Terribleminds Flash Fic Challenge: “The Interview”

“Yes, father,” the young man said, still flipping the knife in his left hand. He glanced around the tavern. Two men sat at either side of the bar, one familiar and one a stranger. The barmaid was pretty, in a common sort of way.

“And put that knife away,” the older man snapped as he found the table. His eyes narrowed under raven-colored brows. “It will never do to have you fondling a weapon like some sort of psychopath. We have to make a good impression.”

“But why?” the son yawned. “It’s the just the help we’re interviewing.”

“Bah! This help is what it will take to get you ready for civilized company,” the father said. “I won’t have you convincing him the task is impossible. You’re my ticket into society, boy.”

“But what about mother?” the son asked.

“Yes, yes, your mother was well enough for a merchant, and God knows her family needed the money, but they’re small time,” the father said. “I’d have you marry a duchess, or better. Someone of quality. But you’ll have to attract them first, and you’ll never do that with your knives and tricks.”

“Perhaps mother would be more use in society if her face were less difficult to present.”

“Watch your mouth, you whelp!” the father growled. “You think I won’t cuff you for that, just because we’re out, you have another thing coming.”

“No, father,” the son said, leaning close and flipping the knife around to hold it by the hilt, his thumb caressing the pale jade cabochon set just below the guard. “You won’t cuff me because you fear you wouldn’t land a blow before I did.”

The man turned and bellowed for the barmaid as his son flicked his wrist and sent the knifepoint into the edge of the table.

“Wench, bring us ale, and be quick about it,” the man growled. The barmaid rolled her eyes and started to walk away.

“Darling, don’t mind my father,” the son purred. “He’s a bit rough around the edges still. But you’ll take care of us, won’t you?”

The barmaid blushed and nodded, hurrying off with a little swing in her walk.

“I wish you wouldn’t flirt like that,” the father said. “You’re not here for a tumble.”

Another man, thinner and nervous, wearing a pair of crooked spectacles and clutching a folio of papers, darted into the tavern. The man wore faded breeches and a shirt that might once have been white. He looked around, saw the man and his son, and darted over to them. He bobbed a little bow.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “I believe we have an appointment. About a tutor. For your, um, son?” He held out his hand to the father. The older man took one look at the grubby, ink-stained fingers, and decided to ignore the hand.

“Well? Sit down, man,” the man barked. “You’re here to show me how you intend to mold my degenerate son into a gentleman to steal the heart of a countess.”

“Yes, sir,” the tutor said. As he turned, the barmaid arrived with a tray of mugs. The tutor’s elbow caught the edge of her tray as they both bent to put down their loads on the table. The tray tipped and the barmaid gasped as one of the mugs slid off toward the floor. The son’s hand darted in and caught the mug by the handle before it could hit, lifting it up and setting it down in front of him.

“Thanks, darling,” he murmured to the barmaid, who stared at him with wide eyes.

“That’s enough!” the father bellowed. “We no longer require you, wench!” The barmaid scurried off as the tutor adjusted his spectacles and sat. “Well? What is your plan of action, man?” the father asked him.

“Yes, um, of course, sir,” the tutor mumbled. “Well, as you know, the greatest poets of our time have sung the praises of, um, courtly love, and ladies are ingrained with an idea of chivarly. I intend to tutor your son on the great literary classics and instill in him a respect for ladies that will win their hearts.”

“Respect for ladies!” the man grumbled. “Sounds soft.”

“Oh, no, sir. It is the highest form of morality for a man to be gentle and attentive to his lady,” the tutor preached. “Incidentally, I wanted to discuss the matter of my payment.”

“You’ll be paid,” the man growled. “God knows I’ve enough money. What I don’t have is a duchess for a daughter-in-law.”

“Yes, but I’d like to agree on an amount now,” the tutor insisted. “You see, I need…”

“Oh dear, father,” the son interrupted. “Our mugs seem to have run dry. Shall I fetch some more? And perhaps add a third for our compatriot?”

“What? Oh, yes, sure,” the father waved him off.

As the son picked up the two mugs, he leaned in to the tutor and whispered, “I wouldn’t trust my father in matters of money. He lives for the ruin and desolation of his business partners. He’ll leave you starving if he can manage it.”

The tutor nodded, wide-eyed, and turned back to chat with the father. The son made his way up to the bar, his knife back in his other hand. He set the mugs down.

“Precious lady, would you mind refilling these?” he asked. “And something for our nervous friend?” The barmaid blushed and nodded. The youth leaned back against the bar, toying with his knife.

“You any good with that thing?” the man at the far end of the bar asked, the familiar one. A glint of metal showed at his waist under his red frock coat.

“If you’d like, I can show you,” the youth said, staring him in the eye with a predatory grin.

“Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse,” the man said, rising.

“Now boys,” the barmaid said.

“Don’t worry your pretty little head,” the man said. “We’ll take it out of your bar.”

“No need,” said the youth. “If you’re spoiling for a fight, I can accommodate you right here.”

The two men walked to meet each other in an empty corner of the bar, and youth’s knife at the ready, and the older man’s hand dropping to the dagger at his belt. They circled one another.

“Oh dear,” the barmaid commented to another man at the other end of the bar. “That Charlie’s just never been the same since he was forced off his throne. He should know he’s lucky to have escaped with his life. But now he can’t seem to get away for an hour without a fight.”

“Oh?” the stranger said, turning toward the two men fighting.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” the barmaid asked. “We all know Prince Charlie. Poor soul.”

“Yes,” the stranger said. “Ah, yes. Good candidates.”

He turned and glanced at the father and the tutor making their deal over the table, and then back to the barmaid. He smiled and the girl decided she’d rather not be there right at that moment. The stranger stood and walked over to where the youth and the fallen prince were circling each other.

“Your highness,” the stranger said. The prince turned and saw the man holding up a small white card. He took it and turned it over. On one side was just printed a sword and a name in black ink. The prince looked up, confused. The stranger turned to the youth.

“Lucky man,” the youth said.

“Yes,” the stranger agreed. “You seem like death on two legs with that knife.”

“Mmhmm. Do I know you?” the youth asked.

“Not yet,” the stranger said. “That’s your father?” The stranger gestured to the table in the other corner.

“Yes,” the son said. “And that unfortunate fellow with him is to be my tutor. Though I think his message of goodwill gets diluted by his obvious greed.”

“Yes.” The stranger handed the youth three of the white cards, printed side down, and tapped each of them in series. “For your father, for your tutor, for you. Should you choose to accept, you know how to find me.”

The youth nodded and walked back to the table. He handed out the cards. He glimpsed a scales printed on the card in his father’s hand before turning his own over. A scythe was printed just above the name.

The four men read the name aloud from their various places in the room.

The stranger smiled.

Nonfiction: “Things Hit You”

I’m sitting at work, surfing the web, and it’s frivolous. And then I find it. The random blog post on a blog about something entirely unrelated about the blogger’s mother and how she’s in pain and wants to die.

And it hits me.

My dad is dead.

He died on Christmas Day, almost a year and a half ago. Sixteen months. That little counter ticks in my head, trying to count the time it will take before I will stop feeling the fat tears pressing against my eyes, my breath starting to catch, and then come only in gulps. How long is long enough that I won’t have to worry about how to stifle the sounds, how to make it to the bathroom to clean myself up without running into anyone. Because it’s only allergy season for so long, and then what’s my excuse?

And even though it’s April and spring and I’m at work or home on the couch or anywhere, no, it’s not. It’s December 2012. It’s that room. The bedroom that was such a place of privacy for my dad and stepmom that turned into Grand Central Death Station, filled with sounds and smells and people. Filled with warm wishes and quiet prayer. But filled always with the presence of my father, on his bed, and later in a hospital bed. The whirring click of the morphine pump. The strange presence of the hospice nurse, always on duty. And me. Cross-legged in a chair. With a mug of tea. Waiting.

I wasn’t there when he finally passed. For all that I washed dishes and changed bandages and diapers and had muted conversations with nurses and listened to his breathing, I wasn’t there at the very end. And part of me is glad.

It’s really exhausting being emotionally fragile, I think, back in the present day. I want nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and a pan of brownies and maybe some Netflix. I want to sleep. But instead, I wipe my eyes, make a cup of tea, and continue on my day. No one notices. It gets easier. Easier to mask, that is. Not easier to experience.

For everyone else, it’s a vague memory of a sympathy card being passed around over a year ago. Maybe an awkward pause in the conversation.

“Your folks live around here?”

“My stepmom lives nearby.”

“Oh, it’s nice having your dad and stepmom so close.”

“No, my dad doesn’t live anywhere anymore,” I want to say. “My dad doesn’t live anymore.” But they don’t need the awkwardness to be made solid, explicit. So it just becomes a pause.

“Yeah, it’s nice.”

Even though I hardly talk to my stepmom anymore. Part of it is that we’re busy people. But maybe part of it is that we shared those last weeks, her more than I did. She was the one with the strangers tramping in and out of her bedroom, what she described to me once as her sanctuary. She was the one tethered to that house, while I could leave whenever I wanted. So I tried to tether myself, too, just a little. I lived three blocks away and could walk over in a matter of minutes. I took leave from work. I silently existed in the house, doing what I perceived needed to be done, whether it was doing dishes, or wiping up the stove, or just being in the room where my father lay there, expiring.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll cry when I have children of my own and I want to sing them to sleep. Sing the songs I sang in the still and the cold of that bedroom, the songs I sang to the man who helped me find that I had a voice to sing, low and a little breathy, in a humming alto or the thin soprano I can manage. The songs I’ve thought about, the songs I’ve always known I wanted to sing to my children. And now they’re songs of comfort that have become memories of pain. Songs that will be sung in a breaking voice, as I try to avoid tears.

But avoiding tears is like exercise. It’s a muscle you work out, the more you do it. Some weeks get easier precisely because they were harder.

And some days, it just hits you. It’s ice cold water in the face. The chills run down your spine and you realize that awful thing that you spend most of your existence subconsciously trying to forget. And once you’ve had that flash of thought, it’s done; you’ve lost. The chills become shivers become stinging behind the eyes become tears and gasping and maybe even shaking. You end up feeling like you’ve gone a few rounds with a bear. Your shoulders tense, and then, maybe an hour later, you feel them finally relax and you realize they were up there, around your ears the whole time, and now your body is sore. The pain is physical, not just emotional. But you have to ride that ice cold wave of realization out because it’s not going to pass without picking you up.

It won’t pass without hitting you.

So it hits you. It hit me. And I rode it. And then I got up, and I walked away.

And that’s what I have to do: Keep getting up and walking away.

Past Flash Fic Challenge: “Boxes”

This isn’t a recent flash fic challenge, but it was so intriguing that I had to try something for it.

I

There are ten empty boxes on the shelf. On either side of the row of boxes is a candle. I reach into my pocket and pull out a quarter.

There are nine empty boxes on the shelf, and one with a quarter in it.

II

It’s bitingly cold, the kind of cold that seeps in through your clothes, doesn’t mind about the skin, and burrows its way down into your bones. I’m sitting on a bus stop on the top of a mountain where a bus has never stopped.

A bus pulls up. “Where to?” the driver asks.

“No,” I say, “I just need a transfer ticket. He hands me the flimsy piece of paper and I tuck it into my pocket as I step away from the bus. He drives off.

I turn around and walk down the mountain.

There are eight empty boxes on the shelf.

III

“You want fries with that?” the perky Midwestern teenager asks me. She’s wearing too much makeup. I shake my head. I pay her and take the bag.

Inside is a small, paper-wrapped parcel that smells of grease. I open it and take a look. They got my order perfectly. I toss the top bun to the side and dig the pickle slice out of a tomb of melted processed cheese. It pries free. I hold it up to the light of a streetlamp and look.

It glimmers in the white light, casting a prismatic array of dancing rainbows on the pavement next to me. I tuck it into my pocket. I eat the burger and immediately regret it.

There are seven empty boxes.

IV

I wake suddenly with a violent feeling that I am going to be ill. The contents of my stomach are inscrutable in a pile next to my bed. I clean them up. It’s getting hard on me, the searching. I drink some water and swish with Jack Daniels.

To work.

In the middle of the lake in the middle of the state is a hole. The water just plummets. I stare into it, perched on the edge of a great cliff of water in a rented rowboat. The sparkling blue walls of water seem to go on until the reach a point at the bottom. I pull out a coil of rope and tie it to the prow of the ship. I tie the other end to my belt, and then climb over the edge of the boat. My hands shake.

I no longer wear a watch, but it takes forever and a little bit longer to climb down to the bottom. When I’ve retreived the shell from the bottom, I have to climb back up, my hands burning against the rope. When I heave myself back into the boat, I feel a wriggling in my pocket and pull out the shell. A tiny hermit crab pokes his head out. I pick up a screwdriver and remove him and return the shell to my pocket.

Six empty boxes.

V

The next one is easy, but it takes me the better part of a day to find someone to shoot me. I run my tongue over my teeth. It aches where I caught the bullet. I drop the bullet into my pocket.

Five boxes.

VI

I sit in the dark room, staring at the wall I can’t see, hearing nothing but the sound of my own breathing. I go a little mad and then come back.

I reach into my pocket. It’s there.

Four.

VII

It’s a thing of unspeakable horror, but there’s no one to whom to speak of it, so that doesn’t matter. But it really is dreadful. I face it. It blinks.

“Sorry, you’re not delivering a pizza, are you?” it asks, somewhat sheepishly, and looks around me.

“No, they always take longer than you think, don’t they?” I say. “Do you mind?”

“Go ahead.”

I pry the number 7 from the thing’s address plaquard and put it in my pocket. For good measure, I shoot the thing and leave it, twitching, on the stoop.

I fill another box.

VIII

When I wake, I don’t know where I am. It’s clean and smells good, which is my first clue. I look around. There’s a woman in the bed with me. And a table next to the bed. There is a stub of a pencil on the table. I take the pencil and put it in my pocket.

I’ve lost count.

IX

I run and run and run and still hear it chasing me. I have to stop. My lungs burn. It catches up to me, and when it does, it throws itself at my body and licks my face. I tell it it’s a good dog and to go fetch.

When it returns with the stick, I put it in my pocket.

Almost there.

X

The last time I am going to see these damned boxes, I think as I dig in my pocket for the lighter I found in a trashcan outside the club owned by something that looked uncomfortably like an angel. I drop it into the box, the last one.

Ten filled boxes sit on the shelf, and on either side, a candle. Two candles, lighting the boxes filled with the product of my journeys.

My task completed, I sit back in the chair in the center of the room, and enjoy the feeling of a job well done. I don’t even mind when I see the flames of the candles grow, the light obscuring the boxes from my vision. All I know is that I’m done. I take a little nap.

When I wake, I find that there’s something on my bookshelf.

Ten empty boxes sit on the shelf, with a candle on either side. I shift in my chair and hear something crinkle.

I reach into my pocket and pull out a list of instructions.

Terribleminds’ Flash Fic Challenge: “The Exterminator”

A cock ring is a funny thing – particularly when it’s not being used according to package instructions. He found the brightly-colored silicone appropriate in a macabre way as they stretched across tiny necks and crushed tiny tracheas. The fairies fell to either side of him, but he only had two hands. And the multipack he’d grabbed from the stock room was still finite. But they really were the perfect size.

Miniature teeth came for his extremities if he lost himself in thought for too long. The absurdity of the situation kept him moving. He swatted those he could and subdued the rest with neon bands, making his way to the security entrance.

“Just a few more steps,” he muttered to himself, kicking a pixie away from his ankles. He hoped none of them had given him anything nasty. His fingers found the cold metal of the door, and then his palm. He pushed the silver bar and it opened. He stumbled out into ethereal white light.

Sunlight streamed through the skylights and a woman in high heels that cost more than his car wrinkled her nose as she sidestepped him. He tugged the door behind him and looked around. None of them had followed him.

“Hey, buddy, you okay?” a security guard had stopped to look him over. “You get jumped in the back hall? We been having trouble with that lately.”

“Yeah, something like that,” he said.

“You work here… Nate?” the guard said, indicating the name tag that had half-ripped from the faded blue polo he was wearing.

He looked down. Nate, the plastic rectangle said. “Oh… yeah,” he replied.

“Well, Nate, you should be more careful,” the guard said. “You need first aid?”

“I got it covered.”

He did. He walked, ignoring the stinging in his legs and arms, and eventually found home. Gauze. Band-aids. Iodine. And a special preparation that made him very proud indeed: a solution of iron in nitric acid diluted with enough water that it barely even stung. Guaranteed to flush out any remaining fairy nastiness. Unless one of the little assholes had been over here long enough to pick up tetanus or something.

Spackled with gauze and Band-aids, he curled up in the backseat and stared at the ceiling of the old Civic hatchback. It was supposed to be a few pixies in a back service corridor. He tossed the leftover packaging from the cock rings aside. But those were soldiers; there was a leader here somewhere. Next time he would be prepared. This was a routine infestation.

Despite the bright lights, shopping malls made excellent dwellings for the darker elements of the unknown. They just didn’t come out into the fake plastic exteriors; they stuck to the shadowy back areas, the pipeline of hallways that supplied the shoppers with their vital merchandise like veins running through a body.

Didn’t mean he liked eating soft pretzels and slushies. Maybe the next one would be in a nice small town. With a diner. He sighed and heaved himself up. It was dark by now.

With the shoppers gone, the mall becomes a different place. Thin beams of moonlight trickled through the skylights, casting eerie shadows on the polished marble. The creeping shapes of ethereal intruders cast eerier shapes. He nocked an arrow in a crossbow. He would be prepared this time.

An ondine screeched out of the decorative fountain in the center as he passed by. A bolt through the neck downed it, its skin hissing and crackling where the iron pierced it. He went on, picking off those foolish enough to get near him. They were up and active, and hungry. They wouldn’t hide themselves in service corridors and stockrooms now.

It didn’t take long to get to the department store. The metal grate over its entrance gleamed with some residue. He touched it and it stuck to his finger, pulling away in a gooey string. They had encapsulated the steel to pass around it. This was the place. He lifted the gate and ducked inside. He explored, running his hands along the display cases.

“You’ve come to play,” a voice purred. The fairy queen slinked around a perfume counter, her amethyst eyes sparkling in the emergency lighting.

“I’ve come to make a deal,” he said.

“Don’t you know any better than to make deals with the Fae?” she asked, tracing a finger across the surface of a display case. It looked lovely and manicured in the dim light, but he could see where the claw was cutting glass.

“I guess not,” he said. “You leave here, and I’ll let you live.”

There was silence. It stretched out and filled the corners of the empty department store, snaking around the two of them. It butted in and dominated the conversation. It hung there. And then she laughed, bubbling and gleeful.

“You’re all the same,” she said. “Arrogant. And taciturn.”

He shrugged his shoulders and nocked another arrow. He wasn’t surprised when the crossbow flew from his grasp. She was a queen, after all.

“You boys and your little toys.”

“Yeah,” he said, reaching into his pocket. He didn’t do her the courtesy of showing her the detonator. The pack of nails and iron dust burst from the display behind her, showering her in spikes and powder. She screamed and clawed at her face as it sizzled.

He walked over the spot where his crossbow had come to rest, and picked it up. He walked back over to her and fired a single bolt into her heart. She mewled and stared up at him with wide, scared eyes, and then went still and began to dissolve. He turned to see the spectators, their glamors falling away.

“I’ll offer you the same deal,” he said. “Leave here, find somewhere uninhabited, and you can live.”

They scattered.

He stayed on for one more week, stocking shelves by day and prowling the moonlit shopping mall by night, and then moved on to the next one.

Opening line by Laura Roberts, originally posted here.

Flash Fiction Challenge: “Another Day for You and Me”

“Excuse me?”

Lila felt a droplet of sweat trickle between her breasts as she adjusted the reflector to see the pale young man standing beside her chaise. She looked at him above the frames of her oversized sunglasses.

“Um.” He looked at her. And then looked around. “Um, are you from around here?”

“As lines go, darling, that one is a loser,” she said, lifting the reflector back into place. A warm red glow settled back on her décolletage. She didn’t hear the dismal fellow walk away. She sighed.

“It’s over there,” she said, pointing to a desk across the pool.

“Oh, um, thanks,” he said. She looked up to see him hurrying away.

“You’re not in Kansas anymore, darling,” she said to no one in particular. The mood was ruined anyway. She folded up the reflector and sat up, stretching her wings in the rubine glow of the fires. Perhaps a dip in the pool, she thought. She removed her sunglasses and twisted the ink-dark coils of serpents into a messy topknot.

She glanced over at the desk. The pale man was trying to get the attention of the receptionist, who was filing her talons and ignoring him spectacularly. Lila lowered herself into the chasm of roiling sulfur, standing for a moment before pushing off from the edge to swim across. The repetitive motion was soothing and the heat of the molten rock soothed her aching shoulders. Girl’s gotta have a day off, she thought.

She heard raised voices coming from the distance. She looked over. The receptionist had left her desk and walked over to the edge of the chasm. Oh. Break’s over, Lila thought.

“Lila, we got a fresh one,” the receptionist said. The pale young man stood just behind her. Lila paddled over to the edge and pushed herself out of the water, beads of cooling stone crumbling away from her body.

“All work and no play, right?” Lila replied, walking over to her chaise and hoisting the great key that sat there next to her reflector and a thoroughly melted frozen beverage. “Looks like we get to go home together after all, darling.”

“Oh, you’re gonna like this one, Lila,” the receptionist smirked.

“Um, hello again,” the young man said. Lila took a look at him. Pale, young, with a sadness in his eyes. She wondered why he wasn’t sent to the woods. He seemed too quiet to be here for any other reason. But she supposed he had just left behind plenty of neighbors saying the same thing. “He always seemed like such a quiet fellow…”

Of course, there was another possibility.

“Come on, darling,” she said. “Play time.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“So, what’re you in for?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“No need to be coy. We’re all here for a reason.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I’ve been assigned here to learn about pain,” he replied.

She took another look at him. His alabaster skin seemed to glow in the light of the fires. Assigned here.

“Wait, what did you say your name was, darling?” she asked.

“I had not said,” he replied. “But I am called Remiel. I gather you are Liliani, the Flail? I had heard of your work. I requested to be assigned to you personally.”

“An angel,” she muttered to herself. “An angel with a fetish.”

“Not a fetish, Liliani,” he corrected her. “An assignment. It is my duty to learn of the pain of the mortification of the flesh. I have been made flesh for the occasion. To know what awaits those who fall into the pit.”

Of course. Leave it to the guy upstairs to use her kind as a cautionary tale.

“Getting a little uppity on the boss, Remy?” she asked, fitting the key to the lock on a great bronze gate.

“I do not understand what you’re saying,” Remiel replied. “I was merely assigned here for the betterment of my divine task.”

“Yeah, right. We’re here.”

She waved an arm at a collection of flails and shackles. He looked at them and grew paler, a feat Lila had to see to believe. But his eyes glowed. Yeah, he was going to enjoy this. Sick angelic fuck. She sighed.

“I don’t need to chain you, do I?” she asked.

“If you think it integral to the experience,” he replied, offering his wrists.

“Whatever.”

She clapped him in irons, as it were, and pulled them taut against the splintering wooden surface of her work table. Spread out like that, his pale skin against the reddened wood, he looked enticing. She raised a flail.

He cried out at the first strike, and it sounded like pain. She struck him over and over again, until her arm ached despite the therapeutic soak in the chasm she’d taken earlier. She looked at his face. His eyes no longer glowed with anticipation, but they didn’t have the despair she had grown used to. She wondered if she was losing her touch.

“That was… interesting,” he said, shifting slightly. “I can see how that would be an effective deterrent. And yet, there is still an influx of souls.”

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Don’t you find it odd that our Creator would allow his treasured creation to be so chastised when it was his own hand that created in them such flaws as necessitate chastisement?”

“Come again?” Here it came, the philosophical discussion.

He grew paler, seemed to glow white, swallowing up the carmine glow of fire for a moment, and then he was standing next to her, out of his shackles, his skin unmarred by her flail.

“I apologize for being abrupt,” he said. “I mean to suggest that our Creator may be wrong. About punshment, I mean.”

“Mmhmm,” she said. Yeah, I bet you do, she thought.

“Thank you for your time, Liliani the Flail,” he said, vanishing.

“Be seeing you, Remy,” she said to no one in particular.