microfiction

You Asked

Nine years ago, my grandmother stopped hearing from Stefan. My mother and I were vacationing with her other brother’s family in Shanghai at the time and my mother and Alex and his wife Louise sat me down and explained, my uncle was missing and I wasn’t to tell my cousins.

I said nothing.

Almost a full month later, my father picked me up from school and took me home to my mother’s. She was there waiting — unusual.

Then she told me he was dead.

As she broke down crying next to me, I let her hold me and I might have cried too. I was shocked and not shocked, at the same time.

Later, I watched a Dutch news report on my grandmother’s laptop about a John Doe with a mermaid tattoo. Parts of the story of my uncle’s demise were filled in. A stranger had been walking his dog through the park and found Stefan’s body three days after the incident. He’d been shot in the head by his neighbour from Thailand, a man who owed him over $100, 000 and who obviously didn’t want to pay it back.

He’s in jail now, I think.

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Arabus

There is a sheep farm just outside of Mudgee. The owner is a family friend. He’s also vegetarian; he leaves the carcasses of dead sheep to do the “natural” thing. When I was younger I used to collect the various skulls and bones I found while wandering around his land.

My favourite thing about the farm was Arabus, though. He was a giant white horse with that perfect slow horse gaze. I was fascinated by how he could let flies wander around his big brown eyes, waiting long minutes before blinking them away.

He dispelled many horse myths, for his favourite food was bread and occasionally apples, definitely not carrots. In a torrential downpour I would still pull on my mother’s Gore-Tex coat (more a dress on me), apples in the zippered pocket because no one likes soggy bread, and traipse down to the dam where Arabus was grazing that day.

Arabus was a part of my life even when I wasn’t visiting the farm. If I had trouble falling asleep, which was often, my mother would come into my room and kneel by my bed, stroking my skin until it tingled while she told me stories of Arabus’s adventures on the farm.

He was the great protector of the sheep.

You’re Gonna Be Home Soon

Picture this: in a world where it’s every germ for themselves, the common cold is like a fierce army, equipped with swords and nuclear bombs alike, preparing to take on…the human body. They have three types of defence to make it through. The first consists of several kinds of barriers within the body; skin, mucus and cilia are like a castle’s walls with its moat and portcullis. In order for them to survive they need penetrate the walls and get inside where they will meet the second line of defence: the white blood cells. In the event a germ manages to make it through phagocytosis, they face a final battle against the mighty B and T cells.

Phase One:

They are sent flying through the air, the sneeze causing a mass exodus from the cushy confines of the nose. The world is really big, blurs of colour and sound, and they are so very small. If they don’t land where they need to be, it’s going to be another long sleep until someone brings them back again. They don’t want to go to sleep though. This sleep isn’t anything like a normal sleep. It’s like dying only to come back to life in some unknown future.

They fall into a bowl of peanuts.

“Here we go, boys! It’s like the ball pit all over again!” It’s the sergeant. He’s the one in charge; he knows everything there is to know about our enemies. “Watch out for the hands, they aren’t as sticky so you’ll need to hang on tight.”

One such hand descends over the bowl and they assemble on the peanuts nearest the top, ready latch onto any skin they can find. The hands are clean and sealed, no cuts or abrasions to pass through. When the hand moves to place the peanuts in the mouth, everyone rallies at the back, far from the threat of saliva. A few are too slow to move and they perish in the snare of the mouth. The troops must wait for this host to touch nose or eyes. The others bide their time. Being pushed out of homes again and again, they’ve developed patience in their desperation for belonging.

Then, after much procrastination and waving around, they are finally near the face again, coming closer and closer to the eyes.

“IMPACT!” the sergeant yells, preparing everyone for the coming invasion.

Phase Two:

A war cry is heard and the remaining survivors turn to face those cursed B and T cells. The sergeant reaches for his weapons and all others follow suit. Swords clashing against that of the T cell warriors ring out all around. Other T cells carry messages and a few germs are dispatched to cut them off while another squad is sent to target the B cells. The B cells keep sending flares up, identifying where all the germs are so the T cells and the phagocytes know where to attack.

Imagine the end of this battle inside a phagocyte. They know it engulfs you but no one knows what happens after you’re inside. Imagine pushing away the fold of tissue, a cosy waiting room is revealed. A cushioned armchair beside a fire: the perfect place to hide out. I stay there for a while, days at least, feeling warm and full and large. Everything is bigger. The room is starting to throb and waver and wobble and it’s no longer a place you can stay. You’re so hot you erupt and then you’re nothing. Better to be outside, fighting T cells with swords and bombs and having a home for a little while longer.

The Beautiful Rose (Second Draft)

When Aoife awoke that morning, a steaming cup of tea and a plate of fruit were on her bedside, as she had grown accustomed to after having to stay here for so long. However, unlike before, a leather-bound book with an embossed pink and silver rose on the cover accompanied the breakfast meal. She wondered who would have given her the book. Surely not the beast, perhaps some willing servant or shy suitor instead? With trembling hands she took up the volume and cracked the spine, the thick smell of paper and ink winding towards her nose and distracting her from her quandary.

Upon a page marked with a pink ribbon were the words:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.

Aoife took up the book and the food and passed the day in a window seat above the castle’s magnificent garden, alternating the exquisite sonnets of Shakespeare with the view of her beautiful flowers until she had read all the words it contained.

At supper that night, Aoife ventured a question from her host: “Have you ever been in love?”

The Beast erupted from his chair and stalked past the fire.

“Why would you ask such a thing?” he roared, voice transformed, whether by rage or by physical appearance she could not be certain.

“I’m sorry I asked.” Aoife closed her mouth quickly to conceal the sob building in her throat. She was too slow and it echoed in the corridors as she dashed from the dining hall to her chambers.

In her dreams, an alluring man spoke from beneath a balcony to her in riddles of eloquent words that made no sense and all the sense in the world. His blue eyes were eerily familiar and when she awoke, she could remember nothing he said except for the look of longing in his face.

The next day another book appeared with her breakfast. She pushed the plate of food aside and hurried to her window seat with the book under her arm, eager to absorb a new world of words and life. The words were themselves a connection, as though she was with her family again in the outside world. She missed them so dearly and yearned for a way to know of their health and happiness.

Aoife drew her fur cloak tighter and advanced further into the garden, eyes transfixed by the thicket of roses buffeted by the harsh wind. As she gazed upon the soft full petals of the crimson flowers, she considered her father at home. How he must have felt when the Beast threatened his life for the act of stealing a single blossom. How she wished she had never asked for the flower when he left; if she had not she would be home with her family, embroidering by the fire with her sisters. Aoife reached for one of the blooms to smell the sweet scent: roses were such a weakness of hers. A sharp pain touched her fingers and blood welled from a thorn prick in her finger, mingling with the petals and falling in fat droplets to the dusty ground below. She cursed softly and sucked at the wound, the coppery taste on her tongue. They gave her a new appreciation for the Beast: too hideous to venture beyond the castle walls without striking fear in others yet too intelligent and caring to remain within without yearning for something more.

Later that night, Aoife ate her supper in silence while the Beast watched from his chair at the opposite side of the table. He had inquired about the bandage on her hand but she had brushed it aside as a simple accident. A considered look filled his eyes and an idea began to take shape.

Phone Call

**Caution: following writing contains autobiographical details and metafiction, read at own risk**

The phone vibrates against the frosted glass surface of the desk, the vibrations causing it to wiggle indirectly towards the abandoned computer. The girl grudgingly shifts her gaze from the Sudoku before her to the screen of the phone. Some part of her hoped it was her boyfriend. She isn’t surprised when the caller ID read “MUM”. Returning to the Sudoku, she debates for a few moments over numbers, letting the phone’s ringtone kick in: the song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.

I’ll really have to change that, she thinks to herself. It is so popular now, gracing radio stations such as Mix 106.5 and 2day FM, nothing like what she thought of it when she first heard it in the credits of The Host at the cinema with her father.

Unlocking the phone, she props it against her ear, sighing. “Hello.”

“Hi, sweetpea. You sound so flat. Why are you flat?”

“I’m not. Everything’s fine.”

“But you sound exhausted, what is it?”

“Nothing. What’s up?”

She taps the pen against her lips and tries to conjure some numbers for the Sudoku. The puzzle is “moderate level” – just a little too hard for her but “easy level” was too easy.

“Well, I spoke to the agent today… are you sure you’re ok?”

“Yes, go on.”

“Ugh, that tone of yours,” she mutters. “So he wants to cancel the opening this weekend. Even though we haven’t settled with that couple who made the offer yesterday or the other couple from Sunday.”

“Sure.”

“Well, the first couple, the ones with the Golden Retrievers, have called up and made an offer. They’re all offering the same amount.”

“I guess that’s good.”

“You’re really not interested in what I have to say.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Ok, the first couple have backed out because their solicitor says it’s not safe as they haven’t got the money yet. So we’ve gone from no one wanting our house to three lots to two lots.”

I’m bored by this story. You’re bored too, I can tell. I can feel it. Look, I’m actually this girl and I have a lot of stress going on in my life and no I’m not really ok right now. I’m sitting at this table tapping my pen trying to figure out this Sudoku instead of writing one thousand five hundred words worth of short stories. And my mum calls me up and bugs me about every hour or so. Like she believes asking me if I’m ok will magically have the effect of making me ok.

So I’m stressing over these short stories not materialising on the laptop I’m very conveniently ignoring. And then there’s you know, my boyfriend and the whole being-in-a-relationship thing. He’s hard to get in contact with but at least he’s my friend on Facebook now. And oh look, it took me about an hour to write most of this up after it happened. So logically, the phone is ringing again. I have to go. My mum is calling.

***

Prompt: write a story in which two characters have a conflict but do not specify what the conflict is

I also got bored and experimented with metafiction.

Barry’s Water Pistols

Barry crawled up the hill, stomach pressed close to the cool damp grass, careful to keep his head down below the summit lest someone catch sight of him and guess at what he was up to. On the other side there was a low table covered in a white cloth. Many small cake stands adorned with yummy nibblies were stationed around the table for the six young girls in their pretty summer dresses with ribbons in their hair.

He drew in a deep breath to steady himself and then turned to look back down the hill behind him. Below a line of boys copied his movements. He motioned them forwards and they wiggled on their elbows up the slope like little fish. Barry sighed in frustration, wishing he had better troops to work with. This was important business! He heaved himself up to survey the scene below.

One girl in particular, with a plastic pink tiara pinned to her curly blond hair, held her arms above her head twirling around and around while the other girls watched. The wide fairy wings strapped to her back rippled this way and that and her skirt billowed out. This was it. This was his moment.

Barry leapt to his feet, brandishing his pistol and letting out an almighty war cry as he ran down the hill to the unsuspecting girls. A few heartbeats later the other boys followed suit, yelling as loudly as they could before reaching the party site.

“Fire!” Barry cried, squeezing the trigger of his pistol and letting a jet of water spray all over the twirling princess. The boys were having a blast despite the girls’ devastated screams. Her wings were destroyed instantly; the painstakingly applied makeup turned to ink as tears mixed with pistol residue and redecorated her face.

The princess dissolved into weeping mess of a girl, crying so many tears Barry feared a flood would strike. His trigger finger went limp and the pistol drooped, falling to his side and then hitting the sodden grass with a “plop”. His troops ceased fire, looking to their commander in bewilderment. This was not the fun they had imagined.

Barry rush to his sister’s side, taking hold of her shoulders and squeezing gently.

“Don’t cry, Nessy,” he pleaded. “It’s ok. We can get you dry. It’s only a bit of water.”

Nessy only howled louder. The sound functioned like a car alarm. Barry knew its effects: bringing their parents at a run as though Nessy were a homing beacon to them. He dreaded their arrival, realising his punishment would arrive alongside Nessy’s comfort, and tried once again to quiet his sister.

“Stop crying! Stop it! You’ll get me in trouble!”

“You—” hiccough “—deserve it.”

Barry pulled at the itchy sleeves of his woollen coat. The costume was ridiculous.

“More tea, mademoiselle?” He bowed, offering a tray with a teapot, sugar and milk.

Vanessa waved her magic wand in the air and sniffed. “No thank you, Baxter. Go away.”

 ***

Prompt: write a story based on a newspaper heading

The One (3rd draft)

The first thing she notices is the sounds of laughter and talking, the dull clink of what can only be knives and forks against china. They take a few steps forwards and he manoeuvres her through the room, his warm hand firmly covering her eyes.

Part of her cannot help noticing how cliché this whole thing is. Another part of her is secretly thrilled.

“Here we are,” he says and removes his hands.

A table set for two is revealed: lit candles in ornate stands frame a centrepiece of gorgeous orchids in a crystal vase atop a deep crimson tablecloth. At one setting is a medium-sized box. Her heart lurches in anticipation.

Well, it can’t be a ring, she tells herself. The box is far too big.

“Please, sit.” He pulls the chair back for her and she obeys. After scooting her forwards, his hands rest on her shoulders and he plants a kiss on her cheek.

She reaches for the box and start to open it… and someone knocks into her side, jolting her back to reality. Slumped over a table, she can see blurry wood grain. There is the smell of antibacterial soap and metallic tang of cheap cutlery. If the plain black slacks and a black top weren’t obvious enough, the apron and notepad clue her in and with a sinking feeling she realises where she is.

She peers around the partition and sees the diner bar and Suzy, with her bright pink hair and her notepad, flirting with a customer. Checking her watch, she sees it’s well after midnight. Her shift is nearly over, thank God. She must have zoned out while on her break. The rest of the shift is spent out the back, polishing cutlery—it never stays clean—and she’s out of there as soon as she can be.

Her car is a ways away. The only sound she can hear is gravel crunching loudly underfoot. Then someone grabs her from behind, an arm around her waist and the other hand covering her mouth. Any screams stay stuffed in her throat. The arm is thick and beefy, her finger nails catch on the wiry hair. He smells of salt and tobacco and she kicks out and flails helplessly, stomach rolling in revolt.

“I like a little fight,” he mutters, slamming her against the car.

She falls, limp from the impact, and is spun around like a doll, his body pressed against her, hands tearing at the shirt. It’s no use. He’s big and she is small.

“Please. Stop.”

She tries to push him away but it only encourages him. With her eyes squeezed shut, she recognises the sound of him unzipping his pants. This is her last chance, she realises dimly. Using as much force as she can muster, she rams her knee in between his legs. He drops with a roar and she bolts for it.

***

In bed, shadows creep across the walls. She cannot close her eyes without that night, that man, revisiting her. The same immobilising weight against her body: too hot and heavy on her front; cold metal crashing hard against her back.

She drifts off somewhere close to dawn.

The box is in front of her. She reaches for it and a breeze passes through. The smell of salt and tobacco. She knocks the box from the table and runs as far as she can.

***

Prompt: rewrite a previous story from a different point of view.

The Beautiful Rose (working title)

Aoife drew her fur cloak tighter and advanced further into the garden, eyes transfixed by the thicket of roses buffeted by the harsh wind. As she gazed upon the soft full petals of the crimson flowers, she considered her father at home. How he must have felt when the Beast threatened his life for the act of stealing a single blossom. How she wished she had never asked for the flower when he left; if she had not she would be home with her family, embroidering by the fire with her sisters. Aoife reached for one of the blooms to smell the sweet scent: roses were such a weakness of hers. A sharp pain touched her fingers and blood welled from a thorn prick in her finger, mingling with the petals and falling in fat droplets to the dusty ground below. She cursed softly and sucked at the wound, the coppery taste on her tongue.

Later that night, Aoife at her supper in silence while the Beast watched from his chair at the opposite side. He had inquired about the bandage on her hand but she had brushed it aside as a simple accident. A considered look filled his eyes and an idea began to take shape.

When Aoife awoke the next morning, a steaming cup of tea and a plate of fruit were on her bedside, as she had grown accustomed to after staying here so long. However, unlike before a leather-bound book with an embossed pink and silver rose on the cover accompanied the breakfast meal. With trembling hands she took up the volume and cracked the spine, the thick smell of paper and ink winding towards her nose.

Upon a page marked with a pink ribbon were the words:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

Aoife passed the day in a window seat above the garden, alternating the beautiful sonnets of Shakespeare with the view of her beautiful flowers until she had read all the words it contained.

The next day another book appeared with her breakfast. She pushed the plate of food aside and hurried to her window seat with the book under her arm, eager to absorb a new world of words and life. The words spoke to her, as though she was with her family again in the outside world. They gave her a new appreciation for the Beast. Too hideous to venture out without scaring others yet too intelligent and caring to remain inside the castle walls without yearning for something.

***

Prompt: rewrite a fairytale.

http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/Tales/BeautyAndTheBeast.html

The Fight (First Draft) (Title Subject to Change

Someone sneezes and I’m sent flying through the air. The world is really big, blurs of colour and sound, and I’m really very small. If I don’t land where I need to be, it’s going to be another long sleep until someone brings me back again. I don’t want to go to sleep though. This sleep isn’t anything like a normal sleep. It’s like dying only to come back to life in some unknown future. I miss out.

I fall into a bowl of peanuts. It’s like a smaller version of that ball pit I was in once before. Everyone’s hands were so sticky there. Here, the hands are much larger. One descends over the bowl and I hide behind a peanut until it’s lifted into the air. Then I cling to it, holding on for dear life. This is perfect, straight shot to the stomach and none of that pesky skin or noxious fluids to get stuck in.

Rolling around in this mouth for a while, I’m thankful I’m small enough not to be crushed by those huge, chomping teeth. Unlike that there peanut, you’re doomed, buddy!

I feel a blade on my shoulder and turn to face that cursed saliva. It’s going to be another fight for my life. I can’t believe I forgot about these idiots. Their medieval defensive strategies are legendary. My sword clashes against theirs amidst the crunch of peanut sludge. Gotta be careful not to get stuck. We parry for a few steps and I block each attack. It’s not easy with all the change of surface. I just need to bide my time, wait until this body swallows. They swallow much more quickly than they used to. It gives me a break from ridiculous sword fights with old-fashioned enemies.

My only chance is coming now. Dodging this next blow, I dive for the sludge and slip down the slippery pink slide of the oesophagus, a rollercoaster ride I should be more concerned about the end of. The last thing I want is to survive a fight with saliva only to be vaporised by the nuclear substances of the human stomach.

There! It’s a soft spot I can grab a hold of. I hang on just long enough to save myself from certain death and pull myself up. Pushing away the fold of tissue, a cosy waiting room is revealed. A cushioned armchair beside a fire: the perfect place to hide out. I stay there for a while, days at least, feeling warm and full and large. Everything is bigger. The room is starting to throb. My host gives a sudden hacking cough, large enough to topple me over. It seems my stay has come to a close.

***

Prompt: present a character in a negative light and make him/her redeemable to the reader

Seeking (Draft 2)

She gives the skirt another pull and walks on, her destination up ahead. It’s sad, really, how excited she is. Her hands reach down to smooth her skirt. It keeps riding up with every step, almost revealing her practical seamless underwear. That’s what you get for wearing stretch nylon. Her black ballet flats are sensible and the matching tank top makes the vibrant print of the skirt pop.

The café is up ahead, white sailcloth propped out the front to shade patrons seated at the purposefully mismatched outdoor furniture. One final yank on the skirt before she enters. Hopefully, it will stay down.

Blue eyes behind black wayfarer sunglasses scan the crowd. She passes by man with long blond hair occupied by his cell phone. It could be him. His attention never wavers and she dismisses the thought.

The rest of the café is filled with families of varying age and number, a squalling infant or two. Better check up back, behind the novelty teapots and overpriced armchairs, just to be safe. No one else seems to be alone. One cast iron beauty with a dragon carved into its base catches her eye. She reaches for it but pulls out her phone to message him instead.

i’m here. where are you?

She doesn’t believe in that shortened text message crap.

parking.

The place is her favourite: a local secret and only a ten-minute walk from her house. She smirks. She wanted to meet on her own turf. The bearded man by the register catches her eye and smiles. Beneath the shade cloth out the front she selects a high stool and sits down, hands folded.

“Neesa, I presume,” he says, spotting her straight away. He lands a peck on her cheek before she can stop him.

“Andy?”

He nods and smiles. He’s short, with tan skin and crows’ feet and smile lines. The close-cropped brown hair and polo shirt-jeans combination gives him the appearance of an overgrown boy.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Your profile picture doesn’t do you justice.” Andy tries to pass off the line effortlessly.

Neesa’s mouth twitches. “Thank you.”

“Well, I’ll have a coffee. Anything on the menu for you?”

“Tea, please.”

He returns with a tray bearing a black pot, a heap of leaves and an empty cup as well as a latte for himself.

Neesa busies herself with the tea. It’s a warm day but craves something warm in her hands.

Andy selects a sugar packet from the bowl on the table and squeezes it between two fingers. Neesa watches, unable to look him in the eye.

“Have you ever done this before?”

“Yes but I’ve not had any success so far.”

“Oh that’s a shame.” Neesa sips her tea. “I haven’t.”

Never been on a date either.

“I’m never in one place long enough to commit. Most of the women I’ve met before seemed like pro’s. This one had a … menu. She gave me all the options and laid down all her prices. I told her that wasn’t what I was looking for.”

“And what are you looking for?”

“Let’s make an arrangement.”

***

Prompt: choose one of the 3 plot structures (surprise, suspense, curiosity)