Happy Trails

Well, just got the email saying that my final story has been received and is under review over at NYCMidnight’s #flashfictionchallenge. Down to 40 writers with the following prompt; open genre, and animal sanctuary, and a bulletproof vest. I laughed when I saw the final object, given my history of wearing them. Gave it half a day of kicking around ideas and then a dark vision of my daughter crept into my mind.  Anyway, here is where it ended up. I hope you like it.

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Happy Trails

Stepping into the bullet-ridden stables, Val stops and lets out a whistle of birdsong. The chirps echo in the darkness, and red, white, and blue graffiti preaches propaganda. Is this the America you wanted? She walks the empty corridor and steps into the last stall on the right, moving quietly to the corner. She slips the rifle off of her shoulder and sets it gingerly against the wall next to a tattered blanket and backpack. In the opposite corner, a frail-looking, older man in mud-stained fatigues rests against a military rucksack, wheezing with every intake of breath.

“You couldn’t sneak up on a dead dog, you know that, Chooch?” Beck says without opening his eyes.

“We can always stop whistling,” she says, crossing to place the back of her hand on his forehead. “Best you stay quiet, Pop.”

“You’d like that,” he says, breaking into a fit of coughing.

Val pulls a canteen from her belt and hands it to him. “Drink some.”

He opens his eyes, sees the initials RD56 etched in the plastic, and shakes his head. “Where’s mine?”

“Ripped off your pack when you fell.”

“I fell?”

“Two miles back. Ranger carried you as far as he could before it got to be too much. I backtracked this morning when you were asleep, but I couldn’t find it.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Beck says, taking the canteen. “There are kill cells everywhere.”

“Lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my,” she says, raising her eyebrows.

Beck shakes his head, concealing a smile. He holds the canteen over his open mouth, careful not to touch it to his lips, and lets the water trickle out. “Where are we?”

“According to the half-burnt sign outside, appy Trails Animal Sanctu,” she says, pulling her dirty blonde hair into a ponytail. Beck tries to stand but she puts her hand on his shoulder. “Rest, Pop. It’s the best way to get better.”

“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he croaks back.

Val reaches into her pack and pulls out a small orange bottle of pills and shakes two into her hand. “Take these.”

Beck pops them into his mouth, dry swallows, and starts coughing again, holding his fist to his mouth.

“The Government was here,” she says as his hacking subsides. “Spreading the gospel against Radical Dissention. They got propaganda posters stuck on everything from chicken coops to trees.”

“Chicken coops? That sounds foul,” he says smiling. She ignores him and rolls up her blanket. “People?”

“Thought I saw something in the woods, but it turned out to be nothing.”

“You sure?”

“There’s a grave behind the house.”

“There’s a house?”

“Burned down.”

“Figures,” Beck mumbles. “Listen, about this fever.”

“Stop,” Val says, with a lump in her throat.

“If you add my rations to yours, you’ll have a better chance—”

“You have a cold,” Val interrupts. “That’s it.”

“Hon,” Beck says softly.

“What?” Val yells, staring at him. Beck lowers his head, defeated. Val pulls the pistol from the holster on her belt and checks it.

“Still loaded?” Beck says, smiling. She ignores him, wipes the back of her hand on her cheek, and holsters the weapon. “Where’s Ranger?” He asks.

“Heading South with the rest. To St. Augustine. We’ll catch up.”

“You should have left me—”

“Ranger gave me a few extra cans of beans.” She reaches into her pack, and tosses them to him. “I’m going to get some wood for a fire.” She stands up and pats the dust from her pants. “Try to rest. I’ll be back.”

Beck watches her disappear down the corridor. He opens his fist and stares at the pills she gave him. He reaches around to a pocket of his rucksack and pulls out a plastic baggie. He drops the pills in, seals it, and stuffs it back in the pocket.

As she reaches for a last stick of kindling, Val registers a movement coming from the wood-line over by the empty kennels. She casually lays the wood on the ground and pretends to tie her shoes. Sunlight glints on glass from somewhere under the scrub brush. Binoculars? Rifle scope? She picks up the wood and heads for the stable, whistling as she draws near.

“We got a scout,” she says, dropping the bundle at Beck’s feet.

“How many?” Beck coughs.

“Just one.” Val grabs the rifle and checks the load. She reaches into her backpack, pulls out a bulletproof vest, and slips it over her shoulders.

“I’m going with you,” he says, reaching for his own vest.

Val shakes her head. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“You mind your elders, Chooch.”

In a flash, Val grabs her father’s vest, throws it over his shoulders, and pulls the Velcro straps to tighten it up. “I do mind,” she says. “I mind your cough. I mind your ragged breathing when you sleep. And I mind how you think it would be easier for me to survive this civil war without you.” Her voice tightens as she chokes back the pressure building in her throat. “I’m not going to let you get yourself shot to make it easier to leave.” Val pulls a sheathed knife from her pack and connects it to her vest. “I’m going to flank his position, and do what you’ve been teaching me to do ever since the world imploded. Okay?”

Beck stares at her face, sees the blue of her mother’s eyes, and his fear mixes with pride. “You can do this,” he says, wiping his cheek.

“I know,” she says standing. “You good?”

Beck pulls a heavy revolver from his belt. “I’m good,” he says.

“I’m better,” she responds, smiling and kissing him on the forehead. “Fever’s going down,” she says. “Good thing I been crushing those pills in your beans.”

Beck smiles sheepishly. “How did you know?”

“I’ve seen five-year-olds with better palming skills, Pop.” She grabs the rifle, ready to fight, and steps into the corridor. “Love you,” she says, “and remember, unless it whistles, shoot it.”

Bikinis and Biopsies

Well folks, looks like I made it into the next round at NYCMidnights’s Flash Fiction Challenge. I got 8 out of 15 points this last time, but that secured me a spot in the next round. The competition started out with around 1400 writers and is now down to 240 writers. That alone is an honor, but also a little stressful. This round only advances the top five out of each heat of thirty, so fingers crossed. As I said before, they assign the Genre, Location, and an Object to use within the story and I have 48 hours to churn out a story in 1000 words. I didn’t think too hard about what I would get this time around because there was no point. You really can’t prepare for anything as far as what you will write.  As I say to my kids, you get what you get, so don’t throw a fit.

What you can prepare for is setting aside the time to do it. Unfortunately, because I work shift work, I was working all weekend. Just like I did the last two heats. Never fear. I looked at the prompt at midnight on Friday before going to bed, had weird dreams about the location and object, and when I woke up the next morning, I watched my son compete in a wrestling clinic tournament at 9am, (he lost, but persevered through it, so couldn’t be more proud of the little guy) and then went to work from 11am-11pm. Around noon, I had the first sentence cemented in my head, and I was off.

Thanks goodness for smartphone note apps, am I right? I had the first draft done by 12:50am that night, sent it to my beta readers, all women of course, as is my usual, and then worked out the kinks until 8:30pm on Sunday. Turned it in with 3 1/2 hours to spare. Anyway, here is the prompt: Drama, Dermatologist office, and Beer Bottle.

When I was writing, the idea in my mind was to work against stereotypes, writing women as more than objects, and professionals as human beings, subject to feelings and thoughts counterintuitive to the work environment. I know it’s not War and Peace, and only a thousand words, but I think it matters. Anyway, I hope you like it.

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Bikinis and Biopsies

Two worlds collide in the glare of halogen lights.

 

By the time Shelby recognized him, Dinesh was already inches from her naked breasts, examining the dark spot next to her left nipple.

“You’re the guy who lives in 127, aren’t you?” she said, staring at the top of his head. His thick hair protruded in the crisscross design of his halogen headlamp.

Dinesh raised an eyebrow, and pushed the question aside. Gingerly, he pressed at the edges of the node. He would need to take a biopsy.

“You can button up,” he said, lifting his head and giving her the practiced, professional smile he reserved for patients in various stages of undress. He rolled backwards on his stool, pulled off the lamp, and brushed a hand through his hair.

“It is you,” she said, doing up her blouse. “I thought I’d seen you before.”

“Yes,” he said.

“You should step off your patio sometime,” she said, matter of factly. “You’re paying for that pool. You might as well put it to good use.”

Dinesh smiled. He’d recognized her the moment he stepped into the room. She was hard to miss, her lithe body lying poolside every Saturday, soaking up the sun, handing every manner of beer bottle, foreign or domestic, to the bevy of muscle-bound men she seemed to attract. The fact that her breasts had been exposed at the moment of her neighborly revelation just confirmed the unabashed persona he’d expected from someone who looked like she did. He’d never been to a strip club, but he imagined they were full of Shelby’s.

It’s why he’d never stepped off his patio to join them, ultraviolet rays notwithstanding. Tanning was for narcissists. He had no patience for self-obsession. But listening to her speak, here in his office, so self-possessed, he was somewhat caught off guard. Of course, he would have to refuse her invitation. Thanks, but no. But what a revelation she was.

“So,” she said, “what do you think?”

Dinesh was lost in thought, caught between the doctor and the man. He stared at her with confusion. She smiled again, her lips parted, and he saw the whiteness of her teeth.

“I can’t swim,” he blurted out.

Shelby turned her head; her lips thinning over her closed mouth, and laughed out loud. “No, Doc,” she said, cupping her breasts. “What’s the prognosis?”

“Right,” Dinesh said. “They look…well…I think we ought to take a biopsy to be sure. You said there’s no tenderness or itching?”

“Nope,” she said. “But, better safe than sorry.” She reached for her buttons again.

Dinesh held up his hands. “You can stay dressed for the moment. We have some things to set up first. Nurses, local anesthetic, all that.” Flustered as he was, he couldn’t help but smile at her determined acceptance. “I must say, you are handling this rather well.”

“It’s the cop in me, Doc. Nice on the outside, but with a plan to kill everyone I meet. Cancer’s no exception.”

Dinesh blanched, and she laughed.

“Don’t worry, Doc. I won’t kill the messenger.”

“I just never pictured you as a police officer,” Dinesh said.

“Said the profiling dermatologist,” she responded.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled and pointed two imaginary guns at him. “Cop? Profiling?”

“Oh, right,” he said, smiling awkwardly.

“Most people guess stripper,” she added.

“No,” he stuttered. “I didn’t-”

“It’s okay, Doc. I’m used to it.” She put her hands on her waist and mimed a condescending drawl. “What’s a pretty little thang like you doing carrying a gun?”

“Of course,” he said, not knowing how else to respond. He wiped at a newly formed bead of sweat on his forehead.

“As for the pool, we can probably get you some lessons. You know, just to be safe.”

 

When he got home that evening, Dinesh realized he’d never told her no to the pool. Did it even matter? He shook his head and tried to put the thought of her out of his mind. He kept it clear the following day, as well, but on Thursday, it came screaming back to him when a stream of police cars raced past him on his drive in to work. Their frenzied sirens and speeding in and out of traffic bombarded his mind with conflicting images. Shelby in uniform. Shelby relaxing in the sun. Shelby half naked in his office. He couldn’t reconcile the police persona from the bikinied bombshell, or the small node just to the left of her nipple.

While working on the head of a sebaceous cyst on Friday, the television he had in the office for patients played a preview of some detective show, cops and robbers in high definition. He pictured Shelby kidding him with her trigger fingers. That night, his dreams converged poolside; gunbelt slung low on bikinied hips, unbuttoned uniforms, nipples and nodes. Her siren song kept calling to him, jolting him awake, his body covered in sweat.

Saturday was overcast, with weathermen threatening rain. But still, Dinesh watched the pool in the hopes of catching a glimpse.

 

When the biopsy results arrived on Monday, he instinctively reached for his phone and dialed her number. He got her voicemail instead.

“Officer Parker, this is Dinesh, I mean Dr. Daswani.” He paused, regained his composure, and hung up after asking her to call him back.

On Tuesday, he left another message.

On Thursday, he stopped by her apartment, but she never came to the door.

On Friday, he Googled her name. What he found in the newsfeed hit him like a gut punch. Police Officer Killed During Traffic Stop.

 

Sitting in the shade of his patio that Saturday, Dinesh watched his neighbors sunning themselves. Children played in the shallow end, and the men he thought were her boyfriends showed up with their kids. He wanted to reach out to them. Tell them how Shelby would have kicked Cancer’s ass. Instead, he walked off his patio and over to the deep end of the pool. It was time he learned how to swim.

 

Forever Home

Well, here is the second round attempt for the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction competition. I scored first in my heat last time, and I was worried about getting Political Satire for the second round. I ended up with Fairy Tale in an orphanage with a pineapple. Not sure that was any better. I googled it, and Fairy Tales have elements of magic, good and evil, and happily ever afters. Here’s what that looks like in 1000 words, at least my version of it. If I can place somewhere in the top half this time, I think I should be good for the next round. Fingers crossed. This has been fun.


 

Forever Home

Sometimes, the only Happily-Ever-Afters you get are the ones you give away.

The slow spin of the buffer sliding across old linoleum sounded like rain on the windows. Cephas opened his eyes to see Bobby sitting on his bunk tying his shoes. A silver, pineapple pendant hung from the chain around his neck, glinting in a beam of morning light through the window. Bobby looked up, tucked the pendant and chain under his shirt, and gave Cephas a sad smile. In his third orphanage in as many years, Cephas only knew pain and suffering. Then he came here. Met Bobby. And it kept him from running. But Bobby aged out today. Everything was about to change.

“Ten-hut!” Jerry yelled from the doorway across the room. An old Marine from wars gone by, Jerry ran the orphanage like Paris Island. Welcome to the suck was the first thing he said when he met Cephas. They were ammonia and bleach. Bobby kicked the edge of Cephas’ bunk to get him moving.

“What’s he gonna do this time?” Cephas grumbled. “Ground me from getting adopted.”

“I told you, Ceph. You get up for the other kids,” Bobby whispered. “He don’t make it hard on you. He makes it hard on them.”

“Ladies,” Jerry said at the top of his lungs, “what have you got to say for yourselves?”

“Oorah, sir!” they yelled in unison.

“That’s what I like to hear. Now get this place in order. Who knows? Do it right, and one of you pound puppies might find your forever home today.” Jerry laughed and leveled a measured glare at Cephas, now sitting up in bed. Then he looked at Bobby. “You’re eighteen today, right Moreno?”

“Oorah, sir,” Bobby yelled.

“Moving on to bigger and better?”

“Oorah, sir.”

“Let’s make today count then, shall we?” he said. “Starting with your friend, Seef-ass, there.”

“Oorah, sir,” he said, kicking Cephas’ bunk again. “Get moving, boot,” he said with obligatory force.

“Oorah, Bobby,” Cephas said, sarcastically. Then he slipped on his boots and began straightening his bunk.

Bobby winked at him and started down the line of bunks, until he got to a scrawny, nervous kid named Gordon.

“Hey Gordo,” he said. “How goes it?”

“Good, I guess,” Gordon said, quickly adding, “sir.”

“Relax, Gordo,” Bobby said. “Which Saturday is this for you?”

“Seven zero, sir.”

“Seven zero?” he asked, incredulous. “You yankin’ my chain, Gordo?”

“No, sir.” he said, smiling. “Almost sixteen months.”

Bobby put a tender hand on his shoulder. “Well then, maybe it’s about time?”

“You think so, sir?”

“I do,” Bobby said, and moved on down the bunks.

 

Couples started arriving after lunch. Young, urban professionals. As always, the women searched for hidden cribs or toddler beds amid the rows of bunks. They were polite, but they quickened their pace when the bunks were all they saw. One Saturday, Cephas caught the tail end of a conversation from an open window as they made a beeline for their car.

“Why waste our time?” the husband yelled. “Our application clearly states newborn.”

“Yes, sir,” Jerry said, “but – ”

“We have three girls at home,” the husband said. “We don’t need some broken, teenage boy perping on our girls.”

“Perhaps next time,” Jerry said.

But there never was a next time.

Around three, as another disappointed couple was making their getaway, Bobby stepped into the bay. He smiled at them and the husband averted his eyes, but the mother hesitated. Bobby touched her hand and whispered something into her ear, as he had many times in the past. The woman smiled, and turned her head to see Gordon flying an action figure over his head. Gordon jumped a little when the woman tapped him on the shoulder.

“And what’s your name?” she said.

 

“You ever going to tell me?” Cephas asked Bobby, who was emptying his footlocker into his backpack.

“What?”

“You know what,” he said. “Those people were sprinting out of here, but you stopped them, and now Gordo’s gone.”

“Your point?”

“I seen you do it before, too.””

Bobby smiled and sat down on his bunk. “Hold out your hand.”

“What?”

Bobby reached around his neck and pulled off the silver chain. “Hold out your hand.”

Cephas did, and Bobby dropped the chain inside and clasped his hand around it, like a blood oath. “I been in this place eight years, right?”

Cephas nodded.

“Two years in, another boy aged out, like I am now.” Bobby nodded at their hands. “Gave me this.”

Cephas felt the clump of silver tingling in his palm.

“You put this on your neck,” Bobby said solemnly. “You ain’t never gonna get adopted.”

Cephas pulled his hand, but Bobby’s grip tightened.

“You also won’t never be treated wrong again,” Bobby said. “At least, not here,” he added. “And you’ll see thing you can’t explain.”

“What are you talking about?” Cephas asked.

“Making dreams come true, Cephas.” Bobby said, pointing to the boys in the room. “For them, and those who come after.”

“Why me?”

“Because I got this passed down to me, and when you age out, you’ll do the same.”

“How?”

“You pick a boy like you. Twelve or thirteen. Don’t need nobody to make them whole. A rock.” Bobby smiled, and let go of his hand. “You take care, Cephas,” he said, slinging his backpack on his shoulder.

Cephas sat stunned for a second. He looked at the pendant in his hand. Sparks showered all around it. Without thinking, he slipped it around his neck, and the room exploded in prisms of light, each boy taking on a different color of the spectrum. When he looked up, Bobby was gone.

“Moreno says you’re my new number one,” Jerry said from the doorway across the room. His head glowed a brilliant, amber light, and all the rough edges had fallen away.

“Excuse me?” Cephas said.

“You ready for some happily ever afters?” Jerry asked, with a smile on his face.

Cephas hesitated, but then said the first thing that came to his mind. “Oorah, sir.”