Storybook Shorts photo fiction series
Flash fiction for your inner child by Jeremy Podolski
Original fiction for adults, young adults, middle grade and children
So, this is a little off the beaten path. This brief fiction story was written in response to a writing challenge to retell a classic fairy tale while applying a random storytelling subgenre. These approaches ranged from Space Opera to Lovecraftian. Having already selected Hansel and Gretel as my fairy tale to retell, I randomly selected subgenre No. 6 – Satire. And away we go…
The Dishonorable Wormlegs Von Uberstench
Chairman and CEO
International Association of Witches, Warlocks and Hags
Those of you dwelling or lurking in or around the Forbidden Woods are likely already acquainted with the recent unpleasantness. It seems people here are capable of discussing little else. The taverns are swollen with common dolts, huddled around their steins of fetid drink, eager to add their embellishments to a now familiar tale. For many of you whose huts, caves, bridges and towers lie in more distant regions, however, allow me to relay news that you may receive with astonishment. May it serve as a cautionary tale to those of you prone to inviting strangers into your home, regardless of your degree of malicious intent.
One of our most venerable delegates, the esteemed Ingrid Solstice Slugtruffel (a former Secretary of the Executive Council, I’d be remiss to ignore), met an untimely demise last week at the hands of two childish delinquents. Under what circumstances, you might wonder, is the death of a withered, 137-year-old she-beast untimely? Without hesitation, I answer you that when the loss of an elder is wrought by treachery and perpetrated through the foul exuberance of youth, it is an outrage most unnatural and undeserved.
The criminals of whom I speak were guests of Ms. Slugtruffel. Oh, the betrayal she must have felt in her final moments. What an unkind response to her cordiality! Think to yourself, how many children have been seduced by the gumdrop-encrusted sidewalk leading to your own gingerbread house? How often did you take the proper precautions? Did you reinforce your cage or dungeon? Did you adequately maim or cripple your prey? Did you keep a backup mallet or cleaver close at hand? Did you diagram an escape route in case your plans went awry?
I thought not. And, unfortunately, neither did dear Ingrid.
Instead of feasting for days on her best catch in years, she was unceremoniously incinerated, courtesy of her main course. Despicable! And, yet, preventable.
It is incumbent upon each of you to determine the individual protections that will serve you best, but I assure you that our days of innocently plucking unsuspecting simpletons from the woods are fast depleting. Word is spreading about our tendencies and techniques, about our practices and our predispositions. Thanks to these little blond miscreants, our way of life has become exponentially difficult overnight. Our licorice shingles won’t look nearly as sweet. Our candy cane lampposts and sugar-paned windows won’t be nearly as attractive to young passersby the further this story is circulated.
We must remain unified in these difficult times. This unfortunate event is not an impetus to abandon our heritage but rather an opportunity for evolution. We have become complacent. We wrongly assume a cunning greater than that of school children, but clearly today’s youth seek to match our depravity and guile.
We, however, can overcome their vitality if we pledge ourselves to lifelong learning. This office believes wholeheartedly in continuing education, and I challenge each of you to identify an area of improvement on which to focus in the coming weeks. Perhaps you’d like to sharpen your hexing skills. Others may want to consider a course in negotiation and manipulation. There are a host of new poisons and potions available in the market today, if you’ll take the time to investigate and experiment. Some tae kwon do lessons might not hurt, either.
Just keep your wits about you. A new age is upon us, and we can either meet it head on, lock horns and prevail, or we can surrender to exile and/or extinction.
I, for one, have no plans to retreat or retire. In fact, at this moment from my dining room window, I see a hobo outside admiring my merlot tree. Upon completion of this letter, I intend to investigate his well-being. I’m sure he’s tired from his journey and would appreciate a little hospitality.
If you have any questions, please get in touch with your district representative. I’ve supplied each of them with a crisis management kit, which will be made available to you upon request. Your local peer support groups will also serve as a useful resource. I suggest you become acquainted with their weekly meeting schedule. I realize that many of us are reclusive by nature, but now is the time to reach out. We all have much to learn from one another.
Remember, the I.A.W.W.H. is at your service. You are a member of the oldest, most prestigious congregation of its kind, and we have endured worse. Hold your heads high. Strive for excellence in your work and in your lives.
And for the love of all that is evil, don’t lean into your own oven. It’s just good sense.
Yours in degeneracy,
W. V. Uberstench, Esq.
cc: J.Q. Pentagram, A. Snarlposse, R.S. Dethmeet, J. Grimm, W. Grimm
Flash Fiction Challenge: Fairy Tales, Remixed: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/01/24/flash-fiction-challenge-fairy-tales-remixed/
A sampling of other fairy tale remixes by writers participating in the challenge:
Eli snapped the frozen stalactite from its moorings on the gutter overhead and raised it in a fencer’s salute, eyes fixed on Sasha.
“Olé!” he offered before attacking the space in front of her with a flourish, like a maniacal poet inking stanzas in the cold, empty air.
Sasha’s shrug was hardly visible through the winter parka and layers of knit sweaters keeping her warm, but she added a deliberate eye roll for good measure.
“Don’t you mean ‘en garde?’” she snarked.
“Touché,” Eli replied with raised eyebrow. He held the tip of the icicle against the dull light of the ebbing sun, as if examining his blade for imperfections, then abruptly bit off the tip and chomped it noisily.
“You are so weird,” Sasha said, turning her back so he wouldn’t see the snowball she was shaping between her purple, fur-trimmed mittens. “What time’s the truck coming?”
“Four. But with the weather, they’ll probably be late.” He quieted then, drumming the shortened ice spear against his leg.
“You know, my iPod better not be in one of those boxes. You said you were gonna bring it over yesterday, but I never saw you.” She heaved the snowball at his chest then, and it exploded in a nebula of powder and ice. The glimmering dust settled on Eli’s dark hair and lashes, salt and pepper lending comic contrast to his young face.
“Well, you’re not getting it back now,” said Eli, straight-lipped, looking professorial. “Besides, I want something to remember you by.”
“You need that to remember me?” Sasha said, feigning injury, surprised to find she actually felt a bit injured.
“No, I’d just rather have your iPod than your ferret or your Vampire Weekend T-shirt.” He glanced around, as if looking for a place to sit, but the narrow strip of yard between their two houses was smothered in undulating, wet snow. He was glad he was still holding the icicle. It gave him something to do with his hands.
“What’s winter going to be like there?” she asked after a long silence.
“I don’t know. Not like here,” Eli said. “I heard it rains.”
“Eli!” An echoing interruption, the husky voice of his father. “Come help me with this sofa!”
“Sorry,” Eli said quietly. “I’ll drop off your iPod before we leave.”
He tossed the icicle toward her, and she clapped her mittens together, clumsily catching the tapered end while the wider base broke under its own weight and disappeared into the drift near her feet. She waited for him to lob an insult, the perfect opportunity to mock her and run, but Eli had already vanished around the corner of his garage, his boots now clomping on the bare concrete.
Rain instead of snow. She’d hate that, she thought. The cleanliness of the white soothed her, hid the desolation left in the wake of autumn. Snow spread like a glaze of perfection over the dead, blemished landscape. Its only drawback was its transience.
An icicle’s existence was even more fleeting – born only in the right conditions – a modest thaw, a precarious edge, a sustaining freeze. She plunged her hand into the snowbank, suddenly anxious to locate the rest of the sunken icicle. It should have been easy; the impression in the snow created by its falling was obvious. All she had to do was grab it. But as she tried to dig, the snow just compressed, becoming like ice itself, camouflaging the object to sight and touch.
The faster and more frantically she searched, the more impossible the task seemed, as if she were trying to differentiate one gallon of water in the ocean from another. Her perspiration chilled her as it mingled with the falling temperature. Sweat and melted snow soaked her mittens until she ripped them off and cast them to the ground. With her bare hands, she reached into the hole she had burrowed to find its walls as smooth and hard as glass. She scratched at them with her fingernails but only came away with thin curls of ice that bit at her numbing skin with frosty malice.
Kneeling now, Sasha looked to the gutter overhanging the side of her home. At least thirty icicles clung to the roofline, virtually identical, none more distinct than the next, but the one she wanted was trapped out of reach. For the moment, it was preserved in its frozen vault. By tomorrow, it would be a casualty of the thaw.
Between blinks, I fall into her eyes, deep like cenotes, dark beneath a surface that sparkles like a gemstone. Turquoise or, perhaps, emerald – they are changelings that adapt to my movement and how directly, or indirectly, I stare.
I don’t have time to speak, only to fall, so I rush toward the water, wondering if it will swallow me or spit me out. I consider the prospect of drowning without dying and whether aqua has a scent.
I dive, like a kingfisher, ready to pierce the glass and enter that water womb so I may be born again as hers.
But she blinks before splashdown.
I have nowhere to land. I spiral in space and marvel while there at what can change in a heartbeat.
I only just saw them. Now, they are gone.
I won’t tell you how I died, and they can’t tell you why. The debriefing, though, was harsh. I expected St. Peter and a handshake, maybe a glass of wine and some beef Wellington, but apparently the dead are far from heaven’s upper class.
Instead, I got the penitentiary treatment, whisked down a gutter gray hallway by two burly escorts whose violent shoves were so frequent that my obedient march looked more like a drunken gallop. By the time we reached a windowless door, stamped with the word “ANOMALIES” in bold silver, I was sore and ready to spit fire.
The door swung open with no more than a glance from the oaf on my right, who thrust me into an unfurnished room that smelled of overheated circuitry. The enclosure was seamless, like the inside of an egg, and not much bigger than a minivan.
“Go to hell!” I yelled, but they were gone before I could turn around.
I dropped hard to the concave floor in a tangle of tawny arms and legs. After minutes that felt like hours camped in blackness behind covered eyes, I raised my lids to notice I was wearing the same dark jeans as the day before. The pair with the cigarette burn on the right thigh and (fishing into the back pocket on the same side) six neatly folded bills – $600 in all.
“Huh,” I said out loud. “I guess you can take it with you.”
I was contemplating possible conversion rates for my liquid assets when I felt the floor – no – the whole room moving. My egg-cell pivoted until it was on end, and I slid like a greasy yolk to the wide bottom. The light, which was already an uncomfortable glare, intensified to the point I shielded my face out of reflex, but it did little good. I could barely stand or see.
The first blow caught me by surprise, knocking me off my unsteady feet and causing an awkward fall that forced my chin into my own knee. Pain like electricity shot through my jaw and reverberated off my clenched teeth. Still blinded, I sensed the hand that reached for me, but I had no evasive maneuver to consider. I only tried to brace myself with an outstretched arm. Around it wrapped long fingers like hot knives that seared my skin down to the nerve endings, and I collapsed to the floor in a heap.
“You are not supposed to be here,” said the owner of the hand still squeezing my forearm like a tourniquet.
Although the pain warped my vision as much as the light, my eyes were beginning to adjust. I stole an upward glance, expecting to see a menacing archangel or a creature born of vengeful imagination. Finding an ordinary-looking man leaning over me was uniquely unsettling.
Remaining supplicatory, I growled, probably too defensively: “You think I’m in control? I’m not the goddamn queen bee, here. This isn’t my show.”
“LIES!” His voice projected like a turbine, launching me into the curved wall behind, and I struggled to gain my footing as the room shuddered in the wake of the eruption.
“I don’t think we’re working from the same script,” I said, slowing my speech, trying to strike a compliant tone. “I may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who knows, maybe it was the right place at the wrong time. But shit happened, and I’m here. And, to be honest, I’m starting to think this place is a few heavenly choirs shy of utopia. Where am I really?”
The man clasped his hands at chest level, as if praying.
“Let’s just say you’re on a detour as opposed to… the grand tour,” he said, slightly calmer but still smoldering with concentration.
“Riddles. Beautiful. I suppose that’s why I’m tasting blood instead of gorging on ambrosia or whatever you guys eat up here?”
He took a half-step closer. A surprising hint of lavender wafted from the wide, charcoal lapel of his sharply cut suit.
“Your death was… unexpected,” he said after a palpable pause. “That means protocols were broken. And when protocols are broken, someone is to blame.”
I started circling then, hoping to maintain ownership of my space. “Well, I don’t know who would have the ability or the nerve to sidestep your operation. This is a maximum security outfit. Nobody’s hacking it.”
“True, we are adept at enforcing our rules. Yet, we’ve built our walls around a jungle. So, every now and then a snake,” he stopped to inspect me from head to toe, “may slip between the cracks.”
The temperature of the room was escalating, but not a single bead of sweat formed on the smooth, bronze head of my captor. He simply continued his unabashed stare.
“Whether or not I’m a reptile is debatable, but any crack I slipped through wasn’t of my making,” I said. “I understood I’d be exposed to risk. I didn’t sign on for treachery.”
He grabbed me by the bare shoulders. This time, his hands were cold as ice.
“Then why are you here,” he hissed, “when there is no basis for your demise, no itinerary for your arrival, and no knowledge of your destiny having changed?”
“Listen!” I shouted, whirling out of his grip. “I can’t be the victim AND the villain!”
And I knew, then, that I had him. It wasn’t that my lie was particularly convincing or that it was delivered with indisputable authority. I could just feel the momentum of the confrontation change. I caught a tremor in his steely gaze. A twitch in the muscles of his taut forehead. There was some key connection he failed to grasp, a critical gap in knowledge he could not bridge. He no longer had a choice.
“Go,” he said. And nothing else.
The new corridor I entered appeared endless, but I could tell that it widened as I walked toward a warm light in the distance. I was alone, so I took off my black tank to wrap around the burns on my arm. I doubted they would ever heal in the conventional sense, but I didn’t think I needed to worry about that anymore.
Much of my life had been hijacked by worrying. About others. About myself. About the rules. The worry cripples you, and the rules keep you from ever healing. And you believe that’s just how it is. There is no alternative. That’s life.
But the truth is, despite what they tell you, there is more than one way to get into heaven.TerribleMinds.com Flash Fiction Opening Line Challenge This short story is a response to a November 2013 flash fiction challenge posted by Chuck Wendig on his Terrible Minds blog. The opening line of my story was contributed by Allison Rose. Thanks, Allison, wherever you are.