Personal Projects

“For our first date, we went to a Ranger’s game to watch some baseball. We got there early as he said batting practice would be a good way to relax. But really, I knew it was to settle his nerves.”

“We get to the stadium, park, I’m trying to keep my cool. It’d been a while since I had a date. It was an afternoon game, bright and sunny and my stomach is freaking out.”

“He kept rubbing his hands on his jeans, which is what he does when he’s nervous.”

“My palms could have solved a drought in some desert. She had her hair up in a pony tail with a red ribbon thing and wore a blue sun dress. Really showed off her legs.”

“And I still got ’em. I got up to use the bathroom and when I came back his bright red polo shirt popped out like a tomato in a field of green seats.”

“She comes back, I’m doing a little better. We do some chit chat about our jobs, pets, family–basic conversation.”

“His voice was just so warm when he talked about his family. His mom, dad, sister. I love my family, but watching divorce split us up…”

“I picked up family was a tough subject for her so I switched to dogs.”

“We’re both dog people.”

“We must have talked animals until the national anthem.”

“Not quite but our seats had gotten filled up.”

“My stomach had eased up and my palms stopped sweating. I suggested after the first inning we go grab a hot dog and cokes.”

“We get our food and head back to our seats. We were in a great section on the first base side on the lower level near a bunch of season ticket holders.”

“My boss gave me his tickets after he overheard me talking to a coworker for first date ideas.”

“It was a great idea… Well, we can laugh about it now, but–”

“We were having a good time. The Rangers were up by two runs, and we get to talking about food.”

“We had our hot dogs but we both agreed nachos were a staple of any ballpark diet.”

“It’s the cheese.”

“All American neon orange cheese.”

“We make it back to our seats near the end of the inning and begin snacking. I’m trying not to spill cheese on her dress.”

“I’m trying not to spill cheese on my dress or get my hands messy.”

“The inning ends, maybe the sixth? Music plays.”

“It was The Black Eyed Peas’ ‘It’s Going to be A Good Night,’ and the guy behind us laughs and taps my shoulder, I’ll never forget how nonchalant he says, ‘you’re on the Kiss Cam.'”

“Mid bite, we both freeze, and our eyes lock, we’re both deer in the headlights. What do I do? This is our first date, I’m six innings in and would like to enjoy her company for the last three.”

“I think I have a blob of cheese on my lip. In what felt like forever I process that I have to DTR us right now.”

“She was defining the relationship and I was WTFing my pants in front of 30-some-odd-thousand people. What does a gentleman do?”

“He seemed like an okay guy, I felt comfortable and at ease up until they threw us up on the Jumbotron. His blue eyes are wide, searching my face for any clue what to do.”

“I don’t hear anything other than my own heart, and then she smiles, a smirk and raised her pierced eye brow, and I figured that was the cue.”

“It was the cue.”

“She does it a lot when she’s thinking something fun.”

“He leans in and our lips smooch for an instant.”

“It was so quick.”

“We pulled away, and he had the most bashful grin, his face matched his shirt.”

“I heard the crowd again, and everyone in our section was yelling and cheering, and I notice there’s cheese on my lip and we both just laugh and laugh ‘tip we have tears in our eyes.”

“We settled down, finished our nachos, and ever since then we’ve been totally comfortable with each other.”

“Forty one years, and her face from that moment is burned into my memory.”

“And whenever either of us are in a grumpy mood, we’ll say to the other, ‘you have cheese on your lip.'”

“And we shared a proper first kiss when I dropped her off at her place, without any cheese to worry about.”

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Reborn

A science fiction short story set years in the future, where Mabel receives the opportunity to be reborn. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

Mabel passed away on Christmas Day, and as a gift, she was reborn as the intelligence for a Minder. The respirators and IV lines of saline and vitamins were removed once the transfer of her consciousness finished uploading to the cold storage array powered by small fusion batteries.

“Time of death 11:38am,” a petite blonde haired nurse said. She nodded to the technician monitoring the neural transfer and turned off the machines that had kept Mabel alive for the past two years. Not every member of the Last Generation became a Minder. Most never accumulated the amount of virtuousness needed to buy their immortality. If they were lucky, an incinerator would turn them to ash, otherwise, the desert sun would strip the husk of flesh to bleached bones.

“All right, let’s start her up,” a wiry technician with soft hands said. “This’ll take a few minutes as the boot up sequence confirms the hardware, and does a diagnostics check.”

Mabel checked off most things in life. A maker of lists, she constructed a rich Earth for herself to live despite the dying planet around her and a pair of barren ovaries that scared away any man who said they loved her. Rocket ships carried the affluent and their children, families always received priority to the new colonies, so why would a man till his life with a woman who couldn’t increase his chances of getting off Earth?

“You got the questions ready? We’ll need those to confirm everything’s working with it,” the technician said, tapping Mabel’s new body, a silver magnesium alloy disc that was as wide as a two small hands side to side but as thick as four hands stacked on top of each other. An inset piece of glass ringed around the chassis allowing the multicolored light to blink through the start up cycle.

“Her,” the nurse said, curt and firm. “I do have the questions we need to ask her.”

Mabel traveled the world with her lists as an engineer, in a quixotic quest to stave off rising seas along the coasts and conjure fertile fields within the plains. She designed the levees and dykes that saved Calcutta, but her blueprints for Miami never made it past a planning committee. India didn’t care about the money so long as they could live a few more years to get their own space colonies ready, but her fellow Last Generation members in a drowning U.S.A state rebelled at the thought they should pay for others.

The tech shrugged his thin shoulders and rolled his eyes, “Great.”

But Miami was early in her career, an item, a place she never removed from her list to serve as a permanent reminder to flood her mind of just how important her work was. While the ocean’s tendrils weaved and claimed the streets of Miami for itself, Mabel coaxed river beds to share its remaining resources with cities critical to launching the ships to faraway stars. Detroit, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Sao Paulo became the last of the mega cities. Or the only safe ones.

“Did you cover the humanities, cultural stuff, too?”

“Of course,” the nurse said, squinting her eyes. “What did you think I was doing the past two years, chatting about how much worse the weather is getting?”

Erratic and unpredictable storms—some made of dirt, others made of water, others made of lightning—rolled across continents. Mabel, while still alive and of sound mind, held lucid conversations with the nurse about the course of her life and all the things she ticked off with a pen or pencil. These meandering talks were part of The Priming. Her silver locks of hair were permanently shaved off and a mesh cap of electrodes replaced them to catch markers of where her memories were stored whenever she recalled and spoke.

She unfurled her Oklahoma childhood, escaping The Great Quake that sifted the bedrock spliced from decades of fracking to collapsed craters of red clay and a city in ruins. She recounted college field trips down the Ohio River Valley, and all the jobs she jet set to and from collecting passport stamps along the way. Throughout her life, she kept two diaries, one of her life and work, and another of all the art and culture she saw, read or experienced. Russian ballets, Hopi ceremonies, Maori Haka, the paintings of the old masters, the Dadaists, the Minimalists, the romantic, the profane…

Two weeks before her death, she said, “But one of my favorite memories, it wasn’t my last job, but it was the last major one, was going to the remaining heritage sites and doing scans of all the buildings. So when we get to the next planet we could rebuild them.”

“That was with Haru Yokimoto?” the nurse said, making a note of Mabel’s World Heritage Restoration work in the computer.

Mabel smiled with her eyes closed and took a deep breath. “Haru had the most exquisite mind, and the gentlest fingers, well, gentle compared to the grit on my finger tips. It was a three year tour, and I had just turned sixty. He was fifty-one. We went to all these places carrying all this gear to do composite scans of buildings thousands of years old, even of things that were mostly destroyed by ignorant zealots.

“Can you believe Egypt, Greece and Peru threatened to destroy their own history if they didn’t get ships to the new planet promised to them? We did those spots first, then whichever ones we deemed important. The last ones though, the last ones… Haru and I had grown close by the time we were traveling his country to the various temples and shrines. He was a romantic, too, so it was cherry blossom season with what remaining cherry trees remained able to bloom…”

Mabel began to cry.

“Ms. Engel, we can stop and take a break if you need one,” the nurse said, looking around for an absent tissue.

“It’s all right. Well, I wish I had found that man earlier in my life. We made love in an abandoned Shinto garden, surrounded by foliage of all colors. One hand stroked my shoulder, while the other rested on the flab of my belly. We were both glowing like the sun and then he says, ‘I gifted you all my capital. I will be dead in several months.’ And just like that I couldn’t breath and if felt like the sun went out and I was being swallowed by the ocean, god damn.”

Haru gifted Mabel all the social capital he had accrued in his life before dying of lung cancer and requested it be gifted to Mabel, to ensure her opportunity to become a Minder. At the beginning of the planetary launches, the United Nations announced a global treaty for the Last Generation on Earth—8.5 billion people—that social capital was an invisible ledger of social contributions. No one knew what acts of social good were worth except for the algorithm that kept track of everyone’s acts. For young, by the time the reached middle age, they could purchase their tickets to the new planet, sooner if they had a family that was deemed to make good colonists. For the middle aged and old, they could become Minders, having their consciousness transferred to a computer to serve as an assistant in the new world. But it was an expensive procedure, with costly hardware, and two years of cognitive therapy to prime the system, thus, only a select few became minders—one for every million.

Despite her belief the system was rigged to benefit the well connected, she honored Haru’s life to accept becoming a Minder.

The light on the Minder chassis blinked and faded to a cool blue. The tech said, “Boot up’s done, everything appears like it took and running without faults—.”

“Oh!” a female voice said from the Minder.

“Mabel? Mabel, can you hear me? It’s your nurse, Gwyneth.”

“Yes, I can, and Merry Christmas, Gwyneth. This is like being reborn as a star in the sky far, far away, but I’m it and already there.”

“Fantastic!” the nurse said. “I have a few questions for you.”

“And I know all the answers, the first of which is Kyoto, the place where Haru told me of his gift.”

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Shot in Yalta

A photographer on assignment, 1944. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

I nearly tripped over the bloody rugs setting up my camera. A half dozen sprawled across the villa’s stone tile atrium while an over-caffeinated American trudged a trio of chairs outside. But were the rugs, Persian, maybe, really necessary? The Queen wasn’t about to march about and bargain for carving out who picked up Hitler’s mess. Churchill himself was here, and didn’t give a damn about the carpets so long as he had his drink and cigar.

Generals and admirals milled about with blokes in tailored suits. Advisors, lackeys, pups carrying papers, and checking their watches. I blew a breath of air to warm my hands to load a roll of color film into the Leica. Who the hell picks Yalta in February for a diplomatic holiday? We might as well be in London in a cloudless bunker, where it would be warm. The Yanks were waiting for me for the signal, so I had to pick up the pace. Roosevelt’s palsy kept him by the fireplace in his rolling chair, a secret I bet most across the pond didn’t know about. A cripple leading the Yanks. Hitler’s mustache would twitch itself off in a fit.

The cold didn’t bother the Reds a bit. They stood calm and reserved, while their conversation sounded like an assault on human speech, where consonants jabbed and vowels hooked at a moment’s notice. They were the unknowns here. Murmurs of Stalin’s propensity to change his mind mid thought would make the next week’s negotiations a series of bad chats at the pub with a mad man. He stood away from his men, eyeing the columns and walls within the atrium. How much of Poland and Eastern Europe did he want for his own house?

All three veneered mahogany chairs were lined up five meters from me, and I nodded to a Yank by the atrium doors, signaling for Roosevelt to be rolled outside. To the uniformed blokes with chests full of campaign ribbons, I did my best to command their attention with a cough and then, “Gentlemen, if you could please stand behind the chairs.”

Churchill broke from the pack and stood at the end of the row. His grey trench coat hung from his body like a wool coat of armor, stiff and oversized. A cigar punctured the jowls of his perpetual scowl. Stalin sensed movement, but remained his own island of authority, with his hands behind his back and his chin held high.

“Where would you like the President to sit?” a short man with slick brown hair said to me, his hands on the rolling chair. The president held a cigarette in one hand and the knee of his left leg with the other. His face was long and worn like a grandfather’s with too many aches to tend to but persevered despite them.

“The middle ought to do,” I replied.

The short man and another stood the President up by the elbows, and he swung his hips to kick his legs forward. He was a walking rag doll, but you would know it because he was swallowed by black cape. I never knew how much the polio took from him. The cape hid so much when he was seated or when he stood.

Churchill sat to Roosevelt’s right, my left, and removed his hat. He clutched it in his lap as he adjusted the folds of the trench coat and plucked the cigar out with his right hand. Stalin nodded to me and took the remaining seat on the other end.

I set my f stop and focused the lens. Churchill sunk into his seat with a weary sigh, bantering in a British growl with Roosevelt, who sat straight up but steady and approachable. Stalin meanwhile leaned forward with his hands clasped, folding and unfolding, studying the crowd behind me to the side.

These three men would soon barter for pieces of a map containing thousands, millions of people, and countless hollowed out cities across Europe. I was but a private in the Royal Air Force tasked to take a bloody portrait, and at that moment, an uncanny rush of power surged through my finger, and I caught them unaware, and I shot them all, a picture of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, February 4, 1944.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – NeuroDerma Miner

In this short story, Mitchell gets an unexpected email virus that affects his NeuroDerma communication device. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

With the flick of his eyes, Mitchell swiped the email pane from his lenses and leaned into the iris scanner. About the size of golf ball behind a sheet of glass, it still beeped out errors when people approached it with an active info pane in their eye. A company wide memo explained that the panes obscured identifying parts of the iris, like fog does to a forest of trees.

The scanner popped a flash of green, and the office door’s behavioral field let him enter. One morning when he first started here, he strolled through the doors without scanning in, and a piercing screech assaulted his ear drums. He doubled over, spilling his coffee down his khakis, and curled into the fetal position until a plain clothes security guard tapped Mitchell’s Derma at the base of his skull, behind his right ear lobe.

“Didn’t they tell you about this during training?” the guard said, holding a thick key fob in his hand.

Mitchell rubbed the Derma and ground his teeth. “I… forgot. Was thinking about something else.”

“Guess you won’t forget again, eh?”

And he hadn’t.

He waved to Mina, Eldrick, Dwayne, and Cosita as he paced down the hall to his desk. They each nodded or smiled back.

Mitch! Did you really think you could show up here after last night’s beat down? Eldrick sent over the Derma.

I had an off night and my stims didn’t kick in worth crap, Mitchell replied. I’ll get you next time when we raid the Alps.

And I’ll make sure you get snowed in, bro.

Cosita coughed and spoke, “Mitchell, when you get settled, could you pull up the reports I sent you and check them before I send them to Elsa? Please?”

“Sure,” Mitchell said, his voice gruff. Cosita refused to use the Derma to communicate. Nasal voiced and with a lilt of spanish, she’d break the office hum of keyboard clicks and the HVAC. She never seemed to trust the technology she worked with or the device implanted in her’s and everyone else’s brain for the last twelve years.

The NeuroDerma implant transferred information directly to and from a person’s brain. Mitchell could lookup details on his favorite exports teams, research what lake was in Guatemala, or pull down a recipe to impress a date. It also facilitated communication from his internal monologue to others as a form of telepathic speech. Anyone with a Derma was networked together, but required permission to send thoughts to others. Most jobs now required individuals to have a Derma for identification and security purposes, not to mention handling duties related to their work.

Mitchell logged in to his workstation and opened his corporate email program. The usual memorandums and expected messages from project teams filled the inbox along with a name he didn’t recognize.

Hey, do you guys know a Shelby Patterson?

No.

Nope.

Who’s that?

They sent me an email, subject Derma mining test pattern pane.

No clue, man.

People still send out panes for install?

Just delete it, Mitchell. It’s probably a joke, and you’ll get a bad headache.

Panes for iris lenses used to be installed via patchwork barcode patterns that could be scanned with a few quick blinks of the eye. Scan patterns still floated around as novelties, but now, they were uploaded and activated via the Derma.

Mitchell bobbed his head. It’d been awhile since he had a good laugh from a joke pane. If he was lucky, maybe it’d include something scantily clad. He blinked the scanner pane to the front, opened the email and stared, centering the three by three grid at the black and yellow pattern.

The grid locked, flashed red, and a blast of white exploded across his eyes. Pin pricks rattled from his temple to the back of his skull, and his Derma burned on the inside.

“Gah, damn!”

Mina and Dwayne stood up and looked over their half wall cubes to Mitchell’s desk.

Mina’s brown bob of hair swiveled as she shook her head, You opened it, didn’t you?

I did.

And now you got a headache, Dwayne tilted his head, his big lips smug on his face.

Mitchell’s vision came back with a pane that flashed a single cursor and a prompt. He blinked and circled his eyes around at the ceiling. Yeah, my head hurts.

I told you so, Dwayne messaged, and both he and Mina sat down.

You okay, bro? I did one of those once. It was supposed to make people look like clowns, but all it did was give people a red honking nose, Eldrick messaged.

I’ll be fine. I’ve actually hit my head worse with a game controller.

Aight. Wonder how many people still fall for that stuff?

Who knows.

The pane still floated in Mitchell’s eyes. How the hell does this thing work? What is it supposed to do?

A synthetic, robotic voice said, DermaQuery can search the NeuroDerma network for facts, figures, or fascinations about all those on the network.

Mitchell’s jaw hung and his eyes went wide. Facts. Figures. Fascinations?

Fascinations are defined as personal interests or histories of those on the NeuroDerma network.

He took a deep breath, how many people have installed novelty panes within the last six months.

Approximately 120 million.

How many in this room?

Three.

Who?

Eldrick Taylor, Robert Welk, Adrienne Chiran. HUD Mode activated.

A column of gold descended over Eldrick, three cubes over. Mitchell turned his head. Gold columns stood where Robert and Adrienne sat.

Mitchell grinned and whispered to himself, “Holy mother…”

The things he could find out about all those sitting in this room. Who’s married, HUD display only?

Around the room thinner columns hovered like tick marks.

How many have cheated on their spouse?

Five.

Mitchell held his hands over his face and leaned back to take a deep breath. A childish giddiness bounced inside his chest, but with the seductive adult pleasure of knowing a secret. How far could he push it?

Who in this room has given a blow job, HUD display only?

Again tick marks popped up, but the majority above the heads of women. A few men were in the results set, including Eldrick. He didn’t expect that. The guy exuded machismo and testosterone of a former baseball jock. Whatever. They lived in modern times and if that made him happy, so be it.

For the hell of it, who’s killed a person.

One, Cosita Santiago.

Mitchell sat still. He stared at the back of Cosita’s black hair, tied back in a pony tail, a few stray wisps of hair hanging over the silver Derma.

How?

Stabbing. Video available.

Video? The Dermas couldn’t send personal video. Memories were still considered private. Personal. Did Mitchell want to break that boundary?

Play the video.

Loading…

The video began, as filmed from the perspective of Cosita, but with super saturated colors and the surrounding room, a hotel room, in soft focus. A man in a bathrobe came into view. His face wrinkled and covered in a beard. Tufts of grey hair peeked out of the robe from his chest. The man crawled on top of her and her arm swooped around his back, her hand clutching a silver—.

A shock scattered from his Derma. The video ceased playing and Mitchell went blind and a hand yanked him out of his seat.

“Mr. Upton,” it was the security guard, “Please come with me.”

“Wait, what? Why?”

“It appears your Derma is malfunctioning, and causing network issues. We’ve turned it off until we get it fixed.”

“Mitchell, what happened, man?” Eldrick said.

Mitchell stumbled, following the arm pull, still blind to the office around him. The keyboard clicks ceased and the shuffling of chairs arose. No voices though. They still talked silently amongst themselves. Through the Dermas.

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Personal Projects

Short story sunday – Unverified

In this short story, Brady receives concerning news regarding his college applications. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Collins, you called me here?”

“Oh, yes, hello, Brady, come in.”

“I’m still not sure why I’m here. Am I in trouble?”

“No, you’re not in any trouble. I wanted to discuss concerns I’ve been receiving about your admissions applications.”

“Did I forget something? I read each one three or four times over, and even made a checklist like you said.”

“From what I can tell, you sent everything in, so it seems the checklist was a great idea. But I’ve received two calls asking for more information about you.”

“I filled out all the applications, wrote the essays, and even got Ms. Danielson for a letter of recommendation. All the transcripts should be there, too, with my grades.”

“All of those were received, but—.”

“What else is there? What else is there to do?”

“Let me ask, before you came to this school, I know you were home schooled—.”

“Yes, by my mother, and then she died in a car wreck.”

“And your aunt and uncle adopted you.”

“Yes, they took me in. I’m lucky they’re good people.”

“I’m impressed by your humility, Brady, most kids your age lack that trait.”

“Thank you. My mom always said it was best to be grounded—it’s where life happens.”

“Your mom sounds like a wonderful person… but, and I’m not trying to upset you, before you came here, did your mother ever capture family or life events? Birthdays, vacations, random moments in your life?”

“She did. Not often. I don’t see what this has to do with my college applications.”

“In the world we live in, it does.”

“Then why don’t they say that in the applications?”

“Colleges can’t exactly say that.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Then what does my mom taking pictures of a random birthday… six years ago mean? Would it be any different if it were ten years ago?”

“Have you ever heard the phrase trust but verify?”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Maybe from one of your history classes? Well, colleges verify all their potential applicants now.”

“They called you to verify my birthdays? If I celebrated them?”

“That was a simple example. They verify students very broadly, searching the internet, social media, especially, for anything about them that shows their character or who they are.”

“My mother never did any of that stuff. I think she said she did Facebook when it first started but then she said she got tired of it. So I never used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Shapchat, and the group of home school kids didn’t either. Look, I had access to the internet to research and look things up about my favorite sports teams, but…”

“That’s impressive. Kids usually take up technology in spite of their parents.”

“Guess I never knew different. She taught me about computers, and we had gadgets in our home, but… I guess it comes back to humility, like you said. She was a private person and didn’t feel the need to share our lives with the whole world.”

“But sharing parts of ourselves is a good thing to do. It helps us connect with others.”

“And helps colleges connect with me?”

“Yes.”

“What if there are people we don’t want to connect with?”

“Then you don’t have to.”

“But you just said colleges use it to ‘verify’ me. If something is out there, and my mom always said the internet is forever, and you don’t want someone to find it or you, how do you do that?”

“It can be—.”

“My father was an abusive asshole. Crazy. I was six when my mom picked me up from school and we drove across the country, to here, the day he finally got thrown in jail for beating her.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t—.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“That’s very unfortunate to hear, but—.”

“And he found us, and nearly killed my mother, because a friend of hers posted something somewhere about how happy she was that we saw her.”

“I’m sorry that happened. It’s horrific, and it will help me talk to admissions officers about your applications.”

“If they can’t verify me, then what do all those applications make me? A paper ghost?”

“Brady, you’re not a ghost—.”

“But you just said—.”

“Colleges look for character flaws. Risky behavior, poor decisions, actions that have negative consequences.”

“And me not being found on the internet is a negative consequence. Great.”

“Not necessarily. It just means they can’t verify the content of your character.”

“It also means their applications lack the ability to show character. So what happens now?”

“I’ll return the calls and speak on your behalf, and perhaps you can slowly, and safely, adopt an online presence.”

“And if I don’t.”

“Life will get harder for you. Companies may not hire you, people may not associate with you…”

“Just because they can’t verify me?”

“Just because of that. I’m sure your friends can help you learn everything there is to know. We coach students all the time about how to act appropriately online.”

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Short Story Sunday – Donnie’s Portrait

In this short story, a combat artist paints a portrait. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

I paint ghosts dressed in full combat armor carrying M-16s. And they talk to me as I do it.

“Vincent,” the first class private named Donnie Brancetti said with a nasal Brooklyn accent, “Make me look good for my girl and my ma. The photographer guy didn’t get my good side when I wore my dress blues.”

The forty pounds of gear they wear is lighter than the weight of responsibility that I bear in my studio, conjuring these spirits. At first they emerge as shadows from the dust of charcoal sketches in my sketchbooks. Some figures cut the page with the jagged edges of a desert mountain, while others roll along the surface of a calm ocean.

Donnie sat on an empty wooden crate and shifted his vest so he could preen his neck and head in exaggerated faces. He’s small for a Marine, but the helmet, vest, pockets on every surface of his digital camo, make him look like a power running back ready to play smash mouth football. The morning light combined with his fresh shave makes his skin glow. The dirt in the air had yet to coat his cheeks in a grainy stubble. “My eyes always tend to throw people off. Villagers think I’m some kind of devil.”

The edge of helmet scraped his brow, but that blue eye contrasted like a piece of sea glass, while the hazel one blended in. “But my girl, Alexis, she don’t mind. She gets a kick out of it.”

No matter how long their journey is to a canvas, a quick sortie supply run or a grueling campaign through a jungle, I make sure my brushes get them there in one piece. The damn shame is, many of those I paint, I’ve never met. Fellow service men and women, grunts all the way to those with stars on their shoulders, seek me out. I did meet Donnie, though, towards one of the last days of my tour as the Marine’s resident combat artist.

Donnie was supposed to be off, sitting with me in his off duty fatigues for a casual portrait. “A buddy got sick and I volunteered, or got volunteered, to take his place,” Donnie said, refitting his gloves while the M-16 rested on his thigh. “He blames the mess cook, I blame the goat he ate with the tribal guys we met the other day.”

I scribbled a trio of gesture drawings with a soft pencil, taking in his shape, how he held himself, working fast while his patrol unit loaded up around us. The second one captured him well, and I pulled out a set of pastels to add depth and character to it. “You’re working fast there. Can’t go too fast. You’ll make mistakes, but then again, can’t go too slow either or else everything around will have passed you by.”

My tour through Afghanistan filled notebooks, gigs of memory cards full of reference photos, and journals detailing things my eyes, hands or camera couldn’t capture. “Alexis always asks for bits of what it’s like out here, and I try to tell her, but can you really describe how a desert looks other than brown and rocky and there are days when the skies are so blue you’d think we were in some marble spinning in the universe. So I try to tell her about how here, inside the wire, it smells like sweat, oil, gun cleaner, and more sweat. It’s never quiet. Something’s always rattling, whether it’s some dude walking the fence or the wind flapping the breeze. Ain’t no peace under these stars with the local wolves running around shitting IEDs for us to step in.”

A sergeant ambled up and yelled in a falsetto, “Brancetti, get your pretty eyes in the humvee,” and then laughed.

Donnie shuffled up, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, and slid on his reflective sunglasses. He walked over to me and bent over. “I asked you to get my good side, Vincent. Whatever. When you’re done, just make it the best damn portrait ever. Make me look immortal.”

And I did.

Donnie died in the arms of a combat medic after stepping near an IED.

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Short Story Sunday – Soundtrack for Skylar

In this short story, a father drivers his infant daughter home to a musical soundtrack. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

My daughter babbled and slapped my forehead while I buckled her in the car seat. Her tiny fingers swiped my brow with sticky spittle drooled on her fingers, and I felt the click of the harness. I gave it a quick tug, assured it was secure and adjusted her mint green outfit. It was a onesie with flowers embroidered across her chest, but a skirt puffed out around her legs.

“Your mother picked out your outfit today, Skylar. Don’t get fussy at me for her fashion choices,” I said.

Skylar let out a string of incoherent syllables.

“I know, I know, you’re a big girl at eight months. Maybe we can talk about a new look when you turn eighteen months, when you’re walking and can speak a few words? How does that sound?”

“Blah-eee,” is what I think she said opening her outstretched hands.

“Deal,” I said shaking her hand. After work, I had met Angie, my wife, and a small group of friends for a happy hour and light dinner. Angie opted to continue her evening at a friend’s house to check out a craft project and asked if I could take Skylar home. “We’re gonna get you to beddy bye soon. Mommy wanted to go to a friend’s house for a little bit.”

I shut the door with care as not to startle her, and all the while I rounded the car, I kept my eyes on her. It was a habit I developed, and I wasn’t sure why. Strapped to a specially made seat for a tiny human, Skylar had yet to master the finger dexterity to escape the harness like a baby Houdini. But I knew she’d figure it out one day. I caused all sorts of parental panic attacks while my parents drove around our little corner of the ‘burbs. Toddler me giggled, bouncing around inside a moving vehicle.

Adult me breaks out in sweat at the thought.

Skylar tracked me while I rounded the front of the car and hopped in.

I cranked the engine, and the car revved to life. Over my shoulder, I said, “It’s a good night out, Skylar, what do you say, windows down, music up?”

Our drive would only be less than fifteen minutes, and on an unseasonably warm spring night, the wind drifting throughout the car shouldn’t bother her. She clapped her hands against the harness and looked back at me, smacking her lips. In the dark car, her eyes were a cool silver, big and round, like her mother’s.

I searched my phone’s music library and made a playlist long enough to soundtrack our ride home. With the car in drive, I started the first song, Ho Hey, by the Lumineers, a folksy, uptempo number with shouts and handclaps. When Angie and I walked down the aisle at our wedding, our bridesmaids and groomsmen shouted each HEY and HO. I checked the wide angled back seat baby mirror Angie installed in my car, and let out a HO.

Skylar rolled her head at me and sat still, as if to ask what I was doing.

I called out a HEY and bobbed my head to the beat. By the end of the song, Skylar shouted with me but at different pitches to HEY and HO.

We rolled to an intersection, stopped at a red light, and a count of one, two, three, four launched the percussive beat of Outkast’s Hey Ya! I swiveled and shimmied my shoulders back and forth, dancing as best I could in my driver’s seat, tapping out the bass line on my steering wheel. Skylar kicked her legs and waved her arms for a couple measures of the song, stopped, then moved about again.

“Are you dancing, too?” I said, missing the light change to green. The car behind me honked, and I continued on through the intersection and singing along to the chorus. My college roommates and I shook it like we had it after a pitcher of dorm room style margaritas—generous pours of tequila blended with lime sherbet. College age Skylar wouldn’t get to make that mistake for at least eighteen years, twenty one if… I stopped my dancing, and it dawned on me I’d have to teach her about alcohol and all the weighty social proofs that went with it.

My thoughts sobered, and Andre 3000’s funk rock faded to the pop pop pop of drums and jangle of guitars kicked off Weezer’s Undone (The Sweater Song). I mouthed the song’s opening conversation and sang the abrupt opening verse. The guitars built to a wall of sound at the first chorus, and Skylar squeeled and revealed a toothy grin. I made an overly goofy face in return to the mirror. In high school, the song was a quirky ear worm that my high school friends and I would belt out at the top of our lungs in a beat up Corolla. Pull this thread, we joked, holding out our sleeves. It wasn’t until a Monday night break up at twenty three did I realize what Rivers Cuomo was singing about. Skylar let out intermittent screeches. Did heart break hurt worse or the same as a girl? Would I be prepared for a sullen teenager? Dear, God, I thanked to have Angie to help me figure that out.

We pulled up to the house, and Skylar bounced up and down in the car seat. “A little riled up, huh?” I said. Sensing she’d put forth a cranky fit through bath time and putting on pajamas, I thumbed through my phone. “How about one more song, Skylar? We’ll drive around the block, and then we’ll get you in your crib.”

She bounced in reply and tapped her hands on her car seat.

I set Pearl Jam’s Around the Bend to play, and slid the car into drive. The muted drums, the slide guitar, and Eddie Vedder’s baritone sang us a lullaby. I rolled the windows up, and took it slow through the neighborhood. Skylar fidgeted at first, but by the second turn, she had calmed down. As a father, and as the lyric played out, I doubted that all these moments with her would close with a serene joy of a quiet ride around the block. We returned to the house, and she was still awake, but no longer jostled about.

I got out and unbuckled her from her seat and said, hushed, “All righty, let’s get you inside and into bed.”

I held her close to my chest, and she nestled her head into my neck and grabbed fistfuls of my shirt. All I could hear was her breathing, brief, warm, and delicate. When I first held her in my arms over eight months ago, despite all the cardio and jogging I did, my heart never felt more fragile as she did, and today that feeling remains.

I kissed her forehead and whispered, “I got you, don’t worry. Daddy’s got you.”

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Personal Projects

The Dragon Riders of Chesterton

In this short story, the Dragon Riders of Chesterton hold a funeral for a member who has passed. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

Seven of us hiked up the bluff atop the junkyard, a quiet band of mourners proceeding to a funeral. Judith and Charlie led the way, each holding a handle bar of Emma’s teal bicycle, while the rest of us followed, doing our best to keep the snuffling at a minimum. It had been years since the Dragon Riders of Chesterton had to enact a burial, and only Thomas, the oldest, remembered what to do.

Most kids grew out of the Dragon Riders and into sports or academics, but never truly gave up their love of chasing the road and the breeze, pedaling their bikes through streets or fields. Even with the closing of the saw mill, and the town emptied of young children, a group still rode together, naming our wheeled mounts fantastical names.

And tonight, we were to send Emma’s mount, Gloriana, to a metal pyre below.

We all attended the open casket service at the church and paid our respects, dressed in black, like all the other adults. Emma wore a purple dress, and the undertaker placed a brown wig on her bald head.

Mark, at the wake at Emma’s house said, through a mouthful of sugar cookies, “It didn’t look like she had leukemia any more.”

Judith replied, her tear swollen eyes staring at the floor, “It was the make up. The first time her parents let her wear make up, and she’s dead and can’t enjoy it.”

We sat in silence for a while, picking at our snacks. An occasional adult hovered over and delivered vague statements about being sad, and crying, and life would go on. I think most of us knew they were well intentioned, but pithy. Damian spoke for us all, “Anyone else feel like they’ve been punched in the gut and stole the happiness right out of them?”

Before our parents collected us and we left, Thomas spoke. “There’s a thing we need to do for Emma.”

“What’s that?” Brynn said.

“When a Dragon Rider dies, we send off their mount.”

The other five of us collectively eyed each other. We’d heard the rumors and joked about how we’d send off our two wheeled dragons in to Chesterton’s junk yard. “I was Emma’s age the last time we did it,” Thomas said, shuffling as a fourteen year old in a suit that didn’t quite fit him, “and I think we ought to do it.”

“What do we do?” Mark said, his speech unimpeded by cookies.

“I vaguely remember. Give me a day or two to think about it, and we can meet at the foot of the hill that leads to the look out over the junkyard. Can any of you get Emma’s bike?”

“You want us to steal her mount?” David said, his voice cracking.

“I’ll do it,” Judith said, looking up at Thomas. “Her family won’t notice it. They’ll be too sad to notice anything for a while.”

Judith and Brynn snuck into Emma’s family’s garage the next day. Two days later, Thomas told us to meet him at the bottom of the hill. We were to leave our own mounts down at the bottom, while we ferried Gloriana to the top. Thick grass and half rotten oak trees, poisoned by the neighboring junkyard, covered the hill. It wasn’t steep, but it rose several hundred feet. Before we began the trek, Thomas shared the rites of the funeral ritual.

Judith and Charlie were the youngest, the closest to Emma in age, nine years old, and they were the pall bearers up the hill. The rest of us followed in silence, in a single file line. We climbed slick grass, and the ground split with exposed, gnarled roots. Mark steadied Brynn several times, while Damian, Thomas, and I trudged on our own. At some point, a nose sniffled, and then another, and someone would wipe their face with their shirt. My thighs strained and my chest heaved harder and harder by the time we reached the top. Judith and Charlie collapsed, both their faces red and wet.

The crest of the hill leveled out, free of trees, and thinner grass spread for about ten yards to the bluff. The wind blew in spurts between a breeze and a gust, carrying a metallic tint in the air. Hollowed out cars, long forgotten appliances, and scraps of demolished steel piled below.

Thomas picked up Judith and Charlie, “C’mon. Almost done.”

Judith didn’t bother to brush her knees and stood Gloriana up. We each placed a hand on the bike and walked it to the edge of the bluff. The junkyard below sat in silence.

Thomas yelled, “Emma, we the Dragon Riders of Chesterton send Gloriana to you.”

We each called out the names of our mounts.

Judith: “Beatrix.”

Damien: “Yvain.”

Charlie: “Edgar.”

Brynn: “Mariel.”

Mark: “Brom.”

Myself: “Arthur.”

Thomas: “George.”

In unison, we all screamed, “We bow in sorrow.”

One by one, we let go of Gloriana until Thomas remained, holding the frame of the bike. We gathered to the side, and Thomas walked Gloriana back several paces from the edge. He clutched the seat, firmed his grip on the handle bars, and planted his feet.

He sprang forward, dashing Gloriana to the cliff, and with a shove, she flew over the edge. We knew what happened, but we imagined the teal frame of metal, spinning its spokes in the air, and soaring to join Emma, our Dragon Rider in the sky.

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Short Story Sunday – Would you like to go for a ride?

In this short story, Mitch steals a car that takes him for a ride. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

He pressed down on the rubber button of his electronic skeleton key. A few years ago, Mitch would have pumped a blood pressure cuff three or four times, slid his metal shim between the doorframe and the window and jimmy the door open. Tonight, an with invisible signal he stole earlier in the day, a dome light flicked on inside the four door sedan sitting in the driveway. It was a smokey grey and still looked new with hardly any road grime covering the body, and judging by the satellite radio antennae and better than factory rims, Mitch expected to get more than his usual fee. Once inside, he’d sit comfy in leather seats, let the surround sound speakers wash over him, and test out the heated steering wheel. Despite the adrenaline rush of the theft and his gloves, the fall night was colder than he expected.

Decades of car engineering had advanced the door lock where it relied on an invisible signal from the owner’s key fob. Now, rather than manually overriding the lock, it could be fooled with intercepting and copying bits out of the air.

Mitch lifted the door handle and swooped into the driver’s seat, closing the door behind him with a delicate pull. Three o’clock in the morning in a gentrified section of town, not many would be awake, but he preferred discretion at all times. He was dressed in all black, black jeans, black jacket, a solid black baseball cap pulled low. His forty three year old bones still reveled in a score.

“Whoop,” he said, taking in the sleek wooden dash and minimalist set of recessed buttons on the console. A pair of designer sunglasses and a gas receipt were tucked into the cup holder. He pocketed the sunglasses in his jacket.

“Hello,” a soft, feminine voice said. “Would you like to go for a ride?”

He startled, and a burst of sweat seeped in his armpits. He had yet to put the fob near the steering column to start the car.

The LCD screen on the center of the console came alive with a boot up sequence, and an ambient glow of gauges lit up behind the steering wheel. A bing and a bong chimed as if to signal the ignition to crank and rev the engine to life. The screen finished starting up and displayed the usual commands for GPS, radio, phone, text, help and set up.

“Would you like to go for a ride?” the same voice said.

He tapped at the screen, and it remained fixed on the list of initial commands. He palmed the steering column for an override and twisted the stick for the wipers and blinker. The the click click of the blinkers flashed yellow outside the car, and the rubber stuttered across the glass. With a gentle tap, he pressed down on the gas and the engine hummed louder. He pulled back on the gearshift, but met resistance, affixed in ‘park.’

“Would you like to go for a ride?”

Mitch sat back in the seat. His chest was warm and the inside of his gloves were damp with sweat. He clucked his tongue and gripped the wheel. “Sure, let’s go for a ride.”

“Please fasten your seatbelt.”

“Okay…” he said, and drew the seatbelt across his chest doing his best not to freak out. He was pretty sure he could get control of the car once it got out of park and into drive. He’d never stolen a self driving car before. Still not common, and still limited to the upper echelons of luxury cars, but he knew they were out there. As he understood it, the driver had to activate the self driving wizardry. It wasn’t on by default. Maybe this vehicle was newer?

At the whisper click of the buckle, the car dimmed the dome light off, shifted into reverse and backed out of the driveway. He peered to the rearview mirror, readying to turn the wheel. At the edge of the driveway, the back tires bumped and the wheel spun hard, twisting his arms.

He groaned and shook the jolt of pain out of his wrists. The car shifted into drive and sped up to twenty miles an hour down the street, and the locks bolted while the windows rolled down and let in a brisk breeze. Classical music filled the cabin at a low volume, playing a steady tempo of violins and flutes. The leather seat felt cool through his jeans.

The car halted at a stop sign and the seatbelt dug into his chest as he lurched forward. A blinker flashed and clicked to life, signaling right. Again, he gripped the wheel to take control, and again, the car spurned his hands and turned right. Through the quiet streets of the asleep neighborhood, the car obeyed all basic traffic laws, stopping, signaling, staying below the speed limit. By now, Mitch would’ve rolled through intersections, cut turns with out bothering to tab the blinker, and sped up to his drop point across town.

He flipped the collar of his jacket up over his neck and rubbed his shoulders to keep away the cold. The buttons on the door handle refused to budge the windows. The car rolled on to a main drag, lit by streetlights and signage from businesses along the road, and accelerated with a sudden burst, jerking his head against the headrest. While the wind sweeping in through the windows swirled about, the music switched to a bouncy beat of synths, bass, and female vocals. He reached for the center console to assert a sense of control, or at least to turn the heat on.

“Come on, I’m freezing,” he said, jabbing his fingers at the screen and the button for the seat warmer.

“Adjusting cabin temperature. Please wait,” the voice said.

The windows whirred closed, cutting of the cold outside air, while the inside vents blasted dry, hot air. His thighs felt faintly cozy, and three orange dots lit up on the steering wheel. He touched the wheel, and found it lukewarm against his glove. The wheel still wouldn’t move in his hands.

“Damn it,” he said, banging the roof with his fist.

The sedan had now reached an intersection at an overpass, and turned left to enter the highway. It followed another car through the light and merged onto a three line highway with sparsely any traffic. The concrete below rumbled to a subtle roar while the pop music grew louder, the bass more prominent, throbbing in his ears.

Sweat creeped at his hairline and pooled underneath his clothes. Inside the car, it was now stuffy and hot and his ass grew too warm for comfort. Mitch shifted in the seat and unbuttoned his coat. It was like a dry desert day inside of less than thirty square feet of leather, plastic, and aluminum, lit by LEDs in rainbow of colors.

“I’m hot,” he said loud and gruff at the rearview, as if his own eyes reflected the gaze of the car itself.

The vents still blew hot air and his seat began to burn his thighs.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, thumbing the button on the seat belt buckle. It refused to unbuckle and his thumb slipped off with each downward press. He clutched the strap and twisted, hoping to break the metal from the dense plastic.

Sweat trickled down his neck and his coat felt liked a straight jacket, constricting even with the use of his arms. He cried out at the singe teasing along his legs and shifted, to dig out a knife in his front pocket. He snapped open the silver blade, and the highway lights glinted across its edge.

The car sped up while he cut across the shoulder strap, pushing the speedometer near eighty miles per hour. Its first traffic violation he noticed. With each slice he grunted and shifted, his legs scalding hot. The shoulder strap gave way first, and he yanked it through the buckle across his lap, dropping the knife between the seats. Free, he hoisted himself to the passenger seat, landing on hot leather.

He kicked his legs, the rubber of his boots scraping the screen, and he collected himself. He beat against the door pulling at the handle. He beat against the window attempting to break the glass. He beat against the seat and screamed, pounding his frustration at the black leather.

The engine whined as a constant amongst the booming speakers. Mitch lost track of how fast the car was going, but judging by the blur of buildings and speed of which he passed cars that seemed to stand still, he was going fast.

And had to get out of the blistering hot seat.

He twisted and clamored his sweat soaked clothes and scooted between the two front seats to the back. In mid shuffle, a pair of red and blue lights flashed to life.

“Shit.”

Mitch sunk back and fell into the seats. In his twenty plus years of jacking cars, this was the first time he’d been caught by the cops while stealing one. This was also the first time he’d been held prisoner in a cage on wheels. The siren wailed and the red and blue lights lit up the interior. Surely the car would stop and pull over?

It veered across two lanes to an off ramp, and Mitch slid sideways. The car slowed a little and took a hard left turn under the over pass, while the tires screeched the pavement, and took another hard left to get back on the freeway. It zoomed up the ramp, the police cruiser in pursuit, and the stereo switched to a deafening barrage of jagged guitars and pummeling drums. His body still baked in a dry sauna, and his sinuses throbbed, and combined with the weaving lane changes throwing off his balance, he felt like he was going to throw up.

A second police cruiser joined, and the sedan cut around an eighteen wheeler with a zip that slammed Mitch’s head against the door, landing on his left temple. His hat slopped off, and his vision blurred and streaks of light criss crossed his eyes. He tumbled forward when the car decelerated and struggled to push himself up. His only respite was the slightly cooler air along the carpeted floor.

With each fish tail turn, Mitch jostled, and shadows and glares of the passing street swirled around him. The red and blue still hovered.

The car hit a bump and came to a stop.

All four doors swung open the cool rush of air rolled over Mitch’s sweltering face.

“COME OUT OF THE VEHICLE WITH YOUR HANDS UP,” a male voice said through a bullhorn.

Mitch panted. He crawled out the left side, landing elbows first. Two pairs of feet ran up and a pair of hands grabbed fistfuls of his jacket and dragged him up.

His head cleared and he looked around. Between the barking of the officer, he realized his ride took him back where he started. He hung his head as a cop cuffed his hands and pushed him to the backseat of a patrol car.

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Short Story Sunday – Cracks

A short story about all the cracks in Eddie’s life that revolves around getting his phone fixed. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

1

The clean, uncracked windows of the cell phone repair shop stood in front of Eddie. He traced his fingers over his phone’s splintered screen. If he went inside and got it fixed, it’d be a good chunk of his paycheck from flipping burgers and filling cokes at McDonald’s. His fiancé Carla, seven months pregnant, without a ring on her finger, would beat on him to no end if he splurged on himself rather than his familia.

“Eddie, you going to go in or what?” his brother Juan said, sipping a frozen slush drink from the convenience store next door. They were about the same height, but where Eddie was broad shouldered, Juan was square. Eddie held himself with a quiet, introverted reserve, while Juan flashed easy smiles and clapped his hands at a good joke. They both shared their father’s deep set brown eyes.

“I want to,” Eddie replied, stepping closer to peer through the windows, “but I need to put the cash aside for the baby.”

“A little girl, right?”

“That’s what the pictures from the doctor’s office showed. Or what the nurse told us.” Eddie shrugged. All he saw on the sonogram was a tiny human inside Carla’s belly in grainy black and white.

Juan smiled, “I’ll spot you the cash, as your brother, and soon to be favorite uncle.”

“Juan, you don’t have to do that—.” Eddie didn’t know where Juan made his money. He quit the lawn crew months ago.

“Please,” Juan said, opening the door, “it’s a gift.”

Eddie hesitated, but crossed the threshold of the door. It would be nice to read his texts without the cracks warping the screen. Inside, racks of phone cases, chargers, and any other peripheral he could imagine were stocked. A stand of model phones lined part of the wall to his left, while a skinny, pale guy with a bad hair cut and comic book t-shirt leaned over the glass counter with the more expensive GPS and tablet demos.

The man made eye contact with Eddie and Juan, “How can I help you guys?”

“I need to get my brother’s phone screen fixed. He dropped it, it still works, but it’d be cool to have it like new.”

“I think we can fix that. Let’s see it.”

Eddie pulled the phone from his pocket and placed it on the counter. He swiped the screen to life and cleared the messages. “See, it works, but it’s annoying.”

The man, his name tag read Greg, picked it up and inspected it, squinting at the jagged lines. “I can replace the screen, no problem. Want me to upgrade the operating system, too?”

Juan wandered over to the disposable phones, and Eddie considered the offer. The phone always nagged him about updates, but he ignored them. They took too long. Plus, he didn’t want to take advantage of Juan’s generosity. “How much will that cost?”

“Eddie,” Juan said over his shoulder, “don’t worry about it. I got you covered.”

Greg tapped his fingers on the glass and looked to Eddie. “New screen is eighty bucks, and I’ll do the update for free. Should take about thirty minutes.”

“Wow, thanks, that’d be great,” Eddie said. A deal and a quick fix. He bobbed his head and smiled.

Juan returned to the counter with a pay as you go phone. “I’ll get this, too. A buddy needs it for his new stereo business.”

Greg took Eddie’s phone to the back room, and Eddie turned to his brother, “Thanks.”

“De nada,” Juan said. “Brothers got to help each other, right?”

2

Eddie left the convenience store and hopped in his trusty but ugly car with a plastic bag full of baby wipes, orange juice and Frosted Flakes. The cell phone shop where he got his phone fixed six months ago sat vacant. Maybe it closed a month ago. Two? Eddie hadn’t noticed. In that time, Carla gave birth to a healthy girl they named Marguerite, after Carla’s grandmother. Eddie knew taking care of a tiny human was going to be work, but no one told him about the lack of sleep he’d endure. The days flew by in a deprived fog, and he also contributed it to his promotion at McDonald’s. He applied for a manager trainee program, and was accepted, learning more about how keep things moving quickly and what all those numbers meant that were reported back to corporate. He worked hard. One day, he was going own his own franchise.

Until then, his little family lived in a six hundred square foot apartment with no central air or heat, and he was sure the landlord scrimped on pest control. Carla set roach traps out on a regular basis, despite Eddie not seeing a difference. But a roof hung over their heads and they could give Marguerite lukewarm baths in the kitchen sink. Whenever he picked her up from with in her crib, he marveled and the immense joy that blossomed in his chest when she blinked and smacked her lips. She had her mother’s lips, and he was pretty sure she’d have her mother’s smile.

He parked his car on the street outside his apartment. His brother’s low rider Impala sat by the curb. Juan also had been busy the last six months. He worked at a car stereo shop that also did custom detailing and interiors, and to Eddie, the business appeared to be thriving judging by each new customization Juan did to his car. Rims, a blue pearl paint job, custom neon lights around the license plate, the chrome. So much chrome. It blinded Eddie whenever he saw it on sunny Saturday afternoons.

Eddie got out of his car, grabbed his sack of groceries and closed the door with a gentle push. The last time it slammed shut, the armrest on the inside of the door popped off. Down the street, an electrician’s van sat in the shade. It was the third day this week he came home and saw it. Perhaps the landlord wasn’t a total scrooge.

He strolled to his front door, his work shirt unbuttoned, and the evening’s heat still hanging around the yard. Juan sat outside next to a duffel bag and called out, “And the king to the castle is home.”

“Hey Juan, is Carla not home yet to let you in?”

“No. I knocked, but I figured she was out with her mama and the little one,” he said, standing up, brushing his shorts. Carla did hospice care during the day, and they left Marguerite with Carla’s mother to babysit.

“Carla’s probably still picking up Marguerite after work.” Eddie looked at his brother and down to the bag.

“Did you forget I was stopping by?” Juan said. “I texted you, and you even replied.”

On instinct, Eddie felt for his phone in his pocket. Scuff marks wore at the back of the case, but he managed to keep the screen free of cracks. The apps opened slow and it lagged at times, but it still did everything he needed it to do. He shook his head, “Sorry, I forgot, you know how it’s been recently between the baby and work.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to come work for the shop. I could teach you how to wire those new dashboard GPS units. Better than getting burned by french fries.”

“I told you,” Eddie said, unlocking his apartment door, “next month I’ll be done with the program, and I’ll get a raise, and benefits.”

“Stress free days and hard cash are good benefits, too.”

“I appreciate the offer, Juan, but long term, I could own a McDonalds. Or I could be CEO.”

Juan slung the bag over his shoulder and slapped his brother on the back, “A real king, I see. Okay, but I offered. Look, can I crash here tonight? I got an early appointment tomorrow with a client not too far from here.”

“Why can’t they meet you at the shop?”

“He’s real particular about his ride. Plus, he’s paying extra.”

“Is that why you have the bag with you?”

“My tools and the gear he wants installed.”

Eddie set his sack down on the kitchen table. “Carla might give me grief, but if you don’t mind us being up with Marguerite, it should be okay.”

“I won’t mind at all. She’s a sweet little angel, won’t bother me a bit.”

Eddie laughed, “You haven’t heard her scream when she wakes up.”

3

In the dim light of morning, Eddie rolled over. The clock read 6:04, and soon Marguerite would wake up. She slept in three to four hour intervals, where he or Carla would get up to feed her, check her diaper or bounce her back to sleep in their arms. Her crib hugged the wall, below the bedroom window, where the slats of the blinds were shut. A shadow passed outside. A neighbor heading to work, most likely.

A pop came from out front, and the window’s glass shattered. The blinds caught the shards, rattled, and dropped a ball of smoke into Marguerite’s crib.

Marguerite wailed awake, and a bang and a crash erupted in the living room.

Carla bolted up and screamed at the smoke rising where Marguerite’s head should be. Eddie stumbled out of bed and tripped at the blanket wrapped around his leg. He cried out when he landed on his knees, and the tangy smoke filled the room and burned his eyes. He ignored the yelling and commotion in the living room and waved his arms for the side of the crib. Blind, tears filling his eyes, he pulled himself upright and fumbled for his daughter’s hot, writhing body.

Their bedroom door burst open, the door frame splintering at the knob.

“Hands up! Don’t move!” a deep voice said.

Carla screamed, throwing her hands in the air.

Eddie remained bent over, searching for his daughter. Pieces of glass nicked his fingers, and he gagged at the dense cloud of smoke. He found his daughter’s stomach and scooped her up and shielded her close to his chest.

“I said, hands up! Where I can see them!”

In between hysterics Carla said, “That’s my fiance. He has our daughter. He has—.”

Eddie heard a click.

His daughter shrieking into his chest.

The squeak of the bed frame while Carla screamed.

And a.

Boom that pounded his right shoulder blade. He dropped to his knee, twisting, collapsing to his back, still holding his inconsolable daughter. A figure in a black helmet, black fatigues and body armor stood above him, pointing the shotgun at his face. Dizzy at the lack of air, Eddie struggled to raise his head. Carla jumped out of bed, and a second black clad figure wrapped an arm around her waist and restrained her. He looked at his daughter, her face beet red but blemish free. She continued to wail. Eddie couldn’t help but think she screams like her mother.

4

On their couch in the living room, the EMT immobilized Eddie’s arm in a sling as a precaution. The bean bag round left a welt the size of a fist on his shoulder, but nothing serious. His eyes still burned not just from the smoke, but from the realization of why everything occurred.

While he was being examined, a pale man with a bad hair cut approached him. “Remember me?”

He no longer wore the comic book t-shirt, but a flak jacket and a DEA badge dangled around his neck. Eddie only stared. Carla sat next to him, rocking Marguerite, now quiet, in her arms.

“Okay then. Your brother, Juan, he’s a pretty notorious drug dealer in this neighborhood. More than that, even.”

Eddie blinked.

“We set up that shop hoping to net someone in his hood with ties to him. We lucked out it was you, his brother.”

The screen and the upgrade. The bugged his phone. How many others did they net?

“You nearly killed our daughter,” Carla said.

“And your daughter is fine.”

Eddie sat back, stunned. The man had no clue what occurred.

“Juan will be taken into custody, and we’ll be gone once we’re done searching for evidence.”

“Evidence,” Eddie said. What evidence could there be? Did Juan leave things in their apartment regularly? This was how the justice system worked? If so, it was messed up. He rubbed his head with his free hand, “What about the broken window? There’s glass all over the crib.”

“That’s something the DEA doesn’t fix. You’ll have to do that yourself.”

Eddie wanted to snap the badge off his neck and crack it in two.

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