Flash FictionPer Nimue’s request, a Black Friday story.

This is actually my second Black Friday story. The first was published three years ago. It needs some editing, but is otherwise kind of fun.

I’d like to think this story is really clever, but–back off Seven–the truth is it’s probably not as slick as I want it to be. Still, it was fun to write, and I like the riddle quality of it. Part of the fun of developing this kind of fiction is hiding what’s really happening in plain sight. That said, if you read it all the way through and find yourself scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on, click this link for your ah-ha moment.

The Dark Calling will be back next week. Apologies for yet another week off from the series, but, you know, Nimue asked.

back in black

“They can all piss off,” Two said.

“Stop pouting. You still have more than me.” It was One. She reclined in her chair, voluptuous curves wrapped in a tight silk blouse. Her fingers traced the ridge of her collar bone absently. She made it look like she had no idea what she was doing.

“Do you hear yourself? It’s like Six is feeding you lines.” Two had a point.

“And there’s not a hint of Five in the way you’re talking to me? Have the two of you been hanging out again?”

Two gave her a sheepish look.

“We get drinks together sometimes,” he said.

“You get drunk together, you mean. I’ve seen you. I hang out in the same places. It’s not like you guys have the bars all to yourselves.” She used her elbows to push her breasts together, looking down at the resulting cleavage.

Two huffed.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, give it a rest. Those things aren’t toys.”

One grinned like the Big Bad Wolf waiting in gramma’s bed.

“There are more than a few people who would disagree with that assessment,” she purred. She leaned forward, giving him a generous view. Her lips glistened as she ran her tongue from one corner of her mouth to the other.

“I’m not buying what you’re selling,” he said.

She laughed.

“It’s okay, really,” she said. “Plenty of people are.”

The door to the conference room opened. Three, Five, Six and Seven walked in like they owned the place–which made perfect sense. They did. At least for that weekend. Granted, it wasn’t really Seven’s gig, but he never let anything happen without profiting from it. He had his hand in all the pots. That’s why he was at the top of the food chain.

Seven nodded a greeting to the pair.

“One, Two,” he said.

“Still sulking?” Three asked. He and his twin, Six, smiled.

“He wants what we’ve got,” Six said. She made walking look like gliding, her tall, lean figure almost as visually appealing as One’s. Almost.

“Where the fuck is Four?” Five asked. “That motherfucker. I swear, if he was on time once, just one motherfucking time, I would shit a solid gold brick.”

His fists were clenched, knuckles white.

“Sit,” Seven told Five. “Save it. Four gets here when he gets here.”

Everyone found a seat.

“Let’s get right to it,” Seven said. “I have other pressing matters.”

He didn’t have to say it. They all knew. He was in high demand. He said it because he liked reminding them that he was top dog.

“Black Friday,” Seven said. “Three and Six, it’s your show.”

Two grunted. Seven considered the passive aggressive gesture for a moment and then called him out.

“Let’s deal with that, first. Two, I understand this used to be your weekend. I can sympathize with how you must feel, seeing it evolve into something that is more the twins’ forte. You’re in a support role now. Learn to live with it, and try to do so with some grace. Practice humility, please.”

One giggled, a thoroughly feminine laugh that was two parts little girl and one part porn star.

“Want me to deal with this?” Five asked. “My way?”

Seven cleared his throat.

“I don’t think that will be necessary–will it, Two?”

The door swung inward. Four made his way in, slowly. He sighed several times in the short distance from the door to the last available seat, as though the effort required to walk was almost too much to bear.

“Sorry,” he said under his breath.

“What was that?” Five asked.

“Eh,” Four said.

Seven raised a hand.

“Enough,” he said to Five. “Let it go. Two, are we going to have a problem?”

Two huffed. He was out ranked, out played and out numbered.

“No,” he said.

“Excellent,” Seven said. Beside him, Five didn’t even try to mask his disappointment. His fist, still clenched tight, bounced on the table top. He wanted to hit something. Or someone.

“Then you should all know the plan,” Seven continued. “The same as last year, with a moderately accelerated time line. Two, do what you can on Thursday. Push them as hard as you like. Three and Six, you should ply your wares, as well.”

The twins smiled like cats who had just eaten the canary.

“Four, you have free reign on Thursday, too, but I want you to withdraw completely on Friday,” Seven said. Four shrugged by way of acknowledgement.

“Five, capitalize on the football games if you like, but otherwise allow for peace. Your big move will be on Friday at the checkout lines and on the roads. Got it?”

Five nodded, still glowering at Two.

“One, my dear, do what you do. Wherever, whenever.”

One gave Seven a shameless wink. He ignored it.

“Anything else?” Seven asked, looking down at his watch. When no one spoke, he stood. “Very well. I want to remind you all that we’re on the same team. Play your part. Keep your egos out of it.”

Two rolled his eyes.

“Sage advice from the master,” he said.

“Indeed,” Seven said. “I must be going. Five, please walk me out.”

It was a tactical move. It put distance between Five and Two and immediately eased the tension.

Seven and Five left quickly, followed by the twins.

“You always want what you can’t have,” Six said as she passed Two.

One didn’t move. When only she, Two and Four remained, she slid her hand under the table and placed it on Two’s leg. She massaged his thigh, her fingertips drifting toward his groin.

“Want me to help you with that tension?” she asked. “I’ll let you go as long as you want. I know what kind of appetite you have when you get started.”

“Sure,” Two said. “I could do with some pleasure overload.”

They left arm in arm, the lesser players content to feed each others’ needs for the night. Two flicked off the light on his way out.

Four stood slowly. He looked toward the door in the dim light and then decided it was further away than he cared to walk. Sighing, he fell back into his chair.

He didn’t move again for days.

On WritingI can’t speak for all writers, but I know sometimes I can be a fairly self-centered person. I don’t mean to be, but writing is hard. It’s ridiculously easy to fixate on that, and on my stories, and forget that there are others who make immeasurable contributions to the fiction I produce.

Like Nimue.

Nimue is my wife. (No, ‘Nimue’ is not her given name. It’s what I call her here. If you’re interested in why I chose to call her that, look it up on Wikipedia.)

Almost three years ago, she and I decided we had the means and life situation to allow me to write full time. I’m busy with 4 book projects of my own, and I also do freelance work to bring in some cash. But during this time, Nimue has kept her nine-to-five job and made the majority of the financial contributions to our household.

I am more thankful that I could put into words for the gift she’s given me.

I love writing. I love being free and clear of the rat race. I love working from home with the cats nearby. I love my daily schedule.

And I could have none of it without her.

While her contributions to me as a writer are considerable, there have been others, too. Friends who’ve read my work and given much needed feedback. Teachers and professors who expressed faith in me. Readers who comment on my posts, which is more encouraging than you’d think. So many people who’ve done so very much to help me be a writer.

Thank you to all of them.

There are, I’m certain, people in your life who enable your writing in all kinds of ways. This time of year is perfect for making the rounds and telling some of them how much their support means to you. Don’t hold back. Don’t put it off. Don’t wait. Take the time this week, even with the hustle and bustle of a busy holiday weekend on the horizon, to let them know you appreciate the ways they’ve encouraged and helped you.

I couldn’t do what I do without others. I want them to know I appreciate it. I encourage you to do the same.

Octoberfest Fredericksburg

This past weekend, Nimue and I attended Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg, TX for the sixth straight year. It’s a fun, laid-back weekend full of traditional German music and dancing, food and, of course, beer. Sounds like a recipe for a good time, right?

It was amazing! (Full disclosure: I wrote this ahead of time and scheduled it to publish today. Based on previous years and the friends joining us this year, I feel confident that we did, in fact, have a wonderful time. If not, I’ll follow-up with an appropriate retraction.)

“Um, great,” you say. “But what does this have to do with writing?”

I’m so glad you asked.

One of the important things about writing I’ve learned is this: to be a good writer, there need to be times when you step away from the keyboard and embrace life. Go to a local festival. Read a book. Have a good meal. Live.

Yes, writing is a discipline. You can’t expect to be good at it if you don’t do it often. But, you can’t expect to say much of anything meaningful if you aren’t sucking the marrow out of life, yourself.

Make the time to create memories. Be spontaneous and adventurous, on and off the page. And if your adventures happen to include beer, even better.

On WritingIt’s funny. Reading is, more or less, a solitary endeavour. Granted, you can read out loud to someone, so it can be a group activity. (If you’re a parent, it can be a powerful thing to share with your kids.) But, the vast majority of the time, reading is something we do solo.

Writing’s the same way.

And yet, there’s a real sense of community among readers (and writers). Just a few days ago, I was at brunch with some new friends. These are people I hardly knew prior to sitting down to eat. (They all work with Nimue.) We started with no real points of connection. The conversation was the sort you’d expect with people you don’t know–fairly tame chit-chat.

And then someone mentioned a book.

I didn’t know these people were readers. I watched, very nearly drooling, as they got animated. They were clearly passionate about their fiction, and, lo and behold, their tastes ran parallel to mine. First, it was Game of Thrones. Then someone mentioned The Dresden Files. When Nimue said, “You should tell them about Lonely Werewolf Girl,” I disregarded any effort to chew with my mouth closed, launching into a full-bore plug for my favorite book with glee.

It was magical.

If you’re a reader (or writer), and you’re not currently connecting with other readers (or writers), then you’re missing out. You’re missing out on good recommendations of books you wouldn’t know to read otherwise. You’re missing out on the fun of talking about your favorite parts of shared fiction experiences. And, most of all, you’re missing out on the energy and excitement of a collective love of the story.

You almost certainly know other readers. Start talking to ’em. If you don’t know other readers, consider joining Goodreads, the social network just for bookworms. Reading may be a solitary activity most of the time, but a significant part of the fun of being a reader is sharing those moments of magic with others.

Yes, there really is a community of readers, and it’s a beautiful thing.

On WritingI tend to write dark stuff. Most of my stories are either dark fantasy or horror, and many of them don’t end well for at least some of the cast. This once prompted Nimue to comment that all my stories seem sad.

In truth, I try to weave a fair amount of humor into my stuff, and the more I write, the less consistently tragic my stories have become. Still, if you write horror, you’re going to occasionally put some of your characters through some pretty tough shit, and more than a few won’t make it out alive.

When I meet someone, they invariably ask the obligatory question, “What do you do?” I generally just say, “I’m a writer”–a response that causes me to swell with healthy pride every time I speak it. Then they ask, “What do you write?” So I tell them–horror and dark fantasy. Some people move right on at that point, uninterested in becoming a guinea pig for my current projects. Others just aren’t interested in those subjects. But some give me a thoughtful look and then ask, “How do you write horror? I could never come up with such dark stuff…”

It’s a valid question. How does one write horror? Where do horror writers get the twisted ideas we splash across the page? Are we really just clandestine lunatics masquerading as sane people? Or is there something fundamentally unhinged in our brains that allows us to take frequent mental trips to dark, shadowy places?

Not really. It’s actually a simple process. In fact, anyone who wants to can write effective horror. I’d even go so far as to argue it’s more than a little therapeutic. How do you do it? Just close your eyes, think of something you’re truly afraid of, and then…don’t stop thinking about it.

In your mind, you likely have a quarantined corner full of primal fears. It’s a dank place–rusty, old cages filled with angry, embittered monsters. Some of them have been locked away since you were a kid. If you want to produce good, riveting horror, just open one of those doors and let the thing out. Then, sit back and see what it does.

I’m serious. When I write horror, that’s all I’m doing. I think of things that scare me, and then I start imagining what would happen if…

And I don’t stop my mind from considering the darkest possible outcomes. Instead, I go with it. I throw characters into the mix, at least one of whom I identify with in some way, and I see how they react to whatever beast I’ve unleashed on them. I watch, and then I tell the story.

It’s a cathartic experience for me. I generally leave those writing sessions less afraid, myself. The deepest of all human fears, in my limited experience, is fear of the unknown. When I write a really demented piece of horror, what I’m really doing is exploring a dark possibility. The unknown becomes known. My worst case scenarios are played out before my very eyes, and I walk away a little less afraid for it.

I’m sure there are other ways to write horror, but that’s how I do it, and I’d wager just about anyone could use the same formula to craft their very own spooky tales. If, that is, they are inclined, and if they have the stomach for it. It’s no small thing to face your own fears, which is a big part of what makes horror so powerful as a genre. Both for the reader, and for the writer.

Flash FictionThis week, I’m taking a break from The Dark Calling, my current, near-novel-length series, for two reasons:

1. I’m on my way out of town, even as this is being published. Nimue and I are headed to Fredericksburg, TX for their annual Oktoberfest. It’s our fifth year to go, and it’s a laid back weekend we both enjoy greatly. While I could have written something for The Dark Calling earlier in the week, I chose not to, because…

2. Of all the stories I’ve written, both published here and not, this is Nimue’s favorite. She asked me to post it here and share it with you, so that’s what I’m doing. It’s a little long to be considered ‘flash fiction‘, but I’m publishing as such anyway.

Eh, it’s my site, my rules.

(For those who are curious, I typically think of flash fiction as anything less than 2,000 words, though many would argue that’s too long to be flash. A lot of people cap flash fiction at 1,000 words. Most of mine is less than 1,500.)

Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this story as much as Nimue does.

all the way down

Snow is rare in Dallas. We get ice. Hell, we get entire ice storms. They’re maddening because no one knows how to drive in them, and the city grinds to a held-hostage-by-mother-nature halt. But snow isn’t common.

It’s snowing, though. And because so many are uncomfortable driving in it, an email has been sent out from the executive office not just allowing us to leave the office early but actually encouraging it. I look at the clock in the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen—2:37 pm—and then out the window. I work on the 16th floor. Sitting directly next to the window is one of the few perks I get. Typically the semi-transparent shades are drawn because the sun can create a headache-inducing glare on my screen, but with the overcast skies and the heavy snow, they are open. I can’t see more than half a mile at most. After that things just fade away into a wintery, white haze. It’s disconcerting, like the world itself is washed out past a certain point.

Unceremoniously, I pack my things and don my coat. Not a heavy coat, like when I lived in Colorado. This looks like a heavy coat, deep gray with a design that makes it a cousin of the pea coat, but it is actually quite light. No more than a jacket, really. I sling my bag over my shoulder and make my way out.

Most of my co-workers aren’t there, a great many of them having elected to work from home for the day, but my apartment is close by. A lot of the people I work with live an hour or more away. God only knows why they drive so far. I’m sure there are office buildings between here and where they live. I chose to come in that morning because I knew it would score me points with my boss, and anyway, I’m hoping the winter weather will hold up through the following day. That means working from home on a Friday. That’s practically like getting a long weekend.

Cubical-land is a ghost town.

Less than a minute later I’m standing in the elevator bay waiting for the elevator, a metal can that will deliver me sixteen floors straight down. I find myself thinking about how odd this is. I take elevators every day, but it’s weird when you think about it. A box on a string. You step in, it creates a controlled fall, and you step out. Most of us do it without considering just how much our altitude is being displaced.

Straight down.

16

I step into the elevator and push the round 2 button. The building I work in is situated on a hill so that the ground floor on one side is a story higher than the ground floor on the other. The 2 button lights up and I think about what I will do when I get home. I’ll log in remotely and pretend to work until 5:00, but while I am doing that I’ll also pop in a movie or maybe turn on some music and read. A few well timed emails and it will look like I’m a busy bee, as always.

The doors slide closed, the faint sound of metal scratching against metal sending unpleasant electric shocks up my spine. I wonder if the doors are working properly. As soon as they’re closed I notice the temperature in the elevator. It must be 10 degrees lower in here than it is in the rest of the building.

14

The elevator is in full decent, the cables overhead whizzing and clanging softly. I wonder if perhaps the elevator shaft isn’t as well insulated as the rest of the building. It feels like there’s a draft coming from below, as though the floor of the elevator is made of metal grate, and the air can flow freely through it.

9

My mind wanders from one random thought to another. I think of Allison and her tendency to laugh too hard at my jokes. Maybe Clark is right and she has a thing for me. Maybe I should ask her out. I think of my couch. It’s comfortable but old and worn. I wonder what it would look like with a sofa cover on it. I wonder if that would impress Allison–the bachelor with a stylish apartment. Of course, those sofa covers never look quite right. They never fit. I think about dinner, about maybe working out, about my bank account balance and the ridiculous cost of cable and the car I wish I had the money to buy.

These thoughts cascade through my mind, a tumbling, semi-linear line of consciousness, one idea loosely connected to the next. It happens in flashes and bursts, only seconds spent on each topic. I see the things I’m thinking, my assessments and conclusions only passing visions in my head. A parade of mental pictures. It is the junk drawer of my mind, the contents jumbled and knocking against each other as I open and close the drawer out of boredom.

5

Abruptly, all these thoughts cease and a single idea occurs to me. It’s absurd, and perhaps this quality about it more than anything else is why I give it my full attention. It is this: what if the elevator doesn’t stop at the bottom floor? What if it just keeps going?

3

I expect to feel and hear the elevator decelerating in preparation for my stop on the second floor, but the familiar sensation of slowing descent isn’t there. Maybe it’s my imagination, I reason in milliseconds. I just thought about how bizarre it would be if the elevator didn’t stop, and now I find myself fantasizing that it’s not going to.

Admittedly, I can be really paranoid sometimes.

2

The elevator doesn’t stop.

1

I look to the panel, thinking maybe I hit 1 instead of 2. The 2 glows brightly, and the elevator still isn’t slowing. I come to the immediate understanding that there’s a problem, a terrible problem, and that the elevator must not be braking. I know it will hit the ground soon, crashing into the concrete at the bottom of the shaft.

I perform some on-the-spot calculations. The elevator wasn’t built for impact. Surely it will collapse when it hits. Even if it doesn’t collapse, and even though I’m not in an all out free-fall, surely it will be devastating to hit the ground at this speed. It could easily break my legs. I process this in less than a second and react instinctually. I bend my knees, clinch my jaw, and prepare myself for impact.

-1

I continue to descend. Watching the digital panel cross the great divide into negative numbers, I wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me.

-1? There is no -1.

-2

I furrow my brow.

-3

I realize I’m still holding my breath, still expecting to collide with concrete.

-4

I exhale.

-5

I close my eyes. I think that maybe I did hit the floor. Maybe the impact was instant death and these unexplainable events are what happens after. I become acutely aware of my body, feeling the skin that creases behind my still bent knees. Feeling the tender membrane of my nostrils as I inhale violently. Feeling even my fingernail beds as I tighten my hands into fists.

My bag slips from my shoulder and falls to the floor, its soft thud a distant sound.

-17

I open my eyes and am surprised to see my breath as I exhale. How did it get so cold? I hug myself and feel my phone tucked into the inner pocket of my coat.

My phone.

I retrieve it and, with shaky hands, enter the unlock code. No service. I stare at the empty bars, willing them to fill.

-68

I’m still clenching my phone, staring at the small space where there should be bars. I’m in the middle of the city, damn it. I always have coverage here. How could I not have coverage?

The elevator has neither gained nor lost speed. It’s descending at a steady click. Apart from the negative numbers on the display and the increasingly cold temperature, nothing about the elevator’s functionality seems to be the slightest bit off. It is as though it were designed to lower passengers far below the bottom floor of the building, as though the shaft had been drilled deep into the earth. I wonder how low it will go.

There is a duality in the feeling of the moment. It is both intensely real and simultaneously surreal. I alternate between rational disbelief and fantastic possible explanations. What if there is some kind of underground facility far below my office building, something top secret, and the building is just a front to distract from its existence? What if I’ve slipped into another dimension and the elevator is descending between planes, its shaft taking me straight through a wormhole? What if this is an elaborate hidden camera prank and the doors are about to open leaving me face-to-face with some b-list celebrity filming the first episode of an edgy new reality show? What if I’ve gone crazy and none of this is actually happening?

-223

I snap out of my fantasy trace, awakened by rage. A primal anger.

I throw my phone against the number panel as hard as I can, hoping it will burst into a thousand pieces the way it would if this were an independent short film. It hits the wall with a dull plastic-on-metal clang and bounces away, bounding off the carpet and sliding to a stop at my feet.

It appears to be undamaged.

-227

I kick the phone.

-249

I yell for help and slam my hands against the elevator doors. I hit and scream, but the only sound I hear in response is a faint creaking and the painfully normal mechanical groan of the wench somewhere overhead.

-814

My voice begins to crack. My throat feels raw. I stop shouting and begin to weep.

-2697

Slumped in a corner of the elevator, I watch the panel. The numbers continue to move, a perverse and unreasonable countdown. The temperature is now considerably lower than it was when I got on the elevator. I am shivering, and my hands are numb in my coat pockets. I don’t wear a watch. Instead, I use my phone to check the time. But my phone is dead, and I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting on the elevator floor. It seems like it’s been a couple of hours.

I feel my nose running, but I make no effort to wipe away the snot, instead letting it dribble over my mouth and to my chin. If this is a joke or a figment of my imagination, my current condition will certainly give the impression that I’m not playing with a full deck. The only thing left for me to do is drool.

-3448

I think about my mom. It’s strange because I hardly ever think about her. I wonder what my life would have been like if she had lived. If she hadn’t killed herself. If I had grown up with her. My dad was too busy to watch after all three of us and hold down a job at same time. Her absence, even before her death, left a hole in my life that never filled.

-4316

I rub my hands and blow into them to try to warm them. My fingers brush against my nose, and I feel how cold it is. Cold and wet, like I’m a cat.

My next thought: I’ve fucking lost it.

Looking at the panel on the elevator wall, I notice that my vision is blurred. I remember that impaired vision is a sign of hypothermia, and it occurs to me that if the temperature continues to drop I’ll freeze to death whether I ever reach the bottom or not. I wonder what kind of death that would be. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much. That would be an advantage of hitting the bottom, the whole instant death thing. At least then there would be no pain.

-5267

My shivering becomes more violent. I can feel my entire body bouncing against the wall behind me as each convulsion jerks me forward and back. It feels like the temperature in the elevator could easily be below zero. I feel like I’ve been here for several hours, and I wonder if anyone has noticed that I’m missing yet.

My life isn’t flashing before my eyes, and this bothers me. I wish I had great accomplishments to remember or unrealized dreams to mourn, but I realize that I have been living without any ambition. I don’t have regrets because I haven’t really taken any chances. I’ve played life by the numbers.

My mind reels with wild thoughts and apprehensions. I wonder if the elevator is descending right down to hell. Wouldn’t it be getting hotter if it were? I smile at this thought and then frown when I remember: Dante described the lowest level of hell as a frozen lake.

-6721

I’ve stopped shivering. My tongue feels heavy in my mouth, and thoughts come slowly to me.

Groggy.

Drained.

Tired.

I was going somewhere. I was going to read, I think, or play music. Listen to music. Is it snowing in here? Why am I still in this elevator? Is there a bathroom? I need to go.

-7626

I feel exhausted. My body falls to the side, and my head lands on my bag. It would be a pillow if it weren’t so hard. So cold. I think I might close my eyes. I wonder where the cold has gone, and then I see the frozen condensation on the inside of the elevator doors.

The numbers continue to drop, each sleepy digit like a sheep I’m counting. I close my eyes, and my body relaxes. I think of home. Not my apartment and not the house I grew up in, but some other place. Some place warm and open, some place where I am safe and on solid ground. I think about the people who would be there with me, my closest friends. Those who love me. Those who will miss me when they hear that I got on an elevator and never got off. I think about that place, those people, the security I would feel there, and I smile. My cracked lips pull painfully across my teeth like they’ve already frozen to them.

Even with my eyes closed, I know the numbers keep tumbling down.

All the way down.

Something for the 500 Club, which I haven’t written for in entirely too long, and for Nimue who told me some time ago that all my 500 Club posts are sad. This one started out that way–started, in fact, based on the other prompt. The opening line was “Give me the baseball bat” and it got less cheery from there. So, in the spirit of the holiday season, I scrapped it and started over, determined to write something a little more light-hearted and fun. Hope you (anyone who’s still reading) enjoy it.

black friday

I don’t know where the name “Black Friday” came from, but it fits. Black like the night you spend sitting outside some ungodly temple to capitalism waiting for the doors to slide open at 6 am, or 4, or 2, or midnight. Black like the pupils of the other shoppers, dead-eyed and greedy, clutching ads and newspapers and Styrofoam cups of coffee while they wait. Black like the darkened haze that now falls over the entire day of Thanksgiving which we no longer spend being thankful for what we have but plotting routes and wake-up times and stores to hit for all the things we don’t have yet. Or black like the ring of bruised skin around my left eye which recently made the acquaintance of a fellow shopper’s elbow.

I don’t know what irritates me more–that I got a black eye doing a modified dive-and-roll for the last blue Fijit Friend or that I was attempting to acquire a Fijit Friend at all. Those things creep me the hell out, as do all manner of dolls/stuffed animals/whatever-a-Fijit-is that claim to mimic human behavior. But Megan wants one and I’m a sucker for that kid.

The guy who elbowed me didn’t mean to, I don’t think. He was going for the same (God help me) Fijit and already had his arms spread to collect the little dancing freak doll. His wing span just happened to be wide enough to enter my “dance space” and voila, black eye. In fairness to him, he did retract his elbow only seconds after feeling solid contact with my skull. Of course, he did so while also pushing me clear with his considerable hips, but he had the decency to look mildly embarrassed afterwards. I even got an “I’m sorry, Ma’am.”

Ma’am.

That moron couldn’t have been more than 5 years younger than me. When did that start?

Point is, I missed my chance at the Fijit. The blue one, anyway. The yellow ones were in plentiful stock so I pick up one of those after inspecting my person to make sure no limbs had been pulled free. It hurt, though. The eye and the yellow Fijit. Megan’s favorite color is blue.

I made my way to the front of the store to pay, meandering back and forth to be sure I hadn’t missed anything I didn’t want to, and found myself behind moron in the check out line. His cart easily held over a grand worth of toys, games and assorted shit, the blue Fijit sitting proud on the top of the stack, taunting me.

Moron was playing Angry Birds on his phone when, miracle of miracles, another line opened up. He wasn’t watching, hadn’t even noticed me behind him. I withdrew quickly and quietly and scurried to the newly opened line. Five minutes later I was out, free and clear. The Fijit was paid for and I could go grab some breakfast. I slid my new blue friend into the passenger seat and smiled.

Megan likes blue.

This one was fun.

After my last 500 Club entry, Nimue asked me, “Why are all your stories sad?”

I said, “They aren’t all sad.”

To which she replied, “Yeah. They are.”

I thought for a moment. “Okay,” I said. “They aren’t happy.”

I intended this one to be downright cheery, but it wasn’t in the cards. The prompts were challenging and the one I landed on just didn’t lend itself to anything that remotely resembled happily-ever-after. On the upside, writing it was very enjoyable and I got chills myself picturing the scene. That made it worth it to me, though Nim will undoubtedly say she told me so.

the price

Life isn’t fair. This simple fact is so often spoken, it’s as trite as it is true. Still, this is the sentence that played on repeat in Duncan’s mind. It was a loop of fatalistic, cynical energy coursing through him, reverberating to his bones.

Implements in hand. Holy fuck.

His thoughts were clouded by the vague sense that if he wished things to be as they were again, before this mess, the wishing could change his current condition.

In his right hand, he held a swath of red silk.

Honestly, it was a tie. Who has swaths of red silk lying around? Then again, who owns a solid red tie. Answer? Duncan Smith does. It was an ostentatious wardrobe choice at best. Now it would, what did the gypsy say? Protect his heart? Or was it his soul?

His left hand held a stuffed envelope. There was red seeping through the edges and the paper, though thick, was soggy and gave in a sickening way just where his palm cupped it from underneath. It was warm.

Neither choice was good.

How many times had he thought about that in the last four days? But he didn’t consider himself brave or heroic, not one to sacrifice for others. He would have been a horrible soldier. It wouldn’t have been the killing that would have bothered him–God knows he’d shown an alarming talent for violence–but the idea of selfless service. There was nothing selfless about his errand tonight.

And that was the terrible reality of the choice.

“It is hard,” the gypsy had told him. “Harder than you think, young man. Just now, you think to yourself, you think, ‘I will do it,’ because the curse seems too much. The price too high to pay. And you feel it is not fair.”

She clucked her tongue.

“When have the spirits cared about fair?” she asked. “But you think on this. Think on it. Think hard, young man. I can tell you how. You decide. It is not easy, and the life you save you must live with.”

The life you save you must live with.

Fuck it.

He closed his eyes and began, first the words, like she taught him, then the red silk tied around his eyes. He spoke of seeing and not seeing and the sight of the spirits, stolen so that they would no longer see him.

His hands fumbled the envelope and he feared he would drop it, but he recovered and, trembling, reached inside. He found them, found the eyes. Holding them up, he offered them and, like she said, demanded–not asked–that the spirits leave him in peace. He’d paid their price. The curse must be lifted.

And then he listened. No voices. No whispers. No more goddam threats in his ears, spoken in languages he didn’t understand. Quiet.

He removed the blindfold, gathered the envelope, the silk, the eyes and last, her body. And he winced when he saw her face, contorted. Pained. Listening to what he could no longer hear.

He’d paid the price. Now she would, too.