Intro to Of Sins and Ash

In case anyone was wondering why the posts have slowed way down, well, there’s two reasons:

First, I started looking into publishing some of these stories and came to learn that most places won’t take submissions if they’ve been previously published.  And believe it or not, even a little personal site like this counts as “previously published” to most of them. Wow. Does that mean I can call myself a published author now, LOL!  So anyway, I stopped posting for a while thinking that I would try to save stories to submit elsewhere. I’m not so sure about that approach anymore, so we’ll see…

Second, I’ve spent a lot of my writing time lately working on a little story that grew out of one of the Writers Digest prompts (you may recognize the first chapter as the story titled The Box). I kept adding to it each week and now the whole thing is posted under Of Sins and Ash up at the top menu (and since you only get alerts for new posts, not new pages, I’m letting you know about it via this post). Even though each “chapter” is way over the short word count that the Writers Digest site sets for posts, I tried hard to keep the various chapters brief.  The result is that I feel like there could have been a lot more depth to this story, so I’ve decided to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a novel.  Again, we’ll see.

And there you have it…

Enjoy the stories, and stay well!


The Time Traveler

I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. It was seventy-five years ago, and my parents had bought a new refrigerator and they gave me the big box that it arrived in. Nancy from next door had come over to watch what the delivery men were doing, and once she saw my box she asked if she could play too. Sure, I said, and we took it to the basement along with some crayons, tape, scissors, that kind of stuff.

With me being eight and all of two years older than Nancy, I was in charge as always. So of course we “decided” to build a time machine like I wanted instead of a princess’ castle like she wanted. We spent the whole afternoon cutting, coloring, tying, and taping. Oh what fun I had!

When we finally finished, it was obvious that only one of us could fit inside at a time, so we would have to take turns using it. Nancy wanted to go first but of course since I was in charge I chose me. What was the point of being in charge if it didn’t mean I always got my way, right?

Well, a funny thing happened as I sat in the time machine waiting to get sent back to see the dinosaurs. Through the porthole I could see tears on Nancy’s cheeks even though she wasn’t making crying noises. At first I thought that she was being silly but then I remembered how her shoulders always slumped a little when I told her we were going to do what I wanted, never mind what she wanted. And as I thought about it, I realized that it was that way a lot. OK, all the time. So I decided to try something different for once. Just to see.

I came back out and Nancy asked what the dinosaurs looked like. I told her that I didn’t know – that the time machine didn’t work. I made a big play at fine tuning the dials and told Nancy to try it now.

“Really,” she asked, beaming the biggest smile I’d ever seen on her. “I get to go first?!”

“Yeah,” I said. “And don’t forget to yell loud at the dinosaurs so they leave you alone.”

Nancy climbed into the time machine and for the next several minutes all I heard was giggling and shouting at dinosaurs to keep back. It was a lesson that, looking back on now, I’m surprised my eight year-old self could grasp – that giving someone else their way could make me happier than getting my own way. From that day onward I always let Nancy pick our games and I always let her go first.

We were married the month after Nancy finished high school and a different time machine took over as first years and then decades sped past. Nancy always made me promise that when the time came she could go first. I promised, even though I knew that I could never bear to be without her. And last week I kept that promise, which is why I’m down in the basement now with a big box, crayons, string, the works. I need to build another time machine so I can see my Nancy again, and oh lord, I really need this one to work.

The prompt that inspired this piece of flash fiction can be found here.

Seventh Inning Stretch

“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Jacobs. I know that you’re incredibly busy right now, so I really appreciate it.”

“Yeah, it’s a madhouse here, but I can give you five minutes. What can I do for you?”

“Well, first, let me congratulate your team on winning the American League championship.”

“Thank you.”

“As chief of security for the stadium, you must have your hands full preparing to host the first couple games of the World Series next week.”

“Yeah, as I said, a madhouse. You got four minutes left, kid.”

“Well, let me get right to the point then.”

“Good idea.”

“I’m going to run naked – streak, that is – around the bases during the seventh inning stretch of the first game.”

“The hell.”

“And you’re going to make sure that I get all the way around the bases.”

“The hell. But I repeat myself. Why in the world would I let you get away with that?”

“Because I’ll give you a million dollars if I succeed.”

“The h… Uh, a million bucks? You kiddin’ me?”

“No sir. I’m dead serious.”

“OK, no offense now kid, but you don’t look like someone who’s got a million bucks to give away just so you can feel the breeze blowin’ across all your pieces”

“Well, you’re right. I don’t. Today. But next week I will. As long as I streak around those bases.”

“Hold on; I wanna get this straight. You come in here lookin’ like you live paycheck to paycheck, offerin’ me a million bucks to let you streak around the bases, but you don’t give me the loot until after? Please. Explain how that works.”

“Of course. I take it you’ve heard of Edna Meecham?”

“The rich old broad who owns half the office buildings in downtown? Sure, I know the name. Crazy as a loon, I hear. Or she was, anyway. I heard she died last week, right?”

“Yeah. And they read her will today.”

“No kiddin’. And what does that have to do with this business of you wagglin’ your pieces in front of every baseball fan in the world?”

“Everything, Mr. Jacobs, everything. Here, I have a copy of her will. Please take a look. There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo, but I highlighted the relevant parts for you.”

“Sure. Let’s see: ‘I Edna Meecham, being of sound mind…’, now that’s a laugh! OK, yeah, yeah, I see… Uh-huh; mmm…uh-huh, whoa! And that’s you – the nephew?”

“In the flesh. Sorry, no pun intended.”

“And if you don’t…?”

“Second to last page.”

“Wait – is he the same…”

“Yep. Same Wilfred that owns the team you’re about to play.”

“Sheesh – what an asshole.”

“You’re not kidding. Try growing up around him.”

“A million bucks, huh?”

“Yep. What do you say?”

“Well, I say we’d better get planning.”

The prompt that inspired this piece of flash fiction can be found here.

The Box

The old woman heard footsteps approaching her doorway. Soft and gentle, but loud enough to wake her. She lay quietly in the dark waiting for the knock, and after it came she listened as her visitor scurried off into the night. She slowly moved the heavy deer-hide covers aside (it seemed as if everything she did was slow now) and sat up, reaching for the oil lamp on the table by her bed. She found it, and soon there was enough light in the small stone dwelling that she could see.

She wrapped herself in a leather robe that she had dyed red and decorated with blue leather stitching. Since it was still cold she pulled the hood over her head before adding some sticks to the embers in her stove. Finally, she lit a small lantern, made her way to the door, and opened it. The small box was waiting in front of the door, as always. And as always, there was no one in sight.

The woman leaned over, again slowly, and lifted the box. As she moved it she heard scurrying and scratching noises coming from inside. They seemed louder than usual. Oh, she thinks as she carries the box inside, this one must be from someone terrible.

She set the box on the table and examined it carefully. Yes, she can see now that this one is special. Many of the boxes left at her door are simple; plain in fact. Others are carved, painted, or decorated in many ways. Over the years, she has learned that she can tell something about the person that she is about to cleanse by how much effort they put into decorating the box. Most folk had simple boxes, but the more evil they were the more they tried to make the box special. And this box was the most special she had ever seen: it was intricately carved, made with gold hinges, and inlaid with colorful stones. The woman sighed as she prepared to open the box. She was not looking forward to consuming this person’s evil deeds.

The scurrying and scratching stopped as soon as the woman opened the lid. The small lizard stood frozen in place and looked past the woman toward the open room. Just as it decided to leap from the box, the woman’s hand swooped in and snatched it up with practiced speed. She held it close to her face while it moved its head left to right looking for another way of escape. She did not like to let the lizards suffer any longer than they already had. She did not know how the mystics were able to transfer the sins of the dying villager into the lizard – that was their job. Hers was to consume the life of the lizard, and with it the dying person’s sins so that they would not be punished by the gods who tended the dead.

As quickly as she had snatched it from the box, the old woman bit the head off the lizard and swallowed it whole. Then, as she sucked the cool blood from the small reptile, she could feel the sins flow into her own soul. Yes, she thought as she set the drained carcass back into the box, these were the sins of a very bad person. But now their way is clear.

As she felt the fresh sins blend with those of countless others, the woman took the three gold pieces from the box, closed the lid, and set it in the stove to burn. It would keep the cabin warm as she settled back into bed and slept the sleep of the dead.

The prompt that inspired this piece of flash fiction can be found here.

The Artist

My eyes still hurt when I awoke. I reached for them, but just as my fingers touched the gauze a pair of hands took hold of mine gently yet firmly. They were soft hands, and slight. A woman’s?

A soothing voice confirmed my thought: “You shouldn’t touch them, it slows the healing.”

Healing? I brought my hands slowly back to my sides. The bedding was the finest I had ever felt. It was daytime, I could tell by the warmth of the sun shining on me. A warm breeze floated in from…gardens? Then I remembered.

“How long have I been here?”

“Just since last night. I’m sure you must be hungry. If you like, I can guide you to the toilet and then to breakfast.”

“Thank you. And, please, you are…?”

“Today I am your nurse.”

“Just today?”

“Tomorrow too, if you need one.”

“And if not?”

“I will still be here, for I am also a resident.”

“No! You’re blind as well?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I’m sorry. How long?”

“He had me blinded in the year 1357. So, what now…fifteen years?”

“Ah, so you must be Deidra. I’m honored to meet you…I suppose.”

“As am I to meet you,” she said, laughing as she added: “I suppose!”

“I’m sorry, that was ungentlemanly of me. I’m not quite used to having been blinded yet. I am honored, though, to meet the woman who wove the tapestries that hang in the prince’s great hall. People say they are the most magnificent tapestries ever made. And having seen them myself, I agree. Oh, I’m so sorry,” I add quickly. “There I go again.”

“Not to worry,” Deidra said, and somehow I could tell she was smiling. “But do tell me about your painting. The prince only blinds those of us who create something that is truly great – so great that he does not want the artist to make something even greater for somebody else. Since he had you blinded yesterday, I’m to suppose that you created something worthy of having your own sight taken. Please describe it for me, will you?”

“It would be a pleasure, but it may take some time. You mentioned something about the toilet and then breakfast?”

“Oh, of course! Please forgive me, you must be starving. Here, let’s untie that thread from around your wrist and mine. Now that you’re awake I no longer need it to let me know when you’re moving. Here, take my hand and I’ll lead you. You’ll get to know your way around soon enough, and eventually you’ll learn to cook and take care of the grounds like the rest of us.”

“You cook?”

“Oh, yes. The prince has given us this estate to have for ourselves, but only we who have been blinded are allowed on its grounds. He’s afraid that some of us still create art, even if we can’t see it.”

“Do we?”

She didn’t answer, but as she squeezed my hand I could tell that she was smiling.

The prompt that inspired this piece of flash fiction can be found here.

Tell Me About Yourself

“Tell me about yourself,” she said shortly after takeoff.  “Where are you from?  Where are you going?”

The question took me a little by surprise.  I mean, I fly every week and I’m used to seatmates who want to talk, but don’t often run into one who was quite so direct.  Or quite so beautiful.  My hesitation gave her a moment to add, with just a hint of slyness: “And what will you do when you get there?”

Well now, I thought to myself, this could go any number of directions!  She couldn’t know the first thing about me, so why not play this out a bit and see where we end up?  After all, it’s a long flight across the ocean and we have nine more hours to go.

“I’m a scientist,” I said somewhat automatically, and immediately regretted how boring that sounded.  “I live in Hollywood and advise movie studios on scientific special effects,” I made up quickly, hoping to fabricate a bit of cool-factor.

“A scientist in Hollywood?  Well, that certainly sounds exciting.  I’ll bet you know some very interesting people.”  Was that a twinkle in her eye?

“A few,” I said.  “Though I think I’m about to get to know one more!”  Grooaaan – just shoot me now.  OK, the scientist part is true, as if everyone can’t tell by how awkward it is for me to talk to a gorgeous, raven-haired stranger sitting in the window seat beside me.  I’m so embarrassed that I want to disappear.  She turns to look through the window at the clouds below.  Shit, I blew it.  Again.

But, wait, she turns back to me with…really?  I could swear that’s a twinkle in her eye.  The kind that means she’s smiling with me, not at me.

“So, tell me Mr. Scientist,” she says with what is definitely a no-doubt-about-it-now twinkle, not just in her eye but in the way she leans in a little as she looks at me.  “Just what is it that you’d like to know?  About me?  Up here, on our way to…oh, you never did tell me where you’re going…”

“I’m on my way to meet with some investors,” I say, weaving some truth back into the tale to help me keep it straight.  “I’ve got a big demo to present and if it all goes as planned then I think everyone will be very happy.”

She leans closer, her long, thick hair brushing my shoulder as her pursed lips approach my ear.  “Everyone,” she whispers in a low, silky voice.  “Even me?  Eve…Eve…Eve…Click… Even me?   Click.  Even me…”

Damn it!  What…ah, good lord, after all this testing I can’t believe there’s still a bug in the AI code.  I push my almost-but-not-quite perfect prototype back into her seat, open my laptop, plug the cable into the port just behind her left ear, and start debugging.  I’ve got eight more hours to get her working perfectly for the demo, and I’d better make the most of them.

The prompt that inspired this piece of flash fiction can be found here.

Last Man Standing

All I wanted was to be left alone.

After my wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver, I left Albuquerque and bought a place in the New Mexico desert. It had belonged to a survivalist who built it back in the 2040’s and spent the rest of his life there. He was serious about survival – the place was practically a bunker, much of it underground. He’d drilled a deep well, rigged the place for wind power, and added five 1,000-gallon propane tanks as well as two 500-gallon gasoline tanks. There was also enough dry storage space to stockpile a few decades worth of food.

Lucky for me there’s not a huge market for survival bunkers in the middle of the desert, and I picked it up for almost nothing back in 2057. I think that was ten years ago, but I’m not sure since I’ve pretty much lost track of time.

I had all the tanks topped off when I moved in, and then spent the next month making supply runs, bringing in food, tools, gunpowder, you know, the essentials. Finally, I was able to park the truck in the shed and sit still. It was quiet and I was alone, except for the ghosts of my wife and daughter.

Then, about two years ago, I was outside changing the tire on one of the ATVs when the world ended. I might not have even noticed, but I happened to look up at the sky and saw all of those contrails. Some heading inland, some heading out. I wasn’t certain they were nukes until I noticed the wall of smoke over the horizon where Albuquerque was. Or, more accurately, where it had been. Good thing I had a bunker, I thought.

Last month I figured it was safe to venture outside. At first I planned to stay put, but something made me charge the truck’s battery, top off both tanks, and strap a few 55-gallon drums of gas in the back. Who knew how far I’d have to go to find another person to talk to.

It took all day to get to Roswell, and when I got there the place was deserted. Except for the skeletons. People and animals apparently just dropped where they were when the radiation overcame them, and I guess the insects took care of the rest. I suppose we got one thing right – the insects survived.

I drove along the empty highway into Texas and then northeast into Oklahoma. It was the same everywhere: the larger cities were just piles of ash and rubble, and the smaller towns were desolate. Nothing but empty buildings, abandoned cars, and skeletons. Lots and lots of skeletons. Eventually I had to head back home before I ran out of fuel and food, and the last man alive made it back to his bunker with five gallons to spare.

All I wanted was to be left alone. But I never knew how painful loneliness could be until now.

Three’s a Crowd?

I was having a really great dream when Paul woke me up, and of course I can’t remember it now.  Something to do with a cat?  Oh well, gone now.  I wish I could remember dreams more often.

Still, I’m glad Paul is reasonably calm in the morning. No blaring alarm, no rough shaking, just letting the motion of his own climbing out of bed wake me followed by a soft “Hey Eric, time to get up”.

I give him a head start downstairs, then make my own way down and curl up on the couch to finish waking up while he makes coffee and gets breakfast going. We’ve been living together for five years now and have this morning routine pretty well worked out.  Paul handles the kitchen and I lay on the couch.  Works for me.  I even like the blues station he tunes the radio to while he cooks.

He gets chatty once he’s had his coffee though, and today is no exception.  He sits next to me on the couch and starts talking about plans for the weekend.  All I can do is just look at him and sigh.  He chuckles and leans over, stroking my hair and kissing the top of my head.  Even though I don’t talk in the morning it’s clear that we love each other.

After breakfast we take care of getting ready to go to the office, though heaven help me if I can understand why it takes him ten times longer than me.  We walk together to the bus stop where he talks to that woman Susan who lives around the corner.  I get the feeling that she’s a bit sweet on him, and part of me suspects that he might be falling for it.  I’m going to have to keep an eye on her.  For now, though, I just keep silent, even when she asks me how I’m doing this morning.  I don’t care if it’s rude.

The bus comes and before long we’re at our building.  We walk to the corner and only have to wait a few seconds for the light.  We take the elevator up to our floor and Sally, our receptionist, greets us with a “Good morning, fellas!” that seems just a little too chipper to me.  I think she might have a thing for Paul too, and she gives him a big smile.  Like it matters, right?

“Oh, Paul,” she says as we start down the hallway, “Do you have a sec to help me with something?”

I sigh; here we go again.  I’m just going to make my way back to Paul’s office and lay on my mat by his desk.  He can find his own way back using his white cane when he’s ready.  Or Sally can walk him back herself like she has all week.  Besides, I think she snuck a little treat back there again this morning – I can smell it from here.  Mmmm…a lamb-meal doggie biscuit!  Works for me.

First Date

“I’m going to disappoint you.  But you knew that already.  I mean, this is not like the dancing was, and…”

“Look, I know you can do it – just give it your best shot.  For me, OK?  We’ll talk afterwards about how it went.  But now it’s time.  Your date’s waiting.”

It’s Tina’s voice alright.  And the guy must be Alexi.  Good.

The door opens and she steps in, closing it lightly behind her.  Head bowed, shoulders slumped, she walks toward me, looking defeated.  Her thin fingers pulling absently at the straps of a cheap bikini.

“Leave it on Tina; that’s not why I’m here.”

She raises her head, looking at my face for the first time.  Recognition, then hope, followed quickly by shame.

“Uncle Gus!”  Hands now trying to cover instead of reveal, awkwardly though, there’s too much showing, hands too small, all this happening too fast for graceful modesty. “How…?”

Her voice trails off as she starts to sob, falling into my arms, relief and hope overpowering shame.

How, indeed.  Seven weeks ago the seamy world of human trafficking and forced prostitution was something that I barely knew existed.  Then my sister’s teenage daughter disappeared.  Desperate and in a panic, Mika called me, screaming “You have to find her!”

No use explaining that a rogue computer hack was probably not her best hope.  And no use telling her to let the police do their job either.  Tina was a runaway, and unless there was evidence of a crime, then their job was just keeping an eye out.  So maybe it really was up to me.  Shit.

So I crack Tina’s e-mail account because…well, it’s what I’m good at and I have no idea where else to start.  Once inside, I see that a couple months ago she starts getting close to someone named Joey.  He’s a regular on a chat site that she likes, and I follow how he exploits her youthful rage, insecurity, and vulnerability.  At first it’s merely support.  But after two weeks the flirting starts, and once she bites, he ratchets it up, saying that he loves her and suggesting they run away together.

Next, I visit the chat sites, hack into Joey’s accounts, and learn that he’s not the cool teen rebel that he pretends.  Linking together bits and pieces from his various accounts, it becomes clear that “Joey” is actually a predator that lures kids into hell.  I learn that his real name is Alexi and he procures “talent” to be groomed and sold like common goods.  I dig hard enough that I even find some pictures of him.

After nearly two months of on-line trolling and creating a number of my own identities, I finally spot Tina on a site called ViXXXens wearing not much more than a forced smile.  I call the 800 number and make an appointment for seven o’clock, giving me enough time to get in touch with some of the guys from my rugby league.

Now, finally, I hold Tina for a few long minutes while she sobs.  No hurry; I paid for an hour.  While she cries herself out, I fine-tune my plans.  On the way in I’d spotted Joey/Alexi heading into an office behind the reception desk.  So…I know where he’s waiting.  It’s just a quick detour.

“Here,” I say as I take clothes and sneakers from the small pack that I’d brought.  “Put these on.”

She dresses quickly, shivering with fear, excitement, or both.  “I’m so ashamed, Uncle Gus.  What am I going to tell Mama?”

“Listen, Sweetie,” I say as she finishes dressing.  “We can talk about that in the car.”

Her eyes widen as she sees me take a large pistol and a small radio from the bag.  I key the mic and speak: “Leaving the room in five seconds, guys.”

“You mean… I can leave?  But Joey…he’ll…  He hurt me, Uncle Gus. I’m really scared!”

“Just do exactly as I say and you’ll be fine,” I tell her, putting the radio in my pocket.  I look in her eyes, my hand on her shoulder. “And Tina?”


“You were right,” I smile as I cock the pistol.  “He’s going to be pretty disappointed.”

The Void

I shall be eternally grateful that I never doubted.  I know that when Marshall and Bonnie told us that the spacecraft was coming, and described how we must prepare to meet it, some in our group were nervous.  But not me.  I knew a day such as this would come ever since I was a little girl.  I was ready.  Maybe that’s why Marshall asked me to be one of the last.

We began planning on the eve of the winter solstice when Marshall was contacted by the spaceship.  The travelers told him that they were making their way to Earth to rescue us before our planet was recycled, and that they were hiding behind the comet so as to avoid detection.  They would be close enough for us to send our souls to them around the time of the coming equinox.

These last few months have been busy as we continued programming while at the same time crafting our plans to leave.  Neither our clients nor anyone else on Earth knew what we were really doing, and while we held great sympathy for them, we felt tremendous joy in our coming salvation.

Finally, it was time.  Hale-Bopp was nearing its perihelion and was at its closet point to Earth.  Our saviors had told Marshall that they could board no more than fifteen of us each day, so we divided ourselves into three groups.  Bonnie would be among the first, and Marshall would go with the last.  He afforded me honor by asking me to place the shrouds, and also to disembark with him on the third night.

That first night was especially poignant as we ate our pudding after our communal dinner.  While it was hard not to be envious of the fifteen who ate the specially prepared bowls, we were all equally joyous as we knew that our souls would soon be reunited.  In the morning, I placed the purple shrouds upon the fifteen whose souls had traveled to the Next Level.

The following day’s events mirrored those of the First Departure, and again, in the morning I placed the shrouds on the bodies of those whose souls had traveled to the spacecraft.

Finally, last night, the rest ate the pudding, although I was to wait a few more hours since it was my job to place the shroud on Marshall. Just past midnight, once everyone’s souls had left, I finally was able to eat my special serving.

And now it is sunrise, and as I look out the window I see the edges of the world start to fade.  It’s not simply that it’s darkening – it’s actually vanishing into nothingness!  Each moment there is less and less of it!  Now, the void is consuming the yard, now the house, now this room, soon my body.  I wait for my soul to leave my body, to go into the void, and rush toward those waiting on the ship.  I am so very blessed to know such immensely profound joy!