“Icecapades” (Flash Fiction Friday)

This is my second challenge entry to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge.  I really love the challenge of getting a story down in 1,000 words or less, and flash fiction stories are a great exercise for developing tight plot points and conveying big meaning in a sparse word count.  For the foreseeable future, I think we’re going to have Flash Fiction Friday here on Mabbat.  If you like to write, join in.  I’ll e-mail some prompts over the weekend starting next week, and we can share our work on Friday.  If you don’t like to write fiction, you can use the prompts for poetry, longer work, shorter (micro) work, or visual art.  Stretch those creative muscles!  Ok, I’ll stop typing now.  Here is “Icecapades.”

 

“Dave, stop!  Digger Dave!”  I waved to catch his attention, but the excavator was too loud, and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.  He’s not going to stop; I’m going into that grave.  Seeing the inevitable outcome, I tried to loosen up – there was no way I would go in feet first, so the impact would be less damaging if I could fight every primal impulse in my body and relax.  Around swiveled the excavator arm, down I went, and surprise registered on Digger Dave’s face at my unscheduled arrival on scene and subsequent descent into an open grave.  In one fluid motion, the arm continued its arc, barely paused while its bucket load of dirt dropped, and swiveled back to the pile of fill dirt.  Already being partially covered, and knowing the next layer was imminent, I searched my pockets for some way to breathe.  Unbelievable.  I still had a collapsible snorkel in my pocket.  What had Jimmy said to the crew before we got started tonight?

“When we’re done, we’re all going snorkeling in the Caymans.  Here’s a little reminder of our reward.”  Jimmy handed each of us ridiculous looking collapsible snorkels in little plastic cases.  Right now it didn’t matter how stupid the snorkel looked if it meant I could breathe through the foot of dirt soon to be covering my body.  Digger Dave was supposed to backfill enough to cover the cases and smooth it out like a freshly dug grave.  Jimmy was right – there would be no police investigating, and no one would suspect the longtime caretaker of assisting in a heist.  The heist itself had been Digger Dave’s idea; when he met Jimmy on the grounds at a funeral, he knew he’d found the brains to pull the job together.

Looks like I’m going to be here all night.  It’ll be too risky for the guys pull me out until they come back for the diamonds tomorrow.

Digger Dave caught wind of an unimaginable score at the jewelry shop that bordered the cemetery’s front entrance.  He overheard the shop owner, Frank, and a nephew discussing a diamond smuggling operation that used “Icecapades” as a storage location.  The two had the balls to plan a shipment graveside during the interment of Frank’s centenarian aunt, supposing Dave was an idiot incapable of hearing.  Woodlawn Cemetery and Icecapades were located in a small Alabama town nestled between a river and a state highway – nowhere you’d expect to find a diamond smuggling operation.  Digger Dave used his post at the cemetery to case Icecapades, and he now possessed a wealth of knowledge about Frank’s habits and the shipment schedule.

Jimmy then formulated the diamond liberation plan.  Two outsiders (me and Mike) would come to town for a few days to “scout movie locations.”  The cover story made us glamorous to the small town residents, and Jimmy was sure they’d all be eager to show us everything.  We spent two days shooting “reference” photographs all over town.  We visited Icecapades, and Frank was more than happy to show us his store.  He told us more than once he considered it to be the “crown jewel – pun intended” of Linden Woods, Alabama and the perfect setting for a movie.

“Nothing else around here worth mentioning really,” Frank had said, frowning disdainfully out the window as he showed us his work room in the back.  There were no security measures besides the walk-in safe (“No one around here smart enough to rip me off anyway…”), nothing Mike couldn’t handle.  Jimmy was also right that Frank was an insufferable prick who deserved to be taken down a notch.

Per the plan, Mike and I stopped by Icecapades late the second afternoon to tell Frank we were headed back to Hollywood.  Frank insisted on taking us out for drinks – we played the con well enough to know he was dying to leave one last good impression on his new Hollywood connections.  Frank never noticed we spiked his drink.  Mike made a grand show to the bar patrons of helping him outside to wait for a cab.  Instead of a cab, we loaded him into his own car, and drove it through the Icecapades window, planting Frank at the wheel.  A thing of beauty, framing Frank for the Icecapades destruction to cover the break in.  Mike and I made short work of the safe and were headed out to the cemetery, when Frank surprised us by the back door.  I told Mike to make the drop while I handled Frank.  Knocking him out in the show room was easy enough, but it put me off schedule – and in the path of the excavator.

I knew the other guys would carry on as planned, so my fate now rested in the hands of Digger Dave and a collapsible snorkel.  Unbelievable.  I’d covered my face with my hands and done my best to protect the impromptu snorkel airway, but I could feel myself drifting off.  What a way to go – holding on to a snorkel in an unmarked grave on top of the biggest score of my now ended life.  At least I thought it was ended.  Something was yanking the snorkel from my hands.

“NOOO!”  I couldn’t stop screaming, so Digger Dave slapped my face.  I breathed deeply and focused; it was still dark outside.

“Now look son, you gotta stop that yelling or I’m going to have to leave you buried here.”

“I’m not dead?”

“That can be arranged.”

“Wait, how long was I down here?”

“Eh… Maybe 24 hours.”  Digger Dave helped me to my feet and handed me a case.

“How did you know I was okay?”

“I didn’t.  Until I saw the tip of that ridiculous snorkel sticking out when I finished leveling out the bottom.”

We climbed up the ladder out of the grave, where Jimmy was waiting for the cases.

“Ready for the Caymans?”

“Yeah, boss, but I think I’m going to need a new snorkel.”

“Child’s Play” (A Flash Fiction Work)

Several months ago, I entered NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge on a lark (Link to contest information: http://www.nycmidnight.com/Competitions/FFC/Challenge.htm ).  Contestants are assigned to a group, and each group is given a set of prompts consisting of genre, location, and an object that must all be part of the story.  And your story can only be 1,000 words or less.  And you have 48 hours to complete it.   As a writer who has neglected fiction for a few years because it’s hard work to create compelling characters and stories, it was fun to have such a short assignment to chew on.  You get to tell a story without all the daunting character and plot arcs necessary for longer works, but then you also only have 1,000 words to spin a yarn readers will enjoy.  You have to be really tight on plot and exposition.

“Child’s Play” was my first round entry.  I feel like my second round was weaker work than my first round entry, but I hope it’s good enough to put me through to Round 3.  It’s probably a frivolous thing to hope for because this writing contest has very little bearing on the direction of my writing at the moment, but I’d love to make it to the final round.  Rankings for Round 2 come out on November 6, which feels like a hundred years away.  I ranked 4th in my group in Round 1, so I’m hoping that if I am ranked at all in Round 2 it will be enough to advance.  (That’s surely more information than you ever wanted to know, but now you know what pops into my head at 4:00 a.m. when I can’t go to sleep…)

Without further expository information you never wanted to know but were forced to read through anyway, here is “Child’s Play.”  I’d love to hear what you think if you want to leave a comment.

 

“Child’s Play”

The McWane Center had been the perfect location. Birmingham was big enough that cartel members could come and go without suspicion and small enough that the police weren’t looking for smuggling operations. The food truck display at the McWane provided cover for the dead drops, and a small, gaunt man was waiting impatiently for the children’s museum to open so he could complete his assigned drop.

The job was simple, “So simple a child could do it,” as his boss put it. Tito rolled his eyes as he thought of that day in the back office. He knew the rest of the crew resented his superstitions, but why would anyone jinx an op like that? The boss was inviting trouble by taunting fate. The Saint Nicholas medal between his fingers assuaged his misgivings, and he shifted his backpack and looked at the McWane Center doors. A group of children rumbled past him, chattering with excitement about the day. A universe of new ideas lay before them, but Tito kept his face lowered; his world was already limited by a lifetime of bad choices.

Swap the cans and get out. It’s a children’s museum, not the Louvre. Kids will be touching everything, so no one will notice a can of tomato sauce. His pep talk continued the length of the sidewalk and up the front stairs. When he lifted his gaze, he froze for a split second. Why is there a security checkpoint? That’s new. Tito forced himself to continue moving and even mustered a smile for the security guard who pointed to the backpack.

“I just need to take a quick look, sir, so if you don’t mind opening that bag for me, we’ll get you on your way.”

But I do mind. “Sure. Here you go. What’s with this?” Tito waved at the metal detector and security search paraphernalia.

“There’s been some threats, so they added some extra safety precautions.” The guard motioned Tito through the metal detector as he searched the backpack. “Is this a can of tomato sauce?” Tito’s face blanched.

Relax. Breathe. There’s no way he could know. He took a quick breath and wrenched his face back into a smile. “It is. You never know when you’ll feel like whipping up some spaghetti Bolognese.” Not even Saint Nicholas can salvage that line. I am going to die here. No. Stop. Breathe.

“Ha! That’s my favorite! I don’t guess you’ll be using this can of sauce as a weapon, will you?”

“Of course not.” But my boss would.

The guard handed Tito the backpack and moved on to the next patron. Tito shook his head to clear the unexpected altercation from his mind and moved to the elevator. He tried to blend in and look interested in the lobby exhibits; focusing on his act kept the nerves in check. Tito knew he was overthinking the job – all he had to do was swap a can of tomato sauce in the food truck display – but he was afraid to let his guard down even for a second. If I get sloppy, I get caught. If I get caught, I die. The cartel did not tolerate loose ends; it eradicated them mercilessly. And this was his last chance.

The elevator stopped on the third floor, and Tito entered the main exhibit hall. There were a few mothers chasing after wild children and a class assembling in front of their teacher. He decided to wander through the atrium before entering the food truck display in the main hall. The class would soon disperse, and the swarming children would provide cover. The atrium display was musical instruments from around the world, and his thoughts were swept into distant memories of summer nights spent playing guitar by a bonfire. Stop it. That’s all gone now. This is your life now. Focus. He moved out of the atrium and toward the food truck display, constantly scanning the room.

Why is that guard up here? He does know. No, that’s impossible. He slowed his breathing and meandered around the miniature food trucks, feigning interest in the food styles represented. He eased toward the prep table to locate his target. Where is it? Tito knew from his boss that the tomato sauce always started out at the prep table. He came early in the day so it wouldn’t be out of place after children jumbled everything up. Am I really going to die because some brat moved a can? It’s here somewhere. It has to be. His search became more frantic as his chest constricted.

Breathe. No panic attack on the job. Not again. The cartel will kill you. His hands were cold and his palms tingled, so he sat at the bench nearest the prep table and compelled his fingers to work the zipper of his pack, then grasp the can of tomato sauce. All you have to do is find the can. He set his can down on the table and again searched furiously for his target. With each empty drawer and basket his field of vision narrowed and his lungs shrank. Tito’s pace grew frenzied as he raced his anxiety. Cans, boxes, whisks, bowls, all flew around him, but no tomato sauce. Now his hands and feet were lead, and his lungs uselessly gasped for air. His heart was racing to stop the meltdown, but he knew it was futile.

Tito barely registered the guard’s presence as a firm hand propelled him away.

“That was a nice try, buddy. The boss didn’t think you’d even make it that far. ‘Spaghetti Bolognese,’ ha! That was a little lame. Look, I’m sorry I have to take you out. It’s not personal, but you know the rules.” They stopped outside.

“So this… was all… a setup?” wheezed Tito.

“’Fraid so, buddy.  The boss couldn’t risk you getting caught again.” The pistol glinted in the sun.

“So simple… a child… could do it. Shit.” Saint Nicholas jangled onto the pavement.

A Plate of Spaghetti

“No man is lonely while eating spaghetti.” – Robert Morley

The waiter raised his eyebrows, and the pen stilled over his order pad while he waited for an answer.

“No, there won’t be anyone joining me after all,” the man in the candy striped bow tie sighed. “It seems she had to stay late at work.”

“Very good, sir. What can I get for you? Our chef is featuring a very special clam sauce linguine this evening.” Again the eyebrows lifted to accent the question awaiting a response, relaxing for a moment until they furrowed in concentration to write:

“Spaghetti. I’ll just have the spaghetti with meat sauce.”

The pen lifted from the page and dropped to the waiter’s side. No need to write down such a simple request. “Very well, sir. I’ll be back shortly with your salad.” As the waiter hurried off to the kitchen, the bow tie sagged closer to the table. The man slouched deep into the chair and allowed himself one long and woeful exhalation. Deflating his lungs removed most of the energy from his spine, and his nose was seconds away from touching the napkin folded in front of him. He noticed how sharp the pressed folds appeared at such close range and how the weave of the linen was slubby upon careful examination. She would have loved everything about this place. These are the fanciest napkins I’ve ever seen. The thought of his missing date forced the last bit of air out of his body, and he paused before inhaling. For a moment he pondered never breathing again, but the small panic caused by lack of oxygen reminded him that it was just a date, after all, and he must breathe no matter how morose the situation. His shoulders straightened a tiny bit, and his bow tie peeked above the edge of the table for the first time since he ordered.

He realized for the first time that the maître de was staring in concern, so he offered a thin smile to the friendly round face and looked around the room, mapping all of the colors and shadows, taking in all of the bustling action around him. He had been so preoccupied waiting for his date that he had missed the crystal festooned chandeliers and the brilliant colors of the paintings. Light twinkled off the crystal wine glasses, and the fancy napkins formed swans settling on each empty table. Most of the swans had been put to use, as tables full of families, couples, and business deals came alive with the energy of words and laughter shared.

The bow tie returned to its rightful place as the man breathed in the joy surrounding him. There would be other dates. Someday. Tonight it was enough to enjoy the warmth of spaghetti and remember that his own family and friends would soften the blow of this dinner alone. He didn’t feel lonely as he watched the waiter darting between tables with the ease of a dancer, taking a final bow to set the plate of steaming spaghetti on the table. He felt the energy surging around the room enter his lungs as he inhaled the smell of garlic and meat and tomato sauce, and all felt right in the world for at least that one breath.

“Ritual”

So far a lot of the writing I’ve posted has been pretty serious, but anyone who knows me knows how much I love to laugh.  This short story is a walk on the lighter side and based on a real story my neighbor shared with me.  I’ve always joked that God must have a sense of humor because he made me.  And then my husband and I adopted three dogs and two cats.  If you live with animals, you have living, breathing proof that God loves to laugh, too.

“Ritual”

“Well, I think my dog got married last weekend.”  My neighbor and I often share what most people might consider odd conversation topics, but that line could be the most tantalizing opener yet.  So I had to answer: “Exactly how does a pug get married?”  The story that followed, of long distance love and pug noses snorting with passion, answered that question.

Sammy is a female pug who lives with her human owners in Alabama.  Like all good southern girls, Sammy was taught good manners appropriate to her breeding and that just the right amount of sparkle on your collar is an absolute necessity.  Sammy, with her pink, sparkle-studded collar, always went with her humans to visit their parents in Miami.  To Sammy, Miami was like a foreign country – everything was different.  The smells were completely different from home; even the grass was strange.  And Sammy could swear that the pug next door to Mama Human barked with a Hispanic accent.

These trips were the highlight of Sammy’s year; it almost made the annual veterinary examination the week before bearable, as it marked the beginning of the week-long countdown to the car ride and vacation.  Sammy reveled in all things Miami.  The sweltering heat didn’t bother her – after all, it’s hot in Alabama, too, but Mama and Pa Human had a pool.  She loved basking in the sun until her skin was too hot to touch and then running the length of the diving board to build up to her flying leap into the pool.  The instantaneous cool rush streaming through her short fur was sublime.  Miami was perfect!

Well, it was perfect, until the Cuban family moved next door a few years ago.  Sure, they were great neighbors for Mama and Pa Human: they helped each other with their yards, they swapped recipes and shared baked goods, they took trips together, and they spent almost every weekend cooking out around the pool.  But it seemed that the Cuban Humans never taught their pug proper etiquette.  Castro (his humans thought it was hysterically funny to be able to command the communist dictator, “Sit, Castro!” or “Shake, Castro!”) was the epitome of machismo.  He commanded attention; he was entitled to scratch through any patch of grass he deemed worthy; his nostrils flared with male pride, and his very stance reflected strength and virility.  Too bad his humans had him neutered, snorted Sammy.

Just the smell of Castro in the yard next door would send Sammy into a blind, barking rage.  She would charge the fence line as if she could intimidate Castro into a retreat by yapping so furiously that her already bulging pug eyes looked ready to pop out of her head.  The undaunted Castro would saunter over to the fence and lift his back leg in an act of obvious nonchalance toward the enraged Sammy.  Sammy was then forced to respond in kind – of course, a lady would never lift her leg, but she could squat defiantly.  And so this hiking, squatting ballet would continue until either the humans halted the proceedings or until the pugs had to refuel at their respective water bowls.

But something was different this year.  Perhaps it was the blooming scent of hyacinth, but the air was crisper, cleaner, sparkling with something electric.  Something new and exciting was taking place with each sniff and snort.  Sammy’s anger had been replaced with desire, and Castro could no longer be nonchalant.  These new, heady feelings took over the hike-squat ballet, this year’s performance drawing the pugs closer and closer to, dare we say, love.  Each day of her vacation, Sammy would go straight to the fence, ignoring the pool in favor of lying down close to Castro’s yard.  She’d wait there for hours until she caught Castro’s scent when the sliding door opened.  They yipped joyously at the sight of each other before performing the hike-squat ritual.  And each day when their ballet tanks were emptied, Sammy and Castro would lie down facing each other, snouts touching through the chain link fence.

This ritual continued daily, invariably the whole week until Saturday.  Apparently sensing that Sammy’s humans would be leaving the next morning, Castro decided to take his courtship to the next level of pug commitment.  This time when they had exhausted their aquarian resources, Castro hunkered down to present something more solid to his would-be bride.  Then he scratched his back legs through the grass in an invitation to Sammy to respond in kind and “consummate” their relationship.  Sammy’s eyes watered at the overwhelming odor of Castro’s offering as she, too, hunkered down to demonstrate her solidarity.  Then, truly emptied of all but their deep stirring emotion for one another, Sammy and Castro laid down for one last nose quivering nap by the fence.

“And that is how pugs get married,” my neighbor finished her story with a flair.  I’m not sure I can ever view my own marriage vows the same way again.

“Circumambulation”

The air sparked electrically around him, as if the presence of God would suddenly snap and remove him from this solemn duty.  The fear of this annual trek slowed his limbs even while his mind sped through preparations and possibilities.  Had everything been done as required by the sacred commandments?  Aaron’s fingers moved of their own accord to the sash tied tightly around his waist.  He was sure he had made every preparation according to the words God gave to Moses, but his heart still fainted, trembled, died at the thought of entering this holiest of places: the seat of God, the temporal home of God’s presence among his people.  What if it wasn’t enough?  Was he truly clean enough to enter into the pure light of God?  Could anyone ever be?

            Never once forgetting his duty, his purpose, on this holy day, Aaron tightened his grip on the censor, inhaling deeply of the precious incense.  His fingers again flitted around as if willed by their nerve endings to assure themselves of his readiness, feeling each stone in his breastplate, finding comfort in the cool smoothness of the stones and the comparative roughness of the nubby linen of the ephod.  Only after the fingers had reassured themselves did Aaron’s feet creep cautiously closer to the curtain.  Though the incense was held firmly in his hand- the smoke drifting out at the level of Aaron’s waist- tiny fingers of smoke swirled out from under the fringe of the curtain- the hand of God reaching out to feel the holy smell of incense.

            Aaron’s hand trembled at the curtain opening.  His feet stalled another moment as if contemplating an abortion of their necessary mission.  A gentle clinking noise from the bells sewn into the hem of the ephod confirmed that Aaron’s feet had not given up on their mission.  Quelling a wave of dread, Aaron gently pulled back the curtain and entered the Holy of Holies.  The curtain dropped into place behind him, and Aaron felt his breath stop in his chest.  His heart stilled so quickly that Aaron knew he was going to die.  He was not pure enough or clean enough to stand before God and atone for his people.  Brilliant lights arced and danced before Aaron’s eyes, drawing him back into this moment and the realization that he had not died.

            Streaks of light now flew up and around the seat of the ark.  More and more streaks fingered their way around the room and towards Aaron.  Each pointed ray of light struck Aaron’s very being and illuminated everything around him.  The beams flashed through the ephod, through his flesh, and into the deepest recesses of his heart, soul and mind.  While Aaron was marveling at this sensation of light that could pierce his core, he became dimly aware of the smoke filling the mercy seat.  Each swing of his censor sent another finger of smoke toward the ark, spiraling purposefully into the growing mass of smoke.  The mass burgeoned and reached higher and higher until Aaron thought it would explode through the tent roof.  When it seemed impossible for the smoke to grow any more without completely filling the room, it began to move into a distinct shape.

            Just as Aaron recognized the form of a man seated on a throne hovering over the mercy seat, brilliant light flashed out from the core of the seated man and radiated like fire all around the ark.  The fire was so bright that Aaron’s body responded instinctively by prostrating his body and squeezing his eyes shut before the throne.  The intensity of the light caused his eyes to water so that the floor beneath his face held an ever expanding puddle of tears.  Aaron heard a deep, guttural groaning and was surprised to feel it issuing forth from his own throat.  He felt as though his very soul was speaking to the presence of God, though his mouth formed no words and no other thought besides awe had entered his mind.  The truth from every fiber of his being was communicating directly to God by way of his vocal chords.  And, without words, Aaron understood the essence of what passed between him and the cloud before him.

            Time had stopped in the purity of this moment.  Aaron could not say if he had been bowing on his knees for seconds or for days before he felt a hand reach for him out of the fiery cloud.  In spite of the burning hand approaching his head, Aaron was no longer afraid as his spirit sensed the flames draw closer.  Cool fingers like soft spring breezes urged his eyes open and gently wiped the tears off his face.  Then an achingly tender and fatherly embrace lifted Aaron to his feet and steadied him in front of the ark.  Aaron placed the censor in front of the mercy seat and began to sprinkle first the blood of the bull that would cover his own sins and those of his family, and then the blood of the goat to atone for the sins of all Israel.

            Deep in his soul Aaron felt the oppressive weight of their collective sin burden.  He felt crushed beneath it and struggled for breath to complete the last required sprinkle.  When the last drop of blood touched the ark, Aaron felt blessed relief from the suffocation in the form of an unspoken promise.  His heart rushed and his breathing came freely as he was wordlessly made to understand.  This would not be forever.  There would eventually be one Sacrifice that would be enough- enough for Aaron and his family, enough for Israel, enough for all eternity.  The day would come when the blood of one sacrifice would be pure enough to atone for all mankind, and Aaron and his line would no longer be needed for a day of atonement.  His task completed, Aaron stepped out from behind the veil, full of the knowledge of God’s promise, full of the awe and presence of God that he would never in his life be able to share with mere words.