Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

Horrific Fun: “Sanctuary” and more…

 

I know I mentioned this back in October, but I have a story in Corrogatio IV: The Midnight Massacre from CrushPop Productions, which is a collection of horror, gore-core, and thrash type stories. It’s FREE to download here if you want to check it out! Seriously, go check it out. I’ll wait…

Now.

If you enjoyed my piece, “Sanctuary” you will be excited to hear that I will be doing a fiction series for CPOP that builds on this story. I’ve got the whole thing plotted out, and just got the go ahead to start writing. I finished my draft of Season Episode One today and plan to finish one episode a week until I have the first season completed. These are, of course, drafts. So I’ll need some time to fine tune it afterwards and I’m not sure when the release is going to be, but I expect sometime in the second half of the year.

I don’t want to give too much away until it’s all finalized, but I think I can safely say… post-apocalyptic vampire hunters are coming your way. And it’s going to be glorious.

“Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Here it is! This is my draft for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Subject: Superhuman, Character: a cheesemaker. Word limit is 2500 words.

Here is their genre description for a Fairy Tale as per the contest guidelines:

A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).

I’d love your feedback on the story, how well it works with my assignment elements, and any other considerations. I still have three days to submit it, so I have time to apply any changes I need to! Without further ado, here it is:

Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen
2496 words

Once upon a stormy night a witch stirred up a foul smelling concoction in a cauldron as black as mould. Thunder rattled the tiny windows of her cottage in the woods and the wind outside howled. Inside the kitchen a fire crackled and, to anyone left out in the gale, its blaze would have appeared like the glowing red eyes of the devil herself flashing in the pitch. There was no one outside, though. The witch had even brought in her cow, Etheldred, who stood next to the wash basin contentedly chewing her cud and watching the fuss.

“That’s three turns widdershins,” Etheldred said, for she was a magical cow and never could keep her opinions to herself. “With the wooden spoon, not the iron. Do you want to spoil the whole batch?”

“I know that,” the witch snapped and quickly dropped the iron poker she’d been about to thrust into the brew. “What do you care if I spoil it, anyway?”

“Whose teats did you squeeze with your clammy hands to fill that crock, you half-witted hag?”

“Half-wit, am I?” Flames licked up around the fat belly of the pot as the witch muttered over her potion. “Managed to get the best of you, didn’t I?”

A gobbet of twice digested grass hung from Ethelred’s mouth. “I happen to like being a cow,” she lied.

“It certainly suits you. Saggy teats and all.”

“They were good enough for your husband, Frances Stein.” The cow licked her lips lasciviously and let a steaming pile of dung fall to the kitchen floor.

“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes.” Witch Stein poured a vial of alarmingly yellow liquid into the cauldron. “Anyway, you can have him once this spell is finished. I’m making myself a new husband.”

“That,” the cow said, “was Bile of Basilisk.”

“That’s what you said to use!” The witch gave a horrified look at the evil-looking liquid. “Who’s the cheese expert here?”

If a cow could grin, then Etheldred was grinning. “Banshee would have been better.”

“You baggy bovine!” the witch glowered. “You’re trying to sabotage me.”

“You did turn me into a cow.”

“If this doesn’t work,” the witch said, waving the wooden spoon at her companion, “you’re going to stay that way for the rest of your udder-lugging life.”

“Relax,” Etheldred said. “It’s curdling isn’t it?”

“Milk thistle to thicken,” the witch held up another vial. Then her eyes flashed with menace. “Unless you have another suggestion? I hear cows’ stomachs produce excellent rennet.”

“Rennet is terribly old-fashioned,” the cow blinked lazily, not in the least worried by the witch’s threats. “Besides, I’m using all of my stomachs.”

Witch Stein poured the milk thistle into the pot and watched the mixture coagulate. After a time, she prodded the jellied mass with her spoon and said, “Looks about right.”

“Get on with it, then,” the cow chided. “This weather isn’t going to last all night.”

“You mind your own magic,” the witch said.  With leather mitted hands she heaved the stinking cauldron over to the kitchen table and dumped its contents without ceremony. “This bit is mine.”

Slowly, surely, the witch began to mould and sculpt the mass of fresh cheese. After a time, the shape on the table took a new form. The cheese became a large, slightly misshapen man. Once she was satisfied, Witch Stein hauled out a coil of fine, hair-like metal fibers and used them to pierce the body in a few vital locations: the head, the heart, the belly, and the groin.

“What are you stabbing it for?” the cow brayed. “This isn’t one of those black magic dolls, is it? You said I could have Ralphie and I want him in one piece!”

It was Witch Stein’s turn to say, “Relax.”

She uncoiled the wires and attached them to a strange looking harness over the fireplace. More wires climbed from the harness, up the chimney, and onto the roof. The witch rubbed her hands together and looked out the window at the roiling storm. “Now, we wait.”

No sooner had she said that, then the air of the room fizzed and crackled and a smell like old coins replaced the stink of the cheese. Forks of hot white light shot from the wires on the chimney and sparked around the body of the cheese man. Etheldred mooed in alarm as a finger of lightening got too close for comfort.

“My tail is on fire,” she bellowed.

But the witch wasn’t paying the cow any attention. The creature on the table was moving its great lumpy limbs. She clapped her hands ecstatically. “It worked!”

The cheese man sat up and shook its fat, misshapen head.

“It’s alive!” Witch Stein shrieked and she did a little jig. “You thought I couldn’t do it, admit it!”

“Well,” said the cow as she gingerly dipped her tail in her water bucket. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”

“Neither is Ralphie,” the witch snapped. “I don’t need him to be handsome, I just need him to be big and strong and to follow my every command.”

“He’s certainly big,” the cow said. The cheese man’s head seemed to be growing closer to the thatched roof. “And with that recipe, he’ll be stronger than any human man. So that’s my end of the bargain. Now change me back!”

But the witch was too busy admiring her handiwork to worry about Etheldred. The cheese man tore the mess of metal wires away and stood almost to his full height. His neck bent awkwardly and his shoulders pressed against the ceiling. He looked at the witch with eyes of dry curd, and he spoke.

“Mama?” The cheese man’s voice belched out in a cloud of air that reeked like rancid feet.

Etheldred cackled as well as she could with her cow’s mouth and dropped another pile of dung.

“I’m not your mother, you oaf.” The witch poked him in the belly with her wooden spoon. “I’m your wife, Frances. Now quit lazing about, we’ve got work to do!”

“Hungry!” the cheese man grunted. And with that, he reached out his huge, lumpy hand, grabbed Etheldred the cow, and gobbled her all up.

The witch said, “Huh.”

The cheese man suddenly doubled in size, stood up to his full height, and crashed through the wall of Frances Stein’s kitchen. He lumbered into the night wearing the thatched roof like a hat, eating rocks and trees and whatever wild animals he scared up along the way.

“That’s a shame,” said the witch. She hitched her sleeves up to her elbows, grabbed her broom, and followed after her cheese husband.

The storm had abated and dawn was breaking by the time Witch Stein caught up with the cheese man. He moved quickly on legs that were growing longer every second, but he left a path of ruin that was easy enough to follow. The witch found him sitting on his huge, bumpy bottom in the middle of town, plucking the roofs of houses and snacking on the terrified villagers inside.

“Stop that this instant!” The witch flew her broom up to the cheese man’s head and buzzed around him like an angry bee. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”

The cheese man swatted at her clumsily. “Hungry,” he moaned.

“I’ll get you some food,” the witch promised, an idea brewing in her brain. “But first, you have to give me back that cow.” 

The cheese man blinked his curd eyes at her.

“The one you ate in my kitchen,” she prompted.

The cheese man opened his cavernous mouth, reached a hand down his throat, and pulled out Etheldred. He plunked her on the ground, sodden and stinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet, now the size of schooners, and lumbered in the direction of the next town eating everything in his path.

“Disgusting,” the cow said.

“Quit your whining,” the witch said. “I need one of your food spells.”

“What I need is a washing-up spell,” Etheldred replied, dripping with whey and misery. “I’ll never get this smell out.”

“Can you do a never-ending bread loaf?”

“Bread loafs, salt pots, cheese wheels, you name it.” Even in her soggy state, the cow wasn’t above a little bragging. “If you can eat it, I can make it last forever.”

“I’m going to change you back,” the witch said begrudgingly. “But I need your help.”

“I suppose I’m in no position to bargain,” the cow said.

Witch Stein snapped her fingers and lifted the curse. Etheldred, still dripping but looking slightly more human, stretched her back and thrust out her buxom bosom. “That’s better,” she said. “Now what’s on the menu?”

The two witches went to work scouring the town for oats, molasses, and flour. Etheldred was as good as her word, and in a few hours they had an enchanted loaf of bread the size of a cart horse.

“Big and dense,” the kitchen witch declared. “Just like your cheese husband.”

“And Ralphie, too, while we’re on the subject.” Witch Stein rapped Etheldred on the head with her broom. “Now shut your gob and help me carry this thing.”

The witches wrapped the loaf up with thick ropes, strung it between two broomsticks, and flew—a little wobbly and with a lilt to the left—after the cheese man. They followed the path of broken trees, flattened cottages, and absent livestock all the way to a river. The cheese man, who was now the size of a large hillock, knelt on the ground beside the water guzzling for all he was worth.

“What are you doing now, you great galumph,” Witch Stein bellowed at her cheese husband. “I brought you food that will never run out. Now it’s time for you to get to work!”

The cheese man peered at her with his curd eyes and blinked. He snatched the loaf of bread from between the witches’ brooms, nearly spilling them both into the river, and took a colossal bite. Before he finished chewing, the loaf sprang back to its original size with a pop. The cheese man took another bite, watched the loaf grow back again, and grinned a cheesy grin.

Then he tossed the loaf aside and guzzled at the river again. Witch Stein and Etheldred looked at one another and shrugged.

Soon, the raging river became a babbling brook, the brook became a trickle, and then the trickle dried up completely. He’d guzzled up all of the water for miles and miles. The cheese man sat up and coughed out a cloud of dust.

“Thirsty,” he said and made like he was going to lumber off again in search of more water.

“Don’t you dare!” Witch Stein flew up and buzzed in his ear like a gnat. “You stay right where you are. Etheldred, can you do that trick with water, too?”

“Water, milk, ale,” Etheldred puffed out her chest. “If you can drink it, I can—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Witch Stein landed her broom and hitched up her skirts. “What do we need?”

“Why should I help you again?” Etheldred put her hands on her hips and blew a strand of whey soaked hair off of her large, crooked nose. “I kept my side of the bargain. The deal is done.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find Ralphie and turn him into the toad he is!”

Etheldred landed beside Witch Stein and muttered, “I’m starting to think that Ralphie is more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Well, at least you didn’t have to marry him to figure that out,” snapped Frances. “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“We’re going to need a big pot,” Etheldred said. “A really big pot. And after this, you’re going to owe me one.”

“You heard the woman!” Witch Stein clapped her hands at the cheese man. “Go fetch us the biggest pot you can find. And be quick about it!”

The cheese giant picked up his loaf of bread and lumbered off into the distance, munching away, and leaving slightly less devastation in his wake. It took three whole weeks for him to return, by which time Etheldred and Frances had put aside their differences and more or less become friends.

“Now that’s a cauldron!” Etheldred said when the cheese man trundled up to them with a vessel the size of a house. “Where did you find that?”

“Giants,” said the cheese man, and that was all they got out of him on the matter. But Witch Stein heard, a few years later, about a stone giant named Hymir who had developed a sudden, and rather ferocious, aversion to dairy products.

“What’ll it be,” Etheldred asked, pulling herself up onto the lip of the cauldron. “Water, milk, tea?”

Witch Stein looked up at her mountain of a husband and shook her head. “Better make it wine,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman, Frankie!” Etheldred cackled and she waved her hands over the pot, reciting a complicated incantation that involved a little too much hip wiggling and bosom shimmying for Frances’s taste.

Soon the cauldron was brimming with a fragrant, dark red vintage.

“My best merlot,” Etheldred winked. “It pairs very well with cheese.”

The cheese giant picked up the cauldron and drank. He drank and he drank but, just as the kitchen witch promised, the cauldron never emptied. Then, with a belch that shook the birds out of the sky, he smiled. “Good.”

“Finally!” Witch Stein threw her hands up in the air. She pulled a roll of parchment out of her bosom and thrust it at her cheese husband. “Gather these materials, Cheese-Head. We have to build a bigger house before we do anything else.”

“Wow!” Etheldred exclaimed as the cheese man lurched away on his first mission, carrying the over-sized wine flask and bread loaf with him. “He can read?”

“Grab your broom, woman.” Frankie Stein launched herself into the air. “We’re going to find a nice secluded spot in the mountains. I need space for my laboratory and the hard-to-find magical elements Goudard is going to collect for me. I have hypotheses to test!”

“Goudard?”

“Well I have to call him something besides Cheese-Head.”

“Wait just a minute,” Etheldred said. “You still owe me a favour.”

Frankie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise not to turn Ralph into a toad.”

“Forget Ralph.” Etheldred hopped on her broomstick. The witches zipped over barren fields and flattened forests toward the mountains. A bovine bellow could be heard for miles around, “I want a cheese husband!”

And they would all have lived happily ever after except that Goudard, it turns out, didn’t like being berated and bossed any more than Ralphie had. So he joined the circus, and Frankie Stein had to do her own ingredient collecting. That didn’t stop her from trying to create new husbands, though. Once, she even dug up a cemetery for parts… But that’s another story for another time.

Assignment #1: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

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Our assignments for the first round of this year’s NYC Midnight Short Story competition arrived at midnight EST last night. I was violently ill earlier in the evening, and was blissfully asleep when they were posted. But it was the first thing I looked at when I woke up this morning (now feeling totally fine, thankfully). I just thought I share my assignment with you, since I thought it was funny. It will definitely push me to write something different than I otherwise would, which is the whole point, really. Even if it does seem a bit *ahem* cheesy *ahem*.

Genre: a Fairy Tale
Subject: Superhuman
Character: a cheese maker
Words: 2500

We have eight days to submit the first story (considerably longer than the 48 hours they give you for the Flash Fiction competition!) and I aim to get my first draft done this weekend so I have lots of time for revisions.

I think my story last year could have placed better if I’d had my first draft done earlier and had time to apply all the suggestions my writing groups gave me! You can read that one here if you want to: Flash Fiction Friday: “Tongue Tied” by S.C. Jensen. I am still going to do those revisions, though, and include the resulting work in the short story collection I plan to release this year. You know what, I’m feeling a bit inspired after reading this piece by Matthew Whiteside over at Seeking Purpose Today, so let’s give that a solid deadline. I plan to release it in September! <– Hold me to it, folks!

Anyway, I thought you all might get a kick out of this assignment. I wonder if I’ll be able to pull it off in my usual style–festering, my husband calls it. Are any of my fellow writers inspired by this prompt? Feel free to join me and post your own versions (link in the comments if you do!)

I’ll share what I come up with in 7 days, 11 hours, and 10 minutes. Stay tuned!

Flash Fiction Friday: “Park Date” by S.C. Jensen

Late again! This is my July assignment for the 12 Short Stories competition. This month, the prompt was “Cats and Dogs” at 300 words exactly. I managed to tweak this one to 300 words on the nose, but I’m not sure if it meets the requirements for a flash fiction piece. Is there enough of a conflict? Enough of a resolution? What would you like to see me do differently? Let me know in the comments!

“Park Date” by S.C. Jensen
Word count: 300
Genre: Fiction

Amy peeled a leg off the metal park bench and crossed it over her knee. A film of sweat sprang up between her thighs to lubricate the transition. How disgustingly efficient, she thought.

“Why did I agree to this?”

The trees sighed above her with thick, humid breath. She pictured stamens spewing pollen and the eager ovaries waiting to receive it. Bursting and gaping, the lurid eroticism of trees. Her nose itched.

Amy inhaled deeply and wondered if all that sweat was making her stink. She watched the people strolling through the park or, some inhuman things, actually jogging. Blonde hair, no. Green shirt, no. Girlfriend, definitely no.

Oh.

Oh no.

Short brown hair, check. Black sleeveless shirt, check. Great, slobbering ball of fur? He hadn’t mentioned that. And yet, he was slowing his pace, glancing in her direction.

“Amy?”

She thought, I never should have come here.

“That’s me.” She stood, wanting nothing more than to give her thighs a little fresh air. “You must be Brian. Who’s this?”

The furball oozed affection. And drool. Amy took a step back.

“Oh, this is Duke,” the guy smiled. It was a nice enough smile. “Don’t you like dogs?”

“I’m more of a cat person.”

“Sorry,” Brian said. He seemed earnest. “He’s not mine. I just thought—”

“Great way to meet chicks, right?”

Brian’s dark skin flushed darker. “Something like that.”

“I’m allergic,” Amy said. “Trees, too.”

Brian said, “Well, this was a bust.”

“Sorry.” Amy turned. “This was a bad idea.”

“Wait!” Duke sat at Brian’s feet and scratched behind an ear. “Let’s try again. You choose, this time.”

Amy smiled in spite of herself. “Meet me at the library, five o’clock.”

Then she left the heat, and the trees, and the dog behind her and turned toward home.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: “Mycelium” by S.C. Jensen

 

Better late than never! This is my June assignment for the 12 Short Stories challenge, which I had finished in time but completely forgot to upload to their website. I haven’t gotten any feedback on this one yet, but prompt was “Forbidden Places” at 1800 words exactly. I’m a little under the word count, and I think I could tighten things up a bit and use the extra words to add some detail. So tell me which bits need clarification, or which images you’d like to dwell on a little longer. Thank you for reading and commenting!

“Mycelium” by S.C. Jensen
Word count: 1790
Genre: Literary Fiction

Everything was green. Even the air was thick with it, somehow; the colour smothered all of Alse’s other senses. Between the leaves she caught glimpses of fleshy pink and bloody red. These raw patches oozed a sickly floral scent whose sweetness mixed with—rather than covering—the damp smell of rot that filled the place. None of it withstood the oppressive green surrounding her.

The only thing that wasn’t green was the sky. If Alse craned her neck and stared straight above her head she was equally overwhelmed by a dull and blinding sheet of white that radiated the heat and moisture of the plants back down on her. It made her want to dig in her heels, push through the earth to get away.

Your feet would become roots, she thought. You’d be stuck here. Sweat caught in her eyebrows, and one or two drops clung to her lashes. She blinked them away and shuddered.

“It’s hot,” she said.

“That’s how the plants like it,” Aunt Mae said. “If you’re too warm you can wait outside.”

“Why is it so bright in here?” She didn’t want to go outside. Aunt Mae would think she was weak. She wasn’t weak. “The plants in the garden don’t need it to be this hot.”

“These plants aren’t from here.” Aunt Mae poured a mixture of water and odd-smelling fertilizer onto a leather-leafed plant with waxy orange flowers shaped like upside-down trumpets. “It is bright, though, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t a question. Alse didn’t answer. She pinched a fat orange petal between her fingers and pulled the trumpet down to smell it.

Aunt Mae slapped her hand away with a rubbery gardening glove. “Not that one, dear.”

“What?”

“Don’t smell it, don’t touch it.”

Alse withdrew her hand. “Everything smells weird in here anyway.”

“I’m sorry, Alse.” Aunt Mae’s voice softened. “It’s just that’s a particularly nasty one.”

Alse looked up at Aunt Mae’s brown, creased face. She didn’t seem angry. “Why do you grow the nasty ones?”

“Even the nasty ones have their uses, dear.”

“It’s still too hot in here.”

Aunt Mae smiled, her old flesh pulling and piling into mountains and valleys of wrinkles. Alse’s mother would never have let her skin get so brown and spotted. “Maybe you’re a mushroom.”

Alse thought about that. She was certainly nothing like the garish blooms sweltering luxuriously in the greenhouse heat. She was nothing to do with green or red or heady perfumed pink. Her mother had been a delicate thing, a primula, perfectly pretty as long as it’s doted upon. Neglected, she faded quickly. Even the perception of neglect had been enough to weaken her until—

Actually, Aunt Mae looked a bit like a mushroom herself. Lines radiated around her eyes and mouth like the deep earthy underside gills of fungi. Her flesh, soft and spongey in places and speckled with age, gave off a smell like the cool, damp soil beneath big stones or rotten logs. She was a dark thing, full of wriggling life.

“I think that does it,” Aunt Mae said. “Thank you for your help this afternoon.”

Alse took the watering can from her Aunt and placed it on the narrow bench along the back wall of the greenhouse, with all the neatly organized gardening tools—cutters, choppers, slicers, pinchers, and other torture devices. Alse hated the look of them. Next to the bench, a square of damp wood seemed to grow out of the dirt floor like the wide, flat crown of a lichen. Alse joked half-heartedly, “Who do you keep down there?”

“I’m hungry,” her Aunt said. She slapped a pair of rubbery gloves into the palm of her hand. The sound echoed off the greenhouse walls and roof like a gunshot. “Let’s get something to eat.”

###

“Why do you do it?” Alse asked at supper time. A plate of vegetables and herbs steamed toward her. There were none of the bright flowers here. Aunt Mae’s house was earthy and neutral, cool and comfortable. She served a piece of soft pink flesh not unlike the blooms, except it smelled of fish. “Grow all these plants that don’t grow here.”

“Someday,” Aunt Mae said, “we won’t be able to grow any plants without greenhouses. It will be hot and dry everywhere.”

“Do you really believe that? The outside plants will die?”

“Most of them.”

Alse piled dark green vegetables on top of her fish, watched the oil slide off of each in a puddle on her plate. She took a bite. “Even the mushrooms?”

Aunt Mae smiled again. She sipped at a glass of wine that glinted barely yellow, collecting bubbles against the side of the flute. “Mushrooms have a way of surviving.”

“It’s a lost cause, though,” Alse said.

Her aunt watched her carefully from across the table. “Is it?”

“When you put so much energy and effort into catering to a thing that can’t survive without you,” Alse explained. She crushed a piece of salmon between her teeth, savoured a burst of lemon balm. “Doesn’t that just encourage it to be weak?”

“Perhaps. But weak things have their uses.” Aunt Mae’s eyes hardened. “Some of them.”

Alse felt the ghost of a slap across her cheek; old memories still held weight. Even her mother’s anger had been a delicate thing. It stung, not from force, but from what it withheld. Alse put a hand up against her face and tried not to cry. And what had been the use of that, she wanted to ask.

But she said, “Like nasty things.”

“Often the weak and the nasty are one in the same,” Aunt Mae said.

“What about the mushrooms, then?”

Her Aunt smiled again, dark pink gums sprouting off-white toothy mounds. “What about them?”

“Do you just leave them to their own devices while you coddle those bright, smelly flowers from the other side of the world?”

“In a way.”

“But that’s not fair!”

Aunt Mae put her elbows on the table and leaned toward Alse as if measuring her against an invisible scale. The closer she leaned, the more her body swelled. If she leaned too far Aunt Mae might burst into a puff of dirt and dust and spores. But she didn’t burst. Aunt Mae said, “Some things don’t need to be coddled, Alse.”

###

Aunt Mae tended to the trumpet shaped flowers, tapping their drooping stamens into a long clear vial. Alse wandered between the rows of lush vegetation, hating the white light and unrepentant green of the place. The plants breathed their hot breath against her cheeks, like someone standing too close that might want to grab at you as soon as you turned your back.

None of you should be alive, she thought.

At the tool bench, Alse crouched on the dirt floor. She sank onto her haunches, her bare knees pressed against her ears, and reached out to touch the trapdoor. Alse could breathe down here without the feeling of leaves trying to cover her mouth, slap her cheeks, or grab at her clothing. The wood was cool beneath her fingers, smooth and slightly tacky, like it had absorbed the moisture of the earth rather than the hot greenhouse air.

Alse ran her fingers along the edge of the door, prying gently, hoping for the gentle suck and pop of a seal breaking. Her fingers made a strange, muffled shuffling noise against the wood, like the footsteps of a tentative explorer. Alse hoped the door would open and she would be sucked into the blackness below. But she was stuck above, fingers creeping over the damp wood, prodding and shuffling. With her head pressed between her knees, the shuffling noise seemed to echo in her ears. There was the Alse above stroking the surface of the door, and the one below, trying to open it from the other side.

“Open it,” the other Alse whispered up at her.

She stumbled back on her heels and fell with her bottom in the cold, black dirt. The dream voice was so real, so like her own, that Alse thought she had spoken aloud. She looked up to see Aunt Mae, whose stringy brown legs grew up from the floor and into the soft beige ring of her shorts, watching her.

“Is this where you grow the mushrooms?” Alse asked.

The gills on her Aunt’s brown face wavered slightly. “I just give them a place to live.”

###

“I never liked your mother,” Aunt Mae said.

Night fell around Alse like mounds of rich, loamy earth. The weathered grey boards of the porch creaked beneath her weight, collecting the first dewy drops of moisture from the cool black air. Tentatively, Alse rooted herself there, delicate mycelium reaching for something to stick to.

“Sometimes I think I should write to her,” Alse said. It was safe to say things like that in the darkness. She felt Aunt Mae blink.

“Do you miss her?”

“I miss Father.” That wasn’t right. Father was at the core of her, the place she sprouted from. Even when they got the letter, the little silver cross to remember him by, he was a part of her. It was her mother she was missing. “She never loved me.”

“She never loved anyone but herself,” Aunt Mae said. “Even her grief was self-indulgent.”

Alse closed her eyes and reached out for her Aunt’s hand. The fingers were cool and damp, like they’d been digging in the dirt. So unlike the useless clamminess of her mother’s hands, flowers wilting upon themselves as if trying desperately to signal the sickliness of the plant. Weak and nasty.

“Still,” Aunt Mae’s voice was spongy, a sound without edges, “she helped make you.”

“Mushrooms grow in unlikely places,” Alse said.

“When they sent her to me I tried to tell them I had no time to fuss over a thing that had no will to live.”

The night came closer, mounds of earth packing in between Alse’s fingers and toes, into her ears. She licked her lips and tasted dirt there, too. The imagined blackness beneath the trapdoor clung to her, tugged her down. She dug her fingernails into the damp porch boards. Rotted slivers pulled up easily and Alse’s roots spread deeper.  “They sent her to you?”

“It’s like you said, dear. A lost cause.”

The sound like muffled footsteps echoed in Alse’s ears again. Her fingers shuffled across the porch, scraping and digging. A dull grating noise came from the greenhouse. It swelled invisibly in the darkness, a dry puffy thing that might explode any minute. “Where is she now, Aunt Mae?”

“Don’t worry yourself about it, dear.” Aunt Mae squeezed Alse’s fingers tightly. “Your mother doesn’t need any more coddling.”