52 Week Short Story Challenge #10 – WireLurker

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I was late uploading this story because of reasons, but I assure you it was finished Saturday.

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WireLurker

It usually took Bryan Grady at least three days to fully get over his jetlag so when he walked into the conference room he was feeling slightly out of it, having only had eight hours between stepping off the plane and sitting down at the table. He was the first one to arrive as always, which gave him some time to yawn in private.

Beijing was fourteen hours ahead of Chicago, where he was from, and it was the middle of the night as far as his brain was concerned. He didn’t mind business trips but preferred them when they lasted a week or more so he could get used to the time change. He glanced at his phone, not expecting to see a message from his wife but hoping he would just the same. There was nothing and he sighed.

While he was considering sending Marissa a message for her to get when she woke up, the door opened again and several men came into the room. Three of them were Chinese and a fourth had sandy brown hair and a sleepy look on his face that clearly told Bryan that he was from America too.

“Good afternoon,” Bryan said, standing up to greet them. His Chinese was excellent, which was why he was chosen for the job, and the three men looked relieved. “It’s good to see you.”

“Good afternoon,” the tallest of the three said. Bryan had seen pictures of all of them but was fairly certain this man’s name was Winston, because he’d thought it was strange for a Chinese man to have an English name. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“This is a problem for all of us,” Bryan said. “People think our product is supposed to be virus-proof, and while we all know that’s impossible, there’s still that perception we need to be aware of.” He looked at the sandy-haired man, who was looking between Bryan and Winston. His confusion was evident and Bryan smiled at him, switching back to English. “Don’t speak Chinese, huh?”

“Not a word. My interpreter isn’t here yet, so I’m kind of stuck.” He held out a hand for Bryan to shake. “Jack Bolton. I’m from the Australian office. Our regular guy got sick so I had to come in his place.”

“I’ll do my best to remember to translate for you,” Bryan said, hoping Jack’s interpreter came soon. They had a problem to deal with and stopping to explain everything twice was going to get tiring very quickly. “You’re one of the PR guys?”

“I’m actually one of the developers in the Australian area. My specialty is—“ He was cut off as a slender man in a suit that wasn’t half as sharp as Winston’s came in, bowing apologetically.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “I got lost.”

“That’s no problem,” Winston said with a wave of his hand. “Let’s get started. What we’re looking at is malware, not a virus, and it’s a nasty piece of work.” Bryan, who had started as a developer and worked his way up the food chain, didn’t feel much like dancing around the subject and sat forward.

“What does it do?”

“I’ll show you,” Winston said, taking out a laptop. It was a MacBook Pro, the top of the line model, and he set it on the table. “It’s very subtle. Unlike a Windows computer that prompts you to install a fake program to set up malware in your computer, WireLurker is hidden inside an app. It records your data and when it’s supposed to be connecting with your data on the website, it’s actually sending it to hackers.” He turned on the computer. “And as soon as you try to remove it, it does this.”

The men around the table leaned in to see a computer screen that looked completely normal in every way. Winston typed in his password and the computer’s screen suddenly fuzzed and distorted. It started making a strange humming sound, and when Winston tried to push any of the keys it turned into a sound that reminded him of an old computer modem trying to connect. The men around the table started shouting at Winston to turn it off in both Chinese and English, and he slammed the MacBook closed with a shake of his head.

“How many cases of this do we have?”

“Only four or five,” Winston said. “And you think that’s bad, it gets worse.” He took out an iPhone and held it up. “Since the app syncs with the one on your phone, the malware gets on it too. And then your phone is nonfunctional. If you download this app on your computer, you’re sending data to hackers and if you try and take it off either your phone or your computer, it bricks them both.” The interpreter told all of this to Jack and he frowned and spoke in English.

“How does it get to the phone? Bounces from the website?”

“It’s transmitted wirelessly during the sync,” Winston said, and the interpreter explained it to Jack. “And any compatible computer that’s in sync range is vulnerable.”

“How is that possible? That technology can’t possibly exist,” Bryan said. His heart was pounding in his chest and he felt it skip a beat or two. His stomach dropped several feet. The last time that had happened, the battery in his pacemaker had been running out. If that was what was happening, he would have to have it replaced while he was in China and it was possibly the last thing he wanted to happen. He had no idea how insurance would work, what kind of quality he would be getting, and how long it would take to recover.

“We don’t know,” Winston said. “That’s why you and Mr. Bolton are here. We have to determine what kind of technology we are looking at and our information says that the malware originated in either America or Australia.”

“You can’t possibly suspect America of doing something like this!” Bryan stood up, indignantly. His heart was going wild in his chest but he tried to ignore it. Their accusations were as good as saying that someone from Apple was sabotaging their own product and he knew it was impossible. Jack’s interpreter was speaking so rapidly that he was sure things were getting missed but he couldn’t hear over the roaring in his ears. “You can’t—“ His words were cut off abruptly as his heart seized up, and he grabbed for his chest.

“Mr. Grady?” Winston looked at him, then at Jack, then back at Bryan as he crumpled to the ground, struggling to breathe. No one seemed terribly concerned about what was happening. In fact, they were all looking at him with curiosity, murmuring to each other. Bryan was certain he was asking for a doctor but he couldn’t hear anything coming out of his mouth and the rest of the men in the room were going about their business.

“The technology certainly performs as promised,” Winston said to Jack as the light began to go out of Bryan’s eyes. “How did you manage to hack a medical appliance with a simple piece of malware?” He was speaking Chinese now, and when Jack replied he was speaking it fluently.

“I’ll be happy to tell you that,” he said with a grin, just before he spoke the last words Bryan would ever hear. “As soon as we agree on a price.”

Holly Jolly Headache

imageI am not the world’s biggest fan of Christmas music. Even when I was a kid it wasn’t the most wonderful time of the year for me. I think a big part of it is that there only about 10 songs that are popular, and those popular songs have been done to death by fifty people. And don’t get me started on the good old date rape Christmas song.

It does seem to be good for one thing, though. I got a hell of an idea while I was standing in the recovery area listening to yet another version of Oh Holy Night.

You may not know this but I’m not a Christian. I’m actually a Buddhist and have been for 16 or  17 years now. What you may not know about Buddhists is that we respect Jesus as a teacher and honor him. My temple in Chicago even celebrated Easter with a dharma talk that focused on his lessons. Our priest discussed how Jesus can be considered a bodhisattva because he became enlightened and then shared his wisdom with others to help them become good people and enlightened as well.

I was, however, raised in a Christian family. My mother took me to a lot of Protestant churches looking for the one that fit her best, but I also joined friends for Catholic mass and attended services at synagogues. I had friends who told me about Hinduism and learned about the Sikh faith from other friends, then went to a Catholic college and had to take religion classes. I turned all this over in my head and chose to become Buddhist.

With this extensive background in what was basically comparative religion, I had Some Questions. My main character also has some questions that he really can’t get answers to because of his church. I’m not writing a religious book but parts of it may end up being seen as somewhat spiritual. I’m okay with that.

And for the record, there are a couple of  Christmas songs that I like. I like Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You, Bruce Springsteen’s version of Santa Clause is Coming to Town, and the Christmas Canon from Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

It is what it is.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #9 – A Bird in the Bag

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Another prompt from me this week! I went with a quetzal because I just love the damn things so much. Fun fact: I have a large quetzal tattoo and top of my bucket list is to see a live one. Possibly eating an avocado in the bargain.

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A Bird in the Bag

When the drugs started wearing off, the bird was completely confused as to where he was. It was dark, stuffy, and he could hear voices all around him. There was only one thing he knew for sure, and that was that he wasn’t in South America anymore. He shifted slightly, testing the limits. How much he was able to move. How stiff his prison was. What little information he came up with was stored in the back of his mind for when he would be able to make a move.

He listened closely. The bird had no idea what human voices were saying when they made their words, but he’d heard enough of them to interpret what was going on. The people closest to him were whispering, which made them even more difficult to hear, but he could tell they were doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. It took him a few seconds, possibly because of the drugs still in his system, to realize they were talking about him.

***

                “How much longer are we going to be delayed?” Arturo looked around the terminal for the tenth time and Alicia reached over and pinched his arm. “Ow! What was that for?”

“Do the words ‘act natural’ mean nothing to you? You keep looking around like you’re expecting someone to come after us.” She stretched out her legs and put one on either side of the black duffel bag. “We made it through security in Guatemala, we just have to make our connection and then our friend Malik will walk us through customs. The hardest part is over.”

“This was too risky,” he said, shaking his head. “Parrots and lories are one thing but this thing is the national damn bird of Guatemala. Forget a fine, we’re looking at real jail time. In South America. The only place with worse prisons than South America is China.”

“I don’t know where you get ideas like this,” Alicia sighed. “Besides, this bird is going be the last bird. You know how much that thing is worth?” She lowered her voice even further. “Resplendent Quetzal. Our buyer is paying us two million dollars. That’s a million dollars each. We can retire. Open an actual pet store. Or a bar. We can do whatever we want.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Arturo rubbed his forehead. “Oh my God.”

“Will you please just shut up?” Alicia leaned back in her chair. “It’s going to go fine.”

***

                The bird was starting to remember what he was. His wings and legs were slowly unfreezing, tingling as the feeling came back. Whatever they had given him was almost out of his system and he made a soft clucking sound to check whether or not he was still able to make noise. It didn’t sound quite right and he made another, a little louder, and wriggled to the side. He was almost there. And when he got all the way there, the humans who had stuck him in this bag were going to regret doing it. Majestic though he was, his beak was still sharp.

***

                “Oh my God,” Arturo said, sitting forward suddenly. “It moved. The bag moved. Did you just see it move?”

“It didn’t move,” Alicia said. She pushed the bag with her foot. “It’s just the material settling. I gave the stupid thing the same amount I gave that cockatoo, and that one was still dopey when we met the buyer. They weighed about the same, I figured the dose was the same.”

“I swear it moved. Maybe we should take it to the bathroom and check. Make sure it’s still asleep.” He looked around the terminal, which was crowded and getting more so every minute. “You have more of the medication, right?”

“It didn’t move,” insisted Alicia. “Besides, if I gave that bird more dope it might not survive the trip. Alive, that thing’s worth two million. Dead, it’s just a bunch of green and red feathers and a prison sentence. No way. We’re taking this thing to New York, giving it to the idiot with more money than sense, then going out for dinner. My treat.”

“Who cares about dinner? I don’t think I could even eat a package of peanuts right now.” Arturo looked down at the bag. “I wish we could just get on the plane now. What is taking them so long?”

***

                The quetzal was completely awake now. There were tiny pinpricks of light coming through the fabric around him and he could feel that he was somewhere else. He wasn’t in Guatemala, probably not even in South America anymore. The air tasted different. It tasted good enough for him to draw in great lungfuls, though, and his chest moved like a bellows.

Wherever he was, there was a good chance that if he was found he would be able to get himself back home if he got the attention of the humans around the humans that had stuffed him into this bag. Judging from the amount of noise around him, there were even more people than there had been before and that was a very good thing. They might be able to keep hiding him if only a few people saw what they were up to, but if a whole group of people saw there would be no way around it.

His beak made it impossible to actually smile, but there was a definite smirk in his heart as he pulled his foot back and prepared to kick at the same time he filled his lungs. When he got started this time, it was going to be epic.

***

                “All I’m saying—“ Arturo didn’t get to finish whatever he was about to say. The bird in their bag had gone off like a bomb. It was squawking, the sound slightly strangled coming from inside the heavy canvas bag, and thrashing like it was a shark caught in a net. Alicia stripped off her jacket and tossed it over the bag, finally panicking.

“Shut up, shut up,” she said, squeezing her jacket around the bag. The bird responded by squawking louder. “No, no, no, it should have been enough. There were enough drugs in that syringe, I know there were!”

“Oh my God,” Arturo said, looking over at the door where three armed guards were coming toward them. “We’re going to get arrested. We’re going to jail.” The bird was still screaming and kicking and Arturo began debating the pros and cons of abandoning Alicia altogether and running for it. Sure, he’d be a fugitive but at least he wouldn’t be in prison. “Do something!”

The guards were almost on them now, shouting in Spanish too rapid for Arturo to understand and pointing at the bag. Alicia stood up and held up her hands, and the bird’s squawking suddenly stopped. They all stared at the bag and the jacket it was under. Then, from under the jacket a beautiful red and green bird emerged and shook its head. One bright black bead of an eye looked around the airport and the quetzal clicked its beak.

After all this struggling, it was quite hungry.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #8 – Turkey Surprise

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This week’s prompt is one of mine! It was Thanksgiving so I decided to make this story holiday-themed. I’m also a huge fan of horrible gelatin molds and this is actually from a recipe I saw online. It’s safe to say that at some point, some poor soul actually consumed turkey salad with a cranberry-orange gelatin ring. The 60s and 70s were super exciting.

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Turkey Surprise

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Elsbeth said, staring at the back of the gelatin box. “Everyone’s going to hate us. Is this stuff even any good anymore?”

“Sure it is,” Jesusa said. “Jell-O is eternal.”

“I thought that was Twinkies. How many packets do we need?” She opened the box, which was old enough to be a little soggy, and took out two of the little envelopes.

“Um, two. Wait, hang on,” Jesusa flipped through the pages of the cookbook. “I know it’s in here.” The pages of the cookbook were stuck together in places and she peeled them carefully apart. The last thing she wanted was to tear them.

“Why are we doing this?”

“Because I’m sick of coming to their Thanksgiving dinners every year, eating their dry turkey, and listening to them tell us that our relationship is unnatural and we’re going to Hell for it.” Jesusa continued to flip through the pages of the cookbook. “If they want unnatural, I’ll show them unnatural. I want to watch them either choke it down or refuse to get near it so I can give them a guilt trip for a change.”

“Maybe we should just stop going,” Elsbeth said. “Every year you get so stressed out about it that you end up with a migraine the next day. We could do a nice Thanksgiving dinner together, just the two of us, and watch 70’s movies for dessert.”

“Because I love my Abuelita. She’s the one who gave me this cookbook, you know. Said it might be of use to me one day. If anyone gives me shit about this meal, I’m going to say it came from Abuelita’s cookbook.” She smiled, and Elsbeth knew she couldn’t argue with this. Theresa Machado was Jesusa’s favorite relative and she would have done just about anything for her. She was in amazing health for 108 years old, liked to smoke cigars she claimed to have hoarded from the Cuban embargo days, and was the only person in Jesusa’s family that approved of her engagement to Elsbeth. “Oh, here it is. Okay, it’s two 3 ounce packages of strawberry or one 6 ounce. I guess we can use two of the unflavored and put in extra cranberry sauce.”

“Okay,” Elsbeth said, taking out the two packets and shaking them down. She tore the tops off and poured them into the bowl. A strange smell came up from the powder. It smelled dusty and almost herbal. “Is it supposed to smell like this?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never smelled unflavored gelatin before. But this is a vintage cookbook. It’s only fitting that we should use vintage gelatin.” She smoothed the pages out and laid the book on the counter. “Now we need to zest and cut up a couple of oranges.”

“When do we put in the turkey cubes?”

“We don’t. Just the oranges and nuts and cranberry sauce. The turkey gets made into salad and tossed in the center with the onions and celery.” Jesusa smiled and looked at Elsbeth, who was pouring hot water onto the gelatin. “This almost sounds like it could be good.”

“I’m withholding my judgment. Possibly forever.” Elsbeth stirred the gelatin while Jesusa stirred the cranberry sauce until it was smooth. “Seriously, this smells weird.”

“Probably just a little old. The orange zest will cover it up. Now I need to shred the turkey, not cube it. Or at least cut it up a little thinner.” Jesusa took the turkey they’d baked the day before out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter. “Hmm.”

“Let me do that. You’re terrible with a knife.”

“It’s fine.”

“Give me the knife,” Elsbeth said with a sigh. She held out a hand and Jesusa dropped the knife into it a little harder than she intended. “Ow! Oh, dammit,” Elsbeth dropped the knife and grabbed a paper towel, wrapping it around her finger but not before a few drops of blood fell into the bowl. “Aw, man, I got blood in the gelatin.”

“It’ll be fine,” Jesusa said. “I’m not going to eat it, but it’ll be fine.” She grinned. “No one will see it with the cranberry sauce anyway.” Elsbeth squeezed her finger and raised an eyebrow at Jesusa. “I’ll pour this into the mold while you clean that out, then you can show me how to cut the turkey properly.”

“Uh-huh.” Elsbeth leaned over and kissed her. “Don’t touch that turkey.”

“Yes ma’am,” Jesusa said, watching her head upstairs to the bathroom where the first aid kit was. She pulled the bowl of gelatin to her and stirred in the cranberry sauce and oranges. The slight threads of red in the gelatin disappeared into the cranberry and she smiled. No one would ever know.

Just as she thought this, there was a bright flash that turned everything in the kitchen brilliant for a moment. Jesusa shielded her eyes, dropping the spoon on the counter. The kitchen was plunged into darkness and the floor felt like it was shifting. Footsteps thundered overhead, then down the stairs, and in the dark it was almost more disorienting than the flash of light.

“Jess! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Jesusa said. “Are you?” The lights flickered back on and Jesusa looked around. “Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?” Elsbeth picked up the spoon from the counter and tossed it in the sink. “Dammit, we’re going to have to set all the clocks again. I hate that.” She grabbed the gelatin mold from the dish rack and poured the mixture into it. “Shortest power outage ever.”

“Probably had something to do with that surge.” Jesusa picked up the knife and started carving the turkey. Elsbeth put the gelatin in the refrigerator and frowned.

“Power surge?” She looked genuinely confused and Jesusa shook her head.

“Never mind.”

 

***

Noon came and went at Jesusa and Elsbeth’s house, and no one arrived. The turkey salad and cranberry ring sat in the middle of the table surrounded by stuffing, sweet potato casserole, and roasted vegetables. They’d opened the wine half an hour earlier and were almost at the bottom of it when Elsbeth finally spoke up.

“I guess someone must have told them about the gelatin mold.” It was a feeble attempt to make her fiancée smile and Jesusa gave her the smallest of half-smiles before she drained her wine glass. “It’s okay, Jess. If they’re going to be petty enough to bail on a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner over a couple of lesbians then they don’t deserve it anyway.”

“They’re my family,” Jesusa said. She stood up from the table and went into the kitchen. There was a second bottle of wine on the counter and she picked it up, considering whether or not she should open it. It didn’t seem that there was anyone else coming to drink it so she popped the cork and took it into the dining room.

“I’ve got a great idea,” Elsbeth said. “Why don’t we—“ A knock at the door cut her off and Jesusa set down the bottle down and hurried toward the front door. Elsbeth finished her wine and joined her, slipping her hand into Jesusa’s as she opened the door.

An old woman was standing on the front steps with a cane. Her back was straight and she was wearing a red suit that looked brand new. Her silver hair was pulled into a bun but the smile on her face made it somehow less severe. Theresa Machado didn’t look a day over 85, and she held out an arm for her great-granddaughter to hug her.

Abuelita!” Jesusa hugged her tightly. “You came!”

“Of course I came,” Theresa said, her thickly accented voice as strong as the day she’d come to America. “Hello, Beth.”

“Hi, Abuelita,” Elsbeth said, hugging the old woman. “Please come in. No one else is here but I’d love to get you a glass of wine.”

“Thank you, mija,” she said, joining the two younger women. “No one else is coming.”

“I figured as much,” Jesusa said. “I guess there’s just some stuff they can’t get over.” She closed the door, and just as she did the phone in the kitchen began to ring. Jesusa and Elsbeth looked at each other. No one ever called the house phone. Something didn’t feel right but Theresa was the only person who seemed calm. She sat down at the head of the table and took out a cigar while Jesusa went into the kitchen to answer the phone. “Hello?”

She listened to the person on the other line, ice slowly spreading through her veins as they spoke. Her heart pumped it, sending goosebumps up and down her arms. Elsbeth stood in the doorway, her brown eyes questioning, and Jesusa heard herself saying something but even a second later couldn’t remember what it was. When she hung up, she missed the charger and the phone clattered to the countertop noisily. Elsbeth went to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re dead,” Jesusa said, feeling as though someone had hollowed out her chest. It was as if someone else was speaking with her mouth, and she looked at Elsbeth. “Dead.”

“Who’s dead?”

“All of them. Everyone.” There was a strange, staticky sound in Jesusa’s head and she closed her eyes. “They said it looks like heart attacks. All of them.” She leaned against the counter and took a shaky breath. “Some of them happened last night when people were around. They found the rest this morning.” She opened her eyes. “It looks like they all died at the same time.”

“They did,” a voice said, and both women looked up to see Theresa standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She was smiling serenely, and the smoke from her cigar smelled sweet and herbal. Jesusa opened her mouth to ask what she meant and the lights went out again. A soft blue light emanated from Theresa like a halo and she took a long drag of her cigar. “Come, mija. Let’s eat. I don’t think I’ve been this hungry in years.”

52 Week Short Story Challenge #6 – Always Check the Reviews

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This week’s prompt was suggested by the fantastic Squirrel of Doom!

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I tried to make it feel a little mundane, like something that could happen to any of us, but I’m not sure I succeeded.

Always Check the Reviews

When she walked into the computer repair shop, Seo-yeon Kim wasn’t sure she’d come to the right place. There were only two men in it and one of them was apparently having an argument with someone on the phone while he stared at the computer on the table in front of him. She couldn’t help thinking that this wasn’t the most professional way to behave with a customer in the shop but he didn’t so much as bat an eye when she came in.

“How may I help you?” The second man got up and Seo-yeon saw on the tag on his shirt that his name was Brent.

“I’m Seo-yeon Kim, I think we spoke on the phone.” She opened the bag slung over her shoulder and took out a black box. It took more strength than she was accustomed to, and Brent’s eyebrow raised slightly.

“Yeah, I remember you. This is your mom’s computer, right?”

“Right,” she said, setting the laptop on the counter. “And as I’m sure you can tell, it’s been a long time since it was in warranty.” Brent spun the computer so it was facing him and opened it. Its screen remained dark and Seo-yeon rummaged in the bag. “Sorry. I don’t know when the last time she charged it was. It doesn’t hold a charge for very long anymore anyway.”

“We can get her set up with a new battery,” Brent said. “Provided we can fix it. Sometimes with these older models it’s cheaper just to buy a new value model, especially if she’s not using it for any heavy lifting.” He took the charger from her and plugged it in. “What’s going on with it?”

“I’m not entirely sure. She just called me up last night and said her computer wouldn’t work, then asked me to come fix it.” She sighed. “I have no idea what to do with her computer, I make pottery.”

“Pottery?” Brent smiled. “That sounds cool.”

“It’s pretty fun. My brother and I do it together and sell it online. That’s pretty much the extent of my computer knowledge, though. Twitter, Facebook, and Etsy.” Seo-yeon watched him boot up the computer.

“You don’t have a website?”

“We do, but it’s pretty basic. We’re looking for someone to make us a real one now that we’re making some money.” She leaned over the counter and looked at the screen. The Windows screen was still on it and she looked up at Brent. “Do you know anyone?”

“I do a little web design in my spare time,” he said. “If you’re interested, I can give you my info.”

“That’d be great,” Seo-yeon said, her eyes widening. She and her brother had been looking for a web designer for months and hadn’t found anyone that was both in their budget and professional, but if he worked at a computer repair shop there was a good chance this guy would work out. The computer had come on by that point and Brent was looking at it curiously.

“Hmm,” he said. “This is interesting. I’ve never seen this happen before.” He turned it to face Seo-yeon and she could see that the screen had gone to black, and windows were opening and closing all over the place. From what she could see before they disappeared, long strings of gibberish filled them. As much as she hated to admit it, she had halfway been expecting to see porn windows. After all, her father used it too and he wasn’t terribly internet-savvy.

“What is it? Do you know?”

“A virus, I’m sure,” Brent said, turning the computer back to face him. “I’m sure I can fix it, it’ll just take me a couple of days. Do you know if your mother backed it up anytime recently?” Seo-yeon sighed heavily.

“I doubt it. I don’t think she even knows what a backup is.” To be fair, the only reason Seo-yeon had experience with backups was because her brother insisted she do them regularly. He was the one who took all the pictures of their work for the listings and he didn’t want to lose them to something as stupid as a power surge. “She’s going to lose everything, huh?”

“I’ll do my best but that’s probably the case.” Brent looked over his shoulder at the other technician, who had taken a short break from shouting. Seo-yeon assumed it was because he’d hung up the phone and she couldn’t help being a little relieved. She hadn’t realized how hard it was to hear herself think until he’d stopped. “Give me—“ he looked at his watch, then back at Seo-yeon “—an hour with it. I’ll see if I can get a better idea of what we’re looking at, then I can give you a quote.”

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll go grab some lunch. Thanks.” They shook hands and Seo-yeon headed for the door with her phone in hand, intending to find someplace cheap and cute in the neighborhood. She stood outside the shop and looked around, trying to see what streets were nearby. Nothing looked familiar so she decided to let Yelp’s location finder do the work for her.

She was just opening Yelp when she heard shouting coming from the shop behind her, loud enough to make her jump. It didn’t sound like the first technician’s voice and she hoped he and Brent hadn’t gotten into an argument.

What could they have possibly gotten into a fight about in less than five minutes? Curious, she backed up to the shop so that she was closer to the window while still looking at her phone. She shifted her eyes to the shop with her head still bent, keeping herself behind the window decal that read ‘Computer Repair’ in tall blue letters. Her mouth fell open when she saw what Brent was shouting at.

He was standing in front of her mother’s computer, looking down at it. Unlike his partner, there was no phone in his hand or any indication he was talking to someone else. From what she could see, it looked like Brent was shouting at the computer.

What the hell is going on here? Seo-yeon forgot that she was trying to be subtle and stared into the shop. She couldn’t tell exactly what Brent was shouting about but he was really getting into it. It didn’t look like he was even doing anything to fix the computer, just yelling at it. While she was wondering whether or not she should go back in to see what the problem was, the other technician started shouting at the other computer. His voice was louder than Brent’s and Seo-yeon could hear him cursing, berating everything from the operating system to the hard drive.

Stunned, and at a loss for what else she should do, she looked up at the sign. WYACR Inc. was written over the door and Seo-yeon frowned. She’d never considered what the letters stood for when she looked them up, only that she’d found them under Computer Repair on Google. It had been a promoted ad and they’d had the lowest price she could find so she’d thought she would give them a chance. Now it seemed like a good idea to find out.

Since she already had Yelp open, she typed in WYACR Inc. and tried to ignore the two voices shouting behind her. She was dismayed to see several one and two star reviews at the top and scrolled down. One review caught her eye and she paused.

* DO NOT TAKE YOUR COMPUTER HERE. I brought my computer here because it wasn’t turning on and they not only didn’t fix it, they kept it for two weeks and I had to call them to find out what was going on. Turns out they don’t even know how to fix computers, they just take your ‘consultation fee’ and tell you to take it somewhere else. I should have known better than to trust guys from We Yell At Computers Repair Inc.! I have no idea how these guys are still in business. STAY AWAY! —Viveca A.

Seo-yeon looked up from her phone and into the shop. Brent was still yelling at the computer and his face had turned red from the effort. Deciding she wasn’t going to wait another forty-five minutes, Seo-yeon turned around and went back into the shop. Both Brent and his partner stopped shouting and looked at her.

“Miss Kim? Is something wrong?” There was sweat on his forehead and she looked from him to the other young man. She was literally speechless, so she did the first thing she could think of. Without a word, she reached across the counter, grabbed her mother’s laptop and ran out of the store. “Wait, Miss Kim! Come back!”

Halfway down the street, she realized she’d left the charger in the shop. Deciding she’d just buy her mother another one, Seo-yeon pointed her car in the direction of the nearest Best Buy and started driving. “Should’ve just gone there in the first place,” she muttered to herself. She sighed.

Her brother was never going to believe this.

The Great NaNoWriMenace

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I am excited and proud to be taking part in NaNoWriMo again this year!

I’ve been doing NaNo since 2002 (!!!) when I was living in Colorado and doing my externship for my vet tech degree. I stumbled upon it while probably whining about something on Livejournal and thought it sounded kinda fun and terrifying at the same time.

My memories of that first NaNoWriMo are a little hazy but I still remember parts of it with amazing clarity. Writing on my lunch break, taking the weird little mini word processor I had everywhere so I could write a little whenever I was sitting still, calling for my husband to bring me another Coke so I didn’t have to get up and get one myself. It was cold already in Colorado and even though it’s not particularly cold now I’m still under a blanket because it feels right.

every year I feel a little more comfortable but I still have that same feeling of panic when I look at my word count and I’m not where I want to be. That first NaNo I completely pantsed it but now I usually work off some sort of an outline.

This year I’m working off an old outline and writing the second part of the Escape trilogy. A Couple of years ago I wrote the first part of Escape for NaNo and though a lot of stuff has been changed and rewritten, I have discovered the zest for it again that I had lost. More about what changed that for me later.

Saturday morning I was way behind on my novel but thanks to determination and word sprints (which didn’t even exist when I first started doing NaNo) I’m back up to par. Hopefully today I’ll be able to get my word count up enough to support a day or two of sad numbers. Work is hard, y’all.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #5 – Sacked

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This week’s prompt was a little different. We were invited to go to Page to Pixel’s writing prompt generator and let it find us something to write about.

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Then we take that information to the Most Dangerous Writing App and write for three terrifying minutes then share the results. This is what happened:

 

Sacked

“What are you doing?” Brandy looked at Sammy in surprise as she walked to her car. The sun was just coming up but he was headed back to the factory with what looked like a duffel bag under his arm. “Let’s go to the Waffle House and I’ll buy us some hashbrowns.”

“I can’t,” Sammy said, shaking his head. “I’ve got to go blow up the factory.”

“Sure,” Brandy said with a laugh. “And then later we’ll tear down some voting booths too. Full-on anarchy will ensue, I’m sure.” She opened her car door. “Come on, I’ve got my dad’s car. Hashbrowns. And waffles, if you play your cards right.” Sammy didn’t answer her, only walked toward the building in the midst of the crowd of people that were coming out of the open doors. Cursing, she relocked her door and ran after him. “Sammy,” Brandy called. “Seriously, what are you doing?”

“They fired me,” he said. “Nothing to lose now so

52 Week Short Story Challenge #3 – Make A Wish

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I came up with this week’s prompt when I was at my mother in law’s house picking up the laundry. There was a pile of leaves in the breezeway of the apartment where she lives and for a second I thought “how the hell did a toad get up here?” Then the leaves blew away but i couldn’t stop thinking about the toad.

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Make A Wish

If Cassie hadn’t been looking up from her phone at that exact moment, she might not have seen the toad. In fact, two or three more steps forward and she probably would have stepped on it.

“Hey little guy,” she said, stopping in her tracks. “What are you doing up here?” The toad stared at her, its rapidly working throat the only movement she could see by the fading light. The sky was turning from lavender to a deep blue blanket speckled with stars and Cassie tapped her phone’s screen to get to the camera. She wanted to take a photo of the toad before the light was gone.

From her limited experience with toads, she expected it to hop away as soon as she got closer, but it simply sat there staring at her with eyes whose pupils looked far more human than any amphibian she’d ever seen. She squatted down to take the picture and the toad locked eyes with her. She noticed, much to her surprise, that they were silver.

If you could have one wish, what would you ask for?

The voice popped into her head unexpectedly, as clear and businesslike as if she was speaking to a man sitting across from her in an interview. She frowned and pressed a hand to her forehead, then looked around as if she expected to see someone behind her. There was no one else around and the last of the sun had finally disappeared, leaving Cassie and the toad in almost total darkness.

“This is crazy,” she said, standing up. “For a second I thought you were talking to me.”

Who said I wasn’t?

Cassie stared down at the toad, who was now looking up at her. Its silver eyes hadn’t left hers for a moment, and when the light on the roof came on they seemed to glow. Apart from its eyes there was nothing about the toad that would give any indication that there was something unusual about it. It looked like a run of the mill, everyday toad.

I can grant you a single wish, the voice in Cassie’s head said as the toad hopped closer to her. Just one. And it can be anything. None of those restrictions from legends and movies. Love, money, even bringing someone back from the dead. I can do all those things and more.

“How?” Cassie couldn’t shake the feeling that she was losing her mind. She’d come up to the roof to clear her head after getting her second notice from the debt collection people, not have a conversation with a toad. Yet here she was, actually talking back to a voice that might or might not be all in her imagination.

Does it matter? Make a wish and I will grant it.

“This is completely ridiculous,” Cassie said, at the same time thinking about what she would wish for. Talking to a toad was weird enough and believing it could grant her a wish was bumping right up against the edge of a break with reality, but there was no harm in considering the question. If she could wish for one thing, anything at all, what would it be? The obvious answers like world peace and a cure for cancer flitted through her head but Cassie pushed them aside. There was no one around, and the toad’s half of the conversation was only in her head. She could be as selfish as she wanted and no one would know the difference.

“All right,” she said, squatting down again so that she was closer to the toad’s level.

Good, the voice said. Tell me what you want most.

“Money,” Cassie said. “A hundred thousand dollars. I want to pay off my credit cards and my car loan, and not have to ask my parents for money anymore.” The toad closed its eyes and nodded but nothing happened.

Cassie wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. A notification from her bank saying that she was suddenly $100,000 richer? A man stepping out of the doorway to hand her an oversized cardboard check? Neither of those things made any sense, and Cassie almost burst out laughing. None of this made any sense. It was more likely that she was tired and imagining things, or that she had fallen asleep on the roof and this was all a dream.

“So much for making a wish,” she said, straightening up. “At least my brain didn’t make me try to kiss you.” She was just about to walk away when she decided that even though it hadn’t given her the cash she wanted, she couldn’t leave it on the rooftop. She had no idea how it had gotten onto the roof but she doubted it was going to be as lucky on an attempt to get down.

“Come on, toad,” she said, scooping it up. “I’ll take you down to the garden. Save you the trouble of trying to get down the stairs.” The toad was silent and she stuck her cell phone in her back pocket and headed down the stairs that led to the roof.

There were people hanging around the front of the building as always, laughing and joking as if they hadn’t a care in the world, and Cassie couldn’t help wondering if they ever went to work. She walked past them without making eye contact and found herself wishing for the thousandth time that she could afford to live somewhere else.

That’s what I should have wished for, she thought. It has just as much a chance of coming true as anything else. One of the men hooted loudly and she went around the corner of the building to the garden along its side. Cassie deposited the toad in the flowerbed and smiled.

“Have a good night, toad,” she said. The toad didn’t respond and she turned to go back inside, steeling herself for the walk through her neighbors’ impromptu get together. If the guy with the blonde hair was there, she could expect at least one comment about her ass.

When she was finally in her apartment with the door locked, Cassie sank down onto the couch and leaned her head against the back. There was no way a toad could have given her money, yet she couldn’t help feeling somewhat disappointed. Even if it had just been for a few moments, she’d expected something to happen. Her back pocket started vibrating and she pulled out her phone, the familiar sensation of fear whispering through her when she saw it was an unknown number.

“Dammit,” she sighed. The only people that called her from unknown numbers were debt collectors and she’d been successfully avoiding them for the last few weeks, but something told her that this was the moment to answer the phone. I’ll just tell them I don’t have any money to give them, she thought. It’s the truth. “Hello?”

“Are you Miss Cassie Bates?” The voice on the other end wasn’t what she expected. It was a little warmer, and didn’t sound like it was reading from a script. There was something unsettling about it, though, and she responded cautiously.

“Yes.”

“Miss Bates, my name is Richard Reilly and I’m an attorney in Minneapolis representing your parents.” He took a deep breath while Cassie was trying to process his words. She couldn’t understand why a lawyer would be calling her but had a feeling it wasn’t good. “I’m very sorry to be the one to give you this news but your parents were killed in an accident two days ago. We’ve been trying to contact you but couldn’t get in touch until now.”

“My parents?” Cassie’s entire body felt cold. The voice on the phone kept talking but there was a strange, high-pitched noise overlaying it that made it hard for her to make out what the lawyer were saying. Her parents were dead? There had to be a mistake. “There’s no way my parents are dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Richard said. “Their car was hit by a semi that drifted into their lane. If it’s any consolation, they were killed instantly.” His voice was calm but it made even less sense than the conversation she had – or thought she had – with the toad. Cassie had no idea what she was supposed to say to any of this, and Richard took her silence to mean he could go on. “I’m going to need you to come down to the office as soon as possible to sign the paperwork,” the lawyer said. “The insurance company wants to pay out right away for some reason. They’re never this pushy about it but it’s going to work in your favor.”

“Insurance?”

“Yes. Between your parents, their life insurance payout is just over two hundred thousand dollars.” He said more, but Cassie didn’t hear it. The phone fell out of her hand as she covered her face. To her next-door neighbors, her agonized sobs sounded just like screaming.

Underneath her window, the toad worked its throat and smiled. The next day her voice would be little more than a croak. That was how it started.

That was always how it started.

52 Week Short Story Challenge #1 – No Such Thing As A Free Meal

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Some of you may have noticed I haven’t been writing much lately. A number of things have happened and I really haven’t felt much like writing. More on that later, I’m not really in the mood to expound on my troubles. What I am in the mood to do is post a short story here for your reading pleasure.

This is the first in a series of 52 short stories written as part of the 52 Week Short Story Challenge, the goal of which is to get a cool cat by the name of SM Cadman back into the writing groove. She, like me, has been feeling pretty slumped due to depression and created this challenge as a way to break through. I thought it was a good idea, so I’ll be posting one short story a week based on a prompt. If you’d like to read along, or better yet join in, follow her blog or on Twitter and the prompts will arrive on Sundays.

It’s going to be fun!

This week’s prompt:

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No Such Thing As a Free Meal

The inspector rubbed her forehead as she sat in her car in the parking lot of The Pho House. It was only the third restaurant she’d been to that afternoon but she was already exhausted. She opened her glove compartment and grabbed the Excedrin out of it with her eyes closed, then chased two of the tablets with a mouthful of warm water from the bottle that had been sitting in her passenger seat all day. Nothing about it was pleasant, but that was par for the course for her day.

She was screwing the cap back onto the water when her phone started ringing. Grimacing, she picked it up without checking to see who it was. There were only a few people who actually called her and she couldn’t ignore any of them, even if she was seriously considering quitting.

“Williamson.”

“Hey, baby,” a voice she wasn’t expecting said. She smiled for the first time since she’d left the house. “We still on for six?”

“Not unless you can work a miracle,” Keshia Williamson said, looking up at the restaurant’s door, which was now sporting a ‘closed’ sign in spite of it being the middle of the day. “I’m way, way behind schedule and I’ve still got three places on my list.”

“So just do a quick walkthrough and give ‘em a C. We can make the seven o’clock movie.”

“Boy, that’s what got this whole mess started in the first place. I’ll get done when I get done.” Her headache seemed to be getting worse instead of better and she sighed. “I’ll call you as soon as I’m on my way back to the office.”

“No texting? Real call?”

“Real call. Love you, baby.” She hung up the phone and dropped it into her console, then started the car. If she was going to get anything close to finished before the sun went down she had to get going. In an attempt to get herself worked up, she put on some old Missy Elliott and tried to nod her head as she backed out of the parking space.

By the time she made it to Ricky’s House of Ribs, Keshia’s headache had receded just enough to make her feel functional again and she pulled into one of the spaces at the front of the building. There were only two other cars in the lot and she was glad. If there was a scene like the one at Kung Pao Kitchen, she didn’t want to see her face on YouTube later that night when she was trying to relax.

Keshia got out of the car and straightened her blazer, then slung her bag over her shoulder and picked up her leather folio from the passenger seat. Once she was convinced that she looked the part of a competent health inspector, she strode up the front walk and pushed on the windowless door only to discover that it was locked.

She looked at the business hours posted by the door and frowned. The restaurant should have been open for hours at this point but now that she looked through the window she could see the place was empty. Someone was moving around behind the counter, though, and she knocked on the door as hard as she could. Closed or not, Ricky’s House of Ribs was on her list and she was going to give them the grade they deserved. A minute later, the door unlocked and opened just enough for a man in a dirty t-shirt and jeans to lean out.

“We’re closed,” the man said.

“I’m the health inspector,” Keshia said. “I need to take a look around.”

“The health inspector?” He looked her up and down dubiously, taking in her twist out and the modest silver stud in her nostril. “We’re working on it.”

“I need to see what it’s like right now. I can come back later and amend your grade.” The man looked like he was going to argue with her and she felt herself starting to dig in, like she had so many times before, but he stepped aside and let her in.

“I knew this was coming,” he sighed. The front of the restaurant was dark and he led her to the back of the house. A large black ‘A’ was posted proudly beside their liquor license and Keshia resisted the urge to snort when she saw it. He pushed the door to the kitchen open and motioned for her to go in. “Excuse the mess.”

Keshia braced herself for the worst as she stepped through the door, expecting her guide to immediately launch into a litany of excuses. Instead, she was faced with an empty room that smelled like the inside of a swimming pool. There were squares of rust on the floor where appliances had recently been dragged away, and a bright yellow rolling mop bucket stood in the corner.

“Where’s all your—“ Keshia looked around the room. “—everything?”

“Cleared it out,” the man said, picking up a pack of cigarettes and shaking one out. He lit it with a lighter featuring a picture of a naked woman and took a deep drag. Keshia narrowed her eyes at him and he blew the smoke over his shoulder.

“You know that’s illegal.”

“You’re already here to fine me, what’s one more line on the ticket?” He tossed the lighter on the counter with the cigarettes and extended a hand to her. “I’m Ricky.”

“Miss Williamson,” Keshia said, shaking it. “You renovating?”

“Yup. Contractors are coming next week to take a look at the front end,” Ricky said, taking another drag. “My granddaddy died and left me everything so I’ve got the money. Not to mention I’m gonna be saving money not feeding old Don the Con.”

“Excuse me?”

“You seem like an honest lady,” Ricky said. “No harm in telling you now, unless you already know.” Keshia stared at him and he blew a cloud of smoke over his shoulder. “Which from the look on your face, you don’t.”

“What are you talking about?” Keshia folded her arms over her chest as Ricky sighed and leaned on the counter.

“Free food,” Ricky said, dragging a red plastic ashtray that looked like it had been scavenged from a dive bar over to him. “He’d been doing it for years. Every couple of days, at least once a week, Don would come in here and remind me that my good grade depended on his mood. And to keep him happy we gave him a plate whenever he came in.”

“You traded him free food to keep your A grade?”

“We weren’t the only ones. He was doing it to all the restaurants around here. House of Pho, Uncle Cash’s, whoever he could get to agree.” Ricky stubbed out his cigarette and took out a fresh one. “I made the mistake of telling him we were struggling, hoping to get some sympathy, and he said he’d give me some time to work on it if I’d help him out every now and then. Next thing I knew, he was showing up all the time.”

“Shit,” Keshia said, cursing on the job for the first time in her life. Everything was starting to make sense. She’d already shut down House of Pho, and Uncle Cash’s Place was next on the list. If Don Gibbens had been getting free meals out of dirty kitchens for who knew how long, the raging case of e. Coli he had contracted was suddenly explained. “No wonder that old bastard kept saying he didn’t know where he could have picked it up.”

“I told him I was done two weeks ago,” Ricky said, shaking his head and lighting the cigarette. “That I was gonna clean the place up for real, and he got all mad. Said he’d tell his bosses that I’d been giving him free food and that it was my idea.” Keshia set down her folio and rubbed her forehead. Her headache was back with a vengeance, and she had a feeling it had something to do with the way she was clenching her jaw. Before she could come up with the words for how she felt, Ricky opened his mouth again. “So I made him a special plate.”

“A special what?”

“We left half a rack of ribs out on the counter for a couple of days, then only half cooked ‘em. Drowned ‘em in sauce and served ‘em to old Don when he came in. He didn’t even notice. Gobbled ‘em down like every other time and wanted extra cobbler.” Keshia stared at him with her mouth open and he shrugged. “We shut down that night and I had the appliances hauled out the next morning.”

“You fed a health inspector spoiled meat? On purpose?” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was the most unreal thing she’d ever heard but Ricky wasn’t even trying to deny it. He was just standing there illegally smoking his cigarette as if nothing was wrong. “You know I could shut this place down for good?”

“Probably not,” Ricky said. “Old Don was ripping off every restaurant in this area so you’d have a hard time proving whose food poisoned him. According to him, he was getting three meals a day for free. I wasn’t the only one who had the idea, either. There could have been two or three places pulling the same thing.” He smiled. “In a month I’ll have a whole new restaurant for you to inspect with brand new freezers and pit and everything. I’ll even give you a plate at our Grand Opening celebration.”

Keshia opened her mouth, then closed it. Ricky was right. With Don keeping his mouth shut about the free meals and the kitchen completely gutted, there was no way anyone could tie his food poisoning to the restaurant. The worst she could do was write him a citation for smoking and even that was more effort than she was willing to put in. With this place crossed off the list, she could get through the next two restaurants and make it back home in time for her date with Deron.

“Thanks,” she said, picking up her folio and heading for the door. “I’ll pass.”

The Wave of the Future

Exciting news! Drowned History is going to be published!

I submitted it to Booktrope after seeing something from them pass by on my timeline and thought maybe it would be better to go that route than trying to self-publish it. I don’t have the money right now to get an editor and cover designer and this way I get to have a creative team without up-front costs.

See, Booktrope is a hybrid publisher: somewhere between self and traditional publishing. Your book gets accepted and you put together an entire creative team who each have a stake in seeing the book do well. No one gets paid if the book doesn’t sell! It’s a good model to me because rather than just paying someone to do these things and having to market it myself I have help and guidance. I work way too much to try and do it all myself again.

And speaking of Plans (we are now, keep up), they republish books too! So if things go well, I may try and get them to republish Plans. I feel like it deserved better than it got because nearly everyone who read it – even randos! – loved it but I just had no idea about marketing and such. It would be weird to see it with a new cover but I guess I’d get used to it. It would be nice to have a real editor to help me polish it up and re-release it.

Getting DH published has really given me back some of the zest I had been lacking. I finished The Weather but hadn’t gotten around to editing it because I just didn’t feel like dealing with finding an editor, then a cover designer, and as I said before I don’t have the money for that. I get a little jealous of people who self-publish and have the time and money to do it themselves but that’s life. Now that I’m feeling validated, I am ready to work again and might even be able to pull Kitsune out of storage and get the outline worked up. And then of course there’s the Escape series!

I used to be worried I would run out of ideas one day. This is not that day.