flash fiction: leaving the castle by the lake

Equating home with family had always made sense to her before she had lived anywhere but this boreal country.  She knew with certainty that she was out of place here:  From her brash American-ness to her multi-ethnic appearance, no one could mistake that she was not of this land and never would be.  Curly black hair wild under her attempt at a hand-knit beanie, children still stared at her in unabashed wonder of her origin.  She had come here for her own children, but even though they could sponsor her residency, they could not make her any more acceptable in this place.

Nevertheless, she found a strange sense of peace in her bubble of otherness.  She was largely left alone, only spoken to when absolutely necessary, able to bask in her own thoughts during the quiet school days and nights when the children were asleep.  She filled the silence with songs and soliloquies or the quiet tapping of her fingers on the keyboard.  Soul food was different here, but nevertheless filled her belly with its bland richness.  Taking up a national hobby, she brushed off her needles and knit with abandon as if her creations would inspire admiration from anyone but herself.  One morning, she realized that she had dreamed in a language not her own, and thought:  Am I finally one of them?

She imagined what it would be like to go back from whence they came.  Things had changed:  Her homeland was a foreign country, more foreign than this place.  Her house had been renovated while she was gone.  Old landmarks and routines were no longer familiar.  Her driver’s license had expired long ago.  She could hardly remember street names or locations even though she had lived there for twelve years.  Shocking what absence could do.  For some, homesickness made the imprint of memories stronger.  She had never been homesick–her brand of sentimentality never allowed it.  All she had done was waved goodbye, let go, faced forward, and jumped head-first into a singular adventure of her own making.

Now in the kitchen, she peered through the blinds.  Much of her time here had been spent looking, staring, observing with intention.  She searched the evergreens in the distance, eyes stopping only once they lit upon her favorite building in the town.  In the summertime it was not visible; the foliage of cottonwood trees lining the back fence of the parking lot obscured the view.  But now, during the winter, the bare bones of the trees framed the castle with their phalanges.  It was tiny at this distance, even though she could reach it in fifteen minutes on foot if she left the apartment right now.  Its cone roof, slate grey against the sky.  Although she could not see it, she knew the lake, its face undisturbed, provided the perfect backdrop.  At night it was obsidian, reflecting the lights of the town.  In the long summer days it was wreathed with her favorite lupines in purple, pink and white.  The flowers and the lake were etched into her arm by a tattoo artist named Sanni.  The short-lived pain of carrying this special spot with her seemed a small price to pay.

She would miss this place. She felt a sadness that enveloped her entire being.  It was so powerful that she had to hold her breath to push it down.  She no longer knew where she belonged; too removed from her previous life, not enough invested in this one to plant herself firmly in a land of strangers who welcomed her as a curiosity.  There was no place that felt like home.  She wondered if there ever would be, and who she would have to become to find it.

(written 12 january 2018)

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flash fiction: another mystery to continue?

hello dear readers,

here’s the beginning of another short mystery…truthfully, i’m not really sure where it’s going to go, but i thought i would throw it out here and see if that motivates me to continue writing.  i don’t even know if this snippet is enough to begin…the Inspector in this story is the very same as in “A strange morning in the neighborhood“.

 

A shock in the parlor

Jones was always too little, too late.  Never could remember or settle upon a time in which inadequacy was not a defining theme of his life.

Except when it came to Dr. Missus Jones.  Yes, his polar opposite, Dr. Missus.  A shining example of humanity.

Her love for him was not without gentle judgement; she kept him in his place, grounded, but with a tether long enough to allow him to indulge in his own shortcomings.  The daydreaming, tardiness, absentminded qualities of his existence.

And so, when Jones walked into the living room, mouth already halfway around an excuse, it took a full minute to register the scene before him.

His mouth dropped open mid-syllable, then widened into a grimace.

A low moan, like something out of a walruses’ maw, escaped.

No.  The word sucked the air from his lungs.  There was Dr. Missus, sprawled on the floor, cooked-noodle limbs at odd angles.

One satin slipper languishing near the tapestried settee, the painted toenails of its foot seemed to indict Jones for his late arrival.

Jones crawled along the edge of the rug, attempting to assess the state of his wife without actually touching her body.  It was then that he noticed the blood and realized that even emergency medicine could not save her, for she had been neatly dispatched by a garrote.  The offending tool had been thrown haphazardly to the floor just shy of the rug’s tassels.

Jones felt nauseous and managed to scramble on all fours to the kitchen, where he promptly vomited on the parquet flooring.  Without amending his position, he reached for his cellular phone, dialing the police.

Suffice it to say that the paramedics and police arrived quickly and an immediate investigation began with Jones.

What time did you arrive home?

Where were you before you arrived?

How long was your commute?

Can any one verify your whereabouts?

Did your wife have any enemies or outstanding debts?

Is there anyone you know who would want to kill your wife?

Jones just stood there, monotone answers occasionally punctuated by the walrus moan, which caused the interrogators to eye him with concern.  Soon the duty officers departed, suggesting he contact loved ones and consider staying somewhere else for the evening.

And just as they were leaving, the Inspector walked in.  She met the eyes of the officer speaking to Jones with her cool stare, and he stumbled over his words.  After a pause, he deferred to his superior,

The inspector will speak with you now, Mr. Jones.  Our deepest condolences.  He beat a hasty retreat toward the wide open front door to make room for the Inspector.

Did you love your wife, Mr. Jones? The Inspector’s question caught him unawares.  He looked down at his work-worn hands before he faced the Inspector,

Of course I did. She was my safe haven. He groaned again, tears escaping the corners of his eyes.

I’ll take a look around, if you don’t mind.  The Inspector did not wait for the affirmative response.

When the Inspector left the premises about an hour later, there was a small huddle of officers waiting for her.  They looked at her expectantly, murmuring to each other

The old gal’s looking quite confident there, isn’t she?

She’s got it all tied up in a neat package now, for sure!
Wonder when she’ll make her report, mebbe tomorrow?

The Inspector ignored all the talk and made her way past the subordinates.  Her pace quickened as she exited the front gate and moments later, she was cocooned in the smells of automobile leather and artificial lavender air freshener.  Of course it would start to drizzle now, but at least she was dry.  She took a deep but shaky breath and reviewed her handwritten notes.  Perhaps it would take a few days, but she was certain she could solve this crime, and she was certain the guilty party was not far off.

flash fiction: Dvorak for the recently departed

Chester Prime was lost, but in a moment of clarity, he realized he had no desire to be found.

When he opened his eyes, a hazy grey mist wet them, and he blinked away the sand of sleep, turning westward toward the ocean.  He couldn’t remember which one.  In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter.

He had dug up the earth under the tree by the house.  The house was always an ugly piece of work, and as he chucked the shovel  onto the small hill of brown dirt and red clay, he realized that it was not long for this world, either.  Too much dry rot.

Now he stood facing away from the rising sun, shivering a little.  He reached for a cigarette and lit up, allowing the noxious inhalation to warm his chest.  There was no one else to whom he could offer the pack, so he stuffed it away.

Three weeks ago, Chester listened as Moira played the cello with long strokes, bow slightly angled, the smell of rosin dust and horsehair enveloping her.  His sister’s long calloused fingers slapped lightly on the cello’s neck, her body swayed as she practiced the Poco Adagio of Dvorak’s String Quartet Op. 61.  Beatific was the only word that could describe her at that moment.  Chester snapped a series of shots.  Later, he scrolled through them and found that moment, printed it out, and framed it.

The cigarette burned out so Chester flicked the butt into the sandy grass.  He took a deep breath.  Maybe facing the day was the only way to move forward.  Picking up the black violin case beside him, he made his way down to the beach below.

Sandra and Roy were waiting for him on the flat rock just a few feet from the ocean’s reach.  They had already set up the chairs and music stands.  Barefoot and clad in cream linen, they watched him warily.

Five days ago, Sandra had called Chester, asking him to come to the beach to play.  We’ll do Mozart, or something cheesy like that.  Moira would have liked that, she said, Or maybe some Dvorak?  Chester hung up the phone.  Later that afternoon, Roy sent him a message:  Are you okay? Chester deleted both messages and turned off his phone.  The next morning, he found himself waiting outside the home improvement store at 5:30, looking to buy a shovel.

Roy approached Chester, the dry sand dunes and the viola in his left hand making progress slow.  Where have you been? We’ve been trying to get ahold of you for the last four days!  Chester didn’t answer.  Instead he plodded to the rock, put the case down and toed his shoes off.  He rolled up his black trousers.  He sat in the second chair from the right and gazed out at the horizon.  The ocean would serve as their conductor today.

Three days ago, Chester had driven home to the house that looked like it would fall down sideways.  Crooked houses made for crooked people, or at least that’s how Chester felt.  So, many years ago, he had taken off with her as quickly as he could, even though she thought it had character. Now, he couldn’t go straight to the house, so he had just driven around the neighborhood slowly.  Old ladies came out onto their porches with tea but Chester knew they were really just keeping an eye on him.  He slouched in the seat and turned into the driveway overgrown with moss and weeds.

Sandra, sitting in the first chair, tuned up her violin and then played an A for Roy and Chester.  They all took their time, bare feet grounded as if the rumblings of the ocean could direct their movements.  Chester closed his eyes, even though he knew Roy and Sandra were looking at him.  He could hear Sandra’s intake of breath, the cue to begin.  And so they played.

They played without sheet music.  They played without noting the passage of time.  They played without feeling the cut of the wind against their linen clothing.  Their music soared over the lap of the waves at the sand, the rock still taunting Poseidon’s greedy fingers.  Chester was so lost in the music that he entered a reverie of sorts, halfway between reality and Dvorak’s Poco Adagio.

Two days ago, after subjecting himself to an uncomfortable night’s sleep on the threadbare and possibly pest-ridden davenport, Chester rose before the sun.  In the wan light, he retrieved the shovel and began to dig.  He ignored all early morning imperatives to eat or drink or relieve himself.  He found an unsteady comfort in the rhythm of the shovel’s cut into the earth and subsequent chuffing of dirt.  It was four feet long by three feet wide by six feet deep, to insure against discovery.  Satisfied with the hour’s labor, Chester went back inside the house to retrieve the hole’s occupants.

As the last strains of the quartet married the wind and departed for the ocean’s abyss, Chester allowed the bow to dangle from his fingertips.  He stood and walked toward the ocean, unresponsive to its icy touch.  Soon he was knee-deep, and the bow floated away.  The violin, taking on salt water, was relinquished to the ocean, which swallowed it whole.  Sandra and Roy hopped the waves to grab Chester’s arms.  They gently but firmly guided him to shore.  He made no resistance.

One day ago, red clay mixed with brown dirt covered the hole under the tree.  Chester sat a few feet away; it looked like a fresh scab, it looked just like her grave in the cemetery.  He wondered if anyone would come looking for the cello or her photograph.  He doubted it.

(written 16 april 2018)

 

flash fiction: make up

Make Up

She worried that she had started to wear too much make-up.

If one could call a few dabs of under-eye concealer, a thin swipe of eye-liner and a nude lipstick too much.

But yet, bare-faced, when she looks in the mirror she sees age.  She remembers what her mother said about wearing cosmetics, and wonders if she stops using it now, whether she’ll see the old her.  The younger one from before NARS and Lumene and Revlon finally convinced her to attempt a more grown-up look.

She angles her chin toward the mirror, remembering an article somewhere that announced the benefits of a lifted face.  Not a face-lift, never that.  She gently rubs under her eyes, trying to coax the slightly puffy half-moons to flatten out.  With her chin up, the shadows hugging the lower lashes were not visible to her.  It would be impractical to walk around like that all day, if she even remembered to do so.

Reaching into her vanity, she pulled out the concealer, and after opening it, examined the sticky wand.  The color, one half shade lighter than her own skin, seemed suddenly foreign; it belonged on a palette bound for canvas, not epidermis.

Her eyes drifted again to the mirror,  asking herself why there were dark circles under her eyes in the first place.  She needed more sleep and less coffee, more meditative moments and fewer stressful ones.

She tossed the small bottle into the wastebasket.  The clink as it hit the bottom was surprisingly satisfying to her ears.

The eye pencils followed suit after another moment of scrutiny.  A long-unused jar of foundation, three small eye shadow palettes, mascara, loose powder and rouge joined the growing pile.  She knew it was psychological, but with each divestment, her shoulders felt a little bit lighter.

All that remained in the vanity were two tubs of moisturizer and five tubes of lipstick.  Her stomach was suddenly bathed with regret–maybe she shouldn’t throw all of that make-up away.  But then she steeled herself and swept all of the lipsticks into the hammock of her shirt.

She sat down on the bed, opening each tube in a silent ritual.  She twisted the tube, gauging how much product was left, eyeing the color and swiping a line on her hand, much as she had done in the drugstore prior to purchase. The first one was too pink, no wonder she hadn’t worn it in ages.  The second was a clownish red, left over from the vintage phase she had explored the year before.  The third and fourth were just too old to be saved–they had languished in the back of the cupboard for more than two years.  Her dermatologist would reprimand her if she knew.

The final tube was the color she most often wore; a mauve-brown that was just pink enough to enhance her lips.  Matte, not shiny, just the way she liked her lip color.  She rubbed out the stripes of color on her hand with her finger and went to the mirror.  She tossed the four other tubes into the bin.

Looking at her reflection, she ignored the tiredness around her eyes and the dullness of her skin.  She would wash her face later.  She held the lipstick up to her bottom lip and applied the barest hint of color.  Her lips smacked together softly to spread it around.  She smiled, flashing teeth, feeling like a little girl.

Amazing what a little lipstick could do.

(written 30 january 2018)

flash fiction: the voice of a stranger

(update:  so friends, i had completely forgotten i’d posted this one already, so really it’s just a revisit, i guess…and with a cover photo!)

The voice of a stranger

Memory is a funny thing; and the fact that humans have so many different kinds of memory makes it even funnier.
For him, memory was an overflowing urn of recollections packaged into separate baggies; he wondered if he should come up with some sort of aesthetically pleasing way of organizing them. But no palace of the mind for him. There were so many, and so little time in which to sort. And so he contented himself with the simple fact that unlike Sherlock Holmes, he was so skilled at retrieving them, without the architecture, that aesthetic pleasure was really not at the top of the list of things to achieve.
He could remember everything about her, from the most base and vulgar things, to the most reverent: What her sweat tasted of after exercise; the smell of her flatulence; the texture of her skin when it would crack and flake in the wintertime; the appearance of the body parts only ever revealed to him; the curve of her smile. By these senses, he could identify her with a the fabled skill of photographic memory.
But he could not remember her voice. No matter how he tried, the pitch, timbre and warmth eluded him the more fervently he delved into his urn of memory. When he woke in the morning, the sounds escaping her lips were rendered incomprehensible, his brain perplexed by the voice that remained foreign. After too many mornings faced with the anguish of re-acquaintance under duress, he admitted to her sadly that in spite of everything he had committed to memory, her voice would always slip away.
She took the admission in stride, initially unworried that his inability to regard her voice as familiar would somehow corrupt or jeopardize their relationship. All of the other things he never forgot: Her favorite poems, her dislike of shrimp, the smell of her perfume, her strange allergy to carrots. He remembered those things, and that mattered.
But week after week, month after month, their relationship grew more strained as she realized that his problem was far more insidious. He would grow disoriented at the sound of her speaking if she approached him without preamble. There was no way to start a conversation because he forgot who she was, even if he could see her. She stopped calling him on the phone since the first three minutes of every phone call revolved around reintroductions despite caller-id.
And so they communicated through writing. For as much as she was frustrated with his brain, she loved him. And so they texted. They left post-its on the mirror. They used a primitive and private sign-language. They existed in their own little bubble of silence quite happily for a while.
One day, out of the blue, she had a strange feeling. How did he survive in the real world? Why did he not have trouble with anyone else’s voices? He went to work, conversed with his colleagues. He listened to music, watched TV and movies, all without disorientation. She felt less-than. She fell into a depression that would not allow her to write a single word for a day. But she was resilient.
She came to him with a suggestion, written in frenzied block letters:
I HAVE A SOLUTION TO OUR PROBLEM
What do you mean? he replied in his slanted script.
WHAT IF I HAD A DIFFERENT VOICE she wrote hurriedly, the F’s a blur of excitement.
What do you mean? he held up the same paper.
I MEAN, I COULD GET A NEW VOICE. LIKE A COMPUTERIZED ONE? She ducked her head so she could look him in the eyes.
That is an interesting idea. He glanced at her for a second, and then put his pencil down, sighing.
She hugged him, used their sign for love. She hopped from one foot to the other, anxious to get a more definitive answer.
Okay. He wrote, smiling at her.
She ran off to place the order.
After one more week of unvoiced interactions, a package arrived at the door. It was a special microphone; when placed over the neck at voice-box level, it altered the voice. It was gadgetry out of a spy movie or the favorite gear of hostage takers. She couldn’t wait to try it out.
Auto-tuned was the first thing he thought when she walked into the room. It was a unique sound, one with an accent that he could not place. Perhaps because it was bland, almost affect-less, perfect. But he looked at her and recognized the face he saw, the smile that spoke volumes without a word.
She reached for his hand. She told him about her day and asked about his.
They went on like this for a few weeks and it seemed all was well. One day, without warning, he asked her to remove the microphone. Perplexed, she hesitated, but then opened the velcro strap with a loud ripping sound. He looked straight at her and indicated that she should speak.
He looked at her strangely and shook his head. He held his ears for a moment. She grabbed a pencil and paper from the drawer and held up a hastily scribbled note.
SHOULD I PUT THE MIC BACK ON
He shook his head. Without opening his mouth, he took the paper and pencil from her trembling fingers.
I can’t do this anymore he wrote.
Her shoulders sagged. She went to the room to lie down. She didn’t have the energy to write.
That evening, he was gone.
Later, when she had finally gotten over him, she heard from a mutual friend that he was living on his own. Occasionally she would think about texting him, until one day, she saw him at a coffee shop. He was with another woman. She wore the microphone strapped around her neck; it was discreetly covered by a cowl, but it was nevertheless visible to the expectant eye. They laughed at each other, her auto-tuned voice falling flat.
She imagined he had every detail about her memorized, from her favorite song to the smell of her breath in the morning. He could probably pick her out of a lineup of smells, tastes and textures blindfolded. She observed them for a moment before picking up her coffee and leaving the café, the echo of her laugh causing him to pause and look up.

flash fiction: A strange morning in the neighborhood, solved

The inspector steepled her fingers, the tips of the pointers on her chin as she gazed up at the eaves of the deceased man’s house.  The lights were still on; the tea table inside still set for one.  Uncleared food and crumbs.  The windows looked as if they could shed mourning tears.

He left the house shortly after tea time, she began.  It was still light out, the evening not as cold as in previous days.  The afternoon sun had shone brightly, warming the face of the house, and melting the thin dusting of snow on the ground.  Yesterday’s weather report indicated temperatures several degrees above freezing late in the day, a few hours before sunset.

She pointed to the printed photo she had just handed to the beat cops, the selfie taken by passersby the morning before.  The inspector indicated the eaves, with their row of fairy-tale icicles, worthy of the Snow Queen herself.

He began his walk, not knowing that another observed his every move with precision, with derision.  And by this, I mean the neighbor boy across the way.

Retrieving from her dossier a plastic sleeve, housed within, a letter.  She read aloud:

“Dear Mr.__________, I do sincerely apologize for my unacceptable behavior.  I only wish you had not reported me to the police.  I thought that we could work out our differences, but now my parents will send me to boarding school, so that will never happen.  But still, I do greatly regret my actions over the past months.  Perhaps some time away will do me good, and I will return a changed man.”

Sounds right to me, said one beat cop to the empty air.

But awfully snide, wouldn’t you agree? replied the other, his eyes still trained on the roof.

Not but a few moments into his walk, just as the sun was passing behind the houses across the street, the inspector continued with forced patience, our doomed friend spotted something on the ground.  She reached once more into the folder, plastic baggie between forefinger and thumb.

The bloodstained bill! What d’ya know! The poor chap had his head down and saw the money! The two cops were almost gleeful until they saw the stern look of their superior.

But then what?

Calculated, calculated.  The young man was quite genious, she muttered to herself.  Precisely placed, and he was quick with his BB gun.

But he wasn’t shot, now, was he?

No, you fools, the inspector almost said aloud.  Bored eyes bored into empty space for a moment of thought before returning to the matter at hand.

He was impaled, as he rose from acquiring that bill on the ground.  Yes.  Impaled by the most perfect of weapons:  An icicle.  Our young friend was so patient.  He placed the bill below the longest, sharpest icicle hanging from these eaves.  It was just thick enough at the top to make a clean break without shattering when the BB pellet from the air rifle struck.  The slight warming throughout the day had already melted many of the other icicles. Smart as a whip, that one.  He calculated just when to shoot so that the icicle’s tip would meet the victim’s back with just the right amount of force to break through layers and skin and flesh and rib-bones.  Her voice rose, and hands separated and danced with the telling of the story; they mesmerized her companions momentarily.

The inspector’s sudden giddiness came as a surprise even to herself.

Of course, her voice returned to normal, body heat as well as the minimal residual heat of the day melted the icicle away before the slight freeze of last night, which kept our friend here cool.

Well done, ma’amwell done!

We knew you’d solve the case in a flash!

The inspector, a thinly veiled combination of sadness and disgust on her face, left the crime scene without a word.

 

(written 12 march 2018)

flash fiction: A strange morning in the neighborhood

A strange morning in the neighborhood

There he is, beneath the eaves on a Sunday afternoon.

A sprawl of limbs, as if crawling.

The house, a mansion, really, throws a shadow obscuring his face.  Hazel eyes look east; they greeted the morning sun.

A brown tweedy suit, obligatory for a man his age.  Green sweater vest and button down shirt.  Strange, his limbs are awkward in their action.  They do not scrape against the concrete or neighboring mulch; he quietly bridges the divide between flowerbed and sidewalk.

Everything is barren, brown and grey–spring will come quite soon.  Two beat cops on their walk around the neighborhood are the first to notice.

What’s that in his hand? It flutters in the chill of early morning.

Has he been out here all night?

That’s dedication; we don’t see very much of that kind of commitment to landscaping nowadays.

But he’s just past prime so it’s to be expected:  He knows the meaning of responsibility.

Pardon, sir, but do you need some assistance?  He doesn’t answer.  It’s quite cold and slippery there.

I say, but you’re all wet!

Must be the garden hose again, for you’re lying in quite a pool, like brown black ink it is.

Closer inspection confirms too little, too late:  Life left him hours ago; the cold air took his breath while the hungry earth stole his blood.  The houses across the way, well, they kept him cold enough in their shade; who knows how long he’s been this way.

Although I’m certain he had tea at five last night.  All the lights were on in the parlor when we walked by.

We’ll ask the neighbors about this tragic occurrence, for it looks like he’s been impaled; whoever done it knew their business.

Yep, it seems we’ve got ourselves a mystery with this one.

The inspector will see to it; a regular Encyclopedia Brown or Hercule Poirot, she is.  Don’t know if she’s as smart as that Sherlock character or even Miss Marple, but she’ll make her rounds.

And when she does, she finds, after sleuthing and calculated deduction:

A passerby selfie from the day before, the house as backdrop, a regular wintry scene; icicles crown the eaves

A weather report

A dubious letter of apology from the son of the family across the way; he had a history of bad behavior

A tiny BB pellet lodged in the siding of the house

A wrinkled blood-soaked fifty-dollar bill

He was killed by the BB gun belonging to the neighbor, the inspector says.

But how?  He has not been shot!

It’s not too difficult to see if you look carefully, she laughs in spite of the serious nature of the crime.

FIN

(written 8 march 2018)