Tom Cantrell




Fiction 440

Fiction 440 is Greater Lansing's flash fiction series. Writers complete works of fiction in 440 words or fewer using three pre-selected words:

The Flashback
February 2023
Words: Forgetful, Dessert, Retired

“What the hell is that?”

Marsha glared at Lance as she placed the metallic boxy-looking thing on the kitchen table. On the top of the box was a button. “It’s a literary device.”

Lance shook his head. “A literal what?”

“No… well, yes, it’s literally a literary device.” She turned the box edgewise showing the label. “In this case, it’s a flashback.”

“A what?”

“You heard me. This is a literary device I’m using in this story. At some point we’re going to have a flashback.”

“But Marsha, shouldn’t the story have started before there’s a flashback?”

Marsha nodded. “Good point. I can be so forgetful. Let’s start the story.” She directed Lance to stand by the counter and, leaving the device on the table, walked out of the room and then back in.


This didn’t sound like a promising start. “Hey Marsha.” Lance tried to sound upbeat. “What’s going on?”

“What do you mean, what’s going on? You know what’s going on.”

Lance didn’t know what was going on. “What are you so mad about?”

“Yes!” Marsha’s face brightened. “THAT’S what I’ve been waiting for. It’s time for a flashback.” She slapped her hand down on the button.

Lance and Marsha were in a restaurant.

Disoriented, Lance looked around. “Oh, my. This is earlier today.”

“It is.” There was disdain in Marsha’s voice. “Remember the rules of a flashback. You must do everything exactly like it happened the first time.”

Lance winced. NOW he knew what this was all about. The waiter placed a salad in front of him. Across the table, Marsha frowned. Even though Lance didn’t want to say it, there was no alternative. “I’m sorry you have to watch me eat this.”

“No worries. It’s fine.” This time the annoyance in Marsha’s voice wasn’t lost on Lance. Since this was still a flashback, Lance didn’t have a choice. As before, he slid his salad plate in Marsha’s direction. “Care for a crouton?”

Pursing her lips, Marsha shook her head. The flashback ended and they were back in the kitchen. Marsha folded her arms. “That’s why I’m mad.”

Lance sighed. “Was it because I ordered a salad, or was it the crouton comment?”

“Lance! We met for dessert!”

This was true and Lance knew it. There was only one way out of this. He pulled from his pocket a cylinder with a button on the end.

Marsha eyed the device. “What’s that?”

“It’s a story part. This is a “conclusion.” In this case a “The end”. This story needs to be retired.”

“Wait, you can’t.”

He could. And he did. Lance pressed the button.

The End


Kelly Breaks the Fourth Wall
June 2022
Words: Willing, Grave, Filling

Beneath roaring thunder, the wooden ship fought to stay upright against the tempestuous waves. Something appeared on the horizon. Clinging to the bow, Kelly squinted through the driving rain and gestured across the rolling seas. “What is that?”

Following her gaze, Stuart peered through the onslaught of water, but he was bereft of ideas. “Of this I cannot be certain.”

Kelly shook her head. “Bereft of ideas?” Although properly shown, in a telling manner Kelly was aghast. “Why would you describe it that way? Bereft? Just say you have no idea or edit that out and leave the dialog.”

Stuart groaned. He absolutely hated when Kelly broke the fourth wall. Once broken, it was nearly impossible to put things back together. Feeling aghast himself, Stuart stared at his companion. “Now look what you’ve done.”

Kelly considered the hole in the fourth wall. Yes, indeed, she’d done it again. But, truthfully, and there was no reason to lie, she had no regrets. This was a choice. A deliberate choice. And one she was willing to make. “There’s no reason to get all upset about it, Stuart. The wall is broken and there’s not much you can do about it.”

While Stuart knew Kelly was right, he also knew that this was a grave matter. A grave matter indeed. Not a literal grave although that clearly didn’t need to be explained. “Look at this.” He indicated the three preceding sentences. “My internal dialog doesn’t even make sense.”

“I thought you were just filling up space trying to reach 440 words.” Kelly retrieved a chunk of the broken fourth wall. “What is this even made out of?”

Without realizing it, Stuart had fallen prey to a conversational redirection. “I don’t know. It’s said to be an invisible barrier between us and the reader.

Leaning forward, Kelly gazed through the hole at the reader. “Woah!”

Stuart gestured sharply. “That’s what I’m saying.”

Turning pail, Kelly tossed the bucket aside and became white as a white sheet (because sheets can be many, many colors). “We need to fix this, and fast. Things are getting worse.”

With the up and down motion of his head, Stuart conveyed non-verbal agreement. “Oh, my god. I could have just nodded. It is getting worse.”

Visually assessing the story controls, Kelly signaled agreement. “Maximum verbosity has been engaged.”

With great haste, Stuart turned it down.

“Hole, wall fix,” Kelly said.

Groaning, and displeased by the use of conversational attribution, Stuart turned up the verbosity. “It’s too late for that now. This story is ruined.”

Had Kelly been written more empathetically, she’d have felt bad. Since she wasn’t, she didn’t care.


Time for Tea
April 2022
Seven, Locusts,

“Let us all have tea.” 

Randall was stunned. This was not the time for tea. Their boat was sinking and, at this rate, within the hour they’d all be treading water. The Pacific Ocean was no place for an unscheduled swim.

“I would rather not have tea.” Randall thought this suggestion quite reasonable. Instead, seven sets of eyes turned his way, all wordlessly conveying the same message. They thought Randall to be quite daft. If there was ever a time for tea, it was now.

“Don’t you see what’s happening?” Randall gestured wildly, but within acceptable decorum. Surveying their surroundings should have been unnecessary as the water had already reached their ankles and the deck was pitched to such a degree it required significant leaning for anyone to remain upright. Regardless, they all appeared nonplussed. With great astonishment, Randall realized the opposite of nonplussed is… nonplussed. While the word frequently is used to describe someone as unbothered or unperturbed, it actually means surprised and confused. This left Randall nonplussed.

“Why is no one ever described as plussed?” Randall’s question was greeted with curious stares. Having not been privy to Randall’s thoughts, none of the seven had the pleasure of understanding what he was asking. Randall adjusted his jacket. “Never mind me. Perhaps rather than having tea, we should explore a means for getting off this boat.”

Glancing at each other, the seven took a silent vote before one of them turned Randall’s way. “Perhaps YOU should seek a way off the boat. WE are going to enjoy high tea.”

If Randall was stunned before, now he was quite astounded. “What will it take for you all to understand that we are in great peril, perhaps a plague of locusts? You cannot seriously be considering high tea at a time like this.”

“Locusts?” one of them scoffed. “What would a plague of locusts be doing in the middle of the ocean?”

After the seven broke into derisive laughter, they whispered diligently amongst themselves before one turned to address Randall. “Upon reflection, we must concur. You are indeed correct.”

With the waters still rising, this development was of great relief for Randall “Very good. It behooves us to secure a lifeboat.”

“You misunderstand us. It is much too early for high tea. We have elected to enjoy a simple, yet quaint mid-morning tea.”

Now, nonplussed beyond reason, Randall abandoned his companions to save himself. With the rising waters now nearly to their knees, the seven served each other tea. Eventually the leaning became insufficient compensation for anyone to remain standing and one-by-one they slipped off the boat and into the icy ocean.


January 2022
Words: Nuisance, Duplex, Jumbled

“Maxine, the craziest thing just happened.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, Maxine looked up as Travis walked into the room. In his hand, he clutched a stack of envelopes. Maxine waited for Travis to continue, but he didn’t forcing Maxine to ask the immortal question. “What?”

In response, Travis gave her a quizzical look. “What?”

“What’s crazy?”

Travis nodded. “Oh, that. I was out in front of the duplex minding my own business when this white truck stopped in front of that metal box on a pole by the side of the road and jammed all these envelopes in there. Can you believe that?”

In dramatic fashion, he dropped the envelopes on the table. Maxine stared at the pile for a moment, than looked at Travis. “It’s called mail.”

“It’s a nuisance, is what it is. I don’t want these envelopes. And they’re all jumbled up. Some have your name on them, some mine, and two are for someone named ‘resident.’”

Maxine wasn’t sure what the best approach was for this. She reached for one of the envelopes. “No, Travis. See, this—

“Oh ho! Look at this.” Travis thrust the envelope into Maxine’s face. “This one says it’s for Maxine OR Resident. How are we supposed to know who gets this? I haven’t met Resident, have you? Is he the guy living in the basement?”

Maxine didn’t know there was a guy living in the basement, but she’d worry about that later. “No, Travis, see these envelopes they—”

With a loud sigh, Travis shook his head. “Isn’t that a shame?”

Truth be told, Maxine felt the real shame was this entire conversation. Sliding the envelope in front of her, Travis tapped the corner. “This one has some neat artwork of the American flag on it, but someone stamped ink all over it. It’s ruined.”

Maxine smiled. “No, that’s a stamp.”

Frowning, Travis snatched up the envelope. “That’s what I said. Someone stamped it.” He looked closely at the envelope, his face filling with regret. “And look, it even says ‘Forever’ right by the flag. This was supposed to last forever and it’s already wrecked.”

Unsure of where to start, Maxine chose the beginning. “It’s mail, Travis. People put letters or documents into these envelopes, place stamps on the corners to pay for them, write a name and address of where they go, and people in those white trucks deliver them. Let me show you…”

Opening one of the envelopes, Maxine handed the letter inside to Travis. “See?”

As Travis read the paper, his mouth dropped open. “I can’t believe this. Maxine, it says I may already be a winner.”


Steve and Judy Wear the Same Shirt
September 2021
Words: Dunk, Jam, Vertigo

Standing in her living room, Steve felt real relief when Judy finally entered the room. He’d been waiting for more than an hour. But when he turned around, he realized, to his great horror, that the two of them both wore bright red shirts.

“Oh, no.” Steve proved unable to contain his dismay. “It seems we are wearing the same shirt.”

While Steve thought this a significant development, Judy appeared unconcerned. “It’s not the same shirt. If it was the same shirt we both couldn’t be wearing it.”

Steve closed his eyes. These types of responses were all too familiar from Judy and they drove him crazy. “You always have to say things like that, don’t you Judy?”

Throwing her hands out from her side, Judy stared at Steve. “Who’s Judy?”

Not this again. Every. Single. Time. “You are Judy, Judy.”

Her accusatory glare gave Steve vertigo. “Steve, my name is not Judy Judy.”

Steve swore silently. Why did it always come to this? “I did not say your name was Judy Judy, Judy.”

Before she could respond, Steve stopped her with a wave of his hand. It was a slam dunk what she was going to say next and he wasn’t having it. “I know. Your name is not Judy Judy Judy.”

Judy smiled. “Thank you. And calling me just Judy is fine.”

After all this, Steve hardly cared about her name anymore. However, he certainly wasn’t going to call her Just Judy. “Please don’t play these games with me.”

Judy’s face lit up. “If we are going to play a game, I hope its monopoly.”

At the moment, Steve wanted to throw something. Partly because of Judy. But mostly because he despised Monopoly. “I don’t want to play games, Judy. Let’s just go. Are you hungry? Should we get a bite to eat?”

Judy sighed. “I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch today. There wasn’t any jelly. So I used jam. It wasn’t the same.”

Steve had no idea what to do with any of that. Judy’s voice cracked. “I should say I made a peanut butter and jam sandwich… But no one says that.”

Steve tried to appear sympathetic. It was the least he could do. At least, more than doing nothing. “I’m sure someone says that, Judy.”

His assurances seemed to bring her comfort and she smiled. “Shall we go?” Grabbing her purse, Judy took a few steps toward the door. Then, she stopped short. With a small gasp, her eyes went from Steve and then to herself.

“Oh, no.” She appeared quite distraught. “Did you realize we are wearing the same shirt.”


Kevin Makes a Pie
July 2021
Words: Rhubarb, Nothing, Acerbic

“What is that?”

Kevin looked at Jeanine and shrugged. “I think its rhubarb.”

Jeanine made that quizzical face. The one she made whenever she doubted Kevin which she did quite often. “Are you sure?”

While Kevin was sure, whenever Jeanine made that face and asked him questions in that voice, he doubted himself. “I suppose it could be purple celery. I understand they make pies out of this.”


“Yes. Pies.”

Jeanine picked up the stalky vegetable and waved it around. “I don’t think so.”

“No, seriously, it’s a thing. Rhubarb pie.”

Running the purple plant beneath her nose, Jeanine took a long sniff of the mysterious vegetable. Kevin waited while Jeanine thought it over and ran it under her nose again. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. “Jeanine, what’s it smell like?”

Frowning Jeanine handed him the stalk. “It smells like nothing.”

Now it was Kevin’s turn to be skeptical. He ran it under his own nose, coming to the same conclusion. Whatever it was, it smelled like nothing. He did it again. And went for a third time because he wasn’t paying close attention the second time when Jeanine ripped it from his grasp. “I’m not watching you do that all day.”

Kevin doubted whether he would have done that all day, but didn’t trust himself enough to become indignant. Across the table, Jeanine considered the purple vegetable in her hand. Then, giving Kevin a purposeful glance took a crunch–inducing bite. As she chewed, that same quizzical expression passed over her face. After swallowing, she laid the rest of the stalk on the table while remaining in the deepest of deep thoughts which is plenty deep. Finally, Kevin couldn’t take it anymore. “Well…”

Nodding, Jeanine put a finger to her chin. “It’s not purple celery. It’s too acerbic.”

“Acerbic!” Kevin threw his arms out at his side. “What kind of word is acerbic?”

Jeanine’s countenance hardened. “It’s a good word.”

“What does it even mean? You had to look that up, didn’t you?”

Jeanine let her indignation show. “I did not. Well, not entirely. I had an idea of what it meant.”

“And countenance for that matter. You had to use a thesaurus for that. You didn’t want to use face.”

Soundly located behind the fourth wall, Jeanine had no idea what Kevin was talking about. Realizing his mistake, Kevin grabbed a stalk and shoved it in his mouth. It was indeed acerbic. Making an issue of the word had been a mistake. As he methodically ate the Rhubarb, Jeanine waited. When he finished, she gave him her best glare. “Now what?”

Kevin grinned. “Let’s make pie.”


Alvin Gets Sick of It
June 2021
Words: Yawning, Zip, Finally

Alvin was sick of it. After all these years, he’d finally had enough.

“That’s it.” He peeled off the white jump suit and threw it on the floor. “I’m not doing this anymore.”

From her chair, Joyce gave him that look. The one she always unleashed on him whenever he threw one of his tantrums. It only made Alvin madder. Truthfully, he was also sick of Joyce. As far as agents go, the gigs she line up were… limited at best; mostly Elvis impersonations at the local grocery store or used car lot. While she didn’t say a word, Alvin saw the question in her eyes.

“I don’t care. I’ll do anything. I’ll twirl signs for sofas but I won’t do this anymore.” He kicked the white jumpsuit and rhinestones scraped against the linoleum floor. Joyce’s office doubled as a kitchen. That’s being generous. It was a kitchen. Joyce was a lousy agent.

Taking a drag from her cigarette, Joyce laid it next to the other butts in the ashtray. It was cliché, but she was playing her part. She unleashed a yawn Alvin knew had to be fake. “Are you done, Alvin? You know, I had a request this morning just for you.” In spite of Alvin’s best glare, Joyce continued “Herbertsville Broken Jeep Days wants you.”

Alvin paused. “Herbertsville Broken Jeep Days?”

Shrugging, Joyce took another drag of her cigarette. “Like I said, Herbertsville Broken Jeep Days.”

“That’s not even a thing.”

Joyce stared at him. She couldn’t appear any more bored than she did right now. In fact, if she were any more bored, she’d be a plank of wood which is actually quite valuable these days. “What can I say? Herbertsville likes broken jeeps. They like Elvis.”

With disdain, Alvin glared at the rumpled pile of rhinestone emblazoned clothing lying on the floor. In the glow from Joyce’s chandelier, the rhinestones glistened. “Did I do that one last year?”

“Brought the house down. Had the men crying, the women jealous… scratch that, reverse it. Whatever. You killed it.”

Rubbing his temple, Alvin sighed. He remembered that one. The place was rocking. Fireworks zipping through the sky. It had been one of the greatest nights of his life. Well, maybe not his life. When you’re a professional impersonator, it’s not really your life. Is it?

Alvin shook his head. That was waaay to deep for him. Picking up the jumpsuit, he carefully folded it over his arm. “Sorry about all that, Joyce. Guess it just got to me.”

“Just like it does every week.”

Nodding, Alvin swiveled his hips. “In more ways than one, I’m the king.”


An Unexpected Concert
October 2020
Words: Fall, Fire, Fanciful

Steven knew he was the only one home. Yet, somehow, an organ played. This would have been plausible, Steven supposed, if he actually owned an organ.

The sound wafted from below. A calliope of music dancing and weaving its way up from his basement. A composition which seemed to permeate his very being. Unsure of what the meaning of all this was Steven knew there were several actions he could take. As he pondered, the music transitioned seamlessly completing one song and moving smoothly into the next.

Steven rubbed his chin. Clearly, the situation called for him to investigate. To go down into the basement to discover the source. This seemed reasonable, logical, and the most likely course of action. This was also scary as shit.

Less logical, but perhaps equally reasonable, was for Steven to simply allow himself to sit back on the well-worn couch in his cramped living room by the fire and not question what was happening. Take this opportunity to enjoy the swirling melodies which continued to rise and fall through his home, to take in this auditory masterpiece while throwing logic to the wind. But he knew, in the retelling of this story, this would make him appear quite daft. And no one wants to appear daft. Least of all, Steven.

His third, and in his mind, final possibility, was to just go to bed. Ignore the entire thing and pretend it wasn’t happening. This was not truly an option. Steven knew that thoughts of pulling the sheets over his head were fanciful at best. Downright negligent at worse. There had to be a reason music emanated from his basement. A rational one that had nothing to do with the supernatural. But, in his heart, Steven knew, it most likely was a ghost. Besides that, the music was loud, and sleeping through it was not going to happen.

Opening the basement door, Steven peered down the darkened basement stairs, but saw nothing but inky blackness. Stepping back, Steven gazed down the hallway where his bed beckoned.

Then, he charged down the basement steps. The music thundered in his ears, but the darkness yielded no secrets. The organ roared, the chords a cacophony of rhythms. Steven screamed, but could not hear his own frightened wails above the crescendo. Then, all fell silent. His heart beating through his chest, bathed in sweat, Steven stood perfectly still, savoring the silence. The organ had stopped. His basement was quiet. All was right.

Despite not knowing the cause, Steven was satisfied. He turned toward the stairs. Then, from the darkness, a voice asked, “Excuse me, do you have a request?”


My name is…
June 2020
Words: Tonic, Hazardous, Bounce

Lifting the glass to his lips, the man with the brown leather jacket took a swig. His head drew back and he considered the glass. “What the hell is this?”

The bartender, big, burly, encased in a layer of sweat, threw the rag down on the bar. “It’s a Gin and Tonic, just like you asked for.”

The man in the leather jacket grinned. “Damn straight it is.”

The bartender let out his breath, retrieved the rag and resumed wiping dry the nicked up wooden bar. “What was that all about, friend?”

“Mark,” the man said taking another swallow from the glass. “My name is Mark.”

The bartender eyed the leather coated man and headed for the other side of the bar. Mark finished off his G&T, swirled the ice with a spin of his hand and threw it at the bartender’s head. It bounced off the back of his skull and fell to the floor in pieces. Staggering a step or two forward, the bartender spun around, rubbing his head as he turned.

“Hey asshole. What the hell?”

The man adjusted his jacket and leaned forward against the bar. “Mark, my name is Mark.”

Moving much quicker than a man of his size should, the bartender sprang forward and gathered fistfuls of leather jacket in both his meaty hands. Mark’s feet left the floor as the bartender pulled him forward. Mark’s shirt sopped up water rings as his body lay prone atop the bar.

“You mind telling me what this is all about you piece of shit.”

Face to face with the sweaty bartender, Mark managed a small smile. “I’d like another drink. And my name is Mark.”

The bartender pulled him forward a few more inches and then shoved Mark backwards. The smaller man stumbled and landed on seat of his pants. Stabbing a stubby finger at the now-seated man, the bartender’s eyes blazed. “Get out of my bar, asshole.”

Mark rose to his feet and brushed himself off. The entire place had gone silent and all eyes were upon him. “This is a hazardous place.” He laughed at his own joke, but no one joined him.


Mark smiled, which only reddened the bartender’s face. He pointed at himself and raised an eyebrow. “Out…?”

The bartender grew crimson. “Get the fuck out.”

Mark took a step backwards. “Get the fuck out…”

Now a deep maroon, the bartender spit with rage. “Get the fuck out.”

Mark took a few steps toward the door. “Get the fuck out… Mark?”

The bartender leapt over the bar as Mark slipped out the door and into the night.