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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.

Eyes Upon Us

This post is a response to November 2018’s mid-month short story challenge. Click on the link in the previous sentence to read the prompt, share your story, and read those written by others.


The beauty of frequent airport travel is that you begin to learn the best places to sit in your home airport before your flight. For me, this is completely contingent on what I’m doing. If I have a lot of work to get done before my flight, I’ll find a corner near my gate where I can camp out with an outlet and put headphones in. If I’m travelling with others, I find that it’s most efficient just to get to your gate, find seats for everyone, then send off small parties for food so as to save seats.

Today, I’m flying alone for work, but I have nothing to do before my flight. This is my favorite time at the airport, as I can sit and people watch. For the early morning flights that my job necessitates, this means the optimal place to sit is a small grove of black tables and yellow chairs near the Starbucks and McDonald’s in the D concourse. This placement is great because I can see people leaving both restaurants, all while still watching the four gates across from the food area.

My morning begins with a rambunctious child announcing himself by sprinting ahead of his parents, a tiny suitcase thrashing wildly behind him. His parents lag some twenty to thirty steps behind. Mom appears to be on the phone with some family member making plans while dad pushes a stroller housing a small child with one arm and drags a larger version of the child’s suitcase with his other. Their story is not particularly interesting. I see it nearly every time I come to the airport. Grandma/grandpa/distant cousin Louis has died and the young family has a funeral that they need to go to either out of caring for that family member or obligation to avoid hearing whining from the family members that do care. It’s a coin flip which one is the case.

Behind them, a young woman in sweatpants and a pajama top carries a duffel bag over one shoulder as she stares down at her phone. Her crimson dye no longer covers all of her hair, sandy blonde roots poking out at the base of her skull. She strolls into the Starbucks and takes her place at the back of the line, still deeply engrossed in whatever is featured on the screen in front of her. This type of traveler is growing increasingly common. While I certainly find myself doing this on many of my own trips, it’s much harder for me to imagine their story when my view of them is nothing more than a face and a screen in the crowd.

After a short lull in the early morning foot traffic, I’m greeted by my first real opportunity of the morning. A middle aged couple — at least I presume they’re a couple from their matching non-corporate suitcases and laptop bags, similar styles of wedding rings, and general disdain for one another — came walking up the ramp that led to my area of the terminal. The woman walked five to ten steps ahead of the man, her pace only slowed out of annoyance when she allowed him to catch up.

The man’s name either Oliver or Shithead. I assume the former, though the woman referred to him by the latter much more frequently. If their roles were switched — the woman looking frightened in the face of a truculent man verbally berating her — it’s likely that one of the several passersby in the airport would have said something. Instead, everyone looked at the couple with worried eyes and scared faces.

Oliver took a seat on the ground near the giant window between gates D21 and D23 that overlooked the tarmac. He shouted after the woman — her name was Amelia — asking her to get him a coffee, black with sugar. Whether or not she heard him was unclear. Amelia joined the line at Starbucks, three people behind the crimson haired girl. Through all the shouting, said girl was the only person that I noticed who didn’t look up at Amelia and Oliver. Personal sound bubbles created by headphones are a hell of a drug.

A giant blue, red, and yellow plane tail made its way past the window, driving its way down to a gate further along the concourse. Oliver’s head turned to follow the plane’s path, watching it until it made its way out of sight. As his head turned all the way to the left, I noticed a tear rolling down his face, hitting the shoulder of his gray t-shirt. Oliver opened his laptop bag and pulled out a small bottle of pain killers. He popped the lid off, dropped two of the pills in his hand, then quickly consumed them.

I heard a gabby pair of gentlemen walk out of the McDonald’s behind me and make their way back toward the main concourse area. The taller of the two men — a slender fellow with ash brown hair and a black duster — paused their walking by elbowing the shorter man in the arm. The tall main pointed towards Oliver with two fingers, leading the shorter man to nod and walk off without the taller man. The tall man removed his coat, folding it over his arm, and begin walking towards Oliver.

At first glance, the tall man looked like an odd cross between on Old West gunfighter and an evangelical Midwestern preacher. I blame the duster. But the more than I looked at him, the more he seemed like a kindly person than either of the negative stereotypes he initially appeared to be. The man walked over to Oliver, held out his hand, and helped Oliver to his feet.

Oliver began talking to the man, though from the distance they were away, I couldn’t make out anything they were saying. Oliver mostly nodded, the corners of his mouth fighting their hardest to avoid being in a frowning position. He sighed heavily and sat down in a nearby chair, holding his head in his hands. The tall man stood closer to him, placing his hand on Oliver’s back and rubbing it in small, circular motions lightly.

After a few minutes, Amelia exited the coffee shop, a cup of coffee in each hand, and walked toward the window. She handed Oliver his coffee, then began talking to the tall man. I wondered if she would continue her shouting at Oliver in front of the man or not. It was clear that she didn’t have — or at the very least chose not to use — the restraint not to do so earlier. Would she do it when she was more than just a (very noticeable) face in the crowd?

Instead, after a brief conversation, Amelia handed her coffee to Oliver, then wrapped her arms around the tall man and hugged him. Their embrace didn’t last long, though it was evident that there was some sort of pre-existing relationship between the two of them. My best guess would have to be that the three of them were mutual friends at some point in the past, though at this stage, the tall man was much closer to Amelia than to Oliver.

As I watched their embrace, I had failed to notice that the shorter man from before had taken a seat the table beside me. He wore a black suit with a white shirt and silver tie. On the left side lapel of his jacket, he wore a small pin of an orange fox. The shorter man too was looking on, watching this scene from afar.

“What’s going on over there?” I asked him as I took a sip of my coffee.

“Who?” he asked, “me?”

“Yeah. Do you guys know the lady that was screaming at that man earlier?”

“Kind of,” he replied. “The man over there holding his jacket is the head of Cyngreen Research.”

“The company trying to find out how to access the Halycon Realm?”

“That’s the one. He’s always trying to meet people he runs into that don’t act like typical humans.”

“Hoping to meet a being from Halycon?” I asked.

“Precisely.”

“Any luck?”

The shorter man shuffled in his seat and smiled as he turned towards me.

“Of course,” he replied. “Where are you flying to today?”

“Boston.”

“What a coincidence. How would you like to join us for dinner? We’d love to hear more about the Halycon Realm from someone who is from there.”

I laughed to myself as he reached out his hand to shake mine.

“You have a good eye,” I said. “How about Al Dente in the North End. 7pm?”

“It’d be our pleasure, mister…”

“Ka’la Banon.”

Another Haunt

This post is a response to October 2018’s mid-month short story challenge. Click on the link in the previous sentence to read the prompt, share your story, and read those written by others.


“Dale! Dale, hurry up!” yelled Marty.

“I’ll just be a few more minutes!” Dale shouted back.

“Dale, come on,” said Marty as he floated through the living room towards Dale’s bedroom. “It’s the busiest night of the year for haunts and you’re spending hours getting ready. The Spectral Turnpike is going to be crammed with spirits trying to get to Earth tonight.”

“I know,” Dale replied. “It’ll just be a few minutes.”

“It’s not like there’s going to be press there. All the celebrity ghosts are going to the party Frieda Kahlo is throwing. The spookarazzi will have its hands full. No need to bust out the couture.”

Dale cracked his door open and poked his head out.

“Spookarazzi?” Dale said. “Really? You know they’re still called paparazzi in the spirit realm.”

“I’m just trying to be festive,” Marty countered.

“Yeah, well if you want to be festive, go finish putting up your lights. Our block won’t win any awards if your only decorations are some fake spiders sprinkled in your shrubs.”

“Fine,” said Marty as he floated to the door. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. If you’re not ready, I’m leaving without you. Last Halloween we hit the thick of traffic and it took six whole minutes to get to Earth. It’s a thirty second trip! I’m not dealing with that again.”

Marty shut the door behind him, leaving Dale to dress in silence. He smashed together a sparkling dark blue powder with a wispy black mass, forming a midnight blue amalgamation on the dresser in front of him. Dale slathered the concoction on his black sleeves, the powder fading quickly into the fabric. He finished rubbing the powder into his top, grabbed a sheathed katana from beside his dresser, and made his was out of the house.

“Took you long enough!” shouted Marty as he dangled lights from his roof.

Marty floated down to the ground and gave Dale a look over before uttering a disapproving scoff.

“A ninja? Again?” said Marty.

“It’s tradition,” replied Dale.

“Tradition for what? You go, scare a bunch of kids for a few hours, then come back and go get blitzed off your supernatural ass with me and the misses. We’ve been doing this for ten years! Try something new.”

Marty pointed across the street at twelve of their neighbors who were organizing themselves into a six by six formation.

“You see that, Dale?” said Marty. “They’re going as a hung jury. Complete with nooses and everything!”

“I don’t do group costumes,” replied Dale.

“It’s not about a group costume. Yeah, you could be the cat to my rat. I just want to make sure don’t get stuck doing the same thing every Halloween forever.”

“I won’t.”


Dale and Marty arrived on Earth at Midland Cemetery in the town of Norton Mills, Indiana. For ten years, Marty and Dale had chosen this cemetery as the start of their Halloween haunts. Cemeteries provided easy portals between the spectral world and Earth, which was particularly useful as spirits couldn’t move as freely on Earth as they could away from it. Though this was a source of frustration for Marty, Dale accepted it as the reality of his circumstances.

“See you back here at 10pm?” Marty asked.

“Yeah. Same as every other year.”

“If you make the Jenkins kid piss himself again this year, be sure to remember every detail.”

“I will, Marty. I always do.”

Marty floated off into the woods behind the cemetery, while Dale ducked behind trees, dancing through the shadows as he made his way towards a suburban neighborhood. Trick or treating was nearing its end, parents and small children making their way back into their homes as teens began to take over the streets.

Dale ducked into a nearby oak tree as teenage twin boys dressed as Freddie Kruger chased their unicorn-clad younger sister down the street. Dale closed his eyes and summoned up a strong gust of wind, blowing leaves up into the face of the twins, slowing them down briefly and allowing the girl to get away. Though Dale disliked using his supernatural powers to control earthly things (even during a haunt), it did provide him a surprising amount of joy to mess with people who were acting like assholes.

As Dale rounded the corner, he floated up to the roof of a small yellow house, allowing him to overlook a similarly designed blue house next door. 38 Carmody Lane. Though Dale participated in occasional haunts wherever he (or Marty) felt like throughout the year, this was the location for his Halloween haunt for the last ten years. It would remain that way for the foreseeable future, if Dale had any choice in the matter.

Dale floated off of the roof of the yellow house, taking care to make sure no living human noticed him doing so. He drifted through a closed second floor window of the blue home, entering a room lit by a small desk lamp by the wall to his left. Dale made his way back into the shadows of the corner, trying to stay as far away from the light as possible. After twenty minutes, a boy — around sixteen years of age — entered the room and sat down at the desk. He fiddled with the lamp, pointing it away from the corner Dale hid in.

“Are you there, dad?” the boy asked, staring into the corner.

“Yeah,” replied Dale.

“Thanks for coming again.”

“I can’t miss Halloween, Kenny. I wish I could come more, but this is the only time there’s enough paranormal activity that I can show up and ghost hunters won’t be tipped off to the consistency.”

“I know,” replied Kenny.

“How’s your sister?” asked Dale.

“Marci’s good. Just started eighth grade.”

“Is she here?”

“Nah,” said Kenny, “her and mom went to Grandma Engle’s house. They should be back late tonight. But you probably can’t stay that long.”

“Do you think she’ll ever want a visit one of these years?” Dale asked.

“She was three when you died, dad. I don’t know how much she even remembers you anymore.”

“Oh.”

Kenny sighed and put his head to his chest.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” replied Dale. “You’re probably right though. You at least had me around for six years.”

Dale examined Kenny, looking him up and down from a distance.

“How tall are you now?”

“Six one,” Kenny said.

“Are you swimming again?” asked Dale. “Or are you trying basketball?”

“Neither. Lifting in the offseason for baseball.”

“I guess that’s good.”

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I see you?” asked Kenny. “Not in costume, I mean.”

“You know I can’t do that, son.”

“I know. But I have more memories of my dad dressed as a ghost ninja than I do of you alive. All I can see is your eyes.”

“It’s not my rule,” said Dale. “If I could change how I looked, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

“It just sucks,” stated Kenny.

“Yeah. It does.”

The sound of the doorbell ringing downstairs put an abrupt end to the conversation.

“Gerald going to get that?” asked Dale.

“Mom and Gerald are separated,” replied Kenny. “Have been a few months. Besides, it’s probably Olivia.”

“Olivia?”

“Yeah.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” said Dale. “I’ll leave you two be. Just be safe.”

“I will. I love you, dad.”

“I love you too.”

Dale made his way back through the window and down Carmody Lane and back towards the cemetery. He sat for three hours atop a fading tombstone belonging to someone named Thomas Dickinson. Dale never met the man, but he clearly had comfortable taste in burial decor. As the occasional passerby would walk near the cemetery gates, Dale would make the wind howl lightly, just enough to make the person walk with a bit more purpose in their step, but not enough to frighten them.


“Are you sure you want to change costumes before you come to the party?” asked Marty. “It’s kind of tradition you come as a ninja at this point.”

“I’m sure,” replied Dale. “Tell Courtney I’ll be over shortly.”

“Don’t be too long. All the good spirits will be gone. Or, wait a really long time and then it will only be us bad spirits.”

“I see what you did there.”

Dale entered his home and made his way into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. He placed the katana down by the dresser, then made his way to the wardrobe where he kept his haunting attire. Behind a pair of ragged suits, he pulled out a box with a new outfit he had bought a few years prior. Dusting off the container, he opened it, revealing a new sport coat and dress trousers. Dale placed the box on the dresser, shoving the bronze centerpiece atop the dresser out of the way, and stared at mirror on his wall.

Through the ninja mask, he could see his own eyes — blue as they had been in life, though hollow and absent of being. His eyes were one of the few features in his life that Dale liked, so he was happy they crossed over with him, at least partially.

The unfortunate reality was that in addition to his striking blue eyes crossing over to the spirit world with him, so did the rest of the physical features that Dale possessed when he died. He removed the mask from his ninja costume, revealing a bloodied exit wound from his suicide. While such a feature wouldn’t get a second look in the spirit realm, Dale could never bring himself to go to Earth with it uncovered. Even beyond the stigmatization he knew suicide held on Earth, he didn’t want Kenny or Marci to see him like this. He removed the ninja costume’s top and began to change for the party. Maybe next year his routine would be different.

Maybe.

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