Free Flash Fiction: “Mrs. Lesley Vs the Tick”

1250 words is definitely pushing the limits of “flash” fiction, but I had so much fun writing it I just wanted to keep going. (Most published flash fiction is under 1000 words, but I go up to 1500 for flash stories on my site. Anything longer is labeled “short fiction” instead.) This story prompt is courtesy of Jason Sizemore from Apex Magazine, who wanted to “gift” his editor Lesley Conner with a story, so in May 2017 I wrote this tale of bravery involving a camping trip, and a really big tick…

Mrs. Lesley and the Campers of Troop 83 Vs The Giant Blacklegged Tick of Contrary Knob

The sun beat down on the campers of Troop 83 as they dropped their gear heavily to the ground, and with the kind of sighs only weary teenage boys can make, flopped beside their packs. Only their substitute troop leader seemed energetic. She stood near the edge of the clearing, looking out over the wide valley, and the twisting path they’d all just climbed up the mountain.

“Isn’t it beautiful, boys?” She spread her arms wide. “Look at that view!”

Behind her, the campers struggled to get upright. An older child raised a hand with his thumb up, but fell over with a thud.

“Mrs. Lesley?” one red-haired boy called out.

“Dude, her first name is Lesley,” the boy next to him whispered loudly. “She has the same last name as me and Quinn.”

“It’s okay, Bradley,” his mother said to him, and to the rest said, “You kids can call me Mrs. Lesley if you want. What do you need, Jonathan?”

Jonathan stood up, pulling a dark-haired boy up with him. He signed as he spoke, his hands moving along with the words.

“We need to eat dinner,” he said. He looked at the other boy, who signed back at him. “Matty would like some more water, please.”

“Who here has their Wilderness Cookout badge?” Lesley asked, looking at Matty so he could see her lips move. He raised his hand; Jonathan and another boy did, too.

“Okay, you,” Lesley said, pointing, “and Jimmy, you three can be my helpers. Why don’t the rest of you set up the tents?”

Jimmy, who’d been using his pack as a pillow, said, “Yes, ma’am!” and stood. He stretched dramatically, making a show of bending and reaching, until Lesley had turned away to start a campfire. “You guys figure it out,” he hissed suddenly. “Are we still doing this or what?” He jogged to the fire, throwing one last glance at the rest of the boys over his shoulder.

“Gather around,” Bradley said loudly, so his mother could hear. When the campers were huddled up, he lowered his voice. “Did everyone bring their assigned supplies?”

“Mr. Brad isn’t here,” Quinn said. “We can’t sneak off with Mom watching us.”

“Mr. Brad told us the whole plan,” Bradly shot back. “We’re already here. We can’t just go camping with that thing out there, eating deer and dogs.”

“I don’t know,” another boy — David — said. “It’s not the same without Mr. Brad.”

“Well, he broke his leg, and it’s going to be another 6 weeks before he can walk,” Kendrick whispered. “If we wait, it’ll already be summer.”

“Yeah,” Bradly agreed, “and who knows what the monster will eat next. Maybe some campers,” he added with a knowing look.

The others nodded.

“Do you kids need help with the tents?” Lesley called out.

“No!” they all yelled back at once.

“Let’s do the tents and then we can check over the supplies after dinner,” Quinn said. The rest agreed, and broke off to put their Tent and Lean-To badges to work.

Later, after a dinner of hot dogs and cheesy pasta, and an hour of singing campfire songs while Matty and Jonathan made them all s’mores, the sun had set. The boys said goodnight to their substitute troop leader and pretended to go back to their separate tents. When it was much, much, darker outside – darker than a power outage, darker than an iPod with a dead battery – they snuck out of their pup tents with their secret stash of supplies, and met up a few hundred yards away, where the trees blocked any view Mrs. Lesley might have of their flashlights, if she was still awake.

Quinn scribbled on a notepad while his older brother held the light over the page, and the other boys crowded around to read.

“Show what you’ve got,” it said.

One by one, the boys pulled out an assortment pulled from kitchen drawers and the backs of closets: three magnesium road flares, a package of yellow rubber gloves, a half-box of wooden matches, a fancy chef’s cleaver, still in its black box. That last was from Jimmy, who grinned as he handed it over.

“Any other weapons?” Quinn wrote.

A pause, then the others shook their heads. Jonathan waved his hand until Quinn handed the notepad over, then wrote:

“I have two bug bombs and a can of tick repellent!!” And next to it, a drawing of a six-legged bug with Xs for eyes.

David laughed when he saw it, but was quickly shushed.

Bradley took the notepad and pencil away. “I have the map and the compass,” he wrote. “Let’s go.”

Suddenly, from out in the darkness: Snap!

For a moment, no one moved a muscle.

“What was that?” David whispered. Matty shook his head, frowning, so David repeated it in sign, and added, “Sorry.”

“A bear?” Matty signed back.

The boys listened, but heard nothing.

Suddenly, they were bathed in light.

“No, honey, I’m not a bear,” Mrs. Lesley said.

“Mom, I can explain –” Bradley started, but she raised her hand to stop him.

“Oh, I know what you’re doing out here. You’ll all planning to get yourselves killed,” she said. “Back to camp. Now.”

When the campers were once again seated around the fire, their substitute troop leader looked over their pilfered supplies. She sighed a couple of times, checked the map more than once, and sighed again.

“I suppose Brad thought this would be enough for you to take on the Giant Blacklegged Tick of Contrary Knob,” she said finally. “Normally, I’d say you have to treat your troop leaders with respect, but there’s a reason that man broke his leg changing a flat tire.”

Matty was the first to speak up, signing, “You knew? You’re…” he paused, fidgeting.

“A mom?” she said as she signed back. “Yes I am. Do you boys know what else I am?”

They shook their heads no.

“I’m a lifetime member of the Scouts, and I have my Battle Bugs merit badge.” She smiled widely. “My troop took down the Devouring Tuber Worms of Red Marble Corner in ‘85.”

“So, you’re not mad at us?” Quinn asked quietly.

“Well, I’m mad that you were going to go charging off without a decent plan or real weapons,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “But mostly I’m going to to have a word with Brad about that when we get home.”

Bradley jumped up. “We can’t just go home!” he exclaimed. “We still have to take down the Tick. It’s eating dogs and deer and, and – it’s going to get people next.”

“We have to do something, Mom,” Quinn added.

Lesley shook her head, turned, and stepped into her tent.

Matty signed, questioning, and David shrugged his shoulders in reply.

She reappeared a moment later, dragging a large duffle back heavily across the ground. “Of course we’re going to do something about it, boys,” she said, and opened the bag.

Inside, a pile of sharp metal edges glinted in the firelight.

“Wow, Mrs. Lesley,” Jonathan said. “That’s a lot of swords.”

“There’s a few axes in there, too,” David said.

“I also have my Weaponsmith merit badge,” Lesley said. She carefully picked out a faded scout sash, completely covered in bright-colored patches, and put it on.

“All right, boys. Choose a weapon, gather around, and listen up. You’re going to do exactly as I say…”

Reviews of my Apex Magazine story, “That Lucky Old Sun” (with a note about Editor-in-Chief Jason Sizemore)

In 2016, Apex Magazine published my short story, “That Lucky Old Sun”, to my great delight. You can still read it online for free, here. You can also buy the whole issue for Kindle here. AND it was made into a radio play by Redshift in 2017; you can listen to their performance of it here.

Before I talk about the story, I want to mention their publisher/Editor-in-Chief, Jason Sizemore. He’s been going through some health problems – Bell’s palsey, a painful cyst, required surgery – and chose to use the current issue to find inspiration in the darkness. You can read his editorial online here.

Apex Magazine has been publishing for years and has given us work by some amazing writers. While Jason’s surgery tomorrow shouldn’t affect their ability to keep publishing, maybe today is the day you subscribe? You can choose whichever format suits you best:

Apex (monthly recurring)
Weightless (ePub/mobi/PDF – traditional yearly billing)
Amazon (US) (Kindle – monthly recurring)
Amazon (UK) (Kindle – monthly recurring)
Patreon (monthly recurring)

I know that I look forward to reading each month. I hope you do, too.

Now, about my story…

Apex Magazine, Issue 80. Jan 2016. Cover art by Matt Davis.

(If you haven’t read “That Lucky Old Sun” yet, be warned that there are minor spoilers below.)

I was nervous before “That Lucky Old Sun” came out; it’s the longest short story I’ve published to date, and it plays with an old SF trope in a way that readers might either love, or hate, or not notice at all. You can never tell until a story ends up in the world and out of your hands. I was more nervous because this story is important to me. They all are, of course, though some of what I write is fun, some is dark, some is about projecting the future – I’m usually pushing at the edges of what I can do in a story, but the boundaries I’m pushing aren’t always the same.

In classic, golden age SF, we have these grand stories about building rockets, escaping doomed worlds, blasting off into space with limitless potential in front of us. I could write that again a hundred times, and who would question it? We know that tale. We’ve all read it. With this story, I wanted to talk about the people who get left behind. Not the rocket scientists or astronauts or the child looking out the porthole at a dwindling blue marble that used to be his home. Just regular, everyday people. Families. Neighbors. Small town folks, faced with things much bigger than themselves.

I am so happy with how it’s been received.

Amelia Crowly said:

This really gave me chills.
I love the way it *seems* to set the scene at once, only to become darker and more intriguing as the story progressed.

On Twitter, @robertired said:

It’s amazing. Subverting old school sci-fi is something that should be done more. Congratulations.

@ScottMBeggs said:

Beautiful short story from (via ). Uses the familiar to deliver the unexpected.

@MariaHaskins called it:

Wonderful, creeping-up-on-you #scifi

And @LaurenLykke said:

Just read and LOVED your story in !! Got me all teary-eyed!

Over at Tangent Online, Kevin P. Halett said:

Carrie’s “end of the world” science fiction story is time and world ambiguous, telling this often-told story from a new perspective. The protagonist is a small girl, innocuously spending what could be her last day with her loving mother, who knows what’s coming. The author touchingly portrays the mother’s loving patience and the girl’s innocence in this easy to read tale.

Telling the story from the little girl’s perspective made it darker and more compelling. I found the writing engaging from the very beginning and it continued to hold me even though I could guess where it might end; a pleasing new variation on an old theme.

Lastly, and with the most spoilers… At Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur said:

………….okay then. Yeah, this story is a bit dark, a bit…well, a bit very dark, about a child, Melanie, and her mother as they sort-of wait for the end of the world. The setting is vaguely futuristic and also rather dystopian, a place where people are judged based on their skin but not exactly the way that they are now. Here it’s not exactly race it seems but something in the blood that changes the skin’s color and might do other things to it. Whatever the case, it means that there are vast systems in place to try and “contain” it, mostly by reporting on neighbors and living in a police state and it’s an all around not-good scene. And yet the “problem” persists and so the government decided to just bomb everything. Bomb it all and then return to reclaim the wiped slate. And that the story follows a mother and her daughter on this day is bleak as fuck, but also I rather enjoyed it. There is something to be said about this, that this is where fascism leads, that this is where intolerance and bigotry lead. That there are “understanding” people who are just part of the problem and that everything is built on hate without reason, hate because that’s all it is, and in the end it tears everything apart, tears families apart and lets the central lie of the story fester and burn like the fires of the bombs being dropped. Because a large part of the story is the absence of the father, who is “pure” and who has the chance to survive. It’s a wrenching story and a sad one, very much worth reading but maybe prepare some cat videos for the aftermath. Indeed.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2 (All the Links!)

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites which will explain further:

Foundational Work:

    • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
    • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
    • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
    • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.
  • Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, concepts, contexts, Rampley, Matthew. Edinburgh University Press. 2005.

Semiotics and Writing:

    • Communication Theory/Semiotics and Myth, WikiBooks
    • “The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader”, Umberto Eco (1981). Full article online as a PDF here.
    • “Semiotics of Minimalist Fiction: Genre as a Modeling System”, Ibrahim Taha, University of Haifa. The full article is online here.
    • Science Fiction, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Advertising:

…and Fashion:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

    • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
    • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
    • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
    • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
    • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.

… and Film:

…and Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

    • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
    • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
    • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

What is Semiotics Anyway? A Short Primer for Writers, Part 1

I chatted with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding in 2016, about writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. Last week, I tweeted about the semiotics of MAGA hats, which got me thinking about how useful the study of semiotics is. I’ve updated this post a little; Part 2 will post next week.

Semiotics (not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition of “semiology”) is basically the study of what visual symbols mean. It examines how signs become a kind of short-hand for meaning, with the context of the specific time and culture where that meaning developed. Semiotics is related to the study of linguistics, but isn’t confined to written or spoken language. Instead, semiotics considers whether everything is a symbol, and if the display of those symbols has an extra layers of meaning which are instantly obvious to those who understand the symbol.

Imagine a billboard. There’s a message on it, and the text of the message has at least one obvious meaning. (You can read the words.) But the letters on the billboard have extra meaning, because the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has an effect on the original meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans give a different impression to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right? If it’s written in simple black letters, you’ll probably think of it as basic, or serious, or cheap, depending on the context, but if it’s written in ornately scrolled gilt lettering with an abundance of brightly painted flowers in between the words… that implies something different. You know this without even really thinking about it, because your life experience gives you a greater understanding of the extra meaning, based on context.

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. In other words, you can look at things which are not text – art, objects, fashion – and “read” their meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain historical women, as a plant, or as a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was obvious to viewers at the time as a reference to the faithfulness the couple should have during their marriage.

bowron_renaissance_vaneyck340x247

Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century understood about the dog, and probably several dozen other symbolic references as well (there’s a lot in this particular panting). They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, or later, viewers, it doesn’t give the same immediate impression.

In other words, for people alive when the painting was completed, semiotics turns this classic work of art into a meme. You knew what it meant because you’d seen the evolution of why these images had that meaning. You got the references. You could look at the painting and just know.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

Writers use the semiotics of their invented world to help their readers understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. (It’s been used on you ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t realize it.)

It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests… To fans of Star Trek.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

To use a more current example, it’s how you know something about a person based on the type of ballcap they wear:

Attribution: Jen Sorensen

When you know, you know.

(Part 2 will be published on Sunday, Feb 3, 2019. Stay tuned!)

Free Flash Fiction: “The Scent of Food is Memory and Love”

One of my favorites! Originally posted on my website in March, 2017.

The Scent of Food is Memory and Love

Azedah took the leaves off of the last small, round eggplant, then cut through the dark purple flesh until she had turned it into a pile of thick slices. She added them to the others already simmering in olive oil in her largest frying pan, so wide it covered most of the cooktop on that side of the stove. When both sides were golden brown, she lifted the eggplant pieces out of the pan and put then aside to drain. Quickly, her fingers moving with long experience, she chopped a large yellow onion; the fine slices sizzled when they hit the hot oil left in the pan.

“Azedah,” the house said. “The visitors have arrived.”

“Ah, they are early! Is Yasmin out of the shower?”

“Yes. Yasmin is in the study,” the house replied.

Azedah stirred the onions with a worn wooden spatula, and the smell of their cooking spread across the large kitchen. “Ask Yasmine to greet our guests,” she said. Behind her, the pressure cooker beeped, its cycle finished. She tapped the “natural release” icon, and turned back to the stove.

She reached to her left – but her hand closed on empty air. Continue reading