Free Flash Fiction: “The Roaring Silence”

My notes for this one are at the end, so there won’t be spoilers… #SFWAPro

The Roaring Silence

James sat behind his desk, listening to the couple in front of him talk over each other.

“These behaviors keep going on –” the wife said.

“But that’s not fair –” her husband tried to interject.

“– no matter what you promise –”

“– because you know how work has been lately –”

“– I understand, you know I understand –”

“– I’m not saying your job isn’t hard but I –”

James held up both hands until he got their attention, and the room quieted. “Okay,” he said in a calm, measured, voice. “I hear a lot of tension and that’s completely normal, but we want to make sure that expressing our concerns isn’t getting in the way of hearing your partner’s concerns, too.”

“Yeah, okay, but –” the husband started in, and the wife rolled her eyes, and jumped back into the argument.

While his patients went at each other, James sat back in his chair, and thought about ordering from that Chinese place for dinner. Maybe he’d have it delivered and eat it at his desk like he often did…

He pulled himself away from that thought long enough to wrap up their session, and ushered the couple out of his office with some pleasant-sounding but generic advice he didn’t quite remember a few minutes later. It was after 6 in the evening, so his Stacy (his receptionist) had already gone home, but she’d left out a couple of menus just in case he wanted to work late again. James thought about the case files waiting for him, and decided, this once, to call it a night and finish up today’s work first thing in the morning.

Downstairs, with his coat collar turned up against the late Spring cold, James pushed the front door open with one elbow, and turned in a half circle to carefully maneuver around an elderly woman who had picked that moment to enter the building through that same door.

“Thank you, dear,” she said softly.

James nodded silently, holding his breath – and his belly – in while she scooted by.

On the street, he exhaled loudly. An attractive woman standing nearby noticed, frowning. She turned away and waved for a taxi before James had a chance to explain. He looked down, his shoulders dropping, and walked in the other direction.

As he turned a corner, the street noise dwindled around him, fading into nothing, damped as if he’d lowered a pillow over his ears, and only the faint sound of tinkling, old-timey piano music floated past him on the wind.

A young couple, laughing over their phones, passed him by, and the sound of the world came back on their heels.

James reached the subway entrance and his stomach rumbled. He tilted his head up and sniffed.

“Popcorn?” he said to himself. He looked around, but couldn’t find the vendor, and didn’t want to risk making eye contact with the young black man sitting on the platform next to an upturned hat and a sign that read Homeless and Disabled Please Help.

“Another time,” James said so quietly it was nearly a whisper, to the man, or the unseen popcorn vendor, or both.

He took the seat second-closest to the train’s doors, just as he always did, with his hands folded in his lap, and counted the minutes until they pulled into his station.

As the train slowed, James took his briefcase in one hand, stood up, and positioned the worn leather case in front of his chest like a shield; he fixed his gaze on the far wall, and took a deep breath.

The doors opened, and the crowd – oh, the rush and pull of the crowd! Like a wave crashing against James’ shore! He pushed himself forward resolutely, made it out of the train car, and up the stairs to the street, ignoring all jostling and elbows, all cries or claims or conversation around him.

He made it the two blocks to his favorite Chinese takeaway counter before he relaxed enough to lower his briefcase.

“Hello, how are you, come in!” the hostess said brightly. “Are you picking up or placing an order?”

“Placing, please,” James said, looking at the lacquered sticks holding her black hair into a loose bun at the back of her head. “To go.”

“Of course, of course,” she said, nodding. She kept nodding as he gave her his usual request: steamed brown rice, chicken with broccoli, and a cup of wonton soup.

There were a pair of tiny pink elephants hanging from the end of each hair stick. Every time the hostess dipped her head, the elephants danced.

“Oh, do you want a napkin for that?” she asked suddenly, pointing at his cheek.

He reached up with his free hand and wiped something greasy away. When he looked at his glove, there was a smear of chalk-white makeup on the fingertips.

“Yes, please,” he said, shook, nearly stuttering. “Someone on the train. Must have bumped me.” He dabbed at his cheek with the napkin she handed him. “It’s not mine.”

“Of course,” she said, nodding again. She moved on to the next customer, and James shoved the napkin into his coat pocket angrily.

By the time he got home, he’d lost his appetite. He put the takeout containers, still in their bag, into the refrigerator, and sat at the kitchen table, turning the napkin over in his hands. The makeup felt warm, soft, but solid. It didn’t crumble.

He had a vague feeling as if he should know what it was, but couldn’t remember.

Later, in pajamas, teeth brushed, and the comforter on his bed turned down, James heard the music again. It was the song he’d heard on the street, before those kids had stumbled by, engrossed by their devices. It was very faint, but it sounded as if it was coming from close by, just outside perhaps, or –

From inside of his closet?

He turned slowly, saw the closet was shut tight, and almost brushed off the whole silly idea, when he realized there was a light coming from underneath the edge of the door. It didn’t look quite like the familiar yellow glow of the light that had been in there for years. It was… smokier, somehow.

The music changed, or deepened? Layered in with the organ was… James wasn’t sure.

He carefully lowered himself to a crawling position, putting his head almost on the floor, but from across the room, he couldn’t see anything unusual.

On hands and knees, James inched toward the closet door.

He smelled popcorn.

He went closer, close enough he could reach out and touch the light that splashed onto his rug, if he wanted to. The extra sound, he knew then, was the muffled chatter of people, dozens or hundred of people, milling around in a small space. He knew that sound from somewhere deep in his childhood, a place long boxed up, put away, and forgotten about.

From under the door, a small blue rectangle of cardboard shot out, gliding over the floor and coming to a stop right under James’ noise. He picked it up, turned it over, and read exactly the words he expected to see:

Admit One.

Richard Baron asked me to write a story about an unseen carnival, and this is the result. It’s another “long” flash story, at 1207 words. The name comes from the title of a 1976 album by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which included “Blinded by the Light”, my favorite carnival-related rock song (even if it’s a more-fun cover of an unsuccessful Springsteen original).

The feeling I wanted to capture — of distancing yourself from everyone and everything, only to feel something’s missing that you can’t quite put your finger on… that’s just life, for too many folks.

I think it doesn’t have to be.

If you liked this and want to inspire your own story, you can get on the list by donating any amount via my PayPal, here:

You can read more about that, including last year’s flash stories, here.

Monday’s story was Mrs. Lesley and the Campers of Troop 83 Vs The Giant Blacklegged Tick of Contrary Knob.

Updates and News (August 2016 edition), or, Damn, That Was the Hardest Month

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In August:

I fell apart a bit.

I’ve said it before but this year has proven to me that the last 3 weeks of August (and the first week of September) are the hardest “month” of the year. That’s partly because of having my son home 24 hours a day without any respite, or break, or money to go out and do anything. His school year starts later than most; his first day back wasn’t until September 8, and by then, we were both ready for him to go.

We had to sit in our too-warm apartment all month — our landlord won’t let us put in an A/C unit — because it was too hot to be outside and at least we have some fans indoors. I still had to work as much as possible, and my hyperactive teen quickly became bored bored bored. With his special needs, I can’t send him out to play alone at the park, or go ride a bike, or any of the things I used to do to fill my summer days, all by myself as a kid. He’s an independent guy for the most part, wanting to play his video games or watch his favorite movies over and over for hours at a time. But even he gets tired of that much faster than I need if I’m going to put in a day’s work the way I can when he’s in school or camp.

The heat at the end of summer here is something I’m still getting used to. Growing up in California, we had heat. Hotter days. Lying out on the roof or in the grass that was dry and gone yellow, baking under the sun — my dog days of summer was late August dry heat, 100 degrees or more with no moisture in the air, and the utter joy of a sudden breeze. Here… it’s 90 degrees that feels like 95 because of 75% humidity and scattered rain every few afternoons that does nothing to cut the heat. I live in New York, but it feels like the summer I spent in Georgia, and like the bible school my aunt enrolled me in while I was there, I haven’t gotten used to it yet.

The best kid ever gets fidgety and then grumpy and then outright rebellious, given enough time trapped in a hot apartment with his mom who’s too busy and too poor to do much with him.

We did have one good adventure when I splurged on the gas on drove out to a Wal-Mart the next county over to do his back-to-school clothes shopping. Driving over the hills, the farms all green and growing, under a bright blue sky, the two of us played a game where we gave each other colors and picked out passing cars that matched. He got new clothes (not enough, but at least he wasn’t a shambles on his first day back), and a new haircut at the Wal-Mart salon (I didn’t even know they had those, did you?), and five whole dollars to spend in the arcade (I didn’t know Wal-Mart had those, either).

He was driving the Nascar game (of course) when a little girl sat at the Fast and Furious game next to him. She and her grandma couldn’t figure out how to get started, so Logan — silently — reached over and set it up so she could race the car she wanted, then went back to his game. Kid can barely speak, but he’s so smart and sweet and he didn’t just figure out what they were struggling with, but he wanted to help.

As hard as raising him is, and it is, a lot, my son always reminds me that he’s worth everything I do for him. Continue reading

Updates and News (July 2016 edition)

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In July:

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Abutilon (Flowering Maple) after the rain, Ithaca, New York

I started taking photographs again. Not many, yet, but I’m trying to get back into it, when I have the time. The idea that I can share a beautiful moment without having to be front and center, letting the image speak for me, is very comforting. In a way, I can be social and introverted at the same time, which suits me best.

I wrote, too, a little bit. A poem about being frustrated at the inevitable whiteness of public grief when the media covers dead and injured people of color. More words on the new stories for my Mythos collection. (You can still get it for yourself by pre-ordering it via PayPal for $2, or donating to the fundraiser in exchange for rewards like podcasts and beta reads and art.)

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Landlocked, Canadice Lake, New York

I took a day for myself — who does that? So novel! — to drive out to the middle of nowhere to meet Mercedes, and it was lovely.

I had sales and publications, too:

Sold a reprint of my flash story “Call Center Blues” to Luna Station Quarterly.

kblj-issue-3-cover

Issue 1.3 of Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal came out, and it includes my weird SF story, “One Echo Of An August Morning”. I blogged about it here.

I updated my Amazon wish list with some things that will help my life, if you like me enough to support me that way. You can also support me through my Patreon, which gets you poetry and microfiction at the moment, and will host longer stories when more people sign up.

One of the most important things I did was…

I got set up to once again teach my favorite online workshop: Better Writing Through Brevity: Writing/Editing Microfiction and Flash! And I blogged about why you should take this class from me, here. It’s entirely online, it’s less expensive than similar workshops offered anywhere else, and it’s starting in a month, so please, check it out, and tell your friends.

I also wrestled, mostly quietly and to myself, about my work as a freelancer. Most of you know that I went back to editing and content creation full-time because it’s the only job I can work around my son’s special needs, at least until I can finish college and have a real degree to back up my decades of experience (which should let me find a better paying dayjob where I have some seniority and flexibility). I love editing, I love writing, but freelancing is more than those things, and when it’s your only income, it’s frightening.

(Need an editor? I’m available!)

July was my best month as a freelancer so far this year — I got more done, on time! and secured some new work, got paid, too — but it’s still not enough to even cover the rent. I’m very glad to be recovering (recovered?) from being sick for so long; I feel good, I’m getting things done, and I feel confident going forward that I can do more and more. I’ve been chasing new kinds of work: in addition to editing, I did a lot of writing on spec, and at least some of that should pay off eventually. After not having the brain to do a workshop all year, I’m finally ready to do a new one, and a few people have signed up so far, which helped my July income. 

On the other hand, it’s tough to work 40+ hours a week, pull a couple of all nighters, chase every opportunity I can think of — on top of parenting my child — to bring in less than I need to give my landlord this week. Much less the other unpaid bills. It’s disheartening, is what it is.

I admit that I struggle, sometimes, to get up every day and do it again. I hope August is better.

(The list of what I did in June is here.)

3 Weeks Post-Surgery: Mostly Good (Even the Cancer Part)

Three weeks ago, I went to the hospital for surgery. They removed half of my thyroid, because it had developed nodules (what they call thyroid tumors they suspect are benign) and had swollen up enough that it pressed against my trachea, and the nerve that controlled my vocal cords. I was having trouble breathing, at times, and my voice had started to go froggy. Of course, there was the year, going on two, before that of me starting to go downhill physically  – tired all of the time, gaining weight, struggling to stay on task or complete things on time – but after dealing with a doctor who insisted it was just me being a woman, getting older, I’d found one who was actually willing to do lab work and sort it out. I was diagnosed with anemia, and started medication for that. Aside from the pressure on my throat, I should have been on the mend.

I didn’t quite feel it, though. A little better… but still, something was wrong.

We agonized over the decision to cut out part of my thyroid. It’s a simple, safe, outpatient procedure, except that it’s still surgery, which is never guaranteed 100% safe. My SO and I talked it over, made plans for dealing with what would come next if I didn’t make it out okay, and decided (supported by my surgeon’s opinion) that it’s better to get the swollen part of my thyroid out now before it got bigger and did some real damage. I felt it, a literal lump in my throat, every time I swallowed. Every time I tried to exercise and had to breathe harder. When I laid down for sleep, and the lump shifted a little, pressing on a new spot I hadn’t yet learned to ignore.

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ that lies flat, for most people, and has the volume of a peanut on each side. My right side wasn’t visible from the outside, so you wouldn’t know unless you saw a sonogram that it was the size of a jawbreaker, and growing. Inside were two nodules; the bigger one had been biopsied three times since it was found three years ago, and declared benign, though I was told in 2013 that it was collapsing and would get smaller – we discovered in May that it had actually gotten larger.

The smaller one was labeled “suspicious” by the sonogram tech during this round of tests, but was .1 mm too small for a biopsy to be considered necessary, according to the current medical guidelines, so I was told not to worry. We’d wait, they said, and check on it again next year.

If I hadn’t opted to remove the larger side of my thyroid, that nodule would still be there. Continue reading