Monday, August 14, 2017

Again

This week’s 5 to 50/55 challenge. Prompt words below.

Emma traced the edge of a puffy cloud with a lavender tipped finger. The cloud had a peculiar shape. Like her love life. Her most recent attempt had ended in an expected climax. Her. Alone. Frustrated. Again. At a hotel. On a beach that most people appeared to avoid. Maybe they'd been dumped there, too. (55 words)

Prompt words: trace, lavender, peculiar, climax, hotel

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Family Affair

Jabari gazed down from the balcony of his mountaintop lab into the Valley of Death, so named because of the infestation of mutated zoysia grass that had choked out all the other vegetation in its path. Experts assumed the invader had hitched a ride on a supply ship carrying refugees from the Hektor agri-colony. The President had attempted to stop the migration to Earth, but the courts determined it was inhumane to keep the residents adrift in space for an indefinite time. Jabari had been assigned the task of stopping the intrusive growth before it choked the life out of Earth.

 "Is it working this time?"

Jabari responded to his sister Cara's question without turning around. "I'm afraid not. In fact, it appears to be spreading faster." After a deep breath he faced her, concern and confusion on his face. He shook his head and walked to his glass topped desk. "All of the lab results were positive. The spraying should have stifled the continuing encroachment."

"You'll figure it out," Cara said.

"I better, or else. . ." He put his elbows on the desk and rested his forehead in his hands. "People are losing faith in my ability to do the job."

Cara moved closer and gave her brother a hug. "It's okay. Everyone is scared and frustrated and has a need to take their frustrations out on someone." She stepped back, holding his hands. "Hey, you knew what you were facing when you accepted the job. You love a challenge." She smiled and hugged him again.

"You're right," Jabari replied. He pointed toward the folder in her hand. "Have you walked through the plant yet today?"

Cara, besides being Jabari's sister, was the Chief Operating Officer for the company and a damn fine one as far as Jabari was concerned. She walked the plant at least one day a week on a random schedule she only shared with her brother to see how things were going. Sometimes Jabari accompanied her.

"I just finished." She opened the notebook. "Security broke up a fight between two low level lab assistants and found a small packet of drugs on one. The fight was a disagreement over the price of the dope, according to another employee. I had security escort both gentleman out of the building and told them we'd send them their personal things in a few days." Cara looked at Jabari. "I hate letting people go, but this work is too important."

"The stress is getting to everyone. Still, you did the right thing. We can't allow rampant drug use. We all need clear minds." He reached for a pack of cigarettes perched on one corner of his desk. Cara frowned.

"I know. I know. I said I'd quit," Jabari said. "I'm working on it." Instead of retrieving a cigarette, he pushed the pack away. "Anything else?"

"No. How about you? Something is bothering you that you're not sharing. I can tell."

Jabari moved to a chair next to the fireplace and pointed Cara to another.

"I have this feeling I can't shake that someone else is controlling things here. I have no proof, nor any idea who or why. It's just a thought that keeps niggling at me." He stared at his sister. "Am I going crazy?"

"No. No." Cara shifted in her chair and leaned back. "You're under so much pressure, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me you were seeing ghosts." Cara laughed. "Or aliens even." She laughed again.

"It's funny you should mention aliens. That thought has crossed my mind. In fact, I think you may be right."

"O come on, Jabari. You know there's no such thing."

"There aren't?" Jabari leaned forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, his hands crossed between his legs. "You didn't think I'd notice, but you changed a few months ago, Sis, or whoever you are. At first, I  thought it was like you said--stress--but ever since our first successful attempt at slowing the intruder, things changed. You disappear for long periods. Business lunches, you say. But with whom?" Jabari paused, waiting for Cara to reply. When she didn't, he continued.

"Then there were certain looks that seemed odd to me. Looks of confusion about things you knew as well as I. One day you came into my office and your sweater was buttoned crooked. You would never make a mistake like that. You always double and triple checked your appearance before going anywhere. Still, I couldn't be certain until I followed you to one of your 'lunches.'" Jabari sat up. "Was it plain water you put into the crop duster's tanks?"

Cara shifted in her chair and put both feet on the floor. Her eyes appeared to glow.

"I don't know if I can kill the alien who has taken you over," Jabari continued, "or if you'll survive, but I have to try."

With that, Cara launched herself and grabbed Jabari's neck, her long fingernails piercing the skin. Jabari grabbed her wrists but was unable to dislodge them. He felt blood oozing down his neck. The alien's thumbs pressed on Jabari's windpipe causing Jabari to gasp for air. In desperation, Jabari let go of Cara's left wrist and jammed a finger into the attacker's eye. Cara emitted a low, hollow roar and fell to the floor. Jabari sensed another movement in the room and thought he saw a cloud-like figure escape through the glass as he reached down for his sister.

Cara opened her eyes, a muddled look on her face. She tried to speak, but Jabari placed a finger on her lips. "You rest," he said. "I'll explain everything later. In the meantime, I need to schedule an additional spraying and then figure out how to prepare for another alien attack."

Sunday, June 4, 2017

His Last Visit

 Marcus stood behind the large oak tree in his parents' backyard wearing his usual black jacket, dark jeans, and brown work boots. A knit New York Giants cap protected his head from the cold drizzle. Light from the living room window of the single-story home sparkled on the damp lawn.

His mother sat in her chair rocking back and forth to some unheard music. Perhaps a Strauss waltz, he mused. They were her favorites. The glass fireplace cover reflected Jeopardy playing on the TV. Marcus remembered watching the game show with her. When he was younger, he would often sit on her lap. Later, he played games on his iPad or read the newest book in the AltLit Zombie Series. Her hands were out of view; but Marcus knew she was knitting something for the church bizarre, a duty she performed every year for as long as Marcus could remember. He missed sitting with her. He missed her laugh. He missed her fist pump paired with a hissing "yesss" when she got the answer to Final Jeopardy. He wanted to tell her what had happened, how he'd become one of them. He couldn't though. It was dangerous to be near her--dangerous for her, not him.

He thought back to his twenty-first birthday party. Zane challenged him to a drinking contest. Marcus agreed. He'd never heard of a drink called a Zombie, had no idea what was in it, nor what effect it would have on him. He felt wobbly after the first drink. Yet, when Zane offered a second, Marcus drank it down. The next thing he remembered was waking in Zane's apartment with a killer headache and no recollection of how he got there. Marcus didn't learn until later that Zane had spiked his drink and stolen his soul. Now, he would spend the rest of his natural life, and beyond, complying with Zane's orders.

Marcus' eyes focused back on his mother. He couldn't imagine how hard the last eight months had been on her. First, her only child disappeared. Then, unable to deal with losing his son, her husband drank himself into a stupor and drove off the road at Crist's Pass plunging to his death. Marcus wanted to hold her, to tell her how much he loved her, to sit with her again and watch Jeopardy. Most of all, he wanted her to be happy.

Marcus glanced up and saw the moon peek through a break in the clouds. It was time to leave. His visits had become shorter and shorter, as he found it harder and harder to resist the draw of a mother's love. Marcus stepped away from the tree toward the woods that provided a barrier along the back of the house. He needed to return before Zane came looking for him. He hadn't told Zane about his fortnightly visits to see his mom. Marcus knew how jealous his master was and feared what might happen to her if Zane found out. Marcus hunched his shoulders against the rain and bowed his head. He swallowed hard and struggled to keep his composure. He repeated Zanes' admonition, as he disappeared into the pines and spruces and oaks. Zombies don't cry.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Lost

First appeared at CommuterLit.

The shadow of your smile when you are gone. Janelle continued singing the song. Her audience--a few sitting at tables, heads down, perhaps asleep; others walking the halls talking to themselves--appeared bored. One gentleman dressed in pajama bottoms and a Yankees t-shirt read from the bible and yelled "Amen" in random outbursts. Janelle ignored them all and strummed her fingers up and down, her left hand playing the chords on a make-believe guitar.

For years, she sang the song a second time to the rhythm of a tango, making the context more hopeful, as if the absence was temporary. She didn't today. It wasn't appropriate. She paused and tried to remember why.

A chair alarm chimed when a member of her audience stood, bringing Janelle back to the present. She sang louder, felt her stomach tense up. She wanted to scream for everybody to hush and let her finish. Imbeciles.

After the song ended, she looked around. This wasn't the type of place where she usually performed, she mused, not with the beige walls and bright lights on all the time. She was used to darker rooms with couples in various stages of intimacy snuggled in booths kissing and fondling each other, or sitting at cozy tables holding hands, or perched on barstools simply getting to know one another.

She'd lost track of how many sets she'd performed and how many times she'd played this song. By the reaction of her audience, most likely too many.

Janelle watched a tall black woman with short, blonde hair split on one side by a purple streak and dressed in a navy blue pantsuit come toward her, maybe to tell her she was singing too loud. Janelle lowered her head, willing the woman to walk past.

"Hi, Miss Janelle. That sure is a pretty song you're singing for us. Just like always."

"Thank you," Janelle said. She stared at the white rectangle pinned to the woman's blouse. The top line read "Allen Mental Health Spa." The woman's last name was Wilson. Janelle couldn't pronounce the first name. Underneath that was CNA. She gazed into the woman's eyes. "Do you think the others liked it?"

"I'm sure they did." The woman helped Janelle stand. "It's time to go to your room and check to see if you need a bathroom break. Shall we put your guitar on the piano?"

Janelle pulled her hands away."No. Someone will steal it. I can't leave it here by itself."

"Okay, Hon. How about if I carry it for you?"

After a pause, Janelle said, "I guess that is okay."

"Can you walk for me today, Sweetie?"

"Sure," Janelle said and shuffled down the hall. She stopped and turned her head. "Do you think Carol will come see me today?"

"Oh, Honey. You still don't remember the plane crash."

"Plane crash?" Concern etched itself on Janelle's face. "Is everyone okay?"

"I'm afraid not," the woman replied. "But like the doctor said, it wasn't your fault."

"Not my fault."

"That's right. You got snowed in on your vacation."

"I remember. Too much snow." Janelle stared out the window as a robin landed on a grassy part of the enclosed courtyard. "I hope they found another flight attendant to help Carol out."

"Yes, they did," the aide said.

"Good. It's too much work for one person." Janelle watched the robin strut around and peck at the grass. He snatched a worm and held it in his beak. "She's my best friend, you know. We've been roommates forever." Janelle resumed walking and didn't say any more. She closed her eyes, looked for a face, Carol's face. The screams made it hard for her to concentrate. Just as Janelle was about to join in, the voices stopped. An eerie silence followed and then that song again. The shadow of your smile when you are gone.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

If At First. . .

First published at Aphelion.

Evelyn saw him enter the restaurant from the table where she sat and somehow knew it was her next first date. There had been six since she started dating again after a five year hiatus following college to concentrate on her career as a market analyst. None had led to a second. She hoped number seven might be different but hadn't been able to dispel her fear he wouldn't.

He wore tan Dockers, a pastel green shirt, brown loafers, and brown socks with yellow stripes. She wondered if this was the way he normally dressed, or if he was showing off for her. She imagined him in a gym wearing shorts and a muscle shirt and felt a twinge deep within her. She inhaled a deep breath and blew it out. Her initial trepidation lingered.

He smiled and spoke to the hostess. The young woman in a short dress and cowboy boots pointed in Evelyn's direction and led him to the table for two.

Evelyn smoothed her skirt, mostly to wipe her sweaty palms. After first date number three led nowhere, she took another break from dating to lose thirty pounds and have plastic surgery to tighten loose skin on her face, throat, and belly. She also started a three-times-a-week workout regimen.

She stared at her iPhone, acting like she hadn't seen him yet. When he arrived at the table, she smiled and leaned forward to shake his hand--and provide him a better view of her breasts.

He introduced himself as Franklin. She looked him over and decided the name was an alias, just like in those crime novels she liked. Not that that bothered her, since her name wasn't Evelyn. The local paper classifieds weren't picky about names.

Besides having been overweight and plain-looking, Evelyn wasn't much of a conversationalist. She spent time at home practicing with her cat, but it wasn't the same. She stumbled along, letting Franklin do most of the talking, until she'd finished her second glass of Riesling. Then she relaxed and let herself go a little. She felt the rest of the date went well and hoped Franklin did, too. He appeared to be enjoying himself.

She declined dessert, but said he should feel free to have something. "I'll pass, too. Gotta watch the old waistline," he said and asked the waitress for the check.

Outside, Evelyn felt uncomfortable, not sure what to do next. She clutched the strap of her purse, cleared her throat, and asked if he would like to have dinner again. He lowered his eyes for a few seconds, as if in prayer, and said he didn't think so. "You're nice, and all, but not what I'm looking for."

Evelyn felt her heart sink and her stomach knot, just like every other date. He asked if he could walk her to her car. She thanked him for offering, and the two headed toward the garage on the corner of 8th and Grand.

As they approached her car, Evelyn listened for the sounds of other people. Not hearing anything, she bent over, lifted the hand holding her purse to her stomach, and groaned. Franklin didn't see her reach into her purse, nor did he see the utility knife in her hand when she rose. He barely felt the blade slash his carotid after she spun him so his blood wouldn't spatter her dress. He didn't feel his blood flow onto the concrete floor, nor smell the odor when his bowels emptied.

Evelyn watched first date number seven die, rage covering her face. She knelt next to his body, hiked up her dress, and rubbed the three scars on her right inner thigh she thought of as notches. "All you had to do was say yes to a second date, you slimeball."

She wiped the knife on a cloth napkin she'd put in her purse at the restaurant and tossed the bloody material under the car to her right. She placed the point of the blade on her thigh next to the scar closest to her knee and sliced a fourth, shallow two-inch gash. Blood pooled on her skin and dripped to the floor mixing with date number seven's. She pulled an ace bandage from her purse and wrapped it around her leg.

Evelyn crossed herself before standing, then headed toward the entrance at the opposite end of the building. She wasn't concerned about video surveillance. According to a recent article in the online version of the local newspaper, this place was the oldest parking facility in the city and had yet to be retrofitted with cameras. She dropped the knife in a trash barrel and headed north to the lot where her rental car was parked. She didn't care about leaving prints or DNA. She wasn't in any police database. She only cared about finding first date number eight--and catching her 9:30 flight.