Is This Thing On?

Happy Friday! I wanted to share a bit I wrote for Two Minutes Go. We’re still open, if you want to play. Or just stop by for a read. Excellent writing going on.

——

After a few months of house arrest, the shock frequency diminished, and Henry began to see his ankle cuff differently. He painted the silver finish dull with one of his daughter’s apocalyptically named nail polish colors—Irony or Acid Rain or Corporate Greed or something. Wore his shirt unbuttoned and pretended he was one of those old-time cartoon prisoners in Alcatraz, with their raggedy striped pants and a link or two dragging off their old, rusted leg irons. He let his beard grow and limped around the house talking to imaginary pigeons.

His daughter rolled her eyes and started making more coffee. “Dad. Stop it. They’ll just shock you again if you try to do anything funny, if that even qualifies.”

His shoulders slumped as he dropped his character. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“She’s right, dear.” His wife had walked in, began fussing around with breakfast things.

“You know”—he snatched a piece of bread before she could toast it—“I don’t think they’re even listening anymore. Maybe the guy in charge of that department quit again. Last night I recited about a dozen dirty limericks. Turns out a lot of things rhyme with ‘Trump.’ And…nothing.” He addressed his ankle. “You hear me? Nothing. Hello? Is this thing on?”

It just sat there. He’d missed a few spots with the nail polish, a shade of grayish-black somewhere between a gangrenous limb and mold, and they glinted in the kitchen lights.

“You owe me for that nail polish,” his daughter said. “That stuff costs, like, ten dollars a bottle.”

“I’ll take it out of your college fund,” he said. “Or here’s an idea. Try to help your old man through this.”

“Through what?” his daughter said. “You sleep half the day, then watch old movies, order pizza and go back to sleep. Throw in some beers and porn and that’s, like, a dream life for half the guys I know.”

“You’re fourteen. What kind of guys you know drink beer?”

But she just smiled and left the room, waggling her fingers goodbye over her shoulder. He spun to face his wife.

“You think they’d let me watch porn?”

Her eyes flattened. “Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen of him, after Fox News, it’s probably the most popular channel in the White House.”

He grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Ooh, you’re gonna get it. They’ll be coming after you next. Then you’ll be wearing one of these. Maybe we can get a matching pair.” He addressed it again. “Hello? Is this thing on? There once was a man from New York, who boasted of girls he could—”

“Henry!”

“What? Nobody’s listening. I could call him every name Jon Stewart ever dreamed up for him and nobody would notice. I could do twenty minutes on his weird bromance with Vladimir Putin. Hell, I could probably grab the Saws-All and cut this thing off and fling it into the dumpster across the street.”

He’d never seen her so pale. “Henry. Don’t you dare. Just because it might not be monitored twenty-four-seven doesn’t mean it might not have some kind of built-in—”

“You worry too much.” He headed for the basement. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”

Downstairs he rummaged through his tools. Several projects decorated his workbench, and he sighed at their varied states of abandonment. In the beginning of his house arrest, after an initial period of mourning, he’d thrown his energy toward creating things. A birdhouse, a set of bookshelves, a knife rack for his wife. But all inspired his comedy, became a stage for new routines. He imagined birds gathering, the cardinals scolding the finches, the crows telling dirty jokes. Each earned him a shock, so he’d stopped.

Maybe he was finally free now. Emboldened, he grabbed the saw and hacked away. No shock. Not even a vibration.

He took the severed anklet upstairs to show his wife. Alarm spread across her face. He half expected it to explode, or that any second now, he might hear sirens and the men in black would show up at his door. Like the first time. But no such thing happened that morning.

He set the mangled, streaky device on the mantel. A trophy to his survival. Even if he could be arrested again for doing his act in public, he’d write jokes for that broken ankle cuff; he’d perform for it. After all, after everything, the show must go on.

A couple weeks later, he finished a set, grabbed a beer, and was about to watch Bird Man of Alcatraz for the twenty-third time when he heard an odd noise coming from the cuff—long then slow beeps, like Morse code. He inched over to it. Touched it. Nothing. Then a voice: “Are you still there?” It was female. Tentative, with a thick accent.

What the hell. “Yep. Still here. Paying my debt to society.”

“Please do not stop. It is making me laugh and I need this so desperately.”

Wow. He had a fan. “I didn’t think the administration hired anyone with a sense of humor.”

After a long pause, she said, “I am not exactly hired. I… I feel like a prisoner here.”

You and me both, sister. “All right, then. For you, I’ll keep the act going.”

“I am grateful,” she sighed. “I just have a question. How did you get your ankle thing off? Mine itches like I cannot believe.”

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The Last Image: Flash Fiction

When you heard the news, you had an idea. Recreate the picture. Get the team together one last time, toast Cassini goodbye in the same place you celebrated her successful launch. How many times have you pulled out that photo, stared moony-eyed at the third girl from the left. It was your first job, and how it thrilled you just to walk into that room in the morning and see scientists you’d idolized since you built a spaceship out of Lego and zoomed it up to an imaginary moon. You mumbled at your shoes for the first three days. Then you settled in, and found each other, in that way young people find each other in offices. In coffee rooms, at the copier, lingering after the staff meeting so you’d both be leaving at the same time, “helping her” bring back lunch. Staying late to pitch in. You teased her about her thick glasses; she ragged on your Star Trek socks. And you were the last one to know how she felt about you. By that time she’d been reassigned. Or at least that’s what she said.

You brought the picture with you. You distract yourself with comparing the faces that walk through the door with the ones in the photo. People laugh. The tall, sharp-eyed guy who made origami swans for everyone at the Christmas party—stooped over a bit, a little blurry around the edges. The round-shouldered dude who wore sweaters his mother made him. Still rocking them now, but in a grandfatherly way. You wonder what they might be thinking about you. If you ever got married. If she had… You dread the moment you know is coming, where someone will say: “You made such a cute couple, why didn’t you ever—”

And then you start to think this had been a really bad idea. You slink away to the bar with the excuse of ordering another round. The television monitor shows the last images Cassini will ever transmit. Your eyes mist over, remembering when the first ones came in. You thought of her then, too, and thought for sure she was out there, somewhere, remembering you, wondering if she’d made a mistake. Or counting her blessings that she’d moved on. Then you sense someone on your left. Myrna, the office “mother”—who made the birthday cakes and hugged them all so very tightly when their part of the mission was done.

She gives you a sweet smile, and her hand, a little smaller, a little more wizened, lands on your arm. You think of things to ask her but aren’t sure you want the answers. Is her husband still alive? Do her children appreciate her, do they come to visit?

She points up at the screen. “It was beautiful, you know. Being a part of that. Like we’re all out there.”

You nod, want to make some joke about all of you together plunging into Saturn, but you don’t trust your voice.

For a long moment, you’re silent, and the commentator jabbers something about the project he probably just read off of Wikipedia, and with a deepening hole in your stomach, you realize that he’s probably the same age you were when you started working on it.

“I called her,” Myrna said. “She said she’d try to make it. You know. For the picture.”

For the picture. Your fingers dig into the sticky varnished wood of the bar. The part of your mind that makes words has turned to jelly. Cassini’s time is done, and perhaps it’s time for you to move on, too. You put some cash on the bar and ready the least jerky goodbye you know how. You mumble something to Myrna as you head for the back door. You try not to think about the birthday cake she made you, in the shape of a rocket.

You’re in your car, about to turn the key in the ignition when your phone trills with a text. You don’t know the number but you know it’s her.

She’s written: “At least we didn’t crash and burn like Cassini.”

He grins, then replies, feeling brave behind his words. “Maybe if we’d gotten off the launch pad we could have.”

He imagines how she would smile, maybe giggle a little. Tease him for the corny joke. But her words blip slowly onto his screen.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”

On six you take a deep breath, open your car door, and eject yourself into space.

Flash Fiction: The Pond

Inspired by a recent dry spell and the image of a little boy with a lot of questions. I think there’s more here, but for now, there’s this.

—–

I’ve been meaning to tell you. The old pond dried up. I took Billy out that way to do some fishing, since I remembered how you and I used to go over there when we were kids and come home with all those sunnies for Mom to fry. Yeah, I know she hated it, complained about the smell and the mess, but she loved it, too, in a way. So I was standing at, well, what I guess was the place we used to set up shop, the open end of the cattail horseshoe, by that nice big flat rock, and Billy looked up at me like I was crazy. His crazy auntie had taken him fishing where there wasn’t any pond! I’m standing there holding the bucket and the rods, and he’s asking all these questions: “Where did the water go?” “Where did the fish go?” “Where did the turtles and the frogs and the ducks go?” “Did they all die?”

I have never taken as big a breath as I did then. In and out and wondering what to say. That was definitely a sit-down sort of conversation, so I sat. And he sat next to me, on the lip of what used to be our cute little fishing hole.

“Let’s just take these one at a time,” I told him, and he was so quiet, his eyes so round and blue, his cheeks splotchy-red with upset, his mouth kind of crooked, like yours used to get when you were worrying over something.

So I said, “You know how it hasn’t rained in, like, a really long time?”

I knew he’d get that one. We’d just been talking about it that morning. How we couldn’t run through the sprinkler the way he liked, because of the restrictions.

He nodded.

“Well, just the way the leaves are drying up and falling off the trees way too early”—I pointed out a few trees that had started turning brown already. Can you believe it, autumn in July?—“if there’s not enough water, the ponds and such dry up, too.”

“But the ducks…?”

“Yeah, they’d be the first to fly off. I’m fairly certain they found themselves a bigger pond. They’re smart that way.” Were there ducks on our pond? The darning needles skimming across the water, I recalled. You don’t forget a bug called a darning needle. The minnow armies slithering underneath, I remembered, the gulp of the bullfrogs. There could have been a duck. I added a duck for him. It would have made a pretty picture. I have tried to paint that scene so many times, you and me fishing at the pond, but something stops me every time.

His voice hopeful, he asked about the frogs.

“Hopped away,” I said. “They can survive a bit out of water, so maybe they followed the ducks.”

“Not the fish,” he said.

“No, honey. Not the fish.”

His cheeks were all red now, and I worried he was going to have another one of his spells. I’m getting better with those. You just gotta keep your voice soft and hold him tight until he feels safe. He calmed down soon enough, and instead of fishing we went to get ice cream.

Don’t need much water for that.

It took a couple hours to get him to go to sleep that night. But I kept thinking about the ducks. You know, I’m gonna give that painting another try. One day I hope you get to see it.

The Outtake

PrintIn the first draft of The Call, I’d intended this scene to be the prologue. As I revised, and as some of my early readers gave me their thoughts, I realized that I needed to start a different way. Like a lot of writers, I’m loath to “kill my darlings,” but for the good of the novel, sometimes bits I love end up on the cutting room floor. Because I’m eternally optimistic that some scenes can either be used somewhere else or inspire a new story, I saved this chapter. I thought you might like to read it. 

—–

THE CUT

Margie’s twin brother had a wicked fastball, sharp and clean, and it landed in her mitt with a good solid thwock. She winged the ball back and pounded her fist into the pocket. Tim stood so tall on their improvised pitching mound, not quite sixty feet from where Margie crouched, squinting into the late afternoon sun that picked up the gold in his hair.

It gave him a halo, as if he needed one.

He stared down his target, turning the ball around in his hand, and she knew he was feeling for the seams, positioning it just right. Taking his damned sweet time.

“Okay.” She threw down her mitt and sprang to her full height, exactly one inch less than his, a fact that in the moment increased her irritation with him. “You suck.”

He smirked, tossed the ball a few inches up and caught it on the back of his hand, letting it roll down his fingers before he snatched it in his palm. “Bite me,” he said with a smile and pointed her back to the imaginary plate. “Assume the position.”

“No. You suck. I have homework.” She spun toward the house.

“It’s Friday, Margie Bargie. Homework can wait.”

With a sigh, Margie returned and prepped her mitt. Thunk. She held the ball, digging her fingertips into the red seams, imitating the holds her father had shown her. Her father, who’d spent most of his baseball career in the bullpen. Her father, whose mitt she now possessed. “It’s not fair,” she said, and whipped the ball back as hard as she could. Tim caught it, cringing as if it really stung. “Sorry. But it’s not fair that you get a free ride on baseball. That you’ll probably get scouted by some major league team.”

His face fell. “You’re saying I’m not good enough?”

“No.” She sighed. “You’re good. You work hard and you’re good.”

“So. You’re good, too. Stick with softball.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Softball’s decent.” Tim set up to pitch again. “Hey, it’s an Olympic sport. You can play in college.”

“Not for full-ride money. Not for Nolan Ryan money. I get to play, and then what? Nothin’. I might as well be a cheerleader.”

Tim went into his windup. “You could ump.”

The pitch skipped off the edge of Margie’s mitt and rolled all the way to the swing set the two of them hadn’t used in years. She trotted after it.

“It’s not playing, I know,” he said when she returned. “But you’ve got a good eye. Nobody ever challenged you when you called my Little League games.”

“Cause I’m a girl,” Margie said. Although her father might have thought otherwise. “Who’s gonna yell at a girl?”

“Point made. Okay. I gotta practice my breaker.”

But as Margie set to catch the curve, she started thinking about the possibility. When she and her dad used to watch the games, she knew all the rules. She knew the infield fly, the dropped third strike, interference, even some a few of the professional umpires got wrong. Her mouth quirked. “They got scouts for that? Drafts, like the minors?”

“I could ask Coach.”

“You gotta yell at me.” Margie squeezed the ball hard before flicking it back.

He snapped it up in his glove. “I gotta do what?”

“Yell at me. If I’m gonna do this. Those umps in the majors, players get right up in their faces and yell, and they don’t even flinch. I’m guessing that takes some kind of training.”

“Probably. Mom doesn’t yell enough for you?”

“Please.” Their mother yelled a damn sight, but she was a pipsqueak of a thing. “It’s Mom.”

“Right.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

“What, now?” Tim looked around like she’d just asked him to steal a car.

Margie stood and pressed her fists into her hips. “I gotta see if I can take it.”

“Margie.”

“Come on. Or are you scared?”

“I’m not scared. I just don’t wanna…you’re a girl.”

“Oh, please. I’m not a girl, I’m your sister. I’ve seen you puking your guts out. I’ve seen you comin’ out of the shower, like I don’t know what you’ve been doing in there.”

“Yeah. Not too embarrassing, Bargie.”

“Just yell at me already.”

Tim pressed his lips together and took two steps off the mound. “That was a strike!”

“Ha. You sound like Charlie Brown.”

Then he charged her, got nose to nose, his pale eyebrows scrunched together. Margie nearly jumped back. But she made herself stay. Waiting for it.

“You’re crowdin’ my strike zone! You’re givin’ the other team the inside corner, what the hell? Do you need glasses, you fuckin’ asshole?”

Silence. Tim’s expression crumpled. “Oh, shit. Margie. Margie, I’m sorry.”

And then she laughed; she couldn’t help herself or stop it. She laughed so hard she could barely breathe. She dropped to her knees in the grass, clutching her belly, still chortling. “If… you… saw… your… face!”

“That’s not funny!”

Margie couldn’t grab in enough air to reply.

His cheeks had gone beet red. “I’m not gonna help you get in now. You think I’m gonna help you?”

The screen door slapped open and their pint-sized tank of a mother shoved her upper half outside. “Hey. You two. Knock it off. Dinner in ten. And leave the friggin’ muddy tennis shoes on the porch. I just cleaned in here.”

Margie rolled onto her back, stared into the dimming sunlight, catching her breath, then turned to his sputtered-out face. “I’m sorry, Timmy. You just…you’re funny when you swear. You’re like John-Boy Walton.”

Tim grumbled something to the effect of what she could do to herself. And John-Boy. But with his straw-blond hair and innocent eyes, the resemblance was ridiculously easy. It would be his ticket. It would be his downfall.

She apologized again and even offered to do his laundry for a month, but he wasn’t having it. “Forget it, then,” she said. “It would be a total waste of time, anyway. Playing ball, umping. Either way, they’re not gonna take a girl.”

Then Timmy was standing over her, reaching down a hand. She stood without taking it. “You’re not a girl,” he said. “You’re my sister.”

The Object: Flash Fiction

And now for something completely different… Inspired by this week’s 2-Minutes-Go.


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The Object

The object, as I have come to call it, has been under quarantine ever since it splintered the roof of a nearby home. At least the owner had the good sense to call it in. Who knows how many valuable asteroids and such have been lost to science forever, because the residents wanted to keep the pretty rock or polish it up, hoping to sell it to collectors and scoundrels?

But this is no asteroid. My team had been monitoring the anomaly for quite some time, and nearly all of our projection models showed it striking the planet or at least whizzing closely by. One hates to say a direct hit is “lucky,” or see it do property damage or gods forbid hurt anyone, but in the name of science? We were all quite excited.

Now the two of us are alone, in the quarantine bay of the observatory. It sits in a sealed, coffin-shaped container of thick glass, atop a sturdy pedestal table. I watch; I take notes; I check readings. Nothing has changed. In my singular fascination, and to pass the time between the monitoring of temperature, radiation, a myriad of other quantifiables, I make sketches of it from different angles. It’s really quite beautiful. Its surface, a shade of grayish blue, is smooth. Half mythical creature, half like a shiny pebble one might find near the ocean. Not merely polished by erosion or forged in fire, but of a texture and substance I can’t identify. It is not uniformly round, but a kind of squashed, ovoid shape. Markings spaced in a uniform pattern intrigue me. I can’t tell if they are part of an intentional design or the random scars of traveling through our atmosphere.

No one has yet dared to touch it, myself included. The homeowner, perhaps with a sense of propriety, and of scientific value, for he was often a visitor to the observatory, marshalled his curious neighbors away from it until my team arrived.

And now here it sits. I don’t have the instrumentation to determine if this object that hurtled through space is safe to examine further, so I wait for the big guns to arrive. I wait and I stare. I stare and I wait. I imagine where it might have come from. It’s late and my imagination wanders, swirling in fatigue, and my sketches drift into the realm of science fiction from my childhood—odd beings with symmetrical features, stepping out of wild-looking spacecraft.

Preposterous.

I shake some sense back into my head, take another reading. Radiation—no change. Temperature—no change. I tick all the boxes and return to my chair. I flip back through my sketches. Odd. I don’t have one from the bottom, and, eyeballing the distance from the glass box to the floor, it looks like I can slip easily beneath.

A gasp escapes me. Something…appears to be written there. It’s a form of glyph I’m not familiar with, but the strokes are even and regular and some repeat. I sketch furiously, feeling each marking as if the repetition of each can etch its way into my brain, and the discovery sends my hearts racing. My scales tingle in anticipation; my imagination soars. Could it be possible…could it be possible that we’re not alone?