Day of the Dead: Flash Fiction

A visit to a neighbor’s house and an offering in the dark inspired this piece, which I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some lovely writing going on. Maybe you’ll want to visit…read, comment, write. However the spirit moves you.

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The night is dark and cold, the full moon hidden behind a bank of clouds, and the glow in the distance calls to you. You are so weary, and the warm light is a beacon for your sorrow, a balm for your loss, a sleepwalker’s companion. Pinpricks of dancing candle flames form the arms of the cross extending to the walls of the shrine. You are late to the offerings; the shelter is quite full. You remember coming here before, and what you brought. You lit a candle for her, called her name, set down a small token that reminded you of her. Almost by rote you left your house on the first night of the Day of the Dead with something of hers in your pocket. A dried blossom, a poem, a picture she would have found amusing. Tonight you have nothing, because everything of her is now gone. You think of what you could have brought. The romance novel she urged you to read, every time you visited. The nail polish bottles she insisted you take, although you never wore it. All gone now. The house isn’t even there anymore. But this shrine is. It’s quiet; too late for visitors. You’ve always come late, to have your privacy, to say the things you never had the courage to before. A different thought is on your lips this night as you approach. “You want to know why I left him.” Silence. The candles flicker. There are no answers. At least, there are no good answers. No undoing what has been done. You can now only hope for forgiveness, and that he might find something good enough about life to continue. Maybe he too felt the tug to return to this place, and you scan the offerings for remembrances he may have brought. There are photos of people you don’t recognize. Tiny Bibles and teddy bears and… You bring a hand to your neck. The strand of pink-tinted fake pearls you once adored lay among some drawings you remember giving him, the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit you loved until it was nearly falling apart and…a wedding ring. Yours. The anguish scares you backward, out of the sheltering walls, and you wail into the night.

Off the Grid: Flash Fiction

My work boots crunch over the trail, navigating exposed roots and rocks and branches. The crickets and cicadas sing alternating choruses, joined by birdsong and the rush of the swollen creek and the everpresent background duet of chainsaws and helicopters. I hear that sound in my dreams, an earworm I can’t shake—whine, chop-chop; whine, chop-chop—as I eat my cold breakfasts and grimace at over-sweetened cups of instant coffee and sponge myself semi-clean with a rationed bit of water and a stiff, old washcloth. Chainsaws. Everywhere. Cutting apart the trees that toppled over in the last storm—blocking roads, ripping down power lines, crushing cars and roofs and whatever unfortunate things happened to be in their paths.

I fear my uncle might be one of those unfortunate things. I walk faster.

He knew this was coming. The crazy weather, the longer and longer stretches we’d have to go without electricity. “One day,” he said, pouring me warmed brandy while we sat in front of a fire on a frosty evening, when I was not old enough to legally drink. “One day all that”—he waved in the general direction of the nearest town and beyond it the city where I lived with my nuclear family—“will be gone. Collapsed under its own hubris, terrorist target, whatever. We’ll all be living like this, off the grid. No texting. No cell phones. No goddamn twenty-four-seven-everything-you-want. Someone’s gotta be the wise old fool that teaches you kids how to get on with it.”

Like he’d shown me—where to find clean water, how long to boil it if it isn’t, what plants you can eat and which can be used medicinally. The last time I saw him—over a weekend when I told my parents I’d be hiking with a girlfriend and her family—he took me hunting. He prefers a bow. It takes more skill, makes less noise, and won’t poison the groundwater with lead. He took down a small buck and showed me how to dress it. He made me promise not to tell my mother; certainly if she knew that I’d not only lied to her about where I was going but helped kill a deer, she would never permit me to leave the house again. At home, she pretends my uncle doesn’t exist. There is no talk of her younger brother; any mention of her childhood includes him only peripherally and with a quick change to another subject. Like he’s been committed to life in prison or did something equally mortifying.

I’ll never dare tell her of my visits. Or that he taught me how to shoot that bow and also how to skin a woodchuck. I can’t help a smile at the memory. He was proud of me for not being “all squeamish like a girly-girl.”

I walk faster. The chainsaws and helicopters whine-chop off into the distance.

To get to him on a normal weekend, I have to ride the subway to the end of the line, hop a bus, then hike three miles from the road up to his place. But the storm has rendered many of the roads impassable; the train tracks also have to be cleared of trees and debris, so it’s taking some effort and detours and waiting to even get to the foot of his driveway.

Now I’m half-drenched with sweat and feeling a little lightheaded despite the stale granola and two small bottles of water I swiped from the pantry.

I stop to listen. A chainsaw—the new state bird, my father joked—buzzed from the right. Not from his house.

I walk faster. I try to trick myself into believing he’s okay. That eventually I’ll smell woodsmoke and breakfast cooking. That he’ll greet me with his big easy tobacco-stained smile and hook one flannel-wrapped arm around my neck and ask about my folks and what lie I told them this time.

This time? I told them nothing. Dad was fiddling with the generator and Mom had gone out trolling for supplies.

I figured they’d never miss me, and if they did, I’d say I was helping the neighbors.

My heart pounds as I get close enough to see what happened. There is no woodsmoke. No breakfast cooking. All I can smell is pine. Fresh and sharp, like the tree—and his house—never saw it coming. I sprint the rest of the way, calling his name. No answer. Calling again. No answer. Then I hear it. A small, repetitive rasp that chews on my already tweaked nerves. And something like…whistling.

I nearly faint when I find him in the shed out back. Where we dressed the deer, the woodchuck. He is sitting at his workbench, sharpening the blade of his axe with a file. Whistling something that sounds like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” He squints up at me and grins.

“Had a look at that tree, did you?”

I can only nod.

“Well, stick around and we’ll show it what for.”

Two-Minutes-Go Road Trip

cropped-file0001608482449.jpgHi, everyone! While Mr. Mader is out schooling a few fish, the Friday 2-Minutes-Go luau and sewing circle is over here. What’s this thing all about? Maybe these words I lifted from his website will explain:

Hey, writer-type folks. AND PEOPLE WHO JUST WANT TO PLAY BUT DON’T IDENTIFY AS ‘WRITERS’ – all are welcome here! Every Friday, we do a fun free-write. For fun. And Freedom!

Write whatever you want in the ‘comments’ section on this blog post. Play as many times as you like. #breaktheblog! You have two minutes (give or take a few seconds … no pressure!). Have fun. The more people who play, the more fun it is. So, tell a friend. Then send ’em here to read your ‘two’ and encourage them to play.

Here’s one to start us off:

The grass is greener on the other side. Stupid cliché, you think, muscling the hand mower while sweat pours down your face and wet clippings pepper your shins. You have the damn greenest lawn on the whole street, on the whole planet, but you’re still pushing a hand mower and wish you could pay someone else to do it while you watch from your hammock, sucking on a beer. Like that dude next door. He isn’t an old dude, either. He wears saggy old-man shorts, some kind of faded plaid like your aunt Betsy’s summer sheets, but he looks fit enough to push a mower around. Just chooses not to, you guess. And he doesn’t really sit around too much out there anymore, lording it over his half-acre while the lawn maintenance guys pull up with their flatbed and do their thing. In fact, you don’t remember the last time you saw him outside. If you did, you might tell him that the lawn guys screw off a lot. That they laugh and tell jokes and do shoddy work and peel out of there in, like, ten minutes. That if nobody minds, you’ll be glad to go on over and tidy up the spots they miss. You peer over the fence. Yeah. Looks like shit. You don’t hear any noise from inside, so you wheel old reliable through the gate and neaten up the worst of it. And then you treat yourself to that beer. This becomes a regular thing, and you don’t mind. It feels kind of nice, and afterward, the beer tastes better. But then you start to wonder why it’s been so quiet over there. Just when you’ve finished up both lawns and you’re about to muster up the juice to go over there and knock on the door, the old man steps out. He looks even older. The plaid shorts sagging even lower. He gazes in your direction, nods, pulls his wallet from his back pocket. You walk halfway to meet him. His eyes are red, and also sagging, and he extracts a twenty and pushes it toward you. “For your trouble,” he says, his voice creaking. “Thank you.”

You’re already shaking off the money, but the door is open just enough for you to see the clutter, the oxygen tank, smell the disinfectant. “No trouble,” you say.

I’ll be in and out today, but have FUN (because fun is GOOD!) and I’ll be back later. Feel free, everyone, to write and post and read and comment.

Two-Minutes-Go Extended Road Trip

file0001863294772Well. Apparently I failed to break the blog last week, so while JD is giving Santa Claus a lift to the North Pole on his motorcycle, I felt duty-bound to step in again. That’s the new cover story for the NSA. Don’t tell them I said that.

Or, in a passage I stole from his website:

Hey, writer-type folks. AND PEOPLE WHO JUST WANT TO PLAY BUT DON’T IDENTIFY AS ‘WRITERS’ – all are welcome here! Every Friday, we do a fun free-write. For fun. And Freedom!

Write whatever you want in the ‘comments’ section on this blog post. Play as many times as you like. #breaktheblog! You have two minutes (give or take a few seconds … no pressure!). Have fun. The more people who play, the more fun it is. So, tell a friend. Then send ’em here to read your ‘two’ and encourage them to play. 

Here’s one to start us off:

Ezra barely slept that night. The decision had been forming and unforming in his mind, sparking him out of fitful catnaps as he weighed the consequences of each choice. As he slurped coffee and stared into his squinty-eyed reflection the next morning, he knew he couldn’t leave it to a simple coin flip. There was right, and there was wrong, and he might lose his job or worse, but when he laced up his boots and ground step after step into the frozen earth on his way to the factory, he knew what had to be done. He was careful to greet his coworkers the same way as always, with smiles and backslaps and the same, tired jokes. Pushing out enthusiasm that he didn’t feel, because if they sensed anything was different, they might suspect. He might be called out to face the Big Boss, who surely would ask why the change in attitude. And then he could not lie. He was not bred for lies. When he took his place at the assembly line, he had to crush his hands into fists to hide the shaking, and when the aproned worker to his left seemed to notice this small gesture, he laughed and said, “Must be the cold,” and she handed him a pair of fingerless gloves. He would probably miss her the most.

The bell rang, signaling the start to their shift, and the conveyor belt began to move. Ezra sucked in a deep breath and steadied himself on increasingly unsteady legs. Heart pounding in his oversized ears, he let the base assembly pass him by. And then another. He knew it wouldn’t take long for them to notice; one elf not doing his or her work was bound to gum up the operation and fast.

A light flashed. The line supervisor called his name. The room went silent. Ezra waited, hands raised, as if in surrender. He cleared his throat and swallowed, then spun to face the head elf.

“I don’t care,” he said. Forcing more strength into his words. “Put me on dolls or trains or teddy bears. Or banish me from the workshop. But I’m not making toy guns anymore.”

Flash Fiction of Inspiration

appletreeWe’re at it again! This week’s Friday flash fiction fun at JD Mader’s Unemployed Imagination 2-minutes-go blog. Write for two (more or less) and post it for the world to see. Maybe you’ll join us next time. I swear, magic happens when we all write together. Here are mine. Lightly edited to be a little easier on the eyes. With a dash of cinnamon, cook until done.

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His blue-jeaned legs swung from the crook of the tree branch, beating a tattoo against the trunk, and she could almost hear him calling her a pussy in his head as he smiled half-assed at her, gesturing with his nibbled apple how easy the climb had been. She didn’t care about girly things like manicures—piano lessons forever had cured that—so she dug in her stubby fingers and began the ascent. The sickly-sweet aroma swirled around her, of the apples that hadn’t made it to picking, the whir and whine of the bees in their confusion of something to pollinate, and straining her muscles, she pulled herself up, leaves catching in her hair, the scruff of the bark scraping her skin even through her denim shirt and pants. His grin widened as she joined him. The sun, dappled through the leaves, glinted off his aviator lenses. Sanctuary. At last.

———–

The future waits but he does not know that yet. Life has been a series of steps he’s told to take, places he’s told to wait, tasks he’s commanded to complete. Choices? That’s not been part of the plan. Choices have been about small things: ketchup or mayonnaise on the french fries; go swimming or ride bikes. These new choices feel too large and terrifying, like he’ll pick the wrong one and be stuck on a bad path forever. End up like his mother. Worse, like his father. Drifting around, busking for change and smiles. Not knowing when he’ll come home. As the bus bound for the unknown pulls into the bay and opens its doors, his mother licks a finger and pushes a cowlick down and he cringes backward. “Mom.” His mouth forms a sneer. “Stop it.” And to his surprise, she does.

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From nowhere, it seemed, the neighborhood stray tortie joined me on my walk. Dusk. Playing with me or trying to herd me or whatever feline trick she employed to bond me to her, she slipped serpentine in front of my legs, her mottled fur blending in with the asphalt, with the darkening night. Now just her too-big collar was visible, keeping me from tripping over her. She lifted her head up to mine, gave me a slow blink and bonked her forehead against my knee before letting me continue placing one foot in front of the other. Take me home, she seemed to be saying. We both knew that couldn’t happen. So we walked, her twining her long, skinny body around my calves, twitching tail, for the length of one property, two, before she slipped back into the woods.

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She couldn’t explain why walking in circles helped. The rhythm of it, maybe, one after the other around the top of the driveway, the streams of rain trickling under the hood of her slicker and down her neck. It was something she could feel, unlike the stale air inside, unlike the same tired looks he gave her. Feeling that wet and cold sliding along the nape of her neck was like a jolt to her body that woke up the rest of her nerves; the smell of the ozone calmed her and made it easier to face what lay inside. Made it easier to lift her feet up the crumbling concrete stairs and face his puzzlement, his derision, the shattered drinking glass he refused to throw away. He wouldn’t throw anything away. It all had memories, it all meant the person who’d owned it stayed alive, somehow. But she also preferred to walk the circles outside because if she did them inside, she could see the glass, the shards stacked inside the jagged base. Throw them out, she said. Get rid of them. She didn’t want to explain why it was bad to have them around, why she couldn’t stop watching the glint of the fluorescent lights against the fragments. The words were too hard, too fractured, too broken.

Flash in the Pantone

pantone-book-11Another Friday, another two-minutes-go writing challenge over at JD Mader’s Unemployed Imagination site. We joke each week about “breaking the blog,” but I think this time we actually did it. Flash fiction bits were going up, comments followed, until…well, let’s just say that we kicked some serious interwebs. Here are three pieces I threw down. Hope you’ll pop over to that link and see some amazing writing by David Antrobus, Julie Frayn, Mark Morris, Ed Drury, Leland Dirks, Lynne Cantwell…hope I’m not leaving anyone out…and of course, our own wicked awesome Pied Piper. Enjoy. As always, lightly edited for your protection.

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Flash (Fiction) of Lightning

writerHey, writers, ever get the urge to let your fingers fly without stopping, without thinking? Just let the words flow? It can be a great exercise to loosen up your mind and simply have fun. As most of you know by now, I’ve been doing this on the lovely JD Mader’s website on Friday afternoons. So have a lot of other kick-ass writers, like Mark Morris, David Antrobus, Julie Frayn, Ed Drury, Jt Sather, Yvonne Hertzberger, Lynne Cantwell, Leland Dirks, Jen Daniele, Rich Meyer, Audrey Carden…and that’s just a few of us. For instance, here’s what we did yesterday. What’s great is that there’s no pressure. Write for two minutes (or three, or four, depending on the whim of our puppet master and if you’re timer is working or not) and post in the comments. Respond to other writers’ pieces, if you feel moved to. Or not. Because fun is good. Inspiration is good. The alchemy of writers writing together…can be magical.

Here are the three that popped into my head yesterday. (Unedited, except for typos and egregious blunders, but that’s the spirit.) Continue reading