Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Home

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Despite the oversize wool jacket a lady with too much makeup put on him, Amir couldn’t ignore the cold wind that nipped at his cheeks. He covered his face with the floppy sleeves of the coat and ignored the gurgle and growl inside his belly. All he had to eat in the last several hours since he walked off the plane with his mother and father and into a pale green room with bright lights was a juice box and orange crackers that were too salty.

That was only after his mother repeatedly asked a doctor for something to eat, which was funny because a man who wasn’t a doctor had to tell the doctor what his mother was saying, and then the man would tell his mother, “when we are done with the exam.”

After they were poked, measured, examined with flashlights, they were told they could leave for their new home. In the past two years Amir’s family had lived in makeshift village of white and brown tents, and a gymnasium filled with cots that reeled of sweat and urine. Those places were only temporary his father said, but at least they were safe, his mother said.

Safe from the screaming rockets and angry rumbles of walls tumbling to rubble.

Unlike his brother, Shahid.

When a grey sheet of concrete three stories tall crumbled and smashed his brother like a fist.

Two weeks later, his family escaped to Jordan, trekked to Greece, and now landed in Pennsylvania.

A large red van rolled to a stop in the portico, and a short man with a belly and a beard walked around and opened the sliding door. The man gestured for Amir’s family to enter. They climbed in and the man signaled okay before pulling away.

The airport receded in the rear window, in the front seat, the man put on a pointed red hat that flopped to the side. He grinned at his father who sat in the passengers seat.

He turned to Amir and said, “Ho, ho ho.”

Amir drew closer to his mother, burying his face in her coat. The van rumbled along a highway and exited towards a neighborhood.

A rainbow of stars dotted Amir’s coat as they drove by the first house. Amir scooted to the window. Strings of lights lined the roofs and wrapped around trees. Wire shaped animals that looked like small horses stood on grassy lawns.

The van stopped and the man pointed to the house. Outside, a blonde haired woman waved a sign with writing Amir couldn’t read, while three other people, one, a girl in a pink coat held a box. Amir’s father stepped out, opened the door and helped his family to the sidewalk.

Voices filled the air and the people clapped. Amir hung close to his mother as the front door opened to an orange glow. They crossed the threshold and warm swirl of cinnamon and lamb enveloped them. A pine tree strung with lights and red balls that looked like glass tomatoes stood in a corner.

“We’re home,” his father said, raising his hands to wipe away the tears.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Taxied Away

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Amal, Stewart, and Mallory each slunk into the back of the taxi giddy with booze and food from their residency’s holiday party with the rest of the hospital’s staff.

“Scoot over,” Mallory said, playfully nudging Stewart’s shoulder with her own.

“I can’t. Amal’s purse is in the way.”

Amal shifted and tugged her black clutch purse on her lap. “I can’t help that your two sizes too big pea coat swallowed it.”

“This coat doubles as a medical blanket,” he said with a grin, popping the collar.

“For two obese bovine,” Mallory said, still nudging him. She pulled the door shut and brushed her hair behind her ears. She eyed her friends. Three inebriated doctors get into a taxi, surely there was a punchline waiting to happen. Amal had threaded ribbons in her braided, black hair to match her amethyst earrings and purple sweater. When Mallory first met Amal she joked that Amal could easily be a Bollywood star, to which Amal responded that she couldn’t dance. Stewart’s cheeks were rosy and his blonde beard was thick. He often played up his midwestern charm during patient rounds, and used it as an excuse for his poor fashion choices. Mallory shuffled her burgundy riding boots on the floorboard and adjusted her knit wool dress. She hailed from the suburbs of the city, raised on a steady diet of striving to overachieve.

“Destination, please,” a soft female voice said.

Mallory raised her head and leaned forward, “Canterbury Gardens Apartments, on Seneca Street.”

“I see you have multiple passengers. Are there any additional destinations?” the voice said.

“No,” both Amal and Stewart said, except his voice cracked. They each laughed, falling into each other.

“Fare begun,” the voice said. A digital fare meter flashed the base fee above the rearview mirror and the taxi rolled away from the curb and merged into traffic.

Despite the three years habit of riding in driverless taxis, Mallory glanced over her shoulder to double check the flow of traffic. Satisfied they wouldn’t need to treat each other for whiplash, she turned around, but caught sight of Stewart tapping Amal’s knee with his left hand. Amal looked out the window and covered her mouth, but Mallory saw the suppressed smile and grinned. The creases in the corners of Amal’s eyes confirmed the rumored flirtations between she and Stewart.

“Amal,” Mallory said in a sing song voice, “that dish you made for tonight was delicious.”

“The Dahl?”

“I think. It was a stew soup thing with lentils.”

“You brought a doll for people to eat?” George asked.

“D-A-H-L, silly. It’s a traditional Pakistani dish my family makes.”

“It was good. Definitely better than the usual mystery casseroles everyone brings.”

“I like mystery, and so does my stomach,” George said, rubbing his stomach.

“Glad you liked it,” Amal said, now tapping Stewart’s knee.

The lights of the city hopped in and out like a slow flickering strobe as the car continued on. They each lived in the same complex ten minutes away from the hospital, where rent was accessible to a resident with thousands of dollars in student loans. Over the two years of their residencies for general medicine, the close proximity to crash with a fellow resident after a long shift, brought them together. And Mallory was happy for the two love birds in her midst.

The car turned right, heading north, framing the skyline in the front window. Mallory blinked and took a deep breath. Their apartment was due west of the hospital. She had walked or taxied the route daily, and never once had she gone north. She always had to peek at the skyline as she passed through intersections.

“I don’t remember any street work,” she said under her breath.

“Hmm,” Stewart hummed at Mallory.

Mallory spoke louder, “Thinking out loud how I don’t remember there being any street work between our apartment and work. We’re going a different way than I’m used to.”

“There could have been an accident,” Amal said.

The skyline grew in the windshield, checkerboards of on and off window lights rose up into the night. The taxi made another right, heading back the way they came.

“This isn’t right,” Mallory said. She leaned forward, “Reroute to original destination.”

The fare meter still read the same number as when they started. No voice replied to Mallory.

“Stop,” Mallory said louder.

“Mallory, what is the matter?” Amal asked, reaching across.

“Stop the vehicle,” she turned to Amal, “we’re going the wrong way.”

The taxi stopped and Mallory’s door flung open.

A large man in a black trench coat bent over. A gold badge dangled from his neck. “Mallory Hicks, Stewart Smith? I’m agent Dyer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Please exit the vehicle. Miss Khan, remain where you are.”

Mallory and Stewart complied, and a second person with a badge pulled them aside and stepped into the vehicle. The door slammed shut as Amal shouted their names.

Mallory grabbed the man by the shoulder, but he interrupted her.

“Unless you wish to be in trouble with the federal government, too, stay calm,” he said.

The taxi pulled away with Amal looking back, wide eyed in horror.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Expectations

Inside a box of forgotten childhood relics, those brightly colored wooden and plastic toy trains, my brother left a sacred gift for us to find after his death. My five-year-old daughter discovered it after she said there was, in her words, a big orange cat sleeping by the Christmas tree. It was a bengal tiger.

A gust of frigid air swept in before my parents crossed the threshold. Bundled up in wool coats and matching green scarves, crocheted by my wife, they carried colorfully wrapped gift boxes. Presents to put under our sparsely ornamented tree.

“Grampy! Grammy!” my daughter, Aubrey, said with a squeal as she ran from the kitchen, arms out.

Sharon, my wife, followed in a light jog with a dish cloth balled in one hand. “Aubrey, wait ’til mommy wipes your hands before you—.”

I closed the door and Aubrey wrapped her chocolate covered hands around my mother’s leg. I swooped down, picked her up at arms length, and Sharon took her and began wiping her hands clean. The chocolate palm prints looked like chicken scratches on my mother’s jeans. I winced and said, “Sorry.”

My mother looked down, “A little soap and a scrub should get it out. You and your brother made plenty of worse messes.”

I’m sure she meant the time he was eight and I was five, and inspired by graffiti we saw on a convenience store wall, we created our own street art with a package of sharpies that spanned the rainbow. Three hours was plenty of time to depict aliens fighting dinosaurs on a bedroom wall.

We all said our hellos and I settled in the living room to contain Aubrey while Sharon finished baking cookies in the kitchen. Aubrey writhed free and knelt by the tree to gawk at the presents. One box, slate grey and about the size of a shoebox sat on the coffee table. Theo was written on the side.

It had belonged to my brother.

I leaned forward, unsure to touch it.

“It’s Theo’s,” my father said. “We rediscovered it a few weeks ago cleaning out the last of his things.”

Theo died in his apartment from lifelong complications due to Noonan syndrome. His heart grew too weak and quit. He could have taken a cocktail of drugs, but he didn’t like side effects, particularly those that “made him dumber.”

By the time he was fourteen, he was keenly aware of his abilities, knowing he’d never be a scientist or an engineer to discover extraterrestrials. And he was also intuitive to understand his wide set eyes, oblong face, and lanky gait made connection to others a cruel challenge. My father taught him wood working and carpentry, while my mother nurtured his curiosity of the world with National Geographics and any nature documentary she could find. During his high school graduation party, he joked with a smile as large as a billboard that he was going to build a tree house in a jungle.

I picked up the box. Whatever lay inside rustled and shifted. It was about as heavy as a shoe box with shoes would be. I set it back down. “What’s inside?”

“Remember we cleaned out our attic a while back, and gave you all of the wooden train stuff?” my father said, leaning back into the leather chair.

“Right, and it didn’t have any of the trains.”

“It seems Theo had the toy trains.”

Aubrey’s attention perked at the mention of toy.

“What for?”

My mother spoke, running her hands through her scarf, “He had his reasons to be sure, but we haven’t the faintest clue. You know how he got after college, keeping random trinkets.”

Theo persevered, made friends with a few good people, passed his classes and graduated with an associates degree in construction management. Somewhere in-between his formal studies, he delved into spirituality, religiosity, and forms of mysticism, building strife between he and my casual Episcopalian parents. I suspected a girl inspired him, and these interests were overtures to impress, but perhaps this was his delayed teenage rebellion.

Regardless, one thing that remained from those explorations were his collections of things. Pez dispensers, Dungeons and Dragon miniatures, matchbooks, screws, nails, bolts. I’d visit him, and we’d be drinking beer. He’d tell me about his latest construction gig, and at various points in the room his latest collection would be scattered about.

Aubrey tapped the box, and said, “Toys in here?”

“Open it up, Chris, she’ll be delighted,” my mother said.

Aubrey clapped her hands and smiled.

I grinned. It’s hard to deny your child a simple joy.

“Okay, Aubrey, let’s open up the box and see what’s inside,” I said, jiggling the box in front of her.

She giggled, wrapped her fingers around the edge of the lid and pulled it off. A hand dove in and fished out one of a dozen or so colored trains that fit perfectly in her palm.

“A choo choo train,” she said, inspecting a green rectangular block with red plastic wheels and magnetized connectors for hitches.

She pulled out another and held it up above her head. She did this for each one until a dozen cars snaked atop weeks old copies of People and Sports Illustrated.

“These will go better on train tracks,” I said, standing to head up to the office closet, where I had stashed them God only knows how long ago. “Be right back.”

Aubrey may not have had teeth yet when my parents brought over the collection. I never bothered to rummage through it for the missing trains and reminisce about all tracks Theo and I would lay out. We’d create cities with imaginary stops for army men, or weigh stations for super secret government projects. Our lives diverged despite what plans we each had. I aimed for track stardom, which got me to college, but I ruptured my right achilles tendon, became an architect, and committed to a family. Theo slowly gained more experience in construction, and owned his own company by the time he was thirty two. Success does not earn love, or the love he wanted, and remained single. He replaced that desire by traveling all over the world.

My father dropped off the box, and I remember him saying, with a tone of apprehension and acceptance, “I already spoke with your brother… you can have the trains.”

What he didn’t say: Since you’ll have a family.

I returned to the living room, and my parents were laughing.

“Daddy! There’s a big orange cat by the Christmas tree.”

Kneeling next to Aubrey, I set the box down and opened my eyes comically wide, “Oh, really.”

“Really,” she said. “There are jungle trees, too.”

I pulled out a small green box with a collection of wooden tracks and began snapping them together in front of her. “Do you see monkeys hanging around?”

“Small ones. They’re running in the tree.”

“Aubrey, you have quite the imagination,” my father said.

“It’s there,” she said in sing song voice, pointing.

“Aubrey,” I grabbed a train out of the shoebox, “check out the train—.”

Red worn brick steps ascended to a large, ornate metal door where the far wall had been. The door stood twice my height and slate grey stone rose skyward forming the outline of a gothic cathedral.

“Chris?”

I turned to my mother, who leaned forward with a concerned look.

“Are you okay?”

I held the train in front of me. More gothic buildings in different colors lined a cobblestone street. A din of cars and foreign voices rolled by.

“Aubrey, can I see your train?” I said, holding out my hand.

“Please. You need to say ’please,’” she said.

“May I see it, please? I’ll trade you train cars.”

“Okey dokey.”

She snatched the toy out of my palm and replaced it with hers. The street scene vanished and a jungle sprouted in my living room, including a lounging bengal tiger. A reverb of shaking leaves swirled around me.

“What kind of monkeys are those?”

I dropped the train as if the voice had shot a jolt of lightning at my hand. My living room reappeared.

“Daddy, what’s that church people are walking into?”

“I don’t know, honey.” I crawled around Aubrey and held out a train to my father. “Here.”

“What about it?”

I held the train by the tips of my fingers. “Just take it.”

He raised his eyebrows at my mother and took the toy, closing it in his palm. His eyes sprung so wide, I thought they’d jump out of his head.

He saw it too.

He blinked rapidly and squeezed them shut.

“Andy?” My mother asked in a hushed tone.

Tears rolled down the wrinkle that creased his cheek. He covered his mouth.

He heard the voice, too.

“Oh, Theo,” he whispered, staring at the train, “how little we expected of you.”

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Short Story Sunday – Internet Sidekick

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At the click of heels on the sidewalk, I broke from checking social media feeds on my phone to greet my date with smile.

“Hey there, Edie,” I said, standing up and pocketing my phone.

She wore dark jeans that hugged her hips and a sleeveless red blouse, while holding a brown hand bag at her side. Dollops of curls rested on her shoulders, and she smiled back with a small curl in her upper lip. I noticed that on our first date last week as we strolled through the vendors at the street festival.

“Kenneth, hello,” she said. She looked up at the bakery’s signage, “This looks great. A coworker said they have fantastic macaroons.”

“I’ve only had the pie and cake.”

“You’re a regular then?” she said, with an eyebrow raised. With thin lips, the mascara drew attention to her blue eyes.

The casual atmosphere of vintage aesthetic and a wide array of sweet confections that provided any woman an option made the Two Spoons bakery my first or second date spot. Thankfully, the staff had short term memories or I blended in with all the other twenty-something guys trying to impress their Tinder dates.

I opened the door for her, “I’ve been a few times. I can appreciate a good cake.”

“I’d be concerned if you couldn’t.”

“Is there a doctor for that—cake appreciation deficiency?”

“I think they’re called pastry chefs,” she said. She worked in marketing.

We walked in front of the display case and peered in. We still had that new to each other vibe, unsure of how to fill the moments of transition between date conversation. We made our decisions without discussion: she went with her coworker’s macaroon suggestion and a latte while I ordered a slice of carrot cake and iced tea.

She tapped me on the shoulder, “I’ll be right back,” she said, nodding to the restroom sign.

“I’ll grab a table.”

I carried our order to a round table for two by the window, and out of habit, pulled my phone out of my pocket and scrolled through social media. Words and pictures flowed across my screen as fast as my thumb let the digital current go. One of the people I follow, SuperCritic, posts anonymously as a super heroine persona, commenting on movies or Hollywood industry news. She’s often tongue in cheek, but occasionally will take shots at serious issues in front of her two hundred some odd followers. I laughed at a meme-like image of Godzilla with the caption, “Macaroons? Or smasharoons?”

I flicked and tapped a reply and tossed it into the digital stream, “I’ll have to ask my date this.”

Not wanting to get caught looking at my phone, I put it away and looked out the window while I waited for her to get back.

Her heels clicked in a slower measure and she slid into the chair across from me. She sat straight and gazed down at her plate and drink. Her hand bag sat in her lap, clutched by both hands.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. I ignored it.

“Let me know if you want a bit of this cake.”

“Okay,” she said in a flat tone.

She still looked down at the table. The tenor of her face matched her voice.

My phone now pulsed persistently.

I pulled it out, breaking no phone during a date etiquette. The screen was filled with alert boxes asking me what she looked like.

I glanced up.

Eyed the macaroons.

Edie’s stare cut my ignorance to shreds.

I done fucked up, as they say on the internet.

I opened the app and removed the pithy comment from the digital river. Sweat soaked my shirt, and my face was flush. I put the phone away and began to form words, but Edie spoke first.

“I value my personal life and being able to do what I do without either meeting each other. Consider what you know, and decide if you want to be a trusted sidekick, or a disposable henchman.”

I was about to poke my cake, and said, “So long as the uniform’s cool, I can be a sidekick.”

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Short Story Sunday – Presence Unknown

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Margo logged on to her terminal and began her day like all others in her cool blue cubicle, sipping chamomile tea and scanning the mental checklist of things she needed to do for the day. And composing a greeting to her coworker Elen. They had never met in person, but they worked together on a corporate wide project years ago and kept in touch via the internal chat system, making it a game with the morning greeting.

A picture of Bruno, Margo’s french bulldog, running through a wave that lapped the shore, appeared as with the rest of her desktop. She always smiled at the picture. Seconds after it was taken, her then boyfriend, now husband, Matt chased Bruno as the wave receded and when the wave returned it swept his legs out beneath him. Matt tumbled, soaked and surrounded by sea foam, while Bruno splashed and yapped about. Elen had suggested the beach as a vacation trip, complete with a suggested itinerary.

The company chat app opened and Margo scanned the list of coworkers online. Beside each person’s name, a glyph stood indicating their status—a green check mark for available, a yellow dash for away, and a red no sign for busy or in a meeting. Also, a person could enter a hundred character status blurb. An assortment of dry “at my desk in AK” mixed with witty pronouncements or inspirational quotes. Margo verified her green check mark and typed her status, “Awake with tea:)”

She scanned for Elen, and stopped mid-sip, the floral chamomile filling her nose.

PRESENCE UNKNOWN was imprinted below her name in thin, block letters. A grey dot floated where Margo expected a green checkmark.

She hummed a short note of surprise to herself, put down her mug and frowned. Elen hadn’t mentioned anything about leaving the company or losing her job, and last week she shared with Margo that she was starting a new assignment with the development organization. Surely, a glitch, Margo opened a browser window and looked up Elen’s information in the company directory.

NO EMPLOYEE FOUND. PLEASE CHECK SPELLING.

Margo tapped the edge of her keyboard with her nails, and she motioned with her mouse to open the chat app’s conversation logs. Yesterday they chatted about knitting, Margo’s troubles getting project managers to submit reports on time, and Elen expressing her confusion over how her new project was structured. She sighed, and took a long sip of her tea to soothe her sanity that the chat log did exist for yesterday. Margo opened it.

Margo: I now have a male model living with me:D

Elen: lol! Let me guess, matty wore something you knitted?

Margo: he did. He wore the scarf I made and I took a few pictures. Or a dozen.

Elen: be real, it was more than a dozen.

Margo: yes

Margo scanned further down the chat log.

Elen: that’s so frustrating the PMs won’t get the status to you on time:/

Margo: yeppers:(

Elen: well, if you don’t get status from my PM let me know. It’s been weird so far

Margo: like how weird?

Elen: we had a man and woman sit in on all project meetings so far but they’re not ours. Carlo our lead made the mistake of calling it Project David, and the red haired woman interrupted him and said to use the project number.

Margo: hmmm

Elen: we got all new laptops and those two people have given us thumb drives with info

Margo: what’s your’s contain and what are you supposed to do with it?

Elen: dunno, but all it is are pictures of flowers and gibberish files filled with letters agcu

“Excuse me, Margo?” a male voice said.

Margo turned. A middle aged man with an obvious black comb over and a woman with short cropped red hair stood outside Margo’s cubicle.

“Yes?” she asked, her stomach tightened.

“We need you to come with us,” the woman said. Lipstick stained her teeth.

“Sure, let me set my…”

She had turned back to the chat app as a habit before leaving her desk to set her status as away.

It had been set for her.

PRESENCE UNKNOWN.

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Short story Sunday- Day Two

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George hadn’t flipped the sign to say his gun shop was open for business five minutes ago when his first customer pressed the buzzer to be let in. Normally, foot traffic didn’t pick up until the early lunch hours and held a steady pace through out the day. A woman with long black hair stood with her arms crossed and her purse drawn close, large, trendy sunglasses that peered over her shoulder.

He jogged around the display counter to push the button to unlock the door to let her in. She slid through with a brisk motion and surveyed the store to get her bearings. Her clothes were crisp, polished, and she wore leather riding boots that always came out of the closet with the arrival of fall weather. A gold fob that signaled the purse’s designer dangled. His daughter had taught him how to identify them, and which purses could hold a gun.

George had bought the store from the previous owner, Eli, after working in it for nearly ten years as his first and only job outside of military life. George had served in the Marines in the first Gulf War, kept a jeans, flannel shirt and a high and tight hair cut as his civie uniform, and proudly hung the Corps flag above his counter. Most of his customers fit the mold of outdoors types, who hunted or shot skeet, while the suburban dad or soccer mom came in for a handgun. And rarely did a woman with designer clothes enter his store.

And possibly, this was her first visit to a gun shop.

George coughed and gave a polite wave and said, “Hello. Can I help you?”

The big sunglasses turned to him and she bit her lip. She dug her hands deeper across her chest and headed towards the counter. The boots clipped at a quick rhythm. She stopped at the counter and looked down at the guns laid inside the case. She raised her sunglasses on the top of her head and continued to chew her lip.

George waited for her to speak. Closeup, she appeared young, and her eyes were a pale red and puffy, and her jaw was noticeably square. An Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down.

The store’s silence magnified his realization why they were here. A customer was a customer, and he’d help carry out their rights.

“I can make a few suggestions for you to consider, if you’d like,” George said.

He? She? Blinked and nodded, keeping their gaze down.

Working through how to address the person standing in from him, George unlocked the cabinet and removed three different guns. “What’s your name?”

“Christina.”

She.

Her voice was soft and deep as if putting effort into controlling it from breaking.

He set the three guns out in front of her.

“This one,” he said pointing to the small revolver, “is your basic six shot revolver. No safety, so it’s always ready. This is the twenty two, but it can come in larger calibers. These other two are sub compact nine millimeter hand guns. Both take ten round magazine, have a safety, but will fire as fast has you can pull the trigger. Only difference is the grip.”

Christina leaned in and uncrossed her arms. She reached for the revolver, but pulled back. “May I hold it? Pick it up?” she said, looking George in the eye.

He had seen the look before in her eyes in a fellow nineteen year-old marine in his first firefight. A trinity of shock, fear, and sadness gripped her, still unbelieving that events in her life compelled her to choose to buy a gun for her own safety.

George forced himself to keep his composure. “Sure, go ahead.”

She picked it up, rotated it in her wrist, and made a mistake every first time gun buyer makes.

“Just some basic safety as you consider this, always assume it’s loaded and two, never hold it with your finger on the trigger unless you intend to fire it. Okay?”

Christina moved her finger off the trigger, and said, “Sorry. Thanks. It’s… I never thought I’d be in a place like this. The last forty eight hours since the election…” she paused, but stayed quiet.

“When people reach a certain point, they’re always surprised what they’d do for their own safety. If it helps, there’s a women’s shooting club that meets once a month. If you’re interested, I can put you in touch with the organizer. They can help you with basics—safety, shooting, taking care of your gun.”

Christina forced a smile as she picked up one of the sub compact nine millimeter guns. “I’d consider that very much. If I buy one today, can I go home with it today?”

George could tell she knew the answer, and he confirmed it anyways, “No, there’s a five day waiting period. I can offer mace or a taser in the mean time.”

“I already carry mace, and I’m not sure if a tazer is right for me,” she said, touching her purse. She picked up the third gun, the one with the ergonomic grip. Her face gave way to surprise as she held it.

“Like that, huh?” George said.

“It just fits. I wasn’t expecting it to, but it does.”

“No rush on my end. Take your time to decide.”

“Thank you.”

George stepped back and rested on a bar height stool while Christina reexamined each gun, also holding them up to her purse.

“That women’s club can also help you with purse options.”

Christina laughed and gave him a broad smile before it disappeared. She took a breath and said, “If I purchase one today, what ID do I need to provide, and how many forms do I need to fill out?”

“A drivers license or passport for ID, and a basic form for a background check, and a longer one for a concealed carry permit, which I’m guessing you’ll want.”

She nodded. Her eyes darted between the gun she wanted, her purse, and George. She opened her purse, pausing with each movement as if to consider the next step. Her hands shook as she took out her wallet.

“Hey,” George said softly, “see those flags above me?”

Christina glanced up and nodded.

“We’re both part of the red, white, and blue, and everything it stands for. And as a Marine, I fought for that flag and had a duty to defend others, even to this day. You’re safe here. Understand?”

“Yes, thank you,” she whispered, tears scrolling down her cheeks, as she handed over her license.

Steven Brooks’ face on the ID appeared lifeless.

“Christina, I’ll get this going and rung up. Just think about what new purse you’ll want to get. My daughter has so many I think they multiply like rabbits.”

She laughed again, rubbed away the tears, and stood looser, happier, her face more lively than the one on her license. “I’ve heard that happens.”

It took about twenty minutes to fill out the paperwork and ring up the sale. Christina paid, and George walked her to the door.

“I’ll have the organizer call you. Her name’s Maggie. Real nice woman,” George said. He hedged, not to make a sale but to help, he said, “if there’s anything I can do to help you or… a friend, let me know.”

She lowered her sunglasses, “I will. And thank you for everything. I’ll see you in a few days.”

“For sure.”

Christina walked to her car, keys in hand, looking over both shoulders.

George let the door close and heard the bolt clack. He rubbed his face and watched her drive away.

Today was only day two of an America he wasn’t sure he knew any more.

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Short Story Sunday – Envisioning

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I stood outside St. Claire Hospital envisioning how I’d walk in, stroll by the nursery, and take home a baby. Swaddled in pink or blue, it didn’t matter if the first one I picked up was a boy or girl, I was determined to go home and rock a little bundle of joy to sleep in my arms while I hummed lullabies.

My therapist says visualizing my actions is good. It can help me determine what steps I need to take in order to get what I want, but I need to reflect on if those decisions are good decisions. Being a mother would be good for me. I’d finally feel fulfilled with a sense of purpose knowing all my energy would go to raising a son or daughter to be better than myself. After the half dozen men I dated—one of which I was engaged to—putting work into a relationship with an unwilling partner was draining. Babies would be the same, but they didn’t know any better, and my nurturing temperament would grow them up to be wonderful, beautiful, talented individuals.

I took a deep breath and casually walked through the automatic doors. An elderly couple smiled and nodded to me as they exited, and the girl working the information booth twiddled her blonde hair, not even looking up at me. I had dressed in jeans and a drab green flannel shirt and kept my makeup minimal and my hair pulled back in a lazy pony tail. The bustling hallway of nurses, orderlies and doctors ignored me as if I were just another visitor.

The nursery resided on the third floor, and I followed the overhead signs to the elevators. A trio of other people—a nurse, a doctor, and a man dressed in khakis carrying a bouquet of lilies—congregated in front of the two elevator doors. The nurse was nose down in her phone while the doctor stood with his hands in his coat. The man with the flowers gave me a polite smile, an I replied in kind. We stood there until the elevator arrived and let the passengers shuffle out.

“Three, please,” I said as I stepped to the back. The nurse broke from her phone and obliged.

“New baby in the family?” the man asked.

The scent of the lilies was feint. I always liked them. Clean and graceful flower. “My sister had a baby girl,” I said. I steadied myself on the rail against the wall. My legs wobbled.

“A proud aunt, no doubt,” he said, tipping the flowers at me.

The elevator stopped and indicated my floor. “Certainly am,” I said, and wove between the nurse and doctor to the hallway.

I didn’t mean to lie. Sometimes my nerves frazzle and my words get jumbled up too, in order to match my desires. I’m working to change that tick, but it still happens. I’ve accepted I’m not perfect.

But this hallway? It’s perfect. Posters of dazzled eyed babies smiling, cartoon storks, elephants, and giraffes line the walls. A gentle, sweet smell mixes with the dry antiseptic air. I bask in the warm glow of the lights and a swell arises from inside my chest and crests into a grin.

The nurse’s station is empty as I walk past it. Perhaps they’re all attending to the new mothers and fathers, showing them how to be new parents. I read stacks and stacks of books from the library about being a new mommy, and I browsed for hours online skimming articles and forums for any bit of advice to be the best. I even changed my diet and bought a breast pump to induce milking, but I may need to visit a doctor to get that right.

Everything I purchased for the nursery was hypo allergenic, BPA, toxic free. I measured crib rails and changing stations, and tested three sets of baby monitors.

I am ready to be a mother, even if I have to raise them all on my own.

The corridors were empty on my way to the nursery. I stopped at the window and peered in on two rows of tiny humans that looked like cocoons with wrinkled faces. They all slept, and the occasional one yawned or smacked its lips.

My lips quivered and my eyes watered. So close.

I looked up and down the hall and slipped through the nursery door. I could feel the flannel on my chest beating against my skin to the furious rhythm of my heart. My hands shook as I leaned over the first crib I neared. A pink knit cap covered her head, and she was wrapped in a white blanky with kittens on it. I picked her up, and she didn’t startle as I drew her close to my chest.

I sighed and nestled my cheek to the top of her head.

A euphoric wave of peace washed over me.

Those brief moments felt like forever. I didn’t remember how long I stood there until I reached for the door to leave—.

And the baby had disappeared out of my arms. I blinked. I sat propped up in a hospital bed wearing a blue gown and cuffs shackled to the bed rails.

“She did it again,” the doctor said, turning from a computer monitor with an image of me leaving the nursery. The same doctor I saw in the elevator.

“That she did,” my therapist said.

The man who held the lilies adjusted a metal crown and wires atop my head.

My therapist touched my shoulder. “We obviously need to do more work, Melissa. We need to change your thoughts before we can parole you. We’ll get there though.”

“We need to make sure you’re not a danger to yourself or others,” the doctor said. “We know your inability to bear children is difficult…”

I tuned his droning voice out, rubbed my stomach with both arms, bowed my head, and cried.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Rings

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In an ivory chiffon and lace wedding gown, the bride ran barefoot along the sidewalk while a pair of bridesmaids in purple satin dresses followed. Their laughter sang in a giggling measure of three beats over the passing drone of cars cruising down the street. The video clip ended with the bride turned back, her hand covering her smile and a glint of sunlight bouncing off her ring.

Ian looked at the ring.

It was pure chance that while he was sitting on a bench across from a hotel eating ice cream that he’d capture seventeen seconds that brought a smile to his face, but melted to a muddied frown. He had pulled out his phone, began recording, and balanced a waffle cone topped with a scoop of chocolate raspberry when the trio exited the revolving doors. The incongruity of the moment kicked an instinct only possible in the age of always possessing a means to record moments of serendipity.

The frame of video froze on a small white dot and a tiny sliver of orange refracted light.

Growing older aged Ian with the ability to notice things, or the absence of said things. Glancing at a woman’s left hand became an unconscious habit as his twenties bled into his thirties and there was nothing to staunch the flow of time into his forties. A single man shouldn’t know the difference between settings and cuts and carats and band styles.

The anxiety medications enabled him to function outside his apartment and earn a paycheck as a civil engineer with the city. His visits to the therapist were now at a monthly pace, and he viewed them as inspections to all the progress he had made in building a functional life with the infrastructure of good habits and developed hobbies and interests. Eight hours of sleep and at least twenty-two hundred calories a day in mostly fruits, vegetables, and proteins gave him a foundation to pursue building ships in bottles, adventuring on geocache hikes, and tending to his pet turtle, Ellie. And recently, at the suggestion of his therapist, after he shared his inclinations to notice the state of a woman’s ring finger, to explore photography to capture other observations that intrigued his eye.

He researched the options, purchased a better phone with a higher resolution camera and software wizardry, and delved into understanding how to take a good photo—one that justified what he saw in the moment. Ian started with his ships, placing the schooners, whalers, longboats on his kitchen table as if to take their portrait. Then he pointed the lens to the inside of his apartment. His camera roll filled with vertical lines of venetian curtains, the curves of his leather couch with various light fixtures, Ellie posed inside her tank, and Ellie eventually modeling with a pair of Boston whalers in glass jars.

Confident he could manipulate the controls, Ian began to pull his phone from his pocket while geocaching. Rows of trees became coniferous rocket ships, ducks surrounded him at a nearby pond, and the tall, stylized text of graffiti remained indecipherable, no matter how much googling his did to discern their meanings. All those shots took trial and error, attempting to focus and get the exposure right depending on the available natural light. And all those shots built into a portfolio in which to converse with coworkers about what he did over the weekend. After he shared a photo of Ellie on a picnic bench with his coworker Melinda, who wore a single stone princess cut diamond in a gold band, she gushed and suggested he post them online.

Now, Ian had more than a thousand followers, a mix of bottle ship hobbyists, geocachers, and everyday people he imagined to appreciate his pictures. One of the geocachers tipped him off to a cache downtown near a statue, and suggested getting a chocolate raspberry ice cream cone from the trendy creamery around the corner.

He rested the phone on his lap, closed his eyes and breathed in. He exhaled the brief melancholy and refocused on the earthy chocolate and semi tart berry of his ice cream.

A petite woman with blonde curls approached, with a jack russell terrier leading. The dog stopped at the opposite end of the bench and sniffed. Ian smirked at the dog and nodded to the woman, who smiled back. No ring circled her finger.

Not that it mattered, he said, “Hello.”

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Lunch Break

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During my on boarding training, HR advised us to be wary of any talking animals. The ten or so of us murmured a mix of bemused or incredulous half hearted laughs. I figured it was a stale, politically correct way to joke about what the company did: communications research.

“Seriously, though,” she said, playing it with a stern face, “don’t. You’ll lose something in the end.”

At lunchtime on my second day, I strolled out past the front desk, underneath a cartoonish sign of a speech bubble floating next to a raccoon. The caption read, “He’ll steal more than your lunch.”

I sat down on a stone bench, shaded by a gnarled oak tree with a thick trunk and broad leafy canopy. The place did take pride in its landscaping, and the front atrium sprawled like a mini arboretum with manicured lawns and hedges. My dull accounting soul could appreciate greenery beyond bottom lines on spreadsheets.

Admiring a blossom of white magnolias, I blindly opened my lunch sack and unwrapped my turkey on rye, and let my thoughts drift to imagining cherry trees somewhere nearby.

“Hey, pal, can you spare a few crumbs?” said a high pitched, raspy voice.

I looked around.

“Down. Down here.”

A grey pigeon with white spots bobbed its head while it eyed me for a reply. My mouth hung open and my hands stopped peeling apart the zip loc bag containing my sandwich.

“What? I got something on my back?” It fluttered and hopped as if to shake off a clump of dirt.

Instinctively, I shook my head, still working to form words that made sense. Disney movies aren’t real and I knew I wasn’t royalty. My four figure bank balance and six figure student loan debt reminded me every day of that.

“Okay. I took a bath this morning in a puddle so it was hard to reach all over. Do you speak? If not, I can get one of the ‘coons to sign, but I don’t want to go do that. They’re ornery critters.”

“Ornery?” I said. How the hell did a pigeon have access to a thesaurus?

“There we go,” it said with a flap of its wings. “Yeah, if you bug ‘em during the day, they’re a bunch of grumps. So, how about it? Spare some crumbs?”

I held my sandwich on my lap and examined it. Dark grained bread shone through the bag, slick in my fingers. It absorbed my squeeze like a foam pillow, slow to take its original shape. I managed to close my lips, my mouth dry and my head now light. I peeled the bag apart and held it up to my nose and inhaled an aroma of pepper, turkey and Italian dressing I used as a condiment. I had never smelled anything in a dream, so this had to be real. The HR rep wasn’t joking about talking animals.

Despite my sanity at a loss for the how a pigeon was talking to me, my rational mind heeded the warning. I dropped my sandwich back in my bag, smiled, and nodded to the bird who had hopped up on the bench, and proceeded to re-enter the building.

“Where you going? All I wanted was a little snack,” it called out.

I didn’t look back, and kept my head down and focused on the sound of my shoes.

“You all right? I saw that JJ was talking to you,” the security guard said as I passed his desk.

“I didn’t say anything, I swear!” I said. And the bird had a name? As if it were a neighbor down the block who came down to borrow a cup of sugar?

The guard leaned back, “It’s all right. JJ is one of the milder spirits we work with ‘round here. But he did convince a fellow to take a vow of poverty a few months ago and become a vegan. They get in people’s heads like that.”

I already hovered at poverty, and loved hamburgers too much. I didn’t want to find out what the raccoons would do.

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Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – A Job

With the Eton family driving down I-95 to Disney World, Blaine non chalantly worked the pin and pick in the lock to the backdoor. He jiggled the pins in the tumbler, twisted and stepped into the dark mudroom. Out of season wool coats hung by brass hooks across from a pair of front loading washer and dryer set. He closed the door to a cautious click and let his eyes adjust to what little natural light the half moon cast inside.

No matter how many times he worked a job, he needed to take a series of three deep breaths before he could begin to source his prize. Despite being a forty-two-year-old professional thief, the prospect of an expensive reward filled him with a thrill he always experienced on Christmas morning. Unwrapping an expensive toy or clothes was the same as opening a drawer or safe for jewels, cash, or more recently, digital goods.

Through a series of couriers, Blaine was instructed to enter the Eton household a steal a hard drive from Christopher Eton’s personal computer. He was a scientist at one of the Boston area colleges. Blaine didn’t remember which one. All the eggheads were the same no matter their IQs and accomplishments. He never said it out loud, but Blaine considered his skills to be doctorate level.

His instructions for tonight’s job provided a blueprint of the house and an itemized list of security he’d need to circumvent. He sauntered towards the front of the house and found the rectangular plate of glass to punch the code to disarm the security system. It blinked green and displayed UNLOCKED in bold text. He looked up to spy the cameras pointing down. Thankfully, his instructions also detailed how to erase the video.

He didn’t plan to stay long.

The house was a small mid-century row house, decorated with Eames style chairs and furniture. Pictures of Christopher Eton and his two daughters in wooded nature snapshots and school functions lined the house sporadically. Blaine never received bio info on those he stole from, and never thought to make up a story for who they were. Keeping an impersonal distance was good for mental health.

He found the study as the blueprints indicated, but judging by the wires, metal, and malformed plastic, it served as a workshop. He guessed the large, boxy contraptions with rails to be a 3d printer, and the smaller boxes with gauges and meters to be electronics equipment. A soldering gun laid next to a long skeletal body of aluminum bones and rubber tendons. He stood over it and chewed his lip. It looked like a crude stick figure, lacking shape, a right hand, and a head.

A whir of machinery startled Blaine to drop to the floor. A printer inched out a lazy piece of white paper and went quiet with a soft ratchet. He looked around. A camera gleamed, no doubt catching him nearly shit his pants. That would be deleted.

He stood and readjusted his pants and shirt. He squinted at the paper, streaked with short black lines and pulled out a pocket flashlight. It read, repeatedly all the way down the page: WILL YOU HELP? PLEASE HELP.

His face felt flush and his heart beat faster. He folded the paper, jamming it in his pocket and surveyed the room for the computer in which to extract the hard drive. A pair of flat panel monitors sat on top of a wooden desk, and their cables wound to a cabinet below. He knew enough about computers that they didn’t spit out paper with requests for help after their owner had left the house nearly ten hours ago. His body screamed at him to flee, but his soul, which was saving for a house down in Costa Rica, willed him to stay. Once he made the drop, his bank account would receive a considerable sum towards black sand beaches in the tropical land of Pura Vida.

Blaine huffed, and squatted below the desk to pull out the tall, thin computer. The alarm erupted throughout the house, and he banged his head jumping up. He yelped and stumbled and slammed into a steel rolling cart full of tools. In between the blaring, the printer spit out another piece of paper.

He groaned as he rose, rubbing where his back met the steel cart.

“Screw this,” he said.

Another job would come and get him a little closer to Costa Rica.

He snatched the second print out and backtracked to the mud room. He held the paper up to the ambient light, wincing at each scream of the klaxon.

PLEASE HELP. I WANT TO SEE MY DAUGHTERS. WILL GIVE MORE $$$

He stared at it, his gloved hands pulling the paper taught as if to make the words’ meaning clearer. He chewed on his lip, weighing his choices. He still needed to clear the video logs, but with each additional alarm whoop, police would surely arrive.

He took a breath, unsure if he needed to shout or pantomime something towards a camera. “I’ll help,” he said in a voice shy of a shout.

The alarm ceased.

Blaine rustled the paper and rubbed his forehead. His most intense job was when he wasn’t informed a yorkie terrier mutt roamed a studio apartment when he was tasked to steal a half million dollars in bearer bonds. Luckily, he found hot dogs in the refrigerator and made a temporary canine friend.

This was different.

“How do I help… you?” he asked, looking at a mounted camera.

In the office, the distant hum of the printer sounded. Blaine walked back and read the new print out.

BEFORE HARD DRIVE, TURN ON COMPUTER. PASSWORD: charlotte2014

Blaine rounded the desk again, reached below, careful not to trip and turned on the computer. The monitors flickered to life, flashing a series of boot up screens, and settled at a blue login prompt with a picture of a black haired woman with a thin face and sharp blue eyes. He entered the password and the screen transitioned a large family portrait of what Blaine guessed were the Etons, posed casually in a spring green field surrounded by warm, golden light. The daughters appeared younger in this picture compared to the other photos he saw.

A flurry of screens opened. Text, pictures, blue and white mechanical drawings. The 3d printer began to rattle as its rails slid back and forth.

Blaine stepped back and eyed the room, attempting to not panic at the figurative ghosts in the machines that brought a rambunctious spirit of noise into the room.

“Thank you,” a female voice said through the computer speakers.

The skeletal figure sat up and swung its legs off the table.

“Holy shit,” Blaine said, this time knocking his ass against the cabinet.

“You may leave now. Money has been transferred to your accounts,” the voice said as the headless body leaned over the printer, as if awaiting an important delivery.

Blaine crept out of the room, but before he broke into a sprint, he looked over his shoulder. The figure held up the finished print out—a mask of a narrow, feminine face.

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