To My Father

Dear Dad,

Tonight you pissed me off. Tonight you took a swing at me. Tonight I stormed out of the house.

I got in my car, I revved the engine until it roared, I swerved out of the driveway. My tires spit pebbles at your house.  Just like I spit at you.

I drove and drove and drove, racing around curves, accelerating into bends, leaping over hills. I smacked the steering wheel with the palm of my hand until my skin turned blotchy and red; I punched the dashboard until my knuckles were raw and bruised. I screamed until my voice was a raspy whisper.

You pissed me off.

The truth is, Dad, I love you. I know you love me. But you know how to make me angry, how to make my blood boil, my skin heat, my fists ball, my scalp itch with rage. You’d say that you know how to press my buttons because you installed them. You’d be right.

But, tonight, Dad, it went too far. I said terrible things to you, things a son should never say to his father. I called you a mean bastard, I called you a horrible father, a worthless man, a shell of a human being. I said I hated you, that I never loved you, that I never wanted to see you again.

I didn’t mean it.

I do want to see you again.

But on one of those bends, after one of those hills and before another one of those curves, I lost control. My car spun and spun, and I could see the trees whipping past my window. It seemed like the outside was moving in front of me, like a movie on a screen. Inside, all was still. I didn’t touch the wheel, I didn’t press my foot on the brake or the gas. I let my life spin out in front of me, I watched it pass me by. I sat, unbuckled in my seat, motionless. Paralyzed by the movement. Calm and at peace.

Then the car hit a tree. I never heard the crunching of the metal, the screaming of the carriage as it bent in half, the tinkling of the broken windshield. I never felt my body fly through the rectangular opening beyond the wheel, land on the rocks, behind the bushes and behind the large oak tree. I never saw the leaves floating down to caress my battered body, to soothe away the aches and pains.

But I saw you.

I saw your face when the officer came to the door. The confusion, the fear, the grief in your eyes when he told you about the accident. I saw the tears that streamed down your crumpled face. I saw your fists bunch as they had earlier, but instead of hitting me, you hit the wall, over and over again until your ripped hand went clean through the wood paneling. I saw you fall to the floor, land on your knees, shake and yell at the god you said you never believed in – especially after the war. And I saw you curl into a ball, my senior portrait in its plastic gold frame, tucked under your arms.

You slept.

I died.

I’m sorry, Dad. For everything. I love you. I’m waiting.

Scott

To My Mother

Dear Mom,

I saw you for the last time today. You were curled up in a hospital bed, your body frail, your hair thin, your skin cold. You opened your eyes briefly when I came into the room. What was vibrant blue is now cloudy white. You still had that spark of liveliness behind your gaze, but it had dulled, become tired and pale and worn. It is a small comfort, but I think you were ready to go. You waited until I could say goodbye, then you squeezed my hand once as I cupped your wrinkled one in my own. You closed your eyes for the last time, and I laid my forehead on the white starchy sheets of your bed.

I miss you so much.

I wasn’t able to tell you much in the end. You were always sleeping, I was nervy and restless and overwhelmed. My nerves felt like they were on fire; even the touch of my daughter’s hand to my own sent sparks through my skin, bumped my heartbeat up to a gallop, flushed my skin. I couldn’t sit still, except with you. Then I had the calmness, the quiet, the company. But the words wouldn’t come. So here are the words I would wrap for you as a gift, tuck them in your pocket, bury them with you so you could carry them with you until I see you again. I’ll see you again.

You are, and always have been, the person I have strived to be. You worked so hard for me, even after Daddy died. Looking back, I realize that the late nights, the overtime, the myriad part-time jobs and couponing and skimping and saving were for me. It took the beauty of motherhood for me to understand that sacrifice. I was ungrateful as a teenager, and I know it. I wanted what the popular, rich girls had; you couldn’t give it to me, and I punished you for it. I’m sorry. Sorry that I underestimated your love, your home, your lack of materialism. That was the greatest lesson you have taught me, one I hope to pass on to Sylvie. It is not what you have that makes you who are; it’s your core, your self, your values and thoughts and feelings that determine your self-worth. Funny how the outside doesn’t really matter.

You showed me how to laugh. Still, when I watch movies, I imagine you sitting next to me, tucked under your favored blanket – you always loved being cozy – laughing and laughing and laughing. You had the best laugh. It started deep in your belly, rolled through your chest, bubbled out of your throat and mouth, filled the room with giddiness and light. Sylvie has your laugh.

You have always accepted me for who I am, my choices and my mistakes, my achievements and my failures. I had to take responsibility for my decisions – that’s what an adult does, you told me – but you always supported me. And occasionally gave me that kick in the butt I needed. Procrastination is my best friend and my worst enemy. But now I hear you in my head, telling me to “get on that!” and “be proactive!” and “stop talking, just do it!” The only thing missing is the motherly swat that would follow your orders.

And thank you for introducing me to Jack. I should’ve known that you would set me up on the one blind date that would turn into a relationship, then a marriage. I could tell that day by the spark in your eye, your uncontrollable smile, your nervous, jittery movements around the kitchen. How is it a mother always knows before her daughter? When he proposed, you danced – DANCED – around the room, shaking and wiggling and punching the air like I’ve never seen! And you cried silent tears at the wedding.

Now the only tears left are my own. They are hot and stinging and fall from my eyes in a drenching rain. I can’t stop them. Even now they drop onto this letter, polka dotting my words.

You are my mother, and I love you. I thank you.

I miss you.

Always,

Lacie

Run Away Home

10-year-old Margot stomped into her room and slammed the door so hard that the puppy calendar on the back swung wildly. She opened the door and slammed it once more, just for good measure. The panting golden retrievers slipped off their nail, and the glossy pages slid to the floor.

“I hate you,” she whispered, with a furtive glance toward the closed door.

When there were no angry footsteps, no answering shouts, no punishments, Margot balled her fists and raised her voice – almost to speaking level.

“I hate you.”

With rebellion pumping through her, Margot strode forward to pull the rolling suitcase out from underneath her unmade bed. She flipped the pink lid up and over, then tossed in her fancy dress, a nightgown, socks. Brearly, her favorite stuffed animal, the pillow from her bed. Her new chapter book. Her baby blanket, the one she still slept with, though her friends didn’t know that.

She pulled the pink lid back over and sat on it, reaching around and between her legs to tug the cheap plastic zipper closed.

She was leaving this place, Margot thought. She hated it here, hated her mom, hated her little sister. She wanted to go to where her dad was. She knew that he’d gone to heaven, and she wanted to go to heaven, too. Margot wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but she thought she’d be able to find it.

Her dad had always told her what a smart girl she was. Every summer, when they’d gone on their annual road trip to South Dakota to visit her grandparents, Margot would sit in the front seat with him, the paper map unfolded and spread across her legs. She’d follow the highway lines with her fingertip, tracing it upwards and sideways. She was a navigator, her dad said. And he’d reach out a hand to stroke it down her head, his strong fingers catching in her mess of golden curls.

If she could direct her dad from Iowa to South Dakota, she could definitely find heaven.

She slipped on her parka, then tiptoed over to her door. She turned the doorknob slowly and pulled it open a few inches, just enough to peek out. The carpeted hallway was empty. Her mother’s bedroom door across the hall was closed. But Sally’s door was open, and Margot could hear her sister’s voice singing sweetly.

She snuck past her mother’s room, and the suitcase wheeled silently behind her. She tried to pass Sally’s room, but the little girl glanced up and asked, “Margot, where are you going?”

“Shh. I’m just going away for a while. I’m going to find Daddy.”

“But Margot, Mommy said he was in heaven.”

“I know, stupid, that’s where I’m going.”

“Can I come?”

“No, you can’t. I’m going by myself.”

“Mommy’s not going?”

“No.”

“But Margot, how will you get to heaven without Mommy? We can’t cross the street by ourselves.”

Margot sighed.

“Sally, heaven isn’t across the street.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know, ok? I’m going.”

“Bye, Margot.”

“Bye.”

Margot pulled her suitcase to the front door and stepped outside into the cooling air. The sun was setting, stretching long orange fingers across the sky. She walked down the concrete steps, her suitcase bumping along behind her.

The tree-lined street was empty; everyone, it seemed, was inside, eating dinner with their families. Windows glowed warmly, smiling faces gathered around polished tables piled with food. Cats and dogs were put out back.

Margot turned left, deciding to head north. That seemed to be the most reasonable direction, to her way of thinking. South Dakota was to the north, Santa Claus was to the north.  Heaven must be to the north.

She took off, marching down the street, her head held high, her eyes focused and determined. Her suitcase rolled along behind her, its plastic wheels shredding from contact with the rough, uneven sidewalk. But when she got to the end of the block, Margot puzzled about where to go next. Best to just turn and continue walking, she thought.

As she’d told Sally, heaven wasn’t going to be across the street. She smiled to herself at her sister’s innocence. What a funny girl, Margot thought, forgetting her annoyance earlier in the evening. She was going to miss Sally when she met up with Dad, but someone needed to stay behind to take care of Mom. Sally was the best at making people smile and laugh, and she would improve Mom’s bad moods – the ones that had lasted since Dad had left. Mom still worked and shopped and drove Margot and Sally to soccer practices and ballet lessons, but she yelled a lot more now. She’d yelled tonight, upset at Margot for refusing to go to the upcoming dance.

Well, Margot didn’t want to go to any stupid dance, no matter how much money her mother had spent on a new dress. The dance was for daddies and daughters only; mothers weren’t welcome. And since Margot’s dad had left, she didn’t have anyone to go with. She was absolutely, definitely not going with her mom. It was too embarrassing.

Margot slowed down to rub an ache at her chest. Her suitcase butted the backs of her legs, and she took a step forward. She didn’t recognize what the pain was; she only knew that it hurt. It hurt near her heart. She couldn’t know, but swirling underneath her parka, her blue sweater, her white undershirt and freckled skin, was guilt and grief and hurt.

She looked up at the brief twinkles of stars just coming out to play. She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing them shut until she could see shiny squiggles across the tops of her eyelids. She wished, and she wished to find heaven, to find her missing parent. She wanted Dad to come down and go to the dance with her, to hold her tight and tell her that she was his special girl. But when she opened here eyes, the street was still empty.

Hugging her arms to ward off the growing chill, Margot turned in a tight circle, her feet catching on the unsteady suitcase so that it toppled to the ground. No, Margot was still alone. And she still needed to find heaven.

She let out a deep breath, but, determined to continue, to escape her misery, she picked up her suitcase and continued down the street. And when she got to the end of it, she turned and walked up the next one. And when she got to the end of that one, she turned to walk up the street that had her home.

As she got closer, she saw her mother standing at the open doorway, her arms crossed at the waist and a heavy cable-knit sweater wrapped around her. Margot stopped, staring at the silhouetted figure.

“Margot?”

Margot stood at the sidewalk. She felt like her legs were frozen to the ground. She couldn’t move.

Her mother stepped over the threshold and descended the stairs. She came half-way down the walk, before calling out again, “Margot?”

Margot nodded.

“Sally said you were running away.”

Margot nodded again.

“Where were you running to?”

“Heaven.”

Margot’s mom made a choking sound, a sob that broke somewhere inside her. She looked away. She gazed at nothing, saw nothing, just tried to control the tears pricking her eyes, the anguish filling her throat.

“I wanted to go be with Dad. I don’t want to go to the dance without him. I took my dress with me to show him.”

Margot’s mom turned back, taking in – for the first time – her little girl with the deep brown eyes. She dropped to her knees and reached out her arms, her expression begging for Margot to walk into her embrace.

Tired and hungry and hurting, Margot let go of the suitcase, to rush into the open arms, to lay her cold cheek on the thick cotton-covered shoulder that smelled like home.

“Margot,” her mother said, rubbing her hand in circles on the girl’s back, “I wish I could tell you how to get to heaven, but I don’t know how. I think the only people who know are there already.”

“I can’t get there by myself?”

“Not right now.”

“When can I go to heaven?”

“Later. Much later. Dad will be waiting for you.”

“He doesn’t mind? He won’t get bored?”

“No, and he won’t get bored. There’s plenty to do there. I bet he’s fishing with Grandpa right now and listening to music.”

“Do I have to go to the dance without him?”

“No, honey, you don’t. You and Sally and I can stay in and eat popcorn and watch movies. And we can talk about Dad.”

Margot’s mom stood up and reached out a hand to her daughter. Together, they walked into the white house with the blue shutters, the one that had its own glowing windows and that smelled like dinner time.

Falling Leaves

The road stretched before him, its curves and dips and leafy debris reflected in the round lenses of his spectacles. The eyes behind the lenses were a watery brown and red-rimmed. The face was tired and sagging, and deep lines were carved into the gray skin. The mouth hadn’t lifted into a smile in more than three years. Perhaps it didn’t even remember how.

The man sighed, the long breath whistling out of his lips. He tightened his fingers around the leather-trimmed wheel and steered through another bend in the road. Up ahead was a sign with neatly worded letters, “The Hillside Manor.” The sign’s two legs stood still and sturdy in the packed earth. Patches of browning grass sprouted around the faded-white supports, and an occasional breeze whipped red and orange and yellow and russet leaves around.

But the man merely read the sign and turned into the drive, his eyes brushing over the spots of color.

At the top of the steep drive stood a large brick building, its exterior faded by winds and snows. White shutters, repainted every summer, hung at every spotless window. The building was old and settled, and the cosmetic changes did little to hide its age. But the effort was made.

The man turned into a narrow parking lot, the loose gravel crunching under his tires. He parked and lifted the emergency brake. And then he sat there while the car ticked and hissed. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and breathed deeply, rhythmically. This visit was going to be one of his last, he promised himself. Maybe not the final visit, but this would be the end of his regular trips here. His heart just couldn’t take it anymore.

He lifted his head up, rolled it around to stretch out his neck. He grabbed the trench coat he’d tossed onto the passenger seat and got out of the car. He shrugged the coat on and dipped his fingers in the pockets.

As he approached the visitor’s entrance, a round face popped out and sent him a bright smile.

“Well, hi there, Mr. Blatt. How are you doing on this fine day?”

Mr. Blatt nodded at the nurse and gave a terse response.

“Fine.”

“Your girl is upstairs waiting for you. Make sure to sign in first.”

The nurse reached over to pat Mr. Blatt’s arm. She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “She’s having a good day today.” Then she winked.

Mr. Blatt fought the urge to grimace at the nurse’s cheer. Cheer that seemed so harsh and glaring in a place like Hillside Manor. A tragedy and a farce, hand in hand.

He nodded once more. And then he was climbing the stairs, his brown shoes squeaking on the linoleum, the stairs groaning underneath his weight.

“You have a good day!” The nurse called after him.

He ignored her.

When Mr. Blatt reached the top of the stairs, he was out of breath. Not the young man he once was, he thought, picking a white handkerchief from his pocket to mop the beads of sweat forming at his temples.

He turned to the left and the hall stretched before him, becoming smaller and smaller in the distance. He paused, waiting for the dancing stars to leave his vision, then took one shaky step after another, his hand pressed to the wall.

He knew the way to the room. He’d been here, in this building, in this hallway, hundreds of times over the past few years. Weekend after weekend. Sometimes on holidays. Once on his anniversary. His destination was seven doors down, on the right, room 236. Room 234 was before it, room 238 was after it.

He walked his 50 paces to the front of the door, his stomach sinking. He felt as though the closer he came to room 236, the unhappier he became. He dropped bits and pieces of happiness with every step, leaving them littering the sterile white floor. And he couldn’t pick the pieces back up when he left.

Mr. Blatt knocked on the metal door then pushed it open to reveal a stark white room. One bed, one bathroom, one window, one chair. No color or life. No photos or artwork or flowers or sewing paraphernalia. Dullness permeated room 236.

At the sound of his knock, he heard a mumble come from the bed. He shuffled into the room, obligation pushing him over the threshold. In the white bed with white sheets and a white blanket lay his wife, Marianna.

She wasn’t the wife he knew, the vibrant, loving, sexy woman. She was a shell, and her lively spirit had vanished long ago, taken away by the wind that spun outside the window.

“Good morning,” Mr. Blatt said, pulling the chair close to the bed. He stretched his arm forward, and the pads of his fingers lingered at the top of her hand.

Marianna’s faded blue eyes hardly moved at the feel of his touch. But she lowered her wrinkling lids once.

Mr. Blatt sat back in the chair, crossed one leg over the other. He glanced around the room, thinking again how lifeless it was. He couldn’t gather his thoughts, couldn’t think where to start. He felt like such a fool, talking to his wife this way, like she was a stranger. Not the woman he’d loved for decades.

“The kids are good,” he offered. “Robbie’s got a new writing gig in Hollywood. He has a new girlfriend, too. He didn’t tell me, but Bonnie did. The girlfriend is a single mother. She has a son named Mark.

“Bonnie is good, too. You know how the kids keep her busy. You used to know, I suppose. Angela’s going to be in high school this year. She is so beautiful. She looks just like her mother. And her grandmother.”

Mr. Blatt lightly stroked his wife’s hand one more time before linking his fingers with hers, drawing her hand into his lap.

Marianna blinked her eyes once more before shifting her gaze so it landed on her husband. She curled one finger around his, though her eyes showed no recognition of the man in front of her.

“I had the plumber come yesterday. That pipe in the basement started leaking again, and I didn’t want a repeat of the flood of ’96. Remember how we had almost a foot of water down there? Such a shame that we lost all of the Christmas decorations, some of our book collection.”

Mr. Blatt paused. Why did he think she would remember? He lifted one hand off of hers to scrub his forehead, pinch the skin between his eyes, tug on an earlobe.

“I miss you, Marianna. I miss you so goddamn much, every single day. And I hate – I hate – this disease that’s taken you from me. I hate it.”

He lifted her hand, rubbed it against his stubbly cheek. Then he twisted his neck to kiss her fingers.

“What a waste,” he whispered, his voice cracking.

He lowered his head, laid it into his own hands and that of his wife. The tears clung to his lashes, dropped onto his glasses, dripped onto the clasped hands.

With a wet sniff, he lifted his head to catch her gaze. When her eyes held his, his breath hitched.

“You’re a sweet man, aren’t you?” she asked with a grating, weak voice.

“No, no I’m not.”

“You look like a sweet man. And a sad man. Why are you sad?”

“I miss my wife.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s not here.”

“I’m terribly sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“No. No, there’s nothing you can do.”

“Would you like me to call the nurse? Maybe she can help you find your wife.”

“No, thank you. She can’t help.”

“What’s her name? Your wife.”

“Her name was Marianna. But she was Mari to me.”

“Mari. That’s a pretty name.”

“Yes, it is.”

“What was she like?”

Mr. Blatt turned away, away from the seeking eyes, the curiosity, the ignorance. Away from the frail body, the thin voice.

“She made my life bright. When we first met, she was one of my students. Brilliant, she was. And she had the most luxurious hair. Long and curling and red. It would tickle my cheeks and my hands when I was near her. One day, she said she was coming home with me. She never left.”

“She was a good wife?”

“She was a good wife, a good mother. An entertainer. She used to throw the most wonderful parties. She would dance around the room and around people, and the light from candles and chandeliers would glint off of her hair. She was like an angel. I used to sit on the staircase and just watch her.”

“That’s very nice. I would’ve liked to meet her.”

“Me, too.”

A brisk knock at the door jamb shook both Marianna and Mr. Blatt out of their conversation. The nurse from earlier, whose nametag read “Martha,” stood in the doorway, a grin plastered on her face.

“Hi, you two. Sorry to interrupt, but it’s time for Mrs. Blatt’s medicine,” she said in a singsongy voice. It sounded out of tune to Mr. Blatt’s ears.

She strode into the room, her white pants making slicking noises as her hefty thighs rubbed together. She held out a paper cup filled with colorful pills, white and pink and blue.

While Marianna tossed the pills into her mouth with a shaking hand, Martha poured her a glass of water from the plastic pitcher on the nightstand.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” she said, trading cups with Marianna. “How are you doing in here? Are you having a good conversation?”

“Yes,” Marianna replied after swallowing her medication. “This man was just telling me about his wife.”

“Was he,” Martha asked, raising an eyebrow at Mr. Blatt, who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. “You know, honey, who is wife is, don’t you?”

Marianna’s lips pursed and her eyes narrowed in concentration.

“No, I don’t believe I do. We’ve never met.”

“Sure you do, sweetiepie. You’re his wife,” Martha said, and a childish giggle bubbled out of her thick lips.

Mr. Blatt shook his head, unsurprised at Martha’s indiscretion, her stupidity. It wasn’t the first time the nurse had shocked Marianna, confused her, upset her. He preferred to keep his Mari in a safe place, in the cozy cocoon of denial.

“What do you mean I’m his wife? We’ve never met before,” Marianna protested, her voice rising a few octaves as panic overtook her. “I don’t know this man. Who is he? What is he doing here?”

Martha gave Marianna’s shoulder a brisk rub.

“It’s ok, darling. Don’t you worry about a thing. This man visits you every week. He’s no one to be afraid of.”

“What’s his name?” Marianna asked, peering up into Martha’s plump face.

“Mr. Blatt.”

“What’s his first name?”

The answer came from the man slumped in the uncomfortable chair, an elbow propped on an arm rest, forehead in hand.

“Roger.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted,” Martha sang as she swished out of the room.

Roger watched her leave, glaring at her massive bottom.

Marianna watched him, uncertainty twisting her features. She withdrew her hand from his, then rubbed it across the waffled blanket covering her chest. It was a gesture meant to soothe, to comfort. Roger recognized it.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said stiffly.

“That’s alright.”

“I came here today,” he began, “to talk to you about my wife. You are my wife. You were my wife. But you have a disease. Sometimes you don’t remember who I am, who our children are. But I come every week, hoping that you might remember.”

“Have I ever remembered?”

“Not in the last several months.”

“Will I get better?” she asked, her voice quaking, her eyes glimmering.

“No.”

Marianna looked at the popcorned ceiling and blinked her eyes furiously, trying to keep her tears back. After a few minutes, and with several shaking breaths, she had calmed, comforted, settled herself. She turned back to Roger, unsteadily took his hand in hers. Covered it.

“Tell me about myself.”

“You were lovely. You’re still lovely. We had a happy life. I thought we would grow old together, enjoy our retirement. You would garden, I would write that novel. We would babysit the grandkids every other weekend. Spoil them. But our plans never happened.”

Mr. Blatt adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. Bought himself time to make sure his voice was even.

“You came here three years ago. It was hard, very hard. You’d always been forgetful and absentminded, but this was different. You started forgetting my name, our children’s names, our address. You got lost going around the block. You couldn’t even remember which house was ours, though we’d been living there for 30 years. The doctors said you had Alzheimer’s, among other things. And it never gets better. It never gets better.”

Roger looked up. Marianna’s eyes were closed, her breathing regular and deep.

He removed his hand from hers. Then he pressed it to his slowly beating heart. He held it there, steadying himself as emotions ran through him, tingling at his toes, pricking at his fingertips, burning his chest. He had to leave.

He leaned down, pressed his lips to Marianna’s papery cheek.

“Goodbye, Mari.”

He walked out of the room without a backward glance, his footsteps heavy, his back slouched. He descended the stairs, past Martha, past the sign-out book.

He crunched across the parking lot, unlocked his car and climbed into the seat. He turned on the car with a twist of the key, lowered the emergency brake. And he drove slowly, deliberately down the drive, out of the gates.

About a mile outside of Hillside Manor, he pulled over and parked his car between two colorful trees.

He opened the car door and stepped out, his loafers slipping on the rocks underneath his feet. He slammed the door shut and looked off into the distance, through the trees, to the water below. With a cry, he suddenly bent to snag pieces of rock to hurl them into the distance.

The rocks flew out of his fingers. His shoulders ached with the effort of grabbing and throwing. His palms bled, the sharp rocks having scored the thin skin.

But he threw, and he threw, and he threw. He raged, and he shouted, cursing himself, cursing his wife, cursing the higher power he had never believed in. Finally he opened his mouth wide and screamed. Screamed so his face was shaking, his eyes were bulging, his delicate glasses were trembling on his face. His hands fisted around rocks, his nails pressing and breaking, tiny ribbons of blood snaking down his fingers.

Then he stopped. His grip loosened, and the rocks fell.

His chest heaved up and down.

He dropped his head.

And he got back in his car and drove, steering through the dips and curves, heading toward an empty house. His eyes focused on the road. He never noticed the richly-hued leaves around him. He never noticed the life around him.

Red and Green

*Note: I’m very pleased to announce that the story below was a finalist in Compass Rose’s flash fiction contest!

Johnny wasn’t entirely sure how he’d ended up at the gas station that night, gun in hand, ski mask on. The cashier – young, naïve, sweaty – had pissed himself when he saw Johnny and Sean, the urine dribbling down his pant leg to form a yellow puddle on the floor. Johnny felt sorry the guy; he wasn’t going to shoot him, he just needed the money. All the guy had to do was open the register and give him the cash. But the guy panicked, holding up his arms, waving them back and forth like some kind of windmill caught in a hurricane. And then Sean shot him, and it all went to hell.

Johnny’d only meant to get a few bucks, enough to help pay this month’s rent. He’d seen the red-stamped envelopes, the late notices, the eviction letter. He’d heard his mother’s weeping at night, saw his baby sister’s face puckered with worry, asking why Mama was crying. He just wanted to relieve his mother’s worry, lift that burden from her shoulders long enough so that she would smile again. Be like that guy Atlas he’d seen in a book. Balancing the weight of the world, his mother’s world, on his shoulders. And so he’d let Sean talk him into this robbery, quick cash he’d said.

But he’d never seen blood like that, heard screams like that; the poor guy’s shrieking had reverberated throughout the store. Johnny’s ears had rung, traumatized by the deafening gunshot, the inhuman keening of the cashier. He had dropped the gun, barely registering its muffled metallic clunk as it hit the linoleum floor, and covered his ears.

“Sean, what did you do?”

Sean looked at him, stunned, like he didn’t realize it had been he who’d pulled the trigger. He stared down at the black weapon in his hand, his finger still hovering over the trigger.

“I didn’t mean to,” he told Johnny, his eyes widening with shock, “I really didn’t mean to.”

Both boys eyed the dying cashier, the blood, crimson and thick, oozing out of his gut to pool on the floor. The kid was wheezing, the sound harsh and rasping. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, his gaze unfocused, and his skin had taken on a sallow, waxy texture.

“We gotta do something, man, we can’t just leave him like this,” Johnny said as he began to pace back and forth in front of the counter. “We can’t let him die.”

“Shit, shit!” Sean scrubbed his hands over his face, pulling up his soft cotton ski mask. “Let’s just grab the cash, then call 911 from a payphone.”

Johnny turned and bellied onto the counter, stretching to snag the bills clasped in the register drawer. As he straightened to put the money in his pocket, he glanced up to the corner, caught the eye of the security camera.

“Sean, pull your mask down!” Johnny gestured toward the camera, his movements jerky.

“Oh no,” Sean whispered as he adjusted the black cloth to re-cover his nose and his mouth. “Let’s just get outta here, man.”

They pushed through the glass doors and ran from the store. Johnny ran, and he ran, and he ran, until his lungs were burning, his face dripping with sweat, his legs sore from pounding the hard pavement. He’d lost his mask at some point; the wind had pushed it up his face, over his head, into the street where careless drivers passed over it again and again, whipping it through their dirty tires. He didn’t know where Sean was. But he ran until he reached his home, and there he ran through the door, up the stairs, into his family’s apartment.

He ran past his mother’s room, past his baby sister sleeping on the couch, into his bedroom. And then he stopped.

He sat down on his sagging bed, leaned back until his head bumped the thin wall behind him. His chest heaved, up and down and up and down. As his breath slowed, Johnny reached into his pocket to pull out the cash he’d stolen, the cash that had cost someone his life. He fingered the soft paper, his thumb tracing presidents’ faded green faces.

He let out a long breath, then stood. He crept into his mother’s bedroom and slowly slid the cash under her pillow before leaning down to give her a light kiss on the cheek.

“I love you, Mama,” he whispered.

Then he walked slowly out of the apartment, walked out of the building, walked down the street, walked the blocks and blocks to a squat cement building marked with stark black letters, “Police.” And Johnny, a 14-year-old boy, a criminal, turned himself in.

Her Greatest Love

The marble sink felt cool and comforting beneath her clammy hands. She lowered her head, dropping her chin to her chest, and took three deep breaths. When her rapidly beating heart began to slow, she looked up into the bathroom mirror. Her brown hair, which she had gotten up so early to curl, was as limp as day-old noodles, she thought. Her blue eyes were heavily mascaraed, her lips bright pink, but the purple circles under her eyes couldn’t be completely concealed. In a word, she looked tired. It was absolutely not what she’d been going for that morning.

She’d woken up at 5 a.m., humming to herself as she rolled out of bed and slipped on her faded purple terry cloth bathrobe. She’d sung in the shower that morning. She’d even turned on the radio, tuning into the Top 40 – songs that were a welcome change from “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” – while she did her hair and makeup.

But again, putting all of her effort into something had turned out like crap.

“Come on, Betsy. What is your problem? You knew he was going to show up today.”

Disgusted with herself for dolling up like some kind of high schooler on a first date, Betsy turned on the tap with a vicious turn of the wrist. She cupped her hands under the ice-cold water, then slapped the water across her face. The mascara dribbled down her cheeks, leaving tracks of black, and her eyes were red from the assault.

Betsy sniffed once, then turned the water off. She dried her face on a handful of paper towels.

“Ok, Betsy, just make the best of the situation. So he showed up to his son’s first birthday party with a bimbo. You’ve been separated for months now. He’s filed for divorce. It. Is. Over. Don’t let him hurt your feelings any longer. You do not love him anymore, and you know it.”

Betsy knew it. It was just hard to believe that she could put so much love and work and consideration into something, and that something would run off and have an affair with his coworker. What a cliché. And Betsy had felt like such a fool.

She smoothed down her skirt, and rebuttoned the top of her new cardigan she’d bought on sale for $19.99. It had been a good find. She gave herself one last look in the mirror, disgusted with her own self-pity and lack of confidence. Reminding herself to be a fierce and independent woman – after all, weren’t those today’s divorcée buzzwords? – she wrenched open the door of the bathroom, her temporary sanctuary.

And when she walked out into the bright room, crammed with balloons and shiny gifts and flashing cameras, Betsy found she didn’t focus on her ex, or his girlfriend with the growing belly – yes, that kind of belly. No, Betsy only had eyes for one male in the room, and he was missing his left front tooth and had a cowlick that couldn’t be tamed.

“Mommy, I’ve been waiting for you. Grandma says you should help me blow out the candles.”