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.

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Annika

The Russian man was back, lounging at his favorite table like a king. Annika could have predicted this. From the first day he strutted into their bistro and charmed Svetlana into preparing a special dish for him, he had the bearing of a man used to getting his own way; Annika did not fathom why Svetlana couldn’t see that. Maybe love was making her blind. Or maybe he had simply worn her down. To save her dignity, perhaps, or to extend this cat-and-mouse game she was playing, Svetlana chuckled, took two wine glasses from the batch Annika had just washed and hand-dried and filled them with the last of the good Riesling. Svetlana leaned against the counter, sipping from one of them. “I will make him wait,” she said. “What do they say about anticipation, what is that maxim in English?”

Although Annika knew enough English to get by, her first language was German, French her second, so she could only shrug.

Eventually Svetlana went to him, and Annika could not bear to watch. But she imagined the strikingly beautiful chef striding across the dining room, smiling at him, insinuating herself into the chair opposite his, flirting with him as if it was a craft she’d polished as well as Annika had the wine glasses. The change in the pitch of her voice, the low, intimate tone, was a painful thing to hear.

Because Annika had seen him around town with other women. She didn’t know if it would have been kind or cruel to tell Svetlana this. Until that moment, Annika had held her tongue. But just yesterday, she’d passed a jewelry store and saw him through the window, his arm around a slip of a thing as she pointed to various items in the cases. Certainly he was not old enough to have a daughter that age, and there was nothing fatherly or brotherly about the way his hands seemed to own her.

It was that empty hour between lunch and dinner, so Svetlana had the luxury of lingering with special customers. They had wine and bread and cheese, and he leaned toward her and drank her in with his eyes. He was besotted with Svetlana, and why not? The chef was smart and worldly and elegant. And as a Russian, Svetlana understood him in a way none of these little French girls did.

When it was time for dinner prep to start, Svetlana came back in the kitchen, slipping into her white jacket. Her cheeks were flushed, either from the wine or his attention.

“What?” Svetlana said to Annika. “What stick flew up your ass and died?”

Annika turned toward her station. The pots still needed to be washed. “He is not worthy of you,” she said, half-hoping Svetlana wouldn’t hear.

But damn her, those sharp ears caught everything. “That is charming of you, to be so concerned,” Svetlana said. “But I know what I am doing.”

Heat flooded Annika’s pale cheeks. “No, I think you don’t. I think you don’t know him as well as you claim.”

Svetlana flipped a palm up, as if this was of no consequence. “Yes. There are others. And a wife in Moscow. We have no illusions.”

Annika smacked her sponge into the soapy water. “This is just what I meant! He is not worthy—you deserve someone who will love you and you alone. You deserve…”

Already Annika had said too much and her words stuttered to a stop.

Svetlana smiled, stepped over to her, pressed a palm to Annika’s cheek. “Liebschen,” she purred. The low note of it, coupled with the warmth of her hand, vibrated a chord in Annika’s belly. “It is truly sweet that you look out for my welfare.” Then she turned away to begin her prep. “You know, perhaps you could do with a distraction. A night out. I will see if Grigory has a friend.”

Salt: A Modern Fable

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I’ve never written a fable before, but when I caught a headline on Politico yesterday, this story jumped into my head. I wrote it for 2-Minutes-Go.

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Salt

More than his gold-plated golf clubs, more than his collection of celebrities on speed-dial, more than any of his trophies, the man loved his salt. He’d cultivated that salt with a patience he’d bestowed on no human in his life. He’d traveled the earth looking for the best location to harvest it, the ideal climate, the primo seaside sunbaked leeward cove, where the big-league crystals collected. But it still was not good enough, the haul too paltry, so he spent a million dollars of his fortune on a magician’s spell to make the minerals more powerful.

That was the ticket.

The salt colonized and crystallized and concentrated and sparkled. The ocean and magic combined to imbue it with the bitter tears of mermaids in mourning, the revenge of white whales, the last cries of drowning mariners, the shaking fist of Atlantis. He brought no one there except his favorite son, on secret missions, telling his wife they were going to the circus, or hunting tigers. The first time they reached the cliffs, the boy looked confused, and the man indulged in a wolf’s smile.

“Someday,” he said, clapping a small hand to the boy’s shoulder, “this will all be yours. It will be your legacy. It will be the salt to rub in your enemies’ wounds.”

The boy didn’t understand, and the man was angry, and the boy grew quiet. But he kept bringing the boy to the cliffs when he traveled to check on his salt, to make sure the enchantment still held, to make sure there would be enough. For he had a lot of enemies. He’d hoped to push some sense into the boy. Like his father had done to him.

During his next visit, as they beheld what the family fortune had purchased, the boy asked, “Is it time yet?”

The man lifted his chin and felt the sea breezes on his freshly exfoliated face. He licked a finger and raised it in the air. “Oh,” he said, relishing what was to come. “It’s time.”

And he took off his expensive shoes and rolled up his expensive trousers and picked down the rocks to where the salt deposits lay, all the while wincing at the pain in his soft, small, pedicured feet. The boy followed his lead, carrying the golden bucket, and soldiered on under its weight as the man filled it to the brim.

The salt was beautiful, and it was his, and the man felt a touch of pride as if it were another child.

When they returned to the city, he climbed to the highest tower, the boy in his footsteps, and opened the windows where the people gathered below. From their shouts he knew that most of them hated him, were envious of all he possessed and of the victories he’d claimed, but he waved and smiled, told a few jokes. Drawing them closer.

Then with one mighty hurl, he emptied the bucket over the ledge, but the wind blew the salt back at him. He tried to duck the onslaught—too late. The last thing he saw before the crystals blinded him was his son, standing behind him, smiling. A wolf cub’s smile.

Sit Down

Hi, everyone. I wanted to share a story I wrote for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. I didn’t intend to be political, but sometimes the characters have other ideas. I hope you’ll read the brilliant work being posted on JD Mader’s blog, and maybe one week, you’ll join us.

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Betty liked to make one full circle of the main floor and the gallery before she left for the night, plucking up any papers or loose items strewn about. There was no need; the cleaning crew was spit-spot like Mary Poppins, in before the break of dawn preparing for the day ahead, but it was a small courtesy she prided herself on and had for the last twenty-five years she’d been a fixture in this place. On her last sweep through the first floor she found three empty coffee cups, several newspapers, and pair of eyeglasses someone would be dearly missing in the morning. She slipped them into the pocket of her apron and paused before leaving, admiring the gleam of the brass and the polished wood lectern and the deep blue carpeting. It was so much more impressive in person than on the television. That’s what she usually told people who asked. But because of her work hours, she rarely got to see any of the senators in action. She’d heard about what happened yesterday—who hadn’t—and she’d shaken her head, imagining those important men and women, in their expensive suits, sitting on the floor! She knew the carpeting was clean; the steamers had been in just last weekend, but still. The second-shift men in the cafeteria didn’t see what good would come of it, and they argued among themselves, but they’d stood at the ready, always a new pot of coffee brewing. One of them bragged he himself had served a cup of coffee to a man who had marched in Selma, Alabama, way long ago. That man. That man was sitting on the floor not ten feet from where she was standing. She slipped a glance right, then left, then walked over to that spot. One hand on a chair’s armrest, she lowered herself to the pile. It was sturdy, but soft, and she dug her fingers into it and listened carefully. She could almost feel them then, could almost hear their words still echoing around the room. She inhaled and exhaled in time with their chanting back and forth, their calls for justice to be done. She sat for a long while, imagining faces, speeches, and what, if anything, would come of it. And then she jumped at the sound of a thin, uncertain voice calling her name.

“Miss Betty?” it said again.

She turned. She knew that young man. He worked for one of the senators, she couldn’t remember which, and he reminded her of her son when he was that age, and she could not help but stare, even as embarrassment heated her face for being caught.

“You all right?” he said.

He stepped forward to help her from the carpet, but she waved him off. “I’m fine,” she said.

It came out sort of snippy, and he smiled and said softly, “Well, all right then.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes. The senator. He left his reading glasses here, he thinks…”

She fished them from her pocket. Turned them around in her fingers before extending her arm toward him. “These them?”

“Yes, ma’am, thank you.”

He held the frames a moment, but made no move to leave. Like he wanted to talk about something.

“You were here,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed up toward the gallery. “It was pretty wild.”

She patted the carpet beside her. “Tell me.”

He looked confused, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Miss Betty, ma’am, you can watch it on the computer in the break room. I can show you how it works, if you like.”

“No,” she said. “If you don’t mind humoring an old woman, I’d prefer if you sit right here where they sat and tell me how it started.”

The young man nodded. He smiled shyly, as if he’d been waiting to be asked, and despite the possibility of dirtying his nice suit, he folded his long legs beneath him, closed his eyes, and then began to speak.

Heart

heart-772637_640I’d like to share a story inspired during this week’s Two-Minutes-Go on JD Mader’s Unemployed Imagination blog. Great writing happens there. Maybe one week you’ll come by and play. Because it’s fun. And fun is good.

—–

Heart

He didn’t recognize the purple-inked handwriting on the note he’d plucked from beneath his windshield wiper. Maybe his eyes were whacked from staring at computer code all day. So he blinked again, and again, and saw only the same few words in the tiny and most likely female script: “I heart your car.” A black cloud descended over his thoughts as he shook his head and crushed the slip of paper in one pale fist. More jokes. He drove a beat-to-crap Honda Civic that wasn’t even born in this century, hardly the stuff that inspires women to verb a perfectly good noun like “heart.” And if this writer of purple prose knew who owned the car? Yeah. Game over. He saw how they reacted to him. Women whispered when he walked past, gave him a wide berth in the hallways, as if afraid they’d catch something. A computer virus. Nobody wanted to talk to the dorky code guy. He wasn’t all smooth and sexy like the dudes in advertising or sales. No. He sat in the basement under the fluorescent lights and drank cold coffee and wore Spiderman socks.

Maybe he should rethink the socks.

He tossed the crumpled note on the back seat of his car.

When he turned, a girl was standing there. He jumped, and pressed a hand to his heart, which from her sudden materialization, had started to verb.

“Sorry,” she said, the left side of her mouth lifting for a second. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She was pretty. Her hair was long and dark and neatly parted on the side. Her glasses sat crookedly on the bridge of her nose, and he couldn’t explain his desire to straighten them. He opened his mouth to say something hopefully clever, maybe to ask her name or if she was new because he’d never seen her before, but his mind felt like a giant intersection, all the strings of words confused as to which had the right of way.

She gestured to his car and said, “I have the same one.”

That explained the note. He looked up, across the neat rows of parked vehicles, and as if to assist him, she pointed. “I keep thinking I should get something newer,” she said. “But then I’d have to find new bumper stickers, and I don’t know that they make any like that anymore.”

She kept talking, something more about her car, but he had followed the line of her finger. One of the stickers read, “I’d rather be watching Firefly.”

And then he smiled, and his heart really started to verb.

Why Writing Isn’t Enough

Happy Monday! I’m sharing a guest post from Britt Skrabanek that was published on Kristen Lamb’s blog today. Britt is a savvy author and marketer who has some good points to make about our publishing expectations. As much as I wish I could click my ruby slippers together, press the “easy” button, and be an Amazon bestseller (how’s that for mixing some metaphors?) it ain’t gonna happen without work, patience, and sometimes, a little bit of luck.

Real Life into Fiction

Typewriter - Once upon a timeThink about your favorite novels. There might be a ripping good story and great writing, but I bet it also stars characters that leap off the page. Even if the characters inhabit a fantasy world and have two heads and green fur, they feel as real as the person sitting next to you. That being feels…real to you. You care what happens to she/he/it. Ever wonder how writers do that? I can’t speak for all writers, but here are a few secrets some of us use to take our real life experiences into fiction. Continue reading