Dinner with a side of distress – Flash Fiction

My mind is still reeling from a weekend of holiday hosting duties, so instead of one of my usual essays, I decided to take another stab at writing some short fiction as prompted by the ever so handy dandy Writer’s Toolbox.

For those not as familiar with the Writer’s Toolbox, it prompts you with a first, middle, and last sentence as well as a series of descriptions to include and a protagonist. I hope you enjoy it –


Dinner with a side of Distress - www.alliepottswrites.com

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Dad gave me a wink like we were pals or something. Then again it could just have as easily been a bit of pollen or dust caught in his eye. It always took a while for the orbiters to get reacquainted with uncontrolled wilds of earth-bounding living again. Gazing up into the twilight sky at the stars above, I thought I saw a circling bat. They had no idea what they were giving up, living up there. He had no idea.

“Where is your sister?” he barked the question out between coughing fits.

So definitely the dust then. How silly of me to think he was actually trying to reconnect. “I haven’t seen her,” I replied returning my attention to the meal in front of me. It was the truth, but then again I rarely saw anyone outside of the lab. For some strange reason, people didn’t seem to think that my passion for paleoclimatology combined with my charming personality produced the most stellar party guest. It was also why I agreed to this open-air dinner in the first place. I bit into a slice of apple savoring its juices. At least the food was good even if the company was less than ideal. “Last I heard, she had her eye on some bartender from Seattle. Maybe she’s taking up stalking?”

This time, I suspected the resulting frown on Dad’s face didn’t have anything to do with his allergies. “This isn’t a joke, Bill. Your sister is listed as failing to report to the launch deck this morning and I only have so much influence I can spend.”

I fought the eye roll by focusing on the straggling cuticle on my right thumb. Dad could never resist the opportunity to remind any of us exactly why he was living in space while the rest of us were on the ground. As if I’d ever want to. “Well then, I don’t know what to tell you other than I haven’t seen her since last week.”

“And you aren’t concerned?”

I shrugged. “She can go off for a few days if she wants too. She’s an adult – unless you hadn’t noticed.”

“I’ve noticed. I’ve also noticed that she has started taking up a lot of bad habits. Habits I would prefer weren’t associated with the family name.”

I waved his concern aside. “Lucky for you, I’ve been using Mom’s name for years.”

Dad’s frown deepened so much I briefly wondered if it might cause his entire face to collapse into his crisp uniform. “Listen, I’m not trying to be combative here. It just would be better if I found her before command does.”

“What? Are you that really that afraid of what her AWOL designation might do to your reputation?” I snorted. “I’ve seen you smooth over worse.”

“No, I’m afraid because as much as either of you might not like to admit it, I am your father. And because I found this in the briefing room.” Dad shoved a piece of fabric at me featuring a vaguely familiar looking pattern.

“Have they taken up quilting?” I asked with a smirk, picking up the fabric. “Well, that’s a relief. That group really could use a hobby other than making the rest of us miserable.” I couldn’t help adding just to annoy Dad as I rolled the piece of cloth around in between my fingers. The jab wasn’t strictly necessary, as Dad knew full well what I thought of his cronies, but it was always fun to remind him that this apple had fallen far from the proverbial tree. As in two hundred and fifty miles, give or take a mile.

“Bill, for the last time, this isn’t a joke.”

“Fine. No jokes.” I replied holding up my hands before examining the fabric more closely. Where had I seen it before? “So what is this then?”

“Something that has no business being up in command if your sister is still on the ground. It’s from her dress.”


Was that really a bat circling overhead, or was it a drone? Did Bill’s sister get mixed up in a larger conspiracy or did she simply run off with a bartender from Seattle? And will Bill’s experience with paleoclimatology actually play a part in the plot, or is that a throw-away detail? Who knows!

 

A tale of two vines – how hardship led to better growth

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?

Ignoring the fact that my name isn’t Mary, nor do I consider myself contrary (well – at least, not most of the time), my garden may have looked better in prior years, but at least it is back in bloom. Thanks for asking!

A few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure that would be the case.

February and March were rather dramatic months around here weather-wise with temperature fluctuations that were extreme even for North Carolinian standards. One day would be warm enough to turn on the air conditioning and let the kids run outside in their swimsuits – the next day cold enough to pull out the parkas. Is it any wonder then that I fell ill?

“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative” – Oscar Wilde

I don’t remember asking you Oscar, and really, what part of I was sick last week did you miss? Now, back to my story. Our news reported that much of the commercial plant life was equally confused and budded too early, causing several crops to be considered a total loss after the frost returned, which is a bummer as I always look forward to picking strawberries with my kids in May. Therefore I was delighted to notice green leaves and white flowers on the vines that grow in my backyard (kids there’s hope for us yet).

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I’m not sure I completely agree with the statement above, but I appreciate where the thought is coming from. For years now I’ve been growing grapes as well as blackberries, among a few other foodstuffs, but though they grow side by side, the vines are as different as people.

blackberry blooms

thornless blackberry blooms

My blackberries, for example, barely needed to be covered in earth before they took off on their own, with several shoots of new vines popping up in other beds independent of my plantings. My grapes, on the other hand, required a little more attention.

The first year we were together, the vines grew, but never produced. The second was more of the same. I considered letting the blackberries take over, but decided to give them one more chance while doing a bit more homework.

“The more help a person has in his garden, the less it belongs to him.” – W. H. Davies

That may be true, but I think, in this case, my plants appreciated the phone-a-friend. I learned that grapevines produce best when pruned while dormant and the weather is still cold. In my area, that means late February.

I remember the first time I clipped away at the vines (which look more branch-like than vine-like at that time of year). I thought to myself how the practice must seem to the plant. Here they were, having barely survived the harshness of winter, they then forced to suffer further as their limbs were hacked away.

During such times, I imagine that if my grapes were people, they might cry at how unfair their life was compared to that of the blackberry. If they were religious fruit, they might also wonder if they were being tested and rage against their gardener. I understand what it must seem like for them, but still, I continue snipping away in the cold of winter year after year, not because of some cruel game, but because I care. I do this so that when summer finally arrives, they will be the best they can be.

“In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.” –  John Churton Collins

grapevine

in between the heart-shaped leaves, tiny buds that will one day transform into the most delicious jam are already appearing

And when summer does arrive, the situation in my garden is quite different. My blackberries, having produced small clusters of berries in the spring are only shadows of their former glory. Several of the vines, hunched over, touching the ground under the weight their leaves, as small as they are, are more brown than green and most vines will be forced to give away to the next generation of shoots now breaking through the dirt’s surface on either side.

“When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you rot.” – Ray Kroc

My grapevines, however, will remain strong even under the weight of heavy bunches of fruit. The fruit itself will be protected from the cruel sun by gorgeous full leaves wider than a handspan or two, but not so protected they cannot ripen fully thanks to their vine’s earlier sacrifice. Meanwhile, tendrils of new vines, still growing, will stretch and twist around nearby surfaces, as much the bully in their newfound success as the blackberry once was.

The point is my grapevine should not envy my blackberry for its easy start (as tempting as that might be at the time). The grapevine that experienced and overcame hardship will bear fruit much longer. It will be made stronger in a way the blackberry, by its very nature, will never appreciate nor understand. That grapevine will become capable of withstanding the next extreme with a confidence felt to its roots, returning year after year in steady growth while others might rise quickly only to fall. It’s a lesson, and eventual outcome, I try to keep in mind when dealing with my own hardship or two.

While both plants produce their own delicious fruit in their own season, in terms of success per individual vine, there really is no comparison.

quotes courtesy of http://www.brainyquote.com

You don’t look so good – a healthy reminder

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The hacking, wheezing and overall not sleeping finally got to me. I took myself to the doctor thinking I would be in and out of the office in no time flat. I wasn’t. Though I had gone to a clinic with a word meaning speed in its name, it would seem that I wasn’t the only one seeking medical treatment that particular afternoon. The waiting room was packed.

After two hours sitting in a stiff pleather chair surrounded by the sounds of other sniffles, groans, and easy rock ballads, the battery icon on my phone turned red. Well, shoot. Faced with no other easy distraction, I looked around the room. I found myself beginning to question exactly how sick I really was feeling. What’s a little cough? I mean I had made it through an entire week already. I could make it another night. What’s the worst that could happen?

My rationalization grew louder, certain as I was that the doctor was going to tell me that I’d caught a simple virus. I knew he or she would just have to rest and run its course, things I was well equipped to do from the comfort of my home. So why continue to wait around in a room staring at my thumbs or other sick people when I could be back with my family?

I walked to the front desk. “I think I am going to leave,” I told the nurse. She blinked. Clearly, this was not a statement she was used to hearing.

She looked out into the waiting room. “But you’re next.”

I sighed. I’d been there two hours already but had only seen three patients go back. My place in the queue meant little. I followed her gaze. Two more patients had arrived after I had. A girl, barely older than my son, lay draped across her father’s shoulders. An older couple – a woman who could barely sit up, and her partner, a small man who’d caught my eye when they’d entered the room and had attempted to make small talk with me as if I was a life raft while clutching her hand.

“But there are other patients here that need the spot more than I do,” I said, and I meant it. I’d be fine.

I’m not sure the nursing staff was convinced. “We are equipped to deal with everyone. All we need is for a room to become available.”

“Right, which is why I would like one of them to go in my place.”

“But you’ve already paid.”

This was true, and my copay for a visit like this wasn’t cheap. “Can’t you just cancel the transaction or refund the money?”

“No. Once you’ve paid, you would have to wait for a check to be mailed at the end of the month.”

Well, that was a wrinkle I hadn’t quite considered. As I mulled over my response, another nurse appeared, taking the decision from me. “If you’ll come back with me now.”

I followed her through the hall and into a back room where we discussed my symptoms, each of which sounded more and more petty to my ears. So, I have had a cough and can’t sleep. I’ve had a fever and the chills, but the fever goes away and sure, I have shortness of breath and a rattle in my lungs you can hear from space, but I’m fine or will be soon. I’ve waited this long, I can wait a little longer. Really, why don’t you go and help the others?

The doctor looked at me as if she couldn’t quite determine if I’d insulted her professionalism or simply grown two heads. “You don’t need to worry about them. We’ll take care of them too.”

But I did worry. It is the downside of knowing you’ve been pretty lucky in life. You can always imagine those who have had it worse. In my mind, I saw the little girl calling for a mother who hadn’t yet arrived and her father pacing around the room at a loss as to what to do. I saw the little old man struggling to stay strong for his partner waiting to be told that their lives wouldn’t be the same. These stories played out in my head, each more tragic than the one before. I knew my story couldn’t compare – that the doctor would write me off as a waste of her time before she closed the door. Or at least that’s what I convinced myself would happen.

“Now take a deep breath,” the doctor said, pulling me out of my imagination.

Two minutes later, I learned I wasn’t fine. I had pneumonia (aka fun stuff).

While I still feel guilty thinking of those other faces in the room, it doesn’t change the fact that I was sick and deserved to be cared for too. If I had given into my doubts and gone home, those other patients might have been seen fifteen minutes earlier, but I would have been at greater risk of secondary infection, hospitalization, or even worse. The guilt I felt at delaying the other patients’ never-at-risk treatment by fifteen minutes would have paled compared against potential outcomes I now realized I had avoided by allowing myself to come first.

It turns out I needed more than just a day off. I also needed an antibiotic, a steroid, and an inhaler, but most of all, it seems I needed a reminder that while yes, I am often lucky, that doesn’t mean bad things can still happen. It was also a healthy reminder that every now and then I need to put myself first and not feel guilty about it. Because while generosity of spirit is always admirable, strength of body can be a good thing too.

A confident sailor’s message and my restless confessions

A confident sailor's message and my restless confessions - www.alliepottswrites.com

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I lay awake. An oscillating creaky noise, reminiscent of a boat too long in the water, stretching moldy tie lines as it swayed from side to side, prevented me from finding the rest I needed. I shifted my position, but no matter how or where I moved, I couldn’t eliminate the sound. It was a quiet noise, but not an ignorable one. Gradually, I accepted there would be no restful sleep this night. The sound, you see, it was coming from me.

I am death. 

Too over the top? Okay, let’s just say I’ve been better.

The noise that has kept me awake for the last several nights is a mucous induced rattle in my nose and throat I can’t seem to shake. A bug has been floating around my office recently, and I guess, it was my turn to bring it home. Yay! Have I mentioned how much I hate being sick? But on the plus side, the whole not being able to sleep thing has given me ample time to think.

One of the blogs I regularly follow (The Spectacled Bean) recently posed the question: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? 

Last week (with the exception of one epically terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day), I might have shaved a few years off. Would this be out of vanity? Maybe, but there wouldn’t be many physical clues. While I have a few gray hairs, overall it is much the same color as it was when I was born, and though I have noticed a wrinkle or two I can blame my lack of height for at least a portion of premature etching. (Looking up at everyone all the time is hard work). Therefore it would really come down to how old I feel mentally at any given time, which most of the time is fairly young.

I was feeling especially so when I attended a presentation with my husband’s rotary club. The guest of honor was a retired Rear Admiral from the United States Navy. He opened his presentation by talking about the crews that manned the flight deck. He asked the audience, many of whom were also retired, how old they thought the median age of the crew was. The answer was roughly nineteen and a half.

Nineteen and a half.

And they were responsible for multimillion dollar fighter jets.

At nineteen and a half, I was responsible for a very used car (which didn’t run most of the time) and getting to class on time. Way to make a person feel like an underachiever, Sir. The message the Rear Admiral was trying to make is that we need to trust the younger generation, something I know I have a difficult time doing at times. I’m sorry, but it can be hard to accept the people you babysat or whose diapers you once changed are now adults. It’s not that you aren’t capable – I know you are – it’s just that I remember when we couldn’t trust more than a few of you to walk down the hall with scissors (or worse – a capless marker).

He went on to talk about readiness and spoke of two ships. On one ship (not a US Naval vessel), hoses were a pristine white and fittings shone like the sun. The condition of other, a US ship, was a far contrast. On that ship, the hoses were worn, faded, and fittings, dented. Considering the beginning portion of the speech, and his emphasis on supporting the next generation, I was sure that the Rear Admiral was about to suggest that we weren’t spending enough – that our military was less than as ready as it could be due to inferior equipment.

I waited for the sales pitch.

Instead, the Rear Admiral made a different point entirely. The equipment showed signs of age, but that was a good thing. It meant it was used and used regularly.

Every now and then I give into a little envy. I look to people younger than me, who have accomplished so much in their short lives, and can’t help wishing my path looked more like theirs – less readiness and more doing-ess. The envy makes me question a few of my choices. Did I waste my time before? What would it have been like had I taken the chance on me sooner?

I’ll never know the answers, but I guess it really doesn’t make a difference in the long run. I am where I am now. I’ll kick this bug (I hope). I may yet conquer the world – who knows? (mid-day naps for everyone)! At least I know I am trying to take the helm. And while I sometimes feel I need a few more sick days than I used to or just a few extra hours rest, that’s just evidence that I’ve lived my life as I seen best.

It doesn’t matter how old I think I am.

Age is just a number.

It is only the experiences filling that time that matters.

For those who think I have it all together

Inspired by Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.


Even grownups can have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.

My boss came into my office. “I am going to throw a curve ball at you,” he said, shutting the door.

Just like that, I could tell that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

“Kay has turned in her notice.”

Kay is one of my peers. This announcement meant there was a better than average chance a portion of her work would find its way to me, at least temporarily, while the position was refilled. I looked at my mug. “I am going to have to start spiking my coffee,” I replied while I considered moving to Australia.

My boss laughed but didn’t disagree.

Yep, I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Five o’clock rolled around, ending an office day filled with sympathetic looks and panicked responses (many of which were mine). I raced out the door. My husband, Lamont, was out-of-town the rest of the week (a trip I hadn’t known about until the afternoon before), therefore it fell on me to pick up our children from their various locations. All I had to do was get there on time.

I hit traffic.

Much later than I’d planned, I waited for Kiddo to pull his shoes on and collect his book bag. He, however, was more interested in showing me bits of small paper. “I’ve made a card,” he advised. “For the Leprechaun. Do you think he will come tonight?”

I silenced my inner groan along with several other choice words I won’t print here. The next day was St. Patrick’s Day, and I had nothing prepared. No Leprechaun traps. No pots ready to be filled with gold. Nothing. When exactly had leprechauns coming to your house on St Patty’s Day become a thing anyway?

I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

When we got to the house, Kiddo made a bee-line to the television, ready to consume his daily allowance of cartoons. Her Royal Highness, our dog, made an equally determined path to the front door, ready to take care of her own daily requirements. I looked to Kiddo. I looked to Her Royal Highness. Taking her outside would give me an opportunity to send a message to my mom regarding a certain Leprechaun. “I’ll be right back,” I called. The cartoon’s theme song was already playing as I closed the door.

Mom replied back within short order, not for me to worry, however, Her Royal Highness had not yet done what we’d come out to let her do. Just then a cat appeared, and not just any cat – it was the cat. The cat that is either the bravest or stupidest animal I’ve ever seen. Whatever the reason, this cat not only is not afraid of dogs, it actively seeks them out. Spotting Her Royal Highness, it immediately crossed the road, causing a car to come full stop and angry looks shot my way.

Her Royal Highness passed her cat test before we brought her home, but still, I don’t like to tempt fate, nor do I wish to be responsible for an injury of someone else’s pet. Seeing no other choice, I led Her Royal Highness away. The cat followed. Only when we rounded a corner did the cat give up its pursuit. If I wasn’t an animal lover who doesn’t condone this line of thinking, I might hope you step on a tack, cat.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

That’s what it was because when we returned inside, the house was empty. Guess whose kid decided, in those short few minutes, that he missed me more than he wanted to watch his cartoons and had run off in the opposite direction with his brother while Her Royal Highness was being chased by a cat around the corner?

If what I’d felt during the work day was panic, the myriad of swirling emotions I experienced in that moment has yet to be named. I wondered if invisible fencing for children is allowed in Australia.

I am having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, I texted my mom (or roughly something like that). I didn’t look at my phone to see if she answered.

While I was scolding/hugging my children for giving me a fright, Mom showed up on my front porch with a frozen mix of Korean noodles in hand. It was a wonderful gesture, but. . . they proved to be utterly inedible. Even Her Royal Highness turned it down.

Kiddo, wanting to show off for his Nana, took twice as long to do his homework than he usually does and LT, well LT was his normal self, but if I allowed LT access to the phone, he probably would have called Australia.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Lamont didn’t promptly return my texts, and I hate that.

Exhausted after the kids went to bed, I couldn’t motivate myself to work on my WIP and I hate a lost opportunity.

When I finally did hear from Lamont it was clear he’d been having fun while I was not. I still hadn’t figured out what to do about the Leprechaun outside of mom’s vague assurances that all would be well and calling into work sick the next day wasn’t an option.

It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

My mom says some days are like that, even for people who might seem to have it all together.

I guess it’s a good thing for me then, that my mom lives nearby and not in Australia.

Love you, Mom, and thanks.