A Calculated Risk

(This story was written for the NYC Midnight flash fiction competition. It had to be a spy story, taking place in a night club and involving a beach ball. I had 48 hours to write.)

 

The crowd pulsed like a living organism. The crush of humanity, deafening music, flashing lights and beachballs surfing over the fingertips of the crowd made The Station the hottest nightspot in LA — but one person was not feeling the vibe.

Tiffany, the name she used with the Russian informant she was meeting, pushed through the raucous crowd trying to reach their meeting spot. She was a tall brunette, in a shimmering low-cut top with a heavy pendant and a leather mini skirt. Her clothes fit the night club scene, but her swollen belly did not. She had one hand placed protectively over it, as she moved people aside with the other.

Nikolai, her handsome informant, was seated by the far wall. He caught her eye, since she was a head taller than most of the crowd and smiled. As she emerged from the dance floor into the relative calm of the periphery his smile disappeared. “My friend,” he said, “has it been so long since we see each other?”

“Seven months,” she sighed as she patted her belly. He reached out, but her hand grabbed his in a vice-like grip. “Just because a woman is pregnant does not give you permission to touch her stomach,” she snapped.

“No offense meant, my friend,” he said, “You American women— I cannot believe you are still working in your condition.”

“I know it’s a risk,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure you’d trust anyone else.”

“I think not. I do know you verrry well,” he affirmed with a lascivious grin. He motioned for the waitress. “Vodka martini for me and for you, little one?” He lifted one eyebrow, baiting her. She could drink him under the table. She had many times.

She didn’t take the bait, “Cranberry juice with lime,” she said over the noise.

He laughed, “Ahhh, tonight will be all business then.”

“Of course.”

“How did this happen, Tiff? You were always careful…”

“Oh, Nik, it’s not yours!” she shook her head at the absurdity, “but why do you assume it was an accident?”

Nikolai looked surprised and the conversation stalled as the waitress returned with their drinks. Tiffany noticed, over the waitress’s shoulder, a man staring intently at her. Her body stiffened, but she stopped herself from catching his eye. She couldn’t let the agent know she had seen him. She had suspected Nikolai might be under surveillance. This confirmed it. However, she wouldn’t ditch the meeting. It was a calculated risk, but this intel was a matter of life or death for a fellow spy.

Tiffany took a breath, relaxed and tasted her drink as Nikolai sipped his martini appreciatively. She made small talk by patiently explaining to Nik that in America a single woman could choose to get pregnant if she wished. Then as the agent watched, she leaned over seductively and whispered in Nikolai’s ear, “Time for business my old-fashioned friend.”

“I cannot touch your belly but this, you allow?”

“Just like we discussed,” she murmured.

Nikolai leaned over and kissed her passionately, slipping his hand in her shirt to grope her breast. She felt the SIM card he deposited in her bra.

“Lecherous bastard,” she yelled, slapping him and jumping to her feet. He looked shocked and amused. She stomped dramatically from the table, making a beeline for the bathroom, fake tears falling. From the corner of her eye she saw the agent trailing her. He touched his ear while he talked to someone. Shit, he has back up!

She knew there was only one exit from the ladies’ room, and he would be waiting. She could easily lose one man in the crowd, but not a coordinated team. Hopefully, her plan would work.

In the bathroom, Tiffany closed herself in a stall and hung her oversized purse on the hook on the door. First, she removed her wig. She was a long-haired brunette every time she met with Nikolai. Next, she removed the stretchy top and shimmied out of her leather skirt, leaving her black silk slip. She pushed everything into her purse, then pulled apart her large pendant to reveal the hidden blade. She took a deep breath and plunged the knife into her midsection.

Earlier in the evening, when she had become suspicious, she made a trip to the kitchen with a purloined beachball. The busy kitchen staff did not object when she took saran wrap to the empty breakroom. Once there she had released enough air from the beachball to make it fit realistically against her stomach, then wrapped it with layers of saran wrap to make it appear as genuine as possible under her stretchy top.

Now as the air whooshed out, she sliced off the saran wrap. Her slip would easily pass for a sexy cocktail dress in the dark club. She grabbed her lipstick and wallet and left her purse on the hook, then returned the knife to its hiding place, hoping she wouldn’t need it. She stuffed the toilet with saran wrap and beachball. It automatically flushed when she exited. “It’s clogged,” she said loudly to the crowded bathroom, making a disgusted face. As the toilet overflowed, she headed for the mirror and finger-combed her blonde pixie-cut with water, making it spiky and stylish. Then she applied red lipstick.

Next to her, a bachelorette party was all giggles. “Congratulations, when’s the wedding?” she asked.

“Sunday,” a tipsy redhead in a ‘Bride’ tee-shirt tittered.

“Tell me about your wedding dress,” Tiffany said, bending over to bring her head close to the bride’s as the group exited the bathroom.

The agent, watching for the tall, pregnant, brunette, didn’t pay much attention to the svelte, sexy blonde bent in conversation with the short redhead. The girls headed to the dance floor and Tiffany joined them, the SIM card snuggly pressed against her breast as she danced her way to the nearest exit and into the cool night air.

Dasvidaniya Nik, she thought as she slipped into the darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shear Bliss

© 2019 Treasa Oden All Rights Reserved

This piece was written for NYC Midnight Competition – Round Two

The wind howls, dry leaves swirl, and bare branches sway against an ominous sky. My auburn curls flail about my head and I feel like I’m being blown away. I lean into the wind and push across the parking lot to the Shear Bliss Beauty Salon where I rent booth number two. I see Mrs. Johnson, my first client, already waiting for me. I smile at her as I put on my name tag which reads “Little Joe.”  At four-eleven with a penchant for cowboy boots, a Texas twang and the given name Josephine, it’s been my nickname since beauty school. I greet the other girls then say, “Hey, sweetie,” as I settle Mrs. Johnson into my chair and begin to comb out her white cotton-candy hair.

I try to engage her with friendly chit-chat. For some reason she’s not responding today. Her shoulders slump with frailty. I comb gently and make the first cut as I smile encouragingly at her in the mirror. The scissors sever the first strand and her thoughts spill out, like they’ve been waiting for me. I inhale sharply at the intensity of her feelings. She’s dying and she knows it. Each snip brings more information. Her cancer is back. She’s in pain.  I trim more and her sadness tingles through my fingertips and I agonize over my new-found knowledge. I will miss this loyal, old lady who followed me from beauty school to this salon ten years ago.  When I’m done, I help her up and give her a fierce hug. “See you next month,” I say, even though I know I won’t unless it’s at the funeral home for her last comb-out.

Once she’s gone, I lock myself in the laundry room for a good cry. As I sniffle and wipe my eyes I remember when I discovered my “gift”. It scared the shit out of me the first time. I was in beauty school razor-cutting Maggie Harrison’s hair into an asymmetrical bob when her despair sparked through my fingers and into my consciousness. I saw a dead baby and felt a tidal wave of horror. It turned out her baby had died, and she discovered him in his crib. Her grief was raw and pulsing when she came for a new style. I almost passed out when her memories streamed in.

If I envisioned everyone’s thoughts with every haircut, I would have quit long ago. Fortunately, it happens infrequently and is only associated with very strong emotions.  I’ve accepted my “gift” although I’ve never given in to the urge to tell a single person. I don’t think anyone would believe that each snip sends my clients brain-waves zinging through my fingers.  It sounds crazy, even to me.

I wish I could go home after Mrs. Johnson, but I have a full schedule on Wednesdays. Our rental contracts state that the shop stays open till nine every night and we take turns working late. It’s my night. None of us really like it, because our dark little corner of the strip mall has only one anemic street light and employee parking is far outside its comforting circle. Nevertheless, it’s required, and we do like the extra money.

Usually, back-to-back appointments make my Wednesday go by quickly. Not tonight. A storm is blowing, and the lights are flickering as the power lines rattle in the wind. Bad weather always brings cancellations and the frequency of the phone calls increases along with the intensity of the wind and rain. The girls leave as their evening appointments cancel and by seven the downpour is deafening. I’m alone in the shop with nothing to fill my time except a pile of dirty towels.

From the laundry room I hear the door chime and return to find a man shaking off the rain. His hair hangs soaked and tangled in front of his bearded face. He has broad shoulders and my first impression is tall, dark and handsome… until he looks up. His expression is vacant, and he has a scar across his left cheek that ruins the symmetry of his appearance. His eyes are a piercing washed-out blue. They are oddly out of place with his jet-black hair.

“I need a haircut,” he says with no explanation of why he’s out in this squall.

“Do you want a wash?”

“No, it’s already wet,” he says flatly.

He sits and I cover him with a cape and begin to finger-comb his hair. “What style?”

“Give me a killer cut,” he says with an awkward smile.

“Job interview? Hot date?” I ask, trying to guess why he’s out in this weather.

“No.”

I guess he’s not much for conversation. I continue to comb his hair, and he closes his eyes, enjoying it. Geez, I don’t want to fend off advances from a lonely man tonight. I section off his hair pulling it through my fingers. It’s soft and thick. “You have nice hair,” I begin my regular patter of small talk. He stares at me in the mirror and one corner of his lips pulls up in a hesitant smile. It’s crooked because of the tight scar.

I relax a little. He’s probably just shy. I make my first clip. My fingers feel an electric charge and I realize, too late, that it’s happening again. My brain is assailed with a tidal wave of shadowy images. I stumble back and he glances up, his pale eyes meeting mine in the mirror. “Sorry,” I say, grasping for an excuse, “rain-water on the floor.” His eyes hold mine.

I take a breath and step back up to the chair. I center myself and make a cut.  It washes over me once more – this time he’s thinking about my body, not in a flattering way. In a creepy way. I shudder. My instincts scream pervert!  I tell myself I’m over-reacting. He’s just odd. I slowly comb another piece of hair and hold the scissors open. I hesitate. I clip…  He’s thinking about my breasts and wanting to touch them. Gross! I want him out of here.  However, logic tells me I can’t kick a guy out of my chair for lustful fantasies that I shouldn’t even be aware of.

I comb out another lock of hair and snip. Now he’s thinking about running. Weird, but least he’s not thinking about me. As I comb and clip a complete picture emerges. He’s chasing someone. The chase excites him. Oh, God. He catches up to a terrified woman. He yanks her around to face him and she screams. She looks familiar.  Then I see her suffering at his hands. I see him dump her bloody, broken body in the woods. My knees go weak as I remember; I saw her picture on the news. Her body was found in the woods south of town. This is not some vile fantasy. He tortured and killed her. I taste bile in the back of my throat and feel light-headed. I can’t let him know that I know… I realize I’m standing with my scissors poised above his hair, unmoving.

“Sorry,” I say, “hand cramp,” as I shake out my hand in an exaggerated gesture. Lightning flashes and I jump. He repeats the lopsided smile. I can’t smile back. I must finish and get him out. Wait, I can’t just let him walk out, knowing what I know. I need to find out who he is. How will I convince anyone?  The police will never believe me.

I force myself to continue the cut. His arousal slides into my brain and it sickens me. My skin crawls as I try not to react. Suddenly, realization… It’s me! He plans to kill me. Why is he waiting? My breath becomes shallow as I continue to snip. Thankfully, he thinks I’m afraid of the storm and flickering lights. I fight nausea. I want to run, but he would catch me. He’s twice my size.

He catches my eye in the mirror, his expression holds unspoken words. Yet, he only says, “Are you almost done?”

“D-d-done?” I stammer. I fight to compose myself. I need to think. “I’m going to clean up your nape and beard,” I reply, buying time. I reach for the shaving cream then tilt his head and smooth warm shaving-cream along his hairline and neck.  I’m not cutting, so for the moment, my mind is free from his abhorrent imaginings. Could I convince him I have a ride coming? Could I get to the phone? I grasp desperately for a solution.

I grab my razor and shave the first strip. As my blade skims the stubble his feelings assault me again. I shake them off and I trim his nape perfectly, muscle memory serves me well. Next, I reach around and lift his chin and trim the edge of his beard. My touch excites him. He is forcing himself to stay seated and wait. The anticipation heightens his bloodlust. I must continue.

Whiskers yield to smoothness as I navigate his jawline without so much as a nick. Out of habit, I check for missed spots, and he catches his breath as my fingers slide over his wet skin. I cringe. My blade slowly scrapes up his neck to the rough patch. I apply additional pressure to his jaw making sure he doesn’t move as I shave over the sensitive windpipe. Years of experience have made me an expert at shaving with a straight razor.

The last stroke brings visions that stop me cold. It’s me with my arms and legs tied to my chair. My skin is being slowly stripped from my naked body as I cry in agony. He envisions my misery and his exhilaration as he peels my flesh.

I gasp aloud at the vividness of it. He stiffens, then glances at me in the mirror. I am frozen with my eyes wide, my mouth an “oh” of astonishment. My left hand with the razor is hanging in the air above his shoulder and my right hand is still on his chin. His eyes narrow. He suspects something.

Before he can move, I tighten my grip on him and brace my feet on the floor. Without hesitation, I flip my blade back into position on his Adam’s apple and press. My razor slips effortlessly through the flesh and cartilage of his neck. I feel the warm blood spurt over my fingers and hear the gurgling air from his windpipe mix with viscous, sticky blood. His pale fury-filled eyes meet mine in the mirror as his life runs into a puddle on the floor.

My grip tightens as he flails weakly. I force his face to meet my eyes in the mirror and press my cheek to him, bringing my mouth close to his ear. My breath is warm on his cheek and my eyes burn into his as I whisper, “How’s that for a killer cut, you sick fuck.”

My straight blade is still buried in his neck and as I slide it out it slices hair. His thoughts slam into me, in a torrent — shock, impotent rage, self-pity and more.  I don’t feel pity as I watch the blood run down the cape in a crimson river. I feel relief… then regret. I’ve saved my life, but at what price? I’m a murderer.

I suddenly register that his last thought was important. He wanted my name-badge for his trunk, under the secret panel, with his seven other mementos. I slide to my knees and gaze up in shock. I would have been number eight. How many more after me?

I can’t think anymore. I curl into myself, dropping the blade, my sticky hands covering my face as the fecund smell of blood overwhelms me. The wind roars, a powerline breaks with a shower of sparks, the flickering lights fail, and darkness engulfs me. My mind, finally empty of his thoughts, fails too, and I sob uncontrollably.

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Heat 8 – Horror / A rental / A hairdresser

Submitted Synopsis – Petite, auburn-haired, Little Joe, works the late shift at Shear Bliss Salon on Wednesdays. An incoming storm, the stirrings of her special “gift” and an empty salon make for a long, horrifying evening.

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Winter

I hate winter. I feel trapped inside. It’s currently 5 below outside and the wind is howling like a banshee. I’ve been in the house, on the couch all weekend. Yuck! I know I need to find something to do, but it’s just so much easier in the summer. I walk the dog, weed the flowers, sit on the porch to drink my coffee. I don’t have to try, I just naturally move more, do more, spend time in the great outdoors. I’ve often thought that we were designed to hibernate in the winter, like bears. It seems all my body wants to do is curl up, stay warm and sleep… and gain weight! Oh, well, I will survive winter, I always do. But I will whine and complain and gripe and wait anxiously for spring!

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Joyful Parenting

When our children are babies and they are learning to walk we watch from the sidelines. We cheer each attempt and commiserate each failure. Clapping and cheering when they take a wobbly, imperfect step and cooing “poor baby, it’s okay” when they fall.

What happens as they grow older and life becomes harder? When they are struggling to take steps out in the adult world. We are no longer cheerleaders. We become perfectionist instructors. “You should do it this way.”  or “Why didn’t you do this?” or “If you’d just do it the way I do it.”  We are trying to instruct them into perfect lives.

Why do we do this? Can you imagine when a baby is learning to walk if we stopped them and corrected them every time they fell?  If we repeatedly said, ‘”watch me, do it like this, let me show you how.” Or lectured them on how they needed to try harder.  Or if we tried to instruct them in their form or technique.  It sounds ridiculous.

But we do it to our young adults. We want them to be perfect.  We don’t want them to mess up, to embarrass us or themselves. We want them to be the perfect children that prove we are the perfect parents. We don’t allow the joy of exploration and learning. We want them to figure it out, get things done, be the brightest and best. Why can’t we allow them to have that child-like freedom even as they become young adults. Let them figure out life by trial and error, just like they learn to walk. Let them fall on their butts a few times, commiserate with them, then dust them off and send them out to try some more.  We see the joy in babies eyes as they try and finally learn to walk, I wonder if we’d see more joy in our older kids eyes if we would let them continue to figure the word out through trial and exploration with us acting as attentive cheerleaders.

We need to let our children struggle a little. A baby doesn’t learn to walk if he never falls and children don’t learn about life unless they are allowed to fail and pick themselves up and try again, and again, and again.  Failure is a part of learning, just like falling is part of learning to walk. We need to embrace failures, mistakes, even a little stupidity. That’s what growing up is about. We would never be embarrassed when our baby falls and skins his knee, but we’re so embarrassed when our older kids rebel or screw up or do things differently than we think they should.  They are kids, allow them to screw up, help them back up and let them keep trying. Eventually, they’ll figure it out. We all do. But wouldn’t it be great to have someone by your side while you’re figuring it out, cheering you on and helping you up when you fall.  That’s my goal with my kids who are adults now.  Life can be so hard. They so badly need someone to tell them, “you’re smart, I know you’ll figure it out”. “Or look at how well you handled that”,  or “you kinda screwed that up, but I’ll bet you learned a lot”. Or “I know you’ve got this, your gonna figure out how to handle it. I think you’re doing the right thing.” They still need a cheerleader.

 

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Spreading the Love

Tonight my son made me very proud. He was inducted into the Honor Society at his college. His friends and he had so fun together, his teachers were complimentary. They told me how much they enjoyed his uniqueness, which was wonderful because he is different and has never been one to follow the crowd. He IS unique and different and I am proud of his individualism, hard work, and accomplishments.

After my memories of constant criticism and never measuring up as a child, I can only hope that I can be certain he knows how very proud I am. That is my fervent hope.  Since my “breakthrough” where I realized how often I hear negative comments in my mind, I have tried very hard to say positive things to my grown children whenever possible. And this is was one of those times when it was easy.

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Breakthrough

So this last week I had an amazing realization. It blew my mind, but it felt good to figure myself out a little bit. I have been talking to my psychologist about my childhood. It seemed really self-serving to me, I didn’t want to spend my adult years blaming my parents for the problems I had. I didn’t want to go there, but I did. My Doctor wanted to discuss it, and I have come to trust him. We discussed my earliest memories and without fail everything I remembered had to do with punishment, discipline, not measuring up. I tried to remember something good, but I couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t abused or beaten, but nothing I could remember showed that I was nurtured or cherished. Maybe I was, this isn’t a judgment of my parents, but what my mind remembered was all the times I was told I didn’t measure up; told that I should have been better or different or tougher.​  We were discussing my need to always be busy, pushing myself, prove my worth. Even though I own my business and am successful, I never feel I can relax and take time off without guilt. We were trying to figure out why I never cut myself some slack.

As I analyzed my memories I realized that not only did I remember these events from my childhood, but throughout out my life. I remembered every time I didn’t live up to someone’s expectations for me. Every time someone expressed disapproval. I’m trying not to judge the people who I remember being judgmental, maybe it’s selective memory, but whether they are at fault or I am just predisposed to remember the negative doesn’t matter. I was living my life with those voices in my head. There is a running narrative in my head telling me constantly how I’m falling short, not measuring up, not good enough.

As I thought about this, in the context of my memories of childhood and young adult life, I realized I had internalized these thoughts. When I looked in the mirror and saw added pounds and wrinkles I thought. “boy, you have really let yourself go.” When I was overslept and couldn’t work out I thought “you are so lazy.” When I made a mistake at work I thought, ” what’s wrong with you, why do you always  screw up?”  When I took time off work I thought. “why do you think you should take time off, do you think your special? Why should you get time off?” Never allowing myself to acknowledge the fact that I owned the business and had invested all the time and money and hired the quality people to work for me, that allowed me to take an occasional day off. Even when I took a day I felt guilty the whole time.

So after my discussion with my Doctor and this realization that these negative thoughts were modeled after the comments I have been hearing my whole life I decided to try to change the paths in my mind. You see I picture the habits, the mental habits that I have, as worn paths in my mind. Paths that my mind takes regularly, the quickest and easiest path to take. I decided I need to forge new paths, like cutting through a jungle, it wouldn’t be easy to take a new path, but once the path was forged I thought then it would become as easy as the old one. So I decide to do the work to create the new paths.

I began by writing down every negative comment that I could dredge up. Instead of trying to push them from my mind, I decided to confront them.  The first I tackled was a childhood memory that replayed itself quite often. I was and always have been a straight-A student. I remember during my junior high years being quizzed by my dad about a recent test. I told him as always that I had made an A. His response was “was it the top A in the class?” I answered no, Tommy so-and-so had made the top grade. My dad’s response: “Why? You are smarter than he is, you sat in the same class, had the same teacher. What’s the problem?” I’ve always accepted this story from my childhood as a defining moment. Part of my makeup, part of my dad’s rather acerbic personality, but I reminder to myself that he believed I was smart and could be the best. I had never really analyzed the moment. But now I realized it had shaped me in so many ways. My constant push, my belief I always needed to do more.

So I decided to rewrite that path. I thought about what I would want him to have said. Or what I would have said if it was my child. I decided that all I needed was for him to say “Good Job Honey, I’m proud of you.” That’s all I needed, and somehow just acknowledging that I would have loved for him to say that was freeing. It made me very aware of the voices I hear and it helps me to change them. I have many other occasions where I was judged and spoken to in negative ways, I wrote them down and I thought them through, and I’ll write about them one day too. But this was the first one and it really helped me to change the words I hear, and now I try to change the words I say to myself, and believe them! I was a smart kid and a hard-working one, and just because my dad didn’t acknowledge it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  I don’t have to be the best to be valuable. I am valuable just by being me.

I’m so hard on myself, even as I write this I find myself feeling this attitude of “oh, get over it, quit whining”. But I’m not going to talk to myself that way anymore. I’m going to acknowledge that I have feelings and it’s not weak to be aware of them and work through the things in life that bring you pain. So from this smart, hardworking girl. . . be good to yourself, treat yourself like you deserve to be treated. Forge a new path in your mind that says I am good and strong and capable and doing my best and that, my friend, is good enough!

 

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Adrift

I’m adrift in a sea of thoughts and emotions; constantly changing and shifting. How do I make sense of the chaos that is my mind? It is driven by ever-changing input and molded by years of patterns and habits. How do I remake my mind, so that it serves me, instead of controlling me? It’s a highly unpredictable task master sending me on wild goose chases and down rabbit holes of endless worry, forgetfulness, anxiety, and overblown emotions. Those of us who suffer from depression and/or anxiety wonder: how do I make my mind behave the way I want instead of making me dance to its crazy tune.

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Guard Your Thougts

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.
Marcus Aurelius

 

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