Beyond Ugly (a short story)

After 25 years it probably wasn’t even the same door, but it could have been. It led to the same school, the same fetid swamp of teenage cruelty. My grasping the handle unleashed a fresh deluge of memories. My arm trembled, and my knees went weak.

Obviously, the decision I’d been defending was a mistake. But it was also too late. It was too late not to go to my 25th high school reunion, because I was here.

I’d arrived in Stirton an hour early, having somehow missed the promised freeway construction delays. I freshened up in the tolerably clean restroom of a convenience store, then made my way to the campus where I’d spent the worst thirteen years of my education.

For the last half hour of my drive, my older sister’s voice in my hands-free car audio system had said pretty much what I’d told myself for weeks, even before I bought my reunion ticket online. Vicky and I were both right: “Kat, this is a bad idea.”

Stirton was a small town, where everyone knew everyone, and its only elementary school, only middle school, and only high school were right in a row, along one side of the state highway that doubled as Main Street. All three cinder block temples of learning had been built in the same decade, each just in time, give or take a year, for me to suffer in it.

Keep My Secrets? (a short story at Christmas)

I froze when Mom knocked. “Feel like driving to the airport?” she asked through my bedroom door.

“Why would I want to?” It seemed like a reasonable question.

She turned the knob but only cracked the door. “Because no matter how old you are, Mike, or how far away you go to school, I’m still your mother. May I open the door?”

I was home for the holidays, currently wrapping Dad’s Christmas gifts for Mom – which I was bad at, but he was worse. The real secret, if she could have seen it, was in my head. I was thinking about expanding the little business my parents didn’t know I ran at school, if I could do it without my grades slipping or someone ratting me out to the university. Demand exceeded my supply, even at the high end.

I buried the last unwrapped gift. “It’s safe.”

The door swung open. “Dad’s at work, Mallory’s helping me, I’m up to my armpits in cookie dough, and Jill’s flight lands in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Kathy’s by the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck.” Her voice turned tired. “That’s why you want to, smart aleck. But mostly the mother thing.”

I smiled. “Okay already. You had me at tow truck.”

Her eyebrows arched. “Not at Jill?”

I shrugged. Jill was Kathy’s daughter, Kathy was Mom’s best friend, we were neighbors, and Jill and I had been friends since we were toddlers. We had one of those comfortable friendships you could pick up where you left off, after a month or a year. The thought of seeing her for the first time since last Christmas made me a little nervous, and our first minute might be awkward, but then it would be like old times.

“Thanks,” Mom said, and closed the door.

I was downstairs in ten minutes. It would have been three, but … Jill. A guy has to have some pride.

Her Voice (a short story)

There’s nothing like the sound of a mom reading to her children, when they’re your children too. It’s the exact opposite of their nightmares, the universal antidote to whatever imagined horrors the darkness may conceal. It works on me too, easing me away from today’s and tomorrow’s cares. And everything sounds better in Ann’s British accent.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. Read by Mum, for Jake and Amber.

“Once upon a time, there were four little Rabbits, and their names were…”

Jake and Amber are still young enough to enjoy snuggling in our bed for their bedtime stories, and they’re small enough to fit there between Ann and me. I’m in my pajamas because my bedtime is early too; I have to be on station by 5:00 a.m., almost an hour away. On work nights I hardly ever hear the end of the first story. I love falling asleep to Ann’s voice.

When it’s not a work night, I’m there for stories anyway. I love staying awake to her voice.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, half-awake for a fleeting moment, I’ll put my arm around the warm body beside me, and she’ll snuggle against me in her sleep and purr. At 3:45 a.m., when it’s time for me to get up, I try not to wake her, but she drowsily welcomes and sometimes returns a hug and kiss before falling back into sleep for a couple more hours.

I shower, dress, and pause for a moment in each child’s doorway, gazing happily on small, quietly slumbering forms in the pale white glow of the moon. Then it’s off to work.

That’s how things are for me at home, how they’re supposed to be. I’m not content with everything in my life, and I don’t always love a routine, but I love this one.

That is, I loved it until the storm came.

I Already Did (a short story)

Erin tried gently to pull me off the trail. It curved to the right; she wanted to go left. “Let’s go this way, Gary.”

The heavy overcast made it dark for late morning, but I’d have seen another path if it were really there.

We appeared to have the wilderness to ourselves for miles around, including the trail into the parched foothills, to what I thought was our destination. We’d hidden my scooter just in case, so no one would see it from the road, the trail, or the little parking lot.

“This is a perfectly good gravel path,” I said. “We’ll be less likely to meet snakes and other deadly things, if we stay on it.”

She smiled patiently. “Why is that?”

“Because things with claws, fangs, or big teeth know the humans use this path, so they probably avoid it. Unless there’s a bear waiting to steal our picnic basket.”

“I’m not sure it works that way.” She stared at the path, and her face darkened. “I don’t like this path. Too violent.”

I cocked my head and stared at her. “Too violent?”

“Look at all the little gravel,” she said. “You think it got that way on its own?”

“Got what way?” I rumbled. I loved her, weird thoughts and all, but today I was in no mood for crazy.

“All broken up, with sharp corners and rough edges. Imagine the violence required to turn ordinary rocks into this, so they can make a path out of it.”

I’d once heard a rock crusher at fairly close range. The sound was horrific, but it wasn’t from rocks screaming in agony or in fear of a painful death. You had to live to die.

“Besides, this path doesn’t go where we’re going,” she added, almost as an afterthought.

“Okay.”

We set off across the reddish ground, through the grayish sagebrush, toward a gap in the brownish foothills.

I Am Chuck Steak (a short story)

“It’s a meat market, Amber.”

My roommate’s face in the mirror looks a little hurt, because I’m complaining about church.

I’m in her room, tying one of my gym shoes, while she adds a little more curl to her long hair. I have a date with a treadmill. She has an actual date.

“The whole YSA ward thing’s a meat market, or just the pool party?” she asks calmly, not interrupting her work.

“The whole thing. The pool party itself is like the meat market’s huge Labor Day sidewalk sale.”

“Having a separate congregation for young single adults isn’t just about marrying us off,” she says, parroting the official line. It’s familiar, but I listen anyway. She always listens to me. “We get more opportunities for leadership and service, and the activities and programs can focus on our needs and interests.”

I cinch up the other shoe. “Plus we don’t have to go to church with all those women who have husbands and babies already, and be reminded that we don’t,” I add helpfully. Sort of helpfully.

“We don’t yet.” Amber’s an optimist.

“Right. Sorry. I shouldn’t complain. Again.”

She glances at me, smiling faintly, and turns back to the mirror. “It’s okay. I know you like it less than I do. But you’re still giving it a chance for a while, right?”

Orange Juice (a short story)

On my break I strolled around the block, admiring the trees which lined the streets. They had burst into pinks and whites over the weekend, making downtown smell like spring. They must be especially stalwart trees, I thought, to bloom so abundantly amid the concrete, asphalt, and exhaust fumes. The very idea of them was intoxicating.

At the last possible instant I saw and dodged a blond, pant-suited, high-heeled woman as she hurried in the other direction. Her eyes were glued to her smart phone. I kept walking but turned my head, seeking any sign that she’d noticed the near miss her large coffee and possibly her phone screen had just survived. It was pointless to snarl; she was already several yards behind me and moving fast. At least I wasn’t wearing her coffee.

Maybe she was watching premarket trades. I did, when I dressed like her for work. The markets would open in an hour. How many stockbrokers worked in these glass towers? How many lawyers and accountants?

The blow to the side of my head stopped me in my tracks. The temporary “ROAD WORK” sign hadn’t been there earlier. It was metal, but my skull hit it with a dull thud, not a clang, though I felt like a clapper.

I gathered my shattered thoughts, brushed off concerned questions from solicitous passersby who weren’t on their screens, and walked on. Five minutes later I was in the ladies’ room at work, deciding the bump wasn’t bleeding and wouldn’t be visible under my hair. Five minutes after that, I was at Table Six, trying to be pleasant and wishing the ibuprofen would kick in.

“Here you go, Frank,” I said. “One large, fresh-squeezed orange juice and your check. Thanks for coming in.”

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.”


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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.