Fountain [Flash Fiction]

The fountain had been dry and empty for years, just like the house that closed in on it on all four sides. The courtyard was entirely isolated; there was no way to reach it, unless maybe you helicoptered in.

“How do you get in there?” Amy asked the real-estate agent who was showing the place. The man looked like a wax figurine, smile hitched almost permanently in place and his hair combed and parted perfectly, looking as if it was simply sculpted that way.

“We-ell. You don’t. Actually.”

Amy waited to see if this ‘actually’ meant that there actually was a way in, but finally understood that there was no further explanation coming. “They built the house around the fountain?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I could climb out the window and into the courtyard, couldn’t I?” she mused aloud. “I guess that’s what the pool guy will have to do, huh? Don’t pool guys take care of fountains and stuff, too?”

“We-ell. Well well. See, actually. Actually if you look you’ll see that there aren’t first floor windows leading into the courtyard. As such. And the drop from here is very very high. You see?” The waxen smile was becoming strained, as if a candle flame was being held under it and it was going to melt grotesquely at any moment. Amy drew away from it, and from the man, in slight disgust.

“But then what’s the point of having a fountain? And what if I want to get it running again? I love the watery sounds that fountains make.”

“We-ell, the previous tenants just ignored it, you see. That’s really the best option. Now, if you’ll come through here I think you’ll appreciate the east-facing balcony which is lovely and warm during the afternoons but comfortably cool in the evenings…” he rattled on, and Amy took one last regretful glance out the window at the fountain before following him.

A bird that had only recently settled in the neighborhood chirped merrily from the eaves of the house and then, thinking it saw something, dove down into the courtyard. The fountain twinkled as the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight hit its marble surface. The bird’s mate waited anxiously for it to return, but nightfall came and she waited in her nest in vain.

The Ogre in the Bar [Flash Fiction]

Brad knew he was drunk because the ogre across from him was buying another round.
“Listen,” said the ogre. “I’m telling you, man, Shrek was the worst thing that ever happened to us. I mean, sure, now everyone loves ogres, right? But the problem is now we got standards. Before that blasted movie it was pretty much do-what-you-want, you know? No ogre told another ogre how to set up his swamp. Now, though, now we all gotta look kind of humble and be bad-tempered but not too much, and a lot of us have even started buying donkeys and turning their places into tourist attractions, and that’s just selling out as far as I’m concerned.”
“Yeah,” said Brad. “Yeah, that’s right.” He took a long sip of his sixth – or maybe eighth – glass of beer. “Tell me, friend,” he slurred, peering shortsightedly over the tops of his glasses, trying not to see the ogre too clearly. “How you got money to buy me all these drinks? Do ogres have jobs?”
The ogre looked offended. “‘Course we do! What do you think, we just loaf around all day making bubbles in mud-baths? See, that’s another thing, Shrek’s this layabout bum who doesn’t do nothing, and now people think we’re all like that.”
“What do you do, then?”
“Construction, mostly. Got the natural muscles for it. Sometimes I get a shift or two as a bouncer. But some of us have gone to school, you know, gotten an education, used brains instead of brawn and all that.”
“That’s great,” Brad said. He clicked his fingers at the waitress, who shot him an angry glance. “I think I’ll get the tab, man. I’m pretty beat.”
“Sure, sure, whatever you want. If you’re around tomorrow come by to chat. I’m here almost every night after work.”
Brad nodded vaguely. When he got home and climbed into bed, he thought about the ogre’s offer to hang out again. He had a feeling, though, that he would never to go to any bar on that side of town ever again.

Amelia [Character]

Amelia thought about death a lot. She didn’t consider herself morbid. She told people she was a realist. “Every time you cross a street, you might die,” she would say. “A freak tornado can happen at any time. Earthquakes aren’t that rare. All it takes is one moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re dead. And that’s a fact.”

She ran a finger underneath the velvet choker tied round her neck. Lifting the long-stemmed glass in front of her, she took a sip of champagne. The bubbles burned her tongue. The restaurant was brightly lit, clean and simply decorate, but Amelia saw dozens of opportunities for death all around her. If the waiter slipped right there, he would bang his head on the corner of a table. If the bartender poisoned the beer barrels, everyone who was ordering on tap would be in trouble. If the electric chandelier fell, it would crush the angry family sitting at the table directly beneath it.

“Ah, Amelia! Welcome back, welcome back,” the head waiter said, shuffling over rather nervously and drying his sweating hands on his tailcoat. “What can I get you today?”

“Nothing much, nothing much. This champagne is rather nice, you know.”

“I’m glad it’s to your liking!”

“Yes. Do you know that if you swallow something the wrong way, the fluid stays in your lungs? You can accumulate so much fluid there that it can kill you.”

“Indeed?”

“Hm. I think so. Maybe not. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Amelia realized she was a little tipsy. This was, after all, her third glass. “Death is a beautiful thing, my dear sir, did you know that?”

“Amelia, now,” the head waiter extended his hands forward, trying to ward off the oddness. “You remember what happened last time we had this talk?”

“Yes,” Amelia said, her voice serene and her eyes gazing far away. “You ended up escorting me out very rudely and then calling the police. The police, mind you, could have been very rough with me. Did you know that there was a kind of thing as ‘suicide-by-cop?'”

“No, I wasn’t aware. The cops weren’t rough with you, were they?” The head waiter’s anxiety levels were rising and he could almost feel the blood pressure closing his arteries and making it difficult to breathe. Amelia, or maybe it was Amelia’s money, often had that effect on people.

“No, no, of course not. But they could have been, you know. I just think you should get us both some lemon pie and then sit down and have a chat with me. What do you say?”

The head waiter made his excuses and hurried away to get the bill which he would put, not so tactfully, beside Amelia’s plate of pie. He sometimes had nightmares about Amelia. It was hard for him to envision her as someone like him, with a family and a past and some future. She had significantly less future than he did. Maybe that was part of why she frightened him so much.

It was so convenient and easy to see her as a scary old witch who was fascinated with her mortality; it was rare that people saw her for what she was – her friends dead, her family members all involved in their own lives, she was an old woman who was, indeed, fascinated with her mortality.

Step Out [Flash Fiction]

Jimmy was a bellboy. He wore a dark red uniform with shiny brass buttons, polished black shoes, and a cap with a hard top. Sometimes, when there was no one in the elevator, he took the cap off and ran his fingers through his blond hair. More rarely, and only if he was having a bad day, he would take his shoes off and stretch his toes inside their gray silk socks.

Mr. and Mrs. Hall came into the elevator. “Where to?” Jimmy asked with a polite smile. “Lobby,” Mr. Hall grunted without looking at him. Jimmy stepped forward and pressed the big yellow button with the letter “L” stamped in it. As the elevator descended, he kept his eyes fixed forward and pretended not to hear Mrs. Hall’s hissed accusations and Mr. Halls impatient sighs and indignant tut-tuts. “Good day,” Jimmy said, stepping forward to hold the elevator door open. Mr. and Mrs. Hall didn’t answer.

Jimmy stepped back into the elevator and waited for the door to close. It was the off-season now, so there weren’t as many guests, which meant Jimmy didn’t have as much work. It upset him to stand in the elevator and wait, but he was a bellboy and that was his job. The automatic light-switch was on a timer, as was the fan, and pretty soon both went off, leaving Jimmy planted firmly in the back, left hand corner of the elevator in the increasingly stifling dark.

He couldn’t remember how it happened exactly. In fact, there were many things that he couldn’t remember. He knew, vaguely, that there had been things to remember – maybe a father’s proud glance and a mother’s hug, maybe even (and he wasn’t at all sure about this) a scent of wet dog – but those things were gone now. Sometimes, when a little girl came into the elevator and smiled at him, he felt something around his rib-cage, a sense of loss or maybe grief, but he was sure that there hadn’t ever been a girl to remember; during long stretches of time in the dark, he thought that maybe there could have been a girl in some future, though.

Jimmy was a bellboy. His name tag, a vital part of his uniform, proved it. The men and women who came into the elevator and then stepped out of it all knew he was a bellboy and, usually, treated him accordingly, as part of the furniture. That was alright. Jimmy was very skillful at what he did and he was aware that his servile attitude was excellent and appropriate. He just wondered, once in a very long while, if there would come a day when he would step out of the elevator after the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Hall.

Socio [Short Piece]

You know that it’s wrong.

Trouble is, you don’t understand why this is the case. It’s not that you don’t know right from wrong. You do. They taught you all that, and you parroted it back to them like the obedient child you were. Are. You’re not so far from being a child, really, when you think about it. The thrill is still there, and you feel the same now as you did when you did it for the first time, when you were only five years old.

They said you were cured when they let you out. As far as you’re concerned, there was nothing to cure, but you played along. You’re still playing along now. But you give yourself moments, moments of delicious abandon, of freedom, of allowing yourself to be who you were meant to be. It’s the only way you can act like all the others. If you didn’t give yourself the respite from the constant hustle and bustle of normality, you don’t think you’d be alive right now.

So it’s wrong to do as you do. So what? People do “wrong” every day, don’t they? Even the most stand-up citizens sometimes fudge their tax-returns or ignore the phone when their old mother calls. The world is full of hypocrites, and you’re just one more.

The only thing that sometimes worries you is what will happen if you’re caught. You’re careful, of course. You’re probably the best. Usually, they look like suicides or accidents. And you don’t have a pattern, a ritual. At least, not one that they can discern. You never leave traces of your private ceremonies, and none of the ones you leave to be found seem to have anything in common, on the surface. You’re safe, so far. But what if they catch you one day?

Will you be able to fake remorse? Insanity? Will you be able to be free again? You don’t know, and that is the only fear this great wide world holds for you.

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.

Horror

Horror doesn’t only happen at night, you know. It happens on the streets of London and in the slums of New York. It happens in the homes of the rich and the poor alike. It happens in your back garden when you’re not looking, or right in front of you when you’re trying not to see. Horror is everywhere.

Believe me, I know. Why? I’m not sure you’d understand. I’m not sure you really want to know. See, there’s a problem with you people – you always say you want to know, but then you cringe and cry, snivel and beg, and I need to deal with it. It all gets very tiresome. So if you want me to tell you why I know about horror, you need to promise me that you can deal with what I’m going to tell you. Well?

Ah, there, I knew it. Once you’re confronted with what happened to everyone else who asked the same question, you back off. That’s smart of you. Sometimes you people actually do learn something. I like that. There’s nothing fun about playing with your food if it doesn’t know what the outcome is. The mouse, for instance, instinctively knows that the cat wants to eat it, so when a cat’s paw descends on its tail, it’ll bit that bit off in order to get away. Of course, once it does that, the cat will catch it by its body and eat it anyway. But the point is, the only reason it’s fun for the cat to play with the mouse is because the mouse knows what’s coming. And now, you do too.

Now, now, don’t give me that look, please. You knew from the moment you called for me what was going to happen. Yes, remember? You’re the one who called me here. You called horror upon you, and horror comes in the guise you gave it. It’s time for you to live with it simply being your own fault. You think you’re dreaming, I know, and maybe you are! But tell me… Right now, does it matter whether or not you’re dreaming? I’m pretty horrible either way.

 

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.

Commencement Speech

This is a challenge and an invite from Jane, and although I haven’t yet graduated from college, I have graduated from high school. So I have a little bit of experience. I also attended my brother’s graduation and watched the video of Rahm Emanuel give the speech for the graduates of 2009 at Sarah Lawrence College. But what would I want someone to tell me, to tell my peers? I think I’ll give it a try, see what happens.

__________________________________________

It’s graduation day. How are you all feeling? Hot, I bet, in those gowns. You had to pay for them, too, right? I bet you wish they’d made them a bit more comfortable. Plus, those hats can’t be fitting very well.

But hey, it’s graduation day! This means any number of things – your exams are finished, your last papers are in, your theses are written and sitting in the professor’s files. You’re all probably feeling a little nostalgic too – thinking about how soon you’ll be walking down the halls for the last time, and looking into classrooms for the last time, and eating at the dining hall for the last time, and accidentally opening the door when someone’s in there in that bathroom on the third floor that never locks. And no one ever fixes it. Maybe when you come back for your reunion in ten years, you’ll go check if that bathroom lock’s been fixed. Maybe you’ll feel happy if it is, maybe disappointed. Maybe even shocked.

Things will change. These halls will change, new flowers will be planted in the quad, a new building will be built. But more importantly, you will change. I can bet you anything that if you come down here in five years, maybe even three, maybe even in two months – you’ll be looking at it all with different eyes. Because no matter what you think right at the moment – no matter how many promises you’ve made – no matter how many resolutions – things will change.

I’m probably scaring you. You think I’m saying that you’ll lose who you are. You think I’m telling you that your dreams will go to pieces. But I’m not, not really. I just want to reassure you that it’s okay if your dreams change. It’s okay if the person you are today isn’t who you are in ten years, because even if that’s so, you’ll always remember yourselves as you are today.

It’s a big, scary world out there. But don’t think that you need to change to fit into it. If you change – like you changed majors last year, or girlfriends, or favorite writers – then it’ll be for you, for your own reasons, and you probably won’t notice it happening. But don’t let that world, the one seems larger than life and scarier than Freddy Krueger right now, don’t let it tear you down. Use it. Use your fear of it to get where you want to go. Use the things you’ve learned and the skills you’ve mastered guide you, and let your instinct tell you when you need some help, too.

Now, I bet you all want to go hug your friends and your families. Maybe you’ve got a party later on, or night in, packing up. Just remember that today is about you, and what you’ve achieved. Go take off those gowns that mark you so clearly as “COLLEGE GRADUATE” and let the rest of you come out into the open and breathe a sigh of relief that this speech is over.

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.