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Flash Fiction

Lost Causes — A short story

Lost Causes — A short story

There are a lot of alternatives for every choice we make. The path we ultimately choose had a lot of side trails. What if you could see those, and pick the potentials you wanted to follow? How would you choose the true path?


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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Zero - A short story

Zero - A short story

Unlimited power will change the world. But humanity will have to change right along with it. What happens if our growth outpaces our capacity to be human?


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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8-Ball's Tale [A Sawyer Jackson short story!]

8-Ball's Tale [A Sawyer Jackson short story!]

If you've read my Sawyer Jackson books, you'll immediately recognize 8-Ball—the Akashic Sphere who is the sum total of all knowledge in the Omni. He also happens to be best buds with Xander Travel, and eventually Sawyer Jackson himself.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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[New Flash Fiction!] Knotwork - A Long Land Tale

Here's a bit of Sawyer Jackson-related flash fiction to brighten your day!

NOTE: The events of this story take place years before Sawyer Jackson and the Long Land. Enjoy a little youthful Gram & Gramps adventure!


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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New ebook — Two Blocks East

New ebook — Two Blocks East

This is kind of fun. 

Again, I'm going through my back catalog of books and short fiction, polishing some things up, putting nifty covers on them, and releasing them as ebooks. This is a great way to put some of my older work out there for people to see, even some of the stories that have been published previously in various magazines and anthologies. 


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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A Container in the Woods

It never occurred to me to ask how a cargo container ended up in the middle of the woods, 10 miles or so from an actual train track. The trees surrounding it were thick and tall, and pressing in from all sides. There was clearance for the door to slide open, but you couldn't walk around the perimeter of the container without detouring around various trees. That should have seemed odd.

But then, I was twelve.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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Magician

Magician

We were in the hole. It's what we called the stairwell on the far side of the gym, on the visitor's side. 

The gym hadn't originally been a gym, but was supposed to be a swimming pool. When the funding for the school's swimming program was cut, there were last minute changes to the design. The result was a basketball court with high walls on either side, and seating high up. It made for a funny looking gym, and it created four stairwells that were essentially little rooms without ceilings. The hole was one of these. 


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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Three

3.jpg

Today's flash fiction is dedicated to my lovely and supportive wife, Kara. For eight years now she's managed to tolerate me, and hasn't stabbed me once. All my love, Kara. All my days.


"Three," she said.

I couldn't believe it. "Three? Just three?"

"That's the total."

"And you're sure. Out of all of them?"

"Two hundred queries sent, three returned. Look," she said, showing me her tablet so I could see the figures.

Three.

Time was when I could send two hundred, or two thousand queries, I'd get the same number of responses back. Time was when I could ask them to do whatever I wanted, and they'd do it. Time was when they'd all listen. 

Now.

"OK, three. Let's get them engaged."

She nodded and walked out of my office, which was now just a bedroom in the back corner of my apartment, stuffed with a desk and a large table where I did the work. Bits and pieces were strewn all over the table. The printer sat silent, ready for a feed of materials so it could churn out a model. It hadn't done that in so long. And now, just as I'm ready for another one, just as I finally have an idea again, I only get three notes of interest. 

I fired up the printer, I pushed the design, I waited. In moments the first of the models was ready. Moments later, all three models were ready to go.

I looked at them, examined them, studied them. They were perfect. They were exactly as I had envisioned them, exactly as I had designed them. Just the right balance of sophistication and style. There was a sort of cuteness to them, a human-ish quality that I liked to build into my work. That's what separates what I do from the thousands of clones out there. I put that human touch into them, that bit of relatability. To everyone else, it's just about getting the thing built and in production as quickly as possible. For me, it's about crafting the experience.

Wait ... 

A flaw. Number three has a flaw. It's tiny, a small blemish that no one but me would notice. But that's the point, isn't it? I would know it was there. I would see it, every time I closed my eyes, every time I thought back on it. I moved it to the printer, where it would be dismantled, atom by atom, recycling the materials so we can try again.

The printer was old, that was all. The newer models didn't have transcription errors or inadvertent blemishes. They were perfect. I would have had one, in the old days. Someone would have just handed it to me, begging me to ply my craft, to give them the honor of using their equipment to create.

Again the printer hummed and the recycled materials were rearranged and redistributed, and a new model emerged. I looked it over, studying it. It was perfect. Not a blemish. Perfect.

She came back to the door, knocking gently, even though it stood half open. Bless her. She'd stuck with me, even as I had to sell off the company, the resources, the facility. She'd come with me here, to this apartment, where I lived in one bedroom and worked in another. She made the kitchen her office, where she answered messages and marketed the work. I don't know what I would have done without her. If she had ever married, I'm sure I would have lost her. That's a shame, really, that she never married, never found anyone. Neither had I, for that matter. That's the way life goes.

"Contracts are signed. Money has been transferred," she said. "Are they ready?"

I nodded. "They're ready. They're perfect."

She stepped into the room, looking at the three models, pristine and new and perfect in every way. "They're beautiful," she said. "They are always so beautiful. Something always seems to be missing from the commercially produced models. Like there's no ..." she stopped, reaching, trying to find a word that described what she was thinking.

But I knew. Oh, I knew. "Soul," I said.

"Yes! Soul. It's like yours have one, and the others don't. I can't understand why anyone would want one of the mass produced models when they could have one of yours."

"The others are less expensive," I waved, annoyed. "And new models come out constantly. One breaks down, you just get a new one. There's no room for soul anymore."

She shook her head. "I don't know about that. I think these are just amazing. So perfect. They'll love them."

I nodded, and she left the room. 

Maybe they'd love them. I certainly loved them. But there was no market for them anymore. No one, outside of this apartment, really cared that they were beautiful, that they had soul. 

And maybe that was OK. My work had made its mark, after all. The mass produced models were all essentially copies of what I created. They were an homage, of sorts, to the work I had done. My mark on the world. My legacy. 

Maybe that's all one can hope for, in the end — that the work lives on, even if it doesn't live up.

Or maybe, I thought, as I looked at these perfect models, filled with soul, filled with thought and relevance and relatability, maybe what matters most is that I love what I've created

If no one else cared, if I never sold another, if no one ever once raved about what I was doing, then maybe the work itself would be enough. Just knowing that I was doing the best I could possibly do, the work I was born to do, could be my reward. 

It felt hollow, at first. It felt like I was just talking myself into believing it. But soon, very soon, it didn't feel artificial at all. It felt real. Because as I thought about it, as I took another look at what I had created, as I thought about the three, the people who wanted them, the humans who felt the pull, the need to have these in their lives, I felt the soul of it. The work really was enough, if three people appreciated it. It was enough if only one person appreciated it.

She came back to the room, tablet in hand, with a blank line on a page that required my signature. She was my friend. My best friend. She was the closest thing to a wife I'd ever had. She had stayed with me through all of it, the downsizing and the reinventing and the rethinking. Bless her soul.



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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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Two Blocks East

This morning's flash fiction was inspired by something very close to me, which I hope isn't an indicator of any future predicament. 

beard.jpg


It was a fine beard. Full and wooly and warm on cold days with high winds, and filled with food bits just all the time. He'd spent a long life growing it. He'd lived under it for so long, he thought of it more as a house than a facial feature. It was his beard. The beard. 

But it had never made a sound before.

It started first as a low hum, a sort of vibration that he could feel more than hear. Like when he was leaning against the metal walls of a Metro stop, as one of the trains came in, as people ignored him and walked past his little sign and his cup and his plea. It felt like all of that, actually. A low hum, a vibration, something to be ignored.

But it kept insisting. Even as he walked to the warm place, the spot he'd made among boxes and bushes, where he slept even on the really cold nights, because he was the only one who knew it was there. It kept insisting even as he woke the next morning, and snuck out of the warm place and onto the streets.

He could feel his beard, insisting and humming. It was talking to him.

"What is it?" he asked. "What do you want? Huh? What is it!"

He'd said this while standing near some people at a restaurant, all dressed warmly and nicely, sipping coffee among a series of tables that dotted the sidewalk outside. He'd gotten looks. The usual looks. He wasn't crazy, he insisted on that. He didn't say it outloud, because it wouldn't matter. But he wasn't crazy, and he wasn't a drunk. He hadn't touched a drop, not a single drop, not one, all morning. 

The beard didn't answer. Not at first. It just hummed and vibrated and insisted. But then, as he ate a sandwich someone had handed him through their car window, a nice hoagie with at least three kinds of meat he could count and some vegetables that gave it a nice bit of roughage, he heard it. It was quiet. It was unclear. But there it was. 

"Two blocks east."

"Wha—? Wazzat? What'd you say?"

"Two blocks east," the beard repeated, in a humming, buzzing whisper, like something from the back of the throat. It moved when it spoke, just a tiny jiggle, but he could feel it.

"You want me to go?" he asked, before taking another bite of the sandwich.

"Two blocks east," his beard said.

He finished the sandwich first. That wasn't even a question. Never knew when you'd get another, so you couldn't waste it. And you couldn't eat and walk, that was just wrong. No, you had to eat in place, to finish it, to get every crumb. And then you had to wait a bit, to let it digest. That was more of a guideline, though, and not a hard and fast rule, and so he didn't wait after all, and instead started walking east.

Two blocks, that's what his beard had said. And in two blocks he stopped on the corner. A bus roared by, its engines revving up as it picked up speed after leaving a stop. The stop was right there, right in sight, and it had a bench, which was kind of rare around here. People didn't like seeing people like him sitting down on benches. 

"Sit on the bench," his beard said.

"But people don't like it," he told his beard, and a lady walking by looked his way before speeding up a bit. "People call the police."

"Sit on the bench," his beard insisted.

And he sat on the bench, wishing he had another sandwich. 

Several minutes went by, and nothing happened. Oh the usual stuff, of course, kept happening all around. Cars crept by, horns honked, people went in and out of buildings, lights changed colors at each intersection, over and over. He sat and watched all of it. He could use a drink.

"Stand up," his beard said.

He did. No sense arguing with it, after all. It was right there on his face, and he couldn't walk away or anything. Besides, it was his beard. It was all he really had, come to think of it. His very own, not picked over from somewhere else, salvaged from the trash or given to him by a stranger. It was his, sure enough. It had been for a long, long time.

"Lift your shoe," the beard said.

He lifted his shoe, looking at the ground. Nothing to see there. He leaned against the bus stop and tilted his foot so he could see the bottom. And there it was. A plastic rectangle. Some kind of card, stuck there by a bit of chewing gum. He pried it loose and looked at it a bit closer. It was a Metro pass — the kind that people used to ride the busses and trains. 

Just then he heard the roar, the familiar sound of a bus slowing just before the loud and piercing sound of hydraulics and brakes. The bus stopped, the door opened, and the driver glanced his way before rolling his eyes and looking down at a clipboard attached to the steering wheel.

"Get on the bus," his beard said.

He got on the bus, and when the driver looked like he might protest, he held up the metro card. The driver nodded to a box, a little scanner mounted to the dividing wall behind the driver's seat. He held the card up to it, and there was a beep and a green light. 

"Take your seat," the driver said, sounding a little disgusted.

He took his seat.

The bus roared again and rolled away from the stop, and he sat looking out of the window as the city passed by. He hadn't moved at this speed in quite some time. Not since he was a young. Not since he'd started his beard. He hadn't moved at any particular speed for several years now. He wished he had a drink.

After a long time — he had no way of knowing how long, really, but after several people got on the bus and sat as far away from him as possible, and then got off the bus again — his beard finally spoke. 

"Get off of the bus," it said.

He stood and walked to the front of the bus, just as it was slowing to a stop. The doors opened, and he walked down the small set of steps, out into the world. He stood by a bus stop as the bus picked up speed again, roaring away.

This was a different place. It wasn't what he was used to. The buildings weren't as tall here. The cars moved faster. The people still looked at him, but some of them smiled. 

"Two blocks east," his beard said to him.

"Again? Oh, please, I've been following you all day, and I'm hungry now, and my warm spot is pretty far from here. I don't even know if I could find it again. Whatever you want me to do, can you just tell me plain? Can you just let me know where I'm going?"

"Two blocks east," it said.

And he started walking east.

At two blocks, the world changed altogether. The buildings were there, but they were background now. His view was now blocked more by trees than anything. There were fields, large open plots of land, that had flowers and gardens and playground equipment in them. People were there. Children were laughing and screaming in the good way, the fun way. 

"Sit on the bench," his beard said.

He saw it then, that bench. The first time he'd noticed it, really. He sat down, and discovered that there was a bit of shade. The day had started a little chilly, but it had warmed up. The sun could have made him uncomfortable, in all his borrowed and donated clothes. But in the shade he felt cool and he could rest.

He sat, and he watched, and he waited for his beard to tell him what else he needed to do.

"Aaron?" he heard a voice say.

And that was interesting, because Aaron was his own name. He hadn't heard it in a long time. He hadn't heard it since he'd started growing the beard. That was the last name he'd been called before he'd given up names for good.

"Aaron Bloom?" he heard the voice say. And that was even stranger, because that was his other name, way back before the beard. What a nice thing to hear.

Someone sat down on the bench beside him. A man. He was old. Well, he was older than most of the people in the park. He wore a suit, one of the nice ones, and he looked familiar. He looked very familiar.

"Aaron, it really is you," the man said, sort of whispering, like he couldn't believe it.

Hearing the name, seeing the face, he knew he was the one. He was guy. He was Aaron. "That's me, yes," he said. "That's me. I'm Aaron. Still me."

"Aaron!" the man said, putting a hand on his shoulder and gripping him tight, friendly. "It's you! My God! I can't believe it's you! I ...we looked for you. For years we looked! To find you here, of all places!"

Aaron smiled. "My beard led me here," he said.

The man ... Eddie? Eddie looked at him, thinking. "Aaron," he said, "would you come with me? Would you come home with me? I ... I think you need it, don't you? Some place warm to sleep? Some place where you can get a hot meal?"

"Oh!" Aaron said. "Oh yes, that would be nice. I'd like that," he said. 

Eddie smiled. "You come with me. My daughter is right over there. You remember Olivia? Little Liv? She's a mother now. It's been a long time. She loved you. Her favorite uncle."

"Liv," Aaron said, thinking. "Oh, sweet little girl, yes I remember her. Oh, I've missed her. I've missed all of it. I can't remember why I left."

Eddie gripped his arm, and looked sad. "I remember, Aaron. A lot of us do. It was rough, when you lost them. It was so hard. We knew, when we saw you last, that you were in bad shape. We should have done something. We just ... I thought you'd get better, if we left you alone. We all did,  but I should have known better. And when you left ..."

Aaron smiled. "It was a long time ago," he said. "But it's over now, I think."

They left the park. They went to Eddie's home, which was large and nice and warm. There was food, so much that Aaron thought he might pop if he ate another bite, but kept eating anyway. He wanted a drink, from time to time, but thought better of it. Actually, the beard thought better of it.

"No more drinking," it said. 

"Welcome home," it told him.

And Aaron smiled, and laughed, and started again.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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A Second Skin (new flash fiction)

Another smudge of flash fiction to keep you warm on a very chilly day. Temperatures are in the 20s and 30s here in Houston this morning, and to keep my fingers from freezing to the keyboard I'm moving them as fast as possible. Hope you enjoy the result!

 —

fiery-landscape.jpg

Dear Dad,

I haven't written in a long while, I know. It's been, what, three years? Maybe more? Last time, it was to tell you that I was fine, and that I was enjoying living here. That was a long time ago.

I was wondering about how you were doing. I was thinking about you, and I hope that means something. Three years is a lot of missed time, and a lot to make up for in one letter. I'll do my best.

You already know about the fires. When we were first hit, I was sort of annoyed about it all more than anything. It wasn't like I didn't realize how serious it all was, I just wasn't all that worried at the time. What, in my entire life up to then, had ever really been a serious problem? Was there ever anything that was so bad it wouldn't go away after a few nights of TV and video games? Or books. I remember reading all of the Harry Potter books that were out, after 9/11. I was, what, seven years old then? Seems like forever.

But you can see why I haven't written. It's been busy. Crazy, really. So much happening.

During that first strike, I was with a group of people who took shelter in an old cathedral in Strasbourg. It was cold there, for a while, until the fires were everywhere. Then it was so hot I thought I'd melt to the floor. 

We were lucky, though. One of the first rescue teams came through in that area, for some reason. They came to the cathedral and gave all of us a suit. The skins. It fit kind of snug, I thought, and was uncomfortable. But it kept the heat and the cold away, and it let me breath. That's something. That's everything. And eventually, I hardly noticed it. Day and night, it's just there, part of me now. A second skin.

We left the cathedral, and with the skins we did OK. Food and water were a problem. We went without for really long time, scraping by on whatever we could find that wasn't burnt to a crisp or contaminated. The skins will filter out a lot of toxins and radiation and bacteria, but they aren't perfect. People still got sick. A lot of the older people died pretty quick. Kids ... 

I don't like to think about the kids.

We followed the rescue team for weeks. They tried to talk to us, but none of us could ever make much sense of the language. We got by with hand gestures and signs. They had just as tough of a time understanding us, really, and in the end I think we developed a nice sort of "third language" that had nothing to do with words. 

They're a good bunch, the rescuers. Good people. The other survivors and I have talked about where they may have come from, and we all have theories. They look like us, so wherever they're from it must be very similar to here. They live in the skins, just like us. They need food and water and air, just like us. But they're different. You could tell right away. It's in the way they interact with each other, with us, with the world itself. They know what they're doing, like they've done it a hundred times before. And I think they have. I don't think we're the first world to be hit by the fires.

But that's all history. The reason I'm writing now is that I think I'm about to step into the future. The rescuers have become very excited lately. They're gesturing a lot, making sure we know that something is happening. They're trying to tell us that we're moving on, but no one has been able to work out where we're going. I think it's to the next world. They keep drawing something in the dirt and ash that looks like a portal. I think we're about to become rescuers ourselves. 

It's been three years, dad. I've missed you. I think you're gone. I'm pretty sure of it. But maybe you're alive, somewhere in America, with your own group of rescuers. Maybe you're wearing a skin. Maybe you're getting by. Maybe I'll see you in the next world. I hope so. 

All my love,

Danny


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____________________________________________________________
Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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Parker Sixteen (new flash fiction)

Today's bit of flash fiction has a steampunk flavor! Enjoy. 

Factorem-Gear.jpg

Parker Sixteen

It was looking at me. 

It was standing in the center of a ring of junk, no face that I could see, and I couldn't see any eyes at all. But I could feel it looking at me. 

Grandpa's shed has always been my favorite place. Whenever I stayed with him, this was where I'd end up, connecting bits of pipe and wire and old electronics into ... something. I was never sure what I was building. I didn't have a plan. I was just tinkering.

Until the day it worked.

I had the last bit, a piece of an old radio, pulled free of its casing. It was a small circuit board with a bunch of stuff on it. I used a screwdriver to turn a few things that had slots. I pried a couple of things off of the board. I wrapped wire through holes and around metal legs that were soldered to the board. I had nothing in mind. No idea what I was building.

And then it worked.

There was a flash, blue and bright, and then the hum of something from under the pile. The air smelled weird, a sort of burnt smell, and I felt like a million ants had just walked over my whole body. I was tingling.

The pile moved, and stuff started shifting and falling away. I jumped back to avoid getting hit, and looked as the pile opened up, some of it sinking downward.

And then it stood up. Or walked out. Or something. I wasn't exactly sure. It was just sort of there.

It looked kind of like a man wearing a suit, like those old-timey clothes you see on TV and in the movies. He had on a suit, and under the coat was a vest and a tie that bulged from the top. But his head wasn't human. It looked more like an upside down bowl, with a bunch of slits cut in it. The bowl rotated all the way around until it was back to where it started, and light started coming from the slits.

I didn't know what to do. I stood there.

"Hello," it said.

"Hi," I said, still not sure if I should run and hide. 

It looked around the scrap heap, and put a finger on the gadget I'd built. It sort of ran its finger along one of the pipes, then stuck it up in front of the upside down bowl, in front of one of the slits, as if it was looking at it closer. "Well that's impressive," it said. "An accidental one. You made an accidental portam."

"Uh ... I did?"

"You did. And that shows promise. Mister ...?"

"I'm Parker," I said.

"Mister Parker."

"No, I'm not a mister. I'm just sixteen."

The man stood still for a moment, and I got the impression that it was smiling. "Parker Sixteen. Well, Parker, that's quite a feat. And one to be proud of. How'd you do it? Just cobbled stuff together?"

"I ... yes, I think so."

"Remarkable. Well then, I'll have to keep an eye on you." He reached into a pocket and took something out, then walked up to me, reaching out his hand.

I reached back, not even sure why. Like shaking hands. Automatic.

He gripped my hand, and then let go. He turned and walked back to the circle of junk, and touched his wrist, where he was wearing something I couldn't see. As he turned to face me, the blue light and the burning smell came back. "Parker Sixteen, it has been a pleasure. You will do some amazing things. I'm happy to have been the first to meet you! Keep cobbling. We will meet again!"

And then he was gone. The light dropped away, the smell drifted, and I was alone in Grandpa's shed, with the junk and my gadget.

I looked at my hand and saw that I was holding small, round gear with a pin soldered to its back. It was about the size of a quarter, and it had a flat metal band across its middle with a small hole in the center. On that cross-piece was the word "Factorem." I had no idea what it meant, but it felt important. It felt big. It felt like seeing the future.

I pinned it to my shirt, and then pulled the door shut on Grandpa's shed before running inside. I could already smell supper. The day was ending, and a new one would start in the morning. I couldn't wait to see it.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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Xander Travel and the Floating Button

Today's flash fiction features a character I've developed over the past few years. This marks his official public debut, and I'm curious to see how people will react. Feel free to comment here (or Facebook or Twitter or aloud to an audience hanging on your every word) and let me know what you think! And have fun.

Xander-button.jpg

Xander Travel and the Floating Button

It was like it was just stuck, in mid air. When Kendal found it, at first he thought it might be hanging from a piece of fishing line. But it didn't sway, even in the breeze. As the leaves rustled and moved all around him, here in the clearing in the woods behind his parents' house, he was pretty sure it should move. Was it tied top and bottom? Was it on a a rigid wire? A sheet of glass?

But it was just a button.

It was small and brown, with a sort of marbling through it, a darker brown or light black. Possibly from a shirt or a coat. Four holes where thread would be sewn through it, to hold it to fabric. But there was no fabric. There was no shirt or coat, and no fishing line or wire or glass. Just a button. In mid-air. 

Kendal had found it while out for a hike, back to the clearing where he'd spent a lot of years playing and pretending and being whoever and whatever he'd wanted to be. In his clearing, near his house, he'd been Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker and Spider-man. He'd been a cowboy and a superhero and a pirate. He'd been a lot of things here, and thought up all kinds of stories that kept him busy and entertained, all by himself. His closest friends lived miles away, too far for a bike. And his little brother ... well, he had his own thing. He had friends who lived close. He had their parents. Kendal liked being alone anyway.

He'd only come out here to relive some of that childhood. Finals were last week, and they were brutal. College hadn't been as much fun as movies and TV had led him to believe. It was hard work, especially when Kendall had to hold down two jobs on top of his class schedule. College and work and life were all much harder than Kendall had expected, and all he really wanted was to come back to this clearing, where he was anything he wanted to be, and he never had to worry about whether he was getting everything right. 

He reached out to touch the button.

"I wouldn't touch that," a voice came from behind.

Kendall turned and saw the man. Or the boy. Wait, was he young or old? When Kendall looked at him, he saw someone who might be his age, but who felt older. The man was dressed pretty much like Kendall was dressed, in jeans and a button-up shirt, untucked, and a brown leather jacket that looked vintage. 

"Timmy!" the stranger said, flinging his arms out wide like he was hugging Kendall from across the clearing.

Kendall shook his head, confused. "No, I'm Kendall."

"Oh! Kendall!" and the man repeated the gesture.

"Wait, who are you?"

"I'm Xander," the man said, striding across the clearing and sticking out a hand for a shake. "Xander Travel. Nice to meet you, Kendall!"

Kendall took the hand on instinct and shook, and looked confused. "But you acted like you knew me?"

"Oh, that? Pff. I do that. If I'd asked 'what's your name' you would have asked 'who's asking?' or similar, and then we'd be going back and forth about it, with you being all paranoid about stranger danger, etcetera. But if I get your name wrong right off, you just correct me and we move on. Isn't that nice? Now we know each other, and we can talk like old pals. So, what do we have here, a button?" He leaned in close to inspect it.

Kendall blinked, but nodded, and then turned and looked at the button floating in mid-air, with Xander Travel standing beside him, and more than a few questions tickling the inside of his skull.

But best of all, the feeling.

He felt it, somehow in the center of his chest and in his stomach and in that space behind his eyes. It felt like coming home, just like he'd hoped he'd feel when he'd walked out into the clearing in the woods behind his house, early in the morning. He felt like himself again, all of a sudden.

"Yep, that's a button alright," Xander said. 

"How is it floating like that? There's no string or anything."

"It's done up," Xander said.

Kendall looked at him. "Huh?"

Xander made a motion with his hands, like buttoning a shirt or a coat. "Done up. It's buttoned, holding a flap closed."

"But ..."

Xander waved. "You'll get it, don't worry. Smart kid like you. Just give it time, the story practically tells itself."

"Wait, but ..." 

"Smart? Because here you are, standing in a clearing in the woods, looking at a button floating in mid-air, and you've already figured out all thing things it isn't. Plus, just being here in the first place, in first light. The 'magic hour.' That takes some thought. You had to have thought about this place. There aren't any trails. You've been here before, probably when you were young, and you knew the way. And you're up early. Really early, for a college kid. Especially a male. Shouldn't you be sleeping 'til noon and eating everything your parents  have in the house? No, you have other things on your mind, I can see that"

"That was a lot."

"I talk a lot when I'm thinking. Now, button. All done up. Connecting the two worlds. That's always a good find."

"Two worlds?"

"This world, Earth Prime we'll say. And another world, the Long Land. That's a nice spot. I'm not technically allowed there anymore, but I go all the time. You should come with me."

Kendall wasn't sure what to say, or what to think. He just felt something inside of himself let go. Like feeling a tense and cramped muscle finally release. Like feeling blood rush back into a sleeping foot or hand. He felt fresh. He felt ready to go.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"Done that. Past that. Now we're talking about this button. And ..." he dug in one of the pockets of his coat and pulled out a spool of thread. "There we go. OK, you hold this," he said, handing Kendall the spool while taking hold of the thread. "Spool that out for me as I go, OK?"

Xander pulled the thread as he walked up to and around the button, eyeing it. Then he stuck the end of the thread in his mouth, wet it, and held it up, pinched between his forefinger and thumb, holding it in front of the button as he squinted one eye. Then, in a quick jab, his hand darted forward. When he pulled it away, the thread dangled from one of the button holes.

Xander quickly reached out and tied the loose and dangling end to the strand stretching from the button to the spool in Kendall's hand. He tugged on it, cinched it, and then stood back to admire his work. 

Kendall stood there with the spool in his hand, not sure what to do next.

"Done," Xander said. 

He turned and looked at Kendall, and laughed a little. "It's just a spool of thread, Kendall. It won't bite."

"OK," Kendall said, relaxing a big. "So ... I have no idea what's happening right now."

Xander smiled. "But you like it."

It was a heartbeat. A bare moment in time. Just a pulse, like the click of a dial or the first beat of a song. The moment ... the moment ... before it all starts. "Yeah," Kendall said next.

"Then let's see what we can unbutton today," Xander said, and then wrapped his hand with the thread and gave it a yank.

The button popped out of the space where it had hung and fell to the ground. Xander quickly reeled it in and then reached back to grab the spool from Kendall's hand. He wound the thread around the spool quickly, faster than Kendall could follow, and dropped spool and thread and button into his pocket. All this, while a small gap formed in the air in front of them.

It was like a curtain open and fall away. The air split into shimmering waves on either side of a scene, like seeing something through a part in a waterfall. And the scene beyond was amazing.

Kendall could see a valley that stretched on forever. It was a strip of land, filled with trees and rivers and lakes, mountains in the distance, birds in the air. It was lush and green and untouched. And on either side of it was an ocean. It was like looking at a perfect ribbon of a continent, separating two oceans from each other. It had to be miles and miles across, and stretching on to infinity, but Kendall could see it as if from a high vantage point.

"The Long Land," Xander said quietly from beside him. "Home of the Exemplars. Source of all good stories and myths. Destination for anyone who has the right button." He smiled at this last bit. "Or some other funny object. It's amazing the items that can get you there these days."

As Kendall stared at the scene, a little dazed, a lot confused, Xander turned to him and smiled. "So, Kendall ... what do you think? You want to tag along? I can't stay there for too long. They start to notice. But it'd be a chance to visit for a while, maybe chat with some old friends. Then we can pop right back here and I'll be on to the next thing. The fun never stops. Hasn't for almost four thousand years, so why start now?"

"But ... I don't even know you. And ..." he looked at the scene, the Long Land. "What is that place?"

"The beginning," Xander said, and for once he had a bit of awe and quiet in his voice. "That's where it starts."

Kendall looked at it, and looked Xander Travel, and then looked within himself.

He felt it. That buzz and tingle. That giddy excitement, that the world had more to offer than he could imagine. He'd felt it as a kid, here in his clearing, but hadn't felt it for a very, very long time since. And now, here it was. Old friend.

"Let's go," Kendall said.

Xander smiled. "Button up," he told him, and then the two of them stepped through to the Long Land.  


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____________________________________________________________
Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
____________________________________________________________

BECOME A SLINGER

Get updates on new books, new posts, and new podcasts, plus be the first to hear about special offers and giveways. And pants jokes. Lots and lots of pants jokes.