That Tiny Website — Short Stories, Video Games, and Freelance Editing

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Snow in Tunisia

The following post is a short story where those who support me on Patreon were able to vote and choose what this short story would be about and/or have as a theme. Since their poll ended in a tie,1LInk might show for patrons only? Either way, know it was a tie. I’ll be writing both short stories over the next couple months. This short story’s theme is to write a short story with a hidden pattern. See if you can find the pattern(s) in the piece.

If you wish to support me on Patreon and get access to bonus content like exclusive blog posts, podcasts, and me signing pictures that aren’t of me, you can do so here.


Beep.

$1.49.

Beep.

$16.25. Credit: thirty-six cents.

Nikki scanned her groceries at the self-checkout, growing increasingly aware of the expanding line of people waiting for registers behind her. It was a moment of social awkwardness she dreaded. There she was, a cart full of food, though one that was easily within the self-checkout’s arbitrary limit, doing her best to scan and bag all of the items by herself as people waited for their turn behind her. Granted, she wasn’t the only one using a register. There was an elderly man arguing with a store attendant over the fact that the self-checkout wouldn’t take a check at one register, while the final register was in use by a middle-aged woman whose cart was so full it looked like she could prepare seven square meals a day and still not be back to the store for a month. Never mind the fact that there were at least four registers with human cashiers at them that people in line could go to. That didn’t stop Nikki from feeling like the holdup was her fault.

Your total is sixty-four dollars and eighty-one cents. Please select your payment method.

Nikki paid for her groceries, loaded her bags of food into her cart, and walked towards the parking lot, hearing the man who had been behind her in line start scanning his flowers as she left. She loaded her groceries into the saddlebags of her motorcycle, returned the cart to its corral, then turned right onto Marlborough Road to begin her trek home. Nearly immediately, Nikki was greeted with a red light at the intersection of Elena Park Avenue. She turned her head to the right and stared at the large hill in the center of Elena Park, its slope covered in lush green grass and sighed heavily. One January in her youth, Nikki had gone sledding with some friends when she built up a little too much speed, barrelling past the end of the park over the sidewalk, and into the busy street. She narrowly avoided getting struck by a bus, though her best friend, Cassie Lowe, wasn’t so lucky. Cassie had chased after Nikki, and though the bus avoided them both, a car driving in the next lane struck Cassie at full speed, killing her instantly.

It was a cruel joke that Nikki had to move back here. Her parents pulled her out of school for two weeks following Cassie’s death. Then her father got a job in Tampa, letting them leave this godforsaken hellhole and never look back. But then Nikki graduated from college and got a job for a telecommunications company handling their social media marketing. When it was announced her company’s office was closing, her choices were to lose her job or to take relocation to an office that just so happened to be mere miles from where her childhood best friend died.

Nikki floored the throttle as the light turned green, speeding off into the distance. She refused to be that asshole on a motorcycle who is a danger to themselves and everyone around them because they drive recklessly, weaving in and out of traffic with dangerous spacing just because their bike will fit. But she couldn’t help but speed away from the intersection of Marlborough Road and Elena Park Avenue every time she came to it.

After a few minutes, she arrived home at 100 Newton Lane, apartment 121. She had promised herself these living arrangments would only be temporary — that she could (and would) find something better than living with a random roommate she found on Craigslist. She traded out of a random roommate for one she liked living with, Keith. For a guy, Keith wasn’t too bad. She wouldn’t have gotten engaged to him if he were terrible. But the apartment was a world suck she never seemed to free herself from, no matter her best intentions. Keith didn’t see any harm in staying as it was.

She carried the groceries inside, stepping quietly so as not to wake Keith from his slumber. Keith would typically sleep through the day, as he worked overnight as a security guard, though this particular day he was awake much earlier than expected.

“Hey,” he said as Nikki entered through the front door, lugging the groceries to the kitchen.

“You’re up early,” replied Nikki as she dug through her bags, looking for perishable items first.

“Some guy came by while you were gone wanting to know if I had accepted Jesus into my heart as my lord and savior. I told him if he didn’t leave I’d help him meet Jesus in person.”

“Don’t be a dick, Keith.”

“There’s no need to be proselytizing in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday!” Keith exclaimed. “Besides, if I wanted to know more about religion, I’d go to a church myself.”

“How will you know which one is the right one to go to unless someone tells you about how their god is better than someone else’s god?” Nikki retorted sarcastically.

“A great question that I’m sure no one has ever considered.”

Keith walked into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around Nikki’s waist, kissing her neck as he pulled her in close.

“Did you bring me anything?” he cooed into her ear.

Nikki grabbed a bottle of bourbon from one of the bags and handed it to Keith, who eyed the label carefully.

“A hundred and forty-four proof? How drunk are you trying to get me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I mean, it wasn’t what I had in mind, but I’ll take it.”

“Keep it in your pants for one more day, cowboy,” Nikki said. “You work tonight, then you’re off for two weeks.”

“It’s just a shame you couldn’t be off the whole time.”

“What can I say? Everyone wants me.”

Nightfall came, and with it Keith left for work, leaving Nikki to sip at her own glass of booze as she watched Jeopardy! on television.

“Next we move on to Jeff. You were in second place — what did you come up with? You said Libya, no, I’m sorry. That’s wrong.”

“It’s Tunisia, you twats!” Nikki shouted at the television.

“And you wagered — $169. It’s enough to keep you out of last, but you likely won’t catch our reigning champion. That is, unless Elsie is wrong. Elsie what did you come up with? Morocco. No, I’m sorry.”

“TUNISIA!”

“The city of Carthage was located in the modern day country of Tunisia. You wagered — nothing. With your winnings today, you now have a total of $196,225.”

Nikki turned off the TV, scoffing as she pushed the button.

“I could beat her,” she mumbled to herself as she got up from the couch and made her way to the bedroom. Nikki pulled a suitcase out from the closet and tossed in on the bed, unzipping all the pockets and readying it for her trip with Keith. While their trip was only for the weekend and the rest of the vacation would be spent at home, packing a suitcase and going anywhere was still a big step.

Nikki was reminded of just how big when she unzipped a compartment on the front of the suitcase to find the remnants of a luggage tag stuffed inside. It was a reminder of the second scariest day of her life. The plane she was aboard, Delta flight 256, skidded off the runway in Amsterdam and came to a crashing halt against a barrier. Fortunately, no one was hurt seriously. A few passengers were shaken up, an elderly man broke his hand, and there were a few bruises for nearly everyone aboard. Still, had it not been for that crash, she never would have met Keith, who was stuck in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol because of the crash she had been involved in. Four hours in an airport bar meant that Nikki missed her ride into town, but she met her future fiancee in all the chaos.

She stuffed the fading sticker back down in the bag, then slowly packed three days worth of clothing inside for both her and Keith. Maybe she could change his mind on this trip, or even on his vacation in general. Maybe she could convince him to move away from everything she hated, all the bad memories, the constant reminders of her best friend dying at the intersection of Marlborough and Elana Park. Maybe he’d listen to going somewhere that wasn’t a plot of land adjacent to his parents’ family farm on route 289 in upstate New York. Maybe it would stop snowing in the apartment.

It was snowing in the apartment. Again.

It didn’t matter that it was summer. This was the sign that it was all about to end. It began with the snow violently leaving the ground, leaving the streets around Nikki their natural color. She’d live her life each day as that day would go, only for the snow falling around her — regardless of if she was indoors or out — to signal that the end was coming. It had always been this way.

—–     —–     —–     —–     —–

“Hey hun?” Ricky Lowe shouted.

“Yeah?”

“Can you come hold the ladder steady? I’m trying to get stuff out of the rafters of the garage.”

Mina Lowe entered the garage and braced the legs of the ladder while her husband climbed to the second highest step. As he moved the items above the exposed rafters, a fine, white dust fluttered down to the ground below.

“Jesus,” Mina said, “how much dust is up there?”

“You’d think it had snowed up here,” replied Ricky. “It’s pretty thick.”

“What’s up there? Do I need to have Hannah come out and help?”

“Nothing much. Some old two-by-fours, a few sheets of plywood, Christmas lights that probably don’t work, a broken rake, a couple sleds –”

“Sleds?”

“Yeah. Hannah’s and Cassie’s from when they were little.”

Ricky pulled down a pair of plastic sleds, one bright green, one baby blue, both covered in a covering of the dust.

“Remember how they named them?” Ricky said. “Who names a sled?”

“Yeah,” Mina replied. “Keith and Nikki, I think.”

“After some TV show, right?”

“Yeah, something they watched.”

“Do we really need them anymore? Hannah’s about to leave for college and Cassie –”

Mina cut him off.

“Throw them out,” she said.

“But Cassie’s getting married soon,” replied Ricky. “Maybe she’ll want it for her future kids.”

“Then we’ll buy her a new one. I don’t want to give her the sled she was on when she got hit by a car.”

Ricky examined the sled carefully, noticing its cracks and chips.

“You’re probably right,” he replied. “Is that the garbage truck?”

“It’s two houses down,” said Mina.

“Hold tight. I’ll take these out to the guy myself.”

WIP Update #4

Inner monologue: It feels like progress on my book has been going really slow. I can’t imagine what I’d even have to talk about since the last time I wrote a formal WIP update post.

*re-reads the last update post*

Inner monologue: Oh. Shit. There’s actually been progress for once. Well, let’s get to it.

This post is both a long time coming and yet a post where I feel like there’s still a long way to go. There’s been a lot I’ve done on my book since February — some of which I’ll be discussing in greater detail in this post. However, to quickly summarize, I have done the following since my last post about my work in progress:

  • Finished the first draft of the book
  • Written a preview scene for the sequel1More on this further down. to the book
  • Finished a second draft for the book
  • Torn apart my book with my editor/creative director/whatever she is2Hi again.
  • Finished a third draft for the book
  • Had a mental breakdown about a lot of things3This actually happening more than once, but only one of those times did it lead to me venting about my frustrations with writing. which manifested itself in a mental breakdown post about writing
  • Drew* out what some of the characters in the book looked like
  • Plotted out the basic premise of the series that will (hopefully) come out of this book

I’m writing this post in early July, so it’s certainly possible I could add something to that list between now and when this post goes live mid-July. That said, even if I make no changes to the above list4Note: I made no changes., that’s still a ton of shit I’ve gotten done.

As I mentioned before, I was debating whether or not this was going to be a series. I’ve ultimately decided that there will be a series coming out of this book, which has meant a good bit as I was going back and editing, particularly when working on draft number three. Oddly enough though, had I decided against making this a series, it really wouldn’t have changed the ending to this book all that much. Because of the sci-fi setting this book takes place in, there’s a lot that was left to the interpretation of my mind more than anything else. As this relates to the ending of my work in progress, it allowed me to have the kind of ending I wanted to the book regardless of the route I ended up choosing.

You may have noticed on the next to last point that I have an asterisk next to drew. This is because I have a bit of a unique problem when it comes to art. Specifically, I suck at art. That said, I really wanted to be able to have some context for what my characters looked like beyond what was in my head. So I did what any rational person who was bad at art yet has access to a computer would do: I created my characters in The Sims 3. I’m not quite ready to post those character mockups on here yet — mostly because I want to do that once the book goes into the beta reading stage (or shortly thereafter). That said, I did share a couple of them this month for my Patreon subscribers, so…hint hint.

I already plan to do a whole post about the editing process once that’s done, however, I do want to take a moment to call out a specific part of the editing process that I didn’t expect to go through. I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year across various genres, reading a bunch of books that range from amazing to absolutely horrid. Nearly every book I’ve read this year has caused me to re-think some part of my work in progress. In particular, Every Tool’s a Hammer by Adam Savage caused me to really consider how much I’m working in conversations that don’t advance the plot of the story but serve to add depth to characters. As someone who loves books that do this, but am not always the best about it myself, it was a great reminder to have.

At this point, I’m probably still at least one draft away from getting beta readers for the story. With that said, when I am ready, I’ll be holding a call for beta readers on this blog (and maybe on my Twitter) after offering to some folks who have already expressed interest in doing so. Hopefully the beta reading experience will be good, as my only experience for it comes from short stories rather than a full novel.

That’s all I have to share for an update for now. My hope is to have an additional update by the end of the year, though I’m not particularly sure exactly what the timeline will be. Thanks for sticking around during the long time that this story has taken. I’m thinking it’ll be worth everyone’s patience.

Wherein I Write Messages In Books

In February of this year, I found out a really exciting thing was happening, though I couldn’t share it until now. I found out that 30 copies of my book were being given away as part of a swag bag for a corporate event. Which:

  1. Holy shit.
  2. My book is not a particularly work appropriate book, at least not in the case of specific short stories.
  3. Might be the coolest writing related thing to happen to be so far. AND
  4. Is definitely the most mentally overwhelming thing to happen to me to so far.

At this point, I was overjoyed it was happening. Thank you so much to Jeremy and Jon for involving me in this. As part of the agreement, I arranged to sign and add messages to all 30 copies of the books being given away. This lead to quite the mental quandry. What do I write in a book while signing it?

I’ve signed copies of my books before. I’ve written messages in them before. That said, in both cases, this was always for people I knew at least in passing. A total stranger has never — at least to my knowledge — acquired a copy of my book that was signed and had a personalized and/or handwritten message in it.

So what did I decide to do? Do I write the same thing in every book? Are my messages classy, uplifting, or inspirational? Are they legible?

No.

I wrote 30 unique messages across the 30 books. With the permission of Jeremy and Jon, I’ve shared what I wrote in the books below. You can click on the images of the pages to get a better look at them. This may be helpful in the case of a couple of the longer messages, like the one where I wrote out a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

Note: Only 29 of the images are currently shown below. I had some issues with one of the pictures that I didn’t catch until after the post went up. I’m going to dig and see if I can find a good version of the final image.

My hope is that I’ll get the chance to do this with my current work in progress some day. I personally feel that said manuscript is already lightyears better than An Epilogue to Innocence was. That’s not to say I dislike my first book. Far from it actually. But I’m slowly getting the feeling that my WIP could be something really great.

The Hard Role of the Reviewer

For reasons I’ve yet to be able to explain, I’ve seen an uptick in folks I know talking about the process of reviewing books. I don’t know who patient zero for this epidemic was, however, I do know that I’ve seen this topic come up from a lot of people recently. In these threads/discussions/videos/Twitter rants/etc, there have been two primary items that I’ve seen being discussed.

  1. Should you tag/make authors aware of your negative reviews of their work?
  2. Can you review something objectively when your like or dislike of the work isn’t necessarily reflective of the quality of said work?

I wanted to take a moment to talk about these two ideas, both from the perspective of someone who is an author, as well as from the perspective of a reviewer. I swear the fact that I had a book review come out last week wasn’t intentional, though it was a nice lead into this topic.

Should You Make Authors Aware of your Negative Reviews?

Short answer: As a rule, no, but it depends.

Long answer: As humans, we aren’t particularly good at taking criticism from others well. While there are individuals that we may be more receptive to criticism from, it’s still not a particularly ideal experience. One of the things that I think people fail to realize when they write a book for the first time is that the book is no longer yours once it’s published. While you may still be the author of the book, the content you write now belongs to your readers. Some of your readers will not like your book. That’s just the hard reality of being a writer.

One of the first books I ever wrote a review for was a book I got for free in exchange for the review. I didn’t like the book. At all. But I was probably much harsher than I needed to be in my review. And I made the mistake — again, this being my first review — of tagging the author on Twitter and publicizing my negative review with them regularly tagged in my tweets. In retrospect, it was a shitty thing for me to do as a reviewer. While it was my first review that I’d ever written, I failed to consider the human impact of sharing with the author how much I disliked their book.

At this point, you’d think it’s a pretty cut and dry line that you shouldn’t share a negative review with an author. And once the book is published, I think this is true, particularly if you’re trying to get publicity for your own review based off of the author’s fame. So when is there an acceptable time to tell someone you don’t like their book? I feel like the obvious answer here is if you’re asked for any negative feedback prior to the book being published. If an author is trusting you enough to request your feedback prior to a book getting released to the public, provide whatever feedback you can to help them. It ultimately will make their book a better finished product. That’s not to say to be a jerk about your feedback. Trust me, as I’ve done that and it hasn’t gone well. But pre-publishing feedback is extremely valuable.

This is not to say you can’t have a negative review of a book. If you didn’t like a book and you want to leave a negative review on Goodreads, Amazon, your own blog, or somewhere else, that’s totally fine. Not every book is for everyone. Authors do read reviews of their books. I know that while I haven’t taken every piece of negative feedback I’ve had to heart, I have made an active effort to learn from that feedback and become a better writer because of it. As a rule of thumb, I’m much more willing to listen to a negative review that’s kind than one that’s inflammatory.

Can You Dislike Something and Still Find it Good?

I used to have a much more black and white answer on this question than I do now. The strange thing is that I’ve swung around to both ends of the spectrum on this answer, all before landing somewhere in the middle. Allow me to dissect where I stand on this by looking at the example of three different books/pieces I’ve read over time.

One of my least favorite books of all time is a book I had to read in high school called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. I can objectively look back at the book and say that it makes a ton of great points about environmentalism, upcycling, and sustainability. That said, even after a re-read later in life, I still dislike the book. Perhaps it’s because it was a required reading during a year in high school where all of the readings felt forced (more than normal, that is). Maybe it’s because my initial reading of the book came at a time where I disagreed with much of the book’s premise, tainting my perception of it well after my world view has changed to fall more in line with the book’s points. Whatever it is, reading Cradle to Cradle is still painful for me, even though I can objectively say the book isn’t bad.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve read a good amount of fan fiction that would, by many standards, be considered to be terrible writing. That said, I love them. For example, I will read most RWBY fan fiction, regardless of how fan service-y it gets. I can objectively say that some of it is bad. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy reading it less. Even writing styles that get scorn for other reasons like erotica can suffer this same fate — the reader can enjoy the work even if it’s not Dickens-level writing complexity.

With that all said, there are situations where a piece of literature may be well-written or have other positive qualities, but because of the author that penned the piece, there will be an inherent dislike for that work. In my most recent Q&A podcast, I talked about how Anthem by Ayn Rand became this for me once I learned more about Rand, however she is certainly not the only example of this. There’s a surprisingly high number of people who can write a coherent book (or at the very least have hired someone who can do so) while themselves being disgraceful individuals. Although I do try to separate author from work when writing reviews, there are situations that are too egregious to do so.

Foxtails – Extended Version

The following post is an extended version of a short story I wrote in August of 2017 by the same name. Those who support me on my Patreon account at the $10 a month level not only got early access to the extended story you see below, they also got an exclusive patron-only audio reading of this story. If you’d like to get future perks such as this (or any of the other perks I offer), support me on Patreon.


I stood at the end of the bike path and stared out into the park before me. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes, clouding my vision temporarily before I wiped it away. I took a deep breath and made a mental note as to how my day was progressing. 18.5 miles done, 18.5 to go.

I walked my bicycle through the grassy park and toward the picnic area on the far side of the park. I leaned its emerald frame against the support posts of the gazebo and walked over to the nearby water fountain. The chilling liquid flowed forth from the silver spigot and hit my lips with its icy touch. My face flinched back instinctively from the shock before I went back in and took a couple of long drinks from the water’s flow. Though the water had a slight metallic aftertaste to it — and an even more faint scent of sulfur along with it — I gulped the water down ravenously. It was shit water, but it was familiar and comforting.

I knelt to the ground, adjusting my shoes around my feet in an effort to limit the soreness that would develop on my ride home. With calm and purposeful movements I learned as a teen, I unlaced the top holes on each side of my shoe, weaving their plastic coated aglets back through those top two holes, creating a loop I could swoop the opposite lace through. For whatever reason, this configuration of shoe tying always made my feet less sore after a run or a ride. At the bare minimum, the placebo effect was strong with this ritual.

I took a moment and absorbed my surroundings. It had been thirteen years since I was last in this park. As I expected when I set off on my ride today, not much has changed here. This town never changes. Sure, the gazebo had a fresh coat of paint (or two) in that time. The swing set had gone from a four seat apparatus to a three seat one. The people walking by had grown measurably older. But at its core, this was the same tiny hamlet I left after high school. While its charm and nostalgia had grown to tourists as it aged, the shortcomings of the town — and its people — appears as larger and more hideous blemishes to me with each new year. At least I was just passing through. Had my mission for the day required anything longer than this, I’m sure I would have said something to someone that pissed them off. It always happened that way.

As a warm summer breeze blew in from the west, I grabbed my bike and hopped on, pedaling back up the path via which I had arrived a few minutes prior. June was hardly my favorite month to be outdoors — I strongly preferred a jog through the vibrant October foliage or a hike in the frigid January air — but this seemed different.

I wasn’t more than twenty yards from the gazebo when an old man waved and called after me frantically.

“Ollie?” he shouted. “Ollie? Is that you?”

I kept pedaling, pretending I didn’t notice him. He was right about my identity. Everyone knew everyone in this small town. I just knew this man better than most. His name was Albert Kariss. He was a custodian at the elementary school, assistant coach of the wrestling team I captained in high school, and the neighbor of my third girlfriend, Mallory Quill. Even though I knew Albert and found him to be one of the less objectionable people in this area, I wasn’t about to talk to him today. My mind wouldn’t let me.

For weeks I had been battling this feeling that I was missing something. It took me a while to put my finger on what exactly was lacking. At first I chalked it up to being overworked and under caffeinated, though a long weekend and copious amounts of espresso later, I was still perplexed, albeit shakier. I took a short vacation from my day-to-day life to clear my head, skirting off from my townhome in northeastern Ohio to spend some time at a secluded cabin in upstate New York. However by the end of my time away, instead of having clarity and calmness, the feeling had only become more pronounced. It was as if a ghost from the past was calling out to me, beckoning me to seek it out. Yet no matter how loud the ghost yelled for me, I could not recognize its name, or its purpose.

The source of this feeling, however, I was sure of. I decided to take one last shot at trying to satiate whatever was stirring inside of me. Perhaps I was acting quixotically in hoping that there was some silver bullet that could kill this nagging feeling. It was a phase. It would pass. All things do. Yet, despite knowing this fact, or at least believing in the passage of all feelings, factual belief or otherwise, I set out for a place I hadn’t been in nearly a decade and a half, recreating an activity lodged even further in the past along the way.

A little under a mile up the path from the gazebo, I came to a road crossing. The bike path was leaving town — this would be the last road I’d cross for four miles — but not before crossing over a tiny street that saw virtually no traffic. In one direction, I could see the side street end on the main street of town. There were three or four houses on the street, all bunched at the corner of the primary road. In the other direction, the road continued on for around two hundred feet, crossing the bike path before becoming a dead-end at a fence leading into acres upon acres of soybeans. A tractor was more likely to cross the bike path on the road than a car. A bench sat on either side of the end of the road, often serving as a final stopping point before the park for any biker or runner needing a breather.

In my youth, I had stopped and sat on those very benches countless times. When running, they provided me with a place to sit for a few minutes before I finished my workout. Had I lived in the area as an adult, I likely would have done the same thing, though because I truly needed a breather rather than the act of laziness that my teen self took it as. If I was biking, particularly with a group of friends, the benches where a place for those of us who rode faster to pause for those who moved at a more leisurely pace. But those weren’t the moments that I associated with this place in the archive of my mind. At the age of 14, it was where I had my first kiss.

Mallory was my third girlfriend — well, literally third. I should really count her as my first girlfriend, as the previous two relationships lasted a combined five days of sixth grade. That said, she was technically my third girlfriend…but my first kiss. My first romantic kiss. Granted, I had been exposed to sloppy kisses from my great aunts that smelled of equal parts cigarette smoke, day-old hollandaise sauce, and that one old lady perfume that no one knows the name of but every seventy-year-old white grandmother who carries two Bibles in her purse seems to use. Those kisses were the stuff of nightmares. Mallory’s was not.

A group of eight of us had decided to bike the entire trail over a two-day span. Our parents all dropped us off at my friend Steve’s grandparents’ house, which was at the opposite end of the trail from the park with the gazebo. We’d ride that afternoon to Mallory’s house, which was just minutes from the park. We’d stay there overnight, then rode back to Steve’s grandparents’ so that our families could pick us up the following afternoon.

The first day of the ride was pleasant, albeit uneventful. Steve and his best friend, Matt, stopped at every possible gas station on the way to buy something. Usually it was a candy bar or something cheap like that. Apparently before the ride began, they had set a goal to see if they could ride the entire trail while stopping at every gas station on the way and buying something, all for under ten dollars. No idea if they succeeded. I spent most of the day riding in a group of three featuring Mallory, her best friend, Anne, and myself. The other three members of our group featured the Covelli twins, Ashleigh and MacKenzie, along with Ashleigh’s boyfriend, Trent. Throughout the day, Ashleigh and Trent kept sneaking off, trying to find somewhere just off the path to make out without the rest of the group noticing. Unfortunately for them, MacKenzie watched them like a hawk, leaving their freedom to be more of a want than a reality. Between all the stops for everyone, the ride took most of the day, even though it shouldn’t have.

We arrived at Mallory’s house in time for her father to make us all hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. The group of us stayed outside and huddled around the fire pit long after the sun had gone down, and well after Mallory’s parents and sisters had gone to bed. Around two in the morning, the twins were the first to turn in, quickly followed by Steve, Trent, and Matt. Anne snuck off to have a cigarette, while Mallory and I shared a blanket to protect us from the cool summer breeze. We worked our way through the quarter bag of marshmallows left, burning all of them to a crisp just to see how long they’d stay on the skewer.

About four o’clock, Mallory and I made our way inside, walking hand-in-hand up the narrow steps leading to her back patio. She went up to her room, while I curled up on a couch in the basement. I could hear Steve snoring from the recliner across the room, his tenor tones nearly perfectly alternating with similar snores from Ashleigh — or was it MacKenzie? — in the next room over. I was nearing sleep when I felt someone poke me lightly on the shoulder.

“Are you two dating yet?” Anne asked, the smell of yet another cigarette running off of her breath and into my nostrils.

“I think so?” I said, unsure of the actual answer. “At least, I want to be.”

“That’s good. As long as you make her happy, I won’t have to slit your throat.”

I could hear Anne smiling through the darkness.

“Sleep tight!” she said excitedly as she left the room.

I did not, as Anne put it, sleep tight.

On the second day of the ride, Steve decided that he wanted everyone to race back to his grandparents. Most of the group took off and rode as fast as they could, but Mallory and I didn’t feel like trying hard. The late night had sapped both of us from our energy, and though a massive stack of pancakes for breakfast was helpful, I still felt like I’d been hit by a train. Mallory, sensing my fatigue while feeling a good bit of it herself, had apparently convinced Anne to give us some time to ourselves. At least we’d enjoy the ride, even if we fell asleep midway through.

We stopped at the benches by the soybean fields and sat for fifteen minutes or so, watching as the sun melted the dew off of the giant foxtails growing by the fence at the road’s turnaround. Mallory leaned her head into my shoulder, resting there as we watched the droplets fall or vaporize, depending on their size. Her strawberry blonde hair still smelled strongly of the campfire from the night before.

“Is Anne actually going to hurt me if we date and I fuck up?” I asked, my eyes closed as I focused on the lingering scent of burnt maple wood and sugar emanating from Mallory’s soft locks.

“Depends how you fuck up,” she replied. “Did you mean to hurt me?”

“In this hypothetical situation? No.”

“Then no,” Mallory said, squeezing my hand in hers. “She’s all bark and no bite.”

As we got up to leave, Mallory gripped my hand and pulled me towards her. We only kissed for a moment, but in that moment, time stopped. I know its cliché to say, but everything around me evaporated from existence. All that there was in that moment was Mallory, me, and that slow, soft kiss.

It ended as soon as it began. Mallory laughed and jumped on her bicycle, pedaling off as quickly as she could into the distance. I gave chase after her, catching up around a mile later. We eventually caught up with everyone else, save for Steve, who won his own race convincingly. Despite that middle school kiss, Mallory and I broke up before the summer ended. I couldn’t even tell you why at this point in life. It just sort of happened.

We went our separate ways throughout high school, always staying decent friends, but never being particularly close. She went off to college at Central Michigan, while I pursued my studies at the University of Buffalo. We wouldn’t date until graduate school, where we happened to end up in the same economics program at Wright State University. I married her seven years later.

As my mind drifted back from long-gone days to my adulthood quest to free my mind, I parked my bike and sat down on the same bench Mallory and I had sat on as teens. It wasn’t literally the same bench — the rotting wooden benches had been replaced by nicer composite ones some years back — but the view was the same. Giant foxtails fading into farmland, dew clinging to their edges like tears on eyelashes. In the distance, I heard thunder echo through the sky. Even if I was bound and determined to relive that moment where I found that first glimpse of love, the world was not going to melt away for me today.

Save for a quick burst of rain, my ride ended uneventfully. I loaded my bicycle and drove home slowly. It wasn’t a race, after all. I arrived home shortly before dusk and unloaded my bike from the bed of my truck, taking a moment to refill the water bottle I’d brought with me from the hose on the side of my house. After a short breather, I left my house began to pedal up the street, just as I had nearly every day for the last year.

Unlike the bike path from earlier, which largely wound through small towns and farm land, this trip covered sidewalks and bike lanes through the suburbs. Though traffic was light this evening, I still had to be aware of my surroundings at all times. My mind couldn’t wander and linger as it had this morning or afternoon, lest I get hit by the driver of an over-sized pickup truck who was too busy texting to see me. Even though the ride was short — a mile and a half at most — it felt like it took twice as long as the 37 mile round-trip trek from earlier thanks to the amount of focus I had to place on not becoming a distracted driving statistic.

I stopped at an iron gated cemetery, locking my bicycle to the fence outside. I entered by foot, taking the same robotic path I always did — twenty-three steps forward to the first footpath, turn right, one hundred and six steps forward, turn left, then nine steps forward. I could do it in my sleep, I’m certain of it. There’s plenty of times I’d made the same walk in a fog, both a literal one and a figurative one. Sleep walking couldn’t be that much harder.

I came to a stop, reached into my pocket, and removed the giant foxtail heads I had picked from the grass by the bench. I placed them on Mallory’s grave and kissed the headstone, hoping that somewhere…wherever she may be…she was feeling the same way she did when we both had our first kiss.

The feeling of missing something wasn’t gone. I don’t know why I expected it to be. In the thirteen months since Mallory’s passing, the feeling waxed and waned, but never fully disappeared. I had hoped that reconnecting to a point in the past that was such a profound instance of happiness for me — as well as for Mallory, as she would admit after we’d been dating for some time — would calm the hollow feeling inside my soul. But it didn’t work. It never did.

I sat down on the rain-dampened path in front of Mallory’s headstone, staring ahead blankly at the monolithic slab in front of me. After a few moments, my eyes began to unfocus and my vision blurred. It was almost as if I were staring through the headstone, as if it weren’t even there. The exercise had become part of my routine since Mallory had died. It made me feel like the grave wasn’t real. If the grave wasn’t real, she couldn’t be gone. I’d get up from my seated position, bike home, and she’d be there, annoyed I’d left without telling her.

It never worked.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, rising from my seated position slowly. The long ride was finally starting to catch up to me, my back and hamstrings pulsing with dull, deep throbs. There was only one place left to go: home. I didn’t want to go back. I never did. But I had to. If I didn’t go home, there’s a chance I wouldn’t come back tomorrow. If I didn’t come back tomorrow, that was the first step to Mallory being forgotten. The memories of her were all I had left. I wasn’t going to let those go too.

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