Archives for category: Short Stories

Some people are said to have a competitive streak. I cannot deny that I am one of them. My appetite for victory is rather voracious after all. Nothing gives me such satisfaction as leaving my rivals in the dust and glimpsing their stunned expressions as I surpass their best efforts. But losing is a bitter, bitter pill for me to take. I don’t like to lose. I really, really don’t like it.

In front of my school gymnasium, a Track and Field course bathed in the sunlight. It was an ugly concrete beast upon reflection. No springy rubber cushioned the clunky steps taken on that stretch. The gray material breathed in the sunrays and exhaled waves of heat back into the atmosphere. Still, I looked forward to running on it and testing my mettle against its brutality.

One November day I was put to the ultimate test. For Thanksgiving heralds the arrival of a special event: the Turkey Trot. That is such a euphemistic title for such a miserable experience. Trotting? If only. No, its participants must strain their bodies and their minds, maintaining a brutal pace over 5,000 meters. Being a foolish, competitive turkey I naturally signed up for the event hosted at my school. Victory and glory awaited at the end of that finish line.

Naturally, I forgot the date. On the day of the race, I arrived at school dressed in jeans only to find my rivals in gym shorts. ‘Uh Oh,’ I thought, ‘The Turkey Trot’s today.’ I had brought no outfit to change into. Thankfully I had worn my sneakers so I figured “Screw it. I’ll just wing it.” Still I stuck out like a sore thumb, woefully dressed as I was. I could practically hear the skeptical thoughts of my friends and teachers. ”Is she really going to run in that?”

A whistle sounded and the competitors gathered at the starting line, all 80 of us. Volunteers dispersed to the distant track markers to guide the runners when the asphalt bled into concrete and grass. As the course was set up, the runners jostled anxiously for position. Unfortunately, I got stuck in the back of the pack. Then the gunshot! We were off!

I became trapped in a tangle of limbs. Too close. I was too close. I slowed down to escape even as my competitive mind screamed, “No! Don’t slow down! Faster! Faster!” My rational mind knew better though. ‘Open space and a steady pace’ was my mantra. I skirted to the outside of the curve. The distance was longer there, but I had no choice.

I settled into a rhythm. In, Out, In Out, Left, Right. Left Right. The world faded away. Breathing and running. That was my full existence. I was vaguely aware of crossing from the asphalt track onto the grass path but I can’t be sure. My mind was very far away. The pack had fallen behind, but I could still here the thumping of their shoes against the ground. Although, that might have actually been my heart.

The race continued in that fashion. Then, disaster! A stitch appeared in my right side. At first I tried to ignore it but the task became impossible. With every step my side throbbed and my breath hitched. My not-for-running pants clung to my joints, impeding my progress. Was I wading in muck? I gazed ahead. A fourth of the course still remained. Sweat ran from my forehead into my eyes. It stung and I blinked furiously. I had to continue. I couldn’t lose! Again I concentrated on my breathing. In and out. In and out. Forgetting the pain, forgetting the discomfort.

As I approached the final stretch, four competitors remained in front. I pushed myself as hard as I could go. I was gaining! But the finish line was too close. I couldn’t catch them. But I tried. How I tried!

I can’t tell you how disappointed I felt at that moment. My heart cried that I had lost. I was such a silly turkey because I had come in first. Boys and girls had competed in the same group but were judged separately. I was the first girl to cross the finish line.

As I regained my breath and my wits, this fact dawned on me. I would have liked to have beaten all the boys but I had far excelled expectations. Everyone wondered how I could have won dressed as I was. In response, I smirked. Though I blushed when presented with a medal and a frozen turkey. As competitive as I am on the field, I am surprisingly bashful in front of the crowd.

I still display that medal proudly. The turkey on the other hand…  

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I can’t believe I wrote this.

*

By some accounts the first Mission to Mars was a complete disaster, by others a roaring success. The television networks in particular viewed the mission as NASA’s finest hour.

The first indication of trouble presented itself when the mission was a mere fantasy in the minds of spaceflight enthusiasts; like a bloodthirsty serial killer wielding a proverbial machete, Congress saw fit to slash the agency’s budget in half. Desperate to make up for the shortfall, NASA turned to…alternative sources of income. Namely, the Media. The rights to the mission were sold to the highest bidder. After much deliberation, competition, and assassination, the networks finally agreed to split the costs and share the profits. Thus, construction on a ship capable of transporting a crew to Mars was soon underway.

Fifteen years later, everything was ready for the premiere. In preparation for the ceremony, a glorious red velvet carpet stretched between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad. Reporters, photographers and fans lined the barrier hoping to catch a glimpse, each wanting to say they were there. An excited, tension filled buzz permeated the atmosphere.

First down the red causeway were the Space Agency’s most talented, most courageous, and most determined astronauts. The crew embarking on this voyage consisted of five persons, three men and two women. Astronaut Arnold Strong would be the Commander of this outfit. Pilot Jessica Lovelace and Flight Engineer “Tricky” Ricky Dunk would assist him as the flight crew. Mission specialists, Dr. Henry Bohrs and Dr. Amanda Virgil had also volunteered to join this adventure.

On previous missions, astronauts were fully equipped with their bulky and frankly unflattering space getup. Not this time. The men emerged donning elegant tuxedos while the two women wore rich, flowing gowns and jewels glittering like starlight.

The multitudes greeted their heroes with an ear-splitting scream and a blinding series of flashes. They proceeded gradually shaking hands, making small talk, and posing for the magazines the entire length. They made their way towards the VIP stands alongside the President and the billionaires and took their places.

Then, a rumble. The great doors were opening! The guest of honor had arrived. All eyes gazed anxiously at the building. Slowly, almost unbearably so, the gates screeched open and there loomed the mighty monolith. Equipped with the latest technology and adorned with the logos of multiple companies, this ark would ensure the safety, comfort, and wellbeing of the crew on their two-year quest. For hours, it treaded the length of the red carpet, stealing the show. It was the largest and most advanced machine humans had ever constructed. The media proclaimed it a tribute to the ingenuity of man, a fitting monument to humanity. Seeing the rocket stand erect on the launch pad, no man could help but swell with pride.

But it takes two to tango, and this masterpiece wouldn’t fly itself. No, a human crew would have to remain at the helm. And with humans comes human error. 

Millions watched the launch. The video topped all the blogs and social media sites. The world tracked the ship’s progress for days, eager to observe the crew in their daily routine. Ratings were at an all time high. Yet, too many good days passed. All Quiet on the Space Front does not exactly inspire much interest or a loyal following. The media allowed more access to the astronauts, more interviews, more insight to their hopes and dreams and lives. Despite everything, the corporate executives could only watch helplessly as the ratings dropped faster than a rock in Earth’s gravity. The audience was bored. Even the crew was bored. Something would have to be done.  

The executives gathered in an emergency conference to decide on a course of action. Eventually, they decided to engineer a crisis. Nothing attracted humans like mayhem and madness, danger and disaster. Why else would traffic slow down when coming upon a gruesome car crash? Because society loves it. But how to accomplish that? 

Some advocated an Apollo 13 strategy: sabotage the ship, present a survival scenario. In the end, this course of action was dismissed. After an initial burst of interest, attentions would again wane. It was the same with war. After the initial invasion, explosions, death and gore the conflict would drift off into the background. Just another routine the world performed. Besides the insurance premiums would be murderous.

Silence.

Then, a voice spoke up. “Perhaps a human crisis?” Some murmurs followed, interest piqued but still skeptical. The speaker continued, “Let’s turn this mission into the first space reality show. People love that stuff. Stupid people acting stupid, or in this case smart people acting stupid. The public just eats it up.”

Still no response.

“Look. We’ve got five very bored men and women stuck together in a tin can for months at a time. Sure, they’re acting professional right now, but before long their proximity to each other will drive them insane. All we have to do is foster an environment to help this natural process along.”

 The next day an advertisement aired on all stations proclaiming the premiere of a new show “Capsule Fever” with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Thus, was launched the most popular reality TV show in human history.

Each member of the crew was designated with a new title. Commander Strong became the Jock, Pilot Lovelace the Slut, Flight Engineer Dunk the Fool, Dr. Bohrs the Nerd, and Dr. Virgil the Virgin.

Some of the producers protested. “They’re all nerds!” Which was true, though they eventually agreed that presentation not truth was everything.

Tensions grew within the capsule. Never able to truly escape each other’s presence, the desire for privacy reared its ugly animal head, along with other animal instincts. A love triangle between Commander Strong, Pilot Lovelace, and Engineer Dunk was fostered. At one point, Dunk even tried to eject Strong out the airlock, or so it seemed to viewers on Earth.

Speculation ran rampant. Who would get the girl? Will Dunk murder Strong before the end of the voyage. Will Bohrs and Virgil get it on already? And, by the way, how would one perform various techniques in zero gravity?

At one point, sick of tasteless freeze dried cuisine, Dunk and Dr. Bohrs managed to construct a still. The resulting drunken antics astounded even the most hardened viewers. That episode ended with a sobering note when the crew in their uninhibited state of mind revealed their fear and loneliness, confessing their disgust for the stereotypes forced upon them.     

Several months and trials later, the traumatized crew finally reached the Martian orbit. Wonder, laughter and tears. Each of them hugged the other. In that moment all the frustration and anger towards each other evaporated.

Of course a whole new problem presented itself. Who would actually step foot on the planet and who would remain on board to rendezvous later. Commander Strong seeing an opportunity volunteered to stay behind with Pilot Lovelace while Flight Engineer Dunk escorted the mission specialists to the surface. It was a smooth move. In an interview later on Strong would admit that he contemplated abandoning the three while he and Lovelace enjoyed a year of alone together. Luckily, he overcame that temptation.

Bets were placed on who would be the first to actually step foot on the planet. In the end, Dr. Amanda Virgil under the doctrine of Ladies First claimed that honor followed by Dr. Bohrs. Tricky Ricky claimed the honor of the first face plant though. His boot caught on a rung and unused to gravity after months of space flight, he lost his balance.

Mars actually offered a blessed return to normalcy for the crew. After all the drama and boredom and claustrophobia, they had a wide-open space and a job to perform. The networks were surprised that the Mars episode they had so carefully promoted ended with disappointing ratings. The most common complaint, “Nothing happened!”

In the end, the crew completed their tasks and returned to the spaceship without incident. Unlike horror movies, this band of heroes returned safely to Earth…well, mostly. There are some mental scars that time cannot heal, some images that cannot be erased.

On a side note, “Capsule Fever” was renewed for a second season.   

The Girl Who Died

I never understand why people think cemeteries are such fearful, dreadful places. I find them to be quite beautiful. Of course, they remind us of our own mortality, but they’re also proof that we lived, that we meant something once. I especially like European cemeteries with their garden plots. Seeing a garden, I cannot help but think of life itself. Every year, they sprout, bloom, wilt, and die in an endless cycle. Life and death are intricately connected. Fragile and transient, they bring beauty to this world.

I remember visiting the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. From what I hear, he just keeled over one day of a heart attack while taking down the Christmas tree. But I never knew him. I had only been born two weeks before. My grandmother would now and then stop by to tend to his garden plot and I would go with her. It’s not as well kept as its neighbors for she prefers a wild, natural look. I think it’s fitting, and later delicate, lovely white flowers bloom and cover the little garden like so many twinkling stars.

Not too far from his resting place, though, lies another.

I was watching TV one day, some sort of detective or crime show. The topic of DNA testing to identify bodies came up. I thought it was neat and told my mom about it. That’s when she told me a story.

Apparently, not far from where we lived, a girl had died. It was a train accident and her body had been so badly burned that they could only identify her by her DNA, or perhaps it was her teeth… Anyway, the story stuck with me though I knew nothing of her, not her name, not her face, not even her age. All I knew was that this girl had died in a terrible way. It’s such a morbid thought that you might only be remembered for the manner in which you died. And yet, her story of all others stuck with me. I don’t know why. I would imagine what she looked like, what her life was like and why she was on the train that day.

Trains hold a certain mystique for me. Those great machines forebode adventure, destiny, life, and death. They are not like cars, or boats, or planes. The train can only ever follow the track that lies before it wherever that might lead. I imagine each place the train stops at, even though I will probably never see it, and I wonder what that very last stop, the end of the line, is like. I guess riding a train is like life in a way. Each of us chooses a direction. We might stop here and there, or even change trains, but we always continue onward. And we each come to a final destination.

An image once haunted me. A man captured on camera a moment of impact. He was part of a sightseeing flight, but the wrong path had been input and the unknowing passenger died as the plane crashed into a mountain. It is said, that the instant the passenger pressed the shutter button, he passed from life into death. I wonder if there is a stage between, a moment where one is alive and dead at the same time or perhaps neither. Imagine a ball thrown into the air. At its zenith it pauses for one moment, one mere moment, before falling back down to Earth.

I imagine that the girl died that way as well. I don’t like to think of her struggling to escape and eventually succumbing to flame, and smoke and heat. I imagine her staring out the window of the train at night. Whether she is watching the countryside pass by or taking refuge in her own thoughts, I do not know. I imagine her passing away the very moment her train crashes, unaware of what had just occurred. In that moment, she is between worlds.

However, I don’t like the phrase “to pass away.” Using it feels like hiding from death itself; a futile endeavor, like toddlers playing peek-a-boo thinking that because they cannot see, nobody else can. The phrase is “to die” not “to pass away.” This girl died, and so left her mark on the world. “Die” is a blunt word, not a romantic one, for death is painful and ironic.

At the cemetery, my grandmother paused for a moment beside an unknown headstone. The garden was beautiful with a tall, dark green tree providing shade and shelter.

“This girl” my grandmother stated, “died in a train accident shortly after you were born. She was returning home from school. She had wanted to take the car, but her parents worried about her driving in the dark. They told her to take the train because it was safer…”

I looked at the date. She was 21, the exact age I was. We are connected; I have always felt it was so. Now I imagine myself in her place. I think of the grief and guilt her parents must have felt. I think of the grief my parents would feel. She died when I was born. But she is dead and I am alive.

This piece was submitted to The One-Minute Writer in September 2013. Every week they host a little competition called Friday Flash Fiction. Writers must submit a piece of fiction of less than 1000 words before midnight Saturday. This was the winning piece for the prompt “The longer I stared…”

The Test

The longer I stared, the less I understood.

Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped out on that study session. But I had a good excuse! My favorite show was on last night and… and then my best friend called, and then I had to complete that video game level I’ve been stuck on all week, and… who am I kidding? I’m screwed. I should have gone, but I didn’t, and now I’m paying for it.

I stared down at the paper, my head in my hands. The words seemed to stare right back at me.

I looked away, not wanting to face that mocking gaze. I glanced at the clock. Each tick of its second-hand seemed to pronounce my doom. I felt like the condemned prisoner watching the executioner slowly step forward. Unnerved, I glanced to the side. Ugh! Of course, the class genius is sitting right next to me. Why wouldn’t he be? But if I turned my head slightly to the left and peeked out of the corner of my eye…

Then, the proctor approaches my desk. Quickly, I look down to my own paper. Too dangerous. I’m being watched. I held my breath as the guard made his rounds. That was too close. Cheating obviously wasn’t on the table.

I looked up, craning my neck. Perhaps the heavens would be merciful and the answers would magically appear inscribed on the ceiling. But no such luck.

I tapped my pencil. The clock ticked. My heart pounded. Tick, tock. Tap, tap. Thump, thump. Their rhythms melded together into one voice. It drove me insane. I bit my nails and tugged my hair. Still I received no relief or clemency. I could only wait until the proctor announced the hour. There would be closure then. Not necessarily the ending that I want, but closure nonetheless. Until that time, I could only stare at the test.

The words hadn’t changed. They still sat there, staring…

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