A collection of very brief pieces, ranging in subject from fantasy to silly humour and in length from a couple of paragraphs to just under a thousand words. Most were written for prompts on reddit’s /r/WritingPrompts, a fun place to do some writing.
My Mother's Jar
My mother gave me a jar of pixie dust. Or so my father tells me. I never knew her, just this jar of glittery sparkly stuff that he told me she wanted me to have. It changes colour sometimes, and when I was younger I could just sit and stare at it for hours.
I’ve never seen a photo of her, or any of her other possessions save this jar. My father doesn’t really like talking about her, at least not in that way. The other day I was talking with Kathy, a friend of mine who’s getting married soon. She went on about wearing her mother’s dress to her wedding, and all the great symbolism and family tradition and stuff that it was about, and my dad was there, and he just kind of went quiet and looked down. I felt really awkward, but Kathy didn’t seem to notice anything.
“Fen,” she said to me, “I’d ask you to be a bridesmaid, but the hairdo I have in mind doesn’t, erm, hide the ears very well, and it’s just that you’d look…”
She’s not a very good friend. But I told her I understood and that it was all fine.
I’ve never seen anything quite like my jar of fairy dust. And I’ve never seen the look in my father’s eyes when he tells me about my mother in anyone else. He loved her, and he misses her, and it used to hurt him when I’d complain about not knowing anything about her. But as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve come to understand a little better.
“So that’s what happened, and we’re mighty sorry for killing all your people,” Glorcknar told him, his face looking as remorseful as something with so many tentacles could. “The least I can do is buy you another beer. Every day. For the rest of your life.”
“I wouldn’t say no,” Steve replied, smiling bemusedly through his bushy black beard. “This one tasted really good – just like the beers I used to have on my porch at home after a hard day’s work.”
“Thank you for saying so, sir,” Glorcknar replied. “We really do love human culture, and we’ve done our best to preserve as much of it as we could learn about as well as we can.”
Steve looked around the bar and had to nod in agreement. From the pool tables to the plaid-skinned truckers, Glorcknar’s people had done a very good job. If he hadn’t just seen the large, watery eye in the middle of Glorcknar’s chest, he wouldn’t have believed the crazy story about aliens landing on earth and killing every human but three.
He’d expected that returning to civilisation after five years of living as a hermit would be strange, and that the people might seem alien after he’d been away from everyone for so long, but he hadn’t expected it to be so literal.
Steve’s second beer arrived. He tried to avoid the bartender’s look of pity. The Flobnoobians had landed on earth, defeated its combined militaries, exterminated the rest of the human population in effort to prepare the planet for their own colonisation, and then all of a sudden done an about-face and remorsefully mourned the civilisation they’d destroyed, and yet somehow come to love.
“I’ll take you to meet the other two humans, Bob and George,” Glorcknar said. “Both of ‘em are quite a bit older than you; will probably be ‘kicking the bucket’ soon.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’ll be great.”
Glorcknar fidgeted with a serviette. “We, err, stopped too late to save any of the females of the species. Sorry about that.”
Steve took a sip of his beer.
The battle was over. Jimmy knelt in the middle of the field, doubled over. His body was battered and bruised, and the last ounce of his strength had left him long ago.
All around him was death. His comrades were gone. He’d seen King Sully beheaded, and Laviere the Warrior Maiden downed beneath a tumult of arrows. He didn’t want to think about Pongo’s fate.
The grass was black and covered in ashes. The sun hung in the center of the sky, but cast a cold, grey light. Jimmy shivered. It truly was the end of the world.
The Chosen One had come from another place to deliver the Kingdom of Yorland from destruction at the claws of her enemies, or so the bards had cheerfully sung as Jimmy was paraded through the streets on the back of a talking elephant. He was twelve years old. He had been doubtful then.
Now there was no doubt. Jimmy trudged through the field of death, looking straight ahead to avoid the twisted faces on the ground. He had failed them. The prophecy had been wrong. Jimmy’s foot dinged something solid. Probably a discarded supply box, or the helmet of a dear friend. Jimmy didn’t want to look down, but he did.
The object was a box, but not a supply box. Written on top of the box, in the first Roman lettering Jimmy had seen since his arrival were the words:
Jimmy reached down and picked up the box. As he lifted it to his face, the letters changed.
Jimmy blinked in surprise, and the words changed again.
HANDLE WITH CARE
The box hummed to life as he held it in his trembling hands. It was as if a curtain was being drawn as the grey sunlight brightened overhead, and Jimmy saw the the box was painted with many colours, in ornate patterns that swirled and shifted.
A previously unseen latch on the humming box released with a click, and the lid opened. Inside the box was a paintbrush. The handle of the paintbrush slowly expanded and contracted like the breathing of an animal, and the brush’s strands seemed to move like tentacles.
The world around Jimmy had faded out, and he was standing in a plain white expanse. A brilliant light shone from all sides, and there were no shadows.
Jimmy gripped the paintbrush and let the box fall from his hands. It disappeared before it hit the ground.
The paintbrush purred gently in Jimmy’s grip. There was a feeling in the stem of his brain, as if a seed had begun to germinate there. He flicked his wrist back and forth, and colourful flecks splattered on the white expanse around him, some seeming to hang in the air.
With a powerful downward stroke, Jimmy began.
I stared at the wall of my tiny room, on which hung one of my few remaining possessions, a kitschy plaque which read:
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Sergeant Donovan certainly wouldn’t be able to find me and “give me something” here. He’d found every one of my new numbers and email addresses since he’d started trying to get into contact with me six months ago, but I’d finally outsmarted him by going off the grid altogether.
I’d grown a beard, dyed my hair, changed my name and started walking with a stoop and speaking in an accent, but that hadn’t deterred him. Now, halfway across the world, sitting in a desolate cabin in the woods, I felt sure he couldn’t find me. I’d ridden empty traincars, stowed away on a cargo ship, hitch-hiked and walked to get here just in case.
There was a knock on the door.
I reached for my gun, and then remembered how I’d lost it in a poker game on the train with hobos. There was a second knock on the door.
Maybe it was someone else. I readied my fists just in case.
“I know you’re in there, mate,” said Sergeant Donovan. “I’m just gonna come in, okay. I have something for you.”
The door swung open. Sergeant Donovan’s enormous frame blotted out the light. With slow, heavy footfalls, he advanced into my sanctum. I sat rooted to the spot in fear, unable to react until he was standing right in front of me.
Donovan reached into his coat.
I tried to scream, but my throat was dry and hoarse.
Donovan’s hand swept out of his coat pocket, and I silently prayed for mercy. But no mercy came.
“I had to give you this, Neil,” said Donovan, an angel of death about to pull the trigger. “You lent it to me.”
I looked up, ready to face the end with my eyes wide open. In Donovan’s meaty great hand there was a tattered paperback. I blinked. The book looked familiar somehow, perhaps it was an experimental weapon I’d seen used but had been wiped from my memory, though not completely.
“It’s your copy of Catch-22.”
“Oh.” My voice came out small and weak. “T-that it is.”
“Great book,” Donovan said as I took the tattered thing from his hand.
“Yeah. H-hope you liked it.”
“Sure did. That’s why I kept it so long, I guess.”
“Love your new place. Very peaceful.”
With a sickening CRACK, the two halves of broken tooth at the back of my jaw merge back into one. I sigh from the pain relief and sink back into my comfy bean bag chair, which has been getting fuller as the days go by. Before long, the hole I’d accidentally tore in it will sew itself up. Should happen in about a week, in fact.
My wife comes into the room. She’s been looking better every day since she woke up and pulled her head out of the noose she’d made of my favourite tie two weeks ago. Slowly but surely her hair is coming back and the bags under her eyes are becoming lighter. Within a month she should be back at work.
The fires and riots of a month ago seem so far away now, like they happened in a dream or a movie. For a while, everyone thought the heat death of the universe was coming early for some reason. There still some uneasy murmurs about that big science collider thing people are always talking about, but I feel like it’s all going to blow over soon. And based on the other things I’ve been feeling, and the way things have been going recently, I think it’s safe to say I’m right.
I’m in a really good place right now. For the first time in my life, I’m not uncertain or worried about the future. I don’t know if I’m developing clairvoyance or what, but it feels like my whole future is spread out in front of me like a clear map with a straight line down the middle. If my boss asked me where I saw myself in five years time right now, I’d actually be able to answer the damn question for once. I’m gonna be furthering my education then – taking a trip back to school to enrich my mind. It’s gonna be great.
I smile at my wife. She’s been crying, but the tears are drying up fast. She still looks a bit distraught, but I know she’ll be better. We all will. I get up and embrace her. “All that’s in the past now,” I whisper.
“Well, this is awkward.”
“So we’re sure both of our parents were at this party, with us. And we’re sure it was a kid swapping party, because those apparently were a thing that existed now.”
“Yes. We’re sure. I mean, everything points there. I always had a feeling you were attracted to me because your mother looks like an older version of me.”
“Skipping right over that one for now. My Dad’s not going to be happy if this means he has to pay for the wedding. Um, your Dad, I mean.”
“Yours is going to be real deflated about this too. Remember the fun he used to have pointing that old shotgun at you!”
“That’s actually the one positive thing that’s gonna come out of this – maybe he’ll feel bad about chasing his son around the yard with a loaded gun.”
“It was loaded?”
“Yeah, didn’t I tell you? Multiple times. That guy’s a psychopath. Err, no offense.”
“None taken. Not like he’s my father. But that does bring up some questions about your mental stability…”
“Come on, don’t be like that. I’m just being realistic – mental health issues can be genetic.”
“Hey, well, you’re the one who grew up in the same house as the psychopath!”
“Are you trying to imply that nurture is more influential to a person’s behaviour than nature? Because I think we both know that’s not true.”
“Um… no, we literally don’t know that. At all. That is entirely unsubstantiated.”
“I’m not getting mad! I’m perfectly calm!”
“No, you just think you’re calm because what your brain is telling you about what’s happening right now doesn’t match reality. Which is because you’re the son of a psychopath. It’s… in your nature.”
“What are you even saying?”
“Just that I think that, given this new information that’s come to light, and the new dimensions it has revealed in both our personalities, I think maybe we should think about… well…”
“Oh no. This is not happening.”
“It’s not you, it’s me! No, that’s a lie, your father’s a psychopath and you are by proxy, it is you. Sorry.”
“But he’s your father! Like, it wasn’t me he defended against innocent boys with a shotgun!”
“Were you even paying attention this whole time? He’s not my father – that’s only what this entire conversation has been about.”
“Urgh, you’re just like my mother. I can’t deal with this now, I’m going home.”
“Hold on, let me get you my keys… no need to snatch!”
“Uh, hi… it’s me.”
“Yeah, I got your twelve other missed calls, what is it?”
“You kinda stormed off before I could get the keys to my parents' place from you.”
“Okay, I’ve left them in that rosebush of yours under my window. Now I’m going to bed.”
“Yeah. Night. Man, I wish your parents had bought me such a big bed. This is so comfy!”
There was a groan on the other end of the line, and then it cut off.
Cold June Day
“It’s June, how can it be so cold outside?” she asked me.
Placing two fingers against my temples, I replied, “Because we live in the southern hemisphere and it’s always cold in June here?”
Her face is quite pretty when she’s confused. “But that’s not true at all. Southern hemisphere winters last from December to February. It’s the northern hemisphere that gets wicked cold in June.”
I don’t how appealing my face is when I’m confused, but I imagine it just make me uglier. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
She suddenly got a very smarmy expression on her face. “It’s because the orbital tilt that creates the seasons is the opposite way around here as it is for Earth.”
I began to nod with understanding, but stopped abruptly. “But the Galactic Council rearranged all of the months twenty years ago, so now the year begins with June and ends in May. So that means that Earth’s southern hemisphere should have winter in December and we, being the opposite, have winter in June.”
“But this planet takes seventeen months to complete a rotation around the sun even though we still use the Earth month calendar, so our seasons have no consistent associated months!”
“Oh, I always forget about that.” We sat in stumped silence for a moment. “Wait, then why would you wonder why it’s so cold in June?”
“I just wanted to argue with you about something pointless,” she said, adjusting her eyepatch. “It relaxes me.”
“Fair enough.” I drummed the two fingers of my right hand on the hard slab of wood we used as a table. “Back to arguing about how long it’s going to take the hellbeasts to sniff us out and kill us?”
A loud cry filled the air, like that of a thousand human nails being scrapped against a chalkboard until the pain in their owners' fingers forced them to scream out in anguish. The hellbeasts would soon be upon us.
“I just wish I knew why it was so cold in June,” I said exasperatedly. “What kind of a summer vacation is this?”
Her pupils quivered.
“I have something I need to tell you, dear,” said Mary to her husband, once the dinner had been finished. She gulped and bit her bottom lip. “It’s not an easy thing to say to you, and it’s something I’ve been struggling with for quite some time now.”
Tim looked at Mary with his cool, inexpressive gaze. He blinked precisely once, and then said, “What is it?”
Mary looked around at the grey dining room, adorned with muted curtains and a few unremarkable paintings done in faded colours. She looked at her grey husband, who actually had pink skin and dark black hair, but it was pink skin and dark black hair that was fading greyer every day, to match the grey work jacket that rested on the grey shoulders of his grey chair.
“I don’t want you to be alarmed by what I’m about to say, so you must please understand that I’m taking it all very slowly.” Mary looked down at her own red dress. Although it was barely a shade brighter than what she normally wore, it seemed to scream against the monotony of the rest of the room. “I’ve discovered something about myself, something that makes me different from most people, but not something that makes me love you any less, dear.”
Tim blinked again, uncomprehending. “Did you do something with your hair?”
Mary giggled at her husband’s attempt at humour, the corners of her lips turning up beautifully into a tiny smile.
Tim leapt from his seat and was at the wall in an instant. “What’s wrong with your face?”
Mary’s smile disappeared as she realised her misconduct. All her careful planning, ruined by an unguarded moment of amusement, a misread of humour where there was none. Her speech, her dress, her manifold schemes to slowly ease her husband into the knowledge of her newfound gaiety, all of it was now for naught.
“Hello, nine-one-one.” Tim was already on the phone to the authorities. “Yes, it’s very serious. My wife has caught the Smiles. Yes, she is displaying facial spasms. Upward turn of the lips, strange sounds issuing from throat, bombastic clothing choices. Please come at once.”
Tim hung up the phone. “It’s okay, honey,” he said. “They are on their way. Just sit still and don’t make any sudden movements. I love you, but I don’t need to catch what you’ve got.”
Mary started laughing. The authorities would be there any moment, and once they arrived they would thoroughly remove the best feeling – the only good feeling – she had ever experienced. On the insight, she was distraught, but she knew she had to savour the ability while she still could. She summoned up every happy moment, every joyful thought, and every funny joke she had heard in the glorious months since her awakening.
Soon, Mary’s laughter had transformed from an irregular and uncomfortable chortle to a full-bodied laughing fit that hurt her ribs. Barely seeing through the tears that were starting to form on her eyes, she stood up and advanced toward her husband, a finger of each hand held out in front of her. Tim whimpered and cowered against the wall.
Yesterday evening police arrived on the scene of what appeared to be a minor Smiles outbreak in the northern suburbs. The husband and wife were found dead, crumpled up against a wall. The wife’s face showed signs of advanced stages of Smiles, and police were horrified to find evidence that her last living act was to stretch her husband’s mouth into the well-known Gay Grimace, using only her bare fingers.
Citizens are reminded to stay vigilant and report any signs of the Smiles – most importantly unnatural facial spasms and braying and chortling sounds issuing from the throat – to the relevant authorities immediately. It is highly contagious and highly lethal.
Finally, a Purpose
Your whole life, you’ve waited patiently for meaning to drop into your lap, and last Thursday, that’s just what happened. You were at the public library, having your mind blown with insights from the hottest self-help guru of the moment, when, upon turning a page to uncover the secrets to wealth and happiness, you uncovered instead a hand-written note on a torn scrap of lined paper, which read,
“Good work, Agent. Now look for the Phoenix in the burrow, root 8, square 13.”
From your dilettantish study into handwriting last November, you could tell the writer had served in the military, possessed a generally sunny disposition, had a small mole on their left elbow, and had cheated on their spouse three years to the day before writing this note but was still keeping it a secret despite it weighing immensely on their conscience.
“Tell him or her, it’s the only way to be free,” you whispered to the note, before turning your mind to its more obvious contents. At once, you knew exactly where to look. You swiftly memorised the note and then ate it.
Five days, three stake-outs, two high-stakes car chases and one cross-country flight later, you arrive at your final destination.
The old mattress warehouse looks like it’s been deserted for a long time, but you don’t let that deter you. Armed with your razor-sharp wit and general can-do attitude, but no actual weapons, you confidently stride up to the warehouse’s side door and kick it open.
After nursing your foot and cursing the still-very-much-shut door, you turn the handle and open the door like a normal person, sheepishly peering through.
The interior is deserted but for a single note in exact centre of the floor. You enter the warehouse slowly, eyes darting left and right, veins coursing with adrenaline, whole body on high alert, doing a couple of barrel rolls for style.
In the middle of the warehouse, you snatch up the note and immediately drop to the floor and roll sideways to avoid the inevitable hail of bullets. When no hail is forthcoming, you are momentarily relieved, but then freeze as your brilliant mind computes the next possibility. As the room starts to shake, you admonish yourself for not bringing a counterweight to substitute for the note.
But the shaking – caused by the large, heavy loading bay doors sliding open (also slightly exaggerated by your imagination) – ends as soon as it begins. And instead of a large boulder rolling through the doors, a large boulder of a muscled, square-jawed man wearing a microphone enters through the loading bay.
“Congratulations!” he says, jogging up to you and offering his right hand. “You are the winner of the Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ tie-in ARG!”
You put your hands up, expecting he’s speaking in code, and you’ve been caught by the other side, your mission a failure. But the truth, revealed on the note, is even worse.
Once again, you find yourself in the public library, reading self-help books about finding a sense of purpose. Your Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ t-shirt chafes and your Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ earphones don’t fit properly. There’s no space for the Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ gaming chair in your apartment, and you had a very unpleasant experience at the airport thanks to your Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ life-like grenades. Even worse, this morning you dropped your Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ drinks coaster and it shattered into three pieces, so you had to throw it out.
You were hoping for a purpose, for a place in a secret society of daring spies keeping the world safe for your favourite ideology, but all you got was a lousy bunch of Death Battle IV: Modern Carnage™ merch for putting way too much effort into an ARG.