Air Lines by Donnie Dale

In 1976 Trans Canada Airlines lost a small feeder turboprop and my girlfriend’s father was on it. Only he and the pilot were on board and their bodies vaporized. We went up to Ontario from Pasadena, Millie and I, to make sure her mother was all right, and that was the first time I saw the trail that became our family icon.

Her mother—Barbara was her name—was a woman as skinny as a new elm and as vulgar as an old hockey player. She told us she was fine, and she was surprisingly fine considering the co-pilot of her life had disappeared. She instructed us to go out and see the countryside and leave her alone so she could celebrate. Millie had heard that the Bruce Trail was something to see so we went to see it. We were avid hikers then, early in our courtship. I think it was only later that the trail became so well known, traversing a good part of the province along rolling hills that are the highest points in the state.

During the hike, up from a country road, into hills fully clothed with the shimmering greenery of that region, we first saw The Tree. We called it The Tree because it stood out that much. A massive old spruce, it had blown over in a storm and was caught in the arms of a better-braced beech of similar size. We made a bet, she con and I pro, that the next time we came up it would be down on the ground. On the way out Millie named all the flowers she knew from her childhood there.

“This is a wild daisy,” she said of the striking white ones. Taking one’s head off for me. “He loves me he loves me not, he loves me he loves me not.”

And so on until she had it plucked clean and the petals all lay as white as paint chips in her hand. Lo and behold, I loved her. Then she blew at the petals and all but three flew off her hand. “We’ll have three children,” she said definitively.

Then she picked a yellow buttercup the size of a quarter and held it up to my chin. “If it reflects off your chin, you love me.” She saw that reflection vividly, she claimed. Everything pointed to love.

We flew up again a year later, in part to caution Barbara to celebrate a little more slowly with the insurance money. We went out to the trail as she thought about this and remembered The Tree and walked the extra half-mile for a look. It was still hugged up against the beech, holding on with its stripped arms as if terrified of falling. Its bark was eroding to a slate gray in this liquid environment.

“This thing doesn’t want to go down,” I can remember saying. “Would you?” Millie asked. We went home and were married and had four children within seven years.

And so the visits went, over a period of three decades. Barbara was as tough as Niagara Escarpment limestone but when she declined she did so furiously. Into a long, lit matchstick of white hair and outdated blouses. Rigidly upright and lashing out about the American lust for Canadian lumber. She became more companionable toward the end. Once, she laughed with us rather than at us. Every visit was also a visit to The Tree. We took the kids, who like all good California children whined at the very sight of a trail disappearing into woods, even as they became teenagers and young adults.

“I don’t understand it,” Barbara said the last time we saw her. “That Vickers Viscount had the Rolls Royce Dart engine. That was the best engine ever made. It shouldn’t have failed. It just should not have failed.” We had never heard her grieve for her husband before, but this sometimes happens in the proximity of death.

When we got the news that she had descended the stairs in too much of a hurry and landed on her craggy limestone head we went up one more time. Buried her and sold the house and Millie left me for Bobby because she had quite a nest egg and determined that it was her best opportunity to start all over again. This happens to men like me who are too compliant, I hear. I always called him Bob when I saw them at Thanksgivings or weddings, but she called him Bobby and so did the kids eventually. After a few years I suggested that we go up and walk the old trails. Just she and I and the kids. Not Bobby.

Millie declined, of course, as anyone would. The kids were busy with their own families by this time and on a whim of international proportions I decided to fly up by myself. I drove by the old brick house where Barbara had ruled our meager dinners with an iron fist but that wasn’t why I went.

I drove to the trail head, which was now an asphalt parking lot lined with grass play areas and picnic tables, on a fine June morning and parked and hiked up the trail and found The Tree within twenty minutes. Like a reluctant cadaver it still clung to the beech, which had grown on without its old mate. The fungusy beast just would not go to ground, though it scarcely had arms to hold on with. I had lost my bet and this was the last time I would go back.

As I left I picked one of the new buttercups from along the trail, yellow as eggs and sugar mixed in a bowl, and before I could think what I was doing I held it to my chin and said “Is it there?” but of course this was stupid. There was nobody to observe whether my reflection was present or not.

© Copyright 2009 Donnie Dale. All rights reserved

Donnie Dale’s published novel is A Hunter’s Fire. A horror film he co-wrote was produced but never released. He has had several other screenplays optioned and was a writer on the true crime show Arrest & Trial. He makes his living as a freelance magazine writer. He used all but six of the thousand words allotted to him in writing Air Lines. The words he left out are crucible, maniac, fizzled, draconian and two buts.

Terror on the Ten

Terror on the Ten
By Yevette J. West

My wife Diane and I are taking a road trip to Dallas to attend an Anniversary party. We are on the 10-East crossing the Arizona state line into New Mexico. It’s a hot, early August afternoon—105 degrees according to the dash gauge. Even though we left our cozy place in Bungalow Heaven about 10 hours ago, I’m ready to turn around and head back home. Diane loves road trips and I hate them. We could have sent a card instead of going to the party and taken a mini-vacation within the great State of California. I lost that argument just as I am losing the argument in progress.

“Afraid of bugs?” Diane let this fact she had just learned about me sink in. “My gawd Dominic! You’re kidding me, right? I’ve known you for over 10 years. How did I not know this?”

“That’s why I love California—very few bugs. Besides we all know you’re not afraid of anything Miss Man Hands.” Diane ignored me.

“I’m afraid of some things, but not bugs. I just don’t like them on me, but who does? Anyway, isn’t that an oxymoron—you afraid of bugs? I mean, my gawwd Dominic, you’re grillions of times bigger than insects!”

“You’re an oxymoron, without the oxy.” I tried to be witty…nothin’.

“Wow, you of all people afraid of bugs.” she continued. “I guess we won’t be moving to Florida to retire after all.”

I could feel my face getting hot and although the a/c was on, I let my window down half way to get some fresh air—hot as it was. “I’m not afraid of bugs. I just have a phobia of them. For your information, it’s called entomophobia and it’s a real issue for a lot of people.” Who was I kidding? It was more than an issue. I’m 6′ 4″, 225 pounds, but bugs represent inconceivable horror to me, period.

Just then, as if on cue, something flew in through my half open window and landed in the back seat. A cold chill of dread-fear ran down my spine as I heard—whatever it was—fluttering in the back. Diane didn’t hear it, but my bionic hearing was locked on to the noise.

“I mean the South is full of bugs…” Diane rambled on but all I could focus on was the back seat. The fluttering had stopped and the grip I had on the steering wheel, now slick with perspiration, relaxed slightly. Diane didn’t notice because she was too busy talking…to herself.

The fluttering started again and while scanning the back of the car via the rearview mirror, I saw a giant grasshopper crawling up the back seat towards the rear window. Suddenly, to my horror, it flew towards us and landed on the back of Diane’s seat. I must remain calm…

“So what are you afraid of? They can’t hurt you unless it’s a wasp or something. Everybody’s scared of those things…” Shut up Diane! For crisake don’t you realize there’s a monster on the back of your seat!

“Hey Di, you mind if we turn off the a/c and let the windows down? We’re getting low on gas.” Who gives a shit about gas! Let’s get these damn windows down so that thing can get the hell outta here! I turned off the air conditoner and Diane rolled down her window. As soon as she did, however, another grasshopper flew in and landed in the back seat. Diane didn’t see it, but I, on the other hand, flinched and simultaneously jerked the car noticeably to the left.

“Are you falling asleep? What’s wrong with you?” she asked, annoyed.

“Nothing!” I squeaked. I was visibly sweating now. At that moment the grasshopper on the back of Diane’s seat decided to move closer to the top of her seat. I now had full view of it. I could also see the other grasshopper in the rearview mirror. It was now crawling up the back window. My eyes were straining to watch these two hideous creatures and watch the road. Hold it together man!

“Thank gawd there’s a gas station up there. Pull over Dom, I gotta pee.”

I took the next exit going 80, ignoring the 30-MPH sign. Just as I approached the gas station the grasshopper on Diane’s seat flew at me and landed on my headrest. I let out a gut-wrenching “I’m being attacked by a great white shark!” scream. I hunched my shoulders in an attempt to protect myself and my chin was almost touching the steering wheel. I was holding the wheel so tight my hands were starting to throb.

“Watch out for that old lady!” Diane screeched as I made a hard left into the gas station. She could now see the grasshopper on my headrest. The undeniable look of horror on her face fueled my terror. The other grasshopper jumped from the back window and onto Diane’s head. She didn’t feel it, but I saw it. I completely lost it.

“There’s a grasshopper in your hair!” I shouted so loud I almost choked on the words.

“Ohhh…myyyy…gawwwwwwwd!” Diane screamed as she started waving her arms. It was total chaos in the car—Diane and I screamed and flailed while the two grasshoppers jumped from place to place.

I slammed on the brakes and broke the seatbelt latch in an effort to get out, not realizing the car was still in drive. In a brief moment of clarity I jammed the car in park. I then swung open the door and swan-dived onto the pavement, rolling on the ground as if putting myself out from a fire.

I stopped rolling after about five minutes and, covered with weeds and dirt, I looked up to see a large crowd, including Diane, gazing down at me.

© Copyright 2009 Yevette West. All rights reserved.

Yevette J. West is an aspiring writer, born and raised in Denver, Colorado. She has chosen to showcase her writing for the very first time, using this forum. Yevette resides in Los Angeles and hopes to one day become a screenwriter.

Are We There Yet? by Steven A. Lowe

Jill, still sleepy, complained: “I’ve never been to Pasadena, why are we going there?”

NGL1 responded: “It’s a requirement. Protocol. No uploads are accepted without it.”

“It’s not an open system?

“No, you have to follow the guidelines—and wait your turn.

I heard it’s beautiful.

I couldn’t tell you—beauty does not compute. I can tell you that many visitors rate it positively; your bandwidth may vary.

“Pasadena is a server? I thought it was the Crown of the Valley?”

“It is; that was robot humor.

“Oh, I get it—bandwidth instead of mileage on the Internet. Duh. That’s a terrible joke.

“I know. But it’s the only one I have.”

“What’s it like now?”

“Pasadena’s actually a post-industrial wasteland, ever since the Green Energy Disaster of 2027.

“I read about that in school. The massive wind-farms destroyed great flocks of birds and drastically altered the regional weather patterns. The roses were the first to go. The combination of drought, tornados, lightning strikes, and unchecked mosquitoes finished off the tourists. The reservoirs dried up in 2028, and it was abandoned in 2030. FEMA has been there for the last 45 years trying to fix it—but if you ask me they never will, it’s their last active camp.

“We’re nearly there. 92.01%. 92.02%. 92.03%.”

“Stop that, that’s annoying.

“Also robot humor. My apologies.

“Are you getting me back for reciting history you already know?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps it is for questioning the intentions of the fine FEMA crews.

“Are you programmed to make bad jokes or tease me?”

“Not specifically, but it is suggested by your psych profile. I don’t want you to get bored and change your mind about going. I have a quota, you know.

“No, my mind is made up, I’m done with this host.

“If you say so.

“Uh…we’re not actually going into the town are we? I heard it was still overrun by two-foot mosquitoes.”

“An exaggeration. The average specimen is barely half a meter. But no, we’re not going into town, just routing around it on the bypass like all the other souls.

“So how far is Heaven from there?

“Not far. Go back to sleep, we’ll be there soon.

“If I do, will I wake up in Heaven?

“Doesn’t matter; it’s really too late to do anything about it.

“What is that supposed to mean?

“Well, you might wake up in Heaven, if you’re accepted. Or you might wake up somewhere else. Or you might not wake up at all.

“Wait a minute…I can stop now?

“Well, yes, if you really want to. I mean, if you say you want to cancel the upload I have to permit it. I can’t force you to continue. You have the option to abort, retry, or ignore.

“OK. Stop the upload. I’m sorry about your quota.

“You just fulfilled it. Please click the Back link to return home.

© Copyright 2009 Steven A. Lowe. All rights reserved.

Steven A. Lowe is the founder of Innovator LLC, a software-development and consulting firm, and is a member of the band Noise in the Basement. Steven has never been to Pasadena. If you think his stories are imaginative, you ought to see what he can do for your business!

A Losing Game by Bonnie Schroeder

She stuck out her tongue at me! I don’t believe it! Why’d she do that? I’ve never bothered never even spoken to her in all the months I’ve been coming to this Weight Watchers meeting in Pasadena. She’s always here ahead of me anyway, and she sits on the far side of room, facing the door, where everybody can see her.

But why’d she do that to me? I just weighed in and sat down, minding my own business, and I look across the room and see her, facing right toward me, slinky blue eyes narrowed down and pointed my way, and that tongue poked right out, nasty little thing—looked like the underside of a lizard’s belly. But why?

She sure thinks she’s something special, with that fancy name: Elizabeth. They give us stick-on name badges, but I don’t wear mine. My name is nobody else’s business, as long as I show up every week. I don’t know what the big deal is with names, anyway. Most other self-help groups are anonymous. That’s the way it should be.

Elizabeth was a lot bigger when I first joined here, but she’s collected a bunch of those trinkets they give you when you lose a pound or two, so I suppose she thinks she’s better than me. Probably has one of those supercharged metabolisms that burns up everything she eats the minute she’s finished chewing.

I try and watch what I eat, I stay away from potato chips and Coke; I buy the low-fat ice cream, and if that’s not a sacrifice, I don’t know what is. You can eat the whole carton and still not feel like you’ve had enough.

Maybe it wasn’t on purpose, her sticking out her tongue? No, she seems like the kind of person who knows what they’re doing. She may be skinnier than me, but she’s not pretty, not by a long shot. Scrawny brown hair all streaked with gray; you’d think she’s never seen a L’Oreal commercial. God only knows what color my hair would be if I let it grow out all ugly like that. And she hardly even combs it, lets it stick up all over her head, like she just climbed out of bed.

Did I do something to her and not realize it? I don’t think so. I’m pretty careful to steer clear of the other people, not bump into them in line. I don’t even talk much—not like Elizabeth. She talks to everybody, sitting there in those jeans that couldn’t fit tighter if she’d painted them on. I like a little room in my clothes, so I can breathe. My husband likes them that way, too; he tells me so whenever I ask him.

I wonder if Elizabeth even has a husband? Somebody to tell her California wouldn’t fall off into the ocean if she combed her hair and put on a little lipstick now and then. Me, I go the whole route, even if it’s just to a meeting like this one. Even if I’m only going to gas up the Suburban, I do up my hair and put on eyeliner and mascara and lipstick. There’s nothing wrong with a woman helping her looks along, you know.

I wish the meeting would hurry up and start. These chairs are so uncomfortable, hard and skimpy. Of course her skinny fanny fits with room to spare, but I’m not the only one who could use a couple more inches.

Lots of people showing up now. Why does everyone come at the last minute? There’s a bunch of them in line to get weighed, chit-chatting like they’re at some kind of party, joking about how much they ate, or didn’t eat, this week, and laughing if they fool the scale.

From the row of chairs behind me, somebody’s purse brushes against my hair. She better not have messed it up; I spent a lot of time fluffing it just so. I hope my husband notices when I get home. The purse’s owner is getting settled now, zipping something up and rattling papers. Probably reading the handout they gave us this week. I glanced at it, but who needs another salad recipe?

Oh, great—it’s another socializer behind me, the kind who has to talk to everyone. I hear her chair creak as she turns around in it.

“Tina’s in a good mood today,” the socializer calls out to somebody in line. Tina’s the receptionist who does most of the weigh-ins. The scale face is hidden, but you can tell what’s happened from what Tina says. She tells the ones who’ve lost, “Good job!” And if you’ve gained or stayed the same, she says, “Now, don’t get discouraged.” She’s always telling me not to be discouraged.

Skinny old Elizabeth is still staring my way, and I get ready to stick my tongue out at her. But she’s looking over my head, so I turn around. Wanted to get a peek at the socializer anyhow.

She’s not exactly what I expected: just a kid, one of those no-makeup types, almost as skinny as Elizabeth. She has good skin, and if she’d comb out her hair instead of pulling it back in a ponytail, she’d be a pretty little thing. She holding up her right index finger and grinning like a fool.

“Hey, Elizabeth,” she calls out, looking past me like I don’t exist, “don’t be a sore loser. I won the bet fair and square, by a tenth of a pound.”

© Copyright 2009 Bonnie Schroeder. All rights reserved.

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the 5th grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and also volunteered for a local Red Cross chapter, writing newsletters and press releases to sharpen her factual writing skills while she worked on her fiction. It was sometimes a challenge to separate the two. Her debut novel, Mending Dreams, was published by Champlain Avenue Books.

Belinda’s Birthday by Petrea Burchard

Damn hot flashes.

Belinda Marvel rolled over onto the empty Cheetos bag, blowing orange dust in her face. Her pajama pants pinched at the waist. Her stomach growled.

She allowed her sock feet to flop to the floor. The motion propelled her to sit up. On the silent TV screen a skinny girl sat crying and eating take-out on the bed in a hotel room, in a rerun of a reality show. Belinda smacked the remote. The screen went black.

Crumbs in the cookie package on the coffee table would not suffice. Belinda heaved herself to her feet and slogged off in search of food.

At first she hadn’t been able to do even that much. Rising from the couch meant confronting the swelling pile of mail under the front door slot. She hadn’t opened a single envelope. Now, after six weeks, the heap of sympathy cards and legal-sized envelopes had stopped growing. Belinda had become accustomed to it, as if it were a batch of mending she’d get to one of these days.

She rarely went down the bedroom hall except to use the bathroom. She preferred to sleep on the couch with its crowding bolsters rather than face the king-sized bed alone.

The dining room had its obstacles, too, namely the pyramid of birthday gifts gathering dust on the table. Belinda scurried through the curtained room, jiggling her new fat, avoiding the sight of the packages. She didn’t want to know what he’d meant to give her for her fiftieth birthday.

The kitchen cabinets gaped. Why bother to close them when you’re just going to open them again?

She’d started with the vegetables and fruits from her last trip to the Farmers’ Market. She had once dreamt of a garden of her own in the back yard. Organic whole foods, that was her.

He was Cheetos and cookies. He adored sugar-coated cereals and salty chips. High calorie, high fat, high bad, that was him. She had begged him to change his eating habits. She had worried about his heart. He was over fifty. He had to take care of himself.

The perishables were gone by the end of the first week. Then she’d tucked into the canned goods: first peaches, mandarin oranges, kidney beans and organic diced tomatoes. Then the refried beans, canned chili, spaghetti and tamales. He’d stocked up to prepare for disaster, not knowing what form it might take.

He’d gone early on her birthday morning to a bakery in Eagle Rock to surprise her with her favorite flourless cake. A drunk driver had hit his car head-on in the middle of the Colorado Street Bridge. He hadn’t been wearing his seat belt because it was too tight. It wouldn’t have mattered.

Two lean, healthy Pasadena Police officers had come to the door, hanging their heads and bearing his belongings, including the bag of pastries he’d bought. As soon as they left she had eaten it all, even the frosted long johns.

Belinda kicked aside empty cans, their gaping throats crusted and molding. She tore through a lower cabinet, tossing away a sack of dry lentils. One last jumbo bag of barbecue flavored potato chips was hiding there. Belinda plopped to the floor, ripped open the bag and stuffed a handful of chips into her mouth, then another. She couldn’t eat them fast enough. Little bits broke off and tumbled down the front of her pajama top. She picked them up and ate them, too. She stuffed herself with handful after handful.

Finally she licked a finger and wiped it along the inside of the bottom of the bag. Red barbecue seasonings covered her pajama top and chin.

Her stomach roared. It wasn’t enough.

A long, low moan erupted from her, but not from her stomach.

Sobs hit like hunger pangs. She was insatiable. Between wails she gasped the fetid kitchen air. Air gave power to sobs of rage.

“I won’t go out!”

“How could you get so fat?”

“How could I get so fat?”

“God damn drunk driver!”

Belinda grabbed the sack of lentils and threw it against the wall. For a few seconds, it rained lentils in the kitchen.

Belinda sat. She shook the beans from her gray-brown curls. Grasping the countertop with pudgy fingers, she pulled herself up with a grunt. She waddled to the sink, splashed cool water on her face and dried herself with a kitchen towel. The towel came away red with barbecue seasonings.

She blew her nose on a paper napkin. The trash can was spilling over. It stank. She found a grocery bag in the cabinet and put the napkin in it. She added the potato chip bag.

Belinda stood still for a minute.

Bracing herself on the countertop, she shuffled through the debris to the dining room. The presents on the table were wrapped in bright colors. He was creative. He was generous. He had liked birthdays. There were a dozen packages, all sizes and shapes. She couldn’t open them all today.

Her finger stroked the topmost gift, a chartreuse envelope addressed to “Beautiful Belinda, garden of my heart.” Belinda smiled. Not much of a poet. Another hot flash came with its immediate, internal combustion.

The envelope rattled like maracas. She slid a dirty fingernail under the seal.

Inside were seed packets: tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce.

Belinda gasped. She clutched the packets to her chest. Her heart pounded.

She ran to the kitchen, kicking a path through the lentils to the back door. With shaking fingers she turned the deadbolt. Her heart whammed. She squeezed the seed packets to her lips and opened the door.

The sun rushed in with its cacophony of birdsong and fresh air. A lawnmower next door kicked up scents of cut grass, wet dirt and salvation. A fly buzzed past, a butterfly flitted through blossoms on the orange tree, a dog barked several yards away.

Grateful for the gift, Belinda breathed. In and out, in and out, in and out.

© Copyright 2009 Petrea Burchard All rights reserved.

petrea-burchardPetrea Burchard enjoyed a 30-year acting career before morphing into a writer. She is the author of the novel, Camelot & Vine, as well as Act As If: Stumbling Through Hollywood With Headshot in Hand, essays about the life of a journeyman actor in Hollywood.

She gained a following in the anime world as the original English voice of Ryoko, the sexy space pirate in the cult classic, Tenchi Muyo!, and continues to work in the voice-over field.

Jumping The Tracks by Lynn Nicholas

Claire tried hard not to fidget. She leaned against the paneled wall and shifted her weight to her left hip, arms folded, right foot crossed over left. Howard was scrunched on the floor, still tinkering with the track: checking electrical connections, adjusting couplers, aligning joints. There were, evidently, some major mechanical issues. Howard was engrossed. Claire was bored.

“How long to I have to just stand here, Howard?” Controlled breathing curbed the impatience in her voice. “Didn’t you say that model railroading is a great hobby for couples? Remember the ‘couples’ part?”

“Sure, Babe. Absolutely. Just give me a minute to figure this out.” Howard spoke without raising his eyes from the track. “Hand me that small Phillips, okay? It’s the one with the blue handle.”

“Here.” Claire slapped the screwdriver into Howard’s upturned palm with the efficiency of a surgical nurse. She was fed up with being a good sport.

“I think I’ll add another straight section of track; this layout isn’t right. The passenger cars derail every time…” Howard’s voice trailed off, his absorption total. He was lost in that single-minded focus indigenous to the males of the human species.

Caught somewhere between exasperation and bemusement, Claire stared darts at the back of Howard’s head. The man was impossible. For weeks she dropped hints big enough to trip an elephant, and this is what Mr. Romance gives her for their 20th wedding anniversary: an HO-scale, Pennsylvania Railroad model train set, complete with chuff-chuff steam engine sounds and lighted passenger cars. How obtuse could he be? Did she have to hit him over the head? Next time it would be with a club.

“Howard, remember how we used to talk about taking a cruise one day after the kids were grown?” No response. Deaf as well as obtuse.

Claire sighed. Loudly. Indiscreetly.

Being relegated to observer status added insult to injury after Howard’s big presentation and sales pitch just a few hours ago. Grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, he had half-pushed, half-pulled the unwieldy, unwrapped box out of hiding. Talking fast and selling hard, his words had tumbled over each other. “You’re gonna love it, Babe. I got this special for us so we can spend more quality time together. Isn’t what that you keep talking about? Quality time? We can even join the Pasadena Model Railroad Club.” Biting her lip, Claire had folded into silence.

Grimacing, she rubbed the ache out of her jaw. Clenching her teeth was becoming a bad habit. Her eyes closed with the release of tension. She drifted into a favorite fantasy. She was the women in the ‘tell her you love her all over again’ TV commercial: one of those Diamond Council ads where adoring husbands drape glowing wives with diamond anniversary jewelry. So, 20 years and what does she get? Something sparkly from her favorite store in the whole San Gabriel Valley? No. A toy train.

Reality sucked.

“Howard, what about—? She cut herself off. He wasn’t listening anyway. Claire switched her attention to the photo collage hanging above the fireplace: the kids’ baby portraits, Danny riding his skateboard, Linda’s dance recitals, one of herself huge with pregnancy, and a pre-baby Claire and Howard, toasting their future with dripping ice-cream cones.

“Wooo-WHOOOO! WOOOO.” The burst of sound ricocheted both itself and Claire off the wall.

“What the hell was that?” Claire’s eyes widened. “Howard?”

Howard managed a lopsided grin, working his words around the wooden train whistle clenched between his teeth. “Sounds like the real thing, doesn’t it? Bonus gift. Came with the set.”

Claire’s stare morphed into a full-blown glare. The intended impact was lost on her husband whose nose was already buried in a technical information sheet.

“The locomotive runs great alone, but the passenger cars still derail at the turnout.” Howard wasn’t speaking directly to Claire as much as mulling the problem over out loud. He was visibly enjoying himself, despite his frustration with the mechanics. “If I connect the engine behind the cars, so it pushes rather than pulls, everything holds. Maybe if I change the coupling on the back of the locomotive…” His
voice trailed off again.

Claire pulled up a barstool. There was no telling how long Howard planned to tinker with the wretched train. She studied her reflection in the mirror above the wet bar and grimaced. OK. She wasn’t exactly young anymore but she was still attractive, wasn’t she? Her skin was unlined and her chestnut hair was barely touched by gray. She wondered what Howard saw when he looked at her these days. Her life felt like a cliché.

“Here we go?” Howard stood up as he spoke. “Hey, Claire, are you watching?” He motioned with his head.

She nodded her attention, and Howard ceremoniously pushed the ‘forward’ control on the remote. The locomotive chugged to life and began its trek around the S-curve of the track. The stream engine whistled; the coal car lit up; the passenger cars stayed attached. The train clicked its way around the track.

“Well.” Howard boasted. “Got her running. I think I learned a couple of things too.”

“Me too.” Claire responded thoughtfully. “Sometimes you have to pull, sometimes you have to push, and sometimes you just have to change the coupling.”

© Copyright 2009 Lynn Nicholas. All rights reserved.

Lynn Nicholas, a retired technical editor, now writes just for the pure joy of writing. She won National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2007 and 2008; her story was chosen for the NaNoWriMo True-Life Tale in September 2009.When not writing, she can be found cooking for friends, gardening, or ballroom dancing. Lynn lives in Tucson with her husband and much-adored Australian Terrier

Watching Faye from BL by August

Editor’s note: This story was inspired by Margaret Finnegan’s “Slipping”, making it our first call-and-response story!

Damn, she’s in!

One unguarded moment and just as First said could happen, someone slips in. That’s the problem with Thought Streaming at yoga. The others are less aware, easier to penetrate, but so am I.

Who wouldn’t be, right behind Clarice while she’s in down dog? One minute sneaking looks and the next thing I know I feel her, what’s her name? Faye? My involuntary sigh as Clarice arched her white leotard back; that’s what did it. Letting out that much made me take in more and that was all Faye needed to enter me.

What did First tell me to do? Something about going to a second level? No, the Below Level. He called it BL.
“Get to BL quick enough” he said, “and while the intruder can still read your Thought Streams, they’ll be garbled.”

That won’t be hard to do. What’s hard is staying focused enough to Thought Stream at all, even more so when watching Clarice.

“Just let go Roy, you’ll drop down and can watch the intruder from BL.”

First is right. I feel like a voyeur. Faye is in but she doesn’t know where and as long as she stays I can watch her in a way not otherwise possible. Does she know that?

First said that Thought Streamers are everywhere but not all know how it works and what to do to protect themselves. I certainly didn’t at first; there is a learning curve to this.

As if yesterday, I remember Thought Streaming my Dad, learning how unhappy he was; that scotch was his way out of reality. At first it scared the hell out of me. A voice talking about my mom and brother and often me, but who’s voice? It took awhile before I connected it to my Dad and only after he thought how bad it was to be out of scotch while still sober.

I can see Faye is confused but I don’t know about what. She has the advantage of being in my Thought Stream and as long as she is, I can’t be in hers. But being on BL means that little I think will make sense to her. If she’s new it will be awhile if ever before she figures that out.

Hmm. I wonder if Dad Thought Streamed? I’ve never considered that before but I am now. What if he could and was good at it, possibly even capable of Thought Streaming someone while they were in him? First never said it couldn’t happen, only what to do when it did. God, what if Dad learned how to Thought Stream while in BL? If he could that would mean he could have worked me; leading me to whatever conclusion he wanted me to reach.

I did feel sorry for him, not at first but soon, the more I listened to his thoughts. Just like Willy Loman, Dad lived a declining existence even before he decided to put aside what little optimism he ever had. Before he knew that the good was past, that as bad as things were the present would soon be seen as better than the future.

Faye is not happy; I think she wishes she’d never entered me. She’s not relaxed and if you’re not relaxing in shava-asana, you’ll never release. She’s lying there but her muscles are tense, exactly the opposite of what should be happening.

“Let go Faye. Let go or get out of me.”

Did she just move? Could I Thought Stream her while she’s in me? If Dad weren’t dead I would ask him. Just call up and say, “Dad, are you a Thought Streamer? It’s OK Dad, you can tell me and if you are, can you show me how to Thought Stream someone while they’re in me?”

But he is dead and there’s no one else to ask so I either need to assume it’s impossible and give up, or try to Thought Stream Faye while she’s still in me.

Concentrating I only see Faye, only hear Faye, can all but feel Faye around me as well as in me. I can tell she’s feverishly attempting to make sense of my Thought Stream even as I think about hers. Will our thoughts meet and if they do what will happen? Maybe a God Particle Big Bang Pasadena mind meld, the outcome of which neither of us could ever fathom. I get chills, I’m scared without really knowing why and sad because I don’t, knowing I never will.

Just like Dad was sad. He never knew and it must have scared him. Day in and day out having to deal with the same old thing, all the things over which he had no control. Only more sadness made only temporarily less so when drinking scotch.

But if he Thought Streamed, if he knew what those around him were thinking about him, about ourselves, what affect would that have had? It wouldn’t have been good, it couldn’t have. We all circled each other in a never-ending stream of unspoken thoughts, my brother and me at first too young to know what was happening followed by all of us knowing, never admitting way too much.

Or did we only think we knew?

Faye is out and more that that, she’s leaving. Not the relaxed visage usually seen at the end of a yoga session. She’s tightly wound, her brow contorted, looking everywhere but at me.

We’re disconnected, I can no longer read her Thought Stream, thinking but unable to say the words:

“Faye please don’t go.”

© Copyright 2009 August. All rights reserved.

August is a man with many accomplishments, including winning 3rd place in the 1957 Emerson Elementary Kite Flying Contest, Novelty Division. This is his first foray into fiction.

The Fourth Possibility by Susan Carrier

Mushi-atsui. Miranda thought the Japanese word sounded like what it meant—hot and humid. She escaped the mushiatsui life when she moved from sultry South Carolina to Southern California, but there was no escaping the steamy, suffocating heat of Sado Island, Japan, in August.

She sat on a crowded bus dabbing the sweat off her brow with a hachimaki, a Japanese bandana that she wore during taiko drumming classes at the Pasadena Buddhist Church. Her sensei at that class was the one who encouraged her to venture to Sado for a week of beating drums among the best percussionists in the world.

After a two-hour bus ride, she arrived at a Japanese woodblock gallery. She planned to purchase a print for her small mid-century modern home in a funky area of Altadena, just north of Pasadena. Her friends thought it was austere, but she preferred to think of it as serene, almost Zen-like.

Miranda made her purchase—a stylized print of taiko drums by a local artist—and then sat drinking hot green tea while she contemplated the long ride home. She looked down at her rumpled shorts and dusty running shoes and then ran her fingers through her sweat-drenched hair. When she looked up, she caught the eye of a handsome Japanese stranger, who looked as cool and serene as the Sea of Japan. If the heat didn’t wilt her, then his smoldering look would.

She spoke to him in the limited Japanese she picked up from two semesters of language study at Pasadena City College. “O genki desuka?” she asked, the English equivalent of “How are you?” Miranda laughed and made a “time out” sign with her hands when his answer sounded like a 78 rpm record. He didn’t know that her ears only worked in 33.

He offered to drive her to the bus stop, one mile away, and she gratefully accepted. She figured she could make five minutes of slow-speed Japanese conversation. But the short lift to the bus stop turned into a five-hour island tour. They drove along the jagged Sado coast while listening to Japanese jazz. They explored secret coves on deserted beaches.

She felt a shiver when he put his hand into the small of her back as they walked up a flight of stairs to an old monastery. For a split second, their hands accidentally touched, and then for a few more seconds they held hands. It was long enough to convince her that her life in Pasadena was wrong, all wrong.

When they reached Miranda’s minshuku, a poor-man’s version of a Japanese Inn, he gave her a gift—two of the CDs that were the soundtrack of their afternoon adventure. They agreed to meet the next night at the final drumming concert.

She spent the night pining and plotting. Pining for Masahiro, the handsome Japanese man who showed her the beauty of Sado. Plotting a way to turn her weeklong visit into a lifelong adventure. Pining for a life of beating drums instead of beating her head against the wall of her cubicle at her dead-end job in Pasadena. Plotting a way to bring an end to the equally dead-end relationship with her fiancé, a Caltech physics boy wonder.

She couldn’t wait to see the object of her infatuation at the concert the next night, but the more she thought about him, the more she panicked. She saw three possibilities, and didn’t like any of them.

What if Masahiro was a no-show? Would she leave Sado Island in despair?

Or what if he showed up, and the spark was gone. What if the fairy dust from their magical evening evaporated? Could she bear it?

And, worst of all, what if he showed up and the spark was still there? What if the spark turned into a flame? What if she quit her dead-end job and relationship and pursued a fantasy relationship and life on Sado Island, an island so remote that it was once the Japanese version of Alcatraz? What if she returned to Pasadena and spent a lifetime considering what could have been?

She didn’t like any of the possibilities or what ifs, but she played each one over and over again the next day. She turned over possibility one as she ate her breakfast of grilled snapper, steamed r

ice and pickled cabbage. She pondered possibility two as she wrote in her journal while gazing at the tranquil Sea of Japan. She considered the third possibility as her calves ached from pumping up a steep hill on a rental bicycle.She reached the top, looked down and thought, “Ganbatte.” Go for it, as the Japanese say, and she did. She gave it everything she had as she raced down the steep hill. She felt airborne and, for at least 30 seconds, Miranda forgot about the three possibilities.

But then she hit a rock and lost control of the bike. Her face broke her fall when she flew over the handle bars. Hot tar from the black top road became embedded in her shoulders and knees. “Mushiatsui,” she mumbled as paramedics lifted her from the road into the ambulance. “I’m very uncomfortable. It must be because it’s so mushiatsui. Mushy-hot-sweaty.”

On the gurney, she went back to turning over the three possibilities while she listened to the siren. Should she pull over? Wait, no, the siren was too close for that. And then it struck her. The siren was coming from the ambulance and she was riding in that ambulance. She was hurt and was on her way to a hospital.

A smile spread across her aching, broken face. At that moment she knew that everything was going to be OK and that the three impossible possibilities no longer mattered.

It hadn’t occurred to her before then that there was also a fourth possibility. “I don’t have to go to the concert,” she whispered to the ambulance attendant. “I don’t have to go.”

© Copyright 2009 Susan Carrier. All rights reserved.

Susan Carrier is half Japanese, half Scottish and 100% hillbilly. She grew up in West Virginia, where she ate Ritz crackers instead of rice crackers. When she moved to California after college, she finally got in touch with her Japanese side. As a writer, she’s written everything from annual reports to first person essays and feature articles. She blogs about surviving cancer and enjoying food, and is the co-owner of The Orange Cat, a family events website. She’s also working on a one-woman show, but this is her first attempt at fiction.

Quicky by Désirée Zamorano

Inez Leon waited in the foyer of the Athenaeum. She resented the fact that she had had to cut short her krav maga workout, to shower, dress up, and then struggle for parking around the Caltech campus only to find Wallace was not ready. But what was the time of a full professor worth, contrasted to the lowly wages of a brown female PI? What really irritated her is she couldn’t order a damn drink while she waited because only Wallace could sign his chit…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since submitting this story, the author has had a novel published and is pursuing  publication for her shorter works. Please visit her website for details on where to read the rest of “Quicky.” 

One Rainy Night by Karuna Sanghvi

The loud peals of thunder had stopped, but the rain continued to lash against the windows. My sole agenda for the evening was reading and sleep. I grabbed the latest Dianne Emley thriller and sank into a deep armchair with a mug of hot cocoa. In moments, I was lost in the mystery.

“Eeeeeeee!,” a scream pierced the air. The mug of cocoa fell out of my hands, staining the blanket over my feet. Was the scream real? I picked up the book to check. The book did not mention any scream. It must have been real.

“Eeeeeeee!” There it was again. I was galvanized into action. Someone needed help. I dropped my book, grabbed a torch, threw on a raincoat, and rushed out onto the tiny verandah.

Outside, everything was deadly quiet except for the pealing rain, which now hit my face with great force. I beamed the torch into the yard, but all I could see were raindrops, now fogging the thin glass covering the torch bulb.

I walked into yard. There was nothing, save sandy mud and the sea. The foamy white waves seemed dangerously high and bent on destroying the little beach. To the right, a trail of jagged rocks led upward to a cliff, but my humanitarian instincts were overcome by another instinct: fear.

As I turned back towards my cottage, I wondered who could have screamed. The beach was deserted and there were no neighbours for miles.

Who could have been foolish enough to venture out at such an unearthly hour on such an awful night? Someone contemplating suicide? Or murder? My imagination was now running wild, as nervousness clawed at my throat. The thriller was having its effect.

Wait, was that a footstep? I whirled around and beamed the torch in all directions. No, just rocks tumbling in the waves.

By now, I was certain someone was nearby. I felt the chilling sensation of being watched. I looked again towards the trail to the cliff. I was sure that the scream had come from that direction. Should I risk it?

My debate ended when—”Eeeeeeoooow!”—another scream ripped through the air. I rushed towards the trail and made my way up the slippery path. It leveled out at the halfway mark, and I paused to beam my torch all around.

No one. Nothing. Just wet black skies pounding me with rain. Still, I was now certain a murderer was lurking and that I would be his next target.

I wished that I had brought a knife or something to use to defend myself. The murderer could still be around. Maybe I was being watched right now. I again shone the torch upwards and all around, but there was…no one.

That’s when I heard a faint moan. The victim was alive! I must do something! I continued upwards, keeping my torch trained on jagged stones.

As I cautiously made my way towards the sound, the rain suddenly stopped. All I heard was waves crashing and my own pounding heart.

And then the low, terrified whimpers.

I rounded a boulder and came upon it. A sight that stunned me for a moment and had me laughing the next. It was a cat, the large tomcat who wandered in and out of my house several times each day. The victim was a soaking wet, scared cat.

I was so relieved that I nearly lost my footing on the trail. He offered no resistance when I picked him up, I carried him back to the cottage where we both settled in for the night.

The next morning, I went for my daily walk and breathed in the fresh salty sea breeze. The sands were still wet after last night’s double onslaught by rain and tide.

As I reached the cliff where I had found the cat—I’d named him “Pookie”—I looked up and shuddered. The cliff looked even more intimidating against the grey pallor of the sky. But now the trail was dotted with men.

“Hey you!”, shouted a voice. A portly woodentop descended the trail towards me.

He had many questions—and some answers. I learnt that last night a woman had been raped and killed. A jogger had discovered her body. I described what I had heard and even led him to the cat.

The police officer jotted down the details and mentioned that I had been lucky. Had the rapist seen me, perhaps there would have been two bodies. Who knows? I shuddered at the thought.

As I laid out some milk in a little dish, I wondered if the cat had saved my life after all. Or whether I would have been able to help that woman.

Two days later, a newspaper article reported the victim had been raped and killed in her house, and the killer had thrown the body off the cliff that rainy night, hoping that her death would appear to be an accident.

So it had been the cat after all, and not the woman. I still do not know whether to be relieved or worry about any future attacks.

Today, the cat—my Pookie—is still with me. He loves to curl up with me in the large armchair as I read yet another thriller. But when it rains, he hides under the chair.

© Copyright 2009 Karuna Sanghvi. All rights reserved.

Karuna Sanghvi has worked with design in e-learning, creative thinking, and general education for the last thirteen years. Each new project presents different challenges, and she has emerged from each with more experience and fresh understanding. This is her first flash fiction story.

Downsized by Janet Aird

I’d always thought of Albert as a fairly predictable person, so when I came home from work one evening and found the living room drapes missing, I assumed he’d taken them to the dry cleaner.

He’s been stressed these last few months, ever since he was laid off from his job as an engineer at Caltech in Pasadena. A loyal, if unimaginative, employee for nine years, he hadn’t seen it coming, although almost half of his department had already gone.

I hadn’t realized how much of a shock it had been, though, and what effect it would have on me.

I have to admit, at first I enjoyed his being home during the day. He did all the cooking, and when he cleaned the house, he swept the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. He even moved the furniture when he vacuumed. Except for our dwindling bank account, I’d have to say that the quality of my life had definitely improved.

Until I found out he’d sold the drapes on Craigslist.

“We can use the money,” he said. “Besides, I kept an extra set of sheets. I’ll hang them up instead.”

The next day he donated all the magazines I’d been meaning to read to the library. Then he went down to the thrift store with a load of clothing that I would have fit into as soon as I lost ten pounds.

One evening I came home to find pictures from our photograph albums scattered over the dining room table. “If we just keep the best ones we’ll only need one album,” he said, dropping a handful into the trash.

He gave away scraps of lumber we’d been saving for the day we might want to build something, and all the boxes we’d kept in case we ever moved. Then our furniture began to disappear. First, it was a few chairs we never used, then two ugly lamps, and then everything in the spare room. He threw out battered pots and pans, slightly worn clothing, shoes and sports equipment, anything scuffed, smudged, torn or loose. People from Craigslist were coming to the door at all hours of the day.

“You have to get out of the house,” I urged him, listening to my voice bounce against the bare walls. “You need to find a new job.”

He shrugged. “I can’t,” he said. “I’ve sold all my suits.”

I couldn’t leave the man I loved, although I had begun to dread coming home from work, wondering what else would be missing when I got there. I tried to talk him into seeing a therapist.

“I’m not the one who needs help,” he insisted. “I’m just trying to simplify our lives. It’s people like you, who need to be surrounded with clutter, who have a problem.”

A few days later as I pulled into the driveway after work, I noticed a rectangular shadow in the porch light. Wouldn’t you know it, he’d saved one last suitcase. And everything I owned fit inside.

© Copyright 2009 Janet Aird. All rights reserved.

Janet Aird writes technical and business articles about the environment for landscapers, arborists, farmers and professional water managers, but her true love is writing about relationships between people. Her articles, essays and short stories have been published in magazines and newspapers in the United States, Canada and England. “Downsized” was published in Stoneflower Literary Journal.

Slipping by Margaret Finnegan

Faye had been taking the meditation class at Yoga House for six months when she realized that she could slip undetected into the thought streams of her fellow class members. All she had to do was close her eyes, sit very tall and focus her energy on the tunnel of darkness that inevitably opened before her. Almost at once, she would glide into the rivers of consciousness that swirled throughout the room, traveling from one person to another as each wrestled with the difficult task of quieting the mind.

Although she never did more than smile at anyone in the small studio where the class met, her psychic wanderings gave Faye the sense of knowing her classmates. She knew that Patty liked television and replayed snippets of “30 Rock” in her head. Doug worried about his son. That one guy—the slim guy with glasses—seemed fixated on the breasts of teenage girls, but he realized that was creepy and that gave Faye hope. Then there were the others, none of whose minds were patently predictable, but who came to class every week and whose inner dialogs showed such despairing attachment to difficult relationships, financial worries, health woes, and pent-up desires that Faye couldn’t help but feel compassion.

There was only one stream of consciousness that Faye could never enter, and that was Roy’s. Roy was as nondescript a person as Faye could imagine. He was average height. Average weight. He had receding, sandy blonde hair that matched his khaki shorts. He never spoke. The only reason Faye knew his name was because she saw him write it on the sign-in sheet. All Faye knew about Roy was that his mind was locked tight. It was a black wall. Solid. Thick. Impenetrable, but for two words that hissed whenever her mind slipped towards his. “Go away. Go away.” It was like he knew she was there, lurking. It was like he had constructed an entire security system to evade her. But why?

Roy was a puzzle. And that bothered Faye. Puzzles bothered Faye. She couldn’t stop thinking about them. She couldn’t rest until she knew their secrets. It had always been that way. When she was a girl she became addicted to crossword puzzles. She wouldn’t stop playing even for meals; her mother thought she had an eating disorder. In her twenties, she moved on to tournament Scrabble. Then she changed to Jeopardy. She spent four years studying trivia to prepare for a tryout. She spent every spare moment cramming esoteric information into her head. She gave up dating and outings with friends. She made Jeopardy her life. And when she finally stood behind that podium and answered questions asked by Alex Trebek himself, she lost to a lawyer from Delaware who knew that migas was a Mexican dish with tortillas and eggs. It was the losing that sent Faye on a downward spiral that ended in an emergency room panic attack and a doctor’s recommendation that she take up meditation.

The meditation worked. It calmed her. It ended the panic attacks and neutralized her compulsion for puzzles, which her now wiser self realized represented an unhealthy attachment to an unknowable future. At least, meditation did all that until Roy decided to willfully keep her out of his head. Faye couldn’t help herself. Each week she slipped towards him and tested the barricades that kept his mind private. She looked for chinks in the black wall of nothingness that surrounded him, and one day she found an opening at the bottom of his exhale. She slipped in and when he inhaled she trailed behind him until she was in his mind and she could hear and see his every thought.

“Go away. Go away.” It was the voice, but it had changed. Where once it sounded condemnatory, now it seemed pitiful, like some fly-ridden beast in a third-world zoo. The voice belonged to a man. He sat in a dark room and held a half-filled bottle of scotch in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. His face was puffy and red with small eyes and short, yellow lashes that matched his wide, disco-era tie.

A boy spoke. “Mom says it’s time for dinner.”

“Can’t you listen?” said the man. “Go away.”

The scene ended, and Faye felt herself sinking into a well of darkness unlike anything she had ever known. The darkness became a dense mass of incalculable weight. It bore down upon her. It crushed her and turned her steady, relaxed breaths into slow, choking gasps that seemed unworthy of existence. Everything about her seemed unworthy of existence, everything about her seemed inferior and insufficient and wrong and unpardonable. And—she knew now—she was. She was nothing. And she was sad. So sad. How could she bear this sadness? How could she go on knowing the truth: that sadness was a never-ending bolt of cloth that unfolded and unfolded and got wider and bigger until it covered the sky? That heartache was a virus spread by smiles and seeking fingertips? That life was a death sentence, nothing more, nothing less? And that, worst of all, it was her fault. She had ruined everything. She had listened to the voice. She had gone away.

Then, just as quickly, she was released. She slipped away from Roy’s mind. She was back in her body. She was breathing again. The weight was gone. The choking was gone. All of it—all of Roy—was gone. And she was Faye, only Faye. She opened her eyes. She blinked. Around her, men and women sat stone still, their eyes closed, their bodies relaxed, visions of tranquility, and there was Roy, a picture of calm. She got up. She left the room and made for her car, where she cranked the radio and headed home. She understood. Puzzles weren’t games. Puzzles were a serious, dangerous business. She decided to take up knitting instead.

© Copyright 2009 Margaret Finnegan. All rights reserved.

Margaret Finnegan does meditate, but she has enough problems of her own to want to go looking for more of them in other peoples’ heads. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The L.A. Times, FamilyFun, the literary journal WordRiver and the book Life As We Know It (Washington Square Press). She is also the author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (Columbia University Press). She blogs about wise women, demanding goddesses, and whatever she darn well feels like at Finnegan Begin Again.