Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

Here’s a drabble (100 words exactly) story I submitted recently that didn’t get accepted. The theme was war.

The Association’s Claim

The McAlister’s 1985 Winnebago slams through my front window; knickknacks careen through the air.

My body is moving before my mind registers the assault. “Protect the pond,” I shout to the kids.

Dave McAlister dives from the camper and rolls. “We want that water!”

Joey’s graduation photo shatters over my head as bullets hit the wall.

We’ve been under siege since the homeowner’s association seized the neighbourhood’s water rights.  Our backyard pond is mossy, but potable.

Joe, Sr. drops on Dave, snapping his neck. My gentle husband turned warrior. “More will be coming.” He pockets Dave’s gun and heads outside.

The other day, something happened that shook my world. Or, perhaps, two things shook my world—one in a horrible way and one in an oh-so-amazing way.

I realized, with about a week to go until classes start, that I didn’t have the money for my next semester. I’ve hit the cap on student loans and I have two years left before I have my doctorate. I feel I’ve spent most of my life in school over the past ten years and while at times it has been so stressful all I can do is cry and eat Reese’s Cups, it’s still so worth it. I’ve learned so much, I’ve met so many brilliant and wonderful people, and I love the course work.

Faced with the idea of trying to figure out how to pay for the semester when I’ve recently lost my jobs due to my immigration to Canada, all I could do was cry. My wife, my wonderful wife, kept saying, “We’ll figure something out.” But we’ve drizzled through our savings as I’ve been looking for work and the little money that’s left in there is money we’ve been saving for years to fix an on-going problem with my front teeth. And even that wasn’t enough to cover the fees.

I posted on Facebook that I was so upset about this and not sure what to do. And people offered so much love and support including several private messages offering to send me money. Asking for help, y’all, it’s hard. And when those people offered to send me money, I did what I usually do when people offer help. I said, “It’s all right. I’ll figure something out.”

Why do we do that? A few months ago, a friend of mine was facing losing her health insurance and I rallied the troops and raised the money in a couple of days. And I didn’t think she was a failure or that she should be ashamed for having to ask for help. I didn’t think there was something wrong with her. I didn’t even consider it an imposition. I was glad I could help in a concrete way, that is, involving my community, to help someone who needed it. But when it came to me? Asking for help for me? Ugh.

Then Cindy Rizzo, who is an incredible generous person and also an excellent writer, messaged me and offered to set up a fundraiser. At first, I said no. Then that I would think about it. And I thought about it and thought about it.

And I realized that when I struggle financially, I take that as a sign of failure. Not in others—in myself. Because we live in a world that requires money and because even when we rail against the idea of wealthy people getting more privilege and better treatment than non-wealthy people, we are steeped in that concept every day. Because my wife makes a decent salary that pays for our mortgage and van payment, but my salary was used for utilities, insurance, food, and savings and without that, we’re struggling and it feels awful to feel both broke and guilty for being broke.

Add that to the fact that so many people in the world struggle so much harder than we do and wow. The roller coaster of emotions that comes from the idea of just simply letting people help.

I messaged Cindy back and said yes to the fundraiser. We decided to set the cap at the amount that would pay for this semester and next, figuring by a year from now, when the rest of the tuition is due, I’ll have found work, been able to save the tuition, etc.

And people gave. Some gave huge amounts. Some small. Some people who I know also struggle with money gave bits and pieces. People came out of the woodwork to donate. We ended up making our goal the first night. By the second day, we’d gone over it. After setting aside money for taxes and the fees from the fundraising platform, we made enough to pay for this entire year of school and give us almost half of the first semester of next year. I was overwhelmed. I’m still overwhelmed.

It’s not about the money and it is about the money. Almost 200 people came through for me in a very real way to make sure I can stay in school. And that means so much more than the money. It’s about the feeling of being valued. It’s that people think that I’m worth giving to, that people see the contributions I make even when they aren’t financial.

My heart has exploded again and again over this outpouring of love and succor from my community. And I still get choked up thinking about it. Because it’s more than the money. It’s the fact that no matter how much I undervalue my contributions, other people don’t. Beyond all the practical considerations of being able to pay for school, this monster fundraiser of more money than I have ever had at one time is a love letter. It’s a hearty kick in the pants to the doubts that press me down. It’s respect.

And that, more than anything else, has changed my life.

I was blessed to sit in on a master class by poet Emily August on journaling practices for creative writers. It was a perfect blend of academic information, details about various techniques, and writing exercises to get us started.

One of the things Dr. August had us practice was automatic writing. Though I didn’t hit anything I’d consider a trance state, I did a free-form piece where I put the pen to paper and didn’t lift it for two minutes.

We started with the word “anarm” and this is what came from my brain.

Anarm. to fit or equip a person with armor or weapons, weapons of partial destruction, the destruction of our lives or our nation our one nation under no god a god that doesn’t exist, the gods, the goddess, goddess save us from the ravages of men of the patriarchal bullshit shoved down our throats into our voices, voices long sought to be silences, long silences, always silenced until we rage and open our mouths in an unending scream.

One great thing I took away from this workshop is that journaling is not there to give me great creative pieces. It’s separate from my daily writing *work* – instead, journaling is more like brain hygiene, a daily chore like brushing your teeth that you do because it’s good for you. I’ve been trying to keep to journaling daily but I have to admit I do skip sometimes. Maybe instead of week-long writer’s retreat, we should have month-long writer’s habit developing retreats. I feel if I got to spend a month with Emily August, waking up every day and journaling before breakfast, the habit would be instilled in my life.

This piece came from one of the excellent workshops I took with author Grace Palmer.

The Price of Cookies

The boy wandered the aisles of the shop and the clerk watched him. She didn’t watch closely; her feet hurt after seven hours on shift, and she didn’t want to go to the trouble of leaving the counter. But she watched him as he moved into view and out of view and she saw the moment when he slipped the cookies—oatmeal raisin—into his pocket.

The boy’s hollow cheeks, the dark circles under his eyes and the hand-me-down clothes that hung from his slender frame gave him a waifish appearance and the clerk wanted to give him the cookies, pay for them herself, offer an apple maybe or a granola bar to go along with them. He looked kind of like her Bobby before he enlisted, all knees and elbows. A kid like that needed more to eat than cookies.

But the security cameras might have seen cookie theft and it wasn’t worth the clerk’s job to let a kid, even a hungry-looking kid like that, walk away with a buck ninety-nine worth of stolen merchandise.

The boy, Kelvin, approached the counter and veered to the left, waving a hand at the clerk with what he hoped was an air of “Just looking. Didn’t find what I wanted” but the clerk called him back and instead of running, Kelvin emptied his pockets onto the counter, unearthing a wallet containing a driver’s license and a love letter from someone who’d died years before, several rubber bands, a pocketknife, a cool rock he’d found in the park earlier, and the package of cookies at the heart of the clerk’s distress.

They both shifted uncomfortably, debating perhaps. Kelvin debating whether there was still time to grab his things and run. The clerk debating whether it was worth the shit pay she made at this job to deal with trying to have a hungry teenager arrested.

The stared at each other for a few moments. Neither knew the other was hanging on just this side of starting to cry.

The clerk sighed, shoved everything back across the counter and said, “Don’t come back here.”

Kelvin left, knowing he’d have to find a new store, further away, leaving his mother alone longer than he wanted. And he walked back through the park, back to the hospital. He tried to eat one of the cookies, but he could barely choke it down his throat.

I took a workshop through the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last month and wrote this during one of the sessions. I generally try to shy away from light-hearted subjects in my flash for some reason, but we had prompts and this came out.

The Kale of the Wilde

Petals float from the invitation and land on Willow’s desk. Thick ink scrolls over the page. The emerging queen of the Hamptons social scene has touched this paper. Willow’s fingers trace the curves of each letter until her skin tingles.

Verdant Spenné requests Willow Wilde’s presence at the season opening of our garden. 

Guests to dress as one’s favourite plant.

Willow’s stepfather, Ralph, owns the landscape company that designed the Spenné gardens.

Willow stomps through Ralph’s greenhouses. Azaleas, White-Edged Hostas, Purple Lupin. Willow doesn’t have a favourite. And though she may dream of Verdant’s radiant face, seeing it at a rich person’s party is more of a nightmare.

Their tenuous connection stems from one chance meeting at the Spenné mansion after Ralph cajoled Willow into spending her coveted summer vacation doing grunt work for a fair wage.

Ivy league schools were expensive, even for scholarship kids, and Willow couldn’t afford to say no.

Willow, sulkily carting a wheelbarrow of compost through the garden had run smack into Verdant and dumped a hefty pile of manure on her feet.

“Oh shit,” Willow yelped.

Verdant, who managed to look regal standing in a pile of compost, grinned. “We go to school together.”

“I’ve seen you.” Willow’s heart thumped madly. “We don’t hang with the same people.”

“We should rectify that.” Verdant disappeared, presumably to wash poop off her Prada slingbacks.

But this party. Ralph tries to help. “It’ll be nice to meet other young people.” He sews bushy fabric leaves onto her I heart New York t-shirt.

Ralph married Willow’s mother ten years ago, six months before she died. Ralph stepped into his dual role with solid determination.

He pulls out a ball cap with “LONDON” across the front and plops it on her head. He hugs her briefly and pushes her out.

Willow stands in Verdant’s garden, lost in a crowd of smartly dressed people in expensive clothing. Their homage to dressing per the invitation extends to leaf printed sundresses and hand fans adorned with roses. The men wear designer Hawaiian shirts and dress sandals.

Willow feels the sneers as she presses through the crowd, conspicuous in jeans and her bushy leaf-covered shirt. She gestures at the London hat and explains to no one in general. “I’m a Kale of Two Cities.” Her voice trails off and she looks around for somewhere to hide. Heat creeps up her face.

Verdant Spenné spies the leafy green municipalities standing awkwardly near the hydrangeas. The hostess, transcendent in a deep green dendritic patterned Vera Wang smiles down at the leafy little woman. “Aren’t we a pair,” she says, her rich voice compassionate and amused. “If I don’t kale you, I’ll make you stronger.”

Willow manages not to swoon, but she can’t bring herself to speak.

Verdant touches Willow’s hand. “Ms. Wilde, are you going to ask me to tour the garden with you?”

Reason departs. Willow smiles up at the goddess before her. “Oh, Ms. Spenné, I plant on it.”