Saturday, April 23, 2011

IndieInk Writing Challenge: "Hold Your Ground"

This week's Indie Ink Writing Challenge comes to me from Stefan, who asks me to watch this and write whatever comes to mind upon hearing the music. (My challenge is taken up here.)

Now, I don't claim to understand anyone's brain, least of all my own. And what has happened, so far, during these challenges is that an image comes to me, full born, and insists that I write about it, the moment I see the challenge item. I don't know where this came from, but it's here, and it won't go away until I write about it. So here goes.

I call it "Hold Your Ground".

I had finally talked Annie into it when they came looking for me. Her father's tavern had become my home away from home, and she didn't resist my flirtations quite as robustly as she did some others. I was at loose ends, performing manual labor for enough coin to keep me in bread and beer since my father's descent into madness left me without a trade. Annie had finally yielded and allowed me to step into the narrow back room with her, and she was gasping, her red hair brushing the black timbers of the wall, as my hand went under her skirt. I was so intent on my goal I didn't hear the hammering on the door, or the pounding feet as the patrons made their bid for freedom out the back door.

The King needed soldiers, and any man who could not account for himself was at risk of being swept into His Majesty's legions. A grinning sergeant found me, my face buried in Annie's soft neck, and hauled me away from her with a laugh. It was all a blur after that- camp, marching and saluting and shooting and marching some more, then packed into a stinking infernal vessel for the crossing- nothing but storm tossed misery and death for seeming ages- dry biscuits and stale water and disease, followed by endless days with nothing in sight but evil sea. We lost almost a quarter our number before finally reaching port.

The pleasure of reaching land again was outweighed by the weight of terror that came across us immediately. The colonists hated us, and those who were in fact supporting His Majesty's rule were terrified into silence by terrorist mobs. I had told myself it would be a simple thing- march about for a while, perhaps exchange a few rounds, then come home a war hero with grossly inflated tales. A veteran of the Colonial War, fit to marry Annie and raise a litter of little ones in her father's tavern.

We quickly learned it wasn't so simple. All the close order drill and formation work came apart in the field, as the colonists would rarely form in line of battle, instead resorting to Indian fighting- remaining behind trees and hedges, picking off officers at will, sowing confusion. We thrashed them when we could find them, but the price was high- men torn to pieces by shot and shell, slaughtered by Indian allies, civilians telling tales of plunder and rape that we answered in kind against their people, which only made them angrier and more defiant. I began the campaign angry at the American colonists, sure that a firm hand, and a few hangings, would return these Englishmen to their King's side. My hoped for heroism evolved into a simple wish to survive.

The action I actually saw was made worse by the stories we heard third hand- the Fleet was coming, then they weren't, then we had them pinned down, then they were free of our clutches, marauding against our supply lines, then word of clashes in distant places reached us, Saratoga and Trenton and Brandywine, starting us wondering how long it would be until we could put them to heel. Or at least, how long before we would be reinforced and allowed to return home. I had seen men drop on either side of me, the whine of the ball followed by an expulsion of air, a spreading red stain, and someone who had broken bread with me that morning was a crumpled pile of rags and bones, as dead as Charlemagne. I had seen wretched scenes, rebel mobs putting homes to the torch because their owners were insufficiently disloyal, and comrades of mine having their way with colonist women, no one among us willing to object. Things had become desperate swiftly.

I wasn't an officer. Tactics or strategy of any sort were far above my station. But I could do sums, and I could tell we were outgunned on this day, the sun already pounding our backs as we sweated, lined up, bayonets prepared. My unit was about to be overrun, but I stood my ground, because I would be executed if I ran, because I wanted Annie to be proud of me, because I wanted to represent England and the rule of law. I stood there, looking over the vastly larger numbers of enemy with their motley flags and irregular dress, estimating how many each of us would have to gun down for us to win the day, and coming to a disturbingly high number. I gripped my weapon tightly, sweat making tracks through the grime on my face, wishing I had run and hid when they came for me, wanting only to survive and see Annie again, and being really sure for the first time that I wouldn't.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Chuck Wendig's Three Sentence Challenge

The irascible Chuck Wendig has posted another weird and wonderful flash fiction challenge, this time to write a story in exactly three sentences. 

This story has been on my mind, and it inspired the following effort.

They say I should just ignore them, that two faced, mean people and heartless comments and baseless rumors are just something I have to endure, or get around, or get over. They don't understand how hard it is, how much it hurts to see everyone, everywhere being happy, and popular, and content with the world and their place in it. I'll never know what they know, and when I'm gone, they can go on without me- it's just better for everyone that way. 

100 Word Challenge: Frayed Ends Of Sanity

Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge would like to make it clear that if nominated, it will not run, and if elected, it will not serve. The word is "distance", and my piece is called "Frayed Ends of Sanity".

When you're moving at high speed, it becomes a matter of proportion. You can't tell how fast you're going, because everything is out of scale with what you're familiar with. I was driving fast, propelled by caffeine and Metallica, not because I wanted to be there, but because the illusion of motion made me feel like I was doing something. The route was familiar, the factories and warehouses swelling around me, then fading away into leafy suburban sprawl just as quickly. I knew where I was going, even though I didn't know what I would do when I got there. 

It's Friday, and we're Flashing!

This week's 52/250 theme is "cold front", and my story, which I am sort of proud of, is called "Candy Cane"

Sunday, April 17, 2011

IndieInk Writing Challenge: "After These Messages"

It's Indie Ink Writing Challenge time again, cats and kittens! This time the lovely and talented Trish has asked me to "Write about Time". What follows is my response, which I am calling, "After These Messages". My challenge will be met with delightful strangeness by Miss Yvonne here.

"A junkie runs on junk Time and when he makes his importunate irruption into the Time of others, like all petitioners, he must wait."-William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

8:30, he said. 8:45 at the latest. I knew it was 7:29. I knew it was because I had just looked at the little reminder thing on the TV, in the corner there near the logo. I knew that it would seem slower if I kept looking at it, so I promised myself I wouldn't look at it anymore. 

Like all promises, I broke it immediately. It was 7:30, which was good, because time had gone by, but it was also bad, because I knew it had just changed, and that would make the next change all that much slower to come. The best way to do it was to not look at the time, so you could be pleasantly surprised when you looked back at how much time had passed. 

I tried to focus on what the girl was saying on the screen. I didn't pay for cable, but the guy who had lived here before had scammed his way to getting some free stuff, patching into the feed somehow, so who was I to question? I was barely making the rent- I wasn't going to ask any questions about free TV. 

It was the traffic girl, a pretty, thin blonde. She had a wide brown belt on over a red dress. She wasn't gorgeous, but she smiled a lot and the camera liked her. How did you get to be a traffic girl, I wondered. Did you study traffic in college? Did you need to know anything about traffic, or did you just read stuff other people wrote? 

The focus shifted to the weather- another blonde, this one seeming a little taller and thinner, wearing something purple, still beautiful and charming. I thought I had seen somewhere that weather people actually did their own work- it was full of computers and hard science, and some of the work was done for them, but they had to know what was going on. 

I remembered when I knew what was going on.

They went to commercial, and I watched a woman in tan slacks and brown flats marvel at her new carpet, then another woman yelling about how wonderful Jiffy Lube was. I laid back on the couch and closed my eyes, trying to will the time away. I heard them come back to the studio, the tiny Indian woman and the friendly older man telling me about last night's loss to the Mets, then segueing into another inner city shooting. I drifted off for a moment, figuring a short nap would kill some time for me. 

I awoke with a start, right in the middle of a yogurt commercial. I didn't trust the tiny clock radio in the kitchenette- the power in this place was unreliable, so I never knew what time it was unless the TV was on. 

I pulled myself up, feeling the room swim for a moment. I closed my eyes until it passed, listening for the familiar voices that would tell me the main program was back and I could get a reassuring time stamp in the corner. The need had been a distant, quiet presence in my head this morning, but it was yawning and stretching now, preparing to make my life hell until I fed it. 

It wasn't an ache, although I certainly hurt. It wasn't nausea, although I had that, too. It was a clear, distinct lack- the absolute absence of something. I can't explain it to you if you haven't felt it. It's like being really thirsty, or needing to pee- except the solution to either one of those is readily available. 

I heard the broadcast resume, and forced myself to look. 8:17. It was frustratingly close. I imagined him driving into my neighborhood, looking for a place to park, my stuff wrapped up tight inside his windbreaker pocket. I looked at the money, wrinkled twenties on the arm of the couch. I resisted the urge to count it again. 

I willed him closer, wished for the lights to be green in front of him. I pictured him zooming up my street, seeing a gap and sliding his car into it. I felt like I could feel the distance between him and I shrinking by the second. I knew where my stuff was, thinking about getting it out to get ready, but I didn't want to seem eager. 

If you seemed too anxious to get it, he might make you wait, or he might start charging you more. You had to act calm, like you didn't care whether or not you got any. You had to act like you didn't need it, even when your guts were churning and your muscles felt watery and weak with need. 

My brain was screaming at me, telling me I needed it now, to forget about how it looked, that nothing mattered except getting it inside me as quick as I could. I pictured the way the stuff looked, orange and clear plastic, the spoon with the blackened bottom, the lighter. 

I thought about flicking it to check, but if I knew if I did that, it would be constant, flick, flick, flick, flick, until I used up the fuel and would end up walking, painfully, slowly walking down to the store on the corner where he would charge me 3 bucks for a 79 cent lighter that he knew I couldn't do without. 

I looked at the TV again, that pretty Indian woman explaining to me how the church was dealing with more allegations, more lawsuits. Her voice was even, accentless and flat like all the rest of them. It was racist to assume she ever had an accent- she could have grown up anywhere. 

Still, I wondered if she had an accent. Did journalism training knock it out of her? Or did she train herself not to use it, but home for Christmas, around family, did she slip back into more natural speech patterns? What was she like? Was she single? Married? A parent?

8:32, I noticed. He would be here any moment, I decided. He was probably parking now, coming up to my door, walking up the cracked cement to buzz my apartment. I wanted to go look, make sure he wasn't buzzing already, make sure the buzzer hadn't failed during the night. I made myself wait, knowing that the strain of standing by the window would weaken my resolve, making me look weak and desperate to him. 

I was remembering how good it felt, how you didn't feel good so much as finally feel even when it hit you. You felt normal, like you could get up and go to work and be a regular person now that the raging furnace of need was stoked. It made you feel functional, like you had been wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day and then finally took them off. 

When the buzzer sounded, I nearly cried with relief. 

Terrible Minds Challenge: "I Bet She Does"

The irascible penmonkey Chuck Wendig has thrown another flash fiction gauntlet down, this time to incorporate five words/concepts into a story of less than 1000 words. My entry is called "I bet she does".

It had been one of those mornings- I overslept, a common enough event. But it made me feel strange for the entire day, throwing me off stride. It wasn't the only thing- I had my period, which made me feel fatigued and a little insecure, and I was up early on a Saturday, which no amount of iced coffee on Earth could fix. 

I was volunteering for Cuts For The Cure, a cancer charity where hairdressers gave out free haircuts, keeping the hair to make wigs for sick kids and collecting donations for research at the same time. I was there because my school said I had to in order to graduate, because my mom was the vice president of the charity, and because I cared about sick kids. What order those priorities came in varied as the day went along. 

My job was to do basically what I was told, just like in the rest of life. I got drinks and snacks for everybody, explained to folks what was going on and how they could help. I smiled a lot, to the point where my cheeks started to hurt.

It was getting late, the shadows starting to grow long as the sun hid behind the Target we had set up in front of. The demand was starting to drop off, and I decided to start organizing the cash, separating the denominations to make the counting easier. As I was stacking the fives in a pile, preparing to put them into a rubber band, a shadow came over me. 

I glued on my smile and looked up. My heart froze. It was a boy, a beautiful boy with dark eyes and an unruly mop of hair under a University of Michigan cap. I tried not to stammer, and failed utterly. 

"Uh, er, um....hi!" I was hopeless. 

"So what's happening?" I could picture his voice in my ear, a late night stolen phone call under the blankets. 

"Uh, this is called Cuts for the Cure," I began, my speech evening out as I ran through the sentences I had gone through so many times over the long day. Even while I was talking, I was saying to myself, "Oh, God, OK. Stand straight. You don't have a figure like Karen's, so at least show him what you do have. Don't let your voice crack, don't giggle, just be cool, just....oh my God, he's so cute." 

Karen was a friend who whined at me until I let her do her service hours with me. She was leaning back, talking with my mom's coworker Janette, her long legs crossed demurely at the ankle as Janette finished with a customer. I wanted to turn my head and tell her to look, but part of me hoped fervently she hadn't noticed him. 

"My mom said I should get a haircut," he said, his voice warm and thrilling. Inside my head, a voice repeated shrilly, "he didn't say girlfriend! He didn't say girlfriend!" 

"Come right this way," I said, guiding him over to my mother's empty chair. We exchanged a series of conspiring glances behind his head. "Don't blow this, Mom," I thought at her urgently. I walked backwards towards the unguarded money table, watching my mom begin to play with his locks while she brightly chattered. My phone buzzed in my back pocket as I reached the table. It was a text from Karen, just three letters. 


At least I knew she saw him as I did. 


I didn't want to turn back to the money, but I knew I had to. After only a minute, I had the bills sorted out, finally turning around to see Karen, her long legs now perched at my mom's station, winding a long strand of hair around one finger. I felt uneasy, only compounded by my mother's comment on the way home, "Boy, your friend Karen sure liked that boy Josh, didn't she?" 

I bet she does, I thought grimly.