Interview: Uniweb Productions with S.C. Jensen

Last week I was interviewed by Matt Whiteside of the UniWeb Interview Show about my novel The Timekeepers’ War, my publishing journey (so far), and my own creative process. It was a really fun time, if you can’t tell from all of the laughing. We had some technical difficulties and had to re-do sections of the interview a bunch of times, but Matt did a great job editing it into something cohesive.

Please click the link to view the video in YouTube. For some reason videos embedded into WordPress pages don’t count toward the channels views, and it would help Matt launch his UniWeb Productions channel to have more action over there. Don’t forget to like, share, and comment, especially if you have read The Timekeepers’ War and want to leave me some feedback!

Matt also has a ton of amazing content on his blog Seeking Purpose Today. I highly recommend following him and seeing what he’s up to: from motivational writing and discussion of addiction and recovery, to author interviews, dramatic readings of his own and other’s work, and an experimental “Choose Your Own Adventure” story that anyone can contribute to!

Of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts right here on Sarah Does Sci-Fi, too!

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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!

“Splitter” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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Note: This is a re-post for the sake of making my short fiction pieces easier to find. You can find the original here.

It was wrong. All wrong. Ren spun the outer dial of her splitter, round and round and round and click!

“What are you playing with, child?” The passenger next to Ren smiled kindly down at her. He wasn’t supposed to see her. He never saw her. His voice, speaking to her, made her guts spin. She felt it the moment she slipped in beside him. Something was wrong in this lamina.

“Time.” Her voice came out like a tiny, broken thing. Ren liked to tell the truth, even when people didn’t understand her. But now she felt cold. Wrong answer.

“Oh?” The man studied her face for a moment, then dropped his eyes to the brassy disk in her hands. A glimmer of recognition flickered through the air toward her. The man’s hands trembled the way the hands on a pocket watch do when it needs to be wound, as if he wanted to reach out to her but was too tired.

He was going to die; everyone on the train was. Ren spun another dial on the splitter and checked the clock. Thirteen minutes, give or take. The train hurtled them toward their deaths. Round and round and round and click!

 “A mechanical calendar.” His voice was all wound up. Tense. The splitter’s little internal mechanisms delicately ticked away the seconds. He watched her too closely. “What a fascinating piece of machinery.”

Ren didn’t want to think about what would happen once she was gone. Twisting, shrieking metal and twisted, shrieking bodies. It made her want to smother the clockwork heart of the splitter. She tried not to think too much about death. All of those lives, all of those souls fractured and split and sloughing off across infinite layers of time. Each one, spread thinner and thinner and thinner until it seemed they should simply cease to exist.

“Yes.” Ren spun the final dial and felt the splitter’s clockwork heart kick again. Maybe it would still work. Maybe she could still do it. “I collect them.”

“That’s an unusual hobby for a young lady,” he said.

The man was an anomaly. His iterations fluttered randomly throughout time, disrupting patterns and weakening the thresholds between lamina. It was her job to follow. To stop him. He never knew she was coming. He never saw her.

Ren watched a raindrop cut a jagged path across her window, one of many stacked upon one another like striations in ice. She imagined the raindrop’s path stretching out across time, limitless. Just like the train hurtled over the tracks, speeding, inevitably, toward the end, every lamina of time infinite and identical. Death upon death upon death. Ten more minutes.

“I’m not that young.”

“No.” The word dropped on her like a bucket of ice water. He knew. He knew she knew. Ren slipped the splitter inside her jacket, where it ticked away next to the throbbing, twisting muscle in her chest.

It had to happen. Now.

“Now!” Inexplicably, she heard the word burst from his mouth as she thought it. A passenger three rows ahead stood and turned.

It was him. The man, again.

She froze, her body all coiled up like a spring. To her left another passenger stood. Him. Him. Him. Impossible! There should never be more than one of any iteration in a single lamina.

Everything was wrong.

Ren launched herself over the man beside her—the first iteration—and into the aisle. He lurched behind her, his fingers grasping at the child’s body she wore. A woman screamed and Ren bolted.

From the back of the train car, two more dupes came toward her. Ren did something she had never done before. She drew the tiny pistol from the holster hidden in the fabric of her childish, flowered skirt. And she fired. Another flower, a great red one, bloomed on the closest man’s chest. One down.

The second dupe grabbed another passenger and backed up slowly. Ren wanted to hesitate; she wished she did. But it didn’t matter. They were all going to die, one way or another. Ren shot the passenger, and then she shot the second dupe. Now everyone was screaming.

Ren’s head snapped back and a hand plunged inside her jacket. The man’s thick fingers wrapped in her hair, tearing at her scalp. She twisted in his grasp. Her body was too small to fight him, but if she could just—

“Get off her!” The spine of a book cracked on top of the man’s skull and he dropped Ren in surprise. The woman from the seat behind cracked him again. “Get off, you pervert!”

Ren scrabbled back and kicked upward, driving her hard-heeled shoe into the man’s knee. His face curled up and he snarled, lunging at her again. Another passenger joined the woman’s assault. The man collapsed under the weight of them but his eyes followed Ren. She pushed herself back down the aisle, eyes locked on the man’s, and reached inside her jacket for the splitter.

“Don’t do it!” The man screamed and contorted himself beneath the pile of bodies. “Don’t!”

Another dupe crawled over the seats, skirting the mob, panicked eyes fixed on her. She had to act quickly.

“All of these people!” The man was crying now. “You’re a monster.”

Ren ran her fingers around the dials, not moving them but imagining their infinite possibility. She let the weight of the splitter drag her deeper into herself.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she flipped the switch.

Time stretched itself limitlessly. She could see each strata as its own unique layer. She felt them with her mind, corrugated ridges that tickled her brain like the tingle of static.

“No!” The man’s voice followed her, along with the final click of the splitter. She peeled herself out of the lamina, imagining she could feel the heat from the blast as the train ripped apart. Tears sprung up and stung her eyes.

Everything was right again.

*******************************************************************************

“Splitter” was my submission for Round One of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition. My assignment was Genre: Action/Adventure, Location: a high-speed train, Object: a calendar. The following is the judges feedback I received on the story. I placed first in my group this round.

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1499}  Loved this story, and it had great suspense, characters, and action. The decision she has to make has real stakes, especially after a passenger assists her. That “everything was right again” has great irony attached to it.  {1749}  Though I was a bit confused by your story, you created good action in your story.  The theme was unique and very clever.  {1793}  The ending is solid. Rem’s inner-conflict is a good tool to keep the suspense going.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1499}  Not exactly sure why this time was so different, why the man had more power/visibility than he had before. That part confused me a bit. Where did he get these additional powers?  {1749}  I wasn’t certain what Ren’s purpose was on the train.  Was she simply there to make sure the train exploded?  Were the “bad guys” really good guys trying to stop the train from blowing up?  It was a bit confusing. Also, I would suggest using a more common term than “lamina,” since the last thing you want to have the reader have to do is either gloss over it and have to stop and look up its meaning.  {1793}  The story might be improved with a quick explanation by Rem of why she is actually on the train. She might want to catch the dupe, and it might be revealed that she is the only one intending to crash the train, and trying to thwart any would-be heroes. A quick description, even a false one, might help to deepen the sense of conflict.

“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!

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…

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.”

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Update

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I’ve been meaning to update you all on my first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest ever since we got the feedback back a few weeks ago. So here it is!

Some of you may have read my submission already. You can find it here, if you’re interested. I was really excited for my submission this time. I got a prompt that was right up my alley and I was quite happy with what I produced. So I had been awaiting the results of the first round with bated breath!

Unfortunately, the judges were not quite as enamored with my story as I was, haha. They actually prefaced this round with a note that competition was very stiff, and not to feel badly if we didn’t score as well as we’d like. That didn’t happen during any of the three rounds I participated in for the Flash Fiction contest, so I guess I’ll believe them.

Alas, I didn’t even place in the top ten for the first round! But all is not lost. The feedback was actually quite encouraging, and it gives me some direction for what to do with this piece before I start submitting it elsewhere.

Here is what the judges had to say:

Feedback for “Tongue Tied” by Sarah Jensen

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1737}  Your narrative was complex, but perfectly executed. Your ideas were dynamic, but comprehensible. Your narrative landscape was intriguing!

{1772}  Suki has a clear outer goal that she pursues over the course of the story. The premise is original and keeps the reader engaged.

{1636}  The severity of the stakes is never lost, and even before clear conflicts arise, the tones does a good amount of work in terms of demonstrating the nature of the story ahead.  The world-building is also impressively done, especially in the early pages.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1737}  Try to maintain the clarity of some of your more thoughtful or intelligible ideas.

{1772}  Suki’s inner needs should be developed more. She has a clear outer goal to save her career and patients, but what about her inner drive? By giving her something to long for (for example, she needs to prove herself to the world) and an inner conflict to deal with (her desire to punish Meeker vs needing him), the story will make a greater impact on the reader.

{1636}  The dialogue can be a bit stilted at tomes, and at others, overly expositional.  Additionally, much of the language (dialogic or not) is so internal and specific to the world being created here that it might be off-putting to readers. An example: “You know Blastocorp produces only the highest quality pluripotent cells from synthetic lab-engineered blastocyst embryos.”

So, what do you think? If you haven’t read it yet, head over to my Flash Fiction Friday section and give “Tongue Tied” a read. Let me know if you agree or disagree with the judges, and if there is anything you would add! I will be submitting this piece somewhere, sometime before summer hits. All critique is welcome!