Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Queen's Old Fool (10-minute-dash), by Faith E. Hough

(PROMPT: a ten-year-old orphan named Amanda goes to meet her grandmother—who lives in a castle—for the first time. 10 minutes.)

Mandy stared across the vast expanse of the throne room.
“Meet your grandmother,” Jack told her.
She stared up at the queen hopefully until Jack nudged her. “Not Queen Alice,” he muttered. “Don’t embarrass yourself. Over there, on the left.”
To the left of the queen’s throne stood another elderly woman, hunchbacked where the queen was regal, salt and pepper gray where the queen was white, but—on a good note—smiling where the queen was framed in forbidding frowns. She waved Mandy over to her corner.
“Pleased to meet you, Mandy,” she said. “Don’t mind my outfit—it’ll grow on you.”
The outfit was strange—a bizarre conglomerate of colorful patches, none of them matching in color or texture.
“You,” Mandy stuttered, “You’re a fool?”
“Well, that’s not a very nice way to say hello. Some people think me right smart.”
“No—I mean…you’re a jester?”
The grandmother sighed. “Well, that’s what I was hired for, but I haven’t done much of a job of it yet.” She lowered her voice. “That queen is a piece of work. About as happy as a criminal with his neck in a noose. And her husband just laughs at me because I look ridiculous, he says.”

(And the complication, in the form of a second 10-minute-dash: Amanda discovers her grandmother is going to die...on the fourteenth of January, to be precise.)

“Well, what am I supposed to do here?” Mandy asked. “I’m not funny,” –and I’m definitely not about to dress up in a crazy 17-colored-outfit, she added mentally.
“As I see it, you can mostly do as you like, so long as you don’t get into trouble. And even if you do, I won’t be around long to worry about it.”
“What do you mean, you won’t be around long? Uncle sent me to live with you.”
Grandmother pursed her wrinkled lips. “It’s very inconvenient to you and your uncle, I know, but Freddy needs to learn to check other peoples’ schedules before he makes plans. I’m leaving on the fourteenth of January.”
“Leaving? Can’t I go with you?”
“Not unless your eternal soul is prepared and the Lord is willing. I’m going to die.”
“What? How can you possibly know that now?”
“Because that’s what Queen Alice told me. If I haven’t made her laugh by the fourteenth day of next month, it’s the end for me. Beheading.”
“But that’s only three weeks away!”
The old woman sighed and hugged Mandy to her chest. She felt all padded and squishy and warm; something about realizing she would only be around for a matter of days made her grandmother suddenly very dear to Mandy.“Well, it’s three weeks I’ll have to get to know you, and I’m thankful for that. As long as I don’t make her mad.” She pointed her gnarled old thumb to the queen. “Then it could be sooner.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wishing a very Happy Birthday to TERRY PRATCHETT. As a storysmith-par-excellence we salute you!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Burning Sun (3-minute-dash), by Faith Hough

PROMPT:Begin a chapter, using a setting to create a mood opposite the cliché, expected one: Setting, bright sunlight. Mood, despair. (3 minutes)

The sky was perfectly blue, reflected into an equally blue ocean. The hot sand hurt my feet, and the double sun—the one in the sky and its rippling reflection—burned my eyes. As for the rest of me, I was already burning. My chest was burning with anger. My tongue was burning with the thousand things I should have said and didn’t. My legs were burning with the desire to walk myself right off that old dock, to make a splash, some defect in that aggravatingly perfect sea.

Unlucky Mitch (Blurbs), by Mark L. Hough

PROMPT: Write a story synopsis in the form of a dust jacket “blurb”, then continue by writing the first sentence or paragraph.

Mitch Wisely wasn’t the world’s most unlucky kid…yet; luck was, according to his grandmother, something that worsened with age--like tattoos. And Mitch was only eleven. So when Mitch receives an invitation from his Uncle Tony to tour the U.S.S. Lucky 7, a nuclear submarine, nobody thinks it is a good idea--especially Mitch. Three weeks later, when Mitch and Uncle Tony find themselves somewhere in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, Mitch is certain it was a very, very bad idea.
Pyramids will crumble and dictators will fall as Mitch and Uncle Tony make their way back home and uncover the secret behind Mitch’s bad luck.

A variety of possible first sentences:

* “Mitch! Have you been over to the O’Briens’ house again? ‘Cause their dog just died.”

* A lot was going through Mitch’s mind as he lay on the runaway hospital gurney.

* Mitch decided not to carry the lucky rabbit’s foot anymore after he nearly chocked on it. His list of forbidden activities had begun in second grade with parachuting, bungee jumping, hand gliding, parasailing--and lawn mowing.

* There was something worse than falling out of a plane without a parachute, Mitch thought idly as the wind whipped the moisture from his eyes; falling from a plane with no parachute while your headset was stuck playing Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” was definitely worse.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Breathing-Room (15-minute-dash), By Maureen Hough

(PROMT: Describe the room you’re in, in a way that describes everything toward an emotion.)

. The speakers were still swelling with big band music when Marsha walked in three days later. Look where she might, despite it being her father’s house, no shred was left of his life or presence.

. Marsha allowed herself a moment to look before closing her eyes to the room. Around her, every inanimate object was bent on animation: the stereo vocalized, the carpet blushed with stains, the shelved books pressed together like so many pursed lips. Even the impression on his pillow had gone, sacrificed to some greedy energy from her overstuffing it with cotton. Surrounded by overtures to life, she alone breathed, and yet somehow felt a ‘what’ among ‘whos’.

. Only the clock was silent; and, more by default than explicit wish, she found herself drawn to it – the ironic, silly, black block that had stopped, like her father, in some serene, but unnoticed moment. The black and white numerals counted themselves starkly, all movement and measure reduced to contrast like the sillouettes crowding noiselessly on the farthest wall.

. As she neared to inspect, a movement came upon the clock’s glass casing, and her own face surfaced in reflection. She saw her nose – her father’s nose – and for a moment she seemed to herself his last image and gift, his living death-mask. She reached beneath the casing and struck the pendulum; together, they two, they three, swung again in balance.
-Maureen L. Hough

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Duel (15-minute-dash), by Faith E. Hough

(PROMPT: A boy or girl of 13 must be the moderator of a duel. 15-minute-dash.)

Sandy began to back away slowly, so her dress wouldn’t swish and give her away. Why did they have to fight over her so much? If only she were able to tell them the truth—that she wouldn’t give two beans for either of them (in a romantic way, that is)—they could all just go back to being friends again and everything would be fine. But her father had made her promise…and a lady must keep her promises.
“Where are you going, Sandy?” George called, and Sandy racked her brains for an answer but discovered none. Her hat was heavy and her hatpins were poking into her head until it was nearly impossible to think. She knew it was only polite to stay and watch when two admirers were risking their lives for you…but she rather wouldn’t and rather they didn’t.
George’s reason for desiring her presence, however, was a surprise: “If you go, who’s going to tell us how many paces?”
Apparently George and Eric had finally found something upon which to agree again. “You know,” Eric said, “Someone always has to count out the paces…decide if satisfaction has been made…”
“I think satisfaction has already been made,” Sandy argued, but George cut her off.
“Anyway, somebody has to stick around to run for the doc when Eric blows his own hand off because he’s too stupid to aim—”
“You’re one to talk, mister—”
“Don’t you start this again—”
“I didn’t start anything, I just—”
“STOP!” Sandy silenced them with a word. “If you want me to moderate, you have to listen to me.”
Both young men nodded and blushed—that may have been the one and only advantage of having them in love with her.
“First I must examine the weapons for any foul play,” she said, trying to conjure into her voice the authority that emanated from her father when he spoke to the new soldiers about to march off and fight the Yanks. He had an authority no one, herself included, dared resist, but she suspected that a little bit of it may have seeped into her own blood.
The men passed the weapons from their white-gloved hands to her own.
“I’ll examine them in private, if you don’t mind,” she said. She gave each boy a tender look that she hoped would keep them from strangling each other when her back was turned.
“Don’t discourage suitors,” he father had ordered. “Make yourself appealing,” he’d said, “Make sure and get yourself a fine man.”
Well, he hadn’t said anything about letting two fine men kill each other, so she wasn’t about to. Behind the screen of her wide skirt, she emptied the barrels of both guns, dropping the bullets into her silk hand bag.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Little Star of Bethlehem (Children's Short Story), by Mark L. Hough

(Completed Children's Short Story)

Jeremy Dinkins paused before stepping out from behind the curtains. His cue had been long in coming; the three school bullies should have said “Lo! What light shines just beyond grasp like a guide in our search for a king?” exactly four minutes earlier, but as usual they had bungled their parts to the point that their teacher, Mrs. Herald, had to prompt their every line. Pretty pathetic actually. Jeremy had told Mrs. Herald this would happen months ago when she gave them the roles of “three wise men” for the winter play entitled “Bethlehem”...but somehow the irony of making the three buffoons into wise men for a day must have been irresistible. And now here they were laughing through their embarrassment as if each guffaw would smooth over the fact that they had four months to memorize exactly eighteen words (words that every other student could now recite) and managed only to get the line “Where is the King?” stuck inside their primitive brains. Jeremy shook off the annoyance that came with yet another correct prediction and closed his eyes, immersed in the meditations of the Stanislavski Method—his preferred method of preparation for acting.
“I am a comet…I am a comet…” He knew in truth that “the little star of Bethlehem” really was a comet whose flight path happened to coincide with a cluster of stars in the vicinity of Ursa Minor. This knowledge resulted in weeks of research and debate with Mrs. Herald. Her arguments had been pretty weak and he hadn’t even had a chance to introduce the four studies made by scientists in the 1970’s before they had reached a compromise: Mrs. Herald would add a small tail to Jeremy’s “star” costume and Jeremy would not paint “I’m a comet—not a star” to the bottom of his poster board.
It hadn’t really been a compromise after all, he told himself; it would take a real idiot in the audience to miss the obvious fact that stars didn’t have tails—and the three biggest idiots he knew were on stage right now.
He parted the curtains, face frozen in his most comet-like expression. He hoped the audience, consisting of parents, siblings, and the assorted elderly patrons of the school, would pick up on the look of quiet disdain he knew comets must have for creatures whose life expectancy was approximately one trillionth that of a comet. He had been working on the face for weeks, during classes, bus rides, and even on the playground—earning him a bloody nose in the process. But nobody said acting was easy, and in the end it paid off; he could feel disdain building up inside of him and knew he simply had to let the emotion flow from his face. Ah…it really was too bad he had higher ambitions in life…acting was sooooo easy.
“Follow my trail (pathetic earthbound humans, he added to himself) and I will lead you to the newborn king!” He began walking regally around the stage—the cue for the “wise men” to follow—when the unexpected happened, or rather the expected happened for unexpected reasons.
He knew the bullies would have trouble following a simple task like “follow the glittering star” but it took just one look for Jeremy to know something else was wrong. The three kids looked like three confused monkeys…more so than before at least...and were pointing off stage. Jeremy followed their stares and saw instantly what had stopped the three stooges in their tracks: Mrs. Herald. She was lying face down upon the floor by the props table, half covered in torn pages from the script.
Jeremy’s eyes widened, the only relaxation from character he would allow himself—remembering the age-old actor’s rule, “the show must go on,” he stepped to the front of the stage. Improvisation had never been his strong suit, but if it was left to the other three boys the whole production would fall apart.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. This ends scene four. There will be a fifteen minute intermission.” The curtains closed and Jeremy pushed his way through the crowd of students.
“She’s having a seizure. She must be diabetic!”
Jeremy didn’t have to see the face of the speaker to know it was Amanda Byrd. She was never seen without the dark iPod on her hip, wires hanging out of her ears like black spaghetti. She suffered from asthma and seemed to enjoy finding that other people had sicknesses as well.
“That’s absurd,” said Jeremy, giving Mrs. Herald a once-over, “She never snacks between classes. Besides, this wasn’t a seizure. It was an attack.” He pointed to two thin wires that were attached to Mrs. Herald’s back like a marionette. “She’s been Tasered.”
A gasp and more predictable dramatics arose from the girls, while some of the boys couldn’t help letting their eyes wander curiously from the wires to the small hand-held gun lying a few feet away.
“Does anyone have a phone? We should call 911!” said another kid.
“No!” replied Jeremy. “She’ll be all right; the shock will wear off in a few minutes. But whoever did this was after something.” He looked over the pile of torn papers.
“Then he’ll get away!” cried another girl dressed as a camel. It was a sore spot with Jeremy that her costume had two humps on the back when he knew that only the single humped variety lived anywhere near the Holy Land. He tried to ignore this fact as he answered her.
“No, he won’t get away, because whoever did this didn’t get what they were after.”
“How do you know they were after something?” asked Amanda.
Jeremy sighed. He could have told them all two weeks ago that something like this might happen.
It had seemed like a kind offer from one of the quirky old men in town at the time. Mr. William Redford the Third, descendent of the man who had founded the old mining town 150 years before, had always liked being in the spotlight. His grizzled beard and mustache were always brushed and waxed in a style that would have made any Austrian Baron jealous. And every Christmas, the man’s desire to be noticed by the town seemed to peak. Last year, for instance, he had surprised the entire town of Redford by importing three magnificent elephants from Africa for the living Nativity display outside the Town Hall. He took great enjoyment in keeping everyone in the dark about his plans until the last minute.
This year had been no exception. Two weeks earlier, while Jeremy had been busily reading the Wall Street Journal during his lunch break, he’d overheard Mrs. Herald upon her cell phone.
“Yes…Yes, well that would be wonderful…the kids will be quite surprised…yes, I think it will add to the reality of the play. Thank you. No, of course I won’t tell anyone. Yes, the fewer who know, the safer it will be. Thank you.”
Jeremy had continued to flip the pages of the paper while eavesdropping; it always annoyed him in movies when spies appeared to remain forever on the same page while overhearing important conversations. Mrs. Herald, as expected, didn’t seem to pay him any attention but had instead searched her drawers with an excited smile on her face for the script the kids had been working on so diligently. She had skipped through the majority of the play, straight to the last page where she scribbled for about five minutes before putting the play back in her desk. Jeremy waited, knowing well that the look on his teacher’s face could not keep the secret for long; in two minute his prediction, once again, was proven accurate. Mrs. Herald rose and quickly hurried down to the office of the school principle, Mr. Borek—a short man who seemed to enjoy the fact that as a middle school principle, he was finally surrounded by people a head shorter than himself.
Jeremy had never had a problem debating people and even then the arguments for sneaking into Mrs. Herald’s desk were winning dramatically over his own arguments not to.
She’s a teacher, his thoughts said, and as such she desires her pupils to develop a great hunger for knowledge.
In less than thirty seconds the internal debate was over. He made his way to Mrs. Herald’s desk and in a mere six and a half seconds picked the simple two tumbler lock. The script was a mess, with scribbles and pencil drawing all over the place….when would she learn that an organized mind makes life easier?….and finally he found the page he was looking for. The middle of the paper was still warm from where her hand had rested while writing. He looked past the type-written sections to the base of the page where, in an excited version of Mrs. Herald handwriting, he read:
“I hope you have enjoyed this play. The children would like to thank all the parents that have helped with its production and especially Mr. William Redford—who has loaned to the school the real gifts the wisemen brought to Jesus: Frankincense from Saudi Arabia, Myrrh from India, and lastly, the largest single Gold Nugget found in North America—from right here in Redford. (Wait for applause.) All three will be on display after the play. Thank you and a Happy Holiday.”
Jeremy had seen the wisdom in keeping such information quiet, but knew (especially in teacher’s lounges) how quickly secrets became common knowledge. As the days leading up to the performance ticked away, however, no mention of Mr. Redford’s eccentric loan was made by anyone.
A hand was shaking his arm and it took Jeremy a second to snap back into the present.
“Jerry,” said Annette Frisco, using a pet name he absolutely despised from anyone but her. Thinking about it once, he realized to his great annoyance that the girl could probably call him “aardvark” and he’d let her. Many distracting moments had been spent wondering whether the girl felt the same for him, even though he knew the thoughts were about as useless as trying to beat her at ultimate Frisbee. Still he couldn’t help keep a sigh from escaping from his chest whenever he saw her.
Ah L’amour…who can stand up to it?
“Jerry, what should we do?”
“Right, first: Amanda, John, go to the front entrance and keep anyone from leaving—tell them it will disturb our performance. Roger,” Jeremy then said, looking to the biggest of the three bullies, “come with me.”
Amazing how a small disaster like this could turn the middle school’s entire social structure on its head. Normally Roger would have boxed Jeremy’s ears for telling him to do something...and now here he was following behind Jeremy like a confused dog.
They ran to the back doors of the auditorium; they were locked, as Jeremy had expected. That left just the main doors and the one janitors’ entrance as possible escapes. The janitor, Mr. Dench, wasn’t on the best terms with Principle Belok. The principle had publicly accused the janitor of taking school supplies for his own use. Mr. Dench swore it wasn’t him but some student and the resulting argument ended with Mr. Dench stating he would lock every door on the school lest he be wrongfully accused again. It was Jeremy’s belief that the janitor had a winning court case against the principle for public defamation of character, but after working the figures, Jeremy realized it would not be worth the man’s while after court costs and everything. Too bad, he thought, if only the man was capable of self representation, he’d save a ton on lawyer fees.
They reached the janitors’ door, and Jeremy’s heart sank as he saw it; it was unbolted and open. Surprisingly, Roger spoke, and it wasn’t in the usual grunts.
“It looks like whoever did this got away.”
Jeremy didn’t want to give the kid the satisfaction of agreement but stuck his head out the door, trying to stare through the swirling snow that was dusting the cars and pavement.
“Not quite,” said Jeremy. “There are no footprints. Somebody wanted us to think they got away…which means they’re still here.”
Roger slowly nodded and mumbled something that sounded like, “Whoa…..Dude.”
“We’ve got to get back to Mrs. Herald and the others—the attacker is still in the auditorium.”
They ran all the way back, and Jeremy was pleased to learn, for his own records, that while Roger could counterbalance a small tank he couldn’t run more than a dozen steps before getting winded. That will come in handy next time he tries to take my glasses to burn ants, Jeremy thought.
They arrived back at stage left, where Mrs. Herald was finally coming around. It would be no good if she ruined everything and brought the police into this—they had a habit of waiting weeks before giving a press conference in which they declared what everybody already knew. Jeremy pulled the wires from Mrs. Herald’s sweater and hid them amongst the items on the prop table.
“What happened?” Mrs. Herald asked in a sleepy voice.
The kids in unison looked to Jeremy. All right, he thought, here it goes…I am a convincing liar…I am a convincing liar….
“You fell, Mrs. Herald. You must have hit your head on a block and tackle.” Okay, it wasn’t great, but it was the best he could do.
“Oh, really?” she said, rubbing her head. It feels okay…”
“Shock does that to you,” answered Jeremy in a breath. “We go back on in two minutes, Mrs. Herald.”
This had the affect he was after. She jumped to her feet and once again was their fifth grade teacher.
“Everyone, in places...Wait. Where are we?” she said, trying to scoop up the pages of script from the floor.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Herald,” said Jeremy, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I’ve got the whole play memorized.” He ran to the three kings and whispered to them quickly. “Listen, we’ve got one chance at figuring out who the attacker is. The four of us will go onstage and I’ll feed you your lines. Got it?” He hated having to use slang but it was the only way to get through to these guys.
The three nodded in agreement—and relief, once they realized they wouldn’t be required to make anything up.
Jeremy grabbed the wise men’s props from around the corner and, shoving them into their hands, pushed the three back onstage.
Clapping. Jeremy rolled his eyes at the barbaric custom and waited for silence before he made his entrance.
“I am the star of Bethlehem…which you have been following from afar….er, actually from Arabia, Mesopotamia, and North Africa, to be precise,” he said. If he was making up the script, why not make it informational?
Roger looked to Jeremy and like a perfect parrot repeated what he said, line for line.
“I am Balthazar….from Arabia…the eastern tip according to most scholars…and I bear a gift…. of finest Frankincense.” The boy opened his box, revealing the large chunks of crystallized sap to the audience.
So far so good, thought Jeremy, staring out into the crowd. No reaction but smiles.
Tony was the second of the three kings, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the new arrangement. Perhaps he realized how much the three were at Jeremy’s mercy. Jeremy smiled…Brains win over brawn yet again.
“I am Caspar…a brutish king of Meso….Mesopat…er, Mesopotamia. And I bear a gift of stinky myrrh.” Tony glared at Jeremy who signaled the boy to open his box. He did, and to his surprise, and the amusement of the audience, the box was empty.
Great, thought Jeremy, two down one to go. He scanned the audience one last time before feeding Dan, the third wise man, his lines.
“I am Melchior…of Northernmost Africa….and I have followed this star-like comet…with gifts of purest gold.”
Jeremy locked the audience with his most intense stare as he signaled the boy to open his case. Dan did so, fumbling with the lock. The box slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor, spilling its contents at the foot of the stage.
The entire audience burst into laughter; it was unavoidable, as Jeremy had known it would be. Primed by the previous unexpected loss of the Myrrh, the audience—following the well-researched rules of mob mentality—would search for another thing to release emotion, in this case laughter. And, like lemmings before a cliff, they all fell—holding their sides and wiping their eyes. All but one.
It wasn’t the gold that lay like glittering tinfoil upon the floor that kept the one man from laughing. If anything, Jeremy caught the slightest gleam of want in the man’s eyes as he watched it roll to a stop near the stage lights. What really caused the man to break apart from the pack of laughing innocents was the second item that fell from the box: a black handle attached to two long wires.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” cried Jeremy in the most awe-inspiring voice he could muster. “There has been an attack on Mrs. Herald and an attempt to steal a rare prop loaned to us from Mr. Redford: the largest gold nugget found in North America!”
The audience had stopped laughing now and Jeremy realized instantly he was losing them. Grrr. Why must people always think of him as a kid…besides the obvious fact that he was one…?
“He’s right!” cried a voice from behind him. It was Annette, looking as welcome as a vision from the angel Gabriel itself. “Mr. Redford, someone tried to steal your prize gold nugget from backstage. They attacked Mrs. Herald in the attempt.”
Mr. Redford stood, looking flustered. He had wanted a bit of attention for sure, but not at the cost of losing his gold.
“Young lady, but, that’s impossible. Nobody but Mrs. Herald knew about the gold. She wasn’t even going to announce it before the final bows.”
Jeremy stepped forward, removing the ridiculous star/comet costume as he did so. He was wearing a white button-down shirt and dress pants. It had taken him all morning to decide whether he should where a sweater or a button-down shirt. Now, standing with his hand gentle stroking his smooth chin, he was glad he went with the button-down. Definitely more Holmes-ish.
“Dear sir,” he began, cringing at his own use of a cliché, “Mrs. Herald was not the only one to know about the generous loan of your gold. There were two others who knew of its place in the play tonight. The first was a boy, smarter than most and concerned for the safety of your property. The second was a man, selfish, greedy, and of such small stature, he saw it fit to arm himself when going out at night.” Jeremy raised his arm and his look of utter disdain needed no prompting as it fairly pierced the blanched visage of the principle sitting two rows from the front. “Mr. Belok, you have been caught.”
The principle paused in his seat, the way every criminal on TV did just before running. It surprised Jeremy, who thought for certain it was something done just for dramatic effect. But then, just as hundreds of paid actors had done before him, Mr. Belok ran. He leapt over feet and handbags—and would have made it to the door had not a two- foot-wide, glittering piece of posterboard hit him in the back of the head. Though he tried not to be, Jeremy was impressed.
“Whoa…..Dude,” he said, oblivious of the slang escaping his lips and the look of satisfaction on Annette’s face. Apparently she wasn’t Captain of the Ultimate Frisbee team for nothing.
By the time Mr. Belok came to, the police had arrived and were, as usual, making a mess of things. Mr. Belok claimed to have no knowledge of an attack and told the police the reason he ran was that he was afraid of a lynching. Predictable, thought Jeremy, as he told the other cast members to stay where they were. He leapt from the stage with as much grace as his thin Rockwellian frame could manage and strolled up to the man.
“You…You…lying deceitful boy. How can you claim I tried to steal Mr. Redford’s gold when it is obviously right there in front of you on the stage?”
The surrounding people, police included seemed to find the logic of his statement staggering and looked to Jeremy.
Always obliging, he answered. “True, Mr. Belok, there has been no theft of Mr. Redford’s gold tonight. I said there was an attempt made to steal his gold and an attack in the process. But, Mr. Belok, if you are as innocent as you claim, can you honestly say you have not been backstage tonight?”
The man sputtered in a most indignant manner. If not for the drips of sweat falling from the principle’s nose, Stanislavski would have been proud.
“Of course I haven’t been back there.”
“Then, could you explain how, between scenes three and four, the gold from Melchior’s chest came to be in your vest pocket?”
The principle smiled. “How absurd! The gold is right there on stage where everyone can see it!”
It was Jeremy’s turn to smile and he did so with flair. “I did not say “Mr. Redford’s gold”….I said “Melchior’s gold”...or, to be more precise, a piece of modeling clay that I painted with metallic paint two days ago. I replaced the true gold before the play began. We have no need to check your pocket, sir; I’m sure you have thrown it away by now...though I'm sure a full police analysis will find traces of the paint. It’s not just about the money, though. It's about attacking Mrs. Herald to get it…” Jeremy shook his head like a disappointed parent.
“You have no proof, none at all. I don’t even own one of those Taser things,” Mr. Belok said, pointing to the wired box on the stage floor.
“Really?” said Jeremy slowly, choosing every word. “You’ve never seen one in your life?”
“Only once or twice on TV.”
Jeremy felt the familiar feeling of over-dramatization building up within him but did not care. He signaled to Dan, who walked over carrying both Mr. Redford’s gold and the box with black wires.
“It’s a funny thing, Mr. Belok…for one who has never owned and rarely seen a Taser, you were pretty quick to “mistake” Amanda’s iPod for one. Only the man who had used one minutes earlier could be so confused as to mistake a harmless iPod for a Taser, Mr. Belok. And, if you will remember, you were the first person to mention the weapon tonight.”
Jeremy, seeing the face of Mr. Belok fall as the police escorted him outside, smiled. It was a real smile and he wanted to remember it for later plays. He would label it in his overly complex brain as “my smile of victory.” Yes, he thought, picking up his posterboard comet. Maybe he could work a little victory monologue into the rest of the play.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Prince and the Peasants...Continued (Copycat Balderdash), by Nancy L. Hough

(RULES: Continue the excerpt from The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. Time: 5-10 minutes.)From the book:“Who art thou, boy?”“I am the king,” was the grave answer…“The king? What king?”“The King of England.”

My invented continuation:

“Oh how cruel you are to jest like that when our poor dead king lies cold in the Abbey with candles at his head and feet!” said the eldest girl.
“Yes,” agreed her companion, “and his poor son, at this very hour, mourning the loss of his father, is kneeling by the mortal remains.”
“Praying,” interrupted the first girl, “beseeching heaven for the strength -”
“and wisdom -”
“and courage to be a strong -”
“and wise -”
“and brave ruler -”
“Yes,” said the lad. “But suppose the boy – he is but a boy - suppose he does not want to be king? What then?”
“Then he shall be a strong - ”
“and wise -”
“and brave -”
“and quite unhappy king.”
~Nancy Langdale Hough
Notes on the ART:
The Italian Peasant Boy by William Morris Hunt, 1866
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Dying King (15-minute-dash), by Faith E. Hough

(PROMPT: Write a high-stakes scene in a way that is dramatic without being melodramatic: the king is dying, and leaves the kingdom to his son. Time: 15-minutes)

Robert regretted his heavy lunch. His father’s bruised face, misshapen nose, still fingers made acid rise to the young man’s mouth. Monitors, needles, tubes were stuck into or coming out of the old man’s body in practically every spot not covered in casts and bandages.
When the king spoke, it was so jarring Robert thought he might lose his lunch right then. His father’s voice was harsh and dry.
“Robert…it’s you, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes. How do you feel?” Robert grimaced. What a question.
“Honestly,” the king answered, “I feel like I’m dying. Surprise, surprise.” He croaked out an ugly laugh.
Robert nodded, holding back the thousand things he felt ought to be said in this situation; his father would hate them.
The king coughed once. “Of course you know you’ll be in charge now,” he said. “I should ask how you feel.”
“Do you think I’m ready?”
“Do you?”
“Then you’re more ready than I was. You’re likely to bungle everything up completely, of course. That’s to be expected.”
Robert tried to laugh—couldn’t quite. He suspected that his father might, for once, be speaking to him seriously.
The monitors started going like crazy. A queer look came over the king’s face as half a dozen nurses in joltingly cheerful medical scrubs came running in, sneakers squeaking with every step.
Robert reached for his father’s hand, but he must have squeezed too hard and pulled on the IV because the king muttered, “That hurts, Robert,” in an annoyed whisper.
“I’m sorry. I…I mean, you know…Father…” The wild thought to say I love you crossed Robert’s mind, but he abruptly abandoned it for fear of being ridiculed. “Oh, forget it.”
“I want you to have my pigskin vest, Robbie,” the king said. For a second, his eyes were as tender as Robert had ever seen them.
The nurses’ voices got as squeaky and frantic as their motions. The monitors stopped; the nurses stopped, too.
Lord Brock, in his corner of the room, jotted something down on a piece of paper and turned his business-like attention to Robert. “The press will expect a statement, but I’ll hold them off as long as possible, Your Majesty. Would you like to call your mother, or shall I attend to that for you?”
“You go ahead,” said Robert. He didn’t want to make a bigger fool of himself. He just wanted to sleep now.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Emancipation (Adult Short Story), Mark L. Hough

(PROMPT: Something is on the kitchen table that isn't supposed to be there...No time limit.)

I was wearing a fifty-four hundred dollar suit the day it happened…my family’s emancipation. The Mercedes was cooling itself off in the garage (amazing cars, those Mercedes’), and I had just put the mail on the counter, when I saw it.
It was simply an “it”; there is no easier way to describe the smoking mass of charred something on the kitchen table. It sat there, calmly filling the kitchen with its flame-broiled odor, while I stood and watched. It was 5:50 Monday, and I was all alone.
It wasn’t dinner—at least it wasn’t supposed to be. My wife and I—both members of the modern two-income society—took turns cooking. I took Monday and Wednesday while she took Tuesday and Thursday. We ate out on Friday and Saturday whenever I was in town. Sunday was my day out…golfing with the “boys” and dinner at the clubhouse. It was an arrangement we had both agreed upon, though we had never discussed it formally…we didn’t have time. We were both too busy reaping the illusive rewards of suburban success. Or so we thought.
The truth is, we were slaves, my wife and I. I don’t know for certain when the transaction took place, but it had. Perhaps it was the gradual nature of our transformation that made it difficult to pinpoint the moment of change; like trying to assign a date to one’s entrance into adulthood. But regardless of our awareness of it, we had become slaves…slaves to a stereotype.
I suppose we should have recognized the signs sooner…like when I started playing golf. I hated golf. Still do. At the time, Susan said nothing about my taking up a sport we both knew I hated. It was just…accepted, included in the contract—like the free golf balls that came with the three thousand dollar pigskin golf bag I bought.
It had all come together—a part of the successful-young-couple package you get when you become a slave. The new car. The new house. The dinners out. The other couples who talk endlessly of their stereotypical lives as if they were something unique. Their new car. Their new house. And somehow, my wife and I, we let it happen.
I studied the charred mass, completely unaware of what I was expected to do. I had felt the same way the night before. Susan had been in a rare conversational mood—going off about memories. Our first date. The Wedding. The early years of our marriage… The days had been harder then. Our house was so cold in the winter we had to huddle together to keep our teeth from chattering at night. Our fifteen-year-old Buick left us stranded on many a back road. Eating out had depended upon how many quarters we could find in the sofa… For almost an hour, Susan went on and on, until quite unexpectedly she began crying, and, like a spectator at a crash, all I could do was watch.
The whole next morning, I thought of what she had said. It was true the early years had been harder…but it seemed now, looking back, we had something then that we didn’t now, as if the transformation that took from us our difficulties had stripped us of our happiness. Without our knowing.
The thoughts continued on all afternoon like an IV drip, slowly pouring desperately-needed life back into my body. Why do we work so much? What happened to spontaneity? We were both happier back then. When was the last time we gave each other a good, hard look and saw the reason we were together?
The drive home had questions of its own: What would Susan say? Was she happier with the secure life we had? How would she react to a change? And if she wanted one, how would I know?
I took the smoking hunk on the kitchen table to be a bad sign. Was this...thing... the final summation of the last eight years...a smoking rebellion against the tedium that had become the routine of daily life?
I stared at it for at least ten minutes before recognition prompted me to smile. There on the kitchen table was my answer and I took it up with complete disregard for my jacket sleeves. Love was like this sometimes—demanding change...demanding action to secure the freedom of its lover. And, though actions may speak louder than words, nothing speaks louder than a roasted golf bag.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Bringing of the Bell (Ten-Minute-Dash), by Maureen L. Hough

(Descriptive passage describing the process of an activity in a way that conveys more than method - i.e. revealing character, humor, etc.)

The Frankish bishop’s gift arrived several months after he unseated the abbess from her customary seat, protesting that only after the mildewed ship could the monastery be a charm. The impure candles, the loose binding of thatching, the thickness of the dinner table against his weak chest - he stage-whispered his ailments to the secret of their common God. The abbess bore it a time with the sanctity of a fish too long in the net, which was more than could be said of the novices, who decided to prepare the brethren for the promised bell by bonging and clacking the midnight hours themselves. Surprisingly, only the bishop heard the display, and he shouted out some words of his native tongue. Thankfully, they were unintelligible, preserving the young ones’ minds and saving the abbess from having to blame yet again the tightness of her veil for her deafness.
As with all bad guests, the blight of the bishop’s presence was soon forgiven when his gift arrived, promising to make more noise than he did. The ship with the bell was flagged from far off, and transferred to a skiff through the shallow waters. A good many more hems were drenched than needed, as it neared the shore, but the bell’s package was well attended by hands keeping it in its balance. Although most were suitably ascetic toward abundances of food and comfortable postures, none were prepared for the abundance of glory awaiting them, and most heartily [sprang at the honor] of bringing the bronzeness home. There was a scramble for grips under the rims until it was decided who indeed arrived first, and who would have to satisfy themselves with the suddenly glorious task of placing the logs before the front of the skiff. This job was mostly given to the postulants, and directed loudly by the bishop, since several of them cleverly thought that the “bell of God” was an affectionate term for an inflammatory saint like the “Hammer of Heretics”. And truly, at half a tons weight, the relics of such a saint would indeed be formidable.
-Maureen L. Hough

The Prince with the Peasants...Continued (Copycat Balderdash), by Faith E. Hough

(RULES: Continue the excerpt from The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. Time: 5-10 minutes.)

From the book:
“Who art thou, boy?”
“I am the king,” was the grave answer…
“The king? What king?”
“The King of England.”

My invented continuation:
The smaller of the two girls stared, innocent eyes like brown pools. “By’r Lady,” she sighed, “the king! Is it true you eat plum cakes every day?”
Edward intended to answer, but the other girl spoke first. “He’s no king,” she scoffed.
“Said he was,” retorted the younger.
“He’s a liar—like Ugly Jack.”
“Is not! Ugly Jack hasn’t got hair so pretty.”
“Is too! The hair isn’t important. Where’s his crown if he’s king, halfwit?”
“I’m not a halfwit! You are a halfwit!”
“You smell like a pig!”
“You look like a horse!”
From there, the conversation degraded to insults volleyed from one girl to the other in such high-pitched whines that Edward saw no choice but stop them.
“Quiet! The king demands it.”
Both quieted and the taller girl cocked her head to one side.
“Who says you’re the king?”
“I say it.”
“Why’re you dressed ugly, then?”
“’Twould be a long explanation… Suffice it to say: these are not my clothes.”
“Oo—ooh,” the girl giggled. “And don’t you talk high and mighty? I think you’re just a beggar with a big head.”
“You are an insolent fool,” Edward answered.
“You are crazy,” said the girl.
“You…” For once Edward found himself at a loss for words. “You—look like a horse!”
The girls erupted in peals of laughter that made Edward’s ears throb.

From the Diary of Young George III (10-minute-dash), by Faith E. Hough

(RULES: Write a fictional diary entry for a historical ten minutes or less.)

Uncle enrages me. He is so stupid. I hate stupidity, more than anything.
Today, as we were brushing Sampson and saddling him for my ride, we heard two boys quarreling in the stableyard. Uncle said it was none of our affair, but I overrode him on that at least.
"You always say to be a good king, I must have an unquenchable love for my people and concern for their troubles," I said.
That settled it and we went out. The boys were fairly stupid themselves, truth be told--as it must be, here at least, though Uncle would try to have diplomacy come before honesty at every turn. But the boys were fools. They had got themselves all abroil in a fight over who should get to ride a certain horse--a horse that, it was soon established, belonged to the elder of the two.
Now, is it not perfectly clear that if a boy owns a horse, he should be the one to ride it? I told them so very plainly, and the matter should have been settled without further trouble, but for the interference of my father's half-wit, conciliatory, stupid brother.
"They ought to share the horse," he said.
Share! I thought I would lose my dinner.
"Have you no compassion?" he asked. "The younger boy has no horse, and his foot is lame."
"Precisely," I answered. "He has no horse. The other boy has. If God has seen fit to bless their fortunes so, we should not meddle in His providence."
Uncle took me aside. "George," he said, "If you are ever to be a good king, you must learn mercy."
"Uncle," I said, "If you are ever to be a good advisor, you must learn something. Anything. The whole world of knowledge is open to you. You should look into it sometime."
And so I am confined to my room for the rest of the day. That is well enough for me. I would rather be alone.

Ernest Hemingway's Diary (Ten-Minute-Dash), by Mark L. Hough

(RULES: Write a fictional diary entry for a historical ten minutes)

Thursday--or Friday...who really cares...
So I've been writing in this journal now for two weeks, and I can definitely say it isn't worth $@#&. "Writer's Block" (as my idiot of an agent calls it) cannot be got through simply by filling up a stack of pages with the drudgery of life. I wish it could.
It has been eight *&%$ weeks (if my calculations are right) since my powers of invention have become no more than a wasteland in my mind, and still I am no closer to the end of my book. Santiago is still lost in his boat, having just caught the marlin, and if this affliction of mine continues, he will die there before I get him ashore. I can see it now: Patterson and the people at Scribner's reading with horror as I describe the slow picking of parrot fish and seagulls on the bodies of both the hunter and the hunted alike. He'd swallow his stogie as sure as I'm sitting doubt. It is strange, though... the picture decaying flesh presents--however disturbing it might be to the public--is alluring in its own way. The readers of course wouldn't stand up for old Santiago dying that way--wouldn't sell. Oh, well. Maybe I can use part of the picture anyhow.
I've been writing too long. My hand hurts. I'm going for a walk along the water--the tide has gone and maybe it has washed up something worth writing about.
It is 92 degrees, the wind is light--from the south as always--and I hope I come up with something soon so I don't have to keep writing this.