Empty Pockets and Desperation – an original short story

This is a short story submitted to the 2015 One Throne Magazine contest. The first and last sentence (italicized) were provided by the magazine. You were given 24 hours to write a story of up to 1000 words.


Empty Pockets and Desperation

by T. K. Jones

They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. You couldn’t even tell your family or friends you’d be back in a few days. Would you? How could you know? Or that’s what I heard anyway. But I thought it was some new and ridiculous urban legend. The news wasn’t talking about people that hopped on the train and went missing. If this was the case, why weren’t people avoiding the trains? Many still rode them and didn’t appear the least bit apprehensive. I soon forgot the stories. Lost in my own work of fiction.

A year later, after I heard the rumors about space bending trains and oddly placed tracks, I hopped on a train in Boston to get to New York for an important meeting with Tom, my new literary agent. All those people are in fancy pants New York City with their angular haircuts and shiny skyscrapers. I had a manuscript to sell and a desperate need for money. Meaning I couldn’t afford a plane ticket plus cab fare, let alone round trip, in case the deal fell through. And I couldn’t drive there because my car was in such bad shape that it wouldn’t last the five hour drive to New York.

This was my first time on the trains heading out-of-state. I had a whole seating area to myself. There were only three others in my train car. As the train sped forward on the tracks, I saw the cityscape of Boston turn into a glittering rainbow blur. I couldn’t make a thing out. We must have been travelling very fast. And in just a short time, the train slowed down in a snowy landscape. It wasn’t New York.

The dreary train station had signs in Cyrillic. It might as well have been Chinese. I couldn’t read any of it. I ended up in Vladivostok according to the Russian-accented voice over the intercom. Impossible! But apparently true. I saw the weary, snow-slapped Eurasian faces all around me. Staring at me in my insufficient suit. I ran for a phone and managed after many failed attempts to call Tom in Manhattan.

“Tom, I’m in Siberia! I don’t know how I got here,” I practically whimpered into the phone. I really didn’t have a way to get back home. I had no significant amount of money on me. Not even a credit card. I left home with it but it must have been stolen by a pickpocket, somewhere en route.

“How could you not know?” Tom was upset. I could hear the editor curtly excuse herself from his office. She had other engagements and didn’t appreciate having her time wasted.

“Please, explain this to her!” I begged him.

“Explain what? Were you gonna fly here or drive or what?” Tom asked.

“No,” I closed my eyes to picture what happened. “I went on the train to New York. But somehow I ended up in Siberia!”

“Did you get off the train and end up on an airplane?” Tom sounded skeptical.

“No! I’m on the platform. The train’s still sitting right here.”

Tom sighed and shook his head. “Okay, well that deal fell through but there are other publishers out there. So tell me again what your stories about.” Tom represented many clients and hadn’t the vaguest memory of my story.

On the phone I described to him the premise of the story. It was about a man who hopped a train to get to another city, only he ended up in a completely different country!

Just then, I wondered why I couldn’t simply call Tom the way I was doing right now, only from home. He said the publishers and editors wanted to see and interact with the writer to see if they could sell them to the public. I told him I didn’t think that was a very fair way to do business, prejudicial in fact. He told me to save it. He wasn’t in the mood. And that’s just the way publishing is.

After a brief pause, Tom let out a strange sound that jarred me. I nearly dropped the receiver. “Do you realize what powers you have?”

“Powers? No, I’m feeling pretty powerless actually.” A crushing wave of fatigue momentarily drowned out the fear and anxiety I was suffering.

“Your story came true. Do you know what that means?”

I’d never heard Tom sound so excited. It perked me up right away. “Tell me!”

“You can write yourself back here!” Tom laughed hysterically. He was laughing at the absurdity of it all. His cackling made it sound as if he’d lost his mind. After catching his breath he added, “Write another story where you get your crazy butt over here.” Tom burst out into an uncontrollable laughter again.

I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not but it seemed to make sense. Why not? I had nothing else I could do. On the back of my manuscript pages I wrote a new story in pencil. Scribbling frantically. Only I didn’t write the character into New York. I wrote him back to Boston. Back where he began. There was no way I could sit still in Tom’s office and sell my story after a day like this.

I marked the last sentence with a bold period. And with that I found myself stepping off the train, not remembering that I had stepped back onto it in the first place. The sky was a charcoal gray and the air sagged with rain. A loud clap of thunder made me jump. I turned to face the train. The strange, impossible train. Or maybe it was the tracks that were strange. I looked down. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Becoming Nick Drake

Here’s a piece I wrote that I actually really like. It was rejected by Indiana Review, though. I will share it here:

Becoming Nick Drake
by T. K. Jones

She played Nick Drake’s “Day is Done” on her outdated laptop. On loop. Mouthing the parts she knew. Even after all this time, she didn’t know all the lyrics. Her fingers jumped on the fast guitar licks which were sparsely sprinkled throughout the song.

As she mouthed the words that came through her clunky Sony headphones, single syllables occasionally escaped from her throat, sounding like a deaf person speaking. Half muted. A moan. It embarrassed her. She was alone in her room but always looked over her shoulders. She would shake her head. Chuckle at herself. No one there.

Sometimes she got so caught up in the song, she became Nick Drake. In a music video or performing on stage. This was even more dangerous, as she would make faces so full of emotion. Going for long stretches of time losing touch with reality. She didn’t want people to see her lip-synching and making melodramatic  faces as she sat at an intersection so she switched to talk radio for drives. Angry, shouting conservatives. Rude lawyers hanging up on nervous callers. Financial analysts quoting Bible verses.

How could she drive safely if she had to make such fast transitions from air-guitar to air-cello and back to air-guitar? How could she listen to her mother in the passenger seat? Her mother had a habit of starting her nostalgic storytelling at the most inopportune times. While someone else was in the middle of a sentence. As an interesting bit of news came on TV.

She needed only to look in the mirror to remind herself that she wasn’t a long-deceased, broody Englishman with a soulful voice. Such a shame.

Driving alone one day, she purposefully crashed her car. A suicide labeled an accident. Leaving her mother one more story to interrupt people with.

(300 words)

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones

Disappearing Act – original 100 word flash fiction

Here’s yet another story that was just rejected by 100WordStories. Enjoy. (The rule is it has to be exactly 100 words.)

Disappearing Act
by T. K. Jones

I was back visiting the city where he lives. I don’t know why he stopped contacting me. A year and two months ago. So imagine my surprise when I was in Trader Joe’s and see him. He’s not alone.

He’s with his two kids and a woman. It’s not his ex-wife. I’ve seen photos of her. This woman’s slim. She’s smiling. They’re all smiling. He refused to tell his kids I even existed. I didn’t realize how long I was staring at them.

He looks up. Spots me. His face falls. He slightly nods a greeting. Eyes pleading: Don’t approach!

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones. All Rights Reserved.

100WordStory Photo Prompt: Van Gogh and the Wise Sunflower

(Note: I submitted this piece for 100 Word Story‘s June ’15 photo prompt. I’ve included the photo below. I guess you could call this my dedication to Vinvent Vang Gogh and a sarcastic commentary on art criticism and fame in the art world.)

Van Gogh and the Wise Sunflower

by T. K. Jones

100wordstory-photo-prompt-june-2015

Photo credit: Kris Williams

“Did you know that the sky is a pool, where lights can swim? Paint what you see,” the sunflower urged Vincent Van Gogh. “Though none will care while you are here amongst the living.”

“You don’t need to remind me of my failures,” Van Gogh groaned. He sucked the tip of his paintbrush.

“Don’t waste your paints on your sad, hungry mouth. You’ve so much to give,” assured the sunflower.

Vincent squinted at the synchronized swimming of yellow and white streaking against the blue backdrop. He took liberties that would be much appreciated. Only after he was dead and buried.

© June 2015, T. K. Jones

Cher’s Lunchbox

(Note: This was my entry for Writer’s Digest’s Your Story Contest #66. The prompt was: “Mommy, I don’t like this.” —750 words max. It was not chosen as a finalist, so here it is.)

Cher’s Lunchbox

by T. K. Jones

After a long day of cleaning disgusting motel rooms, all Lisa Greene could do was heat the tuna casserole she made the night before for her and her six-year-old daughter, Cher. Two cans of tuna. A can of peas. A can of carrots. A can of some kind of cream, maybe mushroom, so thick that it had to be scooped out of the can with a spoon. And probably something else, but she didn’t care to remember. Covered with instant mashed potatoes and voila! Dinner.

Cher shuffled into the kitchen just as her mother was pulling the casserole out of the oven. A long afternoon of staring into the mind-frying television made her groggy. The babysitter had gone home an hour or so before she should have. Lisa decided that it was kind of her own fault. She stupidly left her the $15 to take at her own leisure instead of doing it the normal way. But she wasn’t too mad. She felt like such a cheapskate for only being able to offer the girl $15 for three hours of babysitting.

And this was a new babysitter. Their usual babysitter, Samantha, died in a horrific car accident the week before just two blocks away. Mr. Henderson, an elderly man who lives only four houses down, had a stroke while driving home from a doctor’s appointment, and crashed head-on into her car. She was driving home from a long afternoon of babysitting Cher for chump change. Mr. Henderson made it out with barely a scratch. Lisa didn’t tell her daughter. She lied and told her that Samantha moved to Canada for college.

Cher sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?” She dragged each syllable longer than was necessary.

Lisa felt her muscles tense up and sighed deeply. From Cher’s tone she could already tell that dinner would be a battle. “It’s dinner, Cher. Aren’t you hungry?”

“I am but this smells FISHY!” Cher climbed up onto a chair and stared down into the casserole dish, her face hovering two inches away from the steamy surface. “Mommy, I don’t like this.”

Of course she didn’t. She didn’t like her doctor because he was too nice. She didn’t like that her mother was a maid at a cheap motel. She didn’t like that her father left her and her mother for the school principal, Mr. Kincaid, and never came to see her. She didn’t like Mr. Kincaid’s strange habit of winking at her every time he saw her walking down the hallway, as if they were buddies. She didn’t like her blue lunchbox because it didn’t have any cartoon characters on it. She didn’t like her classmate, Donny, because he made it a daily ritual to kick her shins under the desk. And she didn’t like her teacher, Mrs. Crawford, because she didn’t do anything about it. Cher didn’t like a lot of things.

“What do you mean you don’t like it? You haven’t even tasted it yet!” Lisa threw the oven mitts down onto the counter. She was constantly amazed that no matter how frazzled Cher made her, she never hit her. She never throttled her. She never even screamed at her.

“I can taste it through my nose. It’s stinky and nasty. I’m not eating that!” Cher slammed her little fists on the table top. The glass casserole dish shook.

Lisa felt the sides of her cheek burning. She was confronted with images from earlier that day. Of how she scrubbed vomit off the carpet in room 14. Of how she had to fish a used tampon out of the toilet in room 9. Of how her sleazy manager trapped her in the break room and refused to let her go until she gave him a hug. She thought of her ex-husband, Bill, and Alex Kincaid having a nice quiet evening together. “Then go to your room,” she spoke in a low tone through her clenched teeth.

Cher saw the look on her mother’s face. A look she had never seen before. It scared her. She obeyed.

Without thinking, Lisa found herself sitting at the dining room table shoveling the tuna casserole into a plastic Tupperware container. She placed the container of tuna casserole in Cher’s plain, blue lunchbox. At least she didn’t have to worry about packing her daughter’s lunch the next morning.

© April 2015 T. K. Jones

Scrumptious: A Modern Fairy Tale

(Note: This is a short, silly fairy tale I wrote back in 2012. It wasn’t a submission or anything like that.)

Scrumptious: A Modern Fairy Tale

by T. K. Jones

A young, snobby prince lived in a tower made of liver pâté. It was very slippery and no one could climb up the many steps to get to him, though try they did. He declared that anyone who could reach him would win the prize of his hand in marriage. He laughed cruelly as all the townspeople, women and even men, clamored to be with him. But they all slipped off the first few fatty steps.

One day he saw from an opening in the pâté wall what he found to be a most beautiful creature. She was the female version of himself, with piss yellow hair and rosy cheeks.

“It’s like looking in a mirror,” he observed. He shouted out to her to please come up at once.

“But no one has ever been able to reach you. They’ve tried but they only slip because of the slimy liver pâté!” she cried out to him.

He wanted to be with her so badly that he immediately hatched a plan.

“Eat your way up!” he commanded her.

So she did. For forty days and forty nights, she ate. And ate. And ate. As the days went by the prince saw that the pâté tower sank lower and lower to the ground.

The lady stopped eating when the price was finally at ground level and called out for him. The prince hopped out of what remained of the pâté tower with arms wide open to embrace his new love. But he was greeted with a most shocking sight. His beautiful maiden had turned into a large blob of a woman.

“You’re a whale! A beached whale!” he shrieked in horror.

“But you wanted to be with me! You told me to eat!” she panted.

The prince fled the now engorged woman, leaving her panting and wheezing, rolling around on the ground, unable to chase after him.

But what became of the prince? you might ask. Well, he made his way into town where he was seized and molested by all the common townsfolk. Young and old. Man and woman. He was left in the gutter, for the frisky dogs. As sloppy seconds.

© 2012, T. K. Jones

Kathleen Went To Art School

Kathleen Went To Art School

by T. K. Jones

“I went to art school,” Kathleen would constantly remind us. Yeah, we know. We stared at her childish renditions of Sailor Moon and Disney characters up for sale. Trademark infringement. No one spoke. I drew like this when I was seven, I thought.

Kathleen stuck her nose up at everyone else. We suspected she knew deep down inside that her work was beyond lacking. Embarrassing to look at. People scurried past her booth. Avoiding eye contact. By the end of the day, she sold nothing.

“People have BAD TASTE,” she hissed as she trudged past us to the parking lot.

(100 words)

© 2015 T. K. Jones

Minimalists Outdoing Each Other

Minimalists Outdoing Each Other

by T. K. Jones

Momo was into minimalism and wrote haikus about cats. Only about cats. After she finished a haiku, she would memorize it before burning the paper on which it was written because the ashes took up less space than the paper.

She lost fifty pounds to take up less space. After meeting other minimalists on the internet, she decided to lose more weight. A secret contest.

One day her fellow minimalist couldn’t reach her. Worried, they called the police, who found that she had burned her place down. With herself inside. Leaving only ashes, embers and memorized cat haikus.

She won.

© June 2015, T. K. Jones

(100 words)

Birds: a short story

Birds

by T. K. Jones

“Lori?” Dr. Mack, my shrink spoke. Breaking the buzzing silence. “Lori, what are you thinking about right now?”

I wondered what good it was asking me that. Would it help with my diagnosis? Or did he already have a diagnosis? If I told him what I was really thinking about, I would most definitely be diagnosed with something like psychopathy or antisocial personality. Like any of that really meant anything. When did they decide to put people into groups? And who are “they” anyhow? I lied and told him I was thinking about the birds in my yard. The ones that I feed every day. Or at least almost every day. Some days I forget. What I was really thinking about was dying in a plane crash. Would I ever experience a plane accident? What does it feel like to crash in an airplane? And do they give you oxygen to get you high? Do you black out as you rapidly descend to the ground? It’s the small, gory details I ruminated over. I couldn’t help it. Once such thoughts entered my mind, it was hard to do anything but sit and think about these things. Often for long stretched. Hours at a time, in fact. Uninterrupted.

“The birds in your yard?” Dr. Mack asked, skeptical, as if there was a reason not to believe me. I didn’t lead on that I was lying. I’m good at manipulating people like that.

“Yeah.” I would have preferred that he drop the matter but knew he and his kind are known to beat a dead horse and get paid well for it.

“What about the birds in your yard?” he went on, jotting something on his clipboard, hidden from my view. Tic-tac-toe? Stick figures? Private parts?

“I just see them in my mind,” I explained warily. Now this was true. I did see those little birds in my mind. The red cardinals, the blue jays, and mockingbirds. Pecking away at the feed I toss out by the handful. Some on the driveway and some in the dying grass. “I wonder how they can even see the millet in the grass.” I really did wonder this. How did they? I went on, more to myself than Dr. Mack. “Even in the snow they just keep pecking away. Eating.”

Dr. Mack sighed and caught himself too late as he realized that I noticed he really wasn’t interested in hearing my musings on the wild birds in my yard. He wanted something more off-the-wall. Something extravagantly insane. Quickly he offered up some thoughts. “They’re low to the ground. Small. To them, I’m sure the pellets are quite large.” He waited for a reply.

I sat staring at him. Well, through him really. Now totally engrossed in the thoughts of my little birdies. What were they doing now? I forgot to feed them this morning. Are they hungry? Can they manage without me? Have I spoiled them by providing easy food? Are they all accounted for? How would I even know? I never bothered to count them.

“You’re grimacing,” Dr. Mack noted aloud. So I was. I did this often, apparently. Strangers in public often told me to smile. I’m always tempted to tell them to mind their own business. Maybe I just found out I had cancer. Or I just went to a funeral. Or lost my job. Don’t tell me to smile! “What were you thinking about just now?” he asked again.

“The birds in my yard,” I repeated. He did not believe me for he asked me if that was really what I was thinking about. Always trying to get into my head.

“Yes!” I insisted. Vexed. I was really thinking about my little birdies. Dozens and dozens of them. All mine. Because I feed them. They stay in MY yard. I pay for the feed with MY money. THEY ARE MINE! Period.

“What are you thinking about the birds? Are they the same birds?” He looked at me with his beady eyes.

“I don’t understand. Of course they’re the same birds. I said the birds in my yard. Like the first time. How would they be different birds?” I couldn’t help but sneer at him. Him and all his stupid questions.

Dr. Mack leaned forward like he had some big secret to share with me. He lowered his voice. “How do you know for certain that the same birds are visiting you every day?”

My mouth hung open though I had no answer to offer. I didn’t know. Not for sure anyway. I just assumed that the birds that showed up every day were the same birds. Why wouldn’t they be? I crossed my arms. Fed up. Shutting out Dr. Mack. “What are you getting at?” I mumbled and turned my head away from him.

His beady eyes were upsetting me. Almost as much as his ignorant, pointless questions. The blinds were down so I could not see the birds that were probably perched on the branches just outside the window.

“They knew.” A thought popped up in my head. Maybe they knew the birds in my yard. Or maybe these were some of the same birds. I could feel Dr. Mack staring at me. Watching me carefully as I tried so hard to look through the little slits in the blinds. Are you there, birds?

“My friends are outside,” I said nonchalantly.

Dr. Mack raised an eyebrow. Friends? Tell me about these friends of yours.” He got his pen ready.

“See them for yourself.” I got up and pulled the blinds up slowly. Dr. Mack approached the window, his heart full of excitement and curiosity. He peered down to the street below.

“Who is he?” He pointed at a lone elderly man, sitting at the bus stop.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Some old man waiting for the bus.”

Dr. Mack looked at me. Tired of games. Only I was serious.

“Are these friends of yours imaginary?”

“No. They’re right in front of you.” I pointed to the three red cardinals perched on the thick branch by the window.

© 2010, 2015 T. K. Jones