Counting Sheep, #FridayFlash, 03/21/2014

It was three months from the day the lights appeared when the ships appeared in Earth’s skies. They didn’t announce themselves, or even acknowledge any of Earth’s attempts to contact them.

Communications between the planet’s leaders buzzed, the news outlets speculated, and people spent the three months wondering about what it all meant. When the ships arrived peacefully, and nothing more shocking happened, as usual, people got used to them and life went on. People went from watching the skies to worrying about whatever crisis the news media was promoting this week.

Robert Baldwin couldn’t decide if there was any reason to worry. At times, he felt the faint prickle of unease, but for no good reason he could put his finger on. It was just there.

The external appearance of the ships wasn’t cause for alarm, either. In fact, they rather resembled geometric abstractions of the clean white clouds of a perfect summer day.  Robert’s upstairs neighbor, Ted, who saw conspiracies in everything, claimed that made them more dangerous.

“Hey, they look harmless and then wham! They go for world domination and use us for soup!”

Robert mused that Ted had probably cornered the market on tinfoil, imagining it stocked to the ceiling in his apartment. “I think you’ve watched too many Twilight Zone episodes, Ted.”

“You wait. You’ll see.”

All he saw, along with everyone else, was nothing. The ships kept hovering in the skies, and were mostly disregarded. There was still no attempt at contact, peaceful or otherwise, no one disappeared and life went on pretty much as usual.

If anything, it seemed as though life was too good. At night, the news had fewer road rage reports, fewer violent crimes, and there hadn’t been a mass shooting for months. Human interaction had changed – this city was generally regarded as a hotbed of anger and “me first”, but Robert thought he  heard less swearing (almost none, in fact) and people weren’t so prone to pushing and shoving their way through the streets. He eyed the ships above him uneasily and thought about Ted.

The next morning they met on the stairs. “So, still think you’ll wind up as Cream of Ted?” Robert joked.

Ted looked at his neighbor in surprise. “What?” He paused, a couple of steps below Robert. “Oh.  No. You know – I think I overreacted.”

Robert almost tripped as he walked down to Ted’s level. “Excuse me?”

“No, seriously.” They descended together. “I’ve actually got kind of a – I don’t know – good feeling about this?” He looked at Robert quizzically.

Robert returned his look, equally confused and a little concerned.

Ted’s smile was uncharacteristically beatific. “No I’m haven’t been ‘body snatched’ or anything. I just don’t think we have anything to worry about.”

Reynolds’ stock was about to drop, Robert thought, and shrugged. “If you say so.” Maybe Ted was right, but somehow he wasn’t sure.

A week later, he was very sure indeed.  Robert woke from a deep sleep with no warning. Two tall, thin, shadowy gray figures stood at the foot of his bed.

The shape on the right raised a spectral hand. “Hush, human.” The voice was thin and bloodless and yet managed to sound like someone’s maiden aunt soothing a child.

“We prefer lulling our herds to sleep,” the figure on the left said in the same kind of voice. “But some sheep, to use a term familiar to you, simply can’t be lulled.”

“Such as you, human,” said Right-Side.

“So we cull our herds.” A twitch of Left-Side’s hand sent Robert flying – right out the window. Even though he was terrified, he couldn’t scream – he couldn’t move.

***

The couple returning from their date didn’t scream either as Robert landed in front of them, quite dead.

“Poor guy,” the woman said as she stepped over his body, careful not to get any blood on her Manolos.

“Yes. I’m sure someone will take care of this,” her companion said.

They snuggled as they continued down the street, their faces blindly raised to the moonlight reflecting from the visitors’ ships.

Just a Feeling

6136085344_f675065475_zAnne turned on the radio and hurriedly cranked the volume down. The kids had finally fallen asleep and the last thing she wanted was to wake them up.

Suzette, her gentle Down’s Syndrome child, had been a good girl and slept right away, followed by Pat, the newest member of her little foster family – a golden-haired, dimpled six-month-old darling inexplicably left on the sidewalk in a baby carrier by a single mother who had apparently tired of being one. Matthew, the oldest at three, had been the tenacious one – wanting one more drink and one more story, until finally his eyes closed.

She wiped down the counter, loaded the dishwasher and started it. The music changed, and she grinned. I used to dance to that, she thought, and tried out a few rusty dance steps. Being a foster parent meant that she didn’t have much of a social life – at least not at the moment – and Anne hadn’t been out dancing since her divorce.

Spinning, a little off-balance, she giggled – and stopped abruptly at the site of a teary-eyed Matthew, standing at the entrance to the kitchen, holding the Hobbes she had crocheted for him.

“You’re supposed to be in bed.” Quietly, she walked over and scooped him up. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a monster in my room, mommyAnnie!”

“A monster,” she said, “where?”

The little boy pointed up at an angle. “By the see’ing. Up.”

“Let’s go take a look.”

“No!” He struggled to get away from Anne. “Can’t go. Can’t!”

Anne was taken aback. Matthew had been the least trouble of any child put in her care, at an age to be helpful, and very much thnking of himself as a brave big brother. This isn’t like him …

“Ok, Buster.” She put Matthew on his chair at the dining room table and headed down the hall.

As she entered the room, she shut the door to avoid waking the other children and flipped on the light switch. Maybe it’s a spider. Or some kind of bug. But the walls were clean and gleaming in the light from the fixture. Nothing seemed to be hanging out of the closet, home for the monsters of her childhood.

On her way out the door, she stopped. Just for an instant, she felt something, rather than seeing it, but the moment passed and she decided that she had just picked up on Matthew’s heebie-jeebies. She shut the light off and headed back to the kitchen.

“Nothing there.”

“It ‘cared of you.” His eyes were still wide and he was sucking his thumb, something she hadn’t seen from him since the earliest days he’d been there.

“Scared of me? Why?”

“You girl.”

Scared of me because I’m female, huh? Just like most of the guys I seem to meet these days.

“You need to go back to bed, sweetie.”

Matthew shook his head violently. “No, pleez, mommyAnnie. Pleez. Mons’er’ll come back.”

“What did it look like?”

“Din’t see it. Feeled it. Feeled bad!”

Anne sighed. She still had quite a bit to do before bed. “Ok. Tell you what. You can sack out on the couch until I’m done. Will that help?”

He nodded and jumped up on the couch, pulling the afghan off the back to cover up with.

“Thank YOU!”

She went back to the kitchen and finished cleaning the stove. Opening the cabinets, she built a shopping list for the next day. As she worked, Anne felt a growing sense of unease. She tapped the pen on the counter and then went to look in on Matthew.

He had pulled the afghan up, almost covering his face. “MommyAnnie,” he whispered, “it’s here again.”

Anne knelt by the couch and brushed the hair from the little boy’s eyes. “Shh, honey. You must have woke up from a bad dream and it just stuck with you. It happens all the time.”

“No, no, no, no, no ….” Matthew teared up again. “It wants hurt me.”

“But not me?”

“It’s ‘cared of you.”

“Because I’m a girl.”

He nodded gravely and scrubbed the tears from his face.

She hugged him and they stayed there; neither moved for a long time. Abruptly, the tension broke.

Matthew scrambled off the couch and wrapped himself as far around her as he could. “It’s gone.”

I hate to admit this, but I felt something. I really did.

She cuddled him. “Think you can go back to bed?”

“Uh-huh.”

Anne walked him back to the room, tucked him in, gave Hobbes a kiss and went back to the kitchen thoughtfully.

“I don’t know what that was all about, but I’m glad it’s over.” She whistled as she emptied the dishwasher.Who ever heard of a monster that was scared of girls?” I guess Suzette’s safe, then.

She nearly fainted when an infant’s terrified scream came from Pat’s room.

Green Thumb, #FridayFlash, 06/02/2013

“I’m telling you, microwave ovens make poison!”

Tony was our trainer and when it came to working us out hard, there was no one better. But when he got onto one of his hobby horses, it was another story.

“One of my friends, he boiled water in the microwave and put it on one plant and took plain old tap water and put it on another one and the one that had water from the microwave put on it withered and died.

Bob looked at me and rolled his eyes.  I shrugged back. This was old ground for us.

Jeff, the new guy, shook his head. “Hey, it wasn’t a fair test.  Did he try boiling water the regular way? Boiling changes water.  It doesn’t matter how you do it.”

Tony glared at him narrowly. “Doesn’t matter. Lazybones! Up and give me three sets of ten burpees, no rest.”  As he watched us and did the “Marine DI” thing in our faces, I heard him mutter, “Wouldn’t make a difference. Nossir.”

Somewhere between set two and set three, the little kid in me that loved doing impromptu science experiments in my backyard decided to find out.

* * *

I set my parameters and picked up three seemingly alike basil plants from the produce department at Giant Eagle the next time I went in.  To do it properly, I should probably have grown my own, but I didn’t want to take the time.

The next day, I started.  The water went in identical glass mixing bowls – it was the only thing I could think of that could go in a regular oven and a microwave.  Who knew what having plastic or metal could do? I set them to boil and chill until they were the same temperature as the tap water. (Hey, I was something of a “science geek” once upon a time – what can I say?) All three plants were watered the same amount within moments of each other.  And the experiment was off!

* * *

I have to say that for a couple of weeks, it looked like the most boring experiment since Archimedes sat down in the bath.  All three plants grew a little, but there wasn’t any amazing deficit on the part of Micro (guess which plant that was), and Macro (the “regular” boiled water plant) and Control (tap water) weren’t substantially larger.

The next week in our training session, Bob and Jeff let me have it when I told them what I’d done.

“You’ve got to be kidding.” I thought Bob was going to drop his dumbbells.  Jeff shook his head.  I shrugged – not because that was the only way I knew to communicate, but because we were doing dumbbell shrugs and I had 10 more to do – 9 now.

“You’ll see,” Tony said, when Bob couldn’t resist kidding him about it. “You’ll see I was right and then you’ll stop microwaving.” When Bob snorted, Tony snapped, “And now, do 10 more shrugs.”

* * *

 It wasn’t until the second month that there was any difference between the plants.  Ironically, the smallest of the plants was Control, which made no sense to me. To my amused and only semi-interested eyes, it seemed that Control was shying away from the plants on either side of it.  I could almost see it trembling.

Day by day that week, it seemed to me that Control was losing leaves, although I couldn’t see where.  Finally, a week later, I decided to have the others over after our workout so I could show Tony how his friend’s theory had fallen through.  I was putting the finishing touches on some healthy snacks when the doorbill rang.

I opened the door to find Tony, Jeff and Bob.  They headed towards bottles of water, fresh veggies and dip.

“So what did you want to show us?” Jeff asked, around a mouthful of cauliflower.

“In here.  The one in the middle got tapwater, the one on the left got microwaved water and the one on the right, just plain boiled water,” I announced, and waved them into the kitchen. They preceded me – and stopped suddenly. I pushed my way through the three suddenly still men.

There was movement from the windowsill.  Micro unfurled a tendril from nowhere, pulled a leaf off of Control, and ran it through the remnants of the dip in the mixing bowl I’d used to prepare it.  Two leaves on its stem curled apart, revealing needle-sharp teeth and a tiny, dark-green gullet. Gulp. The leaf was gone.  Poor Control.  Macro followed suit from the other side and I swear I heard the smallest of squeaks from the scraggly little plant in the middle.

Bob idly crunched on a baby carrot.  “Well, you were right, Jeff.  Boiling water certainly does change things.”  He brushed a crumb off his coat and turned to leave.  “And Tony, I swear I’ll never water a plant with boiled water, ever.”

As he passed through the kitchen door, he turned to look at me.  “Just a question.  How do you plan to get rid of them?”

The rest of us exchanged glances. It looked as though I was going to be boiling water for a long time to come.

#FridayFlash, One Good Friend, 5/31/13

This story is for the 4th Anniversary Blog Hope of Friday Flash.org  Congrats making it this far and hope we’ll all be around for many years to come.

———————————————————-

Thirty years had passed and it hadn’t seemed like anything. Patrick shook his drink gently, loosening the ice cubes from their fragile grip on one another, and watched his high school classmates try to boogie down to a wannabe KC and his not-very-sunshiny band.

Letitia Graham was heading his way with a determined look on her slightly horsey face and he sidled through a group of former jocks whose waistbands had expanded and whose hairlines had definitely contracted.  He caught a couple of glares, but they subsided as he muttered “Letitia” out of the side of his mouth and gestured slightly in her direction.  One of them, whom Patrick dimly recalled as one of his schooldays tormentors, replied with a sardonic “Good luck.  You’ll need it.”

Fortunately for Patrick, a caterer opened the side door to bring in more ice and he made his escape as the door swung shut behind him.

Why the hell did I even come here tonight?  The fireflies flirted with one another as he walked around the back of the building, kicking at stones, the drink in his hand of no more interest. He tossed the plastic glass in the dumpster and walked out to a stand of trees that he was pretty sure had been saplings in his day. Patrick leaned his head back and looked at what few stars were visible above the parking lot arc lighting.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of friends here, or anything. And the few I did … Of the tiny group of people who were willing to be seen with a scrawny, bucktoothed, coke-bottom-glasses boy, one, Mike Dotrice, had died in a car accident three days after graduation, and another, Andy Soames, had gone into the military and Patrick lost complete touch with him.  He’d heard a rumor that Andy’d gone down in a “training accident” (he’d always thought of it that way, with quotes around it), but he didn’t know the truth of that and he found himself without the emotional energy to care enough to find out.

These days, he was no longer scrawny, thanks to the gym, adult braces had taken care of the buck teeth and LASIK the glasses, but he was no more popular than he’d been back then. Long ago, Patrick decided that there was something about him that people didn’t seem to like in the long run. At first, they’d seem to be okay with him.  After a while, though, calls weren’t returned, and people never seemed to be available for dinners or movies or ball games. He’d never understood why and it wasn’t the sort of thing you asked someone unless you wanted to sound really needy.

Of course, his luck with women was no different. Patrick snorted. Luck? What luck?  Even Lily … ah, Lily.  She was the female member of their little band, tiny, shy, not really ugly, but without the confidence or desire, really, to do all the expected things with dress and makeup to make herself stand out. He was sure, also, that had anyone known she existed, they’d have felt she was far too intelligent.  She was quietly at the top of their class and Patrick remembered with amusement the bewilderment of many when Lily had been announced as Valedictorian.  Other than her teachers and their little gang, he’d have bet most of his classmates had no idea she’d even attended school with them for twelve years.

“Patrick?”

He spun about abruptly.  There she stood, as if his thoughts had conjured her.

“Lily?” Patrick stepped forward and touched her shoulder hesitantly, as if he expected her to vanish into the late summer twilight.

“Yes, Patrick, it’s me.”  She smiled at him, glossy hair catching the last glints of the setting sun, wearing a minimum of makeup and not needing more. She wore a softly purple dress than he guessed probably cost more than it looked like – he was no expert on women’s clothes, but quality was quality and he could recognize that.

“You look great, Lily.”

“Thanks. I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“Yep. Those last-minute growth spurts …” He laughed awkwardly. “So where did you go off to?  I seem to remember something about MIT.”

“No, I wound up studying engineering at Akron U, believe it or not.  I lost a scholarship and it all just came apart for me.” Her eyes met his, the small smile still on her face.  “Then a group of us designed a microcomponent that one of the majors couldn’t live without when they built their computers and it all took off.”

“Wow.” He shook his head. “Sorry – that’s not much of a reaction – I’m just stunned, although I guess I shouldn’t be.  You were always the smartest person I knew.”

“It’s all right. We wound up selling the company and moving on.”

“You did well for yourself. I’m glad.”

She nodded silently.

“Hey –“ Patrick was feeling awkward again. “How about we blow this pop stand and go get some coffee or something.  We’ve got 30 years to fill in the blanks on.” He reached out tentatively and brushed a strand of hair from her shoulder.

Lily paused. “Patrick – I don’t know. I have a partner – Angie.”

“Does that mean you don’t drink coffee?” He managed to sound both puzzled and amused.

She grinned and shook her head. “No.  I just didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings between us.”

“Sure.  I get that. But to be honest, what I need – what I need to BE – more than anything else, is a good friend.”

“Good.” They shared a companionable silence and then walked on.

Fyrheart #FridayFlash 11/10/12

From the moment we could walk, every child in the village knew what berries were good to eat and which weren’t. Those who didn’t immediately learn the lesson found themselves ill and, we were told, at least one of us had died from eating from the wrong plant – but we took this tale told by our elders as a fable, as likely true as the Blackbeast that wandered the woods around us seeking bad children to eat or the Fire Sprites that were supposed to dance in the flames in winter.

Still, none of us knew what to make of this bush, new to us, sprung up almost overnight.  The berries hung from the bushes, shaped like glistening red tears, nearly clear, with a single shimmering seed visible. Susha, a girl I thought to be afraid of nothing and willing to dare almost anything, reached out a tentative hand and nearly touched one of the ruby temptations, but jerked her hand back and put it behind her, as if she feared being burned.

“Are they hot, Susha?” Little Pitar inquired in his gentle voice. Poor Pitar. His elder brother, Martu, was the britad of his father’s pride and could do no wrong. He used his position to make the little one’s life miserable. We had all seen the bruises that were evidence, though strangely, they were invisible to our parents, who feared Martu’s father and his influence with our ground lord.

“Are they hot?” Martu mocked him. “I doubt it.” He elbowed his way through us and snatched a berry off the bush, tossing it down his throat before anyone could stop him.  Not that we would, of course.

His head jerked twice, for all the world like a hen pecking at grass seed. Then he coughed, once, twice, three times.  The third time, a tongue of flame passed between his lips and singed the stand of sweetstrips in front of him.

There was silence for a moment. Anthe, the great friend of my childhood, looked at me in amazement.  “Did you see that, Mak?  Did I?” his bright blue eyes wide.

“We did.”

When nothing more happened to Martu, some of the others went ahead and took a single berry each.  One after the other, they spouted fire, except for Susha, who merely coughed up a tiny cloud of smoke and then laughed as it spread itself thin on the breeze.

“No more! These are mine!” Martu stood between us and the bush. “Mine!”

He wasn’t that much bigger than the rest of us, but we all knew where he stood and where we did. No one wanted to bring trouble down on his or her parents, and Martu was trouble. Turning his back on us, the bully grabbed handfuls of the berry from the bush and crammed them down like Long John after the fast.

At first, it was amusing to see him spouting flames from his nose and mouth, and in one memorable spurt, from his nethers. Hands were stuffed in mouths to stifle the giggles Martu would never have forgiven.

“Martu, what’s on your hand?” Anthe’s voice was puzzled.

“What?” But then we all saw it. Martu’s hand – both hands, actually, were slowly turning a strange dark green, a weirdly familiar color, and scaly –

As one, we stepped back.  Every one of us knew what he was becoming, even if we didn’t understand how. The skin of the last Fyrbeast to menace the village was wrapped around the chimney of the Broderhall. Every child knew the story of Karne Stronghand and how he brought the fyrbeast down with a well-shot arrow, but only after many sevendays of death and damage to animals and crops.  Now, we were about to have another such among us.

Martu’s head snapped back and his face merged together, elongated.  His voice changed from the cries of a human child to a frightening alien bellow.  Two bumps appeared on his back and began to tear his shirt.

“What do we do?” Suddenly, all were looking to me, as the eldest. It was a responsibility I didn’t want.

“Do it now, Mak, while they can still see it’s him, see how he changed.” Anthe was grappling at my belt, for the hatchet I never went without.

“Do it!” “Yes, you must!” The cries went up from every side. Martu’s eyes, the only truly human part of him left, pleaded with me, whether for saving from the horrible change or for the mercy he had never shown anyone else, least of all his younger brother.

For myself, I thought that the bully might enjoy ravaging our village and any other he came across once he adapted to being a fyrbeast. I took the hatchet from Anthe and swung it twice.  The girls turned away and were sick.  Some of the boys, too.

It took us an hour to drag what was left of Martu back to the village. His father raved and swore, but in the end it was plain as the Guide Star what had been in the process of happening.  It took nearly a sevenday and delayed the harvest, but the men went into the fields and forests in pairs and brought back every one of these new bushes they could find.

We had a bonfire with them the following night. Every sound brought anxious glances to the skies. We had destroyed all we found – but who knew if all were gone? Or who might have found them and eaten?

My very first story in a real book (or, here comes BOFF2!)

I think almost everyone who has any bent for words writes when they’re in high school. Some of it’s good, some of it is hopeless self-pitying teenage blather (raises hand sheepishly — ‘yes, your Honor, I’m guilty of that!’).  I did.  I wrote poems, mostly, with the occasional short story and even, in 8th grade, I wrote a Mary Sue novella about a high school girl who helps an undercover cop expose  a drug ring in her high school.  (I can only plead a bad case of “Starsky and Hutch” and “Adam 12” and all those 70s cop shows).

About 3 years ago, I started writing again. Initially, it was fanfiction for the 1960s series Combat!  Then I stumbled on a new (to me) thing called “Flash Fiction”.  That’s the idea that you can write an entire story in 1000 words or less.  This was followed by the discovery of a hashtag (I believe I can give Tony Noland credit for pointing it out to me) on Twitter called “#FridayFlash”.  People write flash fic and post it on their blogs. Then they post tweets about it (and now can also publicize it on the eponymous Facebook group). I enjoyed this a lot — I’m something of a minimalist when it comes to writing and the very short form suited me.

Jon Strother, who started the whole megillah of #FridayFlash, collected a number of the best of the stories that are posted back a couple of years ago.  It was enough of a success that he’s done it again, with the help of Jody Cleghorn, another member of the club, and has produced a new book called Best of Friday Flash 2.  I’m pleased and honored to say they found my story Boarding Call worthy of inclusion alongside some very fine writers whose work I have enjoyed reading over the past couple of years.

You can find the book here, if you’d like to order it:  Best of Friday Flash 2.  I hope you will, not only for me, but for all us authors who are finding our voices and sharing our work out here.  It can be hard to be heard — the Internet has so many voices — but I know the people here who contributed their work deserve the effort.  Let the good work continue.

Let’s Dance, #FridayFlash 7/6/2012 (Lisa and Philippe #5)

Lisa sighed and looked around the house.  It was clean, for once – amazingly so.  But with their sons, Gaston and Marc, visiting her parents in Pennsylvania, it was a lot easier to stay on top of things. Of course, when they returned, it would go back to normal, but that was okay too. She and Philippe had agreed the night before that neat was nice, but things had been too quiet lately. And then I had to snap at him this morning…

She locked the apartment and headed out, pulling her cart behind her. Lisa wanted to get to the marché before it got too busy, get what she needed for today so she could return and finish writing the story she’d been working on.

The streets were relatively quiet and she made good time. Lisa greeted the security guard, who swung the door open and held it so she could bring the cart in without banging it on the door. She waved to those she knew as she passed.

Bella, when are you going to leave Philippe and run away with me?” Fratello, one of the vendors at the corner spice stand, called out to her as she passed. Lisa exchanged smiles with Fratello’s long-suffering wife, Antonia.

“How do you put up with him?”

“Ah, we can’t all be lucky like you!”

“Hey!” Fratello gave her a look of mock hurt. “That’s not what you said to me last night!” He squeezed his wife in an enormous hug and she pretended to swat him.

Lisa laughed and kept going.  The speakers overhead kicked into life and she recognized the opening sounds of Aznavour’s “For Me, Formidable”.  She sang as she passed Stephane and Philippe’s stand:

                “You are the one, for me, for me, for me, formidable…”

Stephane looked up from where he was placing loaves in the case and grinned.

                “You are my love, very, very, very, véritable …”

From behind her, Philippe’s voice joined in.

“Et je voudrais pouvoir un jour enfin te le dire,
Te l’écrire
Dans la langue de Shakespeare…”

She turned toward her husband and he swung her around, dancing with her in time to the exuberant music. Around them, the marché was starting to wake up, vendors unpacking trucks and putting vegetables, meat and other products on display. The couple danced on, the smiles of those around them unnoticed, as Philippe continued singing alone.

Darling, I love you, love you, Darling, I want you … you are the one for me, for me, for me, formidable…”

He kissed her heartily as the song ended, but instead of walking back to help Stephane, he cupped her face in his hands, his expression serious.

“Philippe? I’m so sorry –”

“I love you so…” he interrupted, softly, hardly more than a whisper.

Lisa answered him silently, her love showing without a word. “Forgive me?”

“Of course. Need you ask?”

“Let’s always dance together.”

His eyes smiled back. “Always, ma chérie.” He winked. “I think it’s a good thing the boys are away.”

A moment later, Lisa moved down the aisle, cheeks pink, Philippe’s kiss on her lips, hugging his whispered promise to her heart.

[A/N: This is the continuation of “Cherries”, two Three-Word Wednesday pieces and “An afternoon with mon Papa”.  My hope is to write 3 to 5 more stories and create an e-book]