Monthly Archives: May 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream

The year: 1980
The place: Jr. High Gym Class
Your mission: Survive

I stand in the center of the gym, the air thick with the scent of dusty basketballs and sweaty tube socks. Strains of the chicken fat song fade, but a few girls defiantly sing-whisper the chorus:

Give that chicken fat back to the chicken and go, you chicken fat, go!

I am trapped in a great mass of girls, all in identical powder blue, one-piece gym suits. The elastic pinches my waist. The polyester shorts scratch and come with an automatic wedgie. No one dares tug. That would only bring on another chorus, one of:

Gro-oss, she’s digging in her buh-utt.

Some crimes require extra syllables.

But really, this class is the crime. Slimnastics. It’s not a real word. It’s not a real sport. There’s no such thing as an Olympic slimnast. In the past three weeks, we have learned all the steps, sung all the words.

None of us are slimmer for our efforts. Ms. Binkly, the gym teacher, is talking now, not that anyone is listening. The faintest lilt of the chorus sounds behind me, but I resist the urge to turn, to look, to act too interested.

Ms. Binkly’s most striking feature is a Marine Corps style haircut. Maybe we don’t always listen, it’s true. Here’s the thing:

No one ever talks back.

I stare at the ceiling, an ear toward the front. Something about her tone bothers me. It’s not the sound of a unit wrap up with warnings about the upcoming quiz. And really, how would you test a knowledge of slimnastics?

In the Chicken Fat song, where does the chicken fat go?

a) To KFC.

b) The principal’s thighs.

c) Back to the chicken.

d) All of the above.

No, what she’s saying now strikes us all breathless. If we’d actually exerted ourselves during the chicken fat dance, we’d all be doubled over. Instead, we stand absolutely still in cold horror. How do you test slimnastics? By making your twenty-five apathetic students choreograph and then perform their own routine.

In front of everyone.

Ms. Binkly places a stack of records on the floor. She claps her hands together. “All right, ladies! Break into groups, grab a record, and star in your own routine!”

She leaves us with that and retreats to her office. In a few minutes, the odor of sulfur will seep from beneath the door, followed by smoke.

Girls flock forward, pounce on the stack of records. I know enough about the pecking order not to get pecked. I step back and wait for the leavings.

I am left with a girl named Brianna and a single, dog-eared album on the gymnasium floor. We’re not friends, Brianna and I. Allies might be a better word, like the US and Russia during World War Two. We definitely have a common enemy, and we both need to maintain our GPA. We inch forward, shoes squeaking on the floor.

We stare at the woman on the album cover. She’s naked–or would be, if not for the mound of whipped cream she sits in. The album is called Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Brianna and I are young enough not to truly understand what these other delights might be, but old enough to know they don’t always involve food.

“This is hideous,” Brianna says.

She means everything. From the social doom of the album cover to the fact the only empty record player is the one next to Ms. Binkly’s office, where we end up ten minutes later, sucking in secondhand smoke while tripping through the opening steps to our routine. Our song of choice?

Whipped Cream.

Brianna and I are both smart enough to relish this bit of irony.

On performance day, Brianna skyrockets her hand into the air, and Ms. Binkly calls us to the front.

“Going first means a better grade,” Brianna says to my frown on our way to the center of the gym.

She’s right, of course. It’s this sort of cold logic that will make her class valedictorian in five years’ time. But now, as we churn our arms like egg beaters, I realize that slimnastics really does have a test.

What is Whipped Cream?

a) A garnish for desserts.

b) A song by Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass.

c) A form of public humiliation.

d) All of the above.

Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream was first published in Easy Street Magazine. It may, or may not, be based on actual events.

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Weekly writing check-in: writing in the time of COVID

As I mentioned, way back in the dark ages of April, I came down with all the symptoms of the coronavirus. I got better, got a bit of my writing mojo back, and all seemed well.

You know where this is going.

A couple of weeks ago, I started getting shortness of breath, tightness in my chest along with some pain. At first, I thought I had some allergy-induced asthma since we went from cold and rainy to BOOM! sunshine and blooms.

But no. To make a long story short, this week, I got confirmation. Yes, I absolutely had COVID back in April, and what I’m experiencing now is that second round some people are getting.

But no worries. My lungs are clear (chest x-ray), a blood test for clotting (just fine), and an EKG (also fine). I have a stress echocardiogram scheduled for Thursday just to make certain all is well with my heart.

Still. I cannot imagine what some people are going through with this virus. My lungs are clear, and it still hurts, I’m still short of breath. Often it’s weird and random. I can feel absolutely fine and begin to chide myself for overreacting, and then twenty minutes later, I’ll wonder if today’s the day I might be visiting the ER.

I made dinner last night since I was feeling like a sloth for not doing much all day (and by dinner, I mean that I put some pasta on to boil and dumped salad into a bowl–this was not a strenuous activity). After? I had to go lie down.

In actual writing news, I did get everything scheduled for the 2020 story project through July (whew!). I did take notes on the new project, and I think I found a plotline for a Coffee and Ghosts short story.

All things considered?

Not bad.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Life Expectancy of Fireflies

A short, odd, somewhat dark little tale.

After it was all over—after the handcuffs, the crime scene tape, and a noose crafted from a silk Armani tie—I think all of us would agree that it was Benji’s neck tattoo that caught our attention.

Of course, even here in the suburbs, we had our share of tattoos—the tramp stamps, the biceps circled in barbed wire, even a few full sleeves. But Benji’s tattoo was something else. Interlocking coils traveled his right shoulder to collarbone, across the hillock of his Adam’s apple, ending at last in a bloom below his left ear. You could imagine him leaning his head back, his throat a vulnerable canvas for the tattoo artist.

Within months, most women in the neighborhood had confessed to running their tongue along the intricate lines, as if the ink were something you could taste. By Benji’s second spring in the house at the end of the street, it was a rite of passage. Every housewife, single mom, and career woman had taken her tongue to Benji’s neck.

Except me.

I wondered if that’s why, in the evenings, he chose my porch. Not that he relaxed. Even when he tipped his head back, the cropped salt and pepper hair brushing the whitewash, his form melting into the steps, the man vibrated with tension. It filled the air around him. It made some women think of sex and sin and sweat, his bare neck an invitation to lap up the ink.

It made me clutch my cell phone, my thumb on the speed dial, my feet pushing against the floorboards while I sat in the porch swing. I took short, choppy breaths. Once, my jittery thumb hit 911. When the police cruisers arrived, all sirens and lights, all I could point to were the fireflies in the bushes, the dark house at the end of the street, and the porch steps, now vacant.

Only when my porch was empty did the air feel still enough to breathe. I’d spend those moments catching fireflies and letting them glow between my fingers. Only then was I glad that Benji had chosen me.

Benji filled our days. He helped carry in groceries (and, in some cases, left several hours later). He mowed lawns—usually shirtless. He drank gallons of freshly-squeezed lemonade and martinis expertly shaken. He rescued kites from trees and organized the neighborhood kickball tournament.

And in the dark house at the end of the street, he was cooking methamphetamine.

After it was all over, you wouldn’t have recognized Benji, not from all the descriptions: the creeper, the peeping Tom, the loner with bad teeth, the guy with the Satanic neck tattoo.

Only my story didn’t match. The police interrogated me, but it was a half-hearted attempt, their gazes filling the room with pity. They released me in less than an hour, even though I had the receipt for the tie in my purse. Even though moments before the police shackled his wrists, Benji turned toward me, ran his fingers along the tattoo, then blew me a kiss.

Half an hour earlier, I’d handed him the box wrapped in silver paper, the one that held the silk Armani tie. Twenty minutes after that, I dialed 911. For real, this time. No one knew how Benji smuggled the tie into his jail cell. We all could imagine the second, permanent tattoo.

Most nights, I think he wanted to end it. Most nights, I think he wanted me to be the one to do it. This was why he chose me, chose my porch.

But on summer evenings, I stand there, gaze locked on the dark house at the end of the street, and doubt fills the night. I catch fireflies and let them burn between my fingers until they wink out, one by one.

My porch is empty, the night still, and the air impossible to breathe.

This strange, dark little piece garnered many personal rejections until it was published in Fine Linen Magazine.

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Weekly writing check-in: outlining in the rain

Actually, the rain is outside, so I wasn’t outlining in the rain. However, I did finish an outline for what I think will be my next book (novella or novel, not quite sure at this point).

At least, I hope it will be my next book. I don’t want to jinx it or anything.

In the meantime, I need to go research a few things, like haunted engagement rings, wedding magazines, and ghost puns.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Short Sweet Life of My Invisible Prom Date

The perfect prom date doesn’t just build himself.

Geppetto carved Pinocchio, Pygmalion, his statue. So I knew it could be done. True, Victor Frankenstein had his monster. This was something to consider since I had no intention of attending zombie prom. Still, it was his example I started with.

After all, the perfect prom date doesn’t just build himself. Forget frogs, and snails, and puppy dog tails. That might be the stuff little boys are made of. The perfect prom date?

Hardly.

When it came to raw material, my high school left much to be desired. Even so, there was enough there that I could make do. I began the culling in March with Magnus Reynolds. His GPA was only second to my own—a close enough match. Since cutting open his head and extracting his brain wasn’t an option, I went with the next best thing.

True, there’s that dent in my front left bumper, and granted, it might technically be theft even if the mailbox contents have somehow spilled across the road. But I doubt his parents will miss a report card that resembled every other one.

Up next was Sam Collier. Now here was a rare find! A boy who simply didn’t know how hot he was. Considering the ego-driven pretty boys at my high school, Sam should be classified as endangered. Which is why I truly regret the mishap with the Bunsen burner during physics lab. Still, the lock of that perfect blond hair was worth it. It’s amazing what people don’t notice when a table’s on fire.

For the last ingredient, I had to truly get creative. This was my riskiest move, humiliating if I got caught, chancy when it came to the item I needed. Under the cover of steam, I crept into the boys’ locker room, waiting until the pound of water in the showers drowned out my footsteps. I rushed from locker bank to locker bank, ducking behind a garbage can to catch my breath and quiet my pounding heart.

I grabbed the first item my fingers encountered, then I bolted, sneakers skidding on wet tile. I clutched the crumpled material in my hand and didn’t stop running until I reached the girls’ bathroom. I crashed into the last stall and slammed the door behind me. Only then did I look at my prize.

A jockstrap.

Still. It fit the requirements. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with boys can tell you: sweat is an essential component of their makeup.

I was at the florist when I discovered my date’s name. I was buying the Dreamy Pink Wristlet (for myself) and the Dashing Boutonniere (for him), when the cashier said:

“Owen.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I said, you owe, um, fifty-five dollars and eighteen cents.”

Oh-um? Owen. Not only was it the perfect name, but it could be our private joke. All couples need at least one of those.

The night before prom, I gathered everything together: the tux I rented from The Men’s Warehouse (including socks and shoes, size 11), a white T-shirt, a pair of boxer briefs (no date of mine was going commando). In my closet, I set up the altar.

Anyone who’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein knows Victor’s downfall was his pride. He played God. They don’t call it the miracle of life for nothing. After all, didn’t Pygmalion pray to Venus? I needed divine intervention, and I wasn’t too proud to ask for it.

On my altar, I placed the report card, the lock of hair, and even the jockstrap. I sprinkled peppermint leaves (for fresh breath) and honey (for sweetness), then I lit candles (heart-shaped, of course). As the scent of pine, sandalwood, and cinnamon drifted across my face and through my hair, I prayed.

Now, it probably doesn’t surprise you that there isn’t a patron saint of prom. That night, I prayed to Saint Raphael, who is the patron saint of lovers, young people, and happy meetings. If that doesn’t describe prom, then it probably should. When I was done, I blew out the candles and slipped into bed. That night, I dreamed of Owen.

In the morning, everything was gone! The tux, the shoes and socks, even the jockstrap, if you can believe that. The aroma of burnt cinnamon lingered in the air, and something told me I’d messed up horribly. I would not be going to prom. I would not have the perfect prom date.

Miracles take faith, I told myself. For the rest of the day, I shoved the worry from my mind and acted as if all were well. I kept my mani/pedi appointment and the one for my up-do. The stylist even added sparkly rhinestones for free when she saw how badly my hands shook.

By seven that night, I was ready, even if no limo sat in our driveway. Not yet. Owen was nervous, too, I told myself, so he’d be a little late. It was his one (adorable) flaw.

“Honey?” My mom’s voice was soft. “Are you sure you’re okay with this, being at prom alone?”

I rolled my eyes. “I won’t be alone.”

“Tori—”

Just then, that flash of black appeared, the limo long and sleek. I caught the shimmery sight of Owen as he took our porch steps by twos.

“Bye, Mom!” I called out. I burst through the door and left her standing in the living room, her mouth a perfect o of surprise.

Of course, a perfect prom date deserved such a reaction.

I quickly learned that to see Owen, you couldn’t stare straight at him. He teased the corners of my eyes. I caught his grin—warm and charming. His height—at least three inches taller than I was. I worried people would stare and not see the real Owen, not see what I did—the wonderful boy who was the perfect prom date.

The kids at my school might be rude, but none were outright gawkers. Still, I was careful. As much as I wanted a photo, I sensed the flash might harm Owen, burn away the delicate work of miracles. We spent our time dancing in dark corners. Light from the glitter ball fell across us. My skin glowed, but Owen’s shimmered like something otherworldly.

And he was the perfect date. We danced, but not so my feet got sore. When I was thirsty, he fetched me punch. He was on such a mission when prom queen Sierra Blakely drifted by.

“I don’t think I know your date,” she said.

“He doesn’t go to our school.”

She glanced around. “Well, where is he?”

I nodded toward the punch bowl. At this distance, I could just see the sleeve of Owen’s tux. In his hand, the cheap plastic cup looked like a crystal goblet.

“I don’t even have to ask,” I told Sierra. “He just knows when I’m thirsty.”

“Oh.”

Her expression was wistful, or maybe sad. She’d gone with Trevor Radke. Sure, he was cute, and a football player, but he made all his friends call him Rad-Man. That was just all kinds of awkward.

We left prom early. Anyone with a passing familiarity with miracles and fairy tales knows not to mess with the deadline. We needed to be back in my room before midnight. Even on the ride home, I could feel Owen waver, his shimmer fading, and the best night of my life coming to a bittersweet end.

By the time we reached my room, he couldn’t stand without help, so I arranged his tux on the hangers and hung it on the back door of my closet. Then I placed the shoes neatly beneath. My perfect night needed its perfect ending. I wasn’t ready to let go, not quite yet.

I lit the candles again and switched off the overhead light. That helped. Then I wrapped the arms of his tuxedo jacket around my waist and placed my hands on the jacket’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” I whispered, “for being my date.”

I kissed him then. Everyone knows the perfect prom ends with a perfect kiss.

And it was.

Maybe it was that perfect kiss, or the candles, but something happened then. I couldn’t see Owen, not even a teasing shimmer from the corner of my eye, but all at once, those strong arms took form and pulled me closer. Owen held me like he never wanted to let me go. The scent of burnt cinnamon filled the air. As to what happened next?

Well, as anyone with a passing familiarity with prom knows, sometimes it ends with more than just a kiss.

* * *

A year later, and prom remains my most cherished memory from high school. Beating out Magnus Reynolds for valedictorian is a close second. Even so, perfection has its price, and miracles have a way of spawning some of their own.

True, I worry. I know all about Rosemary and her baby. But Owen was nothing but sweet, and the same goes for his son. (Yes, I can tell. A mother knows.) But when you get right down to it, Owen Jr. doesn’t need much: no burping or changing. He doesn’t need more from me than merely my presence. This makes me tired, but I’m also a single mom taking a full load of college classes and working a part-time job. Mothers will sacrifice anything for their children, and I will make sure Owen Jr. has everything he needs.

Although, when I think about it, I suspect he’ll only need one thing:

A date to prom.

This strange little story, with a possibly unreliable narrator, first appeared in Mad Scientist Journal, Winter 2014.

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Weekly writing check-in: murderbot and story planning

I’m really enjoying Network Effect, the fifth book in The Murderbot Diaries series. I’m glad I reread the first four books before diving in. I’m not 100% sure the fifth in the series stands alone. It could, but I think it’s far better to read the entire series in order.

This week, I finished scheduling stories for May and came up with a plan for posting stories for June and July. It involves a serial story for July, which was not my original intent.

But you know what? I did not expect a pandemic and murder hornets and all the rest. As we used to say in the Army: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

So I think that’s what I’ll go do on this cold, rainy Mother’s Day.

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Free Fiction Friday: What Little Remains

In a post-apocalyptic city, Kit ekes out an existence by tending to her rooftop garden. A rift in time brings her a new friend from the past and something else far more menacing.

You can also listen to this story here, narrated by Ashley Klanac.

In the mornings, I slip out the broken window so anyone still living in this building will not hear me. Footfalls echo in the empty hallway, and since debris blocks the stairwell to the roof, no one climbs to the top anymore.

Except me. But I take the long way.

I slide along the tenth-floor ledge, rough bricks scraping my shoulder blades, heels locked against the building. My fingertips inch from brick face to mortar. It’s this I concentrate on. To think of the fall is to wish for it.

In the mornings, mist hides the city and dampens the stench of rotted wood and flesh. In the mornings, I inhale the scent of damp soil from the rooftop garden and the sharp odor from the volunteer tomato plants. When I was little, I always imagined the plants with tiny flintlock rifles over their shoulders, marching from one garden to the next. I know better now. But as I tug weeds from around their stems, I like to think we’re both fighting a good fight.

This morning, when I pull myself onto the rooftop, my foot strikes a rake. The handle flips up and plops back onto the tarpaper shingles. I freeze, certain that yesterday I left the rake leaning against the stairwell to the floors below. I take a cautious look around.

In the garden itself, a set of footprints, much larger than my own, crosses the expanse. Tiny hairs prickle on the back of my neck, like someone has come from behind and blown a stream of air against my skin. I remain stricken.

By the time the sun touches my face, my feet ache, and my calf muscles knot, so when I do move, my gait is hobbled. I study the outline of the footprints. Some sort of heavy work boot—the depression is deep and the soil crushed. Yet my spindly volunteer tomatoes stand proud, all green except for a faint yellow blush. No one has tugged on a carrot or dug a potato. The soil is moist. The watering can sits on the east side of the garden, not the west, where I left it yesterday. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the displaced rake.

Only when the sun warms the top of my head do I notice them. My heart jolts. I grip the rake, certain I’ll snap the ancient wood in half. There, on the roof’s edge, is a perfect set of fingernails—the press-on kind, that, once upon a time, were advertised on TV. They are such a brilliant red, they make the brickwork around them look dull and dowdy. They are so pristine and lined up so exactly, I’m surprised they’re not attached to some starlet hanging on for dear life, waiting for the man in those heavy work boots to clomp across my garden and rescue her.

I whirl around, certain he’s here to do just that. The roof is empty. A breeze rustles the leaves of the tomato plants. They bow their heavy heads and whisper to each other. They will not tell me what they know.

* * *

All week, I sneak up to the garden earlier and earlier, until there’s a danger I’ll miss the ledge in the dark. Fresh footprints greet me each morning. Mid-week, someone clears the scum from the top of the water in the rain barrel. Weeds gather in wilted piles along the edges of the garden’s cedar container. Most unsettling, every day I find a set of press-on nails in the same spot. Today they glow sparkly pink, glitter catching the early morning light.

Something compels me to search for the starlet. I kneel at the ledge, stretch out a hand. It’s silly, but at the same time, I’d want someone to reach out for me. Today, the sun strikes my face at the same moment my fingers reach the air beyond the ledge. A burst of light blinds me. Wind kicks up dust, and I duck my head.

Warm hands with sharp nails grip my arm. I jerk backward and tumble across the roof. Someone tumbles with me. After the noise and light, all is quiet except our haggard breaths.

“I’m through!” the girl next to me says. “And look! My fingernails. I thought I’d lost them for sure.”

Her clothes flow with her every move. Her hair is tall, so tall, maybe taller than her head—well, at least the bangs are. Brilliant blue is smeared across her eyelids. Dark pink streaks her cheeks. And her lips are as red as my tomatoes should be. I touch my own face, but brick dust and mud can never compare.

“Are you an actress?” I ask.

“What?” She shakes her head, but her hair barely moves. “No, silly. I just live—” Her brow creases and she scans the rooftop. “Well, here, but not here.” Her gaze travels until it reaches the garden. “Oh, how strange. I keep wondering how my grandmother’s garden changes. But it doesn’t. I’m just seeing yours.”

“Thank you for pulling my weeds,” I say.

She laughs. “But then I get in trouble for not pulling my grandmother’s. And I always put my nails there.” She points to the ledge. “So I won’t ruin them. I thought the wind was blowing them away.”

The air shimmers above the nails. Something bright flashes from the space beyond but vanishes before I can even grasp what it might be.

“I’m Shelli, by the way, with an i.” She stands and her clothes flutter, their colors startling, like the blue jays and goldfinches you still sometimes see.

Her feet are tiny, her shoes so clean and bright. They do not have the heavy soles that crisscross my garden and trample the soil.

“I’m Kit,” I say, “with an i.”

Shelli laughs, but as she walks the rooftop’s perimeter, her features grow somber. “This isn’t all like my grandmother said it would be.”

“She’s been here?”

“A long time ago.” Shelli shields her eyes with a hand and peers out over the ledge. “Is this the end of the world?”

“No, unfortunately.”

She scrunches up her face. “The future, then?”

I shrug. That glimmer catches my eye again. I wonder what it is about my rooftop that makes the air do that. I wonder what it is about my rooftop that brings strangers to me.

“I’m from 1999,” she says. “What year is it here?”

Some claim to know the year, but no two claims match. I’ve since stopped caring, so all I do is shake my head.

Shelli leans forward where the ledge is still waist high. “I go to school …” She points. “There.”

I follow her gaze and her finger to the charred remains, where wisps of smoke rise in the morning mist. “I used to go there,” I say.

Her mouth turns down, but she is still so pretty. I want to work in her grandmother’s garden, have shiny, tall hair, and fancy nails—a different color on each finger. I do not want to stay on my rooftop. I do not want to use everything I have to coax tomatoes from the soil. I want to go to a place where hope still lives.

“I don’t know how to bring you back,” she says, as if reading my mind. “I’m not even sure how I got through.”

“That’s okay.” But the words leave my mouth with a sigh.

Her gaze darts from black-streaked buildings to my garden and then to me. “It’s not really okay.”

She’s right, of course, but I don’t have words to tell her that. “I want to show you something,” I say instead and point to the heavy footprints in the garden. At the sight of them, it feels like a boot is crushing my heart. “Someone else is slipping through.”

Shelli kneels at the garden’s edge and traces the impression as if that will tell her what we need to know. She says, “Be careful.” And I think that maybe it has.

Before I can respond, all the air around us is sucked away. I duck my head, bring a hand up to cover my nose and mouth. Soil and dust swirl around me. Grit stings my eyes. Then, all is quiet. Shelli is gone. Only her pink, sparkly nails remain, not clinging to the edge, but at my feet in a little pile. I scoop them up and hold one against my finger.

Oh, so pretty.

* * *

Today, I find the tomatoes crushed, their seeds and pulp spread across the garden, their juice soaking into the soil. I tunnel my fingers beneath the dirt, excavating tiny bits of green flesh in hopes of saving it. My efforts only drive the dirt deeper into what little remains.

I gather the tomatoes anyway. Perhaps with water from the rain barrel, I can rinse the bigger chunks clean—or clean enough. Perhaps …

The slap of the rake handle against tarpaper shingles forces my gaze up. At first, all I see are big, white boots, with heels so enormous, they could smash my largest tomatoes with one step—and probably have. His clothes do not billow. They are sleek and stiff, an exoskeleton that encases him from foot to head. The man before me is not from the past, not like Shelli. If he’s from the future, then I think humanity may be better off among the remains. My gaze darts to the building’s edge and the nails there—a set of brilliant blue. Only today, one nail points toward the rooftop stairwell.

“You don’t belong here,” I say to the man.

His image flickers then solidifies again.

“This isn’t your world.”

More flickering, but he stubbornly stays on my rooftop. Not only that, but he takes a step forward, followed by another.

I dodge his steps, like a mouse out-maneuvering a feral cat. The toe of one boot catches me and sends me flying toward the building’s edge. I roll, palms scraping tarpaper and grit. I grip the ledge, stop my descent, heart thudding against the brick, lungs inhaling dust. When I open my eyes, bright blue nails greet me, pointed toward the stairwell. I scramble to my feet and dash for safety.

Shelli flings open the door and pulls me inside. “Thank God! You’re okay.”

“You too.”

We cling to each other in the shelter of the stairwell.

“He can’t open the door,” she says.

“Did he try?”

Shelli nods and I clutch her tighter.

“What do we do?” she asks.

I shake my head. What can we do? He’s already destroyed my garden. Once the noon sun strikes the rooftop, cowering in the stairwell won’t be an option. We’ll broil in here, and with the stairs blocked, there’s no way down. Perhaps the two of us could rush him, using our combined strength to push him over the ledge.

I open my mouth to voice this idea, but can’t force the words from my throat. So little remains—of my garden, of this world—that I don’t want to take one more life, even one that doesn’t belong here.

In front of us, the man crouches, lifts a handful of tomato and soil to his face. He pushes back his visor and inhales as if it’s the most wonderful thing he’s ever smelled. Then, he turns toward us. Sorrow washes across his face. His mouth moves. After a long moment, I piece together his words.

I’m sorry.

Oh, and so am I.

“He’s trapped,” I say to Shelli. “He’s not in this world, or his own, but in between.”

She nods, but her eyes are huge, the beautiful blue around them caked and creased. Dark smears travel down her cheeks. I venture from the stairwell, Shelli gripping my hand.

“You need to get back,” I say to the man. “Right?”

The sorrow fades, and he nods. He steps from the garden, trailing mud and tomato innards. I try not to cringe at the destruction or his approach.

“There must be a way.” I glance toward the now-empty ledge. “Shelli! Your nails! They’re gone.”

I creep forward and take the man by one of his stiff, gloved hands. His fingers swallow mine whole. The safety of the stairwell is too far away; he is too strong. But he trots by my side like a compliant puppy.

“Where, exactly?” I ask Shelli.

She bends over, hair sweeping the bricks. “Here, where this dent is.” She peers at me through the strands of hair. “My grandmother told me to stand here and wish upon a star. Funny how it’s lasted all this time.”

We position the man at the ledge and stand across from him. An urge hits me, like I should salute. Instead I stretch out my hand. A smile lights his face that makes him look like an action hero. He shakes my hand, then Shelli’s.

Then, it’s as if the wind steals him. When the dust settles, speckling my arms and face, nothing remains except for me, the crushed tomatoes, and one of Shelli’s bright blue fingernails.

* * *

Footprints no longer mar my garden. The rooftop’s ledge looks lonely without Shelli’s colorful nails. I may have salvaged a tomato plant. A week has passed, and it seems to have a hold on the soil, if a tenuous one. I am its fiercely protective mother. I spend hours on the roof, chasing away chattering crows, providing sips of water from the rain barrel.

This morning when I crest the rooftop, something bulky sits on the opposite ledge. I creep forward slowly, still on all fours. There, in the spot where Shelli’s nails used to clutch the edge, a basket of tomatoes sits, along with packets of seeds. Beneath those, I uncover a set of press-on nails, the very shade of the tomatoes.

The sun hits the ledge, warming the tomatoes, making their skin glow. The nails dazzle my eyes. Together, they are the color of blood and hope.

And oh, so pretty.

Sometimes a character and her voice arrive in my head and I’m simply there for the dictation. This would be one of those stories.

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Weekly writing check-in: pollen and murderbot

So much pollen. But a little writing as well. And a lot of reading.

This week, I’m re-reading The Murderbot Diaries in anticipation of the release of book #5 on Tuesday. The first in the series is on sale at the moment if you want to give it a try. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the series is the novella-length of each title. We’ll see how I feel about the standalone novel-length entry (maybe by next week–I’ll let you know).

And now I’m going to try to do something despite the pollen.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Potato Bug War

May is all about odds and ends, those strange little stories that sometimes pop into my head.

First up is flash fiction piece that takes place during WWII.

Her students collected so many potato bugs that Emilienne had to dash back to the vineyard for an extra wagon and a pram, all under the glare of a German soldier. The pram squeaked its protest, the wheels jolting along ruts while Henri’s words rang in her head:

Make it a game. Let the children have some fun.

So Emilienne handed each of her charges a jar and sent them into the potato fields under the hot Burgundy sun.

“Whoever collects the most wins a sweet!”

The children scampered through the fields, hands greedy for the tiny bugs. The damage was minimal—for now. But a blight was a blight, the potato crop at risk. As Henri put it:

Can’t deprive les Boches of their pommes frites, can we now?

Her students bent and plucked. One girl stumbled across the furrows, jar clutched to her chest in triumph.

“Mademoiselle! Look how many I’ve collected!”

The girl ran off with another jar but turned before resuming her spot in the field. “Will it be enough?”

Emilienne patted her skirt pocket, the one with the sweet. “We’ll see.”

She arranged the jars in the wagons, glass scraping against metal, sun baking the striped creatures inside. They crawled over each other, all in search of an opening that was no longer there.

So many bugs, and yet, she wondered. How many did the Germans expect them to collect? Would it be enough? How much was enough when it came to potato bugs?

In the end, she awarded the sweet to the industrious little girl. The child’s two older brothers lugged the wagons into town while Emilienne pushed the pram. The jars rocked and clattered, her strange, many-legged babies squirming. Sweat trickled down her spine, and a taste, like rusty grit, filled her mouth.

At the turn-in point, a lone soldier waited. He was no more than a boy, this German, this Nazi. In her head, she heard Henri:

Poor bastard probably has to count them all.

“What will you do with them?” Emilienne knew better than to start a conversation. She wasn’t a collaborator. And no matter how much her belly rumbled at night, she wouldn’t accept those kinds of favors.

Still, she wanted to know. As if the fate of these potato bugs mattered to her, to Burgundy, to the war.

“Drown them.” The boy grimaced as if he, personally, was responsible for the task.

Poor bastard, indeed.

In the end, she relinquished all but one jar. It was such a foolish thing to do, hiding it there beneath the pram’s tattered cushion. Would they line up a firing squad? Shoot her? Perhaps, but only after the Gestapo had their turn.

Tell me, Fraulein, why have you deprived the Reich of these potato bugs?

Yes, why had she? Emilienne couldn’t say. That didn’t stop her from gathering potato leaves from the field. That night, in the wine cellar, she stabbed the lid with an ice pick. She shoved handfuls of leaves into the jar and fed her hungry, many-legged babies.

That summer, whenever she overheard the Germans complain about the harvest, Emilienne thought of a jar, hidden in the wine cellar, and swallowed a smile.

It was enough.

This strange little story was first published in Pulp Literature, Issue 19. And yes, the Germans really did send French citizens into the potato fields during a blight to collect potato bugs.

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