Flash Fiction – A Chill in the Air

blue-woman

Robert’s shoulders slumped as he stood at the low wooden gate on the edge of the property. From the dirt road the home looked unimpressive—squat, uneven stone walls supporting a thatched roof thinning toward uselessness. Looks could deceive, of course. Robert knew that in this case, they didn’t. The interior induced claustrophobia in all but the most stalwart of visitors, and no one was safe from the dampness, dust, and gloom. Still, though it wasn’t much to look at inside or out, it was his home.

And it had been defiled.

He’d known immediately, from the unnatural chill in the normally oven-like summer air, that the end had come. Sitting in the town’s meeting hall, mediating the final arbitration of the day, feeling the temperature suddenly plummet thirty degrees in a matter of seconds… his heart had never filled with dread more quickly. The last words of his decision puffed out of his mouth and dissipated in the frigid air; he barely heard the collective shiver from the townspeople in attendance as he rose and strode intently out of the hall. None of them could fathom what had caused the abrupt change in weather, but he knew. In his youth, during his rise to prominence among the townspeople, he’d let himself believe the bargain had been forgotten. But with age came renewed fear. He was foolish to think such a being would, or could, forget. And with that first gust of arctic wind through the meeting hall, he knew the day had finally come. The debt would be collected.

She had returned.

As he walked up the path to his shabby home, he knew he would find her within. The thick crusts of ice obscuring the dirty windows gave away her presence inside. And she would not be alone. He wondered how many of her disgusting creations she had brought with her to ensure he fulfilled his end of the bargain. Shuddering at the thought of those monsters and their inhuman stares, he reached behind his head and unsheathed his sword. He may have been the town elder, but he was still capable of defending himself. He would not give in without a fight.

The door was ajar. He pushed it inward to discover a semicircle of her servants just inside, waiting for him. Humanoid but certainly not human, the hoarwraiths were all identical: chest-height, black hair, ashen skin tinged blue, smoldering pits of blue fire where eyes should be, slightly protruding muzzles with lips that curled upward in perpetual sneers. Disgusting. They stepped backward as one, silently widening the semicircle as if inviting him to join them.

He wasted no breath on them; they would not understand language anyway. Glancing past their arc, he saw no sign of the creatures’ master. Appearances mattered little with her, though; he knew she was inside his house, somewhere. He also knew these vicious little beasts of hers would not leave, but would not attack him without provocation. Letting a stream of fog escape his lips, he raised his sword and stepped toward the one to his right, slashing in a deliberate arc to cut the wraith down.

It instantly ducked and sidestepped the attack. Then it raked his thigh with a swipe of razor-sharp claws. The searing pain of torn flesh mixed curiously with the stinging throb of frostbite. But at least he could get down to business now. As the other wraiths converged on him, he allowed agility and finesse to return to his movements, making his slashes and thrusts much more effective, even against a half dozen opponents. In a matter of minutes the creatures—or pieces of them—lay strewn about the front room of his home, though the only blood visible was his own, leaking from numerous superficial lacerations and one ambitious bite on his bicep. He nudged the lifeless body of a wraith with the toe of his boot—and watched as it disintegrated into a mound of white powder that began melting into thin streams of water.

He shook his head. If his memory served him, her constructs should have been much more difficult to kill. These were just a distraction; she was toying with him. Turning toward the dark fireplace opposite his home’s front door, he let his sword clatter to the floor and shouted, “Show yourself already!”

Silence answered him, save for a frigid gust of wind that gnawed at his bones. He stared hard at the scraps of wood in the soot-stained hearth as if to ignite them with his glare. But there would be no reprieve from the deep freeze that had settled in his dwelling, not until she concluded their decades-old business.

“Hello, Robert.”

The whisper came right by Robert’s ear, and his hearth froze. Before his eyes a sheet of ice crystallized over the wood, the stones, the metal basket. She still knew how to make an entrance. Without turning, without shivering from the  icy words in his ear, he sighed. “It’s been a long time.”

“Perhaps for you,” she mused, her voice a little further away. “I’d hardly noticed the years pass.”

He closed his eyes, ignoring her jibe. “My wife died yesterday. Must we do this so soon?”

“You understood the terms of our deal, did you not?”

He turned around at last and was surprised by the sight of her in his home, despite fearing the encounter for the last decade or so. She looked like the wraiths he’d cut down moments before—or rather, they resembled twisted, animalistic versions of her. Sleek, shining black hair cascaded over slender, pale blue shoulders. Her crystal-clear eyes fixed him with a heartless stare. “When we lose a loved one, we grieve,” he snarled, feeling the tears he hadn’t yet shed for his beloved welling in his eyes now. “Have a little decency.”

She chuckled in response. “Your wife. Your loved one. I bet she died not even knowing what you are.”

“She knew enough,” he spat back. “She knew I was different.”

Suddenly she was at his side again. “A half-truth is still a lie, you twit!” she hissed in his ear.

He couldn’t withstand the frost this time; a shiver swept through his body. With great effort he kept his composure and resisted snapping back at her again. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he said softly.

She drifted back from him again. “And you look like you’ve one foot in the grave.”

“One foot, and my heart.”

“Spare me the human melodrama,” she sighed. “You asked for this. You wanted this life.”

He sent another stream of visible breath pouring from his lungs and lowered himself heavily onto a rickety wooden chair. “No sympathy from you at all,” he muttered.

“You know that I warned you what was to come when we struck our bargain.”

The memory of her words on that fateful day returned to him. “Think hard on this. You may enjoy some moments of bliss, but it will end in suffering.” He looked up at her. “You knew,” he whispered. “You knew the anguish I would endure, and yet you granted me my wish?”

Something strange flickered in her eyes. Warmth? Compassion? Or was it pity? “You didn’t care,” she said, pain creeping into her words. “You saw the girl, and you wanted a life with her. I simply made it possible. As was my half of our agreement.”

He shook his head, closing his eyes. Again, he held back any retorts, any entreaties that came to mind. Saying anything more would simply delay the inevitable. He’d had his fun, from her perspective, and now it was time for him to pay back his debt. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

He stood, dragging his feet back to the fireplace where she waited for him. She faced him, her shield of icy indifference thawed by regret. He knew she wanted what she was about to do, but perhaps there was a shard of sympathy somewhere in her frigid shell of a body. She raised her hand above his head. “Are you ready?”

“Yes—wait.” His hand shot out to the mantel and retrieved a small wooden box. From inside he carefully removed a dull silver ring adorned with a single speck of ruby. Closing his eyes again, he lifted the ring to his lips, kissing the stone and imagining some warmth still lingered from… The tears flowed now, stinging his cheeks as the icy air stole heat from the drops. “Good-bye, my love.”

He kept the stone tucked between his lips as long as he could, squeezing flecks of ice water from his eyes until his ears caught her whisper. “You’re going to need to take that out of your mouth,” she said.

He gingerly returned the box with its ring to the mantel and heaved a shuddering breath, then nodded. Her hand rested on his head. A bone-chilling cold suddenly filled his body, rushing from head to toe, driving a visible scream of agony from his lungs as it coiled around nerves, pricked the insides of veins, turned muscle to stone. Powerless to resist his fate, he watched from inside as a shroud of ice encased him. And, once he was completely entombed within the frozen coffin, she approached again and touched a finger to the smooth, glassy surface on the other side.

The ice shattered.

He shattered.

As the din of small icebergs crashing to the floor subsided, he breathed deeply and locked eyes with her. The corners of her purple lips twitched in sadness and relief; her eyes sparkled with happy moisture. He glanced to one side, seeing his reflection in the ice coating a window. Gone was the white hair, the tanned, leathery skin, the hard age lines around eyes and mouth. A mop of black silk strands fell on a smooth, pale blue forehead. Calm, thoughtful crystal eyes gazed back at him. He looked like her. And not in the way her hoarwraiths resembled her. He was of her.

A small gasp escaped her lips. “Welcome back, my son.”

He blinked, feeling the cold coursing through him again. It carried no pain with it any longer; its return was an unexpectedly welcome comfort after all the years spent with warm blood pumping through veins. “Mother,” he said, stepping toward her. “I’m sorry for—“

She held up a grayish finger. “None of that, child. I am sorry, for being so harsh with you at first.”

He struggled for words, for order among the myriad questions he needed to ask her. “Mother, the pain… when she fell ill and died…” He lay his hand on his chest, where his human heart used to be. “It hurt, so much. How can they stand it? How can they live with such sorrow?”

“Most muddle through,” she replied. “Some cannot. But experiencing love and loss—that is the blessing, and the curse, of being human. And when you laid eyes on that human girl all those years ago, I knew it was time for you to learn.”

“Despite the pain I would suffer?”

Because of the pain. And the joy. You needed to understand them, to understand being human, just as I needed to, millennia ago, before I could judge them.”

Judge them. His end of the bargain. He hadn’t any interest in judging humans when he was younger. But now that he knew them, and now that he’d arbitrated their disputes in life, he could agree to judge them in death. Without a word he nodded, letting his mother know he was ready.

“Let us return to the underworld,” she said softly. “Let us go home.”

She reached for his hand. He glanced at her, then took the small box from the mantel again. Tucking it under his arm, he took her hand in his. She smiled at him, and together they disappeared, leaving the world of humans to its joys and sorrows.

***

This week’s supernatural-fantasy flash fiction stems from another Terribleminds.com writing prompt. Writers choose three seemingly random sentences from a collection written by Chuck Wendig’s blog followers. The challenge is to use the three sentences in a story of roughly 2,000 words, giving credit, of course, to the original authors of the three sentences chosen. I used:

The whisper came right by Robert’s ear, and his hearth froze. – JBencomo

“A half-truth is still a lie, you twit!” she hissed in his ear. – Christopher Grundy

“You’re going to need to take that out of your mouth,” she said. – Sarah Beresford

***

Jump-starting Your Writing Adventure, Part 1 of 6

Last week, I reached a small personal social media milestone—I hit (and broke) 400 followers on Twitter. Considering 1) I’m an introvert, 2) I’ve been on Twitter for about three months (since mid-May 2016), and 3) I interpret this achievement as meaning someone out there is listening to me, I thought I’d celebrate by sharing some writing insights and advice. In the following series of blog posts, I’ll attempt to distill what I feel are essential strategies for beginning a successful writing adventure.

*Disclaimer* My personal goal when writing is to publish my work along the traditional route, so my musings will keep that goal in mind. As I’m currently unpublished (with regard to fiction, anyway), I’ll hew to the pre-publishing stages of writing (the actual creative stuff) and the beginnings of querying literary agents for representation.

0. Find what works for you.
Before I even dole out my suggestions, I’ll preface by saying that there’s a veritable smorgasbord of writing advice at your fingertips, especially in the Internet Age. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with the often contradicting “rules” that you might read in your quest to improve and succeed as a writer. So here’s a tip: don’t try to force yourself into other people’s molds, methods, styles, etc. Everyone is different, and what works well for a New York Times best-seller may not hold up for a single parent working two jobs while trying to publish a debut (note: those two hypothetical writer-types are not mutually exclusive). Soak up what you find, but don’t forget to wring yourself out once in a while to get rid of things that aren’t working for you. Take most advice you read with a grain of salt, a dash of skepticism. Try new things, by all means, but ultimately, you have to find your own way.

 1. First and foremost, write!
Seems simple, no? If you want to be a writer, string those words together in your structure of choice and tell that story in your head!

Well, yes, that is the crux of writing, but nothing’s ever that easy. Writing is work. It takes time. So many other things can get in the way—life, health, jobs, family, and those are just the somewhat predictable ones. It may become essential, then, to schedule regular writing time into the myriad tasks and obligations of life. Flip open that laptop with your morning caffeine. Get out your favorite notebook and pen on your lunch break. Swipe some thoughts into your smartphone during your commute (but only on public transportation!). Make some notes before bed to plan out the next day’s writing.

“But wait!” you cry. “What about inspiration? You can’t force the creative process!” To which I reply, “Now we’re talking about two different things.”

I wholeheartedly agree that inspiration is a fickle brute, elusive to the point of maddening—until it’s least convenient for you. I’ve had ideas strike me in the middle of an experiment in lab, at work seminars and meetings, on bus rides home, while running weekend errands, and while drifting to sleep in bed. My advice would be to arm yourself with as many note-making tools and strategies as possible. Personally, I’ve gotten into the habit of carrying a small notebook around for unexpected bursts of creativity. It even sleeps on the nightstand next to me, just in case.

Winding back to my original point, transforming those tidbits of genius into actual narration and dialogue is a much more physical process requiring time, patience, and perseverance. If you wait for the perfect moment at which to put your thoughts on paper, a million other responsibilities and distractions will inevitably forestall the creative process. But what if you turn writing into one of those responsibilities? If you make the time to write, even a little here and there every day, you’ll have produced something you can go back and work with at the end of the day/week/month. You did it! Words on the page, related at least a bit to the story you want to tell. Tweak it later; revisions are a whole other beast. What’s important is to generate that body of writing, in whatever reasonable way works for you. So schedule time for writing, protect it, and make the most of it.

***

Please stay tuned for the next installment of “Jump-starting Your Writing Adventure,” in which I discuss the benefits of research at various points of the quest to publish!

Flash Fiction – Payback for Fay

noir-detective-desk

It was one of those days, if you know what I mean.

I drop into my chair, kick my feet up on the desk, and yank open a drawer. From inside I grab the neck of a bottle and a cheap glass, plunking them both on the desktop. The day’s last rays of sun stream through the blinds on the window behind me, hitting the bottle and splashing the brown liquid’s color across the desk. This ain’t no high-end liquor, though. I pour a few fingers of the bottom-shelf bilge and take a healthy glug, feeling red hot needles stab my gullet all the way down. That’s the kind of day it’s been.

The telephone on my desk rings its out-of-tune bells. Breathing fire, I answer it. It’s Wendy. “Hey, babe,” she says cheerfully, but I hear the expectation of disappointment. “You comin’ home soon?”

Too many late nights recently. Been lookin’ forward to a quiet evening with her. I’m about to tell her yeah, just gotta finish a case file and then I’m catchin’ the first cab I see, when there’s a knock on my office door. Through the frosted glass I see white clothes and blond hair. “Sorry, sweetheart, another case just came up. I’ll let you know when I’m on my way.”

I hang up, then call out, “Come in!”, dropping my feet back to the floor. Even I gotta look professional with a new client.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but she definitely wasn’t it. The dame that drifts into my office is tall, leggy, wearing the slinkiest, whitest evening dress I’d ever seen. Lips the color of a maraschino cherry part a little as her blue eyes take in her new surroundings. Disappointed? Probably. Disgusted? Possibly. I don’t have a personal maid at work. “If you’re lookin’ for a private eye,” I say casually enough, still sitting, “you found one.”

“Indeed I am,” she says with a voice like honey mixed with cigarette smoke. “I’ve recently been elbowed out of a business arrangement I helped establish. As much as I hate to admit it, I need help taking back what’s mine.”

She doesn’t seem like the damsel-in-distress type to me. She’s all seductive confidence as she lowers herself into a chair across the desk from me, taking a white cigarette holder from her bag and leaning toward me. “I’m all out,” she breathes. “Could you?”

Her luscious lips wrap around the holder as her eyes fix on mine expectantly. The nerve o’ this broad, walking into my office uninvited and then demanding one of my cigs!

I put one in the holder and light it for her. She winks at me, then leans back in the chair. I eye what’s left of the booze I’d poured for myself, think better of it. “Why don’t you, uh, give me some names to start with, miss…?”

“You can call me Fay. My ex-partners’ names are Nicky, Pete, Val, and Jack. They had been running an… operation down by the docks—“

The names are all I need to hear. I hold up a hand. “Say no more,” I tell her with a grin.

She looks confused by my cutting her off. “Do you know them?” she asks.

“I know of them, though I didn’t realize they were still in business. Haven’t heard about them in many years.”

“So you’ll take the case, then?” she says, tempering her obvious eagerness.

I finally stand from behind the desk and grab my holster from the coat rack next to me. “You got yourself a private eye.”

It’s her turn to stay seated. “Do you even know where to find them?” she asks with a skeptical smirk.

“Relax, dollface,” I tell her as I strap my revolver on. “I know a guy.”

***

O’Malley’s is the greasiest dive this side of the tracks—the wrong side. A ten minute walk from my office, and Fay and I stroll through the entrance like we own the place. I’ve sunk enough cash here that I probably could own the place, but that’s neither here nor there. We cross to the bar, and I take my usual stool, waving the owner over. After drying a glass that could use some more washing, Mickey O’Malley waddles towards us behind the bar. “Good ta see ya,” he grumbles in his brogue, a film of sweat shining on his balding ginger head. “What’ll it be tonight?”

“Answers, Mickey,” I say, keeping my coat on so he knows I’m here on business. “My acquaintance is looking for some deadbeat friends of hers. I think you might know where we can find them.”

Mickey’s eyes narrow, and I swear his forehead gets shinier. “And who might these friends be, then?”

I hold up a hand, palm toward me, fingers splayed. “Nicky,” I say, curling one finger down. “Pete.” Another finger. “Val.” Another. “Jack.”

Mickey stares wide-eyed at the fist now in his face. His head begins to twitch from side to side, his jowls jiggling. “No, no,” he splutters. “I don’t know them.”

He tries to turn away, but I’m faster. I reach over the bar and grab his shirt collar, pulling him toward me. The whole place freezes, everybody watching Mickey and me. But every set of eyes in the place knows me. They know I’m the one to go to for help, because I stop at nothing to get it for them. They just wanna see if Mickey makes it outta this one without too many bruises. “Don’t jerk me around, Mickey,” I growl. “I know you used to run with Nicky back in the day. Used to be his moneyman, keeping his stash safe from prying eyes. Even the boys in blue couldn’t pin anything on you two.”

“Saints preserve me!” Mickey squeaks. “What is it ya want?”

I fight hard to keep a satisfied smile off my face. Mickey’s always been a pushover. “Tell us where to find ‘em, and we won’t trouble you any more tonight.”

“All right, all right. About a week ago they moved into the ol’ Klaus Toy Factory on the other side o’ town.”

Now I smile, lowering Mickey back to the floor and patting his face roughly. The fear drains out of his green eyes. “There you go. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” I hop off the stool and turn to Fay. “Sounds like we got a date with a toymaker.”

She nods, and I note the sudden iciness in her dazzling blue eyes. “They moved a week ago. Just after they pushed me out. They’re trying to keep me from finding them.”

“Hey,” Mickey calls from behind the bar. “How about you not come around here for a while? Give me some time to calm down.”

“No can do. You’re the only place in town that stocks that Irish whiskey I love so much.” I slap a dollar bill on the bar before we turn to leave. “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”

***

Fay and I stand across the street from the Klaus Toy Factory, a stiff wind whipping her blond waves close to my face. The place looks completely deserted. If Mickey lied just to get me out of his bar, he’s gonna be real sorry later. “You ready, dollface?”

Her jaw’s clenched so tight, I worry she’ll break a tooth. “I’m ready.”

I look her over again, realizing her entire body is tense. “Hey, why don’t you let me handle things when we’re inside, okay?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look at me, just starts crossing the street to the factory’s front doors. I hurry to catch up, pulling ahead and waving her back once I reach the building. Revolver in hand, I kick the doors in and storm inside. The room reeks with a strange blend of pipe tobacco, cooking spices, roses, and grass. Through the smoky haze I see four men playing cards at a table under a single ceiling lamp. They all turn and glare at me, slowly rising from their chairs. I try to yell, “Hands up!” but the words stick in my throat. Not from fear; I’ve busted enough heads in my time to know how to stay calm in these situations. No, I’m speechless because I’m now facing four living legends.

Nicky the Saint, a white-haired fat guy with a penchant for cheap red suits, snaps a bunch of leather straps he’s holding. Next to him is Pete Cotton, with his trademark buck teeth, twitching nose, and ridiculously big ears. Then a tiny little speck of a guy, Babyface Val, aims at me with his weapon of choice—a crossbow, the psycho. Fancies himself a matchmaker, but every couple he sets up is miserable within weeks. And finally, Jacko, a man as thin as a scarecrow, gives me a toothy sneer that looks like it was carved into that giant round head of his. I’d heard of them all, just as I’d told Fay, but it’s been years—decades—since I seriously thought about them. To find them here, all in the same place, is sort of like a present, if I can round them all up and haul them in to jail. My inner child giggles with delight.

“So,” Nicky says to Fay, “you got the police to help you find us and get your money back.”

Val hefts his crossbow. “Got news for ya, toots. We own the police.”

I wave my gun at him to get his attention. “I’m no cop,” I bark. “I’m here to make sure the lady gets what she’s owed.”

A brief standoff ensues before Pete hurls a little egg-shaped capsule at my feet. It breaks open, and a noxious green cloud rises from it—my nose immediately fills with the stench of rotten eggs. He lunges across the room at me, tackling me just as Fay snaps her cigarette holder at Val. The sharp end buries itself in the little man’s leg, and he drops his crossbow to clutch at the injury. As I wrestle with Pete on the floor, I see Nicky swipe at Fay with his whips, but she dodges them easily and puts a fist into his midsection. His belly fat jiggles like jelly as he reels backward and collapses on the floor. I kick at Pete’s knee, hearing it crack just before he howls in pain. Then I scramble to my feet and hammer the butt of my pistol into the base of Jacko’s skull as he’s about to wrap his bony hands around Fay’s neck. He drops like a bale of hay; I’ve knocked his lights out.

Fay and I take a moment to make sure none of them can get back to their feet. But before I can even ask what she wants to do with them, she’s suddenly holding a pair of pliers in her hand. She stands over Nicky, straddling him and lowering the open pliers toward his mouth. “Let’s see how you like having something taken from you,” she snarls.

Whatever it is she’s about to do, I want no part of it. I excuse myself and walk back out to the street, lighting a cigarette in the moonlit night and trying my best to ignore the muffled screams coming from inside the factory. When she emerges from the building, her white dress is speckled with blood, and she’s clutching something in one fist. She uncurls her fingers when she reaches me. There are four bloody teeth resting in her hand.

It all makes sense now. “Fay” was just an alias. I know who she really is, and after meeting and beating the other four men in the factory, her identity isn’t so hard to believe. “Thanks for all your help,” she purrs, then leans in, offering her cherry-red lips.

I just manage to stop her from kissing me; for more than one reason, I want nothing to do with her form of gratitude. “All in a day’s work, doll.”

I see a flash of disappointment in her eyes, but she shrugs it off and raises her hand instead. “For your trouble.”

She tucks two shiny quarters in my hand before turning and sauntering off into the night, without so much as a good-bye. That’s dames for you.

***

I’m dead tired by the time I reach my office again. Collapsing into my chair, I pick up the phone and call home. Wendy sounds tired too; she probably stayed up listening to the radio and waiting for me again. “Sorry I missed dinner again, sweetheart,” I say. “I’m leavin’ now.”

“See you soon,” she yawns. “Oh, by the way, he’s asleep already, but Jimmy Junior wanted me to tell you that he lost another tooth. He was so excited.”

My stomach flips at the news. “Do me a favor, Wendy,” I say flatly. “Let’s make sure all the doors and windows are locked tonight.”

***

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds.com involved a random-genre mashup. My task was to write a fairy-tale/noir piece. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Flash Fiction – The Breaking Point

holding-hands“You don’t have enough points, sir. I’m sorry.”

Any further argument stuck in Jim’s throat. He looked down at his daughter, catching her gaze before she abruptly turned away from him. He was losing her, he could feel it. The denial of joint custody had devastated him, but he’d been determined to play a positive role in his daughter’s life. This should have been a minor setback, a momentary disappointment, but those had been adding up very quickly. Worse yet, Amanda’s reactions had dulled from a young child’s tantrums to reticent acceptance. When he’d picked her up this evening, she actually looked like she expected him to let her down before she’d even gotten in the car. The same expression her mother wore during the custody hearing.

“Fine, fine,” he muttered, squeezing Amanda’s hand as they walked away from the counter. He had just enough cash left for one last pick-me-up attempt. “How about that ice cream, kiddo?”

“That’s okay, daddy,” Amanda said without looking up at him. “I don’t really want to anymore.”

Her words chipped a hairline fracture into his heart. “Well, then, we can have a few more rounds of skee-ball, get some more tickets.”

“It won’t be enough,” she answered. “I’m tired. I wanna go home now.”

Crack.

A buzzer resounded through the boardwalk arcade, stopping Jim in his tracks and setting his teeth on edge. To his left, a girl slightly older than Amanda celebrated her skee-ball success with her parents and brother. Her machine was spewing a steady stream of tickets onto the floor. Amanda peered around Jim’s leg to see, then stood back again and stared at her feet.

His left hand balled into a fist; he had to concentrate to keep his right, which held his daughter’s hand, from doing the same. It wasn’t fair. He wanted to be a good father. He’d do anything to see his daughter smile at him again. Why was life constantly dealing him shit cards? Joyce cheated on him, yet she got sole custody. She insisted on having weekends with Amanda; Jim had to risk losing his job just to spend time with his daughter. Joyce got the house, he moved to a slum, had to carry pepper spray and a pocketknife to feel safe outside his own front door. Tonight, all Amanda wanted was the damned stuffed panda behind the counter, but that pimple-faced kid hawking the prizes refused to budge on the ticket count. What the hell did he have to do to get ahead?

He turned back around to look at the panda hanging from the ceiling, and saw the kid ask a coworker to cover for him, then head for the restroom. Something snapped in Jim’s brain then. His heart started pounding. His legs carried him forward before he realized what was happening. “Excuse me,” he said to the parents of the celebrating kids. “Can you do me a favor? I really have to hit the restroom, but I don’t wanna make my daughter wait for me in there. Can you watch her for a moment?”

The parents exchanged a dubious glance, then looked down at Amanda. “What’s your name, sweetie?” the mother asked.

“Amanda.”

“Thanks so much,” Jim said, then crouched down in front of his daughter. “Daddy’s gonna be right back, okay? Be good for this family, yeah?”

Amanda stared at him blankly. He rose and turned toward the restroom, trying not to think too hard lest he talk himself out of his plan. Pushing through the door, he nearly ran into the counter attendant as the kid flushed a urinal and walked to the sinks. The other urinals were unoccupied. As casually as possible, Jim crouched to check the stalls. No feet under any of the doors. Feeling sweat beading on his forehead, he approached the kid at the sink, grabbed his shoulder, and roughly spun him around.

“Hey, what the—“ the kid started, choking on the rest of his words as he stared at the blade of the pocketknife Jim held in front of his face.

Jim tried his best to sneer and sound intimidating. “Do I have enough ‘points’ now?”

***

I wrote this short story for a flash-fiction competition in which the story’s first line must be “You don’t have enough points, sir. I’m sorry.”