Flash Fiction Friday: “Pi in the Sky” by S.C. Jensen

After much delay, this is my submission for the second round of the 2018 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I scored well enough on this one (third place in my group) to move on to the third round, with was really exciting! I unfortunately was unable to complete that challenge due to some scheduling conflicts (we only have 48 hrs to complete each challenge, so sometimes that happens, I guess). Thanks for reading! I’ll add the judges commentary at the end of the piece.

“Pi in the Sky” by S.C. Jensen
Challenge: Genre – Comedy, Location – a home office, Object – popcorn
1000 words

Ben squished a stack of file folders under one arm and tried to lever his office door open with his elbow. Scalding black coffee sloshed over the side of his mug but he gritted his teeth against the pain. Almost there… He snuck carefully around the edge of the door and gently pressed it closed with his heel. Success! A sigh of relief hissed through his teeth as he spun toward his desk.

He stopped short. “What are you doing in here?”

A fuzzy brown head poked over the top of the threadbare swivel chair he’d smuggled out of Bryson & Bryson Accounting LLP on his last day. The day he’d finally said “Screw you!” to William Bryson himself and announced that he was going to forge his own path to greatness, thank you very much.

The little head turned and a piercing blue eye assessed him coolly. “Practicing,” Billy said.

“Practicing?”

“Yeah. For when I’m a grown up.” The nine year old clicked through a throng of tabs on the desktop the way only a digital native can. Generation Z. Zeta. In math, a function of infinite possibility.

Infinite pain in his ass, more like.

Ben dropped the folders on top of the keyboard and spun the chair to face him. “Are you going to do the books for me?”

“No. I’m watching Got Talent and crying into my drink.”

“That’s not what I do in here. Who said that?”

“Don’t worry.” Billy raised his glass. “It’s only soda.”

“Get out of my chair. I have work to do.”

“Mom says you can start with unclogging the drain in the upstairs bathroom.”

“Your mother has a wonderful sense of humour and I love her.” Ben picked his son up out of the chair and set him on the floor. “Now get out.”

Billy reached past Ben and flicked open the top folder. He stared at the columns of numbers as if they might sprout legs, crawl up his nostrils, and die. “What do you do in here, anyway?”

“Boring stuff.” Ben flipped the folder closed and put his hand on top. What wouldn’t he give for an hour of peace and quiet? An hour by himself in his own head without distraction. “You’d hate it.”

“We should make popcorn.”

“Ask your mother.”

“Mom says she spent all week working at a real job, dealing with real problems, and the least you could do is—”

“You know what? Never mind.” Ben stood up, grabbed his son by the shoulders, and marched him toward the door. “Just leave.”

He tried to push the door closed but Billy wrapped his hands around the jamb and smooshed his lips into the crack. “Is it true you auditioned for the show? Is Simon a douche in real life, too?”

Ben relaxed his grip on the doorknob and peered at his son. “Don’t say douche.”

“It is true!” Billy shoved the door open again, eyes glimmering with something like pride. Morbid curiosity, at least. “So what’s your talent? I didn’t know you were good at anything!”

“Gee. Thanks.”

“C’mon! Do you sing? Dance? Ohmygod please tell me you can breakdance.” Billy made some weird robotic thrust with his hips.

“Stop that.”

“I’m gonna go ask mom.”

Ben sighed. “Math,” he said.

“Math?”

“Math. I can do calculations really fast, in my head.”

Billy blinked at him. “Like a calculator?”

“Yeah. Like a calculator.”

“What’s the point in that? My phone can do that. That’s not cool.”

A lump formed in Ben’s throat. That’s what the judges said, too. He hadn’t even made the bloopers reel. Too boring. “Says you,” he said.

“Huh.” Billy looked up at Ben like he was seeing him for the first time. He frowned. “If you’re so good at math why did Grandpa fire you?”

“He didn’t fire me!” Ben’s left eyelid twitched. “I quit.”

“Right.” Billy narrowed his eyes at his father. “So what are you really doing in here?”

“Practicing.”

“Practicing?”

“For my comeback,” Ben said. He felt an invisible weight lift from his shoulders as he said it out loud, even if it was only to a nine year old smartass. “I signed up for next season the day I left the firm. Math is cool, and I’m going to prove it to the world.”

Billy stared at him for so long Ben started to worry he’d blown a fuse. It wasn’t that impossible, was it?

Two blue eyes widened and Billy’s face lit up like a firecracker had gone off in his brain. “You know what would be cool?”

“If you left me alone for thirty seconds?”

“If you could beat the ultimate high score on Divide and Conquer.”

“Divide and Conquer?”

“Yeah. It’s like this super retro computer game they rereleased as an app with upgraded graphics. It’s sweet. You’ve got, like, this army and you have to solve math problems to unlock upgrades and battle against other armies. Except it starts easy and then gets really really hard and everyone always gets flattened by this one guy with an impossibly high score. I mean, it’s gotta be a computer because no one could be that good. But maybe—”

Billy didn’t even stop to breathe and Ben only caught about half of what he said, but a little spark of excitement was growing and shooting nervously around his chest. He held up his hand and said, “Show me.”

Billy pulled out his phone.

“Wait!” Ben said. “Popcorn, son.”

“Really? But—”

“We’re gonna need it.”

The boy came back with a bowl under one arm, inhumanly nimble thumbs flying across the screen. Electronic music bleeped from tinny speakers when he logged in. Billy shoved the screen at Ben’s face. “Here.”

PiInTheSky had the top score with 314, 159, 265 points.

“If you beat him, live on TV,” Billy said breathlessly, “you’d be, like, internet famous.”

To infinity, and beyond!

“Game on,” Ben said, snatching the phone. “Now get in here. And don’t tell Mom.”

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1807}  The craftsmanship of the prose is clean, readable and polished. The concept is endearing and even heartwarming.

{1754}  The banter between father and son works well. It keeps the reader engaged and the story moving forward at a good pace.

The ending evolves naturally and the reader wants to know if Ben can beat the game

Nice last line.

{1651}  We get a good sense of the father/son dynamic, and how the father feels insecure due to being unemployed. I enjoyed the part where we find out the father auditioned for “Got Talent” and his talent was being a mathematician.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1807}  While there is much to admire in this piece, I don’t think you’ve developed a satisfying ending that is equally surprising and inevitable. I think the first two-thirds of the narrative is stretched a bit thin; a few too many redundant moments revolving around Ben kicking Billy out. I would have rather seen less of that and more about what happens when they start playing. I would like to have seen how this game prompted growth between the characters together and individually. What happens when they start playing? Does it go as well as one would imagine? I wanted to see their relationship develop on the page.

{1754}  Consider adding a bit more info about what Ben is doing earlier on in the story. It takes a bit too long to discover his math skills and that seems to be the center of the story.

{1651}  Billy’s dialogue seems to switch from being a child of an indeterminate age to that of an adult. I’d work on making his character consistent. How old is he supposed to be? I also think you can push the father’s frustration more, to the point where Billy gets hurt and the father has to win him back.

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4 thoughts on “Flash Fiction Friday: “Pi in the Sky” by S.C. Jensen

  1. As a professional mathematician (all good programmers are–especially us old-timers 😉 ), I really grooved on this story. In my opinion the dialogue was spot on. I thought you really captured the modern flavor of the boy’s attitude with his father. I especially liked the use of pi in the “high-score”. It seems the judges missed that little Easter egg–but a mathematician certainly would not! Too bad the word count was so limited. I would have loved to see how well the father played the game. As always, you capture my attention with your writing.

    1. Thanks! I based the dialogue on conversations with my own kids, so I thought it was pretty accurate. My eldest are only 5.5 but they have pretty good vocabularies and a knack for understanding context, and repeating bits and pieces that they hear at uncannily appropriate moments. I’m glad you caught my math jokes! I’m no mathematician, but I had fun with this piece 🙂 Thanks for reading!

    1. Thank you! I had fun writing it.

      Ya, that was the comment I agreed with the least. I assume they either don’t have kids or it’s been a long time since they were young 😂 but as far as critical feedback goes, it certainly could have been worse!

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