Short Story Exercise: Light a Match

(using the book Playful Way to Serious Writing, set the timer for ten minutes and wrote a short story relating to the phrase, “light a match,” lightly edited)

Carol swiped the paper book of matches from the ash tray on the table. Smiling slyly at the handsome man seated next to her, she tore off a match and hit it against the striker on the back. The paper match folded in half, unlit. The man, fresh cigarette waiting between his lips, winked at her.

Carol tossed the wasted match to the floor, flipped her hair over her shoulder (she’d read that men love that), and grabbed another match. Unfortunately when she tore it she managed to leave most of the match in the packet. With a nervous giggle she doggedly pulled yet another match from the pack.

The man leaned forward, presenting his unlit cigarette. Carol smiled then tapped the gray match head on the striker. It did not light. She tapped it again. Then again. She tried holding the match sideways, then tried sawing the match back and forth. She smelled burning and brought the match to her eyes. The head was black and dull. She blushed and shrugged at the man. He leaned back in his chair and began searching his pockets for his lighter.

Quickly Carol ripped three more matches out of the pack. She bunched the heads together between her fingers and forcefully pushed them across the back. They lit! And the bright flame immediately burned her finger tips. Carol cried out and threw the lit matches onto the table. Chuckling, the man quickly pinched out the small flames, lit his cigarette with the Zippo from his pocket, and excused himself.

Carol glared down at the book of matches on the table. The bar’s logo was printed on the flap in tacky gold lettering. The Bar Room,” she muttered. “Stupid name for a stupid bar.”

A few minutes later the man returned to her table, smiling and carrying two pints of beer. He placed a glass in front of Carol and resumed his seat. She was elated…until he casually pulled a match from the book and lit it with his thumb nail.

Short Story Exercise: Have a Drink

(using the book The Playful Way to Serious Writing, set the timer for ten minutes and wrote a short story relating to the phrase “have a drink,” edited a bit)

Jarys was pleased with his disguise. He wore carefully inked Chuck Taylor shoes, stone washed blue jeans, a shiny silk T shirt, and two gold chains. His curly silver hair was gelled into the exact same shape as that popular boy’s from the TV show. On each wrist, he wore the biggest gold watch he could find. He completed the look with skull rings on his pinkies.

And so it was that Jarys, an adventurous creature from a planet somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, strolled into a biker bar in South Dakota. The bar patrons quieted as Jarys sauntered through the bar. A few snickers sounded from the pool table and the bar fly raised her eyebrows at him.

Jarys was confused. These people looked bizarre with their black leather, tattoos, and wrinkled skin. And no one on his TV screen wore bandannas on top of their head. But Jarys reasoned that he had only watched the one channel. Perhaps these people were on another frequency. So he gamely waved at everyone staring at him and smiled, baring his pointed cerulean teeth.

“What’ll you have?” the bartender said, unfazed.

“I will have a beer.” Jarys said, then slapped his hand on the bar for effect.

The bartender popped the cap off a Budweiser and placed it on a napkin. Jarys ceremoniously handed the man a one hundred pound note. Then he raised the bottle to his lips and drained it.

No one could have predicted what happened next.

A high pitched, abrasive shriek ruptured the eardrums of everyone still in the bar. Jarys fell to the floor, his legs kicking the air as he continued to scream. And before anyone knew what was happening Jarys’s abdomen exploded, drenching everyone with his acidic, black innards.

Short Story Exercise: Swim Laps

(using this book, set a timer for ten minutes and wrote a short story relating to the phrase “swim laps,” edited lightly)

Lester kicked off the wall to begin his third lap. As the cool water flowed over him, the stress from his day melted away. Joining the YMCA near his office was probably the best thing he had done for himself in years. In the evenings, the pool was deserted. The loiterers and the screaming children had all gone home, allowing Lester to exercise in peace. 

At the end of his eighth lap he rested his arms on the edge and peered through the dark windows as he bobbed up and down in the water. What few stars he could see twinkled at him, and the pine trees in the parking lot swayed in a gentle breeze.

Lester rolled back and leisurely swam to the other side of the pool. Using a variation of playful strokes he made his way back towards the window, anxious to gaze at the stars a little longer. But when he got to the other side, he forgot all about the stars. Two shadowy figures were standing on the other side of the glass. Just then, the parking lot lights blinked out.

There was knocking on the glass, each blow louder than the last. It took Lester a moment to realize these people were not knocking; they were trying to break through.

Panicked, he started for the other side of the pool, the side closer to the locker rooms. But it was too late. The glass splintered, and with a final blow it shattered.

Two men in ski masks pushed their way through, dragging a large black bag behind them.

Who would rob a YMCA? Lester wondered as he tried to maneuver himself into the center of the pool where he was confident he would be safe. They won’t jump in, he reasoned. Not to rob a man in his swim trunks.

In fact, the men paid him no attention. They pulled the bag to the far edge of the pool, unzipped it and slowly tipped it over the water. Lester couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could hear them chanting. Curiosity took over and he watched with wonder as hundreds of furry brown balls dropped into the water. The second the balls touched the liquid they erupted into foamy, hissing bubbles.

Lester, understandably alarmed by the foaming balls in the pool, resumed his escape plan.

Short Story Exercise: Escaping the Farm

(rolled a D12, took that number of random Rory’s Story Cubes, shook ’em up, dropped on table, arranged in order they fell top-to-bottom, wrote short story)

When Brandon came home from the bank, he walked straight past Daisy in the kitchen and entered his bedroom. There he emptied the envelope’s contents onto his old comforter and started counting. The teller had counted it, too, but he wanted to see it stacked, wanted to feel each piece of money in his hands. He formed a pile of twenties, a small pile of ones, then arranged the coins in descending stacks.

“So that’s what a summer of mowing lawns gets you,” Daisy said from the doorway, smiling and shaking her head in that sisterly condescending way.

Brandon crossed the room and shut the door in her face. She didn’t understand. Daisy had never had a problem taking money from their parents or their grandparents. But to Brandon, every cent he took hurt like a bruise, a mark of weakness and greed. He gazed at the money on his bed. He had earned every last cent himself, and no one could take that from him.

After a moment’s hesitation he toppled the neat stacks and swirled the money into a large pile. He pushed his fingers through it, squeezing an odd bunch of coins, crumpling a few bills together. He scooped it into his hands and rained it down onto the bed with a laugh. Satisfied, he gathered up his bounty and stashed it in the piggy bank hidden in his closet.

***

Brandon rose with the sun the next morning. There were chores to do before he left for school and the farm house was already humming with activity. Dancing around his siblings in the kitchen, Brandon managed to gulp down a mug of coffee and put a square of toast in his mouth before going outside. The older girls took care of the cow and the chickens and his little brother was on hog duty. Brandon was in charge of the sheep and horses. Their father was already in the fields riding the old John Deere and their mother, once breakfast was cleaned up, would tend to the dogs and the cats.

By the time his work was finished, Brandon barely had time to clean himself up and catch the bus. But he still rode to school with a smile on his face. This was the first day of his last year. One more school year, then he was free to leave.

After school he met up with two of his friends. They took turns riding a dirt bike until one of them managed to wreck it, dislocating his shoulder in the process. Brandon made it home in time for dinner, and then it was up to his room to count the money he’d been saving for years once again.

But when he pulled the giant plastic Coke bottle out of his closet, it was no longer full of money. In the poor light Brandon couldn’t tell exactly what was in the bank, but he knew his cash was gone…and he had an idea who took it. He hoisted the bottle over his shoulder and strode to Daisy’s room.

She was sitting on her bed painting her toenails with Katy Perry blasting from her stereo. 

“Give it back,” Brandon said, snapping the stereo off.

Daisy shrieked when she saw the Coke bottle. “No, don’t! I’m sorry, okay?! I thought it would be funny. Please don’t dump that in here!”

Still not knowing what was in the bottle, Brandon tipped it over her bed and said, “Give it back. Now. Or else.” He gave the bottle a little shake and a dead cockroach dropped onto her bedspread.

Daisy screamed and kicked, dumping nail polish onto the carpet. Brandon stared wide-eyed at the piggy bank. Now he could see the little legs, the brown masses, and he roared with laughter. Daisy tried to run out of the room, but Brandon blocked the exit, pointing the bank at her like a weapon. “Where’s my money?” he demanded.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!!!!” She yanked open her closet door and dug through piles of clothes, shoes, costume jewelry and old Barbies. Finally, she dragged out one of her tall boots and upended it. Coins and wads of cash fell onto the floor.

“Where did you even get this many dead cockroaches?” Brandon asked, curious.

“My boyfriend. He got them. And filled the bottle up,” she said, red faced.

“You have a…boyfriend?” Brandon’s voice dropped an octave. “What’s his name, and where is he right now?”

Daisy made an exasperated noise. “You’re so stupid! I can have a boyfriend if I want. I’m old enough.”

Brandon put the Coke bottle on her dresser and calmly picked up his money. What wouldn’t fit in his pockets he could carry in his hands. He stood and said, “I’ll give you one more chance. What’s his name, and where is he?”

Daisy stuck out her tongue.

Brandon shrugged, called out, “OOPS,” and hit the Coke bottle with his elbow. When it hit the ground, the lid broke off spilling hundreds of dead cockroaches onto the carpet. Daisy screamed louder than Brandon could laugh, but at least he had his money back.

***

The following spring, Brandon was ready to go. He’d graduated from high school and had packed the few things he wanted to keep in a single sturdy suitcase. He said goodbye to his sisters and spent an extra few minutes with his kid brother to give him a “you’re man of the house now” pep talk. His mother was crying and his dad, well, he gave him a gruff “See ya later, kid,” before passing him a sweaty twenty dollar bill. Brandon’s gut ached at the idea of taking the money from his father, but he swallowed his disgust and thanked him. With a final nod to his siblings, Brandon stepped onto the green and gray striped bus that would take him far from the farm, all the way to another planet.

***

Eight months later, Daisy got a package in the mail. When she realized it had shipped from New Venus, she squealed and ran to her mother who was in the backyard hanging laundry on the clothesline.

“Mama! It’s from Brandon!”

Mother gasped and hollered for the other kids to come and see what Brandon had sent. To date they had only received signed postcards and the occasional money order, always with a promise that he would send more when he could.

Once everyone was gathered around, Daisy opened the envelope taped to the box. Brandon wrote, “Daisy, here’s something I picked up for you that reminds me of home. Love, Brandon.” There was also a money order, made out to his mother, and another promise that more was on the way.

Daisy handed the papers to her mother then tore into the box. Inside she found chocolate brown tissue paper, folded and closed with a fancy foil sticker that read, “Dark Chocolate Confections.”

“Oh my gosh, yum!” Daisy ripped apart the paper…then screamed at the sight of a dozen eight-inch Venusian cockroaches, dipped in chocolate and covered with sprinkles.

rory-escaping-the-farm

Short Story Exercise: Give Birth

(using this book, set timer for ten minutes and wrote a short story relating to the phrase “give birth,” edited lightly)

Henry stared at Callie. Callie stared back and grimaced. A small plop echoed through the chamber.

“How many does that make?” Henry asked.

“You expect me to count, too?” she growled back.

Henry shrugged and brought his foot to his mouth. After carefully sniffing it, he bit at one of his claws then began to lick the pads.

“Pay attention to me!” Callie hissed. Another plop.

He looked at her coolly. “You know the more of those you squeeze out, the more food I have to find.”

“Shoulda thought of that before you ate their daddy! Unh.” Plop.

Henry listened to the sounds of the tiny, squirming, hairless bodies beneath them. One squeaked pitifully. Already they were hungry. With one paw, he casually traced circles over his oblong belly, slid his tongue over his teeth, and sighed.

Plop.

“Henry,” Cassie warned, “I’ll give you the damn afterbirth but you are not eating the babes. Not again.”

He smirked. “Like you’d miss ’em.”

Cassie frowned and adjusted her bulk over the birthing stool. Gingerly she poked at her womb. Empty, finally. She raised herself up and looked into the pot. “Seventeen, eighteen…twenty two, twenty three…”

“One for you, one for me…” Henry muttered.

Cassie swung her hips towards him and with a grunt dumped the afterbirth into Henry’s lap. Then she covered the pot with her cape and rolled it to the back of the cave where she wouldn’t be able to hear him eat.

Short Story Exercise: Draw

(using this book, set timer for ten minutes and wrote a short story relating to the word “draw,” edited lightly)

It was high noon and the hot sun beat down on the quiet town of Burrville. At the south end of Main Street, Brawn McTuffest stood stock still, his hand poised over the six-shooter hanging from his hip. Facing him, roughly thirty yards away, was Tiny O’Smallhans. Tiny hastily wiped the sweat from his forehead then waved his right hand over the old Colt he’d shoved into his belt not twenty minutes before.

On the far side of the dusty road, women and children and mischievous old men waited for one of the gunslingers to make their move. The old men whispered back and forth as they placed their bets. The bored children kicked their feet in the dirt. And the women, careworn and hard-nosed alike, looked from one man to the other, and finally they looked across the street at Honey Flower.

“This is all that Honey’s doing,” the women whispered, clucking their tongues.

Brawn took a confident step forward.

Tiny shook in his boots and wiggled his fingers some more.

Honey, meanwhile, alone on her side of the street, considered her two heroes. Each had certain attractions to counter their flaws. She smiled across the street at the townsfolk who were plainly bothered by this display. Honey blew a kiss to the small group of young boys and then returned to her work.

Putting pencil to paper Honey continued with her drawing. She colored in Brawn’s dark hat and added droplets of sweat to Tiny’s face. She was just starting to sketch in the crowd when a gunshot rang out. Honey screamed when she saw Brawn drop to one knee. But the townsfolk erupted in laughter once they realized he’d shot himself in the leg.

Short Story Exercise: The Bugs on New Venus

(using the original set of Rory’s Story Cubes, I shook ’em up and dropped them on the table, arranged them in the order they fell top to bottom, and wrote a short story)

If there was one thing New Venus was famous for, it was the bugs. The insects that thrived on the blisteringly hot jungle planet were large, colorful, aggressive, and surprisingly tasty. In fact, the first successful locally owned business was Cho’s Chewy Blatts! Six-ounce bags of the sweet and salty treats disappeared from store shelves and were even highly sought after back on Earth. Other food companies have since descended on the planet, and now every conceivable type of food is made using Venusian insects and sold at high prices throughout the galaxy.

This consumption of insects was borne from necessity. There are indigenous stock animals on New Venus, like sheep and goats and something that resembles a pig. But they are smaller and more intelligent than their Earthly counterparts which makes them tough to catch, let alone domesticate. And so the immigrants survive by eating indigenous plants, insects, and food stuffs delivered from other planets. No one is hungry, but very few are satisfied with their new diet.

Carrie had refused to eat bugs from day one. She would raise her chin and loudly insist that all the bugs should be exterminated.

“Technically, the bugs are being killed…to feed us,” Aidan replied calmly.

Carrie hated his relaxed attitude. She hated the way he would try every new thing that was offered to him. She hated that he had taken a job on New Venus without even asking her first. And when he, calmly, told her that she didn’t have to go with him, she had burst into tears. And now she was living in this ugly dormitory with only freeze dried beef stew and ramen noodles to eat.

When she complained about that, Aidan would remind her that she could eat the local vegetables. But plants on New Venus were chock full of waxy fats to withstand the planet’s heat and humidity. Vegetarians on New Venus notoriously gained twenty pounds within their first month. Carrie wasn’t about to let that happen to her figure.

Before Aidan left for work that night, he kissed Carrie on the forehead and said, “You know, if you hate it here so much, you should just go home. It’s not like we’re married.”

“You want me to leave?” she sniffed.

He shrugged. “I think you should be happy.”

All alone and miserable, Carrie paced the apartment. She longed to go home, but she couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing Aidan again, or worse, seeing pictures online of Aidan with another woman. By midnight she was out the door and headed for the square. In an effort to avoid slashing and burning a large area, the company had arranged for the dormitories to be situated around a square. In it were the shops, offices, and  entertainment venues for the residents. The square was always open and always crowded. Carrie, stomach growling and drenched in sweat, marched across the square to the small shack in the northwest corner. There was only one sign on the door, a drawing of an eye.

Madame Serena had no other customers and listened patiently while Carrie described the ridiculous predicament she’d gotten herself into. When the girl finally stopped talking, Madame Serena patted her hand and said, “The fates tell me that you belong to Manhattan. A large, wealthy man waits for you there.”

“No!” Carrie wailed.

Madame Serena considered the girl, shrugged, and then waved her hands dramatically over the crystal ball on the table between them.

“Oh, look!” Madame Serena whispered. “There is another path you must take first.”

“Tell me!” Carrie cried.

“You will go on a journey,” Madame Serena said mysteriously. “You will cross a river, but do not let your feet touch the water. Then you must run, quickly, south, along the river bank. And when you cannot take another step, your heart’s desire will appear before you.”

Carrie stared at the old woman in horror. Run? Outside?

“Ah, our time is up,” Madame Serena said with a smile when the overhead light blinked on. “Good luck to you, child.”

Carrie regretted the seventy credits she had given the fortune teller. She trudged into the humid square with slumped shoulders. She didn’t even know if there were any rivers on New Venus, but the last thing she wanted to do was try to cross one. She wandered through the square, shying away from the endless vendors selling fried insects on sticks and congealed insects in cones and blended insect smoothies. She paid little attention as the path rose and fell signaling that she had, in fact, just crossed a bridge over a stream without getting her feet wet.

A flying orange earwig buzzed in her face. Carrie shrieked and swatted it away. Then she saw a crazed black billy goat running towards her from the thicket of palms. Panicked, Carrie turned south and ran through the crowd. Her fashionable stiletto heels prevented her from getting very far before she had to drop onto a bench, panting and sobbing.

Suddenly people were running around, pointing to the sky and shouting. Carrie looked up to see a man frantically waving and kicking as he descended on a torn parachute directly above her. The last thing Carrie heard was a man shouting, “Watch out!”

Paramedics rushed Carrie to the army field hospital where Aidan was called. When the doctor explained to him that Carrie’s head injury was too severe to treat on New Venus, Aidan signed the release forms to have her frozen and sent home to Manhattan.

rory-bugs-new-venus

Short Story Exercise: Fly a Plane

(using this book, set timer for 10 minutes and wrote a story using the phrase “fly a plane”; lightly edited)

This was the first time Janet was able to sit in the cockpit.

She’d read all of the manuals, she’d attended lectures, and she’d watched a flight happen from the control tower. But today it was her turn to sit in the copilot’s seat. She wasn’t supposed to touch anything, and that was fine with her. Janet wasn’t in any hurry to crash her first plane.

Her instructor, Randy, took the controls. He pointed out the dials and the switches and gave his pet names for the various instruments. Janet did her best to absorb everything he said, blending what she’d read with what she was seeing in front of her.

The engines started, clearance was given from the tower, and the plane lurched forward. Janet obediently held the co-pilot controls, but her gaze was focused on Randy and everything he did. He seemed to operate on instinct rather than actual skill, as though the plane was just an extension of his arm.

The speed picked up and Janet was pushed back into her seat. She felt every bump in the runway through the stick and her stomach tingled nervously. Finally, they achieved lift and soared into the golden blue sky of dawn. Janet laughed in spite of herself. This was a feeling she could get used to.

Randy expertly banked the plane pointing out the flat farmlands spread like a quilt beneath them. They then climbed higher and higher until they hit cruising altitude.

“Janet,” Randy said casually. “You’re flying this plane.”

“What?” Janet laughed. She looked over and saw Randy’s hands folded neatly in his lap, his feet tucked under the seat. Janet screamed and jerked in her seat, and the plane immediately responded.

The nose pointed straight down and they were picking up speed. Janet, still screaming, could hear Randy chuckling in her headset. “YOU ASSHOLE!” Janet yelled.

Right before they reached the point of no return Randy took hold of the controls, rolled the plane on its side, and pointed the nose back up.

“And that,” he howled, “is why every wannabe pilot should spend his first year in a crop duster!”

Meanwhile Janet, her hands clamped to her seat, heart in her throat, started crying, which only egged him on. He made loopty-loops and repeatedly dive bombed towards the ground. When they finally landed, Randy obligingly stuck out his chin to her. Taking the cue, Janet slapped him as hard as she could.

Short Story Exercise: Cross a Street

(using this book, set timer for ten minutes and wrote a short story relating to the phrase “cross a street,” edited lightly)

John stepped out of the Grand Hotel and looked at The Oriental across the street. It was mid-afternoon, but the saloon was already bustling. The wind, hot and dusty, pushed against his face and tugged at the brim of his hat. His guts churned and his palms were sweaty. His left eye was still swollen from the swing Curly Bill had landed the night before. If John didn’t show his face in The Oriental tonight, he might as well get on out of town and that right soon.

John crossed the narrow porch and descended the wooden steps. He held his chin high as a group of men on horses trotted past, eyeing him curiously. John forced his shoulders back and stepped onto the dirt.

Measuring his pace as he crossed the road, he met the eyes of each man lounging on The Oriental’s porch in front of him. He brought up one corner of his mouth and gave a small nod to Mrs. Jensen peeking through the curtains of the general store. She pursed her lips and shook her head at him.

John casually glanced over his shoulder and saw the coach racing towards him. The horses looked bound and determined to trample him. But John remembered his audience and maintained his pace.

The driver shouted. Mrs. Jensen pounded on her window. John stepped onto the boards of the sidewalk just before the coach lumbered past.  He waved to Mrs. Jensen and tipped his hat to the dumbstruck men on the porch.

Short Story Exercise: Gilles Is Sick

(using The Storymatic, I pulled four random cards, set the timer for ten minutes, and wrote a short story, lightly edited)

Gilles paced back and forth in his studio apartment waiting for the delivery boy from the pharmacy. He pulled his cardigan tight across his chest and heard the awful, unmistakeable sound of fabric ripping. Gilles groaned and slid his hands along the sweater. The seam in the armpit had torn open. He pulled off the sweater and threw it across the room.

No one in the shops would sell the clothing he created. The owners told him it was poorly made, poorly designed, and made from cheap fabric.

Gilles would argue, “I am a blind man! I make beautiful creations! You need only to feel them in your hands to know they are beautiful! Do not judge me with your eyes!”

And now he sits alone, sick and penniless. No one cares for him here. He has to pay people to help him, and the money is running out.

Gilles sank to the floor and hugged his knees to his chest. Rocking back and forth, tears gathered in his clouded eyes. He debated returning to France. His parents would provide for him. He could live the rest of his days in material comfort. But that would also mean he had failed to realize his dream.

The door buzzed and Gilles rushed to answer it. He opened the front door and pulled out his wallet to tip the delivery boy.

“Hello, are you Mr. LaPierre?” a female voice asked.

Gilles snapped his head up. “Who are you?”

“I’m from the pharmacy. I have your medicine.” The woman gently took Gilles’ hand and placed the paper bag in it. “My, your skin is clammy. May I?”

Gilles listened as the footsteps moved past him into his apartment. He shut the door behind her and weakly slid down to the floor. He listened as the kind woman cooked soup for him. He thanked her for helping him into bed and covering him with blankets. And when she raved about the beautifully textured dresses he had hanging around his apartment, Gilles knew that everything would be okay.storymatic-gilles-is-sick