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

Magic For Hire (draft)

I expanded today’s Twitter microfiction into a bit of flash fiction.

Magic For Hire

Julia hears a car in the drive and checks her watch. Stephen is prompt, she’ll give him that. Before opening the door, she checks that she looks sufficiently witchy. It would be a pity to disappoint him. Her yoga pants and Doctor Who t-shirt are covered by a light poncho thing that looks a bit like a robe, oversized pentacle pendant. She opens the door and looks him up and down. He follows directions. He’s dressed all in black. “We leave at sunset,” she says. “Wear these bones as a talisman.” She hands him a necklace fashioned from the bones of a chicken she roasted for dinner last weekend. “Whose bones are they?” he asks. She ignores the question. “You’ll have to wear a blindfold.”

“Muggles aren’t allowed to know about your circle, huh?”

She gives him a sharp look. “None of that Harry Potter nonsense or I’ll charge you double. Or call the whole thing off.”

He looks abashed. “Right, sorry.”

They’re usually uncomfortable, and inappropriate jokes are a manifestation of that. She actually thinks it’s a little funny, but if she isn’t serious, he doesn’t get his money’s worth. She makes sure the blindfold is snug and leads him into her back garden. Her little house only has one bathroom, and it’s drafty in winter, but it backs right up to the woods, so it was worth every penny. She leads him on a circuitous route, doubling back a few times. Their circle isn’t all that deep in the woods, but you have to know you’re looking for it. He shudders, and she figures he’s wondering about now what he’s done, if she’s led him blindfolded into the woods to kill him in some unholy rite. They usually start to question their decision, but they don’t like to show too much fear. “Is it much farther?” he asks, his voice tremulous.

“Not far now. Shhhh. We’re approaching the sacred grove. The spirits need quiet.” She reaches into her pocket and quickly texts Samantha so she can prepare the coven. Stephen’s steps are slowing a bit. “It’s not too late to change your mind. The dark forces aren’t for everyone, you know.”

“No, no. I’m ready. I want Leah to like me.”

“Remember, I can’t make her like you. I can make you more attractive to her.”

“Right, that’s enough. That’s all I need, a chance.”

Despite herself, Julia feels a little sorry for him. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but he needs some confidence. She’s providing that, at a fraction of the cost of the several months of therapy he probably needs. Some of them give off such negative energy that she refuses their business. She doesn’t want to send trouble after another woman.

The clearing looks more like an open-air living room than a place of magic. Stephen would be disappointed. No witches are riding brooms or cackling, and there are no warts at all. Taking off the blindfold would demystify witches for him, and that wouldn’t be very kind. He needs the mystery, and it’s either the blindfold or decorating the grove and making everyone play dress-up. She did that once, and it was such a hassle she charged extra, claiming a complication with the energy needed to perform the requested spell. Which was sort of true. 

Annemarie looks up from her book as they approach and rolls her eyes. She is a third-grade teacher and doesn’t approve of Julia’s chosen career, though she’s sometimes amused by it.  She’s lounging in yoga pants on one of the carved stumps they use as chairs. They’re surprisingly comfortable. Samantha and Louise are playing cards at a low carved table. Only the candles they’ve lit all around the grove seem remotely witchy. Everything else has a middle-aged book club vibe. 

Stephen is shaking in earnest now. Poor dear. He probably thinks she’s about to slit his throat. She could, too. She has a dagger right over there. But that would be messy, and she has no particular urge to do so. She mutters a few words and hands him a lit candle. “Hold this.” She walks around him, saying the rhyming couplets she’d made up for just such an occasion. She could cast a real protective circle and a real spell, but Stephen doesn’t need that, and there’s no point in bothering the gods or spirits with something this minor.

Annmarie stifles a laugh as Julia pours water on Stephen’s head. They may as well amuse themselves, just a bit of harmless fun. Stephen has relaxed now, and is holding the candle with a sincere intensity that is rather touching. He really believes this will change his life.

She walks him back out of the woods by a different route, just in case. They really don’t like to be bothered. She takes off his blindfold. “The next full moon is Thursday. Dive into the lake at midnight and swim in three clockwise circles.” 

“Midnight as in right after 11:59 Wednesday, or after 11:59 Thursday?”

She’s impressed. Most people aren’t this attentive. “Wednesday night. And the circles are clockwise as you’re looking down on the lake from above.” She takes pity on him. “And they don’t have to be big circles. Just the gesture is enough.” She’s made people swim a mile before if they were irritating enough, but she was almost sorry she’d charged Stephen the full $2500. She has no doubt that he’ll follow her instructions. He’s beaming at her. He has no regrets about the chunk of change he turned over to her.

She watches him go, looking like a new man. It’s amazing what even the idea of magic can do. And it’s a living, after all. Win-win. She’s amused at the thought of the midnight swim he has coming up, but that’s the extra touch she throws in for the deluxe package.

Carving Jack

Charity lifted a leaf and smiled at the perfect orange pumpkin hiding underneath it. “You can’t escape me,” she cooed. She ran her hand over its bumpy surface, marveling at how evenly round it was. She would carve this one first. It needed nothing fancy, no clever embellishments or complicated stenciling, just a classic triangle-eyed and -nosed jack o’lantern with a menacing toothy grin. She pulled the knife from her pocket and hacked until the stem gave way, then hoisted her prize from the rich, dark earth. Beautiful.

She spread newspaper over the kitchen table to make cleaning up the guts easier. You couldn’t say she didn’t learn from her mistakes. Her first stab, somewhere around the fellow’s left temple, was firm and decisive and made it all the way through the flesh on the first try. She was getting better. She sawed a carefully jagged circle around the top and lifted off its lid. She made a face. Guts were so off-putting. 

Charity set aside the lid and put on long dishwashing gloves. The guts still squished and squelched as she pulled them out, but at least nothing horrible was lodging itself under her fingernails where even a stiff brush couldn’t get at it. And her cuticles wouldn’t be stained. She still gagged as she dumped the smelly mess into the garbage.

Now it was time for the precision work. Careful, small cuts with a very sharp knife. Start small, because you can always cut a hole bigger, but you can’t uncut it. She was pleased with her first triangle, and she measured carefully to be sure the second one would be even with it. A couple of small adjustments and she was satisfied.

Time for the teeth. They had to be menacing, truly terrifying, the kind of gaping maw that scared away demons from your door. A cruel hint of a smile, like he knew you were scared and he was pleased about it. And sharp teeth, teeth that could rip and tear. Teeth you would run from.

Nowadays those LED lights were popular, but this jack o’lantern was a masterpiece. He deserved a stubby candle to sputter unevenly and glow as only real fire can. Some things just can’t be simulated. This fellow could bite and burn. A thing of nightmares. She popped on his lid and turned off the light, plunging the room into darkness. Shadows played ominously over the walls. Her breath quickened and she had to remind herself that it wasn’t a real monster. There were no monsters here anymore. She’d made this, grown it, carved it herself, and it—he—was glorious.

In life, Jack hadn’t given her anything but pain and loss and terror. Now he was finally useful, nourishing her crop from below. And she’d learned a thing or two about carving thanks to him. She watched the candle burn between the strangely familiar smile. Oh, yes. This would keep the demons away.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Feedback

I got my judges’ feedback on my flash fiction story (Political Satire/A Forest/A Laptop). I’ll repost my story below.

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1651}  I thought you did a great job of using animals versus humans in fairy tales to satirize and explore the movement of Black Lives Matter. I enjoyed the humor you brought to this piece as well.  {1611}  This was an engaging story and a totally creative concept. Great sense of pacing and wonderful details to ground readers in the narrative.  {1960}  Using animals always gives a lightness to a subject and having the bad guy put away in the end is the smart move. 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1651}  I think it would be a stronger choice if you used only the humans from the fairy tales to represent the humans in your story, because it gets a bit confusing when the three little pigs are grouped in with the humans because they’re now humans called the three little pigs. Is Sheriff Nottingham an animal? I’d tell us when we first meet him. I’d also consider giving Sheriff one last plea in his defense at the end.  {1611}  I would have loved a tiny bit more interiority from the sheriff. What is at stake for him personally – before his interaction with Puss?  {1960}  This story’s language is ambiguous enough that it could be read as pro- or anti- BLM movement. Depending on your intended audience, you’ll want to go back and make revisions.

A Fairytale Ending

“Hey, Furless!” Goldilocks turned her head at the deep voice behind her. A huge, hulking brown bear was gaining on her. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m just out for a jog,” Goldilocks squeaked.

“Sure you are. You humans are always coming into the forest and making trouble.”

“No, I’m not. We’re not. Look, I’ll just go, okay?”

“I don’t think so, Blondie. You remember when that human Jack’s vendetta against a giant knocked down half the forest? My brother’s house was one of the ones his beanstalk fell on. There’s only one way to deal with your kind.”

***

Sheriff Nottingham washed another aspirin down with his cold coffee and unfolded the Sherwood Daily Caller. The headline screamed HUMAN ROBBER FOILED. When his buddy Papa Bear had called him in a panic, the sheriff had a flash of inspiration. Papa dragged what was left of the body into his house and claimed he’d found Goldilocks eating his porridge and feared for his life. With the Stand Your Ground law the sheriff had written last year, it was a piece of cake. Goldilocks had once been arrested for shoplifting, and the sheriff had made sure his friend at the Daily Caller knew it. An article citing statistics of human on human violence ran below the fold.

He watched the protestors in front of his office and rummaged in his desk for an antacid. HUMAN LIVES MATTER screamed their signs. Well, of course they did. All lives mattered. But if the humans were going to insist on coming where they weren’t wanted and stirring up trouble, what did they expect? He’d thought they’d gotten the message when Deputy Big Bad Wolf had run the humans nicknamed the Three Little Pigs out of town. Trying to build houses here! Imagine what three humans living in the forest would do to property values. He tapped his anthropomorphized wolf paws on the keyboard of his laptop, filling in the narrative section of the report. 

“Deputy Big Bad Wolf observed the decedent, Red Riding Hood, acting suspiciously in the forest. He approached her and asked what was in her basket. He believed his life was in danger when she reached into her basket, presumably for a weapon.” That part was fine. But what did he do about Grandmother in the human village on the other side of the forest? The sheriff was pretty sure that his deputy had been hungry and, his appetite whetted by the little girl and the contents of her basket, had headed to Grandmother’s house for seconds. He massaged his temples.

Was that Robin Hood outside his window? Yes, that damned fox was marching with the humans, and he wasn’t the only animal. The sheriff spotted the Three Blind Mice, a few swans, and Humpty Dumpty as well. He was never sure if Humpty counted as an animal, but he was definitely not human. What in the forest was going on here? He jumped at a loud banging on his door. “Sheriff! We have some demands for you!”

“Demands? Is that you, Puss?” he asked as his door crashed open and a large cat in boots came in. 

“I’m representing the Human Lives Matter protestors, and we demand your resignation immediately. This violence must stop.” The sheriff hadn’t even stopped sputtering when Puss continued, “We’ve overlooked a lot of injustices, Sheriff, but Red used to give us cookies on her jaunts through the woods. We liked her. We didn’t know Goldilocks, and I’m ashamed we didn’t stand up for her, but Big Bad has gone too far this time. And I know you’re in here trying to write up a report that keeps you from having to fire him, much less toss him in jail.”

“Puss, what are you doing carrying signs with these humans? If they would have just stayed out of our forest and done what they’re told, none of this would have happened. They’re the troublemakers here, not my deputy. Now, I’m putting Deputy Wolf on leave while I investigate the incident, and that should be enough for you.”

“Paid leave?”

“Well, that’s procedure. Innocent until proven guilty and all.”

“Unless you’re a human!”

“What do you care, Puss? Have I ever treated you wrong? Anyone in your family? Anyone you even know? The humans know what happens when they come tromping through our forest and they insist on doing it anyway!”

“And what was Grandmother doing in her own house in her own human village that was so bad, Sheriff?”

“Well, she probably encouraged Red to cut through the forest so she could get her basket of goodies faster. It’s a much shorter walk. Look, I could maybe put a note in Deputy Wolf’s file and give him a week of unpaid leave. I won’t deny that he’s sometimes a bit rougher than necessary with humans, so I’ll send him on a sensitivity course too. How’s that?”

“That’s just not good enough, Sheriff. We need real change this time, not your empty promises.”

Sheriff Nottingham blustered as Puss dragged him out from behind his desk, spilling his coffee and knocking his laptop to the floor. He was quickly surrounded by a mob, and he knew how Red and Goldilocks must have felt in their last moments. “Are you going to kill me?” he whimpered, looking desperately around for help. Was that Deputy Wolf slinking off into the trees? He thought he saw Papa Bear too, but no one rushed to his defense.

“I voted to kill you, but we’re a democracy, and most of us think we should be better than you,” Puss said, shoving him into his own jail cell. “And I don’t want blood on my good breeches during the election.”

“Election?”

“We need a new sheriff. My platform is Fair Laws, Equal Treatment for All. We’ll hold your trial after the election. I promise you’ll get exactly what you deserve.”

Sheriff Nottingham’s eyes went wide as the cell door slammed shut.