Saturday, July 26, 2008

Flash Fiction Interlude: Post-Pandemic Hoop Dreams (A Steal Tomorrow Extra)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This flash fiction piece about Julilla is cross-posted on my Steal Tomorrow blog. It is not part of the novel.

Julilla bounced the ball and looked around. Still too early. That meant she had time for a warm-up. She went through a routine of her own devising, dribbling and dodging imaginary teammates as she moved across the blacktop and back again, then to the free throw line for a few practice shots. The first one bounced off the backboard, but she was unfazed. Her first shot always sucked. She had envied her teammates who never needed those first practice throws, but a lot of those girls were dead now, and so was the coach, while she carried on, muddling through the post-pandemic wreckage.

She threw again and this time the ball slipped through the basket without touching the rim and bounced off the asphalt with a satisfying sound. Julilla leaped to catch it and followed up with a couple of quick lay-ups and a hook shot. As she hit her groove, she forgot she was hungry and alone. She forgot the ever-present reminders of the dead in the empty streets and shops. She even managed to ignore the sickly smell of rot that occasionally wafted from the direction of a nearby parking garage where bodies lay piled up, waiting for transport trucks that would never arrive to take them to the pits.

For a few blessed minutes, Julilla’s world narrowed to just herself, the ball, and the shadows of the dead and missing girls who she dodged and scored off of in her imagination. If she let her fancy take hold, she could almost believe she was playing for the high school all-stars again, rallying her team for the final victory while her coaches, classmates, and dear Aunt Veegee screamed her name and the college recruiters tapped madly into their Blackberrys.

A movement at the edge of the blacktop caught her eye, bringing her back to the present. The children were arriving, but there weren’t enough yet. She continued to practice, adding a few exhibition moves—ball between the legs, catch, over the knee and down again, then a high bounce with a little twirl before catching it and spinning it on one finger.

A few more children wandered up and one clapped.

“I got better moves than this if you’ve got food,” she called.

One boy had a few crackers. For him, Julilla showed off a little of her quick footwork, and shot three hoops over her shoulder in rapid succession.

Another girl had a box of raisins. For her, she performed a new routine she had been working on—a hard bounce, then see how many times she could clap and twirl before catching it. This pleased the girl and her friends so much that they started digging through bags and pockets, and Julilla added some hand jive moves.

The girls were giggling and pooling their food resources into something that might take the edge of Julilla’s hunger when a group of rangy older boys wandered up. The chattering girls and clapping boys fell silent and Julilla paused, bouncing the ball slowly and returning the group leader’s cool look.

“You a real basketball player?” he sneered. “Or just some kind of Harlem Globetrotter showoff?”

Patience. Aunt Veegee, God rest her soul, always said to wait to see what the other guy would do first. That way you’d have time to plan. “I’m here,” she said. “So I guess that makes me as real as anyone.”

The boy reached in his pocket and for a panicked moment she thought he had a gun. A lot of the older boys did these days, and sometimes the young ones, too. But instead of a weapon, he took out a Milky Way bar.

Julilla’s stomach growled and she swallowed hard.

“Eleven points,” he said. “You game?”

“Is that the prize?”

“If you win. Want to know what mine is if you lose?” His eyes moved across her body.

Julilla had seen that look before. It was the same way her mother’s ill-chosen boyfriends had looked at her, including the one who—well, the pandemic had been good for something, at least. A wave of anger swept through her, spurring the killing urge that her coaches had so carefully channeled into a winner’s drive. “I won’t lose,” she snarled, and tossed him the ball. “You can even go first. That way your friends can see you make at least one good move before I wipe the blacktop with your ass.”

“The only move on anyone’s ass is going to be mine on yours, baby.”

The boy made a fast break, dodging Julilla’s blocking moves and going for a lay-up. Julilla leaped to knock the ball out of range, but he crashed into her with his shoulder and she stumbled. The ball swooshed through the basket and he caught it with a laugh while Julilla recovered her footing and the children on the sidelines screamed foul. Julilla thought of calling him on it, but could tell by the way he was breathing hard that earning just one point had cost him. She only needed to hold him off and let him wear himself down. It was just like playing defense for the all-stars.

Over the next twenty minutes, they panted, sweated and cursed each other as the boy twisted and feinted, unable to lose Julilla as she hovered over and around him, sometimes knocking the ball from his hands, sometimes waiting so she could block his shots. She took stomps to her feet and elbows to her ribs, all of which he pretended were accidental, but as she saw him grow winded and she stole the ball again and again, she didn’t bother to call him on his fouls. All she had to do was outlast this bastard, and as she sank her last shot, she beamed at the crowd of cheering kids.

“I think I earned my candy bar,” she told the boy, as he leaned forward, hands on his knees, breathing hard.

With a malevolent glare, he stood up and reached in his pocket. He threw the Milky Way to the ground in disgust and when he raised his foot like he would stomp on it, Julilla lunged toward him. Fouls and bruises were one thing, but that was breakfast!

To her surprise, the boy’s friends grabbed him and pulled him back. “Let it go, man. She won fair.”

As they dragged him off the blacktop, Julilla scooped up the candy bar and ripped open the paper. Dear lord, how long had it been since she had eaten chocolate?

The little girl who had offered her raisins tugged at her shirt and handed up a bottle of water.

Gratefully, Julilla accepted. Putting nasty teenage boys in their place was thirsty work.

The girl still stared at her with big eyes. “M’am?”

Julilla stifled a laugh. She was too young to be m’am to anyone.

“Can you teach me to play?”

Julilla assessed. The girl wasn’t much bigger than the ball. “It doesn’t come easy. You willing to work hard?”

“Everything’s hard since the Telo.”

“It was hard before, too.”

“Yeah, but…”

Julilla nodded and broke off a piece of Milky Way for her. “We gotta make the most of what we’ve got. That’s how we’re going to get through this.”

The girl sucked on her candy and nodded.

Julilla held out her hand. “Come on, girlfriend. I think I can show you a few moves.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

Flash Fiction Interlude: Special Delivery

(A Steal Tomorrow Extra)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This flash fiction piece about the twins is cross-posted at Steal Tomorrow. It is not part of the novel.

With a thwack, the knife embedded itself in the wood paneling. Danny flinched. “That was close, love.”

Danica picked up another knife. “It was supposed to be. You need to hold still.”

“I did. Your aim was off.”

“I’m never off.” Danica took aim but before she could throw, a knock on the door made her jump. “What the—?”

Another knock. This time Danny stepped away from the wall and started across the room. “Why would anyone come here?”

Danica put the knife aside and scampered after her twin. “Maybe someone heard about us and wants us for a job.”

“That would be nice, especially if they can pay in food or water filters.” Danny peered out the murky peephole. “I don’t see anyone.” He reached for the semiautomatic he kept next to the door. “Get ready to cover me, in case it’s trouble.”

Danica grabbed a .38 and waited while Danny fumbled with the bolts and locks. They were the only residents of the building since the pandemic, but that didn’t mean they were safe. In the early months of the die-off, gangs had roamed the area, but recently things had been quiet. So who was at their door?

A small box, apparently.

After checking that no one was waiting to jump him, Danny stood over the package and frowned. It was about half the size of a shoebox and wrapped in neat brown paper.

Danica peered around his shoulder. “UPS?”

“Very funny. It might be dangerous.”

“I’m sure it’s just an ordinary delivery. Some of the kids must be trying to re-establish a post office.”

“That wouldn’t explain why they brought something here. It doesn’t have our names and address on it. Maybe it’s a bomb.”

“Who would want to blow us up?”

“You never know.”

“Well, I think it’s harmless and we should open it.”

A debate ensued, in which the twins discussed possibilities as disturbing as explosives and anthrax to the more horrific notion that the box might contain a fruitcake from their grandmother, dead in the pandemic.

“Sometimes things get lost and don’t get delivered for decades,” Danica pointed out.

“Whatever it is, I don’t like it. I’m going to move it out of our doorway.”

“Why? It’s not in our way, since we always go in and out the window.” Nevertheless, she went into the kitchen and returned with a mop.

Danny pushed the suspicious package to the end of the hall and left it by the stairwell. He returned with a satisfied air.

As he locked the door and set the bolts, Danica asked, “If it really is a bomb, what if it blows up the stairs?”

“Then we won’t have to worry about any more deliveries.”

Danica threw herself onto the sofa with a giggle. “That would be nice. Maybe no one would bother us again, ever.” She stretched with the sensual moves of a cat. “I didn’t expect this much excitement on a non-foraging day.”

Danny stalked toward her with a grin. “The day’s not over yet.”

“What more could happen?”

Danny leaned over her and ran a hand up her thigh. “Do you need some ideas?”

She drew him to her with a satisfied sigh. “We do this every day, though.”

“Does that make it any less exciting?”

Before Danica could answer, there was another rap at the door, more urgent than before.

“Let them knock,” Danny said. He fumbled with the buttons of his fly.

Danica helped. “Right. We’re busy.”

The knocking continued.

Danica paused. “Maybe it’s important.”

“Nothing’s more important than you, babe.”

“Then we should find who’s doing it and shoot them.”

“Too much trouble.” He gave a little tug at her pants. “You going to leave these on, or what?”

Danica cast a glance toward the door. “I just wonder if—”

“Don’t wonder.” He pressed her shoulders into the cushions and kissed her until all urge toward curiosity was gone. By the time Danica squirmed out of her clothes so he could make love to her, the knocking had become a distant background noise, easily ignored.

An hour later when Danica wrapped herself in a robe and peeked out the door, she saw nothing on the empty stoop or in the vacant hallway. Even the original package was gone. "That's odd," she said.

"Everything's odd since the die-off."

Danica shut the door and leaned against it, frowning. "Yes, I guess that's the apocalypse for you. You never know what to expect."

"It's all about us now."

"So can I throw knives at you again?"

"Of course, love. Nothing matters but you."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Flash Fiction Interlude: In Dependence Day

(A Steal Tomorrow Extra)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This holiday flash fiction piece accompanies my YA novel Steal Tomorrow and is cross-posted on the novel's blog

“So what’s this leadership meeting supposed to be about?” Cassie asked Julilla as they climbed the stairs.

“Fourth of July.”

Cassie hadn’t realized it was almost Independence Day. Who could keep up with dates any more? Since the pandemic, each day was like every other. She had even overlooked her birthday. Not that it mattered. Getting older was nothing to celebrate when you were infected with a retrovirus that would kill you before you were out of your teens. “We don’t celebrate our own birthdays,” she said. “Why should we celebrate the nation’s? Do we even have a nation any more? If there’s no more government, there’s no more country, right?”

“Beats the hell out of me.” Julilla pulled open the door to the patio and kicked the doorstop into place, muttering about “irresponsible brats” who let the doors fall shut, trapping the hot summer air inside.

Their leader Mundo and his girlfriend Kayleen were waiting on the shaded deck, along with the guard commander Alex and lead forager, David. Cassie sat as far as she could from David, ignoring the way he leered at her.

“You’re late,” he said.

“We were rewinding our sundials,” she snapped.

Kayleen blinked, not understanding the complex joke. She asked no questions, though, and reached for a bottle of sunscreen.

“You’ve got enough of that,” Mundo told her. “We’re not going to live long enough for you to get melanoma. Did you bring a pen? I need you to take notes.”

With a sigh of annoyance, Kayleen set the Coppertone aside and picked up a purple felt tip.

“What we need to decide,” Mundo said, “Is whether to celebrate the Fourth, and if so, how.”

“When is it, exactly?” Cassie asked.

“Don’t you ever look at a calendar?” David sneered.

“I’ve never seen one around here. Have you?”

Mundo waved a hand for silence. “It’s the day after tomorrow. The Thespians have invited us over for a production they’re putting on in conjunction with the Operatics. I think it’s going to be a musical.”

Cassie cringed. The last thing she wanted to deal with was another crazy performance by the tribe of kids living at the theater. Didn’t they have better things to do than go around declaiming and pantomiming? The whole world lay in ruins, and their answer was to write scripts and songs about it.

David saved Cassie the trouble of being the first to decline the invitation. “I don’t want to watch those freaks prance around in wigs.”

“And what are they going to do, exactly?” Julilla asked. “Set the Declaration of Independence to music and reenact the Battle of Bunker Hill? No, thanks.”

“The little ones might like some kind of celebration, though,” Cassie offered. “I think it’s good for them to celebrate holidays. It gives them a sense of normalcy.”

“There’s nothing normal about the Thespians,” Julilla said.

“I meant maybe we could forage some fireworks or something.”

Everyone looked at David.

“What? I haven’t seen so much as a sparkler since the pandemic. I could set something on fire for them, though, if you think that’ll make them happy.”

Mundo rubbed his face in frustration. “So it looks like we don’t have any good ideas for how to celebrate.”

“I don’t see why we should bother,” Julilla said. “Two hundred and forty years ago, a bunch of rich white guys told their government to stuff it. Big deal.”

“It’s more than that,” Alex said in his best ex-ROTC manner. “It’s about celebrating our freedom to choose our way of governance. It’s about honoring the sacrifices of those who died so we could be free.”

The little group lapsed into silence, thinking not of men in powdered wigs fighting for a free and independent nation, but of their parents, teachers and leaders. The death of the adults had left them struggling to understand their freedom and bewildered about how to make order from the wreckage.

“Creating a government is hard work,” Mundo admitted.

“So is keeping it safe,” Alex pointed out.

“Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Cassie said. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”

David frowned and looked away. “It’s harder than I thought, I'll grant you that.”

Kayleen had been taking notes and now Mundo looked over her shoulder. “What are you writing, babe?”

“That freedom is hard. And that we should be glad we’ve made it this far.”

“So you think we should celebrate our own independence?”

Kayleen shrugged. “David’s right. It’s a lot of hard work.”

“Besides,” Cassie said. “We’re not really independent. We’re all in this together. What we should celebrate is Dependence Day—learning to get along when we’re all so different.”

Julilla agreed. “I can roll with that.”

Heads nodded, Kayleen made a few notes, and Mundo said he’d put the matter to a vote after dinner.

“But what are we going to do to celebrate this so-called Dependence Day?” David wanted to know.

They all fell silent again.

“Well,” Julilla finally said, “I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t involve Thespians.”

“Too bad the potatoes aren’t ready to harvest,” Cassie said. “Potato salad would be perfect.”

“I still think we should set something on fire,” David said.

“I’ll take ideas from the floor after dinner.” Mundo glanced around the group for confirmation. “We’ll do this thing democratically.”

“Democracy is what we’re all about,” Alex agreed.

“It's almost as hard as freedom,” Cassie pointed out.

“Got any better ideas?”

She shook her head. “Beats the alternatives.”

“Then we’ll take suggestions from everyone and put the best ideas to a vote,” Mundo concluded. “God bless America.”

“God bless us,” Kayleen corrected him.

“God bless someone,” Julilla said, standing and stretching. “We could all sure use it.”