If Only I (a short story)

Henry! Come up to dinner! Lights out on your way.” Mom was always going on about the electric bill.

“Two minutes, Mom.” I crossed out what I had just written and tried again.

I watched you wipe a tear away
And smile, when 

“Wipe” was wrong. And “watched” and “when.” I changed them all, then hurriedly scrawled the rest of the lines that had formed in my head on the school bus and during a snack break in the middle of my math homework. I didn’t want to forget them.

Where We Do Difficult Things:
Good AF Writers

Writing is often a solitary activity, well suited to introverts. We thrive in a sort of solitude where we rarely feel alone, thanks to the people or creatures, historical or imagined, who fill our stories and books. But several essential writerly activities require us to interact with contemporary, fellow humans in challenging ways. Three of these happen over and over again at the twice-monthly meetings of a local critique group, Good AF Writers. (AF is for American Fork, Utah. What were you thinking?)

Different critique groups operate in different ways, but most have three nerve-wracking activities in common:

  • reading an excerpt of your writing aloud
  • hearing others’ feedback on your writing
  • giving others your feedback on their writing

Open Windows (a very short story)

I’m with my critique group in someone’s back yard. They’ve read a draft of my latest short story this week, and it’s time for critiques. They won’t be cruel. They’ll praise what they like but pull no punches. I need them not pulling punches. We’re trying to become better writers.

Tonight, though, maybe I need to feel safe more than I need to improve. What they don’t know, and I won’t tell them, is that this story isn’t purely fiction. It’s about a part of my past I don’t talk about.

Until now.

Coincidentally, I also have fresh messages to call both my parents. The timing is troubling. We weren’t due to speak again for another two months, on my birthday.

In our group Peter (historical thrillers) is the sensitive one. He goes first, from across the table. Tonight I’d rather he went last. He’s our Balm of Gilead.

“Jeri, this is fiction, right? And the female MC isn’t you?”

By rule, authors just listen to the critiques, but we’re not strict. “It’s fiction,” I say. “She’s not me.”

Not Here (a short story)

Dublin, c. 2055

Grandpa’s antique accordion wheezed gently. Its bellows breathed the cool, damp Irish air for the first reedy notes of my song. Grandpa was long dead, but his polished instrument came alive in my hands, as always. It had been safely in its case during my transit between the fishing boat and the shore, so it was untouched by the salt spray that had touched everything else.

I played a tune that had haunted me from the moment I first heard him play it at his home, after a service at his Russian Orthodox cathedral in London. That was back when London – part of London – was still a vibrant, multiethnic showpiece.

The city wasn’t like that anymore. It had decayed into lukewarm tribal warfare, like the rest of the Pan-European Alliance for Peace and Social Justice. A hundred factions chose their allies and fought their enemies with laws, protests, barricades, and often weapons. Alliances shifted and shifted again, and the conflict continued.

“In church this song for only voices, unaccompanied,” Grandpa explained in his thick Russian accent. I had tried for years to master that accent, with its rich, long vowels, but I couldn’t. In truth I spoke poorly in words, accented or otherwise. Everything music was to me, words were not.

Rhonda VII (a short story)

What I wanted to say was, “I’m a football player, not a popsicle.” What I said was, “This is what you want us to wear to the Homecoming dance?”

School had been out for half an hour, when Haylee pulled me into a short, dead-end hallway to talk about formal wear. I stared at her phone in my hand. The disaster she was planning filled the screen.

“This is what I’m wearing,” she said, “and because you’re my boyfriend and we’re probably going to be Homecoming King and Queen, we should coordinate.”

The models on the website had coordinated. His tux was as pink as her dress.

“It’s not just the color,” Haylee explained. “It’s the style and the fabrics too. My gown and your tux were made to go together. Wait till you see everything in person.”

I returned her phone, shaking my head.

“Is there a problem, Ty?” she asked semi-sweetly. The color rising in her cheeks contrasted starkly with her blonde, very very blonde hair.

“Yeah, there’s a problem. I’m not wearing a pink tux. Especially not for $228.”

Her big, sad, brown eyes didn’t affect me like they usually did. I may have been in shock from all the pink. Besides, lately Haylee was just too … Haylee. Maybe that was the real problem.

Recent Reading: 10 More Books and a Memory

The more I read, the more I want to talk about what I read — and I’ve been reading more lately. I don’t mean more than I’ve ever read before. There was graduate school at Cornell — in Russian literature, a landscape of giant novels (which I still love), countless poems and short stories, and sprawling artistic manifestoes. Long before that were nineteen days at my grandparents’ farm in April 1975.

Do you mind very much if I remember for a few moments before I list the books?

Invisible (a short story)

I can be invisible.

No, really. I have proof. We’ll get to that.

I can see myself in the mirror, and other people can see me if they want. You probably could if you wanted to. So I don’t think my invisibility is supernatural. It’s more like out of mind, out of sight.

It hasn’t always been this way, and I don’t just mean that people ignore me at school, though they mostly do. In the halls that’s a good thing. Even as a seventh grader, I’m too tall for ninth graders to stuff me into a locker, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t try.

Mostly it’s my sister, Joanie, and her best friend, Charlotte. They’re both three years older than me, so they’re sophomores. They go to high school.

Joanie’s friends get to call her Jo. As for Charlotte, everyone calls her Shar – except me, because I like her real name.

I’m Stefan, but Stef is fine too. I’m an artist.

“I triumph still, if Thou abide with Me” (a reflection)

One of the unsung joys of Christian worship — there may be a pun there, alas — is encountering verses of a beloved hymn which aren’t in the hymnal you happen to use. A double blessing is discovering (or later remembering) them in a time when they are immediately relevant to you, your loved ones, or the state of things around us generally. This week, I was struck by these lines from the well-beloved hymn on Henry Francis Lyte’s text, “Abide with Me”:

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.