Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

Thanksgiving Steak

Who ate steak on Thanksgiving? It was called Turkey Day for a reason. It was the only day of the entire year that turkey was served, unless you counted sandwiches, which did not count. And yes, her mother was also serving turkey — a great, golden, 20-pounder. It was exploding with sage-laced stuffing. The gravy was creamy and mild. There were mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, green beans and carrots and Brussels sprouts. It was a perfect feast. With steak? You could eat steak all summer, one barbecue after another. It didn’t belong at Thanksgiving.

Talia wanted to stab someone with a steak knife — all of them positioned alongside the table knives — each with a heavy wood handle and sharp tip and gleaming serrated edge. They were so obviously out of place among the sterling silver, and the white and gold china.

Her mother was the obvious candidate for a fantasy stabbing, for caving to Anna’s demand. To be fair, it wasn’t really Anna’s demand. It was John’s, delivered through Anna. He wouldn’t come to Thanksgiving dinner unless steak was served. He was a steak guy. Bloody red meat. No birds for him. No green stuff. Just steak. Some mashed potatoes. Of course her mother was weak when it came to Anna. She’d always been that way. Still, Talia adored her mother, even if Anna was the more beloved daughter, or so it seemed each time she came around with a new husband.

John was the second candidate deserving of a steak knife in the gut. Talia hadn’t met him yet, but she imagined greeting him with a polite hug while inserting a knife into his navel. There’s a little bloody meat for you. She laughed and refilled her wine glass.

John was Anna’s fourth husband. At least this one smoked cigarettes instead of pot, so less craziness over Thanksgiving dinner, but more smoke. She knew about the smoking because right this minute Anna was rummaging in the garage for an ashtray that hadn’t been used in ten years. Maybe more.

When Anna returned to the living room carrying the heavy stone ashtray, Talia said, “He really should smoke outside. It’ll stink up the house.”

“It’s cold out.”

“So what? Brad…Byron…what was his name? He smoked outside.”

Anna sneered. “It was Bryce. You know that. And of course he had to smoke a joint outside.”

“Then why can’t John smoke outside? Too much of a wuss?”

“Be nice. I mean it,” Anna said. She left the room.

The sound of running water came from the kitchen. As if it made sense to wash an ashtray that would be filled with bits of tobacco and ash, delicately burned paper and cotton filters. Talia sipped her wine. Let Anna and her mother prepare the meal. She refused to participate in this travesty of a Thanksgiving feast. She probably shouldn’t have come, but then she’d have to spend a year, at least, witnessing her mother’s subtle comments, pretending she was covering hurt that was so enormous it was completely out of proportion. Thanksgiving dinner was everything to her mother — the culmination of the year, the most important holiday, superseding Christmas because it was about gratitude and family. Mostly family. And yet, she was serving steak. Talia supposed that was the family part of it. John was family now, and her mother wanted to make him feel welcome.

He was twenty minutes late. Her mother was beside herself. The turkey sat on the rack, ready to be carved, cooling fast. The steak would be overdone. She was near tears over that.

When the bell rang, Talia put down her wine glass and went to answer the door. She opened it and her first thought was —I know you.

“Nice to meet you,” John said. He reached out and grabbed the hand that hung limply at her side. “Smells good.” He stepped into the foyer. “Nice place.”

A snappy speaker. Phony. Where did she know him from? It wasn’t one of those things where you thought you’d met someone but it was only familiar facial features and gestures you recognized — a type. Or a doppelgänger. She knew this guy. She followed him into the living room. Odd that he seemed to know the way, but he was probably lured in the right direction by the aroma of steak.

The dinner was a predictable disappointment. All Talia could smell was steak. Not a single drop of beef blood touched her plate, but still she tasted it. She stared at the intruder through the entire meal and finally decided she didn’t know him. It was his type, after all. The type that would turn her sister into someone unrecognizable, consume their family, and finally, find a way to get his fingers into their mother’s robust bank account.

While Anna and her mother trotted back and forth, clearing the table. Talia glared at John. “So. I’ve seen you before.”

“I don’t think so.” He stood up. “I’m going out for a smoke. Want to join me?” He winked.

“I saw you on Second Street. With a hooker. Just last week. That’s why it’s fresh in my mind.”

The look on his face confirmed she was a lucky guesser. But with a guy like this, it wasn’t hard to guess.

Talia stood up. “I need to go talk to my sister.”

He grabbed her arm and twisted it. Hard. She bit her tongue to hold the whimper inside.

Fortunately, in the center of his blood-spattered plate was an impressive steak knife — a handy weapon for self defense. She picked up the knife and drove it home.

Only For A Few Hours

Christina didn’t like going out on this night when legend said the dead came out of their graves. Most people didn’t believe such things anymore, but still, the darkness chilled her heart until she felt she couldn’t breathe. She took hold of her daughter’s hand. They seemed to be the only ones in the entire neighborhood. She would have preferred to stay inside her house, a light shining in every room, but Julia had wanted to go out. It was only for a few hours.

The purple light in Christina’s left hand would help them find the way to each of their neighbors, at least those who gave an indication that someone was home. She tugged her mask into place. It was a simple black satin piece, covering the top half of her face, but it satisfied Julia’s wish that her mother should also wear a costume.

They walked across dry grass, blades sighing under their feet. Brittle leaves crunched every few steps. The purple light wavered a few feet in front of them, giving off a dim, sickly glow.

Julia’s hand was like ice and the thin bones of her arm trembled with excitement. The pale color of her waist-long hair was turned white by the purplish light. Julia’s mask covered the entire front of her head, including her hairline. Christina worried it would slip off, but Julia managed to keep it in place by tilting her head toward the sky. The mask was the face of a princess, topped by a shimmering crown with pieces of gold glass that looked like gems.

They walked in silence for a long time, passing dark homes, looking for one that would welcome them, inviting them to come closer, promising something sweet. Julia loved walking about in her costume. Her craving for candy was secondary. She was happy to hold her mother’s hand, and she preferred keeping her thoughts to herself. She liked to disappear into her imaginary world where she was a princess in a white satin dress with sparkling gold shoes to match the stones in her crown.

Ahead, a light shone from a partially opened door. Julia tugged at Christina’s arm, forcing her to walk faster, cutting across loose dirt and gravel. After twenty or thirty feet, they stepped back onto dried grass. Christina held back, trying to restrain her daughter’s race to the open doorway. She didn’t want to see anyone. If Julia didn’t care about treats, why couldn’t they walk for a while longer and enjoy the night and the vast dusting of stars overhead?

She stopped but Julia kept walking. The force of Julia’s movement tugged at Christina’s shoulder, making it feel as if her arm might come out of the socket. Julia’s hands squeezed more tightly, her fingers so strong they would have their way no matter how much Christina tried to hold back.

The occupants of the small, concrete building would come to the door. Christina would feel their stale breath on her skin, she would see their vacant eye sockets and stained, leering teeth. She would feel their hair, growing without restraint, brushing against her arm, strands touching her cheeks. Hair as pale and unkempt as Julia’s. She didn’t want to walk up to the opening, but Julia pulled relentlessly.

“I can’t,” Christina whispered.

“It’s time for me to go,” Julia said. She let go of Christina’s hand.

“Please don’t.” Before Christina finished speaking, her hand was empty, already forgetting the touch of cold, hard bones. Now, Julia’s mask was lying face up on the ground, the gold gems taking on a reddish glow under the purple light.

It wasn’t worth it. Christina couldn’t bear it — touching the stiff, tangled hair that continued to grow after death, feeling the bones of Julia’s fingers, the horror of what she would see if the mask slipped off too soon. This was the last time.

But she knew that next year, once again, she wouldn’t be able to fight the desire to hold her daughter’s hand, if only for a few hours.

Suburban Noir Martini


If you enjoy ghost stories, check out the first book in The Haunted Ship Trilogy – Alone On the Beach.

The Festering Wound

Maggie gazes at the round spot on the back of Ben’s head. The few dark, coarse hairs are sharp against his pale skin. He can’t see the spot, although he surely knows it’s there. She sees him running his fingers over it, gently pushing the thicker hair at the sides to cover it. As if he could.

He never asks whether the bald spot makes him look old, or foolish, and she never mentions it. She knows that words can wound. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, her mother warned when she was a child. Those ricochet in her head, tugging at the roots of her long, blonde hair.

Such beautiful hair. Even at thirty-five, she knows she’s ‘hot’, as they say. Ben is lucky to have her. As she is lucky to have him. Ten years is a long time to keep a marriage going strong. It’s possible to keep a marriage going, but to keep it close-knit, companionable, free from permanent damage is much more difficult. There were the rough years when they tried to conceive a child. She thought they wouldn’t survive that humiliation and grief, but finally they eased past it. Maggie dove hands first into her pottery. Ben climbed the corporate ladder. They adopted a dog – a silky golden retriever. They acquired a cat. She’s Siamese, with creamy fur and shockingly black-tipped ears, tail and feet, like she tiptoed through a bucket of tar. The pets are his, really. He does all the nurturing. She keeps her distance and molds those instincts into bowls and vases.

It was harder for Ben than it was for her. She can see that when the cat settles into his lap and he strokes her fur, whispering baby talk into the pointed ears that twitch as his breath presses too close. She sees it when he takes the dog into the yard, teaching him to leap for the red spinning disk hurled through the air.

Especially today, she sees it. Ben’s younger brother holds his newborn daughter. Ben turns away, suddenly busy easing the cork out of a bottle of dark red wine.

It wasn’t easy for her either. There are no words to describe the yawning ache in her womb, the thousands of bits and pieces of life she would share with a child. She accepts reality, she accepts her fate. She’s grateful to have love, not everyone does.

Over the years, she’s learned her mother’s words are true. That phrase became a cliché for a reason. If you tell a man he’s less attractive than he was, those words can’t be erased. If you tell a woman she’s cold, the hurtful word forms the cartilage of a scar. She wrestles to find the balance of perfect intimacy. It requires sharing everything, but watching each word. She manages to find that equilibrium, sharing most, if not all of her thoughts, while not destroying their marriage with a lash of the tongue that would leave bloody tissue like a whip with burrs tears flesh into ribbons.

A relationship is a delicate creation, finer than an empty eggshell, the yolk and albumen blown free, nearly transparent. A single word can shatter a marriage. Maggie knows this, and just as she never mentions the bald spot, she’ll never tell Ben what she knows. He was the cause of their infertility. She knows, because now, after all these years, she’s pregnant. She loves Ben. She can’t imagine loving any other man. She never speaks the words that would cut to the center of his heart — It’s your fault we couldn’t have a child. That guy, the father of the life growing inside, was a mistake. Touching him was as unimportant as buying the wrong shade of lip gloss. He’s far too young, he’s uninteresting. He means nothing. He was just a guy in one of her pottery classes.

Ben hands her a glass of wine and she sips, watching the newborn screw her face into a grimace. The same pained expression spreads across Ben’s face. Maggie and Ben turn and walk outside to the patio, alone. She puts her hand on his arm, I love you.

It was for the best, he says. You don’t have what it takes to be a good mother.

The words slice deep and her knees buckle as if he’s stabbed her with a boning knife.

Suburban Noir lines

Two years ago today, my father passed on to a better place. He was wowed by this story when it was originally published in Every Day Fiction and anthologized in The Best of Every Day Fiction Three. Thanks for your support, Dad.

Filleted Fish

It hurt that she didn’t believe in his dream. If she didn’t believe, did she really love him? When she’d accused him of chasing after rainbows, he couldn’t tell her how it made him feel – foolish, a failure.

“There’s no pot of gold.” She took the cleaver from the block, positioned the trout, and brought the blade down with a whack that made him jump. His hands shook as she pulled the second trout into position.

“If we can’t dream, what’s the point of life?”

“The point of life is building a future.”

“That’s all?” he said.

“Love, there’s also love, of course. But love can’t grow without security, a steady income.” She took a boning knife and slid it down the belly of the fish, splaying the two halves. He turned away.

“So that means we’re staying put? No traveling with the band? I’m out?”

“It’s your call.”

“Then that’s it.” He walked to the counter and put his hand near the headless fish. “If I can’t dream about where my guitar might take us, you might as well slice off my fingers.”

Her hands stopped moving. “Just like that?”

He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her against him. “Just like that. Because there’s no pot of gold without you.”

She collapsed into him. “I wonder if love also needs a dream,” she said. The knife clattered to the floor, fish scales shimmered on the blade like silver.

In Pursuit

It would be easy for him to get inside if he wanted to. And getting inside, frightening the breath out of her lungs, was definitely what he wanted. It was only a matter of time.

All the same, she checked the deadbolts on the doors, front and back. Both were secured —  three inches of steel into the doorframe. The door from the pantry to the garage was locked and she’d checked the outer garage doors when it was still light out. Now, she went methodically over each window in the house — two stories, five thousand square feet of living space. All were locked. She rarely opened them. The security system was armed, including the motion detectors on the first floor.

According to her mother, she was paranoid. Always expecting the worst.

All those negative thoughts create a self-fulfilling prophecy, her mother had announced, as if this were a new thought that she’d never mentioned before. It’s been three years, you need to move on.

Diane clenched her hand that wasn’t holding the phone, digging fingernails into flesh, ignore the cramp across the back of her hand. He wants to hurt me. Punish me.

He hasn’t lifted a finger to you. Ever. I said he wouldn’t hurt you and I was right. The whole domestic violence thing was blown out of proportion. It’s the latest fad.

After that, Diane stopped discussing the situation with her mother. She would fight the battle alone.

She hated doing it, and every night she debated with herself, but she turned off the light at the top of the stairs. It cost too much to leave every overhead light and table lamp glowing throughout the night. The single sconce in the upstairs hallway would have to do. Darkness was so pervasive out here in the exclusive but lonely foothills. The nearest neighbor was visible only in winter when the leaves had fallen, exposing branches that were blacker than the night sky.

He hadn’t wanted window coverings on the upstairs windows — huge glass monoliths that stretched from the baseboards to the eighteen-foot ceilings. She could have done something about that after he was gone, but it was beyond expensive. And in some ways, watching the darkness surround the house kept her alert. Fear was a good thing. It was a gift of self preservation.

Walking barefoot, with careful steps, she approached her bedroom. She held a glass of white wine in her right hand and the ineffectual knife in her left. All these props to make her feel secure. Instead, they mocked her. Wine wouldn’t allow phantom-free sleep and the knife wouldn’t cause any damage whatsoever. The house looked sleek and secure and elegant, but it was cage.

She put the glass on the nightstand. She went into the bathroom and placed the knife on the counter. It clattered as if she’d dropped it, steel against porcelain tile. She washed her face and teeth and changed into a nightshirt. Sleeping in something silky and lacy was a faded memory. She flicked on the nightlight, turned off the overhead light, and slid beneath the covers — a prison within a prison.

Despite her lack of freedom, her constant terror, she loved her life. She loved plucking weeds out from around her plants and she loved nearly any kind of music — soft rock to Chopin. Lately, she’d drifted almost exclusively to Chopin. All the movements of her simple life were pleasurable — cooking, eating, drinking a glass of wine, even washing her single plate, feeling the soap-saturated sponge glide over the china until it was smooth and slick. She liked drying the tines of her fork and polishing the bowl of her wine glass.

She sipped the wine and clutched the knife under the covers near her hip.

By the time she’d finished the wine, she saw even more clearly how ridiculous the knife was. She moved her hand out from under the comforter, released her grip, and let it fall onto the carpet with a soft thud.

The night dragged on and she longed for another glass of wine, but going downstairs was impossible. Her eyelids were heavy, but they wouldn’t fully close. Every few minutes her head drifted forward and then she jerked awake, not sure how long she’d dozed — probably only fifteen or twenty seconds. He was coming for her. She could feel it. She could smell him in the room already — the tang of his cologne, dulled by the claustrophobic atmosphere of his grave, but unmistakable.

The room filled with a dark, smoky shadow. The heat of his presence was intense, making her skin burn. He waited near the foot of the bed. Stabbing his flesh until he bled to death had been easy, but suffocating her with his power from beyond the grave would be easier.


Lisa didn’t feel as safe as she did when the sun was rising orange and pink, and the water sparkled cobalt blue. Today, the fog had turned sand, sky, and water each into their own variation of gray. The sky felt heavy, and as she walked toward the water line, the fog began drifting lower, covering the shore with mist. Houses lined the beach, but all the shades were drawn and no light was behind them, like blank stares, watching her run, but not truly seeing.

Because of the fog, the beach was deserted. She liked being alone, no human being anywhere in her range of sight. It made the early morning more peaceful — no forced greetings, no tinny music escaping from ear buds. She heard nothing but gulls and crashing water. Her running shoes made craters as she ran in the damp sand. She wove higher on the beach when a large wave crashed, and veered back closer to the water when it receded, followed by a series of gentler waves.

Far ahead was a log about twelve feet long that someone had embedded in the sand, pointing at the sky. The fact that it appeared to have been there overnight was a testament to the depth with which it had been driven into the damp sand. In front of it were six smaller logs, all standing upright, some with the stubs of branches. A seventh log was balanced horizontally across the top of the six, held in place by the stubs.

She slowed. It was impressive. She liked the free-form artistic image, and wondered how many days before the sea threw up rougher surf that would drag all the wood back off the shore, sending it to another beach.

She was closer now. A man she hadn’t seen earlier was seated on the other side of the structure, just behind a rise in the sand.  He wore sunglasses, completely unnecessary in the dense fog.

She increased her speed slightly. He stared at the water. Had he noticed her? He turned his head toward the wood structure, or toward her. Maybe he was the artist. Any moment he’d pull out his cell phone and snap a picture of his creation. But he’d didn’t, he kept his head steady, although it was impossible to tell what his eyes were doing behind those glasses.

Her foot landed in soft wet sand and her ankle turned slightly, but not enough to hurt. She put her attention on the sand stretched in front of her, watching her feet. As she drew close to the wood structure, she saw a small piece of driftwood on the wet sand. It was pointed at one end and oily with something dark. Her stomach tightened. She wasn’t sure why her first thought was of blood. It couldn’t possibly be blood, but how would she know? The fog leeched the color out of everything.

“Good morning!” the man said. He smiled, too hard. His voice was also too hard.

“Hi.” She kept running. She passed him, wondering whether he’d turned his head to follow her progress. She was being ridiculous about the stained fragment of wood.

There was something off about the man. His tone of voice, the piece of wood. The structure that had looked beautiful earlier, now seemed pretentious. She was not going to cut short her run. The beach was perfectly safe, fog or not. She would not allow him to make her feel like a weak, worried female, not permitted to run on a public beach — the best spot for running in all the world. She glanced again at the houses with shades like eyes closed. They seemed to anticipate intense midday sun, or something more terrible.

A quarter of a mile ahead was the point where she usually turned and retraced her steps. She’d run faster than usual and was breathing hard. She’d turn back now. It wasn’t because of him, she needed to conserve her endurance for the twisting staircase, one hundred and fifty steps, that took her back to the top of the cliff and the street leading home.

This time, she ran much faster as she approached the wood structure and the man, still wearing the glasses. She’d never run so fast, her heart thudded and she felt equally terrified and foolish.

He said nothing. The piece of stained wood was gone.

She turned and ran across dry sand and up the concrete steps to the road. She crossed the street without looking, there were never cars this early. She began her climb up the stairs, breathing hard.

After the first section, despite her labored breathing, she took the stairs two at a time. When she reached the top, she pressed her hands on thighs, leaning forward. She gulped in damp, wet air.

She crossed the wood platform at the top of the stairs and sat on one of the built-in benches. She looked down. There was a large drop of blood near her left foot. There was no mistaking it on the sun-bleached wood.

The Bitter Taste of Ecstasy

That short man who walked with his belly thrust forward as if he had a body to be proud of was her most hated customer. He had smooth dark hair. The skin around his lips stretched too far trying to cover his oversized teeth, making him look as if he was about to vomit. His condescending attitude invited her to smack him.

He treated her like his personal assistant. “I so appreciate your expert touch on my cappuccinos, Angela.” He said it every day. As if he’d read a book instructing him how to make the people who waited on him feel valued.

Working in a coffee shop was humiliating enough, she didn’t need his attitude. Not that there weren’t any humiliations when she had a well-paid corporate job. Those humiliations were small and forgotten now. She hadn’t thought it was a big deal to enjoy a little E — everyone else at the trade show party was oozing with alcohol. She didn’t think they’d notice, and if they did, they wouldn’t really care. She was wrong. And now she got to mix coffee drinks and wipe down brushed steel machines for a living.

The man strutted directly to the coffee delivery area. “Angela, you gave me the wrong change this morning.” He waved two five dollar bills and a few singles at her. “I gave you a fifty, this should have been two twenties.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did.”

“I leave the large bills out before I make change. Besides, you would have said something.”

“I was on the phone.”

“You gave me a twenty.”

“It was a fifty.” He waved the bills again, as if he was passing a flag in front of a bull’s face, enticing it to charge.

“I gave you the right change, sir.” She leaned hard on the S as she said it, but he didn’t seem to notice. Too busy being right.

“It’s easy enough to look in the drawer, see if there’s a fifty.”

“I’m not on the register now, I’m serving drinks. I know I’m right.”

“Should I call your manager?”

She looked at his smug face, his up-tilted chin. She wiped her hands on her apron. She went the register and told Danny she’d take over again. Danny moved to the coffee area and she opened the drawer. She could feel the man watching, that pulled skin over his teeth, stretching his face into an oblong shape. She lifted the cash tray to check underneath where all the bills larger than twenties were kept. There was a lone fifty dollar bill.

No one was waiting for coffee. She stepped away from the register and turned her back toward the coffee shop. She stood close to Danny and spoke softly. “Did anyone give you a fifty today?”


“You’re sure?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a fifty. I would have remembered.”

Angela walked slowly back to the register. The man had moved closer, one soft, white, female-looking hand pressing on the counter as he tried to assume a casual pose. “Well?”

“I guess I made a mistake,” Angela said.

“You guess?”

She opened the drawer and took out a twenty and a ten and held them out to him. “Here you go.”

He didn’t take the cash.

“Here’s your change,” she said.

He reached out and touched the bills. “My correct change.”

“Yes. I said I made a mistake.”

He smiled triumphantly and pulled the cash slowly from her fingers. “Don’t look so worried. You’re still my favorite Barrista.” He shoved the bills in his pocket. “See you tomorrow when it’s time for my cappuccino.” He left.

Angela signaled Danny that he could resume his place at the register. She walked to the drink prep area and put her hand in her pocket. She fingered the tablet of E wrapped in plastic. She was pretty sure a cappuccino was strong enough to hide the bitter taste of E.

Try To Stop Me

The sign says, Don’t feed the feral cats. I say, Try to stop me.

Four of the five cats creep tentatively out of the shrubs when I place their food dishes on the ground. The first two, Billy and Paul, are tomcats, as big around as small raccoons. I’m familiar with the size of a raccoon because I constantly have to chase them away from the alluring scent of mashed salmon. Sometimes the cats enjoy chicken, they’ll eat anything, since food is hard to come by, but they prefer the salmon.

Mel and Forsythe are only a foot or so behind the first two, sniffing the air. Twigs and leaves are caught in their matted fur, picked up from sleeping on the ground under the shrubs. Last comes Cynthia. She’s missing an eye, so it’s hard for me to look at her otherwise adorable face without feeling queasy and extremely upset. I try to give her extra rubs, when she’ll let me, to make up for being unable to bear looking at her.

Every day my cruel, cold neighbors walk past the mewling cats. They munch from their bags of chips and turn away from the cats, who cower under the shrubbery. A lot of these people would do well to cut down on the chips, shed a handful, or a truck full of pounds, spend those extra dollars on cat food, but they feel nothing for their fellow creatures. They don’t hear the empty bellies of neglected animals, dependent on the goodness of the human race — a bad bet.

I don’t have a lot of money, but at least I have my priorities straight. It doesn’t take a lot of money to buy a few cans of cat food. It’s cheap. I’d spend twice what I do for the grateful looks in their eyes. Except for Cynthia, who might be looking at me, but I don’t see.

Purrs rumble in their throats, relieved that someone cares. Sure they can catch mice or rats, but with exterminators traipsing among the cliffside homes with canisters of poison and setting out traps, there aren’t a lot of rodents to be had here. The gulls are too big for a cat to successfully pursue. And the other shorebirds, well, they’re cats! Living near the sea.

I crouch down, not sitting because the ground is damp from the rain last night. I like watching them eat. They line up around the two plates, plenty of room for everyone. It’s a pleasure to see their little mouths gobbling up the soft chunks of food, a slim, rounded tongue darting out every few bites to clean the area surrounding the mouth.

“Can’t you read?”

I jerk my head around, wrenching my neck.

“You aren’t supposed to feed them.”

“They’re hungry.”

“They breed.”

“So we’re supposed to let them starve to death?”

“That’s not how you should think about it.”

“How should I think about it?” I sit back on my heels and look up at the thirty-something woman in a red bikini with a dress made of string, half-heartedly covering the swimsuit.

“If they breed, there will be even more hungry cats.”

“So let these suffer — furry sacrificial offerings?”

“Well stop feeding them. They carry fleas and they make a mess. They’re not house pets, they’re wild animals. They bite and they can give people rabies and other diseases. You’re creating a health hazard.”

I turn back to watch the cats gobble their food.

“There’s a sign.”

“I know.”

“And you’re deliberately ignoring it?”

“Very deliberately.”

She huffs, stomps around me, and marches up to the visitors’ center, presumably to tattle on me. What are they going to do? Fine me?

A few minutes later, she’s back. The visitors’ center isn’t open on Wednesdays.

She moves closer, standing beside me, just beyond my peripheral vision. I feel she wants to kick me. Or maybe just kick over the empty cans, trying to humiliate me as I scrabble along the pavement picking them up, getting gooey remnants of fishy-smelling mush on my fingers.

“I would appreciate it if you would follow the law and not invite them to stay here. Besides, the leftover food attracts the raccoons.”

I ignore her.

I feel, more than hear, her suck in her breath. “They’re closed now, but I’m going to report you.”

“Have a nice day.”

I hear another huff from her lungs and then she’s walking too fast down the hill toward the beach.

As I watch her go, I reach toward Cynthia, keeping my eyes on the departing woman, not looking at Cynthia’s damaged eye. I touch her thick fur and stroke her head. She lets out a sharp, fierce yowl, whips her head around and sinks her teeth into the base of my thumb. Before I can pull away, she opens her mouth and clamps down again. She turns and runs beneath the shrubs.

I pull my hand back, crying softly. There are deep punctures in the fatty part of my hand inside the thumb joint. A very small amount of blood bubbles up through the tunnels she’s made in my flesh.

She didn’t mean to hurt me. She’s scared, always hungry. She can try, but she won’t stop me from providing food.

A Helping Hand

Lynette stood inside the restaurant and watched the man stumble across the street, maneuvering two canes topped with bands that supported his forearms. He looked so ashamed. He was moving so slowly, despite the flailing canes and his awkward strides, hips jerking out as they tried to accommodate his legs.

Watching him, Lynette felt as if there was a knife in her stomach. She sensed the impatience of the cars at the stop sign on the four-lane road, each of them looking ready to lurch forward the moment the man cleared their fender. One engine actually revved, growling like a wild animal about to descend on its prey.

He crossed the street at noon every day. He never came to the restaurant where she was a manager, but turned left at the door and disappeared from her sight. She wondered where he ate and wondered why he didn’t even cast a second glance at the menu posted in the window of Elite Pizza.

To the left were four more restaurants. He could be mixing it up with all four, or have a favorite where he’d eaten lunch every day for the fifteen months she’d been observing him. Did he prefer the upscale burger place? Mexican food? Thai? Or the Vegan place on the corner?

She’d thought about stepping out on the sidewalk to watch which door he entered, but she never did. By the time he made it across the street, she was usually perspiring from feeling his effort as if it were inside her own body, exhausted from fearing that one of the rubber-tipped canes would fail to hold securely and he’d be tossed on his back by the momentum of his own vigorous motion.

Why didn’t anyone help him? The world was full of selfish, cold-hearted people. They looked at their phones, averting their eyes, not wanting to notice his struggle. Couples wrapped their arms around each other and walked quickly, aiming to out-run him. People leaving their offices for lunch either lagged behind, deliberately pausing to text, or made wide arcs around him.

Every time she watched the flow of people, like a troupe of dancers twirling across the street in time with each other, she wanted to throttle each and every one of them.

It was sunny and warm, so at least she didn’t have to fear slippery pavement this time. Lynette closed her eyes for a moment.

When she opened them, he was about a third of the way out. The two men and the teenager who’d stepped off the curb at the same time he had were nearly across the street.

Lynette walked to the door and flung it open. She walked outside. She folded her arms and moved closer to the curb just as the teenager launched herself onto it, pivoting right to avoid colliding with Lynette.

The teenager was as good a sacrificial lamb as any of them. Lynette grabbed the girl’s arm.

“Hey!” The girl’s phone slipped out of her hand and landed on the sidewalk. She twisted, trying to escape from Lynette’s work-hardened hand.

“Let go of me!”

“I want to talk to you,” Lynette said.

“My phone.”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re lucky it didn’t break, bitch. Now let go of my arm or I’ll scream. And you don’t want that. I scream louder than anyone.”

Lynette maintained her grip. “Look behind you.”

The girl glared at Lynette.

“You saw that poor man. He needs help.”

“Who?” The girl continued to twist like a rat with an appendage caught in a trap.

“That man with the canes.”

“He doesn’t need help. I’ve seen him before. He’s just fine. Now let go of my arm.” She gave a furious yank just as the man put the tip of one cane on the curb.

The man cried out and stumbled back, but he maintained his balance.

“See what you almost did? Let go of my arm.” The girl was shouting now.

Lynette felt people staring. The businessmen had stopped just short of the curb. Neither of the cars in the two lanes closest to her side of the street had moved forward, even though the way was clear.

Lynette’s eyes filled with tears. “You have no heart. Every day he battles his way across, and you run around him like he’s a piece of trash that you don’t want to accidentally step on and soil your nice shoes.”

The girl bent over, putting her face close to Lynette’s arm. She bit down hard on Lynette’s bare upper arm, sinking her teeth deep into Lynette’s flesh. Lynette screamed, feeling slick wet stuff — blood — on her arm. She let go of the girl and slapped her hand over the spot. There was no blood, just some broken skin and a smear of saliva.

The girl bent down, picked up her phone, and darted into the street. At the same moment, the car closest to the middle divider, satisfied that the altercation was not that interesting after all, plowed forward. There was a heavy thud as the car hit the girl. Her body was flung away from the bumper and she fell onto the street with a sound that made Lynette sick to her stomach. Lynette retched. The sour remains of boiled egg and strawberries filled her mouth.

The driver was shouting for someone to call 9-1-1. Several car doors opened. One driver gunned the engine and drove through the intersection, escaping to its intended destination.

Lynette held her hand over her mouth to keep the liquid from dribbling out. She looked up.

The man with the canes gave her a nasty look. “Look what you did. You should mind your own business. I guess you will now.” He swung his cane wide and lurched around her, continuing down the street. She didn’t turn to see what restaurant he entered.

Wrong Name, Wrong Place, Wrong Time

The receptionist looked older than Cassie’s grandmother. Brown spots speckled the backs of her hands and the thin, loose skin was a disconcerting contrast to her dark red acrylic nails. There was something about her face that reminded Cassie of a fox.

“Cathy, that’s a beautiful name,” the receptionist said.

“My name is Cassie.”

“It’s so unique. Cathy isn’t something you hear on every other girl nowadays. It sounds sophisticated.”

“My name is Cassie.”

“Who are you here to see, dear?”

Cassie would have thought a high tech company would have someone more sophisticated greeting engineers and international executives. It didn’t make the company look sleek and hip with a grandma, even a gayly decorated grandma, getting your name wrong and labeling you with affectionate terms.

“Darren Lopez.”

“Let me look him up.” She woman turned to her computer and tapped the keyboard with her index finger. Her nail clicked on the hard plastic. “Is your real name Catherine? I know Cathy is often just a nickname.”

“My name is Ca-see Morgan.”

The woman smiled. “Here he is. And your appointment is at four?”


The receptionist picked up the handset and punched in five digits. Outside, a major storm was advancing. It was expected to drop two inches of rain in the next twenty-four hours. The sky was filled with black clouds. The lobby, that relied on natural light from windows that went from the floor up past the open balcony of the second floor, was dark. It gave everything a deserted look, not helped by the fact that the parking lot had been nearly empty when Cassie arrived. At her current company, the parking lot was packed full until after six o’clock. Big storm or not, this place had a desolate feeling. She shivered.

The receptionist spoke so softly, Cassie couldn’t make out her words. Maybe they were sucked into the vast, empty space above her. No voices trickled down from the second floor and there hadn’t been another person in the lobby during the few minutes Cassie had been standing there.

The receptionist replaced the phone.

Despite Cassie’s annoyance at the mis-representation of her name, and the unprofessional air she was giving off, she blurted out her discomfort as if the woman were her grandmother. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh . . .” the receptionist waved her hand toward the ceiling, “the storm.”

“So they all went home?”

“It happens.” The receptionist stood. “Darren must still be in his other meeting. I’ll escort you up to the waiting area outside his office.”

Cassie glanced over her shoulder at the front doors. “Don’t you have to watch the door?”

“The interior doors are locked. It’s okay if something comes into the lobby.”

“You mean some-one.”

The receptionist smiled. She walked around the end of her desk, handed a visitor’s badge to Cassie, and walked toward the elevators. Cassie followed, clipping the plastic badge to her lapel. They entered the elevator on the left, the doors already open as if someone had just come down, but no one had. The receptionist pressed the button for the seventh floor. The doors closed slowly and the air seemed to slip out before the two sides came together.

The moment the doors were sealed, the receptionist let out a harsh cough, almost like a bark. The rough sound continued all the way to the top floor. When the doors opened, she whispered with a strained voice, “Go ahead, Cathy.”

Cassie gritted her teeth and stepped out. The hallway was dark with only a faint bit of light coming through the window at the end. All the office doors were closed. “Is anyone here?” She turned back. The elevator doors were closing.

“Where am I supposed to go?”

The receptionist coughed harder and placed her hand over her face, fingers spread, red nails touching her hairline. The doors closed.

The entire floor, at least as far as Cassie could see, was empty, and she had no idea which office might belong to Darren Lopez. She pressed the down button and listened for the sound of the elevator returning. Rain began to thunder against the roof. She wasn’t sure whether the heard the elevator with all the racket — it sounded as if it had turned to hail. The light on the down button went out, but the doors didn’t open. She pressed it again. The light came on but no sound of gears or cables moving.

She walked to the end of the hall. None of the doors were labeled with an exit sign or suggested they might lead to a staircase. She pulled out her phone and look up Darren’s contact information. She entered his number, then saw she had no service. Her heart started to beat faster, keeping time with the ice pebbles pounding the building.

Slowly she retraced her steps, trying the handle of each door. She no longer cared if she looked out of place or interrupted a meeting. Each door opened to an office but none of the lights were on, the computer screens were dark, and the chairs were unoccupied.

When she was standing in front of the sealed doors of the elevators once again, hitting the button, she began to cry. The only sound was the ice pelting concrete and glass. She pushed the down button and held her finger there, but it did no good. She turned and looked at the window at the end of the hallway.

The receptionist stood there. She crooked a finger at Cassie and indicated she should join her in front of the window. Cassie walked slowly down the hall.

“Don’t be frightened, Cathy. They’re all gone, but I’ll take care of you. My daughter’s name was Cathy.” She smiled and for the first time, Cassie realized the woman’s teeth were those of a canine.

“My name is just Cathy, it’s not a nickname.”

“That’s what I thought.” The receptionist grinned.