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.

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 Dreamed You Died Thursday Night (a very short story)

Last Thursday night, I dreamed that you died.

I don’t know you. You don’t know me – and now you probably don’t want to.

But you’re wondering, how did I know it was you?

I know you died because everybody died. Everybody on earth and the handful of people in orbit too.

Maybe the next thing you’re wondering is, how did we all die? And who, if anyone, caused it to happen? (Maybe the Iranians finally got the bomb, and it was a really big bomb – or they started a really big war. But I think not. It seemed to happen faster than that.)

I’ll answer your questions in reverse order.

The how is, I caused it.

Clipped (a very short story)

One barber chair, occupied (by me). One spare, empty. Mirrors everywhere. A damp hair smell, but not hair products; this isn’t a salon. Cut hair on the floor in several hues, mostly white and gray.

Three old guys in padded chairs, waiting. Three identical chairs, empty. No news or sports playing; the four-foot thinscreen on the wall is broken. Its replacement is in the corner, still rolled up in its long, thin Featherwrap™ shipping tube after more than a month.

A fake fireplace, turned off. Fake wood fires seem pointless, when people scarcely remember real ones. A coat rack by the door: two jackets, no hats, one umbrella.

Main Street in the window. Countless e-cars, humming softly as they zoom past, beyond the well-worn sidewalk. A pothole repair robot-truck along the opposite curb, groaning, thumping, gasping, steaming.

A table with magazines, mostly Time: Heritage Edition. Nearly everything else went out of print, what, thirty years ago?

I Made Muffins (a short story)

What would you say if you were standing at the front door of a nice guy you just met, and it was 6 a.m. and still dark, and you were delivering fresh baked goods he wasn’t expecting, but you hadn’t rung his doorbell yet because you hadn’t figured out what to say, and he opened the door and found you there?

I said, “Here. I made muffins,” and held out a paper bag with two large muffins. They were fresh from the oven.

He took it, smiling faintly. His eyebrows were all the way up to where his hairline might once have been. Now he had no hairline. But he could have looked quite a lot worse. If he’d had an oversized mustache, and little tufts of fur protruding from his ears and nose, he’d have looked like Mr. Nixon, my middle school principal.

That’s what I had thought at the Christmas Eve party, 34 hours earlier. Now I could hardly think at all.

The Old Man and the Chicken (a short story)

The tiny old barn had a sloping metal roof and walls made of scrap two-by-fours, laid flat, staggered like long bricks, nailed together, and painted barn-red on the outside against the weather. It had stood for 63 years and might stand as many more.

The only window was covered with chicken wire, because half the barn had long been used as a chicken coop. In winter, to conserve heat, the opening was covered inside and out with clear, thick plastic. It always came off in the spring, until one year the old man hadn’t bothered to remove it. He was too tired, and he knew he’d still be too tired in the fall, when it was time to put it back on.

The chickens would be fine in the summer heat anyway, he reasoned. He could leave both doors open during the day. The side door led to an outdoor run that was twenty feet square and fenced tightly enough to keep the skunks out. In front the inner door was a screen of sorts, a hinged wooden frame with more chicken wire. The solid plywood outer door was weathered but intact.

A metal handle turned, hinges creaked, and the old man appeared in the doorway. He carried a tall, four-legged stool and a bulging plastic grocery bag that was starting to tear near the bottom.

“Just me, chicken. Where are you?”

Nine Roses and Three (a short story)

February 13

Dear Mary Beth,

I don’t know whether they have the same holidays or even the same calendar where you are – or if time means anything there at all. I’ve heard that it doesn’t. But it’s Valentine’s Day again here. Well, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.

I’ve been counting. Tomorrow will be the sixth Valentine’s Day since you left. I still love you, and I still miss you every day and every night.

I spent today making preparations. You can imagine how that goes at my age. What I could have done in half an hour before, without a second thought, took the whole day. It was exhausting, and there were some frustrations. But it was a good day, because I was doing it for you.

They don’t send out as many ads with the newspaper any more, or in the mail either. I guess everything is on the Internet now. Everyone is probably on the Internet too, except me. I’m too old to need an Internet. I’ll be 87 in April, but you know that already. You’d have been a youthful 83 last month, but you know that, too.

Unmanned (a very short story)

We were camping. My neighbor Joe and I didn’t want to be camping – that night or ever, really – but our ten-year-old sons begged and pleaded and even did extra chores, so we had to take them camping.

Overnight. In the mountains. Sleeping in tents. But not really sleeping. Trying to sleep.

It wasn’t all bad. The moonless night was warm and clear, and the thick blanket of stars we saw above us between the treetops was amazing. But for me – apart from the disorientation of being off the grid, with no Internet and no cell service – it was all about the fire.

The fire kept the animals away, or so I supposed – bears, coyotes, whatever. Somebody said there weren’t any wolves, but there were bobcats and mountain lions here and there. Eventually we’d have to put the fire out. I was more than nervous about that, but only a little afraid.

Joe was a different matter altogether. He was paranoid, neurotic – not in a clinical sense, perhaps, but not in a particularly manly sense either. Park him in front of a computer or hand him a golf club or make him give a speech in front of 5,000 people, and he was right at home. Take him into the mountains or onto a body of water, and he turned to pudding. Not one of your quieter puddings.