Cake

Stacey wiped at her forehead with the back of her hand. She let out a long, slow breath then returned to her kneading, her palms massaging, manipulating and working the dough. With a grunt, she dropped the floury ball into a stainless steel bowl, which she then covered with a white towel. The motions were routine and mindless, and she began humming with every step.

Robert stood at the expansive “Whip It Good” bakery windows, watching Stacey move gracefully inside. Although it was closed and the main lights were turned off, the kitchen remained softly lit. Stacey glowed inside, her hair halo-like, her skin smooth. He missed her.

Stacey rummaged through the refrigerator, pulled out a long sheet of cupcakes. With a bulging bag of blue frosting nestled in her hands, she leaned over to circle and circle and circle the sugary topping on the moist pastry. She captured a drip of frosting on her finger and licked it off before admonishing herself and shifting to the small sink to wash her hands. Good thing no one could see her.

Robert rubbed a hand across his chest, the ache for her palpable. They’d been friends since college, had danced around each other and a possible romance for years. They’d taken the big leap a few weeks ago and hooked up. Then they’d hooked up again. And again. Finally, last night, as they’d wrapped themselves around each other in damp sheets, he’d told her how he really felt.

“Stacey, I…” he’d begun, hands lifted helplessly.

“What?” she’d asked, rubbing her nose against his stubbly cheek.

“I’m in love with you.”

Stacey’s mouth had dropped open. Then she’d giggled. Then laughed.

“I’m sorry, Robert,” she’d said. She kissed him lightly. “I love you, too. I love our time together. I love spending the night with you.”

Hope had sparked and died as she spoke. He was only a friend. He’d untangled himself from her, from the blankets. She’d left, pity and confusion clouding her blue eyes.

Stacey fit cupcake after cupcake into cardboard cutouts and folded down the lid of the to-go box. These were apology cupcakes, she’d decided. She couldn’t believe she’d laughed at Robert when the words had spilled out of his mouth. She’d panicked, she told herself. She loved him. She could picture their life together, their wedding – with a “Whip It Good” seven-tiered masterpiece, of course – their children, two girls with his chocolate eyes, her raven locks. She hummed louder, even tossed out a lyric or two of the pop song running through her head.

Robert allowed himself a minute longer to gaze at the singing Stacey, happily at home in her bakery. When his phone vibrated, he fished it out of his pocket, read the message: “Ready 2 go?”

He texted back: “Yea. Meet u at airport.”

From inside, Stacey cleaned up her workspace, checked on the bread – it would go in the oven in the morning after rising – and hung up her apron. She opened up her purse, dug through it for her phone.

Luggage rested on the sidewalk near Robert’s feet. He looked at Stacey, her back to him, her clog-encased foot beating a simple rhythm on the floor.

Stacey swiped through the phone. No messages. Nothing from Robert.

Robert slung a luggage strap across his shoulder, extended the handle of his suitcase with a click.

Stacey, with the cupcakes in one hand, slid her arm through the loops of her purse straps.

Robert waved at the turned Stacey through the window.

Stacey, tapping through the phone with a spare finger, didn’t see the shadow outside.

Robert turned and walked away, his suitcase bumping along the sidewalk.

Stacey turned and walked out the front door. She glanced right and left down the street as she locked the door. Empty.

Robert’s phone buzzed.

“I luv u 2.”

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Shipshape and Heartbreak

Her name was Madge, and she loved the color blue. On the last day of her life, she wore blue socks rolled at the ankle, a blue-and-white striped dress (because they were the easiest to put on) and tiny blue stud earrings (like what ladies wear). She’d also slid on a headband to pull back the wispy bangs that hung in her eyes. When she’d checked the band from all angles (left, right, front and behind), she stepped back from her vanity and carefully closed the headband drawer, making sure that everything in it stayed tidy. Shipshape, her mother always said. Madge whispered it to herself whenever she closed a drawer.

“Shipshape.”

Although she was thirteen, Madge didn’t look much older than nine. She was petite and chubby, her body snug in the dress like a pork sausage in its casing. Madge wasn’t aware of her size, but she had the habit of running a hand down her rotund belly. She’d seen her mother do the same when pregnant with baby Ashby; Ashby, unfortunately, had not survived infancy, and Madge’s mother had become very tired. Madge believed that Mama had taken to the color black, so she’d wrapped the dark around her like a winter coat filled with goose feathers. That’s why she stayed in bed all the time. It was warm and soft and opaque. But with Mama always sleeping – and Madge frequently tiptoeing in to kiss Mama’s cheek and tuck her in – the house had become messy.

Madge stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying the wreckage.

“This is not shipshape,” she whispered to herself. “Not shipshape. Not Bristol fashion.”

She wagged at a finger at the room, shook her head from side to side so her hair swung, kissing her rosy cheeks, and tsked. She loved to tsk. She visited Ms. Marie every week to work on her speech, and tsk had been some of the first consonants she’d mastered.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Banana peels lay on the floor, coffee grounds sprinkled the counter, dirty dishes were piled precariously in the farmhouse sink. A few cupboard doors were ajar. Tomato skins from spaghetti dinner a few nights back were piled next to the silverware drawer, and a carton of expired milk had tipped over. White chunks slopped out of the cardboard opening.

Madge, earnest and hardworking, plodded over to the trash can. She lifted the lid, placed it on the floor, and grasped the plastic bin with both hands, lugging it over to the dirty counters. With a sweep of her chubby, pale arm, the old food, the crumbs, the wadded paper towels tumbled into the white plastic bag.

Madge clapped, applauding her own efforts. She beamed at the now slightly less cluttered counters and moved down to sweep more crumbs. They tinkled into the bag like rain, and Madge, who loved a good sprinkle – but not thunderstorms, never thunderstorms – giggled. She pushed up her blue plastic-framed glasses with one stubby finger then got on her hands and knees to scoop up the abandoned peels. After she’d tossed them, she wiped her hands and called it a day.

“That’s a day!” she trilled.

She galloped, tripping once but catching herself on a hall table, to Mama’s room. She knocked at the door then pushed it open.

“I cleaned, Mama!”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Didn’t make any response, any acknowledgement of Madge’s proclamation, let alone her presence.

Madge bounced around the bed and knelt in front of the blanket-covered swelling. She stroked a hand gently down the worn cotton blanket and dropped her chin to the mattress.

“Mama,” she whispered. “The kitchen is shipshape. Shipshape.”

Mama didn’t move, at first. But she moaned, long and low and muffled by the covers. Madge, her big, compassionate heart bursting, scrunched her face in sadness. Her voice shook as she asked “Mama?” With a sniff of her small, pushed-in nose, she resumed her stroking and a hot tear slid down and around her cheek to drop onto the pilling flannel sheet.

“I love you,” Madge said, then hefted her pudgy hulk onto the mattress. Mama scooted over with a groan, but when Madge lifted the sheet to crawl in, Mama reached out an arm and pulled her girl close.

Soothed, Madge swiped first at the tear, then at her running nose before snuggling into her mother. She laid a chaste kiss on Mama’s dry cheek and rubbed her head against Mama’s chest.

“You will be happy?”

Mama didn’t answer.

“Mama?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I make you happy. I know the trick. Be back soon,” Madge told her mother, excitement tingeing her voice.

Madge crawled out from under the blankets and hopped like a bunny rabbit over to her room to grab her favorite purse. It was made out of blue denim and had the name “Madge” scrawled across in silver sequins. Madge picked at the sequins with her fingers before sliding the strap over her arm.

“Bye-bye,” she called to the house. To her mama.

“Bye-bye,” came the murmur from the other bedroom.

Madge stepped out into the sunshine and closed the front door tightly. It must be shut then pulled, so the latch would catch. Madge loved that phrase. Latch would catch. Latch and catch. Latch catch. Ms. Marie liked those sounds too.

She clutched the handle of her purse with one hand and bounced down the concrete sidewalk. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing down the street. Madge’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She continued her lope down the broken and cracked pavement and called hello to the neighbors outside enjoying the summer afternoon.

“Hello, Mr. Bates! Hello, Mrs. Klein!”

Mr. Bates and Mrs. Klein responded with waves and well wishes for Madge to enjoy the lovely day. And Madge went merrily on her way, eager to play with the kids at the end of the block.

But when she reached them, they formed a line, not allowing her to cross.

“What do you want, Mongoloid?” Joey Foster from 612 Rosemont Street asked.

Madge was puzzled. Her forehead crinkled, and she tilted her head to the side. What was Mongoloid? Was that like a creature from another planet? Like the movie that Rebecca from school talked about all the time? The one with the bicycle and the candy? Madge loved candy. So maybe she would be a Mongoloid, if they liked candy like the E.T.

“You can’t cross here. No Mongoloids allowed.”

Joey crossed his hands over his chest. He looked to the other kids, staring them down with icy blue eyes until they straightened their stances and glared at Madge.

Joey was the product of a broken home. Madge didn’t know what a broken home was, but Mrs. Klein had told her that earlier in the summer. She said that was why Joey was a mean boy. Madge thought her own home was broken as well. Like a giant crack ran down the length of it, and Mama was on one side and Baby Ashby’s room was on the other. But Mrs. Klein said that was different and that Madge was a honeypie who should just ignore Mean Joey.

“I’m not Mong-Mong-Mong-o-loid,” Madge stuttered. “But I like candy.” She grinned.

Mean Joey stepped forward, the toes of his shoes inches from Madge’s white Velcro sneakers.

“I said, no Mongoloids.”

Madge couldn’t look Mean Joey in the eye. She felt uncomfortable, both with the harsh delivery of his words and the closeness of his rail-thin body. Mean Joey was all sharp angles, a body of knives. Madge thought that he could easily slice her, so she looked at the ground and took baby steps backward.

“I’m not alien,” she whispered, eyes focused on the blades of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Her headband slipped forward, landing on her hairline.

“What did you say? Did you say ‘alien’?” Mean Joey swiveled in his black high tops to look in disbelief at the line of kids behind him. “She thinks she’s an alien?”

Mean Joey laughed, his mouth wide open, his teeth coming to points. His body shook and bowed back, and he laid a hand on his stomach. His eyes, however, didn’t show any humor. They stayed mean.

Madge, not understanding, began to smile. Giggle. Suddenly, however, Mean Joey stopped. He looked Madge up and down then reached a skinny finger out to press it into the soft, spongy skin at her shoulder. Then he pushed her. Startled, Madge fell back, landing hard on her rear. She looked up at Joey. Her bottom lip slipped out from her smile and began to tremble.

Mrs. Klein, who had been watching the exchange from her yard, threw down her hose and stomped down the sidewalk. Her chunky black oxfords squeaked with each footstep, and her thick-lensed glasses slid down her nose. She was retired, a widow. She and her husband, Jacob, had never been blessed with children – which Mrs. Klein never really minded, to be honest – but she’d taken a shine to the sweet-natured Madge. And Mrs. Klein was not one to stand bullying of any kind. Of any kind.

“Young man,” she said, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed, her body subconsciously echoing Mean Joey’s aggressive posture. “You stop that right now. Right now! If you don’t leave this poor child alone, you can bet I’ll be on you faster than a duck on a junebug. And I have your mother’s ear. Now git. Git!”

Mean Joey sneered at the tiny old lady who glared up at him, her watery brown eyes magnified by her lenses.

“Whatever, lady. C’mon,” he said to the row of kids who had stood silent in awe, in fear.

They trooped off. Mrs. Klein helped Madge to her feet, brushed off the gravel stuck to her legs and gave her a little tap on the bottom.

“Now, you are a strong girl, you hear? But you stay away from that boy. He’s bad news.”

Madge nodded. Bad news.

“Now, you git too. Enjoy the sunshine. Maybe later, you can stop by for some gingersnaps, all right?”

Madge sniffled, nodded. She liked the snappy cookies. They were crisp like their sound. Snap.

“Go on.”

Madge started forward, looked back at Mrs. Klein. Waved. Mrs. Klein smiled, and her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose.

Collecting herself, Madge resumed her lumbering skip down the street, though it was ever so less energetic as before. At the end of the block, she turned right. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but there was a market just around the corner. No crossing the street. Mr. Jackson, who played with the money, was nice, and he sometimes gave her a lollipop.

She pushed inside, her mood restored when she heard the tinkling of the bells that signaled a customer’s entrance.

“Hi, Mr. Jackson!”

Mr. Jackson, an elderly gentleman who had just welcomed his seventh grandchild – and his first granddaughter – welcomed Madge with a great big hug, wrapping strong arms around the squashy girl. Madge hugged back, love floating out of her body to dance around Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps more emotional than usual, Mr. Jackson felt tears prick his eyes at the easy affection. Lord, he loved this girl. Sometimes God takes things away from people, but he gives them something else. Madge, she might not have a normal life, but she had an abundance of goodness. That was a rarity.

Mr. Jackson stepped back, pushed Madge’s headband into place.

“What can I get for you today?”

“Chocolate. For Mama.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

Madge blushed, lifted her shoulders to her ears.

“I want candy. I’m an alien.”

Mr. Jackson was puzzled, but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, you know where it is. I’ll be up here at the counter.”

Madge knew where it was. It was her favorite aisle. The brightly-colored packaging spread before her like a glistening rainbow. Different shapes – squares, rectangles, circles – and different sizes – teeny-weeny, small, medium, large, super large – were hers for the choosing. But that was the difficult part. Choosing.

She stood in the middle of the aisle, surveying the selection. She knew Mama’s favorite already. Hershey’s. She picked one up, balancing it in her warm palm. For herself, she wasn’t sure. She loved m&m’s. She loved Reese’s Pieces. She loved Jujubes.

Madge tapped a finger to her scrunched lips. She swayed back and forth, hemming and hawing. She reached her hand out once, twice. Finally, she moved a few feet down to grab a clear plastic bag of gummy worms. Gummy worms. Those were the best choice. She could slurp them up like the spaghetti on Tuesday night. And she’d picked a package that had lots of blue ones.

Her task completed, she met Mr. Jackson at the counter and plunked down two dollars’ worth of coins. Mr. Jackson’s nimble fingers picked through the pennies, nickels and dimes. When he rang up the total, Madge clapped at the ringing of the machine.

“You have a good day, Madge.”

“You, too,” Madge replied happily as she left the store, goodies in hand.

Madge stepped on to the street, impatient to slurp a worm. She tucked the Hershey’s bar into her denim handbag, then ripped into the gummy worms. In her excitement, she split the bag down the middle, and wiggling, colorful worms dropped onto the street. Madge shrieked and bent at the waist to gather them up. She tucked the half-filled bag under an arm, then rubbed the dirtied worms on her dress. They’d be clean now. Shipshape.

As she wiped down her treats, Mean Joey watched from a few sidewalk squares away. He hated Madge. He didn’t know why, but she sparked a rage in him, not unlike the rage he seemed to spark in his own father. Of course, that rage always came with a six-pack. Still, it felt good to be powerful over someone, to cause them fear and pain. Serves that Mongoloid right. Mean Joey didn’t know who she was, skipping up and down the streets like some retarded elephant.

The thoughts grew louder in Mean Joey’s head, and his hands fisted. Madge, oblivious, continued to wipe the worms on her dress before biting into them. When Joey stepped forward, Madge turned. Fear flooded her eyes, causing them to bulge, and her cheeks drained of color. Bad news. But, she still offered him a worm. Not a dirty one. A clean one from the package she’d taken from under her arm.

Disgusted, Mean Joey slapped at the worm so it flew onto the street, crushed under the spinning wheels of a passing car. Madge watched her blue-and-green’s worm death. She turned to Mean Joey, confused.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not,” Mean Joey sneered before pushing Madge into the street.

Madge didn’t have time to scream, only yelped as she stumbled into traffic. As the speeding red car hit her. As her body tumbled up and over the hood. The worms went flying, sprinkling onto the street. The car squealed to a stop. Joey ran away. Mr. Jackson came running. Mrs. Klein came running.

And somewhere down the street, in a desolate room, under a pile of heavy covers, someone began to sob.

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

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.

The Only Love She Could See

Emily Mae Jones was an old woman. Her skin was like paper, thin and creased. The powder she routinely smoothed on gave her the look of a well-loved book, one whose pages were slowly disintegrating. Her body was failing her, but her mind was still sharp. And when she began telling her story to Sarah, one of the hospice aides, her unseeing cloudy eyes, now a watery blue, shimmered.

“The summer of 1956 was a hot one in Arkansas,” she began, her arthritic fingers working the thin cotton blanket. “The air hung heavy over White Oak. Folks rocked in creaky chairs on their porches, lazily cooled themselves with paper fans. That was the summer I began to feel like a wilting flower, growing weaker and weaker, my back bowing until my face grazed the ground. And that was the summer I met George.”

****

On a damp afternoon in June, Emily Mae sat in her bedroom, her fingers trailing over the pages of a book. When the knock sounded at the back door, she startled. No one was expected, and no one had been invited. Especially not when she was home alone without her mother, unguarded and unsupervised. Vulnerable.

With her heart tripping in her chest, she shifted in her chair and reached around to the side of the smooth desk to grasp her white cane. Sliding it along the floor, she felt her way to the stairs, then gripped the railing as she descended. There were 19 steps, she knew. Another 31 to the back door in the kitchen. The knob turned to the right, and when it clicked open, she would pull it to herself, careful to step wide.

“Yes,” she asked, peering out onto the porch.

“‘Scuse me, ma’am, I’m delivering some groceries that Miz Frannie bought this afternoon. She didn’t have room for them in her car, and I told her I could swing on by after my shift to drop them off. I’ll just put them on your counter there?”

“Yes, that would be fine,” Emily Mae said, her ears absorbing and cataloging the deep, rumbling voice. “Who did you say you were?”

“Sorry, ma’am, my name is George. George Jackson. I work at Kitter’s Grocery Mart. I’m a bag boy,” he explained, stepping into the kitchen to set the crinkling paper bags on the narrow countertop.

“Oh, I see. Well, it’s nice to meet you, George. I’m Emily Mae.”

Emily Mae offered a pale white hand and waited. She sensed his hesitation but his large callused hand took her own. She couldn’t say why, but his touch was different. It was his texture, she decided, that was strong and smooth, his scent rich.

“Nice to meet you, too, Emily Mae. I should be getting along.”

“Alright. Bye now.”

George glanced back at the pale girl with the unruly blond hair, the cornflower blue eyes that looked to the floor.

“Bye,” he said, slowly closing the door.

Emily Mae had hardly turned to scout through the groceries when the door slammed open again, banging against the wall.

“Did that boy come by here,” her mother gasped.

“George? Yes, he did. Why are you breathing so hard, Mama?”

“I ran straight from the car to the house when I got here,” Frannie said as she pressed a hand to her heaving chest. “I thought I’d be home before he came, but I got a flat tire out on Waverly Road. Had to call your granddaddy to come help me. Thought I’d never get home in time.”

Frannie pushed a loose pin back in her short, curled hair. She’d been frantic thinking of Emily Mae alone with that boy. Who knows what could’ve happened? Her baby was blind and helpless, and he could have taken advantage of her. Frannie shook her head at the thought.

“Why would you be so concerned,” Emily Mae asked. “He was nice boy. Very polite. He gave me the groceries then left.”

“Well, honey, I know you aren’t aware of some things, but George is…not like us. Do you understand? I don’t want you talking to his kind. Do you hear me, Emily Mae? I’m serious, now.”

“Alright, Mama, I hear you,” she replied, a brief sigh escaping her lips.

It was easier, she thought, to let her mother think she was oblivious to the world, to life outside of the yellow house at the end of the road. But in the evenings, when her mother was preparing dinner and the scent of simmering sauces wafted out of the kitchen, Emily Mae would tap her way to the television. She twisted its dials, kept the volume on low, and listened. Static-filled voices related the news – riots and boycotts and protests – and Robin Hood’s adventures, and a young man, a singer, crooned about a hound dog. And Emily Mae, a bird caged, longed to experience the world. To have friendships. To love.

Over the next few days, Emily Mae lingered around the kitchen, hoping for George’s return. Her ears pricked with every fallen footstep on the porch, her heart pounded with anticipation that he might have returned. But after a week of pressing her fingers to the warm glass windows, of standing guard at the back door, it seemed as though George was a passing acquaintance, a fleeting memory of touch and smell.

With disappointment dulling her eyes, fading her smile, Emily Mae tied a silk handkerchief around her head and set off to the far end of the spreading yard. She had a special place there, under an oak tree whose arms were thick and comforting.

After counting her steps, Emily Mae braced a hand on the coarse, warped bark of the tree, then smoothed down her skirts to sit on a low-hanging branch. And when the hand reached out to touch her shoulder, Emily Mae let out a breathy scream.

“It’s just me, Miss Emily Mae. It’s George. Remember? From the other day? I delivered the groceries.”

Emily Mae gulped air, swallowed hard.

“What are you doing here? How do you know about this place?”

“I came back to see you. I thought there might be a chance you’d come out here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You’ve been waiting? For how long?”

“I’ve been coming here the last couple of days, ma’am.”

“You don’t have to call me ma’am, George. I’m 22 years old.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Emily Mae sputtered out a laugh. Her heart was still thumping under her cotton sundress, and she ordered herself to calm.

“Who are you, George? Why do you want to see me?”

“I wanted to get to you know, Miss. There’s something special about you.”

“You mean because I can’t see.”

Emily Mae turned away, her stomach dropping to her knees. He saw only her blindness, her handicap.

“Yes,” George said as he placed a gentle hand on Emily Mae’s arm. He gave a light tug, enough to turn her around to face him.

“But maybe you can see deeper than other folks.”

He stroked a dark finger down Emily Mae’s fair cheek, leaving a wake of sparks. She shivered under his touch.

“What makes you think I can do that?”

“Because you’re someone I can believe in.”

Emily Mae took his hand between both of hers, pressed it to her warm cheek.

“Tell me about your family, George.”

“It’s just me and my mama. She works hard, and she comes home at night with her back aching, her knees aching, her feet aching. But she only smiles, tells me to warm up the kettle and that she’ll be just fine. We go to church together every Sunday and eat dinner together every night. I got the job at Kitter’s so I could help her out and take care of her. She’s getting old, my mama.”

“She sounds wonderful,” Emily Mae said wistfully. “Not that I don’t love my mother, but I think she’s worried for me. What people will think, what they’ll say. What they’ll do. So she keeps me locked away. I know she wants to shield me from the world. But I want to see it. I want to see everything.”

“Can you see me?” he asked quietly.

She let go of his hand and reached forward, fingers searching, trembling, until they found purchase. The soft pads of her fingers tickled over George’s high forehead, trailed down the length of his wide nose. She lightly traced the round shape of his eyes, and his stubby eyelashes brushed her unpainted nails. And as she listened to the wind fluttering the pleats of her skirt, felt the sun warm her back, heard George’s low breathing, in and out and in and out, she rubbed the tip of a finger over his plump lips.

George grabbed her hand, turned it over to press his lips to the inside of her wrist.

“Meet me again?”

Emily Mae drew her hand back, her wrist still tingling from his lingering kiss.

“Yes. Yes, I’ll meet you again. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” he said, the smile sounding in his voice.

So Emily Mae returned to her tree, day after day, week after week. She and George sat shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, backs resting against the tree’s sturdy trunk, and talked. Just talked. He spoke of his absent father, his residual anger at being abandoned; she spoke of suffocating under her mother’s care. He squeezed her hand when she confided her loneliness; she soothed, stroking his bristly cheek as he raged about the racism in town. She learned his smell, that unique mixture of sweat and cotton and skin and man.

Emily Mae couldn’t know, but her face had begun to glow, her eyes shine. She could often be found sitting in a chair, chin propped in hand, and gazing off, a smile stretching across her face. Her grandfather, on his Sunday visits, only took notice of her pleasant disposition, but Frannie, being a woman who could sense her daughter’s moods like a shift in the air, became suspicious.

She knew that Emily Mae had begun sneaking off in the late afternoons. Emily Mae’s excuses were flimsy at best, and to Frannie, they were painfully transparent. So she bided her time, waiting until she could uncover Emily Mae’s secret. That day came on one sweltering afternoon, deep in August.

“Emily Mae? I’m heading off to play bridge with the girls. You’ll be fine here alone, won’t you?”

“Of course, Mama. You have a good time.”

Frannie took off toward her car, slid in the seat and prepared to back out of the driveway. The minute she’d turned the corner, she shut off the engine, then quietly rounded her way back to the house, only to see Emily Mae heading across the field.

She kept a few lengths behind, aware that her daughter’s hearing was exceptional. The crunching of grass beneath her heeled soles could quickly alert Emily Mae, so she walked tenderly.

And then she knew. The large black boy waiting at the base of the tree, Emily Mae’s excited cry. Gripping fingers. A chaste kiss to the cheek.

Frannie’s vision went dim and her pulse thundered in her ears. She stumbled, her heel catching on a knotted clump of grass. She landed hard, her hose ripping and her palms stinging with a green tattoo. She picked herself up and flew towards her baby girl.

“Emily Mae! What in God’s name do you think you are doing? Get away from that boy right now. Right. Now.”

Emily Mae, a shocked look freezing her features, could only stare in her mother’s direction as her fingers tightened on George’s.

“Mama, no.”

“I said now, Emily Mae,” Frannie screeched, her voice pitching high with panic. “Don’t you dare touch that boy. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

“I know what I’m doing, Mama,” Emily Mae said firmly. “This is George. He’s my friend. And I love him.”

“You don’t know what love is,” Frannie insisted, stepping forward to tear Emily Mae away.

“Stop it, Mama.” Emily Mae pushed Frannie’s hands aside and wrapped her arms around George.

Shaken and hurt, Frannie stepped back.

“You would choose to be with that boy? You would choose him over your own mother? Over me?”

“I’m sorry, Mama, but this is how I feel. I need him, I need my freedom. You can’t keep me in that house forever. It’s not right.”

Frannie’s chest felt hollow, empty of emotion, void of love. She could only stare at her daughter – and the boy who had ruined her.

With a surge of rage, she pointed a sharply manicured finger at George.

“This is your fault.”

Then, in a move so unladylike she surprised herself, Frannie spat at his feet.

George put a burly arm around Emily Mae’s shoulders, pulled her close.

“I’m sorry, Miz Frannie. I am. I don’t want to take Emily Mae from her mother.”

“You’ve done more than that,” Frannie said through gritted teeth. “You’ve spoiled her. You stay away from my daughter. If I ever see you on my property again, I’ll get my shotgun and shoot you like the animal you are.”

With a fierce pull, Frannie yanked Emily Mae out of George’s arms and dragged her weeping daughter back to the house, up the stairs, and into her room. Then she locked the door on her way out.

That night, when Emily Mae had cried herself out, and her face was red and puffy, George returned. He shimmied up the drain pipe to tap lightly on her window. When she opened it, he climbed through and enveloped her in a tight embrace.

Burying his face in her sweet-smelling hair, he whispered, “I love you, too. Come away with me. Let’s go. Please.”

She stepped back, ran her hands over his shoulders, down his well-muscled back.

“Ok,” she said, letting out a long breath. “Ok.”

His heart light, his feet light, George hurried around the room, gathering up dresses, scarves, mismatched pairs of shoes. He tied them in a towel, then tossed it, along with the white walking stick, out of the window. Emily Mae sat perched on the corner of the bed, amused by his speed, by the rush of air that caressed her face.

“Ok, you’re ready. Let’s get out of here.”

He crouched and scooped her into his arms. She clasped her hands around him, laid a gentle kiss on his neck. He glanced down at her, tears pricking his eyes, and left a kiss on her forehead. He headed toward the window and tilted her over one shoulder before climbing backwards out of it. She laughed at his hold and gripped his waistband.

The climb down was dicey, George thought, and with sweaty, scraped hands, he came close to falling a number of times. But he tightened his grip on Emily Mae and dropped the last few feet. He grabbed the towel and the stick with his free hand and jogged to the car he’d parked a quarter of a mile away. When he settled Emily Mae in the front seat, he impulsively grabbed her face and kissed her, his lips sliding over hers. She pulled him closer, pressing her pink lips to his.

And then he was in the driver’s seat, his hand on her leg, her hand over his. He rolled the windows down and the fresh, crisp night air flowed into the car and through her wild and curly hair. She turned to him, cheeks flushed, eyes dazzling, swollen lips grinning. He took her hand, brought it to his lips.

With the night sky stretching before them, with stars winking above them, they were free.

****

“What happened next,” Sarah asked. “Did you live happily ever after?”

With a small, sad smile, Emily Mae shook her head.

“We made at as far as the town border before my mama came, the police in tow. They arrested George for kidnapping,” Emily Mae lifted a shaking hand to wipe the tear quivering on her lashes. “I never saw him again. But I love him still, a sweet, unwavering love that will end only when I end.”

Sarah reached over, patted her bony shoulder.

“My mother put me in an institution later that year. I spent 10 years of my life there, until Mama died and I inherited the house. That’s where I stayed, day after day, week after week, year after year. And our tree – and my memories – are still there.”

The Death and the Cradle

She stood in the closet. Leaning in, she nestled her face among the dress shirts, the flannel shirts, the blazers. She breathed in deeply, comforted by the smell, a mix of detergent and cologne. It was, for her, almost like being with her husband.

She lifted her arms and wrapped them around the clothing, letting the hangers take on her weight. Her knees gradually lowered to the ground, and her body slid from the rack.

Denise curled on the floor next to a rack of shiny leather shoes. With a sob, she rubbed her swollen belly.

Her black dress clung to her clammy skin, and she reached up to pull one of the flannel button-downs. She spread it over herself, a soft blanket to warm and console. She closed the closet door, though filmy light filtered in through the wooden slats. And she rocked herself to sleep, burrowed among her sweetheart’s things.

The Snake

*This is just a little something – it still needs more plot development, but tell me what you think!

She had a long black braid trailing to the edge of her red blouse. It was like a snake, this braid; sometimes it would strike out to bite, sharp and full of venom. Sometimes it was a weapon; she would grasp the braid with one hand and crack it against you – your face, your head, your ass. I’m sure if it had eyes, they would have been narrow and green and vicious.

Jorge said that she was his little jalapeno, his firecracker. Her laugh was bright and fierce, as if her spiciness was lit from within and spewed out from her belly. I wonder if Jorge was ever treated with the braid; I suspect that she tamed him, as she tamed others, though she remained wild and feral and free.