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.

February 13, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Up on a roof

Dylan Brody stood on the rooftop of his North Hollywood apartment with his telescope and notebook, looking for what unkind people referred to as “little green men.” The science of ufology was so misunderstood, and he hadn’t done much to help it gain mainstream traction. He still winced inside when he remembered his speech at the computer hacker’s convention in Menlo Park three years ago, back when he garnered respect rather than ridicule.

Between midnight and four a.m. in the half-gentrified NoHo Arts District was cluttered with police cars, the chop-chop of helicopter blades and drunk art students, dancers and actors in their twenties lurching between bars and house parties. But Dylan kept his eyes trained to the night skies looking for amorphous globs of light and ghostly shapes hurling through the atmosphere.

He did not believe that UFOs were vessels containing extra-terrestrial visitors. Instead, he believed that any visitors to this planet were from some future Earth where time travel was possible. And he desperately wanted to meet these emissaries if they came. Within their minds would be the schematics for great technological breakthroughs. Who knew what would be possible? Anti-gravity technology, time travel, teleportation!

A whoosh and a slam from the far corner of the roof alerted him to the presence of another, but he didn’t move his eye from the telescope. Footsteps crunched behind him.

“What are you looking at?” a woman said in a low, pleasant voice.

He quickly shut the notebook before turning to face her. Her brown hair flew in long strands around her, and she tried to keep them out of her face—which was quite pretty—by tucking them behind her ears.

Keep it simple, stupid, he thought. “Just stars,” he said. “The Milky Way.”

“Oh,” she said. “May I look?”

He stepped back from the telescope to let her peer into it.

“That’s the Scorpio constellation,” he said to the back of her head as she bent over slightly to look into the telescope.

“Glitters like jewels,” she said, stepping back. “I’m a Libra, though.”

“I don’t know much about astrology,” he said. “Just stars. Let me see if I can find Libra; it’s next to Scorpio, just to the east.”

He put his eye to the telescope lens once again and scanned the night sky for Libra’s quadrangle of its four brightest stars.

“Look now,” he said. “See the four bright stars that form a kind of rectangle? That’s Libra. It’s supposed to look like the balancing beam on a set of scales.”

She looked for a long time, so long that he grew impatient and anxious to get back to his work. He cleared his throat and shuffled the pages in his notebook, then tapped his pen against the telescope itself.

She straightened up and he saw that the telescope viewfinder had left a perfect circle impression around her right eye.

“Thank you for letting me look,” she said. “I thought you might have been someone who was looking for UFOs or something crazy like that.” Her eyes were blue, deeply set beneath thin eyebrows.

He laughed. “Ha ha,” he said, not sure why he was denying his real interest to this woman, other than the outlandish hope he might have a shot at asking her out. Not that he had the courage to do it.

“Silly, huh?” she said, and then, right before his eyes, her body seemed to pixelate then dissolve, until he found himself standing alone on the roof once again.

“Goddammit!” he shouted, kicking the telescope stand and sending it flying across the roof. He’d just missed his opportunity to meet one of the time travelers.

February 6, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Unlikely aid

Bradlee felt thick with lack of sleep. Her body was moving at the speed of sludge and her mind couldn't keep up even with that. Her keys should have been on the counter by the door, but they weren't.

Merry babbled in her baby carrier, her hands bouncing in the air like she was conducting an invisible orchestra.

"Dyah ba ba ba da," Merry said. "Ah er kay ba ba."

Bradlee bent at the waist to give the baby a kiss on her cherry red lips.

"And then what happened, sweetie? Tell me the rest of your story," she said.

"Ba ba ba mwah be," Merry said.

If only she could snuggle with Merry all day, Bradlee thought. But she had to get to her card shop. She had the opening shift. Who scheduled that anyway, she wondered wryly. She was the shop's owner and its only employee.

She scanned the counter and the table again for her keys, lifting up a pile of junk mail to see if they'd slipped under.

"Did you see where Mommy left her keys, baby girl?" she said, in her habit of talking aloud to Merry. The experts said talking to the baby developed language skills, but sometimes Bradlee felt like she was talking to herself.

"Ba ba pock et," Merry said.

Sounded like a word, Bradlee thought. Pock et. Pocket.

She patted her blazer pocket over her hip and felt the sharp ridges of a set of keys.

She touched her nose to Merry's tiny one. "My smart girl," she said.

January 30, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Fight

They called them points for a reason, Marlene thought, because that's how you keep score in a fight. And without the score, how do you know who won?

Her husband Carlos kept score by how he felt.

The fights made Marlene feel safer and more in control, which was odd, because they were having the opposite effect on Carlos. With each incrimination, he drew further from her.

When he finally packed a bag and told her he was leaving, she hurled insults and accusations, and when that didn't work, she hurled the crystal bowl they had received as a wedding gift three years prior.

Carlos felt the starlight mints from the crystal bowl crack under his shoes as he walked out the door. Marlene couldn't understand it all. Hadn't she won every argument?

January 23, 2015No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Panhandling

Mark made it halfway through the first day of his construction job before deciding he wouldn't make it back the next day. Not because Joe would fire him. Joe was the owner of a construction company and a good guy who saw Mark panhandling outside the diner two days ago. "Swing by the job site if you want honest work," he said.

No, Joe would probably give him a second, third and even fourth chance to make things right. Mark had met good guys like Joe before, and he knew what Joe wanted - the satisfaction of offering the helping hand.

But it only took thirty minutes of back-breaking work for Mark to regret leaving the half-full bottle of whiskey in his backpack rather than in his jacket pocket, and one hour to find an excuse to go to his locker in the construction trailer to get it.

Joe brought him a sandwich at the lunch break and sat next to him in lawn chairs set up alongside the trailer.

"I'm going to quit, man," Mark said. "I really appreciate all this - opportunity and stuff - but I can't do it." He took a bite of the sandwich. It was turkey on wheat, as dull and routine as the work he'd done all morning.

"You just got to stick to it," Joe said. "It'll get easier."

"It's not that," Mark said. "You know, I can make more money panhandling anyway. This job is not for me."

Joe looked at him with one eyebrow raised, a trick Mark always wished he could do.

"Really," Mark said. "I can make more panhandling."

A cloud crossed Joe's face, as if that helpful part of him shriveled a bit with the news that his helping hand had been for nothing. He snorted a half-laugh and stood up.

"Well, here's fifty bucks for today, then," he said. Joe handed him the money in tens and fives, but stopped short of shaking his hand before heading back into the trailer.

Mark washed the lie down with a long swig of the whiskey, then took the first steps back to the diner, glad he didn't throw away his cardboard sign that read "Hungry, Need a Job." If he were to be truthful, he would have written "Alcoholic, Need a Drink," but you definitely don't make enough money panhandling with that message.

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.

December 19, 20144 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Breaking glass

I am made of glass and icy tears flow in my veins where blood should be. 

He looks right through me at the new curtains and doesn’t see the hours of picking out the fabric, measuring and cutting, pinning and hemming. He doesn’t see me balanced on the stepladder with a yardstick and a pencil, measuring distances and checking levels. He doesn’t consider for a moment that I was trying to please him.

“Those curtains are butt-ugly,” he snarls and my heart sinks into my stomach and burns in its acid. 

The tears that are my blood pop to the surface like condensation. In the swirl of emotions in my head I pick out a few familiar ones: shame, fear, sorrow, anger. The first three are the currency he expects to be paid in; the last one is dangerous, unexpected. If I let the anger leak out it will only feed the violence brewing in his fists.

“And where’s my dinner?” 

Of course the dinner isn’t ready yet; I spent all afternoon on the curtains. He should understand this but he chooses not. Nothing matters now but the release of his blood red rage. And I am made of glass.