Just As It Should Be

284 - Doggie via Flash-Prompt

“Doggie!” My daughter cried as we entered the final wing of the pound. It was noisy, full of the sounds of clicking, whirring, and the occasional grinding of gears as the various cyberpets tried everything to get our attention.


“Actually, that one was originally a monkey / raptor hybrid.” The attendant seemed a little bit embarrassed. “He’s always been responsive, never harmed a staff member or another ‘pet, but…”


“But what?” I asked, as my daughter knelt in front of the creature’s cage. “Keep your hand flat,” I reminded her. “No poking fingers.”


“I know,” she said, with all the impatience a four-year-old could muster.


“You’d probably be better off with one of the actual dogs from alpha wing,” the attendant suggested.


But something about this poor creature, primate head, exposed skull, cybernetic attachments as well as prosthetic limbs, reptilian (well, almost avian) claws and a furry, wagging tail, pulled at the heart strings. Made you feel sorry for it.


“The truth, please?” I asked softly. “Why is he still here. Hybrids have been forbidden since – “


“That’s part of it. He’s licensed. You don’t have to worry about that, but his skull reads ‘human’ to some. It’s why primate hybrids were the first to be banned.”


“I remember,” I said. After the alien attack, life on earth had changed. Not just our way of living, but life itself. Something about nanites in the water and soil recoding our DNA.


Animals, humans, all had begun being born with cybernetic parts. It had taken a decade to restore the original gene sequences. Meanwhile, adoption agencies were full of these Adapted children, some of whom would never find loving homes.


And the animal shelters were just as bad. It used to be that big black dogs were the ones to languish. Now it was the cyberpets.


But the hybrids… those were the most pitiful of all. They were the results of lab tests gone wrong, and most were put out of their misery on sight. Too bad, really. They were good pets, even if they were disturbing to look at.


“He was originally a service ‘pet for a politician’s little girl, if that helps,” the attendant said. “She went to college and couldn’t take him, and he missed her so much… he would climb up on the roof and gargoyle for days. Rain, snow, heat. It was really sad. Rehoming him was the humane choice.”


“Those claws though…”


“We’ve had him in the staff lounge lots of times. He’s never harmed the furniture.”


“Katie? Wouldn’t you rather have the retriever we saw earlier?” I was pretty certain my daughter had already chosen, but I had to ask.


My daughter shook her head, her hair swinging to reveal the cybernetic reinforcements in her neck. They reinforced her whole spine, but you couldn’t tell when she was wearing clothes. “Doggie,” she said firmly.


I sighed. “I guess we’ll take him. Does he have a name?”


“Pierre,” the attendant said. “Previous owner was certain all monkeys were French. Even hybrids. I’ll fetch a leash, and she can bond with him while we do the paperwork.


“No need,” I said.


The attendant released Pierre from his cage and the creature went right to my daughter’s left side. She extended her hand, hovering it over the ‘pet’s back, and a cable snaked out of her palm, connecting to Pierre’s linkport.


I smiled looking at the two of them. Just a little girl and her monkey/raptor/thing.


Just as it should be.

Posted Elsewhere: Snapshots from the Shore (flash-fiction)

43804508 - back view of a couple taking a walk holding hands on the beach


Read an excerpt:

“Just put your feet in,” she coaxes the man who has come to drive her to the flatlands in the middle of the country. The flyover states, they call them. Except now they’ll be the land-in states. She wonders if the wind on the prairie can ever come close to the soothing sound of her beloved waves.


“Come on,” she urges. “Seriously, it’s not that cold. At least take your shoes off. You will not actually melt into goo if your bare feet touch the sand.

But he refuses. And she wonders if maybe she’s making a mistake in choosing someone who doesn’t love the beach the way she does. Still, she splashes in the choppy surf, dodging sharp white-crested waves and body surfing the gentler blue ones until she’s tired and sated.

Swimming in the sea, she thinks, is the only thing that even comes close to being as good as sex with the man she loves.

Visit this link to read the whole story:

Modern Creative Life: Snapshots from the Shore by Melissa A. Bartell

I Am The Earth

0231 - The Earth is Such a Mother - via Flash Prompt


I cry.

You fill my great waters with your cast-off plastic, my streams and rivers with toxic chemicals.

You complain that the water is no longer fit to drink.

You wonder why the fish are scarce and the grasses withered and brown.

I bleed.

I shed my heart’s blood for the animals left homeless and undernourished, the starving polar bears, the treeless birds, the hooved and pawed beasts cut off from their homes and food sources by barbed wire, burning highways, electric fences, and projectile weapons.

I express my rage.

I send hurricanes, blizzards and the occasional volcano eruption.

I whisper my truths into the inner ears of those who would protect me.

They understand: to protect me, is to protect yourselves.

You forget, you see.

You oh-so-conveniently forget that I was here before you, and I will remain long after.

You might not recognize my evolving form.

You might resent the changes I must make to ensure my own survival.

You might shiver in fear at what I’m likely to become.

And yet, you do nothing to stop me.

I am the flood and the fire.

I am the coppery blood of all things, living and dead.

I am the earth.

And I can be maternal.

But I can also be a mother.

Morning Mist

224 - Retreat in the Woods via flash-prompt


She’d always thought of herself as a city girl, or at least suburban, picking her living spaces as much for their distance from a good café – anything over half a mile was too far – as for the state of the kitchen, the size of the bathtub, and the amount and quality of natural light.

Still, she loved her husband – was still madly in love with him after twenty-three years, so when he asked her to spend a week in a cabin in the woods with him, she couldn’t refuse. After all, he’d been on innumerable trips to the beach for her.

On the drive up, she made the requisite jokes about the dark forest being the perfect setting for a murder mystery or horror movie. “You’re not planning to chop me into pieces and hide them under a carpet of pine needles, are you?”

“Of course not,” he’d replied, blue eyes twinkling at her when their gazes met in the rear-view mirror. “For one thing, this isn’t a pine forest.”

“So. Not. Reassuring.” She sing-songed the words.

Their first two days were sodden with rain, but her husband kept a fire burning in the Franklin stove and lulled her into a good mood with endless cups of gourmet coffee and the soft strumming of his acoustic guitar, classical music alternated with folk – her favorites.

On the morning of the third day at the cabin, she woke before him, and set the coffee to brew. The rain had finally stopped, and the first rays of sun were beginning to penetrate the morning fog. She brought her mug of coffee with her to the deck that surrounded the cabin and lost herself in the view.

Birds called to each other in the trees and she glimpsed a couple of squirrels playing on a nearby branch, making her smile, but it was the light on the trees that really entranced her. The play of sun and fog, brightness and shadow. She almost believed that if she could just stretch far enough she could catch a piece of morning mist on the end of her finger, like cotton candy at the firemen’s fair.

She didn’t hear him come up behind her, but she knew he was there even before his rusty-voiced “Morning, babe,” tickled her right ear.

He slipped his arms around her from behind, and she leaned back against his chest. “The rain stopped,” she said, as if he couldn’t tell.


“It’s not the beach…” she began.

“No, it’s not the beach.”

“But it’s kind of magical in its own way.”

He didn’t respond, not with words. Instead he squeezed her just a little tighter, and then released.

Together, they watched as the forest fully embraced the new day.

What We Do to the Faeries

0212 - Faerie Coffin via Flash Prompt“Where have all the faeries gone?”


It’s an innocent question, tumbling from the lips of your child.


“Faeries live in a special place called our imagination,” you say, looking over the child’s head so that you aren’t looking into those luminous eyes, the ones as-yet-untainted by harsh reality and hard truths. “You can enter that place whenever you’re playing, or dreaming, and the faeries will sing you their songs and teach you their games.”


“Do you sing with the faeries?” Your child asks this and a thousand other similar questions.


Finally, you provide a half-truth because you can’t bear another lie. “When you grow up, your imagination changes, and faeries don’t visit it anymore.”


“That’s very sad. I’m sorry.”


Your child’s sweet sympathy burns like acid, because you know – you KNOW – that the faeries aren’t gone, they’re imprisoned. They’re stuck in the ground in so many lead-lined cement boxes, boxes with just enough tiny fissures, designed intentionally, to let faerie magic seep into the soil of the old forest.


You remember when you were told that It Was Time and you were Too Old to Believe, and you were forced to stuff your own faerie into one of those prisons (coffins) in a line of so many others, marching down the lane of the forest like stepping stones.


A part of you, the part that feels guilty for what your people have done, wants to end the cycle. Tell your child the truth. Take them to the row of boxes and help them unlock each one.


But you don’t. Because this is how it Is, and this is how it has Always Been. A child’s faerie comes into the world with their first bubble of laughter, and when the child reaches puberty, they make the ultimate betrayal. They stuff their faerie in a box and lose the last of their innocence.


“But why?” your child will ask, as they realize the horror of what they are doing.


“Because it is the Way. Without faerie magic the trees would not grow tall and the river would not run clear and sweet, and the air would taste like ash.”


“Can’t we just ask them to help with those things?” They will press on.


And for a moment you wonder if they would, just as you did when it was your faerie being locked into the darkness.


But you know the truth. It’s been too long. Too many generations. Too many years – decades – centuries – of betrayal.


And you will give the same non-answer your parents gave you: A sad shrug and a shake of your head.


But… those harder questions are years away yet. And you want to ease the trouble in your child’s eyes and smooth the worry from the tender, young brow.


“Sometimes,” you say. “I can almost catch a glimpse of my faerie, in my imagination.”


Your child studies your face, looks deeply into your eyes. You wonder what new old-young words will fall from those lips, still sticky from jam at breakfast.


But there is no response. The child re-focuses on the crayons and tablet on the table between you, and you finish your coffee in silence.


It’s only later that you realize what your child has drawn: The old forest, the lane of cut trees replaced by cubes of cement and lead.


In the back of your head, you hear your faerie laugh, but it’s not the sound of playful joy.


It’s a cackle, full of malice and revenge.


Waltzing in the Woods

Dancing with Ghosts via Flash PromptIn the piney woods above the beach, when the moon was full, and the fog bent the beam from the lighthouse just so, Isabelle and Henry would relive the first and last dance of their wedding.


It had been ninety-three years since the old Goose and Turrets Hotel had burned to the ground. Some said it was the fault of a dry winter. Fallen pine needles and the casually discarded butt of a cigarillo invariably resulted in conflagration.


Others were certain it was arson, the hotelier’s last-ditch effort to avoid getting caught selling liquor. True, the law turned a blind eye to Society folk sipping champagne at parties, but it was known that Rick was moving more than the occasional bottle of bubbly through his wine cellars.


Either way, the place was ablaze before midnight, and the new day dawned on ash and rubble.


Henry had died inside, they said, rushing into the wood-framed structure again and again to help others get out.


And Isabelle?


She’d been seen wandering the beach early in the morning, barefoot, with the train of her silk-velvet bridal gown so laden with wet sand it was nearly the same color as the smoldering ruins.


They never found her body, but she’d been walking below the waterline, and the morning high tide hadn’t yet come to wash away the scattered shoes and bags of those who had escaped the island on boats.


And everyone knows that you shouldn’t wade while wearing velvet. It soaks up the water and drags you down to the bottom of the sea.


The cold, dark Atlantic is unforgiving that way.




Teenagers who go to the beach to make out in the moonlight claim that when the fog rolls in and the arc of the lighthouse beam swings leeward, you can see the outline of the old hotel, standing stalwart on the cliff, and you can hear the waltz music underneath the sound of the waves.


And folks who live in the cottages (mansions, really, but the pretense is maintained) tucked among the pine trees say they often catch a glimpse of a bride in white velvet, seaweed in her hair, and a skeletal partner gently leading the form of a waltz.


It’s Isabelle and Henry, they whisper, for fear a loud voice will disturb the timeless lovers. It’s Henry and Isabelle having one last dance.


May they rest in peace, when the song is done.

All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Improv

This essay was originally written as a lay-sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff, and appeared in my “Sunday Brunch” column in the now-defunct e-zine ALL THINGS GIRL. It ran in January, 2010.

Photo by Vadim Fomenok on UnsplashA decade ago, I hadn’t done a lot improv. I mean, I’d done some in school, and had done some street theatre as an adult, but if you’d asked me about my future, spending several years in a professional improvisational comedy troupe would not have come up. But then, neither would have being a regular member of an audio improv show, a cast member of several audio dramas, or the narrator of an audio book.

Even so, sometime in 2003, I found myself being dragged by my friend Jeremy to the improv bootcamp being led by a mutual friend of ours, Clay. Initially, I was nervous – I hadn’t really played any theatre games since high school, and the skills that I had were beyond rusty. Nevertheless, after an intense day of both physical and verbal warm-ups, tableaux drills and basic scene-play, I was hooked.

Four years later, again at the urging of my friend Clay, I auditioned for ComedySportz on a lark because I wanted to make some friends who had nothing to do with the mortgage industry. I left the audition thinking I’d be asked if I still wanted to sign up for the class I’d initially queried them about, but the next day I was invited to join the troupe, and all too soon, I was performing every weekend, and then staying out until the wee hours of the morning talking about the show we’d just done, or about improv in general.

I had also become so much more confident in myself that I dyed my hair pink, fled corporate America for a freelance writing career, and started seeking out new opportunities to stretch myself – things like speaking in my local church, writing actual scripts for favorite audio dramas, and committing to a more active role here at ATG.

More than once in the intervening years, I’ve found myself talking improv with fellow performers, either after a show, or during a pause in a recording session – discussing how we bring improvisational techniques into our off-stage lives. Also more than once, I’ve found myself trying to explain to non-improvisers what it is I love about the art form, and more, how the concepts I’d learned from improvisational theatre can be applied to every aspect of life.

In no particular order, here are some examples:

Don’t Perform; Play.

Like many other art forms, improv is make-believe for adults, and it works best when you stop worrying about entertaining other people, and just play.

When you play, you’re less self-conscious, and more in the moment. You think faster, listen better, and are generally more responsive. It’s not about the performance, it’s about the experience. In life, we make deeper connections when we stop worrying about impressions, and just let ourselves be in the moment.

Support Your Partner.

In improvisation, we’re taught that not only is there no “I” in “team,” but that the job of each player is to make everyone else look good.

At ComedySportz, before each show, we would literally pat each other on the back, and say, “I’ve got your back,” to lend assurance that no matter what happened, no one was going out there alone. In life, we also have to support each other.

We have one world, one community, one extended family. If we don’t stick up for each other, who will?

Claim Your Mistakes.

We’re often told we learn from our mistakes, and that learning how to fail is just as important as learning to succeed. New improvisers are taught to take deep bows even when they utterly failed in a scene, not to celebrate the failure, but to celebrate the fact that they tried. Accepting that we all make mistakes helps us handle setbacks more gracefully.

Improv also reminds us that as long as we respond truthfully – with honest emotion – there are no wrong answers. True, there are high percentage and lower percentage choices, but even the “bad” choices can still lead us in new directions. Remember the words of Thomas Edison, who, when trying to develop a working light bulb, reportedly said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Pay Attention.

How many times in your life has a parent or teacher admonished you to “Pay attention!” How many times has a child implored you to “Listen to me!”

In improv, if you aren’t paying attention to your partners, you miss vital information. After all, improv is often all about endowment, and if you don’t hear someone introducing you as their husband/sister/next door neighbor/English teacher/whatever, you won’t know how best to add to the scene in progress.

In life, lack of attention means anything from hurt feelings to actual injuries (How many of us have been behind a driver not using turn signals? How many of us have forgotten to signal turns?)

Be Specific.

In improvisation, in writing, and in life, specifics matter.

Specifics are the difference between, “I wish I had some help with editing,” and “Becca, would you mind proofreading something for me?” They’re the difference between, “I’m in a bad mood,” and “I’m angry at you because you forgot to take the garbage out. Again.” It’s the difference between two people talking on an empty stage and two people at a bar, or in the park, or in the kitchen, even if the lines don’t change, and the set pieces exist only in the imagination.

Yes, And…

There’s an improv mantra, of sorts, that goes, “You can’t deny another person’s reality; you can only build on it.” The shorthand version of this – as well as being the central tenet of improvisation in general – is “agree and add,” or, in the more popular vernacular, “Yes, and.”

On stage, this means that you take whatever another improviser has given you, and expand it. It is building momentum, instead of allowing inertia.

“Here I’ve brought you a mug of coffee,” someone might say.

“Yes, and now my brain will kick into gear and I can solve the energy crises,” their scene partner might answer.

When you say “Yes, and” you’re validating what another person has said, and adding something new. In its broadest sense, “Yes, and” is saying yes to everything life throws at you – good or bad – and then adding to it. It is accepting the reality of any given situation, and then being willing to take the next step.

This doesn’t mean that finding a way to respond “Yes, and” to every situation requires you to be happy and perky.

“Honey, I crashed the car into a tree,” your spouse or partner could inform you, one evening.

“Yes, and now that I know you’re okay, I’ll find the insurance agent’s number,” you might respond if you’re incredibly calm, but it would be an equally valid response if you said, “Yes, and it’s a good thing you didn’t die in the process, because now I can kill you myself!”

Even in a less-than-positive situation, “Yes, and” continues the conversation.

Every time we try something new, face a fear, engage in conversation with a stranger, we’re really saying “Yes, and,” to the universe. Whether you’re sharing a personal essay, publishing a poem you worked on for hours, or giving your treasured short story or novel to the readers of the world, you are doing it, too.

“I’ve created this thing,” you are saying.

“Yes, and, we are going to experience it,” your audience replies.

If you’re lucky they’ll build further on that, with a comment, a review, a recommendation, or even just passing on a link or giving their copy of your work to a friend.

If I’d never done improv, I’d probably still have left the mortgage industry, but I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for audio dramas or agreed to speak in a church, or tutored a friend’s son in English (I’m not terribly child-friendly) or any number of other things I’ve done since my “conversion” from muggle to improviser.

I’ve internalized a lot of the improv principles I’ve shared today, but I still have to make a conscious effort to replace “No, because,” or “Yes, but,” with “Yes, and,” when I’m feeling grumpy or snarky or shy.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It.



The play of life? It’s unscripted.

Kill It With Fire

0169 - Kill It with Fire via Flash Prompt“Take this” she told the mission commander. “We offer it to you in remembrance of this visit.”

I tried to warn him. Tried to tell him that accepting living fire from an alien we hadn’t fully vetted was a bad idea. But did he listen?


Caught up in the thrill of an (apparently) successful first contact scenario, he accepted their gift, brought it back aboard our ship, entrusted its care to me.

At first, I thought the fluctuations in the power grid were a result of the ion storm we’d passed through. Then I realized that the living fire was also fluctuating.

I took a couple of specialists down to the engine core, and that’s where we found them. An entire pod of the same chalk-white aliens.

Reynolds and Morris never knew what hit them. One minute they were flanking me, weapons drawn; the next they were dead, and the chalk people were sucking on their bones.

Me, they kept alive.

I’m not sure if it was because I’m a woman or because they’d never seen rainbow-colored hair before. Maybe both. But they made me their liaison.

Please if you get this message, do not let my ship approach your world. The chalk people use living fire as their portal. It’s how they conquer other races, how they spread their seed into the cosmos.

Our weapons have been destroyed. Our crew – what’s left of it – is being fattened for an Arrival Feast.

I beg you. Destroy our ship. Destroy it in orbit. Make sure it’s blasted to bits and then consign the debris into the sun.

Kill it.

Kill it with fire.

Capturing the Catbird

0185 - Catbird - via Flash Prompt“Professor Shadingstone, I presume?”

The older woman raised her gray-haired head from her laptop and peered at the younger. “Good god, Lumley, must you use that tiresome greeting every day? It was mildly amusing once. Now, seventeen days from semester break, it’s lost the little charm it once had.” The professor paused, letting the other absorb her annoyance. “Now that you’ve interrupted my work, you might as well tell me why.”

Lumley stepped closer to the desk. “I was out in the Green Woods over the weekend. It started as a hike. Nuñez, the TA who works for Professor Clardin, invited me on a picnic and a hike. Only, he’s quite handsome, and we’re both applying for the Gossey Fellowship. And –

“Have I not asked you not to ma’am me?”

“- sorry, sir – “

“Lumley.” Professor Shadingstone never yelled when she was angry. Rather, her voice became quiet, dark, and full of warning. “Get. To. The. Point.”

Lumley handed over a photo-cube. “I’ve found it, ma – er – sir – er – Professor. I’ve found proof. The Caprican Catbird. It exists.”

The professor activated the photo cube and watched as digital images sprang up before her in holographic glory.

“This is a stray housecat, Lumley. Probably the one Dean Ferrington lost last fall.”

But Lumley held her ground. “No, Professor, it is not. It’s a Catbird. Watch.”

Shadingstone flipped through the collection of photos, her gnarled fingers flicking out as if she were catching flies. “Photoshopped,” she accused.

“I didn’t. I swear.”

“Tangible evidence?”

Lumley handed over a clump of black animal fur, something rather like a peacock’s tail feather, and a data flimsy with a lab report.

“The DNA in fur and feather is identical, si – ma – Professor.”

Shadingstone read the report once, then a second time. “Could you find the location again?”

“I set a beacon drone after it. One of the new dragonflies.”

“Which means the entire biology department will be swarming the Woods.”

“Never that. The beacon is set to your private channel. And it’s password protected.”

Shadingstone set the cube aside, letting the photos continue to cycle, tracking the newfound creature’s metamorphosis from black cat to peacock and back again. Centering her computer on the desk, she instructed it to locate the drone Lumley had indicated and receive video data.

“What’s the password, Lumley?”

The younger woman hung her head. “Only, I wanted it to be memorable, so it’s kind of silly.”


“It’s… ‘tomfowlery,’ Professor.”

“Tom… fowlery?”

Lumley’s reply was somewhat sheepish. “I’m afraid so.”

Shadingstone stared at the eager young woman, the biologist in training, and did something no student, and few faculty, members had ever witnessed.

She threw her head back.

And laughed.

Daedalus, Diminished

0189 - Icarus via Flash-Prompt


He’d been a maker, once.

Architect. Designer. Engineer. Dreamer. He’d done it all.

Create a labyrinth suitable for the great beast enslaved by the king?

Sure, no problem. Make it twist and turn, winding back around itself until even he, the one who planned it, couldn’t guarantee a speedy exit.

Or any exit.

Build an animatronic bull that would fool a goddess?

Yeah, he could make that happen. Use real skin, paint the hooves so they’re not too glossy, capture the musky scent of rutting animal and spray it underneath the taut hide. She couldn’t help but fall for it. Good thing she was into the strong, silent type, even when mating in bovine form.

Find a way to fly?

(To fly, to flit, to flee.)

Wax and feathers on a wire frame. Powered by your own muscle, guided by your own mind. Biceps and triceps needed to be strong, but don’t overlook your core.

It’s all about the core.

And his son’s core was soft.

Not the physical one.

The part that governed common sense.

The part that listened to his father’s wisdom.

The part that followed the old man’s instructions.

Those parts, those core strengths, those were the bits that had been black and mushy. Neither capable of maintaining balance nor strong enough to persevere.

Well, his son was free now.

Free from earthly constraints, free from human laws, free from the need for blood or breath or bone.

And himself?

He’s trapped in a labyrinth that has no exit, because it exists entirely within his mind. His minotaur isn’t a raging half-man, but a monster made of grief and guilt. It chases him down nightmare lanes, night after night, always ending in the heat of fire, the hiss of saltwater, the bitter tang of loss.

He was a maker once.


But now?

Now he’s just an old man with nothing left to live for, wandering the deserted beach of his own, sorry, soul.