On the Outside, Looking In: Flash Fiction Challenge

It’s been a while since I posted a story inspired by a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge. The last one that came along was mashup; I got a dystopian wasteland meets a comedic fantasy world, and even though I managed to plot an idea I just couldn’t find the right voice. Oh well; it’s not the first time I’ve swung and missed. Won’t be the last either.

It’s been a crazy time for me lately. School has started and I’m doing my best to keep a 4.0 GPA; not a problem so far. I’ve changed jobs, and although I love my new one, I’m having to learn an entirely new skill set for it. My car is suffering from terminal Mechanical Shutdown Syndrome, so I’m shopping for an affordable used one. I know almost nothing about cars, so this is major stress. To top it all off I’ve been dealing with minor illness and major medication reactions. Meh.

But enough about me; you came for the flash fic. This week’s Wendig Challenge is Time to Create a Character.  The premise is simple: create a character in under 250 words. As I understand it, next week we will borrow from among these characters to create a new piece of flash fiction. So, here we go:

On the Outside, Looking In

I spend all of my time just watching. Sometimes it’s traffic; that’s mostly early mornings and evenings. This is a quiet neighborhood; people go to work, people come home. A few of them like to walk, or bike. It’s only a few blocks from downtown, but it’s the sleepy southern kind of downtown with diners and small shops, and a public library on Main Street. During the day, when there’s nobody around I watch the animals; dogs, cats, birds, squirrels; typical residential wildlife. At night, when everyone is sleeping, I just watch the houses, and wonder which one is mine.
I’m pretty sure one of them is, or was, but none of them look familiar. For that matter, I don’t recognize any of the people I watch, either. That creeps me out; I mean, if I lived in one of these houses then these are, or were, my neighbors, and I don’t know any of them.
To be honest, the whole thing creeps me out, which is kinda ironic, given my situation. Normally one doesn’t think about whether a ghost is ever frightened. It may just be me, though. I’ve talked with a few other spirits, and they don’t seem to as disoriented as I am. Of course, they all know who they are, and how they died.
I can’t remember either of those things, and I think it’s really important that I do. I’m going to have to find somebody that can help me with that.

The Contract: Flash Fiction

Another Friday Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig. Rules: open with a dead body, 1000 words.

Challenge accepted, Mr. Wendig.

I had to work at keeping this small; I may have cut so much that it doesn’t make sense. The initial concept was a lot creepier,and will no doubt find it’s way into another story at some point.

The Contract

“There.” The Constable Wizard pointed. “Just where dispatch said; the alley between Malkin and Dobrie streets.”

Ogilvie saw a body sprawled halfway out of the alley. A pool of blood spread from beneath it and across the cobble stones. He hurried forward. “Are we certain he is dead?”

The constable grabbed his arm, held him tightly. “By the Elements, man! Don’t touch him!” He took a small sphere from a coat pocket, touched it lightly with his wand. “This will tell us if he’s still alive, without leaving a signature.” The sphere glowed a faint rose, and floated over to the body sprawled on the cobbles. It slowly descended until it was resting on the back of the prone figure’s skull. As it made contact it turned black, and burst. “There,” the constable said. “He’s dead right enough. If you’d touched him you would have been part of the Contract.”

Ogilvie swallowed hard. “I thought the Contract was limited to a victim’s killer.”

Constable Adams shook his head. “There are several clauses to the Contract. But once the victim is dead he’s just meat. And so is anybody that touches him.”

“I’m not sure I understand”

Adams sighed. “I’ll try to explain as we go.” He looked back at the body lying in the narrow alley. “We can’t scribe a circle here. We’re going to have to move the body.” He looked at Ogilvie, “They’ll be here with a Mover in a few minutes.”

“A Mover?”

“If we want to find whoever killed our man we have to inscribe a circle around him. Where he’s fallen, there’s no room for a circle. So we have to move him. Since you and I can’t touch him, nor can any other law-abiding citizen, we’ll use a prisoner to do it.”

“A prisoner?”

“Usually somebody who’s done violent crime. Sometimes, though, we just have to take whoever’s in a cell.” He pointed toward a closed wagon coming up the street toward then. “Here’s our Mover.”

The two men watched as the wagon drew up to where they stood. Two policemen climbed down from the seat, and headed to the back of the wagon. One of them pointed a pistol at the closed door. The other took a large key from his belt and put it in the lock. The key turned, the door opened and a man stood framed in the doorway, squinting into the twilight.

The man with the key exchanged it for a pistol, which he trained on the prisoner. “He wants to be a Runner, Constable Wizard Adams.” Adams sighed. Slowly the prisoner climbed down from the wagon. The officers motioned him toward Adams and his companion.

“Follow me, Mover,” said Adams.

“Who’s he?” The prisoner pointed to Ogilvie.

“That is none of your concern, Mover.” Adams and the others stopped a few feet from the body. “Here is your task.” Ogilvie made a strangled noise as the Mover grabbed the dead man’s hands and pulled him out of the alley and into the center of the street. Once in the center of the street he rolled the corpse onto its back and straightened his arms and legs. He looked at Adams. “Anything else, Constable Wizard?”

“Can you see his wounds, Mover? Can you tell how he died?”

“Stabbed in the throat, looks like.”

“Thank you, Mover. Now, please empty his pockets and bring the contents to me.” Barkley did as he was directed, and placed the contents in a bag Adams held open. “Thank you, Mover.” Barkley grunted. Adams looked at him. “Ned,” Adams said, in a different tone, “three days is a long time. You could stay here. It would be quick.”

The Mover laughed harshly. “Not going to tell me it’s painless though, are you? No,” he shook his head, “I’m running. I’ve got scores to settle in the Maze.”

Adams nodded. “I was afraid of that. Very well, Mover. You are released from your duties. You are now a Runner.” For a few seconds there was no movement, then the man turned, and pelted ram. He turned a corner and he was gone. Adams looked through the bag until he found a wallet, with the owner’s name in it.

“What did he mean, scores to settle?” Ogilvie asked.

Adams sighed. He reached into a pocket and took out a bag of colored sand, which he used to trace a circle around the body. “Ned Barkley is an enforcer for one of the crime bosses in the Maze. He’s planning on finding some of his rivals and picking a fight. His killer will have to face the Contract.” Adams finished the circle quickly and set about the outer inscription. He turned to the officers, “You should head back now,” he said. “No point in upsetting the horses.”

Adams watched the wagon leave, then turned back to the circle. He took his wand, pointed it at the sand at his feet and uttered a few harsh syllables. The circle blazed. Ogilvie watched in horror as a twisted shape appeared inside the wall of flame. Slowly the fires died down until they were only a few inches high. Inside the circle the demon crouched.

“This man was James Strewby. Find his killer. Bring me his name.” Adams said. “Will you honor the Contract?”
Ogilvie screamed as the demon replied in a voice like bones breaking, “I honor the Contract.” The demon lifted the body of James Strewby, and bit off the head. “Good meat. And good hunting.” The flames flared suddenly, and when they died back, the demon was gone.

Ogilvie cringed as Adams turned back to him. “We have almost no murder. Most of the deaths now are accidental, in the course of another crime. And since there’s no telling who might be chosen as a Mover, other crimes are decreasing as well.”

“You’ve sold your souls!”

Constable Wizard Adams shook his head. “Not at all. Demons don’t want our souls. They only want fresh meat.”

Flash Fiction Challenge: A Fist Full of Hearts

Chuck Wendig has a flash fiction challenge on his blog. (No matter how I try to keep up, I always miss the release date for these things, but at least this time I found it before the challenge expired.) This challenge was The Random Title Jamboree. Rules were pretty simple: use a random number generator to pick an element of the title from each column. 1500 word limit. Addition of “The” allowed. I cheated a bit on that last bit; I added “A” instead. Guess I won’t win the trophy.

My numbers were 4 (Fist Full of) and 18 (Hearts) and I added that illegal article, A. Oddly, I got the story I wanted in only 1154 words. ENG 246 would be shocked that I came in under word count. Since I’ve been on a western kick lately I was pretty surprised with what the little voices in my head dictated.

Anyway, here it is.

A Fist Full of Hearts

Inquiry into the Creation of Artificial Humans, Vol. I
A scientific record by Amanda Stevenson
June 30th, 1887
The creature struggled against its restraints, but they held. After so many failures, one of the few things I am sure of is how strong my creations are. I placed the syringe next to the thing’s neck. “This is your fault,” I said. “I told you the rules. You chose to ignore them.” The creature roared its defiance as I slipped the needle beneath the skin, into the carotid artery. I pushed the plunger, sending the amber poison into the creature’s bloodstream. It jerked, and roared again, this time in pain. The massive body jerked against the restraints, then sagged limply. Its hands clenched spasmodically, once, twice, then stilled. I replaced the syringe on the instrument tray, rinsed my hands with a sterile wash, and left the operating theater.

I inspected myself in the mirror of the antechamber. The last time I terminated an experiment the creature somehow managed to get blood on the hem of my dress. I hadn’t noticed it until later, when I was preparing to receive guests for tea. This time, however, there were no unwanted fluids on lab coat or frock. I spent a few minutes adjusting my lace cuffs, and tidying my hair, and then left the lab for the day.

The afternoon was devoted to social calls; they are a dreadful waste of time, but necessary. Papa warned me when I announced my intention to follow him in the practice of medicine; society would not approve if I deviated too far from normal, and without society where would I find my patients? Unless I want to spend my time ministering to the poor, I would do well to attend to society’s demands as much as possible. At times it seems that I might do better to work among the lower classes; it might afford me more subjects for my research. Unfortunately, that research requires a great deal of money, and so I continue my career as a doctor among the pampered wives and daughters of society, who are so willing to pay a hefty fee to someone with a sympathetic look, who “truly understands how they suffer.”

The first few households I visited were a complete waste; I spent a few minutes listening to the latest gossip while trying to avoid dispensing free medical advice. It’s a delicate balance; I must be willing to listen and make small, helpful suggestions, but nothing that will allow “my friends” to avoid a professional visit for very long. Midway through the afternoon, though, I visited Mrs. S—. This was the social call which I most dreaded; Mrs. S— has children.

She isn’t the only member of my social circle with progeny; indeed, for a woman to be married for longer than a year and without children means that if she is not under my professional care it is because her husband prefers the services of one of my colleagues. Mrs. S— is unique among my acquaintances in her treatment of her children. Normally, when one calls on one’s acquaintances the children aren’t a factor. Nanny may, on occasion, lead the little darlings in for a quick inspection and then whisk them back upstairs, but for the most part one only sees the girls when they are being prepared for their introduction into society, and the boys, not at all.

Mrs. S—, however, has several small children of whom she is inordinately proud. When one calls upon her, instead of lengthy discussions of the latest scandals one receives a brief sharing of the highlights, and then Mrs. S— calls upon the children to entertain. One daughter sings, another plays the pianoforte; the boys, at their mother’s direction, recite, perform gymnastic feats, and on one memorable occasion, unsuccessfully attempt to demonstrate the various tricks they have taught the family dog.

Today was no different; over tea we exchanged news of the most trivial sort, and then “You must see the children!” Mrs. S— said. “It’s been so long since you last called, and they have all made such progress.” In short order the children were called, and the exhibition began. It was obvious, from the children’s expressions and attitudes, that they no more relished the ordeal than did I, but they made no complaint. In order, oldest to youngest, each child demonstrated some perceived skill or talent on maternal command. They were quiet, biddable, and even when fiercely embarrassed, they were obedient.

As I watched them I reflected on how Mrs. S— was able to command each of these, her creations, as it were, while I, who have brought forth vastly more complicated life in my laboratory, struggle and ultimately fail to control a single creature. So intent was I upon the problem that after all of the children were finished, and were hopefully awaiting the reward of a teacake and dismissal, I asked if they could repeat various bits of the performance. Mrs. S— happily agreed, and though I received dark looks from the children, they each reenacted their parts with the same obedience, and apparent enthusiasm.

When at last the children were released, I asked Mrs. S— how it is that her children are so exceedingly well behaved. She seemed surprised at the question and after a bit of thought said that it was due to love. “They know that I love them, and they love me. Because of that, they are willing to do things they dislike, just to please me.” We talked for only a few minutes more, then I apologized for taking up so much of her afternoon and left. So excited was I with what I had seen, I dispensed with the rest of the afternoon’s calls and returned home to consider.

Inquiry into the Creation of Artificial Humans, Vol. II
A scientific record by Amanda Stevenson
July 7th, 1887
I have at last solved the problem of how to control my creatures. Always before I have demanded their obedience through duty; after all, without me they would not exist. Each creation has, at some point, rebelled against this obligation and forced me to destroy it. If I replace obligation with love however, they will, as Mrs. S—‘s children do, obey me at every instance. For a while I was puzzled as to how to command the love of my creations, but again, I found the answer in Mrs. S— and her children.

The hearts that I designed to power my creatures do not love, but it took only a small modification to make room for a second, smaller, heart, one capable of love.

Tomorrow I will announce the opening of a free clinic, serving the needs of the city’s poorest children.

Love is, after all, the product of an innocent heart, and who has a more innocent heart than a child?

Flash Fiction Revenge

Thursday in my creative writing class our professor asked if anybody knew what flash fiction was. To my chagrin, nobody answered. Tentatively I raised a hand. Tentative not because I wasn’t sure, but because it was the first class meeting and I had already answered a couple of questions. I try not to be that woman in my classes. So I explained what I could about flash fiction. Then my professor told us to use the last fifteen minutes of class to write a piece of flash fiction. To be turned in. As the first piece of writing this man has ever seen from us.

My mind went into overdrive. Screaming, crying overdrive. I’m a confirmed plotter and the idea of writing something for review in only fifteen minutes…well. I started scribbling, with only the faintest of ideas. Five minutes into the assignment I got a much better idea, but there was no time to reboot. After ten minutes an even better idea occurred to me and I had to ignore it as well.

As expected, I didn’t finish. I managed about two hundred fifty words and a half-finished work. I was miserable as I left class. On the drive home-I have a commute of about an hour-I kept turning over ideas and rejecting them. I couldn’t shake the assignment. Twenty-four hours later I finally sat down to write the piece I wish I had been able to submit to my professor.  Re-reading it, I want it to be longer and more detailed, but after I had it (mostly) plotted I only gave myself fifteen minutes to write it. Anyway, here it is, my flash fiction revenge.

The scenario he gave us: two men are having coffee in a diner (or a Starbucks.) One of them finds a dime in bottom of his cup.

As he drained the coffee cup something clicked against Bill’s teeth. He spit it into his hand. A coin. Bob recoiled. “What IS that?” he asked in a tight voice.

“It’s a dime,” Bill answered. “Specifically a Mercury Dime.” He turned it over, looked at it a bit closer. “1942. It’s in pretty good shape for its age.”

Bob looked ill. “Those are—who would put such a thing in somebody’s coffee?”

Bill looked at the girl behind the counter. Young, auburn hair, dark eyes watching them intently. “It could have been a mistake. Fell into the cup when she was making change.”

Bob’s thick brows drew together. “You think that’s it?” Nervousness roughened his voice.

Bill shook his head. “No. She put it there deliberately.”

“But why?”

“I can think of a few reasons why a pretty girl would spike a coffee cup with a silver coin. Maybe she recognized you, my fine lycanthrope, and was hoping you’d swallow it and die.”

Bob shot a glance at the girl behind the counter and growled, a deep and rumbling sound. She looked around nervously, noticing for the first time that the diner was empty except for the three of them.

“But I prefer to think that she recognized me and offered the coin as tribute.” The interior of the diner rippled, the air shimmering as with intense heat. A lithe reptilian shape replaced Bill’s somewhat dumpy human form. He unfurled his wings and stretched his neck over the counter. “You must have meant it as tribute, didn’t you, my dear. You couldn’t have thought such a tiny bit of silver could harm a dragon? Or perhaps it was a bribe?”

The girl stood transfixed, staring into the gently swirling eyes of the dragon as he delicately took her head into his mouth and bit. He swallowed, ran his tongue daintily over his face to clear away the blood that had sprayed him as the corpse crumpled to the floor. He looked back at bob and said, “Stupid wench. The silver totally destroyed the taste of the beans.”

November Is for Writing

I’m in a peculiar place this year. I’m back in college after years away, and between classes and study that’s 30-40 hours a week. I also am actively  looking for a job–in my area that most likely means seasonal retail, with erratic scheduling and ridiculous managerial expectations–finances require it. So there’s another 25-30 hours a week. Add in important stuff like needlework, cooking, laundry, supporting a cat with severe anxiety issues, and sleeping and there’s not a lot of time left over for NaNoWrimo. As you may have noticed, there hasn’t been enough time left over even to blog lately.

But I get obsessive, and November is for writing.

In the past, with fewer demands on my time and energy, I’ve failed to meet a 50K word count. I have no reason to believe that this year will be easier. Most of the people I’ve talked to have told me that I shouldn’t participate this year because of the demands on my time. Normally I’d look at the amount of free time I’ll have and say “There’s no point in trying…I can’t possibly win.”

I’m planning on participating anyway, to see how much I can accomplish.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a national writing event, in which participants attempt to write a fifty thousand word (or more) novel in the month of November. One of the key factors in achieving this word count is to simply write, without editing. In NaNoSpeak, it’s called turning off your inner editor.

In addition to turning off my inner editor, I’m turning off my inner competitor. I still plan on writing daily, and that magic 1667¹ will be my goal, but I’ve given myself permission to write less. For the first time it will be less important that I write a certain number of words a day, and more important that I write something each day that moves the story forward.

It still won’t be easy; I’m going to get stressed because of my coursework. I’m going to get stressed because of my job, or continuing lack of one. I’m going to get discouraged because I’m not producing enough words to “win.” But not writing will be worse.

Since August, I’ve been focused on school, and rightly so. Any spare time I’ve had, I’ve used for quick needlework projects. And since August there’s been a story brewing. Saying it’s in the back of my mind would be misreprensenting it; it’s right there in the middle of things. School is an hour commute each way; when I’m driving, I’m thinking about this story. When I’m not sleeping–happens a lot, chronic insomnia–this story is what’s playing in my head. For the most part I’ve managed to keep the writing compulsion at bay by promising to write later. Consciously, I meant December, between semesters. Subconsciously…well, November is for writing.

Follow me as I try to balance school, work (hopefully), and writing from now until the end of November.

¹A word count of 1667 daily for thirty days yields 50,010 words.

Meditation through Coleslaw? Who Knew!?

Since the first of the year I’ve been dealing with some diet related health issues. As a result I’ve had to change the way I eat, and this summer the family’s gotten pulled along in my wake. The last few weeks especially, I’ve cooked almost every night. Let’s be clear here—I haven’t microwaved, or heated food from bags, I’ve cooked. Lots of prep work, lots of dirty pans, like-my-mom-did-it cooking.

I’m not knocking microwave, or easy to prepare cooking, really; it just wasn’t meeting my needs. Cooking like this is a big deal for me, because I don’t really enjoy it. Most of the time food is just fuel, and the time spent in the kitchen is time I could be doing something I enjoy. I’m making an effort though, and so far it hasn’t been too been bad..

I had the house to myself this afternoon, so I decided to make some icebox slaw and give it a chance to mellow. The house was quiet, the kitchen wasn’t hot and steamy, and I didn’t need to rush to chop my veggies. As I placed the first bit of chopped cabbage into the bowl I realized that my mind had stilled and my breathing and heart rate had slowed. I had inadvertently put myself in a meditative state.

I began to consider one of the bigger plot problems I’ve been dealing with in my current writing project. I wasn’t really looking for a solution, just going through the situation a step at a time, and from each character’s viewpoint. By the time I was ready to put the slaw in the refrigerator I had worked out the problem and blocked the scene.

Normally when I have a writing problem I sit down in a quiet room with my laptop and fight my way through it; this is the first time I’ve worked on something while I was in the kitchen. I don’t know if I’ll be able to duplicate the results, but if I can, my family will be seeing a lot more coleslaw!

Meditation coleslaw

½ head of cabbage

¼ large red onion

1 medium carrot

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

salt and pepper to taste

Coarse chop the cabbage by hand. The simple repetitive motion is what induces calm. Put the cabbage in a large mixing bowl, preferably glass or ceramic, but definitely NOT aluminum. Chop the onion and carrot in similar fashion. (I use a vegetable peeler to shred the carrot, and then chop the shreds to a manageable size.) Stir the layers together by hand.

Combine the sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small saucepan; Again, no aluminum, please! Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove mixture from heat and pour over the cabbage. Mix gently. Refrigerate for at least thirty minutes before serving.

*This slaw is WAY better made hours ahead of time. It’s one of those things that you can make at your leisure, or when you need to mull over a problem, and have on hand for any meal. I have no idea how long it will keep in the refrigerator—it never lasts longer than 12 hours at our house.

**It’s even better to place the cabbage mix in a wide mouth canning jar before pouring the vinegar over it, but I realize that not everyone has those on hand.

Whole Lotta Hats

I wear a lot of hats.

I love fedoras, especially. I have straw ones, and a wool one. I have a white one (day wear) and a brown one (evenings and wet weather) and a hounds tooth one for Saturdays in the fall. (Do I have to explain that any farther?) There’s a natural straw colored one in the car, and a grey pinstriped around here somewhere.

I’m a big fan of slouch beanies and berets, too. I hate cold weather so it’s nice to have a selection of head gear. Plus, I get to spend hours on the Internet hunting down free patterns to make and wear.

I wear a lot of hats.

I’m the mom of twin boys; I’m the mom of a daughter. I’m a knitter, a crocheter, a cross-stitcher. I’m a reader, a writer, a cat lover. My dream is to have an organic farm. I’m back in school at 50+ to earn a certificate in a Heath Science field. I’m standing on the edge of an empty nest.

Yeah, lotta hats.

All those hats have kept me from starting a blog for the last couple of years. Somehow, somewhere, I got the idea that a blog should have a theme. I’ve read book blogs, writing blogs, homeschooling blogs—you get the idea. They all have a theme. I didn’t have a theme; some days I wanted to write about sustainable living or my faith in God, other times I just wanted to share about my cats, or the delight I find in bad jokes. Too many hats…

Then it came to me. I do have a theme: me! The fact that I may be wearing a different hat each time I post shouldn’t be a deterrent. After all, I can’t be the only person with more than a single hobby, a single cause to which they are committed. Everybody has more than one hat, right?

So, no apologies; here it is. A book blog, a writing blog, a cat blog, a needle-working blog. A back to school after 50 blog. Oh, and an on the-brink-of-the-empty-nest blog. And much more. I doubt that every post is going to interest every reader and that’s okay, but every post is going to interest some readers.

I hope.