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.

How Grandma Saved Christmas

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


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

 

How Grandma Saved Christmas

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

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

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

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

“Rudolph and Santa’s reindeer!”

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

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

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

“And Santa asked you – ”

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

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

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

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

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

“Narhwals have pointy unicorn horns!”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Christmas was saved.”

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

“Yes, he did.”

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

She nodded.

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

“Born, yes.”

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

“Exactly.”

“Let’s play pirates tomorrow.”

“After you open presents.”

“Yes, after that.”

“It’s a deal.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

(criteria listed below)

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

Number of words: 1,000 or less

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


 

(Removed for submission for publication)

The Juggernaut – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, First Round

Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

(criteria listed below)

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

Number of words: 1,000 or less

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


The Juggernaut (word count: 998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END


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

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

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


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

JUDGES’ FEEDBACK (6pts)

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

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

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