Wilhelmina Winters, Forty-Three

Wil awoke somewhat to the familiar irritation of a blaring alarm clock. She silenced it while maintaining a comfortable stupor of half-asleepness. The dark trees and mists of her dream still lingered round her subconscious, and confused her mind when mixed with the images her eyes sent of her plain, dark bedroom.

She yawned and chanced opening her eyes further. All was shapes and shadows of monochrome grays. She heard no sounds.

Her parents had been up late talking. Talking -and coughing, in Cynthia’s case. Her father rarely spoke, so Wil had found the deep rumble of his voice distracting at such a late hour. The coughing was not so distracting, since her mother had been doing it for such a long time -not that it ever ceased to be disturbing.

Wil decided that Cynthia would probably choose to sleep in, and complete her morning exercise with their neighbor. Rob could wake Cynthia to start her other routines before they left for school.

Wil’s assumptions were correct. After dressing, there was still no sound of waking from her parents’ room. She had to rouse them, then follow her father’s zombie-like tread around the apartment and out the door to their car.

She watched his face in the lines of streetlights, flashes of headlights, and dull glow of early morning as the car moved inexorably to school. Rob’s eyes opened only as far as necessary. His jaw -the entire bottom of his face- hung relaxed and unshaven below drooped eyebrows and tousled hair.

Wil wondered what had kept him up, and what still occupied his thoughts.

In fact, Rob emanated distraction more than fatigue. Although Wil was rarely able to sit quietly around her family, she picked up enough on his odd mood to not ask any questions.

Actually, what really silenced her were the only looks he had given her. Rob had looked at Wil when he first awoke with a sort of shock. The other two times, after he was more alert, his expression seemed sad and -well- distracted.

The only strange event of the evening before had been a letter he’d taken to his bedroom after getting home from work. If her father didn’t explain things by tonight, she was going to have to search for that letter.

Wil was not very sneaky, however, nor very good at finding what people hid.

“Bye, Gwen -er, Mina,” Rob said, as Wil exited the car at the curb.

At that exact moment, Wil was distracted by the vision of Hope walking alone. Maybe Wil wasn’t good at sneaking, but she knew someone talented enough to be listed officially.

 

Continued from Forty-Two (Again).

Into the Woods

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Silent sunlight dances down,
Caressing leaves and pine bough dreams;
Shaking, shading, singing, sighing –
Can you hear the moss-bent trees?

Fae or fauna tickle trailing, talking tendrils;
Tree-trunk tales.
Minstrels swear to sensing magic
As they tiptoe mossy trails.

Blundering, we mention silence;
Eagerly, we rush the woods.
Picking flora, chasing fauna,
Errantly, like child-hoods.

Hush! The tree Ent spirits moan,
Their dormant tree-guard watch awaked.
See and feel and breathe the spirit
Of the stretching woods remaked.

Will you walk with careful footfalls
Down along the forest floor?
Will you whisper wistful wond’rings,
Questioning their strange folklore?

 

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction
unsplash-logoGeran de Klerk

Bakery Blues

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Edward sat, staring at his monitors. “My uncle works at a cookie factory!” He remembered his nephew, Sam, bragging to his class. “The cookies with M&Ms!” Sam’s peers had been duly impressed; M&Ms were a much sought-after candy for preschoolers.

Edward had felt a little proud, but also knew the poor kid wanted some credit for having an uncle drop him off, instead of parents like the others had.

“Do you get to eat all the M. M. cookies you want?” a boy in a red shirt had asked.

“Didja bring us some?!” A small girl in braids demanded. A tiny chorus of, “Oh, yes; did you?”‘s and, “Where are they?”‘s immediately followed her innocent query.

Luckily, their sweet, young teacher came to the rescue. Walking up behind the excited group, she placed her hands gently on Sam’s shoulders and looked up at Edward. “Shhh! Shhhh!” She quietly reprimanded, till the chattering stopped. “I’m sure we can have Sam’s uncle come and talk to us sometime about his job.”

“An’ will he bring cookies?” The girl asked, determinedly.

The teacher smiled at her, then up at Edward. Edward shrugged and looked down at his shyly shuffling feet. “I’ll talk to Ms. Prutt about it,” she said.

As baked desserts and giant mixing machines and oven temperatures automatically scanned beneath his bored scrutiny, Edward easily recalled and replayed the entire exchange. He thought about what he would tell all those eager children if he were to go in and talk honestly about his job.

“Well, kids,” he imagined saying, “First, I get to scan my name badge. Then, I walk to a magical land called a locker room.” Riveted, that girl with braids would yawn. “After changing into a protective jacket, hard hat, goggles, and ear protection, I pick up …a tablet computer.”

At that point, Edward was certain, Sam would ask if Edward got to play games on the tablet. “Yes,” he’d have to answer, “The games are called Spreadsheets and I check little boxes to mark whether the equipment is working.”

They’d be so interested, he might have the entire class asleep two hours before naptime.

He sighed, watching the millionth cookie pass by the electronic eye. He decided a nap on his part might be averted if he went down for another physical inspection. Glancing at the million and first cookie on the conveyor belt, he determined to visit the Inspection and Packing area.

A short trip out of Monitoring, across a catwalk, down some gleaming stairs, through Personal Sanitation, and out an automatic door brought him in front of that same line of cookies. A handful of workers in masks, hairnets, and gloves idly monitored the cookies. The M. M. cookies, he told himself.

“Hey, boss,” a man named Asay said, looking up to see Edward. He probably smiled.

Edward smiled in return. “How’s it going?” He and Asay used to work together in Mixing, before Edward trained and applied for his current position. He’d talked to his friend about moving up as well, but Asay claimed to like Production better. Now that Edward had been an inspector for a few months, he found himself agreeing with Asay’s perspective.

“Bored yet?” Asay teased, guessing accurately. He casually removed a cracked cookie, sliding it amongst fellow discards to the side.

Edward pretended to be indignant. “Of course not!” He continued, “We, in Inspections and Monitoring, are never bored.”

Asay laughed, leaning over the conveyor to look more closely at the new batch. “Hey! These have all blue M&Ms!” He exclaimed.

Curious, Edward walked forward. Sure enough, the first five cookies had all three chocolate candies in a blue shell. “Should we keep ’em?” Asay wondered aloud.

They both watched the cookies move down the line. They reminded Edward of the cute class of preschool faces. Blue was Sam’s favorite color; the boy would love to pull one from a package. Edward could even hear Sam’s exclamations: “Look, Unca Eddie! All blues, just for me!”

Edward, standing near Asay on a busy production floor, turned to his friend. “Of course we’ll keep them. What kid wouldn’t want to find one?”

Asay’s dust mask pulled to each side as he grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re right.”

They both watched the cookies for a few seconds longer; Asay more closely than Edward. Edward had a thought. “I’ll see you around,” he told his friend, turning to leave.

“Okay, bro,” Asay answered, waving behind him.

Back through Sanitation and out the other side brought Edward to the ovens. He continued on, waving at a few people he knew and trying to look authoritative. Soon he was at Mixing and Shaping, his old stomping grounds. Three people worked in this area. The younger two were chatting and watching the enormous mixing machine. Soon the scooping mechanism would deposit balls onto the baking racks. For now, it was churning and the workers were idle.

Edward approached the third person. She was sitting on a special stool just after where the dough would be placed on sheets and given candies. Standing to her side, he spoke loudly, “HELLO, CAROL.”

An old woman turned to smile pleasantly up at him. Her grey curls were kept at bay by a company hairnet and her gnarled, gloved hands rested on a company uniform that covered her lap. “Why, hello, Edward,” she replied warmly. “How are you?”

Edward waved vaguely. “Oh, fine, fine,” he began; then, “I’M FINE. HOW ARE YOU?”

If possible, Carol smiled more widely. Edward had the fleeting idea that she was exactly the sort of worker children would expect to be at a cookie factory. They wouldn’t expect her to be hunched over machines in a hairnet and plastic apron, of course. Carol belonged in a homemade apron, proferring a steaming batch she’d just pulled from her kitchen oven.

“I JUST WONDERED,” he yelled over the mixer and age-related hearing loss, “DID YOU HAPPEN TO SEE A BATCH OF BLUE M&M COOKIES?” He glanced at her face, and caught a wry smile cross the old woman’s lips.

Carol shrugged, raising her clasped hands. “Now, wouldn’t that be a nice surprise for a small child?” She asked him innocently.

The mixer buzzed, startling Carol and her two coworkers to action. Scooping cups lowered to the surface of the dough and began lifting and depositing balls onto baking sheets. Each ball passed beneath the M&Ms depositor and on to the ovens.

The youngest worker pulled the first ball from the tray and ran it through a nearby Composition Tester; it passed. The second watched the progress of the machines, ensuring they were all clean and moving easily.

Carol, as Edward knew well, closely monitored each passing pan. Every cookie must have three M&Ms. If they had more, she was to slide it to the side. Fewer than three, to the other side. When the batch had finished moving down the line, she would carefully place the removed balls onto their own pans. Those with extra(s) had one or more removed. Using a bin of M&Ms to her side, she added chocolate candies to dough balls that had too few.

“Yes, Carol,” Edward answered, out of her hearing. “Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise?” Smiling to himself, he began walking back to his main work area.

“Well, kids,” he now heard his future self saying, “At the cookie factory there is a grandma named Carol.” He planned to look around the room and ask, “Do you have a grandma? Does she make cookies?”

He climbed the stairs, warming to the story forming in his mind.

“Carol is just like your grandma, but she makes cookies for all the children in the world.” He’d bring out a bag. Why not? They got to bring home remnants, as long as they never re-sold them. Holding it so they could all see, he’d say, “Carol’s main job is to put the M&Ms onto each cookie that doesn’t have enough. One day, she pulled three blue M&Ms from her bag. ‘I wonder,’ Grandma Carol said, ‘if any little boys and girls would like to have a cookie with THREE BLUE M&Ms.'”

Sam, the boy with the red shirt, the girl in braids, and the rest would watch him closely; they’d wonder if he had brought them just such an amazing cookie. Edward paused at the door to Monitoring. Could he get a full batch of cookies like that? Maybe he could even get all reds, all yellows, or all greens.

Entering his office, he planned to ask his manager that afternoon.

Skinwalkers, XIV

“BOY! Where are you, Boy?!”

Nathan cowered in the darkness, feeling every bit of his powerlessness as he heard his father stomping down the hallway. The bunk above him squeaked slightly as its occupant moved closer to the wall; the same wall Nathan pushed against in desperation.

The bedroom door slammed open with the force of an angry bull. Darkness spilled into darkness, but Nathan could still make out his father’s shadowy outline in the doorway. “I asked you a question!” The bull bellowed, then it lunged –

*Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!* *Bee-bee-beep!*

Nathan sat up, sweating and gasping. His sheets twisted restrictively around his shaking body. His bedroom was pitch-dark, with the exception of his flashing comm. Like the small child he had just woken from, he scrabbled to its beeping, blinking safety.

“Light! Light!” He demanded, grasping it. Immediately, the dark was dispelled by both the bright beam from his device and the dim spread of the fixture overhead. To be certain, he panned the comm around each corner the cheap lighting did not quite reach. There was nothing.

“Alarm,” he said, finally silencing the noise. He calmed his breathing, his thoughts, his pulse, his position. Just a dream, he reminded himself. The Old Man’s dead and gone.

As his thoughts were successfully returned to the present, he sat up again. He dropped his comm back onto the night stand. Throwing the bedthings to their habitual lump, he leaped from the bed and jogged to the closet-hole. Within jiffs he had slipped a liner over his naked body. Its automatic heat-cling comforted his nightmare-sore body like a thin blanket.

Thus clothed, Nathan exited and entered the entertainment room. In keeping with the dimensions of his bedroom and bathroom, this main area was about large enough to be called a nook rather than a full-sized room. He quickly crossed to the food station within the wall and pushed the button marked burrito.

A sickening grinding sound met his ears, as usual. He gritted his teeth and silently prayed to Sirius Sustenance Supply, that he could continue putting off replacing their barely-functioning model for one more day.

Within seconds and despite uninterrupted mechanical protests, a mostly-cooked tortilla-wrapped bundle dropped into the vending area. He cracked open the translucent door and retrieved it. It was somewhat frozen still, in the middle, but a warmer temperature setting would only serve to burn the outsides. He also considered these results a decent answer to prayers, given that he’d be late waiting for a fully-hot burrito to cool enough to eat it.

Nathan stood, eating bites and drinking occasional bursts from the wall fountain to the right of the food dispenser. Mentally, he went over his list of daily tasks. He’d attended the interview, removed the suit and skin, napped, dressed, and was now eating. By next tick he needed to be walking, or he was likely to arrive late.

“Choms just wants an excuse to fire us,” he mumbled, bitterly. Only last week, two of his peers had been dismissed over trivial issues. One had forgotten his rags; upon returning after retrieval, he was given Notice. The other had been two minutes late, and showed up in another business’ liner.

“It’s not like anyone sees us,” Nathan noted, as if he could possibly speak to or defend anyone involved in the terminations.

He heard a chirp from the watch, though it was muted. He stuffed the last of the burrito in his mouth and returned to his bedroom. Finally pulling the watch from under his pillow, he studied the time: 2:46 p.m.

“Zut!” He exclaimed. Quickly, he docked the comm. After looking furtively about in suspicion, he pressed a small knob in the wood just beneath the night stand’s top surface. A drawer popped open; revealing faded photographs, sundry envelopes, a dried flower or two, and another comm.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XIII.

Food on Your Family

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There is a recall out for chopped Romaine lettuce.

Normally, I am unaffected by produce recalls because my lettuce was purchased thirty days ago and I am still telling myself that I’ll eat it. I can cut around all the brown spots, right? We’d hosted a family party Sunday, however, so I bought that huge package of Romaine hearts from Costco the day before.

As each heart was ripped out and discarded, I had the mental image of pulling cash from my wallet and throwing green bills away.

Which leads me to a common question I hear: how much does it cost to feed a family?

I have four boys. They’re young, and have always had modest appetites. My husband, who has never passed 150 lbs in his life, says he feels full after soup. Still, our food costs are going to be more than a young couple working full time or a small family of three.

Plus, kids grow. They eat more when they grow.

I lived with my younger brother when he was a teenager. I’m safely estimating that I’ll have that TIMES FOUR in a few, short years.

One perk to having children is that people will occasionally offer me free food. As in, Chelsea, I’m moving and am just throwing away all the food in my fridge. Do you want to come over and see if you can use any? Or, I’m going on a restrictive diet and left some pantry items on your porch. Give away what you don’t use.

It almost makes up for how much I spend otherwise. Actually -no, no it doesn’t.

Whenever I think I’ve got it bad, however, I think of larger families. We’ve hosted my husband’s sister’s family of eight children a handful of times. Don’t worry -we’ve returned the favor. But adding six people to ten is easier: just kill two chickens instead of the one and throw a bit more flour into the roll dough.

I may go into Costco to buy bread and come out with a new set of tires, but my weekly trips and expenses for food are about equal to my sister-in-law’s daily ones.

One of my favorite films to watch growing up was Yours, Mine, and Ours, with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. Although it has many pertinent scenes, every time our relatives come stay I replay the grocery store part in my mind. In the film, the poor cashier enters the products manually. Tub after tub of oatmeal follows bags and bags of Wonder bread, AND they have two more shopping carts to go after all that. The cashier totals it all up; they spent $126.63 (the equivalent of $920.87, using online inflation calculators).

The North family really could have used a Costco.

We took our ten house guests to the world’s largest Costco last time they were here. My husband was at work, so we may have resembled members of a certain lifestyle involving two wives. Each adult manned a shopping cart and helped herd the dozen children roaming around us.

It was somewhat exciting to purchase 36 hot dogs, multiple loaves of bread, 5 lbs of cheese, and enormous bags of chips -and know that we would eat it all within the week. We filled the carts with food and diapers, plus children in time-out.

I felt overwhelmed projecting how much regular grocery bills must cost. And, as with any large organization (recalls aside), their family has waste. have waste, and feel that I do fairly well planning out meals and reusing leftovers.

I find myself mentally calculating what the cheapest take-out meals are (Chinese food, pizza, or chicken “on the bird” from Costco), least-expensive home meals are (bean soup, grilled cheese and tomato soup, pancakes), or how often we can visit relatives at mealtimes.

I mean, when the boys do hit puberty, I’m going to be in trouble. Donations? GoFundMe, maybe? Actually, taking a full-time job might be the best option.

I wonder if Costco is hiring.

 

Wilhelmina Winters, Forty-Two (Again)

(Because this number needs an accurate tribute.)

The apartment squatted at the end of a small path on the interior of the complex. It was the bottom corner of a building with five other apartments, and had a view of a few tree branches hanging over the back of the cement walls of the communal garbage bin. Not an exceptional apartment at all -it was built during the economic recession, stuccoed, rectangular, and had decorative stucco accents along its side of a color and position which basically failed to appeal to anyone.

The people for whom the apartment held any significance were the Winters family, and that was only since they lived there. They had been renting for about four months, ever since the lease agreement ran out on their last apartment because it made their bank account too low. They had come out of the recession as well, leaner and usually serious. What made them more serious was when people asked why they looked so solemn.

Rob Winters worked at a machine shop which he always told his family nothing about because he rarely enjoyed talking. They knew it, too -that is, they knew nothing about what he actually did every day at his job.

The Winters hadn’t quite come around to the idea that disruption wanted to visit this place where they lived.

In the evening of a Thursday in February, Rob Winters didn’t feel well. He came home tiredly, walked in the door, trudged tiredly into the kitchen, deposited the mail on the counter, saw a letter written in a familiar hand, noted his family, and stumped to the sink to wash.

Soap foamed into his palms -thus. Scrub.

Wil’s face – turned to her father. He met her gaze. A different face looked at his with his own hazel eyes. Shaking his head, Rob saw his daughter again. He finished cleaning his hands, rinsed, dried, and stumped to the couch to seek someone lovely to hold in his arms.

Cynthia, couch, IV, arms, hug. Sigh.

Wil saw a thought cross Rob’s features and attempt to settle distantly in his eyes.

The envelope on the counter was small and worn, with extra inked messages stamped by the post office.

He turned to look at it.

“Letter,” Rob said to Cynthia, who responded with a puzzled look.

Wil matched the definition for a vocabulary word, and another. She wondered if her father might be late for an appointment with his bed. What was he thinking about? Was there something important in the mail? She thought it likely. Wil saw the small, crumpled corner of an envelope. “Letter?” she wondered to herself.

Rob sat up and remembered. Cursive, he thought. Why was that familiar? He hazily recalled reading it before, reading that handwriting somewhere significant. Wil saw him sitting, but considering something nagging, she thought: the best way to describe her father was preoccupied. There was something he’d received today.

Rob realized the letter had been sent awhile ago, been forwarded, and only just reached their new address. Incredible. He turned to look at his wife again. He would figure it all out, he resolved, he usually took care of everything, nothing changed. He could figure it out.

The workday had paid Rob’s wages in exhaustion. He looked at his wife, stepson, and daughter. He ran a hand through his blond hair. Letter, he told himself. The image of cursive handwriting on a forwarded letter floated round his brain, attempting recognition.

Forty-two seconds later, Rob was off the couch and tearing open the envelope in the safety of his own room with the door closed.

 

Continued from Forty-Two.
Keep reading to Forty-Three.

Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na: Bad Date!

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“Good morning, sir.”

“Eeeuurrrgh. Alfred?”

“You seem out of sorts. There is, however, a pressing issue which may require your attention.”

“Errr -what? Attention?” Sploosh! ….”Why am I wet?”

“Well, sir, the cave seems to be experiencing an excess amount of water.”

“It’s a cave, Alfred. It has water. …Probably not this much.”

“Precisely, sir.”

“We’ve got to get out! What happened?”

“Do you recall that female companion you entertained last week?

“…No.”

“Saturday?”

…..

“Charity dinner?”

“The blonde?”

“Precisely, sir!”

“Well?”

“I believe, after the young lady stayed the night, that she left the faucet running.”

 

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction
unsplash-logoTroy Nikolic