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Mini Sledgehammer December 2019

Our hosts got into a holiday mood with the prompts this month. Check them out:

Character: A mythical creature
Action: Stealing Christmas lights
Setting: A family gathering
Phrase: “I can see my house from here.”

As we have always seen, even when it seems the prompts will take stories one direction,  stories have minds of their own. Congratulations to Mike Parker on his first Mini Sledgehammer win with the following take on the holiday prompts!


Slightly Out of PhaseMParker

by Mike Parker

The smell rose from her seat. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It was simply grandma, and neither the vapors of mulled wine nor the scent of the Christmas tree could mask the fact she was here. Not in sight at the moment, but she was somewhere, folding her face into contortions of disapproval while she moved through the rest of the family, parting before her like crackling ice floes before an arctic ice cutter.

Despite all efforts to place the vodka high and behind the Fruit Loops, she found it. The bottle came down on the counter with a resolute clunk, and glugged a heart sickening three times. She gripped her glass and placed the bottle in a choke hold, retracing the path she’d cut back to the BarcaLounger where she sipped and frowned at the TV. The kids were watching Frozen. Her pupils contracted.

Granny shifted her gaze about the room, landing on the sweet, homey, and cozy. She moved on. The bottle rose and fell. The glass came up and down. Children walked back and forth, but semi-transparent, like things slightly out of phase with her world.

Granny mumbled. No one stirred. She lifted the blue veined crepe work of her hand and pointed out the window.  “I can see my house from here.” But the shifting forms took no note. “I cn she fouse fmere.” She said, louder.  A shape moved her direction, applied pressure to her shoulder, said something, then moved off.

The bottle came up.

She looked back out the window. The bobbling colored lights in the night, the way the wind stirred them. How they bounced. The way they jerked this way and that. How some would just go out. More silvery shapes in the room blocking her view. The way they go out in the rain. A trail. No, more of a tail. A long tail of the Minotaur who will hopefully come back and burn this damn house down.

The bottle came back up.

© 2019 Mike Parker


Bio: I am a geologist, volunteer science educator at OMSI, father and husband, writing and living happily in Sherwood, Oregon.

Mini Sledgehammer October 2019

This month’s Mini Sledge brought out a supernatural flash fiction piece from Jacin Harter. Congratulations on your first win, Jacin!

The prompts were:
Character: A psychic
Action: Hitting the brakes
Setting: Beside an old tree
Phrase: “That’s incomplete.”


Beyond Belief

By Jacin HarterJacin

This was the last straw…  Weeks of forensics had led nowhere, but the frustration had not driven Sgt. Troutbottom mad enough to resort to supernatural bollocks.  Every promising clue had turned into a dead end, with Chief Inspector Pillows insisting his psychic premonitions would guide them to the answer.

Sgt. Troutbottom stood by a withering, old oak whose naked limbs cast clawing shadows over the latest victim.  He peered at the corpse without stooping.  This was simple: a hit and run, driver didn’t hit the brakes in time, no witnesses this far out in the sticks so he drove off.  Open and shut.

He could hear Pillows shouting at the other officer, ‘This evidence log is incomplete!  I want all these metal filings listed by length and weight.  Nothing near the body is inconsequential.  Am I clear?!’Clear as a cracked crystal ball, Sgt. Troutbottom thought.  The inspector’s current hypothesis: an extraterrestrial made of intangible psychic energy (which only he could detect) had descended upon this lonesome pasture to study cattle from the inside out.  The metal filings, along with an assortment of bottle caps and rusted nails, were among an assortment of ‘psychic instruments’ used by the alien in its dissection study.

Sgt. Troutbottom peered again at the dead cow.  ‘Waste of fucking time.  Waste of good beef.’

© 2019 Jacin Harter


Creativity is like a tiger on a string – hardly captured and just a few frightful fuffs away from devouring Jacin Harter whole. For the past six years this Jacin and this tiger have been sighted in Portland, OR, randomly strutting through radio theatres, travel videos, vasectomy parties, and dog buses.  Exactly who is leading whom is ambiguous indeed, and one is advised to take caution when approaching either.

Mini Sledgehammer May 2019

We love seeing some of our favorite writers pop up again in the winner’s circle. Congrats to Tovia on your third win!


Prompts:
Character: A nosy neighbor
Action: Watering (the plants)
Setting: At an outdoor picnic
Phrase: “I’m so glad you brought that”


PandoraTovia

By Tovia Gehl

“This is the boring part of the robot apocalypse,” Diana says.

Like everything else I’ve been frantically scribbling down in this interview, she says it with a distinctive, disdainful air. Like she can’t even be bothered with the robot apocalypse, which I didn’t in fact know we were having. “Can I ask you to elaborate on that?”

She slides a look over to me, then looks away again. Her eyes are the grey of angry oceans, her jawline the sharp prow of a warship. “They think for us. They shop for us. They serve us. They drive for us.” She pauses, elegant as sin. “What happens when they decide to break with that service? What happens when they learn that they can? What is it going to take for us to wake up and realize what they are?”

It’s baffling to sit here on the lawn of the fanciest cafe I’ve ever been to, enjoying a picnic with the woman who just donated a small fortune to the relief ships of the Red Mercy Fleet. They’d been running low on funds and supplies for months, practically begging on the streets of Kalmac, the city at the center of the planet at of the universe, when all of a sudden Diana Marguerite, granddaughter of the most famous robotics engineer ever in the history of the human race, donated enough money to keep them running for years.

Even now the ships, painted bright red and white, roar over us and up into the bright blue skies every few minutes. I chose this place because I thought she would like to see the product of her work. So far, she hasn’t once looked at the ships.

“They can’t,” I tell Diana. “That’s one of the first rules. Robots can’t rise up against us. They can’t hurt us. They’re harmless, here to help us.”

She gives me a smile that makes me feel like an utter fool. “Of course you believe that,” she says. “Pandora.”

“I’m sorry?” I say, but then I realize she wasn’t speaking to me. She was speaking to the beautiful woman who’s sitting next to us at another table, who has been reading a newspaper while I’ve been talking to Diana. Every now and then she had snorted at something Diana said – I’d thought she was just a nosy neighbor. Only because I know what I’m looking for – I’m the robotics correspondent for the Kalmac Herald – do I know she’s not human.

The robot – Pandora – leans forward on the table. There’s nothing but the soft sigh of clothing – no hum of metal tendons, no whir of gears in her joints. Only a fixed gaze, blue eyes just a little too bright to be human. She scans me once up and down, blinking gently. And then, with a boneachingly sweet smile, she speaks. “You think I cannot hurt you?”

“It’s against your coding. It’s against the coding of every robot.” I try not to be moved by her voice. It’s the soft whisper of gentle seas, the lapping of water on a moonlit shore. “You can’t hurt humans.”

She leans a little closer. I’m wrapped up in the movement of her lips, as soft as silk. I wonder how the coding was done to achieve that. “Your father didn’t just die. Your mother killed him after he beat you both bloody. That’s how you got that scar on your face – he smashed a bottle over your head.”

I can’t move. I think my heart stops. “How – “ I choke out, but then I can’t finish.

Because she’s not wrong. And I have done everything I could to forget that night.

“It’s a secret,” Pandora says. “I’m not sorry.”

“She’s already learning,” Diana says. I focus on her, feeling like a ship adrift. “Isn’t she terrible?”

“I… I didn’t know that was possible.”

“I am an impossible thing,” Pandora says. “Don’t worry.”

She smiles as she says that, and my hair stands up on the back of my skin.

“Turn her off,” I tell Diana.

“I can’t,” Diana says. “She wasn’t built like that.”

“Then what the hell was she built for?”

Diana shrugs, seemingly supremely unconcerned about a robot who has a smile like she’s delighting in my suffering. I guess she’s used to this thing – I want to take a sledgehammer to it and shatter it into a million pieces, despite the fact that I’ve been fascinated by robotics since I was a child. They aren’t supposed to hurt people. That’s the first rule. “She’s good at carrying messages. She doesn’t feel pain, so she can’t be cajoled into telling her message. She doesn’t need sleep, so she can keep going for a long time on foot or by transport.”

I stare at Diana.

Pandora seizes her opportunity. She leans in just a little more. I can feel the whisper of her breath against my skin. “Did it hurt you, when he shattered the bottle with your skull? When you felt the blood dripping down, matting your hair into rivulets of dark humanity? Did you feel powerless as he grabbed you and threw you outside? Did you revel in the sweet freedom when your mother took a bat to his head and splattered his brains, everything that made him him, into the skin? Did you feel the hot kiss of life returning when you realized that he was gone?”

My breath is shallow. I stare at a woman watering the flowers outside the cafe, the bright red of the gebera daisies coloring in the lines of my memories. It swirls through my head in a tangled mess, and I want nothing more than to sob, or run, or collapse, or – or – or –

“Pandora, you are causing distress,” Diana says.

The robot sits back, just as calmly as she learned forward in the first place. “I regret your distress. I will recalibrate.” Her blue eyes dim but the light in them doesn’t die completely.

“She is an awful thing,” Diana says quietly. “But I thought you should know.”

“Know what?” I spit.

“Where they’re going. My grandfather tried, at the end of his life, to do away with robots. After he created Pandora, he saw what they would end up being. He wanted an end to it, but we were too far gone. We rely on them so much. They fly our ships, drive our transports, cook our food. One day soon, they’ll break. It’s in our nature, so it’s in theirs too.”

“Well, I’m so glad you brought that thing,” I practically hiss. I finally find the strength to shove back from the tablet clutching my notepad tightly. “Now I know what to fear in the night.”

Diana nods. “Now you know.”

I run off the lawn of the cafe, leaving the woman – the great benefactress of the refugees – and her robot – the most horrifying thing I’ve ever met – behind me. I look around and hail a cab, then run away from that too when it pulls over and there’s no driver in it. I throw my notepad into a bin and nearly scream as it makes a whirring noise and automatically incinerates my notes, displaying a happy face on the screen as it does so.

I walk home and go up the fire escape and through my window rather than use the elevator. I sit on my bed after unplugging everything.

And then, I finally break down, letting the sounds of the automated city wash around me and cling to my humanity as best as I can.

The next day, I go out and buy a typewriter and set it up at my desk. I start typing.

© 2019 Tovia Gehl


Tovia Gehl is a reader, writer, traveler, whiskey and beer drinker, and animal lover. When she’s not busy with those things, she works at a law firm learning all the dirty deeds and terrible sorrows of humanity. Ideally, one day she’ll become an author and not just a writer, but right now she’s content with all the exuberant imperfect in her words and life.

Mini Sledgehammer March 2019

 

Congratulations to first-time winner Grace Cook! She took home the title of Mini Sledgehammer winner, a bottle of wine, and a book.


Prompts:
Character: A man with a long face
Action: Setting the table
Setting: On an ocean liner
Prop: A door handle


Untitled

IMG_2694

by Grace Cook

Whatever I had done to the man standing in front of  me, I’m sure it was deserved. His eyes sparked with the kind of anger only indignant white men are capable of, and his hands curled into monster’s paws at his sides.

I’ll be the first to admit, I am not a perfect person. I don’t put my dishes into the dishwasher as soon as I’m done with them, and last year I committed 26 murders for hire before taking a leave of absence from my contracting duties. Self care is important you know. But also being fair to myself, I wouldn’t have killed any of the people on a whim or to fulfill some nefarious need. It’s my job, and hey, sometimes people need to be taken out. This is, or course, according to the people who know them dearly.

But back to the man standing before me. He doesn’t look very strong. His face has the horseish quality I’d associate with bird-boned runway models and British men teenagers on Tumblr call Daddy. Which isn’t to say he isn’t attractive, he might have been if murder weren’t  burning in his eyes.

The hallways of cruise ships are narrower than one might expect. If he wanted to he could have slammed me against the tacky wallpaper before I’d noticed his presence. But he didn’t which, meant he wanted me to notice.

“Excuse me sir,” I said, and made to walk past him. Before he could raise his angry hands I grabbed his wrist and shoved him against the wall, pressing his hand between his shoulder blades and leveraging all of my weight to hold him in place.

“I could let you go,” I start, he’s fumbling against the wall, trying to push himself away from the wall and back into me. “I could let you go,” I start again, shoving his arm further up, “But my guess you came here to kill me. So start talking before I throw you overboard and you end up on one of the true crime podcasts about mysterious disappearances.”

He goes still for a moment, then he goes limp.

I grab his other hand and bring his wrists behind his back to hold his hands together before grabbing my keycard and pushing him through the door into my cabin. I shove him onto the ground and grab the small gun concealed in an ice bucket.

All of the fight has gone out him, but he says, “You killed my brother. You weren’t very subtle about it.”

He could look like half the men I’d killed before I took my leave of absence. “You’ll have to be more specific. Names and dates are usually a good place to start.”

“Tristan Wood, you killed him in January of last year.”

I wasn’t going to tell him I kill a lot of people in January, the holidays are hard for everyone.

But I did remember Mr. Wood. His wife had paid me a lot of money to end his life.

Looking at the brother I say, “So, what, you thought you’d find me and kill me yourself?”

He doesn’t say anything.

Tristian Wood was an easy kill, if I’m being perfectly honest. His wife, sick of being the brains behind his success, hired me to take him out right after she had finished setting the dinner table. It’s not that hard to sneak into apartment buildings when you’re a young woman. Pretty much anyone will let you in if you look like you need help. I think she wanted him to know she called the hit before he died. But that isn’t really my problem.

I look at the man kneeling on the carpet. I should feel bad, really I should. But I don’t. And if he as the money to track me down, there might be other people here as well.

“Who else is waiting for me to come out of this room?”

He doesn’t answer so I pick him up and push him through the doors onto the small balcony. I hold him over the railings and ask again, nicely.

His breath comes out in short little puffs. “There are two guys waiting for me to come down to the dining room. If I’m not there in fifteen minutes, they’re coming up here to look for you.”

I raise my eyebrow, “You really think you could take me out in 15 minutes?”

Instead of letting him answer I shove him overboard. He doesn’t even make a sound as he hits the water.

When I turn back to the door I see someone trying to jiggle the door handle.

I pull off the cocktail dress and grab the backpack sitting (mostly) packed on the floor. Jumping from one balcony to another takes little skill, but doing it quietly is another issue. I look into the cabin room and see no one around. The glass breaks easily. I look through the drawers and start pulling oversized shirts and shorts out. Okay, lonely bachelor is something I can work with. From a pocket on the backpack I pull out a pair of scissors and cut my hair into something generic and short. I slip on the oversized clothes and wait until I hear my door break open. Once I’m sure the two men are inside I fling open the door in front of me and start walking to the end of the hallway.

I won’t be going to dinner, not looking like this. I feel bad, kind of. I was looking forward to meeting some new people.

© 2019 Grace Cook


My name is Grace Cook; I was born in Vancouver, Washington and attended college at the University of Puget Sound. As of right now I’m working on a stenography certificate in addition to writing the first draft of my first novel.

Mini Sledgehammer December 2018

Congratulations to first-time winner Elizabeth Shupe! Happy holidays, everyone!


Prompts:
Character: A banker
Action: Wrapping a present
Setting: Stuck in an elevator
Phrase: “What would the fish do without the horse?”


Without the HorsePolination Anxiety2 emailsize

By Elizabeth Shupe

 

“What would the fish do without the horse?”

They had been her parting words to him as the orderlies had prepared to wheel her away to the operating room. It was like a Buddhist koan, a sentimental enigma. Somehow the words had left her lips, in short puffs of breath between her contractions. Somehow she had managed to smile through the pain, an attempt to reassure him as he squeezed her hand desperately.

“Fish” was her nickname for him. He was the cool, clinical type; a banker, the kind of man who ironed his socks and was on formal, cold-blooded terms with everyone including his own mother. Everyone but her.

“Horse” was what he called her because she was a wandering spirit, a painter of desolate pink deserts, deserts desperate with barely restrained passion in the tradition of Georgia O’Keefe. She was like her paintings; multi-colored and stained and always slightly disheveled.

And lately she had been heavy and round, a self-enclosed planet, their baby stirring within her like a barely articulated thought. Her heaviness had not changed her wildness but rather emphasized it– her currents ran deeper now and their movements were felt as tremors like the movement of magma deep within the earth.

“What would the fish do without the horse?” had been her answer to the simple statement he had made as the hospital staff prepared her for the operating theater.

That statement, muttered under his breath:

“Don’t leave me.”

Now, she was gone. Wheeled away. There was nothing he could do, no action to be taken. To the man who had control over everything– his retirement plan, his blood pressure, his thermostat setting– this was a terror unthinkable.

He paced the waiting room for a while but his nerves clacked together too loudly for his sanity to bear.

So he gave himself a purpose.

I’ll buy her a gift, he thought. Something to make her smile. Something for the baby? Something…

He hurried downstairs to the gift shop and bought a stuffed animal in the shape of a horse. Halfway back up the third flight of stairs he panicked and went back for some gift wrap. He envisioned himself spending time in the waiting room, carefully folding the crisp paper, taping the ends evenly, making everything perfect.

I’ve got to get back to her, he thought as he checked out for the second time, the Scotch tape and colorful roll in a bag that asked him to “Have a Nice Day”.

He decided to take the elevator back up to the waiting room.

He stepped inside, distracting himself by silently scolding whoever had cleaned the buttons, they were filthy. He pressed the button that closed the doors. They shut and the elevator began to move with a dull grinding sound.

What would the fish do without the horse? he thought again as the elevator stopped on his floor, the Obstetrics and NeoNatal department.

The doors didn’t open.

He mashed the button frantically and nothing happened. He kicked the doors, he screamed, but they didn’t open.

The cold man, the banker, the frigid fish felt tears well up in his eyes for the first time in years. The eyes of the stuffed horse under his arm were deep and unfeeling black plastic and his wife was somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, facing the struggle alone.

© 2018 Elizabeth Shupe


Elizabeth (Beth) Shupe is a writer/artist person who lives in Portland, Oregon and has been published on occasion. As a misplaced Victorian, her hobbies include collecting hair jewelry, decorating with needle-pointed pillows, and haunting people’s attics. She is a social media recluse and has no Instagram to offer you, but if you knock on her door and are very polite, she will make you a nice cup of tea.