Flash fiction challenges such as Five Sentence Fiction has kept me writing and improved my craft, so I serve up some here every Tuesday. Since every one likes choices I’m providing you with two weekly writing prompts. You can participate in either one, or double your pleasure by trying your hand at both. Submit your efforts any time between now and next Tuesday.
The Standard Prompt will always consist of a two-word prompt to be used as inspiration. The Non-Standard Prompt will change from week to week. Sometimes it will be a visual prompt, sometimes a first sentence or phrase, sometimes a scenario, etc. The limit for the Two for Tuesday Standard Prompts is 200 words and the Non Standard Prompt has a minimum of 200 words but no limit allowing for more in depth explorations. Use the little blue link thing below to submit your link or leave an entry in the comments section.
Don’t forget to check out the other entries.
Here is this week’s two-fer:
You have lots of creative leeway. The limit is 200 words. The words can be used:
- simply as a point of inspiration and do not have to be used directly
- they can be included exactly as provided
- or each word can be used independently of each other (for example if Death Row was the prompt instead of crafting a story about an inmate on the way to the gallows, you might write something like: Despite feeling like death from an excess of cheap vodka consumed the night before, Evelyn moved on to planting her next row of spinach).
For this week’s alternative prompt write a story that begins with the words: “Anyone home?” As per usual with the Non-Standard Prompt there is no word limit (to allow for more in depth explorations) but there is a minimum of 200 words.
Those of you who like to write first and read later, be forewarned that my personal effort follows.
I have incorporated both prompts this week. This is a much longer story than I usually post and it definitely falls outside the definition of flash fiction. Sorry for the lateness of posting but I have been rushing to finish this story. I hope you like it. It has a bit of Stephen King’s The Langoliers about it (which appeared in his collection of four novellas titled Four Past Midnight).
As always, feedback is appreciated and I take it to heart. This morning (Wednesday), Steve Meitz confirmed what I already knew: that the original ending was crap. I had raced to get this story up on Tuesday and the ending suffered for it. I have revised the story, taking it in a different direction, and I think it is stronger for the changes. The final seven paragraphs have been totally reworked.
Thanks Steve. I hope you approve of the new ending…
Over the Edge (4,117 words)
“Anyone Home?” he called in a panic drenched voice. He pushed through the front door, but even before it swung wide he knew the answer. Three days ago his world had been perfectly normal. That was definitely no longer the case. He could see through into the kitchen that no one was there and hope began to evaporate. “Hello, Phyllis? Drake?” he called in a strained falsetto, “You guys home?” Thursday now seemed like a lifetime ago as tears of desperation, fear and exhaustion began to flow down his cheeks.
* * * * *
Thursday, three days prior
That evening, the work day had ended like any other as Stuart Miller shut down his computer and shouldered his backpack. Megan, the hot brunette over in the marketing group, looked up as he passed her desk. She smiled and said, “Night, Stu. See you tomorrow.”
“Actually I’m off tomorrow, so have a nice weekend, Megan.”
“You too. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Stuart blushed as he briefly pictured what he thought Megan might be willing to do. “Nah. My weekends are usually pretty dead,” he answered and walked on yelling back over his shoulder, “See you Monday!”
It had been a beautiful June evening, low humidity and temperatures in the low 80s—perfect gin and tonic weather, which was exactly what he enjoyed while sitting on his front stoop after a long day. He was looking forward to having three days to himself with no agenda. The evening sun felt good on his upturned face; pulsing orange and red lava lamp patterns danced across his lids. He heard a distant car and opened his eyes just in time to see a silver sedan turn south onto Gainsborough Avenue two blocks away. The intruding rumble receded and he returned to his quiet revery.
Quiet was the operative word. He looked out across his neighborhood and marveled, as he often did, that there was never anyone in sight even on a gorgeous evening like this one. Where were the kids, strolling couples, dog walkers or obsessive joggers? Why wasn’t anyone else out soaking up a gorgeous evening like he was? When did things like book clubs, gym memberships, computers and the evening news have such a powerful draw on everyone?
The world might be blowing up around him but there was some truth to the cliche ignorance is bliss. He could wait until the morning newspaper was delivered tomorrow to find out who had killed who, or to be provided with new examples of how intractably dysfunctional Congress really was. For now, though, he was going to make another drink and enjoy the rest of this delightful weather on his front steps in blissful ignorance.
* * * * *
Friday, two days prior
Sweat ringed the neck of his T-shirt and his hair was damp. The light that filled the bedroom was flat and lifeless like a poorly exposed black-and-white photo; not much contrast or definition. Stuart was generally up before the sun, even on weekends, so he was surprised to have slept in. The house was silent and the clock face was black. The power was out. Grabbing for his watch he rubbed sleep from his eyes and then ran the inside of his forearm across his brow, mopping away some light perspiration. His watch indicated that it was eleven after one.
“Christ!” He jumped from bed, he had slept away the morning. He looked down at the watch again and noticed the second hand wasn’t moving, that his watch had stopped. “Damn, everything’s going to hell.” He walked through the house and flipped a couple of switches just to make sure it wasn’t just a tripped circuit.
Since it was daylight out, it was impossible to tell how wide spread the outage was. He thought he should report the outage and tapped his iPhone to life but it stared blankly back at him. His phone was dead too? He knew the battery had been running low last night but he thought there had been enough juice left in it to, at least, make a couple of calls.
Stuart jogged across the street, his flip flops slapping loudly against the soles of his bare feet. He rapped on the front door and waited for Leslie or Erik to answer but no one came to the door so he tried again, knocking a little harder. Still no answer. Then it dawned on him that is was Friday and most in this neighborhood of young professionals would be working. He likely wouldn’t see anyone until the typical Friday invasion of lawn mowing crews descended upon the neighborhood.
Back in his kitchen he yanked open the fridge door, pulled out the OJ, and quickly closed it to preserve the cold not knowing how long the outage would last. The juice splashed loudly into a glass and the first sip tasted sour as if he had just brushed his teeth. On closer inspection the juice looked a little on the brown side so he poured it down the sink. Does orange juice go bad? How fast? Does it usually turn brown?
He turned and leaned against the counter and his eyes scanned around the kitchen. Everything looked slightly off kilter. It was like he was in a model home that was in need of a sprucing up. It wasn’t a place that looked lived in, it only looked like an approximation of one. Maybe it was just the light but everything seemed tired, a little drained of character, lacking vibrancy. Flat. Lifeless. Actually, lifeless wasn’t quite right. Maybe soulless was a more apt description.
Stuart’s car keys lay in a shallow bowl along with a few rubber bands, a small binder clip, a miniature golf scoring pencil and three cherry pits that hadn’t made it into the trash. He scooped the keys up and decided to go for a ride to see if he could determine the scope of the power outage.
The engine caught after the third try. As he pulled away from the curb it back fired twice and the engine was running very sluggish. Before he made it to Gainsborough Avenue every idiot light on the dash blinked on and then quietly the car quit. He let it coast to a stop and tried to start it back up but it made not a rev, click, groan, sputter or bang—nothing. With a shoulder against the door jam and a hand on the steering wheel, he pushed it to the curb and slammed the door shut but it just bounced against the frame. He thought maybe the seatbelt buckle had been in the way but it was apparent that the mechanics of the latch simply weren’t working. He walked back to his house leaving the car unlocked.
Not a leaf fluttered. There wasn’t even the hint of a breeze. Everything looked like it was in need of water, wilted, drooping. Some leaves were even turning brown. The air was thick and the light was so flat that Stuart couldn’t even discern any shadows. There were usually cardinals, mocking birds, finches, chickadees and wrens flitting about, sharing their songs or squirrels and chipmunks—an abundance of them this year—foraging for nuts or berries. But there was nothing. It was like what he imagined Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone to be, a silent wasteland. Stuart’s chest tightened with panic and he picked up his pace. He was running flat out by the time he reached his yard. He was officially freaked out.
* * * * *
Saturday, one day prior
Red rimmed sleepless eyes darted around the room. Stuart lay on his couch and as the darkness receded, he found himself cataloging the cob webs and nail pops in the family room ceiling. He had been awake for most of the night. He couldn’t calm his heart. It had been racing all of Friday, most of which he had spent peering out his window praying to see someone or something else living pass by the house. At one point he went out with a piece of chalk that he had dug out from the back of his junk drawer and marked the tires of a couple of the neighbor’s cars to determine if any of them might have been moved—even an inch—while he wasn’t looking.
He forced himself up from the couch. Stuart hadn’t had the will to make it upstairs to the bedroom. In the previous evening’s gloom the stairs had looked too much like the maw of a malevolent mouth waiting to swallow him up. That reminded him, he needed to eat. His rumbling stomach was about the only thing that seemed to be making any noise.
Stuart fished a bag of sandwich bread from the bottom bin. The sandwich meat, fruit and vegetables all looked inedible, slightly desiccated and dusty in color. The grapes were nut-hard, but at least the bread looked okay. It felt pliable through the bag like one expected as he pulled the loaf from the bottom bin. Maybe it was all the preservatives. Thank God for Wonder Bread. He pulled a slice from the bag, folded it in half and took a bite of bread with nothing on it. It drew all the moisture from his mouth as the texture went to powder akin to instant oatmeal straight out of the foil packet.
He spat the flavorless mess into the sink and turned on the faucet to rinse his mouth. The water spurted out in a staccato rush like there was air in the pipes but quickly slowed to a drool of red sludge and he backed away bumping into the kitchen island behind him which caused him to jump with fright. When he whipped around to see what had snuck up on him, his hand accidentally swiped the small dish, that held his keys, from the island sending it to the floor where it shattered on the tile. In the stillness of this upended world it sounded like an explosion.
He looked around the room with wild eyes as his heart raced. Suddenly everything looked foreign to him. The sound of rushing blood pulsed in his ears and he was having trouble drawing breath. Perspiration sprang up across his forehead and Stuart raced down the hall, burst through the front door, lost his footing on the sloping lawn that had already begun to go brown and found himself sprawled on his stomach. Panic blossomed in his chest expanding with a tingle down his arms and legs. He gulped air like someone who had been forced under water and had just fought their way back to the surface for a moment.
He rolled over onto his back and sat up in the middle of his yard, dropping his head between bent knees and tried to get his ragged breathing and hammering heart under control. He had never had a panic attack before but he was fairly certain that this must be what he was experiencing.
He forced himself to take deep, even breaths working to slow his breathing to a near normal rate without hyperventilating. Stuart stood, still a little shaky from the attack, and went next door to see if there was anyone else stuck in this living hell. He banged on doors and mashed the door bells of twenty or more of the most immediate houses on the surrounding streets. Please God, let me find someone else. He finally started trying the doors to see if any were unlocked. “Hello? Anyone?” Stuart’s calls were all answered with silence. He found the same feeling of soullessness that he had experienced in his own kitchen. Rummaging through pantries and refrigerators was futile. He found nothing edible. Red gunk dripped from every faucet. But his reconnoissance efforts turned up a curious anomaly. There was a slight difference in time on the stopped clocks in most of the houses further west.
A block or two away they were only a minute or two later, which he thought could be accounted for by human error. As he worked his way further, the time increased. His clocks had stopped at 1:11, three houses over a clock in the kitchen had read 1:13. A block beyond that a mantel clock was stopped at 1:16. Stuart was on to something. Under a sky without definition that was the color of ash he picked up his pace.
The residential houses were left behind for the local retail center. It was dark and deserted, a very odd sensation, like Disneyland before opening. It wasn’t litter and rubble strewn as most post apocalyptic movies seem to envision the end of the world. It was just devoid of life. The word soulless again bubbled up in his mind. He peered through the front window of Pottery Barn and could see a display wall of clocks. The central one was about four feet in diameter and distressed to look like it came out of a 1930s train station. It displayed the time as 2:34 as did the clocks surrounding it. He stood there for what he judged to be three or four minutes to make sure the clocks were in fact stopped. He made his way down the side walk to Jackson’s American Grill. Above the restaurant’s entrance was an outdoor clock ringed with neon tubing that was dark. It too read 2:34.
On the western most edge of the town center he found a clothing store with a large clock in the window display with the words ‘summer time’ painted on the glass in a loose orange script. The clock was stopped at 2:37. The blackout—or whatever it was—must have been a slow moving one, edging across the landscape at a slow walking pace. Stuart realized that he might be able to catch up with it if he gave chase.
A block over was a bike shop. Peering through the window he could see that that every tire was airless and hanging in shreds as if from dry rot and many of the chains were broken and useless. He spotted some scooters in the back that had solid composite wheels that might work.
Stuart looked around for something heavy and finally dug away at a loose section of granite curbing that looked manageable. He stood back and heaved the stone at the large plate glass window and it shattered into large spears most of which clattered to the ground. He braced himself for the wail of a siren but then realized it was never going to come. Picking carefully through the bayonets of glass he stepped through the window and retrieved one of the scooters testing it in the store to see if it was functioning and was relieved to find out that the wheels turned freely.
Math was not his strong suit but he figured that the blackout—or the ‘back edge of time’ as he was beginning to think of it—was crawling along at a pace of roughly one mile per hour. Maybe even slower than that. He might, depending on terrain and stamina, be able to average as much as five miles an hour on the scooter.
Stuart’s sister, Phyllis, and her husband, Drake, lived about 40 miles west. West was the direction he wanted to head and overtaking the edge of time was his goal. He pushed off from the curb down the center of what should have been a busy street mapping out his route to his sister’s house.
It was an odd sensation to be riding a scooter on the interstate. Stuart had expected an endless four lane parking lot of stalled abandoned cars but all of the roads were clear. He was making good time without needing to slalom through a maze of automobiles. He had been pushing himself hard for a couple of hours. His t-shirt was soaked through and hair was plastered against his scalp.
Both the temperature and the light were neutral. It was neither hot nor cool and the daylight was perfectly flat, a photographer’s nightmare. No gleaming sunshine, no blue sky, no clouds, just an even dull gray sky rendering everything in muted colors as if the Saturation slider in Photoshop had been moved to the left. There was not a whisper of a breeze so all evaporative cooling was from his movement. Coasting downhill was heavenly. He stopped twice to rest but he pushed himself hard. He wanted to get as close as he could to the Edge as he could before darkness descended.
He had been surprised just how total the darkness had been last night, which he had spent on the couch. The light had faded quickly and with zero light pollution there was no ambient light in the house. He had felt his way to the front door expecting to find a spectacular spray of stars scattered across the sky but when he stepped outside he was hard pressed to tell the difference between his family room ceiling and the astral dome above.
When Stuart left the bike shop he noticed every tree around was February bare and dead leaves clustered around the base of each tree like preschool children at story time. The absence of wind had left them where they lay. As he covered ground and felt himself getting closer to the Edge, He noticed more trees still miserly holding on to a few dead leaves like his white oak used to every winter. The trees became his proximity gauge. The closer he was to catching the Edge, the more leaves there were on the trees.
Dusk came quickly and lasted only a few minutes. Suddenly it was totally black. Stuart thought he could continue a little longer since the highway was fairly wide but he found he had veered off onto the shoulder and collided with the guardrail. He sat down and exhaustion closed in on him as quickly as the darkness had.
* * * * *
The dull gray light prickled at Stuart’s eyelids and his eyes fluttered open. He was stiff and sore from yesterday’s push but he was relatively rested. His stomach felt as if it were digesting itself and he was in need of water. He needed to push on as quickly as possible. The Edge had moved further west as he had slept and the saying time waits for no one, couldn’t be any truer than it was that morning.
The traveling was more physically taxing on his second day. His muscles ached and his back was giving him twinges periodically, but he pushed himself hard and soon his legs loosened up and he was able to make pretty good time. He didn’t need to stop to eat, because there was nothing edible behind the Edge. He didn’t have to make ‘pit stops’ because there was nothing in him. He took short breaks to catch his breath and gather his strength as best he could but never lingered more than a minute or two for fear of stiffening up and and he never lost sight of the fact that sitting still meant that he was losing ground.
The trees had gone bare over night as he slept but as he closed the gap he once again passed trees with more and more leaves. When Stuart started seeing signs for the town of Marketville, where his sister and her family lived, He began to notice some green in the leaves. They were still dead looking but they had not gone brown yet.
Sweat continually ran into his eyes and Stuart finally tore a strip from the bottom of his T-shirt to fashion a makeshift sweat band. The closer he got to Marketville the harder he pushed himself. The leaves on the trees almost seemed to be cheering him on. He was encouraged that they looked merely wilted instead of dead green. The closer to normal the foliage looked the closer to the Edge he was getting.
Stuart was soon aware of a disturbance along the horizon. The landscape seemed to swim and waver in the distance. He pulled up short and stared in awe at the edge of time as it made its way across the landscape. Breath raked in and out of his mouth in a rusty whisper. His lips were chapped and his chest burned. His legs shook with the effort of just standing. He could see the Edge and he wasn’t about to give up now. He pushed off but his leg that was planted on the scooter buckled and he went down.
“This can’t be happening!” He lay in the middle of the interstate less than a quarter mile from the Marketville exit ramp. He was probably only 4 or 5 miles form Phyllis’ house. His knee throbbed and was bleeding from a fairly decent gash. Righting the Razor scooter he stood and pressed on trying to keep his cut knee locked so he wouldn’t collapse again. The terrain sloped down ward towards the exit and he was coasting slowly. The ramp curved more steeply downward and swung around to the left and he picked up some good speed but had to temper it to avoid losing control and crashing again.
Pumping hard with his good leg, Stuart was almost tapped out. His vision was starting to grow gray around the edges and breathing was a chore. His whole body vibrated with a tingling sensation similar to that when a foot goes to sleep. He was less than a mile away from Phyllis’ house. He rounded the corner turning right on Corregidor Rd. And stopped short.
There was the Edge in all its glory. Beyond it he could make out blue skies and bird fluttered over a large brick house with forest green shutters and cream trim. The contrast between the world in front of and the other one behind the Edge reminded him of Dorothy stepping through her door into Munchkinland. But from behind everything beyond looked smeared and wavering as if viewing it from behind a sheet of cascading water.
Stuart threw down the scooter and limped, largely hopping on his good leg towards the division between these versions of heaven and hell. He got right up to it and stood gathering his courage, held his breath closed his eyes and stepped through. He didn’t know if he would survive or what would happen. He opened his eyes.
The sky was blue. The air had a new freshness that he hadn’t realized he missed so much. Had he really made it back? Phyllis and Drake’s house was four houses down on the right and he limped towards it with his last few ounces of energy. He had to catch himself twice to keep from falling. Finally he climbed the front steps and tried the front door. Please God let me find someone home, he thought.
“Anyone Home?” he called in a panic drenched voice. He pushed through the front door, but even before it swung wide he knew the answer. Three days ago his world had been perfectly normal. That was definitely no longer the case. He could see through into the kitchen that no one was there and any remnant of hope he had been clinging to began to evaporate. “Hello, Phyllis? Drake?” he called in a strained falsetto, “You guys home?”
Greeted by silence Stuart collapsed on the kitchen floor, curling his ruined legs to his chest, and he let the tears come. His vision narrowed down to a pinpoint and he was aware of his cheek sticking to the cool tile floor. He would welcome the oblivion; anything was better than the hell he had been living in these last three days.
Readying himself to fully embraced the darkness, he heard the garage door rumbled open. Stuart weakly peeled his face from the floor, breaking the seal between cheek and tile, working valiantly to struggle to his feet. The door to the kitchen swung open and his tears of anguish turned to tears of relief at the sight of his sister carrying a bag of groceries.
“Phyl,” he whispered, “thank God,” and reached out to her.
“Oh, Jesus! Stuart!” She raced forward with concern etched on her face but the Edge moved through, catching up with the moment. It washed over him with the buzzing sensation of a light electrical current and he watched in disbelief as it reached his sister. She pixilated into a thousand points of color like a Georges Seurat impressionist painting. Each bit quickly winked out until she dissolved completely from view.
He no longer had the strength or the will and he gladly let time pass him by.