What’s that Definition of Insanity Again?

I entered the NYC Midnight short story contest yet again. I’m never going to win it, but somehow I keep trying. The parameters this time: 2000 word maximum, Sci-fi, an ultra-marathoner, and a hand drawn map. I learned about rogaining while researching for my story, so I did get something out of the exercise, at least. Anyway, here’s my entry:


“Oatmeal, bacon, two eggs over easy, wheat toast.” She rattled off her order with one arm outstretched, menu in hand. “Oh, and fruit salad.” Her teammates made similar orders, then Hana made a trip to the restroom. When the food arrived they had trouble fitting all the plates on the table, and Kali remarked, “I think she forgot your fruit salad.” Amid the chaos they deliberated on their strategy once again.


“I’m really looking for that slow burn, you know?”


Previously, they had settled on a plan to hit as many low-score checkpoints as possible in daylight, and save some of the majors for the moonlight. This had been decided after many hours of discourse which included countless rehashing of past competitions. This morning, Hana found the conversation tedious and concentrated instead on wiping up the last bit of egg yolk from her plate.


When they piled up into Kali and Jay’s SUV the team’s game plan was still being discussed. Hana climbed into the back seat next to Ben and gazed out the window at the blinking red and blue neon sign above the diner. There was no point in getting involved in the dialogue. She didn’t care that much about what they did on the course; she only cared that they were doing it.


They got to the site, checked in, set up camp, and got to work on the map. Jay was the map keeper, as usual, and highlighted their movements according to plan. Hana studied the diagram and its intricate details closely. She followed the contour lines, trying to get an idea of what the course had in store for them. The terrain was fairly flat but rugged, with several rock formations strewn about. A shallow canyon cut the course almost diagonally. They would be crossing it a few times, but if they interpreted the map correctly, it would not be a hardship. The biggest challenge for Hana, just as it always was, would be to resist the urge to abandon her team mid-competition. Once out in the field she could easily be distracted by a set of animal tracks, a pile of mystery scat, or even a fluttering leaf.


Time was called, and they set out for the twenty-four hour event. Ben and Kali wore the team’s wrist tags, and while they punched in at each checkpoint, Hana reviewed the map with Jay. By the time they left the third checkpoint, the team was moving in a light jog. They wasted no energy speaking, but they didn’t need to. They had prepared for this. They were all thinking the same thing. “There is no way we won’t win this year.”


The first canyon crossing was a bit more treacherous than they had anticipated. They pushed and pulled each other from one edge to the other, and made up some of the time by sprinting across a shaded gully.


As dusk approached, the team had met their goal and were brimming with confidence. They converged in the long, diffuse shadow of a nearby outcropping, their collective bliss resonating in the cool air surrounding them. They passed around protein bars and fruit and recounted in clipped and excited tones the highlights of the day. After so many hours of not speaking, their words tumbled out, bouncing and ricocheting around them. They each only heard a few of the others’ words, but it didn’t matter.


As the cacophony died out, Kali and Jay huddled together, Ben curled up with a pack for a pillow, and Hana took a journal out to write down some of the thoughts that had come to her during their trek. They had allowed themselves a two-hour break, one sleep cycle, before taking on a few of the high-value checkpoints. Despite being on the move for most of the day, however, Hana could not fall asleep. She had written all she wanted, then made a few doodles in her journal before returning the book to her pack. She sat for a moment, listening to the breathing of her team members. Then she stood and quietly made her way to the other side of the boulder. She took her pack to avoid waking the others with her rummaging. After digging a small hole with her spade for a latrine, she came to a squat over it.


Hana became aware of a buzzing, which gradually became a low hum. It was a less of a sound than a mere vibration; Hana didn’t really hear it, but felt it. The hairs on her arm stood straight out from her skin, and the air became warm and still. She might have seen a light flash, but she couldn’t be sure. Her thoughts were confused for what seemed like maybe a half hour. Or maybe it was only a minute. Just as quickly as she realized that she felt quite weird, she felt quite normal again. It was dark except for the glow of the moon. It was quiet.


Hana gathered herself and walked around the boulder. She nearly made a complete circuit around the object before she realized her teammates were not there. Their packs were gone, and there was no trace of them. Flipping on her headlamp, Hana scoured the surrounding ground for tracks but found none. She stood very still for a long moment. The cold air caused her to shiver, and an idea sparked in her mind. She searched her pockets for her whistle. Poised to sound the distress call, she saw in the distance a flash and a green beacon. It burned for a whole minute then was gone.


Hana put away the whistle and grabbed the journal out of her pack. She squatted on the ground and shut her eyes tight. She had seen the map many times that day. She drew it in her notebook, trying to remember as much of the detail as possible, and hoped she wasn’t remembering some of it upside down. In the upper left corner, she drew a capital D and next to it a question mark. Once she had it all sketched out, she studied it intently with her compass before switching her headlamp off again. She took one step, then another, in what she hoped was the correct direction.


The air had cooled considerably since sundown, but like most other sensations, Hana was no longer aware of it. She was determined to move forward and would not let herself be distracted by minor annoyances. An hour had passed when she encountered a furry lump in her path. It was unmoving, and she knelt down and saw it was a coyote with singed fur and a missing hind quarter. From it emanated a musky, smoky scent, and enough heat to tell her it had not been dead long.


There was no point in dwelling, so she kept moving. She sang camp songs and stayed focused on the ground just ahead of her, pulling out her compass periodically to remain on course. She had reached the transition point where night turns into morning, and she acknowledged that information just enough to allow herself to look beyond her immediate space. The sky was just beginning to separate from earth. Inspired, she began to jog. The horizon became more defined as the dark continued its slow exit. The stars dimmed and birds began to twitter. Eventually it really was morning. Structures appeared in the distance. Hana could just make out a flash of red and blue. She began to run.


Hana stopped just outside the door to catch her breath. Despite the cool air, she was quite hot and went straight in to the restroom. She splashed her face with water from the dingy sink and allowed her mind to relax just a moment. Her shoulders heaved as she considered her teammates. She didn’t know what to do, but she knew crying wouldn’t help. She splashed her face one last time and dried it with the rough paper towels.


Back out in the diner, she was looking for an empty table when familiar voices startled her. She approached the booth and sat down. Ben and Jay were discussing strategy. Kali’s eyes twinged with a sarcastic smile. “I think she forgot your fruit salad.”

Another Short Story Contest Entry


On a routine fishing trip with her husband, a woman is pulled by an octopus into the North Sea. She fights to free herself from the beast; he fights to free her from the sea.

Thank gods I remembered to breathe. This was her thought as her yellow strands of hair danced about her head in the bubbly darkness. It was surprise that pulled her off the boat, let her get this far beneath the surface. The morning storm made it murky above, but still enough light penetrated. She was able to orient herself, and she pushed herself toward that light. Suckered tentacles drew themselves tight around her. They clutched at her arms, adding resistance to her upward strokes. Still, she managed to break the surface, gasping in the salty, misty air above. The beast released a jet of water that rushed over her chest, past her neck, and she was under again. What it lacked in brute force, she thought, it made up for in determination.

He had trouble relighting the lamp. The oil sloshed with every wave, extinguishing the wick before the flame had a chance to take hold. After several tries, and several precious minutes lost, the fire filled the glass globe fully. He slid a mirrored backstop into the lamp to focus its light. He strained to see into the impenetrable water. They had set out early as usual, before dawn, in relative calm. But as the sun had begun to rise, a storm brewed, diminishing the daylight. With the darkness, there was wind. It was impossible to discern how far off course the gusts had blown them. He couldn’t be sure of exactly where he had lost his wife. One moment she was leaning at the bow, like a hero crossing an icy river, and the next moment he was alone with a few empty lobster traps at his feet.

She remained near the surface, able to take quick, chaotic gasps. She could not loose herself of her captor, however, and she wondered if her wild flailing would be seen by her husband. In the brief moments her head was above water, she sought out their small boat in the surrounding water, but could see nothing. They were not boat people naturally. That is to say, they weren’t born into this life. Sent to live in the remote village by His Majesty, they sought sustenance from the sea by sheer necessity. There was no farming on the rocky shores, and no market as no one wanted to live near a prison. After this many years, they had learned their way— a symbiotic, nautical extension of their terrestrial marriage.

The mist turned into rain, biting cold pellets blown onto his face. They collected in his beard and his eyebrows, and as the temperature continued to drop they threatened to freeze. He did not break away from his search of the roiling surface about him. He had fixed the lamp in place with rope which freed his arms to push the boat around with an oar. It was not without great effort that he kept his position in what he believed was the spot his wife was pulled in. In his head, he heard her scream again and again the beast’s name, and saw her fall, unnaturally slow, into the blackness. Had he seen the tentacle on her leg? Had he thought there was no need to warn her, that she would somehow feel the arm creeping toward her bent knee through waxed canvas and several layers of flannel?

She counted to ten, took a deep breath and pulled her arms to her sides. The leather ties that held her dagger in place were waterlogged and seemed glued together. Her cold fingers felt doubled in size. She was sinking, and just as panic was setting in, she felt the wooden hilt in the palm of her hand. With each upward beat of her arms, the grip of the tentacles grew tighter. She thrashed with her dagger at its gelatinous mantle, every breath drawing in just as much sea water as air as she bobbed violently in the swells.

In the distance, his eye caught a glint of gold in the foamy surge. Too far away, he thought. The storm had pushed him more forcefully than he had gauged. But the glint was enough to empower him, fill him with the rage necessary. It was the same rage of survivalism he felt when the inmates had risen up against him and his gaolers. The same instinct that allowed him to fight off their make-shift weapons provided him now with the strength to propel his boat against the wind, against the angry waves. He would make it to her, he would get her back from the sea and its beasts.

She slashed at the tentacles with ferocity. They loosened and fell away, but she kept fighting. Beneath her canvas gear the flannel she wore for warmth was soaked with seawater and sweat. The weight worked against her efforts to remain afloat. She would be deplete of energy soon, a thought she pushed out of her mind along with a creeping panic. Tiny stars of yellow light appeared before her. A calm dulled the edges of her freneticism. In another moment, a gaff hook would catch under her arm and pull her back into the boat.

He gripped her tighter than any sea creature could ever hope to, his frantic anger washed away by ecstatic relief. She returned her husband’s embrace for a long moment before surrendering to her exhaustion.

Flash Fiction Challenge 2011: Allocution

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Gregory emptied his mind of all thoughts. With a hand on each knee, he concentrated only on his breathing, a steady flow of air in and out. The walls of the room fell away from him and the bed melted into nothing. Images and sounds and emotions tried to reach him, but he fought them off until he was alone in the vacuum. He remained suspended in this nothingness, devoid of any feeling that might interfere with the task ahead. Gradually the noise of the TV crept from the living room, down the hall, and into Gregory’s ears. The sound brought with it other sensations and he felt the room around him and his weight again on the bed. Without moving his body, he reached with his right hand to the revolver lying beside him. He slid his hand beneath the metal and gripped the gun.
Gregory stood, and without making a sound, took the solemn walk toward the living room, the noise of the TV, and his father.


There is the chaos. There is light and noise. There is a current running through the air the color of sunshine. There are jovial voices bouncing off the cinder blocks. Then there is quiet. There is stillness and grey light. There is one man with no voice, staring into the void. If we get close we can feel the mild heat of anxiety emanating from his body and we can feel the slow rise and fall of his chest as he waits for his turn.
Today is a day he should be looking forward to. A day of extended visitation. A day for men like him to have their children surround them, pretending to be a family for a few hours.
For him, today is filled with sweet anticipation as well as a bitter loathing. Soon, he will be called from his cell along with several other men on this wing. They will be escorted to the yard, specially decorated for the occasion in balloons and streamers of blue and green.
Each man will be assigned a table where his family will already be seated, neatly combed hair, freshly washed shirts, all to make a good impression on Dad. The reunions will be bittersweet, some more than others. There will be happy faces tinged with sadness, some the other way around. There will be laughter, there will be yelling. But for that short time they will be together, a family again, though briefly.
The man lying still in his dingy cell is not thinking about any of that. To be fair, he began the day with visions of his young son upon his knee, cherubic face tilted up toward his, beaming. That pride triggered his guilt and then he was in another place, in another time, reliving the moments which brought him here.


Gregory was at the park, pushing his son in a swing, relishing the gurgling laughter coming from the toddler. His cell phone rang and he reached for it with one hand while continuing his gentle pushes on the boy’s back. It was his mother on the other end, explaining the diagnosis just given to his father. He’s got emphysema, she told him, and a visit from his son would lift his spirits. “Gregory, be a good boy and come see your father.”
He made arrangements with work and said good-bye to his son. “Your daddy has to go visit his own daddy. But I’ll be back soon.”
Although it was Gregory’s house for sixteen years, it felt like a stranger’s. His father sat in front of his TV, a small oxygen tank on his left and a small table to his right. The table held an empty beer can as well as a full one, and next to them was an unused ashtray, still occupied by a few smashed cigarette butts.
His mother flitted about, taking his coat, offering to make him a snack, asking a series of rhetorical questions about his life since leaving home. Through the din, Gregory’s father bellowed at his wife to pick up his empty beer can, which she did. As she reached for it, he grabbed hold of her wrist and pulled her close. With noticeable effort he chided his wife for making such a fuss over their son. She was quiet for a moment as she avoided his glare and waited for him to release his grasp. As Gregory watched this confrontation, the heaviness in his gut told him he was home.
Over the next few days, the family fell into a routine. The father would call out a demand. The mother would comply. The son would ask his father not to bully his mother while offering to help his mother with her task. Neither parent would hear their son’s words. At breakfast, Gregory would notice a new bruise on his mother’s arm or on her cheek, but any query would be answered with more pancakes or fresh coffee.
It was if he were sixteen again. And now he was given a second chance to act. He had been able to escape, but his mother had not, and would not. She had been pounded on and badgered for as long as he could remember. Even crippled by his emphysema, his father did not let up on his mother. She would only be free once his father was gone.
After a week, Gregory needed a break from his parents. He walked out the front door, and after the slam, heard silence for the first time since his arrival. He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked, head down, to nowhere in particular. The neighborhood had not changed much since he had left home. The kids still congregated at the drive-in burger joint. The old men still sat outside the smoke shop. Gregory walked on, hoping he wouldn’t be recognized, and soon found himself across from a gun shop. He stopped, and his heart raced. Without thinking, he crossed the street and walked into the store.
Gregory’s knowledge of guns did not extend past whatever he had seen on TV or in movies. The man behind the counter grunted a greeting but otherwise let Gregory be. He scanned the glass case, not really seeing what was inside. The words “six gun” made their way into his thoughts, and so that was what he purchased. The man behind the counter sold him a box of bullets as well, though Gregory knew he would only need what would fit in the cylinder. He stashed his new purchases into his jacket pockets and stepped back out into the street.
Gregory took a different, longer route back to his parents’ house. His mind raced along with his heart. Images rushed through his mind – his father’s dark fingers tight around his mother’s pale flesh, her eyes brimming with tears as she stifled her cries. He heard his father’s gruff voice shouting obscenities at them both, calling Gregory stupid, and his mother worse, in as many colorful words he could come up with. His ears grew hot with anger and started to ring. His palms were sweaty and his breathing too fast.
The sun was well below the horizon when Gregory eventually returned to the front porch of his parents’ house. He opened the door and the sound of the TV spilled out toward him, and he became calm. He entered and got to his bedroom without being noticed by either of them. He shut the door quietly and sighed long and heavy. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the revolver. He loaded the cylinder from the box of bullets, which he had set on the dresser. He laid the gun on the bed and sat on the edge next to it.


There is the chaos. There is light and noise. There is silence and grey light encapsulated within the cacophony and sunshine. There is a man, thinking about what it is to be a good father, and what it is to be a good son, awaiting his turn for Father’s Day.

Flash Fiction Challenge #1: Angela

Frank was on the counter between the dishwasher and the sink, one leg dangling over the edge, the other bent at the knee with one crooked arm resting on top. This is how I found him most mornings, usually with a smarmy grin on his glowing face.

“You look rather pleased with yourself. Another satisfying night of havoc under your belt?”

“I find it ironic,” Frank said, looking at me with his eyes but otherwise unmoving, “that you and I have absolutely nothing to do, yet these—people are constantly busy.” I looked down at the large table in the center of the room and saw Angela weighing out a large amount of flour. “Always preparing for something.”

“You say that as if you’re any different,” I replied. Frank snorted, eyes back on Angela’s toil.

I lounged atop the bread racks. As the wee hours merged into dawn, the racks would be filled up, the hot tendrils of yeasty steam gently dancing around me. And as the dawn continued into daylight, the racks would be emptied again, leaving me in a musty warmth until night returned. It was a daily ritual I relished, and one which Frank would find to be stifling. His only ritual was to be sitting on the counter when I returned from my nightly wanderings, presumably to check in on his oldest friend. But I know it is only to make sure I haven’t somehow found an exit and left without him.

Although Frank despised tedium, I believe he also visited to witness Angela’s. For years she had been dedicated to her work and inspired others to be the same. It was after her only son was run down by a motorist outside the shop that her dedication turned into obsession. She worked every day, arriving at least an hour earlier than any employee, and remaining at the shop until the last crumb was swept away. In the early mornings, thinking she was alone, she would sometimes talk to her dead child, as if he were right there with her. Frank and I knew better.

This was one of those mornings, as Angela spoke softly about a zoo trip long passed. A gentle smile broke through her usual melancholic countenance. But this only served to rile Frank. “Hey!” he yelled to her, coming out of his pose and leaning from the edge of the counter. “Knock it off!” Angela was oblivious.

Frank came down from the counter to slowly circle the table, keeping his gaze on his prey. I leaned forward on an elbow to get a better look. He walked deliberately, passing the ovens, then the wall with pegs still holding children’s things aloft – a small satchel, a tiny parka, some toys. Angela continued her reverie on caged beasts, unaware of her own predator. When Frank made his way around to her side of the table, he came close enough to stir the air touching her skin. Her body shivered at the sensation, but it gave her no indication that she was not alone. Frank kept going around the table until he was on the opposite side from Angela. He stopped, placed both hands flat on the tabletop, and leaned forward.

“Angela,” he sang. “Angela, your boy’s gone away-ay. He’s no longer he-ere.” There was malice in his voice, but only I could hear it. I relaxed into my lounging posture; I’d seen his taunting act more than enough. I rolled onto my back, and closed my eyes, waiting for his sing-song mockery to end. Soon there was a crash. I was at Frank’s side even before Angela could react to the disturbance. He was at the wall of pegs and had pulled everything down.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

“I’m showing dear Angela that things change.”

“By throwing all her kid’s stuff on the floor?”

Angela, her heart pounding heavily, looked around the room for a reasonable explanation for why her son’s belongings were at one moment safely hanging on the wall and the next moment falling to the ground. Not finding one, she walked over to the now desecrated shrine, and knelt next to it. She touched each item one by one, ending with the parka which she then held to her chest. I watched her face as it turned from stunned to heartbroken.

In a moment, Frank was behind her. With all his effort, he pushed her down with one foot to her back. When her face was against the floor, he turned to me. “It’s all I can do to hold her down. You have to get that jump rope and pull it around her neck.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“She has to know. I have to make her know.”

“By choking her?” I asked, as I pulled the two little plastic handles over either shoulder. I crossed the two ends until I could see I was causing her discomfort.

“She begs for that boy to stay with her, talks to him as if he were right beside her. Meanwhile, he’s gone forever, and you and me? We will never leave. She’ll be gone, too, and we’ll still be here. She has to know!”

Angela’s arms flailed, reaching behind her back seeking her attacker but finding nothing. I pulled tighter on the jump rope. I didn’t have it in me to do any real damage, and killing her – releasing her – would only have angered Frank more. Soon, her body did go limp, and I let go. Frank stepped back with a heavy sigh.

Moments passed and we heard a key rattling out front. Frank disappeared. I bent down and blew into Angela’s face. Her eyes opened and looked right through mine, bewildered. One hand pulled the rope from her throat, the other still clutched her boy’s parka. Her employee entered the kitchen, and that’s when I disappeared, too.

Taste of Temptation

In my seventeenth year I found myself, at great expense and lack of provision, pursuing higher knowledge at the newly established college in Charlottesville. The brainchild of the Honorable Thomas Jefferson, the institution was but in its second year under the moniker of University of Virginia. So new was the school that the principal architecture was just reaching completion, and the principle of self-governance had not fully established its foothold among the student body.
Seeking respite one day from the chaos of the fledgling university, I ventured out onto the Lawn to sit and study at the base of one of the small oaks scattered about. Spring was in full bloom and the air temperature high enough to remain still in it without need for an overcoat or accoutrements such as a scarf or gloves, luxuries I could scarce afford in those years and even now. There was only a slight breeze that would on occasion bring to my ears the jocular exultations of my colleagues. On most days I would be a party to those exultations, but on this particular day introspection was the catchword.
I allowed myself complete immersion into my texts, the German vocabulary marching its staccato through my cerebrum as I contemplated syntax with my synapses. The flurried tarantella of brain activity strikingly betrayed by the utter stillness of my corporeal self, I daresay I would have seemed an oddity to the occasional passerby if they had been able to lock onto my eyes, those windows into the soul and the mind.
I had positioned myself outside of Pavilion VII (ironically the first school building to be completed) whose cornerstone was laid by our country’s fifth President. The Colonnade Club, as it was called, was a preferred destination for faculty and students alike, warm and receptive. It was probably for this reason that I chose to position myself just beyond its doors. Though I wished to be alone that afternoon, I was also hesitant to be too far from the bustle of activity. A secondary reason for my position was the vista it afforded me of Pavilion IV, in many ways the direct opposite of the Seventh. The building itself sat at the other end of the Lawn criss-cross made by the two Pavilions. In it housed the bane of mine and others’ existences, Mr. B¾, the very professor whose class I was studying for under the young oak’s bough. A miserable man of Prussian origin and demeanor, he barked at all who had the misfortune of being within earshot. Handpicked by the university’s father, I suppose he must have had some redeeming qualities. And I suppose the fact that I was making such an effort to excel in his class suggested he must have been a teacher of considerable worth, which was fortunate as that was the justification for his residence there. From my perch there outside the Colonnade Club, I could intermittently peek at its Doric columns and rejoice in not seeing Mr. B¾ exiting to the Lawn to spoil my good mood.
It was during one of these peeks across the Lawn that I spotted some peculiar movement among the columns. At first I thought it a construct of my German-addled brain, but as I took a more lingering look I could see there was indeed something happening on the front porch.  Two small children, a boy and a girl, were weaving themselves in and out of the structure, taking turns chasing one another. Their tinkling laughter, like tiny little bells, floated down one terrace and another, into my welcoming ears. Such delightful sounds to distract me from my studies, I allowed myself to look upon their horseplay until my watching was noticed by the little girl. I quickly turned my face back down to the book in my lap, flustered that I could not remember my place among the umlauts on the page.  Even in my haste, however, I could not miss that tiny derisive tongue poking out in my direction through pursed lips.
From that point, I kept my head down and would not allow myself to be distracted. I regained control of the wanderings of my mind, and that familiar rhythm returned to my brain. I was back in the Old World, conversing with Kaisers with the greatest of ease. Completely immersed I was when a flutter of white appeared in the periphery of my vision. Without moving at all, I was able to see through my eyelashes a vague shape emulating a miniature human. I gave in to my curiosity and looked up fully at the same young girl who had moments before been so discourteous toward me, now standing not even a yard away. She was joined instantaneously by her gregarious brother whose motion behind her caused her skirts to rustle of which she was oblivious, her attention fully focused on myself. She remained silent, and her brother began the introductions.
“Good weather, isn’t it? The winter’s finally gone. Are you a student here? You look like a student. I don’t see any moustaches on you. Can you grow moustaches? I can’t. I’m only six. My pater’s a teacher here. This is my sister, Greta, she’s younger than me. I’m George, what’s your name?”
The cascade of his diatribe was initially a mere cacophony  in my ears. I daresay I was only able to piece together  his words in any semblance of order after what seemed like very long moments before I was able to respond. Too late, though, as little Greta had finally broken her tableau vivant to take a step close enough to insert one small finger in the tattered shoulder seam of my morning coat. Flustered again, I batted away at her hand as you would a horsefly, but finally I answered the boy, “You may call me Eddie.”
The boy then began a second battery of questions for which he apparently cared not their answers. Intermingled with his queries were his observations of what was currently his home. His family came to Virginia directly from London, though they were German by birth. Most of the time he preferred the weather in Virginia because he could play outdoors most days. However, he didn’t care much for the mosquitos in the summer. When asked about his sister he merely replied that she kept out of his way most of the time and so was tolerable. I had to agree with George that his sister did seem fairly agreeable in disposition, despite her insistence in noticing how my ensemble was in quite a state of disrepair.
“You ought to get this fixed, Eddie,” were the very first words Greta uttered in my presence, and I did my best to disguise my humiliation in good humor.
“Well, lassie, if your occupation is seamstress, I may be able to scrounge a shiny penny for you to make the repairs for me.”
George interjected once again. “You don’t have any money, do you? My pater has lots of money. He’s a professor here, did I tell you that? They’re always having parties at the Pavilion. We’re supposed to stay in our rooms, but Greta likes to see all the ladies’ dresses. Most of the adults don’t notice us. You should come to one of the parties, you could eat like a king.”
“I’m afraid I would not be able to make myself hidden, and my presence would certainly not be welcome, though eating like a king does have quite the appeal.”
“You should just take the food,” Greta suggested. Such simple words uttered from such an angelic countenance. Yet those words struck a resonant chord within me. I had only been at the University for a few months but already was feeling the pinch as the purse strings had been pulled ever tighter by my step-father. Every penny was given grudgingly, and some of those pennies were given to extant obligations, sacrificing a hot meal. Having more than just moldy, crusty bread in my belly would certainly make modern language study more palatable.
I could see on his face that George was thinking hard. After a few moments, he had a plan worked out. He would go back to the Pavilion and procure an empty canvas sack, the kind they bring potatoes in. It could be folded up small, concealed in my satchel. No one would question my entrance into the building as I was a student of languages there. The children would create a diversion outside the kitchen at which time I would quickly and quietly slip inside, fill the sack with whatever foodstuffs that were available then sneak out the back entrance. I would be able to make my way across the gardens and into the woods beyond , hiding if necessary among the construction mess of  Washington Hall which wasn’t yet complete.
“Believe me, young imps, when I say your proposal is indeed quite tempting. Not just for the sport of it, but the result would prove comforting to my constitution. Alas, it is completely contrary to the gentleman’s code to which I’m bound.”
“All the more reason, sir, you should take the risk.”
I was beginning to believe strongly that these two sweet-faced angels were acting as agents of the great tempter Lucifer, attempting to hasten my downfall. There was also a part of me that would have relished the thought of bringing some amount of suffering to Mr. B¾. I remained steadfast, however, and refused to take their bait, that juicy red apple which even now coaxes some salivation. This displeased the male child greatly, and his behavior became increasingly agitated. As for the young female, she merely appeared bored.
George sighed heavily, “I’ll give you a half-dime if you do it.” Another temptation was added on. Not only would I have a bag of food, I would have a coin I could use to buy more when the sack was empty, or to place on a bet for even more coins.
“It’s no good my dear boy. I must remain true to my oath. Though I may be hungry for sweet morsels, I am more hungry for knowledge and mustn’t threaten my future at the University.” At this, George kicked a large divot into the grass, and Greta fixed a large but pretty pout upon her face. She swirled around on one foot and, with her brother, spirited away back from whence they came. I watched as they made their way across the width of the Lawn, smiled to myself, and with a harrumph returned to my studies.

Challenge #3: Party Crash

There I was, face down and sprawled over the toppled drum kit, spewing beer bottle in one hand, his puggle’s ashes in the other, when Dan walked in. That’s Mr. Rottles to you, only the hottest music producer in the last decade, the owner of the house and everything in it.
            I wouldn’t normally be at a party like that, but my best friend Nikki insisted. Her goal in life is to hitch her wagon to a star – pop, rock, movie, it didn’t matter. To this end, she somehow managed to get an invite from Damian, Mr. Rottles the Younger. I imagine she accomplished this with a little flash of bra strap and the empty promise of more.
Damian is what most people would call a nerd. All his father’s money could do for Damian is straighten his teeth and pay for his acne medicine. His interest in fashion was virtually nonexistant, and his social graces were bordering on grotesque. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Nikki set her sights on him, and we got ourselves invited.
            Damian seemed almost happy to see us when we arrived what we imagined to be fashionably late. The conversation fizzled faster than pop rocks, and we abandoned him to mingle. We forgot one important element. However unpopular our host, at least he had money. Nikki and I had only an unhealthy fascination with the rich and famous. So, we made our way back to Damian, an easy enough task since he was standing alone in the middle of the living room like a mis-matched lightning rod.
            “You want to see where it all happens?” he said eerily, sort of like he was coaxing us into his laboratory. What he really meant was his dad’s basement recording studio, and of course, we wanted to see it.
            On the way downstairs we passed a lot of rolling eyes and cold shoulders. Those few who actually recognized the spawn of Rottles stopped us to give Damian huge, undulating handshakes and echoing slaps on the back. I felt a tiny bit bad for the guy, but mostly was too proccupied imagining all the important multimedia projects these greeters must have something to do with. I was still running the numbers when we reached the studio.
            It was pretty lush. There was a couple low-riding puffy couches along two walls. The coffee table was some abstract jumble I’m sure I’ve seen in the MOMA catalog. There were a few guitars on a rack in a corner and a five- or six-piece drum kit in another. Nikki found the light switches; she dimmed the room light and turned on the disco ball. Damian didn’t say anything but seemed to be a little nervous. He assumed his lightning rod position in the middle of the room, his eyes darting frantically between myself and Nikki. I plopped down on one of the couches, which seemed to relieve him a fraction, but he kept watch on my curious friend. She found the wetbar and pulled cold beers out of the mini-fridge for each of us. Damian took a couple swallows and finally sat on the edge of the arm of the other couch. His eyes did not leave Nikki.
            We tried to engage him in small talk, to put him at ease. In spite of the darkened room, I could still see the beads of sweat on his retin-A’ed forehead. Soon, Nikki found what she was looking for. Amidst the gold and platinum framed records hanging on the walls was a little brass dog sculpture.
            “What’s this?” she asked, stroking its smooth little head. Damian was on his feet before her first ess.
            “It’s just a knick knack. Nothing important.”
            Nikki’s hand froze on the little dog. She caught my eye with hers and imperceptibly we nodded to each other. There was no way he would have that reaction if she were touching just a knick knack. She wrapped her hand around its belly and lifted more easily than she expected.
            “This is pretty light for a brass sculpture. Is it hollow?” Damian looked at her, then me, nervously. “Be honest, is it a chocolate easter puppy?” This threw Damian off long enough that he didn’t notice Nikki twisting the little dog’s head up and away. She peered inside and a grinch grin curled on her face. “Well, well, well. Looks like we found your dad’s stash.”
            “No. It’s not. It’s actually . . .” Before he could explain, Nikki had the plastic ziplock bag in her hand.
            “What the . . . ?”
            “It’s his dog. Pomfrey the Puggle.” Nikki and I immediatley cracked into hysterical laughter. After a moment, Damian was able to recognize the ridiculousness and joined us.
            “You’ve got to see this yourself.” Nikki tossed the bag in my direction. It landed softly on the cushion beside me. Gingerly, I lifted it with just my fingers and tossed it back to her. Damian’s laughter stopped suddenly when he saw the bag fly past. This pleased us enormously, and Nikki tossed it back to me. I got up from the couch, took a few steps away, and returned the volley. We continued our game of keepaway all over the room, our hysteria growing with each increasingly frantic look from Damian. We threw overhanded, underhanded, from the side, around the back, all the while keeping hold of our beers for the intermittant swig. Thus I found myself behind the drum kit reaching for a short throw from my friend.
            Everything felt in slow motion as I made a little leap up and forward. I crashed into the drums, stepping on the kick drum pedal and elbowing the high hat. I couldn’t hear what I’m sure was a righteous racket as I was so focused on the bag of puggle remains. But doggone it, I caught that bag!
            The lights went up. In walked Dan. “Ladies, so glad you could join us.”

Challenge #2: Remembrance

or, Chocolate and Ashes

            The city is gone, blanketed now by ash and lava fields. Julia stands at the wide windows of the abandoned tower. She takes in the view – random palm trees that somehow managed to remain standing during the fiery onslaught, broken pieces of homes and the small shops and cafés that tourists had flocked to for decades. Now it had all but disappeared, swallowed up by the earth, like the single runway she was now staring at, eaten up by the igneous flood.

            Julia had called this island home for so long, and now she must say good-bye. This island, where she had poured her life into the soil, coaxing out of it the most luscious cacao trees. This island where, with much effort, she was accepted by the locals. This island, where she met and fell in love with Henry.

            She smiles to herself as she thinks of those early days with Henry. Back then, he was merely an amusing distraction, a ne’er-do-well who provided diversion after endless days on the plantation. Henry was full of spark and swagger, always ready with a tall tale or two but seemingly not good for much else. Julia imagined he was a con man, maybe even a pirate when she felt whimsical.

            Still, he held her attention, and she let him work at the plantation. Henry’s thumbs were no greener than a stone statue, and he was better suited to driving workers to and fro, delivering lunch out in the fields, and passing around flasks of rum. But he could always summon a laugh from Julia, even on the most harrowing of days.

            When the mountain began its first rumblings, Julia believed Henry would be  among the first to go. He surprised her by laughing it off, proclaiming that the pile of rocks was just now getting his sense of humor.

            After the tourists, residents with any significant money took off for safer, neighboring islands. With that first group, much of the frivolity left, too. Julia had a harvest to consider, and most of the islanders were too poor to leave until the situation became more dire.

            More dire it did become. Plumes of ash etched the clear blue sky, thickening and throwing shadows across the island. Julia’s workers began to scatter as the heavy clouds drifted down the mountain. And though she couldn’t fault them for opting for safety, she needed those hands, those bodies, to process and bag the cacao beans. It was her livelihood, her life, and it could be gone in minutes if they couldn’t get it off the island before an eruption.

            Henry remained by her side. He not only provided moral support, he worked harder on the plantation. Before, he had stuck with the more skilless tasks, now he was raking in the drying houses, stirring beans in the fermenting boxes, basically doing whatever needed to be done.

            The population dwindled, and Julia became more dependent on Henry. She could finally see beyond his rakish exterior and began to feel deeply for him.

            As the days passed, the rumblings increased. Julia and Henry sent sacks of the ready crops away on each ferry that took more residents to safety. Eventually there was a powerful explosion and lava began to flow. It would overtake the village in short order, and so the harvest was abandoned in favor of a last-minute rescue effort.

            Henry took on an air of authority as he orchestrated the final departure of the remaining islanders. Julia allowed Henry to take charge of her as well, until the last ferry-load of residents was ready to leave the island. She insisted he let her stay back a little longer, claiming she was going to look for any stragglers.

            And so it was that she climbed into the abandoned control tower, now the highest point aside from the spewing crater. Looking out at the smoldering landscape, she takes account of what she has remaining of her life here. In a small duffel she carries a photo album, a small carefully-wrapped cacao plant, and a diary of her life on the island. And when he returns with the ferry for the very last time, she’ll have Henry. Then Julia will have all that she needs.