Sunday, June 27, 2010

Up a Steep and Very Narrow Stairway

This is a response to challenge issued by Chick Lit Central: The Blog. The challenge is to take one of the stories in the lyrics of "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line and turn it into a short story. 

Up a Steep and Very Narrow Stairway

Up a steep and very narrow stairway, the smell of stage make-up, the sound of our tutus rustling, we make our way to the wings. With a million shushes, Mrs. Rebecca guides us into the rolling cage that is Mother Ginger’s skirt. At the top of the cage all we can see of Mr. Jeffrey is the bottom half, standing on a little platform. He balances on the tiny platform and wiggles his toes.  Above the cage, Mr. Jeffrey emerges, transformed into a white-haired, rosy-cheeked woman. His bright yellow dress cinches at his waist and then expands to cover the cage. All the way to the floor it falls in grand rivulets of silk. Inside, we stand on the unfinished wood, squished tight together. We watch as the two stagehands in the center lean heavily on the crossbars. With a jolt, Mother Ginger begins to roll towards the stage. My heart begins to beat wildly in my chest as the familiar music of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker comes rushing across the stage.

Summer and Virginia, the two oldest gingerbread children, begin the count.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Two, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Three, two, three, four . . .” they chant in unison.

We follow along in our heads, keeping time to the rhythm of the music. At the end of the fourth eight count, Summer and Virginia pull back the curtain at the front of Mother Ginger’s skirt. We file out, eight little gingerbread children in olive green tutus. Each of us a mirror of the others: long hair pinned in a bun atop our heads, wide eyes fighting the spotlights, circles of rouge at our cheekbones, bright red lips, perfectly-tailored green silk covering undeveloped bodices, a sharp jutting of tulle at the waist, smooth pink tights, and unscuffed pink ballet shoes.

Only the audience can see the one inconsistency marring the expertly choreographed dance. If you were sitting in the back of the theatre, you would wonder why the small dancer at the left of the stage had two bright white feet. If you were in the first several rows, you could distinguish the bright white as a pair of small white socks. You might ask yourself why this single dancer wore the glaring white socks rather than the soft pink slippers worn by her sisters. When she slid her left foot up, toes pointing, to rest at her right knee, you would notice the grimy grey on the bottom of her feet. You would see the gritty dirt left from playing backstage for hours. She would pirouette in perfect time, but you would not enjoy her skillful execution. The spell of repetition will have been broken.

With a final series of pas de bourrée couru the gingerbread children return to their mother’s skirt.  I look up in time to see Mr. Jeffrey’s wild face. He pantomimes an expression of love. With his large fan in one hand, he makes a wide gesture to welcome his little children back to the comfort of his skirt. I am always surprised to see him in drag and wonder what a spectacle it would be to see him, in full make-up and wig, plant a large kiss on the small lips of  Mrs. Melanie, his wife. I enter the skirt, snagging my sock on the edge of the rough wood. My mouth drops and I let out a tiny gasp. Summer quietly shushes me. She looks down at my sock clad feet and repeats my gasp. We roll back into the wings. Between the strong legs of the stagehands, I watch the stage floor roll beneath me. I cannot look up and face my fellow dancers, my friends. Quickly, Mrs. Rebecca ushers us out of the cage and back towards the stairwell. As I run toward the heavy door, a teardrop lands silently on my bright white sock. It soaks into the absorbent fabric and disappears, leaving only a light grey spot. I watch my feet as they follow pink slippers down the stairway. Without a word, I enter the dressing room, noisy with the excited chatter of little girls. I begin to shed my costume, starting with the offending socks.

“You wore your socks on stage?” Summer says. “How could you forget to take them off?”

I do not answer. Instead, I wiggle into my jeans and keep my eyes on the floor. I wad up the socks and stuff them into my bag. I slip on my tennis shoes on my bare feet and cross the room to the door. My mother stands waiting in the dimly lit hall with my winter coat held open. I turn and fit my arms inside. She zips me up.

“Did you hear? One of the girls left her socks on during the performance. Poor thing.” I overhear a whisper. One of the other mothers. My stomach begins to turn and I wrap my arms around my waist.

My mother and I exit the theatre and walk slowly to our car. We are carful not to slip on any of the icy puddles that speckle the parking lot. Inside the car, waiting for the heater to warm our numb fingers and toes, my mother gives me a knowing look.

“It’s okay, Jenny. No one was looking at your feet. Instead they were watching you dance beautifully across the stage,” Mother says.

I cringe and finally let the tears flow that I have been holding since my sock snagged on the rough floor of the cage. A shudder runs through my petite 12-year-old frame and I lose my breath. I gasp for air and my mother places her hand on my back. She rubs in a small, soft circle.

When the crying has stopped, I realize that the car has warmed. My face is red and hot. I kick off my sneakers and put my left foot in my mother’s lap, careful not to nudge the steering wheel. She puts the car into reverse and backs into the parking lot. Driving slowly through the lot, she reaches into the little compartment on her door, fumbling for the lotion. Something sharp sticks her index finger and she wraps her hand around the culprit. She jerks her hand up. Between her index finger and her thumb dangles a long ornate earring. It’s post is sharp and the backing has gone missing. The gold catches the light of the street lamps and tiny diamonds sparkle in the dark. I have not seen this look on my mother’s face before. It is foreign the way her eyes droop beneath the round lenses of her glasses. Her complexion goes pale for just a moment. I turn my eyes to my mother’s unpierced ears, knowing instinctively that I should stay silent. My mother tosses the earring back into the compartment and brings out the bottle of lavender lotion. As she pulls the car out onto Main Street, she flips the top and squirts a cold glob onto my sore foot. I wince. Mother begins her practiced massage and another shudder quivers in my chest.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fiction Friday: N'kisi

This week's [fiction friday] challenge is:  Include a telepathic parrot in your story . . .


Charlie fumbled for his keys in the dim light coming from the street lamp. In his left hand, he tried to balance his coffee while gripping the tattered handles of his cloth shopping bags. 

“There you are,” he said as his fingers finally grasped the tangle of keys in the pocket of his khaki cargos.  Teetering a little, he steadied his coffee with his chin as the bags of supplies flopped against his chest. He managed to get the key in the lock, turn it, and pull open the heavy glass door.  The bell tinkled above his head, beginning a flurry of flapping wings.  Charlie maneuvered down the dark aisle, finally set his load down on the counter next to the register, and hit the light switch on the wall behind him. 

Charlie tried to get in by six each morning to have time to wake the birds and take care of the nitty gritty details before opening shop at seven.  On the side wall, the cuckoo clock’s minute hand was already at the nine and the hour hand was dangerously close to the seven mark.  His expression soured and he involuntarily squinched his heavy brows together. He ran a hand through his thick, black hair and shook his head. His birds had already begun to stir. He could hear the canaries rustling beneath their coverings and the new bird that had come in last night’s delivery was making enough racket to rouse the rest of his sleeping pets. 

Charlie walked through his morning routine, methodically removing the covering from each cage.  He started with the canaries and then the parakeets, whose heads were still tucked into their wings. He pulled the dark cover off of the toucan’s cage with a flourish and the old bird squawked out a protest.  As he made his way to the back corner, the racket coming from the new parrot’s cage got louder and louder.  Charlie softened his steps as he approached, not wanting to scare the poor thing.  Odd, he thought when he realized that the other birds had suddenly become silent.  He stopped beside the parrot’s cage and slowly gripped the edge of the rust-colored cloth.  Not wanting to shock his new pet, he tugged gently on the cloth.  It didn’t budge.  Charlie leaned around the side of the cage to see where the cloth might be catching. “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Charlie jumped at the sound of the clock and nearly tipped over the cockatiel cage behind him. He reached out to steady himself and the cage.  Leaning against the wall, he couldn’t help but chuckle at himself as the clock finished up its seventh chime. He reached behind the parrot’s cage once again, found the snag, and finished pulling the covering from the cage. 

“Well, what’s with all this flapping and rousing about, N’kisi?” Charlie said.  “You might as well calm it down and get used to your new home, at least for now.” 

N’kisi cocked her grey head and seemed to look right into Charlie with her beady, black eyes.  Charlie shook off a shudder.  He held up the covering and noticed a name stamped at the edge of cloth.  “R. SHELDRAKE” it read.  Charlie cocked his head and folded the covering before placing it on the shelf behind N’kisi’s cage.  Charlie walked to the front of the store and plugged in the neon sign reading, “Birds of a Feather.”  It hummed to life and flickered before coming to a steady green glow.  He started to turn the lock on the door and realized it was already unlatched.  I’m sure I locked that behind me when I came in, he thought, guess not. Better get these babies fed.

Charlie decided to start with his newest find:  N’kisi, a Congo African Grey Parrot.  She was a real steal.  Charlie didn’t usually go through Craig’s List to stock his birds, but last week, an email had shown up in his inbox:  “5 yr old female african grey $100.”  He thought it was weird at the time, considering that he didn’t even subscribe to Craig’s List or any other email notification list.  The price was too tempting to ignore.  After a few phone calls, a quick PayPal transaction, and a few other minor details, Charlie’s $1800 African Grey was on its way.  When the delivery truck showed up yesterday evening just before close, Charlie couldn’t believe his luck at scoring the new pet for just a hundred bucks.  He was about to lock up, so he had cleared a spot for N’kisi in the back corner and didn’t even stop to remove the travel covering from its cage.

Now that N’kisi was good and awake, Charlie took a few minutes to inspect her.  Her head was a good color. Striped shades of grey ran from her beak to her wings, a soft circle of white surrounded her eyes, and her wings fanned into a darker shade of grey.  Her belly was a muddy white hue. The darkest grey was on her tail, which ended with a smear of bright red feathers.  Charlie placed a new feed bowl and water bottle in her cage and started feeding the rest of the birds in his shop.

Charlie was up front finishing up with the canaries, when he heard a loud, “Cuckoo!”  Charlie looked around for the culprit.  “Well, looks like you’re a talker, N’kisi,” Charlie said, “I was hoping your last owner gave you a little training.”  Charlie walked down the side aisle and caught a glimpse of N’kisi pecking away at her food bowl.  “Cuckoo!”  The call rang through the small shop.  Charlie looked at the clock. It read 7:20.  So the clock’s not chiming and that definitely wasn’t N’kisi, he thought. She couldn’t do that with a beak full of mango.  None of the other birds did much in the way of speaking, but Charlie decided to make a pass of the entire place just to make sure.  As he circled the shop, “Cuckoo!” rang out three more times.  Frustrated at his inability to pin down the culprit, Charlie returned to N’kisi’s cage. 

N’kisi stared right into Charlie’s eyes.  Charlie stared right back.  This staring contest continued for a full five minutes.  The cuckooing had subsided and Charlie was just about to give up and get to work on the books when he heard a distinct voice.

“Who are you?” the voice said.

Charlie started, but refused to take his eyes from N’kisi’s.  He knew the shop was empty.  He hadn’t heard the tinkle of the bell since he opened this morning.  Skeptical, Charlie remained silent, but his mind raced. Was his mind playing tricks on him? Was he even hearing a voice or was this some figment of his overactive imagination?   

“Who are you?” the voice squawked again.
“Charlie,” he tentatively answered.
“Where is this?”
“My little shop,” Charlie said.
“I will require more mango.  Orange fruit, sir. Orange fruit.”

Charlie walked as in a trance into the backroom.  He opened the small fridge and grabbed the mango chunks.  He brought them to N’kisi, unlatched the cage door, and set the bowl inside.

“Yes, now wait,” the voice said.

Charlie stood, staring at N’kisi in her open cage, unable to move of his own free will.  He watched in silence as N’kisi polished off the mango.

“Open,” ordered the voice.

Charlie slowly walked to the front entrance and pushed open the heavy, glass door.  He stood, back propped against the door.  He could hear wings flapping.  N’kisi was circling the shop, looking down on the other pets.  She made one more pass around the store before flying towards the door.  Charlie stood, helplessly watching his prize near the exit.  N’kisi flew out the open door, up into the early light of the dawn, and circled the street lamp before landing on Charlie’s shoulder. 

“Good boy,” the voice said as if talking to a small child or well-behaved pet.  N’kisi lifted her talons from Charlie’s shoulder and flew towards the overgrown lot across the street.  Charlie stood, holding the door open, and watched as the bird grew smaller and smaller.  Soon she was merely a grey dot disappearing into the pink clouds of the dawn.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fiction Friday: The Job

This week's [fiction friday] prompt is:  A signal is misinterpreted . . . "

Phil may have been the leader, but Samuel had the brains. It was Samuel who cased the place, came up with the game plan, and gave out the orders before a new job. Jason was the muscle, and somehow Mike was the one who always ended up with the list of supplies. This new venture was the big time. None of the guys had ever pulled off something like this before.

Mike chuckled at the freshly-painted logo on the side of the van. "Cosmic Cleaners" it read, and underneath the writing there was an airbrushed astronaut/Mr. Clean figure taking a vacuum to the planet Earth. He ran through the list one more time as he loaded the van. He counted four plastic masks from the local dollar store: a Wonder Woman, a run-of-the-mill clown, a haggard witch, and a disturbing rabbit face. Mike threw in two worn duffle bags, three rolls of duct tape, and his cigar box holding the last of his Cubans. He'd been saving these babies for a celebration. Finishing this new job would be just the time, and, with the dough he hoped to bring in, he could buy a whole smokeshop of Cubans if he wanted.

Phil came busting into the garage just as Mike finished loading the van. He pulled his Colt .45 out, flipped the safety, and cocked it.

"Let's do this, guys," Phil said.
"Oh, it's on," Jason said. He ground his right fist into the palm of his left hand. The muscles in his biceps flexed, bursting out of his sleeveless t-shirt. As the veins popped out, you could practically see the adrenaline rushing through them.
Samuel cocked his head and opened the driver's door.  As he climbed into the van, Mike could see the wheels turning in Sam's head.

"Here we go, bro," Mike said as he handed Samuel the Wonder Woman mask.
"Sheesh, Mikey, are you serious?" Samuel said.
"Just take it, man, you aren't even leaving the van."

Samuel shoved the mask on the dashboard and turned the key.  The van roared to life inside the garage, the engine echoing off the tight walls.  Mike pressed the garage opener and the early sun spilled into the dark space.  Samuel and Mike squinted.  Mike turned in the passenger seat to hand Phil the clown mask.  Phil grabbed it, wrapped the elastic string around his head, pulled the mask down, and let out a devious chuckle.  Everyone laughed, maybe a little too hard, Mike thought. Mike held up the last two masks and Jason snatched the witch out of Mike's hand.

The van pulled out into the sleeping suburban street.  There was a twenty minute drive into the city, and Samuel took this chance to line out the plan one more time.

"Alright, guys," Samuel said, "It's just like any other job.  Phil goes in first and takes out the guard.  There's only one at opening, he'll be to your right as you go through the main doors.  Mike and Jason, you guys follow Phil, handle the duffles, and take care of crowd control. I'll circle the block.  That gives you eight minutes, ten tops. Got it?"

The guys nodded.  The rest of the short trip into town was quiet.  Mike was in his own head.  He had a strange feeling he'd been trying to shake all week.  Now he wrote it off as just nerves.

Samuel pulled up in front of Weston Bank and Trust.  It was a small bank, nestled on the ground floor of the TCBY tower.  Easy access from the street and at 9:00 am pretty much dead.  There was a couple entering the revolving door at the center of the tower, but not a soul near the south side, where the bank was situated.

"Time starts now," Samuel said.

Phil swung open the double doors on the passenger side of the van, jumped out, and made a bee line to the bank entrance.  Mike and Jason were right behind him.  The guard wasn't a problem.  He was an old-timer, too busy blowing on his morning coffee to put up much of a fight.  Phil disarmed him and had him stammering for mercy in a matter of seconds.  Mike grabbed the duct tape and went to work on the guard's hands and mouth.  Phil was already shoving his gun into the single teller's face by the time Mike had shoved the tape back in his pocket and pulled his own .45 from the back of his jeans.  Jason had the few customers cowering under his shotgun in the far corner of the lobby and was starting to tape their hands and feet. Mike went to work herding the handful of employees across the lobby to join the others. When the two had everyone taped and face down, Jason tossed his duffle bag at Mike.  Mike caught the bag and backed over to the counter, keeping his gun aimed at the group in the corner. Mike could hear Phil's shouts as they echoed across the marble floor and bounced off the high ceiling.

Phil had rounded the counter and was standing right behind the petite teller.  He was holding his gun to the back of her head, making a dent in her blonde hair. Tears were streaking down her young face, leaving gashes in her make-up.  Mike came up to the teller's window and slammed the bag on the counter.

"Empty it!" Phil shouted. The teller, hands shaking, emptied her till into the bag.  He shoved her to the next window and watched as she emptied it as well.  They repeated this for all six windows.  Just as they were dumping the last till, they heard a noise coming from the other side of the lobby.

"Mike, check it out," Phil ordered.
"Oh, I'll check it out," Mike said.  He walked across the lobby, his boots clicking on the hard floor.  He gave the room a sweep, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a chair move.  Under the desk, he thought.  He rounded the oak desk and kicked the black office chair.  It spun across the slick floor.

"Out, now!" Mike shouted.

A middle-aged man crawled out into the room.  Mike kept his gun trained on the man's forehead.  The man was sniveling. He had thinning dark hair, thick plastic glasses, and a sleazy, untrimmed mustache.  The man couldn't have weighed more than 130 lbs.  His left knee popped as he pulled himself to his feet, catching his balance on the large, old desk.  Mike was disgusted.

"Time's up," Phil's voice rang out across the silence.  Mike glanced over at Phil, shrugged his shoulders, and gestured toward the little man at the end of his gun.  Phil pointed at his watch, grabbed the two duffles, one heavy bag on each shoulder, and made a slicing motion with his right hand across his neck.

Mike didn't even think. He just pulled the trigger.  The sound of the blast rang in his ears and blood sprayed back across the oak desk.  The sniveling man dropped to the ground without a sound.  Phil ran for the door.  Jason and Mike were right behind him.  Like clockwork, Samuel pulled up to the curb and the men jumped in.  Before Mike could catch his breath, they were on the interstate, and headed back to the suburbs.

"What the hell, Mike?"  Phil finally said.
"What?" Mike said, "That's what I was about to ask you."
"Ask me? I'm not the one that shot someone.  I'm not the one that upped this job to capital murder."
"I was just following orders, Phil."
"What orders?"
"You gave the signal to pull the trigger." Mike copied Phil's motion, sliding his hand across his neck.
"Are you kidding me?  Man, I made the cut sign. You know?  End of the job?  Let's get the hell out? Time's up, you sicko?" Phil said.

Samuel drove on in silence and Jason kept his eyes on the witch mask as he pressed in on the plastic nose and watched it pop back out again.

"My bad," Mike conceded. "Jason, grab those Cubans, and let's celebrate a hard day's work.”

Friday, June 11, 2010


Leah was awake. Again. She hadn't had a full night's sleep since the accident. The cycle repeated itself each night. A sad rhythm of fitful sleep and frustrated waking. Tonight there was a break in her routine. She had been counting on the small stretch of sleep from one to four. In the past, those few hours had been enough to get her through the next day, but tonight she wouldn’t get the luxury.

At exactly 3 o’clock the knocking began. Leah woke with a start, her heart beating fast and sweat soaking through her cotton pajamas. At first the knocking was light like fingernails tapping impatiently on a desk. By the time Leah untangled herself from the sheet the knocking had become the distinct sound of knuckles on wood. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and forced herself to rise. She walked down the hallway and into the den, her slippers shuffling on the hardwood floors. At the front window she parted the red drapes and peeked through the blinds, careful to move just one slat.

Leah was surprised that the loud knocking wasn't coming from her door. It was coming from the door of the apartment next to hers. Leah could just make out a man's silhouette. He was tall, about 6' 8". She could see the shape of a cowboy hat, a long neck, muscular arms hanging carelessly at his side, tight fitting wranglers, and a pair of worn boots. She watched him ball his fist and pound on her neighbor's door. Leah's heartbeat seemed to mimic the rhythm of the knocking. Sagging his shoulders in frustration, the man stopped knocking and turned around. He swept his gaze across the courtyard and leaned forward onto the thin black railing. Leah quickly let the blinds fall back into place, worried that he might see her spying. She listened. She heard the sound of boots on concrete. Her curiosity overwhelming her fear, she peeked through the slats again.

He was pacing between her neighbor's door and her own. When he came into the soft glow of her porch light she could finally see his face. Leah gasped. She knew that face. How many times had she longed to look into those deep brown eyes? Seeing the small cleft in his square chin, she remembered planting little kisses there. She would crawl into bed with him and begin to kiss his forehead, following the line down his nose, skipping his lips and landing right on his chin. He would smile, open his eyes, and tilt his head down to touch her lips with his.

He had given up on pacing and started knocking on the neighbor's door again. Leah wrestled with the fear that this was all a hallucination. How could he be standing on the balcony? She asked herself.  She struggled with the idea that he was just a mirage, an oasis in the desert that disappears as you approach. Leah squeezed her eyes closed, sure that if this wasn't real he would be gone when she opened them.

Her mind was racing, filling up with all the things she wanted to say, but never had the chance. He was gone so suddenly. No one had expected it. Everyone had bought into his invincibility. He had been so sure, so confident, that he seemed immortal. He was always the first to jump; the first to try something new. In the brief three years that Leah and Ian had been married, he had tried his hand at extreme fighting, base jumping, street luge, and finally bull riding. At the beginning of each new phase Leah would feel the worry creeping in, but when she saw Ian's sly grin all her doubts would vanish. It was hard not to catch his infectious confidence.

Now Leah wished that she hadn't let her worries go so easily. It had been six months since the accident. Since the angry bull had bucked him off and shoved a sharp horn straight through his stomach. It happened so quickly. One second Ian was straddling the bull's back, one arm high over head and the other hand gloved and gripping the rope. The next second he was speared on the bull's right horn. The bull had continued to buck wildly around the arena, flinging Ian's body like a ragdoll, blood spraying into the air and muddying the dirt. Leah couldn’t watch, but she couldn't look away either. It seemed like an eternity passed before they were able to stop the bull’s rampage. When the bull finally succumbed to a tranquilizer the paramedics rushed into the arena and knelt next to Ian's body. The crowd had begun to exit the arena, but Leah couldn't move. She knew he was dead. She could feel it. One of the rodeo officials had sought Leah out in the stands. She had taken his hand and followed him, zombie-like. When they had arrived at the med station the EMT had pulled back the white sheet to reveal Ian's motionless face. His eyes were open and Leah had stared at them until she felt as if she were drowning in their dark pools.

Leah slowly opened her eyes and peered through the window. He was still there, pounding on her neighbor's door. She couldn't wait any longer. Leah rounded the leather loveseat and hurried to unlatch the chain on the front door. She swung the door open and stepped out onto the balcony. Ian continued his knocking. Surprised at his lack of reaction, Leah slowly walked across the balcony, her slippers scraping the rough concrete. As she approached he sagged his shoulders again and turned around to face the courtyard. Leah stopped a few steps from him and waited. He didn't seem to notice her presence. Leah reached out her hand, eager to touch the soft brown hair at the base of his neck, but before she could he turned. He took a step in Leah's direction. Leah smiled, expecting a familiar embrace. Instead Ian walked right through her. It was an unearthly feeling, like a strong gust of wind threatening to knock her over. She steadied herself and turned around. He was gone. She scanned the balcony and the courtyard. She hurried down the staircase, followed the building around the corner, and ran into the parking lot. There was no sign of him. He was gone.

Leah walked back to her apartment, her legs heavy on the staircase. In the early morning, the mockingbirds were already calling. She sat down on the top stair and rested her head in her hands. Gazing at the fading stars, she sent up a wish.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Water rushes over jagged rocks. The stream spills and widens between the expertly stacked boulders. Faint voices on the wind. A rooster crows. A crow caws. Three short calls repeated. A bugle sounds in the distance. Soon, the national anthem plays, making me pause. A horse snorts.  His long, white tail swishes as he grazes in a rocky field. There is movement in the tall grass. The sound of twigs breaking. A fish jumps. A tiny splash sending ripples of water radiating until they meet the bank. The half moon defies the rising sun, refusing to be relegated to merely the starry, night sky. Footsteps scatter gravel and crush the beginning sprigs of wild grass. A helicopter whirs overhead. Its rotor a silvery unbroken circle. I am reminded of the city that opens wide at the head of the trail. A squirrel scurries up an old oak. His feet make tiny scratching sounds on the aged bark. He chatters, stops on the lowest limb, and raises up to sit on his hind legs. His tail forms a bushy S. He turns an acorn between his front paws. His chattering pauses. His eyes dart side-to-side and, only then, does he bare his teeth to devour his precious plunder.Atop an exposed rock, a turtle basks in the morning sun. At my approach he silently slides into the water. I am enveloped in birdsong. Various tweets, coos, and whistles: A conversation perhaps.The whir of a line being cast. A bobber plops into the stream. The click of a reel. A jig dances in the murky water, hovering above the stream bed. Tantalizing it tempts.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Surprising and Distressing Things

This Pillow Book entry is inspired by The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris. Sei Shōnagon was a courtesan in 10th century Japan who kept a diary of the goings-on at court and concealed it in her wooden pillow. She made lists under various categories of specific, often quirky things.

Surprising and Distressing Things:

My son asks a question to which I do not want him to ever know the answer.

Not knowing.  My mind seeks out the answers. I am bursting with curiosity. I know the revelation will not come until the end.

A dark thought. What lies in the depths of our minds? If I can think these things, what is truly in the heart of the stranger that smiles when I pass.

An argument. I hold my tongue, but ache to say the things which I can never unspeak.

Spoiled plans. Excitement withers into disappointment at the drops of rain that speckle the unearthly green grass.

A prayer unanswered. Why? Why not this one thing? I long to know the secrets of God's heart. Would I be satisfied? Will I whine, beg, plead? Am I just a needy child, tugging at her mother's hem, begging for that piece of candy in the checkout line, wanting nothing but the immediate fix of I must have it right this minute? I know there is a plan: grand and unfathomable. Can I hold my breath that long?

I look across the courtyard and see the flicker of bluish-white light in the upper window. My heart aches for lost souls. For hearts with unfillable holes. For evil that has crept inside, masquerading as happiness, as love.

Friday, June 4, 2010

[fiction friday] Coming of Age: 18

Well it's [fiction friday] again.  Today's prompt is A Coming of Age Tale.


At college, Jenny is away from home for the first time.  She’s just old enough to buy her first pack of Marlboro's, but not old enough to buy that bottle of vodka sitting on her dorm room desk.  She pours some orange juice and tips the bottle into the glass, splashing vodka and juice all over her daisy bedspread and dousing her copy of No Exit lying open on the bed.  Jenny downs what's left in the glass, leaving it in the bathroom sink.  She grabs her backpack, opens the door, and starts the half mile walk to Chemistry.

Jenny pushes open the lecture hall door and searches for her friend, Emma.  Not here yet.  She finds her regular seat.  Brad comes in right behind her and settles himself in Emma's chair. 

"Hey, that's Emma's seat," Jenny says.
Brad runs his hands through his short, black hair.  He gives Jenny a puppy dog pout.
"I can't sit here?" he says.
"Sure you can."
"What are you doing tonight?"
"Oh I don't know.  It’s Thursday.  I'm sure there's a party somewhere."
"Come to the Sigma house." Brad says.
"Oh you know you want to."

Jenny gives Brad a flirty smile just as Emma starts climbing the stairs.

"Emma, you wanna come to the Sigma house tonight?  Jenny's coming," Brad says.
"I am?" Jenny says.
Emma's face lights up as she tosses her bag on the floor next to Brad. 
"We'll be there," Emma says.
Jenny rolls her eyes, knowing she'll end up at the Sigma party.  Brad stands up. Flashing Jenny a smile, he winks before heading for the door.

"Can I make you a drink?" Brad says.

Jenny plops down on the couch and straightens her blue tank top, pulling the edges down over her worn jeans.  She easily gave in to Emma's begging.  Jenny was willing to let Emma have this night. She knows what it feels like to have a serious crush and Brad was definitely crush worthy.

"Yeah.  Something that tastes good." Jenny says.
"I'll just have a coke." Emma says.
"All right, be right back."

Brad disappears into the kitchen, while Jenny and Emma settle into the plush couch.  Twirling her hair, Jenny looks around at the crowded room.  There's a couple in the corner chair going at it like there's no tomorrow.  Jenny laughs and nudges Emma.  The two giggle. 

"Here you go." Brad hands Jenny a tall glass full of pinkish clear liquid.
"What is it?" she asks.
"Oh just a little something special I made just for you," Brad says.

He tosses a coke in Emma's direction.  She catches it and pops the top.
Jenny takes a sip of her drink and smiles. 

"Tastes great." Jenny says.
"Wanna go out and have a smoke?" Brad says.  He reaches out his hand.
"Sure." Jenny says. She grabs Brad's hand and he pulls her up fast, almost spilling her drink. 
"I'll be right here," Emma says.  The frown on Emma’s face almost stops Jenny, but she really wants that cigarette.  Too bad Emma hates smoking or maybe Brad would have asked her along.

Jenny and Brad navigate through the crowded room to the door.  He opens it and waits for Jenny to go ahead.  She steps outside and Brad puts his hand on the small of her back, guiding her to a bench at the corner of the house.  Brad hands her a cigarette and lights up his own.  Jenny takes a long drink.

"Really, what is this?" Jenny asks.
"Some rum, club soda, and a little grenadine," he says.
"It's so good."  Jenny turns the glass up again.
"Whoa!" Brad says and takes the glass.  He sits it on the bench next to him.  He puts his hands on Jenny's waist and pulls her close.  Jenny's fingers start to tingle.  She concentrates on the drag of smoke filling her lungs.  She slowly exhales and watches the smoke waft between their faces.

"That's sexy," Brad whispers.

Jenny giggles.  He silences her laughter with a kiss, pressing his lips against hers.
Jenny can feel her heart start to race. A mewing sound escapes her throat and she pulls back.  Swaying in Brad's arms, she notices the dizziness and her legs begin to give way.

"You okay?" Brad says.  He pulls her down onto his lap.  She nods and lets her eyes close.

Head pounding, Jenny wakes.  She looks around and doesn't recognize the room.  Pulling back the rough blanket, she sees that all she's wearing is a man's white t-shirt. She sees Brad sleeping soundly in the bed next to her.  Jenny hurries out of bed and starts picking through the mess on the floor to find her things.  She finds her jeans easily, but the tank and her bra are hiding under Brad's corduroy pants. She gives up on finding her lacy, black panties.  Jenny slowly opens the door and looks out into the hall.  Hoping it stays empty, she tiptoes on the hardwood floor looking for the bathroom.  Finding it, she hurries inside and locks the door.  Jenny starts dressing and then looks up at the girl in the mirror: long brown hair tangled and hanging around her face in a mess; eyeliner and mascara bleeding under her eyes; clammy white skin forming chill bumps on her arms.  What happened? she thinks, I’m a virgin.  She whispers it out loud, “I was a virgin.”  Jenny combs her fingers through her hair and wipes the running make-up from under her eyes. Tossing Brad's tee on the floor, she makes her way back to his room. 

The sun is shining a ray of light through the opening in the dark blue curtains.  What time is it? she wonders, I'm going to be late to my nine o'clock seminar

"Brad.  Brad." Jenny shakes Brad's shoulders trying to wake him. 
"What?" he snaps.
"I need you to drive me back to the dorm," Jenny says.
"I have a class. Can you please just take me home?  Emma drove last night and I was supposed to ride back with her." 

Jenny wonders why her friend would leave without her, not even asking if she wanted a ride back to their dorm.  Or maybe she did ask and Jenny just can’t remember.  She waits while Brad pulls on his pants and picks through the shirts on the floor.  Jenny tries to remember the night before but gets stuck on the bench.  She remembers a kiss, but that's all that will come to her.

"Brad, what happened last night?"  Jenny says.
"Oh you know what happened last night, baby," Brad pulls on a black t-shirt with the Phi Kappa Sigma logo scrawled across the front. "I made you a woman.  And you loved it."  Brad flashes her a sinister grin.  The smug look of satisfaction on his face is terrifying.

Tears threaten to escape Jenny's eyes, but she holds her breath and waits for the feeling to pass. 

"Come on, I'll take you back to your dorm so you can get to your precious class," Brad says. 

He grabs Jenny's hand and she instinctively recoils, jerking her hand away. 

"Whatever, Jenn," he says, "Let's just go."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Coming of Age: 15 & 16

The prompt for this upcoming week's [fiction friday] is "A coming of age tale."  The piece I'm working on is way too long for a simple fiction friday post, so I decided to post it day by day.  The story is titled Jenny and it's written in sections based on Jenny's age.  Today's entry contains both age 15 and 16.  I'll post the final section, the thrust of the story, tomorrow as my fiction friday entry. Follow along if you like.  I would love any constructive criticism or comments.



Sharp pain starts just below her belly button and radiates throughout her lower abdomen. Closing her much used copy of The Scarlet Letter, Jenny asks her third period Science teacher if she can run to the restroom.  Jenny thinks she knows what this is, but is afraid to look.  She'd given up hoping; she was sure there was something wrong inside her. Like so many times before, she sends up a silent prayer: please God, just please.  In the darkness of the the stall, she tugs at her jeans and slowly pulls down her panties. She can read the upside down words, "Monday's child is fair of face."  Jenny laughs, thinking, today is Wednesday.  Her eyes scan her panties and there it is:  a dark red smudge. She sits down and begins to cry.


Jenny returns from summer break with a smile. The excitement of a new year is written across her face.  In her hand, she holds her summer reading assignment, The Great Gatsby.  The senior girls parade through the hallway wearing homemade crowns and passing out bibs to the reluctant sophomores.  A tall, beautiful cheerleader comes up behind Jenny and wraps a bib around Jenny's neck. 

"Seniors rule and Slopdogs drool," she says and starts to take off down the hallway.
The cheerleader stops and turns around.

"Is that you, Jenny Sanderson?" she says.
Jenny looks up at the cheerleader and recognizes her, "Yes, Tonya, it's me."
"Oh my god.  What happened to you?  You've got boobs," Tonya says.

Jenny blushes and crosses her arms across her new pink bodysuit, her favorite piece from her back-to-school wardrobe.  That’s why she paired it with a pair of baggy jeans and her chunky mary janes for the first day of high school. 

"Don't cover them up.  They're great.  I haven't seen you since Margot and I were on the Dance Team at Fuller," Tonya says.

Tonya spies a group of sophomores huddled next to the girl's room and rushes off, stalking her prey.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Coming of Age: 14

The prompt for this upcoming week's [fiction friday] is "A coming of age tale."  The piece I'm working on is way too long for a simple fiction friday post, so I decided to post it day by day.  The story is titled Jenny and it's written in sections based on Jenny's age.  I'll post the first one here today   and then continue until posting the thrust of the story on Friday as my fiction friday entry. Follow along if you like.  I would love any constructive criticism or comments.



Sitting in her ninth grade Algebra class, Jenny struggles to complete her homework assignment before  class begins.  Jenny usually had all of her homework finished ahead of schedule, but last night she couldn't put down her copy of The Outsiders.  Mrs. Sweeny, her English teacher, had only assigned two chapters, but Jenny had read long into the night, finishing the entire novel in just one sitting.  

Daniel Samson, the school playboy, walks in and catches Jenny alone.  She is careful not to make eye contact.  She knows his reputation.  She's heard the rumors.  He saunters over to the desk in front of her and sits down.  Jenny keeps working, trying desperately to concentrate on the numbers and letters that scroll across her page.  She knows if she looks up she will see that dirty blonde hair, the curls swirling around his ears in wisps.  From the corner of her eye she sees him turn around in his seat and prop his perfectly square chin atop his hands on the seatback.  He's so close she can smell his subtle cologne.  The light, musky scent makes her head feel light and her stomach flutter.

"Hey, Jenny, what's up?"  Daniel says
"Nothin' just finishing my homework," Jenny says.
"Guess what Melody told me?"

Jenny closes her Algebra textbook, looks up from her notebook, and sits up straight in her chair.

"What?" Jenny says.
"She says you haven't even started the rag yet?"

Jenny blushes.  Feeling the heat in her face, her heart begins to race.

"It's none of your business," she says.
"Oh, come on, Jenny, don't be a tease," Daniel says.
"So what if I haven't."
"You have no idea.  You're such a little girl."
"I'm not a little girl; I'm 14, just like you."
"Oh you're just like me, huh?"

Daniel lifts up his head and reaches for Jenny's notebook.  Jenny slides her fingers to the corner of the notebook and grips it tight.  He starts to pull the notebook from her grasp and the force of it brings their faces close together.  They're nose to nose. Jenny looks into his baby blue eyes and quickly pulls herself back.

"You're not like me.  You're a virgin." Daniel says.
"So," Jenny says.
"So, if you knew what was good you'd be screwing every chance you get.  You can't get pregnant if you haven't had the rag yet."

Jenny's mouth drops open and she shakes her head.  The bell rings and her classmates start to file through the door.  There's so much noise.  Jenny hurries to open her Algebra book as Daniel moves so Melody can sit in her usual spot.  He doesn't head to the back of the room like normal.  Instead, Daniel circles Jenny's desk and sits in the chair right behind her. He leans back with his arms behind his head and props his feat on the bottom of her desk.  She sits up straight and tries not to notice his stare boring into the back of her head. Coach Montgomery walks in, whistle dangling around his neck.

"Pass up your homework," Coach Montgomery barks.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Coming of Age: 13

The prompt for this upcoming week's [fiction friday] is "A coming of age tale."  The piece I'm working on is way too long for a simple fiction friday post, so I decided to post it day by day.  The story is titled Jenny and it's written in sections based on Jenny's age.  I'll post the first one here today and then continue until posting the thrust of the story on Friday as my fiction friday entry. Follow along if you like.  I would love any constructive criticism or comments.



Mom tucks Jenny and her older sister, Margot, into their twin beds.  She opens the book in her hands and begins to read,

Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God.

Margot interrupts, “Mom, her name is Margaret, that’s almost like Margot, like me.” 
“Right, Margot.  Now I want you both to listen carefully. This is very important,” Mom says.

Jenny has trouble keeping her focus on the book.  She looks up at the ballet dancer hanging in the frame beside her bed.  The dancer stretches her leg on the bar while a small child plays with toe shoes on the hardwood floor.  Jenny imagines that the child is the dancer’s daughter.  In her mind the mother bends to pick up the small girl and dances with her across the floor, performing a series of pirouettes and ending with a grand jeté.  The child laughs and asks for another turn. 

Mom’s reading recaptures her attention,

Nancy gave me the creeps the way she sat on her bed and watched me.  I left my polo on until the last possible second.  I wasn’t about to let her see I wasn’t growing yet. That was my business.
“Oh, you’re still flat.” Nancy laughed.
“Not exactly,” I said, pretending to be very cool. “I’m small boned, is all.”
“I’m growing already,” Nancy said, sticking her chest way out. “In a few years I’m going to look like one of those girls in Playboy.”

“What’s this book all about, Mom,” Jenny asks.
“Girls, could you please stop interrupting,” Mom says.  She closes the book, leaving her finger between the pages to save her place.
“Just tell us why you’re reading to us.  You never read to us and we aren’t little girls anymore,” Margot says.
“You’re right, Margot.  You aren’t little girls anymore.  This book will help you understand the changes that are about to happen to you.”
“Mom,” Jenny whines, “how embarrassing.”

Jenny pulls the covers up over her head and tries to breathe in the dark, constricted space.  Mom pulls back the covers and laughs.

“Okay girls,” Mom says, “I know this is a little embarrassing, but it’s important.  You’re going to have questions, and this book will help us answer them.  Just relax and listen while I read.”

Jenny lets out a breath with a whoosh and Margot copies her.  The girls give each other a knowing look as Mom opens the book and continues to read.