Thursday, October 15, 2015

Flash Fiction Friday, Week 7: Ten Items or Less

This week, we were writers looking for a career-making story, who have been consistently rejected in the past. An editor includes a note on our latest rejection that suggests we observe people more closely, implying that may assist us with creating more three-dimensional characters. We decide to take that advice and head for a local store to scope out the shoppers. We observe someone with unusual items in their cart and decide to do a bit of surveillance--all in search of the perfect story. We were to share what the items were and what we found when we followed that person. The genre was mystery. 

Ten Items or Less
Little did I know that when I opened a letter of rejection from yet another publisher, my life would be changed forever. The responses I usually received were all the same. They amounted to a form letter addressed to ‘Dear Sir’, with one sentence that read: ‘We appreciate your submission, but it does not fall within the parameters of our current publication plans going forward.’ What the Hell does that even mean? Okay, so the letter I received in yesterday’s mail was the same; but, with one glaring exception. The editor had taken the time to write a brief note. Addressing me by name, it read: ‘Evie, Your story has potential, but your characters are flat. They have no substance, nothing a reader can identify with. I suggest you observe people more closely, and get inside their heads; then build a story around them. I look forward to reviewing more of your work.’

I have to admit I was stunned. Someone actually liked my story idea. The appraisal of my characters was harsh, but right on the money. I don’t include too many personal details about my characters because of word count restrictions. I lean toward lavish descriptions of settings and events instead, but apparently, I’ve been heading in the wrong direction. It’s the characters my focus needs to be on, and their thoughts and feelings should fill the pages and drive the story.

I’ve done sci-fi, romance, historical fiction and horror and bombed every time. Since I was now going to become a voyeur, in a legal sense of course, I decided my next project would be a mystery. I would find an odd someone with an air of mystery about them and add my own finishing touches. Where would I find an odd someone? The answer to that was crystal clear. I would cruise the aisles of Dave’s Discount Domain. I’ve only been in there a couple of times, but believe me, there’s enough odd someones in every aisle to fill a volume with stories. I would begin my quest in the morning, as soon as Dave’s opened. By the end of the day, I should have a story that sizzles.

When the doors opened at 9am, I was the first one in, notebook and pen at the ready. I made my way to the home improvement section where my search for next primary character would begin. I was glad they didn’t open when it was still dark because the morning paper carried a very ominous headline. We didn’t usually have much in the way of violent crime in this one-horse town; murders, assaults and robberies were popular activities in the city 40 miles to the south. Recently however, several women had been abducted and found days later in pieces a couple of miles north of town by the lake. Parts of another body had been found last night. My mission to find the perfect man to lead my story would be confined to daylight hours.

The idea for a story about a fictional serial murderer was swirling around in my head. Whoever I fixated on would be the killer, and the purchases he made and actions I observed would define his persona. I was already anxious to receive the editor’s comments on my new style, with all the depth and insight into the murderer’s psyche I would provide. Roaming through the store, I wondered if the strange folks I had seen in the past were an aberration. Today, I knew everyone by name that I passed in each aisle. They were all neighbors, and were about as thrilling as a pan of warm dishwater. No sense wasting the morning when there were other stores I could visit.

I grabbed a pack of dishcloths and headed for the ten-items-or-less Express Lane. It was backed up because the checker, Connie, was glancing back and forth at the bag boy a couple of registers down. Out of boredom, I glanced into the cart of the elderly man who was before me in line. A loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a half-gallon of milk, a box of large size latex gloves, a power saw, a shovel, and a large tarp. Seven. Perfect. He followed the rules. But, wait. I looked over his items and my mind screamed THIS IS HIM! I’d never seen him before and this combination of food and some instruments of torture intrigued me. I made up my mind to follow him and watch what he did and craft my story accordingly. He’d never know so no harm done, right? He put his bags in the cart and headed for the exit. I reached across the counter and scanned my dishcloths myself, hit the total button, grabbed a bag and stuffed them in, handed a $10 bill to Connie, told her to keep the change and hurried to keep up with the old man.

Our cars were a row apart. I got in my car as he put his bags in his trunk, got in his car and headed for the highway. I followed. We drove north into a residential area, and he pulled into the driveway of a large house in the subdivision where all the homes had a lakeshore backyard and private docks. I passed his house and parked on the side of a vacant house a couple of blocks from his. In my notebook I listed the items my killer purchased and described the drive to his lair where a young woman, no doubt, waited in fear. I got out of my car and crept carefully through the adjoining yards until I could clearly see his. I watched him carry his purchases into his house—I wrote he would prepare a sandwich and glass of milk for his victim, to add another layer of confusion for the medical examiner should her remains ever be found. Evil personified, to be sure.

After a few minutes, he came out to the backyard, shovel in hand, and flowers in small pots on a rolling cart. He began to dig small holes and place each bloom in and pack the dirt around the stems. I wrote he wheeled out a cart containing pots filled with various body parts of his previous victims. His plan was to bury each one in his garden of death, and sit there in a lawn chair in the evenings and relive his crimes in his mind. He finished planting the flowers and went back into the house. I wrote that my killer went to make sure his victim had finished her last meal so he could remind her that the end was near.

When he came back to the yard, in one hand he held a peanut butter sandwich and in the other, a glass of milk. He sat on the porch, ate the sandwich in a couple of bites, gulped the milk down and went back inside. I wrote that his victim was already dead. He’d strangled her while wearing the gloves so as not to leave any DNA on the body. He put her on the tarp, and he was so cold and remorseless, he decided to have a snack before he used the saw to dismember her. This was really good stuff. I couldn’t wait to get home and flesh this out, type it up and send it to my new editor friend. I had enough material now for one of their monthly crime features. I jotted a note to remind myself to make sure to incorporate how he disposed of this new one, and put my notebook in my pocket. When I turned to go back to my car, the old man was in front of me with his empty cart.

“Why are you spying on me and my son?” he asked.

There’s a son?

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You see, I’m a writer, and I noticed you bought an unusual combination of items. I thought if I followed you and observed you that maybe there would be a story in it. Please accept my apology.”

“You followed me because of what I bought so you could write a story? What kind of story?”

I offered him my notebook, and he smiled as he glanced through it.

“You’re good,” he said. “Too bad no one else will read this.”

Yeah, right, old man. Go back to your flowers.

“Give me my notebook.”

I reached for it, but was grabbed from behind and a cloth was placed over my nose and mouth. As everything around me began to go black, I heard the old man one last time.

“Put her on the cart, son. You see, Miss, the gloves, tarp and saw were for him. This new saw is more powerful and slices through bone like butter. He usually has to hunt for victims; so nice to have one deliver herself. My boy’s a real cut up with the ladies…”


  1. So nice to see a father supportive of his son's career choice. Nice creativity shown by the writer. Maybe the father will be come a writer too now?

    1. Thanks, Mike. Whatever 'career' he chooses, he is family, and family supports family, right? The writer had a good idea. Unfortunately, there must always be a Plan B, even with a story; Plan B being a quick getaway just in case! The father becoming a writer? Well, he does have the notebook.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks much, Rose. I wanted a couple of zingers in this one. Glad you enjoyed it.