Barry received the ax from G & L Fabrications. Temporary lack of work evolved to an indefinite separation. Unemployment sufficed for basic necessities and Candice paid the bills while maintaining two High Schoolers’ upkeep and the minor needs of their youngest. They made it, and Barry was content, yet Candice felt betrayal sink in like a brooding sickness, eating her alive from within.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do everything before I end another sixty-hour work week.”
Candice paraded her martyrdom while tidying-up minuscule clutter around the living room.
“I said I’d get to it when the kids go to bed.”
“You mean kid,” she corrected. “Beth and James are sleeping over at their friend’s tonight, or did the beer make you forget?”
Barry took a sip, then a chug. “You know we’re getting by fine without the need to work overtime every week,” he leaned forward and placed the empty on the coffee table. “I know you like to spoil everyone, but there is no need for to make yourself miserable.”
“You know who is miserable? You, Barry. All you do is sit around waiting for something to happen. It’s time to realize that they’re not calling you back in. It’s time to move on. And when you can finally do that, maybe I won’t be so miserable.”
Jankowski was an odd fellow.
He locked his house at night like everyone else, except when five minutes lapsed—to the second, mind you—Jankowski made an extra trip downstairs to check each deadbolt, twice. Permanent markers stained his bathroom sink so he knew how far to twist each knob; red for hands, blue for teeth. Every third Wednesday of the month a package arrived with his household supplies and paper goods, and when he recycled, his bin was filled with the same three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that waited for trash day.
Food for Jankowski was ritualistic, and controlled. He bought groceries once a week and prepared most of his meals on Sunday nights for the work week ahead. Lasagnas and casseroles were frozen in his basement icebox; chicken seared and sliced for salads; veggies cleaned and prepped ready to be reheated; egg mixtures sat in milk quarts for scrambled Thursdays or omelet Tuesdays. These were his comfort foods, passed down by parents whom never understood computer programming or how one could work out a bedroom every day.
Eating out was reserved for twice a week on Fridays and Saturdays, divided into his favorite authentic cuisines that hit his palate’s desires. The first and fourth Fridays were of Asian tastes, Thai and Chinese. Never sushi, though. Burgers filled the second and third dates, cooked well-done from the same corporate chain with unsalted fries. On Saturdays, he’d roll an eight-sided die and chose from a prewritten list of circumstances; one and two, his friends decided; three and four, he decided; five and six was a re-roll, and seven and eight was pizza.
He only ordered pizza dictated by his rolls, and he stuck to this rule.
Call of the Sumac
Children hear it first, and regardless.
Whispers embrace new life like flint creating spark and blaze that is warm as the swaddles of a mother’s encroaching womb. Hums caress like gentle kisses of wind gliding between broad leaves and fir needles as crawling infancy advances to a toddler’s stumble. The tall grass parts way, allowing verse and chorus and inaudible melodies a linear route to entice minds both youthful in innocence and ignorance. When the young hear the final encore plain as day, they are coaxed to that epicenter, and the old tend to forget.
“Don’t stray too far ahead you two,” Anna called out.
“We won’t, mother.”
Madison was ever the tomgirl; overall shorts hung over a green short sleeve. She mimicked her father’s memory and owned his resemblance with pride.
“Yeah, we won’t Mommy.”
I should get the fire stoked again but I don’t know what else to use. I’ve salvaged everything I could from the recycling bin already. It was preached long ago to recycle, reduce and reuse… or something quasi-pleasant like that. Unfortunately for me plastic is used for pretty much everything nowadays; the labels of milk jugs were too waxy and sleek to spark; all our snacks came in shiny bags with an overabundance of colors; aluminum does nothing except taunt with metallic laughter and I knew better than try to burn it but desperate times call for ridiculous actions.
That’s what I tried to tell him on the second night. Did he listen? Nope, not one bit and I reacted.
The wooden furnishing is of course, gone. Our bed, doors, kitchen shelves and his bookcases served to the hungry fire; the latter brought me much joy. It was easier than I thought to dismantle and how it crunched when the axe head smashed through. And how Robert praised their designs. He was always so proud of his furnishing. They’re all real mahogany and oak he’d beam. It was more of an annoyed bleat, really. I am still surprised I had the strength left to do it myself.
His meat that he saved must have something special in it. Either that, or the book speaks true.
A Gift of Forgiveness
Danny had been shot before. He’d tell you it was only once, but that’d be a lie adapted to keep his wife calm around that dismal memory. Two rounds slammed into his chest on the same night from the same man and Danny knew what type of gun fired in the shadows. Semi-automatic pistols have distinct sounds—a low pop or a dull pah—that follow the barrel’s flash and those bullets strike quicker than a swarm of aggravated wasps; stingers ready to kill.
He had been lucky then, and this morning’s impromptu stop on his way to the office proved a far cry of that near miss years back.
There was no midnight alley way nor backup within arm’s reach and his atmosphere illuminated enough to see a revolver held by youthful regret.
“My god, what have I done?” Stammered the shooter.
Funny, Danny thought I got right back up when I was last shot… that’s right; back then I was on the beat and I wore my vest every damn day. Maybe taking that detective position wasn’t for the best after all.
The third date was meant to end on a good note. Chet felt his chances inched towards favorable and he wrapped his arm around the innocent prize below him, pulling her close. His status as Point Guard for the University of Southern Maine’s Basketball team enabled pick of the litter ease that Chet exploited on most occasions; he bides his time for Freshman girls, methodically working to achieve the goal of tonight’s standard. They turned down Deering Ave and descended through pale beams cast from streetlights above. Warm ocean air weaved about the city like a steady hand threading a hot, salted needle; the scent allured and fascinated their senses.
“I don’t think I could ever move from this city now that I have experienced its grandeur,” Melanie said.
He wasn’t thinking with his brain and his College scholarship reflected this. The words Melanie uttered equaled High School mediocrity; to Chet they seemed foreign as if he was trying to read a Biology textbook for the first, or fiftieth, time. He played the odds well and knew that agreeing to anything she said increased the likelihood of embracing the sleek curves underneath hip-hugger jeans and ebony blouse. His hand moved south, brushing against her tender skin to rest on firm waist. A berry fragrance mixed with faint perspiration wafted to his nostrils from her blonde ponytail like fumes of sweet inevitability.
But she stopped, and pulled herself away.
“What is that?” She asked.
Open Door policies meant what they stood for; come on in if you ever needed anything from your boss. At High Speed Marketing, there was a pecking order required to follow before conversing with the head-honcho himself, and Casper Graves knew this better than anyone else, but the man in the ruby tie and purple eyes reassured that it was ‘quite alright for an exception every now and then’.
Who could say no to that?
The strangers charisma rivaled that of a young Elvis resurrected from the grave only to sing him a fresh tune meant for the Gods and Casper didn’t even know his name, let alone what he wanted. He ignored the primal pleading that whispered from somewhere deep in his subconscious mind and rushed through the executive archway like a man attempting to flee the Devil himself.
He’d find out later that this stranger was far beyond the mortal grasp of his redundant logic, and the Devil was the least of worries now.
“Old man Jefferson is up on that staging again, working away all by his lonesome,” said Mrs. Audibert to her husband. “I’d bet he could use a hand. Why don’t you go on over and help for a bit, Paul?”
For once, her approach was direct, and Paul appreciated the absence of passive-aggressive hints which normally persisted like a trapped cat in heat. He steps next to his wife, peering beyond the pane and fine mist of an afternoon Sun shower to their neighbor’s Neo-French style home across the road, and Paul sighs in heavy resentment.
“Alright, alright. I’ll see if the old curmudgeon needs a hand, then I’m coming back for kickoff either way, dammit.”
“That’s my Paul.”
She steps on her tippy-toes and pecks Paul’s cheek before he leaves with a disgruntled stride to their garage.
Blessings come in all forms, and the fact that the bed of his rusted Ford work truck contained the required tools necessary to mend an ailing home brought little solace to Paul. Every neighborhood has a grouch, and Kurt Jefferson held that position since 84’. He fires-up the Ford and backs out. Tires splash through dirty remnants of the early morning downpour and he lurches across the road and into Mr. Jefferson’s driveway.
Carey squeezed the handle of the spray nozzle, blasting wet flakes of romaine from the chef knife. He watched the lettuce float away on a stream of frothy water that eventually disappeared to the catch below the whirring dish machine. He placed the knife on the flat dish-rack, right next to the green cutting board.
“Green is for produce, and produce only,” he mused aloud. “Ain’t that something.”
His boots squished on the rubber mat and he thought of the young man who worked the dishwasher. How long could he stand here and do this for? My back is sore after five minutes. Did he ever get a break? He chuckled at this. He sure did, didn’t he? And I gave it to him. Carey never did catch his name, nor did he thank him for taking the time to explain how to run everything else in the kitchen. I ought to send his family a proper condolence for raising such a fine boy. He did what was asked, even under duress.
Going For Seconds
Amy failed to gain the attention of the man who ambled towards the buffet tables.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said with a voice that trembled with trepidation. “You’ll have to pay extra for not finishing your first plate.”
His eyes, black specks under folds of cheeks, darted to her and then forward. Amy knew that glance, that stride, that annoying smile that followed afterwards. It wasn’t from lack of trying, or at least that is what she will tell her manager when this customer—a man who was both bulbous and menacing with size and speed—went for seconds without even finishing his first plate.
“Sir, please,” she tried once more. “Can you stop for a moment?”
He never stopped to turn and give recognition to Amy as he piled ribs high on the cheap plastic ware that Putnam’s Pit and Smoke Buffet offered. At least he is using tongs Amy thought as she looked around the bustling sections of the restaurant’s dining room.
Watch and Learn
She stood in the doorway of Bill’s office with her head cocked to the side.
“Are you going to just sit there all night?”
He turns his chair and sees that his wife’s facial expressions are saying more than her words. Sally is dagger-eyed with a creased brow, and her teeth suck with a constant, insufferable tsk-tsk.
“I am an observational learner, Sally. You’ve known that for the better part of four years now,” he says.
“When are you going to actually learn something that will bring in some money? All I see is you sitting in in this room—night after night—wasting time in front of a computer when you can be working.”
Bill creates content: videos, podcasts, memes, blogs, stories; he does it all himself and has had little success. He wants to tell her the truth, that he has finally found a way to make good of his time watching others be successful at what he fails with. But he doesn’t think Sally will believe him until she sees substantial progress firsthand.
The Afternoon Shower
It was his shower, and he wanted it just so.
The governor switch was disabled long ago and the shower head custom built for Kyle’s needs. A sharp sputter hissed as water began to surge like a high-pressured nozzle of a restaurant dishwasher; fast and efficient, ready to disinfect. He used the back of his hand to test the water and exclaimed with satisfactory anguish.
His backhand sizzled with sudden boils when he tested the water. This was what he needed.
Kyle tugs and tugs the saturated shirt over his head; it’s resilience is as if it was soaked from a warm downpour. His knee braced the vanity’s side so that he doesn’t topple over. The groan comes from within, deep and sorrowful as he pulls it free from neck and arms and it drops to the floor with a plop. Socks come next. Kyle needs to sit on the toilet seat to yank them off his moist skin and the gushy layers beneath. Six nails this time… must be a new record he thinks with cynicism.
An hour lapsed since Subject 32 roused from underneath heavy blankets. His hunched body was on still on the bed, bent downwards with eyes glued to the pale blue light of his phone.
“I don’t have the data in front of me but I think this is the furthest any subject has made it,” said one of the scientists looking on from the adjacent observation room.
Behind the two-way mirror was Subject 32’s living area, a space larger than the average studio apartment with spotless walls and a high ceiling and crowded lighting. At the closest corner is an open bathroom; disused and clean. Positioned across the tiled floor is a simple maze, constructed in short wooden walls and tables with the Variables. In the far corner was the mattress; queen sized and saturated with incontinence.
Subject 32 tried to stand, but his focus remained arrested by his phone, causing him to fall back to his bed.
“Seventy-three minutes, third attempt to rise. Variable A is still in hand.”
The scientists concurred and scribbled the data onto their clipboards
Running With Pride
He double knotted the smooth laces of his new shoes and stood upright, gazing at them with vain appreciation. A simplistic design of blue and white leathers layered with precise needlework complimented the modern flair of a rubber spring as the heel.
“I just love my new shoes. Don’t you think they’re nice?” he asked.
A creature with seven fingers on each clawed hand and a face resembling a charred hyena’s maw smiled down to the runner. Tattered, bat-like wings were attached to his scarred human torso and the creature extended those wings upwards to the pulsing crimson sky.
“They look very good on you,” the creature gave the Runner a thumbs-up. “Well, do enjoy your run. I’ll see you later today.”
The Runner finished with his quad stretch and took one last look to his shoes. How he loved them so and how he wanted this moment to last forever, but the road ahead called to him with a song even a siren would fall victim to.
“Thanks. I’ll see you then.”