The Sinkhole: Flash Fiction

A story in the news this week caught my attention. But, really, how could I help myself?

——

The smell came from a dark, thick patch of grass near the fence. Momma always said that the grass is always greener over the septic tank, or maybe that was the title of a book she liked. So I went to tell the groundskeeper.

He laughed and patted my head, something I’d never liked, but I held my tongue because I was getting paid decent money for mowing the grass and didn’t want to make him mad. “Rich people’s shit stinks just like the rest of us,” he said, then told me he’d take care of it.

He didn’t take care of it.

Next time I came, the patch was darker, and bigger, and needed a serious mowing. I got as close to it as I could stand. My eyes were watering from the smell. The grass was soggy, and maybe I was just imagining it, but it looked like the whole patch was kind of…sinking in the middle.

“Kid.”

My stomach cramped. It could have been the smell. But I knew better. I knew that man’s voice.

“Hey, kid. C’mere.”

He was bigger than I thought. Meaner than he looked on the television. I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth. Momma also said that I should stay far away from “that fool,” as she called him, and she never said anything like that without good reason. I tried to take a step back but my feet froze. Then he came to me.

“Kid. Don’t go near that if you know what’s good for you.”

Then he shoved five bucks at me and walked away.

I kept his money. Didn’t feel right spending it, but I kept it in one of Gramps’ old cigar boxes in my closet.

Then I started to wonder. What was so important about that stinky patch of lawn that the president himself was giving me money to stay away from it? Somehow I didn’t feel like he was scared I’d get hurt.

Next time I came, that part of the lawn was marked off with yellow tape, and three men were standing around staring at it. I didn’t know what good staring at it was going to do. It was all swampy now, and sinking even lower in the middle. And good Lord, that smell. I’ve been in a lot of outhouses and such and I never smelled anything that bad. That got me wondering if maybe some animal fell in and died, like the raccoon that got trapped under our porch.

I was about to tell them that when a big hand landed on my shoulder.

I turned and my mouth went dry. I’d never seen this man before, but he looked even bigger and meaner than the president. His face was one giant prune and it was getting redder and redder by the second.

“You got business here, kid?”

“I just mow the lawn…”

“Not anymore, you don’t. Get your ass out of here.”

I was so shocked and afraid that it was like my feet had decided for me that we were going to turn around and run. I made it about a block and a half away before I stopped. And thought. He didn’t have any right to fire me. I didn’t even know who he was. The groundskeeper was the man who’d given me the job, the man who gave me my twenty bucks after I’d finished. What was I doing, running away like a little baby. I heard what Momma might tell me: “Stand up for yourself and be a man.”

So I took some deep breaths and walked back there. Tall and strong like a man. Right to the groundskeeper’s office. And I told him what happened, plain as I could.

He listened. Nodding at me. I thought for sure he’d say the man was right to fire me. For standing around gawking while the men were doing their important work. For causing trouble. But he just said, “Close the door and sit down.”

I did. My heart in my throat. I might have been hovering an inch off my chair, I was so nervous. My palms were sweaty and I wiped them on the legs of my cargo shorts.

He leaned forward. “I’m gonna tell you something, son. And I need you to promise me you’ll never tell another living soul.”

I nodded, sure my eyes were bugging clear out of my head. Momma told me a man’s word went straight to God. That a real man—a real, good man—never promises what he can’t deliver. “Yes, sir.”

“That’s where he puts his sin.”

Now, I knew all about sin. But I didn’t understand the rest of it. The groundskeeper must have realized that, because he let out a long breath and moved a little closer, until I could see the red veins in his eyes. “There’s this story. It was writ a long time ago by this English dude. There was a man who made a deal with the devil to stay young and good lookin’ forever. But there was a catch. You know there’s always a catch when you make a deal with the devil. The devil, he put a painting of the man in his attic? And this painting, it had a spell on it, so that it got older and uglier each time the man sinned. Which was all fine and good for the man. He could do what he pleased and the painting took the hit. But he was overcome with guilt every time he looked at the painting. Eventually it drove him crazy and he stabbed the painting, and the man fell down dead as if he’d stabbed himself.”

It took me a long time to think about that. “So…the grass out there grows higher and gets stinkier each time he…?”

The groundskeeper nodded.

“Boy, he must sin a lot.”

“It ain’t for us to judge,” the groundskeeper said. Quiet, like we were in church.

“But that’s not good for the lawn.” I wondered if maybe the devil would give him a portrait instead, that he could stick in the attic. “And that smell, it could make people sick.”

He nodded again. “Well, I agree with you, son. That’s why those three men are out there right now.” He hooked a gnarled thumb over his shoulder.

“If it’s his sin, what can they even do about it? Dig it up and put it somewhere else?”

“They’re doing what they were told to do. Stand around and look at it for a while, make it seem like they’re fixing it. Maybe put some hay down, soak some of the stink up. Bless them, they don’t know it’s only gonna come back worse.”

It made my stomach ache. How could that thing get any worse? I swallowed hard before I asked my next question. “Do I still have a job?”

He gave me a soft and kind of sad laugh. “You’re a good boy. You’re a good worker. Yes, you still have a job. Leave that man to me.”

I couldn’t sleep that night, after what the groundskeeper told me, about the sin and about the painting in that story. It just wasn’t right, to be that full of sin and also be the president. And leave that stinky swamp out there on the lawn, making anyone who gets near it sick. But I kept my promise. I didn’t tell a living soul what the groundskeeper told me. I did my job. Eventually, they took the yellow tape away from the stinky spot, which was a little less stinky, and they’d raked up the hay. But that grass was way darn long and needed a serious cutting. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to take care of that.

So I did.

The next morning, Momma told me the president died. And that they’d asked everyone who worked there to come by and pay their respects. Momma said she’d come with me, though I knew from the pinch in her mouth that respect was the last thing she wanted to give him.

As we walked by the part of the lawn where I’d spent so many hours working, I tried not to look at the stinky spot. Maybe it was my imagination, but I couldn’t even smell it anymore. It just smelled like fresh-cut grass. It wasn’t soggy, it wasn’t sagging in the middle…it looked just like the rest of the lawn. Momma leaned toward me and said, “You do such good work, son.”

My jaw trembled with fear. Had I killed him? Was it really true, what the groundskeeper said, and what I did was like stabbing the painting in the attic?

No, I told myself. That was just a made-up book.

It wasn’t my fault, what happened to the president. I was just doing my job.

Advertisements

Not a Good Year for the Grapes

I rarely know what I’ll write for #2MinutesGo Fridays…but this is what poured from me yesterday. I hope you’ll come visit some week and write, read, or comment!

—–

It had been a good week for the restaurant but not for me. I wanted to plead a headache and tired feet and go home, but my maître d’ enjoyed our weekly ritual and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Tell me,” he said, after we’d nearly emptied our first glasses of wine. “Would you ever go back to Russia?”

“What’s the point? There’s nothing to go back to.”

“I would go back,” he said. “I want to experience where my parents came from.” Ever since seeing some silly Hallmark card of a movie, Dmitri has been enamored of the idea of discovering one’s roots, of reconnecting with the soil from which one had sprouted. But he was born in Brighton Beach, to Russian immigrants, and has never known another country. I’ve had enough of roots and soil. That poor, pathetic village where I’d spent my childhood might have given birth to me, but after it betrayed me, I felt no compunction to return. That soil and I owe each other nothing.

“Bloom where you’re planted.” I refilled our glasses and waved a hand around my state-of-the-art kitchen. “Here, I bloom. Not in some field of mud and chicken shit which is now probably a shopping mall.”

“Yes.” He gave me a small and telling smile. “It’s wonderful here, the best restaurant in the neighborhood.”

“But you think I’m missing something.”

I took his silence as a yes and gulped half my wine—not the best pinot noir we’ve ever served but hardly the worst—then clicked the glass back to the counter more gently than I wanted to. Hell, if I were alone, I’d have flung it against the wall. “Ask your parents what they’re missing. Ask them why they left.”

His jaw tightened. “Perhaps it is time to close. I’ll call you a cab.”

I let out a long sigh as if it could expel the bitterness from my body. He was right to be angry with me. He didn’t deserve the business end of my metaphorical knife. How was he to know that Sergei had left me for his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend in Moscow? My personal life was nobody’s business, especially those in my employ. “I’m sorry. It must be the wine.”

Dmitri nodded and crossed to the register. “No need to apologize. Maybe it was not a good year for the grapes.”

I stopped him before he could pick up the phone. “Dmitri. If you would ever like to take your vacation there, I would be happy to give you the extra time. And a little bonus.”

His eyebrows rose. “Really. Extra time and a bonus to go back to ‘nothing’?”

“Who knows?” I shrugged. “For you it might be different. Maybe they have not yet built a shopping mall.”

He accepted my peace offering, and as I got into the cab, I watched him disappear into the night. Hoping that if he did decide to make the trip, he would find fulfillment. Unlike what Russia had given me—the scars I never revealed, a jail sentence I could never unremember. No. They would never have me back. Even if I desired to return. I would continue to grow where I had planted myself. True, I could no longer bear fruit like a twenty-five-year-old, but I would dig my roots harder into my adopted soil and bloom with a goddamn passion.

Flash Fiction: Lies

The first lie was small. You’d spilled grape juice on your mother’s movie magazine and buried it deep in a neighbor’s trash can. When she asked, more to the living room than to you, where it had gone, the “I don’t know” eased past your lips in three soft puffs of air, wrong but delicious. Your heart raced; your cheeks flushed. But she didn’t flinch; more likely she didn’t care. Busy with her busy life, busy with her list of tasks to be checked off. A truth, at that point, would have made an inconvenience, demanded a response. It would have stopped time, the flow of left-right, left-right. Right-wrong.

You got away with it. But you didn’t sleep that night. Maybe someone had seen you. Maybe Mrs. Fitzgerald, who claimed she saw everything, spied on you from her window and told your mother, and she was merely biding her busy time, waiting for you to crack.

You didn’t.

The second lie came easier. When your father took you to his office, he told a secretary in a horrible dress and an ugly hairdo that she looked beautiful. But he’d slid you a wink. On the drive home, he explained that sometimes it was necessary to lie in the grown-up world, that the truth can hurt people who couldn’t take it. “And sometimes,” he’d said, “a tiny fib can help grease the wheels a little. You know. Like if you need to make something bad go away.” You didn’t know what that meant and were afraid to ask. But the next day you told Patsy Miller, a girl in your class with buck teeth and stringy hair, that she was beautiful. The words, again, were easy. The smile made her look happy, so happy she let you cheat off of her on a test you’d been dreading, and you understood what your father had meant.

The third lie, the fourth, the fifth…you’d stopped keeping count. You’d stopped even thinking of them as lies. It was “stretching the truth.” It was “making everyone’s lives easier.” It was the thing all your friends were doing…to get girls, to get better grades, better jobs, better deals. Better girls. Better wives.

The last lie was the one you told yourself, the bourbon and pills laid out on the shiny gold nightstand next to the indictment, the divorce papers, the will. You smiled into the empty room and said it had all been worth it.

The Scent of Silence

“Why do you have to go?” Her question registers as the first raindrops begin to fall. You stop in the middle of the sidewalk, tip your face to the sky and let the damp, metallic smell trigger the pleasant memories. Springtime. Green leaves. Hikes along a springy bed of pine needles in the forest.

She turns. The scent of hairspray fights the perfume radiating from her skin. The smell of anger. You add that to your mental catalog of unpleasant memories. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Uh. Sure. Of course.”

“No.” She starts walking again. You follow. Umbrellas pop open all around you. Hers with a tooth-grinding snap. She doesn’t offer to share. “You’re not listening. You’re lost in that damn Mars mission again. Maybe you should go. Maybe you should go now.”

“This ‘damn Mars mission’ could save humanity! Not to be hyperbolic about it, but when the oceans rise and the air is unfit to breathe, when crazy world leaders launch the missiles…what if there was a habitable place we could go? With far more potential than the Moon?”

Silence. You should have weighed your words more carefully. Conversations like this were why she took pills every night to sleep. You try again, softer. “They’ll only need me for a few months.”

“That’s what you said last time.” She spins toward you, flinging a spray of rain from her umbrella across your shirt. “It was more like a year!”

“Then move to Houston with me.”

“Houston. As if.”

The smell of spite. You try to think of happier aromas. Bread baking. A wet dog and a small boy jumping into a pond on a summer afternoon. You smile to yourself. This could really work. In previous extended space missions, humans have suffered from sensory deprivation. It’s made them hallucinate. It’s been detrimental to their health, their productivity.

The team loves your idea—a virtual reality system that can impart not just visuals and sound, but can activate memories tied to certain smells. Now you’re getting the chance to create it. First, catalog the appropriate sensory input, then build the system and test it. You know it can work. You know it will help. You’d feel better if your wife believed in you, believed in your ideas. Believed you weren’t taking these assignments to get away from her.

But you can’t change that.

You spend the trip home in silence. You imagine the smells awaiting you. The stale coffee in the kitchen. The damp wool aroma of the couch where you’ll be sleeping.

You pull into the driveway, snap off the keys. Let out a long breath. She reaches for her door handle, hesitates. “I’ll go with you.” Her voice is so quiet it blends with the rain. Then, a little louder, and with a bit of humor you haven’t heard in some time, she adds, “After all, if you’re going to be so absorbed in this project, someone better make sure you eat once in a while.”

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.

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.