Day Forty

A boy and a girl bicycle up the road while holding hands.

[This flash fiction piece won first place in the 3rd round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition and got me into the finals. I had to write a romance that took place in a junkyard and involved a saddle.]

A boy and a girl bicycle up the road while holding hands.
Photo by Sabina Ciesielska on Unsplash

This was the 37th day in a row that Delia and I had accidentally-on-purpose ridden out together. She was the accidentally and I was the on purpose, but I was working on that.

Since the first day of summer break, I’d fixed her bike twice and shared my granola bars and CheezIts every day. By now we had an “our place”: the dump. Well, not the official dump two townships away. This was more a scrap yard where people took stuff they couldn’t throw in their burn piles.

On day fifteen she was trying to break into the trunk of one of the cars and I’d brought her the crowbar that’s always attached to my bike, handing it to her so she could do the job.

I’d fed her, fixed her transportation, and given her the tool she needed and respected her enough to let her use it. If we were grownups in a movie, she’d be mine. But this was real life and we were only thirteen.

It might have something to do with what she did with my crowbar: she beat the living shit out of that car. I mean, she totally lost it. It was beautiful to watch for a while, but then I noticed it was one of her old family cars. Her family was like mine, people and stuff always breaking down and getting tossed out, so I let her be ‘til she was tired out. But it wasn’t until four days later that she met my eyes. Not that I’m counting looks or times our fingers touched or anything. For the record, the fingers touching number was nine.

Today was going to be a big day. Maybe it would be The Big Day.

Four days ago, we’d found an old saddle. It was so dirty even I thought it was gross. The leather was cracked and peeling and pulling up from the stitching, but you could still see the embossing, still see that it had been a beauty once. Delia might not be like any other girl I knew, but she was as into horses as every other girl in eighth grade. This was my big break.

I got my older brother to drive me and two buckets of water out to the dump that night and I got to work right away, moving the saddle out of the weather, cleaning it, stealing as much meat grease as I dared from the can on the stove to get the leather as soft as I could. For three days I stole out there by myself, hoping I wouldn’t run into her, and acted like I didn’t know what happened when we couldn’t find it again.

Now everything was ready. So, of course, she didn’t want to hit the dump.

“You can do what you want.” She pumped harder and pulled ahead of me. “I’m going to the stream.”

Her dark blonde hair whipped in the breeze she created by riding so fast and I just watched her for a few seconds before pulling up next to her. “We can do the stream.”

“There is no ‘we.’”

I stared up the road without saying anything. Was that her talking? Or had someone seen us and teased her? I know I was hearing it at home.

We were on 86th, a long, straight stretch with trees thick on either side, so it was like riding into a tunnel that looked like it got narrower and narrower. Like my chances with her, at least today. So I bailed. “See you later,” was my brilliant line. She probably thought I was super-hurt because I sprayed her with gravel when I spun my bike around, but what could I do, turn back around and say, “I know there’s no ‘us’ but I’m not mad or anything and the whole gravel thing was a total accident”?

Not even I’m that dumb about girls.

But I’m still an idiot: I went to the dump in case she went there after the stream. A double idiot because it was too hot to sit in any of the cars, and they were the only source of shade.

Hours later, I was throwing rocks against the side of an old pickup, making as much noise as I could, when Delia gave me a heart attack, sneaking up on me and yelling, “Did you do that?”

I crossed my arms and shrugged and tried not to study her face to see whether she liked it.

She walked around the barrel I’d put the saddle on, her fingertips trailing along the restored leather, not saying anything.

“You can get on it. Whatever.” My heart was beating like it wanted to escape out of my throat. I went back to my very important rock throwing. When I risked a peek, she was on the saddle with her eyes closed. She liked it. In my head, I whooped and ran around and then slid behind her and put my arms around her. In reality, I said, “I gotta go,” and took my perma-grin back home.

The next day, she smiled at me. She. Smiled. At. Me. We took turns sitting on the saddle, pretending we were in a Western, acting like we were six again.

The day after that, she smiled at me and bumped my shoulder with hers. On purpose.

The fourth day, we raced each other to the dump, laughing the whole way.

But the saddle was gone. We searched for it, in case someone had hidden it, but it was gone-gone. I was so hopeless, I didn’t even get a thrill when she stood really close to me.

It wasn’t until I felt her lips on my cheek, and heard her whisper, “Thank you,” that I came back to life.

I turned my head and kissed her. She tasted like road dust, which I discovered was the best thing ever.

What kind of girl liked a gift better when it was gone?

Delia. My girl.

 

Other stories you might enjoy:

The Linnet Girl

The Laundromat Battalion

The Pipe Organ Drug Mule Operation

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 3.09.03 PM

The next time my youngest brother greets me with, “Hunter!” I’m going to toss my phone out the window. Then again, it’d mean he was still alive.

Three months ago he called me, saying only, “I got four photos heading your way. Call me after.”

I was expecting pics of a beautiful woman or maybe a baby. He was the kind of guy—I mean he is, he is the kind of guy who’d announce his fatherhood that way. But these were of an old organ in an even older stucco-walled church. “Where the hell are you?”

“Peru.”

“Is that a Hook and Hastings?”

His laughter sounded thin. “I don’t know, man. You’re the organ expert.”

I put my phone on speaker so I could flip through the photos while we talked. “Gotta be. Two manuals, nine stops. Tallest pipes probably eight feet. Case looks ten or twelve feet. I’d say nineteenth century. What’s it doing in a church in Peru? And what are you doing in a church? In Peru?”

“Neither of us are going to be here for much longer,” he said. “That’s where you come in.”

“You better start from the beginning.”

Steve spun a grand tale of too many Pisco Sours and new friends and overheard conversations, but it came down to this: his new friend was donating this old pipe organ to a chapel in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and, after Steve’s boasting, decided that I was the one to do it. “I’d need to free up a month and get visas—”

“How about this week! You don’t need a visa for Peru, and Brazil is waiving them for the whole summer because of the Olympics.”

“I can’t drop my clients and run away to South America.”

“We need to get this organ out of here before the rainy season makes the roads impassable.”

“The rainy season is in December. This is July.”

He gave a long, hearty, and totally false laugh. “Nothing like that! It’ll be an adventure. Trust me.”

My internal air pressure dropped. “Are you on speaker?”

“Are you nuts?”

Although there was nobody with me to overhear, I cupped the phone and spoke quietly. “Are you in trouble?”

“Of course!” He was back to the fake cheer. “He’ll pay double your usual fee once you get down here.”

“Is your new friend standing right there?”

“Make up an invoice on your company letterhead and bring it with you. Do you have a pen?”

I was furious and terrified and, damn him, curious, so I got a pen and wrote down the information he gave me before he pretended that our call got cut off in the middle of my next question. My next move was to call our four other brothers, but none of them had any more intel than I had. Steve had been off all our radar for months, but he did that all that time. It didn’t always mean he was in trouble.

I sighed.

If moving an antique beauty by one of America’s best organ manufacturers would somehow help him, I wouldn’t want him to go to anyone else. Once I presented my dilemma in the proper light, the clients I had to reschedule were kind of excited for me, so two days later, I was in Lima, hugging my brother while what I can only describe as his “minders” looked on.

They whisked us straight to a car and sped us through the city to a gated mansion. It had been sweltering when I’d left Austin, so the thirty-degree drop in temperature would have been a relief if I’d had any idea where we were or what was really going on. The room I was brought to was nice enough, but they made a big show of taking Steve down a different wing. And they took our phones.

When I finally met the big guy, Joaquin Rojas, if that was his real name, it was like I’d stepped into a parody of a South American movie: he was slick and shiny, wearing a wrinkled white linen suit, holding a fat cigar, opening his arms in a welcome that wasn’t quite friendly. There wasn’t much chit-chat before he said, “So, Mark, tell me. Why did Steven call you ‘Hunter’?”

I took a swig of my beer. “There are six boys in our family, and our dad and grandpa took us out shooting all the time. Out of the eight of us, no matter what we were hunting, I’d always be the first one to spot the prey, first one to bag it.” In what my ex-wife would call a ridiculous macho display, I didn’t smile.

He didn’t smile right back. “I’m always glad to meet a fellow hunter. Come. See my trophy room.”

His wasn’t my kind of hunting. I killed what I ate, what I could use, or what was a nuisance on the family ranch. Not gazelles and lions. But this was his house and I was entirely in his power, so I nodded. “Impressive.”

After regaling us with the story of each stuffed head, he brought forward one of the minders. “Tomorrow morning, Luis will go with you to the church outside Junin. There will be men there to help you. It must be done by nightfall. The next day, you load the truck, drive straight to the airport, load the plane, and stay with the cargo through customs in Sao Paulo. Then you will,” he paused, “be paid.”

There was no conversation after that, no discussion of security arrangements, or of who was in charge of bribes for local road checkpoints, all things Google had led me to believe would be necessary. Nobody had ever asked me what kind of packing supplies we’d need. After I was brought back to my room, I checked the door: locked. What had my brother gotten us into?

We left early the next morning, Steve driving, and Juan between us. The truck was beat-up but it was big enough, and the back was full of packing blankets and tarps. Luis was a little more forthcoming than Joaquin: Steve and I were in charge of bribes, and there were some guns and ammo in the back of the cab, if we needed them.

The scenery was dramatic—mountains, valleys, lush vegetation, even a road blockade of slow-moving sheep—and we passed through two checkpoints of local militias with serious weaponry, but I barely registered any of it. There was no way this was about an organ, but did I really want to figure out what it was about? Even if I’d wanted to try, I couldn’t get the chance. Luis never left my side, not even when I was taking a piss on the side of the road.

Five hours later, we got to the town and the church, a nice, textbook painted stucco building, a little run-down but solid, which was how I’d describe the Hook and Hastings. The church wasn’t on the jungle side of Peru, so she hadn’t had to deal with that level of humidity. There was very little mildew on the wood or rusting on the pipes. The decorative paint on the exterior pipes was flaking. Some mice had gotten into the leather back in the racks, but not too badly. I might have giggled a little when I discovered that the bellows were still hand-operated. Steve and Luis let themselves be pressed into service, and we cranked her up. She was out of tune, to be sure, but she could still make an impressive sound.

But orders were that she be dismantled by that night, so I couldn’t play for long. They went to fetch the men we were promised while I laid out blankets on the floor to stage the wrapping of the pipes. I’d dismantled one rank by the time help arrived. It wasn’t long before all four hundred and seventy-nine pipes stretched around the sanctuary. I picked up one end of an eight-foot viola and blew, startling everyone with that lovely, rich low note. Soon, all the men were picking up pipes and blowing.

In the commotion, I sidled up to Steve, but he shook his head before I could ask anything. As Luis led me away to where I’d be staying that night, I caught Steve’s eye and scratched my ear, throwing a little “phone” sign, but he shook his head again. The next day, when I picked up a fully wrapped four-foot pipe, I had to replant my feet and strain to lift it.

Fuck.

It was a lot heavier than it’d been yesterday. I glared at Steve, but he did the same thing as yesterday: shook his head.

I’d put off my loyal, paying customers and flown thousands of miles to rescue my brother and provide a gloss of respectability to some kind of pipe organ drug mule operation. It was almost funny, but I clenched my jaw to keep from laughing, since that would likely end in crying. This was bad.

There was no choice but to see it through. I supervised the loading of the truck and we were off by noon—me with one of those rifles by my side. Luis didn’t bat an eye when I insisted on it, which told me everything I needed to know.

We were pulled over by the first militia, who accepted both bribes Steve gave them, but they still wanted to look in the back. I gave them the work order and photos of the organ I’d printed back in Austin, as well as the hand-written inventory I’d made over the last two days. They kept asking questions, which I’d answer in increasingly technical language that nobody could translate, until I finally crawled into the back of the truck, pulled out one of the tiny pipes and played it. That seemed to do the trick—that and one more bribe.

It was the same story at the second checkpoint, but they held us longer, not even letting us get out of the truck for at least an hour. By the time we got free, it was dusk. I held on to the rifle and kept my gaze glued to the side view mirror. Soon enough, two sets of headlights came at us from the rear, while a slowpoke pick-up held us up in the front. What a lovely trap they were planning.

“Hunter,” was all Steve said.

Once we had a brief straightaway, I lowered the window and pushed myself halfway out. It was two seconds’ work to sight the front passenger tire of one of the vehicles behind us and pull the trigger. One car disabled.

I swung around and shattered the back window of the pick-up. Two men popped up in the bed and before they could get their weapons high enough to shoot, my sniper training took over and got both of them. Without pausing to breath, I tagged the driver in the shoulder. He lost control. Steve slammed into him and pushed him into the wall of the mountain. We edged past his wreck and the third vehicle didn’t follow us.

Luis was whooping and carrying on, but I got the shakes so bad. I had to show him my fist to get him to shut up.

It took everything I had to act like a regular person doing a regular job at the airports in Lima and in Sao Paulo, but I must’ve been convincing because we got the organ through customs—the organ that would probably be destroyed after they got the drugs out. Our “payment” from Joaquin was the return of a lovely young woman who Steve introduced to me as his fiancé. He was finally ready to talk, but I could no longer listen.

They took off, and I returned to Austin. The shakes haven’t gone away. And all I want to hear is Steve’s voice on the phone, saying, “Hunter!”

 

[This is a short story I wrote for the NYC Midnight competition. I had to write an action/adventure story about an organ donation and including a hunter. I thought I was being all clever writing about a pipe organ, but at least 3 other people in my heat did the same thing. Oh well. It’s not a great story, but hopefully it’s okay. The thing I like most is the title. Mostly, I’m putting it here so three weeks won’t have gone by without a new blog post. My divorce hearing was today, and my brain has been in a fog.]

The Spider and the Aerial Violinist

[This is the story I wrote for Heat Two, Round One of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest. It got me 7th place in my group, which added to my earlier 2nd place, and I got through to the next round for the first time. My prompts: it had to be a romantic comedy that took place in an orchestra pit and involved a spider.]

The Spider and the Fly Art by Tony DiTerlizzi
The Spider and the Fly
Art by Tony DiTerlizzi

 

Mateo was being lowered to me. The orchestra pit was dark. My violin made the only sound.

Our opening move, with him lifting my limp body out of the pit, seemingly with one arm, was my favorite. The way his bicep hardened as if he really were holding me by his own power was delicious.

As I reached the adagio section, I looked up, right into two dinner-plate-sized bulbous black eyes flanked by four soup-bowl-deep eyes that flashed iridescent green and blue. I was as mesmerized as the script called for me to be.

The giant spider glided down, its fangs pointed right at me.

My bow skittered across the strings and out of my hand. Still, I didn’t move until the beast tilted and I could distinguish the man underneath the costume.

“Leila?” He sounded both concerned and amused.

“Eight years with Cirque and I never dropped my bow.” I picked it up and pointed it at him. “Never.” I yelled, “Francesca, you’re a cruel genius.”

There was a “whoop” from the auditorium before the director’s voice came over the P.A. “From the top. Just mark it.”

Take two wasn’t much better. I managed to hold onto my bow and get into position for him to hook the harness around me. Every time the spider legs bounced against me, it took every ounce of discipline I had not to curl up in a ball.

Even after I transferred onto the silks, I remained stiff and wary. There was no playfulness, no seduction between us, and what came out of my violin was noise, not music.

“Cut!”

The cable guys lowered Mateo, and I slid down my silk.

The director met us on stage. “What is the name of your scene?”

I sighed. “The Spider and the Fly.”

“And you’ve known this the entire time?”

“Of course.”

“Look at him.”

Even the quickest flick of a glance made my breath catch. And not in a fun way.

“There’s no time to find another aerial violinist.” He checked his phone. “You have two hours to get back the chemistry that was steaming things up this morning.”

Mateo spoke up. “I have an idea, but I’d have to wear the costume outside. If she can get used to it—”

I snorted. That wasn’t possible. It was too big, too hairy, too—

“Come out with me.” Mateo pushed up his mask and I focused on his beautiful face. “We’ll hit a deli, get picnic stuff and—”

“Draw way too much attention. It’ll never—”

“Not so fast,” the director said. “Just the spider costume. Go to Starlight. Wait twenty minutes so I can get some media types to happen by and we can create some buzz for the show.”

“Very funny,” I said, as deadpan as I could. “Buzz. For the fly.”

But the director was already on his phone. He mouthed, “Go change.”

 

What was my problem? I’d performed in dozens of countries crazy with giant, hairy spiders. I didn’t have a problem with them. But expand them to man-sized…. I shuddered.

The spider was waiting for me in the lobby. I mean, Mateo. Mateo was waiting for me.

“Can’t you keep your mask up?” My most pitiful voice worked and soon I could see his mischievous smile. “You look way too pleased with yourself.”

Instead of answering, he headed for the doors. “Will you help me get through? Francesca threatened my manhood if any of the legs get crushed.”

Even after I opened both doors wide and put down the stoppers, I still had to guide the top two legs through. Which meant I had to touch them. The hair felt like a hipster beard: springy and surprisingly soft. The bottom two legs dragged on the ground, so Mateo slipped his arms out of the second pair of appendages and held up the bottom ones, swinging them like a lady in a hoop skirt.

I smiled. But still, I stayed well wide of the outer reaches of the costume.

“Did you read Harry Potter?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“You remember Lupin—”

“Remembering Lupin makes me teary.”

“There’s the scene with the boggart, where they have to make it seem silly in order to defeat it.”

“Riddikulus.” I put the emphasis properly on the ku. “That’s what this is about?”

He whistled a tuneless tune. Like someone trying to hide something. I waited.

“I may have been wanting to ask you out,” he said.

Heat spread upwards from my chest, but I didn’t look at him; I didn’t want the costume to ruin my bliss. “Here’s the Starlight.”

We stood on the sidewalk, staring into the deli. There was no way he could fit in there. I looked at our reflection. The spider didn’t look terrifying in the window. Not quite silly, but it was an improvement.

I took his order and went in. When I reached the front of the line, there was heavy banging: Mateo was spread eagled against the window. The counter guys looked up and screamed like little girls. I managed to hide my laughter until I finished ordering. The media was there when I got out, so we talked with them and posed for photos with our sandwiches.

Mateo held out his hand and I took it. Suppleness returned to my wrists and to my fingers at his touch.

We might as well have floated back to the theatre and into the deserted orchestra pit.

When he put his arms around me, the spider legs brushed me, so I extended my arms to hold them away. He tightened his right arm around my lower back and held me tightly to him, just like in our opening move, except now we were kissing. Delicious.

“You two ready?” The director peered into the pit.

We jumped apart like naughty teenagers.

Mateo looked down. “Give me a minute.”

That was one snug leotard. I grinned. “The spider appears to have nine legs.”

The Garden Gnomes’ Revenge

Following is the short story that won me first place in round 8 of the Writer Unboxed Flash Fiction contest. The photo is by Brin Jackson of a beloved gargoyle named Gabriel, in her garden. The story was inspired by the photo. I hope you enjoy it (Harry Potter fans, in particular).

a photo of a gargoyle in a garden

“Troops, you know what this is about.”

Their stone heads nodded and their red eyes flared.

“Revenge.” I unfurled my terrible wings. “We used to be respected. We used to be feared.”

My hoary comrades, half-covered in the indignity of moss, rumbled.

“We used to have a purpose. Now we’re just ornaments. They think we’re cute. And it’s all her fault.” We glared up at the big house. “Tonight, no more hiding in the hostas. You know your assignments.”

And so it began.

Seven nights of lining the windowsills of whatever room she was in. Seven nights of marking her as the target with the beam of our red eyes. Seven nights of infiltrating her dreams with images more terrifying than those she’d imagined.

On the morning of the eighth day, she came to us. “I’m going mad.”

I rotated my shoulders just enough that she could hear stone grinding on stone.

She crouched in front of me. “I don’t know how you know what I’ve written or who I am, but I apologize. How can I make it up to you?”

I told her our demands. She stood and tapped on her phone and then showed me the results.

@jk_rowling Garden gnomes are not cute objects of fun to be tossed over your garden gate at Harry Potter birthday parties.

@jk_rowling Garden gnomes are gargoyles, which are seriously fearsome magical creatures that we should all respect, if not fear.

@jk_rowling Please stop sending me garden gnomes.

Mission accomplished.

Excerebration

** This is a story that I wrote for a NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. I had to write a 1,000-word horror story that took place at a crime scene and involved a straw. I don’t like horror, so I’m not creeping myself out by looking for an image that works with the story — you’ll have to use your imagination. Edited to add: This story got second place in its heat!!**

There it was: a hot pink, wide-mouthed milkshake straw sticking one and a quarter inches out of my boss’s right nostril.

We’d been hoping to find a victim with the straw still in place, but it looked like a joke. I pressed my fingers against my lips to stifle the hysterical noise that was equal parts giggle, guilt, and grief. To remind myself of the stakes, I slid my hands under his head and lifted; its relative lightness was obscene.

Each click of my camera shutter was like a socket wrench tightening a band around my chest. At least Frank looked as peaceful as the others had. Something viscous pooled under his nose and trailed onto his lip. I swabbed, bagged, and catalogued it without letting myself think about what it was.

While I worked, every current and past public safety official arrived and compassed around me and Frank. They stood at parade rest, forming an impenetrable line that held back the press jackals and silenced the crowd. It was how crime scenes should feel, but usually didn’t: solemn, momentous.

Careful not to disturb any part of the exposed straw and the DNA that was hopefully still there, I insinuated the tips of my finest tweezers between the plastic and Frank’s nose until they were up there a bit. The straw didn’t slide out easily, but required tugging and yanking and the strength of both my hands in order to extract all nine inches of it.

Once it was bagged, I looked down and, for a moment, saw him as a person and not a job. My hand cupped the top of his head, like a benediction.

And then everything and everyone froze. I wasn’t surprised when the eyeballs of one of the on-duty officers facing me briefly glowed electric orange – unnerved, but not surprised. It had happened every time. Not even an hour and a half ago, at the crime scene for the fourth victim, Frank had seen the victim’s mother’s eyes do the orange thing. He was the only person other than me who’d seen it. And now he was dead.

When I could move again, I finished the rest of my duties and sidled through the police line. “I am Hannah Smit, deputy medical examiner. I can confirm that Chief Frank Turner is dead. He did not die of natural causes. His homicide is connected to the four other deaths this week. Cause of—” I flinched as the ambulance door slammed shut behind his body. “Cause of death: brain extraction.”

Almost instantly, someone shouted, “Brains,” and then the question I’d dreaded: “Is this the zombie apocalypse?” Of course people laughed.

“This is not a joke! Five people have died.” I shut my eyes until I was calmer. “In each victim, a straw was inserted into the right nostril, pushed through the nasal cavity and into the base of the brain, and excerebrationoccurred. No other trauma. No signs of struggle.”

“A straw?”

“Yes.”

“Can a straw do that?”

“Not normally.”

“Then how—”

“I don’t know.”

“How did the brains get out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Were they alive when it happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you have any leads?”

“No.” This wasn’t going well. “The Chief is the first victim with the straw still in place. The others’ straws had been removed and wiped down. I am hopeful there will be something recoverable on what we found tonight.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

I’m guessing a demon that possesses us and makes us kill each other. But they barely believed me about the straw. There was no way I was trotting out that theory.

“What are we supposed to do now?”

“Destroy all the straws in town and pray.” There were more questions, but I shook my head. “Go and be with the ones you love. I’m going home to hug my daughter.”

 

When I finally got home, the sitter didn’t say a word before bolting home, hand covering her nose. My daughter sat on the kitchen floor, her back to me, so engrossed in her task that she didn’t look up. I kissed the top of her head.

Then I noticed what she was doing.

She was fitting our cut-in-half straws together.

At two and a half, she shouldn’t be able to pinch the end of a cheap skinny straw and insert it without fumbling into another one; she could hardly put together Duplos.

Lucy looked up. I saw a flash of orange in the glass of the oven door.

I fled, slamming the front door behind me.

No. She’s too young. I didn’t need to run from her.

The demon only possessed those other people for a few seconds. What if it did that this time? What if she needs me? What if her diaper is full? What if she’s playing with the stove? What if she’s hungry?

I cracked open the door. She was crying. Oh, my baby. “Mommy’s here. Mommy loves you.”

She ran to the door, but I had to keep it mostly closed. I had to. “Not yet, honey. Mommy just has to see you. Look through the door crack for Mommy.”

She looked betrayed and scared, but her eyes were their usual beautiful brown.

I rushed in and knelt on the floor with her in my arms, rocking her until we’d soothed each other.

And then I couldn’t move.

Lucy’s eyeballs were orange.

In her dimpled fist was a long straw made of three short straws.

Those chubby fingers that fumbled through itsy-bitsy spider jammed and twisted the straw up my nose, which hurt, but, thankfully, the brain has no pain receptors.

She leaned close like she was going to give me sloppy toddler kisses, but her mouth closed around the straw and she sucked.

So that’s how it was done.

When my brain gave way, it felt similar to my milk letting down when I’d nursed her.

Her pigtails tickled my cheeks. How would she survive until they found me?

 

The Summer of Big Sid

photo by Stacy Braswell, used with permission
photo by Stacy Braswell, used with permission

Saturday, June 24, 1978

“I’m not telling you the big news until I get a ‘Hi, Dad.’”

I swallowed my half-chewed hotdog and said it. Jenny and Brian muttered it around their food.

“I guess that’s good enough.” He took his time stabbing two hotdogs from the pan and letting them drip before putting them on his plate and joining us at the kitchen table.

“Is this going to be like that time your big news was that Mrs. Rzepka needed some kids to shovel her driveway?” Jenny crossed her arms. “For free.”

“Nope.” He loaded up his hotdogs. “Big Sid escaped.”

Brian glared at me like it was my fault. “The Jacobowskis are going to lord it over us all summer.”

“Who’s Big Sid?” Jenny never remembered the important stuff.

“Not who,” Dad said. “What.”

She rolled her eyes, which she did a lot since she turned twelve.

“It’s that sixteen-foot python at the Wonderful World Circus,” Brian told her.

Dad nodded. “I’m disappointed in you guys.”

“What did we do?” Since Brian’s mouth was full, it sounded more like, “Wad we dough?”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Dad leaned his chair back. “When I was your age, I—”

Mom tipped her untouched food onto Dad’s plate. We watched her drift over to the garbage can, throw away her barely-dirty paper plate, and then shuffle back to the living room.

Dad leaned forward. “Doesn’t it make you want to look for him?”

I was as shocked as Mikey’s brothers in the Life cereal commercial.

“He was only staying about a mile from here and it’s not like he could fly.”

I bolted the rest of my food and gulped down my Tang. “I’m ready.”

Brian was already at the front door. “Can Jimmy come along?”

“Bring anyone you like.”

I dashed to the living room. “Mom. Mom. Big Sid escaped and we’re going to look for him!”

“With me,” Dad shouted from the kitchen. “No going off on your own.”

But I was already outside, running to my best friend’s house. By the time Dad joined us, the whole Cummings Avenue pack had piled into the Kingswood. Jenny rode shotgun with two friends. Brian shared the back seat with three buddies. And all five of us seven-year-olds got the way back.

When we got to O’Brien Road, there were lots of serious-looking grownups there, so Dad drove past. He turned onto Maynard and slowed to a crawl. The station wagon growled like a lion on the hunt.

He hit the button to lower the way back window and the five of us scooted to the end, stuck our heads and shoulders out, and scanned the scrub for any unexpected movement. Every time someone said they saw something, Dad slammed on the brakes, and the way back crew tumbled backwards onto our butts, laughing.

All we spotted were three squirrels and two dogs.

“You’d think a sixteen-foot snake’d stick out more,” Dad said. “Time to head back.” To make it up to us, he gunned the station wagon when the road was clear. The Kingswood might be a dinged-up ’69, but its engine roared like a brand new Chevy. I leaned back over the top of the door, closed my eyes, and pretended I was Luke Skywalker on his X-34 landspeeder.

When we got home, I popped inside to stand in the doorway of the living room to tell Mom about our adventure.

She actually smiled a little.

Day 5

Jenny had made me pinky-swear that I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad what we were up to. The official story was that we were biking around with our friends, like we always did. To avoid the living room, I only used the side door.

It was easy to not talk at dinner. Dad brought Mr. Burger home two nights in a row and we ate on tray tables in the living room so we could watch the latest news on Big Sid. It was my job to sit next to the console and change the channel. Our TV was pretty old, so sometimes it took both my hands to crank the dial.

And then I forgot, and came in the front door. I tried to not look, but I couldn’t help it. Mom was sitting in her armchair, in her bathrobe, one wrist perched on the arm of the chair. The pale underside of her arm faced up, and her fingers curled around her cigarette.

“Mikey.”

It was just a whisper, but I heard it.

She tilted her head, which meant, come closer, so I took two steps in.

“What’s happening on the Big Sid front?”

I concentrated on the lit end of her cigarette. “Nothing much.”

At first, she didn’t say anything, and I almost left, but then she said, “I won’t snitch,” and it all came tumbling out. How Jenny had made a map and how we were searching in a scientific way. How half my friends couldn’t bike around anymore because their parents were afraid the snake would eat them. How weird it was to have no dogs or cats loose anywhere anymore.

And then the biggest news of all: we’d met the guy who lost Big Sid.

“We were behind the De Vrieses who live on Maynard. Freddie was there, but his grandma wouldn’t let him go past the raspberry bushes, so he stayed there and kept yelling to ask whether we’d found anything. Once, Brian told him we had, even though we hadn’t, and he about peed his pants. Anyway, we were in the low part where the ground is always squishy, and that’s where the guy was, because pythons like streams and damp areas. The best thing of all was he told us that Big Sid wasn’t dangerous to kids or dogs because he only ate rats. He said, ‘Sid’s real mellow.’ Did you know he used to curl around the necks of the circus girls? But now he’s too big. And then the best, best thing was that he said, ‘May the Force be with you,” when he left. Isn’t that cool-city?”

She smiled again.

I gave her a snake report every day.

Day 14

“Any signs of him?”

“None. None at all.” I was finally all the way in the room, standing next to the ashtray, close enough for her to pat my arm and comfort me or something, but she didn’t. “We were in the far corner of our territory, near Maynard and Lake Michigan Drive when some other kids came zooming past, saying that some lady had found him in her pool, so we went with.”

I paused for effect.

“It was a long skinny tree branch. Jenny thinks someone threw it into the pool on purpose because it hasn’t been near windy enough for a branch like that to come down on its own, and there were no big trees by the pool. What do you think?”

Mom shrugged.

“Today was an easier day biking because me and Jimmy did a trade. I got his silver Huffy from last year and his little brother got my bike from last year that I was still riding. It was great to not have to pedal so much to keep up with everyone.”

“I’m glad you guys figured something out.”

But she didn’t sound glad. She sounded sad.

“We’ll trade back at the end of the summer.”

Now she patted my arm.

 Day 20

“Is Big Sid still free?”

The Big Sid Roll sat on its plate on the side table, untouched from that morning when I’d gotten up extra early and biked to the bakery and bought one for everyone and put it on a plate and left it for her with a note. The note wasn’t there, but the snake-shaped donut still was.

“You think he’s free?”

“He spent his whole life in a little plywood box with no choice when he eats, what he eats, when he gets taken out, and where he goes.”

That was the longest thing she’d said all summer.

“I think he’s scared. He only knew one way his whole life and now he’s in a giant world, and he doesn’t know what’s safe, or where his owner is, or whether he’ll ever get food again.”

She gave a weird smile. “You think of him as you, and I think of him as me.”

What was I supposed to say to that?

 Day 28

We were trying to be quiet in case Mom was already asleep, but we could see her cigarette end moving and flaring.

I turned on the light and sat on the arm of the chair. “Star Wars was even better at the drive-in because me and my friends were outside doing lightsaber fights and driving our landspeeders. And in the intermission, some man yelled, ‘Big Sid, where are you?’ and everyone laughed, and then in the quiet parts of the next movie, which wasn’t nearly as good as Star Wars, people yelled it some more. I wish you’d come with us.”

Day 30

I was out, searching alone, when I saw the crowd on Maynard. I stood up to pedal faster, but my legs got heavier and heavier the closer I got. The crowd was so huge that I couldn’t get close enough to see anything. But I heard.

Grand Rapids Press File Photo of the crowd watching them carry the captured Big Sid away
Grand Rapids Press File Photo of the crowd watching them carry the captured Big Sid away

They’d found Big Sid.

When I got home, I put my bike away properly and didn’t cut across the lawn, but I made it to the house eventually.

The final snake report.

I hovered in the doorway until she turned her blank face to me and blinked once, and then again before she clued in that it was me.

“They got him.”

For once, she did exactly the right thing. She stubbed out her cigarette and opened her arms. I ducked my head and ran to her, burrowing into her lap.

33 Days

Somehow, Mom found out exactly when and where they were unveiling Sid at the Standale Sid-walk Sale. It was our secret. Just like the snake reports had been.

Jenny and Brian had already biked there with friends. I waited for Mom in the Kingswood, finally getting to ride shotgun. She’d gotten up extra early to drive Dad to work so we could have the car. When she walked up, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was wearing a jean skirt and some kind of flowy white top. She’d done her hair and put makeup on.

“You look like Sissy Spacek.”

“I used to look like Jane Fonda.” She checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “But thank you.”

I pointed out everything I’d been telling her about. The sign spray-painted on a pallet and nailed to a tree that said, “STANDALE HOME OF BIG SID.” The pizza place that made a special python pizza. The bakery that did the Big Sid Roll that she didn’t eat.

Grand Rapids Press File Photo
Grand Rapids Press File Photo

Even though it was 9 a.m., we stationed ourselves outside the ice cream shop with a couple of cones and counted how many people wore LaVeen Hardware’s “Standale Home of Big Sid” T-shirts. It took four men to carry Sid’s aquarium out. Mom’s hand was cold when I slipped my hand into hers.

The man from LaVeen’s stepped up and made fun of the mayor of Walker trying to call in the National Guard and said some other stuff that made other people laugh. But not me and Mom.

And then, like a magician flipping his cape, he threw off the cover. Big Sid was unveiled. His markings looked like gold in the sunshine.

I hated him.

“Poor guy,” Mom whispered.

I talked to him with my mind, like Obi Wan. Why did you have to go and get caught? Your escape was the only thing Mom liked. Now I’ve got nothing.

Mom squeezed my hand tighter for a second, but then she let go.

Stupid snake.

 

Ghost Breath

 [This is a flash fiction piece I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I was given the assignment of writing a ghost story that took place at a university cafeteria that included oven mitts.]

 ice fog photo

It was a good thing the roads were empty. Henry’s mind was not on his driving.

I won’t go into the dining hall until the sub buns are in the oven.

That’s too late.

I’ll go when I’m through #5 on the checklist.

That’s too soon.

He’d gone in too soon yesterday and it was the only day … it … didn’t happen.

The university glowed white in the valley, shrouded in ice fog. He blasted the defogger and crawled along by memory. Soon he stood in the kitchen threshold, watching the path he’d opened through the ice droplets drift shut. Within seconds he was as closed-in as the door would make him in a moment. He sighed.

I’ll go in at 3:30.

He walked in and flipped the light switches. The fluorescents above his worktable were still broken. He could climb up and loosen the bulbs, himself, but the flickering couldn’t make him feel any more unsettled than he was. Besides, the funeral director told him not to take any physical risks for a while.

Instead, he worked the list, wheeling the sheet pan racks of sub buns out of the freezer and parking them near the ovens to thaw and proof, dumping the foccacia ingredients into the 40 quart mixer and putting the dough hook to work, and getting the 20 quart mixer going on the muffins.

Which left his mind free to circle back to the same issue.

His nose could tell when bread was done and when chocolate chip cookies were the perfect amount of un-doneness. But it couldn’t tell what that floral scent in the dining hall was.

Was it lily of valley?

Right after Emma was born, and then every birthday since, he’d gathered her a fist-thick bouquet of them.

Or was it rose? From her hand lotion?

What had made him step away from the ovens and into the gloom of the dining hall on Monday? It was pure pain to imagine what should have been: Emma, laughing and eating his good food, baked with extra love because his daughter was a freshman.

He’d explained the scent away at first. The cleaning crew was probably using a new product. Tuesday, he couldn’t stay away and he smelled it again, but it didn’t have that sharp disinfectant edge and it wasn’t spread throughout the room. He asked around, but there’d been no change in the cleaners’ routines.

Could a student have spilled perfume?

When he caught a gentle wisp of … something in the air on Wednesday, he dropped and almost buried his nose in the industrial carpet. It smelled like rubber. He scrambled up, closed his eyes, and chased the scent around the room until the 4 a.m. crew arrived.

Could it be?

His sister had seen their mother after she died.

Two of his nieces had seen his father after he died.

One of his nephews had seen and heard his own mother after she died.

There was family precedent.

That was why he’d rushed it on Thursday and why he was going to be smarter today.

When the mixers were quiet, the tchick of the minute hand echoed in his head. No matter how many times he checked, the digital clock on the microwave agreed with the analog clock on the wall. Three-thirty wasn’t coming fast enough.

Until there it was. Too soon.

Henry’s heart felt like it was both stopped and racing, although that was impossible. Instead of filling the remaining muffin papers, he wheeled the batter and the waiting trays into the fridge. He put on his long oven mitts and took the first batch out, sliding each sheet pan as methodically as he could manage into the slots of the waiting cart. Only eight muffins hit the floor. And then he pushed through the doors to the dining hall.

Normally at this time, the world outside the windows was thick black, with campus security lights illuminating the paths and highlighting a few trees. But now the ice fog diffused that light, making the unlit room oddly bright. There was no world beyond that white glow, nothing to see, no shapes to make out. Nothing.

Ghost breath.

His breath stuttered in his throat.

That was what Emma used to call ice fog. Regular fog was God’s breath, but ice fog was ghost’s breath.

Was it a sign?

He breathed in for several long counts and out as briefly as he could and not pass out. He scanned the room through his peripheral vision. He was making himself light headed.

“Are you there?”

The desperation and hope in his voice made him cringe.

“I love you. I miss you so much.” His voice cracked like a teenager’s, but he kept talking. “I don’t know what to do now. I’ve been asking all those ‘why’ questions I was too strong to ask when you were still with me. Not getting anywhere with them. Which you warned me about.”

And then the floral aroma coiled around him. This time it came with a chill.

“Is that my lily of the valley?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shimmer.

It thickened into a woman in an ugly hair net and the kind of uniform the cafeteria workers wore fifty years ago.

It started out as a whimper, but ended in a rough scream. “How dare you get my hopes up!”

He shucked his oven mitts and tried to grab the ghost. His hands swept over the nearest table, but it was empty, so he picked up the gloves and threw them at her.

“How could you be so cruel?”

He hoisted three chairs over his head and hurled them in her direction.

But she was gone.

She was gone. His Emma. Gone.

He crumpled to the floor and howled, insensible, inconsolable.

I Am A Craftsman

I am not like my mother. My strength is obvious. Impossible to ignore.

Somehow, Ma can haul tubs of our wet clothes, butcher a pig, and get her way with my father, all while seeming as gentle as a butterfly. The kindest thing a villager ever called me was sturdy. Before I started putting my ham hock fists to good use, I was more likely to get hulking, giant and ogre.

The other kids were unkind, but they weren’t wrong.

I’ve been as tall as my father since my fourteenth year. My shoulders are as broad and my muscles as thick as most of my brothers’. And I’d be just as good as any of them at the forge. Better. But Da won’t let me apprentice because there are no girl blacksmiths. His exact words were, “The forge is no place for a girl. No man is going to want a woman with burn scars up and down her arms.”

No man was going to want me even without–

The pot was warm and the pitch was soft, so I cut off that thought. My materials were much more satisfying than something I’d known for a few years. The gold sheet was the size of my big toe and thinner than a fingernail. I placed it on the pitch and picked up my tools. This week, I was working on a relief of the place where I came to practice, the one place that was so massive, it made even me feel delicate. The wind was strong enough across the open plain that it whisked away the evidence of my fire, but the stones were big enough to shelter me, and in the middle of the day, the shadows weren’t too thick, so I had good light. And nobody used it regularly in anyone’s memory.

I’d already roughed in the shapes with the bigger tools, so now I used my smaller dapping punch to crisp up the edges. I was so engrossed in my task, examining the sheet every few taps to make sure I wasn’t going too far, that I didn’t hear my father’s whistle until he was almost upon me. My body began to panic before my mind caught up. I was scrambling, touching everything, trying to decide which thing to hide first, but then I stilled.

It was time for him to see what I could do.

Instead of shoving everything in my basket, I came out from behind the Sarsen stone that hid me, and waved, holding my ground as he came near.

He was still wearing his leather apron, his hands buried in the pouch. “Well.”

“Well, what?” So I wasn’t as ready as I was telling myself I was.

“Why did your mother push me out the door before I’d finished my stew?” Da fished a bowl and wooden spoon out of his pouch. “I had to eat while walking.”

Although each heart beat felt like a hammer hitting the forge, I swallowed and led him behind the stone. His face turned to thunder once he saw my setup. The fire and pitch pot were small, and I didn’t have many tools, but there was no mistaking what I was doing.

“Da,” I pleaded.

He threw the bowl and spoon down and looked like he was about to kick it all over. I clenched my fists and prepared myself for the destruction, but then he crouched and picked up the gold sheet, turning it over several times before nestling it in his palm and running his middle fingertip over the relief. When he placed it between his thumb and middle finger and held it up, looking back and forth between it and Stonehenge, itself, a little vein of hope sparked to life.

“So this is where my scraps have been going.” His voice was flat and he still wasn’t looking me in the face.

“Yes, Da.”

“This was your mother’s idea?”

“At first.”

He crouched next to the pitch pot and carefully replaced the gold sheet. One by one, he picked up my dapping punches, I only had four, and my hammer. “You made these, too?”

“Yes, Da.”

The spoon he’d tossed down was close enough for him to grab. It was one of my more intricately carved pieces, with a tendril of vines coiling around the handle, and a big ivy leaf cradling the bowl of the spoon. “I guess it was too much to ask for you to restrict yourself to wood carving.”

When he finally met my gaze, I shrugged.

“Why did the only child who inherited my skill have to be a girl?”

My lips barely curved up.

He patted the ground next to him and I sat. If I opened my mouth, I was afraid I’d ask for too much or tell him I told him so, so I borrowed my mother’s kind of strength and stayed silent.

“Word has it that the ealdorman will be visiting here this winter. His priests have been nagging him to use Stonehenge to solidify his position.”

Ma had told me that, too.

“We’ll need fine metalwork. Finer than anything your brothers can do, and finer than I can manage with my eyes.” He sighed. “Even my fading sight can see that you’re a real craftsman.”

“Truly?” My voice was thick with the tears I was holding back.

“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “But I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”

Da put out the fire while I loaded my work into my basket, and then we headed to the forge to begin my apprenticeship.

“How long have you been teaching yourself?” he asked when we were halfway there.

“Two months.”

For the first time in a long time, he grinned and put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re going to hate me soon enough, when I make you redo a shield relief for the fifth time, but we’re going to bring fame back to this village. They’ll be coming from other kingdoms once you hit your stride.”

I let his pride in me, in my gift, swell until it filled every part of me. It wasn’t just me saying it to convince myself it was true. I was a craftsman.

The Wasp in the Punch

[A group of us are taking the advice of Ray Bradbury, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” This story (which had to involve a police officer, a garden, and a trophy) is part of that endeavor. It was also inspired by my cousin, who watched a wasp do to his glass of beer what it does to my cop’s glass of punch.]

 

“We’re not giving her this award because she’s my daughter.” My mother tittered into the microphone.

Tittered was the perfect word to describe the tweety giggle she gave. Could she have had too much of the spiked punch already?

“We’re giving her this award because she displayed such a cool head under pressure at last year’s garden party fundraiser. Because of her leadership during the fire, most of us didn’t even realize what was happening until we were all safe.”

The applause was a mix of ladies-who-lunch-fingertips-only and the heartier clapping of people who were not embarrassed to have emotions.

“She put out the fire so quickly our dresses didn’t even smell like smoke and then called in all those delicious firefighters to secure the scene.”

Delicious? While Mother simpered at the Fire Department’s table, I froze the smile on my face and leaned over to my best friend. “Who spiked the punch?”

She could also talk while barely moving her lips. “Funny story. I did. And then Duke did. He just returned from Vermont.”

“That 190 proof stuff?”

“Don’t arrest him. Everyone’s having fun.”

Everyone but me. My tulip-petal chiffon sleeves floated in the breeze, brushing against my skin, reminding me how ridiculous I looked.

My mother was wrapping up. “From her youth as a Junior Ranger, through her years as a wetland guide and her countless hours maintaining paths and buildings, until now, she has always been a friend of the Lexington Conservation Commission. I am so pleased to present the Conservation Steward of the Year Award to my daughter, Officer (she made me say that) Blair Emerson.”

Maybe this ridiculous dress was worth hearing my mother use my title in public. Maybe.

I accepted the crystal cup and put it on the podium right away, since, and I quote, It’s rather heavy and holding it will make your arm muscles pop out. Sigh. Plenty of the tennis-and-Pilates ladies had great arms, but mine were an embarrassment, presumably because I used them in the line of duty.

“Thank you so much.” I looked around and, as irritated as I was, I couldn’t help but smile. “Most of you have watched me grow up. I’ve worked with some of you on the trails and in the wetlands, and watched others work the donors in the garden while I spied from my bedroom window, back when I wasn’t allowed to come to this party. I’ve loved the Lexington Conservation Committee since I went on my first guided walk when I was 5. Loved it even more when I started leading walks and nature programs and swinging a hammer. The work we do is so important, not just to preserve the land for future generations, but for us, now.” I ran my thumb down the side of the trophy. “I feel a little like I’ve cheated, because I’m getting this award for following my training as a Lexington Police Officer, but my mother always taught me to be gracious when accepting thanks. I’m so proud to accept this award from you. Thank you.”

I picked up the award and should’ve gone straight to my seat. Instead, I leaned into the mic. “Since I am a safety officer, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t point out that the punch has been accidentally double spiked. Use that information as you will.” And then, because I’d been decorous and charming and had worn the frothy monstrosity for over an hour, I walked to the punch bowl and dipped in my trophy, filling the cup to the brim and holding it up to everyone in a toast. There were a few hoots of laughter as I took a good swig.

Which turned out to be ill-advised. Nobody hurled into the hostas, but they drank enough, without realizing it, to do something much more risky: tell the truth.

One woman latched onto me while I was talking to the mayor, leaning too heavily into my shoulder and, in a loud, drunken “whisper,” thanking me for something I’d thought she wanted to keep quiet. Since she wasn’t in her right mind, I lead her away before she revealed to the group that I’d come to her house on a domestic call. If she wanted to be open about it while sober, I’d cheer her on, but she was in no state to make a rational decision.

That was tricky enough, but it happened twice more with other people, including one couple who were very happy to be led off by me so they could tell me all about the positive changes in their relationship since out last meeting. In nauseating detail.

Add to that the usual suspects asking me when I was going to give up police work, as if it were a hobby, and I reached my limit of politeness.

So I plunked down my trophy and sat with the “delicious” firefighters in hopes of having an interaction in which I didn’t have to guard myself or fight with myself to not say what I wanted to.

One of the younger guys, who’d I’d worked some accident scenes with, nudged my arm. “Seriously, now, seriously. I’m not joking. I’m being serious.”

I gave him my deadest dead-eye cop stare. “Anything you say to me now will be a mistake.”

“No, no, no. I really want to know.” He looked over to where my parents and older brother were standing, and then back to me, although he had to blink a few times before his eyes focused properly. “Are you adopted?”

The other guys at the table exploded in a chorus of, “Oh, man’s,” and “you’re going to get it now’s.”

I crooked my finger to make sure he came close.

“Don’t do it,” his friends warned him. “She’s going to lay you out.”

“My mother’s great grandmother was a famous baker in Poland, hauling heavy bowls of dough and trays of bread and cakes. She needed arms like this.” I shoved my finger an inch from his face. “So do I. I love those skinny people, but that baker is my true ancestor. You got anything more to say about it?”

He put up his hands and slouched back. “I’m shtupid, but not that shtupid.”

We all laughed and I felt at home for the first time all day. I was about to lift my trophy to take a drink when a wasp flew into it. The cup was about half-full, with the liquid below the etching, so I had a good view. As the insect tried to get free, it stung the cup. I watched, mesmerized, as it shot venom over and over into the punch.

That wasp was me. Yeah, in the stupid way of me being a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. But I’d also been doing what that wasp was doing: I felt stuck so I was impotently lashing out, spewing poison. The fact that I’d kept most of my poison to myself didn’t mean it wasn’t hurting someone.

I needed a transfer out of the city I’d grown up in. If this kept going, I’d wind up hating everyone, including myself.

Of course, my mother chose that moment of realization to come over. “Stand up, stand up, dear. Let me see that beautiful dress again.”

How many itty-bitty glasses of punch had she had? I dutifully stood and let her take my hands in hers, but I glared at the firefighters to keep their comments to themselves.

“You look like a vision of summertime.”

“I look like a linebacker in drag.”

“No you don—” Her hands flew to her mouth and she giggled. “I’m so sorry. But you do. You really do.” She sighed. “I apologize. I thought if you looked like the rest of your friends from LCA you’d remember that you’re one of us and you’d get a nice, safe job and date—”

“Nice, safe men. I know, Mother.” I pulled her in for a hug. “We almost had a moment, there.”

She patted my back, too soaked in alcohol to hear what I was saying.

I foisted her onto a passing friend and sat back down. The wasp seemed dead, so I fished it out with a spoon and put it under an overturned glass. “So which of you guys is driving the truck?”

Al and Rich raised their hands.

“I’m assuming you didn’t drink?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Would you be willing to drive some of these people home in the truck? If we offer an incentive, we’re more likely to get them to cooperate with not driving themselves. I’d have to arrest two-thirds of them if they so much as looked at their cars.”

“Why not call the paddy wagon?”

“Same reason I’d rather use pepper spray than my taser: paddy wagon means paperwork.”

They laughed as I stood and lifted my award to them. “Here’s to the fun we’re going to have in the next hour.” I took one last sip.

It wasn’t until I’d swallowed and then dumped the rest of my punch on the ground that I remembered about the wasp venom. I went still.

My throat didn’t swell; my stomach didn’t hurt.

The Everclear probably killed the poison, just like it killed the inhibitions of the Lexington Conservation Committee.

I took a deep breath and put my arm around the nearest drunk person. “How would you like to ride the ladder truck home?”

 

My Own Damn Ice Pack

[This is a flash fiction piece I wrote for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I was given the assignment of writing a piece of political satire that took place at a golf club that included an ice pack. Also should be noted that it’s rather cruder than what I usually post here.]

 

used with permission from morguefile.com
used with permission from morguefile.com

I couldn’t post about my first loop of the day on Facebook – the club frowned on caddies publicly mocking their members and guests. But thank the geeks for the disappearing messages of Snapchat:

Yeah, Sen. Rogers, a longer shaft / is better, but you still have / to know what to do with it. / I was talking about golf. / What did you think?

Hope he connects with his own / balls better than he does / with a golf ball.

By the time Rogers was taking his practice swing at the 7th hole, his cronies were sniggering at him like mean girls in high school. If I could see them, that meant he could, too, so I moved to block his line of sight.

That was my mistake.

His mistake was to overcompensate for his lack of power by using his driver although he only had to make 175. Whatever the head speed was when the club slammed into my ribs, it had to be higher than anything he’d managed all morning.

It hurt almost as bad as a piñata stick to the nuts – no, worse, because I couldn’t breathe. The bag clanked to the ground as I folded in half and dropped to my knees. I dug my fingertips into the turf and begged my lungs to inflate.

While I suffocated, I watched the players’ feet move into a tight circle, toes in. I couldn’t see my fellow caddies, but when they spoke, the sound was close enough that I knew they were crouching beside me.

“If you die,” Bear said. “Can I get your locker?”

“Biggest tip of the year, for sure,” Scratch said. “He’s shitting his pants at the idea of you going to the media.”

Wanting to laugh only made the pain sharper. Finally, air seeped in. I sat back. The players were still talking in their knot.

“Can you stand?” Scratch asked.

I couldn’t talk yet, so I gave a thumb’s down. Of course that’s when the players looked at me, which sent them to whispering more furiously.

Soon, Rogers announced to the air above my head, “I’ll take you back to the clubhouse while the others play on.” He stalked off in the direction we came from. Without his clubs.

“Senator.” My voice was a weak rasp. “Senator.” The effort of yelling almost did me in, but it still wasn’t loud enough. I raised my eyebrows at the other caddies and pointed to our left. Bear jogged toward Rogers and showed him where the shortcut was; he went to the mouth of the path and waited, arms crossed.

My legs shook as I got back to my feet. Did he really just nail me with his club and then expect me to carry his bag? Did none of his friends think that I might not be able to shoulder fifty pounds immediately after getting the wind knocked out of me and, possibly, breaking my ribs? They’d already turned back to their game.

The searing pain when I tried to lift the bag almost dropped me again.

Still no offers of help.

To hell with the turf; I dragged the bag. The Senator was glaring down the fairway, so I don’t know how he saw me, but when I was ten feet away he finally came at me and snatched the bag. I hobbled five feet behind him the rest of the way.

I headed for the caddie shack but he ordered me to follow him into the clubhouse. He took the house manager’s arm and muttered in his ear before they steered me to a couch and each got on their phones.

After a few minutes, the caddie manager appeared. “You know the club isn’t liable for this.”

I nodded. That was minute one of caddie training: You are an independent contractor. You can’t sue the club for anything.

“Trainer’s with a client. Can you manage another loop today?”

I dropped my head back against the couch. Just breathing was still painful. “No.”

A pat on the shoulder was the end of support from him.

The Senator took the phone off his ear and grabbed the manager again. “Is there a doctor in the house?”

The manager apologized profusely. To the Senator.

Rogers gave the man a dead-eye stare. “No doctors. In a golf club.”

The manager swallowed hard. “Our retired doctors don’t all keep their malpractice insurance, so…”

I tried to sigh, but it hurt too much.

Three club members came over. To the Senator.

“Driver slipped out of my hands.” Rogers shrugged.

They chatted about club accidents for a while before someone said, “You’re trying to keep this quiet, I assume.”

“Especially because you haven’t been polling as well with the Hispanics,” another one added.

I closed my eyes. The Hispanics. One Mexican grandmother was apparently too many. Too bad I’d need these idiots’ money to turn pro after college.

“Call your attorney now to get a non-disclosure agreement started.”

“This could cost you some money.”

“My doctor owes me for a little information that made him a bundle. I could get you in this afternoon.”

“Fax the agreement to the club.”

“Make sure he signs it before he leaves.”

There was some whispering and the next thing I knew, the couch cushion dipped and someone snuck his fingers under the caddie bib and my shirt and probed around my torso. I flinched and sat up but his hands were out of there before I could even yell.

“Ribs don’t feel broken to me,” he said.

I could’ve told him that.

And then they were talking about times they’d broken their ribs.

It was almost funny. Not one person had asked me what hurt or what I needed. Not one had even looked at me.

Same shit as always.

I teetered upright and got my own damn ice pack from the freezer by the bar. Where everyone knew they were kept.