Meet Gertrude! She may be as tough and pokey as a gargoyle, but she loves to cuddle.
The little ballerina princess shivered as she stared up the sidewalk to Uncle Pete’s house. Tombstones rose up through the dense fog, and bones littered the ground. She nudged a giant rib with her toe, clutched her goodie bag and ribboned wand tightly, and stepped forward.
Cold mist coiled around her legs as the dark shapes of skeletal trees reached over her head. She squeaked when she saw the flitting wings of a bat, and the glittering eyes that watched her from the branches. Knowing Uncle Pete, they probably weren’t bats at all, but some of the creatures he cared for. She didn’t think those eyes were much better. Beady and staring, with leathery wings and the faint glint of needle teeth in their thin beaks. She turned to look back at her parents waiting at the roadside. She couldn’t see them very well in the shadows, but she heard their voices, warm and reassuring. She took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and crept past the watchers rustling in the naked branches above.
Low moans and groans warbled from behind the scattered bones between a tombstone and a few snarling gargoyles, their grimacing teeth frozen in stone. She stared at each grotesque face as she passed them. A thin, snarling face with curled horns and bat like wings, next a scaly, lizard of a creature with a curled smile and sly eyes, then a squat, broad face with stubby horns and thick legs…
The gray face blinked, and the little princess jumped. The squat gargoyle moved and opened its large, beaked mouth with a wide moan, moving towards the little girl on thick, shuffling legs. She squealed and tried to run back to the road, but the scaly, spiked creature blocked the way back. She abandoned her bag and wand in the mist and ran up the sidewalk, tripping over the steps and onto the covered porch to the front door.
“Uncle Pete, Uncle Pete!” She screamed, the shuffling and groaning of the creature followed behind her. She turned to look, and in the flickering candlelight of Jack-o-lanterns the heavy creature loomed with spikes that struck against the moonlight like daggers, the eyes glowed orange beneath heavy brows gray as living stone.
The door opened, golden light poured out onto the porch.
“Happy Hallow- Oh, hello Lilly!” Uncle Pete’s arms swallowed her in an embrace as he swept her up onto his hip. Her feet dangled, and the creature waddled closer like an enchanted stone table come to life to nuzzle her ballet slippers. It gurgled, its thick, spiked tail waving gently from side to side. Lilly’s parents entered the pool of light with her dropped wand and bag, careful of the squat dinosaur’s thick spikes that framed its wide body.
“Did Gertrude scare you?” They asked.
“Uh-uh,” said Lilly. “Can she go trick-or-treat?”
Gertrude isn’t too sure about all the creepy going’s on this time of year. Spooky fog and noises in the night make her feel a bit uneasy, but Pete and I have assured her it’s all in good fun! I hope you had a safe and fun Halloween night!
I’ve been making great progress on my little collection of short stories. 🙂 I have 14 short stories I’ve collected over the months, not including Gertrude’s most recent one, and I’ve been cleaning them up and getting them ready for publishing. Some of the older stories are much longer, and upon reading them again I discovered that there was a lot I could do to make them better and shorter. For most of these stories, I’m sticking to a limit of 500 words, because that’s generally all that’s needed for flash fiction. A few of them do better as a regular short story longer than 500 words though, so a few are only slightly edited.
Here’s an example of an older story than changed a lot in the editing process. 🙂
Keep Away (original: 1293 words)
Gravel crunched under rubber as Pete pulled in to a stop a short way from the lake. With a turn of his wrist he shut off the ignition and tossed the keys on the console between the two front seats. He grabbed his hat and shoved it on his head as he shrugged open the door, and his heavy boots crunched on the gravel road.
It was a clear afternoon with a sky so deep a blue it looked almost painted, and Pete whistled a little tune as he shut the door, opened the passenger door, and reached into the back seat.
“You awake yet?” he asked, straining a little as he dragged out a large pet carrier. It lurched to the side with a squeal and a jingle, and Pete held it steady to keep it from ramming into the front seat.
“Yes you are,” Pete said with a chuckle. “Ok boy, I know you’re excited.” The dog-sized creature trilled inside the carrier, and his snaggle-toothed beak poked through the metal mesh at the door of his carrier.
Pete set the carrier safely on the ground, and straightened to reach into a cooler in the bed of the truck. With a small, silver fish in hand, he squatted down to sit on his heels.
“You see the fish?” He wiggled the cold, cloudy-eyed fish in front of the wire mesh, and the shifting creature froze. Large, triangular head cocked to one side, wide eyes unblinking and focused on the silver scales. Slowly, Pete clicked open the latch and slid the fish through the open door.
The pterosaur snatched at the fish with his beak. Just as quickly, Pete darted his hands into the carrier, around the creature’s fuzzy body, and picked him up to hold him close to his chest. The fish slid to the ground when Ron squawked in protest, and Pete folded the large, leathery wings carefully against his body.
“Sorry about that,” Pete said. With a practiced shrug of his shoulders, he tucked the pterosaur’s head gently under one arm, while holding and stroking the body with the other. Instantly, the frantic breathing slowed, and the fidgeting feet and wing fingers stopped scrabbling for a foothold. Pete reached down towards the fish, and a flash of silver caught his eye.
“What’s this?” Pete allowed Ron to poke his head out from under his arm to reach for the set of keys laying in the gravel. “Did you snatch my keys?” Ron looked up at Pete and cocked his head to one side. He blinked.
“You rascal,” Pete ruffled the fuzzy gray head. “Those are my keys, not a fish. Here’s your fish.” He clipped the keys onto his belt- he really should get a new belt clip, this one looked a bit loose- and picked up the dust-coated fish between his thumb and forefinger. He dropped it above Ron’s head, and the pterosaur snatched it in his toothed beak, tilted his head back, and swallowed.
“There you go,” Pete murmured, his mustache lopsided in a soft smile. “Let’s take you back to your friends now.” With Ron secure and calm in his arms, Pete stood up and walked to a small, noisy shed near the shimmering shore of the lake. It was just a simple wooden structure with three walls. Wire fencing extended past two of the walls, and a camouflage shade cloth enclosed the top. More pterosaurs like Ron hopped from perch to perch in the shed, or scrambled about on the ground with their wings folded like bats.
Pete’s long shadow fell across the wire mesh, and about a dozen of the creatures scrambled over to poke their toothy beaks through the fence, large eyes squinting against the setting sun. They squeaked and clambered over each other their long, thin tails waving like white-spotted flags behind them.
“Hey fellas!” Pete skipped a step, and walked a little faster. “Look who’s back!” Ron trilled and wiggled in his arms, and one of the long, thin wings whacked Pete across the face. Pete blew through his lips and smoothed the wing back down before Ron could start flapping.
“Easy there boy,” he laughed. “Your wing just got better. Don’t want to hurt yourself now…” he scratched the nubby transition between hard beak and soft duckling-fluff, and Ron closed his eyes and hummed. “There we go.” The hard crunch of gravel transitioned to a soft crackle of trampled reeds, and the metal fencing reflected yellow. Pete reached for the latch left-handed, his every move followed by the large eyes and quick movements of the winged critters waiting on the other side.
With a faint click and small creak of the hinges, the gate exploded in a mass of gray and white wings. Pete stepped back and ducked his head under one arm, laughing. The silly beasties. Some flew over to the lake and splashed down into the water with a plunk, only to bob back up with only their heads breaking the surface of the water. Some flew to a higher perch in the giant cypress trees surrounding the lake. A few circled around Pete, squawking at Ron in his arms.
“Alright then Ron, off you go!” Pete loosened his hold, and Ron jumped out of his arms and into the air. He pumped his long, narrow wings and arched past a few of his friends as they banked and dove around him. Pete watched as the sky slowly turned a deep shade of indigo, the last light of the setting sun behind him.
Something heavy slammed into his backside. Pete swirled back and sideways, craning his neck to see what hit him, and one of the pterosaurs swerved sideways in a flurry of leathery wings. He caught a flash of yellow light on metal in the fish-trap teeth.
“Hey!” He tried swiping the flying thief from the sky, but his hands only caught air. “Those are my keys!” The pterosaur was already high in the sky, keys glinting in its beak. Others squawked and dove at the gleam. Soon three of them were poking at the thief’s beak, squawking like toddlers fighting over the only dump truck at the sandbox. They squabbled and scrabbled, until Pete saw the glint of his keys fall. The foolish pterosaurs didn’t even notice, too busy harassing each other to notice the shiny keys plummet towards the lake. Of course there was no way to catch them, but Pete ran anyway.
A faint plunk, a tiny splash, and Pete’s keys disappeared into the dark water. A dark, streamlined shape dove in after it with a sploosh. Another pterosaur must’ve seen the shiny metal. Pete squelched to the soft bank, water licking the toes of his boots, and watched the surface to see where it would come back up.
There, a small head broke the surface of the water not far from where Pete stood.
“Ron,” Pete didn’t want to surprise the creature and make him drop the keys.
“Good job fishing out the keys! Now can you bring them back?” Pete leaned forward as far out into the water as he dared. Ron looked sideways at Pete.
“Come on boy!” He didn’t have fish. Ron tilted his head back.
“No! don’t-” and swallowed.
In the original story, I discovered that unless someone follows me here on the website, singling Ron out as a character really doesn’t mean much. It can be any of the pterosaurs taking Pete’s keys and you still get a good story.
Another big thing was that the story didn’t actually start where I started it. A story starts when there is something that changes. As in, a change in the usual routine. Stories can be “slice of life”, but really it’s only the “interesting” stuff, the things that are different from the routine in the character’s life. For this example, we can assume that going out to meet the pterosaurs at the lake shore is pretty humdrum routine stuff for Pete. The thing that’s different about this time is the fact that his keys get stolen when the critters mistaken them for shiny fish. But obviously it’s not routine for us, so we still need some info to understand what’s happening.
I found I could greatly reduce the description and cut to the heart of the little story by keeping only the essential bits of the beginning, and taking Ron as an individual out of the equation. After that the rest was fixing some wordy description here and there or taking out places where I was repeating myself.
The final edit turned out to be a true flash fiction with even less than 500 words! With short stories, every word counts, and sometimes we find we used more words than necessary in first draft. 🙂
Keep Away (updated: 478 words)
Dry weeds crunched under rubber as Pete pulled in to a stop a short way from the lake. With a turn of his wrist he shut off the ignition and clipped his keys onto his belt. He shoved his hat on his head as he shrugged open the door, and his heavy boots trampled the reedy stems as he walked to the little shed.
It was a simple wooden structure with three walls near the shimmering lake shore. Wire fencing extended past two of the walls, and a camouflage shade cloth enclosed the top. Creatures like small, birdy dogs hopped from perch to perch within, or scrambled across the ground with their wings folded like bats to poke their toothy beaks through the fence. They squeaked and clambered over each other with their long, thin tails waving like white-spotted flags behind them.
“Hey fellas!” Pete reached for the latch, his every move followed by their large eyes and quick movements.
With a faint click and small creak of the hinges, the gate exploded in a mass of gray and white wings. Pete stepped back and ducked his head under one arm, laughing. Some flew over to the lake and splashed down into the water with a plunk, only to bob back up with just their heads breaking the surface of the water. Some flew to a higher perch in the giant cypress trees surrounding the lake. A few circled around him, squawking.
Something heavy slammed into his backside. Pete swirled around, craning his neck to see what hit him, and one of the creatures swerved sideways in a flurry of leathery wings. He caught a flash of yellow light on metal in the fish-trap teeth.
“Hey!” He tried to grab it, but his hands only caught air. “That’s not a fish!” The creature was already high in the sky, keys glinting in its beak, and soon three of them chased after it. They screeched like fighting toddlers and pecked at each other. Pete saw the glint of his keys plummet towards the lake, but the foolish creatures didn’t even notice. Pete watched helplessly as he ran to the nearest shore.
A faint plunk, a tiny splash, and Pete’s keys disappeared into the dark water. A dark, streamlined shape dove in after it with a sploosh. Another of the flying fiends must’ve seen the shiny metal. Pete squelched to the soft bank, water licking the toes of his boots, and watched the surface to see where it would come back up.
There, a small head broke the surface of the water not far from where Pete stood.
“Good job fishing out the keys! Now can you bring them back?” Pete leaned forward as far out into the water as he dared. The creature looked sideways at him. Tilted its head back.
“No! don’t-” and swallowed.
Coming Nov. 1st…
This big guy will do anything for food! 🙂