CONNOR RUSHEN - THE ROOM
Connor Rushen is a current student at Full Sail University, studying Creative Writing. He lives in the small town of Salem, Missouri and has a full-time job at the local retail store. In his spare time, he goes cycling or stays indoors creating content, or just playing video games.
Crysta scratched her fingernail across the top of her drink and stared down into it. Michael, her husband, sat across from her with his hands resting behind his head.
“Did you have a good day at the fair, sweetie?” he asked.
“Y-yes, I did,” Crysta said. She swept a golden lock behind her ear. She flinched as her fingers grazed across the bruise on her cheek.
“You know, we ought to go again tomorrow, see that ocean view one last time.”
“Sure, honey, whatever you want,” Crysta said. She lifted her gin and tonic and took the last drink. She set it down softly, but enough to make Michael open his eyes and notice her empty drink.
“Another gin, Crysta?” he asked. Crysta simply nodded her head no. She didn’t make eye contact with him and continued to scratch at her glass. Her chewed nails barely connected with the rim, but it was enough to keep her distracted.
“This was a great vacation for only being married two years,” Michael said. He adjusted the bandaging around his right knuckles and settled back into his chair. A silence fell over the two.
Moments passed before Crysta heard Michael begin to snore. Looking up from the glass that had a tear-filled bottom, Crysta wiped her eyes and gave a soft sigh. Michaels snores could drown out artillery fire. Scooting her chair quietly back, Crysta stood and left the small outdoor eating area of their two-bed motel room. She dragged her suitcase up on top the bed, squishing the striped duvet down. As quietly as she could, she popped the laches of the suitcase. She pulled out a pair of khaki colored pants and a white top. They were the only clothes she was allowed to bring that wasn’t a dress. Crysta slipped out of her sunflower-colored dress and folded it back up neatly.
Before she was given the chance to change, two ice cold hands met her sides. Michaels warm, alcohol-soaked breath came across her left ear.
“And just where do we think you’re going, uh?” he asked. His grip tightened on her waist.
“I just wanted to take a quick trip to the shops,” Crysta said. Her hands shook, and goosebumps traveled up her skin.
“Now, now,” Michael started. He slurred every other word together, stumbling over his own vocabulary. “We can’t have you going out in this garbage.”
Crysta shivered. “Michael, please,”
His grip tightened even more. Crysta let out a small, pained cry.
“You aren’t leaving,” he said.
“Just let me go, Michael.”
Michael pushed Crysta forward. She screamed before she hit the ground. The carpet was mere padding underneath her. Crysta stayed for a moment, tears beginning to stream from her face.
“I told you, you aren’t leaving!” Michael said. He heaved a lowball glass across the room, shattering it against the wall. Glass pieces rained down on Crysta.
She sobbed and worked her way back to her knees. Glass cut her hands as she lifted her way up off the floor. Michael was rummaging through her suitcase. He lobbed a nightgown at her, hitting her square in the chest. Something hard and warm had come with it, leaving another mark on Crysta’s chest.
“Now get ready for bed.”
Crysta sobbed a bit as she rummaged around in the nightgown, looking for whatever had hit her so hard. Michael was no longer facing her. Instead, he had turned his back to lock the sliding doors that led outside.
Two clicks preceded him as he drew the curtains. Michael turned to investigate the noise when he saw Crysta stood upright. She stood there, half-naked, bleeding with tears smudging her mascara and a loaded snub-nosed revolver.
“Now, honey, we can,” the two gunshots cut Michael’s begging short. They ripped through his white buttoned shirt and through him, shattering the glass doors behind him. Crysta dropped the gun, her hand aching from the recoil.
“That was nothing like shooting at targets,” she said.
Two knocks then came at her door.
“Is, uh, everything okay in there?” the voice asked from the other side of the door.
“Oh, uh, yes. Everything is fine, my silly husband just had some trouble with the doors, that’s all,” Crysta replied.
“Should I get maintenance or something, ma’am?”
“No, no, he got it.”
“Oh, uh, okay. Have a great night, ma’am.”
“You the same, sir, thank you.”
Relieved, Crysta dressed. She hid the revolver back inside her suitcase, folded up in some hideous dresses. She turned around and looked herself over in the full-body mirror. Crysta wiped some of the smudged make-up off her face with her sleeve and straightened out her shirt. She touched the bruise on her cheek again, this time with a slight smile.
Crysta grabbed the suitcase from her bed and left the room, blowing one last kiss to her dead husband.
ERIC BURBRIDGE - FORECLOSURE
Eric Burbridge has been writing short stories for several years and published two collections of short stories. CONSOLIDATED SEPARATES and CONSOLIDATED SEPARATES TOO. He also has been published in numerous literary journals. He is currently working on his first novel.
“Complain, complain, that’s all you do, Lepty.” His alderman said. He was right too. The guy with the big ears and little head promised with an articulate, thundering voice he’d consider his next bid to rehab or, at least, gut the foreclosed and abandoned houses on several blocks in their precinct. Several retirees like Lepty had small companies that bid on rehabbing such properties. Jake Lepty and Associates finally got the contract on a large corner house on his block. Jake was special in the neighborhood; he hired guys with records and students on summer break. “Why not?” He explained to the alderman. “Looks good for you. They aren’t perfect, but you got to start somewhere.” They did okay today so Jake gave them an extra hour for lunch, besides the dumpster was full and the replacement was late due to a breakdown. Now he had time to go through the vast collection of old paperbacks and magazines Ms. Hart accumulated. The basement wasn’t damp or musty smelling, but the mice had a field day, nesting material everywhere. Piles of old clothes and antique furniture lined the walls by the furnace and laundry appliances. The rumor Ms. Hart reversed mortgaged the place after her husband died was true and good for Lepty and Assoc. This made the third home on the block, but the block still had a well kept look. All the ranch style homes were fifty feet off the city property line with well maintained lawns due to neighbor’s sense of community.
Who would have thought the little old lady who was daily carrying in a six pack was a writer. There were stacks of boxes full of reference material and magazines surrounding an old oak desk with iron drawer knobs. The light on the table was straight out of a forties movie and pushed to the side an electric typewriter. Whether it worked he didn’t know, but everything he’d seen so far was handwritten in spiral notebooks. At some time was she a professional or teacher or what? He stacked a few boxes on the desk when he heard the crew return. Since they were ahead of schedule he gave them the rest of the day off. If there was something of value here he wanted first crack at it. He brushed dust and mouse droppings off one of many boxes. The contents of the first were paper clipped to copies of research with rough draft edits highlighted by a different color. The majority of the stories were less than three thousand words. Curiosity got the best of him and he pulled up an old worn black recliner and started to read. Her titles grabbed him not to mention the first few paragraphs. She was good; he was jealous, slightly. Maybe this would be the incentive he needed to conquer his writer’s block. He finished several of her twilight zone like plots and by the browning and crinkles in the paper must have been written decades ago. He opened another box for something more recent.
“Hello, Mr. Lepty.” Jake jumped to his feet. He didn’t hear the back door open. Those idiots forgot to lock it. “Mr. Lepty.” A female voice said. “Are you down there?”
“Yes, I’m here.” He hurried to the stairs. A young woman in her thirties or early forties wearing a loose shirt above her knees and a sheer blue blouse stood on the landing. She smiled and Jake tried not to stare at her beautiful thighs and legs.
“I didn’t mean to startle or interrupt you. May I come down?”
“Yeah, be careful the staircase is a bit rickety.”
When she took her first step and grasped the handrail several bracelets slid down her arms and bunched at her wrist. Four gold chains were draped around her long neck and various metal designs hung equally spaced setting on a set of large firm breast. Oversized hooped earrings enhanced her keen figures and close cut naturally curly black hair. She wasn’t cover girl pretty, but attractive with an approachable air about her attached to a curvaceous body. “It’s pretty dusty down here to put it mildly and you are?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Lepty, I’m Linda Mercer.” She stepped close to him with an inviting smile and extended her hand with brightly polished nails. “I’m Ms. Hart’s daughter.”
“Daughter?” He vaguely remembered a little girl around years ago. “Little Linnie?”
“Yes,” she giggled. “All grown up.”
That was an understatement. “Jesus it’s been that long?” That’s what happens when you stop paying attention to the neighbors, Jake. “Didn’t you have a twin brother?”
“Earl.” Her expressions changed. “He’s--.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He wanted to know what happened, but left it alone.
“That’s okay and thanks.” She perked up again. “I see you’re reading mom’s work.” She walked over and peeked in one of the boxes. “Some of this stuff is ancient. She loved to write at times and then she’d stop. I was too young and wild to pay that much attention, but I recall her passion. ‘Don’t play around in my office yall unless yall want a beatin’ she’d scream.’” Linda giggled. “We obeyed too…see anything interesting?”
He hesitated, who is she to ask? “Well not really, but I must say what I did glance at.” He smiled to himself at the lie. “Your mom was good.” Time to change the subject. “By the way did you know the mortgage company foreclosed on this property?”
“Yes, and I got all the valuable stuff out of here a while ago because of the reverse mortgage. And since you’ve read some I’ll assume you might be or have been a writer.”
“Very intuitive young lady.” It was obvious she didn’t care about foreclosure. “I’ve written a few stories nothing got accepted, but…”
“Me too, sorry to interrupt, but can I take the boxes?” Linda asked and grabbed the nearest. “I’m just starting to write. I guess my mom’s spirit hit me luckily her work is still here. I won’t need it all.”
“Technically, no. This stuff is supposed to go in the dumpster, but since I gave the crew the rest of the day off you can. I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“Cool, I’ll pull around back.”
“Ok, and if you don’t mind can I read more?”
“Yeah, fine by me.” She counted. “That’s eight, you can have the one you opened.”
“Ok.” Jake watched her go up the stairs. Somebody’s enjoying her. He stacked boxes on the dolly and maneuvered it up the stairs slowly not to strain his back. She assisted him in arranging them in the back of her black SUV. “That wasn’t so bad. They fit in spite of all the other junk.”
“Junk. Those computers look kinda new to me. You a hacker?” Jake smiled and pushed the last box to the side to leave room for whatever else she might pick up. “I’m kidding.”
“No. Minor repair and virus removal.”
“Linda, I saw a story I’d like to finish and then it’s mine, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Let’s work on one together for the hell of it and see what happens. You can teach me a thing or two, you seem like it anyway. We communicate by e-mail or call me.” Before he agreed his eyes focused on her breast. “Mr. Lepty.” She giggled.
“Oh…uh sorry. That will be fine, what’s your number?”
“So, poking around in Sherry Hart’s business gave you the idea to start writing again. And, I almost forgot her estranged daughter, Linda Mercer?” Helen Lepty questioned, while she dumped a cup of beef stew in her husband’s bowl.
“Remember she’s deceased.”
“You better not be doing that mid-life crisis thing with that young woman, Jake, your heart can’t take it.” Helen chuckled.
“Least of your worries.” He smacked her on the behind. “You got enough to keep me happy. But, seriously, Ms. Hart got great ideas. If I couple them with mine no telling what could come out of it.” He cooled a spoonful of stew and ate. “Good as usual.”
“Stop slurping, I hate that.”
“Sorry.” Telling his wife about their agreement wouldn’t be wise at this time even if she was messing with him.”
“I kind of remember what Little Linnie looked like, but she was a kid. Is she attractive like her mom or what?”
“Yeah, in a sinister kind of way. It’s probably nothing. But, her skin isn’t as smooth as yours; you don’t need or use make-up. Are you blushing?”
“No,” and she turned away.
He didn’t tell her about a few of the guys who drove back down the alley to ask to be late the next day and asked. “Who’s that slick looking female, Mr. Lepty, you better watch that one?”
“Um…you’re in your sixties, tall, distinguished looking light beard and light brown eyes. Don’t think you a player or start going to the health club more than usual.” Helen said. “Did she show you an ID?”
“ID? Helen stop it. I thought you were messing with me.”
She laughed. “I got you, but I’m going to ask the hood gossip what’s up with her. Might be some money hidden in that place.”
He shook his head. “You oughta stop it.”
“All jokes aside check anyway. We could get lucky on your last day in that place.”
“Okay, Helen.” He’d check for loose floor boards; the inspector would be in and out, then he’d scout out his next house down the street. After that business he’d get back to work on one of her outlines. Several were promising, but sharing only one with Linda would be prudent. He left her a voice message to expect an e-mail in a day or so.
Helen smiled at the thought of Jake presenting his case to Alderman Hess to accept his bid to finish cleaning out the last two houses on the block. If Jake didn’t get the contract that would affect his crew in a negative way. Those guys deserved and needed vocational training when it became available. She suppressed a sneeze and maneuvered the old feather duster her mother left her along the edges of the ceiling fan blades, entertainment center and her bridge trophies. The neighborhood bridge tournaments disappeared years ago, early deaths of a few of the shining stars and life of the party types who’d attracted many just to say they were a part. Cliques made no sense, but that’s what it became.
Helen hadn’t kept in touch with her favorite club member. Lily who claimed to be having an affair with the alderman, but she preferred the wife who was also a member of the club. If true, was it still going on? Rumors surrounded the influential like flies around honey or shit, depending on the person. But, Helen suspected whatever was said about Alderman Clay Hess was true especially after throwing a kiss at her keister which she ignored. She pushed the button on the dish washer. Chores were finished for the day.
That irritating ring tone of Jake’s shocked her. He forgot his phone on the key tray by the door to the garage. How did he do that? Lately he’d been making unusual mistakes. A senior moment as they say. She slipped his phone in her apron pocket. The urge to call Lily overwhelmed her and she hesitated to hit the speed dial. Would she be surprised, would she answer, but is she still around? Helen drummed her fingers on the kitchen counter. Three rings and no answer, one more time then she’d disconnect. “Hello, leave a message.” The recording sounded like the chipper Lily she was used too.
“Hey, Lily, it’s Helen Lepty. Give me a call back when you get a chance, bye.” Well the number was still connected; now let’s see if she calls back. Two seconds later the phone rang. “Hello.”
“Hey, Helen, how are you? Who died, is the world coming to an end? No, that ain’t it. You got a sex change.” They laughed.
“I’m fine girl, it’s good to hear your voice and you still got a sense of humor.”
“Hell, that’s all I got left. My tits droop, my ass sags, my skin is spotted and I’m old. I tried to be a cougar and couldn’t catch anything young…” They laughed forever. “So here I am being contacted by my.” She cleared her throat intentionally. “So called best friend after all this time and you better not tell me you’re sick either.”
“No, I’m not ill, I was thinking about you and the group.”
“Obviously, now for the truth.” Lily said.
“The truth? I am telling the truth, almost.” She giggled. Lily knew what was going on in the area and she wanted to know more about Ms. Hart. “Let’s get the band back together.” She got silence. “You don’t like the cliché?” Helen asked.
“No, I got it, but I’m surprised after what happened.” Ms. Hart accused them of cheating, but they turned it around and expelled her for it; it got around she had been ousted from a tournament. “Girl, that was cruel and stupid. It wasn’t worth falling out for ever we’re too old for that. But, I did go sign the book. You know I forgot she had kids.” Lily said.
“Who didn’t? You didn’t see much of them. Let’s meet somewhere.”
“Ok.” Lily agreed.
Jake’s phone chirped and vibrated. She dug in her pocket. A text message. “Lily, I’ll call you back in a few minutes.” Don’t get nosy; Helen, but she did it anyway. What was his password? She stared at the screen and nothing came to mind. If she tried too many times it would lock her out. She poured more coffee; a couple of sips later it hit her. Jake wasn’t tech savvy, keep it simple: one, two three, four. It opened. “Whoa, that simple…I’ll take it.” Now let’s see what to see, Jake. She scrolled and read. Nothing meaningful, what was the latest? Jake honey I got a few ideas. Will call you later .Linda. Helen threw the phone across the room.
Jake’s lower back continued to tighten the longer he sat. What was taking Alderman Hess so long? His attractive, home from school for the summer, who wore guy khakis and a green polo shirt secretary, said he’d be right with him. She went into his office. He could’ve sworn he heard a latch flip after the door closed. But, they wouldn’t be that stupid too add fuel to the flames of the usual rumor or myth of boss secretary relationships. Or would they? He concluded they were when the door opened a half hour later. “Alderman Hess will see you now.” She stepped aside. The room was musty and Jake gave her a disgusted glance that she avoided when she walked out. Jake found Hess’s Dumbo like ears amusing. He was taller with narrow sloped shoulders and thin patches of silver hair combed over. Hess sat at his desk full of loose papers and files that had been pushed to the side with pens and pencils on the floor. His office was typical; shelves full of books he’d never read, various sculptures, painting on the walls and a computer. He turned in his high back leather chair.
“I like that tie, Clay.” The alderman quickly straightened it and shifted it upward.
“Uh, thanks, Lepty.”
“Open a window it’s stuffy in here.” Hess turned embarrassed red. “Anyway, I thought I’d drop by to check on my bid to finish the contract. I’m somewhat impulsive for my age, but nobody’s perfect and my crew needs the work.” Jake pulled up one of the politician’s fancy old leather chairs. “This is nice, I admire your good taste. I’ll make it short, Clay.” Hess rolled his eyes upward. “Let me guess. You want it all, right?”
“No, the contract for what’s on the two blocks just like the bid says. I don’t want or need the drama if you follow me.” It wouldn’t surprise him if the place was bugged by whoever as crooked as Hess was. “OK?”
“Deal.” They shook and Hess shuffled through the papers and folders. “Where are those papers? Here they are.” He signed and walked over to the printer. He forgot his fly was open. No fool like an old fool. “Here you go, Jake and have a good day.”
“You too.” He could’ve done without the handshake and pat on the back, but Hess was a politician. He couldn’t wait to tell Helen and his crew. He reached in his pocket. No phone. All this time and he hadn’t thought about it. He back tracked to the office. He looked in the car for places he knew it wouldn’t be just in case. Was he having a senior moment or moments? No. It had to be on the table. Damn, how’d he do that? He tried to calm down, but the tightness in his chest persisted. Acid reflux or gas…it had to be. That’s what he got for going to see that asshole, but it was worth it.
“At first I couldn’t believe it. How bold could you get, but when nature calls what can you do? I guess you should’ve been there. You got that look of disbelief on your face, beautiful.” Jake smiled and lifted his bottle of beer skyward. “To my brilliance and the Lord’s grace.” He gulped down half the bottle. “You haven’t said anything are you alright?”
Helen nodded. “Of course, maybe they’re working on a kid.” She giggled.
“A kid! His wife would ruin him. Hell hath no fury.” He picked up his phone. “Thanks for finding this thing I almost panicked.” He scrolled through the messages and calls. “Well surprise at that one.”He whispered.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, nothing. You want to go out for lunch, dinner or whatever? This calls for a celebration.”
Helen shrugged. “I guess why not?” She went and sat at the table.
Something wasn’t right with his wife. It made him feel funny like something crawled in his gut. Every time that happened the bullshit followed. Ignore it, every things fine, Jake, just fine.
“I’m going to get out of this suit into something more suitable for a celebration, khakis and shirt, be right back.” He dashed past the stair lift. It was a good day when his arthritis hadn’t bothered him. He sent Linda a text: I’ll be in touch later. And don’t call me honey!!! A woman that fine calling him honey gave him thoughts he didn’t need to entertain. What ideas did she have, if any? He wouldn’t share his best; he was smart enough not to trust a stranger, but he’d keep his word and share something.
The dinner and movie were excellent for once usually it’s one or the other. Helen was tired and went to bed, but he decided to get on the computer and do a chapter or two of editing. Linda sent another text: Sorry meant no harm. He shook the fantasy of her cleavage and smiled at his creativity and got to work.
Helen considered herself a wise old woman who didn’t let her imagination run away with her, but didn’t ignore her gut either. Was Jake in a midlife crisis at sixty? Who does that? It didn’t make any sense; he was years past the age for that foolishness and it took a lot of energy, but what he had left he used to chase after her.
They were happy, but check it out anyway, Helen.
The entire week Jake was full of enthusiasm writing and working with his crew on the two abandoned residences. Why complain he looked good especially when he finished a story? Be thankful, but she checked his phone anyway. Nothing. She added two extra drops of creamer to her coffee. She recalled the accusations that were reversed on Hart; they felt she was common. Ms. Hart told them to kiss her ass. Then it really hit the fan, Lily showed an interest in Ms. Hart. She liked big boned women with a heavy chest. The feelings weren’t mutual. Lily didn’t like rejection and before Hart could say Lily was a lesbian she stuck first, again. Ms. Hart confronted her about a lie going around. She denied it and told her not to worry. Certain people can shake off rumors and lies and others don’t. Their reputations mean everything. Did she tell her kids about it or what? Little Linnie came back for revenge. Now her imagination was on the rampage. Forget that crap. She opened the paper and drank her coffee.
Jake told the crew to wrap it up for the day because they were ahead of schedule. Once they all signed their timesheets and left he opened his briefcase and got to work on the final edit of the combined work of Linda Mercer and Jake Lepty. He got a bottle of water out the cooler and sat by an open window to enjoy the late afternoon breeze. He felt good about this story, and as far as he was concerned it was his; he edited most of Linda’s work out. He replaced the water and decided on a beer. He pushed his fingers through the icy water and grabbed one. He drank and worked. To his surprise Linda pulled in the alley and honked. He waved and she parked as close to the fence as possible. Her sexy walk mesmerized him; bare legged in a skirt that blew between her legs revealing the shape of her thighs. She waved and stepped around the dumpster and debris left on the staircase into the nearly empty room. “Wow, you guys have been busy.”
“Yes, we have.”
“How are you? Surprise, I started to call, but since I was in the area I stopped by instead.” She hugged him tight. He smelled the humidity on her flawless skin. He nibbled on her neck and then her lips. He tried to lift her skirt. She moved his hands and broke away. “No, Jake I can’t.”
“I’m so sorry, Linda.” He backed up. “I couldn’t help it, forgive me.” He felt like a fool. Why would she consider an old timer like himself? Dammit, he shouldn’t have drunk that beer. Every time he drank he did something impulsive and stupid. If she loses respect for you don’t be surprised. You’re supposed to be a mentor, Jake. She had the silliest grin on her face. What was that all about?
She laughed. “Oh my God, you should see the look on your face.” She found a chair and continued to laugh. “Don’t be embarrassed, I understand.”
“Yeah, I do. Younger woman…older man, it happens all the time. We’ll see what happens, but in the mean time how’s the final edit?” She dug in the cooler and got a beer. “Do you mind?”
“No, no go ahead.” Jake said, still embarrassed, but pleased by her saying ‘we’ll see what happens’.”
“That’s a nice breeze.” Linda said, crossed her legs and paged through the manuscript. “More pages then I thought.”
Jake calmed his lust as time went by. “Well what do you think? That is our one and only masterpiece.”
“Good, I like it and anything from this we split, right?”
“Mom put together some excellent material. I’ll mention her in the book credits or whatever it’s called. Will you do the same?” She closed the manuscript stood up and adjusted her skirt.
“Maybe. There were notes that didn’t match up or make sense.” If she gets offended so what, she needed help, but would she accept or ignore his advice? Hopefully he’d give it to her in a hotel room. His eyes shifted to her breast and her hips. “I expect to hear from you soon, but this day’s over, I’ll see you later.” He escorted her to her car when she got in she intentionally pushed her skirt higher than usual up her thighs. “Take care, honey.” She sped down the alley way to fast. If he didn’t hear from her in two days it was a “no go.”
Helen stood in front of the full length bathroom mirror and wiped it clear. She dried her short blondish hair and laughed at the joke Lily made about her drooping tits. She had similar problems, but with good legs. But, she wasn’t going to let a thirty something make a fool of her man. “Men are weak” her mom taught her, but if you get a good one try to overlook a slip or two. “They can’t help it.” She wasn’t perfect and avoided thoughts of her own indiscretions. She dabbed her double D’s dry taking pride in the hard work that went into maintaining a flat tummy that Jake appreciated. She wrapped towel around her and noticed Jake rubbing his chest. “What’s wrong?”
“Heart burn, third time this week.” He rolled over. “I love that towel.”
“Thanks. That heartburn’s from peppers on that Italian beef and for waiting to tell you made a deal with Linda to write a story.” She climbed in and massaged his chest and gut. “It’ll go away after I finish. Since it was an acceptance with no money what will she do move on or what?”
Jake moved her hand. “Thanks that feels better. She’ll move on and work on her mom’s other stuff and I’ll do the same. We aren’t partners or anything.”
“If you say so.” She still didn’t like his association with Linda whether he was interested or not. If Jake got a drink in him he was prone to impulse. “Wash up, I’ll go fix breakfast.”
“Pass the salt and pepper.” He sprinkled too much.
“Too much sodium, Mr. Lepty. You know I got in touch with a few of the old club.”
“Oh yeah, and how’s Lily? She’s too crazy to be dead.”
“Ok.” Surprised he asked, she sipped her coffee. “We were talking about Sherry Hart or Ms. Hart and her twins.”
“You all did the neighborhood gossip, so what’s happening?”
“Long story short Little Linnie moved away, but unfortunately she was killed in a fire in California.” Helen said.
“Her twin who had female attributes took her place.”
“You are lying! What…what have you and Lily cooked up now? You know what you’re saying? Wait a minute let me get this right. That sounds like something out of the movies. Are you saying Linda’s a man?”
Helen shrugged. “Could be, you never know. What do you think?” It was working the look of dismay on his face said it all. “Things are crazy nowadays with all this high tech in some cases you can hardly tell one from the other. Transsexual, transgender, gay marriage and the digital age. They even got gay cartoon characters.”
“I don’t know what to say, what do you say? She…he is part of the, what do you call them community?”
“LGBT and some say LGBT and Q.” She answered. Now he was getting political. Jake was old school keep it in the closet behind closed doors, cross dressing and all that other stuff was a bad influence on the children. Same sex couples adopting kid was criminal and ungodly. Change the subject and let the lie fester. “Want more food?”
“No, I’m finished…I’m going to my office and get some work done.”
Jake couldn’t type and pecking away at the keyboard tired him. Dredding the goal of at least three pages into the system daily, he soldiered on trying not to give Helen’s theory, or lie, a second thought. But, it came back.
Linda’s a man!
Ridiculous, he’d been in the city all his life and he had street smarts. He could tell a man from a woman. This needed analysis. He slammed the laptop cover. Helen was playing mind games.
Yes, Linda was tall and solid.
She didn’t have large bones and knees, but she did have an Adam’s apple.
She had no five o’clock shadow.
She didn’t have a she male voice.
She wasn’t overly feminine.
He’d never seen her naked, but she wouldn’t let his hand under her skirt. That didn’t mean she had a prick.
What if she did? You been kissing and hugging a guy. The thought turned his stomach. It’s best to leave it alone. He’d probably never hear from her again. How often would a guy his age get a shot at a female that fine? Maybe never without paying a big price.
Had that rumor spread in the hood? That damn Lily ran her mouth all the time. A couple of guys in his crew lived on the block. Had they heard the rumor? That could affect the business. Screw them and everybody else. It was a lie and he’d prove it. He sent her a text: Meet me at the same place after 5 pm. He’d be the only one there and it would be settled.
Linda caught Jake by surprise when she gently pushed him against the wall and her long tongue explored his mouth. They bumped and grinded like teenagers, but every time he tried to get between her legs she caught his hand. “Not yet, not here, I got a big surprise for you, honey.” What kind of big surprise? Was Helen right or what? He stopped nibbling on her neck and looked deep into her eyes. “How are we going to do this your place or a hotel?”
“My place, my roommate’s gone until tomorrow.” She kissed him and buttoned her blouse. “You Ok?” He nodded. “I’ll send you a text with the address it’s not far. See you soon.”
“Wait a minute.” He pulled her to him, cupped her behind. The more he squeezed the harder she moaned. Her hand intercepted his every time he went for her crotch. A hard squeeze of disapproval convinced him something wasn’t right. He broke it off. “You know what, Linda maybe we should wait.”
“I wasn’t planning on doing it on a workbench, of course we wait?” She rubbed his face. “I’ll text you.” She hurried around storage equipment to the exit.
Twenty minutes and two beers later Jake got the message: 925 Harlan Ave. Apt. 2. Was Helen right? Earlier one of the guys who had a feminine air about him asked, “What happened to that big butt guy, I mean girl that came through on the last job, Mr. Lepty?” He said he didn’t know and he told them before that was the deceased owner’s daughter who came for a last look at the place. Whether they believed him didn’t matter, at least not yet anyway. Who knows what those guys who’d been in jail were thinking. If he went over Linda’s and found out she was a he, he’d shoot her…him. He wasn’t penitentiary material. He struggled to make the right decision and finally ignored several texts and went home.
The Lepty’s raised the crystal champagne glasses and toasted to the success of Author Jacob Lepty. The gentle breeze on the balcony of their suite rekindled romantic moments that they hadn’t experienced in a long time. The huge ship was a day out of the Bahamas, a destination Jake dreamed of his entire adult life. “The Love Boat” they jokingly called it. But, he spent two hours a day, at least, writing the sequel, in a three book deal. Who would’ve thought that six months after the Hart foreclosure and the discovery of her writings would cure his writer’s block and give birth to his novel? He told friends and family, but using a pen name made them not believe it. Why lie? He wasn’t trying to impress anybody? Envy, that had to be it. That’s a shame, share an accomplishment and you’re bragging. But, he cashed the checks. A knock on the door ended those thoughts and the young female waiter wheeled in dinner. “Helen dinner is here.”
He tipped the boy and uncovered the plate. “Filet mignons medium well, looks good to me.”
“Me too.” They dug in, both were starving.
“I’ve been thinking when I finish book two let’s sell the house and move to Vegas where it’s nice and warm.”
“Warm? You mean hot.” Helen said.
“Ok, hot. The heat will help with the arthritis.” He rubbed his elbows.
“I guess, but we’ll leave all our friends and family.”
“That’s another reason far as I’m concerned. They can visit us instead of gambling, not that they can’t do that at home, but you know what I mean.”
She nodded. “I’ll think about it, but for now let’s enjoy this vacation.”
“I still want you to get away from that gossip machine, Lily. That grin tells me something, let me guess.” Jake mimicked the Jeopardy show jingle. “I got it you’re the head gossip.”
Helen laughed. “No, no I’m not.”
“Yeah you are, but I still love you. And, now back to our vacation.” A text popped on his phone. Linda, what the hell does she want?
“We agreed to ignore those things.”
“Sorry, force of habit.”
They lay on the sofa exhausted from all the day’s activities. Helen started to snore and he grabbed his phone and read Linda’s text: How are you? I love the way you stood me up.
Sorry, but it was better that way I’ve had my day. It’s best I enjoy my old age like someone with sense. Jake smiled at his sleeping beauty and prayed she didn’t wake up.
Congrats on the novel. I’ll get to the point; it was my mom’s work.
No it wasn’t. Remember our deal?
No, but we did a short story together.
And that’s all. What was she up to? Somebody else was with her. How’s the computer business? He got nothing back for an hour.
We shared thoughts and I’m writing a book and plan to self publish a collection of short stories. You promised to mentor me. Remember?
No and no, I can’t, God bless you and your endeavor. She must think he’s stupid. The publisher’s legal departments told him don’t be surprised. The world is full of parasites. Tons of people have the same ideas, it’s who gets it out there first that counts. Back to his vacation, his curiosity was satisfied.
Helen powered up her late husband’s desk top. Neither one of them suspected Jake’s heart burn nor occasional chest pain was heart disease. What was supposed to be a routine by pass turned into complications that took his life? He’d almost completed the third novel and told Helen where to find the outline if he didn’t make it. The password was one of the last things he shared with her. She thought nothing of it, but now here she was. She knew writing was complicated and required patience and a lot of love to offset rejection. Organizing his notes and info took enough of the loneliness and grief away for her to make it. She told the kids to go back to their lives, “I got this.” They disagreed, but agreed.
She hadn’t seen Lily or any club members since the funeral. Lily seemed happy accompanied by a couple of attractive young women. The tall one reminded her of someone Jake described. Maybe she was Alderman Hess’s secretary or Ms. Hart’s daughter? She got to work, finished a chapter and decided to reach out to the club.
“Where you been hiding, Lily. I’ve called you a thousand times?”
“I thought that now your hubby is, was a famous author, you might not have time for us little people. Lucky you, or blessed you, for the religious types that have a spouse.”
“You’re kidding right?” Helen didn’t like the sarcasm or whatever it was. What was that all about? Envy, jealousy. Lily didn’t want a husband. She was still promiscuous and enjoyed as many sex partners as possible, even though she complained about not having anyone. Disgusting behavior for her age.
“No, but anyway since we talked about the old club I bumped into Sharon Hess…”
Helen giggled. “Bet that was interesting.”
“As I was saying, trying to say anyway.” Lily snapped.
“Sorry.” Why was she being short with her?
“It was awhile ago and she introduced me to Ms. Hart’s daughter, Linda. I was impressed by her wit and determination. She’s quite a talented writer too and she said she met Jake.”
Where was she going with this? “Oh, I remember him mentioning her jokingly.” Helen came up with the theory Linda was a transsexual or she male. One day you see Earl Hart and the next Linda pops up. It was a lie and other crazy stuff they made up over a bottle of scotch. She didn’t mention to anyone that she was going to use it to keep, if possible, Jake in check. He told her about that one story that got published. One thing about Jake he didn’t share his ideas with anyone not even her. Every now and then he’d read aloud portions of a story.
“You forgot, obviously. And, if I know you, you did a hand on inspection, concerning our theory right?” Silence.
“Linda she deserves credit and if you think about it, it was her mom’s idea. Jake took advantage of her being a novice.”
“Prove it.” Helen raised her voice louder then she liked, but the bitch was lying. Whatever Jake found in Ms. Hart’s house had nothing to do with his two novels. But, Linda didn’t know that, obviously she hadn’t read them. “Put her on the phone, she’s lying.”
“She isn’t here I’m just saying.”
“That your wife or husband now?”
“What if she is? It ain’t your business, besides Linda’s good to me and for me. If she says he stole the ideas I believe her.”
What happened, Lily? We were friends.” Helen asked, trying not to sounds hurt.
“I got old this is my last chance to be happy and settle down.”
“With a thirty something? Good luck with that. Well, I’m just saying whatever her…your plan is, it isn’t going to work. When this crap fails she’ll drop you like a hot potato leaving you with a broken heart and minus a good friend. Don’t call me to cry on my shoulder. You and her lawyers know where to find me. You should know the publishers know what they are doing. See you in court, but first answer a question?”
“And what is that, Helen?” Lily spat the question in the phone. “Is she or isn’t she, big or small. You can tell me.” Silence. “Hello…hello.”
Helen positioned her walker carefully with every step up the slight incline to Jake’s grave site. He insisted she not spend too much on his funeral. She agreed, but purchased the plot next to him. She placed the flowers just right and planned on protecting her husband’s legacy no matter what and finishing the book would do that. And, it would introduce a new writer on the scene, Helen Lepty. “Don’t worry; Jake that parasite can try whatever she likes. I got your back. They don’t know who they’re messing with.”
Bill Butler was born and raised in Manhattan. He eventually relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor. After years of helping persons with a disability become gainfully employed he decided to write. Eight of his short stories have been published.
“I’ll take wine with ice.” Margo plopped down on the couch.
Surprised, I asked, “Ice?”
“I like it that way.”
“Me too,” I lied, trying to mirror her. With two glasses of pink wine in my hands, I sat with our thighs almost touching.
The scent of coconut sunscreen wafting from her warm skin reminded me of a long-ago afternoon on an empty beach. A steady breeze blew out to sea, perfect to fly my red kite. I was a lonely child connected to the wind by a tugging string. In those days, before everything changed, splashing waves were music. The ocean pulled as the hissing surf receded, sucking moisture from the sand.
“Come back,” the sea whispered. “I will carry you under and out. Relax, let it happen. Transform in the cool green darkness, become part of everything again.”
Standing on wet sand, flowing water tugged at my ankles. I resisted the invitation.
“I will always be here for you,” it whispered.
Even now the gentle spring breeze made promises it would never keep.
Margo touched my forearm. “Where were you just now?”
I looked into her soft brown eyes and for a moment saw it. “Your sunscreen reminds me of something.”
Her smile wrinkled the corners of her cheeks. “Something good?”
I set my glass down on the wood coffee table.
Joshua Lawson lives in Richmond, VA. He has previously been published on the literary blog Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk and has stories set to appear in upcoming issues of Badlands and The Broadkill Review.
You Earn it in the Epilogue
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said.
No one had asked.
Save myself, there was no one to ask, and I couldn’t talk through the sobs and the snot running down my face.
“I don’t know,” she said. She’d said more, she’d stared into my eyes, into my brain, into my heart, her words more like gravity than sound. Then her eyes widened, looked through me, and she didn’t know, and she left.
Even then I could tell when she passed, could tell when I had stopped holding onto a human and started holding on to a thing. She was limp, and heavy, and dead. Dead like so many bad guys strewn across the wet kitchen. They were more than just bad guys, or at least, in the years to come they would steadily gain nuance in retrospect, but then, kneeling on the white tiles slick with water and blood, with my mom’s dead skull in my lap, the raining emergency sprinklers never letting up, they were just the bad guys she’d killed to save me.
Just before she died she’d become death. She’d morphed into some sort of terrible, gnashing mouth with Swiss Army Knives for teeth. Blades of all manner were heaved and thrown about, pots and pans and meat tenderizers concussed one assailant after another, the gas stove ignited and turned one man into a flaming shadow. Always she would make her way back to me in the corner, the home base she was protecting, before fanning out again to unleash unspeakable hells. Eventually they were all bled-out, beaten and burned, dead on the wet floor. Then, as if on cue with the passing of the last of them, she stumbled and fell.
Her hair was darker and it clung to her neck and her face in thick wet streaks. Every picture I see of her now, her hair light and flowing, seems strange, fake, posed. In that kitchen, that was her. That was real. The light, flowing hair in pictures makes her feel all the more gone.
It hadn’t started in the kitchen of an Asian fusion restaurant. There was a nightclub and a parking garage, even an aquarium along the way. I either watched or heard my mother kill a lot of people that day, but she hadn’t done it all her own. We’d left Burt in a dumpster a few blocks away in some dead end alley. He’d taken one to the belly. My mother swore she wouldn’t leave and he insisted she do just that. They compromised, and he wound up in the garbage, her promising him and me she’d be back for him in no time.
I still remember, nestled into my mother’s neck, peeking out as she closed the lid on him. His hands were wet on his stomach and he smiled and I still remember thinking “I don’t get it.”
Twenty years later. UNKNOWN NAME. UNKNOWN NUMBER. A servant to curiosity, I picked up.
“Champ! What’s the good word?”
“Champ.” He said it over the phone two decades down the line with the same perplexing vigor and charm he’d managed to muster from his damp gut as a dumpster lid closed on him.
“Burt! Where you been man? I haven’t heard from you in forever.”
“I’ll be back stateside in a few weeks. Gonna be passing through your neck of the woods. Show a debonair charmer you peasants’ excuse for a dinner?”
“Few weeks? Yeah, yeah I’m sure I can scrape something off the road by then.”
It wasn’t rare to go years without seeing Burt.
I was overwhelmed. That first time, after. The last thing I remembered was ascertaining that the men coming into the room did have guns, but they weren’t going to hurt me. When I woke up I was dry and clean, in a hospital room as white and fluorescent as the kitchen had started out, but softer. I asked a nurse if I was in heaven. I wasn’t. Then I remembered my mother. It took much longer to remember her grizzled associate. The man who took a shotgun blast for us. For me. The man we left in a dumpster. It took so long to remember, in fact, that it was not until he wheeled his way into my room, bright-eyed and brave-faced, that I thought of him. I was so happy he was alive and so ashamed that I’d forgotten him. I was overwhelmed and I burst.
He hoisted himself out of his chair, arms shaking, and onto my bed. He hugged me and didn’t say a word and eventually I calmed down.
I hadn’t seen Burt since a month or so before graduating high school. We emailed sporadically throughout my college years, usually talking on the phone a few weeks too late for each other’s birthdays or Christmas.
We met at a diner about five minutes from my place, which had become a regular watering hole due to no better reasons than proximity and the neon sign depicting an alligator snapping its jaws. Burt had never been one to dillydally – apparently when they’d found him in that dumpster he was fashioning a spear out of a mop and a CD – and that hadn’t changed with age. I’d given him the address to my bachelor pad, a first floor loft with a view of a brick wall, but about half an hour before he was set to arrive he requested we cut out the middle man and meet at the restaurant.
When I laid eyes on the man again his salt-and-pepper stubble and locks had gone white. With his sunglasses and battered, unbuttoned dress shirt he cut the image of Santa Claus’ severe older brother. But beneath the smooth, snowy hair and beard he was still there, in the eyes and in the smile. He was still trim and sturdy and he held himself with a poise that suggested an athleticism beyond my own.
“How you doing, bachelor?” he chuckled, wrapping me in a hug and handing me a card for the nearly year-old occasion of my college graduation.
“I’m great man, it’s great to see you.”
“Great to see you too, kid. Guess I can’t call you that no more. Jesus, is that five o’ clock shadow?”
“Damn straight. And it only took me three days to grow.”
“Ha!” That was Burt’s laugh. Never plural, never in waves, always a single, sharp, staccato roar. “Atta boy. C’mon let’s eat.”
“Hell yeah. This place is great. Did you see the alligator?”
The door jingled, announcing our long-awaited reunion to the wait staff. Across the diner an older woman with bushy gray hair told us to sit where we like. Burt made his way to the booth furthest from the entrance and sunk into the side facing the front door.
“What’s good?” he asked. “Filet mignon? Prime rib? You’re buying, yeah? Maybe I’ll try both.”
“Go for it,” I replied, genuine in my offer, but knowing all-to-well that at some point toward the end of the meal I would use the bathroom, and he would take care of the check then insist upon my return that the meal must have been on the house because of how handsome he was. Nevertheless I had my card at the ready.
“How you doing, sweetheart?” the gray-haired woman asked, undoubtedly recognizing me from my weekly appearances.
“I’m great ma’am, how are you?”
“Hey, another day,” she trailed off at the end of the statement, as she always did. “Now who’s your friend?” she asked.
“Ma’am, this geezer is family,” I replied, before Burt could answer. “Like all the best parts of a dead beat dad and a creepy uncle rolled into one.”
“Ha!” Burt chimed in. “That’s right ma’am. This ugly little boy is like my redheaded stepchild, my greedy nephew and my proctologist all in one. Kin to me.”
“Good lord,” I rolled my eyes.
Burt ordered a coffee with cream and I got a water, both of which arrived promptly. True to form Burt wasted no time making his selection from the menu, some elaborate burger and a salad. I went with my usual favorite, the country fried steak with mashed potatoes, and we were off to the races.
“So how’s life kid? You running around with anybody special these days?”
“Every now again,” I smirked, the slightest bit nervous as to how much detail he would ask me to go into.
“I always knew you’d grow up to be a scoundrel,” he smirked, with something like pride. “Not up to anything too crazy I hope.”
“Just crazy enough.”
“Good, good. That’s what I like to hear. Don’t go settling down on me just yet, eh? You might not be a kid anymore, but you ain’t no old-timer just yet.”
“You don’t have to tell me gramps,” I laughed. “Where you off to next?”
“Shoot, I got a few options. Think I’m done in the Mideast for now. Might take one of these gigs bullying bears for tourists and miners and shit up in Alaska. Got a buddy been up there for a while, can get me squared away.”
“One of these days you’re gonna tell me you’re retiring. One of these days we’re gonna sit down to dinner and you’re gonna ask to live in my attic. Bullying bears. Good lord, man. When you gonna chill out?”
“It’ll happen. It’ll happen,” he said with a quick exhale, like a muted laugh. “It’ll happen. Give it time.”
“I mean, look, you wanna work yourself to death, go for it. Just more money for me to inherit, right?”
“Ha! Scoundrel. Nothing but a scoundrel.”
I laughed back. Often conversation with Burt amounted to a sort of dark one-upmanship that felt like poking around a minefield. A laugh from Burt, despite its explosiveness, was a sure sign you hadn’t hit anything actually explosive just yet. Over the course of our friendship my luck had proven absolute thus far. Burt’s not so much, a result of that perfect storm of my hitting puberty and his making a joke regarding my virginity.
“And how’s your work going? Goddamn, can hardly believe I’m asking the kid about work. Time flies.”
“It’s good, it’s good. It’s fine. Pays pretty well. Good bachelor gig. Nothing I can’t leave at the office.”
“Yeah?” he leaned back in his seat, eyes flickering to the door for the briefest moment.
“Yeah. The people there are nice. They don’t treat me like a kid. Half of them think I have kids already. Sometimes I lie and say I do. Pretty conservative bunch though, honestly. Kind of people you spend college making fun of. Kind of people you sort of write off as the problem. They aren’t so bad. I mean, some of the shit they say is so, so dumb. But they’re good folks I think. I mean I feel like they’re definitely the problem, but, like, not on purpose.”
“So you’re doing what now? Computers, yeah? Cybersecurity or something?”
“Data entry. Not nearly as exciting. But yeah, basically computers. A lot of sitting, a lot of staring at a monitor. I don’t know. Sometimes I think about, if I were an alien or something, if I were observing me from the outside, right, and was just making note of the verb I was doing? Like, the external, calorically-fueled action that took up my workday? It’d just be staring and typing and sitting. But I guess there’s a lot of stuff like that. Like you drive across the country, but the only thing you actually, physically do is move an ankle a bit and turn your wrists from side to side. I don’t know. I have a lot of time to think now.”
“Hm. So, data entry?”
“Yeah. They kind of give us the raw data and then we put it into a specific format based on, you know, rules and stuff.”
“Sounds pretty dull, kid.”
“Oh yeah. Very dull. A lot of down time. I do a lot of listening to podcasts and zoning out.”
“Like, internet radio shows? But there’s thousands of them. And you can listen to them whenever you want. Honestly they’ve been really great. I feel like I kinda get to keep my education going with some of them. There’s this really good history one. And there’s one that’s just about a different random thing every week where they research the hell out of it and kinda provide background. It’s cool. A lot of really interesting stuff in the world. I bet there’s some you’d really dig. And you don’t have to have an actual radio, just internet, so you could listen to any of them wherever you are.”
“So you floating your résumé out there at all? Looking for something a little more your speed?”
“Yeah, I have to update it with the stuff from the new gig.”
“You need any help, or you need a lead on something different, maybe something that involves some standing up, you know I can give you a hand. Ain’t no need for you to be wasting away behind a desk if you aren’t happy. Say the word I’ll have you out there with me, beating the shit out of grizzlies.”
“I think we both know I would get eaten alive. Not even by a bear. I’d probably be killed by a beaver or something.”
“Ha! Kid, you’re tougher than you let on. We both know that.”
For a second - the kitchen. The bad guys.
Burt cleared his throat and leaned forward, pulling his mug toward his chest “But it don’t have to be Alaska or nothing. Just, you know, I know a lot of folks. Your old man gets around. I’d be happy to help.”
“You do get around,” I muttered. “I know, I know. Thanks Burt. I’m not looking for a new gig just yet, but if I need your help I’ll definitely let you know.”
“You ain’t even looking?”
“Nah, man. Not yet.”
“Hm. Alright, alright,” he glanced at the door again, sipped at his coffee. “So the rental has one of them crazy ass backup cameras on it. Seriously, crazy shit. You gotta come check it out when we’re done here. Maybe try it out. Changes everything. Real distracting. Feel like I’m more likely to back into something now.”
“Oh yeah, some of my coworkers have them. It’s weird. Living in the future.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you gotta give that thing a whirl.”
The waitress returned and topped Burt’s coffee off. He looked to the door, giving me nothing. I realized I’d done a lot of talking and lobbed a question his way.
“So, any new illegitimate kids from this last excursion?” I asked.
“Dozens,” he smirked. “Let me tell you, if I could round them all up, I’d have a football team. And not just the starting line-up. I’m talking third, fourth string.”
A canned line. The line I knew I’d get in response to the question he knew I’d ask. Burt had never married. Never had any kids. There were various significant other shaped holes in the story I knew of his life, but I’d never pressed him too hard on it. And there was one giant pit in the narrative that was Burt. A pit in the shape of my mom that I couldn’t bring myself to consider for more than a moment because it said too much.
“None quite as charming as me, I’m sure.”
“Don’t get cocky, kid.”
“I learned it from you!” I shook my fists in feigned defiance, almost knocking the country fried steak the waitress had begun to wordlessly deliver. “Oh gosh, sorry ma’am.”
“Not a problem,” she chuckled.
Wasting no time, Burt dove into his plate the moment the waitress’ hand let it go. Just into my late twenties I could already sense my metabolism maturing in ways that seemed to still somehow elude Burt’s. There was no stopping him. His fork would be refueled and back at his lips before he’d even swallowed the last bite, like some sort of raggedy perpetual motion device. I waited for him to talk, to ask more questions, but he was ravenous.
“Good?” I inquired.
“Mm,” he confirmed, mouth full, eyebrows raised in punctuation. “Mm?” he repeated, eyebrows lowered now, his loaded fork motioning at my plate.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, so, so unhealthy, but damn do I love the fried steak here. I mean it’s steak, and it’s fried, so I only get it like once a week. Twice if I’m hungover Sunday morning.”
“You working out?” he asked, a hand over his gnashing teeth.
“Yeah there’s this rinky-dink gym in my building with a few treadmills, so I’ll usually run on one of those for twenty minutes a few times a week.” He glanced at my plate, but it felt like he was peering through the table at my stomach, assessing the legitimacy of my claim.
“What do you do to work out when you’re, you know, siring about the globe?”
That quick chortle again, like a muffled cough.
“I don’t know, nothing special. Living, you know,” he took a bite. “Doing the gig. A lot of walking. A lot of carrying shit around. Nothing special.” Another bite. I realized he was putting me to shame and followed suit. We ate in silence for a time.
When he finished his plate he went to the bathroom. Excited beyond belief I bolted over to the waitress with my card and had her run it through in a hurry that proved unnecessary, as the old man took his sweet time. By the time he returned I’d finished paying and eating. Now I just had to hold off on going to the bathroom long enough for him to squirm and figure it out.
“Oomph,” he grunted, collapsing exaggeratedly back into the booth. “Now that’s eating.”
“Glad you dug it. Definitely my favorite place around here.”
“Yeah? Just cause the steak?”
“I mean, whatever you get here is always good, and it’s super close to my place, so I can just walk over anytime. They’re open pretty late too, so that’s nice. If I’m bored on Friday night or something I can swing in for a bite.”
“Gotcha. Well kid, you ready to move along?”
“Let’s do it,” I replied eagerly.
He waved at the waitress and mouthed “check,” to which she gave the thumbs up and hollered “you’re good to go sweetheart.”
“Ha!” I stood up in my seat and pointed in his face. “Ha! You’re losing your edge old man! Who’s the handsome one now?”
He shook his head, defeated, rolled his eyes and groaned.
“Well done, kid. Well done.” It was a terse, unsportsmanlike admission of defeat. Less than I’d hoped for. “C’mon give this backup camera a look.”
“…alright,” I said, unable to mask my disappointment. I waved goodbye to the waitress and followed Burt out the door. Outside the restaurant he flung his keys at me over his shoulder with a nonchalance I couldn’t quite replicate, my fumbling hands just stopping them from clanging onto the ground, much to the entertainment of any patrons peering out the window.
“I’m telling you kid, it’s a whole new world, these backup cameras. Just the beginning. Mark my words, your grandkids will never learn how to drive a car. It’ll change everything.” The shape-of-things-to-come in question proved to be an exceptionally mundane four-door sedan in exceptionally mundane gray. He climbed into the passenger’s seat and closed the door. Inside I inched the seat back and fiddled with the mirrors before turning the car on. The speakers sung the round, bouncing tones of 90s hip-hop for a moment, before Burt hit the power on the stereo, then his hand raced mine to the gearshift, holding the car in park.
“I checked the parking break,” I assured him, rolling my eyes as I flashed back to a particularly ill-conceived early driving lesson in a robust truck.
“We gotta talk,” he said, looking me in the eyes with as much fatherly authority as the man could muster. “And I ain’t trying to bring these vibes to your place.”
“Are you okay?” I asked, getting the words out just before being gripped by an unexpected sense of panic. I looked at his white hair, his white beard, the lines under his eyes.
He looked out the windshield, headlights breezed by in either direction in front of us. Across the street folks filtered in and out of a convenience store.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what are you doing? Here? This job you have? This sitting and staring you’re doing all day every day? What are you doing?”
“What the hell? I’m working. I’m living. I don’t know. What the hell?”
“Are you happy? Is this stuff, is it stuff you like?”
“It isn’t stuff I hate.”
“Look. I love you. You know that. I love you. I’m proud of you finishing up school. I’m proud of how funny you are and how fun you are. I’m proud of this adult you’ve become.” He looked me in the eyes, but his pupils waivered sporadically, almost sheepishly. “But I feel like you’re doing nothing, and I’m not going to watch you do nothing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re being modest about what you do. But I’m worried. I’m worried about you. And I love you. And so I’m asking you, as someone who loves you, what are you doing?”
“What?” I found myself confused and relieved and annoyed. “What the hell? I mean I’m sure as shit not doing nothing.”
“Are you, I don’t know, contributing? To the world? To something? I mean don’t sell yourself short here. You’ve been through the ringer. You’re smart. You’re educated. Those aren’t things that are just inherent. You are somebody. I know it. You know it. You’re somebody, and you can do something. And I kind of feel like you’re not. You’re just sitting. Staring. You’re just… not.”
“What do you want me to be doing? Curing cancer? I’m not a doctor. What do you think I can be doing? You have any idea how many people I work with? What about all them? Are they just doing nothing?”
“Yes. Yes. They’re all nobodies doing nothing and they’ve probably been doing nothing for twenty years. They’re old and they’re done. Not you. I hear you talk about your job and you sound like a fifty-year-old. You sound like someone at a bar in a sitcom for Christ’s sake.”
“It’s a good job. It pays well.”
“And that’s how they’ll get you. That is how they will get you kid. They’ll give you just enough. And I will not let them reel you in. I will not let you sit and stare until all your potential dries up inside of you.”
“Man, what the hell do you want from me? What, you want me to be a firefighter or a cop or some shit? You want me to travel around the world with a gun? You want me to serve?”
“You’re goddamn right I want you to serve.”
“When in your time with me have you ever gotten the idea that I would ever join the military? When have you ever thought to yourself, realistically, that I was a fit for that life? That I was a fit for your life? That I ever wanted a life like that?”
“Don’t give me that shit. Don’t be a smartass right now. Don’t be a kid right now. There are other ways to serve.”
“You know I just spent four years in a liberal arts college, right? I’m not going to be draping myself in a flag anytime soon.”
“Hey!” he shouted. “Quit acting like a punk for two goddamn seconds. I’m not talking about a flag. I’m not talking about the military or your country or guns or war. I’m talking about serving. I’m talking about giving yourself over to something bigger than your own damn self for two goddamn seconds, so quit making excuses. I’m not giving you shit. I’m trying to help you.”
“Oh, you’re not giving me shit? It was hard to tell from all the shit you’ve been giving me.”
We stared across the road at the convenience store, Burt’s hand still on the gear shift. My face was hot. My teeth were clenched. I hadn’t felt as close to crying in years.
“This is going to be bad, what I’m going to say,” he started, exhaling reluctantly. “But I love you. And I think you maybe need to hear it.”
I closed my eyes and turned to face my own window. I knew.
“I know you never asked for it. I know you never would have asked for it in a million years, in a billion years. It isn’t a matter of blame or guilt, but look, sacrifices were made. Sacrifices were made for you. I know you didn’t ask for them, but they were, and you wouldn’t be here right now if they hadn’t been. You wouldn’t be here right now if… if they hadn’t been made.”
“You were built for more than this,” he began talking over me.
“Fuck off,” I repeated, louder.
“You can be doing so much more than you are and you know it.”
“Fuck you!” I shouted.
“No! No fuck you! Fuck you for being a selfish prick. You are somebody goddamnit. To some people you’re everything! And you could be doing something. Something to help someone. Right now, somebody doesn’t have something you can provide, but you aren’t. You aren’t offering the world anything that’s yours, not your humor or your insight or your perspective. You’re offering the world your ass and your eyes from nine to five Monday through Friday and fuck kid, I don’t want to say it but the truth is if sacrifices hadn’t been made, if things had gone another way, there’d still be an ass in that seat. There’d still be eyes on that screen. And the world still wouldn’t have everything you’re choosing to keep to yourself right now. Jesus, don’t you want the world to know you survived?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I hissed. “Who the fuck are you? I get it, you know I get it, that you took one for me. And I love you for it. I love you for it. But I loved you more because you never lorded it over me. Because you never cashed in on that debt because, I thought, you understood that it was a check a ten-year-old could never fucking comprehend and sure as shit could never pay. I can’t pay you back. I can’t pay Mom back. Is that what you want to hear? Did you need to hear it? I was ten, Burt. I was fucking ten. I lost my mom. I didn’t ask for that. I was ten and I was afraid and I was fucking ten.”
“Tough,” he shot back, calmly, immediately. He took a breath. “Look, you got no debt with me. You’re right. You were ten. You were a child. And it’s grown ups’ jobs to keep children safe. You don’t owe me shit. You don’t owe your mom shit. That would be an impossible debt to repay. No one has ever expected you to pay it back. But Jesus, kid, I can’t sit here and pretend that I didn’t expect you to try. Because I fucking expected you to try.”
I wiped my face on my arm and rested my head on the window, squinting against pairs and pairs of headlights, retreating to my corner to recuperate.
“I don’t know,” I muttered. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just do something. Anything.”
I’d shown him my chin and he went for it, maybe not for the T.K.O., but he went for it.
“You know what man, we don’t all get to just walk into the life of some action hero,” I said, still resting on the window, feeling the night through the glass on my forehead. “Most people don’t have the chance to get shot saving a kid. Thank God you did, but you and I both know that’s a position I’m not going to ever end up in and damnit you and I both know if it was a position I wound up in I’d take it to the gut just like you did. And then what? Would I be good then? Would I have contributed enough then? Would I be allowed to have the job I have? You know what, man? I’m not trying to be a dick here, but what else have you done that’s so great? Besides just lucking into standing between a ten-year-old and a gun, what’s the name of the fucking ivory tower you get to spit on me from?”
“Fair enough,” Burt replied, turning to face out of his own window. “I don’t know. I never claimed there was a tower. And I’m not spiting on you. Quit being dramatic. This isn’t about you living up to me, it’s about you living up to yourself. But I’ll tell you this - I tried. I tried and I’m trying. I don’t know if I’ve given anything worth a damn back to the world. I don’t know if some small thing somewhere is better because of me. I don’t plan on changing the whole world one bear fight at a time. But for better or worse I’m giving the world what I’m good at. And maybe, if I go up there and escort some prick on his little vacation I’ll be the difference between some punk-ass dentist’s kid being an orphan and some punk-ass dentist’s kid having to sit through a shitty vacation slideshow.” He took his hand off of the gearshift and put it on my shoulder. “Maybe that’s why I’m giving you shit. Maybe I just want to earn my keep through you. But I don’t think so. I’m not asking you to change the world, I’m just asking you to try. Please. Just try. You’re so fucking smart. That mind of yours, that youth, don’t waste it. I don’t want you to keep it to yourself. You know your mom wouldn’t have wanted you to either. And I know you don’t want to. I think maybe it just hadn’t occurred to you. I think maybe you’re just doing what you think you’re supposed to be doing, because you’re a good kid. Because you’re a responsible kid. But, I don’t know. Cut it out.”
“There are desperate people out there with families and kids and real responsibilities that would kill for my job, Burt,” I blurted out, clumsily trying to keep my head above the moral waters that had rushed in around me.
“Sure. But would you?”
“No. And those folks wouldn’t either. They’d kill for the money. They’d kill to support their families. But you don’t have to, so you don’t get to use that excuse. Shit, if you’re so damn worried about desperate people, quit and let them do your job.” He removed his hand from my shoulder and brushed back his white mane. “I swear I didn’t come here to have this conversation. Had no idea it was going to happen. But you’re important to me. I know I ain’t your dad, I know I’ll never be your mom, but damnit you are my kid. You are the kid I have in my life. You’re the little piece of the future I get to annoy before I die. You mean a lot to me, and to hear you talking about just, just doing nothing, kills me kid. There are cracks in this world, real cracks that I know you could fix. I don’t know what they are or where they are and you might not either, but they’re out there and you aren’t going to find them sitting down. You gotta look and you gotta try.”
“You know, when you dragged me out to your little mobile dungeon here I thought you were going to tell me you were sick. I thought you were going to tell me you were fucking dying.”
“Ha! Of course you did. I told you I didn’t think it through, I didn’t plan this.”
“Go figure,” I chuckled.
“Maybe I was just trying to get you pissed off at me, soften you up for the big reveal. I got the birds flu.”
“That’s the one.”
“Yeah, yeah you’re a goner.”
“Don’t I know it,” he smiled. “Look. I’m not an idiot. I know you aren’t some one-in-a-million messiah or some shit like that. But, but everybody can serve. Everybody can serve something bigger than themselves, you know? Everybody can help. And I guess I just thought that, that maybe not a lot of kids get reminded about that once they grow up and get cozy. I mean that’s what we teach you to do, that’s what we want you to do. Get grown up and cozy and safe. And I didn’t want to sit here with you, while you’re still a kid, maybe an old kid, but a kid, and tell you that’s it. You win. You beat the game. I know you have a good job and you make good money, but that job you’re at is not an endgame. It shouldn’t be an endgame, anyway.”
“I know. I don’t want to end up there. I don’t want to, I don’t want to grow up there.”
“And you won’t. I know you won’t. Because you’re not finished. You’re not finished when you get out of school or when you get a job or when you get married or have a kid or any of that shit. You’re not finished until you’re done.” He put his hand on my shoulder again. “You are just getting started. Don’t forget that. And, you know, don’t forget to try. And to help. And stuff.”
“And stuff,” I agreed, nodding my head.
He gave a long, dramatic exhale, though I was not entirely convinced he was exaggerating.
What a mess.
“You know,” I offered. “Everybody and their mother has a backup camera. Seriously. Like, every one of my coworkers. It’s like, congressionally-mandated. I can’t really sit here and pretend I’m impressed. The future is now old man, the future is now.”
“Whatever, punk-ass. C’mon and show me this mansion you sold your soul for.”
KIT CARLYLE - THE HARVESTMEN
Kit Carlyle is a Florida high school senior. She's been writing for three years and intends to publish her novel when it's complete. Her interests include reading, cooking, ballroom dancing, and spending time with close friends.
You cannot see them, but you know the harvestmen wait in the tall grass. Hush, and be still. If even one of them sees you move, the blood of everybody from your camp will be on your hands. Minutes crawl past like hours, and nobody dares to breathe, until a breeze starts whisking the grass in vortexes around the massive, spidery beasts— the harvestmen are rising, and they can certainly see you now.
Their legs are slender and far longer than their bodies. They can pierce through your flesh like a fork through scrambled eggs. Your older brother made the mistake of getting too close, once. You shielded your little sister with your body that night, but you couldn’t protect her from his screams. You swear the scars they gave you still ache.
Tonight, the harvestmen come for you all. Your little sister falls behind as you flee— you try to go back for her, you cannot see her. The other survivors knock into you. They leave you behind.
The beasts approach, and the ground spits on your ankles with your every step. Every breath lashes at your lungs. You promised your mother you’d look out for your sister.
The harvestmen are coming, and your little sister cries out. All of the other survivors are well ahead of you now.
Your little sister is on the ground, and the harvestmen creep nearer still. They loom above her.
You can see her clearly now, you cannot go back. Her screams pierce the night.
Your legs are numb. You’re unsure if you’re still running.
The harvestmen are coming. They do not stop.
The harvestmen will take you, too.
JAMES PICKETT - QUIET SCREAM
James Pickett is a sophomore student at Full Sail University and currently taking up a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. As a creative writing student, he is dedicated to the craft, and views stories as art. He is constantly expanding his skill as a writer. His favorite genre to write is fiction, but he is working hard to branch out into other genres. James graduated in 2005 and from there his passion for writing continued to bloom. Now he writes short stories during his free time and displays his passion on forums for the world to see. James is a well-rounded individual who lives with passion, dedication and appreciation.