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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 March 2018

Character: An irate commuter
Action: Rollerblading
Setting: In a plum orchard
Phrase: “Are you sure you really want to do that?”


The Plum

 

by Sara Kachelman
 Sara K
The plum overtook the entire orchard. When it grew larger than a water tower, it rolled and sat its ass on i-5. The commuters tried to go around it until one brave woman plowed right through. Are you sure you really want to do that? Cried a chorus of carpoolers. I am late, she said. She turned her wipers on high. The pulp sprayed everywhere. The juice caused a flash flood that washed away two whole lanes. The sweet nectar plugged the throats of the naysayers, the tailgaters, the ones who told this woman not to try. And all the haters died.

When the woman had cleared a path and disappeared, children flocked to the giant plum to latch onto its flesh and suck like barnacles. The plum was closed to thru traffic.

Everyone had to walk. Intrepid rollerbladers tried and failed to coast down the wet red tongue of the giant plum, scattering pulp in their wake.

But by late afternoon the plum got soft. The heat of the sun sealed its interior like a rotten pink sarcophagus, rendering it too toxic to enter. The city of Portland was filled with the smell of burning sugar.

By nightfall the top of the plum had collapsed, launching a spray of dead yellow fruit flesh across the Willamette Valley.

The survivors gathered together. No one had plum insurance. With gas masks they hunted for the plum farmer. They found him deep inside the plum pit, curled up asleep.

They were so exhausted when they got there they curled up with him and cried.

©2018 Sara Kachelman

Sara Kachelman has published fiction in DIAGRAM, Fanzine, and New South. She lives in Portland, OR.

Mini Sledgehammer February 2018

We had a great crowd this month!

Prompts:
Character: An old man
Action: To electrify
Setting: In a recording studio
Prop: A heart-shaped box


Ron the ManEversmann SH photo

by Bobby Eversmann

Ron has two hearts. Ron is strong now. Ron used to leak cheese-colored spit from his lips. Now Ron’s blood runs strong like black-red ox blood. Ron’s other heart he keeps in a box inside of a box shaped like a heart, a real heart, a box made for a heart, an actual human beating heart, the box on top of his pillow. The one he doesn’t sleep on. The other side of Ron’s big lovely queen. Ron dreams dreams where he holds his heart in his hands, electrifies it with plier-wires, wires into his car, car wires, wires he pulled out of his radio with his bare hands, his hands wrapped deadly in copper wires, his wired hands holding his butterfly beating heart, running high beating with his car engine running. AC/DC, AC/DC, Ron loves AC/DC, rock and roll and swift communication. See Ron. See Ron love. See Ron’s heart beat like ten thousand hot wings of the eagles of freedom. Wow! Ron. See Ron hold his heart in his hands, kiss his own heart, wink. Hi Ron! What a heart Ron! What a heart Ron’s got, what a love, what a love for the world, what a big heart, how gracious is Ron, loves every boy and girl. Ron’s new heart is a little girl’s heart. Three AM Ron nuzzles his heart, his own nose in his own artery. Smells like me, says Ron. Smells like I used to smell. Smells like an old can of beets, like an old cat, like world famous stilton. His lips mixed with his flesh bloody heart, cold red, lush, velvet wet his heart, kisses his own heart, his old heart. Ron’s new heart is a little girl’s heart. A little girl who could have been a doctor! A teacher! But most of all could have been a singer, that girl had a voice. That girl sang like dribbled gold, a desperate grabbing voice that girl, and then that live wire left alone at the pool, the downed one nobody noticed. The little girl—Ron’s not privy to the name—put her feet on it, stepped on it, stepped onto the wire, an eel, an electric eel, and—zap—died. There at the pool. Swam all day at the pool. Climbed out of the pool. Died. And now she lives on in Ron. She could have been a singer. And now she lives on in Ron’s home recording studio, Ron, the podcaster, Ron, Wolf-man Ron coming to you live from Fresno, California, this week we’ve got a great show for you folks, this week we’re dialing up old loves, old flames, old trophies. This week we’re in love. I’m in love with you. And you’re in love with me. Listeners, oh faithful listeners, let me hold you in this little girl’s heart while I kiss my own heart to sleep. Ron the Faithful. Ron the Bold. Ron of Oak Meadow Lane. Ron, what a man, what a man, what a man with a mighty young heart.

© 2018 Bobby Eversmann


Bobby is an editor for the IPRC’s 1001 Journal and the national bookseller journal, Deep Overstock. He works at Powell’s Books and has published in Portland Review, Fiction Southwest, SUSAN/The Journal and fog machine. He runs Late Night Pomes.

Mini Sledgehammer January 2018

Ali, our founder and webmistress, was surprised to get this month’s winning story and find that it is by someone she knew in college! Great to hear from you again, Linsey! Love the magical implications in this flash piece.


Character: Traveler
Action: Planning for the future
Setting: A rock garden
Phrase: “Why is there a knot at the end?”


UntitledSquinty selfy

by Linsey Schmidt

Miss Abernathy of SE Green and Clover was 103. On a good day, she was convinced she didn’t look a day over 70, on a bad no more than 85. The neighbors on either side did not know any of this however, to them she was just the little old lady that moved in three years ago to rehab the 70s ranch house. One or two might point out that neither her rock or herb gardens matched the exterior, but she kept the lot up and always paid her HOAs, so she was doing better than most. Sarah, her closest neighbor, was the first to welcome her to the neighborhood, and the only one to bring her consistent joy.

Jeff, the oldest of Sarah’s children ran up to the table, stopping in a skid of gravel. “Did you bring me anything, Miss Abbie?”

“Does a sweet count?” She pushed the plate between him and his brother. Jeff grabbed a twist with an elaborate scroll end.

“Why does it have a knot at the end?” He asked, pulling immediately at the folds.

“For endings and beginnings,” she murmured, but her attention strayed to Sarah’s younger son, so much quieter than his older brother. Tim had grown pale in the time she’d been away, and leaned hard into his mother. Sarah brushed a hand along her son’s head, leaving a streak of sweat in his hair.

“Feeling okay, baby?” she asked only to lunge forward to grab Jeff before grabbed a handful of cookies from the tray. “Don’t ruin your dinner.”

“A cookie won’t hurt you,” Miss Abbie told Tim in a whisper. “Try the one with the sprinkles.”

“it’s got green stuff.”

“Just a few minutes and hours to see you into the future,” She told him. Thyme was a magical herb when used correctly. She was just worried she wouldn’t get enough into him to last out the week.

© 2018 Linsey Schmidt


Linsey likes to write a lot – mostly emails for the corporate world, but fictional stories (short and long form) sometimes make their way in too. She is thankful for opportunities like the mini-Sledgehammer to write outside her ordinary.

Mini Sledgehammer November 2017

Mini Sledgehammerers say the nicest things. This month’s winner says, “Thank you so much for offering this event!  Everyone is so supportive and creative. You’ve got a good thing going here.” We’re glad you’re part of it, Dana, and congratulations on your win!
***

Character: An angry jogger
Action: Delivering a package
Setting: Airport
Prop: Stuffing

***

Testing

by Dana StepletonDana

I scheduled the test between two mundane errands. That way I could pretend that it was just like any other boring day, as if nothing of note had really happened.

“What did you do today?” Someone might ask.

“Oh you know, went to the grocery store and the dry cleaners. Oh, and I went in for my test, too.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” they would reply, before continuing to talk about their own day, which is what they wanted to do in the first place.

So I went to the grocery store, and even though I realized that the items I bought from the frozen section would have appreciated a different order of operations, I continued straight on to the testing center. Any change to the plan at this point would throw off my feigned coolness and irrevocably upset the hypothetical conversations I had scripted in my head.

The scene did feel a bit prophetic. “What was it like, when you found out?” My future offspring would probably ask.

“It was one of those perfect Autumn days, where the leaves are every color from plum red to lemon yellow and when you step into them they crunch. It felt like a spotlight was on my every movement.” I became aware that while the leaves were probably perfect for crunching, I had not actually crunched any. To keep my future self honest, I stepped out of my path to step down into a pile that had accumulated against the brick wall that hemmed in the sidewalk.

“Watch where you’re going!” yelled a voice from behind me. I turned to see a jogger, covered in a sheen of sweat and gesturing with righteous indignation. He skirted around my impulsive path with an exaggerated parkour-like movement.

“And then, some asshole jogger got all bent out of shape and basically ran me over,” I told my hypothetical children, while simultaneously apologizing to the man. After a second, I erased this addendum from the story. Better to leave it as a prophetic fall day. The scent in the air of things to come, that sort of thing.

When I entered the actual testing center, my future conversation fell away in the face of a small mountain of paperwork to complete. I claimed a clipboard and a pen that had a spoon taped on to the top, and began to fill out my relevant details. The last sheet was a sky blue, and it had a dotted line across the middle. Just below the line was written, “For Medical Provider Only.” It was followed by a series of “choose one of the following” questions involving incomprehensible acronyms, and at the very bottom, a simple Yes/No statement:

Epigenetic material viable for life-extending protocol (LEP): YES   /     NO

I flipped the pen over and drew silent circles around the “YES” with the spoon, around and around again. I noticed the person next to me noticing me, gave a quick smile in their general direction without making eye contact, and then put the pen/spoon down. Without my silent prayer to keep me occupied, I looked around the waiting room.

It felt more like the seating area at an airport than a medical clinic. There were no crying and snot covered children, no high schoolers absorbed in their phones while trying not to think about turning their head and coughing for their required sports physical. There were only quiet, not quite middle aged men and women like me, waiting as impassively as businessmen and women wait for their commuter flight. And this room served the same purpose as an airport, really. We were gathered here, hoping to start a great journey. Only, not all of us would be allowed on the plane. The biggest overbooking fuck up in history, I thought to myself.

Eventually I was called to the back and had my blood drawn. I sat alone for about five minutes while they processed the sample, and then I was ushered into the counseling room. This was a conversation I had not rehearsed to myself. I found myself wishing I had given that “YES” a few more circles with the spoon, just for good luck.

A women with a prepackaged compassionate look greeted me at the door of the room. She ran through some platitudes, and then paused. “Irene,” she said, “I’m so sorry, but your results came back negative. You are not a qualified candidate for the LEP. As you know, this decision is made based on the quality of your epigenetic material, which would determine if the procedures would have a positive outcome. Now, I now this can be a shock. But with other medical interventions, you likely have another,” she flipped through my chart, “eighty of ninety years of quality life.”

Later I placed the melted ice cream and ruined Stouffers stuffing in the freezer like I was delivering a package to my future self. Maybe she would care about the risk of food borne illness, the wrongness of the texture in her mouth. For now I couldn’t even ask her.

© 2017 Dana Stepleton

***

Dana recently got out of the Army and is now traveling the country in her camper van as a full time vagabond. She spends her time writing, hiking, observing the locals, and keeping her existential angst tamped firmly down.

Mini Sledgehammer August 2017

Congratulations to Sean Hartfield, who won this month’s Mini Sledgehammer, with prompts inspired by the big solar eclipse!

***

Prompts:
Character: A new girlfriend
Location:  A doghouse
Prop/object:  Special eclipse-viewing glasses
Phrase:  “It is what it is.”

***

Untitled

by Sean Hartfield

Well, I guess I can finally get rid of the doghouse.  It had been sitting in the back yard since I bought the house almost a year ago.  I was thinking of getting a dog or a fish anyway, and the sellers offered to leave it, so I said “sure.”  I paid sixty thousand more than the house was worth anyway, so fuck yea, leave the doghouse.

I wanted to get a pure-bred chocolate lab, but my ex-girlfriend wanted a pound dog from the Humane Society, so right there we should have known we weren’t made for each other.  But like most other people who are too lonely and horny to end a relationship despite the warning signs, we wanted to try to make it work.

We failed, and I still don’t have a dog.

But I do have my new girlfriend Catherine, the dog walker.  Actually, she owns a dog walking/sitting business and kinda doesn’t like it when I introduce her as a dog walker.  She’s entering med-school in the fall, so I asked if I should say she’s a vet.  She said I should introduce her as “Catherine” and leave it at that.

Anyway, I met her because she was dropping off the neighbor’s dog when I saw her about to climb into her van.  I’m horrible at flirting and picking up women so I reached out to shake her hand before my palms got too sweaty and tried to get my lie out before it got too complicated.  The lie, I mean.  The trick, I’m told, is to keep a lie as simple as possible.

Anyway, I told Catherine I was going to be traveling soon and wanted to know how much she charged for dog sitting.  “What kind of dog do you have?,” she asked.

Hmph.

I hadn’t really thought my lie through that far.  I was just gonna say I had a dog and that I was in a hurry and could I call her to talk more about, you know, dog sitting.  For when I’m traveling.

“Maybe you can help me pick one out,” I said.

“Huh?,” she said, tilting her head slightly to one side, sorta like a confused puppy.

“I don’t have a dog yet,” I confessed as her brows joined in a frown.  “But I’m really gonna, well, I want to get a dog soon, and then I saw your van and then I saw you and then I wanted to talk to you and as you can probably tell, I’m really bad at this.

“Fascinating,” she said.  “A guy who lies.  Are you at least really good in bed?”

Speechless, I actually felt my face flush.

After a few seconds passed, she made one of those game show loser buzzer sounds. Annnnkkkk!!!  “Time’s up.”

Then we both laughed so hard we ended up sitting in the grass and talking about random stuff and the upcoming solar eclipse.  Later, she said she decided to go out with me despite the lie because I was able to laugh at myself.  She said she had no intentions whatsoever of ever sleeping with me though.

Where was I?  Oh yea, so we went out a few times and went on a trip to celebrate us both getting our houses ready for the renters during the solar eclipse, glasses included, of course.

Who knows where life will take us.  She’s rocking my world in and out of the bedroom, and from what I can tell she has been delightfully surprised at my skills.  Low expectations, right?  They say life is what you make of it, but ya know, it is what it is.

 

© 2017 Sean Hartfield

Mini Sledgehammer May 2017

Sarah is a big help at Mini Sledgehammer, especially on a super-secret project we’ll be announcing in the next couple months. But this month, she’s featured not for her helpfulness but for her writing. Congratulations, Sarah!

***

Prompts:
Character: Little sister
Setting: A covered wagon
Prop: A paintbrush
Phrase: The light shines through it

***

Tolya

by Sarah Farnham

He worked patiently. He worked frantically.Sarah Farnham

He worked by light of day and by the moonlight herself.

 

He was building a time machine.

 

“Aw, you doin’ that stuff again?”

He ignored her, focusing on spreading the paint as far and as wide as he could reach.

“Hey–”

A small tug on his painter’s smock caused his eyebrows to rise.

A shake of the ladder got him to put down his brush.

 

“Yes, hermanita?”

“I tolya I don’t know what that means. And we’re not Mexican.”

He tossed his bangs out of his face irritably.

“Little sister. I use it because I like–”

“Don’t care.”

She started walking away, tiny feet pounding into the ground.

“Well, whatdya want?” He called after her.

“Dad’s dead.”

 

That’s all she spoke, and then her mouth was shut for good. She refused to talk entirely. She hadn’t lost any of her sass–just the will to propel it past her vocal cords and into the air. She became very good at pointing.

 

The funeral was hellish. His mom barely held it together. She kept on going around the funeral telling people to leave, telling them to “go eat something–go fuck someone. Funerals are horrible.”

He crept out a side door just to get some air and smoke a joint.

A small tug on his button-up made him choke.

“God, what have I told you about creeping up on me like that?”

She pointed to the overgrown fence behind the church.

“So?”

She tugged his shirt again, leading him over.

“Oh, I gotcha. Little thief, eh?”

She frowned and stomped her foot.

“Betcha no one’s using this paint anyway.”

The cans were rusted over and probably full of shit. She tapped his arm and pointed forcefully toward one can in particular.

“Yellow. Ok. I can dig it.”

He lugged the cans into his hatchback.

 

He was seven when the covered wagon appeared in the backyard. She wasn’t around yet. They had just gotten a computer, Oregon Trail was his new obsession. He played until his eyes were red and raw and “falling out of his head.” His dad built him the wagon, asking him to exercise his imagination instead of his keyboard.

 

He grew out of it eventually–by the time she came around anyway. He would still sneak down and read at night. He kept comic books in a locked toolbox under the bench seat.

When dad got sick, he sat there more and more. It was easier than watching him die in the living room; easier than holding his mother while she screamed with anger.

The canvas was rotting away. One Saturday when things were decently calm and dad was still busy living he asked his mom to borrow the station wagon. She came with him, of course–down to the hardware store where they bought a whole roll of canvas.

She held the hammer in her tiny hands while he fixed up whatever wood had melted away. She held the staple gun while he reverse peeled the fresh canvas back onto the wagon-bones. She sat and watched and asked questions, but mostly was willing to be quiet.

He worked patiently, and he worked frantically–willing himself to finish the wagon before the end. So he could have the chance to show dad just how much he meant–

“Dad’s dead.”

 

He didn’t go back to the wagon after the funeral. Months passed–in and out of school, in and out of a daze he couldn’t shake. Nothing seemed to be real. Nothing felt right.

Their mom was drunk inside, yelling at their aunt. He couldn’t listen to her blame him anymore.

He walked to the back of the house, grabbing his setup and handling the brushes, making sure they were still pliable and clean.

She followed him, way past her bedtime–silently, like a tiny ghost.

We’re both ghosts, now–he thought.

He put an electric lamp inside, for her. He left one outside, for him.

 

He went at the covered wagon like Jackson Pollack must have attacked his canvases, like Yves Klein must have felt when he invented Blue all over again. His mind was inflamed, his hand was moving faster than light, hotter than fire–

He felt a tug.

“Not now.”

A stronger tug, now–his brush slipped.

“Goddamnit, Ash–what do you want?”

She looked up at the canvas, hand on his arm, willing him to see what she saw.

“Don’t paint anymore.” He took a careful breath, not wanting to disturb the spell of speech.

“The light shines through it.”

 

They fell asleep in front of the wagon that night, watching moths dance around the wildly painted figures of their childhoods.

© 2017 by Sarah Farnham

***

Sarah Farnham is a freelance writer living in Portland. She likes odd habits and new words.