Weekly writing check-in: (low-key) adventure time

So, I missed last week due to some (low-key) adventure. My Girl Scout Troop will be graduating this spring, and between now and then, we need to spend all the cookie money they’ve earned.

In fact, we’re not even selling cookies this year. Even after this trip, we still have money to burn. (And yes, that sound you hear is my sigh of relief.)

What we did do is book a lovely house on a lake a couple of hours north. And somehow, everyone was able to attend. It did not blizzard on us. And I think/hope a good time was had by all.

We did jigsaw puzzles and snowshoed on the lake, baked cookies in the Italian kitchen and watched movies.

We also caught a gorgeous sunrise over the lake.

In writing news, I somehow (somehow!) managed to schedule all of the stories for March. I have April’s selected. Looking into May, I’m going to need to write a few new ones here pretty soon.

All in all, not a bad week.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Burden of So Many Roses

The road to popularity at Fremont High School is paved with rose petals.

Or, to be exact (and I usually am), petals from three-dollar roses.

This year, I have a three-part plan to conquer those roses:

1. Money (Christmas, babysitting, minimum wage from the Sub Shoppe)

2. Handwriting samples (AP World History projects, chemistry lab, Spanish class)

3. Selection of boys (valedictorian, quarterback, swim team captain)

They’re all going to send me a rose on Valentine’s Day—even if they don’t realize it.

The problem? Girls from the cheerleading squad run the rose booth. I must make sure no one sees me take more than a few notecards. But a sweater with big pockets and a little misdirection work wonders. I slip in before school and give Sienna my biggest smile.

“For my best friend,” I say, a lie, of course.

One, that rose is totally for me. Two? Maybe next year at this time, I’ll have a best friend—or any friends, for that matter. First, I must tread the rose-petal path.

“Aw,” Sienna says. “That’s so sweet. Some girls don’t get any roses.”

Not that Sienna would know. She’s never been one of those girls. The thing is, everybody knows that girls buy for each other. It doesn’t make you popular. It doesn’t make guys think you’re hot. All it does is make you look desperate. I will not be that girl. Not anymore.

That night, I neglect calculus in favor of perfecting Marcus Hanson’s blocky boy letters and Toby Preston’s lazy scrawl. In the end, I spend fifty-four dollars for eighteen roses. I can always stash a few in my locker if lugging around so many roses turns out to be too much. On Valentine’s Day, I choose a pink sweater. When I walk into school and see Sienna wearing a similar style in a similar shade, I know it’s perfect.

This day will be perfect.

All morning, roses flood the classrooms. It’s a record sale, the principal announces over the PA system, with the proceeds going to Operation Smile. We are, she tells us, a most generous group of young people. Some more than others, I think.

More roses arrive, but by the time class ends, not a single one is for me. Next class. I’ll practically drown in all the roses. But by lunch, I trudge to the cafeteria empty-handed. Sienna, at the cheerleading table, has a stack of roses—red and pink and creamy white. She plucks one from the pile and hands it to a freshman girl passing by.

Oh, to be Sienna. To have roses to spare.

During chemistry, the collar of my pink fuzzy sweater chokes me. My armpits produce massive amounts of sweat. I blow an easy pop quiz. Then, I have the best thought.

All my roses will arrive during last class! I’ll stagger to my locker under their weight. When I pass Sienna, she’ll give me a secret smile, the sort only shared by girls who struggle under the burden of so many roses.

When the last bell rings, I stay rooted in my chair, convinced there’s been a mistake. Not a single rose! Mrs. Meyer clears her throat, then asks:

“Are you okay?”

I nod, but I’m not okay. I’m out fifty-four dollars. The path to my locker is strewn with other people’s rose petals. My books make my arms ache. I dial the combination, but don’t lift the handle.

“Hey, Emily.”

I turn. Toby Preston stands to one side, pink-cheeked and adorable.

“This is crazy,” he says. “But back in sixth grade, I never gave you this.” He pushes an envelope at me. “It was stupid, because we had to give everyone a valentine, but I didn’t want anyone to know I liked you.”

I hold the valentine like it’s made of spun glass. This is better than a rose.

“Would you like to go somewhere?” he asks. “Coffee shop, maybe?”

Oh! Even better. Who needs roses anyway? I nod and open my locker for my coat. Out spills a rose. Then another. They tumble out, cover the linoleum, bury me up to my ankles.

Toby’s cheeks blaze red. His Adam’s apple bobs once, twice, so hard my throat aches in response.

“I guess coffee’s out of the question,” he says. Before I can stop him, he sprints down the hall.

A custodian helps me clear away the roses. She loans me a pair of work gloves, but the thorns find my skin. One pricks my cheek, and I can’t stop the blood tear that rolls down my face.

“Seen this before,” she says after I shove the last rose to the bottom of the dumpster.

“Really?”

“It happens. Every few years or so.”

What happens?” I want to know why and what it all means.

Her eyes are kind, but she shrugs. “I think that’s up to you.”

I leave school empty-handed.

A block from home, I spot a little girl at a bus stop. In the center of the road sits a smashed shoebox. Red construction paper hearts flutter in the wind. Tires grind Red Hots and conversation hearts into powder. Her sobs fill the air but do nothing to stop the cars from plowing through her valentines.

“They’re all gone,” she says, “I don’t have any left.”

Neither do I. Then I remember Toby’s valentine. I pull it from my backpack. The wind nearly steals it, so I hang on tightly. Then I wonder if I can let it go.

“What’s that?” the little girl asks.

“It’s yours.” I kneel at her side and hand it to her.

“Oh! It even has my name on it! Right here. It says Emily.”

“See? It was meant for you.”

She skips down the sidewalk, clutching Toby Preston’s valentine to her chest. I turn for home. Only when I reach the front porch, do I feel it.

I am one rose lighter.

The Burden of So Many Roses was first published in Kazka Press as part of their monthly contest. The theme was an undelivered Valentine. And it’s one of those Valentine’s Day stories for when you’re not feeling Valentine’s Day.

I was thrilled when Toasted Cake picked it up for the podcast. Tina’s narration is, as always, amazing.

Miss a story? Check the titles here.

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Free Fiction Friday: Steadfast

Poppy fell the moment Carlos showed her his feet. She’d never met a man—or rather, a civilian man—with feet uglier than her own. But ballet slippers weren’t any kinder to toes than combat boots were.

Before she saw him, she’d planned on making a tactical retreat from the reception. It’d been a mistake to take leave for this wedding, an even bigger one to wear her dress uniform. Coming home never worked. Hadn’t she learned that by now? Too many awkward questions, too many thank yous.

What made her pause at the ballroom’s entrance, Poppy couldn’t say. She didn’t see the groom twirling his bride or the bridesmaids in clouds of chiffon floating across the parquet.

Only Carlos.

With uncommon grace, he crossed the room. He navigated the maze of chairs, tables, and guests like a man intimately familiar with each muscle of his body. When he landed in front of her, he didn’t speak but merely held out his hand.

“I don’t dance,” she said.

“Everybody dances.”

“Not me. I march.”

He tipped his head back and laughed. “I can dance well enough for both of us.”

And yes, he could. Demanding to see his feet came several glasses of champagne later.

“Stay,” he whispered the next morning. “Spend the week with me. You can come to rehearsal. I’m dancing the role of the steadfast tin soldier.”

She laughed at the audacity of it, of burning a week’s worth of leave in New York City, with this beautiful man whose world was so different from her own.

“Do you know anything about being a soldier?” she asked.

“That’s why I need you. You can be my technical advisor.”

“No one will believe that.”

Everyone did. Or, rather, they indulged their principal dancer. She taught Carlos how to drill with a wooden rifle. During breaks, he taught her how to hold herself so he could lift and spin her around.

With Carlos, she could dance. With Carlos, she was weightless.

At the airport, he tucked a necklace into the palm of her hand, the pendant an exquisitely engraved poppy.

“We both have demanding mistresses.” His words were so soft she barely heard them above the clamor of traffic and travelers. “You don’t need to come home to me. Just come home.”

She wore the necklace every day in Afghanistan. Poppy no longer regretted attending the wedding, or even wearing her uniform. Her only regret was never seeing Carlos dance on stage.

They wrote letters, the old-fashioned kind, hers torn from a notebook, the paper encrusted with sand and dotted with dirty fingerprints, his on the back of paper placemats, or cleverly crafted in the margins of playbills.

Then her world erupted in fire. When the burn subsided to mere embers, it was too late and Walter Reed a world away from New York City. Still, Poppy vowed: she would see Carlos dance.

Sleeping Beauty gave her the chance.

She had flowers delivered to his dressing room—white roses laced with red poppies. That way he’d know. That way, if he didn’t want to see her, he could hide until she abandoned her vigil at the stage door.

Poppy waited there, her head still buzzing from his performance, her weight sagging into the crutches, her foot heavy in its cast.

Her cheeks flamed when she caught sight of him emerging from the door, her skin hot against the December air. He scanned the alleyway behind the theater. The moment his gaze met hers, he froze.

“Bet my feet are uglier than yours now,” she said.

He exhaled and laughed. It was only then she saw the poppy tucked in his lapel. He took in her crutches, her foot in its cumbersome cast. His eyes grew somber.

“My steadfast soldier.”

“I’m home,” she said.

He moved close, fluid and graceful, and cupped her cheek with his palm. “So am I.”

All at once she was weightless.

Steadfast was first published at Flash Fiction Online (and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well). It was my attempt to retell Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

So I did, with a gender flip and an unapologetic happy ending. And if you like, you can also read a review of the story here.

All in all, how could I not share this story on Valentine’s Day.

Miss a story? Check the titles here.

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Weekly writing check-in: winter wonderland

So much for spring.

Today we have a classic Minnesota sort of day: lots of snow overnight and this morning, only to clear off with brilliant blue skies in the afternoon–like none of it ever happened.

This week, I worked on the stories for March. I’m going with a theme (more or less) for each month. First, I thought of March madness. Then I considered in like a lion(ess). I’m still not sure what I’ll do.

However, I do know what I plan to do with this snowy Sunday. I have a mystery to finish reading. And it’s the perfect day for that.

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Free Fiction Friday: Incriminating Evidence

It’s February, so it’s all about love this month–romantic love, star-crossed love, a bit of unrequited love. Speaking of which …

“You won’t tell anyone this.”

I don’t remind Magnus that I can’t. Besides, his is a knee-jerk sort of question, the one he always asks at the start of a counseling session.

“You’re the only one I can talk to,” he says.

I nod, doodling on a piece of paper, its edges so charred that the smoky scent reaches me. It contains a list of names that, depending on whose fingers clutch the paper, could be almost anything—a death warrant, a hit list, a who’s who of the most recent rebellion.

But since a Sage last held it, I’ve taken to desecrating it with doodles—mostly hearts and flowers—and mostly adorning Magnus’s name. No, I shouldn’t have a crush, but then I shouldn’t be dispensing advice without a license, either.

Such are the times we live in.

“I need to fire my second,” he says.

I crook an eyebrow at this. True, I am a rebel confidant, for lack of a better term, but I normally deal with Oedipus or Electra complexes, abandonment issues, and learned helplessness. (You’d be surprised how many revolutionaries aren’t quite sure what to do after the coup.) But firing one’s second in command? Purely an operational decision.

“He’s a good friend,” Magnus says.

Ah, the crux of the problem. I give a single nod, one that means: Go ahead.

“But I fear his loyalties may lie elsewhere.” Magnus stares at me, his gaze holds both pleading and defiance. Has his second, Orlando, confessed to me? Magnus wants me to confirm. He wants me to deny. He wants something I can’t give him. I can no more tell Magnus this than voice his doubts to Orlando.

Magnus strokes his chin. “It worries me.”

Now I nod. It should and greatly.

“Do you think I should consult the Sages?”

I tilt my head to one side and give a little shrug—the maximum consideration the Sages deserve.

Magnus laughs, a big boom that fills the room and warms my heart. Still, I swallow the bitter anxiety that floods my mouth. He is strong, I tell myself. This strength will be his salvation, not his downfall.

“Yes,” he says, still laughing. “I know you’ve never set much store in their advice.”

I have my own reasons for disregarding the Sages. That they dispense worthless advice is secondary.

“Of course…” A slyness crosses his face, the look both playful and seductive. “They led me to you.”

Well, there’s that.

He taps his fingers against a pillow as if counting off options. My office is rudimentary, at best. A scavenged door for a desk, propped up on crumbling cinderblock. Crates double as chairs. A fire in the hearth makes it warm enough for year-round use. But the pillow? Velvet with silky fringe in a deep emerald green. It harkens back to long-ago days. Most of my clients can’t help but fondle it. When they do, their fears pour from them.

“It’s the betrayal,” Magnus says, his fingers entwined in the fringe, which might double as strands of hair by the way he strokes it.

I stare at his hands until the heat in my face forces me to glance away.

“We expect it. Don’t we? We always look for the betrayal.”

I turn back to him.

“But it’s never easy.”

I blink rapidly, in a way that I hope conveys understanding, not flirting.

“You would caution me against haste,” he says.

I give an emphatic nod.

“Rash judgments?”

Yes, those too. I can’t help but smile. Are all client relationships destined to be so intimate? Or is it only that one client, the one you end up needing more than he needs you?

Magnus closes his eyes. His lashes are childlike and startling against the scarred terrain of his cheekbones.

“Just saying it out loud.” He exhales, the force of his breath ruffling the pillow’s fringe. “You can’t imagine what a relief that is.”

No. I can’t.

He opens one eye and peers at me. I’ve always envied those who can do that. I need both eyes to see the world, and even then, I doubt I see it clearly—or at least not like I should. But it’s this gesture that decides things—his absolute trust in me. My world is a complicated tapestry with so many threads. But tug Magnus from the weave?

My whole existence would unravel.

I glance down at the list of names. The Sages may dispense worthless advice, but their sources are impeccable. I start to tear my scribbling from the rest of the page, but there’s no hope for it. I’ve entwined myself so thoroughly with Magnus, at least in doodles. I shove the charred and adorned sheet at him before I can change my mind.

Perhaps devotion can soften betrayal.

Even as his mouth turns grim, his eyes remain soft, dart toward the top of the page, then toward me.

“I know you’ll never tell,” he says.

I won’t. I can’t. Long ago, on my fifth day—as the tradition goes—the Sages sliced the tongue from my mouth.

He carries the paper to the hearth and lets it drop into the flames. Evidence of betrayal—of devotion—evaporates into smoke. I join him on the walk from my office. At the threshold, he presses a finger against my lips and kisses my forehead. I dare to yearn for more—that kiss traveling my cheek, brushing my mouth, lingering there.

But there’s no hope for it. Already the warmth of his lips is a memory.

“Ah,” he says. “My perfect confidant.”

Yes, it’s true. I am the perfect confidant.

When he leaves without a backward glance, I know this:

That’s all I’ll ever be.

This odd little tale of post-apocalyptic unrequited love first appeared in Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Sadly Fantasy Scroll is no longer publishing, but you can still read the archives online.

Miss a 2020 story? Check the titles here.

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Weekly writing check-in: Hello February!

Well, hello there, February! It’s nice to see your (currently) 41 degrees here. Yes, it’s going to get colder again. But for now?

Spring!

In writing-related things, I worked on some stories for March and did some new project brainstorming. It’s all very hush-hush for now. I don’t want to talk too much about it until it’s there in my head and possibly on paper.

And that’s about it for this last week of January.

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Free Fiction Friday: Moving Day

Sometimes love means saying goodbye.

She stands in the center of the apartment, waiting for the landlord and the final walkthrough. She blinks as if she’s not used to seeing the space so empty. I’m not used to it either.

She is moving out today, and I tell myself that this is for the best, that I couldn’t be prouder.

The walls feel bare and vulnerable, mottled with shadows from where she hung her art. At first, she only painted tiny pictures, full of sickly greens and mustard yellows and dank purples. They were bruises, these paintings.

I was so glad when she replaced them with her recent work—that of cupped hands, upturned faces, and hope.

I will miss the paintings.

The landlord enters with a clipboard. He is small-hearted. He loves neither his tenants nor the spaces they occupy. He only wants to cheat her out of the security deposit. I’ve seen this all before.

He wrinkles his nose, his face scrunched in a poorly disguised mask of disappointment at the scents that swirl in the air. Lemon. Pine. Murphy’s Oil Soap, which has always been my favorite. The space is pristine.

True, for the first two months, she barely unpacked. She slept in the closet, hidden beneath a pile of blankets. In the kitchenette, she boiled water for ramen and spread peanut butter over bread. This was subsistence living, and I ached for her.

But that was before.

In these last few months? The aroma of curry and chocolate filled every pocket of space. She decorated earnest, braiding rag rugs that warmed the tile in the kitchenette and the bathroom. I’m always surprised at how little it takes to turn beige walls and gray linoleum into a home.

The landlord halts, fingers exploring a depression in the drywall. He snakes his hand back and forth—always finding fault, this one.

“What happened here?” he asks. His gruff voice is tinged with a hint of triumph.

She presses her lips together and shakes her head.

“Almost looks like someone got thrown into the wall.”

He laughs.

She doesn’t.

The landlord marks something on his clipboard.

That was the beginning of after, the last time she unlocked the deadbolt.

The pounding on the door continued, of course. Daily at first. Then every other day. Then once a week. Then, all at once, the pounding stopped completely.

I think we both exhaled.

Soon after, fresh colors crept into her paintings. She started taping brochures to the bathroom mirror—of students with backpacks, lounging by fountains or gazing studiously from their seats in a lecture hall.

“I’m going to have to charge you a hundred for the wall,” the landlord says now.

She glances toward the ceiling, rolls her eyes. We both know he isn’t going to repair the wall.

I so want to hold onto a memory of her. The landlord won’t let her leave the braided rugs. This is all I have, this dent in the wall. The memory of her strength. I’m glad he won’t be fixing it.

She turns over the keys, but in the hallway, she pauses.

“I think I left something in the medicine cabinet.”

She dashes inside and stands in the center of the room, arms spread wide. She spins in a slow circle, taking in the kitchenette, the tiny balcony, the dining alcove.

On her way out, she lets her fingers linger over the deadbolt, taps it once, twice, three times.

“Thank you.”

She has never slammed my door and doesn’t now. The sound of her footsteps fades down the hall one final time. I exhale into the empty space, my ventilation system rattling as if I could tell her goodbye.

I’m so very proud of her.

I’ve always wanted to write a flash fiction story from the perspective of an inanimate object. Moving Day turned out to be that story.

Miss a story? Find the list of titles here.

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Weekly writing check-in: a few of my favorite (writerly) things

When it comes to writing tools, I’m low-tech, perhaps surprisingly so, considering I work for a software company.

I’ve tried various applications, and mind you, I wouldn’t format anything without Vellum these days.

But … when it comes to actually writing?

I love notebooks and pens, in particular:

  • Legal pads
  • Composition notebooks
  • Sugarcane based, spiral-bound notebooks
  • Uni-ball Vision Elite pens in blue/black

Yes, it’s a very specific list, is it not?

I do write in Microsoft Word most of the time, especially when my fingers can’t keep up with my thoughts. But I’ll often write entire flash fiction pieces or start a short story in a notebook instead. Sometimes the story is coming to me in pen speed rather than pixel speed.

So, this week, after peering into February, I started looking at March, along with stories for August and September. Ideally, I’d get all the stories scheduled so I can move onto this other notion I have brewing.

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Free Fiction Friday: Rules for Visiting Hades

It’s spy vs. spy. Or a cautionary tale of “workplace” romance.

Berlin, May 2005

I knew he stood behind me before I caught his reflection in the window of a passing Mercedes. That sensation started at the base of my skull. The skin of my throat tightened. My heart thrummed—like it hadn’t in years.

I’d come back to Berlin to stare at the spot where Checkpoint Charlie once divided a city, a country, a world. Just me and all the other tourists, many of them so young they confused Berlin’s wall with Pink Floyd’s.

You are now leaving the American sector.

“So,” he said, at last. “Do you miss it?”

“What?”

“The cold war.”

Of course. Why not ask Persephone if, during spring, she missed Hades?

“Do you?” I asked.

“It was easier to tell who the good guys were.”

Peace through superior firepower.

Only then did I turn to look at him. “Do you think so?”

“Don’t you?”

I didn’t know what to think. What did you say to a man who looked like Cary Grant and spoke Russian with all the poetry of Pushkin?

“I knew the world was changing,” he said, “when I woke on January first, 1990 with the most amazing hangover.”

I knew months before The Wall crumbled that my world had shot off-kilter. A missed phone call. A missed meeting. A missed drop. Patterns. We were taught to look for them, piece them together, create a whole from a few lone indicators.

In those days, it was never a matter of who would betray whom, but when you played that card. I’d always wondered if I played mine too soon. Seeing as I wasn’t part of that amazing hangover, I knew. I’d been too late—a spy who didn’t know to come in from the cold.

Welcome to the new world order.

I found, after years, a cold sort of comfort in the old myths, about Persephone, about Orpheus and Eurydice. Clearly, there were rules for visiting Hades:

  • If you find yourself caught there, don’t eat the food.
  • If you’re leading someone out, don’t look back.

I did both.

On any given day, Vienna, or Prague, or Berlin could look a lot like Hades. And Persephone’s pomegranates were always in season.

“So,” he said. “Do you miss it?”

“I do.”

“Then will you have a drink, for old time’s sake?”

“You drink?” I asked. Amazing hangovers notwithstanding, he’d long ago lost his taste for alcohol. I still had my sources.  And that much I knew.

“Occasionally,” he said. “I’ve always had a fondness for White Russians.”

A blush curdled beneath my jaw and spread across my cheeks. It’d been a long time since I’d seen twenty-five, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he looked at me—a look that worked on a thousand women, myself included.

“And do you still drink?” he asked.

“Occasionally,” I echoed. “Cosmopolitans, mostly.”

“All things American.” He laughed. “I’m not even sure what’s in one of those.”

“Vodka.”

“Oh, of course,” he said. “American with a twist.”

“And cranberry or pomegranate juice,” I added, just to be perverse.

“Which do you prefer?”

I thought for a moment. “Pomegranate.”

He offered his arm, a gesture reminiscent of Vienna, Prague, and even Berlin.

Gentlemen, we have détente.

I’d always believed that Persephone, like Eve, chose to taste the fruit. Now I wondered. Perhaps the fruit chose her.

I took his arm. We turned from Checkpoint Charlie, left it behind us.

This time, I didn’t look back.

Rules for Visiting Hades first appeared in the Flash for Big Cash Contest Anthology, March 2007. Hades placed third, and I won $50. So I guess you could say I flashed for moderate cash.

Miss a story? Check the titles here.

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Weekly writing check-in: peering into February

So, I’m already peering into February because I have stories to post.

I spent some time in Photoshop this week, creating the images for each story, and I’ll get those posts scheduled ASAP. I like being able to set and forget, at least as far as having the stories magically appear on the blog. (And it’s not magic; we all know it’s not magic. It still feels that way.)

And February’s stories will truly be all about love, because … why not? We’ll have romantic love, star-crossed love, a bit of unrequited love. You name it, we’ll have it next month.

In actual writing this week, I did some writing on a time travel story and got a notion for a pirate adventure. So. There’s that as well.

International Talk Like a Pirate Day is in September. (Did you know that? I did not.) So maybe I can post the pirate adventure then.

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