Rivals

Boris had not stopped talking in the hour-and-a-quarter the pair had been standing on the dirt semicircle, hard-packed by thousands of feet which had, at one time or another, sojourned around the lonely iron pole, a pole which unnecessarily hoisted a pockmarked and faded orange sign with long-forgotten lettering—the only sign of its kind for thirty kilometers to the next village or fifty to the last, so what it had once said didn’t really matter: every child and every babushka knew its location simply as “the bus stop.”

George, of course, hadn’t listened to a word of the incessant Russian-accented noise. For all of his oppressive Slavic hospitality and grandiose assertions of lifelong friendship, Boris was an insufferable imp, amusing himself in the mild torment of others, and George was thrilled to have their decades-long partnership coming to an end. He found himself suppressing a smile as the one thought he had never dared express bubbled to the surface: he hated Boris, and always had.

Without waiting for Boris to finish whatever sentence he was in the middle of, George cleared his throat and spoke. “Can I bum a smoke, then, for old times’ sake?”

“Of course, dear friend!” Boris laughed a deep, hearty laugh and shook a cigarette halfway out of its cheap red-and-white paperboard box. He extended the box toward George and waited for the tentative reciprocation. When George’s fingers neared the proffered smoke, Boris jerked the pack away and shouted gruffly, “Two hundred rubles!”

George opened his mouth to speak, and closed it up again without a word. He lowered his eyes to his shoes and patted his pockets with both hands. “I’m sorry, Boris, I don’t have—”

Boris laughed again, a booming guffaw that reddened George’s face. “Is okay, George! Is joke!” He stuck the little box back at George. “You go on, take as many you like.”

George made no move to accept.

Boris smiled and tipped the box from side to side. “Hmmm? You not liking Russian cigarette now, George?”

George’s lip twitched—a slight snarl that delighted Boris—as he snatched the pack of cigarettes, destroying half of its poorly-rolled contents. He took one unbroken cigarette—not the one Boris had offered, though that cigarette still stood straight from the box—and put it in his mouth, crumpling the remainder in his hand. George jammed the other hand into a pocket and fished around, finally dropping his shoulders and pulling out an empty fist.

Boris fairly giggled—a low and rumbly titter better suited to a much higher voice. “You want lighter?”

George glared at Boris, jaw muscles flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing.

“Okay, okay, you don’t want lighter.” Boris shrugged, palms up and forward in an attempted show of sincerity, but he couldn’t suppress the ear-to-ear grin. “How about match?”

With two fingers of his left hand, George reached up to his mouth, eyes never blinking nor moving from Boris, and took the last unbroken and unlit cigarette from his lips. Opening his fingers, he let it fall to the ground in front of him. He stepped toward Boris, placing one foot over the cigarette.

“Boris,” George said, twisting his foot in the dirt, “I hate you. Always have.”

August (Poem + Story) / (Story a Day in May)

I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. Today’s piece actually meets two challenges: not only does it count as my Story a Day, but a second challenge which was “Take a poem or story and rewrite it as a story or poem, and post the two together.” So, I did.

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Story a Day in May: Day 1

I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. The following is the first day’s results: unedited, unreworked, and… unfinished.

I have a very good idea where this story is going, but it’s obviously a much longer piece than I intended to write. But, the important thing is that I wrote it all in one sitting, and I successfully completed the first day of the challenge.

See you tomorrow for Day 2!

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Time For Excuses

Only my third daily write, and I already need to make excuses for why I am going to skip a day.

I have a cold. I am tired. And I am grumpy.

In the time it has taken me to write these first few words, I have sneezed—twice. My nose is stuffy and I am breathing through my mouth. My head is stuffy, too: it feels like I am trying to think through a swimming pool of asparagus Jell-O.

I hate asparagus Jell-O.

Yes, I know, you are pretty sure they don’t even make asparagus Jell-O, but let me assure you, it is disgusting and difficult to think through, whether it is a real thing or not.

If this cop-out really chaps your hide, try re-reading one of the daily write posts from the past two days, or check out The Legend of Slottsfjellet.

One Thousand Words – Attempt #2

I think it should be legal to count all the words I type throughout the day as part of my 1000 words. Last time I tried this—yesterday, you may recall—I barely made it to 500 words.

One of the things that I think is hardest about fiction is character names. On the one hand, you want your characters to have names that become familiar to your readers, names that both define your characters and embody the characters’ definition. On the other hand, picking a name for your character is like picking a name for your own child: it’s as important as it is difficult, and at some point, you’re stuck with the name you picked. When you have a story or a novel that contains multiple characters, the process is exponentially more challenging, because not only do you have to pick each name, but also make sure that the names work well with each other.

You know who is not good at making up names? John Grisham. Some people may disagree, but I think that some of his character names are so absurd that they actually distract from the plot of his novels.

For now, on to the exercise! Remember: single session, no breaks until we hit 1000 words. Go.


Tomek crouched behind the low counter and tried desperately to slow his breath. His hearbeat, deafening in his own ears, seemed sure to give him away, calling to the soldiers like jungle drums. He tried to remember how many he had seen: three? five? Certainly more than two, but beyond that he couldn’t be sure.

No, he scolded himself, I have to be sure. He forced himself to count each one in his mind, to remember each masked, shouting head that had barged into the Resteljica public school. Jedan—one—and dva: two had definitely come in together through the front door, past the school office where Tomek now hid. Tri, the man who came up the hallway from the other direction, herding teachers and students into the shared cafeteria/gymnasium at the center of the school—with fearsome commands that would have defied disobedience even without the menacing wave of his automatic rifle.

Chetiri… chetiri… had there been a fourth? Calm, deep breaths. Yes: there had been a fourth soldier, and even as he kicked himself for not paying better attention, Tomek knew why he had been harder to remember. Unlike the first three, who barked their orders and shook their gleaming guns in the faces of women and children, the last man had held back, gun lowered to his side, watching—surveying—from the doorway. As Tomek pictured the stern, fearless look on the man’s face—he realized suddenly that this was the only soldier not wearing a mask—and considered the mean saunter, the disregard for the chaos in front of him, he was certain that this was their leader: the commander of the group.

Where were the intruders now? Tomek closed his eyes and listened to the cries and shouts coming from the gymnasium and could make out two distinct male voices growling above the din. That meant at least two men in that large room with all the students and teachers. Down the main hallway, a door slammed open, followed after a brief pause by a shout of Nishta!, then another door, another pause, another shout. Someone was searching classrooms, and they were coming toward the school office.

Toward Tomek.

He had to move, he had to move soon, he had to move quietly—and, most importantly, he had to do it without being seen. Slowly Tomek eased himself down onto his stomach, being careful not to poke above the office counter, and also not to knock anything over. He inched forward until he could just peer around the corner of the counter toward the cafeteria. In the open double-doorway across the hall, with his back to Tomek, was the silent commander, the only one whose location was not betrayed by his shouting. He watched over the roomful of hostages without a word, nothing more than an occasional nod, never turning toward Tomek or giving any indication he suspected there might be someone behind him.

Another door slammed—much closer this time. Tomek quickly scanned the room for any escape. His eyes settled on the word Direktor, painted in large block letters on the frosted-glass window of the door at the other end of the room. Of course, he sighed with relief, the principal’s office!. The principal’s office had a window; Tomek could slip out the window into the schoolyard and run for help. The only problem was getting there: to reach the principal’s office door, he would have no choice but to come out from behind the counter, out in the open, and cross directly behind the guerilla across the hall. Tomek weighed his options: Do I crawl slowly and quietly, and risk being seen if commander turns around or another soldier comes into the room? Or do I run and risk making noise and knocking something over? And… what if the door is locked?

Slam! Pause. Nishta! There was no time for crawling. Tomek slipped off his shoes, hoping that the noise in the gymnasium would mask the sound of his stocking feet on the floor better than the clatter of hard rubber soles. Holding both shoes in one hand, he stood, took a deep breath, and sprinted for the other side of the room. In less than 10 steps, he was at the door. He grabbed the handle, reflexively muttered a prayer, and turned. The door opened easily.

Tomek resisted the urge to shout a hurrah as he flashed into the empty principal’s office. He locked the door behind him. Just for good measure, he grabbed the wooden chair that sat in front of the large and imposing desk and wedged it under the door handle. Finally allowing himself to feel a sense of hope that his escape plan might work, he spun around to the window, grabbed the frame with both hands, and lifted.

Tomek’s luck had run out. The window was locked.

He pushed harder, but it was no use. Tomek frantically scanned the office for keys, or even something to break the window. Throwing the director’s chair out of the way, Tomek jumped behind the desk, and yanked open the center drawer. Nothing. The top drawer on the left. Nothing. The next drawer down. Noth—wait. A glint of metal at the back of the drawer. Why does the principal keep a pistol in his desk? Tomek started to wonder, but the question was interrupted by the sound of a doorknob jiggling. Tomek grabbed the gun and held his breath, and tried to stand perfectly still.

After a moment, the person at the door seemed to give up—the jiggling stopped, and the shadow on the frosted glass moved away. Tomek looked at the gun in his hand. Perhaps he could shoot the window out. Just as he was deciding whether he could make it through the shards of glass before the soldiers responded to the noise, a silhouette reappeared at the office door—and this time, it was accompanied by keys. Jingling, fumbling, and then the sound of the right key sliding into the lock. The little wooden chair held up to the first, gentle push, but it was no match for the weight of the soldier behind a firm shoulder against the door. The chair slid to the floor with a crash, and the door swung open.

Tomek raised the pistol and pulled the trigger.

One Thousand Words

1000 words. Every day.

That’s what real writers say you should do: write 1000 words every day. Honestly, it seems like it isn’t enough, and at the same time, it seems like a real challenge. Where am I going to find time to write a thousand words? Where am I going to find enough ideas to express with that many words?


Jon tentatively reached out toward the bark of the tree, placing his hand on the hump worn smooth by the caresses of thousands upon thousands of other hands which had been placed in the same spot. He inhaled sharply—involuntarily—as the wood grew warm under his palm and his neck began to tingle. Suddenly, Jon was in a field, vast and green, surrounded by butterflies. At least, he thought they were butterflies; they fluttered and shimmered in the air around him; now seeming to flap their wings, now seeming to float on the light breeze without flapping at all. It was beautiful. The most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Jon laughed.

Turning toward where his father had been standing, Jon asked out loud, “But how do I get back?” Instantly he was in front of the tree again, mouth open in astonishment, hand still resting on the tree. The palm-polished knot had been glowing softly, and as he pulled his hand away, the faint light quickly faded.

“Good,” smiled the old man, ignoring Jon and speaking to Arto. “This is good,” he repeated. Then he walked away from the tree, muttering happily to himself about preparations and ceremonies—Jon wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but he saw something on Arto’s face that made him excited. It was a look Jon hadn’t seen before. Part of it was happiness, which was rare enough, but the other part, the part that filled Jon with hope and wonder, was pride.

Arto said nothing. He just stood there and smiled quietly for several minutes. Jon began to fidget. Finally, he cleared his throat and ventured, “Papa?” Arto nodded, and finally spoke.

“Well, let’s go home and get you ready.”

That, Jon knew, meant there would be no sleep tonight. First, there would be the cheers, and the hugs, and the congratulations. Then there would be a bath—a head-to-toe scrubbing with scalding water, harsh soap, and pumice—that would leave Jon clean but probably sore. While he was bathed, he knew his grandmother would be cooking a celebration dinner while his uncle, the master tailor, whipped up a fine outfit suitable for the occasion. All through the evening and late into the night, people would be stopping by with small gifts, well-wishes, and more food as word spread through the village. Sometime after midnight, after the cooking-fires had died down, everyone would gather in the main room of the little house to sing songs, tell stories, and probably shed a few tears. Finally, just before sunrise, all would wearily make their way back to the tree, with Jon at the head of the procession: the place of honor.


Well, that was barely 500 words, and only if you count the stuff I said before & after. That block is part of a story concept I’ve had in my head for a while, and it’s the first time I’ve tried to write some of it down. I’m not really thrilled with it, but I am at least pleased that I wrote some words today.