Category Archives: Short Stories

To Sleep: An Ode to Early Morning

A bit of flash writing, in celebration of one of my favorite activities: sleeping. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

—————-

To Sleep: An Ode to Early Morning

Everything is heavy. I’m pressed against the mattress, breathing in my own warm air, comfortably squeezed by gravity and my heavy blanket. The light is dim and everything is perfect.

Right now, in this moment, I am only myself. I am not my hands, nor my job, nor my friendships; I am not the number in my bank account (or not in my wallet), or responsible to anyone but myself. I am not even a body. I am a wisp, weighted down only by the memory of a body.  With my eyes closed, I am just thoughts in the darkness, drifting in perfect contentment.

This is happiness, or the nearest thing to it, because as long as I stay half-asleep I have no need of emotions, the wanton rages that make me tingle and burn up and down my skin. Anxiety has left me, and all that is left is a deep simmering joy; I am and am not.

I think about moving, why I’m not exactly sure. A moment prior it would have been unimaginable, but my limbs are quickening all of their own accord, so I stretch and roll languorously. There is peaceful bliss in this as well. My shoulders move easily, warm  and eager, the muscle slipping around the bone with a welcoming happy hug. My toes point and flex in the squiggly bits of sheet down at the bottom of the bed. My little cocoon of warmth remains, but now that I’ve shifted, one side is just a bit cooler.

This, too, is perfect.

I can hear now. The house is buzzing quietly with its gentle hum. A machine in the kitchen whirring as the electrons zolt by. The wind thrumming against the window in random cadence. A groan from a beam somewhere deep within a wall. Maybe a bird singing a tune as it flutters.

Even behind my closed eyelids, light blooms. The sun is tiptoeing through the curtains which never lay quite flat. It blankets the bed, a little at a time, warming eyelids to a soft red.

I resolve to run from it, so I roll again, hiding my eyes against the dark and cool of my cotton pillowcase, snuggling down closer under the blanket. But this was a mistake; this choice was too conscious and the neurons in my brain take it as a cue that they can begin to dance.

My day marches before me, unfolding like a fabric fan, each panel decorated with a chore, a task. I squint my eyes to force it back, but too late. The nagging questions arrive: How much time do I have before the project is due? Do I have enough toilet paper? What was that phone number again?

I bury my head under the pillow, but any comfort there is lost in the warming light.

The brigade of questions will not stop. There is no choice but to acquiesce.

Begrudgingly, I roll over, sitting up until the blankets puddle in my lap. I stretch and yawn, and my feet find their way to the floor. Momentum will handle the rest.

The day is begun.

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Time Travel Challenge: History for the Ages

My flash fiction contribution to the Time Travel Challenge, inspired in part by Ask A Slave by Azie Dungey. (Good videos if you like history.) I’m not in love with the story, but it’ll suffice. May keep tooling on it.

—–

History for the Ages

It’s lonely, being a Historian. They made it sound so much more exciting when we signed up for the program. We would be adventurers, of the best sort, not discovering new worlds but conquering past times. We would bring Knowledge, capture it for the next eons to enjoy. We were heroes, or so they told us. The International Library actually had to turn candidates away, if you can believe it.

Despite the trainings, nothing prepared me for this. Not really.

But I was here, now, so there wasn’t much choice—I couldn’t go back home until my year was up. My intrachronometer wouldn’t activate until then, anyway. I might as well do my job.

I sighed and picked up the sack I’d brought with me, muttering to myself about my damned Locator. I was supposed to have been dropped just outside of the town, but it didn’t look like there was anyone nearby. There were so many trees, so incredibly many. I’d seen one in the Museum, of course, but I had no idea they were like this.

Everything was so green. I felt another pang for home.

Though it had seemed foolish at the time, now I was grateful for those trainings in Era-Appropriate Clothing. I still hated the skirt, of course, the drab dirty thing I’d ported in, but at least now I knew how to walk in it, thighs slightly apart so they didn’t rub. So different from the comfortable slacks at home.

I crested a small hill and saw, in the distance, a grand white plantation home. I started toward it, suddenly excited. My first interaction with my subjects! I tried to remember what to say, what the culturally appropriate language, behavior, for a dark-skinned female in this era was.

I’d been specially selected for this assignment, they’d said. After I’d passed all the requisite tests, ensured that I was compatible for time travel and the demands of the job, been thoroughly taught how to create accurate notations of my time period and experiences, I had waited for my era. Based on the scant information the Librarians had on the era, it was decided that I should go infiltrate Revolutionary America, that my attributes and skills made me a great fit for the task.

Don’t forget, they had excellent marketers. That’s how I signed up to be a household slave in 1795.

The philosophy went like this: As Historians, it is our duty to stay out of the activities of those we are studying. Much like anthropology, the ancient study of other cultures, Historians must live in the populations, but not be of them. It would not do for us to actually affect history! (And there would be serious consequences if we tried!)

So Historians always have out-of-the-way cover stories. I overheard the Librarians talking once: their favorite timelines for Historians in America were colonial eras and the four decades post-1985. The slaves and poor commoners of the colonial era and the skyscraper production methods of these times made them easy to infiltrate.

I hadn’t walked too far before I had to fall back on my training. A handsome man working in a field stopped and stared at me as I walked by. I glanced at him, but bowed my head away like I’d been taught—women in these days weren’t typically seen alone. Pretend shyness, particularly around males.

The man called out to a colleague, and word of my approach beat me to my destination. I nearly climbed the porch, but remembered myself just in time and turned to go around the back. There was a woman there, evidently waiting for me.

“Excuse me,” I said, hoping my accent-work was passable, “I’m lookin’ for a job, ma’am. Do ya have any need for a maid, perhaps?” I was particularly proud of the ‘perhaps.’ My Languages instructor would be proud.

The woman looked me up and down sternly. She looked like a tough nut to crack. She crossed her arms over her chest and said, “Possibly.”

I ran through the backstory I’d been given, explaining that I’d be happy to join the household and work hard if only they’d take me, that my prior master had died suddenly and left me without work.

She didn’t seem to believe me, but eventually agreed to let me stay on “for now.”

Success. I’d infiltrated Mount Vernon. Now I could really get to work.

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Time Travel Challenge: “On The Road”

Wow! My time travel challenge was answered very quickly already. Here’s a post from mishaburnett: “On The Road.”

Stacie stopped for gas at a station on Route 66, just outside of Vinita, Oklahoma. It was 1964, and the air smelled like November. By reflex Stacie checked herself over—black skirt, white blouse, white knee socks, black shoes—timeless. In a pinch she could wear it at her destination, but she’d planned on changing somewhere on the road.

She opened the glovebox—heavily reinforced and equipped with a thumprint lock that the Ford Motor company never imagined—and sorted through an envelope of bills, selecting a ten with the date of 1958. That would more than cover a tank of gas.

Her car was a 1953 Ford Crestline, the Sunliner hardtop. The exterior was perfect, but a look at the motor would have shocked the attendant who came up to her window—if he had been able to open the hood without triggering the high voltage alarm system.

Read the rest.

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September 11, 2013 · 10:32 am

Black Cat Salon

As soon as she stepped through the door of the Black Cat Beauty Salon, Madge knew something was wrong with her 3 o’clock appointment. It wasn’t just the young woman’s dour looks or moping demeanor, though those were good enough hints. No, Madge had been in this business long enough to know a heartbroken lover when she saw one.

“Hello there,” she said cheerily. The girl started, as if surprised that she’d been noticed. “In search of a bit of pampering?”

She nodded, her loose bangs flopping off and quickly over her downcast eyes. “Yes please,” she said.

“Do you have an appointment?” Madge asked, in her chipper-saleswoman voice.

“N-no,” the girl stammered.

“Well, you’re in luck, I’ve got openings,” Madge said, coming around the counter to take the girl by the arm. In another era she would have commented on how nice and meaty the girl’s arm was, but those days were behind her now. Leading the customer toward the worn but plush seat, Madge said, “what can I do for you today, dearie? Haircut? Eyebrow threading, maybe?”

The girl winced. Not the right tactic. “Oh, I know. Manicure. Just the ticket,” she said firmly. “Go browse the colors while I get set up.”

Her client looked briefly bewildered, but then got up and scanned the wall of polishes. Madge watched her from the back room as she picked up first one, then another pale pink or shimmering gold. She let the girl linger, and busied herself with pretending her supplies weren’t already ready.

“Find one ya like?” Madge finally asked, beckoning the girl over.

“Oh, I dunno,” she said, shy. “I like both of these, and it’s just so hard to choose.” She showed Madge the two shining bottles, one a deep lusty red and the other a pale grey. Interesting, Madge thought. The colors they pick are always so telling.

“Ah, that it is dearie, that it is sometimes. ‘ow ‘bout we use that one?” she asked, pointing out the red bottle. “I find it has a bit of a magical effect on a girl.”

“Does it?” the girl asked, brightening only momentarily, before saying gloomily, “I could use some magic.” She sighed in that melodramatic way only the young seem to manage.

“Sure does. It’s called Bewitched, ain’t it?” Madge said, winking conspiratorially.

“Oh, ha,” the girl said, the “ha” closer to a cry than a laugh. “That’s too bad.”

Madge took the girl’s hands and led her back to the chair. “What’s your name, dearie?”

“Sam. Samantha,” she said, leaning back into the firm little chair.

“Well, good, Miss Sam, just you let me take care of you now and you’ll see things are better for it in no time,” Madge said as she took out her clippers and began snip snipping at Samantha’s long tattered nails.

Sam stared off into space until Madge said, “So, dearie, are you going to tell me what’s troublin’ you or not?” She put down the clippers and held Samantha’s thumb firmly, sanding off the rough edges with a lavender nail file.

“Oh, it’s not a big deal or anything,” Sam said. And sighed again.

Madge stopped filing and looked Sam in the eye. “I’ve been around long enough, missy, that I know that kind of moping ain’t fer nothing. No sir. It’s about a boy, isn’t it?”

She went back to filing, barely glancing down at Sam’s fingers as she worked, and Sam gaped at her. “Is it that obvious?” she asked.

“’Course it is, dear. Might as well out with it. It’s part of my job, listening is, you know.” Madge rounded off another corner on Samantha’s pinkie, and turned her attention to buffing the nails.

The girl mournfully told her story while Madge worked on beautifying and painting her nails. It was a story she’d heard frequently enough over the years: there was a charming lad at the girls’ workplace, totally out of her league, and she was pining away while he didn’t even notice her. Madge just listened, and pursed her lips as she focused, applying two even coats of Bewitched red.

When Samantha had run out of lamentations, Madge looked up and said, “Well, dearie, I’m sure it won’t be that way for long. Why, I bet you’ll have a run-in with him real soon now, and you’ll find he’s been just as heartsick all this time. Now put your hands here to let this little light work its magic.”

Samantha obediently slipped her hands under the ultraviolet light, and said “Really? You think so?” Maybe it was just the little bit of pampering, but she felt happier than she had when she’d come in.

“Darlin’, I know so,” Madge said.

Six minutes later, the timer went off, and Samantha paid for her manicure (leaving a more substantial tip than she might have at another salon) and went off with a smiling gracing her face and a lightness to her manner.

Madrigal sighed as she watched the girl go. Witchcraft sure wasn’t what it used to be.

 

—-

I really like this concept for a character, preferably a main character rather than a background character, but I’m a bit stumped. What problems could a witchy beautician resolve, do you think? What trouble could she get into?

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The Grammarian’s Five Daughters

I found this fabulous short story that uses a fairy tale/fable structure to examine the values of different types of words. It’s beautiful.

Once there was a grammarian who lived in a great city that no longer exists, so we don’t have to name it. Although she was learned and industrious and had a house full of books, she did not prosper. To make the situation worse, she had five daughters. Her husband, a diligent scholar with no head for business, died soon after the fifth daughter was born, and the grammarian had to raise them alone. It was a struggle, but she managed to give each an adequate education, though a dowry — essential in the grammarian’s culture — was impossible. There was no way for her daughters to marry. They would become old maids, eking (their mother thought) a miserable living as scribes in the city market. The grammarian fretted and worried, until the oldest daughter was fifteen years old.

Then the girl came to her mother and said, “You can’t possibly support me, along with my sisters. Give me what you can, and I’ll go out and seek my fortune. No matter what happens, you’ll have one less mouth to feed.”

The mother thought for a while, then produced a bag. “In here are nouns, which I consider the solid core and treasure of language. I give them to you because you’re the oldest. Take them and do what you can with them.”…

I’ll let you find out what happens next, but do go read it. It’s delightful.

It made me wish there was a similar story about punctuation. Maybe there is! I’m a fan of the way commas herd words together in small-but-appropriate-sized bunches, and the way periods are always there to give us a break. The interrobang (?!) is rare but mighty, and apostrophes help us cut the crap.

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12 Months of Experimental Tales

This month, inspired by one of my absolute favorite authors, I set out to write 12 short stories, using prompts selected by Neil Gaiman. I later found out that this kind of short, quickly written fiction is known as “flash fiction.” (Look at that! I was part of a thing and I didn’t even know it!) I’ve never participated in this kind of writing exercise: the last time I wrote fiction in response to a prompt was in the one creative writing class I’ve ever had, which was in high school and acted mostly like a therapy group for teenage angst.

Twelve stories. It took me nearly a month to complete the challenge (though I never went over an hour in writing each one, so mission accomplished. Technically my writing time was the same as Gaiman’s, though I didn’t have the luxury of three consecutive days of writing–thank goodness I also didn’t have the camera crew). While I loved it, I’m also glad I don’t have these unfinished prompts hanging over my head anymore!

What I’ve Learned from the Calendar of Tales

  1. Prompts are great
    Like I said, I haven’t written from a prompt with any regularity in awhile. I don’t remember liking prompts, but these were nice and juicy and open-ended. I enjoyed having something percolating in the back of my mind. In fact, I often chose to work on the Calendar Tales because of the intriguing prompts..meaning I sometimes neglected my longer fiction pieces (I still love you guys, promise!)
  2. Short fiction can be liberating
    Maybe I’m just a little backwards, but I’ve heretofore preferred longer fiction. I just didn’t see the point in sitting down to write something I knew was going to be short; better to use that energy on a longer project that can pack more punch. But the short word count on these was great: I could say whatever I wanted! I didn’t have to bother explaining where everything came from or making sure each little loose bit was tied together. I just needed to say enough to establish the scene and the problem, and get out of the way. In a lot of the stories, I’m imagining a lot more that just didn’t fit, and I’m okay with that. I hope the reader enjoys filling in the broad strokes, too.
  3. Accents are hard
    For the August tale, I knew I wanted a twangy Texas grandma as the narrator. It’s an accent I thought I could fake pretty well, but I ended up spending the most time on that story out of all of them as I struggled to figure out how to spell the words the way they should be pronounced. I wanted her to be twangy and kind of like Gertrude Beasley, a plain-speaking sassy-as-hell real woman from the barren 1920s of west Texas (My First Thirty Years is a tough read sometimes, but it’s now available to download on Kindle, if you’re interested). I had the hardest time figuring out how you might say “child” with that accent! I think I got it, but it took a lot of trial and error. I have a lot more appreciation for those who write accents frequently.
  4. Ducks Can be Scary
    I don’t watch horror movies. I don’t read horror novels either (except for when I’ve started a book without realizing it’s horror but can’t stop because I have to know what happens), and I struggled to make it through 75% of Joe Hill’s excellent Horns on audiobook before I couldn’t take it anymore. So I didn’t really think I was going to be writing horror. But the April story–I just knew it needed to be terrifying, because the idea of scary ducks was both absurd and believable to me. I think it did a decent job at it, but I think the better lesson is that it’s good to try things even if you think it’s beyond your abilities.
  5. Beta readers are good people
    I fit the writer-as-hermit stereotype pretty well, but it’s something I know I need to work on. Just before starting this venture, I met some great folks at ConDFW, one of whom was just foolish enough to say he’d be a beta reader for me. (Hey there Bryan!) After I wrote each piece, I sent it over to him, giggling like a fiend and hoping he found it just as funny/clever/scary/whatever. And biting my nails when I didn’t get an email back instantly. I’ve been leery of sharing my work before, but this project was different. Bryan caught some dumb mistakes and I’m really grateful for his help. Lesson learned: Beta readers = good.

I’m glad I took on this challenge, and I think it produced some fun and interesting results. I hope readers enjoyed them, too! Read all of the calendar tales.

What writing challenges have you participated in lately? What do you learn from them?

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A Calendar of Tales: December

(Prompt: Who would you want to see again?)
“My 18 yo-runaway-self so I can show her that I find someone to love & own a home of my own – it did get better.”

This side of town is darker than I remembered, grungier. I remembered it as an artistic, safe-ish place, full of fun and interesting people; seeing it now, I wonder how this ever seemed appealing. I don’t go to areas like this, not at night.

But it’s December 1987, and I know I have a hard year behind and ahead of me. I’ve thought about it for a long time—these visits don’t come cheap—and this seems like the best time for me to come, to offer myself another chance. I’ll have another tough year after this, but I remember how terrible this winter was for me. I hope that coming now will mean I’m happier.

I pull my coat closer and step through the portal onto the street, remembering to close it behind me as I go. My younger self will be within 6 blocks of here; I never did travel far, those days.

I checked the store room of the Indian restaurant on 9th first; it’s warm there, and the owners sometimes gave me some rice at the end of the night. But the servers are still bustling, so I move down the block, in the sheltered alcove next to the Dumpster overlooking the park.

I see my boots first, two sizes too big and unlaced most of the way. How did I ever walk in those, anyway? I shake my head and make a noise in my throat, “ahem,” and stare down at my 18-year-old self.

Gawd was I a scrawny thing.

“I don’t know what you heard”—it’s shocking how pale I look—“but I don’t do that no more,” my young twin says diffidently.

“I’m not interested in anything you have to offer, Sam. I’m here to offer you something,” I say, extending a hand.

Young Sam glares up at me from under that beat-up old hat. I thought I looked killer in that hat; I still have it. “Who are you?” I sneer.

“I’m you, in the future. You’re me, in my past. I know, it’s hard to explain, but trust me on this. Time travel is invented in 2047, and it’s 2056 in my time now. I’ve—we’ve—led a good life, and I wanted to come tell you it’s going to be okay,” I say. I offer my hand again, hoping my younger self will take it and walk with me.

He disappoints me, mistrustful, but I understand. “Gawd I don’t age well,” he grimaces, disgusted.

“I thought I might show you how things are going to turn out,” I offer. “If you’ll come with me just here…”

I gesture toward the open wall. Young Sam stays out of arm’s reach, but gets up and follows me. Good enough for me. Fumbling with the switch, I activate the portal.

“That’s going to be your home, Sam. See? It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s got 5 bedrooms—five! I think sometimes I should sleep in all of them, just because I can…” I turn and look at my younger self, practically feeling the desperation in him. “You have a family; better than you’ve ever dreamed. You even get a respectable job, and it pays for two top-of-the-line hovercars, and vacations in Bermuda and Taipei and all over the world.”

He’s leaning in, as if he wants to grab the house right out of the portal. I can feel his longing; I remember its echoes in my own heart. “That’s my future, huh?” Young Sam says.

“Yes, Sam,” I say. “It’s all going to be alright.”

“So you’re telling me you came all the way from the future to show off all the cool stuff you’ve got?” He opens his arms, angry. “You came here to goddamn brag, old man?!”

“What? No,” I say, flabbergasted. “I remember how bad this year was, how bad the next was, and I thought if you saw that things were going to work out, you’d feel better and it wouldn’t be so hard.”

My younger self snorted. I don’t remember being so rude. “Man, I get stupid when I’m dumb. You think I want some crazy asshole to come up, tell me he’s from the future and show me a bunch of shit I can’t have? Well, no thanks. I’m not waitin’ around for no punk-ass future.” Out of nowhere, young Sam slams his open palm on my hat, pulling it down over my eyes. While I’m blinded, he yanks the portal fob from my hand and knocks me to the ground.

I look up just in time to see those stupid unlaced boots disappearing into the portal.

“Well, that didn’t go exactly as planned,” I say to the Dumpster, dusting off my hat and sighing. “Thank goodness I bought the time travel insurance.” I walked back to the sidewalk to wait for the time governors to pick me up and dump my stupid younger self back in 1987.

Kids in these days; no respect for their future elders.

Read more of the calendar tales.

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