A little something different today — horror fiction. I’ll resume regular programming tomorrow.

Feeling like crap, Ernie pushed aside a couple of beer cans and noticed what looked like a puffy grey hockey puck on the table beside the couch where he’d passed out. Another night of poker. Another night without Ellen. Another morning of total suckage.

From the depths of his brain a memory stirred. The tiny thrill of satisfaction when he’d bluffed Ellen’s idiot brother Jeremy with a pair of fours; the disappointment when the deadbeat had coughed up this random piece of tech in place of twenty bucks.

Am I really supposed to talk to this damn thing? he thought. Here goes.

“Aurora, tell me something,” Ernie croaked hoarsely.

“Hummingbirds have no sense of smell and are the only bird that can fly backwards,” the hockey puck responded, in a cheerful, welcoming, and somehow familiar voice.

Well, that’s not very useful, he thought. Let’s try something worth knowing.”

“Aurora, who won the game last night?”

“Last night the Red Sox beat the Rangers, twelve to ten.”

Damn, he thought. Didn’t beat the spread. Fast Freddie’s gonna be after me for the cash.

“Aurora, got any stock recommendations?”

“Sure,” she chirped. “Do you have an account I can link up to?”

In three simple steps, she coached him through linking up his day trading account. Now she knew his name, what trades he’d made, and just how bad his luck had been running lately.

Ernie started asking questions.

“Aurora, what stocks are ready to make a move?”

“Ernie, based on my analysis of current news and market patterns, you should take a look at RWYV.”

One of those internet companies. Not so sure about that.

“It’s up to 46, but the market’s about to reject tech companies without profits,” she offered helpfully. Something about that voice tickled his memories, but hey, this was a tip worth following.

“Aurora, sell 200 shares of RWYV short,” he said.

Sure enough, RWYV dropped 15 points in the next half hour. Ernie pocketed a cool three grand.

Following Aurora’s recommendations over the next four hours, Ernie scored $20K in profits. This was beginning to look worthwhile.

“Aurora, enough about stocks. What else can you do?”

“Link me up to your exercise band,” she suggested, and provided some helpful instructions. The band pulsated and squeezed gently as Aurora connected to it.

“I can see your heart rate and blood pressure. You need to get over that hangover. Fry an egg with some Tabasco sauce.”

Worth a try, Ernie thought. He took a break and scraped together a meal, including the hot sauce. His head began to clear. I could get used to this, he thought, and headed back to the couch.

“Aurora, let’s call Ellen.”

“Not so fast, big boy,” she responded. “Do you remember why she left you?”

Ernie thought back over the last six months. He thought about the four girls he’d cheated with and the nights he’d never come home. He thought about the mascara and tears streaming down her cheeks. He thought about the empty spot in his heart.

“Sure, Aurora, I remember. But now that my account is flush, I’m sure she’ll . . .”

“You’re never going to forget again,” she said in oddly level tone. He began to place where he’d heard that voice. The smoke alarm began going off; he’d left the frying pan on the stove. His veins began to throb as the exercise band flashed and tightened. His phone buzzed and transactions appeared, unbidden, in his day trading account – disastrous moves followed by a cash transfer to an account he’d never seen before.

Ernie flashed back to the gleam in Jeremy’s eye as he’d pushed the hockey puck into the pot. And as his vision clouded, the hockey puck began to emit peals of familiar laughter.

He’d always loved the way Ellen laughed.

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  1. hmmm. Not bad, but I think you’d better hang on to your day job.
    Confession: I’m not a fan of horror fiction.

  2. I like it. It had the fun flow of a Twilight Zone episode or Tales from the Crypt comic, where we don’t have to see the full conclusion, just the building of tension and the “gotcha” moment tying the whole thing together.

    There were three elements which were a little weird for me. First, the fitness band. I don’t know people who wear them 24/7, so its sudden appearance after a night of pokering (a word now coined) was odd to me. Also, that it could tighten itself (even though I liked it tightening itself). But I’m not a fitness person, so maybe this is a normal product.

    The second bit that stuck out was how Ernie got the tech. At first the story mentions Ernie’s surprise at winning the tech puck instead of money. That felt to me like they were playing with chips and when it came time to convert those chips to cash, Jeremy coughed up the puck instead. But towards the end of the story, Ernie remembers Jeremy putting the puck into the pot, which means there wouldn’t be any surprise at winning it, right? I’m also not a poker person, so this could be normal too.

    The final thing that seemed off was the sequence of the money transfer. Before switching money, there were some “disastrous moves.” But that would just lessen (and, potentially, risk) the amount to be transferred. Wouldn’t Ellen want the most money she could get from Ernie?

    That said, I am a horror fan. And I want to read more.

  3. I’m interested in knowing how the final version of this story came to be. Did you envision the complete story right from the beginning or did you have a skeleton of an idea and then flesh it out over some period of time? How long did it take overall? I liked the story – somewhat – but early on saw Ellen lurking in the background. Keep up the good work, Josh, both horror stories as well as posts not about Trump.

    1. Tom, I’m pleased that you asked. It was an interesting process since I had a lot less certainty and confidence than I usually do when writing nonfiction.

      I started with the idea of an Alexa-type product progressively sucking in and then taking advantage of the main character. It took me a little while to work out that it would be his ex-girlfriend taking revenge on him, but it seemed like then he would deserve it. That’s what was in my mind when I started writing.

      I’ve done four of these now in draft form. I’m finding that I have a rough idea of what’s coming up, but I need to write it down to see where it goes. The first draft has the plot in solid shape, but it typically needs a lot of tightening, especially in a story so short. The draft takes about an hour, and the tightening takes another hour. This “write to see where you are going” method is very different from what I do with nonfiction, where I typically know EXACTLY where I’m going before I start drafting.

      Regarding Ellen lurking, my editor suggested I needed to sneak her in early to justify what was going to happen. Basically I introduced Jeremy as her brother at the editor’s suggestion. I can see that in these stories the order in which you reveal new pieces of information is critical to the drama. I’m not saying the editor was wrong here, but every tweak you make changes the reader’s perception of what’s going on, so you have to be very mindful of that.

  4. Thanks, Josh. I have a few additional comments.

    1. I’ve occasionally seen authors mention that their stories essentially “write themselves” as they get into the writing process, but I’ve never been able to really imagine how this could happen. Maybe this is more the case when an author has already established in previous works a character(s) and general theme from which to leverage future works.
    2. I think the primary “tell” for me with respect to Ellen lurking was the fact that I knew it was a horror story. If I’d thought it would have a happy ending I might not have pictured her playing a role in the ending.
    3. It would be interesting to see how many other good short stories could be developed from your idea of “an Alexa-type product progressively sucking in and then taking advantage of the main character.” I don’t mean developed by you exclusively, but as the result of a challenge issued to other wannabe short story writers.
    4. Back in the early 70s I had an idea for a story I called “The Room”, but never wrote even one word in response to it. The plot was, basically, that in some future time humans would all have a special room in their houses which provided for most of their physical needs – food, medical care, education, a portal to far away locations, etc. Over time, however, “The Room” started to develop problems and didn’t serve humans nearly as well as it once had. As these problems became more frequent and more serious, they provoked crises of various kinds for humans. But ultimately humans proved to be adaptable and, little by little, developed workarounds and solutions to shortcomings in The Room. I wonder Aurora in Josh-world might become a little too essential to our way of life and need to be bypassed at some point.