Upgrade – Flash Fiction

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“What are you doing? I want to go.”

“Five minutes,” he pulled open a drawer, it contents rattling against themselves.

“No, now,” she stood with purpose, but didn’t move from the spot.

Ben locked eyes on Lucy then slammed the drawer shut without a word.

When he turned to another drawer and began to rifle through it, she moaned and dropped herself back on the couch, “There’s no way what you’re doing is more important than the previews!”

Ben paused just before wrapping his fingers around the tiny screwdriver, something catching in his throat at her words–or were they his own–but he pushed the feeling away. The tool was small enough to hide in his palm, though it wasn’t as if she’d recognize it. Probably not anyway. Not this time.

“Ya know what? No, fuck it,” Lucy stood again, grabbing her purse, “I’m going without you. You didn’t even read all the comics anyway.”

“Don’t,” he sighed, rolling his head back and regretting introducing her to the extended universe, “Can you just wait a second?”

“I’ve been waiting a second all day!” she ripped her bag open and pulled out a tube of lipgloss as she stormed her way to the mirror in the entryway, “I’m always waiting on you, doing whatever you want. Don’t you ever give a shit about what I want?”

Even as he moved toward her, he felt something inside him pulling him back. Was anything she wanted different from what he wanted? He came up behind her like a ghost, his reflection over her shoulder, but she didn’t even glance at it. The pink she swept across her lips was bright, too bright for Ben’s liking, but the rest of her was nearly perfect. She’d been worth the cost.

“That’s what I thought,” she turned on him, pouting full lips, narrowing heavily-lashed eyes, “Nothing to say. Fucking loser.”

Ben felt her words hit him in the gut so hard he nearly doubled over. “Lucy,” his grip tightened on the screwdriver, “Please.”

“I’m leaving.”

There was blood, there was always blood, and it never failed to surprise Ben, but it was fleeting. The only way to really hide the jack was to cover it completely in organic matter, he’d been told, and accessing it should always be a last resort, but this called for a hard reset. He’d lost track of which number this one was.

Lucy gurgled, her throat flushing itself with a viscous fluid in reaction to the stab to her neck. It added to the cleanup, but it at least muffled the screams. She flailed her arms, but he pinned them expertly behind her back, trapping her between himself and the wall. Ben jiggled the screwdriver against wet, soft tissue until he felt it jab something hard. Back and forth he scraped it across the metal, Lucy making things exponentially difficult as she tried to squirm away. Her eyes had gone red and puffy immediately, and he thought to ask them about disabling that feature.

Finally it clicked, sinking it and catching, and with a twist and push, he’d begun the clock. Now he just had to count and wait, backwards from eight. He whispered the numbers, his mouth against her ear as he held her in place. Something in her eyes recognized what was happening, they always did around five, and he closed his own so he didn’t have to see.

She writhed against him, and if it hadn’t been for the watery sound in her throat and the hot, wet blood on his hand, he might have found it arousing, but he finally reached one, and all at once Lucy stopped moving.

She was heavy then, even for such a little thing, and he crumpled with her onto the floor. The bleeding stopped itself, but the thick black liquid would have to be drained out, and he wasn’t going to bother cleaning anything up until after they’d come to patch her. He was a genius with software, but hardware was a whole different game.

Rolling her body off his, Ben headed for his study. He had a lot of code to rewrite, and he was starting with her affinity for pink.

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Things I Just Don’t Fucking Understand: Mom’s Memes

My mom has a folder of memes saved on her computer.

If you noticed my absence the last week or two and happened to see my last post, Eulogy, you can probably put two together and figure out my grandma passed away recently. I traveled to New Hampshire for her funeral and to visit with my family. While there’s plenty to ruminate on there, I’d rather focus on something more lighthearted for now. And that brings me to my mom’s laptop and her folder of memes.

It’s here I should clarify a couple things for you, Dear Reader. One is that I am not an enemy of fun. I want people to have a good time and unabashedly love the things they love. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you do you. And two, I pronounce it “mem” like in re-mem-ber, not “meem.” It appears I’m wrong, but I wanted to throw that out there to see if anyone else might do this too.

I’m not entirely sure when the concept of the meme changed from a template image, captioned with slightly altered but relatable and reproducible text to basically any picture with writing on it, but it has, and that’s fine, but this expansion mixed with the boom in older adults utilizing more and more social media has produced a plethora of images that I, personally, do not find humorous. But my mom does. By gods, Dear Reader, does she ever.

While I was visiting her, I paid for my room and board with technology lessons. After answering questions that I didn’t really have the answer to, she opened My Photos. Here, you can see a preview of each of the sub folders. Mostly mountains and snow, but there was one folder, quite dissimilar to the others. The image was clearly compressed and not a photo so much as a solid white background, some text in a near illegible font, and a yellow, amorphous blob. Something in my brain seized at that, but she quickly opened a different folder from a hike she did two years ago and lulled me into a false sense of security. Dear Reader, I’ve seen 90% of her photos before. In fact, I’m in at least half of them, but viewing them with her is just another form of currency, and I’m glad to pay it. But then she confirmed my fear and opened it. The meme folder.

So I got up and started making nachos, because that’s the only thing a sane person can do in that situation. She would chuckle in the background. Increasingly loud chuckles. She was baiting me. “Got some memes there, do ya?” I asked, sprinkling Mexican Four Cheese onto a single layer of tortilla chips because that’s how you do it, Dear Reader: single layer of chips, cheese, another single layer of chips, cheese. Fight me.

“This one’s so funny!” she insisted, and then she read it to me.

Dear Reader, under threat of slow and painful death at the yellow-nailed and pigs-blood-covered hands of an inbred, cannibalistic, radiation-blasted family of the undead, I could not recall what the meme was because when I saw it, my brain shut down.

It’s this thing that happens when faced with something that I don’t agree with on a fundamental level, and I can’t muster the fraudulent expression needed to continue the conversation. I just kind of turn off. It’s basically what happens whenever I see one of these fuckos:

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Then I am filled with a BLINDING RAGE and cannot be held accountable for my actions.

But I decided instead to try and make something of this. Why did I have such a reaction, and why was it so in contrast to her own? I avoid these things like the plague, she she, my own mother, the loins from which I was born, seeks them out and saves them as if they won’t be eternalized in the infinite cloud that is the Internet. And for her, someone who has tremendous difficulty on a computer, saving an image from the internet is not an easy task. But this, she learned all on her own! I had to teach her how to set up her bank account alone, but this was more meaningful to her! So I asked: What makes a meme worth saving?

She was quiet, the remnants of a good laugh still plastered in a smile on her face as she stared wistfully at the screen. Then came the reply, “I dunno! They’re funny!”

I know. Take a breath.

I tried to dive deeper into this: Was it that she liked the sentiment of the meme? Were they all similar in some way? Or perhaps she cared for the person who sent or posted them, or even the specific situation that person had referenced with the meme? Every time you see that one-eyed, yellow, banana-loving bastard, do you remember a very specific hike into the snowy mountains of New Hampshire?

“Yeah, I guess.”

She guesses, Dear Reader. And that’s a good enough answer, I guess, because really, no one has to justify their actions to anyone else, especially ones so incredibly insignificant, and especially in response to someone who isn’t doing real science, but I still felt perturbed not getting to the heart of the matter. Her inability to enthusiastically or even completely commit to that answer told me it wasn’t true.

So why does she think they’re funny, but I don’t? Why does she insist on showing them to me even when I say they’re not funny? It’s as if I’ve said nothing or, worse, as if I actually laughed, as she keeps offering another to me. “But this one has Garfield in it!” she tells me despite that the words attached to the image have nothing to do with lasagna or Mondays which just further boggles my mind: these memes are almost completely devoid of meaning beyond the images themselves. In no other context (or really even their own context) would they make sense which I thought was the core concept of a meme–that the image was recognizable and offered additional commentary on the text.

I don’t have an answer for these questions, just like I don’t know what that notification is that keeps popping up on your phone but it’s not there right now, so you can’t show me, but it pops up like five times a day and you can’t get it to go away except it’s not there right now. I can come to some conclusions about why I hate these things, and even some hypotheses as to why she loves them, but I fear we’ll never come to an agreement on them. I’ll forever be making nachos and she’ll forever be giggling at Snoopy drinking wine despite that he’s a dog from a children’s show.

 

Vacancy – 1.06

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

pexels-photo-237898The man eyed Lorelei, and she returned the look. “I didn’t think I was gone that long,” he cracked a half smile, exposing bright white teeth, then extended a hand, “You must be the manor’s newest staffer. Name’s Conrad.”

“Conrad,” she searched her mind then took his hand, “Someone may have mentioned you.” She played at coyness, though it was glaringly clear in her mind that Ren had suggested enlisting Conrad to wipe her memory earlier that day. “I’m Lorelei.”

 

 

“A lorelei? Well, that makes sense!” he shook her hand a bit longer than he should have. When she glanced down at the shake, he broke it off then squeezed the back of his neck. “Ziah has been needing the help, and it’s always nice to have a new face around.”

“Well, I’m not exactly hired yet,” she cautioned as he turned and started for the cart where the stone creatures were loading the last of the luggage. She hurried behind him, “You work at the manor?”

“Onsite apothecary,” he nodded, tucking his book into his satchel. He easily hopped up into the cart and offered her a hand. She hesitated, “Ziah didn’t say I’d be picking any people up.”

“I’m actually headed back a little early.” He shifted his gaze away and sighed, “Just dumb luck you were here, otherwise I’d be walking back to my bike.” She stared at his offered hand again, and when she didn’t take it, he faltered, “I mean, if it’s okay.”

Lorelei shrugged and hoisted herself into the cart without his help. “Just don’t like, grow horns or something, okay?”

Conrad responded, but his voice sounded far away and hollow the moment the stags took them back through the archway. If she had to explain it, Lorelei would have called it nothingness, the feeling of being in that dark place between the train station and the forest. She shivered when they left the tunnel, but this time the forest’s darkness was familiar and almost inviting.

“So, you must have been at the manor for, what, only a few days?” Conrad was leaning lazily against the seat, turned slightly toward her.

Lorelei pinched her knees together at the far end of the bench, “Less than twenty four hours, actually.” It sounded more impressive when she said it aloud, and she allowed herself to smile just a bit.

Conrad nodded, “It has that effect on people.”

They sat in the quiet, bumping along the pathway. Lorelei tapped her foot and wrung her hands, but her nerves weren’t a product of the shadows beyond the trees this time. She had a very distinct feeling Ziah would not like this one bit.

“So, are you from Moonlit Shores?”

Unsure what he meant, she motioned randomly into the forest, “Uh, no, I’m from a little ways west.”

“So what, you came out her on vacation and ended up with a job?” He asked like it couldn’t be true.

She sucked in her breath and gave him a curt nod, “Almost.”

Conrad smiled, “Ziah is particularly persuasive.” Lorelei thought about the woman’s cat-like eyes and flowing black hair. It was an understatement.

Before he could ask her anything else, she turned fully toward him, “And you’re an apothecary?”

“Yeah,” his cheeks went red, “I’ve completed all the formal training, trust me,” he tapped his bag, “These are all elective. Since we get so many different guests at the manor, I need to keep up on, well, everything.”

“Oh,” she squinted with only a little idea what an apothecary actually was, but was too afraid to ask, “That’s cool.”

He sighed and leaned back into the cart, “It’s always good to be back home though.”

“You live at the manor?”

“We all do,” he was staring up at the sky through the trees, “It’s a nice perk, no commute.”

Lorelei thought hard for a moment. She hadn’t been considering where she would live if she was offered the position at the manor. Home would just become a place she once lived, everything and everyone left behind. Her chest felt tight, even at the thought of losing the things she was running away from, and she felt tears prick at the back of her eyes.

“Are you all right?”

Conrad had leaned too far forward and was studying her with a knit brow, his face inches from her own. She backed into the seat of the cart, any possibility of tears blinked away, “Yes. Definitely fine.”

“Sorry,” he sat back again quickly, scratching his head, “you looked, uh, sad.”

“I’m just worried,” she half-lied, “A lot of things are weird for me right now.”

“Ah,” he nodded, “Same. You’re not originally from a community like ours, are you?”

Lorelei couldn’t answer, and she dared not look at him. Was it that obvious? Could he read her thoughts? She’d encountered weirder things that day, he may as well be in her mind that moment. I’m human! She shouted in her head, Please don’t kill me!

“It’s becoming more common,” he said, no sign that he’d heard anything she’d telepathically yelled at him, “So many are halfsies or changelings, I mean, Arista herself is halfsies.”

He sounded like a child, suddenly, and she almost laughed. “I’m not familiar with that term,” she ventured carefully.

“Halfsies? When you’re part of one thing and part of another, sometimes even human. Arista is zero percent human, though, of course.”

She felt her heartbeat a little harder as she watched him roll his eyes. Man, these people didn’t like humans.

“Wait, did you mean changeling? Like, when you’ve been misplaced. Changelings grow up out there, in the other world. They always eventually find us though.”

“That’s it,” she pointed at him knowingly, “That’s me. A changeling. I don’t know anything about all this. But I’m, like, here now.”

“A changeling,” his eyes were wide, “Fascinating.” Then he smirked, “I should have known. I mean, for a second back there I thought you were a human!” Lorelei forced out a laugh along with him. “But Arista would never allow that. Gods, I can’t even imagine.”

“I haven’t met Arista yet.”

He grimaced, “You might change-ling your mind about staying if you do.”

Lorelei tried to contain herself, but the attempt at a pun was as bad as it was good, and she sputtered out a laugh.

Conrad stared at her a moment then shook his head, “I’m sorry, that was not funny.”

“No, it was,” she wiped at her eyes, catching her breath, “Stupid, but funny.”

“Well, sorry to say your sense of humor might not fit in at the manor,” he was grinning stupidly, “Elves and fairies can be pretty humorless.”

“Fairies?” Lorelei cut the laughter short, remembering the winged woman who had flown out of the laundry bin.

“Yeah, we’ve got at least a hundred, but they travel a lot.”

“That was a fairy,” Lorelei repeated to herself, staring down at her lap, “And Ren’s ears…”

“Took a course on elven biology over the summer,” Conrad snorted, “I can confirm they do not have a funny bone. Hey, there’s my bike.”

At the edge of the path, tucked under a tree, was the outline of a motorbike and the slight shine of metal. Conrad hopped out of the cart as it continued to travel down the path. He jogged ahead and walked the bike out from under the ferns. Lorelei saw all this and didn’t see it at the same time. In her mind she saw Ren and the small winged woman and the horned horse, and things both made sense and didn’t.

“It was nice meeting you,” Conrad’s voice reminded her she was in the presence of another human–or not–and she mumbled back a similar platitude. He started his bike and mounted it, looking back at her, “What did you say your name was?”

She told him with a frown, annoyed to repeat herself. He nodded slowly, almost bewildered, then popped on his helmet and drove ahead, disappearing down the path, the sound of his bike lingering long after his form was gone.  

Some time later, the stags brought her back out of the forest, and she was surprised to see the sun was setting beyond the manor and the grounds were cast in an orange and purple haze. The rest of the trip was a strange swirl of trying to accept the absolutely unbelievable, and wondering where the hidden cameras were. Worse, she began to consider if this were some kind of joke being played on her by those she’d wronged. When she entered into the foyer after dropping off the cart and luggage at the barn, her mind had still not settled. Ziah looked up at her with a smile over the reception desk. She dropped the papers she’d been shuffling and slammed her hands on the desk with wide, excited eyes, “You’re back!”

“You’re not an alien.” Lorelei found herself pointing at the woman.

“I never said I was,” Ziah took a deep breath then put on a grand, bright smile. Even from under deep eye circles, it was infectious.

Lorelei smiled back, laughing a bit at her own words. “I met Conrad,” she said as if that explained everything. “I told him I was…a changeling?”

“Well thank gods for that.” She glanced up at the clock then back at her, “There’s a lot to discuss, but right now I need to work. In about thirty minutes, we’re hosting a meet and greet, so go get fancied up a bit and meet me back down here.”

Lorelei hustled up the stairs and into her room solely at the urgency in Ziah’s voice. She paused for a moment, wondering why she didn’t insist on the answers she’d been hoping to get the whole cart ride, but the thought was fleeting. In the adjacent bathroom, she hopped in and out of the shower, and dressed in a short, loose fitting dress she found at the bottom of her bag. Beneath it her cell phone had been buried, and after a second of contemplation, she snatched it up and shoved it into an opportune pocket before hurrying back down to check in.

Ziah stood at the counter, changed into a body-hugging, scarlet number and matching lipstick. Lorelei felt twelve years old in comparison. And yet the woman smile at her, blinking long lashes, and told her, “You look lovely,” and Lorelei absolutely believed her.

She could hear the rumble before they even turned into the hall that lead to the white room. She was shocked to see, upon entering, the size had at least tripled. There was a mass of people inside, but she could see over every head but one, Seamus, who was regaling a group of dwarves with some tale that made them all laugh. Ziah pushed a tray into her hands, covered in bready balls of cheese with a crisp meat topping, and told her to make rounds. She attempted to, but the dwarves were on her in an instant and gobbled them up with grins hidden under big, bushy beards and mustaches. She looked to Ziah for help, but the woman shrugged with a smile, headed in the opposite direction, mouthing to her above the crowd, “Just make them feel welcome.”

Lorelei found a counter for the empty tray and glanced about at the short men. They were so joyous she didn’t feel her presence was needed anywhere, but she certainly didn’t feel unwelcomed either. She laid eyes on a dark corner of the room where one dwarf sat atop a stool, stein in hand. She went to stand near him and leaned against the wall, “Hello.” He raised his mug to her with a nod, then turned his gaze back out to the crowd.

She slid her hand into her pocket and gripped her phone. There would be so many messages, her stomach turned at just the thought, and she pulled it out to stare down at the black screen. As she contemplated dumping it in a half-empty pitcher beside her, the device was slipped from her hands by a set of short, stubby fingers.

Lorelei scrambled, but the dwarf who had taken it was grinning ear to ear. “What’s this?”

“Uh,” her mind spun. These were dwarves, Ren was an elf, and there were fairies living in the walls. Did any of them know about this kind of technology? Was she totally outed?

“Oh, a Berry!” he exclaimed happily, “Haven’t seen one of these in a while. Outdated.”

Lorelei pouted, her phone was only about six months old.

“That’s okay though,” he flipped it over and pulled off the back cover in a shockingly swift move for such small, pudgy fingers. From his breast pocket, he fished a roll of cloth that unfurled to show a number of tiny tools, and from a satchel on his waist, he revealed a small, wooden box. Lining up the tools beside the phone on a table, he went to work. With the sharpest of the tools, he poked into the back of the phone and removed something, Lorelei wincing all the while, but afraid to stop him. From the box he carefully selected a metallic chip and slid it into place. A few more seconds of tinkering, and then the back went on again, and he presented it to Lorelei with a flourish.

She took it slowly, staring at him rather than the device, afraid of what had become of it.

He bounced on his heels and nodded at her, “Free upgrade, my dear. Please, do try it.”

Lorelei held in the button to switch it on, and it came to life with a blue light, a firefly flitting across the screen then, to her amazement, popping out and whooshing around her head before returning back into the phone’s screen and disappearing.

“Hope you don’t mind, one of my personal projects.”

When the screen came back on, everything seemed normal enough. She did indeed have a pouring in of missed calls, messages, emails, and she could feel sweat instantly begin to form on her brow. “Just swipe to the left, my dear.”

What would have been local and world news was replaced with a new screen and set of applications she’d never seen before.

“Don’t know how you’ve been getting about without those,” he chuckled, incredibly pleased, “And plugging it in, you don’t have to do that anymore,” he waved, “So archaic. Holding it will be enough.”

“Welcome, welcome!” A booming voice sounded from the far end of the room, and the dwarf threw his hands up and shouted along with the others in the room. Lorelei stammered out a thank you, and he grinned before running off toward the rest of the gathered dwarves. She stared out at the little man who’d been hoisted onto another’s shoulders. He needed no microphone as his voice carried through the room. “So good to see you all. This year is proving to be one of our biggest ever! From the Buckhorns of Birmingham–” there was a loud cheer from the left end of the room, “to the O’Raighleys of East Shire–” and an even louder cheer from the right end, “And all in between, I couldn’t be more pleased! Now I know we all have much to discuss, new technologies, exciting inventions, but that is all for later. Tonight, we party!”

The entire room erupted so that Lorelei thought the manor might come tumbling down. She held her breath as the dwarves scurried about, clanging steins and pouring themselves new drinks. The room smelled of sweet barley and hot spices, and music erupted from somewhere in the mess. A dwarf grabbed her free hand and pulled her out to the middle of the floor and she found herself skipping about in a circle with him. They clapped and she clapped back, finding herself falling into laughter and bumping into Ziah who had been pulled out as well. The pending messages on her newly upgraded phone faded as she slipped it back into her pocket.

When she looked up from the dwarves, she noticed Conrad standing at the back wall, leaning near the door where Hotaru bustled in and out with another towering tray of food. He gave her a brief nod, and she waved back.

After perhaps hours of dancing and trying to help serve the never-ending trays of food, Ziah guided her to the back of the room. “I’m sure you’re exhausted,” she breathed, looking more tired than ever.

She felt it all at once, and blinked, “Yes. Definitely.”

She led her out of the room and down a tight corridor. They slipped through a hidden door that opened onto a narrow set of stairs, traveled up, and found Lorelei’s room. Inside, she shut the door behind her. “I’m not going to come up here tomorrow morning and find an empty room am I?”

“Am I going to run away in the night?” she snickered, “I don’t think I could if I wanted to. I don’t really know where I am.”

“Good,” Ziah snorted, “because I’m very much wanting to offer you this job, provided I can get a yes from Arista.”

Lorelei felt her chest tighten. “That would be wonderful,” she heard herself saying.

“But Arista, she hates humans, and she could never know what you really are, do you understand that?”

“Sure, well I think I convinced that guy, Conrad.”

“Big deal,” Ziah rolled her eyes playfully, “But seriously, Arista is powerful, and it might be…unsafe for you. And maybe for me.”

Lorelei looked her over, the sleep in her eyes heavy. She still knew nothing of this world, she wasn’t sure if she even truly liked it or just disliked the alternative more, but she wanted to stay.

And still.

She sighed heavily and cocked her head, “I know my word means very little to you, but if you made me leave here, I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t tell anyone. No one would believe me anyway,” she chuckled under her breath, “Like I said, I’ve got no one out there to tell. Not really. So if you want me to go, if that’s the safest and best thing, I will. So, why take the risk?”

Ziah was quiet a long moment, and Lorelei feared she may have written her resignation letter before even getting the offer.

“Because you’re asking that.” Ziah looked her over, “And, really, you’re more like us than you know.”

The woman left with a promise to actually let her sleep in the next morning, and Lorelei fell back onto the bed. She held her phone up to her face and it came to life without her needing to press a button. Instinctively, it showed her a screen with all her missed messages, something it never used to do, then when she felt her anxiety rise, the little blue firefly came back and zipped away, turning the screen off again. She dumped the phone onto the nightstand and slid under the covers.

 

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