A Quiet Place Will Make You Scream

Quiet Place movie poster

When I first saw the teaser trailer for A Quiet Place, I wasn’t all that impressed. Honestly, I thought the concept of a family that has to remain all but silent so they don’t provoke attacks by some audio-motivated “they” seemed like an excuse to make a film full of superficial jump scares and little else. I tucked the upcoming film into the “Meh, maybe on Netflix someday” category in my brain, and that was that.

However, when A Quiet Place became a Rotten Tomatoes darling and word began to circulate that it was actually a great movie, I decided to give it a chance. I left my lukewarm impressions in the dust and met my horror movie partner in crime, Nikki, at an AMC for a weeknight showing. We armed ourselves with root beer, peanut M&Ms, and all the hope in the world that writer, director, and actor John Krasinski wouldn’t let us down.

He didn’t.

Seeing A Quiet Place in a proper movie theater is a ridiculously enjoyable experience. If you like monster movies, go now!

*Before I proceed and fangirl about everything I loved about this movie, here’s your warning. While I hate spoilers and will keep them to an absolute minimum, I really do think you should see A Quiet Place before you read the rest of this…and then we can compare notes and geek out over this horror film together.

Okay, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I loved A Quiet Place so much, and it’s because the movie is such a fun experience. Here’s what made it stand out for me.

This movie has so much heart. You remember how I was afraid this film would feel like a superficial fear bomb? And that jump scares would reign supreme? Okay, there are a few jump scares, but there are quite a few moments and scenes that hit you harder (right in the gut, to be honest) thanks to their emotional resonance. And that is the golden element that drives the plot of A Quiet Place forward and allows viewers to connect with the main characters on a visceral level. This family isn’t perfect or immediately likable or without their flaws. While defending themselves from bloodthirsty creatures that want to feed on their flesh, they’re also struggling to make their family unit work. And you thought Christmas dinner with your family was rough.

Without getting into major plot points, this movie tackles some deep emotion themes, including grief, loss, and guilt, while also keeping you on the edge of your seat, because the threat is real. In A Quiet Place, Krasinski has struck a really brilliant balance between sweet moments, hard-to-watch family interactions, and straight-up survival instinct fear. It doesn’t seem like it while you’re in the theater, but you go through a lot in 95 minutes. And it’s all enjoyable and beautiful and downright scary in equal measure.

The sheer quiet of the film is actually pretty unnerving and cool…if you have a theater of moviegoers who are invested and along for the ride. When Nikki and I arrived, right in time for the lights to dim and the trailers to start, our theater was packed. We were lucky to snag a couple seats on the far end in the second row, and I immediately began to wonder what this experience would be like, what with the theater being so full. Would the silent moments of the movie actually be quite loud, thanks to moviegoers jostling bags of popcorn, slurping sodas, and making comments to their friends?

Surprisingly, no. There was this interesting thing phenomenon that occurred as soon as A Quiet Place began. Our movie theater became a quiet place, too. It was like everyone was collectively holding their breath and trying to make as little noise as possible. And thank goodness, because the silent moments of the film build this incredibly taut ambiance that’s paper thin and relies on, strangely enough, everyone’s participation. I love that this movie was able to evoke that interesting response in the audience, this desire to go along for the ride and to remain quiet, like the characters onscreen. (I will say, if you go to a theater where folks aren’t respectful or bought in, it will probably suck.)

And while much of the movie was intensely quiet, there were many moments that weren’t. And the noise wasn’t just used to provoke monsters. I mean, sure, you need sound as an impetus for the attacks, so crashes and the like were a given, but there’s really great use of music and natural sounds from the environment that build layers of emotion and also help to keep the prolonged silences from feeling stifling and too intense. Silence builds tension; noise brings release…and much-needed opportunity to discreetly reach into your super-loud-and-crinkly bag of M&Ms for a treat.

And don’t get me started about the noises the monsters make. They were a highlight of the film for me, because they were deeply nostalgic. No, not from my nightmares. Funny enough, from Disney World.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re a horror junkie like me and visited the Magic Kingdom between 1995 and 2002, you likely went on a “ride” called ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. And it likely scared the shit out of you.

A high-level rundown of the experience: park goers were invited into a theater in the round to witness a teleportation demonstration by a futuristic company called X-S Tech. And yes, we were strapped into harnesses and restraints for the demonstration, because precautions, right? During the demo, something goes horribly wrong, and instead of teleporting a human scientist into the room with us, the scientists of X-S Tech accidentally teleport an alien. Oops.

And that’s when shit gets real. The lights go out. We hear the sound of shattering glass. A security guard comes in to intervene…but he screams, and we hear the alien chomping on his bones. (Bye, Steve.) And then, the alien is lurking among us, looking for its next snack. Thanks to surround sound, water effects, and rumbling chairs, you really felt like the alien was there, breathing down your neck, ready to kill you, which ignited all sorts of delicious adrenaline in your body.

Here’s a more detailed account of the ride, if you never experienced it, or if you’d like to conjure up your own memories.

Disney deemed the attraction “too scary” in the early 2000s, and now it’s a Lilo and Stitch-themed experience, which makes my little horror-loving heart sad…but back to A Quiet Place.

I know it’s a weirdly twisted thing to admit, but when all hell breaks loose and the creatures descend upon the family in A Quiet Place, I found myself grinning. Not because the family was in peril (that part sucked!), but because the noises the monsters made were so damn familiar. They sounded like the noises the “escaped alien” made in ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter.

Thanks to the surround sound in our movie theater, I was transported back to Disney World and to one of my favorite theater experiences ever. That nostalgic moment? Just priceless. Thank you, awesome sound effects team.

The movie features a deaf character, and Krasinski pushed to hire a deaf actress to fill the role. And it was the right call, because Millicent Simmonds is simply captivating onscreen. She’s expressive and emotional, and her presence brings a lot of authenticity to the film. I read that she taught the cast and crew American Sign Language during the production of this movie, and I think that’s exceptionally rad. It’s so nice to see a push for inclusion and diversity, not only in storytelling and script writing, but in the casting of actors, too. I really respect Krasinski for finding and hiring Simmonds.

I also can’t wait to see what she stars in next, and I’m gonna have to watch Wonderstruck, too.

Okay, there’s so much more I could say about this movie, but I like to keep this blog a spoiler-free zone. That being said, the comments section is fair game. What did you love about A Quiet Place?

Advertisements

Bury ‘Em Deep Unearths More Than Monsters

Unwanted Visitors cover image

Fire-colored leaves crackle beneath my steel-toes as I follow Charlie to the back of his pickup. A gust of wind blows up the corner of the blue tarp coverin’ the body, and I catch a peep of curly black hair out of the corner of my eye. My stomach lurches, and my fingers burn. I wanna sock Charlie in the jaw for askin’ me to help him with this, but I don’t.

I don’t hit him, because I owe him. I owe him big.  

‘Course that don’t mean I gotta like bein’ here. “You got a perfectly good backyard, Charlie. Why couldn’t we bury Rooney there?”

“That ain’t Rooney.” Charlie points at the heap under the tarp. “That thing, it belongs here, not in my backyard.” He releases the latch on the back of the truck, and the tailgate bangs open, makin’ the whole bed jump. Makin’ the body jump. My skin prickles as Charlie gets to untyin’ the tarp with dry, bony fingers.

I look around, tryin’ to understand where “here” is. There’s nothin’ but leaves, old oaks, and a big expanse of grassy terrain. The smell of cigarette smoke hangs in the air, though there ain’t a soul around to be doin’ the smokin’. If you ask me, it don’t look like anything belongs here, not even a dead dog.

“Who told you ‘bout this place?” I ask.

Charlie whips back the tarp. I stare at the white wisps decoratin’ Rooney’s muzzle. I expect ‘em to move. I expect to see Rooney’s chest suddenly rise and fall. It doesn’t, despite what Charlie’s told me ‘bout the dog’s habit of comin’ back to life now and again.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Today, my Lovecraft-inspired short story, Bury ‘Em Deep, is published in Inwood Indiana’s Unwanted Visitors issue!

On the surface, this story is about two men burying a dead dog named Rooney that has this crazy habit of coming back to life. But the real horror of the story lies in the broken friendship of the two men and the animosity between them. Sometimes, you simply can’t bury the past.

To check out the full story, get your issue of Unwanted Visitors today!

Get Your Jitter Fix with “The Promise”

Jitter 6

Bite-sized horror stories usually aren’t my thing. I generally regard the horror genre as one to be savored. I love creepy world-building. Take me through the whole damn haunted house, room by room, and point out the curiosities that will make my head spin. I adore stories that are quick to unsettle you, then slowly build toward a terrifying revelation.

There’s a reason why horror lovers devour the huge tomes written by Stephen King or Dan Simmons. Dreadful stories are mini addictions. You keep turning the pages, wanting more and more – sometimes, inexplicably.

My latest horror short, “The Promise,” which is now available in Jitter #6, isn’t a page-turner – literally. It’s micro fiction, a sliver of terror, a quick hit of dread. There aren’t a lot of pages to turn, even if you wanted to (and hopefully you do!).

I wrote “The Promise” to see if I could create something turbulent and atmospheric and terrible and reminiscent of classic monster horror – in less than 1,000 words.

“The Promise” creeped out the editors at Jitter Press enough for them to include it in Jitter #6. Hopefully, it’ll creep you out, too.

The Promise (Excerpt)

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

She’d nearly choked on it that night on the moonlit beach—the sharp, pungent smell of dark promises and fragile desperation. Now, the noxious aroma threaded through her hair as something tugged at the floral comforter covering her toes. Lila’s eyes flew open. Her heart thumped in her chest.

“Mommy, there’s something under my bed.” She could barely hear Brayden’s whisper above the wave of adrenaline that whooshed through her veins. Bad memories poured over her, fresh and shocking as ice water.

This isn’t happening. You were supposed to forget. It’s been nine years.

Lila fought to keep her voice steady, for her son’s sake. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, sweetheart.” The lie was thick on her tongue.

Lila closed her eyes, attempting to lessen the sudden sting building behind them, but an image of her husband, water swollen and drained of color, painted the backs of her eyelids. She grabbed her hair and tugged hard, needing to feel something.

No. What she needed was to keep it together. She needed to comfort Brayden.

Lila swung her legs off the mattress and pulled her sleep-heavy body to a seated position. She made out a tuft of perfect corn silk hair and the glitter of Brayden’s wide eyes in the dim. She extended a hand toward him, and the next thing she knew, her darling boy was wrapped around her forearm, his little body radiating heat, his heartbeat hammering against her skin. A jolt of regret careened through her chest. She gasped, sucking in air, and gagged on sulfur. She coughed twice into her free hand and switched to breathing through her mouth.

Lila glanced over her shoulder at Martin, wondering if she’d disturbed him. Her husband lay still, almost as still as that night on the sand, but here in their master bedroom nearly a decade later, he breathed normally. In, out. In, out.

She thought of their time together—their first date, their wedding, Brayden’s birth, Emily’s birth, their grand renovation of this house. All the beautiful moments they’d accumulated together.

She’d had to save him, right?

…Read the rest in Jitter #6!

My Fears Take Flight in “He Smelled Like Smoke”

Ink Stains cover

Whenever I’m asked why I write horror stories, my answer is simple: it’s therapy. Cathartic, terrifying, fiscally free therapy.

Though many are quick to say that putting something in writing gives it power, I feel the opposite in respect to horror. When I write a story chock full of the things I fear, I feel a little better afterward. I sleep deep. The gnawing in my chest lessens. There’s something about writing about monsters that releases them from the fine cracks in your brain and heart.

Writing “He Smelled Like Smoke,” published today in Ink Stains, Volume 5, from Dark Alley Press, was a triple-bonus therapy prize. This particular story contains not one, not two, but three of my greatest fears, which play out in taut, gruesome detail in less than 4,500 words.

One of those fears is flying on airplanes. I’ll admit, it’s a completely irrational fear and one that didn’t manifest until adulthood. It had nothing to do with 9/11. It has everything to do with being confined with strangers in a big, metal tube that’s hurtling through the air at ungodly heights at ungodly speeds, and sure, I know where the exits are should something go wrong, but…

Don’t even get me started with turbulence or in-flight storms.

“He Smelled Like Smoke” takes place at 35,000 feet. Naturally.

And wouldn’t you know it, I got on an airplane about a month after I’d typed the final sentence of the story and…I was calm and cool and didn’t have a single episode of vice-gripping a stranger’s arm during the flight.

Perhaps my calm was due to the fact that I knew, come what may, my fate would pale in comparison to that of Alexa, my protagonist in “He Smelled Like Smoke.” Because her fate? Worse than all the turbulence in the world.

I’ll give you a little taste here, but you’ll have get a copy of Ink Stains to find out what happens to Alexa – and to try to figure out those other pesky fears that no longer keep me up at night since I’ve exorcised them in print.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy your fright…I mean, flight…

#

He Smelled Like Smoke (Excerpt)

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

Keeping his eyes on mine, Jared reached up and hit the flight attendant call button. When his gaze became overbearing, I stared down at my black skirt and wished I’d shaved my legs that morning.

A tired-looking woman in uniform with a chignon barely holding to the back of her head came over. She put one hand on the headrest in front of Jared and the other on her hip. “Can I help you, sir?”

“I was hoping to get a pre-flight shot for my friend, Alexa, here,” Jared said. “Flying doesn’t agree with her.”

“It’s against federal regulation to serve beverages before takeoff, sir,” the flight attendant recited. “We’ll come through the cabin to take orders later.”

She took a step away, but Jared caught her hand in his. The flight attendance did a quick about face, a frown creasing her tan skin. “Sir…” she began, but she didn’t finish her sentence. The crinkle between her brows melted. She breathed in deeply through her nose as if she were standing in the cold, crisp air of a forest instead of a cramped cabin that smelled like sweaty, disgruntled, tired people. Her eyes bored into Jared’s and she started to look…aroused?

“Whiskey, neat,” Jared said.

“Of course.” The flight attendant’s voice held the quality of warm maple syrup. She turned and strode off in her orthopedic shoes, apparently to get us some liquor.

Jared settled back into his seat, coolly and slowly, smiling.

“Thank you?”

“Why the question mark?”

“I’m not sure what just happened,” I said.

“I asked for something. And I got it.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I took an in-flight magazine out of the seat back pocket in front of me and flipped aimlessly through the pages.

The flight attendant returned a moment later with plastic cups, each filled with a thimbleful of whiskey. Jared’s long fingers wrapped around the plastic. “Thank you…Debbie,” he said, glancing at her name tag. Debbie walked off without a word.

Jared held out one of the cups to me. I could smell the smokiness of the whiskey. I imagined oak barrels and the forest and a hand up my skirt. I mentally swat myself in the face. Stop thinking about sex.

Jared and I tipped back our glasses and the first sip burned my throat and then coiled in my stomach. It expanded, coated my insides, and I felt my shoulders relax.

“Much better,” Jared remarked.

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Jared took a pack of matches out of the breast pocket of his suit and let the pack flip and amble over his knuckles until our pilot announced it was time for takeoff. For some reason, I felt safe.

#

To find out what happens after takeoff – and to read my favorite closing line I’ve ever written – pick up your copy of Ink Stains HERE.

 

 

 

Buy a Book, Impact a Life

Layout 1

As the holidays near, it’s easy to get caught up in buying presents, visiting friends and family, and building the best snowman anyone has ever seen (out of snow if the climate permits and marshmallows if it doesn’t). It’s easy to forget that there are others out there who can’t get caught up in holiday cheer, because of, well, hard doses of life.

Today, my short story “Devour” is published in an anthology titled Christmas Lites V.

I know what you’re thinking. Another plug for your work, Tiffany? But what about all the feels in that intro paragraph? You sound all kinds of entitled right now.

While this blog post is a way for me to share the news of the publication of “Devour,” it’s also a call to action. Because every cent of the proceeds of Christmas Lites V goes to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

According to their website, “NCADV is the voice of victims and survivors. We are the catalyst for changing society to have zero tolerance for domestic violence. We do this by effecting public policy, increasing understanding of the impact of domestic violence, and providing programs and education that drive change.”

The NCADV works with the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery to financially assist survivors of domestic violence who may not be able to afford reconstructive plastic surgery. They memorialize the victims of abuse through their Remember My Name project. They provide tool kits, in conjunction with The Feminist Women’s Health Center and the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, to help bridge the gap between the fields of reproductive health and domestic violence, educating others about reproductive coercion. They provide financial independence materials to survivors to help them rebuild and maintain financial stability. In short, they do really important work.

So Christmas Lites V is more than a book. It’s a way to support an incredibly worthwhile organization. While you read “A Tale of Two Urchins” by A.F. Stewart, “The Krampus Tree” by Douglas Wynne, or “Keeping Christmas” by Alana Lorens, know that you’re not only enjoying great fiction (donated by each and every author) but also helping to support NCADV’s important programs.

And I’m pretty sure there’s something for everyone in this anthology. All genres are represented – romance, fantasy, horror, action, children’s stories, stories written by children, and more.

Of course, I wrote a horror story. I tried to write something light and lovely for the holidays, but it simply didn’t work. Instead, I wrote about love that’s begun to fade, dark, foreboding woods, and the dangers of skepticism. Here’s a little excerpt from “Devour”:

“Through the Plexiglas of the phone booth, Melody Halliday peered into the dark of the wood – into its empty boughs and dead promises, beyond its gnarled, labyrinthine birch wood limbs, deep into the very heart of it – and felt nothing but utter skepticism. And pity, too. Pity that the provincial town of Einn in Iceland found debilitating fear in something so banal.

‘I’m surprised they haven’t burned the woods to the ground,’ Melody said into the receiver. ‘They say the mannaeta’s spirit lives in the bark of the trees, hibernating all year until Christmas Eve rolls around. Then, it take half-human, half-wood demon form for one night to feed on someone in Einn. Happy cannibal Christmas.’

‘How very jolly,’ Eddie Beckett, Melody’s boyfriend, said from across the Atlantic Ocean. His voice sounded honeyed. He’d been drinking. Pub drafts, no doubt, frothy ones laden with hops. Melody salivated at the thought of a crisp pint. There was no beer in Einn, not around this time of year.

‘It gets better. They systematically starve themselves here,’ Melody said. ‘Begins the first day of December. They eat as little as possible. They don’t want to entice the mannaeta with their wobbly bits.’

“Well, yours certainly entice me,’ Eddie said, humor in his voice.

Melody choked on an empty chuckle and cleared her throat, embarrassment and frustration warming her cheeks. Why was she so bloody uncomfortable? Her boyfriend of three years flirting openly with her should have sent her over the moon. Throttling through space with joy. But it didn’t. Instead, his frisky jest made her stomach twitch with nervousness.”

And you’ll have to purchase a copy of Christmas Lites V to see what happens to Melody, Eddie, the sleepy little town of Einn, and its resident wood-demon, the mannaeta.

If you want a hard copy, CLICK HERE!

If you want a Kindle copy, CLICK HERE!

Purchasing this book to support NCADV is the best Christmas/holiday gift anyone could give me. Thank you in advance for your generosity and support.

Happiest of holidays to you all!

Read “Something Black” in the Zen of the Dead Anthology by Popcorn Press

81LrA0tQgNL._SL480_

Today, my short story “Something Black” is published in Zen of the Dead, a Halloween-themed anthology by Popcorn Press. And I have to say, this has been the most whirlwind publishing experience I’ve had to date.

The first week in October, I left my regular 9-to-5 at dusk and noticed a single crow sitting atop our building, emitting a lonely barrage of caws into the nearby canyon. On October 20, the solitary crow had turned into a murder of crows, sitting in a neat line in the exact same spot on the roof. It was exceedingly clear they’d conspired and exponentially increased their presence.

A question leaped through my mind. What if that murder continues to grow?

The question sent my head spinning and then inspired a follow-up question. Why would crows flock to a corporate building of all places?

Because something supernatural and sinister is afoot, of course!

During my commute home October 20, I dreamed up a story about mounting frustration, feeling invisible, and a murder (of crows). When I got home, I had an hour to write before my yoga class. I pounded at my keyboard and had a good three pages done before I had to bolt in time to namaste.

Over the next 24 hours, the story begged to be written, and I couldn’t seem to type fast enough. By the following night, I had 17 pages of atmospheric, Hitchcockian horror written, edited, and sent out to first readers.

On average, it takes me at least a couple weeks, if not a month, to write a story and polish it, so the experience was nothing short of exhilarating.

The next morning, the fabulous Sara Dobie Bauer sent me links to a couple calls for submissions – both with super tight deadlines. I would need to send something within the next few days. Did I have anything to send? Strangely enough, I did.

I gave “Something Black” a final read-through, formatted it for the publication, and emailed it to Lester Smith, founder of Popcorn Press, who was seeking horror fiction and poetry for Zen of the Dead. Not four hours later, I got a reply from Lester. “Something Black” had been accepted.

And I didn’t know what to do with myself! Had I really written a story, sent it out for consideration, and been accepted within a span of 72 hours?

To make this experience even more fantastic, Sara also has a story, “Auntie’s Favorite,” in Zen of the Dead. I’ve taken to calling Sara my cross-country writing soulmate, and this simultaneous publication simply affirms our weird, uncanny, wonderful bond. As always, it’s an honor to be published alongside her.

Today, the Zen of the Dead eBook is alive on Amazon and you can order a hard copy of the book via Popcorn Press’s website! I recommend you purchase your preferred form of book, curl up with a fall-inspired ale and a black cat under a bright, foreboding moon, and read some creepy Halloween-inspired fiction and poetry.

Maybe I Should Write More Romance?

Photo by flickr user “Ganesh K S.”

Right before I moved to San Diego this summer, I heard about the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, a competition that pits authors from around the world against each other in one big flash fiction smackdown with some significant prizes up for grabs. I knew that my dedication to writing would wane moving from Arizona to California—as it tends to do during most large scale life changes—so I decided to sign up. I figured the challenge would force me to carve out time for my craft, even if I was surrounded by half-full cardboard boxes.

I was willing to make this commitment, because the challenge seemed really manageable. It would span four months, and I only needed to write one piece of flash fiction (1,000 words or less) a month. I could totally handle that.

Much like my experience with The Iron Writer, the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge works on a bracket system. You’re grouped with 30 or so other writers, you all receive the same challenge each round (three elements – a genre, a location, and an object), you’re assigned points from judges based upon your story, and if you do well enough in the ranks, you proceed to the next round. The first two rounds are open to everyone who signs up to compete; even if you receive 0 points in round one (only the top 15 stories earn points), you’re still in the running to catch up in round two. Round three is reserved for the top five point earners from each bracket; it’s the first elimination round. Writers are placed in new, larger writing groups, and the top five point earners from those new groups advance to round four, the final competition.

I got the results from the second round of competition this morning, and I was only two points shy of advancing to round three.

Instead of feeling disheartened by this, I’m pretty jazzed! In my opinion, I performed well, especially since this was my first time competing in this challenge. Sixth in my bracket? I’ll take it!

On top of that, I’ve received some really amazing feedback from the judges throughout this process—and I made a personal self-discovery: I always claim to be a horror/fantasy writer, but perhaps I have a future in romance.

My story “French Kiss” appears in this issue!

In round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I had to write a horror story and received 5 points from the judges (10th place in my bracket); in round two, I had to write a romantic comedy and received 14 points from the judges (2nd place in my bracket). Who knew I had it in me?! (Although maybe the first indication was publishing my short story “French Kiss” in Romance Magazine earlier this year?)

That’s why I love challenges like this one. They take you outside your comfort zone. They keep your craft fresh. And you never know, you just might learn a little something about yourself as an artist.

I’ve included the stories I wrote in the challenge below. Take a read and let me know which you prefer.

Should I start writing some romance?

 

Round One Entry:

Required elements: Horror genre, a crime scene, a straw

 

Happy Meal

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

She watched the two men fumble with the body the way high school boys grapple with bra hooks—nervous and tepid at first and then with a strange, unneeded abandon. The men had approached the corpse with slow, careful steps and copious swearing; now, they crouched on their haunches and hovered over its head, breathing in death and trying to figure out what the hell had happened to their friend.

One of the uniforms tried to lift a dead wrist with a ballpoint pen. It flopped to the pavement like a beached fish.

“Leave it, Stevens.” It was the tall blond one with a square jaw and bowed legs. The thing in the bushes breathed in his scent—expensive bamboo linens, passionate lust, the orangey balm of self-confidence, a sprinkling of good luck clover. It took exceptional restraint for the thing to keep her fangs sheathed. She chewed and sucked on the straw between her lips, savoring the scarce, albeit satisfying remnants of her last meal. His happiness had been delicious.

“We should call this in, Briggs.” The other one. Baby-faced, a little overweight. He smelled like crisp divorce papers and hot plastic, a credit card swiped much too often, an endless line of zeroes. And could she detect a whiff of porn addiction?

“He was one of us. You want lab coats crawling all over him and then keeping their secrets because of bullshit department protocol?” Briggs asked.

Stevens shrugged his broad, soft shoulders.

The thing in the bushes shook her head in disappointment. What a waste. If only that meat were seasoned with vacations to Tahiti and financial stability and less self-loathing…

“If this were me on the sidewalk,” Briggs said, rising to his feet, “I’d want us to take a crack at figuring it out, not them.” He ran a hand through his hair and moved toward Alvarez’s shiny, black shoes.

“He’s awfully pale, like he’s been drained or something,” Stevens said.

All eight of the thing’s eyes widened and she could feel her hearts beating in her center, different, stunted, terrified rhythms. Perhaps she’d underestimated the chubby one.

“He’s dead, you idiot. Dead bodies go cold. No one stays rosy.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Look for something helpful.”

The thing relaxed and continued to gnaw thoughtfully. The blood was gone from the straw, but the habitual motion of chewing would keep her calm.

“There’s, um…” Stevens started and then stopped, choking on nerves.

Briggs was examining the soles of the dead man’s loafers. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure. There’s something on Alvarez’s neck.”

Briggs stood and strode over to Stevens in three long steps, a graceful spider. The thing imagined the cop’s muscles rippling beneath his uniform, so taut and juicy. His fragrant blood made her swoon a little.

“What the fuck is that?” Briggs asked, peering down at the dead man’s neck.

“It looks like a puncture wound. Scabbed over,” Stevens offered.

“Perfect circle.” Briggs massaged his mustache with his fingertips. “Cigarette burn?”

The thing smiled—as much as it could smile in its current form. Briggs’ conjecture was so rational and cute.

“Any gang murders reported lately with a signature like this?” Stevens asked.

“Not that I know of. Could be something new. Slick if a tiny hole like that can kill someone.”

The thing sat up a little taller, preening. How stupid they’d feel if they knew their friend—Alvarez, was it?—was killed with something so pedestrian. Sharpened and reinforced with alkaline moonbeam, mind you, but really quite “normal.”

Stevens turned from the body, puttered a few steps, and lost his breakfast on the pavement.

“Jesus,” Briggs said. Then the disgust on his face melted into curiosity. “This cut—it’s picking up the light.” He leaned in closer. “Silver.”

Stevens crawled back to the body. “You’re right. It’s…shimmering.”

The thing’s gut tightened. She knew she should have been more careful. She should have checked for metallic residue at the entry point. But hunger made her lose control, made her sloppy.

It didn’t matter. Once the police department conducted an autopsy, they’d know the truth anyway. When they cut Alvarez open, they’d discover the thin sheet of silver directly below his skin, injected just moments after she’d sucked out his insides. The silver was the only thing maintaining the dead man’s shape. Without it, he’d be nothing more than a pile of wilted flesh. And that could be problematic. The FBI and CIA would be called in immediately if local precincts started finding skin suits littered about. The silver bought the thing more time.

“Alvarez, were you doing some crazy drugs with that redhead you left the bar with last night?” Briggs posed the question directly to the dead man’s face. “She had a great ass, but you should have gone home to Kimmy instead, buddy.” 

Okay, enough now. The thing spit the straw to the ground and covered it with sod using a slow-moving tentacle. They won’t figure it out. Stop playing with your food.

The thing morphed into a puddle of liquid that resembled water. It dripped down the sidewalk, traveling a few blocks before ducking behind a tree in a residential neighborhood.

Moments later, a striking woman with long legs and hair the color of an Arizona sunset emerged from behind the bark, a cell phone in hand. She dialed three numbers and brought the device to her ear. She explained to the operator that her boyfriend had hit her, she was afraid, could they send an officer who was nearby? She glanced at the house behind her and gave the number. The woman thanked the operator in a shaky voice and hung up. She picked up a nearby rock, clocked herself in the face, and willed her fake skin to swell and discolor.

She leaned against the tree trunk, hunched and crooked, trying to look like a victim while she waited for the smell of bamboo, sex, bravado, and fortune to arrive.

 

 

Round Two Entry:

Required elements: Romantic comedy genre, an orchestra pit, a spider

 

Anything But Plain

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

Kate Saxon turned to her left to regard Lawrence Chilton’s very plain profile, then to her right to a man in his seventies who was snoozing and wondered whom she’d rather have as her date for the evening. She rather appreciated the older man’s daring—or perhaps it was narcolepsy. In either case, there was no pretense, no mask, no pretending to have a good time, none of the bullshit that accompanied the vile mating ritual that was the blind date.

To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t horrible company. He was simply expected company, which was worse in Kate’s book.

He’d showed up at her door at precisely 6 PM, freshly shaved, a bouquet of pink carnations underarm. He was her height, normal looking, and held every door open for her. He took her to a well-known Italian restaurant where they shared a bottle of Chianti and blew through the checklist of obligatory first date questions and answers over a fried artichoke appetizer—my job is very satisfying, I go to yoga about twice a week, my family lives an hour away, and my sister will get married in the fall. They’d both taken to studying the décor of the restaurant in mock appreciation by the time their entrees arrived.

When the waitress took their plates, Kate rejoiced that the date was nearly over. She would let nice-enough-but-predictable Lawrence take her home where she could open another bottle of wine and do Tina Turner impressions in heels while listening to a 60s-era record on her vintage turntable. It was her post bad date ritual. It was also wonderful cardio.

But Kate’s plan was foiled. Lawrence excitedly pulled a white envelope from his tweed coat and announced he had two tickets for the 8 PM performance of King Lear at the Orpheum Theater downtown. Kate smiled a fake smile, said something about loving “the Bard,” and then took a sip of air from her far too empty wine glass.

Now, she sat in the front row of the theater, picking at a loose seam on her skirt, wishing she were in her seventies and, thus, allowed to fall asleep on a date without it being considered rude.

Of course, if she did fall asleep and snored like a trucker, perhaps Lawrence would find her repulsive and never call again. Kate thought seriously through the pros and cons of this option as the lights in the theater dimmed.

“This is going to be great,” Lawrence whispered.

Kate offered a tight-lipped, “Mm hmm,” and then slouched in her chair, ready to commence her boredom-induced slumber routine. If she was lucky, she’d drool.

About ten minutes into the show, Kate had her eyes closed when she felt a tickle on her left knuckle. She tensed. Oh God, he’s trying to hold my hand.

Kate’s eyes flicked open, and she looked down, ready to pull her hand discreetly into her lap. But Lawrence’s hand was nowhere to be found. Instead, a spider of damn near Amazonian size peered up at Kate like a puppy dog yearning for a cuddle.

Kate stood up and began to shriek, flicking both of her wrists spastically in an effort to buck the spider from her hand. But the spider held on valiantly like a cowboy at a rodeo, desperate for its six seconds of fame.

Kate was vaguely aware of running about, climbing something—and perhaps rolling around on the ground?—but her sense of location in the theater was a blur until the spider gave up, leapt from her hand, and disappeared through a crack in the stage into the orchestra pit below.

Kate looked up and was blinded by white light. As her eyes adjusted, she peered out into the audience of the theater, at the horrified patrons, at Lawrence, whose mouth hung open, at the old man she’d been seated next to only moments ago and who was now very much awake. She peered over her shoulder and found actors in Elizabethan garb staring at her as if she were in her underwear. Kate gazed down at her favorite peep-toe heels and realized she was on the apron of the stage, standing directly above the unused orchestra pit. And she was frozen to the spot, a mute snow woman in the middle of a theater in downtown Phoenix.

Shit.

As Kate opened her mouth to try to form an apology, Lawrence stood up in the front row. Kate was sure he’d storm out—or worse, reprimand her in public.

But instead, he started to sing. “Don’t go breakin’ my heart…”

Kate stood there, dumbfounded, frowning at him.

Lawrence stepped forward, climbed the lip of the stage, and repeated the line, taking Kate’s hand in his, “Don’t go breakin’ my heart.” He gave her a nod.

Kate opened her mouth and delivered a truly shaky and off-pitch, “I couldn’t if I tried.”

Lawrence smiled. “Honey, if I get restless.”

Kate smiled. “Baby, you’re not that kind.”

Silence enveloped the theater.

“Now bow,” Lawrence instructed.

Kate bent at the waist and the theater erupted in laughter and applause. Kate straightened and grinned. Lawrence squeezed her hand and she turned to find him laughing and waving at the audience.

“What do you say we get out of here?” Lawrence asked over the trill of the audience.

Kate gave him a nod and he pulled her offstage into the wings. The stage manager gave them a strict talking to as he led them through a narrow hall past dressing rooms and out the stage door exit.

In the alley behind the theater, Kate leaned back against the brick of the building and dissolved into laughter. Lawrence leaned back next to her and joined in, their shared hilarity echoing off the façades about them and into the starry night.

As Kate’s giggles died down, she looked over at her date. Lawrence’s eyes sparkled in the lamplight, and Kate admitted inwardly that she’d been wrong. Lawrence’s profile was anything but plain.