our deck railing in the afternoon sun and began to speak. Or conceive my horror at the concept of consuming brains. Yet, as I stood there, washing clay off my hands and tools, the squirrel spoke with such calm intelligence, I knew its decree was incontrovertible.

My wife had always accused me of having an ‘artistic temperament,’ but she’d complained that, of late, I’d become ‘irrational.’ I knew the temporal lobe controls the function of emotion, so I used a vintage trepanning tool to reach the temporal lobe of my next donor.

I made a pâté of it to spread on toast points.  I must admit, I did feel simultaneously better and worse after this consumption. No sooner had I eaten the pâté, I felt clearer in mind, yet overcome with remorse.

The squirrel, perpetually draped across the deck rail, scolded my lack of resolve and assured me the vagrants I’d killed would hardly be missed. That my contributions to society, to my family, far outweighed the deaths of these men whose greatest contribution would be in my aid.

I bought a Dremel with a Diamond Wheel 545 to get the parietal lobe I needed. How was I to effectively communicate with the squirrel and my wife if the centers for language and touch didn’t function properly? I put that morsel in our Bullet with banana, kale, and orange juice to make a nutritious smoothie.

After prolonged inability to perform, that night I was able to make love to my wife and use the soaring words of poets to expound upon my feelings for her.

Imagine my dismay when I soon began to lose my equilibrium despite all the difficult and sordid tasks I’d accomplished. The squirrel was disheartened as well. It hung over the deck rail despondently, its eyes starred with tears. It insisted I must continue to fight — for myself, for my wife, and for it.

The cerebellum lies at the base of the skull. Any hope of finesse was lost to my faltering motor skills. I used a hand axe to reach it and simply pinched out pieces to scoop directly between my lips. Even the squirrel shivered with delicate repulsion at my ineptitude.

I collapsed inside my studio — fell and cracked my head, ironically enough. As my curtain of vision slowly drew closed, I could see my victims above, their eyes full of dark disappointment. I had failed them. Failed myself. Failed my wife, and the squirrel.

#

When Marian’s brother-in-law, John, touched her hand, she turned her gaze from the family room window and smiled. She raised that hand to show the plush squirrel draped across her palm. ”I saw your youngest, Michael, admiring this, earlier. When I found it at a pet store, I had to buy it.

“It reminded me of this squirrel Bob and I always got such a kick out of. It would visit those feeders.” She gestured to a shepherd’s hook anchored to the deck railing beyond. “And, instead of running off like the others, it would stretch out along the railing, like this. “ She draped the thin, cloth animal between her two hands. “And then sun itself. Bob swore it was more intelligent than the others and had wisdom to share about enjoying life to the fullest. About seizing joy.”

Marian laid a hand on John’s arm. “Come out to his studio with me?” She followed his gaze to the guests gathered beyond in the adjacent rooms. Groups parted in the kitchen, only to settle again in clusters in the living and dining rooms, plates clutched in hand, voices subdued as they clucked to one another what a shame it was. So surprising. So quick.

“Just for a moment. They won’t miss me. Or, if they do, they’ll assume I needed a moment.”

They left through the side door and walked the short, brick path to her husband’s pottery studio. She unlocked the door and ushered him into the bright, cluttered room. “From the time he was diagnosed with the brain tumor until he collapsed, your brother spent every day here. One last week of normality.” Marian’s voice caught.

She paused to swallow and blink back tears. “This was his final work. When I found him, he was on his back, staring up at them with tears tracking his temples.”

She gestured to a table before them, but John’s gaze was already there. His eyes brimmed with unshed sorrow.

Five skulls lined the table, each one with a different section of the cranium missing. Fashioned of fine ceramic, they had been fired with a delicate, bone-white glaze everywhere but at the eye sockets, where tracks of darker glaze had been applied to suggest tears.

“They’re eerie and beautiful.” John traced his fingers over each one. “They almost look real.”

“Sometimes when he’d look at me in the days between his collapse and his passing, I could see he wanted so badly to speak – to tell me something –” Marian sighed and looked around the studio full of her late husband’s artistic expression, “but then his eyes would slide back to this,” she draped the toy squirrel over John’s hand, “and he’d get lost. And, then finally so lost he couldn’t find his way back.”


Judging comments received today:
WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{1702}  “The squirrel who routinely visited our bird feeders explained this to me” is a wonderful bit of characterization. I also think it’s a neat idea that this cannibal, who is controlled by a squirrel no less, is so nonchalantly consuming people and seems to take on super human abilities after he does so. It’s also interesting that he’s a spree killer, all of this happening in the span of a week.

{1615}  The writing is very smooth and flows well.

{1609}  By the second paragraph, the story has established a highly distinctive voice: “I needed their frontal lobes to combat my increasing episodes of memory and vision loss. The squirrel who routinely visited our bird feeders explained this to me.” Lines like these strike a fine balance between humour and horror – their absurdity is funny, but not so light the grisly implications are lost.
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{1702}  I think you might improve the strength of your story by forming a slightly more coherent narrative in the section of your story that’s from Bob’s point of view. Perhaps you structured it like that to suggest his deterioration? If that’s the case, you might consider showing the deterioration in other ways as well, perhaps he stops himself mid-sentence, simply forgets what he was going to say, or wanders off into a completely different train of thought (a progression you might indicate by using ellipses). Moreover, why does Bob have surgical precision? At any rate, I think playing around with your opening page or two, attempting to tighten up the structure, could improve the strength of your story significantly– and give you room to flesh out your characters even  more!

{1615}  There’s still a bit of uncertainty at the end. Is he actually a serial killer who eats people’s brains or was that all the delusions of someone suffering from a brain tumor? There’s just a hint of doubt at the end that detracts from the story. Try clarifying this.

{1609}  Though it’s a matter of taste, I found the switch to a third-person perspective disorienting. In such a short piece, and with such a distinctive voice established in the first half, I could’ve followed along with Bob a little longer. However, the crying skulls are a very nice way to end the piece.

Stained

I wrote a story for Mashed Stories‘ recent flash challenge. The prompts were: selfie, pizza, corruption (had to be in that order) and the word count was five hundred words or less.

I’m thrilled to say my story was accepted  and shortlisted. For a short time, this was available on their site to read, but now that it’s been taken down, here is the story, below:

Stained

The ‘shrooms kick in as I sit on the edge of the tub talking to Trish. I know her face keeps changing because I’m high, but then I forget and it freaks me out.

She looks like a monster. Her mouth moves, but instead of words, worms come out. I tell her to stop it, but she doesn’t, so I go back out to the party to get away from her.

In the living room, a crowd jumps around to the pulse of colored lights. The song is the same one that played on Don’s car stereo when we were out in the Mitchell’s cow pasture earlier. The music pushes against my face and tries to choke me, so I hurry through it to the kitchen.

I need something to get rid of the nasty taste in my mouth. Trish and Dan told me ‘shrooms taste like regular mushrooms, but that’s a lie. They taste like dirt and styrofoam.

There’s pizza on the counter, so I grab a slice, get a beer, and take them outside. I sit on the porch step with my beer beside me and use my knees as a plate. Pizza grease stains my tights, directly above the grass stains on my knees, but I don’t care. I’m in trouble anyway.

My parents found pot in my jewelry box. They grounded me for the whole summer and, starting tonight, we’re supposed to see our pastor for counseling twice a week. They’ve been angry since my grades dropped and I started hanging out with ‘Godless kids’. They don’t know ‘what’s gotten into me’.

Nothing yet, but I’m working up to it.

My phone buzzes. I pull it out of the pocket of my jeans skirt and see my mother’s text: Where are you?

I tap the camera icon, take a selfie with the beer at my mouth, and hit send. When the phone rings, I reject the call, but I read the text that follows: Melissa Ann, come home immediately.

It’s too hard to text. The touch pad keeps licking my fingers with its sandpaper tongue, so I use the voice recognition software. “The grass stains on my tights won’t come clean. I think you’ll have to throw them out. Dirty things don’t belong in your house, do they?”

Fireflies switch on and off around me. Their lights leave trails and I lose myself in the messages they spell: SLUT. WHORE. TRAMP.

Minutes, maybe hours, later I finish recording my text. “When you discovered John was stained, you threw him out. In four years, when I’m an adult, you can throw me out, too. By then I’ll have caused enough scandal it should eclipse the fact you have a gay son. Then you and Dad can hold your heads up in church, proud you purged your house of all its corruption.”

I hit send.

The phone rings. I toss it into the grass, gulp my beer, then go back inside to look for Dan.