Sunday, January 14, 2018

It’s Never Too Late

I returned to my hometown to attend my 50th class reunion. It was my first visit since leaving for college. I know that sounds strange, but the reason is simple. Dad received a job offer to work at NASA in Alabama six months after I left for Purdue University to study engineering, like Dad. With my parents gone, there was no reason to come back to where I grew up. I wasn’t 100 percent certain why I had now.

I parked my car on a side street and walked from one end of town to the other. It took less than five minutes. I never understood why Dad preferred living in such a small place. The college where he worked was twenty miles away in a city not that much bigger. He said Mom felt safer here. At least traffic wasn’t an issue.

Not much had changed in fifty years. Most of the buildings wore the same tired outsides. A new bank sat across from what used to be a soda shop, now a restaurant and bar. The post office was no longer on its usual corner. The gas station/garage on the corner of Main and Church had doubled in sized. I’d noticed the new wing on the high school as I drove into town and decided to walk the three long blocks there to find out what else had changed.

I saw the statue as I neared the school and froze when I realized who it was. Ms. Fontaine started teaching English my senior year. I enjoyed reading, so I signed up for an Advanced Placement course. It was love at first sight—at least for me—when I walked in the room the first day of classes and saw the new teacher with her shoulder length auburn hair, red lipstick, and perfect teeth peeking through a perfect smile. She wore a gray sweater and maroon skirt, the school colors.

My cheeks warmed when she called my name while taking attendance. I spent that first class avoiding eye contact by writing in my notebook, or staring at the back of Jake Davis’ head.

The only time she spoke to me outside of the classroom was to congratulate me at my graduation ceremony and to tell me how much she enjoyed having me in her class. My cheeks warmed once again, as a thank you stumbled out of my mouth.

I never forgot Ms. Fontaine. I considered reconnecting with her after college. She was only four or five years older than I. I never did. Instead, I married Emmi Lou, and she and I raised three wonderful children. Emmi died eight months ago of pancreatic cancer. I miss her a lot.

I stopped at the memorial park where the statue of Ms. Fontaine now resided and read the plaque. According to the inscription, after twenty years of teaching, she became the school superintendent, and after retiring from that job was elected mayor, a job she retained until she passed away. No cause was given.

I returned to the old soda shop, sat on a stool with a cracked leather top, and ordered the turkey platter. Two men sat a couple of stools away. One of them looked kind of familiar. I waited for a break in their conversation before asking about the statue at the school. The one who looked familiar asked if I knew Ms. Fontaine. I said not really.

“Well, she was quite the woman. No one expected her to stay here for any length of time. She sure surprised us. And she was a wonderful human being to boot. Most of the town folk believe she’s still with us.” The man paused to sneeze into  a faded, flannel shirt sleeve. “Thomas here saw her walking around last Halloween watching out for the little ones.”

“That’s right,” Thomas said.

“Others have seen her at the football games. Some think she was responsible for us winning a state championship last fall by keeping everyone’s spirits high, even when we were behind.”

The familiar-looking man went on, about how much Ms. Fontaine meant to the town, while Thomas grunted approval. After finishing my dinner, I decided to return to the statue.

I sat on a metal bench and took in the marigolds surrounding the base. Emmi loved marigolds. Medium sized stones provided a border. School was out for the summer, so it was quiet. I found that relaxing. I closed my eyes and pictured Ms. Fontaine as she appeared that first day of class. I took a few deep breaths and felt my shoulders relax. They tightened again when I heard a familiar voice say my name.

“Royce, is that you?”

I opened my eyes and saw Ms. Fontaine standing next to her statue. She looked older but had retained that youthful smile. She wore a skirt and sweater, the color matching the statue, as did her skin and hair.

“Ms. . . . Ms. Fontaine?”

“Yes. I’m glad you finally returned home.” She sat on the bench, our legs nearly touching. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.” I looked around to see if anyone was watching.

“Don’t worry. No one can see me. Not really.” She reached for my hand. “Only you.”

I couldn’t believe it when my cheeks warmed once more. “Did you know. . .?”

“Know how you felt about me? Almost from the beginning.” She squeezed my hand. “By the end of the semester, I felt something for you, too.”

We sat silently and enjoyed each other’s company until darkness fell.

I rose to leave, and she stood with me.

“It’s time for me to go,” I said.

“I know,”she replied. “Would you like me to come with you?”

“Won’t the town folks miss you?”

“I’ll always be in their heads and hearts. That’s my legacy.”

“And a fine legacy it is,” I said, as I took her hand and we walked toward the horizon.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Watcher

The old man sensed the young boy approaching the weathered wooden bench.

“What are you doing?” the boy asked.

“Watching that man shovel rocks into the tram.”

“Why’s he doing that?”

“Because the Master ordered it.”

“Why did the Master do that?”

“Because the man dared challenge the Master’s ideas.”

“Oh.” The boy stood at the opposite end of the bench, leaving space between him and the old man. The boy knew the man was old because of his gray hair, hunched shoulders, and long beard, like his grandpa Haro. And he smelled, also like his grandpa Haro. The man’s shoes were scuffed, his clothes covered with a black dust. “Was he right?”

“Many thought so, but they didn’t dare say anything.” The old man continued to stare through the glass window, his eyes unblinking.

“How come you keep looking at him?”

“Because the master said I had to?”

“How come?”

“Because he can, I guess.”

“You don’t know what you did?”

“Oh, out of frustration I may have called the Master a bad name in front of a friend of mine. At least, I thought he was a friend. But this seems a harsh punishment if that's the real reason.”

“Do you know his name?”

“The man in there?” the old man asked, pointing at the glass.

The boy nodded.

“Not his real name. I call him Sissy Puss.”

“That’s a funny name,” the boy said with a giggle. “Why do you call him that?”

“Well, he’s wearing that pink onesie - - by order of the Master - - which makes him look like a sissy, and he for sure has an ugly puss.”

“You’re funny.” The boy giggled again, then stared through the window and watched Sissy Puss shovel some more. “He looks tired.”

“He should be. He’s been shoveling for a long time.”

“How long does he have to keep working?”

“Until the pile is gone.”

The boy watched again, tilting his head from side to side.

“Every time he picks up some rocks, more fill in. How’s he going to finish?”

The old man leaned forward and put his arms on his legs. “Probably won’t,” he said.

The boy picked up a stone off the ground and held it in his hand. “It’s hard.”

“It’s some special metal only found on this planet. Explorers discovered it around eighty years ago. It’s harder than anything known before then. The Master ordered it be used by the military for everything from bombs to bullets.”

“Only bombs and bullets?”

“Airplanes and ships too. His enemies don’t have anything to stop an invasion. That keeps them in line. And besides, the Master likes bullying them into going along with what he wants.

“Bullying is wrong. Our teacher told us to report anyone who bullied a classmate.” The boy moved closer to the window. “You should tell on him.”

The old man attempted to smile, but his dried, cracked skin wouldn't allow it.

“Does the Master live here?”

“No. He lives on Earth.”

“Does he rule Earth?”

“He’d like to." The old man sat up and stretched his arms over his head. "You sure do ask a lot of questions.”

“I’m seven,” the boy said with a shrug.

“Why don’t you come and sit next to me?” the old man said, patting the bench.

The boy stared at the old man, a puzzled look on his face. “I shouldn’t. My parents told me to beware of strangers.”

“Are we still strangers?”

The boy stood quiet for a few seconds. “I guess not,” he replied and slid on the bench, his feet dangling above the ground.

“Why don’t you leave?” the boy asked.

“Can’t. Not until I find a replacement.”

“How long have you been watching?”

“Oh, since I was about your age.”

“That’s a l-o-o-ng time.”

“Yes, it is,” the old man said, standing for the first time in he didn’t know how long. His knees ached. His back was stiff. He took a step and grabbed the back of the bench to keep him from falling. He waited until he felt stable and then walked away.

“Where are you going?” the boy asked.

“To get a drink.”

“Who’s going to watch the man?”

“You are. Sorry kid, but I’ve done my time. Now it’s your turn,” the man mumbled.

"What did you say?" When the man didn't answer, the boy turned to the window. The man on the other side of the glass kept shoveling, oblivious to the change beyond the window.

"Hey, mister? How do I. . ." The boy stopped as the old man disappeared into a mist. He tried to stand but couldn't. It was like someone had put glue on the bench. He attempted to unsnap his pants to get out of them, but couldn't do that either. He turned toward the mist, which was gone, and then back to the man behind the window. The boy put his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, and began to count each shovelful.



Friday, October 6, 2017

A Duel in Dodge City

First appeared at Aphelion.

The challenge was to write a story with a twist ending in fantasy, sci-fi, or horror genre.


Maddie dismounted, tied the palomino's reins to the hitching post, and ambled through the swinging doors into the noname saloon, the chaps slowing her progress. She sauntered to the bar, her spurs providing a musical accompaniment to each step, and perched on a stool with her feet dangling above the floor.

"Barkeep, gimme a beer," she said and placed her Stetson on the bar.

"You wanna keep that hat I suggest you put it someplace else," the bartender said with a stare like her father used to give her.

"Didn't mean no harm," Maddie said and put the dusty hat back on her matted, black hair. "Jason been in today?" she said taking a sip of warm beer.

"Should be here anytime now." The bartender casually wiped the bar without looking at Maddie "You know Jason?"

"We've met," Maddie replied, while attempting to act like it didn't matter if Jason showed or not.

She saw Jason's reflection in the mirror behind the bar when he entered the saloon. Lowering her eyes, she pulled the brim of her hat down so he couldn't see her face.

"Hey, Paco. How's it going today?"

"Goin' fine" the bartender said. "Got somebody here wants to see you," he continued with a nod toward Maddie.

Maddie slowly slid off the stool and flexed her fingers. "Hello, Jason. Long time."

Jason stopped and smiled. "It has been a while, Maddie. How's Susan?"

"None o' yer business how my sister is. Not since you left her at the altar. She about died of heartache 'cause of you." Maddie spread her feet a little wider and rolled her shoulders to ease the tension.

Jason matched her pose.

"Hey, you need to take this outside," the bartender said.

"Shut up, Paco. This isn't any of your business." He stared at Maddie. "Anytime, Maddie, but we know how this is going to end."

"Oh yeah?" Maddie drew her gun, but Jason was faster. The bullet seared through her shoulder causing Maddie to lurch backwards. When she looked up, Jason was gone.

Maggie staggered toward the door and into the street. She removed her headset and spied Jason waiting with a teeth-baring grin on his face, his arms crossed on his chest.

"Let's see. That's me three and you zero," he said.

"I'm still new to these virtual reality games," she said punching Jason in the arm. "I'll beat you yet."

"We'll see little lady," Jason said with a bow, his arm pointing to the parking lot. "We'll see."

"You're damn right we will. Next time I get to pick the scenario," she said with a wry smile, "and it will be a joust. We both know how much you hate horses." Maddie winked and strode toward her car, confident she would win the next time.


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Oh, What the Hell

First appeared at CommuterLit.com.

My memory's not what it used to be. The doctor says I might have early onset dementia, but I remember the night my Aunt Janine stormed into the house all livid--that's the word Mom used--and collapsed on the couch next to Rex, our Labradoodle. Her face was as red as the clay in our yard. Mom nodded at me, a signal I knew meant it was time to go upstairs.

Instead, I went into the dining room far enough so they couldn't see me and sat on the floor with my back to the wall. I could tell by her voice that Aunt Janine was really upset. Every time she said Uncle Bill's name, her voice elevated to a higher pitch. She talked and sobbed at the same time, which made it hard to understand what she was saying. That was okay, because a few words, especially those that surrounded Uncle Bill's name, weren't suitable for a ten-year-old's ears.

She told Mom how whenever she and Uncle Bill argued, which was a lot, Uncle Bill would rant and rave about being underappreciated, and then he'd storm out of the house saying he was going to see his friend James. Aunt Janine followed him tonight and saw Uncle Bill standing in front of an apartment building kissing someone who  definitely was not a James, unless James was a cross dresser with long, black hair, wearing a short dress that showed off a pair of athletic calves. Aunt Janine stopped talking and cried so hard she choked.

After a long silence, she said she didn't have any other family nearby and asked if she could spend the night. "I don't know what else to do." Then in a softer voice, she said, "You won't even know I'm here." I edged along the wall and saw Mom get up and bring her sister-n-law a glass of water, then hold Aunt Janine in her arms and rock her like she did me when I had a fever.

My mother said, "Of course, you can stay." Neither of them spoke after that, so I went to my bedroom and played with my Power Rangers until Mom hollered it was time to go to bed.

Now, forty years later, I'm sitting alone in my own home, on my own sofa, rubbing my Schnauzer Gus' belly with my right hand, and holding an empty Miller Lite in the left. I don't need to find a place to stay, not like Aunt Janine. My Karen and her 'James' ran off someplace. Her note didn't say where. I suspect Las Vegas. She's always wanted to go there.

I never understood what was going on in Aunt Janine's head that night long ago. I do now. And it sucks. Marriage is supposed to be forever. I keep making mental lists of what went wrong, what I did to make her leave. None of them make any sense to me. Maybe that's the real problem.

I've been fighting off the tears and the sobs and the angry words for three Millers. It's not a manly thing to do, but I wonder if it might help. Aunt Janine seemed better the next morning.

I look at Gus and he burps, as if to tell me to get on with it. I pet his stomach. He rolls on his back to give me better access. "Oh, what the hell, boy. It's only me and you."

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Man's Best Friend

This week's 5 to 55 challenge from the Flash Factory. Prompt words below. 

We shared a salacious look. She on the jury. Me a hopeful. Her eyes flickered and danced, like a lantern on a windy night. I smiled. Leaned down. Gave TJ an enthusiastic pet. "Let's show these folks a winning routine." TJ raised a leg. Peed on a plant. I hoped for a rating above zero.

Prompt words: zero, dance, jury, lantern, salacious