The Jacket: Flash Fiction

“You bastard.” She tore off the jacket and threw it at her husband. His expression fell somewhere between that irritating smirk and complete befuddlement as he attempted to catch it, but it just slithered down his body and landed on his expensive shoes. “You used me! You are always using me.”

He calmly bent, which reddened his face, plucked up the garment and spread it lovingly across his office chair. It burned that she didn’t remember the last time he tried to touch her with such tenderness, at least when the cameras were not on him. “You knew the deal, sweetheart.” He didn’t even look at her when he said it. Which made her even angrier.

“What. That I am to be your weapon of mass distraction?”

“If the Louboutin fits.” She turned away, crossed her arms over her chest. He tugged in a deep breath and sighed. Made a kind of murmuring sound at her, like he was trying to make up. As if. This was going to cost him big time. And not just in his credit card. “Aw, come on,” he said. “It was a joke.”

She spun toward him. “You. You are a joke. You think I do not hear what they are saying? That I am some kind of…kind of…” The English words failed her. And she wanted to make that his fault, too. “Eva Braun.”

There came the befuddlement again. And then a smile. If it would not spoil her manicure, she would punch it off his fat, orange face. Hell, maybe it would be worth it.

“At least Eva stood by her man.”

Was he again trying to be funny? Did she used to like this about him? She was finding it hard to remember. The money? Yes, the money had been good. But she could make her own money. She was not that poor, struggling girl anymore. “Eva Braun died by her man.”

A pall fell over the room. “So, whadda you want?” He pulled open a drawer. “Tiffany’s?”

“I want you to stop it.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“The children. Stop it with the children.”

He made a rude noise with his lips. “Sweetheart. I know what I’m doing. They’ll cave and give me my big, beautiful wall and everything will be great again. Why don’t you let Ugo take you up to Manhattan this weekend. Buy yourself whatever you want and leave running the country to me.”

“Running the country…? You are running it…like a shithole country.”

He straightened and glared at her.

She pulled herself up taller, glad that she’d worn her highest heels. “Yes, that is what I said. A shithole country. You have no idea what you are doing and you have surrounded yourself with people who are giving you shitty advice. When you even choose to listen to them. You will become one of those one-term presidents that people pity. Yes. They will pity you. They will call you a weak loser and they will pity you.”

He stepped closer, his mouth tightening, his arms hugging themselves across his body. “I don’t like what you’re saying. What you’re saying sounds like a person who doesn’t have any faith in me. It sounds like you think I’m some kind of low IQ, low quality person.”

“If the cheap suit fits.” And then she decided. But maybe she had already decided, and it took a few blows to her ego for it all to sink in. “Yes, I think I will go to Manhattan with Ugo. And I will stay there with him. At least he is nice to me. He does not treat me like some kind of stage prop, to be trotted out whenever he wants the media to think he has a heart.”

Then she turned with a flick of her hair and slammed the door shut, damn what his idiotic advisers would think. She might tell the National Enquirer herself. Maybe even write a book. But first, she had a call to make. She was certain Mr. Mueller might be interested in what she had to say.

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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.

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 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.

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.

Silent Night: Flash Fiction

I did not want to be afraid. It was a beautiful evening, not so very cold, and the snow fell in tiny shimmering flakes, just like the first Christmas that Mama Svetlana and I lived in New York. She had taken a break from cooking in her restaurant and we saw the big tree in Rockefeller Center, all lit up and shining. But there was no tree this year. It was no longer allowed. By order of the government, there were to be no lights other than those that were absolutely necessary for public safety. Lights made for crowds which made for tempting targets, or this is what they claimed. So as I walked home, all I had was the snow. And a terrible feeling that I had been followed. I saw nothing, nobody out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was my imagination. Still, Mama Svetlana says that if I feel afraid, and she is out of town, to come to the restaurant and ask one of the men to walk me back to the apartment.

I knew all the men there. From the busboys to the waiters to the Russian businessmen who always took up the round table in the back corner and talked of things that I was not supposed to be hearing. But I happened to arrive when Alexey the dishwasher was due for a break, so he threw on his jacket and said, “I walk you, da?”

I nodded and followed him out. I felt comfortable around Alexey. Not just because he was big and could look intimidating. Or because he was good-looking with nice blue eyes but not so handsome as to make me nervous. But because he was only a few years older than me, and like me, his English was also not very good. So I did not feel the pressure to make conversation. He would always see me not just to the building but up to the apartment door and sometimes inside, to make sure it was safe. I thought that excessive, but gentlemanly, and I offered him tea or a snack, because that is what Mama Svetlana would have wanted me to do for a guest in our home. Usually he would decline, fumbling through enough English for me to feel reassured that it was because he had to get back to the restaurant, and not because I was a burden to him.

That evening, he accepted a cup of tea and some butter cookies that I had baked the night before. They were my favorite. And, it seemed, his too. Soon, though, he made his excuses, and when he reached for his coat, I saw the handle of a gun sticking out of the inside pocket.

I nearly dropped my teacup and pointed toward the firearm. “You need a gun to walk me home?”

“Is not safe,” he said, looking almost apologetic—for the political situation in New York, for the secret immigration police that pulled up in their black SUVs and took people away. Like our neighbor, Mrs. Gonzalez, and her three children.

“But I am legal,” I said. Mama Svetlana had adopted me in London, and we had the proper paperwork to live and work in the US. Even though she had not renounced her Russian citizenship and I… Well, I was not quite sure where I stood. My father was Austrian and my mother a Syrian refugee. But what more ideal kind of American than one who carried the genes of so many civilizations?

He cleared his throat, shifted his eyes left then right as if deciding what and how to tell me. “You are daughter of Russian woman with powerful friends,” he explained. “You make target.” That silenced me. My heart was doing circus tricks, along with my stomach. I thought I might throw up. Then he put his hand over mine. “I not say this to scare you, Anya. I say this so you pay attention.”

That made me angry, and I pulled my posture up straighter. “I don’t pay attention? I have been paying attention my entire life.” I told him what it had been like to grow up in a country in which it was not safe to be a Middle Eastern refugee. I told him about how my parents had died. How Mama Svetlana had adopted me as her own. I even told him what I heard at the restaurant, that some of Mama Svetlana’s friends—the Russian businessmen—have been talking about a plot to undermine the American government and one of them went on in quite some detail about how it could be done. Alexey listened to my barrage of English—very patiently—but when I talked about the Russian businessmen, his eyes iced over.

“You should not listen to these men,” he said. “They are fools with not much better to do with their time.”

I felt afraid again. Of the tone in Alexey’s voice. Of the men. Of the horrible things they had said. Even if they were fools.

Perhaps Alexey saw that on my face, and he pressed a warm hand to my cheek. “Do not let them scare you, Anya. Everything will be fine. Everything will be…as it should be.”

I wanted to bathe in his reassurances, but a shiver went through my body just the same.

We made a bargain that evening. While the lights were out and the snow came down and he ate the rest of my butter cookies. He said he would keep me safe. He said he would not tell Mama Svetlana I had been eavesdropping. For giving me all of this, what he asked for in return was my silence.

I nodded. What else could I have done?

“You are good girl,” he said. “There is no reason to be afraid.”

Then he kissed my forehead, transferred the gun to his front coat pocket, and left.

I peeked through the blinds and watched him disappear into the snowy night. Despite what he had said, I felt more afraid than ever. This time, for all of us.