My sister finally died (for real)

My sister’s been dead to me for years, but last fall she decided to finally make it official. Funny, it wasn’t the decades of abusing crack and heroin that did her in after all. She slipped in the shower, broke her ribs, and came down with pneumonia in the hospital. (Like mother, like daughter, if you know the story.)

I was ready for the call; hell, I waited for it for, what — 23 years. Still, it hurt to hear my sweet niece tell me that her mom had died. The funeral was outside, graveside, underneath gnarled trees shedding fiery leaves on a glimmering fall day. It was painfully beautiful. There was a rabbi, a gaggle of old relatives, and a surprising number of more recent friends. My niece, Sarah, and her fiancé, Dan. Kim’s third child, Zack, with his adoptive family. An old black guy who sat in front, pouring his eyes out. Me, Geoff, and the kids, wide-eyed to be at their first funeral, for an aunt they barely even knew they had. A fresh hole in the family plot and a coffin on rollers.

Kim’s cousin Randi did the eulogy. She called me Chrissy. She talked about growing up with Kim in Baltimore, about the art projects she and Kim used to do with my mom. About sleepovers at their bubbie’s house, when Kim taught her to French kiss using pillows. She made us laugh, which I didn’t expect to do.

If I had done the eulogy, I’d have probably told the story of how Kim pierced my ears with a sewing needle when I was nine, overtop of her kitchen sink. I would have told how she dyed my hair blonde when I was eleven, and how it took me two agonizing years to grow it out. She was the one who taught me to shave my legs, the one who’d come get me for sister time and take me shmying at the secondhand shops, the one who’d ask me about my crushes, the one who’d always encourage me to be bold. I would have reflected on the good bits – how probably more than anyone else in my life before or since, Kim taught me to experiment with this life of mine. To try and see.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I would have talked about how heartbroken I was at sixteen, the day Kim came to tell my mom and me that she had just done heroin with her new boyfriend. The day we begged her to stay, but she left anyway. Forever. I wouldn’t have lied, like her cousin Randi did, and said that Kim was a good mom. She wasn’t. She bailed, to gradually worsening degrees, on all four of her kids. On all of us. Including herself.

I’m glad that I didn’t do the eulogy. I needed time to let myself feel, and it took me awhile. Now that I’ve had a few months, I’d like to go back and visit Kim’s grave. I’d talk to her, let her know that I’m glad to finally know where she is after all these years. I’d tell her I’m sorry that I shut her out. I’d tell her I wish we’d had the chance to turn things around while she was alive. I’d tell her I’ve missed her all this time. That I forgive her. That I love her still, despite everything.

Kim, circa 1979.


I promised Larissa I’d look into it. Byron turned out to be an astrophysics major at Johns Hopkins. That meant he was smart enough to know better, but you know those JHU boys. They can find a cat that’s in two places at once but they can’t keep their own shoes tied. He placed a wanted ad for an atomic force microscope on Craigslist and I had my in. I followed up, and Tuesday night we met at a diner on Route 40 outside Baltimore. We said 8:30, but the bus took its sweet time and I scoped the side door of the diner first, so by the time I rolled in it was closer to nine.

Better to keep Byron hungry, I figured. I didn’t react when the hostess asked if I wanted a table for one, just made a beeline for the back. Found him at a two-top reading a book, head shaved and beard waxed. Woof.

I sat down across from him and kept my shades on.

“What’s that you’re reading?” I asked instead of saying hello.

He closed the book, holding his place with one finger, and revealed the cover: A Brief History of Time. His smile was shy.

“Ah. Did you know Stephen Hawking travels with an entourage?” I asked. “His grad students, every nurse on the planet, friends, family, paparazzi, you name it.” Another nervous smile.

“What’s your name anyway?” Like I didn’t already know. “Your ad didn’t say.”

“Byron.” He spoke softly with a British accent. Yorkshire, if my ear didn’t lie. The smile was growing. “Yours?” he asked.

“Sergei.” I couldn’t risk the truth. “So, you’re enjoying your book?”

He glanced at the cover like he’d never seen it before, then nodded. “Do you have it?” he asked, glancing under the table. “I mean, did you bring it?”

“The microscope? Sure, it’s in my trunk.”

Luckily the waitress appeared and took me off the hook.

“What can I get you, gentlemen?” Her pen and pad looked new. I signaled Byron to go first.

“Steak and eggs, please. Steak bloody, eggs scrambled.”

I snorted. “Don’t be a cliché, man.”

He grinned at the waitress. “And a glass of grapefruit juice.”

“And you, sir?”

“Me?” I leaned back in my chair, didn’t bother opening the tome of a menu. “I’ll have one egg, soft-boiled so the guts ooze out, two pieces of toast the color of Beyoncé’s skin, and coffee blacker than a moonless night. You got all that, Sunny?” I read her name off the tag on her left breast.

“Sure,” she said.

“See, it’s all in the delivery,” I told Byron, who was admiring Sunny’s retreat. I leaned across the table and got close enough for a kiss, put one hand on top of his, A Brief History of Time resting comfortably underneath, like we were taking an oath. He had perfect lips. I raised my shades. “Why don’t you read me something from old Hawking here?” He still had one finger on his page.

“What—now?” Byron snatched his hand out from underneath mine and glanced around the place like I’d just asked him to blow me.

“Why not?” The diner was hopping and nobody was paying any attention to us. “Just pick up where you left off.”

He flipped open and started reading. “Quantum mechanics predicts a number of different outcomes—” I had to admit his mangled accent was cute. I wondered if that’s why Larissa let things go so far.

Sunny delivered our food, and my yolk was dry.

“I asked for soft boiled,” I told her.

“Go file a complaint with the cook, sir.” I raised my shades but she’d already moved on to another table.

Byron dog-eared his book and set it aside before he lifted the five-inch serrated knife that accompanied his meal. Perfect. I tore a chunk out of my toast and dipped it in my coffee while he methodically diced his meat into perfect half-inch segments. Larissa mentioned he was anal.

“It’s entanglement I can’t abide,” I said apropos of nothing as he chewed his first bite. He raised his eyebrows. “You’re telling me some Japanese girl takes a shit halfway around the world, and I get a panic attack because of it? No effing way.” I raised my shades again and he laughed with his mouth full.

“That’s not how entanglement works,” he said when he’d swallowed.

“Oh, really?” We ate in silence after that. I ignored the egg. After he finished everything on his plate, he downed his grapefruit juice in one gulp. Time to get the show on the road. “Your ad said 40K,” I reminded him.

“I need to see the equipment first.”

“Like I said, it’s in my trunk. Let’s talk financials. You got the dough?”

“I can have my father do a bank transfer.”

“I take PayPal.” I tossed a couple of twenties on the table to keep Sunny happy. “You want to go see the scope?” Byron didn’t notice me palm the steak knife.

He nodded vigorously and shoved his book under his arm as he stood up. He was over six feet, taller than me.

“Thanks for the meal,” he said.

“Sure thing.” I half smiled.

“Have a nice night, gentlemen,” Sunny called as we pushed in our chairs.

“This way,” I showed Byron to the side exit. “I’m parked around back.”

When I steered Byron into the dark crevasse at the back of the building, he didn’t resist. It was almost like he wanted to. Larissa said he was easy.

“I’ve got the microscope right here,” I said, burying the steak knife in his gut. Teach him to fuck with my sister and break her heart. I left him lying face down, his blood seeping out onto the cement.

While I waited for the bus, I called Larissa and filled her in.

“I told you not to kill him, you psycho,” Larissa screamed. I hung up on her and opened to Byron’s page.


 My submission to the Yeah Write Super Challenge, Round 2. The prompts were “File a complaint” and this photo:









Safe Passage

My entry for the Yeah Write Super Challenge #2. The prompt was envy and a funeral. I made it to Round 2!


The bus shrugs to the curb as Evan dives for an oil-slick rainbow oozing on the asphalt.

“Get up from there.” I tug his wrist and we shuffle up the trio of steps onto the bus. I fuss with the Ventra.

“Can I do it, Mommy?”

I let him. The driver frowns as he lurches back into traffic.

Evan finds a seat behind a girl about his age, her pretty auburn hair done in braids twisted into buns. The man she’s with could be either her father or her grandfather. He’s got silver hair, a crisp white beard, and a black three-piece suit. I sink into the plastic seat behind him.

Evan leans forward between them and cranks right up.

“I’m five,” he tells her. “It’s my birthday.” The girl turns and I see she’s been crying; twin streaks run down her face. Evan doesn’t notice. “We’re going to the aquarium to see the sharks.”

“Happy birthday,” she says.

The gentleman aims his granite glare at Evan.

“I’m going to a funeral.” She’s almost whispering.

The gentleman lays a hand on her shoulder. “Quiet, Sophia.”

I make my voice oil-slick bright. “Evan, sit back please.” He wails when I yank his bony wrist. Then, softer, to the gentleman. “I’m so sorry.”

Our window is splattered with grime.

Across the aisle, a young man shoots daggers at me through his shaggy hair.

Evan fidgets with the broken emergency release lever dangling from our windowsill. The sky is a sack of rocks.

“Sit still.” My fingers leave rosy prints on his arm. I can feel the young man’s hot eyes on my hand.

“Mommy, what’s a funeral?”


I watch the girl, graceful and still as a Degas. Did the gentleman braid her hair? Her part looks cut with a cleaver. I imagine him spiraling her buns, pinning them into place, all the while she’s weeping. Not because it hurts. Evan won’t let me get a comb through his unruly curls.

I wonder who died.

The gentleman reaches over her perfect head and draws the sagging cord to signal a stop, and they rise, his fingers gently intertwined with hers. She looks back longingly at Evan as she trudges to the exit, the hem of a black dress sticking out beneath her pink coat. The gentleman takes the angel’s elbow as they descend the three steps to the street.

The driver lurches into motion and the two of them vanish.

The young man across the aisle pulls my sleeve.

“Ma’am. Your son.” His voice trails off as he leans forward. Evan’s seat is empty. The man holds Evan’s wrist lightly as he helps him off the floor and back to me.

“Evan—” I don’t recognize my voice. “You’ve gotten yourself all dirty.” His knees are filthy and he’s clutching a man’s leather satchel. Black.

“Look what I found.” He hands it to me, the leather creamy soft and worn, much older than it looks. He climbs over me into his seat. “It’s my birthday,” he announces to the young man.

“Happy birthday, then.” The man grins and reaches over to ruffle Evan’s curls.

I turn the gold latch on the bag.

“We’re gonna see the sharks.”

“That sounds great. I wish I could come with you.”

“You can!” Evan nearly leaps over me, but I press him back down with my palm on his chest.

“Stay in your seat.”

The young man shakes his head, more at me than at Evan. “I have to get to work. Have fun, though.” He retreats into his phone.

“Look, Mommy. He has a phone.” Evan kneels on the seat, rocking back and forth.

“You’ll have one too, when you’re an adult.”

“How long will it be til I’m an adult?”

“A long time.”

I lift the flap on the satchel as the driver’s bass travels the cavern of the bus. “Museum campus, next stop.”

Evan is smiling again. “That’s our stop, Mommy.”

“Go ahead and ring the bell.”

Inside the bag, nestled among a ream of files and slips of paper, is a girl’s diary. The sort with a padlock and a bit of poetry on the cover. I tuck it back in and close the satchel. It fits perfectly under my arm.

The bus driver nods at us as Evan drags me by two fingers to the exit.

“We’re gonna see the sharks!” Evan beams up at the driver.

“Have fun now, you hear?” His chocolate brown eyes have an unmistakable glister.

“Thank you, sir.” My smile is sudden and wide. Evan’s wrist bones jut into my fingers as we descend. Outside, the sky has brightened. I give his hand a little squeeze as we wait for the light to change. “Happy birthday, Ev.” The bag under my arm has a comforting weight.





They leave the picture window open for the honey light. She endures his torment, fingers in her folds, there, and there, there again, almost painful. Even after so long, she loves his attention. She moans for his concerted effort. A volcano rises under his fingertips and she writhes with the eruption. Through the window a flock takes flight off the water. Here one instant, gone the next. Forever.

After, they lay intertwined, saying the things they say until she rises, naked, for water. The man through the window jolts her and the shock charges the track of her recent orgasm. He’s in a shirt and tie, older than he looks, older than her. She lets out a silent “Oh” and lifts her lighter instead of the water. She pulls a cigarette from the pack and slips it between her smiling lips as she steps to the window. The lighter waivers in her hand, the phone in his does not. (Ah, a video, then.) She takes a drag, holds the heat in a moment, exhales. She walks through the cloud back to bed.

Close call

corvetteOver the ridge, the yellow went red so fast Bud had to jam the brakes full force to stop the rig from smashing the sweet tail of a ruby ‘Vette. He squinted through his cracked, muddy windshield at its Yoda bumper sticker and personalized plates, and wondered how big a CORUSCANT was.


52 words, including force and coruscant, for the Shapeshifters. 


green nails

Seaweed wrap promised to vanish cellulite. Steamy clay and kelp only chafed and stung, but Clara liked the shade so much she went for a manicure.



26 words inspired by a Chinese algae bloom for the Shapeshifting 13.


Trixie’s strike

bowlingMr. Big lounged on the vinyl and watched Trixie’s lazy wind-up.

Tiny peck on the dome, seismic butt wiggle. Skitter, swing, release.

Lucky persimmon shot like hot lava down the slick alley.

Her shriek shrill over the clatter of pins.

“Yeah, Trixie baby.” Damn, he loved his wife’s strike.

He was up.

A true story in 52 words for the Shapeshifting 13 over at Grammar Ghoul Press.

Be careful with scissors

2173-300x199-BlackbarbershearsHave I ever mentioned Matt, my hair stylist? He’s been cutting my hair for almost ten years. Aside from working magic with scissors, he’s intuitive. We have these great conversations that always go deeper, like there’s a trapdoor under his styling chair and he can just push a button and flip me down into his own personal underworld. He’s into reiki and healing stones, self-improvement and energy drinks. Sometimes he’s a little out there, but every single time I get out of his chair, I leave feeling more like myself on the outside and the inside.

Matt’s salon closed in January. He promised to get in touch when he found a new salon, but in the meantime, I decided to try out this cute little place near the coffee shop where I write. It’s got bookcases and art on the walls, and it’s adorable. I was psyched.

But everything went wrong: The stylist ran late, really late. She had bedraggled brown, shoulder-length hair and she wore an outfit that should have sent me running. She hesitated to start cutting my hair, then got carried away and cut it too short. She mumbled incoherent cutting rules to herself as she worked, Swedish chef–fashion. She took cell phone calls while I was in her chair. I left feeling glad to get away.

My haircut wasn’t truly horrible, but when I looked in the mirror I could see the new stylist’s unkempt hair sort of superimposed over mine like a hologram. It’s freaky, but it’s almost as if she spilled some of herself out onto my hair.

Fast forward three weeks. Time has worked wonders. I can look in the mirror without seeing her and I can almost pull my hair back into a ponytail again. And it turns out that Matt found a new space just down the street. But I’m still wondering whether this happens in all of our relationships. Do we hijack each other and glom on our own preferences, just to further our own interests? Or do we adopt each other’s traits without even realizing it? And if so, what happens to our true selves in the process?

Can you tell I’m still reeling from a shocking citique?

Notes on a dream

bleachersI’m late to the game. The basketball court is gloomy, almost dark. You’re already there, alone, slunk against the wall on the top row of a worn set of wooden bleachers, a beer bottle in your hand even though it’s a school game.

I sit with my kids at the far end of the bleachers and keep my eyes on the court. The space between us is empty. You and I feel each other’s presence but don’t acknowledge it.

It’s warm and I’m squirmy, unfocused. You get up to leave before the game ends, come over, and take two of my fingers with your bottle hand. You could be sharing your beer but you’re not; the bottle is a decoy. You look at my fingers – index and middle, with a potent mix of joy, concern, and regret. It’s an intense look, but then it passes, replaced by a grin at the kids. You leave me holding your beer.

I’ve met the devil

He’s a train conductor.

Dad and Mom stood over my hospital bed, hugging each other, their eyes wet with tears. The day we’d dreamed of had finally arrived. They kept the details vague: A dental student had been hit by a train out in the suburbs, but his heart was feasible. The EMTs already had it on a Medevac. Mom and Dad talked like we had just won a sweepstakes.

Photo via
Photo via

The nurses whisked me off to pre-op faster than a bullet train.

The doctors said I was officially dead for four minutes. Four minutes. Minute one, the head surgeon severed my sick, sluggish heart, with a silver scalpel, carefully so as to leave the aorta intact, the vena cava repairable.

Hell was a high-speed Amtrack. I was standing in the vestibule waiting for my stop, and a conductor snuck up behind me.

“Ticket, Miss,” he said without inflection. He was tall, black, and very handsome except for his flat New York accent.

I held out my one-way and he lifted it up to the light and paused with his hole-punch in midair. “You’re on the wrong train.” He had perfect teeth, so good they looked fake.

“No, I’m not.”

Minute two, the kind-eyed nurse lifted my old heart carefully from my gaping chest cavity into a sparkling stainless steel bowl held by the gangly assistant whose Afro strained his sky blue cap. He whisked it away and squirreled it in a jar of formaldehyde. My trophy.

“You wanted Union, how’d you get way out here in Aurora, girl?” The conductor butchered Aurora. “You don’t wanta be here. Next train ain’t for three hours.”

“I’m not. I need to get to class,” I said.

“You’re going ta be late ‘less your classroom’s in a cornfield.” He laughed a long time like he’d said something funny, but I didn’t get it.

I stared at the passing farms, then I turned back and tried to snatch my ticket out of his hand.

He held it up too high for me to reach. “Nah, this old thing won’t get you nowhere you need to be,” he said, shaking his head from side to side and reaching into his navy blue jacket pocket with his hole-punch hand. “Lemme getchya a new one.”

Minute three, nursing assistant number two, an older woman with serious blue eyes, held my pristine and glistening dental student’s heart at the ready and passed it delicately to the surgeon, who took a long look at the organ, holy grail of the surgery chamber, and deciphered its tubes and cavities.

“You tryin’ a get downtown, right. Ya need the Loop.” The conductor didn’t ask. This wasn’t a conversation. He was in charge, the fucker. The train was barreling down the tracks, probably over a hundred miles an hour now, too fast. Faster than trains could ever possibly go. The fields were reduced to black and white lines.

“I can help ya out, girl,” he said and pulled his hand out of his jacket. Instead of a hole punch, he held a silver pistol.

And minute four, my time with the devil winding down, the head surgeon laid my new heart inside my chest and six pairs of hands went to work at once, aligning, whip stitching, stapling, glomming on the hunk of muscle that would pull me back from the dark side.

“This’ll getchya right.” The conductor pointed the gun at my head.

I added this character twist to my new MC, inspired by a piece by author Patrick W. Gibson. Thanks for the inspiration, Patrick!