Jul 10, 2020

Furious Fiction July

For the Australian Writers Centre monthly contest. Probably not a winner!


“You know, I really feel like I should apologize to him,” Claire smoothed her sleek hair back and sighed.
“Well, these things always bring up a lot of feelings, I don’t think that’s unusual,” Maureen answered, placing a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
Both women looked through the small clusters of people at the man in question.
Claire turned in her seat toward her friend. “Do you think I should?”
Maureen tipped her head. “I don’t know if it’s the right time.”
“Mo, they say it’s never too late to apologize.”
“Claire, it’s been years. His wife and kid are here.” She looked around at the slowly growing crowd. “And honestly? Sometimes it is too late.”
Claire frowned. “I just want him to know that I realize everything I put him through, and I’m sorry if he was upset about it.”
“He moved on. Wife, kid?”
“Actually, I’m not sure if he ever even knew I was cheating on him back then.”
“Then why on earth bring it up now, of all times?”
“I think it would just make me feel better about it, you know?”
“Does his wife know who you are?”
“You know, it’s funny you ask? I think maybe she’s been, like, Facebook stalking me. She’s been coming up under ‘people you may know.’ ”
“Claire…” Maureen frowned. “Why would Jill be stalking you after all this time?”
“Maybe the comments I leave on his pictures?”
Maureen cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, just because we broke up a few years ago doesn’t mean we’re like, dead to each other!”
Maureen gulped.
Claire clicked her red fingernails against each other and leaned into Maureen with a grin. “And even though we may have technically stopped seeing each other—“
Maureen cut her off. “Technically? You had a spectacular break-up! I regretted introducing you guys.”
“— that doesn’t mean we totally stopped… seeing each other.”
“Claire!” She hissed in a whisper. “He’s been married for four years!”
“Only because Jill got pregnant.” Claire shrugged and sighed. “I knew you couldn’t be cool about this.” The woman on the other side of Maureen shot them both a dirty look as Maureen pulled back, bumping her.
“How can you say that? You know they were smitten. He looked ten years younger when he was around her, he was like a puppy.”
Claire scowled. “Then how come he’d always answer if I texted him enough?”
Maureen crossed her arms and stiffened. “Unbelievable. You actually drove a man to—”
“Distraction,” Claire said, batting her eyes. “Does my hair look okay?”
Maureen stared straight ahead, shredding the damp tissue in her fists.
Claire stood up, straightening her dress. She walked to the front of the room, leaned over the casket, and whispered into the waxen man’s ear.

Furious Fiction June

For the Australian Writers' Centre monthly contest. Also not a winner!

Your story’s first and last words must begin with J.
Your story must include a game being played.
Your story must include the phrase MISS/MISSED THE BOAT.

Those Who Can’t
    Juggling looked so easy on the video. But it was one of many skills on the list that was about to be crossed out, unachieved. Guitar, no: It chewed up Justine’s finger tips, and her hands were too fat for it, anyway. French braiding, no: Her arms got tired. Sourdough bread, no: Like she was really going scoop a cup of glop into the trash every day? What a mess. What else? There had to be something tangible Justine could achieve within the confines of her little apartment. As CyrusFlyrus waggled his eyebrows and added another banana to his blurred arc of flying fruit, she closed the video channel and started another game of online solitaire.

    All the vloggers she followed had made impressive progress toward mastering some new skill, or were seeing the first fruits of a project that they’d started back when they all went inside. GreenSmoothieGirl had fully rebranded as GreenBalconyGirl (“Yay, plant with me, on my Green Balcony!”) and was nibbling the first sugar snap peas growing from the vines climbing her railings. FrankieFilms was almost done watching and reporting (“Lights, camera, Franction!”) on each one of Cinématique’s 100 Essential Movies for True Film Lovers. Not enough for him to get through one a day, he’d been doing double features on the weekends. Where did people find the time, or the motivation?

    She scrolled through the pages she followed and saw graceful handstands, drafts of novels, adorable pet tricks, blueprints for achieving social justice. And here, 78 days into the quarantine, Justine was feeling like she’d missed the boat. It seemed like it would be so easy! Just pick a hobby, practice it a little each day, and voila! You were good at something. But she was still just as bad at everything as she’d always been. If not worse. She had failed to craft an invigorating and inspiring morning routine to give structure to her day. No sign of a relaxing and reflective evening routine, unless you counted looking up from YouTube and cursing at the clock each night. A tidy meal plan that incorporated each day’s leftovers into the next day’s menu? She had a vague memory of a time when she ate three meals a day, but now she mostly grazed from one plate — okay, bag — of snacks to the next. There was no cleaning schedule. Or much cleaning, for that matter. She pushed aside a pile of unread books and clicked on another video about decluttering. A smile crept across her face.
She cleared the laundry off the bed behind her, tilted the desk light just so, and hit record on the laptop. “Hi guys! You can achieve anything you set your mind to. Whatever it is you want to do, learn how to just do it, with me, JustineDoIt!”

Furious Fiction May

For the Australian Writers' Centre monthly contest. Not a winner!

Your story’s first word must be FIVE.
Your story must include something being replaced.
Your story must include the phrase A SILVER LINING.

Indoor Games

“Five, four, three, two, balaclava, now the floor is all hot lava!” The tiny ringleader in the red bandana jumped on the ottoman and shouted her countdown. Arms and legs and shrieks filled the air as the other kids scrambled to claim their own pieces of furniture.

In the kitchen, Paul placed the last mimosa on the tall island with a flourish. Four mothers perched around on swiveling bar stools. “If there’s a silver lining to all this,” he said, “it’s seeing the kids get off the screens for a while.”

“Cheers to that!” The mothers clinked glasses, and Paul left with a wave.

“Yesterday, Lula pulled a stack of books off the shelf! I was shocked,” Alice said.

“Max and Ez dragged the box of Legos from the back of the closet,” Dana said.

“That’s constructive!”

“Of course, we didn’t realize about the Legos until the next morning,” she said, adding a little vodka to her glass.

“What did they build?”

Dana swirled the glass. “Nothing. They were playing farm. They ‘planted’ them in the entire living room rug, wall to wall. I had to do the Heimlich on the cat, and John almost had to have a few surgically removed from his feet.” She twisted her wedding ring. “Why couldn’t they go for books, like yours, Alice? What’s Lula reading?”

“Reading,” Alice snorted. “I wish. Said they were using the books to ‘do spells.’”

“That’s cute…”

“Is it? She and Frankie tore out the pages and crumpled them up. They lit the balls of paper on the stove and tossed them into the oven to burn. I ran in when the smoke detector started blaring.”

“Oh, god.”

“Well, yesterday mine played beauty parlor,” Marcy said, watching the foam rise as she topped off her glass with champagne.

“Now, that’s sweet,” cooed Dana. “Must be so nice to have girls.”

Marcy slurped the foam. “One of those moments where it was a little too quiet, you know? So I go upstairs, and find all - all - of my makeup spread across the the bathroom and smeared all over their little faces.”

“Ugh, classic mess! But no harm done, right?”

“Ashlye'd cut a giant patch out of Hazel’s hair. That’s why she’s wearing it all wrapped up in that bandana today.”

“Oh, no!”

“And I came in just as Hazel was about to paint nail polish on Ashlye. As eyeliner.”


“Yep. I scream, she drops the bottle. It shatters. Hot-pink polish and glass shards everywhere, mixed in with the hair cuttings. I swear, some days I wish I had boys.”

“You think so?” Trina replaced her mimosa with a splash of scotch. “My boys like to play ‘rock.’”


“Yeah. They throw a rock at each other until one of them comes inside crying.” She emptied her glass.

At their feet, hot lava roiled and spluttered.

Marcy sighed as she curled her legs tighter under herself.

“At least they’re finally off the screens.”

May 29, 2019

The faded moms

I was finishing a draining and mostly circular conversation with the second customers of the morning, an older Australian couple who had a problem with their reservation. (The highlight was their certainty that if only the young man they'd spoken to on the phone yesterday were there, he would sort it all out. A cartoon scroll unfurled in my mind of the things he is constantly un-sorting out, but I smiled and said that unfortunately he wouldn't be in for a few hours. As it turned out, he would come a few hours later and be sent immediately to the emergency room, with symptoms of heart trouble. On his bike. But that's another story.)

I told two hovering moms with two little boys that I'd be right with them. While I was approaching a tentative truce with the Australians, I shooed the kids out from behind me and asked as nicely as I could for them to not run around the dense row of bikes, still lined up like dominoes that early in the day. The moms called the boys back. Then one slipped under the two-tiered rack. Dangerous! I asked more urgently that they keep them out. A mom hollered, and he climbed out and sling-shotted right out the front and toward the street. The moms watched without a twitch, as the other guy working sprinted after the kid.

While the blonde one slogged her way through the (brief!) paperwork, puffing on a vape pen, the brunette with a fanned-out topknot and dangly gold earrings was squatting on the other side of the desk saying, "Fuck, this fucking thing leaked all over the inside of my bag!" I didn't know what she was talking about.

They wanted to pull a wagon trailer behind a tandem bike. Can you picture that? It's a lot of bike. I said that would be long and unwieldy, but they insisted they had done it before. I reluctantly wrestled the tandem out, navigating it between the skittering toddlers, because I know I can be a little conservative about what's possible with bikes, and they seemed sure. The manager saw what they were going for and squashed the idea like a cockroach. "No way. It's too long. Can't do it." They insisted on getting all four people onto a single vehicle, so we wheeled the tandem back in and pulled out the Urban Arrow, with its long front bucket. Before they all piled in, I said it would be a lot of weight up front, and the driver might want to take it for a quick spin empty first to get the hang of it. Nah, they said.

As they were settling in, I realized what had leaked in the bag: a baby bottle that was now sitting in a puddle of milk on the counter. One of the guys ran the wet bottle over to them, along with the credit card they'd dropped on the sidewalk.

The driver mom gave a lurch forward to snap back the kickstand and put one foot on a pedal. In slow motion, the whole thing tipped onto its side. We ran over to help, and they laughed and said we should have gotten video. I rolled with it and said a boomerang would have been awesome, ha ha, and they agreed and offered to tip it again for the 'gram as the kids and mom crawled out. We asked them to please not.

They wouldn't put just the kids in a bucket bike with the other mom on a regular bike, the usual arrangement for this combination of people, because they said the kids would kill each other. So they very reluctantly agreed to the only sensible remaining option: two regular bikes with Yepp child seats on the backs – what we had originally recommended instead of the tandem. I gripped the counter as they finally rolled out, unsteady but enthusiastic, with the kids perched behind.

As they rode off into the morning, my coworker exhaled and said, "Dude, those moms were so high!" Then it all made sense. I went into the back to breathe a minute. 

A few hours later, they returned as they had left: lots of commotion, then the second one, red-faced and disheveled, slowed to a stop and tipped right over, kid still on the back.

When they were checking out, after one had dived back into the bike rack to rescue her oil pen from the bike bag, one of the kids started spinning the tall rack of sunglasses faster and faster. I asked if she could please have him take it down a notch so the shades didn't fly off. She did. "Evan, sweetie, stop spinning the rack," she said, side-eyeing me. "This lady doesn't have children."

May 2, 2019

You can't just give shit away

People with similar backgrounds come in mini-waves sometimes. Often there's a simple reason for it - three Brazilian or French families in a row reflect national holidays, a wave of fathers and sons from Arizona or New Jersey might all be in for a basketball game that night. But sometimes it's just because random events cluster.

I thought I recognized an accent, and asked a customer where he was from. Sure enough, he said he lived here now, but had come from Georgia. I told him I'd gone to school there. "Wow, what brought you out here," he asked, as if this were the first moment he'd ever heard of anyone making that move. "My husband's family is here," I said. "What brought you out here?"
"I moved out here to get sober. Ten months now."
"That's great, congratulations. One of those places in Malibu?" I asked, already sure that it wasn't.
"No, I'm just taking it day by day, right around here."
"Day by day is all you can do," I said.
"Ten months and four days today. I was thinking I'd ride a bike," he said. "Ten months and four days."

The front desk edges right up to the sidewalk, and people bump up asking for random stuff all the time - do you happen to have some duct tape, a band-aid, scissors, a sharpie? The manager has a clear and all-encompassing policy on this type of charity: Nope.
"And I'll tell you why: We'll become known as a place that just gives shit away and then everyone will come around looking for shit."
The next guy who came by was tall and had grey stubble that was a little too long to be good news. Like he might have just gotten rescued from the desert, or been kicked out of the house a while. "Can I have a pen?" he asked, standing too still and locking eyes with me.
"To keep?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, still motionless, chin lowered slightly. It felt important to him, or at least like it was going to be more trouble than it was worth if I said no. So I said sure and handed him a pen from the cup* and wished him a good day. He took it and said, "I'm detoxing and I need to write down some numbers."
"Good luck," I said, as he walked away.
I turned to my manager, who had been standing beside me, and pre-empted any comment.
"I know, I know," I said. "I made an executive decision. I didn't feel like arguing."
"Nah, it's fine," he said. "I hate these pens anyway."

*Don't get ideas! I don't want the shop to be swamped with people looking for hand-outs tomorrow.

I hope there's cell reception in Haleakala

It was on the quiet side, so I was standing out in front, ready to "intercept" people coming in, per instruction. A lady in tall boots, a long cashmere cardigan and moto-style yoga pants approached, and I heard her tell the person she was on the phone with that she was about to rent a bicycle. I hustled over to the register, making a mental note to ask where she'd gotten her yoga pants after she hung up. I waited as she stood in front of the counter saying, "We're trying to decide between Haleakala and the Road to Hana. I mean, we could do both." She looked up long enough to tell me she needed a bicycle. I picked up one of our little contract/clipboard combos and started to tell her the parts she needed to fill out, but she was back to talking, so I just tapped the blanks with the pen and pushed both toward her. "I mean, we'll be staying at the Ritz, so they'll be able to help us plan, either way."
Surely she's wrapping up, I thought, so I waited to ask her what kind of bike she wanted. She pushed the contract back toward me, looking into the distance. "I mean, Haleakala is supposed to be amazing, but I don't know if everyone is going to feel like it."
I held up my clawed hand in the international gesture for "I need your credit card." She slapped it down on the contract. I ran it and gave her the receipt to sign, which she did without pausing her conversation or looking up.
"What kind of bike would you like?" I asked, even though she was still talking. Fine. Beach cruiser it is. I grabbed one, set it up next to her and adjusted the saddle height to her size.
"Not that one. I need a basket. We probably shouldn't skip Haleakala, after all." I swapped bikes, crossed out the bike's serial number on her paperwork and adjusted the height. "I have to go, I'm getting on a bicycle now," she said, and finally hung up. And took off. I never did get to ask about her yoga pants, but by that time, I didn't care anyway.

Apr 19, 2019

No hands!

I complimented a middle-aged British woman on her necklace, an unusual silver pendant. "I had it made for my son's wedding," she said. "Brilliant jeweler. No hands."
"No hands?" I asked.
"The jeweler. She has no hands." She laughed. "Then I lost it, so I had her make it again." Her husband nodded proudly. I was left with a lot of questions, but there was a long line forming.

Apr 17, 2019

Just chillin' on the ground. What's your problem?

A guy with a grey ponytail was sitting on a dirty blanket outside the secondary bike center. As I was going in, another hard-up guy dragging a sleeping bag over his shoulder passed by and said something. The guy on the ground got indignant and called out to me as I was in the doorway. "Do you believe that? Did you hear what he just said?"
I hadn't.
"Say that again," he said to the man walking by, like a coach challenging a mouthy kid in a middle school gym class.
Obediently: "I said, do you have any meth."
"Did you hear that?" the ground guy asked me.
"Yes. I... don't have any meth," I said.
"I don't either!" he said, shaking his head. "Can't believe people around here."
When I left a while later, he was still sitting there with a few trash bags piled around him. I brought out a bottle of water on my way out. "I don't need that, I'm fine," he said. "Are you sure? It's hot out. Take it," I said.
"No, I'm completely fine," he said, like I was the weird one. It seemed like he saw himself as a broker in a suit on a park bench, wondering why people kept treating him like he was some kind of homeless guy.

Apr 15, 2019

No good tour goes unpunished

There was some kind of miscommunication. The more time that's gone by, the less I understand what actually happened, but on a Saturday, the matriarch of a group of eight called the shop from our launch point around the corner to ask where their tour guide was. The guy who answered the phone told her he didn't know anything about it, which was true and reasonable, and suggested she come to the shop to discuss. While she was marching over, I'd looked in the system and didn't see her booking. Curious. Maybe they'd booked with another tour company? But then why did they have our address and phone number? She'd worked up a good head of steam by the time she arrived at the desk, a moment before I was going to take off for lunch at noon. She said she'd been treated poorly on the phone, and I assured her that we'd figure out what was going on and see if we could sort them out. She brandished her phone with her TripAdvisor receipt, clearly showing that she had a reservation with us... for the next day. "That was a mistake," she said. "We meant to book for today." Without even glancing at the guy she'd insulted for not being able to find their non-existent reservation for that day: "Isn't there anyone who can take us out today, right now? There are eight of us, this is our only chance, and we really want to go!" Thinking about it now, that was a request that was clearly unnecessary to try to fulfill.  But not a completely impossible one, and I hated to see them miss out due to a simple typo. This was their only chance! They were booked solid the next day, and leaving the day after that.
I told her I had to be back for another tour at 1:30, so theirs would have to be abbreviated if we did it. "That's even better," she said. "We'd appreciate it so much! We'll ride fast."
I calculated. If we left immediately and skipped a few stops, and if everything went as smoothly as always, and if all eight people could keep up the pace on the final incline, we'd squeak in just in time for me to take off as the second guide for the birthday party.
At 1:30, with two miles left to go, the family was sitting on a patio sipping pints of beer, and the father was cursing and covered in grease. He had planted his bike seat-side down with the wheels spinning in the air for the second, but not final, time. After the mechanic rode out and fixed the jammed chain, and after the family waited for the unwieldy box of to-go french fries they ordered that took longer than the repair, and after the birthday party tour took off without me, and after I fixed another slipped chain a few blocks later, I was chatting to one of the sons at a stop light as we waited for the stragglers stretched out down the length of the block. "So, what have you guys got planned tomorrow?" I asked.
"Tomorrow? Nothing," he said. "I think we're just going to take it easy all day."

Apr 5, 2019

An offer I could refuse

"Hey! Hey! You want to have sex?" The man shouting at me as he staggered by had already been past the shop a few times by 7:45 am. He seemed probably homeless and definitely drunk. 
I said a very clear no. 
"Come on, yes you do! 
He kept walking, fortunately, as he shouted over his shoulder, "Me and you, on the ground!" He was almost gone by the time he added "Mano a manoooo!"
My coworkers looked horrified when they came in a few minutes later and I told them had happened.
"Sorry that happened, what did you say?" they asked.
"I... declined."
"Well yeah, of course," one replied. "You're married." 
I explained that there were a whole lot of reasons that made that an easy no, and that being married didn't really crack the top ten. 

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