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.”

52 Week Short Story Challenge #5.5 – Sacked (Again)

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A couple of weeks ago, the 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. The result was a small snippet that I thought had some promise, so I wrote a little more on it to see what I could come up with. Sammy and Brandy got a little more interesting for sure.

 

Sacked

Brandy was tired. The kind of tired that went so deep it felt like she was walking through water. She’d taken the overnight shift when it had opened up because the pay was better but after three months she still wasn’t used to her new sleep schedule. People kept telling her it would calm down a little after the holidays but she wasn’t betting on it. The warehouse was one of thousands that belonged to the world’s largest online retailer and it wasn’t like people stopped ordering laptops and twenty pound bags of marshmallows just because it was suddenly January 2nd.

Tonight had been especially difficult because her friend Sammy hadn’t been there. Over the last few months they’d become almost inseparable in the warehouse, keeping an eye on each other and keeping each other awake when necessary. They’d clocked in together at 11 PM but he’d been called to the office less than an hour later and she hadn’t seen him since.

She was just thinking about calling him when she saw him coming up the sidewalk that wrapped around the parking lot. His head was down and he looked like he meant business. She hadn’t even known he’d left the warehouse.

“What are you doing?” Brandy looked at Sammy in surprise as she kept walking across the lot to her car. The sun was just coming up but she was able to see what looked like a duffel bag under his arm. “Let’s go to the Waffle House and I’ll buy us some hashbrowns.” Sammy stopped and looked at her, then jogged over to join her on her way to the car.

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

“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 Dad’s car. Hashbrowns. And waffles, if you play your cards right.” Sammy didn’t answer her, only turned and started walking back 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. He didn’t turn this time and she ran faster until she caught up with him. “Seriously, what are you doing?”

“They fired me,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to lose now so I’m gonna do what I always wanted and blow this place up.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I’m serious. Look around. What do you see?” Brandy looked at the faces passing on their way to the parking lot, then shrugged. “Last shift change. Five to seven AM is the only time there’s no one in this place. No one’s gonna get hurt. The only thing that’s gonna get hurt is this temple to gleefully unbridled capitalism.”

“Because you got fired?”

“No, because of why I got fired.” Sammy stopped walking and looked at Brandy seriously. “They fired me because I’m trans.” Brandy stared at him in shock.

“What? They can’t do that. Isn’t that against the law?”

“Not in this state. They can fire you for any reason they want and they actually don’t even have to tell you why.” He took a deep breath. “I asked them why they were firing me. I said I’ve been on time every day, only ever called in sick once. I even made employee of the month. They said it’s not working out anymore. When I asked if they’d give me a reference for somewhere else, they said they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it for someone like me.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Sammy started walking again and Brandy followed him, knowing that she should turn around and leave before she got any further into this but unable to let her friend go without a fight. “Just forget about them. I’ll help you find another job. Hell, we can both get other jobs. Christmas is in a month, we can get hired as holiday help and come up with something better later.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Sammy said. “After I plant these bombs.”

“Sammy—“

“Look. This country doesn’t want people like me in it. They pass laws that basically make it so I can’t go to the bathroom in public, and find new and more creative ways to keep me from getting my hormones. Now they’ve taken away my job, and it’s going to be harder to find one now that I’ve started transitioning.” He shook his head. “This isn’t about making some kind of statement, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s revenge, plain and simple. And if you don’t want in on it, you should leave now. If everything goes as planned, they’ll never be able to connect it to me.”

“How? They’re going to know it was you, they just fired you.”

“Good thing I’m in Florida,” Sammy said.

“What?”

“According to Megabus and my debit card I’m currently on the way to Orlando. Once I get this stuff planted, I’m getting on an actual bus to Orlando that should get there about the same time as the Megabus. By the time these go off I’ll be headed down South and I won’t be coming back until after the New Year.” Sammy raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re welcome to come if you like.”

“What would I do in Florida?”

“I don’t know. Disney World?”

The flow of people around them had slowed to a trickle, and by the time they reached the warehouse they were the only ones on the sidewalk. The doors were still open, though, and Sammy walked through them as if he belonged there. Brandy looked around to see if anyone was watching, then went after him.

She’d never been to Disney World, after all.

 

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 #7 – Double Exposure

board-52-week-short-story-challenge-graphicThis week’s prompt came from the mind behind the 52 Week Short Story Challenge, SM Cadman!

sunday-prompt-mineI really enjoyed this one, in case you couldn’t tell when you’re reading it. It took me forever to put it up, though, mainly because I had a stressful couple of days at work and by the time I could get to wifi to post it my hair was wet and it was cold outside. First world problem, I know.

Double Exposure

“Welcome to Photo Express, how may I help you?” The photo technician behind the counter was almost too friendly and Emily smiled at him.

“I have some pictures for Emily Perrine,” she said. “I uploaded them about half an hour ago.”

“I think those just finished printing,” the tech said. “Let me go take a look.” He turned and went through a small door into the back of the lab and Emily looked around. A variety of photo products were arranged on the shelves, from hardcover books with smiling kids on the front to t-shirts with more smiling kids on them. There was even what looked like a stadium blanket and she lifted the corner to see if there was a price tag, curious to see how much someone would pay for a blanket with their kids’ faces on it.

“It’s ridiculous,” a voice from the counter said. It didn’t sound like the photo tech, and Emily turned to see who had spoken. There was only one other person in the photo lab, a young woman who looked about the same age as Emily. Her dark hair fell around her face in thick curls so perfect they could have come out of a magazine, and she was wearing a blousy tank top under a thin cardigan. A long necklace, dark skinny jeans and flats completed the look, and Emily felt like she should have put something a little nicer than yoga pants and a baggy t-shirt. It was a nice t-shirt, but it wasn’t in this other girl’s league.

“Excuse me?”

“The blanket. The price is ridiculous.” The brunette looked up at Emily, tucking a curl behind her ear and making her self-conscious about her red ponytail. She pointed at a small binder on the counter by the photo products. “The prices are in there.”

“Oh,” Emily said, at a loss for what else to say. She went over to the binder and opened it. As much as she wanted to strike up a conversation with the other woman, she also knew she wouldn’t be able to rest without knowing what she considered to be a ridiculous price. Emily ran her finger down the list of prices until she found ‘personalized throw’ and nearly choked when she saw the price. “Eighty-five dollars?”

“Yup.” She looked back down at the photos on the counter and pursed her lips. Emily closed the binder a little more heavily than necessary.

“That’s more than ridiculous,” Emily said. She joined the brunette at the counter and she looked up at Emily curiously. “It’s criminal.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Emily.”

“Russe,” the other woman said, shaking her hand with a smile. “Nice to meet you. You printing pictures for a wedding scrapbook too?”

“No, baby book. I was the designated photographer at the baby shower, and my job included getting the pictures done so my friend’s mom can paste them in the book with some way too intricate borders and give it to Jamie while she’s high on whatever they give you during childbirth now.” Emily looked at the photo product wall. “Maybe I should take a brochure.”

“Tell her about the blanket. Grandmothers love stuff like that,” Russe said, leaning over the photographs. “The wedding scrapbook is kind of a group effort. A bunch of us have been taking pictures and we’re going to give it to her when she comes back from her honeymoon. We’re planning on getting together a couple of times to work on it and have some drinks.”

“That sounds fun,” Emily said. She looked around the lab and her eyes fell on a small display of film. It was stuck in the corner so she almost didn’t see it, but she laughed when she did. Russe looked around to see what she was laughing at. “Film,” Emily said, pointing at the stand. “Real, honest-to-god film for cameras.”

“Really?” Russe followed her finger and abandoned her photos on the counter to go pick up one of the small, faded paper boxes. “I can’t even believe people still use this stuff. I mean, besides professional photographers.”

“I don’t even think they do, to be honest,” Emily said. She joined Russe at the display and picked up a box, then turned it around to see if film had an expiration date. “The last time I had to deal with a pro, they had a handful of memory cards.”

“Easier to store, I guess. I’ve lost them before, though, at a music festival. I’d lose it completely if it was my job though. Can you imagine reaching into your pocket and your whole weekend’s work just being gone? I’d be drowning my sorrows before noon.” This made Emily laugh, and she was trying to think of something else to say when the photo tech came from the back with a small, colorful cardboard envelope in his hand.

“Here you go, Miss Perrine. You want to take a look at those before you pay?”

“That would be great,” Emily said, going back to the counter with Russe. She took the envelope from the tech and opened it while Russe went back to picking through her photos. Emily took hers out and spread them on the counter like Russe had. She wasn’t sure she would have done it if the other woman hadn’t done it first but it seemed like the right thing to do.

“Excuse me,” Russe said, waving to the tech. “A couple of these only printed on half the paper.” He hurried over and looked at the pictures.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “Sometimes the roll gets thrown off. I’ll be happy to reprint those for you. Check the others to make sure these are the only ones.” He turned his attention to Emily. “Could you check yours thoroughly too? I’d hate for you to get home and find that yours were wrong.” She nodded and Russe looked over at her pictures.

“Any good ones in here?”

“There are a couple,” Emily said, blushing a little. She tugged one out of the bunch and showed Russe. In it a woman with an almost comically distended abdomen was holding up a handmade quilt and beaming. “I made this.”

“You did? That’s gorgeous!” Russe reached down and started pushing around the pictures. Emily was still humming with happiness over Russe saying she liked the quilt so she let her do it. “Are there any more? I really—“ Her words were cut off abruptly as she saw something among the pictures that had surprised her. “Who’s this?”

“Who?” Emily looked at the picture she was pointing at. In it she was standing with a sandy-haired man who was grinning at the camera. His arm was around her shoulders, drawing her to him, and they looked like the perfect couple. She blushed even harder. “That’s Everett. My boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend?” Russe shoved the pictures back at her, then snatched a picture from her pile and shoved it at Emily. “Everett is my boyfriend!”

Emily was speechless. It was definitely Everett, and the picture was similar to the one she had taken with him at the beach, only they were on a hiking trail. His arm was around Russe and she was kissing him on the cheek, something that suggested he had been with her longer. Emily’s stomach had gone cold and hard, and she tried to think of something to say. As horrible as Everett’s betrayal made her feel, the thought that the connection she thought she’d made with Russe had been permanently severed was almost worse.

“We’ve only been going out about two weeks,” Emily said, trying her hardest to justify something that wasn’t her fault. “I didn’t know he was seeing someone.”

“Two weeks?” Russe’s anger seemed to be deflating like a balloon before Emily’s eyes, and she nodded. Russe took the picture of her and Everett and crushed it into a ball in her hand. “I’ve only been dating the jerk for three. Guess it’s better to find out now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Emily said, relieved. She watched Russe pick the photos of herself and Everett out of the stack and tear them in half, wondering how long it would take the woman to call her ex-boyfriend and tear him a new one. Emily’s first instinct was to be angry as well, but it somehow didn’t hurt as much as she would have expected. A crazy idea came to Emily all at once and she cleared her throat. Russe looked over at her with still-blazing eyes.

“What is it?”

“This might be the worst time to ask, but would you like to get something to eat with me?” She smiled at Russe, hoping she wasn’t making a huge mistake. If she was, it was going to be an embarrassing wait for the tech to come back and check her out. Russe didn’t say anything at first and Emily continued to smile as she planned her exit. Abandoning the pictures would put a crimp in her baby book plans but the sooner she could get home to a pint of gelato the better.

“Are you asking me out?” Russe didn’t look angry. The look on her face was more surprised and Emily nodded.

“Yes?”

“All right,” Russe said, her face breaking into a smile. “I’d love to.” She scooped the pictures she hadn’t torn up into a pile and stuffed them into the envelope. “Excuse me,” she called back through the door to the technician. “We’d like to go ahead and pay!” Emily, unable to believe her luck, stuck all the prints but the ones of her and Everett into the envelope and pulled out her wallet.

“I’m just reprinting the ones that were half-printed,” the tech said.

“Here,” Russe said. She shoved the torn pictures across the counter at him. “I’ll pay for them but I want you to throw them away.”

“Mine too,” Emily said. The tech looked at the pictures, frowned, then looked at the women in surprise. Emily was trying to think of something to say when Russe put her arm around her waist and smiled at her, causing her to blush furiously.

“You know what?” Russe took out her wallet and threw thirty dollars on the counter. “Keep the change. If you’re buying me lunch, I can pay for the stupid pictures. Come on.” She nodded toward the door and Emily went, still not quite believing what had happened. It wasn’t how she’d expected her day to go but this was much, much better.

“What are you going to tell Everett?”

“Oh, I’ve got a pretty good idea.” With a smirk, Russe stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and took out her phone. She held it at arm’s length so that both she and Emily were in the frame, then stuck up her middle finger. Grinning, Emily did the same and Russe snapped the picture, then sent it in a text message with no words. “I’m starving,” she said, dropping her phone into her bag.

“Me too,” Emily said. “Can you send me a copy of that picture?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Russe replied. “I think I’ve got a new phone background.”

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.

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 #4 – Short Term Plans

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This week’s writing prompt comes from @TheWriteList, who put forth the headline from this Guardian news article as a prompt:

“Poor people don’t plan long-term. We’ll just get our hearts broken.”

Not one of my best pieces of fiction, which is why it’s so short, but I did it. Sorry that it’s a little depressing.

 

Short Term Plans

People kept patting Lucy Bale on the back and offering her fist bumps or high-fives as she walked through the station toward the interrogation room and she forced a smile on her face as she returned them. She hated the Boys Club feel of it all and wanted more than anything to just get her confession and go home to help her son with his history fair project.

“Nice one, Luce,” a beefy detective with red hair said, nodding for her to follow him. Lucy did so with relief, grateful for the way he walked close to the side that faced the desks and acted as a buffer for her. “You off soon?”

“Yes, thank god. If I had to spend the night here I’d probably lose my mind.” They went down the stairs to the ground flo or where there were two interrogation rooms behind doors with tiny reinforced windows. Jenny, Texas – population 5500 – didn’t have the money for two-way glass or covered parking but in a state that loved guns and knew how to hide them, no one wanted to take the chance that a window could be shot out.

“They’re just trying to be supportive,” Hank Connor said. “It’s the only way they know how to do it. It’s still a little weird having a woman in the house.”

“Thanks,” Lucy said. “I’m sure it also doesn’t help that I’m a city slicker.” This made Hank laugh, and he shook his head.

“Talking like that makes you sound like one for sure. Don’t worry, they’ll get used to you. Catching this one is gonna win you a lot of brownie points with the Captain.” They had reached the interrogation rooms and Hank looked at Lucy. “You want me to sit in on this one?”

“No thanks. This is pretty open and shut. All I have to do is get her to sign her confession, type it up, and put it on the boss’ desk. Then I can go home and pretend to care about the 1930s.” She smiled at Hank, a genuine one this time. “You up for burgers at Duke’s tomorrow?”

“Hell yeah,” Hank said, his face lighting up. “And since you made the collar of the year, it’ll be my treat. Whatever you want.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.” She opened the door to the interrogation room and went inside, leaving Hank in the hallway alone. Lucy looked at the young woman in the hooded sweatshirt and jeans sitting at the table in the center of the room and smiled. “Hello, Patty. I’m Detective Bale.”

“Whatever.” The girl, who couldn’t have possibly been more than nineteen or twenty years old, folded her arms across her chest. The sullen set of her jaw told Lucy that this was either going to be very easy or extremely difficult.

“You were caught stealing several DVD players and cameras from the electronics department at Wal-Mart over the last two months. I don’t know how you managed to do it with all their security but we’ve been keeping an eye out for you.” She shook her head. “Needless to say, you’ve been fired from Wal-Mart and Dan Davenport is pressing charges.” Patty was silent and Lucy sat down across from her, trying to seem a little friendlier. “Why don’t you tell me why you did it.”

“I took them so I could sell them,” Patty said. “I needed money for food and no one wanted to let me borrow any, so I stole the stuff.”

“Six times?” Lucy looked in the folder she had brought along with her. “This says that when you were arrested you had a Kate Spade bag and an iPhone in addition to the DVD players in your backseat. And if I’m not mistaken,” she said looking under the table, “aren’t those Uggs?”

“Yeah,” Patty said defiantly. “It’s cold outside.”

“If you have the money to buy a Kate Spade bag and limited edition Uggs, you shouldn’t have to shoplift to put food on the table. Didn’t anyone teach you how to manage money?”

“Oh please,” Patty said, her eyes darting away from Lucy’s. “Poor people don’t plan long term. We’ll just get our hearts broken.”

“Would you care to explain that?”

“Look, you get a regular paycheck right? You know about how much you get.” Still looking away from Lucy, she picked at the edge of her hoodie’s sleeve. “You pay your bills and you maybe get to save something. Go on a vacation. Buy a house. I don’t get to do any of that.”

“Plenty of people make it on minimum wage,” Lucy said. “Especially in Jenny. Maybe not in Dallas, but it’s different here. You don’t need a lot to get by, and you definitely don’t need an expensive bag to impress anyone.”

“Maybe not but it makes me feel better to have a couple of nice things. And I’d save my money to go live in Dallas if I could afford it but not on what Wal-Mart’s paying me. I’m stuck here in this miserable, shitty town and I’m gonna be stuck here ‘til I die using every last dime from my paycheck to pay my bills with nothing left over for food. What’s wrong with spending my babysitting money on something for me?” She sounded on the verge of tears and Lucy suddenly felt sorry for her.

“Patty, listen to me,” she said, her voice turning from stern to kind, “I can help you. Write down your confession here, then write a letter to Mr. Davenport apologizing for what you did. You’ll probably get off with some community service and I can help you figure something out. Maybe get you on food stamps until you can get a better job.” She slid the legal pad across the table to Patty.

“Food stamps,” Patty said, staring at the legal pad. She picked up the pen and pulled the pad over to her. Lucy stood up and went over to the door, then leaned out into the hall. It was empty and she decided she could just take Patty to the holding cell by herself. She could sense she’d made a connection with the girl and the more time she could spend with her the better it would be. She wasn’t about to let this girl fall through the cracks again.

Behind her, she heard the pen slap down on the paper and Lucy turned with a smile. Patty’s arms were folded tightly across her chest and she pulled the pad across the desk toward her. When she saw the two words written on it, her smile disappeared.

SCREW YOU.

“Fine,” Lucy said. She stormed out into the hall and slammed the interrogation room door. That’s the last time I bother trying to help anyone, she thought as she went back up to her desk. She picked up her bag and threw it over her shoulder, then went to the front desk where a couple of uniformed officers were having coffee and chatting. “Take the idiot in the interrogation room back to the holding cell. Let her spend the night there.”

“Yes, ma’am. What do you want us to do with her in the morning?”

“I don’t care,” Lucy said, taking out her car keys. “And I don’t think she does either, to be honest. I’ve got to go home, I’ve got a bunch of posterboard to buy.” She went out into the evening, Patty’s words still on her mind. All of a sudden she wanted to hug her son. Tightly.

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 #2 – A Loaded Question

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This week’s prompt is from http://www.fmylife.com/:therapist-promptI didn’t actually mean for it to happen, but this week’s story ended up a little dark.

 

A Loaded Question

When I first started coming to Amy, my therapist, I was terrified. The medication wasn’t working and I was looking for someone to help me make sense of the often conflicting workings of my mind. She was warm, kind, and I bonded with her more quickly than I’d ever bonded with another human being, which was why I was so leery of going to therapy when I knew she wouldn’t be there.

It had been weeks since the receptionist called to cancel my appointment with Amy, telling me that she was having family issues and wouldn’t be available. She offered to set me up with a different therapist but I didn’t want anyone but Amy, so I declined. When I called back to try and get a new appointment, I was told that Amy had moved to Kentucky.

As much as I wanted to believe that I didn’t need therapy anymore, I knew that wasn’t the case. I still had so much to work out and I couldn’t do it alone. So I called the office and asked them to set me up an appointment with a new therapist as soon as possible.

I was a little early for my appointment as usual, and much to my relief the office still had a comforting scent of lavender and eucalyptus, and the couches that were so soft I’d struggle to get out of them were still in place. I don’t know why I’d expected things to have changed just because Amy was gone but I had.

“Good afternoon,” I said as I signed in at the front desk. “I’m here to see Mr. Davies.”

Doctor Davies,” the receptionist corrected me.

“Sorry,” I said, a feeling of dread rising in the back of my throat. “I didn’t realize I was going to be seeing a doctor.”

“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile. “He’s very good.” I didn’t respond to this. Instead, I went to the couch against the wall and sat down with my eyes fixed on the hallway.

Part of the reason I liked Amy so much was that she wasn’t a doctor. Once a month I went to my psychiatrist for an evaluation of my meds, but that wasn’t a huge deal because my appointments with her weren’t terribly in-depth. In fact, most of them boiled down to her asking if the meds were working, my saying they were, and her telling me she’d see me in a month. Real doctors were another story altogether. Between neurologists telling me that my blackouts were just really bad migraines and my last GP accusing me of lying about the headaches so I could get pain medication, I hadn’t had many good experiences with them lately.

I was still trying to decide whether or not I was going to suddenly remember a previous engagement when the door at the end of the short hall opened up and a man came out. He took the chart from the receptionist and glanced at it.

“Mariah Pierce?”

“That’s me,” I said, fighting my way out of the couch and hoping I sounded more self-assured than I felt. When I made it over to him, I extended a hand. Doctor Davies was too busy looking at my chart to shake it and I dropped it to my side, feeling awkward.

“Come on in,” he said. I went ahead of him into the office and sat down, noticing as I did that he pushed a button on a little white box that was sitting outside his door. It emitted a soft, static-like sound that I assumed was supposed to cover up our conversation and my feeling of discomfort intensified. Amy had never used one. Maybe she hadn’t thought I had anything to hide.

Dr. Davies sat down at his desk and started reading my chart, something that didn’t inspire confidence in me. I felt like he should have at least flipped through it before I got there and hoped I wasn’t going to be billed for this. While he did, I took a minute to look at him. He was trim and tanned, though I couldn’t have told you if it was natural or a spray job, and his open-collared blue shirt and half-rimmed glasses made him look like he was trying to be someone’s cool uncle.

“So,” he finally said, setting my chart aside, “why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?”

“Uh,” I said, my body threatening to launch itself from the chair and run back outside. “Well, I’m 26 and I’ve been diagnosed with—“

“No, no,” Dr. Davies said, shaking his head. “Tell me about yourself in regards to your therapy. How do you think you’re progressing? What techniques have you found that work for you? Do you think your medication is working? That sort of thing.”

“Oh. Amy had me keeping a journal,” I said. “That seems to work. I use it to keep track of projects I’m working on.”

“What kind of projects?”

“This and that,” I replied, not really wanting to go into detail with him. Amy never asked for specifics, she just waited for me to tell her. “I collect things. And as for my medication, I guess it’s working. Sometimes I forget to take them but most of the time I do.” A sigh worked its way out of my chest and I caught it before it escaped. “I think the biggest problem I’m having right now is that I keep falling asleep.”

“Falling asleep?” Dr. Davies picked up a yellow legal pad – the definition of old-fashioned – and a pen whose shiny silver barrel was giving me a headache. “That can be a side effect of the medication you’re on.”

“No,” I said. “It’s different. I mean, I doze off at weird times. And sometimes I’ll find myself someplace and not know how I got there. Like I’ll be sitting down doing some work or at a restaurant and the next thing I know I’m back home in bed.” I took a deep breath and I glanced at Dr. Davies, who wasn’t looking at me but writing on his pad. “I have these dreams sometimes, too. Amy had me keeping a journal of them. Separate from the regular journal, I mean.”

“What kind of dreams?”

“They’re weird,” I said. “They’re me, but I’m usually watching myself from far away. I know what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to be doing but I’m never actually doing it. A lot of times I’ll think I can give myself orders but I never follow them. Sometimes I’m actually screaming at myself and I wake up with my throat raw but in the dream I just keep doing what I’m not supposed to. And when I have those dreams, I’m usually wearing someone else’s face.”

“You mean, you’re someone else.”

“I guess that’s what I’m supposed to believe, right?” The silence that followed was the definition of awkward. Amy would have been tapping on her tablet, which would have been comforting, but Dr. Davies was just staring at me as if he expected me to go on. I cleared my throat and forced a smile onto my face. If I couldn’t have Amy, I could at least try to break the ice like I had with her. “So what do you think? Am I crazy?”

“Well,” Dr. Davies said, setting aside his legal pad and pen, “That’s a bit of a loaded question, isn’t it?” I can’t remember if my mouth was actually hanging open or not but I didn’t wait for his answer. I got up and started out of the room, hearing him say something about seeing me next week that was drowned out by the white noise machine by the door.

The receptionist was waiting for me at the desk and I took my wallet out of my bag automatically to pay. My face was burning and my hands were shaking. This was exactly the reason I didn’t want to come to therapy in the first place.

“Twenty five,” the receptionist said, completely oblivious to my distress. “You need an appointment for next week?”

“I’ll have to call you,” I said, surprised how steady my voice sounded as I handed her some cash. “Did Amy leave an address? I’d like to send her a note to thank her for everything she’s done for me.” The receptionist shook her head.

“No. Her email said she was going out to Kentucky to take care of her aunt but I haven’t heard from her since. I’ve been waiting, too. There’s a pile of mail I’ve been wanting to forward to her.” She handed me a receipt and I folded it up without looking. “Do you want to leave me an email I can pass on to her?”

“That would be great.”

I took the stairs two at a time and managed to wait until the door to the back of the building was shut before I lit a cigarette and sank down onto the steps, my hands shaking. A couple of drags calmed me down a little and I closed my eyes, hanging my head so that my hair fell around my face. In spite of the nicotine seeping into my blood I was suddenly very tired.

When I lifted my head again it was dark, and the stub of my burned-out cig was still between my fingers. I looked around the parking lot, which was lit by a single flickering bulb. In the limited light I could see Dr. Davies walking to his car. He didn’t even have his keys out, something that told me he’d never had anything to fear. I tossed my cig into the weeds and got up.

If he wanted to see crazy, I was more than happy to show him.

I might even let him see where I’d kept Amy.