Flash Fiction – The Bitter Truth

market

I’ll never forget the first one I ate. It was like nothing I’d ever had before. My front teeth crunched through a thin salty crust before my taste buds were overwhelmed with flavors and textures I couldn’t have dreamed about. Tart and fruity, spiced and buttery, creamy and sweet—my tongue couldn’t keep up with the surprises. There was, of course, the ever-present taste of dirt; I’d snatched up the strange treat from the ground beneath the vendor’s stall, after all. But nearly everything I ever ate came with that earthy dusting, so I’d learned to ignore it. And on that morning, savoring this new bit of heaven fallen from the sky—or a baker’s tray—I knew I had to have more.

I was nearly ten years old at the time. Smart enough to know when to take an opportunity when it presented itself. Foolish enough not to know to quit while ahead. Having retrieved my prize from under the confectioner’s market stand, I scurried away between the legs of shoppers and hagglers, unnoticed as always as I darted around the nearest wall and put the little globe of goodness in my mouth. Normally I’d have waited for my brother, but we hadn’t eaten anything the day before and had decided to split up to improve our odds of acquiring sustenance that morning. I hadn’t seen him for several minutes, my stomach was growling, and I didn’t want to be caught with pilfered food, so – chomp. A thin cocoa paste oozed out of the half I still held in my grimy fingers and dribbled down my chin as I marveled at the variety and intensity of flavors packed into the little confection. I finished off the other half, then swiped the back of my hand across my mouth and rubbed it in the dirt at my feet to be rid of the evidence. And none too soon – my brother Rono rounded the corner and looked this way and that before catching sight of me on the ground with my back against a wall.

“Are you done already?” he asked as he neared. “What did you get?”

I shook my head and did my best to look tired and thirsty. “Nothing yet. The sun is too hot today. I had to take a break, find some shade.”

He must have noticed remnants of my selfishness stuck in my teeth, for he crouched next to me and caught my jaw between his thumb and forefinger. He was three years older, and his grip was like a vise, even with just those two digits. “We’re supposed to share!” he hissed before jerking my face away. “Just for that, you don’t get any of this.”

He stood and pulled a purple orb from a pocket of his filthy, ragged pants and bit into it greedily. The fruit’s juice spilled down his chin just as the candy’s innards had stained mine. On any other day I would have protested, cried and pounded on his back with my little fists to no effect. But frankly I was much happier with my own find than I would have been with half of his bland fruit. Still, I knew I should have waited to find Rono before devouring my delicacy.

So the next day, I swiped two – one for myself, and one for him.

~

We never even knew what they were called. Not having money to pay for them, Rono and I avoided all contact with the rotund man and woman selling them. We referred to them simply as “sweet lumps,” which we usually slurred into a single word uttered around mouthfuls of those delightful little balls. After Rono tried the first one I brought him, my prior selfishness was forgiven, and soon sweetlumps were nearly all we spoke of. Every morning, we would conduct an initial surreptitious survey of the market to determine if and where the vendors had set up shop. If they were present, they were usually our first target. In time we developed a sort of game around the treats – see who could procure the most over a week, and share our hauls evenly until the last day when the winner would get an extra. And, having survived on sneakery and distraction for so many years, we were good at it.

But not good enough.

One morning as Rono and I scouted the market, starting at opposite ends from each other, I heard a sudden commotion, a raising of voices above the normal din. As I turned in the direction of the disturbance, a woman shouted, “Thief! Thief! Stop him!” Several city guards were approaching a dense packing of people near the usual sweetlump stand. Without thinking I immediately pressed forward through the crowd, my heart pounding with dread as I suspected what was happening. To my horror I caught sight of the thief just as two of the guards caught his arms and kicked his legs out from under him. He fell face first into the dirt, still struggling against their grips as a third guard grabbed his hair and hauled him to his knees.

It was Rono.

By now the crowd was spitting on him, hurling all manner of vile insults and even some rotten fruit. I wanted to run to him, shield him from the mob, demand that the guards stop harming him… but I froze instead. I stood there, at the edge of the throng of onlookers, rooted to the ground in fear as Rono was bound and led out of the market. And just before he disappeared from sight, he looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes were full of anger and determination, and in that moment I knew he blamed me for what had happened. I was at fault for him getting caught, arrested, and imprisoned – or worse.

The crowd soon dispersed, the city’s residents returned to business as usual, and I was left stranded in a sea of strangers. I darted to the nearest corner to escape any suspicious glares, then made my way in a terrified daze to a tiny overgrown courtyard between buildings in a forgotten part of the city. It was the sanctuary Rono and I had shared since our parents’ arrest so many years ago. I buried myself under a pile of old, filthy blankets on a dilapidated porch and shook and cried until I was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. And Rono’s accusatory stare haunted my dreams for nights on end.

~

When I emerged days later from our back-alley nook – my nook now – I must have looked wretched, for the first people I stumbled upon took pity on me immediately. An older man and woman, hair gray, faces wrinkled with age and kindness, each carrying a sack of food from the market. They fussed over me in sympathetic voices (“Oh, you poor dear!” “You must be so hungry and thirsty.” “Surely we can spare a bit of food for such a little creature.”). Then they offered me a bruised piece of fruit from one of their bags.

I took it in my dirty, shaking hands and stared at it, too dumbfounded to do much else. I think it was the first time anyone other than Rono had knowingly given me anything. I thought for a moment that they were angels, my saviors. Then they patted me on the head and continued on their way. I watched them disappear down the path and around a corner, too weak and dazed to call after them, to ask for more, to beg them to take me home with them. They faded from my sight as easily as I must have faded from their minds, just another nameless street rat more down on his threadbare luck than usual. I knew at that moment that no one else was going to help me, that the couple’s charity was a fleeting anomaly, that I was truly alone.

It wasn’t long before my luck ran out completely. Without the assurance that Rono was out there, watching over me as I watched over him, I was suddenly terrified of the guard. I hesitated, I grew paranoid, and I lost patience. Rather than plan and observe and wait for opportunities to obtain food, I tried to make opportunities. Within two weeks of Rono’s apprehension, I attracted too much attention and found myself in the clutches of a pack of guards. As small as I was, they still pushed me around, jeered, slung insults and epithets. One dug through my pockets and produced my meager take from the morning. “This isn’t for the likes of you, vermin,” he snarled. “Your kind doesn’t get to enjoy such fine things.”

Vermin? My kind? Were we not all people, living in the same city? What made me a pest to be stamped out? Much later, I would begin to realize that Rono’s arrest had not truly been my fault. But at that moment, with thick, coarse leather straps cinched around my bony wrists, I could only cry and suffer the guards’ ridicule as I was taken from the market.

~

Rono and I were not reunited in prison. I never saw him again. I don’t know what became of him. I was put to work breaking rocks and carving massive stone cubes to be used in some building project. I was beaten for asking about Rono. I was beaten for speaking while the other prisoners and I worked. I was beaten for doing anything other than breaking rocks, eating, and sleeping, and for doing the latter two for too long or too often. I learned to ignore the suffering of other prisoners’ punishments, and I struggled to put a fellow prisoner – one I’d come to think of as a friend – out of my mind when he took sick and was dragged away, never to reappear.

Ten years later, my hour draws near. I am no longer fit to work. I stifle my coughing the best I can to hide my own illness. Occasional footsteps in the hallway drum dread into my weakening heart. With every approach of a guard near my cell’s windowless door, I wonder if it’s my turn to truly disappear, not just from the city’s streets but from this prison as well. From this world, this life. If you’re reading this, then my turn came, one way or another. Did Rono and I steal? Yes. I’ll make no qualms about that. Was it against the law? Yes, as the law stood then and currently stands. Were we wrong to do it? Did we deserve imprisonment with no hope for release? I have no answers to those judgments. I can only say that we did what we did in order to survive. It was the only way we knew how, in a city that cared nothing for us.

And I can only hope that these, my last words, come to mind when next you see someone like me at the market or walking the city’s streets. May they remind you that behind the tattered rags and the dirty face is a person, not a nameless nuisance, not an “other.” And though I cannot dictate your actions, I hope my story inspires you to care for those different from or less fortunate than you, even if you do not know their stories.

~

This story was written in response to a prompt at Chuck Wendig’s blog Terribleminds.com to write a 2,000 word story about food.

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Splice, Part 3: Out of the Frying Pan…

splice graphic

Voices blared behind the front door. Television, Splice guessed. Audio cover to mask preparations for his arrival? The window curtains were drawn, hiding all occupants from sight. His gloved finger hovered above the dying orange light of the doorbell button while he ran through an escape plan in his mind. An awning covered the front porch, so launching himself straight up to the roof was out of the question. He would have to settle for shooting backward in a stream of green ooze and aiming for the tree on the front lawn. Sling himself around the trunk for a sharp right-angle redirect to evade weapon fire. If he was lucky, he might even be able to reach the storm drain in the cross street without touching the ground again.

He jabbed the button and heard the bell ring inside. No immediate activity. An obnoxious commercial jangled from the television while Splice stood a few steps from the door, feeling like a compressed spring straining for freedom. Then, hurried footsteps. Not audible, but he noticed the vibrations in the glass outer door. The inner door opened enough for a head to poke between it and the jamb. Officer Greely, now unencumbered by a uniform, glared at him from behind the glass. “You’re early,” he grumbled, then turned around again to bark at someone inside. “Thought I told you to go to bed. And leave that damn thing downstairs.”

Curiosity put a lean into Splice’s stance. Over Greely’s shoulder he spied the teenage embodiment of apathy. A blond girl in cutoff shorts and a baggy tee-shirt glared at Greely from an inclined position on a worn, faded sofa. She took her time standing, and her bare feet slapped against laminate as she left the room, thumbs jittering across the screen of a pink, sparkling cell phone. Her eyes fell on Splice’s shadowy form as she passed the doorway. “Nice outfit, loser,” she said. “Didn’t know they had a comic-con in this craptacular town.”

“Get upstairs!” Greely yelled. He watched her until she was out of sight, waiting a few extra seconds before turning back to Splice and opening the outer door. “Sorry. Come on in.”

Hesitating a moment, Splice glided past the cop and into the house. The cramped living room was otherwise free of people. No signs of a trap so far. Greely shut and locked the doors, then crossed the room and threw himself onto the couch. “You had any kids… before?”

“No.”

“You’re better off,” he said with a smirk. “Don’t let my wife and daughter catch me sayin’ it, but it’s not worth the heartburn and high blood pressure. Anyway, have a seat, make yourself at home. And you don’t have to keep all that stuff on for me.”

Despite knowing Greely had seen him unmasked days earlier at the police station, it took effort to convince himself to remove any part of his disguise. He folded his sunglasses and medical mask and crammed them into a coat pocket. The coat, gloves, and hat stayed on. Greely gave no outward reaction to his appearance, merely kept a small smile in place. “You hungry?” he asked, jerking a thumb behind him. “We got some leftover pizza.”

“No,” Splice said, then added, “Thank you.”

“Chips and salsa?”

“I don’t eat.”

Greely’s eyebrows rose. “Oh. Um, anything to drink? A beer?”

“I don’t drink, either. Anything.”

“Okay, suit yourself,” the cop chuckled, raising his hands in surrender. “So, uh… how long you been like… that?”

“Several weeks,” Splice droned.

“Christ, and you been walkin’ around like that all this time? Where you been stayin’?”

No chance he was telling a cop anything about his hideout, no matter what sort of arrangement might develop between them. “A safe place.”

“Uh huh,” Greely said, running his hands down the front of his sleeveless undershirt. “Whatcha do before you, uh… turned green?”

“My past isn’t up for discussion,” Splice snapped. “Officer Greely—“

Greely held up a hand. “Ron.”

Splice ignored the interruption. “I’m interested in moving forward, not looking back. What is it you think I can help you with? And what will I get out of skirting the law on your say-so?”

“Well, as awesome as your ‘safe place’ sounds, I can set you up with somewhere to stay, if you’re interested.”

Even if Greely was proposing an unofficial partnership, Splice bristled at the possibility of being indebted in any way, especially to him. Besides, living aboveground again would only necessitate wearing a disguise more often. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

The cop laughed with a conciliatory shrug. “Okay, well, there was something else I had in mind. My kid sister’s a scientist. Loves that, uh… DNA, chromosome bullshit. I could set up a meeting for you, see if maybe she knows anything about… fixing… you.”

Splice sat perfectly still and quiet, wondering if Greely would squirm under the tension that filled the silence. There’d been no concern or uncertainty in the cop’s hesitations. Rather, he simply seemed unfamiliar with the subject and unwilling to choose his words with care. “What makes you think I want to be ‘fixed?’ You should see what I’m capable of now.”

Greely gave him another shrug of surrender, palms up and grin toothy. “We wouldn’t be talkin’ if I didn’t have an idea of what you can do. Just puttin’ it out there. I’m willing to work something else out instead—“

Splice held up a gloved hand. “No. Meeting your sister will do… for now. And the place to stay. It might be convenient to have a second base of operation.”

“So you’re accepting my offer?” Greely said, a touch of smugness creeping into his grin.

“I’m satisfied with what you’re currently offering me in exchange for my help. That may very well change in the future. But I’m not agreeing to anything until I hear more about your requests.”

Greely shifted in his spot on the couch. “Right, yeah, makes sense. So here’s the thing. I’m a cop, right? Boys in blue, serve and protect, all o’ that. Problem is, sometimes the desk jockeys like to let some o’ the scum slip through the cracks. Now I’m not talkin’ mob bosses or serial killers. They’re small-time nobodies, but us street cops know they should be brought in to do their time all the same. Clean up the neighborhood, you know?”

“Why are they ignored?”

In response, Greely smirked, cocked an eyebrow, and rubbed his thumb and fingers together in the age-old gesture of greed.

Splice mimicked a sigh. “Corruption.”

Greely waved the word off. “Probably. We don’t know for sure. It’s not like the higher-ups are gonna tell us they’re takin’ bribes. We’re just told who to lay off of, whether we like it or not. Anyway, that’s where you’d come in.”

He reached over his shoulder to rummage through piles of newspapers and magazines spilling out of a misappropriated wire-frame bookshelf. After considerable effort he withdrew a coffee-stained file folder from the fire hazard and handed it to Splice. Inside were documents that appeared to be official police case reports. Hand-written notes were paper-clipped to most of them; some even had mugshots attached. “Do you always bring your work home with you?”

“It’s not like any o’ the big shots at the precinct are usin’ that stuff. And trust me, there’s plenty more where that came from. Thought I’d just give you a sampling, instead of hittin’ you with binders full o’ perps. Feel free to pick one outta there to get started on. In fact…” The cop reached for the open folder, pushing a few sheets of paper out of the way and bringing a specific report to the top of the stack. “Get a load o’ this one. Name’s Jinko. Might be a good one to get your feet wet with… uh, so to speak.”

Splice gave the report a cursory glance. “Petty theft?”

Greely nodded. “Repeat offender. We used to bring him in every time, hold him overnight, by morning he was back out on the street. Nothin’ ever stuck. Eventually the bigwigs gave him what we started callin’ a DNP order—do not pursue. You wanna get started on him, and I’ll get in touch with my science-freak sis about settin’ up a meeting. Look into that place for you to stay, too. Wanna swing by here two days from now? Same time?”

Splice closed the folder and stood. “Agreed.”

“Excellent!” Greely replied, and thrust a meaty hand toward Splice. “Excited to go into business with you, partner.”

If working with Greely was the price to pay to make a difference in this city, Splice supposed he could tolerate the cop’s questionable methods while their goals were aligned. Still, as he reluctantly grasped the proffered hand with his own gloved one, the cop gave him a grin that sent involuntary shudders through his green, liquid flesh.

This would not be an altogether pleasant enterprise.

Splice, Part 2

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Flash Fiction – For Todd

train at night_cropped

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. I waited until I was as cold as the stone over Todd’s grave. As cold as the January night air that stung my skin and stole my breath while I waited by the train tracks.

If I’d acted sooner—if I’d let grief and rage take over in those first days, first weeks after Todd’s death—I might have been careless, might not have even gone through with it.

Instead I smothered the fury. Stifled it. Compressed it into a diamond-hard knot in the pit of my stomach, a simmering storm in the back of my mind.

It waited.

I waited. For months.

***

Todd died in early summer. We got the news on the Fourth of July. Fireworks tore up the night like bombs destroying our world. Deb was inconsolable—she’d always held out hope that he’d clean himself up and come home, make something of himself.

I guess I knew better—that we’d lost him long before his overdose.

His landlord found him after getting an anonymous phone tip. There was a police investigation, we were questioned, but in the end, to them he was just another junkie who lived too fast. No foul play—at least not beyond a stupid kid shooting black tar between his toes.

I kept my suspicions to myself. If Deb shared them, she never told me. But they were confirmed when Chet showed up at the funeral. Bastard came with liquor on his breath, teetered alone in the back of the viewing, and had the gall to tell me, right then, that he’d been with Todd on the night of his OD. That he had some of Todd’s things to give to me. That’s all I needed to hear to know Chet had been responsible.

The wound was too fresh, too raw, not yet buried under a mound of scar tissue. I lost it, screamed at him to get out. I got some looks, but who could fault a grieving father for his emotions boiling over on the day his son went into the ground?

Deb and I kept living, going through the motions the best we knew how. By the time Chet worked up the courage to contact me again, I’d distilled my anguish into a single, focused task. And nothing was going to stop me.

***

I was watching my breath stream into the night when a car turned a corner and approached. Gravel crunched under bald tires as Chet’s rust bucket crept to a stop a safe distance from the nearby train tracks. Decades-old engine cut out, door squealed open, shocks groaned in relief. Chet stepped out of the car, opened the rear door, and lifted a box from the back seat. He walked up to me with a smile that faltered as soon as our eyes met. I kept my hands jammed in my coat pockets, so he set the box down on the gravel next to him.

“Thanks for meetin’ me,” he said. He reeked of cheap cigarettes, but for once there was no booze on his breath. “You and Deb, you guys doin’ okay?”

What do you care?

I nodded at the box. “That Todd’s things?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed. “That’s everything.”

I bored into his eyes with my own. “Why did you take it?”

“I, uh… well, the cops, you know? Just wanted to make sure the important stuff made it to you.”

I said nothing in return, just stared at him in the scant light until he squirmed from the pressure. “All right, look, I wasn’t exactly in my right mind myself, you know? Just figured he weren’t gonna need the stuff anymore, and rather’n let it go to waste as ‘evidence’ and get scrapped…”

“You’d pawn it and make some money.”

“Christ, cut me some slack, okay? Business ain’t what it used to be, and Todd couldn’t pay me—”

“You gave him the junk that killed him!”

“He weren’t gonna survive another night! He was hurtin’! I just… I just wanted to make him comfortable. I stayed with him until—”

The wail of a train horn cut him off. He turned to look down the tracks just as an engine rounded a distant bend, its headlight forcing me to see my brother’s face clearly for the first time in months.

For the last time.

I drove my gloved knuckles into his cheek, sent him reeling backward, stumbling over the tracks. He lost his footing, went down, might have cracked his head on the far rail, I wasn’t sure. Another blare from the approaching train spurred me forward. I crouched over him, yanked his cursing, sputtering head off the ground by his open jacket collar and punched him again. The first strike had stunned him; the second pissed him off. His hands shot up, trying to push me off of him. He kneed my backside repeatedly but he had no leverage to cause any real pain. His flailing only annoyed me—until I spotted a glint of metal under his flapping jacket, at the waistband of his jeans.

I pinned him to the tracks with one hand and grabbed the gun, then sprang to my feet and backed away from him, barrel aimed at his chest. His wide eyes shone like jittery saucers in the uneven light from the train. He struggled to his feet, scrambled forward—

The train horn’s blast nearly deafened me.

I pulled the trigger. Chet jerked and fell to the tracks, writhing in pain. I threw the gun toward him, just out of his reach.

Then I turned around.

The screech of the train wheels nearly drowned out his frantic screams. I’ll never know if his last howls were born of pain, wrath, or dread—only that, as I stooped to pick up the box he’d brought, the train brought an abrupt end to his cries.

***

I don’t know if the freight train came to a stop. Don’t much remember the walk home. The first clear memory I have after turning my back on the rails was sitting with Deb in our living room, my face on fire, my hands frozen. Todd’s belongings were spread out on the floor and coffee table. Deb’s sobs racked my body as badly as the night we got the call.

But me? I was finally calm. At peace. Some say revenge is a hollow pursuit, will leave you empty and hurting even worse than the original pain. Not for me. Will I get caught someday? Did my best to make it look like a messy suicide, but I’m no forensics expert. So, maybe. But it doesn’t bother me.

Because every day I wake up knowing I did right by my son.

***

This story was written for a flash fiction prompt at Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com and inspired by lyrics from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals song “Southside.” A lyric from Metallica’s “Fuel” also snuck its way in.

Train photo by Andrew Gray.

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Trail’s End (Part 1)

old west tim wetzel

A peculiar but familiar noise pricked Stanley’s ears, even over the jangling piano across the room. A sound that came less and less frequently to this town with each passing year.

Spurs.

He twisted around in his chair, preparing himself for the typical loud-mouthed bluster of a washed-up cowboy looking to stir up trouble. He found something else entirely. A smallish figure trudged straight from the saloon’s door to the bar, a dust-caked relic of another era capped with a stained and dented Stetson left out too long in the sun. Though the saloon was far from crowded, a noticeable path parted as the figure moved, the other customers keeping as much distance from it as possible. The sounds of conversation dwindled to murmurs as two dozen pairs of eyes watched the diminutive rancher settle heavily onto a stool at the bar.

Stanley turned to his friend Jeremiah across the table they sat at. Jeremiah looked just as grim as the rest of the clientele, his stare fixed on the hunched cowboy. “What’s all this about?” Stanley asked him with a curious grin.

Jeremiah said nothing, simply nodded toward the bar. Stanley returned his attention there to find the bartender scowling at a pair of coins offered to him between thin fingers. The drooping brim of the stranger’s hat hid most of his face, but Stanley saw a hairless chin working in unheard speech.

“Y’ain’t wanted ‘round here,” the bartender declared, arms folded in refusal. “Ya’d do well ta turn tail and go back where ya came from.”

The reply shushed the remaining conversation in the saloon, allowing Stanley to hear the stranger’s next words. “Ain’t lookin’ to make no trouble. Just want a beer and a bed for the night.”

Stanley’s brow furrowed. The voice was all wrong. Gravelly and cracked from age, but too high, no bass notes in the tinny tone.

“Ya been told before not to enter this town’s jurisdiction,” the bartender said. “Now don’t make me get the police to drag ya out.”

The stranger’s head tilted up, small hard eyes finally fixing on the bartender. “If the sheriff wants me outta his town, he damn well better come here and tell me to my face. Otherwise, I ain’t movin’ ‘til I got a pint in front o’ me.”

Huffing out a breath, the bartender glanced at a couple of men standing by the door. They nodded and ducked out of the saloon without a word. No one else moved. The stranger’s eyes bored into the bartender’s, everyone else’s glued to the stranger’s back. Stanley tried to surmise what was going on. An old cowboy was being refused service and hospitality in a town that had only recently shed its raucous ranching history. Was it as simple as the citizens preventing the possibility of a return to near lawlessness? Unlikely, Stanley thought, as no other cowboys were treated so harshly as long as they behaved. This stranger was one of the least troublesome of the lot, yet Stanley’s fellow residents were ready to run him out without so much as a gun drawn or a punch thrown. Something else was going on here.

With no further action, the other patrons began to lose interest in the staring match across the bar. Conversations trickled back into Stanley’s ears—until the saloon’s door was thrown wide and the collective tension ratcheted back up. A tall, beefy man with wind-burned cheeks framing a thick moustache ambled into the saloon, a star on his vest and cold steel in his eyes. Sheriff Clemens had arrived.

The lawman stopped directly behind the stranger. “Evenin’, friend,” he rumbled.

The stranger didn’t flinch, or turn, or lift his head. “Friend? That train left the station a long time ago, dinnit?”

“Sure did,” Sheriff Clemens replied. “With your hand on the throttle.”

Shoulders slumping further, the stranger sighed. “Like I told the fine gentleman behind the bar, I ain’t here ta make trouble fer yer pretty lil’ town. Just want a bite t’eat, a place ta rest my head, and maybe a few minutes o’ yer time tomorrow.”

Sheriff Clemens paused, then moved to the stranger’s side and leaned on the bar. “The problem with that plan is: trouble follows you, no matter your intentions. And I got a great many more people to think about now than I did in my youth. So here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna go back outside, you’re gonna get on yer horse, and I’m gonna watch you ride out past the town’s edge ‘til I can’t see ya no more.”

The stranger finally turned to look at the sheriff. “And if I refuse?”

“Cuffs ‘n’ bars.”

The room tensed, waiting for a flurry of motion, the drawing of weapons, the bloody business of meted justice. They received a small, tired cowboy dropping from his barstool to stand toe-to-toe with a sad but resolute sheriff. Their standoff afforded Stanley the clearest view yet of the stranger’s face—and like his voice, it was all wrong. Skin ploughed by years but never touched by a razor, chin narrow, cheekbones high and proud. Could this ranching remnant be—

“I need help,” the stranger whispered up at the sheriff. “Please.”

But the plea was as tired and stale as the dusty blanket wrapped around the stranger’s shoulders. The old cowboy knew what the answer would be.

“The cost is too high,” Sheriff Clemens replied. “This town’s already paid a lifetime’s worth for helpin’ you. I’ve paid. Dearly.”

The stranger stared stone-faced at the lawman, then glanced down at the coins in his hand. “Fer yer trouble,” he said, and flicked them onto the bar. They clattered off the far edge and disappeared. The bartender’s glare never left the stranger’s face. Without another word, the old cowboy turned and trudged back to the door, disappearing into the dusk.

Sheriff Clemens watched the door for a long while but didn’t follow the stranger outside. Then, with a sniff and a twitch of his moustache, he turned to the saloon’s patrons. “Thank y’all fer yer patience and restraint,” he said, voice tired and hoarse. “Have a pleasant evenin’.”

The piano tinkled out a hesitant invitation to resume the evening’s activities, but Stanley had lost interest in his whiskey. He sprang from his chair and crossed the saloon. “Sheriff Clemens!” he called over the returning din.

The taller man turned. “Evenin’, Stan,” he said with a curt nod.

“What was all that about, sheriff?” Stanley asked. “You seemed ta know that rancher.”

Sheriff Clemens closed his eyes and sighed. “An old friend in another life. Nothin’ you need worry yourself with.”

Despite his promise to watch the stranger ride off into the descending night, the sheriff heaved himself onto a stool and accepted a glass of liquor from the bartender. Confused, Stanley made his way to the door and out into the gloom of dusk. The stranger was checking over the equipment bags buckled to his horse’s saddle. Stanley approached from behind, hesitating as he tried to think of a way to ask the question on his mind.

“Clemens send ya out here to make sure I tuck tail and run off?” the stranger drawled, not turning to look at Stanley.

“No, no,” he stammered. “I, um… I couldn’t help but overhear you ask the sheriff for assistance.”

A dry chuckle jostled the old cowboy’s shoulders. “I shoulda known better. What’s it to ya?”

Stanley ventured a step closer, still several feet from the stranger. “I’d like to offer you a place to stay… for the night.”

Now the cowboy turned around, peering at Stanley with eyes of cold, hard jade. “Why in hell you wanna do a thing like that?”

“You walked in there quieter than most o’ the people who live in this town, made no fuss over nothin’, asked the sheriff fer help, and got turned down flat for no good reason I can see. Ain’t right.”

The stranger removed his hat and swiped a shirtsleeve across his forehead—and in the dim light from the saloon windows, Stanley’s suspicion was confirmed. Under the thick, grungy coat and bandoliers, beneath the sweat and grime staining the creased face, was a woman. She pulled the bandana from around her neck and swiped at the inside of her hat, then dabbed at her forehead where beads of sweat had escaped her roughly cropped gray hair. A thin silver braid hung from her hairline above one eye, dangling past her chin, and she swept it atop her head before replacing her hat. “You heard what the sheriff said. I ain’t nothin’ but trouble to be around. Why don’t you turn yourself around and go back to your safe little bar in your safe little town?”

“Are you actually refusin’ someone who’s offerin’ ta help ya? What’re you runnin’ from, anyway?”

She resumed fidgeting with her saddle for a long moment. “My life,” she muttered, then turned back to him. “What makes you qualified ta help someone like me? You a lawman? A vigilante?”

Stanley tried to stand a little straighter. “A barber.”

The stranger actually chuckled. “Well, barber, as you mighta noticed, I got precious few hairs that need trimmin’, and the longest ones I got are stayin’ that way. So thank ya for yer concern, but I believe I’ll be movin’ along now.”

“I have a place for you to sleep tonight,” he blurted, surprised at his own persistence. “An extra bed, yer own room. The sheriff’s a friend o’ mine. In the mornin’ I’ll talk to him, see if I can’t change his mind about helpin’ you.”

She squinted at him. “Ain’t no chance o’ that happenin’,” she said, pausing to consider Stanley with a critical eye. “But perhaps I’ll take ya up on that offer of a bed, since ya seem so keen ta ignore every warning that comes yer way.”

“In that case, we should get goin’ quickly, before the good sheriff finishes his drink.”

“You do realize, Mister Barber, yer askin’ me ta come home with ya, and ya ain’t even tol’ me yer name.”

Warmth flushed his cheeks; hopefully it was too dark for her to see his embarrassment. “Apologies, ma’am,” he said, holding out a hand. “Stanley Gibbs.”

She shook his hand with her gloved one, her grip firm and deliberate. “This is yer only warning,” she said. “Never call me ‘ma’m’ again. Name’s Marge.”

***

This story will explore the later years of Marge, a character who appeared in book 2 of my time-travel trilogy Borrowed Time, which I’m querying to agents as of this post.

Artwork by Tim Wetzel, Art Institute of Philadelphia.

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’90s Rock, Writing, and Diversifying Your Skill Set

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While on the road this past weekend, I was listening to one of my favorite bands from the 1990s, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and their music got me thinking about an artist building an artistic arsenal. Most of us have heard the phrase “one-trick pony,” someone who has one skill they excel at but not much of anything else to their credit. They might be able to make a spark, a flash in their field, but can’t sustain the fire of audience interest because they grow boring very quickly. Three-chord pop punk bands and dark, grinding nu-metal come to mind when talking about music. (Don’t get me wrong – I love me some three-chord pop punk and angsty, brooding nu-metal, but one has to admit it gets stale after a while.) It’s therefore important to diversify one’s skill set as a creative. Doing so makes for a well-rounded, versatile, and flexible artist who can keep their audience coming back for more.

I think the Chili Peppers are an excellent example of this diversification of skills, especially since they’ve been a mainstay of the pop music scene for most of their thirty-plus year career. Across that time, they’ve drawn from numerous genres of music and myriad songwriting, instrumental, lyrical, and vocal techniques to stay fresh and interesting. From their self-titled first album, way back in 1984, their unique blend of funk, punk, and rap was already evident. The funk grew even stronger on their sophomore effort, Freaky Styley, produced by the 1970s funk-master himself, George Clinton. The late 1980s mixed in hard rock/heavy metal elements, and by the time their big mainstream breakthrough came in 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they’d honed their musical mélange into a well-oiled machine. The heavy radio play of BSSM‘s four singles firmly entrenched the Chili Peppers in the public consciousness, and their musical versatility kept them there for at least another two decades.

The same sort of diversification is also essential for writers. I don’t mean to say that to be successful, you should aim to publish in several different genres across your career. From what I’ve read and learned about writing professionally, jumping genres even once can be difficult and risky. What I mean is: learn to incorporate elements of different genres and writing styles into the niche you want to carve for yourself in the literary world. My own large projects, the ones I want to query to literary agents for publication, are firmly science fiction. Yet because they’re time-travel-based, they’re also heavily historical. And because all good stories should deal with interpersonal relationships and interactions, there are elements of dramatic tension as well as romance. Finally, the main plot arcs are driven by a couple of related mysteries that unfold over the course of the story.

Of course, this begs the question of what genre I pitch my story as. Do I call it a romantic historical science-fiction mystery? Of course not! You need to pick a genre classification, or at most two, that fit the heart of your story. The same goes for musicians. Despite the Chili Peppers’ eclectic mix of styles, eventually you have to distill them to a digestible description. No one wants to have to hear or say “punk/funk/jazz-influenced rap rock” or some such. So they get boiled down to rock, or alternative rock, or maybe funk rock. So ask yourself: is your main plot/point the rekindling of love between estranged lovers? Then you’re probably looking at a romance, or maybe a science-fiction romance if it’s set on a space station in another galaxy. I know that my plot is mainly about the ramifications of time-travel abuse, so I label it science fiction, or occasionally historical science fiction. But those other genre elements are still there, enriching the story beyond past/future technobabble and historical events.

So how do you do it? How do you acquire the skills to incorporate elements outside your story’s main genre? Well, I could mention things like workshops, seminars, and articles on the topics, but I think the two most important strategies are 1) read, and 2) write. Find the “masters” of the genres you’re looking to add to your creative toolbox, and read their books. Dissect their stories, learn their strategies. Then, try it for yourself. Practice those new methods of storytelling and genre elements, play with voice, point-of-view, find what works and what doesn’t, what you like and what you don’t. I personally find short-form writing prompts to be excellent opportunities to dip my pen in different colors of ink, so to speak. And be sure to get feedback from people whose opinions you trust and value, to find what works from the reader’s standpoint.

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To NaNo or Not to NaNo?

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Photo by Drew Coffman

Are you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November? Yes? That’s awesome! Good luck, may the words flow freely! No? Neither am I! A 50,000-word novel first draft is a herculean task and does not fit easily into everyone’s varied and unique life responsibilities and desires. Frankly, this year I don’t expect it will fit into mine. Yes, there is the “make time for it” camp, but that can take some serious sacrifice from other parts of one’s life, and for many people it’s just not feasible.

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times, in an “unofficial capacity,” and with mixed results and mixed feelings about it. I was first made aware of it by my brother, also a writer, at a relative lull in my job, so I thought, let’s see what happens! At the time I didn’t realize the depth of community interaction, and wasn’t really interested in registering on the website. I just developed a concept I wanted to write about, and started tracking my daily productivity in a spreadsheet. And I won! I broke 50,000 words on November 30th… and was only halfway done. A few months later I finished the draft and began revisions. A few months after that, I started the sequel – my first NaNoWriMo project spawned a trilogy whose books are now in various stages of completion (I’m querying book 1 to literary agents).

I tried NaNo again, unofficially, the next time it rolled around, and while it did boost my output temporarily, I wasn’t in the same place in work or life that I was the year prior. My daily word count was erratic. By the third week I knew it wasn’t going to turn out the same as my first attempt. By week four I had too many non-writing things going on, and I topped out at about 25,000 for the month. I haven’t tried again since, despite joining social media and discovering there’s an enormous community of writers that participate and even spend October planning and preparing for November. It’s great that so many writers can use NaNoWriMo to their advantage, give themselves the kick in the pants they might need to finally start putting ideas down on paper. But for many others it can be a major source of stress, perhaps even disappointment if they don’t meet the goals of the event or those they set for themselves.

Let’s face it: November really isn’t even a great month for this event. Many people have significant holiday desires, expectations, or obligations at the end of the month or looming in December, which can definitely take their toll on writing productivity. Just the mere fact that, for many, the year will end a month after NaNo ends can be subliminally or overtly stressful. “December’s pretty much a loss, so this is the last chance I have this year to get a draft started!” And even if we “win,” there’s the expectation, or desire, or attempt to maintain November’s level of productivity in January, kind of like a head start on a New Year’s resolution with December intervening. And we all know how well most resolutions turn out, right? Feels like it would be better to hold NaNo during… I don’t know, March? April? Oh well.

My point is that it’s not for everyone. If you want to try it, and you have the means (e.g. supportive partner/family, flexible work responsibilities/schedule), I say give it a shot! But if you don’t hit that 50k mark by November 30, or you choose not to start, don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone’s life is unique, everyone’s process is unique, and this month shouldn’t be a source of undue stress. Am I participating? Well, I mentioned earlier that I didn’t expect it to fit into my own life. The longer answer is that, due to some recent major non-writing-related changes, November is looking more open for me than it did a month ago. Those changes came with their own new responsibilities though, and honestly, those need to take precedence right now. So no, I am not planning on 1,700 words per day for 30 days. What I do want to do is use November to be more regularly productive in balance with my other responsibilities. I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump recently, so even a few hundred words every day would be an improvement.

So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, I’ll be cheering you on in spirit as you marathon toward a first draft of your new novel! And if not, I’ll be cheering you on in whatever goals you do have for the month, be they regular daily writing, a particular word count, a finished piece, or the various non-writing responsibilities we all have.

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Flash Fiction – Autumn’s Embrace

autumn's embrace

I lean against the old elm and pull my jacket tighter around me. Autumn came too fast this year, and I wasn’t ready. Just like I wasn’t ready for the email from Danni. The sight of her message blew a cold wind through my mind, like the stiff breeze disturbing the leaves all around. After so many months I thought we’d put things to rest. At least, I’d tried, and assumed she’d forgotten about everything. Now I’m standing here in the woods behind my childhood home, waiting for something I’m not sure I want to happen, trying to look nonchalant with a shovel in my hand.

She’s late. She said five o’clock. It’s already five fifteen, getting colder and darker thanks to the clouds bruising the sky. I check my phone, but no new messages. Was this just a prank? Was she sitting in a bar somewhere with her friends, having a good laugh at my expense? The Danni from our childhood, our adolescence, our college years wouldn’t have done that, but the one from months ago? The old me wouldn’t consider the possibility. The man I am now hefts the shovel and pushes away from the tree… no. Five minutes. Give her five more minutes.

A car engine approaches, then cuts out. A door shuts. Silence for several seconds, then I hear leaves and twigs crunching underfoot. My heart races—that traitor—and I run a cold hand through my hair as I peer through the trees to see who’s coming. It’s Danni, of course. She picks her way toward me and I see her face in person for the first time since last winter. Her cheeks and nose are red from the cold, and she’s let her hair grow back out. It’s the same Danni I fell in love with years ago. I flush with a wave of warmth from the sight of her, though it’s tainted with regret from the way we left things.

When our eyes meet, one corner of her mouth twitches in a familiar smirk, but there’s more than a hint of hesitation in her body language. She stops several feet from where I’m standing, then tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and looks away. It’s a gesture I know too well, born from not wanting to discuss something, or not finding the words for what’s on her mind. “Hey,” she says.

She sounds out of breath. Could be the chill in the air. Could be nerves. Is she as anxious as I feel? I decide not to push. “Hey.”

“I, um… I saw your car back at the road. Still have that old thing, huh?”

“Hasn’t quit on me yet,” I reply, then feel an overwhelming urge to smack myself in the head with the shovel.

She doesn’t seem to notice my poor choice of words. “I was happy to see it,” she continues. “I thought you might not come.”

“I said I would.”

Any trace of happiness fades from her face. “I know.”

She falls quiet and looks away. I hate awkward silences. “I was thinking of leaving when I heard you pull up,” I say to fill the emptiness, cut the tension between us. “I thought maybe you weren’t gonna come either.”

“Yeah, sorry I was late,” she says. “I, um, had to stop for gas on the way over.”

“No worries. It’s… it’s good to see you.”

Her eyes flash at me, and I give her a genuine smile. A small chuckle escapes her lips. I think her cheeks redden a little more. This already isn’t going anywhere close to how I thought it would. My shoulders relax, but this meeting is both easier and harder than I’d expected. “Well,” I say, gesturing with the shovel. “Should we get to work?”

She inhales sharply, and says, “Yeah,” so I drive the shovel’s blade into the dirt beneath the elm. “I think it was on the other side,” she says before I’ve even lifted any earth.

I frown, look around at the arrangement of trees, double-check my memory. I’m positive I’ve got the right spot, open my mouth to say so, then just nod and circle the tree. I don’t want to argue. So I start digging. I’ve not hefted five mounds when she’s at my side with a hand on the shovel. “I’ll help,” she says.

I let her take over, and we take turns digging in the cold autumn gloom. She was right, of course; the shovel hits something hard on this side of the elm, not where I’d wanted to start. I set the tool down and we work together to clear away more dirt with our hands. Then we kneel in silence and stare at the small metal box in the earth.

My mouth runs dry. I feel sick. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m angry—angry at Danni for asking me to come back here, at the two stupid kids we used to be, at the childhood pact we made to bury our most cherished possessions together, to show our friendship was more important than anything else. I’d hoped she’d forgotten about it, or thought it too immature to honor after all these years. Because if the box stayed buried, I could keep clinging to the delusion we might be friends again someday. Because digging it up, taking back our prizes, meant things were truly over. It meant I’d lost my best friend for good.

She reaches into the ground and carefully lifts the box out, then sets it before us. I can’t look at her, so I just stare hard at the latch protecting our treasure. Seconds tick by as I muster the courage to open the damned thing, but when I finally do reach out and touch the cold metal, Danni’s hand darts to cover mine. “I lied,” she says.

I don’t know how to respond. But I don’t pull away. Instead, I force myself to look at her. She’s staring at the box with wide eyes, her jaw working like she’s mouthing words until she finds the right ones. “I didn’t stop to get gas. I was late because Janice had to talk me into actually coming.”

Her sister had to…? Danni’s the one who emailed me. What is she talking about? But a part of me knows what she’ll say next. Or at least hopes it knows.

“I didn’t ask you back to do… this,” she says. “I miss you, so much, and I just… I needed to know if there’s even the slightest chance that you—that we—”

She doesn’t finish. Can’t get the words out. I watch her eyes fill with tears. Mine are already there. I turn my hand over and squeeze hers, and our fingers lace together. Her hand in mine warms me more than any meager bit of body heat from the contact. My anger, my fear, dissolve into the cold breeze. Her words help me find the courage to say what I thought I’d never get to, what I nearly let stay buried today. “I’ve missed you too. When I saw your message, I thought maybe—”

Before I know it, she takes my face in her hands and draws me to her, presses her lips to mine. Her kiss is full of urgency, but also doubt and regret. I lean into it, return it uncertainty and all, and squeeze her shoulders, terrified of ever letting go again. Her fingers dig into my hair, and my face is wet but I can’t tell whose tears they are. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters, except that we’re here, together again.

When our lips finally part, I touch my forehead to hers and curl my fingers around her hands. We kneel there for a long time, listening to each other’s sniffles and feeling our mutual shudders of relief. Words are unnecessary now. I lean back to look at her, her puffy eyes, her damp cheeks, her quivering lips – my beautiful Danni. Over her shoulder, the sun’s slipped into a gap beneath the clouds on the horizon. Shafts of golden warmth cut through the trees and breathe life into the coming evening, flooding the woods with brilliant reds and oranges. A cliché coincidence, I know, but the vibrant autumn hues are a welcome reprieve from the afternoon’s drab dread. Danni and I share smiles, and we lower the latched box into the earth and cover it again. Then we help each other to our feet and leave the woods hand in hand, comforted by the knowledge that we’ve weathered this storm together.

***

This story was inspired by two flash-fiction prompts at Chuck Wendig’s blog at terribleminds.com: write a story about a tree, and write a story involving the theme “To fix something, you must first break it.”

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