Thursday, January 19, 2012

LitStack Flash Fiction Challenge: "My Turn"

The fine folks at LitStack have posted a flash fiction challenge, 500 words or less based on the above picture. My entry is called "My Turn".

I read once about police work that it was a lot of boredom and paperwork, with occasional breaks of terror. That was what it was like. I was one of three rotating teams, 8 hours at a time, who monitored the airflow, keeping our little corner of the world powered up and temperate. I wound up with Carlos, a taciturn little man who muttered all the time, and Marina, a tall haughty woman who held on to her Russian accent, as partners. We had conflicts, of course- anyone trapped together does. But nothing we couldn't discuss like adults.

The most dangerous part was climbing down into the bowels of the place to scrape and clean the vast grates. Like umpires, we rotated, so I knew I was up next. When the digital readout crept below 89%, we all knew what had to be done. Marina picked up the phone to call it in, and Carlos engaged the safety locks. There were three switches that had to be thrown, two at the same time, to start things back up again. They placed the switches far apart so they could never be accidentally thrown. If they were, the superheated air would leave nothing but a memory behind- I'd be a carbon deposit that some other poor sap has to scrub off in a month.

"You're up," Carlos said softly.

"Don't remind me," I said, getting up to stretch out. Carlos threw two of the three switches that stopped the airflow. There was a thunk and a rumble as the building switched to battery power.

"You're serious about what you said?," Carlos began.

My stomach knotted. "Look, man, I...,"

"All you have to do is keep quiet. I'll cut you in on it. Promise."

"Cheating is cheating," I said. "I'm not going to prison when your scheme falls apart." Padding timesheets was a imprisonable offense.

"They'll never know," he insisted.

"Do what you want," I said. "Just keep me out of it." I pulled on the heavy, hard boots, zipping up the mandatory coverall.

I went out into the hall, waiting for the elevator to signal that the chamber was safe to enter. I hit the button when the light turned green, then waited as it took me down below. Carlos had proposed that we begin swiping each other's ID, allowing us an afternoon off while the computer thought we were there. I had begged off, insisting I would put in my time, which made me less than popular with the other two.

I removed the tools from the wall rack, then walked into the chamber, which loomed far above my head, a series of closely spaced bars to remove impurities and debris from the air. I heard something I had never heard before, the unmistakable, gut watering rumble of the great furnace coming to life again behind me. "Those SOBs...," was all I had time to think.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "Don't Tell"

Flash Fiction Friday this week involves the keeping of secrets, and I call my story "Don't Tell".

I didn't know where to stand. I never knew where to stand. I had to be here, but I wasn't really a part of what was going on. I hardly knew anyone here. The house was full of people in dark clothes, murmuring. I walked into the kitchen, where I could see her brother talking to a thin, pretty girl with long legs in the opposite corner. My shoes made sounds on the hardwood, which made me tiptoe.

"If she had told us...," Kathryn's mother was saying in the other room. Her voice was ragged, like she had been screaming. She probably had been.

"I know, honey," my mother said. She had that soothing tone she used when she was talking to a kid. I couldn't see her, but I could picture her face. Ever since she had gotten the news, she had the same expression, all the time. It was a smile, but a thin, tight one, like she would pop if you stuck her with a pin.

"Is it true what they said?," the thin girl asked Kathryn's brother, her voice high and soft. "That she was..."

"Yeah," he said gruffly. "She was."

"Wow," the thin girl said, suddenly noticing me standing there. She sounded a little too excited, with an edge of "thank God it wasn't me."

"I'm going to go outside," she said quickly, exiting onto the porch. I watched her light a cigarette in the cold air. I didn't know how to stand, shifting my weight first one way, then another. I saw people looking at me, then looking away quickly. They didn't know what to say, which was OK, because I didn't know what to say either.

I guess I was "Kathryn's friend", but that was stretching it a little. I have moved more times than I can count, so I was used to being the new kid, but it felt like hitting the jackpot when we moved in to Edgewater Estates and found out that three doors down was a girl who was going into the same grade I was, and was also new in town. Kathryn and I found ourselves together more often than not by the end of the summer, making common cause in our mutual boredom and outcast status. Then I was a little hurt, but not exactly shocked, when school started and Kathryn started running in slightly different circles. It was okay, really, because we had been so close that a little distance was actually welcome, allowing me to try and branch out.

Two weeks ago, she had called as soon as I set foot inside my door. She told me I had to come over to her house that instant, and she couldn't tell me why. I made my way up to her bedroom, where she was sitting on her bed, cross legged. She didn't say anything, just held out a tan rectangle towards me. It looked like a thick pen, or maybe a thermometer, but when I got closer, I saw what it was, and when I took it from her and looked at the little window with the two lines on it, I nearly dropped it.

She made me swear not to tell anyone. I had heard the old lecture that there are some secrets you don't keep, that if someone is in danger, you tell, and risk the friendship to save the friend. I don't know why I didn't tell my mom immediately, except that it's always easier not to talk than to say something. I didn't want to lose my only ally, and Kathryn swore she was going to tell, she was just going to tell it her way. And it was her news to tell. I felt like she had a right to tell who she wanted, when she wanted. And I had to admit that I liked being in the know. When you're the new kid, you never know anything, and it was nice to finally be on the inside.

It happened so fast after that. First Kathryn said she was going to tell, and then she suddenly wasn't in school. Rumors flew around the school like angry wasps. Then her picture was on the news, the pretty woman with the tight dress and big hair telling us that anyone with any information should call the police. I was trapped. Any decision to tell would be followed by "why didn't you tell us before?", so I didn't, and then came my mother, shaking, picking me up after school, the plastic smile on her face. She sat with me on our rented couch and told me Kathryn was gone, and some boy named Dean was down at the police station, and then my mother crying like I had never heard her before, not the wine induced tears after she thought I was asleep, but more deep, wracking spasms of tears that coursed out of her like she might not ever stop. She wound up with her head in my lap, her snot and drool soaking into my jeans, wailing into the afternoon and way past dinner.

I looked at the food, pasta and sandwiches and casseroles no one was eating. Kathryn's brother went outside where the girl was. A little kid came into the room. He looked enough like Kathryn I figured he had to be related. He went up to the table and reached for a cookie. He looked me over, up and down, his hand near the platter. I guess I checked out OK, because he took it, taking an enormous bite. He chewed, still looking at me.

"Don't tell," he said seriously.

"I won't," I told him.

Lily Childs Feardom 100 Word Challenge: "Dunkirk"

Searching for a new 100 Word Challenge, I came across Lily Childs' Feardom, where she offers three key words on which to build a story. The words are ruby, blade, and evacuate, and my story is called "Dunkirk".

So this is where it all ends. The loft of a old barn, already starting to collapse from the fire. The sky glowed ruby red with flame. The order to evacuate sent everyone into a panic, scrambling for spots on any ship headed anywhere. The noose was tightening, the artillery explosions closer and closer. I carried in my head information that could doom others, so when escape became impossible, I had to do it. I knew enough German to know they were demanding my surrender, pounding on the door. I drew the blade against the side of my neck.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Indie Ink Writing Challenge: Did You Mean It?

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Diane challenged me with "I'm tired of being what you want me to be" and I challenged runaway sentence with "No artist should feel guilty. If you start a painting and you don't like it, you don't finish it- Truman Capote".

Her shoe made an incredibly loud sound when it hit the floor. She was sitting on our bed, looking down, her auburn hair in her face. Her ankle was across her other knee, and she was flexing and stretching her bare foot , rubbing the bottom with her knuckle. I couldn't see her expression clearly, but it looked and sounded like a grimace. Her other foot, still teetering in a strappy shoe, was on the floor. She switched legs and undid the other one, letting it fall next to its mate. For such a delicate looking construction, they made a thunk that sounded more like a work boot when they hit our bedroom floor. She rubbed the other foot the same way. I couldn't help peeking, like a naughty schoolboy, to see if I could glimpse her underwear.

"You did really well tonight," I said, unknotting my tie. I fired up the TV, which was playing ESPN silently, and started scanning the crawl for the West Coast baseball scores. She was sitting, looking down at her feet, her hair hanging loose. Her bright red toenails stood out clearly against the brown wood. I hung my tie, then slid my jacket off and onto a hanger. We had attended a charity event, awkward small talk and conversation about vacation homes amid the swells at a private golf club. It was one of those things where you had to be seen- the money people had to know you were still around.

She stood up, stretching her back out, gesturing towards the back of her neck. I knew what that meant, stepping behind her to guide the tiny black zipper down to the small of her back. She peeled the dress down off of her shoulders, then stepped out of it, placing it on its own hanger. I looked at her up and down, the black silk slip clinging to her curves, the deeper black of her bra and panties showing clearly. She looked great for someone with three kids, but that wasn't even it. She looked great, period.

I know she hates nights like this. It was all artifice and fake snobbery. She compared herself to trophy wives half her age, feeling like she had to measure up to their impossible thinness. There was hardly anyone, outside of the serving staff, our age. Nobody was up nights with a vomiting child, no one who understood the helpless crying heartbreak of the only girl not invited to the sleepover. It wasn't our friends, but it was our circle, professionally speaking. If I was going to come to them asking for funding or exploring a partnership, I had to be a face they knew. So it was into the uncomfortable clothes, and out in the night to talk to people you didn't like for reasons you didn't really understand.

She slipped the silk up and over her head, folding it carefully and placing it on a chair. Without speaking, she took my jacket down and placed it on the chair. I guess it probably is time to get those cleaned. She reached her arms back and undid her bra. I watched the tiny, sad shift as gravity took its toll on her breasts. She slid her underwear off, then walked naked to our dresser, pulling out a pair of cotton pants with bears on them, along with a t shirt from a 5K she ran while four months pregnant. I wanted to tell her she was beautiful, that I was proud of her, that I was sure she did my fledgling company good tonight, but everything I wanted to say sounded patronizing and wrong in my head.

"I know this isn't your kind of thing," I said. I noticed that Seattle had won, and I paused, waiting for the screen to flip. My pitcher, however, had not gotten the win, so the game didn't help my fantasy baseball team. Damn, I thought. Another chance to gain ground lost. I watched her tug the pants on, then pull the shirt down over herself. It was enormous and billowy on her post baby form. I wanted to touch her, but I was afraid to. There were times when she didn't want anything but silence, and I felt like this was one of those times. Maybe.

"But I appreciate the fact that you did it," I continued, unable to bear the silence. She walked across the room and into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind her. I unbuttoned my shirt, watching the highlights play silently. A Boston outfielder went high against a wall, turning a Toronto double into an out, then the screen cut to the same outfielder slugging a ball where no one could catch it, high and deep into the left field stands. They showed the score, Boston pulling out a 7-3 win, then switched to a New York game, the big city titans slamming hits all over the place against a parade of helpless Kansas City pitchers. Starting a business felt like that sometimes- no matter what pitch you throw, someone is slamming it back at you twice as fast.

I heard the water run, and then the swish swish sound of tooth brushing. What was she thinking? I know she recognized the utility of these affairs, but I also knew how much she hated doing them. I felt guilty about it, hating how I pulled her away from her preferred Sunday night, sweatpants and thick socks and a book of poetry, into this world of illusion and makeup and the appearance of achievement. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I would get "nothing", and that meant everything. I took my shirt off, and then my pants and socks, climbing into my own sleep attire. It made me think of the heedless nights we spent as newlyweds, climbing into bed naked and clinging to each other for warmth as we both climbed the corporate ladder. We were now more like ships in the night, passing only enough information to keep from colliding in the dark.

She came out, her face scrubbed of makeup and devoid of expression. I followed her lead, performing my ablutions into the silence of an empty room. Somewhere else in the house, a child rolled over and a bed creaked in response. I heard the whispering thud of one of our cats moving in response to the sudden noise. I should feel pride, putting in all this effort to sustain this little family, this tiny nugget of home in a sea of other people's problems. I washed my own face, and brushed my own teeth. I came out to the flashing shadows of ESPN playing over my wife's form. She had pulled the blanket up tight, which I knew meant she was done with me, with all of us, for the night. Nothing short of tears would get her up now.

I watched the screen, a coach tearfully resigning after a recruiting scandal. There was a touch of cruelty to it, the baying press corps demanding answers. You never know how hard it is to be someone else, what challenges they faced, what secret reasons they had for their misdeeds. My wife was curled up tight, on her left side, facing away from the door, away from my side of the bed. I wanted to tell her I appreciated her efforts in putting up with this nonsense, but I knew what she would say. Probably a simple, "I know," or a curt, "Go to sleep," or an aggressive, "So what? I still have to go to the stupid things." I looked down at her as the changing images bathed her in different colors of light. I didn't say anything, listening for the relaxing shift of her breathing that meant she was asleep.

"I'm sorry," I wanted to say to her sleeping form. I'm sorry I took the quiet girl with the funky glasses and took her away into a world where she didn't belong. I'm sorry I made you into someone you're not. I'm sorry my world casts a shadow into yours. I'm sorry that I made you fake it. I'm sorry that, like a coach trying to recruit a player, you have to say things you know aren't true. I know she signed up for it, I know she promised that whatever came with it, she'd swallow it as long as it meant she would be with me. I know she said that when she said she'd marry me.

I pulled the covers back, turned off the TV, and climbed into bed. I laid down on my left side, looking at the nape of her neck and the curve of her hip under the blanket. "I wonder if you meant it," I whispered to myself.

Terrible Minds Challenge: "Cornered"

Chuck Wendig, creator of flash fiction challenges and human life, has issued a three sentence flash fiction challenge to go with Bear71, a Sundance New Frontier documentary about, well, a bear. My story is called "Cornered".

I felt more than I saw my two companions on either side of me as we closed in on it, trapping it against the white rotting hulk of a fallen tree. It was trembling, its eyes focusing on each of us in turn as it registered the fact that we had all the angles covered and there was no escape. Hunger gnawed at the base of my skull as I imagined the way it would taste when we finally closed the gap and ended the chase.