A random act of kindness

844 words

I had a germ of an idea here, but I blew the whole 750 words on character development and didn’t get to the germ. Oh well. Maybe in one of the next ones.

Ryan held the crayon thickly in his fist. He dragged the point across the page, leaving behind a waxy, stuttering trail of red. He lifted the stick from the page and studied his progress. He doubled his efforts, scrubbing a thick line into a plastic sheen.

“Random means, ‘by chance,'” Audra said. “Be careful, you’re going to tear the paper.” She removed the last mug from the dishwasher and, turning it over, verified it was clean. She wiped it with a dishtowel and set in the cupboard.

Ryan didn’t look up. “You mean like an accident?” The red covered a third of the page, obscuring the black ink outline of Lightning McQueen.

“Mmm, no, not quite,” Audra said, surveying they counters. She frowned at a spot of dried egg the cleaners had missed and picked at it with her fingernail. “Accidents are, well, things that happen that are mostly bad.”

Ryan looked up. “Like the polar bear ornament?”

Audra wiped her hands on her apron. “Yes, like that.” They’d decorated the tree three weeks ago, but he still brought up the polar bear almost daily. Sure, Audra had been angry; after all, it had been her mother’s. And she had warned him to be careful. So it was a valid, reasonable reaction to be angry and disappointed when he’d shattered the delicate figure on the dining room floor. But she shouldn’t have said the things she did. He was only six. She remembered the look on his face when she said—well. She told him Mama was very sorry. And he seemed to be okay.

“But ‘random,’” she continued, is something that happens without you planning it to happen. So, a ‘random act of kindness is…?’” she said, rotating her hand at the wrist and raising her eyebrows in encouragement.

He set down the crayon and scrunched up his mouth. “Is… an act of kindness you didn’t plan?” he said.

“Yes!” Audra said, clapping her hands together. She pulled out a chair and sat down next to him at the kitchen table. There were filmy swipes dulling the tabletop wood, and she pulled her finger through one of them. Sponge marks. She would have to talk to the cleaners.

Ryan picked up the crayon again and positioned its now-dulled tip on the paper. Instead of coloring, he twisted his features and gazed at the ceiling. This, Audra knew, meant he was working through something. She had learned to be patient; more explanations or questions would throw him off track. His faced relaxed and he found the words to match his thoughts. “But you said we are going to do a random act of kindness.”

“That’s right, Ry-Ry,” Audra said, looking over his arm to his coloring. She saw the red was rubbing onto Ryan’s sleeve, leaving a faint wax patina on the fabric. She opened her mouth, but then closed it again.

“But,” he said, “isn’t that… like making a plan?”

Audra smiled. She had a smart kid. “Yes, I guess planning a random act of kindness isn’t random. But,” she said, poking him lightly in his belly, making him smile briefly, “what we’ll do will be random,” she said. “We don’t know what the act will be, do we?”

Ryan considered for a moment then shook his head.

“No,” Audra said, “we don’t.”

Ryan nodded and went back his coloring. Audra, thinking the conversation was over, pushed out her chair and retrieved a clean dishcloth from the linen drawer. Ryan turned from his work and all the way around in his seat, resting his arms on the chair back.

“Mama? Why are we doing this again?”

Audra leaned over the table and wiped vigorously at the sponge marks. “Because the girls and I thought it would be a good thing to do at Christmas. Don’t you?”

“Mm hmm,” he said, and sleepily laid his cheek on his arms.

“We’re so lucky,” Audra said, pushing the hair from his forehead. “We have this nice house, and lots of good food to eat, and you have your new colors and so many toys.”

“Mm hmm,” he said again. He turned his face from her hand and pressed his forehead to his arms. He stared at the kitchen floor, swinging a blue-socked foot.

“And because we’re so lucky—and a lot of people aren’t—it’s our responsibility to do nice things. Especially at Christmas. So the girls and I thought that even though we’re doing things like helping at the food bank, we should do something extra.” She paused. Ryan’s foot continued to sway, a hypnotic pendulum, but he said nothing.

She made her voice light, like a children’s show host. “So Miss Lila thought it would be a good idea for each of us to do a random act of kindness this week. And I thought it would be great for you and me to do it together. Just us. As a team! Don’t you think that would be fun?”

“Yes Mama,” Ryan said to the kitchen floor. His foot slowed and then stopped.

Moving back in

806 words

This is a continuation of this piece. It just fit so nicely, and I got to write words for Aunty, so win-win for me. (It came pretty easily; Aunty has a lot to say.)

They said nothing for a while and listened to an osprey call for a mate. The light was fading, the landscape dissolving into oranges and reds. Aunty poked a long finger into her glass, the ice remnants glowing with the remains of the day. A look of disappointment came over her face as she saw there was no more beverage—even a diluted one. She abandoned the glass on the rusty metal side table next to her.

“You want another drink?” Albert asked, pointing to her glass.

“Why? You want to get me drunk?” she said.

“Maybe,” Albert said. “If it would mellow you out a bit.” Aunty eased her whole body toward Albert, leaning against the right armrest and raising an eyebrow. She sighed as if with her last breath.

“Go on,” she said.

“What?” he said, lifting his palms to the darkening sky and opening his eyes wide, but she didn’t miss he wasn’t looking into her own eyes.

“You’ve got more to tell me,” she said. “Best get it over with.”

Albert absent-mindedly scratched the back of his head, then brushed away an imaginary mosquito. “She’s moving back in,” he said. “In the next couple of weeks or so. We’ve talked about it, and we think we can make it work. We’ve been seeing a counselor, and it’s been a really positive experience. We’ve been open and honest; we’ve told each other things we never had before. I think we have an opportunity to make this relationship stronger than it ever was before.” He paused, glancing at his aunt. He couldn’t read her expression. But then she did something he wasn’t expecting: she threw back her head and laughed. It was a real, full-throated laugh that came from deep inside her belly. He could see the pink of her tongue and the gold of her fillings.

“Listen to you,” she said, wiping her eyes. “You’re full of the Dr. Oz shit they’ve been force-feeding us from the television.” She lowered her voice in an exaggerated baritone and furrowed her brow. “We have the opportunity to make this relationship stronger dee doo deedee duh duhhhh,” she mocked.

“Aunty.” Albert wasn’t laughing.

“Lord, what a pile of horseshit. When did you start talking like you had a broom handle stuck up your ass? Are you finding your ‘inner child’ too? Exploring your feminine side?”

“Aunty, Lucy’s pregnant.”

Her humor evaporated in time with the daylight. Aunty’s face sagged into sobriety, shadows carving her face. There was an exhale.

“Oh,” she said, “of course she is.”

“It’s going to be okay,” Albert said. “We—“

“You poor, poor boy,” Aunty said, almost inaudibly. “She’s got you and good. And you don’t even know it.” She leaned back in her chair, sinking into the sunbleached cushions. She seemed to shrink; her neck collapsing into her shoulders. “You don’t even know it,” she repeated.

“We’ll make it work,” Albert said, resting a hand on hers. She didn’t react to his touch. “For the baby.”

“The baby,” she said, drawing the word out as if it were a wonderous new concept. “Do you even know it’s yours?”

“Of course it’s mine,” he pressed her hand. She remained still.

“You don’t know that. Not for sure. And if I know you, you won’t get any kind of tests done after the child is born. You’ll dote on it and be a good father, and never really know if it’s your blood.”

“No,” he said. “You’re right. I wouldn’t do that.”

“And with her carrying on like she has been—“

“It was a kiss,” he said. “One kiss.”

“That’s what she told you? That’s her story?” He could see her eyes snapping even in the dim light. “I don’t believe that. Not for a second. That’s what she told you because that’s what you saw. I want you to use that big brain of yours. What are the odds of you catching your girlfriend the one and only time she was kissing on another man?” She looked ruefully at her empty glass and wished she’d made it last longer.

“And I bet when you caught her, she looked you full in the face—cool as cotton—and told you what you needed to hear. You would have believed anything that woman told you. Because you’re a fool, Albert. And I want you to remember tonight. I want you to remember this old face on this old body sitting on this broken-down porch. I want you to remember what the light looked like as I said these words. I want you to remember what day of the week it was and what the weather was like and what I was wearing.”

Aunty heaved up from her chair and slid her feet into a pair of ratty slippers. She shuffled a step past Albert, then turned and put her hand lightly, kindly, on his shoulder.

“Because today is important, doll. Today is the day you fuck up your life.”

The stuffed head on the wall

777 words

Hoo boy, I didn’t want to do this today. I started one version in which a stuffed head  looked down at a bunch of people at a cocktail party and made comments. It would have been funny had I been in a funny-writing mood. (Narrator: “She was not in a funny-writing mood.”) So I came up with this. Again, don’t know where it came from; just had the idea of a stuffed head being the only thing available to listen to a lonely woman.

“Hello! Anybody in there?”

He was dimly aware she’d been talking for a while. He’d been looking at his phone;  Grant had sent over a slew of messages about the account and expected an immediate response. The phrase, “work-life balance” didn’t mean much to Grant. Actually, he didn’t separate work from life. It was all one big blob to him. But even with this pressure, he managed to pull his eyes away from the screen.


Her eyes went sharp and narrow, then relaxed into disappointment. “Did you hear anything I said?” she asked, pulling her hand from his knee and dropping it in her lap. Her other hand played in their sleeping daughter’s fine hair; she lightly pulled the silky strands straight up from her small head then let them float back into place.

“Sure. Sure I did,” he said. He was frantically trying to piece together words he think he might have heard, because he knew what the next question was going to be.

“What did I say?” she said.

“You said the garbage disposal is on the fritz,” he said with some confidence. He knew “garbage” and “fritz” were in there somewhere. “I’ll get it taken care of.”

“No,” she shook her head, “that’s not what I said. But I have to give you credit. You were kind of close. I said I’m sorry I didn’t take care of the garbage cans and that the fridge was on the fritz.” Her hand stopped fidgeting with the girl’s locks. The toddler didn’t stir.

He looked into Brenda’s face. She looked tired, older. But staying at home with a three-year-old all day—every day— would do that to you; he imagined it would make you exhausted in your body, mind, and soul. The limited interactions he had with Evie in the evenings and the weekends were enough for him. Sure, she loved her; he didn’t think he’d ever loved anything more in his whole life. But he was secretly glad that Brenda was the one who had decided to pause a career. Then again, he suspected it wasn’t much of a secret.

Brenda gently moved Evie off of her leg. Evie gave a long, powdery sigh and settled against the stuffed arm of the couch. Brenda leaned forward, cupping her calves and sliding her hands to her feet until her chest rested on her thighs. She let her head hang down; her caramel-colored hair obscured her face.

“Colin,” she said from beneath her hair. “I—“ she stopped.

Colin put his palm on her back, but stole a glance at his phone. Three more emails from Grant had come through. Brenda sat up quickly, and ran both hands through her hair, smoothing it. Colin turned his phone screen-down on the sofa. The gesture didn’t go unnoticed. He rubbed her back.

“What?” he asked. “What’s going on?” Her eyes became glassy and her mouth pressed and worked.

“I can’t,” she said finally.

Colin frowned. “Can’t what?”

She shook her head from side to side. “I can’t. I can’t. I just can’t.” She spread her arms wide to indicate the entirety of her world. “This. It’s not… It’s too…” she trailed off. Colin started to say something, but she continued.

“I know I agreed. I mean, I volunteered. It made sense. But Co, I’m so lonely. I feel like whatever I was before is gone, completely gone. And I know you have to put in the extra time at work,” she nodded at the phone, its body haloed with the glow of incoming messages, “but you’re gone too. And when you’re here, you’re there,” she pointed at the device. “And I have no one to talk to except… except…” she looked around the room until her eyes landed on the ironic buck head mounted over the fireplace. “Except that stuffed head on the wall. That stupid, ridiculous deer head.”


Recognizing the perfume

819 words

I don’t know where this came from. I read the prompt and was cooking dinner, and this popped into my head. Oh, how I love writing dialogue.

She took another sip of her Jack and Coke. The doctor told her she shouldn’t be drinking alcohol or soda, but her motto lately had been, “I’m 82 years old. Fuck it.” She nursed her drink; she was a “cheap drunk” as she liked to say, her weight refusing to budge the scale needle over 92 pounds. But she was a practiced drinker, and expertly kept herself “merrily tipsy.”

“I don’t know what you think I’m going to say to you,” she said, giving Albert the side-eye. “Or rather, you know what I have to say. Do I actually have to get the words out of my lungs?”

“She’s trying, aunty,” Albert said, but couldn’t look into his aunt’s eyes. He’d told the rest of the family but had left his great-aunt until last. Even tipsy, she had a tongue that told the truth and did not work hard to make it pretty. He had a good idea what she thought of his girlfriend.

“Trying.” She rattled her glass, warming up the ice cubes to melt them. It diluted the drink but it made it last longer. “That woman hasn’t tried in her life. Trying means effort. Trying means work. She doesn’t work.”

“Of course she works,” Albert says. “She—“

“I don’t mean job-working. I know she does that. That’s easy. You get up. You go to a building and you type on your computers and you sit in meetings and read emails. Then you drive home on your leather seats and have take-out dinners and talk about oh how tired you are and how hard your day was.” She turned to face Albert. He didn’t look up, but she gave him the full force of her eye-roll anyway. “That’s not work. I’m talking about the things that make you a better person. The things that make you uncomfortable or even cause pain. It means sacrificing something that’s bad or even okay so you can get to something real. Something better. I’ve known that woman for over a year. She takes the easy route. Every time.”

Albert looked at his aunt. Her gray head had turned to look out over the lake, and she opened her thin, shaking lips to wet them with the Jack and Coke.

“Aunty,” he said. “I don’t think you’re being fair. Lucy’s always been so nice to you and to the brothers.”

“Nice doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “Nice is learned manners. Nice is what you say when you know people are looking at you or when you want something. You don’t want nice. You want good. You want kind.”

“Lucy is kind,” he said, putting his hand on the arm of her chair. She looked at him and shook her head. “No,” she said. “She’s not.”

Albert retreated, pulling his hand off the chair. “Look. I know she’s done some things that aren’t—well, she’s done some things. But she’s going to be in my life for a long time. I know you don’t want to hear this, but this is the woman I love.”

She snorted into her glass. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he says he’s in love. Let me tell you about something—no, you sit there, you came to talk to me, and now you’re going to listen. Love isn’t a feeling. It isn’t that warm tickle you get in your regions,” she said, waving a bony hand at his crotch. Albert crossed his legs.

“You think love is walking down the street and catching a whiff of something and being reminded of her. You’re thinking, ‘That’s her perfume. I’m recognizing her perfume, so it must be love!’ But it’s not it at all. That’s just your parietal lobe putting two and two together so when you sniff something that smells like a tiger, you don’t think. You just get your buns out of there. That’s not love.”

She fell quiet, and Albert waited. When she didn’t continue, he started. “Aunty,” he said. She shook her head.

“Love is something you do, doll,” she said, more into her glass than to her great-nephew. “It’s something you choose. You chose her. Did she choose you?”

“Yeah, aunty. She did.”

“Naw,” she said. “She didn’t. She doesn’t choose anything. Things fall into her lap, and she either accepts them or shoos them away, like a stray dog. People are pets to her. She dotes on them when they please her. Treats when they’re good boys. But oh, lord, when they’re not? It’s a rolled-up newspaper and a trip to the pound.”

Albert chuckled and shook his head. “Aw, come on, aunty. You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Am I?” she asked. “I’m an old woman, Al. I’ve known a lot of people and seen a lot of things. Am I being dramatic, or am I telling it how it is and you just don’t want to hear it?” She drained her glass.

I haven’t noticed that building before

783 words

Okay, so, weekends are harder. Still trying to figure out what kind of schedule is reasonable yet challenging. I don’t know. Today’s entry was also hard. Why are these so hard?

She stood facing the river, her gloved hands stuffed deep into her pockets, her arms pressed tightly against her sides. Her coat would normally be adequate—she hadn’t forgotten what Chicago winters were like—but it seemed as if her heavy down coat was made of paper. She reluctantly untucked her hands to pull her scarf tighter around her neck and stuff the tasseled ends down the front of her coat. Her hat was pulled low, but the loose crochet pattern allowed the sharp, bitter wind to stab her inner ears. Her hat choice was a mistake; she felt her skull was turning to ice.

Her Lyft driver was warning her about the weather, and he wondered aloud why she’d want to visit this town at such an awful time. She thought about correcting him: she wasn’t visiting, she was moving back for good, and the timing was beyond his control. But he was on a roll, and she didn’t have the heart to interrupt. Chicago weather seemed to be a favorite subject of his; he’d found at least 15 different ways to say “cold.” She assumed his next passenger would hear a similar monologue, but maybe without such colorful adjectives as “ball-clanking.”

She should be sequestered in her hotel room, making calls to the moving company. Everything she owned was in that van, stuck somewhere outside Springfield. She was left with a choice: take her carry-on to an empty apartment, or check in to a hotel room. She chose the latter, and was determined to make the moving company pay for it—a battle she was relishing and rehearsing in her head. But she needed to get out.

The river was gray and sheeted with crackled ice. The surrounding landscape offered no respite of color to focus on. The steel buildings shot up from the ground, their spires and towers jutting into the clouds, their windows echoing the sky, its barrenness reflected into infinity. There was little movement on the streets, most people were inside guarding against the frost with Snuggies and glasses of scotch.

She stood as long as she was able, until her ears began to ache. She walked next to the river, watching as the floating ice bobbed and bumped against itself. She came to a corner she used to go to in her teens—it had a bodega where she bought her Mountain Dews and Twizzlers, two things she hadn’t touched in years. She crossed the street, finding the best route to avoid deep drifts or hidden ice. The bodega was still there, though the offerings had changed. Mountain Dew and Twizzlers were perennial, but Coke Zero was a new addition and Surge had disappeared. The woman at the counter was new too, but since the man who used to run the little market was probably in his 70s back when she slapped change on that counter to pay for her sugary snacks, it was unlikely he’d still be around.

She left the bodega empty-handed, earning a brief, suspicious look from the cashier. As she turned to head back to the hotel, she paused. There was a building right next to the bodega, one she was sure she hadn’t seen before. Was she on the wrong corner? She walked backward a few steps. No, it was the same place. There were the tiles that spelled out “Martin’s” embedded deep in the sidewalk, a holdover from a bar that had occupied the bodega’s space in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But the building next to it must be new, because there’s no way she wouldn’t have noticed that building before.

It was a gothic style, with gargoyles guarding the concrete steps leading to the front door. Ornate stone spiralled and twisted up the side of the building. It was a style usually reserved for churches or self-important civic buildings, but this one was neither of those. It was the same size as the buildings around it—shops, boutiques, salons. She looked for any indication of what it was and what purpose it served, but there was none. She was just about to assume that it was the work of an overzealous Anne Rice fan, when she saw the plaque carved into a column: “Founded 1838.”

Of course, it could have been added later, maybe at the same time as the gargoyles, but she didn’t think so. The stone was the same type and patina as the rest of the facade. She was tracing a finger into the carved letters when the door at the top of the stairs opened. A single, slippered foot stepped into the cold, followed by a dark head. “Hello, Raye.”

The name on the bench

777 words

This is awful. But with a hundred floor of frights, they can’t all be winners.

He tapped his pen rapidly against the Formica tabletop. Taptaptaptaptaptaptaptap. He usually did this when he was deep in thought or reading. He was doing the latter at the moment. He squinted at his laptop screen. It was an Acer, at least seven years old, and on its last legs. Glancing around the coffee shop, everyone else seemed to be displaying silver laptops featuring glowing fruit. But those laptops, he knew, were too pricey for him.

Taptaptap. Taptap. Tap.

His lips moved unconsciously as he read. He nodded vaguely, then retrieved his phone from his worn leather briefcase. He noticed messenger bags were all the rage right now, but he preferred what he had. He’d been using his once-glossy leather suitcase for almost 30 years and didn’t see a reason why he should wrinkle his carefully pressed shirts by flinging a canvas strap across his chest. He also thought those bags looked, well, sloppy. Untrustworthy. A man with a briefcase is a man you can trust.

He held his phone next to the laptop screen, his eyes darting between them, comparing the two. Unlike the laptop, the phone had been purchased recently. It was a smartphone, technology now required of all employees of the Betterfield Realtor Team. It had to do with the app. All employees must have the Betterfield app installed on their phones to give each client “the complete attention you deserve when finding your home sweet home.” He’d had to give up his beloved Blackberry, which was a shame. He liked the tactile buttons and the satisfying click they made. This new phone had a strange, smooth screen, and though the phone makers had programmed a clicking sound plus some sort of mechanical thunk—he could feel it in his hand—fake buttons just weren’t the same. But he had to admit he really liked that Candy Crush game.

But now the company needed him to install an additional app. It was a several-step ordeal, and they’d sent out an email with instructions. The directions were lengthy, and began with, “It’s easy. Simply…” He didn’t think this was easy. And the process was not, to his mind, simple. He could have gone into the office and have Steve, the IT person help him. And Steve would have been more than happy to do so, without or condescension. He was a good guy. But having someone else do this would be admitting he needed help, and needing help with technology was yet another sign that he was getting older. “Not ‘older,’ he thought, peering at his phone, ‘old.’”

He sat back in his booth and uncapped his pen. It was one of the good ones he liked—a Uniball. He reached into his briefcase again without looking; his hand felt around and pulled out a yellow legal pad. Another blast from the past he couldn’t give up. Everyone else seemed to take notes on their phones or laptops; he preferred pen and paper. He flipped up the top page, folded it behind the cardboard backing, and set it on the table. He wasn’t sure why he needed the pad right then. He supposed he felt comforted by it in the face of technology.

He was doodling when the woman walked by. His doodle depicted a smartphone with a speech bubble floating next to its little screen. The phone was declaring, “I HATE PEOPLE!”, but the screen itself had a little smiley face. He glanced up at the woman, made eye contact, then returned to his legal pad.

“Oh hey, it’s you,” the woman said, stopping next to his chair. She had a look of amusement playing in her eyes.

“Pardon?” he said, startled. He looked around. “Me?”

“You’re the bench guy,” she said, motioning toward the shop’s front doors. “The real estate agent? I see your ads on the bus benches all of the time.”

“Realtor,” he said. “It’s… a trademarked thing. Most people don’t know that.” He shrank inwardly. It was a pedantic thing to say. But he continued anyway, unable to stop. “You have to take a test and everything. Get a license.”

She smiled. “What’s your slogan again? Something like… ‘Welcome home’?”

He laughed. “You’re close. It’s, ‘Your home. You’re home.’ The two different ‘yours,’” he felt himself babbling again. She was an attractive woman. “Um, it’s a play on words. It’s better when you see it,” he said.

“No, no. I get it,” she said. “It’s clever. Really.” She waited. He wasn’t sure what she was expecting.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I’m Kevin. Kevin Lancaster,” he extended his hand.

“Maddie Markel,” she took it.

A good dog, part 3

814 words

Oof, this was hard. I wasn’t sure where I wanted this to go, and exposition has always been a challenge for me. Looking back, I realize I’ve been shifting between tenses, so if this becomes a full-blown short story, I’ll need to do some hefty editing. Also, I clearly read too much Stephen King (if there is such a thing as that).

He squatted. The tide swelled apathetically around his feet, and oily water seeped into his worn, too-large shoes. He should have removed his shoes before stepping into the water; keeping his feet dry was important. Walking on soft, wrinkled, water-logged feet for long periods of time could cause blisters and ultimately open sores. And once his feet became damaged, he would no longer be able to keep moving. But as he dipped his hand in and out of the contaminated water, he felt he had more pressing matters at the moment.

He held up his hand. His raw, pink palm stood in sharp relief against the iron-gray sky. He watched as thin rivers of red trickled down his forearm and collected at the rolled-up sleeve of his flannel shirt. He unfastened the shirt buttons awkwardly with one hand, gingerly slipped out of the sleeves, then dropped the shirt to the ground. He planted a wet shoe on the placket, and with his good hand, pulled hard on the sleeve near the shoulder seam. The threads were popped and frayed, and the sleeve easily came loose.

The puncture wounds began to seep a deep, syrupy red, and he pressed his wrist to his breastbone. His undershirt, already shiny with grime, didn’t register the new addition. He lifted his wrist, placed the severed sleeve against his chest and held it in place with his injured arm. With his right hand, he wrapped the flannel around his wrist then tied it in a knot, tightening it with his teeth. The fabric left a gritty residue in his mouth, and he spat a few times to clear it.

It was an impotent effort toward dressing the wound. He shuffled toward the shipping container, the one he’d slept in the night before, and sat down heavily. Most of the container was submerged in coarse, damp sand, too thick to clear away with bare hands. The sheet of plastic he’d used to protect his sleeping body from the wet had since collected water—condensation from the air, maybe—and he could feel his pants become cold and sodden.

He pulled his knees in close, digging his toes into the sand, and listened. There was no sign of the dog or any other living form. There was the shoosh of water on the shoreline. There was the dull, hollow thud of old plastic containers knocking between rocks, trying to free themselves. There was the crunch of pebbles under his soles as he shifted his feet. There was nothing else.

He marveled at how different his situation was now than just fifteen minutes earlier. Before the dog, he’d been whole, and about to have the first meal he’d had in days. His feet and clothes had been mostly dry, and there was no immediate death sentence waiting for him. Had he known, he would have conceded the can to the dog. “One hand for one can,” he said aloud. Finally, he pushed his body upright. It was time to walk. There was nothing else he could do.

He stayed close to the water, examining the tide pools. There used to be crabs, starfish, sea anemones. Any of those would be a welcome feast. But those had either long been picked off by the last remaining birds or people, or had died off themselves. Every so often he’d see a bloated fish—a rockfish or a halibut—floating in one of the pools. He’d been hungry enough to bite into their rancid, flabby carcasses, bones and all, but he restrained himself. The fish had absorbed the worst of it. Judging by the seabirds who had taken the chance on a sushi dinner, succumbing to hunger would be a decidedly superior fate than the death they’d faced. He’d seen them strewn across the shore. Their swollen, black tongues lolled out of gaping, lifeless beaks; their eyes oozing and crusted; their bodies a crumple of feathers and flesh. Of course, he hadn’t seen any birds—dead or alive—for a long time.

He walked carefully among the rocks. Although they were the best chance he had at finding something to eat, they were also dangerous. An ankle could be easily broken by one wrong step, and should that happen his death sentence would be moved up.

“How’s Thursday for you?” he said aloud. He’d started doing that lately, speaking out loud without even knowing he was doing so. He needed to break that habit. He didn’t need to alert others he was around, or let any wild animals hear him. He was a meal, too. With this thought, he wondered why the dog hadn’t taken him. It could have. Why didn’t it just kill him and pull the flesh from his bones? Maybe there was just enough domestication left in it to honor that once concession.

“Or maybe it just wasn’t quite hungry enough,” he thought.