Christmas in the Land of Phillip

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That pantless wonder Chuck Wendig has done it again. Given me a prompt that let the words just spill out — 999 of them. A little about this piece:  It draws on my real-life experiences, but poetic license has been applied to said Christmas day. I do have photos of me shoveling snow in Macedonia on a NATO base and there was truly a sergeant who smelled of cigars and gun oil and who affected my life greatly while deployed.  There also was an epic snowball fight, which some of us eventually got into minor trouble for from a humorless battalion commander. I know there’s at least one of my writing mentors who will groan when he reads the word ‘azure,’ but it truly fit. Also, if it was good enough for Vonnegut, Hemingway and Dick, it’s good enough for me.  Happy Yule all. Hope you enjoy the story. Leave me some comments below. Blessed be. 

 

We had snow for Christmas. I had to shovel it away from the guard shack and tower. Somewhere there are pictures of me doing so – rocking the hardcore camouflage and United Nations blue beret, a baby blue powder keg that would ignite the passions of those who felt a scary new world order was represented by an American military wearing olive branches against a peaceful azure sky.

I watched the squads come in and out of the make-shift NATO base, although this particular location housed nothing but Americans and if the American battalion commander had anything to do with it, it would remain that way. Across the Yugo-width road, Macedonian army recruits trained. They were dressed up for some kind of holiday observance and were practicing some drill-and-ceremony marching. Their dress uniforms had this Rembrandt-looking hats and capes. Tomorrow I would snap pictures with them. But at that moment there was a foot of snow to make a path through.

I had asked my sergeant if we couldn’t just get the combat engineers to fire up the heavy earth mover, but he said that was a waste of tax payer’s money, which at the end of the day is what pissed off right-wing opponents to any American forces wearing U.N. blue berets. Instead they paid me $800 to have me shovel snow, do patrols and tell the stories of the operation through photographs and words.

That was the day I met Sgt. Nicholas, what he was doing as an infantry non-commissioned officers confused me. He was too smart for that. Hell, we were all too smart for most of this all-volunteer army. I think back to those Rembrandt-hat wearing Macedonian army conscripts. They somehow had it better. They had no choice; their service was never questioned with suspicion. They were doing their patriotic duty.

Nicholas smelled of cigar smoke, gun oil and evergreens. He was wearing a handcrafted lei-like thing made of pine bough around his neck.

“Merry Christmas, specialist,” he said to me.

“Happy Solstice to you,” I responded without stopping shoveling.

“Oh, no, a witchy woman; I know your type,” he said. I glanced at him momentarily and went back to shoveling. He stood chewing on his cigar, resting one arm on his weapon, and just watched me work, which I couldn’t abide. I seethed inside and tried to keep my cool and put my irritation into the shovel and concentrating on my task at hand. But I could hear him just watching me – his breath, the cigar in his mouth, his watch against the steel of his rifle.

I stopped and faced him, “Watching me won’t clear the path faster,” I said, not blocking the annoyance in my voice.

“Didn’t you forget something?”

“Sergeant,” I emphasized what he meant I had forgotten, “you can grab a shovel,” I stuck my jaw out towards a spare shovel leaned against the observation tower, “and help or you can leave.”

He stared at me, and then walked away, saying nothing.

I shrugged and went back to work. My hands were beginning to ache with the effort and the 25 degrees Fahrenheit temperature. I stopped and sat down on a snow mount I’d created with the shoveled snow. I lit a smoke. I looked north towards the helipad and the battalion quad, its buildings sporting old communist architecture that made East Berlin look decorative. Just as I nearing the end of my smoke break, I saw about a platoon’s worth of soldiers, carrying e-tools, snow shovels and the like heading my way. I just stood there, trying to concentrate on their approach. It was as if I was just simply watching television, not like I was living this moment.

Nicolas approached and the rest stayed a few steps behind him. “We thought we would help you so you didn’t miss the slop the chow hall has cooking up for Christmas. They say we’ll have real ham and turkey – not that minced and form stuff either. The Norwegian commander at the downtown base sent dozens over for us for the holiday. But this is your mission; you don’t have to accept the assistance.”

I waved my hands towards the sea of snow all around us, “Feel free, sergeant.”

Thinking back I swear we moved a football-field of snow in about forty minutes. I would have been there well past lights-out. As it was when we finished, the sun was setting and a waning Gibbous moon made our piles sparkle. There were smiles all around. The short winter days a bane on a soldier’s task list, so I was very grateful. As I approached Sgt. Nicholas to tell him I appreciated his Yuletide gift, someone threw a snowball and it pelted me square in the back. I turned around and it was a doughy-faced young kid, a private first class. “Ah, man, you got in the way, specialist!” he threw up his hands and then pushed them towards the ground like grade-school kids do when they are exasperated. I stepped aside and fanned my hands ala Vanna White towards Sgt. Nicholas, and the private, along with two of his comrades fired off a new snowball attack at their leader.

Next thing I knew there was a massive snowball fight in every direction. I took refuge near the snow mound I earlier had rested on to smoke. I sat there protected from the onslaught and just looked up at the stars. Its beauty took me back to Christmas nights in snowy Michigan. The commotion behind me much like the pick-up hockey games and other snowball fights of my youth. Suddenly a mass of green, brown and black hurled itself over the mound. Once it unrolled, I realized it was Sgt. Nicholas.

“I hope you’re happy, specialist,” he said, grinning with one side of his mouth, as the other contained a cigar stub.

“Actually, Sgt. Nicholas, I am.”

We both took up position and started firing back snowballs at the rest of the platoon.

 

 

Solstice Ball #28 — Free Range Fiction via Terrible Minds Challenge

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Here’s my take for Chuck Wendig’s challenge. I had a lot of fun with this piece. My feminism may be showing as is too many years of horror and pulp writing. But, it’s a good break from all the holiday nuttiness. Wouldn’t you say? Let me know in the comments what you think.

 

#28

Janet couldn’t decide which of her Make Your Own Man XK6 companions was going to accompany her to the Solstice Ball. Hell, she hadn’t even decided what clothes she was going to wear. She knew that he must wear is best tuxedo. And a cane. He needed a cane. But, before that he needed a head. Did she go with the older distinguished gentleman? That would give Abigail Founderland something to gossip about, since she was constantly on and on about how so many women just wanted to be kept and not have a life of one’s own. There was the dark-eyed, private-eye man. Or she could dance all night with the entertainer. There was the athlete, or the scientist. There was even a gingered-hair banker.

Janet put the head of the scientist on. Suddenly she was feeling the need for some intellectual conversation. The MYOM XK6 came to life. She stood there nude, nothing but her dancing shoes on.

“Janet,” he said.

“Willard,” Janet said and smiled. “We have a gala to go to tonight.”

“Where is your gown?”

Janet rose and walked over to her wardrobe. Willard followed. She opened its doors. Willard reached above Janet and pulled out a very plain gray day dress. “This looks fabulous,” she said.

Janet knocked his head off.

She put his head back on the shelf. The face had the look of surprise now, as if he had found a Eureka moment in his lab.

She decided that since it was a gala, she should have the entertainer with her. She executed the head placement flawlessly, and before she knew it his hands rose up and clasped onto her breasts.

“Get off, get off!” she screamed. He wouldn’t let go. She tried to knock his head off, but her arms were too short. She kneed him in the groin and he moaned and let go. She was able then to knock his head off. She was so grateful that she had gotten the XK6 model that had between-the-legs sensitivities. She wasn’t a prude after all. But both the scientist and the entertainer were going to have to back to the shop and get repaired.

She sat back and thought carefully. Maybe the athlete would be a gentleman – although she preferred him for tennis doubles. She shook her head and chose the private-eye. He would keep her safe, perhaps.

She placed the head on. “Hey, dame, what gives? I haven’t seen you in two weeks.”

“I’ve been busy,” Janet said.

“Busy working for that greedy, ginger bastard? After all I’ve done for you?”

“Look, Cliff, we’ve been over this before,” she started to head towards the wardrobe, this was life with Cliff. He was going on and on about how bad all the other men were for her, but he also conceded that he wasn’t really the partner type. He always told her that he worked alone. While she was looking at an elegant red dress, Cliff approached the other heads and grabbed the banker’s head and threw it on the ground.

“Cliff!” Janet admonished.

“Stay away from him!” He ran to the bed side table where Janet kept her small pearl-handled handgun. One he had helped her pick out. And shot the banker’s face off.

Janet whacked him from behind with the cane she had wanted him to carry and his head rolled off. She put Cliff back on the shelf.

She sighed and realized that Abigail Founderland would have lots to talk about after all.

“Henry,” Janet greeted her Solstice Ball date.

“Janet, my lovely child,” he said, just a tinge of a southern accent he had worked hard with Janet to lose.

“Are you also feeling ornery tonight? Because I just want to go to the ball and have a good time – no other shenanigans,” she pointed the cane at her.

“I’ll be good, I promise,” Henry said. He put up two fingers and then marked an “X” over his heart.

Janet grabbed a gold gown, “This is perfect for tonight,” and she dressed. Henry watched, his eyes hungrily taking Janet in. Janet focused again on the wardrobe, trying to decide which stole she would wear for the evening. Henry couldn’t control his appetite any longer and came at her from behind and wrapped his arms around her and buried his mouth into the side of her neck.

“Henry,” Janet was irritated. “Stop. It’s time to go get a taxi. Could you do that.”

“No,” he said. “I want a different date for tonight!”

“What? You don’t like my gown?” She was trying to wiggle away so she could knock this version out of commission, too.

“No, I want a different date; I was thinking maybe that sassy Abigail!”

Henry bit into Janet’s neck and she fell to her knees, knocking Henry off balance and into the wardrobe. Janet crawled quickly away. She saw the handgun and grabbed it. Just as Henry was about to be on top of her, she shot. The first shot only hit his chest and made him take a few steps back. Henry charged again, and she took a quick breath and squeezed again. A small black hole appeared, and the MYOM XK6 fell over, sprawling between her bed and the wardrobe.

Janet went over and kicked Henry’s head off. She put the gun in her evening bag. Grabbed a dark mink stole, and headed out to the Solstice Ball, alone.

“Men,” she sighed as she locked the door.

Carrying Bernie’s Scent

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I wrote a novel back in 2006-07. It is for all intense purposes the only romance I’ll ever write. Even then the romance folks won’t publish it because it isn’t bodice-ripping enough and there isn’t this big happy ending. No the ending is more an individual victory, which to me is a happy ending. But, you know many folks in the publishing industry have what I like to call formula brain. It – this manuscript called ‘Wink’ – doesn’t fit the formula or the mold of former success; no one is going to buy it. To their credit the buying public can be that way (I’ve worked in retail in the past, there does seem to be a bit of sheeple-ness to purchasing matrixes). At any rate, I have to give you this back story, because my Free-Range Fiction piece this week is based upon a prompt and incorporates two people in the story. We won’t mention that the main character of Bernie has been speaking to me again lately and she has more stories to tell. (Dear Bernie:  I’m not Jennifer Weiner any more than I am Stephen King. You may want to find a different channel.)

This is the prompt as stolen from A Working Writer’s Daily Planner:  “Picture a conversation between two people you know who will never get a chance to speak to each other. Real people in your life who, for whatever reasons, are highly unlikely to ever meet. Yet suddenly they have. Why? Without your being there, what are they saying? Do they realize they know you? What would they say about you if they make the connection?”

Except that these are two who people reside in Bernie’s life. Not mine.  Without further ado…

 

Carrying Bernie’s Scent

 

“Jack with a beer chaser.”

“Preference on the draft?”

“Cold.”

The bartender gave a little courtesy laugh and shuffled his feet behind the bar between the well and the tap. The clock on the wall behind him with old English-scripted numerals read 11:05. The sun outside told the world it was a.m.  Charles, as his name plate on his black vest read, felt a wave of sadness for the man sitting at his bar. He wasn’t one of the overnight plant workers, or the retirees escaping their overbearing spouses, or a unit of the cluster of the functional alcoholics that normally would be in The Okra Pig this time of a day. This kid – yeah, he was a kid – was at the crossroads and he chose to spend his Wednesday morning to fill up a bar stool and empty a glass, or two or three or god knows how many. Charles presented the Jack and Abita draft.

“Thanks, man.”

“Ohio?” Charles answered.

“What?”

“Are you from Ohio?”

“No, Michigan.”

“Ah, yeah, North, like I thought.”

“That obvious?”

“Yeah. Kind of a side effect of this job,” Charles said. He stuck out his hand, “Welcome to Baton Rouge.”

“Daniel,” The dark-haired, young man shook the bartender’s hand. “Daniel K. Stokes.”

“Charles,” he smiled. “Charles P. Briggs.”

“Nice to meet you, Charles.”

Charles gave him a sympathetic smile. Daniel downed the Jack and followed it with a sip of beet. He slid the shot glass over to Charles. The older man filled it up with more whiskey. He watched the young men only take a sip of this shot as opposed to downing it like earlier, as if it would burn the sadness in him. He made work by stocking bottles and washing glasses. Daniel nursed his beer and second shot, starring into both glasses as if they were a television, with programs on that only the young man could see. Charles mind wandered for a moment on whether or now there would be any other customers any time soon.

Daniel let out a sigh and looked to Charles as if he was going to say something, but then he just pursed his lips tighter. He pulled out a handkerchief, one that obviously had belonged to a woman – needlepoint trim in lavender – and took a deep breath. Then he set it down on the bar and looked at that.

“Not a lot of men would do something like that in public,” Charles said without reservation.

Daniel shrugged, “A lot of men haven’t met Bernie.”

Charles raised his eye brows. Daniel downed the last of the whiskey in the small glass that had T-O-P etched into it like some sort of monogram.

“A woman.”

“Of course,” Charles smiled, his white teeth gleaming against his tanned skin. “Isn’t it always?”

“Hadn’t been for me,” Daniel looked at Charles. “Bernie was one of a kind. But I couldn’t seem to make her love me.”

“Nah, you can’t do that to anyone. Not ever. I don know that feeling. There was a Bernie once that I knew. She made all the men crazy. Course she was crazy, too. Wore all these different hats each day.”

Daniel looked up, then immediately stood up, “Holy…”

“What’s wrong? You okay?” Charles didn’t need the aide car coming to the pub today. He didn’t need the liquor commission knocking on his door.

“You know Bernie,” Daniel’s eyes widened and looked in brilliant bewilderment at Charles. “You know MY Bernie.”

“I do?”

“Different hat, crazy…fucking fantastic Bernie,” he sighed again and sat back down on the wooden bar stool. “How do you know Bernie?”

“She lived down here, a long time ago; she was just a pup then. Used to even work here – when this place was the go-to place for the university kids.”

“She never told me – course we only had a few months together. It was all I needed to know I loved her. Man, she just slipped away.”

“Brother,” Charles said. “It’s for the best. You ever see her on a full moon?” Charles thought about how Bernie had kicked out a gang of bikers who had tried to steal her tips with nothing but a lashing of her tongue and a waving of a very pissed off finger.

“Yes, and I even loved her then.” Daniel thought about how Bernie had thrown spaghetti at him after she had overreacted to something he had said and how they had made love in the kitchen even with the sauce simmering on the stove.

Charles shook his head and poured the boy another shot, “You got it bad, son.”

Daniel just nodded, “Thanks.”

“You have a place to go when you finish here?”

“Yeah, I’m staying in the Colonial Inn.”

“Good, I’ll make sure your body gets there in one piece,” Charles said. But I can’t do shit for your heart, son, he thought.

 

On Bullies and being the Bullied

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This was a tough Free-Range Fiction challenge for me. It came from the insatiable Chuck Wendig, since I do love his blog and his schedule for prompts fits with my goal for flash fiction and getting it out here. But only 100 words is tough when you’re trying to build emotional tension. And it’s flash — no editing, ya know? Already as I get ready to paste this, I’ve figured out a way that could have made it better. That’s exactly why we do this. To learn. To grow. To get better.

Choosing a subject was hard because I’ve been witness and victim to bullying so often. My children have suffered from it. I’ve watched my spouse get bullied at various jobs he’s had. It’s a plague on our society, truly.

If you had only 100 words to tell a profound story about bullying, what would it be? Show me in your comments if you’re daring.

Here’s my horrible attempt. At least I attempted it. I challenge you to take Chuck’s challenge, too.

 

The commander leaned on his desk, “You have to let your husband back into your quarters, sergeant. Army Regulation 608-99 requires you.”

 “We’re separating; he broke our marriage vows,” Sgt. Hurst squirmed and swallowed hard, then breathed in deep.

 “Until you have a court order, you have to take him back,” Cpt. Parker said. “You must provide for him.”

 “He’s an able-bodied male, Sir…”

 “Sergeant! This matter is closed. Take him back or have a court order to me.”

 Between two war deployments it would take her four years, thousands of dollars, and multiple heartaches to get that court order.

 

Bill-Collecting Vampires Devour A Starving Writer

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Editor’s Note:  Forgive the replacement of a fiction story for a real-life rant, ala creative non-fiction. It’s hard to write fiction sometimes when real life is being an over-demanding, whiny monster. However, it still falls within some of the parameters of Chuck Wendig’s weekly challenge. See if you can find where I fit that in. It came in at 946 words, which for a rant is acceptably reasonable. Thank you for reading.

 

Being a freelance writer is fraught with worry. I never know what the mail man or random stranger will bring to my door. It goes with the territory. I knew that before I left a stable, laced-with-benefits job. One day I’ll get three checks, which promptly get turned around into bill payments or groceries; the next day there will be nothing but a cockroach in the mailbox. Then the next day, the letter carrier has a stack of bills – with no checks to cover it. Rinse. Repeat.

Yesterday, it was a bill for $3400 in the form of a court summons (which, by the way, in the state of Washington it is totally legit to serve a minor provided they appear “of a reasonable age” to the process server). To be paid within 20 – now 19 days – or face a fountain of legal ramifications, including the possibility of putting a lien on my family’s home. These collectors are cut-throat vampires. I could hire an attorney, buy some time, fight it a bit more, but I would incur even more expenses, so it doesn’t make sense to do that. I did get counsel from an attorney this morning, she basically told me I would have to pay the medical institution and then could bring suit against the insurance company. Again, more legal fees and drama, for which, I do not have the resources for either financially or emotionally.

Short of it:  I had a medical procedure done recommended by my doctor to deal with an old Army injury for which Veteran’s Affairs and I are still going ‘round and ‘round. My shitty insurance at the time of the procedure (all freelancers have shitty insurance, or worse none) said they would cover it. The medical team billed them. They denied it. (Anyone else want to yell, ‘Liar, Liar pants on fire! With me? Insurance companies are today what used car salespeople were in the 60s) We went back and forth. I got distracted, didn’t hear from anyone, changed insurance companies (the one I have now is a slight bit better, but that’s because it’s through my husband’s employment), and I forgot about the issue. Now said medical institution has employed hired guns to whip the funds out of me. Which I do not have. I wouldn’t be on my little rant box here if I did have it. My savings is tapped (remember July and August were full of zero billable hour days and dozens upon dozens of rejections). My only option, according to the woman I spoke with this morning, is to prove that the insurance company lied to me. I can’t do that – talking to a customer service representative on the phone and relaying my story does not make for legal documentation.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but something always falls in place. I’m also trying to recover a debt from another organization – but that’s tied up in legal mumbo jumbo (is it any wonder I’m thrilled my daughter said the other day she wants to become an attorney? Of course, that doesn’t help right now…). This year – 2011 – will go down in my personal history as the year of massive legal issues, to include battling the tax man. And perhaps they will leak into 2012.

I will, like everything I do, continue to fight the battle and survive – even if I lose the the war. I still believe that following my passion will bring me what I need in life. That includes dealing with this. Of course there’s always the trusted whiskey bottle (just kidding…or am I?).

However, it brings me to the fact that our country’s medical system is BROKEN. When I had that stable, laced-with-benefits job I oftentimes would contribute to other artists’ situations – dental problems gone horribly wrong (oh yeah, the dental system is broken even worse than the medical system), terminal end-of-life treatment which was necessary to die in peace, and even to help sick pets. I support my artistic community – especially the literary branch – because I know how important it is to our culture. You want to know what’s really happening in your community, your state, your country, the world? Look to the artists. And they have to pimp for projects to get off the ground (crowdfunding, kickstarting, or on personal blogs just like mine), change excellent work to fill ROI matrixes (do you think Shakespeare had to do that? Blargh.).

What is wrong here? When a pro athlete and questionable-ethics politician can get better medical care than the teachers in our schools or those that create the work that helps us escape or endure our existence, or worse, the veterans that helped give us the freedoms we enjoy. I’m starting to doubt that freedom. Freedom to be a cog in someone else’s profit machine (ala for-profit medical institutions, oil companies, et al.). When socio-economic status keeps people from being treated for medical conditions (especially those of no fault of their own), we have failed ourselves in irreconcilable ways.

I don’t feel like I’m in a position to ask for help. I still have much to prove that my decision last year was not fraught with stupidity and this was the best thing for my family (those that know have seen huge improvements in my family’s happiness, by the way) and my own physical and mental health. But what’s an artist supposed to do?

Sometimes I think I’ll win the lottery before I’ll see my world socially just where artists and writers are respected alongside engineers, scientists and doctors. For now, I have to go find a writing gig that will cover $3,400 in 18.5 days.