The Council: Flash Fiction

The five men entered the exclusive club through the back door and did not need to be introduced nor shown the way to their private room. Each man’s drink of choice arrived moments after he sat down. One Diet Coke, one frosty draft, one sweet tea, one decaf, one vodka martini. The greetings were more somber, the smiles slower. Prior meetings had been, if not happier, at least more convivial occasions. The men would compare experiences and gray hairs, ask after each other’s families, show off pictures of grandchildren, suggest ways they could help raise money for disaster relief in poor countries. But this was not one of those meetings. This was a problem that the Council had tackled only once in their long and storied history, but these members had never faced it before.

Each lifted his glass in a silent toast. The first sip a kind of ceremony. Slow, calculating, bracing. When all the beverages were back on the table, the eldest—by only four months—spoke, his quiet crackle of a voice and decades of experience commanding the room, making them lean closer to hear.

“Thank you for coming. Assume you’ve received and read your briefing packages.”

The men nodded.

“Knew you would have, just wanted to confirm. Based on that, our prior conversations between and among, and the grave situation we are facing, thought it might be prudent for us to sit down and get on the same page.”

The men nodded.

“And want to add first, you two”—he waved a wizened, liver-spotted hand toward the draft of beer and the sweet tea—“excellent job speaking out. Know it’s not everyone’s wheelhouse to even whisper publicly about the new guy, but appreciate that you did. Kind of softens the target.”

The man behind the draft beer looked especially pained.

“Yes, Forty-four. Is there something you’d like to say?”

The tall, elegantly dressed man cleared his throat. “I’m as concerned as all of you,” he said. “And maybe for a few reasons, I have more call to be—with the exception of Forty-two, I can imagine.”

Forty-two, the ruddy man behind the Diet Coke, waved a hand. “No worries, brother. I wasn’t crazy about being back in that fishbowl again, know what I mean?”

Forty-four nodded, with a wry half-smile, and continued, gesturing toward the packet in front of him. “But pulling this trigger—literally, pulling this trigger–seems a little extreme. I was hoping we could achieve a more tenable outcome if we work at it from the inside. We still have connections in high places. Operation Twenty-five looked like a viable option. I do believe that our founding fathers, in their foresight and wisdom, would have thought that amendment to be a necessary failsafe, in the event. And I do think, and I think we are all in agreement, that this is, without a doubt, an event.”

“Yes, we can definitely agree about the importance of action,” Thirty-nine said, his voice a mere wisp with a Southern accent. “But I fear the damage he could do in the time it would take to invoke the twenty-fifth.” He tapped the folder. “And we are all running out of time. So it is my reluctant but necessary call that we go forward.”

Forty-three gave Forty-one the side eye. “And that injector gizmo in the Oval Office chair…it really will look like a heart attack?”

Forty-one raised a brow at his son. “That’s what J. Edgar Hoover told me.”

Silence fell over the table, and one by one, the men nodded.

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Off the Grid: Flash Fiction

My work boots crunch over the trail, navigating exposed roots and rocks and branches. The crickets and cicadas sing alternating choruses, joined by birdsong and the rush of the swollen creek and the everpresent background duet of chainsaws and helicopters. I hear that sound in my dreams, an earworm I can’t shake—whine, chop-chop; whine, chop-chop—as I eat my cold breakfasts and grimace at over-sweetened cups of instant coffee and sponge myself semi-clean with a rationed bit of water and a stiff, old washcloth. Chainsaws. Everywhere. Cutting apart the trees that toppled over in the last storm—blocking roads, ripping down power lines, crushing cars and roofs and whatever unfortunate things happened to be in their paths.

I fear my uncle might be one of those unfortunate things. I walk faster.

He knew this was coming. The crazy weather, the longer and longer stretches we’d have to go without electricity. “One day,” he said, pouring me warmed brandy while we sat in front of a fire on a frosty evening, when I was not old enough to legally drink. “One day all that”—he waved in the general direction of the nearest town and beyond it the city where I lived with my nuclear family—“will be gone. Collapsed under its own hubris, terrorist target, whatever. We’ll all be living like this, off the grid. No texting. No cell phones. No goddamn twenty-four-seven-everything-you-want. Someone’s gotta be the wise old fool that teaches you kids how to get on with it.”

Like he’d shown me—where to find clean water, how long to boil it if it isn’t, what plants you can eat and which can be used medicinally. The last time I saw him—over a weekend when I told my parents I’d be hiking with a girlfriend and her family—he took me hunting. He prefers a bow. It takes more skill, makes less noise, and won’t poison the groundwater with lead. He took down a small buck and showed me how to dress it. He made me promise not to tell my mother; certainly if she knew that I’d not only lied to her about where I was going but helped kill a deer, she would never permit me to leave the house again. At home, she pretends my uncle doesn’t exist. There is no talk of her younger brother; any mention of her childhood includes him only peripherally and with a quick change to another subject. Like he’s been committed to life in prison or did something equally mortifying.

I’ll never dare tell her of my visits. Or that he taught me how to shoot that bow and also how to skin a woodchuck. I can’t help a smile at the memory. He was proud of me for not being “all squeamish like a girly-girl.”

I walk faster. The chainsaws and helicopters whine-chop off into the distance.

To get to him on a normal weekend, I have to ride the subway to the end of the line, hop a bus, then hike three miles from the road up to his place. But the storm has rendered many of the roads impassable; the train tracks also have to be cleared of trees and debris, so it’s taking some effort and detours and waiting to even get to the foot of his driveway.

Now I’m half-drenched with sweat and feeling a little lightheaded despite the stale granola and two small bottles of water I swiped from the pantry.

I stop to listen. A chainsaw—the new state bird, my father joked—buzzed from the right. Not from his house.

I walk faster. I try to trick myself into believing he’s okay. That eventually I’ll smell woodsmoke and breakfast cooking. That he’ll greet me with his big easy tobacco-stained smile and hook one flannel-wrapped arm around my neck and ask about my folks and what lie I told them this time.

This time? I told them nothing. Dad was fiddling with the generator and Mom had gone out trolling for supplies.

I figured they’d never miss me, and if they did, I’d say I was helping the neighbors.

My heart pounds as I get close enough to see what happened. There is no woodsmoke. No breakfast cooking. All I can smell is pine. Fresh and sharp, like the tree—and his house—never saw it coming. I sprint the rest of the way, calling his name. No answer. Calling again. No answer. Then I hear it. A small, repetitive rasp that chews on my already tweaked nerves. And something like…whistling.

I nearly faint when I find him in the shed out back. Where we dressed the deer, the woodchuck. He is sitting at his workbench, sharpening the blade of his axe with a file. Whistling something that sounds like “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” He squints up at me and grins.

“Had a look at that tree, did you?”

I can only nod.

“Well, stick around and we’ll show it what for.”

Is This Thing On?

Happy Friday! I wanted to share a bit I wrote for Two Minutes Go. We’re still open, if you want to play. Or just stop by for a read. Excellent writing going on.

——

After a few months of house arrest, the shock frequency diminished, and Henry began to see his ankle cuff differently. He painted the silver finish dull with one of his daughter’s apocalyptically named nail polish colors—Irony or Acid Rain or Corporate Greed or something. Wore his shirt unbuttoned and pretended he was one of those old-time cartoon prisoners in Alcatraz, with their raggedy striped pants and a link or two dragging off their old, rusted leg irons. He let his beard grow and limped around the house talking to imaginary pigeons.

His daughter rolled her eyes and started making more coffee. “Dad. Stop it. They’ll just shock you again if you try to do anything funny, if that even qualifies.”

His shoulders slumped as he dropped his character. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“She’s right, dear.” His wife had walked in, began fussing around with breakfast things.

“You know”—he snatched a piece of bread before she could toast it—“I don’t think they’re even listening anymore. Maybe the guy in charge of that department quit again. Last night I recited about a dozen dirty limericks. Turns out a lot of things rhyme with ‘Trump.’ And…nothing.” He addressed his ankle. “You hear me? Nothing. Hello? Is this thing on?”

It just sat there. He’d missed a few spots with the nail polish, a shade of grayish-black somewhere between a gangrenous limb and mold, and they glinted in the kitchen lights.

“You owe me for that nail polish,” his daughter said. “That stuff costs, like, ten dollars a bottle.”

“I’ll take it out of your college fund,” he said. “Or here’s an idea. Try to help your old man through this.”

“Through what?” his daughter said. “You sleep half the day, then watch old movies, order pizza and go back to sleep. Throw in some beers and porn and that’s, like, a dream life for half the guys I know.”

“You’re fourteen. What kind of guys you know drink beer?”

But she just smiled and left the room, waggling her fingers goodbye over her shoulder. He spun to face his wife.

“You think they’d let me watch porn?”

Her eyes flattened. “Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen of him, after Fox News, it’s probably the most popular channel in the White House.”

He grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Ooh, you’re gonna get it. They’ll be coming after you next. Then you’ll be wearing one of these. Maybe we can get a matching pair.” He addressed it again. “Hello? Is this thing on? There once was a man from New York, who boasted of girls he could—”

“Henry!”

“What? Nobody’s listening. I could call him every name Jon Stewart ever dreamed up for him and nobody would notice. I could do twenty minutes on his weird bromance with Vladimir Putin. Hell, I could probably grab the Saws-All and cut this thing off and fling it into the dumpster across the street.”

He’d never seen her so pale. “Henry. Don’t you dare. Just because it might not be monitored twenty-four-seven doesn’t mean it might not have some kind of built-in—”

“You worry too much.” He headed for the basement. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”

Downstairs he rummaged through his tools. Several projects decorated his workbench, and he sighed at their varied states of abandonment. In the beginning of his house arrest, after an initial period of mourning, he’d thrown his energy toward creating things. A birdhouse, a set of bookshelves, a knife rack for his wife. But all inspired his comedy, became a stage for new routines. He imagined birds gathering, the cardinals scolding the finches, the crows telling dirty jokes. Each earned him a shock, so he’d stopped.

Maybe he was finally free now. Emboldened, he grabbed the saw and hacked away. No shock. Not even a vibration.

He took the severed anklet upstairs to show his wife. Alarm spread across her face. He half expected it to explode, or that any second now, he might hear sirens and the men in black would show up at his door. Like the first time. But no such thing happened that morning.

He set the mangled, streaky device on the mantel. A trophy to his survival. Even if he could be arrested again for doing his act in public, he’d write jokes for that broken ankle cuff; he’d perform for it. After all, after everything, the show must go on.

A couple weeks later, he finished a set, grabbed a beer, and was about to watch Bird Man of Alcatraz for the twenty-third time when he heard an odd noise coming from the cuff—long then slow beeps, like Morse code. He inched over to it. Touched it. Nothing. Then a voice: “Are you still there?” It was female. Tentative, with a thick accent.

What the hell. “Yep. Still here. Paying my debt to society.”

“Please do not stop. It is making me laugh and I need this so desperately.”

Wow. He had a fan. “I didn’t think the administration hired anyone with a sense of humor.”

After a long pause, she said, “I am not exactly hired. I… I feel like a prisoner here.”

You and me both, sister. “All right, then. For you, I’ll keep the act going.”

“I am grateful,” she sighed. “I just have a question. How did you get your ankle thing off? Mine itches like I cannot believe.”

The Last Image: Flash Fiction

When you heard the news, you had an idea. Recreate the picture. Get the team together one last time, toast Cassini goodbye in the same place you celebrated her successful launch. How many times have you pulled out that photo, stared moony-eyed at the third girl from the left. It was your first job, and how it thrilled you just to walk into that room in the morning and see scientists you’d idolized since you built a spaceship out of Lego and zoomed it up to an imaginary moon. You mumbled at your shoes for the first three days. Then you settled in, and found each other, in that way young people find each other in offices. In coffee rooms, at the copier, lingering after the staff meeting so you’d both be leaving at the same time, “helping her” bring back lunch. Staying late to pitch in. You teased her about her thick glasses; she ragged on your Star Trek socks. And you were the last one to know how she felt about you. By that time she’d been reassigned. Or at least that’s what she said.

You brought the picture with you. You distract yourself with comparing the faces that walk through the door with the ones in the photo. People laugh. The tall, sharp-eyed guy who made origami swans for everyone at the Christmas party—stooped over a bit, a little blurry around the edges. The round-shouldered dude who wore sweaters his mother made him. Still rocking them now, but in a grandfatherly way. You wonder what they might be thinking about you. If you ever got married. If she had… You dread the moment you know is coming, where someone will say: “You made such a cute couple, why didn’t you ever—”

And then you start to think this had been a really bad idea. You slink away to the bar with the excuse of ordering another round. The television monitor shows the last images Cassini will ever transmit. Your eyes mist over, remembering when the first ones came in. You thought of her then, too, and thought for sure she was out there, somewhere, remembering you, wondering if she’d made a mistake. Or counting her blessings that she’d moved on. Then you sense someone on your left. Myrna, the office “mother”—who made the birthday cakes and hugged them all so very tightly when their part of the mission was done.

She gives you a sweet smile, and her hand, a little smaller, a little more wizened, lands on your arm. You think of things to ask her but aren’t sure you want the answers. Is her husband still alive? Do her children appreciate her, do they come to visit?

She points up at the screen. “It was beautiful, you know. Being a part of that. Like we’re all out there.”

You nod, want to make some joke about all of you together plunging into Saturn, but you don’t trust your voice.

For a long moment, you’re silent, and the commentator jabbers something about the project he probably just read off of Wikipedia, and with a deepening hole in your stomach, you realize that he’s probably the same age you were when you started working on it.

“I called her,” Myrna said. “She said she’d try to make it. You know. For the picture.”

For the picture. Your fingers dig into the sticky varnished wood of the bar. The part of your mind that makes words has turned to jelly. Cassini’s time is done, and perhaps it’s time for you to move on, too. You put some cash on the bar and ready the least jerky goodbye you know how. You mumble something to Myrna as you head for the back door. You try not to think about the birthday cake she made you, in the shape of a rocket.

You’re in your car, about to turn the key in the ignition when your phone trills with a text. You don’t know the number but you know it’s her.

She’s written: “At least we didn’t crash and burn like Cassini.”

He grins, then replies, feeling brave behind his words. “Maybe if we’d gotten off the launch pad we could have.”

He imagines how she would smile, maybe giggle a little. Tease him for the corny joke. But her words blip slowly onto his screen.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”

On six you take a deep breath, open your car door, and eject yourself into space.

Flash Fiction: The Pond

Inspired by a recent dry spell and the image of a little boy with a lot of questions. I think there’s more here, but for now, there’s this.

—–

I’ve been meaning to tell you. The old pond dried up. I took Billy out that way to do some fishing, since I remembered how you and I used to go over there when we were kids and come home with all those sunnies for Mom to fry. Yeah, I know she hated it, complained about the smell and the mess, but she loved it, too, in a way. So I was standing at, well, what I guess was the place we used to set up shop, the open end of the cattail horseshoe, by that nice big flat rock, and Billy looked up at me like I was crazy. His crazy auntie had taken him fishing where there wasn’t any pond! I’m standing there holding the bucket and the rods, and he’s asking all these questions: “Where did the water go?” “Where did the fish go?” “Where did the turtles and the frogs and the ducks go?” “Did they all die?”

I have never taken as big a breath as I did then. In and out and wondering what to say. That was definitely a sit-down sort of conversation, so I sat. And he sat next to me, on the lip of what used to be our cute little fishing hole.

“Let’s just take these one at a time,” I told him, and he was so quiet, his eyes so round and blue, his cheeks splotchy-red with upset, his mouth kind of crooked, like yours used to get when you were worrying over something.

So I said, “You know how it hasn’t rained in, like, a really long time?”

I knew he’d get that one. We’d just been talking about it that morning. How we couldn’t run through the sprinkler the way he liked, because of the restrictions.

He nodded.

“Well, just the way the leaves are drying up and falling off the trees way too early”—I pointed out a few trees that had started turning brown already. Can you believe it, autumn in July?—“if there’s not enough water, the ponds and such dry up, too.”

“But the ducks…?”

“Yeah, they’d be the first to fly off. I’m fairly certain they found themselves a bigger pond. They’re smart that way.” Were there ducks on our pond? The darning needles skimming across the water, I recalled. You don’t forget a bug called a darning needle. The minnow armies slithering underneath, I remembered, the gulp of the bullfrogs. There could have been a duck. I added a duck for him. It would have made a pretty picture. I have tried to paint that scene so many times, you and me fishing at the pond, but something stops me every time.

His voice hopeful, he asked about the frogs.

“Hopped away,” I said. “They can survive a bit out of water, so maybe they followed the ducks.”

“Not the fish,” he said.

“No, honey. Not the fish.”

His cheeks were all red now, and I worried he was going to have another one of his spells. I’m getting better with those. You just gotta keep your voice soft and hold him tight until he feels safe. He calmed down soon enough, and instead of fishing we went to get ice cream.

Don’t need much water for that.

It took a couple hours to get him to go to sleep that night. But I kept thinking about the ducks. You know, I’m gonna give that painting another try. One day I hope you get to see it.

The Object: Flash Fiction

And now for something completely different… Inspired by this week’s 2-Minutes-Go.


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The Object

The object, as I have come to call it, has been under quarantine ever since it splintered the roof of a nearby home. At least the owner had the good sense to call it in. Who knows how many valuable asteroids and such have been lost to science forever, because the residents wanted to keep the pretty rock or polish it up, hoping to sell it to collectors and scoundrels?

But this is no asteroid. My team had been monitoring the anomaly for quite some time, and nearly all of our projection models showed it striking the planet or at least whizzing closely by. One hates to say a direct hit is “lucky,” or see it do property damage or gods forbid hurt anyone, but in the name of science? We were all quite excited.

Now the two of us are alone, in the quarantine bay of the observatory. It sits in a sealed, coffin-shaped container of thick glass, atop a sturdy pedestal table. I watch; I take notes; I check readings. Nothing has changed. In my singular fascination, and to pass the time between the monitoring of temperature, radiation, a myriad of other quantifiables, I make sketches of it from different angles. It’s really quite beautiful. Its surface, a shade of grayish blue, is smooth. Half mythical creature, half like a shiny pebble one might find near the ocean. Not merely polished by erosion or forged in fire, but of a texture and substance I can’t identify. It is not uniformly round, but a kind of squashed, ovoid shape. Markings spaced in a uniform pattern intrigue me. I can’t tell if they are part of an intentional design or the random scars of traveling through our atmosphere.

No one has yet dared to touch it, myself included. The homeowner, perhaps with a sense of propriety, and of scientific value, for he was often a visitor to the observatory, marshalled his curious neighbors away from it until my team arrived.

And now here it sits. I don’t have the instrumentation to determine if this object that hurtled through space is safe to examine further, so I wait for the big guns to arrive. I wait and I stare. I stare and I wait. I imagine where it might have come from. It’s late and my imagination wanders, swirling in fatigue, and my sketches drift into the realm of science fiction from my childhood—odd beings with symmetrical features, stepping out of wild-looking spacecraft.

Preposterous.

I shake some sense back into my head, take another reading. Radiation—no change. Temperature—no change. I tick all the boxes and return to my chair. I flip back through my sketches. Odd. I don’t have one from the bottom, and, eyeballing the distance from the glass box to the floor, it looks like I can slip easily beneath.

A gasp escapes me. Something…appears to be written there. It’s a form of glyph I’m not familiar with, but the strokes are even and regular and some repeat. I sketch furiously, feeling each marking as if the repetition of each can etch its way into my brain, and the discovery sends my hearts racing. My scales tingle in anticipation; my imagination soars. Could it be possible…could it be possible that we’re not alone?

The Last Image

And now for something completely different, from this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. Maybe one week you’ll come write with us. Or just read a bunch of amazing writers.


The Last Image

“He’s still there.”

“What? Who?”

Her husband’s footsteps come up behind her at the window, his steady hand lighting on her bare shoulder. The surface of her coffee ripples. She’s afraid she’ll drop it, and holds it tighter.

“Blue SUV, across the street.”

The derisive snort is one she’s come to expect.

“You think I’m crazy.”

The pause is another number in his repertoire, one that started irritating her about ten years ago. Friends told her this happened after decades of marriage, but she’d always thought it would happen to other people, not them. That they’d be the couple toasting their anniversaries with champagne and witty banter—the conversation, while not Algonquin Round Table scintillating, would at least be there, no long, awkward silences where they would start wondering if this was all life had to offer. Start looking over each other’s shoulders for something better. It had been a comforting thought, at first.

“No,” he says finally, his voice a degree of calm that makes her want to jab her elbow backward. “You’re not crazy. You just…maybe think too much. You think every blue SUV is someone out to get us. You think every man with sunglasses is his secret police gathering intel. Maybe you’re watching too much Netflix.”

“I think we should leave.”

“Okay. Now I think you’re crazy. Why would you want to leave because some random guy in a random SUV is parked in our neighborhood? Maybe…maybe he’s watching someone else. Maybe he’s stalking his ex. We have no idea.”

She sets her coffee down so hard it sloshes onto the brickface of the mantel. “I’m going to ask him.”

“Honey.”

It’s another tone she hates, but she sucks in a slow breath, lets it out slower, tells herself she is in command of her own reactions.

“It’s not against the law to ask, is it? Or is that something else he changed while everyone else was distracted?”

“Probably not, but it still could be dangerous.”

She turns toward him, her lips parting. “Why? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

In the silence, her life slow-pans across the screen of her mind. The last image, their beautiful boy.

“Just go upstairs.” His voice is soft, but deliberate, which makes the hairs on the backs of her arms stand up.

“I will not—”

But he already has his hand on the knob. He stops. His eyebrows dip, face contrite. It’s a look she’d seen on their son’s face when he’d been naughty. “I’m on his enemies list.”

“You…” Damn him. She knew it. He hadn’t stopped. She’d told him the first time he got arrested to stop writing those letters, stop posting in that group. Stop stirring up trouble. He’d promised.

“This has to end now,” she says. “You know what happens to those people, you know what he does, we saw with our own eyes…” The words turn into hard knots in her throat.

“Which is why I’m going to tell him to leave us alone. You’re right. It ends now. In the name of the Constitution and the First Amendment. It ends now.”

This is what he cares about most? Some useless bits of history, and not their lives? How could she have believed that he had stopped? The good wife in her head, the good wife putting that champagne on to chill, the good wife making his supper every night, wants to say something like “I’m coming with you” or “We’re in this together,” but she doesn’t want to be together with him in this folly anymore. He’s already cost them too much. The legal fees being the least of it.

She lifts her hands. She walks away. Up the stairs. To the empty bedroom at the end of the hall.

The front door slams. She curls up on the small, narrow bed with the Star Wars sheets and closes her eyes. Imagining the handcuffs. The Miranda rights. And then the blue SUV driving away.

When she comes downstairs again, all is quiet. She looks out the window at the empty street. Then hits the number she’d been instructed to call. When the calm voice answers, she says, “Help me get to Canada. Please.”

Thunder

A storm was coming, and Hannah knew it was a bad idea to be hiking on the mountain, but Josh insisted, and in all the years of their friendship, he’d hardly ever insisted on anything. When the storm swept in, they scuttled for the shelter of a cave they’d hidden in before. He spread out his sleeping bag and built a small fire, boy scout style. By the dim light she could barely see the lurid bruise beneath his right eye and the swelling of his lower lip, leaving her the illusion of his face as its usual cute, undamaged whole. She didn’t say much; he said less. The patter of the rain and the crackle of the flames and the thunder, now a gentle roll in the distance, made her drowsy.

The next thing she knew, the storm had passed. They could have resumed their hike at any time, but it was nice in there, with the fire and the metallic smell of damp rocks and his regular breathing. Josh was still asleep, and she felt comfortable lying next to him, the rhythm of his chest rising and falling a kind of meditation. She ached to touch his lip, his black eye, to soothe away the pain. To erase the memory of his seeing her kiss Ben Thompson, the humiliation of losing the fight and getting punched not just once but twice. She didn’t mean for it to happen. The kiss, or having Josh see it, or Ben being such a jerk. Maybe she’d been nervous about what would happen to her and Josh at the end of the summer. They’d been friends since grade school, but aside from the occasional family trip, they’d never really been apart. Even when she had her appendix out, he’d come to visit her at the hospital, and they’d played card games and shared her Jell-O. Could they still be friends in colleges at opposite ends of the country? When the subject even brushed the edges of their conversation, they flinched, changing the topic. She was tired of flinching.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

His eyes flickered, and he turned his head to face her. “Why? You didn’t make it rain.”

But the silence filling the cave after his last word made it clear he knew what she was apologizing for.

“I’m sorry because it was supposed to be you. It was always supposed to be you.”

His mouth opened slightly, making the puffy lower lip look even more painful. “You could have told me that before I made a total ass of myself.”

The fire hissed and crackled, dancing shadows along the rock.

“It would have changed everything,” she said.

He appeared to think a moment, nodded, then, with what she hoped wasn’t too painful a smile, said, “Change isn’t always bad.”

“Try saying that again when we’re living three thousand miles apart.”

He rolled toward her, touching her cheek as if she were exotic and breakable and, possibly, imaginary. “We have now. We have the rest of the summer. We can figure the rest out later.”

He was right, and wrong, and the rain started up again. When thunder shook the ground, she flinched, and he pulled her tight against him.

Old Catchers Never Die

Happy Saturday! I wrote this for Friday’s #2MinutesGo. Loads of great writing going on over at JD Mader’s place. Maybe one week you’ll join us. Or just read.

—–

His hands are ruined, but that came with the job. Catching blazing pitchers, winging balls to second, getting knocked around by foul tips and bats on the rebound and runners plowing into him trying to reach holy mother home plate. These hands will never win any beauty contests, but each blown knuckle and callus and broken nail tells a story. He can point to one and talk about the day he threw out a Hall of Fame base-stealing legend—twice. He can point out another, always with a smile, because those rough-and-tumble days of bus rides and crap motels have become romantic over time, and talk about the beating he took from catching his first knuckleballer.

If he could still talk.

The nurses comment on his hands each time they come to check his vitals; one in particular, a young girl, visibly pregnant, pets his good hand like it’s an abused dog, sometimes cooing a few words in Spanish. They are beautiful words, and her hands are soft and soothing, and he says the words over and over to himself, embedding them in what’s left of his memory. She’s the type of girl he might have cottoned to in the bar after the game, the quiet and motherly girls, like his Gina, God rest her soul.

Today the older one comes, with her world-wise eyes and the limp she won’t talk about. “Morning, Pete.” Flo is the only nurse who calls him by his first name, which he prefers, because that mister business makes him feel every inch of his years. She’s the only nurse who picks up his hand and laughs and says “that’s one damn ugly paw,” and he likes that too. He can take that, from a woman like her, and if he could talk, he’d give it right back to her, and the smile in those weary eyes tells her she knows that. She checks his reflexes, his various bags of fluids, his numbers. With a grim attempt at a smile—only one side is working—he remembers the days when his stats were the numbers that mattered. Batting average, home runs, percentage of runners he’d thrown out. Now it’s blood pressure, oxygen level, heartbeats. Each heartbeat chattering across a digital screen. He’d rather be back there, jamming another finger trying to scoop a low, mean pitch out of the dirt, than in this damn bed, watching the measure of what’s left of his life.

It’s late when she returns; he can see that with his one good eye, the way the light is dimmer through his half-open shades. Maybe Flo sees the way he’s looking because she says, “Yeah. Lucinda called in sick, something with the baby.”

He feels surprise and worry do something to the side of his face that works, and god knows what’s happening to the other side. “Nah, she’s fine.” Flo checks his IV. “And aren’t you the lucky duck to get me pokin’ at you twice in one day.”

He wants to tell her that he doesn’t mind at all. Flo reminds him of another girl he knew when. She came right up to him at the bar after a game, nothing shy about her at all, and both of them knew what they wanted. He liked her honesty. It made things easier for him. He’d gotten good at reading signals and calling pitches, but it was frankly a relief to leave that on the field at the end of the day.

“Yeah,” Flo mutters, giving him a wink, “I know you love me. But we don’t want to make the other nurses jealous.”

He laughs at that, or at least tries to, and it comes out like a bit of a wheeze. Still, it gives him hope. When they first brought him here after the stroke, damn near nothing worked. The doctors told him he had an excellent chance of recovering most of what he’d lost.

Flo makes a few notations on his chart. “Not bad, Pete. They’ll be getting you into rehab pretty soon.” Her face softens. “You want, I’ll come visit. I know you got some good stories in you, especially about what happened to these ugly paws. And I want to hear every one.”

She wraps one strong, no-nonsense hand around his. The one on his bad side. Where he hasn’t been able to feel a thing. But her hand is warm, the pressure firm but not so much it hurts.

His heart monitor beeps and beeps and beeps.

The Sacrifice

Happy Friday! I’ve been thinking about this character for a while, so I let her tell me what to write for 2-Minutes-Go. Maybe you’ll want to drop by and play sometime.

—–

Svetlana searches for a way out of her predicament. Her opponent has boxed her up good. How he’d managed to hold the center of the board and push her powerful pieces to the outside is a mystery. Is she slipping? Staring so long at the squares she can no longer grasp the big picture, the end game? Grime blurs the seams between black and white squares, between good and evil, between past and future.

“You’re a tricky one, Anatoly.” She imagines a corner of his mustache lifting while she keeps her laser focus on the game and considers what to do next. Move this one and he takes the pawn… She can live with that. Move that one and he captures the bishop and she’ll take his knight… It will be a good trade; it will give her more freedom. But then… The headache is starting again, the burning pain behind her eyes, the tension up the back of her neck.

Too much chess. Since she was small her father had been teaching her; he claimed it helped young and wayward minds learn focus and problem solving. She credits him for that. She knows how to focus. Perhaps too well, at times. Well enough that she can concentrate on a game for hours and not notice the time until her stomach cries for food, until the muscles in her shoulders ache from stillness. Problem solving? That hasn’t always worked out so well. But at least she knows she has the power to work through all of her available options.

She squeezes her eyes shut to block out the old voices, the old memories, as Papa taught her, and in that space of moments, a fly has landed on king’s bishop five. It’s the first thing she sees when she again opens herself to the world. Bottle green and wings buzzing, it turns a complete circle as if evaluating her position and his. Easy to do with his complex eyes. “Tell me, friend,” she says to the uninvited guest. “What would you do?”

Anatoly doesn’t answer. After all these years he knows Svetlana, how she reasons things out to herself, usually aloud, sometimes for minutes or even longer.

Finally, with a gasp of triumph, she slides her bishop across the board and takes his rook. How could he have been so careless to leave it undefended? And worse, how could she have been staring at the eight-by-eight grid and not have seen something so blatant?

Perhaps they are both slipping. “Ha,” she says, clapping her hands together. “Now how are you going to answer that?”

“Well, I don’t know,” says the voice. Startled by the intrusion, Svetlana looks up. The woman is back again, the new one, her mouth an angry slash as she sticks a long, crooked finger through the bars. “But I know how I’m gonna answer. I’m gonna ask you to shut the hell up, ’cause you’re keeping everybody awake playin’ your damn invisible chess again.”

Svetlana lets out a long breath as the spell breaks, as the chessboard melds back into the black and white tiles of her cell floor. The game will keep. She remembers where they’d left all the pieces. And Anatoly will always be waiting.