Wide Awake

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was to write a horror story revolving around a disease. So in a thousand words or less, I give you:

Wide Awake

“Mikael! Jazz!”

Nikolai shoved the sandwiches and fruit into the two lunch bags. His lips stretched into an unwelcome yawn, which he bit down as he called, “Get down here! The bus will be here any—“

“I know, I know!”

Jasmine came running into the kitchen, her poorly done braid nearly smacking him in the face as she grabbed her bag and twirled out the door. She popped her head back with a sorry expression and baggy eyes. “Thanks Dad.”

Nikolai shooed her out the door. The news report playing from his iPad started beeping for an important news announcement. He turned down the volume and shouted again, “Mikael!”

Feet pounded upstairs followed by the slam of the bathroom door. Nikolai yawned again as he put all the food away. He gathered his own things only to realize he was missing his cell phone. He used the land line to call it, frustrated when he heard nothing. He turned off the news in case his phone was on vibrate, reading the red banner on the bottom of the screen that stated “Livestock Epidemic” before the iPad went black. When he dialed his cellphone again, he finally heard it ring—in the refrigerator, next to the string cheese. He resolved to go to bed earlier tonight.

Mikael’s feet came pounding down the steps the same time the air breaks from the bus hissed from the window. He handed the lunch bag off to Mikael. “Get going!”

Mikael yanked the brown sack out of Nikolai’s hands. “Someone had to braid Jazz’s hair.”

The door slam was deafening.

***

It was 4:13 AM. Nikolai had been watching late night comedy shows for three hours and infomercials for the last two. Copper Hands Compression Gloves was on. He had seen this thirty minute ad at least a dozen times over the past few weeks.

“Dad?”

Nikolai scooted over on the couch as Jasmine sat down beside him. He lifted his arm and she curled into his side. Sighing, he leaned his cheek on the top of her head.

“The curtains didn’t work?”

She shook her head. “I don’t like it so dark.”

“What’s your brother doing?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the screen, watching the copper gloved lady plant flowers. His hand flexed subconsciously.

“Playing video games. He’s shouting again.”

“I’ll go tell him to keep it down,” he promised.

***

“When did your wife die Mr. Woods?”

Nikolai stared at the doctor. “Six months ago… But surely—“

“With as major of a life change your family recently experienced, it’s not outside consideration to think—“

“They’re children!”

“They are ten and fourteen. Clinical depression have affected younger. There are several things you can do around the home. I’ve got a pamphlet here somewhere…”

Nikolai balled his copper gloved hand into a fist, his heart hammering when his knuckles cracked. “Dr. Marks,  I’ve applied all this home remedy crap for the last three months. It hasn’t work. I need a prescription.”

“Antihistamines have helped—“

“My kids can barely sleep a few hours each night. I need something better!”

Dr. Marks’ lips went thin as he tried to hide a yawn. “And I’m telling you, I can’t prescribe them sleeping pills.”

***

Nikolai’s boss had sent him home from work. Most days weren’t too bad, minus the joint pain. Unfortunately, his bone aches had spread to his chest, causing sharp pains around his rib cage. His coworkers had mistaken it for a panic attack. He had been humiliated.

He had just settled into the couch to watch a news report about the rise in insomnia when the phone rang. Certain he had misheard the principal’s assistant, he had to mute the television.

“What do you mean suspended?”

“I’m sorry Mr. Woods, but we’ll need you to pick up Mikael right away. He beat up a few students who—“

“A few?!” Nikolai stuttered, his breaths already becoming shallow. He had noticed Mikael becoming moodier, but he braided his sister’s hair. He didn’t beat up classmates, much less multiple classmates. “What happened?”

“I… I think you better just talk to the—“

“What happened?!”

Sounding exhausted, she finally said, “Mikael has been screaming for the last hour that the whole school is trying to kill him.”

***

Nikolai was holding Jasmine in the corner of the living room. With a power strip, five lamps, and her entire stuffed animal collection, the space had become the only area she would stay during the night. The darkness did to Jazz what people had done to Mikael. Nikolai had been able to at least keep her away from the institution, but he didn’t know how much longer he could handle her screams. Especially when she called for her mother.

When her fit finally ended, Nikolai forced his body to relax. He had added copper necklaces and brackets to his collection, but he still felt all 360 of his joints crack as he finally removed his arms from his daughter. Her eyelids were closed. He prayed she would get a few minutes of rest.

He turned the television on. Emergency reports with the headlines “Livestock Epidemic”, “Product Contamination”, and “Prion Outbreak” kept appearing along with the same advice. Avoid meat. Avoid cheese. Do not panic. Do not take sleeping pills. Call this number if you have not slept in seventy-two hours.

Nikolai wondered which hour he was at.

***

Jazz didn’t come home that day.  When Nikolai called the school, they told him that she was in the hospital with Mikael.

That he had already called five times that day.

That the school had been shut down.

That his call had been redirected.

He tried to hang up. His fingers wouldn’t let him.

***

Men in hazmats broke down Nikolai’s door. They found him surrounded by stuffed animals, his eyes bloodshot red, his skin covered in cooper wiring. He kept asking to see his wife and children.

No one answered him. They packed him up. Carried him out the house.

The door slam was deafening.

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Mercy Angel

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com! The challenge this week was to write a horror story as spam mail. So I wrote a “419 scam” set during a zombie apocalypse. So in 500 words or less, I give you:

Mercy Angel

Subject: “PLEASE HELP”

From: ZachAttack@zmail.com

To: MattAddison@zmail.com

To Anyone Still Alive,

Three days ago, I was attacked. It was dark; our power generator had ran out of gas and I was outside refilling it. I shouldn’t have left, at least not until daybreak when I could see them coming. But it’s been so damn cold and my little girl has been fighting the flu…

At least I managed to kill the horde before they destroyed the perimeter, but one of the bastards bit me. I was ready. I had the gun in my mouth and everything; but all that greeted me was an empty click.

I couldn’t make Alice do it. She hasn’t recovered from the last time she spilled family blood. Or Leon, even though I stopped thinking of him as my little boy the day he got his first headshot. So I ran away. I ran away without even telling them goodbye.

…Jesus Christ….

I know you don’t even know me. You probably got your own family to worry about. Hell, if I were you, I would ignore this letter. But I’m in a bad way. I’ve found a knife, but can barely type this message, let alone grip the hilt and push it through my skull. I need someone to be my goddamn mercy angel and you’re the only person left I know who can help.

I don’t have much. Until yesterday, I only had a AR-15 with no bullets and a backpack full of dented soup cans with no labels. But  now I have a bowie hunting knife (with no damn blood of my own) and a bag full of medical supplies – ibuprofen, antibiotics, bandages; good shit. God knows the corpse who had it isn’t going to need it anymore.

If you agree to meet me and do what needs to be done, it’s all yours.

I hope you read this far. If you did, I’ll be downtown in the Pachino’s restaurant locked in a supply closet.

Come quick. I can’t guarantee my goods if I become one of them.

Zach

Death by No-Name

Huzzah! A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig! In celebration of the Apple Season, Chuck prepared a list of 41 little-known apple varieties. I used the random number generator to select three of these apples and I had to incorporate the apple titles into my flash fiction.  So in a 1,000 words or less with the apple varieties Oliver, Carter’s Blue, and Hoover, I give you:

Death by No-Name

This is a story of how a boy named Oliver embarrassingly killed his school teacher with a Hoover vacuum cleaner.

Oliver was by all accounts a well-behaved first grader.  He never put spiders down his classmates shirts and he always remembered to say please, if not thank you. Although he had a certain proclivity for throwing tantrums when the cafeteria ran out of apple juice, he was considered well within the bell curve of normality for a seven year old child.

This all changed one month prior to the untimely demise of Miss Carter.

It started with show and tell. Miss Carter had had issues in the past with children bringing in questionable content, which ranged from metallic ’vibrate-sticks’ to ‘empty’ hornets’ nests. To counter the presentment of exotic curios, Miss Carter now required a description of the item to be presented the week before the child’s assigned turn. When Oliver stated he wanted to bring a friend, she reminded him that people weren’t allowed to come in for show and tell.

“He’s not really people,” Oliver had said.

“He’s not really a person,” Miss Carter corrected. “And we don’t allow pets either.”

“He’s not a pet. Besides, he’s already here.”

“What do you mean he’s already here?”

He pointed to the area behind her shoulder, “He’s right behind you.”

Miss Carter, being the clever sort, realized that this friend was fanciful, but played along anyway. She swiveled in her padded chair and tilted her head in a proper welcoming manner. “Pleasure to meet you. What’s your name?”

“He doesn’t have a name.”

“Well, then what does your friend look like?”

“He doesn’t have a face.”

“…and what do you two do for fun?”

“We harness the evil in my backyard.”

Miss Carter had told him to go back to his seat and suggested bringing in a favorite toy instead.

Three weeks later, Miss Carter, being the artistic sort, had her students create pictures for parent-teacher conferences. Johnny, an abstract artist, selected the colors green and brown and fabricated a piece he titled ‘Dinasore’. Shanel, with her unique vision, painted a rainbow amidst a flurry of clouds and birds, which she labeled ‘Happy Day’. Edward opted for a monochromatic approach, using only cyan paint to draw a smiling face with hair, glasses, and a ruler. He gave it to his teacher with a wide smile, stating it was called ‘Miss Carter’s Blue’. She accepted it, but reminded Edward the importance of brushwork, causing his expression to fall.

Miss Carter spotted Oliver engaging in pointillism as he repeatedly stabbed his pencil onto his paper. When she reached his desk, the piece was completed covered in graphite.

“What should we call your work, Oliver?”

“It’s No-Name’s. And it’s called ‘Death’.”

For a moment, Miss Carter tried to believe that the image and corresponding title were perhaps an ironic statement on the human condition. But as her class would not know the meaning of irony until the spring semester, she encouraged Oliver to change it. As if not hearing her, Oliver only put down his pencil and whispered, “So much death…”

That afternoon, Miss Carter made sure Oliver got his apple juice at snack time.

Unfortunately, Oliver’s parents were unable to make the conference. Miss Carter, being the accommodating sort, set up a home visit the following week. She brought No-Name’s artwork as well as a few homework assignments that had a stick figure drawn on the name line with nothing but a black filled-in circle for a face. At promptly 6:00, Miss Carter knocked on the door. She knocked again, only louder, when she realized a vacuum cleaner was sucking away the sound of her fist. So intent was she on her endeavor to be noticed that she failed to detect a presence from behind. When her shoulder was tapped, her yelp accomplished what her pounding had not. The vacuuming promptly desisted.

“Sorry!” exclaimed the man wearing a white jumpsuit with an obscuring, netted hat. “Please, come in.”

Before the faceless man could grab the handle, the door opened to reveal a woman who smelled strongly of disinfectant. “You must be Miss Carter.” She repeated the masked man’s sentiment, “Please, come in.”

As the netted hat man hurried up the stairs, avoiding the now soundless vacuum cleaner that sat midway, Oliver’s mother led Miss Carter to the kitchen table, explaining how her husband recently took up bee-keeping. Sensing a correlation, Miss Carter showed the homework bearing a stick man with a shaded face. When the father came to join, now rid of his buggy uniform, Miss Carter brought up No-Name’s morbid sense of art. Oliver’s father admitted that about a week ago, one of his hives had been broken by some neighborhood kids and a swarm of bees had escaped. They fogged out all the rooms, which had sadly killed most of the bees.

Feeling happy a rational explanation existed (as she knew it would), Miss Carter gathered her papers and bade them a good night. When they exited the kitchen, a scurry of feet ran up the steps; the sound only confirming Oliver’s eavesdropping. His mother lectured him at the top of the stairs until his ears turned red.  Miss Carter opened the door to leave, but paused when Oliver’s mother insisted he apologize, completing the child’s mortification.

Unfortunately, Oliver’s chagrin at being caught kept his eyes so downcast that he looked at his cheeks instead of his feet. Had he been looking properly, he might have avoided the cord plugged in at the top of the stairs. And he might have not fallen on the vacuum cleaner. But alas, he did both and slid spectacularly down the steps. The heavy duty Hoover slammed directly into Miss Carter’s legs, pushing her out the open door. As Miss Carter flew backwards, ‘Death’ flew in front of her face, making Miss Carter realize Oliver would be taught irony sooner than spring semester.

The Wrong One

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. This time, we had to write a story of our choosing separated into 10 chapters (or entries in my case) to practice pacing and arrangement. I added an additional challenge and didn’t outline this story before I wrote it. This piece is inspired by the writing style of Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series. So in a 1,000 words or less, I give you:

The Wrong One

March 3, 2014

This is my entry.

I feel so much better now.

March 11, 2014

According to Dr. Anne, I’m expected to bitch about something in this diary “to help with the healing process.” Process. Like there is some magic instruction booklet that’s going to put the pieces back together perfectly. I hate her so much. I know she’s just trying to do her job. But when her job involves her stating that “thousands, maybe even millions of people have gone through the same things as you, Lexi,” I want to throw something at her. Preferably my fist.

March 20, 2014

Started my fifth week of visiting Dr. Anne today.

Dr. Anne.  As if Dr. Reinke won’t allow her to connect to her patients on a personal level.

Today, she asked if I wanted to talk about the way it happened. The way she covertly tries to lead the conversation back to him is laughable. Like a little kid who has the mentality “she can’t see me if I can’t see her.” So I humored her for a while. But she got so excited that she said his name. That ended that conversation pretty quickly.

March 29, 2014

Dr. Anne was persistent today. She kept asking me what I was going to do next week. And I kept returning the question back to her. Turns out, she doesn’t like it when someone asks her the same thing over and over again either.

What I didn’t tell her is that I don’t want to face the next week. That I have a hard enough time sleeping in the same bed. That I don’t want to be in the house. That I miss him and I don’t understand why I’m still here and he’s gone. That the idea of facing his birthday without him is unthinkable. That maybe, I don’t even want to be here anymore.

In the end, I told her I’ll be fine.

April 14, 2014

Came back home today.  My father-in-law and mother-in-law, Rick and Lisa, have moved into the downstairs guest bedroom. I don’t want them here. Especially Rick. Josh looks just like Rick. But it was this or stay in the hospital. Dr. Anne’s orders.

I’m not sure which is worst.

April 20, 2014

Lisa yelled at me today. Told me that he wouldn’t have wanted me to be like this. I tell her once she loses a husband, healthy and laughing one day, dead with a hemorrhage in the brain the next, she may earn the right to speak to me like that again. But even then, I doubt she could understand. She has children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers, hell, her mom is even still alive. She has so many people.

All I had was Josh him.

Dr. Anne says that they love me and just want me what’s best for me.  I expected her to say that. What I didn’t expect was Dr. Anne to talk to me about her own mother-in-law horror stories. Can psychiatrists do that, talk about their own lives? Regardless, it was nice to not have to live in my life for a while.

April 31, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately. As long as I’m careful to avoid romances, it usually gives me the two hour escape I need. Today, Rick asked if I wanted to watch Pulp Fiction. I nearly said no. But I sat down and watched it with him, careful to concentrate only on the movie, only on the plot. I was doing well, until I looked over at Rick during a particularly morbid scene. The one with the car and the guy’s head.

I saw him crying.

I almost left. I stood up from the couch and everything. But I only walked over to the coffee table and brought back a box of tissues. I sat down again. He didn’t say anything. We finished the movie.

Pulp Fiction was one of Josh’s favorite movies.

May 11, 2014

My in-laws moved back home today. They promised they’ll come back every weekend. Lisa I’m less sorry to leave. Rick I’ll miss.

It’s funny how that works.

May 20, 2014

It started with me realizing the grass had gotten too long.

I don’t mow. Or at least I didn’t. That was always his job. I do inside stuff, he did outside stuff. And I was really tempted to hire somebody to do it for me. Or to call Rick. But I decided to do it myself.  When I was half-way finished, I had to run to my appointment with Dr. Anne with my grass-stained shoes and pollen filled clothes.  She noted my eyes were red. I told her it was allergies.

She told me she had my medical file and that I had no recorded allergies.

And then I started crying. I hadn’t even realized I had done it while mowing. And for the first time since I started to see Dr. Anne, I finally said his name. And how much I missed him. That it wasn’t fair that me, the nobody going nowhere, got left behind when the somebody, my somebody, going some where got taken.  I know it doesn’t work like that, but I felt like God had cheated. That he took the wrong one. And that it should have been me.

Then Dr. Anne said something today that I never even considered. What if that was the case? What if God did in fact chose me to die? But Josh, being the wonderful man he was, demanded that he go in my place? She said it all hypothetical, obviously appealing to my neurosis, but it made me cry all the harder. Because that is exactly what Josh would do.

I felt embarrassed. I felt lighter. I went home and finished mowing the grass.

May 29, 2014

This is my entry.

I really do feel better now.

View From Heaven

Another flash fiction brought to you by Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds. The challenge this week was simple: bring up Pandora or iTunes on shuffle. Whatever song comes up is the title of your story. I was a bit apprehensive, due to all the dance fitness songs I have of my iTunes (ex. Moves Like Jagger, What does the Fox Say, Work B*tch, etc.). Luckily, I got View From Heaven by Yellowcard. 

So in a 1,000 words or less, I give you:

View From Heaven

The night Arlene’s trip to the convenience store ended with a gunshot to the face, the only comfort she found in the desolate darkness was the answer to the ‘what if’.

“What if I die?” Arlene had asked her husband Shaun. “What would you do?”

They had been in bed at the time, and Shaun had rolled on top of her, kissing her freckled nose. “I thought we agreed to die together,” he said, his voice too deep to ever achieve soft pillow talk.

She had kissed him back, placing her hand on his dark cheek. “But if fate has other plans?”

“Like I said,” he kisses her with solemn eyes, “I thought we agreed to die together.”

So many ‘what ifs’ they had explored. So many futures they had mapped out. His words that night had given her such love and peace. But now, with her drowning soul, Arlene grips the words in desperation and suffocation.

Here in the black, every ashamed moment and thought of her life constantly consumes her. Her lies whip and slash her raw flesh, the next lash always more painful that the last. Times she had done the easy thing instead of the right breaks her back, the weight crushing her bones. And most horribly, her betrayals burn her from below, with flames licking higher and higher for every tear she had ever caused.

After eons or minutes, Arlene suddenly disappears from the abyss to find herself standing behind Shaun, his soul somehow calling her back. He is in the doorway of their home, looking at two officers.

“Arlene is dead?” Shaun whispers, his face, normally so strong, so full of life, ashen and empty.

Arlene sobs, and reaches toward him, so badly wanting him to be with her. But the moment her fingers touch his skin, he shudders and the scene blinks.

Now, she’s alone with Shaun in their bedroom. Tears are dripping down his face, his hair is bunched up and frazzled, and he’s holding the pillow from her side of the bed. She walks in front and kneels before him, crying with him, careful not to touch him.

“I need you Shaun,” she chokes out. “We’re in this together, remember?”

For an instant, Shaun seems to be able to hear her. Her chest thumps, when she sees his gaze drop to the pill bottle on the night stand. His hand shakes as he reaches for it, but he suddenly stops. Before she can move away, he stands up quickly and steps into her, blinking the room away.

Shaun is at work, sitting in the break-room with his best friend Cale.  His hair has grown long enough for thin plaits and his eyes are guilty.

“It’s like she still there,” Shaun whispers. “Like she’s waiting for me.”

“She’d want you to move on,” Cale says. A deep hatred erupts within her, and she instinctively lashes out at Cale, noticing him fly back in his chair with a startled expression before she blinks away once again.

It’s their restaurant – the one right off the country highway that they visit every year during the summer. Shaun is sitting alone. The braids are gone. He has just paid for the check and stands up to look at the window. When she sees him smile at the sunset before he turns to leave, Arlene panics.

When he gets to the car and searches his pocket for the car keys, Arlene steps as close as she can without touching him. “Why are you still here?” she asks desperately.

But he has found his keys, and is about to get in and drive. And she knows that once he gets in, he’s leaving her behind. He’s moving forward. He’s going to leave her alone in the darkness.

She doesn’t think as she grabs hold of his shoulders, pushing him out into the highway. And instead of the scene blinking, it’s Shaun, for it’s the last thing he does before a truck crashes into him.

Arlene freezes then runs to him. When she gets to his body, she is able to see the last drop of life leave his body. Arlene shakes violently, but smiles. She won’t be alone anymore.

She screams as light appears, blinding and purifying, one that exposes every trial and tribulation that she has withstood by herself. Her eyes burn as she looks forward, and sees Shaun. But not just Shaun as he was. Shaun as he was meant to be. Beautiful. Pure.

And finished.

Suddenly, Arlene is on her knees, sobbing and quavering because she knows where he is going, she cannot follow. And she is dying all over again because she loves him so much and all she ever wanted was to be with him.

“Shaun,” her frail and broken body cries. “I’m so… so… sorry.”

And for one moment in her bleak after existence, she finds peace. Shaun has wrapped his glorious arms around her, and his tears drip down on her marred face. “I forgive you,” he whispers in her ear.

Her chest is breaking apart but she is doing everything she can to grab the man who is no longer just her husband, but the embodiment of everything she can never have. “I just… I just…”

“I know,” he says, and his voice is broken too. The light around him is becoming brighter causing his shape and weight to disappear. She’s gasping and sobbing and trying to hold on to what is left, but all he leaves is a whisper.

“I love you.”

The light shoots upwards as she drops back into the abyss. When she lands, she is broken. Bleeding. Numb. But she keeps her eyes open, staring at the disappearing light until finally it stills. Arlene keeps waiting for the spec of light to disappear, but it never does. She stares up at Shaun, knowing he is staring back.

“I love you too,” her voice cracks in the black.

The Hermit Thrush

Today’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig had two parts:

  1. a) Invent your own cocktail (and give us the recipe!). It can be real or fictional — meaning, it can be something we can make ourselves or a cocktail purely made from fictional ingredients (“Betelgeuse Tequila and bitters made from Slarm glands”). Name the cocktail, too.
  2. b) Then write a short story with the name of your cocktail as the name of the short story. The story should be tied to the cocktail in some way — some plot or character-hook, or maybe the cocktail is front and center in the plot.

So after searching around the web for inspiration, I invented the ‘real’ bourbon based cocktail called ‘The Hermit Thrush’. And here’s the story behind it in 2,000 words or less:

The Hermit Thrush

When my roommate Brian asked me if I wanted to come out with the boys tonight, I’m not sure who was more surprised when I said yes – me or him. He had asked me that same question for over a year now, and I had always turned him down. Maybe it’s because he was at the entryway when he asked me tonight, already assuming I’d say no. I can’t blame him; it’s been one year, seven months, and five days since I had a night out on the town. But I still hate it when people assume.

Two bars and one dance club later, I’m exhausted and my buddies are just getting warmed up. Having not gone out in so long, my tolerance for alcohol has gotten ridiculously low. So despite having only stuck to one or less drinks at each location, I’m finding myself so buzzed that I realize I haven’t been concentrating on where we’ve been going. I think we are on Mission or Market Street, but I don’t ask because I don’t want my buddies to know that I’m lost.

The new bar we’ve entered is decidedly more relaxed. There’s a dance room separate from the bar, and I quickly take the opportunity to claim a stool by the rail.

“You good out here for awhile?” Brian asks, already moving away from me, once again assuming my answer.

I don’t bother challenging it this time. “Yup,” I grin toward him. “When you guys are done, next round is on me.”

My buddies cheer before music floods the room. Once the dance hall door is shut, I turn back to the rail, my shoulders slumping in relief of having a break. It doesn’t take long until I feel a warm presence in front of me. “Just a water for now,” I say before the bartender can ask.

“No.”

I blink. “What?”

“Let me guess – nothing but cheap beers and badly mixed drinks all night?” My lips move wordlessly and I hear a chuckle, deeper than her speaking voice. “Thought so.”

I’m debating if I should be intrigued by her deductions or annoyed by them. But with my energy drained, I only lean forward on the counter to set my chin on my palm. “Then what do you recommend?”

“That depends, what are you looking for?

I shrug, “Whiskey is always good.”

“Sorry, I mean what do you want your drink to do for you? Put you in a better mood? Contemplative? Serene? Fiesty?”

The words slip out before I can stop them, “What kind of bartender are you?” There’s a silence and I feel my cheeks burning at my sudden rudeness. I clear my throat to apologize, “I’m—“

“I’m your bartender and I want to make you a drink so good that it’s going to make your whole night get better.”

Her words are confident, but soft spoken. Quieter than my abrupt statement to her. I clear my throat, and nod, “Okay then.”

The warmth in front of me turns hotter and I can feel her smile in her voice before she speaks. “Great!” There is a clink of glass and a scoop of ice.  “So you’re a whiskey man… hmmm… where are you from?”

“Vermont,” I say, now sitting straighter in my seat, curious as to where this will go.

“Oh, interesting,” she says, and a small cupboard opens and something thuds in front of me. “Maple syrup it is.”

“Maple syrup,” I repeat doubtfully.

“Who’s the bartender here?” she challenges. I smirk and put my hands up in the air to hear that deep chuckle again. “Okay well let me think… we need to get you something exotic. Something that will knock all your other drinks out of the park…. What sort of fruit do you like?”

I make a face.

There’s a huff, “Little trust would be nice.”

She says as if it is so easy for me to give out. But I speak, hoping the end creation won’t be too sweet. “I guess, oranges, apples-”

“What’s your name?” she interrupts.

“Steven.”

“Steven, I said exotic. Let’s go beyond the normal grocery story purchase.”

I finally laugh, and say, “Well, the craziest I ever go is apricots.”

She sighs, but says, “I can work with that.” The next few minutes are filled with the normal chatter of bartender talk. What I’ve been up to that night with my friends, what I moved to California for, and so on. During this, I hear shakes and pours, followed by ‘nopes’ and ‘blechs’. By the time a glass is place in front of me, three songs have echoed from the dance hall.

“Take a drink,” she says, eager as if I’m about to open a present. I touch the foam coaster before my fingers slip up the glass. I bring it to my nose to sniff, allowing the aroma of fruit, whiskey, and herbs to fill my senses. Winking at her, I take a sip, letting the flavor sit in my mouth. I set the glass down as I swallow, and look toward her face.

“Nailed it, didn’t I?” her voice is superior and I find my lips smiling into the first genuine expression I’ve had all night.

“What’s in it?”

“Maple syrup, apricot juice, rosemary, bourbon, and just a splash of club soda.”

The description tempts me into another drink, bigger than the first. My sigh of contentment is audible and I ask, “So how much do I owe you?”

“On the house.” I shake my head and pull out my wallet, but before I can unfold it, her warm hand envelops my cold fingers. “If you want another drink, I’ll make you pay. But as you are my test subject, this one’s on me.”

I nod and take another swallow while I hid my other hand beneath the counter, clenching the warmth in my palm for as long as I can. I clear my throat, “Well what are you gonna call it?”

“Sweetie Steve?” she asks, clearly teasing me. I give her a halfhearted scowl and she chuckles throatily again, prompting another drink from me. “Well, considering I used Elijah Craig, how about… The Tarty Reverend?”

“It’s catchy,” I offer with a shrug, not having anything else better off the top of my head.

There’s a snap of her fingers, “No – The Hermit Thrush.”

At first, I’m so fixated on the word hermit, that I don’t realize the absolute genius. Instead, I wonder if her ability to read a person has picked up on the fact that I haven’t gone out in over a year. But when the rest of the title sinks through the buzz of my brain, my mouth becomes agape. “How did you know that was the state bird of Vermont?”

“Let’s just say me and the bird of Vermont have something in common. Besides, I’m a triva addict. Seriously, if you ever find yourself on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, call me.”

It’s a combination of the perfect opening and drink that has summoned my old confidence as I lean forward to say, “But that would require me having your number.”

The heat in front of me comes closer and I can feel her words fall against my face. “You don’t even know my name Sweetie Steve.”

I lick my lips, “Then what’s your name?”

Before she can answer, the doors to the dance hall open and the blaring of music cuts off any ability to communicate. Five pairs of feet walk my way, and I’m groaning as I turn to Brian. “Done already?”

“We got to go,” is his answer, already grabbing my arm and pulling me off the seat. “Omar just ran into his ex and her new boyfriend,” he whispers in my ear before I have a chance to argue. I stumble, trying to catch my footing.  They are pulling me to the exit, and I hear my bartender shouting after me.

“Wait,” she says. “You forgot this.”

She hands me my walking cane, the one I had been quick to hide under the counter as soon as I had sat down. The cane I’ve had ever since the accident one year, seven months, and five nights ago. The night that ended with the last thing I’d ever see again being the flash of headlights before being hit by a car.

So she had noticed after all.

I feel the heat of my cheeks but before I can say anything, she slips her hand into the one not holding the cane and hands me a foam coaster. “And you forgot this too,” she whispers for my ears only.

I cherish the heat of her fingers for only an instant, until she slips away and says good night to our group. When we get out to the street, my buddy Brian walks closely beside me on my right while I extend my cane to the left. The boys are talking about whatever Omar’s ex had done, but I’m too busy touching the foam coaster in my pocket, wondering its significance. It isn’t until I feel the deep indentation that I realize she has written her name and number on the coaster hard enough so I can read it without ever seeing it.

Janet Thrush

555-2374

It’s only as I turn back to the group that I realize she had fulfilled her promise. Her one drink, the Hermit Thrush, really had made my entire night better, if not my entire last year. So it’s with a wide smile that I loop my arm casually through Brian’s as I lean in to ask, “Where to next gentlemen?”

The Cartographers Vault

The piece below is my attempt at the flash fiction challenge Chuck Wendig presented in his terribleminds blog.  He had two columns with twenty words each. Participants needed to either roll a d20 die (or in my case, use a random number generator) to create a two-part title for their story. And since it’s a flash fiction, it needs to be a 1,000 words or less. I got a 9 and 4, resulting in:

Flash Fiction by AJ Bauers

The tour guide is less than pleased with our group. Probably because we’re all hammered.

Very hammered.

“This is lame,” I whisper. Judging by the dirty looks the elderly couple gives in front of me, my volume levels are little out of whack. When the brochure said ancient burial ground, I expected shrunken heads, ominous fog, and hot chicks clinging to me for protection. But instead I get a bald guide who hates happiness, signs pointing to weird rocks indicating their ritualistic significance, and the local chapter of the AARP as my guide buddies.

Definitely lame.

“I think it’s cool,” my buddy Jimmy says, turning his head over his shoulder to make sure Liz and Jeanine heard him. “To think it was built over a thousand years ago…”

Jeanine, who said those exact words only ten minutes ago, reacts as if it is a new thought, tripping as she catches his arm, “I know, right?”

“It’s amazing,” Liz adds, nuzzling the words in Jimmy’s neck.

When Jimmy told me that his parents had a time share down in Costa Rica we could use for Spring Break, I had been ecstatic. When he told me that Liz and Jeanine, the hot Sigma Phi girls, were coming with, I hailed him as a God among men.  But what he failed to mention was the time-share was in the middle of San Jose with no beach in sight. And to make things worse, both Liz and Jeannie seemed to find Jimmy’s quarterback physique more appealing than my great personality.

Whatever.

“Careful not to cross the velvet ropes,” British Mr. Clean says. He’s looking pointedly at Liz, who tripped three times as we climbed up the steep stairs to get here.

“Why not?” she asks, pouting her lip into perfect form.

“Will she be put into time out?” Jeanine says, casually draping her arm around Liz’s waist. The girls giggle and Jimmy keeps darting me this crazy grin like he just won the lottery. I respond by placing my own arm around Liz and taking another long swallow, drowning out whatever explanation baldy is stating.  Knowing my role, I finish off my drink with a rather loud belch, making the girls squeal and jump closer to Jimmy to get away from me. He’s winking at me as I stumble backwards, having been pushed away by Liz’s bony hip. Just as I’m about to right myself, I trip on the velvet ropes. And then the ground disappears beneath me.

For a moment, I can’t breathe, which may be for the best since dust and debris keep falling on my face. There are shouts and I can hear the guide saying something about a ladder. I groan and roll on my side, hoping that this at least gets me some sympathy points from the girls. “I need to lose weight,” I groan, hopefully in an actual whisper this time, as I struggle to my feet. The hole that I fell through is about eight feet above my head and I can’t believe I didn’t break anything. That or I’m just so wasted right now I’ve lost my ability to feel any fractures.

There’s a harsh clanking sound, and I see a flashlight rolling in a semicircle on the stone floor. I quickly grab it and click it on, immediately bathing the wall in light.

At first, I don’t see much of anything except more strange rock formations that could or could not be a symbol of death as everything in here seems to be. I’m slowly looking around, thinking how cramped it is, and how it reminds me of my time spent in the bank vault back home where I’m a teller.

And then I turn to the last wall and I see them.

Maps.

Now a cartographer may look and see the historical significance of the different papers and leathers hanging in front of me. Me? I don’t understand a word, nor do I recognize any shape to be that of a specific country. But I do notice the Xs. More specifically, the giant red X in the most elaborate map with gold foil lining. And then I see dollar signs.

“We got a ladder!” Jimmy’s voice echoes above.

“Ahhh… okay,” I shout, thinking quickly. I’ve seen Goonies. I’ve played Uncharted. How hard could treasure hunting be? My trust fund opens up next year; I could hire some ridiculously smart historian and a parkour expert.  There’s probably an e-how for a treasure expedition.

“You ready?” Jimmy calls.

I quickly grab the map off the wall, carefully rolling up the fragile document. I stick it under my shirt, hoping the thin paper doesn’t soak up my sweat that smells like last night’s tequila. The ladder has just hit the bottom as I stand beneath the hole.

The climb up is brutal. I wasn’t joking when I said I needed to loose weight.  I’m gasping when I reach the top, leaning over my knees from the exertion. Mr. Clean keeps asking if I saw anything down below and Jeanine is cooing over me like I’m some hurt puppy.  And I’m just about to raise my head to lie to Mr. Clean and to lean into Jeanine’s chest when that inevitable clenching of my stomach occurs and I vomit all over the velvet ropes and a rock that probably means resurrection or rebirth or something with a ‘re’ in it.

The girls are screaming at me and Mr. Clean is dry heaving in a corner. The AARP group has all turned toward one another to exclaim profanities about spring breakers. So it’s only Jimmy who sees me look down at my shirt in horror, realizing that I’ve gotten sick all over it, effectively turning the map into a pile of mush.

“What did you eat bro?” Jimmy says in a disgusted fascination, staring at the sodden lump I’ve pulled out of my shirt.

I throw it on his chest and walk away.

The Frosty Awakening

The Frosty Awakening

My bedroom has become a frozen wasteland since I went to sleep the night before. The sheets next to me are still warm with the residual heat my husband left behind. I scoot over to steal it, briefly exposing my hand to snooze the alarm clock, which blares a rock radio station that is mostly static. My digits darts back under the sheets, already half frozen.

By the time the snooze goes off for a third time, my husband is already out of the shower, getting ready for the day. Seeing the steam escaping from the bathroom, I gather my courage and make the daring dash from the warm bed across the frozen tundra of our bedroom. Before the steam is able to turn into frost, I quickly shut the door, strip, and hop into the shower, yelping and skipping in a circle until the sorcery we call the water heater kicks in two seconds later. But my daily dancing ritual does little to appease the metal wizard that resides in our basement, for I can never get the water as hot as I want.

My husband pops his head in the bathroom to ask for a kiss before he leaves for work in five minutes. My response is to scream at him that he’s letting all the heat escape the bathroom. He frost nips my lips and quickly shuts the door, but the damage is done and I’m doomed to dressing my cold, wet body in arctic temperatures.

When I finally emerge, dressed in five layers and ready to face the world, my husband shouts goodbye as he opens the door to the garage. He tells me he loves me and I run away from the frosty garage air, screeching what should be ‘I love you’ in return, but sounds more like ‘AGGGHHHH! IT’S FREEZING!’

It’s only when I hear his car start and back out of the driveway, that I sneak to the plastic box on the wall, and carefully hit the up arrow twice. The change is nearly immediate – a rapid melt. And finally the temperature is bearable and the ice age is gone. Once again I provide tribute in the form of whoops, hops, and jiggles, thankful that the central heat demigod seems to like me more than the metal wizard downstairs.

Sixty-eight degrees instead of seventy.

And my husband thought I wouldn’t notice