Flash Fiction – Goodbye

For some reason, the word ‘goodbye’ popped into my head as soon as I saw this picture. And then a story about a mother and daughter grew from there.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

When I took that photo, Sierra was thinking about how to say goodbye. I understood that now. The oversized burgundy sunglasses shielded her eyes, but her lower lip drooped in the way that meant she cringed inwardly. Usually it meant I’d said something embarrassing – which seemed to happen often enough, in spite of my efforts to be a ‘cool Mom’.

Last week, when we’d taken advantage of the slanting golden light for a photo session, I thought she was merely pouting for the camera.

“We don’t need new photos already,” Sierra had complained, glancing up from her pink-cased iPhone. The silvery glitter on her nails gleamed as she scrolled. “My portfolio is fine. And Instagram is better anyway.”

“I know, but it can’t hurt to take a few more. You can put some on Instagram, too. It might be nice to post a few more before Nationals.”

She’d sighed, but that was nothing new, really. Teenagers sighed all the time. She flexed her foot en pointe and tossed her phone on the counter. Even that motion looked graceful. “Whatever. Let’s go now, then, because I have to do my barre exercises still and then I have math homework.”

“We’ll have plenty of time.” I tried to sound encouraging. “We can stop for Chinese takeout one the way home.” Even as I said it, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible, not with Nationals coming up.

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I can’t eat that right now.”

“I’ll make grilled vegetables and some fish,” I said, talking too fast, trying to cover my mistake.

Without her, the emptiness of the townhouse crushed in around me, and the tick of the clock echoed, knocking on my spine until I could hardly bear it. I imagined Sierra at her dad’s house, curled on the couch in the basement. I’d seen it once, when I picked her up. It was grey and soft. Maybe she’d be perched on the edge, eating pizza and laughing with her friends. She’d told me that he was letting her have a sleepover to celebrate her moving in with him.

“Are you coming back?” I remember how much I’d hated the tremor in my voice when I asked.

She lifted her hand to chew her thumbnail, a habitual nervous habit, and then dropped it again. Her lashes covered her eyes. “I don’t know. Not for a while.”

Panic bubbled in my chest, threatening to shatter. “What about Nationals? Are we still going?”

Her face scrunched up and she looked at the ground, kicking her toes against the corner of the tile. “I don’t know. No.”

The pain in my leg stabbed, sharper than the steady ache I’d been left with after a car accident smashed my bones and my own ballet dreams. I hobbled to the living room, and stared blankly at the muted TV.

Flash Fiction – Whispers

Now that it’s finally spring, I wrote a winter story for some reason. Still, it’s a pretty picture and I loved the idea of hearing eerie whispers in this setting.

 

His legs ached as he plodded forward, snow churning around his shins. Every gasping lungful of air squeezed his chest, and the exhales frosted his glasses. He focused on the nearest crooked pine, determined to pass it, and the next, each a landmark of laborious progress. The effort frustrated him, though it’d been his idea to go outside. His weakness felt unavoidable, almost appropriate, because it matched the stagnant crush of his repetitive days.

He was breaking that pattern, though, so it made sense that it hurt. Breaking something meant jagged pieces, cracked foundations. Painful rearranging. The thought unfurled a burst of energy and he charged forward in a cloud of snow. This was a good workout, if nothing else. After everything his sister said about nature and healing – well, it made sense to her; she did meditative yoga, too. The idea sounded dumb to him. And yet, here he was, voluntarily freezing and sweating at the same time, stumbling around in the dark.

Reaching the top of a swelling hill, he lurched to a halt. The heavy stillness of the clearing helped ease his breath. A hissing sound skated through the air, and he whirled, heart leaping. Only the friendly silhouettes of the trees circled, nothing else. A flicker of movement lifted his gaze, and he saw the sky, painted red and green. Mesmerized, he watched the colours sway across the stars and realized with an awed pang that the noise poured from the sky. The auroras crackled and whistled. Goosebumps prickled his skin.

It was just the sky, and it wasn’t. It was vast and cold but vital. The moment burned, imprinted on his bones, echoing through the trek home and through every step tomorrow. Just like hiking past the trees, the small milestones could make him free.


Here’s a link to a video if you want to hear the eerie sound of the northern lights.

 

Flash Fiction – Letters

I felt drawn to this beautiful, evocative photograph as soon as I saw it – the letters could contain so many secrets! The story that resulted ended up a little darker than I expected, though.

Photo via Visual hunt

The effort of moving the massive oak desk leaves me winded, with a dew of sweat on my forehead. Even with its drawers emptied, it wasn’t easy to drag its bulk sideways. It’s easy to imagine that the ancient desk was here before the house, that the walls of this study were propped up around it. It’s at least as old as the house; the soaring bird silhouette of the vineyard’s logo, designed by my great-grandfather, is scratched onto one corner.

I turn my attention to the loose floor board, the reason I’d needed to move the desk aside. It creaks as I prod it with my finger, but seems simple enough to hammer back into place. Small maintenance for century-old house.  The board resists the claw of the hammer, until I use both hands to lift and straighten it. An entire foot-square section of floor lifts up instead, hinging like a jaw over a gaping mouth. In shock, I nearly drop the hammer.

The small wooden box fills up the hollow space under the hidden trap door. I carry it carefully to the desk, and my fingers fumble over the latch. The papery smell of old books ghosts through the air, carrying a whiff of dust and a tinge of almonds. It isn’t books inside, though. Not exactly. Gently, I spread the contents out on the desk. An old diary, photographs of the vineyard in its first years, back when the California wineries were all new, and a packet of letters bound with crumbling black thread.

Fascinated, I pour a glass of wine and sit down at that sprawling desk, first examining the photographs. The binding of the diary threatens to dissolve under the lightest touch, and I must turn the pages very slowly. The string fastening the letters snaps under the barest pressure of my fingertips, and the letters themselves turn out to be the most illuminating of all, once I manage to decipher the twirls of faded brown ink.

My neck aches, and the clock chimes an echo of hours passed. One sip of ruby wine remains in my glass, which seems fitting. I swirl the glass idly, watching the crimson droplets scatter in the golden lamplight. One last taste – if I share the contents of the hidden packet, it would be the last vintage I bottled, the last produced by the vineyard under my name. The details of these papers would transfer everything to the overlooked but true heirs of the vineyard’s legacy.

I drink that mouthful. Against my dry tongue, it tastes bitter as old family secrets.

Replacing the floorboard cubbyhole is easy. I hammer it all the way down, so it can’t be lifted again, its hollow space, now empty, hidden forever. My head throbs when I lug the desk back into place. As I shove the packet of sepia-toned papers into the fireplace, the old book smell sweetens to vanilla, mingling with smoke and the sour emergence of a chemical odour, probably from the photographs. That bittersweet perfume lingers in my nostrils even when the ashes break to dust under the fire poker.

Flash fiction – Magic

This flash fiction piece is pretty short, less than 400 words. This photo made me think of magic – how could it not?

Photo via Visual Hunt

Photo via Visual Hunt

The scrape of curtain hooks sliding open provides scant warning before a shard of sunlight pierces the room. And my head. Eyes squinching closed against the red-bloom of light burning along my eyelids, I burrow my face into the pillow and resist the tickle of a lurking sneeze.

“Mom.” Molly’s whisper is soft, more soothing than the brash sunlight.

I crack one eyelid open. Her lower lip is tucked between her teeth, gnawing worriedly. “Dad said to let you sleep, but I brought you something.” Her small fingers curl around a white saucer, balancing a cup. “It will make you feel better.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” Sleep would make me feel better, dark nothingness to temporarily erase my aching temples, the parchment feel of my feverish skin. Sleep let me drift to a place where my sinuses weren’t bruises tracing the shape of my cheeks. “I’ll drink it when I wake up.” I make a kissing sound for her, helplessly drifting back against the pillow.

“No, please drink it now. It’s not too hot. I checked.” She places the cup on the bedside table with a quiet chink of glass. “You have to drink it all.” The desperation of her tone reminds me we’d just finished reading Ella Enchanted at bedtimes, and the story involved a fairy who could make curing soups. Always imaginative, Molly had loved it.

“It’s special tea,” Molly insists. “It will make you better, but you have to believe.” She stares at me. “Do you?”

My elbows ache as I dig them into the mattress and heave myself upright. Thankfully, the cup appears absent of any mysterious potion-like additions. I can’t smell ginger, but its taste heats my tongue as I inhale the steam.  I have to say something to appease Molly. The tea is thoughtful, and there’s something wondrous in her childlike belief in magic.

“Yes.” I lean close to the cup. The sunlight reflects in the golden surface of the tea. “I believe.” I imagine the steam drifts like spell smoke, wafting like clouds across a dawn sky. The sun would pierce through them, washing away the heavy moon. A flock of birds scatters, soaring with freedom, the whole world open to them. In an ephemeral, fever-dizzy moment, I see it all. Molly watches me with wide eyes.

 

Flash Fiction – Three Days

This month’s flash fiction is called ‘Three Days’. As soon as I saw this photo, I knew it would be a fun flash fiction prompt, but the story had a mind of its own and went in a different direction than I expected. I thought each rock would represent a goal achieved, or maybe a special person, and instead they turned out to be mistakes. It’s okay though – a struggle before a triumph makes the victory even better.

white-rocks

Photo via Visualhunt.com

The flat white stone felt smooth against her palm, its rounded edges curling into her fingers. She squeezed it until her knuckles ached, tension straining through her hand. It felt good to let it go, the rush of blood tingling, the faint pulse in her fingertips with the rhythm of her heartbeat.  Nestling the rock flat against the sand, she reached for the second one, repeating the process. It dropped into place on top of the first stone with a soothing click. She savoured the final, heavy sound of the third rock settling into place. Her fingers throbbed, but that was fitting. She deserved that pain, and worse. Each pure white stone represented a mistake, something horrible and hurtful she’d said. The first two comments had burst from her fuzzy mouth in a wine-reeking fug, and she’d laughed, only curling with shame hours later, when remembrance stabbed at her temples. The third made her cheeks burn in memory. Sober and desperately hunting through the cabinet for a bottle, and only finding empty ones. Whirling on Tracey as she wandered into the kitchen, pink streaked hair half-covering her confused face. Lashing her humiliation into misdirected anger, the cruel words spilling like the last drops of wine as she knocked the bottles over with a clatter.

That was over now. Three days sober, one for each painful memory. A white stone for each, stacked into one, a tower of change. As she splayed her sore hand over her crossed knee and turned her face toward the sprawl of the sea, the answering leap of freedom surpassed the ache in her knuckles, the nausea flickering through her belly. Three days done, the rest looming as unending and restless as the waves. Just as harsh, just as beautiful.

 

Flash Fiction – Underground

I managed to keep this month’s flash fiction under 300 words. I think I must have been cold when I wrote it – maybe have a cup of tea handy for this one.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

Photo via Visualhunt.com

Underground

The air bit into her skin, cold and tingly. She shoved her hands into her pockets, clutching the soft fabric for warmth. Her rubber-soled shoes made little noise against the tiled floor, but when she cleared her throat, its raspiness echoed through the chamber, slithering off the mosaicked walls, whispering through the three arched doorways.

It was an elegant place to wait, but not welcoming, as she’d hoped. When she’d arrived too early for her appointment, the earthy warmth of the nearby café beckoned at first, until the crowded bustle inside scraped her ragged nerves. Anxiety trembled in her fingertips as she clutched the paper cup, burning her tongue by swigging milky coffee too fast.

She’d escaped outside, instinctively following the staircase underground, seeking the enclosed protection of the austere courtyard. It was quiet here. Hidden. She hunched her shoulders, circling back toward the archways, her breath steaming. Craning her neck, she peered into the mirrored ceiling, seeing the distant reflection of her red cheeks, wan eyes. The only other occupant of the room meandered toward the exit, but new footsteps pattered down the staircase. She held in a sigh. It was rare to be alone in a place like this, no matter how much you craved it.

The newcomer approached, an invasively close silhouette in her peripheral vision. Her pulse rocketed. Spine stiffening, feet scuffing backward. The icy air burned her throat as she stared in shock, stomach twisting into a sickening knot.

Pulling the black hood closer around her made-up face, the newcomer tilted her head. That familiar sharp, three-cornered smile lit her up, and her obsidian eyes gleamed. Without haste, utterly confident, she slipped her bony hands into the pockets of her long, shadowy coat. “I knew I’d find you eventually,” she said.

 

 

Flash Fiction – Heroes

Sometimes I like to write flash fiction inspired by an image. It’s a fun change from getting lost in the sprawl of writing a novel, and I think it’s also a good writing exercise since it poses different challenges. Less continuity, more making every word count. Since the 2016 Reading Challenge is wrapped up now, I thought I might share some of my flash fiction on my blog occasionally instead. So, welcome to a new recurring feature!

Usually I try to keep the word count below 300, to force myself to choose my words carefully, but I have to admit I am not always successful. Sometimes the story gets away on me, and it would be a disservice to trim it that much. I have to admit that was the case with this one, which clocks in at over 600 words. Generally, though, these flash fiction stories will be quite short. They often aren’t historical either, which is kind of weird, given my obsession with history, but I suppose it makes sense considering I write flash fiction when I need a short break from my latest novel.

 

puppy

Photo via VisualHunt

Heroes

“Come outside with me.” Julia hovered in the doorway. She said it gently, but he knew she meant it. She’d lovingly bossed him around since they were kids.

“You just got here.” He scratched the scruff on his jaw, staring at the floor. “Let’s just sit.” His shoulders hunched into the back of the couch. “Watch a movie or something.”

“I don’t want to watch a movie, and neither do you. You sound bored even suggesting it.”

Everything is boring when you’re so sleep deprived that your eyes are made of lead and your mind is as woolly as cotton candy, he wanted to retort, but he bit his tongue. If he said anything, Julia would ask, and he didn’t want to talk about the nightmare. In remembrance, shadowy images skimmed through his mind, making him suck in a sharp breath. He tried to slow it like the therapist taught him, trying to calm the panic attack before it escalated. Impossible to forget the nightly dream of dead children circled around the bed, staring toward him. One held a bicycle wheel in his only hand, and a slimy dark stain ruined his torso. Another boy turned his head side to side, as if straining to locate him without sight, since his optic nerves cascaded down his cheeks, one remaining eyeball dangling. Sometimes the dream was even worse. There’d been more than two kids riding their bikes over that IED, reduced to blood and pulp and sand. Sometimes other violent memories slithered into the dream.

Bile burned his throat. He lurched up from the couch, bones aching. “Fine. We’ll go outside.”

“Wait here,” Julia instructed once they were on the deck, a useless command since he was already slumping listlessly against the railing. “I brought something for you.” She smiled. “It’s a surprise.”

He hoped it was beer, even though he wasn’t really supposed to drink right now.

“Stop picking your fingers,” she said as she approached, returning from her car.

He flinched. “I didn’t know I was.” Speckles of blood gleamed all along his cuticles, old scabs tearing free. How could he not feel that? Turning to her, he realized she carried a small black puppy. Not beer. He couldn’t tell if he felt disappointed.

Julia put the puppy down on the deck. Its chubby body squirmed with delight as it gamboled over toward his feet, sniffing at the hole in his sock.

“You know I just got certified to train service dogs,” said Julia. “I think you need this little guy.”

He didn’t need a damn dog. He could hardly take care of himself right now, couldn’t she see that? Christ, his sister was always meddling. “I don’t…” he started to say, but trailed off when the pup plunked itself down and stared up at him. Its dark eyes were luminous, somehow innocent and wise at the same time. Something sparked inside his chest.

“And if you don’t, he needs you,” Julia continued. “He’s a rescue. His mom was a stray, and someone shot her.” Her lip curled. “He needs a home.”

He bent to feel the midnight velvet of the puppy’s coat. The dog sniffed his scabby hands, then cocked his head in a motion that almost reminded him of a shrug, and licked his palm, climbing up onto his shoe. His heart thumped and he hardly heard Julia, though she kept talking about how she’d help him, that the pup mostly just needed socialization at this age before he could start PTSD service training.

He sank down to the deck, letting the pup wriggle excitedly into his lap. His fingers stung all at once, and a lump pressed on his throat. He didn’t fight it. Feeling something, the numbness receding, even for a moment, was worth the pain.