Trope or Choke: Episode 4

The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less following these guidelines:

Setting: In a sleazy casino

Genres: Noir + Paranormal romance

Trope: First alien contact

Characters: A space wizard + King Arthur

POV/tense: 2nd person/future tense

The result:

Merlin’s Delight

You’ll incarnate savagely, a murderous pain as your spirit merges with another discarded body.

You’ll taste burnt almonds. This body was poisoned. Targeted. Your latest incarnation may be brief. Briefer still if that infernal wizard finds you.

You’ll rise like Lazarus and think of her in a tumble of ancient melancholy. You’ve chased Guinivere for eons, your vengeful love tangled by the wizard’s curse. You’ll rub the death from your eyes and sense her near. You’ll assess your face. Not a king’s but it will do. Then you’ll peer into a sky of drifting stars. On a spacefaring craft yet again.

A knock pounds your door. You’ll open it to a lipstick blonde who eyes you suspiciously. “Octavio, hon, you’re looking fresh as a daisy.”

She’s not Guinivere. “I don’t wilt,” you’ll say.

“Apparently not.” She’ll hook your arm. “Come. Brando’s on roulette. You know what that means.”

She clacks her heels down the corridor, nodding at women who stream flirty laughter and men who shrink away.

“You’re armed?” she’ll ask.

Oh, Excalibur, gone so long. “No.”

She’ll bring you to a doorway framed by neon. Merlin’s Delight, it reads. The gall of him.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she’ll say.

“Soon enough, perhaps.”

You’ll pass a surly doorman and enter a room of gaming tables and preening bodies. In the midst of the clamor you’ll feel her essence throbbing in your chest. The blonde will plant a Judas kiss against your cheek. “You shouldn’t have done it.” Before you can ponder her meaning a man ratchets your arm behind your back.

“Brando, I assume,” you’ll say.

“Hard one to kill,” he’ll growl. “Care for a trip to the airlock?”

You’ll smirk. “Flirt.”

“Very funny. Now let’s go.”

This peasant won’t stop you. After a kick to his shin and a fist to his nose, a posse will subdue you both.

“Gentlemen, violence is forbidden in my establishment.”

“Apologies, Mister Wells,” Brando will say.

You’ll stare into familiar black eyes. “When will this game end, Merlin?”

“It’s only half begun.”

Your pounding heart becomes unbearable. “Where is she?”

“Impatience was always your Achilles, Arthur.”

“Mister Wells,” the blonde will say, “this has nothing to do with your operation.”

“He is my operation, child.”

“Don’t cross us,” she’ll say.

“Don’t you challenge me, girl. Your science pales next to my powers.”

The pull of Guinivere will become a fishhook in your flesh. You’ll scan the crowd. That sultry redhead? No. That ebony cocktail waitress? No. The lanky man slouched against the bar? No. Then you’ll spy a fluid form, skin like rusty sunset. A six-fingered hand sweeps tendrilled hair. You’ll gasp. You’ve never seen an alien. Its head turns your way. You lock onto silver eyes. It’s Guinivere! The only woman who ever mattered. You’ll ache for one more night with her, one just like that first in Salisbury among the bonfires.

As your fingertips graze her skin you’ll hear a pop. Pain will sear your chest. Then, blackness.

[Photo by Giancarlo Corti on Unsplash]

Trope or Choke: Episode 3

The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less sticking to these guidelines…

Genre: Comedy + Historical

Setting: On Gilligan’s Island

Trope: Possessed by demons

Characters: A star ballerina + a wise old person

POV/tense: 2nd person/past tense

The result:

The Minnow Would Be Lost

The way you settled the Exorcist experiment. A miracle. Was the child selected to play Regan truly possessed? A lesser case worker would have silenced her. Not you. You held her and prayed until she believed the demons fled.

Recreating Mass Formation Psychosis is messy. But how else can we understand the madness of eras like 1780s France, 1930s Germany, 2020s America?

I almost nixed your application. You seemed fragile, but your stint with the Bolshoi turned you to steel, strong enough to master our worst experiment: Gilligan’s Island.

Three months earlier we’d selected the participants for the roles of the castaways, to remain in character until the experiment ended. Our last observer team never returned. You volunteered to accompany me. Together we rowed out to the island. I would be a theater director. You, an actress with our traveling production of Taming of the Shrew.

You wanted to learn everything I knew. You told me someday, you would have my job.

I asked if you knew why we imposed such stress on these brave souls.

To prevent the worst of mankind, you said.

Do you think we really can, though I asked.

No. Still, we have to try.

On the shore we discovered a sign saying NO ENTRY beside a skull with flecks of crusted, bloody flesh around the sockets.

Worst case, you whispered, no fear in your eyes.

The show must go on I said.

We hiked through the foliage to the encampment. The breeze carried a sweet burning. Black smoke billowed from a fire. I heard a scraping. Past the first hut a body hunched. I recognized him: the lonely widower I selected to play Thurston Howell.

I cleared my throat, and said: Good Afternoon. I am Lachlan Mountjoy, director of the Globe Theater, and this is Serena Butterfield, the finest thespian in the world.

Ginger ran out. A director? She screamed. Her tattered sequin dress was streaked maroon. Her red hair a birds nest. I recall how excited the woman portraying her had been to be chosen. Now her eyes terrified me.

Yes, I said, and we would like you to play the lead. My voice cracked, because I knew this experiment had likely failed. Are there others here?

A man stumbled out of a hut. Red shirt. Head bowed. Hands behind his back. Muttering The Minnow Would Be Lost over and over.

Shut the fuck up! Ginger screamed.

Gilligan ran up to you and grinned. The Minnow Would Be Lost, he hissed. You never flinched.

Are there no others? I asked.

They were so tasty, Thurston said. Dead weight becomes good meat. Are you dead weight, too?

Gilligan pulled a machete from behind his back. You silenced him forever with your glock. Before Thurston could pounce you silenced him, too. You saved the tranquilizer gun for Ginger. She would be analyzed, her brain dissected.

My spirit broke with that experiment. That’s why I recommended you for my role. Your unsentimental nature will take you far.

[Photo by Peter Fogden on Unsplash]

Trope or Choke: Episode 2

The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less sticking to these guidelines…

Setting: An asteroid

Genre: Fantasy + Fable

Trope: A nasty surprise

2 Characters: A dumb jock and Dracula

POV/tense: 3rd person/future tense

The result:

The Lady in the Rock

Not the frog, nor the witch, nor the ball catcher can know who will emerge victorious. That’s for the best. One’s fate should remain a mystery.

It will begin with Taylor.

“Don’t be a wuss,” Taylor will say as she peels off her dress.

“But the water’s so dark,” Jayden will answer. “What if there’s an alligator in it?”

“You’re so dumb. There are no alligators in Arizona. You promised you’d take me skinny dipping.”

“And you promised if I do…”

She’ll suck her finger. “Deal.”

He’ll pull off his clothes and they’ll dive beneath the black water, surfacing not under moonlight but in a cave.

Taylor will graze her lips along his neck. “What’s happening, Jayden? I’m so scared. Hold me.”

“Whoa, babe. Look at the moon. It’s not above us. It’s in front, like on some giant tv screen.”

While the two humans rise from the water in their alien environment, a green amphibian will emerge beside them, clearing its slimy throat before croaking its truth. “I may appear a lowly frog, ignored as I flop through the muck, but l possess the power of speech. Hear my words. Hear me roar. Listen to me! What I have to say is of the utmost value.”

A bellow rising from the depths of the chamber will cut him off. “Silence! I am Morgan Le Fay. Tremble at my name. My nemesis King Arthur banished me to this asteroid, but not before I stole his sword, the only weapon that could slay me.” She’ll point to a stone with a sword embedded in it.

“Wicked,” Jayden will say.

“Foolish witch,” the frog will croak. “Pride will be your downfall.”

The witch will approach the frog. “Are you are the magic holder? The one who followed my call through the lake?” She’ll lick his skin and grimace. “Perhaps not.” She’ll drop him and spike her heel through the heart of the only talking frog in Arizona, and that will end the tale of the frog who couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

She’ll turn to Jayden. “And you, my fine muscled one?”

“I’m just a tight end at Arizona state.”

The trapped witch will frown. “Hmm.” Then she’ll pause on the beautiful young Taylor. “You smell…old.”

“Me? No! I’m nubile and nineteen.”

The witch will wrap her hands around a shrieking Taylor’s throat, who will transform into a withered pustule-covered vampire. “Dracula!” The witch will laugh. “I sensed your power. Now I’ll claim it for my own.”

The vampire will lunge for Jayden. “No! He was mine to drink! You’ve ruined it.”

The witch will siphon Dracula’s power, leaving him a shriveled hulk before rising up with a victorious wail. “I can feel his strength inside me. Now I’ll return and conquer the world.”

But Jayden, who outlasted the talking frog and prince of darkness, will free the sword from the stone, and as he beheads the witch with one swift swing, he’ll prove that sometimes brawn is mightier than brains.

[Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash]

Trope or Choke: Episode 1

The challenge: write a complete story in 500 words or less following these guidelines…

Setting: On a train

Genre: Sci-fi + Military

Trope: Blown cover

Two characters: A dumb blonde and a mad scientist

POV/tense: 1st person/past tense

The result:

The Screams of the Acolytes

The bards would sing of Asmodeus, the golden capital of the Bartolic Republic, but their songs turned to cries when the republic turned to empire. Brandon Sathanis, that cyborg chimera, that corruption, secured his infamy as our last elected leader. Then he gutted the vital freedoms one by one until none remained but the freedom to agree.

I’d been exiled from Asmodeus for twelve years. This troop transport train to Asmodeus’s central station, would end that chapter. The odds were high, the wager my life, but success could bring counterrevolution. But the enemy was cleverer than I expected.

This captain, this man with silver bars and green uniform and black boots, no cyborg enhancements visible, eyed me with simmering contempt. “You’re no lieutenant.”

“Not for Sathanis.” I spat in his face. Spittle flecked his left cheekbone. He didn’t wipe it away.

“Eyes not truly blue,” he said. “Hair not truly blond. Fraud.” He clucked his tongue. “But what else to expect from a recidivist. Vermin, really. We’ve already disposed of five this week.”

I bucked. The cuffs that locked my wrists above my head dug into my skin. “Disposed of?”

The captain motioned to the gray-haired woman hunched in the corner, the left half of her face a dull cyborg chrome that melted into her human flesh. “You’re choices are thusly, lieutenant. Defect. Repent of your recidivist tendencies and embrace the truth of the majority.”

“Or?” I asked.

“Or Doctor Gressil will commence your unraveling.”

The doctor’s cyborg eye flashed orange. A rumble emanated from her throat. “The process is most unpleasant,” she said. “Truly unpleasant. For the participant. For the spectators, so much fun.”

The train jostled through the spiraling suburbs of Asmodeus. Soon it would pierce the heart of the city. “Here is my answer. Brandon Sathanas is the king of lies.”

The captain clapped. “I was hoping this would be your choice.” He turned to the doctor. She tiptoed toward me and pulled a silver vial from her pocket. “Your plot will tumble from your mouth as your gray matter dissolves,” she said. She twisted my head and rammed the needle into my ear. I howled. I panted. I felt nothing except a throbbing in my ear.

Then, happiness. I couldn’t say the colors of the train car. Even my own name became a puzzle. Drool hung from my mouth. I grinned at the nice man and woman before me.

“Good, good, my boy,” the captain said. “Tell us what you’ve plotted.”

I laughed.

“Tell us,” he said.

“You go boom,” I muttered.


“You go boom.”

He grabbed his phone just as the pulse rippled through the car. He clutched his chest—his enhancement beneath the skin. The doctor shrieked as her cyborg face sizzled. The train swayed as if drunk, then rolled onto its side. My chained body twisted among the collapsing metal and shattering glass, mind still dumb but alive.

Outside the train I heard the screams of Brandon Sathanis’s acolytes. And I laughed.

[Photo by Tom Dahm on Unsplash]

Classic Lit Challenge: The Europeans

I’m back on my classics kick. Part of it is having read one too many contemporary novels that is way too formulaic. Same old tropes whipped out again and again. I don’t mean to knock them too hard. I’m guilty of the same sin. But sometimes you just want something different. And that involves going back a hundred years.

So here I am. With Henry James and The Europeans.

I’ve never read James before. I’ve heard of him (and his famous brother the psychologist William James). In my mind Henry was the stuffy writer of stuffy period slash costume pieces.

Not my thing.

But this book is short! Only a hundredish pages long, depending on what edition. I can handle a hundred pages. No problem.


Well, actually, yes.

The Europeans wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of interesting.

Damning with faint praise? Not quite. Like I said, costume dramas about manners are not my favorite. What The Europeans served up, though, was a clash of civilizations writ small. Who doesn’t love a little war? (And Europeans, after all, perfected war, right??)

The basics: Eugenia (a baroness) and her brother Felix come to America to grift their American cousins, the Wentworths, a goodly Puritanish people in the Boston area. They don’t say out-and-out grift, but that’s basically what they’re doing. Seems Eugenia and Felix’s mother was Mr. Wentworth’s older half sister. She met some European dude, converted to Catholicism, and ran off to Europe. And here we are, 30 plus years later. Like many immigrants before them (my ancestors included), Eugenia and Felix are seeking their fortune in the new world.

Much is left out of The Europeans. Why did their mother leave? What was their life like in Europe? None of that seems to matter to Henry James, because he never tells us. What he does tell us, though, is details about what the Americans, and the Europeans, are thinking. If there’s one thing that Henry does excellently, it’s hopping from head to head to reveal what each character is thinking at any given time. Sometimes it’s interesting. Other times, eh. (I’m looking at you, Clifford Wentworth).

I expected a bigger clash. I expected fireworks. I expected a little inadvertent comedy. There wasn’t much of that. Instead what I got was an awkward overuse of the phrase “making love to” — used in a way VERY different from modern times. And a lot of first cousin love. Seriously. I guess first cousins marrying each other was a thing in the late 1800s.

I got through this “comedy” of manners fairly quickly, maybe because I was expecting more. That more never arrived. Still, it was fun to slip into the heads of these lightly scheming characters. A hundred pages I could handle. Four hundred I would have felt cheated.

At least Felix got his happy ending.