Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

Flatlander

Marsha paused at the top of the two-lane road leading up from the beach, taking great, deep breaths.The hill descended sharply behind her. In front of her were two flights of wide concrete steps up to the main road. John, old fool that he was, had walked up the hill as fast as he could and was already cresting the first flight of stairs. She was pleased she’d made it up the incline but her heart pounded like a bass drum, her rib cage too small to contain it. No matter how she tried to gulp in more air, it felt like she’d never get enough.

John was determined to make her look old, which she was, but not as old as him, and fat, which she was, much fatter than him. She hated him for that. Hated him. He thought his thin physique made him look younger. He was oblivious to the weakened skin that gave him a small spindly belly spilling over the elastic edge of his shorts. Oblivious to the chicken quality of his legs, and oblivious to how he was hurting her. What kind of man went out of his way to humiliate his wife in front of strangers?

While she tried to give her lungs what they wanted, John propelled himself up the second flight of stairs, taking them two at a time, as he passed the two young women who were descending, ponytails bouncing.

The girls crossed the street. As they approached, Marsha smiled. “I’m a flatlander,” she said to the first girl, a woman with dark hair, wearing spandex pants that showed nothing but muscle and healthy flesh.

“It’s a rough climb,” said the girl.

The other girl said nothing. She glanced at her friend and began dancing on the balls of her feet, eager to start jogging.

Marsha’s breath was labored as she searched for enough oxygen to offer a response.

“Are you okay?” the dark-haired one asked.

“Fine.” Marsha’s breath was sharp.

“Don’t overdo it. Is that your husband?” She nodded toward the stairs.

“How’d you know?” Marsha said.

“Lucky guess.”

“We don’t match. He’s skinny, I’m fat. He’s a hiker, I’m a flatlander.”

“So you said.” The blonde broke her silence.

“Do you need to sit down?” The brunette glanced at the stairs.

John had disappeared from view. For all he cared, she could have dropped dead. These two girls, well one of them, certainly, cared more about her well-being than John did. If she worked harder, climbed the hill with more enthusiasm, pushed away the plate of cookies after dinner and stopped spooning creamy Ranch salad dressing onto her greens, it wouldn’t be like this.

“Well then, I’m glad you’re okay.” The blonde grabbed her ponytail and tightened the elastic. “We’ll let you get going.”

Marsha glanced left and crossed the street. She took a deep breath and put her foot on the first step. She dragged her other foot up to its level. She stepped up again. Putting both feet on each step, she made her way to the top of the first fifteen steps. Another steep incline connected the two flights of stairs. She would not collapse in front of those two. Just because her heart was pounding did not mean a heart attack was imminent.

John reappeared at the top of the second flight of stairs. His t-shirt billowed around his thin frame. He cupped his hand around his mouth and called down. “Do you need help?”

She shook her head, bent forward, and trudged upward. When she reached the top, she would kill him. For making her take this walk every day, for not loving her the way she was, for prancing about in front of those women, smiling with that coy duck of his head to show he wasn’t flirting. She gasped for air. She raised her left foot to the first step and paused. The edge of her vision pulsated. All she could see was the concrete step, stippled with mud. She lifted her right foot. There was no railing to steady her.

Eleven more. Her feet grew heavier with each step. On the fourth from the top, she put her hand under her thigh, lacing her fingers, lifting the weight of her leg to plant her foot on the next step. When she neared the top, John was in front of her, jogging in place, keeping his heart-rate up while he waited.

He jogged to the edge of the stairs, increasing his manic activity, going in small circles now. “Doing okay?”

“I think so,” Marsha said as she mounted the next to final step, taking slow deep breaths, trying to satisfy the demands of her lungs. Her heart was really in fine shape. More battered by John than it was by the weight of her body. “Why do you do that?” she said.

“Do what?”

“Race ahead of me.” She looked behind her. The two young women were nowhere in sight. She raised her face toward him. He still hadn’t answered, in fact the focus of his eyes, on some point far down the hill, said he wasn’t planning to answer, hadn’t heard her speak. She lifted her hand, “Help me up.”

He extended his hand, still bobbling from foot to foot. She grabbed his hand and pulled. The momentum of his slow jog propelled him up and over her leg. He fell hard on his shoulder, cried out, and kept falling. He rolled shoulder over hip, his unsheltered bones snapping like twigs as he tumbled down the first flight, slid head first down the short space between both flights, and then rolled to the flat ground at the bottom, where he was silent.

Marsha lifted her foot onto the final step, took a long, shallow breath, and walked with ease along the level path lined with small trees and shrubs, tangled with Mexican sage and ivy. As she approached the main road, her heart regained its footing.

Devoured

The hallway was dark. The rooms, opening on each side as far as she could see, were equally dark. The silence was deep, infusing every small sound with an unnatural weight. She took a breath that had the ferocity of a gust of wind.

Her boss was an Ogre. Alexis liked the sound of the word, even though the reality was unpleasant. Ogre. Legend said they feasted on human beings and were especially fond of infants.

Inside her office, the computer screen glowed. She set two bags of chips and a can of soda next to her keyboard and sat down.

The land line rang. She grabbed it. “Yes?”

“Is it done?”

“I was waiting for your feedback on the slides I sent a few minutes ago.”

The line was silent. She heard the click of computer keys. Finally, “Okay. Let me check with Matt. I’ll call you right back.”

She ate a few chips. She washed the comforting food down with two swallows of soda and tried not to think of the emptiness in the adjacent wing and in the four stories above her, each one checkered with small offices, computer screens black as night.

She tore open the second bag of chips. The minutes ticked, promising that the moment the call came, she could make a few changes and head toward home. The Ogre was twenty miles north at the main campus. Right now he was conferring with the Executive VP, debating the fine points of her charts.

The second chip bag was empty. She couldn’t remember eating a single one. She crumpled the bag and dropped it in the trash and downed the rest of the soda.

He could call on her cell. She should leave. If she’d left right after his first call, she’d be halfway home by now, in time to hold her baby close, smell her skin. She’d laugh while Jack placed Claire’s very first bite of cake in her mouth.

But if the slides needed changes . . .

She lifted the soda can to her mouth. Her tongue probed the opening for a lingering drop. Nothing. She dropped it in the trash. She clicked through the company website, looking for instructions on call forwarding. The search function was close to useless. It would take her all night to comb through hundreds of pages.

She plucked the can out of the trash, jogged down the hall, and dropped it in the recycling. When she returned, the phone was ringing.

“Where the hell were you? Matt has a question.”

“I just stepped out. You have my cell . . .”

“I don’t have time to call you at eight fucking different numbers.”

“There’s only two numbers . . .”

“What’s the value on the X axis on slide three?”

“Millions. It’s in the legend . . . “

“I’ll call you back. Don’t leave.”

“My cell . . .” The line was dead.

She sat down. Her bladder ached like there was a fist inside of her. Seven-twenty. She texted Jack, but the sad emoticon didn’t express the pressure inside her throat, equal to that in the center of her pelvis.

Forty minutes later when the phone rang, tears were coming out of her eyes, making excuses for the liquid that wanted to rush out of her bladder.

“Here are the changes . . .” He read through the list.

“Can I do them later tonight? It’s my daughter’s first birthday.”

“Your kid will have lots of birthdays. There’s only one launch of this product line and it’s in thirteen hours, in case you forgot.”

She hung up. She grabbed her things and ran to the restroom. She peed, the most glorious experience of her day.

In the main hall, she shoved the panic bar on the back door and started across the courtyard. Lights were spaced judiciously, trying to illuminate the thick shadows. She saw a figure ahead. Immediately she recognized his pallid complexion.

“Where the hell are you going?” he said.

“I thought you were at headquarters.”

“We’re in the executive conference room. You might as well come in with the core team so I don’t have to keep calling you.”

“I’m going home.”

“No you’re not.”

She trudged behind him to the main building. It didn’t matter if Claire tasted her cake today or tomorrow, she’d never know the difference. But Alexis would be eaten by the memory every year. And the Ogre would continue devouring her life every single day.

Suburban Noir lines

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A Disturbing Cat Nap

She faded into sleep on the discarded couch in the basement, waiting for the clothes dryer to finish.

She woke to a scratching sound on the linoleum. She wasn’t sure how long she’d slept. Light had been spilling through the ground-level windows when she stretched out on her back, now it was completely dark.

“Go to sleep, Sammy.” She reached out her hand to feel his fur. He seemed to have eluded her fingertips, she felt nothing. The dryer had stopped but she was so tired. Just a few more minutes. If Sammy jumped up and snuggled on her legs, maybe longer.

* * *

The scraping woke her again. She couldn’t tell if it had been ten minutes or several hours. She got up. The linoleum was warm beneath her bare feet. She walked to the stairwell and switched on the light. As she turned maybe thirty, maybe forty cockroaches scurried across the linoleum, antennae quivering, headed for the safety of the dark space under the couch.

She ran up the stairs. The door was closed, she’d deliberately propped it open so Sammy could join her. She sobbed and fell against the door, pounding and screaming for Jeremy to open it. She shivered, her arm growing weak as she continued to slam it against the closed door. She pulled herself up and turned the knob. She collapsed into the kitchen and kicked the door shut. A towel hung near the sink. She grabbed it and stuffed it into the space between the bottom edge of the door and the floor.

She stood, breathing hard. On the counter was a note. Sorry. Can’t do this any more. I need a girl who’s willing to clean more than once a month. I saw a roach the other day. — Jeremy