The Great Scheme of Things

Prompt: Hopeful


Folly, Plato, and I were sitting by the pool at the Best Western Motel, just outside the town of Chandler’s Folly. The pool still held water but was almost covered with leaves. It was not an unpleasant sight, as it was too cold to swim anyway, and it was night time so the stars flickered and danced on the water’s surface.

I talked to Folly too, now, and not just to my dog Plato. Folly was about as responsive, but at least she would hear the words, somewhere inside that lost, confused head of hers. She might not understand the words; after all, she was only eleven. I was only sixteen, but I learned a lot, especially after the end of the world, just by travelling around with Plato in the Jag.

For one thing, as I told Folly and Plato that night: “Some days I forget what the date is, or the day of the week, or the month, or the year. What difference does time make? I don’t have to go to school or be home in time for dinner or do anything or keep track.”

We were sitting on loungers, wrapped up in towels we’d found by the indoor pool. Plato was lolling on the tile floor, content to hear my voice.

“Plato and I kept a journal at first,” I said. Plato’s ears stood to attention. “We wrote down what we did and what we saw. We had— well, still have— a notebook about the plague and the end of the world, that we put clues in to help us figure it out. Why the catastrophe happened, why it was so bloody and why everyone disappeared. Why we survived. Don’t you wonder, Folly?”

Folly stared at the pool.

“The Internet still works, in case I want to google something,” I said. “I don’t know why it does, or for how long it will work. And then I think, who cares if it ends, too?”

I stared up at a million stars.

“You know, books and libraries and everything that is recorded will disappear too. No one will be here to notice it or be sorry, or wonder who lived on this planet.

“So I’m not going to write in the notebooks any more. I don’t need to remember stuff about my sisters or my parents or my cousin Dwayne. It doesn’t matter any more, do you understand?”

“No,” said Folly.

Her voice didn’t startle me, rare as the sound of it was. That was part of the problem. Things didn’t startle me, or scare me, or make me curious, or make me laugh. It had been sort of a gradual thing. And to tell the truth, I thought Folly felt the same way.

“It’s hard to understand,” I conceded. “Do you want to remember your parents?”

“Yes,” said Folly. Again, the voice didn’t startle me. But the words did, a little.

“Okay,” I said. “Good. Tomorrow we learn about your parents.” I didn’t care. I thought it would be a good thing for Folly to get her memory back, and find out what her real name was, and all that but in the great scheme of things, it didn’t really matter.

“It does matter,” said Folly. Plato got to his feet and put his big old head in her lap. She scratched him behind his silky ears.

“What else do you want to remember?”

“My birthday,” said Folly.

“Okay,” I said. “Good.” If I was still surprised by things, this evening would have surprised me.

Nine Toes

Prompt: Renewal

Lawyer Amal Clooney listens during a news conference for Mohamed Nasheed in central London

“Good afternoon, Mr Parsons,” said the voice on the other end of the telephone. It wasn’t really afternoon; that was more, to Charlie Parsons, a time between one pm and six pm. After that it was more dinner hour, and evening, and then night.

Charlie didn’t recognize the voice, and the timer for the frozen ham and pineapple pizza in the oven was about to sound an alarm, but he’d been raised to be moderately polite, so he accepted the “good afternoon” and then said he had no time to chat as his dinner was ready and he was hungry.

“Oh!” said the woman’s voice. “Then I’ll be brief. You did not renew your subscription to Ice Fishers’ Digest, and I’m simply calling to rectify the situation by putting the new subscription on your credit card.”

“Thanks, but I’m not renewing. Good-bye, now!” said Charlie Parsons, and almost had the phone back in its little cradle when the woman screamed.

“Hello?” he said, bringing the instrument up to his ear again.

The oven timer dinged.

“I’m sorry, Mr Parsons,” said the woman, out of breath. “I didn’t mean to startle you. But you see, the upcoming issue of Ice Fishers’ Digest has an article about celebrity ice fishing. Did you know that Amal Clooney sits for hours on end in an ice-fishing cabin, for fun?”

“Seriously? Good-bye.”

“Wait!” That scream again.

“If you don’t renew, I lose my job. I’m already living out of my car, with my seven year old daughter Amelia, who has ADD and no medication. I’m saving up to buy a tent. Please Mr Parsons! And, did you know that the kind of line you use affects the weight of the fish you catch? Little known tip, but amazing.”

“I’m sorry about your daughter, but—”

“I know where you live. I know where you work. Don’t make me come after you,” said the voice, now almost a whisper. “Plus, international ice fishing laws vary. Did you know you could inadvertently end up behind bars when visiting Finland?”

“I don’t ice-fish. I never got the damn magazine. I’m not interested. I only have nine toes and don’t want to ice-fish.”

“There is a coupon in the February issue of Ice Fishers’ Digest for two dollars off all HeatMe! sport socks. Anyway, many psychologists say fishing provides great mental health benefits, and I don’t need to tell you about the role of Omega fats in a healthy diet.”

“No, I—“

“Have you ever been impotent, Mr Parsons? Stress and a poor diet could be the culprits. You need to ice-fish. You need it.”

“Thanks but—“

“My daughter is really almost twenty, and very very attractive. How would you like to meet her for dinner tomorrow night? My treat?”

“No, I mean the ADD thing…”

“Your impotency is more of a problem than my daughter’s ADD,” said the woman.

Charlie Parsons had been looking out the window to a lime tree, whose brilliant yellow leaves were just starting to bud. He didn’t notice the smoke, and when the alarm set off he was startled and dropped the phone on the floor.

“Mr Parsons!” the voice screamed. “Mr Parsons!”

Charlie turned off the oven, opened all the windows and doors, and held a pillow to the smoke alarm until the shrill buzzing stopped. He left the phone on the tile floor, grabbed his leather jacket, and made his way to Piece o’ Pizza, as he felt his mental and physical health depended on a fresh ham and pineapple pizza, perhaps accompanied by a leafy green salad.

The Devil’s Dictionary

Prompt: Ovation


If you write, or simply love words, you have to admire the author of an oeuvre called The Devil’s Dictionary. Ambrose Bierce’s publication was originally called The Cynic’s Word Book (not quite as catchy) and contains his wry collection of satirical definitions that still hold up after 100 years. (Will we be read in 2116?)

Conservative: A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

Sweater: a garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.

Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.

Life:  A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.

Patience: A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

Egotist: a person more interested in himself than in me.

Ambrose Bierce also included this cryptic (to me) definition of ovation, name-dropping the inimitable Dudley Spink*. Not every entry is a pithy gem:

Ovation: In ancient Rome, a definite, formal pageant in honor of one who had been disserviceable to the enemies of the nation. A lesser “triumph.” In modern English the word is improperly used to signify any loose and spontaneous expression of popular homage to the hero of the hour and place.

“I had an ovation!” the actor man said,
But I thought it uncommonly queer,
That people and critics by him had been led
By the ear.

The Latin lexicon makes his absurd
Assertion as plain as a peg;
In “ovum” we find the true root of the word.
It means egg.

Dudley Spink

*No clue, really, about Dudley Spink.


Prompt: Retreat


I was losing the battle. My hair follicles were retreating from the front of my head. All of my dedicated leadership, my fearless and sympathetic role as commander, and my denouncements of the enemy had no effect on my army. They marched backwards. I was at once furious and mystified.

I could call them cowards, but perhaps their view, their sacrifice could only be understood if one was on in the trenches with them, or in this case, on my scalp. Perhaps conditions had been too formidable, losses too heavy, morale too weak, to carry on with bayonets at the ready.

They left behind a no-man’s land: A barren wasteland dotted with skeletal, ashen, and fallen trees, the remnants of their comrades, wisps of gun smoke, and memories of courage, recklessness, and loss of hope.

I, as commander, had to face reality. I had decisions to make. Did I continue to allow the slow sacrifice of my loyal regiment, or did I concede defeat? Did I wave the white flag, or urge my soldiers to stand up, shoulder to shoulder, and fight another day?

A comb-over, or a total head shave?

What would Jesus do?

Caramba! Que pasa?

Prompt: Bounty


I couldn’t find a credit for this gem of a take on the classic “Night Before Christmas” poem, but I love the life and spirit of it.

Tejano Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the casa,
Not a creature was stirring — Caramba! Que pasa?
Los ninos were tucked away in their camas,
Some in camisas and some in pijamas,

While hanging the stockings with mucho cuidado
In hopes that old Santa would feel obligado
To bring all children, both buenos and malos,
A nice batch of dulces and other regalos.

Outside in the yard there arose such a grito
That I jumped to my feet like a frightened cabrito.
I ran to the window and looked out afuera,
And who in the world do you think quien era?

Saint Nick in a sleigh and a big red sombrero
Came dashing along like a crazy bombero.
And pulling his sleigh instead of venados
Were eight little burros approaching volados.

I watched as they came and this quaint little hombre
Was shouting and whistling and calling by nombre
“Ay Pancho, ay Pepe, ay Chucho, ay Beto,
Ay Chato, ay Chopo, Macuco, y Nieto!”

Then standing erect with his hands on his pecho
He flew to the top of our very own techo.
With his round little belly like a bowl of jalea,
He struggled to squeeze down our old chiminea,

Then huffing and puffing at last in our sala,
With soot smeared all over his red suit de gala,
He filled all the stockings with lovely regalos–
For none of the ninos had been very malos.

Then chuckling aloud, seeming very contento,
He turned like a flash and was gone like the viento.
And I heard him exclaim, and this is verdad,
Merry Christmas to all, and Feliz Navidad!

HMS Caribbean Discovery

Prompt: Discover


Deborah’s mother, Beth, was approached by a youngish man with a dark tan and a moustache. She wasn’t put off by his uniform, as she usually was, because Staff Captain Montgomery led a crew on a cruise ship, not in the military. He was not her husband or ex-husband, nor did he have any connection at all to Beth, except they were on the same ship in the middle of the Caribbean, where a live band was playing something danceable, and even though it was no doubt part of his job when not actively on duty to mingle with the guests, he had decided to seek out the woman in the black skirt and sleeveless, sequinned top, whose hair was just a little too long, and whose eyes sparkled and changed colour as the mirrored dance ball spun lazily overhead.

“May I?” he asked with slight flourish and a self-mocking smile.

They did a turn on the dance floor, a handsome couple in a candlelit room, enjoying a kind of hybrid waltz. Beth loved to dance and was good at it. Staff Captain Montgomery was less talented, but made up for his lack of rhythm with his enthusiasm and gusto for the role of handsome captain performing his gentlemanly duties to pretty women on a Thursday night, in the Tuscany Restaurant transformed for the evening into an informal ballroom.

“Are you enjoying the cruise, Ms Hernandez?”

“Very much so, my first time at sea,” said Beth.

“Oh, then you must allow me to give you a special tour,” he said.

“Special?” said Beth.

“Yes, for an especially beautiful woman who has never before been to sea,” said the Staff Captain. “Perhaps later this evening?”

“Perhaps,” said Beth, who had never had such a conversation where the word “perhaps” was so frequently on her lips and had such mysterious undertones. It was immensely enjoyable.

Which was how Beth Hernandez found herself in the small bed in the surprisingly small cabin of the Staff Captain of the Cruise Ship Caribbean Discovery. Earlier there had  been a look through a window to the engine room, and a glance at the main dining room kitchen, empty and sparkling clean, and a quick visit to the dimly lit bridge, where the Captain was pleasant and polite, and not at all surprised that his second-in-command would introduce him to a passenger so late in the evening. Perhaps it was common practice on the part of Staff Captain Montgomery. Beth didn’t care.

It was too much fun to feel again, after so long, her skin from neck to toe, pressed up against another warm skin, neck to toe. She’d forgotten the intimate smell of a man, the different textures and noises, and she revelled in them.

Until there was a sharp rap at the door, and Geoffrey rose from bed and she heard the even sharper sound of a woman’s angry voice. It sounded very much like the Excursions Director, Polly, whom Beth had heard speak in the theater that very afternoon, recommending sights and shops at their next port of call, St. Therese. Oh dear.

The shouting and murmuring ended, and Geoffrey returned and crawled back under the covers, meeting Beth skin to skin once again, and kissed her on the neck, whispering his apologies.

That night there was a storm and the ship tossed and people were lifted out of their beds. Beth didn’t notice at all, and crept back to her own cabin before dawn, and slept through breakfast.

Breathing Lessons

Prompt: Calm


“Stay calm,” said Virginia.

“How can I stay calm when my daughter is being born here?” said Cash.

They were in the mattress department at Sears. Local staff had called an ambulance, but the baby girl was not prepared to wait. Both Virginia and Cash were covered in a painful, sticky sweat and both were gasping for air. Virginia alternately sat up on the edge of the bed, vomited into a plastic wastebasket, and lay flat on her back, knees up, panting like Cash’s dog Buzz in a heat wave.

Ms Cooper, the Mattress Manager, had sent staff off in search of a doctor or nurse because outside the cosy department store, where music about Tannenbaums was piped soothingly through the sound system, snow continued to fall and form beautiful fluffy white blankets which made the streets impossible for any vehicle, never mind an ambulance, to traverse quickly and safely.

“Here comes Doctor Deepak!” exclaimed a young blonde woman who wore a name tag that said, “Merry Christmas, I’m SHANNON, How can I help you today?”

The doctor was small and very dark, wearing a Christmas sweater embroidered with Christmas balls and, for unknown reasons, butterflies, but he pulled the sweater over his head anyway and tossed it on the lower bunk of a Thomas the Tank Engine-themed bunk bed set.

“I’m a vet,” he said, both sheepishly and loudly.

“Do NOT put your hand up there!” cried Cash. He had no idea what was he was saying. He was disoriented. He had visions of James Herriot and a the breach birth of a calf. “Anyway, we can see the baby’s head.”

There was indeed crowning going on with the baby’s head. Ms Cooper brought a security guard and a large tumbler of ice for Virginia. Shannon fetched a bowl with cool water and a wash cloth, which Cash applied to the back of his neck, fearing he would faint, before dabbing the cool cloth on Virginia’s forehead. Doctor Deepak rolled up his shirt sleeves ominously, and told Virginia to breathe. She and Cash forgot all their breathing lessons, and Virginia actually had a fleeting thought wishing she’d had Cash shave her legs that morning, and then she almost blacked out when a knot of pain twisted in her abdomen, and they had no time to think about the baby who was four weeks early.

Altogether, nine people witnessed the birth of their daughter, Echo, including Mr and Mrs Yankowich, who were shopping for a simple mattress cover for the spare bedroom because Mrs Yankowich’s father’s bladder could no longer be trusted overnight.

Echo, named after the valley in which she was conceived, was bloody, wrinkled, and covered in slime, had ten fingers and toes, and Shannon and the security guard, Ernie, wept like it was their last day on earth.