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…...

 

 

 

 

Sideways (Short Story Challenge)

For two years in a row, I’ve submitted to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. In the Flash Fiction Challenge, writers have forty-eight hours to submit a story of one thousand words or less based on the prompts assigned. Writers have two ‘heats’ in which to earn points to make it to the third heat or be cut. The third heat winners move on to a fourth and final heat before winners are chosen.

NYC Midnight also has a Screenplay Challenge, a Short Screenplay Challenge, and a Short Story Challenge. This year, I decided to enter and submit a story to the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The rules and criteria for the SSC are a bit different than the FFC. Instead of two days, writers are given eight to cultivate and write a story based on their prompts.  The word count is more generous as well. Here were my prompts.

Round 1, Heat #11
Genre: Fantasy
Subject: Anxiety
Character: A surrogate mother

Number of words: 2,500 or less

Synopsis:  A young girl suffering from anxiety struggles to cope in a world that feels hostile and alien. It’s only when she discovers her roots that she begins to understand why she feels a stranger in a strange land.

EDITED TO ADD: Here’s the song, Sideways by Citizen Cope, that Kimi is listening to in the story in case you’re interested to hear it.

_______________________________________________________

Sideways

 

Plant True Kin seed in dark of night,

In fertile soil, out of Sight.

If it grows to eight and ten,

Pluck the bloom to start again.  – Other Folk weaving rhyme

 

Kimi recognized her mother’s favorite kvetch.

“She was difficult even before she was born. I should have known trouble was brewing from the weird cravings I had. Honeysuckle! Of all the strange things – honeysuckle! I kept my sanity by eating organic honey straight from the jar. It’s a wonder I have a tooth left in my head!”

A shriek of laughter bounded up the stairs to nip at Kimi’s ears. She swept past it, quietly descended to the landing, and paused. Feminine murmurs and the click of knitting needles emanated from the living room.

“Born three weeks late, but even with that extra time in the oven, she came out skinny as a plucked bird! Wouldn’t take to the breast at all – just cried and cried! And look at her now, nearly eighteen and still shopping in the junior’s department for her clothes! By her age, I was all hips and boobs!”

“Barbara, you’re a card,” someone squealed. “You couldn’t have expected her to look like you, all things considered -”

“Mom, I’m going!” Kimi yelled as she ducked past the doorway.

“There are pastries on the counter,” her mother called in return. Then, her voice lowered, but not low enough to escape Kimi’s hearing, “Kimi’s got her weekly shrink session. Anxiety. GAD, they call it. They’ve got her meditating, doing yoga, tapping, but nothing seems to work. I tell George I swore I felt her fretting the moment the doctor implanted her. I immediately started cramping and was terrified I’d lose her!”

In the kitchen, Kimi sailed past the patisserie’s box and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. She shoved it into her hoodie pocket, palmed an orange, and headed for the door.

Her cat turned from its sentry position, its expression impatient.

“I don’t blame you, Puss. I want out, too,” Kimi agreed as she liberated them both.

She ducked to avoid a moth on a collision course for her head and glanced back, brow furrowed. The moth glided between the gap as the door closed behind her. In the mire of other worries, it was quickly forgotten and, unnoticed by the craft club, it took one turn around the first floor then flew up the stairs into Kimi’s room to settle in a corner.

* * *

Kimi turned her eyes away from the city skyline. She imagined the office’s muted decor was designed to soothe, but all the glass and tall buildings beyond counteracted any calm she might have felt.

She had told Dr. Ian it wasn’t a fear of heights. It was all the towering, sinister steel. The brittle flash of glass and heavy, unyielding concrete looming overhead. It unnerved her. She’d been glad when her parents had moved from their apartment in Manhattan to a brownstone in Brooklyn. If they could just find a decent therapist there as well, she could stop the hellish weekly commutes into Midtown.

“Have you been practicing your tapping at bedtime?” Dr. Ian asked. At her nod, he continued. “And has it been helping?”

Kimi shrugged a shoulder. “Some.”

If she said no, she knew he’d press anti-anxiety meds again. He’d put her on them when she was sixteen. They’d made her feel so odd – had given her such vivid and disturbing dreams – she’d refused to keep taking them. And, in truth, the tapping helped a little, just as the meditating and yoga did. The problem was these methods were drops of calm in a sea of panic.

The session ended with Dr. Ian urging her to try the subway again, even if she only rode for one stop. “Use your visualizations, Kimi. You’ve got to try. You’ve got to push back before your world grows so small you never leave the house.”

On the corner, she let her hand wilt to waist level just as a cab cut across traffic to reach her. The subway was a half block away and the M would take her right to Central Park.  She could shelter under The Mall’s elms, lie in the grass, wander Shakespeare’s Garden or visit Huddlestone Arch – a reward for braving the suffocation and terror of the subway.

Kimi stepped back onto the sidewalk and shrugged off the curse, hurled in Farsi, as the cab spun back into the vortex of Theatre District traffic. The retreating beat of Persian rap music was absorbed in the general din as she turned and headed to face her demons.

As she descended the subway stairs, Kimi plugged her earbuds in. Citizen Cope’s ‘Sideways’ poured into her ears, sweet and warm as melted caramel. She was currently obsessed with the song although she preferred classical music overall. Lately, playing it on loop staved off the worst of her anxiety far more than any of the tools Dr. Ian had suggested. She hoped it would help with this exercise.

Entering the subway was like a deliberate descent into the grave. When she’d first read about the catacombs of Rome, she’d pictured the subway. It was every arcane monster hinted at in horror novels, every profane, slinking beast from every religious tome waiting to consume her. Inside its throat, she could hear the thrum of its blood and the pound of its heart despite the music directly plugged into her ears.

By the time she reached the platform, her face was slick with sweat and her heart struggled to escape her chest. It was the flock of lunch hour riders that swept her inside the train car rather than her own motivation. As they settled to roost at seats and poles, and she was freed from their forward momentum, she turned to escape.

A hot wave of adrenaline broke over her head as the doors closed inches from her nose. For a moment, she hovered above her own head – a balloon bobbing on the end of a long string – then she slammed back into the prison of her flesh.

The jostle of packages and movement of limbs pried her eyes open after what seemed an eternity.  She hadn’t felt the train come to a stop, but between moving legs she caught flashes of the open door. She rocketed forward like a pinball, propelled upward by each person and surface she encountered.

It wasn’t until her feet hit grass inside the park that Kimi stopped. She hiccupped a watery sound of relief and sank to the ground to press her face to the warm earth.

Comforted by the perfume of mown grass and blooming flowers, lulled by the lazy drone of a bee inspecting nearby clover, she dozed.

* * *

Kimi woke and sat up, scrubbed the dried sweat from her cheeks and blinked into the slanted, late afternoon sunlight. One earbud dangled free, but the other chanted, “sideways” into her left ear at half second intervals. She retrieved the iPod from her pocket and checked it for visible damage. It appeared unscathed, so she powered it down and pocketed both it and the earbuds.

With less time to wander and enjoy the park than she’d first anticipated, Kimi chose the nearest refuge, Hallett Nature Sanctuary. She sent a quick text to her mother that she’d miss dinner but would grab something in Manhattan before taking a taxi home. The exuberance in her mother’s reply, ‘Good!! Have fun!!!!!’ was unmistakable.

Kimi suspected she and her mother would both feel relief when college started the following fall. She’d been accepted to a number of schools, but had been offered a full ride at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Her parents had been prepared to send her anywhere, but Washington was her top choice and she was pleased to have earned the scholarship on her own. She was eager to go – well, other than the idea of getting inside a huge, metal death trap to fly there.

The first fallen leaves of the season crunched underfoot as Kimi followed one of the dirt paths winding through the trees. An occasional glimpse of tall buildings winked through the changing foliage, but for the most part, she was in the company of growing, living things.

It was at these times that Kimi felt her muscles begin to relax. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she pulled off her ballerina flats and dug her toes into the hard packed earth. She nearly put them back on when she rounded a corner and saw a man on the path ahead. Then she realized he wasn’t wearing shoes either.

In New York City, where aspiring models and actors waited tables and sold perfume, a person could become inured to beauty. Kimi had thought she was until the man smiled and she realized she’d simultaneously stopped walking and breathing. As if he realized his effect, he chuckled as he approached her.

His gait was confident, his movements lithe. He could have been twenty or forty, she couldn’t have said. His hair was silver, but his face was unlined and his eyes clear and sparkling with mirth.  He was no taller than she and was both trim and stylish in a navy pea coat, tapered jeans, and leaf-green scarf. His ensemble made his slim, bare feet all the more striking.

“Rayne,” He held out his hand and smiled wider. From the rich timbre of his voice to the flash of his teeth, he dazzled. “And you are Kimi.”

She pulled her hand through his fingertips before he could properly shake it. Rather than be offended, he laughed. “I should have liked to introduce myself better had we more time, but the truth is, we must make haste. The Liar has found the warren where we hid you, little rabbit, and will soon set his dogs upon you.”

Kimi stepped back as he reached for her elbow. He was attractive, but so was Ted Bundy, and a child wasn’t raised in the city without learning caution.

With a wink and tip of his head, he acknowledged her rebuff. He extended one leg, bowed low over it, and stretched out his hand. “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild, with a faery, hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

“Yeats,” Kimi breathed out in recognition. The poem was a favorite. Something in his recitation of it gently knocked on an interior door that unlatched and swung open.

“Yes. I promise to return you shortly  – within mere moments on this plane – for you are not yet ripened enough to pluck fully and are even less unassailable in The Land until then. But we must away there so you may see your birthright and better understand what safeguards must be taken ‘til such time you reach eight and ten.”

This time when he reached for her elbow, she didn’t withdraw, but merely stared in wonder. Every word he spoke was lunacy, yet somehow they translated to reason in her ears.

Perhaps the stress of the subway trip had snapped her mind, she rationalized. Maybe she was in a hospital. Maybe they’d administered an injection to calm her. This man – the odd look of him, the antiquated speech and its odd cadence – were all consistent with the vivid dreams she’d had while on the anti-anxiety meds.

“Listen to the wind in the leaves,” he demanded. “Hear The Land calling? Follow that voice. Look between the worlds and step sideways.”

“I don’t know what that means!” she contended as he tugged her arm.

“You do!” he insisted. “It’s plaited into the threads that comprise you. You would have seen The Land in your dreams – movement at the corner of your eye when deep in thought or focused intently on a task. Glance from the corner of your eyes, Kimi. Step sideways.”

“I don’t understand!” she pleaded. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“I’m Rayne, servant and advisor to the True Kin. You are True Kin. You are one of the first in a thousand years. You are Heir and caretaker to our kind! You are born to save our land by preventing the humans from destroying theirs!”

“You’re insane!” she cried even as she felt the truth of his words. “You’re talking nonsense and you expect – ”

A chilling ululation from behind them quieted her. The countering bellow of a pack of dogs fast approaching galvanized them.

“Sideways!” The sibilant hiss of the word still floated in the air a second after he stepped sideways off the path and into thin air.

Kimi indulged in a brief moment of shocked incredulity, her eyes locked on the place the man suddenly ceased to occupy. Then, the alarum of the dogs fast approaching spurred her into movement.

She’d spent most of her life ignoring the movement in her peripheral vision, ignoring the fantastic objects which morphed into common, everyday items on closer inspection. Ignored what seemed like expressive, humanoid faces on birds and insects, just like she’d done with the moth she’d encountered earlier that morning.

She took a deep breath and let the path in front of her blur to the background.  The world at the corner of her eye came into sharp focus. A new path appeared where, before, there had been nothing but dense shrubs. She stepped sideways onto it and Manhattan simply blinked out of existence.

The wood in which she found herself was denser than the one she’d just left. More natural and somehow wilder. Uninterrupted by the din of background traffic, Kimi could hear choirs of bird song all around.  The wind carried the sound and smell of a nearby stream to them. Most remarkable, however, was the deep and unwavering calm sinking into her bones.

“M’lady.”

Kimi turned and raised a hand to her open mouth.  Rayne bowed briefly, straightened, and swept his arm to introduce a slow-gathering group. They were the people from her dreams. People like her – slender, graceful, and sharp-featured with slightly slanting eyes. Her people. And alongside them, creatures half-human, half-animal, some feathered, some flying on iridescent wings. These were the beings she’d only read about in fairy tales and seen in vivid, medicine-induced dreams.

A smile bloomed from her mouth to her eyes and with a throat constricted with joy, she demanded, “Tell me everything.”

* * *

Human lore tells tales of Other Folk stealing their children and leaving behind changelings. No species of Other has use for human babes. It is the rare, planted Other that is left to fret and grizzle in the peculiar Human world. Few survive to return home, but those who do are True Kin.  –  Book of True Kin

END

————————————————————————–
Ellipses are used to separate the judges’ feedback.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

This is a highly relatable fantasy. The contrast between the “real” world and the fantasy world is at once stark and magically overlapping. ………………………Your story’s details are wonderful. You’re showing instead of telling. “The problem was these methods were drops of calm in a sea of panic.” Wonderful. “Poured into her ears, sweet and warm as melted caramel”. Great. You have one of the best handles on what a panic attack feels like that I’ve seen. “He was attractive, but so was Ted Bundy, and a child wasn’t raised in the city without learning caution”. Amazing. Your story’s pacing is great and every single one of your details is necessary. You’ve got these small seemingly insignificant details (like the off-handed mention that Kimi wants to go to Washington to study the first) that are fantastic instances of characterization.…You set a good pace with the changeling story. Your story was nuanced and creative. I liked each of the characters. The mother made me laugh, Rayne spoke in riddles, and Kimi was cautious and relatable.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK –

There is much to be fleshed out. Kimi’s anxiety — we sense that it is an effect of her living in the “real” world, not her home, but this is not spelled out. Her anxiety on the subway is well rendered; perhaps have her mention something about animals, or visions, to her psychiatrist. Also, more interaction with her mom, and perhaps more history about how the surrogate pregnancy came about . . . I’m left wondering. In a good way — but once these sections become more fully fleshed, you’ll have an even more complex and cohesive story! ………………………”Felt her muscles being to relax”, I think you mean beginning here. I’d like to know a bit more about her anxiety. Why does the subway freak her out? Is it just the subway or is it enclosed spaces, crowds of people,…? I’d also like to know a little more about the True Kin and who this person is that’s after Kimi!…I would have liked to read more of an explanation for why Rayne appeared in Kimi’s life at that particular moment in time. Also, you could have written more about how Kimi felt being a surrogate child.