Wrote a couple of the weekly Flash Fiction pieces as well as the Monthly Flash Fiction Draw Challenge story. Did that one fast–I based it a little on a story I was going to send to Weird Tales in the 90s but never got it out of synopsis. Started next week’s Friday Flash story and wrote a page on the mystery/crime story for an anthology with a deadline of this Halloween. Also finished the QSF column and may have gotten ahead on the column for next month.
When you’re sixteen the world can swirl around you.
That happened to me literally at the Kansas State Fair in 1978, but I wasn’t planning on it. Mark Dundee and I went to the fair to ride the rides, look at the livestock, eat and check out girls. I hadn’t figured out for sure that I also liked guys but I didn’t tell Mark that. Anyway, we both went to school in Millington but Mark’s Granddad owned a farm just outside Pending about fifteen miles away and I went up there with Mark sometimes. We were city kids but we got to help out at the farm. Granddad Dundee grew wheat but he also raised a few chickens and had a cow. Mark and I were city kids but over the last few years we’d gathered our share of eggs and played in the one-hundred-year-old barn across the road, and even made out there once. After getting out of school, Mark’s Granddad picked us up in his truck and drove us to the fair where he essentially turned us loose with combined birthday money and money we’d earned on our summer jobs.
That Friday we wandered around, kicked at the straw under our feet, smelled the smells and gawked at the show chickens, looking like something glowing and colorful from another world. And, of course, we rode the rides. Our favorite was the swing ride. It spun you around while you were sitting on (and securely belted in!) swings like the ones on the grade school playground Mark and I swore we’d grown out of. We rode the swing ride about five times, laughing and looking down at the colorful tops of the fair tents along the midway and then up at the swirling, spinning sky, going dark with dusk, stretching out forever and never ending. The last time I got off the ride and everything was swirling around me. I shook my head and closed my eyes.
When I opened them, things were different. I looked around and Mark was gone. Some of the rides looked the same but I saw a hot dog booth and the prices of the dogs had gone up. I glanced at the people; nobody was wearing bell bottom jeans, most of the guys were clean-shaven. I shook my head a minute. Suddenly Mark came around the corner. He was taller and his face had cleared up. He was laughing and holding cotton candy in one hand and the hand of some girl in the other. They kissed.
I shook my head again; was this the future? I knew I had no chance with Mark but why was I seeing this? I glanced down at one of the programs blowing across the ground. I caught a date: 1989.
I heard Mark’s voice.
“I’ve been coming here every year since I was a kid. My best friend Jayce and I came here all through school.”
“You should have called him up,” the girl said.
“Naaah, he lives in California. We haven’t seen each other in years. Hey, let’s…”
I blinked my eyes and it was 1978. Mark was tapping me on the shoulder.
“Hey, Jayce, let’s get some cotton candy!” Mark said, decked out in his WKRP t-shirt.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
Life spins around too, I thought. Soon, you step off and everything’s different.
I looked up at the stars. Enjoy it all while it’s happening, they seemed to say.
What We Found in the Back Room at Viterbo’s Pawn and Loan
by Jeff Baker
When you work in essentially a large concrete box with a big window it gets hot, even in the winter. I’d worked at the old Viterbo’s Pawn and Loan on Fifth Street since I was a senior in High School five years ago and I’d gotten to the point where in winter I kept my jacket in my car. In summer we opened the side window and cranked the AC. in the back room. Why Mr. Ricker didn’t spring for an extra air conditioner (we sold enough of them) was beyond me. But he was almost never there and let his employees run things and he didn’t harass us so I was fine as long as I could still live with Mom and Dad. That made the whole job affordable. Besides, at five thirty p.m. I got to check out golden, gorgeous Cesar when he came in for the night shift. He was big, muscular and nobody messed with him. He was also straight but I checked him out and sighed inside; I doubt he ever realized. Margie (the girl I worked with in the day) knew and we kidded about it all. I was wiry, she was kind of dumpy and sweet and we got along.
The back room at the pawn shop hadn’t really ever been cleaned out. There were boxes stacked on top of chairs, a stack of tires, several dismantled record players, radios and even an old reel-to-reel tape player; Wollensaki or something. It wasn’t a firetrap but it was cluttered. Mr. Ricker said most of it had been there when he bought the place a decade earlier. I found an old “Secrets of Astaroth” comic book in a plastic bag in one of those boxes while trying to find something else. I got an employee discount and took it home.
Anyway, one afternoon we were trying to fix the blinds so we could close them so it wouldn’t be so hot when the plastic thing holding up one end of the blinds snapped ant the blind fell down propped at an angle pointing at corner of the window.
“It looks like one of those graphs in USA Today,” Margie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Like: ‘Peaches are popular with college guys!’ Or something.”
“We need to fasten that end with something,” she said. “Until El Cheapo splurges to have those blinds repaired.”
“Too bad it isn’t winter, I’d have my scarf in the car,” I said.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Margie said suddenly rushing to the back room through the doorway behind the register. A moment later she returned with a small coil of rope wrapped around her shoulder like Indiana Jones.
“How’s this?” Margie asked holding the rope up like it was a string of Christmas lights.
“It’ll work for now,” I said. “At least it’s not thick enough to tie the Love Boat to the dock. Bring it over here.”
We didn’t have a lot of customers that afternoon which was good. It must have taken about half an hour to figure how to tie the end of the blind up. It wouldn’t attach to the broken plastic it had been hooked to but there was a pole hanging from wires from the ceiling which was only about a foot away from the top of the window. We’d hung leather jackets that were for sale from there so they could be seen from the window. Now we had the rest of the rope tied to the bar supporting the window blind which we were able to lower partway. We stepped back and surveyed our handiwork.
“Looks good,” Margie said. “Kinda reminds me of building a fort out of sofa cushions and blankets in the living room.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Should work as long as that rope wasn’t holding up anything in the back room!”
It was close to five and I was ringing up some lady’s purchase of a car radio when I heard a scream. The lady and I looked up. Margie was pointing at the wall.
The slanted sunlight was hitting the wall and casting a shadow of our jury rigged pole with the rope tied to it. In the shadow was something not there; the figure of a man hanging by his neck from the rope. The customer let out a gasp and dropped the car radio she was buying.
I walked over, shaking. It was a gag. It had to be. I felt the wall where the shadow was. It wasn’t a painting or a cardboard cutout. It was the shadow of a hanging man. It was turning slowly like hanged man I’d seen in a western on TV once. But that had been a movie stuntman. I stepped back from the shadow and when I stepped under where we had tied the rope to the pole I felt like I was passing through something cold.
Something that felt wrong.
In another minute I had pulled the rope off the pole and off the blind which was back to flopping in the window. I looked over; the shadow of the hanged man was gone.
“Where did you find this rope?” I asked.
“I’d seen it in an old wooden crate at the back of the back room,” Margie said. Part of the stuff that had been here since Ricker bought the place.”
“I remember hearing Ricker say he’d bought the place from the previous owner after he’d been found dead…” My voice trailed off.
The front door opened and Cesar walked in, looking hot but I didn’t care.
“Hey guys,” he said. “What’s new?”
The rope felt cold. I dropped it to the ground.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The draws for this month’s Flash Fiction Draw Challenge were a horror story, set in a pawn shop involving a length of rope. I put on my M.R. James hat and eventually got around to the horror.
Computer’s going into the shop, so I’m posting this a day early. And I’m still celebrating my 5th anniversary posting these weekly stories: the prompt pic was off the old Monday Flash Fiction site just before I started playing along. But this story is new!
By Jeff Baker
“When did you get the call?”
“About a half-hour ago. Some lady in the building across the street.”
“What did she say?”
“Something about a naked man in a ballet tutu dancing on the edge of the building.”
“And there he is. Dances real pretty, too. He could fall off. Got the net set up under him.”
“Might not do any good. Take a good look.”
“Hey, waitaminute! The way the sunlight glistens off of him! That’s the bronze statue from the park downtown!”
“Looks like the call we got earlier was right.”
“Somebody saying a drunken nut claiming to be a sorcerer was running loose in the park with a magic wand.”
Computer was in the shop for a few days and I got lazy. Nonetheless in the last couple of weeks I did a little research for a long story/novel I may or may not write, finished and sent off a mystery to an anthology, started working on another mystery for an anthology with a deadline in October and wrote on a couple of the column/blogs I’m doing now. And I posted the fifth anniversary flash fiction story which I’d written a week or so earlier.
At least the rain had stopped, I thought. And we were in a city, I wasn’t sure which one. I hoped it wasn’t Philly or New York; I still had family there who might turn me in as a big-for-my-age sixteen-year-old runaway. I’d slept a lot since I’d gotten on the bus in that small town I’d been working in. Luckily I’d made some cash, enough for a sandwich and a ticket. I blew on the window and it steamed just a bit. I looked around trying to figure out where I was. Dark. Tall buildings, some of them with a few windows lit. I looked behind me and couldn’t make out much through the back window. The bus was dark and the few passengers were asleep. I looked at the watch I’d paid ten bucks for; it was just after one A.M.
I stared out the window beside me, thinking of some old TV show where a man was running from the police trying to find the man who’d done the crime he’d been accused of. He traveled on busses a lot I remembered. But I’d usually fallen asleep before the show was over. I must have been five or six. Now I was sixteen, and while I wasn’t a murderer I was a runaway. If the cops picked me up they might not believe my story that I was Bryce Going and I was travelling across the country looking for a job and would probably do a check and find I’d bailed after my Mom ran out on me. I doubted they knew I was gay but the places they would put runaways weren’t good for a kid gay or not no matter how big for my age I was. Especially not in 1976.
I had dozed. The squeaking of brakes and hiss of air woke me up. We were in an old bus terminal and it looked like we were the only bus there.
“We’re going to be here about thirty minutes, if anybody wants to use a real restroom or grab something from the candy machine.” That was the driver. He eyed me a moment and then walked off towards the big glass doors, presumably to the restroom. Nobody else on the bus got out. I didn’t know how long we’d been on the road. I settled back in the seat and looked at my watch again. I figured I’d go in and use the men’s room and snack machine but not when anyone was in there. I’d heard stories about restrooms in bus stops in the middle of the night.
After a few minutes I decided to get out and stretch my legs and have a look around. The terminal was white stone with curved edges instead of corners and looked like the buildings I’d seen in old movies from the 1930s. We were under a stone canopy where there was room for about three busses if they parked side-by-side. I wandered out front. There was an old red sign with “BUS” written in red neon. I looked out and saw the neon reflected on the wet pavement. I looked down the street. I could see some tall buildings, taller than I’d ever seen. A couple of them tapered off into spires. I’d been in New York, this wasn’t New York. About a block away was a tall, grey building with no lit windows but in the reflected light I could see what looked like graffiti carved on the building’s wall, in a language I’d never seen before. Was it a church? I turned completely around; some of the buildings were cornered at odd angles. I looked down at the ground.
I didn’t have a shadow. There was a streetlight right beside me and I didn’t have a shadow.
I turned. The bus driver was standing just under the awning. “We’d better get going,” he said.
I started walking over, but it was a longer distance than it had been before. I was sure I’d only walked a few feet from the bus.
“C’mon,” the driver said once I was under the awning. “I made a mistake and took the wrong turn off. I’ve been here before. If you want a snack, we’ll stop someplace ahead on the road.”
I shook my head and hopped on the bus. I took my seat while the driver counted passengers. We pulled out of the bus stop and I glanced down the street. It may have been the residue of rain on the window, may have been the motion of the bus, and may have been that I wasn’t as awake as I thought I was but I thought I saw something fluttering at the top of the buildings. Not birds or smoke. It looked like the night was fluttering.
We drove back the way we came. I noticed there were no signs on the street or on the on-ramp to the highway. We drove maybe a mile and I saw a familiar looking mileage sign at the side of the road. I looked at the driver; his shoulders seemed to relax like he was breathing a sigh of relief. I walked up and leaned close to the driver and asked in a soft voice; “Hey, where exactly are we going, anyway?”
The bus driver looked at me and smiled. “Cleveland. Ohio.”
I went back to my seat and closed my eyes. The bus stop and the tall city seemed like a dream.
When I woke up, I glanced at my watch. It was the golden orange light of morning. We were on a highway, the sky was clear, the landscape was bright green and I saw a road sign. We were headed north.
I leaned back, closed my eyes and smiled.
In Memory of T.B.J.
AUTHOR’S NOTE from Jeff Baker:
I started writing these weekly flash fiction stories after stumbling across the old Monday Flash Fics Facebook picture prompt page in May of 2016 and posted my first story “Entr’acte” on May 25th, 2016 a little bit ahead of the usual posting date. Since then I’ve written at least one story a week (with pauses around Thanksgiving and Christmas) for the Monday and later Friday Flash Fiction pages. In addition I’ve written other non-flash stories and several other flashes including for the monthly Flash Fiction Draw Challenge that ‘Nathan Burgoine started up a few years ago. All in all it adds up to at least 52 stories a year for five years which is not bad. But the fifth anniversary is special, and so I wrote a special story. Of my series characters, the wandering Bryce Going may be my favorite. He was created for one of these flash fiction posts and I named him after a late college friend of mine, I hope he would have liked them. This week’s story is dedicated to his memory.
Three years ago I wrote in an anniversary post, words about writing that are just as meaningful today:
The best result being that I have exercised my writing muscles and maybe become a better writer as well as developing better and more regular work habits when it comes to writing. (Skills that would have served me well had I developed them and started regularly writing in College about 40 years ago!) I’ve written the weekly story when I was eager and motivated and when the words flowed as well as when I didn’t feel like writing. I’ve written standard stories as well as taken the advantage of the form to experiment with themes, styles (drabbles?) and new or series characters. Plus, I have written about a hundred stories, most for Monday and Friday Flash Fics, a handful for ‘Nathan Burgoine’s monthly flash fiction challenges and a few for submissions calls. A few of them are out in submissions right now, some originals, some reprints of stories posted on this blog. I owe a lot of thanks to Helena Stone, ‘Nathan Smith, Brigham Vaughn, Kelly Jensen, Elizabeth Lister and others too numerous to mention for their encouragement in maintaining these prompt sites. Again, many thanks!
Ray Bradbury and Anthony Boucher were both believers in writing at least one story a week, although I usually don’t have time to pull off a full-length one each week, I hope they’d approve of my efforts and persistence.
And I will now, in May 2021, paraphrase Ernest Hemingway who once said he wanted some more time to write some more short-stories; “I know some good ones.”
“I know,” Big Dave said. “That’s why they call it the Cigarette Nebula. The wonder of this part of the Galaxy.”
Big Dave, owner of Big Dave’s Stellar Rentals, is nothing if not persuasive. The Nebula looks like a thin curl of grey smoke frozen in place, hanging against the stars.
Jonny Kilbassie is not interested in the tourist spiel, he is more practical.
“How much for a cruiser?” Jonny asks.
“The big one or the small one?” Big Dave asks.
“The small one,” Jonny says, on account of how he is trying to save on resources and the smaller cruisers are a lot cheaper. But Jonny Kilbassie is still in need of immediate transportation.
“You want it with or without the map?” Big Dave asks.
“The map comes extra?” Jonny says, somewhat perturbed. This is something he has not considered. Every added expense is an added drag. Also, he has a valise of ill-gotten gains from his most recent exploit as well as the knowledge that the authorities as well as the survivors of said exploit will doubtless be looking for him and it is best if Jonny Kilbassie is nowhere around when they find out where he has been.
“Done.” Jonny says. And with that, Big Dave supplies him with his small cruiser, his star map and a modicum of fuel. With that, Jonny sets off to hide on an out-of-the-way planet on the other side of the Nebula. But what happens to Jonny Kilbassie we only find out from his log book and from the testimony of Big Dave.
Jonny’s star map is the cheapest one available. It, therefore, does not automatically update without Jonny paying an additional subscriber fee which Jonny is not aware of. The group of planets he is planning to hole-up on do not exist anymore. It is a long trip across the Nebula and there are no available fueling stations.
This is the story we put together when Jonny and the star cruiser are found floating on the other side of the Cigarette Nebula, both of them cold lumps. He should have opted for a larger cruiser with a bigger fuel tank and an upgraded map, but Big Dave, whose family had been on the losing end of one of Jonny Kilbassie’s earlier ventures. opted not to press him on that.
Surprised myself and started a longer short-story when the market dropped into my lap. Deadline’s the end of this month and all I have to do is the middle. Wrote a little on the baseball story I’m aiming at the Saturday Evening Post, and finished the Friday Flash story for last week. Wrote the Friday Flash story for this week, tightened it up and it looks good. I have been actively studying Damon Runyon’s stories about Broadway and his influence made its way into “Blowing Smoke,” which will be posed on Friday. Not influence in the use or “Runyoneese,” but in the plot and themes. I also wrote a line on a poem that popped into my head. The week of May 25th is my fifth anniversary of writing the weekly flashes and (as I am current moderator I have a couple of pics chosen in advance) so I have cheated and wrote out the anniversary story in advance. More on that later.
“So, how long has your brother been missing?” she asked.
He grinned for a moment, it almost sounded like an old radio show.
“About six months now,” he said.
“Any word from the police?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he said. “You ask me, he just bailed on everything. His job, his girlfriend. And I almost don’t blame him.”
They’d been walking around after getting out of class. Usually they stopped and grabbed a burger or something, but this afternoon they just walked.
“My Grandmother used to say that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “And that there’s a natural order to things.”
“To everything there is a season,” he said. “That’s in the Bible. I heard it out of a jukebox once.” He stopped and faced her.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“I need to tell you something,” he said. “About a month ago I got a letter from my Brother. He’s alive. He’s okay.”
“A letter? Are you sure he’s okay?” she asked. “That he wasn’t kidnapped or something?”
“The letter was in this, this code we developed when we were a kid. Pretending to be the Hardy Boys or something.” He grinned. “That way we could pass notes in school and nobody knew what we were saying. So nobody else could read what he was saying if he was being coerced or something. Well, he’s okay. He ran off with this girl he’s known for years. She’s living in this little town and he’s working for her. He just wanted to get away.”
He smiled and took her hand. He was glad he told her. And in that moment, he couldn’t imagine being with anyone else.
Got about three flash fictions done as well as two columns. I’m working on yet another column and another Friday Flash Fics story, the one that’s due Friday. I was lamenting that I hadn’t worked on a lot of fiction lately, but I seem to still have the knack. I need to work on a few full-length stories soon.