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.

 

 


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.