Flash Fiction: “The Dealership Driving in from the Cold”

Another story about time travel, but with a twist. Enjoy.

The Dealership Driving in from the Cold,

by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 775

In the eastern corner of Japan, somewhere around Yamanashi’s fertile fields, all was still and quiet. A heavy white layer of snow, gleaming like diamonds in the early daylight, covered the ground for miles in utter tranquility.

And disturbing that peace was Timothy O’Higgins. Sales rep for the third-largest Toyota dealership in South Milwaukee. Expert in selling pre-owned sedans of every make and model. Now slowly freezing to death in nothing but a kimono and his boxer briefs. In retrospect, he’d had one too many glasses of sake back at the hotel. Wherever that was. He presumed it was Tokyo and that he was nowhere near it now. Tim was pretty sure there wasn’t supposed to be this much snow and wide open space inside a metropolitan area.

Oh, man. Dave from Management was going to have his head for this.

Tim didn’t know when he passed out. But he awoke to several shouts.

Blinking away flakes of snow, he found himself staring at several large Japanese men. Some wore samurai armor. Others wore kimonos like him. All of them had their hair tied back in topknots. They all carried swords, too. And no one looked pleased to see him that morning.

The more Tim’s eyes adjusted, the more clearly he could see the the village behind them. Simple wooden houses and cherry trees that had yet to bloom. Plumbing the depths of his hangover-impaired memory, Tim recalled some fragment of an excerpt from a travel brochure. Lots of these historic villages were supposed to dotting the Japanese landscape, weren’t they? Or had he had somehow stumbled through a breach in time and wound up two hundred years in the past? He was starting to wonder if it were the latter, since the wood on these houses looked brand-new. As did the swords and armor these guys wore. Not your gaijin-style replicas.

“Get up!” one of the samurai barked at him. An older man, with graying temples and a pencil-thin beard. The katana in his grip quivered.

“Uh, okay?” Tim blinked. He sat up in the snow, shivering from head to toe. “Hey, um, what year is this even—?”

He stopped when a sword appeared next to his throat. Maybe confused English words were a bad sign around here, he thought.

“Up. Now.” The elder samurai glowered, as Tim stumbled to his feet. His soles ached from the exertion. “The Shogun will want to see you.”

“P-please,” Tim begged. “C-can I get something for my feet at least?” He gestured to his blue, frostbitten feet. Of course he’d been too drunk to wear shoes or sandals. “S-something… any k-kind of snow shoes you have!”

“Oh, that won’t you save you now,” a mocking voice called out.

Tim watched the row of samurai part. He watched a man in golden robes appear from inside one of the houses and walk over to the near-dead foreigner. And he could not believe what he was seeing when the Shogun arrived.

“Dave?” he asked.

“You bet, buddy,” his manager said. He flashed Tim that obnoxious perfect smile, with dental work that he’d gotten done at some Santa Monica clinic. “Who else would be in charge here?”

Nothing seemed real now. Maybe this really was another tourist trap. Tim struggled to stay on his feet, for reasons beyond the mere frostbite.

“A-are we in Tokyo?” he asked.

“What?” Dave snorted. “You still haven’t worked it out, have you? Christ, no wonder everyone at the Milwaukee office hates you. Quick on the sale, slow on the uptake. That’s our Tim.”

“What?” Tim couldn’t say anymore than that. He couldn’t feel anything after that. The cold was inching up his whole body. Blurring his vision. Slowing his heartbeat. A low, constant throb that almost drowned out everything else.

Almost. Dave’s voice rang clear and true.

“None of this is real, buddy. You’re still in the snow.” Dave chuckled. “You’re just losing your mind. Now, why don’t you click the heels on your ruby slippers and go back home, Dorothy?”

The next morning, a search-and-rescue team from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police found Timothy O’Higgins’s frozen body. He’d made it almost six miles outside of the capital.

A small funeral was held back in Milwaukee two weeks later. Tim’s co-workers only showed up for the free food being offered at the reception afterward. Meanwhile, his manager Dave Plitsetsky was kind enough to give a eulogy on his behalf.

“All in all,” Dave said, “Tim was a kind man who went off in his own direction. Much like how Toyota’s new line of Priuses, now with improved gas mileage, will take you anywhere you desire…”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

5 Things I’ve Learned From Joining a Weekly Writing Group

If you’ve been following my Flash Fiction entries over the last year, then you know that I’ve been getting a lot of good material out of Write It Up! This weekly writer’s group is a pretty amazing circle of friends and aspiring authors, with none of the critique or competition that you might find in other groups.

The way our group works is like this. Every week, our organizer will hand out Post-It Notes to everyone at the table. Then we each have to write down a short prompt on our note, pass it to the person on our right, and write down another prompt. We repeat until every Post-It has a unique setting, character, object, story challenge, and genre written on it. Then, using whatever random series of prompts we get, we each make up a story from those prompts within the span of 45 minutes to an hour. It’s a great way to stimulate the imagination and break out from the comfort zone.

Being with this group for over a year now has helped me grow as a writer, and not only in how many hours I’ve put into writing with them. Here are just a few lessons I’ve picked up from my group.

Connect the dots between random ideas.

That’s what writing stories is, isn’t it? We’re taking the weird random nonsense of real life and putting it into a neat package, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

So, at this group, sometimes we give each other wild prompts like “Paris,” “lumberjack,” “snowglobe,” “getting robbed,” and “romantic comedy.” Imagine if you were the lucky soul to get all that as your prompt for a story. Scary, I know, but it can be done. In fact, a lot of my stories start out like this (just check out my Flash Fiction page). All it takes is a tiny spark of inspiration, like picturing a lumberjack in Paris, and letting your imagination do the rest.

Work with a deadline.

At this group, we usually don’t go beyond an hour for writing up our short stories. Let’s be honest. Which would you be prouder of: that half-finished manuscript sitting in your hard drive or a genuine story that you wrote and read to your friends within an hour?

Get to know your audience.

One of the great immediate benefits to having a writer’s group is getting immediate feedback to any story you write. You’ll hear which lines or jokes stood out. You can see in real time when they’re paying attention, because boy did that scene not go where they were expecting. And who better to give you criticism and useful notes than a room full of fellow, experienced artists and friends?

Don’t wait for perfection.

When you have only 45 minutes to an hour to write up a good story, you can’t sit there and worry about whether or not it’s perfect. You only have to make it good. To get your friends in the group to hear and appreciate what you’ve come up with. So maybe you have one or two typos. Maybe you’re not the best at dialogue, but you can at least nail it on narration and character action. Whatever it takes to get your premise into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, as carried out by characters you like to write.

Enjoy yourself whenever possible.

If you’re not having fun, then why write? Yes, yes, I know that writing is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. So is every other profession or hobby if you put enough work into it. But there’s something enjoyable about coming up with a story for someone you like and getting to hear their reaction to it. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, hands down.

So, readers, it’s your turn. Do you have any experience being part of a weekly writer’s group? Any lessons you’ve learned from those groups? Share your stories in the comments below.

Paprika: Go to Sleep and Save The World

Copyright © 2006 by Madhouse

I’d heard about Satoshi Kon thanks to Tony Zhou’s video on it, and I knew that this director had a taste for the surreal and some creative editing as storytelling. I also know that movies like Paprika were a big inspiration for modern-day mind-benders like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Naturally, I had to see how the original work compared.

Set in the modern day, Doctor Atsugo Chiba and her research team have developed a device known as the DC Mini, which allows people to enter and share dreams for therapeutic purposes. However, one of the devices goes missing, and a terrorist begins to invade people’s dreams with the same recurring fantasy of a wild parade, slowly overtaking their minds. To find and stop this madman, Chiba uses the help of a police detective named Konakawa and her own dream avatar, Paprika, to surf through the world of dreams before the line separating dreams and reality collapses.

Our main character is unique in that she’s actually two  different characters–or rather, two personas who belong to the same person. In the real world, she’s Dr. Atsuge Chiba, a dream technology researcher who helped create the DC Mini and who stands out for her cold, analytical exterior. But go into the world of dreams, and she manifests as Paprika, a bubbly, adventurous young woman who can handle any transition without flinching. What’s really neat is how Paprika operates. She does typical heroic actions like fighting monsters and demons inside people’s dreams, but she’s also a therapist, always looking to help her patients find the root of their psychological issues as manifested in dreams.

The first 5 minutes sees a series of wild cuts between different dreams, all connected by the same two characters: Paprika and Detective Toshimi Konakawa. It’s Konakawa’s dreams and nightmares that Paprika leads us through, helping him unravel an anxiety problem. Then, once the dreams end and they wake up in reality, they go over footage and discuss REM sleep cycles and how different patterns are like different film genres.

That sequence right there tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re in for. Satoshi Kon gets to be more metafictional in a way that Christopher Nolan could only dream of in Inception. But, to be fair, Nolan was making a character-driven action thriller with a philosophical subtext, just like he did with his Dark Knight trilogy. Kon is going for something different with Paprika.

Much like in his movie Perfect Blue, the editing here is fluid and jarring. We have continuity and parallel cuts, but tons of visual shortcuts and impossible angles that leave us wondering where the dreams end and reality begins. But where Perfect Blue plays these cuts for horror and suspense, Paprika goes for a more lighthearted approach. Mima Kirigoe is haunted with visions that aren’t real, but Atsuko Chiba knows she’s dreaming and plays around with the idea.

I will say, and maybe it’s more the fault of the English dub team than the original Japanese writers, that some of the dialogue in this film can be a bit clunky. To be fair, sometimes that’s what needed, as the people affected by the shared dream psychosis end up spouting off colorful, poetic gibberish. But in other scenes, even the straight-up exposition is a weird avalanche of technobabble and attempts at humor between friends. Not that this ruins the movie, mind you. The story is still engaging and so are the characters. Every scene between Paprika and Detective Konakawa really shines out in this film.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Satoshi Kon’s work, you might still enjoy Paprika. It’s a more subdued psychological thriller, where the action sequences are more surreal than anything. But every millimeter of film is chock full of amazing detail and color that will leave you breathless and hungry for more.

The English dub of Paprika is available through Sony Pictures Classics. You can find copies of the film through retailers like Amazon.

Bibliography: Paprika. Directed by Satoshi Kon. Produced by Jungo Maruta and Masao Takiyama. Screenplay by Seishi Minakami and Satoshi Kon. Based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Madhouse (studio). Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan (distributor). Original release date (Japan): November 25, 2006.

My Neighbor Totoro: Big, Fluffy Fun for the Family

Copyright © 1988 by Studio Ghibli

Back again for another dive into the ethereal, breathtaking world of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation. This time, I’m finally getting into one of his classics. One of the most popular films in his collection, and the one that gave Studio Ghibli its big furry mascot.

Set in 1958, My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, two sisters who move into a new home with their father, a university professor with a heart of gold. As the girls adjust to their new surroundings, they discover far more than they anticipated. Soot sprites litter their empty rooms, and outdoors, the girls find nature spirits like the Catbus and the large, friendly giant that Mei names “Totoro.” Satsuki and Mei do their best to navigate their new lives in town and their new connection with the local spirits, with little to no serious conflict along the way.

It’s a common enough staple in Miyazaki films, but here, I could get a sense that the girls Satsuki and Mei were genuinely children, both in their animation and their voice acting. They were high-spirited, energetic, obsessive, and curious about the world. Just within the first five minutes, you can feel their energy as real kids, and not just as some adult’s idea of what kids might say or do. Their performance fit in well with the whole dynamic of Totoro and the other spirits they meet.

One aspect that kept throwing me was how long it took before we actually got into the stock weirdness (or central premise) of the story. We don’t meet the famous Totoro until about 40 minutes into the 90-minute film. A lot of scenes in between encounters with the wood spirits are active and engaging all by themselves, but they also drain most of the energy from the rest of the interactions between Satsuki, Mei, and the adults in their lives. I know Miyazaki’s style was to focus more on compelling visuals than on a consistent plot, but when the compelling visuals of Totoro and the other spirits weren’t onscreen, I had to fight off a sense of boredom with the rest of the movie.

I will admit that there’s a nice contrast between the plot involving Totoro and the girls’ subplot of parental issues. Between their hardworking father and their mother who’s in the hospital for a long-term illness, the kids are often left to their own devices. More specifically, Satsuki oscillates between the responsible sibling and another carefree child like her little sister Mei. It’s no wonder that they would want to seek out the joys and magic of life with Totoro instead of confront the harsh world waiting at home, where Moms disappear and Dads are too busy.

While I don’t have the same fond memories of this movie as so many other people do, I do see why it’s so popular. It’s not a film that demands a lot from its audience. Instead, it offers a quiet, whimsical tale set in the countryside, where we can forget the bigger world and be kids again, if only for 90 minutes or so.

The English dub of My Neighbor Totoro is available through Disney Movies.

Bibliography: My Neighbor Totoro. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toru Hara. Edited by Takeshi Seyama. Perf. (English) Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Frank Welker, Tim Daly, and Lea Salonga. Studio Ghibli. Toho (distributor). Original release date: April 15, 1988.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Same Galaxy, Same Heroes, and Some Fresh Beats

Copyright © 2017 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I have to be honest, here. The last Marvel Cinematic Universe film I watched in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. Not that I’m not intrigued by what the studios have put out since then, but nothing else really matched the insane energy and ethos of that movie. It seems only fitting, then, that I hit the theater last week to watch its sequel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up pretty soon after where we left off with the first movie. Our heroes—Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot—are flying across the galaxytaking odd heroic jobs for money. After a job with the “superior race” of the Sovereign goes south (thanks to Rocket’s last-minute petty theft and snark), the Guardians find themselves hunted. Even worse, Gamora’s sister Nebula and the Ravagers under Yondu, Peter’s old mentor, take up the pursuit. Our heroes then split off when Peter encounters his long-last father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell). But Ego’s intentions aren’t what they appear to be, and soon the gang is striving to get back together, uncover the truth, and stop a maniacal plot that—you guessed it—threatens the whole galaxy.

I must admit that, when this film started rolling, I was a little bit thrown. It didn’t have quite the space adventure flair that the first Guardians film had. Vol. 1 (if we can call it that now) had an obvious Dark Lord, a quest, a magical item, and tons of space battles from start to finish. Vol. 2, meanwhile, has a more introspective take on its adventure. Sure, they’re saving the galaxy again, but it’s from a more personal threat. And in the meantime, they’re dealing with their personal issues, from fatherhood (Peter and Yondu) to estranged siblings (Gamora and Nebula) to self-worth (Drax, Mantis, and Rocket).

Not that any of this is bad, mind you. I mean, this is Peter Quill coming to terms with his heritage. That kind of soul-searching is expected (and, at times, a little obvious considering where the main twist was headed). But nowhere did I expect to love every single scene between Rocket Raccoon and Yondu. They were two of a kind in this film and I couldn’t get enough of them. Especially in the epic Ravager battle in the midpoint (you know the one, where the Jay and the Americans song starts playing up).

Meanwhile, I do like some of the new characters they’ve added. Mantis is a bit one-note at first, but her interactions with Drax and even Gamora add a lot of personality over time. She’s genuinely sweet in an otherwise cynical universe. And there’s the introduction of Stakar Ogord, a top dog Ravager, played by honest-to-God Sylvester Stallone. Honestly, the movie would be lesser without him in the role. He made it his own, and he has a great tie-in to Yondu’s story.

And on that note, let’s talk about Yondu. Without spoiling anything, he’s the unsung hero of this entire story. As much as I like Quill (and I do!), Yondu had a pretty good character arc. We learn a lot about his past and we get to see him grow a little. Which is appropriate when you pair him up with Rocket, and you learn that, between the two, Yondu’s a little more humane than his furry counterpart. But this is also a story about fatherhood, and Peter’s learned as much from Yondu as he has from his mother back on Earth. Watching their interactions adds a depth to the film’s central theme: that family isn’t about genetics, but who’s in your corner.

If you liked the first Guardians movie, then you’ll like this one, too. It has the same great characters, all shown in a new dimension, and it’s a rip-roaring series of twists from start to finish. It’s also a science fiction film with a good emotional core, beyond all the cool stunts and visuals. I wouldn’t quite say it’s better than the original, but at least it’s on par and I’d rather watch these outer space comic tours out of anything else Marvel is offering these days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is available through Marvel Studios. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Directed by James Gunn. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by James Gunn. Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Perf. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Baustista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillian, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: May 5, 2017.