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.

July 24, 2015No Comments

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 3

Robin slid limply down the side of the turbine until she could feel the cold tile floor through the seat of her pants. His fall played on repeat in her head. He was just a man, blood and flesh and bones like all of us, the power he held completely vanished -- dispensed into the air like humidity. She’d had entertained a few fantasies about killing him, or at least having him disappear, but now, incredulously, someone had actually taken that ultimate step. A small smile found its way to her face.

She waited as the group filed down the stairs, shoes clanging on metal. Ladonna’s knees went wobbly on the staircase, and she fell backwards against the fire chief, who grabbed her by the elbows and guided her slowly down. Harmon stood back, away from the body and seemingly out of its line of sight. Robin realized that Harmon somehow wasn’t completely confident Paul wasn’t going to sit up, point his finger at Harmon and shout “murderer!” But Robin could see Paul’s eyes were closed and his neck was at a very unnatural angle. A trickle of blood ran down his chin. He was clearly dead.

The commissioners whipped out their cell phones in near unison to call 9-1-1 while the head engineer spoke intently into his radio.

“...horrible accident...”

“...I was scared of something like that when he suggested we go up there...”

”...the catwalk was slippery. I almost lost my balance...”

The police arrived, as did paramedics and some employees who were stationed at the power plant. The police shuffled everyone into the conference room. But they didn’t seem to notice when Robin peeled off to hide the camera.

She needed to think. From the way everyone was acting, it was clear that no one saw what happened but her. The right thing to do was to tell the police what happened. Because it was a terrible accident, right? But still, something held her back. Why hadn’t Harmon said anything?

A policeman in a stiff blue uniform stood at the door to the conference room with watchful eyes and a neutral face. The head engineer slouched in his seat, head tilted and resting on the chair back. Harmon sat by himself at the far end of the u-shaped conference table.

“Cup of coffee, Commissioner?” Robin said to Harmon, holding out a steaming paper cup. Up close, he smelled metallic, a scent Robin associated with fear and sweat and adrenalin. And blood. The armpits of his suit were stamped with damp rings and he’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his broadcloth shirt.

He took the cup with a nod, and peered at her through wire-rimmed reading glasses as if seeing her for the first time.

“I’m Robin. Paul’s assistant,” she said.

He took a sip of the coffee and shuddered. “Still very hot,” he said. “I’ll let it cool down.”

He set the coffee on the conference room table and gave her a quick smile as though she was dismissed. But when she didn’t move away, he tilted his head at her and raised his wooly eyebrows.

Her head was churning ideas so fast she was afraid they would pour out of her ears. Career blogs always talked about seizing opportunities. Should she seize this one? She had come to enjoy the small powers of invisibility, but didn’t she want to have the power to make real change? And, to be honest, to taste the pleasure of being extremely visible for once? To be someone who mattered?

“Terrible accident, wasn’t it?” she finally mustered.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I was right in front of him when it happened. If only I had turned around --  I might have been able to grab him...”

I’ve got you, old man, she thought.

Out loud, she said, “Really?”

His eyes, now cold and calculating, bored into hers, as though he could see into her soul. She held herself perfectly still, feeling her breath go in and out of her lungs, just like in yoga class.

“And where were you when this terrible accident occurred?” he said.

“You didn’t see me?” she said. She leaned on the edge of the table, but didn’t break eye contact. She wanted to see every one of his reactions.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t notice me. People tell me I just blend into the background,” she said.

His grey eyes were steady on hers, but his tongue darted out to quickly wet his lips, betraying his discomfort.

She smiled. “I’m always amazed what people do and say around me. Paul never understood that. I could have been a valuable asset to him, but he was too much of an asshole to see it.”

His eyes popped wide open at her profanity.

“Not a very kind way to speak of the newly deceased,” Harmon said, tapping the coffee cup thoughtfully. “But I understand what it is like not to be appreciated. Or maybe I should say to be to misunderstood.”

“I saw you two arguing.”

She was surprised how strong her voice sounded. It felt so good to have real power. To be in control instead of at the mercy of another. She saw it clearly now. Her invisibility was a defense mechanism. The way she coped with an impossible situation. And now, she felt she could shed it like a winter coat on an early spring day. She just didn’t need it any longer.

Harmon closed his eyes for a beat. When he opened them, she knew he wasn’t planning on confessing anything to the police.

“Perhaps there was a little spat about how a contract should be awarded. Just a little mix-up in the course of business, my dear. Barely worth mentioning.”

“Funny,” she replied with just the hint of a smile. She stood back up and planted her feet, thinking of yoga’s tree pose. She envisioned her legs growing deep roots in the ground, making her unmovable, connected to the earth.

“I was thinking it was barely worth mentioning what I saw today from the floor of the power plant. Where I was taking pictures of all the VIPs on their important tour,” she said.

She forced herself to keep her hands at her side so as not to betray her nerves under his glare.

“What a talented woman you are.”

He stood up with a grunt, taking advantage of his height by forcing her to look up instead of down at him. She could smell the coffee on his breath. He was a killer and he was trying to intimidate her. But she had leverage. She leaned into his coffee smell, close enough to see dots of white wax in his mustache.

She laughed.

“Like I said, you see a lot when you are invisible.”

Neither one moved for several beats. Harmon locked his eyes on hers as if waiting for her to back down or state what she wanted. Robin did neither. She just breathed and waited, the black silk camisole fluttering against her breastbone with each exhale.

Doors were opening for her she had never imagined. Just yesterday she was hoping Paul would grant her a merit increase on top of her cost-of-living pay raise. Now, she could take his job.

“Where’s the camera?” he said at last.

“It’s not with the police, if that is what you are asking.”

“How can I be sure it stays that way?”

This was it. The moment of truth. Robin told him she wanted Paul’s job, then waited. She reminded herself again of tree pose, the deep roots extending through the carpet, the building’s foundation, on into the soil and rocks below, but her branches reaching for the sky.

“Paul taught you well, didn’t he?” Harmon said with a curt nod.

A detective in a brown leather blazer opened the conference room door and spoke quietly to the uniformed officer.

“Can we see Robin Duffy next?” the detective said.

Robin tugged the seams of her blazer down and stepped away from Harmon and the conference table. She turned back to look at Harmon. He was staring at the tabletop like it was covered in hieroglyphics.

Two weeks later, Head Commissioner Harmon opened the regularly scheduled meeting of the commission in memory of former chief of staff Paul M. Boyce, a loyal employee of Creek City who died tragically in an accident at the city’s hydroelectric power plant. Harmon read from a bulleted list of Boyce’s accomplishments and tried to sound sincere.

“Now, for the next order of business,” he said, his hands shaking slightly as he turned the loose pages of his detailed agenda. “Appointing Paul’s successor.”

Robin sat in the first row, her knees pressed together and feet angled to the left. She smoothed her navy blue skirt across her legs and tried to project confidence and professionalism.

“As you know, I’ve taken a very personal interest in filling the chief of staff position,” Harmon said. “And on behalf of the committee, we think we have found the right person for the appointment from within the staff. Robin Duffy has worked for the city for fifteen years, most of those under the tutelage and guidance of Paul Boyce. Her job title of administrative assistant does not do her justice, for her work has gone far beyond that. In the past two months, she has demonstrated the ability and the knowledge to step into Paul’s wingtips. I can tell you firsthand that she has learned so much from her mentor.”

Harmon waited for a beat while David McNerney made the motion to appoint Robin to the position, and Ladonna Jackson made the second. Just as he’d asked them to a few days before, in exchange for chair positions on the finance and revenue committee, and handshake agreements to help move pet projects forward.

“All in favor?” Harmon said.

Twenty “ayes.”

“Any opposed?”

Silence.

Robin flashed what she hoped was a grateful smile at the commissioners. Some smiled generally in her direction, others looked at their papers or their laptops, a few checked their mobile phones. Two minutes into her new job and she was already becoming invisible again. She glanced over at Harmon, expecting the same from him. But he was sitting up straight, staring directly at her, unmasked hatred in his eyes.

Oh well, she thought. She could manage him. She’d found the dossiers Paul had prepared on each one of the commissioners. And Harmon’s was the juiciest one of all.

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.

April 24, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 3

Editor's note: You can read part 2 here.

Still in shock, Neil found himself walking ten blocks back to his car, a dark green Toyota mini-pickup, not sure how it had come to be that he would to take Melly to the hospital. There’d been some confusion after Linus was shot, during which the ambulance left without her, sirens screaming.  And she’d stood there, in the middle of the bar, arms folded over her chest and her face puffy and wet from crying. “I’m too upset to drive,” she said. It also turned out that she and Linus didn’t have a car.

The sun was too bright, and the others on the sidewalk were too cheerful. The saline, fishy smell of the ocean bit at his nose. A paperback mystery novel he had once enjoyed sprang to his mind, its dark comedy of murder and death set in the sleepy beauty of the Florida Keys striking him as horrible now that he had witnessed in person a violent crime. There really was nothing funny about being shot.

His T-shirt was as damp as if he had ran two miles, and the cool sea breeze made him shiver. The sound of laughter pealed out of a juice and smoothie cafe. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and irrationally he thought it was Melly or Linus, calling to see where he was, before realizing that of course neither had his mobile number.

The text on his phone was from his friend Ray. “Want to come over and jam?”

Neil thought about the last jam session he’d gone to at Ray’s; a kickback, marijuana-infused afternoon playing riffs and listening to Ray’s girlfriend come up with crazy lyrics to their impromptu songs. It sounded like the best possible antidote to the events of the day; the gunshot could become a story with edges dulled by distance and pot.

He put the phone on the seat without responding and five minutes later, he was parked in front of the Green Man bar. The urge to put the truck back in drive and keep going was strong. Why get involved in these peoples’ lives? They didn’t even know his last name. Surely they would not be surprised if he never showed up again, an afternoon ghost with a guitar on a day of tragic events.

But then Melly stepped onto the cracked sidewalk, her hand shading her eyes from the glare, and a green purse strapped around her body. She looked fragile and small, like a doll, standing there, so Neil tapped the horn -- one beep -- and with the faintest of smiles she walked toward him.

“I guess I could’ve taken the bus,” she said, settling into the truck’s bench seat as he slid the phone back in his jeans pocket. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

Neil saw she’d pulled her blonde and grey hair into a thin ponytail, revealing a sharp jawbone and hollow cheeks. Good-looking, for an older woman.

“No worries,” he said. But she’d already turned her head to look out of the window while he drove, her long fingers knitted together and resting on her lap.

They drove in silence for a long time, down Washington Boulevard to Lincoln, stopping and going and stopping in the usual beach area traffic.

“Linus owns the Green Man,” she said, out of the blue. “He likes to tell people I do, but it’s not true.”

“Are you two married?” Neil didn’t know what else to ask her, and even this venture seemed intrusive, odd. The kind of question that served only to highlight how little he knew about both of them.  He was a stranger thrust upon them in a tragedy.

She just shook her head. “Lived together a long time,” she said.

“Common law marriage, then,” he said, not sure why he was pressing her on this. She shrugged and kept looking out the window.

Neil drove through the enormous intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and the Marina Freeway, the white buildings of Daniel Freeman Hospital shining like a beacon against a bright blue sky. A day for taking pictures. He pulled into the driveway, following a sign that said emergency services drop-off. I’ll drop her off then head over to Ray’s. Duty done.

She closed her eyes and sat still as a mannequin. Neil held his breath, worried she would never get out. He realized that it would not be so simple for him as to be able to drop her off at the emergency room and then go about his life, chalking the whole experience up to a weird life lesson about not going off with strangers. He resigned himself to taking care of this woman, who had just witnessed her lover's shooting, and been at gunpoint herself. Let’s not be such a selfish bastard today, he thought.

“He’s saved my life five times,” she said, trembling slightly and Neil saw the tears brimming over her lashes and spilling on to her cheeks.

“Why don’t I park the truck and we’ll go in together?” he said.

She nodded and opened her eyes so he could see the gratitude outshining sadness briefly in their blue depths.

Editor's note: You can read part 4 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.

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 3, 20141 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Killer app

Ashley and Calvin stood behind their orange shopping cart, arms touching but eyes fixed on their smart phones as they waited for the one Big Lots cashier to work her way through a line of 20 customers.

“That candy corn display has me thinking," Ashley said. "Let’s go to one of those haunted house thingeys. There is a zombie one at Universal Studios."

“I’m so over zombies,” he said, his eyes flicking through football scores on the tiny screen. “Anyway, tickets to that are, like fifty-five dollars. We don’t have that kind of money.”

Ashley sighed. He was right. The ramen noodles, no-name laundry detergent, and scratchy toilet paper in their cart were a testament to their lack of funds. She swiped and clicked the phone’s touchscreen, looking for budget Halloween festivities.

“Hey, here’s a free app. Spooky crime scene sites in Los Angeles. Says it guides you around haunted sites in LA.”

Calvin pulled his eyes from the sports mobile app to Ashley. “I bet I can name most of them,” he said, tapping his fingers against his crinkled forehead. “Black Dahlia murder site near USC. The Manson murder site in Benedict Canyon. Fairfax & Wilshire where Tupac was shot. Nicole Simpson's condominium in Brentwood. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel.”

“You’re a trivia ghoul, Calvin,” she said. “Look, one of the places is right around the corner. It’s that boarded up house on Weddington.”

Calvin squinted at her screen. “A young couple was found brutally murdered in an abandoned house in North Hollywood. Suspects were never found; no motive was discovered. Does it say when that happened?”

She scanned the text and shook her head. “Nope. But let’s load the stuff in the car and walk over there. Cheap thrills.”

The house was a shell of neglect, its yard a wasteland of dried up plants and fast food wrappers. Sandwiched between two derelict warehouses, it smelled faintly of burning trash. Calvin shivered. 

“This is stupid, Ash, let’s go home,” he said, but she just smiled and scrambled through a hole in the fence to stand on the porch. “Take my picture, honey,” she said. 

The front door creaked open. Ashley screamed as a man’s dark silhouette covered her and disappeared into the house.  

Heart pounding, Calvin ducked through the cut chain-link and ran through the door. A second man stood in the shadows, light glinting off of the gun he held.

“Come on in,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

September 26, 20142 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Target practice

Safety reasons. That was what I told everyone at Gunslingers firing range that morning when they asked why I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. It was a lie. Julianne and I were there to meet men, but saying that out loud makes you look desperate. Saying we needed protection was the perfect answer. No one was going to ask us any more questions. They were afraid we had sad stories to tell. The truly clever bit is that everyone knows guys can't resist a damsel in distress. Go read Sleeping Beauty or Twilight or see a James Bond movie and you'll see I'm right.

Last night Julianne and me did a little manhunting at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was pretty depressing. I seriously needed a beer after hearing all those sad stories. But you can't drink with those guys. They get all serious about it, like one beer is going to kill them. Guys who shoot guns have to be more fun than teetotalers, right?

Damn, though, pickings were more slim at Gunslingers than they were on that online dating site for old folks. Julianne started in with the instructor, fluttering those long eyelashes she started growing since her doctor prescribed those glaucoma eye drops. That left me with grizzled grandpa, barbed wire tattoo guy, or mystery man who didn't speak English.

I pointed at the box of guns the instructor brought in. "Is there a pink one?" I asked no one in particular. Barbed wire tattoo guy ignored me; mystery man posed for a selfie photo clutching his revolver to his chest. Grandpa smiled politely at me, so I picked up the revolver by the muzzle and looked confused.

"Do you know how to load this?"

Gramps took it out of my hands and filled it with bullets in one smooth movement.

"You're so good at that," I purred.

"Been doing it for years," he said.

"Maybe I don't need to learn how to shoot a gun. I can just take you home with me," I said. His polite smile morphed into a surprised grin.

Bulls-eye.