Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Trading Bones

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.”

Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Tommy

Read more Short Story Sunday stories.

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.


“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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Reborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mabel began to cry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Shot in Yalta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The middle ought to do,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – NeuroDerma Miner

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

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

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

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

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

“Guess you won’t forget again, eh?”

And he hadn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, do you guys know a Shelby Patterson?



Who’s that?

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

No clue, man.

People still send out panes for install?

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

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

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

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

“Gah, damn!”

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

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

I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows.

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

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

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

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

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

Approximately 120 million.

How many in this room?



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

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

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

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

Around the room thinner columns hovered like tick marks.

How many have cheated on their spouse?


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

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

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

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

One, Cosita Santiago.

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


Stabbing. Video available.

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

Play the video.


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

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

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

“Wait, what? Why?”

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

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

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

Personal Projects

Short story sunday – Unverified

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

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

“Oh, yes, hello, Brady, come in.”

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

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

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

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

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

“All of those were received, but—.”

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

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

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

“And your aunt and uncle adopted you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“In the world we live in, it does.”

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

“Colleges can’t exactly say that.”



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

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

“Sounds familiar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And helps colleges connect with me?”


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

“Then you don’t have to.”

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

“It can be—.”

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

“I’m sorry, I didn’t—.”

“No, you didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

“Brady, you’re not a ghost—.”

“But you just said—.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And if I don’t.”

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

“Just because they can’t verify me?”

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

Personal Projects

Short Story Sunday – Donnie’s Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I did.

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