Vignette: Slim for what

“I’m not skinny for you,” she said, bolting upright in bed. She pulled away from his fingers as if they had turned to cattle prods reaching out to trace the ribs under her skin.

Truthfully, she wasn’t doing it to look like a magazine ad or provoke even more men to buy her disgusting vodka cocktails or catcall her from their cars. She woke up at five every morning to exercise, ate small lunches, avoided the sweets aisle at the grocery store, etcetera, because she liked when people underestimated her. The pitying, hungry smiles they flashed at this bird-like creature whose skin was too tight for her bones as they assumed the least of her until it was too late — she had swallowed them whole, and she hadn’t gained a pound.

Short Story: Would You Like To See Magic? Would You Like To Do Magic?

Oh, mamma, I didn’t mean to do it I didn’t mean to make a deal with the man in the scarf and diamond shoes at the end of the block but OK yes you told me not to talk to him, and I didn’t think you meant not to be polite you’re always saying I should be polite so when he said Hello I thought I should say Hello back and then he said he liked my hat and I said I liked his scarf and the next thing I knew it felt like that long blue and white scarf was wrapping around my wrist and pulling me into the alley where he lives and then he handed me a cup of tea from a kettle over the trashcan fire and it tasted so good, mamma. No, not as good as yours, of course, but so good, like the way marshmallows smell when being burned over a fire of dry leaves on a cool October night, the night that Ansolo wrapped me in his coat and told me he would always love me no matter what no matter if the sun goes black and the skies turn solid.

And that’s when the man said Axiom Would You Like To See Magic and the flames in the trash can turned purple, not like your dress purple, but like the flowers on the lavender bush outside, like the color I’m always trying to get right with my paints but never do because I add too much white or too much blue or the green accidentally runs into it. They were so beautiful, mamma, and they spit vibrant silver sparks unlike any fire I’ve ever seen before, and then he asked Would You Like To Do Magic and what color I’d like to turn the flames next, and I thought of one, and they turned that turquoise shade that only silk can hold.

I asked him what else he could do and he took my hand in his and put a thumb to that scar on the back of it from when I fought Brandlee on the playground when she was making fun of Tobi, the new half-orc in our class, and suddenly it disappeared and I didn’t have the crescent moon of her nails etched on the skin anymore and, mamma, it felt so good, like someone had peeled a layer of pain off my flesh and I could stretch and dance and breathe again. And I thought Ansolo, lying in that bed, waiting for me to come and read to him or paint by the window while we talked or, at least, while I talked as he can’t really talk much without tiring himself out and coughing and falling asleep now that the Sickness has reached his lungs and I asked the man if he would come with me to see Ansolo so he could heal him and the man just laughed and flung his scarf over his shoulder and said I didn’t need him to come with if I learned how to heal Ansolo myself.

Mamma, I know I shouldn’t have I know that I know you said not to enter into deals with strangers, let alone the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, but he said it would be easy and that all I’d need to do was shake his hand and I’d have the power to heal Ansolo and turn fire purple and turquoise and do so many other things like vanquish evil so elves like Brandlee would never make fun of half-orcs like Tobi and I don’t know how he knew all of that but his diamond shoes were so shiny and he was so nice and the tea tasted so good and I went to Ansolo’s house feeling like the man was still squeezing my hand like I was walking hand-in-hand with a phantom and my arms and chest and legs tingled in anticipation of knowing that I could cure Ansolo now and make him better and we could finally get out of this little town and have the adventures he promised me while wrapping me in his coat that autumn night.

And it worked! It worked, mamma, and once I had taken Ansolo’s hand he stopped coughing and his legs started to twitch under the blanket and he actually swung them over the side and stood up and walked to the window, right past the easel I had been painting at and looked out at the trees like he was getting up from a good night’s sleep instead of months of slow death as his body gave up on him. And then he looked at me and asked me Who Are You.

I’m Axiom Your Wife I told him and I went to stand with him at the window and take his hand and remind him how he would hold me just so like our bodies were designed to fit together and he pulled away and looked at me like I always looked at the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, that is to say Go Away I Don’t Know You I Don’t Trust You I Don’t Want To Talk To You, and my heart burst out of my chest and dropped to the floor with a thud as I saw in his eyes that he didn’t know who I was and that my easel by the window had disappeared and so had the paper flowers and birds I had hung from string over his bed and so had the tiny portrait of us at the festival last summer and so had the ring he wore around his finger to tell everyone that he was mine that I was his that we were lassoed together with gold bonds that couldn’t be severed.

And I realized as I twisted my own gold ring around my finger, holding tight to it so it wouldn’t disappear too, that he didn’t know me that he didn’t remember me that to him that night by the bonfire with the marshmallows and the moon hadn’t happened or at least hadn’t included me and I saw over his shoulder the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes sneer at me as he held something aloft that sparkled in the morning sun and it was Ansolo’s ring and memory of me. I was so distracted by the sight that I didn’t notice that Ansolo was about to walk right into me then walked right through me like I no longer existed in his world and I wondered, mamma, if I didn’t exist for him if he didn’t exist for me either, but I know that’s not true, mamma, because I still had the ring on my finger and I still could smell his skin and hear his laugh and remember when we first met as kids on the bank of the creek by our house where we caught gillyfish in our bare hands until the backs of our necks were red with sunburn. Why, mamma? Why did the man with the scarf and diamond shoes take me from Ansolo, but not Ansolo from me?

It’s agony, mamma, like Ansolo took a part out of his heart and I took a part out of mine and we swapped them, like trading out two identically shaped but differently colored puzzle pieces except now he’s handed my piece back and has walked away perfectly whole, somehow, while I have this extra piece of me that was once part of him jammed inside of me reminding me that he once loved me but doesn’t even know me anymore and I’ll always love him but will never be able to get him back.

Why are you looking at me like that, mamma? What do you mean you don’t remember Ansolo?

Excerpt: On the business of hiring henchmen (from “Nobody’s Hero”)

This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, inspired by the Man Who Wears Time on His Arm when he asked me what I thought the life of a henchman would be like. We were watching The Equalizer at the time.

“As I’ve learned, there are two kinds of people looking for a job as a super villain’s henchman,” Wilcox said, tenting his fingers like he did during his lectures. “There’s people with nothing to lose, and people with everything to lose. Both have their pros and cons, of course. People with everything to lose will do anything to protect it, and people with nothing to lose have fewer inhibitions — you’re smart enough to surmise that. But they all have one thing in common: They’re dangerous but necessary liabilities.

“Sometimes they think they can double-cross you. Sometimes they decide they have a thread of moral fiber in them and go to the authorities. I had one guy try to use his brief time studying psychology to psycho-analyze me, which I must admit was entertaining. But as annoying as they can get — and I hope Todd can forgive me for this —” Wilcox turned, and for the first time Pru noticed that the burly man who had dragged her into the room was still standing by the door, silent as a suit of armor and twice as stiff. “They’re protection.”

Todd gave a thumbs up, as if the statement was praise for the job he was doing. Wilcox returned the gesture and leaned in to seek another pastry from the plate. Really, it was so Pru could hear him speak softer now:

“Ever notice how it’s always the henchmen who die first? The main villain is always the last to go. So you see, I have to staff my operation with as many desperate and-or delusional people as I can as a means of survival. Smart people need not apply — the more useless intellectually, the more useful they are physically.”

“So Todd there?” Pru asked, leaning in to survey the snacks herself.

“Linebacker for my high school football team,” Wilcox said. “Went through senior year twice, and not because he was challenged in his learning but because he was challenged in his motivation to do anything but body slam other teenagers. Our 20-year class reunion hit at just the right time for both of us. He had just gotten let go from his park district coaching job, and his wife had left him in debt up to his eyeballs. And I had just started this research, so I gave him a job.”

“Do you pay benefits?” Pru asked half in jest as she lifted her teacup to her lips, relieved that the handle had cooled down. He was right — the raspberry flavor was much better when added as syrup after the brewing process.

“Of course,” Wilcox said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “With life insurance to be paid out to his two kids, Bianca and Trevor. They’re only 10 and 12 now, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re 18.”

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 7: “Split-lip Gossamer”

Blood dotted my shoes as the blond girl flung the brunette girl down on the ground. The red bandana tied around the brunette’s upper arm meant this was what she wanted.

Across the makeshift ring stood Louisa, her face red with exertion and blood. She caught my eye and smiled, wincing as the cut in her lip opened wide and trickled crimson. The glossy pink lipstick she usually war was long gone, sweated all over the floor. The blood was a better color on her, she once commented.

Louisa and I met during our Survey of Celtic Mythology class two semesters earlier. We worked on a massive project together, which I guess in her mind made us friends. I was ambivalent, just trying to keep my head above water during that 18-credit-hour semester and thankful that she did most of the work without complaint. Then again, I was so scattered that she was probably happy to ensure we got a good grade, extra work be damned.

The next time I saw her after the holidays, she wore the same coat, carried the same bag and walked like she was strutting to music only she could hear. But something was off: Her face was pink from the subzero weather, but a California-shaped bruise darkened the side. Try as she might with makeup, it was clear as day.

I didn’t ask her about it because she walked too fast past me, clearly disinterested in talking. From the shy smile she gave me in recognition as she tugged her hair to hide the bruise, I guessed she was embarrassed. So was I.

The semester before had ended on a less-than-festive note. She had gotten drunk at a Christmas party, found me there and decided it was time to give me a kiss under the mistletoe. I wasn’t sober, either, and she wasn’t unattractive. I had no idea that she had a boyfriend. Not just a boyfriend; she was dating the Hulk.

I didn’t actually see him hit her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened. There wasn’t much I could do — the party was at his house and all — but something about the way he steered her away, taking her arm like it was the strap of a book bag, gave me the creeps. The least he could have done was take a swing at me instead.

That’s why as I walked past her a month later, it wasn’t outlandish to think the California-shaped bruise looked suspiciously like massive knuckle marks chained together.

A few weeks later, she was sitting in the library. California was gone, but there was a tear in her lip and she had a brace around her wrist. I wanted to ask her what had happened, but she left too quickly.

The next week I saw her again. Her lip was half-healed, and she had upgraded from a brace to an ace bandage. Opportunity hit when she stopped to dig her phone out of her bag. I tapped her on the shoulder, and she winced, as if I had punched her.

Louisa looked up, phone in hand. Her knuckles were raw and red.

“Oh, hello,” she said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said. “Haven’t seen you around in a while. What happened?” I nodded to her knuckles. She smiled the sarcastic smile that she had all of last semester when I had a question she could answer glibly.

“Would you believe me if I said it’s from Fight Club?” she asked.

“No,” I said, not smiling. “What really happened?”

“I got in a fight,” she replied, shrugging. “Battle wounds, you know.”

“He’s still beating you, isn’t he?” I started. I didn’t want the conversation to go this route so soon after our reunion, but I saw no choice. My sister had been in an abusive relationship, and I didn’t want to see any other woman just shrug and sarcastically smile it away.

“I dumped him ages ago,” Louisa laughed. “He hit me for the last time. Even told the police. They didn’t do much, of course, but his parents pulled him out of school and put him in rehab. I don’t intend to find out if it worked or not.”

My eyes squinted against the veil of her smile, trying to see through the split-lip gossamer to see if she was telling the truth.

“Fight club, huh?” I asked, deciding to play along with the joke. “Isn’t the first rule of Fight Club not to talk about Fight Club?”

“Not ours,” she said. “If we didn’t talk about it, we wouldn’t have a club.”

Thanks to Chuck Palahniuk for the inspiration.

Short story: “David”

My stomach hit the sidewalk seconds before my coffee did. I had built up in my head that he was in a European prison where I’d never see him again — not standing outside the Starbucks next to where I worked and hardly thought of him at all except once or twice an hour when I’d create in my head my very reaction to seeing him again after all this time.

“Kid! Hey, kid!” I’d call out.

And then I’d walk away and wait for him to chase me. Which of course he would — this was my fantasy, and he did what I wanted.

But as I stared at him in the flesh, I dropped my coffee and felt it scald my skin through my tights. Suddenly an inside joke from our past didn’t seem as appropriate as a solid “Fuck you,” but my mouth couldn’t form the words. All it could do was slam shut as I hoped he hadn’t seen me and my brown-splattered nylons. The same ones he thought I had worn over on a 20-degree March night with the purpose of seducing him (I had), despite how I insisted that I had actually come from happy hour (I hadn’t, unless drinking two glasses of whiskey alone on my couch counted).

“Well hello,” he said with a smile — the kind that had convinced me six months before to get out of the cab one stop early and have a one night stand that lasted two months.

“Hi,” was the only syllable my mouth could form during its battle against my brain, which was still figuring out what it wanted to say as it also debated whether to pick up the fallen coffee cup, hook it with my toe so it wouldn’t blow away or ignore it all together.

“Surprised to see me?”

Of course the fucker was going to make it about him. He always did — asking me if he was my best friend, playing his favorite clips from some show I couldn’t stand, dropping names I didn’t recognize as if the people in his life were celebrities, not just the kind who invited their defense attorneys to family barbecues.

I used to use his comments about his pending departure as a thermometer when I wanted to know how he felt about our relationship: When it was good, he might not have to leave after all. When he was bored or annoyed, moving day suddenly moved up. And when he finally did leave, he made sure not to tell me until a single message lit up my phone after a week of radio silence: “Ah! Last week in Chicago. You were a highlight of my year.” Then, nothing.

He had been the first boy to make me cry. Not even my first yearlong relationship’s disintegration had done that. It had taken me months to stop thinking that six blocks west, two blocks north of my apartment was his neighborhood.

And now he stood on my sidewalk near my office asking me whether I was surprised to see him. For the next year I’d have to turn this corner every day and remember he had been there — one of the few places he hadn’t defiled during the two months of mindfuckery — and it was like he had returned from across the Atlantic just because he had missed a spot.

Shock decayed into chagrin.

“‘Surprised’ isn’t the term I’d use,” I said, hoping the rest of my mind would get on the same anger page. Unfortunately, part of my brain was remembering the feeling of his lips brushing just under my jaw bone while the other part heard his soft, warm laughter in my ear.

“You look great,” he said, surveying the body that had gotten sleeker, stronger and tougher from exercise that had done everything but sweat him out of my system.

“Thanks,” I said, wishing I was the kind of person who could nonchalantly add “I know.”

“So I’m in town for a while staying at my old place,” he said. “Are you still in the area?”

The fact I had never told him where I lived remained one of the few victories I had over him. Then again, he had worked for the county: A simple search, if he had been so inclined, would have given him my address, tax code and social security number.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you know where I live,” he said, and before I knew what was happening, he had kissed my cheek and walked down my street toward my bridge that I crossed every morning. Except now it was the street he walked down after kissing me on the cheek, and the bridge he crossed on his way to his neighborhood.

I didn’t tell any of my friends I had seen him. I just experienced the deja vu of receiving a parboiled invitation that ended with “or something,” which meant adding “Shave legs, change underwear, drink two glasses of whiskey” to the list of things I had to do before leaving my house at 7:53 so I could arrive at 8:05 on the dot, be pulled by my scarf into the house and pressed up against the wall as his hands pushed tugged teasingly at my collar.

The Corvette button he gave me and that I still wore (“I don’t care who gave it to me, I just really like it,” I would spit at friends’ raised eyebrows) made a clatter on the floor when my coat landed at my feet. For the third time, I abandoned my gray boots five feet apart in the hallway as I walked in like it was my apartment, not his. And I lost yet another pair of tights to his fingers as they grappled to pull them down while pushing me back onto the dining table where I once left a pair of earrings so he’d feel obligated to invite me back.

The apartment still smelled of cinnamon tea and vanilla wax. His breath still tasted of red wine and lies. And there was still a watermark on the ceiling that looked like the Virgin Mary from some angles and a mushroom cloud from others. That image of mass murder and destruction was the last thing I saw before closing my eyes in a mix of anger and ecstasy, if there was even a difference between the two. They both made me scream and arch my back.

He buttoned his jeans and padded into the kitchen to pour cabernet savignon into two white wine glasses. I got off the table and straightened my skirt, leaving the punctured tights in a ball on the chair. His desk looked the same as always with the laptop open to film editing software and an external hard-drive blinking lazily next to it.

“Let me show you what I’m working on,” he said, handing me a glass and sitting down on the cheap task chair.

I hated that chair. One night he had pulled me over while we watched a clip of a show he had played for me at least five times before, and my quads burned from holding most of my weight off his leg. I feared our equally strong personalities were two heavy for the chair’s flimsy plastic spindle.

Tonight I stood behind him, my chin pinning my hand to the top of his head where it memorized the texture of his curls. I remembered how the sun turned his tarnished gold hair silver. There must be a lot more sun in London than I thought.

And there it was, that same clip he had shown me before. When I had finally seen the show it was from months after his departure, I had skipped the rest of the episode.

“I have this insane idea,” he said when it ended, spinning around in the chair and wrapping his hands around my waist. “Stay over,” he whispered to my belly button.

He had said the same thing before. I had said I had meetings the next day. Tonight I just sipped my wine to buy time to decide on a response. The glass hid my smirk, but I hoped that just this once the cabernet wouldn’t dye my lips purple.

Still unsure of how I wanted to answer, I twisted out of his grasp and went to the window to make sure the 160-year-old city cathedral hadn’t changed in the months since I had seen it from this 10-story perspective. Nope, still there. Still majestic and still a reminder of where I stood, vibrating from the inside out and cursing how easily I bruised as I succumbed to the phantom of his hands clinging to the back of my thighs. I drained my glass as I watched his reflection close in on mine. It took a quick diversion toward the door to the balcony that I never remembered how to pull or push.

The cathedral lights illuminated his face as he smoked outside. I sat on the deck chair with my legs pulled up to my chest. the cool breeze bringing drops of rain and floods of memories. The night he had said he’d like to see if we could make this work. The night he said he might not leave. The night we had watched the sunrise while my thin socks kept catching on the rough concrete deck and his hand slid down the inside back of my jeans.

Now we sat in the two chairs, the air snapping as if to ask “What now?” Or maybe that was just the sound of his lighter as he lit a cigarette and listened to a group of women cackling with delight on the street below.

“Who has a bachelorette party on a Wednesday?” he asked, and I realized it is Wednesday — our usual day when we would bite each other’s lips and whisper things that would echo in my ears and make me blush on Thursday and even into Friday. They just made it harder to wait for some kind of text message from him that wouldn’t come until maybe Monday. Asshole.

We were just like this on his balcony when he said I talked too much and laughed too loud. I had been staring at the cathedral when he asked me to give him credit for taking me home with him instead of my more attractive friend because he thought I was more interesting. I stood up and leaned against the iron railing to get a better look at the church and heard him say, six months previous, “You’re so confusing. It’s like you’re as cool as a guy, but in this great female body.”

Suddenly I wanted to take the cigarette out of his mouth and shove the lit end into the bridge of his nose. Instead he flicked it into the planter-turned-mass-grave. As he stood, I hoped he would kiss me in time for me to still taste it on his tongue.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. I squeezed the air out of his down coat and wondered if we were going to watch one more sunrise together.

The sweet smoke smell fills my nose, cutting through the burnt black coffee smell rising from my hands. The man turns on the street corner, raising the cigarette to his lips as he waits for the light to change so he can survive crossing the street only to die of lung cancer when he’s 50. His hazel eyes catch the sun.

The stranger walked one way and I went the other, sipping my coffee and adjusting the Corvette pin on my jacket. Of all the things I remember about him, I still can’t recall the color of his eyes.

Excerpt: “Smoke and Ink”

I describe the black smoke that had bubbled from between the buttons of my shirt, and Reema sits patiently, waiting for her turn to speak.

“I think you need to get out of here,” she says.

“Reema, you know I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

“And that’s the scary part,” she says. “I know you’re telling the truth about what you think you saw, but I’m not sure why you think you saw it at all. Maybe you should take a drug test or something.”

“I’m clean,” I say, crossing my arms. I wasn’t expecting her to bring that up. Reema, of all people, knew how hard I had worked to get beyond that dark spot in my past.

“You think you’re clean,” she says. “Who knows what those psychos you’ve been covering would do to get someone to believe them. You said you had coffee with them: They could have slipped you something or –”

She has a point, and I uncross my arms to show that I’m willing to acknowledge it. As I draw my hands away from my chest, my jacket pulls back a bit and I see Reema’s expression change into one of surprise and horror. Looking down, I pull the lapels away.

I’ve left my gel pen uncapped in my pocket, and black ink has soaked into my shirt.

“Or maybe that’s it,” she says, grimace turning into a half-smile that’s half sweet, half mischievous. “I still think you should take a drug test, though. Hallucinations take more than a visual trigger.”

Then I hear it: eight piano keys crashing in a single chord and filling every corner of my head with noise. I look for the culprit, but there’s not a piano in the room. Not a stereo, speaker, radio or even windchime. But the sound — a chord struck just barely off from the rest of the song, continues, and it snaps the string of words in my head so they go skittering off like plastic beads across tile.

“Yeah,” I feel like I’m shouting over the din. The only words or Reema’s response that break through are “wait in your office” and “get the building medic.”

I inch down the stairs, each step muffled by the endless piano chord reverberating in my head. Once in my office, I close the door behind me and remove the pen from my pocket. I whip it at the wall so hard that it cracks completely in half and bleeds a matching stain into the rug.