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.

A good dog, part 2

929 words

I wanted to continue on this one. And since I make the rules with this challenge, I’m allowed to (as long as I’m still writing 750 words). The new writing prompts will be moved to different days.

She made no reply or move. “I’m heading west,” he said. She looked at him, not sure if that was an invitation or a distraction.

“I’ve been there,” she said. Her hands stayed where they were, as did her dog’s ears.

“Anything there?” he asked.

“There’s a reason why I’m heading east,” she said.

He nodded. “Well, good luck to you. You sure you’ll be okay on your own?”

She laughed, a high-pitched yelp of scorn. “Me and Banshee will be fine.”

His eyes dropped to the dog. She was still on high alert. “God. You named it,” he said, shaking his head. He was still shaking it grimly as he walked past them, and noticed both heads turned to watch him leave. He guessed they stood there for a while after he left, in case he decided to charge them from behind. She didn’t look stupid. And he supposed if you were a woman, a dog wouldn’t be a bad thing to have around. That one did look like a good dog, still mostly tame, but with a little bit of fierceness that could be called upon in desperate times.

But this dog—this skinny, gangling dog with the perfect ears—did not look like a good dog. It had a sharpness to its eyes that gleamed with brashness. Most of the remaining dogs had come equipped with a healthy dose of fear of humans; this was their defense mechanism. This one seemed to lack that characteristic. “Rabies, maybe?” the man thought. There had been outbreaks, he’d heard. But this one didn’t look mad. It looked dangerously intelligent.

The man stopped his work on the can. “Pssh!” he hissed, and swept his arm above his head. “Go on! Go away!” The dog did not make a move to retreat. Instead, it minced forward, as if it were walking on glass shards. The man noticed the dog’s yellow eyes were focused on the can. It had learned, the man supposed, that food comes in cans. Or when a human’s attention was focused on an item, it was probably something to eat. The dog had probably been watching him for a while.

“No way!” he yelled. “This is mine. I found it. Go on!” He picked up a smooth stone, twisted his body toward the dog, and hefted the rock. His awkward seated position provided no momentum, and the rock dropped feebly at the dog’s large paws. The dog did not so much as twitch, its eyes hypnotized by the can. The man began to get nervous, but knowing  dogs can smell fear, tried to swallow it down. His right hand found a larger rock and he grasped it, but he kept his left hand firmly attached to the can. His eyes on the dog’s face, he stood up slowly. The dog’s eyes followed the can, but still it made no move.

The man cocked back his right arm as far as he was able then shifted his weight forward, arcing his arm in one swift motion. He let the rock fly. It hit the mark: the rock connected with the dog’s visible ribs with an audible thud. It had struck hard enough to hurt, the man knew, but the dog made no sound.

And then the dog was on him.

It had happened quickly. The dog closed the gap between them in three leaps and launched, slamming his paws squarely into the man’s chest and knocking him on his back. The dog’s teeth clamped tightly around the man’s left wrist, and he could feel his tendons shred and snap. He grabbed the dog’s scruff and bicycle-kicked weakly at its concave belly, hoping to make contact, but from his prone position he couldn’t gain enough leverage to wield a damaging blow. He was dimly aware he was still holding the can, and the dog was shaking his wrist like a long-extinct game bird. He removed his hand from the dog’s neck and grasped at the ground, his fingernails scraping sand and dirt, trying to land on anything that could be used as a weapon. But before he found a rock or a stick, his left hand opened involuntarily. The can rolled away from his bloodied palm. The dog snatched up the can and ran from the shore. The man could hear crunching metal between sharp teeth.

The man sat up on one elbow and surveyed his ruined hand. The fingers were left in tact, which was a mercy, he supposed, but his wrist was so badly damaged that his fingers were almost useless. He tried to move them; his thumb and forefinger were still responsive but the middle and ring finger barely moved. The pinky didn’t twitch. He was surprised to see how little blood there was. It had missed the arteries, but the puncture wounds were deep. There was probably nerve damage. Even if the dog didn’t have rabies, or if—very unlikely—he didn’t contract an infection, this hand was no longer available for service.

“Closed for business,” he said, looking at the red-muddied palm. He walked toward the water, looking behind him to make sure the dog wasn’t coming back for seconds, though he doubted it would. He dipped his forearm in the water. The water wasn’t clean, he knew, but he wasn’t wasting what little drinking water he had. Even with clean water, with no proper bandages or dressing, he understood the punctures would invite the germs and parasites that would kill him. He’d rather save his clean water for drinking.

A good dog

809 words

Okay, here’s what happened. My husband creates these writing prompts and puts them on the calendar for me (he’s awesome). I don’t see them beforehand. Last night, I dreamed of my dog, Bliss, who died eight years ago this month. Then I got up and saw my writing prompt—and immediately burst into tears. 

I knew I couldn’t write about Bliss, or my current dog, Ferris, or really, any other dog I’ve known. This one needed to be different. I turned on the TV as I was getting ready for work, and The Twilight Zone was on, one of those post-apocalyptic episodes. I guess that was in my head as I drove to work, and I came up with this (yes, on my lunch break). 

He’d slept in the shipping container, the one that faced the bay. There were others around it, but most of those were open to the shore. He figured that facing the water was safer; who or what was going to approach him from the water? He could also avoid announcing his presence to the world—any movement, any light could be deadly. On the other hand, of course, he couldn’t see anything that might sneak up from behind. He took his chances.

He didn’t know what the containers had originally held. Whatever goods had been there had long since been washed away, even by this unimpressive tide. He assumed it was probably something that wasn’t of much use these days: cigarettes, toys, patio furniture. But thinking that maybe there had been shoes, blankets, or canned goods, he searched every container thoroughly. There was nothing.

He’d seen food in a can only a few times in the past year. It always startled him when he found one. It was a relic, something he could not believe existed in plenty at one time. He could remember plucking them off the shelves in multitudes: refried beans, tomato sauce, okra. When he thought back, that seemed as strange as going into a museum and taking paintings off walls and gold chalices from display cases and tossing them into shopping carts.

The first can he’d seen since the stores and houses had been emptied contained green beans. There was no brand; just an illustration of the perfect green bean on the front. “Plato’s ultimate green bean,” he’d thought. Of course, he had no can opener, and managed to puncture the metal by smashing the can repeatedly on a rock. He considered sticking his fingers in the jagged hole to pry out the beans, but fearing a cut and inevitable infection, he resisted. He poured the bitter, grassy water into his mouth, being careful not to touch his lips to the fractured tin, then found a long, flat stone to use as a miniature crowbar. He spent the next hour meticulously prying the hole open, pressing the rock into the hole then pushing it downward. It was slow work, but he had time.

He’d almost made an opening big enough to remove a bean when he saw the dog for the first time. It was long-legged and ropy, with large paws and ears like sails raised to the sky. Dogs were almost as rare as canned goods, perhaps even more so. It was medium-sized, thin but with tense muscles visibly contracting beneath its meager hide. Its matted fur was crosshatched with scratches and scars, and he was surprised to see its ears were completely unblemished.

Most of the remaining dogs looked like this. The pets—the lap dogs, the overbred toys carried in purses—were the first to go. The larger working dogs lasted a little while longer because they trusted people. That turned out to be a mistake. Then there were the strays; the ones who had learned to live on their own. But if they had any leftover whispers of domestication, they could be coaxed with even the smallest tidbit of food. They went next.

He’d met a woman who kept a dog. She was going east while he was heading west, trudging uphill through dust and brush. He’d seen the dog first. Startled, he stopped in his tracks. The dog did the same. He then took a step forward, and the dog retreated, scrambling and barking. He chased it, and as he summited the hill, he saw the dog at the feet of a young woman. She had her left hand looped in a small bit of rope tied at the dog’s neck. Her right hand was on her hip; her fingers brushing the handle of a pistol tucked into the waistband of her filthy jeans. She said nothing.

He pointed at the shepherd mix. “Is that your dog?”

“Yes,” she said, but offered nothing else.

“You’re keeping a dog?” he asked again.

“I am,” she said. No one moved.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of foolish?” he asked, nodding at the dog. “You have to feed it, don’t you? And,” he said, visibly sizing the dog with his eyes, “It’s a waste of meat. There’s not much of that around anymore.”

“She helps me hunt,” she said. “She’s loud. She lets me know when there are others around. And she protects me from…” she paused, giving him a once-over similar to the one he had given her dog, “…people.”

He took a step toward her. She loosened her grip on the dog’s makeshift collar but tightened her fingers around the gun. The dog, feeling the shift, moved forward, straining against the rope and pushing her ears back on her head.

He stopped his advance. “Well then,” he said. “That’s a good dog.”

The family recipe

823 words

So tired. I thought yesterday’s was like pulling teeth. This one was like a root canal. Had to fight for every syllable. 

Grandma pulled a box down from a closet shelf. It was a plain cardboard box, and according to the handwriting on the outside, once held towels, clothes, and books. Each item had been written in a different ink, then crossed off as the box was reused. Its most recent incarnation was for “keepsakes.”

“All right, kid,” Grandma said, setting it on the kitchen table. “Don’t expect much. But I think I have something in here that might be useful.” She pried open the top, the ancient layers of yellowed tape announcing its age like tree rings. She carefully folded down the cardboard flaps, their edges soft like felt. The contents revealed themselves to Grandma, and she paused a moment to become reacquainted before removing them from the box. Tamara, saddled with the impatience of a 13-year-old, did her best not to fidget or sigh. Grandma, she knew, would take her sweet time, and no obvious signs of annoyance could make her go faster.

When Grandma finally dipped her mottled hands into the sea of tissue and newspaper, she did so with a reverence rarely witnessed by Tamara. Grandma had strong, weathered hands that had seen their share of grease burns and callouses. She’d seen Grandma pull stubborn ivy from along her garden fence and rip it from the ground by their roots. She’s seen her whip potatoes into submission. But she hadn’t seen this: hands that hesitated and honored. Tamara thought, despite Grandma’s words, there must be something in the box that was extremely valuable.

The crumpled newspapers that Grandma removed first, Tamara saw, were from 1963 and from a place Tamara hadn’t heard of. She didn’t know if Grandma had lived there—Casper, Wyoming—or if the papers had mysteriously made their way into Grandma’s home as a stowaway. She understood that this was a part of Grandma’s history she should probably know, and she was a little embarrassed to ask about it right then. But of course, that was the whole point of the visit.

Grandma plucked items from the box. They were swaddled in tissue, but she made no move to unwrap them. Even so, she appeared to know each item by shape and feel, turning them over in her hands and smiling as she did so. At the bottom of the keepsakes box, she reached another box. This was the item she was looking for. She set this box in the middle of the kitchen table, shooing aside the packing papers and larger box. This box looked like it once had held a gift, perhaps even an expensive one. It was a faded red, but Tamara could tell it had once been rich and velvety. The top was gilded with gold, except at the edges where it had been worn to the cardboard beneath.

Lifting the lid, Tamara could see it held a number of loose items. A library card. A cork. Several hand-written letters with Wyoming postmarks. A delicate gold wristwatch, a souvenir metal globe. But at the bottom of all of these things was a stack of cards held together by an elastic band. Grandma pulled them out and set them on the table in front of Tamara. “If you want to know what this family’s all about,” she said, pushing the cards towards Tamara, “then you’ll need these.”

Tamara looked at the stack of cards. The top one had, “From the kitchen of” printed on the top. Someone, presumably Grandma, had written, “Patricia” in ballpoint pen in the blank space provided. The rest of the card was written in ballpoint pen as well, a list of ingredients with corresponding amounts. Tamara, frowning, attempted to remove the elastic, but gasped a little when it crumbled.

“Don’t worry, it’s old. I’m pretty sure I can find another rubber band.”

Tamara pushed the sticky remainders of the disintegrated elastic away with the side of her hand. She flipped through the other cards; there were about 15 in total. Several came from the kitchen of Patrica, but there were other names. Helen. Rita. Bobby Lou. And, surprisingly, Tom.

“I don’t get it,” Tamara said. “The assignment wasn’t to learn how to cook. The assignment was to figure out our family tree. How are recipes supposed to help me do that?”

Grandma took one of the recipe cards—Tom’s, as it happened—and held it up. “Anyone can go online and type in a bunch of names and have it spit out a diagram showing who married who and who begat who.” She flapped the card. “These, though. Family recipes. They show you how they lived and how they loved. There’s a reason why I’ve saved these ones. Each one has a story. A beginning and an ending. Now. I know you, Tamara. It’s never been good enough for you to do just what’s asked of you. Do you want a list of names, or do you want a good story to tell?”

Spreading the rumor

852 words

This was like pulling teeth. Had no idea where this was going. Still don’t.  ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Taylor drummed her hands on the desk in front of her. Alex couldn’t tell if she was doing it on purpose, for effect, maybe. It certainly drew attention to her short, blood-red nails. “Talons after a successful struggle with prey,” Alex thought, then realized Taylor was waiting for a response.

“I’m really not sure what you want me to say,” he shrugged. “I’ve pretty much told you everything I know.”

Taylor silenced her nails and flattened her palm on the desk. “You sure about that?” she said. Her eyes, blue and empty, gave Alex no clues. He knew more. A lot more. But from her body language to her blank stare, he couldn’t determine how much she already gathered from his coworkers. He’d love to have her as a poker partner.

He shifted in his chair, uncrossed his legs, and put his feet firmly on the floor. He leaned forward, hands steady in his lap. This was, he thought, a power stance. If she could do it, so could he. She didn’t flinch. “Look,” he continued, showing her his palms in a, “I have nothing to hide” gesture. “I’m guessing I know the same as you do.” There was no response from the other side of the desk. He cleared his throat, and immediately wished he hadn’t. It was an obvious sign of nervousness.

She noticed. Her lips twitched upward almost imperceptibly. “Well then, why don’t you tell me? We could compare notes.”

“I mean,” he continued, “I’ve heard things. But I have no idea if those things are true.”

“What have you heard?” she asked.

“Taylor.” His voice had gone dry. “Don’t make me repeat things I have no business repeating. That would just be spreading the rumor further, don’t you think? Is that fair, when he’s not here to defend himself? It’s not fair,” he said, answering his own question.

“What I have a hard time believing,” Taylor said, sliding one red-tipped hand across the desk toward a manilla folder, “is that you know as little as you say you do.” She slid the folder in front of herself, but didn’t open it. Her nails started their seductive movement again, tapping on the folder in a seemingly absent-minded manner. Alex watched the nails. He was supposed to, he realized. His attention was unwillingly drawn to the folder and its contents.

The folder itself was innocuous. A plain, manilla folder like one would find in any office. He remembered when he was younger—seven, maybe?—he called it “vanilla.” His father, an accountant, worked from his home office back in the early days of the internet, and Alex had helped him by running small errands. He took pride in being his dad’s “go-fer,” and his dad had rewarded him by making him a t-shirt with a little picture of a gopher on it. When called upon to retrieve fresh folders from his supply cabinet, Alex would say, “Here you go! Five vanilla folders.” It was his older brother who finally corrected him with much disdain. “Not VANilla, idiot. MANilla. It’s not ice cream.” Alex’s father didn’t condone such language in their household, and took Alex for ice cream, leaving the older brother at home to think about how he spoke to family members. But Alex never called the folders vanilla again.

“What’s that?” Alex finally asked, nodding at the desk.

“You tell me.” Taylor was giving nothing away.

Alex took another look at the folder. It was about an inch thick with papers. “Old-school,” he thought. Why go through the trouble of printing things out? Whatever she had, it probably came from a digital source. Emails, maybe. He thought quickly. He had been cc’d on a lot of the emails, but he couldn’t remember how he’d received them. Had Brian been fantastically stupid and sent emails through the company server? Even worse, had Alex been equally idiotic and responded to them without noticing? His email program was set up to handle several different accounts, including personal. It was entirely possible he’d been distracted and hit “reply” before scrutinizing an email’s origin.

“Gosh, Taylor. I don’t know,” Alex said, giving her an exaggerated expression of innocence. “Love letters? Fifth-grade valentines? Shopping lists. Your fantasy football picks. Blueprints for your retirement home. How the hell am I supposed to know? What do you want from me?”

“There’s some pretty damning stuff in here,” she said, ignoring Alex’s comments. “Information that, should it get out, could mean investigations. I already know you’re involved. Please don’t deny it. What I don’t know is how deep this goes, and who else is involved. That’s what I need from you, Alex. I can’t promise you’ll come out of this clean. But I can promise I won’t intentionally make this worse for you. And you know I can do it.” She opened the folder and scanned the top page. From where Alex was sitting, it indeed looked like a printout of an email. The pit that had been growing in his stomach deepened.

“So,” she said, closing the folder. “What would you like to tell me, Alex?”

 

Out of practice

820 words

Not too difficult today. Don’t necessarily know where this is going, but I like Tracy.

The eggshells were piling up on the counter. She knew she should contain them in some way; raw eggs, after all, were a bad case of Salmonella waiting to happen. But she continued to toss the eggshells straight onto the tiled counter anyway, their viscous insides oozing into the grout between the tiles. It would be hard to clean when it dried. She didn’t care.

The water was as it should be. It bubbled ever so slightly at the edges of the pot, tentatively, as if whispering in burbles. A shy fish perhaps professing its love. The water was also vinegared. This, supposedly, would make the egg whites solidify more quickly. That was what she was taught many years ago, anyway. But according to the internet—the Grand High Poobah of All Things Known—this “fact” was now up for debate. This held true for the water whirlpool.

“What are you making there?” the instructor said, watching Tracy whisk the water vigorously into a steaming vortex. “You making soup?”

“No, I’m creating the whirlpool bath,” Tracy said.

The instructor hissed a long breath out between her teeth. “You don’t really have to do that,” she said. “Why do people think they need to do that?”

“…Because that’s what we’ve been taught all of our lives?” Tracy said, with not a small amount of annoyance.

“Sure, but then there’s the story about the woman who cut off the ends of her meatloaf her entire life. Because that’s what she’d always been taught,” the instructor said. Tracy blinked at her. “It turns out her grandmother’s meatloaf pan was too small,” the instructor waited for a laugh. She received silence. “Okay,” the instructor continued, “my point being. What we’ve been taught our entire lives isn’t necessarily the best way to do things. Stop trying to make a black hole with the water. Just simmer, gently crack the egg into the water, and wait. That’s what’s needed for a good poached egg.”

The instructor turned on her heel and began to accost the student at the next station. Tracy stood over her pot, examining her water. There were fragments of her previous failed egg experiments. “Eggsperiments,” she thought to herself, then cringed. It was a horrible pun. Thin tendrils of overcooked egg whites danced and intertwined; they looked to Tracy like ectoplasm. “Who you gonna call?” she said into the water.

“Pardon?”

Tracy’s head snapped up. She’d forgotten there was another student to her right. She was supposed to partner with him, but she’d simply pretended he wasn’t there. Clearly, he was there to make friends. Even set up a date. Tracy wasn’t interested in making friends. She just wanted to reacquaint herself with the art of cooking.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just talking to myself. I used to know how to do this. I guess I’m just out of practice.”

He nodded, then pushed his glasses into place. They were a little fogged from his own poaching work. “You’d think this would be easy,” he said. “I think of all the times I’ve ordered poached eggs at a restaurant. Never gave it a second thought. Now I wonder if the chef gets angry every time an order for a poached egg comes in.” He looked at Tracy. “It’s a big, fat pain in the ass, if you ask me.”

Tracy could tell he was trying to relate. To connect. Over eggs. She did not wish to connect over eggs. “I suppose you could look at it that way,” she said. “Eggs, in general, seem like they’re the simplest things in the world. Look at it,” she took an egg out of the container, sleek and brown, and held it up in front of his eyes. The orb reflected in his glasses. “What could be simpler? You crack it, and it’s composed of two things: albumen and yolk. Protein and fat. I mean, there’s some membrane in there as well, but mostly, just that white and yellow. And yet, we humans have decided there are specific ways it should be prepared. Fried—over-easy; sunny-side-up; over-hard.”

Tracy took a breath. The other student was watching her, but not unkindly. He seemed to be smiling at her. She ignored him. “And then there’s hard-boiled and soft-boiled. Have you ever tried soft boiling an egg?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “But poaching.” She paused and made a face. “We decided that poaching an egg was something that needed to exist. So here we are. Me and…” Tracy looked into his face and gestured in his direction, “you.”

“Matt,” he said. She noticed he’d stopped his work and had focused his attention on her.

“And you,” she said. “Here, on a Saturday night, with pots of boiling water, and cartons filled with the result of some hen’s strenuous butt efforts. That’s what we’ve got.”

Loafers

Based on a true story.

D and G, whomever and wherever you are, I wish I could have been your K. I hope you’re having a wonderful, John-free year.

 

He folded himself into the middle seat and frowned at the petite woman at the window. She didn’t need all of the luxury that the seat afforded: room to lean, room to gaze out at the scenery, room to take the inevitable selfies those of her generation tended to do.

It hadn’t occurred to him the woman he was dating was about the same age as the blonde in the window seat. Not that Diane was more mature than her 24 years; it could be said she was a little less put-together than her peers. But he’d conveniently forgotten Diane was 20 years his junior because he’d decided she was special; certainly not in the same league as the tracksuit-clad woman to his right.

He reminded himself he wasn’t actually dating Diane at the moment. Diane had called it off a few weeks earlier—right before the holidays—and headed to her home town of Minneapolis. “I can’t do this anymore, John,” she’d texted. “It’s been over two years. I need to move on. You should, too.”

John arranged the frayed nylon seatbelt over his paunch and pulled it tight, snapping the steel clasp into place. He squinted at his phone; he’d left his reading glasses in his carry-on secured in the overhead bin, and he adjusted the phone settings to make the text larger. He reread Diane’s sentiments and scrolled down to review his responses. He’d at first sent logical arguments why they should continue (none of them including a promise to commit), and then sent increasingly embellished pleas for contact. If Diane responded at all, which was infrequent, they were usually of few words and no emotion: “Don’t contact me.”

But her last response gave him a twinge of hope. He’d caught her in a weak moment, possibly tipsy on the Trader Joe’s wine she bought in bulk, and she’d given him a bit more to work with.

“John. I’ve loved you more than anyone I’ve ever loved before, and that’s why this needs to stop. You can’t give me what I need, and it’s unfair of me to ask that of you. Please let me go.”

It was the “Please let me go” that got John’s attention. He was familiar with this plea. It was the subtle shift of power to himself. If she’s begging to be let go, it means he still has influence over her. A different woman would have stopped responding (and John knew there was nothing to work with there). But begging to be let go signified he still had her and could choose to release her—or not. And with cute, feisty, really-good-in-bed Diane, this was worth the effort. He was sure if he could see her, he could get her back. Everything could return to normal.

The window-seat woman was curled up in her parka. She relaxed her feet, and in so doing dipped her fleece-cocooned toes into his foot space. He felt a surge of resentment for her; she got the window seat and she still needs to encroach on his meager allotment? He pressed his Italian loafer-shod foot against the plush atrocity. It worked; the Ugg retreated.

As ugly as they were, he realized those boots were probably more appropriate for a Minnesota December. In his eagerness to get on a plane, he hadn’t checked the weather at his destination. And while the New York streets were, at the moment, kind to his expensive shoes, he doubted Minneapolis would be as forgiving.

He looked over the dozing businessman to his left toward his teenaged son across the aisle. He was forehead-deep in his phone, thumb-typing with the speed only those who have grown up with such devices could do. He was happy to be going to Minneapolis with his dad, and didn’t mind his own middle seat at all. He’d been bribed with a ticket to see one of his favorite bands at First Avenue, a ticket that was impossible to get, a ticket than had cost John a considerable amount of money. There hadn’t been one word of dissent since.

The plane was accelerating for takeoff. He rolled the text on his screen to Diane’s last message, “Please let me go.” She’d sent it on Christmas Day, three days ago, and had gone silent since. He tapped on the keyboard quickly with his forefinger, not as efficiently as his son.

“D. I’m on a plane to Minneapolis right now. I need to see you. Feel you. Touch you. The last few weeks have been a misery for me, as I’m sure they have been for you. You are the most beautiful, loving, caring, woman I’ve ever met, and I’m sorry I haven’t been able to give you want you want and need.”

John paused for a few minutes, phone in hand, while the flight attendants asked for the passengers’ complete attention while they went through the safety procedures. When they finished, he continued.

“I’m ready to talk about our future. Mine and yours, together. I thought I could continue my life in in the same way I always have, but the emptiness I feel has proved me wrong. D, you are my everything. My north, my south, my east, my west. All I need is a few minutes of your time. In person. Let’s have dinner and talk. Just talk. Let’s talk about what you want, what you need for me to make this right.”

The announcement was made; they had reached 10,000 feet. John left the text unsent and pulled out his MacBook Air from under the seat. Writing from a middle seat was tricky, and he took up most of the armrest he shared with window-seat girl. She shot him a look, then turned her attention out the window. He almost hoped she’d say something.

He connected to the airline’s wifi and consulted his email. There was a message from Gaia, as he’d predicted.

“I’d hoped you’d bring T and spend New Year’s Eve with us, as a family, as we’d originally planned. I’m trying to be patient, John. I really am. I’m trying to give you the space you need. But a last-minute trip to Minneapolis, without consulting me, without time to have a discussion, just to show off what a great dad you are isn’t a sign you’re ready to be a family again. Sending your son off to see a show when you should be spending time with him tells me your family isn’t important right now.

It feels like when you were sneaking around. I don’t like that feeling, John. I don’t like being put on the defensive again, like I have to police your movements. You’re the one who had the affair. Shouldn’t you be the one to reassure me? Showing me you’re serious about fixing this? This isn’t a good step in that direction. I’d like you to think about this for our next counseling session.”

John pursed his lips. He hated when she brought up the affair, which she did often. It was her One Thing. Of course, whatever grievances he had about her contributions to their marital problems (and there were many, he thought) didn’t matter, because the One Thing overshadowed all. Whenever there was something she didn’t like, she rolled out the One Thing and put it in front of him, quietly, calmly, like setting the table for dinner. There was no embellishment, no judgment, simply the One Thing staring him in the face.

They had talked about the One Thing repeatedly over the last few months when his relationship with Diane had been discovered. “Yes, Gaia, yes. I did that. It was a mistake. I’ve apologized repeatedly. I’ve said I’m sorry. When do I stop being punished for this?”

“When I believe you,” Gaia had said, and the conversation stopped there.

There was a lurch of turbulence.  The woman at the window seat startled awake, John noted with some satisfaction. As he turned back to his email she frowned at his elbow on the armrest. She pulled her Victoria’s Secret canvas bag from under her seat, found her sunglasses after some considerable digging, and placed them on her face. John saw all of this from the corner of his eye. “Who wears sunglasses on a plane?” he thought. Maybe she was hungover. Who knew.

He touched his fingertips to the keyboard.

“G,

I know you’ve been through a lot. So have the boys. So have I. How do you think it makes me feel to know I’ve caused all of this pain? To have to live with the fact I created the mess we’re in? You can’t imagine the guilt. It consumes me daily. And to have you bring it up again is like a knife to my gut. How long will it take, G? How long?

I didn’t want to be at New Year’s as a family until I feel like I’m worthy enough to do so. I’m not there yet. The concert for T was a convenient excuse to get away, not a “show off.” I’m sorry it was last minute, but I saw the opportunity and took it.

I need time in the cold to feel the frost I’ve created in this marriage, the warmth I’ve denied you, the ice that’s formed around your heart. I need to feel what you feel, G. I need to be alone shivering in the snow so when I come home to you, it’s with the appreciation of the heat of heart and home I don’t think I have right now.

G, you have always been there for me. You didn’t see this, but when you told me there was a chance for reconciliation I wept. I went behind closed doors and wept for pure joy. I have behaved badly. But you, G, you are pure light and forgiveness. And without forgiveness, there can be no true love.

I’m hoping beyond all hope you can extend that forgiveness toward me when I come home. Home to you.

All my love,

J.”

John looked over his email, nodded, and hit “Send.”

The woman at the window seat was taking selfies. John turned at looked at her full in the face, with a look of complete contempt. In response, she stuck out her tongue, flashed the peace sign, and snapped.

John shook his head, marveling at the narcissism of that generation. He tucked the laptop into the seat pocket and pulled out his phone. He continued his message to Diane.

“I’ve sent T to a concert. And you know how much I love him. I’m giving up something precious—time with my boy—to spend a few moments with you. That has to mean something, right? Doesn’t this prove how serious I am? I am willing to sacrifice time and family for you, D, my beautiful girl, full of light and forgiveness.

I made a mistake, D. But you know there can be no true love without forgiveness. You know love has to be fought for and won. I didn’t know that until now. I thought love was something that was given and taken, not earned and bestowed. But you know that. You are the embodiment of all that is good. You are my soulmate.

Please see me. If begging is required, then this is it. Please, D. Let me make our love whole.

All my love,

J.”

More selfies were being taken to his right. John ignored her. With relief, he noticed she’d stopped taking pictures and instead turned her attention to texting. She was fast like his boy was.

John settled into his seat, taking over both armrests again and, as he dozed, allowed his right loafer to ease into his seatmate’s area. He made no attempts to readjust.

A sinking in his stomach let him know the plane had begun its descent. John sat up, blinking, and pulled out his phone. Diane had returned his message.

“Come by my mom’s house around 8:00. She’ll be out. We’ll talk then.”

He smiled. He was usually able to get what he wanted; his combination of looks (though admittedly waning), charm, and wit went a long way. And, of course, his salary didn’t hurt. He’d only needed to dial up one of those attributes and all he’d ever wanted was his.

He glanced to his right. He could even have her. But she was too basic; he could get one of those in any Starbucks in any city in the world. John enjoyed a challenge, and he thought all he needed to do was to flash a smile and an American Express card in her direction and she’d be flat on her back in minutes.

The airport doors opened, treating him and his son to a rush of bitterly cold air and a swirl of snow. They checked into their hotel, and, though the music venue was in walking distance, John got his son an Uber to avoid the cold. After he was out of view, John shot a brief text, “I’m on my way,” and got his own Uber.

Diane’s mother, John knew, lived on the outskirts of the city in a nondescript house. They’d spend a clandestine weekend there over a year ago, and the address was still discreetly sequestered in his contacts. The Uber driver pulled up quickly and barely allowed John to exit the car before he sped away, eager to get out of the impending snowstorm.

The house was festooned with garish, twinkling lights; a neon Santa winked at him. He gave Santa a confident thumbs up and rang the doorbell.

It took longer than expected for the door to open, but when it did, there were two faces that greeted him, one a younger version of the other. Neither looked happy to see him.

“Hello, John,” Diane said. Her mother gave him a hard look with narrowed eyes.

“Hi, Diane, and Mrs. Bellows, of course. It’s good to see both of you.”

“You’re an asshole,” Diane’s mother hissed.

“Mom,” Diane said. “Please go in the other room.” Diane’s mother retreated, spitting, “Asshole!” as the house absorbed her.

Diane faced John but said nothing. She looked at him through the ajar door and made no move to invite him in. He noticed her eyes were red-rimmed and her skin pale.

“What’s going on? Can I come in?”

Diane remained silent, and held up her phone, the screen facing John. It showed a picture of himself on a plane, giving the photographer a sneer of contempt.

John frowned, struggling to understand. “What is this? How did you get it?”

Diane scrolled to another view. She read aloud with a trembling voice.

“Dear D and G,

You don’t know me, but I’m sitting next to a man I believe you’re both involved with. I’m very sorry to tell you this, but as something similar has happened to me, I thought you’d both like to know what’s going on. He’s playing you both. He’s hoping to keep both of you in his life. G, he’s still having the affair. D, he’s not planning on leaving G. I managed to take a few pictures of his screen of the messages he sent each of you as proof. They’re a little blurry, but I think they’re enough to give you an idea.

Again, I’m so very sorry. I know how much this hurts. I hope the new year treats you a lot better than John has.

Sincerely,

K.”

From the back of the house came, “Prick!”

John remembered the window-seat woman and the selfies. He steadied his face toward Diane. “That’s a complete lie,” John said. “That girl was angry with me because—”

“Go away, John.”

“Wait.”

The door closed firmly and the deadbolt ka-chunked into place. He knocked, the Santa still winking, until Diane’s mother threatened to call the police. He walked to the end of the driveway and pulled out his phone.

There was a message from Gaia. It said simply: “Don’t come home.”

His hands shook as he launched the Uber app. “I can fix this,” he thought. He’d always been able to fix it. The Uber map glowed on his screen, but it showed no available cars nearby.

As the snow gathered around his feet, he looked down. His shoes were ruined.