Back in September I invited my newsletter subscribers – wise, talented and good-looking people – to play a flash fiction game with me. Now the results are in, and mighty fine they are too!
Here’s the game rubric, followed by the results.
The Invitation: Can You Take A Hint?
You probably can, a smart kid like you.
But apparently, I’m a bit slow on the uptake.
I took the photo above back in April. It was just a few streets away from my house, and it was obviously doing its job: the stranger ahead of me hopped, skipped and jumped merrily along that stretch of pavement before resuming his lockdown-weary trudge.
I snapped the photo because it cheered me up at a bleak time and reminded me of what’s important in this world.
But I failed to remember that I had also seen another clue on the very same stretch of pavement a few months previously. That time around it had been a page that had fallen out of someone’s book. I had picked it up and taken it home and promptly forgotten about it – until now.
Obviously, the instruction to PLAY! and the lost page from the book are supposed to go together. What could be more obvious than that? You’d have to be an idiot to miss it.
I am that idiot.
But you can help me to make it right.
Ship Of Fools: A Flash Fiction Game
The rules are as follows.
- Write a flash fiction story that contains the sentence:
There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt.
- Keep the story under 300 words.
- You may or may not recognise the book in question. (I didn’t.) It’s your choice whether to take that into account as you play.
- Send me your finished story
I was counting your eyes, and I got totally lost in the translation. Was there a jaguar jumping out of them, a clueless one with no other intention than to eat me, or was it rather an ordinary pavement-trashcan like myself? Something filthy waiting to dig deeper in this vertical abyss abandoned by everything but dust.
No less, I got totally lost and at the end of the day, not until then, I found the small inscription that you had made on my forearm while I was counting, saying: It is not your kindergarten. It is mine. Without a drop of blood, still itching, just vaguely corresponding to my anxiety.
Well, there was no time to wonder whether I was hurt, I just knew I had to go back to the start. The other side of the spool of thread so to speak, the point of no return. Your eyes, then. So here I am again. Eagerly trying to count them all.
But still, every time one or two leave, another four or five get back, right in their place or at another spot, making me totally lost all over again. And still, they are making all of those silly patterns in my face. A baby rat, a belladonna lily, just another ladder right between the eyes. Your eyes. Is this really what you mean by kindergarten? A starry sky alright, but still a fucking trashcan every morning.
– There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt. You hear that?
The oil soaked pygmy watch guard didn’t hear shit.
– There wasn’t any time, you little pump head! Why don’t you listen to me?
He didn’t listen. He didn’t care to listen. He just shoved his smile in my face, the smile of a zen buddhist monk who’s about to lose it. And with a koan filled action body to back it up.
I turned around, brushed the uranium dirt off my wrists and took a firm hold on the ozone trigger.
– I’ll take this with me, I grumbled. If you follow me I’ll tell ho-ös-Rhen.
His pumpkin smile was still there, but his eyes changed. Clearly ho-ös-Rhen was enough to make him care. Or maybe he didn’t care, maybe he just contemplated if he should pull of the old ballerina trick. I hated when he did that.
– Conversation’s over, I said as I walked towards the dumped Exit. Before I pulled the lard handle I had a last look at him. He was still the shape of a blown out candle with mistletoe horses in his forehead.
– I’ll take the trigger to Yb-5, I said. Bring the kahoot next time. And remember: it wasn’t my fault the auto-manifold failed. It wasn’t your fault either. But it wasn’t supposed to happen.
He didn’t move. He came from a long line of degenerate vertebrates. Me too. We all did. And that’s exactly the problem.
– Any final words before I go?
A twitch in the palate. Molar movement. He tried to form a word. It would take ages and I had to get to Yb-5 before dawnbreak.
– No time …
So slow. A boot camp filled with nothing.
– … to wonder.
I’ll tell ho-ös-Rhen anyways.
The truth is I love fables, myths, stories but am not especially good at fiction. But what is fiction but a slice of life, I’m not good at dialog either from growing up alone.
A barge with red and white tug boat arrived this morning, at 11am, it began unloading boulders to bolster the seawall against the wild waves of Lake Michigan. Rain, years of plenty of rain, accompanied by cold winds and cold summers. Still it is gloriously beautiful.
When I woke up I felt I had come dragged from the darkness, from the land of shadows accompanied by dreamless sleep and sleepless dreams. A page of those dreams fell loose, it began, “land in the shadows, but what I hadn’t reckoned on….” What was it, I struggled to remember? A word appeared in all capital letters: PLAY! And before me a hopscotch stretched to infinity. I tripped and fell, but I couldn’t resist, even though I felt panic. However as I began, I saw I was mistaken, the game ended at 8-9. But it was different, where was “Blue Sky,” when I was growing up there was one. It was a promise. Then, from behind a car, a line of figures began to dance. Snakes were woven into their hair, they looked so familiar, had I seen them at Bath, at the Roman ruin? Dancing merrily, snakes touched foreheads, the dancing figures offered welcome: an open left hand, thumb up; their right hands lifted the skirt of their plaid garment to reveal ample thighs. Was this meant to be a sexual invitation? They stared intensely, sticking out their tongues, an unknown gesture but maybe an inviting one. They announced with joy, “The monster has fallen ill with the Plague! Celebrate with us?”
There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt, I jumped into the Blue Sky and stuck out my tongue in joy…..
‘Your idiocy is the deepest and most dispiriting I have ever encountered. And it’s not as if this particular occasion comes as a surprise to anyone. The people in your office think you are a fool. Your colleagues know you are a fool. I know that you are a fool without a single redeeming feature.
Your failings are only rivalled by your entirely groundless pretensions and laughable pomposities. None of us can wait to see the back of you.
And I gather that your girl thinks the same. Oh don’t look surprised. I am told you’ve been mooning about for weeks, snivelling on anyone who has the misfortune to have ever offered you a shoulder to make damp. It’s the talk of the town that she’s leaving you and told you with a ‘Dear John’ that enumerated your shortcomings in the most contemptuous and lurid detail. Why do think the secretaries snigger when you come in to the room? Yes, they know the details. We all do, ever since you left it lying for all to see, in some wet bid for sympathy…
The statistics chaps say that your performance has been laughably poor from the start. They thought someone was playing a ridiculous joke.. And your stumbling through the most basic tasks makes the most scabbed scraping from the backstreets look like Dr Johnson.
No, don’t say a word. Any snivelling response would only make me despise you more.
God knows what your family will think. You surely know that they were in despair of your character and abilities from the earliest days.
Get out for pity’s sake….’
The palace door cracked the plaster as it was slammed.
I was late for my appearance at the despatch box….. There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt.
There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt. Strips of skin fell off my sides like the skin of milk left on the stove for days on end. The hole in my side revealed a cave of unexpected proportions. As I entered it, my ribs closed behind me. I raised the torch I keep lodged in my left femur at all times and, illuminating my path, found myself in a labyrinth. The floor was slithering with snakes softly stroking my feet. Did Medusa shed this time of year? Undeterred, I kept walking. On the other side of my ribcage, the decrepit hull of my body must have been under assault, by the sun’s rays, by sudden hail, or by the typhoons that had been increasingly prevalent features of my small world, because a grave rumble threw me on my side. Slipping, I failed to get on my feet and instead slid deeper into the labyrinth. My rapid descent was stopped and cushioned by a velvety, purple object, equal parts tongue and ear. My spleen sampled me, buds pressed against my skin, sinuous tissue picking up on my vibrations. When a gap appeared in my spleen, I prepared to be swallowed. Instead, a slug crawled out of it and beckoned me to follow. I carefully climbed up my gullet, my nails boring into the ridges, while the slug hurried ahead of me. A light appeared above us, but I slipped again in the slime trail left by the slug. Bouncing on the ridges of my oesaphagus, I landed once again next to my spleen. Heart pounding and the tingly taste of blood in my mouth, I felt that there was no time to wonder whether I was hurt. Peeling open the gap in my spleen I entered head first.
Five minutes to each of us. My training tells me it is not enough. I open my eyes. Scud of grey clouds overhead. There is no sun. In the shallows I stand watching the others take their turns. One of them stumbles, falls: crack of pistol fire. Another stands in place shaking and giggling. Screams from my left as red mushrooms into the water around my shins. A chill twitches from my feet up my spine and into my skull. Not moving feels suicidal but motion means death. Chugging of a gasoline engine. Waves lap against my legs. Trailing in the boat’s wake a jumble of limbs caught in a net. I retch in silence, salty fluid stinging my split lip. The skiff circles back. A raspy voice: Are you a contestant or a bystander? Laughs, engine revs—drowns out shouts from my right as another body pitches forward into the surf. Not many of us left. The switch flicks and I bolt. At first it feels good to move, until I see the ridges jutting above the waves. Fast, they are so fast. More red tendrils in the water here. I hear slicing, like a metal blade. It loudens as I run faster. I cannot tell from what direction the slicing comes. Is it inside me, trying to get out… Thick fog seeps from the oily sea—all I see is white as I run, blind as a cavefish, my feet crushing shells in water now only ankle-deep. Suddenly my vision clears: the shoreline ahead. I stumble onto hard sand and turn. There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt. Or dead.
The Sleeping Extra
Nocturnal History Of A Bit Part
It was a night without nightlife. But crammed in among the various downtown storefronts, I found, of all things, a theatre. Was a play about to start? I didn’t see a marquee but I took a chance and stepped in with my ignorance intact. (One rarely gets to be ignorant in these situations).
Inside, I saw that the stage was in the basement. Everyone was already seated down below. A lone attendant smiled at me. Could I still buy a ticket?
I can let you in… If you’ll agree to participate in a small scene. It’s better if it’s a real random latecomer like yourself.
Oh! Ok. I could do that. (Is that how these things are done?)
Take this to the girl at the bottom of the stairs. It’s a sign to let her know you’re the one for the part.
He handed me a little green box decorated with pale beads. It seemed an unnecessary complication, but I dutifully brought it below to the stagehand. She took it and led me backstage. My cue was imminent. I was to “play” the part of a bewildered entrant, possibly drunk or mad. The important thing being that I was not to understand where I was or what I was doing. (Not a problem).
I stepped onstage and immediately fell to the ground in an impromptu tumble. Laughter. There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt. I looked over the small, expectant audience. A kind of chandelier made of square mirrors hung above them. Then I noticed another character was waiting for me onstage. At the critical moment, we improvised a slapstick battle that I am proud to say was warmly received. Dream crowds don’t crack for just anything.
Fat Rag Men (a fragment)
thus a red twin? Oh, we were not the same. To whirr like me, as I tumble, after the crimson, into the hole, or to yelp? There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt.
Too dark to see. I heard nothing but the raw semitone in the distance, C-B, then F-F sharp, over and over. I rename the twos: Content Basso/Fleet Femur; Cored Bento/Forlorn Foam, Crucial Brillo/Furtive Feints. No sign of red. What to do? I followed, the wet marine, so, dragging the steamer I own, over the black dirt that sometimes gave like the sweet minora.
Oh, it was hours. The forlorn foam always louder. The worm was eaten, the ironies met. In the dark. But finally, finally! Sunlight! A fresh, fragrant, cool breeze! A welcoming lot! I met a newer host. I met no wet hares. I met the sweet Marino, others anew. They asked to see the contents. I opened the steamer: it was red! With me all this time, after all! This was a perfect day.
The sky tipped sideways and I hurtled through scree. Whisky soured, head flensed, eyeballs cold and empty as the car daddy died in.
There was no time to wonder whether I was hurt before I woke up two years later and they’d given me his face.
Take a peek behind the veil.