30-day fiction challenge

I’ve set myself a 30-day challenge to write a piece of short fiction each day, on Medium. For prompts, I have a list of abstract concepts (love, energy, etc) and a list of concrete objects.

Each piece will be written spontaneously, on the day, with minimal editing, and be between 500–1000 words.

The goal: to render the abstract through the specific — and to never use the abstract word. Comment to say what you think each piece is about!

Day 1: Framed

He didn’t notice it at first, which she took badly — once she realised.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?”

His eyes flicked away from Grand Theft Auto for a split second, but his head didn’t move. His “What?” got lost in Gil Scott-Heron singing, “it might not be such a bad idea if I never went home again.”

“The picture. Drawing.”

He followed her extended arm until a flash of pain sent the controller tumbling onto the terracotta tiles.

“Home is where the needle-marks tried to heal my broken heart“ Gil cried.

It was the frame. The colour, specifically. Theo’s favourite. He didn’t know what it was called — he had a hard time classifying colours, flavours — but he would have recognised it if he were blind.

His parents had done the nursery that colour, dad thrilled to have another son. “Finally,” he’d say, glaring at Mum as if Alison and Bethany were her fault, a trick of her womb to undermine his virility.

The blue was darker than standard baby decor hue. Not quite navy, though, nor bright like the shades you saw in 80s movies. It was deep and sort of smokey looking, like a deep lake or a twilight sky.

“How did you know?”

“Jesus, Bern, you look like someone just punched you in the face. It’s supposed to be a present. It was in a pile of junk in your studio, already torn.”

“How did you know?”

“Know what?

“His favourite colour.”

It was her turn to look blank.

“Theo’s,” he said, the name rising in his throat like a barbed hook. “He wanted everything that shade of blue — clothes, bedroom, shoes.”

“Aww,” Silvy’s face was taut but hopeful. “That’s sweet. I had no idea. Just a coincidence.”

The back of Bern’s neck prickled. He could feel his brother’s small body wriggling against him, smell the baby-scent of pee and fruit puree that Theo should have outgrown. A black cloud was gathering at the door. If you boys aren’t out here in one minute I’ll… Fingernails biting into palms, Bern tried to derail the memory hurtling towards him.

“Honey, are you okay?”

A spasm of gratitude and rage jerked him mercifully to the present. Bern opened his eyes and reached for the controller. Silvy was pouting, hand on hip, waiting. She hated unexpected reactions and he felt a brief, guilty satisfaction at her discomfort.

“Why did you go through my stuff?”

He felt, rather than saw, her eyes widen and her lips pop into an “O”.

“Fuck me. I do something nice — frame your sister’s drawing of you and your brother which you’d shoved into a stack of records — and all you can say is, ‘Why did you go through my stuff?’ Are you mad at me? Or just mad?”

It’s not your place, he wanted to say. You don’t know anything about my brother.

The controller keys were soothing beneath his fingers. Theo loved anything with buttons. Once he learned to walk, no remote was safe, even when dad was home. As he got older, his pocket money went on sour sweets and second-hand junk: phones, VCRs, radios, a fax machine. Deep blue walls gave his room an underwater feel, like an aquarium for discarded home electronics.

“Not mad just, startled. I’d forgotten about it.”

She sidled across the floor and crouched, putting a hand on his knee for balance. “We’ve lived here almost a year and our ‘decorating’ is a string of Christmas lights and last year’s wall calendar. Don’t you think it’s time we started making it look like a home? Like our home?

“Your sister is really talented. I never met him but I knew it was your brother. She made you look real and mythic at the same time — like the Earp boys.”

Bern forced himself to look. The blue rectangle sizzled against his retina. Ali had captured one of their last days together, a water-fight on a rare warm day. Chronologically they were too old for SuperSoakers but Theo loved pursuing his big brother around the garden, crouching laughing behind shrubs before bolting into the open, firing wildly.

Alison had an extraordinary memory for shape and colour: Theo’s fair hair standing up like a brush, the blotches of red on the rose bushes, the exact late-afternoon cast of the porch’s shadow, the spiky green fingers of the conifers reaching over the fence.

Theo had cried and cried. “Don’t go Bernie, don’t leave.”

Anxious, embarrassed, Bern looked over his brother’s shoulder and caught the eye of their father, dark, almost blank. He shivered and pushed free of the embrace. “Stop crying Theo, I’ll be back soon.”

And he was.

It would have been almost instantaneous, the coroner had said, eyes fixed on her notes. Oxygen deprivation causes unconsciousness in a matter of seconds. “He didn’t feel any pain.”

Mum’s trickle of tears turned into a torrent.

The ludicrousness of the assurance hit Bern like heat from a blast furnace, cleansing in its fury.

How could that possibly matter? The pain of the act itself was nothing. It was the pain that drove him there that mattered and nobody, Bern realised with sudden exhaustion, had given enough of a damn about that.

Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on. Every family has its problems. He’s just strict with the boys, old-fashioned. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

“Bern, Bern. Hello. I’m here.” Silvy patted his back like she was burping a baby.

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