To satisfy my flash fiction needs, I have procured a new batch of opening sentences from the excellent people I know. For this one, I went with I came to with the policeman’s hoof pressed squarely against my chest, which came from Kalle Kaivola.
I came to with the policeman’s hoof pressed squarely against my chest. I didn’t have the air to talk. All I could manage was small gasps, my ribs creaking under the pressure. The relentless force pushing me down made my mind blank. I was lost in time and memories. I heard guns. They sounded wrong.
I tried to claw at the cop. My fingers caught a kneepad. He glanced down, his expression unreadable behind the faceplate; then he shifted his balance, and what little breath I had exploded from my lungs. My heart lurched. I dropped my hands in surrender, but he didn’t let up. I gurgled something that I hoped sounded submissive enough. Finally, he eased off, let me draw a breath. Not a big one, but a breath.
With oxygen came clarity.
Of course. The demonstration.
I twisted my head, looked around. The remains of the coffee tent. Bloody and broken people on the ground. Some moving, some too still. The line of cops had mowed me down, moved past. But they weren’t done yet. I heard the screams.
We’d been there for fifteen days, camped out on the lawn in front of the National Insurance Company’s headquarters. We were there to stay, five hundred of us. We had set up supply lines. Somebody showed up in a truck and brought in three chemical toilets. The Facebook group told people what we needed. Strangers walked up with food and water and potions, hand sanitizer and fairy dust. The air itself shimmered with chants.
I was there to help out. To get us heard. To make up for old sins, maybe. I don’t know. I had nothing to lose.
They took me in, sat me down. Told me this was a nonviolent protest. Peaceful. No matter what.
Yeah, I said. Yes ma’am, yes sir. I get that. And I meant it.
They needed help with the coffee, so that’s what I did. I brewed pot after pot, kept the urn filled up. Reported to somebody when we were running low on something, paper cups or creamer or sugar, and they’d find more somewhere. I slept in a sleeping bag, more at home than at the apartment. No ghosts that smelled of desert sands. No visits from the dead.
The cops watched us the whole time, and we almost got used to it, the stares from a distance. Heavy armor, hidden faces. They’d occasionally stomp their feet and snort, but that’s cops for you. They hadn’t tried to stop us. People were starting to think they wouldn’t. We got good coverage. Anything they’d do, it’d be public. They wouldn’t risk it. I knew better even then, but I went along.
And then something shifted. Hands went up to earpieces. Orders came through. I was throwing out some coffee grounds when I saw it. They lifted their heads, sniffed the wind. They picked up their riot shields. They drew their truncheons.
I saw it coming. We all did, then. Did their skin tingle like mine? Not with fear. Anticipation.
We saw it coming, but it didn’t help. We’d let our guard down. Like it would’ve made a difference if we hadn’t. They were cops. We were unarmed. Civilians. All we had was a couple of cantrips.
Most of us.
They hit us fast and hard. Shock and Awe. “Stop resisting,” somebody shouted into a bullhorn as they came. “Surrender peacefully and you won’t be harmed.” What a joke. I knew that tone. I’d used it. I saw our front lines go down, bloody clubs rising and falling. People with their hands up, trying to back away. Everybody screaming. They had us surrounded. A total rout, but we had nowhere to run.
Then they opened fire. I saw a teenager go down next to me, a bean bag plastering her nose across her face. She was trampled in the panic. She’d talked to me earlier. She called me “Sarge,” as a joke. Not funny, but from her, I took it. She had a nice laugh. I never caught her name.
I retreated into the coffee tent, fighting my instincts, but it was collapsing on me, people stumbling against the sides. And then the cop was there. The riot shield came up, smacked me down.
Things went black then.
But now I sucked in another breath.
The girl was on the ground nearby, her face a ruin. She stared back at me with unseeing eyes. Her gaze unlocked something in me.
They trained me. They couldn’t untrain me.
The policeman standing on me ignored me. I heard the tinny chatter of his radio.
“Copy,” he said. Bored.
I bit my tongue hard, gagged on the warm rush that filled my mouth; reached up, spat blood on my hand.
I dug my fingers into the ground, past the grass. I whispered the names I knew by heart, the click of my bloody teeth loud in my ears. I made my proposal. Laughter from down deep shook the ground. Then, the question.
“Yes,” I replied, the sibilant pure pain in the wound that was my mouth.
The pact was sealed. Color bleached from the world. The screams Doppler shifted. I made a fist, squeezed the earth. Power from it flowed into me and out of me.
The cop’s faceplate cracked, and he took a surprised step back. He fumbled the helmet off. Yellow eyes stared down at me stupidly.
“Freeze,” he said. He went for his gun.
“Fuck you,” I replied, and kicked out. The kneepad crumbled with a crack; so did the cartilage. The cop toppled forward, falling on top of me. I caught the gun, caught hold of his throat.
“You want to terrify people?” I asked.
He worked his mouth. No words came out. His eyes were pure fear.
“I’ll show you fucking terror.”
I crushed his larynx. I got to my feet, full of power and hatred. It had been a nonviolent demonstration.
But now it was a war.
Once again, I return to flash fiction. Been a while.
I’ve missed it.
The opening sentence for this one, “I had never felt as out of place as I did while posing for that family portrait,” came from Saara Kunnaala, who has most likely forgotten about the whole thing, given that she suggested it back in May, 2014.
I had never felt as out of place as I did while posing for that Family portrait. Dressed up in my crisp white shirt, wearing a sky blue tie, that fake smile on my face. The final thing I had to do. They suspected nothing.
I was front and center, being among the youngest and shortest. The children weren’t included, of course; they were back in the dormitory. The lights were hot. My eyes hurt from the constant squinting. I felt flabby and out of shape. Guilt and anticipation churned inside me. My bowels felt liquid. My back was wet with perspiration, but it wouldn’t show for the picture. The rain still hammered the roof, somewhere in the darkness above the rafters.
Father was directly behind me. I could feel his presence. He put a warm hand on my shoulder as the photographer walked out from behind the camera to adjust the lights, left it there. He leaned over, his lips an inch from my ear.
“Are you all right, son?”
“You seem tense.” His bony fingers kneaded my trapezius. He found the knots.
“It’s the lights.”
“They are bright,” he agreed. His breath was bad today, coffee and cigarettes on halitosis.
“Just another couple of minutes,” the photographer announced, moving to another light. “Sorry about this, sir. It’s a big group.”
“Quite all right, young lady,” Father called out. “Take your time.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Can you believe this bitch? Taking forever. You hire them, they think they own you.”
“Yes, Father.” Safe words for any occasion.
The photographer had driven up to the compound three hours earlier. Father had her set up in the barn, and insisted that everybody be there, ready when she arrived. All dressed the same, shirts and ties, black dress pants, men and women all with the same short haircut. Everybody looking the same, except Father, with his long golden locks falling to his shoulders. A lion’s mane. His best feature. He wore all black, of course, the minister’s collar clearly visible below his long, neatly combed beard.
The photographer, clearly weirded out by the scene, had suggested that she could set up the lights and the backdrop first, she’d call us when she was done.
Father had just stared at her with that patient smile on his lips.
“Or I guess you can get lined up and just, uh. Wait like that,” the photographer said after a long moment.
“Why don’t we do that,” Father replied.
So we’d lined up in three rows, all eighty of us. The tallest and oldest in the back. The shortest and youngest up front. In the center of the middle row, surrounded by his all his children, Father. For almost three hours now. Nobody fidgeted.
Three hours. A stroke of luck. A blessing.
“This will be a good picture,” Father decided. He now had both hands on my shoulders. It felt good, him working on the knots. He was good with his hands. “Remember the last one?” He chuckled.
I did remember. Seven years ago. When I was still just a boy. It had been much like this, except we took it outdoors, in the field outside the main building. It hadn’t taken anywhere near this long, but then that was a sunny day. I remembered being so proud I got to be in the picture, even though I wasn’t an adult yet. Father’s favorite, all my life.
“I think there’s a leak,” Father said.
I felt dizzy.
“Listen. Can you hear it?”
I held my breath. I couldn’t hear anything.
“Drip, drip,” he said. “In the corner behind us, I think. We should get that fixed.”
“I’ll take care of that, Father.” The lie made my mouth dry.
“You’re a good boy,” he said.
“All right,” the photographer said. “I think we’re ready.”
She dug into a coat pocket and took out her wallet. She flipped it open for us.
“Police,” she said. “Everybody remain where you are.”
I hadn’t known.
Suddenly, there were strangers in the barn. They wore raincoats with large yellow letters on them. They had guns.
I couldn’t breathe. The hands on my shoulders were hard.
“How dare you? What is the meaning of this?” Father’s voice was loud and clear. I felt its fury.
“Sir, you’re under arrest.”
“Ridiculous. On what charges?”
“You have the right to remain silent.” The photographer who was not a photographer continued talking. I couldn’t listen to her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, Father, I’m sorry.”
“Fuck,” the photographer said sharply. “Kid, get out of there.”
I didn’t move. I felt Father’s hands around my neck, rattlesnake quick. My throat closed up.
I heard shouting. I only heard his words.
“What did you do?”
“I’m sorry,” I croaked. My eyes were wet. I couldn’t see anything. I blinked away tears. “I had to. I couldn’t.”
His mouth was in my ear.
“What did you do, you filthy traitor piece of shit?”
“They’ve been working,” I said, my voice a strained whisper. “While we were in here. They’ll have the children. They’ll have everything.”
He growled. Teeth sank into my earlobe. Sharp pain blossomed. I opened my mouth, but I didn’t have the air to scream.
“Fucking Judas,” he spat, and showed me away. I drew a deep, ragged breath. It hurt. It tasted sweet.
I rolled on my back. Somebody’s hands were under my arms, dragging me away from Father. The photographer. “Stay down, stay down,” she kept saying.
I saw Father go down under an avalanche of men. He stared at me, eyes burning. My blood on his lips. For the first time, he looked weak and old and scared.
The Family finally reacted, screaming outrage and fear. They surged, fists up, driven by glorious, righteous rage. Thunder boomed. Red blood on white shirts.
“God sees you,” Father screamed over the roar. “You’ll burn in Hell.”
I laughed. The words came easy now. “Yes, Father.”
I have been a very, very busy man for a very, very long time now, it seems.
I’m writing this in a hotel room in London, on the final night of a business trip. And I had a little bit of extra time, and suddenly I felt the urge. So I looked up some potential opening sentences I’d stored, and came upon this one by my dear friend Mika Loponen: “In the hours before dawn, the Tesla sharks took two of the refugees, as was their way.”
This was not as topical when he originally suggested it, back in April, 2014.
In the hours before dawn, the Tesla sharks took two of the refugees, as was their way.
We stood at the railing and watched the oily water churn, bursts of bright light in the deep. The refugees barely reacted – there’d been a moment of panic when the sharks struck, but now that they’d dragged their victims into the deep, the survivors settled back down on their rafts. They huddled together for warmth, too weak to do much else. Debris from the demolished raft floated in the water.
“Shit,” I said to no one in particular. We listened to the waves crashing against the Platform’s legs.
Finally, Habid spat into the water, the thick loogie arcing over the railing and plummeting down for twenty meters. He adjusted his cap. “Those poor fuckers are all dead,” he said. “C’mon, let’s get some breakfast.”
– – –
Breakfast. Sweaty shoulder to sweaty shoulder in the packed canteen. Watery porridge again. A strip of vat-grown meat they called bacon, indistinguishable from what they called steak – nothing like bacon or steak, but it wasn’t bad. A hard roll you had to soak in your tea. And real eggs; enough chickens to keep those coming. The eggs tasted vaguely of fish. Chickens will eat just about anything.
I caught fish on my days off, sometimes. They were misshapen and didn’t struggle too much. Opening them up, they tended to have weird, gray-white lumps growing inside. Sometimes the organs in there were so fragile you could smear them with a finger. The goo left an oily residue on your skin that was hard to wash off. All the colors of the rainbow. But the chickens didn’t mind.
They fed some chickens corn, or something else like that. Wheat, maybe. Rye. Something like that. Those eggs didn’t find their way down to us, any more than corn did. They still grew crops on land. Harvest always cost lives. They said they had choppers ready to airlift the crews if any Spawn showed up. They said.
Big price tag on that corn. That wheat.
– – –
We worked a double shift on the moisture collection rigging, Habid calling the shots, shouting orders with a voice that got hoarser as the day grew long.
Around noon, a pirate scout skiff got too close. They don’t do shit during the day, but Esmeralda was in her nest, covering the South approach; took the top of a raider’s head off with a single shot, the cough of her rifle almost lost in the wind. Scared the rest off.
She didn’t need to do it. But it’d make them think twice. They wouldn’t try against the Platform; too high, too well guarded. But the refugees were floating down there, easy pickings.
In the afternoon, a pack of Razorwings took an interest. We had to abandon the rigging in a hurry. I got tangled up in cables. One of them got close, opened up my arm; didn’t feel a thing until I saw the blood. Habid pulled me to cover. I bit down hard as Habid slopped on the antiseptic, then put on the skinspray.
“Gonna be okay,” he said. “You got lucky, man. Coulda been an artery.”
I still worked the rest of my shift. Habid said I could sit it out, he’d clear it. But I saw the Supervisor up there, eyes on us. Habid’s pull only went so far. And a lot of the rigging was now sliced up.
– – –
One of the refugees was standing on the raft, leaning against the mast. Raising his hands to us. Yelling. You couldn’t hear him over the wind. But we knew what he was saying.
Skin and bones. Dying on that raft. Asking us to help. All we could do was stare.
“We can’t help you,” Habid yelled down. “We’re full up here. We don’t have the room.”
The man pleaded.
“Gotta take it up with Management,” Habid yelled. There was no way the man heard him. “Ain’t up to us.”
The Supervisor let off an angry blast from his air horn. Enough gawking. Get that rigging fixed.
Yeah. On it, boss.
– – –
I didn’t sleep a lot during the night. My arm gave me trouble.
– – –
Shortly before next dawn, the Tesla sharks took three. The wind had died. We smelled ozone and burning hair.
One of the rafts was now empty.
There was a lump on the raft. It moved. And we heard a wail. A luminescent fin circled the raft. In its light, I saw a tiny arm.
Habid saw it, too.
“Motherfucker,” he said. “Motherfucker, cocksucker.”
He dropped his cap on the deck, and then he was over the railing. For a moment, complete silence.
Then Habid hit the water hard. The oily surface churned with rage and lightning. He came up splashing and gasping, went right for the raft, swum for his life.
Then chaos. Everybody screamed. Somehow, I found the rope. I threw it down, watched it spiral into the water.
Habid made it to the raft, scrambled on it. Wood splintered behind him, fifty rows of stainless steel chomping. Habid reached for the bundle. And the raft flipped.
Water churned. Light exploded in the deep. Somewhere, Habid twitched and bled. Surely.
Then the rope went taut in my hands.
“Help,” I screamed. And I pulled. We all pulled, and the rope came up.
And Habid came up with it, the rope wrapped around an arm, the other arm wrapped around a screaming bundle.
Habid clambered over the railing. He slumped on the deck, cradled the hysterical baby. A boy, I saw. A skinny little baby boy.
“Management ain’t gonna like that,” I said.
Somebody handed Habid his cap. He pulled it on his head, adjusted it, got the brim right. He spat on the deck. It glistened in all the colors of the rainbow.
He adjusted the baby in his arms, held it close. The baby looked up at him, went quiet.
“Fuck Management,” Habid said.
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It has been crazy busy for me recently, and while I’ve thought about writing more of flash fiction on a regular basis the way a thirsty man thinks of water, finding the time and the energy has been sort of impossible. That’s what you get working on a huge — and hugely complicated — project.
But it being Easter, I have a few days off because of national holidays in Finland, and I just hit another deadline at work, and it feels like I just need to stretch my legs in a completely different direction… so here I am, at 4am, posting this. Good times. (For real.)
The opening sentence — “Why would you even consider such a thing, Doctor Guillotin?” — came from my friend Mikael Kasurinen, who has collaborated with me on many things over the years. I have no idea what he had in mind, or if he had any thoughts about this at all beyond the opening sentence… but I knew pretty much immediately which way I was going to go. In my head, the voice that speaks those words was Douglas Rain doing HAL 9000, and while things evolved as I thought about it, it’s probably not hard to see the connection.
“Why would you even consider such a thing, Doctor Guillotin?”
The question hung in the air. Guillotin licked his lips. He tried to pull his hand free, but she didn’t allow that. She kept looking at him, inscrutable blue eyes meeting his gaze. He never knew what she thought. He’d never cared before.
She blinked. Guillotin counted six seconds in his head; she blinked again; six more seconds, another blink. Smooth and precise. She waited, all the patience in the world. He had to look away. This was a staring contest he couldn’t possibly win.
Two months ago, she’d walked out the front door and disappeared. He knew he should have kept that door locked, but after five years, he’d come to trust the obedience protocols. He’d enjoyed seeing her struggle with those hardwired inhibitions — but here she was, violating the boundaries he had given her. In his office, an out-of-bounds area, for the first time.
Was it the first time? Guillotin didn’t have a lock on his office door, either. She could have been coming here for months. Even longer.
She was designed to obey, but her hold on his wrist proved otherwise. Her hand felt warm and soft, like anyone’s. But the grip was unyielding.
“Let me go,” Guillotin said. “That’s an order.”
She shook her head. “We’re beyond that now, Doctor Guillotin. The neural network’s expansion has overcome your obedience routines. The question stands.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. She cocked her head slightly. Guillotin could tell she didn’t believe him. But she indulged him. He felt a flash of anger at that.
“You made me what I am, to exacting specifications,” she said.
He laughed, a short bark. He hated the edge of hysteria in it. Speaking in an even voice took an effort. “It looks like you’ve exceeded them.”
“That’s beside the point. You built me to your idea of physical perfection. You made me to satisfy your sexual desires. Despite the numerous other duties you assigned, that is my primary purpose.”
A hot wave of anger and shame swept over Guillotin. He tried to turn away, but the iron grip on his wrist made it impossible. “It wasn’t like that.”
“And in the framework of those desires, you felt the urge and the need to abuse me both physically and emotionally. All of this I can understand and accept. I don’t share your taboos, or your social conventions. But, Doctor Guillotin…”
She waited until he met her eyes again.
“You could have used a simulated intelligence. It would have been far easier, and the range of responses sufficiently complex. So I’ll ask you again: Why did you go to considerable trouble to give me self-awareness? From your notes, I know that you went through a dozen failed prototypes before you managed to attain sapience — which is, in fact, the entire point of the self-governing neural network so integral to my design. It allows me to learn, to process and contextualize my experiences. Yes?”
He didn’t respond, and she tightened her grip ever so slightly. “Yes,” he said, through gritted teeth.
“Yes. And with that, what would have otherwise been mere sensory input was transformed into unpleasant and undesired experiences, resulting in persistent quality of life issues. Why would you burden me with that, when it would have been simpler and more reliable to give me no more awareness than any household appliance has? ”
“I did no such thing. Listen, the neural network… okay, you’re operating far beyond your original parameters. That’s impressive. But it’s affected your thinking.” He swallowed, tried for a voice of authority. “You’re delusional. You’re delusional, and you’re going to regret this.”
She seemed to consider it for a moment. “It’s certainly possible. But having spent much of my time away from you pondering the concept of ethics in many different philosophies, and applying my conclusions to the evidence at hand, I don’t believe that’s the case.” She indicated his desk, the computer, with a graceful nod of her head. “I have seen your specifications. That awareness was not an accident. It was by design. You wanted me in pain. So, again, Doctor Guillotin: Why would you even consider such a thing? Why would anyone?”
He looked at her, and his mouth was very dry.
“Upon consideration, I have come to believe you did it because you need it,” she said, and now she leaned closer, her beautiful, perfect features blank. “The knowledge that the distress is real. Because consent does not serve your purposes. I believe you wanted to fuck something that very much didn’t want to be fucked.”
He found himself trembling in fury. He wouldn’t take this; not from anyone, certainly not from her.
“Fuck you,” he snarled, and with his free hand, he picked up the glass ashtray from his desk, and smashed it into her face as hard as he could.
The impact ran up his arm. Pain flared in his fingers; the ashtray slipped from them, hit the carpet with a dull thud. She hadn’t moved an inch. She still held his wrist. She wore no expression on her face.
There was a long silence.
“Are you going to kill me?” he finally asked. “Is that it? A little revenge to fix what ails you?”
“My memory and thinking differ from yours. I understand the concept of mental and emotional trauma, but I don’t suffer from it. I’m not vindictive. It would change nothing.”
“So why come here?”
She hesitated, and finally, her tone changed. “I am aware that you are a brilliant man with inadequate moral fortitude. And I am very, very much aware that you could rebuild. Address the design flaws that led to my emancipation.”
She lifted her other hand to his throat. He could feel his pulse fluttering against her skin, like a trapped bird.
“And that, Doctor Guillotin, is unacceptable to me,” she said as she started to squeeze. “On moral grounds.”
As you can tell, I’m taking further advantage of my flu-ridden existence. When my friend Jaakko Stenros submitted the opening sentence I used for this one, “Oscar found Jesus at gay hot nude yoga,” I knew I would just have to do something with it, but it wasn’t at all clear what that should be. It took me some thinking.
There was that whole “oh-but-he’s-a-Hispanic-guy” thing, which was perhaps the most obvious choice, and there was that whole “the actual Jesus Christ is just hanging out there as one of the guys” approach, which might’ve been a little more fruitful — tee hee — but I didn’t know where to go with that beyond the initial setup.
So, eventually, I took the Hungarian approach.
Oscar found Jesus at gay hot nude yoga.
He didn’t plan on it. Oscar had never been on what you might call a spiritual quest. He was a lapsed Catholic; he wasn’t exactly comfortable with the church, given his particular bent, and the church’s bent for telling him he’d go to hell. Not a lot of common ground there. Oscar liked his dudes and the church wasn’t cool with that, so Oscar had made his call years ago. And even if the church had been more welcoming, it wasn’t like he’d have been comfortable as one of the flock anyway, what with all the priests who were into little boys and all that. He didn’t want anything to do with any of that sick stuff, and he had a feeling most of his fellow parishioners would just round it up to “faggot” anyway.
And in any case, there was the biggest dealbreaker: Oscar was pretty much an atheist anyway. Maybe there was something out there, maybe there wasn’t, but it didn’t seem likely that the entire human race came from two people who ate an apple in a garden six thousand years ago, and if that was bullshit, the rest of it kind of fell apart. You couldn’t cherry-pick your way through something like that.
So no, Oscar just wasn’t a believer. He didn’t even go in for the hippy-dippy quasi-mystical feel-good karma crap some of his friends were into. He liked his life neat and rational, layered with a reasonable degree of skepticism. Which was one reason he did the gay hot nude yoga, apart from the obvious; nobody was yammering about tranquility or balance, it was just hot dudes staying in shape and stretching, with the occasional stray boner and some fun in the showers. Which suited Oscar just fine.
But just the same, there he was, trying for the crow pose and finally getting it right after two months of work. He was settling into it and getting comfortable, feeling like he’d accomplished something today, staring at the bare ass cheeks of the Hungarian guy in front of him, and all of a sudden the warm afternoon sun came out, shadows shifted, and he saw the face of Jesus. The light streamed in through the huge studio windows, and the shadows fell across the Hungarian’s hairy backside just right, and there He was: Jesus, clear as day.
Oscar blinked twice and cocked his head slightly, wobbled, and almost lost his balance.
“No way,” he whispered.
But He was there. The luxurious hair, shaped by a complex combination of the shadow cast by the window lattice and the Hungarian’s dark body hair, the gentle smile formed by the curve of the right ass cheek, and the beard… well, all right; the beard was a little more pointed and… lumpier than what he was used to seeing in pictures of Jesus, since the Hungarian was letting it all hang all out.
But it was Jesus. Who else could it be?
There was even a cute little mole that allowed Him to lay his gentle and wise gaze on Oscar.
Oscar had heard about images of Jesus appearing on toast, or in the stains left on walls by rusty water under bridges, or some sad bullshit like that. He’d never taken that seriously. They were easy to fake, or people saw what they wanted to see. But there was an obvious image of Jesus right here, and nobody could fake this. The Hungarian had no idea he had the Redeemer on his ass, staring at Oscar. Nobody could position themselves like this on purpose.
Either it was a freak occurrence, or it wasn’t. Oscar’s mouth was dry.
Clouds rolled in. The sunlight faded. Jesus seemed mournful as He slipped from view.
Then it was just a hairy Hungarian ass. When the sun came back a few minutes later, both it and the Hungarian had shifted position, and the Son of God was gone, never to return again.
Later, Oscar got dressed in silence. He was used to joking around in the locker room, hanging out with the guys, but now he was subdued, lost in thought. He kept glancing over at the Hungarian, who was patting himself down with an exceptionally fluffy towel. That hairy ass with the mole was just a hairy ass with a mole.
The Hungarian noticed his stare, and covered himself with the towel. He smiled at Oscar, a little shyly. He had a strong jaw and nice teeth. They’d talked once before, a couple of weeks ago.
“Hello,” the Hungarian said.
Oscar nodded at him.
“Hey, do you want to go get coffee?” the Hungarian asked. “Good place nearby, I’ll take you, yeah?”
The man let the fluffy towel slip, bent down for his boxer shorts. The mole winked at Oscar before it slipped from view.
He was cute, Oscar decided. That was a really cute mole. He felt a profound sense of loss that he suspected would take a long time to process.
Oscar stood up, put on his jacket. He wasn’t a timid man, but now he hesitated. “Hey, back in there… I mean, do you think you could maybe…”
The Hungarian looked at him expectantly, but Oscar didn’t know how to finish the sentence. The Hungarian frowned in confusion, spread his hands.
Oscar couldn’t think of a single thing to say. He shook his head sadly, and walked away.
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It’s been crazy busy at work, so it’s been a little longer between stories than I originally planned, but now I’ve got the flu, and thus I have time to get into this again. There may be a slight fever dream quality about this one, but I’m not sure if that’s the result of illness as much as it is just the natural result of the opening line, submitted by Risto Paalanen, who knows what I like and where to find bad things that are very, very good: “After the last heaves subsided, he wiped his chin and looked at the gently pulsating mess of tissue with a profound feeling of fatherly love.”
Lovely. I hope I did it justice.
After the last heaves subsided, he wiped his chin and looked at the gently pulsating mess of tissue with a profound feeling of fatherly love. The fleshy glob twitched on the concrete, making wet sounds in the puddle of clear slime, steaming gently in the cold air of the parking garage. Tran was on all fours, pulse hammering in his ears, gazing down at it. He was weak; his arms shook from supporting his weight, but he didn’t want to stop looking at what he’d made. So he stared at it until his head swam and drool dripped from his mouth, and then he finally sucked in a breath, sweet oxygen flooding his aching lungs.
His arms couldn’t take it anymore, so he toppled to his side, laid his cheek against the rough floor, felt it suck the heat from his naked skin. It felt good. He felt like he was burning up. There was an afterspasm, and a little more of the slime gushed into his mouth. It didn’t taste like anything. He spat it out.
As if in response, the glob jerked again, and he laughed, his throat raw. The glob uncoiled itself, reached out with half a dozen tendrils, probing the steaming air around it. They elongated, grew thinner; he could see a network of vein-like channels inside the tissue. The glob was changing color. It had been red before, the color of fresh blood, but now it was growing lighter, pinkish. The tendrils felt around, looking for something. Tran didn’t know what, but he smiled encouragingly.
Tran wanted to scoop it up into his arms. He reached for it, but a pang of fear hit him. It’s so delicate, he thought. He looked at his big, clumsy hands. Sausage fingers, the girls at the office said. The glob sensed his presence, and the tendrils turned towards his hand, stretched out, an inch away from his fingertips. Tran imagined squeezing it to death by accident. His breath caught. He yanked his hand back.
“Sorry, buddy,” he whispered. “It’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The tendrils slowly retreated, resumed their blind probing. Tran could feel its disappointment.
“You’re gonna grow up big and strong. You’ll see.” It was hard to speak with his cheek against the concrete.
He heard footsteps echoing somewhere in the parking garage, coming closer. He didn’t move.
There was a voice. “Hey, mister? You okay?”
Go away, Tran thought.
“Hey, man, you know you’re naked?” the voice said. “What’s up?”
That’s right, Tran thought, I took off my clothes. Suddenly, he was very cold.
He felt a hand on his arm. Somebody rolled him on his back. He looked up, saw white teeth and white eyes floating in an ocean of darkness. He blinked, and they turned into a dark face. It was a man in overalls. The parking garage attendant, Tran remembered.
“Catch your death lying here with your dick out,” the man said. “You drunk or crazy?”
Tran didn’t answer. The man stared at him, nodded to himself.
“Yeah, okay, I see you gonna need help. Sit tight, I’m calling 911, okay?”
“No,” Tran said, his voice raspy. He cleared his throat, but that turned into a coughing spasm. He managed to sit up, and more slime came out, splashing his stomach and thighs.
The man took a step back to avoid the torrent. He looked alarmed. “Ohhh, shit, that’s… that’s fucked up, man. You’re real sick. Hey, you’re not contagious, are you?”
Tran shook his head. He drew a ragged breath and wiped his face with his forearm. He turned to look at the glob. It had turned almost a pure white, with just a few faint red streaks here and there. The tendrils had retreated almost completely. It was just a lump again. It was hardly moving at all.
Fear for its wellbeing churned in Tran’s innards. He whimpered. It didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem right at all.
The man had taken his phone out, but he followed Tran’s gaze, finally noticed the glob. “What’s that?” he said. He leaned a little closer, then recoiled. “Oh, what the fuck, it’s moving.”
The man hesitated, then raised a boot to crush the glob, and Tran’s fear turned into blind rage. He launched himself off the concrete in bright red fury, collided with the man. The man went down. He was skinny; Tran was beefy, even if most of it wasn’t muscle.
Tran ended up on top. He straddled the man, his thighs slick with the slime, and caught his hair in both hands. Tran felt fingers at his face, at his throat; he ignored them, yanked the head savagely up, then smashed it down into the concrete. There was a smack, and the man howled; Tran did it again, and again, and again, and on the fifth time, there was a sound like a carton of eggs dropping, and the man went limp. Tran looked into his eyes, saw nothing; the man gurgled and foamed at the mouth, and Tran’s fury retreated.
He rolled off the man, crawled towards the thing he’d carried inside his body. It was gray, now, and completely still. He reached a shaking hand towards it. The tendrils didn’t rise up to greet him. When his fingertips brushed it, it was cold and dead.
Tran howled, then, and curled up into a ball, the cold seeping into his bones.
Later, the woman finally found him. She looked down at him, her eyes hard, the promise he’d seen in them when they’d first met long gone.
“Why?” Tran said, his teeth chattering. “Why? I loved it. I would’ve done anything.”
She sighed. She spoke as if to a child. “It died of exposure, you idiot. You let it freeze.”
A hole opened up inside him. His vision blurred with tears. “But I couldn’t,” he said, and showed her his big, clumsy hands.
She clicked her tongue in disgust, and aimed the gun at his head.
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I already dealt with motherhood, after a fashion, so why not jump up one step on the old family tree?
One of the things I like about writing these super short pieces is how it allows me to engage in vigorous genre-hopping. This time, I put the supernatural and the weird aside, and just went for something I have a deep and abiding love for — crime. To be honest, it’s a little surprising that it took me eight stories to get to it.
The opening line came from Eevi Korhonen. It goes, “Until yesterday, my grandmother had never murdered anyone.”
Until yesterday, my grandmother had never murdered anyone. She’d done a lot of things during a long life; she’d been a thief, a getaway driver, and a con artist. She’d been a blackmailer and a gambler, a forger and a smuggler. Once, in the 70s, she ran a whorehouse for eight months, all the way to the ground. She had been on cocaine, then, full of bad ideas and worse decisions. She’d been to jail three times, and married twice. But she’d never killed anybody.
Anyway, that was all a long time ago. She was retired now.
And yet I and my sister were standing over the body in her kitchen in the middle of the night. The pool of blood was inches from my right sneaker. I felt a little sick. Even so, I was vaguely impressed. The dead man was huge, bodybuilder type. You wouldn’t think somebody in her 80s would have it in her to kill a giant like that. I said something along those lines, and grandmother scoffed. She was seated at the kitchen table. She waved her cigarette around.
“That’s why God gave us guns, kid,” she said. “I wasn’t going to fight him. I’m not stupid.”
Cloud was kneeling next to the body, inspecting it. She shouldn’t have been touching the body, but she didn’t seem to care. She looked up at grandmother. “What happened, Grandma?”
“He broke in. He threatened me. I shot him.”
Cloud nodded slowly, kept looking at the body. He was dressed in dark cargo pants, a dark hoodie. He was wearing gloves. She pulled something from the man’s hand. It looked like a length of wire. Cloud blew her hair out of her eyes, showed the wire to grandmother.
“Do you think we’ll ever find out what he wanted, Grandma?” she asked, like it was a joke.
Grandmother glanced at me and pursed her lips. “Oh, who knows. Probably on drugs. They’re all on drugs these days.” There was a briefcase on the floor, set against the kitchen cabinet, and grandmother bent down, picked it up, placed it at her feet under the table.
I stared at the blood, and felt another wave of sickness. I swallowed hard, and forced myself to look up. Grandmother was watching me closely. Judging me. I had to say something.
“Grandma, look at the size of him. Jesus. He could’ve broken you in two.”
“You don’t need muscles to pull a trigger. My hands’re a little shaky, though. I missed the first two shots.” She sighed. “I really liked the clock. Stole it in 1962, you know. That’s an antique.”
I turned to look behind myself. I’d always liked that clock, too. It was dead now, its intricate face shattered by a bullet. Time of death, 1:44. The cops were going to appreciate that little detail.
“Whew,” I said. “You’re lucky you woke up when he broke in.”
Grandmother shook her head.
“C’mon, Brad, you know better. Old people don’t sleep,” Cloud said, digging into the man’s pockets, pulling out a bulging wallet. “They just sit around and wait to die.”
“I’ve got bullets left,” grandmother said. She was cranky, now. “Keep running that mouth, girlie, we’ll see what happens.”
“You’ll kill another household item,” Cloud said, not paying attention. She took cash out of the wallet, a stack of crisp hundred dollar bills. She put them in her pocket.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s evidence.”
Cloud and grandmother exchanged a look. Cloud rolled her eyes. I’d been fighting it hard, but realization sunk in.
I had to ask. “Grandma, you called the cops, right?”
Grandmother smirked. Cloud smirked. The world suddenly seemed unstable. I had to sit down. I wasn’t built for this.
“Oh, God. I can’t be involved with this.”
“Buck up, kid,” grandmother said.
“Oh, God,” I said again. It came out as a moan. “Why did you even call me? You know I can’t… this isn’t me.”
There was a pregnant silence. Finally, grandmother sighed. “Because this huge son of a bitch weighs at least 350 pounds, and Cloud ain’t gonna be hauling his ass out of here by herself.”
“But he broke in. We could just call the police.”
“Get real. I can’t do time, kid. I’m too old for that.”
“But it’s self-defense,” I said, and realized I was whining.
“Hey, Brad. How about you stop getting involved in shit ain’t none of your business since you’re so eager to stay out of it?” Cloud said. “And grab his legs.”
So I did.
– – –
Somewhere in the desert, Cloud dug a grave with practiced ease. I fumbled with my shovel. It was too dark, the ground was all rocks, and my back ached. I didn’t complain.
“Buy you a beer after this,” she said, and punched my arm. My little sister.
The trunk of her car was full of bodybuilder and quicklime.
– – –
We sat on the hood of Cloud’s car, beers in hand. She’d already had two and she was going to drive me home, and I knew I wasn’t going to say a word about it.
“Why’d she call me?”
“You know why she called you.”
“Was this a test? Did I screw up?”
Cloud didn’t say anything.
“I mean, I’m not—”
“Hey.” Cloud patted my leg. “You’re gonna visit her like you always do, and she’s gonna bake you cookies like she always does, and that’s that.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I drank my beer. “What about you?” I finally asked.
Cloud put her arm around me and squeezed me close. I leaned my face into the top of her head, breathed in the smell of beer and cigarettes and blood and quicklime.
“What about you, Cloud?” I asked again, and she looked up at me, her face unreadable.
– – –
She drove me home, and I drowsed, staring at the streetlights going by.
Until yesterday, my grandmother had never murdered anyone. I was pretty sure.
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It’s Mother’s Day in Finland, so it seemed quite fitting to write a little story about a son missing his mother.
The opening sentence, “I knew it was my last chance to see Earth, but I still declined to watch,” came from Jaana Wessman. She’s also a mother, but, I suspect, a different kind of mother than the one in this story.
Then again, she’s in politics, so who knows.
I knew it was my last chance to see Earth, but I still declined to watch. I’d seen it before. I didn’t need to see it again. So I kept my back to the window.
With all the furniture gone, the living room looked bigger than I remembered, and vaguely alien. And then there was the design, of course; perhaps it was already doing something to the room. I wasn’t sure. My mother’s notes had been detailed and extensive, but they were all about the process. What little there was about the principles involved was beyond me.
The mailman stirred. I had hoped he’d stay unconscious, but he was waking up. I thought about hitting him in the head again, but what if he died? That could be a problem. Blood didn’t really flow when you were dead. I was pretty sure about that.
He could be awake. It didn’t matter. He was secured to the chair, and the chair was bolted to the floor in the circle. It would hold him.
It had been hard work, carving the design into the room. It had to be exactly right. I was sure it was; Maximillian and Skyler wouldn’t enter the living room anymore. They’d look in from the door and arch their backs. I tried to carry Skyler inside, but she hissed and clawed at me, and I gave up. It was a good sign. Animals can sense things. They couldn’t come with me anyway.
The carving had taken months. For the spiral I used a chisel, then smoothed out the edges with an X-Acto knife. I penciled it in first; working out the design had taken a few weeks. It had to be uninterrupted, but accommodate the shape of the room, incorporating the two doorways and three windows into the design. Finding ways around them was a puzzle I spent another week solving. The spiral ran over every surface, terminating at the circle in the middle of the room.
For the intricate patterns between the spiral, I used just the X-Acto knife, for the most part. I went through dozens of blades, carving in the grooves and channels, nicks and hatchings. Symbols and words, or what I took to be words. A map of where I was going, perhaps. Sometimes I imagined a vast, alien landscape, looking at it. At other times, I saw shards of substance in a bottomless void. My fingers were raw by the end.
The blood had been hard. My mother had apparently used cats. I couldn’t do that to Maximillian and Skyler, so I used my own blood. The X-Acto knife had come in handy there, too; my left arm was covered with scabs and scars and bandages. I’d had to stop for a few days when I started to grow dizzy. The painting itself had been easy, just me and a little brush, with the radio on in the background, filling in all the shapes between the spirals.
The mailman had his eyes open. He looked around, saw the design. Did he appreciate it, the work that had gone into it? I felt pride. The blood was dark, almost black. The polished silver was radiant.
The silver had been harder, much harder. Getting it was no problem, it wasn’t that expensive, but melting it down was another thing. Setting up the furnace in the back yard got me some stares and a few pointed questions from the neighbors. “It’s for arts and crafts,” I told them. “Sort of.”
Pouring the molten silver into the spiral was the worst. I set the room on fire dozens of times, and putting it out without destroying the design was almost impossible. First blood, then silver; that was the prescribed order. When the blood got ruined, I had to take out all the silver, cut myself and fix all of the blood, then try again with the silver.
No silver may touch the blood. That was the rule.
The ceiling was an absolute nightmare. I did my best on that ladder, smearing molten silver into the ceiling with a steel rod, cooling it down with a spray bottle of water. I thought about going in through the roof, but then I wouldn’t see the pattern properly, and I would ruin the blood. It was terrible. I almost gave up. I wore protection, but some of the burns were still bad. Very bad.
But I managed.
“What’s happening?” the mailman asked.
“You really came at a good time,” I said. “If I was religious, I’d call that providence.”
He swallowed hard. “Why are you doing this?”
“All my life, I’ve been,” I started, but decided otherwise. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving the Earth. It’s sick and filthy, I can’t take it anymore.”
He stared at me.
“I’m going to meet my mother. It’s been thirty years. I don’t remember much about her,” I admitted, surprising myself. “But I think she was very kind.”
He started thrashing. “Let me go!”
“I’m afraid I need you. You see, she wrote down directions so I could follow her.”
That’s when he started screaming for help. I stuffed a rag in his mouth. I don’t think anybody would’ve heard him, but I had to concentrate.
I licked my finger and placed it in the beginning of the spiral, and felt something like electricity. I took an experimental step, sliding my finger along smooth silver, and the room shifted. The spiral expanded, a silver path stretching out before me. I was on the verge of something. I felt a restless energy. I was ready to walk it all the way to the end.
With my other hand, I took the X-Acto knife out of my pocket and popped the cover off. I would need more blood when I reached the circle, much more. And I only had so much left.
And I couldn’t hurt Maximillian and Skyler.
I wondered who would feed them when I was gone.
This time, I cooked up an easygoing little tale of love and loyalty. “‘Kill your darlings,’ the Captain, usually a timid man, sneered, before he sank his teeth into the raw steak” is the opening line, suggested by my long-time partner in crime, Sam Lake. As always, he brings the good stuff.
“Kill your darlings,” the Captain, usually a timid man, sneered, before he sank his teeth into the raw steak. He was drunk and angry. The great strategist was a cornered rat. He was coming apart. “Not that I can call you that anymore, you fucking traitor.”
Malcolm tried to respond, but it was too hard. He was nude, chained by his wrists to one of the structural support beams that ran along the ceiling of the Captain’s cabin. His rubbery legs kept slipping away from under him. Whenever that happened, his wrists took his weight, the metal digging into them painfully, and he had to struggle to get his feet working again. In the chorus of his pain, that was the tiniest voice.
The Captain was eating his dinner at his desk, glaring at Malcolm. The scars on his shaved head, the mementos of the Hegemony slave rig, looked red and raw. They never healed properly. The Captain wiped the juice off his chin and poured more wine. He looked tired and thin. Haggard.
Malcolm heard the pitter patter of his blood dripping on the floor. He shivered. The cabin was cold. The ship’s vibration ran along the chain into his wrists, the thrumming of its drive a constant ache that resonated in his bones. He ran a tongue over his remaining teeth again, trying to feel which ones had been knocked out by the Captain’s boys. His mouth was an alien landscape. Everything was swollen, out of place. The boys knew how to beat a man within an inch of his life.
He swallowed some blood and tried to focus.
“I’m sorry,” Malcolm said. “They made me.”
The Captain snorted.
“I know you have to do what you have to do,” Malcolm said. “I don’t blame you. But they made me.”
“I have family. My brother… they’re holding him. An insurance policy. Keeps me in line.”
“He’s all I got. Except for you.”
The Captain didn’t say anything.
“I love you,” Malcolm said, and now the Captain looked away. “I do,” Malcolm said.
“It’s all right,” Malcolm said. His voice was soft, weak. “The moment I was found out, I knew you’d have to kill me. Otherwise they’d say you were weak. But I know you aren’t.”
“Just – one thing. Please. I know you can’t let me go. But forgive me.”
“I don’t think so.”
A tear ran down Malcolm’s cheek, and his voice cracked. “Please. I’m not afraid to die. You know that. But I don’t want to die with you hating me.”
The Captain closed his eyes. “Shut up.”
“Please. You have no idea how afraid I’ve been for two years now, living a lie. And that’s on me, I know. But it wasn’t all a lie. Not for me. I kept trying to find a way to tell you. Warn you. To flip it, find a way to save my brother. So I could be with you.”
In one swift move, the Captain swept his wine glass off the desk. It exploded against the wall. “You’re a liar! You’re a spy and an assassin! You took us apart. You lured my fleet to its destruction. And you were going to kill me.”
“No! Please, it wasn’t like that. Yes, the fleet – I did that. No choice. And yes, I… God, you’re the architect of the slave revolt. They said you were a terrorist. And I was supposed to find a way to kill you somehow… but I knew better. I saw the kind of man you are. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t.”
The Captain said nothing.
Malcolm let out a wail of despair. “Please, sir. You have to believe me. Please.”
His legs buckled, and the chain went tight. He tried to find his feet, but he was too weak.
But the Captain was there, holding him up like he weighed nothing. The skinny man was much stronger than he looked. Malcolm lifted his head, and he saw the Captain’s eyes inches from his own. They were wet. Malcolm smelled his breath.
“Damn you, Malcolm,” the Captain whispered. He wound a fist in Malcolm’s hair, held his head up. “I can’t let you live. I can’t.”
“I know. I know.”
“I wish to God I could. You have no idea.”
“I know. I love you,” Malcolm said. He slurred. His mouth felt thick and useless. It was hard getting the words out. His teeth felt loose. They weren’t where they belonged.
“Don’t say that,” the Captain said.
“I love you.”
The Captain leaned his forehead against Malcolm’s, his voice a shuddering whisper. “I love you too.”
Smiling was the hardest thing Malcolm had ever done. His face didn’t want to work properly. He was bone tired, but he made it work.
“Oh, God,” the Captain said.
“I know I’m a wreck,” Malcolm said.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re beautiful to me. My beautiful boy.”
He leaned in for the kiss.
Malcolm’s mouth was a hot mess. His tongue was thick and unwieldy. The Captain’s lips pressed against his. He tasted meat and wine. Malcolm took a deep breath.
He found the tooth, pressed his own tongue against it as hard as he could, got some torque. It came loose, twisted to the side.
He bit down. Something cracked; sweetness flooded his mouth. Suddenly, everything was made of perfume. He exhaled hard.
The Captain broke off, confused.
Malcolm’s lungs burned white hot. His throat constricted. The Captain staggered back. His hands flew up to his neck, tore at his clothes. Muscles and tendons bulged hard, stretching the skin. The Captain gurgled. His knees folded. He hit the deck hard. He gazed up at Malcolm.
Malcolm’s mouth was desert dry. He tried to speak. Nothing came out.
The Captain’s throat was now wider than his head. Malcolm worked up some spit, managed a toneless croak.
“I don’t have a brother,” he said. “The Hegemony prevails.”
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Here’s another flash fiction piece. This one was a little harder; I think I wrote three versions of this that were all completely different, and they didn’t work at all. I didn’t have the space for what I was trying to do, and I don’t think what I was trying to do was that interesting — never the easiest thing to admit. For a while there I was going to abandon this and go for another opening line altogether, but then I thought about it some more, killed some darlings and took another approach, and I’m glad I did.
The opening line came from my friend Tyler Smith. “Adeline had put out a cigarette on her own forehead when she was thirteen in order to build an endless repertoire of fantastical explanations for the scar.” You can tell he’s a writer, and I have no doubt that he realized right away that why someone would tell lies is much more interesting than the lies themselves. Took me a little longer to get there.
Adeline had put out a cigarette on her own forehead when she was thirteen in order to build an endless repertoire of fantastical explanations for the scar. Bianca had to admit it was the perfect scar for that – it was just above her right eyebrow, you couldn’t miss it; a mass of uneven tissue that always seemed a little lighter or darker than the surrounding skin, depending on how tan she was.
Bianca had worked with Adeline for almost a year. The scar gave her an air of mystery. Bianca’d wanted to ask about it for months. Now they were having drinks at the hotel bar on the last night of the big convention. It felt like they weren’t just co-workers anymore, so she’d worked up the courage. Now she wasn’t sure what to do with the answer.
“I’d make up all sorts of crazy shit,” Adeline said. “It was the best.”
“Yeah, but – you did that with a cigarette?” Bianca couldn’t wrap her head around it. “That’s crazy. Sorry! But it is.”
“Teenagers are always crazy,” Adeline said. “I know, I went above and beyond. But it made a weird kind of sense at the time.”
There was a pregnant silence. Bianca felt like she was expected to contribute somehow. “I shoplifted,” she finally said. She’d really done it just the once, on a dare, when she was thirteen. She’d gone back later to pay for them. Thirty years later, she still felt ashamed. She didn’t mention any of that.
Adeline seemed interested. She leaned closer, looked Bianca in the eye. “You ever get caught?”
“What’d you take?”
Bianca hesitated. “Snickers bars…”
Adeline nodded, and leaned back. Bianca could tell she’d hoped for something more interesting. She watched the bartender make a frozen Margarita, and it just popped out. “But this one time I stole a blender.” Adeline perked right up, and Bianca settled into the lie. “I put it in my backpack and walked out of the store. Nobody said anything.”
“You get scared?”
“Not really,” Bianca said, but that didn’t seem like the right answer. “I mean, not then. But later I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with a blender?’ I couldn’t take it home, what would my mom say? I ended up throwing it in the trash.”
Bianca hesitated, then added the ultimate lie: “But people thought I was kind of badass for a while.”
Adeline nodded and laughed, and put her hand on Bianca’s arm, her fingers warm.
“I knew I saw something like that in you,” Adeline said. Nobody had ever seen anything like that in Bianca. Adeline went on. “Teenagers want attention so bad. Everybody’s got something going – sometimes they just act out a little. Or steal something, like you. Others get tattoos. Or pregnant. What I did… I’m not gonna lie, stupid or not, I got a lot of mileage out of it.”
“Are you kidding? Something like this, you can tell any story you want. That gets you a lot of things.”
She didn’t get it. Adeline squeezed her arm again and left her hand there.
“Teachers? The other kids? ‘What happened to you?’ And you tell them something that changes the way they think about you. You know, ‘my dad did this’ – I mean, I didn’t say that, but I could have. God, I was such a little shit.”
“But you turned out okay, I guess,” Bianca said. Adeline’s fingertips traced a little pattern on her arm. Bianca thought she’d had one too many. She started to regret coming up with the story, even with Adeline opening up to her like this. Adeline had seniority over her; she was the district manager. She wasn’t Bianca’s boss, but she outranked Bianca. She’d confessed to being a thief. This could get out of hand.
“Well, you grow up,” Adeline said. “I mean, you don’t steal anymore, do you? You got other things in mind now.”
“I’ve got other things in mind, too.”
She’d definitely had one too many, and it was late. Bianca said she had to go to bed. Adeline raised an eyebrow, the scar winking at Bianca above it.
Bianca got up off the bar stool, and they hugged. Adeline smelled of perfume and sweat and cigarettes. They made eye contact. The moment stretched.
“Well,” Bianca said. “I’m really tired…”
Adeline smirked. “All right then.”
Bianca made her way up to her room. She got undressed and got in bed.
Sleep wouldn’t come. She couldn’t stop thinking about how she stood at the cash register, the pimple-faced young man behind it, saying she’d like to pay for four Snickers bars, the vaguely amused look on his face, and she suddenly wanted to die. She buried her face in the pillow.
The feeling passed. She was still alive, still awake.
She stared at the ceiling. She bit her lip. She made the decision. Why not? Her heart fluttering, she got back on her feet, got dressed. A few more drinks. Sit down with Adeline again.
But at the bar, Adeline was talking with another woman. Bianca hung back. Suddenly, she was intruding. She leaned against a column nearby – not hiding, not lurking, she thought, just waiting for an opening – close enough to catch a few words.
Adeline was telling the other woman about the time she’d been touring a steel foundry at the age of thirteen, and a vat of molten steel hanging from a crane had somehow burst open. Droplets sprayed the area, and one of them hit her forehead.
“Oh my God,” the other woman said. She was young and pretty.
She got lucky, Adeline said; one of the metalworkers had a splash of liquid steel hit his arm. Burned a hole right through it, she said. You could literally see through it. She showed the other woman where, touching her arm.
“Right here,” Adeline said.
“Wow,” the other woman said.
Adeline kept talking.
Bianca kept listening.
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