Writer Unboxed

Every month in 2016 Writer Unboxed’s Jo Eberhardt ran a flash fiction contest. She posted a new photographic prompt to inspire 250-word stories. Here are mine:


Round 12 – The Finals

Entry #1: Three Courses – Third Place

Writer Unboxed Round 12 photo by Stefano Corso

“What happened to no gifts this year?” Suzanna peeled away the brown wrapping paper.

As she revealed a print encased in a plain black frame, Aaron joined her on the couch. “I thought of you as soon as I saw it.”

“Why?” Suzanna tilted the print for a better view. “You can’t see who’s beneath that red umbrella.”

“I like to think it’s you.”

“Is this how you see me? Walking European streets in the rain?”

“You always talk about traveling.”

“When I have the time and the money.” Suzanna returned to the print. “This is probably as close as I’ll ever come.”

“Then it’s a good thing that’s just the appetizer.” Aaron held up a birthday card. “Now for the entrée.”

“Entrée?” Suzanna shook her head. “That’s the last no-gifts promise I make with you.”

“Good.”

In a feigned huff, she plucked the card and broke the envelope’s seal. The ticket inside left her breathless but she sagged into the couch’s cushions when the date and destination became clear.

“You didn’t.” Suzanna found Aaron beaming as a roadblock of responsibilities rolled through her mind. “I can’t.”

“You’ve earned the time off.” Aaron scooped up her hand. “It’s time you follow your own dreams for a change.”

“I…” She blinked back tears. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You could ask for some company.”

Suzanna let loose a pleased laugh. “What makes you think I’d do a foolish thing like that?”

“Because I know the perfect place for dessert.”

Entry #2: Ascension

Writer Unboxed Round 12 photo by Stefano Corso

Hell’s demons had been following me since the restaurant. I kept the umbrella tilted and my face in darkness, but I couldn’t hide what anyone with honed senses would discern. The demons knew me the same way I knew them.

The question was whether they wanted a fight.

I didn’t, at least not tonight.

Rain pelted my umbrella in a pitter-patter, obscuring their skittering feet and murmuring. Both hushed at the next corner where the river divided the city as well as separated this world from the other side.

The border with Heaven usually shimmers for those who know it’s there. But for me and others who’ve been cast out for their sins, it’s invisible.

The demons stalking me would see it easily. They’d also notice I couldn’t conjure up an entryway, that I couldn’t cross the expanse, that I remained in the riverbank’s gloom.

“You don’t have to.”

Orias appeared beside me, the fallen angel nothing but shifting smoke and a golden gaze.

While the demons tittered, I blocked his feline stare with a twirl of my umbrella. “The rules haven’t changed, Ori.”

“They can.”

His offer arched through the night, creating a bridge back to where I wouldn’t be forced to live as a stranger in my own skin. The honey-sweet ambrosia, the smell of lotus in bloom, and voices debating in harmony, seemed to float across the river, teasing me like Eden’s apple, and giving me the nerve to ask,

“How?”

Entry #3: Framed

Writer Unboxed Round 12 photo by Stefano Corso

“That’s when I noticed his body.”

The inspector nodded as if every foreigner who opened their lover’s door found a corpse laying in wine and blood.

“What did you do next, Mademoiselle?”

“I screamed, I guess. Delores, the housekeeper, came running then left to phone the police.”

The inspector nodded again. His focus remained on me, though, the American mistress and, I slowly realized, the prime suspect in Marcel’s death.

I squeezed the mug of spiked coffee Delores had stuffed into my hands. “I didn’t do this.”

The inspector brushed my claim aside. “No one saw you arrive?”

“Just strangers, I think. When I found Marcel’s bicycle on the curb, I let myself in.” My stomach churned. “After that…”

A vision of blood and spilt merlot blended with a burst of crimson, the swish of an unfolding umbrella, and the departing click of heels on cobblestone.

“She wouldn’t have.”

“She?” The inspector leaned in, curious. “Who?”

I closed my eyes, letting the memory firm. The remembered alleyway failed to show me her face but despite the dim light and misty rain, Marcel’s ex-wife was the only one I knew with a reason to plunge a knife into his back.

“Mademoiselle?”

At the inspector’s prodding, I spat out her name and the address where I thought the murderess lived.

While the inspector directed his officers after their new lead, I retreated into my coffee’s bottomless black where even darker plots against Marcel’s killer steeped.


Round 11: The Postcard

Writer Unboxed Round 11 photo by Mark Graf

Bruce looked up from the postcard. “Who’s Mabel Efferton?”

“She’s…” Our mother? Our mom? I settled on: “It’s her.”

Bruce returned to the note, the cursive handwriting an echo from an unfamiliar past. Any knowledge of that world had been kept from us until I’d started searching and discovered the demons lurking in our family’s blood.

“Your success deserves a drink.” My stepbrother flowed to his liquor-ladened sideboard, all silk and long limbs, and poured wine into two overly ornate goblets.

“You don’t recognize the island.” I took the wine, freeing Bruce to retrieve the postcard and slide back into his leather armchair.

“Should I?”

“It’s a prison.”

“I always suspected we came from interesting stock.” He swirled his drink. “What’s the old lady in for?”

“Murdering three men.”

A curve arched Bruce’s lip. “Father?”

“Yours. Mine.” I stared into my wine. The bouquet teased and promises of an undoubtedly excellent vintage tickled my stalled tongue. “And Barbara Johansen’s.”

“Johansen? As in President Johansen?”

I met my stepbrother’s eyes. They twinkled. My hands trembled. I set the goblet down. “I don’t think she knows.”

“She needs to.”

“What politician wants a closet full of skeletons? Literal ones, no less.” I shook my head. “Even if I managed to talk to her, she wouldn’t believe me.”

“I did.”

“You knew you were different.”

“Regardless, she has to be told, before the matter is exposed for her.”

The thought iced my insides. “By who?”

“Postcards, my sweet sister, do not send themselves.”


Round 10: Trespassers

Writer Unboxed Round 10 photo photo by Flickr user Carlos ZGZ

“Did you see a sign?” Rhonda slipped over the castle’s crumbling wall.

“You didn’t give me time to look.” Mark dumped his rucksack alongside Rhonda’s and followed her into the stony stronghold. “We’ll get arrested.”

“Quit worrying.” She pecked his cheek. “You’ll ruin the ambiance.”

Her sly grin chased away his thoughts of police or protest. “I did ask for an adventure.”

“What else is life for?”

After a second kiss, Rhonda led through arched doorways and by arrow-slit windows draped in shadow. History hushed them both, leaving their sneaker’s crunch of pebbles to interrupt thundering waves and squawking shorebirds wheeling across blue sky.

“Can you imagine living here?”

“It’s a little big for my taste.” Rhonda left a honeycomb of chambers and tiptoed up a set of grooved stairs.

“Careful.” Mark trailed her. “This place is falling apart.”

“But what a view.”

Gusts carried the sea’s briny scent, a bank of dewy fog, and then the bitter smell of char onto the parapeted defenses.

Mark sniffed and sought the source. “Is that smoke?”

From the castle’s heart telltale wisps coiled and, atop a nearby tower, a banner with a golden harp on a field of green unfurled.

“That’s impossible.” Mark scrubbed his eyes but the sights didn’t change.

“But how?” Rhonda took his hand. “There’s no one else here.”

Metal clanged, a hundred voices murmured, and the smell of humanity and damp earth soaked the fog.

“Halt!” Behind them, boots thumped and a blade unsheathed. “Who goes there?”


Round 9: Prairieland – Honorable Mention

Writer Unboxed Round 9 photo by Flickr user Doug Wertman

“Your mother’s trying.” A teenage boy wearing farm garb joined my solitary sulk in the reenactment’s covered wagon.

“She’s moved us to prairieland.”

“You don’t like the change?”

“I should be there.” The farm-boy glanced down but didn’t seem to see my phone’s pictures of evergreen slopes, ragged coastlines, and snow-capped peaks.

“My folks promised me mountains once. An ocean.”

“That’s where I belong.”

“But you’re here.” He chewed a stalk of straw. “Might as well make the best of it.”

“You sound like my mom.”

“Is she wrong?”

Before I could argue, my brother, Max, poked his head through the wagon’s arched opening. “Come on, Maggie, time to giddy up!”

“We’re in the middle of something.”

“We?”

“He—”

The spot where the farm-boy had been sat empty except for a strut with a timeworn carving of 1832 and the name, Ely.

“You’re weird.” Max bolted off shouting, “Now she’s talking to herself!”

No, I’m losing my mind.

The gap beside me felt warm and I could hear the farm-boy munching, smell the dust on his clothes. I couldn’t find him outside, though, where reenactors chatted with visitors and, at a pen of drowsy horses, Max and Mom prepared to giddy up.

Make the best of it.

The farm-boy’s advice reached me as a piece of gnawed straw tumbled to my feet.

Twirling the stalk, I debated what I’d seen, what I’d heard, and drifted to the horse’s pen.

“Hey Mom.”

She gripped her buckskin’s reins. “Yeah?”

“Wait up.”


Round 8: Wedding Gifts

Writer Unboxed Round 8 photo “Gideon” by Brin Jackson

Devin poured two shots of his uncle’s prized whiskey.

“Weren’t we saving that?”

“He changes things.” Devin handed me a drink before facing the gargoyle we’d been gifted by his grandmother.

“He’s not that creepy.” I sipped the shot. “We can put him in the garden.”

“There’s something—”

Three pounds on the front door cut him off and startled me enough whiskey sloshed from my glass.

“Damn.” I rose, ready to reprimand the rude arrival, but Devin grabbed my arm.

“Forget the mess, Grace.”

Devin’s grip kept me away from the door when it shook, then shuddered as whoever, or whatever, struggled to get inside.

“What the hell?”

“I’ll explain, but later. For now, you need to touch the gargoyle.” Devin placed his hand on the statue’s hunched wing, the silver band I’d slipped on his finger shiny against the stone.

More pounds dented the door.

“Devin?” Wide-eyed, I sought an answer in the hazel-eyed gaze of the man I’d just married.

As if in reply, the door splintered and a hot gust snuffed the candles. Out of the darkness came heavy, panting breaths and the snort of something huge.

I wanted to scream, to run, but hearing Devin’s voice, I found myself reaching for the gargoyle instead.

Pitted stone met my fingers then a hand I knew in my sleep.

“We’ll be alright, Grace.”

With Devin’s skin frosty against mine, I couldn’t help but hope this stooped statue would keep us safe from the shadows prowling our way.



Round 7: Homestead – Winner

Writer Unboxed Round 7 photo by Flickr user Rocky Raybell

I burrowed into Mama’s quilt when our covered wagon rumbled to a halt.

“Beck?” At my father’s call, I shrank deeper between our belongings.

He swung down from his driver’s seat. Instead of coming for our bedrolls, though, he unlatched buckles he’d secured before he’d ripped me away from the world I knew and the dead we’d left behind.

“What are you doing, Pa?”

After dumping tent stakes, he lifted the canvas. My father didn’t look my way as he hooked the eyelet and dragged his toolbox near.

“Why are you unloading?”

My father tipped his head as if the wind had asked instead of me. He muttered then hauled his toolbox from the wagon.

The gap remaining in the canvas showed me dusty yellow slopes and stalks of evergreen. No tiled roofs or plowed land teased, just emptiness. Still wrapped in Mama’s quilt, I wormed across the wagon’s bed in search of more to see.

From behind gray rain clouds, the sun peeked out and painted a rainbow into the air. The arc dove into a valley, brightening trees where no one lived. The land seemed to soak in the color, though, to come alive, to have a heartbeat and hope.

In silence, my father shared my view.

“No one’s here, Pa.”

He put a finger to his lips. “Listen to your mother.”

I strained to catch anything other than the rustle of unkempt grass, but my mama’s ghost didn’t speak to me.

“What’s she saying?”

“That we’re home.”



Round 6: Inheritance

Writer Unboxed Round 6 photo by Jo Eberhardt

“Everything’s different.” My past lurked beneath the river bend. “The trees, the grass, the wat—”

Stick-snapping steps turned Ben and me from the muddy churn.

Envelope white stood stark against Gabe’s plaid flannel. It was the same envelope, the lawyers’ envelope.

Ben nudged my elbow. “Mom?”

“Give me minute.” His concern swirled. “Please?”

With a wary nod, Ben drifted down the trail far enough to miss Gabe’s whisper.

“You weren’t at the funeral.”

“She wouldn’t have wanted me there.”

“So why come here?”

“You should know.”

“These weren’t my idea.” Gabe offered his envelope.

I didn’t bother taking it. The penmanship told me enough.

“She’s taking revenge on the two she hated most.”

“Twenty years changes things.” Gabe joined me at the shoreline. “Your mom called me after the diagnosis. Asked if I knew where you’d ended up.”

“I figured things out just like I told her I would.”

“Aren’t you back where we started?”

“I’m here because her lawyers told us to be here.”

Gabe squinted Ben’s way. “What does he know?”

“Bits and pieces.” I huddled in my coat. “He’ll ask who you are.”

“What are you going to tell him?”

“The truth.” I gave Gabe my back. “You don’t have to be here when I do.”

“It took you twenty years to give me the choice?”

“You disappeared.”

“I was scared and when I’d sobered up you were gone.”

“And now?”

“I’m terrified.” Gabe stepped up beside me. “But I don’t make the same mistake twice.”



Round 5: Fairy Tales

Writer Unboxed Round 5 photo by Jo Eberhardt

We stared at the empty archway where the gate had been. Our mother and her contingent of guards, however, hadn’t prevented warped iron from littering the borderland trail.

“She’s right.” Dumping my pack of provisions, I knelt by a jagged piece of hinge. “They lived.”

Michael nudged the hinge’s other half aside. “Fairy tales don’t do this.”

“Then what did?”

“Something. No. Someone.” He thumbed the way we’d come. “Either way, we need to go back.”

“Why?” I squinted through the archway in hopes of seeing who wasn’t there. “She’d be the one mounting a rescue.”

“We have to tell the Council what’s happened.”

“But…”

Michael tugged me from the view and the duty our mother had instilled coated my bones.

“You’re right—“

“Jemma? Michael?”

A pained voice we both knew called from the far side’s dense brush.

“Stay here.” Michael started unfastening clasps on his pack.

“And do what? Wait?” Rounding him, I dug for the knife I’d brought to carve cheese rounds for the contingent’s hungry bellies.

“We don’t know what’s out there.”

“She is.” Squeezing the blade’s wooden handle, I met my brother’s eyes as the stories our mother had shared replayed between my ears.

When the voice called to us again, we both turned.

“She doesn’t sound far.”

“If that’s really her.”

With no other way to find out, we rose and crept beneath the archway, toward the echo of our mother’s voice and all that her fairy tales promised lurked on the other side.



Round 4: Early – Winner

Writer Unboxed Round 4 photo by Rebecca Pagel

“It’s too soon.” I tried sitting up, but another contraction laid me flat against the birthing room’s dirt floor.

“Sweet girl.” Maiara dabbed sweat from my brow. “It’s time.”

“But he hasn’t found everyone.”

“Give the boy a chance.”

Maiara shuffled from my bulging belly to stoke the fire.

Smoke perfumed with charred sage guided embers through the ceiling’s gaping hole. Sunlight promised the canyon where Tane rushed to gather scraps of hand-woven blankets and the plains where one day we’d ride.

A countless contraction swept thoughts of missing ribbons and galloping from my mind. White specks flared and, instead of worrying or dreaming, I gripped the blanket beneath me.

As the pain ebbed and the flecks cleared, Tane arrived up above. His nervous gaze locked on me.

“Am I too late?”

“Only if you’re empty handed.”

“I promised didn’t I?” He hurried halfway down the ladder, then pulled a crosshatched grid into place.

Scraps he’d tied around the interlocked branches dangled toward me. They swayed as the lid settled and Tane finished his decent.

“What else can I do?”

Maiara wiped my brow again. “Be near.”

With swollen fingers, I squeezed Tane’s hand as tightly as the knots above my head. The presence of our sisters, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers shone from each ragged bit of cloth. When another pain-filled wave came, I soaked in their presence, their belief I could accomplish what they’d all endured, and bore down until the three of us could ride into the sun.



Round 3: The Living

Writer Unboxed Round 3 photo by Rebecca Pagel

I peered through the insulated windshield at the brick walls that had claimed my childhood. “When did this happen?”

“Decades ago.” Ben drove us down the curved block. “It was part of the post-war beautification project.”

Memories from that war, the one Ben spoke about like a line from a text-screen, sank me into my great-grandson’s passenger seat.

“They wanted to make the foundations more appealing.”

“For who?” I stared past my withered reflection and across the slabs of concrete accompanying the asphalt strip and brick barricade.

“For us maybe.”

“You’re here because you’re indulging an old woman.”

Ben pulled along the untouched curb and draped the steering wheel. “I wanted to see the barrier for myself.”

He seemed impressed by the towering walls.

I suppose I should be similarly awed or at least grateful for the protection the defenses had given my family. My feet, however, itched for green grass, my skin demanded a petal-tinged breeze, my lips, thin and brittle though they’d become, yearned to launch multicolored soap bubbles into a cloudless sky. I wanted trees. I wanted fresh air. I wanted a life before the attacks, before the toxins, before the construction of domes and dividers enabling the human race to survive.

“It’s marvelous isn’t it?”

As Ben rambled on about struts and designs, I closed my eyes. In my mind at least, I escaped his car and drifted back into a brighter past, into a brighter world, the living would never see.



Round 2: Resistance – Winner

Writer Unboxed Round 2 photo by Rebecca Pagel

“We don’t have all night.” Adi’s pacing blocked the door, the knob, and the keyhole view of little girl we’d locked inside.

I dipped my pen and finished the letter’s last line. “How do you want it signed?”

“The Resistance.”

“We hardly make a resistance.”

“More will join us.” When Adi rolled the signet ring she’d been clasping onto the table, I tried to ignore the blood dotting the golden crest. “Sign it. Seal it.”

Gathering her coat, she buckled sword-belts and ruffled through saddlebags, double-checking she had what she needed to deliver the ransom note.

Another pair of eyes, ones big and brown, watched me add the looping signature to the bottom of the parchment. Through the keyhole, she followed the wax nub to the candle, saw it melt, saw me smear it onto the folded page, and press down with the ring we’d stripped from her mother’s limp hand.

I dusted the imprinted crest of manacles and a hooked anchor, the grooves shallow compared to the ones around my wrists.

Adi plucked the letter from my hands. “Three days.”

I don’t think she saw my nod as she swept into the briny night. Wind gusts and the surf’s constant surge vanished behind the slammed door.

“What happens in three days?”

I hunched over the table’s clutter, burdened by my acts and the little girl’s whisper. “That’ll be for your uncle to decide.”

“What happens now?”

“Now?” I snuffed the candle, leaving us to the fireplace’s embers. “We wait.”



Round 1: Closure

Writer Unboxed Round 1 photo by Rebecca Pagel

I hesitated before her tomb, a lit candle clutched in my scorched hands. Melted wax dribbled while hushed expectation mixed with the incense puffing in a vain attempt to smother what had happened, to shroud what I was about to do.

The silence of those left to gather nudged my back and I shuffled a step closer.

Holes in the pottery watched me approach, their darkness as empty as her eyes had been when they’d last met mine. Rubble had surrounded her then, not whitewashed boards or the velvet cushioning her final resting place.

She wouldn’t be trapped though, her soul wouldn’t be locked within the oiled wick, if I stopped moving. She could stay tucked in my memory, her limp weight ever in my arms, if I could keep my feet from another forward drag, my hands from extending, my candle’s flame from igniting its enchanted mate.

The flame I held pulled back as if hearing my heart’s plea, and trembled, as tentative as I’d been to first touch her cheek.

Then, around our gathering, a pure breeze stirred. With gentle coaxing, it lengthened my timid fire over the wick I feared to ignite.

The oil caught, fast as our roof’s timbers, and I stumbled back, wary of another conflagration.

Instead of heat, though, instead of burning lungs and cries of pain, her candle’s glow, her soul forever encased in wax and flame, soared across the walls on wings of shadow and light.

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