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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 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


 

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.

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.

Mini Sledgehammer October 2018

We love the discordant nature of this month’s prompts and the winning story that came out of it. Nice job, Tovia!


Prompts:
Character: A Buddhist monk
Action: Trick-or-treating
Setting: A wine bar
Prop: A car manual


Miami, 1926

by Tovia Gehl

Miami, 1926. This city isn’t real.

Well, it is. It has buildings and roads and trees and houses. Horses clop and cars crash by, splashing in the rainy streets. It’s the kind of place people come to get lost and remake themselves.

Marina is not here for any of that. She has a bag full of contraband, a face as pretty as the day is long, and she walks with a confident air as she descends the plank of her ship. Even the persistent rain and insistent wind doesn’t bother her. Dressed in a white dress begging for a mud puddle to look sidelong at it, she doesn’t stick out any more than anyone else in this city. Still, everyone calls out to her – the rich sugar baron’s daughter is well known here.

I tip my chin at her when I see her and we fall in, two girls linking arms. I tuck my book, a car manual I have little and less intention of reading, into my purse. It barely fits and wrecks the lines of the fine kid leather, but my brother will covet it, so it’s worth a little fashion faux pas.

“Gotten up to any tricks lately?” I ask. I know her – the world knows her – and she knows me, but I have to ask anyway. We laugh and titter like she doesn’t have a heavy carpetbag bursting with sin.

“Only treats, Eliza, don’t be silly.” With the other half of the passcode complete, I start to gently direct our stroll. Our heels click a medley along the paved streets, and we’re careful to avoid splashing in gathering puddles. She lets me lead – the location of our destination changes every time she gets off the ship.

We pass people dressed in all colors and styles. It’s Miami, and it’s 1926, and you can be whatever you want. Any business, any class, any religion. We pass a man dressed all in orange begging on the street, and Marina flips him a coin. “I heard it was good luck to rub the Buddhist’s bellies,” I tell her quietly, and she tells me not to be rude as she gives him another coin and apologizes for my words. Chastened, I silence myself.

I lead the way to the old wine bar as the night gathers. Closed since the start of Prohibition, the windows are boarded up. She raises a perfect brow at me, dark against pale skin in the pool of yellow lantern light. “A little on the nose, isn’t it?” I giggle at her, but flash her a wicked look at the same time. No one pays us any mind. Two girls giggling at each other means nothing, even though we’re tittering about breaking the law.

I take her around the side of the building and into the alley, then down the stairs and through two doors. The men who guard them let us through without a second thought. I’m the key. This is my brother’s place.

Once we’re in the heart of the speakeasy (and out of the rain), Marina unloads her bag. She’s been carrying it like it’s nothing, but as she unpacks bottle after bottle of strong Cuban rum, I wonder how she’s carried something so heavy this far.

It’s just in time too. With the sunset comes the party.

Men and women crowd together on the dance floor. Everyone greets us by name as they come in – they know where the drinks have come from tonight. Dresses sparkle in the orange glow of our lamps. Red fabric shimmers against the wall, and soon the place thrums with the pound of dozens of feet on the dancefloor.

The party goes late into the night. I’m three drinks deep with Marina on one arm and a handsome sailor on my other – I don’t know his name but he knows mine – when I feel my feet get wet. Looking down, I see a few inches of water licking around my heels. Disentangling myself from Marina and the handsome sailor, I say something about a pipe bursting and excuse myself.

Knowing my brother is busy handling the bar, I seek out the source of the leak. I splash through the packed crowd and follow the flow of the water. But it doesn’t lead to any walls. Instead, it is coming from the staircase. I stare up it, barely able to hear the beat of jazz behind the two soundproofed doors, and cold fear seeps into me.

Because the water is flowing down. Our stairs are a small waterfall, and the flow is intensifying.

My instincts scream at me to run, but I force myself to turn back. I push through the doors, fighting the rise of the water that drags at them. People are already staring at the water. “Police!” I scream in the direction of the bar.

There’s an instant, practiced movement. People flood against me towards the doors and I lead them out. This is what we do, well-rehearsed. The water is up to my ankles by the time I reach the stairs, and I’m the first one up.

Which means I’m the first one to see the waves rolling along the lines of the street. Icy panic races down my spine, because the scent of the sea is in my nose, because this is no pipe break. This is the ocean coming in.

Rain hammers down and the fierce wind yanks at my hair. People pour out around me, and I grab Marina when I see her white dress. “High ground,” I tell her. “We must go up.”

The water swirls around my knees now, and roars down the steps in a vengeful torrent. We go against it, towards Miami Ridge. It’s the walk I make each morning to get a proper view of the ocean, and I know it’s the highest point around. I fight my fear for my brother, but Marina isn’t from around her – and if she drowns, her father will cut off our supply of Cuban rum, and our speakeasy will die. My brother would kill me if I let that happen.

We fight our way against the wind and water up the heights. When the ocean finally lets go of my feet, I can see nothing by grey, furious water ahead of me. Looking back, the city of Miami goes dark as the electricity is devoured by the storm.

Marina tugs me into the sheltered space behind a building. “What is happening?”

She asks me. “Are we going to die?”

The question catches me. It’s the same one my brother asked my mother we were on the boat from New York to Miami with our parents, headed south to start a new life. There was a storm then too. “My mama told me everyone dies twice. Once when you stop breathing, and once when your name is forgotten.” I take her face in my hands and attempt a smile. I am drenched, a ragged thing made of salt and fear, but she almost smiles back of me. “We will not be forgotten.”

© 2018 Tovia Gehl


Tovia Gehl is a reader, writer, traveler, whiskey and beer drinker, and animal lover. When she’s not busy with any of those things she works with 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 imperfection in her words and life.