Here’s my entry for the August Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (the post for the original August draw is here). In case you didn’t know about this challenge, there’s a video here explaining (and showing the monthly draw), but the quick version is this: I use three suits from a deck of cards to randomly put together a genre (in this case: a ghost story), a location (in this case: a tobacco shop) and an object (in this case: an earring) and challenge anyone who wants to play to write something over the next week, with a maximum of 1,000 words.
I did some reading this month on what qualifies for a ghost story, and one thing that came up a lot was how often ghost stories don’t end well for the living. So, I decided that since this is the kind of story I never really write, and the whole point of these challenges was exactly that—to challenge myself—I’d try to write something in the style of those less-than-hopeful ghost stories.
But I still couldn’t resist a pun.
PipeOtter was online.
Brant blinked at his phone, then typed a quick message.
A moment later, the reply came.
User’s mailbox is full.
Typical hook-up app. Brant bit his lip, tapping PipeOtter’s profile link. Hipster beard, pipe in hand, stunning brown eyes and most importantly—Brant believed in being honest with himself—that fine chest with the perfect amount of chest hair.
None of which he’d see in person if PipeOtter didn’t clear out his mailbox.
Brant reviewed their message history. It started with woofs—Brant first, PipeOtter responding in kind, which was kind given the woofiest Brant managed was a blond goatee. They’d chatted often, and most importantly, PipeOtter noticed Brant’s earrings.
Cool earrings. Typewriter keys?
Good eye. I make them. In a moment of daring, Brant sent his website. Using lost-wax casting, Brant kept himself stocked in unique earrings: tiny gears, screws, or various typewriter keys. The earrings modeled from the tiny metal pieces that flipped up to imprint ink on the paper through the ribbon were his bestselling pieces two years running.
After, he’d watched his orders like a hawk. There’d been an order for an O and a P, but the O went to an Olivia, and the P went to a post office box.
He and PipeOtter discussed maybe getting together…
Then PipeOtter went dark.
Ghosted. Wasn’t the first time; wouldn’t be the last.
He tapped his buddy list. After the day-job—slinging coffee for hours—he should sleep, but he was lonely. And horny. And—
PipeOtter’s profile was highlighted.
Brant stopped walking. He tried another message.
Apparently, you and I are nearby right now.
User’s mailbox is full.
A few of the businesses still had lights on. Brant adjusted the distance slider to the lowest setting.
PipeOtter’s profile remained highlighted.
Not just nearby. Close.
Brant turned a full three-sixty, hoping to see someone with a lit phone screen. He saw a woman with her phone to her ear, and three other people walking, but no one with a lush beard or hair up in a man-bun, or…
Brant smelled pipe smoke. He whirled on his heel in time to see a door closing, just at the far corner of the block.
The sign on the shop was faded, but the lettering was legible.
Brant sniffed again. No trace, but…
He glanced down. Still highlighted.
An old-fashioned bell above the door tinkled as Brant entered. The herbal scents of the place were surprisingly pleasant. L-shaped, shelves of boxes, cannisters, and cigars lined one wall, while pipes and lighters and other paraphernalia Brant couldn’t identify filled cabinets and shelves.
The counter was empty. Most of the lights were off.
Brant opened his mouth, about to call out.
It happened again. A trace of smoke drifted past his ear. Earthy. Warm.
Brant swallowed, and looked down.
PipeOtter topped his buddy list, highlighted. Closest.
Brant stepped deeper into the store. He reached the countertop, then hesitated.
He stared at the door behind the counter for a good minute, unsure…
It opened, and Brant yelped.
This man was not PipeOtter. He did have a beard—definitely a bear—but he was older, and larger, and didn’t look at all pleased to see Brant.
“How’d you get in here?”
“It was open,” Brant said.
The man frowned, walking past Brant so closely that Brant took a step back, brushing against the wall of boxed cigars.
There was a tiny crunch.
Brant lifted his foot and stared at the carpeted floor.
“Guess I forgot to lock it,” the man said from the front. “I just closed a few minutes ago. Something you need?”
Brant put his foot back down, and snapped his gaze up, forcing himself not to react. The big man stared at him, and his frown returned. The scowl was…familiar. He’d seen this man’s face before…
The scent returned, and with it a wisp of smoke Brant could see behind the big man. It curled, and drifted down to the door and seeped through the crack to the outside.
Message received, Brant thought. Get out of here.
“You okay?” The big man smiled now, pushing off from the door to approach Brant.
“Shoelace,” Brant said, crouching quickly, fumbling with already tied laces. He moved his foot enough to uncover the earring, palming it. A typewriter key. P. Brant rose. “I can come back when you’re open,” he said, stepping around the large man.
But the man took his arm. “I’ve seen you.”
“Pardon?” Brant’s voice cracked.
“Online. His phone. His buddies. Did he fuck you?” The gravel in the man’s voice deepened with rage, and Brant shuddered. “Were you one of his buddies?”
“N-No,” Brant twisted, and the moment his arm came free he made a break for the front of the store.
Smoke whirled in the air, a cloud almost man-shaped—then poured through the cracks of the door ahead of him, reforming outside. Brown eyes.
“He was mine!” The big man grabbed for Brant’s shirt, but he bounced himself off the wall to stay out of reach. A few more panicked steps got him to the front door and he pushed, then pulled…
A rough hand grabbed the back of his neck, pressing him against the door.
“This time? I’m sure I locked it.” He covered Brant’s mouth with his other hand. “Now. How did you know to come look for him here?”
Sean sipped coffee and considered options. He could catch a movie. Or maybe go to one of the museums.
He rolled his eyes. Who was he kidding?
He tapped his favorite app and waited for the buddy list to load. He grinned. Typeface, that cute twink with the goatee was finally online. And highlighted!
Sean typed a message.
User’s mailbox is full.
Sean adjusted the distance flag. Typeface remained highlighted.
He grinned, picking up his coffee.
There couldn’t be that many spots to check, right?