Friday, February 25, 2011

#FridayFlash - Animals

I stared through the glass and thought of bears, lions, monkeys… Well, apes really. For Mollie, I had been all of them at one time or another, dressing up as she’d requested and growling, squawking or hooting like she wanted in order to fulfill some deep craving inside. One night I even hung from the chandelier by one hand, scratching my side with the other and howling like a wild man--an idea that seemed like fun at the time, but then went south as everything came crashing down. That stunt put me on the chiropractor’s table, and then out of work for two days.

Thinking back through it all, Mollie and I had ourselves a grand time. I wouldn’t say that we were inseparable, like there was some deep attraction or cosmic law of gravity love that pulled us together through time and space. No, it was more like driving down the road and finding a detour sign that took you through a part of the country you would have never thought to look at before.

But that all ended last night, when she told me it was to be our last journey together. Afterwards, we could never see each other again. It wasn’t like I didn’t know it was coming, though. We’d often talked about this day, how it was rapidly approaching and things--life in general, really--would have to be different.

Beside my reflection in the glass, another face appeared. Behind me, a voice asked, “Are you ready to be seated, sir?”

I turned around, caught the wondering gaze of a young usher who couldn’t be more than fifteen. I then glanced back through the glass at the people already seated, all of them listening as the string quartet played some classical piece.

“Yes,” I said. “I'm ready.”

“Are you a friend of the groom?”

I smiled, thinking about bears, lions and apes again.

“No, I’m a long-time friend of the bride.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

#FridayFlash - Standard Policy

Sheryl slipped the spatula under the patty and flipped it. The meat sizzled. Grease popped in retaliation and bit down twice into the back of her hand. With gritted teeth, she snatched up a dishrag, frayed at the edges and damp from two spills already this morning. She wiped off her hand and then smelled the rag, testing to see if it would need to go in with the first load of laundry. Deciding it could last at least through lunch, she tossed it back on the counter and turned to the man at her table.

“I thought the policy was good,” she said. “I mean, I kept up the premiums.”

The young man--maybe in his thirties, but most likely his late twenties--looked up and smiled. And boy-howdy, weren’t they were the most perfect teeth she’d ever seen? Almost like Billy Bob Thornton’s in Bandits.

“Rest assured, ma’am,” the man said, his words coming creamy, “your claim will be processed just as we agreed. First, though we have to ask a couple questions.”

He wore a black suit with a white shirt and a tie, the knot so triangular she would have sworn it was a clip-on, except now, looking at him sitting there, she could see the rest of the tie roped underneath the starched collar. He had wide set eyes--bedroom eyes, she would later tell her best friend, Janet--and hair pristinely set with some styling gel.

Sheryl walked across the linoleum, her fuzzy slippers whispering to each other with every step. She pulled out a chair and sat. Thinking about the way she looked, Sheryl knew she should have excused herself to the bedroom the moment he arrived, change into something more… well, presentable. As it was, though, she had two kids to herd up--one who was probably still playing submarines in the toilet with his brother’s toothbrush--and they both needed to be fed before the bus arrived. So like it or not, the insurance representative had to deal with her just as she was, first impressions be what they were.

She slouched back. “Questions, huh?”

The man nodded. “Standard policy. The inconvenient part of this business.” He reached into black leather briefcase, pulled out a file, and opened it. “It shouldn’t take long, though.”

“I hope not,” she said, letting the Southern drawl slip out. It usually did when she felt wired up. “I mean, not unless you want to eat some eggs and sausage with my two boys. Though I must say, you got to eat fast around them. If you want to eat, that is.”

He flashed those Billy Bob whites again, and said, “I’m good, thank you.”

So polite, she thought. Like he was seated before royalty or something. It was a lie, of course, imagined for the sake of convenience, just like all the others, but it felt good anyway.

She reached into the pocket of her house coat, pulled out a crinkled pack of Salems. “You smoke?”

He shook his head.

“Mind if I do?”

“It’s your house.”

Sheryl tittered. Of course it was. So, Jeez-Louise already, why was she asking? She reached into the other pocket and fished out a lighter. The cigarette lighted, she took a deep drag and blew the smoke out the side of her mouth.

“So…” She waved a hand in the air. “What do you have to ask?”

The man glanced down at the folder. “Your name is Sheryl Linsford, is that correct?”

She looked at him for a moment. “Chris, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your name.”

“Yes, Chris Alegria.”

She nodded. “Please don’t tell me you came all the way out here to ask me if I know who I am.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just standard--”

“Policy, yeah, I get it.” She took another pull on the cigarette. “The thing is, you called me. This morning, in fact. And look at me. I haven’t had time to try and fool anyone.”

“It’s just a question I always ask. We’re going to scan your eyes anyway.”

She frowned.

He reached into the briefcase and pulled out a netbook-sized laptop, a rectangular box, and a tripod. Setting up the equipment, he connected a cable from the computer to the box.

“I don’t have any wireless, you think you’re gonna need it.”

The man shook his head and pointed up. “Satellites.”

Sheryl nodded once.

“Okay,” he said, “this will only take a moment.” He made another adjustment, told her to hold still and looked straight ahead. The Billy Bobs seemed brighter this time. “Well, you check out, Mrs. Linsford.”

“Good to know,” she said. Smoke seeped between her lips with each word. “For a moment there, I thought you were going to ask me for a birth certificate or something.”

He closed the computer and put everything away.

“And your husband is gone, correct?”

Sheryl felt inside the pocket again, this time finding the photo. It had been produced on an outdated printer; though a little grainy, the image was clear enough.

“That’s him there with Ms. Tuesday Night Poker Party.” She pinned the photo on the table with two fingers. “What do you think of those? Personally, I think they’re fake.”

He glanced at it.

“But he’s left?”

Her shoulders dropped. “Mr. Aleh…”


She nodded and fished out another piece of paper. “He left this behind, too. I think you’ll appreciate the irony, how he still loves me, loves the boys, but can’t find it in his heart to be happy.”

He read it.

“Okay,” he said. “We’re all done as far as I’m concerned. See? A fairly simple process.”

Sheryl stared at him. “So, when will my... claim be processed?”

The Billy Bobs again. “As soon as I call our agent. Your ex-husband will then be your deceased ex-husband.”

“Just like that, huh?”

“That’s what Cheaters indemnity is for, ma’am.”

Now she smiled. “Easy-peasy.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

#FridayFlash - Leap of Faith

Serena stared at the man behind the steering wheel and wondered how it would go. Dogs like Jake Moselle deserved to die; yet, as much as she wanted to be the one who put him down, the queasy feeling in her gut raised doubts about whether she would. It wasn’t so much a fear of actually pulling the trigger. Thirty-seven prior terminations, all sanctioned by an agency with no official name, had already anesthetized that emotion.

It wasn’t a fear of explaining why she’d logged into the system, either, targeting a man that held no more value than a drop of water on a dead man’s tongue. She had settled the issue on trying to argue it. She wouldn’t. Besides, any explanation would only be dismissed. As far as the bureaucrats were concerned, Moselle was categorically a non-existent; even if he were important, the leap had violated direct orders against entering an agent’s own line.

Of course, this assumed she would actually be around to explain.

She inhaled deeply and looked down the street. For the moment, the sidewalk remained clear.

Thinking about it, standing on this corner on this day, breathing in the smoggy twentieth-century air, was nothing less than a miracle. In order to bypass system protocols and make the jump, her clearance authorization had to be forged, no small task in an age of digital signatures, hashing algorithms, and user-provided pass phrases. Thankfully, the ghost key program she had coded into the agency’s mainframe went undetected. Twenty-four hours later, she had what she needed.

Serena glanced at her watch and then walked up to the car. She rapped her knuckles against the glass. Moselle snapped his head around, his eyes locking on hers before working their way down. Serena clenched her jaw. How this creep had avoided suspicion seemed unbelievable. The beat-up Nova, all blue except for one green panel and a garbage bag covering a side window, was easy enough to spot. However, a quick survey of the neighborhood answered the question. Two rows of houses lined the street. Curtains covered the windows and double locks, in some cases triple, bound the doors. People saw only what they wanted to.

Moselle rolled down the window. “Yeah, what do you want?”

His body odor smelled like rotting potatoes. At the sound of his voice, the words slurred with booze, Serena felt an urge to do it now, take her chances. Control trumped emotion, though, and she tapped her wrist.

“You got the time?”

Moselle frowned. “I look like a clock to you?”

Down the street, a boy with spiked hair and military boots turned the corner and headed up the sidewalk. He would stop at the third house, the one with red brick and porch steps made of concrete.

“Take it easy,” she said to Moselle. “I just thought you might have a watch.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “How ‘bout a light then?”

At the house, a teenage girl with black hair and matching black lips opened the door. Serena’s chest tightened up. She remembered her Goth years, but never saw it as so self-absorbed.

In the car, Moselle chuckled. “What is this, a come on? You lonely or something?”

Anger burned at her cheeks. “You got a light, or don’t you?”

“Yeah sure.” Moselle stabbed the dashboard lighter with a finger. “Don’t get your panties in a wad.”

Glancing back at the house, Serena spotted another girl in the doorway, this one younger, just a child. The older one said something and pointed down the street. The little girl protested, but it didn’t help. Watching it happen, Serena felt hollowed out. She couldn’t remember all that she had said to her younger sister, and it didn’t matter. Even now, the look on Heather’s face remained as a silent, tucked-away image that haunted Serena almost every day.

The boy--his name was Jason--reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of wadded-up bills. He tossed them on the ground, pulled the little girl out of the house, and then stepped inside. As the two of them laughed and closed the door, Serena felt tears pulling at her eyes. It had all been so stupid. So insanely…

She looked down at Moselle. His fingers hovered over the lighter, but his gaze had been directed through the windshield. She followed the line of sight across the street where her little sister shuffled along the sidewalk. When the lighter popped out, he snatched it from the console and without looking thrust it through the open window. Her pulse quickened. The look in those eyes, the way he licked his lips, what had happened so long ago wasn’t just an unfortunate circumstance, and trying to delay him, even for a moment, wouldn’t change a thing. He was a monster. He had locked in on a target and wouldn’t stop until satisfied.

“Yo,” Moselle said, finally looking at her. “You gonna light that thing or not? I gotta get a move on.”

In that moment, old memories carried her away. She saw black and white photos of an alley, a dumpster, and of a little girl, her body broken. She remembered the coroner’s tinny voice, hearing about the multiple assaults and the cause of death. She remembered the empty pill bottle she found a month later and how her cries went unanswered as she repeatedly shook her mother’s lifeless body. And in spite of the orders about crossing her own line, how the agency would kill her if the jump didn’t, Serena knew she would rather face the unknown than to spend another night staring into the hopeless gaze of the dead.

She dropped the unlit cigarette, reached inside her jacket, and un-holstered the weapon. The gun’s weight felt comfortable. Its deadly electronics whirred to life.

She smiled as confusion, and then panic, registered on Moselle’s face.

“You bet,” she said. “Let’s light it up.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

#FridayFlash - Cup of Via

“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

Annie stared down, the words momentarily stuck in her throat. Finally: “It’s my husband.”

On the floor, his cheeks the color of aged meat, John clawed at his neck, the veins popping out as if they were about to explode. He gasped.

The voice on the phone said, “Your husband?” and sounded so disconnected it felt strangely out of place.

“Yes. Please help me.”

“Okay ma’am, I need you to remain calm. What is wrong with your husband?”

Annie gripped the cell phone. “He’s… He’s dying.”

John looked up. His eyes narrowed, his mouth a slashed line. He reached out a hand, and she stepped back. Then, he groaned and clutched his stomach so fiercely that Annie believed he would rip it out. If only he could. A second later, he barked out a tidal wave of acid and bile, the flow of it bathing the floor around him. It oozed between the ceramic tiles, the grout acting like gutters on a city street, channeling the vomit away.

Through the cell phone’s speaker, the woman said, “Can you tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know,” Annie said. “I made him a cup of coffee and now he’s on the floor puking up everything.”

“Okay,” the woman said. In the background, Annie heard several clicks. “I’m alerting the paramedics and the police. Can you give me your address?”

Annie looked down where John continued to writhe.

The woman said, “Ma’am, I need your address.”

Annie gave it to her.

“Can you tell me what kind of coffee you gave your husband?”

“It’s the kind he always asks for, the instant stuff from Starbucks.” Annie squeezed her eyes shut and pressed a hand to her forehead. “Via, I think.”

“Okay, I’ll also alert the paramedics for the possibility of food poisoning. Please hold.”

Annie stared at John’s hands, the veins and fat knuckles. His ring. A moment later the woman’s voice returned.

“Can you tell me your husband’s condition now?”

“He’s still on the--He’s going into convulsions now.”

“Ma’am, I need you to remain calm. The paramedics will be there soon. What I need you to do is open up the front door. Can you do that?”

Annie turned and ran down the front hallway. She snapped the locks open, twisted the door knob and pulled hard. In the distance, about a mile away, she saw the twinkling of her neighbor’s security light above their garage door.

“Okay,” she said. “The door is open.”

“Is the pathway clear?”

Annie looked around. “Yes.” She ran back toward the kitchen and stopped where the carpet met the tile. Looking down, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.

On the phone: “What you need to do now is--”

“We can stop, Jan. He’s dead.”

A pause. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not about to touch him, but yeah, I’m pretty sure. His chest isn’t moving and his eyes have that distant look in them.”

Another pause. “You have the bottle of pills I gave you, right?”

Annie glanced toward the kitchen counter. “Yes.”

Jan told her to toss them on the table, make it look like a man who was desperate to end things. “Be sure to place his fingers on the bottle.”

“Oh God, please tell me you’re kidding.”

“It’ll look bad if he’s diagnosed as an overdose but no fingerprints on the product.”

Annie sighed but nodded. Her big sister had always been right, even about marrying John--as it turned out, a violent man she didn’t really know. But still…

“Are you sure this is going to work?”

“Of course,” Jan said. The way it was planned, the only thing the coroner would find in his stomach would be more of what was in the bottle. “With the previous police report, it’ll look like he had finally pushed things too far and this time his wife decided to leave him. So he killed himself.”

Annie touched the side of her face, the flesh still puffy where his ring sliced through. The pain stung. “He was never going to stop.”

“Not until one of you were dead. We just made sure it was him instead of you.” A pause. “Okay, call the police tomorrow. And when they ask, you found him on the floor. You only came home to pick up some clothes when you thought he was supposed to be at work. You can remember that, right?”


“Good. Oh, and one more thing. Get rid of that prepaid phone. If the police find it, we’re both screwed.”

Annie nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”

She clicked off, still amazed at how calm Jan had sounded, and then looked down at her husband. Her ex-husband now. She cringed, thinking about the fights. Those knuckles. There was no other way. Even if she left, he would have tracked her down, hurt her some more. No, the only way to deal with it, as Jan had said, was to take it right back at him. Thankfully, knowing how he would react, Jan also suggested the fake 9-1-1 call. That way, he would think Annie was doing her best to save him. If he suspected poisoning, he might have tried to kill her before he died.

She slipped on a pair of latex gloves and did everything just as Jan told her. Could it all unravel? Sure, but then it was too late to care about that now.

She clicked off the lights and closed the door.