Tag Archives: writing prompts

Prehensile

Summary:
At a time when most humans have developed prehensile tails, a woman returns home from a trip to find distinct changes in her loafer of a son.

 

 

Bart didn’t hear me come into the apartment. He remained hunched over his laptop, headphones corking his ears. The brusque taxi driver plopped my enormous suitcase into the corner of the main room, snatched money out of my hand, and trotted back out. His lumpy, hairless tail yanked the door shut behind him. My son, unfazed, hawked a loogie into an almost-empty McDonald’s cup and furiously kept typing.

When I left for my Hawaiian vacation three weeks ago, Bart was lying on the floor in his boxers with his legs up on the couch. He’d read somewhere that elevating his feet would relieve the back pain he felt when he sat too long. It’d been months since he’d quit his “network security job,” whatever that was. Before I left, he spent his days either at the computer or watching Game of Thrones. Now, with Bart’s back to me, I noticed his t-shirt lacked the usual greasy spot from his long, unwashed hair. In fact, his hair had been clipped short.

I tapped on his shoulder and shouted to be heard over whatever noise he was funneling into his ears. “Bart, I’m home.”

In one swift motion, he screamed, stood up, turned around, and snatched a pair of scissors from the desk. His quick reaction surprised me because it was the most I’d seen him move since he’d quit his job.

“Jesus, Ma, why are you yelling?”

“You had your ears plugged. How else was I supposed to get your attention? Now stop threatening your mother with assault and give her a proper welcome home.”

Bart did as he was told, plodding between the kitchen island and the couch to hug me. A chemical smell struck me as we embraced, an odor whose source I would later learn was called Axe Body Spray. He quickly pulled away and returned to his computer. As he sat, his t-shirt hiked up and I could see the notch of his shorts that would, on most other humans, accommodate for a tail. The words Fuck Off were tattooed onto the pale skin over his tailbone. My son was full of surprises today.

I expected him to return to whatever computer world I pulled him from, but he clicked a few buttons and flipped the screen down. In the split second before it lay flat, I saw the Washington Monument and a large crowd of people marching.

Sure that I’d received all the welcome I was going to get, I wheeled my suitcase into my room and unpacked. When I came back down the hall, I peeked into Bart’s cavern of a bedroom. He’d replaced the video game and death metal band posters that had decorated his walls with bright red banners: NO TAIL? NO PROBLEM!, PREHISTORIC & PROUD.

Returning to the main room, I found Bart clicking through channels. Most featured the same tailed man, gray hair, eyes like marbles, speaking into the camera. The runner at the bottom of the screen said, Ryan Paul, Prehensile Freedom Committee.

“So, I can’t help but notice a few changes around here,” I said.

“Yeah, well, you’ve been gone a while,” he pouted—still a child at 19—but I kept circling my hands in the stale air between us, out with it already. “I went to a couple nonprehensile rallies with some friends and did some volunteer work for them.”

“That’s great. What friends?”

“Just some people I met in a group chat,” he said defensively. I sat down and shoulder-nudged him. “I just…I watched this documentary on the History channel about what it was like before the adaptation—how nonprehensiles ran the world—and it pissed me off. So I looked up nonprehensile groups, and their sites said some stuff that made me think.”

“Such as?”

“Such as how ludicrous it is that we can’t drive or that we have to include our tailless status on job applications or…,” and he reached across the top of the couch and laid a finger on the seam of the cushion where a notch had been taken out to accommodate most people’s extra appendage. “This.”

“The tailcut? That’s not a big deal.”

“But it is, though. I’ve seen pictures, Ma. Of couches that didn’t have huge pieces taken out. They used to all be like that. How hard would it be to make a few for people like us? It doesn’t even make sense that they don’t, you know? And did you know that back in the 1980s they made cars without tail shifts, too? Nonprehensiles can drive just fine. There’s no fucking reason for the laws against us.”

“I know.” I put a hand on his knee. “Well, that explains the signs and your butt crack message. Listen, I think it’s great you’re getting out of the house”—he gave a half-cocked smile—“but what’s with the hair and being dressed before noon and threatening your mother with scissors?”

“Sorry. You just scared me, I guess.” He paused. “Like I said, I’ve been working for the group: going to meetings, doing some computer stuff, you know” and then his gaze returned to a commercial on the TV showing nonprehensile salon workers waxing people’s tails as their clients sipped mai tais and flipped through Us Weekly magazines.

A few hours later, after Bart had gone to a meeting and I’d decided to head out to WalMart, I found two cops standing in the hallway. I gasped, dropping my purse with a thunk. The taller cop slid his tail behind my leg to catch the door.

“Veronica Lippincott?”

“Yes?”

“You’re under arrest. You are charged with three counts of Identity Theft and one count of Unlawful Access to Stored Communications.”

“What?”

The shorter cop—cold sore fuming on his lip—read me the Miranda rights as his tail slipped the cuffs on my wrists, all the time muttering under his breath that he shouldn’t have to touch me. The third, smaller cuff dangled between my hands.

THE OFFICERS ASKED ME a lot of questions and then brought me to a cell with four beds in it. I fell asleep pretty fast because of the jet lag, and because I’d already decided everything would be fine. Sometime later, the racket of an officer pushing three girls about Bart’s age into my cell woke me up; the girls all seemed tipsy.

“How you hanging, girl?” The one with the gap in her teeth said before using her tail to run a comb through her bangs.

“Not bad. You?” I sat up, and she caught my eye.

“Sharon, look. She’s tailless.” Sharon was the one wearing a Limp Bizkit t-shirt.

The third girl, brown hair with purple streaks, yelped. “They don’t like that word. They like to be called nonprehensile.”

“Whoa. I’ve never talked to one before,” Sharon said to Purple Streaks, and then she turned to me. “Can I touch it?”

“Uh…what?”

Sharon shoved me forward and slid her cold finger over my tail bone. In that moment, I understood the message above my son’s butt crack. I curled up in my bed with my back to the wall.

“Oh,” she said. “It just feels like touching someone’s back.” She rejoined her friends on the other side of the cell. I laid there for a long time listening to them talk about going to the gym again to get definition in their tails. Minutes, or hours later, Gap Teeth shook me awake; it was still dark.
“Hey lady,” Sharon called over, “what’s your name?”

“Ronnie.”

“Hey, Loni. We were just wondering what you were in here for?”

“Um…something to do with computers.”

“You don’t know?”

“No. They told me, but I don’t remember. All I know is I barely ever use a computer. Don’t need to with my son always on the thing.” The three of them waited for me to say more, so I told them about coming back from Hawaii, the police at my door, and the changes I’d noticed in Bart.

“Is he like you?” Gap Teeth asked.

“My son? Yeah, same eyes, same nose. People tell us we laugh the same.”

“No, I mean…” and she hooked her pointer finger and jabbed it a few times as if to say, behind you.

“Oh. Yes. Just another lottery we didn’t win, I guess.”

“What’s it like?” Purple Streaks asked.

“Excuse me?”

“You know”—she turned bright red before she whispered, “not having one.”

It took me a second to come up with an answer I was willing to share.

“Lonely,” I sighed. “You know, when people were first showing signs of the adaptation, before you three were born, I had this friend, Glenda, who pulled down her pants and showed me the nub on her tailbone right in the middle of the Macy’s department store. That doesn’t seem like a big deal now with tail notches in clothes, but back then it was not okay. Calcium deposit, she’d said. All the doctors back then thought the nubs were calcium deposits. Every phone conversation with her after that was about her tail: it’s the size of Peter’s dingaling, she said—Peter was Glenda’s husband—it’s as long as a cucumber now; I could slap Gucci on it and wear it as a belt, Ronnie.

“Not long after, Glenda stopped calling me. She’d found other friends, I guess. So, I went to a geneticist, asked him when I should be expecting a Gucci belt of my own. I had Bart do a test, too. Both negative. Didn’t bother me much, but having to tell my five-year-old he’d always be different wasn’t easy.”

The girls left me alone after that. One of them woke me up vomiting. Gap Teeth, I think. And I felt the bed jiggle when someone finally got into the bunk above mine. Whoever it was kindly didn’t use the tailcut in the bed, must have slept on her side all night.

A different cop let himself in to retrieve me at eight the next morning. Walking out the door, I noticed Sharon had been the one sleeping above me. The cop told me my bail had been posted and led me to Processing where I found Bart sitting at the only table in the room. A small man with a moustache sat next to him. He sat rod straight, using the chair back as a splint almost, not the way someone with a tail would sit. They stayed where they were until the officer behind the desk told me I could go.

“Ma!” Bart walked over to hug me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m all right. Met some new friends; got a little shut-eye.” I pointedly gazed over at the man.

“This is George Halberson, Ma. Our lawyer.” The man stood and joined us.

“I didn’t know we had a lawyer. Nice to meet you, sir. Hopefully clearing all this up will be easy. Do you know that I’m not even sure what they charged me with?” Bart steered me out the door.

“Yes, well,” George’s voice came out pinched and nasal. He looked at a sheet in his hand. “It was Identity Theft and Unlawful Access to Stored Communications, Mrs. Lippincott. Some pretty serious hacking crimes. In fact, the Pro-Prehensile people have picked up on your case. They’re pretty upset.”

“But I don’t even know how one would go about stealing an identity.”

“Don’t worry. I think we have a strong argument,” Mister Halberson said.

“George and I have been talking, and we think all we have to do is show the judge you don’t know anything about computers.”

“Bart, don’t call Mister Halberson by his first name. It’s rude.”

Mister Halberson let out a puff of a laugh, his moustache barely raised.

“George is a friend, Ma. We’ve been hanging out.”

“Yes. Bart has been helping with some NPIA initiatives with which I’m afraid you’ve been entangled, Mrs. Lippincott.”

“NPIA?” There were a few nonprehensile groups: NPUSA, 2Arms, NANPA. I remembered one of them had gotten in trouble with the Pro-Prehensile groups for becoming violent at a rally.

“The Nonprehensile Initiative of America,” Bart said.

“Oh, right. The new tailless group,” I said.

“We prefer nonprehensile,” George shot back.

“Sorry. But what do you mean I’m entangled?”

“Whoever did it hacked into Ryan Paul’s personal server. Got tons of info against him. Riled up the Pro-Prehensiles. They’re calling us traitors.”

By then we were at the cab and the driver was asking us “Where to?” George said goodbye and that he’d call Bart later. In the cab, I kept trying to talk about what had happened, but Bart put a hand on my shoulder and looked meaningfully toward the driver whose tail was operating the gear shift at my feet. All the way home I thought about the night before: Bart’s reaction when I tapped him on the shoulder, his newfound purpose, George’s sudden appearance. How the internet, the phone, and the cable bills were all under my name, not Bart’s.

THE JUDGE USED HIS TAIL to pound the gavel, bringing court to order. After a while, the bailiff called the first witness. Gap Teeth walked in, chewing a wad of gum. Twelve tailed jurors watched George pace in front of the witness stand. Bart sat behind me, the smell of Axe Body Spray cloying the air.

George asked Gap Teeth a series of questions about our night in jail. How I couldn’t remember the charges, how I couldn’t use a computer. In the moments when the courtroom was quiet, we could hear the protestors outside chanting, “Lock her up!” Then it was the prosecuting attorney’s turn with Gap Teeth. His tail swished in the air behind him as he spoke.

“In your conversation with the defendant, Miss LePage, did you also ask her what it was like to be nonprehensile?”

“Yeah.”

“And what did she say?”

“She said it was lonely, that she’d lost friends because of it.”

“Did the defendant tell you a story of how she lost her friend?”

“Yeah, she,”—Gap Teeth nodded toward me—“said she was jealous of her friend for growing a tail and how she hated that she and her kid weren’t normal.”

“Thank you, Miss LePage. I have no further questions.”

I was numb through the rest of the trial. Later, Bart would tell me how a tail supremacist managed to disrupt the hearing, how Ryan Paul had called me a disgrace to democracy on national television, and how the judge used the word example to describe me in his ruling. The only thing I remember from that whole week, and I remember it vividly, was the bailiff pulling my hands behind my back and the weight of the three cuffs digging into my tailbone.


 

***I wrote this story for a contest. My prompts were political satire as a genre, a computer hacker as a character, and a night in jail as a conflict.***

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.

Vagabond

The day I moved into the hollow of a giant redwood
the crowberry eyes of a family of martens appraised
my ragged chin, my desperate need for shelter,

and rightly deemed me harmless. They knew the city does not shelter
those that need it most. I unpacked my life, slept below the red wood
sky as constellations of banana slugs appraised

my verdant dreams, and woke to find my nap praised
with larksong. I joined their melody, singing for shelter,
for autumn and spring, for the growth rings of a redwood.

The redwood appraised my plea, and gave me a family in which to take shelter.

 

The Drowning of Vic Garland

Synopsis: Three days after the sinking of the Titanic a young nurse receives a meaningful package.

 

No further updates of the Titanic survivors have been wired.

The White Star agent stops hurling the sentence at the journalists long enough to check for my brother’s name. When he finds it printed on the original passenger list, he mumbles where on the wharf I can find the other families.

Pier 59 teems with thousands of anxious women in crumpled hats, somber gentleman with their hands behind their overcoats, and photographers documenting it all. Most everyone’s heads point toward the White Star pier where the RMS Carpathia broods, but I continue looking for the cordoned-off portion of the dock the agent told me about. I push forward until I find myself under the steel arch that reads “Cunard Line.” My confusion and the near-ice falling from the sky make my progress through the throng of people feel like a morphine dream.

Men use newspapers to shield their eyes; the names of the surviving first-class passengers’ names bulge from the front page. There is no word yet on the lower classes, but reports are grim. Images of my brother, poor darling Vic, drifting in a gulping sea float through my mind. I fear they will continue until the moment I see the ridiculous orange feather aflame in the band of his homburg.

A tall officer with a mustache like a push broom crosses his arms as he shouts, “This section is for families of passengers only, ladies and gentlemen. If you are not relation, please wait for the ship elsewhere.”

I grab the man’s arm and allow my fears to spill out. “My brother, sir, James Garland? He goes by Vic. He’s a salesman, hospital cots. Look at me. Please. I’m his sister. People say we resemble each other. Will you watch for him for me?”

The man’s sparse eyebrows rise higher above the thin bridge of his nose before he says, “Of course, my dear, but until he comes, wait with us. Take comfort in the company of others in your particular quandary.”

A woman standing nearby immediately starts complaining about the Cunard company’s decision to drop off the Titanic’s lifeboats before allowing the survivors to disembark. Others agree. A man with an aristocratic air announces that a few of the survivors with the most pressing medical needs have already been sent straight to hospital, that family members should check with a White Star agent for more information. A matronly woman takes my arm.

“I do hope it’s good news for your brother.” She pats my hand and her touch sets in motion a wave of unsteadiness. “This too will pass away, young lady. Chin up, now.”

Hollow words with good intent. Exactly what put my brother on that abominable boat. I think of the belongings he didn’t take with him, still piled high in one corner of my lodgings. He had asked his man Thomas to arrange the suitcases, boxes, and empty birdcages to look pleasant. When he saw Thomas’s work, he dubbed it the Eiffel Tower and insisted upon addressing every letter he wrote to Mademoiselle Garland.

“Would it help to tell me about him?” I feel the matron’s cool grip on my arm.

No, I think. I can hardly think of him without being reminded of our fight the day I sent him away. I can’t bear to remember the look on his face, hear again the apologies for his crimes, what the police described as “sexual perversions,” the schemes, the aliases, or the promise I extracted from him to leave New York. Searching for a safe topic, I blather on to the woman about his dog, who is likely curled on my kitchen floor, with an old nurse’s uniform of mine for a bed. I tell the woman he named the Boston terrier “Her Majesty” because it amused him to walk through the neighborhood calling it out. I tell her that he wore his dog’s collar around his wrist whenever he left home.

“He sounds like a nice man,” she says. I do not say otherwise.

The Carpathia eventually slides into port and dock hands carry the recovering survivors on stretchers down the gangplank. Everyone on the wharf jostles to see the precious cargo. Photographers flash their cameras. The matron eventually releases my arm when she spots her niece’s face.

Then the survivors who can walk proceed silently down to the waiting crowd. One by one the pale men and women find their loved ones, cries of joy and grief follow, until at last the end of the cortege proceeds up the wharf and there are no more survivors to be seen. 

I collapse into the officer’s arms.

“Come, miss,” the officer whispers. “I’m sure the agency has the finalized list now. Hope is not lost; perhaps your brother waits for you in a nice, warm room at the hospital.” The officer takes my arm, and conveys me to the shipping office. The same agent from before tells me that my brother’s name is still absent from the list, and I feel every vibration in my body—digestion, respiration, cognition—cease. I can hardly find my own hands inside my gloves; it takes the kindness of the police officer to deliver me at home.

 

In the confines of my parlor I unpin my hat and peel off my wet gloves, my coat. I am warming my feet by the fire when someone knocks. Her Majesty starts barking. I find Thomas, the valet Vic gave to me while he was away, standing on the stoop wearing a soot-stained coat and a cockeyed grin. He clutches at my wrist, behavior of which I would reprove under other circumstances.

“The German Hospital, miss. We’re to look for Ludwig Kranz.” He places something in my hand. I find a thin leather strap with three ornate bells attached. I call Her Majesty to me and refasten the collar around her neck.

Update: Feedback from the contest judges:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1589}  I like following this young woman around as she looks for her brother–it’s tense. Nice scene witht the well-meaning old woman. Nice ending.

{1657}  Linguistically lovely! Well-balanced story: background, dialog, description, action. I was intrigued.

{1601}  Good use of specific detail to bring the reader along to the time of the Titanic. Excellent use of the mandatory elements (especially the dog collar) woven into the story. Excellent use of dialog as well.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1589}  Give me placement of our narrator at the very beginning, a sentence or two about her.  How would she know what a morphine dream was like?  The fight she had with her brother is not clear. What does she think about this fight? Is she sorry? How does this event affect her?

{1657}  Consider restructuring the story, or refocusing it, to capitalize on the mystery. At present it doesn’t come into play until the very end (and feels a bit forced).

{1601}  I think it might strengthen the story a little if the narrator elaborates a little about her brother’s crimes.

The Aerialists

It’s easy to idolize the women floating above you. The footlights set their sequins on fire; the music spins them between gasps and cables. You appreciate the simplicity, the reliance on ribbons, the swinging on silks. Their work is to be upside down, arms extended, hanging by an ankle to please strangers, and you blush to think you’ve complained about less. Of course the spotlight reveals the tent roof beyond, the spider web of trapeze to one side, still you keep the tangle of your gaze on the dazzle-skinned for fear they’ll float away.

The Forbidden Room

The rink had just been resurfaced, but adjusting to the extra stickiness of the floor was only Ryan’s second problem. His first was a tall bottle-rocket of a girl. Jessica.

Seconds before, Ryan had been practicing his backwards dance moves. He was getting better, but he knew the real jam skaters didn’t knock so many sixth graders off their feet. They practically floated around the rink moving together in perfect synchronicity. That’s what he was thinking when he felt strong hands pull him past the deejay stand. He heard Jessica sneer “payback” into his ear. By the time he thought to do something—squat, wiggle, turn around—he was sailing past a row of stalls the color of guacamole. A girl screamed when she saw him in the mirror, which made the other lip-glossed girls stop their unnecessary reapplications and turn around. Ryan looked to the floor and that’s when he remembered how to stop.

“What are you doing in here, perv?” Jessica snarled.

Just as quick he was back on the rink. He wracked his brain trying to think of a reason for Jessica’s revenge. Ryan had no idea, but he wasn’t going to practice dancing backwards anymore.