Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — The Real Vampires of New Jersey

They had been living together for long time now.  Nobody paid them any mind. They kept to themselves, but went to work every day.  Actually they went to work every night, and they chose the most undesirable shifts.  The upside was that their nocturnal co-working mortals were so less curious than the day workers.

They lived off the grid in a cob house on the border of Vincentown. They drove old Audis retrofitted to run on moonshine bio-diesel, and they liked to play their vinyl records backwards.   The neighborhood hoodlum kids thought they were cool.

Folks thought they were related in some way, but they weren’t.  It’s just that when you spend a lot of time together, say 300 years, you start to resemble each other and share the same mannerisms.

Would it really be a surprise that the New Jersey vampires of 2075 were radical environmentalists?  They had a vested interest in keeping the Earth inhabited by all the creatures along the food chain. Between the rising sea levels and the fracking, the northeast was getting hotter, drier and hazier.  Vampires are on the same evolutionary track as mortals, and they much prefer constancy in their environment.   Enough dicking around with the politics and profiteers of the environmental industry — the only thing that was going to save the planet was radicalism of the vampiric kind.

Zerra and Gimletta were putting the final touches on the desalinization still when   Hectorus and Phullmund came up from their day’s rest.

“I heard there’s a private convoy of miners being smuggled through the woods to work the coal mines tonight,” Zerra said.  She was plugged into shadowy network of the black marketeers who trafficked in the banned fossil fuels.  The plan was to follow the convoy, secure the location of the mine and seal it off before the miners could get inside. It was a small scale operation, but until more of their kind could find their way to New Jersey they had to operate under the old grass-roots motto:  “Think globally.  Act locally.”

More vampires would come.  They had banded together in crises before but never in numbers as large as now. Despite the grim tasks ahead of them they were a bit excited to catch up with old friends and share tales of how the world was a vast, lush and colorful place.  Where scent had meaning and blood was rich.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Undeclared Champ

The Sunday before Labor Day would be one of the “Ten Best Days” of the year, according to the meteorologist on NJ 101.5.  After a very rainy and cold July the August sun finally ramped up to perfect tomato-ripening temperature and Skip made watering his priority for the rest of the month.  The result was a choice bounty of fruit with blooming shoulders at the just the right time for the competition.  Skip and Tipper had been sampling the early tomatoes with critical palettes, and Skip warned his wife not to talk too much about them outside the house least she unwittingly reveal any prize-winning secrets.

Across the development Bennie, in his tropical cabana set with his signature Robusto clamped between his fingers, stepped outside to survey his tomato plot.  The warm, wet cigar dropped from hand as he raised his clenched fists with an anguished cry.

His latest paramour, Shirley from Camelot Court, had a jealous cat.  Apparently “Bugsy” surmised that his mistress had also spent the night somewhere other than her own bed, and was currently using the loamy soil of Bennie’s tomato patch to take another in a series of territorial dumps.  Tomatoes were stripped from the vines and lay tragically split open on the ground.  Bennie’s threats had their desired effect and the cat took off like a rocket, but the damage had been done.  He dropped to his hands and knees to salvage what he could.

A few hours later Bennie, Skip and the other entrants brought their baskets to the judges’ table.  Skip wondered why Bennie’s bushel was looking light, but there was no denying that his tomatoes did look pretty decent.  But the proof would be in the eating.

The village elder judges were ready with their knives and looks of anticipation.  No matter your age, whether it is your first (or possibly your last) there is nothing like a Jersey tomato at the end of August.

Bennie kept up his braggadocio in light of his meager crop, and Skip began to see him in a different light.  Skip had so much — a loving wife of fifty years, good health, and the finest garden in Toms River’s premier active adult community.  What did Bennie have? He lived alone, eating take-out and microwaved meals, and shared no sustained love for human or beast. No matter the outcome of these tomato wars, Skip felt the graciousness of a true champ.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — The Tomato Skirmish of Toms River

Skip admired his seedlings.  Soon, soon it would be warm enough to put his cosseted tomato plants out in the garden.  He was ready, so ready.  This was going to be his year.  His tomatoes were going to finally shame that turd Bennie’s.

It was a “friendly” competition between the gardeners of their little retirement community plots where the most prolific crop was tomatoes.   Five years ago the homeowners association (headed by that turd Bennie)  decided to hold a little harvest festival Labor Day weekend.  Since most of the residents were retired it resonated as the official end of summer, rather than an occasionally depressing “back-to-work” signal.

Skip was a newcomer, but he didn’t like what he  saw the last  two Labor Day weekends.  The smug mug of that turd Bennie with manicured hands that sure didn’t look like they pulled weeds regularly.  And the widows all over his tomatoes offering to make his gravy on Sunday afternoons.  Right.  A true tomato man didn’t use the fruit of his vine as a cheap sex lure.  Bennie smoked his big stogies and bragged he just ground the ashes and cigar stubs into the soil.

Skip had spent the winter planning his crop rotation, composting religiously, reading about organic pest control, researching the hardiest breeds of seeds.   Like an athlete he visualized a successful outcome.  He saw himself standing tanned and victorious at the judges’ table over his antioxidant rich red crop.  His wife, on the other hand, took no interest in his, Bennie’s or any other tomato entrant’s strategy.  She was happily retired and enjoying her trips to A.C. for her nickle winnings and quarterly gossip.

She had heard from her widow posse that Bennie was a bit of a “catch, ” if only because he was still interested in a lady’s companionship and kept up his personal hygiene —  cigars withstanding.    But this strange compunction of her own husband did not totally surprise her.  Skip was a competitor and liked to play the underdog.  She nodded sympathetically when he went blathering on about his heirloom seeds and special rabbit-resistant cages.  “Yes, dear, ”  she’d intone.  But deep down she rooted for her husband and his ability to play from the rear of the field.  And she wasn’t totally above plying Bennie’s latest conquest for a little bit of garden intel.

Who said living in a “55 and over” community was all canasta and mall walking?  The tomato war would ripen into the juiciest event ever in short-term memory.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Sandy, Unplugged.

Monica didn’t know what was worse: the silent sunrise after the storm revealing the debris covered yards and streets or the radio hosts desperately asking listeners to call in and report what was happening in their neighborhoods.    Lou had unearthed their “emergency kit” with the dead battery flashlights and crank radio because the power had gone out sometime during the night.    But very few folks were calling in because they either had no cell service or they were conserving their batteries until the power was restored.

The morning chill was disconcerting, out of sync.  Most of these storms happened at the tail end of summer when you had to sweat out a power outage, not worry about keeping warm in late October.  Then she started to think about all the food that was bound to spoil in the ‘fridge, and if the water level in the sump got too high and their basement flooded.  At least the gas stove was working so they could boil water and fry up some eggs.

So no internet, no TV, no lights, no heat.  Oh, it’s quaint for a morning to congratulate yourself on your resourcefulness, but then it becomes painfully clear how dependent you are on the magical wires and screens.

The news trucks finally were able to make it out onto the roads to report back to the radio studios, and it started to feel like “The War of the Worlds.”  People stranded, boats in their backyards, brackish water creating tide-pools with their living room furniture.  Panic at  gas stations, abandoned pets, all the stories designed to make you scared, to make you hide and hoard.

But then it happens.  People check on their neighbors, invite them over to sit by the fireside.  “We’re all in this together.”  Libraries and firehouses open their doors, and as the power comes back on -line these “comfort stations” become a hub.  The old-fashioned town square where people talk to each other.  We go back to “odd/even” gas days, but there’s still a cop directing the cars to the pumps.

Monica and Lou got their power back after three days, and Monica cleaned out the ‘fridge, went shopping and re-stocked.   Lou bought new batteries for the flashlights.   But two years later she’s still reading about people fighting with insurance companies.  People who can’t even begin re-building their homes yet.   She feels a shiver of guilt as she swipes her screen to read the next news story.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Rosedale’s Rollers

They gathered around the niche in the columbarium at Rosedale-Rosehill Cemetary. Nothing remarkable to see in a knot of women with canes and differing hues  of grey hair until you are close enough to hear them talk.

“Cherry Jammer was the sweetest bitch on wheels.  She loved the derby and she loved us like sisters.” Rosie the Elbow blew her nose into an embroidered handkerchief.

“I remember her skating the last 15 minutes of a bout with two broken wrists.  And she got even tougher after she had those boys with her crazy ex.”  Penny PainNPanic, or “3P,” shook her head gently.

“She rolled until she could roll no more.”  Carrie Cruisenbruiser sagely intoned.

The roller derby family mourning Cherry was held together by blood, sweat, tears, spit and now, memory.  Active women who were fearless in competition, they were called names by some members of their own families.  They were teammates who became friends outside of the arena and never let go until infirmity and age eventually got a stronger grip.

Cherry was the first to go so the Rollers decided to meet on her birthday to celebrate her life.  The plan was to meet up at her final resting niche, say a few choice words and then go out to lunch.  It was possible they’d also get drunk, because why the hell not?

So here they were, their bodies soft, twisted, stooped, But their eyes and hearts fiery and fierce with humor and experience.   Each learned from the rolling collective how to stand up for herself, to make her own choices, and to live with those choices.  Did they all get along all the time?   Does any sisterhood, wheeled or not?  But they would hold on tight until the last one went down.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Blue Ribbon Rainbow Quilt

Pearl rummaged through the bag of fabric squares and found old blue ribbons of past prize-winning crafts.   Her grandson Josh sat on the other side of the table with his section of the quilt loosely set in his hoop.  Josh had a knack for sewing and tailoring.  A naturally creative designer, he worked on costumes over the summer for the local community theater group, and made some of his own clothes.  Pearl was crazy about her shy grandson.  He had a terrific sense of humor — just like her older brother, Eddie.  Josh reminded her so much of Eddie.  His green eyes, the crazy cowlicks all over his head, his quiet observation of the world — these qualities were both balm and guilt for Pearl.

Eddie went away when Pearl was fourteen, and the remaining siblings were told not to speak of him.  Pearl remembered the loneliness of hearing her mother cry late at night in the privacy of her room.  But she was still ashamed that neither she nor any of her siblings would join her in sorrow or comfort.

But times were different now.  Josh wasn’t ashamed of who he was and neither were his parents.  Pearl was old enough to know that her relationship with him would offer her some measure of redemption for the loss of Eddie.

They were working together on a craft submission for the county fair in August, and a quilt felt like a creative project with some practicality.   “Hey, Grandma, let’s work some scraps of those old blue ribbons into the pattern,” Josh suggested.

“Wonderful idea, my dear.  How about we turn them into the stripes of a rainbow?”

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — A Nice Place To Raise A Family

The Newark Star Ledger lists Pennington as the #1 town to raise a family.  And they are right.  It’s green and full of trees.  There are plenty of gardens with both flowers and vegetables and very few predators looking to snack on my family.

I chose Pennington because I am a groundhog mother and these things are important to me.  Like most mothers I worry constantly.  From the time hibernation ends I’m either gestating or lactating a brood of shiftless, wild groundhog pups who need constant attention. They are the reason we can’t have nice things.  I tell you, I don’t get to eat a meal in peace until the last one has left the burrow — usually in September.  By then I’m so ready for a weekend in Atlantic City with my girlfriends before we bed down for the winter.  Yeah, the burrow is empty, but before I can get used to the tidy quiet I’ve got another kit under paw.

The worst time is when they’re big enough to sneak out of the burrow but have no sense of fear.  I turn my back for five minutes and the next thing I know is those dumb kids are chasing each other out in the open and they have no clue that it’s dangerous to be exposed like that!  They will walk up to anything.  I’ve lost a few that way, let me tell you.   People and their pets are not our friends.  They just look up at me with that “Huh?”  expression.  I gotta love them, but they make me nuts.

And it’s not like I can tell them to “wait until your father gets home.”  He’s off on his own bulking up and marking his territory so I’m left to civilize these creatures before they head out on their own. There’s always one who can’t wait to leave — anyplace is better than home. That’s the one I’ll find in a Hav-a-Heart trap chomping on cantaloupe with a goofy grin on his face.  And there’s always one I’m dragging kicking and screaming out of the burrow.  I suppose there’s an element of “survival of the fittest” in both?

We need space.  Space to spread out and do our groundhog thing.  So plant a little extra in the garden patch and give a mom a break.