Saturday, July 02, 2011

Terrible Minds Challenge: "Hello Goodbye"

Herr Chuck Wendig, the new Dad and Head Penmonkey over at the Terrible Minds Website/Zombie Army Recruitment Center, has issued a 1000 Word Flash Fiction challenge involving that most imminent of all holidays, Independence Day.

This is actually a sequel/continuation/postscript to my novel, which I haven't talked much about since its publication lo these many months ago. You don't need to have read it to get the story, although if you have read it, the characters and their relationships will be a lot clearer. (And should you want to, purchasing information is conveniently located on the sidebar.) But there's enough exposition here that you'll get the important parts, even if you haven't read it. (Which puts you in good company- 99.99% of the other life forms on planet Earth haven't read it, either.) (And, in the unlikely event you have read it, don't fret- there is a character in here who isn't in the novel. So you're not losing your memory.)

The story is called "Hello Goodbye"

It was a weird situation, but we liked it. I watched Kate run, thundering after a group of other wet, squirming preschoolers, following her with one eye while trying to stay focused on the conversation around me. It was just like they taught you in basketball- when you guard someone who doesn't have the ball, you follow the ball with one eye while following your opponent with the other. You get holistic- you try to take in the whole scene, trusting your instincts to tell you when it's time to focus.

I wasn't anything to Kate- not her father, though I was with her so often people assumed that. I didn't really mind- the truth was very hard to explain. Angela, her aunt, all legs and teenage awkwardness, was no relation to me whatsoever. Angela's mother, and Wendy's, who we all took to calling "Mom-Mom" because of her antipathy for "Grandmother", was also not my relative. But we were a family, a 20th century amalgam of those who loved this sweaty, bathing suited blond who was now involved in trying to catch the family dog, a friendly greyhound who put up with the little grabbing hands with equanimity.

One of Kate's "friends" (at 3, do you really have friends?) was born on July 4, which, I reflected, had to be a miserable time of year to be 9 months pregnant. So the girl, a pig tailed wonder named Grace, wound up losing her birthday amid the traditional pomp and circumstance. Grace's mom, a super competent, frighteningly pretty dark haired mom of 5, has begun what she promises will be an annual ritual, a barbeque/pool party/Independence Day party/birthday party. Her plan worked, their frankly gorgeous house now thronged with friends of all her kids, their relatives, and seemingly anyone who drove by.

We weren't mixers by nature, this family that wasn't. Kate was, of course- at her age, all you cared about was what fresh adventure the next 15 minutes would bring. You loved hard, and lost hard, and whatever you wanted, whether it was lunch or the toy truck that little boy was holding, you wanted it NOW. She was exhausting, but a refreshing reminder that every moment was important.

I heard Kate's wail instantly, a mix of pain and surprise and fear. Mom Mom told me I would get like this: before you're a parent, which I wasn't biologically but was in every other sense, every kid cry sounds alike. But when it's yours, you can hear it from a hundred yards. Kate had misjudged a wet, muddy corner, her sandaled feet sliding out from under her. She landed on one hip, sliding as if she were stealing second for a yard or so.

I resisted the urge to go to her, as I had been taught. Mom Mom's wisdom from raising two daughters was to wait and see if they could sort it out on their own. Sometimes the joy of play overcame the discomfort and they would pick up and move on as if nothing had happened. Kate saw me look, and that brought her to her feet and over towards me. She probably sees the chance for some free sympathy. I was willing to give it. Mom Mom had heard the cry, drinking white wine with the other parents on the deck. She caught my eye, seeing that I had it controlled, and returned to her conversation.

One sandal unbuckled, Kate made her way over to me, full cheeks red with sun and anger. I crouched onto one knee, like I was in an on deck circle, fingers reaching for her tiny shoe. Since her birth, I had more experience with buckles, bows, and straps than I ever had before.

"Unca Ray," she began. I was Uncle until she was old enough to understand the truth. "I falled."

"Yes, you did fall," I told her, fastening her shoe in place. "Are you okay?"

She climbed eagerly onto my knee, wrapping both arms around my neck. She sniffled once.

"Yeah. I think I OK." She untangled herself and dashed off to rejoin the fray. I stood up. My T shirt, a silkscreen of a photo with the longhaired, bearded, about to break up Beatles, had a stain of grass, water, and mud across George Harrison's face. I had long since given up the expectation that any clothes of mine would remain unmarked.

Angela had wandered off in search of teen company, leaving Emmeline standing there to look at me bemusedly.

"You're so good with her," she said softly. She always spoke softly, almost like she was trying to make sure you cared enough to listen. She had on a pretty patterned dress, light and airy in the July heat. She looked lovely, perfectly able to fit in with the other moms at the party. But she was my age and childless.

The other parents are your age, too, I told myself.

"Thanks," I said, not knowing how else to respond.

"It's nice that she has you. I don't understand it, but it's good for her. She loves you."

"I'm not sure I understand it either. But it's there." I couldn't say it any clearer.

"I can't help but envy her."

"Em, she's three."

"I know, but she owns you. You're always there for her." Her words were curling at the edges now. She was biting them off.

"I'm there for you, too."

"I just know where I rank, is what I'm saying." Emmeline walked towards the porch, her wineglass empty. I watched her walk.

I thought about the Beatles. "You say goodbye, and I say hello."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

100 Word Challenge: Pay Attention

Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge thinks "Cars 2" is unfairly maligned by critics- it is one of the best animated films about cars that takes place in England, Japan, and Rome that this online literary flash fiction challenge has ever seen. This week's word is "Resistance", and my entry is called "Pay Attention!"

Looking at her, brown hair with strands of gold, pert nose, and open, eager face, felt like worship. She was an exchange student from Norway. The collective response of the boys was awe, which made our female classmates deeply frustrated, all the more so because she was so charming and sweet with her English malapropisms.

I felt the silence before I heard it, looking quickly at my Physics teacher's expectant face.

"I'm sorry?"

"What property is described by the use of Ohm's Law?"


"Correct. Maybe you'll pay attention now?"

Attention? Yes, I'll pay attention.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Indie Ink Writing Challenge

The Indie Ink Writing Challenge comes from a plaid panted lass, who gives me "silence in black and white". My challenge goes to Ixy.

I still get the paper, the dead tree, old fashioned, thump on the driveway at 530am newspaper. It isn't very ecologically correct, nor is it logical in any way, since all of the information available in it is easily, and more quickly, retrievable elsewhere. But I am my father's son, and a day just doesn't seem like it has begun until I have sipped coffee with ink stained fingertips.

I was reviewing the front page with SportsCenter on in the background when my wife moved past me into the kitchen. We didn't talk, but we didn't need to. She still had the glazed look of sleep, so I elected to wait until she had something to say.

The front page was still covering the echoes of Tuesday's plane crash- the kind of story that dominates the news when there's nothing else to talk about. A flight coming out of Iowa City simply dropped out of the sky, undergoing a catastrophic failure soon after takeoff that only 21 of 311 people survived.

Today's angle was apparently a woman with "local ties" who lost her life in the crash. I was hopping over the story idly as my wife began sleepily, "I had the weirdest dream last night. You were in a hotel somewhere, and I was sure you were..."

I saw the shape of her name before I was able to process it. Surely it couldn't be her, could it?

"...and Giada DeLaurentis was there, and I kept telling her..."

It was. The details matched. Her parents' names, her brother, the high school, everything. I felt my stomach lurch. She had tickets for San Francisco, and was about to marry a doctoral candidate in literature that she met backpacking in Chile.

"...but the colors were all wrong, but nobody would listen to me..."

My God, I thought, trying not to show emotion. I was over her, or, more properly, she was more than over me. We hadn't spoken since before Clinton was elected, so I couldn't properly say that I missed her. I missed who we were- the sad girl with long brown hair and the boy who was going to keep her safe.

"...and then there wasn't anyone working in the store, and no matter how loud..."

I loved her ferociously. I know now, with the wisdom of two decades, that it wasn't a relationship at all. She was an object of worship, and that's not a foundation for anything. But love her I did, and I felt her absence from the world.

"...and my Aunt Diana was there, and she had made pasta, which was weird..."

She was gone, ripped out of the sky in a panicked spasm of fire and failed engineering. I couldn't protect her then, and I couldn't protect her twenty years ago. You can't protect anybody, can you?
"...Are you listening to me?," my wife concluded, looking at me squarely.

"No, sorry," I said, closing the paper. "I was reading that story about the crash."

"Do you want some toast?," she said again.

"No, thank you," I said, folding the paper over once, and then again, as if I could disguise the news from myself.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

IndieInk Writing Challenge Pregame Show

The IndieInk Writing Challenge has thrown down the gauntlet once again. I am challenging Ixy with "Hell, it could be my fault" and I am being challenged by some plaid pants about "Silence in black and white".

I'm not ready to write my challenge yet, but my challenge to Ixy started my own juices flowing, so I wrote the following. I guess call it the PreGame Show to this week's challenge.

"Neither one of you is doing anything until I know who left those chips there," Mom said firmly. Her voice had that edge, that I'm-really-not-one-bit-kidding tone that made me feel a little queasy. I didn't do it. I knew I didn't do it. I don't even like those chips, the cheesy ones with the intense crispness and the biting cheddar. The plain ones were fine, super crunchy and jagged but with just the corn and salt taste. But there they were, a paper plate half full of cheddar ones with a gross looking grease stain off to one side of the plate.

I knew who did it. It wasn't Mom, and it wasn't the cat. It had to be Emily. She was my best friend, my constant companion, my only ally. There were still things that drove me crazy about her, though. She was taller than me, even though I was older, so she constantly got called the big sister, even though she wasn't. She didn't seem to care, would follow anyone anywhere, do any foolish thing because it seemed like fun. I hated that about her, the way I had to constantly be on the lookout. She had to know she did it. Why didn't she just say it so we could get our TV back?

I thought about saying it, just accusing her, straight out, "Emily HAD to do it. It wasn't me. I never eat those." But I knew how that went, "No I didn't!", "Yes you did!", until Daddy yelled, and everyone felt sad. I didn't want to go there, but I really wanted to watch TV. I thought about just saying I did, which was a lie, but might get us out of this circle faster. I didn't want to lie, but if it would work, maybe that was the best way.

I looked at Emily. I loved her. No one made me laugh like she did. No one understood me, what I was scared of, what I hated, like she did. She was literally the only person who knew what it was like to be me, because she had the same mommy and daddy. But she drove me crazy, too. She was sitting there, wearing a light purple shirt with these funny edges, all wavy and crinkled like the bottom of curtains. It looked like her arms were coming out of the edge of a cake. She looked through her glasses back at me. "Just say it," I told her in my head, "just say you did it, and this will be over." It drove me nuts, the way she just let the unfair punishment stand like this, when she could solve it so easy. I tried to push the thought at her, thinking it as hard as I could. "Say it, Emily. SAY IT!"

"Well, I didn't do it," Emily began. I knew that voice. She was trying to convince us of something, and so she was sounding extra persuasive, talking slow and saying each word carefully.

That's not true, my brain screamed at her. You did SO do it.

"But I'll clean it up. Is that OK, Mommy?" I felt a bolt of anger. That means she's covering for ME. And that's not right, because I didn't DO it! I hate those cheesy chips! My stomach flipped again. I wanted to yell, "That's not true!". I knew what would happen if I did, but the words came to my lips. I was just about to say them, then I swallowed them back, feeling like I had to force them down into my stomach, which lurched unhappily.

We both looked at Mommy, who looked down at us unhappily. She looked tired. All the moms I see look tired, I thought. Why are parents always so tired?
"Fine," she said to Emily uneasily. She looked a little mad, but she didn't say anything else.

Emily got up, unfolding her long legs like a spider, and picked up the plate and marched off into the kitchen. I looked at Mommy, who was watching Emily throw the plate away. I wanted to ask, but I was a little bit afraid to. It was so unfair- it looked like I did it now, when I didn't. I wanted to say that, but I didn't say anything.

"You can go outside now," Mommy said happily. I was up and at the front door like someone making a jailbreak, feeling Emily on my heels before I could see her.