Flash fiction: New Rome

Against all probabilities, he had arrived in New Rome alive. Priscus had paused for a moment in the creaking corridor linking the starship to the elevator, grabbing a quick glimpse through the dirty window before the press of the shuffling men behind him forced him onward.

But he knew what it looked like, having seen the images all his life. The huge city, hub of the human universe, lay within a ring of countless towers, topped by the space elevators that exported its power to the stars. Immense ships departed for distant planets, carrying the weapons to subdue them, the soldiers to police them, the prefects to govern them. On their return, they discharged metals for New Rome’s industries, luxuries for its indulgences, slaves for its entertainment.

At New Rome’s precise centre lay the Colosseum, greater and better than the original, long lost in the mists of history. Scholars had dug through electronic archives, sifting through the myths and deliberate fiction, seeking to reproduce the old as much as possible, while bowing to the modern demands for comfort. Around it throbbed the largest and most vibrant city of the galaxy, consumed by its commerce and its pleasures. Priscus had dreamed all his life of coming to visit, perhaps even of coming to live.

He had never dreamed of coming to kill.

He stood now waiting in one of the air-conditioned passageways that led to the Colosseum’s vast floor, a bug-eyed, twin-plumed helmet that covered his entire head tucked under his right arm, his left hand resting lightly on the hilt of the primitive sword strapped to his side. He knew that in a twin passageway on the opposite side of the amphitheatre, another young man stood with a similar helmet under his arm and the same little rivulet of sweat snaking down his spine. When the great gong sounded, the grills before them would lift and they would stride out, meeting before the high seat, to pay their respects and to see their opponent’s face for the first and last time before they replaced their helmets over their heads. Only one of them, at best, would walk out. Priscus struggled to swallow and moisten his throat, but his parched mouth felt like sandpaper. It was always like this.

The assistant, the most attentive he had ever had, saw the movement of his throat and passed him a bottle filled with specially-formulated water. She patted his arm with a shy smile. Had his life gone differently, had he not encountered Calgurian slave traders on that ill-advised camping trip to the Boradran Asteroid Belt, he could have come here a free man. He would be inviting her out now to one of New Rome’s famous shusa restaurants, instead of meditating on how the New Romans coddled you with comfort before you died for their pleasure.

He wondered if his family had given up hope yet, if his mother cried herself to sleep, if his hothead older brother Verus had figured out where he had gone and come looking for him. Priscus wished he had, and hoped he hadn’t. It was bad enough that one of them had been stupid enough to dare the Belt. He reached for the water bottle again and rubbed the knuckles of the other hand into his eyes. Enough of that kind of thinking. That was the kind of thing that got a man killed. On the other hand, dying would almost be a relief. He had put a sword into too many bellies already.

She took the bottle back and ran her hand along his arm. “Of course I couldn’t have asked her out,” he thought incongruously. “Slaves aren’t allowed out on the town.” He twisted a broken smile in her direction.

The gong sounded. The grill slid up. He slipped the helmet over his head, hoisted the red-painted shield into place and stepped out. On the far side, his fellow combatant angled also toward the high seat where tonight’s guest of honour awaited them. Priscus matched the pace of the other, discreetly studying him for clues that would help him. Something about the man itched at him, like a melody that insists on staying just out of memory’s reach. As he drew closer, Priscus saw the nasty scar slanted across the man’s abdomen. How could he have survived a wound like that? He must have pivoted back so that the sword had slashed across without going deep. Quick on his feet then.

They converged before the high seat. In careful unison they leaned their shields against one leg, pulled their helmets off and raised their swords in salute to the woman seated there, whose name Priscus had already forgotten. The mayor? The prefect? She raised a limp hand in acknowledgement. They turned toward each other for the ritual pre-combat crossing of swords.

Priscus froze. The sword fell from his hand, narrowly missing his foot. He barely noticed.

The other’s eyes widened and he slumped down onto his knees with a long, drawn-out groan that made the hair rise on the back of Priscus’s neck. He staggered forward and wrapped his arms around the other.

“Verus! Great god, what are you doing here?”

His brother sobbed, rocking back and forth on his knees. Priscus babbled something, anything, to try to console him. Verus clutched at his arm.

Priscus raised an imploring face to the high seat. The woman leaned forward on one elbow.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Get on with it.”

Flash fiction: Paper Crane

"The first one comes today."

The beautiful thing of paper trembled on my palm.

"Unfold it." 

 "How can I? I will kill it."

His hand lay warm on my back. I knew the brokenness of his smile. 

"Carefully. I can refold it." 

I found an edge and folded it out. Another. Another. I spread the crane's wings, fearful of tearing, pretending not to see the words, not till I could see them all, the pen strokes marred by folds.

Spend your years with me
Twenty thousand morning cranes
Await your answer

Something inside me unfolded, fearful of tearing.

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Flash fiction: The Red Dress

It was the red that drew my eye as soon as I came through the door. I quickly looked away and walked past to a vacant table.

She sat alone, one red stiletto swinging back and forth. Her dress too was red, a figure-hugging, satin confection, its glossy surface emphasizing every roll and bulge. A pretty but plump face was framed by lank hair that hung down to the spaghetti straps, one of which kept sliding sideways. She pulled at it distractedly, her eyes fixed on the door. She was too young to carry off the level of sophistication the dress demanded, even if she had had the figure for it. I cringed for her, a Red Riding Hood probably eagerly awaiting the wolf.

She sipped at her Mai Tai and I ordered an aperitif while I looked over the menu. But I couldn’t stand it any more. I rose, and went to her table.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

Startled, she looked up at me, pushing her hair behind one ear before pulling yet again at the strap.

“Um, well, I was expecting somebody.”

“I’ll be happy to leave when he arrives. I just hate to see a lady sitting by herself.”

She smiled then, an unexpectedly lovely smile, full of a sweetness that did not match the dress.

“Well, sure, I guess I would like that.” She gestured awkwardly at the seat across from her. “I hope he doesn’t mind,” and then the thought struck her, “but he is late, after all.

“Not the right time of the year for a prom date,” I said as I seated myself.

She blushed a bit. “Well, no, I mean yes, I mean, this isn’t a prom date.” She looked at her drink and bit her bottom lip. She held it for a minute. I waited. She struggled a bit. When she looked up, I smiled at her. The warmth of it seemed to loosen something inside her and she blurted out, “I’m on one of those Internet dating services. And I was supposed to meet this guy here tonight, but I guess he isn’t coming.”

“The cad,” I said.

She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.

“It was very kind of you to come over,” she said. “You know, I wasn’t all that comfortable with meeting somebody I didn’t really know anyway. I mean, there are all kinds of guys on the Internet...”

I snorted.

“Absolutely. You’ve got to watch out. And that young man didn’t even have the discernment to recognize a fine woman when he saw one. His loss, my gain.”

She handed me her heart then in her smile. Poor thing.

Coming late always makes it so much easier.

Flash fiction: The Sandalwood Box

I wrote this a while back, as part of a weekly flash fiction challenge. Enjoy.

The Sandalwood Box


Tory ran her fingers delicately over the carved top of the box, tracing the curves of the motif. What did they call this kind of wood again, sandalwood? Wasn't that supposed to be aromatic? She lifted it to her nose and sniffed, but got nothing more than a good whiff of dust.

There was a band all around the perimeter of the lid, made up of small tiles of yellowing ivory and a black, hard wood. Must be ebony. Where would her grandmother get anything so exotic?

She settled down on the bare plank floor, her back against an old navy blue travelling trunk, the box in her lap. Dust motes played in the slant of yellow sunlight from the window under the peak of the roof. It was a bright day outside but here, behind the stacks of boxes the corners were still shrouded in shadow. She straightened her rounded shoulders and tilted her head back to peer up at the rafters, wondering at her reluctance to lift the lid. Now that it came to it, it felt like a terrible invasion of privacy, digging through her grandparents' things. The dead are not offended, are they? Wouldn't they be flattered by her interest in their lives, in her own heritage?

She shook the box instead, feeling like a child on Christmas morning. No rattles or thumps, just the dull sound of papers sliding around. Bills? Not likely in a box like this. Bills belong in shoeboxes. Love letters? She laughed out loud at the thought of Gramps being capable of it, he who snorted in sour disgust at "mushy stuff." From a secret lover? She laughed even louder as the image of Grammy's hairnet and sensible shoes came to mind.

She was still smiling when she opened the box.

#

The lid wouldn't close again.

Tory had slipped the bundle of letters out onto her lap, taking care not to displace the faded silk ribbon that bound them and absently placed the box on the floor beside her, reaching unseeing to close the lid back down as she ran her eyes over the slanting script on the top envelope.

The box tipped over instead. Puzzled, she lifted it to eye level, searching the hinges for the locking mechanism. There was none. The hinges were perfectly normal and must have been well-oiled before the box had been hid away, for they had opened smoothly without protest. If anything, they had opened too smoothly. One would expect an old box like this to resist.

Well, it was resisting now, for no discernible reason. Tory pushed herself to her feet and examined it more closely in the direct light, but she was no further ahead.

"The heck with it," she said, and put it down on the trunk. She headed for the stairs. She would read the letters downstairs and leave the troublesome box behind. It was childish, she knew, but she was irked.

She had only gone a few steps down before she stopped and looked back. The box sat on the trunk, lid tilted up, like a gaping mouth.

Now cut that out! she scolded herself. It's just a box.

But when she turned again to the stairs she felt an itch under her hair, the way she would on the schoolbus when that annoying kid with red hair and freckles stared at the back of her head till she scratched. She descended another two steps anyway, then stopped again. She screwed up her face in exasperation and looked back at the box.

The sun had crept up the side of the trunk and was now fingering the edge. The box stood out in stark black relief against the dusty glory behind it. It gaped at her.

Tory stomped back up the steps and took the box in her hand, wrinkling her nose. She couldn't leave the stupid box up here by itself, uncovered, unlocked, unrestrained...

Not sure which irritated her more, the box with its inexplicable refusal to close, or her own irrational reaction, she made it all the way down the stairs this time, the box held out at arm's length. Past the bedroom doors with their dark wood frames she bore it and down another two flights of worn wooden stairs. She would put it in the kitchen.

The kitchen, with its memories of fragrant loaves and frying onions, of milk and cookies and childhood jokes, of the clink of the potato masher against the insides of the pot, of her grandmother and laughter and cinnamon toast. The kitchen, which glowed now with the early afternoon sun, where the old-fashioned lace curtain lifted and fell back with an inaudible sigh on the summer breeze. There could be no place more solid and real and happily practical than the kitchen. And there was a table to spread the letters out on and the old-fashioned stovetop percolator to make coffee in. Fresh-ground perking coffee - that would chase the mustiness of the attic out of her nose.

The sandalwood box she placed on the far corner of the table and resolutely filled the percolator with water. The light dimmed. She checked out the window to see if the cloud covering the sun threatened rain.

There was no cloud.

She turned back and looked at the box, sitting in the now dingy light of the kitchen. Her eyes prickled.

"I hate you," she whispered between clenched teeth.