This page will be dedicated to new fiction as I write it. I have been experimenting lately with flash or ultra-short fiction as a writing exercise.
Thanks to Flash Fiction Magazine for publishing Stifled
Fiery angels on their way to heaven. Red, blue, turquoise. They ascend floor to ceiling in the stained glass windows of this old grey-stone cathedral. I noticed the angels as I took my seat. My gaze shifts and I direct my glare steadily at my stepfather’s coffin. I will for the rest of my days envision that polished brown metal draped in white linen adorned with a gold cross.
Under my breath I mutter, “No heaven for you! Go straight to hell, you son of a bitch!”
Can it be? Is he truly dead? Or will he rise like a vampire?
I feel for my own holy relic. The pen in my jacket pocket. Beautiful relic. Ruby-colored metal in a coat of rubber with two conal gaps where the metal rises to form a caduceus. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Stark white letters against the ruby. This too part of the story.
I have this overwhelming urge to run to the coffin and as Mom and Father Jake and the whole choir and all the others look on in horror, lift that lid and stab the bastard right in the center of his stone cold heart. Just to make certain he’s down for the count.
I won’t, of course. But what will I do? Do I have the guts to tell her?
She pleaded with me. “The newspaper, they need an obituary. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. You go to school for this—you’re good with words. Please do that for me, honey?”
I went silent. My heart skipped a beat then pounded for what felt like ages. At last, in agony, I managed in a muffled tone, “I’ll come up with something.”
My hands won’t stop shaking.
Way back, in the beginning, I liked him. I really did at first. He seemed laid back. When Mom worked the late shift he’d sometimes take me to Taco Pete’s. And she was so happy. Anybody could see that.
Then one night when she was out, he was waiting. Alcohol on his breath. Wrinkled blue sports shirt buttoned to his neck. That South Carolina drawl: “You look so much like her.” His words slurred. Then quick, like a snake’s strike, his calloused hand reached down to touch me.
I gasped, too scared to move or cry out or anything. And for some reason, he stopped.
So many times I planned what I’d say. I’d tell her. But the day I almost did, it was as if he had obliterated my voice. Same as if he’d choked me. At least that would have left marks, some evidence for her to notice.
I kept his secret. Five years, kept my bedroom door locked. Even now in the depths of a random dark night—though I don’t even live here, I wonder sometimes if he really stopped.
The call came when I was at a writing seminar. “He’s sick. I don’t understand what the doctor is saying,” Mom declared, choking back sobs.
Of course I did what she wanted. Flew back, went with them to the next visit. There we sat. A small office, big windows overlooking a tall building of marble and glass. I noticed how much he’d aged. His calloused hands shook. Then the doctor. “Terminal.”
A mantra played in my head. Justice, justice, justice….
They walked out in front of me, the doctor beside them to say a final word. I swiped the pen from his desk.
Yet here I sit. My hard-won voice stifled. Feel as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. Feel thirteen again. I grip the edge of the pew till my fingernails turn white and the shaking quits.
I pull out the ruby pen, hold it in my lap, admire its design. Mom turns a bewildered face my way. I bend the pen until it cracks like a walnut. The words to the story I will tell fly into my head like fiery angels.
Calder trudges across the square in the direction of the Coffee Camper. Orange-red leaves swirl in his steps. The leaves remind him of the barista’s full lips and melodic meandering laugh. His heart races and pace slows as he thrusts his clenched hands deep into his pockets.
Calder is a flat. He likes the surface of things. The mystery below. At least that is what he keeps telling himself through the noise of his doubting voice. The mods would have given you layers. Would have known her name, something about her. Could have thumbs-upped and not had to face her if she thumbed down. But no, you chose to go it the hard way.
He peeks through the window. There she is behind the counter fiddling with the ancient espresso machine. He can smell the coffee even from outside. Smells like home. Like warmth. Like Mom. He catches his own reflection. Brick mop of hair, old army jacket pulled tight.
After Dad left, Mom had the mods installed. And after the mods, their once shared world came to an end.
He glances back at the square covered in leaves and oddly recalls the pink and white petals from the dogwood that coated their front yard. He and his mom used to walk on them in silence. After the mods, though, she was nonstop edification. An onionskin of annotation-coated everything.
Layers and layers of everything and anything—biologic, romantic…even literary footnote, like how many ways one can rhyme dogwood. Eventually, he could not tell if she was smiling at him or at a projection on her retina.
A couple opens the door to leave and holds it for him to enter. He force-smiles a thank you and steps inside.
The warmth eases his clenched hands as he glances furtively about the brick and leather-bound café while avoiding the barista’s direction. He witnesses the slow dance of those moving in and out of the other’s physical and virtual space, made possible by proximity geo-fencing and now projected inward so no one has to suffer a life buried in the screen of a phone. A flick of the eye and a rebuff, or invitation to approach with a cup of steaming Kona.
Go deep young man—go deep, the doubting voice intones. The world’s knowledge, the data, the connections at the tips of your fingers. A timesaver.
But whose time, he wonders.
And isn’t that the whole point? Time goes too quickly as it is. No time to smell the coffee without a whole damn explanation of the lifecycle of the bean.
But with the mods he would have at least known her name.
Before he knows it, Calder is at the counter staring down at his feet. He barely manages, “Double shot mocha, please.”
Immediately he regrets his choice. Jittery enough, and now a double? But his mouth fills with cotton and he cannot bear to change the request.
When he looks up he finds the barista smiling in his direction. She brushes from her face a strand of black hair before ringing up the order. Is she smiling at him or at another projection? She sure does have a nice smile.
He pays with credit and stands to the side, letting his mind wander. The deep. The scent of dogwood. Blossoms float into memory without explanation, without annotation. Mixing, swirling with his mocha-flavored fear.
As he reaches for the cup on the counter with a sweaty-palmed hand, he catches her eye, her real eye.
At the last minute his heart skips a beat and he deviates from the expected path and calmly and a bit brazenly holds his hand out to her. “Hi. I’m Calder.”
She looks alarmed at first. He can tell by the subtle back and forth graze of her eyes that she is trying to access his layers. He knows she will find none.
Then a flicker. “You come in here regular? Yeah.”
Her laugh sounds a melody of relief. He holds his breath as she pauses at the edge of decision with first a puzzled look and then a beam of recognition. Her hand trembles as she extends it toward his.
Jacob gazes across the bay and wrings his hands. An orange haze has settled on the slick green of the shore. He whispers, “Wasn’t just me that got us here. Others too.”
His stomach churns. Last year he even convinced himself it wasn’t such a bad thing when the fishing went to shit. No problem. Get them cheap from Russia. Different source same profit.
He swats at the memory as he catches his reflection in the long living room window. His blue cotton slacks ride up on his belly, betraying a bit of bulk on his once athletic body. Still has his hair though—brown, and tightly wound. When Eric teased him last week that his new glasses made him look like a weather-beaten professor of archaeology, he shot back that he would have preferred a more practical comparison—like engineering.
What made him say something so inane to his own son?
He is startled as his granddaughter begins squealing and cartwheeling across the floor. He wills himself to scoop her into his arms.
Clara giggles. “So pretty, Peepa! The colors are so pretty!”
Lights twinkle on in the good part of town. The deserving part.
When the Big Man visited the city last year on the anniversary of the ascendancy, he used that very word. Deserving. Jacob felt special being the object of the compliment, but now that good feeling has soured, leaves a taste of bile.
Melanie appears and softly squeezes his shoulder. She tousles their granddaughter’s hair and says, “I agree, Clara. Pretty colors, huh? We can’t complain about the view these days.”
Jacob nods and says with a hint of bitterness, “Yes, sure have it good on the Coast. Next it’s The Middle’s turn. That’s what The Man said. Gotta turn our sights on the Middle.” He smiles but the smile is tight and there’s a slight waiver in his voice.
Melanie notices and gives his shoulder another squeeze. They stand together, gazing out the picture window.
His eye falls on the balcony that stretches along their two units. They purchased them for a song in the last crash. But now there’s no going out on the balcony—not during a purple alert.
And God, how he misses sailing the bay! Back in the day, he used to take one of the forty-six footers out by himself to a long abandoned dock with tarred wood and rusted nails leaning over into saltwater. Life was simple—a tug of war between the saltwater and those who had the guts to repair and to build.
He would motor home then, admiring the orange horizon and feeling certain he was that kind of man. It was a different sky than the one before him now.
A scratch catches in his throat, like a cold coming on, the kind you hope to beat with a little sleep. Rumor says the scratch is epidemic now. But who knows—who knows what to believe?
He sighs and tries to turn his attention to the beauty of the colors dancing on the bay. In a strong optimistic tone he says, “Remember what they keep telling us. No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning.”
But the sun has not been seen for weeks now. Way too long.
Rush and tumble. The suborbital shimmies. Banks upon its Earthbound glide. Windows shed opacity. Sun peeks over the Hanoi skyline.
He looks over. She stirs awake and rubs her light green eyes. “How long have I been asleep?”
A month ago, when he told her about the offer, she was soaking in a rosewater bubble bath. A bold start-up job. He would be tasked with establishing a virtual clinic and becoming the empathetic human face for those failed by deep-learning medical algorithms and clinical-decision support programs. Yes, a month ago, and the image of her breasts rising and falling with her breath still burned into his memory.
When he asked her to come along, she frowned in deep thought long enough for him to regret the question. Finally she emerged from the tub, a soapy Venus, and embraced him. The gentle pop of the bubbles gave him shivers. He had a she.
Land below appears on translucent screens strategically placed within the cabin. Memory merges with the towers of glass and carbon rising from the center of Hanoi over the Sung Hong River.
A guitar string in the center of his chest sounds a lonely note. The vibration settles in his throat.
The company seems earnest in its objectives: to restore the long eroded doctor-patient relationship, and do so at a lower cost. Make it affordable to those without the income to see a physician in the flesh. He has his doubts. And he is reluctant to ask about hers.
How much control will be ceded to profit and the public face? Can he accomplish what they expect? There is certain to be a dizzying array of patients. And if he fails what will he do? Will he, as before, suddenly end up directionless again—as he was after the war and the Medical Guild’s collapse? Has he become like his colleagues? Merely an administrator of the medical algorithm? A janitor cleaning up after Artificial Intelligence?
Even his relationship with this woman at his side has floundered in his fear to move on and leave the cold comfort of what medicine has become.
But this will be a fresh start. He inhales a deep breath, releases it slowly and reaches for her hand.
The aircraft jolts on landing then taxies to the gate. Flight attendants wrestle with the portal. It expanded too much upon re-entry.
At last the door gives with a whoosh of foreign air, which carries away her rosewater scent. He feels her hand loosening from his grip.
A Walk in the Woods
Sam inhales the fresh morning breeze sweetened by the dew collected on the pines and then squints up at the sun, and the sun takes firm hold and throws him back to the other sun across the world and that last patrol. For that instant, this sun is as bright as the one that shone down on the semi-arid steppes. His heart skips a beat, but returns quickly enough when the loam of the forest hits his nostrils, nothing like the over-there smell of dust and scrub stretching to become the palest green. He glances down again at Max and wonders how much of this his friend can actually smell with his augmented nose. Seems happy enough though. Well, dog happy. Max’s tail wags back and forth, tongue hangs slightly out from a mouth that can never fully close, teeth not quite meeting, at least the ones that remain. The vet said his smell and vision would not be the same but his hearing was ok.
Then at the same moment as a rustle in the trees, Max is upon him, wet paws on his shoulders which go to ground under Max’s force of speed. Sam doesn’t fight but lets himself tumble with the dog and he flattens against the forest floor under their combined weight. As he gets his wind back, Sam’s ears fill with a troubled dog whine of confusion, frustration and memory – the same memory he imagines they share of the IED, the flash as Max had knocked him to the ground, the split second of intuition that saved them both.
“Easy boy. Easy boy.” Sam has to battle his own near useless left arm as he reaches around with his right to cradle the scarred object of his love. “Easy boy. Shhhh. Only a squirrel, a damn squirrel.”