Edgar

The crumbling house in the woods was enveloped by vegetation and time. Edgar found it while he still worked for the government; he’d been tracking a runaway and noticed the anomaly. There’d been no heat signature in the mound of overgrowth, other than small blips which might have belonged to chipmunks or squirrels, so he’d moved on. But when the emergency had passed, he’d returned. He poked around the vines, some as thick as his wrist, until he found a window. Dull with centuries of dirt and pollen, slightly thicker at the bottom. Glass is essentially liquid, he’d learned in some long-ago seminar on architecture and American history. You could guesstimate the historical era by the windows, and nearly all colonial structures showed a similar settling over time.

We all settle, he thought.

He was loath to break the pane; from his youth he’d retained a respect for antiquity. But he did note the coordinates. He had a strong sense that one day he might need this knowledge.

Then that day had come. Technology had made him redundant; tracking was done through satellites and artificial intelligence on the ground.

They’d named the first trackbot Edgar. Not because the concept had been his idea or his invention, but because he’d been good at his job. Too good. Searching for a runaway, he’d stumbled onto a scandal that went high up the ranks. Those high ranks hadn’t liked it. In dastardly Orwellian fashion, they turned the truth on him. He lost his job. His pension. His fiancée. His home. His dignity.

Now Edgar was a runaway. The hows, the whys, the what-nexts…he couldn’t waste brain power on those. They were hunting him. He had to find shelter. The downpour and heavy cloud cover that helped conceal him from the sensors wouldn’t last much longer. His chest and legs ached from running; he’d twisted an ankle in the sodden undergrowth; he needed to get to the food and water and dry clothing in his pack. And his own cloaking device. Assuming the equipment he’d stolen after he escaped would do what he needed.

He was close; he could feel it. Up the next rise and down, near a fallen oak and a stout maple with a double trunk. There.

He whipped a knife from a pocket and loosened the vines enough to get to the window, in a place that could easily be re-covered. Trying not to think about snakes or spiders or whatever else might have made the overgrowth its habitat, he slipped inside the vegetation and flattened himself against the disintegrating brick and went to work on the pane. He couldn’t chance breaking it. Couldn’t leave an opening for the trackbots. The grout was degraded enough to chip away. The rain helped. Heart pounding in his ears and ordering his fingers not to shake, he freed the pane as quickly and quietly as he could. Then…success. The pane came away whole in his hands. The dim light revealed a simple, one-room cottage, mostly empty. Maybe it had been raided long ago, before the forest had claimed it and infused it with a fetid smell of decay. Worry about the accommodations later. Now he had to get in and seal the place back up. He eased the pane against the brick and climbed inside. Reached back through for the glass and angled it in after him. Beneath the rain he could hear the faint buzz of the tracker drone. He had to work faster. He set the glass down. Pulled the curtain of vines closed. Dug for the roll of duct tape in his pack. Braced the pane in position and taped it in place.

But he wasn’t safe yet.

He moved himself and his pack to the center of the cottage. The device was about the size of a pack of cigarettes. He wasn’t sure which battery it would take, so he’d stolen a range of them, then played a terrifying game of which would fit and which might damage the device beyond use.

The first battery did nothing. The buzz grew closer, angrier. He dropped the second one and felt around the filthy rotted wood plank floor until he found it. The tiny beep was his reward. He hadn’t worked with this model in years, but he was grateful for what was left of his memory. He set the range and frequency, hit “go” and it went. The gentle hum had him sighing in relief. He lay back on the floor to catch his breath, to evaluate his chances, to figure out what came next.

“Edgar?”

He leapt into a battle-ready crouch.

The sound had come from the southeast corner of the room. It was too dark to identify the shape. When he’d first glanced through the open pane, he thought it had been a chair draped with fabric. But he knew that voice. Small, breathy, almost broken. “Lucy?”

“Yeah.” The shape in the corner rose and moved closer. “What took you so long?”

“Oh, the usual. Traffic’s a bitch. How the hell did you esc—”

She was close enough now for him to identify the unwashed scent of her underneath the vegetative rot.

“We don’t have time for backstory. The trackbot’s coming closer. I can get us out of here.”

His eyes had not yet adjusted to the wan light filtering through the vines, but still, he could imagine no way out except breaking through a window or door. Even then, that would leave them exposed. The best he’d hoped for was the seventy-two hours of cloaking the battery would provide. By then the trackers would have surely moved on and he—they—could figure out their next move.

“How?” he said.

She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I stole the prototype.”

He gasped. How she’d done that, after security had barred her from her own project, would definitely be a longer story than they had time for. But if it worked as she’d intended, it could phase them into the no-extradition zone.

Vaguely he saw her arm lift, a squarish device in her hand. “Do you trust me?”

He smiled in the almost-dark. She’d asked the same question the night he proposed. He answered as he had then: “Do I have a choice?”

“Ride or die. But you have to turn your cloaker off.”

His smile fell. “What?”

“It won’t work otherwise.”

A buzz like killer hornets hovered above the house. Waiting. Knowing.

“On three,” he said. “One.”

“Two.”

“Three!”

A blinding flash. An ungodly roar.

Then, nothing.

Edgar blinked. Blinked again. Gradually he sensed a warm breeze against his face. The tickle of rough sheets beneath his body. An arm across his chest. And over him, blue sky through a clean, open, unsettled window.

“Good morning.” The voice sounded so far away, even though she was right next to him.

He labored to get his mouth to work. “Are we…”

Lucy was smiling. “Yes. We are. So, are you gonna marry me or what?”

The Mission

At o’dark thirty, John stood tall in his black vest, his sturdy boots, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them as they were given their final orders. Again his stomach punched at him. Again his higher functions punched back, harder. Telling him that he’d signed on for this mission. That it had to be done and done right. This behavior could no longer be tolerated. And someone had to stand up for it. It might as well be him and his loyal soldiers.

The captain continued to bark. Talking about the whens and hows and such. Who would go to which houses, what to do when they got there, how to avoid the press.

“Wouldn’t they like those optics?” the captain sneered. “Us leading away their children? You watch yourselves out there. There’s bound to be some sneaky early risers. You deal with them and you deal with them fast. Confiscate those cameras. Break ’em if you have to. They start to squawk, call it a national emergency. Hell, the president already called it that, so you got cover. Understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” John shouted with the others. Even though he knew he was not going to break any cameras. He had cover, too. He could always claim that in the heat of the moment, focusing on his mission, he couldn’t handle the children and the photographers. Besides, he thought getting a few snaps out there might be welcomed by the higher-ups, a way to warn the migrants that were thinking of coming here what could happen if they weren’t careful.

“Move out,” the captain said. They were split into squads and loaded into the waiting black vans. His group was silent as they rolled through the streets, last night’s rain raising a fog that glowed eerily in the early light. Then one of the young men bowed his head, mumbling, a chant it seemed like, and it grew loud enough that John recognized it as a prayer.

The large man to John’s left didn’t like that. “Fer fuck’s sake,” he muttered, then raised his voice. “Shut the fuck up, soldier. Unless you’re prayin’ for the success of our mission. Getting those fucking illegals out of our country.”

The praying soldier stopped, turned his head, a look of disbelief forming on his young, freshly shaven face. “They’re people, Rico.”

“And you’re a pansy ass,” Rico said. “You shouldn’t even be on this mission.” 

The soldier drew himself up taller. “I’m on this mission so they’ll be treated humanely.”

John knew enough to stay silent. He had other worries. Could he even do this? He had children at home. When he first heard about the separations at the border, he’d been livid. He couldn’t object publicly, of course. He’d taken a vow to fight for his country. But he did what he could. Watched over the children. Brought them food, toys, candy. He wished he could give them promises that they’d see their parents soon, that they’d be freed, but he figured giving them false hope would be cruel. If it was one of his kids in there…well, he couldn’t even let himself think about that.

And now this. He took surreptitious glances at the men in his unit. At their shields, their flak vests, their guns. Of course they were playing for the media. These were women and children, mostly. It’s not like they were fighting another army. He wouldn’t be surprised if the captain had automatic cameras or video or whatever and had already snuck it to reliable contacts. His fears ratcheted up higher. Another thing to worry about.

After what seemed like a horrifically long trip of probably less than ten miles, the van stopped, in an abandoned lot where several other vans and trucks were already parked.

John took a deep breath and said his own prayer. Please God, he thought. Help me find these families and get them away from these monsters. Help me keep them unharmed and get them to the safe houses. And please watch over the rest of my team in the other vans and the other units as they do the same.

The captain lifted his arm and gave the signal. 

They were dispersed.

Ten Fingers, Ten Toes: Flash Fiction

This week’s Flash Fiction Friday, I was inspired to write this bit. I’ve been working with Jeff for a while; maybe he’s auditioning for a role in the next novel. 

————————

Ten fingers, ten toes. It’s all Jeff ever wanted. Early on he and Marta had their separate and shared expectations, but after a sleepless night of labor and encouragement which ended in a whiplash decision to do an emergency C section, their perfect daughter—their daughter!—dozed in recovery, with Marta in another room, all stitched up and doing the same.

He could have stood at that nursery window for the rest of the day, despite his fatigue, despite the ache in his feet and back, watching that pink squirmy bundle, her daddy’s red hair already curling atop her head. Then he felt a hand hover and light on his arm. As if afraid to touch him.

Marta’s mother. “Jeff. Let’s you and me get a coffee, all right?”

Lillian’s too-sweet tone raked his nerve endings, for the bitterness he knew lay beneath. It was clear to him the first day they met that she didn’t like him. Never thought a lowly truck driver was good enough for Marta. But perhaps now with the baby they’d yet to formally name, that could change. She’d finally understand that Jeff was all in, would never do anything to hurt his family. He’d put in for the shorter runs now, so he’d be home more, and if it came to it, he’d look for a new job.

He followed her to the cafeteria and got them settled at a table. Milk and sugar were added, bagels smeared with cream cheese and jelly, neither of them speaking except for the discomfiting combination of Lillian’s false smile and the worry lines between her pale brown eyes. The eyes that followed the movement of his hands as if measuring the calorie count of his breakfast.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Jeff said quickly.

His hope for a diversion only lasted a few seconds. “Yes…indeed she is.” Her gaze settled somewhere behind Jeff’s right shoulder, then dropped to her coffee. “Maybe… Maybe this would be a good opportunity for you to look toward the future.”

Yeah, here we go. “I can provide for us just fine. And if we need more, I can look for other ways—”

“I didn’t mean…” Her voice came out breathy, flustered. A flush rose to her painted cheeks. “I meant…your health. Maybe it’s time to think about one of those programs…they worked so well for Oprah…”

He bit into the bagel so he wouldn’t blast her with the first words that came into his mind. 

“I’m just thinking about that little girl,” Lillian said. “How heart-wrenching it would be for her. To go through the milestones of her life without her father…”

“I’m fine,” he growled.

Her head jerked back, as if she thought he’d strike her. Jeff took a couple of deep breaths so he could keep a civil tongue. “I’ve got it covered, Lillian. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“I’m only thinking about her. Whatever you decide to name her.” She took a ladylike bite, set down her bagel. Then sat a little straighter and said, “Have you ever thought about going back to college, Jeff? Finishing your degree? It would give you more options, and maybe make it a little easier for you to—you know—look after your health. So you won’t have to settle for whatever’s in those truck stops.”

One, two, three…He forced a smile. “You know, Lillian, it’s been a long night. Maybe you’d like to go back to the hotel and get some rest. I’ll call you when Marta’s awake.”

Her lips pursed. Message received. “You do that.” She returned his smile, even tighter. On her way out she snatched up her bagel and coffee, dumped them in the trash, then wiped her hands as if she’d been touching filth.

Jeff sat a while and finished his breakfast, chewing on her words. But then the memory of his daughter, seeing her for the first time, chased everything else away, and he headed back to the maternity ward to check on his girls. Marta and… Caroline. He was starting to love the sound of the name Marta had added to their list. That Lillian had turned her nose up at it was just a bonus.

The Council, Reflective: Flash Fiction

Earl’s eyes were warm and kindly as he poured Forty-four another beer, then busied himself behind the bar, leaving him his privacy. Or as much privacy as he could have with two Secret Service agents guarding the door. He was grateful for their service, thankful for all the people who’d helped him through the years. Toward the end of his second term, Forty-four had grown wistful about returning to civilian life. He and Michelle had made plans. But given the circumstances of the world and the existence of the secret Council, he’d resigned himself to the reality that his life might never again be truly his own.

Michelle was okay with that as well—to a point. From the tension he plainly saw on her face, they’d reached that point. When he’d told her about the package that had been intercepted, she nodded, said she needed to call the girls, and spent the rest of the afternoon in her garden. He knew better than to bother her there.

Was it too soon for the Council to meet again? Forty-one said that it “wouldn’t be prudent” to risk a meeting so close to the election, then added, “Remember that Jim Comey fellow and all the trouble he caused.”

But Forty-four felt a need for their collective wisdom to help unburden his soul. As Thirty-nine once told him, when at a loss for direction a few months after leaving office he’d come down to Georgia to help nail up some drywall, many hands lighten a load. At least the dastardly mailings gave him an excuse to call Forty-two and Forty-three-and-a-half, ask how they were doing. The connection and Bill’s sense of humor did help somewhat. “Keep in touch, Barry,” Madam Secretary said as they wound up their call. “Just don’t expect any emails.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket and tried to focus on the basketball game on the TV. It wasn’t working. He tapped a long finger on the bar. “Hey, Earl?”

He turned, his face brightening. “Something I can get for you, Mr. President?”

“No, I’m good here. I just want to know…how’s it going for you, for you and your family?”

Earl shrugged, his hands busy polishing glassware. “Can’t complain much. Wish certain things didn’t cost as much as they did. Wish I had a little more to leave the grandchildren.” He lowered his voice. “Wish that fool who took on after you would go back under that rock he crawled out from”—at this Forty-four nearly spit his beer across the counter—“but time will out, don’t it always?”

“Amen,” Forty-four said, lifting his glass.

“I like what you said, on the TV.” Earl nodded toward the set above the bar. “About getting the kids out to vote, not standing for hate and such. Ah, makes me wish we could change that law about you only getting two terms.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. Of course he’d heard plenty about how his two terms were two too many.

“You coulda done so much more good,” the barkeep added, tightening one wizened hand into a fist.

If you only knew, Forty-four thought. “Thank you, my friend. It’s always good to hear.”

When he left, he pressed two twenties onto the bar and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After the agents saw him home, he was in some ways pleased that Michelle had already gone to bed. He had some phone calls to make. Yes, he could get behind a microphone and hopefully inspire a few people, but it would be nothing compared to the clarion call they could all make together.


Thank you for reading. If you want to catch up on this sporadic, whenever-I’m-inspired series, you can read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.

Ave Maria: Flash Fiction

A little story that’s been going through my head like a prayer…


Ave Maria

“Jen?”

“What?” Jenna barely recognized the bark as her own voice, but she could sense Toby cringing back into the faint strip of light that separated her from the party going on in the next room. Never in their three months together—the longest relationship she’d managed in years—had she spoken to him so sharply. He didn’t deserve that. “Sorry.” She pushed herself up from her sister’s bed, pausing in case the vertigo returned. It didn’t. Still, she didn’t feel like standing yet.

The softer tone emboldened him to venture a couple of steps closer. “I was just coming to see if you were all right.”

“I’m fine.” The words rolled out on cue, her automatic response to nearly every inquiry about her health, her moods, her distraction. She hadn’t thought anyone would miss her, with her nieces and nephews running around being adorable, with Toby deep in a discussion about football with her brother, with somebody sitting down to the piano. The air had felt suddenly too close, too warm, and she’d learned the hard way that when the chain of symptoms starts, if she doesn’t get horizontal fast, nature will do it for her. “I think… Maybe it was the wine.”

She hadn’t been drinking, a fact she hoped he didn’t notice, but if he had, he didn’t call her on it. Just stood before her, in that sweater she loved, arms tight over his chest, and nodded.

She’d suffered through these episodes before, and her doctor had no answers for her, despite the battery of tests he’d ordered, but it had never happened here, in her sister’s house, surrounded by family. Maybe what her last boyfriend said when they broke up had been right: “Lady, you need a shrink.” She wrote it off then as one of those throwaway lines, by a wounded guy who needed to have the last word, but perhaps he’d been more intuitive than she’d believed.

She’d never told him what happened to her. She’d never told any of them.

Toby’s eyes were soft. At times he reminded her of a forest creature. She worried that she’d scare him off. Like the others. But he wasn’t like the others. He ended their first date with a light squeeze of her hand and a smile. After their second, he asked if he could kiss her goodnight. It was kind of sweet. Again she felt bad for being so bitchy to him.

She patted the mattress beside her. He came over and sat, leaving just the right amount of space between them. She liked that he was there. She liked that they were about the same height. It made her feel safer. “Do you want to go home?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, really, I think I’m feeling better now. But maybe we could just, you know, stay in here for a while.”

Her nieces started singing “Ave Maria.” That song. The beauty of it. Their pure, unspoiled voices made her chest ache. Then tighten with anger, scaring back her tears. If anyone so much as laid a finger on them…

She grabbed his hand so tight he flinched away. “Hey, what—?”

“Something happened to me,” she said in a rush, barely above a whisper, her throat so tight from the tears it felt raw. “It was a long time ago and it was really bad and that’s why I can’t, why I have such a hard time, why I’ve never told anyone…”

And there she stopped. The song dove and swooped, the notes on angelic wings.

“You don’t have to,” he said. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to. I know how difficult it can be.”

She kept bobbing her head. He seemed like he meant it. That it was enough for the moment. But then she turned to him, drawn by something in his tone, a question in her eyes.

He nodded. “Yeah. But we don’t have to talk about that now, either.”

She moved a hand closer. He met it.

The Council Redux: Flash Fiction

Here’s what my evil little muse called upon me to write for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. It’s a sequel to a piece I wrote a while back, creatively titled The Council. Thank you for your indulgence.

—–

The Council Redux

The alley is slick with rain and god knows what else. Forty-four doesn’t want to think about what he may have just squished beneath his shoe. The establishment he slinks into, all neon and tarnished brass, is certainly a peg down from their last meeting place. But the location had become compromised. He has a good idea how that happened; Forty-two has gotten a bit loose-lipped in his retirement. Any hint to the press that they were meeting could mean the end of a secret institution that has performed an important public service for centuries. They had a close call a while back, and made out like they were joining forces to raise more money for hurricane relief.

He greets the owner and says he’ll wait for his party. Finally, the men start arriving. With one addition: an honorary member they’ve started calling “Forty-three and a half.” Under the circumstances, it was only right. Eventually they shake off their raingear and sit at the round table to shake off the chill. Except for Forty-three, still on the wagon, the beverages are stronger than in prior meetings. It seems the order of the day.

When all are settled and braced, a long silence passes and Forty-one, in his wheelchair at the head of the table, clears his throat. “Afraid we have to give this another go,” he says. “Best laid plans and all.”

They nod somberly. What they’d planned last time was supposed to have looked like a heart attack, but apparently Forty-five suspected and had one of his sycophants sit in the Oval Office chair instead. Bet now he wishes he’d asked Omarosa to do it.

“I might have some ideas,” Forty-three and a half says, a sly smile crossing her face.

Forty-two smirks, hides it with a swallow of his Diet Coke and rum. “Praise God let it be the business end of one of your high heels.” He touches his forehead. “That thing still gives me a twinge when it rains.”

She rolls her eyes. “Hit him where he lives.”

“Tried that,” Forty-one wheezes.

“No,” she says. “Not in the Oval. In his Achilles’ heel.”

“What, the bone spurs?” Forty-two asks.

“Try again,” his wife replies.

A small, thin voice with a Georgia accent pops in from Forty-four’s cell phone speaker. Thirty-eight isn’t well enough to travel these days. “With all due respect, Madame Secretary,” he says, “I believe you were less than successful at exploiting his weaknesses.”

“You know what I’m talking about,” she says.

Forty-four nods. “Yes, indeed I do.” He waves a hand in her direction. “Madame Secretary, it would be my utmost honor to let you make the call.”

“I’ll do it,” Forty-three pipes up. “After all, I’ve looked into the man’s soul.” He presses a few keys on his phone, then smiles when a voice answers. “Good afternoon, Mr. President,” Forty-three says in Russian, astounding Forty-four with a skill he did not believe his predecessor possessed. “We have a situation here. I believe one of your assets is defective.”

Respect: Flash Fiction

The air in the basement was so thick and close, Jacquie struggled with her breathing, and more than anything, she wanted to go home and play her Aretha Franklin records and cry. But last week she’d begged for this open mic slot, and beggars don’t get to be divas. Not in dives like this, with ceilings so low she could reach up and touch the dank acoustical tiles while her Vans stuck to the spilled beer on the concrete floor. She couldn’t even imagine how much worse it would have been back in the days of smoking in public places. “Count your blessings,” her mother, who’d sung in those smoky clubs, once told her. “If they pay you to sing, you show up and sing, come hell or high water. Even if they don’t pay you. Never know what it might lead to.”

Might lead to suffocation, Jacquie thought. She’d been ticking off acts in her head and knew she had maybe ten, fifteen minutes tops to step outside for some air and a hit of asthma meds before she was supposed to go on. She waited until the young guy on stage was done with his rap—not bad—to sneak out the side exit.

The relief of the cool night kissed her skin. Traffic wound through the neighborhood, people went to bars and restaurants, oblivious to the ache in her chest, the gaping chasm in her soul. “The show must go on,” her mother also told her. Every time Jacquie’s nerves acted up or she was coming down with a cold or even that one night when her father was in the hospital and she was supposed to sing lead in the school play.

Jacquie went on.

As she held the medication in her lungs, she wondered how she was supposed to go on tonight. “Respect” was the first song she’d ever sung. Two and a half years old, singing with her mother in the living room. Her first memory.

The door opened; the guy who’d done the rap stepped out, gave her a nod, offered a cigarette he took back when he saw her inhaler, but he lit one up for himself and blew the smoke the other way. Close up he didn’t look so young. Maybe twenty-five, thirty. It could have been a trick of the street lamps out here, or an illusion of the stage lighting in there. Whatever. Age is just a number. People have been telling her she’s too young to even know about Aretha, too white to like or even sing her music. Screw that.

“You on the list?” he asked. “Or just didn’t feel like staying home?”

“Yes,” Jacquie said.

“I hear that.” He dropped his cig on the sidewalk, ground it out with a big-ass-sneaker toe, crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “Way I figure is, they can’t do it, so we gotta.”

She nodded. Letting that soak in and make sense.

“You know,” he added, “I think it would be a damn shame if you didn’t go on tonight.”

“Really.” His eyes were sweet, his smile warm and friendly. “And why’s that?”

“Cause then I wouldn’t get to hear you sing again. Best version of ‘Chain of Fools’ I ever heard coming out of a white girl.”

She didn’t know how to react to that, but he laughed. Which made her laugh. She remembered that night. Her first open mic at this same club. A friend dared her to sing, and sing she did. She felt so good after she didn’t even need her inhaler.

Then she fell serious. “Is it disrespectful, you think? To sing her songs, especially tonight?”

“Hell,” he said. “I think the whole world should be singing her songs. Especially tonight.”

She hooked an eyebrow at him. “You have some nice musicality when you rap. You sing any?”

“Little bit.”

“You know that duet she sang with Ray Charles? ‘Two to Tango’?”

“Oh, damn yeah. That was one of my favorites.”

She stuck her inhaler back in her pocket and reached for his hand. “Come back in and sing it with me.”

The Orchard

Walking across the orchard takes Eugene longer now. But this doesn’t dissuade him. Even though the sky is washed with blue-gray mist and tiny sleet pellets bounce off the oilcloth sleeves of his old barn coat. Even though the ground is frosted and lumpy and altogether unsuitable for walking, he lumbers along with a cane in one hand and Wyeth’s leash in the other. His old boy has gray in his jowls and his vision is going, and oftentimes both of them hobble on their sore hips, but the Irish Setter knows the way; seems to know each dip and rise of the earth and steers Eugene’s path toward level footing. While he was getting dressed, sitting on the bed to don his trousers, socks, and boots, he tried to remember the lines of the poem, the one about the young man who was not strong enough for this world, and it was painful to admit to himself that he’d need to bring the book with him. It’s a small volume, fortunately, and it jostles along in his left pocket; the usual offering wrapped carefully and tucked into his right.

He takes long, careful breaths and watches the white vapor of his exhales dissolve into the mist. He recalls the questions he used to ask the rabbi when he was a child. So many questions. “What happens to your soul when you die?” “Where do the memories go?” “If there’s no heaven and no hell, how do we meet again?” Eugene smiles a bit to himself, remembering how he’d exasperated the poor man into finally ending with “Some things are just meant to be mysteries.”

Then his daughter’s voice comes back to him. “It isn’t your fault, you know.” He’d been so angry with her for saying that. Yelled out a blue streak he quickly regretted but never apologized for. Intellectually, he knew she was right. But what if… Everyone in the neighborhood knew the path of his morning walks. Up the hill, across the orchard, down again. They could set their clocks by him. What if the boy—it hurts too much to even think his name; even Trudy’s voice breaks on the rare times she talks about her son—what if the boy had hesitated, hoping Eugene would stop him?

Useless to think such things anymore, he tells himself. But still, each year he’s compelled to come here. And once again his feet and trusty Wyeth propel him across the unkempt and sometimes frozen meadow, through the sleeping peach and apple trees. To the one tree. The one he talked them out of cutting down.

It isn’t hard to find, the oak that borders the smaller fruit trees. Over time the boy’s four brothers had memorialized it, each in his own way. One year he saw a smear on it that he swore was lipstick, Trudy’s usual shade. The tree looks lonely. In his imagination he places Trudy beside it, in her blue down coat, her hair wild and not as red as it used to be, waiting for Eugene so they could walk back together.

Wyeth stops, looks back, as if to prompt him. “Thank you, my friend,” Eugene says, getting out the book of poems. He pulls in a breath, steadies himself as he finds the page, whispers the words that are carried away on the breeze. Then, so carefully, he takes the package from his other pocket, unwraps the tissue from the single purple blossom, Trudy’s favorite, and tucks it into a seam in the bark.

As he pats the trunk, in reverence, in regret, in memory, Wyeth starts, letting out a low bark. Eugene looks behind him. His daughter is crossing the meadow, one hand up in somber greeting. For a second his eyes fool him into seeing her as she was then, so small. Standing so straight and brave at the boy’s funeral. Eugene blinks and she’s grown, and married, and out of his house. She leans toward the oak and kisses the bark, right over the spot Trudy’s son James had carved his initials. Then links her arm through his. “If you’re done, Dad, let’s go inside. I’ll make you breakfast.”

Cerulean: Flash Fiction

This week’s 2-Minutes-Go story is not political. I hope you enjoy it.


Cerulean

Eugene had run out of cerulean. How he’d used up his entire supply of paint the color of a cloudless sky over Woodstock in early autumn, like the one that now surrounded him, was a circumstance he couldn’t fathom. Nor could he fathom the luck that his old car started up on the first try and had already made it to the main road. He didn’t remember the last time he’d driven it. But the vision he held so gently in his mind—the sparkle of last night’s rain on the pines, so sharp he could smell it, the freshness of the wind-scrubbed sky—couldn’t wait for his daughter to return from her honeymoon; couldn’t wait for the UPS truck to deliver his shipment, if he were even successful in ordering. Miriam did all that for him. Ordered supplies, picked up groceries, paid the bills. Even cooked his meals.

“Nothing is going to change, Dad,” she’d said as she picked up her suitcase, giving him a too-bright smile that reminded him of his late mother-in-law. “We’ll only be ten minutes away.”

Ten minutes. He could die in ten minutes. But he’d said nothing. Just wished her well and returned to his studio, the echo of each thump of his cane reverberating around the bungalow.

He pushed the memories away and turned left, into the art store’s parking lot. At least it wasn’t crowded. After snapping off the ignition and thanking the old girl for her troubles, he closed his eyes and pressed the names of the items he needed into his mind. Cerulean. Cerulean. Was it also phthalo green? Did he have enough to last until Miriam returned? Damn it. He should have taken inventory. He should have made a list. Why hadn’t Miriam left a list?

A knock on his window made him flinch. He clapped a hand to his chest when he saw the smiling face leaning toward him, the soft hand waving. “Oh, good god,” Eugene muttered under his breath. The young man—maybe not so young, but at nearly eighty, almost everyone looked young to him—owned one of the local galleries. He’d been after Eugene for months—years—to do a solo show, a retrospective, of all distasteful things. Like he was already dead.

One of the reasons Eugene dreaded going into town. He sucked in a breath and undid his seatbelt, reached for the handle…and it was already being opened for him.

He had one of those modern names. Justin… Jason…

“Good morning, Mr. Sokolov.”

Eugene hated that, too. Sokolov was his father, his grandfather. And the way Justin or Jason pronounced it, with a Russian accent, also rankled.

But Miriam was always after him for being short with people, so he tried, despite how it pained him. “Thank you,” he said. “And good morning to you, too.”

The man’s smile broadened as Eugene’s fell. This is why I don’t invite conversation, he would say to Miriam. Because then they don’t let you go home and paint.

“It’s hard to imagine you here,” Jason or Justin said.

“A painter. At an art supply store?”

The young man’s cheeks flushed. Which somehow pleased Eugene. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “An artist of your caliber. It’s hard to imagine that you need something as earthly as oil paints and brushes.”

“With what else do you expect that I paint? Blood and shit and my own fingers?”

The young man seemed to shrink. Jake. That was the man’s name. How odd. When he was a child in Brooklyn, Jake was a Jewish name. It was his grandfather’s name. Jacob. Now Eugene felt sorry for this Jake. Guilty for being deliberately cruel. Yet apologies stuck in his throat around an image of his zayda Jacob, tall and strong and stern. And his words: “We survived the tsar and his Cossacks and his pogroms. Sokolovs apologize for nothing.”

Eugene said, “I hope you’ll excuse me. I’m only here for paint and then I must go.”

“Of course.” Jake held up his hands. “I don’t want to stand in the way of inspiration.” His gaze drifted to Eugene’s unsteady right leg. Instinctively Eugene straightened, even though he needed to hold on to the open car door to do it. “But…can I help you?”

“No. Thank you.” Eugene closed the door much more gently than he would have liked to—the old girl didn’t deserve his anger—and turned toward the shop’s entrance. Stairs. Damn it. He’d forgotten about the stairs. He forced his legs forward. Aware of Jake’s eyes on him. Judging him. Calculating. Wondering if he should ask again about that goddamned show. Or would he wait until Eugene’s death made his work that much more valuable.

But the stairs. So much higher than Eugene remembered. God forbid he fell in front of this man. In the middle of town. Cursing his vanity that kept his cane at home, he said, “One painting. I’ll let you show one painting. If you help me get inside.”

The Translator

This week’s flash fiction bit was inspired by current events. With a twist. I hope you enjoy it.


The translator had dreamed in different languages before—bits of this and spots of that blending together into linguistic soup, or the frustration of not remembering words she needed to say. But never dreams like this. Nightmares, really. The men’s faces loomed like mountains over her head, their eyes laser-sharp. “Tell us,” they said. “Tell us what you heard.” This time, they’d locked her in a small room, left her alone in the dark. It was cold and damp and she was hungry and they’d taken her shoes. The door bashed open, the shock so great that she’d woken, sweating, heart racing. The comfort of someone sleeping next to her would have been welcome. The steady breathing, the warmth. The thing she missed most about him.

Comfort had come in a cup of hot tea, a breath of the night air. She had both on her small terrace, and she curled into her chair, imagining the stars through the orange-black haze of the sky. Stars that didn’t need human language.

A light winked on and her neighbor’s terrace door slid open. Sam stepped out, a robe over his pajamas, both hanging loose on his thin frame. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“No, it’s okay.” She sat up, straightening her nightgown. Their terraces shared a railing. A feature she hadn’t been crazy about when she took the apartment, but Sam and Trish were considerate neighbors, both retired from their government desk jobs, and the translator traveled a great deal. “My body clock is still messed up from traveling. Seems I’ve forgotten when to sleep.”

“Occupational hazard?”

He didn’t know the half of it. She wouldn’t lie about that occupation when asked, but she didn’t like to advertise it. She detested the inevitable questions—if she’d met such-and-such world leader, if she’d ever translated something wrong and caused an international incident. “Something like that.”

“Boy, I tell ya.” He scrubbed a hand over his receding hairline. “The news lately is what’s keeping me up at night.”

She nodded. “That, too.” There were so many voicemails on her phone that she’d turned it off. Her palms grew sweaty, her throat tight when she remembered what a colleague had called to warn her about. That Congress would try to subpoena her over what was said in Helsinki, a breach of her professional ethics. Never again, she thought. Never again would she take a job where there was no press, no backup. She had the seniority to refuse an assignment; perhaps it was time to start.

Perhaps it was time to retire. Would she then need to keep what was said confidential? For the good of the country, could she reveal the startling and worrisome things the men had discussed? The thought gave her more comfort. The dark SUV across the street did not. “Sam.” She tipped her head toward the road. “Has that car been sitting there for a long time?”

He squinted into the distance. “Not sure. I think I saw it this morning. Why? Think they’re up to something?”

It could have been any of them. An agent with the subpoena. Or someone from either side who wanted to shut her up. She swallowed and said, “Follow me and close the door behind you.” As quietly as she could, she set down her tea, got up, walked back into her apartment, and started repacking her suitcase.

After she briefed him on her situation, he said, “Is there something we can do?”

“Yes. If anyone asks you, tell them you don’t know where I’ve gone.”

His thick white eyebrows knit together. “But you haven’t said—”

“Exactly. It’s safer for you and Trish that way.”

He put up a hand. “Just give me a minute. Please.”

She didn’t know why she waited. Maybe the suddenly serious glint in his gray eyes. She continued her packing. Passport. State Department ID. All the cash she had on hand. Then her door opened. Sam, fully dressed now, had Trish with him. Trish was stuffing what looked like a gun into the waistband of her jeans. A shoulder harness peeked out from Sam’s jacket. “Let’s go,” Trish said, flashing an FBI badge.

The translator couldn’t get the words out. In any language. She stammered, “Am I…under arrest?”

“No.” Sam picked up her suitcase. “We’re taking you someplace safe.”