“Showstopper” by S.C. Jensen

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Mike Zeilinski had been dead for seventeen days when his eyes shot open and he lurched down the stairs and out his back door. He collapsed on the lawn of his silver-ribbon award-winning garden in the bright midday sun. He knew it was seventeen days because the man on the radio had said it was July 23 and the last thing he remembered was dragging himself home from the clinic, taking three ibuprofen, and laying down to sleep off the skull-splitting pain in his forehead. A note on the table, next to the telephone, read “Dr. Novak July 6 @ 1400.”

But that realization came later.

First, he lay in the sunlight, hardly remembering to breathe for joy of the sun’s warmth on his face and arms. After a moment he stripped off his damp, stinking, oddly blackened clothes, and bared the rest of his skin to the blissful rays. He didn’t know how long he lay there before a sudden, dreadful thirst forced him back into the house, to the kitchen, where he stuck his face straight under the tap and drank until he thought his stomach would burst.

Then Mike planted himself at the dinette table, sat directly in a beam of afternoon light, and read the note.

Seventeen days.

Perhaps it was a stretch to assume that he was dead, but Mike could remember nothing that happened in the time between lying down and waking up. When he went back upstairs to check his bedroom for signs that he’d fed and watered himself over the course of past two and a half weeks, he found none. As far as Mike knew, it was basically impossible to survive that length of time without food and drink. And, besides that, he distinctly remembered his last thoughts before losing consciousness. It had been like something was tunnelling into his brain. Through the twisting, burning agony he had thought, “I’m going to die.”

It didn’t matter, though. Mike felt more or less unmoved by the fact of his death and rebirth. What he was fascinated by was his bed. Mounds of black soil covered the mattress. A single set of foot prints made a path from the bed, out the bedroom, and down the stairs. His own.

Mike swallowed. His tongue was thick and waxy in his mouth. It seemed to coil around itself, tightly. He fought an urge to lay on the bed and dig his hands and feet into the muck. He decided, instead, to get another drink of water and sit in the sunshine outside.

It wasn’t until he was planted on the back step, looking out at his garden with a glass of water in his hand, that he noticed his fingers. Long, hair-like fibers dangled from his fingertips. From his toes, too, he realized once he looked down. And underneath the skin on his arms and legs, lumps wound their way up his limbs where they seemed to disappear into his muscles. Every now and then, the lumps pulsed and coiled like worms burrowing through compost.

Compost.

He had been working in the garden when the headache started, applying compost to the central flower bed. It was a new arrangement. The special order bulbs he’d planted that spring were coming in in great verdant bursts. Mike remembered fingering the delicate pink buds that were beginning to show within the clusters of spikey leaves. Excitement had thrummed through his body like electricity. A showstopper, the catalogue had said, guaranteed. Mike had never heard of the strain before and, he hoped, the judges of this years’ Amateur Horticulturalist Society competition hadn’t either. This was his year. He was going to win it, for sure. Not second best to Mrs. Evelyn Brown’s roses, again. He was going for the gold.

He’d lost seventeen days, though. It was time to get to work. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, but that didn’t matter. More than anything, Mike needed to tend to his garden. He heaved himself off the porch, wrapped his fibrous fingers around the handles of his wheelbarrow, and humped his way over to the fertilizer.

Flies buzzed like tiny black drones around the heap of rotting leaves and kitchen compost. The air around the pile was heavier and hotter than in the rest of the garden, rich with the promise of life-giving nutrient matter. His limbs moved sluggishly as he shoveled scoop after scoop into the bucket of the wheelbarrow, but Mike felt fine. Better than fine, he was invigorated.

When the bucket was full, he rolled it over to his central plot and dumped the stinking stuff right in the middle. This was where his best plants were. This was where the winners grew. Mike covered them with a thick blanket of compost. He knelt and pushed the mixture into the soil with his bare hands, and he felt that same jolt of electricity flow through him. As he kneaded the earth around his prize plants the lumps in his arms began to churn with him. The writhing shapes swelled as he worked, swelled until skin began to burst like the flesh of an overripe peach.

But Mike felt fine.

He dug deeper and deeper into the plot, working his limbs in slowly until, at last, he was ready to rest. This time, when Mike turned his face up to the late afternoon sun and closed his eyes, he knew he wouldn’t open them again.

Five days later, when the judges arrived from the AHS competition, they found the most extraordinary sight. A flower of prehistoric proportions dominated the garden. Petals, like folds of sunburned flesh, spilled out of the central plot, piled upon themselves with almost grotesque abundance. No one had seen anything like it.

Mr. Zeilinski, unfortunately, could not be found to answer for the unusual specimen or to accept his prize. So the gold, once again, went to Mrs. Brown’s roses.

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989 Words

This piece was inspired by the January prompt “Flower” at BlogBattle! Thank you so much to Simon from Planet Simon for the suggestion to try this challenge as well as the others I’ve got going this month. I had a lot of fun with it. Can you tell? What did you think? As always, thanks for reading!

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Flash Fiction Friday: “The Foxhole” by S.C. Jensen

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Genre: Horror
Wordcount: 1154

Tobi crouched in the tall grasses that had grown up next to the old barn. The dun-coloured spears rustled in front of his face. He peered through them like a wary fox. A chicken feather, stuck to one of the strands, tickled his nose. Twenty feet away, more feathers littered the ground around the old well, like delicate white petals around an altar.

“I don’t see anything,” his sister whispered beside him. Her voice was as scratchy as the grasses, irritated. Irritating. He wanted to sneeze.

Tobi’s eyes fixed on the lip of the well. A sheet of splintered grey plywood lay propped across the mouth of the cistern. A chunk of ancient concrete weighted it down. To keep children and animals out; that’s what Mama said. Tobi had other ideas.

The plywood hadn’t moved. He was sure of that. A rusted twist of rebar, exposed by decades of prairie winds blasting against the concrete wall, made a perfect T with the edge of the wooden lid. It hadn’t budged an inch.

And yet something was different.

A dark patch blossomed against the light grey stone. Strands, like fingers, crept out from beneath the plywood cover. Tobi was sure it hadn’t been there before. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shifted the light with it. The dark patch glistened.

“There. Do you see it?”

Tina rocked back on her heels. “It’s wet.”

“Told you.”

“So what,” his sister said. A born skeptic, Mama called her. Typical first born. The pride in Mama’s voice came through in Tina’s confidence. “That doesn’t prove anything. It’s probably just condensation.”

Know it all, he thought. “Something is in there,” he said. “I’m telling you.”

“This is ridiculous.” She stood abruptly, breaking their cover and knocking Tobi on his ass in the process. She glared down at him like he was roadkill or something. Disgusted, the way only a teenage girl can be. “Why don’t you just admit that you left the gate open?”

“I didn’t!” He could hear the wheedling in his voice and he hated himself for it. “I swept the coop out, fed and watered them, collected the eggs, and I closed the gate, Tee. I swear I did.”

“Mama’s going to be pissed either way. You might as well fess up.”

Tina was probably right. He would be grounded until school started. Mama would never trust him with anything important ever again. It wasn’t fair. “Nobody ever believes me about anything.”

“Because you are a liar. You lie all the time.”

A born trickster; that was according to Mama, too. Just like your Daddy. Daddy, the good-for-nothing, layabout, joker. The story-teller. Capital L-i-a-r, Liar. “You can’t still be sore about your stupid doll.”

“You cut her eyes out and hung her in the cellar! Daddy gave me that doll.”

“I told you, that wasn’t me. Besides, it’s not fair. He never gave me anything before he left.”

“Is that why you did it?” The disgust in her eyes swelled and spilled out over the rest of her face. She hated him. Tobi had suspected so before, but now he was certain. “What’s your excuse for all the other stupid pranks and stories, then? I’m sick of it!”

It’s not my fault he left, he wanted to scream. But somehow the words wouldn’t come, because no matter how hard he tried he didn’t believe it. Tina backed away from him, stumbling toward the well as if whatever was wrong with him might be contagious. You fucking liar! Like father like son. Maybe it was contagious. Maybe it was a sickness. Because Daddy had always believed him.

…I heard a weird noise last night. I did too. There were green lights in the yard. I know, I saw them. I had the strangest dream. It wasn’t a dream, Tobi. Something bad is going to happen. It’s not safe for me here anymore…

There’s something in the well. I’m going away for a while…

Tobi stared at the dark patch of concrete. A downy white speck fluttered in the breeze where a feather had stuck in the liquid as it dried. The sharp white crescents of light reflected on the wet patch flattened and dulled. The patch didn’t disappear like it should. Instead of fading back into the light grey of dry concrete, the spot turned a dark, rusty red.

“Did you even actually forget the gate open?” Tina’s disgust escalated into rage. “Maybe that’s giving you too much credit. You probably let the chickens out on purpose just so you could—”

His sister’s voice faded into the background as he focused on the stain. The shape of a hand revealed itself on the surface of well with long fingertips trailing backwards, into its depths. If she would just turn around, Tina would see.

“—she’s got enough to worry about!” Tina was still going. “And you know we can’t afford to—”

“Tee,” Tobi said. “Stop.”

Tina stood in the midst of the feathers, her back to the well. Tears streamed down her face now. A rivulet of snot ran, like a tributary, into the tears and over her chin. Her angry eyes narrowed into swollen, red slits. “What?”

“I know you’re mad, but—”

“Stop looking at me like that,” she sniffed suspiciously.

“Just look behind you.”

“Don’t you try to scare me!” Her calf almost touched the well, but she couldn’t see. “I’m not falling for it again. I’m done with your stories, Tobi. Lying isn’t going to bring him back!”

The concrete block wobbled slightly. If Tina wasn’t crying so loudly, she would have heard it. She would have looked. The block jumped again and Tobi saw four raw, red fingers slide out from beneath the lid.

Tobi lunged for his sister.

So did the thing in the well. The plywood lid flipped back and, like a trapdoor spider, its red-streaked limbs shot out at them. Tobi jumped backward, staring in horror as the thing wrapped itself around Tina’s torso and yanked her over the edge. She didn’t have time to scream.

Tobi did.

Mama came running when she heard the commotion. She found Tobi standing behind the barn, surrounded by a flurry of feathers, like a fox in a henhouse. Speaking of which, the gate to theirs flapped against the barn door, for all the cats and coyotes and, yes, foxes, to waltz right through. And the lid of the well lay cocked into the grass; the old concrete block sat like a huge misshapen head beside it.

“Tobi, what’s going on?” she placed a hand on her son’s cold, rigid shoulder.

“You’ll never believe me,” he said.

Then Mama saw the blood; the cold seemed to seep out of his skin and into hers. “What have you done?”

Tobi’s hand absentmindedly floated before his face and he plucked a feather from his lip. He said, “I found Daddy.”

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Thanks for reading! Please leave your feedback, comments, and questions below.

 

 

 

Challenge(s) Accepted!

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My writing space looks nothing like this but I love stock photos and it’s fun to pretend.

Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be January without a flood of blog posts and news articles about New Year Resolutions. I’ve never been the resolution type. I don’t think I’ve ever even halfheartedly made a New Years Resolution unless the timing was just coincidental (I do occasionally resolve to be better at things, and sometimes that happens in January…)

One thing January is especially good for, though, is that there are a surplus of writing challenges going around right now! With the holidays winding down and real life starting back up on Monday, I’m ready to get settled back into a regular writing habit. Not all of it will show up here, although I have decided that I’m going to push myself to blog more. But January brings a few opportunities that I will be jumping into.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Round One kicks off January 18th. I have done two Flash Fiction Challenges with NYC Midnight, and this will be my second Short Story Challenge. It’s a really fun and exciting competition for a relatively affordable entry fee. I only do the two each year, so I might have a different idea of affordable compared to someone who participates in more challenges/competitions. But the feedback is quite good, and I love the random assignment format. It really pushes me outside my comfort zone!

12 Short Stories Challenge: I participated in this last year, and I think I made it through half the year before I got side-tracked. This year, I’ve signed up for the the paid membership for some added accountability. I really loved the community when I participated last year, and the feedback was really excellent. I’ll be using these entries as my Flash Fiction Friday pieces for the first of Friday of every month (starting February as our first prompt comes Jan. 9th and is due on the 31st to 12SS). If (when!) I complete all 12 assignments on time, there is a competition at the end of the year with prizes, and that’s my goal this time. I vow to submit something every month, even if it’s not my best work.

Jeff Goins’ “My 500 Words” Challenge: Jeff Goins is a writer that I have followed off and on since I was more active in the world of Facebook writing groups. I don’t Facebook anymore. But I do still open most of the emails I get from Goins’ page, and one of the ones I read was an invitation to participate in the “My 500 Words” Challenge. I understand that this Challenge runs year round, basically a challenge to write 500 words every day for 31 days straight. There are prompts if you like, and email reminders. I mentally committed to this project a couple of days ago (and I’ve completed my 500 words for three days in a row now!) But this is my official acceptance of the challenge. I’ll be posting my blog in the participants section, and following some other writers doing the challenge.

Linda G. Hill’s “Just Jot it January” Challenge: I stumbled upon this challenge when (finally) going through my WordPress reader and catching up with what my favourite blogs are up to. I haven’t been a follower of Linda G. Hill, but I like the looks of her challenge, so I’ll be doing some of these ones, too. I like the idea of “Stream of Consciousness Saturday.” I might not post all of my submissions, but I’d like to add weekly stream of consciousness exercises to my writing habits. So I’ll give SoSC a try at the very least.

So that’s what’s going on with me. Are there any other writing challenges, competitions, or blogs that you think I would enjoy? Please share what you’re up to in the comments!

 

 

SF Art Review: Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto” at MAC

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I was in Montreal in October and visited the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). As much as I love art galleries and museums, I didn’t anticipate seeing an exhibition that I felt worthy of a blog review; art and science fiction don’t often cross paths in my experience. But fortune favoured us. We stumbled upon “Manifesto” (2015),  an experimental art/film series by Julian Rosefeldt.

I confess to not knowing who Rosefeldt was before viewing the exhibit. However, I will not soon be forgetting the name. This 13 part film installation shook me. I have never had such a visceral reaction to a piece of art before, and that in itself was memorable. But the content of the films stuck with me, and I found myself mulling over the imagery and dialogue for weeks afterward.

The star of “Manifesto” is the instantly recognizable Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, who plays 13 different characters in 13 separate short films in which she delivers magnificent monologues made up of snippets of artists’ statements from the past 100 years. I know, the description sounds bizarre, but it really works. Each scene and character seem to embody a particular art movement, from Dadaism to Abstract Expressionism to Futurism.

The exhibit itself is a darkened theater, and you walk in to see a huge screen with a firecracker burning in slow motion while Blanchett begins the titular “Manifesto”. As you move further into the theatre room, you see twelve different screens set up around the room, each at slightly different angles to one another, so that you are only ever standing directly in front of one screen. Blanchett is on every one of them, working her way through some everyday situation while continuing the Manifesto.

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The films are playing simultatiously, so that each monologue creates a kind of dialogue between artists. The most powerful part of the exhibit are the moments when Blanchette’s characters each deliver their monolgues in a monotone at a different pitch. The films are timed so that the monotone segments all play at the same time. So you’ll be immersed in one particular film when all of a sudden these other voices swell up around you and the sound is so surreal and all encompassing that you feel like you are there, or like the film has come off the screen and surrounded you. The first time it happened I physically felt it over my whole body. As I said before, it was not an experience I’ll soon forget.

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So what does this have to do with Science Fiction? Maybe not much. Except some of the films themselves had SF vibes to them. Situationalism felt post-apocalyptic, and Constructivism is a kind of nostalgic mod-SF feel. Ironically, Futurism was depicted by a stock broker on Wall Street.

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And in a way, the conversations that these montages of manifestos were having, in the words of artists over a 100 year span, had a kind of science fiction-esque aura about it, too. One of my favourite parts of science fiction literature is how hilariously it “dates” itself in terms of how quickly our cultural visions of the future evolve. Those disparities stand out and funny, embarrassing almost, as we get to experience first hand the naivety of our cultural imaginations. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of how clueless we really are about our current world and future prospects, no matter how sure of ourselves and our lives we think we are.

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Here were all of these artists, the voices of their times and cultures, speaking about art and particularly, the future of art. And what I noticed, rather than the disparities between past and present ideas of what art is and what art should be, were the similarities. There was a distinct shift in the conversations as we watched how the artists expectations for the future actually did affect the evolution of culture and art. And it didn’t matter what order you watched the films in, it would be the same. Past and future artists seemed to support one another and speak with one voice about what art is.  As past molded future, so too did the future seem to shape the past–or our experience of it, at least.

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And I began to think about Science Fiction. If you’ve read SF for a while, you’ve likely experienced moments where you realize that you are currently living in the time that some of your favourite SF writers were writing about. Noticing how they got it right or wrong can be entertaining and, sometimes, eerie. The genre does become a kind of dialogue between the past and future.

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It often amuses me how similar the themes of retro SF can be with modern writing, and how different they look once the mask of cultural expectations is applied. And they’re all right! That’s the best part. Even if we make mistakes in our visions of the future, what we are saying about ourselves with that vision is true. This is why I continuously surprised myself by thinking “I agree” with one artist’s views and then turning around to also agree with the opposing view of another, within a span of about 15 min. Either that, or I’m just really susceptible to well delivered arguments, haha.

Anyway, I had wanted to write about this and tell you guys my half-formed thoughts on the matter. And I promised myself I’d be more disciplined with posting here. So there it is. Has anyone else seen it? Or seen the trailer and wondered about it? I think each of the individual films is available on Julian Rosefeldt’s website HERE. Check them out and talk to me!

Thanks for reading if you made it this far…

Goodbye, Old Friend

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It has been 125 days. It seems like nothing. It seems like an eternity.

125 days ago I said goodbye to one of my oldest, dearest friends. One that has been with me for nearly every moment of celebration and triumph, every moment of chaos and despair, in my adult life–as inevitable as my shadow, with me so often that we became indistinguishable from one another.

Sometimes we come to rely on a friend more than we should. Sometimes friendship turns bitter and false, but it has been a part of our lives for so long that we refuse to see how twisted the relationship has become. Even once we recognize the toxicity of this “friend” it can still be hard to say goodbye. It is so easy to remember the good times, the warm glow of the early days. Maybe, if we just tried hard enough, we could forget the pain, the anxiety, the fear that has grown over the years, and embrace the love and warmth and happiness of the past.

But, of course we can’t. I couldn’t. So I said goodbye.

I haven’t had a drink in 125 days.

I hemmed and hawed over whether or not I would write about my sobriety here or not. It’s not exactly writing-related. And yet, I think there are a lot of us writers and creative folks who fall prey to alcohol and substance abuse. There is this idea that if we aren’t hurting we have nothing worthwhile to say. Sometimes we buy into that idea so much that we hurt ourselves, just to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Pain, the human condition. If life isn’t difficult enough, we make it so.

Since I quit drinking I have become acutely aware of the many ways I had internalized alcohol as some inexorable aspect of my “self,” as if the ubiquitous glass of wine in my hand was an extension of my very being. Even once I began to see the negative impact that alcohol was having on my physical and emotional health, the idea of not drinking was terrifying to me. I’ve attempted to cut back, or “take a break” from drinking in the past. But I could never come to terms with the idea of giving it up completely. For ever. That was like trying to imagine cutting off my own arm. Sure, I might survive the amputation, but would I ever feel whole again?

I can’t pinpoint for you what changed, exactly. But in August I had a moment where I knew, I just knew, that I was done. I made the choice, not only to quit drinking, but to actively pursue sobriety as a lifestyle. I think this is what has made the difference for me. In actuality, “not drinking” is the easy part. Having to relearn who you are, experience and process emotions without a chemical safety-net, develop healthy coping mechanisms to replace the unhealthy ones… that’s the tough shit.

Learning how to write sober has been one of the hardest parts of all. I had come to rely on a glass or two of wine to shush the internal editor and get the ball rolling. I trained myself to “need” alcohol in order to write. Untraining myself has been difficult. I haven’t been as prolific as I would have liked in the last few months. However, I have made a few encouraging discoveries.

  1. I can shut up the internal editor just by sheer force of habit. Ass in chair. Write. Write shit if you have to. But if you start writing, eventually the shit runs out and you’ll have something usable.
  2. I actually write better sober. Shocker, I know. But the old “write drunk, edit sober” adage (that may or may not be correctly attributed to Hemingway) is a crock of shit. As far as I can tell, the need to write drunk is really just a symptom of lazy work habits.
  3. Editing is a hell of a lot less painful when your drafts are coherent.
  4. All of the actual mechanics of writing craft are easier when you are using your whole brain: structure, plotting, connecting themes and imagery… you name it, it’s easier sober.
  5. I eat better and I sleep better when I don’t drink. I don’t have anxiety attacks anymore. I exercise regularly. All of this makes me more competent, not just in writing, but in everything I do.

I’m not writing any of this in order to convince anyone else that sobriety is the right choice for them. Your relationship with alcohol (or any substance) is your own. Only you can decide if you need to make a change. If, however, any of what I’ve said here speaks to you I’m happy to offer whatever advice and support that I can. Please comment!

For those who are considering sobriety, or are just curious to read about addiction and neuroplasticity, I highly recommend reading “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace and “The Biology of Desire” by Marc Lewis. The r/stopdrinking subreddit is a great source of information, advice, and support as well.

Thanks for reading!