Flash: Used to Think

A dark city below a jagged crack in the sky.

“I used to think that everyone was unique, and then I used to think that we were all the same.” Fin chuckles. “And then I grew up, and went out, and saw everything die, and so I stopped thinking.”

He meanders as he climbs the wall. His hands grab at brick while his mind picks out new topics with a foothold. Sometimes he eases to one side. Sometimes he reaches and doubles his height. A few times, he hesitates, edges down a foot, and then springs to another handhold.

It’s an old bank, I think, the place we’ve chosen for tonight’s break. For a place to get some sleep. Someone added fortifications, the extra height to an already high wall. Blocking in the drive-thru until it became a perimeter.

“Just get over the damned wall. We gotta get inside before the water rises.”

That makes him laugh, of all things. He hoists himself to the edge, climbs out of view, and then leans out. Looks down at me. “But ain’t it such a shit show? How the whole world has turned into Venice?”

I roll my eyes and toss our pack of food. “Catch!” He plucks it out of the air as I start clambering after him. I’m much more direct, more quiet, as I scramble from broken mortar to broken mortar. My fingers hurt, from the cold, from malnutrition, but I wedge them into each crack. I do not want to be outside when the boatmen begin to roam.

“I guess so much has changed, not much of what I used to think matters. So now I don’t think at all. Just moving forward, following you.”

“I’m following you right now.”

“Yeah, but what would I do without you? Wander to some treehouse and starve. The sunsets would be pretty. The trees are nice, but I wouldn’t be surviving. Not like you make happen.”

I stop at near the edge of the rooftop, foot wedged comfortably beneath me. “You sure do talk a lot for someone that doesn’t think.”

“Hm, but you’re making the common mistake. That speaking has thought behind it. Especially when we’re talking about me. About me talking. Trust me, it’s easier not to think, and it’s easier to let everything wash away. Let it be the high waters or rain or let it be alcohol, washing away thoughts is easier than gathering them.”

I shake my head and climb the last bit onto the roof. It is in decent condition, though a decent roof doesn’t keep you dry anymore. Not when the water comes from below.

And the walls don’t look like they can hold back all the water. They’ve got too many cracks. They look like they were shoddy work. Built to the tempo of terror.

“You see,” says Fin, and he’s staring off toward the rising mist. “Mist used to be prettier. When it wasn’t telling me something I didn’t want to know. And that’s why thoughts aren’t worth keeping. Because, letting them gather, they start clinging and combining into something new. And that new is not always good. Most of the time it’s like the stuff that clings together in your trash can when it’s smelling ripe with sweet rot.”

“Fin, there’s a skylight.” I stoop by his side and pull on his arm. “Exit plan one, alright?”

He gets to his feet, but I don’t have his attention. Not quite. “Just like that trash, you wrinkle your nose when you pass by those bits of sticking gunk. The gunk is not inspiring. Nobody’s gonna dig through that gunk.”

“Come on, get back up.” I haul him to his feet and we head toward the other side of the building. The structure is better, tighter, as we reach its original walls. It was a bank. I can see the ruins of an ATM on the other side of the shoddy barrier. It used to be in the middle of one of those roundabout islands to the side of the main parking lot.

The ATM is an island, now. The tides spill over sometimes, as if they got an extra urgent beckoning from the moon. Even torn apart, I can feel the curiosity in me. That slight interest of wondering if there’s still money inside. Useless as it would be.

Fin follows me. He’s rubbing his chin. “You know, some people dig through the trash, and it’s not even always about finding treasure. Some people aren’t looking for treasure. Some are looking for trash.” He smiles, and it’s so bright and gorgeous. Like he’s never changed. “Like me. I’m the trash.”

I want to hit him. I want to punch him. Bust my knuckles on his face. I kiss his cheek instead. “No, honey. You aren’t trash. You’re anything but.” I scrub tears away and give him a soft grin. “Now let’s find a door to this place. Climb down there, see the ladder? Someone must’ve pulled guard.”

He accepts my hand to help him onto the ladder. It’s rusted and rickety, but what isn’t these days? What wasn’t years ago, at this point? I feel my mood spiraling. Everything feels like it was too long ago. What am I heading toward?

“When it comes down to it,” rattles Fin, back on the same tangent. That’s a good sign. A single tangent is better than eight. “It’s not that someone’s trash is another’s treasure, it’s that sometimes we don’t want a treasure. Sometimes we want something beat up and broken and halfway complete. Sometimes we want something that doesn’t have the right colored panels or perfectly polished teeth.”

He smirks up at me. “That must be the truth, because it feels like truth.”

There’s a hope in his eyes that I wish I felt, but it does help. Even with all his ranting, all his random turns of phrase, I still feel better because he’s near.

The ladder drops us in a narrow hallway made from the same shoddy brickwork. Fin runs his hands over the walls, humming, as I pull out a flashlight. I wind it while watching the cracks in the brick. There’s enough structure there to hold back the water, and I half-hope for a dry floor. A dry table. Maybe tonight will give me proper sleep.

Fin kisses my forehead while I’m distracted. He rubs his hand on the side of my cheek, fingers scraping through the stubble of my beard. I still try to shave, when I can, but there are usually long breaks between.

“What is it, baby?”

He smiles. “I don’t even care about all this. About all this.” He nods. “Why would I care, when I’ve got you?”

I sigh and return his smile. “You’re sweet.” I flick the switch for the flashlight and turn to examine the door. It was glass, once, but now it’s plated with steel. Someone left it, who knows how long ago, so that it’s still ajar.

“I can’t wait till we get to the hills. Tomorrow, you think? Except when you think about it, isn’t it always tomorrow? Because really, the day only ends because we say it does. So, we’re always in today.”

I lead Fin into the fortified bank. “Sure, sounds good to me. I’d rather it’s always today though.”

He pauses at that, frowning. “But why?”

“Well,” I smile at the dark rooms around us. “Because then I can look forward to tomorrow. I can hope the next day brings us something better.” I walk across a floor that was stripped of carpet. Concrete echoes my footsteps. “This looks like we’ll be okay.”

Fin hugs me from behind. “You’re silly, Dean.” He leans into the embrace as he mumbles. “Nothing else to look forward to. I already found you.”

Flash: Shifting Priorities

Sometimes rain could feel good, could feel right, even during the wildest storms. Yet, that was when everything was at its best. When Jess was at her best. When there weren’t salty tears mixing on her cheek.

She wiped her face with the back of an arm to clear stray hair, rain, and tears. The rain wasn’t just unwelcome, it was a symbol of every obstruction in her life. Every drop was another flash of annoyance and discomfort. She hurried down the sidewalk wishing for an umbrella or an overhang or something to shield her from the deluge.

Cars splashed by with whirring engines and mirrored-in passengers. Overflowing gutters turned streets into rising rivers. Clouds were getting darker, and noon would be darker than dawn.

She glared at her phone as she walked. Her unanswered stream of messages stared back at her.

‘Has Gloria contacted you about my time off?
‘Did you tie up the boat?’
‘Is anyone going to check on the boat before the storm?’
‘Damien? What the hell. Answer your phone!’

She was halfway through a new message, ‘Do you know if-‘ when the phone went dead. The battery had been hanging on, but it finally gave up its battle. “Jesus. Fucking. Christ.” She growled each word while smacking the side of her phone. “One thing, and then everything.”

She stuffed her hands, phone too, in her jacket pockets and hunched against a sudden gust. The winds were picking up as she neared the bay. It probably wasn’t the best of times to head to the marina, but she had no choice. She had signed for the boat before taking time off, and she would be responsible if anything got damaged.

The water was ankle-deep as she jogged through the crosswalk. The cold wet soaked through her shoes and the bottoms of her jeans went soggy. A few cautious cars slid to a stop as she ran in front of their headlights. The AI systems beeped, or flashed warning lights, but she paid them no mind. She was too irritated to wait for permission from the intersection’s bright
green man.

Her feet thumped on the boardwalk as she continued at a slow jog. She slid on the slick wood several times, but managed to steady herself with the railing. A voice in her head urged caution, told her to be safe, but she ignored that too. It sounded too much like Emma to want to listen.

She wished she could kill that voice, wished she could forget its tone and subtle moments of gravel. Jess hated that there was a grieving period. She hated that relationships lingered, even if it had hardly been hours since saying goodbye.

Beneath her, the water sloshed and frothed at the edges of the boardwalk. It was higher than ever, had been rising for years, and it wouldn’t be long before the marina’s locks failed to control that rise.

Or, as they had before, they would drive away more property owners to accept more of the sea’s expansion. Even now, there were shadowy ghosts of buildings from ten years prior. They sat, preserved bits of old lives, right below the waves.

Some still glowed with light, tourist-trap underwater hotels or dive destinations that used to be dive bars. It seemed that the past always lingered after all.

Jess rushed overhead that sunken past, glad of the grip of her sturdy boots. It was hard enough to stay upright in the wet and weariness, even with good shoes. But then she arrived at the marina entrance and pulled on the gate. Its handle didn’t budge.

“Fuck!” Her frustration vented out in the vulgar screech. Locked. She hadn’t been scheduled to work today, hadn’t been at work the whole week past, so she didn’t have the key. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

This is exactly what Emma had warned would happen. Emma hadn’t wanted her to leave, even after the fight. She cared, despite everything. Despite everything Jess had done.

The cold steel of the gate seemed to stick to Jess’ fingertips. She shivered. Her clothes were getting more soaked with every moment of hesitation. Looking up, she eyed barbed-wire lining the top of the fence. She wedged a foot in the gap between hinge and post and hiked herself onto the handle.

Worry of getting caught was non-existent. The docks were empty. Marina workers were gone. Security was gone. Everyone else had gone home after the first surge warnings. They were smart, not like her. She clenched her eyes shut as her fingers slipped on the gate’s ironwork. She felt stupid for so many things, and her mistake with the boat was just more proof.

She inched her way up the gate. Her feet, wedged just so, held enough to push her way to the top. Getting over the barbed wire was another problem. She hooked her hands over the top of the gate and glanced at the rows of rusted deterrent. There were three rows of the wire, angled out to prevent climbers like her, but the barbs weren’t perfectly offset.

Trusting her jacket for protection, she reached up and wrapped an arm over a bare patch of the steel wire. Rocking her hips back, she kicked one leg up and swung the lower-half of her body toward the top. Her foot cleared the wire, and then she managed to hook on with her heel.

A pinch of pain buried into her ankle. Her sock, and her jeans, were keeping anything from breaking skin so far, but it still hurt. Cursing everything under her breath, she strained her way to the top of the gate. Her whole body felt like it was shaking at the end, but she managed to claw her way to the other side.

Then Jess scraped her wrist on one of the barbs. She yelped, lost her grip, and tumbled the last way over the gate.

She landed on the slick wooden dock with a thump.

The rain hadn’t paused for a moment in its deluge, and lying in a heap chased away Jess’ last reserves of dry clothing. Her chest heaved as she fought back the panicked adrenaline surge from her fall. Her joints hurt. She’d fallen on her shoulder, and it was terribly sore. Blood trickled from the shallow gash on her wrist. “Fuck,” she grumbled.

Despite the weather, despite the twisted heap she’d landed in, lying there for hours momentarily felt like a viable decision. She considered the idea while closing her eyes. She felt the gradual dampness along her back seep toward being completely soaked.

Someone banged on the gate with a rapid urgency. “Jess!? Jess, is that you!? Are you okay!?”

She rolled onto her back and raised her head with a raised brow. “Ugh?” She blinked several times. “Emma, what?”

Her girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, clenched a fist around one of the gate’s bars. “Oh, thank goodness! Holy shit, Jess, what are you doing out here?”

Jess sat up with a wince. She really hoped she hadn’t dislocated her shoulder. “Uh, trying to secure the boat.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, really? This whole marina is gonna get washed out to sea!”

“Did you-” Jess guffawed at the absurdity of the moment. “Did you drive all the way down? For that? To scold me about this stupid boat?”

“Really, that’s what you think? Do you-” Emma tried the gate’s handle before shaking it with frustration. “Damnit, would you just open this thing? I’ll help you with the fucking boat.”

Jess bit her lip. “Shit,” she whispered. She pushed herself off the ground. Walking to the gate, she pushed it open with a hiss of pain. Yeah, her shoulder felt wrong. Maybe it was dislocated. “You were that worried about me?”

“Oh, fuck you, Jess.” Emma pulled the gate the rest of the way open and slammed into a hug with Jess. “Fucking hell, fuck you.”

They kissed, but only for a moment, because Jess’ knees started to give. “Shoulder,” she murmured. “Maybe dislocated.” She fought for consciousness. “Ugh, fuck the stupid boat.”

She wasn’t sure if it was the pain, Emma’s presence, or the rain, but maybe she could be okay with some shifting priorities.

Flash: Caution: Storm Warning

Caution: Storm Warning

You Can’t Just Storm In Here, Storm Out There

The face of Golfball. A haggard-looking man with a limp Mohawk.

There’s a definite scent to the air that spells rain. A breeze in the air holds a hint of the weather. Dark purpled clouds are building to giants. A soft distant rumble echoes through the streets from afar.

Nobody looks, nobody watches, as the clouds slowly part as if ignoring the wind. The break in their darkness, a quick sliver of light, pierces through dust and etches a trail. The streaming band of light settles on a plant. A tiny little sapling, still mostly green, perks up at the touch. It noticeably rises.

A young woman’s fingertips brush at the fledgling tree’s leaves. She crouches and settles to sit on her heels. She smiles, showing missing teeth, as she hums a slow tune.

“Funny that. How you stop for every bit of green.” A haggardly man, hands shoved in his pockets, stops walking to lean and rest on a lightpost. He closes his eyes and shifts to find comfort. He reaches up with a yawn and brushes aside blue strands of a limp Mohawk. Twin tattoos, on either side of his head, display a smiley-face with an expression that is largely ambivalent.

The woman glances up while continuing her wordless song. She shrugs, smiles wider, and looks back to the plant. Callused fingers snap away bits of unwanted growth and pull off dead leaves from the tender branches.

“I mean, not that I mind, really. It’s pleasant, watching you do what you enjoy. And shit, better than some hobbies out there. At least you do it cause you care.” The man keeps his eyes closed. He seems nearly-liquid against the post. Melting against the pole as if trying to become a part of its surface.

The two remain in their chosen positions as if momentarily frozen in place. Minutes pass. Five. Ten. Both are engrossed by each and every moment. They are not feverishly busy. They are the opposite. They are lost in calm focus. They’re not the stillness of statues but the peace of calm sleep.

The young woman stirs and pets the tree and reaches into her purse. She pulls out a bottle of water and unscrews its cap. She waters the little plant. “What’s for dinner, Golfball?”

“Hmm.” The gaunt man rubs his face. His hands, even bonier than the rest of him, pop at the knuckles as he rubs the back of his neck. “Pizza, maybe?”

She nods, capping the water bottle, and stands with a breathy yawn. “Okay.” Her purse clicks as the clasp closes. “Where to?”

Above them, far above, the clouds shift and swirl. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the shaft of light disappears. The gap in the overcast shrinks like a healing wound. A uniform gray covers them once more. The day returns to its early partial-twilight.

Golfball gestures with a wobbling jut of his chin. “Down this way. A good enough place just round the corner.”

They walk together without looking companionable. The young woman keeps her arms crossed. She’s leaning, ever-so-slightly, away from her acquaintance’s jutting elbows. Her eyelids drift shut, occasionally, for longer than a blink. Dark circles carve extra shadow beneath her eyes and her shoulders droop. “I really need to eat.”

“Stay calm, Erin. We’re almost there.” Golfball walks like a praying mantis might. If it were on two legs and learned to swagger. His knees are skewed outward and his gait is a lazy lope of rocking from heel to toe. He looks like he should fall with every step, but somehow his next step manages to catch his fall.

Erin’s skin has gone pale. Paler than before. It takes on a bluish tint. “Better be good pizza.”

Around the corner, they stop. The sidewalk is blocked by a squat older man. He’s in overalls and a red shirt and a pair of combat boots. He has a handlebar mustache that’s as wide as his face. “Erin.”

“Shit.” Golfball grunts. “This that asshole you talked about?”

“Ethan, now is not great.”

“Never seems to be great, eh? Now, does it ever? Now will do as ever.” The squat man’s face is too-red and his hair is too-orange. “But if you’d just come along we wouldn’t have this arguing. Get away with you, punk. We need to be going.”

“She needs some food,” says Golfball. He scowls. His pointed-chin juts forward. His wrinkling nose waggles a septum piercing. “I’m doubting you’d want any of the shit I got stored up for hapless idiots.”

“Oh please, boy-o. You’re a spot of loose skin, aren’t you? Get away and quit you’re playing at protector. This here is between me an Erin.”

She slips a trembling hand around Golfball’s wrist. She grips as hard as she can, and the bit of red still left presses from her fingers. “Don’t. You’ve been so good. We’ve done so good.”

“Well you ain’t going with him,” grumbles the punk. He pulls out of Erin’s grip. He whips his hair back. The Mohawk keeps drifting into his eyes. Strands of blue get caught in his piercings, little silver rings in his brows, and he brushes them back yet again. “You hear? She’s not going with you. Not now. Not ever.” He leans forward. His shoulders draw up. His posture arcs into a grotesque hunch. “And she needs. To eat.”

Ethan studies the two with a sudden questioning raise of his brows. He makes a small, “Ah!” And then he begins to tut. “So that’s what’s going on here. Bit of symbiosis, is it? You two. She heals…” He waves his hand sloppily. “Whatever it is that ails you, and you act a bit as the bodyguard? Cute.” He snaps his fingers over one shoulder. “Jasper. Danny.”

There’s the sound of doors opening. A nearby car, deep blue, sits at the throat of an alleyway.

“Ethan, this is more than just me and him.” Erin hugs herself. She glances down the street. Toward the pizza place just a few buildings away. “If you don’t let me eat, I can’t hold him anymore.”

“Hold him? Girly. He don’t deserve you’re attentions. Let him rot and come home. We’ve missed you.”

Two toughs walk from the parked car. They’re big bulky men with waists as wide as their shoulders and necks that try to match. “Ethe, there’s a few eyes on us, just to say.” One of the two thumbs toward a second-story window. Blinds close in a rush.

“Well, fuck it all,” says the red-head. He raises his chin. Looks down his crooked-nose at Golfball. “But that ain’t gonna stop us from making this difficult. You don’t play nice, well I suppose you’ll have witnesses to your failure.”

Erin moans, soft and restrained, before falling forward.

Golfball catches her, helps her to her knees. “You okay? Fuck, but you and your plants.”

The young woman smiles despite her moment of weakness. “It will grow so well. So big.”

“Well I can feel the bones again now. I take it you’re done then?”

She nods. “For now.” Sighs. “I’m sorry.”

Ethan gestures toward Golfball. “Alright gents, take this skinny bother out and away will you? Just give him a quick little nap. Erin’s not feeling well so we’ll be needing a fast exit.”

“Fuck,” grumbles the punk. His hunched form begins to hunch more. His head droops, wobbles, and then drops forward. “Hate this shit.”

“Giving up already?” One of the toughs walks up to Golfball with a laugh. He clicks his tongue. “Jasp, maybe it’ll be we just have to carry some dead weight.”

Golfball’s legs straighten. And their knees pop. And then they bend backwards with a wet slurping sound.

The closest henchman, Danny, jumps backward. “Oh! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”

“What the fuck?” asks Jasper. He’s stopped in his tracks.

“This shit?” says Ethan. “You found some crazy like this?” He glares at Erin. “What the fuck did you do?”

Erin, still resting on her knees, struggles to raise her head. “Some wounds don’t heal. You know that.” She glances at Golfball. “Some infections can only be held at bay.”

The punk falls completely forward. His hands slap against the pavement, but his wrists rotate too far around. A full one-eighty and yet the fingers splay out with more sickening crackling joints. He’s become some kind of insect with his abdomen held low to the ground and elbows and knees pointed at the sky. His head hangs loosely with the Mohawk dragging on the pavement.

Golfball’s back arches. His shoulders are horrendously distended beneath a patchwork jacket of green. They’re like wide plates pointed at the two men. As if that’s the eyes of this creature. He, it, whatever, has a full-body spasm. A twitch. It jerks to the right. Toward Jasper.

“Shoot the fucker!” yells Ethan.

Jasper pulls out some generic semi-automatic pistol. He untucks it from its shoulder-holster, flicks the safety off, and squeezes the trigger in one fluid draw.

The gunshot rings as the twisted-version of Golfball skitters forward. Skitters with the slick fluidity of water across a hot pan. It moves as if its merely gliding at its foe.

Blood spatters as one, two, and then three bullets hit the strange punk-form’s body.

It does nothing to slow its attack.

Jasper goes down in a crunch of broken bone and ripping flesh. Something, something deep down within the tough’s chest, makes a loud crack and blood spurts out into the street.

“Where’s you’re fucking gun?” asks Ethan.

Danny’s hands are trembling to open a knife. “Couldn’t. Fucking. Buy one!”

And then his scream rises as Golfball leaps ten feet from one dead body to the next.

Ethan runs. He turns without another word. He heads for the alleyway with the dark-blue car and he even gets in the seat.

Then the hood of the car crumples. Bone-tipped fingers pierce the metal skin. The front window shatters. A not-quite hand rips Ethan from his seat.

He arcs across the road and smacks wetly against the side of an old brick building. Bits of paint fleck off. A few bricks crack. And then the body unsticks and drops down below.

Erin sobs. She clenches her fists. She doesn’t look up to see what’s happened.

Golfball’s bent and twisted form gallops down the road.

Gritting her teeth, summoning her strength, Erin pushes to her feet. She stumbles to grab the side of the closest building. She uses it’s aid to get her down the sidewalk.

Step by slow-shuddering step, she makes her way for pizza.

The owners are outside. They’ve all run to see. They’re calling for help from ambulances and the police.

A little bell tinkles as she pushes through the door. Erin sighs with relief at the sight of displays with ready-made slices. She leans over the counter, grabs one and devours it in just a few bites.

She takes a little more time with the second piece. By the third, she’s taken a seat.

Again, the little bell tinkles as someone pushes through the door.

Click. Click. Click. “Hello.” Click. A woman’s bootheels click. “There have been reports of a strange creature here.” Her words are like the dryness at the back of a nervous throat. Every syllable is clear and crisp.

She takes a seat at Erin’s booth.

“Who are you?” asks the young-woman.

The other smiles without showing her teeth. “My name is Valerie Knox. I need you to tell me where he is.”

“You aren’t getting him either.” Erin shakes her head. “There’s a storm coming, and none of you have earned that right. Don’t you know? He’s got no power. He’s just a victim of chance.”

“Tell me, creature. How do you feel about Florida?”

“What?”

Valerie chuckles. “He will find you again. I am sure of that.”

Erin, suddenly wide-eyed, pushes up from the table. She turns to run with a muttered curse.

She’s stopped in her tracks at a touch. Something like the buzz of electricity fills the small pizza-shop’s room. Erin’s eyes close and she grits her teeth. All she seems to do is strain.

Valerie’s hand settles on Erin’s shoulder. Tattoos of bright blue glow to life. They’re in the shape of some stick-figure people. The delicate lines begin to blur. “You will be a help.”

Erin collapses to the floor.