The Auction

“Shh, it’s happening now. I’ll tell you when to run.”

Corralled into a fenced in patch of ground, the children glanced nervously around, darting their heads down whenever an adult happened to look directly at them. They were beautiful children, flawless except for the dirt that had been artistically smudged onto their faces and under their nails and the mud that clung to the ends of their shorn hair. The decoration was meant to stir the sympathy of the adults surrounding the pen.

“Now?”
“Not yet. Hsst.”

Unfortunately for the children, most of the adults, the potential buyers, were wise to such tricks. Most of them looked for more telling characteristics – the arch of a child’s back, the straightness of their teeth, the shape of the ears, the expression in the brow.

“See the clocktower? That’s where we’re heading.”

The auctioneer got on his platform and began to call loudly for the buyers to choose the numbers they wanted and gather round. The children all had two-digit numbers tattooed – temporarily – on their foreheads and the backs of their hands. The adults took peering looks, barking at this or that child to raise his head or hold out her hands. Then the buyers would nod and head to the auctioneer’s podium.

“When he calls the first number and they open the gate to bring a kid out, that’s when we run. Got it?”
“Uh-huh.”

Watching the auctioneer explain the rules of the auction but not going closer were the adolescents, the sellers. Some of the children in the pen were their siblings, some were their small children. It didn’t matter. They were products and the sellers were professionals. They knew all the tricks. They’d been there once themselves. They watched the kids closely, keeping on eye on their gangs. The auctioneer called out for number 11, and a little boy pulled his thumb out of his mouth immediately and squared his shoulders. He didn’t cry. He looked at his seller and they nodded to one another. He walked towards the gate which was unlocked by a guard. It was a wooden fence, solidly build with spikes carved out of the top of the staves. It only reached about chest-height for an adult but it towered above the children’s heads, and there was barbed wire curling atop the spikes. None of the kids could climb it.

“NOW.”

Two of them ran, ran, fast and hard as they could, and one of them even managed to run past the open gate, but the guard caught her and threw her right into the runner behind her. They fell back into the pen and the gate slammed shut. Their seller came running over and looked at them through the barbed wire with a face far too calm to bode well.

“You just lowered your price for me by two thirds. That means you lose two-thirds of your security clauses in the contract.” She walked away from the two children who still sat on the ground, leaning against each other. She was mad. She also respected the little runts. She’d never had the courage to do what they just tried, not when she was that young. Now? Who knows what she’d do now. She was doing this, wasn’t she?

Rick’s Tracks

Rick had always been short, round and bespectacled. He started wearing glasses when he was two years old; he looked like a little owl in the photos on his mother’s mantelpiece. By the time he was six, his father began worrying about his rotund qualities and tried to get him interested in sports of all kinds. Rick took every kind of class that was offered at the community center, from karate to swimming, but he always ended up crying and, somehow or other, with broken glasses. His mother grew tired of buying him new glasses and refused to sign him up for any more classes. Instead, his father tried to get him involved in the peewee teams at his elementary school, but that didn’t’ work either. Rick was always gently taken off any team he was on when he was found, elbows on knees, staring at a caterpillar rather than paying any attention at all to the game.

It was no use. Rick simply wouldn’t become the son that his parents had thought they would have. But unlike many unlucky little boys and girls, Rick had parents who loved him and learned to accept him. Rick himself was a cheerful and dreamy child and never seemed to quite realize that his parents had been disappointed in him for a time. He grew up happily, finding friends among the other quieter kids, entertaining himself with adventure books and building blocks, and pleasing his parents with his good report cards.

Of course, little children grow up, even if they read Peter Pan over and over again. Rick stood by the train tracks nervously, fiddling with a ragged piece of tissue between his fingers and dabbing his nose absentmindedly every few seconds and thought back on his life. The bad things, he decided, must have begun around middle school.

A New Planet [Some Real Life Experiences]

“Look, look,, the planet I made is Nomean People! Nomean!” The girl with long glossy dark hair and infectious smile giggled and showed me the little square she’d drawn on a piece of red construction paper. Our theme that day was space and the solar system, and as one of the activities we had the children invent their own planet, which could be any shape, color, or size they wanted.

One girl made two planets, both in the shape of rainbows, which she cut out and stuck on Popsicle sticks. She wrote her name in large, crooked letters on the back of both planets, but refused to talk whenever we tried to ask her questions. She pursed her lips and raised her chin as if she wanted to say something but was being kept silent by some unseen force. But that was okay; she was having fun and had understood the concept of what we were trying to do.

One of the boys, usually quite rowdy and impatient with the activities we give, made his planet out of black and yellow play-dough-like stuff that we’d brought with us. He told us that everything on his planet was black – the people, the buildings, the sidewalks, the sky, the trees, the food. He found the concept cheerful, though.

Others drew planets that looked somewhat like Earth, or else mashed up all sorts of colors together. They loved inventing, creating something of their own that they could take home and tell their families about.

The girl with the Nomean People planet repeated its name to any of us “big people” who was standing near her. She must have desperately wanted her planet to exist in reality.

Dear Santa

August 27, 2010

Dear Santa Clause,

Mommy and Daddy say you don’t exist because we’re Jewish. But my best friend Wanda says that you do and she’s my best friend so I’m going to listen to her.

I’m 8 and I’m starting 3d grade tomorrow. I don’t want to go back to school. But Wanda says that Christmas will be here very soon (in 4 months) and that then I can get presents from you if I ask for them nicely.

Wanda got a lot of nice presents last year. She got another pony doll for her collection and a bathing suit for the summer (she says that was a funny present to get in the winter but I said it was a good idea and that you’re smart for thinking ahead) and a computer game about ponies (how do you know that she likes ponies? Does she tell you?) and also a book that’s about a horse (she likes ponies better than horses but she still liked the book. It was about a ghost horse! It was a good book. We read it together.)

I have been very good this year Santa. I wrote in my diary every day like the reading and writing teacher said I should last year because I wasn’t so good at it. Mommy helped me with spelling all the time but then she also showed me how to find the right spelling on Google. Do you know about Google Santa? I bet you do. Maybe you started it. I asked Wanda why I couldn’t email you and she said that you didn’t have internet in the North Pole (or South Pole? I can’t remember but I’ll ask Wanda before I send the letter).

I have also been helping Mommy do shopping for food every week and I take my dog Pesky for a walk every day (Mommy and Daddy take him for walks too) but only around the park because Mommy doesn’t want me to cross the street alone yet. I crossed the street alone once because Wanda dared me to but except for that I have been very good!

I know it is early to write to you, but I wanted to tell you that even though I’m Jewish and we have Hanukah I still want to have Christmas too. It’s not just for the presents. I’m not greedy! It’s just that Wanda has a fireplace and we don’t so I think you’ll have to come in through the window in my room (it’s biggest) and then I’ll get to see you. I want to meet your raindeer. Why are they called that Santa? Do they like the rain?

Like Mommy said to do I’m reading everything I wrote now to check for spelling and I fixed some stuff (ok a lot of stuff but I’m getting better!) and I know that I asked you a lot of questions. Will you write back to me Santa? I hope you will. I want a penpal.

I hope I see you in December!

Sincerely,

Me (Wanda says you know who we are and that we shouldn’t write our names in case someone else finds the letter and tries to find out where we live. But you know where we live already so that’s ok)

One Good Thing

Jodi lay on what she knew to be her deathbed, and thought about life. It was impossible for her to think about death. She’d been thinking about death for the past three years, ever since the doctors had found the first tumor. But in a few hours, the doctors said, she would die. They’d offered her morphine, to ease the pain, but she’d refused. It wasn’t because she was particularly strong, nor because she desired to suffer. It was merely that she wanted to think about life a little before she died, and she knew that she wouldn’t do that in the blissful haze that morphine gave her.

She wasn’t a very good woman. Ninety-three years old and her neighbors had been wishing her dead for two decades already. She knew that no one liked her. But that was alright. She’d realized sometime during her sixties that she didn’t like herself much either. At first she went to therapy and tried to fix herself. After four sessions, she’d decided that there was no reason to fix something that had been broken for so long, and anyway, Doctor Haddock was simply gaga.

Lying in the stinking hospital room, on her soiled sheets, Jodi wondered whether she’d done anything good in her life. She thought of her children, and concluded that they turned out to be good people despite her, not because of her. Her husband of forty-five years had died a long time ago, and she didn’t think that she’d made his life better. She thought, upon reflection, that he would have done better to have married his mistress when he started having an affair. She didn’t begrudge him anymore. Her grandchildren she hardly knew, although they were all in their twenties and probably having babies of their own by now. But her children had both run away to far corners of the earth, and so she’d never come to know their offspring well. Better this way, really, because her death wouldn’t be of much notice to anyone.

But surely, she thought frantically, she must have done something good in her life. No one would remember her for long, it was true, and if anyone did they’d remember a gruff, violent old woman who couldn’t hear very well but insisted that she did. They’d remember her spiteful cackle and the way she never opened the door for children at Halloween. None of this bothered Jodi, not really, but she still thought that there must have been something good in her, sometime.

A strange memory came upon her as she stared at the boring whitewashed ceiling. An image floated across her mind’s eye, an image of a red-haired girl giving a flower to an old drunk on the street and handing him a thermos full of strong black coffee. She remembered the man blessing that red-haired teenager, who was wearing a frightfully short yellow dress, and calling her “ma’am.” She remembered the red-haired girl laughing merrily, giving him five dollars – more than a month’s worth of allowance back then – and telling him to get a job. Finally, the last image she could see was of a janitor whistling as he swept the floors in an old office building where the red haired girl worked as a secretary. She remembered the red-haired girl smiling at him and shaking his hand and the man blessing her for the coffee and the money, but most of all for giving him hope.

Jodi’s crabbed fingers clutched at the call-button. A nurse came in, warily. She was new, and she’d heard horror stories about the old woman’s temper.

“Tell the doctors that I want the morphine, girl,” Jodi said in her rasping voice. “And be quick!” The young nurse jumped, surprised at the vigor in the words and hurried off without a word.

Jodi smiled to herself, toothless, sunken-cheeked and liver-spotted. She’d done one good thing in her life. That was good enough.

Mandy Meets the Goblins (Part 1)

The day that Mandy met the goblins was, from dawn to dusk, perfectly normal.

She woke up, as usual, with the crowing of the rooster. She went around the farm with her brother, and they both did their chores. Sometimes they asked Mother or Father for help, but mostly, they knew how to milk the cows and collect the eggs and check up on the sheep in the pasture. Mother and Father would have helped them if it was a year ago. But it wasn’t a year ago, it was today. So it was normal for Mandy to cry a little bit when she heaved a pail of milk into the kitchen. It was also normal that she had a silent but violent tussle with her twin brother over the ripest apple from the forlorn apple tree.

At noon, almost the whole family gathered around the table for a very quiet meal. Mandy kept her eyes down and ate quickly so that she could get back to her chores. Chores made it easy not to think about the beautiful, teenage girl who had been lying on a bed upstairs for the past year; a girl who also happened to be Mandy’s big sister. She was also the reason that Mother and Father didn’t do much anymore – they were always upstairs, or running down to bring up broth, or running into the attic for some old and moldy doll.

After Mandy finished eating, she and her brother did their afternoon chores. Some of it was weeding the garden, but only when the sun was going down and it wasn’t so hot. Another chore, which they did right after they’d eaten was attend to their lessons. Every weekend, they went to the school that was five miles away and had lessons there along with many other children who lived on other farms. During the week, they’d need to study those lessons, and their parents used to be so strict about it that the habit stuck, even though Father and Mother weren’t strict about anything anymore. This was Mandy’s favorite chore, since she had to think very hard indeed about what she was doing, and couldn’t think about the invalid upstairs.

Dusk came, and with it, the end of Mandy’s day. She went up to the room she used to share with her sister (her brother slept in the room next door). She got ready for bed, like she always did, and climbed into it, like she always did, and put her head down on the pillow, like she always did. Except that now things stopped being normal. Because there was something very hard under her pillow that went “Ouch!”

Sitting up, Mandy reached a hand under the pillow and pulled out… what looked like a very strange, greenish rock, with pointy bits. Then she saw it wasn’t a rock, but a small, man-shaped thing that was curled up tight, trying to look like a rock. The pointy bits were its horns, and he couldn’t apparently, curl those up tightly too.

“Who’re you?” Mandy asked, laying the little person-thing down on her pillow.

“Mnthngjstrck” it said, without opening its mouth.

“Listen,” Mandy reasoned. “I know your not just a rock because rocks don’t make sounds. So you can stop being all scrunched up like that.” A tiny eye blinked open in what Mandy assumed was the thing’s face, and it looked suspicious. “Don’t worry,” she added quickly. “I’m not going to scream or anything.”

“Oh,” the creature unfurled, tried to stand on the soft pillow but lost its footing and settled for sitting. “Well, I suppose you’d better call me… Erm… Rocky.”

“That’s a sort of funny name. Did you just make it up now because you were pretending to be a rock?” Mandy was a very inquisitive girl, really, and this was the first time in a year that her curiosity really perked up. She was acting, technically, with what her parents called “bad manners” but she didn’t mind. It was good to do that again.

“No,” the thing answered, sounding a bit peeved. “It’s the closest translation of my name into your language.”

“So you’re from another country?” This was exciting – Mandy knew all about other countries (well, she knew that there were some and that people were a bit different there) but she’d never met someone from them before.

“You could,” hesitated the thing. “You could say that, yes.” Mandy stared at the thing, and it stared right back at her, neither saying anything for long moments.

“Um,” Mandy knew she was about to be very bad-mannered, but she couldn’t help it. “What are you?”

Flash Fiction Thursday: The House on the Hill

There was a house on the hill. It was a run-down old thing, with shingles fallen off the roof, and the door halfway off its hinges. The windows were all boarded up, except for one round window at the top of the house. In front, there was what used to be a lawn. Over the years it had turned into an almost-meadow, high weeds and the occasional wild flowers growing wildly. Then there was the fence. It was tall and made of iron, and not one bit of it was rusted. The strangest thing was, there was no gate. Nobody remembered that there’d ever been one. It was as if someone had left the house to rot and built a fence around it afterwards.

The Hensley brothers sat with their backs against one of the big oak trees that kept their own house separate from the hill behind it.

“You think anyone’s ever been in there?” asked Tommy. He was ten, and his pajamas featured a pattern of Pokemon creatures.

“What, you mean like mom or dad or the kids at school?” answered Jake. He was barely six, and his world view encompassed only those people he knew. He was unfortunate enough to have his mom still picking out his clothing, and his pajamas featured multicolored, grinning bunnies.

“No, stupid, I mean anybody. Anybody in town. One of the older kids or the cops or someone.”

“But how? There’s no way to get in!”

“Bet I can figure out a way.” He got up and yanked Jake up off the ground.

“Tommy? Tommy, we’re not going up there, are we?” Jake’s hand was held so tightly that he was stumbling after his brother trying to keep up and not fall and be dragged on the ground. Tommy marched resolutely upwards, and when Jake started getting breathless, he picked him up gingerly and brought him the rest of the way. He stopped at the tall fence and plopped Jake onto the ground.

“Stop sniveling, Jakey! Look, we could make this place into a club-house, right?”

Jake looked up hopefully, wiping his dribbling nose with the pack of one muddied hand. “Could we? Could we really? With secret meetings and stuff?”

“You bet. Now, all we have to do is this. Look, you see my hands? They’re like a step now, right? So step on, and I’ll lift you as high as I can so you catch onto the top.”

Jake scrambled onto his brother’s cupped hands and held onto the fence rails as he was raised slowly up to the top. He reached out an arm, and caught hold of the one of the raised spiky bits with one little hand. Tommy saw this, gave a whoop and let go of Jake’s feet.

A moment later, there was a crumpled Jake on the floor clutching his leg and a very white Tommy sitting next to him. His mind was very focused on two things at the same time. The first was that he had to get Jake back home quickly because that leg was definitely broken, and the second was how was he going to explain this to Mom??

It was years before either brother went up that hill again.