Saturday, August 20, 2011

New Stuff! Here, There, and Everywhere!

Matt Potter, who just barely missed becoming the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, has published another story of mine, "Bus Window Warning". It is the third of three stories that came to me in a dream, or something. I don't really know.

On another note entirely, Chuck Wendig, new father and author and exhausted, semi awake humanoid, initiates another week of Flash Fiction madness with a Sub Genre Tango, giving contestants like me a list of subgenres and the challenge to mix two of them into a Flash Fiction story. I don't know how successful I was, but I'm calling this a Southern Gothic/Sword and Sorcery mashup, and it's called "Mission".

I watched Camellia walk away from me. There was a flask with a cork in it, half full with amber liquid, sitting on top of a cabinet that came up to her tiny waist. The dress looked too tight, her flesh pulling it taut where the fabric was trying to preserve her silouhette. It looked uncomfortable. Camellia uncorked the flask, pouring some into a dirty glass.

"Why?," she said, choking out the words. "Why now?"

"You know why," I said. The Confederation was making inroads again, taking our border villages, forcing us back into the larger towns. The call had went out for veterans to return to the colors, push the invaders back. We needed to protect our way of life, they told us. I went because I knew how to handle myself. I went because there was occasionally food to be had. I went because it was the only way a kid from nowhere could make a name for himself. I also went because they would find me if I didn't.

"But, Bar-" she said, corrupting my name. She knew I wanted to be called Bartholomew.

"But nothing, Camellia. You know I have to go. They'll come looking for me if I don't."

"I hate the fighting," she said, her bare shoulders trembling. "I hate it."

"We all hate the fighting," I said. "Especially the ones who fight."

"So why do you do it?," she said, whipping around to face me. Her red face was wet with tears. The dress was taut where it tried to keep her body restrained. "Why are you going to leave me? I just found you, and now you have to go? Why now?"

"Now is when it's happening," I said, not even believing it as I said it. I had graduated from stealing apples from the kitchen to sneaking into her bedroom at night. She always promised me she would reveal me to the family, but I always slunk back out the window in the morning.

"You can't leave me now," she said. "Not now." She had poured herself a glass, and she took a long swallow.

"Camellia, you know I must." She was breathing deep, heaving breaths, like she had run from the fields into the sitting room. I watched the fabric of the dress pulling tight across her tiny belly when she breathed in. I thought about the carnage, the charnel house of battle I was about to face, and wondered why I could see that now, standing at peace in front of her. Yet when I was in the fray, hacking and slashing and smelling the explosions and hearing the cries, I would picture the way the moonlight would capture her bare, sweet smelling peach skin as she slept.

"Bar, you must understand something. You have to come back to me. You have to."

"Will you tell your father about us? While I'm gone?"

"You know how he feels. He's obsessed with our bloodline. He wants me to marry of noble blood- one of those half breed dimwits he presents to me, all full of bravado. He wants me to take one of them and make another generation playing dress up in these giant houses with no one living in them. I can't tell him about you- as soon as he knows who your father is, he'll set the dogs on you."

I felt my sword at my hip. I could picture running the old man through, the shocked look on his face when blood and entrails splashed on his feet.

"Can't you talk to him?"

She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Bar, come back to me. I promise, when you come back, things will be different."

I had heard that before. "Truly, Camellia?"


It was three days' ride to the frontier, unless the losses continued, in which case the front lines would find me.

"I have to go."

"Do you know how long you will be?," Camellia said. She drew herself up to her full height, pulling in another deep breath. The dress was still taut below her ribs.

"Until it's over." I wondered if she wanted a final embrace. I had spent the night holding her, but she may want a final, lingering hug. I didn't want to leave, but I knew what I had to face, and I felt almost itchy to leave and get it started.

"Come back, Bar."

"I will," I told her, and, with a final, lingering glance at her, I left. Fighting to keep food on your plate was one thing. Fighting for her, to come back to her and rejoin her bed, that required a different sort of skill. I used to fight to live. Now I fight not to die.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: "Sweep The Street"

The Flash Fiction Friday team wants us to write about "Unrest" this week. My story is called "Sweep The Street"

I was tired. I yawned, trying to cover it quickly. I stood in line with the others, shoulder to shoulder. I knew there were more behind me, along with the looming bulk of an Army transport behind them. We had the armor, and we had the weapons, and we had the hard plastic shields to protect us, and we had the force of law. We were the society made flesh, the rules personified in a line of identically clad men and women, cleaning the streets of disorder and chaos. We were in charge.

But I still felt tired and vulnerable. The people in front of us looked scared, but there were a lot of them. I had been yanked out of a sound sleep to fall in for special duty.

It all started simply enough. You didn't have to be a sociologist to know that poor people, with nothing to do all day, no jobs and no prospects of any jobs, were going to get mad. It was usually against each other- one no hoper robbing or beating or killing another one. That was sad, but easy enough to deal with- you caught the one who did it a day or a week later, put him away, and that was that. You couldn't prevent it, so you caught and punished and went on.

This time it was different. There was a job training fair- an abandoned store with some laptops set up and some cute, earnest twentysomethings in polo shirts and khakis and nametags that said "Rayanne" and "Isabella" to do their duty by helping put resumes in order and give the impression there was some hope. The girls, fresh from degrees in social work at prestigious schools that Daddy paid for with four hours of work at his hedge fund, smiled wide and tried hard and looked very pretty and well bred.

But the people who drifted in, looking at these new grads with their pressed pants and shiny black shoes, knew better. They knew the game had been rigged since before they were born. They knew that the winners were going to keep winning, that there wasn't any way to move up, that nobody cared one whit about them or their problems. They didn't know who George Orwell was, most of them, but they would have agreed with him that the future was just more boots stepping on their face, over and over again.

One of the local tough guys, a guy in a basketball jersey everybody called Red, actually sauntered into the storefront and began talking up one of the girls. Once his clumsy romantic overture was turned aside, he got down to business, and his voice started rising. She tried to calm him down, but he got more agitated, finally slapping her once, hard, across her face. The police were called, and he started fighting with them. A crowd gathered, and rocks started raining down from the surrounding rooftops.

Things sped out of control, windows getting broken, fires starting to burn with firefighters refusing to come and combat them, and the crowd getting louder and angrier. People began chanting, and young kids started using the crowds as an excuse for mischief. Motorists were getting rocks thrown at them, and someone in the power structure hit the panic button. So we were assembled, the plan being to sweep straight down Burton Street to where another force waited on Shaughnessy Boulevard- pinching the crowd between us, cuffing and taking away those who wouldn't disperse.

I heard the command to move, remembering my training- stay together, move like you're blocking for a running back. Don't get ahead of your partner, which could let a protester get between us. Don't swing your truncheon until you are provoked. I saw an egg arc over our heads, splattering against the green metal of the Army truck. Just keep moving, just keep moving, I thought, thinking about the fish from the Pixar movie, saying, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..."

I understand what they're mad about. A year ago, I would have been one of them- I only got into the Academy myself when a sex scandal threw out about half the freshman class. You hear that all you have to do is work hard, and you'll be a success, and then you do work hard, and you can't afford college, and you wind up slinging burgers part time for minimum wage. They tell us our country is the wealthiest in the world, and you quickly realize that that wealth isn't spread around very well. Sure, there's equality of opportunity- but it's hard to make that argument when your dad is in jail and your school is falling apart and there's nothing on the table for dinner.

But we can't live like this- in the war of all against all, nobody wins. There have to be rules, and a structure. I took an oath to uphold this structure, and uphold it I will. We marched forward, watching people retreat before us, backing off from the row of hard plastic shields. I stayed in line with my brothers, angry at the forces that brought the people into the streets, and angry at the same people who retreated before our show of force. We marched, step by even step, pushing people before us, enforcing the rules of a system that discarded people like refuse from a fast food drive thru. I was tired.

Terrible Minds Challenge: Ballad of a Well Known Gun

Chuck Wendig has thrown down another flash fiction gauntlet, something about guns, and I will take it up, semi successfully, with this story, "Ballad of a Well Known Gun".

Everyone was so polite, that was the thing. If someone would just break character, stand up from their desk and just yell at me, "Listen, you broke-ass motherfucker. You're too poor to get this miracle drug that might save your wife's life. So just sit down, and shut up, and call hospice, because the love of your life, the only person you've ever really cared about besides yourself, is about to die, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it!", if someone said that, maybe throwing a pen for emphasis, that would make the whole thing easier to take. But nobody ever did that, it was always, "We're very sorry," and "We wish we could help," and "Maybe you could consider," but it was always something we had already considered. Too poor for government help, too rich for anyone else to help. We went through the regular treatment, and then still the shaking heads, the "I'm sorry," the "things aren't improving the way we had hoped," all the bullshit euphemisms they use. They told us about this new pill, but that was a series of more stone walls, more gentle apologies- you're too sick for the trial, there's no room, we can't get you in, we wish we could help. "You can pay for it yourself," they say, but they have no idea how much it is. It's like window shopping at the Jaguar dealer- what's the point, when you know you can't afford it. The failure gnawed at me when I sat on the end of our bed, legs aching from hours on my feet. I felt like less of a man, because my darling Mary needed something, and I couldn't provide it. It killed me. She would try to comfort me, Mary would- running her hand down my arm, telling me it would be OK, that we would find a way, that she would be OK. I knew she was lying, and she knew she was lying, but she just kept saying it, like saying it again would make it true. I was losing Mary, and it terrified me, and it made me angry.

So I decided I would do it. I would find a place, and I would call and ask them if they had any of the drug, and then I'd take Daddy's old shotgun, the menacing one that still gleamed with gun oil from the last time he cleaned it right before he died, and I'd march in there, wearing a Raiders cap and one of Mary's nylons over my face, and I'd just march right up to the druggist, some fat guy with a beard, and I'd tell him to hand the stuff over. It was simple. I would wait until 8:45, almost closing time, when people are tired, slow, and sloppy. I stood there looking at the calming walnut grain of my father's shotgun in the closet. It belonged above the fireplace at a mountain lodge. From the time I was 8, he made sure I knew how to clean it and load it, removing any mystery and romance from it so I would think about it just like it was any other tool. I looked down at it, the polished wood, the metal where the mechanism was, then the long, smooth barrels. A precision instrument, one that could knock down a bird, or a deer. It probably couldn't stop a bear, but it might give it something to think about. It went against everything I was taught, using this beautiful, precision instrument to instill fear. My father always taught me, no matter how sure you were that it was empty, that you never point it at another person for any reason. It was meant for animals, or targets, or just for decoration- not as a threat. It was too smooth, too elegant to be used for something so base and ugly. It wasn't loaded, but nobody else would know that. I wouldn't hurt anyone. All they would know was that I was there to rob them, to take something that didn't belong to me because I had a gun and could force them to. I didn't want to do it. But if there was any other way to keep Mary alive, I would. The gun was in the closet, the reflected street light shining off the barrels, resting there like a threat and a promise. I sighed. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

More Slushy Goodness

Matt Potter, minister without portfolio for the Department of Awesome, has published another story of mine, "4:26 AM", in his web magazine Pure Slush. Like the last story of mine he was kind enough to put up, it is a bit of a departure for me, a character that is unlike any I have ever come up with. Feel free to go forth and partake, but fair warning: the story implies that adult humans sometimes have sex.