Our Lemon Means Death

I did the NYC Midnight 100-word microfiction challenge again, and had a lot of fun. Here are my prompts:

Genre: action/adventure

Action: slicing a lemon

Word: commit

“Ready the cannons, women!”

Clara poked the lemon among the nails with her cutlass, slicing through. “Scourge of the scurvy dogs!” A cannonball splashed beside the Puckered Lips. The Navy. After a decade of peaceful pillaging.

“Fire!”

Nails and cannonballs rained down on the naval ship, tearing through sails and sending the crew running. Ruby peered through the spyglass. Flames were spreading over the deck and a cannonball had breached the hull. “Set sail! We’ve committed an act of war. Best not to stick around.”

Their yellow flag fluttered as they turned southward, shouting together, “Our lemon means death!”

Funny? Story

Posting the comedy microfiction reminded me that I never posted the comedy flash fiction I did for NYC Midnight, probably because I hadn’t been that thrilled about it and didn’t move onto the next round. Still, I ended up with something that I may develop into a short story. There’s something fun there, even if it’s not exactly award-winning comedy flash fiction. Flash Fiction is a 1000-word limit, and my prompts were comedy/jellybeans/reservoir.

The Creature With The Black Jellybeans

Synopsis: When Lucy and Jez see something strange in the reservoir, they suspect an epic prank and concoct a prank of their own. But will they ever know what’s really in the water?

Lucy sat on the edge of the dam, feet dangling far above the water of the reservoir, and popped another jellybean in her mouth. She spat it out in disgust. “Whoever invented black licorice flavor should be shot.”

Jez leaned away from the partially chewed candy. “That’s God, Luce. It’s derived from the fennel plant.”

“You know the weirdest stuff.” Lucy threw the offending candy down into the placid water below. Splash! “Did you hear that? How did that tiny thing make a splash all the way down there? I told you black licorice is evil.”

The girls peered closely at the water. “Look at the ripples on the water,” Jez said. “Maybe it’s the Loch Ness monster’s cousin. Where’s Peter, anyway? Why did he want to meet up here?”

“He was very mysterious.” Splash! “Okay, I heard it again. There’s definitely something down there. Look! There’s a dark shape under the water!”

“I knew we shouldn’t have had that Jaws marathon last weekend. Remember when we watched all the Friday the Thirteenth movies and the next night you freaked out at the hockey game?”

Lucy glared. “You agreed we’d never speak of that again. Look, we’ll wait until all the jellybeans are gone and then give up on Peter. The lake monster gets the black licorice ones.” She picked them out and tossed a handful into the water. Splash! They both stared as a head popped above the surface of the water. A wide mouth opened. Chomp! The head disappeared back below the surface.“Jez! You saw that, right? It ate the jellybeans!”

Jez’s mouth was hanging open. “Wait a minute. This is one of Peter’s pranks. He asks us to meet him up here and doesn’t show? He’s down there in the water with a fake monster head!”

“He has done some pretty ridiculous pranks. Remember when he used stage makeup to look like a dead body in your trunk and then jumped out at you? You screamed so loud!”

“He took SCUBA lessons last summer, remember? I bet he’s just hanging out under there. Let’s hike down. He has to come out sometime. We can hide in the bushes and scare the crap out of him. Look, there’s the head again!”

***

“This would be a nice place for a picnic if the water didn’t smell weird,” Lucy said. “How long can he stay under, do you think? I’m hungry.”

“I have some emergency chocolate in my bag.” Jez held out a giant bag of M&Ms. “Let’s give it ten more minutes and see if the monster shows again, then we’ll go to that taco place.” She pulled open the bag and it split, spilling candy all over the ground.

“More treats for Nessie.” Lucy began tossing the dirty M&M’s into the water. 

“Nessie? It’s not that big. Maybe Lessie.” 

“Here, Lessie, Lessie!” A head popped up, grabbed the candy, and disappeared below. The water rippled as the creature swam away from them.

“How did he spot us? I guess we were talking pretty loud. He could have followed our voices.”

“It looked so real. I wonder where he got it. It seemed like its eyes were really looking at me. Peter’s no artist. He must have spent a fortune on a costume that good.”

“He can probably use it again for Halloween. Oh, I see the ripples again. Here, Lessie, Lessie! More M&Ms for you!” A head popped out of the water, but this time it was human. Peter emerged from the water, struggling to get his heavy equipment off his back. He dropped it on the ground and pulled up his mask.

“Gotcha!”

Peter spun around and gave a yell, not as impressive as Jez’s dead-body scream, but satisfying enough for the girls, who dissolved in laughter. “What the hell!”

“We got you, Peter!” Jez crowed.

Peter sat down on the grass. “Oh, man. I was under that gross water for an hour! My hair feels weird. I’m going to have to wash it a million times.”

Jez sniffed. “Yeah, you don’t smell great. I’m glad you’re not riding back in my car. Hey, where’s your head?”

Peter stared. “Right here? Above my neck?”

“I mean that awesome monster head.”

“I was just splashing around so you’d think something was in there. You saw the splashing, right? That’s why you came down here?”

Lucy frowned. “We saw splashing, and a big giant monster head came out of the water. Come on, where is it?”

“You mean, I was in there with…something?” Peter looked terrified as he stared at the water.

Jez punched him on the arm. “You’re not going to get us this time, Peter. Did you lose it?”

“There’s no head, guys. I don’t know what you saw.”

***

Lucy and Jez drove away, waving to Peter, who was getting into his car. “You think he’s going back down for the head?” Lucy asked.

“Yup. Want to park in the lower lot and sneak back to catch him?”

They parked near the bushes and crept quietly. Splash! 

“Lucy, there he is! See the monster head?”

The head disappeared under the water. They heard a rustling in the brush behind them. Peter emerged, holding a green plastic dinosaur head. “Oh, man! You tricked me!”

“Serves you right,” said Lucy. “How does the mouth open, by the way? Is it like a puppet?”

“What do you mean? The mouth doesn’t move.”

Jez exchanged a look with Lucy. “Are you joking again? We saw it eat the candy.”

Peter held it out for inspection. The mouth was fixed. “You’re pranking me now. Very funny.”

“No, we saw the monster open its mouth and eat the jellybeans! And then the M&Ms,” Lucy insisted.

“Sure, everyone knows reservoir monsters have a sweet tooth. Look, you got me. Let’s get outta here.”

As they walked away, they heard a splash, but when they turned around, they saw only ripples in the water.

Judges’ Comments:

{1970}  Good: I like the relationships between the characters you have developed in “The Creature With The Black Jellybeans”. I picked up on the long-term friendships that Jez, Peter, and Lucy have begun to build, I can picture them in their old age, reminiscing about the good old days when they were young. This story is about adventure, trust, and friendship. You put at the reservoir with them, I could taste the licorice jelly beans. Thanks!    

Needs work: There is a bit of awkwardness in the syntax of this story. I get all the details, but the delivery is a bit choppy, and some of the details detract from the story more than they add to it. For instance, does the reader need to know that Lucy freaked out specifically at the hockey game? The mention of her freaking out in general after watching all of the movies is more effective than distracting the reader into thinking that there was something relevant at the hockey game that connected it to the movies. I am still wondering what the connection is. So, think about details…they are important, but they need to help connect the dots, not take a reader down an unrelated path. Thanks for the adventure. l really like your characters. 

{2089}  Well done for making it to the second round of the Flash Fiction Challenge 2021!

This is a good submission with some funny moments, a clear premise, and some fun characters.

You’ve included a lot of twists in this that work well, keeping the reader guessing. I could see this working well with some expansion too, really building the tension and playing on horror movie tropes. It has the potential as a satire of the genre, and I think you’ve outlined all the necessary beats to really solidify this as a standout piece with some more development. I’d definitely like some more description and establishment, and as much as the dialogue is great at telling the story, I feel that I want to be immersed in the world you’ve created, and in these characters, as much as possible.

The characters have a good rapport – I feel the history and the backstory between them all, making them feel like ‘real’ characters. They act in an understandable and realistic way which helps to ground the narrative and land the jokes.

Looking at your assigned task, you’ve written a complete comedy story featuring the ‘reservoir’ location and ‘jelly bean’ object, both of which have been used effectively. You’ve also submitted this within your word limit and successfully showcased what can be achieved with such a brief word count.

Well done, and keep writing!  

Needs work: I’ve gathered some notes on areas of your story where I feel you could improve, edit, or develop your work further.

‘Loch Ness monster’s cousin.’ After this line, I’d suggest breaking for some description before we go into the next line of dialogue. Have the characters look at the water, or have Jez look around to see if she can see Peter.

‘a head popped above the surface’ – Whose head? What kind of head? Could we have a description? Even if it’s just an interpretation from the characters’ point of view of what they see. You state in your dialogue that it’s a ‘fake monster head’, but could you describe this to us, or explain what makes them think that?

‘Look, there’s the head again!’ – Again, let’s see the head. Variate your narrative so we’re not just hearing the characters talk about what they can see or what they think. Describe and establish too! The same goes on the next line – where are they situated? How does the location add tension or comedy?

Good luck with your future development!

{2144}  Good: I like the ambiguity throughout of whether it was Peter playing a prank or an actual creature in the water. I also like that it can be explained away until the very end; the final line is great.  

Needs work:  Almost the entire story is told in dialog, but I think it could be a lot stronger if there were more descriptions showing the reactions of the girls, what the creature head looks like, etc. It will help establish the scenes so much more, heighten the stakes, and give a better distinction between Peter’s pranks and the real possibility of a creature lurking.

It’s A Little Bit Funny

Comedy is probably the genre I most dread when I do microfiction/flash fiction challenges. Being funny on purpose is *hard*. I usually aim for “mildly amusing” and hope for the best. For the second time in a row, I drew comedy. I had almost forgotten about the NYC Midnight microfiction challenge in the craziness of holiday preparations, and I had quite the emotional rollercoaster when I got the email saying I’d made it to the next round…and that comedy was my genre. When I’m trying to be funny, I really can’t tell if it’s working unless I have facial expressions for immediate feedback. Anyway, my prompts for the second round of 250-word Microfiction were: Comedy/burning a finger/effort. Funny story! I had actually submitted my entry before suddenly realizing I hadn’t included the word “effort.” Fortunately, I had submitted early for once and the contest allows you to resubmit as many times as you need up until the deadline.

Once Burned, Twice…Burned

“Ow! What the hell? Something burned me!”

Meg held up a blistered finger and Seth passed her a cold pack. “What do you mean, burned? Like the sap irritated your skin?”

“No, like a goddamn fire! Look, it’s still smoking!”

Seth peered into the hole in the tree where Meg had been collecting fungus samples for their study. “That’s not possible.”

“Stick your hand in, then.”

Seth reached toward the tree and hesitated.

Meg laughed.

“Are you screwing with me again? Grow up. I was just playing along when you gave me your niece’s slime and told me it was a new species. It’s not like I believed you.”

“You were trying to extract DNA for sequencing!”

“I was playing along!” he shouted. “Let’s just get a sample and get out of here.” He reached in and shrieked. “Something burned me!”

Meg leaned in to look. “Really? But that’s—I made the whole thing up! I burned my finger baking cookies last night and I thought this would be funny.”

Seth stared. “What if it’s some kind of exothermic reaction involving the fungus we’re studying? This could be really big. I’m going back to grab some more sample jars. We should check the rest of the trees in this area.”

Meg smiled at another successful effort as she reached in carefully to retrieve the butane curling iron she’d planted there earlier. Her hand brushed against something hot. What the—

Seth stood behind a tree, chuckling softly to himself.

Fairy Tale feedback

I placed #4 in my group for the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge. The next round is this weekend. My prompts were fairy tale for genre, a picket line for the setting, and cider for something that has to physically appear in the story. I am always interested to see the judge feedback on these to see how well I conveyed what was in my brain to random people.


”The Brave Pig” by Allison Ketchell – WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {2059} I loved this story concept and how you worked the ‘picket line’ element into this fairy tale. There’s a nice bit of satire that runs through this tale (without overtaking the narrative). I also was pretty shocked by the moment when the CEO and assistant fell into the cider and drowned (definitely a little darker than I had been expecting)! {1984} There was a lot to like in the camaraderie between the pigs and the dwarves. It was nice to see they had a common goal and to watch them work together to right a wrong. This worked as a nice real world allegory on many levels. {2162} Nice cadence and pacing. It’s got the surprising level of violence contained in original fairy tales – talking pig here, talking wolf there, and suddenly cartoon animals are drowning each other.

WHAT THE JUDGES THOUGHT NEEDED WORK – {2059} I wasn’t quite sure that all of the dialogue worked for me in this story – especially the characters introducing themselves. I’d encourage you think about what the dialogue adds and when you do and don’t necessarily need it. I also wanted Jordy to have more of an essential role in this story. His inclusion is definitely a great idea, but I wasn’t sure what he actually added to the plot (the end scene of him watching the fight unfold left me a little confused). {1984} The bears were a strange ingredient in this tale. They remain out of the conflict entirely but in the end they are forgiven because they take an active role in picking up the pieces. That probably won’t sit right with some readers. Dennis’s change from being a worker that keeps their head down and does the work to being an activist didn’t really seem to happen on the page. {2162} I feel like the trouble with the fairy-tale animal-killin-animal trope, in this case, is a sense of scale, maybe. It makes sense that Dennis would suddenly push the wolves into the vat and watch them drown, but then after that, there seems to be an all out pig-vs-wolf grudge match, and I just don’t know how well pigs would do vs teeth and claws.. that’s why they typically have to rely on their wits in fairy tales. And then.. are there no more wolves at all left in the forest? Did they exterminate the whole race? Again, it’s the sense of scale that holds me back. Otherwise, nice creative piece.

Here’s the story:

The Brave Pig

Once upon a time there was a pig named Dennis. Like all pigs, he lived in a little village tucked in a pocket of woods inaccessible to humans and worked in the apple cider factory. The wolves who ran the factory were not terribly nice and the work was dull, but there were simply no other jobs for pigs in Briar Wood, and unemployed pigs had a way of disappearing, leaving only a whiff of bacon curling from a chimney to remember them by. Dennis had three piglets in need of food, clothes, and school fees, and he worked hard operating the apple press, kept his head down, and collected his paycheck.

​Until today. Today he was holding a REMEMBER ISABELLE sign and marching in a line outside the factory. Isabelle had drowned in a vat of cider last week and the factory had closed while the Worker Safety Council investigated and found the wolves blameless. Dennis had organized the memorial service, but there was no grave to visit. While wolves were buried in a charming cemetery on the hill, pigs’ remains tended to go missing, and when Dennis told the other workers that he had overheard upper manager wolves discussing their new fondness for cider-soaked roast pork, they agreed with him that something had to be done.

​The dwarves who worked in the wolves’ mines looked curiously at the picket line on their walk to work. They held a brief conference before deciding to join the protest. A few of the dwarves left to get supplies for sign-making. “I’m Hal,” one miner said, holding out his hand for Dennis to shake. “When I was injured in a cave-in last year, I almost went broke paying for my hospital stay. If someone is standing up to the wolves, I’m in. Sorry about what happened to your friend.”

​“Thanks. The Worker Safety Council blames the workers when anything bad happens. They might recommend better safety railings and no more mandatory double shifts, but they won’t enforce anything. The Council is afraid of the wolves. We all chipped in so Isabelle would have a memorial service since they wouldn’t even pay for that. I guess they saved us the cost of a coffin,” Dennis said bitterly.

​Hal held up his sign: BITING BACK. “You know, because of their big teeth? Think it’s too aggressive?”

​“How many of us have they hurt or killed? I think it’s just right.”

​“Hello! What’s going on here?” A brown bear in builder’s clothes had approached.

​Dennis explained the situation. “I’m Dennis,” he added. “We’d love to have you on our side.”

​The bear held out a paw. “Jordy. Nice to meet you. I’m sorry about your friend, but the bears have no quarrel with the wolves. We don’t really want to rock the boat.”

​“But you’ve got teeth and claws! You could really help us.”

​“I’ll take it back to the builders, but we just want to do our jobs and take care of our families. I don’t know about taking sides.”

​Dennis sighed as Jordy ambled off. “Why wouldn’t they help us, Hal? It’s no skin off their noses.”

​“You can’t really blame them. Would the dwarves have stopped if we weren’t in the same boat you are? I’d like to think we would, but who knows?”

​Dennis was still thinking about that when a shiny black car approached. “All right, everyone! Here come the wolves! Stay calm!”

​Four nattily dressed wolves stepped out. “What is the meaning of this? Factory should have opened hours ago!”

​Dennis stepped forward, trembling. He’d never even seen the CEO before. “We are on strike to protest unsafe working conditions, sir.”

​“You’re all fired. I’m opening up the factory myself.” The wolf shoved his way through the crowd to the wide doors, knocking over a couple of pigs.

​“Sir, you can’t fire all of them. There’s no one else to do the work,” his assistant whispered as they walked past.

​“Nonsense! If those dumb pigs can do it, anyone can. We’ll have a feast tonight and a job fair tomorrow!”

​Dennis motioned to the others to follow. It was soon clear that the wolves had no idea how to use the equipment. The CEO was bent over a vat, pushing a lever up and down, scowling. Another stood at a control panel, scratching his head. Dennis looked around him at the crowd of pigs and dwarves. He thought about Isabelle’s kind smile and suddenly felt brave. He stepped forward and shoved the CEO, who uttered a grunt of surprise before breaking through the safety rail and falling into the vat below. He flailed his arms, coughing up cider. His assistant ran to help, but the safety equipment the pigs kept asking for wasn’t there. The assistant lay flat on the metal platform, stretching his arm toward the CEO until he reached too far and slid into the cider. The CEO pushed the assistant’s head under, trying to keep himself afloat, but there was nothing to hold onto, no emergency exit steps. Dennis watched as the two struggled until both finally sank, their last breaths bubbling to the surface. 

​The doors burst open. Upper management must have called for reinforcements. A dozen more wolves rushed in, but they were badly outnumbered by the usually docile pigs and dwarves, and the fight was brief. Dennis spotted a furry figure lurking near the door. “Jordy, did you just stand here watching?”

​Jordy looked down. “Well, the bears voted against getting involved but I thought I’d come just in case. You were doing fine without me, so I didn’t jump in.”

​***

​With the wolves out of the picture, the pigs and dwarves took over the factory and the mines, raised wages, and formed an effective safety commission. The bears, ashamed of their complicity in the wolves’ oppression of their fellow creatures, took on the burden of enforcing the new safety regulations. And they all lived happily ever after.

998 words

Flash Fiction Challenge

I did the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge over the weekend. 48 hours to write a 1000-word or less story. My prompts:

Genre: Fairy Tale

Setting: A picket line

Object (must appear in the story): Cider

The Brave Pig

Once upon a time there was a pig named Dennis. Like all pigs, he lived in a little village tucked in a pocket of woods inaccessible to humans and worked in the apple cider factory. The wolves who ran the factory were not terribly nice and the work was dull, but there were simply no other jobs for pigs in Briar Wood, and unemployed pigs had a way of disappearing, leaving only a whiff of bacon curling from a chimney to remember them by. Dennis had three piglets in need of food, clothes, and school fees, and he worked hard operating the apple press, kept his head down, and collected his paycheck.

​Until today. Today he was holding a REMEMBER ISABELLE sign and marching in a line outside the factory. Isabelle had drowned in a vat of cider last week and the factory had closed while the Worker Safety Council investigated and found the wolves blameless. Dennis had organized the memorial service, but there was no grave to visit. While wolves were buried in a charming cemetery on the hill, pigs’ remains tended to go missing, and when Dennis told the other workers that he had overheard upper manager wolves discussing their new fondness for cider-soaked roast pork, they agreed with him that something had to be done.

​The dwarves who worked in the wolves’ mines looked curiously at the picket line on their walk to work. They held a brief conference before deciding to join the protest. A few of the dwarves left to get supplies for sign-making. “I’m Hal,” one miner said, holding out his hand for Dennis to shake. “When I was injured in a cave-in last year, I almost went broke paying for my hospital stay. If someone is standing up to the wolves, I’m in. Sorry about what happened to your friend.”

​“Thanks. The Worker Safety Council blames the workers when anything bad happens. They might recommend better safety railings and no more mandatory double shifts, but they won’t enforce anything. The Council is afraid of the wolves. We all chipped in so Isabelle would have a memorial service since they wouldn’t even pay for that. I guess they saved us the cost of a coffin,” Dennis said bitterly.

​Hal held up his sign: BITING BACK. “You know, because of their big teeth? Think it’s too aggressive?”

​“How many of us have they hurt or killed? I think it’s just right.”

​“Hello! What’s going on here?” A brown bear in builder’s clothes had approached.

​Dennis explained the situation. “I’m Dennis,” he added. “We’d love to have you on our side.”

​The bear held out a paw. “Jordy. Nice to meet you. I’m sorry about your friend, but the bears have no quarrel with the wolves. We don’t really want to rock the boat.”

​“But you’ve got teeth and claws! You could really help us.”

​“I’ll take it back to the builders, but we just want to do our jobs and take care of our families. I don’t know about taking sides.”

​Dennis sighed as Jordy ambled off. “Why wouldn’t they help us, Hal? It’s no skin off their noses.”

​“You can’t really blame them. Would the dwarves have stopped if we weren’t in the same boat you are? I’d like to think we would, but who knows?”

​Dennis was still thinking about that when a shiny black car approached. “All right, everyone! Here come the wolves! Stay calm!”

​Four nattily dressed wolves stepped out. “What is the meaning of this? Factory should have opened hours ago!”

​Dennis stepped forward, trembling. He’d never even seen the CEO before. “We are on strike to protest unsafe working conditions, sir.”

​“You’re all fired. I’m opening up the factory myself.” The wolf shoved his way through the crowd to the wide doors, knocking over a couple of pigs.

​“Sir, you can’t fire all of them. There’s no one else to do the work,” his assistant whispered as they walked past.

​“Nonsense! If those dumb pigs can do it, anyone can. We’ll have a feast tonight and a job fair tomorrow!”

​Dennis motioned to the others to follow. It was soon clear that the wolves had no idea how to use the equipment. The CEO was bent over a vat, pushing a lever up and down, scowling. Another stood at a control panel, scratching his head. Dennis looked around him at the crowd of pigs and dwarves. He thought about Isabelle’s kind smile and suddenly felt brave. He stepped forward and shoved the CEO, who uttered a grunt of surprise before breaking through the safety rail and falling into the vat below. He flailed his arms, coughing up cider. His assistant ran to help, but the safety equipment the pigs kept asking for wasn’t there. The assistant lay flat on the metal platform, stretching his arm toward the CEO until he reached too far and slid into the cider. The CEO pushed the assistant’s head under, trying to keep himself afloat, but there was nothing to hold onto, no emergency exit steps. Dennis watched as the two struggled until both finally sank, their last breaths bubbling to the surface. 

​The doors burst open. Upper management must have called for reinforcements. A dozen more wolves rushed in, but they were badly outnumbered by the usually docile pigs and dwarves, and the fight was brief. Dennis spotted a furry figure lurking near the door. “Jordy, did you just stand here watching?”

​Jordy looked down. “Well, the bears voted against getting involved but I thought I’d come just in case. You were doing fine without me, so I didn’t jump in.”

​***

​With the wolves out of the picture, the pigs and dwarves took over the factory and the mines, raised wages, and formed an effective safety commission. The bears, ashamed of their complicity in the wolves’ oppression of their fellow creatures, took on the burden of enforcing the new safety regulations. And they all lived happily ever after.

998 words

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

For some reason, I signed up for a short story challenge. I didn’t have a lot of time and energy to work on it, but I did end up managing to finish something! It’s far from a final draft though. The word limit was 2500 words.
My prompts: genre: fantasy, subject – pets, character – translator

What Bootsy Knew

You don’t expect drinks after work to change your life, do you? Sara was late, probably fixing her makeup in case Brad showed up, and the woman next to me was chatty. She had the brightest blue eyes, and I found myself telling her about the cat I’d adopted and hoping I wasn’t babbling too much.

“Oh, I love cats. Here, you might need this.”

I stared at the business card: ANNABELLE TALBOT, PET TRANSLATOR. “I’ve never met a pet translator before. So you speak Cat and Dog and, I don’t know, Fish?” 

“Freshwater and saltwater fish have different languages, actually.” 

I immediately felt like a jerk. “Wow. Sorry, that was rude. It’s just new to me.”

“I’m used to skepticism. Animals know more than we give them credit for. Call me when you’re ready to know what Bootsy is trying to tell you.”

Had I told her my cat’s name? I looked back up at her, but she was gone.

***

Bootsy was not the name I would have chosen. She was black with white boots, but I would have gone with something more dignified, like Lady Arabella Fuzzybritches or Princess Meowington. But it said BOOTSY on her collar above a disconnected phone number. I took her to the vet to check for a microchip and posted on local lost pet sites, but no one claimed her, so she was my Bootsy. We communicated pretty well, I thought. She told me loudly when she could see the bottom of her food bowl and made it clear that switching to the cheaper litter was unacceptable.

She did sometimes stare at nothing, or run around at two in the morning, but that was just a cat thing. Right? “Hey, Bootsy, what are you looking at?”

She looked back at me. She’d pawed open my closet door again and was having a good stare at the back wall. I assumed she was listening to water in the pipes or something, but her gold eyes stayed fixed on mine. “Meow.”

“Yeah? Are you trying to tell me something? Do we need a pet translator?”

Bootsy turned back to the wall.

Maybe I could use Annabelle’s help. I rolled my eyes at myself. I was such a sucker for pretty blue eyes.

The next day, there were thirteen kitty crunchies lined up outside the closet. I felt a prickle of anxiety. “Bootsy, are you trying to freak me out?”

“Meow.”

“Oh, I set that box in front of the closet, so you can’t get in? Sorry, buddy.” I moved the box and opened the door. She placed one paw on my leg and looked into my eyes before heading in to stare at the wall. I dug out the business card.

I changed clothes three times before the appointment. I felt like I’d had too much coffee. I definitely talked too fast greeting Annabelle at the door. She and Bootsy chatted for long enough that I started to get bored. Bootsy abruptly walked toward the bedroom with her tail crooked, and looked back at Annabelle, obviously wanting her to follow. “She wants to show me something,” Annabelle said. “Is it okay to go in here?”

“Sure.” I’d tidied up before the appointment. Annabelle preferred to meet her clients where they felt safe, rather than in an office. When I remembered cramming a yowling Bootsy into the carrier to go to the vet, I thought that made sense. If anything about pet translating made sense.

Bootsy batted open the closet door and looked back at Annabelle. I thought her expression said, “Thank Bast you’re here; I’ve been trying to tell this lady but she’s dumb as a scratching post,” but according to Annabelle, she’d only said, “It’s in here.”

Bootsy did her usual wall-staring. “Cats can sense portals to other worlds or between dimensions. It seems you have one back here. Bootsy can hear someone asking for your help.”

“My help? They need their taxes done?” Had I invited a total loon into my house? I’d been willing to believe she could help me with my cat’s weird behavior, kind of like a specialist vet, but now I wondered if I was going to be on a hidden-camera YouTube show, or be ax-murdered or something.

She smiled. “No, they need your other gifts.”

I took a step back, but she grabbed my hand and pulled us into the closet. She pressed our palms to the wall as Bootsy reached up with her paws, and everything went white.

***

“Is this Narnia?” I asked, looking around at the forest surrounding us.

“Joking is a good sign. You handled the journey much better than most humans.”

“Humans? Aren’t you—”

“Not exactly. Bootsy says we should go this way.”

There was simply too much to process, so I followed. “It seems like a good time for some exposition. We did just go through my closet into a forest, and you said you aren’t exactly human.”

“You’d call me an elf or a fairy. Though we can’t fly. Well, some of us can fly using magic, but we don’t have wings. I personally can’t fly. Elf might be closest. I was born here, but I never fit in. I could communicate with animals better than with my own kind, and my pet celadon led me to a portal. I felt at home in the human world.”

“Celadon?”

“It’s a greenish ball of light, but otherwise very much like a dog. Celie couldn’t pass through the portal. Leaving it behind was my only regret. Oh!”

We had come to a clearing, but it felt like I hit a wall. I stood up from where I had fallen and reached out. There was something there, a curved wall made of stone. Light pooled around my hand where it made contact. Bootsy sat staring. “She can see it, can’t she?”

“Yes. She says it’s a tower. The cries for help are coming from the top.” I looked up but saw only sky, and I could hear only the wind blowing in the leaves.

“The voice is telling Bootsy that the key to the tower is in the old well. Oh, dear.” 

“I’m guessing the old well is not a happy place?”

“Well, it’s deep. Very deep. And dark.” She shuddered.
The old well was guarded by something big. It looked like a cross between a fairy tale troll and a rhinoceros. I patted my pockets. No weapons for fighting rhino-trolls. My phone didn’t even get a signal here. I was useless. It growled, rumbling the earth. “No! Bootsy, what are you doing?”

Bootsy strolled up to the guardian, who immediately dropped to a crouch and began cooing. She wound around its legs and looked up adoringly. It began to scratch her ears and she purred. Annabelle grabbed my hand and we walked quietly around to the other side of the well. Bootsy was rubbing up against its legs and flopping over for belly rubs, leading it farther from the well. “Hop in the bucket and I’ll lower you,” whispered Annabelle.

It didn’t occur to me to suggest she go down into the dank blackness until I was so deep I could barely make out a light at the top. How was I supposed to find a key down here? The bucket hit the bottom with a splashy thunk and I climbed out, finding my answer. The key was hovering in a glowing bubble in a niche cut into the side of the well. I held my breath as I reached for it, but it seemed the rhino-troll was sufficient protection, and nothing horrible happened as my fingers closed around the cool metal. It was heavier than it looked. I scrambled back into the bucket and tugged the rope to be brought up.

Bootsy was still working her kitty magic. Annabelle and I crept back into the woods and Bootsy followed, the rhino-troll waving at her happily. “Bootsy says he’s very nice, but he had to take this job to feed his family. He doesn’t like the new queen at all. New queen? Oh dear. I think I know who’s calling for help from the tower.”

“The old queen?”

“Yes. And if we get involved more than we already are, the guardian of the key will look like a pussycat next to what will come for us next. If you want to go back—”

“No, my cat brought me here. And there’s nothing but taxes waiting for me at home. If I can help, I’ll stay.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Good. I think we’ll need you.” She grabbed my hand and the three of us ran back to the clearing.

***

“How do we find the keyhole?” I asked. Annabelle held up the key and blew on it. A spot on the wall glowed. I laughed. “I had to go a hundred feet down a smelly old well. You got the easy part.”

As the key went into the lock, the tower appeared. It was probably as tall as the well was deep. What was with these people and not staying on the surface? We climbed around and around and around. My legs were aching and I was so dizzy I almost fell over onto the landing when we finally reached the top. Annabelle steadied me. “If there’s another rhino-troll up here, I’m not going to be up to much,” I mumbled.

“Rhino-troll! Oh, that’s brilliant!” She laughed, far too loudly for a secret mission, I thought. “No, Bootsy says they were counting on no one getting into the tower in the first place.”

Bootsy pawed the door open. A very tall woman in breeches and a blousy shirt like the ones you see in pirate movies was brandishing a candleholder at us. “Oh, you aren’t her people. Who are you?”

Bootsy meowed at the same time Annabelle said, “Didn’t you call us?” A green glow drifted from behind the door. “Celie!” It was a green ball of light, but I could have sworn it wagged its tail. 

“You know it?” the woman asked. “Who are you?”

“Oh, my queen, I’ve been gone for many years, but I was Annabelle of the Scribes. Celie was my companion until I found my way to the human world, and it called through the portal to Bootsy the cat, who brought us here. Let’s get you out of here.”

The stairs were not more pleasant on the way down. “One of my handmaidens plotted with my consort to seize power. They locked me up in here. My magic doesn’t work inside this tower, so I couldn’t get out.” She stood blinking in the bright sunlight for a moment. “Oh, it’s so good to be free. And to talk again! I talked to the celadon, but of course that’s not the same since it couldn’t answer.”

“It says it was pleased to bring you comfort, my queen.”

“What?”

“I have always been able to communicate with other creatures. It’s part of why I left. It was such an odd gift, I felt I had to hide it here.”

“But not in the human world? I haven’t been there in a thousand years, but surely they aren’t that open-minded.”

As Annabelle explained about pet translation, I noticed the trees were thinning out and the ground beneath us had become a packed-dirt path. It soon gave way to cobbles, and then a castle came into view.

“I hate to interrupt, but how will you get rid of the new queen? Should we have weapons or something?” I had binge-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy the previous weekend, and I was picturing bows and arrows or maybe a sword.

The queen almost bent double laughing. “Oh, my dear human. You are a treasure. No, you’ve done enough by freeing me. With my magic unfettered, I can handle this myself. They only trapped me because they caught me unawares. With my pants down, as it were,” she added sheepishly.

I must have looked disappointed because she patted my arm. “If you stay here with us, I’ll give you archery lessons myself.” Had she read my mind?

The queen’s magic was something to see. Swirling colors surrounded the castle, and I heard screaming. She beamed. “Let’s go in and tell them to prepare a banquet!”

***

There were one or two other things to be taken care of first. The usurpers, already squabbling over who was at fault for the queen’s escape, were carried off to have an unpleasant incarceration in the tower together. The rest of the castle inhabitants re-swore their fealty to the queen. Fortunately, it was a group swearing, or it would have taken hours. 

Annabelle and I sat on either side of the queen as honored guests. Bootsy had a seat next to me. The banquet was joyful and became more raucous as toast after toast was made with cups of mead. Musicians played and someone began to sing in a beautiful voice the story of our rescue of the queen. The singer seemed stymied by a rhyme for “Bootsy.”

When the queen stood, the hall fell silent. “Annabelle of the Scribes, this noble cat, and this brave human have brought us all together today. It is my great honor to name Annabelle of the Scribes the queen’s own translator, if she will come live among us again. And she will form her own house, the Translators, for those who speak with other creatures, and they will have the highest status and respect.” Annabelle bowed her head in acceptance. “Bootsy, will you be the castle mouser?” She looked at Annabelle, who nodded. “I don’t know yet what position to give you, my dear human, but I do believe you belong here, if you’re willing to stay and find out.”

I thought of my apartment, my pleasant but distant coworkers, the approaching tax season. Could anything in the human world compete with what I’d seen today? I bowed to the queen. “I’m honored to stay.”

Later that night, I asked Annabelle, “Did Bootsy just pick me for geography? Do I really belong here, or did I just happen to rent an apartment with a portal in the closet?”

She held my hand. “I haven’t been able to open a portal back myself. And Bootsy couldn’t go back alone. It took the three of us, together, to open the portal. You belong here. You must have some magic. We’ll figure out what it is, I promise. Now I have to ask you something. I must go visit my family, the one I abandoned many years ago. Will you come with me? I need to travel there before word reaches the village about the new Translators and my position here. They need to hear it from me, but I can’t face them alone.”

“Can Bootsy come?”

“Like I would go anywhere without you both. The rest of our adventures will be together.”

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, Round 2

250 word limit. My prompts for this round: genre – suspense/thriller, action – throwing a rock, word – endless

Into the Woods

“Mom, hurry, in the woods, it got Lucy!” I drop whatever I’m holding. Is Pete safer with me and my gun, or at home, alone? There’s no time to think it through. I grab his hand and we run.

The dark woods feel endless. “Not your fault,” I whisper. First his father, now his sister. I knew we didn’t kill them all last year.

His palm is sweaty, or mine is. He tries to pull away but I shake my head. I remember the mangled bodies strewn all over the woods last time. It wants us to separate, to pick us off one by one. Was that a footstep? A twig snaps. My God, it’s right there. I turn, pushing Pete behind me, and raise the gun. I fire again and again at the hulking shape and it finally falls. I reach for Pete, but he’s gone.

Another one rushes past me with a grunt, knocking me to the ground with a shaggy shoulder, and the gun goes flying. I scrabble around in the dead leaves. My hand closes on a rock. Better than nothing. I hurl it at the thing as I get to my feet, and by some miracle, I connect. It drops. More footsteps. I search for another projectile.

“Mom!” It’s Lucy, holding up her pocket knife, dark with blood. “The throat, just like you taught me!” I look around in a panic for Pete, but she’s already helping him up. “Let’s make sure they’re dead.”

NYC Midnight Challenge Round One Update

I had almost forgotten about entering this until this week, when I suddenly wondered when Round Two was, and the results were posted yesterday. I took third in my group, so I advance to Round Two this weekend. I thought the judge feedback was fair, and I’ll probably tinker around with this a bit to tighten and smooth around the edges.

Hogging the Spotlight

Pete shoved a foot into the wetsuit, almost falling over in his excitement. “The chemical analysis is back, Jez. That pool you found is water. Two years looking for life in this godforsaken galaxy, and I’m going to see it today.”

“Shouldn’t we send down the probe first?”

“Look, I outrank you. You’re just going to have to wait. Maybe I’ll name a species after you.” He pulled the zipper up and shrugged on his SCUBA gear. They could breathe under the portable biodome they’d set up over the site, but underwater was a different story.

“It’s not about that—”

“You’ll get your chance when you’re commander. It’s my day to shine.”

***

Jez monitored his vitals and watched the video feed from his goggles. Visibility wasn’t great even with his headlamp, and she strained her eyes looking for shapes in the murk. “Pete, what’s that off to your right?”

Suddenly the screen was filled with tiny greenish lights. “Well, look at this. Who’s a cute little bioluminescent life form? That’s right, you are.” He captured one in a sample flask. As he capped it, a warning blared. “They’re getting into the wetsuit,” he said, rubbing at his arms. 

“Stay calm,” she said, watching his heart rate with concern.

“They’re going under my skin, Jez. It burns!”

“Turn around and swim back.”

But he just hung there, a green glow in the darkness.

It was sort of pretty in the light. He was right. It was his time to shine.

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1970}  I do like “Hogging the Spotlight”. Poor Pete should’ve listened to Jez, I particularly like the way you tied this into the ending. They never listen, do they? While it is sad that Pete met with a tragic end, one could say he had it coming. I think that you’ve done a good job with the plot and the relationship between these two characters. Thanks for the story. I enjoyed reading it.  

{1597)  I liked the idea of discovering new life somewhere in the galaxy. I liked that there was rivalry between the crew about who should do what. I liked the drama of Jez being able to see Pete’s heart rate as he encountered the danger. 

{2039}  No good decision in media has ever begun with the sentence “I outrank you.” I love Pete’s ridiculous character, and his fitting end.  

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1970}  This is a good story that needs very little work. What do I suggest to take it up a notch? I think there’s something that’s hard to pinpoint in the nuts and bolts, how things are put together. It could be smoothed out a bit. Every word counts in a short story. When I went back and read this for a second time, my first thought was that it could’ve almost started with “Shouldn’t we send down the probe first?” That would have hooked me more than Pete shoving his foot into a wetsuit. All this said, still a good tale. Thanks!  

{1597)  In the beginning of the story, there could be a little more clarity; specifically, if they’ve gotten the results of a chemical analysis, this implies that some kind of probe has already been sent down, which makes Jez’s comment a little harder to understand. Instead of simply saying “a warning blared,” be specific about what kind of warning it is, and whether it is only on his suit or also showing up on Jez’s monitor. It’s great to end with a joke, but it changes the tone of the story and in this case it seems quite sinister and cold, which seems out of keeping with Jez’s character. 

{2039}  I wish I knew more about Jez, and why she seems completely disinterested in the ignominious demise of her captain (or whatever rank he is). If she didn’t want him to die, that should come through. If she kinda’ did (which is understandable, he seems like a jerk), I think you can make that come through also. But right now, she just seems vaguely sociopathic, which I don’t think was your intent.

NYC Midnight Challenge

I’m doing another one of these, a 250-word one. My prompts are: genre – SciFi, action – putting on a wetsuit, word (that must be included) – warning

Hogging the Spotlight

Pete shoved a foot into the wetsuit, almost falling over in his excitement. “The chemical analysis is back, Jez. That pool you found is water. Two years looking for life in this godforsaken galaxy, and I’m going to see it today.”

“Shouldn’t we send down the probe first?”

“Look, I outrank you. You’re just going to have to wait. Maybe I’ll name a species after you.” He pulled the zipper up and shrugged on his SCUBA gear. They could breathe under the portable biodome they’d set up over the site, but underwater was a different story.

“It’s not about that—”

“You’ll get your chance when you’re commander. It’s my day to shine.”

***

Jez monitored his vitals and watched the video feed from his goggles. Visibility wasn’t great even with his headlamp, and she strained her eyes looking for shapes in the murk. “Pete, what’s that off to your right?”

Suddenly the screen was filled with tiny greenish lights. “Well, look at this. Who’s a cute little bioluminescent life form? That’s right, you are.” He captured one in a sample flask. As he capped it, a warning blared. “They’re getting into the wetsuit,” he said, rubbing at his arms. 

“Stay calm,” she said, watching his heart rate with concern.

“They’re going under my skin, Jez. It burns!”

“Turn around and swim back.”

But he just hung there, a green glow in the darkness.

It was sort of pretty in the light. He was right. It was his time to shine.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge Round 2

Genre – Action/Adventure, Setting – A Moat, Object – Bacon

This was a really difficult weekend for me, and I’m honestly pleased I just managed to finish something and submit it. I thought I’d post it here instead of pretending it doesn’t exist because it ended up being sort of fun and I might want to revise eventually. There are a zillion things I’d do in revision since I ended up submitting a thrown-together draft. One of them is to bring the big fight at the end back to the moat to make sure I’m complying with the setting requirement. Also, I’m not sure yadda-yadda-yaddaing through a battle is really the way to go, though Action/Adventure is definitely not my genre.

Storming The Gates

“You don’t think there are really alligators, do you?” asked Mark. Lena thought about pointing out that ice was forming at the edges, and alligators didn’t do well in New England November temperatures. There were conflicting rumors in the tent city about the gated McMansion subdivision and its supervillain-level security. The grapevine had been dead-on about the electrified fence they’d tunneled under. And now a moat, an honest-to-God moat.

She pulled off her dark clothes and sealed them into a watertight bag. Underneath she wore a wetsuit. She pulled a dive mask over her eyes and adjusted the oxygen tank on her back. “Come on, Mark, one way to find out.” She brandished a knife in one hand and a dive light in the other and led the way.

The sides of the moat were sharply sloped to prevent climbing out, but there were rumors that if a moat existed, it might have an access hatch. Lena and Mark methodically searched, finding it within a half hour. Lena handed Mark the dive light to hold while she worked at the edges with the knife. Had she felt it wiggle? She popped up one corner. Yes! It went dark and she whipped around, dropping the knife in surprise. The dive light was floating gently down, down, down. Motion caught her eye in the gloom. Mark was thrashing around. As she moved closer, Lena saw the dark shape of a shark, maybe five feet long, and it had Mark by the arm. She swam up and punched the shark in the gills. Nothing. Again, harder. This time the shark let go of Mark’s arm. Blood drifted upward from a wound, but she couldn’t tell how bad it was. At least the arm was still on. The shark turned toward them and she punched it right in the nose. Thank you, Shark Week, she thought, as it turned away in confusion.

Lena grabbed Mark by the uninjured arm and started swimming back toward the hatch. Mark clutched at her frantically and she realized his oxygen tank was disconnected. She held her regulator to his mouth to let him breathe as she worked on the panel. At least she’d popped the one corner out before losing her knife. She was running out of breath, and grabbed for the regulator. Mark, panicking, resisted, and she kicked him away, desperate for oxygen. She took deep breaths and handed the regulator back to a calm Mark. She gave a final tug and the panel released. They swam into the hatch, Lena’s lungs nearly bursting. It sloped up quickly, and she fell to her knees gasping when they reached a flat, dry landing. 

“Let’s see that arm,” she said. She reached into her bag and pulled out her shirt, tearing it into strips. Mark pulled down his wetsuit and held out his arm, which was oozing blood, but at least not spurting. She wrapped it tightly in her makeshift bandages and they quickly changed back into street clothes. She checked the oxygen tanks. “These are worthless for getting back. We may as well leave all this here. This was just supposed to be a reconnaissance mission. Goddamn sharks, Mark.”

“How do we get back out?” He was pale but his eyes still had his patented spark of determination.

“We’ll figure something out later. We have supplies. We can take our time.”

Re-armed with knives from their bags, they crept up the ladder. Lena flung open the trapdoor at the top and rushed into the room, hoping to salvage some element of surprise. It worked. A man sat up in bed and she was on him before he could hit what looked like a panic button. A quick knife thrust and he was still. She looked over at Mark, who had silenced the man’s partner, and listened. Had they made it in undetected?

They crept quietly through the house, but found no one else in residence. “What do you think, 5,000 square feet?” whispered Mark. “For two people. While we’re all crammed in tents with no electricity. It’s obscene.”

Lena walked as if hypnotized toward the huge refrigerator and opened the door. It was crammed with food. “Eggs, and milk, and, oh my god, Mark, bacon!” She hoisted a large package into the air. 

“And we’ve been living on protein bars and mystery cans cooked over an open flame. No wonder they put sharks in the damn moat to keep us out.”

“I’m cooking it,” she said. “You scramble some eggs. A coffee maker! If they catch us, we can die with a hot breakfast in our bellies.”

It was the best meal of their lives. When they couldn’t eat another bite, they searched the house more closely and armed themselves with a stunning array of guns. “Ready for the invasion, they were,” Lena muttered. 

They disabled the house alarm and left through the back door, creeping in the shadows. Mark counted houses while Lena drew a map. The only way out across the moat was a drawbridge. “That’s a no-go,” Mark muttered.

She stopped suddenly at a small power station. “This is where they get their electricity,” she muttered. “We could shut it off, stay up in those trees, and shoot anyone who comes to check it out.”

“If we’re not getting out alive, we may as well take some of them with us.”

“That’s what I’m thinking.”

The first to investigate came in small groups that were easily picked off and dragged into the trees. Eventually they needed the automatic weapons when the community rushed in force, but they hadn’t been expecting an attack from this direction, and Lena and Mark had chosen a good vantage point. While their foes were armed, they weren’t practiced in their expensive weapons.

As they lowered the drawbridge and prepared to walk back over the moat, Mark took Lena’s hand. “I think I love you,” he said.

“You’re not my type.”