Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

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.

Running

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?”

“Nope.”

“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?”

“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.