Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Remembers

Howard grabbed a banana from his fruit basket and broke it in two. He had just bought a bunch from the farmer’s market on a whim, as he hadn’t had one in a while. The tortoise was still on its back outside, legs feeling for the ground. Howard peeled each half of the banana individually, leaving the connecting strand in the middle, which made them resemble primitive nun chucks. He held the two pieces of fruit in either hand, taking intermittent bites so they stayed at an even height. The meat of the banana was pulpy and slightly wet, and the bruised bits were sweeter and softer than the usual firmness he preferred.

As he watched the tortoise from his window, his thoughts drifted to when he and Grace had an impromptu picnic on the lake. The one that went wrong.

It had been a perfect day. The sun was high overhead, giving off enough heat to keep them in their summer wear, but not so much that it was unbearable. Everything on the lake pulsed with life. The trees on the far bank lush and green, leaves rustling in the breeze. The water itself was cloudy with mud and clay, but still reflected a near-perfect image of the tree line on its glassy surface.

“You’re so weird. You know that right?” Grace said, popping another grape into her mouth. She sat across from him on the canoe as they drifted on the open water.

Howard shrugged and took a huge bite of the banana, finishing one of the halves. He puffed out his cheeks and drooped his jaw in perfect imitation of a baboon. Grace laughed, dunking her hand in the water and flicking her fingers so that droplets splashed on him. “You know I hate that face,” she said.

Howard finished his banana, and was just about to comment on what a great idea this all had been, when his phone vibrated in his pocket.

“Hello?” he said. “Yes.” He looked at Grace. “Yes, I understand.” A flock of geese passed nearby, and Howard watched the fuzzy goslings follow their parents among the reeds. A gust of wind rushed past and he put a finger to his ear. “What? No, no. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Love you too.”

“Who was that?” Grace asked after he had hung up.

The phone hung limp in one hand. “My mom. My grandfather had a heart attack. Said she found him on the couch a few hours ago.” His voice was calm, unwavering.

“Oh my god.”

“So.” Howard looked down at the empty banana peel still in his hands. “We should probably go then,” he said.

The funeral was that weekend. When he was asked to be a pallbearer he excused himself to the bathroom and stifled sobs in one of the stalls. It was strange. He and his grandfather had never been close, but for some reason the death seemed more real than he thought it would. Perhaps because it was so unexpected. His grandmother was in a home, and they had all expected her to go first. And his grandfather had been young. Just sixty-five. His big belly and silver hair had never changed.

Howard didn’t finish the service with the rest of his family. Didn’t watch his grandfather be lowered six-feet-under in a wooden box. Instead he smoked a cigarette and walked among the other tombstones, wondering if one day someone would pass by his grandfather’s in a similar way.

A well-dressed lawyer with a thin, receding hairline and a thin receding voice went over the particulars of his grandfather’s will with them. Howard had somehow gotten the house, and what possessions they had left in it. A few things went to his mother and uncle: the car, the money, and the collection of family videos and photo albums, but for the most part they were left out. His uncle hadn’t been happy about that, feeling as though he deserved more, he stormed out. Howard hadn’t talked to him since.

That had been close to six months ago, and Howard still didn’t feel at home. It was strange, living alone in a place that he had once only visited for family cookouts and get-togethers. Sometimes his mother would leave him for a weekend, which he would spend watching television until he was ushered outside by his grandmother, where he climbed trees and collected interesting rocks before having a dinner of bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches. Now he did crosswords and fussed over the roses, and ate frozen pizzas and cold cereal.

The tortoise was still out there. He had left it lying on its back for a whole day now. Would the thing remember how cruel he was being to it? He wondered if he could leave it like that until it died. But as soon as the thought entered his mind Howard knew he would never go through with it. Even though the tortoise had given him a world of grief, he couldn’t bring himself to let the old, pathetic creature go like that.

But he’d still leave it there one more day. Just to teach it a lesson.

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On Writing, Ramblings

Character, Plot, and Story

I’d like to go into a brief exploration into the relationship between character and plot, and how they relate to the overall effectiveness of a story.

To start things off, let’s first narrow down what we as readers expect from a story. One of the first things that comes to my mind is that I don’t want my time to be wasted. I want the story to be interesting, thought provoking, and entertaining. So what is it that makes a story interesting, thought provoking, and entertaining?

A Story is About Something That Matters

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t amazingly written stories about trivial circumstances. There are. But the reason that those stories succeed is because the author has made the reader believe that whatever happens does in fact matter, regardless of what that should be. And who does it matter to, you ask? Why should you care?

The Character Matters

This is what makes you keep turning the page. You want to find out what happens next because you have been made to care about the main character in some way. Maybe you sympathize with them and relate to their struggle, or maybe they seem malicious and you want them to get what’s coming. Either way, the author has created an imaginary person who manages to get you to feel something for them. That is, some would say, the greatest accomplishment a writer can achieve.

Character and Plot

This is where it can get a bit confusing. In a way, you cannot talk about character without bringing up plot, and vice versa.

Let’s take a look at plot first. Plot is not merely what happens in a story, but why. Meaning, that there is a big difference between simply rendering in chronological order: this happened, then this, then this…, and taking the reader through a journey as to why and how a particular event occurred. Plot involves the specific ordering of how a series of events is revealed so as to wring as much emotion and meaning from it as possible.

Now in order to capture our attention, plot has to follow character. Otherwise, novels would read more like outlines or storyboards. Merely stating what happens isn’t what gives us the satisfaction as readers. Above, I mentioned the why and how that makes plot stand out. Character is where the why and how come from.Who a person is and what happens to them influences what they choose to do. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it rings true in the context of story. The way I see it, character and plot come together to create story.

So What? 

So, why does this all matter and what can you do with it? If you’re looking for an answer as to how to start writing a story, or where it all begins, you’ll have to look someplace else. I don’t really have that answer. It seems that in my own work sometimes an interesting series of events hits me, but I find creating a character to fit into them difficult to do. Other times, the character will come first, but I’ll have trouble finding things for them to do. It’s a godsend when you’re hit with both at the same time.

I think the best advice that I can give is to practice. Write what sounds fun. Write what you’d like to read. And don’t forget to experiment with new ways to approach your writing. You never know when it will lead to something bigger.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Falls

Howard’s foot sank into the welcome mat on his way to get the paper.

No. That was wrong.

Looking down, he saw that the tortoise had left a stinking present for him. Howard smeared the greenish excrement on the front step. Looking back up, he saw that it hadn’t stopped there.

There were bare patches of brown in the once-uniform sea of grass that was his front lawn. Several neat piles of feces that looked to have come from a family of tortoises lay carefully placed. Clumps of loose dirt and grass were strewn about as well, and Howard had to wonder how such a slow moving creature could manage to make such a great mess of it all. Part of Howard didn’t even believe that a tortoise was capable of all this. It looked like someone had taken a pickaxe to some parts by how much loose soil had been upturned.

At this point Howard began to take it somewhat personally. His gaze flitted about the lawn. But the tortoise was nowhere in sight.

Flipping out his cell, Howard texted Grace, letting her know that he wouldn’t be meeting her at church this morning after all. Something just came up. Then he walked through the yard, searching for the abominable tortoise. It wasn’t on the driveway, or anywhere in the front yard, so he circled around back. It wasn’t by the bird bath, or in the bushes, or even back at the rhododendrons, which were looking sad and bare. He wondered whether or not it had moved on.

But no. There, in the back by the pines, Howard could just make out its domed form as it paused next to a tree.

In an effort of herculean strength, the tortoise righted itself on its hind legs and reached its long neck out to grasp at a branch. With a mouthful of leaves and branches, the tortoise reared back, trying to rip away the next portion of its meal. It thrashed its head side to side, fraying the thin, whip-like limb. The branch snapped and the tortoise teetered, unbalanced. It looked as if it would regain its composure a split second before it toppled backward onto its shell.

Howard let out an unexpected whoop, and sauntered over to the disoriented tortoise, stopping to smell how fresh and intact the lilacs were this morning. He skipped the last couple steps until he was looking down on his reptilian oppressor. Thick, scaly legs gripped for purchase in the air while the head wobbled to and fro. A low fluctuating groan filled the air like a lover’s lament.

Howard smiled and leaned down until his face was inches away from the cold-blooded eyes.

“Ball’s in my court now,” he said.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise Remains

“I’m telling you, it was eating the plants in my garden. The rhododendrons, specifically. You should see it too, easily a couple hundred pounds.”

Grace nodded, fork picking at the half-eaten quesadilla. Her curly brown hair was pulled back tight in a bun and she wore cat eye glasses in lieu of her usual contacts, giving her a fierce librarian look. The raised eyebrows told Howard everything, and he knew what would come next.

“That’s why you’re late?” she said. “Cause you saw a turtle in your garden? I mean seriously, Howie, come on. What was it really this time?”

“Crosswords.”

“How many did you do?”

“Two and a half.”

“Jesus, Howie. You know, if we’re gonna make this work, you can’t be so obsessive about your hobbies. First it was gardening, then online poker, now crosswords. What’s next? You’ve had the whole day ahead of you and done what with it? Two and a half crosswords and turtle watching? At some point you need to start evaluating your life choices, hon.” At this Grace reached over and gave Howard’s hand a little pat, returning to her quesadilla as if the matter was settled.

“Yeah, but you’re not listening. I mean, this thing was huge. Aren’t you curious at all about how a giant tortoise found its way to 7th and Washington? There aren’t any woods, or parks. It’d have had to crawl through yards, or under fences or something.”

Grace put her fork down and took a deep breath. “Look, I really don’t mind that you’re so passionate about what you like to do. It’s one of the reasons we started dating. But you can’t let it affect the time we spend together. It’s becoming a problem.”

“Yeah, but —”

“That’s just how I feel, Howie.”

Howard ran through that conversation a dozen times on his drive home, taking the long winding boulevard because he liked the roundabouts. It was exactly like she hadn’t listen to the words coming out of his mouth. Her ears had just seemed to turn off at the slightest mention of the tortoise. Though he had been quite late, having to skirt around the stagnant shell outside his door. It hissed and swiveled its head as he passed, pushing back against folds of leathery skin, and showed no sign of moving. When Howard had finally arrived at La Casa, Grace had been on her third cup of salsa and second basket of greasy tortilla chips. He could understand why she had been upset.

What he couldn’t understand, however, was her complete lack of interest in the tortoise. It was such an odd occurrence, and she had hardly even merited it a response. It just didn’t make any sense.

When Howard pulled up to his house the tortoise was sitting in his driveway, huddled in its shell. He parked on the side of the road and walked past it on his way inside.

“Hope you’re happy,” he mumbled at it.

The tortoise said nothing, but Howard heard it shift in its shell, content.

Flash Fiction, Sequentials

The Tortoise

There was a tortoise grazing in Howard Scythe’s garden. It was big and it was gray and it was eating his rhododendrons. It was Saturday morning and Howard stood in his kitchen, bathrobe on, jaw hanging. He watched the rather large creature through the back window. It reached out its strong, leathery neck for another bite and ripped away a tangle of branches.

Howard banged on the glass pane. “Hey!”

The dull-eyed thing stopped, turned its head and regarded Howard, churning the leafy greens in its complacent maw like a cow would cud. The reptilian gaze held no pity. With a dismissive gesture, the tortoise turned its back on Howard, ignoring his continuing objections.

“Hey…Um. Hmm.” Howard was not entirely sure how to deal with this situation. The tortoise’s presence was confusing. He was almost certain that this particular species was not native to the Midwest.  Its size alone indicated that. The shell a massive dome, an oversized laundry basket sitting upturned on its back.

Howard watched the tortoise eat away at his rhododendrons for a while before it moved on to the lilacs. He tapped a finger on the counter as he watched, chewing the corner of his lip.

Perhaps the beast would become bored and move on to other gardens or vegetable patches. The Robinsons down the road hosted the community vegetable garden. It was quite nice, with full, juicy tomatoes and peppers and carrots and lettuce. Yes, it would no doubt catch a whiff of the wafting, veggie aroma and soon leave his flowers in peace.

Having settled all that, Howard started a pot of coffee and took a nice hot shower.

When he returned to pour himself a mug the tortoise was gone. He smirked and smiled to himself, pleased that he hadn’t let his indignation get the better of him. Logic and reason, that which separated man from beast, had proved their worth in the end. Howard spent the remainder of the morning filling out crossword after crossword on his laptop, every so often casting a sidelong glance out the window. He recently discovered that he could access the database for every New York Times crossword ever, and had done little else for the past few days. The hours wiled away.

On his third crossword of the day Howard read the clue for 12 Down: Fruity Engagement. Date.

Shit.

Howard sprang from his chair and scrambled around the house for a fresh pair of socks. It was 12:52. He was supposed to meet Grace at La Casa, that new Mexican place in eight minutes. But it was all the way downtown, a twenty minute drive, and that was only if he hit every green light. Howard cursed again as he fumbled for his car keys, putting his shoes on as he hopped around. He grabbed his phone and wallet and opened the front door.

The path was blocked by an immovable carapace. The tortoise had returned.

(To be continued)

Flash Fiction, Shorts

First It Sets

Whipcord muscles bunched under leathery, wrinkled arms. Another stroke. Lift, push, pull. Another stroke. The canoe listed across the glassy surface of the lake, drifting toward the shore.

He was too close. The man in the canoe switched his paddle to the other side. The aged arms showed years of this work, and he made the motion seamlessly. The vessel altered its course, heading to the center of the reservoir.

The man let his gaze wander across the small body of water. He could make out the dam, that massive slab of gray the only smudge on the picturesque view. Sugar Maples and Dogwoods bordered the lake, coming down to stop at ridges of limestone and shale. The light from the slow-setting sun splashed hues of red and orange across the mirror-like surface of the water. A family of geese floated along the nearby shore, the fuzzy goslings pecking and snipping at reeds while the protective parents eyed the canoe suspiciously.

The man lifted the paddle from the water and set it down in the bed of the canoe. He then lifted a metal container that had been wedged safely between his legs. He hefted it up and caressed the smooth surface. The metal was shiny and caught the rays of sunlight in blinding, flashing ways. Now it had served its purpose.

The man smiled with shimmering eyes as he dumped the contents of the receptacle into the murky waters. Swirling dust and remnants floated and dispersed.The ash matched the dam in color, but rather than smudging the image of the water, it blended and became it, merging with the murky quality beneath the surface.  It was done.

The man watched as the sun concluded its day-long journey. The light faded and cast a purplish glow over the reservoir. A slight chill crept in the edges of the air.

The man knew that come the morning, the sun would rise, as it always does…

But first.

Flash Fiction, Shorts

El Fin

The nights are getting longer and  I’m chasing after every hour  watching the hands go round wondering when I’ll be blessed with the lifted consciousness, and that sweet enveloping velvety blanket of black. Feeling slap happy now. More like slap crappy. Get it? Ha. Ha. Feeling more like happiness is a warm gun. And what does  a gun do but wait to be fired again? When I read this again in the morning I’ll laugh. When I read this again in the morning I’ll cry. 

Lilith stopped writing and stared at the monitor. The bluish glow was the only light in the room. The analog clock in the bottom right corner of the screen read 3:17. A glass of something dark sat on the desk. She took a sip with a grimace and lifted her fingers once again to the keyboard.

When I read this again I’ll think I should die. But I won’t let myself sleep until I finally know why. The world around me is quiet and it all stays the same, while I sit and rhyme words alone with my game. 

Finished. El fin. The fin of a fish. Lay back your head with a wisp of a wish.