Flash Fiction: At the Crossroads

I.

This place has been our home perhaps since time began. We only know that we cannot remember existing anywhere other than this crossroads, as far back as our memory treads. We knew this place when it was nothing but a place where two deer trails met, when the ways were called footpaths, bridleways, carriage roads. Humans widened and straightened the ways, but we never left this place. We have seen many things.

II.

Panting and gulping for breath, a young woman in tattered skirts and bare feet approaches a crossroads. Her hair has slipped out from beneath her bonnet, but she dare not stop to fix it. It is night and she does not carry a lantern. She came from the flat fields below and ahead of her lies her decision: does she carry on straight and pass through the valley? Or would she travel east or west, following the Roman road?

We could smell her approach and anticipated with glee her arrival.

The sound of horse’s hooves on hard-packed dirt resonate from the east. She collapses at the crossroads, weary.

We sucked in our breath: will the horseman stop for her? Will he see her in time?

The horse rears up before it can trample the maiden. The rider extends his hand.

III.

We did not like the asphalt. It dampened our senses, made us lethargic. But when we saw how swiftly travellers moved upon it, we were thrilled. There were decades when we went hungry, but after they paved the ways and began thundering through our home in their motorised vehicles, we feasted like kings.

IV.

You’ve got your Green Day CD pumping full blast as you careen down the Roman road along the foot of the tor. Looking up at the craggy lump of hill, you wonder how old it is, whether it always looked that way. You’re not really expecting the intersection when you look up and see the red light. Your tyres squeal and the car lurches as you hit the brakes. You rock back against your seat when your little Peugeot comes to a halt, heart beating slightly faster than normal.

Our hearts were beating quickly, too.

There’s a heavy-looking lorry coming up from the south. Wouldn’t have done to sail through the intersection in front of that thing, you think. Suddenly, that’s exactly what you’re doing, having been slammed from behind by a pretentious-looking SUV. The grill of the lorry is the last thing you see. And the last thing you feel is a flurry of countless soft, seeking hands pulling your life from your body.

V.

We have been here since we can remember. We grow stronger by the day.

 

 

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Flash Fiction: Outstanding in his field

Gary’s gaze drifted to the plaque nailed to the wall above his desk for the twelfth time that day. Ram of the Year, it read. He sighed.

The plaque had been hanging there for a few months now, ever since the newspaper he worked for, The Daily Ram, held its annual awards.

He hung his shaggy head, the little beard on his chin dipping to brush the inkstains on his desk. Gary had yearned for the Ram of the Year award ever since he was a kid. But now his victory seemed hollow.

“Gary?” He jerked his head up. Loretta stood framed in the door, her hooves freshly polished and shining in the morning sunlight. Her long neck curved into his office, and she gazed at him through thick lashes. “Gary, how’s the story coming?” she asked. “The editors are hounding me for it…”

Gary heaved himself out of his chair. He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched. He stomped his hooves into the carpet a few times to shake some blood back into his legs. Loretta still lingered in the doorway, awaiting his response. At length he cleared his throat.

“You ever wonder what the point of it all is, Loretta?” She blinked. “We spend our days chained to our desks, churning out stories for the press, and once a year we hold a ceremony to decide who made the biggest contribution. Whose story was the best.”

Loretta brightened. “But your story last year was brilliant! ! ‘Breaking Bad Llamas: Bringing Down the Metropolis’s Deadliest Gang’! You were so brave to go undercover like that.” Her eyes shone as she quoted: “‘And as I stared down Alpaca Mack after confronting him with evidence of his theft, I knew that I had won.’ So brave—”

“I made it up!” he brayed. Loretta skittered backwards a half-pace.

“You… what?”

Gary hung his head again, and brought his hands up to rub his eyes. Snapping his head up, he stared wildly at Loretta.

“I made it up! All of it! There’s not a scrap of truth to my award-winning story. Some journalist I am…”

“I don’t believe you! You’re a good writer, and a good investigator. You couldn’t possibly have made the whole thing up.” Loretta had begun to paw the ground nervously. Gary was her boss; what was she supposed to do with this revelation? Her mind was reeling. “You mean the disappearance of CarrotCorp.’s stock had nothing to do with the Bad Llama Brigade? Is there even such a thing as the Bad Llama Brigade??” As a llama herself, she was secretly hoping that there wasn’t—no llama wanted to be associated with such heinous crimes.

Gary’s gaze became doleful. “It’s true. I made it all up. I even hired a few llamas to dress up in ski masks to stage the photos.”

A look of disgust developed on Loretta’s face, like an image surfacing on a sheet of photo paper in a darkroom. She stalked over to the Ram of the Year plaque. Tearing it from the wall, she looked Gary up and down, from his tiny goat horns to his cloven hooves.

“And you’re not even a ram,” she spat.

 

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More information about my writing is available here.

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Flash Fiction: Perpetual Adoration

When I was little my mom used to take me with her to Perpetual Adoration. It’s this Catholic thing where you sit in a chapel for an hour, staring at a piece of bread in a glass case. Okay, so it isn’t any old bread, it’s a host wafer, which has supposedly been transformed into the Body of Christ. They light a candle that needs to stay lit forever to symbolize something. “Adoration” means that somebody’s gotta sit in there with it, praying to God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and making sure the candle doesn’t go out or whatever. There’s always gotta be someone in there, and that’s the “perpetual” part. They give the job to people of the parish, rotating them out every hour.

Mom would take me with her sometimes, probably cuz she thought I needed to be tortured by the silence and the nothingness of sitting in a room with God stuff everywhere reminding me to be on my best behavior. Well, she underestimated the power of my imagination. And then there was that one time when I almost burnt the place down.

It had started out innocent enough. She let me do pretty much anything I wanted in there, as long as I stayed quiet and mostly still. I was allowed to walk over to the bookcase to collect a prayer book or a rosary, and could even sometimes nap. I was really good at napping with my eyes closed in thoughtful prayer. One of the tricks you learn at Catholic school.

So anyway, I’d been sitting there daydreaming about dinosaurs—not big ones, mini ones that were rampaging across the top of my kneeler. The carnivores were bearing down on the herbivores, a small herd of long-necked ones. The long-necks were running as fast as their stubby legs would take them, but the velociraptors were too quick! One velociraptor made a mighty leap, taking down its prey, and together they toppled off the top of the kneeler into the raging river below. It was flowing towards the back of the room, where the bookshelf was. I chased them—I didn’t want to miss this! Although so as not to alert Mom to the excitement, I pretended to peruse the pamphlets while the battle raged on.

There were a few candles sitting around the bookshelf, and also a pack of dinosaurs grazing around their bases. They thought they were safe, but no! Volcanic eruption! The lava was pouring down the sides of the mountain, enveloping all creatures in its path…

My hands had gotten a bit sticky from the wax. Okay, they were covered in wax. I held them over the flame to try and melt it off, but was not expecting the Band-Aid I had on my finger to catch on fire. I shook my hand so as to save myself from sudden, flamey death, then watched in horror as the still-burning ball of wax and bandage sailed through the air and landed on the seat next to my mother. I stood there speechless as the fire caught, unable to shout or warn Mom because we were supposed to stay completely silent in the chapel. I decided to wait until she noticed.

Luckily Mom had really good reflexes and knew where the fire extinguisher was (and how to use it!) She never brought me to Perpetual Adoration again, but I like to imagine that the dinosaurs are still there, roaming the furniture and keeping a watchful eye out for flaming meteors.

 

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Flash Fiction: Time and Money

A young woman in a trendy raincoat is rushing down the street, swerving to avoid puddles.

“Excuse me, do you have the time?” she asks of a suited, briefcase-toting man with whom she crosses paths.

“Spare some change?”

“I beg your pardon?” She’s taken aback. Surely a man in a suit has plenty of money.

“Could you spare a bit of change? I’ve only got fifties, and I need to catch a bus.”

“Oh, well poor you!” she exclaims. “How about you pop into the cafe and break your fifties on a cup of tea?”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, ma’am. I need to catch my bus.” He has a Texan drawl, and his eyes are shifting from side to side.

“Well, if you’d tell me what time it is, I’ll see what I can scrounge up. There’re always pound coins rolling around the bottom of my purse.” Her accent is clipped and proper.

“That’s a knock-off Burberry coat you got there,” observes the man suddenly. “Who you tryin’ t’ fool?”

She clutches the coat tightly around her. “That’s none of your—I mean no one! Look, if you can’t give me the time then I’ll just be on my way. I’m running late for an appointment and I’ve forgotten my watch and phone!” She turns to leave.

“Wait!” calls the man. “Could you at least see if you’ve got any change?”

She bites her lip.

“Maybe I am trying to fool someone. The truth is, all the change I have, I need. I need it for the tea and sausage roll I’ll eat for today’s meal, and for the bus fare back to my threadbare apartment after this job interview!” She is losing her temper. “But I can see you’re wearing a watch! Just tell me what time it is!”

She grasps at his wrist, the hand that is holding the briefcase, and her blood runs cold. It isn’t a watch: it’s a handcuff. He’s attached to the case.

He smiles at her sadly.

“You wanted the time, I wanted a bit of spare change, but turns out I’m the one with the money and you’re the one buyin’ me time.” Her eyes grew wide. “Tell me more about this job interview of yours, and hopefully I won’t have to go through with this drop.”

“I don’t underst—”

“Hell, maybe Interpol will even reward you for aidin’ in the interception of £250,000 pounds worth of drug money. This is my last day in the business, y’see, and I’m waitin’ for the police to lock onto my location and whisk me outta here.”

In a rush of madness, suddenly there are people everywhere, SWAT men with rifles seemingly falling out of the sky. She breaks away from the man and is jostled to the side.

“We’ve got him!” shouts a pair of sunglasses in a bulletproof vest. “I repeat, Informant Three is secure!”

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Karma for Good People (Diary 2015/09/18)

Well, I haven’t written anything here for such a long time, but I guess I was just waiting for a day like today to happen. Today felt like a culmination of the many, many life lessons I have had over the years, the ones that teach you how to be a good human being.

 

It started with a 05:00 wake up alarm. I was going to join my friends for a Crossfit session at the 24-hour gym near the American Consulate. One of my friends from the writing group was leaving Chengdu after I had only just started to get to know her, and I wanted to see her one last time before her flight this afternoon. I woke up with a strange feeling. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I just get this ripple in my gut, like a warning.

I got a flat tyre on my mad-dash cycle not to be late for the 05:30 class. I was worried I wouldn’t find the gym, but I did, and it didn’t even rain on me. My bum got splashed quite a lot though. I hate that dampness.

We worked out; it was good. I didn’t have to Skype my mom until 08:30, so I figured I’d tag around with the trainers for breakfast, get to know some new friends. I said goodbye to my writer friend and promised to stay connected. We went to Peter’s Tex Mex for breakfast, which purportedly opens at 07:30. We were early. We waited. Then we waited inside for the chef to arrive. We ordered at 07:40 and got our food by 08:00. More friends joined us. I excused myself to Skype my mom. She and I spoke until after 10:00, then I departed. I tucked my embroidered purse beneath the strap on my front pannier rack, and pushed my bike into the street. I intended to take it to the bike shop I’d bought it from, drop in and say hi to the foreigners who owned the place.

As I crossed the first street, I looked down at my pannier. My beautiful black and bright flower purse was gone.

Did I drop it? I looked around, I looked down, I looked. It was gone. Someone stole it, they slipped it away like butter, transformed it into a fish and it swam away, quick and invisible. It was gone.

I ran back to the restaurant, crying out about “wo de bao, wo de bao!“, my bag, my bag. A manager came up and started asking all the right questions. “Where?” “How?” She called the police and an old woman came up and started talking about the surveillance cameras.

“They can catch them you know, they can see! You should be careful about your bags, I wear mine on my wrist when I go shopping like this, see…”

I was heartened by her words, heartened by Wendy the manager’s assistance. The police came, and Wendy took my bike back to the restaurant while I went to file a report. The purse had contained my phone, some cash, two bank cards, and my house keys. And a pen someone had left at the writers group meeting which I think was actually cursed. The issue of the surveillance cameras was brought up but swiftly abandoned. I never followed it up. I did snap at an officer who asked me where I was from. He legitimately needed the information, but I was so used to nosy people. An older officer apologised for the young man and explained gently to me that they need this information for the report. I behaved. Then I heard voices outside that I recognised–the two boys who had joined us for breakfast were there!

I explained to them what had happened and answered the officer’s questions, seamlessly turning from one to the other, swapping between languages easier than it is for me to slide glasses on and off my face. They were at the station to register, just like all foreigners must when they arrive in China or in fact any time they spend the night in a different city or move apartments. After my report was filed, I joined them, and stayed to help them iron out a few issues with their applications. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but my incident had shaken me. It was simpler to stay as their translator and deal with their problem rather than dash off to solve the dozen new ones the theft had created for me. I had a lot of items to recover.

As we waited in that office, I did have an important cultural lesson reiterated for me. In an attempt to get the secretary’s attention, I stood on the waiting chairs. A man grumbled at me to get down, so I squatted, then he went off on a rant about uncivilized behaviour. I retorted that my purse had just been stolen. He shot back that having one’s purse stolen had nothing to do with acting civilized, with acting in a way that reflects well on the people from my country. Irate but seeing his point, I had no other recourse than to apologize, several times, which had the desired effect of shutting him up. It was at this juncture that my friend reminded me that it was severely taboo to put shoes on chairs in China, because they are so dirty. Outside, the civilized gentleman was hawking a lugey. Still, I’ll never let my shoes touch a chair again (in China).

Helping my friends recharged my courage. I stopped by the restaurant to collect my bicycle and check in with Wendy. I thanked her profusely, and began my Labours of Hercules. First, I needed to get my bike fixed.

So I ran-walked to the shop, and the cool Chinese chica who works there replaced my blown inner tube. I used her computer, but realised that I had forgotten my password for my email account. Then I mistakenly sent the password reset code to my phone.

The one currently in possession of a thief.

Cue well-controlled panic and a thin layer of sweat.

I should mention that at this point I was still in my sweaty Crossfit duds, and terrified to remove my hoodie, since it was essentially my comfort blankie at this point. More sweat. I tried again and sent the reset code to another email address. Relieved but still quivering, although that may just have been the many cups of bottomless free coffee slurped down at breakfast.

I flew home on my trusty steed. Next step, get inside my apartment, where the key to solving all of my problems was tucked away snug and sound: my passport. The real estate agent didn’t have a copy of my key, but he did have the number of a locksmith. And he helped me search for the phone number of the training school I was supposed to teach at that afternoon. It was just after 12:00 at this point, and my classes were at 15:00. I phoned, I explained, I canceled the classes.

The locksmith arrived.

“I just want you to know that my purse was just stolen, so not only do I not have my keys, but I don’t have much cash or my bank cards. Just 100RMB.” (My friends had lent me 200, but I wasn’t going to tell him I still had exactly 150 left after the tyre repair.)

“Ah, that’s just enough.”

Metal picks ground and tumbled.

“You have a spare key inside, right?”

I never knew what I should do with that damn spare. It didn’t seem to make sense to keep it inside the apartment, so I just kept the two keys together. The thief has them both now. Gee, I’m dumb.

“Um, no, I don’t have a spare. Oh. What can I do?!”

“I’ll change the lock.”

“My friends only lent me a hundred. I… I could go borrow some more, I could…”

“How about you make a new friend, right here? I’ll replace it for free.”

Tremble.

“…thank you.”

The family that runs the calligraphy school next door let me sit inside their apartment while the locksmith works. They are kind people.

I was in.

I showered. I dressed. I could do this.

First, the bank. Easy. Although I started to cry as I sat there, 5 people from being served. Anybody watching that mini-film advertising the bank’s services would have. A deaf man, struggling at the ATM, a bank clerk approaches. She knows sign language. “Whenever you need help, I’ll be here,” she signs. “Can I walk you home?” he signs one evening. “No, no, no! No need.” “You misunderstand me.” “Oh?” “All my life, people have ignored me, looked at me differently. I never imagined I’d meet anyone as helpful and kind as you.” She smiles. “Good morning,” signs the front desk girl. “Good morning,” signs the male bank teller. “She taught them all sign language!” he realises. I sit there and wipe away the stuff leaking onto my cheeks.

One new card down, one more to go, but first I needed to get my SIM card reinstated. I asked for directions, got a clear answer. “Go to the provincial China Mobile office, they can get your old number back.” “How do I get there?” “It’s… gee, where is it? Take a three-wheeler taxi, they’ll know where it is. 5 RMB.”

“Take me to the provincial China Mobile office. 5 RMB?”

“6.”

“Alright, alright!”

We arrived, I handed her a ten. She handed me a five. I smiled.

Inside, I had to explain that my passport number had changed. The receptionist looked concerned, fleetingly, then she acknowledged that my name was unchanged, and we were moving forward. “When did you register the number?” “2013, when I first arrived in Chengdu.” Nod. “Okay, can you write down five numbers from your recent calls?” Shit. No one remembers phone numbers anymore. But I had written down the two important ones I could find, and had a copy of my rental agreement. I had only just recently talked to my landlord. Three numbers, only three numbers… Argh.

Before long, my number was called, and I leaped to the desk, hoping she’ll tell me quick if I have to run home and dig through my box of business cards. But shockingly, SHE WAS REASONABLE. No problem with the changed passport number. No problem with the phone numbers. “When did you last top up?” she queried. I asked to see a calendar, because I vaguely recalled it being right after I’d arrived back from the States, on a weekend. “Morning or evening on that date?” she asked. I related my memory of topping it up at night after the friends I had been hanging out with convinced me to set up my WeChat Wallet, a kind of PayPal system. THEY WERE CONVINCED. THEY GAVE ME MY NUMBER. I was pretty chuffed, and felt a bit like I was getting away with murder. They were being so reasonable that I may have momentarily forgotten I was in China.

On the walk home I texted the friends who had sent me their numbers through the social media I could access from my laptop. I finally ate something. It was 16:00. Now I needed to get my other bank card done, and go home to check that the small card wallet with my drivers license wasn’t in the embroidered purse. It wasn’t.

I’m resting now, but there’s still a few small things to take care of. I stopped in at the Xiaomi store to price out another smart phone, since my spare phone is a brick-like slide-up-to-answer. This weekend I still have lessons to plan, and lessons to teach; life doesn’t stop for things like this.

But you know what? I feel happy.

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little things of beauty

Sunlight casts geometric shadows on the roofs of the housing development below. The youcai flowers have already disappeared, but green, squared fields sit plump and content in the distance.

The blue sky and breeze on the roof takes me back to Gibsons, a town north of Vancouver and by the sea. We sat on their balcony and ate homemade hotpot in the sun, fish and crab straight from the ocean. My (current) favourite Chinese word describes this feeling: shuang 爽。

Hotpot on the balconyMy floors are clean and my laundry dries on the balcony. I have a cup of coffee and a book to read.

The classroom is full of students eager to learn. I’ve taught this lesson before; each time I do it better. They get it, they engage. The look of concentration, the dawn of understanding on the brow of a young face is enough.

Conversations with my coworkers: this is connecting. And talking about the silly things that were said (“don’t worry, you can’t catch my cold, it isn’t one of those contagious kinds. I just went outside and it was a little windy”) to my foreign friends later. We laughed.

Enriching my mind during talks at the Bookworm Literary Festival. Engaging my brain, and thinking for a change. This is intellectual, this is good for me. Why does literature need labels like “Asian-American” or “novella”? What does that matter, let’s just write what we want, and be who we are.

Homemade bread, salmon from IKEA, lettuce and a slice of cheese. You take food for granted and you are killing a part of your soul. Rebirth happens at the first mouthful.

Children smiling, reaching tiny fingers and burbling nonsense words. That boy I always see climbing that small tree. Young lovers holding hands. Old lovers doing their morning calisthenics in unison. Drunk friends holding each other up as they stumble home. My small town.

My grandmother turned 90 yesterday. In the photos of her party she looks serene and elegant, proud and graceful. I couldn’t attend the party but many did, and that love is beautiful.

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Tomorrow’s Specials

Farewell, farewell to another year. Endings for some, beginnings for others. A new number to forget every time we write the date (it almost looks like a 5 if you give it a little hat and a tail…) What bits shall we remember, which parts to wipe away? Clearing your slate as if to write tomorrow’s specials on a dainty little board. Go on, make yourself a list. It helps, they say, it helps.

I’ll have one order of self-confidence, please. Yes, don’t hold back, make it a generous slice. That should whet the appetite, get me ready for the main. Oh look, it’s sprinkled with me! How lovely I am. Cool and collected, so beautiful. And funny! Haha. Yes, I am quite accomplished. On to the main dish? Yes, of course!

For my main I’d like a career plan, please. Salad or roast potatoes? Well. How much extra is it for both? I see. Probably should just get one. Spoilt for choice, how will I ever be able to focus on the flavours of that delectable career? It’s good to have a clear idea where one’s going with one’s life, don’t you agree?

A glass of something to drink? Why of course! How could I forget. I think a warming cup of friends should do it. Yes, it vanishes the cold from one’s bones, it does. And did you say there are free refills? Splendid. Keep me topped up! You can’t get cheer like this from any old place.

Goodness, I’m stuffed! I couldn’t possibly have another bite. Dessert tray, you say? Well, it can’t hurt to take a look. My word, is that boyfriend? Well, it’s been quite some time since the last time I had one of those. And since it is a special day… Oh, go on. Yes, one scoop of boyfriend please. My choice of toppings? Where to start, where to start… A drizzle of gentleman, perhaps… but not too much! I can carry my own handbag, thanks. Is that love of China? Oh no, it’s desire to live in China. Well that’s just as good. A sprinkle of intellectual, a dash of foodie… And a sense of humour on top. Perfect.

Every year has its ups and downs, every year takes its toll. I wonder what the bill will be for such a sumptuous feast? If I can’t afford to pay it will I forfeit my future? 2014 gave me distance from awkward situations and took away familiarity and closeness in return. Building a new network of friends and lovers is no small feat. I feel so isolated in this moment, so unsteady on my small feet. But I shall plant them in the ground here and grow myself some roots. In 2015 I will blossom, even if the blossoms cannot yet bear fruit.

And to everyone out there, fighting their fights, I say “out with the old and in with the new”. Rewrite your menu, pick your own adventure, and trust that your choices are right. Let’s ring in this new year with our growling hungry bellies! Whatever it is that you hunger for, may this be your year to get it.

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