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Round 2 of the Flash Fiction Challenge came at a seriously busy time for me.  I had about 5 hours of total writing time on this story.  My prompts were:

Genre: Sci-Fi
Location: An all you can eat restaurant

Object: a water gun

Where the Water Flows

 In near-future California, the need to create alternatives for energy and water sources foments extremists on both sides of the divide.

Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light…The Eagles, Hotel California

*****

“Hello, Sis.”

My hands began to shake. I nearly dropped my mobile onto the floor. I took several deep breaths before responding.

“Well, Tony. Imagine hearing from you. It’s been, what, four years?”

“Something like that.” The pause, this time, was at the other end of the line. I heard a sharp intake of breath, and a sentence travelled quickly along its exhale. “Sorry I wasn’t there. You know. For Dad.”

I looked down at my feet, counting the tiles that outlined the space I occupied. “Well, I somehow managed to get through. Though probate is turning out to be a bitch, since they want me to prove you’re dead before they’ll settle the estate.”

“What?” Tony’s laughter echoed down the line. “Being an international criminal doesn’t exempt me from inheriting? ‘Wanted – At Large’ isn’t enough to write me off? I want my half of that diner, sis.” We both laughed a bit awkwardly, and then Tony turned serious. “I can’t stay on the line. I need to see you. You still opening the diner every morning?”

“Yes, since Dad died. Every morning at 6. I took leave of absence from the lab.”

“Be there early. All next week”.

*

I turned on the grills and started the fryer heating. The incessant whirring of the air conditioner created a soothing white-noise for my pounding head. Four days had passed. I hadn’t slept much. I looked out the diner windows. The sky lit with purples and pinks, and the shining halos were beginning to glow. My childhood had been illuminated by those halos. Everyone had believed Mom and Dad were crazy, building their diner off the 15 Freeway at the infamous Zzyzx road exit. They’d thought the name would draw crowds. At first it did. The real draw, however, was the halos.

First installed in 2013, the landscape of the Mojave Desert was now filled with thousands of reflective mirrors and towers that created those shining orbs. They had fascinated me. I studied their effects, and began to experiment with other ways to help our drying environment. Creating potable water in the desert, without wasting energy? That became my obsession. I’d achieved it.  My Hydrologic towers, filled with hygroscopic brine and photovoltaic cells, dotted the desert landscape.

I prepped the first batch of biscuits for opening, and tried not to remember the halos were also what led Tony into eco-activism.

*

I heard a thud coming from the back hallway, and tensed up. Seconds later, Tony came around the corner.  The pulse in my neck thrummed; that rakish smile was the same, but weariness had etched itself into Tony’s face. My only sibling hesitated, staring at me. “The window in the Men’s is still broken. No one thought to get that fixed?”

I practically sprinted into Tony’s arms. I felt a bit of my weariness ease into the embrace. I felt like home.

*

I poured us both a cup of fresh coffee, and we slid into the booth beneath the chalkboard sign. Still in Dad’s handwriting, it read “All you can eat breakfast, $10.99”. I hadn’t brought myself to erase it yet, and I caught Tony’s eyes lingering on the old-fashioned script.

“How was he, at the end?”

“Surprisingly, better than I was.” I took a sip of my coffee, setting it down with a gentle clink on the Formica table top. “I think he was just ready to be with Mom.”

“Yeah.” Tony stared out the window at the halos lighting the sky, and turned a critical eye on a tower beneath one. “I wish I could have…” he trailed off.

“So did he.”

We stared down at our cups for a few minutes. Finally Tony cleared his throat.

“I need your help.”

*

“It’s a gun?”

“Not in the sense that you’re thinking of.  It uses your technology, Sis. It pulls moisture from the air, in any environment. The water collects here”, Tony pointed to a small square within the structure of the gun. “Once there is enough water, this cartridge containing compressed carbon dioxide solidifies the water.”

“Into an …ice bullet?”

“Exactly!” Tony beamed proudly. “This secondary compartment compresses the gases released, and …projectile. Activated by three sensors on this side, of course, so no accidental firings happen. But I can only get it to fire once. I  need more.”

I reached out to touch the box. Its width fit in the palm of my hand well, with the length easily four times that. The whirring of the air conditioner grew louder in my ears. I looked up at Tony when I realized it was not the air conditioner, but the sound of drones. Two or three, perhaps.

Tony’s face heated with anger. “You didn’t. You wouldn’t!”

I ached with sudden sadness. “I didn’t, but I would have. If I’d known. If I’d known this” I pointed to the gun, “was what you needed me for. It’s intended to get through security, anywhere? This proves no matter how much we loved you, Mom and Dad and me, that the stories about you were true. The embassy. The train. The hospital. You did them all, didn’t you? To save what? A few hundred birds?”

Tony sighed, and stood up. “I wasn’t involved directly in the hospital, no, but the organization was, yes. It’s unfortunate. I didn’t want children to die.

“Well, they did. And now here we are.” I picked up the box and stood, walking to the window. I could see the drones approaching from the west, flying away from the halos which could damage them.

Tony approached, and then stood beside me. I felt the warmth of an arm around my shoulders, and smelled the soap, clean and simple, that Tony used.

“You know they won’t hold back because you’re with me, right?”

“I know.”

Tony sighed. “You know I would never have hurt you, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I know that too.”

I slid my arm across, grasping Tony’s hand. We entwined our fingers. We waited.

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The following is the story I submitted for NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction competition, round 1.  I haven’t posted it thus far, mostly because I’ve been sorely disappointed in it.  I wrote this within 24 hours while in the midst of a pretty serious life crisis, that of losing my father.  I couldn’t get my head around the prompts, and I couldn’t access anything inside me that wasn’t trite.

Anyway, here is my offering.

Prompts

Genre: Drama
Setting: A marathon finish line
Object: A box of chocolate

****

Tapering

 All I own are the strides I spend to the finish line, and I’ll give you those.

–Neko Case

Christine and I left Huntington Beach for the East coast work ethic and corporate culture shortly after my graduation. Christine was accepted to the grad program at Tufts. Boston was great during the summer, if a little muggy by comparison. The locals seemed manic in their attempts to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of the sunshine and the outdoors. They simply shook their heads knowingly at us when we begged off to sleep in or lounge at home.

Southern Californians are major wimps. Once removed from our sunshine and our moderate temperatures, our coping mechanisms crumble. Even Northern Californians with their chillier winters and regular rainfall mock us for this weakness. Boston’s winter brought us up short. Suddenly, beach fleece was not sufficient to warm us. We discovered why people wear boots, and that scarves are not about fashion, but necessity. It was too cold to breathe. Christine, usually the first up to play volleyball or to surf, was practically scratching at herself from inside her skin at the forced inactivity. Exercise was indoors, or it was the ceaseless shoveling of the snowy path.

That first winter, she curled into a despondent ball and fell into herself.

***

“I’ve signed up for the Tufts running club”, she told me one snowed-in afternoon. I was perfectly content under the blankets, wrapped around her in bed.

“You’ve never run a day in your life.”

“No, but I’m relatively fit. I’ve downloaded a couch to 5k app to use until I get good enough to run with the club.”

“You’ll run in this?” I gestured out the window at the snow piled up on the sidewalk, streaked with black and gray from dirty roads and snowplows.

“Mark leads the group. He’ll teach me. I’ll buy the clothes and shoes to do it right.”

So it began. I lost her that winter to week after week of training. I began to hear phrases I’d never heard before. Building and tapering. Hydration stations. Kick and Flex. Carb Loading. Christmas became a time for gifting more running gear: Cool-Tec hoodies, moisture wicking thermal fleece, performance and compression socks. Also, all the way from Christine’s mom in Southern California, a box of See’s Chocolates.

“Are you going to carb load with chocolate for the marathon?”

“No. It’s going to be my reward. 26.2 miles earns me as much of the best chocolate in the world as I want.”

Running eased the ache of cold for her. She’d return from a training run, sweat glistening on her forehead, tickling the hollow of her throat and rolling over her collarbones. Her muscles, previously lean from water sports, became more firm. The striations of intense exercise marked her thighs. She’d touch the box of chocolate, running her fingertips over the raised lettering on the white box. It was as if she were touching a bit of home; the memory of sun on her skin and licking melting chocolate off of her fingers.

“I never see you anymore.” I complained. “It’s work, study, or running. You spend more time with Mark and the running club than with me.”

“That’s not true! You get me every evening. Besides, you could join us, you know.”

“No, thanks. I’ve seen the results of snot freezing while it’s still in your nose.”

***

Christine crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon a few months later. I met her there holding the open box of chocolate. Immediately, she reached for her favorite: molasses chip. The candy touched her tongue and her eyes closed in glorious bliss. The spring sun lit her face, and when I closed my own eyes, her glow was still there.

This began her tradition; two more Christmases, two more boxes of See’s Chocolate, two more marathons with the sweet reward at the end. Two more years until the leukemia came, and the striations in her thighs slowly turned concave. The last bit of chocolate I held to her lips was at the end of a different finish line.

The clock stopped for me. Winter was endless.

***

Christmas came, and with it one pound of chocolate from Christine’s mom. The snow once again piled in dark masses on the sidewalks outside. In the lonely apartment, the white rectangular reminder was luminous. I ran my fingertips over the dark brown embossed script, just as she used to do.

The silver back of her iPod beckoned to me. I picked it up, but my breath caught in my throat and I was still for several minutes. Eventually, I swiped my thumb across. On the first screen was the Couch to 5k app. I opened it, and stared at the weekly summaries, her running journal. Our journey.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, but when I shook myself out of my daze, I picked up the phone.

“Hey, Mark. I was thinking…”

***

I crossed the finish line, having lost every ounce of breath I had somewhere along the trail. The number pinned to the front of my shirt was crumpled and damp, and the dedication pin on my back said ‘Christine’ in streaky red ink. Amid the crowd of well-wishers and cheering supporters, I somehow managed to find Mark. He approached me, an open box of See’s Chocolate in his hands.

I reached for my favorite, the lemon cream. Biting into it felt right, like experiencing heaven drip directly onto my tongue.

“I’m glad I did this.” I said to him as we walked toward the car.

“You should be proud, Dan. She would have been, too.”

“Not really,” I smiled wistfully, then laughed outright. “She would have pointed out that it’s only a 10k.”

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