FFF 03: Together

Ashur headed out the door of the flower shop with a bouquet of relatively inexpensive flowers, the door chime ringing behind him as he exited. He turned the flowers over in his hand, inspecting them one last time before he entered the subway and lost the natural light. No roses, no lilies, no orchids; just daisies, carnations, and baby’s breath. He sighed, but it would have to do. They weren’t eating caviar off golden plates just yet, after all, and though he wanted to spoil his wife Mulli, they weren’t making enough money together (much less making enough separately) to justify his spending absolutely more than he needed to on flowers, a luxury in and of themselves.

On the train, Ashur held the plastic-wrapped bouquet under one arm and juggled the rest of his things with gloved, clumsy hands. He tried to avoid swiping other subway passengers with the blooms when he turned, but it was practically impossible in the lunch rush hour. He hoped to get to Mulli’s work in time to surprise her with flowers and lunch, but every time he looked at his watch it seemed like only a minute or two had passed.

When the train finally pulled into his stop, he pushed through the huddled masses and onto the above-ground platform, taking care not to ruin the bouquet more than it already had been. The icy cold air hit him directly in the face, and he had to stop to catch his breath before continuing down the platform stairs into the din of the city below.

He had crossed three streets, jumping over slush piles and narrowly avoiding stepping in yellow snow, when he finally reached the unassuming office building where his wife worked. It was kind of squatty, he decided, since the building was framed on every side (except the side facing the street) by apartment buildings much taller than its short three stories. He smiled as he walked up the brownstone steps, remembering one time Mulli had half-jokingly complained that her commute was too far and that they should move into one of the apartments adjacent to her work.

Pulling open the first door into the building, Ashur kicked his boots against the rough wall to knock off any lingering snow so that he wouldn’t track it inside. Making sure the first door was closed to avoid a gust of wind, he pulled open the second door and stepped into the warm waiting area where the doctors’ clients sat before they were called for their respective appointments.

The receptionist looked up from her work at the front desk with a retail-flavored smile. “Hello! What can I do for—” Her smile faded into confusion. “Hi, Ashur,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Here to see Mulli, of course,” he replied. He held up the drooping flowers and makeshift picnic basket full of food he’d lugged with him through the city’s transit system. “I brought lunch. Do you know when she’s having her break today?”

“Mulli?” the receptionist asked. “Why?”

Ashur lowered the food basket to his side again and set the flowers on the front desk’s counter. “I brought her lunch,” he repeated, frowning. “Is she back there with a client?” He leaned over the desk to see into the hallway that led to the private rooms where the doctors and nurses worked.

The receptionist shook her head, still somewhat confused. “I’m sorry, Ashur, but Mulli doesn’t work here anymore. She hasn’t worked here in more than a month.”

“What do you mean?” he asked. “She left this morning like usual. She hasn’t said anything about not working here.”

“She had a fight with one of the doctors about a client’s care, and when the doctor pulled seniority, she stormed out. We haven’t seen her since. Didn’t she tell you?”

Ashur stepped back, even more confused than the woman in front of him. Mulli had been in a fight? Mulli had been in a fight? She was demanding and difficult to please professionally, but she had never once so much as snapped at another coworker—doctor, nurse, or anyone else.

Scratching the back of his head, he swiped up the flowers again and backed into the entryway. “Oops! I just remembered she mentioned it before, and I was just on autopilot getting here.” He was out the door before the receptionist could finish asking him to let them know what had happened, and it was likely he’d pretend he hadn’t heard her request.

Mulli: missing. Ashur stood on the sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs and looked down the street one way and then the other. He thought for a moment and set off purposefully toward the park a few blocks away.

He found her sitting under a pine tree making little mountains in the snow with her booted feet. He sat down next to her, gingerly wiping some of the snow away so that he wouldn’t end up with his pants soaked. “I brought you flowers,” he said.

She didn’t look at him but leaned against his shoulder, the last vestiges of tearful shaking working its way through her body. “Want to tell me what happened?” Ashur prompted after a moment. She shook her head. “Did it have to do with a client?” She nodded against his coat.

He pulled her closer to him and wrapped one arm around her, the flowers and basket of food temporarily forgotten beside him. “Have you been looking for a new job this entire time?” She nodded again, and he could hear the strangled sob even through the coat’s layers where she’d buried her face. “Are you worried about the money?” he asked quietly. She nodded once and refused to lift her head to look at him.

“We’ll make it through, Mullissu,” he said, using her full name to catch her attention and bring her back from the catastrophizing her brain had surely worked itself into. She stilled against his chest, and he wrapped both arms around her more fully. “We’ll figure it out together, okay? I’ve got you; I won’t let you fall.”

———
This post is part of Flash Fiction February.

FFF 02: Sharing

“Oh, good Lord; look who just walked in,” Sandy said, nudging her older brother Julian in the ribs. Turning away from his conversation, he half-glanced in the direction of the doorway, stopped, and looked again.

He whistled appreciatively, low enough in his vocal range that only those in very close proximity could hear him.

“Stop being sexist, asshole,” Sandy grumbled.

“It’s not like you’re not thinking it, jerkwad,” Julian returned easily.

Sandy couldn’t argue with that, she supposed, but at least she kept her hedonistic tendencies inside. Usually.

“In fact,” Julian continued, turning away from his former conversation with a nod of the head, “I know what you are thinking.”

“Oh, do you.”

“Yes. And you know I know.” He leaned in close and rested a hand at the small of her back, causing her to shiver despite the party’s heat.

She kept her eyes on the young woman across the room who’d just arrived, but Sandy caught her breath when Julian’s hand moved lower between her body and the wall where they leaned.

“Cut it out,” she hissed.

“Aww, such a cocktease,” Julian said lightly, but he withdrew his hand and kissed her head as though their relationship was nothing more than familial.

She looked up at him. “Are you going to talk to her, or shall I?” She nodded toward the woman in heels and a low-cut shirt.

Julian pondered for a moment. “Same goal as always?” he asked.

“Of course,” Sandy answered, almost incredulous that he even bother asking.

“Does she look lesbian or bi-curious or straight to you?”

Sandy studied the woman for a moment. “Everyone is bi-curious in the right situation,” she finally replied.

Julian grinned. “I like the way you think.”

“I know you do, asshole.” She paused. “You go ahead. I’ll break in if it looks like you’re losing her.”

“What? Me?” Julian asked in mock innocence.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sandy said, pushing him forward into the throng of party-goers between them and the woman across the room, who was obviously looking for a way out of chatting with a man twice her age.

Julian tipped his imaginary hat to Sandy before slowly making his way over to begin rescuing the damsel in distress.

For her part, Sandy hung back and watched as the woman’s face washed over with relief when Julian cut into the one-sided conversation she and the older man were having. With the creeper out of the way, he began to work his magic, and his sister leaned against the wall nursing her drink, waiting for his signal.

She smiled a half-secret smile. They were ready to bring another person into their ménage.

———
This post is part of Flash Fiction February.

FFF 01: Horror

I leaned back in my chair, unable to continue for the moment. The sound of my own typing was getting to me, I decided, and I pushed back to stretch and grab a glass of water from the kitchen. The glass was cool to the touch, and the water did nothing to change that. I poured straight from the sink tap and sipped a little while leaning against the kitchen counter. Gazing across the island, I could see the many story collections and novels I’d had published, all aligned neatly on the second shelf in order of publication date.

Stepping over the pile of dirty laundry on the floor, I thought again how I should really wash those sometime, but I dismissed the thought shortly after. Moving over to the book case, I ran my hand over the dusty spines of the books I’d filled with page after page of horror, blood, and tragedy. None of my stories ever started out well, and they almost never ended well, either. After each publication, I put a novel or collection on the shelf and rarely looked at it again.

Why was this story giving me so much trouble? It was just as dark as the rest, and I’d justified its imagery and twisted nature by telling myself that at least I wasn’t doing the things I wrote about, but only writing about them. There was something missing, though; I just couldn’t yet put my finger on what.

I set the glass down for a moment when I heard a dull thump from the floor below. Frowning, I absently wiped the dust from the second shelf and moved to the top of the stairs, where the pile of dirty laundry sat mouldering. I leaned over the steps and held tightly to the railing, willing myself not to fall down the stairs. What a disaster that would be.

“Hey!” I called down to the floor below. “Hey! Everything okay down there?”

I heard another thump and some shuffling, and then it was quiet again. I stood still at the top of the steps for a moment, trying to decide if I should go down to investigate or not.

“Jamie!” I called, finally heading down the steps. “That better not be you down there messing around!”

When I reached the first floor, I groaned when I saw Jamie lugging something heavy wrapped in tarp across the concrete floor. “Seriously?” I asked, coming forward despite myself to help him. I heaved the bundle up on one end and he heaved it up on the other, and we carried it through the first floor of the house to the backyard.

When we finally dumped the bundle on the wet ground, Jamie said, “Thanks. I was having trouble getting it over the thresholds.”

I eyed the bundle, nudging it with one foot. “And what’s so special about this one that you had to bring it through the house in the first place?”

Jamie pouted, looking contrite. “I’m not finished with it yet.”

I frowned. “What did I say about bringing your projects home?”

“I know, I know; I just—”

“Telling me about your work isn’t the same thing as bringing your work home with you, you know. I know you love what you do, but honestly—”

“This one’s different!” he sputtered, his voice rising a little.

“Just like all the ‘different’ ones before?” I snapped back. “I have an entire shelf of your work upstairs; do you still really think I need firsthand experience to get the right feel?”

“It’s different when you do the work yourself.”

I rubbed my face with the palm of my hand. We’d had this argument multiple times, and Jamie had always prevailed thus far. He was right; it was a lot easier to write the stories when I did the work myself.

It was Jamie’s passion, of course, and my passion was writing about it, but he had convinced me over the course of several years that I could do similar work, too, and it would be just as compelling for the readers afterward.

I stepped forward over the bundle between us. “I love you, you know?”

His mouth quirked into a half grin. “I know,” he said. He kissed me lightly on the lips, and I moved to one side.

“All right,” I said, glancing around us as though we still lived in an area where neighbors could peek over our fence and see what we were doing. That hadn’t been true for at least a couple years. Out here in the country, there was no one to see anyone else. “Show me what you’ve brought me.”

He kneeled down and began unwrapping the tarp. In my mind, the rest of the story I’d been writing began to come into focus.

———
This post is part of Flash Fiction February.

Unreliable Narrator

I’m in the process of editing pieces for an anthology that I’m putting together with a group of other writers and editors in the Los Angeles area, and one of my accepted submissions has an author who is struggling with unreliable narrator, which is a requirement for this anthology. (More on the anthology itself in a future post, I promise.)

Hi,
I am having a lot of difficulty making the narrator more unreliable. Do you have any suggestions? I am really struggling with this, it is my first time going through this process.
Thanks,
Ted

I wrote him a note and then thought it could be useful to share my answer here, too.

Ted,

Honestly, I have had a lot of trouble writing unreliable narrators, too, so don’t be discouraged. The easiest way to make a narrator unreliable is do one of three things:

1. make him/her too young to really understand what’s going on (Huckleberry Finn and, in the case of mental youngness, Flowers for Algernon)

2. have him/her purposefully lie or not tell whole truth (The Usual Suspects and, because it had multiple conflicting narrations, Rashomon), but make it apparent to the reader that your narrator is lying

3. give the narrator a physical problem that affects his/her memory or brain (Memento and Fight Club)

A word of caution on the last one, though: having an insane and/or mentally ill narrator (or character, for that matter) does not automatically make him/her unreliable. In real life, mentally ill people tend to tell the truth more often because they know they’re unlikely to be believed anyway, and that in itself is enough of a hurdle.

Even though I dislike “it was all a dream” narratives, they’re not implicitly unreliable, either, because the narrator is telling you the story in good faith. S/he would be unreliable, however, if s/he knew it was a dream and presented it as fact anyway. The point is that, usually, in the context of the dream itself, the narration is true. Likewise, high fantasy stories (The Lord of the Rings and the King Arthur legends) are not usually unreliable because the narrators tell the truth in the context of the story. That is to say, the stories are internally consistent.

The way to make a narrator unreliable is to make what surrounds them (what’s actually happening) and what they’re saying surrounds them (what they’re saying is happening) internally inconsistent.

I hope this helps. If you need more specific suggestions, let me know.

Sincerely,
Viannah

A lot of writers have trouble with unreliable narrators (and unreliable characters more generally speaking), so I hope this helps some of you who want to tackle the unknown in your writing.

FFF 28: Sign

“What’s the difference between decompose and decompress?”

“Get in the car.”

“Not until you explain it to me.”

“How ’bout you get in the car and I’ll explain on the way?”

“It’s important.”

“We’re in a hurry. We don’t have time to chat about words.”

“This isn’t a chat; it’s important.”

“Get in the car. Now.”

“No; I need to know.”

“Why?”

“There’s a sign back there that says something about decomposing, but the way it was written, I think they meant decompressing. Well, I hope they meant decompressing.”

“And if we keep going…”

“We might have to turn around anyway, if the sign said what I think it said.”

———
This post is part of Flash Fiction February.

FFF 27: Barn

The barn was dank and warm; the hay in the loft smelled like it was molding, but Jane couldn’t be sure. She looked around carefully, holding his makeshift weapon down at her side. Thinking again of her unconscious brother back at the hospital, she resolved to find those bastards and make them pay. Didn’t matter if the bullies were 12 years old, she was going to bash their kneecaps in for what they’d done to Dale.

“I told you I wasn’t going to put up with you harassing my brother,” she called out loudly, the barn soaking up much of the sound and making it seem like her voice was smaller than she imagined it. She heard rustling behind her, and she turned on her heel to find the culprit. There was a crow sitting at the barn door looking at her, it’s head cocked to one side like it was trying to figure out what she was doing there.

“You gotta problem, bird?” she asked, holding up the broken tree branch and pushing it forward in an effort to scare the crow off. It hopped back to avoid being hit with the branch but didn’t fly away as she expected it would.

“I have no fight with you, bird,” Jane said. “I’m here for the guys who put my brother in the hospital. Get outta here.” The crow cocked its head the other way but made no other movement.

“Ugh,” she said, scratching the back of her head. There was a strange whistle sound coming from the end of the barn opposite the door, and her eyes moved from the crow, scanning every minute detail. It was too dark too see much, but she wasn’t about to be scared off by unidentifiable sounds, so she marched straight toward the other end of the barn into the growing darkness and musk.

“Come out here and fight me!” she called into the moldy darkness. No one responded, but the whistling grew louder and louder until she had to cover her ears, pressing her palms tight against either side of her head.

Jane screamed, but she couldn’t hear her own voice. The crow was long gone. She didn’t know if she could take much more, and then she tripped and fell into a pile of rotting blankets and hay. When she looked back toward the door, she saw someone, but she couldn’t tell who it was. She saw sparks on the edges of her vision, and then everything melted from dark colors to white.

———
This post is part of Flash Fiction February.