Flash Fiction: Quarantine

You can’t watch the news. You can’t read the paper. The crawl, the front page list the dead, every morning, like baseball scores. For some in the media, it’s become sport. Breathless reportage from the bland blonds on the TV screen, and it reminds you of that long-ago song lyric, “it’s interesting when people die, we want dirty laundry…” Your own laundry leans over the basket in an accusatory pile. There’s a poem in the sweaty T-shirts and mildewing towels, the language of everyday life carrying on no matter what. You could die at your kitchen table, slumped over your fourth or fifth cup of increasingly weak coffee lightened with an off-brand flammable creamer, all that was available at the time, and mother nature will do her unceasing work. Decay. Microbes. Tree roots upending the foundation of the house. The neighbor’s cat eating your face. You know the danger in fanning the flames of those thoughts, and double-check that you’ve taken that morning’s dose of happy pills. Yes. Tuesday’s slot is empty. Or is it Thursday. You wonder if there’s an app for that. One that will wake you with the time, day of the week, the year, a reminder to do the laundry or refill your prescriptions or make sure you’re still breathing. “If you can no longer remember your password, press one…if you need CPR, press two…if you need a hug, I’m sorry, due to these uncertain times, that service is no longer available.”

You regret the argument. The last one, the one that made her leave. Not like the other times, with just her phone and keys, slinking back later, tearful apologies, the silent, careful lovemaking like you’re both made of spun sugar and dynamite. This was different. This involved shoving random clothing into a bag, doors closing with a quiet finality, all your calls ignored until you gave up trying. For a few days you sat stunned, okay, possibly drunk, and when that wore off, about a week into the stay-at-home order, the loneliness crept in. Again the TV taunted you, the Zoom videos of families quarantined together, singing Disney songs, making ink stamps out of potatoes, baking loaves of bread or churning butter like we’re all pioneers or something. But the silence is worse. The devil’s playground, paraphrasing your late, churchgoing mother. You dare to try it, to invite the demon in. A minute, to start. Then two. Then five. Then fifteen.

It doesn’t kill you.

And in that last silence, eyes closed and doing a meditative breathing technique you learned on YouTube, you trace the razor’s edge between solitude and loneliness. When you return to your body, you delete her from your phone. Maybe it’s for the best. Or maybe you’re just telling yourself that to make it through the next minute, hour, day. Maybe you’d been lonely with her for a while, but you never really noticed because you were always together. Whatever. You convince yourself that it’s better to be alone than to want to be with someone for the wrong reasons. Like having someone to sing Disney songs with on Zoom videos.

Then you do the laundry. It’s time.

The Landlord’s Son: A Fable

“Tell me a story, Papa.”

He chuckled to himself, and patted the boy on the head. Already he could feel the nubbins where his horns were beginning to make themselves known.

“A story? Surely you have a devilish enough imagination to come up with the most entertaining stories on your own.”

The boy stamped his small cloven hoof. “But I want to hear one of your stories, Papa!”

“All right, no need for such displays. Come, sit beside me and I’ll tell.”

Beelzebub then took his only son to his private chamber, cozy and dark save for the ring of fire, and there he began his tale.

“It was many years ago that I made the acquaintance of the son of a powerful landlord. This landlord was indeed feared by many who had no other choice than to live in one of his hovels. And, not to toot my own horn”—he laughed at the old family joke—“but I am the reason for his success, or at least what he chose to call success.”

“He offered his soul?”

“Yes, when he was but a young man. And a fine soul it was, too.”

The boy frowned. “He had a son. The son was born to a man who had sold you his soul? How is that possible?”

“Oh, it is, my boy. In nearly all cases, a soul is given anew to each at birth, and when they grow up, it is each mortal’s choice to do with it what they will.”

“But isn’t that quite painful for mortal children? To have a father who has bargained away his soul?”

“Yes. Quite. At least from what they tell me. Maybe that’s why the landlord’s son…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway. The man made himself a tidy business of our transaction. He asked to become rich beyond his wildest dreams, and when he married and reproduced, to bequeath his wealth to his family. He indeed grew as rich as a king, purchased more of his distasteful properties…and willed his fortune to his son.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Just as he wished!”

“Yes. Just as he wished.”

“So, all should have been well for him in the end. But I’m getting the idea that this story is not quite over.”

“No, indeed it is not. Many years later, and of his own accord, mind you, I made the acquaintance of the son. He was about as young as his father had been, but his request was very different. He claimed he had all the riches he needed. What he most desired, though, was love. He wanted the love of beautiful women, he wanted love from his future children, he wanted love from every mortal in the land. But what he wanted most was the love of his father.”

“So it was painful for him,” the boy said.

Beelzebub nodded. “So very painful that he signed away his soul without another thought. And I monitored his goings-on, as I do with those who have struck the bargain. See, I blame myself in part for what resulted. Because his father had honored the bargain, and because foolishly I felt a little sorry for him, I gave the son the benefit of the doubt. I waived my due diligence and chose to collect at a future time. He did have the love of beautiful women…who all eventually left him. He had the love of each child in turn, until they grew old enough to fear and distrust him.”

The boy looked up hopefully. “And his father?”

He shook his head.

“How very sad,” the boy said.

“That’s when I started having a bad feeling about the deal. So I paid the son, now a man getting on in years, a visit. He was not happy to see me. Not for the usual reasons mortals fear my return. He was angry, and he gave me a right chewing-out, blaming me for all the misfortunes in his life.”

Beelzebub sighed. “That’s when I knew. What I should have known years ago. What I now check for in advance of any signature on the dotted line. And what you should too, when it’s time for you to reign by my side.”

“What, Papa?”

“The man, despite all trappings to the contrary, had no soul to give.”

The boy, as his father had imagined, looked thunderstruck. “He cheated you! Did you strike him down on the spot?”

“No.” He set his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, I figured it would be more of a punishment for him to live out the remainder of his days. But I did exact one price for his deception.”

The boy looked up, his red eyes all questions.

“His children, my boy. His children belong to us now.”

Thorns

It’s been a while since I posted flash fiction… Longer still since I’ve written any! I hope you enjoy this one.

—–

Selma had come late to the church, unfashionably late, because of traffic and parking and a terrible accident involving her pantyhose and the neighbor’s dog. Why she’d even worn pantyhose is a mystery to her now, as she doesn’t remember the last time she’d done so, as if anyone would care about her manner of dress but the woman in the casket, whom she hasn’t seen in years. She wrestles out of the car without further damage, clatters to the front door in heels she’s also grown unaccustomed to, then stops, breath frozen.

The damn door.

The closed, massive, accusing door. The polished wood and brass sentry was punishment in itself for her often casual relationship with time, the creak of its old hinges like the pointed stare of a displeased nun.

Footsteps scrape up the concrete stairs behind her. Saved. She lets out her breath, grateful not to be the sole latecomer shamed by the door. But then she sees him. Oscar. Older, fleshier, grayer.

“Sorry for your loss,” he mumbles, eyes briefly downcast, his smile a flat testament to tempered pleasure, a soft hand on her upper arm. “The years have been kind to you, Selma.”

If she were a cat, her tail would be swishing the floor behind her, slowly, so slowly. If they’d been in any other situation she would have flung his hand off and stormed away. Like she’d been tempted to do the last time she saw him. Which, she remembers, was at this very church.

“Let’s just sit.” She reaches for the handle, swallows hard, bracing herself for the door’s judgment.

“Please, let me.”

Selma tries to scoot behind Oscar. But he does that thing some men of his generation tend to do in times like these. Opening the door, easing her in front of him, steering her in with a palm on the small of her back as if she couldn’t fathom which direction to go on her own. Her eyes narrow so fast a rocket of pain shoots up her temple. Maybe it was from clenching her jaw against the opening of the door. Or the mortification of being late to her own sister’s funeral.

Or having to see him again.

The groan is overwhelmed by a swell of canned organ music, which diverts attention from the latecomers. She slinks into an empty pew in the back. To Selma’s dismay he slides in beside her. But they haven’t been totally overlooked. From the front row, they get an evil-eyed glare over the shoulder of her younger sister Amy. She probably arrived early, flanked by her handsome husband and two perfect children, and saved a seat for her. Better to stay put and ignore Oscar than change seats now.

Oscar’s hands brace the tops of his knees as if for takeoff. His face looks grayer in the funereal light. He stares straight at the open casket, his lips working but nothing coming out. Maybe a prayer. They could all use one.

“I loved her, you know. It wasn’t just some fling—”

As if that made it better. “Time and place, Oscar,” she hisses as the priest steps up to the altar.

“Sure. Sure.” His fingers whiten with pressure. They sit silent as the priest talks generically of life and death and the kingdom of heaven, then of a woman Selma doesn’t recognize, so different from the conniving and selfish Rose she used to know. He speaks of her goodness and generosity. But what else is he to say, really, when the family has stepped away from the church years ago, when Amy is his only witness to their sister’s life? It always catches her around the heart to learn that the three of them have such different versions of the childhood they shared. To learn how far Amy is willing to go to make them all look like saints.

When it’s over Selma stands, gazing at what she can see of her sister’s preserved face. No doubt they made her beautiful. But she always had been beautiful. Amy was the good girl; Selma was the smart one; and Rose was like her namesake, complete with thorns. Part of Selma wants to move forward, be the bigger person, but a part aches to sneak out and find the nearest bar. Again Oscar places that hand on her back. This time it feels less like a tiller and more proprietary. She wheels on him.

“No. You’re no longer my husband and you no longer have that right. Frankly, you have balls to even show up here.”

Oscar’s face droops. He backs away, palms raised, and fades into the exiting crowd.

Selma, steading her nerves, ventures forward.

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.”