It’s that time again. Flash Fiction challenge is up on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. This week it’s Antagonist/Protagonist as a theme, and the idea is to write half the story from the perspective of the antagonist and the other half from the protagonist. So here’s my contribution to that, which I like to call “Juggling Is Hard, And Also Murder.”

 

Juggling Is Hard, And Also Murder by Shoshana Kessock

There’s a technique to juggling, they say, and Robert Fagan knew he didn’t have it. He stared hard into his reflection in the mirror and tried a basic hand-off without looking. The ball in the mirror went from his right hand to his left with careful fluidity. His doppleganger made it seem a lot easier than it felt. Robert frowned, then tried the pass again. His fingers fumbled on the ball and found purchase; no drop. Still, it wasn’t clean, wasn’t smooth. He tried it again and his thumb fumbled, wouldn’t close over the sphere, wouldn’t complete the movement. A phantom pain juked through his knuckles and he fought the urge to wince. He’d been practicing for too long.

“I’ve got four days to learn to juggle,” he said over his shoulder. “Four days. God had more time to invent the world.”

Behind him, the only response was the uncomfortable shuffle of feet. Robert grinned into the mirror, sheepish. “Sure, I guess that’s a bitter analysis. God had a lot more to put together than a simple three-ball toss. Still, God at least had the tools when He started out. He had the design knowledge, one would expect, for life and the totally-phenomenal cosmic power workbench from which to launch Universe 1.0. All I’ve got are three balls and a fourth on the side that’s never going to get used.”

The word never hung in the air thicker than Robert liked and he turned from the mirror. Behind him, Carina stared at him with her impossibly wide eyes. She shuffled her feet but otherwise sat silent, still.

“Do you think that’s stupid?” Robert asked. He held up the ball in one hand. “I can’t help but imagine that I’m overstating the importance of this, but you do understand, don’t you? They’ll hire someone else if I don’t get this. Then where will I be? Jacky Hardooley is just waiting for me to fail because he wants to get off the midway. He wants into the tent and if it means manipulating the Boss Man into unrealistic expectations-“

Robert stopped, then ran a hand through his hair. “What am I saying? What am I doing here?” He threw the ball up in the air and caught it with a satisfying thwack. “Last year I was at Fordham, now I’m here. Last year I was debating where I’d go for my PhD for Chrissake and now-“

He tossed the ball up in the air with more force. It came down, a loud smack on flesh. Carina winced.

“I’m sorry,” he said and found, strangely, he meant it. He set the ball down on the worn dresser that rounded out his battered, road-worn furniture. As he did, Carina tensed and Robert saw her eyes track to the ball and then back to him. “I’m talking too much about this, aren’t I? I’m just under so much pressure. I shouldn’t talk so much about myself.”

He knelt beside Carina’s chair and his knee kicked up a cloud of dust. Robert hesitated, then put a hand on her slender, perfect foot. The charge of skin on skin contact made him shudder and he heard her whimper. It sent a jolt through his blood and he looked up at her with barely masked adoration.

“You’re just so easy to talk to,” he confessed, then set about checking the rope around her ankles.

 

Talking, Carina thought. The key was just to keep him talking. That’s what they said in all the shows, but how did one do that without being able to talk back? How did you make small talk, build empathy, with a dirty pair of Jockey’s shoved in your mouth?

The eyes. Windows to the soul, weren’t they? Carina’s heart rate rode high in her ears, her blood pounding, and her mind fragmented into a million cliches: windows to the soul, home is the place your heart is, grass is always greener, and all that jazz. She felt crazy, the taste of cotton and sweat in her mouth driving home the inevitability that said she was seeing, for the first time, the real face of this rodeo clown Devil’s Rejects escapee.

He talked. He talked for hours. When he wasn’t speaking, he tossed that ball. She watched the ball because as long as it was in his hand, he didn’t have a weapon. Only his words. Only his hands.

Carina wasn’t sure how long she had been in that chair. She knew it was long enough for her to have to piss so badly that she’d nearly cried. He’d brought her a bedpan and humiliated her by smiling kindly into her face while she used it. Had he been a nurse? She saw the scars on his knuckles and thought better of it. Boxer? MMA fighter? The thought made her cringe. He had barely used his hands on her when he’d carried her from the midway at the close of the day. Could he do more? Was he trained? Was he capable?

He kept talking and Carina watched the ball in his hands, reading his words and not his body language. He was calm and she wanted it to stay that way. Gain an inch, she might get a mile in return.

She shuffled her feet; there were the cliche’s again.

Her eyes widened as he turned to her with those too-wide eyes. He earnestly asked her a question and knelt beside her chair. It took everything she had not to scream when he touched her foot and she felt the eager tremor in his moist grip. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and steadied herself.

If she was going to embrace cliche, she’d stick with something about darkest being before the dawn. She prayed, hope against hope, that he wouldn’t figure out the ropes were loose.

Returning to our regularly scheduled writer-ness, here is my contribution for this week’s Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge, called “Must Love Time Travel.” I’m starting to really dig these 1,000 word sprints for their sheer fun. So here’s my attempt for this week, called “The Barley Hill.”

 

The Barley Hill by Shoshana Kessock

Jake and Amanda sat at the top of Barley Hill at the very end of Noosum Street.

“It’s too big,” Jake whined. He didn’t like the way he sounded, like such a scaredy baby. He put down the handle of his red wagon and eyed Amanda from under unruly hair. “You do it.”

“Nuh uh.” Amanda was half a year older than Jake, and somewhere had grown an extra two inches on him since the beginning of the school year. She crossed her arms over her chest in a mighty impression of their teacher, Mrs. Tandy, and sniffed. “Mom always said gentlemen go first.”

“I’m no gentle man!” Jake pointed out. “I’m eight. And that hill is too big!”

He looked down over the edge of Barley Hill. Noosum Street was a one way street that ran from the railroad tracks on the far end of town through the nicer houses of Barley Hill Developments and all the way to the highway.  In the morning it was the road that took all the parents away from Noosum Street and out to the city to work and at five o’clock it brought them all back. Beyond it lay a field of wheat as far as the eye could see.

Every day when the parents headed to the highway, they had to crest Barley Hill. Most of Jake’s hometown was flat as a pancake, but Barley Hill sat in the middle of everything like the biggest anthill all covered in little white houses. It stood out for miles; Jake often stared at it from his seat in his classroom across town. Most kids didn’t bother climbing the hill unless it was the Fourth of July or New Years, when they wanted the best view of the fireworks. But Amanda lived at the top of Barley Hill, the last house before the plunge down the far side, and so Jake walked the hill all the time. Amanda, after all, was his best friend. Even if she was a girl.

They sat under a wild tree across the street from her house. Jake could still feel the sweat down his back from the long walk up. They had Capris Sun pouches and apples and granola bars. Jake had dragged his wagon all the way up the hill to show to Amanda. He had told her about racing it against the Murphy boys over on Harrow Drive and her eyes had lit up. Jake had dragged the wagon all the way up the hill just to see her eyes sparkle like that again. Now he wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.

“I will get killed,” he said matter-of-factly. “My dad’s car has fights with this hill.”

“Your dad’s car wins,” Amanda retorted.

“My dad’s car can stop!” Jake picked up the juice pouch for a drink. “No way.”

Amanda leaned in closer and her blue eyes were sparkling again. “If you go fast enough,” she said, “you can go back in time.”

Jake stopped with the juice pouch halfway to his mouth. His mouth went dry and his eyes burned.

“No way.” He shook his head. “You cannot.”

Amanda smiled a funny little smile. It reminded Jake of cats and the little animals they chased. “Can too.”

She leaned closer and Jake suddenly thought she looked cat-like too, and a little mean, and maybe a little crazy. Jake had a limited understanding at seven of crazy, he knew, but his dad talked a lot about crazy women. His dad complained about them a lot when he came back from nights when Mrs. Lipnicky would babysit. They’d watch Avatar: The Last Airbender or Thundercats and when his dad came home, he’d mutter about crazy women and promise Jake that he’d feel the same way when he got older. Now Jake wondered if he’d need to wait that long.

“Can-not,” Jake retorted. “How can you go back in time?”

Amanda sat back against the tree. “If you go fast enough,” she replied in an oh-so-knowing voice, “you’ll go back in time. It’s like in that movie once, that old one with the car. Go fast enough and you can do it.” She pointed to the wagon. “You don’t need a car, though. You have that.”

Jake knew which movie she meant. “Not everything you see in movies is true, Amanda.”

“Some things are!” She pointed to the wagon. She sounded so sure of herself. “This is. Don’t you want to time travel?”

Jake did. He wanted to time travel very much. He eyed the red wagon and the letters painted on the side that lovingly spelled his name, then looked down the hill again. He thought about how sure Amanda sounded and his dad’s muttering. His dad muttered a lot these days, about crazy women and about something called the mortgage and how the shocks on the car couldn’t take the trip down Barley Hill. He muttered instead of talking to Jake most of the time. The muttering had started after the Fourth of July last year, after the highway accident. Jake knew where the accident had happened. If he went to the bottom of the hill and turned right, he could walk to where they’d found his mom’s car, all crumpled around a telephone pole beside the waves of gold wheat.

Below, the highway shimmered in the afternoon heat. No cars had passed since he’d arrived.

“There’s no such thing as time travel,” he repeated. But when he looked at Amanda, she looked back solemn and serious.

“If there isn’t,” she said, “it’ll still be fun.” And her eyes sparkled.

Jake finished his juice pouch, stood, and took up the handle of his wagon. He wondered how many pieces he might end up in if he crashed, and how if wheat was as soft as it looked. But mostly, he wondered how fast one had to go down Barley Hill to get back to the Fourth of July.