fiction

Awaiting Delivery

Ye Olde “Locked Room” Story.

Well, the room isn’t really locked. Characters could leave the room, but the story couldn’t.

The judges said they liked it, but I think they wanted more backstory. They said they wanted details as to precisely when it was happening. Evidently, “thirty years after the Austro-Prussian War” and “The Bavarian (Chlodwig Carl Viktor) is chancellor of Germany” weren’t big enough hints. Are they saying not every reader that will ever view my writing isn’t an expert in late nineteenth century German politics?

They also wanted more backstory with the father. But the contest runners had said backstory shouldn’t be outside of the room, so I tried to toe the line a little.

Here ya go:

Awaiting Delivery

The room is sparse. The only real furniture is a small writing desk in the corner and a twin-sized bed along the opposite wall. The bed and its frame are locked in a competition to be the most lackluster. The latter is a collection of four steel legs with a few black splotches to indicate that, somewhere in its distant past, it might have attempt to provide some hospitality. The former is a stripped-down, flat piece of cloth with a permanent indentation down the middle, representing those countless prior inhabitants who might have seen the frame in its former glory.

Grey, clinical walls. Or perhaps not clinical, but regulation. Everything about this room is uniform and regulation. Nothing extravagant. Nothing inviting. No indication that the visitor is welcome.

Which is a shame, Margaret  thinks she will spend a fair amount of time here. How long, she is not quite sure. The strange, alien language being thrown around in her presence conveys little information Margaret can use. But the clipboard and the inspections and the pointings tell her this is her new home.

Not much to look at inside the room. But the view outside the room is simultaneously majestic and infuriating. Visible through a thick, warbled window, both a bit too thick to give a true sense of its view, but opaque enough that the sight cannot be ignored. The most inviting sight in all the world, mocking her by denying entry.

“Ha famiglia in l’America?”

Margaret looks up at the new entrant, confused. She doesn’t understand, but she is closer to understanding than before. This language is not quite as foreign as the one that everyone else is speaking.

The speaker of the new language looks back at Margaret in equal confusion. Her dark eyes, curtained by two, even darker, locks of hair that have broken free from the tight bun atop her head. It has been a long day for her, yet her white smock is as pristine as the moment she got off the boat this morning, a short boat ride by comparison. The only evidence of the day’s stress is those two strands of hair out of place.

Still, the worker can’t worry about her hair right now. Her days are always long, and this day will be longer if she can’t communicate with the residents. That is precisely her job, her profession. And her experience tells her that the last question should have produced a response. She looks down at the clipboard in her hand, looks back up at Margaret.

“Mi hai capito, Senora Maguerita?”

French? Margaret doesn’t think so. It sounds close, similarly sonorous. But the French don’t enunciate the way this olive-skinned girl does. Which probably means one of the other Latin languages.

“Keine Franzosisch,” Margaret says.

They are the first words Margaret has spoken since arriving. Words don’t have much meaning when nobody understands. Everything about this place is designed to avoid verbal communication. Solid yellow lines, signs with pictures, drawings with numbers attached, clipboards.

And pointing.

Pointing, pointing, and more pointing.

Margaret followed the yellow lines and the signs and the pointing. She nodded when the workers, in their white smocks or their grey shirts or their black jackets, said things to her in their alien tongue. She was starting to wonder if this new land was nothing but silent compliance.

Except this woman addressed her differently. No pointing, but a pen poised above the clipboard. She was waiting for a response. Expecting a response. So Margaret responded.

“Keine Lateinish.”

“Tadesco?”

The social worker with the two strands of loose hair turns to the other official in the room. This one, a gaunt man wearing a grey coat over a crisp white shirt and regulation-red tie, looks back at the woman in the smock, then to Margaret. There is no understanding between any of them. Here they are, three people in the same room, speaking three different languages.

“Scusi,” White Smock says. “I meant German. I think she is German.”

Finally, a word Margaret knows. She is German. Not that she calls herself that. None of her people think of themselves as German. Her language is Deutsch. And, increasingly since the unification, people are calling Deutsch their nationality, too. But it is slow going. Margaret still thinks of herself as Bavarian most often, even if that particular state ceased to exist when she was three years old.

But German, she knows, is the word that the English called the Deutsch. And Americas is just a mini-England. Typical of English arrogance to not call a people what they prefer to be called. Bismarck had been wrong about a number of things, for which the Kaiser had rightly fired him and finally, after one more misfire, replaced him with a proper Bavarian. But one thing Bismarck had been correct about was how the rest of the world saw the upstart Deutsch. Like little kids, only capable of breaking things.

“Ja.” Margaret seizes upon the word she knows, even if it is insulting and diminutive. “Ja, ich bin deutsch. Um, German.”

The man with the regulation tie and regulation shirt and regulation coat raised his bushy eyebrows above his bushy mustache. The mustache was not regulation, and had been out of the norm since the Chester Arthur administration, but government officials are not always known for being up on fashion.

“You’re German?” He asked. When Margaret doesn’t immediately respond, he points to her. Always with the pointing. “German?”

“Ja. Yes.” Margaret follows suit, pointing at herself. “German.”

Mustache Man and White Smock both lean in to look at the woman’s clipboard. The man scratches his head.

“Well then I guess you should go get a German translator.”

The man pats the social worker on the rump in an act of dismissal. The woman takes the gesture for what it is and turns to leave. Margaret now assumes she must have been Italian. She used the word Tadesco for German. That is not a reference Margaret knows, but she is at least cognizant enough to know that the French refer to her people as Allemand. One cannot grow up in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War without knowing some of the words used on each side.

Tadesco. Allemand. German. Every country has their own word for her people. Just as long as nobody respects them enough to call them by their own name. Here she is, barely considering herself German, but now fiercely defensive of the idea. Immigrants are always much more unified in America than they were back home, she has heard. You may not be Deutsch now but you will be when you’re off the boat. And here she is, off the boat and separated into a room from which she may never escape, and she finds herself more Deutsch, more German, than ever before.

Nationalism at its finest.

Margaret feels awkward being alone in the room with the man. She wonders if he is going to pat her on the rump like he did the Italian woman. What would she do? There isn’t anywhere to go. And this man holds her future in his hand.

But the man doesn’t move. Perhaps he only touches those he works with. Those he is superior to in an official sense, as a superior and a worker, and not just superior in a generic sense, as a native to an immigrant.

Or perhaps Margaret’s current state is working as an agent in dissuasion. It has been months since a man has looked at her with any sort of lust. Not when she is so clearly lusted out.

The man merely stands near the doorway in something akin to attention, albeit with his hands clasped in front of his stomach instead of rigid at his side. His eyes stare straight forward from between the two forests warring on his face, his gaze encompassing all of the room and none of it at the same time. He will stop her from trying to dart past him, but short of that, he will let her have the run of the room. And in Margaret’s current state, she won’t be darting past any guards or doors.

Feeling secure, if not safe, Margaret puts her hand on her lower back and turns away from the government worker and all of his facial hair. She once again looks around the room, her new home for the foreseeable future. It remains sparse. The desk has a chair, which looks much more inviting than comfortable, but there will be plenty of time to sit there later. And to lie on the bed.

For now, the only thing worth seeing is through the window. Margaret walks closer, hoping to get a better view of the azure heaven lying beyond. Warbled as it is through the window, it still sends a clear message of potential. Painted above a deeper indigo sea beneath, the two blues meet together at a not-too-distant horizon, where another island, a larger island with buildings and people and commerce, lay.

And between Margaret and this land stands the guardian. This Statue, Lady Liberty, shows her profile to Margaret and all of the previous and future residents of her well-worn room.  She looks out to sea, to all of the incoming immigrants, her hand raised in the international sign for “Stop!” The torch in her hand might be a firearm, preparing to shoot any trespassers who deign to sneak behind her billowing bronze skirt into the land beyond. The book in her hand, so similar to the clipboard in the hands of the various smocked and suited and coated officials in the officialdom Margaret finds herself in. Like the Italian lady who had left Margaret alone in the room with the mustachioed statue behind her, guarding the exit from the room as surely as Liberty on her pedestal in the ocean guarded the exit from the island.

“Frau Marguerita?”

The new voice pries Margaret’s gaze away from the locked gates of Heaven. Another woman in another white smock with another clipboard stands next to the government official now. This woman has blonde hair and blue eyes, but other than that she might be the same person. Same age, experienced enough to be fluent in two languages, but young enough for a mustachioed man to pat on the rump. The smock fits her the same way, hanging loosely to avoid any personality being exhibited from bodily proportions, the same way Liberty’s dress falls around her own steel frame.

“Heisen sie Frau Marguerita?” The new arrival asks in German. “Is your name Mrs. Marguerita?”

Finally, something Margaret can respond to.

No, I am Mrs. Shengel.” ,” Margaret answers, also in her native tongue.

So sorry.” The woman writes something down on her clipboard. “Someone copied your last name down as Marguerita, so they assumed you were Italian.”

My first name is Margaret. Margaret Shengel.”

The woman nods without looking up from the clipboard. “Good thing you responded in the negative or else your name would have officially been listed as Stephania Marguerita and you would have been delivered to Brooklyn.”

“They can do that? Just change somebody’s name?”

“We try not to. But it happens.” 

The translator shows her clipboard to Herr Mustache, points at what is written there, and then hands the clipboard to him. He takes the top paper  from the clipboard, returns the clipboard to his co-worker, and leaves the room. Margaret notes that the German-speaking woman doesn’t touch any part of the man on his way out of the room.

I am Anna,” the translator says when the two of them are alone in the room. “Please have a seat.”

She points Margaret toward the desk chair. Margaret hobbles the three steps away from the window and tries to ease herself down but instead plops into a seated position. The chair squeaks.

Anna sits on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs in a friendly, on-your-level stance. The mattress does not shift at all under her weight, and Margaret is impressed she doesn’t sink toward the central indentation.

Was Anna your original name or the name they gave you here?” Margaret says with a smile.

Both,” Anna responds with a smile of her own. “We honestly don’t change too many names here. We try to avoid it.

We. Margret notes the word choice. Anna is part of a “we.” Margaret is still part of a “you” or a “they.” Until she can leave this room, she will always be a “they.”

You say you are going to Milwaukee,” Anna says, looking down at the piece of paper left on the clipboard in her lap. “Do you have family there?

My brother,” Margaret lies. Her brother has been to Milwaukee before, but he is back in Bavaria, back in Germany, now. But there are many Germans in Milwaukee. A community to take care of her and her child. A chance for her to be part of a “we” again.

“Mmm, hmmm.” Anna writes something down. “And that is the Hans you wrote?”

“Yes. Hans Stengel.” Margaret responds, immediately knowing she should not have said it. Would they already know the whereabouts of Hans Stengel? Certainly the name must be common enough. Or perhaps the real danger lie in her and her brother having the same last name.

“And the father?”

Margaret acts confused. She knows where this line of questioning is going, but she hopes to avoid the subject. She decides to be intentionally obtuse, in the hopes of steering the conversation.

“My father died in the war.”

Now Anna is confused. “Is there a war I’m unaware of?”

“The Seven Weeks’ War.” Maybe Anna is too young to have heard of it.

“That was thirty years ago.” One does not work in an immigration station without being up on all of the push and pull factors.

“Yes. My mother was carrying me at the-,”

“No, I’m sorry,” Anna interrupts Margaret’s narrative. “I mean the father of…”

The interpreter points toward Margaret’s enlarged womb. Margaret nods.

“Is the father of your child in Milwaukee?”

“Yes,” Margaret lies again. What else can she say? For all she knows, the father of her child might actually be in Milwaukee. She hasn’t seen him in eight months. If there’s anyone in need of a fresh start, it’s Margaret.

“And his name?”

“Mikkel Jensen.”

This time Margaret need not lie. That snake is assuredly the baby’s father.

“And you are Stengel? Are you to be married?”

Margaret nods and resumes the lie. “That is why I have come. To be married before the baby.”

“How far along are you?”

“Six months.” 

One last lie. Margaret doesn’t want to go back on the boat. There is only one direction she can leave this room in, and it is toward the Statue.

Anna raises her eyebrow at the claim. But fortunately, Anna is young. As was the Italian woman. Margaret’s hope rests on the propensity of mustachioed gentlemen to hire damsels of the younger ilk. If Anna had given birth herself, she’d take one look at Margaret and, in order to preserve the” we,” push her right back on to the next boat back to the Old World.

Margaret wants her child to be born in America. If the child is born here, he will be an American, and so, by extension, will she. She knows the stories, and she knows the customs. If they think she is close, they will put her back on the boat. If they think they have time, they will investigate her claims. Look all over Wisconsin for a Hans and a Mikkel. And by then…

Okay, six months.”

Anna writes something down on her clipboard, and now it is official.

You are being quarantined,” Anna speaks aloud the German translation of the official statement she has recounted numerous times, “pending official investigation of your claims. At that point, so long is there an American resident to claim you, you will be allowed onto the harbor boat for entrance into the United States.”

Margaret pats her stomach. There will be an American resident in a few weeks, she knows. In fact, an American citizen.

“In the meantime, please make yourself at home. This room is yours. The latrine, complete with flushing toilets,” Anna pauses for effect, as many immigrants gasp at this mention, “is across the hall. You may go to the cafeteria at meal time. Or, in your current state, you can request food to be brought to you.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“You also might want to go see the doctors. To check on the health of your…”

Anna again gestures toward Margaret’s stomach. Margaret silently thanks God for giving her a girl so squeamish about nature as to not even be able to reference the very evidence of said nature right in front of her.

“I know that my child is very healthy,” Margaret says, placing her hand on her stomach again.

Anna stands up. “Welcome to Ellis Island.”

“Thank you.” Margaret strains herself out of her seat and shakes the translator’s hand, a custom she hears is the normal form of greeting in her new home.

“Yes. I am off to file your paperwork. You should have an answer in four to six weeks.”

“Wunderbar!”

Margaret turns back to look out the window. Six to eight weeks? She won’t even need half of that. Within a month, the Statue of Liberty will be admitting her and her child to the land beyond.

And don’t forget,” Ann says from the doorway behind her. “You can see the doctors at any time.”

I most certainly will,” Margaret responds.

Anna leaves the room and shuts the door behind her.

“At the right time,” Margaret says to her womb.

For now, though, she might as well get used to her new room. Her new life. Her new world.

Poisoned Parlance

I just came back from a vacation, which I’ll be blogging about in the near future. But in the meantime, to assuage all of my fans, or my only fan (HI MOM!!!), here’s another flash fiction.

The theme was facing fear. I wanted to go with a more mundane fear, so I went with public speaking. Then I threw in the stammer, cause they never specified whether it needed to be an irrational fear.

The judges said they wanted more backstory of the main character and his friend. How/why he was invited to be the Best Man/Toast Giver. They might have a point. I certainly made it up as I was going along, and by the time I was done, I could really only edit for errors, not add a shit-ton of content and context.

So now you, intrepid explorer, get…

Poison Parlance

My adversary stands before me as I rise from security. Legs tremble, ready to pounce, fight or flight instinct fully engaged. Except there’s no place to go but forward. Into the face of evil.

It rises in front of me. Solid, erect, pockmarked visage eyeing me warily. ​A soft, guttural hiss emanates from its mouth.

“Snakes. Why did it have to be s-s-snakes?”

It’s not a snake. But I hoped an Indiana Jones line might calm me down. It didn’t.

I wish it was a snake. I could throw a fucking brick at a snake. Not that I have a brick. But at least a snake is a mortal being that can be killed.

I inch toward it. Dragging every ounce of my body, every ounce of time, in an effort to put off the inevitable as long as I can, despite knowing this goes against the priority of getting it all over with as quickly as possible.

Bright silver in the blinding spotlight, hissing and spitting and crackling, stands a microphone. Why did it have to be a microphone? Why the hell did it have to involve me, standing in front of a group of people who I barely now, who I can’t really see, and delivering a canned speech?

Thanks a lot, Ron.

My great aversion to public speaking came during adolescence. All the great social phobias do, right? Kids will take the stage at all-ages karaoke, belting out that song from Frozen at the top of their lungs, completely oblivious to the faces in the audience cocking to one side like a dog, one eye pinched in the universal sign for “you’re a half-note flat.” The kids just keep singing like they’re Idina fucking Menzel.

Hey, remember that time John Travolta butchered Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars? He called her Adell Dazeem, or some shit like that. That should make me feel better, knowing that even people who do this type of thing for a living can make a faux pas in front of a microphone. But all I can think is that if John fucking Travolta can’t deliver a prepared speech without fucking up, what the hell chance do I have?

“Thuh” I say into the microphone. “Thanks.”

The reverberating echo of my voice sounds tinny, unnatural as it comes back to my ear. I hate recordings of my voice on phone recordings, too. But at least an answering machine doesn’t come with threat of feedback.

“Ron asked me to…”

My tongue tastes desert. Arid, dry, probing for moisture that should exist somewhere in its environ. But all it finds is the jarring back of teeth and a palate as dusty as the cratered surface of the moon. Or the soundstage where Martin Scorsese directed Neil Armstrong to bounce around a bunch. Whatever. Right about now, I’m thinking if scientists haven’t figured out a very basic hydration formula for the inside of a mouth that is trying to speak into a microphone there’s no way in hell they actually made it to the moon.

Or maybe it’s the alcohol’s fault. I have a friend who is afraid of flying. She drinks before a flight. Suggested I do the same here. Plenty of free booze at this place. Except that she can pass out on a flight. If I pass out right here, in front of this microphone, as I desperately want to do, it would probably put a damper on the mood of the crowd. My mood be damned.

“Ron asked me to…”

I did some reading in preparation for this. Don’t make eye contact, the website said. Look above their heads. Except I had a teacher in junior college who did that. And it’s pretty fucking obvious when someone’s looking at the top of your head. Maybe someone in the front row might think you’re making eye contact with someone in the back row. But if you’re sitting near the back, where the people who are most likely going to mock you are sitting, it’s obvious that you’re just staring at the back wall. Hell, sometimes my professor’s eyes rolled up in her head like the goddamned Exorcist, staring straight at the ceiling. Half of us could have snuck out of the room without her noticing. She’d probably just respond by spinning her head around and projectile vomiting.

And trust me, noticing all the miscues of other public speakers does wonders for somebody with public speaking foibles himself.

“Ron wanted me to s-s-say… ssssome things about how him. And, um, J-J-Jake.”

The presentations in middle school were bad. I think that’s where it started. Who the hell decided that middle school students should have to do class presentations? Hey, you’re going through puberty! Acne up the wazoo! No control over your body odor, not to mention all of those other bodily functions! How about you stand in front of a group of your peers, who will continue reminding you of your failures and foibles every day for the next six years?

I didn’t pee my pants that time, at least. I saved that particular reaction for high school. Romeo and Juliet can go fuck itself. Because, again, freshman year doesn’t have enough shit to weigh a fourteen year-old down. Let’s add a mortifying incident that will consign him to the hallway shadows for every passing period in the next three years.

No, in middle school, it was only a profuse sweating. Just enough to make me never want to do this shit again. Yet here I am, a decade later.

“I’ve, um, I’ve  known Ron since middle school. But we didn’t really hang out till high school.”

I seriously thought of telling Ron no. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve had a chance to be a groomsman before. I’ve always said no. They act like being a groomsman is such an honor. Stand up there and make me look good. Tell some carefully-sculpted anecdote that Aunt Gertrude, whom I haven’t spoken to since I was eight, can go home and tell her knitting circle that her nephew’s living a full life. 

Not that anyone with half a brain would want my sorry ass standing up for them. Best Man? More like worst. Nothing brings a party to a screeching halt like a minute of dead silence, broken by an occasional stammer. Stammer is sexy. Just ask all of the zero girlfriends I had before alcohol became involved.

But Ron was one of the few people who didn’t hold it all against me. High school as much hell for him as it was for me, just for different reasons. He hadn’t come out yet. Maybe he didn’t know himself yet. But he knew he didn’t fit the mold. Neither of us did. Me, because I couldn’t talk about Romeo and Juliet. Ron, because he liked Romeo and Juliet way more than any ninth grader should.

“Ssssso. I know Ron doesn’t have a l-l-lot of friends from high school. Neither do I. High school kinda suh-sucked. For both of us.”

Way to go, asshole. That’ll slay the crowd. Aunt Gertrude’s gonna have her girders in a bunch after this shitshow.

Imagine all the people in the audience naked, they say. Except, looking around, I really don’t know that I want to see any of these people naked. Except for maybe the bridesmaid, but that’s clearly never going to happen.

I guess she’s not a bridesmaid. There’s no bride. Best maid? Does that make me the Man of Honor? Semantics are stupid. Maybe I should just say that into the microphone.

I never understood how the whole “imagine them naked” thing is supposed to work. Am I supposed to be clothed? Like that episode of “Westworld,” where they’re having perfectly normal conversations in front of an orgy?  I imagine if I was the only clothed person in a room with a hundred naked people, that would be weird. That would not calm me down. I would assume I got the invitation wrong, and if I’m already self-conscious about standing in front of them, then being the only one that didn’t get the memo isn’t going to make me feel more comfortable.

You know what? Probably not the best time to be thinking about “Westworld” and orgy scenes.

Or maybe the “everybody naked” thing is supposed to have me naked, too. Like, we’re all in this together. They’re just as humiliated as I am. Except they’re sitting down, legs crossed, privates underneath a wedding program, and I’m standing in front of them, behind this crackling, feedback-prone microphone, and now I’ve got my shwantz out for the whole world to see. One more thing to be self-conscious about.

“S-s-sorry. I, um, this isn’t about, um, ssschool. It’s about, um, Ron and… um, Ron and Jake.”

I’m off script. Good thing, too, because I can’t read the fucking script., because it’s crumpled in my hand. I’m shaking like a Parkinson’s patient. That eighth-grade, puberty sweat is coming back. Sure, I know about deodorant now, but I didn’t have to wear a tuxedo in middle school. It’s a wash, at best, but thinking of a wash just makes me perspire more.

Off script. What made me think I would be able to read pre-written remarks, anyway? Do I even know my own cadence, or lack thereof?

Like in theater. My dad made me do the school play in tenth grade. He was one of those “make the kid smoke a carton to get over his interest in cigarettes” kind of guys. Figured if I was gonna be a pansy-ass when it came to speaking, he’d get it out of me by humiliating me. I stammer because I can, right, dad? If I’m put on a stage and forced to sing along with the chorus, I’ll spit it out, right?

Or I’ll just knock my fucking knees and faint on stage. Right at the front, near the orchestra pit. Thank God for the gong player. That cushioned mallet raised above his head for the big strike really helped break my fall. The gong player definitely wasn’t thanking God for me though, that’s for sure.

Ron’s father isn’t here, either. He’s probably still back at home, praying the gay away. Maybe that’s what drew the two of us together. A couple of ripe old assholes taking care of us in our formative years.

“Ron met J-j-jake at one of those… after the G-g-giants won.”

Oh shit, they might not know what I mean.

“Not the football. B-b-baseball. The Wuh. The Wwworld Suh, suh.”

No shit, dumbass. We’re in Northern California. Who the hell would think we were all out celebrating Eli Manning. And maybe I shouldn’t add in how Ron had spent the whole game gushing over the abs and thighs Buster Posey must have to be able to squat behind the plate for three hours and still leg out an infield single. Or maybe I should add that anecdote in. That’s real life. Shows his mindset. How the only two gay guys in a sports bar of toxic masculinity can find each other when they’re least looking.

Except that’s not how it would come out. Yeah, I can come up with wonderful lines about toxic masculinity inside my own head. People assume I’m dumb because I can’t enunciate my thoughts. Or just because I’ve now been standing in front of this microphone, radio silence, for what has probably been ten minutes now.

Why the hell did Ron even want me here? Sure, I’m one of his best friends. Yeah, I was there when he met Jake, but is that really a vital piece of information? I already fucked up the delivery of it once. So now all I can do is fumble over part two of their relationship. The bridesmaid is here for a reason, too. Can’t she add anything to the “how wonderful you guys are together” story?

Or Ron could come up here. Or Jake. Aunt Gertrude will talk about how strong of a public speaker he is after that debacle of a cavalier.

I know what I want to say. I want to talk about the change that has come over Ron since he met Jake. The sparkle in his eye, the new way he sees the world. The subtle, little optimisms where there would’ve been sarcasm. His propensity to talk about plans in weeks and months instead of minutes and hours. How the true Ron, the one who I always knew was there because I’m the only one who doesn’t interrupt him or talk over him, is finally out for the whole world to see.

Instead, I just stumble over his damned husband’s name.

Screw it. I’m not talking to all of these judgmental fucks in the audience. I’m here as a best man for  Ron. And for Jake, his real-life best man. I’ll just turn around and talk to the two of them. Ignore Aunt Gertrude and the bridesmaid and the bartender. Okay, maybe not the bartender. But the bartender can wait. But I definitely can’t look at the bridesmaid.

For now, it’s just me and the two grooms.

“Hu-Hey Ron. Juh, juh… You know what? I’m nnnnot gonna say your name. I love what you d-d-done for my guy, but I fucking hate your name.”

There’s a smattering of laughs in the audience behind me. Fuck. Are they laughing at me? Mocking me because I can’t stand looking at them? Turned my back? Fuck you, Aunt Gertrude.

Or do they think I just made a joke? Did I just make a joke? Timing’s never been my strong suit.

Ron and Jake are both smiling at me. Jake is nodding. I’ve told him I hate his fucking name before. He usually thinks I’m joking. I guess I am. I mean, it would be a hell of a lot easier if his name was Aaron or something, but I don’t begrudge a dude his name. And Ron had enough trouble finding someone he could be happy with. It’s not worth throwing a fish back into the pond for his name.

Maybe I should say something along those lines.

“Yeah. J-j-jake. You’ve been the best thing that’s ever happened to m-m-my boy, Ron. I wuh. I wish you had a du-, a different name, but Ron won’t let me, let me call you Aaron.”

More laughter from behind me. That one was intentional. I think for a brief moment about turning around and mugging for the crowd. A wink to let them know I got this. But that would be a really, really bad idea. Like, pee my pants, pass out kind of bad.

“At least your nnname isn’t B-b-buster P-p-posey.”

Less laughter that time. I need to leave the stand-up to Kevin Hart. Just speak from the heart.

“Anyway, I’ve never. Never s-s-seen Ron s-s-so happy. It’s like. It’s like he always had s-s-so much to give and it p-p-pissed me off that he c-c-couldn’t find anyone. Probably mmmy fault. I kuh, I kept taking him to sports bars. Not a lot of gay dudes there. Not a lot of straight girls, either. Hey Ron, I thu, I think I… fffigured out my problem.”

Ron smiles, chuckles a little, gives me a thumbs up. I think this is what he was looking for from me. Time to finish before I fuck it up.

“Anyway. Juh, uh, Jake. You’ve made Ron happy. He acts like himself when he’s with you, which is… sssomething he hasn’t always done with boyfriends in the past. You guh. You guys are guh, great together. I’m sssso guh-glad you found each other. Even if you’re an A’s fan.”

A few more laughs. A thumbs up from Jake. Better pass this snake off before it bites me.

“Okay, I nnneed to get rid of this m-m-microphone before I fuck things up worse.”

The DJ takes the microphone from me. I sit back down and breathe for the first time in a half-hour. I stare down at the table, trying to find my composure. According to my Fitbit, my heartrate is only 110, but that can’t be. It must be at least double that.

The table looks very interesting. The table is my one solace as the DJ introduces the Maid of Honor. Not sure how I couldn’t come up with that moniker myself.

After she gives her speech, a much more eloquent recounting of her life with Jake, filled with beautiful anecdotes from grade school through high school placed naturally throughout, I finally look up. Nobody’s looking at me. My flush slowly recedes. After five minutes, my Fitbit finally drops below ninety, and I take that as a sign that I can have another drink.

I slink off to the bar for my deserved  free drink. Then another one. I’m perfectly content to stay on this stool the rest of the night. I’ve already signed the marriage certificate, so they don’t need me upright for anything.

“That was a nice speech you gave.”

I’m about to haul off and tell the person where they can shove their sarcasm, when I look up and see the Maid of Honor. She’s smiling. I think she’s serious. Or, at the very least, sincere.

“Th-Thank you.”

“Mind if I sit? I could use a drink, too. These things are daunting.”

“I cuh. I couldn’t have said it b-b-better myself.”

I wave to the barstool next to me.

“I’m Rick,” I say, extending my hand for a shake.

She smiles and takes my hand.

“You can call me Erin.”

 

Polly Esther and the 54 of Clubs

This week’s flash fiction asked for a children’s story. Definitely not the forte of a writer who has trouble writing cock-bursting cunt-bubble every other sentence.

So I went tongue-in-cheek. Never expected to win, and sure enough, I didn’t.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of what I wrote. The judges responded that the humor seemed a bit adult. My response: they haven’t read a lot of children’s books. Like when my daughter makes me read a book seventy fucking times in a row to her. The ones that stay in the rotation are the one’s I find enjoyable, the one’s that have something in it for me. The rest are magically transported to the bottom of the pile (or the bottom of the trash can), I don’t give a shit how precious the fucking pictures are.

So, with that as background, I offer my completely off-color Children’s Book:

POLLY ESTHER AND THE 54 OF CLUBS

A very, very long time ago, further back than anybody can remember, there was a time of turmoil. A time of scary sights, of scary sounds, of scary hairstyles.

It was called the seventies. Ask your parents. Or better yet, your grandparents.

During this long-ago time, a mythical city rose up above the land. Towers of steel and glass reached toward the sky in the merry old town of York. Or rather, the very New town of York. Although, from your perspective, the New York of the 1970s would be Middle York, at best.

In this far-off land, in this very olden time, there lived a happy damsel named Polly Esther.

Polly Esther was known for many things. Her clothes was sleek, made of a magical cloth. Cloth of dazzling colors that don’t appear in nature, paired with other colors in stripes and zig-zags and polka dots. Polly Esther’s cloth was amazingly durable and breathable, but didn’t seem to fit to the form of a body, nor lose its own form, no matter how much she twisted or turned.

And Polly Esther twisted and turned a lot! She loved to dance. Every night, if she could, Polly attended galas and balls. She sang and danced to the falsetto grooves of the Brothers Gibb Bards.

The ballroom she really wanted to atten was the 54 of Clubs, a ball that catered to princes and princesses, and other magical beings, as far as the eye could see. This was the Club, it was rumored, where Cinderella ran away from Prince Charming. Or where Rumpelstiltskin spun himself through the floor. Polly Esther had never seen those things happen, but she was pretty sure she had seen Snow White dancing at the other end of the floor one night. Snow White was very easy to spot, for the seven dwarves dancing around her cleared the area around her face.

Now, 54 is a very big number, indeed. It is probably bigger than your parents are old. And that’s a VERY big number. There had been fifty-three Clubs before the 54 of Clubs. There had also been balls of Hearts and Diamonds. But never of spades. A spade is a shovel, and who wants to have a party with shovels? That’s silly!

Polly Esther had not been to all of the fifty-three Clubs before the 54 of Clubs, but she had been to many. And all of the princes and princesses, the earls and bards, even the dragons, used to love Polly Esther and her strangely static clothing of dazzling colors. But all of a sudden, on this, the fifty-fourth Club, they turned up their nose and turned her away.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot come in,” said the grumbly old gatekeeper at the bumbly entryway. It wasn’t a moat or a drawbridge or a thick prison door, but it might as well have been any or all of those things. Because right now, Polly could not pass through the mean old hag of a man.

“But, but why?” Polly Esther asked.

The dragon dragoon looked Polly Esther up and down with a withering eye. Polly felt like he was casting a spell on her. A spell of judgement. He did not approve of something about her, and because of that, he was barring her entry.

“If you don’t know, I shan’t tell you,” the doorman finally decreed, then turned away from Polly Esther as if he had something else, very important, to tend to, some very important person to allow through the magical portal of entry. Even though nobody could be seen for blocks and blocks.

“But I have always been allowed in before.”

“And that,” the not-so-wizened Wizard of No said, barely offering a glance over his shoulder, “is why you shan’t enter under my watch.”

Polly Esther ran away, crying in shame. She thought about leaving behind a shoe, but knew that no prince would come running after her. Besides, elevator platforms are as difficult to remove as a goblin’s tooth!

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” a voice said from beside Polly when she finally slowed down enough to hear.

She took her hands away from her face, where she had been hiding her tears. Tears can be very harmful in a summer wind, so Polly thought you must always shield them from the world.

Sitting in a doorstep, barely even noticeable if he hadn’t just spoken, was a ghastly monster. He might not have been an actual monster, but his pockmarked skin and crooked nose made him very scary, indeed.

“I have been trying to get into the Club since it was in the twenties,” the monster continued. “It can be frustrating, I know.”

The monster was trying to cheer Polly up, or at least to lessen her pain, but it was no good. The monster didn’t look like he belonged in a club. So now Polly had to wonder if she looked just as monstrous. The doorman had looked at her clothes when he dismissed her. Did her clothes make her look like this imp of a person? This person who, smiling to show Polly his support, showed teeth as mangled as his skin.

“I’m so sorry,” Polly Esther said to the monstrous man hiding in the doorway. “But I have only been barred from the Club by mistake.”

“I’m Guido,” said the monster, sticking out his hand.

In order to not seem mean, Polly shook Guido’s hand. He smiled again and Polly Esther did her best to not to cringe. She had only answered him because he made her feel uncomfortable. She was trying to sound empathetic, but Guido might have mistaken it for compassion. Do you know the difference between empathy and compassion? Empathy is when you try to understand somebody, to put yourself in their shoes. Compassion is when you feel sorry for them, but not in a bad way.

“Forget about what happened,” Guido continued. “Beauty is only skin deep. They only look at what’s on the outside.”

“There must be some mistake,” Polly Esther repeated. “They didn’t send me away because of the way I look. He must have had the wrong list.”

Guido merely shrugged. “That’s what I thought at the twenty-fifth Heart Ball.”

“I have a friend, Jim-Bob,” said Polly. “He never goes to Clubs or balls. Maybe he’ll explain it to me.”

“Jim-Bob?” asked Guido. “That sounds like a peasant name.”

“He comes from the countryside. His daddy is a farmer. But that doesn’t mean anything.”

“If you say so,” Guido said. “See if your friend Jim-Bob agrees.”

Polly Esther decided that was exactly what she would do. She prepared to leave Guido by apologizing for being brisk with him earlier. Guido said he was used to it. Polly said goodbye in a much nicer manner than she had said hello. In fact, after she was away from Guido, she wondered if she had ever said hello to him in the first place.

Polly Esther ran home as fast as her legs, swishing back and forth with an unnatural slickness, would carry her. She knocked on the door next door to her flat, on the 53rd floor of the Castle Gardens residential tower.

“Hey Polly Esther, how ya doin’?” Jim-Bob said when he opened the door.

“I’m doing fine, Jim-Bob.” Polly Esther said. “How are you?”

She wanted to delve right into her problems, but thought it might be rude. Jim-Bob, being from outside the city, enjoyed engaging in small talk first. Small talk is always polite.

“I’m right fine, thank you very much,” Jim-Bob answered, nodding his head and tipping its invisible straw hat in Polly’s direction. “I thought you were dancing tonight.”

“They didn’t let me in,” Polly Esther.

“Well, that’s a right-fine how-do-you-do, isn’t it?” Jim-Bob asked.

Polly Esther nodded. She didn’t really know what a right-fine how-do-you-do was, but she was pretty sure being blocked from the 54 of Clubs was definitely one.

“I never understood why you like going into those dungeons of fashion, any ol’ way.”

“You wouldn’t understand. You’ve never been inside. It’s not a dungeon. It’s a magical land of wonder and delight. Everyone that’s anyone is there. No offense.”

“None taken.”

Polly Esther looked in Jim-Bob’s face to see if there was truly no offense taken. He only smiled back at her. Either he really felt no offense, or he was better at hiding his feelings than a crocodile playing Go Fish with a fox.

Polly wished she could be as easy-going as Jim-Bob, but she just couldn’t let it go. Before long, the 54 of Clubs would be the 55 and then the 56 of Clubs. Would they let her in? Probably not. And what about the Heart and Diamond Balls? Polly Esther was still a single woman in the seventies. How would she find love if she couldn’t go to a Heart Ball?

“You should go talk to Bella,” suggested Jim-Bob.

“Bella, with the golden dress?”

Not THAT Bella-with-the-golden-dress. Or maybe it was. It was the seventies in the Village, after all, so who knows?

“Sure. She usually has a good crystal ball into what’s going on.”

Polly and Jim-Bob traveled to visit Bella. Through the tumultuous hallway, down the interminable elevator, out of the foyer of grime, they finally found themselves out on the streets of not-quite-New York. Two blocks later, they rang the doorbell and waited for the familiar brunette hairdo and the familiar yellow gown.

“I can make a phone call,” Bella said, and invited her two visitors inside.

“Who are you calling?” Polly asked Bella.

“Ringo,” Bella answered.

Not THAT Ringo. Or maybe it was. It was the Village in the seventies, after all, so who knows?

Bella picked up her phone and dialed. A telephone was an ancient device that somebody used to speak to someone far away. Like a teleportation spell for your voice. There were no text messages or Angry Birds or even Google. And it was tied to the wall by a cord. Can you imagine such a horrible device?

“He always knows what’s going on at the Clubs and the Diamonds and the Hearts,” Bella continued, then turned her attention to the phone receiver.

Polly tried to listen in on the phone call, tried to glean what was being said on the other side, based on how Bella was reacting. She couldn’t, and it probably served her right. You should not try to listen in on private conversations. And even worse, you should never base your judgement on only hearing one side of the story.

“I’m sorry,” Bella finally said when she put the phone down on its base (which is  how phone calls ended before there was a big red “END” button). “It was no mistake. They meant for you to be left out.”

“But why?” Polly asked.

“It’s your appearance,” Bella confirmed.

Polly looked down at her clothes. She grabbed her long, straight hair. It felt horrible to be judged for her appearance, and even worse, to be judged poorly. They were calling her a pock-marked monster, like Guido, or an outsider, like Jim-Bob. Or a… actually, Polly realized she didn’t know why Bella-with-the-golden-dress didn’t go to 54. She hadn’t gone to 53 either. Polly wasn’t sure if she had ever seen Bella at any of the Clubs. Or the Diamonds. Had Polly even seen her at a Hearts?

“But I’ve always gone to the clubs before,” Polly tried.

“Ringo says the age of Polly Esther is over. It’s time to move on to something else.”

“Well, how do you like that?”

“Maybe you can change your clothes,” Jim-Bob suggested.

It was very nice of Jim-Bob to offer his advice. He had never been to any of the Clubs. He never seemed interested in the Clubs, and he always told Polly Esther that she shouldn’t be concerned with them. But he was a friend, and a friend supports a friend, even when they have different interests. Polly had gone to baseball games with Jim-Bob, and if the Yankees hadn’t let him into their stadium, she assumed she would help him go to a Mets game.

But the Yankees would never bar Jim-Bob. Only Clubs like 54 barred people like Polly. And Guido and Jim-Bob and…

“Bella, why don’t you go to any of the Clubs?”

“I’m more of a Broadway girl.”

“But you’re such a good dancer.”

“The Clubs don’t have my kind of dancing. Not my kind of music.”

“Would you go to a ball if it had music you liked?”

“Maybe. It depends. I don’t like places that shut my friends out.”

That’s when it hit Polly. She shouldn’t be changing her appearance, or changing the way she acted, just to be allowed into a place that didn’t want her. She had friends here. And music. And even more.

“What if I put on my own ball? We will play whatever music people want to listen to. We will put the Yankees game up on the TV. And best of all, anyone who wants to dance can come and dance.”

“That sounds like fun,” Bella said. “How will we get the word out?”

“I know a guy named Guido,” Polly said. “He’s the first person I’ll invite, and I bet he knows a lot of people who want to attend a ball.”

The following night, Polly Esther made a comeback. She had the biggest party in the entire city. Everyone who was anyone wanted to attend. And everyone, whether they were anyone or not, was allowed to attend. The music varied from the Brothers Gibb to Ringo’s old band (not THAT band) to some of Bella’s theater hits. Some of the older patrons, who hadn’t been allowed into a ball for decades, requested some old song by the King about his Hound Dog. After that, a young pup requested a new sound from the Prince of Minnesota, a purple sound ahead of its time, that the Clubs would not catch onto for another five years.

Some patrons danced the cha-cha. Some danced the polka. Bella twirled a pirouette that was elegant to behold.

Jim-Bob watched the Yankees game on the TV. He REALLY didn’t like dancing.

The called the ball “The First of Spades.” After all, a spade is a shovel. And what better name for a ball that digs up and buries all the outdated and exclusive ideals of all of the other three suits?

 

Not Quite Gilligan

Time for another one of my not-winner flash fiction entries. For this one, the prompt gave us the first line (“They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise”)  and the last line (“They command attention, leaving their spectators breathless.”). We had to fill the part in the middle. I immediately thought of a zoo-type setting, but wanted to twist it around so that the “breathless” part was literal. Blood and mayhem, baby. I didn’t care for it at first, but by the end I was okay with what I had written. Definitely not my strongest, but I’ve usually struggled getting to the action part, so it was nice for that part to come out okay.

Of course, I was really annoyed when I was 2/3 of the way through and all of a sudden realized that the first and last line were in present tense…

 

NOT QUITE GILLIGAN

They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. At least that’s how it appears to their spectators.

“Oooooo.”

The zoo’s visitors gasp as one through the plexiglass that is not quite plexiglass. One of the graceful specimens comes up a little short on this particular soar, and begins a plummet toward the soft grass canopy that doubles as their bedding. The anti-gravitational boosters kick in. The spectators learned the hard way that these specimens do not recover from a fall as easily as the research indicates.

“Why the hell did they give us branches to jump around on?” Chuck asks, sitting up and wiping grass off his tunic.

“We’re primates,” Arthur says, still sitting in the branch above. “They didn’t bother to classify us beyond monkeys.”

“I thought they were supposed to be super smart. They can’t even tell the difference between humans and goddamn monkeys?”

“Would you know the difference between a greyhound and a bulldog?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feed Meow Mix to a friggin’ lion.”

Chuck stands back up. Experience tells him that the mild electric tingling he is currently feeling will grow to a legitimate shock and beyond unless he leaves = the grassy canopy. The zoo is open, and during opening hours, they can’t be allowed to rest out of sight. The show happens up on the branches.

He walks over to the nearest tree that is not quite a tree. It looks like wood and acts like wood, but it doesn’t feel like wood. The best route up is a ladder embedded into its back. The spectators don’t seem to notice, or don’t seem to care, how their specimens climb up to the observational branches.

“At least that bought me another ten minutes before I have to make another leap.”

“And what are you going to do with it?” Arthur asks, standing up on his own branch and preparing to make a leap of his own. He flips his foot backward and grasps his ankle, stretching his hamstring. “Flip them the bird again?”

“I just might,” Chuck says, cracking his knuckles and wiggling his fingers toward the customers as if he is a wizard preparing to cast a spell on them instead of throwing up a universal signal that is not quite universal.

“You might as well fling your poo at them.”

Arthur leaps from one branch to the next, soaring with a bit more poise and grace than usual. Seeing a fellow captive stumble often has that effect on the next few leaps. It’s nature to relax a bit on a mundane task, until you are reminded how easily it can be made un-mundane.

“If I thought my poo would get through to those a-holes, I would,” Chuck says. “But it would just splatter on the plexiglass, and I don’t need a reminder that I’m in a cage.”

No one responds, so Chuck feels an impulse to continue.

“Besides, it would probably disintegrate in their poisonous atmosphere. No effect whatsoever except for me with a bunch of dingleberries left in my hand.”

Chuck laughs. He knows he’s made a good one, and screw the rest of the humans if they don’t like it. Besides, they’re all minding their own business. The zookeepers don’t like much fraternizing between the specimens. But Chuck’s already been buzzed once this hour, what’s the harm in getting another tingle?

“Their atmosphere isn’t poisonous,” Arthur responds. “We could breathe it.”

“How the hell do you know that? You been holding out some laptop or something?”

“Not at all. They come in to feed us, clean out our cages.”

Chuck says nothing. No one says anything.

“And what do they have with them when they do?” Arthur probes, enjoying the upper hand.

“Cattle prods and shit.”

“And what don’t they have?”

“Qgrxry.” A disembodied, synthetic voice garbles from the air above, a sound all of the humans have become well aware of. They learned quickly to understand the subtle nuance of an alien language.  

James, the third male prisoner, shakes out of his forlorn spot near the front of the cage, and turns to leap away from the spectators.

“Hey numbnuts, qgrxry doesn’t mean jump. It means-,”

“QGRXRY!” The voice booms everywhere, a god that is not quite a god.

“Silence,” Chuck mutters under his breath, refusing to let E.T. get the last word, but not wanting another shock. His internal bravado meets external reality.

James leaps. Layla leaps. Before too long, it’s Chucks turn to once again leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. This time, he even manages to stick the landing, one branch away from Arthur.

“I’ll bite.” Chuck tries to look like he is only absorbed in his own thoughts, muttering under his breath. “What don’t they have?”

Chuck picks his nose for effect. He saw a real chimpanzee do it at a real zoo once. He twirls it in between his fingers, acts like he’s talking to the booger.

“They don’t have any environmental protection. The zookeepers look the same as the spectators. If they can breathe the air in here, we can breathe the air out there.”

Chuck pops the booger in his mouth. For effect, of course.

“Not bad, professor. Now can you turn a coconut into a radio and fix the fucking boat?”

Arthur just shakes his head at the amazingly failed allusion. It’s his turn to leap away, and he is all too happy to do it.

Chuck steps up to stretch, and leaps in the opposite direction long before any sort of warning can come from above. A couple times a day, he varies his schedule. Got to keep them on their toes, he thinks. He imagines some bureaucrat alien staring at a spreadsheet, trying to make rhyme or reason of the exercise habits of humans.

Plus this time, he has an idea brewing. The first person he encounters is Layla.

“So if he’s the professor, I guess that makes you Mary Ann. I mean, not that I’d like to see you in a halter top or anything, no offense.”

“None taken,” Layla responds. “I wouldn’t show you my halter top if you were the last… Come to think of it, you are one of the last three, and I still won’t show you.”

“Not the last three on Earth, toots. Earth’s still out there, with plenty of humans on it, and I’m starting to concoct a plan.”

“Oh, sweet Jesus. Try not to get us all killed in the-,”

“GRZYXR,” the disembodied voice calls. Chuck clenches, but then relaxes. It isn’t the silence command, and he was planning on leaping away, anyway. He lands near James.

“Hey Gilligan, I got a plan. Sorry, Jimbo, but I figure, if we’ve got the professor and Mary Ann, and clearly I’m the Skipper, that leaves you as Gilligan. You don’t strike me as much of a Thurston Howell type. Do you mind if I call you Gilligan, Jimbo?”

James looks up, then immediately looks away. He likes neither Gilligan nor Jimbo, so he plots his next two leaps, hoping to get far away, fast. Of the four prisoners, he interacts the least, choosing to perfect his leaping and posing ability in hopes of being promoted.

“So I figure if they can breathe, then we can take their breath away, right? And I don’t mean in some cheesy eighties pop-rock sorta way. I mean kill ’em. Dead. Breathless. Although that sounds like eighties cheese, too. Tin roof rusted, and all that.”

James is astonished, and more than a little ashamed, that not only does he understand all of Chuck’s pop culture references, but the idea behind his misguided drivel, too. Chuck thinks he has a plan. It is not quite a plan, but it is, at least, an idea.

“Okay, so at the next feeding time, and man I hope we’re getting mac and cheese tonight.” Chuck pauses for a moment, thinking of the blue box of Kraft goodness that they’ve somehow perfected on this far away planet. “But at the next feeding time, we-“

“Qgrxry.”

James leaps from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. Chuck has to admit that, of all of them, Jimbo has the most grace and poise. Even if he seems to jump away at the wrong commands. Doesn’t seem to know his Qgrxry from his Grzyxr, if Chuck is honest about faults. But he’s a damned fine physical specimen, and he should do well as front-line cannon fodder like the Gilligan he is.

“They brought an egghead and a stud,” Chuck mutters under his breath, a compulsion he often feels after the Qgrxry command. “Then there’s me, the streetwise guy. And the girl rounds it out as a foil, like any good story. Stand by Me, right? No wait, there was no chick in Stand by Me. What’s the other one? Oh yeah, It.”

The four specimens continue to leap in silence. If the bureaucrat with the spreadsheet is paying close attention, he might see a spike in their leaps from branch to branch, although the bureaucrat, not actually in the vicinity of the four humans, would fail to note their additional grace and poise. They leap with a vigor, with a purpose, that they have not had in ages.

While they command the attention of their spectators, their own attention is in a different direction. They leap for different vantage points, always mindful of the entrance. From each direction, the entrance looks the same. No hidden trick, a simple portal that leads to a hallway beyond. An airlock, the chance of breathing true air laying beyond. Although each human, apart from Chuck, rues the man who brought the idea to their attention, they cannot deny the merits of the idea. James and Layla and Arthur share glances with each other as they pass each other in silence. Eventually, they must even share their upraised eyebrows in with the malcontent. Everybody needs to be on the same page.

Not that it matters. The box is open, Pandora is free. Chuck is going to bum-rush the first alien motherfucker that walks through that portal, come hell or high water. The other humans were either going to let him fail, and be guilty by association, or help him succeed. It is no choice at all. No more soaring. It’s time for breathless.

“Chgrchx.”  

Feeding time always comes with anticipation, a moment to be human instead of spectacle. The anticipation of this particular Chgrchx, however, rivals all since their first one, when they weren’t yet sure if their captors could even produce human food. For the first time since that feeding, their survival is again in the balance when the zookeepers walk through the door.

Chuck knows the timing. He arcs through the grass, seemingly random but always with a direct line toward the door. If he is correct, he will be directly in front when they appear. Of course, he is correct. There is nothing to learn in this cell except for the timing between a Qgrxry or a Grzyxr or a Chgrchx and its insequential action, like a primitive culture knowing that the Winter Solstice sunrise will shine through a pillar. And when this Winter Solstice of a feeding comes shining through this particular Stonehenge, Chuck is ready to pounce.

He runs right at the alien, shoulder lowered. The alien is unarmed, holding only a tray with four plates of macaroni and cheese. Chuck’s shoulder makes contact with the tray, slamming it up into the chest that is not quite a chest. The alien stumbles backward, one step, then two, and is about to regain its footing when the second wave hits.

Chuck is vaguely surprised that it is Layla, not James or Arthur, that steps in from the alien’s left. Not a full step, only a half step. Only enough to prevent the alien’s third step, the one that would plant and pivot its gravity back forward, from landing on the grass. The alien’s tottering becomes a sprawl, and the alien sprawls backward through the portal, a spray of neon-orange pasta somersaulting through the air the only proof it had been in this location at all.

“Could’ve waited till the armed guards were in first,” says James, still poised on the branch closest to the door.

“Now what the hell do we do?” Arthur asks, already winded from running in on a diagonal course.

“The portal’s still open,” Layla says, returning upright and attempting to avoid being covered in macaroni. “Do we just run through it?”

“But we know there will be armed guards right behind the-,” Arthur starts.

“We keep the element of surprise,” Chuck says, and barrels into the around the corner into the hallway beyond.

Chuck doesn’t have the element of surprise anymore. Two shock sticks ignite simultaneously, one on each side. Thousands of volts course through his body. Chuck drops to his knee.

Layla kicks out again, this time higher up, knocking one shock stick away. Chuck can at least breathe, but even one shock stick is enough to immobilize him.

James aims his leap at the other weapon, but instead of kicking out at it, he grapples for it. The force of gravity, combined with the element of surprise, gives him enough leverage to seize the stick from the alien body he is tangled with. He rolls onto the ground, a move he was not capable of before his years of forced gymnastics, and comes set as the other two humans follow into the hallway.

Layla kicks again, this time in the direction of a groin that is not quite a groin, incapacitating the alien she had just disarmed. Arthur, in typical Arthur fashion, does not break a sweat as he walks through the portal. He picks up the shock stick the picks up the shock stick Layla kicked out of the first alien’s grasp. He thinks about brandishing it himself, but realizes that would make him a target. Instead, he hands the weapon to Chuck.

Chuck tries to stand, but can only get to his knees. He grabs the weapon and nods his thanks to the nerd. He wheezes and coughs, and pretends the air smells so different now, even if it is stuffier in the hallway than in their cage. He is trying, once again, to find his footing when a new sound comes from the next room.

It is not a new sound, entirely. It is a sound the humans are all too familiar with, but have not heard for years. The click, chink, chunk, of a gun being loaded. And not a gun-that-is-not-quite-a-gun, but an honest-to-goodness, steel assault rifle.

Chuck tries to stand once again. He wants to press the advantage. He knows the cause is lost if they wait until the machine gun makes its way into view. One foot up, dragging his knee behind, he takes one step, that is not quite a step, forward. He uses the shock stick not as a weapon, but as a crutch, dragging himself toward his adversary and his freedom.

Chuck never hears the bracka-bracka-bracka that slices through his body. He is breathless before he even sees the lone gunman, a cowering, diminutive zookeeper that had probably been staring at spreadsheets two moments before.

Chuck doesn’t know that James had already gotten into a defensive position next to the doorway, much as the two aliens guards had lain in wait for him, moments ago. He is long gone before James uses that shock stick to fell the alien and upgrade to an assault rifle. Not that it would have done Chuck any good to be in on the plan. One human was going to be the cannon fodder.

“He never knew he was Gilligan,” says Layla, grabbing a gun of her own from the second room. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”

Arthur smiles at the reference. “Old Charles would be so sad to know you waited until he was gone before making a Die Hard reference.”

“That’s why I waited.”

There are only two guns, just as there are only two shock sticks. For emergency purposes only. This is a zoo, after all. The zookeepers, the spectators, even the guards, scarcely need a gun.

“So what do we do now?” James asks.

Arthur ponders for a moment.

“We fight for as long as we can. If we can make it to a spaceport, so much the better. But failing that, we take as many of those spectators with us as possible. They are just as guilty as the one who captured us. Agreed?”

Layla cocks her gun. James cocks his gun. Both nod.

The three humans break out of their confinement. They emerge, guns blazing, into the crowd of zoo-goers.

They command attention, leaving spectators breathless in their presence.

 

Precious Little Treasure

Time for another flash fiction. The prompt for this was to describe how a treasure map was made. A prequel to an Indiana Jones. A Spot Marks the X type of thing. I decided to make it a child’s treasure map because, I don’t know, I thought it would be a fun diversion from the typical “pirate buries treasure.” And I have a three-year old…

PRECIOUS LITTLE TREASURE

“Cooooooool. That’s gonna be so, what was that word? Brawsome?”

“Awesome, Frankie.”

“Yeah, brawsome. It’s gonna be brawsome when I undig that tweasure.”

“When are you planning on digging up your treasure?”

“When I’m all growed up. Like four. Or maybe five.”

“Wow. That’s a long time. Are you going to remember where you buried it?”

“I’ll remember. It’s right by the cat.”

“The cat might not be there when you dig it up.”

“Yes he will. Kitty’s always there.”

“Maybe we should write it down, anyway.”

“Ooooo, a tweasure map! That sounds brawsome!”

Frankie ran inside to his thick-plastic Crayola writing desk. The desk also doubled as an easel, but there was no time for easels now. The memory of his super-secret treasure location was flimsy and fleeting, as was the reason he now stood in front of his thick-plastic Crayola writing desk. The flat portion, a red found nowhere in nature aside from children’s toys, called out to him. He swiveled it up and stared at the slick black chalkboard underneath. Two sheets of paper slid off the suddenly vertical table.

“Paper!”

Frankie remembered. He needed to make a map to the various treasures he had buried in his backyard. A time cat-sule, Daddy had called it.

“What did you put in your capsule, Frankie?” Daddy asked when the toddler returned outside, paper and red crayon in hand.

“Hatchimals. Lotsa Hatchimals. And some fruit snacks.”

“I wonder which will last longer underground,” Daddy mused, “the plastic tchotchkes or the preservative-packed food?”

“Okay, Daddy, how did I made my map?”

“You are going to make your map, little dude,” Daddy corrected.

“Uh huh. I said that, Daddy.”

Frankie placed his blank off-white sheet of paper, made from ninety percent recycled product, on the table outside. He looked up expectantly at his father for instructions, red crayon poised precipitously above the wide-open expanse of beige papyrus.

“Well, since you buried your Hatchimals, maybe you should put the letter H in the middle.”

“I can’t make an H.”

“F for fruit snack?”

The child shook his head.

“I’ve seen you draw an F before. F for Frankie.”

The child shook his head.

“Okay, what letters can you draw?”

“Um… X?”

“That’ll work. X marks the spot. Put an X right there.”

Daddy pointed to the center of the paper. Frankie put the crayon down and moved it in a diagonal motion, approximating a line. He then repeated the motion in the opposite direction, albeit nowhere near the same length or angle-of-ascent as the previous.

“I’ve seen a drunk sailor draw a better X,” Daddy opined.

Frankie didn’t respond, lost in concentration. Finished with the only letter he knew, he moved on to the other locations on the map showing the location of his buried trinkets. The only crayon in his possession, and as far as Frankie was concerned, the only crayon in all of existence at this precise moment, being red, he proceeded to draw the environmental factors in red.

“What are those?” Daddy asked.

“I drawed some trees.”

“In red?”

“Oh yeah. Silly me. Trees are brown.”

Frankie went inside to switch out the colors. He made it all the way to his Crayola table, currently transformed like his Optimus Prime into an easel, without so much as a glance at the various pitfalls awaiting him. He was focused. The prize was in his grasp, he could not take his eyes off it now. Frankie put the red crayon down, picked up the brown.

He looked down at his box, the rainbow of sixty-four distractions sparkling in the halogen glow of the shaded living room, and decided he might need others. Definitely a green, because he was pretty sure that trees have green. And black. Black always comes into play.

And what about those others? Orange? The sun is orange. Purple? I really like purple, there almost has to be some use for purple. The cat is grey, that might as well be purple. Oh wait, where is grey? It’s so hard to find grey amongst all the daffodils and mauves and fuchsias…

Frankie looked up from the shimmering pool of color and saw the door. It was tough to tear himself away, Narcissus looking at his own artistic brilliance instead of his reflection, but he found his focus. The door to the outside shone, a portal to a land of magical trasure, and Frankie would not be deterred. He walked forward, crayons held in a vice-grip. He would not be distracted, would not stray from the clear path to adventure.

Except for the refrigerator, off to his left.

“Daddy? Can I have some milk, please?”

“Sure thing, buddy. Hold on a sec.”

Daddy came in from the outside.

“Can I have some choc-ee milk?”

“Are you sure? Chocolate milk will take some time. Didn’t you want to finish your map?”

“Oh yeah, yeah. I need to finish my map. Choc-ee milk later?”

“Sure, Frankie. Chocolate milk later. You ready to come out?”

Frankie followed Daddy outside and resumed his artistic masterpiece. He looked once again at the straight red lines that he had been drawing, fanning upward in a spread pattern from a common point, and tried to determine how to fix them into the brown tree trunks littering his back yard. Unable to concoct any way to turn the red into brown, he drew new tree trunks, brown this time, stretching in the opposite direction from the same common point.

He lifted the crayon up, and was pleased with the four lines he had drawn, nearly perfect mirror images of the straight red lines above. Excited, he added more brown lines, then more lines and more. Before long, the brown portion looked less like distinct lines, and more like a solid brown triangle beneath a spray of red.

“That’s a pretty cool volcano,” Daddy said.

“No, Daddy. It’s a tree. It’s those trees.” Frankie pointed around his yard.

“Oh, my mistake. Those are great trees. What’s next?”

“I need to draw the kitty cat. He’s sitting right there.”

Although the cat had moved to a different spot, Daddy acquiesced, having already lost this argument once.

“Where are you going to draw the kitty?”

“Right here. Next to the H.”

“The X?”

“Yeah, the X.”

Frankie pulled out his blue crayon. Not that the cat was blue, but he hadn’t been able to find the grey and had already forgotten the previous false-equivalency of purple. He drew a full circle that he hoped would form into Kitty’s face. But it didn’t look right. It wasn’t the right shape. Frankie looked up at the cat and made another solid blue circle, then a third, in the vicinity of the red X.

“Maybe I can put a kitty sticker on it.”

“Good idea. Where are you going to put the sticker?”

Frankie looked at the piece of paper, furrowing his brow to a degree unimaginable in an adult face. He pursued his imagination like his kitty would pursue a prey. Focused, inching along until the moment of action, just as likely to flop over in exhaustion should the prey prove too elusive.

“I’m gonna draw in where the kitty sticker will go.”

Frankie picked his black crayon. His instinct had been correct. Black crayon was always useful. Always bet on black.

He drew one black dash, maybe a quarter-inch long, then lifted the crayon and made another black dash just north of the first. He moved the crayon again, creating a third dash.

“What are you doing, Buddy?”

“I’m making an outline. Then the kitty sticker will go here.”

“That looks more like a path.”

Frankie looked up at his father, a withering reproach in his blue eyes, which then rolled in their sockets, the three-nager in full effect.

“It’s an outline, Daddy. Duh.”

“Okay, it’s an outline,” Daddy responded, sufficiently cowed.

Frankie continued his outline, a staggering and meandering black-dash line that wove through his map. It came around the bottom of the brown, upside-down triangle topped by a spew of red. He wove the black line in between the three solid-blue circles, since that was where the kitty was truly sitting. Continuing through the circles, the outline finished at the spot of the X, because kitty would definitely want to look at Frankie’s Hatchimals.

Pleased with himself, Frankie surveyed his drawing and drew a circle around the entirety of his map.

“Can I go get my sticker now, Daddy?”

“Sure thing, Frank.”

Frankie went inside and moved toward the staircase up to his room. There might be some stickers in with his art supplies, but the vast majority, the mother lode as it were, would be found in a bin in his bedroom, where Mommy had put them all for what she called safekeeping. Frankie was pretty sure the containment of items designed to be flung free served some other purpose, but he (sometimes) kept that idea to himself.

A sharp pierce of pain shot up through Frankie’s foot as he placed it down on the first carpeted stair. Frankie whelped. His knees buckled, dropping him to his knee, tears welling up in his eye. Barely able to move, he still managed to find some inner well of strength and lifted his leg from the trap that had lain in wait. Shining in bright orange lay a Lego construction man. The Lego construction man, in fact. Emmett, the one from the movie.

Everything is awesome, Emmett. Everything is awesome, indeed.

Frankie looked at the underside of his foot and was surprised it was not a bloody mess. A small puncture was the only indication of his mortal wound. Regardless, he would definitely need a Band-Aid. Maybe Paw Patrol, maybe Star Wars. Or maybe, as a fitting bit of irony, he could ask Mommy or Daddy if he had any Lego Band-Aids. There should definitely be Lego Band-Aids. Lego should own stock in the Band-Aid company. And vice versa.

Frankie felt he should definitely go look for a Lego Band-Aid right now.

“No,” Frankie resolved.

The Lego man was a trap, a stone golem, a sentry set guard to stop him his desired goal. He could not be dissuaded, not now. If he could not get that kitty sticker, his entire afternoon was a sham. This minor flesh wound could not dissuade a valiant knight.The goal was in sight. Band-Aids were for losers or finishers. Which one would he be?

Resolved, he planted his good foot past Emmett, then pulled his crippled foot alongside. With a plant-hobble-plant motion, he dragged his way up the stairs, a desperate man struggling toward a desert oasis.

By the time he made it to the top, Frankie had already forgotten the pain, lost to Toddler Attention Span Land. He walked into his room, eternally focused on finding the-

Stuffies! All of Frankie’s stuffies were waiting for him on his bed. There was Kangaroo and Pineapple the Horse and the blue octopus he had named Greenie. Mickey Mouse was lying next to Minnie Mouse, which must mean that Donald and Daisy were buried in the pile. And Snuggle Pumpkin! Frankie swore he had not seen Snuggle Pumpkin in… how long had it been since Halloween? A day or a week, or maybe a lifetime. He couldn’t remember. He only knew that once, Snuggle Pumpkin had been his special favorite, and now Snuggle Pumpkin was lying there, calling to him.

They were all calling to him. Bears and mouses and ducks and kangaroos, all screaming out Frankie’s name. Pleading with him to please forget his current task, to come cuddle with them instead. That task, the task that couldn’t be named, didn’t matter. One thing mattered, and that was cuddling. A wonderful, ginormous pile of cuddling!

“I’m coming,” Frankie shouted and, giggling up a storm that dwarfed the earlier cry of pain, leapt onto the pile of animals on his bed.

He dove deep, letting all form of animal and character swallow him up like quicksand. His giggling mouth filled with cloth and stitching and plush fur. The animals coalesced around their loving owner, sucking his body down into hugs and snuggles and cuddles. Once lying underneath, Frankie reached a dramatic hand up through the pile and screamed out.

“Stuffies!”

All thought of stickers disappeared, as did memory of crayons or papers or buried Hatchimals or a patient father waiting outside for a toddler that would not return.

Daddy left his standpost to follow his child’s route up the perilous stairs, leaving behind a piece of paper.

A sudden gust of wind grasped the paper and blew it out into the world.

Glutton Games

I seem to remember, in a distant, far-off land and time, that I started a blog page intending to write some fiction.

And then it turned into a sometimes-weekly, usually longer, drivel about my real-life life.

I blame Chuck Wendig. He used to have flash fiction prompts every Friday. Now he doesn’t. So it’s all his fault. It can’t possibly be me who is responsible for my own lack of writing, or the fact that, when I do finally sit my ass down in front of the computer, it’s much easier to unload whatever happened to me that day than to create a work of fiction from my own brainy parts.

Well, I found another website with flash fiction contests, so there goes one of my excuses. Might as well try this, and then I can post it on that fiction blog I started all those years ago.

This month’s prompt was a bit awkward. They gave us five things that we had to incorporate into our story. They were: 1. the main character’s flaw must be one of the seven deadly sins, 2. a dream vacation goes awry, 3. MC’s strength is the same as mine (I went with organizational/analytical, since I had just finished creating the teams and schedule for a curling league), 4. The MC has a rival, and 5. The MC needs to break the rules to win.

Et, voila:

The Glutton Games

“This is no good.”

Robert lowered the chicken wing from the front of his mouth. Every ounce of meat had been removed, the sinews and crusted nub gnawed clean enough to pass inspection. He licked residual gristle and sauce off of his bottom lip, looked at his fingers, glistening with a pale orangish-red residue, then proceeded to place them in his mouth.

Beyond his hand, he saw the beginnings of a scowl in the bartender’s . Rob thought back to his last comment.

“Oh, not the wings. The wings were excellent. Savory and filling. Just enough chutzpah to make the wings worthwhile, but not those hulking monstrosities that look like bona fide drumsticks. The sauce never protrudes the meat enough on those, and what you’re stuck with on bites two and three is just a flavorless piece of dark.”

The bartender’s brow went from shrewd to confused. He shrugged and was in the midst of turning away when Rob continued his critique.

“The sauce was poignant. Not too much vinegar, a bountiful combination of flavor and heat. I can’t stand wings that are afraid of heat, but those who feel that simply adding heat is a way to avoid needing flavor are equally as problematic. My compliments to your chef.”

“Our chef?” The bartender responded. “Sure. Our chef. I’ll pass those compliments along.”

I’m sure the guy sitting on his ass and dropping pre-packaged shit in the deep fryer will love the compliments, he thought.

“No, waht I was referring to as not optimal is this,” Rob continued, waving his arms at the plate-glass windows opened up to sheets of drenching rain dumping on the tarmac outside.

The bartender shrugged. “Hurricane season.”

“In December?”

“Haven’t you heard? It’s always hurricane season in Miami.”

“So you’re stuck in Miami for an extra day. Could be worse. If your flight gets grounded an extra day, you’ll get a tropical New Year’s.”

“If I’m stuck here, then the crown is as good as gone.”

The bartender knew a baited  statement as well as anyone. Airport bartenders might run into a different sort of customer than a divebar,  a lot less “drinking myself to death,” and a lot more “I’m working through my mid-life crisis.” Especially in Miami. But bar customers are bar customers, and they’re all searching for an audience. Or else they’d be drinking at home where it’s cheaper.

“Can I get you a drink?”

“I don’t know about a drink, but maybe a bit of dinner to drown my sorrows.”

Rob made a show of picking up the menu, even though he had already looked at everything on the menu multiple times and knew exactly what he was going to order.

“Not much of a drinker?”

“Gave it up when I was in my early twenties. I think it was bad for me.”

“But you sit at the bar?”

“It’s more comfortable.”

Robert shifted his weight, causing the cushioned stool to squeak. Frankie wondered if comfort was just a euphemism for not being able to jam his fat ass into a regular sized chair. Or under a regular sized table.

“How’s the Monte Cristo?”

Once it’s out of the plastic? 

Frankie shrugged. “Good.”

“Then I will take one of those.”

The barstool creaked under Robert’s weight.

“Fries?” Of course.

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. But sure.”

Frankie turned to punch the order into his computer screen, then turned to do his bartenderly duty, like the husband or wife of most of the mid-life crisis Miami patrons.”So what’re you in Miami for?”

Robert harrumphed enough to shake his jowls.

“Evidently what I’m here for is to watch wind and rain. What I was supposed to be here for was a shrimp eating competition.”

“Oh yeah? I didn’t know there was a competition for that.”

“Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t. The hurricane canceled the event.”

“Topical storm.”

“Whatever. My chance at the belt is gone.”

Frankie looked at his customer again. There were so many responses that his job had indoctrinated out of his vocabulary. The fact that this rotund man, who probably had not been able to fit a belt around his girth for the last two hundred pounds, was whining about a belt was comical. But Frankie’s job required tips, and tips required discretion.

“Are you a competitive eater?”

Robert’s gut heaved up to his chest.

“I am. Perhaps you recognize me from Nathan’s Hot Dogs on the Fourth of July?”

“I don’t really-,” Frankie responded, and was pleased to hear the ding from the back room signifying his customer’s sandwich was ready. His tip might have been teetering if the conversation progressed enough for Robert to hear his lack of interest, bordering on disdain, for what was clearly the man’s sole purpose for being. The Monte Cristo would go a long way in earning the tip back.

Robert bit into the crusty sandwich, choked out of his full mouth, spraying some of the powdered sugar forward in a fine cloud. He made a small moaning sound as he chewed through the ham, cheese, and greasy dough in his hand. He breathed heavily, causing another spray of powdered sugar into the air between he and his server.

“I came in,” Robert started, then swallowed the chunks still in his mouth, “-sixth at Nathan’s. Nathan’s isn’t a real-,” chew, chew, “-competition. Too many amateurs that saw it on TV. Too many specialists that have figured out how to eat hot dogs without really embracing the spirit of the-,” two more chews and a large swallow. “Again, my compliments to the chef.”

Robert put the remains of this half of the sandwich down on his plate, looked at his greasy hands, shrugged in a futile attempt at mirroring the bartender’s smoothness, then picked up a french fry.

“Do you have any ketchup and ranch, maybe some barbecue sauce, to dip these in?”

The bartender nodded and produced a small plastic cube of ranch and two small plastic pouches of ketchup. He had no barbecue sauce but didn’t feel the need to announce that fact.

Robert’s cell phone buzzed. He finished the three french fries in his hand, wiped his hand on the navy blue polo shirt, and reached around to his back pocket for the phone. As he pushed his thumbprint on the bottom circle, Frankie found himself wondering if Robert needed to have grease on his finger for the phone to register its owner.

“Oh, this is no good.”

He turned his phone toward Frankie despite the bartender never asking for that courtesy. With no other customers, Frankie leaned in to see a selfie of a wiry man, smiling a grin with enough gaps and crooked teeth to make a British dentist shudder, wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses inside a casino. The text underneath the photo read, “Tasting the victory, Bobbie!”

“Who is that?”

“My rival. Cameron. He made it to Vegas.”

“I take it that’s a bad thing?”

“Doubly so. That’s where my flight is indefinitely delayed to. The ice cream contest that Wynn’s is running tomorrow will finish out the yearly competition.”

“What happens if you don’t make it?”

Robert breathed out, deflating his shoulders in defeat.

“The belt was mine. I already had a lead on Cameron. I gambled on the weather to attempt the Miami Shrimp Fest contest to pad my lead. But if I can’t make either of the last two contests, all Cameron needs to do is finish in fifth place to win the year.”

“So the non-gambler is winning because he went straight to Vegas?” Frankie chuckled.

Robert was not moved by the frivolity. He buried his head under his hands, in an action that Frankie assumed was for emphasis, although he wondered if Robert did in fact believe in his own histrionics.

“So what are you going to do about it, Bobbie?”

“Robert, please. I hat Bob. Or any derivation thereof. It’s cheating. A shortcut that destroys the essence of a being. It’s like dipping a hot dog bun in water to consume it faster. You’re not really eating a hot dog bun.”

“Sorry, I assumed your friend was calling you by your-,”

“Not a friend. Cameron is a rival. And he calls me that to chide me.”

Clearly it works, Frankie thought, but instead repeated, “So what are you going to do about it, Robert?”

“What can I do? He was only fifteen points behind me. I got no more points in Miami, and I shan’t be in Vegas.”

Robert alternated dips with each french fry. With one, he would dip it in ranch first, then in ketchup. On the next he would reverse the order, carrying the runny red liquid into the thick white one. Frankie started wiping the counter in order to break the hypnotizing pattern after the fourth such routine.

“Are there any other eating contests you can hit?”

“Without access to an airplane? Doubtful.”

“Well, what are the rules? Is there some over, um, overarching board you can appeal to?”

Frankie congratulated himself for replacing “overeating” in his mind with “overarching” out of his mouth.

“There’s nothing official. It’s just a yearly rivalry. We’ve established the ground rules ourselves.”

“If it’s just the two of you, tell him to go pound sand.”

“There are six of us. But Cameron’s the only one who can give me a run. In fact, he’s won it two years in a row. And I guess this make it three.”

The fat man lowered his head and put his greasy fingers through his rolly neck one more time.

“What do the rules specify? What counts as an eating contest? Can I just say you have the best ketchup-and-ranch dipping skills and give you a french fry award?”

“It doesn’t work like that. Nothing arbitrary. You just get twenty points for first place, nineteen points for second place, and so on.”

Frankie shrugged and turned to look at his wonderfully-stocked bar, glass bottles glistening in the incandescent halogen that would get little use today if the only customer willing to chance any non-delayed flights only wanted to stuff his mouth with more solid matter.

“Unless…,” Robert said, dragging out a thought that he had already worked through for ten seconds. “We wrote down some rules seven years ago. I don’t know the last time I looked at them. I don’t know the last time Cameron or anyone has. We’ve always just ascribed to the ‘Spirit of Eating.’ But I wonder if there is a technicality I can use to secure my position.”

“Sure. Like an Act of God clause.”

“I highly doubt we would have put any of those in. Most of us are agnostic, if not atheist.”

Frankie was about to explain what an Act of God provision was but decided it wasn’t worth his time.

“I think I have it stored on Google. Do you have free wi-fi here?”

Frankie shook his head. “The only place in the airport that doesn’t charge for wi-fi is Starbucks. And not the counter Starbucks. There’s an actual Starbucks in between terminals. You shouldn’t have to go back through security.”

“Thank you. I suppose I could go for a Frappuccino after that Monte Cristo.”

“Glad I could help.”

Robert pulled his wallet out to settle the bill, leaving his customary 19.5% tip.

Robert smiled and waved at the bored workers in each of the eateries en route to the promised land. He passed Fish n’ Chips, Waffle House, a place named Cubano’s, a Hardee’s, and three different Starbucks counters before making it to the end of the terminal. With scintillating thoughts of cinnamon dolce syrup and extra whipped cream on his mind, each coffee mermaid ensconced in her circular field of green seemed to beckon to him, telling him that the journey would be tough and that there was no need to pass her by for her sister two hundred yards further. She could offer him up some frozen, caffeinated concoction for him right here.

But he ventured through, powered by more than just a sweet tooth. His Google Drive was the true goal of this expedition. The Frappuccino was merely a reward for the exertion and something to soothe himself while he did a little bit of research on how to topple Cameron’s dreams of a three-peat from twenty-five hundred miles away. And in a torrential downpour, to boot.

After a cheery wave at the teenager girl working the McDonald’s register and the dour-looking scrawny middle-aged man leaning against Dunkin’ Donuts counter, he finally saw the sign leading to Terminal Two, and the familiar green circle guiding him to a venti drink and some wi-fi.

Robert waited for his Frappuccino to be finished before finding a seat and pulling his laptop out of his carry-on bag that was not likely to be carried on to anything on this particular day. It wouldn’t do any good to find a seat and then have to stand back up to get his drink. And he wouldn’t be accomplishing any research on an empty stomach.

The Starbucks employees seemed just as bored as Frankie had, but they didn’t engage Robert the way the bartender had. They were not working for tips, and they were used to customers wanting speed and efficiency, a temporary fix in a temporary cup, that they could take away with them.

With his caffeinated milkshake before him, RObert opened up his laptop and logged onto the Starbucks wi-fi. Ten clicks later, he was skimming down the rules that had been crafted, he looked more closely, a decade before. Google Drive didn’t even exist back then, or at least Robert was unaware of it if it did exist. Somebody, he wasn’t sure who, had moved the document onto the web and shared it with everybody a few years ago. And there it had sat. Robert checked.

Only one revision since 2014, and that was a technicality that had arisen due to one of the eating competitions losing its status as an officially sanctioned Major League Eating designation. He remembered it well. Three of them had already signed up for the waffle competition in Tulsa when the MLE dropped the competition from the official list. Something about the waffles not being a uniform size and weight. The seven members involved in Robert’s competition had spent weeks arguing back and forth over e-mail, the four that were not going to Tulsa finally being overruled by the three who were. Non-sanctioned events were added to the DIning Belt competition. Robert had made the change on the Google Doc, and it hadn’t come into play since then.

Robert pulled the bylaws over to one side of his screen and picked a spreadsheet for the other half. As he read through each provision, he listed ways to earn points on the spreadsheet. On the column next to the points possible, he placed a column for himself and a column for Cameron. He wrote the number of points each of them had earned on each of the competitions. As he knew it would, the totals added up to him being ahead by eleven points. A ninth-place finish was all Cameron would need to repeat his annual victory for the third time in a row.

Seeing it in spreadsheet form did nothing to assuage Robert’s nerves or spirits. He had been methodical, all year long, and now he was stuck in a Miami airport, a “working” vacation gone horribly awry. He felt an emptiness deep in his gut.

The pastry case called out to Robert, and he figured he would think a little better on a full stomach. Leaving his empty venti cup, he stared into the display case, in deep contemplation over the texture of a croissant versus a scone. Which would compliment the cinnamon dolce still lingering on his tongue? He looked up for some help, but the only employee facing the front of the counter was standing sentry by the cash register with all the personality of the Queen’s Guard.

“Double-smoked bacon, cheddar, and egg sandwich, please.”

In the end, Robert decided to split the difference, getting the savoriness of the scone in meat form, placed between a croissant bun. It was a go-to he had gone to many a time before.

The Starbucks employee, whose nametag listed a doubtful name of Spike, swiped Robert’s Starbucks card while one of the diminutive employees behind him bent down, opened a refrigerator, and removed Robert’s sandwich from its plastic wrapper to place into the toaster.

“What are you working on?” Spike asked, more out of the discomfort at being face-to-face with a motionless customer staring at his coworker’s back than out of a genuine desire for an answer.

“I’m trying to win a competitive eating competition,” Robert said, choosing not to engage in the verbal parlay he had played with the bartender earlier. Spike was not going to go fishing for deeper understanding.

“They have a breakfast sandwich eating competition?” Spike asked.

“No. The eating contest isn’t here. But unfortunately, I am. The contest, and my rival, are in Vegas.”

Robert took out his phone, showed Cameron’s text message and selfie to Spike.

“He’s a competitive eater?” Spike asked, surprising Robert by showing even this modicum of interest. “He’s so skinny.”

“Yes, he is.”

Robert looked down at his phone. He was satisfied that somebody else noticed one of the things that had always bothered him the most about the two-time defending champion.

“You can never trust a skinny eater. He’s not doing it for enjoyment, only to win. I bet he purges it all later. Maybe I should follow him to the bathroom next year and disqualify him.”

A croissant sandwich protruding out of a white bag appeared between Robert’s eyes and phone. Robert’s eyes followed the feminine arm of the employee who had cooked it back up until he was looking into two stone faces. Neither Spike nor the newcomer, Bianca, were enjoying his current line of logic. Robert thanked them and returned to his seat.

Back at his table, Robert stared at his spreadsheet while he ate his prepackaged sandwich. The egg was poached too hard and the pastry was not nearly flaky enough to call itself a croissant, but the bacon was sublime. The right amount of crisp with subtly marbleized pork fat saved the sandwich.

Unfortunately, the spreadsheet did not have the saving grace of bacon. The numbers all looked the same. A seven here, a six there, side-by-side empty cells on columns b and c, an xxx next to shrimp-Miami, the total of column b eleven points higher than column c.

Then it hit him. The two empty cells. Non-sanctioned events. He went back to the Google Doc to read the wording. “Any commonly accepted eating competition, whether sanctioned by the Competitive Eating Board or not, which may include, but is not limited to…”

A commonly accepted eating competition.

They have a breakfast sandwich eating competition? Spike had asked.

Frankie the bartender had said.

Finish four fish and fries in ten minutes, your soda is free. That would, by any definition, be a commonly-accepted eating competition. In fact, the rules accounted for these Man vs. Food style events. But they maxed out at three points each. Robert would need three of them to secure his victory.

Robert leapt to his feet. The chair skidded across the faux wood floor. His gut bumped the table, nearly toppling his laptop, but he didn’t care.

“How many breakfast sandwiches have you sold today?”

Spike looked at Bianca. Both shrugged. “You’re the first one.”

“Can I get that in writing?”

“I guess so.”

“Better give me two more, just to be sure. Then I’ll come by at the end of your shift to verify.”

“You just want me to write that you ordered three egg sandwiches?”

“No. Write ‘Most Breakfast Sandwiches of the Day.'”

Robert slapped his laptop closed and attempted to run out the door. Fortunately, Spike called after him, allowing him to slow down and catch his breath.

“Where are you going?”

“Tugboat first, then back to the bar. Didn’t you know you’re amongst the greatest french fry eater in the entire airport?”

Beach Road, Part Three

Again, I am continuing a story started by others. This time, I am writing part three. Go ahead and read part one, written by Paul Willet, here, and part two, by Peter MacDonald, here.

And here’s my part three:

The battle was farther away than it seemed. She walked over the pockmarked roads and muddy fields that were the mark of this new world. As the sun started to wane on her right, she was finally able to see some of the carnage in front of her.

If the sun was setting, how far had she walked? Distance was hard to judge without GPS on cellphones. Or road signs, for that matter. Was she in National City now? Chula Vista? Hell, Tijuana? She felt like she was definitely south of San Diego, but shouldn’t she have passed through some wrecked out urban landscape to get here? It was disease that had wiped out the world, not nuclear war. Other cities she had seen were abandoned, not missing.

But Southern California geography left her mind as she passed the first smoldering bush, indicating the outskirts of the helicopter’s reign of fire. Heat still swept across her path, although not as unbearable as it must have been an hour earlier.

For not the first time, she thought back to her initial goal. The Coronado Bridge. Get across it, and the land would be easier to defend. What was she doing, being diverted by a helicopter attacking the ground? Curiosity and the cat, she reminded herself, and this cat should be safely digging in her well-defended island litterbox.

Tomorrow, she promised herself. Tonight, she would investigate then find a secure place to spend the night. By midday tomorrow, she’d be playing her own version of Crossy Road.

A hint of azure caught her eye from the road beneath her. Unnatural colors stuck out in this post-world. Dirt, sky, ocean, and mostly-dead grass – these were the hues of the Plague. A powder blue halfway between a Caribbean lagoon and a Vail slope jumped out, even in the failing light of dusk.

The pattern inside the blue was even more unnatural, and downright frightening. A yellow lightning bolt haloed in white. The mark of the San Diego Chargers, a virulent bands of marauders.  She had heard terrified whispers of hapless wanderers being hacked to pieces for roaming into the wrong territory of town, unable to respond to the scathing screams of, “Show us your lightning bolt!”

At least it verified her location. The Chargers and had gone on the defensive in recent years, so any road markings would have to be in San Diego proper.

So perhaps the entire conflagration was nothing more than a simple turf war.  Even better, since the remnants of the blue-and-gold had clearly lost this engagement, there must still be some swag to scavenge. She breathed a sigh of relief at both the turn of events and the confirmation that she wasn’t losing her instinct.

She continued to climb over divots and pockmarks, made even craggier by the helicopter attack. With the sun finally set and the only light source coming from dwindling fires, she came upon the focal point of the damage. On the precipice of a giant crater, she was faced with yet another decision. Climb in and scavenge or wait until morning? Whoever was behind the attack would surely be here by morning. There might even be some Chargers under shelter right now, waiting to counterattack. She needed to get in and out before any group materialized. The way an individual made it this far was by avoiding groups. Any groups, but particularly groups as strong as the Chargers. A group able to rout the Chargers? She shuddered.

So over the lip of the crater she crept, leaving the amber glow of the surface behind. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the starlight twinkling down, she remembered the night the lights didn’t come on. Before that night, every town she entered still had people trying to make do, convinced that they would persevere through dwindling numbers, believing that society would overcome the obstacles, that humanity’s progress would triumph. Even if the population of each town was halved by the time she left.

The lights going out ended that underlying hope. Yet, looking up at the sky as her ancestors once had, as she was doing again right now, gave a new sense of the future. The stars and the moon illuminated just enough to get by. All it took was adjusting to the new world. By scavenging, by defending, and, for some people, by joining gangs like the Chargers.

Like most nights, she looked up at the first stars of night, and thought back on the before and the after. The things that were unnoticed and background before, but so desperately vital now.

An unnatural sound broke her out of her reverie. A click. One she knew too well. Then another. And another.

A bright white, a color she might once have called fluorescent, spread out over her section of the Earth. The first shadows she saw in the floodlight were the muzzles of AK-47s trained over the lip of the crater. She was blinded, disoriented, and they had the high ground.

Shit, shit, shit!

“Hands up!” came a booming voice through a sound system.

She looked for a way out through squinting eyes. No cover at the bottom of the crater. Guns pointing down from eight directions, covering every spot on the compass. These guys were good.

“We knew the helicopter would get you here,” the voice came from the southern lip. She turned back to him, finally seeing beyond the muzzle. He, and his companions, were not wearing Charger gear. They were all in black, body armor from the look of it, with faces covered by a modernized World War I gasmask.

“This doesn’t have to end badly,” he changed tact. “We just want to talk to you. Study you. Just put your hands in the air, Typhoid Mary.”

One more decision. Fight or flight? Reluctantly, she let the tension leave her body and followed his instructions. Hands in the air.

“Sir,” the man turned to report behind him. “The mission is a success. We have Patient Zero in custody.”

Murder Unannounced, Part Two

As I mentioned last week, the flash fiction challenge right now is about continuing other people’s stories. I chose to continue a murder mystery started by CJ, which can be found on her blog here: http://imagination.cjreader.com/ (second story down, as of now)

Here is me trying to advance the story…

TWO

Two steps inside the apartment, Mailie already knew something was wrong. The oppressive heat was bad, but expected. The open windows and lived-in feeling of the front room, however, were unexpected. She scanned the room but didn’t see her nosy roommate. Just the open window and an empty couch. An empty couch with a sweaty divot in the middle, and on the table right in front of it, next to Mailie’s cellphone, sat a laptop.

“Dammit, Tina,” Mailie muttered under her breath.

Everything had to go right today, and now Mailie’s worthless roommate was throwing a wrench into the mechane.  At this time on a Saturday morning, Tina should still be sleeping. What time had she stumbled in last night? It had to be past 3:00. Mailie had been in her dark room, listening for the telltale signs, then snuck out as soon as her roommate passed out.

Given normal patterns, Mailie should have had a good ten hours to do what needed to get done. Tina would sleep until noon. That would have given Mailie the time she needed to finish her work. She still had the murder weapon. She had the cash, much more cash than she had been led to believe the couple would have on hand. Thank God for Honeymooners.  And, of course, the envelope. If the blessed couple hadn’t been trying to smuggle that particular item out of the country, they’d probably be sipping mai-tais right now.

The extra cash and the ring had been the cause of Mailie’s early-morning sojourn. In addition to her normal laundering conduit, she needed to check on the viability of hawking the diamond.  But now that the second-hand jeweler had been secured, there was a new wrinkle in her plans.

Mailie had needed to be back, playing the vapid coquette persona she had worked so hard to establish, when her roommate woke up. There would be a half-hour of Tina whining about finding her muse and staring at a blank screen before she packed up and headed to Starbucks for the afternoon, under the guise of distraction-free writing, but really just to chase some of last night’s booze away.  All Mailie needed to do was say, “Oh, Emm, Jee, Tina. Pete was such an asshole last night. I might just cry in my room all day. How’s your writing coming? Hey, when you come back from ‘Bucks, can you bring me a white mocha?” but she hadn’t made it back in time.

Mailie went over to the coffee table to pick up her phone grabbed her phone from the table. She had left it here because she damn-well knew the boss used it to track her. He needed to know the job was done. He did not need to know about the bonus cash and jewelry.

When she grabbed the phone, however, that faint instinct that something was amiss grew. The phone was warm, meaning it had been illuminated recently. Had the boss called early? Shit, what time was it?

Mailie’s panic increased as she double-tapped and swiped the phone.  The little “missed call” icon was nowhere to be seen. She frantically swiped from the side and the top looking for the call log.

“Why the fuck do they make it so hard to find a missed call?” She said out loud, not realizing her transition from internal monologue to verbalization.

She finally found it and the feeling erupted into a certain knowledge of catastrophe. Seven minutes ago, a call had come in. Unknown Number. Didn’t matter, it was the boss. But it was listed, not as missed but as incoming. The phone had been answered.

“Dammit, Tina!”

She turned to march on her roommate’s room when she noticed the door to her own room. It was open, and her room was clearly visible. She diverted her trajectory until she was standing in her own doorway, trying desperately to assess the damage and run through contingency plans.

But she could not focus. All she could do was move her eyes from problem to problem. The window she had crawled out of in the dark pre-dawn hours was back open.  Her dresser drawers were open, her clothes tossed on the ground. The silk scarf she had used to transport and store the murder weapon was unraveled on top of the drawer and lying there, on top of the clothes, the bloody knife proudly announced itself to the world. The manila envelope had fallen to the floor, the file it contained partly spilled out.

Mailie picked the easiest, and most pressing, problem to deal with first, grabbing the envelope and file off the ground. As she went to put the file back in, she noticed how thin, how empty, the manila container was. The ring was not there.

“The bitch stole it!”

Mailie ran to the window, looked out at the alleyway. It was precisely the way she had left it in the dark. She had moved the trashcan in front of the gate. There was no way Tina could have answered the phone that recently and escaped out the window without moving some items. So she was still inside.

She ran back to the front room and spoke in a loud, clear voice. Not a shout, but enough to be heard through the thin walls. No need to alert the entire neighborhood through the open windows.

“Tina, I don’t know what you think you saw, and I don’t know what you’re planning, but you need to listen to me. Some very bad things are going to happen if we don’t-“

Mailie was cut off by the unmistakable brzz, brzz of a phone vibrating on a table. The illuminated screen shone across the living room like a spotlight. Unknown Number.

I’m sexy and I know it…”

Story Part I

Trying to get back into the flash fiction game a bit. This week’s prompt was to write the first quarter of a story. In the coming weeks, I might continue another writer’s story, and hopefully someone will take up the mantle of poor Cyrus…

Spoiled Bacon

Cyrus silently cursed IKEA as the Allen wrench twisted through his fingers and fell to the ground again. Not that this creation was made of flimsy Swedish wood. This was the result of years of research, experimentation, and trial. But every time that damned L-shaped hex key spun too fast or too slow for the screw, he found himself using the furniture store’s name in vain.

“Straightedge and Phillips did fucking fine before those Aryan SOBs showed up in every neighborhood,” he exclaimed before wetting his raw fingers in his mouth.

Three more rightie-tighties, accompanied by one more tiny-tool projectile, and he stepped back to look at his masterpiece.

The time machine. His time machine.

It didn’t look too impressive in the dingy motel room off of Interstate 64. No light came in through the thick curtains drawn over the window that they had probably hung in front of since 1950. The faint illumination came from an incandescent light bulb that might as well have still had Thomas Edison’s initials on it, peeking out from underneath a lamp shade made from that same curtain cloth.

But he had to be here in the 21st century. Because what Cyrus had created was a time machine, not a time and space machine, a fact which had become all too clear on his test run. He went back a week. What could go wrong? Until he missed materializing inside a late-model Buick by a manner of inches.

So it was back to the drawing board. Kept most of the time elements intact, but allowing for objects which might exist in that spot in the past. Cyrus didn’t expect to find any Buicks in 1676, but who knew how the riverbank had grown or moved over the last three-and-a-half centuries.

Regardless, Cyrus needed to be here in Virginia when he went back, because it would be a hell of a lot harder to get to Jamestown back then. No Interstates, no satellites to guide the GPS on his phone. To say nothing of the Native Americans. Or Indians, as he was going to have to get used to calling them.

As he left the dingy motel in the direction of the Historic Jamestown Settlement, his thought shifted from the where of his destination to the when. Seven years after Cyrus, the naïve college senior, proclaimed the election of Barack Obama signaled a new age in race relations, little had changed. They might have gotten worse. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And on a more personal note to Cyrus, the constant skeptical glances, the “Affirmative Action” quips,  at a smart, college-educated black man.

Racism was embedded in America. The only way to change that was to go back to the source. His first thought had been stopping Lincoln’s assassination, but that might be too late. Would an extra three years of “be nice to the south” Reconstruction have made that much of a difference? Segregation and an intrinsic belief of inferiority of the former slaves would still reign.

So maybe he could go all the way to the beginning. Literally. The first black slave coming to America, right here in Jamestown, one year before the Pilgrims even arrived. But what good could he do then? Kill a few slave traders. Then what? The slaves he freed wouldn’t even survive the conditions, probably. And a few months later, the next ship would arrive.

So not too early in race relations, and not too late, he finally decided to split the difference and arrived like a racial Goldilocks and the just-right spot, precisely one hundred years before the hypocritical Declaration of Independence. Bacon’s Rebellion, the great schism between white indentured servants and black slaves. If those two groups could be kept together with common goals, the permanent racial divide might never emerge.

Standing over the back channel of the James River, Cyrus took one last breath of 21st century air and flipped the switch. The machine whirred and whooshed as it attempted to pierce the ether of time, like a 1994 modem making the painstaking connection to AOL. Cyrus wondered about what sight would greet him on the other side, in order to avoid focusing on the vertigo about to hit. Traveling across one week had been bad enough. How nauseating would three hundred years feel?

Then it came, much worse than before, and he no longer cared about what he would see. Only that he would survive.

As Cyrus fought to keep his breakfast and every other meal he had ever eaten down, another stray thought ran across his mind. A suppressed query. When he revamped the space element on the machine, had he re-checked the time component? Before the test run, he had configured and reconfigured every step with time as the only variable. He had triple-checked his math, dotted every imaginary i, crossed every theoretical t.

Had he done that this time? Had he rechecked the time components after fixing the spatial variable? As the world started to shift, as his body began to stretch and condense through time, his mind kept returning to the vague iron-left-on-at-home feeling that something had been overlooked.

Then the constriction of his abdomen stopped all tangential thoughts.

“Definitely gonna hurl.”

Cyrus lurched out of the time vortex onto all fours as heat spewed from his bowels onto the hard forest soil. Twice. A third time before he could even inhale. Stomach still convulsing, he focused on the hard-packed dirt still wobbling under spittle hanging from his mouth like taffy.  The world, reality itself, transitioned from a shake to a swoon as sobriety and sanity fought for control.

After what could have been a minute or could have been a week – what is time, really? – Cyrus pulled his right hand off the ground to wipe his mouth. Then his forehead. He slowly raised his eyes off the vomit-splattered dirt to take in his surroundings.

“Shit,” he muttered.

This was not 1676 Virginia.

Before and After

Still behind on word count. Still cheating. Although not really, this was the plan all along. The blog plan, not the behind on my 50,000 word plan.

Last week I posted the flash fiction that my current work-in-progress is based on.

Now I will post what that scene looks like in its current form. Bear in mind this has not been edited or even looked at. SO chances are there are misspelled words and I’m sure I repeated myself a number of times. Right now it’s over 4,000 words, and I doubt it’ll be more than 3,00 when it’s cleaned up.

Maybe in six months, I’ll post it again after it’s been cleaned up, for a before-and-after-and-then-really-after look. But I can’t stomach the 1,000 words I’d lose if I edited it right now.

So “enjoy” this look behind the curtain.

Chapter 4: Festival

“Do you really think they were going to steal from me?” Eli asked as they walked back toward the city center.

“I know not,” Zachary responded.

“I did not think about unscrupulous people,” he continued, trying to both fill the silence and avoid his own embarassment.

Zachary did not respond this time.

“I guess these are things that a city dweller would need to take into account. The good folk I know are much more trustworthy.”

This finally forced Zachary to turn and look squarely into Eli’s eyes.

“Is that what you believe? Do you really think you can flood the market, destroy the value of a commodity, upend the very structure of society, and everybody’s just going to look the other way? Pat you on your back and ask no questions?”

“I,” Eli started, then stopped, blinking, trying to put his thoughts in order.

“I’m sorry,” Zachary relented. “I did not mean to offend you, just look out for you. You need to realize that any change to the way things are, however little, worries them. Something as simple as some smuggled cotton makes waves. All the way to London.”

“Smuggled?” Eli grasped on to the first word he could discern I didn’t smuggle. I mean. I didn’t. It’s my cotton.”

“Not smuggled?” Zachary seemed surprised for the first time since Eli first encountered him outside the tavern. He looked around to see if any city dwellers were listening in. None were paying attention, but a couple seemed to be a little too obvious about not paying attention. They had slowed to a stroll when he and Eli had stopped to talk. To be on the safe side, he nodded his head in the direction of a cross street. Eli got the hint and followed him there. The couple did not follow.

“What, are you running your own cottage industry?” he asked Eli when they were safely out of earshot from the main street. “Browbeat all of the simple bumpkins to work through the night by peatlight? Or,” his eyes sparkled, “is your girlfriend the ringleader? That lass could coerce all the wee lads to do her bidding I suppose. Maybe that’s your role?”

“No,” Eli said, flushing. “She’s not my… No, she knows none of this.

“I tinkered together a device,” Eli continued, recovering from the embarrassment and attempting to take control of the conversation after Zachary’s offensive insinuation. “Horsehair bristles snag the cotton, stretch it out past iron prongs that catch the seeds. It takes no time at all.”

“A cotton gin?” Zachary asked. “Where did you find plans for that? I thought those had all been destroyed. Nobody’s seen one of those in centuries.”

“I saw nothing,” Eli protested. “I was tinkering with a wheat crusher, trying to make a smaller one for personal use. I couldn’t crush, but I could separate.”

“Invented it?” Zachary said, mostly to himself. “Could that be? A modern Eli Whitney?”

“It’s pronounced Elly.”

The two looked at each other, confused.

“People who see my name think I’m an Eli,” he continued, “but it’s pronounced Elly.”

“Let me show you something,” Zachary said, returning to the present.

He looked out toward the main street again, felt comfortable that nobody was paying attention to them. The couple from before had moved out of sight.

He reached down to the side of his leather trousers, and Eli noticed for the first time that the stitching was different from usual. Instead of standard stitching, his seams were clasped together. Two separate sets of leggings, a front and a back, more of a covering than legitimate clothing. Eli’s suspicions were confirmed when Zachary unclasped the leather, opening the chaps and revealing another fabric underneath.

The new fabric was unlike anything he had seen before. What he assumed to be cotton had been woven, or maybe even stitched, into a tight diagonal pattern. The deep indigo color found on the outer edges faded first to a lighter blue and then almost white by the middle of the thigh, where the fabric itself seemed to be worn thin as well. Running through the blue stitching were white divots, which Eli couldn’t tell if these were weaved in the opposite direction from the blue or if they were actually showing through from the underside.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Eli whispered. “How are the fibers so strong? So tightly woven?”

“Was hoping you’d be able to tell me,” Zachary said, “what with your knowledge of the webster trade.”

“If I knew what to do with the cotton, I wouldn’t be selling it,” Eli responded and Zachary nodded understanding. “But from a tinker’s perspective, I’m fascinated. It seems like there are two threads of blue for every one thread of white, going in opposite direction. That must account for the strength, but also the maneuverability.”

“Maybe I should give you this set to study,” Zachary responded, mostly in jest. “Truthfully, nobody in England has been able to emulate it.”

“Where is it from?”

“From Nimmes, in France. It has no name, so we just say ‘tis de Nimmes.”

“De’Nims,” Eli worked the word through his mouth.

“Do you know what that means, de Nim? From Nimmes?”

Eli did not answer.

“Means ‘tis illegal,” Zachary continued. “Contraband.”

Eli looked back to the street, finally seeming to understand the implications.

“Then why are you?” he asked. “Why do you have it?”

“You’ve already answered the last question. Good quality, durable, comfortable. Nothing in Charles’s kingdom comes close. But, as you can see, I keep them hidden. Something you should think about doing.”

“But cotton’s not illegal.”

“No, ‘tisn’t. But you are going against the system. The less you are noticed, the better. Best case scenario, some weaver’s guild comes to your manor and burns it down. If you think your lord will come to your defense, you’re crazy. He’d more likely be behind the mob. Nothing keeps the nobles awake at night more than the fear of peasants saving time on their work.”

Eli stayed silent, trying to absorb the man’s advice in pieces.

“Come,” Zachary fastened the chaps back over his pants and led Eli back toward the main street. “Don’t want to raise any notice by talking too long on the side street.”

Eli followed along, dragging like an anchor. So much information was going through his mind. One second he was wondering how the de’Nim could be produced, the next was focused on the danger he never knew he was courting.

“What’s the worst case?” He finally asked.

“Hmm?” Zachary looked back from his lead position.

“You said the best case scenario was they’d burn my hut. What’s worse than that?”

He turned fully around, glanced around for suspicious listeners one again. His eyes bore into Eli’s, and everything else on the street disappeared from notice.

“I said best case was a guild. Beyond that are nobles, and the higher the noble, the worse off you’d be. Worst case? Who else? Mister Stuart himself.”

“The king?”

“Aye.” He turned back around, letting it sink in.

Many silent steps later, they reached the festival grounds/ With sundown approaching, the square was much more crowded than before. People from all levels of East Anglia society milled about with no clear direction nor in any hurry to get there. Eli looked around at the many distinct faces, each showing the same anticipation. One of the draws of this or any other holiday was the lessening of the strict class lines. This was a boon to all classes. While the peasants enjoyed a day of freedom and ease, the nobles were able to loosen their guard. The ease the upper class enjoyed on this day was far different from that of the workers.

During Yule, travel difficulties meant staying close to home, so switched roles and gift giving became the focus. But at midsummer, anonymity reigned supreme. The person next to you might be a vagrant just out of jail or an exotic Scot. The cheeky flirtation, stolen kiss, or even the drunken fondle was equally likely to be with an experienced wench or a virginal princess. In Eli’s experience, the noble girls, while far less knowledgeable, were much more voracious with their affection. At least up to a point. But when the frolic and revelry turned into outright fornication, they disappeared. Their virtue (and dowry) safely absconded behind the ivied castle walls to wake up safe when the societal boundaries were reestablished.

Thoughts of fornication, not surprisingly, were all it took to take his mind off of the information it had been attempting to process. That was the unacknowledged rule, the unspoken tradition, of festivals and holidays. After the musicians put down their lutes and the peatlamps were lit, debauchery descended. And this festival, bringing together people from all the surrounding counties, meant the variety and the frequency of the action took on a life of its own. Sometimes he spent the entire night playing couple in the arms of one specific lass, and other years he stayed mobile, bouncing from group to group. Last year, he coupled with a rosy-cheeked blacksmith’s daughter from the north, information he was not able to glean until their third act underneath the rising of the second-longest sun of the year.

This line of thinking also led him back to Rebecca. He wondered when she might be coming to the festival and what she was doing in the meantime. Had she finished grooming the horses and was Carter still keeping her occupied? It was at this point, Eli began to wonder how much of the day had been chance? Had they purposefully separated him from his traveling companion? At first he was thankful for the random invitation Carter had given Rebecca, thinking himself fortuitous. Just as fortuitous as the ride into town he had received. Had Carter, and therefore Zachary, known where Eli was heading? Did they know he might run into trouble with unscrupulous merchants?

He looked at the back of the man before him. The head was constantly moving, eyes scanning all of the faces, noticing all of the actions. There did not seem to be much that went past his notice, and he made no accidental moves. If he was in the same place as Eli, it was not by happenstance.

“Were you there to spy on me or to protect me?”

Zachary turned back. His astute, penetrating black eyes searched Eli’s face. Measuring. Critiquing Eli’s readiness, deducing the way to answer his question.

“Let me buy you your first midsummer ale,” he responded after the uncomfortable pause.

Eli nodded and followed him toward the stage. He was happy for an early offer of ale, even if it meant the answer, and even the question he had asked, would not be as simple as originally posited.

Still, early ale was early ale. The brewers offered their strongest, most flavorful brews early, when the prices were highest. The aldermen and others in charge of ensuring the success of the festival made them lower the price as the evening wore on. Although they were being compensated for the difference, the brewers still watered down the cheaper ale, stretching the life of their keg, before switching to the overspill from their own pubs. As the price continued to fall throughout the night, so did the quality and consistency. The free swill that circulated after midnight had the consistency of a springtime puddle and seemed to turn into a pungent summer puddle far too soon after consumption.

Eli took the offered ale, toasted to the buyer, and sipped the first delicious malted flavor of barley cut with some woody rosemary and juniper. The two men looked at each other, then at the growing crowd of twilight, then down at their ale in an awkward cycle. No words were spoken. One ale turned into two, and was morphing into a third, before the subject was broached.

“I was neither spying nor protecting,” Zachary answered in a soft voice that was unnecessary with chaos of the festival start going on around them. “Although I suppose I ended up doing both.”

Eli bowed his head closer in an attempt to hear better, but no more words were forthcoming. He pulled back to look at the mouth, but it did not move. He could not determine the age of his companion. The scraggly black hair and lithe body screamed youth, while the focused eyes burned with the wisdom of the ages. The mouth fit both sides, set in a stern jaw with lines of stress and worry.

Regardless of age, the mouth was not moving. The jaw unclenched once, twice, as if preparing to unhinge for a slew of words. But each time, the studious brain overruled the action, as the man looked for the proper way to advance to the crucial points.

The eyes narrowed as he decided on the proper course of dialogue. But just as he took in a deep breath to forge forward, trumpets blared from the stage. The town crier stood to proclaim as the crowd hushed into silence.

“Hear ye, good English subjects!” the crier began. “Our holy sovereign, King Charles, hath decreed that all manorial and feudal duties be suspended for the midsummer holiday. The local Earls have graciously provided peat to be burned through the night for warmth and light. Duke Howard of Norfolk and Duke Richard of Suffolk have allowed their knights to roam amongst us keeping us safe.”

A round of polite applause emerged from the crowd at the mention of the knights. There was no reason to applaud peat or the far off dukes who few had ever seen. Or the king who might as well be mythical in backwaters such as this. But the knights walked amongst them, some wearing the traditional plate armor, others in dressed-down chainmail, so they received a warm thanks. Many raised their arms in acknowledgement of the praise.

“And let us not forget,” the crier continued, “Sheriff Bartholomew and the rest of the Arthursham alderman, who are providing the free food and drink of the festival.”

A few townspeople applauded at the mention of their sovereigns, but most of the peasants did not join in. It was considered in poor taste to applaud for the rulers of other lands, even if city politics did not follow the pattern seen elsewhere. Even at these few times when social structure was put on hold, provincialism reigned. The announcements had previously mentioned each earl by name, but the applause breaks and resulting animosity ruined the spirit of the festival, to say nothing of the time it took to get past the announcements.

“Verily,” the announcement continued. “As a prince from a faraway land once said, let us feast, frivol, and party like ‘tis nineteen hundred ninety-and-nine.

This brought cheers from townsperson and peasant, alike.

Eli gasped and spilled his beer as a strong hand clapped him on his shoulder, then grabbed hold. His ale fell to the ground as he was spun about to face his assailant. The grasper, however, turned out only to be a burly man who had already consumed too much ale. At the rate he was going, this man would not make it past the musicians. He might not even make it to the food.

“Happy midsummer!” the drunkard said and lurched forward to embrace Eli’s pole-like frame.

By the time Eli extricated himself from the behemoth’s grasp and gathered his composure, he found that Zachary had disappeared. Looking around, he saw no trace of the serious, gaunt man. Not sure where to go or what to do next, he decided to focus on what he was here for, returning to the brewer’s table to replace the ale that had poured out over the cracked earth.

Looking around at all the faces, he was surprised at how alone he now felt. For years, he would call anyone crazy for feeling alone in this crowd. The inclusion amongst the masses was always the draw of coming here. Meeting new friends, carousing and cajoling with perfect strangers had always filled him with a sense of belongingness he never felt the other days of the year.

Yet now he found himself looking for a familiar face. Zachary or Rebecca would make him feel more comfortable. Even Carter would give him a sense of belongingness, like he fit. Those three had already made him ask questions the motives and actions of not only himself, but the others around him. Zachary, especially, had made him question how he had gone about his entire life.

“One ale, please,” he ordered, and passed the full piece of peat to the cashier in exchange. He hoped the next one would have dropped to a half-peat and silently cursed the man who had wasted his last free one.

As he lowered his head to sip the froth from the top, his eyes scanned across the crowd on the outskirts of the festival grounds, flittering across an unkempt mat of dark black hair. After bouncing two or more steps beyond, his brain caught up and forced the eyes to backtrack. They met the piercing eyes of Zachary, who had been staring, waiting to lock on with Eli. Once their eyes met, Zachary rolled his eyes to the left, indicating the stone-front façade of a building neighboring the square, before disappearing again.

Eli headed in that direction.

“Easier for me to keep an eye out from this direction,” Zachary said when Eli got there.

“What are you looking for?” Eli asked, but was unsurprised when the only response was silence and more furtive glances.

“How much of your history do you know?” Zachary finally asked after many more sips of ale.

Eli gave a puzzled look in response, not sure where this conversation was going.

“Sorry,” Zachary continued, “I get ahead of myself sometimes. I assume you know the colloquial version of history. But how much do you pay attention? Do you notice when real life doesn’t fit the fable that they tell?”

The continued silence from Eli provided some answer to the questions.

“For instance, do you remember when Bartholomew was not sheriff here?”

“Certainly,” Eli responded quickly, happy to finally have a question he could answer. “Just two years ago, there was a different sheriff. Henry, I believe?”

“And, coming from Suffolk, I assume you remember the Duke before Richard?”

“His father, Thomas. I was ten years old when that happened. We were given the entire week off.”

“So who was king before Charles?”

The conversation stopped as Eli racked his brain. He could not recall who the last king was. Certainly it had not happened in his life. He thought back to stories his father had told him, or conversations he had had with the elderly. Or the learned. Or anyone. But other than the mythical Arthur, he could not think of any other king than Charles ever being mentioned, much less on the throne.

Zachary stared, unwavering, into Eli’s face, watching as he went through the internal struggle, looking for signs of progress or emergence from them.

“I know not,” Eli said as he worked through the question. “But I am only in my twentieth year. I am certain an older fellow might recall.”

“No. He would not.”

Eli looked up in confusion.

“Ask Carter, the next time you see him,” Zachary continued. “There was no king before Charles. At least not that anyone has heard of. Ask anyone.”

Eli’s continued struggle with the questions and the lack of information they highlighted was interrupted by a commotion behind him. The noise from the crowd nearest them changed from the cacophony of multiple casual conversations to a unified clamor.

Eli turned to see the amorphous throng of people bulge outward before bursting apart like the Red Sea, with two armed men emerging through the membrane of scattering peasants.

“Just don’t ask too loudly,” Eli heard Zachary’s voice from behind.

“There he is,” one of the armed men shouted, pulling his sword and running straight toward Eli.

He froze, certain that the merchants had turned him in. He tried to run through the options in the seven paces it would take them to get to him. He could run, but with him against the storefront and with the men he assumed to be knights almost at full speed, the only direction he could hope to elude them was into the crowd, which was the direction they were coming from.

Another option was to drop his coinpurse and feign ignorance and innocence. If the knights did not look down, there would be no evidence against him. Except logic told him that there was no cotton left, nor had he accepted the copper. All he had was more peat than the average peasant, and if it became his word against the merchant’s, neither a full pouch nor a missing pouch would affect the outcome.

So he went back to the first option, tensing his legs and aiming in the opposite direction the knights were running. As soon as they slowed to talk or apprehend him, he would pounce in the opposite direction and try to get lost in the masses.

Except the running men did not slow down as the approached. With the tiniest glance in his direction, they ran past at full speed. Eli turned to watch after them and, for the first time, realized that Zachary was not there. He was standing alone, back against the stone building, staring in the same direction as the crowd.

As one knight ran around the corner in pursuit of what, Eli did not know, the laggard of the two turned around, looking at Eli and the crowd. He walked back in that direction with purpose, and Eli belatedly realized he should have blended with the other peasants as soon as the men had passed.

“You,” the man pointed at him. As he came close, Eli noticed that he was not a knight. The clothes he wore looked at first glance like chainmail, but was in fact a non-metallic mesh that Eli did not recognize. It appeared to have the consistency of leather, but was a slick black that was almost reflective. While he wore no noble sigil over the ribcage like most knights, there was a small badge over his upper left chest showing the flag of England, a red cross of St. George on a field of yellow, but all superscribed with a blue-and-white checkerboard border.

“Were you just talking to that Cromwellite?” the man asked.

“Who?” Eli asked. “What?”

He assumed the man was referencing Zachary, but was confused on a number of levels. While his normal inquisitive demeanor caused the initial slow reaction, he decided to drag it out, remembering the various admonitions given by Zachary, including the final warning before he disappeared at the sight of the knights.

Not knights. Guards? Police?

“I did not see anybody,” he continued, sounding as lost and unobservant as possible. “I was looking at the crowd when you came through.”

“Worthless,” the man said. “Let me see your papers.”

Eli opened his pouch, trying to shield his questioner from seeing the contents. Slowly, he admonished himself, drag this out and think.

“Lost him,” the faster of the two guards returned, almost out of breath. “It took us too long to get through the peasants. Gave him a head start.”

He looked at Eli just as he produced the thick paper identification card every peasant was required to carry at all times.

“What about you?” the new arrival turned his attention o Eli and snatched the outstretched card. “I saw you chatting with him. You in league with the Puritans? Is he recruiting you for the revolution? Huh?” He looked down at the card, “Eli from the manor of Obediah?”

Eli almost replied with the instinctual “it’s pronounced Elly,” as he was used to doing any time someone saw his name in print, but decided against it. Correcting their pronunciation, or doing anything to stick out, to appear different that the dumb peasant yokel they would assume him to be, seemed a bad idea at this point.

“I, um, was looking at you coming out of..” he tried to repeat.

“This guy’s an idiot,” his first interrogator broke in, grabbing the ID from his companion and returning it to Eli. “He doesn’t know a thing.”

“Is that so?” the second one countered, trying to salvage some dignity after losing his prey. “And what were you doing so far from the crowd? So far from the festival?”

“I,” Eli glanced at the crowd that was now focusing too much of their attention his way. What stuck out, in almost every hand, was ale. He would use the urination excuse. He was looking for the latrine. To add credence to the statement he was about to make, he reached down to pick up his almost empty cup, when his eye caught upon something on the ground. His brain screamed at him to stand back up, but he could not.

For the second time in this confrontation, slow reactions saved him.

“Look, this idiot’s too drunk to stand up.” The first guard said. “Let’s look for escape routes from that alley.”

“Fine,” the second man acquiesced, turning one more shrewd eye upon Eli, who was swaying while standing upright, thankful for the excuse the guard had given him.

“But don’t do anything stupid, Eli of Obediah’s manor. We are watching you now.”

The two guards turned and left. Eli continued the charade of a drunk, swaying back and forth, even leaning against the stone wall for support, until the rest of the crowd lost interest in him and turned back to their usual pursuits.

Then he looked back down at the ground. The telltale indigo blue fabric, undercut with cotton white, a shade he had never seen before today. He reached down and brushed dirt off of cloth, and picked up the tightly woven fabric square of fabric with frayed ends.

Denim. Left behind by Zachary. A signal.