1. This Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge made me squeee with glee. The randomly selected setting was a Martian greenhouse, and I’m obsessed with Mars  colonization. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is my pilgrimage read, a book I must re-read at least once a year. I believe humans will set foot on Martian soil in my lifetime, and I hope the Lord grants me a long life. We’ll most likely see the Virgin logo planted on Mars before the stars and stripes, but I can live with that. Americans aren’t interested in doing the impossible anymore, especially with all them gays trying to hitch up n’ stuff. We’re sons and daughters of immigrants and pioneers. Venturing into the unknown is in our Yankee blood like high cholesterol.

    I’ve written several stories set on Mars, and I will sign a notarized confession stating its’ because I want to write the next Martian Chronicles. They don’t involve plant-zombies, but in this story, we have met the Triffids, and the Triffids are us.

     

    —-

    Subgenre: Zombie Apocalypse
    Setting: A Martian greenhouse
    Element: A Dream

     

    The spines, the teeth and the nails of thousands of weedies scraped against the greenhouse’s Plexiglas walls. Yet In the peaceful confines of Laura’s garden, the mix of floral scents made her barely aware she was the last human alive.

    She noticed a weed bud sprouting around the tarragon and basil row. She knelt down, dug two fingers around its base and pulled it loose. “How do these things get here?” she asked, to no one. She tossed the weed into a nearby bin and walked down the herb garden’s path. Ahead the flowers grew.

    The flower plots were a sampling of Earth’s last land species, tended and crafted my humans, fragile as their vanity. Since her staff had ran or succumbed to the weedies, she was the sole tender of the greenhouse. Gardening was precise art and badgering her staff to do it her was always straining. The workload was burdensome, but at least she could do it her way without dithering fools cutting stems too short or overwatering plots.

    In the corner of her eye, she could see the mass of weedies follow her like paparazzi, hurling themselves at the transparent walls. She noticed a dead leaf clinging to a cornflower stem. How have I missed this one?  At least there dead leaves clung like scabs to the stem. She took out her shears, snipped them free and dropped them into a canvas bag tied to her waist. She thrust her finger into the soil, measured its dampness and texture. “The fertilizer mix is all wrong.”

    She continued her inspection of the flower rows, with her paparazzi following her. The path curved toward the right, close to the greenhouse walls.  As she inspected the daffodils, a sight shocked her. As her old assistant, Davis, pressed his rotting face against the pane, elongated nails and chitinous spines tearing though his blue coveralls, a daffodil petal was  fringed with brown. She cupped the flower in her hand, feeling the petals’ dry texture.

    “It’s dying.” Another missed detail. She cursed herself. She could cut it down to the bulb; nurture it back to health with right compost/manure mix. She ran over to the compost bins, the weedie herd following her, and she threw open the lid of the largest one. Damp emptiness yawned back at her. She checked the others and they were also empty.

    The compost bins were tied to the food and waste processors, and with her staff thinned down to one, they had processed nothing. Without organic compost, the soil would lose nutrients and the garden would brown, dry out and die. She crouched on the ground and few sobs hacked from her. The last pure thing crafted by humanity was housed around her, and it had little hope, just like homo sapiens.

    Earth geneticists thought merging the human genome with plants would solve the food crisis. Homo Photosynthesis. If humans could photosynthesize food, all they would need is sunlight and water. The first generation survived, turning a shade of green and thrived. Six inch spines sprouted from their bodies, perhaps an evolutionary response to protect themselves, or to extract moisture from the air.

    A new virus appeared, incubated in the plant-human hybrids and spread.  Homo Photosynthesis turned predatory and their spines served a new function, a means to suck blood and nutrients from the remaining pure humans. The Martian Government suspended travel to and from Earth, and for a few years this prevented the weedies from spreading. A year before, a ship of Earth survivors broke past the blockade, the weedie virus a stowaway.

    Everything in my garden, she thought, the only true act of beauty humanity has ever done. They have to live, even for a while. Even as something else.

    She rose and crossed the greenhouse to the atmospheric control room. Her greenhouse project was funded by the Martian government to modify Earth plant strains to thrive on terraformed Mars. Instead of genemods, she opted for an organic approach and cross bred samples that could acclimate to the soil. The government sent her notices that if she didn’t produce fast results, her funding would be cut. She shredded the notices and mixed it with the compost.

    Her children weren’t quite ready, but few children are truly ready for the outside world. She took a deep breath, and fully engaged the Martian atmosphere program.

    She left the control room, her paparazzi pressed against the glass. Within a week, once the atmosphere matches the barometric pressure of the outside, the greenhouse will open its vents, allowing the seeds to travel on the Planetia winds.

    And so to bed. She retrieved a couple of things from the kitchen and the medical bay, and dragged a chair to a clearing in the middle of the greenhouse. She settled into the chair and uncorked the cold bottle of white wine made by a Marenis vineyard. She let cool relief drain down her throat and then took the syringe from her pocket. Her paparazzi, no longer thrashing against the panes, looked at her with dull, pupiless eyes.

    She was falling asleep, a dream washing into her consciousness. Endless archers of cornflowers swayed in a field under a dun-red sky. Roses burst from the settlement’s ruins. Daffodils bright yellow against rouge soil. Peaceful, asking little of the Martian soil.

  2. The hardest thing to deal with is the bad behavior of those you love. Yet, you try to look past the faults, but many times they become an obstruction.

    Recently, DC Comics has hired Orson Scott Card to write the first two issues of Superman: Man of Tomorrow. He’s better known as the author of the classic Ender’s Game, one of the must-reads of the sci-fi genre. However, his views of gay rights has overshadowed his contributions.

    Let me fine tune it. He’s not a hetero guy uncomfortable around gays or let slip an insensitive remark. He believes, as an article of faith, gays are a threat to democracy and the gay rights movement is engineered by the Feminists and the Left to destroy the American family. He chairs the National Organization for Marriage.

    When a favorite author has disgusting political views, some will reevaluate his merit. Critics hack away at the artist’s reputation and start backtracking on their glowing reviews. Fans muffle their praises around friends who’d take offence at their fandom. Like a Soviet Revolutionary who has fallen out of grace with the Party, the artist’s reputation is disassembled to where even mentioning his name might land you in the Gulag of disapproval.

    Some comic fans want Card to be pinkslipped From since Superman is the champion of the oppressed and white, hetero guys don’t seem all that oppressed. Card’s views are repellent and irrational, but that shouldn’t discredit him as a writer nor should he be fired.  No one should be discriminated to their employer for their political beliefs no more that their race, sexual orientation or religion. Yet, given Cards reputation and Superman’s visage as the defender of the vulnerable, it was a bad hiring choice. Perhaps DC made the hiring decision since an Ender’s Game movie is nearing release and they wanted to capitalize on Card’s brand. Expect the Ender’s Game movie will meet with protest, especially since Harrison Ford is among the cast.

    Ban DC, you say? Go ahead. How did Chic-fil-a fare after their anti-gay contributions were aired? People quickly forget the controversy and recall the quality. Some conservatives love some Pro-Environmental Chunky Monkey and some liberals like Coors with their locally grown, exploitation free arugula salad.

    If fans are also quick to overlook the personal behavior of their artists. Have a look at the following video.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8KJiay6EI0

    Shout “Charles Bukowski” in Atlanta’s Little Five Points and about ten hipsters will prostate themselves on the cobbles in worship. Yet, there he is abusing a woman during a taped interview. If this had been some shirtless low-income scumbag, everyone would be equal in their derision. Yet, this is one of America’s revered poets, author of Post Office, a man who’s inspired careers and unbearable coffeehouse poetry. Yet, if you read the YouTube comments, there’s a few who try to justify his behavior. She was a gold digger who was after his money. He was part savage, like any good poet. His generation had different views on women.

    So does genius automatically redeem someone from their politics and behavior? If you want to lighten your bookshelf, have a look at the list of artists and their political views. See if they offend you based on your polarity.

    Salvador Dali – Supported Spain’s Franco regime.

    Bertolt Brecht – Supported Soviet intervention in the East German Uprising of 1953 and possible Stasi informant.

    Jack London – A fervent revolutionary socialist and promoted the violent overthrow of the United States. His racism would make your racist in-laws blush.

    Richard Wagner – The guy who put corpulent ladies in operas also was a fierce anti-Semite and was influenced by the forerunners of Nazism.

    Commies. Nazis. Snitches. Homophobes.  Democrats. Republicans. Heroes to many. All our heroes are 1% gold leaf and 99% plaster, and we add the gold leaf. They’re hardly Superman.

     



  3. This week’s challenge - write a story based on these photos from Russia. The photo I chose reminded me of when I was young, dumb and drunk and living in Prague during the early 1990’s. I believe I fell in love no less that three times a week. Also, I played at being a writer, but I had no idea that it took monastic commitment and an innocent adoration of language. I came to the States realizing I wasn’t ready, and that I wanted to be a writer for all the wrong reasons. I just wanted to be remarkable and people to think I was smart. Since then I’ve met remarkable nurses, mechanics, war veterans, stagehands, hobos and strangers who can tell heartbreaking  stories of pain, loss, joy, and redemption a sight better than me. They couldn’t write a complete sentence and had never been to Europe. Some of this story recalls when I was a college minor in fiction, playing with words rather than cold chiseling them into a story. Lord, I was clueless, but my hair looked great back then.



     

     

    A wind passes over the Vltatav, capturing the water’s evening chill, and carries itself uphill and sweeps across my back. I shiver, looking into Yitka’s eyes. She’s unaware and kisses me. I rake my fingers through her black hair, sun drenched strands flow downward.

    The moment is endless and I’m falling into her.

    “Please stop,” Professor Randall says. “Oh, got. You’re not going to publish that?” He rubs his temple, and squinches his face annoyance.

    The story I’m reading, the one I was so proud of, embarrasses me like someone just opened the door one me while on the toilet. “What’s wrong with it?”

    “Falling into her? Jesus. Sounds like Freshman Goth poetry. Did you type this on a manual typewriter? Because if you did, I’ll drop you from my class. Swear to God.”

    I’m at a second rate state college and the office looks like it. A windowless white walled room with burnt orange carpeting.  Professor Randall shares it with Dr. Dencher, the women’s studies professor whom he can’t stand.  He’s middle aged, hair marbled with gray and brown.

    I’m in an advanced Fiction Writing III course with five other students. When Randall approved me, I thought I had arrived among the elect. Randall had written a book in 1994 that was short listed for a Booker. I had never read it. Neither have the other five students.

    “Ok. I’m being harsh. You start off with a nice sweeping opening. I like it. You establish setting, time place. You suggest you’re getting Biblical with girl with dark hair. Then you cop a line that you probably thought you were a gobsmacked genius for writing.”

    I did. It’s true. When I wrote it, I was so amazed I almost hyperventilated or was hit with Stendalls syndrome. Yes. I wrote this. Pretentious assholes will use that line to woo clueless Freshman non declared major girls. And they’ll get laid.

    “Now continue.” He says.

    “I love you,” I whisper.

    She turns her head and looks toward the bonfire. We’re partially hidden by the poplar tree’s shade. The others are signing a Czech campfire song, passing the Burčák. “I’m cold,” she says. “I want to sit by the fire.”

    I pushed myself off of her and buttoned my shirt. She  sweeps the grass and leaves from her skirt and rises. One of her red stockings is down and she pulls it up. She buttons her black sweater and walks over to the fire.

    I’m suspended with desire.

    Prof. Randall pounds the desk. “No!”

    Bile surges in my gut. “What did he do? Give me a concrete action. Show me how someone can be suspended with desire?”

    I can’t speak and I don’t dare to. He wouldn’t buy anything I said.

    “You’re allowed to use simple phrases like “falling in love” or “I desired her beyond measure”. He pushes himself from the desk, rolling back on the wheeled chair. “Have you fallen in love yet?”

    I thought of Mika, my then girlfriend. “Of course. Many times?”

    “Ah! There’s your problem. You’re about twenty, right?”

    “Yes. Twenty-one.”

    “Twenty one. Many times, you say. Let me tell you something. You only fall in love –once! Afterward, you’re just trying to recapture that feeling. Like the junkie trying the recapture that feeling of the first hit. “

    I got it. An old man trying to dispense aged wisdom. Was he really the genius everyone said he was? He tells me I don’t know what love is? I love Mika. I’d do anything for her. She’s blonde, Ukranian. Every guy gunned for her and she chose me. I have wrapped her with my love.

    “You,” he points his finger at me, elbow anchored on the table. “Have not fallen in love.”

    “Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I signed up for fiction class.” I regret what I said immediately. I just blew my recommendation to Colombia. I want to write. Not be like those post grad who end up teaching assistants in their thirties with one published short story in a journal only 400 people read – all professors.

    He flicks his hand upward. “I’m just saying. When it happens the last thing you remember is your surroundings. “

    “So, you’ve fallen in love?”

    “Yes, three times.”

    “But you said once?”

    “But never the same way. The first was this girl from college. She dumped me. The second was my wife of ten years. The third was my son, when he was born.”

    I fell in love with Mika when she sat in in the front row of my Contemporary Literature class. She was the most beautiful girl in the room.  I asked her out for coffee and she said yes. She’s said yes to everything since then.

    He glanced at the wall clock. “Alright. I want a rewrite. Concrete images only. No fifty cent phrases like “I fell into the wells of her eyes.”

    I put my story into its folder and left without saying anything. I go and meet Mika at the student center food court. I stop at the door and look at her, like I always do. Gorgeous among the green tables and yellow plastic chairs. I question myself. Do I love her?

    Of course I do. She’s beautiful. She’s like no other girl I’ve ever met. I walk around the tables so I can come behind her, put my hands on her shoulders and surprise kiss her on her cheek. She doesn’t react, but she rarely does. I sit across from her.

    “How was your classes,” I ask.

    “Fine,” she says.

    “You won’t believe the grilling I got today.”

    She’s eating a salad, pierces a leaf with her plastic fork. The movement is so artless, common. I see her pretty face, munching away. She’s not listening. I touch her free hand and she’s motionless.

    I try to fall into her, but I’m hitting the ground.

     

  4. I have such reverence for poetry, that I’ve rarely displayed my own works. Poetry is the golden temple of  language and while Poetry Slams keep the form accessible, I won’t dare step into that holy sanctum. I may burst into flames, or worse, write bad Goth poetry.

    Last Friday’s Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge was to write a story in three haikus, and I’m not one to turn down a challenge.

     

    The hearth dims and cools.
    Nightfall prowls in on tiptoe.
    The lantern quivers.

    Claws scrape on the roof.
    Dust falling from the rafters.
    Growls shake us awake.

    Rifle shots echo and ring.
    A groan, a sliding and a thud.
    Mom shelves the rifle.

     

    While you’re there, check out the Wendig’s interview with Alex Hughes, author of the excellent thriller, Clean.

  5. Justice has come to Terriblminds.com, and a Hellstorm follows at its heels. This week’s challenge was to choose a motif, a subgenre, and a setting. I’ve  always wanted to write a cowboy story, so hunker by the campfire and listen to the tale of Frost’s Hellstorm.

    —-

    The Sherriff’s posse chased Frost as far as Lindsey’s hell, through the Fang Canyons and the into deepest chambers of Sinner’s Cave. The chase ended at the abandoned Miracle Strip Amusement Park.

    Without thinking Frost ran inside the funhouse. Too tired to run, soul tapped of all will.

    “Richard Frost, In the name of Nevada Sector Colonial Marshals, come out with your hands up,” Sheriff Blaze bellowed through the dormant barrel at the exit.

    Frost ducked behind a curved mirror at the sound of the Sherriff’s voice. A layer of dust covered the concaved mirror. On the walls the dayglow images of contorted clowns were dulled by age. “I’d like to discuss terms of negotiations,” Frost yelled back.

    “Negotiations?” Blaze’s nicotine tarred voice answered. “You killed two of my deputies. The only negotiations that will occur is between us and the caretaker.”

    “I swear on my life. I shot the deputies in self-defense. They had been extorting homesteaders and dishonoring men’s wives and daughters.”

    “There’s an old Earth song about that situation. Honestly, I don’t care a blessed damn if you’re innocent. I’m sick of this chase. Sick of you.”

    Frost found a thin slit between the mirrors and viewed Sherriff Blaze. Deathly thin, build of rebar. Face darkened and wrinkled like a dry riverbed.

    A band of frightening words shot through the barrel – Burn it down.

    Fear bolted up Frost’s spine. He backed into the maze, bouncing from wall to wall, hoping for an exit. Through the thin walls, he heard a whoosh as something caught fire. He found the end of the maze to meet a  distorted room. Its angles all wrong, tall where it should be short and its perspectives either too wide or too near. He dashed for the odd jagged framed door and the room shifted to the right. He fell against the padded wall. He ran up the incline and the floor shifted left and he stumbled into the left wall. An odor snaked into his nostrils – smoke.

    He crawled along the wall to the jagged door threw it open. A ten foot gangplank was suspended over a fake cliff. He walked toward the middle, but the gangplank dipped and swung wildly.

    A mocking laughter barreled through the funhouse. “We found the power switch to this place,” Sherriff Blaze said. “You’re in for some fun.”

    “Go to Hell, Sherriff,” Frost bellowed.

    Frost dashed across the buckling gangplank and entered a room painted with wild flames. He faced the Devil. The plaster devil’s face was as tall as the room and in its mouth, a doorway. Eye’s yellow like a cats and white curved horns caked with dust, it cackled like a buzzard. Dust shook from its flames and red lights illuminated his face.

    This is where I belong, Frost thought. He’d never been a good Christian, but he knew the righteous path was narrow and hedged with thornbush. No better than a raider, the Sherriff’s tin star was a blasphemy is the sight of God and Justice.

    Hell. Nevada Colony.

    The toil hardened settlers deserved better. Damned to a near barren world resistant to the seeds they planted, but through back breaking effort, people were fed.

    Be damned if he was going to lie here and let the Sherriff bleed them dry.

    He rose and stared the Devil in the face. On his right side, fire chewed through the wall and soon the walls would be true flames. He ran through the Devil’s mouth and into the spinning barrel at the exit.

    The Sherriff, two deputies and a couple of off-world mercs stood at exit. “Finally came to reason,” the Sherriff growled. The posse chucked rifles and pistol hammers clicked.

    He would die. Frost accepted the notion and was at peace. The Sherriff knew that his crimes would not go unchallenged. Soon others would stand up to him, like fronts of cold and heat, joining together to make a –

    The ground rumbled and the posse jostled on their feet. A blood red cloud formed in the sky, issuing bolts of pink-white lightning. “Hellstorm!” bellowed one of the mercs. Among the banes Nevada hosted, the Hellstorms were the most despised, admired. The confluence of arctic cold, desert heat and equatorial volcanic gasses, they often occurred in the wastes. No one forgot when a Hellstorm landed on a settlement.

    The Sherriff spat. “We finish this, then we run for cover.” The mercs fled as the ground under them darkened as the Hellstorm closed on them.

    Frost laughed and stumbled through the spinning barrel, and stepped out of the funhouse. “Take me in Sherriff.” He outstretched his arms. “I surrender.”

    A pink-white lightning bolt touched the ground behind the Sherriff, setting the two deputies ablaze.  Only the Sherriff and the Frost remained and the deputies flailed like drunken mummers. Lightning hit the old Ferris wheel, and it slowly spun like a fiery mandala.

    The Sherriff leveled his gun at Frost’s head. “You self-righteous bastard. So we take a little extra in exchange for our protection. You think we’re the worst. Do you think you can protect them?”

    “Look above you. Fire is raining from the sky. The day of judgment has come,” Frost said.

    “Enough!”

    The Sheriff’s finger closed around the trigger, and Frost closed his eyes. An explosion rocked the ground as a bolt hit the funhouse. The gun fired and a bullet caressed Frost’s cheek as charred wood rained on them. Seizing the opportunity, he kicked the Sheriff in the gut, and then elbowed him in the jaw. The Sherriff fell onto his back.

    Frost grabbed the Sherriff’s star and tore it from his lapel. Frost and Blaze’s eyes met, enmity thick between them.

    Frost escaped to the wastes, evading the Sherriff for the last time. He looked back at the burning Miracle Strip as the Hellstorm dredged onward.

    At that moment, his chase had ended. At their next meeting, Frost would summon the wrath of the Hellstorm, and rain Judgment on the Sherriff.



  6. This week’s Terrible Minds Flash Challenge was to chose a photo from this site, and then write a story inspired by it. The first one caught my eye. In American culture, you’re either going up or down, but the goal is go up. Like Buddhist incarnations, everyone strives for the next level, believing their ascension has been paid with their righteousness and hard work. We move up a grade, get promoted, drop the old model for the latest model. This why heaven is above us, Hell below us. The mailroom below, the executive bathroom above.

    But what if Hell is neither above or below and either direction takes you nowhere?



    “Today, I quit. I just shut down my computer, and walk out,” Taggart whispered to Lee, his cubicle mate. He glanced over the cubicle wall to make sure no management types skulked about.

    Lee did the same, leaned over to Taggart. “It’s because the restroom, right?”

    “That was the piano that broke the camel’s back. It’s like everything else here. Never gets fixed until it doesn’t matter.” Taggart logged out of his PC and stood. “Now I have to go to the 10th floor to take a leak, again.”

    Taggart waded through the cubicle farm, and moved through office exit. “Who am I kidding,” he thought to himself as he walked down the beige-tan hallway. “Quit and go where? Same job, same doldrums, different building.”

    He passed the men’s restroom. A water stain seeped onto the carpet and a sign written in Sharpie stating “Out of Order” was taped to the restroom door.

    Too impatient to wait for the elevator, he opened the stairwell door. The door hinges groaned, its lamentations bounced infinitely against the walls. Walls painted dull beige, like his office, his pants, his whole life.

    Letting the door close itself, he trucked up the stairs. He reached the 10th floor landing and was proud that he wasn’t out of breath and had beaten the door’s slam. He pulled the door’s handle and his shoulder jerked as it remained shut. He yanked two more times, but the door was locked shut.

    “That figures,” His bladder was ready to burst through his gut. He ran up another flight and tried the 11th floor door. It was locked as well.  “You’ve got to be kidding me,’ he said. The elevator was his best bet. He descended back to the 9th floor, his floor, and found it locked.

    He kicked the door and swore. “I’m locked in the stairs. Great.” He trotted down to the 8th floor – locked, each pump of his legs jostling his bladder. Locked as well, he pounded on the door. “Hello?” The thick steel door absorbed the thudding. He pounded harder, and then beat the door with both of his fists. “Somebody, please, open the door!”

    Someone had to hear him. Someone had to be in the hallway. His only choice was either try all the 25 doors on each of the building’s floors or descend to the lobby, eight floors down. The deal was, if it wouldn’t open, he would be entitled to pissing in the stairwell.

    Down he went, letting gravity work for him. Reading off the numbers stenciled in red ink beside the doorway– 7-6-5-4-

    It seemed the stairs went on forever, his exertions never ending and taking him nowhere. Finally, one last fight, and then relief. “Yes. Finally.” Careful, he pulled down the door lever which gave easily, a reassuring semicircular scratch in the paint where it had been turned hundreds of times. The latch gave and he pulled. His shoulder popped as the door stayed shut as if painted on the wall. “Nooooo!”

    He beat on the door with both his fists. “Somebody, let me out!” His pleads echoed back at him like mocking children.

    The door was next to the security guard station and the main lobby. Someone had to be there. Or maybe they were ignoring him, jabbering on Blackberries, too busy winning at life to help a loser who can’t find himself out of a stairwell.

    “Hell with it.” He dashed to a corner under the stairwell. “I did my due diligence.”

    He unzipped his fly, pulled out his member. If he gets in trouble, so be it. He had to grunt to get things going, but a warm stream issued onto the bare concrete. Relief swelled inside him to almost orgasmic heights. She sound of water descended to a trickle, then a few uneven drops. He looked at the puddle, the ammonia redolent scent crawling into his nostrils. “I had to. I’d get an infection or something.”

    With unwashed hands, he tried the door again. Still shut and no one answered. He slid down the door and sat on the floor. After a brief rest, he believed the surest strategy was to go back to the eight floor, wait for the lunch rush and pound like hell on the door and hope one of his coworkers would hear.

    The first three floors were easy, but his feet grew heavy with each step. He rested for a minute at the sixth floor, thirsty, tired and legs stiff as sandbags. “We’ll break camp here,” He joked. “And try for the summit in the morning.”

    He ascended the last two floors and arrived at eight floor landing. “Made it.”  He closed his eyes, yanked the door lever and expected it to be locked. It gave easy and the door swung open revealing the hallway. “What, the…”

    He stepped forward and glanced into the hallway and its familiar beige hues. The door slipped closed. He turned around and opened it again without any resistance. Hoping no one knew what he did in the hallway, he opened the office door. The rows of empty cubicles went on for infinity.

    “Have I missed a meeting?” Not only were the cubicles empty, but every computer monitor was turned off. He found the path to his cubicle, or where it supposed to be. Its walls were bare of the pictures of his cat and his fiancé. The desk was clear of everything except a keyboard. Even Lee’s desk was clear. Every desk and cubicle was voided of people, belongings, life.

    “Wrong floor,” he said. He walked back to the office door, but it wouldn’t open. He pulled again. “I need out.”

    He pulled at the handle until he strained his arm muscles. “I need out.”

    The door didn’t budge, and then the lights flickered out.

     

  7. I pulled from the hat Locked Room Mystery, Someone’s been poisoned, A bottle of rare whiskey. The challenge has been accepted.

    -

    It starts with a body. It ends with whiskey.

    The only difference with this case is it starts with an empty whiskey bottle. The bodies, however, were en route.

    Dr. Loeb and Rev. Toluse sit on a sectional couch in the living room. Sweat streams down their paling faces like melting ice. I’m barely keeping myself  straight as poison chews at my guts.  The Rev dials 911 and speaks to the operator. The ambulance is on its way, but its 30 minutes at top speed from the hospital to Dr. Loeb’s home.

    I pick up the empty bottle. “Hemford Reserve, 30 year old, single barrel, Kentucky whiskey.” I smell it.

    “I poured the drinks. I swear I didn’t add anything,” Dr. Loeb chokes. “If I can get a sample, I probably have an antidote to stabilize us.” Slender with shoulder length brown hair, Dr. Loeb catches the eye even though she’s past fifty. Her job is her husband. Based on the distance between Rev. Toluse, they’re not a couple.

    Desperate to look youthful, Rev. Toluse’s  Chuck T’s sneakers and skinny jeans clash with the tweed jacket and a light blue oxford. His hair is long in the back. He twists his wedding band as he sucks down a panic attack.

    I turn the bottle upside down. The residue rolls across the bend. “It’s not the whiskey. Trust me, I’d know.”  My gut clenches and I grab my sides.  Before, life seemed too long, too slow. Now slower, the death’s bullet tunneled though my gut.

    Just  another missing person case. After a long drive, I arrived at Dr. Loeb’s Paul Johnson knockoff home at 7pm. She greeted me at the door, led me to the library and Rev. Toluse introduced himself. I scanned the setting. Several photos of the Doc and the Rev embracing several teenaged girls and boys. One photo was missing from the bottommost row. She fixes us drinks. Moments later, my heart palpitates. I’ve been poisoned before. I calmly let the Doc and the Rev know.

    “If we’re going to find out who poisoned us, I have to know why you called me.”

    The Rev speaks in a strained voice. “We are founders of His Lost Children, which rescues children from human traffickers. Trust us. There’s a lot of mafias who want us dead - Awk!”  The Rev clutches his side.  “We were going to hire you to find Petra, a Ukrainian girl we rescued from a brothel. We think she went back to her pimp.”

    “Not her fault,” Dr. Loeb said, and picked up a framed photo from the coffee table. “Petra’s confused. They probably threatened her. She’s scared.”

    I limped over and she hands me the photograph. Petra stands alone in front of a red brick wall. Dishwater blonde hair and a narrow triangular face wearing loose jeans and baggy sweatshirt.  Although smiling, her eyes are mirth-empty.

    “Did you contact the police?”

    “Yes,” Dr. Loeb said. “She’s just another runaway. We’ve put out flyers and got a Facebook page, but no leads.”

    I recall a red brick wall tracing Dr. Loeb’s property, like in the photo “Did the girl live here?”

    “Yes, for a while. I have an office here and sometimes I bring the children here for a physical. They stay here a few days before we send them to a foster family,” Dr. Loeb.

    Dr. Loeb leans over the couch arm and vomits. I look at the empty glasses. “Reverend, you had water, right?”

    “That’s right. I don’t drink,” he said and then started choking. “I believe it’s time I led everyone in a prayer.”

    “So that rules out the whiskey, but-“ I picked up the Reverend’s water glass half full of melting ice. “We all had ‘on the rocks’.”

    I stumble over to the bar stocked with decanters and liquor bottles. A mini-fridge with an icemaker is under the counter. I open the freezer drawer and pull out the ice tray. The ice had a luminous clarity to it. I smelled it and caught a wisp of chemicals. My gut clenches and enraged by pain, I pull the fridge from the slot hard and it slams into the opposite wall. There I notice an IV drip bag duct taped to the fridge’s back with a tube spliced onto the water line. I tear the bag from its back and pinch the tube.

    “It’s the ice. I found this attached to the back.”

    “Take it to my office,” she stood but dropped to her knees. “We-have-little-time.”

    The reverend and I carry the Doc to her office. I kick open the door and prop her up on a stool. “There’s a tray of reagents in the refrigerator. It’s marked.”

    I stumble to the fridge, retrieve the reagents and with weary hands, she tests the ice. “Arsenic,” she said minutes later. “I need to setup a charcoal drip.”

    Buoyed by hope, she sets up charcoal drips for all three of us. Although my stomach wrenched, I felt the poison leech from my veins and the margin from death widened a sliver. The paramedics came and whisked us to the hospital.

    The hospital releases me and I return to my home office. Made calls to contacts, searched the Ukrainian crime database.

    Petra wasn’t  the helpless waif the Doc and the Rev thought she was. The Ukrainian mob let Petra be rescued, and ordered her to poison the Doc and the Rev.  The Ukrainian mob – a lot of ex-KGB, expert assassins.

    I submit my report to the Doc and the Rev. Even though Petra tried to kill them, they still want me to find her, believing she could be saved. Everyone is worth saving. Not everyone wants to be.

    It ends with a body – Petra’s. Police find her with a crushed windpipe in a landfill.  The coroner says bone growth shows she’s at least twenty-five. I reported back to the Doc and the Rev.

    I cashed the tear stained check, poured a whiskey - no ice.

  8. By the Wendigo’s command. The Fates assigned me three elements: Superhero, virtual reality world, a vigilante. Yet, like delicates thrown in a dryer set to High, they came out as something else.

    "The Rapture Virus"



    “Don’t panic,” Frank said, calm. He sipped his store brand cola, cupped the mic while he swallowed. Hopefully, this won’t need an escalation team.

    “I can’t land!” the young man, username: InvinciBill, said. “I’ve flown over the world for three hours.”

    “I’m disabling the FeelieWare.” Frank typed up the case, alt-tabbing through the required fields.

    Game: Apocalypse City

    Player Username: InvinciBill

    Summary of issue: Player is flying, but is unable to land. May be related to know bug discussed in Team Track 20233.

    “Hellooo…” InviciBill said.

    “I’m just typing up the case.” Even though the FeelieWare had been disabled, the player still felt the resonant effects of panic. The FeelieWare enhanced the player’s experience by lightly triggering emotional responses to stimuli. The brain reacted to threats accordingly.

    “InviciBill, what were you doing when you started flying.”

    “I was chasing MasterMime down after he massacred a Smartcar full of clowns. He mimed flying a chopper so I flew after him, but I kept going up and up. I think I stopped when I hit the ceiling.”

    “I’d like to have closer look. Do I have your permission to enter your game?”

    “Ok. Just hurry.”

    Frank lowered his telepresense goggles, slipped on the interaction gloves took a sip of cola and jacked in. The warrens of gray cubicles pixelated then his vision became a vortex of colors. With a volt of panic, the FeelieWare enabled, stimulating the empathy and logic centers of his brain. Apocalypse City came into resolution like an ancient polaroid, its colors bright and crisp.

    He’s standing over the world, feet planted in air. It scrolled below him, the tips of buildings looking like piled carpet. InvinciBill lay next to him, his body in a diver’s aspect, hair swept back by virtual inertia. The sound of a jet’s afterburners roared in an infinite loop.

    “You’re here. How do I get down?”

    “Have you tried pressing “A” several times?”

    “Done that”

    “Hm, try hitting “start”.

    “Nope.”

    “Alright, I’ll have a look at your settings.”

    “Hey, did you hear about that plane?”

    Frank ignored the question and swept his hand and his desktop appeared. He punched up InvinciBill’s AC’s setting console. He fanned through the tabs, inspecting each radio button and drop-down field. Nothing seemed amiss. Several floating objects snared his attention and he swooped the console aside.

    Thousands of small objects rose from the city, like released balloons. As they came into view, he realized they were characters, both live a stock. The players flailed their arms, ran in place, shot energy bolts, jumped and moved manically to escape the pull toward the sky. The stock characters, policemen, hot dog vendors, pedestrians, cabbies, pantomimed their behavior loop. The hotdog vendor dropped slaw on a hot dog. The cabbie sat in a driver’s position, steering his invisible car. A man with a briefcase walked along the nonexistent sidewalk.

    The laws of gravity, as the game went, had been repealed.

    A player rose near him, bouncing twice against the ceiling. “O-M-G. I’m on hold. I’m like the 231th in the queue.”

    Frank paused the call, swallowed, and IM’d his coworker. Yet, before he could send, his team asked the same question, worded differently – Is everyone floating? Why isn’t Julie and Rich picking up calls.

    Everyone was, Frank knew. A meter maid floated through. Now they were merged and it looked like he had an extra pair of hands. A few lingering floaters joined the growing carpet of characters.

    The call queue indicator showed more than 1000 calls and ticked upward.  His co-worker’s spoke with tense courtesy, but a few phones rang on, unanswered. He stood, slid off his headset and goggles. After a flash of panic, he scanned the cubicle farm. Julie Neder shared the cubicle next to him, but there was only an empty chair where she should be sitting. Her coffee mug emblazoned with a comic sans quip “I’m not perfect, just Saved” rolled on its side, coffee streaming down the desk and one the floor.

    Many of his co-workers were Asian or East Asian, and a few were fervently atheist. Each of them were present, calming customers and unaware that the Rapture has, or may have, occurred. During the previous year, a crank preacher, Rev. Abraham Duncan, claimed that the Rapture would occur on July 10. Even Christians like Julie discredited him. When the date passed and all Christians were present and accounted for, he said his predictions were off. He failed to make adjustments for the Gregorian calendar, since his Bible-based calculations were Julian based.

    “One way or another, both of us will know for sure,” Frank’s  Holiness grandmother would say when his family dismissed her End Times claims.

    Fighting intermural storm surges of skepticism and revelation, Frank put on his headset. “Sir, may I ask you a question?” Without waiting for a response, he asked, “Are you a Christian?”

    InviciBill gasped and he answered, “Who are you to ask me that? Is this some kind of weird upsell? I want to speak to your manager.”

    Characters spoke to each other in the background about outside world affairs. “Did you hear about that plane that crashed into the ocean? They say the pilot was gone,” Someone said.

    He picked other incidents from the crosstalk. Driverless cars crashing. Empty hospital nurseries. Relatives gone missing. Empty playgrounds.

    But how did it explain why the live and stock characters were floating? Empty playgrounds and nurseries. Pure, unblemished souls. The FeelieWare was like consciousness-lite. Its algorithm mimicked neurocircuitry and brain activity, however stripped down.

    When the clock struck “Rapture”, even God couldn’t tell the difference between a babe and a virtual character, who only collected fictional kills, loot. No true harm done. They were without sin.

    Frank closed the call, whipped off the headset, and phoned his wife, and hoped she was kidding about going back to Mass.
  9. I haven’t blogged much since I’ve invested my time into book proposals and query letters. My middle grade novel, Bee, is complete and is ready to dazzle agents and publishers. I’ve written my day job resignation letter and have hired a mariachi band to sing “Vaya con Dios” as I leave Dilbert’s cubicle for good.

    Hope is a strong drink that should be sipped, not shot.

    Aside from writing, I’m building a new writer’s website, Writerstoolshed.com. During my last project, looking up a word’s definition or finding more active words was frustrating. I did a “find” replace on a recent story and found twenty instances of “walked” on one page. Either my characters spend a lot of time plodding around my imaginary word, or I needed a language upgrade. So, I started bookmarking links to thesauruses or language resources so I can refer to them later.

    Eventually, I had a nice collection of bookmarks and thought about sharing them. The site, Writerstoolshed.com, will be a site I’d like to see out in the Intertubes. Rather than being a tutorial site, it will be a link resource for new and professional writers where they can quickly find “nuts and bolts” information on word usage, character development, plotting and other helpful tools. In his must read book, On Writing, Steven King used an analogy for his uncle’s toolbox for a writers own personal toolset, grammar, setting, action, etc.  Hopefully, WritersToolshed.com, can help writers use theirs.

    At this point, I’m still trying out Wordpress plugins and designing a theme. I hope to launch the site by late January. If you have suggestions for writer’s links, you’re welcome to send them via the web form on my contact page. While there may be a commercial aspect to the site once I’m confident it provides value and has a large audience, I’m not open to advertising right now. I’d like to keep it to blog posts and articles at this time.

    I will let everyone know once Writerstoolshed.com has launched.

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Anthony Ray Elmore is a Atlanta based writer sometimes spotted at Scene Missing Magazine (http://www.scenemissingmagazine.com) and has participated in Atlanta Write Club bouts (http://writeclubatlanta.com)

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