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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest—Round 1

The circumstances under which I wrote this were . . .  subideal. I had two shows to review and another commitment. I had very little time to work out the ending, which unfortunately shows. But it looked like I wasn't going to even get the story in for a while,  so I'm glad I did.

Heat: 16
Genre: Fantasy
Location: A food truck
Object: A water fountain
Word count: 1000 on the nose

Title: Topside Curio

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest 2017

I'm the person who cried wolf about prompt difficulty, but this was hard

Heat: 83
Genre: Action/Adventure
Object: An investment
Character: An Airplane Maintenance Technician

Title: Green

Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world, a pirate and a hostage take a gamble. “I wasn't always a pirate.”

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest 2016—Round 2 Story

Still in heat 34. The prompts this time around:

Genre: Sci-Fi
Location: A hot-air balloon
Object: A Four-leave clover

Not very happy with this. Sci-Fi is hard anyway. It felt nearly impossible in just 1000 words.

Title: In Ordinary Time

Synopsis: A peacekeeper and a rogue storyteller meet again. 

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest 2016—Round 1

Group: 34
Genre: Suspense
Location: A Parking Garage
Object: A Fortune Cookie

Needs Must

These aren’t my usual hunting grounds. Sloping, stained concrete and lurid yellow diagonals.  The scent of oil and exhaust. Of long-extinguished cigarettes and rain. It’s unfamiliar terrain, but needs must. Needs must. 

I tread carefully, though I’m no less surefooted here than among the manicured lawns and paving-stone paths of more familiar haunts. But this is a different world. A new world of booming echoes. Fickle, buzzing light and thick shadows that I’d welcome under other circumstances. 

If I’d chosen this—been drawn here of my own volition—my heart would pound. My blood would rise to the challenge. Unfamiliar sounds and flashes of movement. The delicious suspicion that I might be the hunted just this once.  

But I have so little time. Just these few, dark, in-between hours. 

I tread carefully. I trail my fingers along the wall. I listen, breathing in between my own steps as I wind upward. I strike out from the shadows once I hit the open roof. I weave between the few cars left in here-and-there spaces like rotting teeth. I walk the perimeter, confirming what I already know.

I have the measure of the place. These aren’t my usual hunting grounds, but they’re all much the same in the dark, in-between hours. Much the same for the likes of me, and the work is done. There’s little to do but listen. But wait for opportunity to flash her curious smile. 

I lean forward over the pock-marked wall. There’s hardly a kiss of rain now, though it hasn’t gone long or far enough to be a memory just yet. The leaves are green-black and glistening below. Scudding clouds scatter the light of the three-quarter moon over them. They dampen the sound of car tires on slick pavement.

I want it to happen here. High above the trees. In the open air. By moonlight. I want this precise setting. 

My spine straightens in surprise as the thought takes me. In disgust. There is no want for the likes of me. No desire or imagining. There’s only compulsion. 

Needs must. 

I leave the roof by the stairwell, quickly enough that my footfalls aren’t quite silent on the metal steps. It’s fine. I tell myself it’s fine, and it’s not quite a lie. Silence—utter silence—is no friend. 

I need them to know. I need them to suspect, at least. To wonder about the footsteps they might not have heard. To turn swiftly toward the flicker of motion that might have been a trick of the light. I need their shallow, hummingbird breath and the staccato of high heels ringing out ever more quickly on stained concrete. 

I need their fear. 

It arrives as suddenly as always. Opportunity, just as I reach the third floor. One step, then another and another and another. Soft curses and the frustrated jingle of keys. 

I ease the door open. The pneumatic arm sighs overhead, listless enough that she wonders. She stills and turn toward it. Toward where she might have seen me a heartbeat ago, but there’s only what she might have seen now. What she might have heard as the shadows take me in. 

She’s lost. That’s clear as she pivots around. The plastic bag in one hand spins tight around her fingers, revealing red characters, then hiding them against her thigh. Chinese. She likes Chinese. 

“Three.” She means to say it to herself, but the concrete is greedy. It snatches up the words and gives them back. “Was three yesterday?” 

She strikes out upward, head down. Holds her keys like wicked silver claws between the knuckles of her free hand.

She strikes out and I follow, excited by it. The promise of a drawn-out hunt. The possibility of the rooftop. I follow, too eager to take myself in hand. To remember there’s no want for the likes of me. 

I round the corner, surprised by how quickly she moves. How gracefully, even as her fear mounts. 

I feed it, that fear. 

I fall out of step with her. I let my own quickening footfalls echo in now-and-then counterpoint to hers. Let my metal watchband drag a glissando along an exposed pipe. 

I drive her on. 

She’s running now. The white bag spins madly. I’m close enough to see the dark hue of bloodless fingers as she rounds the corner into moonlight. 

She wheels around, too late. They're always too late. My fingers close around her wrist. They deliver a sickening twist. Her keys tumble. 

I have her. Opportunity in the palm of my hand when a hideous sound scrapes down my spine. When a dark shape sails out from the shadows and my vision goes white with pain. 

I fall back, face to face with the cat. It’s black. A skeletal, with one ragged ear, snatching opportunity from my grasp. I stare in disbelief as it hisses, then bounds off, the blood streaming down my cheek the only evidence of its existence. 

The woman screams once. She kicks out at me. A reflex as she goes to hands and knees for the keys, and then she’s gone. There’s no convenient, horror movie stumbling. No fumbling at the lock or shrill grind of a car not turning over.  There’s only the squeal of tires. The blur of her face through the window as she tears past, phone to her ear. 

I need to be gone. Compulsion denied licks through me like fire, but I need to be gone. 

I push to my feet. I try to, but something shatters beneath the heel of my hand. White cartons spilled around me. Chinese. I lift my palm from the pavement. Shards of the fortune cookie come away with it, leaving a pale strip of paper half exposed. 

I need to be gone, but the words catch my eye. They arrest my attention. I’m laughing. Howling to the three-quarter moon. 

There’s no such thing as an ordinary cat. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest 2016, Round 2

Title: Vagabond

Requirements: Sci-Fi/ A Driving Instructor. An Assassination

Synopsis: An assassin walks between versions of the world, eliminating threats that might bring the walls between them down. 

There’s nothing remarkable about me. 

My story starts like this every time. It starts like this back where I’m from, a few accordion folds over in the universe. Multiverse. Whatever. Radford’s tried to explain it to me a hundred times. With the fancy board he calls out of nothing with a dramatic gesture down in the Underground. With paper napkins and shadow puppets and the smallest words he can muster, he’s tried to explain, but I don’t really get it. 

Truth be told, I haven’t exactly exerted myself. Can’t see the profit in it, when all I do is step from here to there. There to here, and I’m staring into my own unremarkable face in the spiderweb spaces of a cracked mirror, and that’s that. 

I don’t have the words for it, big or small. It’s not quite like stepping through a door. Not quite like whisking aside a curtain or blinking my way from dark to sudden light. It’s not really like magic, either, though I say that a lot. 

It drives him crazy when I do. Radford and his pale blue dotted lines. Radford and the busy hands that make his hair stand on end as he goes on and on and on. An unending series metaphors about genes and locks and keys. Thinned-out places between Versions that some of us—just a very few of us—can step right through. 

It drives him crazy when I call it magic, and there’s profit in that. Satisfaction when his eyes narrow like he can look right into me if he tries hard enough. There’s a nasty kind of pleasure in knowing he thinks I’m holding out on him the way he holds out on me every time. 

“Cascade management, my ass,” I mutter to the fractured version of my unremarkable face. 

I worry as the details filter in behind me. The sickly tan–pink tiles and the unsteady buzz of the tube lights that look like they’re on the verge of surrendering to gravity. There’s a rust-stained sink, cool porcelain under my palms, and I know right then it’s one of those. A Version where time’s been dragging its heels for who knows how long. Where absolutely everything takes forever and I’m bound to fuck up somehow. 

I worry and I wonder for the hundredth time why he sends me on these when he knows I’m bound to fuck up. The last of the Vagabonds and he knows I’m bound to say something or drop something or step from there to here at just the wrong moment. I wonder why he doesn’t send Charys or Jess or any one of the official Walkers. Rising stars who get how this works.  

I worry, and then I don’t. My gaze snags on the mirror again, and I remember even before the pop sounds just once in both my ears. Before whatever it is comes online and Radford’s voice fills my head. 

Calm down. There’s nothing remarkable about you. Head for the drop. 


It’s worse than I thought. Bad even for a Version like this, though I wonder how I know. My memories of every job are just sketches. Echoes after they get to them back at the Underground, and still I’m pretty sure this is worse than I thought.  

I sling the pack over my shoulder  and push through the door. There’s a too-bright sun in a hazy sky. Thick, dusty smoke on my tongue. I turn a half circle and see the world is flat all around me. A black line in the distance and a sagging canopy behind me and off to the right, with four dark shapes hulking back to back. 

Fuel station. You’ll need a car. 

That’s Radford, but not Radford in my head. Just something my mind’s bothered to hold on to. Been able to hold on to from a job or two or four ago, and who knows why the echoes always sounds like him. Who knows how it’s different from whatever sets off actual him in my head. 

The drop, Vagabond. 

That’s actual him again. One of a thousand impatient-sounding snippets he records before he signs me on and sends me off. They fill my head one at a time, and I guess he must know how that works.

Stimulus and response. There’s a dead space. Soundlessness between hard bookends. Same way you’ll find the drop. Dead space again. Now go.   


There’s nothing remarkable about me. 

It’s my salvation. I look lost. I am lost, but so is everyone in a Version like this. I remember that much. The way they’re all choking on the smoke-thick air. Letting themselves be tugged along by things they don’t understand. 

It’s familiar. It must be why my mind holds on to it. Because it works like that for me. I’m not a Walker. There’s no shiny silver badge of honor not quite hidden behind my ear. No parade of symbols scrolling endlessly in the corner of my field of vision to translate this Version into my vernacular. There’s just me and memory and Radford’s best guess about what I’ll need to do the job.

Guess? he snaps. Prediction. Likelihood caught in a net of endlessly sophisticated calculations.  

He’s sneering. Annoyed with me, and it’s just as likely to be him or not him. Actual or memory. Either way, I tune it out as I drag myself toward the black line in the distance. Both of him are silent until one or the other coughs up the word road. It goes with car and fuel and when the dented yellow monstrosity roars past and screeches to a stop, I remember that I hate this. 

It zips backward toward me. The dented yellow monstrosity, quick for what it is. It belches smoke and zips backward in an undulating line. It stops again, right in front of me. A massive weight on wheels that rocks forward and back. There’s a soft purr as the window descends and a voice floats out. 

“Lady. You trouble?” 

I shield my eyes with my hand. I bend my knees and lean in. The man’s face is dark and bristled. His head is wrapped in an intricate nest of pale blue cloth. The voice goes on, but I only catch every fifth word or so. My ear trips over the accent as much as the string of archaic phrases I’ve never bothered to learn. 

I shake my head. He shakes his, impatient with me, but  as far as that goes, he can get in line. I feel the tug. My feet kicking up dust as they drag closer to the car. I’m meant to get in. It’s my way to the drop and I’m probably supposed to make nice. There’s probably some trick to this, but that’s not how it is for me. I yank open the door and slide inside the car, ignoring the rapid-fire words muffled by the scarred, not-quite-transparent barrier between him and me. 

Cab, Radford supplies. Currency. 

“Money,” I blurt, proud of the old-fashioned word. “Wallet.” I produce the slim black square with a flourish. I flip it open, so the fan of green just peeks out. “City. Town. Ok?” 

He meets my eyes in the mirror. “You trouble?”  

“No trouble.” I cobble a smile together from five or six I half remember. Unremarkable iterations of myself from Versions like this. 

“No trouble,” he echoes. The car lurches into motion, even though he doesn’t believe it. 

He shouldn’t. No one should believe it. 


Nova Driving Academy

The tug comes just as the words glide by in my peripheral vision. I’m sick with the lurch of the cab. With the thick, filthy air here, and I wonder what would happen if I fought it. I wonder if I have before. If it’s one of the memories they’ve lifted right out of my head back at the Underground. One of the things my mind hasn’t bothered to hold on to. Hasn’t been able to. 

I wonder, but Radford is clamoring.  Binary system. White dwarf. Accretion of matter. Fusion. Cataclysmic. It’s his system breaking down. Misapprehension slipping through an endlessly complex net. Nova. It’s just a name. 

The tug comes again and my palm slaps hard against the scarred plastic barrier.   The driver’s arms go stiff. His spine goes long and the cab stops so suddenly that my knees slam into the seat. I shove a fistful full of bills through an opening hardly big enough for my fingers. 

It’s enough. It has to be more than enough, but he doesn’t take them at first. The window purrs down and he sticks his pale blue head out. 

“Driving academy.” He laughs up at the sign, then back at me. “You want my job, lady trouble?” 

I mean to smile, but the tug comes again. It’s sharp this time, and it’s only going to get worse. That’s a memory. An echo and more. I reach into the pack. The pain recedes, and my hand knows what it’ll find before I do. Solid weight and the texture of a pistol grip. 

“Job?” I manage a smile this time, though he doesn’t seem to like it much. “Already got one.”


There’s nothing remarkable about me. Not in the spiderweb spaces of a mirror. Not swinging my legs out from behind the wheel, calling out something encouraging to the pale kid with braces who’s holding on to the passenger-side dash for dear life. 

Nothing remarkable at all, and I wonder why they want me dead back at the Underground. I wonder, and maybe it’s not the first time. 

This is the drop, Vagabond. 

I raise the gun. It’s clean shot and then it isn’t. Then it’s chaos. 

“Vieve!” The voice is a memory. The name, an echo and more. “Genevieve!”

A man slams me to the ground. Slams her to the ground, but it’s too late. My finger twitches. Once, twice. Once, twice again, and they’re both still. Red spreads wide on black. The kid in the passenger seat is screaming, and I need to go. From here to there through the thinned-out space between this Version and mine. 

I need to go, but I can’t. 

We need the body. 

It’s him. I know before I roll him off her. Off me. It’s Radford. In my head and on the ground, his eyes staring wide. 

Your body, Vagabond. 


“Have I done it before?” I slam him into sleek silver of the wall, my arm across his throat. It doesn’t seem to faze him, and that raises a question or two. “Do I do it a lot?”

“It’s never happened.” He looks me in the eye, but that hardly means anything. “We’ve never seen a Version where we . . .”

“Where we die together?” My voice fills the lab. Echoes off every surface. “Where I kill us both?” My arm drops, heavy with a sudden possibility. “You. Was I even supposed to . . .? Did you know?” 

“That Version of you is physiologically identical and you know we have no idea how it is you do it. How you’ve closed more potential rifts than all the Walkers put together. Without the tech. Without the regimen or the premature aging . . . ” His voice fails him.

My shoulders heave. A sob makes its way up and out, and I hate myself for it. I hate him for it. For finding me fascinating in this and every other Version.  

He starts again with no  little effort. “A casualty. Some of the models predicted a casualty.  I had to specify . . . But Gen, you have to know . . .” 

The door swings open, and I have to laugh. It’s a debrief tech. It’s business as usual, but her timing is impeccable.

“I don’t, actually, Rad.” I lift my arms. The tech lays the silvery material of the prep suit across them. “I don’t have to know a thing. Cascade management. Just the way you like it.” 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest 2016

Once again, I did this. Made it to Round 2 last time. We'll see how it goes this year.

Genre: Ghost Story
Object: A Wish
Character: A Translator

Childhood Glosses

You are a wish we call James. 

It’s my first memory. My first patchwork of memories. The sway of the rocking chair. The groan of one protesting floorboard, a counterpoint to my mother’s voice and the sheltering warmth of her body. My father’s voice and the rasp his beard against my cheek. 

It was ritual. The words from one, then the other. Hours apart sometimes, but every night from the time I was nearly weightless in the crook of an elbow, deep into the years I’d turn my face to the wall, shrinking from it. Love, unabashed and unwavering, that seemed hopelessly childish to me for too long. 

I miss it, now they’re gone. The house is mine, huge and rambling. Cavernous and falling down in slow motion as the woods out back look on, eager to reclaim it. 

I sleep in my childhood room. The same narrow bed, though it’s an afterthought now, crammed in among bookcases and her sewing machine. His rolling steel case tool chest that serves well enough as a night stand. 

I sleep there. Or stare up at the ceiling more often than not. Out the window at the hungry woods and I miss the ritual. 

You are a wish we call James. 

I miss the gentle words and the certainty of her fingers, then his. I miss knowing the dip and rise of the mattress with familiar weight. I miss voices that don’t belong to a ghost. 


I called her Da from the start. 

That’s patchwork, too, of course. Something not quite a whisper, but a rearrangement of molecules in my ear. A name for the chill that always started at my toes and worked its way up my body, night after night as my mother or my father eased the door shut until the hall light was a narrow strip of floor-to-ceiling gold. As their footsteps retreated, the chill would come and the not quite whisper that settled the word in my head long before my body knew how to shape the air into the single, sharp syllable. 

It wasn’t her name. Isn’t her name, I think, though I don’t yet understand how tenses are meant to slide past one another when it comes to a ghost. It’s what I called her, though. 

My parents insisted there was never any confusion. Yee and Ya were always my words for them.  Da was always the ghost, and they took it in stride. My mother, laughing, liked to tell the story so often, it feels like another memory. 

Brown eyes meeting her blue, then his in the dead of night. The gold of the hallway spilling in on their heels as I looked up from my crib. 

Ya, I declared. Adamant and forceful before my gaze traveled up and over her shoulder to my father. Yee. 

Ya, she said a thousand times, splaying her fingers over her own heart. Yee. My father would add, the word and a shake of his head his only contribution. She was the storyteller. The one who knew how to tease a laugh from a sullen, angry soul. How to hold a room full of wide-eyed listeners  in the palm of her hand. 

She’d pause at this point. Always one breath longer than anyone thought they could stand it. Even me, long after the start of yet another retelling would make me roll my eyes. Even I would feel the air rush out of me as she lifted her hand to a point high up in the corner of the room. 

Da. He always called her Da. 


I have too much time to miss them now. Too many things and memories that I stumble over every day of this rest of my life that make me realize how remarkable they were. How extraordinary they must have been to build such an unremarkable life around me, strange as I was. As I am. 

I was the wish they called James. The round-faced, dark-eyed infant who fell into their lives half a moment after they’d each found a corner of their hearts and minds empty.

Not empty, my father would say. Another line of dialogue from his spare repertoire, and my mother would nod. Not empty. Waiting. 

I never doubted the story. That it began and ended with a wish and its fulfillment practically colliding in time. There was a time when I found it disappointing. When I wanted heartache and struggle. Some fantastic revelation or dramatic twist.

But it’s the calm that moves me now. The smooth contours of my life and I see the work of their hands in shaping it. I come across a basket at the foot of their bed, a small pile of things, his and hers and mine, and a note on top. A fold of paper sharply creased and slant of her hand. Mending. 

I open the door to his workshop sometimes. I cross the ill-tended yard and slip the key into the padlock that groans with years and rust and my unfamiliar touch. I peer through the doors, always surprised to find them still there. Tiny squares of paper thinned by time. Rough, full-sized pages from my sketchbook, replete with black, angry strokes. Oil on a clumsily stretched canvas. 

I’m surprised every time to see my own evolution so proudly displayed. To find care and devotion and kindness still around me, every second of this rest of my life. 


There was a time when they worried about Da. About me, I suppose, but it’s one more remarkable thing. The way I never felt the weight of whatever might have troubled them when they’d find me sitting up in bed, my eyes fixed on the high-up corner between the closet and the window. When I’d shiver in the dead heat of the California summer or wrestle with unfamiliar sounds. When I’d blame Da for all her not-quite-whispers. 

I was six that summer. Almost seven. As I sit at the kitchen table with my coffee cooling, I look up, half expecting my mother to be there. Turning from the sink. Correcting me as she dries her hand on a flour-sack towel. 

But it comes from me alone these days. Interruptions from within that are nothing like Da’s not-quite-whispers, the same today as they ever were. 

I was almost seven. First grade had been an unpleasant shock in many ways. Loud and unkind. Rigid and without laughter. The early days were worst. I saw kids just like me. They saw something to stare at. They saw skin and eyes and hair that were strange to them, even here  where they shouldn’t have bene so out of the ordinary. But they would shout, and I would shout back, and the newness wore off the way it does when you’re young. 

I made friends and fought with them. I went to their houses and never wanted to leave. I  went to their houses and came home crying over some tragedy or other. I went to their houses and they came to ours less often. 

Far less often, though there were reasons enough for that. The long, winding drive from anywhere but here. The sprawling, unfenced property with the woods out back. The ramshackle look that a  hundred years lends to anything, no matter the care my parents lavished on the house. There were reasons enough that I never wondered why my friends’ visits came were so few and far between. 

Reasons enough that it’s only now with coffee long gone cold and oils drying on the palette that  I realize they must have worried about Da.


His name was Luke. Doctor Luke, he’d always say. I didn’t like the way he called himself that or how he’d drop to sit cross-legged on the floor, as though I wanted him there. I remember vividly the dread of pulling into the parking lot. Scrambling up on my knees to look at the cars snugged one next to the other in silver and black and white. 

I remember vividly not wanting to go. My father’s wide palm pressed tight to my back as he lifted me down from the truck to the pavement.  

I know, James, he’d say gravely. I know you don’t want to. One more try, maybe? 

It was always one more try. Just a few weeks, really. I can count them on two hands now, but then it was an eternity. Then it was time stretching out beyond any horizon I’d known as Doctor Luke prompted me with quiet words. 

She’s not for outside, I would tell him, week after week. Da stays home. 

Nothing much came of it. I troubled him, he bothered me, and my parents were practical in their way. The visits stopped a few weeks shy of school and carried nothing with me but the memory of Doctor Luke’s oxfords and the way the carpet felt pressing into my knees. None of us carried anything but the absurd idea that Da was some imaginary friend. That I should call her that and not my ghost. 

Nothing much came of it, though I understood better for saying it out loud. Da had never been for outside. 


The way I wander these days makes her angry. She can’t follow, and I know that. I feel her waiting in the upstairs hall. I step through the spot where she hovers and make an absent note every time that she’s a little farther from my bedroom door each day. That she’s on the steps sometimes. On the second landing if I’ve roamed until the sun goes down. In the front hall, frigid and furious the one night I drive to the ocean and stay until the sun rises behind me. 

I don’t mean anything by it. Leaving her behind or even the silence that’s fallen over me since I’ve been back. I don’t mean to let the noise inside my head drown out the sounds she tries to teach my clumsy tongue to make. 

She must be lonely in the huge, rambling house. My parents must have been some kind of company for her, though they never once felt the chill of her winding up from their toes. They never once felt her not-quite-whisper stirring the air, even at my bedside. 

She must be lonely, but I’m not there yet. I belong too much to them to be lonely here. 


I knew about the fire. Even lagging behind the world as I do, I’d heard or seen something in one of the hundred papers I’ve smoothed out on the kitchen counter every day since the accident. One of the hundred papers I know so little about, because it was his job to read to us. My mother and I, neither of us entirely listening. 

But now it seems like I knew. Standing in his workshop for the first time in a hundred days with the smoke-black canvas in my hands, it seems like I knew. Like I should have done something to keep these walls standing. 

The firemen think I should have. Their arms sweep through the air toward the woods where the smoke still curls up from the black bite the fire has taken out of them. They tell me I should leave now. Take steps if I want to go on being a fool or see the fire for what it is: A wake-up call. 

I hear them. With my father’s workshop gaping open to the woods and the house behind me falling down in slow motion, I understand. But I don’t know what it means when there’s Da and my mother’s basket of mending. When there’s the narrow bed I sleep in and the remarkably unremarkable history of a wish they called James. 


I learn what it means to wake. 

The house calls to me. Everything in it that needs doing. My hands are clumsy with childhood lessons, but it’s something. My mother’s patience and my father’s pride everywhere around me.  And there’s Da. 

She prods and needles, her not-quite-whispers are constant in my ear. I find my voice, dusty and disused. I repeat after her. Out loud for the first time since I was six. 

“Almost seven.” I say out loud just as I open the door. 

“After eight,” says the man I should have been expecting. He looks from the watch on his sun-browned wrist up to the sky. “Too early?”  

I blink at him. The man I should have been expecting. I stare at skin and hair and eyes enough like my own that I almost shout.

He weathers  the moment long after it bleeds into rude. He speaks again. “Koj hais lus dawb Hmong?”  

Short, sharp syllables far more familiar than my own voice these days. Almost meaningless, but not quite. “I never learned.” 

“Ob tiam.” He nods as though I understand. As though I should. “Around the side?” 

He raises the toolbox I haven’t noticed. Reminds me that I should have been expecting him and there’s work to be done. He’s businesslike. Brusque and dubious in a way that wounds me, though he can’t know that. 

“Salvageable.” A corner of the workbench crumbles to ash under his fingers. “Expensive,” he adds.  

“You’ll draw up . . .?” My voice fails at the question mark. 

“Estimate. Timetable.” He ticks things off on his fingers. It’s not unkind, but I only half hear him.

We turn back toward the house. I’d like him to go. I’d like to get back to the familiar groan of the floorboards and Da. I’d like to get back to the work I can do, but he lingers. He follows me to the stoop. He stays, even though my hand is on the door. 

“Who is she?” He nods past me. High up and over my shoulder and it’s the first time I think to wonder how it’s always been like this. That she’s always in a high up corner and a chill l winding up from my toes. A not-quite-whisper from somewhere else entirely.  She’s all of these at once.

“Da,” I say. 
“Dab. Tus dab.” He laughs, and I know he’s right. “Ghost.” 

“Tus dab.” It’s closer. Still an experiment on a clumsy tongue, but closer. “It’s not her name. I knew that.” 

He tips his head toward the door. “MeNaag.” He frowns, thinking about it. “Little rain. She wants to know yours.” 

“James,” I say, though she drowns it out. Da. MeNaag. She’s never liked it. I know that suddenly. I’ve always known it.

“No good.” The man shakes his head. “J. Not in dawb Hmong.” He listens again. He holds up a hand and she falls silent. “Xav xav,” he says. “Wish. That’s what she calls you.” 

Xav xav,” I echo. An experiment on a clumsy tongue. 

A wish they call James.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest

So. I did this.

I was assigned to Heat 42 (the answer to life, the universe, and everything!). Genre: Mystery. Subject: A Secret Hiding Place. Character: A Traveling Salesperson. I'm seized with the need to disclaim or explain, but I shan't do that.

Persons Unknown 

Synopsis: A detective struggles into interview a reluctant person of interest in a murder case. 

He doesn’t like anything about this woman. Not the way she leans back in the cracked vinyl kitchen chair with one leg tossed carelessly over the other. Not the way her eyes slip closed and the end of her cigarette flares as she takes a deep drag. Not the way she’s cool and unruffled though the stifling summer heat presses down on every inch of the tiny walk-up.

“I don’t know him,” she says. She sheds a ragged length of ash into a saucer without looking. “I’m afraid I’m not much help.”

“I’m afraid you’re not.” He gives in. He roots around the inside pocket of his jacket and comes up with a limp handkerchief that already feels damp. He bumps up the brim of his hat and mops his forehead. “He’s on your back porch, Mrs. Grey . . .”

“Miss.” Her voice cuts through his. Her lips part in a perfect O, smoke streaming between them. “And it’s a fire escape, Officer.”

“Detective,” he snaps before he can stop himself.

“Detective.” She smiles and stubs out his last cigarette. “That’s right.”

“Miss Grey,” he begins again, trying for calm. “A man is dead. No identification. His head bashed in . . .”

“I know.” She makes her eyes wide. She leans in. He sways toward her, helpless, as her elbows land on the scarred formica and her chin settles on her palms. She whispers. “I called the police, remember?”

“You called. Must be, what, twenty tenants in this building? Thirty?” He jerks a thumb toward the back of the apartment. “But you called. Why is that, Miss Grey?”

He brings a palm flat to the table with force. She doesn’t flinch. She watches the ash jump in the saucer. She gives him a heavy, reproving look, like he should know better than to try the usual on her. Maybe he should. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like her.

“I’m a concerned citizen, Detective.” She raises one shoulder in something that hardly qualifies as a shrug. “What if there were a fire?”


“Walk me through it, Miss Grey.” He leans over the railing, jerking back as the wood groans under his weight.

He turns back to find her still inside, one hand on the rusted bars swinging out from the window. She arches an eyebrow, and somehow he’s there with his palm out to steady her as she steps over the low sill.

“He was here.”

He follows the arc she traces with one peep-toe pump. The gaps in the warped boards are wide enough that he can see red rolling over the white sheet on the gurney far below. The mouth of the alley is thick with looky-loos crowding around the ambulance. Now it is, and he comes back to the fact that she’s the one who called it in. That ninety-nine times out of a hundred that means she knows more than she’s saying. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she knows everything. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions. The thought settles him.

“Walk me all the way through it.” He gives her a hard smile. “Our man was here. Why were you?”

“I live here.” She gestures inside. She holds his gaze. She keeps her peace just long enough that his nails break the skin of his palms. She props a hip against the wall and folds her arms like she knows it. Like it’s just what she was waiting for. “I heard something.”

His hand slaps against his chest, groping for notebook and pen. “Voices?”

“No.” She shakes her head, almost like she’s sorry to disappoint him. “I suppose that’s strange.”

“Miss Grey . . .”

“Evelyn.”  She runs roughshod over his all-business tone. “I imagine you need to know that, right? My first name. For all your forms and things.” She nods to the pen in his hand like she’s waiting again and he won’t get anywhere unless he gives. “Evelyn.”

“Evelyn.” He grits his teeth and scrawls it down. “You heard something.”

“Footsteps.” She looks up. Her lips move like she’s counting to herself. “All the way from the roof.”

“One person? Two?” He wants the timeline, but he’ll double back for that. He’ll follow the path of least resistance for now. “Try to think . . .”

“One.” She closes her eyes and opens them, smiling a little as though she’s just realized something. “He was in a hurry like he was after . . .” She breaks off with a gesture, like she’s rewinding the moment in her mind. “Something fell. Before him, I mean. Heavy.”

She moves quickly to the railing. She leans on it with both hands. Smiling wide at the give under her weight.

He snatches her back, breath hissing between his teeth. “Careful Miss . . . Evelyn.”

“That’s new.” She points to the wood sagging outward. She runs her fingers along the upright rising to the floor above. “It must’ve hit. Whatever fell.” She jams the heel of her hand against the beam and pushes. The whole thing shivers and moans.

“Must have.” He sounds as pale as he must be. He swallows against nausea and breathes through his nose. “Not safe out here. We can finish . . .”

But she’s already pattering down the stairs. He follows, white knuckled and weak kneed. He doesn’t catch her until she’s three floors down, and even then, it’s only because she’s stopped.

“A salesman.” She’s crouched well outside the sickly spill of the one working light in the alley, but he sees the gleam of teeth. “Of course.”

“Don’t touch anything.” His voice bounces off the brick. She surges to her feet. Into the light, startled for the first time. Her smile vanishes. She hides behind the swipe of her palm. A cool gesture that hooks a stray, dark curl behind her ear. Her face, when it reappears, is hard again. He’s sorry rather than satisfied.

“Evidence,” he says more quietly. He stoops, trying to make sense of the shadowed heap. “A salesman?”

He lofts the question over his shoulder and waits. There’s an apology in the silence, though he doesn’t like this woman any better here than three floors up. She bites before too long.

“Sample case. Right behind the mop bucket.” She steps beyond him, one long leg flashing by, too close for comfort. She runs a hand along the railing. “There should be flowers here. Geraniums.”

“Second victim.” He doesn’t know what makes him say it. He’s a hard man, and not one to joke, but her laugh stirs the air and he’s thinking of changing careers.

“We have to wait?” She looks from him to the line of uniforms pressing back against crowd on the sidewalk. She crouches, suddenly, her skirt pooling around her. She leans in, conspiratorial.
“I’ve got a flashlight upstairs.”

“Flashlight,” he repeats dumbly. “I have . . . “ He presses awkwardly away from her, trying to get at his belt. “Got one.”

She laughs at that, too. The thick-fingered way he fumbles to free the penlight from the tools of the trade she’s made him forget entirely. But he twists the barrel and her attention snaps back to the cluttered corner.

“There.” She reaches past him, pointing to where the weak beam glints off brass latches. “Sample case.”

He fishes his handkerchief out again. He’s clumsy as he tries to one-hand the heavy case. Her fingers close around his wrist. He turns, blinking to find her close enough to breathe in. She’s looking away, though. She’s taking the flashlight from his hand and holding it high.

“It’s empty.” She sweeps the light past the handle and back again. “No name and address,” she adds, when it’s obvious that he’s just not registering the significance of the blank white oblong behind the plastic facing. She bumps his elbow and nods down at the handkerchief still suspended in midair. “Shouldn’t we open it?”

“Open it.” He clears his throat. “Yeah.”

He tips forward to grasp the handle, falling on to one knee when it proves heavier than he thought it would be. She shuffles back out of his way, keeping the light on the case as he struggles to haul it up and out. It’s caught on something he can’t see. The vinyl edging pulls away at one dented corner and it’s snagged. He jerks at it, frustrated and panting in the heat.

“Bingo!” She grins at him as the case thunks on to the warped wood between them.

The sweat streams past his temples, and he wants the handkerchief for something other than fingerprints. He busies himself giving the case a once over, slowing his heart with routine.

“Damage at the corner,” he mutters out loud so it’ll make its way into the notebook later. “Hinges and latches intact.”

“Sturdy.” She sounds annoyed. Impatient, as if she wishes the fall had split the thing wide. “Open it now?” She shines the light right in his eyes. He winces and swipes out blindly, reaching for it, but she pulls it back, just out of reach. “Open it,” she says again.

There’s a pleading note beneath that makes him want to do it. But a red light swings over them both. A door slams and then another, the ambulance getting underway at last, and he remembers a man is dead. He remembers he doesn’t like anything about this woman.

“Why of course?” He stands the case up on its bottom. He drags it out of her reach. “ ‘A salesman. Of course.’ That’s what you said.”

She stands. She twists the barrel of the penlight and tosses it at him. It clatters to a stop against the case. He leaves it there.

“Who else would he be?” Her hands twitch at her sides. He’s halfway to patting his pockets for a cigarette, but she’s long since ground out his last one. She lifts her palms and twists at the waist, taking in the building. The filthy alley and the knot of people drifting away, now the shows over. “Who’d come here if they weren’t selling something?”

He hauls himself to his feet, pushing down the urge to apologize. To offer her something. He struggles with the heavy case, muscling it up on to the railing. The flick of the latches is loud. Solid and satisfying. He half peers over his shoulder, expecting her, but she keeps to the shadows by some neighbor’s back door.

“Family.” He hooks a finger under the curling edge of a photograph taped inside the lid. “Wife. Couple of kids.”

“Won’t tell you anything,” she says. “His name.” She lifts up into a different voice entirely. Something high and sweet. “Such a good man.” She scrapes out a laugh. “She won’t know anything.”

She takes one step, then another. Toward the stairs. Away from him, and he should stop her. He should go after her and do his job, but the night is stifling and he can’t bear the thought of that tiny apartment. He can’t bear the thought of her in it.

“Check the bottom,” say says. She’s not facing him. Her hand’s already on the railing. She’s already gone. “It’s always at the bottom. All their secrets.”

His knuckles knock against the base of the case before he’s even decided to listen. It’s hollow and there’s a seam, now he’s looking for it. He pries up the lining and finds a hinge that’s not quite flush with the rest. He presses the opposite side and the lid swings up.

There’s another photo inside. A red-lipped girl pouting and leaning in to the camera. Blowing a kiss. The corners are worn. There’s a thumb print in one corner he can practically feel. He turns the snapshot over and the back is crowded with the round, looping letters of a girl too young for the man in the ambulance. Too young for the pouting red lips.

Jim. Soon. You promised soon. Love, love, love.

The signature is all flourishes. He can’t read the name. It hardly matters.

“You said you didn’t know him.” He leans out into thin air. He twists his face up to call after her.

She’s halfway up the flight above him. More than halfway before she stops, and he’s dizzy again.

“I don’t know him, Detective.” She leans her elbows on the railing. “I just know men.”