Blending In

Writing group exercise. The prompt was “awkward first meetings.”

 

Blending In

 

I know I’m fidgeting. I can’t stop messing with my skirt, which is the wrong way to blend in. I change from tugging at the seam of my pocket to shifting back and forth on my feet. The woman in front of me seems to be agonizing over some sort of life or death decision as she wavers between ordering a macchiato and a latte.

“Excuse me, are you in line?”

I turn to see a young man behind me. “Yes.” Yes, of course I’m in line, you idiot. Why else would I be standing here, desperately trying to bore a hole into the back of the woman in front of me with my eyes?

I don’t even want coffee. But that’s what people do at a coffee shop so that’s what I’m doing.

“Oh, my mistake. Do you come here often?”

Is that something people really say? Is he flirting with me? I shrug and turn to focus on her back again.

I know I don’t blend in. Growing up isolated in a very rural environment, different than the world around me. Well, there are some things even cosmetic surgery and therapy can’t change. But it was necessary for me to be able to be around people. I still haven’t gotten used to seeing my new self in the mirror.

The woman finally moves. I get my coffee as quickly as possible and turn away from the counter, but the man turns with me.

“I hope this isn’t awkward, but are you here for the meeting?” he asks.

Yes, this is awkward. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t want to be here at all.

“I am.” It’s a good opportunity to practice this sort of thing. I have had no practice with whatever this is. Is this flirting?

“Best news I’ve had all day,” he winked.

He just winked at me. Like all the terrible tv shows I’ve watched where people hook up in the most unlikely way. He must watch the same shows.  “Aren’t you getting anything?”

“Nope,” he laughs. Gesturing to a table of five young women, he says, “I guess that’s the rest of the group.”

I head in that direction, and they must see the intention on my face because they wave me over with friendly gestures.

A woman with flowing gold hair and six necklaces of assorted material straightens in her chair and begins to speak in a voice of authority blended with a merry tone, “I call this meeting of the Fairy Investigation Society to order! We have a couple of things to discuss from our last meeting, before we go around the table to introduce our new participants…”

She continues on while the man leans over to me conspiratorially. “Do you actually believe in fairies?”

I manage a shrug. “Do you?”

He subtly shakes his head. “These kinds of things are a great way to pick up women.” He winks again.

Seriously.

I turn back to the table. I am not here to flirt with foolish men. I am here to find out what they know about us, and how to steer them away from the truth.

The Corner Market

The Corner Market

 

The bell tied to the door jingled as Emily pushed into The Corner Market. The cashier didn’t spare her a glance as she stopped to breathe it all in. She wanted to remember how this experience felt, the dingy, overhead fluorescents casting a greenish-yellow light over the aisles of potato chips and candy bars. The odor of over-cooked hot dogs and burned coffee, the sweetness of cherry slushies, the stale cigarette smoke all mixed together with something she couldn’t identify. Bleach?

Don’t be nervous. Lots of people like me come here for this very reason. 

With her strawberry blonde hair and the splash of freckles across her nose, none of the other customers even noticed her. She was the very picture of a southern girl. And why shouldn’t she? She was born here, after all.

A few faltering steps brought her to the counter where she waited for the teenager to look up from his comic book. She cleared her throat.

This is happening. I am really going to do it. 

“What?” he said with a frown.

“Could…could I have the bathroom key?”

He stared at her blankly. She had to be right about the key. She was told to ask for a key. That was the only way to get in to the bathroom.

“Customers only.”

Oh, right! She forgot she had to buy something first. She looked around hastily and found a pack of gum. She put it on the counter and fished around in her purse for loose change.

The teen twitched an annoyed eyebrow. He took her seventy-three cents and slid a wooden paint stirrer with a key attached to it across the counter.

“Have fun in there.” He went back to his comic.

Emily went out the door and around the back of the small, cinder block building decorated with spray paint words she couldn’t read to find a scuffed and battered metal door. She put the key in the lock. She didn’t turn it. She just stood there staring at it.

It is so hard to believe I am really here. 

She only lived a few hours away, but she could never get her parents to bring her. Now she was seventeen, she had her license, and they thought she was shopping with her friends. They probably wouldn’t have cared, they just didn’t understand and honestly, she felt a little silly. It didn’t mean as much to them. Of course, they had been here before.

She turned the lock and the door opened with a whine. The intense odor hit her even before her eyes could adjust to the dimly lit room – the filthiest bathroom she had ever seen. She quickly stepped inside and closed the door behind her, turning the lock.

This is it. Right here. This is where it all began.

It didn’t feel like anything special. The tile behind the toilet looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in a while, the splashes of yellow showing up against the old tiles. Above the tile, all around the room were phone numbers, scratches, poems and stories written in marker and pen. Drawings too. And among the drawings, the symbols. Like gang markings, they identified each group, but only to those who would know. She took a deep breath and gagged at the assault of odors.

Try again.

She pressed her eyes closed and held her breath as long as she could before inhaling. She was instantly dizzy as she felt the room expand around her. It smelled pure and clean, like a rose bush after a spring rain. She opened her eyes. The walls were shimmering – the grime taking on strange colors that shifted between luminescent purples and pinks.

This is where my parents first came through to find a new home for us. A world that was free from chaos and destruction. This is where they found hosts with limitless potential to create and build and explore. A fresh start for our kind.

She had the sudden feeling she was falling, but she knew it was a one-way trip. You couldn’t go back through. But still, it was something to come and feel the place where reality was so thin you felt you could reach out and burst it like a bubble. The center of the universe.

And the closest to the fatherland she could ever be.

Blood and Bone

Blood and Bone

 

“I’m tired, Jules,” Samantha said.

“I know, girl,” Jules answered, staring out toward the horizon.

“You’re not going to try to talk me into prolonging my life again?”

“I would if I thought it would do any good, Sam.”

Tiny beads on the silver anklet jingled as Samantha dug her toes down into the soft sand of the shore. Jules patted her arm in an effort to be comforting.

Samantha was tired. Exhausted. It felt as if she had been fighting to stay alive for an eternity. Each infusion of new life deep in the marrow of her being wreaked havoc on her soul. She had made the decision to stop fighting. Everything around her seemed like a cancer. Humanity itself was a cancer. A blight on this gem of a planet and she was so tired of it all.

“I’m afraid,” Jules said.

“Why are you afraid?” Samantha laughed. “I’m the one who’s dying.”

“I’m afraid of being alone.”

“You won’t be alone. You have your friends.”

“You know I hate them all. The only one I could ever stand was you.” A tear slid down Jules’ cheek. Samantha pressed her own fragile, wrinkled skin against her friend’s smooth face.

“They need you, even if they don’t want to admit it. You have always been the best of us,” Sam whispered. “Try. For me.”

“I’ll try,” Jules whispered back.

Samantha straightened up and chuckled, trying not to let the rasping cough take over the moment. “I really didn’t think it would take this long to die.”

“Well, you’ve never done it before.”

“I’ve watched enough people depart this life. How many? It feels like a million. More.”

“I know what you mean,” Jules said.

Sam fell back in the sand, silver hair spilling all around her. “Remember me when I was full of purpose. Not broken and worn out.”

“What difference does it make?” Jules said bitterly. “Do you even remember what we used to care so much about?”

“I remember,” Sam said. “And so do you.”

“If you did, you wouldn’t just give up.”

Samantha was quiet for a long time, the rising tide lapping at her feet. Jules pushed back to avoid the water.

“I guess that’s true,” Sam finally said. “But I have a bigger problem right now.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t think I can get up again,” Sam said with another gruff laugh. “You have no idea how hard it is to be this old!”

“I never plan to find out,” Jules said smugly, pulling on her friend’s arm to help her sit. She lovingly brushed the sand out of Sam’s hair with a sad smile before catching the steady gaze of crystal blue eyes. Centuries passed between them before Jules broke the spell and turned back to stare at the ocean.

Sam drew in a deep breath, as if she could bring the whole universe into her lungs before releasing it in an ungraceful sigh.

“I suppose I can go a little longer, just to keep you company.”

Jules’ eyes widened but she turned her head away as the air crackled with the rush of energy. She stared at the tall grass in the dunes behind them, watching as the green spikes began to wither and die, turning to dust in an expanding arc around where they sat. She glanced toward the water to see dead fish and kelp being deposited by the waves, flaking and disintegrating into the sand. She could feel the heat radiating from her friend. She never liked watching others go through the messy process, blood and bone reforming within the husk of human skin.

A trembling, youthful hand finally reached over to grip hers.

“What’s another thousand years between friends?”

Bigger than Hank

Another writing group exercise. This prompt was “giants.” 

 

Bigger than Hank

 

Kirstie swung the heavy tool bag over her shoulder as she pushed open the aluminum door of the trailer. The sunlight was blinding on the quiet work site, soaking into the rock and bouncing off the still machinery. Only far-off city sounds and noisy birds disturbed the hole that would be the underground parking of this future shopping mall. Walking out into the sunlight, she began to unroll the wide coil of orange extension cord as she moved toward the enormous hole in the ground.

She had given everyone the day off, because she wanted to be alone. She had work to do before the Beast found out what she was up to. That’s what she called him. In her head anyway, she always thought of her husband, Hank, as “Beast,” because they not only shared the same name, but he really did remind her of the big blue scientist from the X-Men. Fifteen years older than her, a foot and a half taller, he was a giant in every way,  looming over her physically and in some ways, intellectually. When they first started their relationship as professor and student, she was awed by his insight and discoveries, but a decade later, she had come to resent being always in his shadow.

Climbing over the rope that marked the perimeter, she thought about her conversation with Hank earlier in the morning. He knew something was up, but she was vague about the details. He had tried to talk her out of traveling alone to Bolivia, asking her to wait until he could go with her, and she didn’t tell him she was already here. It was unlikely he would come home early from Nepal, but she didn’t want to take any chances because she needed this trip alone.

She began her descent down the makeshift stairs that had been added for the work crew. There was nothing but a vaguely geometric carved out place in the dirt and rock, with smooth, roundish pieces of stone jutting out at odd angles. Walking to one, and dropping her bag, Kirstie fished out the probes and started untangling the wires, frowning at the strange pattern in the dirt under her bag. She hadn’t noticed that in the photos they sent, but maybe the rains had caused the wide ripples. She knew the stone wouldn’t give to her chisels or pick, because the workmen had already tried dynamite to no avail, so she set those aside. The probes pushed into the dirt easily on opposite sides of the round stone and she connected her banged up tablet to the switch box to get started.

These “rocks” were it for her. This was her moment to shine, and if she was right, the world would quickly forget about Hank and his epic discoveries. Saying a little prayer that the resistivity survey would come back the way she hoped, she continued to reset probes and make notes until the sun had moved to the other side of the thirty feet tall rock to cast a shadow on her work.

While she was walking around waiting for her last reading on the first piece, she paced around to the next nearest stone, noting that this rock had a striated pattern radiating from it. As if the rocks weren’t odd enough, something was definitely going on with the dirt.

The electrical readings had confirmed that whatever indestructible material the outer crust of the “stones” was made of, there was some kind of elaborate structure inside that could be organic. But as she glanced over the site she realized she had missed the most important observation, even with the aerial shots she had been sent.

Kirstie backed up slowly before turning and making a run for the stairs. Two stairs at a time she flew to the top, ducking under the rope and dashing to the trailer. A moment later she burst back through the door so quickly she broke one of the flimsy hinges, a stack of photos gripped in her hands. Slow steps took her all the way around to the other side of the site, opposite the stairs, while she sorted through photos in her hands, dropping the ones she didn’t need. She stopped exactly where one of the photos would have been taken, and stared for a long time at it before closing her eyes. Opening them, she looked up at the sky and took a deep breath. Desperately she wanted her hunch to be right, at the same time she knew she should hope to be wrong.

Two days ago the photos that were taken showed smooth dirt all the way around all the stones. Now she could see that not only had the strange patterns been formed, the stones jutting out weren’t even in the same place.

The stones weren’t individual, they went together, half-buried. And the ripples around some of the stones made sense when seen from above. Whatever was buried here might be bigger than the Statue of Liberty, but all curled up and tucked away, as if asleep. If she used her imagination, it could even be person-shaped. One piece of a shoulder and some of an arm. A hip, a knee, an ankle. And now it was clear to her that whatever it was, it had shifted in its deep slumber, pushing and scraping the dirt around it.

 

It was waking up.

 

Oh, how glad she was that Hank hadn’t joined her on this trip.

The Elf and the Box

Here’s a short story I did for my writing group. I honestly forget what the prompt was!

 

The Elf and the Box

“I’m not what you were expecting, heh?” The toad-like creature croaked from the corner of the dark room, where she was hunched in a chair by the cold hearth. “You thought elves were elegant with lithe, delicate forms?”

Lia said nothing, staring from the doorway with wide eyes. “You’re an elf?”

“The stories have it wrong. Well, maybe some of us started as a thing of beauty, but when you’re as old as I am, everything goes downhill. You’ll know that too someday, and a lot sooner than I did.”

The wrinkled old creature laughed loudly as she shifted her stubby legs and waved a hand over the charred logs beside her. The wood burst into flames.

“Come get warm, child, and tell me why you are here, as if I do not know.”

Lia shuffled forward, the light from the glowing embers sparking in her red-gold hair. She was glad for the warmth, but afraid to get too close to the strange woman. “You know why I’m here?” she asked with a trembling voice.

“What I don’t know is…who sent you?”

Reaching into her pocket, Lia pulled out a silver chain with a small charm hanging from it. She held it in front of the woman. “I found this in my mother’s things after she died. I never remembered her wearing it. I kept it for so many years, and the priest saw it around my neck on my wedding day. He was so distraught he barely made it through the ceremony. Rael and I have been married for five years now, and yesterday the priest came to see me.”

The woman nodded knowingly. “Go on.”

“He…he said there was something my mother should have told me. Something she had confessed to him before I was born. He sent me here to find you.”

“This is why you have come,” the elf reached a bony hand to a box beside her. She picked the wooden rectangle up and leaned forward to hand it to Lia.

Lia hesitantly took the box, holding it in front of her, tracing the elaborate carvings with her thumb.

“The answer to your question is inside,” the old elf whispered.

Swallowing a lump in her throat, Lia whispered, “I didn’t ask a question.” But she knew she had. She wanted to know why she was having such trouble bringing a child of her own into the world. The priest had let it slip that her mother had also had a difficult time conceiving.

“That locket is mine. Your mother agreed to keep it as long as she lived. You may not have seen her wearing it, but she always had it with her.” She pulled at a delicate chain around her neck and revealed an identical charm dangling from the end.

“Why would she do that?” Lia was beginning to suspect the answer already. She opened the lid of the box. Inside there was a short length of faded pink ribbon, a pinched lump of gold sealing wax, a small lock of strawberry blonde hair, a diamond as large as her little finger, and a tiny vial half-filled with dark liquid.

“I made you from those things. The charm was my payment. Wherever the queen went I was, through the locket. Every secret, every plan, every deception your mother or father might undertake, was revealed in full to me. And I used those things not for evil, but to keep my people from being destroyed by her schemes.”

“If you have such magic, how could we destroy you? Why?” Lia kept staring at the box, willing the story to be false, but the clues she had been trying to piece together seemed to come together with the odd scraps she held.

“There are only a few of us left, and because of our magic we are feared by men.” The woman gestured dismissively as if the annihilation of an entire race was not the point of the conversation. “After your mother died, our agreement ended. A wave of my hand and you’d fall to pieces like a worn rag doll.”

Stepping back in alarm, Lia felt all doubt suddenly removed about whether she believed the old woman’s tale.

“But I knew you’d be back,” the elf said with a humorless laugh.

“How?” Lia whispered.

“I knew when you tried to have a child of your own, you’d find it impossible. And then you’d find me.”

Lia wanted to flee, but she couldn’t make herself turn away. She clutched the box tightly in one hand and the locket in the other, with trembling hands. The old elf nodded knowingly and handed Lia a scrap of paper she pulled from her pocket.

“Here are the things I’ll need to get started.”

The Cake Boss

I’m up earlier than early this morning with a sick child, and I didn’t feel like writing my usual existential crisis blog post. So here’s a short story I recently did for my writing group. First time writing in first person, present. Give me some feedback in the comments.

 

The Cake Boss

I tap my fingers on the counter, holding the phone six inches away from my ear as the owner drones on without needing any help from me. She may be a terrific baker, but she doesn’t understand anything about my process. My cakes are “to die for.” At least, that’s what the customers say. The crème au beurre is perfection. The filling defies gravity. So delicate, yet holding up an impossible number of layers. My cakes are already in demand at every wedding and exclusive party in the city, though I’ve only been working here three months. There’s a waiting list a year ahead. Not that I plan to fill all those orders. That’s why she’s so desperate. Somehow she senses I’m not going to be here long.

She has tried to entice me to give up my secrets, but she knows that if she presses me, I’ll just quit. I’m not trying to steal her glory. This is a side gig. It has helped me get where I need to be. But I still take pride in my work. I can’t do anything halfway.

She’s still talking. She sounds smug. She won’t find the secrets in the recipe cards she stole. Those are just mundane recipes for ordinary chefs, and I am no ordinary pâtissier. The important secrets are in my head.

Those secrets make the difference to the serious clients. Like the one I worked on this morning. The Cake of Immaculate Technique is still waiting in the back of the cooler, inside an empty bucket, where I left it before going to lunch. This is different than my “to die for” cakes. She couldn’t even fathom the feat I accomplished with this one. It’s hidden, because this is a side job. Cash. A whole lot of cash, to be clear, and the owner most definitely isn’t getting a cut. 

I think I’ve missed something in the conversation. I bring the phone back to my ear and ask her to repeat herself. Impossible! She is telling me she knows about the cake in the bucket – no – she has the cake! She came and got it while I was at lunch. Damn it! 

They’ll be here any minute. The party is tonight. I don’t have time to make another! Of course I won’t get paid if the job isn’t done, but the money is the last thing I care about right now. My reputation will be completely ruined. I’ll be ruined. Everything is crashing down around me, but she’s still talking. Oh. Her. Right, I keep forgetting about her, as the constant drone of her voice is easy to tune out. She is saying that she has poured a glass of wine and is going to spend all afternoon with my cake. She’s already had a few bites and she’s close to figuring out the secret of my impossible filling. Then she coughs. Just a small sound, but I know she’s out of words for good, so I hang up the phone.

Maybe the ambassador would be tempted by a perfect slice of my perfect cake, and I can still salvage my career.