School Figures

Like the Prose Challenge #14 – Write a story in second person. Make it a choose your own adventure story.

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You are six years old, and you’re standing on the rubber mat at the edge of the ice rink. In your head you’re wearing a pretty skirt and leotard and your skates are white with shiny silver blades, like Dorothy Hamill’s.

But your outfit is not a cute skating dress; you are wearing a track suit over tights so that you stay warm, and your hair isn’t cut into a sassy wedge, but twisted into two braids.

And your skates are not the pristine white that they wear in the Olympics.

They are boy’s skates.

Black and heavy, with double blades.

They are clunky and ugly and make you feel slow and clumsy, which, in truth, you are, but in your head, you know every jump and turn.

You even know how to do the school figures, the perfect figure eights that the skaters have to execute in order to demonstrate their technical proficiency.

* * *

You are twenty-one years old and you are sitting on a folding chair on a rubber mat in front of the barrier that separates the main seats of the arena from the ice of the rink. Your best friend from college is in the seat next to you. It’s winter break, and she’s housesitting for her parents while they’re in Europe and you’re there for her birthday weekend. She’s just turned twenty-two, and this trip to watch Stars on Ice is your gift to her, because you both love figure skating but neither of you actually skate anymore.

You’re kind of reeling because a few hours before, while you were eating burgers and drinking beer at a really great diner near the arena, she came out to you, and you’re not sure if you reacted the right way, because no one’s ever come out to you before.

It’s 1992, after all, and this isn’t a common experience for you yet, though as you get older (you don’t know this yet) you will become the person your friends come out to, about their sexuality, gender identity, and more.

If Harry Potter had been published at that time you would define yourself as the world’s Secret Keeper, except what Cora has told you isn’t a secret, exactly, it’s just a thing, a fact, and you don’t think you gave it the respect it deserved.

Were you supposed to stand up in the diner and hug her and say, “Congratulations?” Or was your actual reaction – telling her that you’re honored that she told you, and that you’re happy to listen to whatever she needs to talk about but you’re not the best to advise because except for some brief experimentation you’ve really only ever driven stick – the right tack to take?

You’re not sure, you can’t be sure. You can only be there.

But the music is starting, so you resolve to put it aside for the moment. Maybe the feminist bookstore downtown has cards for this, and you can send her one when you get back home.

* * *

You’re thirty-eight, and your husband is in Tokyo on business, and won’t be home for three days, and you know something is off because you’re late in the way women sometimes are, even though you haven’t missed a pill even though you haven’t missed a pill (because you stopped trying, thirty-eight is too old to try, right?), so you get a test and are shocked when it flashes ***pregnant*** at you (the digital tests leave nothing to interpretation).

There’s a fluttering in your stomach that you can’t quite name. It might be fear or anxiety or happiness or delight or a little bit of all of them, with a touch of wistfulness that your partner, your best friend, is half-way around the world and many time zones away and you can’t interrupt him to tell him.

You take a picture of the stick and the result and you text it to him and wait.

For three days the two of you are long-distance giddy, and you imagine his homecoming and how you’ll greet him and how you’ll send ultrasound pictures to your parents and his on Mothers’ Day. And then, when you’re on the way to the airport to pick him up, the cramping starts, and by the time you park, you know – you know – that your three days of blissful hope were all you were going to get.

He’s tired, but he takes over the steering wheel so you can close your eyes and let the tears come on the way to urgent care. You’re their last appointment – they close at seven – and they give you warm blankets and coddle you as they run their tests, but the results are clear

Miscarriage.

You’re not surprised. You’ve had two others.

But you really thought this time it would stick.

And you’re thirty-eight.

So, when you and your husband have dried the last of your tears and his, you tell him you’re done trying.

He finds a skating competition on television and you curl up together with hot tea to watch it.

And you confess that you always wanted a little girl to watch skating with, the way you watched it with your mother.

* * *

You’re fifty.

And you’re hosting a Ukrainian orphan for the summer. You got the idea from a friend of yours who did it a few years ago, and you always wanted a child, but never really wanted a baby… Then, too, you and your husband are in a place where you’re financially stable. You have a house with empty rooms. If not now, then when?

Her name is Natalia and she dreams of being a figure skater.

Using a translation program, you ask her if she knows how to skate, and she says there’s a pond they skate on at their school, but their skates aren’t very good.

It’s summer, but there’s a rink at the mall, so you find out when the open sessions are and whether or not there are lessons in the summer. And after you and Natalia have had a few days to get to know each other a bit, you tell her you have a surprise.

The rental skates at the mall are brown, and clunky, and you are reminded of the ugly black skates you had as a child. But then you remember your second pair of skates which were still used, because you were a growing kid, but were white, with proper blades, and you take your foster daughter to the pro-shop.

A soulful Russian with bright blue eyes crouches in front of the sandy-haired teenager, and at first, she’s thrilled because his language is similar to hers, but then he remembers he’s required to speak English, and so is she.

You tell him to fit her with a basic pair – student skates – and he understands. They’re not professional skates, but they’re better than the rentals, and they’re hers to keep, you tell her. You realize, as the salesman laces them onto her feet, that they are the first things she’s ever owned outright.

You decide to buy a pair for yourself, as well.

You are fifty years old, and you are standing on the rubber mat at the edge of an ice rink, but you are not wearing a pretty skating dress. You are wearing jeans and a tank top and a hoodie, and you are holding the hand of a skinny Ukrainian girl who is only yours for the summer but is somehow the child of your soul.

Sincerely, Megan

Like the Prose: Challenge #13 – Write an epistolary story.

Retro Style Vintage Postcard With Greetings From Hawaii

Dear Alien Spacefarer,

My teacher is making me put this postcard in a box that’s going on the space shuttle, but I have no idea what to write. Everything seems lame. Hello from Earth. Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.

Sincerely, Megan

* * *

The postcard was vintage “Greetings from Vail!” and had a happy 1950’s couple skiing on the front. It was June, but whatever. I flipped it over.

Greetings Megan:

We were most pleased to receive your missive. We, too, wish we were there. Tell us more about this ‘Earth?'” Does your spaceforce remain undefeated?

With respect,

Xplo!kka’t

Rolling my eyes, I took out one of my postcards from the Baby Animals Postcard Book my grandparents had given me as an incentive to get me to communicate with them more. I was pretty sure this card was a joke but responding to it meant delaying cleaning my room for at least five more minutes.

And it had a return address in… Iowa.

Didn’t Jeff Neuhalfen have relatives in Iowa?

Whatever.

Dear Xplo!kka’t,

Your postcard came as quite a surprise. As far as I know we don’t actually have a spaceforce. As least, my country doesn’t. Our president has talked about building one, but since he thinks there’s a prince in the UK who oversees whales, I wouldn’t hold my breath. And Earth is… Earth. You know. Little blue-green planet. Third rock from the sun, and all that.

Write back if you want.

Sincerely, Megan

* * *

The next postcard arrived just after the 4th of July and had a picture of a happy 1950’s couple water-skiing. Apparently vintage outdoor sports were a thing. This one read “Come to the Catskills!”  “Um, no,” I told it. Then I flipped it over to read it.

Greetings, Megan:

Would you mind being more specific? There are many sun-stars in the galaxy. Are we correct in interpreting that your Earth is the third planet out from your sun, counting by the diameter of the orbit? When you refer to it as blue and green, do you mean it is a world with an oxygen-based atmosphere that plays home to carbon-based lifeforms? Does your Earth also boast liquid water?

We look forward to your next missive.

With respect, Xplo!kka’t

Carbon-based lifeforms? Really? This had to be a prank from Jeff. He’d been trying to get her attention during math class for the last year, after all. And she was certain he had relatives in Iowa. Besides, alien stuff always had to do with Iowa. Or maybe that was Kentucky. Well, the summer was boring enough. This was relieving the status quo at least.

Dear Xplo!kka’t

I’m pretty sure you know this already, but Earth is like 70% ocean. Saltwater, full of sharks, but, whatever. I’m guessing from all your questions that you’re not from around here. So, tell me, Xplo!kka’t, what’s life like where you come from?

Sincerely, Megan

I wondered what crazy reply Jeff would come up with for that.

* * *

It was two weeks later that the next card came. Faster than the last. Interesting. This time the vintage image was of a waterfront and read, “Monaco Memories!” I flipped it over.

Greetings, Megan:

We are pleased that you are curious about us. In truth, most of my peer group has never seen our homeworld. We were born on a worldship, and we travel the stars searching for a new home. Those who came before us destroyed our world’s resources, until we could not breathe our air, drink our water, or grow things in our soil. Do the people of Earth know pollution?

Regards, Xplo!kka’t

I shivered reading the latest words. These didn’t sound like Jeff. Maybe it was my teacher trying to teach us a lesson. We were supposed to have advanced biology when school resumed after the summer.

I went onto my computer and texted a friend.

– From megtastic to sciencechick: Hey, Sierra, you know that postcard project Mrs. Lieberman made us do in May?

– From sciencechick to megtastic: Yeah? What about it?

– From megtastic to sciencechick: You haven’t… you haven’t, um… gotten any responses or anything have you?

– From sciencechick to megtastic: Meg-a-licious, you know those postcards went on the space shuttle. No one could be responding.

– From megtastic to sciencechick: You busy tonight? You up for a sleepover?

– From sciencechick to megtastic: I’ll be right over.

Dear Xplo!kka’t,

My best friend Sierra came over the other night so I could talk to her about your postcards. She’s a science geek, but I like art and music and literature more than science. Maybe you should be writing to her. Anyway, yes, the people of Earth do know pollution. Our fish and ocean mammals are dying because they’re ingesting the plastic we toss into the seas, and our carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have just reached 400 parts per million. (They say 350 is the upper safe limit for life here).  Sierra says you’re asking these questions because you plan to invade the Earth and kill us all. I hope that’s not true. But I have to tell you, we’ve already poisoned our planet. You don’t want it.

Sincerely, Megan.

* * *

Xplo!kka’t approached his division commander. She was a dominant female, with dazzling purple antennae that always made him hyperventilate a little, but he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.

“Commander, I have news of Planet 7439.3”

“Yes?”

He handed over copies of the postcards. “I have been corresponding with a young female from the planet. It began with one of the message cards in the box on that vessel we intercepted. The exploded  – ”

“I believe they call it a ‘shuttle’ yes. They’ve had more than one explode, but this is the first such ship that was unstaffed and sent deep enough into space that we could salvage any of the technology. Such as it was.”

“Yes, ma’am. In any case, the young female, Megan, and I have been exchanging ‘postcards’ and I have learned that 7439.3 is not the garden spot we hoped. The sentients there – they refer to themselves as ‘humans’ have already sent their world down the same irrevocable path as our own homeworld.”

“War, then?”

“There are skirmishes, yes, though so far nuclear power and weaponry have only destroyed limited segments of the planet. No, ma’am, the larger issue is pollution. Their oceans are being choked with a petroleum-based product called ‘plastic’ and the level of carbon dioxide in their atmosphere has surpassed 400 parts per million.”

“That is a correctible number, Xplo!kka’t,” the commander said. “If we were to help them fix it, they would be grateful. We could stage a bloodless invasion.”

“We could, ma’am, if we were close enough, but even if we were to increase our speed tenfold it would take another fifty years to get there, and I fear by then the damage would be irreversible.”

“You have a point, youngster. A valid point. Very well. We will remove 7439.3 off the potential list.”

“Commander, I request a favor…”

“Youngster?”

“I wish to… continue my correspondence with the young female.”

“You have grown fond of her.”

“I… she… yes.”

“I do not see the harm. In fact, I will offer a gift. We will give her world protected status. If the sentients there manage to correct their own errors, by the time we are close enough, we will invite them to become allies.”

“I believe they have potential, ma’am.”

“I hope you are correct, Xplo!kka’t. Dismissed.”

He returned to his duty station.

* * *

I stared at the postcard rack in front of me, and grinned. It was suitably cheesy, and I hoped my pen pal of six years would appreciate it. The front was an iceberg and across it was GREETINGS FROM FAIRBANKS!

Dear Xplo!kka’t,

Well, I’ve done it! I’ve finished my university studies, done the graduation thing, and made it to Alaska. I’ll be here in Fairbanks for a few days for orientation and then I’ll be heading to a boat to spend the next three months at sea working as a journalist on an oceanic research vessel. The science types will be studying coastal erosion, ice melt, water temperatures, and other things that have to do with climate change and pollution. I’ll just be writing about it. I guess all these years of writing postcards to you gave me a lot of practice and really increased my interest in ecology. Thank you for that, my friend from the stars.

Oh… and Jeff Neuhalfen got the research grant, so he’s here too. I’m not sure if we’ll stay together, but three months at sea feels like a really good test of a relationship. I guess the other test will be telling him about my pen pal.

Looking forward to your next postcard.

Sincerely, Megan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheesecake

Like the Prose: Challenge #12 – Write a story in third person omniscient tense with stream of consciousness in it.

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Claudia heard the bell over the door and looked up to see who had entered. It was ten at night, the last hour she was typically open on weeknights, but there was one customer who always came in at this hour on a Thursday, and when she glanced around the mostly-empty tables she saw him.

He was probably twice her thirty years old, and he dressed as if he’d come out of a 1950’s movie, with a black fedora and a proper suit and tie, not just a sweater and jeans (or dockers, she supposed most men his age actually wore dockers). His suit was scruffy, though, the sleeves were worn at the cuffs and the elbows were shiny, while the hems of his pants were starting to fray slightly.

Claudia often wondered if he simply didn’t realize his clothes were wearing out, or if he didn’t care, and yet, at the same time, his slightly out-of-time look suited him, though if pressed, she’d confess to being curious about his profession. Was he retired, or still working? A professor at the university down the block, perhaps? Or maybe he’d been a spy in his younger days, and hadn’t quite shed the last remnants of his cold war habits.

If truth be told, what really loved was watching the graceful way his hands moved as he picked up his cappuccino cup and lifted it to his lips. How he managed to drink the stuff without ever getting foam on his salt-and-pepper mustache she never knew.

With a start, Claudia realized her customer was starting at her, even as she’d been watching him, and she blushed. “Hello, Viktor,” she called softly across the space between them. “Your usual?”

“Yes, please?” he answered her in softly accented English.

She smiled at him and moved to pull the shots and steam the milk for his drink.

* * *

At his usual table, the one that allowed him decent views of the front and back entrances of the café as well as the bar area, Viktor allowed himself a long moment to observe the young woman who owned the establishment.

He had been coming here once a week in the two years since his Sophie had died, as much for the organic fair-trade coffee as for the young barista herself. Something about her reminded him of a woman he’d known in Paris decades before – not so much in the way she looked, for that woman had been a brittle blonde and Claudia the café owner had vibrant red hair – but in the way she carried herself confidence, and treated all of her patrons as if they were family.

Just when he was certain she’d noticed him staring at her, Claudia called his name. “Hello Viktor. Your usual?”

He’d confirmed his regular order and then turned his attention to the buttons of his overcoat, undoing each one, slowly, and then shrugging his shoulders out of the thing. He knew there was a stain on the right lapel, and if Sophie were alive, she’d never have let him wear the thing out of the house, but he liked the way he felt in it: as though he were a man of substance.

Perhaps, he thought, this would be the night he invited Claudia to sit with him while he sipped his coffee. And perhaps the younger woman would accept. He would look into her warm brown eyes and find the spark of connection he longed for, and they would begin a conversation. Conversation would lead to an invitation to dinner and dinner would turn into… he didn’t know what. It had been too many years since he had courted a woman. Hell, he was pretty certain that ‘courting’ wasn’t even done any more. Kids today ‘dated’ or ‘hung out’ or ‘hooked up,’ none of which sounded appealing to him, and none of which seemed appropriate for a woman like Claudia.

* * *

“Cappuccino for your thoughts?” the woman in question appeared at his side and set his drink on the table. “It’s a nice night tonight. Probably be warm enough to open the patio this weekend.”

“It always feels festive, drinking coffee in the starlight, of an evening.”

“I think so, too,” Claudia said, smiling. “Mind if I sit down?” She hoped he wouldn’t object. He’d been a mystery for two years and it was time to change that.

Viktor returned her smile with one of his own, his blue eyes dancing. “I had finally worked up the nerve to ask you to join me. Can you afford the time?”

Claudia looked around. “You’re my last customer,” she said. “Wait a moment.” She left his side and went to lock the doors and flip the signs from OPEN to CLOSED. Then she went behind the bar and made her own drink, and also served a slice of cheesecake, returning to his table with drink, dessert, and two forks. “Share this with me?” she invited settling into the chair opposite his.

“Did you bake it?” Viktor asked. He knew that Claudia made many of the pastries she sold at the café, as well as the soups and pastas, but that others on her staff also cooked.

Claudia nodded, offering him a fork. “Family recipe. The key is to use real lemon. Try it.”

Viktor accepted the fork and sectioned off some of the cake. It was perfectly crumbly, and there were none of those too-sweet fruit sauces on top. He tasted it and his eyes went wide. “But, this is lovely. It… it tastes like home.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Claudia said. “I’m a cheesecake purist. Most people these days want all this stuff on top, but I think if you can’t do a perfect plain cheesecake, you can’t do anything.”

“Have you always wanted to be a baker?” Viktor wanted to know everything about this woman but it was their first real conversation, so he was restricting himself to safe topics.

“No, when I was little I wanted to be Mata Hari.”

“The spy?”

“Yes. I wanted to be the femme fatale who seduced secrets from handsome men.” She laughed to show that she was joking, and let her eyes go wide. Would he find her too audacious? Claudia hoped not. “For the longest time I’ve wondered if you might be a spy,” she confessed.

Viktor laughed. “Me! A spy! No… oh… oh, no. Not at all. I teach at the university.”

“That was my second guess. What subject?”

“History.”

“Tell me more?”

Viktor took a sip of his cappuccino, noticing that the woman across from him paid close attention to his hands when he lifted his cup. Smiling softly, he said. “Well, I’ve always liked to know the stories of how things came to be…”

Claudia put her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands. This man was all she’d hoped he’d be. Charming, funny, smart. She could listen to him for hours. To think that she’d been watching and wondering about him for two years, when all it took to get him to open up was cheesecake.

Coils

Like the Prose: Challenge #11 – Write a first-person narrative where the narrator is not the hero.

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I can’t help but stare at her hair. Chestnut coils cascading down from the top of her head nearly to the small of her back. I fantasize about running my fingers through it and letting them catch on the curls.

The weight of her tresses must bother her for she rolls her head back and forth from shoulder to shoulder as if working out tension. I can only imagine what it must feel like to carry that mass around with her on a daily basis.

I decide I must have it. Her hair. Her.

I learn her patterns. She works in an art gallery, wears black far too frequently. I understand that dark colors are less likely to detract from the art, but a deep green would set off her hair, and suit her pale coloring, so much more favorably.

I spend time gazing at the works she represents. I strike up a conversation about one of the better pieces. Most is contemporary, abstract, cold. The piece I gravitate to is all warmth and curves. The female form exploded.

“Do you like it?” she asks. “It’s one of my own.”

I invite her for a coffee.

She suggests wine and tapas instead.

I accept.

We see each other several times over the next few weeks, months, but never on a set day. “I’m in town for a day,” I lie. “Dinner?” This continues. Our acquaintanceship becomes a friendship, a romance, a casual relationship.

When we’re sitting side by side in a banquet seat at a restaurant, I tease her by playing with her hair. It’s soft, I realize, and smells faintly of peaches. When our lunches and dinners become bedroom trysts, I watch her hair curtain my nether parts from view as she kneels over me to give me pleasure. When, later, our positions are reversed, her hair is fanned around her on the pillow, and I’m nearly overcome by the sight.

“Sometimes,” she teases, when I’m playing with her hair as we sip wine and nibble artisan pizza in front of the television, “I think you only want me for my hair.”

She is more correct than she knows.

Relationships built on lies and half-truths never last. She begins to suspect that I’m not what I seem. I claim to travel for work, but never tell her what that work is. I never invite her to my place, only spend time at hers.

When the news begins to carry the story of a serial killer whose kills are on certain days of the week, she laughs and notices, “We never seem to meet on Thursdays.”

“I never got the hang of them,” I answer, quoting a cheesy science fiction novel with a line that is both funny and suitably cryptic.

She is not amused.

She tells me she’s not comfortable with our arrangement.

She wants answers, or an ending.

I give her the latter.

We were in bed, of course. I made sure she was satisfied before I wrapped my hands around her neck.

It doesn’t take that much strength to squeeze the life out of someone, but it takes patience. Perseverance, really.

Of course, I kept a memento of our time together. I’m sure I don’t need to specify, but I will, because where others will see one more box of hair, I see a treasure chest of chestnut coils.

Jellyfish

Like the Prose: Challenge #10 –  Write an anecdote. (I couched mine in Basil & Zoe’s first meeting.)

jellyfish

“It’s not like I’m ever going to need this kind of math later in life anyway,” I grumbled at my mother as she led me through the different biology labs of the ship. “I’m going to be on stage.”

“I know you have your heart set on an arts career, Zoe, but that doesn’t mean you should skimp on your education.”

“I have a 4.0 GPA. I’m in all advanced placement classes. I’ve been accepted to three Ivy League schools, two conservatories and the Space Fleet Academy – ”

” – where you will never even consider attending – ” my mother’s tone was wry.

” – where I wouldn’t attend if you paid me,” I corrected.

“Say that a little louder, kiddo, I don’t think the captain heard you.” She turned into a door marked ‘aquatics.’ “Here we are…” We walked through three more labs, pausing in one that was lined with tanks and lit with only dim blue light. There were benches down the center of the room. “Sit.”

“Here?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“Because this is the jellyfish lab, and jellyfish are calming, and you, my sweet daughter need some calm in your life. So, sit here. Get a grip. Come home in half an hour and try the math homework again.”

“Half an hour?” I whined.

“Complain again and I’ll lock you out for an hour.”

“See you in twenty-nine and a half minutes, Mom.”

“Smart choice.” And she left, heading out the way we came in.

And I… well, the jellyfish were kind of entrancing. So much so that when someone else came in the room and spoke to me I jumped.

“Pardon me,” a smooth voice said. “I did not mean to disturb you.”

“You’re not bothering me,” I began as I looked up into a face I’d never seen before. But I was thunderstruck, because the features I saw above the collar bearing pips of a lieutenant commander were pale silver, like moonlight. Belatedly, I added, “Sir.”

“May I ask why you are in the aquatics laboratory at this hour? Traditionally students are restricted to the civilian decks after school hours.”

“My mother is giving me an object lesson in relaxation.”

“I am afraid I do not understand.”

“I was freaking out over a math assignment and she brought me hear to stare at the jellyfish for half an hour because ‘fish are calming.'”

“Ah.”

“My mother is Dr. Harris. Lieutenant Harris. I’m Zoe.”

“You may call me Basil.”

“You’re a synthetic lifeform?”

“I am.”

“And you’re an officer?”

“That is also correct.”

“If you stay with me, will that count as lifting the restriction on being here?”

“It would, yes.”

“Then, Basil, would you like to watch the jellyfish with me for twenty minutes?”

“Thank you, Zoe, I accept your invitation.” He joined me on the bench and we were quiet for several minutes but then he broke the silence. “Were you aware, that the term ‘jellyfish’ is not accurate?”

“I’m not sure what you mean?”

“These creatures are neither jelly nor technically fish. Rather they are varieties of the phylum Cnidaria which includes the ‘true jellies’ but even those are not fish. In fact the word ‘jellyfish’ actually proves this.”

I was understandably skeptical. “The word ‘jellyfish’ proves that a jellyfish isn’t a fish?”

“Yes. You see, in scientific nomenclature we compound names imply an inaccurate description. Consider the name ‘starfish’ for sea stars, or ‘seahorse’ for the creatures that are obviously not equine.”

“Huh. I’ve never really thought about it. Interesting.”

“I am glad you found it so.” He gave me what I perceived to be a considering look. “Does your mother allow you to spend time on Deck Zero?”

Deck Zero was the domed recreation and observation space at the top of the ship. It wasn’t a deck, hence it’s name, and it included a formal officers’ mess as well as common space.

“I’m seventeen. As long as she knows where I am, and I maintain my grades and meet curfew she doesn’t care where I go. I mean… we live on a spaceship.”

“Then, if you would care to adjourn to the Deck Zero lounge, I believe I can assist you with your troublesome math assignment.”

“You mean, you don’t agree that staring at jellyfish to rest my mood will magically fix the problem?” I teased.

“I am certain a calmer mood will help,” he hedged. “But it will not impart understanding where there is none.”

“I’d need to get my tablet,” I said. “But if you truly don’t mind, I could use the help.”

“I will accompany you,” he – Basil – replied. “I would like to ensure that your mother does not object.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Although, it would have been nice to let her think her jellyfish plan worked.”

Basil looked at the tank in front of us, and then at me, again. “In a way,” he said, “you could say that it did.”

Carob Drops

Like the Prose: Challenge 9 – Experiment with writing a Haibun (short first-person prose punctuated by haiku or tanka).

wrinkleintime

It’s late at night, and the storm raging outside seems like it’s doing its level best to come indoors. I’m tucked up in a loft bed at the top of Emily and Rajesh’s A-frame, wrapped in quilts. The power has long-since gone out, but the house is warm. The heat is provided by a wood stove with a pipe that goes all the way up the center of the house. Similarly, the lightning flashing beyond the glass window is not my only illumination. I have a lantern, a book, a mug of peppermint tea with a lot of honey in it, and, a secret gift from Rajesh: a baggie full of carob drops. He’s not the first brown-skinned man I’ve ever met, but he’s the first who isn’t Navajo, or doesn’t speak Spanish. He speaks better English than we do, Mommy says. In fact, he speaks it with an accent that sounds like music, and he knows just how to connect to an eight-year-old girl. He lets a twinkle appear in his warm brown eyes and promises that the tiny candies will give me sweet dreams. “And in the morning, your mother will be back,” he adds, with a smile I know I can trust. And so, I settle into my nest of quilts and get lost in the book he gave me: A Wrinkle in Time.

 

Little girl in braids
Finds her comfort from the storm
Warmed by lantern light,,
Reading tales of tesseracts
And savoring carob drops.

Like Smoke

Like the Prose: Challenge #8 – Shape a story inspired by football (soccer).

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I’m in a café in Madrid, and inevitably the conversation turns to fútbol – football – the game I know as soccer. As has happened time and again on my visit to this city, my companion’s demeanor has the song “Gay or European” from Legally Blonde: the Musical  running through my head.

I apologize for my bad language skills. “Me Español es muy mal y Mexicana,” I explain.

He counters, “Me Ingles es como humo.” Like smoke.

But I understand more Spanish than I can speak, and even though the Castillian accent throws me a little, somehow, we manage to communicate.

He asks me if I follow the game, and I have to admit I don’t. “I’m not really a sports person,” I say. “Except for figure skating and horse racing.” I blush and add, gesturing to the television, “I like the outfits. The shiny shirts and tiny shorts.” I’m quoting the musical again.

He laughs at that. “Well, who can blame you. It is why men watch gymnastics and swimming, no?”

I have to agree. It is probably why some men watch those sports.

“The problem is, you look at fútbol and see a ball game,” he says. “And really, you should see a dance. It is a dance with a ball. A great dance on a ballroom made of grass. The ball, she is your partner, and the other team, they are trying to steal your partner, and get her to go home with them for the night.”

“Okay,” I say, “you make it sound almost sexy.”

“It is sexy,” my companion insists. “Come, let me show you?”

“Now?”

“Do you have other plans?”

I don’t, and I admit it.

“Alright, so…” and he asks for the check, and pays it before I can make even a token protest.

He leads me a few blocks away to a terraced square where young boys in school uniforms are kicking a ball around. “That building,” he points, “was once a palace. Now it is a school.” He calls the boys over, asks if he can show the Americana how to appreciate fútbol. Asks if they will assist him.

At first, I just watch, but gradually, I’m drawn into the pick-up game. It’s casual. Informal. All good, because I’m told not to put my purse down (thankfully it’s a small cross-body bag) lest someone wander off with it.

And after half an hour, or an hour, I’m breathless from the activity, and the altitude (Madrid is much higher than where I live), but I’m also beginning to see what he means. It’s a dance. Patterns upon patterns.

We treat the boys to limonadas or Coca Colas and join them in their refreshment. The afternoon is dying, and my companion asks if I want to extend our afternoon, tour the literary quarter, then go to dinner “… and perhaps another kind of dance, if you are interested…?”

He’s a wonderful flirt, and I’m definitely interested. I accept his invitation.

* * *

Weeks later, I’m sitting in my office racing to meet a deadline when a box arrives from my Madrilleno dance partner. It’s a regulation fútbol and an invitation to return for a proper visit.

I laugh at the gift because I expected our encounter to be as ephemeral as his professed English skills.

Like smoke.

Then I reach for my phone to send a message over WhatsApp – asking when’s a good time for a visit.

He says after the World Cup.

I tell him it’s a date.

Buzz

Like the Prose: Challenge #7 – Write about a culture you know nothing about and give your protagonist a profession you’re unfamiliar with. (I confess: I cheated a bit and invented both the culture and the profession.) Photo courtesy of the Facebook FlashPrompt group.

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The truth is, Fenella resented that she was required to carry the blade with her. She had never believed the horned buzzers would revolt; she knew they enjoyed the service they provided to their humanoid companions.

And it wasn’t as though they were enslaved.

When her ancestors had come to this world, decades before, fleeing the polluted environment and equally polluted governments of Old Earth, they had taken with them only positive ideals.

Equality. Unity. Socialism where it was necessary, but capitalism where that was more beneficial. A two-tiered financial structure where people bartered where they could and only used credits when bartering wasn’t practical.

You couldn’t really barter a bushel of apples for a new roof, for example; it wasn’t practical.

But you could trade those apples and an equal number of yams, and maybe a monthly supply of field greens for a side of beef.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was working so far.

A blend of old and new.

Just like the professions.

Fenella’s parents had wanted her to go into a Traditional Profession. Her mother was a surgeon and her father enjoyed being a greengrocer.

But she was a child of this world and she insisted she wanted to be entirely of it. And when she had met one of the Wranglers outside her school one day, she’d fallen in love. Not with him – he was far too old for her – but his buzzer had let her touch his furred side and, and she’d felt herself in harmony with the great winged creature.

They had smaller buzzers on this world too. The ones bred from Old Earth honeybees. They were pollinators.

But the horned buzzers… they were bred up from carpenter bees, and their mass made them able to carry baskets capable of transporting goods or people across the great continents, or even the oceans (though it required stopovers on small islands en route).

They weren’t entirely sentient. More than a dog or a horse. Less than a human. Easily directed. And they could work in, well, swarms, if a job dictated it.

Still, every so often, they said, a horned buzzer would go rogue. It was pheromones. Or resentment. Or exhaustion. No one was sure. And for that reason, the Wranglers carried the blades.

The first step was to make the blade vibrate and touch it to the buzzer’s horn. It would sort of… reboot its nervous system.

And if that didn’t work, well, there was a reason the blades were sharp.

As a catch-and-release Wrangler, Fenella wasn’t assigned to just one buzzer, and she was glad of it, because if she had a hard time just carrying the blade, how much harder to consider having to put down a creature you worked with every day?

Not that she believed it would happen.

A voice came over her headset. “Five buzzers, income.”

“Catch and release station six, ready,” she responded.

Fenella stood on the cliff watching for the impending arrival. She felt it before she could see it. She could feel their buzz.

 

 

Playing House

Like the Prose: Challenge #6 – Write about a deep secret.

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Sometimes, she thinks, the writers should have given her better lines. Like when they had that stupid argument about the kids’ beds. She wanted paired captain’s beds with desks at the ends, and he insisted stack up bunk beds were better because they’d have more floor space.

“But they’ll fight over who which of them gets the top bunk.”

“No, they won’t,” he’d argued, pointing out that their older son liked to stay up later, reading, and having the bottom bunk meant he could have a clip-on reading light, and the younger boy was a marathon sleeper, never got up in the night, so putting him up top wouldn’t disrupt anything.

She’d wanted to counter that he was a marathon sleeper now, but she’d ended up just yelling that since he knew so much more about their boys he should do whatever he thought was best.

It wasn’t the first such argument.

And it wasn’t that she didn’t love their boys, wasn’t madly, scandalously in love with her husband, but sometimes it felt like she was just playing house. Like this wasn’t really her life, that she was an actress playing a part and she’d wake up and walk into her real life as a foreign correspondent or a famous chef or… something.

She’d gone through all the counseling after Zachary was born and then again when the arrival of Jordan had sent her into an emotional tailspin, but post-partum depression couldn’t still be a thing after nine years, could it?

Could it?

And really, Facebook is to blame.

Oklahoma? Her college editor had responded when she’d made the “friend request” a few days earlier. You’re living on a ranch in Oklahoma? And you’re married? I expected you to end up in New York, London, Paris. I thought you’d have published seven novels by now. But as long as you’re happy…

And that’s the thing. Feminism teaches that her life is her choice. That staying home and writing cooking blogs and raising two boys who are free thinkers and respectful of women is as valid as anything she might have done before (and there was a novel, actually, before she traded that life for this one).

And, really, that’s the secret she doesn’t share: that she’s happy. She’s so goddamned happy, and she feels fucking guilty for enjoying her life. Like she’s some horrible failure for not living up to other people’s expectations of what she should have been.

And so, she goes through periods where she wishes she had better writers handling her day-to-day dialogue.

And sometimes, she feels like she’s playing house.

Free Falling

Like the Prose: Challenge #5 – Have a friend tell you a true story. Use it to inspire a piece of fiction.

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She’s never liked smoking the stuff. The taste, the smell, the way it makes her lungs feel tight and takes away her ability to draw breath – these are the things she associates with smoking pot. But she’s not a prude, and when the couple on the next blanket offers them some… enhanced… brownies she’s happy to take one in exchange for the beer her husband is offering in return.

She doesn’t tell them that she’s worried about her kids, but her husband knows. He’s been assuring her all day that they’re fine at home with her mother, that it’s okay to do something for herself for a change, that date night is important.

And he was so happy when he surprised her this morning with the tickets. His big grin had never been wider or more natural. He’d picked her up and swung her around giggling like a loon and kept spinning her in circles until she was giggling with him.

He was good at that.

At making her laugh so the anxiety stayed away.

That’s why it had to be a surprise.

* * *

“Maybe we should call home,” she says for the fifteenth time on their way to the arena. It’s only a ninety-minute drive, but they just don’t leave the kids that often. Mostly, they don’t have the opportunity. Sure, they can say that it’s because money’s tight – but honestly, when is it not? When is it ever not, for everyone, everywhere?

No, the real reason is that he’s working shifts and she’s working furiously on her novel, and there are four kids and her parents and his parents and church and social obligations, and all of that adds up and means that couple-time is relegated to those precious few moments when all four kids are asleep at the same time, and they’re lying in bed together in the dark.

Or, better, when they’re lying in bed together in the soft light of not-quite-dawn. She thinks of that time as their magic time, because the kids are still in bed, and they’re just them. Her hand drops to her belly, as she thinks of the way they spent that magic time a few mornings ago, and of the fact that in all the stress of having four kids she’s missed a pill here and there, and while she isn’t exactly trying for another kid – Jesus, but four is a lot to cope with – if it happens, it happens. They roll with the punches, she and her husband, her lover, her soulmate. It’s what they do.

* * *

The parking lot feels like it’s in orbit around the moon, for as far as they have to walk to get to the gates, and then they’re told they can’t bring chairs.

For a moment, she’s worried he’ll press the point. “Since when can you not have lawn chairs on the lawn?” he asks the guard.

But she notices the shake of his head and the dimpling of his cheeks that mean a smile is forthcoming. He’s being ironic.

All chivalry, he buys her a bottled water and tells her to wait while he treks back to their van to swap the chairs for a sleeping bag. He’s taller, he reminds her, and can walk faster.

She lets him do it.

The stench of other people’s pot makes the hike up the hillside to the top of the amphitheater feel more like she’s scaling Everest, and when she tells him that he says he’s way handsomer than any Sherpa and she agrees and tells him he has a nicer ass, too.

Laughing, they make it to where they’re supposed to be, glad they remembered to bring the binoculars. There are speakers, so they can hear everything. But without the binocs they might as well be at an ants’ concert.

They spread the sleeping bag on the soft grass, grateful that it’s been a cool, dry spring and there aren’t any mosquitoes. But they’ve forgotten how slick the material can be. They end up having to hunt down rocks to keep everything still.

But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter at all, because the music starts, and he’s got his arms around her and the stars are coming out overhead.

And when she’s eaten the brownies from the couple next to them, she stops worrying about the kids, at least for a while.

But in between songs, people are moving about, and at one point they get up to dance, and the rocks get kicked away. Clumsy, she falls to the ground, caught by her husband and the sleeping bag, but the impact sets the thing in motion.

They’re sliding, and people around them are glaring, but she’s not worried about what they think, because he’s laughing and she’s laughing with them, and their laughter only gets louder when the song being played reaches its chorus:

And I’m free
Free fallin’
Yeah I’m free
Free fallin’

 

She sings along with Tom Petty for a few verses, and she realizes free-falling isn’t so bad when you’re doing it hand-in-hand with the man you love.