Categories
Fiction Genre Short stories

Sweet Confessions

Side by side, we sat on the old park bench. The late spring air hung heavy around us like a priest’s confessional. Unspoken words buzzed and danced about our heads with all the welcome of a mosquito swarm. I think we both hoped if we ignored the words long enough, they would disappear.

I sat back, the pitted wood a familiar comfort through my shirt. This was our bench. On the last board to the left, our crudely carved initials were still distinguishable against the green flecked and greying wood. The lingering and silent testimony of countless childhood dares and vows to always be there for each other. We grew up on this bench, sharing the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.

Words used to flow freely. Now, they lodged in the throat, refusing to come. When had life become so dang complicated? I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when we crossed the threshold between childhood and lost innocence.

Joey glanced at me and smiled. Not his normal, mischievous smile. Nope. Hadn’t seen that since he started dating Rita, the cheerleading queen. His happy smile had become as elusive as some endangered jungle cat, leaving an empty shell.

“I don’t get it, Em,” he said, “Not one bit. I can’t make her happy no matter what I do.” The toe of his shoe drew a line in the dirt. Joey sighed, rubbing his neck. “I don’t text, and she says I don’t think about her or love her. I do text, and now I’m some near stalker who won’t give her space. Makes no sense to me.”

“She’s a prep and a bitch.” I swallowed hard, rubbing my hands on my worn jeans. I shouldn’t have said it. Joey didn’t want to hear it. But God, I hated her.

Joey’s head turned towards me, and he frowned.

I dared a glance at his hazel eyes to gauge his reaction. While many people used ridiculous rings to decipher someone’s mood, all I needed to do was check the predominant color of his eyes. They shone green. So I’d surprised him. Yeah. Him and me both.

His eyebrows rose. “Say again?”

With a shrug, I looked away. Me and my big mouth had already said more than enough.

“What?”

“Forget it.”

“No.” He sounded set and entrenched. I hated that tone.

I shook my head. My tongue and brain were not on same the page at the moment, not even the same book. I didn’t trust what would pop out of my mouth if I let my jaw wag.

“Emily.”

My lips pressed together, and I gazed at the sky. Maybe the clouds would form a word, or two, or ten and give me a script to follow. Nada. One did resemble a boat; a boat I was about to go down in. “I’m sorry.”

Joey didn’t miss a beat. “No. You’re not.”

Scratch what I said earlier about hating his tone. I hated it more when he was right. I wasn’t sorry in the least.

“Why did you call her that?” He laced his hands in his lap and leaned towards me. He didn’t sound upset, per say, but he wasn’t happy either. Still, he opened the topic of his love life. Again. Did he think I wouldn’t say something eventually?

“What do you want me to say, Joey?” Rita couldn’t have herself a better boyfriend if she programmed a robot. Joey was the best boyfriend material out there, kind and loyal. He knew just how to make a person laugh, not caring if he appeared a fool. The kind of guy who spent his last twenty to throw his shoulder out to get the stupid oversized bear at the fair if you wanted it. I saw him do it. Still had the stupid bear, too.

“Well, you could start with why you called my girlfriend a bitch.”

“Don’t like her.”

“Clearly.”

Our eyes met. Silently, I begged him not to press me any further. The horrible truth expanded within my chest, deep in the air pockets of my lungs, and threatened to jump into the world. If those words escaped, there was no telling what would happen.

“Talk.”

“Joey, trust me. You don’t want this.” The truth inched its way up my throat where it choked and jumbled together like a pile of rocks. “I said sorry.”

He shook his head. “Naw. Not buying today, Em. You started this.” His eyes shifted from surprised green to determined blue. Normally, I loved the way his eyes changed color. Not so much today.

I started to point out, no, technically he started by complaining about Rita. Though, to be fair, I did set off the bomb. He merely presented said bomb. “I don’t like how she makes you sad,” I said.

Joey leaned back against the bench, letting out a long breath. Slowly, his head nodded, accepting. His eyes dropped. “Yeah. We do seem to fight a lot.”

I bit the tip of my tongue. A lot was an understatement, and he knew it. We both did.

“Is that why you don’t like her?”

Yeah, he asked the question, but it didn’t mean he wanted the answer. He wanted to stay with her. The longing was written all over his face, like a puppy in search of praise. He wanted someone to hold his hand and tell him everything would all be okay. One day, they’d go to prom together and live happily ever after. He wanted a lie. I wouldn’t lie to him.

My palms itched, and I rubbed them on my legs, pressing down as hard as possible.

“Okay. Fine.” He hit his thighs with open palms. “Why don’t you like her? Real talk. “

The words fell heavy and final in the space between us as he invoked our long-standing promise to be honest with each other. With two words, he blocked off any and all hopes of escape. I sat, frozen. How was I expected to start? I couldn’t think of a single way that didn’t involve destroying our friendship.

“Are you sure?” Maybe, if I gave him a chance to take it back, he would.

“Real talk, Em. Hell, I’ll start. You wanna know why I’m with her, right? Okay. I’ve liked Rita since, like what? Forever? And now I’m dating her. Me and not someone like Tom Gibson. Should be heaven, right? She’s the perfect girlfriend. Drop dead gorgeous, always smiling. Popular. Everything a guy wants, am I right? But when I’m with her lately,” he shrugged, “all we do is fight. She’s upset. She’s angry. And the more I try, the worse I do. Yeah, maybe I should break up with her, but I keep hoping, something’s gotta give. Then it’ll be easy. Like a…a good friendship.”

I frowned and blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“What?” He frowned. His mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. His hand shot up to rub at his neck. “A good friendship, Em. Relationships should be smooth like a good friendship. Right? That’s what I thought I heard Mom say once…on the phone…with…someone. Aren’t you girls supposed to know this stuff?”

“Whoa! Whoa!” My hands jumped up to stop him. “Have you met me? Not exactly the rom com queen here.”

A smile, an honest to goodness, genuine smile graced his face. “Yeah. Ya do kinda have a point.”

“Well, duh,” I said, fighting back the urge to hug him. Here was the Joey I knew and missed. “So you knowing all that. Why talk to me about this stuff?”

“You’re a girl.”

“Seriously? Is that what you’ve been doing? Is that why –?” I leaned against the bench letting my head fall back. “Sorry to disappoint you here, but I don’t know any more about relationships than you do.”

“Yeah. You can say that again.”

Was that what he’d been wanting from me all this time? Love advice? I let out a snort, feeling the tension start to disappear. Maybe now things could start to go back to normal, and he’d stop jabbering on about Rita. I hit him on the shoulder with back of my hand. “That’s what you get for being so stupid, Stupid. I’m your friend, not Oprah.”

“Yeah…You are my friend aren’t you?”

“Sure as sure.”

“And we’ve got a good friendship…Don’t we?”

My stomach did a flip-flop. There was something in his tone, in those last words. And I didn’t understand it.

Hoping for some clue, I turned towards him. No such luck. We had known each other our whole lives. I knew him inside and out, better than his parents, his siblings, anyone. But now, there was something completely alien on his face.

And it shot a thrill right up my spine, like I touched a live outlet. Every nerve screaming in agonized pleasure. I swallowed to try and wet a mouth filled with sand.

“Em?”

Unbidden, the words blurted out. “Rita doesn’t deserve you. And you know it. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s her. All her.”

Joey sighed.

My stomach clenched tight and hard. Even without being a relationship expert, something told me that was probably not the right thing to say. Here we had just gotten back to normal, and I went and blew it again. Today was not my day. Why had I said those things? True? Yes, beyond a doubt. But I knew better than to say it out loud. Mouth, meet foot. Had I gone and ruined our friendship?

The silence taunted and whispered prophecies of doom as it dragged out between us.

“I know,” he said, voice soft and low. I think my heart stopped. Did he say what I thought he said? I wanted to look at him. I wanted to say something. But everything was locked up frozen. It took more effort than I had ever known speaking to take, but somehow, I managed to ask, “Are you going to break up with her, then?”

“I think I should.”

Our eyes managed to find each other, and we sat there, just looking. My mind felt like it was running frantically but not getting anywhere, like a hamster on a wheel. If there was something I was supposed to say, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what. I wasn’t even going to try.

He leaned forward.

Warm lips pressed against mine. Everyone always talks about how lips are supposed to be all soft and sweet. His were, but I could also feel the chapped ridges and the remains of soda.

Like magnets, we bent in once, twice, three times. I was scared to push for more, but no single touch was enough to quench the hot thirst welling up inside. This was Joey, my friend, my best friend. And we were kissing. What did it mean for us? I didn’t know. We’d figure it out later, somehow.

Right then, all I wanted to was to drown in the taste of his sweetness.

Categories
Fiction

Lost and Found

Note to self; this is why you never go camping, hiking, backpacking, or anything else that could be classified under “outdoorsy”. You are a city boy. Accept it and move on.

Go, my therapist said. Give yourself some time away from all the demands and chaos surrounding you. Give yourself space to think. A space to ground; whatever the heck that meant. It would be fun. It would be peaceful. It would be good for you. So said my most wise and insightful sage of a therapist.

I was away from all my regular chaos, sure. And I apparently had countless square miles in which I could think all I wanted to. Still not sure what grounding was supposed to be, but I’m fairly sure this wasn’t it. This wasn’t fun, not at all peaceful, and I couldn’t think of any way that being lost in the middle of the woods butting up against national wilderness would be good for me. But there I was, with the sun setting, nonetheless. What was supposed to have been a short little day hike on a moderate trail had turned into an unprepared overnight hike through the middle of freaking nowhere.

I was, in a word, screwed.

For the umpteenth time, I held aloft my cell phone towards the sky and prayed once more to the useless heavens for something more than that stupid circle and its stupid line.

Still nothing.

Well. Okay. There was one change on the screen. Instead of having 10% battery life left, I was down to 3%.

Images of rabid wolves with saliva dripping off mile long fangs slowly advancing upon me under a full moon pressed upon my mind’s eye. Thanks, mind. I really needed that image right about now. Were wild wolves even a thing here? I knew they were back in Yellowstone and in Alaska. But those places were thousands of miles from here. Surely there were no wolves here, right? Right? Dang it, I should have Googled that before going.

Note to self; before plunging into the woods like some expert, life long, woodsman from that Mountain Men show, Google your local area for information about all the things that could kill, eat, and or both, before you go.

I let out a long, guttural growl, pinching the bridge of my nose. Okay. Think, self, think. You told Mom where you were going and what you were doing. You made sure to tell the most hysterical person you could think of so if something did go wrong, you could bet the farm there would rescue crews searching for your lifeless body as soon as possible. Surely Mom must have called the cops, forest service, fire fighters, national guard, local news, national news, and anyone else she thought would listen by now. You just have to survive until they find you.

Note to self; fire therapist as soon as cell single returns.

Second note to self; inquire if future therapist believes time in woods is a good experience. If so, pass.

On to immediate problem, how to survive the night and not get eaten by rabid wolves or anything else here not a rabbit. I had eaten the last of my food hours ago, so food was out. Still had some water left, about a quarter of my last water bottle. A light jacket. Hat. My latest self-help book on finding your purpose in life. Yep. Definitely screwed here. Miles would never let me live this down.

Note to self; kick Miles. Because, Miles. And it would feel good.

Maybe there would be a large tree I could huddle under or some unoccupied rock cave thingy I could use as temporary shelter. There was no telling how cold it was going to get tonight. It was still early-ish summer. The day had been hot enough that I had even rued taking the jacket and wished for a tank top and shorts over my Tee shirt and jeans. Thankful enough for them now. Wasn’t there something about it always getting colder at night at higher elevations? What was the temperature for hypothermia? How would I even know if I got it? An innate and crazy urge to strip? Wasn’t that was happened in that one book back in middle school that I had to read for science?
Screwed, screwed, screwed.

I checked my surroundings for something that might offer some hope. What I saw was….a light? Oh, dear God, please, I’ll start going back to church tomorrow, forget that it’s Monday, if that’s a light from a people person that would keep me alive and safe. It wouldn’t count if it was a wild ax murdering hermit. That would kinda defeat the purpose. But a sane, normal human with supplies to keep me from getting eaten by wolves or freezing to death; I would go back to church for that. Ignore the fact that anyone who would do this whole woodsy thing voluntarily can’t be normal for the moment.

Approach softly. Look for ax. If ax seen, back away slowly, and resume with original plan. Rabid wolves surely would be better to deal with than ax murdering sociopath. Right?

Note to self; Google that if you live.

I got close enough to see a woman sitting on a rock, tending a fire with a large stick. Behind her was a small tent. I tried to get closer to look for a bloody ax; hey, women could be ax murderers too; but my stealth left me as I stepped on a branch and a loud crack announced my presence. I winced and froze. Maybe if I did the whole rabbit thing she wouldn’t notice. Or maybe she’d think it was rabid wolves. Or maybe…

“You can come out now. I don’t bite and I’m not going to kill you.”

…Maybe I’d get invited to join her and a promise that she wasn’t looking to maim or kill me.
Rather sheepishly, I entered into the ring of light provided by her fire. “Hello.” When in doubt, act normal and greet with manners. That’s what my grandmother always said. Who knew that what she said would ever be useful one day? Go figure.

“Can I safely assume that you’re not an ax murder coming to try and kill me?” asked my savior.

“No axes here.” I held up my hands and slowly turned around, letting her fully see my pathetic state.

“First time in the woods?”

“That obvious?”

She nodded, lips pressed tight to no doubt hide a smile. But the sparkle in her deep brown eyes gave it away. “Sorry.”

“Yeeaaahh.”

“I’m Jane,” she offered.

“Should I be worried about Tarzan sneaking up on me?”

Jane made a face that I’m fairly sure was not amusement or appreciation.

Note to self; don’t say stupid things like that ever again. Ever.

“Olivier,” I offered, then added, “As in Twist. My mother is a huge Dickens fan.” Okay, was it just me or was it weird to be having this type of conversation in the middle of no where in the dark with a strange woman whom I happened to literally stumble upon?

Note to self; Google that. Also Google how to show gratitude when one’s life is saved from being eaten to death by rabid wolves and/or freezing to death by a very pretty lady. For I suddenly realized that she was very, very beautiful, in fact.

A small chuckle carried across the space between us, even as Jane tried to hide it behind a hand. “Well, Olivier, if you can promise no more Tarzan jokes, you are welcome to share my camp for the night. I don’t have much, but apparently it’s more than you do.”

“I won’t contest that. And I promise. Scouts honor.” I even did the salute and everything.

Jane nodded, still smiling, and scooted over, making space for me to join her at the fireside.
It was that night that I learned the truth behind the statement that not all who wander are lost. And how somehow, when we are our most lost, we can end up finding exactly what we need the most. You see, that was the night I met my wife and the mother of my children.

Categories
Fiction

Winter’s Dragon

Some days are just plain harder than others.

I always thought I knew that. All books warn about it. Everyone and their brother and sister and obscure relatives swear by it. But nothing ever prepares you for the actual living of it. Nothing.

The weather had been turning colder and colder still over the last several weeks. Branches that had been previously adorned in fiery gowns of leaves little more than skeletal hands with bony fingers reaching out to clasp the unwary. The sky was less blue and more blue-gray, and clouds rode low in the sky, pregnant with snow. Even the air tasted different. Gone was the richness of warmth and heavy sweetness of decay. A crisp, clean bite of razor sharp icicles replaced it.

Winter had come. My first winter without you.

I had been so thorough, so complete. After you had gone, I went through everything in our home in a meticulous spring cleaning that the house had never seen and one that would have made you, finally, proud. I thought I had removed every trace of you there was. I even found that missing sock. The one we always used as proof that gremlins do exist. I guess we had been wrong about that one.

The day had been going more or less okay. I hadn’t cried once. Even when our song came on the radio while I was washing the morning dishes. That was a first. It took nearly ten months to get to that point, but I got there. Go me, right? I didn’t have work that day, but I wasn’t scared like I’ve normally been. Being alone was no longer as frightening as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I was still uncomfortable with the thought and there was no way in hell that I was going to stay home the whole day. But I wasn’t frightened out of my mind. I hadn’t called Mom, or Stacy, or RJ for protection from the day, either.

In fact, I had a plan. And it had been such a good plan. I was going to pull out all the winter clothes and switch everything out. Then, I was going to go for an afternoon walk in the park, stop by the Coffee Hut Cafe, and finally finish reading Dante’s The Paradiso. I know you always bet that I never would finish that series. That was why I was finally finishing it. You would have loved them. I would have loved to read them to you. Plans and dreams we never got the chance to fulfill.

But the point is, I had a plan. I knew how I was going to spend the day. I was going to spend it alone, and I was going to be okay doing it. Not great. Not happy. But I was going to be okay. It was supposed to be this big win that I was going to take to Josie when we met on Friday in her little therapy office and drank peppermint tea together. I was going to be able to tell her all about how much I was really starting to heal. Today was going to be the irrefutable proof that life would continue; past you, past us. That I was going to be okay.

Then you had to go and mess it all up.

Just like you always did.

Even now, you manage to come in and mess up all my carefully laid plans. You always twist me inside out and upside down until I have no idea which way is which. Every preconceived notion that I have any amount of control becomes smashed around you. Still. Even now. Shouldn’t there be some sort of law or rule against that? That after so many months I get a pass and get my life back? You shouldn’t be able to haunt me like this. You’re not even here anymore. And somehow you still do.

Go figure.

This time you intruded in such a familiar way. I found my favorite green winter jacket. You know the one. I decided that today, with my almost perfect plan, was a perfect day to wear that coat. So I slipped it on and immediately I felt myself smile. I had another win for Josie. She has this crazy idea of me tracking my smiles throughout the week. Says it would be good to bring “self-awareness” to the things that still manage to make me happy, and to remind me that I can still smile, even without you. Considering that I have only tracked about eleven smiles in the last two and a half weeks, maybe her idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Either way, I had another win for her. Boy, was she going to be proud of my progress this week.

That was when I slipped my hands in the jacket pockets.

I swear, I wasn’t trying to ruin my day or start anything.

Actually, I was checking myself out in the hallway mirror. Don’t tell anyone. But there I was, getting all set to admire how the jacket still fit, brought out the color of my eyes, and managed to make me feel like a fashion model about ready to take on the catwalk. And that’s when I felt it brush the skin of my left hand. Against the back of my knuckle I felt the gentle press of small rounded hard bumps. What the freak?

My hand closed around the tiny object, pulled it out, and could only stare.

Sitting in the palm of my hand were two, tiny, entwined, pewter dragons; one with wings partly unfurled as if about to take flight. Their eyes sparkled in the late morning light; one blue, the other green. Your eyes. My eyes. Our eyes. These were the dragons I had admired at the fair but had passed on because, well, cost. They were expensive just in a normal store. Put them at a fair and the price went to beyond ridiculous. As much as I liked it, I enjoyed being able to eat more.

And you had gone and gotten it for me anyway.

That was just like you. You always paid attention to the things I admired. Then you would go back, buy them, then hide them for me to find later. Just like this.

But if that wasn’t enough, my right hand touched the folded edge of paper. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to read the words in your handwriting. I had been so careful to remove you from this house. Not because I didn’t love you. I did. I still do. I just also know that it was the only way to keep me from going insane. Finding yet another reminder of you here, like this, on a day that was supposed to be okay; it just wasn’t fair.

Helpless, I pulled out the paper and unfolded the note. It took a few minutes before I could read the scrawled handwriting through the blur of tears filling my eyes. It was always hard enough to read your writing normally. Tears made it near impossible.

Reach for the blue, blue skies
Soar high, soar far, soar free
Conquer and claim all you survey
While reaching
For the blue, blue, skies

How? How could I fly when you were gone? You were my wings.

The floor met my knees with a solid thunk. Some part of my brain registered that surely that must have hurt. But in the midst of the breaking off of yet another piece of my soul, physical pain was just plain inconsequential. I clutched that small figurine to my chest, pressing it firmly against my skin as if trying to absorb it through my skin into my body. Who knows. Maybe I was.

I knelt there, weeping, lost, and broken as the sun was chased by the dark shadows of night across the floor.

Today was supposed to be an okay day.

But I remembered then just how much I still miss you.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest
Categories
Fiction

A Bottle of Wine

“Screw you, too!” I screamed to the slamming front door. Even knowing he wouldn’t hear me, I couldn’t help but add a resounding, “Bastard!”, punctuated by the throwing of a coaster.

It hit the wall with a dull thud, causing a picture to fall and crack sharply on the hardwood floor.

“Gahhh!” My hands clenched, nails digging painfully into the skin as I fought the urge to throw another coaster. Marco was gone. Again. Unless I wanted more of a mess to clean up, throwing another coaster wasn’t going to get me anywhere. No matter how satisfying it was in the moment. I fought my fury to bring in what was supposed to be a deep, cleansing, peaceful breath into my body. What I got was more like the snort of a raging bull. My grandmother had tried to warn me about Italians and Irish mixing in marriage. And like a good, stubborn Irish lass, I ignored her.

I had to do something with all of this pent of energy. While it might be spring in the Lower 48, here in good old Alaska, it was Slush Season. Which meant taking a walk was out. And my dearly, beloved husband had just driven off with the truck, leaving me stranded to the confines of our happy, little home. Cleaning, it was.

I started with the more recent mess. An assortment of various items now lying haphazardly about the floor. A silent testimony to the trail this latest fight had taken; TV remote, plastic cup (thankfully empty), paperback novel, coaster, and picture. Thankfully, the glass hasn’t broken and the frame was still more or less intact. I pushed the edges together and hung it back in its spot, trying hard not to look at our smiling faces. I didn’t want or need a reminder that there had been times when I wasn’t this angry at my husband or he at me.

Done, I looked about the house. It was clean. Every room had been deep cleaned within the last week and a half. Friends joked about cabin fever, spring cleaning, and my bordering obsession with becoming a clean freak. If they only knew the truth. What else was there?

Attic. We had an attic space. And since I couldn’t remember the last time I had been up there expect to shove more junk in it. I felt confident that that should last me at least the rest of the day. If I was lucky, it would take me two. With the way things had been going, I would need it. Sad thought, that.

Armed with a roll of trash bags, dust rags, medium sized plastic storage boxes, can of Pledge, phone, phone charger, and blue-tooth speaker, I made my way to the small attic storage space we had carved out of the whole attic when we first moved in. I flicked the light and the singular bulb, hanging from its cord flared to life. Marco had promised to put in a proper light fixture years ago. Just another empty promise among thousands. Irritation and anger flashed again, hot and ready.

Cleaning. I had to start cleaning.

I threw myself into the project with a vengeance that would make even the hosts of those hoarder TV shows proud. Nothing was safe. Every item and scrap was scrutinized, tossed, set aside for donation, or cleaned within an inch of its metaphorical life. Hours passed and slowly, the anger drained. But still I kept cleaning, working my way back through the layers like some archaeologist seeking long lost treasures of the past. Though thus far, most of what I found needed to go into the trash. What had possessed us to hold onto this junk anyway?

That was when I found the box. Tucked away in a large U-haul box of various relics was a medium sized cherry wood box with vaguely Celtic designs carved on the front. The last time I had seen this was right after our honeymoon. Frowning, I undid the simple faux gold snap and opened the lid. Nestled inside were four envelopes and behind those a bottle of merlot from 2009, the year of our marriage. If this was what I thought it was…

I checked the envelopes. Sure enough two were addressed to Marco and two to me. One of the ones addressed to Marco was in my handwriting. Of my two, one was from Marco and the other from his sister. This was our Make-Up Box. On the day of our first big fight we were supposed to open this box together, read the letters, and drink the bottle. I think we missed the deadline on this one.

I almost shoved the letters back in and re-latched the thing. I was almost ready to rebury it. Almost.

Instead, I picked up the letter from Marco’s sister and opened it. I wasn’t ready to read Marco’s words. Not after what he had just screamed at me before he left.

Well, if you are reading this, congratulations. You are now well and truly married.

Trust Joanna to open a letter of this nature like that. I felt myself smirk. She always did know how to talk past my strong emotions, which was why she was my best friend.

Truthfully, though, I am sorry that you are fighting so badly that you’ve had to go to this. But from a woman who has been married for a few years herself, trust me when I say, every marriage gets here at some point or other. And it’s not until you’ve hit this point that you come to realize just what your marriage is made of and if it’ll last or not. Knowing you and knowing my brother, you’ll make it and be okay. If anything, because you both are two darn stubborn to call it quits. You know you are. So just might as well admit it now and move on.

Admit it yet? Good.

Now I know my brother can be worse than a stubborn mule. I did grow up with him after all. But I also know how crazy in love with you he is. And we both know how horrible he is with words and expressing those things we call emotions. Come on. You do remember how he proposed to you, right? Right? Exactly. He loves you. He just gets so twisted up in his frustration that everything but what he needs to say comes out instead. You’ve got to remember that about him. And about you, too. Yeah. You do it, too.

So do both of you a favor. Shut up with the words. Drink the wine. Remember that you actually like each other most of the time. Trust that this too will pass. And it’ll be okay. Promises and pomegranates.

I closed the letter, letting it fall in my lap. She was right. Marco stunk when it came to dealing with emotions. He proposed in the middle of a grocery shopping trip for goodness sake. And when he was frustrated or hurt, he raged like a bull.

Not that I was any better. There had been plenty of times this last fight when we could have stopped. But I had said something, or rolled my eyes, and kept it going. I was just as guilty as he was.

Damn.

I opened his letter. Scrawled in the middle of the page with his heavy hand were two words:

I’m sorry.

I don’t know how long I sat there crying. But eventually, I heard the front door open. Marco was home.

Time to set things right. I stood up, clutching the box and its contents to my chest, and made my way out of the attic. “Marco?” I called out, voice thick and rusty.

“…Polo!” he called out in return. Was it just me, or did his voice sound thick, too? Either way, he must not have still been angry. He wouldn’t have answered that way otherwise.

Maybe Joanna had been right. Maybe we would be okay. If could both just shut up instead of insisting on winning every time. If we could just remember how much we did like the other. How much fun we normally had together. If we could just…

“I think it’s time for a bottle of wine.”

Categories
Fiction

Seductive Affair

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, stood in front a large metal door with no handle in a nameless back alley and wondered how she ever managed to find herself here. She pressed her lips together, suppressing a sigh. Her head slightly shook from side to side, still in denial. This could not be happening. Not to her. Oh, she knew many people who had been personally affected by the coffee ban that had finally taken effect six months ago. Whole families had been ripped asunder as those with addictive tendencies had sunk to lawbreaking and worse to obtain the condemned drink. Joyce had been forced to publicly disown both her sons and daughter for being found in a similar back alley coffee den like this, drinks in hand. It was that or step down from the Board. Elizabeth had pitied her. To be forced to make such a choice. It had aged Joyce ten years in only two months.

But now was the time for sacrifice, as Elizabeth had reminded her. They had known that the battle to drive coffee out of the country would be long and arduous. The vile drink with its addictive tendencies had a firm grip on most of the nation. When the informational campaign to spread knowledge of coffee’s numerous evils had failed, they had pushed for legislation. And won. As the ruling had come down and the President had signed the ban into law on national TV, Elizabeth had known the worse was still to come. That always was the way. People entrenched in addiction, refusing to see the scientific data, of course they would try to cling to their coffee with everything they had. Many on the Board had been surprised when rumor of the coffee dens began to pop up within a week of the ban.

Elizabeth had not been surprised.

Anyone who knew their history could have predicted this coming. But unlike history, they would not falter or give in. The law would stand firm and punishment under the law would be meted out as needed until this horrid addiction was finally purged from the nation. A long road, but one that must be walked with head high and iron clad will. With determination and perseverance, they would overcome; and in time, everyone would come to their senses. Coffee would be purged once and for all, leaving it to the realm of the history books where future generations of children would read and laugh and ponder over the idiocy of this time as they sipped their various teas, secure in the fact that they would never fall victim to the bitter drink’s dark allure.

Green eyes darted back and forth along the quiet alley. She could almost taste her pulse in her throat. Police could appear at any moment. She would be arrested, just like the others inside, another common criminal. Standing before a coffee den was just as much an admission of guilt as being inside one. While she might be the Chair, the damage it could do to her reputation and her influence would be nigh irreparable.

She should go.

She should turn now and leave. She should put one foot in front of the other and walk away. She should drive home and pack. Go stay with her mother for a while. That would be best. That would be safe. That would put her above reproach when the truth came out. No one could question her then. She would have to give a speech, no doubt, like Joyce had to. That would be embarrassing. But she could afford to eat a little crow if it kept her reputation and all she had fought so hard for so long intact. While she didn’t want to think herself as the linchpin the in the success of this new law, if she fell, it was entirely possible that the whole law would unravel as well. And that could not happen.

Even as logic urged to her go, she found herself rooted to the spot unable to move. She couldn’t walk away.

Her forehead touched the cool, solid metal of the door. The chill felt good against the flush of her skin. “Why couldn’t it have been another woman, Mark? Why?” she whispered. Another woman would have been a relief compared to this. A simple affair of the flesh was much more manageable and forgivable. There were no laws against that.

So why this? Why coffee? Why the forbidden fruit? Why the risk to himself, his family, to her? She hadn’t wanted to believe it. She had tried so very hard to ignore it. But the warning signs were all there; his sudden perky awareness from complete grogginess in the mornings, the mugs he kept hidden in his sock drawer, spending inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom in the mornings, the missing money from the change jar, the way he wouldn’t kiss her goodbye, and most condemning of all was the scent. That damn rich, earthy scent that permeated the air around him and clung to his clothes worse than any mistress’ perfume could. She had denied it for so long; years in fact.

She had been blind and she knew it. He must have fallen prey when he had entered graduate school and taken that advanced history class. Everyone knew that the world of academia was filled with the worst offenders and the most vulnerable population group was the helpless students. She had known and done nothing. That was how confident she had been that her dear husband would not fall to temptation. Her mistake.

And it could cost them both.

Her mistake, her responsibility, her family, her husband. Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered closed. She could not abandon him. She would not abandon him. For better or worse, she had vowed to remain beside him no matter what. And some things were worth more and meant more than any law. Laws would come and go. The bond and vow between husband and wife endured throughout the ages for time untold and unseen.

Elizabeth squared her shoulders, raised her chin, set her lips, and knocked on the door; three quick raps followed by three slow ones.

A moment later the door swung inward, making no sound.

She stood before a narrow stairwell, leading down into a murky darkness. At its end, a pool of fuzzy yellow light spilled from underneath a second door and even from here, she could hear the mummer of voices, occasionally cut by a high laugh, and above it all, the smell that rich, intoxicating drink. There was no turning back. Elizabeth grasped the door and closed it behind her with a soft but firm click as it latched into place. Her foot descended to the first step, followed by the next, down into to the coffee den.

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, never heard the shouts of the police as they swarmed the alley behind her.

*Winning story in Reedsy Short Story conest
Categories
Fiction

House Call

“Taxi!”

One of the many benefits of living in New York is that there is always, and I mean always, a taxi ready to go. Less than a minute later, even in the dead of night, a yellow and black wrapped car eased out of the river of endless traffic and glided gently to a stop beside me. A quick glance at the interior and the face of the cabbie was enough to assure me that it was safe enough to enter. The back was clean, no left over food containers or crumpled tissues. The front was as well; passenger side clear save for a worn novel, no tacky decorations hung from the rear-view mirror, and no little Hawaiian girl danced on the dashboard. Even the cabbie was clean cut; his dark hair with wisps of silver cut close and a white dress shirt without too many wrinkles. He turned in his seat as much as the seatbelt would allow as I slid in and greeted me with a smile. Laugh lines framed his bright eyes. He’d make a terrific grandpa, if he wasn’t one already. “Hello.”

“Hi.” I gave a nod and busied myself with the seatbelt, arranging my purse on my lap. My phone buzzed, vibrating through the Louis Vuitton leather. The great search started as I tried to remember just where I shoved it this last time amid the various pockets and other necessities of life.

“Anywhere in particular?”

“Oh, oh!” My head snapped up. That was right. He needed to know where to go. Stupid, thoughtless me. “Home.”

I found my phone, hiding under the Kleenex, three sticks of lipstick, and a thrashed to hell pack of cinnamon gum. It vibrated again and this time I could see the blue flash of the light indicating my unread messages. My fingers fished through the debris and claimed my prize. Three text messages, one Hangout, eight Facebook, two Instagram, one Snapchat, twelve tweets, and ten emails all vied for my response and attention. Some were social, others work, everything a huge mesh of the two realms making it hard sometimes to tell where one stopped and other began. And neither one ever really stopped. Thank goodness for long lasting batteries and recharging sticks. Such was my life these days.

As the cab eased itself back into traffic, I busied myself with the unending task of trying to clear my notifications. Sometimes I felt like that guy from Greek mythology who was always pushing a rock uphill. No sooner would I finish responding to the last piece of communication, then off my phone would go off again, starting the whole process over. I was so engrossed, I never bothered to look up at the streets or buildings that slid past my window.

“Looks like you’re quite the gal in demand,” the cabbie commented.

“…Yeah. Always something going on.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“Depends. Both.” I frowned at the screen, trying to concentrate on my reply to my boss about a client she had a question on.

“Seems like a heavy load.”

I clenched my jaw to hide the frown. I hated the talkative cabbies. If I wanted conversation, I would start conversation. Couldn’t he see I was busy? He wasn’t going to earn any extra brownie points or larger tip for trying to keep me company. In fact, the general rule of thumb was the more they talked, the less I tipped. Hopefully this one would take the hint. “I’m really needing to focus on this right now.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry ‘bout that.”

I nodded, not even bothering to look up.

“Just to clarify. You said home, right?”

“Yes. That’s right.” I hoped my voice didn’t sound too harsh. But then again, but I wasn’t overly concerned if some of my irritation leaked through either. This one was proving to be less astute than most.

“Got it.”

Please, dear sweet goodness, let him get it.

The cabbie got it. The rest of the ride was blissfully silent. I even manged to respond to everything and a few extras that had floated into my phone by the time the cab stopped.

“Here we are,” the cabbie said.

“Thank you.” I opened my purse and began the hunt for my wallet. Movement drew up my eyes.

The cabbie had his hand up. “No need. Rides home are free for the ladies. Especially this time of night.”

That was a first. “Well…Are you sure?”

“Sure as sure,” he grinned at me through the rear view.

“Okay….Thanks.” He nodded.

I unbuckled, stepped outside, taking care not to miss the curb, and closed the door behind me. Only then did I look up and realize I was at the wrong location. This wasn’t home. In fact, I was nowhere near my little condo nestled tightly in the embrace of Chelsea. Instead, we were in the suburbs of College Point. And I was standing in front of my parent’s home. The house I grew up was standing in front of my parent’s home. The house I grew up in and left over a decade ago, never to return.

Most of the lights were off, but I saw the light in my parent’s bedroom still on. Mom was up. She always had been a night owl. After Dad died, I heard through the grapevine that it only got worse. With no one to chide her to bed at a decent hour, she was up until the wee hours of night now on a regular basis.

Not where I wanted to be.

Not where I needed to be.

I turned around to get back in and tell that to the cabbie, but the cabbie was gone. And when I say gone, I mean gone. No sight of him rounding the bend, no flash of tail lights, no sound of the engine. Nothing. Gone. Like he had never been there in the first place.

My first instinct was to call another cab. I had my phone out and even had the number pulled up and ready to dial. All I had to do was press the call button. My finger lingered over the screen. As if they had a mind of their own, my eyes drifted back to the illuminated bedroom window. It had been so long. But I couldn’t go back. That proverbial bridge had not just burned, but had an atomic bomb dropped on it. My father had been very clear on that point. Whoever had said blood was thicker than water didn’t know a thing. I turned away, back to the cold, empty street. I needed to go.

“Gabby?”

Shit.

Maybe if I didn’t say anything. Maybe if I just walked away. Pretended like I didn’t hear her. In the dim street light I might be able to pass for a stranger, mistaken identity. Panic fluttered in my chest; a trapped bird inside a cage that was far too small. I hit send and brought the phone to my ear. I turned to my left and retreated.

“Gabriela Nicole Henderson! Stop right there this instant!”

Apparently she was not going to mistake me with a stranger. And even after all these years, I was not going to disobey my mother when she used that tone. I doubt anyone ever would, ever could.

A soft and distant voice spoke from my phone, “Good evening. Thank you for calling Yellow Cab. Where do you need a ride to today?”

I hung up.

Slowly, I turned to face my mother, my gaze trained on the broken concrete at my toes. “Hi, Mom.”

Scurrying down the brick inlay path ,thick fuzzy pink robe held closed with one hand, my mother ate up the distance between us. I know I should have walked towards her, met her half way. But I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t after what I had done. Why couldn’t the ground suddenly open up and swallow me whole? That would have been a mercy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come here.  I must have given the cabbie the wron-”

“Stop.”

I stopped.

“Look at me, Gabby.”

I held out for about three seconds before my eyes drew up to meet hers. People always said we had the same dark chocolate brown eyes. Right now, hers were filled with pain, confusion, and a million other emotions for which the human tongue has no name. I’m pretty sure mine held only one; guilt.

Her hands came up and grasped my arms, fingers digging through my jacket. Her robe fell open to reveal a long line of her thin floral nightgown. She didn’t seem to notice. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Mama…” I shook my head and swallowed hard against the painful squeezing in my throat, rendering me speechless.

“It’s okay, baby girl. It’s okay.” Her hands ran up and down my arms. “I never blamed you…Now. Come inside now…You’re home at last.”

Home. The cabbie’s words echoed through my mind. I never had given him an address. How had he known?

A clatter followed by a sharp crack near my feet informed me that my phone had fallen. Screen was probably cracked now. But that didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was wrapped up tightly in my mother’s arms.

I was home.

Categories
Fiction

Gods May Die

My human came home today.

He had been gone for so long. He left me at his parent’s den and told me to wait for him. He told me to watch over them and keep them safe. I did what he asked, faithful in my charge, waiting for the day when he would come back to me.

I knew he had returned even before I could see the car that brought him. Under the scent of the oil, gas, metal, and dirt was a familiar scent that I had not smelled in many seasons; my human. I raced to and fro, between the door and window, unable to keep still. My tail whacked the floor in staccato bursts.

It had been so long.

I was at the window when the car pulled into the driveway. I joyously barked. I raced to the door, pawed it, barked, then sped back to the window to bark again. My human. My human was here. He was so close. How much longer did I have to wait until I was reunited with him? How soon until the door opened? My human needed me. I could sense it.

My human’s mother left the car and headed towards the door. I beat her there, tail thumping as if it could hurry her pace by its rhythm. I had to see my human.

“Grab Ben’s bag for him! And be ready, Ben! I can hear her already,” she called.

I couldn’t stop barking. I knew I should have waited patiently, but it was impossible.

The door opened and I squeezed through as quickly as I could. Past the mother’s legs, down the hot driveway, to the open arms of my human. The joy of seeing him was so much that I didn’t mind the heat against my paws. Not even the smell of the neighbor’s cat or the markings at the mailbox could pull my attention away from him. I buried myself against the solid warmth of his body, crawling into his lap as much as I could. His hands ran up and down the length of my coat, digging through to the skin beneath. The fingertips were more calloused than I remembered and there was a new scent on him that I did not recognize. But all those details faded against the sheer delight of my human and his touch.

“Easy, easy, girl! Yes. I’m home. I’m home.” Hands came up to either side of my face, pushing me away from him.

I took a few steps back. We were able to make eye contact.

He smiled.

I lunged in with a kiss.

“Ahck! Honey!”

Laughter floated around us like the birds singing. My human was home, and all was right in the world.

We stayed that night in the parent’s den. Instead of making me sleep in the garage, I was allowed to stay in the room with my human. I curled up on the floor next to his bed where his fingers could reach out and trail through my coat. I fell asleep, content.

I was awoken by a strangled, inarticulate shout. Before I could move, there was a heavy pressure and pain on my paws and tail as my human tried to stand on top of me. A yelp of pain escaped me as he stumbled over me and fell. I could hear this parents from down the hallway and light flooded the room as they entered.

“Ben?”

“What happened?” they both asked, one on top of the other.

With a low string of curses, my human rose to his feet and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he promised.

“Are you sure?” his mother asked.

“I’m sure. It was just a dream.”

“Some dream there, Son,” his father said.

My human let out a small huff of air. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Cautiously, I inched my way back to his side. His hands gripped the side of the bed so hard they looked white. I licked his knuckles in apology for tripping him.

His hand jerked away and fear rolled off him in thick waves.

I didn’t understand. Scared? My human was never scared like some silly pup. My human was strong and brave; my god.

He glanced down at me and his hand came up to my head. All was forgiven.

I licked him again and was rewarded with a smile.

My human and his parents spoke for a bit longer after that. But eventually, they left, frowning and unsatisfied. But I was here. I would protect my human just as I had protected them. For the rest of that night, I stayed awake, watching my human as he slept and keeping alert for anything that might cause him harm. Under my careful supervision, he was able to sleep peacefully until dawn.

My human took me to a new den. It was smaller than we had before. It did not even have a yard. But there was a park nearby and we went almost every day. It was good to be back with my human again.

But as the days wore on, I began to realize that things were not okay. Something was different. My human was different. He used to get up early every morning, leave, and return in the late afternoon. Now, he never left. He slept a lot and often cried out in his sleep. I began to sleep on the bed next to him. He began to drink from glass bottles. When he did go out, he returned with more. Food became scarce and I would have to eat whatever he forgot to put up or throw away.

We stopped going to the park. I would bring him my leash, drop it by his feet and butt his legs with my head. But it was like I wasn’t there. He stopped playing with me. The ball and rope were no longer fun. I shared all my toys with him in hopes that something might make him smile; even my big, meaty bone. He just stared at it and cried. I didn’t mean to make him sad.

I didn’t know what was wrong.

Then one day, my human smiled at me. “Things are going to be okay, Honey. You’ll see. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. They’ll be different soon.” He pet my head and rubbed behind my ears. I believed him. He said things were going to be okay.

I leaned into his touch and nuzzled, showing I harbored no ill will towards him for his lack of care. He was not feeling well. I remembered a time after I had eaten some meat when I was a pup. I had been sick for days, neither moving or eating. Maybe my human had eaten something, too. He was better now. He opened all the windows, cleaned the den, and even gave me a bath. We went to the park, playing with the Frisbee and walking the paths. He even took me out shopping with him and let me eat ice cream. Such a good day.

That night, my human cooked steaks. We both got one and it was delicious.

He started to look sad again as the sun slipped away from the sky.

I pressed against him, trying to give him comfort. Why would the night make him sad?

Absently, he reached out and scratched my head. “You liked living at my parent’s house, didn’t you, Honey? You did good there. Real good.”

I smiled up at him. Pleased for the praise and the petting.

He smiled at me, a small smile. “You’ll be just fine there. They won’t let anything happen to you.” He dropped to his knees and pulled me tight. It was a little hard to breathe, but it was okay. My human was hugging me like he had when he was a young pup. “I just can’t stand another night of the nightmares, Honey. I just can’t. Not after what I’ve seen…What I did. I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so, so sorry.”

I licked his face, trying to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for. It had been a good day. We were together. There was no reason to be sad.

He held me a little while longer and I let him. Even though I really just wanted to play tug. But he didn’t seem to be in the mood for play. Maybe tomorrow after he rested. He’d feel better then. Let go of me, running his fingers through my coat. He leaned in close to me and whispered, “Goodbye, girl.”

I watched as my human went to his bedroom. I heard him moving for a bit, then silence. It had been a long day and I was comfortable where I was, so I allowed myself to go to sleep, content knowing my human was safe and that we would play again tomorrow.

I don’t know what woke me up. It was still dark, the darkest part of the night. No one was at the door. No cats were prowling nearby. No other dogs were talking. The whole den was silent and still, waiting for morning.

Slowly, I stood up, making sure to stretch before moving. I was not as young as I once was. My nails made a soft clicking sound as I went into my human’s room.

He was on his bed, looking like he was sleeping. But something was wrong. He was too still.

I walked over and nuzzled his hand that hung by the side of the bed, as if waiting for me. It moved under my touch, but it was stiff, firm, and cool; with no more life than my rubber tug toy. There was the smell of urine on the bed and under that, a smell I instinctively knew, deep in my brain; the sweet sour tang of death.

But how could my human be dead? He was not animal. He was human. He was my god. And gods do not die.

I felt a whimper leave my throat as I paced around the bed, nervous and unsure. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe I was wrong. The only thing I had to go off was the occasional squirrel at the park and one cat. But they were not human. They were animal, like me.

I jumped on the bed and sniffed more. The smell did not change.

Animals died. Humans did not die.

But my human smelled of death and was still.

Had I been wrong? Did humans die like animals? I did not know.

I laid down beside him, resting my head on his cold and still chest. I would wait. The sun would rise soon and answers would come then. Until then, I would stay here, beside my human, and I would guard his rest.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest