August 21, 2015No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Superstition

My wristwatch was stuck at half past two, even though the morning sun indicated otherwise. Most people would get a battery, reset the time and move on with their day. But I had old superstitions rattling around in my head, a legacy of my Nana’s myriad household warnings and omens–like if your right palm itched you were going to get money, if you got your stomach wet while you washed dishes you’d marry a drunk, or if you sang at the table you’d marry a crazy person. And if a clock stopped, someone was going to die.

“Just put a new battery in it, for crissakes,” my boyfriend Stuart said, when he caught me regarding the watch with the kind of revulsion I reserved for cockroaches and cigarette butts.

I talked him into going to the jewelry store with me. We followed the empty footpath around the lake to town. It was one of those dark November days, stark trees against a sky blanketed in grey clouds, wind whipping up dried leaves into clattering funnels. A duck swam across the rippled water, flapping its wings. I pulled the thick wool of my jacket snug across my chest, and wondered if it would rain.

“My mom called,” he said.

If Stuart wanted to pick a topic to take my mind off of Nana’s superstitions, he could not have chosen a better one. We never failed to argue about his mother. I’ve watched Stuart try to rescue her from herself since we were kids. She was the kind of person who thought the world owed her a good time, so every day was a disappointment. I supposed drinking cheap bourbon out of plastic tumblers compensated somehow, or at least made the time pass.

But in the name of harmony, I bit back the question “What kind of trouble is she in now?” and made one of those “mmm” sounds.

“She got laid off,” he said, glancing sideways at me.

She only started working again two weeks ago, I thought. Even for her that had to be record.

“She’ll get unemployment, then?”

“That’s not the point, Kelsey. I’m worried about her. She spends too much time alone in that trailer. No one comes to visit her anymore. She didn’t even get any trick or treaters at last month.”

The kids were probably scared to go there. See, Sherri’s trailer didn’t need to be decorated special for Halloween. It already had the requisite cobwebs, rickety steps and general disrepair of a haunted-looking trailer, every day of the year.

“She wants me to move back in with her.”

Enough. The words spilled out of me like sleet from the sky.

“No way. Bad idea. You love living in your own apartment. And being around her isn’t going to help you stay sober,” I said.

“She’s hit the bottom. She said so herself. And she needs my help. How can I say no to that?”

“She can do what you did and dig herself out. Pour the bourbon down the sink, go to AA meetings and get a sponsor, and do the work herself.”

Stuart’s silence went on so long I thought maybe I’d gone too far, but when I glanced at him he was studying the footpath like we were on a tight rope and he didn’t want to take one wrong step. I quieted the chatter in my head so it wouldn’t continue to come out of my mouth, and concentrated on the moment. I felt the metal watch in my long sweater’s pocket hit my upper thigh with every step. I listened to the sound of dried leaves skittering across the grass. I watched my breath form clouds in the air. After a while, I took his hand and squeezed, relieved when he squeezed back and smiled.

In the distance, a muddy black truck rounded the corner and rumbled toward us.

“She has to admit she has a problem,” Stuart said. “Until then…” He shook his head slowly, eyes still on the ground.

Ahead, the truck wove sharply onto the shoulder before jerking back between the yellow lines for another twenty feet, then lurching back to the shoulder. Sun glare on the windshield blocked my view of the driver. Stuart, oblivious, continued to stare at his shoes hitting the dirt path. Something wasn’t right, I thought. The driver was texting or drunk or maybe both.

“Stuart!” I shouted, but it only made him look at me, not at the danger ahead. And the truck had sped up. I yanked his hand, which sent him sprawling toward me and out of the truck’s path. The horn screamed at us as the driver shook his fist at us and drove by, as though we had been in his way. Then, the shrill squeal of brakes on pavement followed by a loud crash.

I was down, my head on the grass, the pain in my hip so sharp I couldn’t breathe for a moment. Stuart stood above me, stunned, and pulled me to my feet.

Stuart ran toward the wreck, and I followed behind, slowly, my hip crying out with every step. The truck had smashed head-on into a maple tree. The front end of the truck had folded onto the windshield, and a pair of thick, denim-clad legs were visible through the open driver’s side door.

When I got close enough, I saw the blood on the steering wheel and heard a terrible gurgling, but Stuart blocked me from looking at the driver’s face.

“It’s pretty bad,” was all Stuart said. I saw a beer can on its side between the brake pedal and his brown work boot. The smell of beer wafted to me over cold air.

“Could have easily been you that got hit, instead of that tree,” one of the cops who came later told us. “Kind of a cold day for a walk, ain’t it?”

We wouldn’t have been out at all except for that stupid wristwatch stopping, I thought. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at its face, now as cracked as the truck’s windshield. I must have landed on it when I fell. And I watched as the minute hand ticked forward.

June 2, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 5

Editor's note: you can read Part 4 here.

He knew as he walked to the waiting room with Melly that he couldn’t leave. He texted Ray that he was tied up, then slumped into a chair like a man knocked down by a haymaker punch he never saw coming.

His mind played back Linus’s request like an audio loop. The image of a baby formed before his eyes against the blank waiting room wall, its innocence and potential as pure as sunlight. His genes, and those of his father and mother (now gone), living on through this sparkling baby. And what an offer -- to procreate without responsibility, a donor of life who gives and then departs, his duty done in minutes rather than over decades.

And of course there was the karmic payback, the chance to give life where once he had taken it. Now in his mind’s movie theatre he saw himself in another waiting room, his girlfriend Kimmie’s red eyes and smeared mascara, the signs on the wall about sexually-transmitted diseases and something called the morning after pill that he had never known existed.

Someone said “father” and he looked up to see Melly staring at him, holding a pot of thick black coffee in one hand and a styrofoam cup in another.

“What did you say?”

“Coffee. I asked if you wanted coffee,” she said.

Neil shook his head, and watched her turn from him, her hands moving over packets of sugar and artificial sweetener and dried creamer.

“You and Linus have been looking into the artificial insemination thing for a while?” he said.

She turned to him, her face wrinkling in confusion, teeth chewing her bottom lip. “We can’t afford that kind of thing,” she said, and he understood with great clarity that he was expected to have sex with her. He found himself appraising her with different eyes, noticing the way her button-down shirt gaped slightly between her breasts, and the soft roundness of her rear end.

After a time, sitting in silence next to Melly, the thought occurred to him: What if Linus died on the operating table? Did he mean for Neil to take Melly as his wife? Panic stirred in him, and he sat up straight in the chair, his legs ready to run. He willfully slowed his breathing. Certainly that wasn’t Linus’s expectation. He just wanted to come clean with Neil about his reasons for dragging him to the Green Man bar. A deathbed declaration of truth was all it was.

His mind took on the prayerful mantra, “let him be okay, let him be okay,” and Neil realized this was the closest he had come to praying since his mother’s death. But because he didn’t believe in God, he threw the words out into the universe like pennies into a wishing well, rather than addressing them to some supreme being with the power to grant him this request.

Melly turned on the television, standing on her tiptoes to reach the buttons that changed the channels. A remote control was nowhere to be found. She settled on a cooking show, and they both stared at the female chef at her stove, talking directly into the camera. And so the hours passed.

The surgeon strode in on lime-green running shoes, his head covered in a blue bandanna that matched his eyes.

“Mrs. Deguerra?” he said, and Melly glanced at Neil shyly before taking the more expedient choice of letting him identify her this way, instead of going through the “we’re not married” speech.

“The surgery went well. The bullet missed his heart by an inch. It sliced through his shoulder and went out the other side, so we had nothing to remove. We’ll know later if he’s lost any motor function or has nerve damage; in which case he may need more surgery. But he’s recovering nicely.”

Melly seemed to melt with relief, and Neil felt a weight lifted. No need to worry about interpreting Linus’s intent in making his odd request and wondering if it included becoming Melly’s guardian, protector and baby daddy.

After another cooking show had begun and ended, Neil heard the soft squeak of sneakers on the tile floor. A nurse in pink scrubs holding a clipboard motioned for them both to follow her. Neil followed the two women, feeling tethered to Melly and unwilling to let her out of his sight until he had delivered her back safely to Linus.

They came to brightly lit single room, where Linus lay looking out the dark window.
Neil heard Melly gasp back a sob, then watched her as she flung her brown purse on the ground and slid into the chair next to the bed. Linus turned to her and they pressed their heads together, hands clasping. She kissed him several times, her lips making soft smacks on his skin. Linus winced in pain but still smiled. Their love electrified the air, and Neil felt the tiny hairs on the back of his arms and neck begin to stand up in response. Here was certain love.

“I’ll do it,” he blurted out, and they both turned their eyes to him, first in surprise, then joy.

April 25, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 4

Editor's note: you can read Part 3 here.

The smell of diesel fuel and exhaust hit Neil’s nose, then gave way to the disinfectant and alcohol smell of the emergency room.

Last time Neil was in an emergency room, his mother was still alive, a cut on her head needing stitches on Christmas Day. They weren’t at this particular emergency room, but something about these waiting rooms made them all the same. Slow, tense places serving as holding pens for the big show behind closed doors.  About thirty people sat in clusters of two and three, in straight-backed chairs designed with cheapness not aesthetics in mind. Fear and worry thickened the air.

Melly picked up the handset of an old-fashioned push button phone, the kind of phone his parents had before the ubiquitousness of “cordless” technology. She kept her back to him while she spoke, and he saw her nodding her head.

“They said we should go to the fifth floor waiting area,” she said to him.

Unmarked doors, name badges, long white corridors, the shell-shocked faces of other families, a man with a face like a mouse slowly mopping the floor. A nurse in pink scrubs met them at the elevator.

“You’re here for Mr. Deguerra?” she asked in a matter-of-fact way, clipboard at her side.

“Yes,” Melly said. Neil waited to be asked if he was family, but apparently this nurse wasn’t going to bother.

“He’s in pre-op,” she said. “Why don’t you go in for a few minutes?”

Pre-op sounded to Neil like serious family time. He couldn’t imagine Linus would want him in there -- what if he had important, deathbed kind of things to say to Melly? Surely this would be where they parted ways.

Melly smoothed her hand over her hair and he felt her hand clamp his forearm and squeeze gently. The nurse marched ahead of them down the hall without looking back.

“Please come,” Melly said. “I don’t think I can do this alone.”

The pre-op room was the size of a small theater, divided into twelve compartments by drapes hanging from ceiling tracks. They walked down the well-lit aisle, dark eyes following them from the occupied beds.

Linus laid in the furthest bed, his head propped up and his eyes dull with pain. His hospital gown drooped, exposing his right shoulder, making him seem small and old.

“You came,” he said, his lips lifting into the beginnings of a smile. “Perfect.”

Melly crooked her hand around his, her knuckles pressing into the white sheet. Tears spilt onto his arm.

“No, no,” he said. “No crying, for everything is going to be all right, Melly.”

“You saved my life again,” she said, a sob shuddering through her thin frame.

“You don’t know that,” Linus said. He blinked and refocused, this time on Neil. “Maybe this dude here saved both our lives.”

I didn’t save anyone’s life, Neil thought. If anything, me and Linus surprised the robber and that made him shoot. If we hadn’t walked in, maybe it would have never got violent. Maybe the man would have taken the money and left Melly, shaken but unhurtWho could say whether our appearance was a good thing or a bad thing? It just was.

“It was nothing, man. Now you’ve got to relax and let the doctors do their work,” Neil said.

“But I need to tell you why I brought you there,” Linus said.

“You wanted me to play for Melly,” Neil said.

“This is going to sound weird,” Linus said. “Because, to be honest, I’ve forgotten your name--”

“Neil.”

“Okay, Neil. Well, it’s still going to sound weird, but listen, if I don’t make it out of here, I need you to know this.”

“You’re going to make it out of here,” Melly said.

Neil chimed in. “Definitely.”

“I want you to get Melly pregnant,” Linus said.

“Linus!” Melly dropped his hand and covered her mouth. “Not now.”

Neil had no words to respond. “Err, um...”

“Look, I wasn’t going to spring this on you like this. We were going to warm you up to it. Get to know you. We wanted a musician, and you’re good-looking and you got talent. That’s the truth of it.”

“You’re freaking him out,” Melly said to Linus before turning to Neil.

Her blue eyes pleaded for his understanding. “I didn’t know he was going to do this,” she said. “That’s not why I asked you to come.”

“No, it’s perfect, though, babe, don’t you see that?” Linus said. “He feels the connection. He’s a good man, see?”

Neil shifted his weight and slipped his hand into his pocket. The cool plastic of his phone reminded him of Ray and his invitation, and he wished he were there now blasting a joint, strumming his guitar.

“I don’t have a job,” he said. A stupid thing to say, but all he could think of. Me a father? I can barely make my half of the rent most months.

“We’d take care of the baby,” Linus said. “We just need your sperm. My equipment doesn’t work.”

The nurse in pink scrubs appeared. “We’re going to take you in now, Mr. Deguerra.” She grabbed a handful of the white and blue curtain and yanked it open.

“Think about it,” he said.

“Yeah,” Neil said, thinking that he was sure he’d do little else. What an awkward, unexpected proposal -- a man potentially on his deathbed asking for him to get his wife, girlfriend, whatever, pregnant.

“I love you,” Melly said, holding Linus’s hand again and walking alongside the gurney.

Editor's note: you can read Part 5 here.

March 6, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Letting go

I'm hiking the steepest part of Wildwood Canyon in the late afternoon. My muscles are screaming for oxygen but each gulp of air seems to bring only dust.

This hike is both real and in my head, for I am scaling the internal terrain of my disappointment with Liam.

He walks ahead of me, leaving his excuses behind for me to gather, like tinder to stoke the fire of my fury. I stab him in the back with my angry words, but he just skitters away like a tiny lizard, looking for the next sunny rock.

My anger crests like the hill I am climbing. I cannot even keep Liam's attention for the length of my stride.

I lean into the last stretch of incline. I watch his back, solid even as it recedes from me. I hold my breath in my lungs, imagining oxygen molecules entering my blood stream and coursing through my body.

Then, suddenly, the climb is over. Wildwood Canyon opens up in front of me, and I want to fall to my knees like a supplicant in a church nave. The wind strokes my cheek and ruffles my hair, and somehow this breaks the anger into small pieces. I let out my breath and the sharp edges of the disappointment fly away. I'll give him another chance, I think.

As if he could read my thoughts, Liam turns around and waits for me to catch up.

February 13, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Up on a roof

Dylan Brody stood on the rooftop of his North Hollywood apartment with his telescope and notebook, looking for what unkind people referred to as “little green men.” The science of ufology was so misunderstood, and he hadn’t done much to help it gain mainstream traction. He still winced inside when he remembered his speech at the computer hacker’s convention in Menlo Park three years ago, back when he garnered respect rather than ridicule.

Between midnight and four a.m. in the half-gentrified NoHo Arts District was cluttered with police cars, the chop-chop of helicopter blades and drunk art students, dancers and actors in their twenties lurching between bars and house parties. But Dylan kept his eyes trained to the night skies looking for amorphous globs of light and ghostly shapes hurling through the atmosphere.

He did not believe that UFOs were vessels containing extra-terrestrial visitors. Instead, he believed that any visitors to this planet were from some future Earth where time travel was possible. And he desperately wanted to meet these emissaries if they came. Within their minds would be the schematics for great technological breakthroughs. Who knew what would be possible? Anti-gravity technology, time travel, teleportation!

A whoosh and a slam from the far corner of the roof alerted him to the presence of another, but he didn’t move his eye from the telescope. Footsteps crunched behind him.

“What are you looking at?” a woman said in a low, pleasant voice.

He quickly shut the notebook before turning to face her. Her brown hair flew in long strands around her, and she tried to keep them out of her face—which was quite pretty—by tucking them behind her ears.

Keep it simple, stupid, he thought. “Just stars,” he said. “The Milky Way.”

“Oh,” she said. “May I look?”

He stepped back from the telescope to let her peer into it.

“That’s the Scorpio constellation,” he said to the back of her head as she bent over slightly to look into the telescope.

“Glitters like jewels,” she said, stepping back. “I’m a Libra, though.”

“I don’t know much about astrology,” he said. “Just stars. Let me see if I can find Libra; it’s next to Scorpio, just to the east.”

He put his eye to the telescope lens once again and scanned the night sky for Libra’s quadrangle of its four brightest stars.

“Look now,” he said. “See the four bright stars that form a kind of rectangle? That’s Libra. It’s supposed to look like the balancing beam on a set of scales.”

She looked for a long time, so long that he grew impatient and anxious to get back to his work. He cleared his throat and shuffled the pages in his notebook, then tapped his pen against the telescope itself.

She straightened up and he saw that the telescope viewfinder had left a perfect circle impression around her right eye.

“Thank you for letting me look,” she said. “I thought you might have been someone who was looking for UFOs or something crazy like that.” Her eyes were blue, deeply set beneath thin eyebrows.

He laughed. “Ha ha,” he said, not sure why he was denying his real interest to this woman, other than the outlandish hope he might have a shot at asking her out. Not that he had the courage to do it.

“Silly, huh?” she said, and then, right before his eyes, her body seemed to pixelate then dissolve, until he found himself standing alone on the roof once again.

“Goddammit!” he shouted, kicking the telescope stand and sending it flying across the roof. He’d just missed his opportunity to meet one of the time travelers.

February 6, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Unlikely aid

Bradlee felt thick with lack of sleep. Her body was moving at the speed of sludge and her mind couldn't keep up even with that. Her keys should have been on the counter by the door, but they weren't.

Merry babbled in her baby carrier, her hands bouncing in the air like she was conducting an invisible orchestra.

"Dyah ba ba ba da," Merry said. "Ah er kay ba ba."

Bradlee bent at the waist to give the baby a kiss on her cherry red lips.

"And then what happened, sweetie? Tell me the rest of your story," she said.

"Ba ba ba mwah be," Merry said.

If only she could snuggle with Merry all day, Bradlee thought. But she had to get to her card shop. She had the opening shift. Who scheduled that anyway, she wondered wryly. She was the shop's owner and its only employee.

She scanned the counter and the table again for her keys, lifting up a pile of junk mail to see if they'd slipped under.

"Did you see where Mommy left her keys, baby girl?" she said, in her habit of talking aloud to Merry. The experts said talking to the baby developed language skills, but sometimes Bradlee felt like she was talking to herself.

"Ba ba pock et," Merry said.

Sounded like a word, Bradlee thought. Pock et. Pocket.

She patted her blazer pocket over her hip and felt the sharp ridges of a set of keys.

She touched her nose to Merry's tiny one. "My smart girl," she said.

January 30, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Fight

They called them points for a reason, Marlene thought, because that's how you keep score in a fight. And without the score, how do you know who won?

Her husband Carlos kept score by how he felt.

The fights made Marlene feel safer and more in control, which was odd, because they were having the opposite effect on Carlos. With each incrimination, he drew further from her.

When he finally packed a bag and told her he was leaving, she hurled insults and accusations, and when that didn't work, she hurled the crystal bowl they had received as a wedding gift three years prior.

Carlos felt the starlight mints from the crystal bowl crack under his shoes as he walked out the door. Marlene couldn't understand it all. Hadn't she won every argument?

January 23, 2015No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Panhandling

Mark made it halfway through the first day of his construction job before deciding he wouldn't make it back the next day. Not because Joe would fire him. Joe was the owner of a construction company and a good guy who saw Mark panhandling outside the diner two days ago. "Swing by the job site if you want honest work," he said.

No, Joe would probably give him a second, third and even fourth chance to make things right. Mark had met good guys like Joe before, and he knew what Joe wanted - the satisfaction of offering the helping hand.

But it only took thirty minutes of back-breaking work for Mark to regret leaving the half-full bottle of whiskey in his backpack rather than in his jacket pocket, and one hour to find an excuse to go to his locker in the construction trailer to get it.

Joe brought him a sandwich at the lunch break and sat next to him in lawn chairs set up alongside the trailer.

"I'm going to quit, man," Mark said. "I really appreciate all this - opportunity and stuff - but I can't do it." He took a bite of the sandwich. It was turkey on wheat, as dull and routine as the work he'd done all morning.

"You just got to stick to it," Joe said. "It'll get easier."

"It's not that," Mark said. "You know, I can make more money panhandling anyway. This job is not for me."

Joe looked at him with one eyebrow raised, a trick Mark always wished he could do.

"Really," Mark said. "I can make more panhandling."

A cloud crossed Joe's face, as if that helpful part of him shriveled a bit with the news that his helping hand had been for nothing. He snorted a half-laugh and stood up.

"Well, here's fifty bucks for today, then," he said. Joe handed him the money in tens and fives, but stopped short of shaking his hand before heading back into the trailer.

Mark washed the lie down with a long swig of the whiskey, then took the first steps back to the diner, glad he didn't throw away his cardboard sign that read "Hungry, Need a Job." If he were to be truthful, he would have written "Alcoholic, Need a Drink," but you definitely don't make enough money panhandling with that message.

November 7, 20142 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Sparrow

The portal had dissolved the hospital wall, but only Netta seemed to notice. The nurses flowed in and out of the room without so much as a glance at the garden that had materialized.

Netta tried to get the night nurse to pluck her a flower from one of wild bushes on the edge of the path. But her tongue couldn't form the right words, and her feverish pointing at the portal only convinced the nurse to bring her the bed pan.

Netta caught the faint scent of roses before the sharpness of rubbing alcohol erased it entirely. The nurse was back, and she took possession of Netta's arm and pricked its tender underbelly.

The nurse didn't notice when a sparrow flew out of the portal and sat on the bed railing. And she didn't react at all when the bird started singing. She only looked up from her vampiric task when Netta sang along with the bird.

But now it was Netta's turn not to notice. She was in the garden, silky grass under her feet. Her hand wrapped around one of the pink and white flowers bursting out of its fragile cage of thin branches and stiff leaves.

 

October 10, 2014No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Method acting


“Surprised!” Grayson typed in the caption box under the selfie he just posted. It was part of his “emotional expression” series of self-portraits he was posting on his blog, a reaction to a casting director who recently said his facial expressions weren’t subtle enough for on-camera work. Jerk.

The doorknob on his apartment door rattled. He clutched the phone in the palm of his hand and rose from the couch. It was too early for his roommate Elijiah to be back from the movie premiere.

Metal on metal clicks, a catch and the bolt sliding out of the lock. He tried to peer through the peephole but saw nothing but the reflection of his own eye.

“Elijiah?” No answer, just the sound of his own light, quick breathing. 

The door handle turned, and Grayson put his hands out to hold it shut. But the force applied on the other side was too strong for him to counter. He watched helplessly as his feet slid back on the entryway linoleum and the door swung open.

Grayson didn’t recognize the man. Tall, shoulders as broad as Elijiah’s Prius, black hair and dark brown eyes. Good looking but too old to be Grayson’s type. One of Elijiah’s kinky daddies maybe?

Then Grayson saw the man’s fingers were curled around the handle of knife with a nasty curved tip.

Grayson was seriously under-armed and out of his weight class. He’d have to go for ingenuity. He grabbed his keys from the nearby table and rushed the man, aiming the sharp metal ends at his eyes. The man slammed his palm into Grayson’s shoulder, blasting the keys and the phone from his hands and onto the floor. Then, with a smooth, trained movement, he knocked his fist into Grayson’s jaw, caught him as he reeled back and dragged him to the couch. Grayson went limp against the cushions with fear while the man bound his hands and feet with zip ties.

Satisfied Grayson wasn’t going to move, the man picked up the phone and swiped at its screen. Knife in one hand, he held the phone up and the flash went off.

“You can call this picture ‘fear’,” the man said. “Should I post it?”

He turned the screen around to show Grayson a picture he hardly recognized of himself--eyes bulging, mouth gaping open, split lip starting to swell.

“You’re sick, ” Grayson spat. 

The man leaned in, his curly black hair tickling Grayson’s nose and filling it with the smell of herbal shampoo. Grayson pulled his knees up, hoping to find enough leverage to connect with the man’s balls. Then a sharp pain bit into the underside of his forearm and his legs went slack.

Tears sprung to Grayson’s eyes as two drops of blood slid off the knife and onto the beige carpet.

“What do you want?” 

The man held up the phone again and took another picture. “This one is called ‘pain.’” He showed Grayson the image--watery eyes, color drained from his face, lips pressed together tight. Grayson’s breathing was light and shallow, sticky blood pouring out of his arm. He struggled against the zip ties and fell onto his side.

“Now, now,” the man said, swiping at the phone. “You’ve already got five ‘likes’ from your friends for the fear photo.”

He peered at the screen closely. “In fact, Lisbeth says you are a brilliant actor.”

Grayson could see his blood streaking the sofa. He was already feeling light-headed. He squirmed and inched his way to the far side of the couch, trying to get enough distance between them to land a kick on the man’s abdomen before he could do any more harm.

So, let’s try the ‘pain’ one again. The first one wasn’t your best work.”

Grayson rolled on his spine and kicked out his feet into the man’s gut as hard as he could. The man grunted and stumbled backward against the kitchen counter. The knife went flying, hitting the flatscreen TV before falling to the carpet with a thud. Grayson fell from couch and reached for the knife, cutting the zip ties and placing the knife under the man’s chin.

“Who in the hell are you and what do you want?”

“Cool it, man. Cool it. Elijiah sent me. I’m Ryan from Actor’s School. He said you were trying to tap into your deepest feelings. He wanted me to help. He thought you might even find it a turn on.”

Grayson let the words sink in. Ryan from Actor’s School. Elijiah’s method actor friend he was always talking about. 

Ryan smiled at him. “Fear is the real deal, isn’t it? Clears the mind.”

Grayson looked at the wound on his arm. Already the blood had stopped flowing. The cut wasn’t as deep as he thought, though it still burned.

Grayson felt the laughter in his belly first, shaking his core and then erupting from his swollen lips.