Flash Fic: Gris

Here’s a little piece I found in my folder from a long-past Terribleminds Subgenre Twist flash fic prompt. Seemed appropriate for the day after Halloween.

They say dead men tell no tales, but they’re wrong. The recently deceased can tell some interesting stories if you know how to ask. Marie scratched where the gris-gris tied to her arm had started to itch, and waiting next to the fresh grave. The spell worked, as always, and the dead began to rise. Joshua Parks thrust a bloated hand through the earth and crawled to the surface, cocking his head to one side and other like a curious puppy, staring up at her with milky eyes.

“Hello again, Joshua,” she said. “It’s been a while.”

“Not long enough,” he rasped, his voice box only starting to degrade. “You could let me rest in peace?”

“You know I couldn’t.”

“I’ve finished singing for the cops,” he croaked. “The boss made sure of it.”

“Not sure enough,” she said.

“Put me back.”

“You know what I want.”

An hour later, she reburied his corpse and burned the gris-gris. She had what she came for. In an impulsive act of gratitude, she salted his grave, although it would also prevent any who tried to follow her trail.

It was hot, and she stunk of graveyard dirt, ash, and sweat. She made her way back to the corrugated metal shed she called home just now and dumped a warm basin of water over herself before changing into another pair of cargo pants and tank top. It would do. She had to go.

It didn’t take long for her to find the bar, La Chatte Rouge. The women were hardly surprised when she crept through the back door into the dressing room.

“Come for a dance, kitten?” Mama Claudine purred in her husky stage voice. Marie hissed back at her and Mama went back to her kohl and her lingerie. “Suit yourself, cherie, but you’d make a bundle with that little body of yours. Must be some kind of witchcraft, eh?” The older woman laughed deep in her throat. Marie slunk through the dressing room corridors until she came out next to the stage, just behind a tatty curtain.

There he was. Everyone knew Sarko ran crime in this town, but Marie needed the name from the lips of his leiutenant before acting. It had to be pure, the act. He didn’t just order this one; he did it himself. That’s what Joshua had said. Did it himself.

The bastard came in and murdered them all himself. And for no other reason than he wanted their house taken down and they had refused, having no other place to go. But that happened all the time in this town. What didn’t happen was that the absent daughter of his victims waited, biding her time, and honing the craft her mother passed to her, waited until he’d made the mistake that gave her the information she needed. Waited until the one who knew his crime had nothing to lose, not even his life.

And then, she came back, back from the grave he didn’t send her to, with a knife. Came back, came up behind him, as he anticipated watching the women gyrate for his pleasure and make some deals. Behind his smug, relaxed, safe back. Came up behind him unseen in the dark smoke of the bar and placed one gentle hand on his should.

So he would turn around and see the knife before it sunk deep into his sternum.

But in the panic, no one saw her leave. There were more.

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Flash Fic: Crickets

This story was inspired by a Facebook post a friend of mine posted this summer.

“Do you hear crickets?” I had asked as I washed my hands.

“Yeah, I do,” she had replied.

We should have gotten out then. Walked out the door and never come back. But we went back to work, another day at the office.

As the day wore on, the chirping spread out, creeping out from the resonant echoes of the bathroom to the hallways. It permeated the air, a droning soundtrack to the monotony of corporate life.

One cricket does not chirp constantly, but many crickets will blend into a never-ceasing chorus. That the sound soon began to grate would be an understatement.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, Marcia in my cube group stood up and cried, “I can’t take this anymore! I’m going home early!” It was Friday, and we agreed it was getting unpleasant. We gathered our belongings and walked to the elevators. Someone pushed the button.

There was a sound like a hundred tiny lightbulbs shattering, and a grinding noise, and then the smell of smoke, and the elevator indicator light went out. It looked like the elevator wasn’t coming.

“I guess we’ll have to take the stairs,” someone said. It wasn’t me, I’m almost sure of that.

I was the one who got to the stairwell door first and pushed against the handle. It felt oddly padded, and I looked down to see arthopod limbs brushing my hands as they stuck out from the useless pusher. There were more limbs twitching from under the door and around the edges. I jumped back.

“They’re blocking the doors,” I gasped.

By five o’clock, it became apparent that we were not getting out that evening.

“Maybe we should call security,” one of the guys from HR suggested. Someone picked up a phone, but I don’t remember who. It doesn’t matter anymore.

“The phone is dead,” the person said.

“They must have chewed through the wires!” someone cried, hysterical.

“Do crickets even chew?” I asked. “I don’t think they have any teeth.” No one was listening to me by then.

We had some food in the fridge. Bagels leftover from the weekly meeting. A water cooler. We would be fine. Someone would come find us eventually.

What I didn’t count on was the effect of the constant chirping on our minds. It was grating at first, a bit annoying, but I think we figured we’d get used to it. But instead of dulling, it intensified. People put on their noise-canceling headphones and plugged into their computers, dozens of online playlists blocking out the horror. I watched them retreat into personal worlds, oblivious to the office around them, staring at screens and willing the rest of it to go away.

And then the lights went out. I thought I smelled something burning. The crickets must have gotten into the electrical panel and shorted something. I had a flashlight in my drawer. And beef jerky, but that I would keep to myself. I began to realize I might be here a while.

Just for fun, look around your office and try to imagine who would be the first to crack in a crisis. It’s never who you think it will be. The level-headed HR guy who had tried to call security found himself unable to control his surroundings and lost it. The screaming was an interesting way to blot out the chirping, for a while, but it devolved into whimpering, until he huddled in a corner, and eventually stopped. I tell myself he fell asleep.

Someone figured out how to get a window open. I thought that one or two jumpers might alert the authorities to our predicament, but the loneliness of a business district on a weekend morning is not to be underestimated.

We were stuck in that building for two days, dwindling. I camped out under my desk and listened to my coworkers lose their minds one by one, as I bided my time and rationed my beef jerky.

And, finally, when the sounds of saws rose above the incessant chirping, I saw cracks of light through the doors as they parted under a rescuers blade. I think I was the only one who remained.

TerribleMinds Flash Fic Challenge: “Bloody Jackals”

Anapa sat in the cave and watched the world pass by. It was hot and dry and just the way he liked it, his little secluded desert paradise. The chair had dried and cracked over the years, but it held just the same. He sat and watched and occasionally reached down to stroke the back of one of his pets. The slender dog-like creatures wandered in and out as they pleased.

Some days they brought him little gifts, offerings. They were the only ones to do so. He ate what he could. It was not much these days. The appetite withers with age. He heard one of his pets come in, and felt the nudge on his hand. Something warm and damp. He held it close to his aging eyes. A hand, removed just below the elbow. Still fresh. He rose, tucking his blanket back over his chair, and went over to a table next to a small oil-burning stove. A thin knife slipped between the joints and separated the limb into parts. He stripped the skin and flesh from three of the fingers and added it to a pan over the burner’s flame, already sizzling with spiced fat. His pet sat expectantly at his feet, waiting for those little treats his master would toss away.

As the meat cooked, Anapa carefully wrapped the rest of the meat for later. First, he rubbed it with salt, and then wound strips of muslin around it to protect it from dirt and insects. He placed it with reverent hands into the cool pit in his kitchen, savoring the action. Returning to the stove, he turned off the burner. The flame died, taking it’s acrid black smoke with it. He stabbed at the bits of flesh with the tip of his knife and ate them, chewing slowly. It did not take much these days. He had to make do.

The next day, another of his pets came in with a foot and part of a leg. And the next day, two of them returned with offerings. Anapa wondered if he ought to host a dinner party and then remembered that most of his compatriots had long since dwindled. He would not know how to contact them anyway.

One morning, he awoke in his chair to the sounds of whines. He walked to the entrance of his cave and found hundreds of his pets, their mouths stained with crimson smiles, all bearing offerings. The limbs of the dead littered his front yard. He set to work gathering them, salting them, and wrapping them. Such bounty did not come by often, though it was getting more frequent in recent years. He supposed the people had decided to name a new leader.

If only any of them kept to the old rites.

Terriblemind’s Flash Fic Challence: “Fire”

The acrid smell of burning hair wakens me. I start. What time…? I look out the window. Sunlight. That narrows it down, some. It’s hot in here. Not sunlight.

(mmm… what smells like barbecue?)

Crap, fire!

The body in the corner gives me no advice. The fire menaces me with its all-consuming beauty. It mesmerizes me.

(so pretty.)

A poetic pattern retains inertia. I stare into the flames of oblivion for a while, transfixed by the colors and light, until I realize I probably ought to run.

Escape. The air feels cool and sweet. And it doesn’t smell like burning hair and that disturbingly appetizing undertone of cooking flesh. And hot metal.

Metal? Where am I anyway?

I look back, but I don’t turn into salt. Not yet anyway. That will come later. Salt and iron and water and carbon. But not yet. I’ve escaped the fire. For now. But I’m looking back. What am I seeing? Oh.

The lab.

My lab.

I’m the scientist (mad scientist?). It’s my lab.

It’s my fire.

(my fire. it’s all mine. see? i made it.)

I feel a sudden sense of glowing pride at my work, even though it’s currently consuming half a city block and smells like death and smoke.

The trucks are arriving; I can tell by the screeching wail that sounds like an orchestra of too many strings, all badly out of tune. But it clears my mind and I feel less like I’m wandering the desert of thought. The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins. But it’s not violins. It’s fire trucks. And… smaller fire trucks. With blue lights.

(wait, where am I again? oh. right.)

Not fire trucks. Police… cars.

I think I inhaled too much smoke when… it burned.

My creation. My… robot.

Only it wasn’t a robot. Why make a robot, when you can meld man and machine and reap the best of both worlds? Only the electronics overloaded and things went… bad. It was brilliant, only flawed. I look to my left. An alleyway.

The criminal disappears after the inventor.

“Imposter’s Syndrome”

Chuck Wendig’s weekly flash fic prompt reminded me of a story I wrote about a year ago. This isn’t my official submission, but I thought I’d post it here.

“Doctor, I’m afraid I don’t belong here,” the young man said. “I’m afraid they will all find out that I’m a fraud.”

“It’s natural to feel that way,” the psychologist reassured him. She wrote notes, her eyes darting from the patient to her paper. Nervous, agitated, eyes are aware, not unfocused, seems energetic. No obvious signs of depression or delusion.

“Why do you think you’re a fraud?”

“Everyone here is so smart,” he said. “I’m just faking it. I’m not really this smart, but I can pretend. I don’t know how I’ve managed not to flunk out so far. Grad school is really… hard.”

There was a pause. The student looked at her expectantly. She cleared her throat.

“Go on.”

“No, that’s it, I think,” he said, frowning. “I mean, everyday I worry that they’re going to pull me aside and say ‘Oh, no, we made a mistake, you weren’t supposed to get accepted. Here, let us help you out.’ But they don’t. It’s like no one knows I – I’m a fake.”

The tic took the doctor by surprise. He hadn’t shown any previous signs of speech impedement. She supposed it was the stress of the situation. She looked through the patient history. Well, she thought, it’s not the kind of thing you put on a form when you see a shrink.

“Well, it’s common for graduate students to feel this way,” she said, collecting her thoughts again. “Exceptional people are counterintuitively modest to such an extent that they don’t feel worthy of the things they have actually achieved. What were your test scores to get in here?”

“Um, I don’t remember exactly,” the student said. “But above the 50th percentile.”

“So they were pretty high?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“And your college GPA?”

“3.7.”

“Again, pretty high. And what is your GPA here?”

“3.5, but I’m pretty sure they inflate it.”

“Mmhmm.”

The doctor wrote some notes and sighed. Just another overachieving grad student freaked out by the process. She got more of these every year.

“Here,” she said. “I’m going to give you a referral to the psychiatry department, just to make sure you get a medication evaluation, but I doubt you really need anything. If you want to come back and see me in a few weeks, we can talk about some techniques to break the cycle of distortion in your thoughts about your own achievements.”

“That’s it?” he asked.

“Sorry, but this is very normal. You are very normal,” she said. “That should make you feel better.”

“Yeah, I guess it does. Thanks.”

The student got up and walked out, and the doctor returned to her paperwork. She looked down at the clipboard and realized this was a different kind of case. She spent a little time writing and then walked out of her office to the receptionist.

“Cindy, do you know why I have to make a full report for this?” she asked. “It was just another grad student with imposter’s syndrome.”

The receptionist took the top sheet and looked at it, then typed something into the computer. She read the screen.

“I dunno, but you’re supposed to submit a full report of the interaction to the head of cog sci,” Cindy replied. “I can get that sent off for you, if you want.”

“No, I got it,” she answered. The doctor returned to her office, grabbed an envelope and her jacket. The walk to cog sci was short and she was curious why they were interested in this student. Maybe there had been another incident. She found the chair of the department and gave the envelope to his assistant, a young man with a beard and a bow-tie, who thanked her with a winning smile.

“Thanks so much, Doctor,” he said. “The professor will be excited to see this report.”

“I’m a little confused why the department is exercising their right to observe this student’s file,” the doctor said. “He seemed unremarkable. Has there been an incident I haven’t been told about?”

“Oh, no, sorry,” the young man said. “He’s a test subject in the android AI department. His appointment with you was one of his Turing Tests, and it seems like he passed.”

Huh, the doctor thought. Imposter’s syndrome: that was cute. It was a pretty good one this time.

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.

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.