Small pleasures

Cain has a fondness for Mondays. His eggs arrive on Monday, delivered to his door by a farmer on his way to town. On any given Monday, he receives two dozen fertilized eggs, sometimes as many as three. He welcomes his eggs, greets them warmly, carries them to the cellar door and locks it behind him. Cain’s wife and daughter chalk the egg keeping up to a new hobby; he’s always been sort of an all-rounder. They permit him his eccentricities, as well as full use of the cellar. For this he is grateful. A man needs his space.

He keeps his eggs in an incubator he’s fashioned himself from a clear plastic bin, foam, and an electric warmer, soft overhead lights, real incandescent, not the horrid LCD lighting so popular these days. Cain is generous with his new eggs. By their side in his armchair, he reads to them from his books, tells them jokes. Buoys them through the day-to-day of their becoming. He keeps it lighthearted, all the best to cull their burgeoning spirits. He wants only to please his new darlings. When dusk falls, he pets each one on its lovely ecru apex with his index finger before shutting off the light and heading up to bed.

Tuesday mornings bright and early he checks his babies for cracks. Often he must wait until Wednesday for the first. Oh! He finds a single hairline fracture, a hesitant gap just beginning, and he smiles. Cain’s smile is large, momentous. This can be the hardest stretch, the interminable hours of Tuesday, Wednesday’s early anxiety, through which he perseveres in his armchair in the gloom, waiting and watching for the fissures he knows will form. There may be three or four by the time he turns in Tuesday evening, wishing for dawn, for openings.

Wednesdays are busy days. Cain wakes at the first gray light, peering over his half-born babies, and he finds them disheveled. Fissures have given way to chasms, and he hazards another grin. He’s happy now that hatch day is here. He prepares the cage, gives it one last preparatory wipe, and fills it with soft straw for his newborn chicks. He watches over the eggs closely, not wanting to interfere – nature knows best, and he knows better than to rush his hatchlings. Cain’s hot breath fogs the incubator and he wipes that too, settles into his armchair to watch the rest of the birthing process. He clucks to them, his chicklings, as he finds ways to busy his hands.

By lunchtime they’re all born, all downy warm yellowy feathers and teensy sharp beaks. Better than the birth of his own human daughter since they’re all his. Cain doesn’t dare touch one, not yet. Instead he sits forward on the edge of his seat and strains to hear their first soft cheeps. He washes and rewashes his hands in the basin under the stairs so he’ll be ready when they are.

At dinnertime they’re chirping for real, and he knows what to do. He lifts each baby chick from the incubator by its small hot body and moves it gingerly to the cage, sets it inside. A whole new world! Twenty-four darlings, twenty-four wondrous looks. Cain sends his wife to bed and stays up late admiring his chicks. He offers water and seed, reads aloud from his books, offering a chirp now and then. Wednesdays he goes to bed happy, crawls under the covers heart full and hopeful. He looks forward to the day ahead, more of the same, enjoying his babies, watching them grow.

Thursday he spends cleaning out the incubator, readying it for next week’s new batch. Cain sings as he works, simple love songs composed of clicks, clucks, and coos. Only his lovelies can hear; he’s got the cellar door soundproofed. He watches over them to ensure they all get along, no pecking fights, nothing ugly. He likes his chicks peaceful. All together.

Friday morning, Cain cleans his boots, slung back low in his armchair. Atonement. He hums to his chickies as he scrapes out the treads with his penknife. He gives his boots a thick coat of polish and rubs them with a cloth until they gleam. He sets them on the shelf next to the cage, to expose his babies, to help them feel comfortable with his boots. This takes some time. Cain doesn’t like to inflict fear and he takes pains to avoid it.

After he’s put everything in its place, he watches over the chicks until evening falls. Friday night. His favorite time. Only then does he double check the lock at the top of the cellar steps, does he unbutton his shirt, does he permit himself to play with one of them, just one. The very best of the batch. Cain takes the smallest, fluffiest chickling from its enclosure, rubs its downy feathers on his face. He inhales its musty scent, brushes its small body against his lips. Again and again, he never tires of this. He sits back in his armchair, lays the chick on his clean-shaven chest, lets her peck him. He’s been waiting for this all week. His sine qua non. The sensations build slowly, now soft, then sharp, soft again. So soft. Soon he’s quaking and panting under her small perfect body. He feels his faults arising, presses his face down into the helpless not so helpless puck of down on his chest and feels the emission escape him, a sweet hot long release. At last. Oh, Friday is a good day.

He holds her a long time afterward, only returning her to her sisters long past midnight has rendered its blissful obscurity. He retires to his marriage bed, sleeps in Saturday. Late in the day he descends to feed his girls. He reads them a bit more from his collection. He kneels, says a quiet prayer. Then Cain rises, takes his shining boots from the shelf, slips them on, does up the laces. He’s ready now. The yang to last night’s yin.

Cain surveys his chickies, finds his prettiest, and sets her to the side. The best for last. He takes another, a bright yellow one, and lifts her out. This one he doesn’t press to his face. He sets her down firmly on the ground, on a square of plywood he’s cut and fitted just for this purpose. She cheeps, his chickie. Pecks the wood. His movement is strong, fluid yet masculine. He lifts his thigh parallel to the ground, brings his heel down hard on her small defenseless body. He can feel the infinitesimal bulge under his boot. It’s all part of the ritual to Cain. He removes his foot, checks her corpse for signs of life, finds none. He returns to the cage, selects another girlie. She cheeps at him as if in rebuke, and he gives her body a tight squeeze before he sets her on the plywood.

Five chicks in, the cellar smells of blood and the others are cheeping to save themselves. He picks up the pace, wanting to get the dirty work over with. Saturdays are unsavory. A half-hour later the stench is overpowering and the room is silent save for Cain’s heavy breathing and one plaintive cheep. Hers. He peers into the cage, can’t take the way her eyes are glistening. Somehow today feels different than all the other Saturdays. He cannot crush her. He cheeps once to show her he’s not going to hurt her. He leaves his boots by their bodies and slinks off to bed, spent.

Sunday he wakes at dawn, slips away from his still snoring wife. In the cellar, amid the lonely sound of a single lovely chirp, he slips on the rubber gloves and tall galoshes he keeps just for this purpose. He kneels by the messy plywood and prays. Their brief lives, snuffed out. Too soon, he cries, weeping. She watches him from her cage. Then, reverently, he lifts the grisly remains of each of his lovelies into one of the wooden boxes he’s built. He closes the lid with a flutter of kisses. He washes the bloody plywood with hot water and lemon, props it to dry in one corner. His boots, he sets aside for later. A memento mori. He tidies his books and straightens his armchair. He wipes the incubator again, as well as the shelf, the floor. Finally, he cleans the cage, lifting his sole chick gently into his shirt pocket. He buries the box way out in the corner of the yard where his daughter never plays and spends the afternoon building an enclosure. As he works, she serenades him with a soft song of cheeps. By evening, all is ready for the week ahead.

When the farmer arrives Monday morning, Cain asks if he can purchase a rooster. “Sure thing,” the farmer agrees, cheerfully and unknowingly rendering himself out of the weekly equation. “I’ll bring him next Monday.” Cain flashes him the rare smirk he reserves for preserving social graces as he cautiously lifts the week’s fresh case of eggs. He frowns at his daughter waving to the farmer through the front window.

boots11

Fate’s mother

More backstory for novel #2. Enjoy!

The last thing Fate remembers about his mom is waiting on the bus with her downtown. He doesn’t know how old he was — maybe three? Four? He was lying on a bench in the bus stop vestibule, the cold a shock through his coat.

“Get up off there, Flyn,” she said, mean. But her hand on his arm was gentle, as Fate recalls. He remembers her hand, its soft warmth penetrating through the nylon Thinsulate and cotton. Her vibrant rejuvenating energy. Fate knows she was mad. Her voice screamed HATE but her hand said LOVE. Like rainbows shooting through his coat, his thin cotton t-shirt. His skin.

“Come on, now.” She helped him up off the bench and lifted him into her arms. He rested his head on her shoulder as the bus shrugged to the curb. She smelled like the coconut lotion she kept on the bathroom counter. She carried him up the steps and fumbled with the money, but she didn’t put him down. She carried him down the aisle as he silently eyed the other passengers’ kind curious glimpses.

“Here you go.” He blinked as she plunked him down unceremoniously on a scratchy seat that smelled of ammonia and garbage, the indifferent backs of tired bus riders’ skulls retreating down the aisle like totems. That’s where the dream left him.

She was gone by the time Fate was five. He doesn’t know why she left, doesn’t know where she is. It came on slow, he thinks, but it’s hazy. She got a job working nights at the laundromat, and would come home in time for breakfast. Then it was lunch. Once dinner. And then she quit coming home altogether.

At times he worries about her and at times he misses her. Other kids have moms. Other kids’ moms do the things moms do. No one does these things for Fate. With his dad, he learned to microwave hot dogs and mac-n-cheese. He learned to eat apples and other fruit that didn’t need to be cut up. He learned to swipe said fruit because nobody ain’t never gonna buy him no fruit and he was always hungry for it. He always wore a sweatshirt with big pockets and there’s no telling what would end up in them. A kid needs a lot of things. A kid needs a mom.

Fate remembers the sound of his mother screaming when his dad used to beat her. he sounds of the slaps too; less as discreet sounds, more as an awareness of sound waves, of molecules being moved through time and space at the frequency of anger. Fate stores these memories in his cells.

Fate thinks of his mom whenever his dad beats him. In those times, the slaps coming faster and faster, morphing into punches, Fate thinks of her. He thinks he knows her then. At eight years old he knows well the futility of fighting it. He likes it in a way. He knows the end will come. In his cells, he knows he will get out, survive. Like her.

By nine, with two black eyes that everyone conveniently holds their tongues about, he suspects he can survive anything. He misses his mom, misses that kind hand on his back, her rainbows. Fate wants his mom back, like a malnourished child wants a meal, but at the same time he knows why she went. In those times with his dad, Fate feels he becomes his mom. Talking mad, touching love.

Today, at the library where he goes after school for the quiet, he Googles her. And he finds her. Yes, it’s her. His heart is careening, shooting rainbows. In the Facebook photo she’s holding a little girl on her lap, their twin faces pressed together, his mom’s hand on the girl’s face. Yes. The hand is hers. Fate would know it anywhere.

Why wasn’t he enough, Fate wonders. Why leave him behind, like Grandmama’s good china that Daddy smashed one night not long after mom left when it was clear she wasn’t never coming back. Like that coconut lotion she left on the bathroom shelf, like the million undone things she left behind. Then Daddy beats him and he knows again, fresh, why. The punches go deep into him like he has no center, like he is not himself, like he is not anyone. No. See, Fate is no one. He’s twelve years old and he is sure of this.

So when he sees his mother’s hand on a little girl’s cheek, it pleases him in a way he can’t name, can’t figure out because he is only twelve. No one has taught him yet about transference. He was his mother’s child once. She talked mean but touched soft and put rainbows in him. These things feel like love to him. Yet. His daddy loves him too, loves enough to beat him. His daddy talks nasty and touches worse but other times they laugh.

People are weird. Even at twelve, Fate knows this and he accepts it. Fate knows he is many things to many people. He looks at his mom’s hand for a long time and it puts him back there on that metal bench. Lying. Waiting. Fate still keeps the coconut lotion in his pillow case and he smells it at night before he falls asleep but he never uses any. He closes out of the browser without a word to his mother.

Frank’s memories

Frank Gunn never liked to dwell on the shadows. He’s a romantic, is what Frank guesses you’d call it. He doesn’t talk about this with anyone but himself and, sometimes, Zelda. You can always trust a dog to keep your secrets. He can’t take too much reality, Frank. But then the reality anchors him too. Why else would he have been driving a rig stuffed with dope for the past fifteen years? Frank knows he’s a contradiction. He dreams of saving someone. It’s not a damsel in distress he’s after, not really, unless she’s inside him somewhere. Still, Frank’s always been drawn to younger women. He’s never acted on it sexually and never would save for inside the privacy of his own mind.

While he drives, Frank reminisces. It’s his joke. He’s not much for the radio except for Sunday gospel, so he keeps it off. He gets off on tangents easy as an apple crumble with pecans, and he fancies taking a pen to paper someday and writing it all down. Maybe he’ll buy one of those old-fashioned typewriters. Not that he ever really intends to. It’s just another part of his ongoing fantasy, along with the girls, and dragon slaying. He’s been through the twelve trials and he’s come out of it with a keen desire to hunt down, redeem himself, save the princess, kill the enemy. All in a manner of speaking, of course.

In reality, Frank figures he’ll be behind the wheel til he can’t see no more. He used to think about finding a woman and settling down someplace quiet, but he’s never stayed still long enough to keep anyone. He’s a nomad at heart.

Before he fell into the transportation work, he used to do odd jobs. Door-to-door salesman, but that went downhill fast when the Internet took off; self-help coach, well, assistant coach, back when he was with Amanda. He drove a school bus for a bit. That’s when he knew he liked to be on the move. He was like the tide, Frank was. He did his best thinking on the go. School bus driving didn’t end up suiting him. He was an immersive guy. He’d get into a think, wind up missing his route completely, end up on the fringes of town, his little buggers nodding off before he got them anywhere near home. When he saw the ad in the paper for a rig operator, week-long shifts plus overtime pay, he knew he wanted to give it a go. That’d been fifteen years ago. He started out on the Memphis to Vancouver route and now he did NY to Portland with stops in Chicago and Kansas City. Truthfully, he didn’t plan to ever quit. He was alright on the move.

He had two memories that he came back to often. One just about the point where he entered the PA turnpike, of lying on the grass in his yard as a kid. Pleasant enough that one. When you got past the toll turnstiles the sky opened up and by the time he crossed that path it was sunup. He’d always liked to watch the sky. Kind of like a dome, and it never failed to make Frank feel safe and small and insignificant. He observed the sky same as when he was a kid, colorless steel-gray azure, didn’t make much difference to him, it was the sense he got of being protected. The sky was really nothing if you thought about it, and Frank realized this, but he never could shake the calm it brought him.

The other memory usually came on outside of Chicago, the buildings retreating in his rearview, ugliness on all sides of him. This one wasn’t one Frank enjoyed, but he braced himself for it nonetheless. It always came, like those hideous billboards, the concrete everywhere, the obligatory trip through the hard side of town that did it for him, brought him back not to that night under the overpass, but before that, when he was in high school. Still a kid, but old enough to know better. Did it anyway.

He’d been trying to rid himself of something, Frank now knows. Around back of the Five-n-Dime where his mom worked, a wonder nobody recognized him while he was doing it. The memory is part feeling, part sound. A punch makes a cottony sound. Skin absorbs. His father George’s fist in the kid’s gut. Not his. Never his. Frank isn’t violent.

Frank could have been a goon. He accepts this. It was always in his blood, he thinks. Yeah, yeah, George was a refrigerator repairman, yes. He didn’t beat his mother or nothing, no. But there were times he near did. Things were always intense in the Gunn house. Old George had some friends and the friends had some acquaintances, and ties like that bind a kid.

Frank’d seen his father beat a man, once, in an alley. He doesn’t know why, doesn’t even know why he was there. Frank was maybe four, five. Too young to ask, to young to know anything but that George was a bad man. He wishes he knew why his dad was so bad, but his father is ninety-two and Frank’s never asked. Now George is more of a marshmallow than a goon. Now he’s wrapped up in Frank’s imaginings, this bad man, a recurring theme, the villain from whom Frank is fleeing, saving people left and right. The running is what defines him and Frank lets it. It’s not even like he can say he wants to be rid of it. The run balances him. The feel of retread humming against broken asphalt. It’s his thing, now, like the vinyl-wrapped steering wheel in his hands.

“Gimme your dough.” Frank’s voice had a lot of weight to it that day. The kid worked with his mom, shelving. It was payday. Frank remembers the kid’s hands shaking as he coughed up his money. Did he plan it? Nah. One thing led to another. Ma always wanted to get Frank a job shelving but he didn’t wanna have her breathing down his neck.

The memory of his father’s fist pummeling into the other man’s gut is his mantra. Denser, more crisp than a slap. Earthy. Menacing. No real punch could ever come close. Frank slouched in the backseat of his father’s Buick, window rolled down, peeking up over the sill even as he tried not to. The sound of that punch. Frank isn’t violent, not on the surface, no. But underneath it, well, you can’t ever escape your depths.

Frank stole eleven dollars off the kid. He needed to take something out on someone, he thinks now. The blood looked brown where it soaked the pavement.

That afternoon, he used the money to take a girl to a movie. Victory was sweet. He bought the girl and him sodas from the concession. The kid bleating, crumpled next to a pile of garbage in the alley, helpless. Frank can’t remember her name, thinks he doesn’t want to know. The movie was a Pacino flick. He’s never punched anyone again. He’s always glad to be past Chicago. He’s made his peace with it, all of it. He doesn’t enjoy thinking about it, but he doesn’t fight it either. Memory as scar tissue. Frank Gunn tries not to lie to himself.

It was the blood on his hands that made Frank snap out of it. He mumbled sorry even as he ran off. He knows not knows there was more than that one punch. But that one, that one was for George. Frank, cowering in the shadows. His father finished the job with just one perfect, silent punch. Not so Frank, says the kid seeping platelets into the tar. One punch for each year he’s been living with the memory. Could he let it go? He ran for the alley exit, crying “sorry, sorry,” over his shoulder, clutching the money like a magic pill. Poor kid. Frank held the girl’s hand during the movie.

Ma’s the one took the kid to the ER. She was always cleaning up after people. “You oughtta see his face, Georgie,” over mashed potatoes and meatloaf. Ketchup dripping. Frank didn’t dare look up. “Who’d do something like that?” George snorted noncommittally, his hand fisted around his knife.

Frank flips his headlights on, pats Zelda, and eases his rig into the middle lane to pass a slow-moving tour bus with a sunrise painted on the side.

Kitchen scene

(Scene: A spare galley kitchen with a Viking range in the center beneath a large stainless steel hood vent. White lower cabinets, dark tiles above. No microwave. A set of tract lights overhead sends pinpoints of brightness into the gloom. Catty-corner to the kitchen stands a tall bar stool, and in it sits a woman wearing a little black dress and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. She’s barefoot and reading a novel in Japanese. A glass of wine sits on the countertop next to her. At the counter next to the stove, facing away, is a man. He’s tall, thin, angular, but also delicate. He’s naked, save for a gauzy cotton eyelet half-apron, circa mid-eighteenth century, knotted around his waist. It was a gift from a previous lover. He’s preparing dinner, cooking an omelet. He’s cut up some tomatoes and they glisten in a bowl next to him. Now he’s chopping an onion, and every so often he wipes his eyes with his forearm. The woman seems engrossed in her book, but also exudes a sense of awareness, of watching over his movements.)

MAN

The children will be home–

WOMAN

We’ve still got some time.

MAN

(Wipes his eyes. The woman goes back to her book. He continues to chop the onion, methodically, thoughtfully. He sniffles loudly. The woman eyes him over her book. He crumples atop the cutting board, and the woman sets down her book.)

WOMAN

Are you crying?

MAN

(Sobs.)

WOMAN

(Kindly.) Come now. We’ve got enough time. You know there’s always long enough.

(She goes back to her book as he nods and wipes his face with his apron, exposing himself. He pours oil into a pan on the stove, sets the bottle on the counter. He picks up the knife and finishes with the onion, puts the chopped onion into a bowl, and rinses the knife under the faucet. He uses his apron to dry it. He holds up the knife and the light momentarily catches it, then he rubs it on his apron again as if to polish it. The woman gives him a slight smile over her book. He picks up a zucchini from the counter and rinses it, dries it on his apron, and holds it up to the light as if to check for bruising. Now he’s smiling. This time the woman’s smile is larger. She sets her book face-down next to her wine so as to save her page and approaches him, stands facing his back. Her dark and curvaceous body is silhouetted against his. He hands her the zucchini as she lifts the knife. A sharp glint off the edge as if in warning. She swipes the zucchini once around the inside of the pan, takes it out dripping. Her moves are somewhat obscured but the tension in her arm is sufficient for suggestion. He moans, she gasps. He shudders. She laughs gently. He turns his head and they kiss. Then the mood changes. She turns to the sink, quick and businesslike in her movements, and scrubs the knife, the zucchini before handing them back to him, dripping water. She returns to her seat, takes a sip of wine, and lifts her book. The small smile remains on her face. He wipes his eyes with his arm, repeats the drying once more before turning back to the cutting board. He chops the zucchini, which he leaves in a messy heap as he turns the heat up under the pan.)

MAN

Read to me.

WOMAN

(Reads aloud in Japanese.)

MAN

(Nods as he cracks an egg into a bowl obscured by his body. He repeats the gesture eleven more times as the woman reads. He turns around, cradling the bowl in the crook of one arm, whisking with the other. His expression is thoughtful, attentive. He turns back to the stove and spills the onions into the hot oil. The scent is hot, earthy, masculine. The sizzling drowns out the woman’s reading. He stirs, adds the tomatoes and zucchini, watches over the saute. He takes out another pan, smaller than the first, and pours in oil. When it’s hot, he adds the eggs, tilting the pan over the flame. The woman’s reading falls away — she’s still mouthing the words but the only sound is the hissing of the pan. He’s humming, the man. Also drowned out.by the cooking sounds. He adds the saute to the pan of eggs, and with a few deft and practiced movements, folds the omelet and slides it out onto a platter. He sets the plate next to the woman’s wine, kisses her deeply. Elsewhere a door slams. There’s laughter.)

WOMAN

The children–

(She puts down her book.)

MAN

I’ll change.

(He wipes his hands on the apron and exits the kitchen, vanishing into the gloom.)

WOMAN

Wait–

MAN

(Calls from beyond.) Set the table.

apron

Frank and Zelda

This is the first in a series of short stories that are backstory for my next novel, a mystery with twist of magical realism. Enjoy!

Packed to the gills with frozen crawdads bound for Canada, Frank Gunn met up with Tommy G and Big Billy under the I-40 overpass outside of town. Frank was taking his weekly hike to Vancouver from Memphis, and he needed the dope for Dr. Dre, their kingpin over the border. Frank liked the long route, got him through the week, it did. Spat him out on Sunday.

He pulled his rig all the way over to the gray-grime smeared cantilever to keep it out of sight next to an old Budget-Rent-A-Car sign missing all its vowels. The dim blue numbers on the dash read 3:23 a.m. as Frank cracked the window. Seven minutes til touchdown. Click. He flicked his Bic and lit a Marlboro. It had rained round suppertime and the puddles in the pitted gravel smelled like shit. Frank dragged on his cigarette to cover the stink and waited for his boys to show up. In the center console he had a supersize bag of Swedish fish, and between drags, he ate one. He killed the engine and listened to the plink plink plink of water droplets falling from the bridge above. Only traffic at this hour was the occasional rig grumbling by. Plink plink. Frank puffed on hot smoke and nicotine and wondered what had held up his boys. The rain had done nothing to stifle the heat, and a slick bead of sweat trailed down Frank’s back beneath his t-shirt. Plink.

Down the way Frank watched a shadow approach and his heart did a nosedive into his gut. A bum with a cart full of paper sacks began to traverse the overpass canyon. “No, no, no,” he muttered to no one. It was not the time for this. Frank slunk down low, not wanting to be seen round these parts. “No eyes, no guise,” Dre always warned. Cops knew to look for shit like sunglasses at night, ball caps outside the park, coats in summer. Frank kept his work clothes simple. A plain white tee, nice-ish jeans, black belt with the winged buckle his sister had made special for him when he got on the wagon. His studded boots. He kept his bandana on the rearview with the amethyst his old girlfriend Amanda had given him, “for your heart,” she’d told him. Best keep clear of the bling till he was outside of Memphis. Cops were the shit and Frank knew it.

The canyon was large, and the bum still had quite a bit of space to cover. Frank watched him in his side mirror, a male of indeterminate age, scraggly gray beard sweeping his emaciated belly. Frank eked out a bit of smoke, angling for the floor space, when he heard a yap. Bum had a dog in his cart. Christ.

“There, there, Zelda,” the bum said to the canine in his cart. Frank wished the bum would keep his yapper shut. He worried the duo would blow the whole shebang. And he should be on the road by now.

The bum shuffled along so slow that Frank doubted he’d ever get across at all. He could see the man’s bulging wrinkles and bulbous eyes in the horrid yellow light. He had crow’s feet, Frank noticed, and the thought of this old guy living long enough and happily enough for life to carve out laugh lines on his face, that though gave Frank pause. He scootched up a bit, silently urging the bum to please, Lord, pick up the pace and get the hell out of harm’s way before Big Billy turned up with his old bazooka-lookin self-defense mechanism and blew the guy a new one. He took a long drag and waited for the nicotine to soothe his frazzled nerves. Small favor.

The guy stopped about halfway across, alongside the rig, and started futzing with his cart. Of course just then Frank saw his boys coming down the shadowed frontage off the highway. He slunk down a little lower, a lungful of hot smoke clutched in his chest waiting for clearance to exit. Plink plink plink. The cart scraped pavement. A witness was not gonna fly with the boys. He flashed his headlights, just once, and Tommy G laid off the gas, cut the lights. Good boy. Darkness save for the dingy acid yellow glow off the highway above.

Time to flee for your life, buddy, Frank willed the bum. Okay, okay. Tommy had a heart, but Big Billy had a trigger finger the size of a football-game inflatable. Plink. Frank crushed his cigarette on the dash and tried to think of how to play this. Plink plink. The last thing he wanted was for anybody to get hurt. Like he usually did in situations like these, he visualized himself Sunday morning, hitting the Tennessee line, gospel on the radio, his windows down. Free as a breeze. Amanda was the one taught him that little trick. Visualization. Before her, Frank had been a real hothead. He’d’ve been out of the truck and on the guy like cheese on a steak trying to save him, way back when. Nowadays he could handle things better. More enlightened, Amanda used to say, sorta proud-like, before she ran off on him with John, the guru.

Frank touched the amethyst dangling from his rearview and willed the bum to safety. He punched Tommy G’s number on speed dial, and waited for the call to connect like watching an hourglass run down. Yip yip yip. He was too old for shit like this, Frank thought. When times got tough, he always thought about throwing in the towel, trading the rig in for a classic convertible and heading down to Me-hi-co. Not today, though. The call went through.

“What’s with gramps here?” Tommy G had a New York whine.

“Tell Billy to cool it, K?” Frank tried to keep his voice calm. Amanda would have been proud. “Old guy’s on his way out. Let’s not make trouble.”

“Gunn, you know I’m just the driver.” Tommy G was always the realist.

“Do what you can, Tommy.” Frank kept an eye on the bum. He was feeding the dog from a crumpled Mickey D’s bag. “He’s got a dog, for Christ sake.” Flee for your life, man, Frank silently willed the bum.

“Ten-four, captain.” Tommy clicked off. Down the frontage road, a set of headlights momentarily illuminated the van, nondescript, formerly white. Frank’s eyes went to the windshield, to the twin halos. Angels, the both of them. Plink Plink. Big Billy had his gun out, Frank could just make out the barrel through the glass. His heart leapt into his mouth as the bum stuffed a fry into his mouth. Yip. The dog barked its displeasure. Somewhere a siren sounded. The headlights passed away, plunging the cavern back into darkness.

Frank’s nerves blitzed as he saw the passenger-side door open a small silent crack. There was no sound save for the incessant plink plink plink of the dripping overpass. A spare yap the starting gun on a slow-motion unfolding, a moment by moment awareness that would have pleased Amanda if she were inside his head right now. Frank watched in horror as Billy’s barrel appeared in the jam of the door. The cock of the hammer got the bum’s attention, and he looked back over his shoulder, one lazy eye at a time, a single fry dangling from his chapped lips. No doubt he’d heard that song before.

Frank stared, watching the first bullet exit the barrel and begin to traverse the canyon, astonishing as the expedition of a falling star. The NO emerged from his throat one atom at a time, his tongue undulating from his teeth to the chasm of his windpipe, his lips traversing the gulf from loose to tight as they formed the final O. The sound sliced through all the silence and Tommy’s look cut through the dark. Still the bum continued his foolhardy glance of curiosity. Don’t look back. Never look. His hand fisted on the steering wheel, ready to pounce, Frank watched the bullet charge through the canyon. The last vestige of his self-possession flew out the cracked window, when the bum disappeared.

No. Not disappeared. Morphed. The bum lost his human form. Where a moment ago a human being stood, now there was a sagging concrete balustrade, its face pocked, its gray paint chipped. Frank’s blink took a million years.

YIP.        YIP.        YIP.        YIP.

Each bark was punctuated by a whiz and a crunch. Chunks of concrete flew as each bullet hit its mark. Frank slid all the way below the dash, though he knew he was in no danger. Big Billy was an excellent shot. He watched the balustrade crumble next to his rig, felt the rain of cement on his hood. His heart went out to the bum and his helpless pup. He bided his time, inhaling only in the silences between rounds. Big Billy fired eight shots total, then he slumped back into his seat and hooted out his window. Plink, yap yap yap whine. Plink.

Tommy G got out of the van and went around back. He flung the doors wide and emerged carrying two large gym duffels. Big Billy slid out of the passenger seat, his gun aloft like his namesake the Kid. He eyed the lump of destroyed concrete with obvious pride. Frank slowly exhaled as he slid out of the rig, pushing his door all the way open as a shield. Shards of fries laid on the ground like severed fingers. The bum’s cart was still intact, and the dog, a bridle terrier, was standing on top of the paper sacks, crying her heart out. In one swift movement, Frank grabbed her by the scruff and tossed her gently onto the floor of his cab. She went silent.

He unlocked the cubbyhole in the side of his cab, removed the tire iron and spare, and stepped aside as Tommy slid the duffels into the space behind the secret panel. He unzipped the bags to show him the shit. Ketamine and X this time. Frank knew the deal. Pick your poison. A heck of a lot of somebodies were going home happy next week. He nodded.

As Tommy pulled his head out of the hole, he met Frank’s eyes. They darted to the bullet-marked pile of rubble that moments ago had been a laughing-eyed bum.

“Real sorry, man.” Tommy was not one for overt shows of emotion, so this was huge for him. Frank slapped him hard on the shoulder, once. They had a moment, no more than a split second, but it was enough. “Tell the Doc we’s set for next week. 60 K of H, yeah, and a bundle of oxy.” Tommy G was a middle man, segueing whatever his suppliers brought up from Mehico. He stepped back and Frank shut the door and did the padlock.

“Will do,” Frank said, and they both looked past the rubble to where Billy was standing next to the van, on the lookout with his gun.

“Outta here, man,” Tommy said, and slapped the rig as a goodbye. “Safe travels. See ya next week.”

“Yep.” Frank waited for Tommy and Billy to pull off, then said a quick Hail Mary for the bum, not wanting to admit that he was giving it a minute to see if the bum returned to his human form. Nah, nothing. Afterlife was afterlife, Frank guessed. Still made him sad, though. When he hopped back in the cab, he found the dog sitting in his seat, three Swedish fish dangling from her tiny jowls. He gave her a pat and pulled his amethyst from the rearview mirror. He draped it over the balustrade, thinking that Amanda would be proud.

Frank set the dog in the passenger seat and pulled the rig back around to the frontage road, careful to avoid the mess of concrete.

“Sorry, pup. I wish I could have saved him.” The dog whimpered. The sky was just beginning to tinge gray with dawn.

Entanglement

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:

FileComplaintCharacter-422x281

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?”

“Shhh.”

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.

 

 

 

Eternity

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. 

Grounding

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.