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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.