Modern Art (as curated by Kip and Dredge)

This story was inspired by Shannon Wendt’s (@wordswendt) #liblit prompt of the day: (character) “a man called Junior” &  bonus word: “portentous”.

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Modern Art

by Jan Brown

Junior brought home his new treasure and proudly displayed it to his girlfriend. “So…you think I can’t help you decorate the apartment? Look at this!”

Tanya regarded the monstrosity with a cynical look and sighed in her trademark, exaggerated manner. “Geez, Junior, it’s just a piece of junk! And what is that gooey stuff all over it?”

“Sorry, I haven’t had a chance to clean it up. Kip and Dredge found it on one of their trips around the neighborhood, so I promised them a beer if they’d let us have it. I guess we had a few. Beers, I mean.”

“I know what you mean, but I think you had more than a few! Only a stoner or a drunk would think this thing would look good in anyone’s apartment.”

“That’s what Kip’s dad said.  But I figured you had better taste. Younger. You know, pop culture. Hip hop.”

“What hip hop artist would put this crap in their home?”

“It’s not crap. It’s ironic. An artistic mobile made out of scraps of stuff we use every day. It makes a statement.”

“It’s ironic that you think it doesn’t look like crap. And the only statement it makes is, ‘I have no taste and no money for real art, so I go dumpster diving with my slacker friends.’ ”

“OK, can we agree to disagree? I’ll clean it up, and we can hang it out of the way, in the back hallway.”

“I have a better place for it.” Tanya yanked the trash-art out of Junior’s hand and flung it into the garbage can. The metal mobile struck the side of the trash can with a portentous clang that echoed throughout the apartment. “Now Kip and Dredge can rediscover it another day,” she smiled.

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Next Stop, Pecos

Every Friday, fiction writers around the world write 100-word stories based on a photo prompt issued by Madison Woods.  This week, I am combining it with the #liblit writing prompt issued by Shannon Wendt on Twitter (@wordswendt).

You can read more Friday Fictioneer stories by clicking the link that appears below my story.

Next Stop, Pecos

by Jan Brown

Travelling through the heat wave-stricken prairie via ancient Greyhound bus, she had to laugh at the futility of the tiny visor fan worn by her amorphous seat mate. The slow, lurching bus passed a wrecked outbuilding, the sole remains of a long-forgotten tornado. She saw a gunman silhouetted through a missing window, and her laughter turned to fear.

She felt the shot before she heard it. The bullet pierced her shoulder, producing spurts of blood in rhythm with her heartbeat. They would be expecting her to debark in Pecos for medical attention. Instead, she remained onboard, hiding the bloodstains under her companion’s serape.

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How I Take My Coffee

This flash fiction was inspired by Shannon Wendt’s (@wordswendt) #liblit prompt of June 18, 2012.

He seemed to be talking to anyone who would listen.

“Everyone thinks the devil is just one guy—one big red guy with horns on his head and cloven hooves for feet.”

I don’t usually talk to men while waiting for my latte, but I had to chuckle. I turned around. “What do you say he looks like?”

“He could look like anyone. He could look like a barista, for example.”

The barista handed me my coffee and started laughing and berating the customer. “Now, Luke, stop spouting your supernatural, demonic, bad mojo gibberish. You’ll warp this sweet young lady’s mind.”

“Oh, thanks! But I’m probably old enough to know better!”

I smiled at being called “young.” My hair recently had grown out from its formerly brilliant auburn to a natural silver-gray color, and while I am of course devastatingly beautiful, any reference to my youth is strictly historical.

I turned back to the man called Luke, now awaiting his iced chai. I confided in a conspiratorial whisper, “You know, the barista does look a little devilish.”

The barista looked up and laughed. He really was devilishly handsome, very tall and buff, with a pointed goatee, gold earring, and a finely detailed tattoo poking out of his shirt cuff.  The tattoo was a swirly, mesmerizing miasma of yellow and orange flames, travelling all the way from his hand to his neck, where it peeked out of his collar. But his grin was wide and friendly.

Luke took issue with my appearance-based comment. “My point is that the devil doesn’t look like we expect. And it’s not just one big, bad guy.”

“You mean he has ‘minions’ roaming around, serving coffee, driving taxicabs, teaching school, programming supercomputers…?”

“No, I’m not talking about mere minions.  I’m talking about demons. They can be anybody, anywhere.”

We gravitated toward a table. He held the chair for me and introduced himself simply as Luke. “Hi, Luke, I’m Jez.”

“Pretty name. Unusual.”

“That’s why I like it,” I smiled.  “So what is the purpose of these multiple demons, and how will we know when we see one?”

“That’s just it. We won’t know. We can’t tell the difference, because they use their powers to blend in with society at large.” He was starting to sound serious.

“But there is generally so much evil in the world, do they really need to waste their powers on ‘blending in’? A demon would, by definition, be consistent with the nature of the world around us. We expect evil. We accept evil. We probably don’t even notice evil anymore.”

“And that’s their doing!” Now he seemed a little excited.

“But what is their purpose? What do they ‘get’ out of creating all this evil muck that sucks us in and makes us slip and slide around, losing our way, losing our moral compass and just plain getting stuck in the mire? Are they going to rescue us?”

“No, they aren’t. And that’s a very apt description. Sounds like you might have a little experience?”

“Well, Luke, I could hardly get to this advanced age without some experience!” I grinned. A wide and friendly grin. “But to get back to the point, what is their purpose here?”

“I don’t know what their purpose is.  I only know what they do.”

“And what do they do?” I looked deep into his eyes, which caught glints of the sun, making them turn from light hazel to a warm golden color.

His eyes roamed my face. He moved back from the table abruptly and stood up. I moved quickly, standing, facing him. The barista moved in one quick swoop and stood behind him. We towered over him front and back; he cowered below. In one quick flash, he was gone.

My barista friend looked me up and down, nodding appreciatively. I checked my appearance in the mirror that covered the back wall, noting with satisfaction the long red hair, the perky breasts, the firm midriff and thighs. I was refreshed.

“I guess all I needed was a cup of coffee.”

The Adventures of Techno Man

This short story was inspired by Shannon Wendt’s (@wordswendt) #liblit prompt of Saturday, June 16th.

In the techno underground, he was fairly well known as a software pirate and corporate hacker. He rationalized his livelihood as that of a self-sacrificing super hero, rescuing John Q. Public from the machinations of faceless, heartless corporate behemoths and corrupt political enterprises.

He thought of himself as the protagonist in a graphic novel, a very muscular man in white tights and red cape, with a red cross on his spandex chest. Of course, it would take several lifetimes for his skinny frame to grow the required muscles, and the Red Cross would probably sue him for copyright infringement. If they could find him.

But those in need always seemed to find him. He had a massive network of friends and colleagues in the legitimate IT services industry. He had worked at technical service agencies and consultancies that placed him at large corporations, small businesses, utilities, health care and government facilities. His work was brilliant, and he was often called back to the company after he had completed a project. Sometimes they needed his skill set to fix a problem that cropped up a few weeks after his departure. In fixing the problem (which he himself had caused), he became known as a sort of techno hero. No muscles, no tights, no red cross, just a skinny guy dressed in business casual.

His current front was a non-profit organization that he founded to help community and government agencies to increase their IT security. It was (for him) relatively easy work that left a lot of time to pursue his own and other clients’ vendettas against the political-industrial establishment. Sometimes his non-profit work was instrumental in gaining access to the network or system he intended to hack.

Presently, he was coding a small sub-routine that would reverse a particular insurance company’s practice of automatically denying certain medical treatments for a rare form of leukemia. Once he completed that little chore, he had to test changes to the local gas utility’s billing algorithms. When the final changes are in place, users will be billed at the lowest of the “free market source” rates, rather than the highest. The utility claimed not to bill at the highest rate anymore, but his friend inside the company knew otherwise.  It was a simple matter to hack the system, bypassing and even using the security mechanisms he himself had put in place on a recent assignment. For an additional Robin Hood-like flourish, the program will identify any customer who received charitable assistance for last year’s heating bill, and will give them a free pass for the three coldest months of the upcoming winter (overriding the fraud control he had previously installed, that would otherwise flag “zero dollar” billings.)

The last item on his to-do list was for Suzanne. Suzanne was a lovely, sweet-natured blonde beauty, the subject of his unrequited love since college (which was quite a long time ago). Like so many other people, she had lost much of the value of her 401k in late 2008-early 2009. About the same time, she quit work to care for her parents, both of whom were quite ill. She sold her house at a deep loss to move back home, and the reunited “adult family” of three tried to make ends meet on her dad’s small pension and Social Security.  Her parents’ house had fallen into disrepair, and Suzanne could no longer pay the home care nurse and housekeeper.  Getting her dad in and out of the house to see the doctor was a physical trial for both of them, and paying the medical bills was another trial unto itself.  Her personal finances were in serious disarray, and her emotional state was fragile.  But not so fragile that she was willing to accept help from him.  At least, not knowingly.

There was no single villain responsible for Suzanne’s woes.  Of the prominent corporate entities responsible for the financial disaster of 2008, some had gone out of business or divested their risky ventures. But two of the institutions were still happily sailing along, still handing out huge executive bonuses. Meanwhile, Suzanne struggles to buy her parents a case of Ensure.

He called a friend at the major financial clearinghouse and arranged to meet at his office. He offered to demonstrate a cutting-edge security program that he had installed for the Pentagon and for several major utilities. It took several more meetings with committees and decision-makers above his friend’s level, but he finally made the sale.  He studied their system under the guise of “tweaking” the program to fit their particular needs. When his staff installed the product, it already contained the worm necessary to search every transaction for certain parameters, then destroy the bankers’ bonus accounts.

His first hint that something went wrong came two weeks later.  He called Suzanne to see if she needed any help at the house. She rarely called him back, or accepted any form of help, but he still tried. This time she picked up the phone immediately. There was a quaver of panic in her voice as she asked him to come over.

Suzanne was attempting to pay the monthly bills online when she noticed that their bank accounts had disappeared. She was hoping that, with his connections in the banking industry, he could help her find out what had happened. She seemed frantic.

“Suzanne, it’s probably a mistake on the part of the Social Security Administration.  Were the funds deposited this month?”

“Yes, just last week. But all of our accounts were emptied out.  I keep calling the local branch, and get nothing but voicemail. I can’t leave my parents home alone! Can you drive over to the local branch and find out what’s going on?”

“Okay, but first show me what happened online.”

“Well, nothing ‘happened’ online. The summary screen simply showed zero balances for each of our accounts.” She logged onto the system, but was unable to pull up a screen. Apparently, the servers were busy. He got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Let me call somebody,” he said. He was trying to project confidence, but his voice sounded lame.

He spoke with his friend at the clearinghouse, who said, “It’s a madhouse here! Haven’t you listened to the news this morning? Two of the major U.S. banks have been flooded with complaints about consumer checking accounts that have been emptied, but there seem to have been no withdrawals or debits from those accounts.”

“So…the consumers who lost money…what can they do?”

“As far as we can tell, the books are in balance, so the consumers won’t be able to claim fraud protection, unless we can determine that the banks are at fault.  Actually, I was thinking of calling you to have a look, but my director said that would be a conflict of interest, since you installed the security system.”

Damn. He’d have to find another way to “de-worm” the system. He wouldn’t be able to restore the funds.  But he needed to ensure that the worm would not be found, that it would not be associated with his security program. He had to wait a few days for server traffic to wane, but he extracted it successfully.

Meanwhile, he took Suzanne’s account information and used it to make deposits at the local branch, using his own money to restore the accounts to their previous balance. It was a good use of his money, but it didn’t have the same satisfying effect as his original plan.

Later that month, he heard on CNN that the two banks in question had lost most of their customers due to loss of consumer confidence and failure to move quickly to settle their claims. The executive bonuses were retracted.

So…crime doesn’t pay, not for the banks, not even for Techno Man. But that won’t keep him from trying again.

Mine and Yours

This flash fiction was inspired  by Shannon Wendt’s (@wordswendt) #liblit writing prompt.

I saw the couple as I walked toward the potted plants at the grocery store entrance. It was a beautiful summer day, complete with sunshine, songbirds and a light, warm breeze.

They were arguing in sign language. I know a little ASL, but I could barely keep up with their angry, lightning-fast hands. She was a strikingly attractive brunette with golden, sun-kissed skin and wavy tresses falling to her narrow waist. She wore a gorgeous sundress, silver bangles and ankle bracelets. He was a thirty-something man with a shaved head and prominent tattoos on his arms and neck. His mottled, grayish tee shirt had at one time been white. Over it, he wore an orange vest with the store’s logo. He had been pushing a long row of shopping carts when the woman accosted him.

She looked about the same age, but that was all they had in common physically. They were quibbling about his mother, or possibly his baby’s mother. The conversation was punctuated with a slap to his cheek.

I felt petty for having eavesdropped. But when he followed her back to the parking lot, I was concerned, so I walked back to my car and pretended to get something from the back seat. She ran up to a nearby red Jeep and clearly signed “Mine” several times (along with several other things, including “F*** you”).

A pretty blonde girl, probably just a teenager, jumped out of the driver’s seat, hitting and kicking the brunette. I closed my car door and walked toward the melée with cell phone poised on 911. Fortunately, the young man at the center of the controversy finally did something useful and pulled the teenager away. The brunette took the opportunity to jump into the vehicle, and in a flash, she pulled out of the parking space and headed toward the exit, burning rubber.

The blonde now turned on her boyfriend, continuing the hitting and kicking. She accused him of lying and kept repeating that he had given the Jeep to her.  Obviously, she was not hearing impaired, or at least not speech impaired. She shouted, “That’s my engagement present, you bastard! Get it back!”

“No, she’s right. The title is in her name.” He hung his head and shrugged his shoulders. “Come on, I’ll get you a ride home. Who’s watching the baby?”

“The baby? I forgot about the baby!”

“What do you mean, you forgot?”

About this time, the Jeep edged carefully back into the parking space. The brunette walked around to the passenger side and removed a child car seat from the back – with the child in it. She shoved it at the teenager, who immediately put it on the ground.

She signed once, “Yours,” then drove away.

The Giver

Note: This little piece of flash fiction was inspired by Shannon Wendt’s (@wordswendt) #liblit writing prompt.

She is the giver. She purchased the gift, at great cost to herself, and is seeking a suitable and lovable recipient.

She has been spectacularly and painfully unsuccessful in this search.

She is the keeper of the crown. She gave it to him, but that was not her true gift. She gave him so much more. He did not know how to care for her gift. Would he have been a better caretaker if he had been smarter, more generous or more experienced?

By his callousness, he forced her to rescind his title. No more would he be called King. No more would he wear the crown. It was the most beautiful crown in all the world. No other gold, no other jewels shone as brightly. It was studded with rubies that reflected her rich red lips and sensuous smile, emeralds that matched the depth and sparkle of eyes.

The crown was a thing of poetic beauty. But it was merely a thing.  A material symbol of a much greater and infinitely more precious gift.

The gift was created from the raw joy and abundance of her childhood, from the intense hardship and loss of her young adulthood.  It was purchased with the tears she shed in sheer sorrow and in blissful happiness.

She could not let him keep the gift. He had mistreated and neglected it. Her gift had lost some of its essence in his care. It had lost freshness and fragility.

She reclaimed the gift, and by doing so, renewed its strength and vitality. It was no longer new. But it was no longer his. It was hers.  Hers to give again, this time to a more suitable and lovable recipient.

She is the giver. She is looking for a new King, a worthy man to whom she can freely give her heart.