Short Story — “The Beggar”

The Eye-Dancers, it’s my hope, tackles, among other things, the very concept of what we term “reality.”  What does “real” mean?  And is the line that separates “reality” from our perceptions and dreams and nightmares truly as distinct as we might imagine?  What other worlds and universes exist, and how can two strangers, so far apart it’s nearly impossible to imagine the distance, share a psychic connection, a cosmic bond, with one another?

Of course, there are many ways a story can question our perceptions and our views of reality.  Over ten years ago, I wrote a short story titled “The Beggar,”  in which the protagonist  is confronted by something, and someone, who ultimately contradicts some of his long-held assumptions and challenges the way he looks at the world.

I hope you enjoy “The Beggar.”

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“The Beggar”

Copyright 2014 Michael S. Fedison

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Looking through the bus window, Mark saw the beggar. The old man was standing in front of a middle-aged blonde woman, no doubt asking, pleading, for money, just a dollar, just a quarter, anything to help out. Mark knew the routine. He’d been on the receiving end of it more than once.

“Look at that old loser,” Mark’s seatmate, a prematurely graying accountant named Harold Gardener, said. The bus slowly lumbered on, and the beggar disappeared, as if by magic. A Winchell’s Donuts, a Burger King, and the entire assortment of suburban paraphernalia came into view and then slipped past in a never-ending display of sprawl. “I’ve seen that freeloader way too many times. Why don’t they arrest him? Or shoot ‘im.”

Mark said nothing. He sat with Gardener several times a week—the accountant worked four blocks north of Mark’s office and never said good-bye when Mark got up to leave, so Mark had stopped saying good-bye, too—but he’d learned early on that they disagreed on most issues, the beggar among them. Gardener seemed to hate him, eyeing him as he would the carrier of some soul-infesting disease. But Mark could sympathize with the old man. Even the word beggar sounded distasteful to him. Maybe the guy was all right. Maybe he’d even been successful once.

“Filth, that’s what bums like that are,” Gardener continued. He glanced at Mark, as though awaiting a reaction. When he didn’t get one, he said, “I didn’t move my family out here to deal with filth like that. Know what I mean?” With that, Gardener faced forward, looking at the brown hair of a businesswoman seated in front of him.

Mark looked at Gardener. “I think you’re too hard on him. I mean, c’mon, filth?”

Gardener snorted. It was the kind of sound a man makes when in the presence of unspeakable stupidity. “I see enough of those bums in the city. Down by Coors and the train station. I don’t need to see them here.”

Mark thought of pursuing the conversation, but he didn’t. He knew Gardener’s view of the old man was set in granite, and it was just too early for an argument. Better to let it rest. Hopefully, they wouldn’t see the beggar again. The bus rarely passed him.

But Mark had seen the old man several times, never knowing when or where he’d turn up. The beggar seemed as unpredictable as the weather. The first time Mark encountered him, in fact, he had been walking down the litter-free streets of an upscale neighborhood.

It had been a chilly day in mid-October, with a perfect Colorado blue sky and a tang in the air that felt so pure and fresh, Mark wanted to take a bite out of it. He was enjoying his daily lunch stroll, walking through the neighborhood behind his office. He rarely failed to take a walk at lunchtime, even during winter cold spells or spring snowstorms or summer rain showers. It was a running joke at the office. They said, rain or sleet or snow, Mark will take his walk, even more reliable than the postal service! You could set your clock to it. But he didn’t mind the teasing. At least he stood out for something. Besides, it was good to get away from the cubicles and the people and the stress. It was—

A gaunt old man with a full, gray beard and a tattered wool hat turned the corner at the nearest stop sign. He was heading toward Mark.

Mark did a double-take. The man’s appearance did not fit in with the affluent surroundings of the neighborhood. Most of the lawns were large and well-tended, and the houses—sleek, new ranches with attached garages and gigantic western-facing windows—all looked shiny and polished, as if they had just been given a coat of varnish.

Not wishing to judge a book by its cover but unable to avoid it, Mark quickly deduced the man was a vagrant. Trying to appear indifferent, acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Mark slowly crossed the street, wanting to avoid the man without making it look so obvious. He whistled a tune as he did, giving the performance an air of nonchalance it otherwise might have lacked. He focused his attention to the west. Over the rooftops of the ranches, the distant snowcapped peaks of the Front Range sparkled like sunlit diamonds.

“Pardon me, young man? Young man?”

Mark turned his head. The drifter was there, staring at him. He berated himself. While he had been carelessly enjoying the view, the old-timer must have snuck up on him.

“Do you live here?” The beggar had no teeth that Mark could see. His face was covered in a scraggly forest of white hair. His wool hat had holes in it. It looked nearly as old as the man who wore it.

“Uh, no, no, I just work here.” Mark was looking for an out. He could have simply walked away—he knew most guys would—but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His wife had always told him how much she appreciated his sensitivity. Right now, he wished he could be as bottom-line oriented and callous as Gardener. “I work over on East Hampden. I’m just taking a walk.”

The old man nodded, then said, “It’s good that you have a job. I had a job once. A whole bunch of them. But I don’t have one now. What do you say, my young friend? Can you help a fella out? I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning, and my stomach’s groaning.”

Mark couldn’t believe how fast the man had launched into his sales pitch. He started to walk away.

“Hey, wait!” the old man said, following Mark. “Even a dollar would help! Even a quarter.”

Mark kept walking, but the man had caught up with him. “Why are you in this neighborhood, mister?” Mark asked. He picked up his pace. So did the beggar. “You might get arrested just for hanging around here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“Oh, I know,” the man said. He was huffing now, struggling to keep up with Mark. “People here are much too good to even look at me. But I wanted to do something different today. Is that so bad?”

“No, it’s just—”

“And then you came along, and I thought—‘well, what a break. That nice young fella will help me buy some lunch. Thank the Lord for his kindness’. That’s what I thought, yessir. Now, how about it, fella? Give an old man a break, huh? Just a few bucks. A few measly bucks. What’s it to you?”

They walked past a white ranch with skylights and a privacy fence to the rear and sides. A young woman in a ponytail was working in her flower garden, preparing it for winter. She eyed Mark and the beggar with suspicion. What is that grungy old man doing on my street? her look said. We don’t have people like that on my street. Mark shot her a disapproving look right back, and suddenly felt a strong impulse to give the man some money.

Turning a corner, walking past more polished, white ranches, Mark stopped. The beggar stopped, too, then bent over and gasped as if he had just sprinted five miles and needed to get his wind back.

“You walk too fast, young man,” the drifter said once he had sufficiently recovered. “Give an old guy a break.”

Mark took out his wallet, fished inside, then handed the man a ten dollar bill—and imagined how fiercely his wife would protest. He had been stopped by beggars before, and he almost always gave them something. One time, two summers ago, she let him have it after he had given some guy a twenty.

“What’s the point?” she had said. “All they do is go spend it on booze. They’re better off without it.”

“But he said he wanted to buy something for his daughter. He said—”

His wife rolled her eyes. “Oh, please, Mark. Spare me.”

“I thought you liked my sensitivity,” he said, a pout on his face. He fought to remove it. Pouting never worked with his wife.

“There’s a fine line sometimes,” she said, frowning, “between sensitivity and stupidity. Giving a beggar a twenty and thinking he’s gonna spend it on something other than booze? That, I’m afraid, crosses the line.”

That ended the discussion. He thought about pressing his case—the man’s eyes had looked so honest, so needy—but he admitted to himself that his wife was probably right. Still, what could he do about it? She’d told him before he had a face that attracted beggars.

“What?” he’d protested. “How so?”

“Because,” she’d replied. “They can see you’re a softie.”

Last year, they’d moved out of Denver and headed southeast. They now lived in a brick ranch several miles outside the city. Their neighborhood was quiet, even dull, but peaceful. And there were no beggars. He worked in Aurora, and for a while he hadn’t had to deal with any beggars there, either. But the old man in the wool cap changed all of that.

Handing the ten dollar bill to the man, Mark resolved not to tell his wife about it.

“Bless you, son, bless you!” the man gushed. He seemed like a kid on a treasure hunt who has just discovered the coveted prize. It made Mark uncomfortable. The man’s ridiculous display, his outright begging—he had no pride, no dignity. That’s what bothered Mark the most, and that’s what made him think he could never beg for money himself. “You don’t know how grateful I am!” the old man said.

“It’s okay, really,” Mark said. “Just go get something good to eat. No big deal.” He looked around at the white ranches. No one was outside. But that didn’t mean someone wasn’t watching this spectacle from behind a window. He told the old man he needed to get back to the office.

“Bless you, young man,” the beggar repeated when Mark started to walk away. “I’ll never forget this.”

I hope you do, was all Mark thought.

The bus did not pass by the beggar again for a long while. And Mark himself had been spared dealing with the old man, too. After that first encounter, he’d been flagged down by the beggar a handful of other times—and he always gave the man a dollar or two, never again a full ten—but it now had been months since their paths had crossed. That was okay with Mark. He suspected his wife’s harsh view applied to this beggar as much as it did to any other—though he never recalled having smelled alcohol on the man’s breath.

As more time passed and he didn’t see the beggar, Mark wondered if maybe the old man had moved on to another section of town, or even died. It certainly was possible. He had to have been at least seventy, and, with his vagabond lifestyle, he couldn’t have been in good health. The possibility of the man’s death had no effect on Mark. It did not sadden him. What was an old drifter to him? Nor did it please him. He was positive the beggar’s death would please Gardener, though.

But the old man was not dead.

“I swear, if he ever tries that with me again, I’ll punch ‘im, tear ‘im in half!” Gardener raged. “Old freeloading . . . ”

“Where’d you see him?” Mark asked.

“Right outside my office! Can you believe it? The nerve of those people!” The bus worked its way through streets still soaked from on overnight thundershower. But the sky was brightening by the minute, and warm spring sunshine filtered through the window, striking Gardener on the side of his face.

“I thought he might be dead. I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Mark said.

“Well, he’ll wish he was dead if he ever asks me for money again! Old piece of—”

Mark tapped Gardener on the elbow and nodded imperceptibly (he hoped) across the aisle. Gardener glanced in that direction, at the people seated across from him and Mark. An old woman with a floral dress sat next to a little girl with pigtailed blonde hair. The woman was glaring at Gardener—and Mark—and the girl was gaping at them with wide-eyed delight, as though she were hoping to hear a forbidden word. Mark had never seen either of them before, and he doubted he’d see them again.

Gardener clenched his teeth and whispered, “Great. Now I can’t even talk about it.”

“That’s why a wife is good,” Mark offered. “Great sounding board.”

Gardener shook his head. He’d said before he wasn’t the marrying kind.

“What did you say to him?” Mark asked. He didn’t understand why he cared, but for some reason, he did.

“I told ‘im—” Gardener said, his voice loud again, and Mark nudged him. Stealing a quick glance across the aisle, Mark was sure that if the old woman’s eyes could shoot laser beams, both he and Gardener would be vaporized by now. The pigtailed girl was still smiling. From the back of the bus, there was laughter. From the front, a few muffled words, but mainly silence, save for the drone of the bus’s engine and the swoosh of the tires as they sloshed through the rain-drenched street.

“I told ‘im to get his filthy, lice-infested self out of there,” Gardener said quietly, obviously fighting to keep his temper in check. “I told ‘im to go beg somewhere else, or go stand in front of the next garbage truck he sees. Then they could run ‘im over, pick ‘im up, and take ‘im to the dump with the rest of the trash.”

Mark said, “Man, you really hate that guy, don’t you?”

“Yup,” Gardener said. “Like I hate fleas, or roaches. Pests. Like I hate pests.”

That day on his lunchtime walk, Mark crossed paths with the beggar. It had been so long since he’d seen him, it caught him by surprise. He was walking through a different neighborhood today, several blocks away from the office. The houses in here were not as polished, not as large, and several For Sale signs dotted the bottoms of lawns. He liked this neighborhood, in part because it did not feel so suffocating, in part because it had a lot of trees—primarily maple, Russian Olive, and spruce, but there were also a few aspen and dogwood. He also liked it that no one else from his office ever walked through this area. Some of the others strolled through the upper-class neighborhood close by, but no one came this far out. Any time he really needed to get away from it all, he came here.

He had been thinking of what to get his wife on their wedding anniversary in August. It would mark their eighth year together, which amazed him. It seemed just yesterday that they had exchanged their vows. He wanted to surprise her this time, really come up with something original. But before he could construct a mental list of potential possibilities, he spotted the beggar.

He had just turned a corner and was walking toward Mark, briskly, with a purpose, as if he’d known Mark would be walking down these streets today. Mark brushed that idea aside as sheer foolishness. Just a coincidence, that’s all, and not a very appealing one. He didn’t want to deal with the old-timer today. He hated the begging, the loss of all self-respect. If the drifter was not embarrassed at his own behavior, Mark was embarrassed for him. Instinctively, he felt for the bulge in his pants pocket—his wallet. He was pretty sure he had a few singles in there.

This time, Mark did not pretend he wanted to cross the street. He walked straight for the old man. The best thing to do, he figured, was to get this over with, give the man some small bills, then cut short the “bless you, young man” performance that would undoubtedly follow.

They approached each other. Mark looked down at the pavement. If the beggar wanted to stop him, he would. If not, Mark would keep right on walking. No reason to offer money unasked.

“Young man, young man.”

Why am I not surprised? Mark thought. He noticed the beggar was still wearing his wool hat, despite the heat of the day.

“Hey, slow down, and give an old guy a break, huh?” the man said. “Don’t make me run after you again.”

Mark came to a stop. He and the beggar stood on a sidewalk in front of a beige ranch with a roof that looked like it needed repairing. Mark thought that roof must have leaked last night, during the rain storm. A tall maple tree, its leaves still wet and glistening in the sun, provided the two of them with welcome shade.

“You remember me,” Mark said.

“Of course I remember you. Ten dollars last fall. Made me have a heart attack almost, chasing after you that way. And whenever I’ve seen you since, you’ve been generous.”

Mark winced. Generous? What was a dollar or two? He wondered if most people responded to the old man the way Gardener did. If so, it was easy to see how his pittance had seemed generous to the man. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and took out a five dollar bill.

“Here you go, mister.”

The beggar just looked at the bill, then at Mark. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled out into the tangled, gnarled beard that covered his cheeks. Then he shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not today.” He reached into his own pants pocket, and for a moment, Mark worried that the old man was going to pull out a gun. But all he had was a one dollar bill. “I know it isn’t much,” he said. “But take it, and please know I’d give more if I could.”

Mark stood there, and he felt his jaw drop open. He didn’t know if he should feel honored or insulted. What exactly was going on here? In the distance, from somebody’s backyard, he could hear the giggling of a little girl.

“Look,” Mark said, “just take this, okay?” He thrust the five dollar bill out further. “Go buy lunch with it.”

The beggar shook his head fiercely. “No! Take my dollar! I’m giving it to you. Don’t you see? I’m giving it to you! I don’t want your money today. Please take it.” The man’s hand was trembling, and the dollar fell to the ground. Mark snatched it up. “Keep it,” the old man said, then started to walk away.

Mark easily caught up with him. “Wait!” he said. “I don’t need your money, mister. Take it back, and take the five, too.”

The beggar brushed past Mark. He continued walking. Shaking his head even harder, he said, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand.” Then he reached the next intersection and turned the corner.

Mark just stood there on the sidewalk, feeling stupid and sad. He folded his five and the beggar’s one and stuffed them into his wallet.

“Thanks for the dollar, old man,” he said.

In the distance, he heard the little girl giggle again.

Gardener wasn’t on the bus today. He was probably in bed with the flu. A nasty bug was going around. It was September, and a cold snap had come in strong and bitter, blowing down from the mountains and reminding everyone that winter was not far off. Mark heard that the people of Vail had awakened to nine inches of snow that morning. But that just made him smile, as he thought of the anniversary gift he had bought for his wife last month—a weekend stay at her favorite ski lodge the second weekend of December. He had everything reserved, right down to the privacy booth in the restaurant she liked. All he needed now was for the mountain weather to cooperate. With nine inches of snow already, things were headed in the right direction.

Mark sat by the window. People on the sidewalk were bundled in winter coats and scarves. They were shivering, not used to the below-freezing temperatures. Just last week, it had been in the eighties.

“Whew, it’s freezing out there,” Mark heard someone say. A young woman with flushed cheeks sat down beside him. “Feels like February.” She took off her hat and scarf and placed them in her lap. Long black hair fell over the puffed bulk of her winter coat. She looked familiar to Mark, but he had never sat next to her before.

“Yeah,” he said. “Good weather for sleeping in, huh?”

“Tell me about it,” she said. “I wish I could. But, duty calls, y’know?”

He just smiled. The bus slowly worked through its rounds. Three stops before he would get off, Mark spotted the beggar. He had his coat wrapped tightly around himself, and he was talking to a young blond-haired man on the sidewalk. Mark saw the blond man hand the beggar a bill. He couldn’t tell what denomination, but he saw the old drifter smile and nod, almost bow, and he could read the lips: “Bless you, son, bless you.”

The bus pulled away from the curb.

“I don’t think I could ever do that, could you?” the woman next to Mark said.

“Do what?”

“Give away money like that guy just did. I mean, I feel bad for someone who doesn’t have a bed to sleep in at night and all, but, I mean, like, what do they do with five bucks? It isn’t gonna really help them get a life or anything.”

“No,” Mark agreed, “but maybe it can buy them a hot meal.”

The woman shrugged. “That’s what the shelters and soup kitchens are for. They can get their meals for free there. It just bothers me, the way they come up to you and just, like, beg. They have no respect, for themselves or anybody else. Being that poor, I guess it makes you self-centered, y’know? Never thinking of anything but your own needs. Always wanting to take.” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t give him a penny.”

At the next stop, she got up.

“Keep warm,” she said, then headed for the door.

Mark nodded and smiled. But he didn’t feel warm at all.

*****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Short Story — “The Gatherers”

Clearly one of the themes in The Eye-Dancers is learning to cope with mystery, with things beyond the scope of our understanding.  Marc Kuslanski, in particular, feels the need to explain every irregularity, every new experience that lies beyond the purview of his knowledge.  How he ultimately learns to deal with this is his great dilemma (and opportunity for growth) in the novel.

The protagonist in “The Gatherers,” a short story I wrote shortly before beginning The Eye-Dancers, is faced with just such a dilemma when he spots a small group of people linking hands, standing in a circle.  On the surface, this does not seem particularly odd or out of the ordinary.  But there is more to the story . . .

I hope you enjoy “The Gatherers.”

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“The Gatherers”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

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Christopher Burriss was frustrated.

He’d wanted to take a right-hand turn, head to the drug store, and buy the strongest over-the-counter pain medicine he could find. But he hadn’t. Instead, he had driven straight through the light, cursing and slamming his fist into the dashboard.

It wasn’t that the intersection had caught him by surprise, or came up more quickly than he anticipated. He just could not seem to make the turn. It was as if a force, an invisible presence, had locked the steering wheel in place.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said to the dust bunnies floating inside the car. He just wanted something to take. To dull the pain.

Yes. The pain. The flaring, mounting pain that had overtaken him without warning. He’d been driving . . . where? He couldn’t remember. Had he been shopping? Running an errand? Going to work? When, suddenly, his head began to throb, then to pound, as if someone had lobbed a grenade inside his skull and pulled the pin. And his side. His entire left side ached. A knifing, jabbing pain, spreading from his rib cage, up to his armpit and down to his hip.

He thought of turning around—the intersection, and the drug store, were still close behind. A driveway came up on the left, and he slowed down, signaled. Trailing him, a white Subaru, too close for comfort, waited for him to complete his turn.

But he couldn’t do it. The steering wheel wouldn’t budge. Was it stuck? Making sure that his foot was planted securely on the break pedal, he exerted more force, but still the wheel would not move. The car behind him honked its horn.

“Shut up!” he yelled back. “I’m trying! You think I’m doing this for fun?”

He pulled as hard as he could. Nothing. The driver behind him continued to beep, and now others joined in. A line of traffic was forming in his rearview mirror.

“Great. Just beautiful.” He pressed hard on the gas pedal, and sped forward. The Subaru followed, still closer than he liked.

The pressure in his head was unrelenting, and his side was a lit fuse. He didn’t think he could drive much longer. It was difficult just to stay in control of the vehicle, to keep it within the lines. He felt himself swerving into the wrong lane, toward oncoming traffic. The car behind him honked again, perhaps thinking he was drunk or falling asleep. He wished he were drunk. Anything to numb the pain.

He drove for miles. He wasn’t sure how he managed to, but he did, even as his condition became more serious. Houses, buildings, trees flew by him like mirages. He had no concept of time, of how long he’d been traveling. All he knew was that something else seemed to be in control. He had tried several times to pull over, onto the shoulder of the road, to let the traffic pass him. But he couldn’t. Maybe the wheel was stuck. Maybe it couldn’t be turned. But that was impossible. He had rounded a few curves, it had swiveled effortlessly then. It—

“Mom, Mom, why? . . .”

“Sssshh, honey. Be quiet. We just have to hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

“But, Mom. Why? Why won’t . . . ?”

The voices weren’t clear. But he recognized them. How could he not? Sharon, and Mollie. Why was he hearing them? They weren’t here. Sharon was at work, wasn’t she? And Mollie. Mollie would be in school. She had just started the second grade. She was excited, eager to get back to her school friends, looking forward to new adventures, new vistas.

Another sheet of pain flared and exploded along his nerve endings. Had someone taken a razor blade and sliced open his left side? He actually looked down, checking for blood, sure that he would see the beige fabric of the seat stained with red. But there was nothing. No hint of a wound, no evidence of an attack.

He felt the car swerve again, and he righted his course just in the nick of time. An 18-wheeler whined past, in the other lane, honking an accusatory horn at him.

“What is this?” he said. “What’s happening to me?” He needed to get control of himself, right now. If he kept this up, he would be a candidate for a soft-cushioned room with calming pastorals hanging from the walls.

An intersection was coming up. He didn’t know which one, but it didn’t matter. He was determined to turn off of this road. He’d had enough of it.

But when he saw the street sign, he reconsidered. Blakely Avenue. Unless he had a good reason otherwise, he avoided Blakely. It was a nightmare—a congested mess, a snarl of traffic jams, of hot metal, bumper-to-bumper, broiling in the midday sun, matched by the hot tempers of the motorists. Every week, there was an accident. Better to wait until the next intersection, and turn off there.

For some reason, though, he merged into the left-hand turn lane, and flicked on his signaler.

“No!” he said. “I’m going straight.” He tried to turn the signaler off, but it was stuck. He fought with the wheel, trying to force it to the right. It wouldn’t budge. It didn’t matter anyway. The lane next to him had filled with cars. He was trapped. He had to take the left turn now.

“This is unreal.”

The left-hand turn arrow flashed green, and he turned onto Blakely, merging into the extreme outside lane, past a gas station with a sign by the road boasting of fresh sub sandwiches and soft drinks inside. He swore under his breath. This was unreal. Ahead of him, through the maze of cars, he could see a long line of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and chain stores. And, coming up on the right, the mall. The largest mall in the city. He hated it, and yet . . .

A hammer blow to his head sent him reeling. He desperately needed some painkillers. The mall would have a drug store inside.

He inched along, crawling with the traffic, before stopping at a red light. The mall’s entrance was just ahead now. He signaled for a right-hand turn, and, intuitively, knew that the steering wheel would oblige this time. A chill ran through him, as if someone had just poured five gallons of ice water into a gaping wound. Now the water rushed through him, mixing with his blood, freezing him to the core. There was something about this spot. Something familiar. Something . . .

“Something what?” he said. There were two cars ahead of him. As luck would have it, the car in front was going straight, blocking his chance for a right-on-red.

Anxious, fidgety, having a hard time just sitting there, not being able to make sense of anything, he glanced toward a strip of grass that lay just beyond the sidewalk, in front of the mall parking lot, and spotted a small gathering of people—about a dozen of them. (Where had they come from? Had they been there a minute ago?) They were all looking down, hands joined. Solemn. That was the word. They were solemn. And they were . . . He blinked. Again. And again. That confirmed it. They weren’t all there. It sounded crazy, but that was the only way he could describe it. He was sure he could see the sun rays hitting them, traveling through them, as if they were composed more of air than of flesh-and-blood organic matter.

He felt inexplicably drawn to them, almost as if they exerted a force, compelling him to join them. But he didn’t want to. The idea of it was intolerable. He wasn’t sure why, but he was determined to resist. He would just go into the mall, buy his pills, then get out.

The light finally turned, and he drove past the people who were there, yet not there, and pulled into the mall parking lot. His head was getting worse, if that were possible, and the pain in his side was unrelenting.

He struggled out of the car, the world losing its focus as he stood up. He grabbed his side, doubled over, coughed. He was in even worse shape than he’d thought. If he wasn’t careful, he’d pass out right here, on the asphalt. He had to pull himself together, buy those painkillers. He needed to focus only on that one goal.

But the people gathered near the lot entrance made that impossible. He glanced back in their direction, his view of them only slightly obstructed by a row of shrubs flanking the perimeter of the parking lot. He could see their bowed heads above the shrubbery, the specter-like quality of their skin. Again, he felt a powerful urge to go to them.

“No,” he said. “I can’t. I won’t.”

He closed his eyes, turned away from them, and then dared to open his eyes again.

“Don’t look back,” he said. “Just get those pills. You’re all right. You’re okay.”

But he wasn’t okay, and the mere act of walking was a struggle. He concentrated, willed his feet to move, one step, two, three. Left foot in front of the right, right in front of the left. He tried not to look too far ahead. He didn’t want to be discouraged by the distance he still had to cover. So he focused on the ground directly in front of him. A single step was an accomplishment, navigating a foot of pavement a victory.

Finally, he pushed his way through the doors of the mall. It was crowded in here, but at least the drug store was close—the second store on the left. He dodged a band of teenagers who seemed oblivious to anyone but themselves, and staggered into the drug store, heading straight to the nonprescription painkiller aisle. He wanted to find the most potent product on the shelf, but it was not possible to be discriminating. His head felt like it would blow up in a minute; his side was a minefield of live ammunition. He grabbed the first package he saw with the words “extra strength” written on it.

He leaned against the shelf, dizzy now, on top of everything else. The store was spinning, spinning. Another bomb burst exploded in his head, and a thousand nails poked and prodded his left side. He was aware of noises, sounds. Where were they coming from? Beeps. A soft, whirring hum, like a faint heartbeat. An antiseptic smell. And then voices . . .

“Christopher . . . can you hear me?” Sharon. Why was he hearing Sharon?

“Dad, Dad . . .”

“Mollie,” he said, closing his eyes. “Mollie, but you’re in school. Aren’t you?”

More voices, blurring, blending, like a musical score gone out of control.

“Faster! Hurry! Move!” A strange voice, this one. It sounded like a young man. “You gotta go faster! Hurry!”

“Good morning, Mr. Burriss.” A woman’s voice, one he had never heard before. Or maybe he had. He couldn’t tell. “Sunny today. About time, too. After all this rain.” And then he heard her footsteps, walking away, growing fainter, then coming closer, louder again. He felt her—how could he feel her? Fingers brushing against his forehead, slightly moist, the smell of soap . . .

“Dad!” Mollie again.

And then Sharon, “Christopher, honey . . .”

And the frantic screaming of the young guy. “Move it! Hurry, hurry!”

“Shut up!” he yelled. He rammed the palm of his hand against his head, once, twice, three times. “Just . . . shut . . . up.”

He tried to walk, the store still doing cartwheels in front of his eyes. He groped, like a blind man, using the shelves as support. Glancing at the checkout counter, he saw a ponytailed blonde in a blue smock ringing up a heavyset man. Two old women stood in line behind him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I can’t. I don’t have the strength.”

He wasn’t a crook, but there was no way he could wait for the cashier to check out those customers. He’d collapse right there in the line. He needed the pills now. He needed relief now. Pocketing the bottle of painkillers, he left, as quickly as he could.

Stumbling out into the mall, he found a nearby drinking fountain, and swallowed half a dozen of the pills. There. Hopefully that would take the edge off. But what could he do about his throat? Why was it getting so hard to breathe? And his eyesight. Why was everything spinning? Why were his surroundings growing hazier? The passersby were now two-dimensional, black-and-white. The color itself was being drained from the world.

“Need to get out of here,” he said. “I just need to get home.”

“Dad . . .” Mollie again, but her voice fainter now, farther away. “Dad . . .”

He wanted to follow that voice, go to it, but how could he do that? It was a hallucination. Wasn’t it?

It seemed to take hours to reach his car. He could barely see now. Shapes were merging together, blurring—so much so that the spinning had stopped, or perhaps it hadn’t. He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. Except that his side and head continued to torment him. The painkillers hadn’t helped at all. If anything, the pain was getting worse.

He looked straight ahead, through the mounting haze. Beyond the shrubs. the small gathering of people still stood there, heads bowed. And again, the force—he didn’t know what else to call it—urging him, prodding him to join them.

He shook his head, put his hands over his eyes. No. It was the only word he could think of. No. No. No. He wouldn’t succumb to their mesmerizing hold on him.

But then he was looking at them again. (How did that happen? He hadn’t remembered taking his hands away from his eyes.) Only, he wasn’t just looking. He was staring, riveted. Something was different about them now. They no longer looked like wraiths. They had fleshed out, like sketched characters who had received a finishing touch of paint. As the rest of the world dissolved, the gatherers became more solid.

“Dad . . . dad . . .dad . . .”

“Chris . . .Chris?”

The voices, fading . . .

As if tugged by a magnet, he walked toward the group. He could no longer resist their pull, had no strength left to fight it. There was a sense of inevitability now, of things coming to an end. Or perhaps a beginning. Somewhere overhead, he thought he heard a gull sqwauk, but maybe it had been a crow or a jay, or nothing at all.

As he neared the patch of grass where the gatherers stood, hands still joined, the pain in his head and side escalated to an intolerable crescendo. It no longer felt like knives cutting into him. Now it felt like metal, jagged teeth, rusty but sharp, gripping, biting, eviscerating. And his head. Was it even still there, attached to his shoulders? Or had it burst into pieces like shrapnel?

He fell to his knees, gasping—so hard to breathe. And finally the people let go of their hands, broke the circle, and approached him. He was aware, yet not aware, of the traffic noise in the road. It sounded like the hum from some other world, some gap in a dimensional barrier. But then another sound emerged, near, close, and horribly loud.

Tires screeching. Get out of the way! Too late, too late . . .

Impact. The feeling of being torn, broken, trapped in a heap of wrecked metal. Pain, flaring, shooting through his body. His head on fire. His side a shattered mess. And his last thought before the blackness came . . . Mollie. Sharon. What will they do?

The people were upon him, the only figures left that were real. And he understood now why this spot felt so familiar. Why he had experienced a chill of recognition when he’d reached the parking lot entrance . . .

“Hello, Chris,” a bald man with a gray mustache and a long, beak-like nose, said.

“How do you know my name?” he asked. And he realized, as he stood up, that the pain was gone now. Not lessened, not dulled. Gone. And his breathing had returned to normal, an easy, gentle rhythm. He had never felt better.

“We just do,” the man said. Apparently he was the group’s leader.

“What’s happened to me?” he wanted to know. The sound of the traffic was now completely muted. He could still see the cars, the road, the mall behind him in the distance, but they were outlines now, light pencil marks blending in with the empty white space of the blank page.

A middle-aged woman with short black hair and a pleasant smile said, “You know now, don’t you, Chris?”

He again remembered the screeching tires, the never-ending second before impact. He had been pulling out of the mall—he’d come here to meet an old friend who wanted to meet for lunch at the Food Court, a long-lost buddy, out of the blue. The other car never even attempted to stop, never slowed down. . . . He had been preoccupied, thinking about the visit with his friend, the way life sometimes threw curveballs at you, reintroduced you to people you knew once, and then almost forgot. He hadn’t looked left or right, he just went when the light had turned green.

“But the voices. The . . .” Then he stopped himself. It all came clear. Sharon. How he wished he could kiss her again, hold her, just one more time. And Mollie. Sweet, pretty Mollie . . .

“You fought hard, Chris,” the old man said. “Very hard. You almost made it, against the odds.”

“Who are you people?” he said.

“As you are all too well aware, Blakely Avenue is a busy road,” the old man said. “It’s taken its share.”

“You mean . . .?”

“I was killed in sixty-six, the year after they put the first shopping plaza in,” the old man said. “Hit right near where you were. Drunk driver got me.”

“I was blindsided about a quarter mile down the road,” a young guy, who looked no more than twenty, said. “Never even saw it coming.”

“I was hit by a truck,” the middle-aged woman with short black hair said. “My car was wrecked beyond recognition.”

On and on they went, a dozen accounts in all. And now, he would join them. When the next time came, perhaps next week, or next year, or three years hence, he would relate his story, along with theirs.

“We’ve got to stick together, you know,” the old man said. “Wouldn’t be right otherwise.”

“But Sharon. And Mollie. Will I . . .?”

The man nodded, smiled. “Yes. Of course. In due season.” He extended a hand. Chris, reassured, took it. Then the black-haired woman reached for his other hand.

They formed into a line, all thirteen of them, and, with hands clasped, walked away into the distance.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Stone Wall”

The Eye-Dancers, at its core, despite the ghost girls and parallel worlds and strange, recurring nightmares, is a coming-of-age story, where the main characters must confront certain aspects of themselves and deal with the inner demons they have always wrestled with.  This coming-of-age theme is one I have written about many times–often in short stories.

One such story, “Stone Wall,” is a very short tale I wrote quite a few years ago about a moment between a father and a son.  The intent, when I wrote it, was that the short interaction presented in the story was one that would leave a lasting mark on the boy . . . something he would always remember.

Looking at the story now, I question some of the choices I made when I wrote it a dozen years ago.  Dissecting their old stories is something all writers do, I suppose.  But I wanted to share “Stone Wall,” in its original form, and I hope you will enjoy it!

stonewall

 

camelshump

 

blackbird

 

vermontmarch

 

“Stone Wall”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

When Dad asked me to go outside with him, I felt a little worried.  He didn’t talk with me much—didn’t have a chance, really.  He tended our herd of Holsteins and worked full-time at the power plant in Montpelier on top of that.  So, usually, when he called for me it was because I had done something wrong and deserved a good talking to.  I wasn’t sure if I had done anything wrong recently.  I couldn’t think of anything, unless calling Jane Hanson a no-good little tramp was off limits.  But that had been over a week ago, and I wasn’t even sure if Dad knew about it.

“Get your jacket, Billy,” Dad said as we walked toward the back door.  “Kinda cool this mornin’.”

I put on my jacket, now a size too small for me, and we walked out onto the back porch.  The air was wet and a thick fog hung over the valley.  In the distance, I could see the summit of Camel’s Hump mountain peaking above the low-lying clouds.  It made me think of a sleeping giant.

“C’mon, Son,” Dad said.  “Follow me.”

We walked into the yard.  It was the middle of March and much of the ground was still covered with snow.  It crunched under our boots.  But the first patches of pale grass were beginning to show up on our hillside, where the cows would be grazing just a few weeks from now.  It looked like a soiled green and white quilt that had been exposed to the Vermont elements for too long.

Dad continued walking, and I followed close behind.  I wasn’t sure where he was taking me or what his purpose was, but I figured I would find out soon enough.  I took a deep breath, inhaling the clean late-winter air.  The air felt sharp in my nostrils, as if it might draw blood if I wasn’t careful.

We crested the hillside and headed for the perimeter of our property.  We were in the high meadow now.  I loved coming here in the summer.  The grasses would sway in the wind and the cows would look so peaceful below me, and the mountains would appear so far away and yet so close.  They would make me think of soaring birds and barefoot rambles in the hollows, of stars that shimmered mysteriously on an oily canvas of October sky.  And sometimes the mountains would cause a longing in me, a longing for something so beautiful it couldn’t be expressed, like the sound of a butterfly’s wings flapping, velvety soft, on a windless summer twilight.  I didn’t understand it all.  I just knew I belonged here, in the hill country.

“See that stone wall there?” Dad said then, jolting me back into the moment at hand.

I nodded.  We were at the very edge of our acreage now.  Just beyond the stone wall was a thick copse of fir trees.

“That wall was built near two-hundred years ago, Son,” Dad continued, “and look at it.  Standin’ firm and true to this day.  Weathered, maybe, but still gets the job done.”

The stone wall actually bounded our property on three sides.  I always thought of it as The Barrier.  I could go anywhere I wanted, within reason, on our forty acres, but never cross over The Barrier.  That would be an offense bad enough to get a spanking.  My brother, Davey, crossed The Barrier without permission once and got tangled up in some barbed wire just beyond it.  He didn’t get a spanking, though.  Dad figured the barbed wire was punishment enough.

The wall wound its way through fields and woods, through flat land and hilly terrain.  It even crossed over the brook that bordered the east edge of our land.  I had never thought much about the wall.  I just knew it was old and, as I have mentioned, not to cross it.

“Your great, great, great grandfather Abraham built this whole wall, all round this forty acres, with his own two hands.  He built it as a dividin’ line.  Set off his property, maybe keep the goats from leavin’—or comin’ in if they were someone else’s.  That’s why folks built these walls in the old days, Son—to divide up the land and keep the animals penned in.  Nowadays, they’re reminders, mostly, relics.  Folks like ‘em, but don’t get much use out of ‘em.  Amazing thing is that they’re still standin’, even after all this time.”

Dad lifted his head, as if listening for something.  I heard nothing out of the ordinary.  But then—

“Hear that?” Dad said.

I did.  Red-winged blackbirds.  I heard their watery call ride the chilly March air.  Their call made me think of the sound swamps might make if they could talk.  It was a wet sound, damp, like the lushness of a springtime shower or the sweet coolness of dewdrops dripping lazily from the grassblades on a fragrant May morning.  It was the sound of spring coming, ever so slowly, ever so shyly, to the Vermont hills.

Dad smiled.  “Winter’s comin’ to an end,” he said.  “The blackbirds are here.  But c’mere, Son.  Let me show you something.”

Dad walked right up to the stone wall and knelt beside it.  He touched the weathered surface of the wall with a work-worn hand.

“Feel that, Son,” he said.

I felt it.  It was cold and old and hard.  It made me think of Dad’s will when he set his mind to something—unyielding, unbendable, stern, and proud.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“It’s hard,” I said.  “Solid.”

“And old, Son, very, very old.  It’s been here longer than any of the trees we got still standin’ on our farm, I’d say.  It’s seen a lot of hard times, blizzards, winter winds, even a few floods.  But it’s still standin’, true and sturdy.  You know why?  You know what it is makes this wall last so long?”

I shrugged.  “I guess not,” I said.

“Look at the stones,” Dad said.  A gust of wind picked up, and I almost put the hood of my jacket over my head.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to show Dad I could take it like a man.  I was almost thirteen, after all.

I looked at the stones but noticed nothing out of the ordinary.  They looked like stones, granite stones, nothing more.

“Look at the sizes, the shapes,” Dad said when he realized I wasn’t understanding.

There were hundreds of individual stones just in this one small section of the wall.  I examined them.  They were various shades of gray.  I touched several of them.  Some were smooth, some rough and craggy.  Some of the stones were actually colder to the touch than others.  The most striking aspect of all, though, was the shapes and sizes of the stones.  No two were alike.  Some were small, barely larger than a pebble.  Others were the size of a pumpkin, big and round and cumbersome.

“They’re all different,” I said.  “No two are the same.  Some of ‘em are pretty close, but no two are the same.”

Dad nodded.  “Ayuh,” he said.  “They’re all different.  Different but not different.  That’s why this wall’s been standin’ here for so long, Son, and why it’s gonna keep on standin’ long after I’m gone.”

Dad got up from his crouch and sat on the stone wall.  He motioned for me to sit beside him.  I nearly let out a squeal when I did.  The coldness of the wall went right through my jeans.  But I just sat there, my backside freezing, hoping I would get used to it soon.

“Y’know what I mean, Son, what I’m tryin’ to say?” Dad asked me.  Another gust of wind came up, but Dad appeared not to notice.  He looked out over our meadow.

I shook my head.  “Not really, Dad.”

“They’re different—the stones—but not different.  They’re all different shapes and sizes, but they’re all stones, see?  They’re all sturdy and hard.  They ain’t gonna sway when the wind blows, when the rains come, when the storms come crashin’ through.  They’re gonna hold steady, lodged in this hard wall.  They’re different, but they’re the same, too.

“Sometimes, different is good,” Dad continued.  “Sometimes, we get stodgy, too set in our ways.  I know I have.  Take the Bakers up the road.  They’ve been here since before you were born, but time was, they moved here from California, and some of the folks didn’t take too kind to ‘em at first.  And when Harry Baker suggested we take down the church steeple and repair it, we almost lynched ‘im.  But he was right.  That steeple was old, dangerous.  It needed fixin’.  It took an outsider to see that, Son—someone from away, someone different.  The Bakers’ve helped this town out in lotsa ways since then, too.  Sometimes, different is good, Billy.”

“But they’re the same, too,” I said.  “They’re all stones.  All rocks.”

Dad nodded.  The wind came up, stiff and strong again, rustling the boughs of the fir trees, sounding lonesome, longing for something I could not see, hoping for something I could not touch.

“Lots of folks in the world,” Dad said,  “and lots of notions.  A man, he needs to be like a sturdy stone wall.  Listen to ideas that help him out, learn new things, new ways of lookin’ at things.  Be open-minded, or else he’ll drive out the Harry Bakers of the world, and he’ll be worse off because of it.  But a man needs to know when different ain’t good.  He needs to be able to separate the good grain from the bad, the wormy fruit from the good fruit.  That’s what old Herb Preet has to do up on Newkirk Hill Road in his apple orchard.  Separate the good from the wormy.  You gettin’ me, Son?”

“I dunno,” I said.  “Sometimes, different things are good, and sometimes they’re bad?”

“Ayuh,” Dad said and for some reason, I thought to myself, Dad isn’t young anymore.  He won’t live forever.  “You got to let yerself grow, hear people out, take in the big stones with the little ones, you might say.  That’ll build you up, make you a better man.  But you need to be stony, too, solid.  Like this wall here.  Ain’t nothin’ here but good hard granite.  No wood.  No nails.  Wood rots.  Nails rust.  You felt the wall, Son.  It’s tough.  Don’t break easy.  Doesn’t sway and bend in the wind, going here and there.  That’s the way a good man needs to be.  You believe in what’s right, and you don’t bend.  Don’t let some smooth talker get you to do somethin’ that you know ain’t right.  Stand up for yourself.  And when the storms come, they won’t blow you down.  Different, but the same.  Just like this wall.  You understand now, Billy?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think so.”

Dad nodded.  It was quick and subtle.  It seemed he wanted to say something else, but he didn’t.  He sat there for awhile, his face turned to the wind.  Perhaps he was thinking of red-winged blackbirds and crocus flowers and dandelions.  Perhaps he was thinking of me, of the challenges I would face as I grew older, of the choices I would make.  I could have asked him what he was thinking.  I could have.  But I didn’t.

Dad stood up.  I did, too.

“C’mon, Son,” he said softly.  “Your mom’ll have lunch ready soon, I guess.”

We walked back into the high meadow, away from the wall.  We didn’t speak, but the silence was warm and comforting, like an old mitten that fits snugly on your hand and protects you from the cold.  Dad walked briskly, and I had to hurry to keep up with him.  I wished he would slow down, linger, to extend the moment and not have it be so fleeting.

We headed down our hillside, our home coming into view.  Smoke rose up from our chimney, billowing into the chilly air like ungraspable tendrils.  I loved the sight of it and again wished Dad would slow his pace.  But he kept on going and soon we were back inside, and I was taking off my jacket, and we would be eating lunch, and Dad would have chores to do, and so would I.

Dad never spoke to me of stone walls again.

*****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Jump”

The Eye-Dancers is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story for the main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton.  Journeying through a strange and distant world, each boy must confront, and overcome, the self-doubts that have always held him back.

In the short story “Jump,” which I wrote approximately one year before beginning The Eye-Dancers, the protagonist must face a similar nagging self-doubt.  A strange, unforeseen warning in a supermarket threatens to trip up the plans he’s made after wrestling with his fears and insecurities.  Can he learn from the failures of his past and slay the demons that, far too often, have held him back from pursuing his dreams?

I hope you enjoy “Jump.”

supermarket

 

washedaway

 

jump

 

stream

 

“Jump,”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

*************

The young man with the long black hair stared at Joe.

“You know,” he said, his head tilting to the side, as if he were pondering the mystery of the universe, “you better stay home tomorrow.”

Joe blinked, tried to reorient himself.  What was going on?  He’d been browsing the boxed desserts in the baking aisle, thinking of a sweet treat he’d enjoy making that evening.  A few customers walked by, nothing out of the ordinary.  But then this kid—he couldn’t have been more than twenty—had strolled up to him.  He didn’t have a shopping cart, and apparently wasn’t here to buy anything.

Joe stood behind his grocery cart, instinctively using it as a buffer.  He eyed the products he’d placed in the cart already—too many carbs and sweets, as always—and he felt a mark of shame rise to his cheeks.  The kid before him was fit and trim.  He probably thought Joe, who was thirty-five pounds overweight and gaining, was a heart attack waiting to happen.  Still, that didn’t explain why he’d approached him.

“What are you talking about?” Joe asked.  He pushed his cart further down the aisle, hoping the kid might take the hint and leave him alone.

No such luck.

“Look,” the young man said, brushing greasy bangs from his eyes, “just stay home tomorrow, all right?  It’s weird.  I mean, I get these feelings, man, you know?  And when I just spotted you now, I got a feeling.  Real strong and clear.”

Oh boy.  He was dealing with a nutcase here.  Either that or someone with a perverse sense of humor who had too much time on his hands.  He wheeled his cart into the next aisle.  Chips and soda.  Great.  As if he needed more junk food in his cupboards.  A middle-aged blonde woman sped by, smelling of Chanel no. 5.

“A feeling?” he said.  Dumb.  Real dumb.  Why engage in conversation with this kid?

“Yeah,” the kid said.  “Like, I mean . . . I don’t know, you know?  Sometimes my feelings aren’t so specific.  But this one was powerful, man.  Like a punch to the gut.  It’s like this.  If you leave your house tomorrow, I mean, like, if you even just like step outside, something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

He stopped, his hands tightly gripping onto the cart handle.  Was this more than just a coincidence?  Did this kid know Janine?  Had he caught word of what Joe intended to do?  But that was impossible.  He hadn’t told a soul about his plans.

Still, this was too weird.  He didn’t need this.  He was nervous enough about tomorrow already.

He got moving again, ignoring the kid.

“Hey!  Don’t you get it?  I’m trying to help you.  I’m not getting anything out of telling you this, you know.  It’s just, like, I’m trying to warn you, y’know?  Just being a good Samaritan, that’s all.”

A young couple stopped their cart a couple of feet away.  The man reached for a bag of pretzels, while the woman wrinkled her nose but said nothing.

“If you want to be a good Samaritan, why don’t you just go on your way?” Joe said.  He didn’t want to come off as rude, but enough was enough.

The kid shrugged.  “Okay.  Just remember what I said.  About tomorrow.  By Sunday, you should be good to go.  But tomorrow, man, lock your doors and stay inside.”

With that, he walked away.

The woman who had wrinkled her nose at the pretzels eyed his retreating figure, then looked at Joe.

He almost blurted out, “I don’t know him, don’t look at me!”  But he just glanced away and pushed his cart down the aisle.

Joe sat on his couch, looking out the window as darkness fell over the neighborhood.  He’d just finished supper, and he had gone all out, just as he’d planned.  Lasagna with a zesty marinara sauce and fresh-baked Italian bread, followed by a lemon pound cake for dessert.  He felt like he’d gained five pounds since morning.  The food did nothing to still his nerves, though.

He wished Janine were here.  He could always talk to her, tell her feelings he could never share with anyone else.  But she was visiting a sick girlfriend tonight, on the other side of town.  Besides . . . she wouldn’t be the one to confide in about this, anyway.  He was planning to surprise her, after all.  Tomorrow.  He sighed, and slunk back into the couch.

The TV was on—a meaningless late-season baseball game, with half the players from both sides having recently been called up from Triple-A.  He was hoping for a diversion, he supposed.  Something to take his mind off tomorrow, off the troublemaker at the grocery store.  But nothing worked.

“You’re such an idiot,” he said aloud, just as the twenty-two-year-old first baseman on the television grounded into an inning-ending double play.  “Get over it.  That punk doesn’t know you, doesn’t know Janine.  It was just a fluke, that’s all.  A coincidence.”

Maybe it was, but it nagged him.  Why did this have to happen now?  Of all the tomorrows in his life, why was he cautioned about this one?  The one where he planned on making the boldest, most challenging decision of his life.  Was the young man, with his uncanny warning, trying to tell him not to go through with it?  Not to take the chance?

“That’s stupid,” he said, just as the last commercial ended and the ballgame started up again.  He had wrestled with this decision for months, painstakingly going through the pros and cons, trying to overcome his fears.  He had finally built up the courage.  How could he let a stranger’s sick sense of humor or pathological need to create a stir get to him like this?

“I guess maybe they were right,” he said.  “Those kids.  Maybe I’m just chicken.  Always hesitating.  Always reluctant to take the . . . ”

 

“ . . . jump!  Let’s jump it!”

They were standing at the edge of a gash in the dirt road.  It was about three-and-a-half-feet wide.  The only way to cross was to jump.  To the left, a steep, wooded hillside blocked the way.  It would have been nearly impossible to navigate.  To the right, the remains of the road abruptly fell away to a rushing stream, which thrashed its way through boulders, pieces of twisted metal, and fallen tree limbs.

“Wow,” Joe said, more to himself than the others.  “Look at this.”

The two boys with him shrugged.

“You should’ve seen it last year, just after it happened,” the taller boy, Bobby Hartstock, said.  “They cleaned it up since then.  This is nothing anymore.”

Joe swallowed, listening to the stream speed along on its course.  It was water, the destructive power of water, that had turned this section of road into the impassable mess he saw now.  He hadn’t been here when it happened, last fall.  His parents had just moved to the area a few weeks ago.  But he’d heard the stories.  About the storm, the flood, and the road that got washed away.  Still, hearing about it and seeing it were two different things.

What they were standing on, in fact, could hardly be classified as a road.  The entire right side was gone.  This stretch of the road was now a narrow footpath.  Bobby and the other kid, Peter Collins, stood next to each other, in front, and Joe stood close behind them.  There wasn’t enough room for the three boys to stand together, side by side.  If one of them took just a couple of steps to the right, he would fall off the edge.  Where the road had been, only a ragged, steeply sloping ravine remained.  Rusty outflow pipes jutted out like sawed-off knives.  The guardrail, which had once hugged the right side of the road, protecting motorists from the thirty-foot plunge to the fast-flowing, rock-filled stream below, was suspended in midair, hanging there like a dying snake.  It was hard for Joe to believe that a real road had been here, just a year ago.  It hardly seemed imaginable.  The only saving grace was that no homes had been hit.  This stretch of road wound through uninhabited forests and meadows.  Joe’s new neighbors had told his mom that it had been used as a shortcut before the storm.  Residents doubted that the road would ever be repaired.  Too much money involved, and not enough justification to fix it.

“So, you wanna see more?” Bobby asked.  He had turned around to look at Joe.  He and Peter Collins lived a few houses down from him.  They had seen him walking alone one evening, and joined him.  School had just started, too.  And they were his first friends since moving here.  He was thankful for that.  He didn’t make friends easily, and starting ninth grade in a new town was challenging enough, without the additional pressure of finding people to hang around with.

“I don’t know,” Joe said.  “How can we?”

Peter rolled his eyes.  “You just gotta jump, that’s all!”  He motioned to the gash in the road, the one that blocked their forward progress.  It lay there like an open wound.  The drop was fifteen, maybe twenty feet.  There were small stones mixed with broad-shouldered boulders at the bottom, before they fell away to the right, toward the slope that led to the stream.

“What’s up ahead?” Joe wanted to know.

Bobby smiled.  “It’s even better up ahead!  The road goes up higher, and the drop to the stream is awesome up there!  C’mon.  Let’s go.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Bobby leaped across the gash.  Joe closed his eyes, afraid that he might trip or stumble on a small rock, and then fall, headfirst into the hole.  But when he dared to look again, all he saw was Bobby standing on the other side, waving for Peter and Joe to follow.  Peter did.  He made it seem easy, just like jumping over a kid’s dirt hole in the backyard or playing a game of hopscotch in the neighborhood.

Joe walked to the lip of the hole.  He knew it was his turn.

Bobby cleared his throat.  “Well?”

He looked up, as if trying to garner the courage.  A crow flew overhead, cawing loudly, its voice echoing down like an accusation.  Joe wished he could sprout wings and follow that crow, over the hillside, clear across to the other side of the valley.

He noticed all the loose rocks, the strewn pebbles and fallen leaves.  So many things that might cause him to trip and fall, just as he readied himself to jump.  He didn’t want to fall down that hole.  If he landed on those boulders, they would—

“C’mon, are you coming or not?” Peter said.  “We don’t got all day, Joe.”

“Um.”  He knew he couldn’t jump.  And he hated himself for it.

“Whatsamatter?  You chicken?”  It was Bobby.  “A little girl could jump that hole, Joe.  Don’t be a wuss.”

He started to sweat, then.  He could feel his shirt sticking to his skin, despite the late September chill.  He was stuck.  Found out.  There was no place to run.

“Geez, I thought you were different,” Peter said.

Bobby shook his head, and the boys turned to walk away, further up the road.  They turned a corner, and were gone.  They hadn’t even looked back at him.

“Wait,” he croaked, to the air, to the hardy insects of early fall, the ceaselessly rushing stream below.  “Wait.”

But all he did was stand there, stranded, unable to follow, unable to . . .

“ . . . jump.  Sometimes, you just have to step out in faith and take a chance, you know, Joe?”

He knew, and he knew she was right.  Janine usually was.  But how could he make such a commitment?  How could he know it would all work out?

They were sitting on her sofa, in the apartment she had rented uptown.  It was February, and snow was falling like fluffy popcorn from chalkboard-gray clouds.  He had known Janine for over two years now.  They met at work.  He had been new to the city, didn’t know anyone.  She bumped into him, literally, in the narrow hallway that spanned the front of the building.  He blushed, stuttered, but, miraculously, she had invited him to join her for lunch.  He did.  Then he fell in love with her.

But what she was asking of him now . . .

“Look, I know your mom and dad split up.”  They had.  His first year of college, his mom had called him in his dorm room, crying.  Dad had walked out on her.  After twenty-five years, he just walked away without an explanation.  Joe always thought they were happy together.  If his parents couldn’t make it, who could?  “But you’re not you’re father, Joe.  We’re not them.  Or any other couple who’s broken it off.  We’re us.  Can’t you see that?”

“Yes.”  The sofa cushions felt soft on his back, too soft, as though they were trying to suck him in, trap him.  He leaned forward.

“Joe, you know I love you.”

He looked at her.  The beautiful blue eyes, close to tears.  The long brown hair.  It amazed him all the time that she could love him.  But she did.  He never doubted that.

“And you love me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.  But I . . . I need a little more time.  I’m just not sure if I can . . .”

She got up then, looked out the window into the white heart of the snow.  She stayed like that for minutes.  It felt to Joe like hours.  Finally, she turned around.

“I don’t want to be with anyone else, Joe, you know that.  But I can’t be expected to wait forever.  I’m not trying to rush you.  I’ll give you more time, if you think you need it.  But . . . I won’t wait forever.  You know I want to have a family.  You know. . . .”

He nodded.  He wanted to say something, to comfort her, encourage her with his words.  But he didn’t.  He couldn’t.

All he could do was get up, walk to her, and take her into his arms.  Neither of them said another word, while, outside, silently, ceaselessly, the snow continued to fall.

That had been eight months ago.  Janine hadn’t brought the topic up again, but he knew she was thinking about it.  There was an expectation about her, a hope, an unspoken pressure she was exerting.

He flicked off the baseball game—it wasn’t helping him to get his mind off himself.  It was just background noise, making it hard to think.

This wasn’t just about Janine, or that old wrecked road twenty years ago.  All his life he had taken the path of least resistance.  Even with his profession.  He was an accountant.  That’s how he lived his life, too.  Always calculating, weighing the debits and credits, wanting things to be sure and safe before daring to step forward.

There was the baseball team in high school.  He wanted to try out for the squad.  He’d practiced his pitching with his dad every day that spring.  But when the time came to sign up, he skulked away.  He didn’t want to fail.  Didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of the other players.  Besides, maybe he wasn’t even any good.

In college, his English professor had encouraged him to enter his essay on the poetry of John Donne into the Mills Award Contest, which awarded a prize of one hundred dollars to the student who turned in the best written document of the academic year.  But Joe never submitted his essay.

There were the girls he liked in school, but never asked out.  The friends he would have liked to make, but whom he never approached.  The words he had always left unspoken for the people who mattered to him.  The opportunities, the chances that had always been there for him, but which he had never taken.

He was tired of it all.  Last night, as he lay there in bed, staring up at the ceiling, he had made up his mind.

He would go to the jewelry shop, buy an engagement ring.  And then he would go to Janine, look her in the eyes, drop down to one knee, and ask her to marry him.  He loved her.  And he wasn’t going to throw it all away because he was afraid.  He was going to take the jump.  Tomorrow.

But then the kid at the grocery store had to come and throw a wrench into things.  Was there something to his warning?  What did he know?  Was Joe making a mistake?  Should he reconsider?

“Oh, just shut up!” he yelled.  But the thoughts would not stop.  They came at warp speed.  Don’t leave the house tomorrow!  Don’t buy the ring.  What if she says no?  What if she marries you, but then leaves you for another guy?  You’re so boring, she probably will.  What if she jilts you at the altar?  It’s happened before.  Lots of times.

In self-defense, he turned on the baseball game again, just in time to see a pop fly to right field end the inning.  Restless, he strolled into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, took a sip.  He knew that sleep was far off.  Might as well give himself a jolt of caffeine.

He didn’t even attempt to go to bed.  He just half-sat, half-laid down on the couch.  At some point, deep in the bowels of the night, he nodded off.  When his eyes reopened a short while later, he saw that dawn had arrived.  Tomorrow had come.  His moment of decision was at hand.

He opened the front door.  Sunlight smote him in the face, and he closed his eyes.  In his mind he could hear the kid from the store:  “If you leave your house tomorrow . . . something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

Since waking up, he had wrestled further with his decision, hemmed and hawed.  In the end, though, he knew he had to go through with it.  He wasn’t sure if the kid’s warning was Fate’s way of attempting to hold him back, scare him off.  But it didn’t matter.  Not anymore.  He was through running away.

The threshold was right in front of him.  He knew that as soon as he stepped over it, there would be no return.  This was a one-way trip.

He was surprised at the unease he felt.  He thought, once he had made his mind up, the doubts would pass away.  But they hadn’t.

He looked past the threshold, and there, right in front of him, was the old destroyed road, with the three-and-a-half-foot-wide gash.  The gash came right up to the threshold.  The only way outside would be to jump over it.

He blinked several times, trying to rid himself of the illusion.  But it wouldn’t go away.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Each time he looked, the details of the road became clearer, clearer.  The fallen leaves, the pebbles and stones waiting to trip him up, the guardrail off to the side, floating in midair like some broken metallic arm.  He could even hear the rushing stream below.

Resigned, he understood.  There could be no avoiding it.  It had to be this way.

He took a deep breath.  Stepped on to the threshold.  Looked into the hole, at the boulders and sharp, jagged rocks waiting to cripple him if he should stumble and fall.

For a brief moment, he thought of turning away, retreating into the safe refuge of his home, and closing the door.  But he didn’t.

“Here goes nothing,” he said.

He jumped.

***************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Cemetery”

There are moments in The Eye-Dancers when the main characters, particularly Ryan Swinton, wrestle with the concept of growing up.  Ryan especially sometimes wishes things could be simpler again, the way they used to be when he was seven, his little brother Tyler’s age.  But now, on the cusp of being a teenager, he feels the pressure to fit in, to make people laugh at his jokes, to be liked.  He is all too aware that as we grow up, even as things are gained and learned, other things are lost.

“Cemetery” is a short story I wrote several years ago.  And while the point-of-view character is a grown man, the story does also deal with childhood, and the things we love, learn, and lose.

I hope you will enjoy “Cemetery” . . .

squirrel

 

maples

 

cemetery

 

sumac

 

“Cemetery”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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The squirrel was crushed, stuck to the pavement as if glued.  It had been run over so many times, it was now flat, looking like a two-dimensional cutout from a children’s coloring book.  In the distance, Jerry heard another car approaching.

 “C’mon, Bak,” he said.  “We better get out of the road for a minute.”

 He took his daughter by the hand and retreated to the base of their driveway.  The car sped past, leaving a plume of dry dust in its wake.  A truck carrying loose earth had come through a little while ago, dropping some of its load as it went.

 “He didn’t go over the squirrel, too, did he, Daddy?” Bak asked, peering through the dust.  Hot June sunshine struck her in the face.

 Jerry looked at her and smiled.  Bak.  Seven years old.  His pride and joy.  She was so sweet, she had to be Bak.  They had named her Jennifer, but that wouldn’t do.  She was too special for that.  Jerry had thought about the sweetest thing he knew, and, after spending more time on the subject than he would admit, came up with baklava, his favorite dessert.  Ever since, his little girl was Bak.

 “I don’t know, Bak,” he said.  “I think he might have missed it.”

 They went back into the road.  Bak bent down over the squirrel.

 “Did it hurt, Daddy?” she asked.  “Did getting flat hurt the squirrel?”

 “Probably not,” Jerry said.  “It would’ve been so fast, so instantaneous, probably not.”

 Bak squinted up at him.  “What’s insta-taneous mean?”

 He snapped his fingers.  “Like that,” he said, and snapped them again.

 Bak nodded and looked solemnly at the squirrel.

 “Can you take him out of the street, Daddy?” she asked.

 “Sure, honey, I guess so, but why?”

 “So we can bury him.  Like they did with Mommy.”

 Jerry nodded.  Yes, they could bury the squirrel.

 ♣

 Lisa had been twenty-eight.  They had just moved into a small apartment, with leaky faucets, too many cockroaches, and a heating system that was, to put it mildly, temperamental.  But they tried to focus on tomorrow.  He had recently been promoted at work.  They would live in this apartment for a while (it came cheap, if nothing else) and then they’d buy a home in the country, where they would grow a garden, play Frisbee, and sled down the hills made slippery and white with snow.  They’d have two more children, maybe three, and they’d have their cat, Mitsie, whom they had adopted from the Humane Society shortly after their wedding.  They would live well, they would watch their children mature, and they would grow old together.  Once the kids all left, it would be just the two of them again, their hair graying, their faces wrinkling, their eyesight clouding over with age.  They’d have each other, though, and they would be happy.

 But on a mild, overcast winter evening, when Bak was just two, Lisa died.  She was sitting at the table eating supper, listening to Jerry as he shared his day with her.  As he was talking about a difficult co-worker (“He never lets me get a word in!  He’s just looking for a fight, I know it, and, you know, I just might give it to him!”), she suddenly grabbed her head, gasped, and fell off her chair.

 “Lisa?” he asked, his voice so soft, so weak in his ears.  “Lisa?”  He couldn’t grasp what he had just seen.

 Time seemed to have stopped.  Everything was locked in place, as if the earth had fallen out of orbit and was floating in the cold depths of space, farther and farther away from the sun, a frozen shell of a world.

 He stood up on wobbly legs, looked at the floor.  She was lying there on her back, perfectly still, her mouth open, her eyes staring up at him.  They’re not blinking, he thought.  Her eyes.  Not blinking.  Time was no longer stopped; it moved mercilessly on—tick tock, tick tock, the clock over the sink mocked—and Jerry wished he could grab that clock, turn its hands back three minutes, and start over.

 He went to his wife, got on his knees, calling her name, over and over, louder and louder.  She didn’t answer, didn’t stir.  Swallowing, blinking, he checked her pulse.  There wasn’t one.  What was going on?  How could this be?  He was just talking to her about Chuck at work.  He had just complimented her on the lasagna she’d made.  They were going to stay up late after putting Bak to bed and watch Notorious, an old Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie.  She loved Cary Grant.  They were going to eat popcorn, drink hot chocolate, and wrap themselves in a crocheted blanket his mother had made for them as a wedding present.

 He shook her, gently at first, then more frantic, hoping it would revive her.  It didn’t.  He called 911, barely able to get the words out.  The ambulence arrived within minutes, waking up Bak.  She had played hard that day and was tired, taking a nap in her room.

 No.  It was the only word that came to mind, the only thing he could think.  No.

 Later, an autopsy revealed that Lisa had died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  No one knew she had been living with an aneurysm, all those years.  She had never had any significant problems—a few migraines every now and again, but nothing that would have caused any alarm.  She died quickly, instantaneously, the doctor told him.  She probably didn’t even know it happened.  By the time she had hit the floor, she was gone.

 Jerry hadn’t eaten lasagna since.

 ♣

 During a break in the traffic, he scraped under the squirrel with an old putty knife.  He knew he needed to work fast, as they were on the main road, and hundreds of cars and trucks whipped past every day, going sixty, often seventy, miles per hour.  He and Bak had just moved here three days ago.  Lisa would have loved it, the traffic notwithstanding.  It was an old cape, and it needed a lot of work it was true, but the land!  Ten acres of meadow and woods, with hills and perennials, a fully-stocked fishing pond, an old barn that had been converted into a garage, a garden shed, and maple trees near the house that would turn red and gold in the fall.

 He finally pried the squirrel loose from the pavement.  For some reason, its crushed, flattened body brought to mind the pressed leaf collection Lisa used to keep.  Elm leaves, maple leaves, poplar leaves, every leaf she could get her hands on.  She would gather them in the fall, after they had turned color, press them, and place them in a photo album, where they would stay, preserved, like trinkets in a time capsule.

 He balanced the remains of the squirrel on the fat blade of the putty knife and walked to the driveway, where Bak waited.

 “You know where you want to bury him?” he asked her.

 She nodded.

 “Then lead the way, Bak,” he said.

 She led him to a shady corner of the yard, nestled between two maples and backing up against a stand of sumac and wild burdock, and the remnants of an old stone wall that had deteriorated into a state of disrepair.

 “Here,” she said.  “This’ll be our cemetery.”

 “Our cemetery?”

 “He won’t be the only one, will he?”  She pointed at the dead squirrel.

 “No,” Jerry said.  “No, Bak.  He won’t be.  A lot of animals will get hit in that road, I’m afraid.”

 “Then this is the place we’ll bury them,” Bak said.

 This was more than he had bargained for.  One squirrel, sure.  But every animal that got hit in front of their home?  That would add up, and all too quickly.  In the road, an eighteen-wheeler sped by, adding emphasis.  But Jerry figured it was okay.  They had ten acres, after all.  What was one small parcel tucked away in a corner?

 “Okay,” he said.  “We’ll need to prepare it then.  Let me dig all the grass up over here and make this a real plot.  Then, when I’m done with that, you can bury this squirrel.  How’s that sound, Bak?”

 “Will you make the cemetery big enough?” she asked skeptically.

 Smiling, Jerry said, “It’ll be the biggest one of its kind in all the county.”  Then, thinking it might be the only one of its kind anywhere, Jerry expanded that.  “It’ll be the biggest one in the whole state, Bak.”

 “I hope,” was all she said.

 Jerry placed the putty knife on the ground, went to the garden shed, and grabbed a spade that had been left behind by the previous owner.  He hurried back to the corner Bak had chosen for the cemetery, and, under her watchful eye, began to dig.

 When he was finished, he gave Bak a small potting shovel, which she used to dig a hole.  Jerry reached for the squirrel, but Bak stopped him.

 “Let me do it, Daddy,” she said.

 “Okay, Bak.”

 She gently picked up the squirrel and placed it in the hole.  Then she folded her hands and bowed her head.

 “Bak?”  Jerry said.

 “I’m praying for him, Daddy,” she said.  “You pray, too.”

 Feeling a little silly, Jerry knelt down and prayed with his daughter over the remains of the nameless squirrel.  But it didn’t remain nameless for long.

 “He’s Charlie,” Bak said.

 “Who?  The squirrel?”

 “Uh-huh.  His name is Charlie.”  As she spoke, she covered the squirrel with the soft earth she had dug, the calligraphy of her handprints like a personal signature of her work.  When she was finished, she stood up, examining the makeshift grave.

 “We need a marker now,” she said.

 Jerry hadn’t thought of that.  But there were small pieces of pine wood in the shed.  They could use one of those.

 “This’ll be okay, I guess,” she said once he’d returned with a piece of the wood.  It was short and wide, easy to write on.  And Bak wanted to write on it.

 “But it’ll wash off, honey,” he said.  “If the rain doesn’t do it, the snow sure will.”

 “Then cut letters in it,” she said.  “Can’t you cut them in it, Daddy, like they do at Mommy’s cemetery?”

 Jerry had a Bowie knife his father had given to him when he was fifteen.  It was the first time his dad had given him a grown-up present; he remembered it well.  The Bowie knife’s tip would do the trick.

 She wanted him to engrave the following:  “Here lies Charlie.  He was just a squirrel.  But a good one.”  He finished quickly, and the grave was complete.  They went to the edge of their new cemetery and looked at it.  Jerry thought the single wooden marker looked lonesome, but he knew it wouldn’t be for long.  The road would take care of that.

 “Why did you want to bury him, Bak?” he asked her.

 She squinted up at him.  Sunshine filtered through the maple trees, kissing her long red hair and making it look two shades lighter than it was.

 “Charlie musta had a family,” she said.  “He woulda had a mommy and a daddy, maybe even a wife.  They miss him now, I guess.  Like you miss Mommy.  And you go visit her in the cemetery, so maybe Charlie’s family will visit him here, too.  Maybe his friends will come.  Like Mommy’s.”

 She looked at the single grave again, using her hand to shield the sun from her eyes.

 Jerry wanted to say something, to respond to his daughter in some way, but she had rendered him speechless.

 ♣

 Early the next morning, they stood by Lisa’s grave.  The cemetery was gloomy, inhabited by hundreds of pine, oak, and maple trees, which stood over the tombstones like watchful sentries.  It was windy this morning, and cloudy, a chill in the air that would have seemed inconceivable in yesterday’s hot sunshine.  Bak had a hooded jacket on and Jerry a wool sweater that Lisa had bought for him as a birthday gift when they had been engaged.

 He watered the flowers next to her grave.  He had planted them years ago—purple and pink peonies—and he was pleased that they came back and bloomed every spring.

 “Those are pretty flowers,” Bak said.

 “Thanks.  Peonies were your mom’s favorite.”

 They were silent then, listening to the voices in the wind, the rustling of the leaves, the echoes of the good people laid to rest here.  Jerry got on his knees and touched the gravestone, gently, gently.  He picked off a piece of moss that had gathered at the base.

 “Daddy?”

 “Hmm?”

 “What color were Mommy’s eyes?”

 “Blue, like yours, like the clear sky in October when the humidity’s gone, and you can look up forever.”  He closed his eyes, fought back the tears.  Now wasn’t the time, not here, not in front of Bak.

 “Mommy musta been so nice,” Bak said.  “I wish I’da known her.”

 “Me, too, Bak.  You would’ve loved your mommy.”

 “Do you think you’ll get married again, Daddy?  And get a new mommy for me?  Like Chrissy Pitkin?  Her Daddy got married again, and she doesn’t like her new mommy much.”

 “No, Bak,” he said.  “I don’t think that’ll happen.  I could never marry anyone else.  Your mom was the only one for me.  I hope you haven’t been pining for a new mom.”

 “What’s pining?” she asked.

 “Wanting, wishing for.”

 “Oh.  No.  I guess not.  I was just wonderin’.  Chrissy Pitkin acts like having a second mom is the pits.”

 Jerry stood up and stroked his daughter’s hair.  “C’mon, Bak, let’s go.  We’ll stop at McDonalds on the way.”  He always stopped at McDonalds with Bak on the way back from the cemetery.  He figured she deserved a treat after visiting such a solemn place.

 “Egg McMuffin?”  she said.  “Hash brown?”

 “You bet,” he said, and a tear did fall then, but he wiped it away before she could see.

 ♣

 That evening, Jerry on the sofa, Bak on his lap, she said, “It makes you sad to go visit Mommy at the cemetery, doesn’t it?”

 “I guess,” he said.  “But not really any more than I already am, Bak.  I miss your mommy more than you can know.  Always.  When I’m at her grave, I guess it’s harder to block it out.  My missing her just hits me like a big wave in the ocean—it just swallows me up.  I try to think of other things a lot, ‘cause it hurts to think of your mom, but when I’m there, well . . .”

 Bak nodded and buried her face in his neck.  Jerry squeezed her tight, thankful he didn’t have an office job anymore, didn’t have a daily commute that would take him away from Bak ten hours a day.  His company let him work from home now.  That was one of the reasons he felt it was a good time to move out to the country.

 “You won’t die, Daddy, will you, and make me hafta visit you at the cemetery?”  she said, his neck muffling her words.

 “Not any time soon, Bak,” he said, grimacing.  That’s what Lisa would have said the day she died, too, if someone had asked her that question.

 “I . . .”  Her voice trailed off, and he knew she had fallen asleep.  Slowly, carefully, he got up and carried her to bed.  When he tucked her in, she woke up.

 “Daddy, did anyone visit Charlie today?”

 “I don’t know.  I haven’t seen anyone.”

 “I hope they do.  I hope they know where he is, that he’s here, in our cemetery.  So they can visit.”

 “I hope so, too,” he said, and kissed her forehead.  “Good night, Bak.”

 “G’night, Daddy.”

 He turned to leave the room.

 “Daddy?”

 “Yes, Bak?”

 “Why did Mommy hafta die?  Why do the animals get hit in the fast road?”

 “I don’t know,” he said.  He wished he could say something to help her understand, help her make sense of it all, but he couldn’t.  “Go to sleep, Bak.  Rest.”

 When he didn’t hear a reply, he left.

 ♣

 Later that week, they buried a chipmunk.  It was lying at the foot of their driveway, its body grotesquely bent and broken.  The day after that, another squirrel was flattened, welded to the road.  Jerry had a tougher time picking this squirrel’s remains off of the hot pavement than he had the first one.  Three days after that, another chipmunk.  It remained that way throughout the summer, and by the first week of September, twenty-five small wooden graves stood in their cemetery, the markers set in two straight lines and half of a third.  It was the day before school started, and Bak would be attending a different one this year.  She was scared, but excited, too.

 He watched as she dug the hole for the twenty-sixth grave.  Beside her lay a crushed rock dove, run over that morning by a pickup truck.  Jerry had seen it happen, had heard the sick thud on impact, and was grateful Bak had been in the house.  He wondered if the pickup driver even knew he had killed a bird.

 She lovingly placed the dove in the hole, then covered it with the loose dirt she had unearthed.

 “What’s his name, Bak?”  Jerry asked, Bowie knife and wooden grave marker in hand.

 “Johnny.  Johnny Dove.  ‘A good friend to all,’ that’s what you should cut into it.  ‘Cause he looks like a good friend, so I’m sure he was.”

 Jerry carved the words into the wood, then handed the marker to Bak.  She stuck it into the earth, just behind the spot where the bird lay.  This was easy for her because Jerry had sawed the bottom of the wood, shaping it into a sharp point.  He had been doing that to all of the markers since the middle of July.

 Bak knelt down to pray, and asked Jerry to join her.  He played the part, but he wasn’t praying.  He was observing, looking at his solemn daughter as she clasped her hands together, closed her eyes tightly shut, and mouthed a silent prayer for the dead rock dove.  He swallowed hard, and suddenly felt a terrible sense of loss.  He had been mourning Lisa for years, but now he was mourning his daughter, the little girl she was but wouldn’t remain.  He wondered how much longer she would dig miniature graves for animals killed in the road.  He wondered how much longer she would want him to carve the names she gave them into blocks of wood and memorialize them in this small corner plot, shaded by the maple trees just now showing a hint of the color show to come.  He wondered when the time might arrive when she would look at the wooden markers and shake her head, proclaiming what a silly fool she had been, what a dumb little kid.  He wondered how she might react to seeing a dead animal in the road when she was fifteen.  Would she walk by with some girlfriends, say “yuck,” and then without a second thought, go on talking about boys and clothes and the cute math teacher?  He hoped not, but it was a faint hope.

 Bak unclasped her hands, opened her eyes, and stood up.

 “I hope you get a visitor, Johnny Dove,” she said.  “I hope someone comes here, someone who knew you.”

 Jerry put a hand on her shoulder.  “C’mon, Bak,” he said.  “We should go in and get ready for supper.”

 She put her hand in his, and they walked to the house.

 “I hope you stay this way forever, Bak,” he said, as they went in through the back door.  “Like a little girl who thinks a dead rock dove deserves a grave.”

 “Johnny Dove,” she said.  “Not just any old dove.  Johnny Dove.”

 “Sure,” he said.  “Sorry, Bak.”

 He squeezed her hand, tightly but gently.

 “Whatcha makin’, Daddy?” she asked.

 “How about hot dogs and tater tots?”

 “Yum!”  She smacked her lips and smiled.  “Hurry!”

He hugged her, then got about to making the supper.  Later, as they ate, as Bak dunked her tater tots in ketchup and took bites from the hot dog that were too big for her, they talked–about graves and squirrels, speeding cars and rock doves.  And about the new school year that would start tomorrow, the students she would meet, the friends she would make, the new page that was about to be turned.

****************************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike


Short Story — “Tailgater”

There are many occasions in The Eye-Dancers where one of the main characters feels bad after doing or saying something.  Joe is impetuous, and too often acts without first thinking things through.  Mitchell, with his penchant for lying and storytelling, sometimes feels a pang of guilt after one of his tall tales.  Ryan second-guesses himself with regularity, always wanting to please people, never wanting to anger or provoke them.  And Marc too often puts people down, without even intending to.  He is, in a nutshell, a know-it-all, and sometimes, as Mitchell himself reminds him at one point in the novel, his horse gets pretty high sometimes.

The main character in the short story “Tailgater,” which I wrote just as I was beginning the first draft of The Eye-Dancers, also experiences a crisis of conscience, an onslaught of guilt . . .

I hope you will read the story and see how he deals with his predicament.

tailgater

 

thruway

 

ring

 

headlights

 

restaurant

 

“Tailgater”

copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

********************

As Paul gripped the steering wheel, cruising down the Thruway at seventy miles per hour, he wondered if he should have gift-wrapped the stolen ring.  But in his haste, his eagerness, his second-guessing, he had simply pocketed it, hoping his co-workers and customers would not find guilt etched on his face like a brand.  Besides, who had the time?  His shift had ended at eight thirty, and he wanted to reach Tammie by eleven, at the latest.  That thought prompted him to push down harder on the gas pedal—and the car sped up to seventy-five.

It still didn’t feel fast enough.  He’d jack it up to a hundred if he thought he could get away with it.  It was tempting, too.  There weren’t many motorists out tonight, and he hadn’t spotted a trooper since getting on the Thruway a half hour ago.

 “Go for it,” he said over the radio.  Someone on NPR was talking about the effects of global warming.  Paul chuckled over that.  It had been well below freezing for two weeks now, since before Thanksgiving.

 He glanced in his rearview mirror, checking for a rogue state trooper.

 “Hey.  What the . . . ?”

 A pair of blue, halogen headlights were reflected there, and he had to look away.  Where had that car come from?  Just a moment ago, no one had been anywhere near him, and yet, suddenly, out of thin air, it seemed, he was being tailgated.  And the creep had his lights set on high beam, too.

 Paul gritted his teeth.  Few things annoyed him more than tailgaters.

 “What are you waiting for, you idiot?” he yelled to the driver behind him.  “Why don’t you just pass me?”

 As far as Paul could tell, no other cars were around.  Why on earth was he being tailgated, then?  All the guy had to do was move over into the other lane and speed ahead.  He seemed intent on deliberately giving Paul a hard time.

 “You asked for it,” Paul said, and gently braked.  He slowed down to seventy, sixty-five, sixty, fifty-five . . .  Still the vehicle behind him stuck, as if the driver wanted to touch license plates.  Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, and his temples started to throb.  He didn’t need this.  Not now.  Not tonight.  Not after what he’d done.

 Suddenly, he gunned it, and he zoomed ahead, leaving the tailgater far behind.  He was going ninety now, but how could he be blamed for that?  The jerk behind him had forced his hand—or foot, as the case may be.

 Glancing in the rearview mirror, he spotted the blue headlights, at least a hundred yards back.  Still no other traffic in sight.

 Good riddance. 

 He took his right hand off the steering wheel and reached into his pocket, feeling for the ring, checking that it was still there.  It was—of course it was—and it felt hot to the touch, though the band was cold.

 Looking around, at the dead cornfields illuminated by the moon-glow, at the scattered farmhouses with their trusty porch lights on, at the grain silos that loomed in the darkness like sleeping monoliths, he felt small and alone.  The events at the restaurant seemed almost dreamlike, and he wondered if perhaps he might wake up in a moment, his bedsheets wrapped tightly around him, the drone of the clock ticking off the slow seconds of the night.

 But no.  This was no dream.  It was real.  All too real.

 He had never stolen anything before . . . at least not anything of value.  He had swiped a few stray pens and pencils—even a five dollar bill once—but nothing remotely like this.  It hadn’t been premeditated.  He didn’t even know the ring existed until just a few short hours ago, when he saw the woman at his table fiddling with it.  She was eating alone, which was peculiar in itself . . . she was young, attractive, and very clearly affluent.  Her outfit—black Piazza Sempione jacket, red silk blouse, black velvet trousers—probably cost more than his entire wardrobe put together.  And she had ordered the most expensive bottle of wine to go with her meal.

 At first, Paul was merely hoping for a generous tip.  She seemed like the kind of woman who might reward good service.  But as he repeatedly made the rounds to her table, asking her how she was enjoying her food (“It’s very good, thanks,” she said more than once), he couldn’t help but notice the way she absently played with her ring.

 It wasn’t an engagement ring, at least he didn’t think it was.  It had a white gold band, with a black pearl set on top, wrapped in a swirl of diamonds that glittered in the lighting of the restaurant.  He had no idea what the price of the ring might be, though it was clear it hadn’t come cheap.  A thousand dollars, perhaps?  Two thousand?  Three?  Way too much, in any event, to be fiddling around with it—taking it off and twirling it between thumb and forefinger—as this woman was doing.

 It made him think of Tammie—beautiful, kind, big-hearted Tammie who lived paycheck to paycheck, working overtime at the factory every other week just to make ends meet.  She was the best thing that had ever happened to him.  He’d met her six months ago.  She was visiting old friends in Rochester, and they had come into the restaurant.  He waited their table.

 He hadn’t openly flirted with Tammie that evening, nor she with him.  But there was something between them, something so charged he thought he’d be electrocuted if he could reach out and touch it.  He had never believed in love at first sight, but how else to explain it?  He could tell she wasn’t at home in the restaurant . . . where the food was pricey and the clientele white-collar, bordering on snobbish.  Later, she told him her friends insisted on taking her there, though she would have preferred a local diner or pizzeria.  Paul chuckled at the memory.  But only for a moment.  It made him sad, bitter even, that she didn’t own anything special, no diamond ring or gold necklace.  It wasn’t fair.  She deserved it.  She deserved so much more. . . .

 He went up to the woman’s table.  The remains of her meal were heaped on the dinner plate, her glass of wine nearly empty.

 “Are you all set, ma’am?” he asked.

 She smiled, nodded; he took her plate and left the bill with her.  He noticed she wasn’t wearing the pearl ring.  What had she done with it?  Put it in her mouth, just for kicks?

 A moment later, he had his answer.  Amid the uneaten morsels of food, he spotted it.  Just lying there.  He laughed, picked it out of the leftovers, and prepared to return it.

 Then he hesitated.  He again thought of Tammie.  Christmas was in two weeks, and he had only bought her a cheap book he’d found on sale, a scarf, and a pair of red mittens.  It made him ill that he couldn’t buy her something nice, but his landlord had raised the rent last month, and Paul was scrimping as much as possible.  He’d been planning to move to Syracuse sometime next year, anyway, to live closer to Tammie.  The increased rent served only as an incentive to get out sooner rather than later.

 His head was suddenly full of scenarios, justifications, rebukes, pros and cons.  Should he give the ring back to the woman?  Yes.  Of course.  What other path was there, really?

 Well . . .

 Maybe he could keep the ring.  Just sort of slip it into his pocket, while no one was looking.  Who would ever know?  And then he could give it to Tammie.  Surprise her with it tonight, after his shift.  Why wait until Christmas?  He wanted to see her face when she beheld the ring—the shine in her eyes, the exuberance of her smile.  All because of him, his gift that would make her feel special and adored.  He couldn’t wait two weeks.

 Besides, if he waited, he might chicken out and give the ring back to its owner.  And why should he do a thing like that?  She didn’t even care about it.  She probably had dozens just like it back at the mansion or townhouse or lakeside bungalow she called home.  What was it to her?

 He returned to her table, the ring in his pants pocket, his cheeks feeling hot.

 “Excuse me,” the woman said, “you didn’t happen to see my ring anyplace, did you?  A black pearl ring?  With a white band?  I seem to have misplaced it.”

 Before he answered, he wondered if she had stuck the ring in her leftovers on purpose, to see what he would do, to test him.  Would he try to steal it?  Or be a good, honest waiter and give it back to her?  Was this all a setup?

 Behind him, he felt a rush of air.  Nicole, a new waitress they had just hired yesterday, hurried past, balancing three plates and smiling as she approached her customers.  He overheard her telling them to flag her down if they needed anything.  Striving for the tip.  That’s what it was all about.  Just like Tammie, working those sixty-hour weeks at the plant.  Trying to stay afloat, hoping to get by.

 Thinking of Tammie gave him a fresh injection of courage.  He took a breath, and a chance.  “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am.  I’m afraid I haven’t seen it.  I’ll go back and tell all the staff you lost it, though.  It’s bound to turn up somewhere.”

 A shadow fell over the woman’s face, and he almost caved in then.  Maybe he had it all wrong.  Maybe she did care about the ring.  Maybe it had been a gift, from a boyfriend or a relative.  Maybe she was just upset tonight about something, her mind elsewhere, and that was why she had been so careless with it.

 Maybe.  Or maybe he was just conjuring up abstract potentialities that likely didn’t exist.

 “Well,” the woman said, “I don’t know what could’ve happened.  I just had it.  And how could anyone have taken it?  I was here the whole time.”  She looked on her seat, under the table, checked her pockets.  “I don’t understand!  Am I going crazy?  I just had it!”

 “I’m sure it’ll turn up, ma’am,” he said.  “Like I said, I’ll ask around.  And I’ll keep looking in this area, too.  It’s got to be here.”

 She sighed, swore under her breath, shook her head.  “Well, if you do see it, please give my cell a call, okay?”  She jotted down her number on a napkin, and handed it to him.

 “Sure thing,” he said, smiling.

 She gave him a long, hard look.  It felt like she was searching his conscience, attempting to decode his lies.  He wondered if his heartbeat, which sounded like a sledgehammer in his ears, was audible to her, right through his chest.

 “Well, I hope to hear from you later.”

 He didn’t like the way she said that, and he was certain that she suspected what he’d done.  Or was it merely his own guilt, in an effort to prod him into returning her ring?  Whatever it was, he stood his ground.

 When she finally left, he let out a deep breath.  Now he just wished the next couple of hours would fly by and his shift be over.  Then he could get out of here and drive the ninety miles to Tammie’s place, knock on her door, and surprise her.

 He picked up the folder on the tabletop and let out a snort.  He’d had it coming, he supposed.

 She hadn’t left him a tip.

 NPR was beginning to annoy him.  He needed something soothing, comforting.  Turning the dial, he settled on a station playing a piano rendition of “Away in a Manger.”  Perfect.  Just the sort of melody he was looking for.

 He hummed along with the mellow music, trying to forget about the nagging in his head, the doubts that wouldn’t go away.  He could still turn back, call the woman on her cell, tell her he had the ring . . .

 “Can it,” he said, and forced himself to concentrate on the song.

 An SUV passed him on the left, and by instinct, he checked his rearview mirror, to see if anyone else might be close behind.

 Blue, high-beam headlights glared at him, blinding him temporarily.  He turned away from the mirror, rubbed his eyes, and picked up speed.  How had that pest caught up with him again?  No one had been there a second ago.

 “Who cares?” he said.  He’d leave the jerk in the dust again, just like the last time.

 He sped up to eighty, but the car behind him did not fade back.  It stuck to him like a stubborn cold.  He slowed down, sped up again.  Still he couldn’t shake the tailgater.

 That’s when he wondered.  Was the person following him the woman from the restaurant?  Or a boyfriend of hers?  Could that be?

 Don’t be an idiot.  She doesn’t even know what car I drive.

 Yeah, but she might have waited outside and followed you when your shift ended.

 Shut up.  Why would she do that?

 To run you off the road, maybe?  Get her ring back?

 He violently shook his head, and snapped off the radio, as if that might also turn down the volume in his mind.  The Christmas music, calming at first, had turned grating, incongruous.

 “Why are you doing this to me?” he shouted in his mirror.  But his only answer was the flash of blue halogen lights.  “Who are you?”

 He floored it, reaching a hundred miles an hour.  Still, the lights remained just behind him.  The woman, or guy, or whoever it was, would not let him get away.

 Suddenly, he spotted a white Neon directly in his path.  He’d been so focused on losing his pursuer that he hadn’t been paying attention to what lay ahead.  Swerving, slamming on the break, he jerked the car into the passing lane.  The driver of the Neon beeped the horn at him and he could see her gesture angrily even in the dark.

 He passed the Neon, then glanced in his mirror again, hoping nothing would be there.  No such luck.

 The blue headlights still tailed him.

 “All right,” he said.  “If that’s how you want to play . . .”

 He swung back in to the slow lane, then, just as abruptly, changed lanes again, into the passing lane.  He continued to do this—back and forth, back and forth.  Finally, he checked his mirror again, hoping the nutcase behind him had had enough.

 “Well, whaddaya know,” he said, and a smile crossed his lips.  He checked his reflection, and an odd glint was in his eyes now.  The thrill of the chase, he guessed.  It had made him euphoric, half-crazed, even.  The headlights were gone.  Not simply further back.  But gone.

 Odd.  Why would that be?

 From inside his breast pocket, there was a piercing chirp.  His cell.  Someone was texting him.  Was it the woman?  Dropping the game and demanding her ring back?  Don’t be stupid.  She didn’t know his number.  He hadn’t given it to her.

 He took the phone out, his eyes on the road.  He had it mostly to himself.  He passed a pickup truck.  No one else was ahead of him, as far as he could see.  Checking the mirror, there was still no sign of the blue headlights anywhere.  In the distance, another hulking grain silo brooded over the frost-strewn earth.

 He glanced at his cell, read the message.

 Hey, where r u?  Tried calling ur place but no answer.  Thought u’d b home by now.  R u ok?

It was Tammie.  He didn’t want to tell her he was on his way to see her.  But he knew he needed to respond immediately, or else she might worry.  Ahead, he spotted a sign.  The next travel plaza was coming up in two miles.  Good.  He could pull in, text her, then be on his way again.

 With the cell in his hand, he again considered calling the woman from the restaurant.  He hadn’t yet crossed a point of no return.  And, he realized, with each mile he drove, the closer he came to Tammie’s exit, the more uneasy he felt.  He still had an out, a chance to set things right.  Once he saw Tammie, once he gave her the ring and kissed her, there was no way he could then take it back from her.  If he was going to reconsider, it would have to be soon.  Time was running out.

 He’d think about it more when he stopped at the travel plaza.

 No, there’s nothing to think about.  Tammie will love this ring.  That other lady lost it.  Too bad for her.  She shouldn’t have played with it like that.  She—

 In his rearview mirror, there was a sudden flash of blue light.

 “Hey!  No way, not again!  It can’t be.”

 But it was.  His pursuer was back.  He forced himself to look in the mirror again, trying to ignore the burst of light and get a good look at the driver.  But the beams were too bright—they made him think of that light the optometrist shone in his eyes during examinations, so strong that tears cascaded down his cheeks and little black dots floated in the field of his vision for minutes afterward—and the vehicle’s windshield was dark.  For all he knew, the car was driving itself.

 But at least he could pull into the travel plaza this time.  And if the tailgater followed him, he’d confront the jerk once and for all.

 He signaled, slowed down, turned onto the entrance ramp, and coasted into the plaza’s parking lot.  When he checked his mirror, he fully expected to see his nemesis right behind him.  But there was nothing.  For the second time, the car seemed to have vanished, as though it hadn’t been there to begin with.

 “How the . . . ? He was just here!  He was just here.  Wasn’t he?”

 He parked his car, turned off the engine.  Then he looked at his reflection again.

 “Hey, you’re okay, aren’t you, Paul?” he said.  “All the circuits are fully juiced, screws tight, nothing floating loose up in there.  Right?”  He took several deep, calming breaths, trying to rid his mind of tension.  But it was no good.  He was way too edgy, his nerve endings like live wires.

 He texted a quick reply to Tammie, telling her he was fine, just out Christmas shopping.  He figured he’d go out after his shift, late, and avoid the crowds.  He hated to lie, but how could he tell her the truth?.

 Call her.  Call that woman and tell her you have her ring.

 No.  He wouldn’t do that.

 “I need some air,” he said.

 He got out of the car, inhaled deeply, and scanned the lot for the tailgater.  A half-dozen other vehicles were scattered about—any one of them might belong to the guy who’d been tormenting him.  He didn’t even know what his car looked like—only that it had two exceptionally bright high-beam blue halogen headlights.

 “Just forget about it,” he muttered, and strode toward the travel plaza building.  He hadn’t eaten a thing since lunchtime, and the place had a McDonald’s inside.

 But as soon as he passed through the doorway, he realized that he couldn’t just forget about it.  He didn’t know for sure if his tailgater had followed him into the parking lot, but he highly suspected it.  What had seemed like a mystery, an improbability, seconds ago now made perfect sense.  The guy had switched off his headlights as soon as he turned on to the entrance ramp.  Why?  To give the illusion that he’d vanished.  And then, as quick as a subconscious thought, he must have driven to a remote corner of the lot—before Paul could see him.  Yes.  That was it.  He was sure of it.

 But couldn’t he have just continued on the Thruway, and not pulled in here with me?

 “No.”  Paul didn’t believe that.  Somehow he knew, intuitively, that he was still being followed.

 He placed his hand on his forehead.  He could feel the beginning of a nasty headache coming on.

 “Just get some food,” he said.  “Eat.  Calm down.”

 He walked passed an artificial Christmas tree, bedecked with tinsel and cheap-looking gold and silver bulbs.  Above the tree, a placard hung from the ceiling, with the words “Happy Holidays” written in a bold, bright red.

 He looked around.  Three of the plaza’s restaurants were closed for the evening.  Only the McDonald’s was open.  A couple of customers were sitting in booths, enjoying a late-night meal.  Other than that, the place was deserted, save for an old man who was occupied inspecting a scale just outside the men’s room.  This struck him as suspicious.  Wouldn’t that be just what his pursuer might do?  Pretend to be absorbed in some innocuous contraption but in reality, out of the corner of his eye, watching Paul?  Monitoring him?  Sizing him up?

 “Shut up.”

 He ordered a double cheeseburger and a large fries, and sat at one of the booths, by the window, looking through the glass and at himself.  His shadowy reflection glared back at him, frazzled, shaken up.

 He took a bite of the burger—but, though he was hungry, it didn’t go down easily.  His throat seemed to constrict.

 C’mon.  Relax.  What’s your problem?

 Other than stealing an expensive ring?  Being tailgated by a maniac?  Stalked by a person who could very well be dangerous?  Sure.  What could possibly be wrong?

 He took half-a-dozen fries and stuffed them in his mouth.  Good and salty, just the way he liked them, but, again, his throat did not want to cooperate.  “Get out of here,” it seemed to be saying to him.  “Don’t waste time.  He’s here.  He’ll jump you if you let him.”

 He glanced at the two other McDonald’s patrons.

 There was a middle-aged blonde woman seated three booths down.  She was sipping a medium-sized soft drink and picking at a chicken salad.  She looked tired, frumpy.  Her hair was stringy, and she wore a pair of wire-frame glasses that continually fell down her nose.  She would push them up, then they’d fall right back down again.  As she played with her food, pushing it around with her black plastic fork more than actually eating it, she muttered to herself.  Her eyes were droopy, as if she had been on the road all day.

 The other customer was a fiftyish guy in a long gray coat.  He sat on the other side of the restaurant, but he was in clear view and Paul was able to get a good look at him.  He was eating what appeared to be a filet-o-fish sandwich along with two large orders of fries, and he must have been hungry, because he was wolfing the food down.  He was burly, with salt-and-pepper hair and a long, hawklike nose.  As he ate, his shoulders would rise and fall, rise and fall—like a nervous twitch.  Was he the rich woman’s boyfriend, perhaps?  Paul doubted it  Too old.  And too ugly.  But how could he be sure?  You never could tell who a person might fall for.

 He took another bite of his cheeseburger, and this time he nearly spewed it back up.

 “This is impossible,” he said, getting up.  He tossed his food in the waste bin.  Money down the drain, but he couldn’t eat.  As far as he could tell, neither the blonde woman nor the guy with the nervous shoulders had even glanced his way.  And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

 He walked out of the McDonald’s, past the tacky artificial tree.  He noticed the old man, still standing by the entrance to the men’s room, studying the scale.

 “Care to weigh yourself, fella?” the man said.  “I weighed myself.  One hundred and fifty-three pounds.  Not a pound lighter, or heavier.  One fifty-three.  I’ve weighed that same amount since the Eisenhower administration, don’tcha know.  Wanna give ‘er a try?”

 He shook his head, picked up his pace, and bolted through the doors.  He needed to get out of this place, see Tammie.  Give her the ring.

 Walking to his car, he felt exposed.  The tailgater could pick him off so easily out here—maybe turn on those blue headlights, shine them in his eyes, and race toward him, slamming into him before he could dodge out of the way.

 He began to run.  If anyone saw him, they would think he’d lost his mind.  But he didn’t care.  He needed to reach the security of his car, before it was too late.

 When he got there, ducked in, slammed and locked the door, he let out a long, tortured breath.

 “What’s the matter with me?  Jumping at shadows.”

 He started the engine, looked around the lot—still nothing out of the ordinary—and drove off.  When he passed the front of the travel plaza, he saw one of the customers coming out.  The big guy, with the beak nose!  So he was the one!

 He pressed down hard on the gas.  If he got on the highway ahead of him, maybe he could pull far enough away and lose him.

 The exit ramp was straight ahead now, and he continued to accelerate, passing an island of self-serve gas pumps charging exorbitant fuel prices.  Still no one behind him.

 “You’re gonna make it, Paul,” he said.  “You’re gonna make it!”

 He took a quick, cursory glance in his rearview mirror, sure that nothing would be there except the glow of the travel plaza’s lights, the pumps, and the black emptiness of the December night.

 A blinding explosion of blue beams made him close his eyes and slam on the brake.  He pulled over to the side, hoping his pursuer would take the hint and zoom past, onto the interstate, out of his life forever.  But the vehicle just slipped in behind him, the blue halogen lights still shining in at him like an accusation.

 That’s when Paul understood.  There was no escape from this madman.  He was like a killer in a grade-B horror movie.  Always one step ahead of his prey.  Always right there behind you, no matter what you did.

 He was through running.  He couldn’t do it anymore.  The confrontation could not be avoided any longer.

 That guy is huge.  He’d probably break you in half.  Probably has a gun, too.

 He sighed.  He didn’t know for sure that the driver behind him was the guy in the gray coat, the ugly man who looked like he’d been an NFL linebacker, or a heavyweight boxer, in his prime.  But he hadn’t seen anyone pass him on the exit ramp, either.

 That doesn’t mean he’s the one behind you now.  Maybe he’s still in his car back in the parking lot.  Listening to the radio.  Making a call. 

 “Just give it up,” he said.  He was through speculating.  It was time to get out of the car, and see what the guy wanted.

 He wants the ring.  You know that.

 Yes, he did.  He was sure of it.

 Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out the napkin on which the woman at the restaurant had scrawled her cell number.  The guy behind him was likely dangerous, maniacal.  He had shown that already, tailgating and harassing Paul the way he had.  What if he killed him?  Simply shot him or strangled him, then deposited his body in the frigid waters of the lake?

 He had an urge to speed away then.  He didn’t want this, didn’t want to face this unknown danger on some exit ramp in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but old farmhouses and dead fields and cold, hard blacktop.  But where would that get him?  To the next travel plaza?  The exit booths, taking him off the Thruway?  What good would that do?  His adversary would be right there behind him, ready to strike.  It would merely serve to postpone the inevitable.

 He looked at the number on the napkin again.  His tailgater’s headlights, reflecting off the rearview mirror, bathed the napkin in a blue, alien-like glow.  The guy still hadn’t turned off his engine, or gotten out of the car.  He just idled there, waiting, waiting.

 “I don’t want to go out like this,” he said.  “I can’t go out like this.”

 Closing his eyes, he visualized Tammie.  He pictured the ring on her finger, how beautiful it would look, how right.  But thinking of that only made things worse.

 He picked up his cell phone.

 “It’s your lucky night, lady,” he said to the interior of his car, and then dialed her number.

 One ring.  Two.  Three.  Four.  He thought maybe she wouldn’t answer, that he’d get her recording.  It was late, after all.  Should he leave a message?  Or call back later?  Would there even be a later, after he’d dealt with his unrelenting pursuer?

 But on the fifth ring, she answered.  He wondered if she was still wearing her expensive jacket, or if she’d since returned home and had changed into something more casual.

 “Hello?” she said.

 He introduced himself, told her he’d found her ring.  Would she like to come by the restaurant to pick it up tomorrow morning, or should he drive to her place tonight and give it back to her?  Morbidly, he thought, Or maybe you could find the guy who’s behind me now after he kills me, and get it from him. 

 “Oh, thank goodness!” she said.  “You are a lifesaver!  I was sick all evening, thinking of how I’d lost it and wouldn’t ever see it again.  Thank you!  You are so awesome.”

 He swallowed.  Yeah.  Real awesome.  All I tried to do was rip you off tonight.

 “I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning,” she said.  “I suppose I can trust you with it for one night, right?”  She laughed.

 “Right,” he said, and laughed back.  Or tried to.  He doubted it sounded sincere.

 “Well, thanks again,” she said.  “This means so much to me.  See you tomorrow.”

 She said bye, and hung up.  He rubbed his eyes.  It felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from him.  The albatross was gone.

 But now the real trouble was at hand.

 He turned off the engine, and, without hesitation, got out of the car.  It was better to get this over with quickly.

 “Okay, mister, I—”

 There was nobody there.  No car idling with blue high-beam lights glaring at him.  No hulking man in a gray coat with a long, twisted nose and murder in his eyes.  Nothing.

 “But . . .”

 He walked to the rear of his car, and even peeked underneath, as if the vehicle that had been trailing him had somehow become miniaturized and was now attached to his undercarriage.  Was it possible that his tailgater had grown weary of the chase and had driven off while he was on the phone?  No.  He was sure no one had passed him.

 Then what?

 He didn’t know, and was too tired to think about it.  He just knew he felt like himself again.  That’s all that really mattered.

 He felt for the ring in his pocket.  It was there, safe and secure.  He smiled.

 Maybe the woman would give him a belated tip when she saw him in the morning.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Cover-Up”

Each of the characters in The Eye-Dancers carries with them some emotional pain–a fear of rejection, a lack of self-confidence, family concerns, the loneliness of not fitting in at school.  They also have a tendency to hide their issues–or at least try to.  Marc Kuslanski, for example, underneath his know-it-all exterior, is a boy in desperate need of a friend.  He doesn’t like to admit this, to himself or others, but his bouts of denial do not negate the truth.  Thankfully for him, the events in the story unite him with Mitchell Brant, and a friendship is indeed formed.

In the short story “Cover-Up,” which I wrote a few years ago, the protagonist is also carrying with him the baggage of emotional pain, the burden of regret and self-blame.  And, just like Marc, he tries his best to conceal it.  But on a long, cross-country train trip, his seatmate sees right through his mask.  Will he open up to this stranger, or throw up his customary wall?

I hope you enjoy “Cover-Up” . . .

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“Cover-Up”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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“So, do you wanna talk about it?” the young woman with the terrible scar asked.

He was sure he didn’t.  What Patrick really wanted to do was sleep the ride away.  But that didn’t seem likely.  It was still light outside, and the train was bumpy, lurching often and sometimes feeling precariously close to derailing.  Not for the first time, he asked himself why he hadn’t just flown.  “Talk about what?”

The woman looked at him.  Her eyes were a light, pastel shade of green.  “You know . . . whatever’s bugging you.  I can tell something’s really got you down.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said.  “I’m fine.  Just tired, I guess.”

“It’s not good to hold things in, y’know,” the woman said.  “You need to let it out.  And I have a good ear.  Really.  All my friends say so.”

He silently wondered if she actually had any friends, she was so nosey.  But she had seen right through his lie.  Something was bothering him.  He was annoyed that he wasn’t able to hide it, especially considering all the practice he’d had.

“Hey, really, I’m fine, so just drop it, okay?” he said.  The train lurched, and he was thrust forward, grabbing the seatback in front of him.  “Man, real smooth ride, huh?”

The woman smiled.  “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Patrick,” he said.  Taking advantage of his window seat, he looked through the glass.  They were traveling through the flat country of western Illinois now, past dead cornfields and crisp, white farmhouses with covered porches and weathervanes and dirty plastic sheets draped over the windows, flapping in the wind.

“Hi, Patrick,” she said.  “I’m ‘Becca.  Well, Rebecca.  Everyone calls me ‘Becca, though.  So, are you a Patrick?  Or a Pat?”

“Patrick.”  His dad used to call him Pat.  He didn’t even want to think of that name.

“So, Patrick . . . have you ever taken the train before?  I love it.  It’s like a real trip.  You get a chance to really talk to people, y’know?”

No, he didn’t know, and he didn’t reply, hoping she would take the hint.  He just wanted to be left alone.  But she was hard to ignore.  That scar was hard to ignore.  It was the deepest, longest scar he had ever seen on a person’s face.  He’d noticed it right away, as soon as she had boarded the train and decided to sit next to him.  It started to the right of her eye, just below the brow, and twisted its way down her cheek, not stopping until it reached the point of her chin.  Every time he glanced at her, his gaze fell upon it.  What had caused such a gash in the first place?  He had no idea, and preferred to keep it that way.  Just another reason to stare out the window.

“Where are you headed, anyway?” she asked.

“Denver,” he said.

“Really?  So am I!”  Great.  Just great.  “You must’ve gone back home for the holidays.  I did, too.  But now it’s time to return to real life and work and paying the bills.”

“Yeah,” he said.  Real life.  Work.  That was fine with him.  He never should have gone home in the first place.  The faster he forgot about it, the better.  Mom and Jayne crying.  Jayne laying into him for leaving a few days early.

“That’s just what you did before!” she’d said.  “You ran away.  Can’t you stay a measly couple days more?  For Mom?  And for me?”

But he couldn’t.  What did his presence help anyway?  They were all miserable together.  He just wanted to leave, so he had.

The door at the far end of the car opened and then snapped shut.  A couple, likely returning from a meal in the Dining Car, walked down the aisle.  Three young children, two girls and a boy, trailed right behind them like a small school of pilot fish.

He looked out the window again.  The winter sun, sinking to the horizon, gave off its last weak rays of the day.  The porch light of a distant farmhouse flicked on and shone like a beacon across the frozen fields and dead, windswept grasses.

“So, what do you do, Patrick?” Becca asked him.  “Where do you work?”

He wished she’d shut up.  He wasn’t up for this.  Still, he told her he was a technical writer who worked for a computer software company.  He wrote the how-to manuals no one liked to read.  But he enjoyed it.  Wrestling with the minutia of the programs, figuring out the meaning behind the engineers’ logic, crafting documents that somehow translated the highly complex material into understandable language for the end users.  It allowed him to get lost in the safe world of code and technology, sweeping unwanted emotions, unwanted memories, aside.

Another couple entered the car.  The next call for the Dining Car would be due shortly.  But he was thinking about going to the Lounge Car.  A few stiff drinks sounded good.  He was feeling warm, claustrophobic.

“You hot?” he asked her.  “They got the heat turned up way too high.”  He took off his jacket, placed it under his seat.

“I’m not hot,” she said.  “But if I was hot, I wouldn’t know, so . . .”

What did she mean by that?  He looked at her, but saw only the scar, which seemed almost to pulsate with a life, a vitality of its own.  Whatever had happened to her must have caused unspeakable pain and anguish.  But that thought just made him hotter, more in need of a drink.

He sidled past her, into the aisle.  The train lurched again, and he almost fell.  He would have, too, if he hadn’t grabbed onto the seat in time.  She didn’t ask him where he was going, and he didn’t say.  The last thing he wanted was for her to tag along.

“See you later,” she said.

He nodded, and headed for the Lounge Car.

It was almost deserted.  Just a young couple sitting next to each eating pretzels and popcorn, and a bald, thin man sitting by himself looking out the window into the darkening twilight, his left hand wrapped around a glass of wine.  Perhaps he, too, was attempting to drink away his troubles.

Patrick bought a beer, inwardly groaning that the kid behind the bar didn’t want to see ID.  He had just turned thirty.  Getting asked for ID used to be a hassle, five years ago.  Now he felt slighted when someone failed to do it.

He sat down, as far away from the couple and the bald man as he could get.  He needed to be left alone for a while, to enjoy the taste and buzz of the beer.  He wanted peace and quiet, light, airy thoughts.  But his mind had other ideas.  He closed his eyes, and saw his mother crying.  Not yesterday or the day before, but two years ago, after the accident.  He saw his sister crumpled on the sofa, her face buried in a pillow.  And he saw himself, standing there, hands in pockets, not knowing what to say or do.

It had all been his fault.  It never should have happened—not to Dad.  Patrick had recently moved into a new apartment across town, and didn’t visit his parents very often.  That evening, he was coming over for supper.  His car had a transmission leak and on the way over he had intended to buy some fluid.  But his thoughts had drifted, he’d forgotten, and now the car was shifting with difficulty—the transmission was dry.  When he said he needed to run to the automotive store, his father said not to think of it.  He would go.  Patrick should stay with his mom and his sister.  Patrick protested—he was the one who forgot to buy the fluid, after all—but Dad was adamant.

“Be back in fifteen minutes,” Dad had said.

They never saw him again.

Patrick took a long drink of the beer, trying to submerge the memories in alcohol, washing them down some fast-moving stream that would carry them away to a distant ocean, forever adrift, forever removed from his consciousness.  Several seats in front of him, the bald man slammed his wine glass down, causing some of the wine to spill onto the table.  He muttered under his breath, drank more wine, then banged the glass back down again.  To Patrick’s left, the young couple were whispering to each other, as if gossiping about the two lushes sharing the car with them.

He wished he were drunk.  But he was all too sober.  Suddenly, and with ferocious clarity, he heard the knock on his parents’ door.  Dad had been gone over an hour, they were getting worried.  But still, what could have happened?  The car-parts store was less than three miles away.

Images, sounds, smells raced into his head, like snapshots from a nightmare.  The door opening, revealing two police officers.  They appeared solemn, yet mechanical.  Just doing their job.  Mom shrieking when she heard them say Dad had been blindsided by a teenager running a red light.  The table had been set, the glasses full of water, the salad ready to eat, tossed in the flower-patterned bowl Mom had owned since before Patrick was born.  Dad’s plate and silverware and napkin laid out in his spot, at the head of the table.  The smell of pot roast in the oven, mashed potatoes with butter on the stovetop.  And seeing the calendar on the kitchen wall, the picture showing a snowy field in some distant mountain valley, sparkling under a blue sky the color of his dad’s eyes.  And on the date he had come over—February 17—Mom’s curly, pretty script:  “Patrick coming for supper!”

But more than anything, he remembered the cries of his mother.  She yelled at the officers, “No, no, it can’t be!  This can’t be happening!”  Later that night, Mom was in her bedroom, in the bed she had shared with her husband for thirty-two years, crying and saying, softly now, over and over, “No.”

And through it all, Patrick could only feel one thing, one repeating thought, bent on driving him mad:  It should’ve been me.  Not Dad.  It should’ve been me.  If only he hadn’t forgotten to buy the transmission fluid.  If only he had insisted that he, not Dad, go to the store!  It should’ve been me.

The train lurched again, causing some of his beer to spill.  That apparently struck the young couple as funny, because they giggled harder.  Patrick wished he could share even one-sixtieth of their good humor.  This wasn’t working.  Coming to the Lounge Car had only made things worse.  He cursed himself for having gone back home for Christmas.  All it accomplished was to cause these memories to bubble back up to the surface—after he had spent the last two years forcing them down.  That’s why he’d moved away.  He couldn’t take it anymore.  Every time he visited his mom or saw Jayne, he saw the sadness in their eyes.  And when he saw that, he felt condemned.  He knew they didn’t do it on purpose, but he didn’t need to see it, either.  Going home for the holidays, nothing had changed.  So Patrick decided to leave ahead of schedule.  He needed to go back to Denver, far away from his mom’s sad eyes, no matter what Jayne accused him of.  Running away?  Yes, he was running away.  He needed to rebury those memories again.  Shove them deep inside an impregnable vault where they couldn’t touch him, couldn’t harm him, couldn’t haunt him.

It should have been me.

“Shut up!” he yelled, and the bald man turned to glare at him.  Even the couple stopped giggling.

He downed the remainder of his beer, then got up to leave.  He realized he was better off chatting with Becca, as long as she didn’t pester him to “talk about it.”

“That was quick,” she said when he brushed past her and took his window seat again.  Outside, it was full dark now.

He rested his elbow on the base of the window, cupped his chin in his hand, gazing out into the pitch nothingness of the night.

“Guess you didn’t have such a riveting time, huh?”  she said.

He looked at her, and she smiled.  Despite her awful scar, he actually thought she was pretty.  But the scar distracted him.  He tried not to fixate on it, but he couldn’t help it.

She traced the outline of the scar with her fingertips.  “Mmm-hmm, I know,” she said.  “Hard to miss, isn’t it?”

Immediately, he looked away, at the seatback in front of him.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to—”

She smiled again.  “Hey, it’s okay.  At least you weren’t staring with your mouth hanging open.  People do, you know.”  He swallowed, still feeling like he’d done something wrong.  “I don’t mind talking about it,” she went on.  “I mean, it’s a part of me, you know?  It’s the first thing everyone sees.”

There was a call over the PA system, they were taking more reservations for the next meal to be served in the Dining Car.  A short, fat man, middle-aged, immediately rose from his seat and waddled down the aisle.  He nearly tripped and fell when the train lurched, and a blond-haired kid snickered.  The fat man blushed and cursed, then walked through the doors into the adjoining car.

Becca eyed the blond kid with amusement.  “You know, I wasn’t much older than him when I got this,” she said, still touching her injury.  “I was only a little girl, five at the time.”

“Look, you don’t have to tell me about it,” Patrick said.  They were passing through a small town now, past a darkened post office, a brick town hall, and a row of stores that appeared to be closed for the evening.  “I’m sure it’s not something you like to talk about.”

She glanced past him, out the window.  “I was left by myself—only for a couple of minutes, but that was all it took.  I found this pair of scissors, and it was like I was in a trance or something.  I wanted to see if I could make myself feel something, I had to feel something, even if it hurt.  Just to see what all the fuss was about, you know?  Everyone was always telling me to be careful, but I just couldn’t understand.”

That makes two of us, Patrick thought.

“Remember how I told you before you left that I wouldn’t know if it was too hot in here?” she asked.  He nodded.  He remembered, all right.  She was a strange one.  “Well, if you want to know the truth . . . you’re sitting next to a true marvel of the medical community.  I’m a real find, y’know.  I’m one of only sixty people in the United States with CIPA.  And only a fraction of us ever get through childhood.  And here I am, twenty-six and still kicking.  I should get a medal or something.”

He just looked at her.  Every time she opened her mouth, she lost him a little more.

“CIPA . . .” she continued, apparently sensing his confusion . . . “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis.  It’s a condition you’re born with.  Basically, I can’t feel any pain.  I can’t feel the cold or the heat.  You can kick me in the face ten times and I won’t feel a thing!  Or throw me in a bucket of ice water, and I wouldn’t feel cold.  Pretty crazy, huh?  You should Google it sometime.”

He gave no reply, and she paused to allow him to digest it all.  His first thought was that she was making it up.  But then he figured she was probably telling the truth.  Why would someone lie about such an odd, unheard-of condition?  How would that benefit her?

“And, see, that’s what really made me want to do something to cause a sensation, to even cause pain,” she said.  The train had left the small town behind, as it continued its journey over the prairie-like countryside.  Soon they would cross the Mississippi River, into Iowa.  A long way to go before reaching Denver.  “I mean, everyone was always telling me that knives were dangerous, fire was dangerous, scissors were dangerous.  But it was just words to me, you know?  It didn’t mean anything.  So I had to see.  What can I say?  I was five.

“So I went to the dresser where I knew the scissors were, and I . . . well, let’s just say I was a very curious little girl.  I jabbed the sharp end into my face, right here. . .”  She gently massaged a point on the scar directly beside her eye.  “Good thing I didn’t go a little to the left, huh?  Or else I’d be blind.  But I still didn’t feel anything, and I was like, ‘What is this?  What’s the big deal about scissors?’  So I pushed them in a little deeper and then I dragged them all the way down to here.”  She touched the bottom of her scar, just an inch away from her chin.  “And you know, I still didn’t feel anything, and I started to see all this blood.  But I didn’t know what to make of it.  I mean, I felt fine!  So I was about to try the other side of my face, and that’s when my mom came into the room.  I guess you can figure out the rest, huh?”  She smiled.  “They took me to the hospital, and I had to have surgery.  They did the best they could, but . . . .  Anyway, I try to look on the bright side.  I mean, when I get a filling, they don’t need to shoot me up with Novacaine.  And you know what?  I can’t even sweat!  How many women would love to be able to say that?”

She laughed, and he laughed with her, though he felt awkward laughing on the heels of such a grisly story.  More than that, he felt dazed, as if he’d had five beers instead of only one.  It was so hard to wrap his head around this, to make sense of it.  But it was true.  She didn’t feel pain.  She was like a rock.  The more he thought of it, the more he liked it.

“Man, imagine that,” he said.  “No matter what happens, not to be able to feel a thing.”

She tilted her head, looked at him closely.  “It’s really not such a great deal,” she said.  “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Why not?  It sounds pretty good to me.”

“But don’t you understand?  I can’t feel any pain!  Don’t you see what that means?  I would have killed myself with those scissors if my mom hadn’t come back when she did.  I would’ve killed myself without even knowing it.  And even now, it’s like, I know not to do things that are dangerous, but it’s still kind of like secondhand knowledge, you know?  It’s like if you read about a volcano in the Indian Ocean or something.  It’s just news, information.  It’s not personal.  I know a knife will make me bleed, but I won’t feel the wound.  You see what I’m trying to say?  And what’s to stop me from burning myself on an electric stovetop?  I can touch the burner, and I wouldn’t even know it’s on!  Then when I look at my hand later and see all the skin is gone, I’d be like, ‘Uh oh.’  Or what if I stuck my hand in a sink full of soapy dishwater and jabbed at a piece of broken glass without even knowing it?  I could slice my wrist open.  Every day is like a minefield, Patrick.”

A handful of passengers walked by, most likely heading to the Dining Car.  They were serving three-cheese lasagna this evening, among other possibilities, all of which sounded good.  Maybe he’d go a bit later, but not now.  Not now.

Becca took a deep breath.  “It’s all just like a mask, a gimmick,” she explained.  “I mean, I can’t feel pain, but I can still get injured.  I still bleed and bruise, and my bones can still break.  The feeling no pain . . . it’s just a cover-up.  It doesn’t really protect me from anything.  It’s like pretend.  Like an act.  I mean, no matter what you’re born with, or what you try to make yourself believe, the things that can hurt you will hurt you.  You know what I mean?”

He just sat there, staring at his lap.

“I think you do,” she said.  “I think you know exactly what I mean.  Don’t you, Patrick?”

He was disconcerted, again, by the way she saw right through him.  He wanted to deny it, to deny her, but he couldn’t.  He dared to look at her, and she had concern in her eyes.  Understanding.  Compassion.  But none of those things set him off.  It was the scar.  That deep, old scar that slithered its way down her cheek like the imprint of a snake fossil.  He visualized Becca at five, wanting desperately to feel, even as she gouged her face and spilled her own blood.  And somehow, he just couldn’t deal with that.

The tears came, suddenly and with great force.  He coughed on his own phlegm, burying his face on Becca’s shoulder.  His body rocked and jerked.  He was sure he caused Becca to rock and jerk right along with him, but he couldn’t stop.

“That’s right,” Becca said, putting an arm around him as he kept on crying.  “You just let it out.”

He was aware, vaguely, that people were staring at him.  He sensed the blond kid’s eyes boring a hole through Becca’s back and right into his head.  But he didn’t care.  He was aware, too, that this was the first he had cried since . . . he couldn’t even remember the last time.  He just knew he hadn’t cried since Dad’s death.  Not at hearing the news.  Not at the funeral.  Not even when he moved away from home, halfway across the continent.  And certainly not yesterday, with his mom and sister.  When he saw them crying, he never thought it did them any good.  What was the point?  People needed to move past their losses, push them away.  If you gave into them, they would paralyze you.  That’s why he’d never allowed himself to cry.  He always feared that once he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop.  He thought he’d only get bogged down in the morass of guilt and regrets and lost dreams that floated high above, always out of reach.

But when the tears finally slowed, and then stopped, he found that he felt better than he had in a long time, as though a monstrous weight had been lifted from him.  He sat upright again, not looking at Becca, and peered out the window at the blackness, at nothing.

“Better?” she asked.

He shrugged, nodded, still not looking at her.

She reached over, gently turned his face to hers.  “It’s okay,” she said.  “It’s all right.”

He felt a lump in his throat, and worried he might cry again.  But he didn’t.

“So,” she said, “you ready to talk about it now?”

He looked into the green eyes of this stranger, this scarred woman he had chanced to meet on his long way back to the studio apartment where he laid his head down to sleep each night.  Where he was running back to as a desperate man in search of a refuge.  But it wasn’t a refuge.  He knew that now.  It never had been.  He looked at this stranger who was no longer a stranger, this friend who had seen him more clearly than anyone ever had.  Even himself.

“Yeah,” he said.  “I think I am.”

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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