Friday, June 26, 2009

"All Too Well" and "Engagement"

You get a two-for-one today. It's only fair, since they're both so short. I wrote both of these for contests that had some unique conditions. For "All Too Well," I was given a picture and a 200 word limit. For "Engagement," the limit was 99 words, and it had to contain the following: clay, woods and scared. I didn't win either contest, but I did receive an Honorable Mention for "All Too Well." (If you want to to see what beat me, check out the website.)

"Flash Fiction," as this type of piece is sometimes called, is hard to write well because you have to compress all the essential elements of a story into such a tiny package. I think I succeeded with these. Let me know what you think.

"All Too Well"

"May I read your fortune?" Her accent was as exotic as her dress.

"Uh, sure."

Three cards were laid out face up on the table. A pale hand with an intricate spider web tattoo indicated the first.

"The Jack of Swords. You are a warrior, one who fights for the innocent and oppressed."

Well, duh, I thought. I’m a cop.

She motioned to the second card. "The six of pentacles. You have a trusted friend."

I glanced toward the back of the store. My partner was paying the clerk.


I looked back at the table. The hand touched the third card, this one sporting the image of two lovers. The card was reversed.

"They were all out of the chocolate frosted," Riley said from behind me. I turned to find my partner holding out a glazed donut and a steaming cup of coffee. Traces of chocolate frosting lingered on his upper lip.


I simply stared.

"What?" he asked again. "Machine not working right?"

He licked his lips self-consciously. I eyed the tattooed hand and shook my head.

"Oh, no. It’s working all too well."


"I can't shake the one on my tail!"

"Don't let them scare you, Foxtrot. You can do this."

I jinked left, rolled inverted, and dove, catching a glimpse of red mountain clay a scant 1000 feet below. Too close.

The MiG lost the missile lock, but I wasn't out of the woods yet; the ground was closing fast.

"You're dropping too low, pull up!"

I jerked the stick back, trying to level out.

"Missile lock!"


I rolled.... The screen went black.

"65 out of 100. Not bad for a first time simulation. Again."

The screen flickered to life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Suffering for Your Art"

Another challenge from the Yahoo writing group I belong to. I missed this when the group did it, so I put it here. The topic was "Patterns in Motion."

"Why did you agree to ride the stupid thing if you knew you were going to get sick?"

The man leaning over the trash can wiped the back of his hand against his mouth before answering.

"You really wanted to do it. It seemed a good idea at the time."

It seemed a good idea at the time. Story of my life. Or at least, story of why I found myself at a county fair in rural Illinois selling art prints. Well, ostensibly selling art prints. You'll see.

"Those are really weird."

The comment drew my attention back to my booth where two teenaged girls stood looking at my wares. The blonde was holding one of my prints at arms length, turning it this way and that with a quizzical look, while her redheaded friend scanned the booth.

"What are they supposed to be?"

"They're called stereograms," I said. They looked at me like I had spoken a foreign language. "Inside of that design is a hidden picture. If you focus your eyes just right the picture pops out."

I pointed to the sample slide I kept. On the left was a typical stereogram with its odd jumble of shapes and colors. On the right was the hidden image. The blonde looked at the picture in her hand and squinted for a few seconds.

"I don't see anything."

"Let me try," Red said. Blondie handed it over. Red stared for a bit. I could tell she was trying too hard.

"The trick is to act like you're staring off into space," I said. "Let your eyes go slightly out of focus; like you're staring straight ahead but seeing something out of the corners of both eyes."

It only took a second. Her eyes relaxed just a tad, and then....

"I see it! Awe, it's a teddy bear holding balloons."

"Let me see that." Blondie snatched the print away. She practically glared at the picture, willing the image to come forth. Of course it didn't. Her friend, meanwhile, had gone immediately to the other prints. It was always entertaining to see the delight in their eyes as this whole new world opened up to them. If only they knew.

"Carly, I don't see it," Blondie said.

"Try this one," Carly replied, thrusting a second print into Blondie's hands, "it's Elvis!"

After watching her squirm for another minute I finally handed over the "cheat sheet." I suppose I could have done that immediately, but my instructions were very clear: those with aptitude are more likely to figure it out on their own - let them try, then focus your attention on the ones that succeed. Still, you get more sales if people can actually appreciate the product, and while I wasn't doing this for the money, the extra cash was nice. The cheat sheet had two black squares printed just above the picture. Most people can unfocus their eyes enough to get the two squares to turn into three. When that happens, voila! The picture appears as if by magic. It was no wonder one of the companies that did so well selling stereograms in the '80s was called "Magic Eye." Such poetic irony.

With the help of the cheat sheet, Blondie finally mastered the process. The girls spent another five minutes at the booth, pouring over the prints. They found a few they liked, but were hesitant about making a purchase. I sweetened the deal.

"Look, I'm running a special contest at the fair. See that big picture back there?" I pointed at the large framed stereogram at the back of the booth. It was hard to see in the shadows of the tent. "That stereogram is something really special. The frame alone is worth $300. Everyone who purchases a print gets a game sheet."

I pulled out a folded sheet of paper. A staple held the fold closed. On the outside of the sheet was a color picture of a beautiful forest scene. "You pull the winning piece, you get the prize."

The girls looked at the paper. "Is that what the picture in the stereogram looks like?" Carly asked." It's beautiful."

"And that's just a printout. The real thing is unbelievable."

"Can we see it?"

I frowned. "The real one is actually painted. The sunlight isn't good for it."

It took some more convincing, but in the end they took the bait and made the purchase. I handed them their game sheets, and they promptly tore them open to reveal identical stereograms.

"How do we know if we won?"

"The winning piece has a stereogram whose picture actually moves as you look at it."

Both girls looked at their papers. I could tell by their faces they hadn't won. I sighed.

"No such luck? Well, maybe next time. Why don't you keep the game sheets, show them to your friends? Maybe someone else will see what you couldn't."

It was a ridiculous suggestion, but each girl nodded in turn, their game sheets firmly in hand. They left the booth seeming somewhat dazed, a natural enough reaction given the circumstances.

The scene repeated itself often throughout the day. People made purchases and walked away with losing game sheets. It was rather depressing, really. Sure, I made enough dough to cover the cost of the booth and pocket some spare change, but that wasn't why I was here. And time was running out.

Soon the sun was down and the fair was closing down for the night. I sighed in frustration as I released the ties that held the front flaps to the booth open. Time was short. If I didn't find a winner soon....

"Hey Mister."

I turned to find a young boy, maybe twelve years of age, poking his head past the flaps. His bright red hair was sticking up at angles, and he was breathing heavily.

"Are you the one running the sterothingy contest?"

"I am," I said. "Why do you ask?"

"My sister showed me this game sheet she got here earlier. She says it's not a winner, but I think she's wrong. The clown is definitely waving his arm in this picture. At least, it does when I look at it."

My heart skipped a beat. No, it couldn't be. I looked at the boy more closely. Now that I took the time to study his face I recognized the family resemblance to that girl Carly who had stopped by earlier. They certainly shared the same hair. Carly had been a quick study. Was it possible?

"What's your name?" I asked.


"Why don't you bring the sheet in, Simon, and I'll check its number against my list."

Simon came into the booth, letting the flap close behind him. I took the paper, and then pulled a binder out from under the front table.

"That's the prize back there. Give it a look-see."

Simon wandered over to the large framed stereogram. I watched him intently as he went, dropping the paper to the table. I didn't need to look up the imaginary number. All of the game sheets were identical. It was the person who mattered.

Simon stood before the picture. There was a moment of stillness as his eyes refocused - then widened in alarm. Light spilled from the picture, casting Simon's features in an eerie green glow. He opened his mouth to scream.

A graceful hand darted from painting to stop abruptly, its index finger resting on Simon's forehead. Simon froze in place. After a moment the hand withdrew.


The voice that called to me was all milk and honey, but I knew the truth of it. I made my way around behind Simon so I could see past him. Before me, framed in varnished oak, stood an arcane doorway to the faerie realm. The creature on the other side was beautiful in an alien way. On the outside, anyway.

"I am surprised, Thomas. I did not think this plan of yours would succeed."

If I had to be honest, I hadn't thought it would succeed either. But I wasn't going to tell her that.

"That's because you don't see things the same way as humans do, Queen Mab. When magicians use the Sight it is identical to the process used to view these pictures I've shown you. Since the Gate I placed on this painting can only be triggered by viewing it with the Sight, it makes sense that humans with magical potential who use the technique will trigger it - even thought they aren't actively using magic."

At least, that had been the idea. Until now it had just been a theory.

"I care not for your explanations," Queen Mab said. "I care only for the terms of our bargain: your ability to wield magic in exchange for young magicians to mold to my will. This youngling makes one, Thomas. You owe me two, still. Think you capable of fulfilling the bargain in the allotted time?"

"Of course." I hoped.

"Do not forget, I would take you in their place." She smiled. The sharp beauty of it cut me to the core. I shuddered.

Queen Mab laughed, retreating back into her realm with the helpless Simon in tow.

So now you see.

"How could you?" you ask. "Whatever could have possessed you to make such a deal?"

The only answer I have: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Angel in Disguise"

In honor of the birth of Autumn Brin, grandaughter to a fellow writer and dear friend.

Rain beat upon the nursery window. Mother and grandmother smiled as the newborn whimpered, trying to ignore the raging storm and get comfortable in her bassinet. Her eyes were half-lidded as she struggled against sleep.

"Don't fight it, Autumn Brin," the mother said wearily, her own eyes tight with fatigue. The birth had been a long one. It was her first and though this new little person was a joy and a treasure, she wasn't certain she wanted to go through the process again any time soon.

"She'll get to sleep soon enough," the grandmother chided softly. "She has a clean diaper and a full tummy - what else could the little angel ask for?"

The mother frowned in annoyance. Autumn was up every three hours wanting to feed, and mom was fighting to sleep in the short interims of peace. Beautiful, yes. A joy, yes. An angel? Not at the moment.

"You know," the grandmother continued, "My mother used to tell me that little babies were really angels in disguise; that before they were born they served as angels in heaven, and that they don't forget their heritage until they're old enough to tell us about it."

"Ok, mom." The mother was used to the grandmother's wild fantasy stories. At this moment, she was too tired to think much about it.

The grandmother recognized the exhausted state of her daughter and knew not to press. "Why don't you go lie down and I'll bring you a nice cup of hot chocolate." She patted her daughter's arm and left for the kitchen.

The mother sighed and moved to the window, checking again the sureness of the lock. She had checked twice already, but the intensity of the storm had picked up in the last ten minutes and her new mother's acute protectiveness had kicked in.

Lightning flashed. A peal of thunder followed almost immediately. The mother turned instinctively to check on her baby. Autumn Brin's eyes fluttered, but she remained still. "That was close by," the mother thought, a tiny prickle of fear moving down her spine. She had never liked lightning storms. She reached to close the blinds.

Another bolt jolted down from the heavens. The intensity of the flash was so strong the mother covered her eyes with a hand. The concussive shock that followed shook the window. Afterimages clouded her vision and as her eyes cleared she saw the massive oak in the yard falling directly toward the window.

She didn't even have time to scream. The fractured trunk descended too rapidly, dark bark filling her sight.

And then, the tree inexplicably stopped. There was a slight scratching sound as branches scraped the window, but the expected crash of glass and rending of frame did not occur.

The mother stood stock still, seemingly rooted to the floor. What had just happened? Then the fear left abruptly, and she moved to the bassinet.

Autumn Brin lay peacefully beneath the coverlet. Her eyes were fully open now, and the faintest impressions of a smile played about her tiny mouth. A trick of the light made it seem as if her face were aglow. She looked just like...

"An angel," whispered the mother.

The light faded and the baby's eyes closed. Her breathing slowed into the deep rhythmical sounds of sleep. The grandmother came bursting into the room then, panting a bit from the exertion of running up the stairs.

"Oh, thank the Lord, you're both all right! Did you see that lightning flash? Hit the old oak square down the middle. I thought for sure it was going to hit the house when it fell, but that old limb with the tire on it went square into the ground - wedged in tight. The whole thing's just balancing there. It's a miracle no one got hurt!"

The mother glanced down at her sleeping child and smiled warmly. "Yes, it was. An angelic miracle."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


"Put me down! Put me DOWN, you big brute."

The dragon landed lightly on a granite outcropping and gently placed the screaming woman on the rock. Finding herself free from the grasp of the dragon's talons, the woman scrambled to get as far away as possible. She got only a few steps before she realized that escape would be impossible, as the dragon had perched on the edge of a precipice easily five hundred feet from the ground. A quick glance up confirmed the walls of the gorge were too steep to climb. She was trapped.

"You will not get away with this, you foul beast," she roared. "You cannot capture me, spirit me away, and keep me here against my will and expect no reprisal. My Wesley will rescue me from the likes of you."

The dragon shook his head and made a sound not unlike a "tsk."

"My dear princess, you have it all wrong. I did not capture you at all. In fact, it is I who rescued you."

The princess shut her mouth so abruptly the dragon thought she might have broken a few teeth. "What is that you say? You rescued me? Preposterous! Everyone knows it is the dragons who go about pillaging and kidnapping and the kings and knights who do the rescuing."

"I admit," the dragon replied, "that what you say is usually the right of it. In this case, however, what I have said is very much the truth. I have rescued you from the hands of Prince Wesley and should very much like your thanks for it."

The princess snapped her head up and tried very hard to look down her nose at the dragon, which was made quite difficult due to the difference in their sizes. Instead of the regal mien she tried to espouse, she was left instead with a crick in her neck and a slightly squinty look. This did not, however, affect the haughty tone of her voice.

"I am Princess Buttercup of Guilder. I do not thank anyone!"

The dragon snorted and smoke escaped one of his nostrils. The princess, suddenly reminded that dragons breathe fire, took a slight step back and smoothed her skirts with a nervous gesture. She did not, however, lower her head, which resulted in the crick turning quickly into a cramp. The dragon, noting her distress, lowered its head so that their eyes were level.

"I should think not," he said, "at least not without an explanation. Would you be so kind as to sit, your highness? I should very much like to make my case to you."

The princess thought to refuse, but in truth, the crick was now becoming painful. Seeing no other recourse, she took a seat on a convenient rock.

"All right, then, proceed with your yarn," the princess said, trying surreptitiously to massage her neck. The dragon noticed this, of course, but politely made no mention of it. "It will give me something to pass the time while we wait for my Wesley to arrive."

"You place much faith in the prince, your highness. Too much faith, in truth, for I will show you how your mind has been clouded by love."

The dragon proceeded to tell his tale. He told her of the prince's cruelty, how he killed helpless animals for sport and tortured men - and women - for pleasure in the catacombs beneath the castle. He told her of the prince's excesses, of his countless drunken brawls and drug-induced stupors. He told her of the prince's many lovers, some purchased with squandered gold and some within her own serving staff. The princess objected to each point in the story, attempting to explain away this event or that, but in the end the dragon presented so much evidence in such startling detail that she had no choice but to believe it.

"And so you see, your highness, when I heard that you were going to marry this debaucherous lecher, I could not in good conscience let the ceremony go forward. For your own protection I had to act."

The princess, calm now and relaxed, knew when to admit defeat. "I fear I have wronged you, good dragon. I have ascribed to you a base nature for which you are unjustly accused, while upholding the virtue of a man I thought I loved, who is, in truth, more beastly than you have been. I thank you. You have, indeed, rescued me from a fate worse than death."

"I am very glad you said that, princess," the dragon said, and he promptly ate her.

As he picked stray golden tresses from his teeth, the dragon's mate landed next to him on the ledge.

"Why do you play with your food so?" she asked. "Is it not much simpler to eat and be done with it?"

"Humans taste so much better when they aren't shaking in fear," he replied. "I call it 'seasoning' rather than playing."

The female snorted. "How did you know so much about the prince? You are well informed."

"That was easy," he said. "I rescued her maid yesterday."

Monday, June 22, 2009

First Short - "Afterlife"

Here's today's story. It was prompted by a challenge on a yahoo group I belong to to write something about Ghosts. Enjoy.

The actual moment of my death was not near as traumatic, scary or exciting as the movies make it out to be. One moment I was eating an ice cream cone, flipping off the taxi driver who almost hit me, and the next I was floating in the air above my body and the taxi that actually DID hit me. I only had a second to ponder the fact that the driver was angrier at having damaged his car than having killed me; a tunnel of light opened in front of me and I was sucked right in.

(As an aside, "tunnel of light" is really a misnomer. In actuality, the tunnel of light is really a giant vacuum tube. I wasn't kidding when I said I was sucked in.)

I was pulled along at a steady pace. Time kind of lost it's meaning during the trip. You don't sleep as a ghost, but if you could I'm sure I would have been drooling steadily when I finally arrived at the end of the tube. I settled down on a large platform. A man with was standing there looking bored out of his mind.

"Hi," I began, but he interrupted me by pointing at a sign on the wall behind him. It read "NO TALKING DURING JUDGMENT." Well that was rude. Why would talking be outlawed during...Judgment?!?

The man flipped a large lever and a digital readout on a screen near the lever began flashing different scenarios, each with a date. The platform I was standing on tilted a bit as each scenario registered - sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right. A gauge near the readout contained a needle that swung back and forth across a black dividing line in concert with the moving platform. The left side of the gauge read "Hell." The right side said "Heaven."

"Said thank you." A small tip to the right.
"Pulled sister's hair." Back to the left.
"Shared lunch with a friend." To the right.
"Stole $20 to buy pirated DVDs." Farther to the left.

O.M.G. These were scenes from my life. Judgment was a balancing of all the good things I had done against all the bad? LITERALLY? This was not good. (Pun emphatically not intended.)

On one tip to the right I caught the faint sounds of choir music coming from that direction. On a massive move to the left I felt an intense heat and smelled the noxious scent of sulfur. Gulp.

As the dates on the screen closed on the date of my death, the platform acquired a definite left-side tilt. Oh, crap. I know I wasn't a saint, but surely I had done more good things than bad. A thought occurred to me. I had one thing that could save me. One act that might tip the balance in my favor. It was the last thing I had done today before my untimely demise. My niece had died of leukemia a few years back, and a radio marathon's offer to match any donations had finally convinced me it was time to give. I admit, it was out of character, but hey, I did it, right? It finally arrived on the screen.

"Donated $1000 to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital." A large tip to the right, just past the black line. Yes! I had made it. Heavenly choirs here I come!

"Flipped off taxi cab driver." Minute adjustment to the left.

No. Way.

The needle of the gauge rested solidly on the black line.

"Um," I said.

The man didn't answer. Instead, he pushed a red button that had seemingly appeared from nowhere, and the floor dropped out from under me. I fell...

....and landed on a high backed wooden chair. In front of me was a pristine white desk, complete with a moderately attractive woman and a very sleek looking computer.

"Hello Mr. Porter, "she said ominously. "Welcome to Purgatory."


"That's what I said, Mr. Porter. Purgatory."

"Hm," I said. "It's an office. I thought people who went to Purgatory just suffered for awhile, then got moved on to heaven."

She smiled a mysterious smile. "If you mean suffer in the sense of Dante's 'Divine Comedy,' you're mistaken. And not all those who leave here actually go to heaven."

I shook my head. "I don't understand."

"We got a bit off script. Let's start at the beginning, shall we." She sat up straight and read from the computer screen. "Ahem. Welcome to Purgatory."

"You said that."

She ignored me. "You are here because your life ended in complete balance. You have been equally bad and good. You cannot yet be consigned to hell or rewarded with heaven."

"So where does that leave me?"

"I'm getting to that. Because you were unwilling to commit in life to either good or bad, you will be given the opportunity to tip the scales."

"Do I get to go back to Earth?"

"Will you please let me finish?"


"Thank you. Where was I....oh, yes. Each Purgatorian is assigned a job. Assignment to heaven or hell will be based on a job performance review at the conclusion of the prescribed assignment period."

"That's a lot of assigning."

She glared at me.

"Look, I don't mean to be rude, but this is all kind of over my head. Can you just break it down?"

She sighed. "All right. It's like this. The system doesn't run itself. Most of it is run by Purgatorians."

"I thought God ran everything."

"God runs Heaven. Satan runs Hell. Everything else, though? Purgatorians. A long time ago God and Satan decided the whole balance thing was the easiest way to manage things. Those who chose God would get to live with him. Those who chose Satan, with him. The only hang up was those whose lives evened out. Those who balanced perfectly get an assignment in Purgatory. You perform the assignment well, you go to heaven. You do poorly, you get hell. This way God can focus on the heavenly, Satan can focus on the demonic, and us mundane ones in the middle handle everything else."

"Wait a minute. You're saying the stuff that happens on earth, that's all overseen by dead people?"

"Not just any dead people," she corrected, "Purgatorians. Sometimes God or Satan takes a direct hand, but for the most part, earthly matters are managed by people who have died in balance."

"What about the weather?"


"How about spiritual things like the Burning Bush?"


"The black death?"



"The purple dinosaur? No, Satan took a hand in that one himself."

I was struck dumb by the enormity of what I was hearing. (It wasn't too hard. I wasn't that smart to begin with.)

"So," I said once the shock had begun to wear off, "Do I get to pick my assignment?"

"Well, you do have a choice, but it's limited to what's currently available. As people finish their assignments and move on we get openings."

"What do you have now?"

"What do you have in mind? Pick a category." She turned the monitor my direction and I scrolled down the list. It was enormous, but fortunately alphabetical. I checked quickly - yup, there was Weather Management.

"What do you have in Weather Management?"

"Lightning Thrower."

"Really, that's awesome! I'll take it."

"Don't you want to know the details first?"

"Like what?"

"Most people want to know the term of service. Each job's term is different."

"What's the term on this one?"

"Fifty years."

"Fifty years? You've got to be kidding me. Don't you have anything shorter?"


"What's the shortest?"

"Five years, but let me be honest, Mr. Porter. The shorter term jobs are more difficult. They often involve something very complex that require a specialized skill set - liking designing new flu strains. The guy that engineered the 1918 Spanish flu virus made heaven easy. The one who worked on Swine Flu...not doing so hot."

"What does your job rate?"

"Twenty five years."

"Ugh. There's got to be something I'd be good at that won't involve a quarter century of drudgery."

She glared at me again.

"Oh. Sorry."

She sighed. "Let's see what we can find."

It took awhile, but in the end I found something perfect.


Well, it was time. I made a slight adjustment to the nifty device that let me interact with the physical world, and then made my move.

I timed my arrival to the front of the store to coincide with a woman opening the door. She paused, holding the door open for me, her mouth open in surprise. As I walked through the door, I pulled my sunglasses down slightly, my fingers brushing lightly against my mutton chop sideburns.

"Thank you," I said. "Thank you very much."

I sauntered out the door and headed around the side of the building. I could hear the woman behind me, hissing at the clerk.

"Did you see who that was? I can't believe it."

I chuckled as I left their view, and then faded from sight. I didn't want to be late. I had an appointment in Graceland.

Inaugural Post

Hello Cyberspace! Behold the inaugural post for Todd's Shorts, a blog updated every weekday with a short story from me: Todd Diel. I've been a wannabe writer for years, but I generally lack the motivation to write on a regular basis.

I know; it's hard to be a writer if you don't write.

The purpose of this blog is twofold: 1) To give me an incentive to write every day. I'm hoping the pressure of having to post will jumpstart my writing. 2) To allow me the opportunity for regular feedback on my writing. That's where all of you come in. I invite you to subscribe to the blog using the handy link at the bottom of the page. You'll get regular updates as to when I post each story, and you can rib me if it doesn't arrive on time. I encourage you to post your comments on the stories. Please be honest. I won't ask that you be kind, but I do ask you to be constructive. Inflammatory and vulgar posts will simply be deleted.

So begins the great experiment. Wish me luck!

- Todd