Odyssey of a Novice Writer

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time… ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?

A Disarming Tale of Remorse

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Photo Credit: picsbox.biz

Crime don’t pay.

Ain’t that what they teach you in reform school?

Here’s something else they teach you: don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. Was a time I didn’t know what that meant.

I do now.

It all started when I fell for Angelina Bartolucci. First time I saw her, I wanted her: long black hair, big brown eyes. And curves? Mama! That girl knew how to work her stuff.

Took a while before Angie noticed me. She was an uptown girl, but the broads have always liked me. Angie was no different.

There was a problem, though.

Angie liked jewelry – a lot.

She wasn’t shy in telling me that if I wanted what she had to offer, I better be able to deliver. I was so in love, I’d have done anything to have her… and to keep her.

That’s how I got in trouble with the Boys. I started doing small jobs for Nicky Pellegrini, taking bets, running errands… two-bit hustler stuff. Tending bar at Giannelli’s wasn’t cutting it; Angie had her heart set on a diamond bracelet. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if I couldn’t deliver, Angie would find someone who could. So I delivered… to the tune of a $10,000 bracelet.

I started holding out on Nick, keeping back a little, not thinking he’d notice. Meanwhile, Angie was parading that damned bracelet all around town.

One night the Boys came to see me when I was leaving work. Said they had a little message for me – it was one anybody coulda read on my face the next morning. I ended up in the ER with a broken nose and a warning not to fuck with Nick.

You think I woulda learned my lesson, right? But Angie caught sight of this ring, see, a three-carat rock she had to have. Spent a lot of time on her knees one night, convincing me just how much she had to have it.

I started holding out on Nicky again, and Angie got her rock. But I was scared – it was just a matter of time before Nick figured things out.

I’m easy to read, like I got ‘SCHMUCK’ tattooed across my forehead. Harry Shapiro, the neighborhood loan shark, told me the word was out: Nick was sending the Boys my way. Compassionate Harry offered his services.

So me and him cut a deal. Shoulda known better, but I’m a schmuck, remember? Nick got his money and I got to keep my new nose.

All’s well that ends well, right? Not exactly…

I missed a couple of payments, and while Nicky once had my nose broken, Harry broke my heart.

Last night when I got home, there was a package waiting for me – and a note.

I kept the ring and bracelet; now we’re square.

Tearing open the package, I shoved aside the tissue paper.

Then I threw up.

I knew that arm.

I knew something else, too.

Angie wouldn’t be needing any more jewelry.

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Word Count: 500
Author’s Note: Written in response to challenge to write a story in which a man steals a large sum of money to pay a debt to a loan shark, is saved from a beating, but is then haunted by what he has done. Weekly flash fiction challenge hosted by ThainInVain.

We Do Apologize

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It was a somber day in Gotham City. The skies, a metallic, leaden gray, were threatening rain. Dick Grayson, former Boy Wonder, walked aimlessly about the cemetery.

Life was a bitch sometimes.

He shook his head, unsure what life would hold for him now.  Holy Hopelessness! he thought, trying not to cry.

The mourners were gathering. Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara sat in the front row, their eyes focused on the casket, their hearts recalling happier times than these. Mayor Linseed and Governor Stonefellow, never big fans of the Caped Crusader, sat silently. Each was there for the photo op; no more, no less for this pair of political puppets.

“Sit down, Dick,” said Alfred Pennyworth, “you’re becoming conspicuous. Remember, you’re here as the representative of the Wayne Foundation. To show your true feelings runs the risk of exposure. Mr. Wayne would not want that.”

Dick pounded a fist into the palm of his hand. “Holy Hypocrites, Alfred! How can I pretend not to care when I do?”

“Do it for him, young sir. Do it for him.”

Dick took a deep breath and nodded.

Alfred placed a consoling hand upon his shoulder, but then the elderly man stiffened.  He directed Dick’s attention to the group settling themselves in the last row of white folding chairs.

“Holy Jail Break, Alfred! What are they doing here?” Dick’s astonishment was real as his eyes settled on the motley group of mourners.

****

The Penguin waddled down the long, narrow row, quacking in spite of his intention to be circumspect. Exasperated, the Joker shoved him into a plastic white chair, while the Riddler and Cat Woman quietly took their seats.

Leaning past the Riddler, the Joker looked into Cat Woman’s masked eyes. “Are you well, my dear?”

She nodded, and held a black lace handkerchief to her nose, daintily pressing at the moisture that graced her near perfect nostrils. “I simply can’t believe it! That marvelous specimen of male sexuality gone! Poof! Meanwhile, Boy Blunder continues to live. There is no justice, that’s for sure.”

Without any real enthusiasm, the subdued Riddler asked, “Riddle me this, Cat Woman – what famous super hero meets his death when a chunk of kryptonite falls out of the sky and zonks him on the head?”

Cat Woman said nothing. The kryptonite was a sore topic with her. Kryptonite was supposed to be Superman’s weakness, not her glorious Batman’s problem. Still, Batman’s kryptonite situation had proven deadly. Who would have thought a large block of that green junk would have snuffed out the life of a purrr-fectly strong brute like Batman?

Who would ignite her fantasies now, those hot dreams tinged with sex and vengeance?

Certainly not that prepubescent Boy Blunder with all his ‘holy this’ and ‘holy that’ crap. It was enough to drive a feline purrr-fectly mad.

“Quack, quack… shut up, Riddler,” said Penguin, cleaning off the lens of his monocle. “Can’t you see Cat Woman is broken up?” He placed a hand atop Cat Woman’s leather clad thigh. “Quack, quack, my dear… would you like a little catnip to get you through the ceremony? I have some in my pocket.”

Her emerald green eyes glittered behind the mask. Catnip!  Moving her slender hands sensuously up and down her thighs, she began to purr.

“The funeral balloons are a nice touch, Cat Woman,” remarked the Joker, watching them as they floated in the air, held in place by long silken cords tied to the end of Batman’s casket. The four black balloons, each bearing the face of a cat, bounced up and down in the breeze.

Cat Woman sighed. “It was the least I could do… we had such a special relationship… I wanted to sink my claws into his manly, well-muscled chest. But that damned Boy Blunder was always around. I can’t tell you how often he intruded just when I was about to make my move. Once, a barely missed shot stunned Batman, and he sank down into my arms, desperate for a little comfort… then, just as I was about to have my way with him,

KER-POW!
KER-PLUNK!
ZOWIE!

“Everything around me started to dissolve and a series of colorful words appeared before my eyes.   Next thing I know, that stupid bat spotlight is shining and Batman and Boy Blunder are riding off into the sunset in that ridiculous car of theirs.”  She shook her head with disgust.  “Boys and their toys!”

The Joker nodded sympathetically. “And now he’s gone…”

“Yes, gone,” she agreed, “but not forgotten. There will never be another like the Caped Crusader.”

“Quack, quack… that’s why we’re here, right? To pay our respects to a worthy adversary? I so wanted to be the one to kill him…”

“Penguin,” remarked the Riddler, wiping a tear from his eye, “we all wanted to be the one to kill him. It would have certainly been a more fitting end for him than this. Do you think Superman had anything to do with it? You know, professional jealousy?”

“Don’t be stupid,” said the Joker. “Superman wouldn’t have come anywhere near kryptonite.  No, my money is on Wonder Woman. The word around town is that he stood her up at the last gathering of the Justice League of America.”

“A woman scorned,” quacked the Penguin.

“Well, I’ll miss him,” said the Riddler. “I wish I could throw one last riddle his way.”

The Joker nodded, his green hair falling forward onto his stark white face. “Such a nice flower arrangement you sent, Riddler.”

For once, the manic puzzler kept quiet, his eyes focused on the arrangement of dozens of red poppies against a background of white, the small red flowers forming a series of tiny question marks. A sky-blue ribbon bearing a simple message was draped across the arrangement: We Do Apologize for Past Inconvenience.

Suddenly Cat Woman sat up straight, and her claws spiked outward from her long, black leather gloves. “What is she doing here?”

The three villains followed her gaze.

It was Sally Songwright, slowly approaching the casket, carrying a bundle of papers in her hand, each bearing musical notations and lyrics.

“Quack, quack… I heard she and Batman were an item but I didn’t believe it! Well, Cat Woman, even in death he’s bested you!” said the Penguin excitedly, wondering if perhaps a catfight might ensue. He liked nothing better than watching two good-looking women rolling around on the ground, pulling one another’s hair, and kicking and biting!

Cat Woman stood up, and walked toward Sally Songwright. Sally saw her coming, and stood her ground.

“Cat Woman,” she said, nodding at her.

“Sally Songwright, what are you doing here?”

“I’ve been asked to sing at the service.”

“That’s purrr-fectly odd considering your singing paralyzes listeners who are pure of heart. How did you swing this gig?”

“It was in Batman’s will. He wanted his funeral to be memorable,” she remarked. She flashed a brilliant smile and Cat Woman wanted to deck her. Sally’s singsong voice was not only nauseating; it hurt Cat Woman’s sharply pointed little ears.

“Besides,” continued Sally, “if I take my voice down a decibel or two, the paralytic affect is muted.”

“Is it true, you slutty songstress?” asked Cat Woman, her claws inches from sweet Sally Songwright’s face. “Is it true you were sleeping with my Batman?”

Sally Songwright smiled. “We made some beautiful music together!”

Cat Woman reached for her just as the scene around them began to dissolve…

SCRATCH!
SCREECH!
KER-POW!

Yes, Batman was gone, but life still goes on in Gotham City.

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Author’s Note: This story is written in response to a challenge to write a tale of indeterminate length based on phrases or words that are part of this week’s ‘Inspiration Monday’ from the blog, BeKindRewright. The phrases used are: songwright; missed shot; Batman’s kryptonite; funeral balloons; and we do apologize. Thanks to BeKindRewrite for hosting the inspiration prompts this week.

Intent

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He held a hank of her hair, watching the gold strands drift through his fingers. Forty years old, but eleven in comprehension, he stared into her unblinking eyes and began to cry. He hadn’t meant to squeeze so hard…

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Author’s Note: This one is just a quick throwaway in response to Chuck Wendig’s prompt to tell a complete story in just three sentences. I hope I did some justice to the prompt. Chuck’s blog, Terribleminds, can be found here.

Why We Write Our Stories

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This past week I took a risk and wrote a short story that I’d been thinking about for some time but had been reluctant to tackle. The story, Novocain, dealt with a subject no one likes to discuss: the sexual abuse of children.

Several years ago, a longtime friend shared with me that she’d been sexually abused as a child. I remember my feelings of shock and revulsion that anyone could have subjected my friend to such horror when she was just a little girl.  I knew her parents – or so I thought. Yet I never suspected that my friend had endured the emotional pain of sexual abuse during her childhood. But she did – and years later it still continues to affect her. My friend is a happy woman. She has a good life, a loving husband and children, a rewarding career. But the memories linger, and she felt the need to share her secret with me.

Some things never go away.

If you’ve read any of my flash fiction or short stories, you know that I generally write quirky little things. While on occasion I may tread ever so lightly into more serious territory, it is always a quick journey; I’m in and out before you know it.

Novocain was different.

There was no science fiction element, no fantasy, nothing humorous or freaky. Instead of my favorite destination, a trip into the Twilight Zone, Novocain was a trip into real and unhappy past events.

Wally Lamb, the author quoted above, is one of my favorite writers. I’ve just finished reading his book, I Know This Much is True.  During my reading of the novel, I was struck by how often the events of the past continue to intrude into our present-day lives. I can say with certainty that my own past continues to affect my present in both good and bad ways. The same is true of the friend I mentioned.

Lamb believes that the stories we write are written because in some way we need to write them. I think that’s true with my writing of Novocain.

The story was written in response to a weekly challenge in which I participate, and I was given several prompts in the form of words and phrases to incorporate into a story. Generally, those prompts lead me down sci-fi avenues and into flights of fantasy. But this time, I felt compelled to use the words to address my friend’s tragic experiences. I felt the need to tell her story with a light touch. I also needed to consider why a mother might look the other way when confronted with the suggestion of abuse.

I combined my friend’s past with a seminal memory of my own mother’s unhappiness early in her marriage, and the stress that unpaid bills and family pressures placed on her. Using creative license, I fashioned a situation that allowed me to sympathetically view my friend’s experience and, at the same time, explore the feelings of a mother caught in a situation over which she feels she has little control – and no escape from.

Lamb is correct. I did need to write that story. I wrote it for my friend, but I also wrote it for my mother. It’s my way of coming to grips with her past unhappiness, and how it often made her seem timid and ineffectual.

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Lamb says he writes fiction as a means of moving beyond the limits of his own existence.  I’m struck by how closely I identify with that rationale. I’m willing to bet money that most of us take up writing as a way of venturing beyond the limitations of our own lives and experiences. We human beings are curious animals; we are also empathetic. We are driven to understand, to comprehend, to relate. Fiction empowers both the writer and the reader to push past the limits of our own understanding.  Through the sharing of our stories with one another, we relate to each other. We move beyond our singular experiences.

We become more than who we are individually.

In writing Novocain, I touched only briefly on what the child experienced.  My focus was the mother. I think my need to understand how a mother might look the other way when confronted with a hard truth compelled me to write the story from her point of view. I needed to comprehend something that seems incomprehensible. It was a stretch for me to try to understand, to relate to this woman. That’s where my mother’s past unhappiness came into play; it allowed me to look at the abuse from the point of view of an overwhelmed, unhappy woman, and one most likely in the grip of depression.

'...where humans go, lions and tidal waves follow.' ~ Wally Lamb

‘…where humans go, lions and tidal waves follow.’ ~ Wally Lamb

Because I couldn’t bear to let Novocain end on a tragic note, I tried to leave room for hope. In my story, the mother seems to understand she cannot ignore her daughter’s claim of abuse. She decides to take action, but one has the uncomfortable feeling that she is teaching her daughter to avoid problems rather than confronting them head on. It is my story, of course, and yet even I wonder if that mother has the guts to confront her child’s abuser… or whether she will simply cover things over, and merely assist her child in avoiding future contact with the perpetrator.

For this woman, to take positive action and confront her child’s abuser would be going against her own timidity, her own fears. It would require that she have the heart of a lion… it would require that she be willing to risk a tidal wave.

I left things open at the end. Each reader will bring their own thoughts and feelings to the story, and decide which way they think the mother will go: will she remain timid, choosing the safest of choices, or will she finally stand up for her child and herself?

Do you have any feelings about Wally Lamb’s remarks about writing? Have you taken experiences from the lives of others and combined them with your own memories to create a story? Do you think it is through our stories that we relate to one another, and transcend the limitations of who we are individually? Do you have a particular favorite among your own stories that touches on any of the remarks made by Lamb?

Review: Paradox by Mark Gardner

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What would you do if you were forced to relive the moment of your death time after time? What would it be like to have your mind transported into the body of another person just as you were dying? And, worse, what if that person was a criminal, someone about to do bodily harm to others?

What would you do?

These are just a few of the questions considered by Mark Gardner in his fine short story, Paradox.

Paradox starts out with a bang. We quickly meet our protagonist, Adam, inhabiting the body of a criminal who, along with a group of thugs, is about to rob a bank. Just moments before, Adam’s mind had leapt into the body of this man, and he has only seconds to evaluate the situation and to decide whether to go along with the heist or attempt to foil it.

That’s pretty much the central dilemma of this interesting story. Each time Adam leaps into the body of a criminal, should he try to prevent the crimes about to take place, should he participate in the crime, or should he just walk away? To walk away or to be a willing accomplice increases the likelihood that innocent people will die.

It is a moral dilemma, and Adam’s desire to do the right thing underpins much of the activity in the story.

Adam is first confronted with the choice between good and evil when he inadvertently crosses paths with a pretty redhead on a visit to the Empire State Building. While on the 86th floor, he notices the striking girl when she runs up to him and shoves a device into his hands. “Take it, they’ll be here soon,” she says. Startled, Adam takes the device just as the girl rushes past him and jumps to her death. Later that evening, Adam is unwittingly the victim of a violent crime. As he begins to experience death, his mind leaps from his body to that of another person – a criminal.

What Adam soon discovers is that the device given to him by the redhead enables him to escape death by its pushing him into parallel worlds time and time again. With each death, he steps into a new body and a new situation – and each time he faces the same choice: will he indulge in criminal behavior or try to save others?

The mysterious redhead continues to show up in each of Adam’s new situations and he always recognizes her. Interestingly, even though he takes on the appearance of each person whose body he is thrown into, the redhead also recognizes him.

I’m not sure if Mark Gardner intended this nifty little sci-fi tale to have a moral dimension, but it certainly does. There’s a subtle message about the cost of doing the right thing. Like a phoenix rising from its ashes, Adam lives again and again, each time afforded an opportunity to do what is morally right. Is doing the right thing reward enough? Or do we reap, ultimately, some cosmic benefit for doing so?

I won’t say too much more; I’ll let you read the story and decide for yourself.

Paradox by Mark Gardner can be found at Amazon (here).

Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner

Biography: Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, two school-aged children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degree in Computer Systems and Applications and is currently attending Northern Arizona University.

***

After reading Paradox, I had a few questions for Mark and he graciously agreed to answer them as part of this review.

Kate  –  Mark, I’m a big fan of science fiction tales, and I enjoyed Paradox. I liked your character, Adam, very much – he was a decent fellow. I wonder if the device that pushed him into multiple timelines and dimensions somehow sensed that about him, and that is why he was chosen to relive life and death so many times. I was much intrigued with the entire concept, and wouldn’t mind seeing you revisit some of the themes in Paradox in a future story.

Tell me, how did you come to write Paradox? Did you always have the desire to be a writer?

Mark  –  Paradox is my third published story. I started writing Paradox as a flash fiction response from Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com.

I never wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been a good story teller, but had never considered writing. In 2011, I got fired from my job and Amazon announced KDP Select on the same day. I had a story kicking around that was based on an off-hand comment to my wife three years prior so I actually wrote it down. That story became Body Rentals.

Kate  –  Body Rentals sounds like an interesting story based on the synopsis you’ve provided; I’m adding that one to my ‘to-be-read’ list. So, is science fiction your favorite genre?

Mark  –  Since I’m a huge nerd, sci-fi has always been my favorite. I’ve always liked speculative fiction, which might make me an even bigger nerd. I dabble in all genres, however, as you can tell by my varying flash fiction stories.

Kate –  Would you mind telling the readers about some of the other books you have published?

Mark  –  Aside from Paradox, there is Body Rentals, Forlorn Hope and Escape.

Kate  –  Here’s Mark’s brief synopsis of each:

Body Rentals – What if you could hire your ideal body? Renting a pair of twenty-something bodies seems like the perfect final touch for Tom and Jean Smith’s dream cruise to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. And it is – until they get home to find their lives have been stolen. Devastated, the Smiths seek help, only to find that this scam has drawn in a lot more people than they’d imagined. Now, it’s a race against time to find their bodies and recover their lives. Because if they don’t switch back soon, the change will be permanent. And fatal…

Forlorn Hope – Can the world be saved from humanity? Most of the world is a frozen wasteland. Populations have dwindled and a pair of scientists are traveling to Yellowstone National Park to see if ‘Old Faithful’ holds the key to reversing the current ice age. The perils of their journey are many and there are factions who will stop at nothing to keep the secrets of the ice age from them and the world.

Escape – Zachary knew his family was different. When the state comes for his family, he and his siblings must flee the only home they have ever known. On the run and pursued by soldiers, Zachary must come to terms with his family’s religion and his place in his new world.

Mark, what else are you working on?

Mark – Champion Standing is currently being copy edited for a February 2015 release. I’m also working on a quasi-zombie story called The Afflicted, a sequel to Champion Standing called Champion Rising, a prequel to Forlorn Hope, tentatively titled Soulsmith, and a super hero story called Sixteen Sunsets. Sixteen Sunsets has early work up on my blog.

Kate – Wow, you have a lot going on. So… do you ever get to sleep?  :D  Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?

Mark – I try to do at least one flash fiction a week on my blog.

Kate – Thanks, Mark, for answering a few questions. I wish you all good things with your writing!

Mark’s blog, Article 94, can be found here.

Novocain

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Arlene rubbed her forehead, trying to smooth away the worry lines forming there.

She wasn’t sure how she was going to pay all these bills; the money Buck gave her each week never seemed to cover everything. It was her responsibility, paying the bills. He made the money, gave her a weekly allowance and kept the rest of his pay for himself. She never knew what he made, and the amount he gave her fluctuated from week to week.

She added the column of figures again, making sure the sum was correct. A frustrated sigh escaped her as the second attempt confirmed her addition. There was no way she’d be able to pay all the bills for the month.

She got up from the kitchen table and poured a cup of coffee from the old percolator sitting on the counter. As she sipped the bitter liquid, her eyes settled on the cane propped against the wall in the corner of the room.

Her mother’s cane.

Her mother.

Still in the hospital, recuperating from surgery. An unanticipated surgery.

Arlene continued to sip the coffee, staring at the cane. She visited her mother each evening, making sure she had what she needed, keeping her company. Buck was working a second job, and when he wasn’t, he was out with friends. She frowned as she thought how she and her sister, Edna, had to rely on Edna’s boyfriend to take them to the hospital. Neither of the sisters could drive.

Arlene had the additional worry of what to do about Judy. With Buck at work or out on the town, she had no choice but to take the nine-year old along, asking Edna’s boyfriend to sit with her in the car. The hospital wouldn’t allow her to bring the child inside… she was too young to visit.

Arlene didn’t like Mark, but she relied on him, especially now that her mother was ill. God knows Buck wasn’t any help! Mark and Edna had been going together for a year, and while he went out of his way to be helpful, Arlene disapproved of him and was against Edna’s marrying him. She didn’t think he was good enough for her.

He’s good enough to help you out, though, isn’t he?

She pushed the unhappy thought aside and took another sip of her coffee, swallowing it too quickly. The hot liquid scalded her tongue, making it numb. Briefly, her eyes filmed over with pain.

Looking at her mother’s cane through misty eyes, she shook her head.

Mother’s cane.

She continued to stare at it. For a moment, it seemed to shimmer, the burnished wood glowing, commanding her attention. Nova cane.

She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Just a cane. Nothing more.

Nova cane… Novocain…

She smiled with bitter amusement at the wordplay. Her mother’s life had always been a source of guilt and anxiety for Arlene, numbing her own pleasure, her expectations. The emotional baggage she continued to carry from her unhappy childhood was not only heavy; it was deadening.

When was the last time she’d felt any real happiness? The thought depressed her.

She went back to the table and looked again through the pile of bills, deciding which she’d pay and those that would have to wait. After several moments, she looked up, hearing Judy’s footsteps as she descended the stairs.

Arlene’s brows drew together. Judy had acted like a brat the night before, carrying on because she had to stay in the car while Arlene and Edna were in the hospital visiting Mother.

As if Arlene didn’t have enough to worry about!

Who was going to take care of her mother when the doctor released her from the hospital? Edna worked full time and couldn’t do it. Arlene knew Buck didn’t want her mother staying with them… what was she going to do? And then… the bills from the hospital. Would her mother’s insurance pay for everything? God knows she and Buck couldn’t afford to help out, and Edna’s salary as an assembler in a toy factory barely carried the young woman through the week.

Problems, problems, problems… Novocain. How she wished she could escape… just stop thinking about everything. She was so tired of the constant worry, of carrying everyone’s load in addition to her own.

“Mama?”

Arlene looked up from the bills. Judy stood in the corner, her hands fiddling with the cane.

“Put that down, Judy,” she said. “It’s not a toy. Your grandmother will need that once she’s released from the hospital.”

The girl put the cane aside, and bit her lip.

Watching her, Arlene thought of herself at that age. She’d seen photos of her and Edna, swimming and playing tag at Sunday school picnics. Judy was a dead ringer for the girl Arlene used to be.

Perhaps that’s why the child’s timid ways so often annoyed her. It was a reminder of her own timidity, and how she hated that! Arlene tore her eyes from the girl, going back to the bills in front of her.

Judy came close and put a tentative hand on her mother’s shoulder. “Mama, look… this is for you.”

Arlene glanced up, and Judy handed her a small pink shell. “Cindy gave it to me… last week she went to the beach and found this near the water. Isn’t it pretty? Put it near your ear… Cindy says you can hear the ocean if you listen hard enough.”

Arlene smiled, taking the shell and holding it close to her ear. “Yes, I think I hear it.”

Judy moved closer and leaned her head against Arlene’s shoulder. “Mama, tonight… can I say home while you go to the hospital?”

Arlene frowned. “Now, please don’t start with me. Your behavior last night was my first think this morning – and not a very happy one. You’re too old to carry on like this, Judy!”

“But, Mama,” started the desperate voice.

“I mean it, Judy. I have a lot on my mind, and I don’t need this. I don’t know what your problem is, but you will stop this. You’re going with me tonight, and that’s all there is to it. I can’t leave you here alone and worry all night long.”

“But, Mama…”

“Judy!” Arlene warned, taking up her pencil again and going back to the bills.

“Mama, he touched me!”

Arlene froze, and the pencil stopped in midair.

She looked at the girl. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean… you know, right Mama?”

Unconsciously, Arlene picked up the small shell, and began to knead its surface, trying to get her emotions under control.

What did Judy mean? Mark? Did she mean Mark?

For the love of God! Didn’t she have enough to worry about? This, too?

She closed her eyes tightly, determined not to cry. Novocain… Novocain… She didn’t want to think about this. She didn’t want to feel the roiling disgust her daughter’s words provoked, didn’t want the ugly images…

Could it be?

No. Judy had to be making this up. Wicked child! Worrying her with fantasies. The girl was always making up little stories, lost in her own world… She probably heard something in school or saw something on TV and it ignited her imagination. Mark wouldn’t… couldn’t

She had so many other things to worry about…

“Judy, I want you to stop this. I don’t want to hear you ever say anything like this again, understand? You know this isn’t true. So just stop it!”

Judy began to back away, tears staining her face.

“That’s right, go on. Go on up to your room. I don’t want to hear any more about this.”

The girl’s shoulders slumped forward as she turned away. “He touched me, mama. Don’t make me go tonight,” she said softly, her words dying out as she left the room.

Arlene watched the small figure retreat. Part of her was furious with the child. She didn’t believe her!

Couldn’t believe her…

She glanced down at her hands. Her fingertips were raw and red, evidence of the shell burn caused by her rough kneading of the shell’s jagged edges.

He touched me, Mama.

Arlene started to cry. Just another day in her shitty life.

She placed the shell back on the table. Maybe nine years old is old enough to stay alone for a few hours, she thought.

She stood up and went in search of her daughter.

__________________
Author’s Note: This story is written in response to a challenge to write a tale of indeterminate length based on phrases that are part of this week’s ‘Inspiration Monday’ from the blog, BeKindRewrite. The phrases used are: dead ringer; emotional baggage; nova cane; shell burn; and first think in the morning. I played a bit with the last phrase, but only slightly. Thanks to BeKindRewrite for the inspiration prompts this week!

The Dare

dachshund

“I double dog dare ya!” said Butch.

What seemed like a good idea earlier didn’t seem so hot now that we were standing on the front lawn of old lady Havisham’s aged Victorian. The house’s peeling paint and crooked shutters gave me the creeps.

My dog, Charlie, was straining at the leash. His hound’s nose scented something.

“Stop, Charlie!” I said, yanking the leash, but the dachshund refused to listen.

“Look, Skeeter, if you ain’t gonna do it, I’m leaving.” Disgusted, Butch turned away. “You’re such a girl sometimes.”

His words wounded my tomboy heart. “Wait!”

He did. “If you’re gonna do it, do it now. I ain’t got all day.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna do it… I just need some time to think.”

“About what? Just knock on the door and run. I’ll hold Charlie for ya. Go on.”

This special summer was important. Butch was the new boy in town and his opinion mattered. I was eleven, but I’d already decided he was the boy I’d marry when I grew up. I liked his blond hair and freckles. He seemed to like me, too; said I was the bravest girl he knew.

“Okay,” I said, tossing him Charlie’s leash. “Hold him – he likes to run.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout Charlie,” he said, nudging me forward. “Go!”

I took a deep breath then ran up to the sagging porch. Peeking through the window nearest the door, I couldn’t see much. The panes were grimy and foul.

“Hurry up,” called Butch.

“Okay, okay,” I muttered under my breath. I quickly pounded on the door. Before I could run, it suddenly swung open, no one in sight.

“CHARLIE, NO!” yelled Butch.

Charlie, leash trailing, scooted right past me and through the door.

Cautiously, I followed. “Charlie?” I whispered. “Come back here, bad dog!”

My eyes slowly adjusted to the shadowy room.

On a nearby table sat a sepia-toned photograph of a young woman dressed in white, wearing a pearl necklace and long, filmy veil. I picked up the photograph, studying it.

PUT THAT DOWN, LITTLE TOAD!”

Scared, I dropped the photograph and spun around. Before me stood an old woman, glaring.

She held Charlie in her arms, ignoring his wriggling attempts to get free. “Is this yours?” she asked.

Frozen with fear, I could only nod. Her long, grizzled hair hung past her shoulders and she wore the tattered remains of a once-white dress and old, chewed veil. I gagged on the smell of mothballs.

“Come to visit, little toad?”

She crept close and I slowly backed toward the door. Suddenly, Charlie freed himself, jumped down, and ran out of the house.

“What about you, little toad?” She raised a withered claw in welcome.

Cackling laughter followed as I ran out the door, screaming like a lunatic, no longer caring about Butch’s opinion.

Catching up with Charlie, I grabbed his leash, putting distance between us and that house.

I never looked back to see if Butch was following…

__________________
Word Count: 500
Author’s Note: This tale is written in response to a writing prompt to write a 500-word story utilizing the words: photograph; special summer; heart; dachshund; and pearl necklace. Thanks to Elizabeth Frattaroli who hosts monthly challenges. Her blog can be found here.

The Cost

Caskets. Flags. ‘Grateful nation…’

Cold comfort.

image

__________________
Word Count: 6
Author’s Note: Written in response to challenge to create six-word story about anything. Weekly flash fiction challenge hosted by ThainInVain.

The Last Yodel

image

Blame it on the insomnia – that damned inability of mine to sleep through the night. I’ve always been a creature of the hours after midnight.  It’s the reason I ended up at The Last Yodel, staring at that damned elf hanging over its doorway.

Insomnia’s been a problem for me ever since I was a kid. While others in the family slept secure in the arms of Morpheus, I’d always awaken two or three times during the night. Finally, I’d throw in the towel and head to the kitchen, make myself a sandwich and then park my butt in front of the TV, watching infomercials until I fell asleep, usually about four a.m.

It’s just how I’m wired, you know?

The only time I ever slept like other people was during my brief marriage to Susan. There’s something about a warm body next to yours that makes you sleep better.

But Susie died… and the insomnia returned, worse than ever. Lots worse.

Supersomnia.

Once Susie was gone, I returned to my former sleep patterns, which was basically no sleep at all. During the day I was a zombie, living off cigarettes and coffee, trying not to fall asleep at my desk. Damned funny thing: no matter how tired I was during the day, as soon as I reached home and tried to grab a couple of zzzs, I was wide awake.

My shrink blames it on separation anxiety, saying I haven’t come to terms with Susie’s dying, and that’s why I am having trouble sleeping.

No shit.

Like I need to pay big bucks to some fancy witch doctor with a long title I can’t pronounce just to learn that I’m missing my wife.

Seeing Susie’s empty side of the bed didn’t help with my insomnia, that’s for sure. That’s why I knew I had to get out of the house tonight, get away from that empty bed.

I’m not sure how I ended up on Brighton Rowe. It’s not really my scene. It’s a street with a number of glossy bars and yuppie restaurants, all themed and having silly names like the Glass Rocket, the Cliffhanger and – best of all – the Guilty Lawyer.

The Guilty Lawyer – that’s rich. I mean, seriously, is there any other kind?

Sounds of oompah music drifted my way, and that’s when I noticed The Last Yodel.

It’s a goofy-looking place, a faux Teutonic biergarten. Perched above the doorway is that wooden elf I mentioned, dressed in lederhosen and a Bavarian hunting cap, and holding up a beer stein in welcome.

Dumb. Just the kind of place I usually hate. So what am I doing here?

The insomnia. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I sure as hell didn’t want to go home and stare at Susie’s side of the bed…

The place was packed with young professionals, talking about IPOs and tax havens, and all of them trying to impress one another with their own importance. Beautiful blondes dressed in skimpy skirts and low-cut peasant blouses were serving steins of beer to loud and thirsty customers.

One of those blondes was behind the bar, and she smiled at me, indicating an empty seat in front of her.

“Hello handsome – anything to interest you?” my new friend asked.

I did a quick survey of her attributes, which were considerable, and I had to admit a lot interested me… but a memory of Susie surfaced and I lost heart.

“I don’t know why I came in here. I don’t even drink,” I admitted. “I had trouble sleeping… ah, shit, this is a mistake.”

I started to get up from the bar, but the pretty fraulein put an unnaturally cool hand atop mine. “There are no mistakes,” she said softly. “You’re at the Last Yodel because something called to you. Accept it… enjoy it for what it is. So, no beer for you?”

“Never developed a taste for it.”

“I bet you’d feel differently about a Bloody Mary.  Ever had one? I can go light on the alcohol, and heavy on the tomato juice and tabasco – it’s good for what ails you.” She looked at me appraisingly. “You look unwell,” she said, her voice sympathetic.

“Lady, what ails me, you ain’t got no cure for.”

I didn’t want pity, especially from some dame dressed like she should be serving schnapps to goons at a gathering of the SS faithful. “So, what’s your name? Heidi? Gretchen? Brunhilde?”

She grinned. “You’re not even close. The name is Mary – Mary Flannagan.”

“Flannagan? No shit?”

“T’is Irish, I am,” she said, her voice taking on a fake Gaelic lilt.

“You look like a Heidi,” I said, taking in the blond hair and German outfit.

“It’s a shtick… German bar, German clothes. A fake Heidi for a fake German biergarten. Remember this, my friend, nobody is ever what they seem. First rule of survival: expect the unexpected.”

I was starting to like this girl; the blond pigtails and the low-cut top didn’t hurt…

“So, you want to try a Bloody Mary?”

I nodded. “Yeah – and heavy on the tabasco.”

***

An hour later, I was still sitting at the bar, finishing up my third Bloody Mary. I didn’t know where pretty Mary Flannagan had gotten to.  I lost track of her halfway through my second drink when she was working some guy at the other end of the bar, smiling prettily, flashing that cleavage – and making some damned fine tips, no doubt.

I signaled one of the other girls that I’d have another drink, then slid off the barstool, my bladder telling me it was time to pay a visit to the john. Once I finished washing my hands, it occurred to me I hadn’t had a smoke in over an hour.

Patting the pocket where I stored my cigarettes, I headed out into the night. There was a full moon riding high in the sky, casting a sickly yellow glow onto the streets.

A couple stumbled out of the Last Yodel, and brushed up against me, almost knocking the cigarette out of my hand. The guy leaned the girl up against the wall and began sticking his tongue down her throat. I didn’t need to see that crap, so I walked around the side the building, determined to have my smoke in peace.

I lit up and the cigarette was halfway to my lips when I heard it: a soft, slurping noise, greedy in its intensity.

Must be a feral cat, I thought, enjoying a dumpster treat. I took a drag from the cigarette, relaxing as the nicotine hit my system. I was about to take another when I heard something new… something odd.

That’s no cat, I thought. I dropped the cigarette, crushing the butt beneath my left foot.

I heard it again, the sound of groaning.

Human groaning.

It was dark behind the Last Yodel, and the moon’s ghastly yellow was all but snuffed out by the building’s high walls.

The groaning was louder now.  It gave me the creeps. I thought about running, going back inside the bar, minding my own business.  I mean, who knows, maybe it was an amorous couple getting some action behind the building… maybe that’s what I was hearing.  I almost had myself convinced when I heard the slurping sound again, the one I’d heard earlier… the one I thought was coming from an old tom eating out of a dumpster.

They say curiosity can kill a cat, and I guess that’s true. It sure didn’t do me any favors.

Pulling the lighter from my pocket, I flicked it open and held it up, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from.

I’d been right about a garbage dumpster.  One was not more than three feet from where I was standing.

The cat? Well, you can’t be right about everything….

Unfortunately.

Instead of a feline, I saw a man lying on the ground, his hands twitching.  A woman leaned over him, her slender arms holding him in place.

In shock, I dropped the lighter.  By the time I retrieved it, she was looking at me. The edges of her bright blond pigtails were tinged with red and there was a smear of scarlet across the top of her pale, perfect breasts.

In less than an instant she was at my side, taking away my breath with her speed.  I smelled the scent of copper on her breath.  It gagged me, and I started to sink to my knees.  Her hand shot out and she grabbed me by the throat, pinning me high against the wall of the Last Yodel.  Watching my legs dangle, she began to smile.

Yeah, she smiled, exposing two long incisors stained ruby red. Then she asked the question -

“Want to try a bloody Mary?”

Life sure can be funny. You lose one problem, but gain another.

I guess I won’t be worrying so much about insomnia in the future…

__________________________
Author’s Note: This story is written in response to a challenge to write a tale of indeterminate length based on phrases that are part of this week’s ‘Inspiration Monday’ from the blog, BeKindRewrite. The phrases used are: supersomnia; cliffhanger; the last yodel; guilty lawyer; and glass rocket. Thanks to BeKindRewrite for the inspiration prompts this week!

Pop Goes The Weasel…

free_6914627

I’m not sure exactly when I woke up – or why. Not that it matters. Some things are just mystery. I mean, do you know why you have self-knowledge? Or who gave it to you? Like I said, some things are just mystery.

I know one thing, though. Seems I was born listening to that ceaseless, monotonous tune, always feeling its reverberations inside my box. Like to drive me crazy, you know?

dah.dah.dah.
dah.dah.dah.dah.daaaaah…

POP GOES THE WEASEL!

That’s when the lid to my box would burst open, and against my will I’d spring out, my body swaying and arms flailing.

It’s also when I’d find myself confronted with him.

His fat, pig-like face and slobbery pink lips would be grinning at me. I hated him, hated the red pimples on his cheeks, the black-framed glasses, the long, greasy hair. He was a mess.

Worse, he was mean. Real mean.

He’d stare at me, putting his face so close to mine that I could feel his mucous-clogged breath. “Your time’s coming, Jackie Boy. You wait and see… your time’s coming…”

***

“Christ, Wesley, look at this shit!” said the woman, walking into the bedroom. She looked around, shaking her head. Feathers and stuffing floated about the room.

“You’re ten years old. Don’tcha think that’s a little old to be playing with stuffed toys and jack-in-the-boxes? What the hell did you do to these toys? Jesus, stuffing’s all over the place. You’re just like your father! He was a psycho, too. Like father, like son. You wanna wind up in prison, too? Mr. Psycho, Jr.? Now clean up this crap and get to bed.”

Wesley and I watched her leave the room.

“Bitch,” whispered Wesley, repeatedly plunging his small penknife into the smiling panda next to me. “Bitch, bitch, bitch!”

His rage spent, he left the knife buried in the shredded remains of the panda.

Suddenly, he looked up at me. “What the hell are you staring at? Huh? I got news for you, Jackie Boy… your time’s coming.” He shoved me, causing me to tip over into the soft down of the panda’s stuffing. He laughed. “Your time’s coming!”

The bear’s smile seemed sad to me. His empty black eyes stared upward. I thought I heard a whisper.

Justice.

***

Wesley’s fury had exhausted him, and he fell across the bed. Within minutes I heard the snuffling sounds he always made when sleeping.

That’s when I decided I had a newsflash for him. Just this week I’d discovered I had the ability to move my arms, make my mitts do whatever was necessary.

I looked at the panda apologetically, then reached into his guts and withdrew the small, sharp knife.

Justice.

I secreted the knife within my folds, and grabbed the lid of my box, carefully pulling it down as I gathered myself deep inside.

I’m going to be ready for you next time, Wesley. Your time’s coming. Yeah, your time’s coming, Wesley Boy.

dah.dah.dah.
dah.dah.dah.dah.daaaaah

POP GOES THE WEASEL!

__________________
Word Count: 500
Author’s Note: This week’s tale is written in response to a challenge to write a 500-words or less story in which the protagonist is an inanimate object granted sentience by a higher power. You can check out these weekly flash fiction challenges hosted by ThainInVain here.

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