CategoryShort Stories

One and Three-Eighths

The following post is a short story intended to work through a concept I thought of for a character that will appear in a potential sequel to my current WIP. I’m not 100% sure at this point if I’ll do a sequel, though I am leaning that way. And the character that I want to play around with this technique with isn’t in the current WIP. So this is more of a me trying things out story than anything else. It might be good. It might not. But I want the idea on paper, so to speak.


It was serendipity, really. That song popping up when it did. I hadn’t been thinking about the song…about you. Not recently at least. Sure, you’d crossed my mind that day. You always do. I’d even talked to you. But right when things seemed their bleakest, you were there for me in musical spirit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything serious. Or even serious enough to consider calling it serious. I hate how there are labels that need put to things. Boyfriend this. Girlfriend that. I just want it to be what it is sometimes. You know?

You can’t hear this. I mean, I could come tell you all of this. It wouldn’t be that hard. Through the main lobby, down the east hallway, then you’re the third door on the left. I’ve been there enough. It’s not that hard to remember, though it’s not like you’ve had many visitors to test that theory. I wonder where your mom and dad are. I hope your dad’s doing alright. You’ve always talked so fondly of him.

No. You can’t hear it. Not yet. I’m not ready. You’re not ready. And that’s the most critical piece of this. I can be ready for as long as I need to be. I can be ready to tell you for the rest of your life. But if you’re not ready, it’s all for nothing. And you’re too important for this all to be for nothing.

My sister says I can’t screw this up. Not again. I mean, it’d be the first time screwing things up with you. I don’t even want to think about that.

There’s a plan. And it’s a good plan. I know it is. She’s always been a good planner. And this will save everyone and everything. There’ll be stability and calm. Instead of having chaos, we can relax. We. Me and her. You and me. You. And me.

I want that.

You’re not ready though. You’ve been through a lot. You’re not even ready for her plan. We’ll get you there. I have full confidence in my abilities to ensure that you’re ready for my sister’s plan. We’ve made sure that people were ready before. You will be ready in time

You’re just hurt now. And that’s okay. You’ve lost so much in the past year. I know you’ll come through it stronger though. We’ll get there together.

I can’t open the door though. You’re so close. The song gave me so much hope. But I can’t see you. Can’t hold you. Can’t be there for you in the way you need most.

I hate this plan. It’s easy to play the long game when you’re immortal.

Illusion

This short story is a response to one of Poke Traveller Lola’s November writing challenge prompts. The prompt I’ve chosen is “I’m no illusion”. Just as a warning, this story does get a bit dark at a couple of different points. Just a warning in case you need that.


“It’s not coming clean,” I mumbled.

“What’s not?” yelled Sara from back inside the house.

I continued scrubbing, trying my hardest to get the dust and grime off of my car, hoping to get it even remotely close to the shine it once had.

“Whatever I got on my car,” I shouted, my voice echoing through the cavernous garage.

“How did it get on there?” she asked, walking out the side door and making her way towards me.

I felt the palm of her hand touch the back of my arm. It was cold; a pleasant reprieve from the summer’s oppressive heat and stickiness. She ran her fingers up my forearm towards my shoulder, her fingertips catching ever so slightly on the sleeve of my black t-shirt. Sara caressed the back of my neck with a soft, fluttering motion that never failed to get my attention.

“I don’t know,” I replied, tossing my soapy rag against the car’s quarter panel. Someone had to have hit one of the puddles by work and splashed it onto the car.

“We could take it to a detailer, you know?”

“I’m not spending a couple of hundred bucks just to get shit off my car.”

“But is it worth your time?”

“Yes!” I yelled incredulously.

“And your frustration?” Sara retorted, her eyes drilling holes in me.

I sighed and picked up the rag.

“Sorry, hun,” I said. “I just want it off.”

“I know. Try again after you’ve calmed down?”

“Yeah.”

Sara took the towel from my hand, tossing it into the bucket of water placed by the car’s wheel.

“Shower or lunch first? And before you answer, I’m joining you for both. Choose wisely.”

—–

I stared at the clock on the wall through the darkened room. A quarter after one. I think. Could be just after three. I can’t tell. It’s not backlit and I’m not turning a light on. Fuck that noise.

I hate this night. I mean, I hate every night. The thoughts going through my head that keep me from getting to sleep. Sure, they start innocent enough. There’s a girl. We’ve got a date coming up. Thursday night. We’ll get dinner. Maybe go to a movie, to a bar, or bowling. It all depends on the girl. The dates all start mostly the same. They all end the same way. Either I drop her off at her place or we drive to our own homes separately. She does whatever she does. I go home and try to sleep. I try to think about how I can stop this cycle.

It doesn’t stop.

It’s after midnight though. That I know for sure without knowing exactly what the clock says. Through the blinds, a car slowly makes its way past my yard and down the street. It’ll turn at the intersection. Statistically speaking, it’s one of the local cops, scouting the neighborhood to make sure there’s no crime. They come by a couple of times a night on their patrols. No one else comes by this late.

I lean my head back, leaning the back of my chair until it touches the wall behind me. If I close my eyes for just a second, maybe sleep will come like it does in the movies.

—-

“This is…”

“It’s not good, is it?” I asked, cutting Sara off.

She set her fork down on the edge of the plate.

“No,” she said. “It’s honestly disgusting.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I was afraid of that.”

“But hey! You didn’t burn it tonight. That’s progress.”

“Right. Yeah.”

“Hey.”

Sara grabbed my hand, holding onto it with both of hers.

“You’ll get this,” she said. “I know you’re trying.”

“I am,” I answered. I followed my half-hearted response with a deep sigh.

Sara walked to the pantry and dug around for a few moments before poking her head out and shrugging.

“How much money do you have on you?” she asked.

I reached in my back pocket and grabbed my wallet, thumbing through the bills to get a rough count.

“Two fifty,” I replied. “But I’ve got to get gas and pay the internet bill. I don’t get paid until next Tuesday.”

Sara stared at the calendar over the counter. If it were me, I’d be doing the math in my head. Eight days. $250 to live off of. One, maybe two tanks of gas needed to get me to and from work. She’d likely need tank as well. Though I didn’t know what was in her purse, there was a good chance she’d come ask me for that gas money when the time came. Being a student didn’t pay well. At least that’d be over soon.

“How’s pizza sound?” Sara asked.

“Sounds like money,” I answered.

“Please? It’s a night away from our house.”

“It’s not our house,” I insisted. “We’re just renting it.”

“I know,” Sara answered. “But one day we will have a house that’s our house.”

She walked over to me, wrapping her arms around my neck. From my seated position, I rested my head against her side, only for her to pull me in closer, practically trying to drive me through her ribcage and literally into her embrace.

“We’ll go to the all-you-can-eat place and bring home enough for meals for a few days. I’ll even ask for a mac and cheese pizza. Please?”

—–

My eyes are dry. Whenever my eyes get dry, Ben Stein’s voice comes into my head. That reference hasn’t been relevant in decades. It still happens though. Some things just have an association with them though, whether I want that link to be there or not.

Songs are the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I love music. But I hate how I can hear a song and immediately snap back to a feeling or a moment or a person that I’d tried my hardest to forget comes charging back. Sure, there are positive musical associations my mind makes. “The Entertainer” by Joplin was my first piano recital piece that people did more than clap for me on. I’m transported back to my first night with Sara whenever “Aero Zeppelin” by Nirvana comes on. Even the theme to “The Exorcist” is calming, as I associate it with high school bonfires and hot cocoa.

When Sara and I split, the first song I heard after we went our separate ways was “Through Glass” by Stone Sour. No matter when I hear it, I’m taken back to that moment. The complete and total silence echoing through my head before my car’s engine started and the song came blaring through my speakers was deafening. While I yearned for something, anything, to break it, the song did me no favors. I didn’t have to look in my rear-view mirror to know that my face was a disaster. My hysterical sobs assured that would be true.

My house is dead silent. Not even the airy breath of the furnace pushing heat through the vents is present right now. Just that song, repeating through my head on loop. I want to cry. My eyes are too dry.

—–

“Are you excited for your first day, Dr. Carrier?” I asked, wrapping my arms around Sara’s waist as she fiddled with the clasp of a necklace.

“I’m nervous,” she replied, leaning back into my arms. “I don’t get ready for something 90 minutes before I need to be there if I’m excited.”

“You’ll be fine.”

Sara latched the necklace, tucking it under her shirt. I leaned my chin over her shoulder, placing soft, patient kisses along the side of her neck.

“This isn’t the day for that,” Sara replied between giggles. “When I get home, alright?”

“I’m just trying to calm your nerves,” I said.

“I know.”

She turned around and embraced me, resting her head against mine.

“You’ve got this,” I said.

“I know. You do too.”

—–

It’s after four now. I can’t quite see the minute hand because of the way the shadows are hitting the face of the clock. But it’s some time just before the half-hour. Part of me wants to know the exact time. Part of me doesn’t care. Most of me though just…is.

This was always the cycle when things were good. Sara would have these days where she’d work overnight shifts at the hospital. I’d stay up so that she could have dinner — more commonly known as breakfast to those not working at night — when she got home. We’d share eggs, bacon, and bagels, take a quick, usually uneventful shower together, then curl up in bed and sleep until three or four in the afternoon. We’d occasionally get awoken by a delivery driver knocking at our door or the garbage truck’s chimes that sounded out as it reversed during turnaround. But most days, as the world pressed on around us, we slept. Our fluffy comforter was our armor against the noise of the outside world.

My body hadn’t corrected to living in the daytime. Not yet. You’d think a year and a half would be enough. Apparently not.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

—–

I woke up to the afternoon sunlight skirting past the edge of the blinds and into my eyes. I blocked it out with my arm, annoyed that nature dares exist, then rolled over and faced away from the window. Sara was still asleep, her raven hair obscuring her face from the trickles of sun that tried to reach her. I resisted the urge to wake her. I knew she needed sleep. We were both exhausted, though not for the same reasons.

Sara’s least favorite part of her job — or at least the part of it she complained to me about the most frequently — was the days where she was the on-call doctor. From what I could gather, it was a hard gig for most doctors. But for a pediatrician like Sara, being on-call combined the uncertainty of her normal job, the potential exhaustion from a night of sleep interrupted, and the fear of losing a patient too young to tie their shoes in the middle of the night, and suddenly being on-call was its own special hell.

For me, this was month six of unemployment. The company that had employed me as a security guard had gone under, leaving 130 employees out of work. Though I’d tried my best to find a job, there just weren’t a ton of companies looking for an ex-security guard with an English degree, three year-plus gaps in employment due to health issues, and a preference to not work nights.

Sara said it was fine. Repeatedly. She said I’d find something, especially if I looked beyond security work. At first, I believed her. But at this point I was losing faith.

—–

The sun is going to come up soon. I think. I’m not sure what time the sun rises in November. Fucking time change.

My head is being held up by the bookshelf to my right, though my eyelids don’t have similar support. I want to walk to bed or to crawl myself to the couch. If I do that though, I’ll wake myself up. If I wake myself up, I’m going to go through this all again. Another hour or two or three or four or more of not being able to sleep. Only this time, somewhere along the way, the sun is going to come up. And for as easy as it can be to sleep with the sun out — thank god for the inventor of the blackout curtain — falling asleep in daylight is a whole other matter.

My neck is going to hurt after this. It’ll be ten or eleven in the morning when I inevitably slump forward, my head will crash into the floor, and I’ll wake up in a daze. I’ll be confused for a few seconds, then I’ll get up, take a lukewarm shower, and move on about my day with three to four hours of sleep. My head will hurt from the combination of the neck stiffness and lack of rest, but at least I will have slept.

As I feel my eyelids come together, I hear a squeak coming from the front of the house. The front door is just out of sight, but I recognize that sound. The sound of a key turning and a creak follows. My eyes stay closed as the sound of the door shutting and light footsteps echo throughout the home’s main floor.

“You’re not actually here,” I grumbled. “You’re the just the bitters and the brandy playing tricks on me.”

“Cole, get up,” Sara said, her voice exhausted.

I heard her set a plastic bag filled with something down on the counter. Or at least that’s the sound I thought I heard. I rubbed my eyes. Hard.

“Why is my head fucking with me like this?”

“I’m no illusion, Cole.”

I leaned back against the bookshelf, trying to get comfortable again. I felt Sara sit down beside me, the palm of her hand covering my own, intertwining her fingers with mine.

“It’s another bad night isn’t it?” she asked.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

“Where has the rabbit hole gone tonight? Is it somewhere I can pull you out of?”

I felt tears run down my cheeks, but I wasn’t crying. My body was releasing them for me, completely against my will.

“Cole.”

I shook my head, the right side lightly knocking against the wood of the bookcase.

“Cole. You can’t keep doing this by yourself. You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”

“It’s going to all go away,” I whispered.

“What is?” Sara replied calmly.

“You. This house. Everything.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“It’s been eighteen months since I worked.”

“I know.”

“I can’t keep letting you down like this.”

“You’re not letting me down.”

I squeezed Sara’s hand. She was there. I was sure of that. I didn’t want to open my eyes. Not because I feared she’d be gone if I did. It just hurt too much between the tears and the fatigue to do so.

“You were gone tonight,” I said. “All because I can’t control this. There was a story to it and everything.”

Sara pulled my head into her shoulder, stroking my hair repeatedly kissing me on the head.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she answered.

“I’m broken, Sara.”

“You’re not. But you can’t do this alone.”

We sat there for some amount of time I couldn’t begin to estimate. I didn’t even notice that Sara had stood until she was grabbing my hands and trying to pull me up.

“Come on,” she said. “Not sleeping only makes it worse.”

“I know. But I don’t think I can.”

“Then come hold me until I fall asleep. You’re always good at helping me.”

“Yeah.”

I walked up the stairs trailing Sara, my hand still in hers. We stripped off our clothes and crawled into bed, though her arms wrapped around me instead of the opposite as we’d discussed.

“This is a trap,” I joked.

“Just lay against me,” she replied, her hands running through my hair. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I don’t remember falling asleep. The last thing I recall feeling was the light touch of Sara’s fingers in my hair. Sure enough, the sun was out when I woke up, but instead of the beams falling on Sara’s hair, they landed on the sheet beside me.

Was she gone? Had I actually dreamed her like I initially thought?

I climbed out of bed, grabbing a pair of pajama pants out of the drawer, and making my way downstairs. Before I’d even made it fully down, I came to a piece of notebook paper taped to the wall with a bright pink sticky note on top of it.

Ran to IHOP for day off breakfast. Back soon. Love you.

I peeled the sticky note off of the notebook paper. I knew what the paper said. It was the same paper that Sara left me every day. I’d read it so many times that I could recite the instructions at the top of the paper from memory, even without re-reading it.

Hey. Here’s some options when you’re ready to talk to someone. If you want me to call, I’ll be there and help you. If you want to do this yourself, here you go. Whenever you’re ready, I’m here for you. However you need me. -Sara

Beneath Sara’s instructions was a list of phone numbers for five therapists Sara had suggested I see. I knew I clearly didn’t need to see all five. These were just options. The list has been the same for the past six months. Just pick one of the numbers and call. That’s all I had to do.

Pick one.

Call.

Pick.

Call.

“Good morning, handsome,” Sara said.

“I didn’t notice you come in,” I replied, putting the paper down to my side.

“I know. You busy or you ready for breakfast? Or lunch? Or whatever this technically is?”

I mashed my lips together and stared at Sara. She didn’t deserve to deal with this. She held herself and me together on a daily basis. I couldn’t put her through this. Not anymore.

“Can yo…can..” I fumbled over my words. “Can we eat? Then will you help me? Please?”

“Of course.”

Meeting Charlie Madagan

Note: The following short story is actually the combination of a pair of ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for a while now. At the recommendation of a few writer friends, I thought I’d pilot the idea as a short story and see what people thought.


“Hot chocolate with two shots for Tyler!” the coffee shop employee shouted from behind the counter.

“It’s Kyler,” I muttered to myself. Not that it mattered. They always got it wrong.

Drink in hand, I started my search for the man I was to meet up with for my project. ENG 3030 had a reputation for being one of the toughest courses creative writing majors would take on campus, being the first major workshop course and all. I’d nearly sunk myself on the first project of the class before it’d even begun.

On day one of class, our professor, Dr. Eugenio Torrence, laid out the basic structure of the class, including all of the projects. Our first project was a long-form essay – 20,000 to 25,000 words — wherein we had to adapt the life story of an actual person into a work of creative writing. This would be one of the two major projects we’d have in the semester, but it was the only one that students knew about before they came in. The pool of individuals that students could choose from was composed of a motley crew of Dr. Torrence’s friends, colleagues, and various other long-time participants in this project.

Part of what made the project so difficult was the lack of parameters around the project other than the word count.

“I don’t care how you go about composing this piece,” said Dr. Torrence, “so long as you turn it in on time, it meets the word count guidelines, and I can see the person you interviewed in your story. Take all the creative liberties you want beyond that.”

I, being the person I am, overslept on day two of class. Naturally, this was the day where we got to pick our research subjects. Since I arrived to class last, it meant I got to pick my person last, leaving me stuck with the last person left on the list: Charlie Madagan.

The bio card I’d received from Dr. Torrence read like something out of one of those rich people financial magazines you read in the dentist office waiting room when you’ve finished Sports Illustrated. Charlie Madagan was an ex-Wall Street broker, an inventor, and a hedge fund manager. He was, apparently, one of the 100 richest people in the state and gave a lot of money to the college, as it was his alma mater. That said, he was also eccentric and prone to days or weeks at a time where no one would be able to hear from him.

Great. Just what I needed.

I looked around the coffee shop, trying to find Charlie from the description he’d given me in his email. The problem was that when someone promises to wear a black hoodie and blue jeans in a college town, they’re not exactly going to stick out. There was an old guy in the corner wearing a winter coat in the middle of September. That seemed weird enough to be Charlie. Maybe the hoodie was underneath?

No sooner was it that I had taken this line of thought than I felt a hand touch my shoulder.

“You’re late,” said a timid male voice behind me.

I turned around to see a middle-aged man wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans, his salt-and-pepper hair sticking out from underneath a Wellesley College baseball hat.

“Charlie?” my voice meekly squeaked out.

“You’ll never get a good interview with anyone like that,” he said softly. “Come on now. Stand up straight.”

I did my best to straighten my posture, concerned that I hadn’t realized I was slouching.

“Now, try again,” he said.

“Charlie Madagan?” I asked, my voice a bit louder this time.

He let out a deep sigh.

“You’re going to be more work than Eugie said,” he replied. “Come on. Bring your coffee and let’s grab a table and get this started.”

“It’s hot chocolate,” I corrected him.

“Fucking millennials,” he mumbled to himself.

Charlie pointed at a table in the far corner of the room.

“See that empty three seater round table in the back?”

I nodded.

“Go sit there,” he continued. “Leave me the seat by the coat rack and take whichever other one you want. I will be right there.”

I followed his instructions, seating myself to the right of his desired seat. For a moment, I considered pulling out my computer and readying myself to take notes. But then I remembered his snide comment about my age and decided pen and paper was the right choice — at least in his eyes. The project overview sheet gave us a list of questions as recommendations to begin our interview with, though something told me Charlie Madagan wasn’t going to let me use too many of them.

“Here,” he said, nudging me with a cup and saucer.

I thanked him and carefully placed the drink down in front of me. The coffee cup was half the size of a regular cup. Even then, it seemed underfilled to me, especially after seeing the massive amounts of caffeine both of my parents regularly ingested.

“Hot cocoa is for Christmas and cuddling,” continued Charlie. “The former is three months away and I have no intention of partaking in the latter with you. Espresso is a much better choice for an interview.”

He sipped at his own cup, barely making a dent in the level of the liquid. I stared at his hat again, knowing the name sounded familiar, but couldn’t place why.

“Where’s Wellesley?” I asked, fully expecting a condescending response based off of how our time together had gone so far.

“Massachusetts,” he replied. “One of the most prestigious women’s colleges in the world.”

“Does your daughter go there?”

“No, no. I’m afraid she didn’t have the grades to get in there — though I do appreciate your educated guess that I had a daughter.”

“Well, it made sense.”

“Because I’m old?” he asked.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” I said, backpedaling.

“How old do you think I am?”

Charlie leaned forward slightly in his seat, like a cat getting ready to pounce on an injured bird.

“Forty-five?” I said, my statement turning into a question as I spoke.

He let out a hearty laugh, one with a much fuller sound than his speaking voice led me to believe he was capable of.

“You flatter me,” he said. “Maybe there’s some hope for you after all. No, I’m fifty-two. And my wife is actually the Wellesley alumna.”

Charlie Madagan pulled a folded slip of paper out of the pocket of his hoodie, sliding it across the table to me. I stared at it, confused as to what exactly was going on.

“Go on,” he said. “It’s better than whatever you’ve come up with.”

“What?” I replied.

“Have you even prepared questions to ask me?”

“Yes.”

“Mine are better. I promise.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

I wasn’t sure why, but he was quickly getting on my nerves. Nevertheless, Charlie Madagan took another sip of his espresso, patiently considering my question.

“I’ve known Eugenio Torrence for twenty-nine years,” he began. “For the past thirteen years, I’ve been helping him out as a subject in his creative writing courses. I am always the person he gives to the slackers, the stoners, the eventual dropouts, or the kids who are perpetually late to class.”

“I was late one day!” I shouted back.

“What’s your GPA?” Charlie asked, his voice still calm and annoyingly melodic.

“What does that matter?”

“What’s your GPA, Kyler?”

“3.3.”

“And how often do you miss class?”

“It…it depends on when in the day it is.”

“Kyler. Just look at the list.”

I pulled the sheet of paper towards me, slowly sliding it across the table, taking care to avoid the small pool of condensation from whoever had this table before us. I took my time unfolding it, trying to sneak a glance at the expression on his face. It was unflinching and stoic, almost as if he was trying to convey to me that he knew how I was going to react before I did.

The list was a mess of handwritten bullet points. Charlie’s penmanship would be best described as third grader trying to create calligraphy in a bumper car, but it was clear that his pen strokes were meticulous and careful, even if the end result was not particularly beautiful. The list read as such:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages to libertinism? What could society learn from this philosophy?
  • Why is the feeling of falling in love so addictive?
  • Why agree to helping the youth of America when not all of them are capable of becoming the future leaders of tomorrow?
  • Is there a difference between philanthropy and marketing?
  • Are humans really the heroes of their own stories?

I looked up from the list and stared at Charlie. Clearly something about my expression was off to him.

“Let me guess,” he said. “Not what you were expecting?”

“None of these questions are about you,” I replied. “They’re just essay topics for a philosophy class.”

“I can assure you they’re not. Trust me. I’ve pitched the topics to a number of members of the philosophy department. None of them take my suggestions seriously.”

“I think I’ll stick to my list,” I said as I opened my steno pad to find my questions.

“Just ask one,” said Charlie. “I’ll even let you pick. Take any question from the list and let me respond. I promise that every question that you could have possibly come up with to learn about me will be answered by those five questions. I’ll only need to answer one for you to know I’m right.”

I looked the list over again. The questions really did look absurd to me. While I’m sure I could tangently get a good bit of information about Charlie Madagan from whatever answers he gave, my goal was to pass this class. And since ENG 3030 was at eight in the morning, my hope was to do so while getting as much sleep as possible. Still, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to make any progress with my list of questions without at least humoring him.

Two of the questions jumped out to me as a place to start. The second question focused on love, which would hopefully give me an in to learn about his family and the story there. I already knew he had a wife who went to Wellesley and a daughter who existed, but beyond that, I still had nothing. Still, most people don’t have an interesting family. You’re much more likely to come across someone whose family is a trainwreck than anything of actual interest.

The final question on the list definitely had the most potential for an interesting story. In one of my English classes in high school, I remember hearing some modern author talk about how everyone, even villains, always see themselves as their hero of their own story. So it’s clearly a question with potential. But then I looked at Charlie. While he was clearly extremely successful and likely was at least of above average attractiveness in his youth, it was clear his prime years were ending, if not already gone. Maybe there was something dark in there — something juicy like white collar crime or drunken parties on a yacht off the coast of Colombia. More than likely though, it’d just be some story about how he hazed some clown freshman in his college days. If I wanted to hear that kind of a story, I could go back to campus.

“I pick the second one,” I said, pointing at the question and turning the paper back to him.

“An interesting choice, if not a predictable one,” Charlie said as he took a longer sip from his cup. In my time focusing on the list of questions, I had missed him drinking nearly the entire glass.

“Predictable how?”

“Everyone wants to hear a good love story. That’s what falling in love is about.”

He took another drink of the espresso, this time finishing what was left.

“Still,” he continued, “you’ve also picked the longest question to answer. I’m afraid we don’t have time to answer it today.”

“That’s fine,” I replied. “We could always continue through email o — ”

“No,” Charlie interrupted. “I mean this is an explanation longer than the time you told me you had in your schedule, as well as a question that must be answered in one sitting.”

Was this guy serious? Was his story really that important that it necessitated I clear my schedule just for him?

“What’s your Friday look like?” asked Charlie as he picked up his phone and scrolled through what I could only presume was his calendar.

“Class 9:05 until 9:55, one from 10:35 to 11:25, and one from 1:30 to 2:20.”

“Any plans after?”

I didn’t have any plans. My best friend, Malik, was out of town for the weekend. But what college kid doesn’t have plans on a Friday night?

“I’ve got a party I’m going to at night,” I said, lying through my teeth.

“That’s fine,” said Charlie. “Meet me here at 3pm. This place closes at 8pm, so you’ll be home in plenty of time to pregame — or whatever it’s being called these days.”

“It’s still pregaming.”

Charlie got out of his chair, grabbing his cup and saucer to take back to the counter.

“And Kyler,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Bring a laptop next time. No one takes notes on paper anymore.”

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.”

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.