Independence Day

*This flash fiction was published by NANO Fiction Issue 10.1 in 2016

 

What is it about small towns, I wonder, eyeing the girls in daisy dukes, cautionary tales of meth and boredom. It’s Utah. It’s hot. The tow-truck drops us off at a roadside Motel. A dusty parking lot full of cracked up cars. A forlorn tire swing listless in the weeds. Our home for the night.

It was supposed to be an easy goodbye. He’d drive me to Vegas, and I’d be gone, into the unknown. California, probably, then north. North is the new Wild West; I told dubious acquaintances. He understood. No messy farewells, we agreed. Now we are stuck, I guess. Stuck here, with too much time.

Our room has a stench. The swamp cooler sputters and clicks off. Through the window I see people at the park. I see checkered picnic tables and potato salad. I see women with aprons and men in uniform.  “Looks lame,” I say.

“Let’s go,” he smirks.

Our feet kick up dust as we cross the street; our faces collect an instant sheen of sweat. We want to laugh at these people, to pity them and enunciate all the ways we are not like them. We want to tsk-tsk their backward ways: their homogeny, their apple pies, their flags. We study the brittle aged, the angry teenaged boys, the flies on the melting watermelon. We want to feel superior, but it’s too sad to ridicule.

Back in our room, we take off our clothes. We are sad, too. As sad as the shabby carpet. We move slow, as to not startle the other.  He is long and slender, arrogant and clever. Too beautiful for me: my best friend. Outside I hear bottles clinking. The methed out girls have found the angry young men. Together we all stifle in the deadlock heat.

Pool Girl

The ad said:

Wanted: Pool Girl

Employer: MC Killa Cuddly Where: The Cuddly Mansion

What: Do you have what it takes to live the big life? Can you rock a swimsuit? Ready to see and be seen? MC Killa Cuddly is on the prowl for a special girl to swim in his infinity pool. Mermaid Tank Girls also considered. Must have your own snorkel and flippers. Big $$, commensurate with experience.

(Note: Daily pool cleaning is REQUIRED.)

 

I showed the ad to Christy. “Oh, hell no,” she said. She had her textbooks scattered across my kitchen counter: The Art of the Steal, Cat Burglar 101, Modern Thief. “Don’t tell me you’re considering it.” She tucked wisps of blonde hair under her signature black hairband.  The diamonds in her ears sparkled. They were her latest nab. People on the streets dubbed her “The Black Panther,” on account of her black leotard and safe-cracking skills. Not even a Junior yet, and it was evident Christy was going places. Mom and Dad were so proud.

“Would that be so bad?” I opened my closet. I knew I had an old snorkel set from when our parents took us to Hawaii—a mea culpa for their endless hours masterminding hijinks while leaving us to fend for ourselves. “The pay is good.”

“The pay?” Christie snorted. “Don’t let Mom hear you say that. She didn’t raise us to get paid. We’re The Bandits Four; we hoodwink and bamboozle. That’s our modus operandi.” She continued to sharpen her nails. Christy had decided her feature affectation would be picking locks with her fingernails. I was supposed to finish my BA in Munitions and join her on runs as, “CATastrophe.” I hadn’t told her yet that I was failing my TNT exams.

“Do you even know how to swim? Like the backstroke?” She jabbed her newly tapered claw my way. “You know “Pool Girl” is just code for S-E-X, right? Killa Cuddly has a reputation.”

I wiped the dusty flippers off on my jeans. “Christy, Killa Cuddly is known for cuddling, duh. Everything else is hearsay.” Pulled the snorkel mask over my face. Looked in the mirror. Would Killa Cuddly want to cuddle me?

 

 

Killa’s foyer was bigger than my entire studio apartment. His crew, known as “The League of Extraordinary Embrace” struck me as brooding for people whose claim to fame was mega cuddle parties. Even the hype man was silent. One by one we were called to head out to the pool deck, where Killa Cuddly sat on his wicker throne, clipboard in hand. Finally, it was my turn, and hype man gave me a tiny bit of cloth.

“Your costume,” he said, and pointed to a door. “Put it on in there and then proceed to the pool area. Don’t speak unless spoken to, understand?” He eyed me up and down. “Good luck.”

My costume was the skimpiest bikini I had ever seen. The bottoms were two small triangles held together by a ribbon, and the top barely covered my nipples. I parted my dark, frizzy hair and draped it over my cleavage. That helped a little. I slipped into the flippers and pulled the mask over my face. A pair of inflatable arm floaties with cartoon rubber duckies sat on the vanity. I put those on, too, and waddled my way outside.

“Interesting, interesting,” Killa said before I had made it to the pool’s edge. He was even more fleshy in person. His pale, flabby gut stood in stark contrast to the darker, more built bodies of his League. Everyone was in swim shorts except the champagne servers—all women, naked sans the rubber ducky inflatables around their tiny waists. I gulped. My face mask fogged up, and I stumbled a bit. The League chuckled, but Killa frowned.

“Pool Girl’s gotta have grace,” he admonished. I nodded.

“Okay, okay,” he said. He checked his clipboard. Whistled. “Bandits Four, eh? Your Pops know you’re here?” He stood up, rubbed his belly. “Your Moms okay with you cuddling the Killa?” He saw me flinch and laughed. “I’m kidding, chica. No worries,” his smile faded. “Now. Let’s see you swim.”

That day, Killa had me snorkel to and fro in his infinity pool. He timed how long I could stay underwater. He had me slowly climb the pool ladder and then belly flop back in. I made it past the first round, and he invited me back the next day. Round Two consisted of idly floating on my brand new inflatable rubber ducky, costumed in in a severely cut one piece, sunglasses perched on my face, a mimosa effortlessly dangled from my hand. By Round Four, I was a natural. I frolicked in the shallow end, and my buttocks glistened with the best of them. I fished dead bugs from the pool wearing daisy dukes and a braless halter. I laughed with the guests and poured Champagne down my chin. Even the League seemed impressed, and a few offered me a cuddle on the house.

Meanwhile, Christy distanced herself. She had taken it in stride at first, but as weeks passed, and it became apparent that my move to the mansion was probably inevitable, she turned on me.

“You’re embarrassing us,” she told me one night. “Think of your family.”

“Mom and Dad aren’t even talking to me,” I said. Mom had practically fainted when I told her. Dad silently focused on the blueprints in front of him.

“What do you expect?” Christy’s nails were the finely crafted lock picking claws she had always wanted. She wore an emerald belt now, and people on the street were calling her “The Green Figurine.” She knew I flunked college. “This isn’t what you were meant to do. We had plans. Nefarious plans. We were gonna throw the world into chaos together. Now you’re this…this….” she looked like she was going to vomit.

“Go ahead!” I smiled and held my head high. “Call me Pool Girl.”

 

*This story made it through Round 1 of the Yeah Write Fiction Super Challenge. The rules were 1,000 words or less using the two prompts of emotion and event. My prompts were: disapproval/swims in a pool

 

 

 

 

The Story

“It was a cold, dark night,” he begins, and I stop him right away.

“Wait, wait. Wait.” I say.

“Yes?”

“Are you kidding me? A cold, dark night?” It’s been months since Mark and I parted ways. He called me up late one evening and begged a get-together. Underneath his usual droll tone, I noticed a certain weightiness to his request, so I agreed to meet him.

“Well, it was,” he sniffs, offended. “60 degrees, at most. I had to buy a scarf, even,” he fingers the purple ribbon-like scarf wrapped around his neck. “From one of those tourist traps. Can you imagine?” He rolls his eyes. He doesn’t understand why anyone would live in this city. What a freakin’ dump, he says. He also thinks he’s slumming it if he drops the “g”. “As I was saying…”

“Go on.”

“It was a cold, dark night. So dark, I could see the stars in the sky, even though there was the usual light pollution from downtown. Like tonight.” He pulls out his phone. Scans Facebook. Snorts. “I swear; Maria is going to be one of those crazy cat ladies.” He’s teasing, but there is no mirth on his face. He seems pensive now that he’s started the story. I figure he’s gonna tell me that Robert has proposed, and is worried I might still have feelings. I might.

Ma-ark.”

“Oh fine. Dark and cold, yadda yadda. Robert said he was going to take me to this posh seafood place by the pier. Instead, we wound our way toward the middle of the city until we landed in a cramped alleyway. There were mounds of rubbish everywhere, and I was like, what the hell, Robert? But he just pulls me to his chest and shuts me up with a kiss,” Mark sighs. He stands with his back propped against a street light; his jaw silhouetted against the hazy ocean view. He almost looks like a dapper ship’s captain. Or a pirate. He glances at me. There are circles under his eyes. “Let’s walk,” he says. “Bum me a cigarette.”

“How’d you end up with such a romantic?” I grin, tossing him a smoke. We walk along the boardwalk. Trash from the day’s tourists overflows from the waste baskets scattered along the wood planks.  Soon the beach rats will come and pick through the refuse like grannies at a second-hand store. The skin on Mark’s hands are so pale and white; they almost glow in the dark. “Robert might as well walk around with a royal red cloak and a crown on his perfectly coiffed hairdo; a rose placed between those gleaming Prince Charming teeth.”

Mark doesn’t laugh. “More like a black cape and a widow’s peak,” he says.

“Huh?”

Mark flicks the unlit cigarette out toward the sea. “Nothing,” he says. Frowns. “I guess none of us are ever what we expect each other to be.”

“How oddly introspective of you,” I joke. I reach over to pat his cheek and pull my hand back quickly. “Jeez, you are freezing!”

Mark stops to look down at me. He stares into my eyes until I  feel woozy and uncomfortable. He clamps his fingers around my elbow. “You’re right. Come. I know where we can go,” he says, pushing me to the left, away from the ocean and into the city. He strides with sudden urgency, and the change in pace makes me light-headed, buzzy. “Okay,” I say, giggling in a way that sounds unfamiliar to my ears. “Lead the way, Oh captain, my captain!”

“That’s a mourning poem,” he tells me, as the road we follow twists and turns until I’m not sure where we are anymore. “Lincoln’s assassination.” His nails dig into my skin. They are pointy and long, too long.

“I’ve never been to this part of the city,” I say, trying to pull my arm away. But Mark holds tight, steering me in front of him like a captive. We come to an alley full of clutter and trash and the most abhorrent stench. Mark stops me short. I can sense his lips close to the nape of my neck. “Your story….” I say. My voice is thick and dreamy. “You didn’t finish your story….”

“Yes?” He says, and I cannot feel his breath on my skin.

“A dark and cold night?” I ask. My eyes tear up. Through blurred vision, a form approaches. It wears a cape.

“Yes?” He says.

“The ending?” I whisper.

“Yes,” he says.

Yes.

 

Meanwhile, In Utah….

I hang up. “Beth, they’re coming to take our baby.”

Beth at the sink, her shoulders slumped. “How can they do that?”

“Our love scares them.”

Her hands shake. Silverware clatters to the floor.

“Shhhh. You’ll wake her.”

Upstairs, tiny eyes open.

 

 

 

 

The Slow Engulf

By evening, the flood was deep enough to overtake our second floor. The streets are now rivers. Earlier the Joneses’ dog, Tidbit, floated by us looking like those polar bears on runaway icebergs. Meanwhile, the neighborhood waited helplessly on their rooftop islands.

 

 

 

 

 

Does Brenda Planckett Have a Chance in This World?

Kissing Brenda was like kissing a wet dog, Jerry told me. When were you kissing a wet dog is what I wanted to know. “It was her tongue,” he informed. “It was all slobbery, and it didn’t do much. Just sat there like a lump while my tongue did all the somersaults and jumping jacks. She didn’t make her mouth an O, and so I had to slip it in all lizard-like,” Jerry frowned. “She’s so tall and pretty I thought for sure it was gonna be something good.”

“Well, her eyebrows are way too fuzzy,” I reminded.

“Yeah,” Jerry looked at a spot close to my left ear. “Yeah. I guess that’s true too.”

Speaking of truth, Brenda was my best friend. Or second or third, depending on who else was around. Everyone thought she was tall and pretty, and I agreed with the first part. But four boys already crushed on her and only 2 crushed on me. And Jerry wasn’t even from our group. He was a cool boy willing to jump to our side because of Brenda. They hung out after school for four days before they decided it was time to start kissing. So here it was on day five I had 10 minutes with Jerry as he walked to her house and find out what he thought all about it.

Brenda already called last night, anxious to spill the beans. “We made out,” she informed.

“With tongue or without,” I demanded.

“With tongue. We were sitting on my bed watching MTV, and when it got to a commercial, Jerry said, do you want to kiss now, and I said sure, so he stood up and I stood up and he reached his mouth to mine, and we kissed until the show came on.”

“Do you have to breathe so hard in the phone, Brenda,” I demanded. “I know you like to french now but stop frenching my ear.”

“Sorry.” Brenda giggled, and I could hear her stupid brother in the background playing guitar, Stairway to Heaven, over and over.

“Well?” I asked.

“Well, what,” she asked back.

“Well, did you like it?”

“It was strange. Strange but good. His mouth was soft, and he smelled like crackers and sweat socks.”

“Are you in love now?”

“I don’t know, I guess.”

So today I walked with Jerry, eyeballing that front hair that hung in his face like an upside-down windshield wiper. All the cool boys had windshield wiper hair, and Jerry was no different. Other than a few freckles on a possibly cute face, I couldn’t see what was so special. Maybe he loved Brenda now. Maybe they would run away and shack up in Vegas. Brenda would get fat and belch out babies. Jerry would play Fantasy Football. Disgusting.

We were rounding the corner to Brenda’s house, and Jerry didn’t want to talk anymore. He was focused on getting his next wet dog kiss. “Jerry, why you wanna kiss a wet dog?” I scrunched my face.

“Dunno,” he mumbled. He ran his hand through all that hair, and I pounced. I pushed him into the bushes. Rubbed up against him and purred into his neck.

“I can be your kitty-cat,” I licked tiny circles onto his throat.

“Um.” Jerry’s voice sounded funny, like a parrot’s squawk. Up close, he had no pizazz. There were no muscles under his Nirvana shirt. He did smell like crackers and sweat socks. I wiggled until his hands made it around my waist. He held onto me like we were going to slow dance.

“Let’s kiss now,” I whispered. Made my mouth an O and writhed my tongue past Jerry’s lips. Somersaults and jumping jacks commenced. It was the kiss of the century.

I heard Brenda’s screen door open. I pulled out of Jerry’s grasp and pushed him toward her house. His face was as pink as a baby’s bottom. Through his saggy jeans, I could see what he was packing. Nothing to write home about.

He looked lost. “Go get her, nerd.” I shoved him down the path. He was so slow, he might as well have stuck his arms out and moaned like a zombie.

I watched Brenda wait for Jerry on the steps. Her eyes were gleaming. She had put on lipstick. Probably combed her eyebrows, too. She caught sight of me and waved. I waved back. Smiled sweet. Made my exit. She’s okay enough, as far as best friends go, I decided. The day was looking bright. Extra shiny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift

Sara’s mother-in-law in the kitchen; upset. “How can this be? A home must have a coffee maker. Now I know your Christmas present!”

“No, please don’t. I won’t use it. I go out for coffee. Really. Don’t.”

Christmas morning. Coffee for all.

 

 

 

 

 

Almost

Her bag’s packed, hidden under their bed. Stashed inside is money, a ticket and pretty red heels.
Any day now.
Any day.
Decades later, sorting her things, I’ll find her dusty suitcase next to a shoe box
filled with photographs of me.

 

Divorce

The Walkie Talkie crackles. Joe’s voice sounds like he’s radioing me from the moon. “Meet me at the Panera.” He doesn’t say my name much, anymore. He doesn’t say “Hi” or “See ya later” anymore, either. Just directives. Go there. Get that. Watch out for the Green Slugs. Blah, blah. I would give my left tit to hear him crack those asinine jokes that annoyed the hell out of me in the old days. I would pretend to eat a Gordo-tick egg, if I thought it would elicit a smile. Not that Gordo-tick eggs are easy to find, at this point.

“The one by Walmart Crater, or near the Stickling graveyard?” I’ve been using my bike as a Slug squish-er this morning. There’s an old sewer drain by the river bed where the purple ones have been congregating lately. The purple ones are only poisonous if they are ingested. And they’re as slow as a Zombie herd. I just ride over them- Thunk! Thunk! – until the odious slime has become a smeared figure eight. It doesn’t matter how good I squish them. They will just re-coagulate again in a few hours. Ah, to be a Slug.

“…. at the Crater…” Well. Okay then. I rev the little electric engine on my bike and it sputters to life. I need an outlet anyway, so Crater Panera is fine with me. “Un momento,” I radio to Joe.

I ride along the old Freeway. Even though the Zombie stench is strong, I prefer to see miles in every direction. And Sticklings like to shoot fire arrows from the wooded areas, so concrete is usually best for travel.

This is the longest Joe has taken to get back here. Usually he goes off for two days, maybe three. When the world first popped, we stuck together through the worst of it and managed to survive. Neither of us would have lived without the other. But Joe is restless. He wants to go somewhere. Find something. And when he is here, he looks haunted. Like I am haunting him. So I let him go without a fight. And in return, he’s brought back lots of cool stuff on his walkabouts. Like this nifty electric bike.

I pull into the old building rubble of Walmart Crater. Humans can be found in this area, because a single wall of the Panera still stands erect. And it has a power outlet. That works. They huddle around the wall, with their mostly broken gadgets, just like when the world was alive and humans still had lunch, or got coffee, and needed to recharge their phones. The only way I can tell they are human and not Zombie is by sniffing the air. Zombies smell like death. Humans smell like despair.

Joe is jostling through the humans to claim the power outlet. He has a car battery in his hands. There is a dusty Jeep pulled up over a mangled coffee table with a decimated sun umbrella. He sees me and motions me over. He is sweating.

“Nice of you to come home,” A human reaches for Joe’s battery and I shove them away. Joe looks different. There is a fist sized bulge under the neck of his shirt. My heart drops. “What the? Joe? What the hell is going on?”

“I can explain,” he says, but I don’t wait. I rip the shirt from his neck. There is a Copulating Slug attached to him. It pulses and undulates seductively, Joe’s heart blood intermingled with its own sludge. Based on the size, it’s been copulating with Joe for months. “I…I wanted to tell you.” Joe says. He strokes his Slug’s eye stalk. The humans around us decide that now is a good time to find a rock for the night.

I retch all over my hard-won Altra sneakers. I had fought with a Rotting Gordo-tick for those damn things. And now they are ruined. “How could you? Doesn’t this life of ours mean anything to you?” I unlatch the gun from my hip holster.

“It was an accident. I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Joe puts his hands in the air, “It just did.”

I raise the gun level to Joe’s face. Four eyes look back at me.

“C’mon, Tess, don’t be so naïve.” His voice grows hard. “You know this is where it is all going anyway. It’s inevitable. It’s the future.”

“It’s not my future,” I say, and shoot.