Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“Prey in the Cemetery”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

Holy moley, has it been a long time! Somebody really should do some dusting in here. I can’t even say I have a good excuse for not keeping up with the blog, except...I’m no good at remembering to keep up the blog. I live on Facebook and talk everyone’s ears off there, so.... *shrug*


I’ve been stupid busy in the last year, both with fiddling about with Isle of Dogs and cranking through the first draft of the new project, which has needed so much research that I haven’t really given much thought to writing any flash, more’s the pity. And there was OryCons writers workshop, some Indigo seminars, and two Willamette Writers Conferences, each more mind-blowingly awesome than the last. The short of it is that many people I’m neither related to nor friends with now seem to think that this pirate saga has real marketable potential, and that just makes me all kinds of happy.

But we’re here for some flash, damnit. Chuck Wendig’s latest flash challenge is to collect a randomly-generated title and spit out a story in 1000 words or less. Well, after sifting through a couple of rounds of nonsensical chaff on the generator page, I was given “Prey in the Cemetery”, so here we go.

     We were a quarter-mile from the truck when from behind me Dani said, “Oh, hell.”
     “I forgot the quail.”
     Cleaver bated hard off the glove and the goshawk’s bells rang discordantly in the cold autumn air. She wanted to fly, to hunt. To kill.
     “You won’t need it. I never bring one.”
     “Is this really kosher, hawking in a cemetery?”
     “It’s legal. There are so many rabbits here I’ve never even been all the way to the back. I’m guaranteed a double before I get halfway in. Been keeping this little honey-hole a secret, so don’t tell anybody.”
     We reached the cemetery gate, half-shrouded by the ancient gnarly apple trees crowding us. Even in spring the place seemed gloomy, but on a cool fall afternoon like this it was downright eerie.
     Dani stopped, eyeing the crooked old gate. “Creepy.” Cleaver squealed her impatience. “What if someone’s visiting in there?”
     “I hunt here all the time and I’ve never seen anyone. It’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
     She was one of a few thousand others here for the big national falconry meet. The whole place was full of out-of-state license plates; people lugging dogs, birds, and field gear into hotel rooms and filling every all-night diner for quick pre-dawn breakfast before the morning’s hunt. Most brought falcons to hunt upland game-birds in the wheat fields. Prairie chickens are the holy grail of falconry, they say. But here I see this kid, all young and sweet, with a maniacal red-eyed gos the size of a dinosaur on her fist. She’d never been here and needed someplace with trees for Cleaver to catch some fur. I was only too happy to oblige.
     The old cemetery was mostly forgotten, even by the locals. Headstones poked up through its rangy yellow grass. The broken markers hidden underneath were dangerous when you were chasing after a rabbit; I’d caught my ankle on a couple of them, nearly broke my foot once.
     Two cottontails busted in front of us almost instantly. We both yelled ‘Ho!’ as Cleaver took off. The rabbits zigged and zagged and even more busted during the chase, but the hawk was savvy: she cut left and lit up the afterburners as one jinked the wrong way. Bells jangling, she piled in on top with her barred grey wings thrown wide. It was all over before we got there. Cleaver was already breaking in as she mantled over the kill, her hackles raised in excitement.
     Dani, all smiles, traded her off with a choice tidbit so she could gut the bunny and hide it in her hawking vest. “Wow, you were right! That was quick. Can we try for a double?”
     “Sure. But this girl of yours put the fear of God in them more than my redtail ever does. Did you see them all bolt?”
     “Yeah, that was crazy! Is there maybe another good place here to roust one? We’re kind of losing daylight.”
     “Well….” I looked toward the back of the property, even more grown over than the front where I’d kept the jungle knocked down. “She is a gos. She could handle that stuff. Let’s head back there and see what she’s made of.”
     Dani got in front, holding Cleaver to the glove as we slogged through. Pretty soon she was breaking trail and I was following. She had briar-jeans.
     “Hey, you dropped this,” I said, picking up a freshly-severed rabbit leg.
     “I did? But I.…” Frowning, she hooded the hawk then pulled the rabbit out. “No, I didn’t. See?” Clearly it wasn’t missing any feet. “I just gave her the heart,” she said, and stuffed the carcass back.
     We stared at this mangled leg, both wondering the same thing. “What’s wrong with this? Look at it.” It was in bad shape—not like it had been chewed, more like it was rotting from the foot up. But at the hip ball, the meat was fresh.
     She tossed it aside and unhooded Cleaver, who shot off in pursuit of something before we even saw what it was. Murphy’s Law states that any chase will lead into the most impenetrable stuff in the field, and that’s exactly where she went. I saw a white cottony flash just as she crashed after it into the briars. While trying to figure out how to get in to help, we heard the rabbit scream. Except it didn’t sound like any rabbit I’d ever heard.
     It sounded…angry.
     “Did you see what she was chasing before it went in there?” she asked, looking a little freaked out. “There was something really wrong with that bunny.”
     “Like what?”
     “Like, are you sure these critters are healthy?”
     The bells rang from somewhere in there, so Dani wormed her way into brambles so thick that she disappeared. Then she started to curse. “She’s in too deep; I can’t get to her. Damn berries.”
     “Need any help?”
     “No, I’ll just take this off—holy fuck!”
     She plowed out of the thorns like they weren’t even there, ignoring their scratches. She was ghostly pale and staring at the vest where it fell. It was moving. The hawk’s bells had gone silent.
     “What the hell?! Are you okay?”
     “M-my vest—”
     “What? You said you left the quail in the truck.”
     “That dead rabbit I put in there…it wiggled.”
     I’d watched her clean the thing. I saw her feed its heart to Cleaver. But the ripstop vest writhed and then tore open. A gutted rabbit carcass crawled out and tottered drunkenly into the brush, making ugly sounds that a dead rabbit shouldn’t make.
     Before we could make sense of that, we heard the bells. Cleaver laddered up out of the brambles, her beak as wet and red and evil as her eyes. She launched straight for Dani’s face with a scream that didn’t sound like any goshawk I’d ever heard.
     Then Dani’s scream didn’t sound right, either.
     God help me, I ran for the truck, hearing hawk bells gaining on me.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

“The Fisherman & His Wife”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

This week’s flash fiction challenge at terribleminds is to modernize a fairy tale or fable in 1000 words or less. Weighing in at just under 1000 words, please to enjoy “The Fisherman & His Wife”….

“I always knew you were full of shit,” Mike teased, taking a swig of rotgut as we gazed at the ocean. The campfire sizzled with drippings; dinner was awesome.
I hadn’t seen him in a long time. “It’s true. We had it all, more than we ever shoulda. Damn woman, anyway. Never satisfied.”


Wife and I lived in a rusted-out trailer in a rusted-out trailer-park between the rail crossing and the jetty. Wife called it a hovel, but I could pack up the tackle and walk to a couple sweet fishing spots from there. I tried to get out every day for a little peace and quiet; catching something was a bonus.
So this one morning I hooked a big one in the surf, but I reeled in a fish like none I’d ever seen. Good fifteen pounder, whiskers like a catfish…but it was bright gold. And as I pulled the hook from its bleeding lip, the bastard looked me right in the eyes and spoke.
“Hey, if you let me go, friend, I’ll grant you a wish. Whatever you want.”
“Yeah, right. My trailer’s a dump. Gimme a house, maybe the wife will stop bitching about it.”
“Set me free and go home. Your house awaits.”
I felt stupid walking home empty-handed but sure enough, where the trailer had been before, now there was a house. It was clean, not too big, had a nice garden. The wife was thrilled.
Too bad the thrill didn’t last. Pretty soon she was bitching again: the house wasn’t big enough, not fancy enough. She insisted I go back and find that fish again and demand a nice house, a big one like the rentals up the mountain. If the fish was really magic, he could give us one.
“Hey, fish!” I yelled at the water, and damned if that big gold head didn’t pop up. “Wife says you need to give us a better house, like the townies have up there,” I jerked a thumb behind me at the headland.
“Go home, fisherman, and see your mansion.”
So I went…and I got lost, not realizing that the McMansion on the corner was ours. It had decks, a three-car garage and a ten-foot-tall stone entry with spiral-trimmed trees on each side. Wife met me in the foyer with a bottle of good scotch and a huge grin. Took an hour to see the whole place, it was so big.
“Oh honey,” she cooed,  “it’s perfect!”
Well, maybe it was, but apparently not perfect enough. After awhile she was back to her old self, but now she’d found ambition. I had to go back to the fish.
“What does she want now?” the fish asked.
“She wants to be president. She’s lost her mind, but—”
“Wow. Have fun being the First Man.”
When I got home the place was swarming with Secret Service. Marine One was now parked behind my Chevy. I got frisked walking up to my own damn house! And it wasn’t even an election year….
I’d figured as Prez she’d be too busy to bitch at me now. I was wrong. Now she had staff to bitch at me for her. And right on schedule, a few weeks later, her personal secretary informed me that I needed to go see the fish.
“What now, O Beleaguered One?” asked the fish.
“President isn’t good enough. She wants to be Empress.”
The fish sighed. “Very well, Empress she is. I hope there’s room in that house for you and her ego.”
“You ain’t kiddin’, buddy.”
And so it was…and there was much rejoicing, and kowtowing, and blowing of trumpets. At least the trickle-down benefits of being King Consort included me getting my own residence so I didn’t have to see her as much. But, well, too much is never enough. Sooner than later, I found myself out on the beach again, yelling like a lunatic at a fish.
“Yes, Dolentem Imperator?” The fish actually looked put-upon, which I could totally understand, even if I didn’t know what it said.
“It means ‘The Emperor Who Suffers’,” it explained, with some boredom. “I was being a little facetious but I probably shouldn’t be, given your station these days. My apologies, O Great One. What does she want to be this time?”
And yes, the fish gave me the fish-eye. “Pope. Pope?! Are you shitting me? Shes aware that she’s not a man, right? Hell, is she even Catholic?”
“She wants to be the Pope and as Empress she demands that you make her wish come true. Hey, I’m just the messenger, here. This isn’t my idea.”
“Fry me up and swaddle me in newsprint if that woman isn’t the biggest megalo-maniac on the planet,” the fish said, somehow managing to shake his head in wonder. “All right, all right. She’s the Pope. Good luck with that.”
The opulence of St. Peter’s Basilica looked ridiculous, planted in this godforsaken beach town. Pikemen in garish purple-striped shorts and feathered hats guarded the gates. Red-robed cardinals flocked around her, catering to her every whim. She wasn’t sure whether she liked the hat or the red-heeled designer shoes better, but she was over the moon. 
Was it enough? Nope.
The next time I stood there on the sand, yelling at the fish, the winds nearly knocked me over. I have no idea how the fish even heard me.
“But there’s nothing else she could be!” it complained. “Great Peter’s Net, man...she’s the Pope!”
“Yeah, that’s what I told her. But she wants to be God.”
The fish laughed a maniacal sort of laugh that a fish shouldn’t be able to make and darted toward me, almost beaching itself in rage. “Yeah? Well, fuck you! Go home to your harpy. I gave you back your hovel!”


“I still think you’re full of shit,” Mike said, picking a long golden fishbone out of his teeth and reaching for the whisky. “Good fish, though. Got any tartar sauce?”

Saturday, June 30, 2012

“Last Call": a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

The flash fiction challenge this week at terribleminds is *really* flash…the whole story in three sentences and less than 100 words. For your amusement, “Last Call”:

“Jesus, how many obnoxious, drunken, out-of-control parties can those asshole neighbors throw in a month, anyway?”

“I dunno, but, goddamnit, this is gonna be the last time they keep me up until dawn. Hand me my sword.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Adventures in Penmonkeying

     In a process that took far less time than I envisioned, the revision is virtually com-plete. Hopefully this will free me up a little so I can get back into some flash fiction, which I miss. I've felt guilty wandering past TerribleMinds, knowing I had the revision project looming, and I pointedly avoided the temptation of checking in over there on Fridays, when the flash fiction prompts come out.
     There's still a bit of minor tweaking left to do but the heavy lifting is done (for now), in only a month and a day. And then, the very next morning after I finished the first full edit, I had just stumbled into the shower when the elusive pitch I need for this summer's conference smacked me right between the eyes (yes, it hurt). I'm never prepared for such epiphanies that early in the morning, and certainly not when I'm entirely un-caffeinated. The bruises are mostly gone now, though, so there's that.
     I'm a little freaked out about pitching to big-shot editors for the first time. Okay, I'm a lot freaked out. Go big or go home, I'd figured when I I lined up two of the biggest fantasy-seeking publishing reps I could find. I'm telling myself that a ten-minute fiction pitch is like a super-short job interview. Maybe that will help. I've still got another month to fidget, so we'll see how relaxed and self-assured I can make them think I am. Internally I'm sure I'll be as calm as a bumblebee on meth, but maybe I can pull this off. We'll give it a go. Worst they can do is say it's not good enough, and that doesn't really faze me. They can't reject me any worse than I can reject myself. I've had more practice.
     I don't intend to self-publish, but I discovered recently that Powell's Books (local repository of indie awesomeness) has an Espresso Book Machine now. I thought it might be nice to get a couple of copies of the story printed, just for fun. In case you haven't seen an EBM, they're pretty cool: picture, if you will, a huge industrial-looking copier. You give it PDFs of your story and the full-color cover file on one end, then it chugswhirrsbeeps and *ding!* spits out a perfect-bound book--your book--on the other. In an age of technology, when you can make up entire worlds that live solely within the depths of cyberspace (or at least appear within the pixels of your monitor), seeing your project in print drives home that it really is a thing. (Incidentally, that perceived un-real-ness of e-books is why I'll probably never own an e-reader, but I digress.) I had been getting this feel of the early version of the story by occasionally sending the working draft out to be printed and coil-bound, but it always ended up looking more like a cookbook or some cheesy community-school textbook. But perfect-bound...damn, it'll be like a real, live, honest-to-God 500-some-page BOOK that could sit on a bookstore shelf anywhere.
     If I'm really lucky this summer, maybe it will, anyway. Wish me luck.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

“You May Want to Stand Back From Our Mongoose”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

This week’s challenge is to create a short using a random-generated military operation title. I thought ops were always two words (Operation Desert Storm) but of the five the generator spat out, three were whole sentences: “Don’t Piss Off the God”, “Prepare to Be Destroyed By Our Centaur”, “You May Want to Stand Back From Our Mongoose”, “Flaming Preacher”, and “Civilian-Devouring Kitten”. I was in a weird mood today already but a person with an overactive imagination really should NOT be given prompts like this, cause, holy feck…where do you even start?? I may just have to do all of them just because theyre so damn strange...not to mention loaded with potential.


Deep Creek, OR – In a bizarre scene Monday afternoon, officials from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s office, US Department of Agriculture, and US Fish and Wildlife Service took seventy-seven green-robed followers of the Herpestida Movement into custody at the cult’s secretive headquarters in rural Clackamas County. The group’s leaders, Archus Parvu, 57, aka Herman Swift, and his daughter, Kuhni Naso, 38, aka Alice Burkelt-Swift, passively resisted with their fellows as they were read their rights and escorted to inmate transfer buses. An explosives unit was quickly dispatched when Parvu, being led away, gazed up at the compound’s giant monument and commented cryptically to sheriff’s deputies, “You may want to stand back from our mongoose.” No improvised explosive devices were found.

The arrests follow an intensive multi-agency investigation spanning several years and reaching as far afield as India and Somalia. Among the allegations are fraud and other charges under the RICO Act and dozens of counts of wildlife trafficking under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The wildlife allegations involve the group’s illegal importation of several endangered and threatened species of mongoose, which Herpestida devotees view as divine entities. USFWS and USDA authorities were unwilling to comment on how cult members managed to successfully smuggle at least thirty-seven dusky-tailed mongooses from Sri Lanka, fourteen yellow-footed kusimanses (a related species) from Somalia and eight lesser banded kusimanses from Ethiopia into the US undetected. The cat-like mammals were found to be in good health when seized and were being housed in quarantine at an undisclosed location while their fate was determined.

The Herpestida Movement is no stranger to controversy since it arrived in Oregon in 1997. It presents itself as an environmental freedom group seeking enlightenment but residents in the secluded nearby town of Deep Creek tell of strange torchlight rituals held inside the compound under the full moon and cultists, apparently under the influence of hallucinogens, parading through town brandishing semi-automatic weapons. Parvu and his inner circle have also come under scrutiny for living a conspicuously lavish lifestyle while preaching the blessings of a life of austerity to his followers, who must agree to surrender their worldly belongings to the cult upon moving to the compound. Animal rights groups assert that the group engages in lewd conduct with the animals it worships but Naso, the cult’s spokesperson, has emphatically denied all such claims. As she was quoted in a 2006 interview, “Herpestida is the Great Mother, the All-Seer, who challenges the Dark Serpent on our behalf. All Herpestida’s followers pay homage to her wisdom and benevolent protection by caring for her children like the furry little demigods they are. We could never conceive of such awful and sacrilegious acts as we are accused of by those poor, sad, confused people.” The group’s monument to the quasi-goddess Herpestida, partially visible from the compound’s front gate, is a fifty-foot tall stone mongoose standing up on its hind legs and facing south, the direction in which the group believes the truly worthy can find the gates of heaven.

Deep Creek residents seemed overjoyed that the group was being taken into custody. “They’re all loons,” one man said under condition of anonymity. “They’re nothing but bat-[expletive deleted] crazy and I hope the state straps them into backwards jackets and throws away the key.” A local business owner said she was “glad somebody finally got them out of here. They were scaring off the tourists. They’d all wear those green robes and stand along the highway into town and wave signs like they were picketing, but the signs didn’t have any slogans...only these weird-looking pictures of squirrels. I’ve had visitors come into the shop here and ask me if the whole town is all anti-fur hippies or some silly thing. Since the mill shut down the river tourism’s all we’ve got left anymore, and those whackadoos being here were just bad for business, let me tell you.”

The Clackamas County District Attorney declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

“Bloody Pirates”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

The flash fiction challenge at terribleminds this week is to feature DEATH in 1000 words. Incredibly appropriate, I thought, because after the break-in at our house this week, I felt like ki—ahem. Well. Let’s just say that if I was a different person than I am, this might have been a flash NONfiction challenge….

“Four-fifteen, right on time,” Dave teased as we pulled into my driveway. A double-decker train was nearing the house as I parked the truck; we could already feel it coming. Two-plus miles of cargo at less than forty miles an hour equaled almost seven minutes of rumble. Right on time.
We were sore and tired after another long festival weekend, too old to keep getting smacked around with cutlasses anymore…but it was always fun. We were Captain John Weston and the Crew of the Red Herring, with my neighbor Dave as my trusty Quarter-master and a handful of other ne’er-do-wells for comic relief. Scallywag fun for the whole family: three shows daily. I buckled my sword-belt, then pulled on the leather great-coat and hat—easier to wear than carry them. The jolly roger yard flag rippled in the passing train’s breeze and beyond it I noticed a moving van next door at the empty house. Had there been a for-sale sign? Maybe they were renting.
Dave was fidgety. “Gimme the keys, man, my teeth are floatin’.” I tossed them over while collecting gear to unload. He must have taken the porch stairs two at once to get in so quick.
About the time I noticed the gap on my living-room wall where the plasma screen should’ve been, I heard Dave upstairs, shouting. And another man, yelling back. Something crashed. More shouting. I ran for the stairs. There shouldn’t be anybody else up—
My .69cal converted cartridge pistol discharged up there, rattling the house. I’d left it on the workbench; had I also left a charge in it? “What the fuck!! Dave?!”
More breakage. A skinny powder-burned meth-head thundered down the stairs away from Dave, who was limping, brandishing the pistol like a club. The guy piled into me, clutching my laptop —my new laptop! —and a bottle of rum. Right then I was angry enough to use him for every piratical torture method I’d ever known. The roar I let out as I shoved him backward and drew my steel was no act.
He threw the bottle at me but I deflected it with the blade as he made a break for the front door. The bottle crashed against the bookcase, filling the room with a warm spicy vapor. I only had one rum that smelled like that.
“Motherfucker! That was thirty-year Cuban!”
One of Dave’s throwing knives whistled past me and caught Tweaker in the calf just as he reached the door, sending him ass-over-teakettle down the stairs to the parking lot. My laptop cartwheeled away from him to freedom, only to burst into shrapnel on the concrete. Fuck.
The moving van next door suddenly revved and peeled out of the driveway, careening down the street with the door still up. They hadn’t been moving anything in at all: they’d been moving me out.
Tweaker flipped onto his back, pulled a gun out of his pants. The punk-ass held it sideways, ghetto-style, which pissed me off so much I even stopped caring that he was holding a gun.
Until he fired it.
Time crawled. I felt the slug pass close by my ear; it blew my tricorn off and shattered the living-room window into a huge spider-web…and then I stopped thinking. Next thing I knew, I was standing over a deceased Tweaker whose sternum had sprouted my un-edged cutlass. Dave was behind me on his cell, screaming panicked obscenities at an emergency dispatcher, and just like that, time resumed its normal speed…maybe a little faster.
“Jesus, I killed him! Oh my fucking God, I killed him! Ohshit ohshit….” Blood was soaking his grimy shirt, pooling red in the fir needles. This wasn’t an re-enactment and that wasn’t stage blood. I stumbled over to the bushes and puked.
Police cruisers showed up fast: lights and sirens. A sheeplike flock of gossiping neighbors gathered across the street. Weapons drawn, the cops barked commands and slammed us against the house: took awhile to remove the considerable arsenal I was wearing but when I produced my ID things calmed down somewhat. They seemed impressed that I could even move, packing that much weaponry, let alone sword-fight. Tweaker had stabbed Dave in the knee —not deep, luckily—and hit him with a lamp. Dave had grabbed the flintlock just to scare him, not realizing it was loaded, although Tweaker hadn’t really ‘dodged the bullet’. The gun’s stage-friendly powder charge wasn’t lethal, but it sure would’ve burned at close range. It could’ve even set the office on fire. Adrenaline made us jittery as we talked. Meanwhile, officers kept staring at us like they’d never seen grown men dressed from cocked hats to bucket boots like authentic Golden Age pirates. Three shows daily.
An officer followed me around to inventory what was missing. The big-screen? Gone—but the assholes left the remote, adding insult to injury. Three whole shelves of CDs, high-end stereo gear, DVR, change jar? All gone. I stared at the empty entertainment wall: something else had been there.
“The X-box! Fuck me, they took the X-box…and the games! I was forty-two hours in on Mass Effect 3! Shit.”
“No great loss there, Mr. Weston,” the officer smirked, making notes. “Trust me, you’d have hated the ending anyway. He did you a favor.”
Sometime that evening they removed the body and let Dave go home. I wandered around in shock. Didn’t bother mentioning that my hand-blown glass bong and herbs had disappeared, but I could’ve used a hit just then. My shit was looted, pillaged, plundered. Bloody pirates!
Eventually the sergeant said no charges would be filed against us: it was “justifiable homicide.” They were confident they could recover my stuff, too. Tweaker and his ring were not the sharpest tools: county lockup was their second home. Their rap-sheets were long enough to fill a filing cabinet.
“You’d think when they saw the pirate flag they woulda known better than to try this house,” he joked. “Looks like self-defense to me…Cap’n.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

“Just the Opening Line”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

The terribleminds flash challenge this week is short and sweet: not 1000 words, not even 100. Just the opening sentence of an as-yet-unwritten story, but as Chuck says, that one sentence “will drag me kicking and screaming and shove my face into wanting more.... You’ve got a single sentence to promise a killer story.” So, one sentence it is. By the end of this week I’ll probably have the rest of the story to go with it; if so (and it’s worth looking at) I’ll post it here too.

He was nine when he watched his father die, brawling with the other men of Llangennith for beach salvage like dogs over a carcass, and he grinned madly as the man he knew as “Da” fell in the surf and failed to rise.

Friday, March 30, 2012

“An Accomplished Liar”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

The challenge at terribleminds this week is to tell lies. Not having kids, I can only imagine what really goes on in a teenage boy’s bedroom, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t this. (1000 words)

Honey ham, sliced cheddar, dark rye…ooh, roast beef, too. Perfect.
I loaded my arms full of sandwich fixings, taking a pass on the veggies, and piled them all into my duffle bag. I hesitated at the mayo but took it anyway (good fat, there) and left the mustard. With the stove fan going and her back to me, Mom wouldn’t even notice me here unless….
Fuck. Held the door open too long: busted by the fridge. Mom turned around in surprise and frowned, catching me red-handed with a two-pound bag of deli beef.
“Jamie, what are you doing? Dinner’s in under an hour. Put that back.”
“It’ll be fine, Mom. I’m starving.”
She gave me the standard-issue Mom-the-Martyr look. “I just bought that deli stuff and it’s supposed to last all week. I swear: one sixteen-year-old human shouldn’t be able to eat like you and still be so weedy.”
I shrugged. “Like Gramma says: I’m a growing boy….”
“Yeah? Well, Gramma doesn’t have to buy your groceries,” she grumped, turning back to the sizzling pan. “Don’t you dare ruin your appetite.”
“I won’t, Mom. Promise.” It was so easy to lie now. I zipped the duffle closed and bolted up the stairs.
Dad was coming down the hall with the basketball as I fumbled for my door key. “Hey, James, how ‘bout a quick game of Horse before dinner?”
“No thanks. Homework,” I said, hefting the bag. He wouldn’t know it was mostly full of groceries. “Got a test tomorrow in Poli-Sci.”
“Atta boy. Keep up those grades or that lock comes off.”
“Yup, I know.”
He went downstairs. I entered my room and closed the door firmly behind me.
I heard the first loud growl of hunger as I dumped my loot on the bed. I hadn’t even finished arranging everything to make the first sandwich before another grumble came, sounding even more impatient.
“Shut up already, I’m workin’ on it….”
Once I cracked open the zip-locks of cold-cuts, meat smells drifted into the room. No stopping it now. I stuffed a slice of beef into my mouth and opened the louvered closet doors.
The tawny griffin hunched inside bumped her head on the ceiling. She clacked her black beak at me eagerly, gold-and-black eyes nearly sparking with excitement, and squeezed forward into the room. A hand-sized downy feather pulled free on a door hinge. She rumbled again as she spied the sandwiches on the bed.
“Hi, sweetie. You know you need to sit before you get anything,” I reminded her. Her owl-ears flattened and she obediently plunked her butt on the carpet. The long feline tail curled around her hawk feet and thumped against the foot of my bed.
Raising a griffin in your second-story bedroom is sort of like building a boat in your basement. There comes a point at which you (belatedly) realize that the door just isn’t going to be big enough for your project to leave. I’d waited too long to come clean about my pet, and now, well…I dunno. That day would certainly be interesting.
Dad’s voice called from outside my door: “What was that noise? Everything okay in there, bud?”
I froze in panic—When did he come back up? Did he hear me? Did he hear HER?—but my voice was calm and measured when I answered, “Fine, Dad! Just unloading my books. God, you know how heavy these things are? Gonna need a chiropractor after I graduate!”
“Yeah, I bet.”
I relaxed as his footsteps continued toward the stairs. The griffin raised her owl-ears so high they brushed dust off the ceiling fan. She trilled quietly, looking between me and the treasure trove on the bed. At least she had manners.
“Okay, here. Watch the fingers.” She leaned down and the cinnamon hackle feathers glowed like copper in the sun. She pinched the sandwich with just the points of her beak, tossed her head and it was gone. Another trill and a curious sideways tilt of her neck, and the purr started. Even with my shoes on I could feel it in the floor. After she first did that last year I’d told Dad it was the subwoofer making that noise, and so far that lie still worked.
So many, many lies.
“’Nother one?” I asked unnecessarily. I’m sure she could eat every pet in the whole neighborhood at once if she wanted to, but she seemed to understand that she could get me in trouble if she was greedy. I tried to feed her more dog kibble than deli meat, though: I mean, how much salty, preservative-laden turkey pastrami is healthy for a griffin, anyway? Some things you just can’t find on Google, no matter how hard you search.
I piled together some more sandwiches and she snapped them up as quickly as I could offer them; like a happy cat, the purr only stopped long enough for her to swallow. After the last she walked her front feet forward into a long canine bow, squinting her eyes shut and spreading her talons before dropping into a sphinx pose next to my bed. A couple of months ago, when she’d knocked all the breakables off my bookshelves with one sweep of those barred goshawk wings, I’d told Mom I’d been throwing the baseball to myself and it got away from me; she’d believed that.
When the griffin rested her head on the bed, longingly eyeing the leftovers, I scratched her eye-ridges. “Y’know, one of these days they’re going to find out the truth, big girl,” I said, hearing Mom calling us to dinner. “What are we gonna do then, hmm?”
She purred, regarding me with one half-lidded golden eye, probably not caring that for her own safety she’d forced me to become such an accomplished liar. I locked her in and headed down with the sandwich stuff, chuckling at a thought.
I should run for Congress. I could teach all those amateurs a thing or two.

Friday, March 23, 2012

“Descent” : a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

So sayeth the Great Penmonkey, Chuck Wendig: I’m going to give you five whacked-out settings. You may choose one, and set your story within that space. What five settings? Here goes: Lunar Brothel, Abandoned Amusement Park, The Bottom of the Ocean, Pent-house Apartment during the Apocalypse, Fairy Tale Forest.” 998 words, for your pleasure....

He’d relaxed when he felt the hands on him; he’d thought he was rescued…until they pulled him under.
At first he wasn’t sure if it was their strength or his own exhaustion that made his resistance so useless. An icy snake thicker than a topmast wrapped about his chest, at once both squishy and solid as cold iron, and then there was the sensation of falling through water. A rational part of his panicking mind observed that he should be drowning by now: he had, after all, exhaled his last dry breath. He couldn’t think for all the pain.
Clicks and whines echoed all around him as he was dragged downward, and an ominous intermittent rumble that was nearly felt more than heard. Then he detected a gentle greenish glow about him that almost wasn’t there: if he stared at one spot it seemed dark, but if his eyes relaxed he could make out shadows and forms in the gloom. None of them were human.
Without sun, time had no meaning in these murky depths; he had no way to know how long he traveled. The glow strengthened, punctuated by sharp random flashes as if he was surrounded by stars. He was glowing now, too, as tiny luminous creatures collected on him. Fantastical features of ridges, pillars, arches became dimly visible in the distance: a landscape at the bottom of the sea.
Seeing close about him was easier now but his other senses were heightened also. He sensed the others near him without seeing them. Three swam above him, several more below. With effort he craned his neck to see past the appendage gripping him and got his first look at one’s face. He screamed for all he was worth at the sight of it, but no bubbles emerged from his mouth. The rational part of his mind tried to decide if that frightened him even more.
The creature following him seemed small compared to the rest, perhaps only a little larger than him. Its gleaming face was a grotesque nightmare of fist-sized jet-black eyes, needle-teeth and thin finger-like tentacles. At his reaction, its toothy expression changed to something resembling a grin. It touched his leg and he realized that the “hands” he’d felt were these creatures’ flexible bony fins. A shudder of revulsion rippled through him and he kicked but could not break its grip. Then he heard it speak.
You are one of us now, airbreather.
The sound was not a sound but somehow it echoed through his head, more real than his own thoughts. It seemed childlike and diabolically gleeful. He tried to pray but feared he was too far from Creation now for his God to hear him, let alone save him.
The storm brought you to us as a gift, and now you will live with us and be one of us, it said. Semi-transparent membranes clicked quickly across its eyes.
“I’m not one of you! Let me go!!” His words were muddled by the water such that he barely heard them himself.
No one will hear you like that, silly human, it laughed. You must talk like me. Focus.
Pain, terror, desperation: he channeled that and shot it like a cannon at this grinning abomination. The beast reeled back, pausing as he was carried away from it. Then it darted forward again and grabbed both his legs, showing rows of teeth as it was towed along with him. He saw that a row of spines traveled all the way from the crest atop its head to the base of a wide silver tail, flat like a whale’s but jaggedly striped.
You are so strong! Oh, they will like you!
He focused another burst of emotion, only this time adding thoughts: You must let me go; I’m not one of you! Please, I beg you! I don’t belong here!
But you DO belong here! You are the only one the storm has brought us for many lifetimes. You will bring us much enjoyment.
His eyes closed as his mind whirled in utter denial. He’d been on that island so long he must be delusional. He’d drunk seawater or gone into a starvation-induced, deranged fugue. This wasn’t real, it couldn’t be: his mind must have cracked. Heavenly Father, hear the cry of thy humble servant in his time of need….
The steady downward drag became rough and erratic, then abruptly stopped. The appendage loosened and released him: dozens of toothed discs ripped free from his flesh. While gasping in pain he finally saw his captor for what it was: a mighty beast at least as long as the galleon which had marooned him, with a wide finned body and a dozen massive tentacles—some of which ended in great fan-like paddles. Its skin shifted unnaturally, changing in both texture and color. It flicked him away as though his presence offended it, and promptly vanished into the murk.
Shock took him then and he drifted to the silty seabed's embrace, aware that the Others were waiting over him even as he felt his sanity beginning to slip away. The little one came down, floating just above him so he could see nothing else. It stared through him. If he lived, the stare of those horrible black eyes would surely drive him mad, so his only wish now was to die. He was a child of God, and his Eternally Loving God was merciful. He prayed feverishly to his Merciful Father that he might be saved from this unholy fate, but felt his prayers went unheeded.
Hovering over his face, the creature stared into his soul. The Elders want to know if you can learn to Speak to the depths like we can. I hope you can, airbreather. If you can’t, the Elders won’t eat you…but you might wish they had.
He prayed, and perhaps his God was merciful after all. Even the worst torture imaginable can be surmounted if one isn’t present to remember it. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

“The Fire of the Gods”: a terribleminds flash fiction challenge

The terribleminds flash fiction challenge this week is to pen a 1000-word story with a specific title: “The Fire of the Gods.” I wrote this using one of the best characters I’ve ever worked with: a thoroughly tortured fellow inspired by my writing friend, Fred Hellmig. Given all the trials and tribulations we’ve visited upon poor Hell, I hope to all that’s holy that we never meet him in person.

 “Señor Williams, you must tell us everything.” The governor of Trinidad leaned forward solemnly. “You are the only one we know who has spoken to him. He has defied all our efforts to apprehend him.”
One of the governor’s officials handed me a flask. My trembling hands nearly dropped it but I gulped some of its contents: rum burned like fire all the way down. Feeling a little steadier, I nodded and handed it back.
“The Prometheus left the Guinea Coast three months ago with a nearly-full hold,” I began. “We were bound for Hispaniola after taking on more cargo in the Canaries. Cap’n said the Colonials would pay handsome if all those Africans didn’t take sick and die first….”
“Where did you encounter the ship? What was its ensign?”
“We were just east of Barbados; I was on lookout when we spotted her. She was sailing fast with a fresh breeze on her quarter, making straight for us. Cap’n said she looked Spanish, and ordered us to raise the Burgundy Cross….”


I glassed her again. “She’s hoisting the saltire too, sir!”
“Good. Helm, stay your heading. Company to stations!”
But she wasn’t Spanish at all: once we were too close to escape she dropped the Spanish ensign and raised colours I’d never seen: a snarling dog’s head on a crimson field. It was a Red Jack, and we were beset by pirates.
Their sleek low-hulled craft was painted gray and rust, bearing a triangular headsail and huge blood-red Moorish lateens on both cocked masts. This profile lent her the appearance of prowling shark fins, and we would soon come to realize the truth of this predatory likeness. She crossed our bow with all ports open, displaying a fearsome array of armament we had no hope of countering with our small deck guns. Cap’n surrendered and we were quickly boarded by the crew of the Red Dog.
Such dedicated purpose I’ve never seen! They were so efficient it was as though they knew each other’s minds, hardly speaking a word betwixt them. In a flash they had our entire crew collected and restrained. The fools who resisted were ruthlessly cut down where they stood. The rest of us feared even to pray aloud and thus risk undue attention.
Their captain boarded us then, and under his fell gaze I must admit feeling like a doomed sparrow charmed by a serpent. This man had a dark presence about him that was difficult to quantify but easily felt. He was young and fair, slight of stature, well dressed. While not Spanish he was clearly of European descent, with reddish-blonde hair pulled back in a loose tail and hawk-sharp sea-green eyes. The sword he held at his side was long and thin, delicately curved with a long leather-wrapped hilt. As he approached, his men forced our captain down to his knees.
“Sir, you fly a Spanish flag. Whither bound and whence come you?” he calmly demanded, with a hint of an indistinct accent.
“From Arguin and Las Palmas, bound for Santo Domingo.”
The pirate’s eyes narrowed evilly. “You carry slaves to New Spain? Under Spanish contract?”
“Aye, a cargo of three-and-seventy remaining, all of good health and strong backs. We lost less than a score to the flux on this passage. Take all our cargo; just please set us free. We expected a substantial profit in Hispaniola. This sale will make you all rich men.”
He smirked at this and shook his head. “You are a far greater merchant than I, to seek trade in human souls, my lord.” His voice bore a deathly chill. “Shall I bow to you?”
I would not have believed what followed had I not seen it myself. In one smooth motion he performed a courtly bow, drawing a sweeping flourish with his sword arm. At the depth of his gesture, our good captain’s head parted neatly from his body and both pieces tumbled to the deck in a gory fountain.
The pirate straightened, casually flicked a spray of blood from the blade, and fixed us with a demon’s glare. “Now that I have your attention, hear your fate. You will sail under my command. Resist and be swiftly reunited with your captain. Comply willingly and live a while longer.”
I glanced at my fellows but saw none stupid enough to resist: they all looked as ill as I felt. The Mate nodded dumbly and called us to duty.
We sailed west to a forested islet where we released the slaves with provisions and basic tools. He took me aboard his ship while his crew collected our weapons and remaining valuables. They confined my former crew in the Prometheus’ hold; I watched with dread as the pirates broke open oil casks and set her weather-deck and sails alight. Then the Dog’s crew set the slave-ship adrift and fired a devastating broadside which must have killed most of my mates instantly. Hearing screams, I gaped in horror at the conflagration and sank to my knees.
The captain strolled up, watching the flames. “Prometheus, eh?” he mused. “It is dangerous to play with the fire of the gods, mortal, lest you get burned. Deliver this message for me in exchange for your life.”


I’d started shivering while recounting my ordeal and when offered the flask again, I emptied it.
“He freed me just this morning. His name is Captain Hell. I was to tell you: ‘Hell preys on Spain and those who serve it, in retribution for sins of Inquisition committed against both God and Man. Stop searching for the three treasure galleons you lost this spring. Their wealth is beyond your reach, being put to good use against you.’ ”
This last made them all flush. A heated exchange of some length ensued in Spanish, which I could not follow. The governor rose with a carefully-diplomatic expression and personally escorted me to the door.
“Señor Williams, you have been most cooperative. Thank you for your time.”