Hide and Seek

It’s been a weird long time since I’ve last been able to post anything. Between family life and a job that was exceedingly difficult for a variety of reasons, I didn’t have much energy for writing for most of the last couple of years. Fortunately, I am now in a new job with steady hours (and more money) and the creativity is starting to creep back in, albeit slowly.

NYCMidnight ran their Short Story contest, starting in January. If you’ll remember, they give the participants a genre, a person, and a situation/object. They set a word limit and a time limit and off you go!

This time, it was a 2,500 word limit in 8 days. I was assigned to action/adventure with pretending and a contortionist.

The results came out yesterday. I was given an Honorable Mention and, while I don’t get to advance to the next round, I am very pleased with this result since I found this prompt to be particularly challenging.

Anyway, here it is.

Hide and Seek

Julia’s talent, her past, was widely known, but was seen as a quirk, an oddity. Certainly not anything useful. Most people only mentioned it to ask her to perform at parties.

She always said ‘no’.

She couldn’t say ‘no’ this time.

Julia’s heart sank when she saw the press had already gathered. There had been a public outcry to permanently barricade the opening to the unstable mine for ages and it was sure to get worse after this. Regardless of the outcome, her name would be forever associated with yet another tragedy.

“Julia, thank God you’re here.” Sheriff Lockett strode up to her, long brown braids bouncing against her back.

“How long have they been down there?” Julia shrugged off her jacket and began pulling her hair back into a low, tight bun.

“Over an hour, as near as we can figure. Did you feel that small quake earlier? That’s when it happened. We got the call at 10:07. Jake Capelli, you know him, right? He managed to escape and ran to the 7-11 for help.”

“Is he okay?” Images flashed in Julia’s mind of torn flesh and cracked skulls. And her son Aiden’s face, eyes closed forever.

“Not a scratch on him. He says he jumped clear when the wall came down. He’s at the station with his mom, eating ice cream.” They walked past the reporters, ignoring their shouted questions. “We don’t have a visual on the others. The engineers are afraid to shift the rock in case the whole thing comes down. We’ve dropped a mic into where we think they are but can’t hear anything.”

“How many are there?”

“Four. Will Arjen, Kevin Karamack, Owen Stevens, and Julius Robinson.”

Julia closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose. Aiden’s friends.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. What do you need me to do?”

The sheriff spread out a blueprint on a small folding table. “This is where we think the boys are.” She pointed. “A vent shaft drops down into the next room here. There’s a corridor leading to the other side of the mine and another exit. No one’s been out that way in decades, so they’re checking now to see how stable it is.” She took a deep breath. “We need you to try and squeeze through the vent and see what’s going on down there. Lead them out the back way if you can. Fuck, Julie. That shaft is tiny. Do you think you can do this?”

Julia squinted as she looked toward the top of the mine. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

#

The vent was impossibly dark and smelled of rot. After the floods last year, Julia wondered how much mold she was about to crawl through. The little dust mask they had given her sure wasn’t going to offer much protection.

She should have a HazMat suit for this, she thought.

She wouldn’t have to contort much for this, not really. It wasn’t going to be like putting herself in a box like she used to back in Vegas. She just needed to pull her shoulders in a bit to get through the shaft. Easy peasy.

After double checking her safety harness (she didn’t need one, but the Sheriff insisted), she eased herself feet first into the vent. It wasn’t as tight of a squeeze as she had expected, but she could see why they didn’t have someone else try to navigate it. No one else would have fit.

As expected, the tube was only about 25 dark and dank feet long. Her headlamp barely pierced the gloom. Once she felt her feet hit open space, Julia wriggled a bit more and grabbed the edge of the pipe, swinging her body out into the chamber.

“Hello? Is anyone here?” Her voice carried into the dark as her arms quivered with the strain of holding on, though she knew her harness would catch her if she fell. She couldn’t see further than maybe a foot in any direction. “Lower me down.” The headset she was wearing made her voice sound tinny, but acknowledgement from above echoed back to her.

The drop was only about 20 feet, or so they thought, but she had no idea what she might possibly be landing on. If the whole chamber had collapsed….

Her feet touched down and she braced herself, feeling grit crunch under her shoes, waiting to see if what she was standing on would bear her weight. When it appeared safe, she spoke again into her mic. “I’m unhooking from the tether. Send down more lights.”

Another line dropped from above, a large flashlight nearly conking her on the head. Flipping it on, the beam landed on piles of rubble and dust, lots of dust.

But no boys.

#

“I need more light.”

Her request was answered swiftly with a bucket loaded with lanterns and safety flares. She turned on a couple of the lanterns and the whole chamber came into relief.

“Hello?” She eased around the piles of fallen rock, shining her flashlight into the crevices the lanterns couldn’t quite illuminate. “Will? Kevin? Julius? Owen? C’mon out, guys. Let’s get you home.”

There was nothing but silence in response.

“Sheriff? Um…There’s no one down here.”

“Say again?”

“The boys. They’re not here. I’m going to move down the corridor.”

The mic squawked and fell silent but not before she heard a muttered ‘God damnit’. Tucking some safety flares into her harness and grabbing an extra lantern, she took another look around the chamber before starting off into the black corridor. Rocks littered the way, although the ceiling appeared to be solid. In a couple of places, she had to scramble over small piles of rubble. One was larger than the others and as she was easing down the other side, a rock gave way underneath her.

She tumbled to the ground, crying out as a sharp edge cut into her calf. Blood ran down her leg. She let out a short scream, more surprised than anything. In the shaky light, the wound looked like it might require stitches. She had nothing to staunch the flow of blood with, so in the end she continued on, leaving a trail of blood after each limping footstep.

She kept calling out for the boys. There was no response.

#

The corridor seemed to stretch on forever. How big was this mine, anyway? She had to have been walking for at least a quarter of a mile.

“Hey, Sheriff Lockett?”

There was no answer, just bursts of static.

A couple of more tries and Julia realized she was probably too deep for the signal to cut through the rock. Well, shit. She was on her own with no idea where the kids were.

The further she went through the tunnel, the more rubble she encountered and, in a couple of instances, actually had to crawl over piles on her hands and knees, whimpering each time the cut on her leg came in contact with, well, anything.

Her breath came in harsh gasps. Even when she stopped to rest, it felt like she was trying to breathe underwater.

She couldn’t do this. They needed to find someone else, someone with more experience, better equipment. What the hell was she thinking, coming down here with nothing but a dust mask?

Where the hell were the kids? There was no sign of them. No kids, no clothing, no blood except her own. Just broken rocks, sharp pieces of metal, and dust falling from the ceiling. She was going back.

She had only retreated a few feet when a rumbling came from all around her.

And suddenly, it wasn’t just rumbling, it wasn’t just dust. Pebbles were now falling as well, stones, pieces of tile from the ceiling, crashing around her, on her. She dove to the side, covering her head with her hands. She could see a small alcove lined with shelves just a few feet away.

Dodging falling rocks, she moved as fast as she could, her leg screaming in pain, and squeezed herself under a shelf, her knees up around her ears.

#

The shaking seemed to take forever to stop. When Julia was able to finally crawl out, unfolding her protesting body, she was horrified to find the corridor blocked, floor to ceiling, with fallen rocks in both directions.

She was trapped. And it was getting even harder to breathe.

Her voice echoed as she tried to call through her radio, but there was nothing but static in return. No response when she shouted for the boys, either.

She was alone.

She set up her last lantern, illuminating her predicament. But wait… what was that?

She had gotten turned around. Which way was which? But up near the top of one of the barricades, it looked like there was a small opening. Maybe she could get through. She had certainly gotten through smaller holes, albeit when she was much younger.

What other choice did she have? She could stay here and wait to be rescued, if that was even possible. Or she could try to save herself and find the missing boys.

Up she scrambled, searching for handholds, places to put her feet. Anything strong enough to support her weight.

Suddenly, the pile started to shift under her. She froze, clinging to a large stone jutting out from the pile. Small rocks rained down on her, cutting into her face and arms. She could feel tears start to trickle down her face.

She hadn’t cried since Aiden’s accident. Not since she had been unable to save him.

When the shaking stopped, she resumed her climb, wondering why on earth they felt compelled to make the top of the tunnel so fucking high?

At the top, she peered through the opening. She thought maybe, just maybe, the other side didn’t seem quite so dark as where she was, which could mean there was a light out there somewhere.

The hole was slightly smaller than a medium-sized doggie door, but big enough for her to wriggle through.

She switched off her flashlight, plunging herself into a darkness she never thought possible this side of the grave. She peered through the wall again and, yes, it did seem slightly brighter on that side of the rocks. She pulled the tab on one of the safety flares, setting it alight, and tossed it through the hole.

She blinked, trying to clear the dust and tears from her vision. There was a large, open space on the other side of the rocks and then what seemed to be another barrier. More rocks? Or perhaps the door to the outside Sheriff Lockett had pointed out to her?

#

She had definitely fit through tighter gaps before, but this felt different. No matter how she pulled her shoulders together, she couldn’t quite make the squeeze. She could feel her ligaments and tendons straining, her arms nearly coming out of their sockets. She pushed hard with her feet, popping through to the other side. Skin tore from her arms and she lost her grip. She braced herself for the fall, but in that instant a rock came loose, landing hard on her leg, which was still halfway through the opening.

The abrupt stop caused her to slam into the wall and her right shoulder popped loose from the impact. She screamed and scrambled hard with her left hand, trying to find something to support herself with. She pushed with her free leg and pulled with her hand until suddenly, her trapped ankle came free and she tumbled down the rock face, crashing onto the ground. Her head cracked on the floor and she lay there, dazed, hardly believing all that had happened to her.

And the worst part? She had failed. She had failed to find the boys. She prayed that they had already found their way down the corridor and to the door she had been promised was there.

In that moment, all she could do was cry. Cry for the boys. Cry for Aiden. Cry for herself.

And then the time for crying was over. She tried to stand but collapsed when she tried to put weight on her injured ankle. Probably broken. She cradled her right arm close to her body, not wanting to jostle her dislocated shoulder.

Looking around, she could see a wall at the end of the tunnel, not more than 100 feet away. And in that wall was a door with a grime-covered window that let through a meager light. That must have been what she had seen earlier.

Freedom was so close.

#

She pulled herself over to the wall and heaved herself onto her good leg, struggling not to pass out from pain. In an odd type of symmetry, it was her left ankle and her right shoulder that was injured, so she could hold onto the wall with her left hand for support and hop on her right foot. It was only for a short distance, she kept telling herself. She could do this.

When she reached the door, she leaned her forehead onto the cold metal surface and retched, bile splattering at her feet. She pressed the button on her radio.

“Is…is anyone there?”

Silence.

“Hello? Sheriff? Anyone? I need help.”

Silence and Julia could feel the tears welling up again when the radio screamed into life.

“Oh, thank God, Julia! Hang on, okay? They’re almost ready to try to open the door. Are you okay?”

“No. My ankle and my shoulder and my…” Her voice trailed off. “And I didn’t find the boys. There’s no sign of them anywhere down here.”

She could hear the Sheriff sigh, hearing disappointment in her voice. “Let’s just get you out of there.”

She had failed everyone.

“Julia? They want you to move away from the door as far as you can.”

She hopped backwards, screaming when she tripped on a rock, falling back to the floor.

With a cloud of dust, the door crashed down and sunlight, bright glorious sunlight, poured in. As Julia shielded her eyes from the sudden glare, she was aware of people rushing to her, calling her name and yelling for EMTs.

They lifted her onto a stretcher and carried her out into the day. Sheriff Lockett bent over her, brushing the dust from her face. “It’s going to be okay now, Julie. I’m so sorry about everything.”

Black started to creep around the edges of her vision and her voice was a rasping whisper. “Sorry for what?”

The sheriff turned her head and Julia followed her gaze.

Standing off to the side were the boys. Kevin, Julius, Owen, and Will. All looking perfectly fine. And terrified.

The sheriff patted her hand. “They thought it was a funny joke. Something Jake dared them to do.”

Julia tried to sit up and darkness overtook her. As she fainted, she heard the sheriff speak again.

“They were never down there at all.”

Maybe

TRIGGER WARNINGS

This news cycle, this year, these past two years really, have had me on edge. I, like so many women, have lived under the shadow of past assaults and violations for way too long, and every time a woman’s story gets dismissed, the knife gets twisted a little more.

I wrote Maybe in the fall of 2016. It seems cathartic to bring it back out now.

 

Maybe

 

Maybe you’ve met this man before, or maybe he’s a stranger. Maybe he holds a position of power, either professionally or socially. Maybe he’s famous, or maybe he’s the man who bags your groceries. Maybe he’s family. Maybe he’s a friend. Maybe you used to date him or maybe you’re dating him now. Maybe he’s just some guy on the subway, in the library, at the bar. 

Maybe you shake his hand and he doesn’t let go right away. Maybe his eyes travel down your body and the outfit that seemed so perfect earlier suddenly seems so wrong. Maybe he leans over and whispers in your ear about how sexy you look tonight. Maybe his hand travels up your arm and touches your breast, so briefly that you think that maybe, just maybe, you imagined it.

Maybe he grabs your ass as you walk past him on your way off the train. Maybe he sits down next to you at the park and pulls out his dick out of his pants. Maybe he tries to hit on you and, when you tell him you’re not interested, he calls you a bitch and a tease. Maybe he threatens to hurt you. 

Maybe he asks you to dance and you don’t want to be rude, so you dance. And maybe he holds you too close. Maybe his hands grab your buttocks to pull you even closer. Maybe so close you can feel his erection pressing against your body. Maybe you freeze, not knowing what to do. Maybe you look around to see if anyone saw anything. Maybe no one did, or maybe you see other men watching the two of you, and they give you a wink. Maybe other women are watching, too, and you hear them call you a slut and a whore.

Maybe he finds you alone and corners you against the wall. Maybe he kisses you as you try to squirm away. Maybe he puts his hand under your skirt and touches you. Maybe he tries to put a finger inside you. Maybe he succeeds. Maybe you beg him to stop and he just laughs because he knows he can get away with it.

Maybe he rapes you. Maybe he doesn’t.

Maybe you think about screaming. Maybe you think about making a scene, fighting him off. 

Then maybe you think that, maybe, you somehow encouraged this. That this was your fault. After all, you’ve always been told it’s the woman’s fault. Maybe your dress is too tight. Maybe you’ve been drinking. Maybe you were too friendly. Maybe you weren’t friendly enough. Maybe you remember being groped as a child or as a teen and being told that this is just how men are and that, as a woman, maybe it is your responsibility to not provoke them.

Maybe you don’t remember provoking him, but you think that you must have, because why else would he be touching you like this?

Maybe his friends apologize for his behavior. He’s drunk, they say, and he didn’t mean it. Or maybe they just laugh about it. 

Maybe days later, months later, years later, you can still feel how rough his hand was as it pressed against your mouth to keep you from screaming.

Maybe you think that no one will believe you if you accuse him. After all, he’s a man and you… Well, you’re just a woman. Maybe they’ll say you were a tease. Maybe they’ll say you really liked it, had to have liked it, because of who he is, how he looks. Maybe they’ll say that it was a compliment. You should be flattered, they’ll say, that a man was willing to give someone like you attention. Maybe they’ll laugh at you and say you need to loosen up, it was just a joke.

Maybe “boy will be boys”.

Maybe you think that there’s something wrong with you because you aren’t flattered by it. 

Maybe, if you say something, they’ll tell you how wrong you are, that you’re too old, too fat, too ugly, too you, for him to be interested. 

Maybe, if you say something, you’ll lose your job and you can’t afford that. Maybe he’s the husband of your best friend and you don’t want to hurt her. Maybe he’s family. Maybe he’s a police officer and who would take your word over his? Maybe he’s not famous, but he’s bigger and stronger and you’re afraid of what he might do if you speak out. 

Maybe you’ve spoken out before, only to receive rape and death threats on-line. Maybe people you’ve never met before started discussing your sexual history in chat rooms and comment sections, talking about what they’d like to do to you, and you felt assaulted all over again. 

Maybe you’ve told someone and they didn’t believe you. It couldn’t have happened like you said it did, how could it? He just doesn’t seem like that type. Maybe you wonder what type of man they mean only to realize you know all too well. 

So, maybe, you leave quietly, without a word. Maybe you walk quickly, your head down to hide your shame, or maybe you try to hold your head high, but it just feels so heavy. And maybe the heaviness never goes away. 

Maybe when you get home, you hide your new dress in the back of the closet, never to be worn again. Maybe you stand in a hot shower, trying to wash him off your soul. Maybe you cry yourself to sleep. Maybe you promise yourself that next time, next time you will do things differently.

Because maybe you know that there will be a next time. 

There always is.

A Short Detour on the Way to Work

Back in April, I shared a story from the first round of the NYCMidnight Short Story Contest. I was thrilled I had made it through to the second round, yeah?

Then came the Round Two prompts. I was given thriller/road rage/neurosurgeon. In other words, I had to write a thriller that included road rage and a neurosurgeon. It had to be no longer than 2,000 words and I had 72 hours to write it.

Sure, I thought, I can work with that. *Narrator’s voice: ‘She could not, in fact, work with that.’*

Due to various life issues, I ended up with about 12 hours to write this thing. Still, I was able to cobble something together that, actually, wasn’t too horrible.

I had no expectations of making it through to the 3rd round (only the top 3 in each heat would advance) and I was right. I did NOT make it through and that’s okay. It was a fun exercise and I always really enjoy the NYCMidnight contests.

The feedback I got from the judges was lovely: “Great opening; from the outset, you capture readers attention and draw them in with a more unusual focus (smell, weight) around death.  What I really do love about this stone cold murderess is the nonchalance by which she goes about her tasks; like a true sociopath, she methodically goes about this series of murders (and from what the last line indicates, many more which have preceded it) to get what she wants, at any cost.  It’s a flawless portrayal and that takes a lot of fantastic work. Great job.”

So, without further ado, I present to you:

A SHORT DETOUR ON THE WAY TO WORK

Dead bodies have a certain awkwardness to them. Pick up a live body and then a dead one; there’s a difference. Death carries a heaviness that life doesn’t have. And, after a while, a smell. Definitely a smell.

That odor is currently wafting through my car. I glanced in my rearview mirror, all too aware of the smelly heaviness in my trunk. I hoped it would be easier getting her out of the trunk that it was getting her in.  I giggled at the image of how ridiculous I must have looked, hefting Adele’s body, her head lolling against my shoulder, garish lipstick smudging on my shirt. 

God damn it, Adele. Why’d you have to come snooping around my office? What all had Peter told you?

“I know the truth. I know who you really are.” Adele seemed to think that was justified her going through my files. As if I’d be stupid enough to keep anything incriminating at the hospital. 

I raced down the highway, window open to try to clear the smell from the car. I’d have to clean out the trunk later, once I got rid of the body. I would have disposed of Adele last night instead of leaving her in the trunk, but my absence from Peter’s memorial service would have been too conspicuous. I needed to make sure people could say I was there. 

 My playlist shuffled to the next song and I bobbed my head as I sang along. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going…” Too right, Billy Ocean. 

Another glance in my mirror and, oh, shit. Red and blue lights pulsed from behind me. Deep breath, Bethany. Just keep your cool and it’ll be fine.

“What’s the problem, officer?”

He leaned down, eyes roaming around the interior of the car. Thank God Adele was in the trunk.  “License and registration.”

Shit. “Yes, sir.” My hand slid into my purse, past my billfold to the gun. I never took my eyes off his face as I gripped the gun, lightly touching the trigger. “Is there something wrong?” I held my documents out. 

“You were speeding.”

“Oh, I’m sor—” Before I could even finish my apology, he grabbed my license.

“Your bumper. What happened there?”

“I was in an accident.”

“So I see. What happened?”

I resisted the urge to close my eyes against the sudden memory of the car striking Dr. Peter Walsh.  The thud of metal impacting flesh, his body rolling over the hood of my dependable BMW. The screams of the other people on the sidewalk as they jumped out of the way. Out of MY way. 

“I wasn’t paying attention when I was at Target. I hit a light pole.”

“Really? Doesn’t look like damage you’d get from a light pole.” He glanced down at my license. “Can you go ahead and get out of the car, Ms. Lane?”

“Doctor. Doctor Lane.”

“Okay. Please get out of the car, doctor.” The sun beat down on me as I climbed out. I could feel the heat radiating off the asphalt as I shifted my weight back and forth, trying not to look as anxious as I felt. If it was this hot outside, how hot must it be in that trunk. As if in answer, the wind puffed towards me, bringing with it the smell of Adele. Seriously, I would have thought BMW would have built better trunks.  

He walked away. Before as I could so much as sigh with relief, he circled around the car, pausing for a terrifying moment by the trunk. 

His head disappeared from view as he leaned over as if he was looking under the car. He moved to the front of the car, walking back and forth, looking at the bumper for what seemed like an eternity. 

“Stay here.” His shoulder thumped into mine as he pushed past me on his way back to his cruiser. 

For a moment, just a moment, I considered jumping back into the car and speeding away. But he had my license, he knew who I was, and I had no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to outrun him. 

Instead, I stretched my arm through the open window and snagged my purse with the very tips of my fingers. First the purse, then the gun. I felt much more relaxed with the weight it in my hand. 

“…Black BMW…front end damage…Says it was a pole, but….” Through the hot summer air, I could hear the officer’s voice. 

The story had led the news for two nights running. Prominent neurosurgeon killed in road rage incident…. Driver of a dark sedan….Blah blah blah. I was surprised that anyone missed Peter that much. 

Road rage, indeed. On the contrary, I had been perfectly calm when I ran that fucker over. 

Just as I had been calm when I had caught Peter’s assistant, Adele, rifling through the files in my office. How she her voice had risen as she had asked about what had happened back in Minneapolis, the same questions that Peter had kept asking. 

I had been perfectly calm when I strangled her. And I was still perfectly calm. 

Gun held loosely by my side, I walked over to where the officer stood, back turned away from me, still talking into his radio. It was easy enough to fire one, two, three shots into the back of his head. He fell to the ground, radio squawking against the asphalt. Another shot into the radio, one into the dash cam. His body cam was still sitting on the passenger seat. Dumb ass. 

I looked up and down the deserted road that wound by the small reservoir. This was as good enough of a place to dump the bodies as any. Few people came out this way and if they did, they weren’t likely to stop here. There weren’t even picnic tables or anything. Just a littered grassy slope leading down to the algae-plagued water. 

It was hard to drag the officer at first, but once I got him going, he slid right down the hill and rolled into the water with a satisfying splash. He was the easy one. 

I leapt backwards when I opened the trunk, as if I could dodge the cloud of rot that billowed up. I staggered over to the brush on the side of the road, gagging and dry heaving. When I could finally make my way back to the car, I held my breath. 

As a doctor, I’m used to dead bodies, but it had been a long time since I had seen a anything more than a clean and newly dead body in the operating suite. I tried not to look at her mottled face. I had actually quite liked Adele, when she was minding her own business. There was no pleasure in killing her, but it had to be done.

I pulled the blanket I had wrapped her in up over her face and tugged on her ankles. Instead of the thud I had heard from her head just the night before, the sound of her hitting the pavement this time was more of a muffled, wet flomp. A low sound came from the body, like the belching of a deflating balloon, and a gas so thick I could almost see it rose into the air. The sweet smell of rot enveloped me and I gagged again. “Jesus, Adele. Mind your manners.” I pulled her as quickly down the slopes as I could and she joined Officer Friendly in the Stevens Reservoir. 

The police cruiser was much easier to move, just driving it to the edge of the water, leaving it running in neutral and pushing with all my might. The water bubbled and gurgled, soon becoming as serene as it had ever been. I scuffed my feet around to obscure any drag marks or foot prints. 

It was if I had never been there. 

#

I raced towards the hospital, weaving my car in and out of traffic. Horns blared at me as I pushed through lights that were more red than yellow. The announcement at the hospital was supposed to be at five and it was already past that. The city was working against me, it felt like, and I ended up stuck at a red light. 

From the other direction, traffic pulled over the curb to let a line of police cars go speeding by, lights and sirens blaring. I held my breath until they passed by without so much as a glance in my direction. There’s no way they would be coming after me. 

As I tapped my hand on the steering wheel, a truck pulled up next to me and a red-faced man leaned over to scream at me. “What the hell are you doing? You almost hit me back there!” Laughing, I flipped him off and turned my music up louder. 

I drove off towards my future, humming along with the song that was playing. ‘Daydream Believer.’ 

I always did like the Monkees. 

#

My heels clattered against the tile floor, echoing in the empty hallway. I could hear a swell of voices as I slid to a stop in front of the large auditorium. I tried to calm my breath and my heart as I walked in, down the center aisle, and the voices drifted into silence. The sound of the closing door seemed impossibly loud. I could feel every eye on me as I climbed the stairs to where Dennis McCoy, the Medical Director, stood waiting by the podium, his face haggard. 

“Thank you for finally joining us, Bethany. I do hope we’re not keeping you from anything important.” His voice was low, too soft to be picked up by the microphone, even as he smiled and shook my hand. 

“No place I’d rather be, Dennis.” I let go of his hand and resisted the urge to wipe my hand against my pants. He turned back to the audience. 

“Thank you all for being here today. I know many of you are still in shock over the loss of Doctor Walsh.” He paused as a few sniffles came from the audience. “However, as medical professionals, we all understand that life, and the hospital, must go on. The post of Head of Neurosurgery has been vacant for several months. It was a tight competition with many fine doctors from prestigious hospitals from across the country throwing their hats into the ring. However, it was decided to fill the position from our own ranks and now, with the unexpected death of Doctor Walsh, the choice is very clear.”

He stopped and even though I knew what was coming, my heart started to pound. 

“I know you all are very busy, so I won’t keep you any longer. Everyone, please congratulate our new Chief of Neurosurgery, Doctor Bethany Lane.”

I beamed. I had done it. I had won. 

Nothing could stop me now. 

#

The news anchor gave his serious smile into the camera. “Tonight in breaking news, Doctor Bethany Lane has been arrested for the murders of renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Walsh, his assistant Adele Carter, and Wilson Police Officer Benjamin Avery, who was shot after pulling Doctor Lane over by Stevens Reservoir, where his body and that of Adele Carter were retrieved. Doctor Lane, who was named as the Head of Neurosurgery at Wilson General earlier today, is also connected to a series of murders in Minneapolis under the name….”

 

How would you describe yourself?

There’s been a discussion on Twitter recently about the differences in how female characters are written by male and female writers. Yesterday (or the day before), women were asked to describe themselves in a way that a male writer would and it was really quite enlightening.

Then came this: “How would you describe yourself, women writers, if you were writing yourself as a character?” (from Maria Dahvana Headley, who I adore)

Here’s the thread. You should read it. It’s very powerful to see how women view themselves when looking through a writer’s lens.

And here is mine. I’m actually quite proud of it.

Her most uttered phrase was “I’m sorry,” born from a lifetime of depression and hand-me-down self-abasement. She loved fiercely, desperately, seeking outside for what she could not find within. Then, at the age of 42, she found her anger…and stopped apologizing for who she was.

I Don’t Do Romance

Once again, I decided to take up the Short Story Challenge held by NYC Midnight. With this contest, you are given a genre, a character, and an object/situation/location and you have to write a story containing all those things. The entrants are divided up into heats and each heat has a different set of prompts. For this challenge, there were over 125 heats and my heat had 32 writers in it. We were tasked with writing a romance that involved a music teacher and something allergic. The maximum word count was 2,500 words and we were given a week to write it.

Now, I don’t do romance. I don’t read romance and I certainly don’t write it. I admire the hell out of the people who do, though, because I just can’t get my brain into that mindset. I’m too bitter and jaded, quite frankly. And I rarely write Happily Ever Afters (HEAs), which are a requirement for a romance story. And now I was supposed to write one? That’s just great. /s/

The results of the first round came out last night and to my great surprise, I placed 4th in my heat. The top 5 advance to the next round, which begins tonight and will require a 2,000 word story with new prompts in 3 days. There goes my weekend.

Anyway, here is the story that got me through Round One. One of the judges commented: “The writing is confident, sharp, and focused. The prose is polished and crafted with expertise. Your premise is engaging, intriguing, and fairly well-developed. The characters have dimension and the dialogue is plausible. You’re certainly a very gifted writer. Good work.”

I have gone through the story this morning and corrected a few errors the judges pointed out, so the word count is now above the maximum of 2,500. The ending is rather abrupt, but that’s a limitation of the word count. I’m sure you’ll forgive me, yeah?

 

A TWICE-PLAYED MELODY

I heard his music before I ever saw his face. Plaintive guitar chords floated out into the hallway, soft but soothing enough for me to hear over the usual noise of the hospital. Whispered conversations, shoes squeaking on the tile floor, the regular beeping of IV pumps and heart monitors, faded into the background as my ears reached for the melody from down the hall.

“That’s pretty music.” I flipped through the charts on the desk. Mesker, Mesker, where was….Oh, there it is.

“Hmph. It’s distracting.” The nurse next to me rolled her eyes. She was always rolling her eyes at something. Damn, Irene, loosen up. It’s just music.

“Who is it?”

Irene jerked her chin towards the end of the hall. “Down there. Sad, really. Nora Mesker. That’s the husband playing his guitar. Thinks it’s going to bring her back.”

Nora Mesker. The chart in my hands and the gossip at the nurses’ station had filled me in on the tragedy that had happened: a remote company retreat, a bee sting, no Epi-Pen, hypoxia. Deep breath, Meg. It’s always so hard to start on a new patient under these circumstances.

The door was cold as I pushed my way into the room. The sound of the guitar wrapped around me, tugging at something deep inside, like an old memory almost forgotten.

The figure on the bed was inert, surrounded by tubes and wires, only the rumpled blonde hair on her pillow seeming to be alive. Machines hissed rhythmically, a clumsy accompaniment to the song that filled the room.

He sat next to the bed, his back facing the door as if closing off the outside world, strumming his guitar and humming as I gently cleared my throat.

“Mr. Mesker?” I stepped to the end of the bed.

He blinked, finally looking at me, his brown eyes rimmed with red and shadows and sadness. “Yes?”

“I’m Megan Carley. I’m a physical therapist. I’ve come to do an assessment on Nora.”

“Why? She’s in a coma. She can’t move.” He turned back to the still form, his fingers plucking at the guitar in his lap.

“Not on her own, no. But—”

“Can you come back later? I—I just can’t deal with this right now.” His hand grasped hers and his voice hitched with emotion. “I don’t know how this happened. She never went anywhere without her Epi-Pen. Never.” He wasn’t even speaking to me anymore, but to himself or to her or maybe the universe at large. He crumpled against the side of the bed, pressing her hand into his face and sobbed. Pain radiated from him in waves and the air in the room was hot and stale.

The hallway felt cool, bright, normal as I clicked the door shut behind me, leaving him to his grief. I would try again the next day.

It was only then that I realized I, too, was crying.

#

It took three more visits before the husband would let me work on Nora, visits where I would stand there while he played his guitar, not knowing what to do with myself. How many similar patients had I worked on? Dozens, probably, each with their own grieving families and lovers, but none, and I mean none, had ever seemed so stricken as this man.

His name, I learned, was Will.

One week, then two, passed. He spoke while I worked, telling stories of how they met, how they loved. He pointed out the flowers that had come from the students at Stinson Middle School, where he was a music teacher. Doctors would come in and out, anxious conferences with Will as he stood clutching Nora’s hand, while I stretched her legs and arms to keep the muscles from atrophying.

Then the day came when they were gone, the room empty and waiting for another occupant. Nora had gone into cardiac arrest during the night.

And that was that. It happens. You get used to it, right?

Except when I tried to sleep that night, I could still hear his guitar.

#

ALMOST TWO YEARS LATER

The coffee shop bustled with the mid-day rush, full of business people and students with backpacks, their conversations and ring tones combining to make a familiar cacophony.

My thumb swiped quickly down my phone, checking the text again, and I lifted my gaze just long enough to sweep around the room. Yeah, I was in the right place, right time. But where was this guy Kristie had been raving about?

Fifteen minutes later. Seriously? Bad enough being set up on a blind date, but then to be stood up? I jabbed at my phone furiously, texting Kristie to let her know just what I thought of this supposedly great guy she met at work.

“Excuse me?” A man’s voice jolted me out of my anger. “Is this seat taken?”

I looked around. All of the other tables appeared to be full with a line of people at the counter. “No, no it’s not. Go ahead. I was just leaving anyway.” Screw this. And screw Kevin, too.

“You don’t have to rush on my account. Please stay and finish your drink.” The table wobbled as he sat down. “Really, sit down. I promise I don’t bite.”

“Your name isn’t Kevin by any chance is it?” No, I’d seen a picture of Kevin and this guy, tall and stocky, in jeans and an old Nirvana t-shirt, was no Kevin.

“No. Is it supposed to be?” His brown eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled and a wisp of a memory jolted through me. I knew him…. “I’m Will Mesker.” He held out his hand. His skin was warm, rough with calloused fingers.

Will Mesker? “I’m Meg Carley. Have we met before?”

“You know, I was just thinking that myself, but I can’t imagine where.” He looked puzzled. “Where do you work?”

“I work over at Langdon General. I’m a physical therapist. Could we have met there?” My voice trailed off as the color drained from his face.

“That must be it. You helped take care of my wife, Nora.” Just as the light in his eyes dimmed, the lightbulb went on in my own brain.

“Oh, yes. I never got the chance to tell you how sorry I was.” Should I hug him? Touch his arm? What was the right thing to do here? My hand lifted and lowered. Smooth, Meg.

“Thank you. It was…It was hard, you know?”

I nodded, desperate for anything else to say. “You’re a music teacher, right? I remember you playing your guitar.”

He laughed, the sadness leaving his face. “Yeah, that would be me.”

The crowd ebbed and flowed around us as we chatted over our drinks. Then his phone chimed and I was surprised to see an hour had passed. He grimaced at me. “Sorry.” The call ended quickly and he turned back to me. “That was terribly rude of me. I apologize.”

I waved off so minor an infraction. “No big deal. But it’s getting awfully late and I’m supposed to cover a shift at the hospital later.” My chair screeched as I pushed it back and he stood up with me.

“Thank you for sharing your table with me. I enjoyed meeting you… under better circumstances than our first encounter.” He took my hand and grinned. I couldn’t help but smile back.

“It was a lot of fun. Thank you.”

He hesitated. “I was thinking that maybe you’d like to get together again sometime.”

My heart tingled with warmth. “I’d like that. A lot, actually.” A quick exchange of phone numbers and he was walking me out to my car, his hand still holding mine. Another man ambled slowly towards us, holding up his phone and looking at me intently.

“Are you Megan? I’m sorry I’m so late. I’m Kevin.”

Will and I doubled over in laughter and left poor bewildered Kevin standing there alone.

#

We met for coffee again the next week. And the next. We talked a lot, and laughed more. He spoke of Nora, cautiously at first, about how her death had changed him. How he was still changing. And I told him how I had never forgotten his music that he had played for her, that I had somehow carried it with me all this time. On our third date, he took me for a picnic and brought his guitar. That was the moment I realized I was falling in love with him.

“What?” His eyes sparkled and I felt my heart do a slow roll.

I couldn’t speak, didn’t trust my words, so I leaned over and brushed my lips against his. He pulled back, ever so slightly, searching my eyes, his hands reaching up to brush the hair off my face.

“What is this?”

I kissed him again, longer this time, before breaking away. I felt like singing. “I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.”

He laughed and pulled me to him, rolling me onto the blanket, his mouth on mine.

It was like something out of a romance novel. I had never been so happy.

#

Eight Months Later

The evening started simply enough. Dinner and a movie at my place. I had to pee after dinner and when I came back out, Will was gone. I found him out on the front porch, smoking. He only ever smoked when he was upset, a habit he had picked up during the days after Nora died.

“Here you are.” I leaned against the railing next to him.

“Here I am.” Smoke veiled his face as he looked out into the night.

“What’s going on? You’ve been acting weird all night.”

Another drag on the cigarette was his answer.

“Yeah, okay, whatever. I’ll be inside.” My hand had just brushed the doorknob when his voice stopped me.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

My face went hot, my hands cold, and my stomach dropped to my feet. “What?”

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

There it was. “Okay.” My voice barely wavered. We might as well have been talking about the weather.

That got his attention. “Okay?”

“Sure. You want to go, then go.” Don’t you dare cry in front of him.

“Just like that?” He seemed confused, thrown off guard. Good.

“Just like that.”

“You don’t want to talk about it?”

“No, Will. You’re the one who didn’t want to talk about it. You just…just dropped this on me like it’s no big deal. I’m just agreeing with you.”

“But—”

“But nothing. You want to leave, then leave.” If he was miserable enough to end things like this, then I didn’t want him to stay. All I wanted was for him to be happy and if I wasn’t enough for that, then it was better to let him go.

I wanted to pull my eyes away from his, to ignore those eyes that I knew so well. But to look away first would be to admit weakness. I could cry later, be weak later. Not now.

He shrugged and walked down the porch steps. I couldn’t bear to see him drive away, so I started back inside. Again, his voice stopped me, coming out of the darkness to stab me in my soul. “Meg, wait.”

I couldn’t turn around. But I did stop.

“I—I’m sorry it happened like this.” I could hear the tears in his voice.

“Good-bye, Will.” Inside, I shut the door behind me and slid to the floor, letting my despair wash over me.

#

THREE MONTHS LATER

The doorbell startled me. I ran lightly down the stairs, sliding to a stop when I saw Will on the other side of the screen door.

“Hello, Meg.”

“Will.” What was he doing here? I haven’t heard from him since the night he ended things and he thinks he can just show up here?

We just stared at each other.

Finally, he spoke. “Can I come in?”

“No.” I went to close the main door.

“Please.” He wasn’t begging. A simple request. “I just want to talk.”

“So talk.” My heart hurt. The pain was back, just when I thought I was over him.

“I wanted to explain.”

My voice was a low hiss. “I don’t want your explanation. I don’t care what your reason was.”

“And why is that? You never even asked me why. You never let me explain.”

“Because this was your decision, not mine. You did this without even thinking to talk to me first. No ‘hey, I’m upset because of this’ or ‘I’m thinking about leaving because of that.’ Just BOOM! You were gone. If you thought so little of me that you could just walk off like that, why should I care about your precious reasons why?” Outside, I could see my neighbor on her porch, listening to my shouting.

Will took a step back, his face horrified.

My chest was heaving with so many emotions I don’t think I could have named them all. “Come in if you’re coming in or go away. I don’t care which.” I sat on my couch, trying very hard not to vomit when I heard the screen door close.

He sat across from me, elbows on his knees, head hanging low. When he finally looked up, I gasped. The sorrow on his face almost brought me to my knees. His voice shook and I had to strain to hear him. “Did you ever get scared?”

“Scared?”

“While we were together?”

“You mean in our relationship?”

He nodded, eyes boring into mine.

“Of course I was scared. I was scared every damn day. That’s how you know you’re still alive.”

“What were you scared of?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“I can tell you what I was scared of. I was scared of losing you. Of something happening to you the way it happened to Nora. That I didn’t deserve this happiness, not twice in my life. It seemed easier to leave on my own terms than to have it ripped away again.”

“And you couldn’t have told me that? You don’t think we could have worked through that?”

He gave a joyless chuckle. “I didn’t think I could work through that. But I was wrong. I miss you, Meg.”

I couldn’t, wouldn’t, speak. What was there to say?

“What were you scared of? Please?” Now his voice was pleading.

I closed my eyes, taking some deep breaths. When I spoke, my words were low, steady, emotionless. “I was scared that you would leave without telling me why. Which is exactly what you did.”

He pressed his hands to his face, sobbing, and my heart broke all over again. Without thinking, I moved next to him on the couch, as we had sat so many times before. His arm trembled under my touch and I pressed my lips against his cheek. Every minute of sadness over the past months had been leading to this, to this moment. I didn’t need him in my life, but oh! How I wanted him there.

At the touch of my lips he took his hands off his face, turning to look at me, eyes red and swollen. “Meg…”

I kissed his face again, reaching for what I had lost. When our lips met, I knew. I just knew.

THE END

The End of One, Beginning of Another

Three years ago today, I was sitting in front of this computer, staring at the judgmental blinking cursor on the blank page. We had moved to the Seattle-area just a few months earlier, all five of us crammed into a 2-bedroom apartment, my husband looking for work, and exploring the new world of autism (my middle child had been formally identified as autistic earlier in the month). Slowly, the words began to form on the page, piecing together a story that had been bouncing around in my mind for over twenty years.

That was the beginning of Bad River. Three years later, it’s still not done. *shrug* I’m staring down the barrel of my tenth revision. Yeah, TEN versions of this story, some more complete than others, have come and gone. So have several beta readers (professionals and friends), numerous “first page” critiques through classes and competitions, and two nerve-wracking pitches to agents.

(Funny story about the agent pitches. I had booked those pitches when I had the seventh version out with beta readers, deluded-ly thinking that I could do one last revision, maybe a pass through a professional editor, and then start querying. I know, I know.

Anyway, about two weeks before the conference I was going to pitch at, I fell down a Google hole and, in the process, discovered a major, gaping plot hole. The kind of plot hole that emerges in a different dimension, covered in shit. It was a bad, bad plot hole. Had I progressed with that version, I would have been skewered if it had ever gotten published or been read by, well, anyone.

And it was not an easy plot hole to fix, either. In the end, I decided to split the story into two timelines, with two main characters, and weave the two narratives together. This, of course, meant a complete rewrite with some new characters, a whole new town, new relationships, new villains. Not something I could conceivably get done in two weeks. No way, no how.

But, yo, I had these pitches scheduled and paid for, right? I figured I could go and pitch the new idea anyway, letting the agents know that I wasn’t anywhere close to finished, but just looking for feedback on the idea. Smart move, yes?

In some ways, it worked out. Both agents (and the instructor at the conference I spoke to about the book) were interested in the idea. One agent told me she didn’t care how long I took to get it completed, but she wanted my query once it was done. Yay me!

However, here I am nearly eight months later, ready to start on version TEN, and worried that I’ve missed my chance. That said, hopefully what I am constructing here will be worth the sweat and tears and headaches by the time I’m done.)

So, three years later and still not done with the book, but two agents have expressed interest and I’m starting to panic. I have a professional manuscript consult scheduled for (gulp!) next week to hopefully work through some issues. Once of my main characters has a bad motivator.

R5D4-BadMotivator

It’s the end of the year as well as the anniversary of starting on the Bad River journey and I find myself feeling contemplative (and a little unhinged).

I’ve been so busy trying to get Bad River under control that I haven’t really done much with my short stories this year. Looking back at my stats, I have submitted seven stories (or chapters, in the case of BR) to fourteen publications and/or contests. Of those, two of those submissions are still pending, while four of them have either been published (Genesis and The Kalip Woman) or have made it past the initial rounds in different contests (She Works Hard for the Money and I Haven’t Forgotten; neither was published). So, not a terribly great year, but I’m not displeased with it. I’m very happy to have found a home for Genesis (it’s one of my favorites) and I am extremely proud of The Kalip Woman. Have you read them? If not, you should, and tell me what you think.

Looking forward to 2018, I am planning on getting Bad River at least to the point where I can hand it off to a professional for a solid developmental edit in preparation for querying. I also hope to get back to writing more short fiction and making more submissions to different journals and contests. I would love to have more things to share with you here. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, I am going to take more time for self-care and reading.

What do you all have planned for 2018? Are there any prompts you would like to see me tackle?

Happy New Year, everyone!

When I Was Twelve…

My parents are here to visit for the holidays and my mom brought a folder with some my writing from when I was a kid.

This was a poem I wrote in 1988, so I would have been eleven or twelve.

Not long after this, I stopped writing, except for what I was required to do for school. I will tell you all about why I stopped writing someday, but today is not that day.

In the meantime, read a poem written by 12-year-old me. IMG_7891

She Works Hard for the Money

A while back, I entered another contest from NYCMidnight.com. This time it was a Flash Fiction contest, so less than 1,000 words, but the rest of the structure remained the same: they would assign a genre, location, and object/person, and I would have 72 hours to write and submit a story. In this contest, each writer was guaranteed two rounds and our final score would determine if we moved on to the third round. My particular heat had over thirty entrants in it.

For the first round, my heat was instructed to write a crime caper and it had to include a counting room and a mirror.

I’d never written a crime caper before. They’re not really my thing. Still, I was please with my result: I placed 6th out of more than thirty stories and was awarded 10 points.

Here is that story. Disclaimer: I did some slight editing, so it is now over 1,000 words. Oh, well.

I will post about Round 2 later today or tomorrow. Happy reading!

 

SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY

My high heels clacked down the long hallway as the ringing casino faded behind me. Don’t trip, Sandy. Whatever happens, do not fall. For the first time in years, I felt alive.

“Can I help you with something, Miss?” A lone guard stood up, a copy of Playboy falling to the floor.

“I don’t know. Can you?” I slipped into a sultry purr as I slid close to him, my new neon dress whispering seduction.

A smile spread below his mustache. He was handsome, very Magnum PI, but was that a . . . perm? Damn, his hair was nicer than mine. “Guests aren’t allowed back here, Miss.”

“I’m so sorry. I was looking for the ladies’ room.” I reached into my purse, past the gun, pulling out a mirrored compact. Instead of looking at my reflection, I peered over my shoulder down the hall. There were Steve and Larry, their big dumb faces peeking around the corner.

If I hadn’t overheard them talking about their plans to rob the casino, I’d still be at the slots, drinking yet another Kamikaze, and wishing I was anywhere else while Alan, no-longer-love-of-my-pathetic-life, was in a conference room learning the latest marketing techniques as part of the 1985 Pocket Calculator Synposium. Roberta, the Princess Di twin with bigger boobs, was probably nearby. Everyone knew about them.

Larry supplied the guns. Steve, a former employee, was the “brains” of the operation. They’d planned to run in, guns blazing, demanding money from the dealers. I talked them out of that.

Another glance in the mirror. Steve was holding something up. Good. The other key. The counting room door needed two to open. The first was always with the floor manager, but somehow Steve had managed to get it.

The second key was here with Mr. Perm. Yeah, it didn’t seem like the most fool-proof security system to me, either. No wonder the Moonburst Hotel and Casino was so rundown. They probably got robbed every other week.

The guard’s key was my responsibility. I put the mirror back into my purse, my fingers curling around the gun Larry had given me. Would the lace gloves I wore obscure my fingerprints? If they were good enough for Madonna . . . .

“The bathrooms are by the craps tables. Let me show you.” Mr. Perm’s hand slithered down my back as he moved me away from the door. Smile, Sandy. He has to think you like him. I faked a giggle.

“I could use a drink.” Yes. Yes, I could use a drink, actually. “Why don’t you come with me?” I put one hand on his chest while the other slowly drew the gun.

His grin grew wider as he cupped my ass. “My shift ends at six. Think you can wait until then?”

I heard footsteps. Larry and Steve, I hoped.

“No, I don’t think I can wait that long.” The gun was heavy, slippery. Don’t drop it, don’t drop it.

I didn’t drop it. The press of hard metal against his ribs made him blink. “What?”

I held a finger to his lips, laughing at his bewildered look. “Shhh.”

Steve appeared next to me, his gun against Mr. Perm’s temple. Larry danced around behind us, a suitcase on the floor next to him. “Hurry up. Hurry up.”

My fingers didn’t tremble as I unhooked the key ring from the guard’s belt and found the key that matched the Steve’s. “Is anyone in there right now?”

The guard gaped at me, but started frantically shaking his head as I cocked the gun.

A nod to Steve and we put our keys in the lock. Larry burst in, waving his gun like Nick Nolte in “48 Hours”. There was a yelp and a thud, but thankfully no gunshot. What the hell?

“Larry, are we clear?” There was no answer. Mr. Perm flinched as I slapped him. “You lie to me, Ponch?”

Larry appeared at the door, his eyes wide, blood trickling from his nose. “Oh, yeah. We’re clear.”

Steve pushed Mr. Perm into the room and I followed. Holy shit. We had made it in.

Steve bound and gagged the guard, who seemed resigned to his fate. On the floor lay the crumpled form of . . . someone in a red blazer. An open metal door led to what I assumed was the vault. On the table, racks of chips. A window overlooked the casino floor. I bet the mirror I had checked my lipstick in had been a one-way mirror.

Moving with a swiftness that surprised me, Larry pulled several bags out of the suitcase and began dumping chips into them, the clatter of the plastic echoing off the plain white walls.

I didn’t want chips. I wanted cash. And I could smell it.

My purse held stacks of 100-dollar bills. I patted the guard on his curly head and strutted out of the counting room, leaving Larry and Steve fighting over the chips. I was done with them.

The casino floor was full of people, laughter, lights, and the sounds of Donna Summer. No one noticed me, not even Alan who was getting off the elevator, Roberta draped over his arm. I looked into the counting-room mirror and adjusted my sunglasses.

Another guard lounged near the exit.

“Excuse me, sir, do you work here?” I kept my voice meek, polite. I would never use that voice again. “I just thought you should know, I saw some strange men going down that hallway over there.” I pointed to where I had just come from. “I think I saw a gun.” The guard took off at a run, yelling into his walkie-talkie. I was already forgotten.

Hot sunlight wrapped around me as I stepped onto Las Vegas Boulevard and hailed a taxi. In mere hours, I’d be on a plane to somewhere tropical. Alone. Alan would just have to deal.

I would miss the kids, though.

Maybe.

Sebastian the Safety Squirrel

Early in 2017, I entered a short story contest through NYCMidnight.com. They hold multiple contests throughout the year. In fact, I’m currently awaiting results from Round 2 of their most recent Flash Fiction contest.

Anyway, with NYCMidnight fiction contests, they give you a series of prompts: genre, setting, and a person/object. It can be really trick and intimidating, especially if you’re assigned a genre you’ve never written before and you’re only given a short amount of time to write the story.

This is what happened in this particular round of the short story contest. I had already made it through the first round (horror/surprise party/substitute teacher) and I was pleased enough with that. Then came Round Two.

For this one, I was tasked to write a 2,000 word maximum story in 48 hours, which is daunting under the best of circumstances. The assignment made it even more so.

I had to write a comedy. A COMEDY, mind you, that included a foot race and a rookie police officer.

Now, I’m a funny lady, but I had never set out to write a comedy before. In 48 hours. Well, shit.

SEBASTIAN THE SAFETY SQUIRREL was the result. I did not advance past this round, but the feedback was mostly positive. It’s unlikely I’ll ever try to have this published, so I thought I would share it here.

I hope it makes you laugh. I certainly laughed while writing it.

 

Sebastian the Safety Squirrel

When my shift started I was excited, eager for the chance to prove myself. By the time it ended, death would have been preferable.

Feedback from a microphone echoed through the large purple head I wore. Through the nylon eyes that tinted everything blue, I watched as a thin blonde sashayed across a rickety platform that lurched with each step she took.

“Welcome to the Wenley Elementary School Jump-Into-Summer Fair.” She beamed as if she were Miss America as meager applause and half-hearted wolf-whistles rose from the group of bored parents and hyper children. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Marcie Harrelson, Wenley PTA President. There’s lots of fun activities today for everyone, including the Pre-K Olympics on the far side of the field past the tug-of-war station. Be safe and be sure to wear your sunscreen!” She blew a loud whistle and the crowd scattered.

I glanced at Captain “Just call me Lou” Dowsett as he stood at attention, his badge gleaming like a beacon against his dress uniform. I had only met him once before, briefly, during my five-week tenure at the Wenley Police Department, and now I had to work with him all day. While dressed as Sebastian the Safety Squirrel.

I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. Still, this was my chance to impress him. To make a difference.

Lou’s voice was muffled as he tapped me on my shoulder. I struggled to pull off my purple head, wincing as it caught on my long, red ponytail.

“You okay in that thing?” He sounded smug, the bastard.

“Yeah.” Sweat was pouring down my face. Day-Glo head included, the outfit had to weigh 50 pounds, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except it was fucking June. Do you have any idea how bad it smelled inside that head? Remember when you left your workout clothes in your trunk and forgot about them for a few months? “It’s a little hard to hear you in here.”

“Don’t I know it. Look, we all have to pull our weight on these Officer Friendly gigs. Soon enough, you’ll get to be Friendly while some other noob gets to be the Squirrel.”

“I don’t mind.” I did mind. I minded a fucking lot, but I kept that to myself. I had wanted to be a police detective ever since I had first seen Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. I would hold Barbie weddings for Stabler and Benson, officiated by Ice-T himself. I had aced my associate’s degree in Criminal Justice. I speak three languages. I graduated at the top of my class in the Academy. I was born to be a cop.

I was also a giant purple squirrel.

The Officer Friendly booth was set up between tables full of baked goods, watered-down drinks, and lukewarm pizza—all proceeds benefiting the almighty PTA—and the field where frantic teachers tried to wrangle sugar-addled kids from one activity to another. A bounce house stood forlornly empty, its teenage assistant apathetically hosing it down. Again. A young boy sat and wailed for his mom, mourning either his lost chance in the bounce house or his piece of pizza that was now oozing out through the mesh walls. Groups of moms clustered around the fringes, shooting poisoned darts of judgement at each other and occasionally shouting out to a random Ethan or Emma, always causing at least one quarter of the kids within earshot to turn and scream, “What?”

“Put your head back on, Berger. Gotta stay in character.”

“Yes, Sir.” Fuck you, Lou. I forced the shaggy head back on.

“That’s the attitude I like to see. Willingness to do what it takes.” Damn, he was a prick. I wondered what it would take to kick his balls up through the roof of his mouth.

And so began our routine of Officer Friendly and his sidekick, Sebastian the Safety Squirrel. I’d dance around and pantomime in response to his lecture on the horrors of drugs, strangers, and not looking before crossing the street.

As a squirrel, even an oversized one with purple fur, I took that last admonishment as a personal criticism. But it was our schtick: we use crosswalks and hold hands, or people die. Rodents, too.

Lou kept taking breaks, hustling off to have a smoke in the shady corner by the gym or to grab a piece of pizza, leaving me alone to fend off kids who kept throwing balls at my head and running away. He’d come back and we’d do another round of safety lectures. He’d leave again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Then, as if the day wasn’t absurd enough, Lou suddenly bent over double, clutching his stomach. “I’ll be back.” He lurched off towards the bathrooms and I was, once again, on my own.

No kids were nearby, so I tidied up the D.A.R.E. pamphlets and put out a new box of Sebastian stickers. They said, “Police officers are SAFE friends,” and I wondered if I was, in fact, a trademarked character.

I was watching a tug-o-war game between some older kids and a clown, when I felt someone tugging on my arm. I looked down to see a little boy, maybe six or so, bawling. His face was bright red and a green pendulum of snot dripped from his nose. He was pointing frantically toward the other side of the field. What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s in the well?

I crouched down, tilting as the weight of my head threatened to pull me over. “What’s up, kiddo?” Now, technically, Sebastian wasn’t supposed to talk, but what the hell else was I going to do?

Gasp, gasp, wail. “My mommy. She’s hurt.”

“Where is she?” I looked around, searching for some poor woman writhing on the ground or carrying around her newly amputated arm. Or something.

“She didn’t feel good. She went to rest in the car while I played. I’m tired and want to leave, but the car door was locked and I could hear her inside. She’s hurt! Please, Sebastian, you have to help!”

A hot flame of purpose flared in my chest. Lou wasn’t back. And the asshole had taken the radio with him. I was on my own.

“Which car is she in?”

“It’s a gray minivan.” Of course it was. “Over there.” He pointed vaguely toward the parking lot riddled with, you guessed it, gray minivans.

“Can you tell me anything else? Bumper stickers?”

He howled in response. People walking by stopped to stare, but do you think they offered to help? Of course not. Fuckers.

“Okay. What’s your name?”

“Ethan.” Of course it was. “Please, you have to help my mom!”

“I will, I will.” I looked around, hoping to see Lou heading back, but no such luck. “Ethan, I need you to go find Officer Friendly. He went to the bathroom. Tell him what you told me, okay? Go on, now.” I gave him a little push on the shoulder and turned towards the field. As I ran, an awkward task in squirrel feet, I tried to pull off my head, but it caught again on my hair. I had an easier time with one of my squirrel hands, sending it flying like some gruesome taxidermy exhibition. I stabbed at my cell phone. 9-1-1. Dispatch picked up right away.

“This is Officer Berger. I’m at the Wenley Elementary School Fair. Reports of a woman injured and in need of assistance. I need a bus.” I had to shout to make sure I was heard through the damned squirrel head. My breaths came in gasps as I lumbered across the field. Then it happened. In no uncertain terms, Sebastian the Safety Squirrel was fucked.

I sensed it coming. My peripheral vision was completely…furry.  I turned my head to see what could only be described as a herd of four-year-olds stampeding towards me. A whistle blew frantically in the background but, like lust-crazed buffalo, the sound only made them charge faster. I never stood a chance.

Time slowed as my internal expletives flowed to the tune of ‘Chariots of Fire’. It added the necessary solemnity to the occasion, I thought.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Shit.

I went down hard as the first tiny body collided with mine. Then a Stride-Rite light-up sneaker made contact with my clavicle, a blow only slightly cushioned by my purple pelt. Then another. And another. Shoes flashed all around me. I imagined it was like being at a rave, but without the good drugs. Not that I would know.

Then a well-timed sneaker caught its toe under the edge of my fiberglass head. My neck wrenched to the side as the squirrel cranium went flying, taking with it streamers of my red hair, and I could see Queen Elsa’s bland smile looming as a shoe conked me in the forehead. Screams erupted all around me as Sebastian’s head bounced away. Kids scrambled over me and then they were gone, leaving me staring up at the sky with a lump between my eyes and wondering what the hell just happened. In the distance, I could hear cheering and laughter and a little voice screaming, “I won, I won, Daddy! Did you see me? I won.”

Lou’s face swam into focus. “Holy shit, Berger. What’s going on?” He pulled me to my feet, looking disgusted, as a megaphoned voice announced the winner of the Pre-K 50 Yard Dash to be one Emma “Fuck You, Sebastian” Reynolds.

“Sir, we’ve got an injured woman in the parking lot. Her kid told me. I’ve already called it in on my phone. We need to go, sir, now.” I lumbered away, amazed at how much easier it was to run without that damned head on.

“Officer Berger, wait!”

I didn’t wait. I charged into the parking lot, peering inside every gray minivan I could find. I could hear sirens approaching. Good, the ambulance was here. Everything was going to be fine. I was going to save Ethan’s mom.

There it was. A gray minivan, engine running with no one behind the wheel. I peered into the side windows, but all I could see through the baby sun shades was shadowy movement in the optional third-row seating.

“Open up! This is Officer Berger with the Wenley Police! Is everything okay in there?” I pounded on the side of the minivan. Behind me, a crowd had gathered. Lou was pushing his way through, speaking quickly into his radio.

The minivan’s side door slid open silently, suddenly, as if by magic. Blinking, a woman climbed out, clutching a crumpled yellow Wenley Elementary t-shirt to her bare chest. The crowd burst into laughter, which grew even louder when she was followed by a slightly flabby middle-aged man who hadn’t yet remembered to zip up his fly.

“Mommy? Are you okay?” Ethan threw his arms around her, bursting into tears. He hugged her furiously for a long moment, then looked up in surprise. “What are you doing with Coach Seaver?”

Silently, but with her face so red it was incandescent, Marcie Harrelson, President of the Wenley Elementary PTA, loaded a confused but relieved Ethan into the gray minivan. Tiny bits of gravel peppered us as she accelerated away from the fair. The tug-o-war clown grabbed Coach Seaver by the arm and started yelling.

“But Principal Mitchell, you don’t understand…” was all I could hear as the men walked away.

The crowd roared with laughter and then melted back into the mundaneness of the School Fair. Although this would be my first, and last, turn as Sebastian, I knew this day would become a Wenley Elementary legend.

Officer Friendly and Sebastian the Safety Squirrel. These are their stories.