Walking the rail

920 words

It’s been a minute. Class + new job + oh, other things. But look! I’m here! …And very out of practice.

This one was the result of being tired after a long commute home. It came pretty easily, but I don’t think it’s very good. So there’s that.

Charles could do it, he knew it. He’d seen it on YouTube a hundred—no, FIVE hundred times. It just took confidence, that’s what he’d said, the cool teenager with the Santa Cruz hat and large, colorful sneakers. Well… and balance. And practice. Lots of practice. But where was Charles supposed to practice? He didn’t have a skate park like that guy in the videos. Plus, even if he did, he didn’t want to go to the skate park without a board and look like a dork.

But he had a rail at home. He stood next to it; it came up to his abdomen. If he were to pull up his Star Wars t-shirt, one could count his ribs; he was thin for his age and often called “straw” by the other fifth-grade boys. That made him mad, but he tried not to show it. Instead, he pulled his cap down tighter and clamped his lips together and strode away. He wanted them to think he hadn’t heard, but he knew they knew. And really, if “straw” was the worst thing they’d come up with he’d gotten off easy. They saved their meanest—and objectively, the most creative—insults for the more vulnerable classmates. Those with who looked different or had less money. “Straw” he could bear.

He tried to eat all of the food his mom put in front of him, but it was always too much and too rich. Milkshakes dense with whole-milk ice cream and thick peanut butter were pushed toward him after he’d already managed to choke down the baked potato soggy with sour cream and butter. But he couldn’t do it. Full to the point of pain, he’d pour the remainder of his shake into his eager dog’s bowl, told his mom how good it was, and dragged his swollen belly up the stairs and into his bedroom. He wanted to tell her the food wasn’t making him fatter, just sicker and unhappier, but he didn’t want to hurt his mom’s feelings.

His mom had a way of looking at Charles that made him want to protect her. He’d had the same feeling about his little brother when he was tiny. Now, with his helpless wails evolving into shrieks of fury and “I WANT,” Charles had lost most of his impulse to shield his brother from harm. He would, of course, but the feeling was much less strong. His mom, however, was different. And Charles’ way of protecting her was not to repel the gangsters or robbers which would undoubtedly attack the house any day now; he protected her by keeping what happened at school to himself.

Whenever she asked about his day, he’d force a smile and say, “Pretty good.” He’d then tell her an anecdote (sometimes made up, sometimes not) about something funny that happened. Kelsey misread “badger” as “booger” out loud in class. A dog ran onto the field during PE. Mrs. Tenney broke into song. He started telling the stories as a way to make his mother’s face smooth out. He’d noticed that if he just said, “Fine,” and left it at that, her face would scrunch up, she’d give his slight body a once-over, and maybe an extra helping of pasta would appear on his plate. Likewise, an answer of “Great!” was received with suspicion. In the end, “Pretty good” plus a story got the best results.

Charles wasn’t sure how he’d found the videos. He was probably looking for soccer tips when he came across a video of sleek, muscular teenagers effortlessly springing from rooftops, turning mid-air somersaults, and throwing themselves down stairs without injury. He was mesmerized. Under the guise of doing research for school projects, he spent hours watching the videos, headphones throbbing with their bass-heavy soundtracks. He studied how they launched themselves and how the landed. How they moved their feet and arms. And how effortlessly cool they were.

Now, standing on the second-story balcony eyeing the rail, Charles thought, “How hard could it be?” He turned to face the French doors leading into his parents’ bedroom and placed the heels of his hands on the red-stained wood. He remembered his dad refinishing the balcony last summer; cans dripping with coppery stain lined the garage. Charles imagined it was blood, but knew it wasn’t. Blood didn’t come in cans.

Lowering himself into a squatting position, he gave a little hop and heaved his butt onto the railing. He sat there for a few moments, looking into the bedroom. There was the jewelry box which kept generations of baubles. There was the steam trunk at the end of the bed storing linens and towels. There were the pictures of him and his brother and his grandmother and grandfather. Taking a deep breath, he brought his right foot, then his left foot onto the rail, but both hands still clutched the wood, his knuckles blanching. His knees were pulled up to his chin, and he looked as if he was readying himself to dive into a pool. With shaking legs, he removed his hands from the rail, and slowly straightened his legs. He smiled. He was standing on the rail.

His mother entered the bedroom and moved to draw the curtains. He watched as the look on her face went from placid to confused to terrified. He took a step and jumped.

Reply all

751 words

It’s been a long week. My eyes are only half open right now. And I think I watch too much Twilight Zone (or again with the Stephen King; after I wrote this I found it had a “Quitters, Inc.” vibe).

The desk nearest the conference room was bare. Its top drawer protruded like a defiant jaw and—save for a single paper clip—was empty. A faint coffee-tinged ring the size of a “World’s Best Dad” mug stained the desktop like a tattoo, and a larger circle of calcified water heralded where a spider plant once lorded over the workday. An abandoned rubber mousepad emblazoned with the company’s logo wilted on the corner of the desk.

Simon stood at the end of the row, his own coffee cup in hand, surveying the desolation. On either side of the desk were two of his coworkers, mousing and typing as if there weren’t an empty desk between them. Their own workspaces were festooned with stuffed animals, photos of gap-toothed children, and colorful mugs stuffed with highlighter pens and sharpies. Their desks made the empty one even more depressing. It reminded Simon of the Victorian house that was torn down in his neighborhood; a gaping void flanked by two brightly colored gingerbread residences.

Simon walked up to the desk and set his coffee down. The woman to the left shot him a quick glance, but didn’t slow her work. If anything, her typing became more frantic.

Simon frowned. Did she look nervous? “Hey, Marcy. What’s going on here? What happened to Brent? Did he move to a different desk?”

Marcy, and the woman on the right, Gwen, stopped working long enough to give him incredulous and withering looks. Gwen bowed her head close to the keyboard, and began typing so quickly the force of it made her desk shake. Simon noticed her forehead was damp and her lips were white.

Marcy’s eyes darted around the room. She hushed Simon with a short hiss through her clamped teeth.

“Did he get fired?” Simon asked, lowering his voice. “That doesn’t make sense. He was great at his job. Laid off?”

Marcy made the hissing sound again and turned back to her work. Simon could feel other eyes on him. He remembered reading a book when he was in middle school—Watership Down—in which questions about the whereabouts of warren members were ignored or discouraged because a missing rabbit was a dead rabbit.

Simon stood over Marcy’s shoulder. “Look, Marcy. I’m not trying to be nosy or spread gossip, here. Brent was working on a couple of things for me, and if he doesn’t work here anymore, I need to know. So what’s going on?”

Marcy’s eyes widened and her lips stretched into a grimace, exposing her teeth. Simon recognized it as a “shut up for your own good” expression; his wife gives him the same look when he’s stepped over the line or inadvertently brought up a sensitive topic. Before he could say anything else, Marcy stood up and pushed her chair back in one swift motion. She marched into the conference room and when Simon didn’t follow, stuck her head out of the door, rolled her eyes, and made a quick circular motion with her hand. When Simon was in the room, she shut the door behind her, drew the Venetian blinds, and double-checked the speakerphone wasn’t connected.

“Brent’s gone,” she said.

“Okay,” Simon said. “Was he fired?”

“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” Marcy said.

“What’s another way of looking at it?” Simon asked. He could see his colleagues stealing glances at them through the gaps in the blinds. Was there a larger layoff coming? Why hadn’t he heard about this? Was he next?

Marcy picked at her nails. She looked as if she was considering her words carefully.

“Just tell me what’s going on,” he said. “If it’s a layoff, or if you know something about my position that I don’t know yet, that’s fine. I’ve been through this before. I’ll be—”

“He was eliminated,” Marcy interrupted.

“I know. I got that,” Simon said.

“You’re not getting this. He was eliminated.” She slowed the pronunciation of the last word. When it was clear Simon wasn’t understanding, she sighed. “Reply all,” she said.

“What?”

“Reply all,” she said again. “Three times and you’re out. Carter hates when his employees accidentally hit ‘reply all,’ so he started a rule. You do it once, warning. Second time, probation. Third time, you’re out.”

“Are you serious? You hit ‘reply all’ three times and you’re fired?”

“Not fired,” Marcy said. “Eliminated.”

Simon threw up his hands. “Fired. Sacked. Made redundant. Eliminated. What’s the difference?”

“Well for starters, when you’re fired, you’re still breathing.”

 

 

Tinderella

This was for a class assignment: rewrite a fairy tale for modern times.

 
Swipe. Swipe. Swipe.

Cameron flicked the phone with her thumb. Her sisters had put her up to this, and now they hovered over her shoulders watching her movements. Her older sister was shouting directions.

“Left. Left. Left. Right! Oooh, right! Left. RIGHTRIGHTRIGHT!”

“I think I’ve got this, Bree,” Cameron said, backing away and clasping the phone to her chest. “I know what I want.”

Her sisters looked at each other and barked exaggerated laughs. “No, Cam,” the older one said, shaking her head, “you don’t. If you did, we wouldn’t be here doing this right now.”

“Your ex-husband was kind of a disaster,” said the younger one. “I mean, he was sweet and all, but a little—”

“—Weird,” finished the older. “Just say it, Stella. He was weird.”

Cameron dropped the phone into her bag. “He wasn’t weird. He just had unusual interests.”

“Maybe because he was so rich?” Stella said. “I mean, when you grow up like that, having everything you want, you’re bound to be a little stunted in the emotional department, right? People have to find fulfillment in different ways. Bree, you’ve known guys like that.”

Bree snorted. “Yeah, but usually they do stuff like taking sailing lessons or collecting motorcycles. They don’t start stockpiling women’s shoes. How many pairs did you say he had?”

Cameron pressed her lips together. She wished she hadn’t shared that information with her sisters, especially Bree, but an oaky Chardonnay had divulged all. “I can’t remember,” she said.

“I do,” Bree said. “Over 800 pairs. Did any of them even fit you?”

Stella shot her older sister a look then turned to Cameron. “I don’t think that’s so weird,” Stella said, putting her hand lightly on Cameron’s arm. “Maybe he was into fashion. A lot of men are.”

“Stella,” Bree said, “His favorite sexy role play was ‘Shoe Store.’”

Stella winced. “Okay. I don’t want to kink-shame here, but that is a little strange,” Stella said. “But still,” she continued, “you got to go to a lot of nice parties.”

Cameron remembered the parties. Lush affairs with beautiful food she couldn’t eat for fear it would show beneath the outfits her ex-husband had chosen for her. And of course, after every event, her feet were swollen and covered in Band-Aids. When she left the marriage for good, she’d tossed anything higher than a kitten heel.

She fished the phone out of her purse and launched the app. She knew what she wanted. Someone average-looking with no deep secrets who would appreciate her Lululemon wardrobe and enjoy a Friday night on the couch just watching movies.

“I just want someone to watch Netflix with me and just…” she sighed. “Just chill.” She started tapping the screen. “I think I’ll put that in my profile.”

Both sisters lunged at her phone. “NO!”

…and scene.

Whisper it

834 words

I have no idea what Keely’s power is. But I’ve always been haunted by stories in which someone had something really good, then they did something stupid and lost it. This is one of those.

“You can tell me.”

The voice came from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Keely could feel it under her feet, at her fingertips, on her scalp. It breathed and tingled; it yearned and reached and caressed. Keely curled her legs into her chest and clasped them tightly with her long arms. She rested her cheek on her bare knees.

“Tell me,” it said again. “You can, you know.”

The breeze scattered the papery leaves along the mossy carpet stretched out in front of her. She watched them turn somersaults, only to be replaced by newcomers to pick up their movements. The voice hung on the edges of the current, exhaling into its momentum. “Tell me… tell me… tell me.” High above, needles rattled in the branches, ebbing and flowing with the voice.

Keely put her hands over her ears. “No,” she said. “This is not for you to know. This is not for anyone to know. I promised.”

“Ah,” the voice said, sighing into her ears. “But what, exactly, did you promise? You said you wouldn’t tell another living soul. Am I a living soul?”

“I don’t know,” Keely said, clamping her hands tighter. It didn’t make a difference; the voice was in her head. “It’s not important,” Keely said. “What’s important is the promise.”

“But what is a promise but words?” Leaves swirled around Keely’s slight form, dipping and diving like an invitation to dance. “And words have meaning, you know.”

“I know that,” Keely said. She put her face on her knees and wrapped her arms around her head. “Go away. I want you to go away.”

“But why, child? I’m only here to help.” The ends of Keely’s dark hair floated away from her head then drifted back to her shoulders. “This is too much for a young girl like you to keep to herself. Don’t you feel it? The heavy burden? Let me take some of it for you. I can help you carry it.”

Keely’s shoulders slumped as if someone had indeed balanced something heavy on them. But she still insisted, “No. It’s not too heavy. And it’s mine. Just mine. I promised.”

“Ah, but it’s so unfair,” the voice said. “Why would they give this to you? Someone so young. Someone so small. Someone so,” the voice chuckled, “forgive me—ordinary. What have you done to deserve this burden? This prison?”

Keely looked up. Her gray eyes flashed. “It’s not a prison,” she said, looking around for the origin of the voice.

“Isn’t it? You carrying this power within you, not being able to share it openly, never telling anyone. How will you lead a normal life, child? How will you marry? Raise a family?”

Keely’s eyes grew bright. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Of course you don’t,” the voice said. “How could you know? Those who gave you this power don’t care about you. You’re a vessel. A means to their ends. And those ends,” the chuckle came again, “have nothing to do with you, sweet girl. They don’t care about you.”

Keely’s brow furrowed. “That’s not true,” she said. “Mama and Papa—“

“—are gone, regrettably. And left these others in charge. They don’t love you, do they? No. They don’t. They can’t.”

A tear cut a line down Keely’s cheek. The breeze wiped it away. “No,” Keely said. “I don’t believe you.”

“Yes, you do. I hear it in your voice. You know what I’m saying is the truth. Let me help you, child. Let me share your burden. Tell me and you will live a normal life. Tell me and you will be loved. Tell me and you will be free.”

Keely opened her mouth to speak, but the words she’d meant to say didn’t form. “I can’t,” she said instead.

“I’ll help you,” the voice said. “They’re just sounds. You can whisper it, if you’d like. Then you can be certain that only I will hear.”

Keely’s mouth quivered.

“Whisper it,” the voice said. “Whisper it. Whisper it. Whisper it.”

The breeze became stronger, and the leaves whirled into a funnel around Keely. The wind and the leaves themselves were chanting, “whisper it whisper it whisper it whisper it.”

Keely closed her eyes. Her lips pressed together. Her tongue touched her teeth and the roof of her mouth. When the last syllable died away with an exhale, a gale rose up from the forest floor. Keely’s hair stood straight up from her head, and the fauna around her shot into the air. And then it was over; the forest was still and silent.

“You shouldn’t have told me, child,” the voice said. But I thank you. The power is mine now. You are free. You will soon wish you weren’t.”

Keely said nothing. Her face was pale, her eyes empty.

“I’m leaving you now. I’m sorry to say you won’t remember this day fondly. You broke a promise. A whisper is still made of words. And words,” the voice became faint, “have meaning.”

 

 

 

You have to be patient

806 words

Meh, this was okay.

Edith lay belly-down in the soil, her head propped up in her hands, her legs skyward and crossed at the ankles. Her eyes were fixed on a single spot, its existence memorialized with a popsicle stick. Her dimpled hand reached toward the dirt beneath the orange-tinged stick she’d devoured a frozen confection from three days earlier, but then she paused, looking around. Satisfied, she settled back on her stomach and carefully dug a small hole with her finger. She stirred the ground until she found what she was looking for. Smiling, she pulled out a coin and held it into the sun. When she saw it was copper, she frowned, placed it back into the newly made hole, and carefully covered it.

“Edith?” The voice came from the back porch. “What are you doing?”

Edith scrambled to her feet and attempted to brush the dirt off of her clothes. “Nothing!” she called back. Then, not wanting to sound too guilty, she changed her answer. “Just playing!” She heard the screen door go through its musical arrangement—squeak, squeak, SLAM—and assumed Mawmaw went back inside. She was still trying to remove the dust from her jeans when a shadow fell over her. She jumped, startled.

Mawmaw stood over Edith, drying her hands on a dishcloth. “What were you playing?” Mawmaw asked. Edith searched her face for signs of suspicion, but Mawmaw’s expression was guileless.

“I was playing…” Edith looked around the garden. “I was playing farmer.”

“I see,” Mawmaw said, shoving the towel into the back pocket of her slacks. “You weren’t, by chance, checking on the progress of your tree, were you?”

“No,” Edith said. When Mawmaw said nothing, she added, “Well… maybe just a little.”

Mawmaw bent down and looked at the popsicle stick. While most of the earth at the garden’s surface was dry and crumbly from the summer heat, the soil around the stick was rich and dark. “It looks like you did a little digging,” she said.

“Just a little,” Edith said again. Her expression became anxious. “Do you think I ruined it?”

Mawmaw pursed her lips and sighed to show her disappointment. “No, honey. But I’ll bet it turned back into a penny, didn’t it?”

Edith looked at the ground with regret. “Yes,” she said.

“Yes, I thought so,” Mawmaw said. “Well, now you’ll have to start over. Is it still in the ground?”

“Oh yes,” Edith said, as if actually taking the penny for keeps was unthinkable. “I put it back.”

“Whew!” Mawmaw clutched at her chest. “We still have a chance then.” She smiled as she saw her granddaughter visibly relax. She’d done the money tree routine on her kids as well, and she’d almost missed the chance to experience this with Edith. Her daughter’s family came to visit every other year, and at almost seven years old, Edith was too young last time because she didn’t quite have the hang of currency yet. Next time, she wouldn’t have bought the ruse—even Santa Claus was nearing the end of his run. But for these two weeks, Edith was the perfect age.

“Well, I guess we’d better give it a drink of water. Edie, can you run and get the can?”

She didn’t have to ask twice. Edith sprinted to the porch and retrieved the hard plastic watering can. It was large and almost full, and Edith needed both hands to carry it back to the garden. She’d sloshed half of its contents before reaching her destination, but that was all right. They wouldn’t need much.

“Okay, now, carefully give it a little splash,” Mawmaw said, motioning to the stick. Edith tried to tip the spout slowly, but gravity took over, and most of the water gushed onto the soil, making a little crater.

“Woah, woah! That’s enough!” Mawmaw said. “You don’t want to drown the thing. And then it absolutely won’t grow.” Seeing the worry on Edith’s face, she quickly added, “But I think it’ll be okay.”

“Mawmaw, why does it go back? To a penny, I mean. When I look at it.”

“You know what? I don’t know,” Mawmaw said. “That seems to be a scientific mystery. But if I had to guess, I think it’s because it’s down there doing its thing and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Has that ever happened to you? You’re working on a thing, like coloring or reading, and you’re interrupted. And then you lose your place, so you have to start over?”

“Yeah!” Edith said. “I was practicing my letters and then Nathan came in and ruined it and I had to start over with a new piece of paper.”

“Yep,” Mawmaw said. “Exactly like that. With things like this, you can’t rush. You have to be patient and just let it do what it needs to do in its own time.”

 

 

I’ve lost my appetite

828 words

Another silly, self-contained story. Don’t know exactly where it came from but it was fun to write.

The teenage girl screamed as if her lungs would burst. She dragged herself along the cabin floor, clawing at the splintered boards with her nails. Her legs, rubbery and useless, trailed behind her. The blood spilling from the deep gash across her abdomen was making her movements sluggish. She was operating on pure fear and adrenaline. It was almost over.

Jason advanced stoically and raised his machete, but a sound behind him made him stop. It was the sound of metal on wood; something was… spinning? He turned to look behind him.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Michael shrugged. He was sitting at the rough-hewn kitchen table, whirling his butcher knife on its surface as if he were playing Spin the Bottle.

Jason pointed the blade at the girl. “Are you going to help me with this, or what?” Below him, the girl shrieked. Jason put his boot on her cheek and pressed down. “Hey, shush for a second. I can’t hear him.” She whimpered. He looked at Michael. “You said we were going to do this together.”

Michael spun the kitchen knife again. When it stopped, he picked it up by the handle and appraised it before driving its point into the table with a loud thunk. The sound prompted the girl to renew her wails, though it was clear her cries were diminishing.

“It looks like you have this all under control,” Michael said.

Jason couldn’t see Michael’s face under the mask but could tell he was pouting. He increased the pressure on the girl’s face. The screams dissolved into sobs. “Shh,” he said again. “You’re being rude.” He looked at Michael and pointed at the girl. “You want to finish her off?”

Michael shrugged and then shook his head.

“What’s your problem, Michael? We were looking forward to this. You were looking forward to this. ‘New group of teenagers,’ you said. ‘Camping trip,’ you said. ‘Fresh meat,’ you said.

“I know,” Michael said, wrenching the knife from the wood and setting it on the table. “I guess I…”

“What?” Jason asked. “You guess what?”

“I guess I’ve lost my appetite.” Michael leaned in his chair and rocked on its back legs. The chair threatened to collapse, and Michael righted it.

“Appetite?” Jason said, looking down at the girl. She was barely moving. The blood from her belly had spread in a crimson circle around her body, seeping into the floorboards. “You want to eat her? Huh. That’s new,” he said.

Michael shook his head. “No, I don’t want to eat her. God, you’re so literal sometimes. I just mean that… I don’t know. This used to be really fun. And now it just seems like…”

“Does this have anything to do with your annual review?” Jason removed his foot from the girl’s face. Only her fingers twitched. He walked to the table, leaving behind a trail of sticky red boot prints, and sat down. “Is that what this is about?”

“I don’t know,” Michael said. “Maybe. Yes. I don’t know.” He began to spin the knife again, and Jason flattened his palm on the blade to stop its rotation.

“Look,” Jason said. “I know your review was a little rough this year—“

Michael scoffed and turned away. “A little,” he said.

“—But at your level,” he continued, “we just expect a little more. I mean, no one is better with a knife than you are, but you know, branch out. Be a little creative.”

“Creative? What do you call a corn harvester?” Michael was breathing heavily. Jason thought it must be pretty humid under the mask by now.

Jason lowered his voice. “I’d call that creative. Honestly, that’s how you got a ‘meets expectations’ this year. If it hadn’t been for that, well.” He trailed off. “Now, take Freddy—”

Michael threw his hands up. “Oh, here we go. Freddy the golden boy. Mr. Freddy Scissorhands. Freddy, Freddy, Freddy. I can’t compete with that. The dude can enter dreams!”

Jason nodded. “Sure, but he doesn’t just enter dreams. I mean, the guy is a genius at killing kids. He could just show up and stab them with his hand, but he’s an artist. He turns them into cockroaches and then kills them. You see the difference?” Michael grumbled something under his breath.

Jason cocked his head at the girl. “Come on, man. Let’s finish her together. I’m sure we can find something creative to do to get ahead start on your mid-year review. Maybe you could eat her! What do you say?”

Michael shuffled his body on the chair and exhaled deeply. It rasped inside the mask. “All right. Let’s do it.”

Jason clapped Michael on the shoulder. “That’s my man! Let’s do this!”

Michael pulled himself from the chair while Jason went back to the girl and picked up his machete. Michael joined him. They raised their weapons.

Jason paused. “Wait a minute.” He nudged her right leg with a boot. He dropped the blade to his side with a sigh of exasperation. “Well, shit. She’s already dead.”