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]

San Luis Rey by the Hudson

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.

I don’t do good with unexpected freedom. It was a Thursday. I should have been working but a bottleneck ruined my plans. I couldn’t stay idle in my house because my mind would wander to someone else and then thoughts of what never could be would loop in my head, so I roamed the city with a book and my earbuds and headed toward the waterfront—blue sky over the river, the Manhattan skyline, ferries streaming across the Hudson—and I sat and read and listened and watched people go from work toward the train station and vice versa.

The book was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which I bought for two bucks from a street vendor. It was five by the time I got my coffee and sat on the rocking chair underneath the granite portico with a view of the river and listened to a shuffle of songs (starting with Manchester Orchestra’s I Know How to Speak) and cracked open the book and started to read it only to discover it was not about a WW2 battle but instead a bridge collapse. In the book Wilder kills the five travelers from the get-go. Then he explores those five in detail and what led them to that bridge at that moment. The first of those characters is Doña Maria, described as unattractive and unloved, who was finally married off at 26.

Still, she lived alone and thought alone, and when an exquisite daughter was born to her she fastened upon her an idolatrous love.

Unfortunately Maria’s daughter, Clara, took after her father, cold and intellectual. Still, Maria persisted, persecuting Clara with nervous attention and a fatiguing love. A grown-up Clara moved to Spain, but Maria’s desire for her daughter only grew more intense. Maria knew she would never be loved in return, but she couldn’t quit her desire.

I thought of that someone else. Desire, someone said, is not love but the awareness of distance. That’s true. For me and for Maria, too. She was obsessed with that distance between her and her daughter. And me, no matter how close I could possibly get, that someone else would always be separate from me. I see it and I feel it and I know it but it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t kill the desire. That’s the essence of desire, I guess.

While I read I watched men walk by wearing loafers with no socks. A woman held her mask loose in her hand as if she was about to let it go. A man passed in the sunlight and I judged him adequate according to that inventory list in my mind and I ached (Dumb word, ache. Romance ruined it.) and told myself that he doesn’t feel shame, not like I do, that no one could feel it like I do. Something rumbled in my gut, some undigested thing from some long-gone yesterday, and I wondered if it would ever be digested, or if I would I carry it around with me forever. When that adequate man left my line of sight I felt relieved and read some more.

She wanted her daughter for herself; she wanted to hear her say: “You are the best of all possible mothers”; she longed to hear her whisper: “Forgive me.”

I looked out at the pier and at the men and women who crossed its planks. What was here a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? What would be on this spot a thousand years from now? Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey a century ago. He’s gone. The people he wrote about—people who lived three hundred years ago and who seem as real as any of the men and women on the pier before me—would be long gone, if they ever really existed. But I still felt them resonate.

She lived alone and she thought alone.

I read that line again and again. Like her, I am separate. Separated. I don’t know if this feeling is a Covid hangover or an ancient psychic wound or some personal flaw or just a hallmark of what it means to be human. I wanted to bring that feeling, that eternal separation, out into the sunlight, dry it out it and shrink it until it was small enough to fit in my hand and tuck into my pocket instead of having to wear it like a giant dripping shroud hanging over my shoulders and head and blocking out the rest of the world. But I don’t know how.

Maria could never figure out how to let go of her desire. News of her daughter’s pregnancy led her to cross that fateful bridge to a certain shrine where she would pray for the health and safety of her daughter and grandchild. She was convinced this devotion would finally win her daughter’s love. Her desire was her undoing.

My coffee was getting cold. A woman took a chair across from me and she rocked in her summer dress staring at her phone, legs extended, smiling, and I felt so far from her I could barely even find myself. Then she was gone. A man in a suit and sunglasses walked past me with a hands-in-pocket swagger that told me he was trying too hard, that he, too, carries a dripping shroud heavy on his shoulders. I’d never want to slip into his skin; I have enough shame for one man as it is, so why take on his as well? But I did, and then I was stuck with sadness for two. Someone once told me I lacked empathy. I wish I could lack some more.

By 6:30 pm my coffee was empty. I’d watched so many people pass by on to some other life, and me, always apart. All I wanted was to escape whatever inside me makes me stay so apart. I wanted to feel what they feel, like one of them, like they do, but I never do and it leaves me like an alien on this planet. I could’ve sat and watched the people all night until the morning and then all day again but that longing, that desire, would grow so unbearable that I’d want to rip my chest open and pull out every last poisonous fiber. If that someone else were beside me and if I could be totally honest, I would say this: Come sit beside me and take my pain from me. To me it’s poison but to you it’s dust.

And if I did and if it happened, then what? Would I still be alone, even with that someone else beside me? I think I would. Does this go back to my father, who taught me how to live in distance and separation? I don’t know. And while I’m being totally honest, do I truly, really, care about that someone else? Who they are? What they feel? Their own poisonous pain? Did Maria care about her daughter, or was Clara just a receptacle for her mother’s needy desire?

I finished the section about Maria. Two days before that bridge fell out from under her she realized that her desire was her undoing, that she need to surrender it to ever feel peace in the world, that she needed to live her life with courage and not fear.

Let me live now,” she whispered. “Let me begin again.”

I left my chair and the view of the skyline and the commuters with my own desire still by my side.

Wait…Gendercide Is a Thing?

I like to consider myself a fan of all things speculative–horror and supernatural and sci-fi books, movies, TV shows, etc., and I believe I know a ton about these genres.

Apparently I don’t. The other day I was rabbit holing into the latest of a long line of literary controversies (I won’t go into it here) and I read this article asking whether it’s time do do away with the gendercide trope, a trope I’ve never heard of before.

What is gendercide? It sounds nasty, because it is. Gendercide is where either the men or the women in any given story are killed or die off from some nefarious or mysterious or viral reason. The book that inspired the article introducing me to gendercide is The Men by Sandra Newman. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s about a world where all males suddenly vanish. The remaining women adjust to this disappearance, while videos online depict the men living in a hellish landscape.

There are others, too, such as Y: The Last Man, a comic turned TV show where (almost) all men die of a virus. One of my favorite books, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, is a variant of the gendercide trope; the novel opens in an all-male society where the women have mysteriously died off.

According to, gendercide isn’t super popular, and most of the time only a variant is used (only some or most of either men or women die or disappear). Stories where the men disappear are more in line with the theme of feminist utopia, and stories where the women vanish are considered dystopic.

In reading about Newman’s book, I found it disturbing that all the men were sent to a hellscape ruled by demons. Oddly, the writer of the article critical of gendercide (and Newman’s book), didn’t write about that disturbing aspect of it. From me, though, disturbing is not a criticism. I want to learn more about this trope, and see how different writers explore it.

The Health Benefits of Writing

Writing saved my life. Okay, that may be an exaggeration as well as a cliche, but cliches have a foundation in truth, and while writing may not have stopped a speeding bus from pancaking me as I ventured through a crosswalk, the (almost) daily act has helped center me and give me purpose.

With that in mind, how much do writers (and readers) consider the health benefits of writing? And by health benefits I mean psychological, which is as important as the physical. In a recent blog post for Jersey City Writers (a large, community-based writing group I’m a part of), one of the moderators, Sara Stone, reflected on the mental health benefits of writing, and she came up with a surprising benefit of putting pen to paper and SHARING it: the act of sharing your writing for critique requires TRUST, and trust in turn can foster community and acceptance.

I’d never thought of that aspect of writing. Even here, this act of writing these exact words right this very minute forces me to build my resiliency, to face and accept that some might not like these words. But others might. And that’s cool.

To read more of Sara’s post, plus all of the nitty gritty psychological links, click here.

Wuthering Heights? Vampires? Of Course!

WutheringHsscreenDTI read Emily Bronte’s one and only novel Wuthering Heights back in high school, and it’s a book that stuck with me all these years.

Why? I’m not into romance, or English period dramas, so those weren’t the draws. Instead, it was the strangeness of it all. There was something weird about the book, something supremely off-kilter that I never could identify.

For those who don’t know, Wuthering Heights is a gothic romance about the tortured relationship between the darkly brooding Heathcliff and the spoiled Catherine Earnshaw. Their love (if you can call it that) is charted through fights and marriages to others, and ultimately death — first hers, then his.

The book, while heavy on the melodrama, carries an undercurrent of horror. Dreams are filled with the pleading ghost of Cathy. And the dreams are downright creepy.

I read an article today on Chuck Palahniuk’s website LitReactor that, if correct, makes sense of the weirdness that is Wuthering Heights. According to the writer, Wuthering Heights is secretly…

…a vampire novel.

The article’s writer expertly makes her case, including details regarding the deaths of both Cathy and Heathcliff, details that sound reminiscent of vampire lore.

Another fact she brings up: vampire mythology was well-known and popular in mid 19th century England.

If her theory is correct (and it makes sense to me), then Emily Bronte pulled off a brilliant trick — crafting a vampire novel without ever naming the creatures, or dwelling on their vampirism.

Read the article and judge for yourself.