Category Archives: Short Stories

I will believe

“Everything will be okay,” he said. My husband reached to take my hands but I held them curled around my belly.

“They can’t get me in until tomorrow.” Just saying it ached.

Tomorrow. 10:45 am Tuesday, otherwise known as an eternity away. An eternity of tenuous trips to the bathroom, each time with my breath caught in my throat. Fearing for the inevitable stain that marked the end of another pregnancy.

“Was there a lot of—” and there he paused, held the word out as if on tongs at arm’s length. “Blood?”

Guys can’t deal. They just can’t. And he should know that any is too much. And waiting twenty hours for an appointment is too fucking long. Especially when you know at the end of it lays the inevitable news: You’ve lost the baby. Again.

<—>

“Everything is okay.”

ultrasoundDr. Zhang smiled and handed me a printout. I took it with both hands and stared: my baby. Dancing. Heart rate 149. Tae-Bo-Baby caught mid-stride, giving the ultrasound a thumbs up.

“It’s going to be okay,” I whispered. Pulled the paper to my chest, carried it to the car, smoothed it against my cheek. Slept with it on the nightstand and reminded myself: It’s going to be okay. Said it daily. Hourly. Sometimes minute-to-minute and every second as needed. You can’t take these things for granted. If I’ve learned anything in life, I learned that one cold.

Thirty weeks later, my son made his squalling entrance. “Winner baby,” they called him. Sunny nurses passed him around maternity and smiled. My miracle.

Flip through the deck of years, past the three days in the hospital at eighteen months with that nasty virus that ravaged his belly and left dark circles under his eyes for weeks. Past that frantic trip to the ER in Jackson Hole, hotel towel pressed to his forehead to stanch the bleeding. Past that day I heard the terrible crash and ran to find him wailing at the bottom of the stairs with one crumpled forearm. Past kindergarten, that first boisterous sleepover. That dastardly riding tractor with the glitchy go-pedal. Training wheels off and full speed ahead and now he’s thirteen and towering over me.

“Six months, twenty-three days and four hours until I get my learner’s permit,” he says.

My kid. Grinning and dark. Sarcastic and bright. Poised on the brink of greatness or disaster. Don’t think I don’t know–I was thirteen once. And fourteen. And dear God, seventeen. I know well the peril coiled inside every possibility.

I wonder at the cards still waiting in the deck.

“Don’t worry Mom, I drove the golf cart in the Bahamas. I’m a really good driver. Everything will be okay.” He pats my head. He thinks it’s cute, that he can do that. That Mom is little, past is past, and his whole future lies ahead.

Everything will be okay.

I will believe.

I must.

 

A Damn Fine Fire

big bonfire

By Janne Karaste (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I watch her in the field, her sunhat bobbing as she leans to check the early May buds or bends to pull a weed, and I think about how it could have been. And I wonder if we are better because if it.

It started innocently enough. She was busy writing, I was busy sniping and being seventeen, and she started to complain how all her hard work was getting her nowhere. And goddamn me for having the nerve to complain about my life. And so I said to her, “It’s because you suck.”

She stared at me a long moment, as if I’d slapped her. It was surprising, really, because I’d said plenty worse before. But this one particular must have hit her wrong. Maybe she’d been stuck on a tricky piece of dialogue, or opening a chapter. Or who knows, because I think you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s timing.

She cried. Silently at first, but it grew into racking sobs, the sort you never hear outside of daycares or mental asylums. Dad and I stood speechless. Because, honestly— it’s more than a little distressing to watch your wife or mother go unhinged. And up to that point, we’d thought she was put together—you know–upstairs.

It’s just that she had no business doing it—that writing thing. And Dad, he tried to tell her, but you really can’t tell someone they suck at something. Especially when it’s something they want so badly. Except by then, even she was starting to realize. And so I said: “You suck.”

After the crying, like an hour or more of it, she lifted her head and stared across her office, to some faraway place that neither Dad nor I could see. Like a castaway imagining a ship on the horizon. I could see her left eye twitch and she said, “Ahhhh.”

With mighty purpose, she lifted her fingers to the keys of her laptop, and began.

Across the room, the printer whirred to life, spat out one page and then another. The printer shat and spat and spewed her stories, one by one. The poems, the plays, the essays. The treatments and the novels. Her collection of flash fiction, the synopses and her journals.

The stack of papers grew so tall that pages gushed onto the floor and still—she kept on printing. Soon the words all faded gray, and fainter still, with skinny lines all eaten through, until there were only ghosts of words. And finally, blank.

She watched the empty pages churn through the inkless printer, let them flutter to the floor because there was nowhere else to land.

Once the printer stopped, she started to erase. One by one, jaw clenched, she opened all the files, stabbed the keys, and killed her stories. Each pitch, each book, each query. And once she’d hunted down the last, nuked the text and jabbed delete, she slammed the lid of her laptop shut, looked up and glared at me.

“Ha,” she said. But by now I could only look away.

She pushed back from her desk, got up and staggered toward the printer. Lurching right and left, she shoveled armloads of papers into an open garbage can.

Then she charged past Dad and me and marched out the doorway, down the hall and into the backyard—all the time holding that trashcan in front of her like she was leading the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And just outside the shade of the sycamore, she dumped it.

She went back three more times, shoveling in every last page that had drifted about the office, until she had a pile outside a good two feet tall. After vanishing into the garage for a minute, she came out with lighter fluid. For a good five minutes, she stood there spraying, stopped and dropped it. Went inside and came out smirking, her laptop high above her head, like an airport chauffeur awaiting a mysterious stranger, and when she got to the pit, she slammed it down—so hard we heard her grunt, felt the thump and heard it echo about the yard.

She rattled out the last few drops of lighter fluid and looked over her shoulder at us. “Matches,” she smiled.

Dad crossed a protective arm over me and took a step back. “No.”

As if he could stop her. “Yesss,” she said. I could see the whites of her eyes all the way around.

She pushed past, ran inside, and rifled through the kitchen drawers, leaving every last one open. But there was not a lighter or a match to be found—so she charged across the yard, broke off a low-hanging branch, snapped it on one knee and proceeded to rub two sticks together.

She kept at it for forty minutes, stopping every now and then to push her hair back and wipe the sweat out of her eyes. And when she started crying again, I drove to Gas Buddy and bought her a lighter.

They say the flames shot up two stories.

When the fire steadied, she pulled up an Adirondack and a box of Barefoot and stayed there all afternoon and evening. When the flames got low, she dragged out her box of writing tomes, her chair and desk. Piece by piece, she fed them to the fire. Now and then, she’d poke the embers with an old golf club and tip her head back to watch the sparks roar up to the sky, like stars set free.

I think about that day a lot now, about how different it was back then and how seldom you seen the demarcations in your life that you can point to it and say, that is when it happened. That is when it changed.

She doesn’t talk much now, or smile often, but I think she’s happy. She spends a lot of time outdoors, and I think the vineyard suits her better than writing ever did.

There’s just too much trouble in it—the writing—and no way to know if it’s right. I think that’s what pushed her over the edge that day, realizing what it was, how imperfect. How deficient. How incomplete.

Now that it’s gone—her writing, I mean—I’ve wondered. It probably wasn’t fair, what I said about her work. It might have been true—or maybe it was only true to me. Or perhaps it was just true at the time. No one can say for sure. But I think she realized what I do now—there’s no way to measure writing, no way to prove and no way to ever know if it’s right. There is only one true thing about it:

It makes a damn fine fire.

In Memory Officer Sunner

She never knew. Not until she saw it that night on television. Then it was only because his killer had died. Her savior was thirty years in his grave; that handsome young cop.

She still remembered him.

Then she was a shadow of a girl, barely a hundred pounds and eyes too shy for anyone to know the color of. The man was all tattoos and swagger, wearing a wife-beater, drunk. It’s not cliché if you invented it. That’s why you shouldn’t marry young.

Every night the man was out, or at her. Sorry in the morning. Her, bruised. You don’t know what life is, until you’ve had it nearly choked away.

The cop was new; the neighbors called. He took the girl outside, begged her to leave, handed her a number. Said she had to press charges, because that’s just how they did it back then. She stared at the crumpled number in a bleeding hand. Said it was nothing.

It was nothing for the sixth time.

The cop went inside, charged at the man, leaned into his face, “You think you’re tough?” Thunked the man’s chest with a forefinger.

That night it worked. The man took the bait, swung and went to jail with his hands cuffed behind his back.

She almost got away. But the man was back the next day, sorry. There were a few more years of almosts before she gave up. But she always remembered what he did that night: that cop; her savior.

But a savior needs someone worth saving.

It was a different night, a different fight. Domestic dispute; the same young cop provoking. That woman bleeding, that man armed with a twelve-gauge shotgun. Cop killer.

You could say it didn’t work that night, but it did. That woman got thirty years to get away.

Every savior needs someone worth saving.

 

Inspired by: http://thegazette.com/subject/news/public-safety/crime/man-convicted-of-killing-cedar-rapids-police-officer-dies-in-prison-20150105

Me, the Beast and that B!+*# in Louboutins

Two things:

1. Turns out you can eat too many sugar cookies.

2. Writing sucks. Here’s why: Somewhere between inspiration and completion lies a battle zone, where muse and inner critic wage war. And here’s a glimpse of what it looks like at my place:

She made a disgusted noise—you know the one that starts with a ‘t’ sound and ends with an exasperated sigh. “You aren’t really going to do that, are you? End a scene like that?”

“Um. Sort of?” I say. I realize how lame it sounds. End every scene on an emotional shift. End every scene on an emotional shift. If she’s told me once, she’s told me a thousand times.

“I heard that,” she says.

“What?”

“‘Told me once, told me a thousand times.’ What did I tell you about clichés?”

“That they’re…bad?”

“Hmph.” She bends forward, rests a manicured hand on my desktop and adjusts her glasses with the other. She peers closely at the screen and then turns to me, incredulous. “Did you just use an adverb?”

“Ahh.”

I did. I totally used an adverb. I was in a hurry. I thought it sounded okay. I didn’t think anyone would get hurt. Oh god. There’s just no excuse. Not when SHE’S around.

SHE is inner critic, editor in chief and nothing satisfies her. She’s tall, effortlessly thin. You know the type: power suit, lip-liner and those shoes with the red soles—the-I-can’t-remember-the-name-of-thems.

Louboutins,” she says with a perfect French accent.

“Huh?”

“The shoes. They’re Louboutins.”

“Oh, right.”

“Wouldn’t kill you to do some research now and then, you know.”

I try to catch the Beast’s eye, but he’s reclining on the other side of my desk, feet up, examining what appears to be a booger at the tip of one filthy finger.

She clears her throat and taps one crimson nail on my monitor. “Are you with me, Karen?”

“Yes.”

“Then fix this,” she hisses, her finger underscoring the adverb.

She pulls back. “Oh my God. Did you just attribute my dialogue?”

“Ahhh.”

She throws her arms up and storms for the door, pausing long enough to mutter to the Beast before she leaves: “I can’t work with her. She’s hopeless. Don’t waste your time.”

The Beast does nothing. The door slams and I spend a few moments staring at my hands lying limp on the keyboard.

Finally, I look up and try to snag his eye. “That’s good, right? We can finally get some work done.”

He leans forward and wipes the booger on the underside of my desk. “Maybe,” he says. “If you’d get your ass off that blog.”

Sigh.

Here’s hoping you win your creative battles today.

 

 

Thank You Fred Colton

FullSizeRenderI know it wants to kill me. To you it looks like a plastic sack, innocuous but for the strange fact that it sits at the end of the Miller’s driveway, open and empty—gaping like a set of hungry jaws.

I saw it on my run this morning. Back then it was down at the corner, stealthy in the shadow of a blown street light; watching me.

It didn’t follow. No, not then. But I saw it listing west, as if sensing a coming breeze. I knew the second my back was turned it’d be spurling after me—a manmade tumbleweed with a deadly mission. They can kill, you know. It’s not hard to imagine. Three micrometers may not seem like much, but when it’s slicked against your face like some unholy caul, leaving you with only one-half a miserly breath, well then—you’ll know.

After I dropped my son off at practice, I saw it again. This time closer—three driveways down—sitting still. But open. Plenty of room for a head in here, it says.

I could pull over, grab it, crumple it into a bland ball and stuff it into the recycling container. But even if it stayed there—I know better. Like an army of damned, like countless minions, they’d issue from the very bowels of the landfill to come after me.

You could have stopped it, they’d chant. And it’s true. The plastic ban was up for referendum nine months ago. I didn’t go. I didn’t vote. Not my problem, I thought. I use cloth bags. I sashay into the HyVee every Sunday toting six of them. Right now they’re lying flat in the back of my mom-car, ready to do their duty to produce and the environment. I didn’t cause this.

But now. I look outside. The plastic bag—it’s there—skulking in the shade of the sugar maple, next to the hydrangea I put in last spring. Grinning wide and waiting. Come inside, it says. It’s warm. And then cold.

Very, very cold.

Dear God, I should have voted.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the inspiration for it: Fred Colton’s Of Course He’s Going to Kill Me.

The Atacolypse

It’s a snow day here and Noble Hamster (my eleven-year-old) and I are up to no good. We’ve been concocting some flash fiction which I can only attribute to a love of fart jokes and fast food:

——————-

The Atacolypse

I was outside, hanging with my buddy Stanley, when the first one streaked across the sky. It was shooting flames and smelling like nachos supreme.

“What was it? A meteor? An asteroid?” Stanley asked.

I watched the smoke fade and another zoom along the same path. “No. I think it was…a taco.” Just then, an explosion lit the western horizon, followed by more blinding streaks from left to right. A volley of hard-shells landed at the edge of the back yard.

“Crap! Incoming! We gotta get inside.” Stanley turned, started for the back door and was blindsided by an enormous burrito.

It was like I’d always heard it would be…

When they built the Comida Loca factory at the west edge of town, my dad said it’d end badly. I figured it was his dislike of Southwestern cuisine talking. But he’d predicted: someday escaping gas from the frijole vat would ignite when it came into contact with Papa Juan’s Atomic Hot Sauce.

The explosions were pelting me–and all the fine folks of Hopetown–with a flying taco bar of terror.

“Dude, get up!” I shouted to Stanley.

He moaned and wiped sour cream out of his eye. “I’m not gonna make it. You go on ahead.” He licked a finger. “The seven-layer burrito is awesome.”

“We don’t have time for you get lunch. Someone’s got to stop this.”

“What are we gonna do?”

People always made fun of my dad, like saying he was one fish taco short of a Fiesta Pack. But he’d said this would happen. He’d been prepping for this sort of disaster for years, laying in a stockpile of gas masks and super soakers. By now, he had enough mild salsa and Beano to sink a king-sized combo of Run-For-The-Border-Destruction.

Stanley followed me into the garage where we loaded our weapons with salsa and put on our gas masks. “You really think it’s gonna work?” he asked.

“It has to.”

Once we were packing spicy heat, we hopped on our bikes and rode in the opposite direction, making a grande lasso around Hopetown. The south side of the factory was wide open, just like Dad always said it would be. We walked in the open doors, our footsteps echoing in the empty corridors. Every now and then, we stepped over a glassy-eyed victim, overcome by the toxic fumes.

“Is there anything we can do for them?” Stanley asked.

“Once we can contain the frijole vat, the air will clear and they’ll be fine,” I said.

The smell inside was worse than anything I’d ever imagined–even with our gas masks on. Worse than the time my Uncle Neal stayed with us after ordering the black bean soup at Mariana’s.

Suddenly, I realized Stanley was gone. I turned back to find him lying in a heap–knocked unconscious by the noxious fumes. I ran back, lifted off his mask and checked for a pulse. “I’m okay,” he coughed. “It’s up to you dude. You’re going to have to save us all.”

I tossed his broken gas mask to the side, ripped off my own and sucked in one last breath. Strapping the mask to his head, I said, “Hang in there,” and headed into the mayhem.

What was happening on the factory floor was like nothing I’d ever seen. Shards of broken taco shells flew everywhere over a slippery carpet of hot sauce. I held the salsa blaster in one hand and a high-powered Beano launcher in the other, my eyes darting everywhere as I searched for the source of the explosions.

The vat gurgled and sputtered like a contestant on the final round of a chimichanga eating contest. I fired a long blast of mild salsa at the thing. It creaked and moaned and grew larger before my eyes. I realized then that it was only seconds away from blowing completely and covering all of Hopetown with a refried paste of tortilla-torture. With all I had, I launched a dozen Beano capsules at it. One sparked. I dipped and dodged as tacos and nacho cheese flew past on all sides.

Still straining to hold my breath, I dove for cover behind a palette of enchilada sauce containers and launched a double dose of Beano at the thing. The container shuddered and with a mighty belch it let out one last gasp of foul air. I could hold my breath no longer.

When I woke, I smelled the sweet scent of fresh-fried churros. Was this heaven?

“Thought we’d lost you,” Stanley said.

“No, no,” I said, pushing him away and getting up. “I’m okay, everything’s okay—now.”

“Darn tooting,” Stanley said. “And I’m starving. Wanna go to Taco Kidd?”

“You betcha. But do me one favor, will ya?”

“A course, what?”

“Hold the beans.”

Me, The Cowboy and The Beast, Part II

The Beast lay the last page face down on the coffee table and made the face, the one where he twirled his tongue around the inside of his cheek.

“Well?” I asked.

“Hm.” He sniffed.

“What do you think? I wrote your book. 66,865 words. Do you like it?”

He breathed out his nose and looked away, staring out the window. “Well. It’s all right. For a first draft. But it’s not long enough. And chapter thirty-two—it’s all wrong. You have to rewrite it completely. ” He shook his head and turned back to me. “You’re not off the hook yet.”

I coughed in order to cover the curse word under my breath. It was best to stay on his good side. I tried again. “Do you even like it? I did what you asked me to do. Put in all that—stuff you wanted. No one’s going to like me. If it’s ever published—which it won’t be—well I can’t ever show my face at work again. Or anywhere, for that matter. But I wrote it like you told me to. And you can’t pay me a single compliment.”

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s got potential.”

“I’m not writing anymore. You’re evicted. I’m running a 5k instead.”

He laughed. “You won’t do no stinking 5k. Besides, you need me.”

It was a last resort, but worth a shot. “I don’t need you. I have him.” I pointed a thumb at the cowboy, dozing on the sofa with his hat over his face and his boots leaving dirty scuffs on the coffee table.

The Beast pulled a gun from his own holster and in a single instant, aimed and fired. The cowboy fell over, landed hard, blood drenching my Guatemalan pillow covers.

I got up, disgusted. “Oh man. I’m not doing anything until you clean that up.”

Poor Henry.

But the good news is, the first draft of HitList is finished.