Sunday, August 24, 2014

Flash Fiction: Do Not Read

Alllrighty there loyal followers of this here blog. Are you ready to read? Hope so, because I wrote something. I'm working with a friend who is also a writer (a brilliant one, by the way) and we are challenging each other to write a short story each week. We've done three of them so far, and this is one that I like enough to share with you good people. I really want my friend to share his writing too, so maybe if we all encourage him enough he will agree to let me post something! Believe me, you won't be disappointed, the man is a genius.

Anyway, back to the flash fiction for this week. It was my turn to pick a prompt for our writing challenge and I saw this image on Pinterest:

I changed it a bit to "if found do not read." So I had to think about who would have a book such as this, and why they wouldn't want it read. Immediately my mind went to a journal, mostly because I was an avid journal-keeper in my youth and always had a fear of someone finding it and reading my private thoughts. Which, yes, did happen (ahem, MOM).

Anyway, I also recently went through something life-changing and was left with a lot of unresolved feelings. Okay, I got my heart broken. And when you get your heart broken, a lot of times you're left feeling kind of stupid. Stupid for not seeing the truth of the situation because you were blinded by love goggles (which are a lot like beer goggles, but much more dangerous).

So I wanted to play with the idea that we sometimes ignore the reality of certain situations because we only see what we want to see, not what is actually happening. The end result was a kind of creepy story that I really like! I like it so much, I'm considering expanding on it. Let me know what you think of it! I love to read your comments.

        It’s one of those rushing kind of rainstorms that comes out of nowhere. Like the sky has suffered some mortal wound and is now pouring itself all over the earth in one swift gush. The sky groans and screams above me as white hot tendrils of electricity lash at us mortals, like maybe we’re the ones who did this to it and now it wants revenge.
        I scamper down the street, nervous that my boots with the metal laces are going to draw this angry sky’s attention and it will choose me to zap out of existence. The campus is deserted, save a few other stragglers that got caught in the downpour. Jesus, what I’d do for an umbrella.
        Breaking into a jog as I close in on the Science Building, I make the gigantic mistake of leaving the sidewalk to cut across the lawn. The grass is thick and glossy, and my fancy metal boots have little traction apparently. I go down hard, my head smacking against the cement sidewalk. Those damn boots were destined to get me after all, just not in the way I’d feared.
        Cursing to myself, I lay there for a moment, too dizzy to get up. The rain is almost painful on my skin, giant pellets that feel as though they’re being hurled at me rather than gently dropped from the clouds. The sky growls again, and lightning slaps me awake. Inside. Must get inside.
        Pushing myself into a soggy sit, I look down at the ground to scowl at the slippery grass and see a small book lodged underneath my boot. So the grass wasn’t my downfall after all, nor was it my now-ruined boots.
        You bastard, I think irrationally as I pick the little leather book up. It’s soaked through and I figure I should just leave it since it made me fall and hit my head and doesn’t deserve rescue. But the thunder positively roars at me and I all but shriek, quickly shoving the book in my coat. I sprint for the building’s main doors and get inside.
        A girl with dreadlocks asks me if I’m okay and I nod, flushing. Of course someone had to see me eat it. Wanting to escape any further questioning, I head down the hall without destination. I’ve got an hour before I have to be at my class and the sky doesn’t seem like it wants to stop pouting any time soon.
        Camping out next to a tall skinny window with an armchair beside it, I decide I am the luckiest person alive to have scored such a cozy spot when so many people are caged in the building. I plop down and begin shedding my outer layers. Hat, gloves, (ruined) boots, coat . . .
        The book falls out onto my lap with a fwop and I pick it up again.
        Turning it to the front, I see that someone has written something on it in what appears to be white-out: IF FOUND DO NOT READ.
       Oh God, I think to myself. What utter torture.
        It has to be a journal. Someone’s most private and intimate thoughts. And if I read it, I am scum. If I don’t, I will forever be tormented by unquenchable curiosity.
        My fingers itch to pry the sopping book open.
        I wonder if this is some kind of prank. Is something vile going to spill from the pages when I pull them apart? Or is the writer of this sadistic wad of paper watching me from around the corner to see if I disobey her directions? Maybe this is someone’s experiment on human ethics or some shit.
        Glancing around the hall, I see a few other students huddled against the walls with earbuds in or books propped on their knees. Nobody’s watching me. Nobody furtively taking notes on my reactions, or even recording me with their phone for later observation (or to upload on YouTube should something horrid happen when I open it).
        When I open it.
        Oh God, I’m a bad person. I have already decided that I will read it, even though it’s a gross violation of some stranger’s privacy.
        Humanity is doomed. I’m opening the book.
        With fingers that actually shake – whether from nerves or the chill of the rain I can’t say – I pull apart the first page of the book. There’s a name written in tight script:
         Don’t hate me, Jon.
         I separate the first page from the second the way one peels the skin from an onion, slowly and delicately so as not to rip the layers and make the job more difficult.
         Words are written in black ink that has frayed from the rainwater and obscured some of the words. I don’t read anything at first. Instead I continue to peel the pages apart and scan them, picking out odd words and names. I’m still dancing with the idea that I’m not reading it, so I’m not breaking any rules. I only opened it and am . . . airing it out. So it doesn’t get ruined. So I can return it.
        Then I reach a spot amidst the pages and I catch my name.
        My name.
        My full name, not just a first or last, which could belong to someone else. Alice Amelia Hall.
        It’s an unusual name so I doubt it’s a coincidence. Alice Amelia Hall is my name and nobody else’s, probably on this entire campus.
        So now I have to break the rules.
She’s in my Art History class and she sits two rows in front of me in the same seat every day. She reminds me of Meagan and maybe that’s why she draws my attention. It’s not really her appearance, Meagan was more beautiful, and she smiled more honestly, without all the teeth and the squinted eyes. It’s more Alice’s manner. She doesn’t speak to me, but I listen to her talk to the guy who sits next to her. She flirts with him, jutting out her chest when she’s wearing something low-cut the way Meagan did with me in the beginning. Is this something all girls are taught to do to attract guys’ attention? Why don’t they just talk and leave their boobs out of it? I told that to Meagan one time and she laughed so long she started to snort.
God, I miss her.
I can’t stop watching Alice Amelia Hall as she shifts in her seat and her long dark hair spills over the curve of her shoulder. I watch her check her phone every few minutes, then sigh as if disappointed. Is she missing someone, too?
I like the way she chews on the top of her pen and taps her foot against the seat in front of her while the professor goes off on a tangent. I’m bored, too –
“Still pretty bored,” says a voice in my ear and I scream. I actually let out a horror movie-worthy shriek and the journal jumps out of my hands as if I’ve frightened it. It lands in a heap on my feet.
            Whipping around, I see Jon.
            It must be Jon. He looks familiar in that vague way you recognize someone you haven’t met, but have seen around day after day. He’s dripping wet too, and I suppose he got stuck in the downpour as well. He bends to pick up his journal and remains on his knees beside me, his fingers kneading the soft leather of the book.
            “I’m much less bored now, however,” he says with a wry grin.
            Words fall in and out of my mouth, but nothing makes sense. I think I say sorry somewhere in there. I think I beg the lightning to just take me out for good. Reach in through the glass and zap me out of this, please.
            “Relax,” he says and puts his warm hand on my still soaking knee. “I’m not angry Alice Amelia Hall.”
            “I found it on the ground outside,” I sputter. “I wanted to find out whose it was so I could –”
            “Don’t lie about it,” he says. “You wanted to read it.”
            A nod jitters down my spine.
            He chuckles low in his throat. “I’m not angry,” he says again and the gentle curve to his dark brown eyes calms me slightly, making me believe him this time.
            “I didn’t read much. Just the part . . .”
            “About you.”
            “And now you’re wondering who Meagan is,” he says.
            “She was your ex?”
            “Something like that. It was fucked up.”
            “You don’t have to tell me,” I say. Abruptly I realize he hasn’t taken his hand off my knee.
            “I’ll tell you. In time.” He smiles and says, “I’m not embarrassed. And I thought I would be if anyone ever read my words.”
            “I would die if someone read something like that.” My face burns hot both from his hand on my leg and the personal assault I’ve just committed against this stranger. I would punch someone if I’d caught them doing what I’d just done.
            “You wouldn’t die,” Jon says with a playful roll of his eyes. “You might be happy.”
            He nods slowly. “Yes, you might be happy you dropped a precious book in the mud and a beautiful girl fell on it.”
            I groan and slap my hand to my forehead. He saw the whole thing. Everything.
            “So you watched me this whole time?” I ask between my fingers.
            He takes my hand away from my mouth. “Didn’t you read my words? I’ve watched you this whole time.”
           “That’s stalker-y,” I mumble.
           “Can you blame a guy for being more interested in the pretty girl sitting in front of him than the Art History lecture a crumbly old man is giving?”
           I snicker, and shake my head. “I guess not.”
          He stands and presses the journal back into my hands. I look up at him and frown questioningly.
          “Read it all, Alice Amelia Hall,” he says softly. “And when you’ve finished, come find me. If you still want to.”
          With one last crinkle of his eyes, he turns and goes, leaving me holding his words, wondering what on earth they might say.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Flash Fiction: Reap 7

Okay, okay this is nuts. Two posts in one day after a year of silence. It's too much, I can't handle it!

Well deal with it, people because it's happening.

Really, I just felt bad that the last post was so preachy and whiny, and I wanted to share something fun that I wrote recently. Honestly, this is probably horrible to admit, but I haven't written anything of consequence in months. Many months. And I'm just now starting to get out of my slump. So what I'm saying is I'm rusty. And the writing isn't coming as easily as it used to.

Good news: It's getting easier all the time. And I actually wrote some Flash Fiction that I don't hate.

Now, in case you're new and don't know the FF rules, they go something like this: I find a quote, image, song, etc. that inspires me and I write a short story about it. Sometimes it's 100 words sometimes it's 3,000. This time it's somewhere in the middle.

And also I cheated a little bit. Usually, I find the inspirational image/song/whatever first and develop a story around it. This time, I already had an image in my mind. And it was so, so clear that I didn't need any aids. In my mind it was night, and I saw a girl staring out her bedroom window across a wide desert, and on the horizon is a huge building all lit up from the inside. All I knew about the image was that there was something wrong with whoever or whatever was housed in the building. I've had this strange image in my head for a long, long time and so I finally decided to give her a story.

I call it Reap 7 and you'll read why in a moment.

Also, I couldn't find an image to match the one in my head, so I found one of what I imagine Gene, the main character, looks like as she stares out the window. Kind of grungy and haunted, with something somber, yet curious in her gaze. I love the grainy quality of the image, and her
outfit. I thought the image fits the story pretty well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy!

It almost looks like a birthday cake sitting on a table in the dark. I wait for someone to blow out the candles and disappear it, but those light never extinguish. Never, not once in ten years have those lights turned off. And, I suppose, they never will.

From my window, as I look out upon the cold expanse of desert, I can almost count the lights on the massive building. Each one is a window. And behind each window is a room. Within those rooms, live people. People just like me, only they’re sick.

The Haven is where you go if you contract the deadly virus known as R-7, or as some like to call it, Reap 7. See, when the virus first attacked, many thought it was some kind of biblical plague, a reaping of sorts to rid the world of evil. The media distorted the deaths of millions, claiming those people were sinners and that was why they’d died.

That went on for a while, until some truly good people started dying. The pope, for one, was enough to rock the world and shut the religious folks up for good. This was no reaping. This was cold, indiscriminate death. And we were all vulnerable.

I was young when R-7 killed off about five percent of the population within a year. I was six, actually, so I don’t remember the panic or the fear that infected the earth, just as surely as Reap 7 did. In fact, my only true memory of that time is Alex. He was my best friend. And he was taken away on a Tuesday, ripped straight from my side by men in white suits and face masks.

Alex and my parents had both died within weeks of each other, leaving him alone, and me in the charge of my brother, who was just thirteen at the time. When Alex’s parents went, days after ours, he stayed with us. I remember us curled around each other in my bed like kittens, our shoulders trembling with silent, choking tears.

In those days, nobody left their homes; nobody talked to each other or touched. If you had to be around others, you wore a mask and you averted your eyes, like just looking at someone infected was all it took to contract it, too. We hoarded food and supplies, and camped out in our basements, hiding like rats. We rationed stale crackers and cold cans of soup like they were precious white truffles, and went out at night to raid the already picked-over supermarkets.

We were lucky to have Jon, my brother. Some kids were worse off. Some from our neighborhood, even younger than me, were on their own – left to fend for themselves. In the beginning, they would come by our home and knock on the door, shivering and crying, begging to be let inside. But in those days, you couldn’t chance it. There was no way to discern who had Reap 7 and who didn’t just by looking at them. And once you breathed the air of someone infected, you were done for.

We turned them away.

Night after night, they came, crying for food, until one day they stopped coming. When I was little, I wondered where they’d gone, though I was secretly glad not to hear their wails every night, singing me to sleep like some macabre lullaby. Now I realize they likely starved to death.

One time I put food out for them. I left a bowl of Campbell’s chunky beef stew outside on the porch like you would for a stray cat. That night there were no keening howls, no raps on the door. I was happy. Alex had told me I was kind, but Jon wouldn’t like it.

He was right.

It was the one and only time Jon had ever laid a hand on me in anger. A whole fucking can, Gene are you crazy? Jesus, you think I want to let them starve? They’re babies, I hate this! But I have to make us the priority, you get it? Mom and dad wouldn’t forgive me if I let you starve. Maybe it was just my baby brain distorting the memories, but I always saw his face cast in red when I think of him back then, red and lined like an old man. He always seemed so old back then, but he was younger than I am now.

And he kept us alive.

Well, he kept the two of us alive. I had no idea what had happened to Alex. When the men in white suits took him, it was because he tested positive for Reap 7. After a few years, the government – what was left of it anyway – figured out how to test you with a simple blood sample and determine whether you were infected. So the men in white stormed each house, each basement and hovel, yanking arms from under ragged blankets and stabbing needles into them. There was no refusing the test, of course. We had no choice. Freedom had long since abandoned America. You let the men in white put their silver needle in your arm or you were taken away.

Sometimes you were taken away, anyway.

But they never killed you; that would be going too far. They simply tossed you, screaming with tears and snot running down your face, into the back of a black van and you never came back.

Jon told me after Alex was taken that he was going to a camp. It’s like a hospital, he said, his warm hands kneading my back as it twitched, one day they’ll find a cure and they’ll make him better. You’ll see him again.

We both knew it was lies.

I would never see Alex again.

But as I look out over the desert at The Haven, where the infected live, apart from us, I can’t squash that last stubborn shred of hope that he somehow lived this long. And that they will find a cure. And they’ll empty The Haven of all its suffering souls. I imagine the gates whipping open wide and the tenants scrambling out of the double doors, escaping like ants from a trampled ant hill. He would find me and I would scream at the shock of seeing him again.

I wonder, not for the first time, if I would even recognize him. I have no pictures of him to aid my tattered memory. When I think back hard enough, I have a vague impression of a sharp nose and angled eyes, black hair and bony arms. And a navy blue shirt with the word RIOT splashed across it in faded white letters. He could walk past me in the street tomorrow and I might not know him.

Warm desert wind creeps across my face, tugging hair from behind my ears and pulling it out the window. I let it fly and count the windows of The Haven again, imagining that the one in the dead center is Alex’s room. I pretend that he’s sitting at his window too, maybe reading quietly, or staring out across the sea of sand too, thinking of me.

Does he even remember me?

Without warning one of the lights blinks at me.

I sit up straight, blood rushing in my ears, unable to believe what I think I’ve just seen. I flip a look at the clock. It’s nearly midnight, much past my usual bedtime. I must be seeing things. My imagination running away with me again, as Jon always scoffs whenever I get too excited.

Those lights never flicker, never extinguish.


I can’t stop my legs from pitching me across the room to the light switch. With my gaze transfixed on The Haven and that tiny window straight in the center that blinked at me, I flip my light off. I count to five slowly. He has to see it. And then I flip it back on.

I wait, frozen with my fingers on the light switch, my breath clogged up in my throat.

Minutes go by. Hope fades and my arm drops, a balloon losing helium. I am a crazy, stupid girl.

My feet shuffle back to the window, dragging the rest of me along with them like a ball and chain. Numb arms push my window closed and turn the lock. I cast one more look at The Haven and send a silent prayer that even though I hadn’t seen it blink again, that the light in that room so far away had gone off. That it meant something – anything. That maybe, against all odds, it was Alex over there in that center window, sending me a silent hello. A hopeless promise that we would see each other once again.

Hopeless promise, I remind myself. Hopeless.

Then I flop into my bed and cover myself with the ratty blanket my mother crocheted, the one that doesn’t keep my body warm, but heats my soul to the core. It is a hideous shade of rotten oranges and I’ve picked too many holes in it from nerves and nightmares over the years. But she once touched it. And I’m under it now. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to my mother again.

From my bed, I can still see The Haven, the right half of it anyway, and it seems to glare at me now, almost smugly. Probably, that’s just my imagination again. But I can’t shake the ominous feeling I get whenever I look over there, especially now. Usually I sleep facing the other direction.

I start to turn around to escape the multitude of ceaselessly staring eyes, when—

One winks.

The center window.

I sit up in bed and one word alone passes my lips, unbidden: “Alex.”

Grand Re-Opening. (Otherwise Entitled: One Lengthy Pep Talk and a Short Rant)

So imagine that this blog is a room, and it’s filled with chairs. All of them are facing a small platform where a solitary metal chair stands, empty. You guys are all sitting in the chairs, of course and you’re waiting patiently for someone to enter the room. You wait. Minutes pass. You wait some more. Hours now. People are starting to get restless, some are leaving entirely. Days and months pass. Now a year. Very few people are left now, and nobody has stayed the whole time. You come in once in a while, poke around, sit a bit and eventually go away.

Now imagine me, standing just outside the room, wringing my hands and eating my fingernails, watching the lot of you stare expectantly up at the empty chair. Waiting for me.

Pressure unlike anything I’ve ever experienced has built to a breaking point inside me. Negative thoughts whirlwind through my head, clogging every creative orifice there is. Bravery, courage, passion – all that gets squished beneath the weighty pounds of F E A R.

(This is pretty much what I'm trying to say. You can just stop reading now.)
That’s right; it’s fear that’s kept me away from my writing for so long. Fear to enter the room and share with all of you the thoughts and feelings I choose to tap out onto my computer. You see, those thoughts, those ideas and emotions that I write down, they’re not just made up things crafted for your entertainment. They’re so much more. My stories—my words—are a part of my soul.

Deep, I know. Maybe too deep for a grand re-opening blog post, but whatever. Deal with it. Because it’s true. The things I write are an inherent part of me, closer to me than my children, my family, my friends. They are closer than close – they are me. The core of me. Twisted and shaped into something exciting that other people will (hopefully) want to read.

And it’s terrifying to share yourself with the world, especially when the world is so cruel. I’ve gotten some bad reviews. If you’ve been on Amazon or Goodreads, you know what I’m talking about. There are some doozies out there, let me tell you.

When I first began writing, I didn’t expect to feel such utter heartache from reading negative things about my books. In fact, I hardly even considered that people wouldn’t like what I wrote. It just wasn’t something I cared about.

I wrote because I loved it and because it allowed me to explore parts of myself that I’d yet to discover. I loved the magic of creating characters and concepts and entire worlds that were all my own. I didn’t care that my grammar wasn’t perfect or that my ideas were stale, my characters clich├ęd or my style too dry. None of that mattered to me in the beginning because I just plain loved writing.

Once the bad reviews started, I began to care about those things. I cared a lot. It stung when someone said something mean about the way I wrote. Hell, I’d thought the book was pretty good. After all, that’s why I wrote it. And other people (my agent, my publisher) thought it rocked too, that’s why they spent a lot of time and money putting it out there for everyone to buy. And then people bashed it.

Now I understand that when you spend money on a book and you put in the time to read it and you don’t like it, it can be frustrating. I’ve experienced that. We all have. But when you take that frustration out on the writer in the form of a totally unproductive hate-rant, that’s taking things too far in my opinion. You serve nobody but yourself when you choose to spit hate into a review. Online or in person, it’s just not cool.

Somewhere along the line, people have forgotten that authors are real people and that we all -- Yes, ALL – read those reviews from time to time. We all see the good stuff . . . and we see the bad stuff too. When you’re slinging mean, spiteful words about a book you read, you’re slinging that stuff at the author. Now, maybe you have no respect for said author. Maybe you hated the content of the book and it offended you. Maybe you think she has no skills and shouldn’t be a writer at all. Maybe. And that’s okay to think. You don’t have to say it to the world and you certainly don’t have to say it in such a cruel manner. Those words you read—the words the author wrote for you to read – those were her thoughts, her ideas and her soul transferred onto paper.

Somehow I think we forget this, and we think it’s ok to bash books, bash authors for writing them, or publishers for publishing them. We forget that there are people behind those words, people who trusted the world enough to let those words go and be read. When we throw hateful reviews out there, we betray that trust, and we destroy a little of what makes us human.

You see, I’ve been so afraid this past year or so. Afraid of the mean words, and the negative comments and the just plain horrible things that people can say. I’ve been so scared to put myself out there that I let my fear take away the one thing I’ve ever been truly passionate about. And isn’t that sad? That I let other peoples’ insecurities and low self-esteem steal my joy? I let their hate seep into my mind and it destroyed my creativity.

Other people’s words, literally destroyed mine.

Lately, I’ve been trying this thing where I’m brave. Where I stop being a victim and live the life I want. Part of that, I realized, is following the dream I set out on six years ago when I started writing. Six years ago I decided I wanted to be a published author. Well, I am now. After that, I decided I wanted to keep publishing books for the rest of my life.

Well, I haven’t done that, but my life isn’t over yet.

And I’m amending my ambitions to this: I don’t want to publish books for the rest of my life. I want to write for the rest of my life. It doesn’t matter worth a damn to me whether anyone ever reads the words I write. And it certainly doesn’t matter anymore whether people like them or not. People can read my books, or not read them. People can buy my books or not buy them. And people can like my books, or they can hate them and write terrible things about them. It really doesn’t matter to me anymore.

What does matter is that I keep writing. Every day. For the rest of my life.

See, without writing, I’m not alive. And what the hell is the point of life if you don’t live it?

So get ready, people. I’m about to walk into the room at long last. I hope I see you there.


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