#fff is a writing prompt adventure lead by Elisha Bartels. Read more here: urbanfolktales.blogspot.com
Archives For Flash Friday Fiction
So the characters I created for the last #fff won’t leave me alone and I don’t know enough about them to write a whole long tale. I’ve decided to use Elisha’s triggers to see where these characters take me and who else they introduce me to along the way.
More about Flash Fiction Fridays: http://www.urbanfolktales.blogspot.com
My heart was beating like a bird sewn into a shirt pocket. I watched Michael’s mouth move as he tried to explain how the vessel that would shortly land in front of us worked. A strand of his auburn hair came loose from the tie at the nape of his neck and every time he spoke or turned to look out beyond the glass in front of us, it swayed and caught on his lip or ear in a manner far too distracting.
The soft lights of the viewing gallery spilled into the darkness in the gap between where we waited and the launch pad that lay maybe a half kilometer away. A red light flashed intermittently with a green one communicating a Morse-coded message into the night sky. The Milky Way filled the horizon beyond the platform.
Michael coughed softly, a nudge that it was obvious I had stopped paying attention, before continuing his lesson in gravity fields and anti-gravity fields and how the disc could fly upside down allowing us an unparalleled view of New Amsterdam lit for the New Year without any of us feeling like we were upside down. I sipped a flute of ersatz courage, thinking for the thousandth time that I had been born much too late. Perhaps I should get a tattoo of St. Clarke’s aphorism, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” on my thigh. Everything seemed impossible to me, doubly so that this scientific genius was with me to ring in the new year.
The lights of the landing pad flashed a solid green as the disc neared and then settled on the small circle of steel and tarmac. Even from here it was clear the vehicle made no wind or sound. The long grass glowing in blued LED light stood as straight as sentinels.
A woman’s cultured voice filled the waiting lounge asking passengers to meet the shuttle outside the main entrance. I sat my glass on the mica-topped table between our chairs and pulled my wrap tighter against the slight chill of the September air. Michael looked back at me as we made our way to the small line of people boarding the open shuttle. He was excited and even then I could tell that his excitement was as much for the ride and for himself as it was for sharing this with me.
The flight attendant asked if we would like him to take a picture of us before we boarded. Michael nodded and pulled me to him. I could hear the soft click of the camera eye as Michael turned to kiss me. When Michael received it later that night, he immediately turned the small screen for me to see it as well.
We looked like too people who had all the time in the world. It was the happiest, best picture of us taken. Michael never shared it with the many interviewers who clambered to speak with him over the years and asked for publicity shots. I understand from a mutual friend it is still in the same silver metallic frame in his office.
My father always said art would be the thing that saved us. When I was very young and he left my mother and me, that was the last thing he’d said to me. At ten, I was at a complete loss as to what he could possibly mean. He was a nanosurgeon and my mother was the head of the global seed library. I couldn’t understand what our lives had to do with art.
The books arrived monthly after he left. Always on the twentieth, the day of my Januar birthday. They were old-fashioned things, even then. And the ones he sent were especially old and smelled faintly of vanilla and wood smoke. Though the gloss had long worn from their comically out-dated dustcovers, the information inside was clearly his way of explaining himself.
The first book had been an illustrated guide to moss and lichen from all over the world. I slept with it, ate breakfast pouring over it, and dreamed of lying on the floor of a forest cradled on the fronds and leaves of a million tiny plants. Lesley, my mother’s assistant, had to tape the spine back together before the next book arrived. He shook his head as he handed it back to me and said something about little girls being given treasures beyond their understanding.
The next one arrived and I had to dig through my mother’s closet to find a bag to carry them both. As the months passed and the number of books increased, it was clear to me that I needed shelves in my own room, separate from my mother’s library. Lesley oversaw their delivery and installation and sat in my reading chair as I carefully shelved every book my father had sent in order of its arrival.
He rose to leave as I shelved the last book. “Maybe you do understand the value of these things your father sends.”
Lesley was always the person to bring the package to me when it arrived. He started to wait until I’d opened it to see for himself what my next book-based obsession would be. I think now that he wanted a head start for the barrage of questions that would meet him when I had finished.
I was sixteen when the last book arrived. It was The Mill on the Floss and to this day, I have no idea why my father sent it. On the twentieth of the third month after it arrived, Lesley poked his head in my room. I was sprawled on my bed, rereading the end where Tom and Maggie drown in the flood through sobbing, wracking tears.
“Boss wants you to come to library…” he stopped as soon as he realized I was crying.
He crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed and awkwardly patted my arm. “There haven’t been flights to Paris in weeks. I’m sure in the next few days all the missing deliveries will arrive.”
I sat up, embarrassed now that Lesley could see my swollen cry-face. “Why this book?” and “Why was there never a note?” were the two questions Lesley couldn’t answer.
Mar hissed at me the way one would hiss at a cat clawing into the expensive sofa fabric. She combined her verbal admonishment with a look full of daggers.
I hadn’t meant to touch it. But, my gods, how can one resist feeling the brush strokes of a painting the world believed lost in the Fire? The colors had perhaps faded but the gold leaf gleamed where Klimt had burnished it onto the figures in The Kiss. There were other precious works in this newly discovered cache but none of them captured me like this one painting.
“I promise I won’t touch it again. Not until I’m suited up and properly ready to clean it.” I bowed slightly to the woman who was the elected leader of our gild.
Mar nodded her head in approval but it was impossible to miss the smile that played across her lips as she watched the other restorers stand in awe as we all had our first long look at paintings by Picasso and Monet, Klimt and Munch, that no one alive had ever seen before, aside from stored images.
I could have easily stood in bliss in this room for hours but breakfast had been hours ago and my stomach rumbled audibly.
Mar laughed. “You should eat. There is much to do.” She beckoned with a flick of her wrist and I followed her out into the courtyard and toward the commissary.
When the sky opened, I panicked and made it worse. The wind picked up and the deluge was now a low grade hurricane. The corn in the adjacent field laid itself flat having not evolved to survive straight line winds.
The house began to tremble in the wind. Hundred year old floor boards sang and popped under the stress. The windows rattled and the cat, already disturbed by the copper scent on the air and the smoke, ran for what sanctuary could be found under the couch. His whimpering was audible above the drone of the wind buffeting this whole town.
I slumped to the floor, all of the techniques I’d practiced with my Gran forgotten. The rain hit the ground harder than any Midwestern rain that had ever fallen, mirroring the tears that came hot and fast streaking my face with the eyeliner and mascara I’d carefully applied to “gussy up,” Gran’s words remembered, for our anniversary dinner.
We’d planned to drive two hours to Des Moines to celebrate ten married years. There were no children to rush off to parents and a neighbor had offered to do the morning chores so we could spend the night in the city. We’d eaten beans two nights a week for the last two months to have the extra cash.
I’d taken his sport coat, the same one he’d worn to the courthouse to get married, off the hanger and watched him put it on. I slipped my hands in his front pockets like I’d done hundreds of times before standing on my toes to kiss him. There was a crumpled paper in his pocket.
It was open in my hand before he realized I had it. My breath halted when I read the words written in a woman’s loopy scrawl. “Last night was lovely. I can’t wait for a time when you don’t have to leave before the sun is up.”
My hands had begun to shake just as the sky visible through the wide-slat windows began to darken. When I looked up into his face it was as dark my thoughts.
“What is this? Who is she? All that time you said you were helping Tom catch up on chores while his son was sick? The auction in Iowa City? You were with someone?” The words came out all at once, hardly a space between to understand.
He swallowed and said it was nothing. He was looking at the worn rug beneath our feet, at the cat, at the kitchen door, at anything but me.
“You’re lying. You always swallow like that when you lie.” There was venom in the words now, and pain. I could feel the pieces of my life slipping away from me, “when were you going to tell me?”
“Sometime this week, tomorrow. I don’t know. I didn’t want to ruin our anniversary for you. You were so excited.”
“Are you leaving then? Do you love her?”
“Yes. And yes,” he had deflated visibly with each word. “She’s pregnant.”
White anger exploded inside of me and my heart broke. A bolt of lightning crashed through the front window, searing him in the chest. The force of it threw him against the breakfront his mother had given us as a wedding present. He must’ve hit the corner with his head.
He crumpled to the floor, whisks of smoke curling off his clothes, a pool of blood spreading under him. The room telescoped away from me and my head rang from the shock of being so close to the lightning. Every cell in my body wanted to fling open the front door and run, but I knew what I had done.
The storm was taking the shingles off the roof. Some part of the house splintered as it lost its fight with the elements. The only thing that could stop this now was me. I picked myself up off the floor and crossed the room to the front door. I only had to turn the handle for it to crash inside with the force of the storm. Rain and hail invaded the house and soaked me to the skin. I pushed against it out onto what was left of the porch.
There was darkness beyond the stairs. The rain and debris being hurled about blocked what was left of the dusk light. I waited for a bolt to take me. Asked one to come for me and end this.
Instead the wind died down and the rain stopped. The storm calmed as quickly as it had come. In my resignation to die, I had calmed myself enough. I sat on or fell to the porch boards, empty.
Gran said I should never lose control. Only bad things could come of it. She also said it would die with me unless I had a daughter. I chose to never risk it and let a man love me without telling him the truth.
I’m just under the wire on this but wanted to get it posted. I took a fairly literal approach to the trigger.
Rolling into new towns was always the best. I could imagine my family and me as intrepid explorers or exiled royalty from some far flung land through the eyes of townsfolk we’d never met or meet again.
My father’s patented elixir of grain alcohol, steeped horehound, and orchard honey helped the mothers of the apple-picker families soothe colds and helped the fathers deal with sore backs and long days. My father took pride in the purity and wholesomeness of his blend. He thrived on almost daily presentation of his wares and the grateful faces of repeat customers as my mother and I traded coins and nuggets for bottles of amber liquid.
The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act put an end to his work. Even though he didn’t sell white spirits that blinded workers or other poisons that rotted out livers or teeth, the Act took his livelihood as surely as if he’d been one of those hucksters. The pickers no longer trusted his understated showmanship and our nights spent sleeping in orchards, the sweet smell of rotting windfall wending its way into our wagon on the night breeze, stopped as abruptly as the horses at the edge of a stream.
We stopped travelling and moved into a shack on the edge of Snohomish. My mother took in mending and laundry and my father broke, first drinking his remain stores and then cheap rum or whiskey he could trade for a small labor. My brother went to work as a picker and fell from a tree twisting his neck and ending his life. Sometimes I think my life ended, too, with the end of what many had accusingly referred to as my father’s snake oil empire.