Plant (a Sort-of Short Story)

For Alan (because I promised him a short story for his birthday. Sorry it doesn’t have a shiny happy ending.)

houseplant1

Plant

 

I’m in a hospital. The word flared across his mind, then quickly faded. No, that couldn’t be right. A hospital had nurses that checked your pulse every ten minutes, and noisy machines that blipped and beeped like video games. This place was calm and white. Blazing white lights. White, sterile walls stretching up toward a high ceiling. White tile floors that felt cool and hard under his bare feet as he dangled his legs over the side of his cot. A long mirror ran across the wall opposite him, reflecting the sparse room, and him – a middle age man with a paunch and hair that resembled a dried-out lawn in need of mowing.

Is that me? He frowned. Were his eyes always ringed by such dark shadows? How had he ended up in this room? What was his name? He clenched the edge of his mattress, straining to recall any details about himself. But there was only emptiness.

He stood, approached the mirror. It reminded him of something he’d once seen. An observation window. Somewhere behind the glass, someone was watching him, maybe taking notes.

“Hello!” He rapped his fingers against the glass. “Is anyone there?”

No response.

He wandered around the room, searching for a hidden door. But the walls were smooth, blank. No way out. But if he got in here, then there must also be a way for him to get out, right?

In one corner of the room, a low privacy wall separated a toilet and sink from the rest of the room. Resting on the sink, a metal cup. He pressed a small button to activate the sink, cupping his hands beneath the thing stream of water and splashing it on his face. Then he explored the rest of the room, which didn’t take long. There was his cot in the center of the room, metal legs bolted to the floor. A few feet away sat a narrow desk with an attached swing-out stool, also bolted to the floor. On the white laminate surface sat a white book and pencil.

He perched on the stool and opened it, hungry for words of instruction, or a written explanation as to why he was confined to this strange place. But there was nothing. Every single page in the book was blank. He looked at the pencil. Were they expecting him to keep a journal? To write a confession for some crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t remember?

He twisted around, facing the mirror again. “Hey!” He waved his arms, certain that they could see him. “Is this some kind of joke? What is this?” He picked up the pencil, threw it across the room. Then he hurled the book at the mirror. It glanced off and landed against the floor. Thwack! “I want out of here! Do you hear me? Let me out of here!”

Still, no response.

The next day (Or was it a day? He couldn’t be sure), his throat was parched from yelling at no one, his hands red and sore from pounding on the glass, on the walls, on the floor. As he sat up in bed, his stomach let out a low, angry growl. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember.

“Are you going to feed me, or what?” His voice came out in a croak. Didn’t matter. No one responded from behind the glass. Maybe he’d been mistaken to think that someone was observing him from the opposite side. Maybe there was no one. Maybe they, whoever they were, had locked him in here and left him alone. The idea lodged in his throat, too big to swallow.

It wasn’t until after he’d used the toilet and gulped down two cups of water from the sink that it occurred to him. Something in the room had changed. The white notebook and pencil once again sat on the little desk. And in one corner of the room, where before had been nothing, sat a potted plant. It was knee height, with glossy, arching green leaves that reminded him of something. Tree. He closed his eyes, savoring the brief flash of memory. Outside. Trees. Gardens. He’d had a garden at his house! His heart accelerated. A garden with plants like this, sprouting from the ground. Flowers, too. And a tree that burst with orange, sweet fruit. His stomach rumbled again.

Could he eat the plant? He ripped off an experimental piece of leaf and chewed it. Then he spat it out, retching from the bitter taste. The plant was useless.

He stood and began to pace the room, until hunger made him so weary, he at last sat at the table. With nothing else to do, he opened the notebook and lifted the pencil. He intended to write his name, but it still eluded him. Instead, he sketched the plant. It wasn’t a great sketch – maybe he’d never learned how to draw well. But the moment he finished and set the pencil aside, there was a small whoosh sound as a small panel opened in the wall across from him. As he watched, openmouthed, a tray loaded with food slid toward him. Shaking with relief, he pounced on the tray and ate every morsel.

The next day was the same. Only this time, the food didn’t appear until after he’d drawn several pictures of the plant and given it a drink of water from the metal cup. On the fourth day, he filled the entire notebook with sketches and words – rambling, almost childlike writings about the plant. His plant. His living, growing, leafed companion. He was rewarded with more food than he could eat, so he saved the scraps on the edge of the sink.

The day after that, the scraps had mysteriously vanished. And like before, there was a fresh, empty notebook and new pencil. But though he filled the notebook as he had before, no food appeared.

“How do you like that?” he said to the plant, fists balled in frustration. “Now what do I have to do?” No sooner had he spoken than the wall panel opened, whoosh. “Talk? All I had to do was talk to you?” he said to the plant.

He spent the next few days engaged in one-way conversation with his plant. As faded memories returned, he told it all about his life. His lucrative, though unfulfilling job at the bank. His black and white cat, Panda, who curled in his lap as he sat reading in his favorite chair. The strong black coffee he ordered every morning from Java Hut. His routine had been so simple, comfortable, dull. But he ached to return to its familiarity. He longed to sleep in his cozy bed, lulled into drowsiness by Panda’s purr. As he spoke, Plant listened, but of course, never responded. He sometimes offered it water, even reached out to stroke its smooth, rubbery leaves.

One day when he woke, a large pair of scissors sat gleaming on the desktop. He stared at the, puzzled. Were the rules about the change again? “What do they expect me to do now?” he asked plant. When food didn’t come, he turned the scissors around in his hand, feeling the cool, heavy blade. When at last his stomach began to grumble, he lifted the scissors, opened them, and snapped the blades together. A hunk of graying brown hair floated, featherlike, to the floor.

Still no reward.

At last he collapsed on his cot from exhaustion, mad with hunger, the cold floor littered with tufts of hair, white scraps of notebook paper.

He rose with a sick feeling, knowing what they expected him to do. Before he could think, before he could allow himself to feel, he grabbed the scissors and raised them to his plant. Snap! One shiny green leaf dropped to the floor. Snap! Another. Then another. When at last his plant was stripped bare, doomed to die of starvation, the wall panel slid open. He ate, hating himself for his own desperate hunger, tears seasoning each bite. Then he buried a handful of leaves along the scissors, beneath his thin mattress, and slept.

He awoke with a lead heaviness in his chest, not wanting to open his eyes to see the lifeless plant in the corner. But he opened them anyway and yelped with surprise.

Someone else was in his room.

Several feet away, a second bed was now bolted to the floor. In it, a bearded, gray-haired man was sleeping.

“Hey,” he said aloud. Beard stirred. “Hey!” Louder this time. Beard startled awake, confused brown eyes meeting his. In seconds, he was on his feet, backing away, looking around the room with a wild expression on his face.

Guy held up his hands, like he would to calm an agitated animal. “It’s okay,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

Beard shook his head and spouted panicked words some another language. Russian? Slovakian? Guy had no idea. He watched from his cot as Beard went through the same desperate gestures, feeling the walls for a hidden exit, pounding on the observation mirror, yelling what sounded like a stream of foreign obscenities, complete with hand gestures.

“They won’t answer,” he said. Beard ignored him.

Hours later, when Beard was rocking on his bed, holding his stomach, Guy tried to draw pictures in the white notebook to show Beard where the food came from. But he had no idea how to explain the unpredictable things he’d had to do to earn it. Nor did he know what they were expected to do now.

The next day, Beard turned his back to him, and to the mirror. Guy tried to talk to him. Then he tried singing songs. Were the Food Givers fond of eighties pop tunes? Folk songs? Dancing? He tried everything he could think of, until he was weak with hunger. He even drew lame pictures of Beard in the notebook, and then on the walls. But there was no food. That is, until Beard hurled the notebook at his head, then kicked the pencil across the floor.

The panel slid open.

The next day, Beard destroyed the notebook and cracked the pencil. When he was not rewarded, he took out his frustrations of Guy, pinning him against the desk and twisting his arm behind his back. The resulting tray was piled high with food. Beard left him little.

Guy’s anxiety rose like a swarm of insects, stinging his insides. Whoever was watching was obviously thirsty for blood. Sadistic, the word came to his mind. He couldn’t remember, but he somehow knew that outside these walls, he was not a violent person. He was patient, cool-headed, even under pressure. But this went far beyond pressure.

Beard barely waited for Guy to awaken each morning before the beatings began. Afterward, Guy would collapse on his cot, weakened and bruised, listening to the munching noises as his stronger opponent ate all of the food.

One day, Beard struck him with a blow to the temple that made his ears ring and his vision fade to black. When he awoke, he was lying on his cot. Beard was straddled on top of him, face screwed into a frightening leer. As Guy held his breath, waiting for the next blow to come, Beard lifted a pillow and held it above Guy’s face. Then he brought it down.

Lewis! Fight back! A voice said in his mind. Guy kicked and struggled, trying to shake the pillow from his face. But Beard was too strong. Guy was suffocating, he knew, tiny white points sparking in his vision. He was going to die, just like Plant.

Plant!

                Somehow, Guy managed to slip his hand beneath the edge of his mattress, where it closed around a hard metal object. They hadn’t taken the scissors away. With his last ounce of strength, he thrust the point upward, felt them penetrate the pillow.

No, not the pillow. Beard’s body jerked, then went slack on top of Guy’s. The pillow slipped to the floor, and fresh air filled Guy’s lungs. Still gripping the handle of the scissors, Guy pushed upward, until Beard’s body rolled off of his, landing on the floor with a thud.

Blood, so much blood. Warm and sticky on his hands, on his clothes, on the floor. Still gushing from Beard’s abdomen, where the scissors were still planted. Bile burned the back of Guy’s throat. What had he done?

He clambered off the bed, crawled across the room, retching. What had he done?

“I couldn’t be a soldier. I could never kill someone,” his own voice had said once.

“Anyone could kill a person if your life depended on it, Lewis,” another voice had said.

“Not me.”

The observation mirror slid down like a car window, revealing a dozen watchers in lab coats, all applauding. At the same time, the impaled man on the floor vanished, as did the traces of blood. When the large panel door opened, and a medical team entered to retrieve Guy, he still sat in the corner of the room.

“Lewis,” he said, still clutching the lifeless plant. “Lewis. My name is Lewis.”

 

 

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Party Girl (a Short Story)

Did you catch a glimpse of those three guys, as I was walking down the street?

“Hey, Party Girl!” called the tall one in the baseball cap. “Come and party with us!”

So of course I did. My heels clicked against the pavement as I sashayed up the walkway. “You guys ready?” I asked.

What? Did you think I should have kept walking? Did you expect me to say no? Then clearly, you don’t know who I am.

I’m Party Girl.

And let’s face it, a party’s just not a party without me there.

Like this party. An ordinary Friday night crowd of tense faces, drowning in Taylor Swift pop at the bottom of a plastic red Solo cup. Pathetic. But those three guys knew what was up. The minute they sensed my presence, they invited me in. Like any good partygoer should do.

And just like that, everything changed.

It’s like Disney magic sparkles floated in the room after me. Suddenly, the music began to pump, and faces came to life.

“Let’s get this party started!” I said. I popped the cork of a frosty bottle of champagne (what, like you don’t carry your own champagne to parties?) and dowsed myself in the bubbly rain. “Whooooooot!” I cheered.

All around me, voices echoed my cries. The music turned up a couple of notches, and soon, there wasn’t a single person sitting. We jumped and twisted and gyrated our hips to the music, lost in the release.

That’s how it usually goes.

But one night, things got a little out of hand. Sometimes that happens. I don’t know why the party spirit hits some peeps just a little too hard, you know what I mean? Like, the high they get isn’t enough, so they have to throw dangerous crap into the mix. Illegal drugs. Stupid stunts. When this kind of thing happens, I usually take off so that no one can blame me when someone gets hurt.

But that time, I was too slow.

There was an underage kid at the party. A skinny, hungry little thing who wasn’t ready for liquor. Especially the amount of liquor they got him to guzzle down, like he was a car, and they controlled the gas pump.

“Stop it!” I said, trying to push the kid toward the front door. “Let him go home.”

But they wouldn’t stop. They pushed and pushed. Then, next thing you know, the kid was out, flat against the discolored carpet, surrounded by the discarded booze of the partygoers who’d fled the scene. In the spotlight of whirling red and blue lights, the remaining fingers pointed at me.

So the officer did the unthinkable. He fastened cold handcuffs around my wrists and locked me away.

“No more Party Girl,” he said with a sneer.

I waited until he walked away. Then I smiled.

The very next night, while I was lying on a lumpy mattress in my cell, a party began. No, not where I was. Somewhere across town. I could feel the vibrations in my bones.

Somewhere, in an ordinary house, a group got together to let off steam. Someone opened the front door, and in walked a boy wearing bright red sneakers and a grin as bright as the daylight. “Let’s get this party started!” he cried, then pulled out a frosty bottle of champagne (I’m telling you, it’s a thing).

And all around him, the party came to life.

The next night, same thing. Only it was a girl with high ponytails and dance moves like Britney.

Then the officers let me go. Because it finally occurred to them that, no matter how hard they tried to lock me up, you can’t stop Party Girl. Anytime a group of peeps is gathered together, Party Girl will be there, too. I am that guy turning up the stereo volume. I am that girl dragging you into the circle to dance. I am the shine in your glow necklace, the beat in your dance tunes, the cherry floating in your drink.

A party without me just isn’t a party.

So open the door and invite me in.

Are you ready?

Party Girl

Where’s the Story? (aka: A Flash Flood of Flash Fiction)

First, let me make one thing clear. Not all flashes are bad. Some flashes are even good, in fact. Flash drives, for instance, help us to protect our sensitive data. The Flash, I’ve been told, is a pretty fast superhero. And let’s not forget my favorite flash of all: Flash Beagle.

 

But some kinds of flashes earn a thumbs-down. These are brief, destructive flashes that appear, unwanted, leaving destruction in their wake. Flash floods. Hot flashes. Flashes of lightning. And now, the latest trend to takeover the blogosphere: Flash Fiction.

No, I am not a big fan of flash fiction.

What I am a fan of is fiction. Well-written fiction. Convincing fiction that has all of the requisite elements for a good story. An interesting beginning. Compelling characters. An actual plot, climax, resolution. And, of course, a satisfying ending.

Short stories can often accomplish this, if the writer is clever enough. I have read some wonderful short stories by authors great and small, who manage to weave a web of intrigue with a clear beginning, middle, and end in 5,000 words or less. But my personal preference is novels. Give me the thick, juicy, unabridged version of the story. Let me become absorbed in the story, swimming in the delicious stew of words and action. Let me escape to that other world, lose track of days as I drift through the pages. Let me fall in love with the characters as they grow, and learn, and change.

Just don’t give me flash fiction.

The premise of flash fiction is not new. Take a complete story. Now tell it in 1,000 words or less. Or try writing in Dribbles and Drabbles of less than 500 or less than 100 words. Shortest of all? Micro fiction, told in 6 word sentences. For example: Her expensive lingerie collected dust afterwards.

“Oh, how moving!” One blog reader may comment. “So thought-provoking!” Comments another. But I grit my teeth, frustrated. What is so thought-provoking? Why are we calling “stories” what we once called an opening line? Why have so many non-writers jumped on the flash fiction bandwagon, turning the world of blogging into one enormous slush pile?

Yes, flash fiction can serve as a way to strengthen one’s writing skills. And once in a blue moon, I come across some that features high quality writing. But most of the flash fiction, micro-fiction, and other Twitterature I have come across on the internet are junk. Sure, they sometimes have a stand-out character, or a beginning that makes me want to read a little more. But then…nothing. The story never builds. The characters never grow. There is a shadow of a plot, or a unique idea, but the writer, either due to laziness or lack of skill, doesn’t bother to develop it.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to pull on my Miss Snark high heels and walk all over these so-called stories. “Who is this character?” I would ask. “Why did she buy the expensive lingerie? What happened to make her stop wearing it?” In other words — WHERE’S THE STORY? Is this a kind of journal exercise? Am I supposed to take the idea and write my own damned story?

Forget it. I am so done. I shall go and stick my nose where it belongs — between the pages of a nice, long novel.

I can only hope that flash fiction blogging is nothing more than a flash in the pan.

ZELLA (A Short Story)

When one is born with the gift of storytelling, one’s purpose is to offer those stories as gifts to the world. I hope that you enjoy this gift.



ZELLA

It took exactly seven minutes for me to figure out that there was something seriously wrong with Lake Vista High School. It took me just two more to figure out that it had something to do with Zella Marks.

 I don’t mean wrong like street gangs or drug problems (though I did wonder for a while there). I mean horror movie wrong. Buffy the Vampire Slayer hell-mouth wrong. It had all seemed normal for a moment. Familiar. The strips of lawn surrounding long, low stucco buildings. The clusters of students standing around, chatting in the corridors before school, dressed in the usual department store jeans and sweaters. The boring, cookie-cutter classroom that didn’t look any different from my math class back home.

 Home. I had to stop thinking of Rocklin as home. Lake Vista was home now, thanks to my parents, who thought it would be better, healthier for my younger brother, Jack, and me to grow up in a small town.

 “Smell that fresh air!” Dad had said when we arrived at or new house – a sprawling ranch-style with a sprawling yard that was big enough for horses, but would never have horses, thanks to Jack’s pet allergies. We all took a deep sniff of the clean, fresh air that smelled like the lilac bushes next to our new house, and vaguely of cows. Jack broke into a fit of sneezing. Dad cut down the lilac bushes the next day.

 “Welcome to Lake Vista, Sadie,” said Mr. Gordon, my first period teacher. “You may take your seat right behind Cassidy Price.” He pointed to a girl in the second row, who grinned at me as I slid into my seat.

 “You’ll like it here,” Cassidy said. “We all do. I can show you around at lunchtime, if you want, and introduce you to some – oh!” She had been grinning the whole time she was talking, but now, her face fell as her eyes flickered down to my clothes. I glanced down, too, certain that I must have a huge stain on my shirt or something. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “You’re not wearing any blue.”

 “So?” I had picked out a pair of black jeans and a plain, olive green t-shirt. Clasped around my neck was a slender gold chain, from which dangled a tiny heart-shaped pendant. My dad had given me the necklace when I turned sixteen, and I’d worn it every day since.

 “But we’re supposed to wear blue.” Her eyes were round. “Where’s your blue?”

 I blinked. “What is this – Smurf Day?” I looked around the room. That’s when I noticed that everyone was wearing something blue. Blue jeans, blue baseball caps, blue flannel shirts. One girl even had blue streaks dyed in her hair. It would have made sense if Lake Vista’s school color was blue instead of green and gold.

 The bell rang, and everyone fell silent, eyes facing the front of the room. Mr. Gordon made no move to start class. He stared back at the class, occasionally reaching up to tug on his blue necktie. I was tempted to raise my hand and ask what we were supposed to be waiting for, but just then classroom door swung open.

 “Hell-o-o!” A girl sang out. She strode to the front of the classroom, her blue corduroy pants rubbing together with each step. “Ooh, I love all these blue clothes! It’s like swimming in the ocean.”

 “I like your clothes, too, Zella.” A boy with blonde curls gazed up at the girl with a fawning expression.

 “Aww, Prentice, you are so sweet.” Zella ruffled the boy’s hair like she was petting a loyal dog. “Mr. Gordon, I think we’re ready to begin,” she said. As she turned back toward the rest of us, I leaned forward, wondering just how math classes in Lake Vista began their day. I was expecting Zella to rattle off some dull announcements, or maybe to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance.

 What I did not expect was for the entire blue-clad sea of students to burst into song. Especially the chorus of an old Michael Jackson song, Heal the World. As they serenaded, Zella swayed from side to side, hands lifted high in the air. My mouth hung open as I watched the spectacle. Nope, I definitely wasn’t in Rocklin anymore.

 As the song ended, Zella spotted me. “Hi there, new girl,” she said, bending over and totally invading my personal space. Her breath smelled like peppermint gum. “Where’s your blue?”

 I shifted away. “Umm…guess I didn’t get the memo.”

 “Oh, you’re funny!” She laughed – a way too loud, guffawing type of laugh. “Listen, here in my school, everyone wears blue.”

 I snorted. Was she kidding? “Why, is it the law?”

 Her eyes bore into mine. “It is because I will it so. Starting tomorrow, you will wear blue. Every. Day.”

 I could feel a pool of anger ooze toward the surface, like lava. I didn’t care for people giving me orders. “Look,” I said, my voice like steel, “It’s obvious that you’ve got some kind of god complex. But I’m not one of your little worshippers.”

 A slow smile spread across her face. “Not yet.”

 The rest of the day was just as weird. It was like the entire school was a Zella Marks fangirl, decked out in blue clothing, following her around like the paparazzi. It would seem more normal if she fit the typical mold of cute popular girl. But cute was not the word to describe Zella. Her face was too horsey, her chin too sparse, her eyes too small and beady to resemble anyone’s standard of beauty. Her sense of fashion was Walmart chic, at best. So what was this bizarre hold she had over everyone?

 The answer occurred to me in the middle of lunch. Cassidy had abandoned me as I was now on the Great Zella’s hate list, so I was sitting alone at one of the outdoor tables, watching a group of guys (and a couple of girls) flirting with Zella.

 “Please go out with me this Friday night,” said one of the boys in a pleading voice. “I’ve got tickets to an Imagine Dragons concert.”

 “Well, I will cook you a five course Italian dinner if you go out with me on Friday,” said another boy.

 I was too shocked to eat my lunch. It was like they had all been brainwashed. Or hypnotized. Or…or…I grasped at ideas. Enchanted. That had to be it. Zella Marks was a bona fide witch. It was a crazy theory, but it was the only thing that could explain all of this. Every single person at Lake Vista High School was spellbound. Except for me, of course.

 I’m not sure why Zella’s witchy ways didn’t work on me. But as the days ticked past, it became obvious that I was immune to whatever kept the others on her leash. I noticed with some satisfaction that my unwillingness to submit to her command caused her some frustration. Since she had no direct power over me, she used the rest of the student body to lash out toward me.

 “Freak,” kids would mutter as I passed in the halls. “Go back to where you came from.” They left nasty messages scrawled on my locker, shoved books out of my hands. My teachers were in on it, too, granting me grades much lower than I deserved, closing their ears when I contested.

 “Adjusting to a new school can be rough at first,” was all my parents would say. Just give it time.” It’s wasn’t like I could tell them my real theory about Zella Marks. They would have me in 72-hour psych evaluation faster than I could say the word witchcraft.

 I would have to get proof.

 That’s why, on a chilly Saturday night, I sneaked onto the Marks’ property. The moon shone full and round, lighting up the grassy field like a helicopter spotlight. I skirted through the shadows past the line of trees, around the edge of a pond, closer and closer to the small house. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to find – Zella dancing around in the night, throwing toads and newts into a bubbling cauldron?

 A loud sound cut through the silence, and I jumped. But it was only a horse, nickering from a stable a few yards away. I let out my breath, weak with relief.

 Then a voice spoke from behind me. “I knew you would come, Sadie.”

 I whirled around, heart pounding in my throat. There stood Zella. She wasn’t wearing a peaked witch’s hat or carrying a broomstick or anything, but somehow she still looked scary in her too-tight jeans and shapeless t-shirt. Her expression was victorious, like she’d won a bet with someone that I would show up.

 “Now what?” I glared at her, fists clenched. “You drag me off to some ritualistic sacrifice?”

 She guffawed. “You have quite the imagination! I don’t need to sacrifice anybody. I just need you to fall in line.” She stepped closer as she spoke, until she was again invading my space bubble. The moon reflected off her eyes, until it was all I could see as I looked at her. “That’s a lovely necklace.” She reached out and fingered the tiny pendant. Stop! My mind was screaming. Don’t touch that!

 “No,” I said. But my voice was weak. The moon in her eyes grew larger, a bright, mesmerizing light.

“You want to give me that necklace,” she said. Her voice had changed. The words rolled over me like cool waves of water on a warm day. Give her the necklace. It felt so easy, so right to unclasp the chain from my neck and place it in Zella’s outstretched hand. It looked much prettier on her, I realized, as she flashed me a smile and sauntered toward the pond. Tomorrow, I should cut some fresh flowers from my family’s garden to place on her desk. Bluebells. She would like those.

Zella undressed, then began to split open at the seams. Her real skin was smooth and gray, and slick, like a dolphin. As she dove into the pond, flippers splashing against the black surface, I dreamed of Monday morning, and her pleased smile when I wore blue, as she willed it.