Flash Fiction: A Call to Prayer

“The tray snapped through and there was no dinner. No lentils or rice or meat he could not recognize. Only a black hood. He said another prayer, put the rank cloth over his head, and waited.”

wall-613137_640

A Call to Prayer

The heavy footsteps came closer, echoing through the cool stone corridor, and stopped in front of Aaron’s cell. A man grunted the short, guttural words he’d come to associate with the delivery of a meal, and he waited for it to clank through the hatch at the bottom of the door. By the slant of light through the tiny barred window near the ceiling, and the last time he’d heard the call for prayer, Aaron expected dinner: lentils or rice with a bit of meat. Over this meal he’d say his own prayer, thankful for what he’d been given.

The tray snapped through and there was no dinner. No lentils or rice or meat he could not recognize. Only a black hood. He said another prayer, put the rank cloth over his head, and waited. The man called out a question. Aaron said yes and the door creaked open. By his own arrogance, he’d once learned what was on the other side of the hood—a guard with a rifle—and didn’t think it would be wise to tempt fate again.

He let the man nudge him out and down the hallway, their footfalls ringing in lockstep. Each heavier than the last. Aaron’s heartbeat stole the air from his lungs, the saliva from his mouth. He thought of Jesus on the cross, of that iconic prayer: Fatherforgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

The guard stopped him. A door swung open. He was led forward. Made to stand in a certain place and pushed down at the shoulders. That meant sit, and a hard surface awaited him, and his hands were tied behind his back.

The hood was removed from his face and the door clanked shut and he was alone on a blue plastic chair in front of a flat-screen television. He knew what came next. The interrogator would come and turn on the set and watch with him. When the cloaked men got through their litany of crimes against the accused, the end was mercifully swift; he prayed that his compatriots had not suffered long. Then he would provide the same answers to the same questions he’d been asked so many times. No, he didn’t work for the government. No, he wasn’t with the military. No, the church he claimed to represent was not a front for a ring of American spies.

Part of him prayed that he would be taken next, just to have it done with.

The door opened again. It was not the same interrogator that had sat with him the last two times.

This man gave him a sad smile, almost one of gratitude. “You are Aaron Westbrook?”

“Yes.”

“You are the same Aaron Westbrook who went to Syracuse University in 1980?”

Aaron blinked. “Yes.” This man didn’t look old enough to have even been a sparkle in his father’s eye all those years ago.

“You saved my uncle’s life. He was going to university there. Some men pulled him from his car and called him terrible names and beat him and stole his wallet and left him for dead in the street. He says you took care of him. He speaks of you often. How you got him a doctor and let him stay with you and…”

“Saleh?” Aaron smiled. He hadn’t thought of his old friend for so long. “Speaks? He’s still alive?”

The man nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. In fact, he is the reason I’m here. He recognized you on the news and asked me to find you.” After a quick glance at the door, he started working on the ropes that bound Aaron’s hands. “Come with me. I know a way out. For both of us.”

Sunday Flash Fiction: Deja Vu

navigation-1048294_640This piece was inspired by this week’s 2-Minutes-Go Flash Fiction, and I wanted to share it:

Deja Vu

Lunch wasn’t sitting well, the sudden rise in the humidity was making his sinuses throb like a mother, and Malcolm still had one more job to do before he could call it a week and collect his money.

The déjà vu of the address he plugged into his crappy GPS stopped him for a moment, but then he shook it out of his head and followed its schoolmarm directives. He knew the cardinal rules of the job: have a short memory and don’t get involved. Maybe that was why he drank so much. It helped with the memory part, but it didn’t help so much with the guilt. He woke each morning with the gut-sinking sensation that he’d ruined someone’s day, maybe even someone’s future. But several cups of coffee usually killed that. So did the piles of bills on his kitchen table and the rationalization that if people hadn’t done something stupid he wouldn’t be visiting.

But when he turned up the broken driveway and saw the sheared off gutter dangling by one clamp over the raggedy lawn, one of those smothered memories snuck up and sucker-punched him.

He’d been there before. The driveway had been less choppy; the lawn had been shorter. A pale wisp of a girl, many months pregnant, had answered the door. She’d looked like his daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in years. He’d mumbled the name on the papers and she shook her head and he said he was only doing his job and she stood there growing paler and he shoved the papers at her and got the hell out of there as fast as he could and downed most of a fifth of JB when he got home.

Now he turned the car off and sat, staring at the crumbling stairs, the sagging gutters, and one intrepid weed growing straight up out of it. The doorbell glowed orange. The papers lay crisp and stapled on his front seat. His breath quickened. His mind snatched at excuses. Had an accident. Lost the paperwork. Nobody home… His smile dissolved. No matter what he dreamed up, this would not end well for her.

Then a car pulled up behind him. The pale and less-wispy girl flew out, fists clenched, eyes blazing. “You people. You people, haven’t you people done enough? He’s not here. He’s not here, all right? You want him? You go to his girlfriend’s house, you get him there, and you know what? You tell him he owes me for the care and feeding of our child.”

And with that she pointed to the backseat, and the pale, towheaded baby, and the lunch that hadn’t been sitting well in Malcolm’s stomach punched him too.

Her once-pale face flared red, but she seemed to have shouted herself out, so he rolled down his window. She stood with sagging shoulders, her right hand extended. “Okay,” she said. “I get it. The papers are all made up there, and you’re only doing your job, and I guess”—she sighed—“I guess I’ll have to find a lawyer or something, huh.”

“I can help you,” he mumbled.

“Huh?”

Malcolm cleared his throat and said, louder, “I can help you.”

And when he got home, the undelivered summons back in his briefcase, he collapsed into a kitchen chair and made two phone calls. One to his boss, telling him he quit. The second to the public defender, telling him the name and new address of the deadbeat dad.

He then tried to make a third, but the same sort of schoolmarmish voice that scolded him from his GPS said that the number had been disconnected.

The robotic words were still echoing in his mind when he drank the JB straight from the bottle, knowing it would not kill everything that he’d done, but he damn sure hoped to give it a try.

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.

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.

—–

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.

Two Minutes Go: Spring Break Road Trip

Strange golden smoke taking away from coffee seedsHappy Friday, everybody! JD Mader is having some technical trouble today, so Two Minutes Go is at my place. So, pull up a chair, pour yourself some coffee, and enjoy. Or, as he so eloquently wrote in the bit 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.

“He is always the smartest man in the room.” That’s what everyone used to say. Best student, best and brightest, all spit-polished and gleaming, walking tall in a beam of God-ordained sunlight while occasionally he wafted a little my way, as if in pity, as if sometimes hit with a sliver of consciousness that the good lord was lavishing too much goodness upon him and it was unfair to do that to humankind. Not once did he lack for something clever to say; not once did the hems of his pant legs not break crisp and perfect over his shiny shoes. But I knew differently. I saw her. Picking up his dirty socks as if he didn’t have human feet that sweat and stank. She smiled when she did so. Most of the time. Most of the time like a Disney princess in training. And then I skipped a class. Came home to the room I shared with Mr. Inevitable. Maybe she didn’t hear me come in; maybe for a second she was transfixed by one of those dirty socks, reexamining her life in a way I never thought her capable. I always thought guys like that grew to a certain age and God handed them one of these women, who had been similarly groomed to serve, and I felt pity for these women in the same way Mr. Sunbeam pitied me and the other paltry citizens of the planet. She and I, we’d never really talked before. Nothing more than the hellos and goodbyes in passing, the nods of recognition, her shy smiles that attempted to explain why she had a key to our room. It was not for nefarious reasons, certainly not the commerce of key juggling my friends and I had performed for our girlfriends. She was there to serve him in a more Godly manner. And serving him was what she was about that day, until I found her sitting on the bed, clutching one sock between her knees. Tears gleaming in the one beam of sunlight he’d left behind, a shining path of enlightenment down her bruised left cheekbone.

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.”