The Night Guy: Flash Fiction

Piotr hated working the night shift in this part of the Kremlin. The place was creepy as hell. The gothic architecture towered over him, laughing a frozen smile; the furnishings were heavy and dense and stank of mold and centuries of cigarette smoke and pain and death. He could never get the smell out of the carpets and the drapes, no matter how much Febreze he used, when he could even get it. The babushkas in the market shoved various potions into his hands when he asked, but those made everything smell even worse. God knows what they were concocted from. Lard or rotten fruit soaked in vodka?

He shuddered to even think about it.

At least it was quiet, late at night. No one gave him a hard time, and mainly he had the run of the building.

Well, most of the building. Sergei, the day manager, warned him about going into certain rooms. “Don’t those get dirty, too?” Piotr asked, but Sergei just puffed out his chest, gave him a warning look, and said he’d take care of those rooms himself.

At the time, Piotr shrugged and obeyed, but there was the oddest odor coming from one of those “forbidden” rooms, and by the day it had been getting worse. It smelled like the kitty litter box in his cousin’s apartment. Yes, he was not supposed to go in, but who would Sergei blame if the higher-ups discovered something horrible in one of their important rooms? Certainly Sergei would point his long, snooty finger at him. It was simply the way things worked around here. That’s how it had been in Russia for centuries. Shit rolled downhill. And Sergei was adept at stepping out of the way.

But tonight, it was just getting to be too much. He tried to ignore it, but the aroma made his eyes water every time he came near. Finally he got his cart and rolled it over to the door and was reaching for his keys when a finger tapped his shoulder. He screeched like a little girl and must have jumped a foot.

Hand on his heart, he turned. His eyes widened. He tried to get some kind of sound to come out of his mouth, but all that resulted was an impotent squeak.

The man just smiled, a smile that reached impish eyes. Big joke, Piotr thought. Sneak up on the night guy. But then he realized who this man was, and he didn’t know what to say. He had never seen the president before. Of course he’d seen him on the television, and once in a while a glimpse as he swept out the door and into a waiting car, but never…this close. And never…while Piotr was on the brink of doing something terribly wrong.

“It stinks,” Piotr blurted, then cursed to himself as his cheeks flamed red. “I… I only come to clean…”

The president then set his hand on Piotr’s arm. Piotr could only look at it, imagining how he’d go home to his wife and say the president touched him. Actually touched him.

“Don’t trouble yourself…what is your name?”

“Piotr,” he said, barely getting the syllables out.

“Piotr,” the president repeated. “A fine name. A fine and bold name, one that should be shouted with the chest held high!”

“Piotr,” he said again, shaping his lips around each sound.

“Better!” The president raised a finger like a conductor. “Keep practicing. But maybe in the East Wing. I will take care of things here.”

“Piotr,” he repeated, louder and bolder.

“Marvelous,” the president said, giving his arm a small nudge.

Piotr began walking away, pushing his cart before him. Saying his own name under his breath. But then he stopped. His wife… how she would nag him if he didn’t get a picture on his phone; she would again think he was lying!

He stopped. Turned in time to see the back of the president as he eased open the door. In the sliver of light it revealed, he thought he saw a thatch of orange-blond hair. And more. Piotr’s cheeks flamed again; his eyes widened. Knowing he had seen something he shouldn’t have. The American president on a bed with two girls, at least! No. This was bad. This was very bad. And it smelled very bad. He had to get away. He gripped the handle of the cart and began to push just as the president called his name.

Piotr froze. “Y…yes, Mr. President?”

“You were right, after all. We have a bit of a mess to clean up.” He pulled out two fifty-ruble banknotes, which he tucked into Piotr’s pocket. “Give it about ten minutes, and you’ll take care of this, yes, like a good man? And then maybe we’ll see about moving you to a better position.”

A better position. Better than Sergei’s? His wife would be so happy.

“Can I… may I get a picture?”

The man laughed. “A picture. Of course you can get a picture. The girls love to have their pictures taken. But only if you send me a copy and promise not to show it to anyone else.”

Piotr stood up straighter. He’d meant of himself with the president, but… “I can do this thing for you.” Ha. Not only would his wife be proud, but how it would get Sergei’s goat pleased him, too.

“Very good man. With a brave and wonderful name.” He pulled more money out, pressed it into Piotr’s palm, and sauntered away.

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The Oval: Wishful Flash-Fiction Thinking

Once again sleep dodged him, that bitch, and while the custom-made mattress was the most comfortable thing he’d ever set his ass on, its emptiness made his chest so tight he could barely breathe, let alone think. He dug his fingers into the pillow top as if it was his salvation. Like Leo in that movie about the iceberg. They said push the button, if there was anything he needed. A Diet Coke, one of those tiny new cans that made his hands look bigger; a fast-food run; adoring letters from his fans. But what he needed they couldn’t provide. They couldn’t even fake. They couldn’t force his wife to sleep in his bed. They couldn’t change the way she looked at him, like she was a hostage and he, her puppet master. Twice in the last six months, she’d threatened to leave him, and it didn’t sound like she was kidding. Prior to that he’d thrown some jewelry at her, promised her anything, and she calmed down. Now even that wasn’t working. He could bust into her room, and if she wasn’t comatose on Ambien, he could make demands, point to the many legal agreements she had signed. But that would only make things worse.

Maybe it was time to ask for help from a higher power.

He slipped out of bed, as quietly as he could for a man of his inestimable size, and in just his robe and Batman socks, padded first down the hall then down the stairs. Those he passed averted their eyes, because they knew not to speak unless he spoke first. Especially in the middle of the night. Especially when he was wearing his Batman socks.

His heart surged when he reached the Oval. He loved everything about that fucking room. It even smelled good, like new money. Like the tears of his enemies. Reagan said he would never step on the seal, but Reagan was a pussy. He was in charge now. He stepped right on the damn eagle’s throat, wiggling his toes into the plush carpet. But even that left him feeling hollow. And that made him angry. He sat in the big chair, spun around, trying to recapture the experience, draw power from the walls and the massive desk and the flags.

He closed his eyes and thought about Washington. Thought about Teddy Roosevelt. Tried to conjure the ghosts of his predecessors; the ones who hadn’t been losers, anyway. Then the voice came back to him. The voice he’d been trying to ignore. It had blabbed on and on about the tone of the office, how you rise to the occasion, blah blah blah, so many big words he’d let his attention drift to the portrait of Dolly Madison on the wall. Damn, that was one hot babe. Maybe he could get the women around here into some corsets. “Read the letter,” the voice had told him, at the end of their “conversation.”

“Read the letter.”

He hadn’t wanted to read the letter. This was his job now, and he was going to do it his own damn way. In fact, he almost asked the cleaning girl, that Kelly what’s-her-name, to throw it the hell out, sight unseen. He didn’t know why he’d kept it. Maybe he was smarter than he thought. Maybe he knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that there’d be a sleepless night like this one. Hell, maybe it would give him a good laugh. So he reached his tiny hands underneath the desk drawer and pulled off the envelope that had been taped there.

As he’d thought, there was a bunch of gibberish, words with way too many syllables, and he skimmed down to the bottom, looking for the bullet points. There were always bullet points. But the last sentence was what caught his eye. “If you take absolutely nothing away from this letter, from our conversations, from the good counsel of your trusted advisors, always remember this: happy wife, happy life.”

That last bit landed like a lead balloon in the pit of his stomach. He sat there for damn near an hour, still clutching the letter, still thinking about those words. Who would have thought it all made so much sense? And then he felt light, like he hadn’t in years. Like he hadn’t since he stood at the very top of the first skyscraper his father had even taken him to.

He did two things after that. He pulled the divorce papers she’d given him from his desk drawer and signed them. And then he called his speechwriter.

“I’m off this bus, kid. Write me the best fucking speech of your life. Make me sound like a goddamn hero, stepping down for the good of this beautiful country. I want tears out there, kid. Real fucking ugly-cry waterworks.”

Then he hung up, padded back to his residence, and slept better than he had in years.

El Suizo

Carlos sipped coffee in a small café in Havana, his choice of table perfectly situated to allow a view of the street while staying in the shadows. Waiting for the man they called El Suizo. Whose sense of time, apparently, was nowhere near as accurate as a Swiss watch. This worried him. Operations such as theirs depended on accuracy, respect, and trust. If Carlos couldn’t count on him to appear when he was supposed to—

“You would like another, guapo?” The waitress had a pretty smile, and he nodded, and she topped him up, and he followed the rhythm in her hips as she walked away. As she served the customers. As she swung back into the kitchen and returned with another patron’s order. It calmed his nerves to focus on something other than why his contact had not yet arrived.

Maybe it was the traffic. Maybe El Suizo wasn’t the man they claimed him to be. Carlos had been disappointed before. What he had planned was nothing short of revolution, and if they weren’t victorious, or slaughtered on the battlefield, surely they would be executed for treason.

Maybe his plan wasn’t even possible, the odds against them too great. What could a few hundred mercenaries do against the greatest army in the world?

He took a deep breath and let it out, let the tension loose from his broad shoulders. It had been so long since he’d visited the land of his birth. Watched the women, smelled the coffee, heard the music. He felt like a youth again, skinny and poor and playing in the streets. The familiar pressure also began to return. Destiny. The weight of two generations of failure resting squarely on his back. His grandfather died fighting against Castro at the Bay of Pigs invasion. His father had been on the losing side of a cop’s gun in Miami. His mother wanted better for him. She cried when he returned to Cuba and joined the army. Somewhere in heaven, she was probably still crying.

Moments after he set his mug down, a muffled boom rocked the building. Rattled the windows. Set off car alarms. Sloshed his coffee across the table. The waitress shouted Spanish obscenities as a tray she’d been carrying hit the floor.

As people ran out to see what had happened, a man walked in. Dark hair. Dark clothes. His face devoid of expression as he crossed the café to Carlos’s table. He took the seat opposite his without a word, as if he had merely gone out to put more money in his parking meter and was now returning to his meal. He couldn’t have been more than twenty.

“Sorry to be late,” he said. “Had a bit of a situation down the block.”

He spoke Spanish well, for a man who was purportedly Swiss. He also smelled of diesel fumes and burnt hair.

Carlos tipped his head toward the door. “Please me that wasn’t your situation.”

El Suizo—or whatever his name really was—cast a glance over his shoulder. “That?” He picked up a paper napkin and dabbed it into the spilled coffee. “No, my friend. I believe that one was meant for you. Your rental car is totaled, but fortunately your would-be assassin is a piss-poor demolitions expert.”

Damn it. They’d found him. Carlos started to get up. “We need to go.”

The too-young man merely shrugged and leaned back in his chair. There was something oddly Gallic in the gesture. Maybe this El Suizo wasn’t so Suizo after all. “No need,” he said. “Not only is he a piss-poor demolitions expert, but he’s also a very slow runner. I doubt he’ll be doing more bomb making anytime soon. Or”—he sniffed—“ever.”

And after he asked the waitress for two tequilas, the young man turned back to Carlos. “So,” he said with a crooked smile and a light in his eyes. “Tell me about this operation.”

Rebuilding

Toby had built beautiful homes into the unlikeliest of places, fit rock against rock to craft the finest stone walls; he’d even designed a treehouse that disappeared into the branches. But nature always has the last word.

Yet you can’t tell a client that. Not when a windstorm uproots a mighty oak from waterlogged earth and smashes it through the roof of a back porch that had been one of his favorite projects.

He knew from the forecast it would be bad. He knew what those conditions meant for the things he’d worked so hard and so long to create. It meant phone calls. It meant backbreaking hours of excavation and reconstruction, and more thoughts that perhaps the business was becoming more trouble than it was worth.

But he couldn’t think of that now, as he wound his truck through the debris on the road leading up to Ms. Brandon’s house. Jane. Nice lady, divorced, about his age. She’d been a sweetheart to work with, never once balking at his vision or his price or his schedule. She’d inherited the house from her grandmother, and the only improvement she’d asked for was a screened-in back porch. A place she could sit in the warmer months with her books and her lemonade and her cat, a pudgy Persian who was not as young as he used to be and therefore couldn’t be allowed outdoors. And she was willing to wait for him. Which made Toby want to move heaven and earth to help her then; and to help her now.

She was standing on the front stairs when he pulled up. She looked a lot smaller than he remembered, her dark hair long and loose and wet from the rain. Her hands were clasped together as if in prayer. He almost felt as guilty as if he’d caused the storm that toppled her oak. As he swung out of the truck, he said, “I’m so—”

“Simon got out.” She wrapped her arms around her chest and started fast-walking toward the back. He followed. “The tree broke one of the screens,” she said, “and he must have been so terrified he bolted out, and now…”

Holy yikes, Toby thought, getting an eyeful of the damage the tree had done. The trunk had crushed that roof. She was damn lucky it hadn’t killed them both.

“Are you okay?” He scanned what he could of her, looking for cuts or bruises.

She nodded fiercely, then her gaze raked the length of the oak, which surpassed that of the porch by a good eight feet. “Yes. Fine. A little shaken up, maybe, but Simon…”

“You think he’s up there?”

As if answering, he heard a small yowl. He thought it would be easier to spot a white Persian cat among the green oak leaves, but it was one dense tree and one scared cat.

“Simon, baby, it’s going to be all right,” Jane said, in a kind of tremulous purr that made Toby want to fix every problem in her life. “Can I use the ladder on your truck? I tried already with Gran’s, but it wasn’t tall enough.”

“I’ll take care of that.” He hated the way his voice came out, the way his chest puffed of its own accord, like some kind of superhero. Idiot. “You just wait there and try to keep him calm so he won’t run off.”

It took some doing, and he had to shinny up the length of the fallen tree and past the roof line, where he hoped there was enough trunk to balance out his weight, and Simon and the tree gave him a few decent scratches, but eventually Toby got him down and settled in Jane’s arms.

“You’re bleeding.” She tipped her chin toward the front of the house. “Come inside, I’ll clean that up. It’s the least I can do.”

Soon Simon was fed and sleeping off his adrenaline rush. Sporting four new Band-Aids, Toby sat with Jane on the front porch, where she’d brought lemonade and a sketch pad. He watched her hands as she picked up a pencil. Those same hands had been so tender on him; why hadn’t he noticed last time the depths of her gray-blue eyes or the sweet huskiness of her laugh as she teased him about rescuing cats from trees? Funny tricks, the mind plays. What it lets you see or not see. Like the patterns in the way a rock wall fits together.

He pointed at the pad. “You want something different on that back porch, when I fix it?”

“No, I love it just the way it was. What I’ve been thinking lately”—she began to sketch the slope of the lawn—“is a little stone path leading up to a gazebo.”

“I think we can do something like that. But maybe more like this…”

She handed him the pad and pencil, their forearms brushing a spark in transit. The blue devil tails of the storm gave one last flick as they departed from west to east. Nature, as always, having the final word.

A Little Bit of Saving

This is a bit darker than I normally go, but it called to me. It’s still calling.

—-

The cat scurried to the back bedroom when the doorbell rang. Normally Louisa followed, peering through her dusty, faded curtains until her visitor, usually another reporter, had left in frustration. But she didn’t know why she now felt a frisson of excitement over human contact, however brief or impersonal or potentially invasive. Because the emptiness of the house had been pressing down on her a little too pointedly? Because the prescription vial in the cupboard above the sink glowed a little too fiercely in the back of her mind? Something had her tiptoeing across the dirty living room carpet and reaching for the door. The two young men on her stoop looked innocent enough. Missionaries of some religious cause, certainly, with their black ties and white shirts and pamphlets.

Had it come to this? The loneliness, the desperate need for company even as she tried to repel it? Did they know about her? About Alex? Maybe they were new at this and thought they could save her soul. It was too late for Alex, but maybe her soul could use a little bit of saving.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the taller of the two said. Louisa cringed. His mouth softened, rounding. “Oh. I didn’t mean to offend you. I should have remembered some women don’t like–”

“It’s all right.” She told herself to be grateful for mothers who still raised their sons to say sir and ma’am and please and thank you. Like she had. She told herself there was no way this young man could have known that those were Alex’s last words: “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he’d said, barely above a whisper, as a female prison guard came in to administer his lethal injection. Louisa tried to shake the images out of her head. The stoicism on his face. Not of repentance but of resignation. He’d done what he’d done and this was the price he was made to pay. Worse, she sometimes thought it was the right decision. Like doing him a kindness, the way suffering dogs are put to sleep. “How…how can I help you?”

“Ma’am?” the other one said. Eyes wide. “Maybe you want to sit down?”

“Maybe…” Her stomach knotted; something buzzed in her head and her legs began to weaken. “Just for a moment.”

They were good boys. Raised right. They made her comfortable, fetched her a glass of water, asked if there was anyone they should call. Raised right. She thought she’d raised him right.

In the silence, the two boys looked at each other, and the one who seemed a bit older started. “Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?”

She thought she’d be strong enough for the words she knew were coming. But she saw it again, the little white church. The police cars. The odd phone number that had flashed on her caller ID. She gulped the rest of her water. Wishing she’d never opened that damn door. Wishing she’d had those pills in her hand. She’d gobble every single one.

“I think you boys ought to go now. Believe me when I say I’m beyond whatever saving your God can offer.”

After they left without argument, all polite and thanking her for her time, she moved blindly to the kitchen cupboard and reached for the prescription vial. Then the cat came in, mewling, rubbing around her legs. Louisa’s face dampened with tears she didn’t know her eyes were still capable of producing. She knew then this wasn’t the way. Instead of the vial and the last of the bourbon, she picked up the phone and the business card one of the reporters had given her. “I’m ready, if you’re still interested in writing that book,” she told the woman who answered. “But I don’t want it to be his story. I want it to be about those beautiful children. And every penny of profit to go toward making sure nobody gets to do this again.”

The Window Washer: Flash Fiction

Billie adjusts her harness and hoists the rake higher, aiming for the sheaf of ice that had accumulated on one of the skyscraper’s uppermost eaves. An occasional circus performer, she has no fear of heights. She doesn’t even mind most of the people in the building, who stare and point whenever she hauls the platform up the side to wash the windows or knock the icicles down. Sometimes she’ll put on a bit of a show for them, twirling away from the platform or doing a somersault.

Not today. It’s too damn cold, the ice too thick, and she doesn’t like the way the wind bangs the platform against the façade. Thank God for good support hardware. She knocks the rake against the eave and the ice cracks and falls, then she lowers herself to the next floor that needs her attention. A knot forms in her stomach.

It’s his floor.

She doesn’t know his name, but she’s seen him around. While she was getting her rigging together. When she’d taken a coffee break at the lobby café. He’s handsy with women, and they don’t like it, and when they try to dissuade him, he laughs. She’d caught one of them crying, one of those random comfort-a-stranger moments, and Billie shared her tissue and a shoulder. He’d threatened to fire the woman, in a veiled sort of way, and her complaints to Human Resources had been buried.

Even Billie is no stranger to his game. Yeah, there was always some guy who liked to play with the girl on the flying trapeze. Blow a kiss, give her a flirty smile, safe behind his window. This one… she could identify his privates at five paces. And she’d reported him, too. But his floor was high enough that those complaints also went missing.

Today he sees her, and grins slowly. Stepping closer, one hand finding his belt buckle. And she finds something with one hand, too. The lipstick in the pocket of her coveralls. Big and bold, she writes “SEX ABUSER” backwards on the glass, gives him a wave, and bashes the ice above his window. She knows she’ll get fired for this, but she doesn’t care.

She can always run away and join the circus.

Winter

She’d been writing articles about softball leagues and fishing gear and how to buy a barbecue grill, so when she looked up and saw the snow falling, the sight perplexed her. For a moment, she’d been lost in the promise of spring, and the dancing flakes and the chill in her feet felt like the ultimate betrayal. A joke on her, a slave to the almighty editorial calendar, always having to think three months ahead. If only real time could move like that. Fly past the difficult moments, the painful confrontations. The grief. The grief never moved. It sat like an uninvited guest who pawed every knickknack and drank your good scotch but would not take the hint to leave. Feeling leaden, she rose from her chair, stretched the creaks from long-suffering muscles and tendons, and put the kettle on. There, she felt grounded, realigned in time. But too fast, so fast she felt a bit lightheaded, and gripped the handle more tightly. He’d always been the one to put the kettle on. He saw to her comfort, poking his head into her room to see if she was too cold or too hot, wanted something from the store, or a cup of tea. She’d snapped at him, then. For taking her out of whatever she was writing, wrenching her out of the focus she’d needed to produce five hundred words on a myriad of topics, for which she was paid a ridiculously small sum. Articles that were easily forgotten; money that was quickly spent. Again she regretted each sharp look, each groan of frustration, each shouted “What?” when he’d tap-tap on the door, or peer in like a small child, hoping and not hoping to disturb her. Time she would never get back. Apologies she would never get to deliver. The snow had stolen him. Because she was living her editorial calendar life, she hadn’t responded to his whisper that he was going into town. She hadn’t answered the phone. Didn’t know he’d gotten stuck. And only learned about the accident when the police banged on her door. She slapped the kettle on the stove and, mouth frozen in anger, shoved her feet into his boots, always left by the laundry room, and stumbled out into the winter that also would not leave. She cursed the snow, the sky, the icicles hanging from the eaves like a Yeti’s fangs. She snapped the closest one she could reach and hurled it javelin style toward the trees, as if this was a monster she could stab. But it fell short and only landed with a muffled “ssshhh” halfway between the wellhead and the small red maple he had planted last spring. Crying tears of anger and frustration and loss, she shuffled toward the tree, stroked the bare branches with her bare hands, and sank to her knees in the snow. “I’m sorry.” She said it louder. Then she aimed it to the sky, and the only response was the fat, icy flakes that painted her face and sifted into her hair. When she could no longer feel her fingers, she went inside, and reheated the kettle, and began to write about winter. And snow. And icicles like monsters’ teeth. Spring would come, in time.

Wicked Cool Mid-January Giveaway

Not Just Another Rafflecopter Giveaway

eNovAaW giveaway | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Yes, we’re doing it again. In what’s starting to look like a tradition, eNovel Authors At Work is offering yet another wicked cool giveaway. Along with enjoying great deals on these books (and some are free), you can win:

  • eNovAaW giveaway | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksKindle Paperwhite
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  • Message Charm (46 words to choose from) Expandable Wire Bangle Bracelet
  • Inktastic – Life’s Better With Books Tote Bag Natural
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  • $15 Amazon Gift Card
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With so many gifts, you’re more than likely to win something. However, the giveaway will only run between the 17th and the 30th. Take part by going to the Rafflecopter.

Let’s get to the books! A whole bunch of them will be FREE or 99c until the 21st:

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Thank you, Mr. Harvey

Doug Harvey died yesterday. He was an icon in Major League Baseball and the ninth umpire selected for the Hall of Fame. Not only was he one of my favorite umpires to watch when I was a kid, because of his cool, professional demeanor, standing up in the (sometimes literal) face of some of the hottest hotheads in the game, he was also one of my inspirations when I wrote The Call.

As I educated myself about umpiring and what it takes to make it, I fell in love with this Harvey quote, which I felt summed up the profession that to some can look like such a thankless pursuit. I ended up opening the novel with it.

“When asked what he was fighting for, General Washington, in writing to General Thomas, said the object was ‘neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in life.’ He must have been an umpire. That’s what umpiring is about.”

Harvey also inspired the young umpires in the story. Margie admires his classy, in-command style and wants to emulate him. She’s never told anyone that before, and when a fellow rookie makes the comparison, she’s thrilled. (I’ve included an excerpt below.)

Thank you, Mr. Harvey, for all you’ve given baseball, and for inspiring generations to come.

—–

As Margie rounded the right-field corner, Wes Osterhaus fell in beside her. His wiry limbs matched her stride, his pale, freckled cheeks pinking from the exertion and the Florida sun. In their morning classes, Wes sat Catholic-school-straight in the chair in front of hers, bobbing his head at the instructor. He always had the right answers, and a hundred other questions. The instructors had been patient with him, but more and more they said, “Let’s talk during lunch,” or told him to go look it up in the academy’s library. The “library” was a dingy, cinderblock-walled equipment room that smelled of sweat and old coffee and contained two metal folding chairs, an old TV, and an erector-set bookshelf of manuals and videotapes. Sometimes Margie passed the room on her way to Big Al’s office and Wes would be sitting there alone, staring at the screen, scribbling notes on his pad. She felt bad for the guy. He was smart, that much was clear, and he was one of the few people in camp who would talk to her. She overheard a couple of trainees calling him “Oster-cize,” and she wanted to kick them.

“Nice day for a run, huh?” Margie said.

“Technically, no.” Wes said some stuff about dew point and relative humidity that left Margie’s head spinning. Then he trailed off, and on the left-center warning track he said, “Forty-eight.”

“Excuse me?” Margie wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand.

“Sixteen percent of three hundred.” He nodded toward the group of guys practicing on the field. “That’s how many candidates will get recommended for evaluation after we’re done. Fewer still will get minor-league assignments.”

She smirked. “I think you’re gonna do fine.”

He nodded toward Rocky Anderson, who was berating some guy until he hung his head. “But that instructor is lowering our chances. He’s doing it all wrong.”

Her eyebrows hopped up. “Whaddya mean, wrong?”

“Positive reinforcement has been shown to help long-term learning better than negative reinforcement.”

“You got English for that?”

“Okay, right,” he muttered, as if giving himself a reminder to dumb-down his vocabulary for the masses. “Your strike fist. If he said, ‘nice job’ when you tucked your thumb in, instead of making you do laps when you get it wrong, research says you’d learn better.”

“What, you saying I’m never gonna learn?”

“No, Margie, I believe you will.” He paused a moment and added, “Because you remind me of Doug Harvey. He’s the best umpire in the game.”

She grinned. “Really? Doug Harvey?”

“Yes. The way you make your calls. The way you know the rules.”

Damn. “You wanna race?”

“Not especially.”

She knocked an elbow into his arm. “Aw, come on. Race me to the on-deck circle. Loser picks up the beer tonight.”

“That’s negative reinforcement. And besides, I don’t drink.”

“Okay. Winner gets to pick the game tape in the library later.”

“See? Now I’ll do it,” he said. “Because you’re offering me a learning opportunity.”

He took off. She took off after him. For the first time in Margie’s life, a boy beat her in a footrace. Probably because she let him.

Punch Drunk: Short Fiction

Nearly anything sounds like a good idea when you’re starched up with five or six shots and a couple beers and your buddies are clapping you on the shoulder and shouting your name. Hell, yeah, it had been a good idea then. Go get her, they said. You can do it, they said. She’d be a fool not to take you back, they said.

But at half past the rooster’s crack with a backpack over my shoulder and a bus ticket in my hand, I felt kind of stupid. I was thinking about cashing it in, when I turned toward the counter and wham! my arm bumped into this little old lady.

She was all blue eyes and white hair and smoothing out invisible wrinkles in my shirt even though I should have been the one apologizing, because she was such a tiny thing. I hoped I didn’t hurt her. My gran got laid up with a broken hip for just stepping off the sidewalk wrong, and here I was, this big lummox not watching where I was going. Story of my life.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, there’s no need for that, or that ma’am business, but thank you.” Her little blue eyes twinkled. “You going to Albany?”

“Yes, I’m—”

“Good, then you can carry this for me. I’d put it in the baggage compartment but I’m so afraid of what might happen down there.”

I followed her pointer finger to a blue gift-wrapped box big enough to hold a punch bowl. But before I could say no—as if I would—I was carrying it in one arm while she held on to the other and I was seeing her up the stairs into the bus. The only two empty seats were together, so I put my pack on the overhead shelf and started to put the box up there, too, but she stopped me.

That was how I ended up with a punch bowl sized box on my lap as we pulled out of the station and started for the highway. I couldn’t look away from that box and the silver ribbon around it and couldn’t stop thinking of what might have been. It wasn’t heavy enough for a punch bowl. I kept seeing Diane’s face. Kind of angry and disappointed at the same time. Like “who is this bull in a china shop and why am I marrying him?”

“It’s not gonna bite you, you know.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The old lady waved a hand toward the box.

“Would you feel better holding on to it yourself?” I asked. She would, and I let her. I knew this routine. Diane knew all the steps. Asking me everything without actually asking. Like it was some kind of game to get it out of me without using the words. Only I didn’t figure it out until she’d already won. Or I’d lost. Didn’t matter. Maybe getting on this bus to go charging up to Diane’s house had been a stupid idea. There were other people I could visit in Albany. She knew all of them, of course, and word would get back to her, and then—

The old lady rested a withered hand atop the blue striped wrapping paper, realigned the ribbon. “So who’s in Albany?” she said. “You’re going to visit your girlfriend?”

How the heck—? “Fiancée. She’s my fiancée. Or at least she… But I… And we… I mean, we’re supposed to get married, but…now I don’t know. I don’t know if she still wants…”

She laughed. Blood rushed to my face so fast I swore it might burst out the tips of my ears, and that only made me madder. “It’s not that funny.” I said.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. You remind me of my grandson. All tied up in knots wondering whether a girl likes him without actually asking her.”

That shut me up. Mainly because she was right. Diane and I had a fight, and I’d just walked away. And I really didn’t want to have this conversation with a stranger. I didn’t want to have it with anyone. “So what’s in the box?”

That shut her up. Then I felt guilty. I could hear my gran scolding me in my head. “Sorry. None of my business.”

She sucked in a long breath and let it out just as slowly. “If you must know, it’s my husband.” A sharp look followed. “Oh, put your eyes back in your head. The way you’re staring it’s like I’ve murdered him and chopped him up into little pieces.”

Had she? Maybe I should have turned in my ticket when I had the chance. “You mean, like, his ashes.” I’d never seen what a human being amounted to. Gran wanted to be buried in the old cemetery next to Pop, and my folks obliged. I’d helped carry Gran, and that casket was heavy. This box couldn’t have weighed more than four, five pounds.

“Not so loud,” she said. “Or they’ll make me buy an extra ticket.”

For a second I almost believed her, and she met my sly smile with one of her own. I tapped a finger against the box. “Not a bad way to travel,” I said. Nobody would ever suspect. I could see why she didn’t want him in the baggage compartment, or in the overhead rack.

“He always liked buses,” she said. Then her smile fell as she turned toward me. “What’s her name?”

“What?”

“Your fiancée. Or the girl you’re not sure is whatever you think she is.”

I slunk down a couple inches. “Diane.”

“Well, when we get to Albany, you tell that Diane—” Then a phone started ringing. It wasn’t mine, ’cause I didn’t have one. Not since one of my buddies swiped it from me last night and threw it in the lake when I was trying to call her drunk. Turned out five or six shots and a couple of beers weren’t such a good idea in a number of ways.

“Is that yours?” It sounded like it was coming from her handbag, and she frowned into it. Then I noticed the ribbon on the top of the box was vibrating.

She giggled and gave the box a playful tap. “Now, Bertie, you stop that. You know how expensive those roaming charges are.”

“You wrapped it up in the box on purpose and set an alarm or something,” I said.

Her mouth pursed. “Aw, you’re spoiling my fun. Maybe that’s your trouble with this Diane person. You have no sense of humor.”

“She’s not ‘this Diane person.’ She’s my fiancée, and I’m…” A jerk. That’s what I’d been. A big oaf and a jerk. That was why I knew about boxes big enough to hold punch bowls. It had been the first wedding present to arrive. And the last thing I broke before I walked out. I could still hear the shatter of the glass exploding on the tile, and the echo of the awful things we called each other. I felt like an idiot for leaving her to clean up the mess.

“And?”

“Nothing.” I slumped down more. At least the phone had stopped ringing. That was creeping me out.

“Say you’re sorry.”

“Fine. I’m sorry, Bertie. I’m sorry I’m sucking all the fun out of your bus ride.”

“No. Say it to Diane.”

“I don’t… I don’t know if she’s even interested in hearing it.”

“I see. You didn’t call first.”

“I tried. Sort of. And I’d ask to borrow your phone, but I don’t think Bertie is finished with it yet.”

She laughed. “I guess I was wrong about the sense of humor. But I was a little bit right about you.” She made a sweeping motion with one hand. “You thought you’d just ride into town like a knight on horseback and surprise her. The grand romantic gesture.”

“Kinda. Sorta.” I tapped a finger against my leg. “Just. You know. Hypothetically. If I was going to do something like that, what should I do?”

“You could bring a nice gift, for starters. Then just say you’re sorry and tell her how you feel. Easy as pie.”

Not so easy. Not the way I’d left. She had every right not to answer the door. She had every right not to marry a big oaf who—

“There ya go, thinking too much. I can almost smell it.”

Then I didn’t feel much like talking anymore, either. We didn’t speak for the rest of the trip, and when we came to a stop at the Albany station, I took the box from her lap and turned toward the aisle.

I got up to let her exit ahead of me. Then I saw Diane. Through the window on the other side of the bus. I saw her standing in the small knot of people waiting by the door. I couldn’t take my eyes from her delicate face, as if she were an exotic flower poking out of the weeds. Passengers started streaming out. I tried to stay out of their way, but my eyes were glued to that window. Like we were back in junior high and I was seeing her for the first time—a heart-thumping dream with her long red hair and turned-up nose and cute little cheerleader skirt—while the big football jock I’d been felt as weak as a baby.

“She’s lovely,” the woman said, and nudged my arm. “Go talk to her.”

“But I don’t have a gift…”

“Oh, yes you do.”

I glanced at the box in my arms. Bertie? And her cell phone? I turned to tell her that she must have been crazy, but she’d already left. Maybe I could still catch up to her. I grabbed my pack and hustled off the bus. She was nowhere. I never thought she could move that fast. And how could she just leave Bertie—?

But then Diane was there, her green eyes staring up at me, and I couldn’t move at all. All I could think was what an idiot I’d been and that I’d do anything to fix this.

“What’s that?” she said.

Oh. The box. “I don’t know… There was this old lady from the bus…” Nope. Nowhere. Maybe I should have gone to lost and found inside the station, see if—

“But my name’s on it.” She gave me a little teasing grin. “Maybe you’re still a little drunk from last night. Eddie told me about your phone.”

I looked down again. And, indeed, “Diane” was written on the wrapping paper. With a heart around it. When did she—? “No, I’m, uh, fine.”

She hooked her arm through mine. “Hon, you’re looking a little pale. You want to go somewhere and get a cup of coffee and talk?”

I nodded. More than anything, I wanted to talk to her. Or at least try. I let her lead me to the diner across the street, a favorite of ours. She ordered us some coffee and before I could protest she had the box on the table and started opening it like a kid at Christmas. My heart was hammering and I wanted to stop her but what could I say? No, it’s not for you? That some crazy old lady left her husband’s ashes in there with her cell phone and wrote your name on the wrapping, maybe while I was daydreaming and maybe—

It was a punch bowl. My throat went dry. That old lady was nuts. Or I was. Maybe I was still drunk. I gulped my water, buying a moment for some kind of excuse. She’d put Bertie’s ashes in a punch bowl? But the box hadn’t been nearly heavy enough…

As she opened the top, I glanced up, preparing to say—I had no idea what. But she was smiling.

“It’s perfect,” she said. And took it out so I could see. No ashes. No cell phone. Just a bowl. “It’s acrylic.” She tapped a polished nail against it. “Unbreakable.”

Unbreakable. How the heck did she know about… “Unbreakable?”

“Yeah.” She turned it around in her Tinkerbell-delicate fingers. “This was the one Aunt Mary was supposed to have sent. Kinda glad you broke it, tell you the truth. If people would only use the registry. I specifically picked out things that weren’t so…fragile.”

“You picked…” But half my brain was still thinking about my seat mate. Damn, why hadn’t I even asked her name? Now all I wanted to do was thank her. “Did you see a little old lady get out of the bus, maybe a few people before me? Tiny thing, blue eyes, white hair…she’d been sitting next to me by the window all the way up.”

Diane’s mouth softened. “I watched your bus come into the lot, circle around and park. Nobody was sitting next to you that I saw.”

Nobody was sitting… She was tiny, but she wasn’t that tiny.

Diane pressed her cool, pretty hand over mine and gave me a patient smile. “Maybe you are still a little drunk, hon. Come on, let’s go back to my house and you can take a nap and I’ll put this with the rest of the incredibly unbreakable gifts and we can talk later.”

I nodded dumbly and picked up the bowl. I didn’t even like punch. Maybe I could learn to.