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Mini Sledgehammer June 2019

Congratulations to Anna on her first-time win!

We love to feature new writers’ words, so thanks for coming, Anna. We hope you come back and bring your friends!

Those of you reading at home, our contest is every second Tuesday at Blackbird Wine and Atomic Cheese (4323 NE Fremont St.)in Portland, Oregon, 6:30–8:30 p.m., FREE. Join us!

Character: A lost_____
Action: Leaving town
Setting: A favorite place
Prop: Clip-on sunglasses


Moving

by Anna S. King

Because she was finally leaving town, a wasp finally stung her. Housed between the forever-closed shutter and the wavy glass in her farmhouse bedroom, the wasps hadn’t bothered her in the years she’d lived with her father. But on the morning she was to leave, a lost one emerged, and stung her before she could shoulder the last bag.

She’d also woken up sick. It was another in a long list of circumstances that seemed to want her to suffer through another Michigan winter: the radiator in the old VW hatchback rusted out. “Maybe you should stay a few months to earn the money for a new car,” her dad suggested. “I won’t make it through another winter, Dad,” though she wasn’t able to actually say she’d die.

The moving van cost more than expected. The original friend who said they’d help drive south had backed out. She’d had to leave her apartment sooner than expected, forcing an interim stay at the creaking farmhouse, in her old room. The sore throat. The wasp.

She watched the circle rise up on her arm, and wondered if she could have an allergic reaction, as she did with bee strings. No. No throat closing, no dizziness.

“I’ll be damned if I’ll spend another day here,” she said to the torn wallpapered wall. It’d once been upholstered with her batik Indian bedspreads, a cloud of an old parachute tacked to the ceiling. Now it was just as sagging as the rest of the house.

She decided not to tell Jane, her new traveling companion, who she could hear talking to her stepmother downstairs.

Grimly she toed the body of the wasp that had fallen to the brown-painted floor when she convulsively swatted it to death. Another sign to leave, she thought, not another warning to stay.

The old stairs seemed steeper than five years ago, when she’d last taken a final bag away. She stepped carefully, knowing a fall was just waiting.

Jane and her stepmother were sipping coffee in the hand-made kitchen—Dad always certain he could make anything better, and cheaper, than any store—clutching the uneven ceramic cups, chatting. Jane had that gift of getting people to talk, even the stepmother, who usually kept her passive-aggressiveness housed in sidelong looks and slammed doors.

“I got stung by a wasp,” she announced, despite her best intentions.

“The ones upstairs?” Jane was excited. “Let me see! Oh cool, look at how red it is!”

She shrugged, reached for a cup. “It’s fine. Where’s Dad?”

“He’s checking the van.”

“Oh shit—he’s not repacking it again, is he? We have to get going!”

The van cost $50 a day. After 600 miles, it was ten cents a mile. The clock had started ticking before the wasp had emerged.

The stepmother shrugged.

“I’ll go see. Jane, get ready, ok?”

Jane, a great friend but a second choice for a long trip companion, didn’t actually know how to drive, and thought the trip would be as easy as the lines drawn on the AAA TripTik maps.

She went out the back room, thinking it might be the last time she’d hear the pump for the water well, the one that gave out every winter, forcing them to flush with buckets of water.

The van doors were open; her dad’s flannel-shirt back heaving as he tugged on the ropes that held the mattress in place, the dam keeping everything else in place.

“Dad, come on—we got this last night.”

“I’m just checking, honey,” still faced away.

“Really, it’s fine. Let’s close the doors,” she tugged at his arm.

He didn’t look up as they swung the doors shut, but as he clicked the padlock on, she should see he was struggling.

“Dad. What.”

“Are you sure, honey? Is this the right thing?”

Exasperated, she huffed, “Come on—I’ve spent just about all my money making this happen. You know I can’t stay.”

“I guess so. I hope there are more opportunities for you there.”

“There has to be,” she said.

He scuffed at the dirt, as she’d scuffed at the floor, and looked up into the browning catalpa tree.

“You know, when you were younger, this tree used to be your favorite place.”

It was one of the few good memories she’d take—climbing the low branches, reading under the umbrella-sized leaves, surrounded by the fingers of seed pods.

“Yeah. It’s okay, Dad. I’ll be okay.”

Her dad gave her an awkward side hug as Jane came out, lugging her army duffle bag.

“You ready? Let’s get going. Toss that in the back.”

The stepmother watched from the door, arms over her chest.

“Be careful on the highways,” she called out, and backed away into the house, the screen door slapping behind her.

Jane was in the cab, playing with the radio knobs, pulling down the visors.

“I guess this is it, honey,” her dad murmured, following her around to the driver’s door.

She hauled herself up, settling into the too-tall seat.

“Jane, cut it out, just leave it.”

She leaned down to her dad, gave him a kiss on his unshaven cheek. He closed the door for her, then motioned for her to open the window.

“Here, baby. I got you these. You might need them when you get near the coast. I hear it’s sunny there, ya know,” he chuckled.

He handed her a pair of oversized clip-on sunglasses. They’d never fit her glasses, of course.

“Thanks, Dad,” she said more nicely than she thought she could. “These are great.”

She made a point of putting them carefully on the dash.

“Call me when you get to hotel tonight. Don’t drive at night!” he said.

She cranked up the motor.

“Okay, Dad. I won’t. I love you.”

“I love ya honey.”

“I love you too—we gotta go now—”

© 2019 Anna S. King


 

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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 February 2019

The week of roses and chocolates brought out some great stories about oyster farmers and horse heads. Thanks to everyone who came out for the contest this week! And congratulations to Christopher Smith for racking up another win!


Prompts:
Character: An oyster farmer
Action: Going out on a limb
Setting: An igloo
Prop: A horse head


Winter SongChris Smith

By Chris Smith

The breeze is hard on my face as I leave the comfort of my new, icy “igloo” fortress to venture out for some supplies. Ice and snow can keep people warm. Brick and mortar can keep people warm. But ice, snow, brick, and mortar seem to keep people cold. Especially with a broken radiator, our only source of heat…besides each other. But there is only so much cuddling I can take. So, of course, my dear love has to get sick forcing me to venture out into the cold.

My toes are cold. My toes are cold and wet. My toes are cold, wet, wrapped in two layers of socks, and thick rubber boots. It feels like I’ve been walking for days, but it has only been…a few minutes! It’s the boots, we have a complicated relationship. Although they, mostly, keep my feet warm and dry, they are not my aesthetic and hurt my feet. I look like an oyster farmer. So, I thought I might as well lean into it with overalls, an oversized sweater, an oversized raincoat, and as much of a beard I can grow in twenty minutes.

It’s been about fifteen maybe twenty days? Hours? Minutes? It’s been fifteen minutes since I was last home and I’m beginning to forget what home is like; what any amount of warmth feels like. I remember his face though. If I die out here, I want to remember that face. The face of the guy that sent me out on a limb to get medicine because he likes to sleep with the fan on. Maybe the anger will keep me warm longer? That would be helpful.

The return trip looks and feels no better. I did buy a horse head mask thinking I could prank him with it or something, but now it just seems like a dumb idea to me. The cold is taking up any brainpower I have to think things through. Maybe I can answer the door with it on, that’ll be funny, right? Or I could just leave it on the sidewalk under the snow. A nice surprise for when the snow melts. Now I wish I had gotten the red cough syrup.

© 2019 Christopher Smith


Christopher Smith is an aspiring filmmaker, photographer and writer from South Florida. He enjoys crafting stories about the weird yet interesting mundane parts of life, whether it is visually or on the page. When not writing, he can be found taking photos around town or binging on TV show and movies.