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Mini Sledgehammer August 2012: St. Johns Booksellers

Néna, the owner of St. Johns Booksellers, says she loves hosting Mini Sledgehammer because once a month she gets some bedtime stories. Not sure how she slept this month: Creepy, trippy, and gross are just some of the words you could use to describe these stories.

This was the first Mini Sledgehammer for most of this month’s participants, but it was a veteran who took home the prize. Congratulations, Elisabeth!

Prompts:
Character: Man waking from an alcohol-induced slumber
Setting: The underworld
Action: Shaking hand as though to shake something disgusting off
Prop: Book losing its pages

***

Untitled

by Elisabeth Flaum

Jim lifted his head and dropped it again. It went splash.

Groaning he lifted it out of the puddle. It seemed to weigh far too much; his neck strained from the effort, water running down his cheeks, until he finally rolled onto his back and lay in the wet.

“Never again,” he mumbled.

“Heard that one before,” said a voice. Jim turned his leaden head till his eyes fell on the familiar shape of Toby lying beside him in the muck.

“How’d we get here?” Jim asked his friend.

“Tequila,” Toby answered decisively, crawling to his knees. “Had to be the tequila.”

Slowly the men got to their feet, shaking the thick black water from their hands and clothes. Jim rubbed his face, flung a blob of mud from his fingers, and looked carefully around.

“This ain’t the Strand, Toby,” he said.

“Nope,” his friend answered. They stood gazing back and forth. It was a street, or seemed to be; light from invisible streetlamps reflecting in black puddles, a dark musty smell settling over them. Above, there was only blackness, thick and empty. Jim shivered, claustrophobic.

“The hell are we?” he muttered.

Toby pulled a tattered book from his pocket and flipped it open, pages scattering and fluttering to the ground. He peered intently at the pages in his hands.

“I think we’re off the map.”

Jim stared down at the sheet floating in the dark puddle at his feet. It glowed gently, like a sickly moon, dimming slowly as it sank into the blackness. He looked up for the source of the light, but found none.

Toby flipped a few more pages, and another leaf took flight. He ignored it, shoving the book back into his pocket.

“Well,” he said. Jim looked up expectantly, but Toby had no more to say.

“What do we do now?” Jim asked, his voice nearly a whine.

Toby shrugged. “Dunno. Should be light soon. Then we’ll see.” He stretched hugely, then looked around for a dry curb or spot of pavement. There was none; he sat back down in the wet.

“Toby, I don’t think it’s getting light.”

Toby snorted. “Don’t it always get light? One way or the other?”

“Not this time,” Jim whimpered. “We’ve gone beyond this time, we ain’t ever gonna wake up outa this.” He glanced at his friend, wringing his hands anxiously, but Toby lay back in a puddle, arms folded behind his head, snoring gently.

“Some pal you are,” Jim muttered, lowering himself to the ground. He sat back hard, his hand sinking wrist-deep in the muck behind him. He pulled it free and shook it clean, wiping it ineffectively on his jeans.

“C’mon Toby,” he whimpered. “We gotta get outa here, man.”

Toby only snored.

Jim huddled shivering beside his friend, every nightmare horror passing through his mind. Ghosts wailed in the distance, the faceless dead lumbered by, sloshing through the thick puddles. Rats chittered and scampered in dark corners. Jim hugged his knees, trembling.

Somehow he dozed.

“Wakey wakey old buddy!”

Jim peeled open one sticky eyelid. The flesh-toned blur before him resolved into Toby’s face. Jim mumbled incomprehensibly.

“Tha’s right,” said Toby with a deep chuckle. “It’s light out.”

Jim looked around. The hard ground was as black, the sky overhead as impenetrable as before.

“No it ain’t,” he cried. “It’s no lighter than it was before.”

Toby laughed again. “No?” He reached up overhead, stretching his full height, his hands vanishing into the blackness. There was a mighty scraping screeching noise; Jim clapped his hands over his ears just as a blinding light came pouring in from overhead. The screeching stopped; Jim moved his hands from ears to eyes, peering cautiously through his fingers. A perfect circle of clear blue sky shone down above their heads.

“You remember where we had that tequila last night?”

Jim shook his head, still hiding behind his hands.

“Underworld,” Toby said with a laugh. “You got to remember not to use the back door.”

Slowly, memory dawned. Jim lowered his hands to his lap and broke out in a broad grin.

“We took the drunk’s exit.”

Toby shrugged. “Seems appropriate.”

Jim clambered to his feet and thumped his friend on the back. “That’s great! We’re not dead!”

“Not so far,” Toby chuckled.

They stared up at the circle of light.

“So…” Jim began.

“You readin’ my mind?” said Toby.

“Hair of the dog?”

Toby clapped him on the back with a reverberant guffaw. “You da man, Jim.”

Arm in arm the two friends sloshed through the muck back into Underworld.

© 2012 Elisabeth Flaum

Elisabeth Flaum is a new writer trying her hand at science fiction, and has so far been rejected by multiple well-known magazines. She also writes poetry on topics ranging from Mount Hood to Mars, with a touch of love and death thrown in. A sampling can be found at http://elisabethflaum.wordpress.com.

Mini Sledgehammer June 2012: St. Johns Booksellers

It was a very small group this month, but we had a good time writing anyway. Elisabeth returned with more magical realism to take the prizes!

Prompts:
Setting: First day of summer vacation
Prop: Road-killed skunk
Action: Spilling coffee
Phrase: Don’t tread on me

***

The Lake

by Elisabeth Flaum

Jim floored it.

“You can slow down, you know. They won’t catch us.”

He hit a bump, and my coffee went all over the floor. I swore loudly, and he let up a bit.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I just don’t want to get stuck in vacation traffic.”

“Well then take the last day off,” I said, sopping up coffee with the assorted paper napkins accumulating in the back seat. “Or wait a week. You don’t have to be in such a hurry.”

We drove on in silence for several miles. Then the car began to sputter. Jim leaned forward and peered down at the dash. It was his turn to swear as he thumped his fist against the display.

“Dammit! I forgot to get gas.”

“And you never got the gauge fixed,” I sighed. The car coughed and sputtered some more, and drifted slowly to a stop. Jim leaned his head on the steering wheel. The smell of coffee rose up from the carpet.

“What do you want to do?” I asked. He didn’t answer, just kept staring at the gas gauge as if he could fill the tank and start the car by sheer force of will.

“Sweetheart,” I said gently, “why don’t we try something different?”

“Like what?”

“Look where we are.”

He raised his head and looked around. We’d made it just past the boundary into the state park, and immense trees towered over us. Sunlight filtered gently through the leaves. I opened my door; the only sound was a soft breeze just stirring the distant branches.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s take a hike into the woods. We can let the horde of summer vacationers pass, and pitch our tent right here. Tomorrow we’ll find a ranger or someone who can help us with the car.”

Jim gazed upward, dappled sunlight falling on his weary face. Slowly he smiled.

“Who needs the lakefront?”

“That’s the spirit!” I jumped out of the car, pulling open the trunk. “Water, bug spray, first aid kit. That’s all we need.”

Just then the leading edge of the horde of summer vacationers began to pass. RVs, station wagons and SUVs stuffed to the roof, the entire population of our small college town seemed to be sweeping past. The smell of exhaust and freshly pressed skunk drifted over us. The first wave passed; Jim peered at the small squashed animal lying in the middle of the road. The stink was overwhelming.

“Don’t tread on me,” Jim muttered. He turned to me with a grin. “Let’s get out of here.”

Together we pressed through the dense wood. Every once in a while the sound of passing traffic or the smell of skunk would waft by, soon to vanish in the sounds and smells of the forest. A small brook babbled cheerily nearby. Birds sang. Waving ferns brushed against our jeans. The stresses of the school year fell away; our steps grew lighter and lighter.

The light grew lighter as well. Jim moved ahead of me through the trees. The branches thinned overhead; the babbling of the stream became a soft rushing noise. Jim stopped at what looked like the edge of the world. I hurried to catch up.

“Wow,” I breathed. Rather than ending, the world opened up before us. A narrow greensward dotted with wildflowers stretched out, leading to the sandy shore of a sparkling lake. The sun, setting behind us, shone in every color on the crystal clear water.
Jim took my hand. “Look, our own private lakefront.”

I gazed in awe. “How did we not know this was here?”

He shrugged. “Nature’s little secret. Our reward for a job well done. Maybe it’s a mirage.” He dropped my hand and whipped off his sweaty t-shirt. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Suddenly I felt every speck of sweat and dust on my skin, every ounce of dirt that had settled on me over the term, every petty complaint and problem and annoyance of the last nine months, itching all over. I grinned at him.

“Let’s.”

In moments we shed our clothes, and hand in hand dashed madly for the sparkling water, towards the first great plunge of summer.

© 2012 Elisabeth Flaum

Mini Sledgehammer March 2012: St. Johns Booksellers

We had two newcomers at this month’s Mini Sledgehammer in St. Johns, and they really made the judge work hard! Our winner, Elisabeth Flaum, was one of them, but it’s wasn’t just beginner’s luck. Her story was great.

***

Prompts:
Character: Elvis
Action: Trouble fixing a bride
Setting: Arbor Day
Prop: Garlic

***

Untitled

by Elisabeth Flaum

I walked through the park in the spring sun. I hadn’t known there would be an event here, I just stumbled upon some kind of celebration. Earth Day or something. Arbor Day. Children selling seedlings, booths of people selling plants or landscape services or for some reason, yoga. I wandered among the noise, my thoughts drifting.

At the far end I drifted to a stop in front of an ornate display. A colorful banner read ‘Save the Presley Foot Bridge.’ An Elvis impersonator finished setting up his boom box and began belting out tunes. A whole tribe of people stood behind the tables, handing out pamphlets and hauling in any handy passer-by. It wasn’t long before one of them spotted me. I deftly made my escape as she approached.

Or so I thought. I hadn’t gone twenty yards when a flock of children engulfed me, chirping. One of them pressed a flyer into my hand as they dispersed. ‘Save the Presley Foot Bridge.’ Ten yards further along, I noticed a table of young people selling plants bore the same banner. And the t-shirts on the volunteers. ‘Save the Presley Foot Bridge.’

My curiosity piqued, I returned to the display at the far end, where I was quickly engulfed by the tribe.

“All right, you’ve got me. What’s the Presley Foot Bridge?”

A young woman with warm dark eyes took me by the hand. “Come and see.”

Beyond the hubbub of the festival, beyond the soaring flocks of children, beyond the reach of the Elvis music, she led me into the trees. A tiny wood beyond the park, rich with birdsong and the rustle of wind in the leaves, the scent of wild garlic rising as we crushed the plants underfoot. The girl clutches my hand, her fingers soft and delicate in mine, and pulls me to a stop at the edge of a clearing.

“Do you see it?”

I peer out from under the trees, blinking in the sunlight. Tall grass waves in the breeze, fluffy clouds scud across the vivid blue sky. I see nothing resembling a bridge. I start to turn, to ask this girl what she means by this, when from the corner of my eye I catch a glimmer of… something. I turn again; with my head at just the right angle I can see it. A shimmer in the air, like heat rising from the road, but with a suggestion of color, like the faintest of rainbows. I turn to my guide, incredulous.

“You can see it.”

“I can see something. I think.”

“Not everyone can.”

“Tell me about it.”

“This land belonged to a family called Presley. No relation to Elvis, that’s just a bit of fun for the campaign. But they left the land in trust. They created this place as a passageway between this world and the next. But it was never finished.”

“Wait a minute. Between this world…”

She nodded. “And the next, yes. In the Presley family, knowledge could be passed down directly from preceding generations. They wanted to share that ability with others. But the last Presley crossed before the bridge could be completed. There’s no one left on this side to finish the job. Until… until you.”

“Me? Wait a minute. You’re talking about communicating with the dead. A bridge to another world. That’s impossible.”

Her dark eyes gazed into mine, all-seeing.

“It’s not. You know.”

As she said it I knew she was right.

“It only takes that special kind of trust.”

Suddenly it wasn’t a young girl’s voice I was hearing. It was the voice of my own great-grandfather, a man who was ancient the day I met him and who never grew less so. A man who appeared to me still in my dreams, as he had in my childhood, whenever I needed a guiding hand. He was there with me in the clearing in the woods, there with me and this girl I’d never seen before.

I looked into those dark eyes and saw myself. I reached out and took her hand. Together we stepped out into the sunlight, our feet climbing an invisible rise, riding on that special kind of trust. I heard the music, smelled the wild garlic again as we stepped into another world.

© 2012 Elisabeth Flaum