Monday, October 31, 2016

Another Boring Day

“Officer Johnson, we have a report of some disturbances at the junior high. Could you please check it out?”
                Rolling his eyes, Brady Johnson leaned over and picked up his radio. “This is Officer Johnson. Officer Lewis and I are on our way. What are we checking out?”
                “The caller was unclear,” the dispatcher replied. “She reported strange sounds coming from the building and occasional lights through some of the windows.”
                “Ten-four. We’re on our way.”
                Brady hung up before turning to his new partner. “You’ll learn to hate working Halloween after a couple of years. Since people are wearing masks, they think they can get away with all kinds of stupid things. It’s probably just a couple teens trying to get some tricks in since they’re too old to go out for treats.”
                Officer Lewis nodded.
                The police car pulled into the parking lot in front of the building. Unlike daytime hours, no cars dotted the asphalt. The hulking structure looked foreboding, especially as the wind picked up, whipping the remaining leaves on the trees.
                As the two men exited the vehicle, Brady said, “You go that way and walk the perimeter,” pointing toward the mountains.  “Call me on the radio if you see anything unusual. And don’t try to be a hero. You don’t have enough experience yet.”
                The two officers split directions. Brady peered through the office windows along the front of the building. He tried the front doors, but they were all locked. He continued on down the front, hopping the courtyard fence to check the doors into the lunchroom. Brady was around the back of the building when his radio crackled.
                “Johnson, I think I found something.”
                “Stay put. Where are you?”
                “I’m in the back near the east doors of the extra wing.”
                “I’ll be right there.”
                Brady jogged the remaining yards to circle around the perimeter, stopping short at Lewis. Puffing slightly, he said, “What did you find?”
                Lewis nodded toward a cracked window.
                “Good work, Lewis. That’s probably exactly how the rascals got in. I’ll boost you up and through, and then you can come open the door. But let me call it in to dispatch first.” Grabbing his radio on his uniform, Brady pressed the button and said, “Dispatch? This is Officer Johnson. We found an open window. We’re going in to check things out. Please send back-up.”
                “Confirmed, Officer Johnson. Back-up is on its way.”
                Johnson nodded, then cupped his hands together, spreading his legs wide and squatting slightly in order to support the weight. Lewis stepped into his hands with one foot, reached for the window frame, and lunged as Johnson pushed up. Grabbing the edge, Lewis shimmied his way through the narrow opening. “I’ll meet you at the door,” he called back from inside.
                As Brady walked over to the door, he was glad he was no longer the junior officer and had to climb through the window. Instead he got to order Lewis to do it.
                When both officers were inside the building, the corridor shimmered a sickly green from the reflection of the emergency exit signs. Otherwise, it was dark. The two officers moved down the hall, one on each side, checking classroom doors, and shining their flashlights through doorway windows and sidelights.
                Nothing.
                They returned to the center of the hallway where a set of metal doors led to the rest of the building. Finding themselves in the common area of the school in front of the office, Brady said, “Lewis, you go down the hall to the west. I’m going to take that hall behind us that runs east. Again, don’t try to be a hero, and radio if you find anything. Unlatch your gun, but don’t draw it unless necessary. You don’t want to accidentally shoot a kid, right?”
                Lewis’ face was almost as pale as his hair, but he nodded in agreement and turned to leave for his assignment.
                Good kid, Johnson thought. Follows orders even when he’s terrified. He turned and moved down the corridor.
                Most of the classrooms were on the north side of the hall, but he checked a couple of doors on the south as well. All locked.
                Until he reached Room 156. The latch caught as he pulled on the handle. Before opening the door, he glanced up at the name plate above it. Mrs. Thornock. Are you usually this careless, Mrs. Thornock? he thought.
                He swung the door open abruptly, flashing his light around the entire room. Nothing except for desks and books.
                Suddenly he heard a whirring sound. He swung toward the back corner where the teacher’s desk brooded. Finding nothing, he continued to scan with his light for the source of the sound. An eerie glow began in the front of the room. The screen lightened to a bright blue.
                The projector. That’s what the sound was. But why did it turn on? No one was in here. Brady shrugged. Leave it to Halloween night for a technical glitch. This was probably the source of the weird lights the caller reported.
                But what caused the sounds?
                Brady jumped when static buzzed on his radio.  “—son. Johnson come—“ The static buzzed again.
                He called to Lewis. “Lewis, what’s wrong?” More static. “Lewis?” Brady’s heart began to pump. This was the part of the job he both hated and loved – the not knowing.
                Finally a few words broke through. “Near the shop…end of hall...not sure…severed arm…” Then the static took over again.
                No matter how many times Brady called his name through the radio, Officer Lewis didn’t respond. “Hold on, Lewis, I’m on my way,” Brady replied, having no idea if his partner heard him or not.
                Brady turned back toward the door, ready to sprint through when a desk flipped itself right into his path. Stifling a scream, he jumped backward. Then the door opened and closed. Just once.
                Fearing for his partner, Brady found the courage to leap over the desk and barrel toward the door. It opened again as he reached for the handle. Struggling to control his momentum, Brady stumbled into the hallway, shiny tiles slippery beneath his feet.
                Swinging his arms to right himself, he saw a strange glow bouncing through the windows in the wall across from the classroom. He did squeal this time when a sound like tapping on the glass echoed down the shadowy corridor. Taking a deep breath and stepping carefully, Brady approached the window. Shining his light through the glass, he saw nothing but tables, chairs, and shelf upon shelf of books. As he peered with his hands cupped around his eyes and against the glass, a book flew off one of the shelves. He jerked back. Then the light reappeared nearby.
                Gulping, Brady tried the door, hoping it was locked, so he could use it as an excuse. It wasn’t. He withdrew his gun at this point and yanked the door open. A few emergency lights flickered overhead, casting dancing shadows. As he peered into the gloom, another book thumped onto the floor. Brady tried to steady his gun by gripping it tighter. The light danced and floated around the ceiling. He eased toward it.
                The light stopped in the middle of the room. As he stared at it, it began to materialize into a ghostly form. Two black holes in the midst of a semi-transparent whiteness peered back at him. Brady raised his quivering gun toward the ethereal glow.
                Static crackled across his radio again, startling both of them. The thing howled as though in pain then raced around the room, books flying from the shelves behind it. It screamed again then flew through the wall. Brady chased it across the large expanse and threw the doors open.
Fifty bats flew into his head and face, forcing him backwards. He flailed his arms, shooing the bats away. When they finally cleared, he stepped into the hallway, finding himself back at the commons area. A tall man with dark hair wearing a tuxedo stood on the top step. The man stared at Brady, then smiled slowly. As he did, two fangs slid down from his top teeth. Then the man turned and sprinted down the hall Lewis was in, running faster than Brady thought was humanly possible.
Brady followed behind, fear for his partner clutching his chest and making it hard to breathe. At the end of the hall, he found the shop classroom Lewis had mentioned. But Lewis was nowhere to be found. Instead, Brady found Lewis’ radio, green light blinking, on the floor in the middle of the room.

Brady continued across the room to the opposite door leading to the machinery. He threw the door open, a blast of cold air punching him backward. Swallowing hard, he stepped back into the room. Shining his flashlight around the room, he darted it back after passing a wall, dripping words scrawled across it. They read, “You’re in my house now.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Life of Meaning

Rob let the screen door bang behind him. He flopped onto the couch, his leg across the arm, and blew his hair out of his face.
A woman with silvery hair shuffled into the room. “What’s wrong?”
“Sorry to bother you, Grandma. Mom and I had an argument again, and I just couldn’t stand to stay in the house any longer.”
Grandma nodded. “I see. Well, come into the kitchen. I was just going to have some lemonade.”
Rob swung his legs around and followed her across the hall. He pulled a couple of glasses down out of the cupboard while Grandma withdrew a pitcher from the fridge and placed a package of cookies in the middle of the table.
After a few minutes of silence, Grandma asked, “So what was it about this time?”
“Same old. ‘A twenty-year-old man should have a purpose in life. What direction are you going? What are you going to do with yourself?’ She doesn’t believe I’m trying to figure it out. I want to go to college, but I don’t think I’m ready. If I experience life first, then I’ll know what I want to do and won’t waste time and money. But I can’t do that if I have a steady job to report at every day.”
“And how are you showing your good faith?”
Rob rubbed his stubbly chin a moment before answering. “Well, I’m not asking for money. I find odd jobs here and there to pay for my expenses.”
“What about rent? Or food?”
Rob traced the woodgrain in the table. “Nah, they’re still paying for those.” He lifted his head and looked Grandma in the eye. “But I bought my own car. I’m paying the insurance and gas. If I take a trip or something, I pay for all that too. So it’s not like my parents are giving me everything.” His voice rose in pitch.
Grandma held up her hands, palms facing Rob. “I didn’t say they were, but I’m just trying to see from both perspectives. Sometimes when you’re a mom, it’s hard to be objective.”
Rob sighed. “I guess it’s kinda hard when you’re the son too, right?”
Grandma smiled.
Rob sat in thought for a few minutes. He could feel Grandma’s eyes on him, but not awkwardly. “Well, I’ve used up enough of your time. Thanks, Grandma. You always help me feel better.” He rose to leave.
Grandma hefted herself from her chair. “Robby, might I ask a favor of you before you go? Do you have some time?”
“Of course. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’ve been meaning to sort the things in the attic for ages and get rid of some old stuff for Goodwill. But I can’t climb that ladder anymore. Is there a possibility you could help me out?”
“Sure. What do you want me to do?”
“If you could bring the boxes down to me, I can sort through them.”
They climbed the stairs together, Grandma holding tightly onto the banister, Rob directly behind her. When they reached the top, Grandma dragged a chair from her bedroom. Rob took over for her, carrying the chair into the hallway. He pulled the attic stairs down out of the ceiling and adjusted the placement of the chair to sit a few feet past the foot of the stairs.
“Let’s start with the boxes over my bedroom,” Grandma said. “I think that’s where most of the clothing is.”
Rob nodded and started into the attic. After a moment, he coughed. “It’s kind of dusty up here.”
“I haven't been up there since before my hip surgery. That was five years ago.” The distance muffled her voice.
Rob picked up the closest box, expecting to heft it, but found it surprisingly light. He carefully carried it down the stairs and placed it at Grandma’s feet.
“Could you get a rag out of the hall closet please?”
After Rob handed it to her, Grandma wiped the top of the box. Then she unhooked the flaps from folding over one another.
She rummaged around the box to the bottom. “These are all old dresses of mine. They can go to Goodwill. Could you put them in the spare bedroom for now?”
Rob carried the box across the hall and then went up the stairs for another. They repeated the process four more times, occasionally placing a few articles of clothing on Grandma’s bed, but putting the rest into a pile in the extra room.
The next box Rob brought down felt heavier. He placed it at Grandma’s feet, she wiped it off, and then opened it.
She sighed when she looked inside. Pulling out a flannel shirt, she held it to her nose, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. “These were your Grandpa’s. His scent has finally left them, so I think it’s time to let someone else find good use from them. Go ahead and pile them with the rest.”
Three boxes later, when Grandma opened the top, a smaller wooden box nestled on top of the clothes.
“Is that jewelry?” Rob asked.
“Not exactly,” Grandma said. “I’d wondered where these had gotten to. Why don’t you open that, Robby, while I look through the clothes?” She handed him the case.
He unlatched the clasp on the front of the lid and opened it. His eyes widened. Metal stars, colorful ribbon strips, and bronze eagles stared at him from the cold surface.
“Are these what I think they are?” Rob asked, his voice reverent.
Grandma nodded. “Those are all medals your Grandpa received in the service.”
“I knew he was in the army, but I had no idea he’d done all this.” Rob stroked a medal with a finger.
“He didn’t like to talk about his medals. He thought they were silly.”
Rob shook his head. “What’s this for?” He gently held a red and white ribbon attached to an eagle with outspread wings within a circle. The circle read For Distinguished Service.
“Your Grandpa received that one during Desert Storm for leading so well that in his year of service, none of his unit members were seriously injured, let alone killed, even though they saw some of the most intense skirmishes of the whole war.”
Rob carefully placed it back in the box. He picked up a red, blue, and white striped ribbon. “What are these? He has several.”
Grandma took the ribbon in her hand, caressing it. “Your Grandpa could always inspire those around him to do more than they thought they could. I think these are the Valorous Unit Awards.” She handed the ribbon back.
Sifting through the multiple medals and ribbons, Rob pulled out one more. “What about this one?” He held a blue ribbon with white stars across it. Dangling below the ribbon, an eagle perched on a bar which held an upside-down star inscribed within a circle.
Grandma cocked her head, and her features softened. “That was the one I was most proud of. We were invited to the White House for President Nixon to present the Medal of Valor. Your Grandpa flew helicopters, and he’d flown in supplies and rescued soldiers on multiple missions with the Viet-Cong firing at him the whole time. Many men owe their lives to your Grandpa. When your Grandpa received the medal, he stood stoically before the President. But when the son of one of the soldiers he saved ran up and wrapped his arms around his legs, well, that was only time I saw your Grandpa cry.”
“Why didn’t he show these to us?”
“Your Grandpa never really agreed with receiving them. He always just thought he was doing his duty. His job was to protect the people around him, whether they were soldiers or civilians, American or otherwise. He said he was just doing what everyone else was doing. He didn’t realize that his self-appointed life’s mission was bigger than most.”
Rob gazed at the multiple medals and ribbons gleaming in the box. “What are you going to do with these?”
     Grandma shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe some museum will take them.”
     Rob cleared his throat around the lump. “Can…can I have them?”
     “I suppose.” A smile tugged at her mouth.
     Rob gently closed the lid, reclasping the latch.
     “I don’t know about you,” Grandma said, stretching her arms, “but I’m tired. I think that’s enough for today, don’t you?”
     Tucking the box under his arm, Rob said, “Thanks, Grandma. I know just what to tell Mom now.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Superfriends

This story intentionally follows comic book canon only loosely.

                The doorbell chimed throughout the mansion. A tall, white-haired butler clicked across the tiled floor to the doorway. As he opened the door, a dark-haired man stood in the pouring rain.
                “Welcome, Mr. Kent,” said the butler.
                “Alfred,” the man replied as he handed the butler a pair of glasses. “I’m always glad when I can take those off. Especially toward the end of the day, they really hurt my eyes.”
                “Indeed, sir.” Alfred carefully set the glasses next to a potted plant on the entryway table. “You are the last to arrive. The others are in the den.”
                Mr. Kent strode across the entryway toward a door spilling light into the foyer. As he entered the room, a hexagonal table stood in the middle with five chairs pulled up to it. A man with a firm, square jaw met him at the door with a handshake. He wore a black cape and mask that looked like it had cat ears pointing up from the sides.
                “Clark, so glad you could make it tonight.”
                “Me too, Bruce. I wasn’t sure if Lois was going to let me go or not.”
                “How is Lois?”
                “Fine. Still unsure if she loves Clark Kent or Superman.”
                “You mean she still hasn’t figured out it’s the same person?” Bruce chuckled lightly.
                Clark shook his head and sighed. “No. You know, for being such a brilliant investigative reporter, sometimes I think she’s rather clueless. Our relationship would be so much easier if I could just tell her, but then that puts her in even more danger than she gets herself into.”
                “That’s why it’s so much easier not to get seriously involved with anyone.”
                “But that’s so much lonelier too. Am I right, Pete?” Clark called across the room to a young man sitting at the table looking at a handful of cards.
                “I feel you,” Peter called back.
                “Well, let’s forget our troubles and play some poker,” Bruce said, clapping Clark on the back.
                Clark nodded as they walked toward the table. He shook hands with Peter, who wore jeans and a t-shirt, and nodded toward the only woman in the room, a buxom brunette.
                “Hey, Diana. How are things tonight?”
                “Quiet, so far. Sorry to overhear about Lois. She’s sensitive; she’ll come around sometime. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if she knows, but she’s just afraid to admit it.” She patted Clark’s arm as he sat beside her.
                A man in jeans, a button-up shirt, and sportcoat on the other side of Clark spoke up. “Are we here to bemoan failed relationships, or are we here to play poker?”
                “Thanks for the reminder, Tony,” Clark said drily. “Speaking of failed relationships, how’s Pepper?”
                Tony abruptly stood and slammed his hands on the table.
                “Come on, guys,” Bruce said from across the table. “We haven’t even started the game yet. Can we please not bust up my table this time?”
                Tony glared at Clark, who looked coolly back. “Remember I could laser slice you in an instant for your rudeness.”
                “Perhaps,” Clark replied, “but you’d have to get to your mechanical arm first. And my lasers are already in my head, so I’m pretty sure who would win that race.”
                “Boys.” Diana stepped between them with one hand on each chest. “Let’s cool it a bit. Clark, apologize to Tony for being rude, and Tony apologize for being insensitive.”
                They both muttered apologies to each other and Tony sat back down.
                “That’s better. Now, who’s dealing tonight?”
                “I asked Alfred,” Bruce said.
Alfred dragged a stool over to the table and sat on it, elevated a bit above the others.
“Hey, Bruce,” Parker said as he handed over the cards in his hand, “I thought tonight was casual. Why are you dressed up?”
Bruce huffed in his chair. “Robin had a family emergency, so I’m on call tonight.”
The other four friends nodded.
“Could you at least take your mask off?” Tony said. “I feel it’s an unfair advantage for a poker game.”
“Fine.” Bruce peeled off the black leather, revealing fierce eyes. “Can we play now?”
“Where’s everyone else?” Clark asked.
“Thor and the other Bruce are taking some much needed R&R. Steve is working in Europe. And Logan just flat-out refused to come.”
“Sounds like him,” Peter said.
“What’s against inviting more women?” Diana said.
“I’ve got nothing against women,” Tony said.
Bruce rolled his eyes. “There aren’t that many women of our caliber. I’ve invited Natasha and Jean over the years, but they’ve usually refused me.”
“I’ll try and get Storm next time. I think she’d have fun,” said Diana.
“Again with the unfair advantage,” Tony piped up. “She’s got those milky eyes that are impossible to read.”
“Feeling threatened, are we, Tony?” asked Clark.
“It’s not like you couldn’t afford to lose a game,” Peter muttered.
“’Losing something to a woman’ is usually where at least a third of my money goes,” Tony said.
“Come off it,” Diana said. “Let’s play.”
Alfred dealt the cards and the group perused them in silence. That’s how most of their games went – silently, other than declaring bets. Evenly matched, one night’s winnings would go to one player, while the next night’s would go to another.
After ten rounds, the ante rose to $7,500. “I fold,” Clark said. “Too rich for a newsboy.”
“I’ll second that,” Peter said, throwing his cards facedown onto the table.
“I’m out,” Diana said. “I’m saving up for a new bustier.”
“Who says you need one?” Tony said, smirking.
“Eyes on your cards,” Diana replied without looking up.
“I call,” Bruce said.
“Three jacks,” Tony said, reaching for the pile of chips.
“Hold on a minute,” Bruce said, gripping Tony’s forearm. He laid his cards on the table: a three, a seven, a jack, a four, and an eight, all spades.
Tony’s shoulders slumped as he withdrew his hand.
As Alfred began to shuffle the deck, Bruce sat straight up. The red phone in the corner began to ring at the same time.
“Damn,” Tony said, “now I can’t win my money back.”
“You can afford it,” Diana said.
“Guess we better clean up,” Clark said as he gathered the drink glasses on the table.
When Bruce got off the phone, he talked to Peter while pulling his mask on. “Why don’t you come help me tonight? They’ve spotted the Green Goblin flying around near the power plant.  What do you say?”
Peter’s jaw clenched. “I’m not your sidekick.”
“I didn’t say you were. But you know this guy better than anyone else.”
“And I have a night off. Besides, I can’t help you because I know him. You’ll be able to capture him and turn him in. I’ll just kill him.” Peter shook his head. “No deal tonight. You’re on your own.”
The rest of the friends had been sneaking toward the door when Bruce turned to them. “Anyone?”
They all shook their heads. “Sucks that you were on call tonight, but we’re out.”
“Fine. I don’t need anyone’s help anyway. Alfred, show them out.”
Bruce’s black cape swirled behind him as he stomped toward the elevator.

The friends looked at each other and shrugged. “See you next month.”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Annual Affection

     Cami sighed as she wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her hand. This was such a waste of time. She should really be out shopping for a dress, not digging in the dirt like Grams asked. The wedding was only six weeks away.
     “Careful with that soil, Camille,” a voice behind her called out. “Shake off the roots before you throw the weeds in the bucket.”
     Cami turned to see Grams had set up a lawn chair and held a brightly colored umbrella over her head even though she sported a straw hat on her head. “It’s just dirt, Grams.”
     Grams shook her head. “If you don’t care for your garden properly, you’ll kill it. The right nutrients, pull the weeds, not too much or too little water. It’s a delicate balance.”
     Cami answered by yanking another green culprit out of the ground and giving it a half-hearted shake before tossing it into the bucket with the others.
     Grams sighed. “I know this isn’t what you wanted to do with your Saturday morning. I’m sure you wanted to spend some time with that boy of yours, oh, what’s-his-name…”
     “Dan. His name is Dan. You’ve met him at least ten times now, and we’ve even had Sunday dinner with you twice. He’s going to be your grandson-in-law soon. Can you at least try to remember his name on our wedding day?” Cami turned to look at Grams, feeling guilty as soon as she finished.      “Sorry. I guess I’m just stressed.”
     Grams held her chin high. “Nothing is like it used to be for me, including my memory. And my arthritis won’t let me bend over to pull those weeds anymore. I know you’ve got a lot going on, but this is important too.”
     Cami nodded, continuing to pull at the unwanted plants.
     “Why don’t you take a break?”
     “I’ve got to finish this up, so I can meet Dan for lunch.”
     “Mind you get those roots. If not, they’ll just keep coming back. And you'll probably have to clip those vines.” She pointed to a mound that had overgrown its trellis.
     Cami half-smiled. “I know, Grams." As she cleared the vines away, she realized a wooden, hand-painted sign stood beneath. "Love Garden? Why is it called that?"
     “That was your Grandpa’s idea. When we started dating, he always brought me bouquets of daisies. He always said, ‘For hope.’ The other boys all brought roses, but something about the innocence of those daisies always touched me. When we finally got married, he planted a pot of daisies and put them in the kitchen window of our apartment. ‘Keep the hope alive,’ he’d say every morning as he’d kiss me goodbye.”
     Cami glanced back to see Grams gently touching her cheek and looking far away. After a few moments, she spoke again. “That big bush over there is that same plant. When we could finally afford a house, planting it was the first thing we did, even before we unpacked the boxes.”
     Cami’s frustration subsided a bit. “I’m impressed you kept it alive all these years.”
     “Going on 53. Some years were easier than others.”
     Cami wasn’t sure if Grams still meant the flowers.
     “Anyway, it became a tradition between us. Your Grandpa was a man of few words, but deep feelings. This garden was how we talked to each other.
     “Soon after our honeymoon, he brought home a potted ivy plant that had been shaped around a metal heart. When he handed it to me, he only said, ‘A promise.’ It wasn’t always for him to keep because I wasn’t an easiest woman to live with. But he kept it.”
     Cami paused, brow furrowed, to look at the ivy climbing the trellis near the back of the flower bed. “What promise was that?”
     “To be faithful. Always.”
     Cami’s heart skipped a little at the thought of her Grandfather being tempted to be with another woman. A sneaking fear for her own future lurked in the back of her mind.
     “When he gave me the ivy,” Grams continued, “I wanted to give him something too, so I gave him that myrtle back there representing our marriage. Of course it’s a lot bigger now.”
     Cami looked to the bush Grams pointed at with clusters of dark pink, feathery flowers.
     “What else did you give him?” Cami asked.
     “Those are mine,” Grams said, pointing to a bunch of pale purple star-shaped flowers surrounding a stem.
     “What are they? And what do they mean?”
     “Hyacinth. And it was me asking for forgiveness one of the many times when I screwed up in our marriage. There are probably more hyacinth in this bed than anything else. He planted that chamomile for me in reply.”
     “I thought those were mini daisies,” Cami said, looking where Grams pointed. “And what was that reply?”
     Grams chuckled softly behind Cami. “Patience. And boy, did he need a lot of it.”
     “I don't have time to hear about all of them today, Grams. Why don’t you pick your favorite ones?”
     “Let’s see, your grandfather planted the yarrow right there in front of you when I miscarried my first baby.”
     Something caught in Cami’s throat as she looked at the tall delicate stems, the fern-like leaves, and delicate burst of yellow swaying on top.
     “And when our boy joined the service, we picked out that nasturtium and planted it together. It’s that bush back there, the one with the five-petaled orange and yellow flowers. We always loved how both colors grew on the same bush.”
     “But this one,” Grams said as she lowered herself to the ground, legs outstretched, “this one’s my favorite.”
     Cami tried to help Grams back into a chair, but she just waved her away.
     “Your Grandpa asked your Mom to buy this for him when he was sick. The last day he ever got to spend outside was the day he planted this.”
     Cami looked up to see tears rolling down Gram’s cheek, but her voice remained steady. “He asked me to dig the hole for him, but he insisted on placing it and patting the earth around it himself.” She looked at Cami. “This is a Forget-Me-Not. And he lived for one more week.” Gram kissed her fingers, then gently brushed them against the delicate blue petals.
     “Girl, go get me a pot and my clippers out of the garage. Fill the pot with the bag of sand in there too.” Grams didn’t bother wiping her cheeks, but Cami knew she would have to wash the dirt smeared across her own face before meeting Dan.
     Cami carefully handed the tools to Grams, who leaned over and started cutting branches off the lilac bush. Some of the branches still had balls of tiny purple flowers clinging on at the end of the season. Grams put the branches into the pot of sand. “Help me up.”
     Cami lifted from under Gram’s arms as she tried to heave herself to her feet. It took three tries, but she was finally standing again. “For first love. Water those cuttings every day for at least two weeks until they root. Then after you and Dan get married, plant these in the shade until they’re strong enough for the sun.”
     Cami laughed. “You remembered his name.”
     “Of course I did. I’ve always known who he was. But the real question is, do you?" Her gaze pierced Cami's heart. “Come back when you have a little more time, Camille, so I can teach you how to keep your own garden,” Grams said.
     Cami pulled her into a hug, spreading dirt between both of them. “You already have, Grams. You already have.”

Monday, March 21, 2016

Stellar Speed

The format of my blog is changing. I'll now be posting one flash fiction story each month. I'd love to hear your feedback on any of the stories. Enjoy!  -HT


     John jammed his carry-on suitcase into the overhead compartment with a grunt. He had purposely chosen the train car near the back for the fewer people. He slumped into a forward-facing seat rather than be trapped with strangers in the four-seat sections facing each other. Pulling up his virtual newspaper, he hoped others would sense his wish to be alone.
     He tried to ignore the murmurs as others gathered. So far, no one had considered sharing space with an elderly gentleman absorbed in his own business. John heard the whistle for the last call and sighed in relief.
     Just as the train was about to pull away from the station, a boy stumbled down the aisle, tripping over a suitcase that was three times too big for him. His elbows were level with his ears as he tried to half-push, half-carry it before him.
     The boy stopped at the empty seat next to John. From beneath his brow, John saw the boy look for help, but nobody paid any attention. Finally the boy just slid the suitcase on its side under the seat next to John. It stuck halfway out into the leg space, but the small boy wouldn’t know the difference.
     John sighed. Not only did he have to share a seat, but it was with an obnoxious kid.
     The boy leaned toward John, interrupting the light for the newspaper. It flickered. “Hi,” the boy said, “my name is Tommy. What’s yours?”
      The sooner he could get the pleasantries over with, the sooner he could get back to his paper. “John.”
     “It’s nice to meet you, John. Isn’t this awesome? I’m so excited. This is my first star trip ever. How many have you been on? Is this your first one too? You’re awfully old if this is your first trip. My parents have been on three, but they couldn’t come this time. My parents told me to sign up with the Junior Explorers program. Do you know anything about it? The Heripedes Star is supposed to have the best solar activity this year. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds cool. What do you think?”
      The holographic conductor appeared in the aisle before John could answer. It duplicated every few feet, making it appear to speak directly to each passenger as it looked side to side.
     "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We welcome you to Stellar Express. Please, to ensure safety, all passengers must remain seated for the first hour of flight as we reach stellar speed…” John listened repeat the same message he’d heard on the last hundred trips. Didn’t they ever update it? Finally, “And once again, thank you for choosing Stellar Express.”
     Tommy turned to John, eyes bright. “This is so cool!”
     “Sure.”
     “So how many times have you been to the stars?”
     “Hundreds.”
     Tommy’s eyes widened and his mouth rounded like John had just admitted he was a superhero. Perhaps in Tommy’s mind, he had. “Wow,” he said, “you’re so lucky.”
     “Not really. I go for work. I help keep an eye on all the solar activity.  All that traveling isn’t that exciting.”
      Tommy’s face collapsed. “It isn’t?”
     With a sigh, he switched off his newspaper. “If I show you, will you leave me alone?”
     Tommy nodded. John gestured to plug his Perspective Specs into the console between them as he did the same. When they settled in, John closed his eyes and began thinking about his first trip to the stars. He remembered his face plastered against the glass, hands spread, as the special UV filters lowered into place.
     “But it’s pink. I didn’t think it would be pink,” Tommy said.
     “It was on that trip, but the color is based upon how they tint the filter. I’ve seen pink, blue, red, violet, even green and yellow. No orange though.”
     “Maybe this time’ll be orange,” Tommy said.
     John rolled his eyes. “Maybe.”
     The memory-image then focused on a massive flaming sphere. Tommy gasped as an arc of gas leapt from the surface and dispersed into space. A tunnel of similar arcs followed suit. “It looks like those plasma balls back home, but different,” Tommy said.
     “That’s a good description, but these are more controlled. A specific shape instead of random attraction. Here’s another one.”
     John scrolled through his memory to a series of blue solar flares. Random bursts of brilliant light flashed across the memory-surface. “This one reminds me of musical light shows,” Tommy said. He gasped as one of the flares ejected a cloud of gas into the atmosphere above it. Tommy looked at John. “How is it possible to see all this in a month?”
     Perhaps Tommy was more perceptive than he realized. “You may not see it all on one trip, but I doubt that’s what you meant. Our train travels between wormholes at stellar speed, just under the speed of light. The wormholes are like folds in space. When we go through them, we can jump great distances in very little time.”
     Tommy nodded, thoughtful. “I see.”
     “One last image today. This is called a coronal hole. It’s not very interesting to look at by itself because it’s just that big black spot in the middle of the star. But what it does is amazing.”
     “What does it do?”
     “It emits gasses into space, and when those gasses contact an atmosphere, like around Earth, it turns into a glorious light display. Back home, we call it the Aurora Borealis.”
     “I’ve seen that!” Tommy said excitedly. He yanked the Perspective Specs off and bounced on his seat.
     “See, you didn’t have to come all the way to space for solar activity. You’ve seen it at home.”
     Tommy harrumphed into his seat. “I guess. But it’s not the same.”
     Nodding gravely, John said, “That’s true. There’s nothing quite like seeing it in person.”
     “Will you show me more?”
     “No, I don’t want to ruin your first experience.”
     “It won’t. It just helps me know what to expect. Please,” Tommy pleaded.
     “Tell you what, Tommy.” John poked a finger into Tommy’s arm. “Each day of our trip, I’ll share one memory with you. Enough to help you understand, but not enough to bore you. Deal?”
     “Deal. By the way, what causes all this stuff?”
     “Magnetics, but that’s a discussion for a different day. I think right now, it’s time for us to find some supper.”
     Two weeks later, Tommy shook John’s arm roughly, jerking him awake. “Look, John! The Heripedes Star! It’s orange!” 
     “I guess there’s a first for everything,” John said, a grin spread across his face.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Power of Specificity

Let's face it: writing is an exceptionally time-consuming process, and we are in a world of little available time. There are countless methods of revision we can employ in our writing - and we should use a variety of techniques. But there is one technique I have found that gives me the most improvement with the least time (but not necessarily effort).

This technique is actually contradictory to what most novice writers believe. Most writers believe that the more adjectives and adverbs you add to your writing, the more sophisticated it becomes. Actually, the opposite is true.

The most effective technique is to focus on choosing strong, specific nouns and verbs.

That's it. That's all you've got to do for stellar writing. (Ha, if only it were really that easy.)

Let's look at some examples:

John went to the store.

Boring. There's no intrigue or emotional involvement. There's no interest in the sentence. So how can we fix it? Let's look at our verb first (I often find this the easiest place to start): went. What could we replace it with? Walked, certainly. John walked to the store. There's an improvement there, but walked is still a bit weak. How did he walk there? Remember, we want to avoid adverbs, so we don't want to say anything like walked slowly or walked quickly. So what other synonyms could we use?

How about strolled, raced, or trudged?  Compare these three revised sentences:

  • John strolled to the store.
  • John raced to the store.
  • John trudged to the store.

All much better versions of the original sentence because we've already learned so much more about the character by changing only one sentence.

  • The first one indicates that John is having a nice, relaxing time. There isn't anything rushing him, and he's enjoying his walk. 
  • The second one indicates he is in a hurry for some reason. Perhaps he's trying to beat someone. Or he's really excited. Or he's concerned an item won't be available any longer if he waits too long. Countless options, but all of them better than went.
  • The third one indicates that he is dreading going to the store. Again, we have multiple options. Maybe he hates shopping, or just this particular store.  Maybe he's afraid of something when he gets there. It doesn't really matter, and the rest of the paragraph or story can answer these possibilities. But what does matter is that now we care about John's experience, whereas when he just went to the store, we didn't.

Now let's look at our nouns. John is pretty specific. We probably don't need to do much there. But what about store? Wouldn't we learn so much more if the store were more specific as well? Look at the above examples and replace them with different kinds of stores:

  • John trudged (strolled/raced) to Walmart.
  • John trudged to Meier & Frank.
  • John trudged to the pet store.
  • John trudged to Walgreen's.
  • John trudged to the second-hand store.

Just by being more specific with the kind of store John is going to, we again add so much more to our character and story. The reader becomes an involved, caring member of your story.

All just from choosing specific nouns and verbs. Simple, right? Well...it gets simpler the more you practice. But it is definitely a quick technique to elevate your writing to the next level.

*Note on verbs* Keep an eye out for these particularly common, weak verbs: to be (be, been, being, am, is, are, was, were); would, could, should; walk; went, go; look.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Importance of Community

I was recently introduced to an article in the May 2015 issue of The Atlantic entitled "How to Graduate from Starbucks." This article was very interesting as it described the partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University for Starbucks' employees to earn college degrees. It discussed all the different techniques these two businesses are using to encourage success. But the one thing that seemed to set this program apart from other programs was proactive mentoring. Students found the support, information, and encouragement they needed to continue their college educations.

So what does this have to do with writing? Actually, it has a lot to do with life. Try to think of one area of your life where you have been successful that you accomplished completely on your own. There was no support from parents, friends, spouse, siblings, teachers, no one except yourself. Hard to think of? Perhaps impossible?

Writing is no different. In many aspects, writing is a solitary venture. After all no one else can sit at the computer or paper and jot down the words you intend to express. It's something you have to do on your own with your own time and effort. But that doesn't mean you have to be alone.

In my own experience, I've found that my writing communities are crucial to my success. I have a critique group, a local writing organization, and various conferences that I all participate in. Any or all of these writing communities help me grow and develop as a writer. My husband is very supportive, but he's not a writer, so he doesn't "get it." Only other writers understand the effort, excitement, drudgery, hard work, passion, and bits of soul that go into your writing.

It's other writers who keep me writing. They give me the courage to keep trying, even when it's hard. They help me expand and express my ideas. And they give me a loose accountability that keeps me writing. My writing communities want to see my success, and that positive peer pressure keeps me striving for that success whatever my actual circumstances, capabilities, and outcomes.

You need other writers.

You need them to encourage you. You need them to help you. You need them to hold you accountable. You need them to celebrate with you. You need them to bounce ideas off of. You need them to teach you. You need them for camaraderie.

You need a community of writers if you intend to be successful.