Tuesday, October 31, 2017

RESULTS: The Friday Challenge, 10/13/17 edition

After much thoughtful and careful deliberation, we have discovered that if you give seven stories to a nine-judge panel, the awesome power of pure mathematics takes over and you end up with 63 different opinions. Therefore in order to select the winner of  the October 13 Friday Challenge, we now appeal to the Wisdom of the Crowd.TM

On the other side of the Read more » link you will find the three short stories that we have determined to be the three finalists. In the right column you will find a survey widget, which you can use to vote for your favorite. In the Comments section you can of course leave whatever comments you may feel moved to write.

The challenge, as you may remember, was to write a story that answers the question, What if the dead really do care about what happens to the flowers on their graves? Herewith, we present three authors’ answers to that question. Note that these stories have been “anonymized,” to make the judging as even-handed as possible.

Let the voting begin, and may the best story win. Winner—and a new Friday Challenge—to be announced on Friday, November 3rd.

"Flowers for Momma"

I stared down at the tombstone at the head of Momma’s grave while the rain dripped off the bill of my cap. The grey granite was wet from the rain and glistened in the dim afternoon light. It was the first Mother’s Day since Momma had passed away and I had no flowers to leave to honor her memory. I hoped that if she looked down from heaven she would understand that I had very little money to spare what with the payments on the truck and the Harley being so high and all. I muttered something about being sorry and that I would do better next time, then straightened up and looked around the graveyard. I noticed that several of the other graves had flowers on them. Some of them looked fresh and some looked artificial.
That’s when the idea came to me. I looked around and didn’t see anybody else close by so I made my way over to a grave that was maybe a fifty feet or so away.  It was an old grave and the flowers that I had seen from a distance turned out to be actually growing on top of the grave. I looked around again just to make sure nobody could see me, took out my pocket knife, and cut the flowers off at the ground.  I carefully held them under my jacket and walked back to Momma’s grave and laid the flowers at the base of her tombstone. I knew that it was wrong to steal the flowers, but since probably no one would notice there should be no harm in it. I smiled as I walked away, pleased that I had found some flowers for Momma.
The rest of the day was good. The rain stopped and the sun came out so I took the boat to the lake and did some fishing. I caught a couple of nice bass and some bream worth keeping. Kim, that’s my wife, cleaned the fish and we had bass, French fries and slaw for supper. The team that I had bet a couple of bucks on won and Kim was in a frisky mood. All in all it was a real good end to the weekend.
I had to get up around midnight to go to the bathroom, something that happened more than it used to, but what can you do? On my way out of the bathroom I flipped off the light, then stepped out into the hall and turned to go back to the bedroom. I took maybe one step when I heard something bumping outside the front door.  I thought maybe it was wind blowing the door on the screen porch, but just to be sure I walked over to the window and looked out. I jumped back and my stomach clenched when I saw a couple of figures shuffling slowly toward the door. I immediately went to the closet, got the twelve-gauge, and stepped back to the door just as the doorbell rang. I relaxed a little, since I didn’t think anybody that was up to no good would ring the bell, but you never know. I didn’t want them to ring again and wake Kim, so I flipped on the porch light, yanked open the door, and held up the shotgun to give them a scare.
“What the hell are y’all…” I began, then my voice choked off. Outside the door was the most ghastly sight I have ever seen and one that I hope to never see again. There were two figures standing side-by-side in the yellow glow of the bug light, and as I got a look at them I covered my mouth to muffle a shriek. The figure on the left was in a black dress that hung in rotted strips and was smeared with red mud. Its head had no eyes and the skin was stretched tight across its face. The figure on the right was also in a black dress that was dirty with red clay mud, though not as old-looking. Her hair was grey; all messed up and caked with mud. Despite this I recognized her.
“Muh…Momma?” I managed to get out. “You…you’re dead. How…why?”
She raised her hand and pointed her finger at me. When she spoke her voice cracked and hissed like a worn-out record on a cheap stereo.
“Billy,” she said. “Where did you get those flowers?”
“What?” I shook my head in confusion. “Flowers?”
“The flowers you put on my grave.”
It took a moment for what she said to register in my dazed mind. “Well, I got them from, uh, I guess I bought them?”
“Don’t lie to me, Billy,” Momma said. “Mrs. Wilcox here says that you stole them from her grave. Is that so?
The thing that must have been Mrs. Wilcox nodded its head. My shoulders slumped and I looked down. Momma always knew when I was not telling the truth.
“I’m sorry, Momma,” I muttered. “I really am.”
“And so you should be. But you need to apologize to Mrs. Wilcox here more than you do to me.”
I found it hard to look at Mrs. Wilcox. Her head was still nodding and I was afraid it would fall off and roll into the house.
“I…I’m real sorry, Mrs….Mrs. Wilcox.” I stuttered out. “Really, it won’t ever happen again. I swear it won’t.”
The thing that was Mrs. Wilcox made a sound like somone wadding up a piece of paper, turned and shuffled away from the door.
“You embarrassed me, Billy,” Momma rasped out. “I better not have to do this again. You hear me?”
“Yes, Momma,” I said quickly. “I won’t. I mean you won’t. I promise.”
Momma nodded and turned to follow Mrs. Wilcox off the porch and out into the night.
That was a year ago.
I sold the motorcycle and the boat and put the money toward paying off the truck, so my finances were finally in good shape.
Mother’s Day had come again and Kim, she came with me this time, and I stood over Momma’s grave. It wasn’t raining and the sun was bright. I set one of the bundles of flowers that I’d bought on the way to the graveyard on Momma’s grave and started walking away.
“Hey,” Kim said. “Aren’t you going to leave those flowers too?”
I gave her a smile.  “These?” I glanced down at the bouquet in my hand then across the row of graves. “They’re for Mrs. Wilcox.”

"Queen of the Prairie"

Slowly it dawned on Edward that he was in a hospital room. It had been a noise, a strange, insistent rustle, and he’d wondered at it, turning his head. His eyes slowly focused on a woman who was comparing some numbers on the monitors near his bed to listings on her tablet. She seemed startled to find him awake, but lowered the tiny screen and bent close, inspecting him.
“Mr. Andrews?” she intoned, her gaze slipping from one eye to the other, studying his pupillary response, he supposed. Understandable, but annoying.
“Where am I?” he managed. His voice was an abused whisper. This tongue felt swollen. Even his gums felt odd.
“You’re in the hospital,” the woman confirmed, “in the ICU. I’m Dr. Westing. I’ve been looking after you these last few days. You gave us quite a scare. How are you feeling?”
“What happened?” Edward whispered. “Was there... accident?”
“No,” Dr. Westing replied. “You were stung by a bee. Did you know you’ve got a very serious allergy to bee venom?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Edward grunted, giving a weak cough. “I’m around bees every day.”
“Ever get stung by one before?”
He opened his mouth to assure the doctor that of course he’d been stung, but closed it. Had he never gotten stung? Not once, even as a child? He thought back, but couldn’t actually remember getting stung. It seemed strange, and even stranger that it had never occurred to him before.
“You’re lucky,” Dr. Westing continued. “A young woman brought you in. She saw you collapse, and happened to be an EMT. She called an ambulance, kept your throat open with a breathing tube, and dosed you with epinephrine.”
“I think I remember her,” Edward said. And it was true: he remembered that she’d cut him off as he’d been turning into the cemetery, and his terrifying veer to one side. She then proceeded him through the iron gates, seemingly oblivious. He’d been angry, his weekly ritual disrupted by the near miss, and had stepped out at once, intending a rant he’d later regret. But she’d been distraught, upon leaving her car, and his anger had evaporated as he’d watched her hesitate before moving off between the headstones, head bowed. He remembered turning back into his car, grabbing the bundle of flowers awkwardly off he passenger-side seat, his fingers still entangled in his car keys, delicate Lilium Michiganense petals and entire queen-of-the-prairie blooms crumpling. He’d pursed his lips as he’d looked at the damaged bouquet, and sighed. The other flowers in his trunk would have to make up for it.
He’d felt a squirming, among the stems, he now seemed to recall, a faint buzzing, angry and mindless. A searing pain, just below his thumb. Out of some reflex, he’d crushed his hand against the steering wheel, the horn unexpected amid the silence of the cemetery. Through the windshield, he’d seen the woman turn back at the sound.
“She came back?” he asked the doctor, who had taken out light and was peering into his eyes from close proximity. When she was finished, he closed his eyes, seeing the afterimage dance in the darkness behind his lids, feeling exhaustion sweep over him.
But of course the woman had. She’d looked back more than once, as Edward had risen from his driver’s side door, eyes already squinting, breathing already shallow, his hand on fire. Edward remembered leaning, one arm on the hood of the car, the other draped over the door, seeing the young woman turn as she walked, watching him. Beyond her, Edward had been able to see the grave of his Monica, the bright flowers surrounding the stone.
As he’d fought to walk along the same path the young woman had, he’d been keenly aware of her, glancing back at him. Edward remembered. at the time, thinking she imagined him some sort of threat, so often did she peer back. A stalker, or some deranged menace. But now, as he considered his short vigil in front of his wife’s grave, with the colors of the flowers rising up to meet him, Edward realized she’d seen something wasn’t right. She’d been looking at him as he’d collapsed among the flowers.
He opened his eyes, realizing he was still in the hospital, and it was later, hours later. His room was darkened, but not dark. Had that been a voice? It had been the sort of sound one might hear while waking, and incorporate into a dream, the strangeness of it startling enough to awaken.
Edward! There: a voice, faintly intoning his name. He patted his hips, as if looking for his phone. Was there a drawer here, with some of his personal effect? A plastic bag? The voice had sounded muffled. Edward, he heard it say, tinny and urgent. You must come back.
“Hello?” he ventured, his throat grinding out words with reluctance. He tried again. “Can you hear me? I can’t find my phone!”
He felt like a fool, suddenly, hearing his words to the empty room. He found himself speaking toward the window, and realized he must be facing the front of the hospital, or perhaps his room was above one of the many parking lots. The voice he’d heard was simply someone six or seven stories below him, standing on the sidewalk, calling to her husband, or brother, or something.
I’m not on your phone, the voice replied. It came from directly behind his bed, the top section of which was elevated. Edward jerked around, his sore muscles protesting. Behind the white-wrapped mattress, the wall held any number of specialized plugs, but was otherwise featureless. With an effort, he lugged himself up enough to peer behind the propped-up part of his bed. Nothing.
“Where are you?” he asked. He heart hammered painfully, and he found himself looking at the bandaged thumb on his left hand.
I’m close, the voice replied. Now, listening for it, Edward heard the strange hum of it, accompanied by the most delicate scrabbling sounds. Like a pine needle dragging against taut cloth. Could he be hallucinating?
“Monica?” he whispered.
We’re not Monica.
The voice came from right next to his ear, and Edward jerked to one side, his eyes affixing on the bee on the pillow. As Edward drew in a strangled breath, the creature raised its wings, and they blurred into humming motion.
Not yet, the humming said, modulating frequency and pitch to form words. We’re not Monica yet.
Edward finished drawing his breath, and then drew another, his eyes never leaving the insect beside him. His new fear of it warred with his familiarity, leaving him balanced, unable to respond. The sight of it brought him back to the long afternoons he’d spent with Monica, she tending her bees, he his flowers.
“Apis mellifera,” he intoned. The bee stared, impassive save for a flexing of it’s antennae.
We need you to return, it replied, its wings a shimmer of movement. We’re not done yet. We’re not Monica yet.
Unable to take his eyes of the insect, he listened as the creature told him more, and then still more.
One hour later, just after dawn, Edward checked himself out against Dr. Westing’s advice. He found his possessions and phone, as he suspected, in a drawer in his room, contained in plastic. His phone was entirely discharged, so he used the hospital’s to call a cab, and took it to the police impound. After paperwork, he plugged his phone into his car charger, and dropped it onto the passenger seat, empty save for dried flowers.
He started the car, and shifted it into drive.
“Where to?” he asked. From behind his ear, a buzzing voice sounded, the wings whirring against his skin where the insect nestled, and he could feel the wind from them shifting his hair.
Return home, the voice said. We’re going to need flowers. Lots of flowers. It’s been nearly too long.
One bouquet at a time was no longer going to be enough.
After arriving at his home, and entering the back yard, Edward had realized how right the bee had been: Monica had seven hives, which was thousands of bees. He watched from his flowerbeds as the writhing clouds entered his car through the still-open door. Working quickly, he loaded the trunk with trays of native flowers he took directly from his gardens, from delicate Viola Cucullata to the more dramatic Lythrum Virgatum.
He paused at the driver-side door, looking at the swirling bees blanketing every surface within.
“You’ll need to be careful,” he said. “I’m allergic to bee stings.”
I’d never let anything bad happen to you, a thousand wings assured him, their mixed tones now exactly matching hers.
“I miss you, Monica,” he said softly, starting the car.
We’re not Monica, the voice reminded him.
Not yet.

"Let the dead bury the dead"

The flowers are cut, sliced from their life-giving source. Frightened and cold, they meet wire-wrapped fern fronds, a polyester ribbon, and oasis foam. Oasis that gives the appearance of life while drawing out the inevitable end.
The dead wood is taken from the shed, hardened, life dried out until it warps for the last time. Formed into strong, solid planks, and nailed into the form of an ark.
The stone is cut from the ground. Removed from the roots of the mountain. Sized and shaped. Characters carved into its once-living skin.
The earth is lifted and set aside. Coarse remnants of a million lives that lived for ten thousand years. Pieces and bits so far gone they no longer remember the sun. They shrink from the light and tremble in the breeze.
The new death is placed into the ark and lowered into the cradle of the warm earth. The billion pieces replaced until stillness returns. The old dead welcoming the new as both sacrifice and friend.
The dead stone sits as sentinel. A reminder for the living, but a guardian for those below.
The living visit, moving through grass, green and growing. The grass is living and breathing and freshly cut. Coddled by sprinklers. Skinned for a moment, and quickly replaced to hide the dead below.
The trees shade the mourners as grass soothes their tear-burned eyes. The living mourners who need the living grass and sheltering trees to remind themselves it is noble to live.
The mourners lay the cut flowers, cleaved blossoms gasping for breath, on the grave. Knowing without knowing the comfort the dying bring to the dead.
As if still living, the flowers nod in the wind, bow in the rain, glow in the sun. The bees buzz to the fading blooms, thinking they live while taking what life is left.
Remind the flowers they are dead. Let them quiver in the night as the ghosts pass by. Let the stems, drowned in rain water, grow black and mushy. Let the leaves wilt and curl. Let the petals wither and gently fall to the grass below.
The trees see all, their branches stretch to the living, their roots commune with the dead. They feel the dying light that reminds them to mourn. They spill blankets of leaves, life singing to death via airmail.
Do not clear their song with blowers and rakes, or gather the yellow-orange letters into black bags. Do not pile their precious death gift where no one can hear. Do not silence the mourning trees.
The rain joins the song of the leaves. The immutable water breaks apart the pieces—orange to brown to black to loam.
The wind knocks over the flowers—do not pick them up. Leave the dead the flowers. Let the dead feel the petals drop, smell the rotting stems. Let them remember that decay is not shameful but honorable. Joining the billion pieces of earth is their duty.
Do not speak to the dead of what they once were—alive and whole. Do not speak to them about the grass and trees and living things. Do not even speak of their linear chord of the circle of life. As if they have any part of the living.
Speak to them of warm earth, moldered leaves, sentinel stone. Shriveled stamen. Bowed stems. Forgotten flowers who find comfort in the melting. Let the life-leaching water soak past the living grass, into the soil. Let it soothe the desiccated, flaking lips of the dead.
Do not take the flowers from the graves. They are for the dead. To remind them who they are. And that they are not alone.
Let the dead be buried by the dead.