Category Archives: Flash Fiction

XP

“Repeat it,” Brian, the seventh-grade DM, says, holding a cigarette lighter directly under my fist.

“I can’t play until I’m 14.”

“So stop asking.” His grip releases and I shake the pinpricks from my fingertips. “Now hand it over.”

I pull a folder crammed with notebook paper from my backpack. Brian yanks out a character sheet—Xenon the Sorceror—and lights it. The ashes fall lightly on me. I try not to think of them as the remains of a friend.

The Invitation

My dearest,

I’m writing to ask you to my wedding on the 15th. Her name is Roslyn. You don’t know her. 

I don’t wish for you to receive this news as a rebuff. It is possible to be two things at once. Like you. What was that name you insist your mother gave you in that bleak time before we met? “Herve”? And yet will the Lord God judge me as a liar for calling you Harvey all these years? 

Two things at once.
Your Jonah

Drakkar (A Noir)

“Darling Jesse,” she says—her voice is a bassoonist playing in the back of a concert hall—and then she ashes her cigarette into a waiting urinal.  The wide brim of her sun hat and her five-o-clock shadow obscure her face, but I recognize the mole on her right bicep just below the hem of her puff sleeve. “Where’ve you been, lamb?”

Sleeping on dusty couches in basements. Imagining us on Jerry Springer: me with a chair raised above my head, you appealing to the audience, the cameras. “Around.”

The neon light from the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the window makes the sweat in the air glow cobalt blue, and the smell of stale cologne mixes with the smell of urinal cakes. Every kind of Lycra shirt slides by us on their way to the urinal or to hide behind a stall door, but my eyes stay on her mole.

“Mm hmm,” she says and blows smoke into my face. “You could have come by anytime. I don’t hold grudges.”

You stole money from me.”

“Borrowed. I borrowed money from you. I told you about it, didn’t I? You did get my IOU, yes?”

Yes. She’d only written four words to justify taking $1,000: MISS VEE HAS NEEDS. The block capital letters had reminded me of her past life as an architecture student.

“That was no IOU. That was a cry for attention.” The DJ punctuates my words with techno breakbeats.

“Maybe.” She slips the cigarette back between her lips. “Or maybe it was charity.” The beat of a Chemical Brothers song fades and a man’s voice rings through the building. Vee’s show was about to start.

“Right. Stealing money from me was an act of charity.”

“That’s right, lamb, because we both know you weren’t saving that money up to hand off to the nuns.”

“Still. You didn’t have to take my money and kick me out.”

She reaches an acrylic fingernail out to touch my collar bone, and drops her voice low. “You’re welcome back in my hive anytime you’re ready to follow the Queen Bee.”

The MC’s voice echoes down the hallway. “And now let’s welcome Miss Veronique Ahhhhhh to the stage.” The crowd roars. I hear the sizzle of embers hitting the water in the toilet bowl before she glides down the hallway to stand in a waiting spotlight.

Red Dot

“What did your father say?” my mother whispers.

I watch her gaze flit from my eyes to the painting of a peacock on the wall and back to a spot just left of my nose. Her drink is crooked in the hand that isn’t clutching me. I look past her cashmere shoulder to my sister’s television in the corner. Brian Williams is confidently addressing the almost empty room completely unaware that he is muted. The acrylic nails pressing into my wrist are elegantly curled warnings.

In my head: I steer her toward the mirror hanging not two feet away. I use the laser pointer in my pocket to circle the flames of gin in her eyes, the too-young barrette in her hair, and, somehow, the jealousy in her voice. She shakes her head in disbelief. In my head.

“It can wait, Mom.” I whisper back, and then I point toward the dining room. “They’re waiting for us.”

As if on cue my young nephew asks if he can play Red Dot with the cat again before Thanksgiving dinner is served. My sister tells him that he can’t because I have the laser. Where did he go? my nephew whines. To wash up, my sister says even though she knows I am just on the other side of the wall.

“Alex…my Lexy-man, just tell me.” My mother juts her bottom lip out. I know she wants me to take pity on her, but I can’t help thinking of the orangutan I watched on TV late last night who spent the entire episode hunting for grubs in an old banyan tree. 

I shave both words to a point before I speak. “You’re drunk.” 

“I’m not. This is my first. Promise.”

In my head: disbelief. “Ok, then. What the hell.”

My mom brings her hands together to cheer her small victory, forgetting her drink. An olive lanced by a toothpick plops onto my sister’s pristine white carpet. Brian Williams ignores it and continues mouthing words.

“Dad told me that you would try to manipulate me.” I watch her jaw fall slack. “He told me not to be afraid to cut all ties with you until after the hearing.”

She puts her martini glass down on a book shelf and I return to the dining room alone.

Nip Point

TW: violence, suggestions of rape

Summary: A woman unwittingly falls into the hands of a killer the moment she walks into work.

Liz saw them as soon as she walked into the reception area of the Chippewa Paper Mill bright orange helmets lined up outside the doors to the machine floor. Each helmet sat atop a pile of meticulously folded clothes.

She immediately recognized a turquoise blouse as Autumn’s. There was Marvin’s helmet with the Red Wings sticker slapped crooked on the front from when they’d won the Stanley Cup back in ‘08. She spotted a pair of khaki pants in another pile with a crease so sharp Liz imagined cutting her finger on it. She guessed they were Derek, the night manager’s. And at the end of the line she saw her husband Ron’s black and red striped polo shirt. Eleven piles of clothes and helmets. One for each person that worked the night shift.

This must be a weird joke, Liz thought. She let out a half-laugh when she realized the joke must be meant for her. They knew she’d be the first one in for the morning shift; she and Ron liked to steal time together before he went home and she began her day.

As Liz walked onto the machine floor, she found work boots blocking her way. Someone had tied their laces together and strung them like a gate between the pulp tanks. She noticed red smears on their heels.

“Ron?” she yelled, and the room returned her voice. She realized that this end of the factory was silent the loud agitators in the pulp tanks, the pulpers, the boilers held their breath; the sprayers crouched overhead mid-pass. Yellow and black signs saying NIP POINT stared out at her from the walls, unblinking reminders of how dangerous the machinery was when the mill was fully active.  

“This isn’t funny, guys.” The echo repeated eyes.

As Liz untied the boots, she felt a presence. Derek was standing behind her, naked, pointing a gun at her head. Liz saw that underneath the pressed creases of the khakis he wore he hid a myriad of tattoos. Bible verses twined around his biceps and thighs, circled his pecs, and fell like vines down his abdomen.

“Hands,” he commanded. Liz stuck hers out and Derek tethered them together. Then he marched her down the aisle past the row of freight elevators. One of the doors was cracked open. Liz saw Marvin, the hockey fan, inside as she walked by. His naked body slumped on the floor; the eyes in his severed head stared back at her from the top of the utility table.

“Why did you come in here?” Derek whispered. “You should have heeded my warnings.”

He walked her into the farthest of the freight elevators and used a piece of rope already hanging from the railing to tie her up. Ron was there, too. In the back. He was naked, gagged, and strapped to a chair. Blood pooled at his feet. Liz could see that the blood came from Ron’s hands; all of his fingernails had been removed.

Liz screamed Ron’s name. She fought hard against the rope that bound her hands. Derek quickly pulled the gag out of Ron’s mouth and forced it into Liz’s. He replaced the gun in his hand with a boxcutter he grabbed from underneath the chair, pinned Liz’s legs to the floor and cut at her clothes as she tried to buck him off. He hummed to himself as he worked. When he had ripped her bra off, he left her alone in the elevator.

After a few moments she heard the low hum of one of the machines starting up. She began to tremble. She knew what these machines did. She imagined being crushed or boiled alive.

Liz snapped her mind into focus. Ok, if I can hold him off the rest of the morning shift should be here any minute. She surveyed her surroundings. There was Ron either passed out or dead in the chair, his blood on the floor, and nothing else. The elevator’s operational buttons shone bright just above her bound hands, but she knew the elevator wouldn’t move unless both the wooden gate and the jaws of the heavy automatic doors were closed. Flinging her legs, she reached toward Ron. When she felt the warmth of his blood on her, she used her body to wet the floor.

“Looks like we’re meeting our Lord and Savior together,” Derek sing-songed as he stepped back into the elevator. He slipped immediately in Ron’s blood and threw his hands out to the walls to steady himself. Liz instinctively tried to block his fall with her arms, but the rope strangled her wrists. When she looked up, she saw Derek’s hairy torso above her. He had become aroused. She focused her gaze on the ceiling.

“Tricky girl,” Derek said with a grin. He righted himself and reached over her head to press the button that closed the automatic doors. A NIP POINT sign stuck to the top door blinked into view. When the elevator started moving, Liz remembered that they were in the broken one. It still moved with the gate up.

They stopped on the second floor. Liz knew there was only equipment and nip points to the open vats of the pulp boilers up here. Derek pressed the button to reopen the doors. She waited a beat and then kicked her legs back, pressing the Close button at the same time. Derek fell forward, his head poking through the still-open doors until they clamped down on his neck. Liz heard a crunch before the doors’ safeguard stopped it from closing.

His naked body was angled over her and his arms and legs kept convulsing, grabbing, stretching. She heard the whirrs and crackles of Derek trying to inhale. It only took a few minutes for his arms to fall limp, resting on bloody hips. All she could do now was wait.

This story was a submission to a judged flash fiction contest. Here were the judges’ comments:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1686}  The story sets out on a dark path from the beginning, with the initial misdirection creating a greater sense of alarm when it is revealed that this is no innocent joke.…  {1614}  I like how the protagonist manages to save herself and her husband through resistance and cleverness. While Derek tries to take away her choices, Liz ultimately decides who lives and dies, showcasing great agency.…
{1702}  I like that your hero makes it out alive! Good for her, being super resourceful under intense amounts of pressure. Your story’s pacing is also incredibly fast, which is great. Your descriptions, such as the one about the Red Wings sticker, are fantastic because they’re so specific. Great job there.…

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –
{1686}  While the events of the story are horrific and there is a lot of violence and action, consider playing with suspense and more understated ways of raising readers’ hackles to bring out a deeper sense of horror. In some places, less may be more; for example, leaving the last sentence off this paragraph could actually increase the sense of foreboding:  “After a few moments she heard the low hum of one of the machines starting up. She began to tremble. She knew what these machines did.”

The beginning is headed this way already.

Perhaps expand on Derek’s ideology or show more subtle signs of his emotional imbalance.…

{1614}  A little more background on Derek and what’s driving his psychopathy would help ground the narrative. Additionally, you might consider revisiting the moments of action and adjusting the prose to read more quickly. For example, taking advantage of more frequent line breaks.…

{1702}  After reading you story, I feel like there were several unanswered questions that, if answered to some degree, might make your story stronger. Why did Derek want to kill the whole night crew? Moreover, how did Derek kill 12 or so people in the span of a few hours without anyone apparently noticing? What’s a “nip point?” Did the broken elevator’s safety not work? Is that how it was able to crush his esophagus? Answering or clarifying these questions to varying degrees could really help strengthen your already strong story.…

The Language of Thunderstorms

A crowd gathered on the crumbling pavement of the town square. The Leader stood quite still in its center, her unusual silence commanding our attention. Eventually even the men tilling the fields nearby set down their plows and stepped over rows of freshly planted seeds to hear her proclamation.

The Leader held a curiously stretched oval, like an egg made long by the captive hatchling inside. A thin silver rod protruded out of the oval’s side.

“My family,” she boomed, and the breeze played with the hollyhock blooms wreathed throughout her curly brown hair. “Brother Nielwin”—she acknowledged me with a slight nod—“discovered this artifact from deep within the waste mines. Our foremothers called it a ‘radio.’” She offered the crowd a rare smile with her words, then she turned a knob and the thing began to crackle and moan.

Some men leaning against the ruins of a brick wall covered their ears with their chapped hands. Others whispered of wickedness. A child sitting at the Leader’s bathed and oiled feet reached toward the object.

“What do we hear, dear Leader?”

The Leader’s voice dropped from full to half-mast. “That is the sound of our future, my child.”

“Our future sounds like a storm rolling in,” the girl replied, and the Leader stooped to let her touch the wailing gray thing.

The Art of Distraction

“SO IS THIS WHAT YOU DO HEREmake Rube Goldberg machines?” Jacob said, after I’d spread string, scissors, plastic cups, and a few small peg boards across the breakroom counter. He was sitting at the table eating a sandwich and fries from a styrofoam box. I watched as his paisley tie dipped into ketchup. That’s how new he was to the pediatrician’s office—no one had told him yet that Medical Assistants could dress business casual.

“Huh? No, I’m the Scribe? The one who inputs the doctor’s notes into the patient database? The job’s kinda tedious, so I started pushing thumbtacks into the corkboard behind my desk and wrapping rubber bands around them two at a time. Set up a little maze down the wall for a marble to travel down. Janet, the Nurse Practitionernot Janet, the Lab Tech—saw it and liked it. She started bringing patients by for demonstrations, and then she asked me to build a machine in here.” Stop rambling. Why do I turn into an idiot whenever a hot guy is around? “I’m Ethan by the way.”

“Hi. I’m Jacob. Your machine sounds cool. Where’d you learn to make them? Did you go to an engineering school or something?”

I answered his question by pulling out my college ID and showing it to him, not remembering the terrible picture on it. Scraggly beard, eyelids half-closed, a questionably-high James Franco smirk. Jacob pulled a matching ID card out of his messenger bag.

“We must have just missed each other on campus,” Jacob said.

After that, a pause filled the room. “When you’re done eating, do you want to see the machines?” I asked. Jacob nodded, mouth full of pastrami.

I took him down the long hallway past the exam rooms to the corner where my desk squatted and showed him the machine. I handed him a silver marble and pointed.

“Drop it on the highest rubber band there,” I explained, and we watched as the marble glided across the vertical maze, and down to where I’d looped the final band around the switch of my desk lamp. The marble clicked against the switch and my light turned on, which also caused Jacob to beam.

“Like I said, I have a lot of free time.” I tried not to notice his long eyelashes or his one crooked tooth; I itched my ear instead. “So, yeah, the kids liked it, and pretty much everyone in the office is looking for new ways to distract patients. It was a hit.”

“I see why.”

Two coworkers came out of the exam room next door and asked me to demonstrate my machine again, after which, one of them, Cindy from Billing, said she wouldn’t mind her own machine. I told her I’d see what I could do.

 

AT LUNCH THE NEXT DAY Jacob ventured down the hallway again carrying a milk crate with about a dozen random objects in it.

“Hey, Ethan, I did a little googling and brought you some supplies.” His elbow brushed my shoulder as he set the crate down on my desk. I could feel heat disperse through the ridges of my ears. “I…If you feel like it, I can help you with Cindy’s machine.”

“That would be great,” I said, avoiding his gaze by inspecting the items in the crate. Some dowel rods, duct tape, a hamster wheel, and… “A blender?”

“I figured if we couldn’t use it, maybe I could make us some margaritas? Not here…I mean, back at my place…but, you know, not like that.”

Not like what? A date? I felt tingling in my feet. “Why don’t we just play it by ear?”

The rest of the work day dragged. When it was finally just Jacob and I, we took out all of the things he’d brought. We decided to make a machine that would unfurl a sign at Cindy’s desk. Jacob started pounding pegs into a pegboard. When I caught myself watching the curve of his bicep contract with each hammer blow, I started tinkering with the blender.

“What’s the plan?” he asked.

I told him what I was thinking: dowel rods and a wedge to guide a marble into the bottom of a flat, paint-stirring stick. The stick would jerk and a string attached at the top of the stick would yank a paper clip free from the sign we’d hang from Cindy’s desk.

“Sounds good, but I wonder if we could incorporate her chair somehow or put something on the floor? I saw a video last night where they wrapped an electric cord around a chair les so when someone pulled it out the machine started.”

“We could, but how long do you want to be here tonight?”

He faced me, a grin triggered a set of dimples. That crooked tooth. I knocked something off the desk and was turning my head to see what it was when I felt something swipe my neck. I smacked at it without thinking, connecting with Jacob’s nose and cheek. He had tried to kiss me.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Are you ok? I was…um, let’s maybe not kiss? At work, I mean, with the security cameras. But definitely again.” I put my hand on his shoulder and winked. I never wink.

“Well, at least we got that awkward first kiss out of the way, right?”

We quickly set up Cindy’s surprise after that. Jake printed out a picture of a cat with a pink party hat over its ears and a wry look.

We tested the machine a few times and started repacking the milk crate with the items we didn’t use. I picked up the blender still sitting on the breakroom table where we’d left it.

“Hey, you still up for some drinks?”

“Absolutely, but we won’t be needing that.” Jake pointed to the blender. “I just needed some way to ask you out.”

To my NYC Midnight friends, this is an edited version of the story I submitted. Group 54—romantic comedy, a pediatrician’s office, a blender.

The Luxury of Time

Margaret groped crusty tissues, two prescription bottles and a Katherine Porter novel to find her tortoiseshell frames. She knew the time of day only by the color of her bedroom; the angle of the sun hit different parts of the color-blocked curtains at different times of day. Orange meant early morning. Candace would need feeding and William will want breakfast when he comes home from his shift, but Margaret continued floating on the island of her mattress.

 

The diner was dark except for the green neon glow of jukeboxes peering from every tabletop. A woman stared at her across a row of cherry red booths, her hair pinned up so a single russet curl fell perfectly above her eyes. She smoked a cigarette as if she were thumbing through a magazine. The absence of waitstaff behind the long counter unsettled Margaret as she strode to join the woman who so obviously expected her. She wished the blinds in the windows were open, even knew it only looked out onto a parking lot and an expressway. Margaret heard the plugging sound of lips on cigarette.

“Well, someone call the press,”—plumes of smokes rose to the speckled ceiling as the woman spoke—“Miss Maggie Jane is in a place that serves Spam.”

“What do you mean? I eat Spam all the time.”

“Not out in public, you don’t. And you hide it behind the orange juice in the refrigerator as soon as you pull it out of the grocery sack.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Mothers know things.” After she said it, the shadows on the woman’s face fluttered like moths’ wings and Margaret recognized the curve of chin and the Jayne Mansfield-inspired eyebrows of the mother she’d only seen in photographs. In the silence after the woman’s quip, Margaret heard someone talking, the voice—a young woman’s—muffled by the closed metal swinging doors. A sign of life just beyond this room.

“You aren’t anyone’s mother,” Margaret said. There was a plate of French fries in front of her, but she couldn’t remember ordering or seeing a waitress deliver it.

“Boo hoo, missy. You know, there’s a reason why you only hear children saying “No fair” when the world doesn’t give them what they want.” The woman’s patent leather purse strap fell off her shoulder as she talked. Margaret watched her shake salt into her chocolate milkshake and stir it with her straw.

Maggie couldn’t taste her food; she was too distracted by the eerie quiet of the restaurant. No meat sizzling on a grill, no whir of a refrigerator engine, not even an Elvis song coming from one of the jukeboxes. The only sounds were the woman’s interjections whenever she took a sip of her milkshake—mmm. They grew louder the more of it she drank. Mmmm. MMM-mmm. By the time the milkshake was gone Margaret was relieved the diner was empty because the woman’s enjoyment verged on sounding sexual. The woman plucked several fries from Margaret’s plate, popping them in her mouth, all the while maintaining eye contact. The moans turned into half-screams as she chewed, subtle vowels entered the sounds. When the woman clearly screamed “Mommy,”  Margaret rolled her eyes, but then felt remorse when she grabbed Margaret’s hand and started bawling.

 

 

Margaret’s bedroom shined red, and on the other side of the door a man’s voice lilted above her daughter’s whimpering. The smell of William’s Brylcreem already permeated their small flat. She found her glasses resting on the duvet next to her hand and returned them to the nightstand. She picked up one of the prescription bottles and sprinkled a few over the duvet, careful not to make a sound. Her legs kicked off the sheets and blankets and her arms flung out to her sides, one hand still holding the bottle. She closed her eyes and waited for William to open the door.

The door finally creaked open a sliver, and then immediately closed. She heard William pick Candace up from her crib and walk into the kitchen. She opened her eyes again to the sizzling of bacon in a frying pan.

The Bedweaver

Last week you came into my shop and told me you’d bought a fine new bed, and we agreed on a day and a time. That night I added up the sum total of our conversations, and determined that our last conversation held more words than you’d ever given me before. I slept tight in my chair with that fact over top of me.

Two days ago, I poured water into the washtub and let the sisal rope soak overnight. The dog tried to harmonize with my singing. When I asked him to stop, I noticed he needed a washing, too.

Yesterday I laid the sisal out naked in the June sun, wiped down the parts of my bed key, then I scrubbed my nails clean and used the washtub for myself. My gnarled body went in from the corns on the bottom to the grays on the top. My shabby clothes and shabbier dog followed. After the bath, I walked to Mrs. McLachlan’s garden and plucked some mint without asking. I asked the Lord to forgive my pride for not wanting to tell her my intentions with the mint.

This morning when you show me into your room there will be on the floor your birch headboard, two posts, two long and two short support beams with a row of pegs like upside down thimbles on one side of each. I will drop my sisal and my key and get straight to work. As I assemble your bedstead, I will ask your thoughts of the new pastor. At some point, your children’s voices will run through the open window and around and between us. When the frame is at attention on the plankwood floor, I will say: My, but your bedstead is grand, Mrs. Putnam. You will smell mint on my breath and smile as you leave the room.

After I’ve woven the rope around each peg and used the key to pull slack from the sisal grid, I will tie hitch knots diagonally from the southwest corner to the northeast and slide your horsehair mattress over my work. I will make a point not to think of you as the Widow Putnam anymore. I will tell you as I leave about the knots, that they keep the bed from sagging too soon. But, actually, I am a superstitious man and every little bit helps.