Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part Two)

She can’t look at Ben, so she looks away to the stairs. It’s somehow worse in the dark, where shadows shudder in time to her unsteady grip on the phone. There’s nothing overtly different about the upward curve of plain concrete blocks sweating with a sheen of salt water. Is there?

A concrete silo, seen from within and looking up (and not a lighthouse)

Image by LEEROY Agency from Pixabay

Mind your step, Zed, comes Ben’s voice, drifting back from this morning. It’s a bit slippery.

“You’re not wrong”, she mutters as she takes the first step. A chill wind drifts past, as if granting permission. Zara shivers, and climbs.

She remembers two floors. The first is a simple living area with a galley kitchen with a too-loud fridge, a battered green sofa that might also be a bed, a walled-off bathroom and a desk with a three-generations-past PC. She passes the open door and looks in. Nothing’s amiss, though the refrigerator’s grumbling has gone off with the rest of the electrics. She keeps climbing.

The next floor used to be a storage area when the lighthouse was operational. When she was here earlier, she had followed the two police constables across to a large barn door that opened onto a tiny verandah with no protective railings. A pulley assembly was set on the outside wall above the door frame, but the chain or rope that used to bring supplies up from the perfunctory dock on the seaward side of the building was long since gone.

Zara remembers wondering this morning, “Why would the barn doors would be open?” but then of course they had discovered the next body, and she’d forgotten all about the way the morning sunlight had been almost blinding as it streamed through wisps of spray.

Her eyes flick to the spot, at the end of a freestanding rack of shelves, where this morning a bloodied and contused bare foot had stuck out from behind a box of museum pamphlets.
Now there were two boots, black with shine but spattered with wet mud. Zara followed them up – dark uniform trousers, a belt laden with black plastic equipment and a holstered pistol, a blue buttoned shirt with an embroidered label marked “Shearer”, and a lined, sun-spotted face staring at her with suspicious blue eyes beneath a dark cap.

“Hello again, Ms. Corman.” The voice has a strange dissonance, as if she’s hearing it from underwater through a distant amplifier.

The moonlight through the still-open doors casts the room in greys and blues. Zara kills the phone light and thumbs the camera to record video, not breaking eye contact with the woman she met this morning.

“Ange – Senior Constable,” she says, catching herself before she can let the conversation sound personal. “May I ask what you’re doing here?”

Angela Shearer cocks her head to one side, as if the question is more curious than obvious. “This is where I am now. You should have paid closer attention to your dream.”

Zara sucks in a deep breath. She never likes these kinds of conversations. “You’re dead too, aren’t you?”

The figure shaped like a weary country cop who’s seen it all in twenty years on the force smiles. “That word has no meaning in this place, Ms. Corman. But for our purposes, let’s say yes.”

* * *

“I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” was the first thing Ben said when the waiter left with their drinks order. “I would have understood if you wanted to cancel after this morning.”

She reached across the table to put her hand on his, steadying his nervous finger tapping. “Babe, I’m fine. It’s not like that was our first crime scene together.”

“Yeah, I guess not.” A quick smile twitched the corners of his mouth, as if he’d bitten two fishhooks at once. “This isn’t what you’d call a typical relationship, is it?”

Zara looked him square in the eye. They were somehow an even deeper and richer brown than hers. When she thought about them, which was often, she thought of a warm, loamy mud bath she could sink into, safe and encompassing. “Benjamin Lachlan Dallas, are you taking the temperature right now?”

He coughed, snatched his hand away, grabbed for his water glass, almost knocked it over, gulped greedily, spluttered water and laughed. “Ah. Ahhhh, Zed, you got me.”

“You got yourself this time. I’m not taking any points for that.” It was a game they’d spontaneously played since they started dating – who could make the other spit their drink out? Zara was the undeclared but indisputable winner. “And you didn’t answer the question.”

The waiter returned with two glasses of white wine, giving Ben a momentary reprieve. He watched Zara warily as they tapped a salute and raised their glasses, but she just smiled and sipped, eyes to eyes.

“I brought you something.” He fetched something from his jeans pocket and set it on the table, a small object bundled in a batik wrap. He glanced up quickly, more nervous still. “It’s not a -”

Zara nodded. Not a ring. They’d already discussed the subject, specifically that it was never happening. For his part, a bad experience straight out of high school had led to a quick divorce and a rebound decision to join the police. For hers, it was more complicated but just as decisive. “Come on then, hand it over.”

He nudged it into reach. She snagged his fingers in hers and unwrapped the bundle with the other hand. It was a curved band of faintly tarnished metal, its rounded ends almost touching. An intricate folding pattern overlapped back and forth on itself along the edges, while the center of the outer face was smooth but for three embossed symbols. Zara recognized them as alchemical symbols, but could only place the middle one, a triangle bisected by a horizontal line, as the element of air.

“It’s for luck,” he said, watching for her reaction. “And protection.”

She picked the bangle up, contemplated the dull reflection of the restaurant’s tea candles on its surface. “Since when have you been the superstitious type?”

Ben sighed. “These days you can’t be too careful, right?”

She detangled her fingers, slipped the bracelet onto her left wrist. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Ben. I love it.” The silver band slid loosely as she lifted her wine for another sip. “So, it’s supposed to be for luck, is it? Mine or yours?”

* * *

Last night, Zara dreamed:

She was flying, high above the water, but not so high the terrain below was unfamiliar. The peninsula, the winding coast road, the lighthouse. She knew them, had seen them a hundred times, if never from above and rarely in the dark.

She dipped lower, circling like a seabird. The lighthouse lamp glowed, not a beam aimed out to sea but an embracing halo. Like a signpost, illuminated to draw passing eyes. She whirled about the lamp while a figure stood, silhouetted against the lamp’s brilliance, shadowing her movements so it was always right beside her.

“Come to me,” called the figure, in a language she couldn’t speak but understood well enough. “Your service has value, thus I declare my mastery. Come and serve, come and serve. Come to me and set yourself in my service.”

She didn’t want to. Her freedom was everything. She could go anywhere she chose, do whatever she desired. To be held here was to give up everything she was. But the words were old words, and like many old things had power beyond their meaning, and she could no more deny the words than deny the sky itself. So she lit upon the lighthouse deck and bowed her head and was bound to servitude.

But this she knew, as her captor did not: not all services are of equal value, and not all who are bound are slaves.


It’s later in the day than I planned to post this, but in my defense I thought next week was the last Friday of the month. And now that I say that, I am forced to acknowledge that “I can’t read a calendar” is not a rock-solid defense. Still, since I was aiming at that date, and since I have most of the next part finished, I’ll put up Part 3 on the first of March.

Also the image is actually a grain silo interior but I liked it too much not to use it.

Posted in Friday flash fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Friday Flash Fiction – Talk About the Weather (Part One)

Two thoughts strike Zara Corman even before her eyes snap open.

A tall white lighthouse

Image by Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

The first: the salt stinging her nostrils, the muffled weight of waves dashing on rocks, and the damp stone chilling her right shoulder blade and hip bone tell her she is back in the lighthouse.
The second: her date is going very badly.

The concrete floor she’s lying on weeps saltwater and smells like rotting feathers. She’s facing the same rough stairs she climbed this morning, following in the footsteps of Ben Dallas, the young police constable who drew the shortest straw possible. Stairs that spiraled up, past two scenes-of-a-struggle and three persons-of-interest-now-deceased, to a lamp room reeking of ozone and copper and dusted in pulverized glass.

Zara checks her watch, wincing at the sharp complaint from a shoulder that hasn’t moved in hours. It’s just past four in the morning. She listens for a moment, in case whoever brought her here has been waiting for just this moment, but beyond the efforts of the Pacific to rend the peninsula back to sand, it’s quiet. Even the seagulls aren’t up yet.

She picks herself up, cataloguing yet more aches and pains, all consistent with an uncomfortable night on a hard floor. No clues as to what knocked her out or brought her here. She’s dressed in the same jeans and black linen top she wore to dinner. The chunky silver bracelet a nervous Ben had given her when they met outside Mama Cognetti’s is missing from her wrist.

She still has her phone, still almost at full charge. She sweeps the torch in a full circle and stops the beam on the figure lying crumpled behind her.

It’s Ben. His brown eyes are locked in a wide, blank stare. His short blond hair is mussed and bloody.

Her date is going worse than she thought.

#

She shouldn’t have gone to the lighthouse.

She could have ignored the dream, could have made it to work on time without giving in to the lie that it would be “just a quick stop.” But her midnight vision had been so vivid, and the peninsula road was just off the coast road where her little coffee caravan sat permanently parked. And besides, it wouldn’t even be open yet. The museum manager, Helen, a retiree in her eighties, always stopped in at Zara’s van at 8:30 for a cheerful chat and a double-shot heart starter.

Zara was telling herself she’d leave it until later right up to the moment she eased off the Honda’s throttle and leaned into the turnoff. Following the twisting single lane causeway, with rocky mudflats exposed by the low tide to either side, she made up new deadlines to ignore: Check the building’s intact. Check the carpark is clear. Check the front door is locked.

But as she approached, squinting into the sunrise, she knew what she would see. Three vehicles – a late model BMW, a battered Land Cruiser that probably stopped being white sometime around the millennium, and Helen’s little yellow Daihatsu – sat abandoned in the car park, all pointed at the door. In the glare of the Land Cruiser’s spotlight, the door was clearly ajar. And as Zara pulled up, dropped the kickstand and killed the engine, she looked up. The lighthouse’s glass canopy was completely gone, and the heavy gas lamp within, which had been lovingly maintained by the Olive Coast Historical Society since its retirement in 1973, was an irreparable mosaic of fractures and scorch marks.

She couldn’t help herself. Zara removed her helmet, gripping the straps in case she needed an improved club or missile, and approached the door. A mixture of gravel and glass crunched beneath her boots. The sign announcing the Kettle Headland Lighthouse Museum opening hours was hanging loose from one of four screws. The metal door was freshly cracked and bulged from the inside. The Cruiser’s incandescence threw shadows across the dark interior, picking out upended display cabinets, fallen photo frames and broken furniture. Huddled beyond the door frame, picked out like a diva taking center stage, lay Helen Burns.

Helen. She of the chirpy morning conversation about whatever popped into her head. The price of petrol. The latest Swedish murder mystery. Yesterday’s museum visitors.

And the weather. She always had something to say about the weather, and she was never off the mark. “The wind’s turning northerly, love. We’ll get a chill and a spot of rain around eleven,” or “Pay no attention to that nice lass on the news this morning. These clouds will clear in an hour or two.” The first time they met, watching patiently as Zara steamed a jug of skim milk, Helen had leaned forward and said, “When you get a chance, perhaps you’d better move your bike in behind the van, dear. There’s a gust coming in shortly. It might get knocked about, out in the open like that.” Her concern was so sincere Zara didn’t think to question in, but shifted the bike into shelter and took down the hanging plant holders on the front of the coffee van. An hour later, as a sudden squall battered and rocked the van and sent her customers dashing for their parked cars, Zara remembered the little old lady with the eyes as storm cloud-grey as her hair, the knee-high fishing boots and the sky-blue hand-knitted cardigan.

Within a week or two of Zara starting work at the van, she was so confident in the unerring accuracy of Helen’s predictions that she would pass them on to her customers. She gave credit where it was due, of course, and more than one carload of tourists made the short hop up the coast road to see the lighthouse and its cheerful museum guide.

Zara had taken a few steps forward, stopping short of the threshold where Helen’s blood had spread until stemmed like a dammed river by the raised lip of the door frame. She yanked out her phone and thumbed through to Ben Dallas’ work number. This was a job for the cops.

She’d seen bodies before, but never one this beaten and broken. The twisted joints, the many-angled limbs, and one rib jutting through the dark, soaked cardigan. The gut-churning sense that what was left of Helen Burns’ body was held together not with skin and bones, but cling wrap and powder.

Helen didn’t look like she had been assaulted.

She looked like she’d been dropped from a plane.


Okay, so, I cheated. This isn’t a complete story. It was going to be, but then it got out of hand and I realised there was more to the situation than I thought. So, check back soon to see what happens next, I guess? The writing is feeling pretty good right now, so I think I can manage to build on this pace a little, but it would be reckless to promise that Part Two will be up next week, but it won’t be long.

Welcome back, Friday Flash Fiction. Gosh, it turns out I’ve missed this!

Posted in Friday flash fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Final Fridays

I’m not one for resolutions around the start of a new year. Commitments made while basking in the glow of holidays and indulgence are neither credible nor binding, if past experience is anything to go by.

Man in silhouette doing warmup stretches next to a park bench in front of a sunrise

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Life’s starting to catch up with me though. Health-wise, I’ve been given some firm directions. Get my weight down and my fitness up, get my blood pressure under control, and knock the cholesterol back a few points. That means more exercise and a more watchful diet. That in turn means reimposing a bit of discipline on myself, or risk having an Event f some description.

Okay then. While I’m at it, let’s throw a bit of writing into the mix.

It’s been more than 18 months since my last blog entry. It’s been much, much longer than that since I’ve completed any fiction writing, especially if you don’t count song lyrics [1]. And I can’t even remember the last time I sent out a newsletter, but it will have been at least three years ago.

It’s what you might call a fallow period. I’ve spent a lot of that time trying to get my head straight, being increasingly anxious about not getting my head straight, and failing to adequately deal with that anxiety. Also the previously mentioned high blood pressure, a couple of surgeries, and constant nagging fatigue. Oh, and finally, after a couple of years of working at it, at last getting a diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder. Dealing with all of this using tried and true methods like stress eating, freaking out at the simplest problems, staying up too late and playing video games for hours at a time. You know, the way our prehistoric forebears did.

All of which is to say, I haven’t spent a lot of time writing.

I haven’t stopped thinking about it though, and it might just be the vacation-based relaxation talking, but I think I’m ready to get back into it now. I have a few plans for the year, including producing another collection of short fiction to accompany Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales. That came out more than five years ago. (I’ll just take a deep breath as I contemplate that). In my mind, at least, I’m well overdue.

The trouble with that plan is I don’t really have enough material available to justify a collection at this point. There’s a decent selection of flash fiction to pick and choose from, but I’d prefer to marry those up with longer pieces. Which means I have to write some. Which means I have to rebuild some good writing habits.

My Friday Flash Fiction project was an attempt to maintain those habits, but I don’t think a story-every-week goal is sustainable just now. (Possibly not ever – the run-up to the 100th straight week of FFF undoubtedly contributed to burnout, though on reflection it probably wasn’t the worst offender on that score).

Rather than just straight back into the deep end, I’ve settled on a compromise I’m calling Final Friday Fiction. I’ll post a new story on the site on the last Friday of every month. I’m aiming for flash length to keep my ambitions in check, but unlike the old flash fiction project, I won’t necessarily restrict myself to the thousand-word limit if a story needs a bit more breathing space. (Certainly some of the old Friday flash stories suffered a little from the artificiality of the 1K restriction). Once a month feels a lot more doable than once a week,certainly.

I have a couple of other projects underway, but I’ll talk about them as I go. And I might see about resurrecting the newsletter at some point, though I’ll revisit what I’m doing there and keep it primarily to writing news or shoutouts for other good things I’ve been reading.

What will the first story be about? Dunno, haven’t thought that far ahead yet. It’ll be a nice surprise for all of us. So, follow the friday-flash tag or just check back in at the end of the month to see if I can hold myself to account even once.

If you haven’t heard from me by March, don’t send out any search parties.

 

[1] I do actually count song lyrics, but I treat them more as a fun side project than part of my writing practice. That way, they stay fun. If and when my musical friends and I ever get around to recording them, I’ll let you know.

 

Posted in Friday flash fiction, Personal | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Slump and Recovery

I know that sounds like the world’s worst superhero team-up – He’s a washed-up private eye who can only see the darkest future timelines! She’s a hyper-efficient android with a million projects! Together they fight crime! – but it’s pretty much just my life these days.

A sleeping dog

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay


Over the past year or so, I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with myself. I’m not writing, I procrastinate on simple tasks for weeks rather than minutes. I’m not able to stay focused on my day job, I’m getting more and more forgetful about things, and I’m making stupid, obvious and easily avoidable mistakes. The slightest disruption to my daily routine – the slightest disruption – will mess up my entire day.Instead of doing things, I get stressed about not doing things.

I spend more time recriminating myself than I do taking positive action. Or any action, in a lot of cases. And the more ineffective I feel, the more stressed I get about it (in a way that the anxiety meds are barely staving off), until I get to the point of having a panic attack. Or freakout, depending on your preferred medical terminology. I fall into hole, silently screaming the whole way down. Sweats, shaking hands, the lot.

And then what invariably happens is that I scare the shit out of myself so badly that I immediately flip a switch. I become a productivity machine. I Get Shit Done. I make lists, I power through them, I make more lists. I operate at a level of focus and efficiency I don’t even recognise.

Trouble is, it doesn’t last. At best, I sustain the burst of energy for a few days in a row. Most of the time it lasts a day, then I crash so hard I get home from work and need a nap. By the next day the slide has started again.

It’s becoming somewhat obvious to me that I have some sort of attention deficit condition. The good news is that my spouse finally pushed me hard enough to get the ball rolling on an ADHD assessment. The less good news is that it turns out, psychiatric services specialising in this extremely common complaint are rarer than a sunburned sirloin. It took weeks to get the appointment, and it’ll probably take a number of followup appointments to arrive at a diagnosis. I’m looking at potentially months of this internal psychodrama going on before I can start on effective treatment, and that’s only assuming that my half-arsed amateur self-diagnosis has any validity.

My first session was scheduled for yesterday morning.

Funny story: I’m currently in lockdown after testing positive to COVID on Wednesday morning. (I’m physically fine. I’ve been lucky enough and vaccinated enough to score one of those “It’s no worse than a bad head cold” doses.)

Because I couldn’t attend in person, and because apparently the initial consultation needs to be face to face, I had to defer my appointment to the next available slot – in late August. Agh.

The horizon stretches on, I guess. Hopefully it’s closer than I think, but I’m not all that optimistic at the moment.

PS: Don’t get me wrong – I’m not in any danger of causing harm to myself or anyone else. I’m just stressed (sometimes) and exhausted (usually). It’s possible a week of enforced best rest might be the best thing that could happen to me. Not likely,  but possible.

Posted in Personal | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Post-Aurealis non-COVID hangover

The Aurealis Awards weekend has drawn to a close, and I’m done. Luckily for me, today is a public holiday in Canberra (for Reconciliation Day) so I don’t have to immediately switch back to my day job brain.

T R Napper in conversation with Cat Sparks at the launch of Tim's novel 36 Streets

At the launch of 36 Streets by T R Napper.

The weekend was by and large a smashing success: friends old and new gathered, winners were feted and runners-up commiserated, there was laughing, earnest and enthusiastic chit chat, and not a few tears were shed. After the ceremony was done, quite a lot of joyful teamwork was dedicated towards generating Sunday morning hangovers.

And, of course, there was at least one report (so far) of a positive COVID test. Ah. It was always a risk, of course, and hopefully one that in retrospect will feel more calculated than reckless. So far my tests have come back negative, and my exhaustion and slight cough have adequate alternative explanations. Fingers crossed that we didn’t just stage a super-spreader event.

The winners of the awards are all listed on the Aurealis website, and about the categories for which I had an opinion I certainly have no complaints. It was lovely to see several first time winners among some more familiar faces on the podium. In particular I have to give it up for Alan Baxter, whose win for his delightfully weird and creepy novella collection The Gulp broke a ten-year drought of Aurealis nominations without a win.

image shows a darkened clifftop with a bright light flaring through a pin tree

The Gulp by Alan Baxter

The bittersweet highlight of the night was undoubtedly the Best Anthology win for Aiki Flinthart’s Relics, Wrecks & Ruins, which she pulled together in the months leading up to her death from cancer in early 2021. Not only did Aiki bravely and shamelessly invite a cadre of some of the best writers in the genre to contribute, but she also turned out to be an excellent anthology editor. RWR is a terrific read, and just one of the many reasons Aiki will be fondly remembered and dearly missed. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when her friends and co-editors Pamela Jeffs and Geneve Flynn accepted the award on her behalf.

a painted book cover depicting a man looking at a crashed vehicle of indeterminate size and function

Relics, Wrecks & Ruins, edited by Aiki Flinthart.

As usual I completely forgot to get my phone out to take any photos, but luckily the indomitable Cat Sparks was there with her camera and did a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the afternoon and evening. Check out her extensive Flickr gallery to see all the glamour and joy of the affair (which I am startled to note includes several instances of me looking a lot more like my dad than I ever thought I did).

On Sunday my good mate and former day-job colleague Tim Napper got to hold a slightly belated launch for his debut novel 36 Streets, a near-future noir cyberpunk set in Chinese-occupied Hanoi. Tim chatted with Cat Sparks about some of the influences on his writing, including Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, the books of Richard K Morgan, and more than a decade working as an aid worker in south-east Asia (Hanoi in particular). The result is a hard-boiled, brutal futuristic thriller that grapples with some of Tim’s favourite themes – memory, identity, and the future of geopolitics. And vicious knife fights, if I had to guess (I’m only a few pages in so far, but I feel pretty safe to recommend it, if you like the sound of what I’ve described. Tim’s a reliably exciting writer and I’m incredibly pleased he’s finally got a novel out in the world).

a woman in a red jacket stands before a dark, neon-lit Hanoi street

36 Streets by T R Napper

As for me, I’m glad the weekend went without too many hitches, and pleased I got to see some old friends and make several new acquaintances for the first time in I guess maybe 40 years? I dunno, time seems to be broken so my counting may be a bit off. Could have been 50 years.

As often happens when the speculative fiction tribe gathers, I’m feeling more invigorated to do some writing. We’ll see after the exhausted relief of several months of accelerating stress and anxiety wear off in a week or two. In the meantime I’ll see what I can do about catching up on my sleep.

 

Posted in Links, Writing news | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment