A Capacity for Violence

My shot missed. Dust rose in a miniature mushroom cloud.

Donny drew back his slingshot and held a rock steady. The chicken stood still. Donny released. His rock struck the chook’s head and sent it scrabbling into the red dirt of my yard.

I watched as it rose and tried to escape, hoping it would make it. But the piece of rusted fencing wire Donny had wound round its leg and secured to a star picket stopped it from getting far. Sweltering in the afternoon heat, I wiped my hand across my forehead. Sweat and dust to ran into my eyes. I blinked it away and loaded my slingshot. I missed again.

“You’re fuckin’ useless,” Donny said.

A metal bar lay on the ground nearby, left over from the shed Dad had started to build. Another project that got too hard for him and remained unfinished. The shed leaned to one side and barely stayed upright when the winds howled.

I picked up the bar and advanced on the chook. “I’m not useless,” I said, and swung hard. The chook somersaulted through the air, then sprawled on the ground. Still twisted in wire, its leg pointed like a finger of accusation. I wiped my eyes, then raised the bar for another blow.

“Stop,” my mother said, emerging from behind the half-finished shed. She didn’t yell—she rarely did—but her presence was enough to make me lower the bar, and my eyes.

“Go home, Donny.”

Mother walked to the chicken, still flopping around on the end of the wire. With a quick motion of her hands—a pull and jerk—she ended its suffering. She turned and looked me in the eyes. “Untie it. Bring it into the shed.” Without another word, she walked away.

I entered the shed with the limp, bloody bird, and lay it on the bench my mother indicated.

“Sit down.”

I didn’t look at her.

“I said sit.”

“I can’t.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Turn around.”

I did as she asked.

“Now drop your strides.”

Face burning, I complied, knowing my bare arse was crisscrossed with red welts the same width as Dad’s belt. She placed her hands on my shoulders and turned me back around to face her.

“Please don’t tell Dad about the chook.”

“The true measure of a man isn’t his capacity for violence, but his ability to contain it. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

She handed me a hatchet.

“Cut off its head and pluck it. Then bring it in for dinner.”

Ryan Stone

Runner up Grindstone Literary Flash Fiction 1000, June 2018

Published at Flash Boulevard, September 2019

Green Dream

Green Dream

I glanced around the vet’s office. Minimal. Functional. Sterile. No windows. The only light flickered down from a strobe overhead. The neon globe emitted a low-register hum that battered against the tension already building near the base of my skull. If it was causing my head to ache, I figured it must sound even worse to the sensitive ears of Zeus, the German shepherd sitting on the tile floor beside me.

I lowered a hand to one of Zeus’s ears and began to stroke it. Zeus pushed into my leg in pleasure. “It’s alright, mate,” I said. Which was about as far from the truth as possible.

The single door to the small room opened and a woman in a white coat entered. Tall and athletic, her dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail. From behind expensive-looking glasses, she considered me for a moment before she spoke. “How is he with needles, Officer? Do you want a muzzle?”

I looked down at the six-year-old shepherd, seeing instead the eighteen-month-old pup Zeus had been when we were first partnered together. Those initial weeks before we’d established a bond had been hell. For all his size, Zeus had been terrified of the injections required of all new police dog recruits. Zeus had nipped and scratched and fought to avoid his inoculations—my hands still bore a few faded scars to prove it.

I’d worked hard to desensitise Zeus to the process. After some trial and error, I eventually stumbled across a fix in the unlikely form of a Bic ballpoint pen. I discovered that pressing a pen to Zeus’s neck, nib retracted, and then clicking the end button to extend the nib, resembled the needle experience. Zeus had a high tolerance to pain. It was more the sensation of force on his neck while he was restrained that frightened him.

Over months and years, it became a constant in our life together. Before he was allowed to play with his Kong, Zeus had to lie down and remain calm while I pressed the pen to his neck and clicked the pen nib out and in a couple of times. Zeus soon associated the experience with the promise of chewing his Kong, and the struggles and nips ceased.

“Officer? Would you like me to get a muzzle?” the vet repeated.

I snapped back to the present and looked down at Zeus. “No. Zeus doesn’t mind. Thank you.”

“Are you ready?”

I signalled for Zeus to drop, and went down onto a knee beside him. I wrapped an arm around his neck, conscious of the strong heartbeat pumping beneath thick fur. I nodded, not trusting my voice.

The vet took out a large syringe full of green liquid and expertly found a vein.

Zeus didn’t flinch. I looked into his brown eyes, recognised the implicit trust that existed, the knowledge that we’d done this together a thousand times before. That everything would be fine.

Only this time was different. Degenerative Myelopathy, a progressive disease of the spinal cord, was quickly eating its way through my courageous police dog. Any day now he could wake up paralysed. I wouldn’t let that happen.

Zeus turned his head briefly, looking for his Kong, and then closed his eyes. He rested his head on my hand, deciding he’d hunt for it after a quick nap.

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I’m excited to announce that Green Dream took out 1st place in the 2019 Flash Memoir Contest at Writer Advice.

To top it off my good friend, Sarah Russell, took out 2nd with her brilliant flash Donny, 1968.

Here’s the link if you’d like to check out all four winning entries: Writer Advice 2019 Flash Memoir Contest

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank editor, B. Lynn Goodwin at Writer Advice for the wonderful job she does hosting a range of great competitions and writing resources on her site.

Daybreak

“Not everyone will like you,” she said.

“Why not?”

“That’s the way of things. Never show them it hurts.”

I looked at the iron gate before me and thought of spears. A phalanx of invisible soldiers clutching towering spears.

“When can I return?” I said.

“You cannot.”

“Never?”

“You must always look forward. Behind lies naught but ashes and dust.”

“Once I step through, you’ll be behind.”

She said nothing.

“I’ll miss you,” I said.

“As I will you.”

“You could come with me.”

She smiled. “The price of your freedom was more than I have.”

I looked from her face to the man in the shadows. A glint of gold flickered as he opened his mouth. “Time to go.”

“Ashes and dust,” said my mother, and shoved me into the light.

Ryan Stone

The T-Shirt

She stares at the t-shirt draped over her chair. A replica Eames deserves better than Metallica. Of all the things for him to leave behind!

Clasped like Excalibur, a knife thrusts up from a toilet, Metal up your ass written beneath. Who would think of something like that? Who would print it? Worse still, who would wear it? She knows the answer to the last, having argued with him before countless dinner parties, Sunday barbecues, visits from her mother.

She swats at the shirt as she would a spider, gets slapped in the face by Armani as it falls. Now it lurks on the floor, one more dead thing in a week of dead things, until her kick sends it skidding under their her bed.

Hours later she listens to it whisper as sleep refuses her haven. If she lies just so her mind can ignore it, until a stray breeze blows a trace to her nose. She climbs from bed to hunt naked in the fragmented moonlight. The shirt is a cool breath on feverish skin, and she surrenders to heavy metal dreams.

Ryan Stone

On the Backseat of a Schoolbus

I looked up from my cappuccino into sparkling green eyes.

The woman they belonged to seemed familiar. She sashayed towards me, dressed in layers that made me think of spring sunshine and daisies. Her look said she knew me, yet I couldn’t place her. Middle-aged like me, she wore her years with grace. Her walk was fluid and confident. When her pink-painted lips curved to a grin, I recognised her at last.

Harlee! That lopsided smile stripped away years to the last time i saw her, and I was once more beside her on the backseat of our school bus.

“Meet me back here at midnight,” Harlee said as she stood up to exit.

“The bus?”

“Unless you’re chicken.” She smiled her lopsided grin and walked off down the aisle with an exaggerated sway in her hips.

At five before midnight, I rose quietly and snuck out through the dorm room, doing my best not to step on any of my fellow school-campers. They littered the floor in sleeping bags and blankets, snores rising from more than one open mouth. Now I stood back by the bus, rubbing my hands and watching small clouds escape my mouth in the fresh night air. After ten minutes of waiting I realised the truth—I’d been set up. I’d suspected it when Harlee had spoken on the bus, but had to try anyway. What else do you do when the prettiest girl in school dares you to sneak out with her? I walked a circuit of the bus, peering into bushes and expecting to hear laughter and catcalls at any minute. I knew the usual crowd would be gathered to make fun of me once more.

“Miles the stud! How did your midnight hookup with Harlee go, Romeo?” Why did I always put myself in the same situations?

Instead of the imagined teasing, I heard a soft, “Boo!” as I rounded the front of the bus. I turned quickly and, rather than the expected gang of leering jocks, I saw Harlee. She stood by the bus, wrapped in a blanket and moonlight.

“Harlee!” I said

“Ssh, not so loud. Miss Smythe will kill us if she finds us out of bed.”

“Sorry. Why are we out of bed, anyway?”

“You’ll see,” she said and offered me her trademark lopsided grin.

Harlee bent down and reached under the step of the bus. I caught a glimpse beneath her blanket as she bent and saw a hint of black lace as the long t-shirt she was wearing crept up. She must have flicked a switch or something and the bus door hissed open. Harlee skipped up into darkness. With a quick glance around, I followed.

I found her on the back seat. As I approached, she opened her blanket and beckoned me in. I paused, still half-expecting laughter and the joke to be revealed. Although she’d never picked on me like most of the other kids in our year, Harlee and I had never spoken more than a few words to each other since she’d arrived at school at the start of the year.

“Come on, Miles, don’t be shy.”

I sat down next to her, dumbfounded. She wrapped us both in her blanket.

“Wha-“ I began, and stopped as Harlee pressed her lips against mine.

After what seemed an hour, she moved back slightly and gave a small laugh. “Have you kissed a girl before?”

“No. Does it show?”

“A little.” Another laugh. “Go slower, softer. Like this.”

The windows near us fogged over, adding to the night’s otherworldly feeling. Rain pelted the bus as a storm broke outside. I imagined the back of the school bus was a cave, warm and far away from the cold world outside. In the darkness I discovered I could kiss for two hours straight — surely some kind of record. My hands explored Harlee’s hair and her face. I found a place where neck became shoulder that caused her to shiver each time I brushed it. Her breath quickened to gasps as my hand stroked her thigh, yet she deftly parried when I wandered too high. But she followed up with a smile and a laugh. I hated the dawn when it came.

“We have to go now,” she said.

“Five more minutes?”

“No, they’ll be up soon.”

I knew she was right but I didn’t care. Let them find us here, wrapped together. Let the whole world see. But Harlee stood up and the spell was broken.

“Come on,” she said.

“Harlee. I. I lo—“

“Ssh.” She reached out and took my hand, pulling me up.

We stepped off the bus and Harlee closed the door. She turned and placed her hands on each side of my face. The most beautiful girl I knew stared into my eyes. “You’re special, Miles. Never doubt it. Never forget it.” Harlee brushed my lips with hers, then turned and ran off into the dawn.

That was the last time we spoke. No matter how I tried to get time alone with Harlee on the last day of camp, she was always surrounded and wouldn’t meet my eyes. Camp ended and holidays began. When I returned to school, Harlee was gone. They were a military family and never settled anywhere long.

And now here she was, walking towards me as I sat in the mall with my wife beside me. I opened my mouth to say something, but Harlee lifted her finger to her lips and mimed, “Ssh.” She continued past and I half turned to watch.

“Perv,” said my wife, following my gaze.

“I know her.”

“Sure you do.” A laugh. “Come on, we need to pick the kids up from school.”

As I picked up my wallet and phone from the table, I glanced back the way Harlee had walked. Once again, she was gone. I turned back to my wife and took her hand.

Ryan Stone

Paper Hearts

Eliza moved into the new apartment complex opposite my own drab building. She started at my school but we never spoke; the different shades of our skin made certain of that. I studied her whenever I was able. It was her eyes that always held me transfixed; they were an amazing splash of green, swirling and ever-changing as tide pools at dawn. In their depths lay a sadness that I could never quite reach, no matter how I tried.

On the day I saw her crying by her open bedroom window, I felt the weight of the slate sky overhead press down. I had never before seen someone so forlorn. Although I lived a tattered, hand-me-down life, I dressed in smiles and was clothed in laughter. Eliza was always impeccably accoutered but I’d never heard a laugh cross her lips.

As I sat watching, she glanced up and our eyes met. Instead of looking away like she did at school, she held my gaze while unheeded tears fell. I was in a rowboat, being dragged into a maelstrom. Everything in me urged me to dip my oars and pull back before I was caught in the whirlpool. Yet, I resisted and stayed with her until the storm blew itself out. Finally, when there was nowhere left for it to run, I saw the cause of Eliza’s sorrow laid bare in the depths of her eyes.

I signaled for her to stay by the window and quickly gathered supplies. I worked diligently on a red magazine page, then folded a newspaper into a plane and loaded its precious cargo. Once I was back by the window, a flick of my wrist launched it out over the chasm between our worlds.

Eliza’s eyes traced its arc as my plane gracefully rose, then seemed to hang on a breath at the apex. Inside that pause, I lived and grew old in a world devoid of colours; I married for love, raised children who knew how to draw pictures in clouds and laugh until their bellies ached for release. As the plane descended, its cargo released, to fall as heart-shaped rain.

Laughter drifted like wind chimes at dusk and a sliver of sunshine broke through dark clouds.

Ryan Stone

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Rishi’s Star

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While the other street-dwellers huddled beneath worn blankets and cardboard, Rishi gazed skyward, smiling.

“Fool boy,” muttered one threadbare man.

“Not right, that one,” another agreed.

Content watching his star, Rishi didn’t hear. She whispered secrets and kept him warm with her quicksilver eyes.

One awful night, Rishi found his star gone. Too cold to sleep, he started walking. In a strange part of town he found a girl weeping.

“What’s wrong?”

Looking up, familiar eyes came alive.

“Nothing, now.” She offered her hand; Rishi accepted.

Forever more two stars shone together, casting a silver blanket over those below.

Ryan Stone

Pirate Queen of the Crimson Coast

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“Surrender?” he begged.

Aisha gazed down her rapier at Admiral Benpassa. When last they’d met, he was raping her mother, the Queen. Aisha escaped the horror that followed; fleeing her father’s fallen kingdom to be reborn as a pirate.

A sharp blade and sharper mind had kept her safe when her blossoming femininity betrayed her. Her beauty and fearless nature were unrivaled; pirates flocked to her banner.
She raided the usurper’s fleet mercilessly, taking joy in each victory. Today was particularly fine.

Aisha drove her rapier through Benpassa’s skull, then swung from the burning flagship; steely eyes smoldering.

Surrender?

Never.

Ryan Stone