A Cubicle Carol
Tis’ the season for a TerribleMinds.com Writing Challenge.
"Twas the Night Before Christmas…"
Caleb slept the best he could by the fire’s dying coals, but true rest evaded him. He hated dreaming, because they were always warm, happy and full of bright lights. Even as he had good dreams, the reality of the world clawed through it like the cold.
Fitful, he awoke to check on the children. Rachel and Thom slept peacefully cocooned in their sleeping bags. Thom clutched the blue Power rangers to his chest. He reached past his rifle for the Geiger counter to take a radiation reading. He flipped the switch, but the dial didn’t light up. He flipped the switched several more times, but it the batteries were dead and the machine was useless. For all he knew, the westerly winds could have blown a radiation could on top of them and they were already dying. His family could be camped in a hotzone.
That figures. He squatted by the fire, dropped the Geiger counter in the dirt and considered his limited options. By morning he would lead his remaining children south, following the dried riverbed formerly called the Mississippi River. There he hoped to find a farm collective that would, mercifully, take them in. Supplies were down to two cans of beans and three rifle shells to last them at least ten days of travel. He hadn’t seen so much a scrub hare in five days. It wouldn’t have mattered since his fingers were too cold to aim the rifle straight.
Three shells. He looked at his children’s peaceful faces, and shook his head to drive the horrible thought away.
Something, someone stirred in the dark woods. He grabbed his rifle and shuttled out of his sleeping bag. He aimed at the darkened woods where he reckoned the intruder approached. Heavy steps came closer. He tuned his ears. There was only one, a big man, who sounded like he struggled against a heavy pack. He could be a friendly, only looking for a warm fire to bed down. Yet, he had to meet even one.
In the forward darkness, a large body appeared. He was indeed a large, fat man, which was odd since he rarely saw a well fed man.
“Hold right there,” Caleb said, not loud enough to startle the children.
“I mean no harm,” the husky man said. He stepped forward, his face lit by the coals. He had a long snow white beard and kind green eyes. He wore a red cap fringed with white fur, and his jacket was red as well. “Mind if I share your fire?”
The fat man let a large red bag roll off his back and onto the ground, squatted by the fire and warmed his hands in the coals.
“I didn’t invite you,” Caleb said and stepped closer. “Find your own fire.”
“I don’t mean to impose. I just wanted to rest a moment. I have so many rounds to make. I’ll be on my way soon enough.” The fat man looked at the children, and Caleb caressed the rifle’s trigger.
“Rachel,” the fat man said as he pointed to Caleb’s daughter. “And Thom.”
“How the hell did you know their names?” Caleb stood over the fat man, rifle muzzle inches from his white whiskers. The fat man smiled, unthreatened.
“The same way I know yours, Caleb.”
“Have we met? Did we know each other in Chicago?” Caleb lowered the rifle and backed off three steps.
“You wanted Power Rangers, but your dad drank away the Christmas money. You woke one morning to get the newspaper to find the whole set at your front door. The news people came out saying some Secret Santa was leaving gifts for needy children.”
Caleb looked at Thom. When the government forced them to vacate their house, he took his four power rangers. He lost three, but gave the blue one to Thom, to at least have…something.
Caleb half raised the rifle. “No. You don’t really exist.”
“Maybe I don’t. Sometimes, maybe I need to.”
“I’m dreaming or I’ve finally gone crazy.”
“Be thankful you still can dream,” the fat man said. “Things will get better, but you have to believe remarkable things can still happen.” He reached into his bag, and pulled out a small package wrapped in bright green tinsel. He placed it next to the fire. He rose, stretched, and then pulled up the large bag and heaved it over his shoulder.
“Well, I must be going. So many appointments. Thanks for the warm up.” The fat man turned and lumbered into the forest. Keeping his rifle trained on the path where the fat man left, Caleb walked to the package. He poked it with the rifle a few times.
Quietly, he squatted by it and tore off the wrapping and opened the lid off a small white box. Inside, was a pair of “D” batteries, the kind the Geiger counter used. He grabbed the Geiger counter, replaced the dead batteries with the new ones. He took a fretful breath and turned it on and took a reading. The glowing needle only showed negligible radiation. They were safe.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he awoke to the children opening a can of beans and stoking the fire. “Morning, Dad,” Thom said.
“Go easy on the beans. It has to last us,” Caleb said.
“Look!” Rachel said. A large, six point deer stood ten feet in front of the campsite. It haunches were full, muscular and delicious looking. More than enough meat for the rest of the trip. Caleb quietly took the rifle, sighted on deer’s heart and squeezed the trigger.
He decided they would rest here for the day, fill their bellies and recover their strength Caleb cut a fat hunk of venison off the spit and presented it to Thom. “Thom, did I ever tell you how I got that Power Ranger?”
Have a safe and non-subversive Christmas. Santa’s eyes are everywhere.
Writing your first book is a buzz. Writing your second book is the buzzkill. The day I finished my first book, I stood up from my chair and bellowed like a methed out Klingon, “Today, I am a writer.”
I thought my second book would flawlessly eject from my being like Nacho Bell Grande fart. I sit here, humbled. Back then, I was partially employed and had oodles of time to write, but now with a full time job and a lot of non-writing work coming in, writing a 1000 words in one sitting is like passing a kidney stone.
And like the first love, you never love the same way the second time around. The first book’s trajectory was cellophane clear, but now this one is murky and offers many opportunities for me to stub my toe in the dark. Now, I have to prove I’m still a writer and finish this work despite the setbacks and time constraints. I think the real test is sticking this out, not hectoring like a pro-wrestler about the beat down the publishing industry will receive.
Oh, but they’ve got it coming.
The second work is almost done, but I’ve come close to trunking it a few times. This child will need a lot of potty training and discipline. I’ve realized that my first draft foible is under-writing. My first drafts are often too skeletal and spare, so one the second one I have to fill in the details and expand most of the scenes. Most writers rarely have an ending in mind, but I’ve crafted a villain who is so deserving of her fate, I can’t wait to write it. Sadly, the villain is also true to life.
Anyone here struggling with their next great work? Do share in the comments below.
I’m stepping up to The Wendigo’s Flash Fiction Challenge. My word of choice - seagull.
She loved feeding baking soda dusted crackers to the seagulls at the beach, making them go “boom.” She cackled every time as they soared away the cracker, seized up mid-air and thudded to the ground, bellies bloated, orange legs twitching.
But the seagulls were catching on and, worse, evolving.
Mad with grief, they cawed to other flocks across the bay. The white sands darkened as their numbers filled the sky as the plea was answered by other flocks. They gathered above the girl’s clueless head. Like one body, they dove into a shrieking arc.
She ran, but not far.
What lies below is a truncated version of a short story I wrote, depicting a real vision I had during a temp job at a bankcorp. It lasted a week, but I never knew how fearful a corporation can make you, dangling the hope of a permanent job, healthcare and a future in front of your maw like a rare steak to an anemic. My suprevisor called me into a meeting room a asked me if I was mentally disabled, because I just looked lost. I had a mild panic attack later and saw halos around people’s heads. Some were white and others were black. I’m sure it was a side effect of the panic attack. Had to be. They fired me a week later and my temp agency stopped calling. I had never been happier.
"Permanence Angels Won’t Smile On Me:"
There is ghost who that walks amongst the cubicles, this one casts a shadow. Soon, only the ghost will remain. Fragments of corporeal life would be found in the file drawer: a timesheet-unsigned, a Gators mug, a TopTemps Policies and Procedures manual. His name will be Ted, Ted the ghost temp. That’s what I changed my Outlook signature to.
On the morning of Casual Friday, Ron read from a Sword and Sorcery book during his break, gulping warm coffee from a Dr. Who mug, helpless as a lifeguard who can’t swim. He tries to look at me, but the quivering Termination Sight on my head is all he perceives. He’s also a temp, but the Unseen Supervisor likes him.
The rumors of my dismissal crossed departments like the stench of burnt microwave popcorn. I tacked motivational quotes from famous winners like Lincoln, Scott, Kathy Lee Gifford, and Donald Trump on every surface of my cubicle. These hopeless petitions to the Permanence Angel would bounce off the fiberglass tile ceilings.
My hope of going permanent - terminated.
I noticed the Termination Sight a week ago after I missed a meeting. I thought I got that memo. Nelma, my workflow coordinator intentionally didn’t give it to me. She told me many times I wasn’t a ‘producer.’
During afternoon break I went down to the cafe to get a latte. On the elevator, I noticed my reflection on the shiny metal doors which showed a very worried man, but there was something a little off. My brow was creased, but riding in a small crevice was a laser red, pea sized dot. I rubbed at it but it didn’t come off. I looked like the point of a laser pointer, but how could someone aim in an enclosed car? I stood closer, and then the elevator stopped at the second floor. The doors parted and a white shirted man looked at me, and then staggered backward two steps, eyes fixed on the red dot. “I’ll take the next one,” he gasped and staggered backward.
I returned to my cubicle. Roy had his headphones on, so I went up to him and asked, “Hey, do you see anything on my forehead?”
He looked with bulbous eyes and slowly dragged the headphones to his neck. “I knew you were in the shithouse, but I didn’t think you were going to stay.”
He rolled his chair toward me, but not too close. “You’ve heard of the Permanence Angel?”
"Yes," I said. Everyone prayed to them
"They’re easily offended. And if you really screw up they can pass final judgment. You, poor bastard, have the Termination Sight. They’ve dispatched the Supervisory Sniper. Soon he’ll pull the trigger. I can’t be near you, I have a five month old daughter. You’re on your own." He rolled back to his desk.
"But do I die?" I begged.
"Temps don’t die. They are only rendered inactive."
Inactivity - the worst fate. That meant you dwelled forever at home, or a ghost of your home, circling the phone which will never ring for you. There is an homeless man who lingers around the dumpsters, jabbering into a dead cell phone. “I can type 10,000 keystrokes per millisecond,” he says over and over before wandering into traffic one day. Will that be me?
NelmaI spent the day watching myself in the monitor and when I was bored, I got up to get coffee. When I came back and checked my email, I got a message that had no reply-to address, no addressee. It said two words – Casual Friday. I’ve been warned, but now I knew when. It was Wednesday. It would make sense, a nice closure to my final week of employment.
I pretty much fucked off the next two days. I borrowed one of Roy’s fantasy novels without asking, and he didn’t have the nerve to ask for it back. I told my fiancé about my impending termination. She locked herself in her room for four hours blubbering on the phone to an old Sorority sister about what a loser I was and how she could do better.
The morning of Casual Friday, I dressed in my dark blue interview suit and shined my shoes licorice black. I dabbed on the last two drops of the good cologne, and reported to work ten minutes early. Of course with no work to do I lingered in my cubicle, my ears hot with the rumors and waited. Roy worked at his desk, but I had noticed a glow around his head and noticed cloudlets of colors the others’ heads. I’ve heard about condemned criminals, knowing their death is near, seeing angels and ghosts, even devils. Perhaps it was a glimpse of what awaited them, to console them in the last painful moment.
Roy’s head shone with the Permanence halo. There would be health insurance for his infant daughter and wife, a livable salary, perhaps even a long future with the company. I was happy for him. Like a dark cloudburst another deity floated above all this, the Unseen Supervisor who dispatched the Permanence Angel and the Termination Sight. Yet, fierce red, the Termination Sight quivered on Nelma’s head. She was next, but I’d gather all management had this sight to keep them in line. A dark form detached from the Unseen Supervisor, a rifle in his hands. I dodged under the desk and pulled the chair to block him. I breathed my last breaths as a wage earner. Then the rifles bore pointed at Nelma and I heard something hot whizz by me.
A security guard and one of the other managers approached her desk with a legal sized box.
Someday, but not today. As I watched Nelma un-tack the photos of her two disabled children from her cubicle wall, I sipped coffee. Sometimes, you get a reprieve or the Unseen Supervisor chooses another victim. Maybe the Permanence Angel petitioned to give me a second chance. I no longer cared.
Here’s a fructose sweetened, tooth decaying delight for all my readers. “Hand Delivered” is one of the stories included in my ebook Farting in Church, only $.99 for Amazon Kindle or eBook, PDF and other formats. I swear, the following story is 100% true.
The latest book is three quarters complete. I’m now on the rope bridge over the chasm, where it’s either make it to the other side or plunge. This is always the scariest part of the story, where the main event is imminent.
I’m now as nervous as my protagonist as expectations have been raised and a guywire tension has been built. I assure myself that it’s only the first draft and I’ll end up chucking the ending or climax or even remodel the whole lot into a script about a motocross racer who competes in the Tour de France while battling hemorrhoids.
My chest bulges with pride as I declare I’m among the winners of The TerribleMinds Flash Fiction Challenge: The Bullies and the Bullied. My prize is Chuck Wendig’s Shotgun Gravy which I’m eager to read. I’ve been a fan of his site and his Top 25 lists. His weekly Flash Fiction Challenges are a welcome break from the writing regimen.
From what I know of it, it’s about a teenage girl, Atlanta Burns, who’s answer to bulling begins with a shotgun chuck and the setting is Atlanta. Some of you who know me personally know I get irritated with novels set in New York City, because that’s where all the interesting stuff happens, y’ know. Everywhere else is just cow-tippers, Mega Wal Marts and pyres of flaming biology textbooks. Since the publishing industry is NYC centric, the Big Apple often becomes the setting. If you look at most popular media and especially many critically acclaimed novels of late, they are set in one place. It doesn’t help that most TV and film writers come from the Northeast.
I’ve always championed Flyover states in media. My town of Atlanta is becoming a major location for TV and movies, especially The Walking Dead series. The characters don’t bury the setting, but make it know they’re grits-eating, Waffle House loitering, gridlocked in the 285 loop Atlantans running from undead former Chick-fil-A cashiers, Alpharetta Stay-at-Home-Mom Mafioso and Megachruch deacons.
Hail Atlanta! Back to the writing.
Peccavi! (I have sinned in Latin). I missed last week’s TerribleMinds flash fiction challenge due to unscheduled car issues. Instead of spending thousands on an elderly truck that’s breathing its last, I found the ultimate workaround - buy a new car. I spent the weekend shopping for a new car (payment), and playing haggler’s judo with salesmen. Finally, I found an acceptable car for the right price, okay mileage and payment terms that will only force me to eat domestic baloney.
I’ll blog about the old Madza Truck that I left behind, the vehicle that transported me through five states, two long-term relationships, a marriage, poverty, property, misery, happiness, incarceration and freedom.
Now for my latest contribution to the Terrible Minds Friday Flash Fiction Challenge. Paint your wagon, or else.
And when they ran out of Florals, they turned on the Stripes.
“Paint faster,” Annie said to Frank, face flecked with beige paint.
A Neighborhood Association airship sailed overhead. “One tone good. Two tones bad,” barked its loudspeaker.
“Have to do this right,” Frank said as he painted over the last stripe.
Annie peeked through the curtain and flinched back. The NA Enforcers beat the Millers on their lawn, threw strips of blue stripped wallpaper on them, and set it afire. The Enforcers turned toward their home.
“Done,” Frank said, inspecting the solid beige walls.
“Please pass,” she pleaded.
The Wendig has commissioned me to create an abomination, a sty in the creators eye, a monster. Below is the result.
The Keeper showed his badge to the Police Sargent who waved him through. He ducked under the police tape and crossed the sidewalk, stepping over torn bodies, severed parts. A swat team squatted behind a steel barricade and pointed their rifles at the nightclub’s entrance. Ambulances and coroners waited in the wings to collect and match up the pieces once the Keeper pacified the situation.
The Keeper stepped inside the club. The mirrorball spun, casting nicks of light around the bloodied dancefloor. The music had stopped, only silence.
The Keeper recognized the Mangoose as Riki. Riki hunched at the bar, drinking from a bottle of Bushmills. The Keeper hoped it’s rage had subdued. “Riki, what happened?” the Keeper asked.
Riki killed the last of the Bushmills and turned around. Riki flexed on his haunches, his claws flicked open, slick with blood. His face looked mostly human, but his long muzzle, ending with a black nose, gave away what his mongoose features. He wore a pair of specially fitted chinos and a silky purple shirt, opened at the chest to expose rich brown fur. He whined at the sight of the Keeper, bowed his head remorsefully.
“Sorry, boss. I wanted to repay the generosity and kindness humans have paid to me.” He motioned toward the bodies littering the floor. “See how generous I am?”
The Keeper pulled a collar out of his backpack. Riki winced at its sight. “No, they’ll put me down? I’m sorry. They pulled my fur and the bartender threw a drink on the ground and said lick it up. I tried to be obedient. I did. But they wouldn’t stop.”
“I promise you. It doesn’t hurt, but if you run, the police will hurt you first.”
Riki let out a howl and sobbed. “You should’ve just put us all down. You don’t need us. The serpents do not invade the city anymore. Did you really think people would accept us?”
It was a mistake, the Keeper thought. The serpents, snake like beings who dwelled in the sewers and the drain pipes, arrived when their home in the Red Forest was deforested. Without their regular fare of mammalian prey, they moved to the cities. People complained of their pets suddenly disappearing. Then, their children went missing.
The Magistracy ordered the creation of the Mangoose to rout the serpents. Their thin bodies and resistance to venom made the ideal serpent hunters. Their human minds made them suggestible, mostly obedient. With the serpents gone, they were no longer needed. Some had integrated well within the human community, contracting themselves out as bodyguards and household protectors. Others, like Riki, tried too hard to fit in.
“If you want, I can give you the shot, and you can do it yourself. It would be honorable,” the Keeper said.
“Suicide? You insult me. So you want me to take a human way out?” Riki hissed, expanded his chest, ready to charge.
The Keeper unshouldered his 40 caliber rifle and aimed at the charging Mangoose. He fired off one shot and Riki swerved his body to the right, crouched then leapt over him. Riki kept running toward the door.
Automatic rifle bursts popped for far too long. The Keeper walked toward the exit and stopped when he smelled blood. However, he recognized it as human blood. Two SWAT members were draped on the barricade, throats spewing blood. Policemen and SWAT team members scurried around, looking in all directions.
“Where did he go?” the Sargent raged. “Find it. Kill it. Bring its pelt to me.”
The Keeper found a policeman cowering on the ground and pulled him up. “What happened?”
“It…it just tore through everybody and ran down the alleyway. That way. I think.”
The Keeper charged toward the alleyway, but realized he had made a fatal mistake. He could be ambushed. “Riki. Running will not make this easier. They won’t stop looking for you.”
He heard the clank of metal, and crept toward the sound’s source. A storm grate lay in the middle of a narrow street. The Keeper inspected it and heard a hiss steam from it. The Mangoose had gone underground. He would need more Keepers and better weapons to launch a subterranean assault.
The Keeper reported back to the Sargent. “You did your job. Perhaps this is the opportunity to unveil our latest weapon. Not all of the serpents were killed. The Magisatracy kept a few for study. ”
“Bastards. You didn’t.” the Keeper said.
“We did. He’s much bigger and better matched against the ManGoose Your new partner will be waiting for you at the station. You might want to stop by the pet store and pickup a snack for him.”
The Keeper unpinned the badge from his chest and unbuckled his utility belt and let it drop to the ground.
“Find another. I quit.”