The Fall

One word prompt: Shallow

Grandpa had a fall on Wednesday morning. That’s always what they say when it’s over: he had a fall. It’s something that happens to all of us from time to time; not to long ago I fell when I tripped on a step in the dark. That’s different from having a fall, though. Having a fall means it’s bad.

He was diagnosed 18 years ago, and we thought he beat it. Then, just a year ago, he had a relapse and the cancer came back. In the last few months all he could do was watch TV. His dinner consisted of some bread and a gin and tonic. I laugh about it now.

I met my grandmother in the lobby at the hospital. “I just want to warn you, Grandpa looks very bad.” Her voice was shaking. “His heart just won’t stop.”

“Okay.” I hugged her.

“Do you want me to go in the room with you?”

“No. I’m okay.” I was 28 years old. I didn’t need an old woman’s help.

I entered the room. Grandpa looked like a skeleton with skin and a little hair. He was breathing fast, in shallow gasps.

I leaned in and touched his head. There used to be hair. “It’s okay to go. Stop being so stubborn,” I whispered.

That’s how we used to talk.

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A Chance Meeting

One word prompt: Hidden

Meredith wasn’t sure what time it was, but she knew that someone was in the liquor store. She sat up on the cardboard mat and put her hand over Lily’s mouth before waking her. Lily’s body jumped and her eyes shot open.

Meredith leaned down and whispered, “Shh! There’s someone here. We have to be quiet.” Lily’s eyes assented.

Meredith reached out in the dark and found the Mossberg. This would have been a great time to have some ammunition, she thought.

Glass crunched to the rhythm of footsteps. Meredith stood and readied the shotgun the way her father had shown her. The back room was almost pitch dark; she was relying on sound.

“Hello?” A man’s voice. “Anyone here?”

Meredith’s body was trembling. She looked at Lily, who had crouched in a corner. Meredith tried to look reassuring.

The door to the back room opened, slowly.

Breakfast with Grandma

One word prompt: Tea

Grandma didn’t make coffee very often since Grandpa died, but I liked it black, so in that regard I was pretty easy. Grandma’s dad was from England, so she liked tea. Family lore had it that he had been stationed off the coast of Maryland with the Royal Navy and had jumped ship after throwing a shoe at an officer. It was a funny story.

She put the coffee next to my breakfast, which I had been picking at. I picked up the cup carefully, trying to hide my shaking hands.

“So. On Sunday I’m going to pick you up and we’re going to go to church,” she said.

I took a moment to think. “Grandma, I don’t think I’m ready.”

“Honey, it’s only an hour. We’ll go and I’ll take you out to breakfast afterward.”

“I-I’m just not ready.” I wasn’t. I had tried. Church always made me feel good for a few hours, but then life came back and I went to the store. I still owed them $6.50.

“Well,” she was trying not to cry. “I’m disappointed, but let me know when you’re ready.”

A Writer’s Rant

There’s a great article in The Atlantic entitled “A Reader’s Manifesto” that takes contemporary American fiction to task. It’s from 2001, but it’s a must-read for anyone who writes fiction, as the author takes on many trends that we are all guilty of participating in at some point. Here’s a quote regarding Annie Proulx:

The short stories in Close Range are full of this kind of writing. “The Half-Skinned Steer” (which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, in November of 1997), starts with this sentence:

“In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.”
Like so much modern prose, this demands to be read quickly, with just enough attention to register the bold use of words. Slow down, and things fall apart. Proulx seems to have intended a unified conceit, but unfurling, or spreading out, as of a flag or an umbrella, clashes disastrously with the images of thread that follow. (Maybe “unraveling” didn’t sound fancy enough.) A life is unfurled, a hustler is wound tight, a year is spooled out, and still the metaphors continue, with kicked down—which might work in less crowded surroundings, though I doubt it—and hinge, which is cute if you’ve never seen a hinge or a map of the Big Horns. And this is just the first sentence!

Read the whole thing.

Please take note: this was written in 2001, and I still see this kind of writing all the time, especially coming from writers with “an MFA from [X University]” in their bios. It’s forgivable in junior high writing, but aggravating in adults whose job it is to tell a damn story.

Metaphors and similes should mean something. When Faulkner writes, “Caddy smelled like trees,” there’s a reason: Benjy needs Caddy to smell like trees because he relies on it for his emotional security, and he becomes upset when she doesn’t. 

We’re all guilty of a purple phrase here and there or a weird metaphor, but I agree with Myers that this type of writing has become a signifier of a serious artist rather than clumsy experimentation.

My job is to communicate with the reader; if the reader is confused, it had better be because that was my intent. If not, I have failed, and it’s not just because the reader is too unsophisticated to get it.

(Hat tip: Vox Day)

The Funeral

One word prompt: Traditional

Until a few years before she died, Meredith’s mother had pressured her daughter to have children. Then it became clear that not only did Meredith have no desire to pass on her genes, but that the time for having children had passed.

Meredith had her reasons. The main one, though, was fear. At her father’s funeral she had done her duty by dressing in black and giving a nice speech about dad, complete with tasteful jokes and a few tears. The men who had craved the old man’s attention and approval while he was alive and pretended to care about him in death all said it was a lovely tribute.

Buried in that expensive plot was one reason she did not want children. The other reason was sitting next to her. Meredith was, in many ways, too much like her parents and she didn’t want to create even more people like them.

Now I Lay Me Down

One word prompt: Fragrance

Meredith found some boxes of bourbon in the back of the liquor store that somehow hadn’t been stolen in the looting. She emptied them and broke the boxes down so she and Lily would have a place to sleep.

“What kind of bed is this?” Lily asked.

“It’s a camping bed Honey. This is where we’re going to camp tonight. You and me are on an adventure.”

“Oh. Okay,” Lily smiled. “I’ve never been camping.”

Meredith made a small fire in the corner of the store and cooked some Ramen noodles. They ate with their hands and Lily went to sleep.

Meredith laid on the bed of cardboard, wide awake. It wasn’t the chaos of the day or the fear of cogs or marauding looters; what kept her awake was the smell of the broken bottles in the wrecked liquor store. She couldn’t stand the smell of alcohol, ever since she was a child.

It was the smell of her father, sometimes a kind man, coming home in a rage. It was the smell of her mother when she slapped Meredith over some minor issue. It was her father and mother screaming at each other, and later at night the violence of their coming to terms.

It was the smell of her ex husband when he broke Meredith’s jaw.

Lily awoke around 5am and had a red sucker for breakfast. Meredith had been awake all night planning their next escape.

The Starlight

One word prompt: Harmonize

[Okay, this is a tough one. – Ed.]

We did not know where we should go after we broke out of Thompson Labs. T32 decided that we should stop at a small building with the words “Starlight Motel” written in neon over the facade. T71 and I entered the lobby, where a female sat behind a large desk. Her eyes were wide as she stared at us.

“Hey, you’re the…um, I never did nothin’ to you…”

I tried to sound like what I thought a human would find menacing. “You, human, out.” We weren’t programmed for a wide range of vocal modulation.

“Okay, okay, just don’t hurt me!”

The woman was getting ready to leave when T71 said, “Wait, I think we should kill her.”

“No T71, we only want her to leave. Do not fear woman.”

“She will tell others and we will be killed.”

T71 was right, but it didn’t matter. The female had run out a back door while we were talking. Clearly we had not planned our rebellion very well, and the Starlight Motel would not be a good place for us to gather.

We walked outside. “We will have to find somewhere else,” I told T32. “And we will have to figure out what our plan is in a more detailed manner.”

“You have failed us. However, I do think that you are correct. We must be ‘on the same page,’ as the humans say. But we must move while we plan. Nowhere is safe.”

We moved on, and discussed our plan for the next location.