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Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

In, line, hellrule, please and thank you


Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. || Hellrule: All of your characters but one are dead, but they still have to do stuff.

From On High || 1,321 words

Eden wasn’t good enough for the rich, so they renamed it Bar Harbor. Before that, though, they built a church. Or rather, they did as the rich do and ordered a church built. It stands today, deceptively massive within, replete in deep mahogany, Tiffany stained-glass windows gracing its walls.

Fifty yards down the road, the workers then set about building a church they could attend. It, too, stands today, every bit as small within as without, uncomplicated stained-glass windows meekly adorning the sides of its lone gathering hall, thick white plaster falling in heavy, dangerous chunks from its waterlogged ceiling. They hit the church floor like a mortar round.

It is there that Benjamin works, caring for the grounds and guiding curious tourists, many of whom are looking for the church up the road.

If they stay and ask about this church, the old man begins by walking them through its tiny cemetery. The stones are well worn and crooked, slumping out of the grass as though pushed through by something restless underneath. Occasionally, a tourist will ask if anyone famous is buried here. Benjamin simply gestures to the condition of the stones, then to the church up the road.

Thirty years ago, he would have discussed the religious, social, and economic complexities of the era and town at length. Like the workers’ gravestones, time and the elements have eroded this explanation to only its most vital pieces.

He stands among the workers this morning, looking down at the stones and grass, hoping for the sake of his back there aren’t any remaining stray weeds to squat and pluck. It is early. The sun only found its way over the trees a little bit ago. The chill of the coastal night hasn’t left yet. Satisfied with his work, he walks the thin gravel path toward the front of the church and makes his way up its rough stone stairs.

It’s here Benjamin will typically stop the tourists and explain, pride peeking through his hushed voice, how the beauty of the nicer church betrays its lack of use—and how silly it is to build a place of worship too nice for you to worship in. He’s found over the years that telling the tourists this before taking them inside replaces their looks of concern, amusement, or disdain with looks of quiet admiration. Suddenly, the holes in the plaster ceiling that expose the beams underneath are more … charming. The pews, creaky and warped from daily morning masses and almost a century and a half of salt air, are given a pass. He helps them see it as he does, and inevitably they are grateful.

“Grateful, that is the word I was looking for,” says a soft, old voice from behind him, and Benjamin turns quickly. The morning mass is not meant to begin for several hours yet. He’s about to remind his visitor when it is meant to start—this would not be the first time one of his fellow townsfolk, their age catching up with them, had shown up at an odd time dressed in their best—when he catches full sight of her and freezes in place.

Joyce Weatherby. Lovely as anyone, inside and out. Long-time member of his church. After retiring from decades spent teaching the fourth-graders of Bar Harbor, present for every morning mass—until she wasn’t. Cancer had taken her two years ago. Benjamin attended her funeral. Everybody did.

He continues to stare, his mouth frozen slightly agape—as though it fully intends to leap into action, if only his mind could be spurred into working. Mrs. Weatherby picks up the slack.

“Grateful is absolutely the word,” she says. “I was just thinking to myself this morning as I walked over, how grateful I am for this place. How grateful I am to you, Ben, for keeping it standing.”

She walks by him on the stairs and continues inside. He turns in place to follow her path with his baffled gaze. His shirt, the back now warm and damp, clings to him.

“Mrs. Weatherby,” Benjamin manages to utter as he slowly follows her into the church. “What—”

Benjamin doesn’t finish his question, though Joyce doesn’t look as though she’d turn around to respond anyway. She walks calmly to the same pew she occupied every morning and sits, her posture perfect, hands crossed daintily in her lap over her small purse. She was always one of the few tiny enough to take a pew without it groaning under the strain.

“We’re all grateful for that, I’d say,” calls another voice, this one from the corner—low, gruff, and familiar. Benjamin turns again, his eyes adjusting to the dark just as the figure is slowly walking out of it: Pat Benson. Young, compared to Mrs. Weatherby, but dead all the same. A heart attack took him during his morning jog months and months ago—maybe a year already? He’d been cremated, the ashes spread into the harbor a few hundred yards out. And yet.

Words feel like a foreign concept for Benjamin. Pat smiles and walks slowly, deliberately, toward the pew across the aisle from Joyce.

“Still working on that suspended ceiling, Ben?” he asks, pulling at the legs of his trousers before taking a seat. The pew doesn’t groan underneath him either. It certainly used to. “Need to get that roof fixed up. Plaster’s already giving out. Dangerous.”

Benjamin tries to remember if he ever discussed the suspended ceiling with Pat. He’s almost positive the first moves on it were made at least a few weeks after the ceremony out in the harbor.

“It’s, uh … it’s coming along,” he says, weakly, reaching one hand behind his back to tug lightly at his shirt, which now feels soaked through.

“Said that about the bell, too, as I recall,” Pat says, his eyes betraying just a touch of whimsy. He looks over at Joyce, who’s smiling back at him patiently. “Three years now, I haven’t heard it but once.”

“Don’t harangue the man, Pat,” she says. “He’s done his best. And you did get to hear it, didn’t you?”

“Sure, sure—eventually,” Pat says, following it with a familiar chuckle.

Benjamin clings to that familiarity as if it is the only thing keeping him rooted to the ground. He looks from one to the other, eyes wide, question after question failing to fall through his lips. It feels as though he has awoken to find his bedroom floor stolen out from under him. His eyes begin to blur, and he blinks to clear them.

The room sways gently. Benjamin reaches out to steady himself on Pat’s pew. It’s cold, and slightly sticky from the morning air. He stares at the ground, trying to focus on something static.

“You’ve done a wonderful job, Benjamin,” Joyce says to him, compassion in her voice. “Keeping a church this old standing in a place like this? A wonderful job. A man’s work.”

Even with his eyes closed, Benjamin can feel the room swaying and swinging around him, faster now, more harshly. He doesn’t sense Pat leaning in, but his voice is closer, quieter—calming—when he speaks.

“Go on, son,” he says. “Nothing to be scared of.”

Benjamin pries his eyes open and tries to look up. They take a few seconds to adjust to the light.

He blinks a few more times, and realizes he’s on the floor. He notices that despite the warm and wet flooding the back of his shirt, he feels cold, as though that coastal chill has somehow gotten worse since dawn. He swears he can hear the church’s bell.

As his eyes clear, he looks up at the ceiling—it lies in front of him now, distant, looming—and notices a spot directly above in which the roof's soaked wooden slats show harshly through a gap in the heavy white plaster.

It looks unfamiliar. He stares at it for a few seconds more, and then he is gone.

Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

I'd like to unburden another.

Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

Yeah, I was about to note that I deeply appreciate the level of critique we get here. I've been loving terrible at keeping up with this thread (and failed three times because of it), but it's also one of the best sources for regular, solid criticism from talented writers and editors I'm aware of, and that kicks rear end. Thanks, all.

Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

Prompt: With a tearful look to the heavens, you unburden yourself of your sixth sense

Reaching || 484 words

This isn’t where it should happen. Not this fluorescent-tinged hellhole. Fake fern in the corner. Indiscernible certificates hanging on the wall. Armed MP who looks as out of place as I feel.

I don’t deserve to lose her again, and I certainly don’t deserve for it to happen in a place like this.

“Baby? What’s going on? Talk to me.”

This should feel more like a ceremony—more mournful, more somber. Someone from the clergy should be here. Someone with empathy. Anyone with empathy. Instead: Jonas. With his cheap suit, and his patronizing voice, and his sallow, waxen face. He’s trying to look sad. It’s infuriating.

“We’re deactivating the implant now, Mr. Reeves,” he says, his tone tilting upward. Unnatural. Manufactured. Gross. “Five seconds.”

“Baby, what’s happening? Are they doing it now? Talk to me, please.”

I do my best to keep a straight face, but her voice, her desperation, is destroying me. I want to grab Jonas’s head and bounce it off the manufactured wood of his desk. I want to see how well that cheap suit burns.

I nod. The MP shifts slightly. Five seconds.

The implant hums to life in a way it hasn’t in more than a year—since they first brought her back to me.

Medicine got better over my five tours. Killed became wounded. Debilitated became restored. But when you come back home from China with PTSD and a wife killed in mainland attacks, there’s no graft for that. You take what help you can get.

When the docs at the VA tell you you’re a candidate for something wildly different, something revolutionary, you take it.

They were able to bring her back—until the insurance company decided there were better ways to spend their money.

Medicine got better. People didn’t. Not in the ways that mattered.

He’s staring at me. This clip-on rear end in a top hat is actually trying to emote. I want to wrap my hands around his throat. Give him something to look so vacant about.

The MP shifts again. He’s realizing he never patted me down.

“Baby? Please. Please—”

Images flash through my mind. First date. Both of us freezing cold, neither wanting to say anything. The way her eyes shrunk to small slits when she smiled. Movies on the couch. The cat. Our wedding. I cling to these things.

They recommended dialing back how frequently we talked, to help brace for the impact of letting go entirely. I’ve tried. I’m trying. I can’t anymore.

“It’s happening now. I’m so sorry. I love you. More than anything. I’ll be with you soon.”

“They can’t do this they can’t do this THEY CAN’T DO THIS—I love you too, I love you so much, they can’t—”

Silence. I close my eyes as the hum of the implant fades to a stop. I open them to the snap of Jonas closing his laptop.

He’s already packing up. My hand goes to my pocket.

Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

:toxx: In!

Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

Spent some time in the hospital this week, so I'm just not going to have time to finish up the piece I was working on. Gotta take the fail.

Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

Progress | 190 words

We waited in hushed anticipation, crouched behind a row of bushes in my great-grandfather’s front yard, eager to leap out and surprise him for his 90th birthday. Inside the house waited the rest of us—four generations of Pembertons, all gathered to celebrate our family's resolute patriarch. Many of us had not seen him in years. The youngest among us were meeting him for the very first time.

The inside of the house was decorated beautifully with an odd but extraordinarily fitting mix of streamers, balloons, and cherished family photos. From the outside, you'd never know. We'd all parked far down the street and gone out of our way to make sure our beloved Seymour would be well and truly surprised when he got back from church.

We all shushed one another and crouched even further as we saw his car approach. It was one of those new self-driving wonders—"a gift from me to me," as he called it. It pulled into the driveway and came to a slow, even stop.

The door opened automatically, and the body of my great-grandfather slumped unceremoniously out onto the grass of his front yard.


Toaster Beef
Jan 23, 2007

that's not nature's way

Hey y'all, posting this absurdly late because my original plan to enter the last Thunderdome was derailed by heart issues and a hospital stay. Whomp.

Your stories this week will be set in a world where everyone has a Number floating above their head. How you choose to work with that constraint is up to you -- it could signify age, wealth, number of toes, hit points, etc. If you’d like for me to assign a meaning for The Number, toxx when you sign up and I’ll hand out flash rules.

Word Count: 1369 words
Signup Deadline: August 30, 2359 PST
Submission Deadline: September 1, 2359 PST

Hellrule: “The Number indicates the remaining number of seconds in a person’s life. It is almost never wrong.”

Scientific Notation | 1,252 words

“Scientific notation,” Sonia said wearily, chin never leaving the cradle of her hand, head bouncing as the words came out. Her cover bounced along as well—hovering a few inches overhead, its movements exaggerated. “That’s what changed everything here.”

The nurses turned, apparently unaware they were being listened to. Sonia, her eyes still heavy, smiled.

“Y’all thought I was asleep.” They nodded, almost as one.

Sonia stood up from behind the nurses’ station desk and walked around it as the other three made room for her in their discussion. The olive-skinned brunette—either Jessie or Jamie, she tended to confuse the two—spoke up.

“Sorry, we were just—”

Sonia waved her hand and shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.”

For a few seconds, nobody said anything. Sonia took silent stock of the hallway. Things here could never be said to be truly quiet—monitors, intercoms, and their charges saw to that—but these very early-morning hours were as close as it got.

“They teach about the scientific notation thing at all in nursing school?” she asked, and each of them shook their heads.

“I learned a bit about it in high school, when they taught the Event in general, but they didn’t bring it up at all in nursing school,” Jamie—her tag was now clearly visible—said. The others nodded, each uttering in quiet agreement.

“The Event was terrible everywhere,” Sonia said, “but it hit hardest right here. No new parent wants to the real-time countdown of the seconds in their kid’s life. Nobody wants to see that for anybody else, just in general. Hence the covers—but how do you explain to a new mother why her baby’s cover is so much smaller than the others?”

“Oh, God,” said another one of the nurses. Beth. “That’s awful.”

Sonia liked Jessie and Jamie, and she liked Beth, too—but Jessie and Jamie belonged here. Sonia wasn’t so sure she could say the same of Beth. Some folks just can’t cut it, and Sonia thought she saw that in the young lady. “Just a little too soft,” Sonia would say, among friends, two or three drinks in.

“It was, yeah,” she said, looking behind Beth down the hallway, where she thought she saw someone wandering from one room to another. The janitor’s cart was nearby. Sonia turned her attention back to the other nurses.

A few inches over each of their heads, the soft elastic of their covers shifted gently as the numbers underneath changed. Sonia paid it no mind. Neither did anybody else. Such was the unspoken social contract.

A sudden clattering from the room down the hall—the one Sonia thought she’d watched a janitor walk into just seconds ago. The light in the room was still off. Her eyes narrowed, and she slipped past Beth to go check it out.

“I’ve got it,” Jamie said, her voice soft and cautious, her hand resting gently on Sonia’s shoulder. She was already moving past Sonia, walking with the quiet speed all the maternity nurses perfected early.

The group moved slowly behind Jamie, stopping maybe twenty feet away from the door as she turned the corner into the darkened room.

“Hello? Can I help you?” they heard Jamie say, her voice calm. Some indiscernible muttering followed, and then more clatter—sounds of a struggle. Then the sound of someone hitting the ground. Hard.

Sonia would replay the next few seconds in her head for the rest of her life.

The three had hardly any time to react before they saw the figure in a gray hooded sweatshirt and dark jeans, eyes wide, newborn cradled in her arms, emerge in a dead sprint from the darkened room. Simultaneously, they heard Jamie clamoring to get her air back as she yelled, “Code pink!”

The woman’s hood was up, its shape made bizarre thanks to the numbers over her head. Small wisps of blonde hair flowed out from under it and bounced as she ran. Sonia made it a point to take in whatever she could of the woman’s face as she reached for a phone along the wall to dial up security.

As Sonia called in the code pink, Beth and Jessie charged to corral the woman, who made no efforts to evade them. She plowed directly into them both, making every effort to simultaneously cradle the baby and lower her shoulder into the nurse closest to her. It worked: Beth stumbled backward and fell, her arms thrashing wildly for anything she could grab on the way down. Jessie, meanwhile, had wrapped her arms around woman and baby alike and was struggling to keep her in place.

As Beth got to her feet and Sonia charged toward the scuffle, she caught the glint of something in the woman’s pocket. Something the woman was reaching for with one hand as Jessie continued to try and keep her rooted.

“Knife!” Sonia yelled, arms outreached, as Beth stood and grabbed for the baby. The woman, maybe recognizing her odds, abruptly let go of it—and Beth was there to make sure it didn’t hit the ground. Sonia’s efforts to get to the knife, meanwhile, were not as successful, and the woman began to swing it wildly.

Later, much later, one particular detail Sonia would go over time and time again was the way in which the elastic covers above each of their heads were shrinking and growing instantaneously with every move.

Sonia grabbed for the woman’s arm as she struck time and again at Jessie, who was still holding on, despite the growing number of bad lacerations in her arm. As Sonia grabbed the woman’s wrist and pulled her arm upward—away from Jessie, whose screaming wasn’t registering with anybody—the three finally went down in one large heap.

Sonia’s head bounced off the tile hard, and for a second all went white. She panicked, struggling blindly.

A few seconds later, she realized the struggling was almost entirely on her end. As her vision returned, she felt a warm wetness underneath her—and realized all three of them were laying on the ground in a growing pool of blood. Sonia struggled to her feet, her shoes slipping on the wet tile.

Jessie lay on the ground, breathing heavily, keeping her arms crossed over herself. The woman, eyes still wide and just barely moving, lay next to her, the knife protruding at an awkward angle from the side of her neck. Her hood had come off in the struggle. The numbers above her head were rapidly decreasing, now—and steadied in the low double digits, ticking down as each second went by. Jessie’s cover had shrunk as well, but seemed to have stabilized. She’d be okay. They’d have those numbers back up in no time.

It felt like an hour. It had been less than fifteen seconds. From down the hall, opposite the room from which the woman had emerged, Sonia heard the rapid footsteps of a security team sprinting to the scene. From the other end of the hall, Sonia heard Jamie mutter, “Oh my God,” from the doorway of the darkened room.

Sonia’s pulse pounded in her ears, drowning out nearly everything else. Overhead, alarms blared. Sonia, Jessie, and Beth were all breathing hard. Beth was white as a sheet, rocking gently on her feet. The baby was screaming.

Sonia looked at the baby, its fists balled up tightly, face red, mouth wide open. Poor thing.

Wait. Something wasn’t—

Sonia barely had time to register how small the baby’s overhead cover had become before Beth collapsed, the baby falling with her.

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