Flash Fiction #8: Apparently My Brain Wants to Write a CEO/Assistant Romance

[This is a scene from a plot bunny I’ve been writing down, in between working on Fifty-Five Days, so that I won’t forget anything until I can go back to it later, maybe. Who knows if this idea will bear fruit?]

Piper Kearns hated sleeping on her back. She was a stomach sleeper, despite all the click-bait articles insisting that sleep position was the worst for your spine (which she believed,) your digestion (which seemed more questionable,) or your fertility (which seemed completely unrelated and was not a particularly high priority for her at the moment anyway.) She would roll onto her belly, tuck one knee up to the side slightly to keep her legs from feeling glued together by her heavy blankets, and tuck the hand from the same side under her pillow. Whenever she posed herself that way, sleep was instant; whenever she tried to train herself to sleep on her back, or even on her side, for the supposed health benefits, she tossed for hours until she gave up and rolled over anyway.

All of that made her unexpected hospital stay more miserable than it had had to be. So did not coming fully into awareness, out from under the fog of sedation and pain medication, until long after she was supposed to be at work. Her phone sat on the tray in front of her, and it had messages waiting. Not as many as she had expected, honestly, but her boss was a busy man, and she knew there would be one from him wondering why she had not come in on time, nor called in properly. But there were actually three, spaced exactly an hour apart, as if he had set an alarm to remind him to check up on her.

If the pattern held, he would be calling again in seventeen minutes. She had that long to figure out what to say to him.

She knew she wouldn’t be in trouble. “Hi, I couldn’t call because I was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital last night and I only woke up half an hour ago,” would solve any possible repercussions from her breach of policy. Mr. Perkins was strict in many ways and had high expectations, but he was no monster.

But that line left her open to questions about why she was in the hospital. Questions that were perfectly understandable from a place of concern and surprise, and questions that were illegal when coming from her boss. He knew that, and he wouldn’t ask. But if he did, if, she had to be ready with some bland explanation, because invoking the illegality of those questions about her personal medical situation would only imply she had something to hide.

A car crash? That wouldn’t work. Her car was fine, and not using it “while she got it fixed” would be too much of an inconvenience. Her injuries weren’t at all consistent with being a pedestrian or even a bicyclist hit by a moving car. Even at the low speeds that wouldn’t simply have killed her. She couldn’t make that make any sense.

She flexed her left hand and felt a wave of gratitude that it was only sprained, not broken. It was still swollen badly and the brace holding it was uncomfortable, but it would heal far more quickly and cause her less aggravation. What lie could account for a sprained wrist, badly bruised ribs, and a split lip? Those were the injuries she couldn’t hide, because they were visible, or in the case of her ribs, because she couldn’t breathe deeply yet and had to move cautiously. She’d already been up to the little bathroom in the corner of her hospital room once, and walking normally had been impossible. She was reduced to a shuffling gait, half as fast as usual.

She had to call him back but hesitated, because she couldn’t come up with any lie that sounded as reasonable as the truth, and she wasn’t a particularly good liar. She was good at keeping her opinions and thoughts to herself, which the same thing at all; when she tried to deliberately say something untrue, her brain balked and her tongue stuttered.

Mr. Perkins joked sometimes about inviting her to the monthly poker game he threw for his friends and some of his more important subordinates. She knew it was a joke because there was a special version of his smile reserved for jokes. And because it was obvious to both of them that she would get fleeced if she went.

Thirteen minutes. It would be better if she called first; it would put her in a position of greater power. She still wasn’t ready, though.

She hadn’t listened to the messages yet; she knew what they would say, and she was afraid if she heard Mr. Perkins being angry at her, she would start to cry again. But, on the other hand, she would look like a fool if she called in without listening first and being prepared for his mood, without knowing what he had already said to her.

The first one was exactly what she expected, short and gruff and word-for-word from the company policy on tardiness. “Miss Kearns, it’s five after nine, and your desk is empty. Please arrive as soon as possible or contact me with your ETA.” Normally it would be a department chair making the call about one of their juniors, but her only direct superior was the CEO himself. The other officers were her seniors, certainly, but they had their own assistants and she didn’t answer to them. Just to Mr. Perkins.

He had never had to make that call to her before, and he sounded annoyed he needed to take even the thirty seconds it had required.

The second message had come one hour and one minute later. “Miss Kearns, in the three years you’ve worked for me this has never happened. Please call me and let me know what’s going on.”

Short, but completely off-script, and more concerned than annoyed. That message shook her a little, because she had imagined him growing increasingly frustrated by having to answer his own phone and make his own calls and wade through–what was on the docket this morning? She honestly didn’t remember, and that should have concerned her, but the minutiae of her job seemed distant and fuzzy this morning.

The third message was only fifty-nine minutes after that–had she been wrong about the timer? Or had he been staring at it waiting for it to go off, then given up early? “Piper,” he began. “Now I’m honestly worried. You’ve never pulled a no-show and you barely ever call in anyway. Are you lying in a ditch somewhere? Did your apartment burn down? I’d have called the police already if I didn’t know they would laugh at me trying to report a missing person after two hours. If I don’t hear from you by lunch, I think I’ll start making calls anyway. Where are you?”

Her hands shook so hard she set down the phone before she dropped it, because retrieving it from the floor was utterly beyond her at the moment, and calling a nurse in to do it would be a bother they didn’t need. She gave herself a few minutes to cry, then a few more to calm down enough to pick the phone back up.

He answered on the second ring. “Piper?”

He hardly ever used her first name, as they were a very formal bunch at work, and hearing it for the second time that morning in his voice nearly made her cry again. “Mr. Perkins, I’m sorry. I’m–I’m in the hospital. I only woke up a little while ago, and the doctors needed to go over everything with me. I couldn’t call any sooner.”

“Oh, thank god you’re okay. I mean, are you? Okay?”

She swallowed painfully, her throat still swollen from crying. “Injured, not dying.” She bit her lip against the need to explain. “They’re discharging me soon. I can be in after lunch.”

“No!” There was a pause where Piper imagined Mr. Perkins forcing himself to calm down, to lower his voice. He really had been worried about her. “If you need time off, you can take it. You haven’t used a single sick day in months. Just have the hospital fax your work return forms and I’ll authorize them.”

“I can work, sir,” she said in a small voice. “It’s not that bad.” And she didn’t want to go home and lay around doing nothing for three days, or however long the doctors would tell her she needed to rest.

In truth, she didn’t want to go home at all. But she was already forming a plan, and she would need to return to get her things, at least enough for a few days. Maybe a week. She wasn’t sure how long she could pull this off without anyone knowing or suspecting. Her organizational skills went into a sudden overdrive, creating a list in her head of the items she would need to pack and the things she would need to do, which meant she zoned out while her boss replied.

“I won’t pretend I can’t use you here if you’re well enough, but your health comes first.” He took a deep breath. “Do as you think best. I trust you to make that decision for yourself. But don’t be afraid to take shorter hours while you’re recovering, if you need to.” This is where her brain reengaged in the conversation, and she was about to launch into an entirely separate list of everything she needed to get done in the next week, which doubled as the list of reasons why she needed to work. But he either heard her indrawn breath, or he knew her well enough to know what she was going to say. “I can handle things for a while without you. And if I can’t, there are other people I can lean on, okay?”

“Okay.” She vowed privately that she was still going to put in her hours, maybe extra overall, though possibly with more breaks. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

He chuckled softly. “I don’t know why I thought you would listen to me, but fine. Come in this afternoon. But I reserve the right to send you right back out if you collapse on your desk.”

“Fair enough, sir.” She ended the call and opened the note app on her phone and started a checklist, to fill the time until she got her discharge sorted out.

Flash Fiction #7: The Book of Crows and Fire

the book of crows and fire

So these post get passed around Tumblr all the time, taking a light-hearted poke at the trend of fantasy YA book titles that’s been going strong for the last several years.

I usually play along by reblogging with the title it gives me, and they’re usually not that great, because that’s the joke.

This particular one, however, generated The Book of Crows and Fire for me, and I immediately got an idea. So I spent an hour typing furiously into the Tumblr post editor and ended up with a 1700-word origin myth, which is also a bad wordplay joke, which is also wildly inaccurate. But it was fun to write, and sometimes that matters more.

Piqued your curiosity? I haven’t posted a flash fiction piece in three full years, so I might be rusty, but here goes:

In the beginning, the day was hot and bright, but the nights were bitterly cold. All the creatures of the earth whimpered in their burrows and dens, huddled together for the meager warmth they could provide each other. The wolf pups shivered, the squirrels fluffed their tails as large as they could to hide beneath, the muskrats coiled themselves around each other and waited for morning to bring back light and warmth to the world.

But the crows sat together high in the branches of the trees, and they did not shiver or whimper or wait. They plotted.

It took time to observe, and time to plan. The crows risked nothing for many days, watching the sun move across the sky. When the first crow tried to catch it, she returned limp and exhausted in the deepest part of the night. “It is too fast,” she said. “I could not keep pace with it.”

Her murder gathered around her to listen to her tale, to the distant lands she had seen in her pursuit of the sun, the territory they had never before encountered. A few days passed while they sent scouts to investigate; perhaps those lands, closer to the sun, would be a more hospitable place to live. If they could not catch it, at least they could settle where it shone more strongly.

In this new place they thrived, and a new generation hatched, and the chicks tested their wings in flight. One young crow looked up at the sun, after hearing the stories his elders had told of how they had chased it, and how it had brought them to their new home, and wondered. Most of the others had given up on the dream of having the sun for themselves, but he saw something they had overlooked. As soon as he had grown into his adult size and strength, he left the murder asleep in their trees and flew swift through the night.

It wasn’t that the sun was too fast, he deduced on his own, but that it was too far. He had to leave much earlier to meet it in the sky when it rose.

He was a strong bird, and a smart one, and as fast as he flew, the night still seemed very long and exceptionally dark. He, too, like his mother before him, saw many strange things beneath him on the earth, creatures that did not live where he lived, trees that did not look like his trees, and even vast expanses where there were no trees, only grasses. That emptiness unnerved him, so he fixed his gaze on the horizon, where he knew the sun would come up.

When it did, he landed, weary and disappointed. He was still too far away, and he knew from his mother’s stories that he could not catch up to it. He might be stronger and faster than her, but he did not think he was strong or fast enough.

He drank from a stream that cut through the grass and feasted on a small rodent he found nearby. It was strange to him, but tasty still, and he had not gone so far from the edge of the forest that he could not fly back to it for a safe place to roost while he slept. The next night, he returned to his murder and told them of his journey. Many of the elders were too old and tired to make the migration, but most of his brothers and sisters and cousins decided to go with him when he returned to the grasslands. His mother did as well, and declared herself pleased to see the new hunting grounds her brave son had discovered. They lived many turnings of the moon in peace and safety, growing bigger on the rich feeding they found, and the next generation of chicks broke free of their eggs sooner and more vigorously than any hatching before them.

The twin daughters of this new crow hero were proud of their heritage, whenever the elders told the stories of his journey, or their grandmother’s. They had never known the deepest coldness of the night as the rest of their family had, but they saw no reason not to devote themselves to improving the lives of their murder once again. They took turns scouting the lands around them as soon as they fledged, bringing back so many tales of strange places that some of the murder suspected of making them up. Surely there were not places so hot and dry that not even trees could grow, that the ground was covered in sand, like the banks of streams, but everywhere? Surely there were not places where stone thrust up from the earth in piles so huge they seemed to touch the sky itself?

But their father believed, for hadn’t he been the one to see strange new lands himself? He encouraged his daughters to fly together to the tallest peak in the sky, and from there, after a good rest, perhaps they could finally catch the sun.

When the twins searched for shelter on that mountain, they met a bone-breaking cold and a biting wind like they had never known before, and wondered if this was the death that their ancestors fled from. They squeezed themselves into a tiny niche in the rock and held tight to each other, sleeping as best they could in that terrible place. In the morning, when the sun rose, they winged into the sky to meet it. They were young and small, but swifter on the wing than any crow that had come before them, even their heroic father. They followed the sun across the sky, and soon enough, the air grew warmer around them, even though they continued to ascend.

The sun’s path led them to a strange peak, even stranger than the one they had sheltered on. The top of the mountain was a great lake of fire, bright and burning, and it overflowed so that liquid fire trailed down its sides in great rivers. There was smoke in the air that made the twins cough, but soon enough they found the clear space where the air currents carried the smoke away, and it was safe to fly. When they first landed, the stone burned their feet and they had to jump away, back into the air. But they tried again, farther from the lake, and found a place cool enough to land but warm enough to make their feathers fluff in happiness. They had flown so far that they immediately slept again, lulled by that heat and their exhaustion. When they woke, deep in the night, the light of the burning lake brightened the darkness around them, and they thought there was surely no better place to live than this. They had not caught the sun, but they had found a place where the sun lived on earth, and that was better even that the warm grasslands of their childhood.

This migration was harder on the murder, though, and when those who had chosen to go with them reached the volcano, they cried in dismay. “But nothing lives here! Yes, we are warm, but what will we eat?”

The twins looked to their father for advice, but he only shrugged. This was their idea, so it was their problem to solve. Until they did, the others would either wear themselves out in flight searching for food, or go hungry. Intense investigation turned up some very small creatures did live on the slopes of the volcano, but there were not enough to feed everyone, and their meat was tough and meager. Some of the elders died, and the twins began to fear they had led their murder to ruin.

But one of their cousins seemed to be growing healthier every day, while the others all wasted away. His eyes were bright and his feathers were glossy. They begged him to share his secret.

He looked away from them in a gesture of embarrassment. “I didn’t say anything, because I thought it was stupid. But I was so hungry one day, so desperate to feel something in my belly, that I started eating pebbles. And then I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I didn’t die, so I did it again the next day.”

This wonderful news came too late to save some of the weakest of them, and the ones who did not believe that eating stones would work and refused to try. But as soon as they told him, their father leapt down from his perch to scrounge for small stones and scooped them up in his beak. “Not much different from eating large seeds,” he said. “And I do feel better.”

They waited until the next day, to see if their father died, but he looked much improved. Then they ate some pebbles themselves, and felt better. They had enough energy to fly about again and explore, and when they tried to land close to the lake of fire again, they found their feet didn’t hurt so much on the hot ground.

They grew into adults there, and laid their eggs, and raised their chicks, all on a diet of those small black stones, some gritty like dirt and others as smooth as glass. With each generation their beaks grew larger and harder, the better for chipping stone off the cliffs. Their wingspans broadened for catching the warm updrafts that rose from the lake. Their feathers, already that beautiful glossy black, darkened further with the blackness of their food, and gained a subtle sparkle from the rich minerals. They were the proudest and biggest and most beautiful crows the world had ever seen.

It was only many years later that humans found them and did not recognize them for what they had been. Foolish humans who could not fly to chase the sun, who had to walk, creeping slowly across the landscape trying to find the best place to live, where the crows had been able to fly and find it first. They could not live here, those humans. The crows would not let them in. The humans were too stupid, even, to know them by their right name, for when the curses flew at them alongside the puny arrows they did not fear, the humans called them rocs, not crows.

Flash Fiction #6: The Worst Love Potion

“Love potions have no effect on people who are already in love.  When your friend hexes you with an everybody-loves-me potion, you brace yourself for an irritating day.  But one person doesn’t act any differently, and it’s not who you’d expect.” – the prompt from tumblr’s new #spontaneouswriteblr tag

(Of course I hopped right on that. Here goes.)

I should have realized that going home for the night wouldn’t actually give me any peace.

Sure, Tammy loved me, we’d been friends and roommates for half of forever, but she didn’t love me love me, so of course, the stupid hex on me snared her, too. As soon as I walked through the door and dropped my keys on the side table, she rushed out of the kitchen with a cupcake in her hands, holding it out to me. She must have started baking as soon as she’d gotten home from her morning shift at the diner, to have made something so beautifully fancy. Thick swirls of pale buttercream, candied violets on top and everything.

She still had a smudge of flour beside her nose besides the handprints of it on her apron. All day my coworkers had been stealing away to the bathroom to touch up their makeup or straighten their hair and their ties before wandering over to “chat” with me about one upcoming project or another. All day, virtual strangers had been doing their best to impress me with their looks or their signs of wealth or their flirting skills. That’s all they had, because they barely knew me. They could only “love” me in the most superficial ways.

Tammy wasn’t wearing a single speck of makeup under the dusting of flour. She was in her cutest heart-print pajamas under the apron, I’d give her that, but she was banking on my sweet tooth to win my affection. Because she did know me.

I took the cupcake and hugged her, hoping that would be enough to keep her from trying to kiss me. Satisfaction of the smaller urge. Tomorrow, this would be over–tomorrow, I’d head downtown first thing and bang on Saul’s door until he woke up and let me in. Saul had fixed Kaitlyn’s hexed car and Cameron’s cursed umbrella. He’d even found Oliver’s ring after that pompous, insufferable warlock had thrown it into the river after Oliver dumped him. If something was broken, off, temperamental, Saul could fix it.

Saul had to be able to fix me, too, and soon. Five marriage proposals in one day were easily four too many.

I suffered Tammy’s enthusiasm well enough to follow her into the kitchen as she raved about this movie she wanted to see that she thought I’d like too. The chatter didn’t quite drown out the sound of the faucet running.

Mike was standing at the sink, washing dishes. Oh, this was the worst. I’d been hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone else tonight, and Tammy’s younger brother? The last thing I needed was him getting caught up in this hex, too. I suppose the best I could hope was that when I got the hex broken, no one would remember anything they’d done or said to me. Magic worked that way, sometimes, when a spell made people act out of character. Their brains couldn’t cope with whatever they’d done that didn’t fit with how they thought of themselves.

“Here’s the rest of the cupcakes!” Tammy declared with a sweeping gesture at the loaded cooling racks lined up next to the stove. Two dozen. There went my New Year’s resolution to snack less.

“Thanks, Tammy.” I swallowed the protest that came to my lips, oh, no, you shouldn’t have. I’d tried that tactic already today and it hadn’t worked. If I just floated along with whatever behavior didn’t cross any lines, I’d make it until tomorrow in one piece.

Apparently satisfied, Tammy flounced out of the room, hopefully to clean herself up. If I could get myself some dinner from the fridge and extricate myself from the kitchen without any disaster with Mike occurring, I could hole up in my bedroom and lock Tammy out, if necessary.

“Hey, Nora,” Mike greeted me without looking up from the sink.

Okay, good start. Maybe he’d be one of the guys who just asked me for a date instead of proposing. I could handle that, even from him.

“Hey, Mike. Tammy roped you into baking with her again?” I took a bite of the cupcake in my hand, which, of course, was fantastic. Even if made under the influence of a mind-warping hex. Nothing could stop Tammy from being a wizard in the kitchen.

Now, that was a thought…had she been blessed as a kid with a spell for phenomenal food-preparation skills? That, I’d believe in a heartbeat.

While I leaned against the counter and savored my first bite of the cupcake, Mike set a dish on the rack and snorted. “We were supposed to go down to Reilly’s for quiz night, but she wouldn’t abandon the cupcakes until you got here. I suggested leaving a note with one on the table and she nearly took my head off.” He paused, staring at a plate crusted with spaghetti sauce, my dinner from the night before. “I didn’t forget your birthday, did I? I would swear it’s not until next month, but if I did–”

“No, you’re right,” I cut him off. “You didn’t miss it.”

He grinned and started washing the next plate. “Good. Are you celebrating something else, then? A promotion or something? Tammy didn’t say why you suddenly needed baked goods.”

No, of course she wouldn’t. The only person I know who kept their deep feelings better guarded than Tammy was Mike himself. On the surface, Tam was always sweetness and light and giving, but it had taken years for her to admit to me the reasons she didn’t get along with her mother or that she had always been frightened of any water deeper than her head.

I got along with Mike just fine when he hung around–he and Tammy had always been close, only being a year apart–but I didn’t know a single one of his secrets. Maybe he didn’t have any to know.

“No promotion,” I answered. “She gets it in her head sometimes that I need cheering up, so she bakes me things or takes me out for a girls’ night or something. I’m not sure what I do to bring it on, but maybe that’s it.” It was the truth, as far as I could tell it, because Tammy really did do that sort of thing. It was just this time, I knew why. The damned hex.

But Mike glanced over at me, his eyes narrowed in an expression that I’m sure he meant to look serious, but came off looking more suspicious. “And you don’t need cheering up? It looks like my plans with Tammy went out the window, which means I haven’t had dinner yet. We’re too late to make it to the quiz night, it started half an hour ago, but we could head somewhere else. That Thai place over on Brassard, maybe, I haven’t been for a while and they make the best panang.”

If that was the date he was asking me on, man, did I suddenly understand why Mike seemed perpetually single. He needed to up his game, no wonder he ended up with women for a date or two before moving on, he couldn’t land anyone with an invitation so casual it wasn’t even a date at all–

I blinked, breaking the staring contest I was having with the side of Mike’s head. He wasn’t asking me on a date. He wasn’t declaring undying love for me, or proposing marriage, or even baking me cupcakes.

He was washing my dirty dishes and making sure he hadn’t forgotten my birthday.

How long had he been in love with me and never said? I wanted to cry, because I shouldn’t have found out this way. I shouldn’t know, when he clearly didn’t mean to tell me. This damned hex!

“Can I take a rain check?” I asked him, my voice weak. “Work was hell today, I just want to stay in. Maybe start a new book and then fall asleep with my lamp still on. You know, stereotypical bookworm stuff.”

“Ah, should have offered to take you to the library instead, I see. You let me know when you’re up for spicy food, then, instead of spicy romance novels. No expiration date.”

I nodded, abandoning my plan to have a healthy dinner in favor of swiping a second cupcake, because that would let me leave the kitchen faster. I could hear Tammy running the shower, so if I hid in my room before she was out, maybe she wouldn’t bother me again. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Good night, Nora,” Mike said as I was leaving.

“Good night.” I couldn’t say his name or I might choke on it. I had to get this hex broken. I had to. How could I ever try dating Mike if everyone else who loved me would always be getting in the way?

Flash Fiction#5: Limninal Spaces

At the laundromat, the lights are always on, and one dryer is always running.

I’ve taught myself not to let it bother me, the same way I taught myself not to be afraid of the spider, the one under the banister on the stairs leading up to my apartment. She never moves. Familiarity breeds contempt, or in this case, it dulls fear.

I am not afraid of the dryer that is always running. I am not afraid of the spider.

These things are always true, and if they are ever not true, then I might be afraid.

The laundromat isn’t empty this Friday morning. It almost always is–day-jobbers, nine-to-fivers, do their laundry on the weekends, or sometimes in the evenings. Most of them in their own home washers and dryers, too, probably.

I see the man slumped in the hard plastic chair at the far end of the room, but I don’t greet him. His chin is on his chest. His eyes are closed. If he’s not asleep, he’s faking it well.

I walk along the wall of machines, peering inside each for stains. You never know what sort of dirty laundry other people are washing.

I choose the fourth washer, measure the detergent into it, and load my clothes. The steady hum of the tumbling dryer near the sleeping man breaks, punctuated by the high rattle of metal on metal. He’s drying something with zippers, though the rest of the sounds are muted, rustling, like pillows being punched.

I start my wash, the plink of the quarters as they fall through the slot into the collection bin providing a tinny counterpoint. Looking over my shoulder, the man hasn’t moved, undisturbed by the noise.

There are chairs that face him, and chairs that don’t. I brought a book to read–I always bring a book to read, because leaving the laundromat to do other errands in town is just asking for your clothes to vanish into thin air. But I don’t know where to sit, if I’m not alone.

Facing him, he’ll distract me from my reading, even if he never moves. But he will. My eyes find the timer on his machine–twenty minutes. He’ll be done, packing up his clean and dry clothes, before mine are even finished in the washer.

The idea of facing away from him makes my heart stutter.

I settle with my back to the opposite wall and manage to read three pages before I can’t help studying him.

Young, barely out of his teens, maybe, though some people just look younger in their sleep. No older than I am, anyway. Dark hair, wavy and disheveled. Eggshell-brown skin liberally peppered with deeper freckles, clustered over the bridge of his nose and fading out across his cheeks. White tee shirt with some logo on it I didn’t recognize, red zippered sweatshirt, tattered jeans.

He raised his head, opened his eyes. They were entirely white, like pools of milk. “You’re staring.”

The words I tried to say in apology came out as a squeak instead.

He laughed, then cocked his head and studied me in turn. “Wait, I know you.”

“No.” I’d remember this man, if I’d ever met him before. “You don’t.”

“I dream about this place, sometimes. Sometimes you’re there.”

I wanted a mirror to raise between my face and his, so I could look into it and be sure I was still me. Not someone he knew, someone he’d dreamed about. “I’ve never dreamed about a laundromat, or about you.”

“Course not.” He stood, shoving his hands in his pockets and rolling his shoulders in a stretch.

I saw feathers behind him on the wall, cream edged in red. I blinked. Blank wall.

One hand stretched out toward me–I hadn’t seen him take it from his pocket. “What’s your name?”

I touched my neck, my hair. I still felt like me, but I didn’t answer.

His hand dangled at his side again. He shrugged. “Someday, you’ll tell me.”

The buzzer on my laundry dinged, and I whirled to face it. It hadn’t been half an hour yet. The man’s laundry still tumbled in the dryer.

I turned. He was gone, and the dryer that was always on, wasn’t.

I shuffled through transferring my wet clothes to a dryer–not the one that should have been running, but wasn’t–and the room held its breath. Not me, not mine, but the air was so still.

I fed in the quarters. A hand touched my shoulder.

The white-eyed man held my wrist, keeping my raised hand from his face. “Sorry I startled you.” He actually sounded sorry, but my heart didn’t start to drift down from the contact high until he let go. “Can’t always be sure where I’ll appear.”


“Never mind. When you’re done, want to grab some coffee?”

I stepped back and found myself pinned by the dryer. “No. No, thank you.”

“Right.” He turned and stepped away, leaving a scent in his wake, a sharp blast of air flavored with salt and pine and dampness. Then he turned back to me with an eager, boyish smile. “Tea?”

As if coffee were the problem, not the invitation. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.

“That’s better.” Whatever he’d meant to say next, he stopped, turning his head to the window. “Rats. Gotta go.”

I blinked, and he was gone again.

I leaned against the dryer until my bones rattled in sympathetic vibration, wondering if I’d been hallucinating, wondering if he’d reappear the next time I moved. A crack of thunder boomed through the sky, shaking the building, and I went to the window.

A storm was moving in from the south, but in the pale brightness of the northern sky, I saw the shadow of an enormous bird, circling in the air before fleeing ahead of the rain.

Flash Fiction #4: A Question of Kissing

Once again, I participated in the Sunday prompt game that Tina of All These Prompts plays on her Tumblr.  This week, the prompt was “Would you have kissed me?” A wonderful choice for Valentine’s Day.

(If you want to see my entry from the first time, it’s here.)

“Would you have kissed me?”

Marissa was always joking around, but for once, she sounded serious. I shrugged. “It didn’t go that far.”

The cold breeze stirred the ends of my scarf as I turned and strode down the sidewalk. Marissa, with her shorter legs, hurried to keep up.

“But would you have? If he’d been more aggressive?”

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d kissed a friend as a shield against unwanted attention. Alan had pretended to be my boyfriend for an entire movie when he’d come back from the bathroom to see the guy in the row behind us flirting with me during the previews. He’d hooked an arm over my shoulders, told the guy to fuck off, and shared my popcorn like it was a real date instead of two single geeks out to see the latest superhero flick together. The kiss he’d given me as we filed out, when the guy was still trying to get my attention, had been short, believeable, and utterly boring.

I hadn’t minded. Alan had never once hit on me in the whole time we’d been friends, so it was easy to trust him, and pretend back.

But that was another event in the long chain that made me wish I weren’t so pretty. I couldn’t tell anyone that. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain, because it sounded whiny and fake. Instead, I did everything I could to minimize it–no makeup, unflattering glasses instead of contacts, clothes that weren’t quite my colors or were just a little too big. But a certain type of guy only saw the long legs and high cheekbones. And the rest were waiting for me to whip my glasses off, take down my hair, and transform into a sexy butterfly, like in a teenage party movie.

“I don’t know,” I finally said. “You’re my best friend, and I can’t decide if that makes it weird, or makes it so it shouldn’t be. But thank you.” I slowed down so she wouldn’t have to jog to keep up with me. I wondered if I should give her a hug.  I sort of wanted to, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I was grateful, or because my body was shaking, vibrating like a plucked guitar string.

Maybe I needed something to hold on to.

“For bouncing a guy who can’t take no for an answer? Always, you don’t even have to ask.” Marissa tugged her pompom hat lower over her ears, then slipped her arm through mine. “I hope you’ve got my back on that, too. Not that anybody ever hits on me when you’re here.”

That was exactly the sort of shit I hated most. Not that she said it, because I knew she didn’t mean it to be hurtful. Marissa was so self-deprecating that sometimes I wanted to smack her and tell her how gorgeous and smart and hilarious she was. But she wouldn’t believe it, because the guys only saw me.

I hated it because it was true, and she deserved better.

I looked down at her as we walked. Her cheeks were rosy with the cold, and her wild blonde curls refused to be completely tamed by the hat. When a car passed by, the headlights gave her a glow that traced every wayward spiral.

“You know I would.”

“Even if you had to kiss me?”

Her playful tone was back, and when I didn’t answer right away, she pouted. She had the cutest little bow of a mouth, and even where we stood halfway in between streetlights, I could see her lips were shiny with gloss.

“Yeah, Mare.  Even if I had to kiss you.”

She squeezed my arm and trotted down the sidewalk, dragging me with her as my numb feet disobeyed my brain. Or maybe it was my brain that was disobedient, swirling with leftover fury at the guy who’d started all of this, and a strange wistfulness that I hadn’t had to kiss Marissa, because now, that was all I wanted to do.

Flash Fiction #3: Artistic Expression

Tina of All These Prompts plays a game on her Tumblr every Sunday, and I finally had time to participate.  (I’ve been meaning to, Tina, but somehow it never worked out until now!)

She picks a prompt from her massive collection (seriously, she should be crowned the Writing Prompt Queen) and challenges her readers to tell her what’s going on, then reblogs what she gets sent so everyone can have fun reading the (widely varied)(sometimes bizarre) stories that result.

So here’s my contribution for the prompt, What did you say about eyes?

Lisa always tried to be early for figure drawing so she could get her favorite easel, the one halfway back from the model’s stage and a little to the right, where the lighting always seemed perfect, and the models themselves never seemed to look at her.

Staring at someone naked was bad enough without knowing they were staring back at you.

But the art building was diametrically opposite her dorm, all the way across campus, and her rice-burner of a car didn’t handle snowy roads with any amount of grace.  She left early, but apparently not early enough, so she wasn’t the first one to the studio, as she usually was.

She also didn’t usually walk into the middle of an argument.  She’d heard Matt and Isaac chat sometimes while they were setting up, but when she walked in, they were almost shouting.

“Wait, what did you say about eyes?” she asked, interrupting.  Her inner introvert was screaming to not get involved, but being alone in the room with them while they fought was hardly less awkward.  And maybe, just maybe, the distraction would deescalate the situation.  Because she knew Matt’s temper was volatile from the months he’d been dating her friend Eric, and though they’d broken up ages ago, somehow, she and Matt were still sort of friends.

Isaac, on the other hand, she only knew in passing.  For art majors who both spent tons of time in the same building, somehow the only class they’d ever had together was this one, and she hadn’t spoken to him often.  She knew his work better than she knew him, from student exhibitions around campus.

“I said the whole ‘eyes are windows to the soul’ thing is bullshit,” Isaac answered.  “Matt disagrees.”

Lisa turned wordlessly to Matt.  She’d seen some of his portraits in the past, and he always showed the subjects’ eyes staring straight out of the work, in that way that they always seemed to follow the viewer.

“Eyes are the most important thing about anyone’s appearance,” Matt shot back. “Why do you think girls spend so much money on makeup to get you to notice their eyes?”

Lisa nearly choked on a giggle at Matt’s slightly bewildered tone.  As if girls did anything for him, which she already knew they didn’t, so he classed their behavior as strange and mysterious, immune as he was to their wiles.

“It’s not the eyes that are important,” Isaac went on heatedly.  “It’s the skin around the eyes.  Eyeballs are just orbs with a black spot and a little color, expression is about the whole face.”

Lisa felt inclined to agree, but Matt was steaming, and while he could tolerate critique from the professors, he had a long way to go in being gracious with his peers.

Which was undoubtedly how this argument had started.

As if sensing Lisa was on his side and needed a little push to say so, Isaac pulled a small sketchbook from his bag and flipped through until he found the page he wanted.  With a step toward Lisa, he pressed it into her hands.  “Look.”

The two page spread was filled with facial studies, miniature sketches of every expression imaginable: the wide smile of childish glee, the furrowed brows of disapproval, the slack jaw of surprise.

Isaac leaned over her shoulder to tap one sketch in the lower corner of the page.  “You can’t even see this one’s eyes, because they’re closed, but you can still tell he’s relaxed.”

Lisa nodded.  She heard Matt stomp away to set up at an easel on the far side of the room, but she kept her eyes on the sketchbook.  So much emotion with so few lines, she though.  Isaac drew clean sketches, much cleaner than hers, which were always littered with extraneous scribbling from her attempts to get the image to match what she saw.

“May I?” she asked, lifting the edge of the page to turn it.  She didn’t get to see others’ sketchbooks often, but she always enjoyed it, like getting a peek into their brain.

“Yeah,” Isaac answered, still hovering over her shoulder.  “Sure.”

After a few pages, it became clear to Lisa this was a doodle journal, not a formal book for one of his classes.  The facial studies gave way to grids of one-inch boxes filled with repetitive patterns in blue ink, then to pencil sketches of wildflowers, then to five pages of drawings of the same hand in different positions.  A right hand.  Is Isaac left-handed? I never noticed.

She turned the next page just as Isaac suddenly said, “No,” and reached to pull the book from her hands.

“Wow,” Lisa breathed.  She was looking down at herself rendered in black ink.  The portrait was face-and-shoulders, filling the page.  Paper Lisa looked to the left and wore a dreamy expression, like she was staring out a window.  The only splashes of color were her irises, filled in with a stormy gray-blue, and the stripe of purple in her hair that ran from crown to tip, where the ends brushed her shoulder.

But that was how she’d worn her hair last year.  She was sporting a pixie cut now, and the streak was gone, replaced with her natural dark brown.

“You did this from memory?” Lisa couldn’t keep the hint of wonder out of her voice.  She’d sat for fellow students before, but never for Isaac.  He’d never asked.

Isaac reached for the book again, and she let him have it.  He didn’t answer until he closed it and returned it to his bag.  “Some.  I did most if it that first week of spring when the weather got nice all at once, and you’d eat your lunch on the quad.  I could see you from my window, I was on the first floor of Bexley.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”  She hadn’t known where he’d lived, but the quad was an open stretch of grass dotted with benches and walled in on three sides by dorms.  She had spent a lot of time there in the warm weather, and she would have been easily visible to anyone in rooms that looked out onto the space.

Her matter-of-fact tone startled him into a smile.  “I was expecting you to be…I don’t know, mad? Embarrassed?”

“Isaac, I draw people I see sitting outside all the time, that’s half the reason I was spending so much time there!  This doesn’t creep me out.  But why didn’t you want me to see it?”

He bit his lip and looked away.  “Because it doesn’t look enough like you.  I didn’t want you to think you looked bad…”

“It’s gorgeous.”  Lisa paused and laughed.  “Can I say that about a piece of art where I’m the subject? Does that make me vain?”

Isaac sat down hard on his stool, laughing.  “No, it doesn’t.  At least, not to me.”

The sound of voices came from the studio door.  Two minutes to class, so in came the flood of students who weren’t early and were never early.

Lisa watched Isaac pull himself together, though a twinkle of humor still showed in the crinkling of the skin at the corner of his eyes.  “Will you sit for me, sometime?” she asked abruptly.

Isaac seemed to stare at her for a long time before he answered, while the chaos of class getting started whirled around them.  “Yeah.  I’d like that.”

After class, with her headphones on blasting K-pop as she lay on her stomach in bed, she tried to draw Isaac from memory, capturing that look that wasn’t quite surprise, or happiness, or anything else Lisa could put a name to.  But she wouldn’t forget it, even if it didn’t come out right on the page.

It’d be easier when she had him in front of her again.  And even if it wasn’t, she’d keep trying.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Blogging, Day 4


Flash fiction time!

Alex refilled my glass for the toast and shushed his mother when she raised an eyebrow at it only being half-full.  “She doesn’t have tomorrow off work like the rest of us, so we’re not sending her home drunk, okay, Mama?”

I tried not to blush when Mrs. Kadnikova–Irina, she told me call her Irina–gave me a piercing look.  I was also fighting a blush already just from the inflection Alex gave mama.

After years of listening to him slip into Russian while on the phone with his family, it shouldn’t still hit me like that, right?  It just sounded so . . . affectionate.  His older brothers lived all over the world and never seemed to remember the time differences when they called to pester him about one thing or another.  Pavel in particular always managed to call during game nights, so our D&D games took unplanned breaks while Alex put out some kind of family fire, or whatever it was his oldest brother needed.  I’d never met him–he wasn’t at the family gathering tonight, too far away, though Alex had gone to see him a few weeks ago–but I’d gotten the impression that he was high-strung.

Carrie and Bill and Wes always used those interruptions as time to get more snacks or use the bathroom, but I buried my nose in a rule book and pretended to look something up while listening to Alex.  It’s not eavesdropping if he doesn’t bother to leave the room, and I can’t understand what he’s saying anyway, right?

Alex’s father Mikhail raised his glass to me.  He also insisted I use his given name, but there was no way I would ever do that because he’s six-five and built like he wrestles polar bears for fun. So far, I’d managed to avoid any conversational pitfall where I had to address him directly.  “We’re so pleased you could come, Madeline.”  His accent was faint, after so long living in the States, but it still drew me in like a verbal hug, and I liked the way my full name sounded colored by it.  “When Sashka said he had a friend who was alone on Christmas, we couldn’t let that happen.”

“Thank you for inviting me, I’m honored to join you.”  Alex had given me the run-down on the etiquette, so I knew what to say.  Though he’d insisted they wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t know, I wanted to get it right, because it really was an honor to be invited to a family Christmas like this.

Especially for a meal as extravagant as this one.  If the table wasn’t groaning under the weight of the food, it was certainly straining.  There wasn’t a square inch of free space anywhere on the table, and in some places serving dishes were getting stacked atop each other, one balanced on the edges of two below it, so more courses could be laid out.  I knew the names of some of the dishes, but not even close to all of them. After I mangled the pronunciation of the first few, leading to gentle laughter around the table, Alex took over the care and feeding of my plate.  I’d whisper to him a description of what it was I wanted from another part of the table, and he’d get it for me, or ask someone to pass it without the same embarrassment I was suffering.

We all drank the toast, though Alex got another look from his mother at the water in his glass.  They’d already tussled once over him not partaking, but he’d driven me here, and he was taking me home, too, so I appreciated his restraint.  He’d capitulated to her demand of a single shot of vodka with everyone else at the beginning of the meal, though he’d skipped all the ones since, in between courses.

His brothers hadn’t, though, and it was starting to show.  Ilya and Dmitri were practically giggling over something Ilya’s wife had said–I know I’d been introduced to her when I got here but keeping everyone’s names straight when they all called each other diminutives wasn’t easy.  I only knew Alex was Sashka because he’d warned me ahead of time.

Whatever her name was, what she’d said made them laugh, but Alex tensed.  I suspected he, baby of the family as he was, was getting teased.  I had the irrational urge to leap to his defense, but I couldn’t, because of the language barrier.  The feelings I’d had of inclusiveness, kindness, and family began to evaporate as their laughter went on.

Then Ilya said something that set off fresh fits of giggles.  Alex slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the dishes, and Irina snapped out something sharp.  The tone of a mother scolding came through, even if I couldn’t understand the words.

Silence fell over the table.  Whatever had happened, it must have been bad, but I was completely adrift.

Dmitri muttered something that might have been an apology.

“Not good enough,” Alex said, low and menacing.  I’d never heard him sound like that before.  He stood up suddenly, and I turned to look at him.  Fury was written all over his face.  “I can’t believe someone from my family, someone I love, could be so rude.  Maddie, I’m sorry, but we have to go.  I can’t sit at this table anymore.”

He offered his hand, and I took it in a daze and let him help me up.  He strode toward the door, and I followed, ending up in the narrow entryway with him as he yanked our coats out of the closet.  After he shrugged his on, he held mine up for me, and I wondered at his almost thoughtless politeness, that he could be so angry and still a gentleman.

Or maybe it wasn’t thoughtless.  When I turned, Mikhail was standing in the doorway, looking at the two of us with an expression of regret.  When he saw he had my attention, he spoke.  “On behalf of my sons, I must apologize, Madeline.  I did not raise them to treat a guest so.”

My knees went weak, but before I could do more than sway in place, Alex’s hands gripped my shoulders, keeping me upright.

They weren’t teasing him, they were insulting me.  Alex is walking away from his family on Christmas Eve for me.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Kadnikov,” I managed.  Alex’s fingers tightened, like he didn’t even want me to be that gracious, but whatever had been said, it wasn’t his father’s fault.  “Merry Christmas.”

Before I could say anything else, Alex whisked me out the front door and down the walk.  The pavement was icy, and I almost slipped, but Alex took my arm and steadied me, slowing down from his rage-fueled rush.

Once we were in the car, I took a deep breath.  “What just happened?”  Alex didn’t answer, and I watched his hands clench on the steering wheel.  “What did they say?”

“I’m not telling you, Maddie.  I’m sorry, but it’s bad enough I heard it.  I know my brothers can be assholes when they’ve had too much to drink, but this…”  He turned to me, and I thought he might be about to cry.  “Don’t make me repeat it, please.”

“Okay, okay,” I assured him.  I still wanted to know what on earth could be so bad Alex would rather leave the celebration than accept an apology for it.  But the pained look on his face told me not to press him.

The forty-five minute drive back to town passed in silence.  I still felt adrift, like I should be angry but I couldn’t be, because Alex was hoarding all that to himself.

When he pulled up in front of my building, I made no move to get out.  I didn’t want to go home yet, to a set of empty rooms and confusion.  I wanted Alex to say something, to explain, or even just to laugh it off.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep like this, wound up without knowing why.

“I’m sorry, Maddie,” he said again, differently this time, quieter.  “If I’d’ve known I’d spoil Christmas for you again–I know you hated not being able to go see your sister this year and meet your new niece.  Once you told me you were going to be alone, I should’ve canceled my plans with Pavel, he would’ve understood.  So I thought–I thought bringing you to our Christmas might make up for it.  Since the Orthodox holiday is later, you could have another chance.”

“Why?” I asked, reaching for the root of the problem.  It was kind, well-meaning, of him to invite me, but I’d thought that was all it was.  Now, it seemed like more.  “Why does it bother you so much that I was alone on Christmas?”

He answered me by leaning over the gearshift and kissing me.

It was short, close-lipped and practically chaste, but it was definitely a kiss.

“That’s why,” he whispered when he broke away.

Once was not enough.  I grabbed the collar of his coat and pulled him back to me. He fumbled at the release on his seat belt until it clicked, leaving him free to climb halfway onto my side of the car.  I probed at his mouth with my tongue until he let me inside, and he wound his fingers in my hair, making me glad I’d left it down.

All these years I’d known him, and it took a disastrous dinner party to push him over the edge.  I giggled at the thought as he slid his lips back to my ear, down my neck.

But he pulled away.  “Did that tickle?” he breathed.

“No, no, it’s not that.”  He took my face in his hands and smiled, but I slapped at his chest.  “Don’t stop.”

The smile faded.  “I should stop.  I didn’t mean to tell you this way, and you’ve been drinking–”

“Stop,” I said, covering his mouth with one hand.  “First of all, you were pouring me half-glasses of wine, and I quit doing shots with your family after the second one.  I. Am. Not. Drunk.”  I said each word slowly, clearly.  “Tipsy, okay, maybe a little, but not drunk.  Second, how were you planning on telling me?”

He laughed behind my fingers, and I pulled my hand back so he could answer.  “Hadn’t quite figured that part out yet.  Mistletoe would have been a good excuse, but there wasn’t any handy.”

I was so happy to hear him laugh, to see all that fury gone, that it made me momentarily brave.  “Would you like to come in?”

Shock washed over his strong features.  “Maddie–”  He stopped and swallowed hard, but I didn’t soften the invitation or hedge around it by explaining.  I knew what I was offering, and I hoped he could see that I meant it.

“You have to work tomorrow,” he said.

“If that’s your best objection…”

He tilted his head and looked helpless to say anything else.

“You did say you should have spent Christmas with me,” I whispered.  “You still have another chance.”

He reached for me, but I opened the door and got out of the car.  If he wanted to touch me again, he’d have to follow.

I was halfway up the first flight of stairs when I heard the building door open behind me.  I didn’t turn, I didn’t wait.  But when I stood in front of my apartment on the third floor, my hands were shaking as I flipped through my keys to find the right one.

Alex’s shadow fell over me, and I felt his solid presence at my back.  “Maddie…” he whispered.

I turned to him, letting him press me against the door with another kiss.

“Are you sure?” he asked, raising his head.

“Would it help if I told you whenever you’re on the phone with one of your brothers speaking Russian, I’m imagining you’re murmuring it in my ear instead?  You could be talking about car parts or cookie recipes or aliens, but it all sounds incredibly sexy to me.”  I ran my fingertips along his cheekbone, across his lips.  “We’ve been friends forever, Alex, but if I’d had any idea you wanted more, I’d have been yours a long time ago.  It’s just so hard to reach across that last little distance when you’re not sure what will happen.”

“I know,” he breathed.  “Believe me, I know.”  Then he leaned in and whispered something in my ear.  I had no idea what it was, but the tone, soft and deep, made my knees tremble again.  I was glad the door was holding me up.

“What did you say?”

He nipped my earlobe.  “Oh, no, I’m not telling you yet.  Where’s the fun in that?”

I shivered.  “Only say sweet things.”

He nodded, his cheek ruffling my hair.  “No teasing, no insults, no lies.  Your education in the Russian language is only going to be good for one thing, Maddie, and that’s whispering in the dark.”  Then he snorted.  “So don’t try to say any of it to my parents, okay?”

I laughed, and finally unlocked the door.