Friday, May 12, 2017

Lost

First appeared at CommuterLit.

The shadow of your smile when you are gone. Janelle continued singing the song. Her audience--a few sitting at tables, heads down, perhaps asleep; others walking the halls talking to themselves--appeared bored. One gentleman dressed in pajama bottoms and a Yankees t-shirt read from the bible and yelled "Amen" in random outbursts. Janelle ignored them all and strummed her fingers up and down, her left hand playing the chords on a make-believe guitar.

For years, she sang the song a second time to the rhythm of a tango, making the context more hopeful, as if the absence was temporary. She didn't today. It wasn't appropriate. She paused and tried to remember why.

A chair alarm chimed when a member of her audience stood, bringing Janelle back to the present. She sang louder, felt her stomach tense up. She wanted to scream for everybody to hush and let her finish. Imbeciles.

After the song ended, she looked around. This wasn't the type of place where she usually performed, she mused, not with the beige walls and bright lights on all the time. She was used to darker rooms with couples in various stages of intimacy snuggled in booths kissing and fondling each other, or sitting at cozy tables holding hands, or perched on barstools simply getting to know one another.

She'd lost track of how many sets she'd performed and how many times she'd played this song. By the reaction of her audience, most likely too many.

Janelle watched a tall black woman with short, blonde hair split on one side by a purple streak and dressed in a navy blue pantsuit come toward her, maybe to tell her she was singing too loud. Janelle lowered her head, willing the woman to walk past.

"Hi, Miss Janelle. That sure is a pretty song you're singing for us. Just like always."

"Thank you," Janelle said. She stared at the white rectangle pinned to the woman's blouse. The top line read "Allen Mental Health Spa." The woman's last name was Wilson. Janelle couldn't pronounce the first name. Underneath that was CNA. She gazed into the woman's eyes. "Do you think the others liked it?"

"I'm sure they did." The woman helped Janelle stand. "It's time to go to your room and check to see if you need a bathroom break. Shall we put your guitar on the piano?"

Janelle pulled her hands away."No. Someone will steal it. I can't leave it here by itself."

"Okay, Hon. How about if I carry it for you?"

After a pause, Janelle said, "I guess that is okay."

"Can you walk for me today, Sweetie?"

"Sure," Janelle said and shuffled down the hall. She stopped and turned her head. "Do you think Carol will come see me today?"

"Oh, Honey. You still don't remember the plane crash."

"Plane crash?" Concern etched itself on Janelle's face. "Is everyone okay?"

"I'm afraid not," the woman replied. "But like the doctor said, it wasn't your fault."

"Not my fault."

"That's right. You got snowed in on your vacation."

"I remember. Too much snow." Janelle stared out the window as a robin landed on a grassy part of the enclosed courtyard. "I hope they found another flight attendant to help Carol out."

"Yes, they did," the aide said.

"Good. It's too much work for one person." Janelle watched the robin strut around and peck at the grass. He snatched a worm and held it in his beak. "She's my best friend, you know. We've been roommates forever." Janelle resumed walking and didn't say any more. She closed her eyes, looked for a face, Carol's face. The screams made it hard for her to concentrate. Just as Janelle was about to join in, the voices stopped. An eerie silence followed and then that song again. The shadow of your smile when you are gone.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

If At First. . .

First published at Aphelion.

Evelyn saw him enter the restaurant from the table where she sat and somehow knew it was her next first date. There had been six since she started dating again after a five year hiatus following college to concentrate on her career as a market analyst. None had led to a second. She hoped number seven might be different but hadn't been able to dispel her fear he wouldn't.

He wore tan Dockers, a pastel green shirt, brown loafers, and brown socks with yellow stripes. She wondered if this was the way he normally dressed, or if he was showing off for her. She imagined him in a gym wearing shorts and a muscle shirt and felt a twinge deep within her. She inhaled a deep breath and blew it out. Her initial trepidation lingered.

He smiled and spoke to the hostess. The young woman in a short dress and cowboy boots pointed in Evelyn's direction and led him to the table for two.

Evelyn smoothed her skirt, mostly to wipe her sweaty palms. After first date number three led nowhere, she took another break from dating to lose thirty pounds and have plastic surgery to tighten loose skin on her face, throat, and belly. She also started a three-times-a-week workout regimen.

She stared at her iPhone, acting like she hadn't seen him yet. When he arrived at the table, she smiled and leaned forward to shake his hand--and provide him a better view of her breasts.

He introduced himself as Franklin. She looked him over and decided the name was an alias, just like in those crime novels she liked. Not that that bothered her, since her name wasn't Evelyn. The local paper classifieds weren't picky about names.

Besides having been overweight and plain-looking, Evelyn wasn't much of a conversationalist. She spent time at home practicing with her cat, but it wasn't the same. She stumbled along, letting Franklin do most of the talking, until she'd finished her second glass of Riesling. Then she relaxed and let herself go a little. She felt the rest of the date went well and hoped Franklin did, too. He appeared to be enjoying himself.

She declined dessert, but said he should feel free to have something. "I'll pass, too. Gotta watch the old waistline," he said and asked the waitress for the check.

Outside, Evelyn felt uncomfortable, not sure what to do next. She clutched the strap of her purse, cleared her throat, and asked if he would like to have dinner again. He lowered his eyes for a few seconds, as if in prayer, and said he didn't think so. "You're nice, and all, but not what I'm looking for."

Evelyn felt her heart sink and her stomach knot, just like every other date. He asked if he could walk her to her car. She thanked him for offering, and the two headed toward the garage on the corner of 8th and Grand.

As they approached her car, Evelyn listened for the sounds of other people. Not hearing anything, she bent over, lifted the hand holding her purse to her stomach, and groaned. Franklin didn't see her reach into her purse, nor did he see the utility knife in her hand when she rose. He barely felt the blade slash his carotid after she spun him so his blood wouldn't spatter her dress. He didn't feel his blood flow onto the concrete floor, nor smell the odor when his bowels emptied.

Evelyn watched first date number seven die, rage covering her face. She knelt next to his body, hiked up her dress, and rubbed the three scars on her right inner thigh she thought of as notches. "All you had to do was say yes to a second date, you slimeball."

She wiped the knife on a cloth napkin she'd put in her purse at the restaurant and tossed the bloody material under the car to her right. She placed the point of the blade on her thigh next to the scar closest to her knee and sliced a fourth, shallow two-inch gash. Blood pooled on her skin and dripped to the floor mixing with date number seven's. She pulled an ace bandage from her purse and wrapped it around her leg.

Evelyn crossed herself before standing, then headed toward the entrance at the opposite end of the building. She wasn't concerned about video surveillance. According to a recent article in the online version of the local newspaper, this place was the oldest parking facility in the city and had yet to be retrofitted with cameras. She dropped the knife in a trash barrel and headed north to the lot where her rental car was parked. She didn't care about leaving prints or DNA. She wasn't in any police database. She only cared about finding first date number eight--and catching her 9:30 flight.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Life, Act IV

He awoke to a cheerful voice he didn't recognize asking him if he knew where he was. The question sounded familiar; but after the old man looked around the sterile room with its off-white walls, double-wide window, and beige carpet, he shook his head.

When asked if he knew what day of the week it was, he attempted to get out of bed. When he couldn't, he mumbled a no.

When asked if he needed help, he grumbled, "I'm not an invalid."

When asked if he knew who the President of the United States was, he said no a little louder, his face reddening with frustration.

He didn't respond when asked if he knew his own name.

When asked if he was hungry, he said he wanted to go for a walk and once again tried to sit up.

After bingo, they lifted him from the wheelchair to his bed. He grunted, as if he was doing all the work.

When his son showed up for a visit, the old man's eyes widened and he shouted, "Frankie!" When asked ten minutes after Frankie left, the old man didn't remember having a visitor.

When asked if he needed his pull-up changed, he regurgitated a small, pale orange glob. When the aide tried to wipe the blob up, he slapped her hand away.

When asked if he knew how old he was, he shook his head, his eyes half closed. When told he was ninety-three, he smiled for the first time. When asked how old he wanted to be, he said "a hundred, of course."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Double Play

Date: 2216
Location: Xerion, fourth planet from the sun in the Abdula Galaxy

Danjaki noticed Yerkof enter from the haze and amble toward the bar. "Nasty out there today," Danjaki said.

"Gets worse everyday," Yerkof replied, using his fingers to brush ash and grit from his government cyber security worker's uniform. He removed his hat, slapped it against his knees a couple of times, and placed it on the bar. "Makes you wonder if those in charge ever go outside."

"Conditions have worsened since the President ordered an increase in mining production." Danjaki replied. "I hear the air quality on the other side of the planet is so bad people have to wear masks any time they're outside."

"I eVideoed a couple of friends from there last night. They said the air quality wasn't much better indoors. Asked if my office had any openings." Yerkof put his elbows on the bar and cupped his chin in his hands.

"The government keeps it up, we'll need to find another planet to live on soon. The usual?" Danjaki knew the answer but asked anyway.

"Make it a double."

Danjaki poured a long shot of dark whiskey, put a napkin on the bar, and placed the drink in front of Yerkof. "I heard about Phrya leaving you. Sorry, man."

"My own stupid mistake to cheat on her at that postal convention." Yerkof downed his drink and nodded for another. "I sure wasn't thinking with my brain."

"How'd she find out?" Danjaki asked.

"From a stupid idiot -- me." Yerkof shrugged his shoulders. "I couldn't stand deceiving her."

"You two've been together for a long time."

"Started dating in high school. Married ten years next month." Yerkof took a small sip, wiped a dusty sleeve across his face, and swiveled on the stool as a woman walked into the room grabbing everyone's attention.

"Wow, haven't seen her in here before." He stared at the Eusterian as she strode to the opposite end of the bar. Two men approached her immediately and began a conversation. She smiled and accepted a drink. When Danjaki delivered it, Yerkof thought she might have whispered something in Danjaki's ear.

The low light in the bar didn't provide Yerkof with a clear view, but he could tell she was about five feet nine inches tall, with Eusterian blue skin and a single braid of hair hanging to her waist that divided her otherwise bald head in two perfect sections. She wore a singlet that had to have been painted on. Her smallish breasts peeked out of the top. When she smiled, Yerkof felt a twitch in his crotch that made him pinch his legs together. He spent a few more minutes ogling her slim body and appealing curves.

"Need another?"

Yerkof jumped at the sound of Danjaki's voice.

"Geez, you sneaked up on me," Yerkov said, holding a hand over his heart.

"Or maybe your mind was busy elsewhere." When Yerkof, his head down as if in prayer, didn't respond, Danjaki moved a towel in circles over the bar a few times before continuing. "Think Phrya will take you back?"

"I hope so. I tried eTexting and eMessaging her, but she didn't respond. I called and it went to vMail. She's staying with her brother. I don't dare go there. Not yet, anyway."

"He's a big SOB," Danjaki said.

Yerkof nodded and finished his drink. He pulled a wad of money out of his pocket, laid it on the bar, and headed toward the door.

"Where you going?" Danjaki asked. "It's still early."

"Home to take a cold shower." Yerkof glanced again at the woman before wobbling outside on weak knees.

"Better make it a double," Danjaki yelled through a laugh.

The Eusterian woman slithered onto the stool Yerkof had vacated and put a half full glass of Third Galaxy wine on the bar.

"That's quite the disguise," Danjaki said.

"It's so unlike me, all tight and sexy," Phrya replied. "Maybe that's partially why he…" She stared straight ahead, her fingers wrapped around her glass. "Anyway, my cousin's a makeup artist in CineTown. I asked if she could help me out and voilĂ ," she said with a swipe of a delicate hand. "Did he notice me?"

"Every man and many of the woman in here noticed you," he said. He offered to fill her glass. She covered the top with her hand and shook her head. "There's going to be a lot of drool to clean up tonight."

"Funny," she replied, crossing her legs. She saw Danjaki's eyes follow the movement and was pleased she could still attract attention from the opposite sex. "As long as Yerkof was one of the droolers." She winked, lifted the glass in salute, and took a sip of her wine. "Do you think he knew it was me?"

"Naw. It's too dark and smoky in here to see anyone clearly at that distance." Danjaki wiped the bar some more, uncertain what to do. "You gonna take him back?"

She paused before answering. "Probably, but he needs to suffer more first. Will he be back tomorrow?"

"Should be."

"I'll be here, too." She finished her wine and handed Danjaki the glass, lightly touching his wrist. "He really likes my butt, you know. Maybe I'll make sure he gets a good long look at it tomorrow." She stood up, turned her back to the bar, and wiggled from side to side. "Oh, God," she said, her cheeks warm. "I can't believe I did that."

"He'll need three cold showers," Danjaki said, stepping closer to the bar to hide his excitement.

"Let's hope," she said with a wink as she sauntered out the door, leaving many of the patrons open-mouthed.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Murder in a Small Town

Winner of the January 2017 Aphelion Flash Challenge.

“Oola looks at peace. Doesn’t she, Nate?”

“I guess.”

“You did a wonderful job picking out the coffin. The mahogany with the white overlay sets off her blue uniform nicely.”

“Least I could do.”

“It is, given the circumstances.”

“I’m surprised no one else is here. Everybody seemed to like Oola.”

“It’s early.”

“I’ve never been in a funeral home before. It’s like a dungeon in here, dark carpet, dark walls, dark mood. All it needs is shackles hanging on the walls. These chairs aren’t very comfortable, either, and the music reminds me of molasses. I hate the smell of molasses."

“Maybe those folks in New Orleans have the right idea, having a parade for the departed and making a party of it.”

“You know, she’s almost pretty lying there.”

“She never was a looker.”

“No, not really. The wig helped, but the long, oval face and small slit for a nose made her stand out.”

“That and the fact she oozed orange tears when she cried.”

“I don’t remember ever seeing her cry.”

“She did right after you stabbed her the first time.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, Nate. Remember when we found her rocket half submerged in the lake?”

“How could I forget? Strangest thing ever to happen in Cranberry Bay. That and the time Jack Burks fell into the water, pickup and all, while ice fishing. Idiot should have known it was too warm to drive out on the lake.”

“He was new to the village. Didn’t know the quirks of Lake Erie like the rest of us. Anyway, she was kinda woozy stepping out of that contraption. How would you describe it? Like a big old torpedo with four wings and a tail--certainly not the flying saucer you’d expect.”

“A torpedo with four wings sounds good to me. I was surprised how folks here took to her. Especially, Edna Farber. She never took to anyone.”

“When we told her Oonah was an alien, she wanted to deport her back to Mexico where she belonged. The rest took a liking to Oonah right off. Even kept her a secret to keep Nosy Rosies away.”

“You keep doing that. Her name’s Oola, not Oonah.”

“Right. I keep mixing her up with that poet lady. Anyway, it’s too bad you had to kill Oola.”

“I didn’t have any choice, according to you. She knew.”

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean maybe? Maybe she knew or maybe I had no choice.”

“Maybe she knew.”

“You’re the one who said she positively did and that I had to do something about it.”

“Well, you should know better than to trust me. Aren’t I the one who told you to shoot out Mr. Tundrell’s bedroom window because he was sleeping with his daughter.”

“Uh huh, and it turned out she was living in Seattle with her mother. A shoulder shrug? That’s all you got? I could have seriously injured the man. I heard the fights on the TV through the open living room window. You know he refuses to wear his hearing aids. I didn’t expect him to be in the bedroom.”

“And how about the time I told you to run over Mrs. Gilbert’s dog because he tried to bite me.”

“You mean the Rottweiler with no teeth?”

“Yea, that one.”

“You should have told me about the no teeth thing before I hit him.”

“That’s not how I work, Nate. You know that.”

“I should, but you constantly bug me until I can’t seem to help myself. So, did Oola know or not?”

“Does it really matter now? She’s dead.”

“Yea, she’s dead, and it’s your fault!"

“Hey, I’m not the one who found her sneaking out of our house. I’m not the one who turned angry and red and told her to not tell anyone about the money she found, and that she could have some if she kept silent. I’m not the one who called her a liar when she denied knowing anything about the money. I’m not the one who forgot to move the bag of money you found on River Road to a safer place—like I told you to. And I’m not the one who stuck the blade in her, then dropped her in the creek behind the Miller’s place. The creek was a good idea, though, since everybody likes that spot for fishing. Lots of footprints to confuse the cops. So, what have you got to say for yourself?”

“You bastard. You did it to me, again. Imposed your will on me, even though I tried to ignore you. You’re always whispering in my ear, egging me on to do bad things. And I keep listening to you, buckling under. Why can’t my angel side ever win? Why is it always your voice that prevails? Dr. Jensen is right. I need to get you out of my head. Stop listening to you. Be my own man.”

“She does say that a lot. Maybe Doc Jensen needs to be the next one. What do you think about that, Nate?”

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Race Against Time

Troy trudged down 42nd Street, shoulders hunched, eyes toward the ground, like a hunchback, each pace having a purpose. The army had repelled the latest--and hopefully last-- of the terrorists after decades of battles; but his city, New York City, had finally succumbed. Many buildings lay in ruin. Others stood damaged, but still proud and defiant. Electricity was non-existent, and gasoline was scarce. He no longer wore his captain’s uniform. He’d left the cleanup to his men. Instead, he had on tattered jeans, a green flannel shirt, and a faded trench coat. Only his military boots remained from the past six months of his fourth tour of fighting. He adjusted the bill of his cap, moving it lower to hide his identity. Being noticed by an old classmate or neighbor might ruin everything.

He weaved a slalom course through barrels and garbage cans burning books, librettos, costumes and anything else combustible--anything that provided heat. There were no neon lights, no traffic signals, no brightly lit store windows displaying the latest fashions. Actors in costume and musicians, some also in costumes, performed songs from their respective shows, while bystanders watched and tiredly applauded. Cats and lions and princesses sang and danced as if nothing had changed, denying the reality of their situation. Troy continued his trek, sometimes walking among the performers, refusing to join in when prodded. He needed to get to Gwen before it was too late.

He turned right onto 7th Avenue and stopped when he saw the looters. He reached inside his coat for the revolver holstered on his left hip. He started to pull out the weapon but stopped. There were too many of them, and Gwen and her unborn child were more important than a few broken windows and stolen goods.

Troy continued to the next block and the next until he found an empty street. He increased his pace and focused on his task, hoping he’d make it on time. He turned down an alley, only paying attention to the other end, when he felt the arm around his neck. A second attacker appeared from behind a dumpster, a carving knife in his left hand.

Troy stomped on the foot of the man holding him. The arm’s grip loosened and Troy flipped his assailant into the man with the knife. The two men lay on the ground as Troy raced to the end of the alley and around the corner without looking back.

“Halt,” a voice said from behind. “Police. You are in a restricted area after curfew.”

Troy kept going until he heard the explosive gunfire. He lurched to the left. The gas pellet hit his right shoulder, ripping through the flesh and detonating a few feet away. Troy’s body pirouetted. He fell to one knee and scrambled behind a burnt out car.

“I know you’re wounded. Come out now and you live.”

Troy moved his hand along the dark pavement meagerly lit by a half moon. His fingers wrapped around a plastic bottle. He threw it in the direction he’d come from. He heard the cop's gun discharge. He raced into the street and delivered a kidney punch that dropped the policeman to his knees. Troy looked closely at the uniform and knew the man was a fake--an actor playing a role. The gun lay on the ground. Troy kicked it into the sewer, he didn’t want anyone else finding it, and continued his journey.

At the next intersection, he saw an ambulance stop in the distance at the clinic where Gwen awaited. He increased his pace to a run, all the time holding his injured shoulder, and covered the remaining six blocks quicker than a normal human should have.

He raced into the building and stopped at the front desk. “I’m Troy. Where’s Gwen?”

“I’m afraid it may be too late, Mr. Troy.”

“Nooo!”

Troy raced through the double doors into the treatment area. He stopped a nurse, nearly knocking a tray of blood samples from her hands. “I’m Troy. I’m here to help Gwen.”

“Room 3A. But. . .”

Troy entered the room. Gwen lay on a bed, her face ashen, her breathing barely noticeable. A female doctor looked up as he entered.

“Hurry,” she said. “We don’t have much time.”

Troy lay on a second bed, the life saving blood transfusion moving directly from his arm to Gwen’s. He watched his sister’s face and prayed for a miracle. Doctors and nurses circled Gwen blocking Troy’s view of what was happening. He was tired and began to fall asleep when he heard the baby’s cry.

For the first time in days, Troy allowed his body to relax, the baby’s sounds a lullaby to his spent psyche.

“Mother and baby are doing fine,” the doctor said. “Would you like to hold your nephew, Mr. Troy?.”

“It’s Troy. Just Troy. And, yes, I’d love to hold my nephew.