Stories from the News – Episode 1

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become an NPR junkie. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered almost every single day. I also recently discovered On the Media and listen to every week’s episode on iTunes, as well as NPR’s TED Talk podcast.

Beyond getting my daily dose of “what’s going on in the world” that way, I also get to hear interviews with authors who I never would have heard of otherwise, musicians whose music I don’t like but whose words inspire me, and series on topics that I wouldn’t be exposed to in my regular day-to-day life. Often, the stories I hear inspire me and give me ideas and things to think about. But what I don’t do often enough is write those ideas down.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Today I heard a piece that just sparked my mind and made me want to cry and laugh all at once. Whether or not a good piece of flash fiction will emerge from it is yet to be seen – but the important thing is, I’ll have recorded both the story that created a rush of feeling in me and I’ll have tried to write down some of what it made me think of. Here we go. The link below will bring you to the page with the NPR news story that I listened to. Below it is the piece of flash fiction that arose from it.

“The ‘Other Audubon’: A Family’s Passion”

______

“It’s been days. I’m worried about her.”

“At least she’s taking exercise today. That’s something.”

“Yes, but she insisted on putting on her purple dress. The one she always said that he liked.”

“And so we mustn’t say anything about it. No, not another word. If we don’t talk about him, she’ll forget about him in time as well. The important thing is that she’s out of bed again. Hush now, dearest. I think I hear her coming downstairs.”

She’d been downstairs for a while already, listening at the door, clutching at the handle of her parasol. She bit the inside of her cheek and felt the blood pool in her mouth almost at once as the old wound opened again. Every night it closed up, and every day she found a way to worry it  open again. She wouldn’t complain about it to Mama, though, because then the doctor would come, and she was sick and tired of his patronizing eyes and the way he looked at her in her shift, nothing but her shift, whenever he was there.

“Are you ready, love?”

“Yes, Mama.”

They left the house by the back door. She wanted to go out into the fields, but Mama wouldn’t let her yet. She was too pale yet, she said, and too frail. Maybe when she got stronger, in a few days. Perhaps then. She regretted, now, the fuss she’d made, putting on the purple dress and staying in bed for days. She didn’t love him all that much, really, it wasn’t about him, it was about Mama and Papa trying to protect her all the time. She knew she was frail, she knew she was sickly and small and weak, and she hated it. She could never be passionately swept up by a man like the women in novels were, and she wanted so much to be a heroine at times. The closest she ever got to being a heroine was her fits of hysterical tears and the chokes she got afterwards, when she couldn’t breathe and they fetched the damned doctor.

A whistle sounded just as Mama tried to usher her inside and she looked back. It wasn’t him, which she knew was what Mama had feared. No, it was a bird, one of the beautiful Phoebes, and she could swear that it was winking at her, promising something. In a moment she would know what it was, if only Mama waited one more second – but no, she was ushered inside and whisked back into bed to have a bowl of broth so that she could get strong again.

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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.

Apocalypse [Flash Fiction]

Kit posted a writing prompt, so I decided to create a weird piece of flash fiction out of it. Not one of my best, but I’m tired and my legs are burned from standing outside in the sun all day at work. Also, the dialect is purposefully weird, and you’re not supposed to necessarily pinpoint the accent. I know dialect can be annoying, but I felt that if I was going to write a little apocalypse flash fiction piece, I might as well put it down the way I see it (and hear it) in my mind. Enjoy the weirdness and feel free to dislike it (does that even make sense? I really am tired.).

It happened in a searing wave. When grandpappy told me bout it, he got all red in the face, like as if ’twas happening right then while he was saying it. Mam can’t hardly remember any ‘fit, cause she was so small. Da’s older than her – he and Mam say that there was ten years tween them, but years don’t mean any old thing anymore. A year used t’be when the planet went round the fireball once, but time’s all different ways now that the fireball exploded.

Grandpappy told me’n Sean that there was a people a long long time ago that used to love the fireball and called it God. Sean laughed at Grandpappy and tol’im he was stupid cause everyone knows that the fireball was the Devil and tried to kill all of us once. God saved us and made the few docs that lived invent D-Bits so we get our fire vitamins reg’ler. But Grandpappy jus’ looked at Sean laughing and was really sad. He gets this look on his face, Grandpappy does, and I can see that me’n Sean aren’t as good as he wanted us to be. He tells us that were all sorts of stuff when he was a kid that we can’t have now, but I say that it’s better this way. God don’t need books and big buildings and stuff – the Dark is good enough for any prayer meeting and Grandpappy should know that. Mam and Da yell at him sometimes, and Mam calls him something but she never tells me what it means. I guess it’s real bad? She says he’s a Nathiess and says that she’ll be burned if her kids’ll be too. Grandpappy tells her we’re stupid, but I stopped cryin’ about that moons ago.

He might think I’m stupid, but Grandpappy lived when the fireball blew and that means God wanted him to care for Mam so she could marry Da and have Sean’n me. It’s enough to live after what happened to the planet, everyone knows that. Even Grandpappy.


Prisonville

Whoosh

A car drives by, so close to me that I feel the wind it makes buffet me as it blows past. I pull my jacket tighter around me and keep walking. The road’s deserted now that the headlights of the car are gone and its noise is fading away. I miss it a little. I’d tracked that solitary car’s progress from three streets away when it started up in its driveway. There isn’t a whole lot of town here, and you learn pretty quickly to tell where the cars are coming from. I don’t know why, but sound has always traveled particularly far in this place; maybe it’s all the clean mountain air.

Nobody moves here for any reason except the stupid air. I can’t tell you how many times I heard my parents, or my friends’ parents, gush about how clean the dratted air up here is. I’ve heard my husband’s family go on about it, and my friends and my coworkers as well. Everyone loves the air, the air, the air. The clean, mountain air.

Me? I hate this air. I find it oppressive. I feel like it’s closing in on me. Once every couple of months I get a panic attack, and Dr. Greene has to come and inject something in my arm until I calm down. My husband doesn’t get it, but maybe that’s because I’ve never explained it to him. Why should I? He’d laugh, tell me I’m crazy, ruffle my hair in that way I hate and then forget all about me again.

I pass my house again. I’ve been around the block five times already and I don’t feel any warmer than I did when I started. It’s past midnight, and I can’t sleep. As usual. My husband’s still out at the bowling alley with his buddies – well, that’s what he tells me, anyway. I think he’s elsewhere, but I haven’t ever bothered to check. I honestly don’t care about him enough. It’s not like I’ve ever had a relationship with him. We were married two years ago. I’ve known him all my life, of course, just like I know everyone else in this town. If you think your town is small, try to go house by house throughout all of it and see if you know everyone’s names. Can you do that? I can.

I read a book once – or maybe it was a movie, I’m not sure – whatever it was, I remember this place called Stepford, where all the women were exactly the same, programmed to be perfect. That’s what my town is like – everyone’s exactly the same: perfectly nice, perfectly decent, perfectly fair, perfectly dull. Both the women and the men. The only ones who are different are the kids, and they all grow out of it. I don’t know why I’m different, but I just know that I am.

I think I’m the only one in living memory who ever tried to leave this place. But I couldn’t.

Under Ground

Lost underground, the girl sat alone and forlorn and waited for someone to find her. She’d been down in the tunnels all morning as well as half the afternoon already, and still, she was lost. It was a disconcerting feeling, and the girl didn’t like it at all. There were strange noises that came from all over, such as the bubbling of far and unseen geysers and the crunching of earth within itself as people moved around above and below. These sounds unsettled her, especially as they were the sounds of home to her and she’d never before found them frightening. Something familiar turning into a threat is one of the scariest things a person can go through.

The girl hugged a lumpy cloth doll closer to her. It was in the guise of a mole, and the girl had named it, for inexplicable reasons, Piggy. She looked into Piggy’s glass eyes and wondered whether he would come to life and speak to her. Maybe he’d be able to show her the way back to her cave. But he remained a doll, stuffed and mute, and she hugged him close again for comfort.

She looked again at the time telling device that hung on her neck. It was an hourglass, with a very tiny hole in it. Every morning, her mother would reach into the neck of her nightshirt and pull out the hourglass, and she’d turn it over. She told her daughter that if she didn’t lie down all day but stayed up and working like the good girl she was, she’d always be able to tell time, because of the tiny notches, painted red, that told her how many hours had passed since dawn. In their underground existence, night and day were mere formalities, but they kept everyone sane and working, the rhythm helping them.

The girl brought the glass closer and peered in the poor light at the notches. It was now twelve hours past dawn, and she’d been lost for most of those. She felt panic rising in her again and debated beginning to scream again. But the last time she’d done that, the earth had shifted and some crumbs of dirt had fallen onto her from the ceiling. She knew about cave-ins, of course, and the spill at deterred her from trying to call out too loudly again.

To pass the time and suppress her panic, she began a counting game that she’d begun teaching her little sister. She made Piggy jump up and down along with her whispered rhymes, and tried to invent more of the song when she ran out of numbers. When she grew weary of this game, she began to stretch her legs and walked up and down the empty corridor she was in. She tried, for the umpteenth time, to remember how she’d gotten here, but she was almost sure that she had at least one mistake in her visual memory of the way, and she knew, as she’d been taught since infancy, that one wrong turn could mean falling to your death or losing your way and going so deep into the earth that no one would ever find you. That was why she’d stayed where she was when she discovered she was in an unfamiliar corridor.

She wondered when her parents would come looking for her. She hoped it would be before suppertime. She thought of her little sister, eating at the large square table without her, and of her parents, whispering urgently to each other in the corner of the room. She imagined them going to the Chief and asking for more people to help the search. She tried to envision who it was who would find her, and she hoped fervently that it would be the Chief’s fifteen-year old son. The thought of his dark skin and red lips made her blush in a way that was still quite new to her. But it was as her parents always said – even Under Ground, life goes on. She hoped her life would go on with that boy in it.

The girl chastised herself suddenly for thinking of such things. There was no excuse for thinking of a boy when she was lost without food or water. She had her whistle with her, at least, but she wasn’t going to resort to it until she heard a search party nearby. The risk of the ceiling falling in on her was too great for using the whistle if she wasn’t absolutely sure she’d be heard.

Tired of the roundabout route her mind was taking, the girl sat back down, across from where she’d set a groove in the ground already, and began to listen to the sounds around her again.

 

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?”

Click

Click. Click. Click.

Thomas followed one link after the other, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. It was incredible. For the first time, he saw some meaning in the world. He clicked the next link, and it took him to yet another website, with another link. Clicked again. And again. He leaned closer and closer to the screen and his eyes started to tear up. For the first time in his life, he prayed. He prayed to the grand intelligence that was leading him, was showing him the truth. He prayed that he would never lose this connection, that he would keep feeling as inside and outside everything. He prayed that he’d get sucked in to the computer itself, wished that the molecules in his body could turn into bits of information, switching on and off, ones to zeros. Then he could follow the design of the powerful being he’d discovered.

Click. He kept going. Click. It never ended. Click. Thomas could feel the belief in him spring from a well he thought had always been dry. He felt as if light and warmth were flowing through his veins as he clicked again. But he was no closer to the truth! He knew it was there, he knew that he was seeing fleeting parts of it, and clicked onwards, trying to understand, trying to get to the root of it all. He knew that if he were a machine, if he could see things in absolute dichotomous terms of on or off, then he’d understand. He would surely understand. For now, all he could do, was keep faith. He felt as if the force that was guiding him was growing stronger by the minute. He knew, he was confident, that he’d be shown the way.

Thomas sat and stared and clicked and clicked and clicked.

His parents stood outside the door, peering in through the small window. All they could see was Thomas leaning forward on his bed, drool dripping out of his open mouth. His eyes seemed to be trying to burst out of their sockets, he was staring so hard. His hand, which rested on his knee, was the only part of him that was moving. And it wasn’t even the hand that moved – just the index finger, moving quickly, going up and pressing hard on the knee when it came down. His parents were both weeping quietly as the doctor ushered them away soothingly, explaining about treatments and options. They couldn’t listen properly. All they could see was their son, deranged.

But Thomas was seeing the truth, for the first time in his life.