terribleminds is the site of Chuck Wendig, a “novelist, screenwriter, and game designer.”
His current flash challenge (HERE):
“I want you to write the end of a long journey. . . It’ll require you to bring some skills to bear to make it work, to give us all the information we need, and to make it more than a snapshot in time or just a vignette.”
Readers are to pick one and go off to a dark corner and write a 1,500 words flash piece, apparently applying “skill,” whatever that means.
I own that skill. As for writing something . . .
©2017 E. J. D’Alise
The Dax shuttle drops out of orbit over Iceland and Ed closes his eyes. He hears the other passengers excitedly describe the landmarks and only opens his eyes when they mention the Great Lakes.
The sun reflects on the waters of the Straits of Mackinaw but only for a moment as the shuttle begins its bank for the final descent. In another twenty minutes, the long glide path will end with a landing at the Northern New Mexico Spaceport.
Ed remembers his departure from the same port six years prior. Clay had been too weak to travel, having just given birth to Lindy and Ed had been one of the few soldiers without someone to see them off. The two-year tour was not expected to run the full course as Earth’s forces were said to be close to victory. Still, with the time dilation factored in, he had not been scheduled to return for at least four years, Earth time.
Once landed and processed, Ed stands outside the terminal, the clouds overhead tinged with deep red hues complementing their dark shadows; his first Earth sunset in six years. Six years his time, eighteen years Earth time. He had traveled farther than most humans.
Ed adjusts the strap of his duffel bag so that it rides higher on his shoulders. Muscle memory has his other hand reach to reposition the munitions pack he had carried when instead of the duffel bag Ed had slung the harness of his battle rifle over the same shoulder. His hand stops, memories of his last battle swirling at the periphery of his conscious thoughts. He closes his eyes and begins his breathing exercises.
Concentrate on the diaphragm muscles, expand, contract. Breath in through the nose, exhale. Breathe deeper, hold, exhale. Deliberate, deep breaths slow his heartbeat and help him clear his mind.
He opens his eyes. The sun has set, and the sky is now a deep red and quickly changing to dark blue. The cool glow of the street lights contrasts the darkening of the sky, and a chill fills the air. Ed remembers; the high desert is like that.
When the last of the red glow has left the sky, only a security guard and a cleaning crew are still within sight. No, there’s someone else, and she’s looking in his direction. He can’t see her face, but Ed can guess her at expression; likely a mix of curiosity and disdain. He’s seen it at every stop; the look reserved for soldiers of a losing army. Ed turns and heads toward the shuttle stop.
The sound of his steps echo from the concrete wall, and for a moment it’s as if his platoon was still marching with him. He loses himself in the comfort of the sound. Orderly, precise, predictable, rhythmic.
Another echo intrudes. Another set of steps. His adrenaline level spikes, his hearing and vision sharpen, the genetic modifications kick in, readying his body for action. Looking back, he sees the woman walking behind him.
Ed wills himself to calm, his body responding. He veers toward the wall, stops, and leans his back against it, bowing his head and closing his eyes as he listens to the steps approach, hesitate, then continue on. A slight tremor to his frame is all that is left of the response. He pushes off from the wall and resumes walking, his sight set on the ground ten feet in front.
The woman is also at the shuttle stop, looking down at her tablet. Ed sits as far away as possible and remembers the tablet they had given him. He doesn’t need to hold it; his implant interfaces with it, the head-up display activating on demand.
His last search is still on it; an obituary from twelve years ago, Earth time.
Claire “Clay” Bowen, 28, died from complications of injuries sustained in a hit-and-run. Survived by her six-year-old daughter. Her husband, Ed Bowen, is listed as MIA in the failed Orion Campaign.
Like himself, Clay was an orphan.
After Earth had surrendered, after the Dax had released him, Ed had contacted various agencies, but no record could be found other than Lindy’s assignment to a foster family. The last entry before the confusion of the invasion was about the foster family having been killed during the decisive micrometeorites bombardment that sealed the Dax victory. The Dax had not targeted any civilians, but a military craft had crashed into the house.
“Excuse me,” a voice said.
Ed looked up to see the woman standing to his side. Her look was one of concern.
“Are you alright?” she continues without waiting for an answer.
He’s been sobbing, and tears still wet his cheeks. Wiping the last of them, Ed looks at the woman. She’s in her forties; his Clay would have now been that same age; quite a gap from his own twenty-nine years.
“I’m fine,” he lies, “thanks for asking.”
“You’re a soldier.”
“Was,” Ed answers. “Not anymore.”
The woman sits next to him without asking for permission, ignoring his obvious discomfort.
“How do you feel about them?” she asks.
She’s referring to the Dax. They have outposts throughout Earth, and while they mostly stay out of Earth’s affairs, they do keep nations in check; for the first time in human history, there are no wars anywhere in the world.
Ed considers the woman. She holds his stare and gives nothing away. He wonders if she’s part of the transition team handling repatriation of captured soldiers.
“They’re OK,” he answers truthfully. As a prisoner, Ed had been treated with dignity and respect. In fact, he held the Dax in higher regard than most of the humans he had ever met.
“Where are you headed?” she asks.
“I have a reservation at a hotel.”
“I mean, where is your home?”
Ed wants to answer that he has no home, but his response is automatic.
“Woodland Park, Colorado.”
“I live in Castle Rock,” the woman offers without being asked. “Have you made travel arrangements?”
“No, not yet.”
“Would you like a ride? I could use the company.”
Ed again looks at the woman. Again, she holds his stare. Ed looks away.
“I think . . . Thank you,” he answers, “that’s very generous, but I’m alright, really.”
“Nonsense,” she replies, her hand touching his forearm. “Tell me where you’re staying, and we’ll have breakfast in the morning before leaving.”
Ed argues, but she’ll have none of it. By the time the shuttle comes, he’s agreed to meet her in the morning. They exchange names and contact codes before he gets on the shuttle. She waves as he leaves. He forgets to wave back, still disoriented by the interaction.
True to her word, the next morning she meets him at his hotel. They eat at the buffet before taking I-25 north. Ed is still uncomfortable but soon relaxes as this stranger he just met, Evelyn, drones on about her life and times as the self-driving car chews up the miles.
Two hours into their three-hour drive he answers a few questions and talks a bit about Claire and Lindy. Not much and Evelyn doesn’t push the matter, for which Ed is grateful. They stop in Pueblo for a quick recharge and a snack before getting back on the road.
“Where are you staying in Woodland Park?” Evelyn asks.
“I don’t know yet. The county sold my property’s tax lien at auction to a holding company. I’m meeting with their representative tomorrow. I have some back pay and hope it’s enough to buy it back.”
It’s a simple question, one for which Ed has no answer. Three years ago, Ed was outside the Solar System embarking on a Dax spaceship that would take him back to Earth. A year and a half ago, a shade under four Earth years, he had learned of Clay’s and Lindy’s fates.
He was returning to Woodland Park because he could think of nothing else to do. There wasn’t even a grave for him to visit. Clay had been cremated, and there was no burial record. Some funeral home kept the ashes of unclaimed bodies forever, but the law only required 180 days before disposal. Not that it mattered; he didn’t know the name of the funeral home.
He had left from there, traveled the vastness of space, and now could only think of returning home. He doesn’t think about what lies beyond because all he sees is a void.
“Ed,” Evelyn repeats the question. “Do you have any plans?”
Going up Ute Pass, they ascend above the clouds and burst into the sunshine as they reach 9,000 feet in elevation. Evelyn drives Ed to the lawyer he had contacted and then ask if she can go in with him.
The receptionist directs them to a conference room and brings then a couple of bottles of water before leaving them alone.
They stand in silence.
“How strong are you?” she asks.
“I don’t know what you mean . . .”
“Are you prone to violence, suffer from PTSD, have any addictions?”
Ed looks at this woman and wonders if he should feel angry. She’s been testing him. Not a kind stranger, but yet another social worker checking to see if he was safe to release back into society.
“My husband died a few years ago,” Evelyn continued, “and all I have left are my kids. I’m very protective of my family and you should know I was against this.”
Ed looks at her, confused.
“I . . . I’ve been cleared by three different agencies. I’m a little depressed but . . .”
Ed closes his eyes and takes a deep breath before continuing.
“I’m alright, but I don’t see what . . .”
A soft knock interrupts. The door opens, and the receptionist ushers in two young men, and a young woman carrying a green cloth pouch tied with a purple chord.
“Ed, I’m the trustee for the Trust that holds the deed to your land. I wanted to meet you before introducing you to my family. That’s David, my oldest son, and that’s his brother, Joey.”
Evelyn motions to the young woman who hesitantly comes to stand in front of Ed and offers him the pouch.
Reflexively, Ed takes it, and as soon as he does, the girl sobs and hugs him, putting her arms around his chest and burying her face in his shoulder as Evelyn continues.
“That’s my adopted daughter, Lindy, and that pouch holds the ashes of her birth mother.”
So, this particular flash piece brings to light a problem with my writing.
No, not that I ain’t got skills, which I don’t, but rather that I’m predictable in what I write. I’m on record as a fan of the happy ending. The emotional payoff. The feel-good moment. Especially when emotions are in play, as they are in the above story.
Before finishing three paragraphs, readers can guess that everything will be OK. Better than OK.
The problem is two-fold. One, there is no tension, no worry, no concern that whatever one reads will end up turning to shit for the protagonist. At no point in reading the above did anyone think “Oh, I bet this guy will commit suicide!” or “Evelyn is the driver of the hit-and-run that killed his wife and now wants to clean up loose ends!”
No. If anyone stopped reading halfway through and pondered for a few seconds, they could probably guess the ending or at least a generic version of it. I’ve been told my stories are too pat, too neat, too “everything-works-out-in-the-end.”
The other problem with my writing is that I like twists. It’s difficult springing a twist after a long lead-in unless one lies to the reader. That means that I give few hints of what’s about to happen. It also means that the endings invariably feel rushed.
I mean, not to me. To me, my endings are exactly as I want them.
And example of this is the product of an another flash prompt, Grave Matters. That used to be Future Graveyard — that’s a protected post. If interested, ask for the password in the comments and I will send it. Don’t include the e-mail in the comment; I’ll get it from the notice.
Anyway, the feedback I got was that it ends too quickly and that the ending is too pat.
Remember that “skills” comment? Well, I don’t want “skills” if it makes me write stuff that ends badly or stuff that robs my joy in writing.
. . . but, it does remain a problem . . . predictable, happy ending, rushed at the end.
I mean, I think I do better in the novels. I also think I do better in longer short stories. It’s in the flash pieces where my lack of skills tarnishes the shine of the story, or so I’m told.
Wait . . . I have written short stories without a twist and without la-la-endings. THIS is one example, but there are others. Come to think of it, there are many flash pieces that are not formulaic (twist/happy-ending). Some are downright dark.
Screw it; perhaps I’m overthinking it.
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. . . my FP ward . . . chieken shit.