Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween, kids. As this is my favorite holiday, and I love doing Halloween makeup, I’m going to post a totally unprofessional picture of myself.

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I know, I know. I haven’t applied nearly enough Instagram filters to this to be pretty. AND I’m not quite done on the chest. But, erm. Pretty isn’t really the point of Halloween.

At least, not to sane people.

Anyway, I hope you get a lot of candy this year–or, better, a lot of drinks bought for you. Much love on my favorite holiday to all my blog buddies. Maybe I’ll go to work like this on Monday, just for a lark. Wonder if my boss’d spot the difference?

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Sunshine Awards

I don’t usually do these, but Dan Alatorre over at this blawg here said I had to, or…

…or.

Actually, I don’t know what happens if I don’t do it. But Dan said I had to. So.

I got nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award. When you guys are done laughing at the idea of me getting nominated for Sunshine anything, I’m supposed to do three things:

1) Thank the Dan who nominated me
2) Answer Dan’s eleven questions
3) Nominate eleven (!!) bloggers to take my place in the eleventh sunshine circle of hell, and provide eleven questions for these eleven bloggers to answer.

Is that clear? It has numbers in front of it. Numbers are clear.

Without further ado, thanks to Dan Alatorre, for forcing a ray of sunshine into my ghastly-gloomy blog, directly after ALL that horrorflash. 🙂

Dan’s Questions:

1) Where is the strangest place you’ve ever made whoopee?
Now, Dan. My mom reads this blog. If whoopee means what I SUSPECT it means, I am unwilling to answer this question, because MOM I AM TOTALLY A VIRGIN.

If, however, it means farting (which is what I secretly REALLY want it to mean) then the answer is church. Oh, buddy. Church. See also: funerals. The stench-gas of sadness has eked out of my black-clad buttocks at more than one graveside service.

2) Share a blog post you wrote that meant a lot to you and tell us why you picked that one.
Here recently, it would probably be this underappreciated baby about the importance of proper word choice. I don’t see a lot of writing posts that deal with the actual mechanics of writing, save as pedantic grammar chicanery, and I hate to say this, but the basic mechanics are precisely what a lot of us need help with. I’m working on a post or two now devoted to metric feet, and the SOUND of metric meter in prose, to address more of these issues: it isn’t enough to simply look at good writing, say ‘that sounds good’, and move on. There are reasons good writing sounds good, and a writer should be able to pick out what those reasons are.

3) Kiss a stranger or eat a Scotch egg?
This is actually an incredibly complicated question for me.

On one hand, I hate touching other people. Does that sound antisocial? Yes? It probably is. But when a stranger touches my arm, or tries to hug me, my stomach does a sort of tribal knot-dance of terror and agony.

On the other hand, as per Scotch egg? I’m vegetarian.

I might have to go with kissing the stranger here, little though I want to. I think I’d actually prefer a kiss to full hug-contact, and if I initiate I’ll probably make it through alive.  Scotch eggs are, however, delicious, and if I still ate meat it would unquestionably be the Scotch egg.

4) Rob a Wal-Mart or wear a bikini at the beach?
Wal-Mart, I’m comin’ for you. All the paper towels I can wipe things down with sounds awesome.

5) What is your deepest fear about your writing?
I think this is the same thing for most people, in the end. I worry I’m not as good as I think I am.

6) What is your best book?
You know, I think folks expect to hear Aurian and Jin here, but actually? I’m going to go with one I’m working on now. Which no one else has read. Therefore: no one can disagree with me. I feel like I get a little bit better with every story I write, and that’s important.

7) Do you get manicures, and if so, when was your last one and what did it cost?
I’ve NEVER gotten a manicure, actually. Again with the people touching me. Especially pedicures—augh! How can you let someone that close to your feet? You walk on those.

Also, it’s a silly thing to spend money on.

8) Jacuzzi or dry sauna?
Getting drunk in a hot tub is one of the Five Greatest Pleasures of Winter. The other four are:
2) Getting drunk in bed
3) Getting drunk in a sweater
4) Getting drunk on New Year’s
5) Getting drunk at Christmas.

9) Who is your favorite author ever and who is your favorite that you’ve read this year?
My favorite writer ever is probably Ursula K. Leguin. The Left Hand of Darkness is a masterful novel, and the language is simple but elusively beautiful. Some of her other stuff verges on seventies woo-woo to me, but Left Hand makes up for all of it. If I could work with half of her skill and simplicity of phrase, I would be so happy I’d let strangers hug me.

Other favorites of mine, in poetry and prose: Dostoyevsky, Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks, Pablo Neruda, Kasuo Ishiguro, Andrei Codrescu, Umberto Eco, T.C. Boyle, Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Bukowski, Wilkie Collins.

Best thing I’ve read this year has probably been Dan Simmons’s Drood, as long as we’re talking about Mr. Collins. I love Wilkie Collins, in spite of all advice to the contrary, and I can’t read his novels without thinking about the picture of him presented in this book now. Whether it’s a good or a bad thing I’m not sure, but it was damned effective, obviously.

10) What author or blogger would you like to sit down and have drinks with?
I’d like to buy a drink for my first creative writing professor in college. Just to say thank you, and to tell him that, in spite of me being an insufferable pain in the ass, a piss poor student, and full of absolutely undeserved arrogance, I heard him. The things he taught made a difference to me, and I’m forever grateful for his class, even if it looked like it was falling on deaf ears at the time.

11) If you have one piece of career advice to share with the readers here, what would it be? Lame as this sounds, and as often as this advice gets shared: keep the fire burning. You should have a passion for what you do, and even if you fail by the rest of the world’s standards that fire will keep you alive. I don’t advocate Hamsen-style starvation, but you need to do the things that make you happy with yourself, and not the things that sell. Having passion won’t get you money, necessarily, and it won’t make you famous, and it won’t sell your books. But you’ll have it. And if you think there needs to be some justification other than that, then you aren’t in the right line of work.

I’m not going to nominate anyone specifically here, because shyness. So you’re all nominated. All of you. Especially Dave Koster over here at On Writing Dragons and Chris over here at The Opening Sentence. Because I like you guys.

My Questions For You:

1) If you had to survive on one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
2) What’s more important in a story: character, plot, or voice?
3) What’s the first book you remember being deeply affected by?
4) How important is good grammar in a novel to you?
5) Would you rather get blackout drunk in front of
A) Your mother-in-law, or
B) Your boss?
6) In honor of the season, tell me one good memory you have about Halloween as a child. (The first year I was diabetic for Halloween, my dad traded me my candy for a guitar. My dad is, obviously, very cool.)
7) One word or phrase that really annoys you.
8) Give me five single words that describe your writing style.
9) What’s the best part of an average day for you?
10) If you’re writing, somebody somewhere encouraged you to do it. Who?
11) What makes you decide a story is bad?

Fright Week Flash Fiction VII: The Alternative

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Photo by joe burge at freeimages.com.

We’re ending Fright Week on a spooky yet blackly funny note–and we’re talking about the scariest thing in our modern world, student loan repayment. Ooo-wee-ooooo. Might not be the most startlingly original story in this collection, but it’s my favorite.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the week of spooky flash fiction. Have a happy Halloween.

The Alternative

“If your loan goes into default, your paycheck could be garnished up to fifteen percent,” the nice lady on the phone tells me, concern infused in every syllable. “If you get refund money at tax time, the government can take that, as well.”

I stare at the wall. I know I need to do something–something–but what can I do? I have rent and utilities to pay, just like everybody else. My parents won’t give me a cent. I’ve pissed off just about every friend I have.

I need to pay off my loan. I know I do. But I also need to eat.

“I just…I don’t have any money,” I mutter. This conversation is probably being recorded–don’t they record them? I want to scream, and curse, and throw things, but she’s a thousand miles away in some cubicle, and besides, she’s just doing her job. And it’s probably a shitty enough job already. I’m sure a lot of people do scream and curse.

“Times are pretty hard,” the lady says. God, that concern. Do they train them in the precise inflection necessary to make us scumbags feel like total wastes of breath? Do they play recordings of someone’s mother to them, educate them that way in disappointed sighs?

But what she says next catches my attention. It’s something no one has said before.

“Of course,” my loan lady says, “there’s the alternative.”

“What alternative? Bankruptcy?”

“We’re starting a program. It’s called A Pound of Flesh–you can look it up on our website, if you’re curious.”

“I’m curious.”

“Well, it’s one of our charity initiatives. If you’re lower income–if you make less than 15,000 dollars a year–you can donate a part of yourself for forbearance time. A piece of your liver earns you six months, an eye or a lung earns you a year. If you’re interested in loan forgiveness, you might want to look up our Kindly Kidneys initiative. The parts go to your local hospital, where they’re donated to a lucky person in need.”

I’m glad she can’t see me. I can feel my jaw hanging open. “You’re kidding me,” I say at last. “You people are accepting body parts in lieu of payment? Is that even legal?”

“We want to provide everyone the opportunity for good credit,” my loan lady says. Which isn’t exactly an answer.
I shake my head. I know she can’t hear me do it, but I imagine she’s had this conversation enough times to know it’s happening.

“Shit,” I say at last. I don’t care if they’re recording. They deserve to hear someone cuss over this–deserve to hear how ridiculous it is.

“I’ll email you one of our Pound of Flesh information packets,” my lady says, voice cheerful and carefully modulated. “It’s a good option, for someone young and healthy such as yourself. You won’t be disabled by the loss of one kidney, or one lung, or one eye. And the organs, I promise you, do go to a good cause.”

“Wait–how do you know I’m healthy?”

“Medical records.”

I don’t think my jaw can sag any closer to the floor without falling off. Hell, I kind of wish it would–then I could just give it to them and get some money back.

“I’m not interested,” I manage to say at last. “I’m–holy shit. I’m so not interested.”

And, for the first time, I hear a hint of personality in my loan lady’s voice. It’s sly, and amused, and I don’t like it one bit.

“That’s what they all say,” she tells me. “At first.”

“I’ll call you back once I’ve looked at all my options,” I tell her. I hang up.

For a while I just stand there, phone in hand, looking around my apartment. Dark, this late–I try to save money by only turning on one light at a time. Blank walls, unmade futon, empty mac n’ cheese boxes lined up like dead soldiers on the kitchen counter. The steady drip-drip-drip, from the bathroom, of a leak maintenance hasn’t been by to fix for two months. I hear money in that drip. With every liquid splatter against the sink, I hear a penny clinking, never to be seen or heard from again.

I sigh.

I open up my laptop.

*****

A few week later, I wake up in my own bathtub, surrounded by ice. Someone has placed a Sandy March Loan Company bathrobe on the toilet seat for me, next to a chocolate bar and a big glass of water. And, of course, a stack of papers. Seems like there’s always a stack of papers.

I can feel the stitches, like burrowing worms, in my abdomen. The ice has a pink tinge to it, a strange antiseptic smell–when I breathe the smell in I’m reminded of the medical personnel who filed in here a few hours ago, green scrubs bearing the Sandy March logo, full of smiles and good cheer and reassurances.

“You’re doing a great thing,” the doctor tells me. “Thanks to you, some kid’ll have kidney function for the first time in years. He’ll have a future away from hospitals, dialysis machines, doctors. He can go to college like a normal person. Now just sign here. And here. And here.”

Going to college, I want to tell him, is what got me into this mess. But I sign all the papers, I shake their hands.

What else can I do?

What other choice do I have?

“Enjoy your year of forbearance,” the doctor tells me, smiling. He slides the IV needle into my arm and there’s a little pinch, a few moments of waiting, and then–

–well. Then, I’m here. Strangely peaceful, lying in my tub of ice.

And the worst part about it is, the doctors were right. It doesn’t hurt so much, and I don’t feel any different.

And I’ve still got most of my liver, a lung, and a kidney to spare.

Fright Week Flash Fiction VI: Out of the Eater

You know how I told you not to let your kids read these? Especially not this one. Really.

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This gentleman is probably a very nice person.

OUT OF THE EATER

I see her getting pizza at the New York joint across from the bus station, and she’s beautiful, juicy as a ripe fruit. Blonde hair, big round titties, schoolgirl dress just short enough to make you think about everything under the dress for a good long time. She pays in cash, counting quarters for the tip. I think about stepping over, gallantly offering a dollar or two, but it’s too soon and I know it. They run from you, if you approach too soon.

They run from you, if you approach without purpose.

She’s not heading anywhere in a hurry. She stops out front for a few minutes, searching for her phone and her ear buds in her see-thru plastic tote. I watch her, watch her head bend, watch those bleached curls fall down, down, down. I think about the deer hunts I’d go on with Daddy at dawn, me twelve or thirteen, mist rising off the fields, just the two of us crouched together in the blind above the world. The deer flashing their asses at us. White tails, not too different from the color of her hair.

I’m not a monster. Nothing like.

I’m just a man who knows what he wants.

She turns left and walks out of my line of sight. I leave a ten for my bill and take up the hunt. Twenty percent tip: good, but not memorable. In an hour they will have forgotten I was ever there.

Daddy always said, women don’t know how to act. You have to teach them, show them. You have to not take no for an answer. A woman like that, short skirt, long legs. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what she wants. You just have to show her.

She clips down the cobblestoned street in those tall black heels, legs pumping. Sinew and skin and flesh, a promise of honey, a taste of milk and sweetness. Other men are looking, and hot jealousy floods me–eyes elsewhere, you scum. My honey, my taste. Marked as mine, by the force of my gaze.

I think of the way her skin will goose-pimple, on such a crisp evening. I imagine reading her like Braille in the dark. I imagine the warmth in her secret place. I imagine the loosening of limbs, that warmth seeping out into the ground. Stickiness. Smell of copper, primal.

She turns into a side street. A single old woman on the corner, pushing a shopping cart, her hair full of shit and leaf fragments, muttering ceaselessly under her breath. Boarded shop windows. A crosswalk sign, its light busted.

I steal closer.

I think of the weight of the hunting rifle on my arm. Daddy’s beery breath. The resistance in the trigger–young fingers have to pull, and pull. And squeeze. And pull.

She’s off guard. She didn’t even know I was following her, phone volume jacked up to full bar. Her weight is soft under my weight, yielding, forgiving. I trip her up and send her flying into a close alley. Her breath streaming in the air, like mist over the fields. The soft aureole of bleached hair around her. Angelic. Divine.

She tries to scream, so I save some time and crush her windpipe. I won’t have long this way, but these moments are better when brief. Sweeter. Rarer.

I push up her dress. I’m here to teach. Here to admonish. Here to inflict. Here to guide.

She’s making a funny noise. I lean in, wanting to catch every grace note of her death, but that isn’t what I hear.

She’s laughing.

Somehow, the bitch is laughing.

Her body is cold. Too cold–ice cold. And when I look up at her face her eyes are reflectionless, dark as two polished stones.

“Mmm,” she murmurs. “Hello, handsome.”

She opens her legs farther, farther. Wide-wide. There’s a cosmos in there, the black brief tickling dotted by distant stars, howling with the loneliness of time. Darkness, death-dark. A wave of terror crests inside my skull–against the void there are monsters moving, silhouettes blotting out all light.

I try to run.

Something–something–grabs me.

Fright Week Flash Fiction V: Pearl

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PEARL

It’s a pearl and it’s not a pearl. I was fooled at first, just like Miranda–it’s round, after all, and white, and it has a pearl’s milky smoothness. We found it in an oyster, albeit one that had already been cleaned. All signs, Miranda would say, point to pearl.

But it’s something else. I know it. I feel it most strongly late at night, after Miranda’s gone to bed–when the lights are all out, and the house is silent. I can see it glowing. I can see the projections it casts: faces, indistinct, on the bedroom wall. Sometimes the faces are human faces. Sometimes–most of the time–I simply think they want to be.

Come play with me, the faces whisper. Play with me. Come play.

I stare at the ghostly shadows until the rising sun divides them. Until the morning comes, and the pearl is once again just a pearl. Four days, it’s been. Four nights without sleep.

We found it at the Shuck’n Shack, where we go every year for our anniversary. It was just sitting there, on top of one of our oysters–a bed of gray snot underneath, tasting of the sea. The servers denied putting it on there, but one of them must have–we come there every year. A gift, maybe, from an anonymous donor. I tip well, and they know us here. It didn’t seem so unlikely at the time.

We took it home, and the shell we found it in. Miranda wants to get it mounted, put it on a ring–our anniversary pearl.

It was odd, looking back, how nobody said anything about it. Nobody came forth. A pearl that big–a pearl that round–it’s a kingly gift.

Even when I’m awake–when I’m at work, stretching at my desk, plugging numbers into a spreadsheet–I can hear it.
Come play with me. Come play.

Tonight it glows especially brightly. Lurid and pulsing, washing Miranda’s sleeping face in the fluorescent glow of a laboratory, or maybe a morgue.

I need to sleep. I haven’t slept since we brought it home. And there’s only one way that’s going to happen.

I get out of bed, as quietly as I can. I tiptoe over to the dresser. I take the pearl in my hand.

The light is almost blinding–how it doesn’t wake Miranda I’ll never know. I roll the pearl across my fingers, feeling the odd softness of it.

Come play with me.

I have a vision. Momentary. A schoolyard, brick walls and green grass and the laughter of children. A yellow tire swing, brown with dirt. A boy, standing in front of me, grinning. Look what I found.

Woah, I say. Cool. I feel the weight of the pearl, like the weight of ripe fruit, between my fingers.

In the throes of my vision, in the dark bedroom, my hand clenches. I crush the pearl.

It pops like a berry, and incandescent slime oozes out over the top of my fist. For a moment, I see Miranda’s face: sleeping, sleeping. Far away.

Things expand in a bright fluorescent bubble. The world rushes upward around me, the ceiling draws farther away. I’m in a rocky grey prison of some sort–the shell. I am in the oyster shell.

I try to move. I can’t.

My own face, bathed in the glow of the pearl, is bending over me. My lips open–have they always been that cracked, that ragged? Or is it only because they seem huge now?

“I’m really sorry,” I whisper to myself. Those giant lips are moving, the teeth inside like yellowed boulders.
My voice is the voice of a little girl.

“I had to get out. I’m bad. I know. I’m really sorry.”

I can feel the shell of the pearl around me. It’s soft–even inside, I can feel it give–but it’s unbreakably soft, like a thousand layers of paper pressed together. The glow of my prison fills me.

Desperately, I whisper.

Come play with me. Come play.

Across the room, a million miles away, Miranda’s eyes open.

Fright Week Flash Fiction IV: The Last Bus

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Image by Joao Guilherme Del Valle, on freeimages.com.

THE LAST BUS

I barely–barely–catch the last bus of the night.

It’s nine thirty, and I’m already out of breath from tuba lessons. I know I cut a pretty sad figure. Huffing and puffing, my heart hammering, cheeks flushed, wheezing: an asthmatic whippet, was my gym teacher’s description.

I plunk my tuba down on the nearest seat and search in my pockets for change.

“We ain’t got all night, now,” the bus driver says. She cracks her gum and turns back to the windshield.

I drop my money. Of course I do.

“Just sit down,” the bus driver says.

I hurry to do so, and she shifts into gear as soon as my butt hits the seat. I don’t even pick the quarters up off the floor of the bus–what would happen if I did? Would she have taken off with me bending over?

I grab the ones I can reach without leaving my seat. A dollar. I can maybe get a burger on the way home from chess club tomorrow.

I hear snickers from the back of the bus. Oh, god–that sounds like Gavin. Multiple snickers–probably Gavin and Steve.

Of course they’re out this late. Why wouldn’t they be? Probably smoking and drinking cheap beer and doing drugs, or whatever it is the kids in remedial English do. I heard Gavin knocked a girl in Mrs. Holsen’s home room up last semester. Laura Brinkley, really pretty, one of the drama club kids. Nobody’s seen her since April, and her friends won’t say where she went–Katie Levarr said she’s staying home with the baby, but Katie makes things up sometimes.

I heard the ominous creaking of leather in the seat across from mine.

“Hey, Terrence,” says Gavin. He’s got a big stupid grin on his face, and you can see the gap in his teeth from where Mark Mackey punched him in the mouth last year.

“Hey,” I mutter.

“You doin’ okay? We were hearin’ a lot of wheezing back there.” Gavin pokes out his lower lip. “Does poor baby Dickles need his inhaler?”

“It’s pronounced DickLAY,” I mutter. I can barely hear my own voice. Please, please, please, let them not be getting off at my stop.

Gavin guffaws. “DickLAY,” he says. “Holy shit. That’s even better. Terrence DickLAY. Ain’t you fancy. Fuck. Hey, Steve. How d’you think Terry here was conceived?”

Steve Arlen moves up to sit beside me. He smells of cigarettes and cheap beer and not brushing his teeth. “I dunno, Gav. How?”

“In a DICKLAY,” Gavin says.

They both laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world. The bus rockets on, bumping and crashing and clashing along over cracks in the road. The bus driver keeps her eyes glued on the road.

And me? I can’t think of anything to say back. I’m not good around people. And Gavin and Steve–they block up my mouth like nobody else.

Gavin punches me in the arm, much harder than he has to. “Hey, DickLAY,” he says. “Whatcha got in that case?”

“Tuba,” I mutter, and this time I can’t even hear myself.

Gavin reaches across me for the case. He flips open the catches, peeks inside.

“Owee,” he says. “That’s worth some money. Whaddya say to me borrowin’ this, you little freak? You can tell your mama you lost it.” He punches me again, in the same spot. I can already feel the bruises forming.

“No,” I say. And it’s weird–I can hear myself. The bus must’ve hit some better pavement.

Unfortunately, if I can hear myself, so can Gavin and Steve.

“Oh, now,” Gavin says. “Don’t be like that, Terry. It would be real stupid to be like that.”

For just a moment, I catch the bus driver’s eye in the rearview mirror. It’s funny–it’s like she was looking at me already.
“That’s my tuba,” I say. “I bought it with my summer money. You guys can’t have it.”

And there it is again–the guffawing. Gavin puts a hand over his chest, like it hurts him how funny my defiance is.

“Listen, you little shit,” he says, almost kindly. “We’re taking that thing. And if you try and stop us, I’m going to hold you, and Steve here is going to break both your arms. All right?”

“No,” I say again.

“You kids settle down,” the driver calls.

I know it’s stupid. I know all the stuff they tell you in school–that bullies are cowards, that you just have to stand up to them–isn’t true. I know I’m probably about to get seriously beaten. I know the bus driver is driving. I know there isn’t a thing she can do to stop them.

But it’s my tuba. I bought it with my money. I saved up for it, and I got a Holton, and it’s mine.

Two things happen at once:

Gavin and Steve launch themselves at me.

The bus driver, scowling into the rearview, pulls a slender red cord hanging right beside the seat.

The floor in front of me opens up, two doors sliding out to reveal open space, the asphalt whizzing by beneath in a grey blur. Gavin and Steve weren’t expecting it–they didn’t see her pull the cord–and they tumble through. Their screams are a lot higher-pitched than their laughter.

The back wheels of the bus roll over something squishy, and large, and hard and soft at the same time. There are two bumps, and there is no more screaming.

I look out the back window, my mouth suddenly dry. On the asphalt, trailing behind us, are two perfectly even parallel scarlet lines.

I can’t swallow, I can’t move. I can feel my tongue in my mouth, sticky and dry.

“Thanks,” I croak out at last. “I think.”

“Don’t thank me,” the bus driver says. She shifts gears, spits her gum out into the trash can by the driver’s seat. “I was planning to use it on you.”

Fright Week Flash Fiction III: The Chair

Definitely Not Dave, my magician manperson, wanted me to write one of these about a massage chair. So I did.

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THE CHAIR

The kiosk is disgusting, a deserted island of cracked leather chairs in the middle of the empty mall. On a folding chair, an old man–from somewhere in Southeast Asia, or maybe Mexico, hell if I know–sits snoozing, a paperback book loose in his lap. Lucky for me, I don’t need him: though I have to say, it might be worth a complaint to whoever management is. You put your money straight into the chair here, but still. Attendants should attend you. It’s what they’re paid for.

The sign by the old man reads ASSAGE. There’s a slightly cleaner patch of sign backing where the M once rested. I read the sign’s smaller letters, scrawled in Sharpie:

5 MIN=5 DOLLAR
10 MIN= 10 DOLLAR
30 MIN= 20 DOLLAR SPECIAL PRICE

I plunk my purse down by a chair and try out the surface with a tentative palm. It’s springy, and maybe I’m crazy but I could almost imagine I feel a little vibration in there already.

Lana from HR said I need to try it. She said I looked tired. I don’t know why the hell that’s okay now, telling another woman she looks tired–and Lana’s not the one to talk. She hasn’t gotten her hair done in months, and last time I saw her her panty hose had runs in them. Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to Lana in HR. Maybe I should be talking to HR about Lana. She’s a blight on the office environment. Not me. I just work hard.

But I took a long lunch today anyway. And I don’t have time for a real massage, but the mall’s right across from the office, and this, maybe…

Lana recommended the stupid chairs herself. And it’s so cheap! she said. And that giggle. That stupid airhead giggle. I don’t care about cheap. Doesn’t she know that?

I take off my jacket, fold it over my purse where it’ll maybe keep it hidden from purse-snatchers. Mall like this, you never know who’s around.

I sit down in the chair. I slide my money in–ten dollars. I don’t have all day. 

I close my eyes and lean back. It’s the funniest massage chair I’ve ever sat in, but it’s soothing–a faint prickling pounding, like millions of little pistons are wearing themselves out against my back. I should’ve brought some disinfectant with me. Woken up the Chinese guy, asked him for a towel. Who knows who sat in this thing before me? Some fat old housewife, probably. A hoarder, out at midday, puttering around the mall. Ugh. I don’t want the shit from some filthy house all over my skirt.

But I can’t help it. I press myself deeper into the chair. The feeling–it’s an interesting feeling. I like it. I wish it was just a little bit stronger, but there are no adjustment controls on the chair–no space-age technology, this.

I press in deeper. Christ. It’s almost working. I can almost feel the knots in my back releasing. Whoever designed this thing was an evil genius–I’m going to put another ten dollars in, I can tell it already. Maybe there’s a market for this, a product that almost works. Something people have to buy over and over again. Like cigarettes, but without all the bad PR.

I press. I can feel the cheap crappy leather against my hose, my skirt, my nice new work shirt. Probably going to wrinkle. I don’t care. I want more.

I press in as hard as I can, clutching the tattered chair arms and forcing myself backwards. That feeling, Jesus. It’s almost working, almost perfect. Like an itch you can’t quite reach.

Something in the chair shifts, and I feel an opening, slotlike, where the back of the chair joins the seat. Whatever. Come on. Just give me a massage. A real massage. Come on, chair.

The opening widens, and there are sudden needles of pain along my back. I don’t have much time to feel it before the opening gets wide, wide, wider than it should be, wider than it can be.

I see something on my way in.

Teeth?

*****

Out in the deserted shopping mall, in a lonely kiosk filled with shabby leather chairs, a sound rings out.

It’s a single burp. Low, sinister. Satisfied.

The man on the folding chair drops his book, jumps. He looks at the chair for a few seconds, stands up, stretches.

“Are you happy now?” he asks it. “Did Lana send us a good one?”

The chair burps again. A tiny bit of blood, fresh red, seeps out between the backing and the seat.

“Eh,” the old man says. “You fatty.” He chuckles.

He takes a towel from his pocket, wipes the blood away. He picks up the purse and the jacket, balls them up with the towel. He throws the whole mess in the trash, and returns to his book.

Fright Week Flash Fiction II: Prince of Darkness

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Original image by jason aaberg, on freeimages.com.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS

“Very well,” Satan says, flipping the final page of the contract and neatening the stack. “All seems to be in order. It’s an unusual request, writing up your own deal, but I can’t say I see anything in here I’m unsatisfied with.” He winks one blood-red eye. “After a few aeons of torment, I might consider asking you to work for me. It’s getting harder and harder to find good lawyers in Hell these days.”

“So you’re satisfied with all the terms and conditions?” I ask. I wipe the sweat from my palms off on the sides of my suit jacket.

“Sure, sure. It’s the standard deal, ain’t it? My power and wealth and fame, your soul. Pfah. You people are never original.” He looks down at the stack again. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there’s almost a hint of sadness in his big red face. “Just once,” he says, “I’d like someone to sell their soul for a loved one’s life. Or the ability to cure cancer, ebola, AIDS. But I guess that kind doesn’t come to me.”

There’s no mistaking the sadness now. “They never come to me.”

I haven’t been dealing with Satan very long–just the same old contract, as he’d say–but he’s not what you’d expect. He’s getting old, I guess. Weary. The Light-bringer, remembering the color of sky. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him wish for love in the world, health, kindness.

It makes me a little uncomfortable, to be honest. You should know where you stand, with Satan. You should be terrified, grovelling, subservient. A guy like me should maybe be a little opportunistic.

But sorry for him? Never.

I clear my throat. “I’ll go ahead and sign now, shall I?”

“Sure. Sure.” Satan produces a wickedly serrated fountain pen from the depths of his own coat pocket. “You know the deal. Sign in blood, forfeit your soul, et cetera. Then I sign. I’ll send you a hellhound or something. We’ll keep in touch.”

I take the pen in hand, run the nib over my finger. The blood wells up, dark and deep.

I do the deed.

There’s nothing. No feeling, no fear, no crackle of hellfire, no demonic cacophany.

Nothing.

Satan takes the pen after me, changes the nib with all the persnickety care of an old woman. Blood is, as I’ve come to understand it, very important in the legal proceedings of Hell–should he use the same nib as me, should a trace of my blood wind up in his signature, his power over me is lessened.

Guess it’s good he’s still careful about some things.

He signs the same way he’s signed all my friends’ contracts: a simple red X, smoking and bubbling with all the foulness of the demon blood that created it. He looks down at the X for a long time, and perhaps this is how I’ll remember him: the great red body stuffed into a suit that doesn’t quite fit it, black hair combed back, cuffs damp with yesterday’s blood. A used car salesman in Hell. A has-been, focused on the past.

Which is why I’m here, to be honest.

“Lucifer,” I say, almost gently. “Satan. Buddy. Do you realize what you’ve done yet?”

It’s at the sound of his own name–Lucifer–that the knowledge comes into his eyes. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” he murmurs. “And, now that you mention it–I didn’t see it anywhere on that contract.”

“Nope.” I can’t keep from grinning any longer. Hell–if you tricked Satan, would you? “I just made a totally legally binding deal with the Prince of Darkness. My soul for neverending power–same old deal, Luke, you always make. There’s just one little catch.”

The flames flicker across the blade of my new-drawn knife, send lines of pulsing orange neon dancing down it. I look Satan in the eyes. There’s fear there, surprise, and maybe–just maybe–a little bit of relief.

Simp. Stupid simp.

“The Prince,” I whisper, “doesn’t have to be you. It might as well be me.”

He carves up beautifully, like a big red Thanksgiving turkey. You’d think there would be more fight in him, but I guess sometimes folks just know when it’s time to exit stage left. It’s been time for him for a while.

I should feel remorse, staring at the gobbets of unresisting red meat steaming in front of me. I don’t. I feel like a stranger, looking out across the surface of Mars. I feel like a warrior, bathed in the blood of my enemies.

I feel like the Prince of Darkness.

I feel fine. Just fine, just fine, just fine.

I pick up my contract. I tear it in two.

Fright Week Flash Fiction 1: The Web

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THE WEB

Whenever I see a spider now, I think of Nana Bailey.

She wouldn’t let you harm them. If you were on her property it was her rules, and her rules were emphatic. Say please and thank you. Eat with your napkin in your lap. Leave Nana alone when she’s knitting–Nana loved knitting, churned a sweater out for each of us Christmas, Easter, and birthdays unfailingly.

Her cardinal rule, however: never harm a spider.

We spent a lot of time at Nana Bailey’s in the summer. All the Bailey kids: a passel of us, a congregation, a pack. We had a pecking order, oldest to youngest, and Nana Bailey was our venerable alpha.

She was good for exploring the woods with us, even though she must’ve been seventy or eighty. She knew the name of every tree, every berry, every rock. She would braid her long white hair into two plaits and cover it up with an old plaid kerchief, trade out her housedress for a pair of worn-in slacks. Nana Bailey never wore jeans–such a thought was sacrilege. But when we saw the slacks and the kerchief, we knew she was fixing to show us something in the woods on the edge of the property.

Usually, it was some new variety of spider.

They’re good creatures, she would tell us. Out there in the woods, in the brown silence of fallen leaves, every word she said was gospel. We were willing disciples of twilight and the trees.

She showed us the banana spider, black and yellow, constructing her web of golden silk. The wolf spider, a fat hissy fellow who made his home on the ground in the leaves. Even the common brown wood spider had a place in Nana’s pantheon–big specimens were caught in Nana’s always-handy plastic tumbler and passed around for our admiration before being deposited once more safely in the bushes.

If  it wasn’t for spiders, we’d be up to our hineys in bugs, she’d say. Nobody wants that. Far too many bugs in the world already, buzzing around, taking up air for the rest of us to breathe.

Nana was always right. Even when she got older and went a little kooky, if you just listened hard enough, you could pick out the sense in her.

So now that I’m grown, with my own home and my own little parcel of land, I weave my webs. I weave them at night, in the basement, under the light of a single lantern–golden wire, like the banana spider’s silk. Patterns in them, like those of the writing spider. Sometimes, if I’m feeling real fancy, I’ll dig a hole in the earth, like the wolf spider’s tunnel home.

And there are bugs, oh yes. Bugs for a right thinking lady to put out of commission: buzzy bugs, whiny bugs, bugs that plead and scream and whimper. They ring the doorbell, their cars out front full of religious tracts and cheap makeup and the stench of desperation and broken homes. I give them sweet tea with a little something extra in it, and the bugs stop their buzzing for a while–for a while.

It takes the webs to silence them forever. Webs of wire, the silence of the basement. It takes a woman’s weaving, deft and sure.

When I go to sleep at night, if they aren’t too weak, I can hear their whimpers. I don’t mind: I think of it as the sound nature makes when it does its business.

Nana Bailey would’ve approved. I like to imagine her standing in my kitchen, her tumbler in her hand, arms crossed, smelling of yard work and Chanel perfume.

You’re a right spider, little girl, she says to me. It takes a brave lady, to kill a pest. Why, when your Grandpa died, I had to learn to kill bugs in the kitchen all on my lonesome. Lookit you! You do it without batting an eye!

So the bugs in my basement moan and whine and whimper away. And here I sit, in the sweet silence of a summer night: alone on the porch, knitting a scarf, drinking a tall glass of sweet iced tea. When I’m done with my scarf, I’ll go and check the webs to see which bugs are ripe for the plucking.

Even a spider needs something from its prey. I’ve got the breading ready, the oil poured, the knife sharpened, the cutting board clean. I’ll dice the onions soon and make a gravy.

Spiders might eat straight off the web, but not me. I’m a civilized lady, and I have Nana Bailey’s secret recipe.

PHOTO CREDIT: Melissa Stratton. Freeimages.com.

How to Find Good Advice Online

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Okay. Yes, yes, I’ll get to that post about accents in a few. Right now, I wanted to talk about a little problem I’ve been having–and the solution, which is more helpful to you than the problem’ll be.

My views, the past few weeks, have TANKED. I mean–TANKED.  It’s a negative feeling when that happens, especially for sensitive little shits such as myself: boo-hoo-hoo, I say. Am I being uninteresting? Does nobody care about the art of writing any more? Boo hoo hoo. Lesigh.

Of course, it’s nothing that personal. (Or–I hope it isn’t). I narrowed it down to three possible causes, all of which I’ll try to remedy:

1) I’m not posting at the right time of day/on the right days.(I’ve known this for a while. I just–I have a job.)
2) I’m not as engaged in my blogging (or Twitter, where a lot of my views come from) as I used to be.
3) The topic I’ve picked for my blog is perhaps not as popular as it used to be.

We’ll talk about two and three in time, but right now, I want to talk about number one. Why? Because I had REVELATIONS, man. Revelations.

There are, of course, particular times that’re peak times on social media. They’re different for each kind of media–if you want more information on this, check out the bottom of this post.

But when you’re doing a google search, a lot of things’ll pop up. And they’ll say DIFFERENT stuff. And it’s pretty confusing. And how the hell do you know who to believe?

The answer is important, and also useful when encountering shiny pretty memes on Facebook:

Use your common damn sense.

We’ll use this example: say you see a meme on Facebook informing you that voting for Hillary Clinton is like voting for your own death sentence, because she personally traveled to Libya and killed 5,000 virgins in Benghazi with a strange alien deathstaff, laughing all the while in bloodstreaked killjoy.

What? You say, horrified. That’s terrible. How on earth has the truth about this been suppressed? How could I not have known this? I’m definitely voting Republican now. Definitely.

Well, kids. A meme is an image with text on it. That image could be from anywhere, and so could the text. They’re not necessarily related. That text isn’t true, just because you saw it on the internet.

Again, start by using your common damn sense. If an American politician did something this shocking, why doesn’t everyone know about it? There are two possible answers:

1) Someone is, indeed, suppressing the story. Or:
2) Someone is telling porky pies.

Now, balance the likelihood of these two answers. People could suppress something like that, I suppose, but a picture of a gore-covered Hillary Clinton laughing amidst the carnage, glowing alien artifact in hand, is unlikely to STAY suppressed very long, in our age of internet sharing. (Or: is this why we’re seeing a meme about it now? Is it all a government conspiracy? WERE there two gunmen on the grassy knoll?)

Also, consider–if the truth is being EFFECTIVELY suppressed, there’s not shit you can do to find out about it sitting in your chair tooling around online. So you might want to play around with the other conclusion anyway, just to see if anything THERE convinces you.

Suppression aside, people lie on the internet every day. Every second. There’s no data for this, sadly, but I’d be willing to bet there are more lies told in the course of a day than babies born, or meals eaten, or fucking breaths taken. Why is it less likely to be a lie because it’s on the internet, with a picture tacked on to it?

Your next step? Take to Google. Image search for ‘bloodstained Hillary Clinton’. Image search for ‘Hillary Clinton alien deathstaff’. Query Google: ‘Hillary Clinton virgenocide Benghazi alien deathstaff’.

See a very similar image of Hillary Clinton, minus bloodstains and staff, giving a speech in Iowa? Hmm. Photoshop seems likely. See a photo of that same alien deathstaff in promotional material for a movie called Plan 8 from Outer Space? Hmmmm.

And I can almost promise you, someone else has seen that image before you, and done a more thorough investigation, hopefully with better sources. Find a few reputable sites (since it’s political, try and find a few with differing political biases). What do they think?

If a lot of sites call it fake, if they offer convincing evidence, then it probably is fake. See, kiddos? That’s using your brain on the interwebs. You should do it every time you see something that shocks you. ‘S what shock SHOULD do–it should make you think. Is it solid proof? No, of course not. Solid proof of anything is next to impossible. But if a lot of reputable people agree, well, you might want to cash in your chips on the reputable people.

What, you’re wondering, does this have to do with post times on social media?

You need to use the same set of problem-solving tools in figuring out which advice to follow about your blog.

This is the internet. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone with a keyboard can offer advice. Hell, I’m doing it right now. So what should you look for, in figuring out which advice to follow?

1) What KIND of advice do you want?

If you’re looking for advice on how to write well, likes and popularity aren’t important. Look for a post that you, personally, think has been written well. You might want to start by seeing if some of your favorite writers have blogs online–a lot of writers WILL write about their craft, and a lot of them (especially the indies) are more than happy to help you out, and would love to see your comments. Don’t be afraid to try and make friends: what’s the worst that could happen?

If you’re looking for advice on how to make your blog more popular, look for a blog offering this advice that is already popular. You don’t want advice on garnering more pageviews from someone whose posts have like three likes apiece. You don’t want marketing advice from someone whose book is in millionth place in Amazon rankings.

Advice on where to get nice legal images? Look for a blog whose pictures grab your attention.

Etc. You get my point.

2) Is the link timely?

This one, especially, if you’re looking for advice on social media use and anything involving popularity. A link telling you how to get more Facebook likes from 2008 might not be viable now: people change, and the average age of Facebook users has increased since then. This means people will be logging on at different peak hours, interested in different things. Always check the date of the post, before you make up your mind to follow advice.

3) Use Your Common Goddamn Sense.

I can’t stress this one enough.

See a shiny infographic telling you the most people log on to Pinterest at 5 AM EST? Woah, nelly. Hang on a second. Most Pinterest traffic is probably mainland American (as we’re the most wired-up nation in the world) and the earliest 5AM EST could be is 1AM, for those on the Pacific coast. Most Pinterest pinners are adult women, who have things to do like work or at least take care of the kids–how likely does even a 1AM peak time seem?

Some of you are wondering why I’m asking you to do ‘all that work’. You’re whining: ‘you can’t possibly expect me to fact-check everything I believe in’. After I cold-cock slap you, I’m going to be honest with you: I do. And let me just chuckle patronizingly and end this with a single statement:

If you don’t have the time to fact check it at least a little, maybe you should suspend motherfucking judgement.

For People Interested in Peak Posting Times, Here’s a Useful Current Link:

Julie Neidlinger over at CoSchedule is a fricking QUEEN for doing this one.

For People Interested in Not Believing Every Shiny Meme they See, Here are Some Fairly Reliable Fact-Checkers:

Factcheck–One of the oldest and most consistently reliable of the fact-checking sites online.

SnopesI know, I know. All the Republicans in my crowd can’t believe I’m listing Snopes as a viable fact checker. Well, it isn’t 100% reliable, but it’s better than that almost 100% FALSE chain email you’re thinking of right now that discredited Snopes (which was, in turn, discredited by FactChecker). A note for you: any time the phrase ‘Wikipedia finally got to the bottom of it’ is used, you might want to reconsider reliability.

Google–The best ‘fact checker’ of all: yourself. Spend some time looking stuff up under different search terms, so you get different points of view, and make up your own damn mind.

“It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.”
Maurice Switzer