Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

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.

The Bruise

The bed shook violently, waking Tara. She rolled to her side, unsure whether the sudden movement had been part of her disturbing dream or a minor earthquake that shoved the headboard against the wall. Next to her, Alan was leaning on his right elbow, facing away from her, but she could see what he was doing. He had the flashlight on his phone turned on, directing it at his hip where he was tentatively poking at the flesh with his middle finger.

She didn’t want to ask what he was up to. But the irritation raced through her veins with such hot speed, she couldn’t stop herself from speaking. “What are you doing?”

“I have a new bruise.”

“It’s one a.m.”

“Something woke me.”

Had he felt it too? She didn’t ask because his stupidity overwhelmed her mild touch of fear. “Does it hurt?” Her tone was mocking. He insisted the fact that the bruises didn’t hurt meant something ominous.

“Unexplained bruising!” he said.

“I know.” Tara yanked the comforter over her head and forced the sound of her voice through the layers of fabric. “Severe headache. Fever. Muscle pain. Weakness. Diarrhea. Vomiting. Abdominal pain.”

“I have four bruises now. And they’re big.”

“I know, Alan. But you don’t have Ebola. Trust me.”

He clicked his phone to shut off the flashlight and turned on the bedside lamp.

“Please.” Her voice wavered with the press of tears. “I can’t do this again. I need to sleep.”

“All my joints ache. My stomach . . .”

“Please stop.”

“But the bruises. They just show up. Something isn’t right.”

“Then go back to the doctor, but it’s not Ebola.”

“No one thinks they’ll get it, until they do.”

She stuffed the blankets against the sides of her head, worrying the sheet into her ear canal to block the sound of his fear.

“They don’t recognize the symptoms. The medical establishment isn’t equipped to deal with it.”

“Then find a specialist. But stop studying your body and freaking out over a few bruises.”

“There’s no other explanation.”

“There are a hundred explanations.” She pulled the pillow under the blankets, folding it over her face. “Turn off the light.”

The switch clicked and the room was dark. She sighed and moved the pillow away from her face.

In the morning, she woke to the sound of water in the shower. She rolled onto her opposite side, grateful for extra sleep. When she woke again, the water was still running. He was probably in there cataloging every mark. He was just clumsy. Of course he didn’t have Ebola. Ten people on the entire continent had Ebola. He listened to too many crazies and assumed the worst.

He’d always been paranoid. In fact she had a pretty good idea that’s what had sent his first wife seeking a life less . . . draining maybe. He was exhausting. Always peering into corners, checking around the foundation of the house — worried about leaking water under the concrete slab, he’d said. She’d look out the window on Saturday afternoons and see him with a rake, stabbing the prongs at the foundation.

But something was definitely wrong. The bruises were dark, nearly black, spidery red lines threaded beneath the puffy, tender-looking skin. She understood his concern, and she should probably show a bit more of that herself, but he was so wound up. Ebola. Really.

In the recurring dream, someone or something was in their room. The movement of the bed felt so real. She’d been quite scared, but afraid to tell him lest she stimulate his paranoia. Then he’d started in on the Ebola, drowning out any voice of caution inside her own mind.

Two more nights she woke up to the same thing — Alan with his flashlight app, studying bruises. There were more.

On the fourth or fifth night, she became conscious enough to realize the figure wasn’t shoving the bed, it was punching Alan. Tara had been told that every person in a dream was a representation of yourself. Did that mean Tara was the one methodically beating him when she was unconscious? She didn’t think she was angry with him. Annoyed. Worn down. Frustrated. But not a rage that would drive her to strike him and cause such bruising.

The sixth night she dreamt the figure, a woman she’d come to realize, hovered over the bed like a kind of enormous bird, dropping stones like the river rock that lined the areas where the foundation of their house met the earth. The stones fell on Alan’s ribs, his thighs. He moaned from the pain and Tara woke, unsure whether she’d been awake the entire time or the moans had disturbed her sleep. She sat up and switched on her own phone light. His face was contorted, more so than the cries would have indicated. He writhed on the bed.

She grabbed his shoulder and shook him, harder than necessary, but she wanted him awake. Was it a dream or was some . . . unearthly being lingering in their bedroom?

Don’t touch him. The whisper was like a harsh wind.

She was definitely awake. Had the figure spoken? Was this her dream, an image burned into her retina? She blinked, trying to clear her eyes of crusted mucous.

She heard a stone thud onto Alan’s body. He cried out.

Was the thing going to stone them to death? Tara shook uncontrollably. Alan wouldn’t wake, there was nothing to protect her, not that he was much good at that. Too worried about something that had never come close to touching his life.

Save yourself. The voice was harsh, louder. If you move the stones at the front of the house, if you expose the truth, I’ll let you go. I only want him.

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

The Trailer Door

Suburban Noir CamperThe 1960s style trailer sat near the curb for nearly a week. The window in the door had cardboard taped over it from the inside. On the sixth day, the door was swinging open, creaking slightly. She would have checked the interior, but the group of four crows lurking in the street made her hesitate.

The Best Mother

Others before her had vowed the same, but this was different. She was different. She would be the ultimate mother.

The sweet baby tucked inside her womb would thrive under his mother’s soft touch, satiated with her warm milk. His mother would stoop to hold his hand as he learned to walk. She would tenderly introduce him to his spiritual side. She’d maintain strong standards, balanced with kind and understanding support, guiding the development of his mind. At the right time, she would let go.

The firm mound of her belly moved as the baby turned. A ripple rode across her skin, announcing his life. In the past fifty years, it had happened over seven billion times on the planet, and for centuries before that, every single soul damaged by one faulty parenting technique or another. Doing it right wasn’t difficult. The only things required were love, steely resolve, and attention to the unique personality entrusted to her care.

She rested her palms on the moving child. He was eager make his entrance, boldly revealing a face unlike any other to a mother who cherished every beat of his heart.

The things they said you needed were superfluous. She didn’t require a man, a high school diploma, or even a driver’s license. Her love was enough.

Children told you how to raise them, if you listened.

Not like her own mother — everything a catastrophic event her mother at the epicenter — always too busy to be a Mommy.