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.

Wildfire (a short story)

Getting to Maylee’s going-away party at all was a thing. My cousin Jaxson and I took a state highway into the country and turned onto a small road, then a smaller road, then one that rattled my teeth and wasn’t even paved. I didn’t complain. Jaxson was a nice guy, but he’d just call me a city girl again.

Just past a farmhouse and a dark cluster of outbuildings, we turned onto a trail around the edge of a field. We were eight miles from town, he said. It felt like fifty.

The bumps on the trail were bigger but fewer than on the road. Jaxson drove cautiously, except where a leaking irrigation line had flooded the trail. We sailed through that swamp at reckless speed, so we wouldn’t get stuck.

“I love doing that,” he said.

I considered prying my white-knuckled hands from the center armrest and the handle above my door. Maybe not yet.

The trail cut away from the field, and the headlights probed an unearthly scene – broken, jagged, black lava, with scattered, stunted brush and forlorn tufts of grass that wasn’t green.

Jackrabbits scampered across our path, then a fatter, lumbering thing. A groundhog, maybe. I didn’t ask.

Miles later, or maybe a hundred yards, another field opened before us, nestled among the lava. It looked like grass – green, this time – but he guessed it was wheat or barley. The headlights didn’t reach across it.

We parked with other muddy vehicles in a sort of grassy cove, with no lava but no grain planted either. We’d walk along the edge of the field, he said, to another cove with a fire and some old logs for seating. He’d been here before.

Thick clouds hid the stars, and there was no moon. Darkness was never this black in the city.

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.”

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.”

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.