February 20, 2019No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Atmosphere

"Nanga Parbat. It's one of the tallest mountains in the world at 26,000 feet," Brooks said, his voice rising in pitch and in speed as he told me about the book on the Himalayas he was reading. "But it's the sherpas that really get me. They were so devoted, so honorable. One stayed with a fallen climber on a ridge, facing sure death, just because he would not leave the man to  die alone. He could have saved himself. Think about that! And he stayed."

Brooks slammed his hand on the kitchen table with a thwack that made my coffee shiver in its mug. "I have to show you the photo of this killer mountain," he said.

His feet hit the floor so hard I can hear the house creak. I poured the coffee down the sink drain, its dark smell now reminds of me of foreboding and turns my stomach. Cold from the tile floor shot up my legs.

Like the man in the suit waving his hand over a map on the morning news show that played silently in the other room, I was a meteorologist, not of the weather but of Brooks' moods. His mounting excitement, verging on agitation, told me a storm was brewing. When he slammed his hand on the table, I knew the funnel cloud had formed.

Now I waited for the tornado to touch down.

I let the hot water warm my hands as I washed the mug. The cat rose from her sunny perch by the back door and snaked between my legs before leaving the kitchen. Perhaps she sensed the impending storm too.

"Nancy!" His voice traveled across the wood floors and over the furniture, piercing as a tornado siren. I counted his footsteps--one, two, three, four--until he burst back into the kitchen holding what looked like one of the used clothes dryer sheets made to stop static electricity in the laundry.

"I've told you before how toxic these are! Chloroform, camphor, ethyl acetate. The EPA calls these hazardous waste and we rub them all over our clothes."

He shook with anger. The Himalayas and the deadly honor of the sherpas was forgotten in the face of the tragedy of dryer sheets.

The mug, slippery with soap, dropped out of my hand to break against the stainless steel sink. A sharp bite of pain pulsed up my arm. Blood swirled into the water. I nicked my finger on a ceramic shard.

Brooks stared at the blood, his mouth hanging open. "Do you have your tetanus shot up to date?" he asked. He looked fearful. "Do you need stitches?"

I wrapped a dishcloth around my hand and held my arms out to him. "Don't worry, Brooks," I said. "It is a small thing."

July 17, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.

The bus carrying the VIP entourage of commissioners was king of the parking lot, tall enough to let its passengers look down their noses at lowly cars and trucks driving alongside. It pulled up outside the power plant with a low rumble followed by a squeal of brakes. The hydraulic door sighed and a stream of community leaders disembarked, wearing somber business suits and faces to match.

The first woman to approach Robin’s check-in table was a tall black woman with a poof of blond hair. Her name was Ladonna Jackson, and she was the newest commissioner. A few seconds later, she was replaced at the check-in table by the head commissioner, Bradley Harmon, and the city’s fire chief, Tim Daniels. They were both built like aging defensive linemen, large and imposing but with sagging skin and grandfatherly smiles. Harmon, a feline-faced good ol’ boy with a grey bristle brush mustache waxed into handlebars on either side of his mouth, looked through the name badges for his own, while the other nattered on about the mayor’s latest press conference. Robin was invisible again, even though she handed Commissioner Harmon his name tag.

Paul stood by the door, working the sincere eye contact “I really care about you” thing and two-handed handshake with the finesse of a United States Senator at a voter rally. As the last commissioner got off the bus, Paul followed him into the conference room where Robin sat with a pleasant smile fixed on her face, just in case her invisibility was slipping.

Commissioner Harmon stood in the back with Paul while the others sat down in rows of chairs set up for a presentation by the head engineer of the power plant. Paul never sat for anyone’s presentation. He considered his time too valuable to spend listening to someone else.

Robin watched as Paul grabbed Commissioner Harmon’s shoulder, temporarily wrinkling the light grey wool gabardine of his suit.

Harmon turned quickly and looked over his shoulder, startled. He smiled but his eyes were wary.

Paul leaned in to say something, then used his square chin to point to the driveway where the bus sat, still running. They exchanged a few more words, then Harmon ran a palm over his bald head with a nod, the mustache concealing any frown.

Robin watched them exit the glass doors and vanish into the afternoon sunlight. She was confused by what she saw. Was Harmon was afraid of Paul? It seemed like the balance of power should swing the other way, since the chief of staff served at the pleasure of the commission. But it was not unlike Paul to find ways to punish people who got in his way, even people with more authority than him. Working for him for three years, she had been conditioned to keep problems from him and never question him in order to avoid his wrath. Who knew what Commissioner Harmon had done to Paul? Perhaps he had embarrassed Paul publicly. Or questioned a decision he made. She was embarrassed to realize that her first reaction was relief that Paul had a victim other than her in his sights. And this realization made her ashamed, so she put the episode out of her mind and went to check on the coffee.

When the head engineer finished his show-and-tell, Robin turned on the lights. People blinked and stretched and yawned. The polite ones who had put their electronic devices away in pockets or purses or briefcases for the duration pulled them back out and bowed their heads to study the small screens.

Paul rushed to the podium, sidestepping past the head engineer to stick his mouth in front of the microphone. Robin turned and saw Commissioner Harmon in the back, scrolling through email on his mobile. She was startled to see his face had gone white as marble and his hands were shaking.

“For the next part of the tour, you’ll need to wear hard hats and safety glasses,” Paul announced. “We’ve got them for you in the back. Now, I know for some of you ladies, this isn’t fashionable, so if you don’t want to mess up your hair, you can skip the tour.”

Ladonna Jackson grimaced and marched past Robin to grab the first hard hat and glasses and put them on. “Is he always such an ass?” Ladonna asked a man in shirtsleeves, who shrugged. Robin followed them through heavy doors into the hydroelectric power plant.

The vast hall felt more like a train station than a power plant. Vaulted ceilings soared seventy feet above, and the massive turbines were cased in a sea foam green metal casing that resembled nothing as much as classic Pullman train cars. The air was thick and moist, and the turbines rumbled and roared like jet engines. Sunlight glistened off the reservoir through the open bay doors and onto the shiny tile floor.

The head engineer pointed down the aisle separating two rows of the massive fifteen-feet tall turbines.  A stainless steel landing with rounded guard rails adorned the top of each turbine. With gestures and shouting, he made it clear that the group was to follow him up the stairs to a catwalk that grazed the roof line.

With a few raised eyebrows and exaggerated feints of fear, the group queued behind the head engineer to tramp up the grated metal stairs. Ladonna grabbed the handrails on either side and climbed the steps on tippy toes, taking care not to let her three-inch heels get caught in the grating.

Paul was the last to mount the stairs.

“Get pictures of this for the newsletter,” Paul shouted in Robin’s ear. She’d forgotten to take any photos at the presentation, had forgotten even that the small digital camera was in her jacket pocket. Icy white waves of anxiety pounded in her chest and she tried to quietly calm her breathing. A simple mistake, that’s all, she told herself. No one has died. I made a simple mistake.

She waited until the commissioners arrived at the catwalk and were looking down into the spinning turbines, then snapped away. She saw Commissioner Harmon pause, his eyes on Paul. Paul arrived at the landing and looked down. Robin waved to let him know she was doing what he asked, but got no response back. Invisible again, or maybe just hidden by the shadow of the turbine. Paul wouldn’t care where she was as long as she got the pictures he wanted.

She saw Paul shake his head and try to move past Harmon, who blocked him like a linebacker on the fourth down.

The head engineer led the group farther away from the pair, pointing and gesturing down toward the turbines. Everyone’s eyes were cast downward towards the huge machines, except for Paul’s and Commissioner Harmon’s. Robin zoomed the camera lens, to see if she could read their lips. All she saw was bared teeth and snarls.

And then, in one abrupt and entirely unexpected gesture, Commissioner Harmon bent at the knees, grabbed Paul by the arms, and flung him like a doll off the catwalk. Robin screamed, and so did Paul, but no one could hear it over the noise of the turbines. Robin somehow managed to press the camera button at the apex moment, capturing a perfect mid-air picture of Paul, arms and legs flapping like wings. On the catwalk, Commissioner Harmon’s gaping mouth was a black hole under his bristle brush mustache.

Paul tumbled sixty feet to land, rear first, onto the pointy top of the turbine case. His body crumpled then lay still.

July 10, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 1

The first time it happened she was at the laundromat. Then there was another occasion, a few weeks later, while pushing her cart at the supermarket. Initially it was terrifying, but now it happened nearly every day and Robin was starting to like it. It was certainly more gratifying than the long stints of yoga and meditation she’d been trying in order to replace resentment and powerlessness with peace and acceptance.

Yes, she did feel just the tiniest bit lonely, but loneliness was a tolerable price to pay for this seductive new power. The things she learned! Just today, she’d discovered that Alesha and her husband hadn’t had sex in three months. And that Missy was pretending not to know how to use a spreadsheet program to avoid doing work.

Knowledge was power. And power was something Robin definitely lacked in her dead-end cubicle job at Creek City. She’d tried to accept it, writing out little gratitude lists every morning to try to keep her attitude positive. I am healthy. I have a wonderful son who loves me. I have a job when so many people do not. But knowing people’s secrets turned out to be far more motivating. Her secret knowledge made her feel strong, like a hammer cracking through people’s outer shells, revealing their messy, gooey insides. So she quickly learned not to mind that she’d had to become invisible to get it.

Even Robin’s young boss Paul Boyce, Creek City’s chief of staff, wasn’t immune to the power of her invisibility. She heard his footsteps, quick and agitated, on the hallway tile before he poked his head in the conference room where she had been waiting for him for half an hour.

“I almost didn’t see you. What are you doing just sitting here?” Paul was short and plump, with tiny hands and a high-pitched voice that reminded Robin of her son when he was a toddler, always on the verge of a temper tantrum if he didn’t get his way. Her son grew out of it, but Paul was committed for life.

“You said to meet you down here at one,” Robin said. She tried not to let her impatience leak out. His favorite power play was to make people wait.

His little legs covered the twenty feet of thin office carpet in surprisingly long strides. He started rifling through the box of laminated name tags. With trembling hands Robin fumbled for the smooth black jade pendant hanging around her neck, trying to tap into the calming powers promised by the saleswoman at the Goddess Rock Shop. Try as she might, she could only partially believe in the stone’s mystic powers. If Paul were to ask about whether the stone had any meaning (which he never would) she would deny it and say she simply liked the way it looked.

“Robin, am I going to find typos again?”

The sound of her name hit her ears like the heavy clang of a bell. She could feel his anger rising like a fiery morning sun, even though he hadn’t actually found a typo yet. He was looking for an excuse to erupt.

“I checked them twice,” Robin said.

She tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. After days of enjoying her invisibility, she felt practically naked to be the focus of so much of someone’s attention. Especially the critical kind.

If he found a mistake in the name tags, he’d start yelling and then follow her back to her desk where he would stand over her shoulder watching her try to correct the names with shaking hands. Please don’t find an error, she thought.

He pulled out a random sample for inspection, his green eyes ping-ponging over the names and titles. Robin held her breath. Paul had every name of every commissioner memorized. He was the kind of man who was uptight about the small details but often let the really big things slide.

“Looks OK,” he said, and flung them on the table in a messy heap. Robin’s hands crabbed over the table, gathering them up for re-alphabetization. He turned his back to her.

Her shoulders softened and she took a deep breath to release the tension, like the yoga instructor told her. She was invisible once again.

You can read Part 2 here.

April 24, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 3

Editor's note: You can read part 2 here.

Still in shock, Neil found himself walking ten blocks back to his car, a dark green Toyota mini-pickup, not sure how it had come to be that he would to take Melly to the hospital. There’d been some confusion after Linus was shot, during which the ambulance left without her, sirens screaming.  And she’d stood there, in the middle of the bar, arms folded over her chest and her face puffy and wet from crying. “I’m too upset to drive,” she said. It also turned out that she and Linus didn’t have a car.

The sun was too bright, and the others on the sidewalk were too cheerful. The saline, fishy smell of the ocean bit at his nose. A paperback mystery novel he had once enjoyed sprang to his mind, its dark comedy of murder and death set in the sleepy beauty of the Florida Keys striking him as horrible now that he had witnessed in person a violent crime. There really was nothing funny about being shot.

His T-shirt was as damp as if he had ran two miles, and the cool sea breeze made him shiver. The sound of laughter pealed out of a juice and smoothie cafe. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and irrationally he thought it was Melly or Linus, calling to see where he was, before realizing that of course neither had his mobile number.

The text on his phone was from his friend Ray. “Want to come over and jam?”

Neil thought about the last jam session he’d gone to at Ray’s; a kickback, marijuana-infused afternoon playing riffs and listening to Ray’s girlfriend come up with crazy lyrics to their impromptu songs. It sounded like the best possible antidote to the events of the day; the gunshot could become a story with edges dulled by distance and pot.

He put the phone on the seat without responding and five minutes later, he was parked in front of the Green Man bar. The urge to put the truck back in drive and keep going was strong. Why get involved in these peoples’ lives? They didn’t even know his last name. Surely they would not be surprised if he never showed up again, an afternoon ghost with a guitar on a day of tragic events.

But then Melly stepped onto the cracked sidewalk, her hand shading her eyes from the glare, and a green purse strapped around her body. She looked fragile and small, like a doll, standing there, so Neil tapped the horn -- one beep -- and with the faintest of smiles she walked toward him.

“I guess I could’ve taken the bus,” she said, settling into the truck’s bench seat as he slid the phone back in his jeans pocket. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

Neil saw she’d pulled her blonde and grey hair into a thin ponytail, revealing a sharp jawbone and hollow cheeks. Good-looking, for an older woman.

“No worries,” he said. But she’d already turned her head to look out of the window while he drove, her long fingers knitted together and resting on her lap.

They drove in silence for a long time, down Washington Boulevard to Lincoln, stopping and going and stopping in the usual beach area traffic.

“Linus owns the Green Man,” she said, out of the blue. “He likes to tell people I do, but it’s not true.”

“Are you two married?” Neil didn’t know what else to ask her, and even this venture seemed intrusive, odd. The kind of question that served only to highlight how little he knew about both of them.  He was a stranger thrust upon them in a tragedy.

She just shook her head. “Lived together a long time,” she said.

“Common law marriage, then,” he said, not sure why he was pressing her on this. She shrugged and kept looking out the window.

Neil drove through the enormous intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and the Marina Freeway, the white buildings of Daniel Freeman Hospital shining like a beacon against a bright blue sky. A day for taking pictures. He pulled into the driveway, following a sign that said emergency services drop-off. I’ll drop her off then head over to Ray’s. Duty done.

She closed her eyes and sat still as a mannequin. Neil held his breath, worried she would never get out. He realized that it would not be so simple for him as to be able to drop her off at the emergency room and then go about his life, chalking the whole experience up to a weird life lesson about not going off with strangers. He resigned himself to taking care of this woman, who had just witnessed her lover's shooting, and been at gunpoint herself. Let’s not be such a selfish bastard today, he thought.

“He’s saved my life five times,” she said, trembling slightly and Neil saw the tears brimming over her lashes and spilling on to her cheeks.

“Why don’t I park the truck and we’ll go in together?” he said.

She nodded and opened her eyes so he could see the gratitude outshining sadness briefly in their blue depths.

Editor's note: You can read part 4 here

April 17, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Dude, Part 2

[Editor's note: you can read part 1 here.]

Feeling some trepidation at following a stranger to an unknown location, Neil trailed behind Linus, his guitar case banging against his thigh. The other man carried Neil's mini-amp in one hand, the extension cord draped around his neck like a thin, black snake.  They crossed the street and headed north on Main. They walked for blocks in silence, until gluten-free pie bakeries and forty-dollar T-shirt stores gave way to liquor stores and apartment buildings begging for fresh paint.

Neil cleared his throat. “So, are we almost there yet?”

“Almost there,” Linus said without turning to face him.

“Longer walk than I expected,” Neil said, and when Linus didn’t respond to that, Neil felt a prickling along the back of his neck. What made him go off and start following this strange du-u-ude to a secret spot? He considered peeling off, claiming he had some pressing appointment he forgot about, but he didn’t want Linus to think he was some kind of pussy afraid of walking a few blocks. If it came to it, Neil could throw a punch.

At the next intersection, Linus turned right and ahead of them was a white stucco building, bars on its curtained windows. Someone had painted “Green Man” in shaky, uneven lettering above the open door.

It took a few moments for Neil’s eyes to adjust to the quiet darkness inside the bar. He first saw a jukebox on the far wall opposite the door, with red, green and yellow lights flashing. A thick man in dark clothes stood in profile to them, his left hand twitching at his side. Facing him was a tall blonde woman, who was pulling money out of the cash register with shaking hands.

“Melly,” Linus said. “You gotta hear this guy play.”

The man pivoted to the door. Neil didn’t see a gun, but he saw the flash of an explosion coming from the man’s right hand. The sound was deafening. He dropped the guitar case and then dove for the floor just as Linus was thrown backwards and on top of him.

“LINUS!” the woman shouted.

“The money!” the man said, his eyes darting from Linus and Neil to the door.

Neil’s throat closed over the coppery taste in his mouth. He saw dollar bills flutter to the floor like leaves, then scooped up by the man with shaking hands. Neil waited for the sound of the gun, but all he heard was heavy footsteps headed out the door.

He wiggled out from underneath Linus’s legs. Blood soaked the left shoulder of Linus’ shirt. Neil looked at the woman, who still stood frozen behind the bar, her hand clapped over her mouth.

“Call 911,” he said. “Now.”

She picked up the phone and he turned back to Linus, who was staring at the ceiling.

“Dude, we’re getting you some help,” Neil said. “You’re going to be all right.”

“Is that Melly?” Linus asked. The woman sobbed street names and numbers into the phone.

“She’s okay,” Neil said. “Just shaken up.”

“I wanted to bring you here for a reason,” Linus said.

“Yeah, my songs,” Neil said.

“More---” Linus said, then a coughing fit pulled his shoulders off of the floor. The bloodstain on his shirt spread to his chest. In the distance, Neil heard the sirens.

“Don’t---“ Linus said in between coughs.

“Lay back,” Neil said. “They’ll be here soon. Try to rest. You’ll be fine.”

“But---“

The sirens grew louder and louder until he heard the crunch of tires on gravel and doors opening and shutting outside. Two of LAPD’s finest came through the door with guns in hand, scanning the room before one kneeled next to Linus.

“Gunshot wound to the shoulder,” he said into his radio microphone. “Everyone else okay?”

Neil nodded, as did Melly.

“You shouldn’t---“

“Are you trying to tell me something about the shooter?” the police officer asked.

Linus shook his head, then slumped back on the floor, his eyes shutting. Neil watched his chest, relieved to see he was still breathing. Whatever he had to say to Neil, he’d have to do it when he was in better shape.

Editor's note: You can read part 3 here.

March 6, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Letting go

I'm hiking the steepest part of Wildwood Canyon in the late afternoon. My muscles are screaming for oxygen but each gulp of air seems to bring only dust.

This hike is both real and in my head, for I am scaling the internal terrain of my disappointment with Liam.

He walks ahead of me, leaving his excuses behind for me to gather, like tinder to stoke the fire of my fury. I stab him in the back with my angry words, but he just skitters away like a tiny lizard, looking for the next sunny rock.

My anger crests like the hill I am climbing. I cannot even keep Liam's attention for the length of my stride.

I lean into the last stretch of incline. I watch his back, solid even as it recedes from me. I hold my breath in my lungs, imagining oxygen molecules entering my blood stream and coursing through my body.

Then, suddenly, the climb is over. Wildwood Canyon opens up in front of me, and I want to fall to my knees like a supplicant in a church nave. The wind strokes my cheek and ruffles my hair, and somehow this breaks the anger into small pieces. I let out my breath and the sharp edges of the disappointment fly away. I'll give him another chance, I think.

As if he could read my thoughts, Liam turns around and waits for me to catch up.

January 16, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Bigfoot’s announcement

Bigfoot tapped the microphone set on the table in front of him. “Testing, testing,” he said, his voice low and guttural.

The sound guy shook his head and rushed over to fiddle with the dials and wires of the audio set-up for the hastily arranged press conference.

The public relations woman leaned in to one of his furry ears. “If you can work in a few messages on the need for public funding for Oregon state parks, I’ve prepared some talking points for you. Just a few facts...”

Bigfoot had a weak spot for pretty women. He took the paper from her in both paws and set it down as though he would read from it. “I’ll try,” he said, careful not to over-promise because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get all of his material into the scheduled time.

The double doors to the conference room opened, and the journalists with cameras of all kind jostled for position. Most of them couldn’t resist snapping pictures immediately, and their flashes blinded Bigfoot.

“Sit down, sit down,” the PR woman said. “He’ll be here for an hour and there is plenty of time for photos and questions. But first Bigfoot has a statement he wants to read.”

A few more minutes of shuffling and setting down equipment and the room grew quiet. What could have brought this legendary creature out of centuries of hiding? Global warming? Deforestation? Fracking?

He tapped the mic again, the resulting thump booming from the speakers and sending the sound guy into scurry mode. Bigfoot cleared his throat.

“In 2015, isn’t it time we moved past vampires and onto other supernatural beings? I liked Twilight just as much as the rest of you, but I think it is time for the world to tell the stories of other mythical creatures.”

A skeptical-looking reporter in the front row pointed at Bigfoot with his pen. “Other mythical creatures? Like, um, Bigfoot?”

Bigfoot’s matted fur covered his lips so the reporter didn’t see his smile. “I meant dragons or werewolves or elves, really,” he said. “But now that you mention it, Bigfoot’s family is very charismatic. My daughter scared the pants off of two campers last week. You should have seen them run.”

“So this is a pitch for a movie deal or reality show or something,” the reporter said, not trying to hide his disdain.

“Something like the Kardashians meets Little People, maybe. Plus a bit of Survivor. Maybe that guy Bear Grylis could host.”

The reporter in the front row threw his notebook and pen in his bag and got up to leave.

“So, where have you been the past forty years? Why haven’t we seen you before?”

“We live in a cave not too far from here. We finally got wifi last month. But better late than never, right?”

January 9, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Je suis Charlie

Robert had gone slack-jawed and moody from watching the news coverage of the shootings at a satirical magazine offices just a few kilometers from the apartment he shared with Cybille. The shaky footage shot by a passerby who heard cries of "Allah Akbar!” then the horrible rat-ta-tat-tat of automatic weapons had aired so many times that his outrage and disgust had numbed into weariness and fatigue. What could anyone do against those who reply to insults with bullets?

Cybille burst through the front door with a bag of groceries and a blast of fresh air.

“People are out in the streets tonight,” she said. “Everywhere I went was clogged with people, some carrying candles, others with these signs. Je suis Charlie.”

“Yes,” he said, gesturing weakly at the television. “I saw it.”

She hoisted the grocery bag to the counter.

“No, you haven’t seen it,” she said. “Come with me and experience it in person. Don't just be an observer.”

He straggled behind her down the steps of their apartment building, wrapping his scarf around his throat. An exercise in futility, he thought. What makes people come together after these tragedies? He suspected that more than a few wished mainly to be selected to be on television so they could broadcast their feelings and opinions. Another couple rushed by them, passing through the yellow glow of the street lamp and into a thick sea of people.

They did not join the crowd as much as it absorbed them; Robert followed her into its throbbing heart. Waves of sorrow, anguish and fear washed over him, the collective consciousness of the crowd thrumming in pain at the workplace shooting motivated by religious zeal and tasteless, offensive cartoons. Were they courting disaster at that magazine? Did they deserve it?

Someone started singing the French national anthem and soon the crowd of mourners was a choir of patriots.

Let's go children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!

Robert joined his voice to the chorus.

Against us tyranny's
Bloody flag is raised!
In the countryside, do you hear
The roaring of these fierce soldiers?
They come right to our arms
To slit the throats of our sons, our friends!

The surge of song shifted the mood of those assembled to resilience and hope, and Robert pulled Cybille to him and held her tightly. “I’m glad we came,” he said in her ear.

January 2, 2015No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Warning

My phone blared a low-pitched tone that woke me up faster than reveille ever did when I was in the Army. The clock said three eleven a.m. I rubbed the sleep crust out of my eyes and made myself focus on my surroundings. Light from the full moon slipped through the cracks of the cheap plastic blinds and onto the dark green wool blanket in a tangle around my legs. I was alone.

A robot man voice replaced the tone. They never used robot lady voices for these messages. Someone once told me that male voices have more authority. I didn't buy the argument. If they used a voice like my mother’s tobacco-ruined rumble, I’d be at full alert in a minute.

“This is the emergency broadcast channel. This is not a test. Please seek shelter immediately. Do not look outside, do not make noise, do not...” The transmission ended abruptly.

The Army trained me to take orders, but it had been years since my last salute. I threw on some clothes and boots, grabbed my gun and flung open the door of the cabin.

The freezing high desert air blasted the last bit of sleepiness out of my head. The scrubby little plants that grow like acne on the sandy soil threw huge shadows in the moonlight. At first glance, I thought she was my mother, summoned like Jumanji or Bloody Mary from purgatory or hell by my passing thought of her. She was a bony bird of a woman, hunched over so her head seemed to emerge out of her chest. She had long, stringy grey hair that slid over some kind of black judge’s gown that hid her feet.

When she was close enough to me that I could hear her bones creak, I pointed the gun at her chest and flipped the safety. She smiled the way my mother did, with no mirth or joy. More like someone was pulling the corners of her huge mouth upward with puppet string.

“The gun can’t help you,” she said. “I am Pontianak, from the spirit world. I am here for the Great Offering.”

I must be dreaming. I smacked my cheek hard with my left hand.

“You’re not asleep, my child,” she said, and I felt the dirt underneath my boots give way. I tried to move but some cosmic vacuum cleaner started sucking me into the earth.

Pontianak’s smile grew wider and wider until it reached her ears and revealed a full set of animal teeth glistening like old piano keys under the moon.

My feet were immovable, like they were dipped in cement. When the earth started shaking and rolling like the worst earthquake I’ve ever been in, I bobbed and flayed around like a child’s toy. The gun fell from my hand.

“Help me,” I said.

Out of that grotesque mouth emerged a thin, forked tongue that stretched to my throat and wrapped around it. Then blackness.

December 26, 20142 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Starling

She was already late to work for a job she did not love. Stress thrummed in her head like smoke-colored static, focusing her attention inward. The static muted the pleasures of her favorite song on the radio, of the plop of raindrops on the windshield, of the friction of tires spinning against the road. With every half-breath she felt the abstract fear of not measuring up to some vacillating standard. Of being an imposter. Of not making her time on this earth matter. She was afraid to fill her lungs for then she would take more air than she deserved.

A yellow-beaked starling swooped in front of the windshield of her car, its unfurled wing tip tracing a faint line of raindrops only to be quickly eradicated by the slap-ching of the windshield wipers. The static in her head faded as she hit the brakes, surprised, protective of the bird, afraid it would hit its head against the tempered glass.

The bird, though, did not need her protection. With conscious precision, it pumped its iridescent black wings and floated up, then away, out of her vision.

She glanced at the automobiles on either side of her, seeking out another driver in order to acknowledge the beauty of that flight. Her own eyes and mind seemed untrustworthy now. Did it really happen? But the other commuters were deep in their own worlds, checking phones or scanning radio stations or staring ahead at red taillights and hoping for a break in traffic. No one else saw the bird’s precipitous flight, nature’s flirtation with civilization.

If a tree falls in the forest, she thought, but went no further. Of course moments of subtle beauty and soaring grace occur all around us, whether we notice or not. All we can do is try to open our eyes. She held the revelation tight in her stomach where the fear had sat moments before.