Friday, January 06, 2012

Terrible Minds Challenge: "Message In A Bottle"

Chuck Wendig had thrown down the gauntlet again, asking his loyal minions to write a 500 word story using the title of the next song to come up on your IPod as the title. Mine was "Message In A Bottle" by the Police. The inspiration is actually from another Police song, interestingly. 10 points if you know which one.

I was sitting there and deliberately tearing the labels of my beer bottles, carefully isolating the letters and leaving them face up in front of me on the bar top. There weren't that many letters on a beer label that were big enough to read. But then again, I had consumed more than one. It was a clear enough example of instability that the bartenders hovered close, ready for me to do something dramatic, like swing a punch at someone. I didn't do that, just kept tearing and ripping, arranging my little alphabet on the bar surface.

I love words and letters. Always have. Like every English teacher I know, I have a virtual drawer full of stories and novels, finished and not, submitted and rejected works of genius and folly. I read voraciously, pun incessantly, play Words With Friends. Fonts fascinate me. Whenever backed into a corner by lies I have told or actions I have taken unwisely, I have been able to use some fast talking and clever wordplay to get out of danger, generally speaking. Until last month, I reminded myself.

It was unforgivable, and yet I did it anyway. It was, ironically enough, not even a crime. She was two weeks past her eighteenth birthday, and, since all grades had been submitted, we in theory didn't even have a teacher-student relationship any more. It was creepy, sure. It crossed all sorts of boundaries, pedagogical and moral and ethical. It raised questions, that was the main thing- and once the media got a hold of it, thanks to one of her jealous little friends, all they cared about was containing the damage and making it go away. They paid me a decent sum, along with an ironclad confidentiality agreement, not to fight my dismissal from the Hampshire Hills School.

I guess I was too dazed by the spotlight to fully intuit what I was doing to myself, because I soon realized I was utterly unemployable. When you type my name into Google, the first several pages are references to "Hampshire Hills' Humbert ". I appreciated the way that it took my starting a sex scandal to get Nabokov's novel some attention. I was no Humbert, of course- my nymphet was a woman, legally and otherwise. But as with everything else this summer, it didn't matter what I said, or what the truth was- I was judged before I could clear my throat.

I didn't know how much longer I could drink away the hush money. I knew I had had too much, though- the edges of the letters in front of me were starting to swim. I was, in the words of Paul Simon, a one trick pony- all I knew how to do, all I cared about and loved and lived for, was literature and words and letters and sentences and showing people how to appreciate them.

I looked down at the letters on the bar. "GONE," they spelled.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Terrible Minds Challenge: "August 21"

Chuck Wendig, everyone's favorite biped, is up with another flash fiction challenge, 1000 words or less with a theme, once again, of the subgenre mashup. This piece is intended to mix bodice ripper and spy story, and is called "August 21".

21 August 1863
Baltimore, Maryland

Beloved Cordelia,

My dear sister! How I long to hear your voice around the dinner table, reciting our prayers and joking with Uncle Paul about his wooden leg! I came North only reluctantly, as I told you so many times, to engage in the task asked of me, not out of any disfavor towards you or my beloved Mississippi. God has favored me in my endeavors, and I can only hope that the information I have gathered can help end this senseless war and bring independence to our Confederacy.

Please see on the back side of this page the indications I have been given about the intentions of the Yankee armies. When I was knee high to a grasshopper, you and Mother both told me that women were by far the stronger sex, and my life experience has never shown me the contrary. These Yankee boys are so weak, like ripe apples- tough on the outside but so soft and vulnerable just underneath. Sister of mine, those tricks you used on boys to get them to act as you desired work as well on Yankee men as they do on our Southern brothers. Show a flash of decolletage, some rose oil applied strategically, a bit of leg, and help relieve them of their bodily burden, and a man will tell you anything. In the period after the act of love, when they are done sweating and grunting, men grow so weary, which makes them receptive to whatever questions I pose. (I remember you trying to explain to me the ways of women and men, and blushing so furiously you looked like a rose! I now understand of which you were trying to tell me- understand far too well, I fear.)

I'm sure you are aware that, if these letters are intercepted by Yankee officials, it will be a simple matter to track them to me and have me hung for treason. I am not ashamed of what I have done. If the advantages gained from my letters allow General Lee to throw the invader from our sacred soil, then no deed I have done, from lying on my back underneath these wretches, or even a date with the noose, will have been in vain. As I always remind you, give the numbers and details I have learned to Major Boothroyd of the Home Guards. I have it on good authority he knows how to circulate the facts to the right parties so that our brave fighting men and our noble generals can use it to their advantage. I can only hope that something I have learned will help a Southern boy return to home and hearth, instead of being buried underneath Yankee boots.

Baltimore is hot today, and the Lord has seen fit to favor us with a thunderstorm as night falls, which has cooled the air off marvelously. Tell me of doings in town! Peter Collier's sister Nelly told me that darling Ruth took ill. Has my niece returned to health? Are the shortages still as bad as you described in your last missive? Have you been receiving any gentleman callers? Nelly wrote to tell me that Michael Swansee has been pitching woo at you. I know you miss your darling David since his loss after Manassas. But dear sister, woman and man are meant to be together- put aside your grief and woe, and let Michael mend your heart. Ruth and Felicity need a father in the house, and Michael is a good man. Please consider my words carefully- as your younger sister, I dare not lecture you. But my concern is for your health and safety, and of your little darlings. (I hesitate to add the other comforts a man can bring to a woman- details I now know much of, but modesty forbids my explaining them fully.)

Don't worry about me, dear Cordelia. The Lord will reign in all things, large and small, and if my acts are sinful, they are only in the service of defeating a much greater evil, that of living under the heel of Yankee domination. I have faith that Almighty God knows why I engage in these acts, and His will shall be done, without heed to the concerns of mortals. I always post my letters secretly, and with all the other pages I have included, the true meaning of this one sheet will be obscured, I trust. I promise I shall write again when September dawns- if you have not seen word from me by the end of that month, some cruel fate has befallen me.

Kiss the girls for me, and pray that my duties here will be foreshortened by the end of this awful war.

Your loving sister,


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"Money (That's What I Want)" (Flash Fiction Friday)

The First Flash Fiction Friday of 2012 involves a countdown, and has to include the words three, night, wire, sweat, and run. My entry is called "Money (That's What I Want)"

I started listening to music when I run as soon as I got a Walkman. When I was transferred to Moscow in the late spring, I made sure that was the first thing I packed in my suitcase, even though wiser heads insisted to me that someone would steal it as soon as they saw me, a 5 foot nothing waif with short brown hair and the strength of limp spaghetti, toting such sophisticated Western gear in the heart of World Communism. But my Walkman and I survived the trip, and soon I was running around Moscow listening to my favorite tapes. The locals stared at first, but eventually the "crazy American girl" became just another part of the endless days.

I was only a typist, taking handwritten notes and typing them up for the file. I didn't know, or care to know, what the abbreviations and code words and vague phrases were. We all knew we were among some CIA types, and we were all carefully instructed that every Soviet citizen would probably assume we were. So we just went about our business as normally as we possibly could, never going out at night alone, hanging around with other Americans.

I had changed into my running clothes, starting some long, slow stretches while deciding which three tapes to bring on my journey. I felt eyes on my back and straightened up quickly.

"Nelson? I need a favor." It was Tom Jenkins, who didn't have any fixed job, but was always drinking coffee in the cafeteria when I came in there. He was paunchy, divorced and bitter, and had made a half hearted pass at me when I first started at this post.

"What is it, Tom?" I played it cool. I didn't mind helping him, even if it was awkward. If I had to pick up something in a shop, I could take it slow, a welcome respite from typing up more memos.

"You run through Scruffy Park, right?" That was our institutional name for the small grassy area across the street from the consulate.


"You know that bench on the south side, near the rock that looks like Snoopy?," he asked.

"The one with the wire fence in front of it?"

"That's the one. Do you run by there?"

"I can. I go all different ways."

"Do you usually?"

"Like I said," I said, sounding impatient. "Sometimes I do. I vary my paths. I probably run by it twice a day, depending on which way I go."

"OK," he said softly. "I don't normally do this, but I need to be somewhere, right now, so I need you to do this for me." He held up a cylinder that looked like a tube of lipstick, with a wire sticking out of the top. "Look around the base of the bench, on the ground. Tie your shoe, stretch, change tapes, whatever you need to do. If you see something that looks like this, grab it and bring it back here. Stick it in your sock or something. If anyone notices you, or says anything, or if things seem suspicious, pull the wire out." He yanked on the wire, and I heard a hiss. A tiny curlicue of smoke left the side of the device and curled up towards the ceiling. "Then throw it away."

"What's in it?"

"Can't tell you."

"What happens when you pull the wire?"

"Can't tell you."

"Am I being a spy?"

"Can't tell you."

"And I'm supposed to do this for you why?"

"I need you to. We need you to. I can't tell you why, but this is important." He looked a little pitiful. I was nervous, but I couldn't resist the temptation to play secret agent for a moment. Plus having a favor I could call in wouldn't hurt. I agreed, and timed my route so I would be at the right place at the right time.

I had a good layer of sweat going when I rounded the last corner before the bench. There wasn't anyone else nearby, so I figured it would be safe to make the pickup. I had chosen "With The Beatles", knowing that I would come to the end of it 33 minutes into my run, knowing I would have to stop and change tapes, and I could scan the bench area when I did so. I had three minutes, about the length of the last song, "(Money) That's What I Want", to cover the quarter mile before the bench.

I half chuckled at the thought, as I headed down the last straightaway. Three minutes. A song about money, performed by young men who would go on to become some of the richest men who ever lived, pounding through my ears as I ran through the center of the workers' paradise, where wealth was supposedly abolished. I marvelled at the young, hungry John Lennon vocal- someone who lived in the lap of luxury in New York City, yet once was as utopian as the best Soviet dreamer.

Two minutes to go, as the next verse began. What was I actually doing? I wasn't a spy, I was a typist. Thirsting after the adventure got me to say yes without really thinking about it. What if they were watching the bench? I really don't know anything, so it's not like I can spill any secrets. The worst case scenario is I get sent home in disgrace and wind up typing for Vogue or something. It would still be scary, even while I know nothing bad would really happen- no torture, no lasers pointed at my crotch like in Goldfinger.

One minute. The piano came back in as the young Beatles brought the R+B standard home. I was getting near the bench. If they had dropped something nearby, it had to be a little while ago. I heard the song end as I began scanning the base of the bench. There were a few leaves and some scraps of paper. There was some encrusted dirt where the bench was bolted into the sidewalk, and a hunk of metal which may have been a screw at one point. I looked for the telltale plastic cylinder as I stopped, fumbling in my pocket for a second cassette. Was that it, by the back corner? It looked well used, beaten and scratched, and there was indeed a wire at the top. I walked around to the back of the bench, doing tiny stretches and leans, trying to keep my muscles loose in the still cold spring air.

In an instant of inspiration, I dropped the cassette, the new solo George Harrison album that Marcy had mailed to me, at my feet. As I bent to pick it up, I palmed the canister, which was cold to the touch. I changed tapes, jogging in place while I whipped my head around. Nobody in sight. Was I being a spy? Was there some secret document in here? Or was this all a ruse? I wouldn't put it past Tom to prank the new girl.

It seemed clear. No sirens, no policemen yelling, no commotion of any kind. It was a short jog back to the embassy, leaving the parcel on Tom's desk, then a quick, hot shower and back to my desk. My mind whirled at the possibilities. Had I just won the Cold War? Or was Tom just communicating with a secret Russian girlfriend? I started back towards the corner, looking at a tired looking gray taxi at the corner, its engine running, a Marine guard staring at it impassively. I pulled my ID out from my pocket, feeling the smooth plastic of my secret container. The guards all knew our faces, but we showed the ID anyway, just in case anyone ever checked. I was almost there, ¾ of the way across the street. Home sweet home, I thought, wondering what kind of a story this would back back in Virginia at Thanksgiving. They'll never believe me, I thought- little Ellie, engaged in spycraft, just like James Bond. I looked at the guard's face. It was one of the cuter ones, a blond who seldom spoke. I tried to give him a smile, knowing that my sweaty, sloppy ponytail was not exactly pinup material. I had almost made the gate, hoping all the salad wasn't gone from the cafeteria.

I saw the taxi leaving the sidewalk on my right, and I was steps away from safety. Was this it? Were they going to whack me with the car as an "accident"? Would I be a silly footnote in a buried CIA file? Was this the end? The cute guard was moving to open the gate for me. I was almost to the sidewalk. I could feel the cylinder jostling in my pocket as I moved. I passed inside the gate, safe from danger, real or imagined, and wondered what I was involved in now.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Hysteria (Indie Ink Writing Challenge)

I sat towards the back, trying to keep out of everybody's way. I was staring at the way light reflected off of the tip of my shoe. I would bob it slightly, up and down, and watch the reflection change as the angles shifted. It was one of those stupid things I did when I couldn't read or sleep. I really didn't want to listen to what they were saying. In fact, I didn't want to be there at all. But there was a consensus in the air- you had to be there. So I got up, put my most solemn looking dress on, found some shoes to match, and asked my Mom to drive me down here.

There were faces I recognized in the crowd. Lots of teachers, but mostly students, some I knew and others I knew only by sight filled the tiny room, which quickly became stuffy and hot. There wasn't anyone I knew seated near me, only a tall, angular woman who had to be her aunt, along with three small girls, miniature versions of her, sitting in a row with tiny legs kicking softly while the adults droned on. It was just as well there were no friends nearby, because I could think of very little that I wanted to say. The room was tense, like everyone was holding their breath.

The day after it happened, the news had spread like the wind through the school, the emotional outbursts becoming so frequent that they finally abandoned all pretense and just held a giant assembly. They never told us how, exactly, but the consensus was pills, emptying Mom's medicine bottles late one night and never waking up the next morning. The principal, a fat balding man with his voice cracking at the edges, told the whole school what had happened and about the counselors they would have available. Blah blah blah, I thought, welcoming the break from conjugating French verbs and memorizing English kings, but not seeing what the fuss was about.

Rachel was one of those people that just got selected at some point, somehow told she was going to be important. She was more beautiful, more perfect, more poised and confident and smooth than anyone you knew. It was like you went to school with a movie star. Teachers treated her differently, listening to her more closely, almost asking her permission before assigning homework. Boys worshipped her, of course, and the leading question before every dance and prom was "who is Rachel going to pick?" Most girls secretly envied her and resented her influence, but no one would dare take sides against her. She held power silently, without seeming to hold it at all.

I uncrossed my legs and recrossed them, tuning back in to the voices coming from the front of the room. One of her uncles, I think, was describing how kind Rachel was, how generous and loving, to the point that I wanted to gag. She was those things, true- when it benefited her. She would be your best friend until someone said no. Then she would turn on a dime, being vicious and cold, as long as no one was within earshot. She never risked ruining her simon pure reputation.

The last time I saw her, it was one of those rough days. I had my period, plus I was sick, and I had my hair in a sloppy bun, feeling gross and sore and out of place. The day was finally over, and I was walking towards the bus when I saw Rachel gliding by, looking like her feet were barely touching the ground. I didn't count her as a friend, but I circulated in her orbit. Talking with her put as big a knot in my stomach as a cute boy would, constantly on guard for double meanings and hidden digs.

"Your hair looks so cute when it's up!," she said breezily. I wasn't used to compliments as a rule, but it was laughably untrue. I looked like hell, and I knew it, and I craved my bed more than all the money in the world.

"Thanks," I tried to say with the same lightness, but it came out sounding begrudging and mean. I was sure she didn't mean it. Compliments from Rachel had barbs attached- she was emphasizing the difference between you, pointing out that she was ten times prettier than you on your best day. My thoughts boiled as I watched her hips twitch as she walked by. "I wish you were dead," I thought venomously, my voice in my head a loud scream, edging on hysteria.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Melissa Brodsky challenged me with "your wish becomes somebody's command" and I challenged Dimdom with " 'I just hope to wake up, and it's not a disaster' -Keith Richards".