4:33

The clock ticks. The countertop herb garden’s pump grinds: it needs more water. The owner of the house grunts slightly as she rises from the couch, which creaks in response. The faucet gushes into life and there is a soft click as the woman fills a plastic pitcher. The rubber cap of the herb garden pops loose. Water dribbles into the dark cistern. Water meeting water  – the splashes are muted by the container. A hiss: the grommet is sealed.

Ping. Pling. Plink. The faucet wasn’t turned off entirely. Drip by excruciatingly slow drip, water meets the metal of the sink basin.

The dog scratches himself, then shakes, ID and rabies tags jingling. He settles onto his bed with a soft flop. Slurping sounds emanate from it as he begins cleaning his privates.

The woman picks up her iPhone and texts a friend. The return sound is a whistle-ping. Ah, she’s using WhatsApp.

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She is still in the kitchen. She opens the fridge and it, too, emits a soft pop – louder than the herb garden. She stares into the chilly, white, landscape of possibilities. She slides open the deli drawer with a faint sound of metal on plastic, extracts cheese in crinkly plastic, and swings the door shut. A low click means it bounced open again.

A few seconds later, there is beeping from the fridge. The woman takes several seconds to recognize the sound, then bumps the door closed with her hip: a soft thud, followed by a more solid one.

Outside, thunder rumbles. The dog grumbles in response. The woman hushes him.

Another beeping sound begins but it’s external, a neighbor backing their golf cart out of the carport. (The vehicle’s headlights double the illumination in the woman’s house.) The cart whirrrrs into forward motion that fades away.

Birds sing in the trees outside. A sandhill crane calls to its lover. An owl screeches a warning to a squirrel. Lizards come out and make their soft gek-gek-gek sounds. Bug-zappers across the back yard at that neighbor’s place make their distinctive sting-pzzt sound as mosquitoes meet a sudden and violent end.

(No one mourns the mosquitoes.)

Somewhere in the distance, an ambulance siren is heard, the doppler effect obscuring the direction it’s coming from.

Thunder rumbles louder, and there is the electrical crack of a close lightning strike.

The dog whimpers – he hates storms – and the woman picks him up and rocks him like a human infant. His tags and her bangle bracelets click, clack, clank together.

The clock ticks.

Written last summer for Like the Prose 2021. Prompt # 24 – Crossover Art Form
Inspired by composer John Cage’s musical composition of the same name,
in which he simply let the audience listen to ambient noise for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

Hot Toddy, Cold Ground

CreativeFest

 

The ground was moist from recent rain, but she’d brought one of the thick, wool blankets from the old cedar chest and it was enough to keep her dry. She sat down on the folded fabric and pulled the thermos from inside her cloak.

There was barely any moon, just enough to let the gravestones show as reverse silhouettes – pieces cut out from the surrounding dark. Pieces that seemed to exist in a world where the light never reached.

Cemetery at by ELG21 via Pixabay

Or maybe that was her grief speaking.

It had been years since she’d lost him, not to any plague or pandemic, but to the very mundane condition of extreme old age. He’d admitted to being ninety; she had been certain he was over one hundred when he died.

Not that it mattered anymore.

She lit a candle and placed it on top of his stone. Then she opened the thermos and poured steaming liquid into the cup that was also the lid. The first pour, she gave to the ground, and the scent rose around her: cinnamon, cloves, alcohol, damp earth.

The second pour was hers to drink. She lifted the plastic vessel toward the gravestone in a toast and forced a smile. “I brought your hot toddy, Granddad, just like always.”

Spiced tea, honey, and bourbon warmed her from the inside out. Between sips she told her grandfather what had changed in her life since her last visit.

When the candle flickered out, she drained the last of her drink, replaced the lid, and rose to leave. Folding the damp blanket over her arm, she bid a final. “Good night, Granddad. I love you. See you next year.”

She walked away, unaware that, beneath the bourbon-laced earth, frail, fleshless hands were reaching upward, and a withered, rasping voice was speaking.

“Love you too, kiddo.”


Written for the October 2021 #Creativefest. Prompt: silhouette.
Special thanks to Fran H. for a line suggestion.

 

Menage a Trois

Menage a Trois

I found her waiting for me at the table when I got there. I hung up my coat and had, and went to join her. “Oh, it’s good to see you…” I half-whispered. But she didn’t answer.

She was wearing a green dress that flattered her curves in all the right ways, and I couldn’t stop staring at her. She glowed, especially around her neck where a maroon choker rested, right around the hollow of her throat.

I reached out to touch her, but I could tell she was too cold. Better to wait, better to let her get warmed up, better to give her a chance to breathe.

And for me to breathe her in. Her scent, intoxicating. Her hair, like the softly burning embers as a fire is nearly out. Her curves…

I shook my head to clear it. This wasn’t an affair, and she didn’t need foreplay.

I reached out and stroked my fingers down her neck, her side. So smooth. I did it again, felt the change from her silky green to the colorful fabric wrapped around her middle. I couldn’t help it, I moaned.

I’m not sure if I would have touched my lips to her neck or not, but even though I knew she was receptive to the idea, I didn’t try it.

In all honesty, I didn’t have a chance.

Bright lights came on and pulled me out of my reverie, and the voice – the voice I hear every morning and fell asleep with every night, spoke to me in sweet tones.

“Is there some reason you’re in the dark? Oh, hey, have you tried the new pinot noir yet? I got it for eight bucks at Costco. I’ve heard it’s really good.”

I sighed. I love my wife, but sometimes you just want to enjoy a glass of wine alone, or at least, enjoy a quiet fantasy.  Maybe next time.

“Shall I pour for both of us?” I called to the other woman in my life.

“Please!”

I looked back at the one in the green number. “I guess it’s three of us tonight.”

Doing the Right Thing (a Basil and Zoe story)

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“Why does doing the right thing never feel good?”

“I do not understand.” Basil’s voice was mild as always.

“Well, take us for example. We’ve been dating since I was seventeen, but until I was eighteen, we never went farther than kissing. Seventeen is legal throughout the Coalition of Aligned Worlds, so why did we wait? It made me antsy and worried you didn’t feel as much as I did. We waited because we were concerned your reputation would be…”

“… besmirched?” Basil interrupted, his tone amused.

“Yes, thank you.” I took a breath. “But it turned out no one cared. So why did we do it?”

“We did what we felt was right at the time,” he reminded me gently. “And we went farther than kissing, Zoe.”

“Well, yes… if you want to be technical.”

“I am technical,” he reminded me. It was an old joke, and one that he’d never cease making. “And you are using the fact that we did not ‘jump into bed’ as a deflection for your true concern. I cannot help you work through it if you do not tell me what it is.”

“See, you’re doing the right thing, and it doesn’t feel good.” I paused for a beat. “Well, it doesn’t feel good for me right now.”

“You are still deflecting.”

“Must you always be right?” I grumbled.

“Yes, even when being so doesn’t ‘feel good.'”

“Brat.”

“Sometimes,” he agreed. “But you have yet to tell me what is troubling you. Dearest, whatever it is, it cannot be ‘that bad.'”

I paced back and forth in front of his console for a few minutes. Then I stopped, and said, “It’s the Kazoines.”

Basil’s last mission – the ship’s last mission – had been an attempt to relocate a colony of twenty-thousand people. The Kazoine sun was failing, and the Stellar Navy had been sent to rehome the colonists. Except they refused. Well, some of them. Some had come aboard the Cousteau and a few of the other ships in the fleet, but not enough.

“You believe we should have enacted a forced evacuation, pulling people from their homes, even though they understood the danger of remaining on Kazo Prime.”  Basil wasn’t asking. He knew how I felt. He knew a good number of the officers and crew felt the same.

“Yes.”

“But you know that those who chose to stay were honoring their faith, and their commitment to the homes they built on their planet. And you also know that the vast majority of those who remained behind were disproportionately aged and infirm. The rigors of space travel and resettlement may well have caused as much harm as staying on a planet that was losing its sun.”

“I know,” I said. “I know it was an informed choice. I know they would likely not have survived planting a new colony and all the work that entails. I know that even now the Kazoines who did come with us are complaining about lack of space and creature comforts.”

“Do you believe living on the Cousteau is a hardship?” Basil changed the subject, but I knew we’d go back to my issue.

“Well, no, but I share private quarters with you. And this is home to me now. The colonists have been ripped from their homes and are basically living in dorms.”

“That is true, but it will only be for two weeks, and they are aware the situation is temporary.”

“I still feel awful about it all,” I said. “But especially that we left those people to die.”

“It is alright to feel that way,” Basil assured me. “We had little choice in this mission because Coalition regulations do not permit us to supersede local authorities unless criminal acts are being committed. I, too, regret the loss of life and separation of families that will and has happened as a result. But we did rescue seventeen thousand people who will continue to live fruitful lives.”

“And you believe those seventeen thousand negate the three thousand who stayed?”

“Not at all, Zoe. But saving those who were willing to come was the right thing to do.”

“I know,” I said, collapsing onto the couch. “I know. But it still feels pretty awful. Why does doing the right thing always suck so much?”

“It does not,” Basil said, “always.”

And I had to accept that.

Written for Brief #23 of Like the Prose 2021:  First line prompt.

 

 

 

 

 

Prose and Cons

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We’re supposed to be writing about con artists but I have no CONfidence that I can pull it off.

May I CONfide in you? The only con artists floating around in my CONsciousness are the characters in “Guys and Dolls,”  and that movie Leonardo DiCaprio did about the guy who CONvinced people he was a pilot for PanAm , among other things. It was a true story. I think it became a musical due to some strange CONfluence of events. Funny, I can remember if he was ever  CONvicted. Not Leo. The real guy.

After some CONtemplation I’ve determined that Will Smith’s character in “Six Degrees of Separation” could be CONsidered a con artist. Oh! And Wimpy from the old Popeye cartoons! I’m CONfident that he never paid anyone Tuesday for the hamburgers he was CONstantly eating.

(There was a hamburger stand called Wimpy’s across the street from my high school. CONtrary to rumors, there were no human body parts in the meat. And the French fries there were always hot and crispy. They served them in paper cones, like at the boardwalk.)

But that’s the sum-total of my less-than-CONsiderable knowledge about con artists and why I’m the worst person ever CONscripted to write about one.

If you’ve read this much of my CONvoluted tale, you will now be slightly CONsternated.

Why? Because I’ve used my CONniving ways to CONvince you that I’ve written a story about con artists.

And thus CONcludes my CONcept piece.

Written for Brief #22 of Like the Prose 2021: Con Artists

Five More Minutes

Dreamer

“Five more minutes,” I demanded, and the Faceless Man nodded. “It’ll cost ya,” his voice came from nowhere. And everywhere.

“How much?”

“Ten seconds of attention.”

Attention was one of the highest currencies. If the time was taken from your account at the wrong moment, you might blink and miss an ID scan or turn your head and get clipped by a teenager taking the family flitter out for a spin.

“That’s a lot.”

“You know my prices rise every time you come to me for more.”

I couldn’t help it. Like everyone else in the Belt I was tired, hungry, and chilly all the time, even though I had a cushy office job and wasn’t actually running the water makers or mining ore.

“I know.”

“Maybe you should buy five degrees of heat instead. It’ll only cost you two breaths and being warm might alleviate your other… problem.”

Tempting. It was tempting. But I needed the dream-time with my  lover out on patrol duty beyond the Rim more than I needed to be warm.

“I’ll pay your price,” I said. “Five full minutes.”

“Have I ever stiffed you?”

“No. No, you haven’t.”

“Alright then. Your hand?”

I put my hand in the cold machine and felt the prick of the needles. Two of them. One to give me what I wanted and one to fulfill my payment.  “Thank you.”

I pushed the com-set away and rolled over in bed. Five more minutes of sleep and happy dreams.

I never noticed that the elevator car wasn’t there when the doors opened.

I never knew that’s how the Faceless were created.

The next time I used a com-set, I’d be the one with all the time in the world.

Written for Brief #21 of Like the Prose 2021: Fantasy

Eating Pistachios in Bed

 

Pistachios

Hemingway wrote standing up at his typewriter, at least when he was a war correspondent, but Twain liked to write in bed. I’ve always preferred the former’s style, because he said so much with so few words, most of them simple, but well-chosen. I write American Sentences as warmups. Sometimes I write them on notecards and take pictures of them. But when it comes to where I write, it’s Twain’s example I follow: I like to write in bed, late at night. I even make sure all my laptops have backlit keyboards so I can write in bed without disturbing my sleeping husband. Tonight, though, I’m 1,046 miles from my husband, in my mother’s guestroom, which is decorated in “beach chic” because this is Florida, after all. My mother went to bed two hours ago, and I, who revel in darkness, am cross-legged on the coral-colored bedspread with the quilted sea shells with YouTube playing a documentary about the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof while I write this piece that really should be more than one paragraph, but I’m feeling like a stream-of-consciousness piece is called for this evening. Or is it morning? It’s after midnight, but dawn is hours away. Thunder is rumbling, low, in the distance, the first fringes of a storm building in the Gulf, and I’m eating pistachios (roasted, salted, no shells). That’s my nightlife this summer: Writing and eating pistachios in bed.

 

 

Written for Brief #18 of Like the Prose 2021: You, Now.

Summer Storm

Summer Storm (Felix Mittermeier via Pixabay)

Thunder murmurs in the distance, and the sky brightens in response. Both are soft at first, but in wee increments, they increase in intensity.

The murmur grows into a conversation, and then an argument, two gods boxing in the heavens, it seems, or perhaps it’s humans moving heavy furniture. No matter, the sound is now percussive, shaking windows and making entire houses shiver.

Again and again, streaks of incandescent amber divide the night sky, white-hot and singing with static.

The night air is thick with bruising energy that expands and expands waiting for when, with one great burst of white fire, the skies divide and rain descends.

The wind whips the water in different directions.

The precipitation spreads into every nook and cranny of the street, the pavement, the grass. Temporary ponds form.

As if someone turned off a tap, the rain ceases.

The booming and hissing in the sky fade away.

The night sky returns to its former state, with a mere hint of remaining humidity.

The storm is over.

The chorus of geckos, frogs, and crickets serenades the neighborhood.

Written for Brief #15 of Like the Prose 2021: Lipogram
(The omitted letter is ‘l.’)

Glove You So Much

 

Ballerina

You can tell everything about a person by their feet. And for dancers, you can tell our histories.

Dancer FeetThat scar on my heel? It’s from my first time playing Marie in The Nutcracker. I had thrown one of my slippers at the Mouse King and spent the rest of Act I  in only one ballet shoe. I bet you didn’t know you could get sliced by stepping on a sequin, but you can.

That red V between my toes and my instep? That’s where I was permanently marked by a pair of pointe shoes that were fitted too tightly at the toe and too wide at the heel. A professional fitter changed my life, and probably prolonged my career, by introducing me to two words: wing blocks. If you have wide feet, with tapered toes remember those words.

Blisters over healed blisters.

Swollen bunions over swollen bunions.

A dancer’s feet – my feet – are ever changing.

See that second toe that isn’t quite straight? That’s where I rolled over in a dead shoe and broke the toe. See the lumpy bit on my right big toe? That’s a bunion that never quite heals.

And see how my toes are all slightly crooked now, and how my metatarsals are extremely prominent? That’s arthritis. It’s what dooms us all. I started feeling the telltale pain when I was twenty-six but managed three more years on stage.

Twenty-nine is ancient for a ballerina.

But when my ankle collapsed during a performance of Coppelia, I knew it was time to move on. I went to the doctors.

“You tore your Achilles,” the company ortho told me. “Which is bad enough and will kPedicureeep you out of dance up to a year, but this ankle is deformed from arthritis, as well.”

“So, it’s time for me to turn in my pointe shoes?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“I’m afraid so.”

I had the surgery, of course. I might not perform again, but I could still teach if I took the time to recover correctly.

The first day out of the cast, I had a pedicure.

I let them scrub away the last of my callouses. I let them soothe my bunions and shape my toenails. And I chose a bright red color to paint them with: Glove You So Much by OPI.

You can tell everything about a person from their feet. Mine? Mine used to be bloody and pussy from hours in pointe shoes. But now? Now I can wear flipflops without embarrassment.

I used to be a dancer. My feet still show the signs (you would die if you saw my arch). But my toes… my toes tell another story now.

Polished toes

Written for Brief #14 of Like the Prose 2021: Acceptance