Gato

It’s not the first time Talisman has come across a human child in this part of his territory. But the sour scent tells him the girl is not well. She’s curled on her side beneath the scratching tree, her dark hair dull and matted, her eyes glassy, her chest nearly still beneath her thin, dirty clothing. Talisman bats at her with a soft paw the way he’s seen the humans do; the only reaction is a delayed shift of her eyes to his. He wills her to hold his gaze. One second. Two seconds. Her lids then fall closed as if keeping them open is too much effort. Has it been enough to convey trust? It’ll have to be. Night falls hard and cold in the desert and he’s loath to leave her unprotected from the coyotes and the grown humans, but she needs nourishment. 

He calls for the human’s mother; surely she’ll not have gone far with her young one so ill, but his cries go unanswered. Still yowling, less and less often as he gets no response, Talisman stretches his body over hers to provide heat and to warn predators away; they’ll also sense the sour aroma on the wind.

Soon Talisman’s mate Kowloon arrives, mewing apologies for being too far afield to hear him. Her amber eyes widen in alarm as she quickly absorbs the situation.

“No grown human tends her?”

Talisman shakes his head.

Then a sound comes from the girl’s throat. “Gato,” she breathes.

Every inch of Kowloon freezes except her tail, which paints the scrubby grass in a slow swish.

Talisman’s throat vibrates to calm the girl…and his mate. Kowloon has bad memories of grown humans, so in a soft mew, trying not to break his soothing spell, he asks her to take his place while he finds the one the humans call Esperanza.

“Don’t worry,” Talisman purrs. “This girl is small and weak and too ill to hurt you.”

“I worry more for you,” Kowloon growls.

“Esperanza is good. I was sick once and she found me and poked me with something sharp like a claw but I got better. She leaves water in the desert for the mothers and children who travel in the night. I’ve seen her do it. The water is trapped in a big container but sometimes she’ll leave a bowl. Agua para los gatos, she said once, and her voice was as soothing as the water itself.”

Kowloon still has reservations, but she changes places with him to keep the girl warm. Talisman presses his forehead to Kowloon’s then slinks off toward the village. It’s better this way. Kowloon is a fierce fighter, and several times tangled with coyote pups who tried to hurt their kittens. She won’t let anything harm the girl.

Esperanza lives in a small house on the far edge of Talisman’s territory. Sometimes he hides in the brush and watches her tend her garden. Always with her eyes soft and smiling.

“Gato,” she says, when he hops up to the windowsill. She’s the only grown human he’ll allow so close. Her hands are rough but her touch is light and warm. “Gato, what is wrong?”

He mews one continuous note of alarm, telling her about the sick young girl, while holding her gaze with his. He hopes she’ll understand. Her mouth presses tight and her eyes narrow. “I will get my things and meet you outside.”

Soon they’re walking through the scrubby grass. Esperanza has a light attached to her head. Light makes Talisman jittery and he wants to hide. A much bigger light suddenly pops on over them and Talisman is all claws, clinging to the base of a small tree. Esperanza stops and puts a hand above her eyes.

Her words are angry now. Two grown human males appear from the dark and Talisman hisses low in his throat. They speak angry words back. Their language is different from hers. One grabs her arm. She jerks it away. Her bag spills as Talisman stalks forward. One human shines his big light on what’s spilled on the ground.

“Soy medica,” Esperanza says. “Doctor.”

The males look at each other and smile. Not a friendly smile. Talisman growls.

“Go on, Esperanza la medica,” one of them says, sweeping his arm forward. “Show us who you are looking for who needs doctoring.”

“El gato knew where to…”

But Talisman’s already gone. He must protect Kowloon, and the child. He’s fast, and strong, and he sees them, a lump of cat and girl beneath the scratching tree.

“Cover her,” Talisman pants, already using his claws and mouth to drag deadfall around the base of the tree. Kowloon helps. “She’s okay?”

“Sleeping,” Kowloon says. Then stops, whiskers twitching. “Humans are coming. I can smell them.”

“Cover her up good and hide with me.” 

They huddle between the scent and the girl.

Talisman sees them. One male to either side of Esperanza, pushing her along. Each male has something shiny attached to his hip. She looks sad and lost. The fur rises on Talisman’s back. “On my count,” he says. “I’ll go left, you go right. One…two…NOW!”

They sink teeth and claws into flesh. They bite and scratch and growl. The men yelp and cry and attempt to slap them away. But they’re too fierce. So fierce that Talisman didn’t see when Esperanza rushed in and stole the shiny things from the men. But she’s screaming at them to leave el gatos alone.

Talisman turns his head just enough to see Esperanza raise one of those shiny things in the air. There’s a noise so loud Talisman leaps back and grabs Kowloon and they roll off into the grass. Talisman quickly rights himself to see Esperanza now pointing the shiny things at the men. They lift their hands to the star-filled sky.

“¡Váyase!” she yells. “If you are not running when I count three, I will shoot. What you do, with the women and children, is very bad.”

And they run. She watches them go, then puts the shiny things in her pockets and starts picking up the items from her spilled bag.

“Gatos,” she whispers. “Gatos, come. We will see to the girl.”

The Council: Goodbye, Forty-one

This week’s flash fiction was inspired by current events. I just couldn’t help myself.

—————–

The loss of Forty-one had brought the council together again. First, at the cathedral, where they’d exchanged appropriate pleasantries, then later, with most of their spouses otherwise engaged, at Earl’s. It seemed befitting that Forty-three make the toast, and when they were all assembled and served, they raised their glasses toward the empty chair, followed by a few moments of silence.

Forty-four felt the weight of his absence. The loss of what he brought to the table—the wisdom, the connections. He also felt the unspoken tensions of earlier in the day. But broaching the subject so soon after the funeral…

“Every day I pray for his soul,” Thirty-nine said, with a heavy sigh.

“You’re a better man that I am,” Forty-three and a half added, then downed the rest of her scotch and ordered another.

Her husband passed her a sly look. “Now, honey, you may want to slow down on those…”

“Don’t honey me. Are you driving?”

“Well, yeah…”

“Then I’m drinking. Did you see Twitter? He wants to put us in jail and I’m the bitch because I didn’t smile at him. Lock thisup, you orange buffoon.”

“Hill, what’d I tell you about staying off those social media things? They never did no one no good…”

Forty-four cleared his throat. “Come on, folks. Time’s a wasting and we need a new plan of attack.”

“He’s right,” Forty-three said. “Got us a serious problem here and I don’t feel right as it is leaving Laura and the girls too long tonight.”

“Then we’ll make it quick,” Forty-four said. “So here’s where we stand. Winning back the House might give us some checks on this guy, but I won’t trust that until I see it. Contacting Putin again is off the table. He’s achieved his objectives and won’t help us. Unless we can deliver Lindsey Graham in a dog harness, but I doubt he’s gonna fall for that trick twice…”

“I’ll do it.” Everyone turned to the breathy voice with the Georgia accent.

“Jimmy…” Forty-three and a half laid a hand on his forearm.

“No, please. I sat in that cathedral today hearing about doing good for the world. Yes, we certainly had our disagreements when it came to governing, but I believe we’re here to help each other and to do God’s work. I know my time is next and I want to make what little I have left count for something.”

Forty-three sat taller. “Can’t let you do that, Thirty-nine. Wouldn’t be prudent to let that be your legacy.”

Forty-four narrowed his eyes. Was it his imagination, or was the Texan across the table starting to sound like his father?

“I got an idea,” Forty-three said. “Lemme give Dick Cheney a call. See if he’s up for a little quail hunting.”

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. 

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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.

Voting Buddies

Jennie Walters always dresses her best when it’s time to vote. She’s doing her civic responsibility, an effort of extreme importance. She’s never missed an election, and she’s never even tried to shirk her way out of jury duty, like some she knows, like even her own husband, God rest his soul. “This is a representative democracy,” she tells anyone who will listen, “and I aim to represent my own part in it whenever I’m given the chance.”

But she had some trouble convincing her grandchildren. They’d just sit and roll their eyes when Jennie went on about voting. “People around the world have fought and died for this right,” she’d say, standing between them and the television. “Don’t you ever go taking that for granted.”

Her grandson, Spencer, could never be reasoned with—he had far too much of his mother in him—but her granddaughter, Deidre, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, was so proud to show Jennie her sticker proclaiming that she’d voted. They’d been voting buddies ever since. They made it special. They’d go to the firehouse together, stand in line, check in with the volunteers—half of whom Jennie had known since childhood—and then celebrate afterward. She’d make a fancy dinner until she could no longer manage so well in the kitchen. Deidre took over the honors at that point, first in Jennie’s house and then, when she moved out and got married, in her own. They didn’t get to vote together anymore, as Deidre lived in a different district, but there was always a celebration afterward. Year after year after year, even when Deidre had children of her own and moved to a bigger house in the next county. And even then, they’d all get together, and Jennie would tell stories about the first time she voted, and who got elected, and how even one person’s vote could make all the difference.

But then Deidre moved up north for a new job, a wonderful opportunity. That took some adjustment, and Jennie was happy for her granddaughter, but she felt terribly sad on Election Days. Even though they chatted on the computer thingie, it wasn’t even close to all of them being together.

This November she felt even worse. A fall had left her laid up temporarily, and Jennie didn’t even know if she could get out of the house to go vote.

“Get an absentee ballot, Grandmama,” Deidre said over the phone. “It’s easy. Lots of people do it.”

“That ‘lots of people’ is not going to be me! I am going to that firehouse if I have to call a fireman and have him carry me there.”

There was a long silence on the line. “Grandmama. You don’t have anyone there taking care of you? What happened to that nurse’s aide?”

“Pfft. She doesn’t even believe in voting, can you just imagine?”

“You get that ballot,” Deidre said.

Jennie promised she would, but it was all so confusing. First she had to get to the right website, then find a form to even apply for a ballot, then wait to get the ballot, then mail that in…how could she trust all those people? What if her vote didn’t get counted because she was not there to see it? She wasn’t too proud to admit that she cried a little while sitting at that computer in her wheelchair. But it didn’t sit easily on her that this would be the first election year in which she wouldn’t vote.

In fact on the big day, she didn’t bother getting out of bed until close to noon. She didn’t even look at the television while she got herself together. Just played some old music and wheeled herself to and fro doing this and that. When the computer thingie rang, she knew it would be Deidre, and she doubted she’d have the strength to talk to her without crying.

But she didn’t want to worry her, so she answered, to find two beautiful great-grandbaby faces grinning at her and waving. “Hi, Grandnonna!” they both yelled, giggling like they had a secret.

And then the doorbell rang. In walked Deidre, beautiful in her best dress, and behind her… Spencer. All decked out in a suit and a tie.

“Put your hat on, Grandmama,” Deidre said. “I know you didn’t get that absentee ballot. So we’ve come to help you vote.”

Not a Good Year for the Grapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you think I’m missing something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flash Fiction: Lies

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

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

You didn’t.

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

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

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

El Suizo

Carlos sipped coffee in a small café in Havana, his choice of table perfectly situated to allow a view of the street while staying in the shadows. Waiting for the man they called El Suizo. Whose sense of time, apparently, was nowhere near as accurate as a Swiss watch. This worried him. Operations such as theirs depended on accuracy, respect, and trust. If Carlos couldn’t count on him to appear when he was supposed to—

“You would like another, guapo?” The waitress had a pretty smile, and he nodded, and she topped him up, and he followed the rhythm in her hips as she walked away. As she served the customers. As she swung back into the kitchen and returned with another patron’s order. It calmed his nerves to focus on something other than why his contact had not yet arrived.

Maybe it was the traffic. Maybe El Suizo wasn’t the man they claimed him to be. Carlos had been disappointed before. What he had planned was nothing short of revolution, and if they weren’t victorious, or slaughtered on the battlefield, surely they would be executed for treason.

Maybe his plan wasn’t even possible, the odds against them too great. What could a few hundred mercenaries do against the greatest army in the world?

He took a deep breath and let it out, let the tension loose from his broad shoulders. It had been so long since he’d visited the land of his birth. Watched the women, smelled the coffee, heard the music. He felt like a youth again, skinny and poor and playing in the streets. The familiar pressure also began to return. Destiny. The weight of two generations of failure resting squarely on his back. His grandfather died fighting against Castro at the Bay of Pigs invasion. His father had been on the losing side of a cop’s gun in Miami. His mother wanted better for him. She cried when he returned to Cuba and joined the army. Somewhere in heaven, she was probably still crying.

Moments after he set his mug down, a muffled boom rocked the building. Rattled the windows. Set off car alarms. Sloshed his coffee across the table. The waitress shouted Spanish obscenities as a tray she’d been carrying hit the floor.

As people ran out to see what had happened, a man walked in. Dark hair. Dark clothes. His face devoid of expression as he crossed the café to Carlos’s table. He took the seat opposite his without a word, as if he had merely gone out to put more money in his parking meter and was now returning to his meal. He couldn’t have been more than twenty.

“Sorry to be late,” he said. “Had a bit of a situation down the block.”

He spoke Spanish well, for a man who was purportedly Swiss. He also smelled of diesel fumes and burnt hair.

Carlos tipped his head toward the door. “Please me that wasn’t your situation.”

El Suizo—or whatever his name really was—cast a glance over his shoulder. “That?” He picked up a paper napkin and dabbed it into the spilled coffee. “No, my friend. I believe that one was meant for you. Your rental car is totaled, but fortunately your would-be assassin is a piss-poor demolitions expert.”

Damn it. They’d found him. Carlos started to get up. “We need to go.”

The too-young man merely shrugged and leaned back in his chair. There was something oddly Gallic in the gesture. Maybe this El Suizo wasn’t so Suizo after all. “No need,” he said. “Not only is he a piss-poor demolitions expert, but he’s also a very slow runner. I doubt he’ll be doing more bomb making anytime soon. Or”—he sniffed—“ever.”

And after he asked the waitress for two tequilas, the young man turned back to Carlos. “So,” he said with a crooked smile and a light in his eyes. “Tell me about this operation.”

Silent Night: Flash Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. What else could I have done?

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

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

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

Hartford: Flash Fiction

The hamster could be dead for all she knew. She longed to unzip her coat and check the coffee can for signs of life, because it was cold as hell in Hartford with an icy mix of snow and sleet peppering her face and neck and finding the gaps between her sneakers and socks. But she was afraid that if she stopped to look, either she’d find a dead hamster or a very live one that might escape and die from exposure. Or she’d end up murdered by some vagrant in the switching yards at two in the morning. Even before she’d had this thought of the hamster he’d given her—who gives someone a rodent for Christmas without even asking?—her boyfriend had been a good twenty yards ahead of her, head down, hands in his pockets, loping along like he went for long walks through the snow every night. Now he was even farther, a dark blur in the distance. She hurried to catch up, called his name but he didn’t answer. He was angry, and that’s what he did when he was angry. As if it were her fault he’d read the bus schedule wrong and there were no connections to Boston on holidays. As if it were her fault the only hotel in reasonable walking distance didn’t have any vacancies and the less-reasonable one was two miles from the bus station and the cab company didn’t answer their phone. As if the fate of the hamster were her fault, too. Again, she called his name. He stopped. Turned.

“You’re slow, woman.” He sounded like his father.

“It’s cold,” she said.

Even his grin looked like his father’s. Mean around the edges. “Then walk faster.”

He started telling her a story. No apologies for his silence, for ignoring her. The stories always had dragons in them, and princesses, and he pulled them out of his pocket to pass the time while they waited for buses, or during the long stretches when they were hitchhiking and no cars would come along. This was one she’d heard before, about a princess who ends up rescuing the dragon, and he’d told it to her the night they’d first met. It charmed her, then. But it was cold and late and while the charm was wearing thin, she didn’t have the courage to face the silence. He stretched the story out for the rest of the walk, disappeared while she laid her credit card down for the room, began a new tale in the creaky elevator ride up to their floor.

Her Christmas present was still alive. But something inside her wasn’t. The right words never seemed to come when he shone his blue eyes and stories on her. Only while he slept was there room for her. In repose his mouth turned into a scowl, exactly like his father’s. When he fell asleep that night, in a hotel room she couldn’t afford, she started what would be a series of notes, first to herself and finally to him, in which the princess rescues herself. And the hamster.

Day of the Dead: Flash Fiction

A visit to a neighbor’s house and an offering in the dark inspired this piece, which I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some lovely writing going on. Maybe you’ll want to visit…read, comment, write. However the spirit moves you.

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The night is dark and cold, the full moon hidden behind a bank of clouds, and the glow in the distance calls to you. You are so weary, and the warm light is a beacon for your sorrow, a balm for your loss, a sleepwalker’s companion. Pinpricks of dancing candle flames form the arms of the cross extending to the walls of the shrine. You are late to the offerings; the shelter is quite full. You remember coming here before, and what you brought. You lit a candle for her, called her name, set down a small token that reminded you of her. Almost by rote you left your house on the first night of the Day of the Dead with something of hers in your pocket. A dried blossom, a poem, a picture she would have found amusing. Tonight you have nothing, because everything of her is now gone. You think of what you could have brought. The romance novel she urged you to read, every time you visited. The nail polish bottles she insisted you take, although you never wore it. All gone now. The house isn’t even there anymore. But this shrine is. It’s quiet; too late for visitors. You’ve always come late, to have your privacy, to say the things you never had the courage to before. A different thought is on your lips this night as you approach. “You want to know why I left him.” Silence. The candles flicker. There are no answers. At least, there are no good answers. No undoing what has been done. You can now only hope for forgiveness, and that he might find something good enough about life to continue. Maybe he too felt the tug to return to this place, and you scan the offerings for remembrances he may have brought. There are photos of people you don’t recognize. Tiny Bibles and teddy bears and… You bring a hand to your neck. The strand of pink-tinted fake pearls you once adored lay among some drawings you remember giving him, the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit you loved until it was nearly falling apart and…a wedding ring. Yours. The anguish scares you backward, out of the sheltering walls, and you wail into the night.