The Shot: Fiction for Microcosms

Like all the outliers I’ve covered, this planet was named for some dead Earthian. Back then you could have a star named after yourself for less than the cost of a decent dinner. This man had a hundred stars named after him.

Trump XV looked no different than all the others. When the infrastructure goes, it’s all dust and rubble, looters and legionnaires. The wise stay underground in shelters.

I came upon a fluffy white Havanese. The little guy reclined on his owner’s grimed and tattered form, nuzzling her neck.

A flimsy leaf-like hand made feeble efforts to brush away the wee beast. She shook her head from side to side. Her iron-rich neck and shoulder muscle was, in fact, the dog’s meal.

I took the shot.

Took it from several angles. All the while she moaned and uttered the same word over and over. I didn’t speak Svoodian, but I could guess what the word was.

“Just a minute,” I told her as I stepped over her splayed legs to get a better angle. I crouched down for the close-up. The dog wasn’t budging. From its tiny mouth came a wet sound like child-hands in mud.

Probably the woman didn’t understand me, either, so I held up one finger.

I sent the shot to my editor with this caption: Dogs wearing collars become dinner or diners, depending on who kills who first.

At first I wrinkled my nose at the given prompt: foreign correspondent/battlefield/memoir. Nothing came. I spun their spinner over and over and… nothing. Then I thought of the book of Job (as I happened to be reading it). The phrase “and I alone have escaped to tell you…” leapt out at me as a possible opening for a foreign correspondent, and of course my correspondent had to be on another planet. Originally that phrase from Job was to begin my entry, but as I began the journey into this story, the original phrase lost its place. As so often happens in writing. So the prompt DID spawn something fun after all. My lesson: keep at it. Usually something comes.

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Be a Flasher

Not that kind of flasher, naughty bird. A flash fiction writer.

Why should I be a flash fiction writer? You ask. I’m glad you did. Flash fiction forces several wondrous talents upon you:

  1. Economy of language.
  2. Full-bodied plot in a tiny, weeny package.
  3. A stretch into new genres, styles, content.*
  4. Opportunity for you to turn away from a grueling, lonely novel-nobody-sees and hit publish.
  5. The thrill of weekly or monthly contests, like zeroflash, cracked flash fiction, and microcosms.
  6. Receive needful pets from fellow writers and learn to give same. Be in community.

I had this thought as I sat down today with my novel-in-progress: flash fiction should/could be part of Stephen King’s famed tool box for writers. Use it if it suits you. At first I couldn’t imagine liking anything less than a full-length novel, but the more I read and write flash, the more I appreciate its form. It’s like poetry and fiction made love and bam! Flash fiction.

*One such stretching happened to me just this month. The prompt for July’s Zeroflash is to write a metafiction piece. Metafiction? What on earth is that? The latin prefix meta means beyond, which I think of as above and beyond. Still, above and beyond fiction? I had to look it up. Luckily some of the examples were books I’d already read, so I understood that metafiction called attention to itself as a form or structure. Call me thick, it didn’t get much easier once I knew what the stuff was. But chew on a thing long enough and eventually it assimilates into you. Check out my metafiction flash piece here.

I Wish I Could Be…

Imagine this. My six-year-old wearing his fuzzy pj’s makes this imperious proclamation: “I wish I could be public schooled so I wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the kitchen to get my rods.”

Those rods, to which he referred, were little color-coded blocks that enabled him to learn his fractions and multiplication tables like a boss. Just, they were manipulatives. Manipulatives must be manipulated. One must touch them. One must get them out and place them on the coffee table next to the couch before one sits down to do his math. Else, one must expect to get back up.

A truer grass-is-greener thought was never uttered than when my son, who had zero-minus-infinity idea of what public school entailed– wished for it anyway because it was the antithesis of his present, horrible circumstances. That of having to walk the twenty steps from our cosy spot on the couch to the kitchen drawer, where his math rods were stored.

Nevermind we live barely less than two miles from the elementary school where code dictates he’d be walking to and fro every day, unless his mum rescued him with a car ride. Nevermind traipsing through the halls to get to classes, lunch, the bathroom. Each and every time, far more than the twenty steps to the kitchen to get his rods. And the pj’s: out of the question. Public schoolers have to wear clothes.

We all do it though, don’t we? Decide the grass is simply not green enough. Sometimes when life gives me a backhand I look longingly at the freeway and think how nice it would be to get in the car and just… go. Anywhere. King David had no freeway, but he and I comiserate: Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. (Psalm 55:6) He was a king and wanted to be a dove. My son was homeschooled and wanted to be public schooled. I am a homeschool mom and wanted to be a gypsy.

Better yet, I wish I could be a superhero, then this thing called adulting wouldn’t be so dang hard…

 

The Gift: Fiction for Microcosms

Cal feared the new garbage truck: its dinosaur bellow of steel on steel as the automated arm plucked the blue plastic containers like weeds, flipped them upside down, and dumped the contents with an explosive crash. The engineering marvel rescued lower backs and killed jobs, but Cal wouldn’t know anything about that, being seven.

All he knew was the men were gone.

Until the horrid business was done, Cal stayed inside. No amount of cajoling would get him out on garbage day. One day the truck never came. Lucky it was summer.

Cal’s dad decided this couldn’t go on.

On top of the can was a gorgeously wrapped box tied with a purple bow. If Cal didn’t take it, the garbage truck would.

“What is it?”

“Go find out.” Dad winked.

Cal feared. Feared and coveted and the warring emotions dueled inside his young mind for preeminence. Desire began to get the upper hand; it moved slowly down his skin like a finger hesitant on a trigger. Cal placed his hands around the doorknob.

“Better go, Son. I hear the truck.”

The sound of squeaking breaks in the distance. The sound of dinosaur arms.

“They wouldn’t throw it away?”

“They would.”

The dinosaur was on his street. Cal could see its scalpel blade slide through the loops of a can. Still fear rooted him.

At the neighbor’s.

Something in him broke. He gripped the doorknob fiercely. Then realized: the bolt. Frantic, he jammed his fingers in his haste to undo it. The monster was right in front of his house now, about to take his present. The bolt slid free. Cal threw open the door and sprinted like a jack rabbit.

The blade came screeching out. It grabbed. Cal grabbed.

Just in time.

“Hey kid, watch it,” said the driver.

Not in Kansas Anymore

I am among the scores descending on Coe Lake to watch the 4th of July fireworks. We squish our blanket in with the sea of others and became part of the throng; the green is absolutely choked with people. The sticky smell of funnel cakes settles like dew upon us. From the pavilion, middle-aged men with day jobs belt out classic rock tunes, and behind us hastily cobbled rides tick and thunk and joyous screams punctuate the balmy night.  The perfect summer night.

Then I see him.

Look, if you’re going to wear all black and a quilted coat in 80 degree heat, carry a large old-style bag (the kind once used to hold portable video cameras) and stand in the middle of the walkway looking uncomfortable and talking on your phone, plotting with another terrorist like yourself working out the timing on your detonations…

Yes. I have an overactive imagination, but we were ground zero in a target rich environment, celebrating America.

Think I’m overreacting? I tell you this guy was one of three things:

  1. A terrorist.
  2. An idiot.
  3. A grad student writing his thesis.

He was standing in the middle of the walkway. Standing. While the rest of us were sitting. And wearing all black. And messing with himself under his coat like he was pawing an AK-47 under there.

I turn to Gabe and “joke,” Darn. Forgot my gun. Gabe wonders what on earth he could have in that fat bag of his. Gabe says, Dad’s cell number is X, right?

Yes, I say. And I know why he asked me that. In case we get separated. Gabe and I are smiling, but we’re not taking our eyes from him.

Bob arrives and I tell him there’s a weirdo, and Bob thinks I’m talking about the one dressed up as Mario from the video game. I drop it because I’m a writer and I see threats everywhere. I make them up.

A young woman comes over to me and says, You’re looking at that guy too, aren’t you?

I am, I say.

This is incredibly affirming and frightening at the same time. I can be counted upon to finish any scenario in a tragedy, so the fact that another human being sees the threat makes it credible. I’m going to get the police, she says.

And I’m glad.

Everyone wants to bash the police, but when an intruder breaks into your house, when you’re held at gunpoint or stuck in a bathroom while a non-police shoots his way into your personal space, you’ll be loving them. Loving.

I digress.

We don’t live in a world where you can waltz into the family fireworks display wearing a trench coat and carrying a duffel. The 2013 Boston Marathon and other similar events have set that ship to sail.

At length, a normalish-looking guy meets the terrorist-looking guy. Terrorist Guy hands over the duffel, and they walk toward the back of the crowd. Bob follows. He’d realized it wasn’t Mario I was talking about and came to the same conclusion: the guy was textbook suspicious.

The police show up, but Terrorist Guy is gone. People stare at us. The man behind us asks what’s up.

Because I teach I’ve had active threat training. As part of the training, we’re asked to “go there” in our minds, to lay down mental ruts that promote a knee-jerk response in the case of an actual situation. Did you know the correct response to an active shooter is to scream at them and throw things? It’s the exact opposite of what usually happens (people duck and go quiet, which allows the shooter optimal aim and focus). Those who wish to save their charge (teachers) and have not a bat’s chance in hell of coming through unscathed are directed to do exactly the opposite of what the perp expects: charge him. This is the counter phase in ALICE training and is, of course, a last resort.

So it was that I found myself “going there” on the lawn as we waited for darkness to fall. I felt myself “going there” when the first booms went off, and still “there” as they hammered away.

I wondered if he’d come around from the back and start shooting. Not the worst way to die, I told myself. Do you think I’m silly for thinking these things?

All that to say, a young man with no fashion sense and/or a thesis to write* put a damper on my 4th of July. I thought to myself: We’re not in Kansas anymore. This Oz forming at our feet, continually shifting, it sometimes feels like a dream.

*Students are sometimes directed to display odd behaviors and note the reactions of bystanders. I was an unwilling participant once at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The docent and the student were in cahoots with one another (or she just put up with it). A man in our room began scratching himself, harder and more vigorously, until he built himself into such a frenzy it was absurd. The docent went on droning about art as if nothing was amiss while everyone else in the room got uber-uncomfortable at this man’s lice or whatever ailment caused such dreadful itching. Then I noticed another student behind us holding a clipboard and scribbling away (thank you, Captain Obvious).