Category: First Friday Fiction Feature (page 3 of 3)

First Friday Fiction Feature – Laci and Del: Second Chance?

It’s the first Friday of the month. You know what that means… it’s time for another installment of short fiction. (You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features, by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.)

This year I’m doing something different. Instead of twelve months of different stories, I’m trying out some serial work this year. So there will be twelve consecutive pieces released starting with this one: “Laci and Del: Second Chance?”

Laci and Del: Second Chance?

2014 Laci glanced around the room, her gaze flitting from the people to the door and back. Panic clawed through her insides as desperately as she wanted to claw at each figure blocking her way. She had no means of escape. She’d waited too long. What fifteen minutes earlier had been a navigatable maze of clusters of party guests, standing like islands in a sea she could have traveled, somehow had morphed into one massive throng she had no hope of wading through. The door might as well be in another country. She’d never make it.

Sighing, she turned around and unlatched the patio door. Cracking it open just enough to squeeze through it, she slipped outside and closed the door behind her. Immediately she was hit in the face with the bracing cold of winter.

“Damn, it’s freezing out here!” She wrapped her arms around herself and watched as her breath dissipated into the night. She briefly entertained the idea of going back inside, but shook the idea off before even turning around. The countdown had begun. Even through the heavy door she could hear them all chanting, “Fifty-seven… Fifty-six… Fifty-five…”

Less than a minute, and she could put another horrid year behind her.

And start another one.

She rubbed her arms harder and tried to blink back the tears that were threatening to fall, tried not to imagine every single person in there sharing a warm kiss at midnight… while she stood on the patio. Alone. In the cold.

“Thirty-two… Thirty-one…”

The voices had grown louder, and Laci realized the door had opened. Wiping her eyes and clearing her throat, she mustered the last ounces of courage and dignity she possessed and turned toward her unwanted intruder. “I’m sorry. Would you mind terribly? I’d like to be alone.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

He was backlit by the lights from inside the house, but she didn’t need to see his face to know who he was. She’d know his voice, his body, anywhere.

“Delany?”

“Only you and my mother ever call me that.”

She cleared her throat. “Del. What are you doing here?”

“Something I didn’t think I’d ever do again.”

“Three… Two… One…”

As shouts of “Happy New Year” and the beginning notes of “Auld Lang Syne” rang out from inside the house, Del crossed to Laci and kissed her.

There was no forewarning. No preamble. He didn’t stroke her cheek first or brush her hair back from her face.

There was just Del. And the kiss.

And the disappearance of her whole miserable world for a blissful moment.

When he released her, the people inside were about done cheering. The strains of the song were fading away. The tears had dried on her cheeks.

And her heart rate was nowhere near normal.

“And what, might I ask, am I supposed to make of that?” she managed to get out in a steady voice.

“I’ve been watching you all night.”

“You’ve been watching me all night? What are you, now? A stalker or something?” She clutched at where a collar should be, but all she found was a necklace. A beautiful diamond necklace he’d bought her, highlighted by her upswept hair and the low-cut bodice of her cocktail dress. She tried to cover it with her fingers, but she saw the look of recognition on his face. Why did she have to choose that piece—of all pieces—to wear that night? Thankfully, he didn’t comment on it.

“We’re both still friends with the same people. We’re bound to end up in the same place at the same time. But after how things ended…”

She lowered one of her arms and studied his face.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t know if you were ready to talk. So I stayed on the opposite side of the room all night. I was trying to be polite and give you space.”

She sniffed.

“Anyway, I figured you would leave before midnight. I know how you feel about not having anyone to kiss when the ball drops, especially given it’s not just the new year, but your birthday too, so when—”

“You remember my birthday?”

His eyebrows shot up. “What kind of person do you think I am? Of course I remember your birthday.”

She relaxed enough that she dropped her hand away from her throat and started rubbing her arms again. Since Del had walked onto the patio, she hadn’t felt anything but heat. The cold was starting to hit her again, though. As well as some old feelings she hadn’t buried as deep as she had thought.

“Come here,” he said.

Before she could object, she was nestled in his arms, tucked against his firm, warm chest.

“Laci, I know things got all messed up before. I don’t want to revisit the past. This is a new year. For you and for everyone.” He pulled back a little bit and looked down at her. “I’d like to give us another try.”

She couldn’t meet his gaze, so she tucked her head back against his chest and held on tightly to him. “I don’t know, Delany. It took me a long time to move on. I don’t want to go through something like that again.”

“That’s how you know it’s worth fighting for. Because we were so hard to walk away from. Come on, Laci. What have you got to lose?”

Laci thought about the year since they had broken up and the men she hadn’t been able to date. There had been something wrong with absolutely everyone who’d asked her out—too tall, too nerdy, too creepy, too involved with work, too interested in fantasy football—so she’d politely declined all her offers until the offers had stopped coming. Yes, she realized her reasons were ridiculous. Well, maybe not the creepy guy, but all the other ones. But obviously her social calendar was in need of some CPR.

But wasn’t Del the reason it flat-lined to begin with?

She had a lot to lose. He couldn’t possibly understand. Was he worth the risk?

First Friday Fiction Feature – Christmas Eve Perspective

christmas It’s the first Friday of the month. You know what that means… it’s time for another installment of short fiction. (You can, at any time, find this work or any of the First Friday Fiction Features, by going to the My Work tab, clicking on Freebies, and selecting the story you wish to read.)

In the spirit of Christmas, I’m taking some liberties with a famous work of Mr. Clement Clark Moore. I’m sure you’ll recognize it. Happy Holidays, everyone.

Christmas Eve Perspective

Twas the night before Christmas, I was the only one up.

The only thing keeping me going was the caffeine in my cup.

The last month had been spent in a blur of congestion.

And I sat wrapping gifts pondering one crucial question.

My kids had full bellies and had gone to bed sated.

And it was the time of night that I most hated.

My husband had had his fill of fine family dining.

And had done a little too much of “fine family wining.”

He’d just “rested his eyes” and was now snoring.

A trait I didn’t find very adoring.

So I was wrapping all the presents and guzzling my joe,

When I saw something moving outside in the snow.

I stepped onto the porch for a better view.

The starry sky was clear, but a blustery wind blew.

I turned from the chill, then I looked back.

I swear it was Santa, complete with sleigh and sack.

I counted eight reindeer hitched to his sleigh.

And wondered who would believe my story when I told it the next day.

Without my phone, I’d have no photographic proof,

I thought maybe I could show someone the prints of a hoof.

I stood there and watched them, I’m not sure how long.

Santa was singing his deer a beautiful song.

I thought it must be how he gets them to fly in the air;

It’s not quite a carol, not quite a prayer.

But he sang his song, and he shook the reins,

And off they went by the tune of his baritone strains.

The stars twinkled, the snowflakes swirled;

Santa was gone, bringing joy to the world.

I turned to go back inside, resigned to do my work;

I had been acting like a complete and total jerk.

So what if I was the only one doing the wrapping?

Who cares if I would rather be in my warm bed napping?

These moments are fleeting. They come and go fast.

There’s no way in the world we can make them last.

The kids won’t know, nor will they care,

Who baked or shopped or wrapped, I swear!

I needed to stop asking why I was always stuck.

I needed to stop asking why I had such rotten luck.

I opened the door and dropped my jaw, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

What I saw inside the room was a Christmas Eve surprise!

Every gift was wrapped and tagged and placed under the tree.

And all the paper, bows, and tags were put away for me.

My husband slept soundly again; I woke him with a kiss.

“Thanks,” I said, and gestured, “for handling all this.”

He said, “I wish I could take credit, but it wasn’t me.”

And we heard sleigh bells ringing outside beyond the holly tree.

“You don’t think…” I whispered, stunned. “I mean—”

“Why not?” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first magical thing we’ve seen.”

He wrapped me in his arms, I snuggled against him tight.

“Merry Christmas.” He pulled me toward the stairs. “It’s going to be a good night.”

First Friday Fiction Feature – A Walk on the Wild Side

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment. (Links for this and all Fiction Features can be found on the Freebies page.)

Because yesterday was Halloween, I thought I’d include something here that’s just a little creepy. Hope you enjoy it.

A Walk on the Wild Side

steel toeSavannah sat behind the wheel of her car in the parking lot of Cheery Charities, the local store offering discounted and sometimes free items to the less fortunate. In years past, she’d donated many of her things to the store.

Now she was a patron.

Being the number one real estate agent in the tri-state area used to require all of her time. But it was worth it. She had an expertly furnished beautiful five bedroom provincial, a luxury car, money for all her desires, and a sizeable savings portfolio.

When the real estate bubble burst, her whole world disintegrated. She’d burned through her savings, then resorted to selling off her estate. She traded her car for an old jalopy and a few thousand dollars. When she had nothing left to sell, she sold the house and moved into a walk-up efficiency. With little money for rent, utilities, and food, and most of her clothes in a consignment shop, she had no choice but to shop at Cheery Charities. She had no other option; she refused to reach out to her father for help. Their parting had been less than amicable. She wasn’t crawling home looking for a handout after their final conversation.

Taking a deep breath, she inhaled the scent of stale tobacco and what she hoped was wet dog. Pursing her lips, she exhaled slowly and tried not to think about the filth she was sitting in. Or wallow in her current plight. Winter was approaching, and she needed something to block the chill.

Cheery Charities it was, then.

No point in locking up. There was nothing in her car worth stealing, and no one would want to take her car. She merely shoved the door until it finally swung on its ungreased hinges and slammed it closed.

A tiny bell on the door tinkled to announce her presence. She looked around, but no workers came out of the back. She approached a rack holding coats and picked through the offerings until she found a black wool pea coat and tried it on. It was a size too big for her, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

She stifled a mirthless chuckle. She was basically a beggar now. She needed to stop being so choosy and take what was available.

Take what was available?

Could she really steal from a charity? If someone was actually working, she wouldn’t be in the position to consider it. As it was, she was one of the misfortunate needy, and she was entitled to the coat. Probably.

She left the coat on and headed toward the door. If she ever was flush again, she’d make a donation.

Fighting the guilt, she turned her head away from the cash register. A rack of shoes caught her eye. Stepping toward it, her hand reached out to touch a pair of Jimmy Choo’s. Those had been hers, and she had loved them. But they were impractical for people in her condition. She needed something more utilitarian.

Her gaze drifted to a pair of work boots. She didn’t know if they were a man’s or a woman’s. She slipped them on. They were small for a man’s foot, but they definitely looked like a man’s style. She didn’t care. They were steel-toed, fleece-lined, and would keep her warm.

“God, I wish this wasn’t my life.”

A cold chill blew past her, then the room was still.

She glanced at the Jimmy Choo’s one last time, snatched them and bolted out the door with her contraband. She could still hear the bell tinkling when she started her car and drove away.

The plan was to head to the library and use the computer to search for job openings, but she found herself driving to the river. She stopped at the bridge and scrambled down the hill. Metal barrels, rusted from exposure and scorched from years of holding fires, dotted the ground. She thanked the Lord that no one was currently there. She was confused and out of control, and it didn’t seem she had a choice about when to stay and when to flee.

Her feet kept moving, taking her straight to one of the barrels. She held her hands over it as though warming them over a fire. She felt ridiculous, as there wasn’t currently a fire burning, but she couldn’t stop herself. Suddenly she whipped around as though her body was reacting to a threat. She reached into her pocket and whipped out her empty hand, clenching her fist the way a person would grip a knife handle. She began shadow-stabbing a non-existent foe.

Slash right.

Stab.

Swipe left.

Duck.

Spin away.

Plunge.

Her hand stopped attacking and just twisted into the air. She was horrified to feel her cheeks lift up and her mouth split open in a satisfied grin. Then she stumbled backward as though absorbing an enormous weight. Flinging her arms to the side like she was throwing that weight down, she returned her imaginary knife to her pocket.

She walked over to a grouping of stones and hefted one of the larger ones. Then she walked back to where she had done battle and arranged the stone near where she had dumped her imaginary attacker. She repeated that process several times, stopping only to wipe the sweat from her brow. When the stones were in place, she walked to a different area and rooted through a non-existent bin. Returning to the stones, her hands moved like she was tying them to something. Then she started rolling the stones to the river. At the edge of the land above the water, she stopped and shoved.

The current was swift, but not even the rushing water could keep the stones from sinking to the river’s bottom.

Every fiber of her body fought to scream, but all she could manage was a self-satisfied smile. She clambered back up the hill and got in her car.

She drove straight to a homeless shelter on the other side of the train tracks. She’d never been to that part of the city, and felt panic sluicing icy-cold through her veins. A woman stepped out and shook her apron. Seeing Savannah sitting there, she smiled at her and beckoned her inside.

Savannah had no interest in going in, but she couldn’t help herself. She climbed out of the jalopy and sauntered toward the door. The woman held the door open for her, and Savannah looked her over, head to toe and back. Her stomach roiled, sickened by her actions, but she continued on. “Hey, sweetheart,” she said to the woman from the shelter.

The woman cleared her throat and tried to smile. “Hi,” she managed. “Are you looking for a cot tonight? Or a hot meal? We’re here to help.”

Savannah pushed a stray lock of hair away from the woman’s face and smiled when she recoiled from her touch. “After you.”

She followed the woman inside, keeping her eyes on her swaying hips. She wanted to look away, but her eyes were glued to the woman’s backside. When the woman turned and caught her staring, she untucked her shirt and walked more quickly toward the food line. “Here,” she said and handed Savannah a tray. “Go through the line. I’ll send the director over to discuss a bed.”

“Thanks, hon.”

The woman glanced back over her shoulder and scurried away.

The food looked like school cafeteria food—high in carbs, high in fat, completely processed, and way overcooked. She’d been living off ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches for months, and even that menu didn’t make the shelter’s food look any more appealing. As it turned out, she didn’t have a choice. Her feet pulled her through the line and she accepted one of everything.

Sitting alone in a dark corner, her thoughts had drifted to what she had done under the bridge. Even though she didn’t actually attack anyone, her actions were those of a murderer, and it freaked her out. And the lack of control? More than a little disturbing.

The woman who invited her in was walking toward her with a man who Savannah presumed was the director. Their heads were tipped toward each other’s in quiet conversation, but Savannah could hear snatches of it.

“…creepy guy last month…mean, exactly…”

“…could be a coincidence that…” the director said.

“…don’t understand…identical conversation to…”

“…the guy…little…”

The woman put her hand on the man’s arm to stop his progress. She whispered something directly in his ear then retreated from the room.

“Hello,” the man said. “I’m Derek, the director here. Callie said you’re interested in a bed?”

The last place Savannah wanted to be was at the shelter at night. Instead of declining, however, she said, “I’d be much obliged.”

Derek raised an eyebrow and studied her for a bit. Then he said, “Follow me.”

He led her into a room with twelve cots. Five of them were occupied. “Make yourself at home. Bathroom’s through that door,” he said, pointing to a door on the right. “Only rule is keep your hands to yourself. Lights out soon.”

“No worries, Derek,” Savannah said, sounding far more comfortable than she felt.

Derek stared at her for a moment, then left, calling for Callie.

Savannah looked at the other people spending the night. None seemed to want to socialize, which was fine by her. She sat on the edge of the cot and bent down to take off her boots.

She slipped them off her feet and was suddenly freed from their compulsive powers. A comforting warmth spread through her, then dissipated. The boots! Why hadn’t she realized sooner that her will was overpowered the moment the boots touched her feet? She quickly tucked her feet under her on the cot and stared at them. They looked innocent enough, but they were deadly. Literally.

The door opened again and a man sauntered in, calling over his shoulder, “You’re welcome to join me, sugar. I don’t bite. Much.”

Savannah didn’t hear Callie’s answer, but the man grinned and said, “Suit yourself.”

He strutted toward Savannah and took the cot next to her. He lay on his side, propping his head on his hand and staring in her direction. “New here, sweetheart?”

Savannah’s mouth instantly dried, preventing her from speaking. She couldn’t take her eyes off his feet. They were small—unusually small. Roughly her size.

Noticing where she was looking, he tried to look at her feet, but they were still tucked under her. Then he glanced down at the floor and saw her boots. She saw the recognition flit across his face right before Derek came to the door and said, “Lights out.” The room plunged into darkness.

Savannah’s heart slammed off her ribcage. A gravelly voice right in her ear said, “I think you have something of mine.”

She jumped off the bed and bolted for the door. She didn’t stop until she’d run out of the room, through the dining hall, and into the street. Her jalopy was where she left it, and she jumped in, fumbled for her keys, and jammed them with trembling hands in the ignition. Then she took off for home, not looking back. Part way home, she grabbed the Jimmy Choo’s off her seat and tossed them out the window.

She entered her apartment and locked the door. Looking around, she took in the sparse furnishings, dreary walls, and stained carpet. Safety trumped luxury any day, and she was safe. For the moment, anyway.

Why had she ever wished for another life?

A noise at the door startled her. She crept to the door and looked out the peephole. Seeing nothing, she gripped the handle and flung the door open.

A cat screeched and darted down the hall.

Pride be damned. She didn’t want the boot-man’s life, but she didn’t want hers any longer, either.

Striding across the room, she grabbed the phone off the receiver and dialed.

“Dad? It’s me.”

First Friday Fiction Feature – Memories

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment. (Links for this and all Fiction Features can be found on the Freebies page.)

This short story is the result of my experimenting with all the senses, not just sight (as most of us default to). Hope you enjoy it.

Memories

pop - n - freshI know three things when I wake up. One, I’m not in my own bed. Two, I’m not in my own clothes. And three, I have been drugged. I can only come up with two explanations for my current situation. I am sick or injured and am in the hospital. Tragic, but acceptable. And given that I feel like crap, it is entirely possible. The second reason would be that I have been dosed and abused. That’s far less palatable an option, and isn’t going to go well for somebody, hopefully somebody other than me, once I get on my feet. Question is, who will it go badly for? No way am I opening my eyes and giving away my position until I have more information. If I have to get the drop on somebody, I want the upper hand. My dad taught me the basics of defense before he died. Stealth was lesson one.

I lie still in the strange bed, trying to take in my surroundings without anyone knowing I’m awake. Blankets cover me up to my shoulders, so I can safely move my fingers if I don’t make large movements. Sliding my fingers along the sheets, I try to analyze the quality of the linens. They aren’t the four hundred thread-count I like, but they are soft. Definitely aren’t the hard industrial thread-count I expect of an institution needing to bleach its sheets daily. My fingers touch something wet, and I instantly recoil my hand. Wetness doesn’t bode well.

Angling my head just to the left, I breathe long and slow through my nose… I don’t smell any antiseptic, disinfectant, or air freshener. Probably not a medical facility. I smell the subtle scent of a man’s cologne in the bed and realize these are definitely not hospital sheets. Uh-oh… cologne in the sheets? It’s a nice smell, musky… reminds me of something or someone, but I can’t place what or who. Fear creeps up my spine, an icefloe spreading through my body. Trying to get my wits about me, I take a second, deeper sniff and I get whiffs of whiskey, rum and gin. It kind of warms me. Weird. Unfortunately, at this point I can definitely rule out hospitals and medical facilities. I’m screwed.

No conversation going on around me. Hmm. That doesn’t mean I’m alone. Straining, I hear soft music coming from what must be another room, but I can’t quite make out what’s playing. Perhaps there are people in there. Or a single person. My best bet for escape is a single person. But how to tell?

At some point I’m going to have to open my eyes, at least a crack, and take a peek. But I’d rather not do that unless I’m alone. Of course, I won’t know for certain that I’m alone unless I look. I listen again for sounds in the room…

“How long are you going to lie there pretending you’re still out cold?”

Busted. When I open my eyes, my gaze is locked with the man’s who is sitting next to the bed. The large, burly man. A yard away.

I yank up the sheet as far as I can and scramble to sit. Ugh. My stomach lurches and my head reels at even that small movement, but I’m more concerned with the beast at my bedside than I am with my hangover. “Who are you? Where am I?”

He ignores me, but his face clouds. I don’t know why, but I feel sorry for yelling at him. Then I immediately shrug it off. Why should he feel bad, and why should I care if he does?

He asks me, “Can I get you anything? A drink? Toast?”

Even my hair hurts. I think I might be sick. Why isn’t he climbing all over me? Oh, right. He probably already did that. Saliva wells in my mouth and I try to swallow it past the lump in my throat. “What are you going to do to me?” I whisper.

He sighs and stands up. “Probably should start with juice and dry toast. I’ll be right back.” He leaves through the only door toward what I assume is the main part of his apartment. I’d have to go through him to get out, and I’m not doing that in a t-shirt and nothing else. At least, not yet. Not while I’m queasy and confused. I need my strength, then I’m so out of there, or I’ll die trying. I try to rub my temples, but just touching my head hurts it. My fingers probe my forehead gingerly. Man, he must have done quite a number on me. There’s a huge lump there. No wonder I’m addle-brained and nauseated. I’m probably concussed.

I look around the room. Of course there’s no phone. Why did people stop getting land lines? God, am I really in a t-shirt and nothing else? Dropping the covers, I look at myself. The soft cotton of a too large Pillsbury Doughboy tee is the only thing covering me. Despite the seriousness of my predicament, I laugh a little. I love Poppin’ Fresh. I vaguely remember laughing over a shirt just like that on a rack at the Galleria. Who was I there with? I can’t remember. I definitely have a concussion. When I see him approach, I pull the covers back up.

He comes back with toast and juice and puts the tray down on the bed. Sitting back on his chair, he says, “Eat. You must feel dreadful.”

“Like you care.”

He merely raises an eyebrow at me.

“What’d you put on the toast?”

“Nothing. Dry first. Maybe you can have something else, if you hold this down.”

“No, I mean… never mind.” If he drugged me last night, surely he isn’t beyond doing it again. I don’t touch the food.

He watches me for a minute, then he picks up the toast and bites it, and takes a sip of the juice. “See. Perfectly safe. You need to eat. Flush your system. You’ll feel better.”

I would likely feel better if I eat, but why the sudden change of heart? The toast looks really appealing, as only dry toast can to someone with a churning stomach. It was nice of him to cut it into small triangles. My mother used to do that. One small bite and my throat is rubbed raw. I wash the crumbs down with a sip of juice. The flavor explodes on my tongue. Liquid sunshine, yet cool and tart. Quenched, I nibble on more toast and study my captor, and he offers me a soft smile while I chew. He looks really familiar to me, but concentrating hurts my head. The familiarity is probably because he stalked and drugged me and dragged me to his place to have his way with me. But that smile… those eyes…

Am I already slipping into Stockholm Syndrome over a wedge of toast? Get a grip.

I point a toast triangle at him. “You still haven’t said what you’re going to do with me.”

“What makes you think I’m going to do anything with you?”

“Isn’t that how these things usually work? You abduct someone and then you either ransom them or kill them? Just so you know, I don’t have any family, so you picked the wrong girl if you’re looking for a large pay out. And I don’t plan on dying without putting up one hell of a fight.” Laying my cards on the table is either brave or stupid. It’s probably stupid, but I’m tired, sick and scared, and I just want to know where I stand.

“What is it, exactly, you think happened?” He leans forward and rests his arms on his knees. I should probably be concerned about him crowding in on my space, but it really doesn’t faze me at this point. What more can he do to me that he hasn’t already done, other than the obvious?

I put the toast down. Just that little bit of food has me raring to go. It’s high noon, and my trigger finger is itchy. “You drugged me, took me wherever we are, raped me who knows how many times and now I want to know what’s next.”

He runs his hand through his hair and then stands up and paces. A pillow falls off the chair and onto the floor with a soft thud. “God, Anna.”

“So you know my name.”

“Of course I do. Look, I’m trying to be patient here, but I can’t listen to much more of this. I can’t watch you look at me this way.”

“Then call the cops. I’ll look at them this way. I’ll talk to them like this.”

“Damn it, Anna.” He kicks the pillow across the room. “I’m going out to the living room. Finish your food, get dressed. Come out when you’re ready.”

“Dressed in what? You took my clothes.”

He yanks open the door of an armoire on his way out to the living room.

What am I supposed to do with that? Root through his things until I find sweats and a tee that fit? Or, God forbid, he’s a serial rapist and there are tons of women’s outfits in there.

The toast and the juice aren’t going to happen at this point. I creep over to the armoire and peer inside. It’s impossible, but I recognize two shelves of the clothes. I know them because they are mine. Did he steal everything I own? Is he planning on keeping me forever? Confused, I grab the first things I see and dress, then I step into the living room. It’s silent now, but for the clatter of him bustling around the kitchen.

This is my chance. I tiptoe toward the door when my gaze lands on a framed photo on a table. It’s the man, and he has his arms around a woman. He is smiling and looking down at her with an unmistakable look of love and adoration on his face.

That’s not so surprising. Even psychopaths can love. What shocks me is the woman smiling back at him with the same look of happiness and wonder.

She’s me.

I drop to the floor with the frame still in my hands.

The injury.

The clothes.

The familiarity.

The photo.

He didn’t abduct me. He cares for me. Apparently I care for him.

Something happened to me and I have all my memories but of him.

He came to the living room when he heard me hit the floor. “Anna? Are you okay?”

“I know you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

His voice is hoarse, but he answers. “Yes.”

I shake my head. “I lost you. Just you.”

“It’s called selective amnesia. The doctor says that can happen, sometimes just as a fluke, sometimes as your brain’s way of protecting itself from bad memories. This is the most lucid you’ve been in two days. I just called Doc again. He’s on his way over.”

“What happened?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you.”

I struggle for his name to plead with him, but nothing comes to mind. I take his hand. “I can’t even remember your name.” He squeezes my hand back. His fingers are warm, strong in my hand. I don’t know him, but I like the feel of my hand in his. Need it right now. Crave it on a cellular level. Tears well in my eyes and I look up at him.

He sighs. “Tom. My name’s Tom.”

Nothing. Not a glimmer of recognition. Not even a promise of one.“Tom, please. It’s my life. I need to know.”

“Doc said to let you come to it on your own. I shouldn’t have even given you my name.”

“Is that what you’d want if you were me? To have no memories of…” I waved the photo at him.

He kisses my forehead, careful not to hurt me. “Let’s go downstairs. Maybe that’ll jog your memory.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s where it happened.”

He pulls me to my feet and leads me down to a bar, not a new techno nightclub kind of place, but the comfortable kind of pub where you expect people to call your name when you enter. The smell of liquor grows stronger down here, but it smells sweet, not stale, and inviting. I walk up to a black leather stool and perch on it.

Tom smiles. “That’s your stool. You always sit there.”

“I do? How often do I come here?”

“Pretty much every night. I own the place. You usually come and keep me company.”

“So what happened on the night in question?”

“You tell me.”

I think, hard, but my mind just hums with the smell of whiskey and the memory of music long since gone. “All that’s coming to mind is jukebox music.”

“Well, we do play music every night.”

“Tell me.”

“Only when Doc says it’s okay.”

I pout, but that doesn’t work. Either I don’t pout well or he’s too worried about my recovery to risk it. “Can I have a drink?”

“Juice?”

“No. Club soda. With lime.”

He pours it with a flourish, but doesn’t utter a peep. His brows are drawn.

I sip my drink. The bubbles tickle my nose, sting my throat. The lime is a burst of sour that awakens something in me. I’m getting flashes. A leather jacket. A glass of club soda. I can almost hear the music. “Is it really a jukebox, or a band, or do you just have a track you play?”

“Just a track.”

“Can I see the playlist?”

Tom hands me the list. There are about two hundred songs on it. “Are you kidding me?”

“We don’t want folks getting bored. Besides, you picked it out.”

I look through the list and finally say, “Can you play number one-thirty-two? Please Tommy?”

He raises an eyebrow. Under his breath I hear him say, “Tommy.” He doesn’t acknowledge the name, but I assume it means something to him. To me he says, “Sure.”

I see him fiddling with something, then the music starts. “Freebird” blasts through the speakers. Tom turns the volume down, but I don’t see him. I’m back in the bar with the man in the leather jacket.

He’s flirting with me, and Tom is pissed. I tell him not to worry, but he’s watching. Closely. I’m drinking my usual club soda, and leather jacket guy is making all his moves. I’m deflecting politely, then I start to feel fuzzy. Drunk. I lean on leather jacket guy and laugh. He puts his arm around me and starts to take me out of the bar. I don’t really want to go, but I’m going. I’m wasted. On club soda. Huh? Tom grabs me and then there’s chaos. A full-fledged bar fight ensues. I go down with a chair to the temple. I’m not sure who wielded it, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to sleep.

When I look up, the memory recedes and the present comes crashing back. The bar is silent and Doc, Tom’s buddy, has smelling salts under my nose. Tom has me cradled in his lap. I bat the salts away from my face. They’re taking the wonderful bar smell away from me. “Tommy,” I say and reach for his cheek.

“Anna.” He shifts me in his lap and bends down to kiss me. His lips meet mine in a hesitant whisper, but I pull him to me. He’s my Tommy. His musky cologne envelopes us as he wraps me in his embrace. His breath is warm and he tastes of coffee and something I recognize only as him. I hold him tighter and drown the doctor out.

There. There’s home. There’s the Poppin’ Fresh jersey we found on a discount rack, Tom’s apartment, our first date, the picture our friends took of us at the lake, dinners, movies, evenings spent on my bar stool. There are the EMTs and police, Doc at my bedside, and just this morning, Tom holding ice on my head and spilling some in the bed.

“Tommy.” It feels good to say it and know what I’m saying.

Doc says, “She needs a thorough exam. And the police are outside.”

They can do what they want. I’m fine. I’m Anna, and I’m with Tommy. The rest doesn’t matter.

The End

First Friday Fiction Feature – Fifty Sheds of Grey

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment. (Links for this and all Fiction Features can be found on the Freebies page.)

This short story is inspired by a writing challenge given at last year’s OCW Conference. That contest required the story to fit on a 3″ x 5″ index card. This story is a bit longer than that.

Fifty Sheds of Grey

grey shedFifteen-year-old Mallory was a loner. Being alone was pretty much the only way she got any peace. When she was at school, she was the constant target of pranks and barbs.

Because of her cousin Polly.

While Mallory was born into a middle class family, Polly was born with a silver spoon in both her hands. Mallory secretly suspected she had one up her butt, too. Polly made her life miserable. When Mallory was younger, she’d tell her mother how mean Polly was to her, but her mother would say it was because she was jealous. Mallory didn’t know what Polly could possibly be jealous of, but as her mother never had any advice for her, she stopped talking about Polly and kept her pain to herself.

As they grew older, Polly only got worse. As the most popular kid at school, everyone followed her lead. And because she tormented Mallory mercilessly, the kids at school teased her, too. The only person who never followed Polly’s lead was Tommy. Mallory harbored a secret crush on him, but would never admit to it. Tommy was in Polly’s crowd, and Polly made sure Mallory wasn’t.

No wonder she preferred to be alone.

Given their history, it struck Mallory as more than odd that Polly invited her to her back-to-school bash. It was at their grandparents’ farm—known to the locals simply as The Barn. Mallory accepted despite her reservations.

“Wear lip gloss and bring breath spray,” Polly said. “We’ll be playing some… games.”

“Games?”

“Yeah. You know the shed by the barn? The games are in there. I call it ‘Fifty Sheds of Grey.’ Know what I mean?”

Mallory didn’t answer, but she knew what that meant. Polly, of course, had plenty of experience with boys, but Mallory had never played “Spin the Bottle” let alone been kissed. Ever fiber of her being screamed at her not to go. But not showing would be social death, and her popularity was already on life support. Better to go than be labeled a chicken.

Mallory procrastinated and stalled as long as she could, but finally had to take the plunge. She hoped to go late and blend into the background, but when Polly saw her, she announced her arrival to everyone. As Mallory approached the group, she was greeted to taunts about her inexperience.

How could they possibly know?

Polly, of course.

Mallory scanned the crowd, hoping to see Tommy’s friendly face, but she didn’t see him. To avoid acknowledging the never-ending jeers, she turned around and took in the surroundings. She used to feel so comfortable there, but when Polly started hanging out there with her friends, Mallory had stopped going to the barn. When she visited her grandparents, she stayed at the house and didn’t wander the grounds for fear of running into Polly and her friends. She missed it.

When they were younger, the barn was her sanctuary. She’d climb over hay bales and tuck herself into the corner of stalls with the cats and a good book or a sketch pad. Polly was too prissy to sit in straw, so it was safe to go there. Then Polly discovered how isolated the barn was, as it was far from the house and separated from view by the tree line. Polly started bringing her friends there, and Mallory lost her haven.

It had been about five years since she’d spent time at the barn. Not much had changed. Trees bordered the property on both sides, and the paddock spread out behind it. The barn itself, formerly a proud red but weather-faded to a mud brown, cast a shadow on a tiny grey aluminum shed with chipped paint and a dented roof. Polly gestured to the ramshackle hut. “Tommy’s been waiting in there for you. It’s time for your seven minutes in heaven.”

Tommy? Waiting for her? Her mouth was suddenly way too dry. She tried to swallow, but there was a huge lump in her throat.

Polly must have noticed her hesitation. “Afraid, Mal?”

Mallory didn’t answer. Her lips parted, but no witty come back came to her. She wouldn’t have been able to get a word past her lips if she tried, anyway.

“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue? We know Tommy doesn’t.”

Everyone started taunting her. She had no choice. She tuned them out and wiped her palms on her jeans. Polly took her by the elbow and all but dragged her to the shed. Then she cracked the door open and shoved Mallory inside. She’d barely crossed the threshold when the door slammed shut behind her.

Plunged into darkness, she cried fruitlessly for help. Eyes tearing, the stench of manure choking her, she fought off the bile rising in her throat and turned to flee. The door wouldn’t budge, so she reached into the stifling blackness, tripped and fell. Her face landed in a mound of fresh straw-laced droppings from the horse stalls. Shrieking, she rose and plowed through the shed door, knocking Polly to the ground and vomiting on her head.

The tables, without any intentional efforts on Mallory’s part, were turned. The kids started taunting Polly. Chants of “Puke Head Polly” echoed throughout the farm, as well as a few cheers for Mallory.

With as much dignity as a filthy fifteen-year-old could muster, Mallory walked away, Polly’s screeches a cadence for her feet.

Mystery Heir Deleted Scene

mystery novelMystery Heir follows amateur sleuth Naomi Dotson and her twin sister as they try to find a killer. The police have a man in custody, but Naomi thinks they have the wrong person. Her obsession to see justice prevail compels her to continue the investigation, resulting in dangerous and potentially life-threatening consequences.

Without further ado, I give you:

A Deleted Scene from Mystery Heir

Naomi’s sister woke her and sent her to the living room. Normally, Penelope would have gotten rid of any visitor when her sister was trying to sleep off the stress of having been robbed, but this caller was different.

No one turns the mayor away.

Naomi stumbled to the living room, trying to rub the bleariness out of her eyes. It didn’t work, so she kept trying. Her eyes would definitely be puffy and bloodshot in the morning, but that wasn’t the important thing at the moment. Dealing with Everett was.

“What can I do for you, Mayor?”

“Mayor?” Everett said. “So we’re back to formalities? Come on, Naomi. Give me a break.”

She sighed, rubbed her eyes again. “Everett, why are you here?”

“I just heard about the break-in. I wanted to be sure you were okay.”

“If you heard about the break-in, then you had to have heard I was fine. What do you really want? Did the chief send you? Or Ryan? I’m not giving up on this. The cops have the wrong guy.”

“No, Chief Clark hasn’t said a word to me. I bumped into Deputy Ryan, and he told me about the break-in. He did say you were okay, but I needed to see for myself.”

She looked at him, her vision finally clearing. His brow was furrowed into wrinkles of worry, and his gaze never stopped roving over her, like he was taking a mental inventory of possible injury sites.

“No one was there when I got home. The only thing damaged is my apartment. Well, that and my ego. I should have expected this and been more prepared.”

He raised a brow and continued to scrutinize her.

“I’m fine. Really. Look.” She flailed around like the inflatable air dancers companies used to catch the attention of passersby. “No injuries.”

He laughed at her display. “I guess we don’t need to rent those balloon people for the next festival. I can just hire you.”

“You couldn’t afford me.” She yawned and took one more swipe at her eyes.

“I’d better get going then. Let you get some rest.”

“I’ll walk you out.” She led him to the door and stepped outside with him into the chill of the October air. The night was clear, the crescent moon forming a smiley face with some of the brighter stars in the sky. Despite her ordeal earlier that evening, she found herself smiling back.

The laugh that had so easily claimed Everett just moments before vanished. He grabbed both her shoulders and held her at arms’ length. “Are you sure you’re okay, Naomi?”

“Yes. I’m really okay.”

“I was worried.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

He pulled her closer, looked down at her face. Their breaths mingled, a misty cloud of potential evaporating into the night. Was he going to kiss her? Did she want him to? Her heart raced, her breath caught.

“Good night, Naomi,” he said, his voice husky.

He walked away before she could react, respond.

She could no longer see him, but she could hear his footsteps, a rhythmic cadence fading away.

“Go inside and lock up,” he called.

She went inside, closed and locked the door. Only then did she manage to whisper, “Good night, Everett.”

First Friday Fiction Feature — Just Say Utah

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment.

A link to this story, and all prior stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.

Just Say Utah

“Oh, it is so on!” Patty said, glaring at her brother and his two friends.board games

The boys stood in the dining room, arms crossed over their chests, smug smiles on their barely adult faces.

Patty grabbed Dana’s hand and said, “Chelsea, come on!” She yanked on Dana’s arm so hard, the shoulder joint jerked in the socket. The girls followed Patty as she stalked to the den and grabbed a game off the shelf.

“Oh, come on,” Dana moaned. “I hate Trivial Pursuit.”

“Yeah, P. That’s lame,” Chelsea said.

“Did you hear them? They think that because they go to Carnegie Mellon they’re so much smarter than we are.”

“Um, Patty. I go to Carnegie Mellon, too,” Chelsea said.

“Yeah, but they’re seniors and you’re just a freshman.” It was winter break, and they were all home from their respective schools until spring semester started. Joey had been tormenting his sister mercilessly about going to a state school, while he and his friends went to an elite private school. She was obviously desperate, again, to prove to him that she was just as smart as he was, if not smarter. It was an argument that occurred between the two of them at least once a week when they were together. She somehow always lost.

“Patty Ann, it just snowed. We can pelt them with snowballs and then go sledding. I bet your mom will make cocoa. Or mine will.” Dana hated Trivial Pursuit with a passion.

Patty took the box and headed for the dining room. “Girls against… the dumber sex. And may the best team win.”

She plunked the box on the table and grinned at the boys. “Or are you chicken?”

“Against the three of you?” Joey laughed while Troy and Mike snorted and elbowed each other. “We’ll take our chances. We’ll even give you a handicap. How many chips do you want us to spot you?”

“We don’t need a handicap, thank you very much.” Patty set up the game and grimaced at her brother and his friends.

“Come on,” Mike said. “State school versus private? What chance do you have?”

“I go to the same school you do!” Chelsea said.

“Really?” Mike asked. “How’d you ever get in?”

Chelsea lunged at him, and Patty pulled her back. The two of them had disliked each other since grade school. Mike had looked up the skirt of her uniform from under the bleachers at a school assembly and taken a photo, and then he got suspended for it. He blamed her for his suspension although she wasn’t the one who told on him. Patty saw the game getting ugly before it even started.

“Let’s keep it civil, okay?” she said, looking right at Mike. “Team meeting before we start.” She gathered the girls together.

“What’s the plan?” Dana asked.

“We each need to focus on our strengths,” Patty said. “Chelsea, you’re a writing major, so literature is you. And maybe entertainment.”

“We should all be good at entertainment,” she answered, “if the questions are new enough.”

“They aren’t. This is the first edition. My mom knows half the answers.”

Chelsea and Dana both groaned.

“Okay,” Patty continued, ignoring the girls. “I finally got into my core classes this term, so I had two sciences in addition to my teaching courses. I’ll take responsibility there.”

“Sounds fair,” Chelsea said. “I just finished two world history courses, so hopefully I’ll remember something. And if the questions are more about sports and less about leisure, we should be good between the two of us.”

“Agreed,” Patty answered. Both girls loved and followed many professional sports, so she felt confident between the two of them. Then she looked at Dana, who wasn’t even paying attention any longer. Dana was a Philosophy major. What did Philosophy majors even study, anyway? She turned back to Chelsea. “How are you at Geography?”

“I suck. You?”

“No better. I guess that’s Dana’s area, then.”

“Huh?” Dana said.

“Forget that,” Chelsea said. “She can’t find her way across the street without a map, and then she can’t read it. We’ll just have to hope for an easy chip question then.”

“Okay, I guess we’re ready,” Patty said.

“Let’s play,” Chelsea said.

Patty nudged Dana and they turned to the boys and the board. “Roll to see who’s first.”

The game consisted of more trash talk and less civility than a trivia game would have on a winter break in someone’s home. Occasionally someone ran to the kitchen for drinks or snacks, but mostly the six students stayed glued to the table, riveted by the board and the cards. After three hours, the girls were up by one chip and had landed on the Geography triangle.

“Blue for the chip!” Patty said.

“Crap,” Chelsea said so only Patty could hear. “It’s Geography.”

“We’ll be fine. Listen to the question.”

Joey read the card. “What’s the only state in America to end with the letter K?”

“End in K. What state ends in K?” Patty yelled.

“Stop yelling,” Dana said.

“Don’t tell me not to yell!” Patty yelled, waving her fists in the air. “It’s for a chip!”

“Okay, so we’ll guess the answer,” she said, and munched on a pretzel.

“Guess the answer! You haven’t guessed one answer right all day! And we’re winning! We could go ahead by two. By two! And this is geography. Geography!” Patty said.

“So guess Utah.”

Patty and Chelsea both stared at her. Joey’s eyes bulged, Mike covered his mouth and Troy turned some noise into a cough. Patty suspected it was laughter, but she was too flummoxed to address it at the moment.

“I’m sorry, what? Did you say Utah?”

“Yeah. Utah.”

Mike also began coughing.

Chelsea said, “You heard them say ‘K’ didn’t you? The state ends in K.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

Patty looked at Chelsea, whose eyes were growing wider by the second. Chelsea shook her head to clear it, like she was clearing an Etch-a-Sketch screen.

Patty said, “Okay. Let’s start at the top and work our way down. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania—”

“I’m telling you, it’s Utah.”

“Are you kidding me?” Patty said.

A snort burst out of Joey.

“Just say Utah.”

“Let’s start over,” Chelsea said. “Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont.”

“New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,” Patty continued.

“Just say Utah. It’s Utah.”

“Oh my God! What is wrong with you?” Chelsea asked.

“It’s Utah.”

“It. Is. Not. UTAH!” Patty said.

All three of the guys laughed at Patty’s outburst, but there was nothing she could say. It was ridiculous. If she heard ‘Utah’ one more time, she might shove the blue pie piece up Dana’s nose.

“Maybe if we did it alphabetically?” Chelsea said.

“Alaska, Alabama,” Patty said.

“You’re already out of order, genius,” Joey said.

“Shut up, Joe. At least I have a real major. I don’t just blow into a horn all day long.”

“Being a music major at CMU is harder than being an education major where you go, so blow on that,” he said.

“Well, I go to CMU, and I have a real major, so you both can shut up,” Chelsea said. Turning to Patty, she said, “I can’t do it alphabetically. There’s Alaska, Arkansas… too many Ks. Let’s start at the top again.”

“There’s Maine, New Hampshire,” Patty said.

“Vermont, New York, Massachusetts,” Chelsea said.

“Utah,” Dana’s soft voice chimed in.

Chelsea threw her head down on the table.

“I’m going to kill you,” Patty said.

“What?” Dana asked. Patty wasn’t sure if the innocence in her voice was true or if she was mocking her.

“Why in God’s name do you think it’s Utah?” Chelsea asked. “There isn’t a single K in the entire word.”

“It’s only four letters long,” Dana said.

Patty glared at her. “The question isn’t ‘What’s the only state with four letters?’ And by the way, Utah isn’t the only state with four letters, there’s also Ohio, so what is your obsession with Utah?”

“H is close to K. So I figured it’s probably a trick question, and the answer is Utah.”

“You think it’s a trick question?” Chelsea asked.

“There are trick questions sometimes.”

“And if this is a trick question, the answer isn’t going to be that there aren’t any states that end in K,” Patty said. “The answer will be Utah, because H is near K in the alphabet.”

“Well, when you say it like that it just sounds stupid.”

“You think?” Patty said.

“Now you’re just being mean,” Dana said.

“Shut up.”

The guys were laughing so hard that they had red faces and tears in their eyes. Patty ignored them. She and Chelsea went through all fifty states, including Utah, at least three times, but neither of them could figure out which one ended in K. It didn’t help that Dana was sitting there muttering “Just say Utah” under her breath as they recited state names.

After about twenty minutes passed, Joey said, “I realize there’s no time limit, but at some point you really need to take a guess.”

Patty refused to include Dana in the decision, but she looked at Chelsea, who shrugged. “I haven’t got a single idea. We’ve been through them all. We’ve been through the territories. I don’t know.”

Dana didn’t say any words, but she hummed four syllables that sounded like, “Just say Utah” in Patty’s head. Patty refused to acknowledge her. “Chels, what do you want to guess?”

“Your game, your call.”

Patty banged her head down on the table so her hair covered her face. She mumbled something unintelligible.

“Sorry, sis, we didn’t catch that,” Joey said.

“Utah!”

The guy hooted and hollered for a full five minutes before they informed the girls the answer was New York.

Patty was livid. Had Dana been quiet, they would have gotten it right. They had mentioned New York at least six times, but never heard it because of her ‘Just Say Utah’ mantra.

The girls never got another chip. The guys beat them within the hour.

Then the girls lured them outside and creamed them in a snowball battle. Patty might have hit Dana with one or two when she wasn’t looking.

First Friday Fiction Feature — Real Estate Realities

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment.

A link to this story, and all prior stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.

Real Estate Realities

real estate realities“It says ‘A cozy one bedroom vintage bungalow. Mature landscaping. Rustic charm.’ This has to be it. Carol should be here soon, and we’ll check out the inside.”

He had stopped the car in front of a ramshackle old diner. White paint peeled off the clapboard siding. Faded black stripes with white letters advertised:

CALIFORNIA LUNCH ROOM

SNACKS

CANDY

TOBACCO

GLOVES

CAPS

It was a generic laundry list of days gone by, when pathetic patrons could stop in for a number of items ranging from greasy food to cancer sticks to outerwear. She couldn’t dream who would frequent such a place, but she had no trouble imagining why it closed. The overgrown pine in the corner only helped hide its embarrassment to the world. The dead potted plant at the doorway cemented her resolve.

“I’m not going in there, Justin.”

“How else are we going to know if we like it?”

“I already know. I hate it.”

“Come on, Sara. Look at the hidden potential. The front is almost entirely all windows. Think of the natural light.”

“So we can see the filth?”

He ignored her. “And it was a restaurant, so it should have a large kitchen.”

“And an inch thick layer of grease.”

“Here’s Carol. Let’s go check it out.”

Their real estate agent offered Justin a handful of papers. “I have the comps. Now that you aren’t looking at the coastal area of San Diego, I think you’ll find the properties more affordable.” She led them inside.

“This area was the patron space of the café. It can easily be converted to your main living space by removing the booths and tables. I’d replace the windows and doors, of course, and wall this area off to make the master bedroom.” She gestured to a recessed area of the interior.

“You mean there isn’t a separate bedroom?” Sara asked.

“None of the reno is done yet. That’s why this place is a steal.” Turning toward the bar, Carol continued. “This would have to go, but you could put your own eating bar in, and open this area up to your kitchen. It, like the bathroom, is fully functional, but would need to be redone.”

“Let’s check them out,” Justin said.

They walked through the kitchen and bathroom and walked back out again, trying not to touch anything.

“What about a bathtub?” Sara asked.

“When you redo the bathroom, the plumber can install one for you.”

“This is so not what I want,” Sara said.

Justin pulled her aside. “This is really all we can afford. We can renovate, install hardwood, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances. We’ll make it work.”

Carol approached. “I can show you something in the barrio, perhaps?”

Justin looked at Sara and raised his eyebrows.

Sara said, “I guess we’ll take this one.” She looked out the door through rusted security bars at the dead potted plant and wondered how long it would be before she too withered and faded.

First Friday Fiction Feature (on Thursday) — Raising Mason

Hi Folks!

I spent the morning rearranging the toolbar on my site (took far longer than it should have 🙁 is it me, or is it WordPress?) to make navigation easier, the toolbar cleaner, and to make room for a new feature here: fiction.

Now, on occasion, I’ll be posting short stories for you to read at your leisure. Some will be flash fiction, some will be longer pieces, but none of the pieces I post will be published anywhere but here.

A link to this story, and all future stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.

I hope you enjoy this feature, and visit often.

~S

Raising Mason

rain stormCara glared at her son. He hadn’t packed a single bag, hadn’t unloaded one item from the car, hadn’t gathered a twig. He had done nothing since they arrived except laugh while she was engulfed by the pop-up tent they were to share. Once she had it sturdily anchored, he lay on a sleeping bag—the good one she had brought—and put his headphones in while she gathered wood for the fire and struggled to get the flames started. She almost allowed a feeling of accomplishment to creep in, almost, when that first drop fell. The hiss of the raindrops on the hot rocks was as welcome as the rain would be on the fire it took her twenty minutes to build. Cara glowered at the ominous thunderclouds roiling over each other in their haste to cover her anemic campsite. She poked at the kindling with a long branch. It reminded her of the saying, Don’t poke the bear. It felt like she was poking at disaster. Another drop fell and she heard the sizzle amid the crackle of the flames.

“Take your headphones off, please.”

Mason still had the headphones on, so she reached over and pulled one out.

“I asked you to take the headphones out.”

“You didn’t ask, you told. And they aren’t headphones.”

She sighed and gripped the branch tighter. “Fine. What are they?”

“They’re Beats.”

Ah yes. Dr. Dre’s Tour ControlTalk Beats. She scrimped and saved to buy the damn things, she should have known what they were called. “My apologies. Would you please take the Beats out?”

“Why should I? You’re listening to your shit.”

“Mason, don’t use that language.”

“You do.”

The “shit” currently playing was a CD of metal hair bands from the 80s. She had brought an old boom box and a selection of CDs to play while they roasted hotdogs and made mountain pies and S’mores. Her music collection hadn’t been updated since he’d been born… so what? Music was better when she was young, anyway.

Cara sighed and turned off “Still Loving You” by the Scorpions. Nature made its own music. She was there to bond with her son. She could listen to hair bands on her own time.

“Now I’m not listening to my music and you don’t have to listen to yours. We can just talk.”

He wrapped his Beats around his iPod and shoved them in his front pocket. He lay with his arms behind his head while Cara poked at the fire. The crackling continued to be interrupted by the occasional hiss of raindrop spatter.

“I thought you wanted to talk,” Mason said.

“I’d love to.”

“So say something.”

But she was at a loss. She no longer knew her own son. Gone was the little boy who used to give her sweaty hugs and sticky kisses, the boy who she’d read stories to or played catch with in the yard. Cara used to know just what things would make his face light up, and one of those things used to be her. Now she didn’t know what any of those things were. She only knew that she wasn’t one of them.

“I know you come here a lot with your dad. I thought maybe you’d enjoy camping with me, too.”

“I enjoy camping with Dad because we fish, or hunt, or hike. We don’t just sit and listen to some crappy music on an old relic.”

Cara was silent for a while before she answered. “I just thought we could use a little alone time.”

“I have alone time with you constantly. I live with you.”

“You just always seem so excited about your camping trips. I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.”

“It’s Dad. Dad makes them fun.”

Does Dad? Dad’s so fun. Dad’s so special. Where was Dad when you had a fever of one hundred four degrees? Where was Dad when you had to be at school at five in the morning for a field trip? Where’s Dad for all the dinners and the laundry and the homework help and the rides you need everywhere?

The branch she was poking the fire with splintered in her hand. Cara started picking slivers of bark out of her palm.

“Mom, it’s raining harder now.”

Cara had been so preoccupied with her mental tirade against her ex-husband that she didn’t notice the increase in the rainfall. “Let’s get in the tent.”

“Let’s get in the car.

She merely stood and stared while he doused the fire by kicking dirt over the twigs and stones. It had been such a pathetic fire that it died out without much fight.

As though the gods themselves were against her, the clouds chose that moment to empty in a tirade. “Damn it, Mom. Aren’t you going to do anything? We’ll be soaked in a minute.” He had the tent folded up before she willed herself to move.

Cara did about as much packing as Mason did unpacking. She grabbed her boom box and CD collection while he grabbed the rest, and they threw everything in the car. As Mason predicted, they were pretty well drenched by the time the car was loaded and the campsite was clear. “Thanks for the help,” he said.

“I helped.”

“You didn’t do anything!”

“I got my music. The rain would have ruined it.”

“It could only be an improvement,” he muttered. Before she could defend it, he continued, “Didn’t you want to leave?”

“I thought the tent would be enough protection from the storm.”

“It wasn’t even put up the right way. The first strong gust of wind would have taken it down, and drenched us with it.”

“If you knew it was assembled wrong, why didn’t you help me put it up?”

“I just wanted to see what you did when it fell, I guess.”

Cara sighed. “Mason, if you had just helped to begin with, we would be dry right now.”

“Whatever.”

“You wasted time putting out the fire when the rain would have done that.” She could hear the bitchiness in her voice, but couldn’t stop it.

“You can never be too sure about forest fires.”

“Whatever, Mason.”

“Let’s just go.”

There was no point in being angry on top of the frustration she already felt. She tried to swallow it all and dug her keys out of her pocket. Putting them in the ignition, she turned and… nothing. She tried again. Nothing.

“It’s your battery.”

“How can you tell?”

“Because when I was loading the car the interior lights never came on. I wondered why the car was dark, but I was rushing too much to give it a second thought. And while you were turning the key, the car didn’t sputter or try to turn over. It’s the battery.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“Dad.”

Of course. St. Michael taught him about cars even though he didn’t have his license yet. Wonder what else Super Dad taught him before he was ready?

“You better call AAA.”

“I don’t have AAA.”

“Dad says all drivers should have AAA.”

“I really don’t give a flying… fig what your father says about AAA. I had a membership, but I let it lapse.”

“What did you do something stupid like that for?”

Because a certain sixteen year old who only wears brand name clothes needed braces and joined Ski Club and insisted on getting his own pads for football because the school-supplied ones were sub-par. Wonder who that could have been?

“You make choices in life, Mason. That was a choice I made.”

He took his phone out of his pocket.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m calling Dad.”

“Oh no you’re not.”

“Well, I’m not sitting here in this storm.”

“I’ve got jumper cables in my trunk.”

“That’s great. Do you have a battery to connect them to?”

Damn it. She stayed quiet, unwilling to answer him.

“Do you have anyone else to call?”

The rain splashed on the windshield, each drop a splotching disapproval of her predicament. “Do you?” she whispered, ashamed to ask but even more fearful of his not bailing her out.

He shook his head and dialed. “Dad, I need your help.”

The wait was interminable. Part of her wanted Michael never to show up, part of her wanted him to just get there and get it over with. All of her wanted the ground to open and swallow her whole. She hated that she was in this predicament. Why did it have to rain? Why did her battery have to die? Why did it have to be Michael to the rescue?

She and Mason had said nothing since he called his father. She watched dusk fall in silence. A solitary swath of purple streaked across the horizon, the reds and oranges oppressed from view by the indigo storm clouds billowing across the heavens. True blackness of storm and night descended without a single word passing between her and her son. The only sounds to break the monotony were the rumbling of thunder and the pounding of rain on the car. Occasionally a flash of lightning illuminated their surroundings, and Cara could see the stubborn set of Mason’s jaw in his profile. He was staring out the windshield and hadn’t moved.

About an hour into the storm, Cara made out two points of light in the distance. The moment she dreaded had arrived. Michael was approaching.

“Finally,” Mason muttered.

“You know he does things on his own schedule,” she said.

“Give it a rest, Mom. He didn’t have to come at all.”

No, he didn’t. But then he couldn’t win Parent of the Year if he left his son in the woods during a storm.

When Michael got to them, they both got out of the car, but Mason was faster. He clambered into the backseat, leaving Cara to take the front. She dreaded being so close to Michael again, but she dreaded delaying him with her dawdling even more. She squared her shoulders and opened the passenger door.

“Could you take any longer, Cara? You’re going to get my seats all wet.”

She swallowed a sigh and shut the door with just a little more force than was necessary. “I’m sorry, Michael. Thanks for coming to get us.”

He pulled out before she was even strapped in. “Well, I couldn’t just leave Mason out here.”

Not both of us. Mason. “No, I suppose not.”

“Why did you cancel AAA?”

Here we go. “There were many factors to consider. It was the right decision for me.”

“Well, not for me, obviously.”

Obviously.

“Otherwise I wouldn’t be out in the middle of a storm hauling you all over God’s green earth. You better get that renewed.”

“I’ll look into it.”

“Did you even check the weather? What were you doing out there tonight?”

“I did check. It said slight chance of rain. And it was my night off.”

“My report didn’t say slight chance. It said ninety percent. You should listen to Channel Two. Or get the app I use for my phone. I’ll check which one it is and send you the link. It’s not too expensive.”

Cara didn’t have an iPhone, so she didn’t really care what app he had. She had no use for it, and if she did have an iPhone she couldn’t afford to buy an app anyway. She willed herself to keep her mouth shut and just stared out the window. She still had bark in her hand and she picked at it blindly to pass the time.

They sat in silence for a while, Cara peering into the darkness. The road home wove through dense forestland and over a river. The moon and stars were blanketed by strata of storm clouds, leaving only Michael’s two halogen headlamps and the occasional flash of lightning to illuminate the way. Occasionally he tried the high beams, and when he did all Cara saw were spears of rain pelting the car. She preferred it when he used the low beams and just raised the speed of the wipers. She looked up. Tree branches interlaced above her, forming a giant leafy blanket. As the wind blew, the boughs moved as one undulating mass, shaking leaves and buds onto the windshield. The wipers cleared the mess away. The sights unnerved her, so she focused on the sounds: the grind of the tires on the road, the pounding of the rain on the car, the thrum thrum of the wipers on the glass. The sounds outside the car were almost soothing. The silence in the car was nerve-wracking. But it was worse when Michael spoke. And of course he spoke again.

“Who goes on a trip with a bad battery, anyway? Either you haven’t been maintaining your car properly, or you didn’t check the car before the trip.”

“It was my fault, Dad.”

“Your fault?” Cara and Michael said together.

“I was excited when we got there and I left the hatch open after we unloaded the car. The interior lights being on that long probably ran the battery down. Mom didn’t neglect the car’s maintenance. I was just careless.”

“Oh. Well. You should know better. I’ve taught you about cars and responsibility. You’ll have to wait a month before I take you to get your learner’s permit.”

“Michael, that’s not—”

“Don’t argue with me about this, Cara. He needs to be accountable for his actions.”

“It’s fine, Mom. I’m okay with it. Really.”

Cara turned to look at Mason. He nodded his head toward his dad then shook his head. She fought back tears, not wanting to betray her son’s lie. Then she turned and watched the rain again. She tried to ignore Michael and focus on what soothed her until she got home: the grind of the tires, the pounding of the rain, the thrum thrum of the wipers.

Finally they stopped in front of Cara’s townhouse.

“Thanks for the ride, Dad.” Mason didn’t wait for an answer. He just ran to the door.

Cara saw Michael roll his eyes and shake his head almost imperceptibly.

“What?”

“Nothing. I just expected him to wait for me to say goodbye. I would think you’d be teaching him better manners than that.”

She bit the inside of her cheek before answering. “Thanks for the lift, Michael.”

“The storm’s supposed to let up tomorrow afternoon. Will you need a ride back then?”

“We’ll let you know.” There was no way in hell she was calling him again.

“I’d like some notice. I can’t sit around all day waiting for your call.”

“I’ll let you know. With advance notice.”

Michael was gone before she reached the porch. She leaned in to kiss Mason’s cheek, and he let her. That was her sweet little boy. “Do you want some hot chocolate?”

“Sounds great. I’ll make a fire.”

She smiled at him and was heartened when he returned it. Cara unlocked the door, and he headed toward the fireplace. She’d make them a snack while Mason built a fire, and they’d spend the night talking and listening to the rain.

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