Excerpt: “Day 290” (from “Honeymoon”)

Although they had both passed under the signs pointing “To Ground Transportation” before, they had never been received by so many cameras. Neither had they received a police escort through Terminal 3 of O’Hare Airport. To two people who had just survived 278 days on an island bereft of healthy human life, there was only one word to describe it.

Lonely.

“We can do this,” Thom’s hand reassured as it squeezed hers.

“I don’t know,” Anna’s hand squeezed back.

“You killed that many zombies, and you’re scared of a few reporters?” his hip laughed as it bumped into hers.

“Hardly the same threat,” her eyes flashed in a side-glance.

The bottom step of the escalator came quicker than either of them wanted, and they were immediately surrounded. The two officers who stood in front of them were pushing the cameras back as the two behind them moved to their sides and shepherded them past the crowd as more flashes and questions blinded them.

“Did you know each other before?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Who are you going to visit first now that you’re home?”

“What did you eat on the island?”

“Will you ever go on an island vacation again?”

“What’s it like being home?”

“How many did you kill?”

“What thought kept you fighting?”

“How many did you kill?”

“How many did you kill?”

They had been instructed not to answer any questions and to keep their faces down. No looking at each other because it would connote a relationship that would land on People Magazine’s cover. No displays of affection, not even a look at each other, because it would become US Weekly’s money shot. But hold hands because it shows solidarity and fortitude. A handholding picture would be on Time or Vanity Fair with a tasteful cutline.

So they had exited the plane, walked through the terminal, descended the escalator and now were standing next to a coffee kiosk besieged by photographers climbing on the counters to get a better angle — all while hand-in-hand with their heads bowed.

The crowd pressed against the four soldiers and five airport personnel who had come to the rescue. Overhead, announcements and security reminders barely cut through the camera clicks and questions being hurled.

“Has this affected your stance on vaccination rights?”

“How many did you kill?”

Anna and Thom surveyed the crowd, looking for the thinnest layer. Just like old times — meaning just 12 days before — Anna squeezed Thom’s hand when she saw a spot in the surrounding melee that was only two bodies deep. He squeezed back to signal he had seen it, too, then again to say he was ready. She squeezed back one more time before Thom raised his other arm over his face, leaning in to cut through the middle of four reporters and cameramen huddled together.

Outside was a black SUV usually reserved for high-ranking politicians and visiting celebrities. The driver, a Secret Service veteran, was supposed to take Anna and Thom straight to her old condo, where another team of agents would stave off the press.

Instead, they ran past it and into the taxi column, where they jumped into the nearest white-and-teal cab.

“119 West Randolph Street,” barked Thom, sliding a stack of bills onto the driver’s armrest before ducking down to join Anna, who had already crouched onto the floor.

“That was remarkably easy,” she said. “Almost too easy.”

“You’re confusing ‘easy’ with ‘bloodless,’” Thom said.

She kissed him with smiling lips as the cab pulled into crawling traffic. Only when they felt the car get up to speed on the expressway did they sit back into the seats. Anna played with the diamond on her left hand, letting the light catch it and flash at her like the cameras had in the airport terminal. Somewhere in the haze of normal life, she had dreamed of being so important that reporters and cameras met her at the airport when she returned from some major economic summit or peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, she was one of two surviving warriors returning home from a nine-month zombie uprising that no one even knew about until three weeks before.

Meanwhile, Thom watched the light glint off the diamond and thought about the day he had gotten it for her. The cut on his hand had scabbed over, but it still itched. It was all worth it, he thought as his eyes traveled from the ring to Anna’s downturned face.

Forty minutes later, the cab slowed.

“119 West Randolph,” the driver said. Thom worried about how quiet he had been during the drive, but didn’t dwell on it — they had gotten where they wanted to go, and no police, news crews or military seemed to be waiting for them at their destination.

He handed over another $20 before joining Anna on the sidewalk. They looked through the handful of usual protesters to the marble interior shielded by bulletproof glass walls. Anna took his hand again and gave it another squeeze. He returned it. They walked in together.

“Hi,” Anna said to the clerk at the front desk. “Can you point us toward the marriage and civil union court?”

This is the first chapter of a larger project, Honeymoon, that I started over National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2015.

Short Story: “Smartass at a Coffee Shop”

She’s sitting in the next booth, reading a Jackie Collins book and just generally pissing me off.

Maybe it’s the fluorescent pink hardback she’s holding open so wide that my spine feels like it’s being cracked, too. Maybe it’s the perfect manicure that’s gripping the shiny dust jacket, or the way her Prada eyewear frames her eyes, which flit across the pages in a way that suggests she’s only interested in two or three words of each paragraph.

Or maybe its because my life is nowhere near as perfect as hers, as I can’t just sit and read while Drummer For A Fiona Apple Cover Band Serena serves me endless $5 lattes and High Schooler Just Doing This Because It Looks Good on College Applications Ethan wipes down my table every couple of minutes to get a glance at the surgically perfect cleavage peeping out of my shirt.

Instead I’m here, peering over my laptop screen while Barista Who Foolishly Bought the Bankrupt Co-Owner’s Shares Walter gives me the fisheye for ordering a single small green tea. I learned long ago to take advantage of free hot water refills so I can continue to steep my brought-from-home tea bags. My chewed nails still have last week’s self-applied polish clinging on for dear life, and the last book I read was the owner’s manual to my new, but already outdated, Macbook.

There are only a few words typed out on the glaring white Word page: my name and the date, written like it would appear on a pretentious wedding invitation. “January the Fourteenth, Two-Thousand and Six” takes up more room than “Jan. 14, 2006.”

Now she’s paying her bill with a platinum credit card that catches the light as she holds it out to Serena. She’s probably charging fifty bucks of coffee and milk to her company’s account just because she can and wants the rest of the world to know it. As she clacks out of the restaurant in thousand-dollar shoes, I can only imagine she works for some high-profile PR agency or couture fashion house, which makes me hate her even more.

My editor calls me two minutes after the Jackie Collins reader walks out. He’s pissed because my second chapter is too short, or my first chapter is too long, and I’m not following the plot structure I’m contracted to observe in everything I write for Rose Throne Publishing, Ltd., a decades-old peddler of ripped bodices and oiled pecs. My editor likes balance, and I suppose I can’t blame him. After all, it’s because of him my books get published — and straight to paperbacks sold for pocket change to vacationers and rebellious teenage weirdos about to hide the lurid lasciviousness among ignored copies of Catcher in the Rye.

He also points out, and rightfully so, that I’m almost a week late with the third chapter. The problematic truth is that I didn’t plan on a Chapter Three because I was hoping to move on from this shit job by the time Chapters One and Two ended up on his desk. I was just lucky that a good enough plot presented itself to me for Chapter Two after I found that life would continue like usual after finishing Chapter One.

That’s why I don’t care or blame him for not liking the route the story is taking. This story wasn’t even meant to leave the parking lot.

Another patron walks into the café and orders a macchiato. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and the nightclub stamp fading on the back of his hand on this chilly Wednesday morning tells me all I care to know about his social habits.

He winks at me, and I return the favor by staring back at the glare of an empty Word document.

I’m down to the last tea bag in the box I brought from home, so I ask for a to-go cup as I pack up my laptop and notebooks. I’m too busy shooting a saccharine smile at Walter as he hands me the cardboard cup to notice that my phone’s still on the table.

The Nightclubber doesn’t even try to hide the full-body scan he’s performing with his eyes when he asks me how my day is going. I don’t give him the satisfaction of answering before breaking out into the freezing wind tunnel of Jackson Boulevard.

The beautiful thing about Chicago is that it’s freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. There’s no in-between. The most accurate bumper sticker I’ve ever seen says “Chicago’s Four Seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, Construction.”

And I love it.

In the middle of January, it’s impossible to catch a cab. Overhead, the El rushes past. Tourists cover their ears from the sound. It’s really not that bad. Lake Michigan’s up ahead, where the wind makes everything colder. It’s a God-send in July, but a Devil’s advocate in January.

Jackie Collins Reader is visible a block ahead, walking in her fabulous shoes toward Michigan Avenue.

My editor probably tries to call me again, but I can’t answer because I don’t have a phone. I guess he’ll just have to wait, or talk to Busboy With A PhD in South American History Ricardo, whose Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are perfect, but whose English is limited to phrases like “More coffee?” and “Have a nice day.”

Or maybe the Nightclubber has got my phone and is adding every saved female contact with a 312 area code to his list of viable dates. The joke’s on him: Half the women in there are married or over 40, as they’re all my relatives or people at the publishing company.

As I cross the street against the light, I’m not thinking about this because I’m trying not to get killed by oncoming cars. When they honk at me, I trick myself into thinking it’s because I look stellar in my $20 jeans and Nordstrom Rack parka. The slip-on loafers can’t hurt, either.

When I head up to my apartment three stories above a 7-Eleven with a perpetually broken slurpee machine, the red light on my answering machine is blinking. It’s Walter, the angry barista who was pissed about me taking up space and paying the bare minimum for heated tap water and a single bag of dead leaves.

“Hello, this is Walter from Kayama. I’m just calling to let you know that we found your cellphone at the table you occupied this afternoon. Please come by to pick it up by the end of the day. We close at half-past four.”

“Or what?” I talk back to the recording. The clock reads 4:23.

When I walk into Kayama the next morning, Walter is wearing the same annoyed puckers look he probably had when leaving the message, and I wonder if he went home to his two pugs with that expression on his face. I know I could make it up to him by ordering a $7 double-grande frappucino and $10 ham-and-gruyere tart the size and consistency of a Little Debbie cupcake, but I don’t have that kind of money. Just my phone and a small tea to go, please.

The bell above the door jingles while Walter is begrudgingly filling a cup with hot water. Click-clacking announces the arrival of Jackie Collins’ biggest fan. Today she’s reading Chelsea Handler, as she’s done skimming her read from yesterday.

She orders a $6 cup of Joe this time, and I walk out with my tea clasped in one hand and my phone in the other. Check Kayama off of my hangouts list. I don’t like cafes seeped in animosity and echoing with the heel-clacking of shoes worth more than my rent payment.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.52.34 PM

Taken this weekend at Third Coast, an excellent Chicago brunch place that isn’t half-owned by an annoying barista named Walter. If you go, try the stuffed French toast.

Poem: New Age Resolutions

In the icing on my birthday cake
I wrote a list.
I titled it

“New Age Resolutions.”

Chocolate frosting collected under my nail
As my finger wove between candles and candies,
Tracing:

Start something new.
Finish something old.
Then finish that something new, too.

Be more humble,
But post more selfies.
And videos.
And projects.
And writing.
And update LinkedIn.

Read before bed
And meditate in the morning,
But don’t fear sleeping in sometimes,
And don’t stay up too late on a school night
(Unless for a good reason,
Like a concert
Or one more chapter
Or a friend in need
Or being in need of a friend.)

Run more
But always toward things
Never away.

Don’t regret past mistakes,
But don’t dwell on them, either.
Stop thinking of him when tongue tastes tequila.
Stop thinking of the other him when nose detects a lit Camel Light.
Stop thinking of the other other him when ears catch that song,
Because you never danced to it together anyway.

In fact, go dancing.
Find someone to dance with,
Even if it’s the 1- and 3-count
(You’re Caucasian, after all)
And a reluctantly sipped Corona missing the lime.

Drink less.
Cook more.
Tweet less.
March more.
Swear less.
Kiss more.

Eat more cake.

I took my own advice,
So I ran out of space.
And I signed the contract with myself
By licking the frosting off my finger
With a champagne cork “pop.”

Music of the Write: “Gangsta’s Paradise” arranged by Position Music

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits theaters today, and it’s the newest scifi escape by Fifth Element and Lucy director Luc Besson. Regardless of whether the movie is good, it did us the favor of presenting a heart-pounding orchestral remix of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” in the final trailer. Then again, I’m a sucker for musical scores based on unexpected popular songs. Just wait until I start posting about Ramin Djwadi’s Westworld score.

 

Writespiration: Two mummies from 1942 found in a Swiss glacier

Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin left to hike in the Alps on a summer day in 1942, never to be seen again for 75 years when a worker on a ski lift noticed two mummified bodies in the melting ice.

Today NPR published a story about the two bodies dressed in WWII-era clothing and discovered last Friday within the shrinking Tsanfleuron glacier. The story itself didn’t captivate me nearly as much as the photo: Eerie without being overly graphic.

ap_17199510490087_custom-0199a02c1f3b0ced9865815b4027a256c3d6caab-s800-c85

GLACIER 3000/Keystone via AP

The Dumoulin’s youngest daughter, now in her 70s, said the discovery gave her a sense of relief, but I can’t imagine how she feels seeing the photos. She’s not the only one to experience finding a long-lost loved one in shrinking glaciers: NPR listed a few other cases, including three brothers who disappeared in 1926 and found in 2012 on the Valais’ Aletsch glacier; two Japanese climbers who disappeared in 1970 and found at the foot of the Valais’ Matterhorn glacier in 2015; and a German skier missing since 1963 and found in the Graubunden’s Morteratsch glacier just last year.

Centuries-old glaciers begin to disappear and decades-old bodies reappear: As climate change threatens our future, it’s also helping us connect with our past.

Sounds like a good theme for a story.

 

“Omaha” Excerpt: Chapter One

There’s a broken body in my arms.

Despite the falling snow and frigid air, I rip away my goggles, hood and scarf to get a better look at the milky face staring lifeless up at me. The Elevated Trains pass each other on the tracks above us, but their screams do little to drown out her death rattle.

Two more coughs, and the woman in my arms is dead.

A small voice in my ear fizzles in.

“Status request, Omaha,” it says. “Omaha, do you copy?”

I don’t want to let go of her. Even though her face is covered in blood and her cropped hair is matted against her forehead, it’s like I’m seeing her clearly for the first time. Green eyes stare lifeless as marbles. Snow catches on the sandy eyelashes and eyebrows framing them, unable to melt against a body that’s quickly going cold.

“Omaha, do you copy?” asks the voice again, quiet against the roar that’s now my own blood pumping in my ears. I roll my shoulder up to my ear to push the voice out of my head. Instead it pushes it deeper in so it’s louder.

“Omaha, do you copy?”

Now I dig my finger into my ear, trying to pry out the piece that’s talking to me. But there’s nothing there to remove. I pull my finger out and run it along the outside of my ear. The skin is smooth, untouched.

“Omaha, do you—”

Just as my fingers graze the bump where my jawbone begins, the voice goes silent, as if I’ve hit a mute button. Something in my brain remembers that the bone I’m touching is called the temporomandibular joint. I don’t know the name of the dead woman, but I do know that.

Another train is coming, but it’s as empty as the first one was when it arrived. It’s surreal, thinking that even though everyone — almost everyone — fled the city, the trains still run. That’s the beauty of a solar powered system: As long as the sun is shining, the system works, even if the passengers are long gone. In some ways, it’s like the trains are just waiting for people to come back. Or maybe they’re celebrating a lighter load.

Or maybe they don’t give a shit because they’re trains. Machines don’t think or feel.

The woman is still in my arms, and I don’t know how to move forward from here. Do I leave her on the pavement to be buried in snow and the city’s dust? Do I try to take her somewhere? What was her name? Who was she?

Who am I?

I recognize that every question I ask about the dead woman I’m asking about myself, too. I may have muted the voice in my head, but that’s now left me with no one to talk to — just a passing train and falling snow. My questions pile up in their own drifts.

My name is Omaha. I know that much. Or do I?

A sharp wind tears down the street, kicking up snow and grit. I lift my scarf back over my mouth and nose to avoid breathing in the dust of a dead city. The growing blood pool at my knees collects some of it. A shard of plastic wrapper sticks to her blood-encrusted eye like a patch.

I pick it off and squint against the wind at it. It’s red and white, and something in the same section of my brain as “temporomandibular joint” reminds me of chewy fruit candy pills — Skittles, I think.

With no clear direction, I continue to sit in the street as the body cools, which doesn’t take long in the freezing climate. Another train comes by, and with it come flashes of how I got here. We had been running from something — or at something. There had been another person, and that person had gotten on top of one of the trains above with her while I stayed below. But why the chase?

My fingers play with my ear, contemplating pressing the button to get the voice back. I could ask it what’s going on, who I am and what to do next. But something in me is weary of it. Innate curiosity pushes me to find my own answers and not trust what some implanted personality in my ear might tell me.

I move the woman off my lap. She’s bigger than me, but somehow I’m able to hoist her over my shoulder. The Skittles wrapper crunches under my boot as I start walking down the road labeled Lake Street, heading east away from the winter sun glowering in a cloudless sky. Ahead is a building like a landed spaceship, its walls curving like an intergalactic teacup on a concrete saucer. I carry the body around the perimeter lined with rust-red pillars dimpled by bullet holes and occasionally gouged away by more significant artillery. There’s little rubble on the ground, as if someone had tried to clean up after the battle but didn’t go as far as to patch up the more permanent damage.

Rounding the building, I come into a courtyard. What looks to be white tombstones are scattered among rolling trash cans and a rack of abandoned city-sanctioned bicycles missing their tires. As I get closer I recognize the stone graves were actually leftovers of a sculpture that once stood 20 feet high. Along with temporomandibular joint and Skittles is the name “Dubuffet.” This was once one of his pieces, I think, before the savage city made its mark.

I prop the body against one of the slabs. Her head slumps down. The wind catches my shoulder, and I can feel the fabric is wet, probably from blood. In this cold temperature, shedding my jacket isn’t an option, so I wait for half of it to freeze.

I lean against a fallen stone pillar adjacent from her. The snow is still falling, but I’m not sure if I’m squinting against it, the wind or the vibrant winter sky. The wind howls through the streets, but not loud enough to mask the sound of four boots identical to mine crunching their way across the courtyard.

Unable to decide whether to stay in the sculpture’s shelter or emerge to greet the newcomers, I stick my head out from behind the stone. The white sun’s glare disappears as the two figures come to stand over me. Both are dressed in the same hood, coat, pants and boots as me, but with automatic rifles, not a body, slung over their shoulders.

“We’ve been trying to connect with you for the last twenty minutes,” says the taller of the two as the shorter pulls me to my feet. I feel fingers graze my jawbone, and a white-noise hum returns.

“That would explain it,” says the shorter, drawing a hand away from my jaw and clapping me on the back. I hear the voice both in front of me and within my ear. “Your ice was shut off. Must have bumped it during the chase.”

I want to ask what they mean by “ice,” but instead am faced with a question myself.

“What happened to Keystone?” A nod tells me this is the dead woman’s name.

“Fell,” I say, knowing only that for sure.

“It was a hot pursuit,” says the taller. “Bound to be at least one casualty. Shame it wasn’t the target.”

The wind howls even louder, tugging at my hood. Instinctively I whip it back over my head. The two newcomers turn and scowl at the gale, then eye the sculpture.

“Wind blast estimated at sixty-point-zero-seven miles per hour detected,” says a voice in my ear, and from the way the shorter one ducks down, I know my new companions have heard it, too. “Seek shelter immediately.”

Across the courtyard, the spaceship building taunts us with glass doors barred by rusting security gates. The taller one sees me eying it.

“Nah, it’ll take too long to get over there. This sculpture thing should break the breeze well enough.”

Before I know it, the two have crawled into the cave formed by the broken sculpture. I stay outside, watching as an almost visible wind comes down the street, lifting dirt and broken glass off the abandoned street surface. At one point I think I see a piece of the metal slatting that once covered a bus enclosure flying magically down the road.

The gale tears at my coat, pushing my hood back again and numbing my face. There’s something else tugging at me, too, and I look down to see that the taller newcomer is gripping my pantsleg to get me inside.

A trashcan comes rolling at me, pushed by the wind, and I duck down as it bounces over where I stood and explodes against one of the dimpled red pillars. As I slide into the sculpture’s shelter, I pull Keystone’s body with me. I’m not sure whether I do it out of sentimentality or so we have a makeshift door between us and the mile-a-minute wind.

Once the voice in our ears give us the all-clear, we emerge from the sculpture, starting with me pushing Keystone out of the way and back onto the courtyard, where little has changed. I check her left side—the part that had been most exposed to the wind—for damage. Then I realize how silly that is, as she’s dead.

“We should head back,” says the taller. “It’s about a ten minute walk to the station, and there’s probably another wind coming this way.”

“Or worse,” says the shorter.

“Nah, nothing worse than wind,” says the taller. “Can’t kill the wind.”

“What about Keystone?” I ask. Now that I know her name, I want to use it as much as possible.

“What about her?” the shorter turns to look at me. Even though I can’t see the face under the scarf and goggles, I know there’s a look of incredulity accompanying the statement. “She’s rabbit food, now.”

Those must be some vicious bunnies, I think before a sudden fizzle comes into my ear.

“Attention mode initiated,” says the placid digital voice.

My two new companions almost comically snap into a straight-backed military stance. Like a reflex, I find myself imitating them, arms wrapped behind my back.

“MacArthur needs Keystone’s body to be brought back to headquarters immediately for diagnostics and data recovery,” says a different voice, this one far more human. “Do you copy, Omaha?”

“Uh, yes, sir,” I say, though the words come out far less sure than the mechanical responses given by the newcomers.

“Mission mode initiated,” says the digital voice again.

I bend down and hook one of Keystone’s arms around my neck. The shorter takes Keystone’s other side.

“What do they mean, ‘diagnostics and data recovery?’” I ask.

My question must be so appallingly ignorant that despite the sub-zero temperatures and increasingly strong wind, the taller of the two pulls the scarf and goggles away to answer me. The coverings reveal a young, angular male face blank as freshly poured concrete.

“Mission mode initiated,” he says. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

“What?”

“Mission mode initiated,” he repeats. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

“Is he usually like this?” I ask as the shorter and I start walking with Keystone’s arms around each of our shoulders and her feet dragging on the ground.

“Mission mode initiated,” says the shorter’s muffled voice. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

Nonfiction: “Terminal L”

Let me tell you about Terminal L.

Because if you’ve never flown to a college town from Chicago, you’ve probably never had the pleasure to observe this part of O’Hare International Airport.

It’s like a campus in itself. There’s a McDonald’s, vegan snack station, Bank of America ATM and bubble tea stand, though you wouldn’t notice them behind the everlasting line for the crown jewel: Starbucks. The frappucino ingredients are the first to run out as students load up on caffeine and sugar — mostly sugar — before returning to institutions of higher learning, where the brain damage incurred by childhoods fueled by corn syrup, aspartame and Red Color No. 3 is no match for tuition bills and student loans.

Passengers walk around in hoodies and athletic shorts, regardless of the weather outside. Mismatched socks and Adidas slider sandals are the footwear of choice for about 49.8 percent of men here, and 38 percent of the female population carries sequined Victoria Secret tote bags that wear down the hip of their leggings. The other 62 percent lug around quilted Vera Bradley in colors God never imagined would be coupled together in one paisley pattern.

And then there are the hats. Pork pies, fedoras, newsboy caps, trucker hats, snapbacks, beanies, earflap-and-pompom hats and even a top hat crown the moving crowd, as if status is directly correlated to the obscurity of each style. Top Hat is probably working on his second PhD.

But the most utilitarian — and conspicuous — choice of headwear is a full microphone headset worn by a 20-something man balancing a laptop, mouse and external hard drive on his lap at Gate L6A, where the gate attendants have just announced a flight will be boarding. As precise as a sniper packing up his weapon, he stores the entire setup in the suitcase at his feet, nesting it around a box labeled “Game Capture HD 60” and a roll of red raffle tickets.

Replacing him is a 25-year-old woman daring to return to the place that prepared her for nine-hour days and two weeks of annual paid time off. She’s just changing chairs, though: The flickering fluorescent bulb above her original seat cast dizzying light on the pages of the Margaret Atwood novel nestled in her lap. But even in this more stable lighting, it’s hard to concentrate.

As she looks around at the people just three or four years younger than her, she wonders how a relatively short period of time has made her feel so much older than these broke dreamers about to board the same tin can hurtling toward mid-Missouri. Maybe it’s because she’s still in her office clothes — tights, boots, Calvin Klein dress, flaking mascara and her own cap of exhausted hairspray. Maybe it’s because she’s leaving for what she calls “vacation” and they call “midterm exams.” Or maybe it’s that she’s sipping straight black coffee instead of a smoked butterscotch frappucino with extra whipped cream and a cookie straw.

They call my flight. I dump the rest of my coffee in a nearby water fountain and line up at the gate, adjusting my tights on the way.