The Ones Left Behind

copyright David Stewart

The Ones Left Behind

After an hour, I gave in and texted again.

Did you have supper? It was after breakfast, mid-evening over there.

No reply. My heart beat faster, irrationally. He friend Amber was there too. She’d learned Vietnamese, he’d said.

The phone chimed. I jumped for it.

“Is that Stan?” my husband asked from the kitchen.

“Yeah.”

He came over to read the reply.

Yep!

A picture popped up of a glowing building and a lotus flower fountain.

“It’s gorgeous,” I said. “My lucky little boy. Still, I worry.”

“He’ll be fine. After all, he’s nine now. He’s not a baby anymore.”

*

This Friday Fictioneers story is very late, but since Rochelle chose my picture this week as the prompt, I wanted to make sure I wrote one. I took this picture in Ho Chi Minh City when I was there on business a few months ago. I wrote a kid’s book about my travels called Stanley and Amber in Southeast Asia, about a kid and his unicorn friend traveling around Southeast Asia (it started out as a Flat Stanley project for my niece; thus, the name). So, I thought I’d write this from the parent’s perspective.


Trinkets from Paradise Lost

FF 222 Jan Wayne Fields

copyright Jan Wayne Fields

The booth clung to the edge of the fairground like a leech. The owner sat alone, swiping at a futuristic-looking tablet.

“Whadya got?” I asked.

He stood, flashing me a shark grin. “Novelties from lost places.” He proffered a small box. “From the Garden of Eden. Real apple wood.”

I rummaged through the items. “Lost places? Really?” I held up a hat marked CALIFORNIA.

He glanced at his watch. It had no time, just the year: 2020.

“How’d that get in there?” His shark grin widened as he shoved the hat behind him. “Now, how about a T-shirt from Atlantis?”

 


Ringing

tinnitus

The doctors were perplexed, although not enough to do much about the problem, which was that Tonya’s ears had been ringing for the last month. The low tone monotone squeal made Tonya want to rip her hair out and stick her head under the water. She played loud rock music whenever she could, but then at night, when the noise departed and silence washed back over the house, the ringing resurfaced.

The first doctor suggested a few things she could try—none of which worked—and charged her $150 for the 10 minutes of terrible advice. The second doctor spent 20 minutes with her and prescribed her medicine. But he charged $180, and the medicine didn’t work.

Tonya was watching TV five weeks after the ringing had started and kept turning up the volume to drown out the sound in her ears. Finally, she hit her right temple just once with the heel of her hand, using defective-alarm-clock logic to stop the ringing.

The ringing stopped.

She muted the TV just to make sure. Blessed, blessed silence.

“Hello?” a tentative voice said, seemingly out of nowhere.

“Hello?” Tonya said, looking around her chair for tiny home invaders. She checked her phone to make sure she hadn’t butt dialed anyone.

“I’m glad we could reach you,” the voice asked.

Tonya got up and moved to the kitchen. “Are you still there?”

“Yes. Thank you for answering. We’ve called you several times.”

“You have?” The voice seemed to be following her. It seemed to be in her own head. She thought about the medicine she was taking and wondered if hallucinations were a side effect. Tonya looked under the kitchen table.

“Oh yes!” the woman practically cooed. “We’ve been calling and calling.”

“So . . . what do you want?” Tonya asked.

“I’m glad you asked,” the woman said. “We have this great limited time offer on a new Pan Am credit card, only 45% APR for eligible customers, with 25% on balance transfers and very affordable annual fees. You gotta act now though.”

Tonya hit her left temple. She did it a couple times until the woman’s voice suddenly cut off. Well, that was that.

A minute later, the ringing started again.

It took five minutes before Tonya broke down and hit her right temple. The ringing stopped.

“Hello?” she said.

“Good evening, ma’am,” a man’s voice said.

“Are you from the credit card?” Tonya asked.

“Credit card?” the man said. “Goodness, no. Nothing like that. I was just wondering if you were satisfied with your long-distance service. Deseret Telecom now has a package deal for this month only—”

Tonya hit her left temple so hard she only most knocked herself out.

*         *         *

“Let me get this straight, you want me to prescribe you medication that will put you on a no-call list?” The doctor’s forehead wrinkled so hard it looked like a geriatric pug. Tonya thought she could see his hand straying towards the speed dial button marked Psychiatric Ward.

“Well, not exactly,” Tonya said, “but essentially, yes.”

The doctor prescribed her medication to help her relax and charged $240 for the service.

*         *         *

“I don’t think you’re lying,” Tonya’s sister Debbie said that night. “You don’t have the imagination for it.” They were sitting on Tonya’s couch eating Slovenian takeout from their favorite restaurant, Little Ljubjana.

“But you think I’m crazy?”

“Eh.” Debbie shrugged. “Is it still ringing?”

“Nonstop. I’m going bonkers, no joke.”

“So answer it. Answer it now. Let’s see who it is.”

Tonya set down her Styrofoam container of štruklji and tapped her right temple. “Hello?”

“Congratulations, you’ve won the lottery!” a cheery woman’s voice said.

“So, how much did I win?” Tonya asked, picking up the štruklji again.

“Ten million lievers!” the woman crowed.

“Oh, really? Ten million levers?” said Tonya, who couldn’t see how the woman had spelled the word. “So what is that in real money?”

The woman’s confident tone faltered. “I’m sorry?” The conversation had apparently gone off script.

“What’s a lever?” Tonya took a big bite and gave Debbie an apologetic look. Debbie, who could only hear Tonya’s side of the conversation, was looking worried and fascinated and a bit like she had to pee. Worrinated, Tonya decided. I won the lottery, she mouthed.

“It’s . . . money,” the woman said. She appeared to find her place again. “So anyway, we are all ready to send you your winnings. All we need from you first is—” Tonya tapped her left temple and hung up.

“I’m not ruling out insanity,” Debbie said, when Tonya had relayed the call to her. She held up a finger messy with prekmurska gibanica. “But, you may be getting telemarketing calls from another dimension. I’m not saying you are, but it is either that or insanity.”

“Okay, Stephen Hawking, so what do I do about it?” Tonya asked, stabbing a piece of štefani pečenka with her fork.

“Do whatever you want,” Debbie said. “What are they going to do, steal all your money? Good luck getting it from wherever they are.”

Tonya’s ears started to ring again. She tapped the side of her head. “Yep?”

“Good evening,” a young man said, clearly reading off a script. “Do you dream of a vacation away from it all where you can relax and be your true self?”

“Yes,” Tonya said. “Yes, I do.”

“Oh. Good!” the man said. “Um, when you take a vacation, do you like to lie on the beach or go mountain biking?”

“I like to ride a mountain bike on the beach,” Tonya said. “Look, just give me your most expensive package.”

She heard pages rustling. “You mean, the month-long getaway on a private island in Viti Levu?” the man asked in a tone pregnant with commission payment calculations.

“That’s the one. Make it for two. My sister’s coming with me.” Private island, she mouthed.

Everything went well until they got to the credit card. Tonya made up a number and gave it to him.

“I’m sorry, what kind of card it this?” he asked. “We take Adventure, BNY and Bourse. Oh, and Discover, of course.”

“It’s an Adventure card,” Tonya said, winking at her sister.

“But all Adventure card numbers start with a ‘P’, the man said, sounding confused.

“Right. Sorry, I’m skydiving at the moment and couldn’t read the card number well.”

She tapped her temple and hung up. “I got us a month-long trip to a private island.”

“That’s great,” Debbie said. “Good for you.” She held up container. “You want any more jota? I’m stuffed.”

*         *         *

Over the next week, Tonya answered as many as twenty calls a day. She signed up for everything that was offered, plus promised to co-sign a loan for a prince from Abyssinia, and even agreed to pay the IRS $4500 in back taxes with Barnes and Noble gift cards. It was better than the constant ringing, at least.

The next Sunday, Tonya was on the treadmill when the ringing started up again. Her ears were not ringing all the time these days, so it seemed that answering it was doing something. She tapped her temple.

“Hello, sign me up,” she said.

“By Moroni’s beard,” a voice said. “It’s really you.”

Tonya stepped off the treadmill, still breathing hard. “Who is this?”

“You don’t know me, but everyone knows you,” the man said. “You’re the sign-me-up lady! I thought you were just an urban legend.”

“What do you mean?”

“They say that when you’re working the night shift and the call center only has a few operators, every so often a line will get switched and a woman answers. She has no idea about normal things like money and credit cards, and she can’t name any of the eight original Beatles, but she’ll buy anything. You take all her information and then she disappears, and none of the information works.”

“That’s me,” Tonya said. “My name’s Debbie.”

“Hey, just like the president!” the man said. “My name’s Jimmu. I don’t suppose you’re going to want to sign up for an explosive earwax removal system, do you?”

“I think we both know that I do want to sign up,” Tonya said. “But that’s up to you. Hey Jimmu, I don’t suppose you can put me on any sort of no-call list over there, can you? This is fun and all, but the constant ringing is driving me nuts.” Even as she said it, though, she wasn’t sure if it was true anymore, at least not completely.

“I don’t even know your number,” Jimmu said. “My screen says that this is the number for Adelardo Bess. You don’t know him, do you?”

“Not even a little,” Tonya said. “Have a good night. Who knows, maybe you’ll get me again sometime.”

“I’d like that,” Jimmu said. “Oh, the giant ant alarm is going off again. I’d better go.” And for the first time in Tonya’s life, a telemarketer hung up on her.

 

 

 


Going the Distance

The door closes, coffin-like. The interior is stifling. I’ve trained years for this moment, braving broken bones and lost hair.

A muffled thump and I’m airborne. I’m tumbling freely until I can work the controls enough to level out.

Impact. I’m slammed mercilessly into the unforgiving sides.

Light streams in. Assistants help me outside to wild cheers. I survey the scorched field strewn with other fridges. I’ve gone two lengths further than the Chinese fridge.

My gold medal for the Fridge Nuke around my neck, I go explore the rest of the Hyperbolympics. Maybe I’ll check out the shark jumping.

Nuke the fridge - The Top 10 Everything of 2008 - TIME

 

In case you’re wondering about the inspiration:

Jumping the Shark

Nuking the Fridge


The Smartening of the Home

The inspiration for this story came from when I was recently reading in 1 Kings where Solomon was building the temple. He named two of the pillars Boaz and Jachin, and I realized that we name parts of our house too, the smart parts.

smart home

It was on the fourth day of March in the Year of Our Lord 2020 when Dan created his smart home. Devices he bought from Best Buy and Amazon and assembled in his living room. Twelve days of unpacking followed, with great tearing of tape and unwrapping of plastic wrap. The unpacking produced 3 talents[i] of Styrofoam and the user manuals stood two cubits[ii] high when stacked.

First Dan set up the living room. On a table near the router, he established the first of his Echoes. This Echo he named Mr. Cranberry, for he thought the name was funny, but he kept the wake word as Alexa. And when he called to Alexa, she did answer in a calming manner.

On the north wall of the living room, he set up the smart TV. The TV was five cubits[iii] diagonally from upper left corner to lower right corner. He proceeded to set up the Wi-Fi and when all was set, Dan spake and said, “Alexa, turn on TV.” And the TV turned on and thus did he watch Netflix.

Next, Dan set four smart bulbs in the lamps of the living room. These bulbs he named Michelangelo, Donatello, Rafael, and Leonardo. He connected these bulbs to Alexa and named the group Ninja Turtles, for he had always been a fan. Then spake Dan, “Alexa, turn on Ninja Turtles,” and the lamps turned on.

After this, Dan set a smaller Echo in the upper floor and connected it to the network. He named this Echo Porky, for he found this name funny as well.

Dan spent many more days after that setting up other rooms of the house, from the second TV in the den to the Echo Show with the screen that he set in the kitchen.

Lastly, Dan set up a camera outside the gate to see anyone who might approach the house. He connected this to his Echo Show, and spake, saying, “Alexa, who is outside the front door?” But Alexa did not understand. Then Dan spake again, saying, “Alexa, show me the front door,” and Alexa understood and showed the front door.

It came to pass that a week after Dan had smartened his home, the winds rose and the rain fell and a great storm came upon the house. In the middle of the night, the power flickered and then died, leaving the house in blackness.

Then Dan awoke and went to the living room. “Alexa, turn on Ninja Turtles,” he said, but Alexa did not hear and no Ninja Turtles came on. It was then that the power came on with the beeping and chirping of many devices.

“Alexa, what time is it?” spake Dan, but Alexa answered not. Instead a red light spun on top of the Echo.

Then Dan did powercycle the router and Alexa at last turned blue. “Alexa, turn on Ninja Turtles,” but no Ninja Turtles came on. Dan consulted the app upon his phone, saying, “Crap, the bulbs are all offline.” No matter how he called to them and tried to reinitialize the bulbs, no Ninja Turtle answered, for they were offline.

Then Dan in his anger deleted all the bulbs from the smart house and added them again, renaming each in its turn. Then Dan with a deep breath called out to Alexa saying, “Alexa, turn on Ninja Turtles.” And the lamps came on and again, Dan was happy.

 

 

[i] 225 pounds (102 kg)
[ii] 3 feet (91 cm)
[iii] 90 inches (229 cm)


A Cindr-ella Story

couple

I sat nervously in the restaurant, alternately checking the time on my phone and surreptitiously checking my breath. This is so cliché, I thought. Waiting for a blind date in a restaurant. Why didn’t I ask her to meet in the park across the road? That way, if she didn’t show up I was just some dude sitting in a tuxedo in the middle of a playground, not here in the restaurant like a weirdo.

I met her on Cindr, the app for the bottom of the dating barrel. Their slogan was, “Feeling burned out by the dating scene? Sounds like you’re a Cindr!” You got matched up but could only swipe right on everyone. All the personality questions when I was setting up my profile only had the option to choose Yes. Apparently, I was really into ballroom dancing and crocheting tiny hats for abandoned kittens.

Then I saw her enter the restaurant, tall and slim with long hair cascading down around her shoulders. She walked sensuously towards me and my heart started to pitter. She smiled and it pattered a little as well. She walked past me to a table with a handsome young man sitting alone and my heart cracked a little. Just a hairline fracture on the right ventricle, nothing serious.

Luckily, I kept watching because the handsome young man looked confused and they had a hurried conversation that consisted mostly of questions. Then the woman stood up. She scanned the room and with a look of melting expectations, her eyes rested on me.

“Terry?” she asked, the question punctuated with a cringe mark.

“You must be Aspen,” I said. We shook hands. Her hand was warm, which made me think that my hand must feel cold and clammy.

“You’re wearing a tuxedo,” she said. The four words contained a whole encyclopedia of subtext in a language I couldn’t read.

“You’re wearing jeans,” I replied.

“This is a diner,” she said. I didn’t know if this was a real conversation or if we were just swapping declarative sentences.

“I wanted to look nice,” I said. “I got this free at work. My clients are very generous, not to mention the strong silent types.” I chuckled, if only to encourage her to laugh.

A look of horror gripped her face like an octopus. “Please tell me you don’t work in a morgue.”

“No,” I said, laughing in a sweaty way. “That’s crazy. A morgue. It’s actually, uh, a crematorium.”

She tried to stand up way too fast, and her epic legs hit the underside of the table, knocking her back into her chair. I seized the opportunity, as well as the sides of the table.

“I’m an environmentalist,” I blurted out. She blinked. “I believe in recycling,” I continued. “I have my own charity where I take the clothing from bodies about to be cremated and donate them to young people who can’t afford formal wear.” I rewound the conversation in my head, just to see how I had gotten to the point of describing stripping corpses of their last earthly possessions before we’d even ordered dinner.

“But you’re wearing it,” she said. She wasn’t trying to run away; we were making progress.

“I guess I’m a charity case too, eh? Hey, I’m on Cindr.” I stopped just short of winking.

“Yes,” she said and frowned in a very attractive way. It suddenly hit me that she was gorgeous and yet she had found me on Cindr. Since I have the social tact of a rabid hyena, I asked her.

“So, why are you on Cindr?” I asked. “I mean, what’s your crippling defect?”

She picked up the menu and studied it a moment. “I’m a kleptomaniac,” she said quietly.

“Well, you’ve already stolen my heart,” I said as gallantly as I could muster.

“And a pyromaniac,” she added.

“And you’ve already set me . . . set me on fire,” I said. I was getting a bit lost in the metaphors, but forged ahead anyway.

“Don’t worry, I only set fire to the things I steal,” she said quickly. “I’m not a monster.”

“You got any other manias?” I asked, feeling suddenly hopefully.

“No.”

“Oh. Just checking.”

After we had ordered, I went to the bathroom and came back to find my wallet smoldering under the table. Honestly, I was just impressed she had been able to take it without my noticing. Plus, this meant she was definitely paying for the meal.

We sat there eating and talking for hours. Every so often Aspen would steal a napkin from another table and light it in her French fry basket. The owner was lurking behind a standing fern with a fire extinguisher but as long as we kept ordering, he didn’t seem inclined to blast us.

“I don’t want to steal anymore,” Aspen slurred into her fifth root beer float. “I can’t help it and it’s exciting and all, but I don’t want to get arrested. I live every day in fear of prison. It’s so hard to set things on fire in there.”

“My charity is a failure,” I said. I was getting maudlin too. “Sure, I get the stuff, but no kid wants to go to the prom smelling like embalming fluid.”

“That stuff burns pretty good though,” Aspen said. Our eyes met, and I thought I hear cherubs singing above us at our mutual epiphany. It turned out to be the smoke detector.

That was four months ago. I still have my charity going but I don’t actually donate any of it. Aspen just steals all my dead people clothes and sets them on fire in the abandoned parking lot behind the self-storage place I use. Sometimes I join her and we snuggle up in each other’s arms in front of a pile of smoldering formal wear. We’re not always the perfect couple, but hey, we met on Cindr.


Sleepless in Hanoi

I normally post only fiction here, but since I’m currently traveling in Southeast Asia for work, I have more than my normal share of interesting stories to share.

Because I’m traveling for work, I actually have to work even in the evenings, although I’m sure some people think I’m just on vacation. This involves hours of emails and other computer work and since I don’t like sitting alone in my hotel room for hours, I like to go to coffee shops

This evening after dinner, I found a second-floor coffee shop on a main road in Hanoi and ordered a medium milk coffee. However, when they brought it, there was almost nothing in the cup. This wasn’t a small, let alone a medium. It looked like the dregs left over when someone finishes their drink. I brought it up and asked about it just to make sure I’d gotten the right thing. They said they’d bring another cup even though I insisted it wasn’t necessary.

Image

Then I tasted it. It was definitely NOT milk coffee. It was very strong and tasted quite like . . . I checked the receipt and yep, they had given me an espresso. I had asked for a ca phe sua (milk coffee) and she had apparently heard the “s” and that was all.

It was about that time that they brought the second espresso. Not only did I feel like a jerk for complaining (from their point of view) that my espresso was too small, but now I had two of them at 8:00 pm. Of course, I wasn’t obligated to drink them, but hey, it was free coffee.

Well, at least I can get a lot done tonight.


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