Mistakes Happen

The Reader’s Digest 100 Word Challenge  (closed)
(criteria: must be 100 words, no more, no less)

The cymbal crash and bright tinkle of breaking glass nearly caused Edgar to fall off the kitchen chair. When his heart rate finally slowed, he investigated and found a baseball on the living room rug. The bay window revealed a jagged, new smile and, outside, a clutch of children stood in frozen horror.

Edgar walked out into the sunlight, returned the ball to its owner, and assured the children there were no hard feelings. Mistakes happen.

When he hung up with the window replacement company, Edgar stepped back onto the chair and began the meticulous job of deconstructing the noose.

Czuk It: An Unwanted Delivery

Today on Facebook, a friend posted a picture of a package at the end of her hallway with text along the lines of ‘It looks like my husband’s Tai Chi sword arrived’.
My reply: Or a snake mailed itself to you. Be very careful!

So all day I’ve been thinking about a snake mailing itself to someone, why it would do that, and what might happen if it did. Here’s what I figured. Excuse my crude drawings – I’m not a cartoonist. 🙂

Edited to add for a bit of mobius amusement, the actual Czuk It blog site. 🙂
Edited a second time to add: I’ve just realized I made the it’s/its grammar error (“it’s big meal”) in the text of my cartoon and am twisted with shame.

Czuk it 1 w-textCzuk it 2 w-textCzuk it 3 w-text

How Grandma Saved Christmas

How Grandma Saved Christmas (NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, Challenge #3)


Many thanks to Gold Fever Press for publishing a longer (by 500 words!) version of this story on their site. They were a pleasure to work with and it was an honor to be showcased on their site!

 

How Grandma Saved Christmas

“I used to have two hands, like most people, until the year I saved Christmas.”

A dying fire and the intermittent blink of colored tree lights lit the room. On the couch a seven year old boy curled at his grandmother’s side. In his hand was the Iron Man action figure he’d opened earlier. He used it to climb the metal curve of his grandmother’s prosthetic hand.

“Santa’s sleigh broked down. You delivered toys in your snowmobile!” he prompted.

Broke down,” she corrected, “This was when I was even younger than your mommy is now. I drove my snowmobile to the North Pole. Not this North Pole, in Alaska. Not our home, but the real North Pole in the heart of the Arctic Ocean. It was a dark Christmas Eve just like tonight. My Ski-Doo was flying back to camp, barely touching the ground. I almost didn’t see them.”

“Rudolph and Santa’s reindeer!”

“A faint, red glow through the fog slowed me down. I saw Rudolph first and then the rest, all harnessed together. And behind them, on its side, was the sleigh. Its right runner was broken clean in half.”

“And Santa, lying in the snow,” the boy whispered with studied horror.

“He was sprawled on the ground, face down, not moving. Thankfully he wasn’t badly hurt, but neither he nor his sleigh could deliver gifts.”

“And Santa asked you – ”

“Santa didn’t ask. He told me.” The timbre of her voice took on a deep authority. “‘Abigail Margaret Yates,’ he said, ‘You have to load those presents onto your snowmobile and deliver them to all the good boys and girls for me.’ Well, I’m not going to argue with Santa, so I said, ‘Yes, sir! Just tell me what to do!’”

The boy squirmed impatience as his grandmother leaned forward and clamped the metal hook around her mug of cocoa. He allowed her one, careful sip of the steaming liquid before urging, “And Santa gave you an elf!”

“You’re jumping ahead,” she scolded. After another deft sip, she replaced the mug. “We harnessed the reindeer to the snowmobile, put Santa and the bag of presents onto the back, and took him back to his workshop. It was then that Santa assigned me a helper. He was an elf named Turna Kett.”

“All elves have a particular magic and Turna’s was slowing down the fast flow of time. That way, all the gifts could be delivered around the world in just one night.”

“Santa’s reindeer were still a little shaken up, so when we headed north and hit open water, I worried about making them fly. Luckily a pod of narwhal were nearby. They surfaced, heard that Christmas was in jeopardy, and offered to whisk us over to Russia to get those deliveries over quickly.”

“Narhwals have pointy unicorn horns!”

The grandmother smiled with pride. “That’s what we held on to as they swam. As we left shore, they began to sing. Seals and walrus joined them and began to sing, too. When we reached Russia, we realized their song had called all the artic animals. Tens of thousands of snow-white animals had gathered on the shore to meet us. Foxes and wolves, rabbits and ermine, snow geese and eagles! And each one took a brightly wrapped package to deliver to the homes of the children in Russia, Finland, and beyond.”

“When we distributed the last gift, we knew we had to get back to the North Pole. There were still thousands of gifts to deliver and Turna couldn’t slow time forever.

An orca let us hop on his tail and we rode him back like slippery surfboard. By that time the reindeer were feeling better. They rocketed us around the world in my snowmobile like we were flying a jet! That old Ski-Doo made it through the night, but never started again after that.

“But all the presents were delivered before Christmas morning!” the boy cried happily. Iron Man took a victory turn around the couch.

“Yes, Christmas was saved.”

“And Santa said you could ask for a special present that year for helping him!”

“Yes, he did.”

“And you asked for a pirate hook and a new, black snowmobile!”

She nodded.

“But you sold the snowmobile when my mommy was borned.”

“Born, yes.”

“But you weren’t sad because you knew that one day I’d be born and we would play pirates together.”

“Exactly.”

“Let’s play pirates tomorrow.”

“After you open presents.”

“Yes, after that.”

“It’s a deal.”

The boy pressed a kiss to his grandmother’s soft cheek, leapt from the couch, and flew Iron Man up the stairs to his bedroom. She followed his progress on the landing before her smile turned to the adjacent chair.

With a roll of the eyes, her twelve year old granddaughter declared, “I’m too old for that story.”

“Yes, I believe you’re old enough to hear the real adventure now. Come sit beside me?”

The grandmother tucked the girl’s legs over hers. “There once was a girl whose heroes were Admiral Peary and Ralph Plaisted. This girl dreamt of being the first woman to lead an expedition to the North Pole.  She grew up, bought a snowmobile, and mastered it. Years later, this woman was trying to beat Plaisted’s long distance record in one day. She didn’t slow into a turn. Her Ski-Doo flipped. Her arm was badly hurt and a friend had to apply a tourniquet. That tourniquet bought her time. It saved her life. But the surgeons couldn’t save her hand. She had to have a prosthetic.”

The hook gleamed in the firelight as she lifted it for both to consider. “I got this on Christmas Eve when I was twenty-three. I could have chosen anger, but I didn’t. I lost my hand, but I never lost my dream. I did get to the North Pole, just not the one I expected. Sometimes you have to decide what life gives you is a gift.”


FEEDBACK:
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY  ……I really like the approach you took with this story and you utilized the prompts very creatively. It’s also fun to discover the real story at the end……..A charming mix of hominess and action. Grandma’s narration of her initial  story is exciting and silly at the same time. ……I like how this is an adventure story, modern fairy tale, and morality tale all in one. You do a great job of creating a unique story mixing multiple genres.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK ……I love this badass grandma. She’s awesome. That being said, I kind of wish that the real story was a little more developed and the christmas story was a little simpler. That could definitely be a matter of taste…Did you try making the christmas story and the real story parallel action? (As in telling them at the same time, but going back and forth?) It could be an interesting way to take the audience on a journey, making us unsure which one is the truth. ……………The turn, when Grandma tells her second story, feels a bit abrupt. Perhaps nesting even more elements from the second story in the first could counteract this. You could also consider having her tell both version to the same child, who is skeptical after the first. ……Some more physical descriptions of things–the grandmother and her home included–would help bring them to life. Most of this is told by the grandmother and so keeps the reader at a distance, but at least help the reader to see her in the telling of it to bring the reader closer to the story.

An Affair to Remember (NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, Second Round)

Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

(criteria listed below)

Round #2 (Winner)
Genre: Horror
Location: An underground parking garage
Object: A bottle of champagne

Number of words: 1,000 or less

Synopsis: The desire for an old-fashioned romance leads one man to his death.

An Affair to Remember

Nat liked to think of himself as a Renaissance man. While he preferred a single-malt scotch to champagne, he appreciated the romance of bubbles chasing upward along the gentle curve of a crystal flute. He knew wine and how to pair it. He knew how to cook and how to dress. He disliked the term ‘metrosexual’ but accepted it and the dusting of contempt it held when his friends graced him with that title. He had learned long ago to brush that sort of thing off, like a trace of lint off a suitcoat.

Nat didn’t just keep abreast of current events via the newspaper, Time, and Newsweek; he also read the classics, old and modern. He could, and occasionally did, quote snippets of poetry or philosophers to accent a point or codify a thought.

The elevator dinged and Nat stepped in. The groomed lines of his mustache curved upward. He had, he acknowledged with self-deprecation, many leather-bound books. And, continuing on with that Anchorman theme, he was now stepping into a glass case of emotion. The elevator doors closed behind him and he turned to look out over the city.

The emotion contained within the glass case of the elevator, and the moving chambers of his heart, was longing.

The city at night was breathtaking. His office was in one of the taller buildings, and the ride to the parking structure beneath it was always a visual pleasure. There was still a hint of light clinging to the horizon, but his city was decked out in black velvet and adorned with glittering jewels. Diamond headlights and ruby taillights sparkled and danced as she beckoned him home.

Lately, Nat was gripped with longing. For romance. For a relationship of substance. He might allude to it in a humorous bon mot while out for drinks with friends, but in reality that longing was deadly serious. He ached for something with weight, with heft. Not just the gasping, momentary surge in the dark toward another body, but something that transcended flesh. He longed for that connection.

And lately, dating had lost its appeal. It was becoming apparent that most people his age lacked a certain subtlety of character he found attractive. They lacked mystery, grace, and – yes he knew it sounded snobbish – an element of refinement and class.

The elevator began its silent descent to the parking garage below.

A quarter of the way down, Nat’s eyes searched the face of an adjacent, high rise apartment building, and found their mark. Coupled with longing was now a blush of shame. He’d turned into a voyeur. He wasn’t proud of it, but he couldn’t stop.

Two months prior, he’d been making this same trip down from office to car and saw them: a couple. Just the dark silhouette of them dancing, really, framed in the sliding glass doors of the terrace. The image had so struck him, however, he hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away. They’d been floating – dancing, in candlelight – with the wonder of the city as their backdrop. They’d been bubbles waltzing inside a champagne glass.

Since that night, he’d searched for and found that apartment again and again. And he’d been rewarded by that same scene – moments that infused him with a similar longing – a handful of times since then.

The apartment owner – Nat now thought of him as Cary Grant – would appear, looking as if he’d stepped out of a classic, black and white film. There would be champagne. Candlelight. Dancing. Nat could almost hear the music: something with a full band and the sultry slide of a bow across an upright bass.

Cary Grant would guide his partner along the edges of the terrace window with that athletic, fluid grace every good, leading man should possess. And by the time Nat’s elevator would plunge into the darkness of the parking garage below, the seduction would have begun. Cary Grant’s head would have just dipped to his dance partner’s neck. His partner would tense for a moment, but as expected, would then surrender to the seduction.

There was a different partner every time, but that didn’t trouble Nat. The tableau was flawlessly perfect. He knew it was just a matter of finding the right partner for its happy ending.

Halfway down, a tiny flame caught Nat’s eye. The glow of candlelight pulsed to life against a familiar window and, then, Cary Grant appeared. Alone. Although dressed in his usual evening attire, he was still in mid-toilette. He hadn’t yet donned a tie, and his white shirt was opened, leaving a shadowed ‘V’ of skin revealed.

Nat watched as Cary Grant leaned a forearm against the window and then, a moment later, his forehead to the glass. It was then he noticed the man’s shirt sleeves were rolled to his elbow and realized: he hadn’t caught the man preparing for a date at all, but caught him alone.

The elevator abruptly cut the scene to black as it dropped into the underground parking garage. It left Nat struck numb and slightly breathless. Cary Grant had not simply been alone. He’d been lonely. Just as Nat was lonely.

The elevator dinged, the doors opened, and the tie Nat had slipped off during his descent slid from his slack grip.

Cary Grant stood there, stunning in his rolled shirtsleeves, a bottle of sweating champagne gripped in one fist. His eyes shone liquid promise in the garage’s dim lighting, but the hopeful smile he flashed was white and sharp as he took a step toward Nat and lifted the other hand in invitation.


Judges’ comments separated by ellipses.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

This is creepy and unsettling — it feels, certainly, REAR WINDOW-esque. The narrative flows well. The mechanics — grammar, punctuation, and spelling — are sound. The visuals are expertly rendered: “Diamond headlights and ruby taillights” and “they’d been bubbles waltzing in a champagne glass” aren’t only vivid, they tie in with the single effect as far as the “Cary Grant” brand of corny old elegance. Great job…………………………….I loved this story. Subtle horror at its best. So many great details–I feel Nat’s lonliness. I loved this line: “They’d been bubbles waltzing inside a champagne glass.” Truly, this is a masterpiece of flash…..

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

The synopsis states that Nat is lead to his own death, but that’s not clear. Does he jump out of the glass elevator (if one looks closely at the line “Diamond headlights and ruby tallights sparkled and danced as she beckoned him home” could be taken as his final leap if the ending were clear)? We need a few more hints that this is what he’s done, because the ghost of the Grant-esque character appearing in the parking garage isn’t enough to tell us that. At best, what we might glean from the ending is that he’s at peace because he’s finally seen his character without the woman.//The opening paragraph not only is wonderfully grounded, we get an instant impression of Nat. The issue, however, is that it goes on a bit long — what does the Anchorman position (or film, if that’s what’s being referenced) have to do with anything? We don’t get to see Nat’s conflict until almost three quarters down the first page. Cutting some of the business about the books and keeping up with the news would solve this problem of a slow opening–and since it never comes back, the story won’t miss it…………………………….It’s difficult for me to give a suggestion, other than perhaps maybe that there should be a heavier “tell” about Mr Cary Grant. If I didn’t have the synopsis, some of the really subtle hints might have gone right over my head. If I didn’t know this was horror, I might not have caught the ending….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unreasonable

“You’re being unreasonable.”

She wants to pound the meat of her fists against stone.
Bloody them.
Press them against the blank canvas of her face.
Leave behind a bright butterfly of rage,
And scream that life is not all reason.

In fact –

Much of what she’s been taught is irrational and unreasonable.
That “you’re being unreasonable” truly means, “you’re not cooperating with what I want”.
This is her experience.
This is what she learned as a child.

Not truth. Nothing so pure as reason.

Good girl.
She doesn’t complain. Doesn’t cause trouble.
What does a good girl get?
Nothing but crumbs of peace. Stolen solitude.
What does a good girl become?
An angry woman.

(February 22, 2009)

The Juggernaut – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, First Round

Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

(criteria listed below)

Round #1
Genre: Mystery
Location: An oil rig
Object: A potato

Number of words: 1,000 or less

Synopsis: A man dies aboard an oil rig and it’s up to an insurance investigator with a special gift to prove he was murdered.


The Juggernaut (word count: 998)

Jane swiped through the virtual stack of files she’d been assigned and double clicked on a folder that briefly thrummed beneath her fingertips. She recognized that vibration as part of her own, organic hardware rather than a software function. As one of many insurance investigators for a large, multinational company, she knew to take heed when a file raised a red flag. She was the only one, however, who relied on what her mother described as ‘The Know’ to conclude a case needed closer review before payout.

She pinched open the first document and read the name: Hank Mulligan. Hank was Caucasian, male, fifty-five years old with a COD of heart attack. The last two words blurred out, resurfaced as ‘asphyxial arrest’, and then returned.

“Hm.” Jane chewed the inside of her lip and waited for anything else to present itself. When it didn’t, she skimmed the page for any points of interest. Three years prior to his death, Mulligan had a pacemaker surgically implanted. Post-surgical follow ups showed the pacemaker as working well. The company he worked for, Olympus Petroleum Products, paid for and required bi-annual checkups for the first year and then annual after that.

“Field Engineer on the Juggernaut,” Jane read aloud even as her eyes and finger drifted down to the search engine icon at the bottom, right of her screen.

The Juggernaut, Jane learned, was one of many oil rigs built in the Gulf of Mexico by OPP, and Mulligan had been one of two men hired to measure the readings while drilling. Like most oil riggers, Mulligan and the other MWD Field Manager had worked two weeks on and two weeks off in alternating shifts.

Back in the file, Jane checked the type of policy and its payout amount. It was a term policy and no small beans, with an increase added the year Hank had his surgery. That wasn’t unusual, but the amount by which it was increased in the last year was.

According to the file, the beneficiary was Ava Mulligan, spouse. Jane blinked as the letters in the woman’s name stretched and made a slow, sinuous loop around the word ‘spouse’ before resuming their stationery posts. Jane plucked the nearby phone off its cradle. She dialed an extension, waited a moment and then said, “Sir, I have one. No, I think I’d better question the widow and his family, maybe friends, before we involve the police. Yes, sir, I’ll let you know.”

***

Jane watched the rig growing larger in her window before the pilot’s voice startled her out of her reverie.

“The landing can sometimes be a bit rough, but don’t worry; I’ve done these thousands of times.”

She nodded. The landing didn’t worry her. She’d known she was safe the moment she’d shaken the pilot’s hand at Houma heliport. Sometimes it was like that: instantaneous knowledge. Unfortunately, the Mulligan case wasn’t delivering the same clarity. Ava Mulligan definitely had a low-level funk surrounding her, but that was it. The questioning of family, friends, and acquaintances had brought to light that the Mulligan’s marriage wasn’t all wine and roses. A couple people even hypothesized Ava was having an affair, but the fact remained that Hank Mulligan died miles from home, out in the Gulf, apparently from a heart attack in his sleep – far from his wife. The fact also remained, as the doctors had put it, Mulligan worked long hours on a high-pressure job and not only had needed a pacemaker, but also suffered from sleep apnea. A heart attack was unfortunate, but not entirely surprising.

Yes, but it wasn’t a heart attack. It was asphyxial arrest, Jane thought, frowning down into the choppy waters below. She’d looked it up the day Mulligan’s file had flagged itself. Asphyxial arrest was a heart attack brought on by asphyxiation. And while it was possible sleep apnea coupled with an ‘iffy’ heart could have caused his death, Jane couldn’t shake the feeling foul play was the true explanation.

***

It was a little weird sleeping in a dead man’s bed, but after talking to Mulligan’s coworkers and touring the Juggernaut, it was a last, Hail Mary pass. Jane stretched out on the slim bunk, wide awake despite the long day and her first, bumpy ride in a helicopter. She turned on her side and studied Mulligan’s sleep apnea machine. It looked like a tiny, canister vacuum ending with an oxygen mask at the end of its hose.

How could Mulligan asphyxiate while using a machine that literally forced oxygen into his nose? It didn’t make sense.

Jane pushed up on one elbow, tapped the machine’s on button, and picked up the mask. The oxygen whooshed through the hose followed by a faint hiss and then a cool mist of humidified air hit her face bringing with it the odor of raw potato.

Jane grimaced and thrust the mask to full arms’ length. It was creepy enough sleeping in the man’s bed, but she was going to smell Mulligan’s last meal, too? The smell of raw potato grew stronger.

She scrambled upright on the bunk. She’d spoken to the cook. She’d noted what was served the night of Mulligan’s death, and potato wasn’t on the menu. With equal parts revulsion and determination, Jane brought the mask to her face, closed her eyes, and lay back.

The next morning, after questioning two roughnecks and the confused cook again, Jane returned home. At her desk, she dialed the same extension.

“Sir, contact the police. They should exhume Mulligan’s body for autopsy. A man named Derrick Hand he’d befriended on and off rig was having an affair with Mulligan’s wife. They plotted to kill him. The rig’s cook signed a written statement that Hand specifically asked for something not on the menu that day – raw potato. Have the coroner check under Mulligan’s fingernails for traces of Hand’s skin and in his mouth and trachea for traces of raw potato. Thank you. You’re welcome, as always, sir.”

THE END


I didn’t get anyone to edit this one because I got the challenge at midnight the day I was traveling up to NYC and used less than 24 of the 48 hours I had to work on it. I finished editing it about a half hour before it was due, so really didn’t have time to ask anyone.

For the record, I am not a fan of mystery, so wasn’t much motivated to write it. I also spent hours on the internet reading about life on an oil rig – not something I was all that interested in – and then trying to figure how to turn a thousand words into a fully fleshed out and solved mystery. For this reason, I used supernatural elements in the story to help me get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’. The judges encourage ‘thinking outside the box’, but I’m not sure if this will cause them to take points off or not. We shall see!

I’ll add their comments to this post once I get them.


Other than underlining the headers of likes/dislikes, I left the judge’s text unchanged because I believe the long row of ellipses points shows a break between each of several judge’s thoughts. I assume this because I get praise for having my main character take a certain action alongside criticism for the same action.

JUDGES’ FEEDBACK (6pts)

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – ……The protagonist’s unusual skills are intriguing. The story’s pacing is good. The prose is solid. ……………………………Very galvanizingly visceral opening paragraph as you describe Jane’s sunjective experience of “The Know.” You skillfully recreate Jane’s world on the more mundane level as well. The image of a psychically-attuned person sleeping in a dead man’s bed is very tantilizing!…………………I loved the insurance investigator’s special abilities and your descriptions of them. Quite unique and well written!…………………………………………

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – ……It seems as though it’s too much of a coincidence that someone who works on an oil rig would be named Derrick Hand. Why would the killer go through so much trouble with a potato when he could have just put a pillow over the man’s face? It takes suspension of disbelief that she’d sleep in the dead man’s bed. She didn’t need to do that to examine the medical equipment. ……………………………Wouldn’t she have already checked in on the menu? And if we’re dealing with the smell of raw potato, the menu for a cooked meal wouldn’t apply. Your ending is too abrupt. You need to connect a few more dots between Derrick Hand (VERY funny name for a rig worker, btw) and the potato and Ava. And wouldn’t an adulterer exhibit more caution?…………………It feels like Derrick Hand should have been brought into the story earlier on to keep us guessing. Kind of a “here’s what happened” ending……………………………………….

For the record, Derrick Hand is a job title on an oil rig. I was being ‘cute’ and didn’t think they’d catch that! 😉