As someone who’s just returning to the field of writing after a long hiatus, I struggle with many things – with finding ideas, with building self-confidence, with learning each day a little more about what it is I want to write, and why.
I like fantasy. I like humor. I like light. They make me smile. That’s not to say I can’t write from the dark side; yin and yang, light and shadow, can’t have one without the other, blah blah blah. But knowing that they both exist – that they both have to exist – is not the same as saying any one writer always has the obligation to show both sides. Every word anyone writes is a choice.
Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge this week was to choose a title at random and make up a tale to fit that title. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes – well. Sometimes, what happens is a little more unexpected…
Kim looked over Suzanne’s shoulder, trying to read the blog post along with her. The blog’s well-known author had made up two columns, twenty words in each. The challenge was to use twenty-sided dice or a random number generator to draw a word from each column for a title, then write a thousand-word piece of flash fiction to fit.
“This could be fun,” Suzanne said. “Just look at the possible combinations – ‘Cerulean Palace.’ ‘Flight of the God.’ ‘The Snowbound Murders.’”
“So, roll the dice, already,” Kim said, walking down the hall to get her laptop. She heard the dice, left over from an old game of Dungeons & Dragons, skitter across the table in reply.
“What did you get?” she called.
“I got a seven…” Suzanne called back. “…and a twelve. That makes mine ‘Lovestruck’…” She looked in the second column. “…‘Encyclopedia.’ What the fuck? What am I supposed to do with that?”
“That could be cute,” Kim told her as she walked back in with her laptop under her arm. “Lonely encyclopedia in a used book store, put away on a shelf and ignored since the Internet came along, spies a sweet old cookbook in a stack of books from the library’s ‘Buck A Bag’ sale…”
“Yeah, maybe. Here, find yours.” Suzanne handed Kim the dice. She rolled an eight and a fourteen. “What is it?”
Kim looked on the chart. “‘Red Prison,’” she replied.
“Oh, you can do a lot with that,” Suzanne said. “Maybe it’s a prison on Mars. Or it’s in Victorian England and made out of brick. Or it’s a prison just for the color red.”
Kim was quiet. The moment she’d drawn the words, she knew what the red prison was. It was a place she did not want to go.
A short time later, Kim was looking over “The Red Prison,” the flash fiction piece she’d just finished writing. She’d written it in a – well, in a flash. She’d found a photo of a solar coronal ejection that would give the sense of the piece without being literal in any way, and she was proofing it before publishing it on her blog. She made sure she had all the right tags. Besides the usual – “flash fiction,” “fantasy,” “Chuck Wendig” – there were a number that she’d never used. “Abuse” was one. “Incest” was another. “Trigger alert” was a third.
Each time she got ready to click on the “Publish” button, she clicked on “Preview” instead. Finally she clicked on “Save Draft” and closed her blog.
She went back to the original blog post that had given her the title. Hesitantly, she picked up the dice and threw two more numbers, fourteen and thirteen – “Invisible Peacock.” She breathed a sigh of relief; she could work with that.
“Did I say you could cheat?”
Kim jumped out of her chair and spun around. In the corner of the room, scowling, was a stocky man with a reddish-brown beard, wearing black plastic framed glasses and a red plaid shirt. He looked like the kind of serial killer you’d run into in a gas station in Minnesota, the kind who’d slit your throat after politely pumping your gas. Kim backed up against the counter and fumbled with the knife rack, knocking the cats’ food off the counter with her elbow as she grabbed the biggest knife.
“Oh, put that down,” the man said. “If I were here to really do damage, you’d be in pieces by now.”
“Then why are you here?” Kim asked him, holding the knife out before her with both hands.
“The piece you wrote, ‘The Red Prison.’ Was it good?”
“Was it well-crafted? Did you like it? Was it any good?”
“Um – yeah. Yes. It was.”
“Then why aren’t you posting it? And put down the knife. The only person you could hurt is yourself, since I’m not really here.” He stepped forward, walking through the furniture to prove his point. Kim frowned, then put the knife back on the counter.
“The rule was, you draw two words, you write a story to match those words. You did that. You say it was good. Post it, then. Show that you can do it. Follow through.”
“So what? Life’s dark. Boo-hoo.”
Ignoring his incorporeality, the specter sat down and leaned back in one of the kitchen chairs.
“How are you doing that?” Kim asked.
“Your kitchen, your mental projection, your rules,” the specter replied.
“Really? Okay, then,” Kim told him as she sat across from him. “In that case, let’s talk about my rules.”
The specter tilted his head. “Go on.”
“In my day job, I’m a psychologist,” Kim said. “You want dark? I live dark. Abuse. Pain. Murder. Mothers who drink, children who shoot up, fathers who kill. Adolescent girls – and boys – who sometimes find that the only way they can survive is to cut themselves until they’re almost dying, who go to sleep at night with razor blades hidden in their dresser drawers and who know what every one of their grandparents’ pain pills does. That’s where that title took me. ‘The Red Prison’? It’s blood. And sometimes – too often– I meet someone who thinks that spilling their own blood is the only thing that will tear down that prison wall.”
“So write that. There’s a story there. Write that down!”
Kim looked at the man. Now that she’d faced him across the kitchen table, he didn’t look so much like a serial killer any more.
“I’ll let someone else write that one,” Kim said. “What I write – it’s my story. My words. My rules.” She looked at the new title she’d drawn. “‘The Invisible Peacock.’ This one’s pretty. I think I’ll give it a try.”
The specter smiled, inscrutable as the Cheshire cat. As he stood up, he began to vanish. His red shirt was the last part of him to go, and as it disappeared, Kim heard a low, rumbling sound, like prison walls were falling down.
Image of Chuck Wendig scowling from terribleminds.com
The Doctor’s scowling right back atcha’, Chuck.