Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Game of Aspects Redux

Sueryan Juniper Philips

Dr. Maartens acted like he had discovered the chamber all by himself instead of being summoned to it by his personal hoard of dust and sweat covered graduate students. His isolation chamber just happened to be the only place with air conditioning on the entire excavation. Dr. Philips was sure that he had told the grad students not to bother informing her, but she wasn’t so dim that she would ignore the scurrying of that many feet.

A golden triune statue dominated the underground chamber, illuminated now by sets of hastily assembled flood lights. The statue had one face looking left, one center and one to the right. No doubt it was meant to represent Suri, Nupi and Pili, the so-called 'looking' goddesses of the lost Huazactl culture. Dr. Philips had written her doctoral thesis on their religion, unique in the region for worshiping no male deities. At times, it seemed that they worshiped three goddesses, but other indications pointed to the worship of one goddess with three aspects. This statue, and whatever else was in the chamber, should shed light on the question. And glory on the discoverer of such a treasure.

“No photographs, not yet, no, no, not even cell phones, give that here.” Dr. Maartens was not experiencing much success at herding the excited students. Dr. Philips edged to a corner of the chamber still in shadow. He wouldn’t hesitate to try and make her wrangle them in his stead.

As she leaned against the wall, she felt it give behind her with a faint click. The soft rasp of stone on stone above drew her gaze. A darker space grew from a slit to a shoebox and then something fell. She caught it.

“Angie, darling, confiscate these phones, delete all pictures of the statue, that’s a good girl.” Dr. Angela Xavier tensed, but acquiesced. Would nothing make her snap on that sexist pig? Dr. Philips shook her head and slipped out of the chamber with the mystery box in her shoulder bag. Let Maartens have the statue, out in the open where anyone could find it. This could be so much bigger.


Stone, smooth and carved with Huazactl story runes, the box ends had cylinders sticking out of the sides, and a section in the middle that was a confused jumble of lines that was no language Dr. Philips recognized, not from this region or any other.

She began to translate and soon got lost in the story they depicted, a religious narrative she had never before seen.

In the seventh year of the reign of Suliacna, there was a high priest named Cuazcu, who could not find a mate worthy of his love. He searched throughout the lands and found many beautiful and talented women, but none that could speak to his heart. He prayed to Nupi-Who-Looks to help him find his perfect mate, but she told him that such a woman did not exist. He prayed to Suri-Who-Looks-Back to help him find his perfect mate, but she told him that such a woman had never existed in the past. He prayed a third time to Pili-Who-Looks-Forward and she smiled upon him, lifting his heart. She told him that such a woman would someday exist, and she gave him a way to summon her to him, if he was truly pure of heart.

The runes ended where the cylinder on the left joined the box. Dr. Philips turned it, trying to get a better angle to read by, but there seemed to be no more to the story. Was that a sliver of rune at the edge of the cylinder, hidden? 

She gently pulled, and the box clicked. The center section expanded, allowing the cryptic lines to rotate freely. She wiped her hands on her jeans and set the cylinders on her legs as she turned the central lines. How did the tale end?

She spun the  thin stone pieces one at a time, trying to align them into patterns that would fit what she knew of Huazactl runes, but they did not want to fit those patterns. The lines were too even, too long to be story runes. This was something else, perhaps a picture or even abstract art.

Two pieces clicked into place. Dr. Philips put the box down and grabbed a bottle of water from her shoulder bag. Taking a long swig and wiping her brow, she looked back at the box. Impossible, but the locked pieces looked like pieces of letters, in English, three rows. She ignored the voice in her head telling her to stop, to find Dr. Maartens and tell him this was a rotten joke to play.

The pieces clicked into place quickly now, spelling out something her mind refused to process until she could no longer ignore it.

S U E  R Y A N
J U N  I  P  E  R
P H  I  L  I  P  S

Her name.

The cylinders shot apart with another click, and between them lines of light began to shimmer. A man appeared before her, his warm brown eyes imploring her. He spoke words that she could almost understand, words that spoke to her heart. He reached out his hand.

She took it, and stepped into the shimmering light.

The cylinders slid back into their places, and the letters of her name crumbled into dust that blew away to reveal the happy ending of the tale of Cuazcu’s search for his perfect mate. 

The parameters for this story were:
6 Time Travel Romance
7 The capital city of a lost civilization
3 A Puzzle Box

Friday, February 22, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Write What You Know


Mistress Rovy never stood still while giving a lesson. Active eyes, active minds, she was fond of saying, tapping a ruler against her thigh in warning to the inattentive soul. Sasha didn’t care for Mistress Rovy’s style of teaching, but no one passed into Mage-level classes without going through her.

“Creativity is the hallmark of Mages. Without it, you are nothing but a grunt, a vessel to be used for the purposes of others – whether that be entertainment or as cannon-fodder in battle. You cannot rely on the spells that everyone knows, because your enemy expects you to use the tried and true. Mages must innovate, create, and do so on the spot, in the heat of battle. Or they die.” Mistress Rovy rounded on Tricia in the front row, slamming the ruler on her desk.

“Was there something funny in what I just said?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Then why were you smiling?”

There was no good answer that Tricia could give. She may or may not have been smiling, Sasha hadn’t been looking, but to answer yes would be to admit guilt and invite punishment. To answer no would be worse, as she would be punished not only for the transgression but also for accusing Mistress Rovy of lying.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, I didn’t mean to smile.” Tricia quivered in her seat as Leonora Rovy stared at her in silence.

“You’re out,” she hissed. “Get out of my classroom and do not return.” Tricia obeyed. As the door shut behind her, her desk vanished with a muffled pop.

And then there were 13, thought Sasha. The class began every year with 30 students, but that many had never passed.

“Your assignment is to create a unique spell. Illustrate its use and mechanism, and bring it to me in 48 hours. Get out of my sight.”

They left Mistress Rovy motionless in the front of her classroom. None of them wanted to be alone with her. The rumor was the last person to be alone with her was still in the classroom, as chalk.

Sasha walked slowly back to her allotted room. A bed and a desk took up most of the space, and a large window that she couldn’t open dominated the outer wall. She didn’t think that any of them could really create a unique spell. Mages had been practicing for centuries. They’d only been practicing for 10 years, most of them.

Sasha had only been learning for five years, ever since her mother regained custody from her father. She hadn’t even known spells were real until then, but mother had somehow gotten the collegia to accept her. And somehow Mistress Rovy had allowed her to join the class. Probably thought she would be the first out.

“But I wasn’t.”

She laid herself down on the bed and began to let ideas flow, rejecting most and starting to build the kernel of an idea that consumed her for the next 40 hours. She refined it in her mind until she was satisfied.

The assignments sat in a pile on Mistress Rovy’s desk for three days without seeming to move. The students speculated that she must be looking at them, but none could produce any evidence.

“Finding and unraveling a key component of your enemies' spells will work, but it is rarely worth the time and effort it will take. I’m done with you. Sasha, stay. The rest of you, leave.”

Someone gasped. Sasha couldn’t breathe. Alone with Rovy right after the assignment. She glanced at the chalk behind Mistress Rovy and shivered.

Mistress Rovy sat down behind her desk. Sasha approached. A familiar piece of paper was in Mistress Rovy’s hand, held out to Sasha.

“I will not grade this. It is unacceptable. You have 24 hours to hand in a new one. You’re dismissed.”

“But why not?”

Mistress Rovy rose, towering over Sasha, “Human sacrifice and you ask me why not? Get out of here!”

Sasha burned inside. It wasn’t fair. The assignment was only to create a unique spell, not one following some unspoken guidelines. She’d done the assignment, so why wouldn’t Rovy at least grade it and count it? What was the problem with counting it? So it’s inappropriate. So what? 

She marched back to her room and slammed the door. She couldn’t think of something new to write, all her thoughts kept creeping back to the injustice of the whole thing. The next morning, she slap dashed out a spell that might be somewhat new and brought it with her to Rovy’s class.

“Assignment,” Rovy said to her, hand outstretched.

Sasha took out the paper and held it. The rest of the class was sitting in their seats, quiet, waiting for the day’s lesson. Sasha squared her shoulders and tore the paper in half, then half again, and again. She dropped the pieces on the floor and walked out without waiting to be dismissed.

And then there were 12, she thought.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge: Inspiration from Inexplicable Photos

Inspired by photo number 2

Cast No Shadow

Ellen sat on a park bench, basking in the warm sunlight. She preferred first dates to be in sunlight. It was easier to see a man’s shadow that way and know right away whether she wanted any more to do with him. She smirked, watching a strait-laced looking suit walk by. His shadow crawled on a leash beside him, wearing high heels. Damn I need to get laid. Everyone’s shadow is casting sex.

She was holding a red carnation, and he was supposed to be wearing a blue shirt. Too vague really, but his picture online was a reasonably clear shot. A big teddy-bear of a guy, brown bearded with kind blue eyes. He might not be her physical type, but she needed someone normal enough to fuck, at least once, or she’d lose all ability to function.

Oh God. That’s got to be him, she thought. He cast a shadow of a petite woman, with anime boobs and ass, pointed ears and a big fluffy fox tail. Her cheeks burned as he approached with an aw-shucks smile and held out his hand. She limp fingered a hello and tried to focus on small talk, anything but looking down.

She looked past her temporary companion. There was a coffee stall set-up, the patrons all casting their sexual secrets for Ellen’s eyes in the bright sunlight. Damsel fantasy, feather whips, macho-man… Except, one wasn’t. Her heart rate sped. The man was short, maybe only a little taller than her, but other than his lack of shadow, he looked normal. Business casual. Buying a latte. Walking away. Why? Why can’t I see his secrets?

She came back every day for a week, but the skies conspired against her and with the sun covered by clouds, no one cast enough shadow. Had he had light brown hair like that guy, or was it more auburn like that one? Maybe he had only come to get coffee here once, walking on his way to somewhere else. Maybe I’ll never see him again.

The eighth day, it rained. Ellen shivered on the bench. This is stupid. This is ridiculous. I need to let this go.

The next day, she was back. The sun played tag with clouds, but she saw him. Like a fairytale, a perfect sunbeam came down to illuminate a man with dark brown hair, speckled with silver, and his perfect lack of shadow. Ellen rose from her bench and followed him to an insurance office three blocks from the park.
She crossed the street after he went in. He was chatting with the receptionist. Then he walked deeper inside where Ellen couldn’t see. Steadfast Insurance. They’ll have a website.

Eric Granger. 48 years old. Lives alone, not even a pet. An insurance agent for his entire working life. No convictions, not even parking ticket. The internet is an amazing tool.

Ellen parked her car across the street from Eric’s house. I should just knock. I should just knock and introduce myself. Or go to his office and pretend to want to buy insurance. She shook her head. There was too much to explain, too much she couldn’t say.

Her grandmother had told her, “What you will see is real, and what’s real is true, but prove it or not, they’ll hang you for a witch either way.”

Commitment to an asylum was probably more likely nowadays, but fuck that. Gran had never said anything about people without shadows. What if he’s dangerous? Or in danger? Maybe he’s sick, dying and just doesn’t have any sexual fantasies for me to see. But everyone has secrets. Everyone has fantasies.

I’ll just go knock. Just as soon as he comes home. And I’ll ask him what? This is so stupid.

The garage door of his house started to crank up. Ellen shut her car off and opened the door. She shut it again. Opened. Shut. She rubbed her hands together, but they wouldn’t warm. What do I even say to him? ‘Hi, I’m Ellen, and I was wondering why my magical abilities don’t work on you?’ Right.

His car slid inside, and the garage rumbled shut. I should just go. I should forget about this.

Her passenger side door opened and Eric slid in. Ellen froze, then shook as he pointed a gun at her.

“Why have you been following me?”

“I wanted to know something, but I don’t think I, um, really want to anymore, so I’ll just, could you please get out and I’ll just leave?”

“Are you a cop? Did you call the cops?”

“No. No, nothing like that.”

“What did you want to know?” He cocked the gun, and Ellen felt wet warmth spread on her seat.

“I can’t see your shadow and I wanted to know why.”

“Bullshit. Tell me the truth, bitch.”

“Oh God, I swear, that’s it, I’m just crazy, I’m a total wacko and I’m just hallucinating right now, so you can just go and I’ll never even remember this happened, please, just let me go.”

He chuckled and caressed the gun barrel along her neck. “I’ve never had one just come to me before. Usually I have to go shopping.”

He pulled out a syringe and popped the cap off. The needle bit her neck and she slipped away. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hushing the "Shush"

I was a quiet child, the one that hid under tables during family parties with a book while my relatives talked, watched sports, drank and gambled. Children should be seen and not heard - they didn't want to hear me, so I did my best to remain unseen as well.

Even when they looked at me, they didn't see me. Just another child underfoot, a quiet one, doesn't talk much. Boring. Not into sports. Not like the rest of them.

I've had a problem with mumbling for a long time. I want to speak, to express myself, but I'm afraid of being shushed. My bad solution was to speak too quietly to be heard. I would get to express myself, and no one would tell me to be quiet, because no one would hear me.

I don't doubt this habit became quite annoying for some people in some of my classes in school. The small gasps of breath, the little mutterings, may have seemed to be spiteful or contemptuous. But I was just afraid. Unready, really, for the education I sought. Terrified to be wrong, and even more terrified to be argued with, fought against, attacked. I always believed, deep inside, that I was wrong.

I quit a choral group because the other girls insisted that I loved the song they loved, that it was impossible not to love it, and even though I said (mostly out of pure contrariness) that I hated it (I merely disliked it), they said I was wrong. Wrong about my own emotions. I got enough of that at home, thank you very much. (To be fair, it was also difficult to continue to make the long drive to attend rehearsals, especially after my brother fell asleep at the wheel and nearly plowed into a snowbank.)

If no one knows my opinions, then no one can tell me I'm wrong. If no one knows how I feel, then they can't argue that I should feel some other way. For the longest time I hated sports, not because of anything inherent in the playing of sports, but because of the pressure I felt to be good when playing them and the panic that would set in when I would proclaim myself a fan, and be told that I was wrong to like that team, that player, that band even.

Learning how to express my opinions is a lot harder for me than learning how to support them in argument. I can think of reasons and research facts and figures, but to open my mouth, or post something... I get into the recursive what-if hole and refuse to find my way out. I find reasons why I shouldn't say something or do something, even while I would argue that people have a right to express their own opinions and feel however they feel.

I want to yell and be loud, but there is a part of me that is always judging, telling me that if I yell in public, then I will draw unseemly attention, that people will judge me and find me wanting, that I have no right to be loud or yell.

But you do. You have every right to be loud, and express yourself.

And when I'm out in the middle of nowhere, buried days in the wilderness, with not even a trace of other people having been there in the last year, I can too. In the solitude of the outdoors, I'm starting to figure out how to open my mouth and let out the loudness I've been leashing.