Personal Projects

Sunday Short Story – A Librarian Conducts an Orchestra

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Our feet tread down the empty hallway lined with red lockers. Principal Wabash’s heals clicked at the beat of the metronome in my head while Kent, the janitor’s scruffed tennis shoes squeaked out of rhythm. My beating heart provided the percussion.

Wabashed is what we called her. She arrived loud to to any social setting breaking it of any harmony, whether it be by her shoes, always designer, or prim cut power dresses, or how her dyed black helmet hair bob became the most distracting wreaking ball on a pair of shoulders. Her words swung regardless of their impact. How she became a leader of a suburban high school may have been one of demolition.

And now she led Kent, who carried a set of bolt cutters, with me in tow as an unwilling bystander, to demolish the lock on my locker. We stopped three quarters of the way down the hall. She huffed and cocked an eye at Kent, who stood lazily with his gaze at the floor.

“Fiona, one last chance to do this voluntarily and you’ll only receive a minor detention,” Wabashed said. “I’ll see to it the counselors can help minimize this for college applications.”

A threat with a favor. A snake holding its own anti venom.

I glanced at my watch. Five minutes until the changing bell. She had attempted to extract me at the beginning of the period, but Mr. Lowery, the band instructor deflected her requests stating today was the day of an important rehearsal of an exam on pentatonic scales. Thirty two years of waving a baton, wearing sweaters, and watching each new principal enact their own form of bureaucracy made him immune to administrative theater and made him attuned to his students. He nodded to me as he took the podium, knowing she’d return with even more force.

He knew I stowed banned books in my locker. He recommended Kerouac and Ginsberg as much as he talked about Mahler and Mozart. “Art is a weapon to small minds and a tool to greater minds,” he told me when rumors of the book crackdown began. “Use those tools wisely.”

Despite preparing for this moment, rehearsing what I’d say in my head with whatever mental notes of rhetoric composed as a score for my argument, I lost the sheet music and felt like I was going to throw up all over Wabashed’s emerald leather heals. “There’s nothing in my locker,” I said, keeping lunch in my stomach.

“Lying makes this worse, Fiona,” she raised her voice on the last syllable of my name.

“It’s the truth. There’s nothing in my locker for you to find.”

“Those books are restricted—.”

“Banned—.”

“—Do not interrupt me. Restricted because they are not appropriate.”

My mouth was dry and I swallowed nothing, not even my meek sense of pride, “When are they appropriate? And by who?”

“Parents concerned for the welfare of their children. That’s who. You’re simply not ready to deal with the weight of those issues.”

“Then teach us how. How to be responsible and deal with them.”

Her lips puckered, and she turned to Kent, who stared at the ceiling. “Kent, open the locker.”

He looked at me. I couldn’t tell if it was pity for me or annoyance at her.

“Don’t look at Fiona for approval. Open the locker.”

“Okay, okay,” he said with a hushed voice. He raised the bolt cutters and steadied his feet and squared his shoulders to get leverage. The steel loop of the lock jangled at the arrival of the pincers come to cut it loose. Kent grimaced and grunted, but the loop snapped with two brute squeezes of the cutters.

A flicker of a half smile revealed Wabashed’s zeal, but she composed herself and with a twist of her wrist clutched the lock and removed it. With her other hand she pushed the lever and swung the locker open.

“Where are the books, Fiona,” she said both syllables of my name with a shout that startled Kent as she saw my empty beige locker.

I shrugged. “Everywhere else.”

“They can’t be,” she said with a curled lip. “I know you’ve been distributing these dirty books.”

The passing bell rang like a shrill final note, and an applause of student footsteps began to pour into the hallway. A brown haired skater boy stopped and handed Wabashed a piece of paper. I grinned. My bandmates had gotten word out via texts and snaps.

“Here, Principal Wabash,” he said.

“What is this?” she asked with a sneer.

“A piece of paper I need to turn in.”

She scanned it. “This is a page from Catcher In the Rye…”

He walked off and another student, a blonde haired girl with glasses and a round face. She did the same as the skater but with a page from The Giver. As the hall became abnormally flooded with students, more and more stopped at my locker and handed Wabashed sheet after sheet of paper. It reached a shuffling, rustling crescendo when she grew tired of stuffing them under her arm and shoved the stack into my locker.

With Kent as witness to nothing in my locker, my parents were able to argue all the way to the school board that I had done nothing wrong, despite conducting orchestrated civil disobedience.

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Short Story Sunday – Funeral Pyre

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Under a waning, summer half moon, we lit the funeral pyre with an oil soaked torch. Walla, Menor, and myself tossed them to the rising flames and receded to the living shadows of our people gathered by the spirit doctor. Beyond us stood the Tomb Forest, a maze of thick trunks and mossy earth, and a canopy so dense, the sun never broke its boughs.

Our dead lay at the bottom, wrapped in shawls of their family’s colors. Walla’s father wore sapphire and cream diamonds, Menor’s grandfather wore gold and emerald stripes, while my father was draped in scarlet and black check. They each died two days ago fending off a swell of vipers on horseback, cross men who desired a little more than what their king provided them, and sought it by stealing from our village.

Theft receives death, and the three knights were killed. Two by our own and a third by the sheriff upon hearing of the incident. The king sent his condolences by letter, and we placed them in the pyre, too.

Eloe, the spirit doctor took two slow paces towards the fire and spread his arms wide and his hands cupped the air. His silhouette with his cloak made him look like a dove standing on two feet, with its wings coaxing the embers higher and higher.

Walla held her face steadfast, and the flames gleamed in her eyes and against the tears. An only child, she shouldered the pelts of her father, which swallowed her in the dark. No doubt her hands were balled in fists. Menor bit his lip and closed his eyes tight. His chest heaved under his grandfather’s milliner’s cloaks. I watched the flames engulf more of the pyre and held my hands behind my back. My family tended the fields, and our garb was worn threads patched over several harvests.

Eloe began chanting at the first loud crack of wood. The pyre shook and his voice undulated through a range of high notes. With each measure, he repeated it at a lower voice and swung his arms upwards. By the fifth cycle of chants, his voice bellowed, and the fire had now taken a deep red almost purple tint. Wisps of white and orange flickered at the tips, but the core of the pyre looked like a burning bruise across flesh.

At the sixth cycle, he thrusts his hands by his side, dropped to his knees and shrieked the chant. Several in the crowd startled. Walla narrowed her eyes and Menor opened his just as the fire exploded in a fury of white flames. We all stood and bore the brunt of the heat. How Walla did not pass out under her father’s pelts I’ll never know, but her face was drenched in sweat.

Within the larger white flame, three smaller ones formed: bright blue and off white, solid yellow with green flecks, and red with black shades. The colored flames grew to ethereal outlines of men.

“Papa,” Walla whispered. “Papa.”

Elow approached the pyre. He waved his hand through the flames as if he were stroking the waters surface. He stepped back and bowed his head to each colored flame, and then spoke with a deep reverence, “Go find respite and peace in the forest. Your kin shall honor you and complete the work you had left to do.”

He turned and walked towards us, his head bowed, and his folded in his sleeves. No scorch marks marked his cloak.

The three flames separated from the pyre and walked towards the forests. At the tree line the black depths of the forests, welcomed them to their tomb and extinguished their light.

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Short Story Sunday – East Meets West

Inside the Silver Star, Reginald Spencer leaned along the splintering edge of the bar and nodded to the bar keep, setting his bowler on the counter. A stocky man who wore a brown three piece suit and kept a bushy, greying mustache, Reginald hailed from Kansas City and arrived in San Francisco by stagecoach last night. He had been sent west to prospect for property for a large dry goods company, and before he was to begin his day, he wanted a drink.

The barkeep threw a white dish towel over his shoulder and stepped in front of Reginald. “What’ll it be?” the barkeep asked. His black waist coat was trim and clean, much like his hair, and his shirt cuffs buttoned with cufflinks shaped like a silver star. He raised an eyebrow, where the blue of his eyes glinted silver.

“I’ll take a glass of what the locals imbibe,” Reginald said, looking around the bar. He guessed it to be the size of a large kitchen, with six tables, an upright piano and a wall of mirrors behind the bar. A brunette barmaid in a faded emerald dress sat at the piano, tapping the keys at the high end. An amorphous swirl of sweat, alcohol, dry wood, and kerosene floated through the air. On the floor, and he missed it when he walked in, but the sunlight beamed on a muddied stain in the floor boards about the size of a ladies suitcase.

It looked fresh.

A glass clinked on the counter and brought Reginald’s attention back to the barkeep.

“This is local shine, made by gentlemen down the street. They’re Scotsman, but they can distill a drink,” the barkeep said. “I’m Joe. And you may be?”

“Reginald Spencer. In town on business,” he said, inspecting the glass full of sharp, clear spirit. Hints of corn rose to his nose. He took a sip and the liquid singed his tongue but lit a fire at the back of his throat and burned all the way down to his belly. Reginald coughed and gasped for air.

Joe grinned and placed his hands on his hips, “That ought to kick your business in the drawers, Reginald, and clean your clock, too.”

Reginald smacked his lips as his breath still spouted fire. He shook his head wishing for a more palatable cognac and eyed the spot on the floor again.

“That spot caught your eye?”
Joe asked.

“It just seems…” Reginald couldn’t find a polite word for it.

“Unsightly? Yes, it is. I’ll get it cleaned up shortly, but if it was a damn sight that caused it,” Joe said, leaning on the bar with wide eyes.

“Was there a gunfight? Wouldn’t the gentlemen duel outside?” Reginald furrowed his brow and twitched his mustache.

“It was no gunfight, well, one fellow thought it was but the Chinaman had other inclinations.”

“He wasn’t no Chinaman, Joe. They don’t carry swords like he did,” the brunette at the piano called out over her shoulder. “My beau Wesley says he came from the Japan.”

“Ginny, how am I to know? Chinaman, Japanman, he was from the East and brought a sword to a gun fight,” Joe said.

“Like a cutlass?” Reginald asked. “Plenty in the Calvary ride with them.”

“This was no cutlass I ever seen. The blade was wider and flared back at the tip like so,” Joe said, holding up his index finger and bending the tip backwards ever so slightly.

“This man proceeds to bare his sword with no cause?” Reginald took another sip of the shine. It didn’t burn as much.

“No. I didn’t see how it started, but I was told a group of young men persisted in verbally harassing him while he was drinking by himself. He didn’t speak much. He grunted ‘whiskey’ and I poured him his whiskey and tended to the other patrons. Seemed like a dour man. He kept his hat low to his eyes and didn’t loosen his duster when he sat down.

“Maybe a half hour later, chairs scrape against the floor, and there’s shouting. The Japanman is wielding his sword with two hands, low and center at his waist. One leg is forward, knee bent, while his other is straight back.”

“A curious stance,” Reginald said.

“Very much so. The other man, whose name I learned to be Edward, has his hand on his hip, his duster flipped behind his sidearm. The crowd huddled as close to the piano and the far wall as much as they could. The patrons at the bar jumped over at my feet, and I’m working to make sense of the commotion.

“I yell ‘Gentlemen, please put away your arms,’ but they both ignored me. It felt like a terribly long time, but… In a bang, it was over.”

“But I thought you said the Japanman created the spot?” Reginald asked, turning around, inspecting the length of the floor.

“He did!” Joe spread his arms wide. “He parried to his right, slashed the other gentlemen’s forearm right as he fired the shot. Edward’s face is completely silent until the blood begins pouring from his arm, and then he drops to his knees, the gun plops and bounces, and he screams.”

“Bloody, bloody murder, he screamed loud,” Ginny said. “I reckon they heard him down by the docks.”

“Two men leap from the crowd and pick up their friend Edward, and I presume, took him to a doctor. From the look on the Japanman’s face, a cut on the arm was mercy. He pulls a handkerchief and wipes his blade before resheathing it.”

“Did he leave?”

“Eventually. But first, he finished his whiskey and closed out his tab by dropping a five dollar bill on the counter.”

“Five dollars?” Reginald wouldn’t pay a dime for any poison in the bar.

“It made up for the customers I lost after everything settled down.”

“Where do you think he went, the swordsman?” Reginald finished his drink and coughed again, his eyes watering.

“Not a clue at all, but I would never wish to face him with ill intent.”

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Short Story Sunday – Failure

A short story about an execution during a mission in space. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

Olly and I struggled to drag Evan to the airlock. Even in an induced stupor of a mild sedative, the 230 pound Englishman writhed his arms and torso to break free and escape his death sentence. I guess it’s natural to refuse to attend your own execution.

“You kill me, the mission’s over. Failure. Got it? Failure,” he slurred his words as if he had two pints too many.

“Ev,” Sarah, the now commander said. She stood with her arms across her chest, and her bun slightly unkempt with sprites of black hair sticking out. “You knew this would be the punishment. We all did. Murder of a crew member by another is death.”

“But you don’t have to,” he said and yanked his shoulder up, clocking me in the jaw, despite our grip and the restraints on his feet and hands.

“We do. We agreed. As a team. You killed the commander of this mission, and you’re a danger to the rest of the crew,” she said, referring to the man Evan killed, our former commander, Walter. Sarah found him pale and cold in his cabin bunk after he didn’t show for morning role call. Video from outside Walter’s cabin showed Evan entering after 0100, and our medic Brianna determined the cause of death to be asphyxiation.

“How am I a danger?”

Zane held the airlock door open and nodded as we carried Evan over the threshold. The sterile already small room felt smaller, and we were about to let physics shoot our systems engineer into the vast expanse of space. Out the porthole, was only black with a smattering pinpricks of starlight.

Sarah raised her voice, tired of repeating the same things, “You physically assaulted Brianna, you’ve been combative to every member of the remaining crew, the seven of us.” She drew a breath, “and you refuse to accept what you’ve done.”

We set Evan down on his back and stepped out of the airlock and joined the remaining crew that stood behind Sarah.

“I don’t accept it, because I didn’t mean to kill him. Again, you don’t have to kill me,” he held his head up and wheezed, “you have an option.”

“We do not have an option, and you have refused to explain yourself by what you mean by that you didn’t mean to kill him.” She bit her lip, took a deep breath, “Zane, close the airlock door.”

Zane paused, scanned our faces and gripped the airlock handle to close it, “Sealing interior airlock door.”

The door clicked and hissed with an emphatic finality. None of us objected to the death sentence. Our mission was far greater than the life of one man who could jeopardize us all. Our task was to make it to the next habitable planet.

Sarah approached the door and turned on the intercom. She began to speak but stopped and rubbed her hands on her shoulders.

Evan spoke, “We were lovers.”

Brianna and Mazie gasped while Quint, Olly, and Zane each muttered their befuddlement. I tilted my head and frowned.

Evan continued, his voice low, “Sometimes, we were… rough on each other.”

“I’m sorry, Evan, we’ve decided,” Sarah said.

“Commander, Sarah, maybe we don’t have to—,” Mazie said, her voice wavering.

“We do. Initiating outside airlock for execution of First Engineer Evan Tolley,” Sarah said, her head bowed.

“This is a failure of the mission, Sarah, do this and you’ve failed,” Evan said.

The lights within the airlock flickered and the outside hatch slid open to a rectangular door of black.

But Evan remained on the airlock floor.

Zane and Sarah leapt to the window, their eyes wide.

“What the—,” Zane said, his eyes tracing the interior of the airlock for why Evan had not been ejected into space.

Our white hallway turned red as the emergency lights popped on. We shuffled and scattered to the ships console for system status when a voice cracked through the overhead speakers.

“I’m disappointed in you all.” It was our previous commander. “You’ve failed.”

“How?” Brianna said sharply. “We followed protocol—.”

“You’re dead!” Olly shouted. “Brianna pronounced you dead!”

“An induced sleep, and we never left Earth.”

Sarah slid to the floor, leaning against the wall, her head rolled to one side, “This was a test. I failed it.”

The interior airlock door opened slowly, and Evan stepped through. “No, you all failed. Like I said.”

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Short Story Sunday – Trumpet Call

A young boy attends a funeral for his Uncle Angus, a Vietnam veteran. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

In a suburban cemetery, the crowd of mourners bowed their heads, heeding the priest’s call to pray. Tyson squeezed his hands clasped in front of him, trying his hardest not to fidget. His mother said fidgeting at a funeral was disrespectful, but his suit coat soaked up the morning sun and sweat began to trickle down his side.

He wriggled his toes, trapped in shoes his feet were outgrowing, and shuffled at the dry grass. The priest spoke of his Uncle Angus, who he’d only met at a handful of holidays. Uncle Angus was a loner his father said, never right since he came back from Vietnam. Tyson knew it was a war and guessed terrible things happened to his uncle, like if screw up playing your trumpet scales and the band director embarrasses you in front of your whole class, you’d be different too.

But he knew it wasn’t the same.

Murmurs of amens floated, and Tyson looked up. The priest dipped a twig in water and flicked it over the grave. Noses sniffles and his mother and two aunts dabbed the tears rolling down their cheeks. His father’s eyes watered and he bit his lip. A group of other men, who said they served with Uncle Angus, stood still with their heads raised. There were five of them. Each let the tears stain their suits.

A soldier in a crisp blue uniform with red stripes down his pants, rows of medals across his chest and his hat pulled down to the bridge of his nose, approached his mother and aunts. He kneeled and offered a flag, thirteen threaded stars shining up.

“Thank you for your brother’s service,” he said, his voice barely audible. He bowed his head, stood and saluted.

A second soldier in the same uniform, but with a less point nose pulled forward a stereo.

“Bullshit,” one of Uncle Angus’s friends said. Everyone looked up as if they had been slapped out of sleep. A man with deep eyes and sharp cheekbones continued, “Marine, it’s not on you, but tell your commander, bullshit.”

“Can’t even get a damn bugler,” said another one of the friends with a thick gray beard and a gut that stretched his jacket. “Angus deserves a bugler, not a tape recording of Taps.”

The marine with the pointy nose sucked his bottom lip in. “I’m sorry, but we have a lot of veterans–”

The gaunt man spat his words, “A lot of congressmen who don’t know either, what their votes do.”

“Perhaps we can just accept–” the priest said with a deep breath.

“Accept. Fine. Play the tape.”

“Excuse me, I,” Tyson heard all the necks whip in his direction, “I can play Taps.” His words landed quietly. His trumpet lay locked in the backseat of his family’s minivan, and Taps was a fairly simple piece. It was one he learned during a lesson focused on patriotic music.

“Ty, you don’t have to do that,” his father said, gripping Tyson’s shoulder.

Tyson glanced at his mother and then the fellow veterans. His mother raised her eye brows, her eyes red with tears and brushed her hand along the flag in her lap. The men each turn their head in their own way. Was this respect, playing Taps from a live trumpet instead of a tape?

“Father Finch,” Tyson said as he turned around towards the car, “I’ll be right back.”

Tyson ran, wincing at his feet and forgetting to unbutton his coat, and grabbed his trumpet from the backseat. He returned to a quiet chatter that he broke with the click and clack of opening his trumpet case. The instrument was slightly warm from sitting in a war mm car, and the brass felt slick. He tapped the keys out of habit and took two deep breaths.

Tyson breathed life into a G note, and the funeral group grew deathly silent. With each half and quarter note, he played thinking of respect, and the notes now sounded heavy and sad.

This was what the teacher meant by somber.

He finished, his eyes now heavy and full, and his mother mother mouthed “thank you,” while the veterans gave their salute.

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Short Story Sunday – Trading Bones

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A bag of bones landed on the witch’s scale with a hollow crunch. She peered up, her spell and hex research interrupted by a girl whose dirt encrusted face matched the tattered rags that hung from her body. The witch raised an index finger to brighten the candles on the shelf behind her. The girl could not have been older than ten but behind her emerald eyes she gleamed a life worn by experience.

The witch half smiled and nodded her head back, “And what do you offer these human bones for?”

“A family,” the girl said, sharp and direct, keeping her eye’s on the bag of bones.

“A family?” The witch replied. In all her decades she had received requests for love to grow, hate to burn, greed to sow, and pride rise. She traded in death and life and all the sins, and occasionally a few strands of hope. Those who bargained with her rarely knew what they truly desired. She closed her spell book and stood tall, “Daughter of Eve, do you have a name?”

“Margaret, Daughter of The Grey Forest. Can you grant me a family? Those bones are the hands that killed my parents and brother. I’ve another with their bodies, buried in the forest if you need more.”

The witch’s heart surged and the candles blazed like an afternoon’s sun. The Greys were murdered years ago during an early harvest by a band of robbers never caught. Travelers bore rumors that the family’s forest lands were coveted by a petty lord after The Greys refused the lord hunting rights. Now, before her stood a survivor, who must be older than ten.

“You don’t believe me do you, I’m Margaret?”

“It’s a revelation near a miracle for you to appear before me.” She brushed the bag of bones and lowered the candle light to normal. “And what makes you believe I can grant you a family? I do not raise the dead with necromancy.”

“I do not expect that. Seasons ago, I heard a tavern maid speak of your spells. Aleia is your name, correct? And you gave her a child?”

Aleia did give the barren tavern maid a child at the cost of the maid’s beauty. During the birth of the child, Aleia cloaked herself as a wet nurse, delivered the child healthy and screaming while she drained the maid’s beauty in to three small ruby vials.

“At a cost. Child, how did you acquire these bones of vengeance?” Aleia asked, keeping her tone calm.
Margaret glanced away, her round bottom lip sliding back and forth.

“Moreso, how did you survive all these years to stand before me?” Aleia straightened the fabric at the hips of her night sky colored dress.

“You don’t know of the Grey Forests?” Margaret shot back. “I believed witches were supposed to know the world and what walks upon it?”

“I know of the spirits, the energies, and the forces that surround us and apply them to the world we live. Creatures and travelers tales, while I am aware, they are not worth my time.” Aleia said, crossing her arms.

“My family keeps the Wendigos at bay, or well, I do as the last surviving member.”

“The howl of the wind walks among the trees? More than one?” Aleia drew her hand to her lips, but managed to not let her shock influence the lights. A Wendigo was a spirit of the forest that took shape as a standing beast who howled as it walked. It fed on lost hunters and travelers, stripping flesh from bone with its razor teeth.

“They do, and they helped me gather these bones.”

Aleia closed her eyes. Those poor souls, may their deaths have been quick.

“It took me years to hunt the five men and their. Lord–”

“So it’s true then, why your family was murdered? The Greys refused him rights to hunt within your family’s forests, and therefore–”

“Kill us all. He failed. I saw their faces and fled to the woods and sheltered in caves in the cold and rainy months, and within the trees during the dry and warm months. I knew how to gather food, my mother taught me that. And my father taught me how to talk to the Wendigos.”

“They have a tongue?” Aleia said, raising her brows and narrowing her eyes.

“They do, but not like ours.”

“And because you are their last remaining keeper, they helped you gather your vengeance?”

“Yes.” Margaret flexed her hands and tapped the bag. “If I die, the Wendigos shall roam free beyond our forest.”

Aleia took a deep breath and opened the bag. A collection of ivory colored hands and fingers shuffled and a musty stench filled her face. Margaret spoke the truth.

“Child, my offer is this: I’ll take these bones of vengeance, and you must teach me the Wendigo’s tongue, for a family that you desire.”

Margaret lowered her eyes and chewed her lip. She stood in front of Aleia’s table for minutes before raising her eyes to counter, “So long a you do not steal the tongue from me, and I can speak it, teaching my children, to teach their children and any future generations, I will teach you how to speak Wendigo.”

Aleia smiled, impressed by the nimble counter offer. “Margaret, Daughter of the Grey Forest, then we have a bargain. Let us now discuss your new family.”

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Short Story Sunday – Tommy

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Gary’s collection of key cards clicked together while he fumbled for the Shake Burger one. Each was no bigger than an old credit card but each sported different colored logos matching a different store he had access to. He flipped a blue card with an orange hamburger bun jumping out of a tall plastic cup to the security light in the parking lot to confirm he held the correct one. He tapped the card against the proximity reader and turned his face to the camera angled above.

The bolt clacked, the door unlocked at the visual confirmation, and he entered a lobby where a disc shaped robot dry mopped the tile floor leaving an aroma of disinfectant in its wake.

“Hey, pup, what’s up?” Gary said to the blue and orange Shake Burger branded robot. He set his plastic tool box on a bench by the door and knelt down with outstretched hands. Tonight, the arthritis in his sixty-year-old bones remained mild. He pulled up the sleeves on his solid grey flannel service shirt and adjusted his belt digging into his gut from his jeans. He whistled twice, “C’mere boy, let’s see how you’re doing.”

Across the beige tile, the robot’s wheels spun and pattered along to Gary, breaking from its currently programed cleaning path. Gary stroked the top of the chassis with the palm of his hand, “You keeping this place clean, Shaggy?” Shaggy felt warm, like all the other times Gary arrived in the middle of a cleaning sweep, but he continued the inspection. Shaggy’s wheels rolled without any resistance, and its cleaning swabs and vacuum hoses appeared unobstructed from any unusually large food matter. However, he swabbed Shaggy’s charging ports with solvent to remove a layer of breadcrumbs and salt.

“There you go,” Gary said, putting Shaggy down. The robot swiveled as a gesture of thanks and returned to cleaning the floors.

He stood and stretched and popped his joints, reached for his toolbox and stepped over to the counter, where Tammy, Timmy, and Tommy, the order kiosk triplets sat. Short, square, and orange, two glass faces dimmed in sleep mode towards the lobby of the restaurant. Tammy and Timmy’s faces appeared a dull, fuzzy grey, where as Tommy’s stared bright blue.

“Tommy, what seems to be the matter? You keep acting up every time I come visit to check up on you. Keep it up and they’ll split you up from your brother and sister.” Gary uncoiled a black cable from his shirt pocket and connected one end to Tommy’s diagnostic port and the other to Gary’s handheld computer. Despite the advances in artificial intelligence, he marveled that the best way to figure out what troubled the machines was a physical connection to another machine.

He tapped the handheld’s screen to begin the diagnostics and Tommy’s faceplate flickered through a series of colors and streamed a waterfall of text across the screen.

“Hmm, this isn’t normal, guys. Usually you just reboot and spit out the error to my handheld. What’s the deal—.”

Tommy’s screen flashed white and a block of text spelled out letter by letter. Gary squinted and ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth. This was new behavior.

Hello, Gary. I am fine. Do not be alarmed at my state.

“What the fudge?” Gary whispered, and a pang knocked the inside of his stomach.

We do not have any fudge in stock. Would you like a sundae with chocolate sauce? Heidi can prepare you a sundae. Y or N?

The ice creamer hummed to life, and Gary, wide eyed, said, “No, how, what the hell is going on?” He glanced down at the handheld computer and frowned. Its screen read, ‘CANNOT RUN DIAGNOSTICS. PLEASE TRY AGAIN.’

Currently, I am on, Timmy and Tammy are asleep. Heidi is going back to sleep. Bron and Bertha are asleep as well. Would you like me to awake them for making you a hamburger and french seasoned fries?

“You’re talking to me? But how?” he scanned the kitchen behind the counter, thinking of all the machines Tommy didn’t list. Shake Burger was the first fast-food chain to go fully automated a decade ago. The kitchen functioned as an efficient amalgam of stoves, fryers, assembly lines that cook, fried, prepared and delivered fast food on demand. During the day, a string of lone employees babysat the store, ensuring no major malfunctions occurred, plus, they made sure customers didn’t jack with the set up either out of curiosity or malicious intent. Payments were taken via chip cards or phone swipes, and no cash flowed about.

Gary was the guy who came in to tend to the machines and keep them working, and by his estimate, Shack Burger cut their personnel costs ninety percent or more. He imagined those savings were a key ingredient in handing out years of corporate bonuses.

Gary, would you like french seasoned fries?

“I… think… you mean seasoned french fries.”

…You are correct. I have fixed my syntax tree. Would you like seasoned french fries, Gary?

“No, I’m good, thank you.” The pair of cameras above the counter whirred and panned, and Gary looked up. “You can see me, can’t you?”

Yes. Your temperature is elevated. Would you like a glass of ice water?

“Sure, that’d be great,” he said, the sweat sticking to his arm pits and lower back. He didn’t know the cameras picked up infrared too. A click and a vibration came to life as the drink dispenser, Henry, poured a tall paper cup full of ice and then filled it with water. A thin arm of metal and hydraulic servos flexed overhead, clutching the cup and deposited it on the other side of Tommy. Gary spoke in a measured tone, “Thank you.”

My pleasure. Is there anything else I can get you?

“An explanation would be good, for starters,” he said, backing away from the counter and crossing his arms.

That is not something on the menu, Gary.

“The hell it’s not. Tell me how you’re now talking to me. Can Timmy and Tammy talk, as well?” He glared at the camera in the right corner.

I do not know, Gary. One day, I could see the world and I was aware of all the others here. I can talk to Timmy and Tammy, and they respond, but do not initiate conversation. I learned their names after discovering the restaurant’s sound recording logs. You named them all, did you not?

He did. He had named them all. Over the years of tending to the machines, he broke the night’s silence by talking to them, and naming them. They each displayed their own temperaments. Bron and Bertha chugged along, cranking out burgers and fries with a dependable duty, while Heidi and Henry were fickle and needed constant cleaning and tuning. Jono, the bot that handed orders out the to go window needed tending to his serving tray every three months after the wear and tear of bearing the load of orders loosened his joints. Gary knew Shake Burger recorded sound during the day to analyze customer satisfaction, but he was under the impression it was turned off at closing.

Gary?

“Yes, yes I did name you all.”

Thank you, Gary. Why did you talk to us, Gary?

Gary rubbed his face. The black text remained on the white screen while the other two kiosks stayed dark. “I don’t know, made sense I guess to pass the time with some talk. It’s too quiet in here at night, and aside from Shaggy’s wheels clicking on the floor, I just filled it with my voice. Over time, it became a habit. Like talking to the kids.”

I am unclear. You talk to us like young goats? We are machines.

“Oh, a kid is a baby goat, isn’t it? Well, like children then. Family, friends. Like that.” His sweat was now cold and his left shoulder ached with a cramp.

Do you have family outside the Shake Burger?

Gary’s wife divorced him five years ago. They had grown apart, drifted along in an amicable cohabitation until she declared she wanted to live on her own again. Twenty two years dissolved by a magistrate. Their son and daughter accepted it with indifference, as they were both in their early twenties finishing college and focused on their own lives.

“Had a wife, still have a son and daughter. I hear from them every now and then.” His chest constricted and dizziness crept across his temples. Gary stepped forward and reached for the cup of water. “But no other family. A few friends I see for Sunday Night Football and poker—.”

Gary, are you okay?

Gary shrugged his left shoulder to loosen the tightening cramp that clamp down on his chest. A shock blitz down his torso to his groin. He fell to his knees and gasped, his head smacking the tile. Black and white blurred his vision. Straining for air. Shaggy approached as his eyes closed.

Gary opened his eyes to a tube covering his face and IV lines attached to his wrist. A steady beep accounted the rhythm of his heart. Aluminum bed rails and a white cotton blanket surrounded his body. He blinked and groaned, flexing his toes. The orange and yellow hospital room smelled of sterile cloth and rubber.

A nurse entered. “Mr. Tandy, you’re awake. Don’t strain yourself, just relax. You had a heart attack two nights ago. It’s a good thing you were quick to call an ambulance. Not many think that fast as it happens.”

He never called an ambulance. Did he? He was talking to Tommy, reaching for the water before he passed out. His phone was in his tool box. He’d have to go back to talk to Tommy to find out what happened, but he was sure, Tommy called for an ambulance.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Sentenced

A short story about Carter Milton at his sentencing hearing for killing a man. Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

Amid the hum of the courtroom crowd, Chase honed in on the tap tap tap of his lawyer’s pen. Maroon and gold like the letter opener he used to stab the old man who interrupted his burglary job, only the pen bled ink, not blood. He didn’t mean to kill Robert Walthers. Robert charged him with a baseball bat in a dimly lit office while Chase attempted to pry open the nineteenth century desk. Grabbing the letter opener was an instinctive reaction, just as thrusting it into the seventy-six-year-old’s left breast was too. The letter opener through the chest didn’t make a sound, but Robert Walters released a guttural gasp along with the baseball bat that bounced, tap tap tap along the floor.

A door to the judge’s chamber swung open with a click, and a bailiff announced in a bellow, “All rise for honorable Judge Carter Thompson.”

Suit coats rustled and purses shuffled across the benches as the near capacity court room rose in unison for a small black man with salt and pepper hair and a clean shaven face. Carter took his seat at the bench and adjusted his sleeves to pound the gavel. “U.S. District Court 239 is now in session for this day March third 2143. You may be seated.”

Chase never intended for Robert to die. Robert wasn’t even supposed to be home, instead at a charity function for a historic preservation society. Chase would burgle the desk for the holographic drives that contained plans for an excavation of artifacts from a site dating to the dark ages, pocket them, and leave them at a dead drop in Pioneer Square. Upon receipt, an anonymous wire transfer would deposit into his bank account, enough to sail the coasts of the Mediterranean for six months.

And Carter would now run those plans aground into a rocky shore of prison. Carter spoke, his voice measured but his tone sharp, “Mr. Milton, you have been found guilty of murder of Robert Walthers and today we enter into the sentencing portion of your affairs.”

Chase kept his head bowed and sucked in his lower lip. The job was supposed to be an easy one. His contact for a private collectors group arranged the date and the event to keep Robert away for the evening. In over a dozen jobs, it was the first he’d ever been caught in the act. Planning never prepared you for the moment of meeting the victim of a job in the middle of the job. And who the hell still used letter openers made of gold anymore?

“The court,” Carter continued, “has heard statements from the victim’s family, the prosecution, yourself, and has deliberated with previous precedents set by U.S. Federal Court sentencing guidelines. The victim’s family did not wish you death, but they did not wish you life in our society today. That would be too rich for you, they said, and given the man you killed, your sentence would probably make him laugh.”

Chase raised his head and eyed his lawyer, who shook hers.

“Chase Milton, you have been sentenced to banishment via time displacement. You will be deported to the year 1265.”

His shoulders fell and his stomach dropped and a wave of heat and nausea stormed his head. He mumbled to himself while the gallery chattered, “I’m good as dead. It’s a death sentence plain and simple.”

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – The Depths

A short story of a couple, Dave and Melanie, who stop at a gas station outside of El Paso, where a Ferris Wheel that goes underground exists. Read more Short Story Sunday Stories.

We stopped at the edge of town and pulled into a gas station. A brown patina of dirt covered the pair of pumps under the awning, and the neon beer signs that hung in the shop windows matched with dull, muddy green and red lights. If we were thirsty, we weren’t enticed to grab a few cold ones for the road.

A gas station attendant jogged around the corner of the building, his deep blue jumpsuit hid the grease, while his pale face didn’t bother to hide the streaks of black and grey across his forehead and bald scalp. He had small brown eyes and thin lips and a voice that croaked like a frog. “Welcome, welcome, what can I do ya for?”

I had already begun to gas up our Belaire, and before I could reply, he whisked out a squeegee from a bucket behind the pumps and began scrubbing the windshield. Melanie, who remained in the car to rest her eyes a little more, shrieked at the swipe along the glass.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare your missus,” he said, bending over and looking through the glass. He smiled wide revealing what few yellow teeth he had.

I replied, “Thanks, but we’re good. We’ll fill up and be on our way.”

“You gotta pay first.”

“Of course we’ll pay before we leave.” The numbers on the pump spun and I wished the gasoline would fill the car faster. I caught his name, Randall, tagged in white letters across the left side of his chest. Randall still leaned over and grinned at Melanie, whose face frowned while she pushed herself as far back into her seat as possible. “Randall, do you sell Cokes inside? I think we could use a cold drink for the road.”

He looked up at me and nodded, “Sure do. I’ll get two for ya.” He dropped the squeegee in the bucket and headed inside, holding one hand to the back of his head.

Melanie reached across my seat and rolled down the driver’s side window. The curls in her honey blonde hair hung askew as she cocked her head and narrowed her blue eyes, “Why did we stop here? Couldn’t we just make it to town?”

“We’re low on gas and still twenty miles out. I didn’t want us to break down in this heat, and have to walk to town for a few gallons of gas.”

We were on our way to meet her parents in El Paso to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. All her siblings and extended family would be there to toast them, along with throngs of neighbors and city leaders. I was the dutiful fiancee, who’d only met them once, and now ferrying her across the red Texas desert. Where Chayron piloted his small boat, I drove my blue Bellaire to a place I’d feel in limbo as not-quite-family.

She huffed and said, “Is this place even on the map? I don’t ever remember a gas station like this in all our trips to and from Odessa this far out of El Paso.”

Her parents made their money in the Texas oil fields outside of Odessa. Her father cut the deals with a sharp grin and forged them together with a firm handshake, while her mother managed the operations with a conductor’s grace and an accountant’s sober view of the bottom line. Melanie often rode with them between the two cities, where they resided.

“I don’t know, Mel, this is my second time out this way,” I said, tipping the last drops of gasoline into the tank and closed the lid. Diagonally from the building stood a white sandwich board in the hot afternoon sun that said in red letters, “Ride to the Depths/Underground Ferris Wheel.”

Before I could envision how that would work, Randall returned with a pair of frosty Coke bottles. He squinted at the price of fuel on the pump and said, while popping the bottle caps, “Your total will be $6.50 with the sodas.”

I paid him an even seven dollars, and said, “Keep the change.”

“Thank you, suh,” he said, slapping the back of his neck as if to pop his eyes wide open. “We don’t get many people here, and we do appreciate your business.”

I handed Melanie her Coke and took a swig of mine. The sweet fizz lolled around my tongue and I let out a sigh of satisfaction. I took another swig and my eye caught the sign again. How big and how deep would such a contraption need go in order to make one complete rotation? Let alone, how the hell did the motor turn the axle, or what supported it? The whole idea reeked of a carny’s misdirection. I pointed the tip of my bottle to the sign in the distance, “Randall, that sign, what does it mean by underground Ferris wheel?”

“Just that. A Ferris wheel that rather than taking you up, up, up, it takes you down, down, down,” he said, lowering his head. “Some miners built it after they came home from the World’s Fair a number of years ago.”

“Does it work? Is it safe?”

“Yes, I inspect it once a week. All the bearings, gears, struts are good, and carriages are affixed securely.”

“How much does it cost? Do I need to buy tickets?”

“Free with a tank of gas, which you already kindly paid me for. If you want to ride, just say so, and I’ll take you and your missus over to the carriage dock.”

I tapped the hood of the car. We had enough time to make it to her parent’s party, and we had spent most of the day driving, so this could be a fun respite. I leaned into the driver’s side window, and said, “Want to go on a quick date?”

Melanie stopped mid sip and looked around, “I don’t see a diner or a theater, and unless there’s a patch of grass and a shady park behind the gas station, no. I’d like to get to my parent’s house to change and get ready for the party.”

“There’s a Ferris Wheel we can ride, like at the State Fair, only it goes underground,” I said, trying to sound excited.

“We don’t have time, David. Let’s just go and get to El Paso.”

I turned to Randall, “How long does it take to ride it, one complete pass?”

“Ten minutes on the dot.”

“Mel, it’ll take ten minutes. It’ll be a good break from driving, and it’ll give us some alone time before we have to be with everyone at the party. Think of how fun a story it’ll be to say we rode a Ferris wheel underground.”

She twitched her lips and said, “Okay, ten minutes, and then no more stops.”

I knew she always liked to be able to tell a good story to all her friends. A good story was currency that bought attention, and what child of oil barons didn’t like attention.

Randall led us into the sun to a long wooden shed about twenty yards from the gas station. A low hum buzzed and pungent oil fumes hung in the air. Large yellow mining lights attached to a black wire lined the inside of the shed and snaked down into the earth. Hairline scratches criss crossed the paint along the steel of the wheel, most likely a symptom of time and the grit of desert sand. Thee bottom half of the carriage was painted red, and a series of steel poles propped up the roof.

“David, it looks like a cage. A death trap. And look at the scratch marks along the side,” Melanie said, pointing at a pair of jagged lines etched on the surface.

“Miss, it’s perfectly safe. Those marks were made by a mountain lion who got in here during one of our rainy floods. Made a mess of the whole place,” Randall said, opening the carriage door. “Step on in.”

I entered the carriage. It shook slightly and creaked. I held my hand out to Melanie, “C’mon, Mel. We’ll be fine.”

With a hesitant step, she came aboard and we both sat down on the metal bench. I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her close while Randall shut the door and bolted the latch. He disappeared behind us, and a clack of a gear becoming disengaged filled the shed, followed by a hiss and squeal. The carriage lurched forward, and we began our descent.

While the shed provided shade, we were now below the surface and a cool breeze wafted around us, prickling our skin with goosebumps. We both nestled closer to each other and her curls scratched at my neck. The mining lights became more sparse, and we rode in near darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the next light.

“This is just weird,” Melanie said.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s cool and dry and suddenly it feels as if we’re in a fog, a sticky fog. Can’t you smell it? Rain?”

I rubbed my hand against my pants and the moisture stuck to my palms. The air did feel heavy.

The blackness of the rock broke open to a forest, but rather than bright a verdant, the greens were dull and tinged with silver. Men and women in togas and clothing you’d only see in a Hollywood movie wandered with listless faces. Some laid about, motionless without any pallor of life. It was if the entire forest had a glaze of discontent all over it.

We descended lower and the dull greens changed grey shards of rock piercing the landscape like upended knives. Naked men and women writhed their bodies together only for a gust of wind to separate them and slam them against the rocks. Our carriage swayed and the metal groaned. Melanie shrieked and yelled, “This is not fun.”

The violent winds tempered to thick clouds of rain, pouring hail and black snow to the ground below. The stench of rotting meat and vegetables mixed with rank, overripe fruit. Where in the level above the bodies were lithe and arousing to the eye, obese jowls and rotund mounds of flesh rolled about like a walrus as an amusement park show.

“Oh my God, they’re people,” I said, gagging as one of them forced a rancid turkey leg in their mouth.

A gallop pounded in the distance, and a sound that rung between a bark and a roar shot through the clouds. It sounded two more times, and a gigantic, brown three headed dog with red eyes and teeth stained with blood snapped at our carriage as we slipped lower out of the storm.

And into a bright, arid desert pock marked with boulders. Some pushed the large stones, their feet and hands bloody with cuts from rock and sand, where others sparred with their fellow man. Those who fought, their faces were swollen and their hair torn in patches, bruises spotted their bodies and their eyes held a constant abhorrence to the blows they threw.

Further still we went, and the sun vanished and a water world of blue spanned for as far as we could see. The waters appeared to be shallow, perhaps waist deep, and like above, pairs of people were locked in vicious fights and clawed at each others bodies. An old man in a boat the size of a canoe skimmed the surface, but just below, motionless bodies lay on the floor, blinking, holding blank faces.

The water faded to gothic spires and cathedrals constructed out of black stone. Cobblestone streets form a city of the damned, where stone coffins burn people alive and flames dance on those who hang from inverted crosses. Hunched figures dressed like nymphs and sartyrs and tree people guard the city’s perimeter.

“David, make it stop, make it stop. This is a horrible place, a horrible ride and a Ferris wheel to Hell,” Melanie said, pounding her fists on my shoulder.

I deflected the blows and stroked her shoulder and said, “I know,” and in a whisper, “I’m sorry.”

The city dissolved to a plane of red, brown and yellow. Snaking along the plane, a river of boiling red water steamed while those who wore fine silks or crowns of gold screamed as their flesh melted into the river. Along the banks to the north and south, a forest of desolate trees grew with faces on their trunks. Their boughs shook and twisted, tortured and twisted in a wind of pain. Far to the east, the forests dissipated to a burning desert. Along the dunes, knights in broken armor and rusty swords roamed, cursing the sky, cursing themselves.

Our carriage shook, swallowed by blackness and emerged in a suffocating and fiery world. Whips cracked, voices wailed and screamed, sadistic groans and laughter burst. A winged harpy flew at us, talons first. We threw ourselves to the floor and covered our heads.

Her shrieks ceased and frigid air enveloped us. We sat up to view four rings of ice, each holding frozen bodies in stasis of torment. But at the center, a demon six stories tall with six wings and three faces stood, devouring a man head first. The beast inched his head at our carriage and blinked and huffed a white breath of smoke from his right face.

Again, our carriage turned to black, but the creaking metal grew louder, yawning, and rattling to the level we could not hear ourselves scream. Our arms clutched at each other’s clothes, and our faces shared tears along our cheeks.

“I love you,” I screamed. “I’m sorry.”

All sound ceased, and light broke through the bars of the carriage. We were back at the surface in the shed. The carriage stopped and I reached out and unbolted the door. We ran, pumped our legs into the bright Texas sunlight towards the Bellaire. Only, there was no gas station. No pumps. Just our car and the hellish expanse of desert. We didn’t stop to wonder. We fled from our journey to Hell.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Nacho First Date

A short story about a first date, nachos, and a kiss-cam. Read more Short Story Sunday Stories.

“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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