Last Words

A shadow filled Kate’s doorway.

“What.” Her voice came out more like a declarative than a question as she pounded away at her keyboard, the soft clicks barely audible above the hum of fluorescent lights and the rattle of the ancient heating system.

“It’s over.”

She stopped. Took a deep breath, let it out. So much for her story. She knew what her editor would be calling for, in about five minutes when he got the official announcement, so she pulled up the document for the final update.

“And?”

He slumped into the chair next to her desk. Answer enough for her. She resumed typing. Stories might change, but deadlines waited for no man or woman. Especially those of publications whose existence hung by a thread.

He smelled of hospital disinfectant, of bad coffee, of sweat. He wore the same shirt he’d had on yesterday. And maybe the day before, too. He leaned back, tented his hands together on his chest. “His last words were ‘fuck you.’ He was looking right at me when he said it.”

Kate looked up, readying a version of “What did you expect after you turned on him?” that wouldn’t sound coldly flippant. But the depth of pain and loss in his eyes stilled her tongue. “I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “At least it’s done. Nothing left now but the shouting. And the lawyers, of course.”

She gazed into the copy on her monitor, imagining that shitshow. Not for the first time, she was grateful that she’d gotten out while she had the chance. Before it could destroy all her credibility. Before she became one more short-skirted blond Barbie doll off the factory line. She was broke, and it was pushing midnight and nearly everyone else in the newsroom had gone home, and while she wasn’t exactly happy, at least she could look into the mirror without hating herself.

Most of the time.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “That I could try to, I don’t know, justify why I did it. And then, crazy me, to apologize for it.”

She felt for him in that moment. He hadn’t been the first to try to make the world see the consequences of what the man was doing, all the pain he was causing—to his staff, his family, all the people he ordered around like living chess pieces in some bizarre plan in his head. Nor had he been the first to come sniveling back, although she would never throw that in her old friend’s face. Not now. Maybe later. But not now.

“You guys hiring?” he said.

She lifted a corner of her mouth. “Look around. You think we’re hiring? I’m lucky that I’m still getting paid.”

“I was joking.” He paused, looked at the ceiling. “Kind of.”

Her phone rang. She snapped up the receiver. “On it,” she said, and hung up. “I gotta finish this, and a few other things. You want to stick around, get a beer or something?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Call me when you’re done.” He got up slowly. Drifted toward the door.

She resumed typing.

“Hey, Kate?” One hand gripped the doorframe as if it was the only thing holding him up. “What he said to me…that’s off the record, right?”

“Of course,” she said.

His footsteps disappeared down the hallway, lost in the sound of her keyboard and the balky HVAC system and the lights. She finished the obit, adding the copy from the two-line official statement, and submitted it to her editor. He quickly responded with his okay and invited her to call it a night.

She was about to shut down her system but then stopped. She pulled up the obit again, disappointed with the boilerplate quality of it. More would come tomorrow, she was sure, but this was all she could do for now.

But she could do something else. Her eyes misting over, she made a copy of the document and edited the first paragraph to include “…the former president’s last utterance was to tell his unofficial biographer—a talented journalist and author who is also his son, although the family had disavowed his existence and paid her mother for her silence—to go expletive himself.”

Then she printed out the file for her dear bereft friend, tucked it in her pocket, shut down her computer and left. Maybe for the last time.

Flash Fiction: According to the Latest Poll

Private Dave Duncan sensed his superior officer looming up behind him in the darkened control room. His shoulders tightened as he waited for the inevitable question. But the captain seemed to be holding off, timing his response for the highest possible dramatic effect.

“No, Captain, I don’t have the poll results yet.” Dave held back a grin, enjoying the wave of irritation emanating from his boss at being denied his moment.

“Well, when will—”

“Ah…wait a second”—Dave performed a few machinations over his keyboard, which he’d programmed to emit soft clicking sounds that he found oddly satisfying—”the report’s just coming in now.” He sat straighter as the results filled his screen. Did they really just agree to…? He squinted into the monitor as if he hadn’t read it right the first time. “Yes, Captain. Ninety percent say it’s time. Eighty percent say it’s far overdue.”

“Really.” The captain tapped a finger against his chin, another irksome habit, but Dave hadn’t developed a workaround for it yet. “Exactly how did you phrase the question?”

“Cloaked and open-ended, as usual. Confirmed by two other cross-wordings. Following your own protocols.”

The captain stopped pacing at the private’s work station and leaned closer. “Show me your back end.”

I’ll show you my back end. He’d been working for this insufferable prig for what felt like eons, and where was the trust? As if he’d make up a statistic with such profound consequences. He took a deep breath and toggled to the detail page.

Dave pointed to the line of code in question. “See? It’s all there. According to the algorithm, they knew exactly what they were responding to. Captain. They’re ready. They want this. They want to be put out of their misery. Believe me.” He’d also been doing satellite surveillance. What he saw from space confirmed the psychographics from the ground and the communications chatter. But if he tried to explain that to the captain it might be even more confusing.

“And you’re absolutely sure about that?”

“Captain…”

“I know, I know. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. But if we act on this data, it’s not something we can undo. Private Duncan, we are no longer in simulation mode. If we’re wrong, we will be facing grave accusations.”

Silence fell between them.

“I know what I’m doing,” Dave said softly. His voice blending with the low hum of the equipment. “The data is there.”

More silence. “All right,” the captain said. “Start launch sequence.”

Dave pulled up the launch app. Entered a series of increasingly complicated passcodes.

The red button pulsed on the screen.

“Wait—”

Dave sighed. “What, you want to push the button?”

“You scoff, but as commander of this ship, I feel it’s my responsibility.”

Dave backed off. The captain leaned forward and pressed the “enter” key. The screen did what screens do.

LAUNCH ASTEROID

A series of dots, like drumming fingers, pulsed along the screen. That part of the script seemed amusing to Dave while he was writing the program, an homage to certain apps he’d seen, but now it rang hollow.

ASTEROID LAUNCHED

More dots. A small doubt inched its way into Dave’s mind, making him queasy. What if—

SUCCESS. TARGET DESTROYED.

Silence. Except for the hum of the equipment, and the blood pounding in Dave’s ears.

Two pats landed on his shoulder. “Good work, Private.”

His footsteps retreated. Dave felt cold suddenly, blood draining from his face. Did I correct for—

“It’s really too bad, in the scheme of things,” the captain said, pausing at the control room door. “It was a pretty little planet, at least from a distance.”

Then he left. Mouth dry and fingers fumbly, Dave flew through the program’s code. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t there.

He hadn’t included a sarcasm filter.

Flash Fiction: Once Upon a Times

Margie doesn’t think of herself as old. That’s the trouble. Inside she feels like a young girl, tugging up her socks as she chases after the neighborhood boys for a chance to play ball. And then she’ll glance at her gnarled hands or pass a mirror and wonder who that friggin’ old lady is and why she’s back again to terrorize her day. But Margie’s body…well, there are changes that can’t be denied. She doesn’t bounce back as fast, be it a bout with illness or a joint that wasn’t happy with what it was asked to do. She’s slower in the morning, sometimes an ache in a place she didn’t expect but then remembered her mother complaining about the same malady. “Och,” she’d say, collapsing into her Edith Bunker armchair. The Archie version untouched since her father’s death. “Gettin’ old ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, kiddo.”

She again catches a glimpse of her own hands, as she sits on the curved wooden bench in the park. It’s a nice park, with a walkway along a calm tributary of the mighty river that cuts through their valley. In better days vendors abounded. Flowers and coffee and gelato. Not that she spent much on those. She never had much use for flowers, they died so fast. Waste of money, she’d tell Dan, although she couldn’t get him to stop. Back then. Now, maybe she’ll spring for a fancy coffee every couple of weeks, but otherwise her disposable income is stretched so thin you can see sunlight through the threads. The activity, though. That’s what she’s missing. It would be nice for atmosphere, and she could imagine being on the banks of the Seine. People walking little dogs. Children flying kites. And all the old women, with their string shopping bags and elegance. Old women aren’t so scorned in France, aren’t so invisible.

Not that she’d know; it’s just something she’d been told once upon a time.

Oh, how weary she is of all those once upon a times. She wishes she’d gone to France. Hell, she wishes she’d had the gelato. Would that small amount of change have really mattered? What had it purchased, back then? Cotton balls or magazines or some other thing that she would not have missed doing without that week?

Useless thoughts, she scolds herself. She breathes in the damp, muddy air, watches an egret sail by, pulls herself up a little taller, trying to be elegant. Thinking of string bags and cheese and long loaves of French bread.

He’d laugh at her attempts, that man who’d brought her the soon-to-be dying flowers, and she conjures up his face, and laughs right back. “Yeah, yeah,” she mutters at him, shaking her head, sinking back into her usual slouch. “I’ll get the damn gelato.”

Flash Fiction: Quarantine

You can’t watch the news. You can’t read the paper. The crawl, the front page list the dead, every morning, like baseball scores. For some in the media, it’s become sport. Breathless reportage from the bland blonds on the TV screen, and it reminds you of that long-ago song lyric, “it’s interesting when people die, we want dirty laundry…” Your own laundry leans over the basket in an accusatory pile. There’s a poem in the sweaty T-shirts and mildewing towels, the language of everyday life carrying on no matter what. You could die at your kitchen table, slumped over your fourth or fifth cup of increasingly weak coffee lightened with an off-brand flammable creamer, all that was available at the time, and mother nature will do her unceasing work. Decay. Microbes. Tree roots upending the foundation of the house. The neighbor’s cat eating your face. You know the danger in fanning the flames of those thoughts, and double-check that you’ve taken that morning’s dose of happy pills. Yes. Tuesday’s slot is empty. Or is it Thursday. You wonder if there’s an app for that. One that will wake you with the time, day of the week, the year, a reminder to do the laundry or refill your prescriptions or make sure you’re still breathing. “If you can no longer remember your password, press one…if you need CPR, press two…if you need a hug, I’m sorry, due to these uncertain times, that service is no longer available.”

You regret the argument. The last one, the one that made her leave. Not like the other times, with just her phone and keys, slinking back later, tearful apologies, the silent, careful lovemaking like you’re both made of spun sugar and dynamite. This was different. This involved shoving random clothing into a bag, doors closing with a quiet finality, all your calls ignored until you gave up trying. For a few days you sat stunned, okay, possibly drunk, and when that wore off, about a week into the stay-at-home order, the loneliness crept in. Again the TV taunted you, the Zoom videos of families quarantined together, singing Disney songs, making ink stamps out of potatoes, baking loaves of bread or churning butter like we’re all pioneers or something. But the silence is worse. The devil’s playground, paraphrasing your late, churchgoing mother. You dare to try it, to invite the demon in. A minute, to start. Then two. Then five. Then fifteen.

It doesn’t kill you.

And in that last silence, eyes closed and doing a meditative breathing technique you learned on YouTube, you trace the razor’s edge between solitude and loneliness. When you return to your body, you delete her from your phone. Maybe it’s for the best. Or maybe you’re just telling yourself that to make it through the next minute, hour, day. Maybe you’d been lonely with her for a while, but you never really noticed because you were always together. Whatever. You convince yourself that it’s better to be alone than to want to be with someone for the wrong reasons. Like having someone to sing Disney songs with on Zoom videos.

Then you do the laundry. It’s time.

The Landlord’s Son: A Fable

“Tell me a story, Papa.”

He chuckled to himself, and patted the boy on the head. Already he could feel the nubbins where his horns were beginning to make themselves known.

“A story? Surely you have a devilish enough imagination to come up with the most entertaining stories on your own.”

The boy stamped his small cloven hoof. “But I want to hear one of your stories, Papa!”

“All right, no need for such displays. Come, sit beside me and I’ll tell.”

Beelzebub then took his only son to his private chamber, cozy and dark save for the ring of fire, and there he began his tale.

“It was many years ago that I made the acquaintance of the son of a powerful landlord. This landlord was indeed feared by many who had no other choice than to live in one of his hovels. And, not to toot my own horn”—he laughed at the old family joke—“but I am the reason for his success, or at least what he chose to call success.”

“He offered his soul?”

“Yes, when he was but a young man. And a fine soul it was, too.”

The boy frowned. “He had a son. The son was born to a man who had sold you his soul? How is that possible?”

“Oh, it is, my boy. In nearly all cases, a soul is given anew to each at birth, and when they grow up, it is each mortal’s choice to do with it what they will.”

“But isn’t that quite painful for mortal children? To have a father who has bargained away his soul?”

“Yes. Quite. At least from what they tell me. Maybe that’s why the landlord’s son…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway. The man made himself a tidy business of our transaction. He asked to become rich beyond his wildest dreams, and when he married and reproduced, to bequeath his wealth to his family. He indeed grew as rich as a king, purchased more of his distasteful properties…and willed his fortune to his son.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Just as he wished!”

“Yes. Just as he wished.”

“So, all should have been well for him in the end. But I’m getting the idea that this story is not quite over.”

“No, indeed it is not. Many years later, and of his own accord, mind you, I made the acquaintance of the son. He was about as young as his father had been, but his request was very different. He claimed he had all the riches he needed. What he most desired, though, was love. He wanted the love of beautiful women, he wanted love from his future children, he wanted love from every mortal in the land. But what he wanted most was the love of his father.”

“So it was painful for him,” the boy said.

Beelzebub nodded. “So very painful that he signed away his soul without another thought. And I monitored his goings-on, as I do with those who have struck the bargain. See, I blame myself in part for what resulted. Because his father had honored the bargain, and because foolishly I felt a little sorry for him, I gave the son the benefit of the doubt. I waived my due diligence and chose to collect at a future time. He did have the love of beautiful women…who all eventually left him. He had the love of each child in turn, until they grew old enough to fear and distrust him.”

The boy looked up hopefully. “And his father?”

He shook his head.

“How very sad,” the boy said.

“That’s when I started having a bad feeling about the deal. So I paid the son, now a man getting on in years, a visit. He was not happy to see me. Not for the usual reasons mortals fear my return. He was angry, and he gave me a right chewing-out, blaming me for all the misfortunes in his life.”

Beelzebub sighed. “That’s when I knew. What I should have known years ago. What I now check for in advance of any signature on the dotted line. And what you should too, when it’s time for you to reign by my side.”

“What, Papa?”

“The man, despite all trappings to the contrary, had no soul to give.”

The boy, as his father had imagined, looked thunderstruck. “He cheated you! Did you strike him down on the spot?”

“No.” He set his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, I figured it would be more of a punishment for him to live out the remainder of his days. But I did exact one price for his deception.”

The boy looked up, his red eyes all questions.

“His children, my boy. His children belong to us now.”

The Council: Quarantine Edition

The Council is back from its hiatus. Warning: satire.

——

The Council, Quarantine Edition

“Forty-Three and a half.” Forty-Four tapped his fingertips against the table.

“I can’t see any of you.” Her voice through the speakers was faint. Then suddenly loud enough to make him flinch. “Why can’t I see any of you?”

“Forty-Three and a half,” he said gently, rubbing his temples with one hand. “Turn your camera on.”

“What?”

Michelle set a cup of coffee next to his laptop, out of his computer’s video range. As she departed, he caught an eyeroll. He turned back to the screen, at the only square without an ex-president in it. Or, in her case, an honorary ex-president.

“The little icon on the bottom that looks like an old-fashioned video cameras. Or…you know what, ask Chelsea to help you.”

“Oh. I got it!”

She smiled from the row of images, but it did little to erase the tension on her face, the shadows and lines that were deepening. They all looked like that these days. Some mornings, in the mirror, he saw not just his father but his grandfather. He returned his focus to the screen, recognizing Forty-Three’s den, heavy with the hunting lodge vibe, one of his own paintings hanging on the wall behind him. Then Thirty-Nine’s modest study, a mason jar of sweet tea beside him. Forty-Two sat in the big chair in his library, a row of biographies about George Washington taking up an entire shelf of his bookcase. It was a nice chair. He remembered the feel of it from his last visit. He missed visiting people. He missed having a beer at Earl’s.

Forty-Three-and-a-half’s image shifted as settled herself into the window. “It’s a comfort, at least, to see you all again.”

“Hope our next time is under better circumstances,” Forty-Three said, a new gravity to his face. “As our first point of order—Forty-Four, I apologize, I was speaking out of turn.”

“No, no,” he said, waving a hand. “I think given the circumstances, we can dispense with Robert’s Rules of Order.”

“Okay, then. I have concerns about using this format. Security concerns. This is not exactly the most secure way—”

“Oh, who gives a fuck about that anymore,” Forty-Three-and-a-half cut in.

Forty-Three’s boyish grin was a welcome sight. “Noted, Madam Almost-President.”

“That wasn’t funny, W.”

“Then why is Laura back here laughing?”

“Can we please return to the task at hand?” Forty-Four said. “Noted that we’re sacrificing a modicum of security for expedience, and that the question on the table is grave enough to warrant the consequences.”

“Noted,” Thirty-Nine said.

“Agreed,” Forty-Three and Forty-Two said together.

“Agreed,” Forty-Four repeated. “Now, ostensibly, the best thing we can do first is take the safe and necessary steps as recommended, and model that behavior and our concerns for the American public. Create some PSAs, not a whiff of politics. Use some humor, if you’re so moved. But there will be an end to this, or at least a pause, and come November, there will be an election.”

Silence.

Forty-Three and a half shifted nervously in her chair.

“We’re…” Forty-Three visibly swallowed. “We’re not gonna try to neutralize the target again, are we?”

“Not the best course of action at this time,” Forty-Four said. “I’m fairly certain the rest of you agree.”

The expression on Forty-Three and a half’s face led him to believe that she might want to do it with her own two hands, or at least had some new ideas on how to make it look like an accident. He shifted his focus away from her window.

“This is why I’m proposing Operation Firewall.”

Forty-Three’s left eyebrow quirked. “We’ll build a wall and make Forty-Five pay for it?”

Forty-Four allowed himself a brief smile. “Essentially, but not exactly. Let politics take care of itself. We have bigger issues at the moment. We combine our estimable resources to create a firewall between humanity and this virus. In essence, we’ll do what he hasn’t—make America safe again. Or at least as safe as humanly possible.”

“Are we gonna make masks?” Forty-Three piped up, reaching for something off to his left side. “Cause I got some great concepts.”

“Interesting, but maybe put a pin in that.” Pouting, Forty-Three pushed an object to the side. “I propose, owing to your winning partnership in helping in other disasters around the world, that you and Forty-Two combine forces to give the people national, rapid testing.”

A smile brightened Forty-Two’s face. “We can do that. I know we can do that. George, buddy. We’ll get the band back together. Call Bill and Melinda, get Bezos and Musk in on it, too.”

Forty-Four nodded. “I know you can do it.”

Forty-Three-and-a-half sighed. “He’ll just take the credit for it.”

“We have no control over that,” Forty-Four said. “But at least it will get done and it will get done quickly and competently. In the meantime, we implement Phase Two.”

All the windows on his screen registered faces in question.

He took a deep breath, index finger poised on his trackball. “I’ve invited a guest speaker.”

Another window appeared. Various mouths opened and eyes blinked.

Forty-Three and a half was the first to fire. “Barry. What are you doing? Do you honestly believe—after what she did to you?”

Forty-Four held up a hand. “I know what you’re thinking. But give me a minute here. Let her speak for herself. Please, continue.”

“Hello, and I thank you to be allowed to help. I stop drinking Kool-Aid, this is what they say? He is bad man. I know that now, and I was very wrong, and I want done with this business.”

“He’ll ruin you,” Forty-Three and a half said. “You get that, right? He’ll paint you as a traitor.”

“I don’t care, do you? I get better offer from billionaire. Real billionaire, this time. Me and Barron, we move to blue state, we will be heroes.” Her smile turned sly. “Now, where do we start?”

 

Thorns

It’s been a while since I posted flash fiction… Longer still since I’ve written any! I hope you enjoy this one.

—–

Selma had come late to the church, unfashionably late, because of traffic and parking and a terrible accident involving her pantyhose and the neighbor’s dog. Why she’d even worn pantyhose is a mystery to her now, as she doesn’t remember the last time she’d done so, as if anyone would care about her manner of dress but the woman in the casket, whom she hasn’t seen in years. She wrestles out of the car without further damage, clatters to the front door in heels she’s also grown unaccustomed to, then stops, breath frozen.

The damn door.

The closed, massive, accusing door. The polished wood and brass sentry was punishment in itself for her often casual relationship with time, the creak of its old hinges like the pointed stare of a displeased nun.

Footsteps scrape up the concrete stairs behind her. Saved. She lets out her breath, grateful not to be the sole latecomer shamed by the door. But then she sees him. Oscar. Older, fleshier, grayer.

“Sorry for your loss,” he mumbles, eyes briefly downcast, his smile a flat testament to tempered pleasure, a soft hand on her upper arm. “The years have been kind to you, Selma.”

If she were a cat, her tail would be swishing the floor behind her, slowly, so slowly. If they’d been in any other situation she would have flung his hand off and stormed away. Like she’d been tempted to do the last time she saw him. Which, she remembers, was at this very church.

“Let’s just sit.” She reaches for the handle, swallows hard, bracing herself for the door’s judgment.

“Please, let me.”

Selma tries to scoot behind Oscar. But he does that thing some men of his generation tend to do in times like these. Opening the door, easing her in front of him, steering her in with a palm on the small of her back as if she couldn’t fathom which direction to go on her own. Her eyes narrow so fast a rocket of pain shoots up her temple. Maybe it was from clenching her jaw against the opening of the door. Or the mortification of being late to her own sister’s funeral.

Or having to see him again.

The groan is overwhelmed by a swell of canned organ music, which diverts attention from the latecomers. She slinks into an empty pew in the back. To Selma’s dismay he slides in beside her. But they haven’t been totally overlooked. From the front row, they get an evil-eyed glare over the shoulder of her younger sister Amy. She probably arrived early, flanked by her handsome husband and two perfect children, and saved a seat for her. Better to stay put and ignore Oscar than change seats now.

Oscar’s hands brace the tops of his knees as if for takeoff. His face looks grayer in the funereal light. He stares straight at the open casket, his lips working but nothing coming out. Maybe a prayer. They could all use one.

“I loved her, you know. It wasn’t just some fling—”

As if that made it better. “Time and place, Oscar,” she hisses as the priest steps up to the altar.

“Sure. Sure.” His fingers whiten with pressure. They sit silent as the priest talks generically of life and death and the kingdom of heaven, then of a woman Selma doesn’t recognize, so different from the conniving and selfish Rose she used to know. He speaks of her goodness and generosity. But what else is he to say, really, when the family has stepped away from the church years ago, when Amy is his only witness to their sister’s life? It always catches her around the heart to learn that the three of them have such different versions of the childhood they shared. To learn how far Amy is willing to go to make them all look like saints.

When it’s over Selma stands, gazing at what she can see of her sister’s preserved face. No doubt they made her beautiful. But she always had been beautiful. Amy was the good girl; Selma was the smart one; and Rose was like her namesake, complete with thorns. Part of Selma wants to move forward, be the bigger person, but a part aches to sneak out and find the nearest bar. Again Oscar places that hand on her back. This time it feels less like a tiller and more proprietary. She wheels on him.

“No. You’re no longer my husband and you no longer have that right. Frankly, you have balls to even show up here.”

Oscar’s face droops. He backs away, palms raised, and fades into the exiting crowd.

Selma, steading her nerves, ventures forward.

Old Bear’s Children

Something different this week…a fable. I hope you enjoy it.


Old Bear’s Children

Once upon a time, there was a bear cub who lived in the deep woods. He loved his family, but he especially loved his den. So cozy and warm and good-smelling. He’d nestle down against his mama’s soft belly and take long naps, and he’d drift off to sleep while Mama stroked his fur. There’s a good cub, she’d croon, and then softly sing about Old Bear, one of their ancestors, who was a great and wise creature who watched over them all. In his younger days, Old Bear was quite the thing, snatching salmon from the stream, protecting the little ones from wolves, so powerful he could have his pick of mates. He chose Sonia, the most beautiful female in the land, but most of the others didn’t know she was so smart. She wanted him for her mate, and knew the competition would be stiff, but she also knew from watching the males of her family that she had to make his choice look like his idea. So she waited until the other females were engaged with taking care of the cubs and wandered off on her own. She spied him nearby and casually went about her way of collecting berries, until he drifted over. She held her tongue while he watched her, until he said, “Why do you paw so deep into the bushes when the outside ones are easier to pick?”

“Because those are the sweetest,” she said, and offered him one, and that was that.

They lived a long and happy life together, eating sweet berries and raising their cubs and collecting wisdom they would share with each new generation. They passed on the stories of how they met and how they lived and how they fought, when it was necessary.

The little bear cub wanted a life like that, when he was grown. He wanted a wise mate to share berries and salmon and stories with, to have his own cubs with, to grow old with. But he didn’t know that any of the females would choose him. He was born with a short front right paw. Most of the other cubs made fun of him, even the girl cubs, and that hurt the most. Mama often told him that it shouldn’t matter to the ones who loved him. That even though Old Bear was strong and protective, he wasn’t the most handsome of the bears and in fact one eye was smaller than the other which tended to make him squint.

“You’re not yet full-grown,” Mama would say, and suggested that the paw might yet catch up with the rest of him. It never did. “One day you’ll find a mate just for you,” she said. But that didn’t happen yet, either.

When he was finally grown, and he saw the others of his age group choose mates, he decided he had only one choice. Reluctantly he said goodbye to his mama and papa and sought out to start his adult life somewhere new. For a while he roamed, plucking sweet berries and catching salmon. He made his own den, tried to make it as good-smelling as the one he’d left, and it came close but it was never quite the same.

One day he was out hunting the best berries and heard a rustle in the bushes behind him.

He turned.

“You’re digging deep for berries,” she said. “You must have learned the ways of Old Bear.”

He froze, the berry in his mouth mashed against his tongue. Hiding his short paw the way he always did, not meeting her eye.

“Are you hurt?” she said, gesturing at his paw with her snout.

He shook his head. Something about her manner said “trust.”

So he did. She made a noise of comfort, so like his mama’s, deep in her throat.

“I’m missing three claws on my left paw from fighting off a wolf when I was small,” she said. The next noise sounded like a short laugh. “We can be a hunting team then, me with my better right and you with your left. It would make it easier to catch salmon.”

This sounded like a good idea to him. It was hard work catching salmon alone, and it might be nice to have a friend. Then he raised his snout to look her in the eye. And froze again.

“I know.” She sighed. “I tend to squint. Mama says it means I’m a descendent of Old Bear. Although with mama stories, it’s hard to know which are actually true and which are meant for comfort.”

His heart beat a little faster. “A true descendent of Old Bear surely would have the courage to fight off a wolf when just a cub.”

She fluttered her eyes at him, and something about the squint made that look kind of pretty. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“I do not,” he huffed. “I—”

Then she laughed again, and extended her partially declawed paw, and they ran off to the stream.

Edgar

The crumbling house in the woods was enveloped by vegetation and time. Edgar found it while he still worked for the government; he’d been tracking a runaway and noticed the anomaly. There’d been no heat signature in the mound of overgrowth, other than small blips which might have belonged to chipmunks or squirrels, so he’d moved on. But when the emergency had passed, he’d returned. He poked around the vines, some as thick as his wrist, until he found a window. Dull with centuries of dirt and pollen, slightly thicker at the bottom. Glass is essentially liquid, he’d learned in some long-ago seminar on architecture and American history. You could guesstimate the historical era by the windows, and nearly all colonial structures showed a similar settling over time.

We all settle, he thought.

He was loath to break the pane; from his youth he’d retained a respect for antiquity. But he did note the coordinates. He had a strong sense that one day he might need this knowledge.

Then that day had come. Technology had made him redundant; tracking was done through satellites and artificial intelligence on the ground.

They’d named the first trackbot Edgar. Not because the concept had been his idea or his invention, but because he’d been good at his job. Too good. Searching for a runaway, he’d stumbled onto a scandal that went high up the ranks. Those high ranks hadn’t liked it. In dastardly Orwellian fashion, they turned the truth on him. He lost his job. His pension. His fiancée. His home. His dignity.

Now Edgar was a runaway. The hows, the whys, the what-nexts…he couldn’t waste brain power on those. They were hunting him. He had to find shelter. The downpour and heavy cloud cover that helped conceal him from the sensors wouldn’t last much longer. His chest and legs ached from running; he’d twisted an ankle in the sodden undergrowth; he needed to get to the food and water and dry clothing in his pack. And his own cloaking device. Assuming the equipment he’d stolen after he escaped would do what he needed.

He was close; he could feel it. Up the next rise and down, near a fallen oak and a stout maple with a double trunk. There.

He whipped a knife from a pocket and loosened the vines enough to get to the window, in a place that could easily be re-covered. Trying not to think about snakes or spiders or whatever else might have made the overgrowth its habitat, he slipped inside the vegetation and flattened himself against the disintegrating brick and went to work on the pane. He couldn’t chance breaking it. Couldn’t leave an opening for the trackbots. The grout was degraded enough to chip away. The rain helped. Heart pounding in his ears and ordering his fingers not to shake, he freed the pane as quickly and quietly as he could. Then…success. The pane came away whole in his hands. The dim light revealed a simple, one-room cottage, mostly empty. Maybe it had been raided long ago, before the forest had claimed it and infused it with a fetid smell of decay. Worry about the accommodations later. Now he had to get in and seal the place back up. He eased the pane against the brick and climbed inside. Reached back through for the glass and angled it in after him. Beneath the rain he could hear the faint buzz of the tracker drone. He had to work faster. He set the glass down. Pulled the curtain of vines closed. Dug for the roll of duct tape in his pack. Braced the pane in position and taped it in place.

But he wasn’t safe yet.

He moved himself and his pack to the center of the cottage. The device was about the size of a pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t sure which battery it would take, so he’d stolen a range of them, then played a terrifying game of which would fit and which might damage the device beyond use.

The first battery did nothing. The buzz grew closer, angrier. He dropped the second one and felt around the filthy rotted wood plank floor until he found it. The tiny beep was his reward. He hadn’t worked with this model in years, but he was grateful for what was left of his memory. He set the range and frequency, hit “go” and it went. The gentle hum had him sighing in relief. He lay back on the floor to catch his breath, to evaluate his chances, to figure out what came next.

“Edgar?”

He leapt into a battle-ready crouch.

The sound had come from the southeast corner of the room. It was too dark to identify the shape. When he’d first glanced through the open pane, he thought it had been a chair draped with fabric. But he knew that voice. Small, breathy, almost broken. “Lucy?”

“Yeah.” The shape in the corner rose and moved closer. “What took you so long?”

“Oh, the usual. Traffic’s a bitch. How the hell did you esc—”

She was close enough now for him to identify the unwashed scent of her underneath the vegetative rot.

“We don’t have time for backstory. The trackbot’s coming closer. I can get us out of here.”

His eyes had not yet adjusted to the wan light filtering through the vines, but still, he could imagine no way out except breaking through a window or door. Even then, that would leave them exposed. The best he’d hoped for was the seventy-two hours of cloaking the battery would provide. By then the trackers would have surely moved on and he—they—could figure out their next move.

“How?” he said.

She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I stole the prototype.”

He gasped. How she’d done that, after security had barred her from her own project, would definitely be a longer story than they had time for. But if it worked as she’d intended, it could phase them into the no-extradition zone.

Vaguely he saw her arm lift, a squarish device in her hand. “Do you trust me?”

He smiled in the almost-dark. She’d asked the same question the night he proposed. He answered as he had then: “Do I have a choice?”

“Ride or die. But you have to turn your cloaker off.”

His smile fell. “What?”

“It won’t work otherwise.”

A buzz like killer hornets hovered above the house. Waiting. Knowing.

“On three,” he said. “One.”

“Two.”

“Three!”

A blinding flash. An ungodly roar.

Then, nothing.

Edgar blinked. Blinked again. Gradually he sensed a warm breeze against his face. The tickle of rough sheets beneath his body. An arm across his chest. And over him, blue sky through a clean, open, unsettled window.

“Good morning.” The voice sounded so far away, even though she was right next to him.

He labored to get his mouth to work. “Are we…”

Lucy was smiling. “Yes. We are. So, are you gonna marry me or what?”

Jake

I went a little dark for this week’s flash fiction, but I couldn’t help myself.


Jake had been out of the killing business since the kids came along. When first he saw his little Emma, so pink and vulnerable and innocent, and felt the crushing weight of his responsibility for her, he told Leo he wanted done. “I’ll miss ya,” the big man said, as they downed one last shot in the seedy Orlando bar they’d called home, “but I get where you’re comin’ from. Still. A girl. Girls are expensive. You gotta pay for the clothes, college, the wedding…” Jake said thanks but no thanks, paid for his drinks, and left.

It had been a good life, being a family man. Mostly a good life. He had an honest living as a foreman for a construction company, a modest house in a decent neighborhood, two weeks’ vacation every year. He took care of his girls. Three of them now, pretty like their mother, and he showed their pictures to anyone who would look. There were soccer games, sleepovers, birthday parties, trips to Disney World, and he was up for all of it. 

But he hadn’t been feeling so well lately. First he thought allergies, maybe a cold, then when the cough lingered maybe an infection, and his wife and Emma nagged him to get it checked out. He put off the appointment, once, twice. He’d lived with worse. Can’t work construction without getting hurt once in a while. If it was something that would eventually get better on its own, why waste the money only to find out he was okay? 

Then he wasn’t so okay. He thought it was one of those perfect storm things. Working outdoors on a hot afternoon after a greasy lunch that he shouldn’t have eaten. Next thing he knew he was in the ER, tubes all over the place, monitors that wouldn’t stop beeping. His wife sat quietly beside him, her face a warring mix of fear and worry and told-you-so.

They said he had cancer. “Just give me the specs, Doc,” he said when his wife had gone to the cafeteria for coffee. The others were too young for hospitals; Emma stayed home with them. “How long do I got?”

The doctor shrugged. It was inoperable. He talked about stages and types of treatments and general expectations and quality of life. Somehow having a blueprint, seeing the shape of it, made Jake more comfortable about his situation, or as comfortable as a man can be when his days were numbered.

Physically, he didn’t feel so bad, not yet, just got tired easier than he used to. But, as they had every other minute, his thoughts returned to his girls, his wife, how he would take care of them now that he couldn’t work more than a few days a week, short ones at that, confined to his office. He didn’t have life insurance; the whole deal seemed like a long con to him so he’d never signed up. His mind replayed his last meeting with Leo. “Girls are expensive…” How hard would it be, to take a job or two? He could still drive. Could get around with his oxygen belt-pack. His wife didn’t need to know. A dying man deserves some time to himself, doesn’t he, without having to explain every little thing he did? 

But Leo had his doubts. “Look, Jakey, I get it. But I want you to sleep on this. Really think about it. If this is the way you want to spend your last days. Sixteen years ago you stood in that same spot and seemed awful determined that this wasn’t the life you wanted anymore.” Jake was ready with his decision but Leo wouldn’t take him up on it yet. “You feel the same in a few days, you know how to reach me.”

So he took a few days. Emma, his first, his heart, wanted to take him places, now that she had her license and a vacation from school. They went to Daytona Beach, took long drives up the coast. During one trip, they stopped at a place that cooked shrimp straight from the boats, and a TV news network was blaring from the bar. “Who’s that schmuck?” he said. “I’ve been seeing him everywhere.”

Emma made an expression he remembered from the first time his wife had tried to get her to eat peas. “He’s gross, a total perv. He, like, sold girls to his friends. Girls younger than me, even. Disgusting. I hope they lock him and his sick friends up for the rest of their lives.”

The picture changed to a video of a girl, maybe a little older than Emma. Looked a little like her, too. She was crying. The caption below her face made his blood boil. If Leo gave him a job like that, Jake would do him for half price at least.

“You ready, let’s go.” Jake pulled some bills from his wallet.

She filled the car with nervous chatter on the way home, and he wanted to listen, wanted to soak up the music of her voice, but it was hard to concentrate. All he saw was that bastard’s smug face. When she pulled into the driveway, he said he had to run a quick errand. Something he forgot to do when they were out. Something that wouldn’t take long.

He still saw the questions in her eyes, the fear and worry, all the way into town. He saw them while he parked, while he took a last hit of oxygen before walking into the bar.

“I won’t take no bullshit jobs this time,” Jake said. “I want guys like that Epstein creep.”

Leo hesitated a moment. Then stuck out his hand. “Welcome home, Jakey.”