Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Flash Fiction: MRS. LANSING

Of the 60 flash fiction pieces written for my two anthologies, this was the only story anyone read just after it was written. Coincidentally, it was read by a teacher who thought a story couldn't be handled well in just one page. I believe I changed his mind. From my collection titled "Thirty Stories," here's a story of a teacher I wished I had.


            She wasn’t “just” a teacher. Not Mrs. Lansing. Not to Jeremy.
            Jeremy had started the fifth grade with a bad mood. His parents had split and because of their having moved around as the marriage crumbled, he’d lost a year of schooling. So here he was, thirteen in a world of twelve. Not a problem, really, except that old Mr. Hatcher, the stupid school’s stupid principal, had told everybody Jeremy’s age the first day.
            The first week went by in an angry blur, with Jeremy lashing out at any student who tried to talk to him. They gave up quickly and their ignoring him made him lash out against the only other target in the classroom: Mrs. Lansing. The first outburst made her blink, then say in a soft voice “I expect better from you.” Jeremy crossed his arms and snorted, slumping into his desk.
            The next day, Mrs. Lansing asked Jeremy to read aloud and he refused. When Mrs. Lansing insisted, Jeremy erupted. “I don’t wanna read a stupid book to anyone!” he shouted. Mrs. Lansing carefully placed her book on her desk and told Jeremy to meet her after school let out.
            As the kids rushed out, free at last, Jeremy sat at Mrs. Lansing’s desk, his body a tight fist. She began to speak, quietly, clearly and though later Jeremy couldn’t remember the words, he could never forget their impact. Mrs. Lansing believed in him, expected great things from him and wanted Jeremy to achieve them all. Yes, life could be a mess of problems, but facing up to them with a proper attitude would always make a positive difference. She made Jeremy a believer and from that day forward, Jeremy devoted every minute to living up to Mrs. Lansing’s expectations.
            Jeremy couldn’t wait to get to school and sit off to the side, his eyes riveted on Mrs. Lansing as she discussed the Greeks, fractions, subordinate clauses or entropy. As the weeks went by, his dedication to being the Jeremy he believed he could be started paying off. He would raise his hand more and more often until there came a time when he was raising his hand at every one of Mrs. Lansing’s questions. She would smile to see his eagerness and the day she said “I know you know the answer, Jeremy, but let’s let someone else have a chance,” was the day Jeremy walked home on air.
            The year went by so fast—Halloween, Christmas, Spring Break—and Jeremy couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want school to end. A surge of fear spiked through him. But in that fear, he forged an idea: He’d give Mrs. Lansing a gift. The following days were filled with work and searches, work to add money to his savings and searches for the perfect gift. Jeremy spent hours looking at everything, then narrowed his choice to the perfect one: A pearl pendant necklace. It was expensive, but Jeremy was thrilled to afford it.
            A few days before the best school year ever ended, Jeremy waited until the class had rushed out at day’s end. Shyly, nervous beyond belief, he approached Mrs. Lansing. Her clear green eyes smiled at him, then sombered as he struggled to speak. Flustered, he barely croaked out “I…bought something…for you. To, uh, thank you. Ma’am.” Stiffly, he held out the gift..
            With the brilliant smile he loved, she took the brightly-wrapped box and exclaimed “Thank you, Jeremy! And today’s my anniversary, even!” As she bent over to open the gift, Jeremy suddenly saw something that made his blood run cold: Mrs. Lansing was wearing the same pearl pendant he’d bought!
            Mrs. Lansing opened the box and looked at the gift. Jeremy’s face was red and his back slick with sweat. He felt nauseous and wanted to crawl away and hide. Mrs. Lansing set the box down, took off the pendant she was wearing and put on Jeremy’s, placing the one she took off in the box. She smiled at Jeremy and held out her arms. He stepped into them for her hug. Holding him by the shoulders, she smiled again and said “I’ll always wear this one and it will be our secret.” Jeremy’s heart soared. “Now please, return this and use the money to buy yourself as wonderful a gift as you’ve given me. And thank you for being so nice to me.”
            On his way home, gift tucked carefully in a pocket, Jeremy couldn’t figure out why he was smiling so hard with tears in his eyes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Excerpt: Working Title -- JEWELS

Like most writers, I think, I have plenty of ideas for stories and novels. Some of them have been wandering my mind for years. Here's one of them, a fantasy novel series (to be) in a world where magic is tied to the physical world, as much a resource as gold or iron ore. This scene, currently an early chapter of Book One, comes just after we discover how the three main characters feel about their lives. Obviously, that life is about to change drastically.

                                Excerpt from the novel JEWELS

            To call it a castle would have been generosity. A large circle of massive stones enclosed two long squat buildings, made of heavy gray bricks and thick brown mortar. Built upon a small hill, the castle had one entrance, a large wooden gate striated with iron bars.  The gates' wooden surface showed ancient scars of attempted entries.
            One of the buildings housed horses, grafens and even a mule, along with two large kitchens, a deep well and a shallow one, a forge, a small hayloft and a granary. A staircase next to the deep well led to a cellar where salted meats and bitter ale were kept cool.
            It also housed one chained man, now broken, his putrefying tongue strapped tightly across his eyes.
            The other building had a large hall, with heavy wooden tables and massive chairs. Along the walls were torches, now lit and glaring brightly in the fading light. The tables were blackened from decades of spills and sweat, and blood. The chairs loomed large, each one the work of an artisan now long dead. No two chairs were alike, and the depressions of many a seated hour were deep. Along the walls lay dozens of cords of firewood, neatly stacked. Though the day was slightly warm, the eight massive windows were shuttered.
            The rest of the building held rooms, of various sizes, over 100 in all. Some rooms had fireplaces, others held washstands, still others were graced with a small reflecting pool, or a tiny garden. Beds were simple, sturdy affairs of planks and legs, chairs were scattered amongst many a bench and the only common feature to all was a red cord, attached to a hidden rope high above the ceiling, where rats and lice thrived without limit. Why the ropes had never been gnawed through was a mystery no one ever thought to explore.
            The meeting hall, with tables set for a small feast, was beginning to hear voices. Sashes of many hues adorned the visitors, many men and few women. All had been summoned, and though reluctant to leave their wanderings and other homes, the summons had brought more than expected.
            The kitchen maids and servants bustled about, their faces tight with fear, saying nothing and praying to whatever gods they now believed in that this day should end. Heavy cauldrons of stewing meat and steaming porridge were stirred thickly, with great effort. The heat covered every chore with a blanket, but could not vanquish the deep cold felt by them all.
            The meeting hall filled quickly, as the visitors were rushed there by anxious servants. Names were repeated, friendships renewed and the heady feeling of belonging infused the hall. One or two glanced about them, seeking familiar faces, and frowning slightly when they were as yet unrevealed.
            A name surfaced, like a petal’s whisper against the skin: Mohg. The name meant nothing to so many, but to the few who knew it, it caused concern. Mohg had spurned The Baltok and all it stood for. Its ten members were called “feeble” and “fools”. Mohg was a magemaster of great ability, but no sense of proportion, of humility or generosity. Magemasters needed these things to be able to help and survive. The Baltok guided and most followed their reason.
            But Mohg? A member of The Baltok? Rather a griffin guard a lamb! Mohg?
            Word and rumor spread. The hall filled, and experienced visitors scrambled for chairs nearest the servants’ entrances, for when laden with steaming plates, they dispensed most of in the first several plates.
            And still the name Mohg rode the air.
            A sharp bell sounded, then again. Voices quieted and chairs scraped back and forth as the visitors gathered themselves. The lone table near the main entrance was strangely empty, its ten chairs devoid of face or body. The Bartok was not one to stand on too much ceremony, and their absence caused some discomfort.
            Another bell sounded and servants rushed in, their arms filled with platters of meat, bread, vegetables and pots of boiling stews and soups. With frenzied gestures, the food was placed on the tables, ladles slopping into heavy bowls and causing angry retorts. More servants rushed in to serve heavy red wines and place custards amongst the crowded tables. Small protests became shouts as food was spilled, feet were stepped on and hot liquids stained robes, sashes and burned skin. Within minutes, the hall was in a muted uproar and with the final plate dropped heavily atop another, the last servant ran out of the hall, closing the door with a long furtive glance at the assembled magemasters.
            Several minutes passed before the meal could be called genteel, as plates and platters and bowls were rearranged, food apportioned properly and the various mishaps corrected enough to allow for tranquil eating. The food itself was well-prepared, as expected, but heavy in texture, to some overly-spiced, and the red wine was sharp, metallic in its cool heaviness.
            Without a sound, the servants’ doors closed, and iron bars dropped into place. Shuttered windows were barred, one by one, by silent clever fingers.
            The meal was well underway when the main door opened slowly. Only a few noticed as a steely-eyed man with aquiline features, wearing long black and gray robes, no sash, stepped up to The Bartok’s table and placed his hands lightly on its rough-hewn surface, as if taking possession. He remained quiet, statue-like, as the magemasters gave him their undivided attention. A minute passed, and though broken by murmurs, nothing happened.
            Then a red-sashed master, her hair graying though her skin remained smooth called out: “Where are The Bartok?”
            The silent man cast his eyes over the tables and plates, as if caressing them. “You know better than I.”
            The deep, cold voice surprised some and chilled others. But his eyes…his eyes...
            “The food!” screamed one master, shoving himself away from the table and collapsing to the pitiless stone floor. Shock, pure numbing shock held the others frozen until the reality of such monstrosity slammed into their mind. Convulsive reactions swept through the magemasters, gasping, wretching, choking, screaming, moaning, yelling, cursing, some inflicting wounds on their faces as they clawed at their mouths, others trying desperately to seize a weapon.
            At the very height of the convulsion, the man turned, a serene smile making him darkly handsome. He grabbed a torch and with careful hand, lit a pile of firewood to the left of the main entrance, then turned and did the same on the other side. Flames of angry red and yellow streaked from pile to pile, racing around the room as if hellbent to escape. The suddenness of the rushing flames whooshed air across the stricken mages, and only a few could adjust to the new threat. Before they could think of what to do, the man in the black and gray robe stepped outside the hall and with precise motions, closed the huge door, barring it shut. Muted screams pounded the walls and the shutters trembled desperately as the firewood, and the leather skins of fireoil contained within, turned the hall into a vast roasting chamber. Within minutes, the final screams died out, the shutters lay still and the walls crackled with the force of heat, despair and magic destroyed within.
            Deep in the cellar, the last member of The Bartok heard the screams and tears flowed with foul slime down his mutilated cheeks.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


One of my oft-used "café studios" was a small place called "Friends." Seated about 30, on chairs, high stools, a sofa and an armchair, the place was well-decorated, cozy, with outdoor dinette sets and huge picture windows that looked upon the back of a church. Oh well. The place is closed now, but it did have only one door and the bathroom didn't lock... Featured on Weirdyear, this story is part of my anthology "Thirty Stories," available on SmashWords.



            I’m a writer. I’m sitting in a café ignoring a mug of coffee and a couple of handfuls of people who are engaged in such scintillating activities as reading the newspaper (like mass media had anything worth absorbing), leafing through a woman’s magazine (ditto), chatting about classes (probably while cutting them, the only good way to enjoy classes) and sipping chai made with soy juice (it isn’t milk unless it comes from a mammal.) They are borderline bored, even the chatters. To me they are utterly boring.
            I get that way when I can’t think of an idea for a story. I have no fear of the blank page—or screen. I can start writing at pretty much any moment, but there are times when even the best-greased wheel will squeak and when my squeak makes an appearance, it bugs the hell out of me. I look at the screen, then the keyboard, then I place my hands over nose and mouth in faux-prayer fashion, pushing my mind to come up with an endpoint. If that doesn’t work, I look around and start criticizing everyone in sight.
            Like the lady reading the newspaper. She’s moving her lips. Fifth-grade dropout with parents who were first cousins. Inbred idiot. Or the woman leafing through the fourth of a stack of fashion and gossip magazines. Husband left her because she’s frigid, stuck in the overly-idealistic notion that Life is Romance, like the Hollywood cretins pretend to live. Knows more about J-Lo and Brangelina than she does about personal hygiene.
            Take the two guys talking about their sophomore literature professor. Since neither can read, the effort is similar to that of monkeys arguing physics. Based on their body language they are closet gays hoping the other makes the first move. Then there’s the couple behind them: She’s wearing last fall’s European fashions as aped by discount stores and sipping chai with the look of “Tastes like raw sewage, but it’s trendy so I like it,” while he swirls his double-mocha, low-fat, low-foam Kenyan cappuccino pondering the loss of his erections and the notion that maybe they’ll come back if his too-trendy wife either got a boob job or dropped dead so he could jump the two college guys.
            I turn to the other side of the café. Short cropped hair, six piercings above eye level, black lipstick and long sleeves on a hot day spell crack queen. The guy next to her, leaning back into his chair while reading a brick-shaped best seller has nubs for fingernails, a mashed-caterpillar mustache and the eyes of a child molester on Prozac. If he scratches his crotch one more time I’m calling the police.
            The cursor blinks. I sip my coffee, now barely lukewarm, until the mug is empty. The door opens and three high school students amble in, their collective IQ a two-digit number reminiscent of room temperatures in a Midwest spring. They chatter like cockroaches enlarged by Dr. Demento. The tall flat-as-plywood girl orders only water. Anorexic and schizoid. The shorter fat girl hesitates, then orders water, too. What she wanted was a dozen jelly doughnuts and a crack at her tall friend’s boyfriend leftovers. Which didn’t include the puny sashaying swish-fairy who ordered a pastrami sandwich cut in four pieces and a Coke, to the disgust of the anorexic broom and the envy of Blubber Babe.
            The deluded chai-sipper smiled at me. “Are you writing a story?”
            Several pairs of eyes swiveled my way. “Could be,” I said, placing just the right mix of disdain and modesty into it, serving notice to the inmates that the warden was on the premises.
            The coffee did its dirty deed and I left for the loo. When I came out, the whole menagerie was crowded around my computer, muttering darkly. They stared hotly as I walked out of the bathroom.
            That had no lock on its door.
            And they were between me and the café’s only door…

            After the swelling goes down, the stitches dissolve and I recover the feeling in my hands, I’m taking up knitting.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Flash Fiction: FORESIGHT

From my second flash fiction anthology, working title Thirty More Stories, comes this piece. It's another example (to me) of simply writing, launching into a story with no idea of how it would turn out, but refusing to abandon it until it becomes a story. In under 800 words. Also featured in Yesteryear Fiction, for which I thank Earl Wynn.


            Madam Savarona tucked in her voluminous skirt, took another swig of wine and cracked her knuckles. Her ginger-red hair wisped around her eyes as she took in the crowd walking to and fro around her motley stall. The crystal ball in front of her looked dim and damp, while the tarot cards she fingered absently felt soft and worn. Just as she was about to take another shot from the dark-green bottle, the one she knew would push her into the land of fog, a man’s voice drew her up short. “Are you--open? For a reading?”
            Madam Savarona’s sea-green eyes focused on a tall man, his clothes well-cut, if slightly stodgy in style. His shoes were expensive, but scuffed at the toes. The hat he held too-tightly was a soft fedora, short brim, a quiet choice. Broad of shoulder, he held himself down, trying to appear shorter and maybe even smaller. Waving a bejeweled hand in what she hoped was a mystical pass, Madam Savarona forced her voice deeper. “Be seated, sir. Madam Savarona…is at your service.”
            The man slumped more than sat on the fading cushioned chair, his legs akimbo, and ran a hand through wavy brown hair. His face was an open book of confusion and a touch of despair. He cleared his throat. “I’ve never… I’ve never done this, something like this before.”
            Madam Savarona raised her hand. “You live in a world of facts and numbers, not feelings.” She saw him start and smiled behind her eyes. “I have seen this already.”
            The man’s confusion increased. “My word! That--that is remarkable. I do work in facts and numbers. I’m a--” Madam Savarona’s hand cut him off.
            Frowning, she let her eyes gaze into a distance. “You…are…I see money and…safety…I see…a bank. Yes. You are a banker.” She focused on the agape man in front of her. “You work in…I sense family…Your father is the bank president.”
            The man slumped back, his face slack and almost empty of expression. “How? How can you, uh, see this?” She waved the question away. The man lunged forward, his eyes now ablaze, his face eager. "I know you can help me! You must! Please!”
            “Ask. I shall do what I can.” Her eyes flashed deeply.
            “I--I have a quandary…There’s these two girls, see? Two women, really. They’re both--well, they’re both fabulous, in their own ways. And I, well, I--” He shook all over, as if caught in a harsh fever. His mouth chewed air and tasted despair, “I love them both! At least, I think I do, but that’s not it. It’s that I have wanted to… I want to…” He looked up, helpless.
            “You want to get married.”
            The man almost fainted. “Yes! Yes! That’s it!” Madam Savarona watched her sense of triumph fade into memory, her eyes fixed on the anguished man. “You are remarkable! I know I can ask you--”
            “Which one to marry?”
            She rushed around the rickety table to help the man up into the chair, his head lolling as if punched by a heavyweight. “Oh my stars,” he mumbled, “That’s never happened to me before.” He gazed at Madam Savarona, who dashed back to her chair. “I’m so sorry. I’m not usually like this.”
            “I know,” she said, then quickly added, “It is a strong thing, what you feel. I may be able, I think, to help you.” The gratitude in his eyes gave her the strength to go on. “Do exactly as I say. Approach each woman. Ask her to name a jewel. Your true love, the one that will light your life forever, shall be the one who says ‘A ruby, red as passion.’ She you shall delight in marrying.”
            The man stood up, electrified. “’Name a jewel.’ Yes! I can do that. I will! By Jove, I’ll do that right now!” Slapping the fedora on his head, he strode out, the picture of determination.
            Madame Savarona watched him go, then quickly divested herself of clothes and wig. “A ruby, red as passion,” she whispered to herself. Yes, that’s exactly what Jonathan would hear when he asked her to name a jewel in about, oh, thirty minutes or so...

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