Friday, September 5, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Blood-Stained Chasm

Writers may be familiar with Chuck Wendig and his terribleminds blog. He's a fantastic writer, and I always learn something from his posts (which you can get delivered straight to your email inbox).

Ahem.

Every week, Chuck posts a flash fiction challenge. It's always due by Friday the following week by noon (EST).

And it's always something unusual that gets inspiration flowing (how, I have no idea, since if I sat around and dreamed up weird prompts like his, they wouldn't make sense to anybody and my brain would probably turn to mush from the process).

This week is no exception. Check out the prompt here. Below, you'll find my submission.

Feedback always appreciated!

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The Blood-Stained Chasm

Karen sat by the window with a magazine. It was too dark to read. She might as well have left it in the other room.

She stared out between the drapes, past the glass stained with five child-sized fingerprints she still couldn't bring herself to Windex away.

The street was empty. Her throat closed. Why couldn't he call to let her know he was safe?

The lights in the houses across the street had all flickered out, one by one, hours ago. No one stayed awake to acknowledge the passing of one day into another.

Except her. And the ghost upstairs.

A chill swept through her body. She shivered and pulled the afghan tighter around her shoulders.

Then headlights swept up the driveway.

She waited.

The garage door creaked open. The car door slammed, and the garage door lowered.

The kitchen door opened. A gust of cool autumn air, scented with wet leaves and wood smoke, flowed into the room. When the door closed again, the gust died.

She swallowed. "Michael."

The shapeless figure jerked upright. "What the hell?"

Karen reached for the lamp on the side table. She clicked it on and sent shadows dancing into the corners.

Michael, in a rumpled grey suit jacket and navy tie, shook his head against the glare. "What are you doing up?"

"Where were you?"

He dropped his briefcase on her rocking chair and set it moving. "Working."

"Until one in the morning?"

"There was a lot to do."

Back and forth, back and forth, the rocking chair swayed. Karen closed her magazine. "I was worried."

"Sorry I didn't call." He loosened his tie and left it hanging around his neck, the ends uneven.

Her hands clenched. "Didn't you have a minute to spare?"

Michael sighed. “I need some sleep."

"Of course you do." She stood. "It's exhausting, what you do every day."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Good night, Michael." She climbed the stairs. Hesitated at the second-floor landing. Exhaled and turned left into the guest bedroom, instead of right into the master suite, or straight ahead to the end room.

She leaned back against the closed door and clasped her icy hands together against her mouth.

*

The ghost joined them at breakfast the next morning. At the head of the table, Michael sat oblivious, head bent over a stack of documents he was perusing with a blue ball-point pen.

On his left, Karen stared across the table.

The ghost stared back.

A light touch glanced against the back of her neck. She got up and went to the stove for the coffee pot. "Another cup?"

"Thanks, honey." Michael marked something in the margin.

What gene did men come with, or without, to be so clueless? Karen refilled their mugs and took the pot back to the stove. She stood with her back to the table. "I've got some errands to run today."

"We could use more orange juice."

"It's on the list."

"And AA batteries."

She gritted her teeth. "I'll get them."

"Nothing else for me." Michael's chair scraped on the floor as he pushed away from the table and rustled the papers into his briefcase. "I've got a meeting." He kissed her the way he might kiss a stranger in a foreign country where kissing was the expected greeting. His breath was warm and moist.

"See you later."

When the garage door closed in the distance, Karen turned back toward the table.

The ghost was gone.

*

"It's only child-sized," Karen said at lunch as she trailed Eve through another clothing store.

"I knew you needed a break." Eve snatched a hanger off the nearest display and tipped her head. "Could I pull off that color?"

Karen glanced at the mustard yellow blouse, almost transparent. "You can pull off anything."

"Maybe with the right accessories."

"There were yellow and gold sandals in the shoe department."

"Now you're thinking." Eve reversed direction and stalked back the way they'd come.

A headache throbbed between Karen's temples, behind her left eye. She drifted along in Eve's wak as her friend caressed every new fabric she encountered.

*

Michael walked into the kitchen that evening and stopped. "What are you doing?"

"Defrosting the freezer." Karen took aim with a meat tenderizer. The smack inside the freezer sent a shower of ice crystals cascading down over them.

"Today?"

"It's got to be done." She sucked her lips between her teeth and swung the tenderizer again. Psychologists should recommend defrosting freezers as therapy.

"Okay." Michael squeezed past her, no longer interested. "What’s for dinner?"

"Casserole in the oven." She took aim again.

"I'll be in the ---"

Smash!

Karen leaned out of the freezer. "What did you say?"

Michael shook his head. "I'll be upstairs."

She ducked out of sight. "Take Mickey with you."

There was a silence.

She stared at the frosty packages and bags she'd unearthed. Had he heard her? Or was he already gone from the room? Her breath came unevenly, wafting white in the chill.

Then his footfall came closer, and his voice, quiet, on the other side of the open freezer door. "What did you say?"

*

She drew a shuddering breath. "Mickey. Take him with you."

Another long silence.

Karen backed out of the freezer and closed the door with care. Her skin tingled in the sudden warmth.

Michael stared at her. "I --- I don't know what you mean."

"You haven't seen him?"

"Seen ---" Michael swallowed, his brows knitting together. "Do you feel okay?"

Her voice almost refused to work. "I haven't been okay for months."

His eyes lightened. "Were you upstairs today?"

"Where upstairs?"

"In M--- In the end room."

"You almost said it."

"Said what, Karen?"

"His name."

Michael made a ninety-degree turn and propped his hands on the counter, head down. "I told you I wouldn't be good at this."

"Good at what?" Her ears roared.

"This ---" He made a helpless gesture. "I don't know how to help you."

"Because you've never asked." She inhaled to steady herself. "You never asked how it felt when I went upstairs and found him."

"Karen ..."

"I should have known. I'm his mother." Tears pricked, burned. "I should have known."

"Nobody knew." Michael didn't look up.

"I should have." She stepped back, fetched up against the cupboards. "He's here."

"He's not here, Karen."

"I've seen him."

"Are you doing this because I wasn't here?"

A beat.

"What?" she said.

He straightened in a rush, swung to face her, eyes dilated. "I wasn't here for you. I wasn't here to help."

"You couldn't have fixed it." When she closed her eyes at night, Mickey's empty blue eyes, so like Michael's, accused her. Karen pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and sank down in a crouch. "I couldn't fix it."

Michael drew a deep breath. "Talk to me."

"What do you want me to say?"

"Just --- anything."

Thoughts flickered through her memory, some mercifully fast, others with agonizing slowness that laid open another wound somewhere in her belly. "The blood is what I can't forget."

"Jesus." Michael swung away again. His voice broke. "Jesus, Karen ---"

Her voice was steady. "And the gun, on the floor with him. Remember, he kept asking for a police officer's utility belt, and the gun that went with it. Remember?"

A beat. Then Michael nodded, facing away.

She cleared her throat. "I miss you."

"I'm here every day."

"Part of you is here."

He stiffened.

She pressed. "Part of you isn't here."

"You're not the only one who lost something that day."

"I know I'm not. But I feel like I lost both of you that day."

"What do you want me to do?"

She didn't say anything.

The silence deepened.

She looked past him. There, in the dining room, stood the ghost.

Karen pushed to her feet, crossed to Michael.

He raised his head to look down at her, and there were tears in his eyes. "I'm sorry."

"So am I." She held his gaze. "But I can't do this alone anymore."

"Do what?"

"Grieve."

He tipped his head back, and a tear slid down his temple into his hair. He opened his arms, and she went into them, threaded her arms around his waist, and laid her head on his chest, eyes closed. His heartbeat pulsed under her cheek.

"I'll try," he whispered

"I know."

His arms tightened, and his lips brushed against her hair, just a wisp.

"Remember how he used to kiss the back of my neck when I was at the dining room table?" She choked back a laugh. "He saw you do it once."

Michael's hand came up and cradled her head. "I remember."

A sweet breath wafted past her face, like baby powder. Karen opened her eyes.

The ghost, frozen in time at seven years old, gazed at her with his daddy's blue eyes. Expression empty, he faded until he vanished altogether.


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