The Boys Who Matched

This was written in June of 2016 from prompts I’m hazy about –  I think striped shorts or bathrobes might have been the prompt — or perhaps it simply had to include three boys.

 

The Boys Who Matched

The boys wore open bathrobes and striped shorts. The three of them stood at the prow of our boat, Pam’s Promise, solemn and silent.

Ben, the youngest, stood a head shorter than his brothers. His hair had bleached from mouse brown to blond over the summer. He was as dark as a berry from running through summer days on sturdy legs.

Nate, our middle boy was still growing. He was rawboned, all sharp angles and insatiable hunger. He was a locust swarm at the table and never left it fully sated.

The eldest, Matt, teetered on the precipice of manhood. He had the muscled build of a gymnast and stood taller than me by an inch, now. Matt was our quiet one. For all his physical power, he was a poet and philosopher.

Their mother had loved to dress the boys in matching outfits. Her sturdy Singer machine had buzzed through their infancy and childhood. When they’d been small, they hadn’t cared. One outfit was as good as the next as long as they could ride a bike or climb a tree in it. Once Matt had hit twelve, though, that had changed. He’d stubbornly refused to continue.

It was after the Foster boy had taunted him at a birthday party that things changed. Matt hadn’t yelled or slammed doors to make his point; he’d simply announced he was done with it and then dug in his heels. Matt’s brothers had always taken his cue and had quickly followed suit. They’d begun to grow up — to become individuals.

The bathrobes were a gift from their mother that past Christmas. Her last shopping trip.

All were downy white, but each had the boys’ initials embroidered on them in a different color: Matt’s in navy, Nate’s in hunter green, and Ben’s in maroon. On a whim, I’d bought the shorts from L. L. Bean a few weeks before. I thought Pam would like that.

My own shorts hung low on my hips. I’d lost weight, along with my wife, in the last six months. We’d always talked about dieting together. This hadn’t been the way we’d planned.

The full weight of her rested in the urn seated in the captain’s chair behind me.

At the end, she’d hardly weighed more than the insubstantial ashes inside. The cancer had been a rapacious flame, first burning away the fifteen pounds she lamented she’d gained since our marriage. Then it had greedily consumed the remaining weight of her slight frame along with her spirit and laughter.

I dropped anchor and stepped up to join our boys. The boat rose and fell in gentle waves like the soft lullabies Pam used to sing when she rocked our fretful babies through fevered nights.

When the sun finally broke over the horizon and painted the water orange and red, I unscrewed the lid of the urn. A soft, mournful note sounded in the mouth of the vessel as a breeze caught and stirred her ashes.

Pam had loved the ocean. I had promised her the boat and I had promised her we’d grow old sailing it together.

I had only been able to keep one of those promises.

The boys gathered handfuls of their mother with care and cast her into the waves — watched gravely as she dusted, then dissolve into them. I released the last of her along with the dreams of our future together.

We each threw flowers from the garden, Pam’s second love.

Ben threw a handful of dandelions. They floated in the water like miniature suns: bright, resilient, and hopeful. Nate threw a wealth of sumptuous birds of paradise: long, slim, and elegant. Matt threw Queen Anne’s lace: lacy, wild and complex.

Into the water I launched a corsage of stephanotis, the delicate, white flowers that had made up Pam’s bridal bouquet.

Their fragrance clung to my hands long after we left her final resting place.

 

Ushi No Toki Mairi

Written for a Flash Felon Crime challenge (2016). A tattoo had to be part of the story.

Ushi No Toki Mairi

There were witnesses the evening Dom’s first tattoo was stolen. Startled gasps and the mounting buzz of conversation from the audience alerted him to its theft. He followed their collective gaze and looked down at his arm in time to witness it happen.

Below his rolled shirtsleeve, the design unwound like pulled thread. Thin skeins rose an inch above the sinew of his forearm. There, they fractured into a swarm of black specks and scattered.

Start to finish, it disappeared in just under a minute.

The guitar slipped through Dom’s lax grip, slid off the curve of his thigh, and hit the stage with a discordant twang.

The noise startled him back to awareness and he ended the jam session abruptly to hurry home. Alone on the couch, he studied the Taylor acoustic for damage and wracked his brain for a possible explanation.

The guitar was an antique, manufactured in 2025. It was more than just an instrument, it was a treasure. As his tattoo had been.

He checked his forearm again in hopes he’d experienced a sort of waking nightmare. The tattoo hadn’t been some machine-applied, Insta-ink piece of shit. It had been designed, drawn, and handcrafted by the last of the Masters.

It was not a dream. It was gone.

#

Dom cut the engine of his vintage Harley and plugged the bike in to charge. He crossed the small lot to a row of storefronts where one window display scrolled a loop of available tattoo styles. He recognized one of his Polka Trash designs from the early days of his apprenticeship. At the door, Dom pushed the call button and waited.

“Sumi Skin,” a voice intoned.

“It’s Dominic.”

He was buzzed into a brightly lit room. Animated posters depicted skin art both classic and modern. Booths bristled with hi-tech tattooing robotics.

“Dominic, good to see you!” The owner was a wiry man in his late fifties. They shook hands and traded casual pleasantries before the man asked, “So, you slumming or shopping?”

“Neither, Larry. I’ve got a question. The software on these.” Dominic thrust his chin toward the nearest booth where a woman reclined in the chair, her skirt hiked up to bare one thigh. A maze of criss-crossing robotic arms zipped across her skin. “I know it can recall a piece of art if the canvas defaults on payments, but have you ever heard of a classic being repossessed?”

Larry shook his head. “No way. The nanotechnology was still young back then. It only embedded the Master’s signature and time stamp. Hand-stitched ink precedes the recall coding.”

“What about art theft? Any classics reported stolen?”

“Can’t happen. Same rules apply. Thieves can use hacked recall programs to steal ink, but only on the machine tats. Once the government got their greedy fingers in the pot, everything changed. One day it was the Board of Health inspecting operations, the next, you had to buy your machines from government-approved contractors.”

Dom ignored the curiosity in his old colleague’s eyes. He was there for answers, not to give explanations. “Hey, speaking of Masters, you seen Old Shuko lately?”

“About four months ago when I heard the diagnosis, I stopped in see him. You?”

“I’ve been busy. He still at home?”

“Yeah. Relatives are keeping him comfortable for now.”

“Maybe I’ll stop in.”

“You should. He trained you. You were close. He’d want to see you.”

#

The second tattoo, also one of Old Shoku’s, disappeared while Dom was en route to visit the retired artist. Dom noticed the movement in his peripheral and a glance in the rearview proved his fears true.

Dom slapped a hand to his neck in an attempt to prevent its disappearance. The ink flew from his palm, en masse, when he lifted it a minute later. Smudged but still recognizable, the raven’s wings seemed to flap as the wind caught the ink and pulled it out the window.

“Fuck!”

Dom slammed his palm against the steering wheel three times before he regained control. He pulled to the shoulder, ran a hand over the leather grip of the oiled, wood wheel and exhaled slowly. Beating on one of his classic cars wouldn’t solve the problem. Seeing Old Shoku might.

He pulled back onto the road and continued toward his Master’s house.

#

Once inside Shoku’s foyer, he hesitated. He recognized the woman who’d answered the door. Dom had slept with a lot of women—it was the nature of the music business—but this one was recent and had left an impression. She was exotic, a fusion of Asian and Haitian as he recalled. He remembered her brandied voice murmuring strange but alluring words into his ear.

She was more than simply beautiful; she was arresting. High cheekbones were sculpted into the perfect oval of her face. The only makeup she wore, black eyeliner on her upper lid, accentuated the natural, feline slant of her eyes.

“What are you doing here?” He felt off balance. Unsettled. He didn’t like it.

“I’m here to take care of my grandfather.” She gestured for him to follow her. The house was so quiet as they passed through it, a clock in the hallway sounded like a metronome.

“Old Shoku is your grandfather?” He clenched his jaw. He needed to shut up, stop asking questions, and let her explain herself. He was surprised to see her again, yet she seemed completely unfazed by his presence – almost as if she’d expected him.

She didn’t answer. Instead, she led him into the living room. From behind the bar, she gestured for him to sit.  No sooner had he done so, a smoke gray cat appeared and jumped up to sit next to him.

When Shoku’s granddaughter rejoined him in the cozy sitting area, she handed him a scotch, neat, and sipped from her own. A Siamese jumped into her lap and she stroked one hand across its back. It blinked at him with slow concentration. He didn’t speak. Instead, he waited, resolved to appear collected.

“You’re not seeing my grandfather today or any other day. He’s sick. Too sick to be bothered by you.”

“Do you know who I am?” He blurted the cliché, chagrined he’d resorted to it even as it left his mouth. She had gotten under his skin the night they’d slept together. She was getting under it now. Not cool.

“I know who you think you are. You think I slept with you because you’re a musician.  A star.” The last bit rode from her mouth with slow derision. She smiled as another cat leapt up onto his couch to study him.

“You think you have history with my grandfather because you tattooed a little, years ago, before you realized you were too lazy and greedy to be an honorable artist.” Her lips pursed into a moue of contempt as she slowly crossed her long legs. “You think you have some claim to his time because you apprenticed under him. Because he trusted you once.”

She took a sip of scotch. Over the rim of the glass, she studied his reaction. When he struggled to formulate a response, she continued to bat at him in a smooth, modulated voice. “You think because you have a modicum of talent and good looks, you deserve the best. Your antique guitars. Your rooftop apartment. Your classic cars.” A slow smile curled her lips. “Women like me.”

He sat forward on the couch. “What are you talking about?”

The hall clock resonated through the house. She continued to regard him without blinking. “The other night when we were together, did I come?”

Dom shook his head at the unexpected question. “What?”

“You couldn’t say, could you? Because you don’t care. People are just vehicles—” she waved one hand in a lazy circle “—transportation to get you where you want to be. You can’t be bothered to give. You’re only concerned with what you can take.”

“You want to know if I know who you are?” She leaned forward and purred her response. “I know. You’re a thief. You think you deserved a Master’s art, so you stole it.”

Dom’s mouth was dry. The mouthful of scotch he gulped went down the wrong pipe. It stung his throat and his eyes watered in commiseration.

“You’re crazy.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “You can’t steal a tattoo. Old Shoku gave them to me because he wanted to.”

Two black cats appeared out of nowhere to slink toward him in perfect synchronicity. He flinched with surprised unease.

“My grandfather gave them to you because you fooled him,” she answered. “Made a fool of him — a man who lived for honor.

He wasted time training you, grooming you to take over his life’s work and, finally, hand you his legacy. You made him believe he had a mosuko. A pitit gason.” At Dom’s blank look, she curled her lip and translated to English. “A son.”

She tsked to the black cats and they leapt to sit on either side of her. “But once you got what you wanted—those three tattoos — you lost interest. You took off and never looked back. Never contacted him again. Like the women you sleep with. Like everyone you use and discard.”

Dom felt cornered. Unsteady. Off-balance and out-of-control. No one  got the upper hand with him. “You dug your nails into me,” Dom growled. “You loved it!”

Her head fell back and her teeth flashed as laughter gurgled from the well of her throat.  Anger reddened his cheeks and he surged to his feet.  She met his flashing eyes with calm and implacable derision.

“Of course that’s what stuck with you, unubore otoko.” No trace of laughter remained in her tone. She raised her hands and wiggled her sharp, manicured nails.  “Hai, I scratched you. But not from pleasure. You think you fucked me, but I fucked you, vòlè. I embedded nanocode beneath your skin. Nanocode I started writing when I was sixteen—the year you shamed my grandfather.”

He took a step toward her, his arm raised, but something in her eyes—and the eyes of the cats—stopped him.

“The code was to retrieve what you stole.” She dropped her hands and smirked as she leaned back and stretched her arms along the back of the couch.  “The skin I took was to punish you for carelessly discarding a position many would treasure. I used it to cook up a little fusion for you — a bit of Japanese ushi no toki mairi seasoned with some Haitian vodou.”

She snapped her fingers and a slow tickle grew between his shoulder blades where the last of Old Shoku’s masterpieces lay.

“It’s fitting you chose a rat for your last tattoo.” Her eyes thinned to slits.

Dom’s head grew light and the ceiling stretched high above him. The last thing he tried to do before he hit the floor was plead his innocence, but he couldn’t seem to make his mouth work. All he managed was a squeak.

The cats closed in.

#

  1. mosukoJapanese for ‘son’.
  2. pitit gason – Haitan Creole for ‘son’.
  3. unubore otokoJapanese for ‘conceited man’.
  4. HaiJapanese for ‘yes’ (formal).
  5. vòlèHaitan Creole for ‘thief’.
  6. ushi no toki mairiLiteral: “ox-hour shrine-visit” refers to a prescribed method of laying a curse upon a target that is traditional to Japan.
  7. vodouHaitan Creole for ‘voodoo’.

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.


Judges are numbered and ellipses separate each one’s comments.

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –   {1504}  Prixxod’s concern about berthing poorly and knowledge that his parents would notice the evidence on the craft makes him three dimensional and a character it’s easy to empathize with. I like the way Prixxod takes on the attributes of the squirrels and the homeless man. It creates much humor.…  {1601}  Good use of dialog to keep the story and action moving. Good attention to detail in the description as well.…  {1706}  I liked when you shifted the story to include Hannah’s and Courtney’s perspectives. Their personalities were well developed.…

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –   {1504}  Prixxod is the main character, and I think the ending would have a greater sense of resolution if you included a scene with Prixxod after the sentence “Hannah was too picky.” It would be humorous to see his parents’ reaction to the zipcraft’s damage and hear him describe his adventures.…  {1601}  What does Pixxrod have to do with the changes in appearance that occur miidway through to the end of the story? What is its significance in the bigger picture? This is unclear from the context of the story.…  {1706}  The beginning of your story was a bit slow. You could have used those first paragraphs to develop the plot more. You could have also further developed Prixxod’s personality.…

 

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.

Pickle Cake: The Decadence of Denial

In the past, I’ve competed in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. This year, I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. At the beginning of February, I posted my First Round submission (which I’ve since taken down in case I decide to expand it).

To my surprise, I moved on to the Second Round. I had seventy-two hours in which to write and five hundred fewer words allowed this time around. Here were my prompts. The story is below.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016
Round 2, Heat 1
Genre: Drama
Subject: Decadence
Character: A deliver driver

Pickle Cake: The Decadence of Denial

A piece of chocolate cake was waiting for Claire.

Indulgences like that were saved for days when she’d had a trying client or survived a particularly grueling, verbal wrestling match with her mother. She’d endured round after round while cooking dinner the night before. Doris had been in rare form.

This argument had been over the poor choices Claire had made ordering the flowers her mother requested. Online rather than local. Daisies rather than roses. To the hospital rather than the house.

Claire had argued she couldn’t have known they were going to send her mother’s cousin home a day early after the surgery, but Doris had executed such cunning maneuvers of acrobatic logic and subtle holds of reasoning, Claire had eventually lost the will to fight and submitted to the weight of cumulative guilt. By the time she’d hung up, she couldn’t stomach the dinner she’d prepared.

The cake was going to be both a comfort after last night’s defeat and a reward for tasks accomplished that morning.

The landline rang.

“You’ve reached Decadence Delivered! This is Claire. How may I help you?” Claire gripped the phone between her ear and shoulder and continued frosting the formation of cupcakes lining her kitchen table.

“Claire, it’s Mom.”

At the sound of her mother’s voice, Claire’s professional smile faded and the chirp in her voice fled. “Mom, I told you not to call my business line.”

“Well, you won’t answer your cell.”

Because I don’t want to talk to you.

“Because I’m busy, Mom. I have a delivery this morning before I get Jill from preschool.” Claire stretched her neck and pressed her cheek closer to the receiver. She squeezed a tower of pristine, white icing onto the next cupcake.

“Did you sign Jill up for Kindercheer yet?”

Claire traded piping bags and went back to the head of the line. With the ease of long practice, lacy red filigree soon decorated the fields of white. “No, I didn’t sign her up.”

“If you call them now, she can be registered before the first class this Saturday.”

“Mom, registration was in person by nine this morning. It’s,” Claire quickly checked her watch, “ten o’clock. It’s over. It’s closed.”

Ten o’clock. The order she was completing was scheduled for delivery at eleven fifteen. She had to get Jill from the other side of town by eleven forty-five. Half the cupcakes were ready for embellishments, but she still had to top them, package them, and get the minivan loaded.

“Why would you wait until the last minute to do this?”

Claire closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A wave of dizziness threatened her equilibrium and she leaned a hip against the table. She hadn’t eaten since noon the day before; her blood sugar was plummeting. It wasn’t safe to drive like that.

“Call and apologize. Ask them to make an exception.”

A glob of red icing burst against the last cupcake, making it appear attacked rather than decorated. Claire set the piping bag aside and blew hair out of her eyes. “Mom, can we talk about this later? I haven’t eaten breakfast yet. I need to grab a bite. I’m getting shaky and it’s making it hard to finish icing this delivery.”

“Oh, fine.” Her mother gusted a weighty sigh. Claire swore she could hear the eye roll that accompanied it.

When her mother got blustery, the emotional forecast was grim. Don called it ‘strong sighs with a seventy percent chance of martyrdom and future reckoning.’ Claire knew she might as well bite the bullet and invite the storm. With a deep, deliberate breath, she faced the onslaught.

“I didn’t sign her up, because when I talked to her about it, she wasn’t interested.” Claire grabbed the ruined cupcake, scraped off its icing, re-piped it with white, and then decorated it with red before replacing it.

She smiled, replete with accomplishment. The cupcakes sat equidistant from one another, each row perfectly lined up from every viewing angle.

“She’s only four, Claire. She doesn’t know what she’s interested in until you introduce her to it.”

Inside the refrigerator, on a tray lined with waxed paper, sat the edible embellishments: chocolate dipped cherries and strawberries Claire had prepared the night before. She removed them along with the carefully wrapped piece of chocolate cake and placed both on the counter.

The cake was eleven hundred calories. She knew this because she’d made it herself. It was a conscientious habit of hers to include decorative cards containing nutritional information for each of her creations.

“Jill has been to Kindercheer performances.” The urge to pop a strawberry in her mouth as she decorated the cupcakes was strong, but she denied it. Instead, she took a sip of her cooling, black coffee. It was bitter, but calorie-free. “Her friend, Mim, cheers. Jill enjoys watching it, but she’s shown no interest in participating.”

“Jill needs to be active in some way, Claire, or you’re going to have a problem on your hands. If she were shaped like Don’s side of the family, that’d be one thing, but she’s just like you were when you were little: built thick. If you didn’t diet and exercise the way you do, you’d—”

Claire gripped the edge of the table and blinked against the dark stars creeping at the edge of her vision. When they didn’t clear, she sat with her forearms along her thighs and let her head droop between her knees.

“Someone’s beeping in.” Her mother’s voice was annoyed but distant, coming down the length of a long tunnel. “I’ll call you back.”

The effervescent prickle in her limbs slowly abated and left a rubbery weakness in its wake. Claire knew she couldn’t wait any longer. She’d wanted to hold off until she’d boxed the cupcakes and added all the signature frills and furbelows before indulging, but she also recognized her breaking point.

The cake was one of her most popular orders. It was the marriage of sour, tart, and sweet strawberry cream cheese icing with the rich, dense decadence of the double chocolate. They were a perfect foil.

It was beautiful cake, too. The clouds of pink icing popped against the canvas of dark brown, nearly black, cake. The strawberries were formed into circles of concentric, glistening hearts.

She savored the give of the dessert beneath her fork. Reveled in the eruption of pink icing as it bloomed from the earthy cake. Indulged in memories of cakes from her childhood. Innocent, guilt-free cakes paired with milk and laughter.

The icing on her tongue was velvet and erotic. Claire released a shuddering sigh and closed her eyes as buttery chocolate and sweet fruit exploded in her mouth. This slice would be the only thing she allowed herself today, but it would be worth it. Eleven hundred calories of pure extravagance.

Don would wonder if she didn’t eat dinner with him and Jill, so she’d make something they both liked and she didn’t. Tell him she’d eaten just before he got home to compensate.

She knew it was irrational. This was just as crazy as her adolescence, when she’d lied about eating pilfered candy bars even as she grew out of her jeans.

If she skipped dinner too many days in a row, Don would get suspicious. Concerned. It was better when she didn’t eat all day and they shared dinner as a family. Now she’d have to talk about her big breakfast or lunch, meals he couldn’t know she didn’t allow herself.

She couldn’t keep it up, but wasn’t sure how to stop. It had been years she’d lived like this — outside her life, looking in.

When the last bite was savored, the dish washed, dried, and put away neatly with its matching set, Claire boxed up the cupcake order. She added the froths of ribbon and the tasteful business card with its whimsical, watercolor cake logo. Ornamental and orderly; a flawless combination.

Claire checked her watch. Ten twenty. She had ten minutes before she needed to load the van. It was the perfect opportunity to do a quick walk through the house and make sure she’d completed all her chores.

She’d already tidied the master bed and bathrooms after Don had left for work. The tube of toothpaste was left out and open in the hall bath, but it only took seconds to close and whisk into a drawer.

In the doorway of Jill’s room, Claire paused and leaned against the doorframe. Hugged her arms around her waist. She and Don had redecorated the room a few months earlier—-taken down the old, nursery wallpaper that was too babyish for their growing girl–and allowed Jill to choose the paint. The walls were now the color of raspberry jam, deep and vibrant. Like Jill herself.

Jill was active. She liked to run and play on the jungle gym equipment Don had set up in the backyard long before Jill had been able to use it. An invite to swim in her friend, Mim’s, pool was always met with enthusiasm. Jill liked to read and draw, to dress her dolls, and to teach her stuffed animals their alphabet. She loved to steer the riding mower while her daddy drove and to hand him utensils when he grilled. When Claire washed the car or whisked eggs to make French toast, Jill wanted to help.

Jill was a happy child, relaxed, gregarious, and loving. Able to lose games and make mistakes without being defeated or doubting her worth. Claire wanted not simply to mentor that, but mirror it.

Claire’s cell buzzed in her back pocket. Her mother, calling back. Claire sucked in a deep breath, rejuvenated by the cake and the realization that not only was Jill okay, but Claire could be, too. With time. With help.

“Mom, remember when I was little and we used to drive to the bakery in town?” Claire asked without preamble.

“What are you talking about?” Claire had thrown her mother off with her unexpected greeting. She could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “The bakery? You mean Claussen’s?”

“Yes, Claussen’s! That was the name. I remember, it used to make me laugh because—“

“Because it was the same name as the pickles I used to buy.” There was a hint of laughter in her mother’s voice now. “You used to say, ‘Let’s get pickle cake, Mama.’”

“I loved those pretty, little tables with the fancy chairs. And that my chocolate milk came in a mug just like your coffee. I loved that special time together. Do you remember what you always said when the waitress brought our order?”

“What did I say?”

“You’d say, ‘Don’t tell Grandma we were here!’ and then you’d laugh and I’d laugh because you were so happy.”

“Oh, your grandmother!” Doris hooted. “She monitored every bite I took when I was a child and had a lot to say about how I fed you and your brother, too. What a dragon that woman was! She had an opinion about everything and everyo–”

“Mom,” Claire interrupted her mother’s musing, “I’m picking Jill up after pre-school today and I’m taking her out for pickle cake. And when our order is served, I’m going to say, ‘Don’t tell Grandma we were here.’”

Claire let the silence gather between them for a moment before she continued in a softer tone.

“I’d like you to come. We can pick you up and have pickle cake together. And then we can say, ‘Don’t tell Great Grandma Edith we were here’ and we can all laugh. And, Mom, we won’t talk about Kindercheer because it’s not important and Jill isn’t interested.”

 


Ellipses are used to separate the judges’ feedback.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – …………I‘m so happy when Claire finally confronts her controlling mother at the end of this story! And I absolutely love all of the cake details here–the setting for this story is full of great details and totally convincing. And the idea of a pickle cake is unique, a memory that adds real heart and feeling………….I love that you take decadence here and pair it with denial. You also do a wonderful job of almost eroticizing the cakes and cupcakes………….Interesting character study with vivid and delicious sensory detail. It’s telling that Claire becomes a baker, and not just a baker but a deliverer of upscale, truly decadent baked goods, with the family background she has…and her incipient eating disorder, which may be harder to lick than she ever imagines. 🙂 Realistic interactions, some subtle wit, and a nice ending make this a satisfying read………

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK – ………...I’ll confess to feeling a little distracted by Claire’s eating of that 1100-calorie slice of cake, and the details about how she’ll have to lie to her husband about what she’s eaten that day. Are we meant to think that Claire is prone to overeating, that it’s a consequence of her relationship with her mother? There’s complicated stuff going on with food in this story, and yet the resolution of the story involves Claire taking her daughter out for a piece of cake. It feels like it’s meant to be a happy ending, but I’m left with questions about Claire’s relationship with food, and I’d like to know more. This feels like the beginning of something much longer………….I like the idea of pickle cake, but the ending also feels like a departure from Claire’s eating disorder. I think the ending needs to account for Claire’s awareness of her problem as well as that of her mother’s interference………….I’m not sure what “damaging family tradition” this woman’s trying to break free of. The “pickle cake” idea sounds charming, not at all damaging. The haranguing by her mother, on the other hand, is driving her to become anorexic, something that doesn’t seem to be a family tradition. So your synopsis really doesn’t fit the story that you tell here. You might want to tweak it…...