Writing Prompt “Elements”
This will be our final contest of 2017. We would like to thank all of you who have participated, and we look forward to 2018, and all the fabulous stories this wonderful group of writers will create in the New Year.
Carrie and Alice
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100 thoughts on “Writing Prompt “Elements””
(It’s times like this that I wish I’d paid more attention in chemistry class.)
You’ll no doubt be pleased to know that no one dies in my next story (except maybe me when the reviews come in …)
I think chemistry is fascinating, and I also wish I’d paid much more attention in chemistry class. If only the teacher hadn’t been such a universally-hated fascist b*st*rd …
Happy writing! (to you and all)
Phil builds empathy with the characters and makes people care for them, and dear reader writers, that is the heartwarming secret of it all.
I really should extend last week’s story somewhat and have Ally escape into the wildlands of a post apocalyptic world (reading the descriptions of what a nuclear explosion does to the sand and landscape has given me food for thought) and starts a resistence group meanwhile Boadicea-like, she breastfeeds her children in the midst of battle plans with other escapees to overthrow the powerful elite in the underground citadel, auburn or jet black hair flowing down around her shoulders to her waist, strong featured face, aquiline nose and full red lips with eyes the colour of exquisitely cut sapphire gems, etc etc. Have not thought that scene through yet.
Some great stories last week and my turkey story is languishing until next year.
“You told me in the last session that there have been over a hundred.”
Thomas shifted in his seat. He’d bragged about it a week ago, but now the number sounded like an accusation. He nodded.
“I made a list. One hundred and seventeen, to be precise.”
Olga nodded now as she made a note in her file.
“And I’ve decided I’m not proud of it.”
“No? Why is that? You seemed proud last time.”
Thomas shifted again. He wanted to move on to something else. Anything else. He extended the pause, playing for time.
She wasn’t going to let it go.
“I realised that I was looking at them like they were on a list, or a chart, or something. Like … like they weren’t human beings.”
Olga jotted something down in the file again.
“What can I do? All those women. I’m sure they weren’t all heartbroken by my treatment of them – you know, by my loving and leaving them, as it were – but by the law of averages … I’m sure some of them were.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
Thomas thought about it. These sessions were really working if the point was for him to look inwardly and bother himself.
“Like a heel. Excuse the rhyme.”
Olga jotted down more notes.
“So what do you think? It’s making me really restless. I’m not myself. My boss called me in the other day. ‘What’s wrong with you, Tom?’ he says. ‘You don’t seem to have your heart in it.’ And he was right.”
“In what? What don’t you have your heart in?”
“My work. I can’t seem to concentrate. I’m just seeing these faces … 117 faces, like in a slide-show.” He waved his hand in front of his eyes. “Click – face – click – face – click …”
“I see. That must be very off-putting. So you remember the faces of the 117?”
Thomas had been inspecting his trouser leg but looked up now.
“Good?! It’s driving me crazy!”
“It means that they weren’t just notches on your pistol … so to speak. If you can remember their faces, you’re not just remembering them as items on a list.”
“You mean I’m looking at them like they were human beings?”
“Well … you’re certainly on the way to that. Baby steps.”
“All right, so how do I start walking properly? … to borrow your metaphor.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Tell you … about all 117?”
“Not necessarily. But start from the beginning. Who was the first that you remember being with?”
Thomas sat back in the chair. He certainly remembered the first one, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to go into too much detail. Perhaps, though, he could give Olga a general idea of these women. And perhaps by remembering and putting it out there, he could release some of the pressure of guilt he’d been feeling.
“A lovely name.”
“And she was lovely, but cried all the time. I mean ALL the time.”
“I don’t know, and I didn’t really care … then.”
“Who was next?”
“That would have been Helen. A really sunny personality, light-hearted. A bit TOO light-hearted, to tell you the truth. Didn’t take us seriously enough.”
“Okay. And then?”
“Yes, but she had nothing of the flower in her at all. A hard woman. Never laughed. Had me under the thumb a bit. Couldn’t wait to get out of THAT one.”
“Into the arms of?”
“Beryl. She … but hang on, Olga. I’m not sure this is really getting us anywhere. It feels like I’m just listing my girlfriends, which is what I want to get away from.”
“You may be right, Thomas. And anyway, we’re getting near the end of the session. So what I suggest you do is go away and spend the week thinking of the 117 – really try to look at them as people. Consider their good points, their bad points, and what they meant to you, here.”
She indicated her heart with her long, elegant fingers. Thomas noticed for the first time that the top buttons on her blouse were open, and that there was a suggestion of very attractive cleavage. He felt a stirring in his trousers and crossed his legs.
“And let’s see,” continued Olga, “if we can’t make number 118 a more meaningful relationship.”
In fact, Thomas fancied that he’d already found number 118. And he couldn’t wait for the next session.
And the names of the girls roughly coincide with the names of the elements concerned, including Olga, no 118. I wonder if the name Thomas refers to anything? Well, he is a Tom anyway …
And I can’t help but wonder, bonding with all those 117 elements before, will the next one only compound his error? 🙂
Fun story, made me smile throughout. Good use of dialogue too to bring out the story organically. Or possibly inorganically…
©️ Victoria Chvatal
“Boy, what have I taught you about the elements of a good ballad?!” thundered Deobald, the Master Bard. Leif, his hapless apprentice, hunched his shoulders even further and muttered something inaudible. “And after all that, what have you done with your ballad of the Meadowshire Rebellion? First, you can’t leave the story half-told!”
“In a short song you can,” interrupted Master Deobald with a harrumph, “but in a longer ballad, you have to tell the whole story.” He banged his walking stick on the stone floor for emphasis.
“But Master,” Leif persisted, “No-one actually knows what happened to the rebels…”
“What could possibly happen to the rebels? They either triumph and ride off into the sunset singing,” he banged his walking stick again, “or they are defeated and killed.” Bang! “How many rebellions have you heard of in living memory that have succeeded, hmm?”
“None,” the lad whispered glumly, “…”
“Exactly! Then killed they were.”
“But no-one mentions an execution, ever!” Leif replied mutinously. He thought he had a good argument: executions of rebels and outlaws were made into a public spectacle, notorious for brutality; some of the more notable executions were still talked about generations later.
“Then they had to be killed in battle! Obviously.”
“What do you think boy, the king would just let Bren Ravenlock and the rest go back to farming or whatnot?” The master queried scornfully.
Leif considered for a moment, and hung his head in defeat. “No…”
“Bren could’ve fallen off his horse and broken his neck, of course,” Master Deobald allowed gruffly, “or died of the plague… but that’s hardly heroic, is it? So a battle it has to be. With some suitably heroic last words,” he concluded firmly.
Leif drew a breath, but the Master wasn’t finished yet.
“Then what have you done with fair Malva? One moment she’s riding alongside Bren, the next she’s gone – halfway through the ballad, no less! – and never appears again. You can’t do that! She has to be with her man till the end, and die together with him.”
“But we don’t…”
“Or she can wait at home for her man. And maybe weep when she hears of his death… And hope the King’s men never find her, or learn who she is,” the Master grumbled in an undertone, “that ending isn’t fit for any ballad.”
Leif looked more dejected by the moment.
“And then – how many times have I told you, boy! – you can’t make the hero into a figure of fun!” Bang! “Or his lady love, either.” Bang! “You got to have your jester, you pick someone else. Tom the Stork is usually the jester, in Meadowshire Rebellion tales. He can even survive, on account of being funny. Now go and rewrite it!”
It took Leif half a dozen more rewrites before Master Deobald pronounced his ballad of the Meadowshire Rebellion passable. Several more months passed before the Master deemed Leif ready to take his songs on the road – on his own, for the first time ever.
The lad’s journey went on pretty much as expected. His compositions were received well enough. The reception got warmer, and the pay more skint – also unsurprisingly – the further he rode towards the outer reaches of the kingdom. Still, nothing untoward happened until Leif played at the village of Blackstump, at the foot of Stradow Mountains. There, an unkempt-looking fellow with a shifty look about him seemed to take a particular liking to the ballad of the Meadowshire Rebellion. After the show, the man insisted – rather forcefully – that the young bard absolutely had to perform that very ballad to the good folks of Stormcreek, a village about halfway up the mountain. “Love it up there, they will!” the man kept repeating with a sly grin that showed missing teeth. Leif half suspected that the fellow was trying to set him up for some mischief; but after racking his brain and failing to come up with a plausible explanation, decided to pay Stormcreek a visit anyway.
The village of Stormcreek clearly didn’t see many bards. The entire village must have crammed into the modest inn to see Leif play. His ballads and songs were warmly received, but none more than others. Except… in the middle of performing the ballad of the Meadowshire Rebellion, Leif’s eye was drawn to a greying couple sitting in a far corner. Unlike their neighbours – who were cheering, clapping, or even trying to sing along – the two listened with completely expressionless faces. Leif’s gaze returned to the couple a few more times afterwards; they were always quiet, but their neighbours paid them no mind, so he finally put them out of his head.
Once the show was over and the bard was tucking into a well-deserved hot stew, the older couple left with all the others. They didn’t say a word before entering their small house.
“Was there really a Malva?” the woman half-turned to the man.
“There was… Maisie, really,” he added with a small grin. “And she never rode with us. Went off and married another fellow soon as she got wind of what we were up to. One with a big farm, a fish pond even. She wanted a nice quiet life, to raise a family… Can’t blame her. Haven’t thought of her in years…”
“… Yet now she rides forever in song alongside Bren Ravenlock…,” the woman smiled as the man grumbled, “Always hated the stupid name,” and went on, “Can’t help it now, it’s in all the ballads.”
The man shot her a look and put an arm around her shoulders. “Come on Senna, you’ll never hear a ballad where a notorious rebel shacks up with the widow of a King’s Man,” he told her with a grin. “You should’ve hated me, in a ballad.”
“You were both young fools, then,” the woman replied with a little sigh, “each convinced he was on the side of the right. Besides,” she added with some bitterness, “the King had no time for the widow of a King’s Man, fallen in defence of the King’s law…”
He looked at her seriously for a moment and squeezed her sholder, then continued in a lighter tone, “You should’ve sworn eternal vengeance against me…”
Her lip curled up. “I could see you were a good man, from when we first met… And I was too old for girlish fancies.”
After a few moments of silence, her head came up. “Where did you all hide out, back then?”
“They’re meant to be deadly!” she gasped.
“Not as deadly as the troops,” he snorted back. “Enough there to live off the land till all the hue and cry died down.”
A companionable silence settled on the house, until the woman was startled by the sound of her man’s voice. “We should’ve done something… Something more…”
“Don’t be an old fool, Bren!” A pleading note entered the woman’s voice. “You lost. What could you do but get yourselves killed?”
“We survived,” he responded quietly. “We should have done than crawl back and hide. Like mice.”
“What could you do? Nothing! Except entertain the crowds at your execution. You wouldn’t have got lucky twice.”
The man said nothing more, just pottered around the small house in silence. The woman kept shooting worried glances at him, even so. She could see something new kindled in his eyes, something she hadn’t seen in all their years together.
In the end, she only shook her head.
It was built up well. And the there were unexpected elements to the story that made it an enjoyable read.
It flowed. Well done.
An interesting story with some great writing, has a real nice flow. The only thing that confused me was the part where they’re discussing the character Malva, Bren’s flame in the ballad, and Bren calls his current woman ‘Maisie,’ and then five lines later, he calls her ‘Senna.’
What’s up with that?
Re names: I was having a dig at reality vs ballads: Malva is the name of Bren’s love in all the ballads about the rebellion, but in real life her name was Maisie… and in any case, she hadn’t stuck around long enough to take part in the events. Senna is Bren’s current wife/partner, whom he’d met some years after the rebellion. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear enough. 🙁
It set me to thinking – maybe ballads were like medieval social media? Creating heroes and villains, putting a spin on events, sensationalising, burying the truth under layers of … fake news?
One language thing – “the pay was skint”. I think people can be skint, i.e have no money (I’ve been there, often) – but can pay be skint?
I enjoyed the story a lot.
Hi Dean, there will be no word count changes, everything stays as is. That’s the beauty of these exercises, working out a story under the parameters set.
By Kenneth P. Cartisano
Word Count. (1750)
© 2017 Dec. 11
Amy barely understood the responsibilities of her new position at the Department of Matter when she made the discovery. She consulted her more experienced colleague Ben, who was initially skeptical.
“Real-ly. Here. Let me see that.” He eased her out of the way and began scanning the data. “Are these sensors calibrated? Some of these numbers don’t make sense.”
“I wouldn’t know if the sensors are calibrated, but I’ve got no reason to doubt their accuracy—do you?”
He ignored the inference. “It’s a sentient species, no doubt about it. They’ve got fire, tools, agriculture…”
“Shall I notify the Supervisor?”
“Wait,” Ben said, hastily. “Hold on—look at their genetic structure, their RNA. These creatures can’t live for more than a single century.”
“I thought all sentient species were immortal.”
“They are, or should be. This one seems defective, non-viable.” He looked at Amy. “I don’t think it can survive.”
“Oh. So what do we do in a case like that?”
“I could imprint a reticulated algorithm at the molecular level.”
“Can we do that?”
“I can,” Ben claimed. “It’s easy.”
He wasn’t exaggerating.
“I’m gonna have to take this to the supervisor, Ben.” Her jaw was set with determination.
“I wish you wouldn’t.” He lowered his voice, though there was no one else around. “This is the kind of thing we should resolve on our own.”
“It’s a little late for that,” she said. “You lied about that algorithm.”
“Okay, it’s your call,” Ben replied. “I think he’ll agree with me anyway.”
Together they took the transporter to the supervisor’s field office near the ‘Horsehead Nebula.’
Supervisor Godfrey, a gelatinous, shape-shifting vegetarian, was experimenting with his virtual-biometric desk when his carboniferous secretary ushered in two bipeds. He recognized their static forms as a male and a female, Ben and Amy, engineers from the Matter Department. He was mildly repulsed by the patches of hair on their thick hides. Not to mention the horns.
“Nice to see you two again. Have a seat.”
“Hello Mr. Godfrey, I’m sorry to have to bother you with this but, Ben and I seem to have an irresolvable disagreement…”
“A disagreement in matter generation? That’s original.”
Amy blushed. Ben exuded confidence.
“What’s your sector?”
“Kxja 19,” Amy replied.
“Kix-jay 19? Great. Let’s have a look at your generators.” Godfrey tapped his desk a few times. (He loved his desk, great for designing, not so good for diagnosing problems though.) As the lights dimmed, a detailed three dimensional holographic image of Spiral Arm Sector Kxja materialized in the room around them. The inky interstellar space was spattered with thousands of points of light. Despite the dazzling array, they were feeble in comparison to a few specific stars, bigger and brighter than all the rest.
“This your sector?” Godfrey asked.
“I think so, yes,” Amy murmured.
Sensing an opportunity to impress the supervisor with his knowledge, Ben began reeling off a summary of the sector’s resources, starting with a pair of Blue Giants. “These are two of our biggest engines, we’ve got a battery of Red-Giants in the vicinity of Rigel, here, along with a substantial reservoir of Main Sequence stars over there, and slightly above the plane we’re burning a couple of ‘Wolf-Rayets.”
“You must be crankin’ out the elements,” Godfrey teased. “Hope you have replacements lined up for those Rayets, ‘cause those babies blow faster than a Trub with a gripe stuck in its snorkel.”
“They go nova?” Ben guessed, having no knowledge of Trubs or gripes.
“What? No.” Godfrey shuddered. “They just shed matter like there’s no tomorrow, then pfft, they go dark, practically overnight.”
They all studied the three dimensional layout until Godfrey said, “I’m familiar with this sector and I know there’s not much going on here. So what’s the problem?”
“We’ve discovered life,” Amy said.
“Really? That’s surprising.” He observed Ben with one eye. “And yet, it wasn’t mentioned in any of your reports.” Godfrey’s expression lost it’s open, affable affectation.
“Well no, not yet. That’s because…”
“You fast-tracked it to registration? I don’t like that. I’ve made that clear. New species come to my desk first, and nowhere else.”
“Well no. We felt responsible so we…”
“You felt responsible!” Godfrey trilled. “You’re not responsible. You’re engineers, you just make elements. You don’t create, manage or know anything about life.”
“Yes sir, we just, well Ben…”
“Did you miss the orientation?”
“No sir, I…”
“You need a refresher course?”
“No sir. Well, maybe. Ben thought the species was defective.”
“Defective?” He tapped the desk with a finger and sighed as the image faded and the lights came back to full power. The mood in the room changed. “What kind of life are we talking about?”
“Sentient, bipedal,” Amy replied.
“You’ve been monitoring this species?”
Both engineers nodded.
“What about the rest of the planet?”
“Some.” Ben lied.
“Not so much,” Amy countered.
“There’s life. None of it sentient.” Ben opined. “Except for the one species.”
“That’s not my impression.” Amy said.
“Noted,” Godfrey said, “So what’s your dispute about?”
“He wants to terminate it.”
“And you don’t.”
“No I don’t.” Her face turned pink. “And whatever it is that he thinks he’s doing? It isn’t helping.”
“They need help?” Godfrey asked.
“They do now,” Amy said. “Yes, I think they do. Thanks to him.”
“Thanks to him?” Godfrey focused his considerable intellect on Ben. “What’d you do?”
“Well, I assumed they would re-assimilate into the continuum,” Ben explained, “sooner rather than later. Since they’re a sentient species, I know, by convention that it has to be voluntary, so I wrote a simple genetic algorithm that—um, shuffles the deck, rearranging their incarnations.”
“He’s erecting obstacles to their evolution,” Amy said.
“Not so. I simply made each reincarnation as difficult as the previous one. I figured after enough reincarnations, eventually the souls would be discouraged enough to opt out of existence.”
Godfrey’s gelatinous form quivered. “That’s—evil.”
“Is it?” Ben blinked. “It wasn’t meant to be. I mean, they’re not really viable, are they? As a species? What kind of future do they have? In a way, I feel like I’m doing them a favor.”
“That’s why you want to terminate the species?”
“Terminate is an awfully strong word.”
“You’re trying to discourage it out of existence.”
“Well—yes,” Ben admitted. “But I’m trying to do it in a gradual, merciful way.”
“And this is because you think it’s defective?”
“Yes sir,” Ben replied. “It’s flawed.”
“Because of the short life spans?”
“Yes. They deteriorate too rapidly. The physical aspect of the creature breaks down.”
“Uh-huh. But it gets recycled, doesn’t it.”
“Maybe so,” Ben said, “but they lose their experience when they expire.”
“Sentient beings don’t expire.” Godfrey reminded him.
“Maybe the life force doesn’t, but the corporeal substance…”
“Gets replaced.” Godfrey said. “They get a new body.”
“But they have no knowledge of their prior existence,” Ben replied.
“But they reproduce rapidly.” Godfrey pointed out.
“And you think that makes up for their mortality?”
“But they HAVE immortality,” Godfrey said, “it’s just a different sort. All they have to do, is learn to remember. Which is impossible since you keep shuffling their incarnations around. Imagine waking up and having to figure out who you are every one hundred years.”
“I couldn’t,” Ben said.
“But that’s what your algorithm does.” Godfrey replied. “How long does this re-assimilation process take?”
Ben hesitated. “It’s not going as expected.”
“They’re stubborn. Even without bodies, they’re extremely tenacious.”
Godfrey’s seven eyes twinkled in some inexplicable way, as Ben continued. “There are some who opt out of rebirth, but they don’t re-assimilate either.”
“Which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the algorithm,” Amy commented.
“They stay in this coherent spiritual state, but opt out of reincarnation?”
“Exactly,” Ben replied.
“And how long do they keep this up?”
Godfrey seemed pleased. “So your little algorithm didn’t work.”
Godfrey opened a compartment behind the desk and extracted an elongated yellow fruit. He broke the stem on top and began peeling away its outer covering.
“What IS that?” Ben asked.
“It’s a banana, Ben. An organic by-product of matter generation. One of the perks of being a senior supervisor. It’s also a metaphor for your sentient beings.”
He removed the rest of the skin and held up the edible center. “This is their immortal life force, Ben.” He took a bite and chewed slowly, savoring the taste. “Mmmm, that’s good.” Dangling the yellow peel over a trash can, he said, “and this is their disposable body.” It thunked when he dropped it in the can.
He finished the banana and licked his fingers. “Any questions?”
Amy shook her head. “Nope.”
“You know, I’m so relieved at solving this prolonged puzzle, Ben, that I’m going to refrain from turning you into an incandescent glob of flaming oort-shit.”
“Pardon me?” Ben felt warm. A little sweaty under the gimbals. Perhaps it was just the power of suggestion.
“Sector Kix-jay contains a little project I’ve been working on in my spare time, Ben. A little paradise of plenty that I’ve been showering with attention for several million years, and I was wondering what the blazes was wrong with it.”
Beads of sweat started to collect on Ben’s forehead as Godfrey continued.
“It’s just a little smudge of beauty and grace I created for my own selfish reasons, and, despite all my attentions, it’s inhabitants were miserable, frightened and cruel. I couldn’t figure it out. Until now.”
“Sir I…” Godfrey waved a hand and Ben went silent, then turned pale.
“How would you like it if I meddled with YOUR pet project, Ben? You’ve been undermining my efforts for ten thousand years.”
“How was I to know?”
“Is this the first time you’ve done something like this? What are you, three? Four million?”
Ben felt flushed. “I’m more than five and a half million years old.”
Godfrey jiggled and shimmered. “Well, you’re young, I’ll grant you that, but old enough to know better. I’m gonna give you some time off to think things over, Ben. Enjoy.”
Ben woke with a start, drenched with sweat, feet tangled in the sheets, staring at a ceiling made of cracked and peeling plaster. A set of sheer white drapes hung limp in the oppressive heat of a sizzling Arkansas summer. He could barely breath and cried out in alarm. “Amy?”
His wife propped herself up on one elbow and glared at him. “Who’s Amy? You asshole.”
A good read.
I only noticed on the second read that the ending is quite ambiguous: it could either be Ben getting his karmic payoff, or “it was only a dream”. Was this intentional? (Personally, I hope it’s the former: IMO, the story has more impact this way.)
I didn’t realize (at first) that the scientific references could be off-putting, thought about adding an index of terms. Then just went with what I had. (Confused readers is not a desirable outcome.) Glad you noticed the devil archetype reference. I threw it in at the last minute – (just for the hell of it.) In the ending, my intent was karmic payoff, and a small price at that. Too bad I couldn’t make that clearer somehow. I’ll have to think about how I could’ve done that. Thanks very much for the feedback.
Also: I’ve been following Philip’s lead in separating paragraphs with an empty line. With a lot of dialogue though, it really stretches the appearance of the story. I prefer the compact look of single line spacing like you and Ilana used. Something else to think about.
Nice touches worthy of Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), Ken. I especially liked: “Supervisor Godfrey, a gelatinous, shape-shifting vegetarian, was experimenting with his virtual-biometric desk when his carboniferous secretary ushered in two bipeds. ”
What were you taking when you wrote that? A bizarre and almost hallucinogenic image.
Lots of science in here. Are you trying to blind us with it, a bit, with your ?reticulated algorithm’? And why not?!
RNA – for the genetic structure of humans, wouldn’t the DNA be more distinctive? Is there a scientist in the house? Apart from yourself, of course.
Really fun story, pacey and well-written, with a great twist at the end. A kind of Fall story, with disobedience to Godfrey punished in a fitting way.
“So, what is an element really then?” Trish threw her books into her locker. “You’re the brain box…doing straight sciences. No less. You tell me?”
Shane was collecting his maths texts and piling them into his shoulder bag.
“It’s a substance made up entirely of one type of atom. Simply put, if the number of electrons changes, you will change the substance into another substance.”
“Fascinating stuff. And, is that what the olden alchemists tried to do? Change the number of electrons in a substance to make gold? How many electrons does gold have?” Trish really did not get this science stuff. She would much rather have discussed hair dyes, tattoos, gossip about who liked who and who was hanging out with who; all the usual titbits traded in the school canteen during breaks. BUT, Shane was the yummiest boy to walk through the front doors of the Noondale High School in the five years she had been attending. That fact alone was enough to pique her interest in the sciences. Previously her interests had included football cheerleading, chick flicks, Cosmopolitan, Dolly and Nova, shellac nails, skin tones and make up, weight loss programs and French kissing and more. Did you allow a guy to stick his tongue in your mouth when kissing on a first date, or was that a prelude to something more? Could it mean you were a loose woman if you did and could he then term you a slut or brazen or would you be termed frigid, if you pulled away? These were her previous concerns. Now she had a different agenda.
Shane was nearing six foot tall. Broad shoulders and an amazing build – he could have played football, but played squash, basketball and soccer seasonally, as well as trained for the swim squad. Honey blonde hair and deep brown eyes, and a finely chiselled chin and cheeks made him the most adorable male on the school grounds. Trish was smitten and had been along with half the school population – the female ones that is, since the boy had transferred from somewhere down south in Tassy. He was even popular with many of the guys, but he was not a jock. He was sensitive and quietly gentle.
“If he’s a result of inbreeding” stated Trish’s best friend Sally, “I’m gunna marry me first cousin.” Trish snorted derisively.
“Marry Arthur or Tony? Kidding me! You’d have kids with one eye, no ears and twelve toes and fingers. Don’t.”
“He’s probably an outcross anyway.” They watched him as he put his books neatly into his locker and then bent over to pack his bag with the books needed for the next two lessons. His butt was perfect. Sally surreptitiously took a photo flash of five of it with her Iphone as he bent over. Trish looked annoyed until she whispered, “I’ll share them with you.” Then they had trotted off to class bags swinging in time with their hips as they walked past him. Now Trish had angled her way to be at the lockers at the same time as Shane, just after the lunch break.
Shane really wanted to get his books packed to get to his afternoon classes; but it was nice to find someone interested in science for once.
“Well, it’s like this. See. Each element’s got an atomic number. In an uncharged atom, the atomic number’s also equal to the number of electrons. Gold’s number is 79 meaning it has 79 electrons circling its nucleus. Its atomic number is 79.”
“And what would happen if it lost an electron or two?” Trish decided to hazard a guess. “Could it become umm, lead?”
Shane shook his head. “No, not at all.”
“And why not?” Trish tried the direct approach. “It would have to change, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, lead’s got 92 electrons so, you would have to add electrons, not take away.” Shane smiled. “You could get Iridium if you took away two electrons.”
“Iridium? Is that radioactive?”
“Naw. It’s used in alloys for the electronics industry. It’s one of the elements most resistant to corrosion. It’s used in an alloy to make helicopter spark plugs.”
“Really. Is it worth much?”
“Not as much as gold.”
“You know so much. Do you think you could help me…?” Trish twirled a curl around her biro and looked at him from under heavily mascaraed lashes. “with my science project?” Shane looked a bit dubious at this request.
“Maybe. When were you thinking?” Inwardly, he was thinking about a research project he was doing for his physics class and there were those problems his maths teacher had given him to extend his learning. Maybe it would not take long. An hour and a half maximum and he would make his excuses and get rid of her. He did so want to be nice, as the new kid on the block. Best to keep all on side.
“After the basketball game, Saturday? Ok 3.30 at my place. I can pick you up.” Shane looked surprised.
“Yeah. Mum and dad are going to a conference this weekend. Dad’s a doctor. He’s giving a paper on something in Sydney. I’ll have their car.”
“No, seventeen. My brother’s got a full licence.”
“You’ll drop me home first. To shower and change.” This was too good an opportunity to miss.
“No. We’ve a shower and pool besides. You can have a quick swim. Shower and I’ll make some pizza for a quick snack. Then we can get this project knocked off. Then we’ll drive you home.”
Shane shrugged. Ok.
Trish could not wait to tell Sally the good news. She was sitting in the canteen doing her homework.
“He’s coming over Sat arvo.”
“Shane. That’s who. After the basketball.”
“Really. How did you swing that?” Sally seemed quite flat and did not respond to Trish’s excited rave. When she had finished a recount of the whole deal and given a rundown of her Saturday wardrobe, make-up and menu for the study session, Sally just put down her pen and wished Trish good luck. Trish was too excited to take much notice of what she considered Sally’s mood. She even thought it may have been a touch of jealousy.
All went as planned. She and her brother Michael picked Shane up after the game. They had won by 70 points, 26 of which had been scored by Shane.
While Trish made pizza and some snacks, Shane and Michael swam. The two boys seemed to have hit it off. There was a lot of laughter and splashing coming from the patio area leading out to the swimming pool. She called them twice before she finally went out about five to insist they come in for pizza.
“It’s better hot, guys. Com’on!” Laughing, they jumped out of the pool and splashed her with water, before heading off to the showers.
Michael sat on the couch with his head phones on, reading; while she and Shane worked on her science project. He was so smart she thought to herself. I am going to try and get him to extend the evening.
“Ok, we’re done. Any more questions, Trish. I think that’s pretty good. You can just do the illustrations and you have an A plus assignment.”
“Boy, I wish you were our science teacher instead of Mr Edwards.” Shane gave her a winning smile.
“Well, your drawing is amazing. You’re quite artistic, aren’t you?” Trish swelled with joy. He was paying her a compliment. Wow. Now is the time she thought.
“Shane, would you, I mean, what are you doing tonight? Would you..” she was suddenly tongue tied.
At this point Michael looked up, put down his book and took off his head phones.
“You guys finished. Ready Shane? Let’s go.”
“Where are you and Shane going, Michael?”
“Michael and I’ve decided we’re going to the movies. We both want to see Firangi. We both discovered we love Bollywood films.” Michael and Shane both look at each other and smile then break out into laughter.
Trish looks perplexed, then she pouts.
“Sooo, can’t I tag along too?” Michael leaps to his feet and places a proprietorial hand on Shane’s shoulder.
“No, boys’ night out. You’ve had your turn.”
“Oh, I would love to see that movie too? Thanks Shane, so much for helping me. I..” She stops when she sees Michael’s face. She knows the answer before he says.
That night she calls Sally.
“How did it go?”
“Well, he’s really nice, but…”
“He’s kind of distant. Can’t put my finger on it.”
“What? No chemistry?”
“Yeah. It’s really elemental, if you know what I mean.”
“He’s lovely, but there is no spark. No reaction. He’s like my brother. Now, they get on like a house on fire. There are sparks there. They laugh at each other’s jokes, and it’s not even funny, half the time. Even all the time.”
“You sound a little down.”
“Yeah, I am. It’s like he, well, just tolerated me. He and Michael have gone to the pictures.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“Nope. They’re seeing Firangi.”
“I want to tell you something. Promise you won’t get mad.”
“Ok. Tell me.”
“I did a bit of research on Shane. I rang someone I know in Tassy. You know why he left his old school?”
“He was bullied. Really badly. He and another boy. The other boy ended up in hospital. They said, if a teacher had not rescued him and the other boy, they could have been killed.”
“Trish, I don’t believe you still don’t get it, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Shane is gay.”
Seriously? I thought the story was great and the writing fantastic. The dialogue really popped. I really DID love it, if just for the writing alone. Your exposition is really rich. I mean, it’s not like this story hasn’t been done before, (although I don’t recall ever reading one), and it’s not exactly a surprise—but I don’t see how it could be done with any more finesse than this.
I do agree with Vicki on that sentence though. All you need to clarify the meaning (at least in the States,) is to add the word ‘ever’ in front of ‘since.’ It’s not perfect grammar, but it creates a phrase that modifies the meaning of since. (Or change ‘since’ to ‘from.’) Voila. Problem solved.
One sentence bothers me a bit, though (it’s only a minor thing): “Trish was smitten and had been along with half the school population – the female ones that is, since the boy had transferred from somewhere down south in Tassy.” It sounds a bit confusing to me, as if “since” implies causality (ie that half the school population was smitten with Shane *because* (since) he had transferred from South Tassie). I think it may be something about the punctuation, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.
And what a well-drawn character.
I like the ‘opposites attract’ motif – ditsy artsy girl and nerdy sciency boy, straight and gay, even!
Nice dialogue, and good use of the third friend character to bounce Trish’s feelings off and provide a route in for more information.
One thing, on the science: I thought it was protons that made the element the element, not electrons? Electrons can be gained and lost without changing the element (as in ionisation) but if you change the number of protons you’ll get a different element? Is there a scientist in the house?
(Chemistry was the only subject I came bottom of the class in. At least in physics and biology that year there was one person who was worse than me!)
The number of protons changes the atomic number.
I found the story so entertaining I didn’t notice this.
I don’t know anything about comics or their characters so I may be wrong but, it seems as though you’ve created a whole new superhero. If true, that would be a pretty neat trick.
My mom loved books but disdained comics when I was a kid. But whenever I met someone with comics I would lose two or three hours absorbing them with a vengeance. I soaked them up anytime I got a chance, which wasn’t very often. On the other hand, Mad Magazine was the exception. I was encouraged to read that.
Alright Ladies and Gents. On Sunday we received a very polite request from the loved Andy Lake for an extension of the word count for this prompt.
Initially our answer was no. But Carrie and I discussed it over several drinks, and decided that since this is the last prompt of the year, and since there aren’t that many stories yet, we would leave the word count open ended. Meaning your story can be any length you choose, and we are also extending the deadline to the end of the month.
Yes we were very tipsy.
So Andy, please post that story at the word count it is. And anyone else whose already posted a story can delete it and re-work your story then re-post with the new word count. Or not, it is up to you.
Thank you for your patience and have a wonderful holiday.
Carrie and Alice 🙂
I will post a story shortly. 🙂
Ack-chew-alee, You think it was the alcohol, but the truth is, women are susceptible to reverse psychology, and I used REVERSE, reverse psychology on you. You never had a chance. HA-ha.
Merrrrrry Christmas, Ho-Ho-Ho.
Given the extra words, and the extended deadline, I think that Philip should write a short sequel to his periodic dating table story. We all want to know what’s gonna go down between Thomas and Olga, don’t we?
You’ve no excuse to leave us hanging, Philip. We want to know what happens when Thomas dates Olga.
Write a sequel. Write a sequel. Write a sequel. Come on everybody. Write a sequel. Write a sequel. Write a sequel. Come on—I can’t hear ya. Write a sequel, write a sequel, write a sequel, write a sequel, write a sequel, write a sequel…
You can’t fight it Philip. Listen to that crowd of angry readers. Makes you nervous doesn’t it?
Lewite zee zequel, OLD MAN. Loo vill lewite zee zequel, NOW! Old man.
(He’ll never write it.)
Also, I must regretfully inform the rest of the writers that I have been in communication with Mr. Philip Town, and his spokesperson has informed me, in the most caustic terms, that Mr. Town will not, I repeat not, be writing a sequel. He said, ‘I don’t like the way you asked. You weren’t sincere or convincing enough.’
Can you believe that guy?
I am nothing if not sincere.
Am I not? (Or not not?)
Because quite frankly…it’s obvious that after several tequila shots ANYTHING can be accomplished.
Even a sequel! 😉
Tequila gift package! Sounds expensive. I wonder if Philip has ever had a tequila. He doesn’t strike me as the Tequila ‘type.’ (Oh boy, I can see the alarms going off all the way from here.) My partner Kim described the end of her Tequila Phase in this way: ‘Too much nakedness,’ she said. ‘And it wasn’t me that was getting naked. Finally, when the guy tried to walk his naked ass through the fire, that’s when I decided, never again.’
I’m feeling pretty whimsical right now, and I’m thinking of channeling this whimsy into our Fifth Annual Flash Fiction Writers Year End Achievement Award Presentation. Which will-surely-make-somebody chuckle, possibly.
“Can he do it?” asked the black masked and caped figure sitting in front of the screen.
“He’s the only one who has a chance,” answered the other figure, also caped but clad in bright blue and red.
“Even you?” the rough voice of the first watcher asked with just a bit of incredulity.
“Even me,” said the other with no hint of any emotion. “I would cause more damage than I’d prevent if I even made the attempt.”
“Is he really that powerful? He’s never done anything like this.”
“You’ve seen the results of the tests. The ones he would let us perform, anyway. You even designed some of them. He could probably shift the Earth in its orbit if he let himself. He keeps it under such strict control both consciously and unconsciously that he only manifests a tiny portion of what he’s capable of.”
Despite his reputation of being unafraid of anything, masked observer shuddered inwardly. He’d seen some of what the object of their conversation had done with that tiny portion and that kind of power without limit could shatter the world.
“How did you convince him to try?” the blue and red suited figure asked.
“I showed him this,” replied the masked man and touched a control that changed the image on the screen.
The other figure was taken aback by the image but understood exactly why their comrade had agreed to attempt the impossible task before him.
“That was cruel.”
The image was once again switched to the screen that graphically displayed the location of the only other entity besides the brightly clad person watching capable of flying through the vacuum of space without a suit even for a short time. The dot that indicated his position approached the upper atmosphere directly above the eye of the most massive hurricane in recorded history. His mission: stop it.
He called himself Mass because mass bends spacetime and that was his unique power. He could alter the very structure of spacetime with only a thought, allowing him to increase gravity, decrease it, or even reverse it. He’d learned how to use it as both a shield and a weapon but used it only as often as he had to to save lives.
He didn’t know how he had come to have it, this so-called superpower. His parents and their parents had been normal people so he had decided he must be some kind of mutant. He had realized early in life that he was different and could not only manipulate the fabric of reality but sense it directly as well. He knew things he shouldn’t know, could do things that he shouldn’t be able to do and he got a lot of sideways glances from those around him. He knew he had to make that stop so he learned to hide his abilities.
He’d lived like that for a long time, hiding in plain sight and occasionally using his abilities when he could be sure no one could possibly know it was him. He’d kept his powers to himself until something had happened that made it impossible for him to continue.
September 11, 2001. Hijacked airplanes flew into the World Trade Towers killing thousands while a stunned nation watched. He had seen it too, watched transfixed as first responders risked their lives to try to save every life possible. He realized that his powers could have saved not all, but many of those who perished that day. Out of abysmal shame and sadness had crystallized a purpose. He became something that he’d never pictured himself as, a ‘superhero’.
Using his abilities, he generated wealth in the form of gemstones created by the immense pressures he could generate on common materials like carbon and corundum. He’d discretely built a headquarters from which he could monitor news, emergency frequencies, and all other forms of media. His profession as an electronic technician had come in handy, making it unnecessary to hire people to install the complex equipment needed to turn the old warehouse into a base of operations.
From this ordinary seeming group of buildings, he had launched a campaign to help. He didn’t fight crime. He left that to the blue-suited alien and Metropolis and the masked vigilante with all the gadgets and the fancy car in Gotham. He only intervened when criminal action threatened life.
He had tried to remain in the shadows but inevitably stories of the people he had saved began to leak out and spread on social media. A kind of urban legend had developed around him, a silent, somehow sad guardian angel that appeared from nowhere to help only to disappear just as quickly. This had suited him and it had been the norm until a couple of years later.
He’d returned to his base only to realize he wasn’t alone even before he’d touched down on the roof. No one was visible but his spatial senses told him two people were concealed in the maze of pipes and machinery remaining from the structure’s industrial past. One seemed to be human but the other was something different. They had revealed themselves and invited him to join them. He’d turned them down.
That was the first step to where he was now. While he had not become one of their group, he had been discovered and stayed on their radar. He’d met with them a few times, endured a few tests to try and quantify his power, offered to help when he could. Finally, just a few hours ago, he’d been summoned to their orbiting base.
“I’m not going to try to sugarcoat this. We need you,” stated the masked figure who’d first met him.
“Ok, what am I supposed to do? Let’s get at it so I can get back.”
“Not so fast. You need to know what you’re getting into. Follow me.”
Bemused and now concerned, Mass followed his host through the station’s passages to a large room with walls covered in screens and equipment, the far wall dominated by a giant screen showing an image of Earth. Near the bottom of the screen he could see the whirling image of a storm rampaging through the Caribbean.
“Irma,” he muttered.
“That’s right, and that’s why we need you.”
Shocked, Mass’ eyes snapped up to those behind the mask.
“You’re insane. No one can stop that, not even your alien friend.”
“According to what we know, you can. You just have to use your power at the level you’re capable of.”
“I’m not capable of that, no matter what you think. There’s no telling what would happen if I tried. I destroyed an entire mountain doing that once before.”
“Exactly,” countered his guest. “You have untapped power you’ve never dreamed of. We know you could do this if you use it.”
“Just for the sake of argument, how? I couldn’t create a counter-vortex that size.”
“That would be a bad idea. What you can do is affect the gravity in and around the eye, increase the atmospheric pressure, cause it to collapse. It will still rain but the winds would die down and the storm would dissipate before it makes another landfall.”
“Why now? Why didn’t you call me before?” Mass demanded angrily. “I might have had a real shot if I’d gotten to it as a depression.”
“We didn’t know what it was going to do. Marvin was bad enough and when this thing went Category 5 we were contacted to see if we could do something. You’re our only chance.”
“No,” came the flat answer. “I’m not going to risk my own life and the lives of anyone in the area.”
An agonized expression twisted his features into a rictus of emotional agony.
“Don’t you see?” he plead, his voice nearly inaudible. “I could kill thousands.”
“Irma will kill thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, if you don’t try.”
His host paused, thinking for a moment as Mass stood paralyzed by the impossible choice before him. He turned to a nearby screen and keyboard, searching through images until he found the one he sought.
“You can do what you have always said you wanted to, save lives. Or you can do nothing and let more of this happen.”
Mass looked up at the screen and fell to his knees. Video of one of the islands the monster storm had already struck was playing. The island nation was already impoverished and had been unable to take any real measures and bodies of the dead lay strewn about along with the refuse that had been their homes. The camera zoomed in on one tableau and a cry of horrible anguish was wrenched from him. A child lay clinging to her parents, all three dead and wearing expressions of horror at what had taken their lives. No super villain, no alien invasion, not even another human being with a gun or knife. Wind, the ferociously whirling air of the storm had been the impersonal murderer of this small family.
“All right,” he muttered. “When do I go?”
“In an hour it will be over the water again. That’s the best place for you to work without risk of collateral damage.”
“You can rest until I take you in.”
“You won’t have to take me in. I can get there on my own.”
“Are you sure?”
“You don’t know everything about me. I can do it.”
Now he hovered several hundred feet above the ocean surface, the air deceptively calm and the sun shining through the clouds. He adjusted his personal gravity so he was moving in the same direction as the eye and would remain centered for several hours if necessary. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his spatial senses further and further, pushing them well beyond any point he’d ever attempted. His heart beat faster and his respiration grew rapid as his perceptions extended more and more and finally reached the eye wall and beyond.
He stretched his senses upward, sensing, grasping, and fully understanding the volume of space he was going to manipulate. He fought the surges in perception, the nearly overwhelming torrent of information he was trying to process and organize. He stabilized the model he had managed to build in his mind and made minor changes to test his control and effects of his touch on the continuum. A voice in his ear urged him to hurry. He ignored it, knowing just how much worse things could be if he failed. He became less and less aware of the world around him as he sank further and further into his mental construct.
The two individuals watching with deep concern from far above noted a change in some of their readings. The barometric pressure in the eye ticked slightly upward, a small but significant change that was repeated a moment later and kept repeating until it was near one atmosphere, normal for sea level. Wind speeds dropped in an incredibly short time and the storm began to disorganize.
“You’ve done it,” the brightly clad figure said into a transmitter.
There was no answer except a sigh of exhaustion and the sound of a body splashing into the water over the speakers before the signal dropped off. The blue clad figure left the station ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ and rocketed toward where Mass had last been detected. His own special abilities allowed him to find the man unconscious, submerged and drifting downward before pulling him from the surf and flying him to land at incredible speed.
Some weeks later Mass was back in his base when someone or something banged on the heavy steel door securing the entrance. A glance at one monitor revealed the identity of his visitors and he almost chose not to answer before realizing they could enter without his permission if they chose. He pressed the control that opened the thick portal and allowed them to walk in.
“We’ve been trying to reach you,” said the masked figure.”
“I turned off my cell.”
“There are some people who would like to thank you,” interjected his companion, the one that had plucked him from the ocean and taken him for medical assistance.
“Tell them they’re welcome. Anything else?”
“We want to run some tests. What you did was nothing short of a miracle.”
“Nope. We’ve already been through that.”
“Alright, I guess there’s just one more thing.”
“What’s that?” Mass asked when the masked figure handed him something.
“Just a little token of someone’s gratitude.”
Mass looked at what he’d been handed. It was a watercolor drawing of a figure in silver floating in the air telling a storm cloud with an angry face to go away. Attached to the bottom of the sheet was a small photo of a group of children, smiling at the camera.
“Their school was just about to be washed away when the rain stopped. Someone on the island got a glimpse of you before you fell. They sent this to us, thinking it was a member.”
Mass’s eyes filled with tears, his emotions dissolving and uncoiling in his chest for the first time since he’d returned.
“Thanks. Now can you please go away and let me get on with my job?”
The visitors exchanged a look and turned to leave. Once they were out the door the blue-clad man said, “Do you think he’ll ever help us out again?”
“Yes, he will. He can’t help himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s a hero.”
Both Mass himself, and the interplay of the comic-book hero with real-life events – in a way, I guess, in the best traditions of Captain America, only on a more powerful level.
The heroic style of writing works well, weaving the self-doubt and the emotions of the central character into the action. With the current vogue for superheroes in film, this could be Massive.
I was thinking about “He called himself Mass because mass bends spacetime and that was his unique power.”
Each of us has mass – so I guess each of us, in our own small way, does this too?
I actually contacted the two big comic publishers. Their submission forms say that even if they don’t accept it and they develop a character with the same or similar abilities I would have no legal recourse. Kind of turned me off of the idea.
As on old comic reader, I’m used to seeing an entire origin story at once and I don’t know if I could have made his character as well defined if I’d tried to distribute it. On the original submission I had edited most of that out but put it back when the word limit was lifted. Thanks for your time reading it and critiquing it.
I find her everywhere now, having once never thought to look.
“You used to turn your ahead away?” asks a voice in my head.
“Yes, I did,” I admit.
“We all did,” the voice says, a feeble but convenient excuse. “There were others who were worse, weren’t there?” That’s true.
Her memoir is on the coffee table in front of me. It’s in the front window of Waterstones bookshop. Last week she was on TV, on Question Time. The fifth panellist, the non-political one, to provide a different view. Yes, Ella would always be different.
I pick up her book again.
* * * *
“I was always a strange child. Even at kindergarten I knew I was strange. Quiet. Observant. And, of course, observed. I always had this sensation of being watched, of being judged. Judged, but not deterred. For a month I went every day dressed as a doctor. Or so they said. They didn’t know that, in my mind, I was a research scientist. The toy stethoscope hanging round my neck was just to keep everyone amused, and keep them wrong. As a child, nothing was better than knowing something the others did not – except knowing that others were wrong.
And they could always be wrong when I was brewing an experiment, plastic beakers, makeshift boiling flasks and reaction tubes set out on the little plastic kiddie kitchen. Pushing the other children away when they wanted to play house. They might say, ‘Pretend it’s soup and daddy’s coming home …’ Of course I knew I was cooking up some new element, something beyond the periodic table. What would they know of that?
That’s when they started calling me “Witchy”. It was a name that stuck until later in primary school, when with the exclusive cruelty only children can muster, they christened me “Ella Mental.” A chant that followed me through the playground, “Mental Ellla, Ella Mental.”
I’m not sure I helped my cause by becoming fixated with pi.
At the age of eight I would walk in circles in the playground, reciting the value of pi to 230 decimal places. Why 230, I don’t know. It seemed like a good place to stop. And start over again.
If a teacher annoyed me, I would lash out at them with a question about prime numbers. “You’re a teacher,” I’d say. “Why don’t you know this?”
“Mental Ella, Ella Mental!” That was me.
And I began to look as they expected. A shock of corkscrew hair skewing up and out to the left. I watched the other kids, and wore any kind of clothes to not be like them. As a pre-teen and early teenager, when all the girls became fixated by how to look, I only knew I wanted to look different.
And boys. Always talking about boys. And sex. And make-up. And about the weird no-hoper kid in the orange leggings and men’s shoes: me, that freak talking to no one about the distance between stars.”
* * * *
I do remember Ella, from secondary school. She was in the year above me, and part of the generally odd furniture of a cruel place I recall only with loathing. I guess we all have our issues in fitting in.
Ella, I avoided her. You did that, at that age. Why would you want to be associated with anyone weird, unpopular or bullied? The whole point of adolescence is to be accepted, to bond with a limited number of people, and then bond to one person in particular. Ella would never be part of that picture for anyone with an ounce of street cred, or just plain common sense.
Now I think about it, I remember one or two incidents where people gathered round her, jostled her, mocked her, threw her books from her bag, crushed her latest science project and stamped it underfoot.
And I remember her on one such occasion, lost for words, just standing face-to-face with the leading bully, a kid called Jordan. “Yeah?” he said. She stood trembling for a moment, while they all laughed. He pushed her back, and stepped menacingly forward towards her. She stood her ground. “Yeah, witch-bitch?” he mocked.
And then, it seemed, she leapt from the ground, launching herself at him and slapping him with fury across his grinning face. That was one seriously hard slap! He tried to laugh it off, until he noticed the blood trickling from the corner of his eye. A large weal appeared from the corner of that eye, across his cheek and the side of his nose. I noticed the strange rings she was wearing, large and with carved figures on them.
Then she crumpled to the ground as Jordan lashed out with his foot, catching her hard on the thigh. One of Jordan’s gang pulled him away – “C’mon – that retard’s not worth it.”
It’s not something I’d ever recalled until I read about it in her book. So I’d been there, at a distance, watching. And forgotten. After all, none of this was anything to do with me – neither her, nor her nemesis.
I return to her book.
* * * *
“Work was my salvation. My parents, in their own dysfunctional way, gave me the resilience to survive the school day. My father was a surgeon with sociopathic traits. People were of no interest to him until he could slice them open and rearrange them.
My mother was a psychotherapist. I remember one day after I’d taken a beating at school, she imparted some of her wisdom. “The truth is, sweetheart,” she said, “people are mostly weird, weak and inadequate. They spend their lives trying to cover that up.”
“The choice is yours, my dear. Being young is survival training for coping with the strangeness of others. Just be yourself, not one of the herd.”
As I got older, I guess my maths and science teachers should have loved me – always the top student or thereabouts. But it seemed they didn’t. Something about my fierce independence, my preference for doing my own thing, not theirs, seemed to make them resent my academic achievements. Or maybe they – weak-willed mediocrities that they were – simply bought into the social narrative of the students.
At university I excelled. The social pressure eased, as my differences stood out less amongst the conventional eccentricities of the brilliant at Cambridge and then across the ocean at MIT.
Artificial intelligence was my passion. But I never completed my doctorate. My first company was by then absorbing all my time and energy. Most importantly, it was making a lot of money.
Providing AI-as-a-service in environmental control systems may sound obscure, if not downright dull. But within 5 years I had a near monopoly in providing the platform for intelligence and data analysis in buildings, utilities, transport systems and “smart city” technologies.
Of course, the big players tried at first to buy us out, then snuff us out. But by now I had the maturity to steady the nerves of our investors and strike back. I had a nose for the start-ups that would make an impact in the consumer AI and robotics market, bought the best and launched into these new fields. Snatching winners from under the noses of Google, Amazon and Alibaba was surprisingly gratifying. As was being lauded as Businesswoman of the Year in 2025.
When I found myself on the cover of Time magazine, I imagined the reactions of the tormentors of my youth. Then I was sickened at my own reaction. For it seemed my self-esteem was somehow umbilically connected to their worthless actions.
I withdrew. And reflected. No matter how hard I tried to rise above it, I would still often day-dream about revenge. Over the years the insults and bullying must have shaped the neurons in my growing brain. I either needed to satisfy my lust for revenge, or somehow re-programme myself.
By choice, I had no one close to me. I had tried dating at college, but found that as repellent as I had expected. There was Laura, Chief Operating Officer of each of my new companies in turn, and now CEO of the group. Perhaps the only person I totally trusted, apart from my parents. Laura has the gift of turning ideas into commercial reality, and has never let me down. But we were colleagues, not quite friends.
Animals, though. We had never had any at home as I grew up. My love of horses came quite by chance, it seemed, when I bought a large estate including stabling and paddocks. At first, I wanted to evict the people stabling their horses there. But out of fairness I gave them time to find alternative places. Within a few days though I was learning to ride, and before long I had bought my first horse. And then more. I became patron of the horse and donkey sanctuary nearby – an intermittently social role I would once have run a mile from.
Then came the dogs. I was adopted by a stray cat, heavily pregnant. I supported her tending her litter. Then I had a large tropical greenhouse built, occupied by tropical birds, lemurs and marmosets. That also involved refurbishing the old farm labourers’ cottages on the estate for the staff who look after them.
But I was still looking to the stars, and at that time we launched our first ventures into space. Space exploration and commerce depend critically on machine intelligence and robotics. Sending people out there is expensive, risky – and in the end, people are just plain unreliable. I still had my early dreams of discovering something completely new. Of being the person to do something never done before, perhaps something never even tried before.”
* * * * *
I put down her book. Here she was being interviewed again, and I was hooked.
“Have you achieved the ‘firsts’ you were looking for in space?” asked the chat-show host.
“No,” said Ella. “I had hoped to be the first to discover life elsewhere in the solar system. Now it’s been done – by someone else. Simple bacteria on Mars, on Titan, on a couple of asteroids; but life for sure.”
“So, some disappointment there. But I guess you can take comfort in the millions of dollars pouring in every day to your companies. They run nearly all the space traffic control systems and you own around 20% of off-world mining.” He smirked.
“Have you given up on space? It seems you’ve turned your eyes to more terrestrial issues. Tell me about the millions of hectares of rainforest you’ve bought in Indonesia and Malaysia.”
“Well, it grew out of new uses for my environmental control systems. Whenever we think about AI and robots, it’s always about humans, humans, humans. We want robots to understand us. We worry if robots will replace us. We want them to make our lives more comfortable. But what would we learn if we focused less on ourselves and more on the natural world?”
“So we’ve been gathering massive amounts of data about how forest environments work. How animals behave. How they interact, how they communicate.”
“So you can talk to the animals, right?” Soft laughter from the audience.
“We’ve got multi-billion dollar programmes looking for life up there, beyond this world. But we have very little understanding of how other species behave, right here on Earth. So, we’ve been crunching the data through intelligent systems and machine learning, and as a result we know so much more about how they behave, how they share knowledge, how they think, how they feel. How beliefs are shared socially.”
“Animals have beliefs?”
“Yes. It’s all about how they interpret reality. And we’re developing robotic systems to dive into more of that world. But first we needed to protect their habitats, reduce the pressure we put them under.”
“Didn’t the logging companies have a view on that? I guess they were resistant.”
“We bought them.”
“And some state officials, if the rumours are to be believed.”
“Who believes rumours?” Ella shrugged.
“OK. Having saved the animals and the rainforest, you’re now involved in saving people. Tell me about that.”
“You think that’s more important?” asked Ella sharply.
“Isn’t it?” asked the host, his jovial smirk giving way to his serious face.
“You know I was talking to Laura Gonzales, our CEO, after a difficult day. And I was complaining about the baleful effects we humans have on our planet. And on the news screens was the latest humanitarian catastrophe from the latest human war. And Laura said, ‘Ella, you have all this compassion for animals. Aren’t humans animals too?’ I was mad at her for a while, but it set me thinking.”
“And what did you conclude?”
“I’d been focusing on the rapacity of people. But Laura saw their suffering. So I thought, how should I look at my fellow human beings? With contempt or compassion?”
“And that’s when you bought your island.”
“Yes, to be a refuge for victims of war. Where they can stay a while, and rebuild their lives. They have to park politics and religion at the port. We even have a little ceremony for that. No island is big enough for all the suffering, but it’s a start. And we’re funding a lot of other programmes too.”
“So – in your book you come across as a loner, and you say you’ve inherited your father’s ‘sociopathic traits’.”
“That’s me,” laughed Ella. “I was on this quest, which no one could understand, so I had to do it alone. I was looking for something decisively new. Instead I found something very old. But it was new to me.”
“And that is?”
“Kindness. There’s not enough of it. And it often goes into hiding.”
“Have you fallen in love with humanity now? I mean, how do you feel about the people who bullied and persecuted you? The people who burn down rainforests and mistreat wildlife? Do you forgive them?”
Ella thought for a moment. “I guess I’m not into forgiving. Or not forgiving, for that matter. People do what they do, and I wish we were better at stopping the bad guys.”
She paused, turned to the camera, and seemed to be looking directly into my eyes as she continued, “In some ways, it’s the people who watch, stand by and do nothing who are the real problem. They are the ones who most need to change.”
I love the story, by the way. Did I mention that? I think the writing is exquisite. (You should retire now, while you’re at your peak. No? Maybe—Maybe I should retire now, at your peak.)
But before I do, now that we have extra time and words, I’m going to write a completely different story and post it in place of my first story, and I’ll bet you that nobody even notices. Only you and Ilana even bother to read my stories, and nobody reads my comments. That’s why I can post my evil plans right here, right in plane (I meant plain) sight.
So, before I write a new story, tell us, now that you’re famous, now that you’ve broken through the blood-brain barrier, (I always wanted to work that into a conversation somehow, it’s a little game I like to play). What I really mean is, now that you’ve broken through the dreaded ‘word barrier,’ you won’t forget about us little people will you?
And what’s next for you? The ‘paragraph barrier’? The ‘page barrier’? How far do you think you’ll go? (The ‘publish barrier’?) Whatever you do, don’t forget about us little people will ya? Your crew, your posse? Your peeps? Don’t act like you don’t know us when you see us at the handymart. All right? That’s all I ask.
Great story, Andy.
I particularly liked the ‘boyish charm’. No one has referred to me that way for a while – a few weeks, at least …
You think? Don’t let my duplicitous diatribes fool you. I loved the story. In essence, a beautifully constructed character, who delivers a universally meaningful point.
I don’t know if you intended this or not, but at the beginning, I had the impression that Ella was dead.
Interesting impression – not specifically intended but the opening leaves it open as to which way things will go …
Congratulations writers, for surviving another year, while writing. Pursuant to the Rules Changes after our last awards presentation, this years winners were picked by uploading everyone’s stories into our newly purchased, 5 Qubit quantum computer. A ‘Special Awards Committee’, approved by an independent counsel, reviewed the results, added a brief comment or ‘words of encouragement’ to each one, and passed the results back to me. I’m now authorized, according to Rule 73, to pass them on to the group.
Philip ‘The Count’ Town: Most Consistent Number Of Words Used, On Average, Week After Week Award.
“Think it’s easy? I’d like to see the rest of you try writing a story with a calculator.”
Ken ‘The Dunce’ Cartisano: A dual Award. Most Humble Writer Award. & Most Last Place Finishes Award.
“That’s not humility, that’s just being realistic.”
Carrie ‘Bullseye’ Zylka: Most Likely To Become A Bona Fide Fur Trapper Award.
“A hot, drunken Trapper, no doubt. Mostly writes when she’s not stalking something.”
Alice ‘The Intimidator’ Nelson: Least Overall Improvement Award.
“This is due solely to her existing overall excellence. But we didn’t have time to change the name of the award to ‘Existing Overall Excellence’ until it was too late.”
Andy ‘The Persuader’ Lake: Nicest Comments Award.
“His writing is pretty good too, if you can get him to follow directions.”
Vicki ‘Chi’ Chvatal: Most Mysterious Writer Award.
“Frankly, we don’t know if we can baffle her or not, or how to.”
Ken ‘The Assassin’ Allen: Most Mistakes In A Single Paragraph Award.
“Once wrote the phrase: ‘Two ear is hummus…’ Well shut my mouth.” (Actually, it was ‘Two ear is human.’ But hummus is funnier.”)
Ilana ‘Blood ‘n’ Guts’ Leeds: Most Characters Killed Or Maimed In A Month Award.
“If you’re one of her characters, your best chance of survival is to be a goat.”
Dean ‘X-acto’ Hardage: Most Likely To Be Factually Correct Award.
“We keep reminding him that this is fiction. ‘Is that a fact?’ He says.”
Christopher ‘Wesson’ Smith: Most Difficult To Critique Award.
“Your story has a lot of potential Chris, but the beginning needs work.”
Maud ‘Hypo’ Harris: Most Cavalier Attitude Award.
“She doesn’t know about space and time, and she doesn’t care to know.”
Randall ‘Squeeze Play’ Lemon: Most Sorely Missed Award.
“Insists that we pay him for his stories, but we’re flat broke. We’re not paying you Randall.”
Adrienne ‘Betty’ Davis: Most Likely To Win An Award Award.
“Doesn’t post a story, comes in fourth. Decorated for ‘duty, above and beyond the call of service.”
There was no one maimed or mutilated in the last stories, were there? Is that good English? I do not know. Having spent all day in the hospital either waiting in the waiting room of the ER reading stories about people whose father murders their mother and marries their mother’s sister and she forgives them(the aunt and the dad), or people accidently poisoning their child (yeah that’s what they say, although that $600 for a “true” story might have been a good incentive, Randall Lemon Truth to Tell Magazine might be it for you, they pay $2000 for really good stories in Take 5) and then stories of moral turpitude – things that make your hair stand on end, I promise you no stories of murder or whatever.
I have thought of an excellent story involving a USA SIL who murders my brother. She hires a hitman who happens to be my ex-husband (the first one) who was from the USA. He murders her after collecting the hit on my brother and then makes a brisket roast and serves it to homeless people in a Minnosota shelter as a Thanksgiving meal. He thoughtfully spices and marinates her in a unique hillbilly sauce handed down through the generations, as she is quite tough and puts an apple in her mouth and turns her on a spit.
He meets a grisly end as her children find out and one is a werewolf and the other a vampire bat. I will leave to your imagination what happens to him. So the whole USA side of the family is wiped out in one fell foul swoop. I think I have been watching too many Netflix about people in the USA prison system and series about people like Ed Kempler. (shaking head. My cat just miowed and agreed with me.)
Or I have heat stroke.
I think I will now go quietly with the men in the white coats or are they women – with beards?
The Committee is impressed with your response to the Award. (Congratulations on your new status as an award winning author.)
If you’re crazy, it seems to be a very talented kind of crazy. If you’re referring to the movie ‘Mindhunter’, we haven’t seen it but it sure sounds grisly. Glad you were not offended by our ‘Award’ presentation. Though our humor often contains a little bit of truth, in actual fact, (and not many people know this,) the amount is in the microscopic range. (Along with our tact.)
Still, our advice to you is don’t go with the men in the white coats, if you must go, do not do so quietly.
The Committee For Literary Excellence
President (& Gatekeeper.)
Congratulations on your status as an award winning author.
The Committee is highly impressed with your decision to elevate them to the status of an Academy, but sadly must decline your invitation to do so. (Mostly because of the expense.)
Along with you, The Committee would also like to thank all the little people who are supporting you, (If you would just provide their names,) and sincerely hopes you can find suitable employment soon. The possession of this award, prestigious as it is, may prove invaluable in your quest. (Unless we misunderstand the word ‘invaluable.’)
Your use of superlative terms like, ‘treasure, treat, and mystical experience,’ caused no small amount of elation within The Committee, until it was determined that these were merely metaphors, and not actual things. Despite that realization, it was agreed that these terms exemplified your qualifications for the ‘Existing Overalls Of Excellence Award.’
This is the Award you were intended to get, and we regret the mix-up that caused us to give you the ‘Least Overall Improvement Award.’
Congratulations Ms. Nelson. (Nice pants.)
The Committee For Literary Excellence.
President (& Gatekeeper.)
(Word count: 10. Not 9. Not 11. 10. A round 10. Dez. Diez. Dieci.)
The Committee is impressed with your ‘measured’ response to our Award. (Congratulations on your new status as an award winning author.) Your devotion to the word count, in your response, is both evident, and admirable.
Adding the number in multiple languages confirms our belief that we made the correct decision.
Still, our advice to you is to compose your stories using a pc, phone, pda, dictaphone or clay tablet. We’re only suggesting this for your sake, not ours. The calculator is not designed for this task. In any case, whatever device or method you use, it is not likely to affect the creative depth or grammatical perfection that you manage to achieve week in and week out, with your stories.
If not awarded, you should at least be congratulated.
The Committee For Literary Excellence.
President (& Gatekeeper.)
Congratulations on your new status as an award winning author.
(We’re still working out the kinks of our communications platform. Bear with us.)
The Committee is highly impressed with the ‘uncertainty’ of your response to our Award. An obvious reference to Werner Heisenberg. Your devotion to the facts is well established and supported by documentation in the cloud. (Clouds?) Your ability to keep us guessing is impressive, and for this alone, you should be congratulated. All of the aforementioned confirms our belief that we bestowed this distinctive award on the correct recipient.
And so it gives us great pleasure to be able to assure you, confidently, that all of ‘this’— is completely ‘accurate.’
The Committee humbly accepts your thanks, and is currently trying to decipher the hidden meaning in the word ‘honored.’
The Committee For Literary Excellence.
President (& Gatekeeper.)
You’re such lovely people, whose beneficence and pulchritude know no bounds.
[Exits stage right. No, no … why’s he going left?]
Congratulations on your new status as an award winning author.
The Committee is highly impressed with the ‘very persuasive tone’ of your response to our Award Presentation.
Your reference to Gertrude Pulchritude, and beneficence did not go unnoticed either. Ms. Pulchtritude is a founding member of ‘The Committee,’ (TCFLE) and not many lay people are aware of her exceptional 2 year career as a lab rat. Her demise, sad as it was, provided the cosmic impetus that catapulted ‘The Committee’ into its vaunted status as arbiter of literary excellence. The fact that you so obviously know this, is, in and of itself, astounding, and certainly worthy of praise and recognition.
Despite these auspicious circumstances, we regretfully inform you that our beneficence does, in fact, have limits and that your award was presented erroneously. However, your persuasive response has tipped the scales back in your favor, and furthermore, due to the exclusive nature of the ‘Nicest’ Award, said beneficence now comes with an automatic lifetime extension. (No money need change hands.)
Congratulations Mr. Lake. (Nice going.)
The Committee For Literary Excellence.
President (& Gatekeeper.)
Quite possibly the funniest thread I’ve ever read in my entire life…
THIS is why i love you guys!!!!
Well, we (The Committee) are fond of you too. We are also afraid of you.
In spite of our collective fear, we would be remiss in failing to point out that awards for fictional stories would, by necessity, be ‘fictional awards’.
We would also add that we would not be so quick to dismiss the credibility of The Committee For Literary Excellence, if we were in your ‘snake-stompers.’ However, since you have all the weapons, and we have nothing but puny words, we respectfully, and politely suggest that you refrain, if at all possible, from referring to ‘The Committee’ as ‘patients running amok.’
But we’re not going to force the issue.
The Committee For Literary Excellence.
Resident (& Grapekeeper.)
Festive greetings to you all and Happy Writing in the remainder of 2017 and throughout 2018!
I went to hell yesterday and I don’t know how but I made it out. None of my survival training had prepared me for what I saw. I was … I must be the luckiest son of a bitch know to man. the infected cornered us into a large refrigerator at the factory. Those infected monsters… just tore my 6 friends…. apart! Right in front of me! The infected were once our friends, they were driven into insanity the malicious spores that infect and take control of the body and mind now they’re these manic, fungus-filled beasts that feast on all human life. Before yesterday, I had always had difficulty with killing our own kind, but the truth is, they will never be those people we once knew… It is in fact better to see them as the enemy as soon as they are infected. I get that now. If we hadn’t hesitated more people may still be alive today! This feeling… is so unfamiliar, yet logical. That was the first time I used a gun since they took my- … my family… [Recording Stopped]
It seems this hot bowl of soup by candlelight was the highlight of my week. I met a man named Felix. He and his wife saved me. After all they did just save my ass… just not from the imprinted horror that will remain with me eternally. A good night’s sleep tonight, as tomorrow I’m gonna check out what kind of security this place has. Then, I’ll set traps for hopefully some uninfected rabbits.
Had an interesting discussion with Felix last night and again this afternoon. Turns out he is a military man. He noticed my note books that I carry with me. He commented on my recorder and asked why I title my tapes “John Doe”. ‘Simply because we are all dead men walking’ I told him. I continued on about how most people cannot survive and drop so fast that I just see another “John Doe”. To my surprise, he nodded unimpressed, and said, ‘Nature has a plan, John,’ he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’ve decided you have what it takes to protect and serve the community. There’s something about you. Each person here has hope, you must respect them for believing, in us and each other. We must believe… We must have hope,’ Everything he does seems so…. calculated. He is a survivor and reviver. He’s mindful of resources, strengthens the weak and believes in his people. He comes across as the strongest leader I have seen since perhaps years before the apocalypse… Note, I‘m changing the names of my entries to “Apocalypse + -”
Apocalypse + 164
Felix came along with me to hunt for a deer I had been tracking. It turns out he excels in the field as he does with his politics. Nowadays, you must if you want to survive, let alone lead 40 people. We found a beautiful, scenic trail that leads to a spring where we filled our skins with water almost an hours walk inland from here. Something to me that’s special about the spring’s water. Felix said this could be the new trusted source for water but for now we will keep it secret. After all, with the river, you never know what’s coming from upstream.
They are throwing a welcome party for me tonight. Doubling down on supplies and food as a redundancy. I see no such need for these vanities. As much as I appreciate the gesture and to be part of this community, my purpose is to aid in survival. Help my fellow man. So, I set up far away, to keep watch on the east side from where the brush line meets the forest about 700 meters from the camp. Tonight, I will cook my own rabbit kebabs and gaze at the firelight under the glowing stars. Never thought I would see the happy side of living again.
Everyone is dead. I arrived at the camp to a mad scene with fire quickly spreading. Among many, Alice was punching the floor and banging her head on anything she could find to beat the disease out of her own body. The fire still ablaze, Felix had began shooting the mad and hysterical in the head with his long silver revolver. On all fours, Alice abruptly looked up at me, suddenly reverent. She began crying, screaming and pleading while resisting the madness that crept into her body. Suddenly, Brain matter that belonged to Alice painted my clothes as Felix reluctantly executed her to end her misery. He instinctively drew his gun on me as I witnessed his horror. HE looked as though he was descending in to his madness himself. Familiarizing my face, he changed targets and said “Run! I’ll find you!” He fired off a few more rounds into the heads of his fellow infected citizens and me-… I just made a run for it…
I am bothered that he murdered this man whole community with such ease. I understand the notion that biology and the spores of the outbreak would eventually change them into those monsters. But he just did it so easily… without hesitation. Can I really trust someone who I capable of that?… Argh! What am I saying?! I need him. I’ll give him an extra day to turn up.
Its been a whole day and the remainder of the charred camp still smokes. The eastward winds fill the air with scents of burned flesh and that bile-scented, infected smell. No sign of Felix or anyone else. Its unlikely he died in the fire. Felix is a survivor. However, There’s the possibility of him becoming infected. Either way, I have to move this camp tomorrow. The fumes are getting to my stomach and head. Today, going to leave the camp to check snares. Too bad the fire ruined all the deer! Too bad I hadn’t tried any… perhaps not. Something poisoned the camp after all.
Darkness fell and fuelled by the pit in his stomach, the lone wanderer fearfully halted the recorder’s playback. For he sensed what might have happened to his friend. He placed the recorder in his pocket and fetched firewood from John’s cord of wood. A noise caught his attention coming from the river. With his flashlight, he tracked a trail for 40 meters where he made out a dead body next to a bloody boulder by the river. His head was beaten to pulp but he can tell it was John. About 3 meters from the other side of the boulder, there was an infected that seemed to be caught on the riverbank laying all its decayed infected waste into the river. The lone wanderer pulled out the recorder and continued listening.
I heard some noise toward the banks of the river, And I am currently going to check it out. Oh my lord! …There’s an infected in the river! His carcass is contaminating the water! I can’t believe I – Ahh!… That was weird… A sharp pain to my spine- Ahhhh- Again.? Can’t stop itching! Oh no! What’s happening to me!?
I can’t … think …. anymore! Its always there! …. in my head…. under my skin…. infected… can’t… ARRGGHHHHH!… fight it…fight it! losing it! Alone… rock!… rock’s killing it… finally!
All of the Lone Wanderer’s pent up emotions pour out if him as he clutches the recorder, falls to his knees and bawls next to the fire light. Emotion he has not shared. Ever. And here he is, alone. He could withstand the daily tests nature throws his way. Eventually, like all of human life, the culmination of the human loss and the grief were elements of this survival that he could not endure. ‘His wife and friends, eradicated by an infection’ he thought. He rises up to his feet and pulls out the same silver revolver that ended his wife’s life, and points it to his own temple. Just as he pulls the trigger, a yearning cry comes from beyond the woods causing him to turn his head towards the noise just before the bullet just grazes the skin above his temple. He escapes death once more.
For this Lone Wanderer, Hope is calling. In his life, hope saves and hope prevails.
What a crazy ride this prompt has been!
But alas…..the time is up and votes must be cast!
The voting link is here:
Good luck and Happy New Year – here’s to a kick ass 2018!
Also – Maud, I don’t see an email with the next theme.
Could you email the next writing prompt and any required elements to email@example.com – Thanks!
The prompt is ‘Murder at midnight’ 1200 – 1500 words. Sorry I missed the vote, I’ve been in France hellraising with my daughter.
The next prompt is “Murder at Midnight”.
I’ll have it up tonight when I get home!
New post is up!
Working on the winners now!
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