Category Archives: Flash fiction

Aliens and Elementary School (flash fiction)

Adolfo reached into his pocket for his smart phone during afternoon snack recess. It was Tuesday at around 2:30 p.m., and the classroom aide was seated across from Xander at the lone, long table in the middle of Franklin Roosevelt Elementary School’s multipurpose room. Xander’s face was aimed downward, and he was studying the text on his plastic cookie wrapper, so that all Adolfo could see of him were the thick blonde curls atop the boy’s head. Adolfo, whose family all had straight black hair, thought those curls made the boy look like he was descended from the ancient Greeks.

Adolfo sometimes played a game where he had Xander try and guess the temperature at present in some exotic locale. Then the man would search the web for the actual temperature, and he would tell Xander how close or how far he was from the correct figure. It was a way to pass the time, and sometimes it sparked conversation. Conversation was healthy for this boy who rarely socialized with kids his own age.

At the moment, though, the Internet didn’t seem to be working. Adolfo kept getting a message that his browser could not be loaded every time he refreshed the screen. With a sigh, he put the phone on the table and smiled at Xander.

“Xander, you’ve been having a great day. What kinds of things are working for you today?”

The boy didn’t pick up his head from the wrapper.

“Xander.”

Still nothing.

“Xander Thompson, this is Starship Command, come in please.”

This got a smile from the boy, but he still didn’t look up.

“So what kinds of things have you done today? What do we still need to work on?”

The boy sighed, meeting Adolfo’s eyes for the first time.

“I. Don’t. Know.”

His voice was deep and strong. Adolfo noted that it could have been borrowed from a man in his thirties.

“I was impressed with your eye contact today. You’ve been doing great to look right at Mrs. Rowland when speaking in class. I also liked how you asked for a break when we were in the middle of the five-paragraph essay. You knew you needed to give your brain a time-out.”

“That was really mature of you,” the man added.

“And I got all of my division problems right on that worksheet,” offered the boy, who was wearing a blue t-shirt with a red-and-black Angry Bird in its center.

“Yeah. That was great.”

Adolfo nonchalantly picked his smart phone back up, dialed in his 4-digit passcode, and tapped a button to load up his browser’s homepage, nytimes.com. It seemed to be working. Still peering down at the phone, Adolfo continued with the conversation.

“A thing we might work on, and I know I’ve said this before…”

The man suddenly stopped when he saw that the entire screen of his phone was filled up with a single headline. It was four words long: “Life Found on Mars.”

“Umm, this is weird,” he said, his forehead breaking out in folds.

The first thought he had was that someone had hacked the periodical’s website. He clicked on the headline to get to the article, but a message popped up letting him know that he had exceeded his allotted amount of ten articles that month.

He quickly went to Google’s webpage and typed in a single word: “Mars.” Hundreds of articles popped up from just that day. All of them trumpeted the discovery of life on the Red Planet.

Adolfo still was skeptical, but he suddenly felt like he had downed several caffeine shots.

“Oh my God,” Adolfo said in a hushed tone. “I’m not sure I believe this yet, but it looks like they found life on Mars?”

It came out like a question because he almost couldn’t believe his own words.

Xander was looking at Adolfo now, but nothing in the boy’s expression suggested excitement or understanding.

“Like in outer space — they found aliens,” the man said, trying to impress him now or at least get across the importance of the event.

This time Adolfo didn’t wait for a reaction from the boy. Instead, he turned his attention back to the phone, clicked on an article from the Guardian’s website, and began to read the first few, brief paragraphs.

“Microbes, a half mile below the surface, 1/10th the size of a human cell, water, microscope, laboratory.”

The words stood out as if they were in giant, bold lettering.

Adolfo looked around now. The kids further down the table were staring at him like he belonged in a strait jacket. He suddenly wished there was an adult around to share in his excitement.

If it was true — and the evidence thus far seemed to suggest that this was the case — then this was a momentous day. He had read enough science fiction to know the implications of the discovery. Yesterday when he woke up, Earth’s life was unique, one of a kind. And today, it was not. It was suddenly an exciting time to be alive.

He considered calling his wife, Anna, but decided to wait another 45 minutes until the end of the school day. He probably couldn’t reach her anyway. As a fourth-year veterinary student, she was working harder these days than anyone he knew at the university’s animal hospital across town.

He was seriously considering ducking into the main office to alert the school’s receptionist to the news when a pair of very loud, angry voices coming from behind him made their presence known. Adolfo’s facial muscles tightened.

“Bitch!”

“You’re the bitch, bitch!”

And then: a slap in the face. Another.

The classroom aide put his phone down on the table, lifted his leg over the bench where he was sitting, and rose to survey the scene: two girls wrestling in the empty space between the table and the stage. He knew the girl with the pink sweatshirt’s name was Sandrine, but he didn’t know the other girl’s name. He witnessed this girl – black fleece, hair tied back in a bun — toss Sandrine by the sleeve for a few feet across the ugly, gray-and-white-tiled floor.

Adolfo approached swiftly, positioning himself between the girls. When he looked over at Sandrine on the floor, she looked feral, eyes blown up twice their normal size, thick brown hair going in every direction. There was no doubt she was going to try and get some payback.

“Sandrine, please take it easy,” he pleaded, but he could tell the words meant nothing to her in that moment.

Adolfo put his hands out to try and ward Sandrine off as she picked herself up and barreled in his direction.

She careened left at the last second in an effort to get around him.

Adolfo adjusted accordingly. This wasn’t the first time he’d been in the middle of a 6th grade girl fight. Sandrine crashed into him, but steadied herself fairly quickly.

She tried one more time to get around him, faking one way and going another. He was falling for none of it.

By this time, the assistant principal had shown up, and he held the other girl’s hands behind her back like she were in handcuffs.

“Girls, that’s enough — Sandrine, step outside, cool down,” Mr. Fraser snapped, taking on a much more authoritative tone than Adolfo could ever muster. The principal’s index finger pointed at the door.

Sandrine screamed something unintelligible, but did as she was told.

“Adolfo, I know this isn’t your job, but can you go outside with Sandrine?” the assistant principal said, turning in his direction. “Joelle and I are going to have a chat in the meantime.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks Adolfo.”

“Hey Louis, did you hear?” said Adolfo suddenly, using the principal’s first name.

The assistant principal made a question mark with his face.

“They found life on Mars.”

Adolfo immediately regretted his comment.

In his black sweater and tan Dockers, Mr. Fraser didn’t say anything in response, just made an exaggerated face, as if he was constipated.

Adolfo decided not to continue with an explanation.

“Sorry, umm, I’ll go track down Sandrine now,” Adolfo uttered, his face betraying his embarrassment.

He walked over to where Xander was sitting, seemingly unaffected by the scene.

“Xander, I should be back in a few minutes. If the bell rings and I’m not back yet, go straight to class, and I’ll meet you there.”

Xander didn’t make eye contact, but Adolfo knew he’d heard him.

When Adolfo got outside, he didn’t see Sandrine over by the outdoor lunch tables. He let out a long sigh and began to walk the campus in search of her. He was a little sad to leave the cool comfort of the air conditioning in the multipurpose room. The sun was warm on his neck, but there was a slight breeze. As mid-September days went in brutally hot Sacramento, California, this day was better than most.

He rounded a corner and looked in on the grassy area of the D-wing, home to the 5th and 6th grade classrooms. Xander’s classroom was located in this wing. There was a group of girls and two boys standing around by one of the closed classrooms. He knew they were supposed to be at the playground area, but he decided to move on with his search rather than stop to chide them.

He continued on past the recess fields and did a quick scan of the area. Next he moved onto the C-wing. There was a girl named Jasmine leaning against the brick wall next to the girl’s bathroom.

“Is Sandrine in there, by chance?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said the girl with bright red hair and a light blue headband. “She’s pretty upset.”

“I figured. Do you know why they were fighting?”

“Joelle and some other girl were calling her a fat slob.”

“Oh,” he said. He opened his mouth to say something more, but stopped. Nodded instead.

He couldn’t remember if Jasmine was present at the time of the fight or not.

Then the bell rang to signal the end of recess.

The girl with the headband went away without a word. Sandrine still had not come out of the bathroom.

He wasn’t sure how long he should wait. Xander would have gone back to class. He would be okay, Adolfo told himself. They were doing independent reading, which the boy typically enjoyed. And then it would be time to go home pretty soon after that.

Adolfo heard someone blow her nose inside the bathroom.

Then she walked out.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Sandrine said back.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Feel like talking about it?”

“Nah,” she said, shaking her head.

“You’ll get in less trouble if you explain what happened — why you went after each other.”

“Why do you think?”

She gave Adolfo a look like he was a complete and utter moron.

“Girls can be awful,” he said.

“No shit.”

“You can’t curse, Sandrine.”

“I hate this school,” she said quietly, almost inaudibly.

He’d heard kids use this line a number of times in the handful of years he’d worked at the school.

As he was thinking of what to say next, he observed Mr. Fraser approaching them.

“Everything okay, here?” It was a friendlier tone than the one the assistant principal used before in the multipurpose room.

“I hope so,” I said, looking at Sandrine. The girl’s eyes were down on the floor.

“Sandrine, I know what happened,” Mr. Fraser said gently. “I’m sorry it did, but we do need to talk about it.”

The man held out his left hand, signaling that she should lead the way to the office. Sandrine slumped her shoulders as she walked away. Adolfo felt bad for the girl; he hoped Mr. Fraser would go easy on her.

When they were gone, the classroom aide started to head back in the direction of the D-wing to check in on Xander.

Passing the playground area again on his way over, he spotted Xander on a swing. Adolfo sighed and then walked over.

Xander had his hands on the chains and was getting some pretty good air.

“Xander, what are you doing out here? Does Mrs. Rowland know you’re on the swings without supervision?”

The student ignored the question.

“Did you need a break?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, and then you’ll go back to class? School’s over in a few minutes.”

Xander didn’t say anything, but he did catch his feet on the pebbles on the ground to slow the swing down.

“Xander,” Adolfo said again when the boy had come to a stop.

“Yes!” the boy finally replied, as if in annoyance.

Adolfo took a seat on an empty swing beside the boy. The swing rocked him back and forth gently.

“Xander, do you remember before when I said they found life on Mars?” Adolfo asked without turning in the boy’s direction.

“Yes.”

“Well what do you think, buddy?”

He didn’t respond.

“Xander?”

The boy still didn’t answer, and Adolfo gave up. Xander started up on the swing again.

A minute or two later, the bell rang to signal that school was over. Adolfo had lost track of time.

“Xander we need to go,” the man said, hopping off the swing. “We’ve gotta get your stuff in the classroom – don’t wanna miss the bus.”

Xander caught his foot in the pebbles again. Then he got off the swing set and began the walk back to class. Adolfo trailed him.

When the 5th grader reached his classroom in the D-wing, he pulled at the door, but it was locked. There were a few kids and parents milling around on the quad, but the D-wing was deserted. There was a piece of paper taped to the door. It read “be back in a few minutes, Xander (and Adolfo).”

“Great,” he thought to himself. “Guess we missed her,” Adolfo said nonchalantly. “Hopefully we still make your bus, though.”

Xander’s bus usually didn’t leave until fifteen or twenty minutes after school ended. Adolfo guessed that they would be okay.

Xander didn’t say anything, just pulled at the door a second time, then a third – each time harder than the last.

“Xander, take a breath,” Adolfo advised the boy.

But Xander kept pulling at the door, grimacing and crying now as he did. Adolfo approached the door, bent down, and planted himself in front of the boy, so that he had a good view of his student’s face.

“Xander, listen to me,” he said quietly, but firmly. “I want you to take three deep breaths. It will help you.”

Xander didn’t say anything, but the aide could tell by the boy’s facial expression that he had gotten through.

The boy took three quick breaths.

“Okay good, now listen to me. I want you to take three more, but these have to be really big, I mean crazy big.”

Xander took his breaths and then turned to look at Adolfo.

“I should sit down,” the boy said.

“That’s a good idea, Xander.”

Xander removed his hand from the door handle and gently lowered himself against the wall. Adolfo remained standing.

“What do they look like?” the boy suddenly asked a few moments later.

“Who?”

“The aliens,” replied Xander.

“Oh, it sounds like their microscopic — microbes is the word they’re using. So smaller than anything you can see with the naked eye.”

“That’s boring,” the boy said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Why do we care if we can’t even see them?”

“It’s a good question, Xander. I guess it’s because any discovery of life outside of Earth is important. It means we’re not by ourselves out here.”

“It also means,” continued Adolfo, “that it’s very possible there’s other life out there, and that life might be intelligent.”

“Like laser-gun-shooting, warp-speed-traveling aliens?” Xander asked.

Adolfo raised an eyebrow in mock alarm.

“I can’t believe I’m having this conversation — this day is crazy, buddy,” the man remarked. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but today will be a day you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”

Xavier smiled.

“How much longer do we have to wait, you think?” the boy asked.

“I don’t know, a few minutes more.”

“How much longer exactly?”

“I’m not a timer, Xander,” joked Adolfo.

Xander gave up. Adolfo took a seat beside the boy. They chatted for another minute or two. When they ran out of things to say, they just gazed up at the vast blue sky until Mrs. Rowland showed up.

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The boy and the dead bird

In the den of his small, light-blue clapboard house at the end of a lane, a small boy observed a cat pin a bird to the lush green grass in his backyard.

After a few minutes, he turned his attention back to problem number 8 on his math worksheet.

“Jed had a sack of 10 apples, which broke, leaving 4 still inside. How many apples fell out?”

“Cesar,” he called to his babysitter, a college student at the local university.

“Yeah, Will?”

“There’s a a cat doing something to a bird outside. I think he’s killing it.”

“Really!” said the boy, hopping up from where he sat in front of the TV, playing a video game.

“Awesome,” the man said, peering out the window.

“Should we help the bird?”

“I think he’s dead, dude.”

“Oh.”

“It’s cool, it’s the circle you know?”

“Huh? What circle?”

“The circle of life.”

The boy didn’t know what the man meant, but he nodded anyway.

“Can I go outside to shoot hoops?” Will asked Cesar a few moments later.

“Sure. Are you done with your homework, though?”

“Yes, well almost.”

“Okay finish up, then we’ll go outside.”

 

The basketball hoop was in the front, on the driveway. Cesar carried the basketball out and immediately began doing tricks with it. While Cesar had his fun, Will announced that he needed to get something from the backyard, a ball of some sort.

When he arrived at the spot where he had seen the cat over its prey, he saw the bird, or what was left of it. It was nothing more than a pile of feathers.

He couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen anything dead before.
Or at least so recently dead.

He suddenly remembered that in the movies when someone or something died, it’s soul sometimes appeared and floated upwards. To heaven, he guessed.

He didn’t expect that to happen, but if it did, he certainly didn’t want to miss it.

“Myeh, myeh.”

It was the cat he had seen earlier. It was in the bushes a few yards to his right.

The cat, all black and fairly skinny, walked up to him.

It rubbed its butt and back on his gray pant leg.

He pet it for a few moments.

It floored him how something could be so brutal in one moment and so gentle a few moments later.

The cat purred at the boy’s touch.

The boy looked back over to the bird’s remains.

He waited ten more minutes in the very unlikely case the bird’s soul sailed off.

The cat curled up next to the boy and continued to purr.

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Ranjani and David

Ranjani smiled as she sprawled out on the brand new queen mattress alongside her husband, David. They’d been married only five hours ago at a courthouse in Brooklyn in front of her mother (her father had passed away of lung cancer a few years prior), David’s parents, and a few friends.

She was thinking about how her poor, sweet David had struggled mightily in the beginning of their courtship to pronounce her surname. How she knew it was love by the lines that appeared on his forehead as he struggled.

“What’s on your mind, lady?” asked David.

“I think I’d like to add your name to my name,” she said, her left hand enmeshed in her new husband’s thick, dark brown hair, which curled at the tips.

“Ranjani Venkataraghavan-Tannenbaum. What do you think?”

She giggled immediately after she’d said it.

David rolled onto her, bringing his face as close as possible to hers without touching.

“Okay,” he said simply.

And she laughed, kissing him long and hard.

——

Two days later, they went to the social security office, a drab, brown building with walls papered a sea green color. Upon entering, Ranjani and David found a man wearing a yarmulke sitting behind a large, mahogany desk.

“Hello,” the man said, cordially.

“Hi there,” David started, “we’re here to get a name change — or addition, rather — for my wife.”

Melinda handed over the paperwork, and the man began looking things over. A few moments later, the man’s mouth closed tightly around his teeth, and he shook his head a few times in short, robotic motions.

“Is there a problem, sir?” Ranjani asked him, puzzled.

“This doesn’t seem right to me,” he said, eyes on David.

“Excuse me?” David said.

“I mean, uh, uh, you should marry a Jew.”

The man behind the desk looked at Ranjani and smiled weakly. “No offense, of course, ma’am.”

David was the one who replied. “You’re serious right now?” he cried, and his eyes grew to a size Ranjani had never seen.

“You realize we got married a few days ago?”

“I’m just saying…”

“You’re just saying. You’re just saying,” David said, cutting him off.

At this, the man’s face grew red.

“I want to talk to your supervisor,” demanded David.

The man went away, grumbling to himself.

“Can you believe this guy?” David said, turning to his wife now.

Ranjani kissed him on the lips quickly and put her hand over his heart, which was beating wildly.

Another man, the manager they guessed, walked briskly up to the empty desk.

He looked younger than the man wearing the yarmulke, and his hands remained at his side as he moved toward them.

“Hi folks. My name is Rich. There was a problem, Maurice told me?”

“The problem is you’re employing this place with complete assholes,” answered David.

“David. David,” Ranjani said firmly.

“What happened?” the man said, his voice resembling that of a prepubescent boy.

“Basically he was rude to us,” Ranjani said, looking directly at Rich as she spoke. “We’d like to forget about it and go through with my name addition, the reason we came. Can you help us with that?”

The man smiled sadly, eager to get on with things and clearly relieved that he wasn’t going to have to learn the particulars of what had happened.

At that moment, Ranjani realized that she still had her hand over David’s heart.

She removed it, and then she and Rich went ahead as if nothing had happened at all.

********

When they were back in the car and their business carried out, David turned to his wife after buckling his seatbelt. His key was in the ignition, but he had not turned the car on yet.

“Why didn’t you say anything more? It didn’t make you angry?”

She sighed. “Of course, it did.”

“Then, why did you let him get away with it?”

“He didn’t get away with it, hon. The manager knows we were angry.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t tell him what he said.”

David looked for a moment like he had fifteen minutes before in front of the rude man. Ranjani smiled at him with all of the confidence she could muster.

“I just didn’t want to deal with it.”

David thought about this and decided not to push the issue any further. He started the car and backed out of the spot.

The two drove the next ten minutes home in silence. Ranjani wasn’t sure what the silence meant and that worried her.

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My futuristic story published!

I wrote a very short, creepyfunny futuristic story over at the super minimalist web publication Thick Jam. It takes place about 200 hundred years in the future when technology has given birth to synthetic humans. My protagonist has her long dead mother engineered back to life. When she and her husband move away from their home, she also engineers her and her husband’s best friends because she’s lonely. Check it out.

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The Way Things Worked Back Then

I wrote this heavy tale about 4 months ago. Sent it around to some lit maggy-type places. It got a lot of rejections. I think there are some patches of good writing in there, though 🙂

Between 2003 and 2007, my grandfather — that is, my mother’s father – appeared in about a dozen family photographs. Most of these were extended family group pictures, and more often than not he was on one side or the other, his arm disappearing behind someone’s shoulder. He looked gaunt (a result of the battle he was waging with Parkinson’s), but also genuinely thrilled to be present for each of them (a result of, as my mother liked to say, a heart so big it should have had its own zip code).

If you inspected these images for more than a quick glance, you might notice something else. The light did not catch him the way that it did the rest of the family. It was a little like someone dropped him into these shots from some other neck of the universe.

And that was kind of what was going on. Grandpa checked out in March of 2003 when his three-day-a-week nurse discovered his feeble body in his favorite sofa chair in his apartment a few towns over from our house on the North Shore of Long Island. By the time he began showing up in the photos, he had already exited this world — at least in the physical sense.

At 9, I was not yet schooled in the soul-crushing rigidity of the adult world. At the time, my young life was teeming with fiction and fantasy — Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. So it wasn’t an extraordinary stretch when my dead grandpa started showing up in photos. That was just the way things worked back then.

———-

My aunt delivered the news over the telephone. I was at the kitchen table watching a Saved by the Bell rerun, and observing the exquisite beauty of Kelly Kapowsky, one of the characters. My mother, in the midst of preparing my school lunch for the day, began speaking extremely quietly and quickly into the receiver, so that it seemed like she was conversing in a different language altogether. After a minute or so, she took the phone into her bedroom and never returned.

My dad, who had been 10 minutes into his commute to Manhattan, returned and drove me to school.

While we waited at a notoriously long red light, he told me what was going on.

“Shane, you already know Grandpa Mel was sick. Well he passed this morning. He…”

He was going to say something more, but he started getting choked up.

“He’s dead?”

“Yes.”

It was difficult to imagine my grandfather not being of this world anymore. Grandpa was sick for so much of my young life that the word itself — “sick,” that is — stopped meaning anything to me.

In my mind, he was just this goofy guy who didn’t make a lot of sense when he spoke, smiled every chance he got, and got down on all fours to play Legos with me. It didn’t even occur to me that he was going to die one day from his disease.

The light went green, and we sat in silence for a few moments as Dad drove.

At the next red, he wanted to know if I had anything to ask him.

“Are you driving me to school because Mom is sad about Grandpa?”

“Grandpa is Mom’s dad, you have to remember. Like I am your dad. She’s going to be sad for a while.”

“How long?”

“I’m not sure. We just need to be patient. She’s going to be doing some soul-searching the next few months, and maybe longer.”

“Okay,” I said, half understanding what he meant.

———-

Later that same day, Dad drove me home from school. When we got in, Mom was at the kitchen table, observing a Bluebird that was perched on a limb dangling from an oak tree in front of our picture window.

“Hi Shaney Shane,” she said, turning her attention to us.

“Hi Mom, guess what? My teacher told me at school today that humans are actually animals — just like bears and whales.”

“That’s cool honey! And true too!”

“Are you sad about Grandpa?”

“Yeah, Shane, I am. He was a good, good man. You know what I always say about his big ol’ heart, don’t you? It ought to have its own zip code.”

I nodded, but I didn’t know what else to say, so I just asked Dad if I could go watch TV in the den.

“Sure, for a half hour, and then we can go over your times tables. I’m gonna talk to Mom for a while.”

———

Mom began driving us to school again a few day later and things mostly returned to normal. The one exception was that she spent much more time at her computer in the bedroom than she ever did before. From time to time, she would set me up in front of the TV, or with a crafts project, and disappear without explanation.

One time, Dad came home from work and finished an art project with me. We made puppets out of brown paper bags. Dad made a robber, and I made a cop.

As I was arresting Dad’s puppet for littering, we heard a loud “ping” sound from upstairs. It sounded like someone had slapped the computer screen or tossed something at it. Dad went to check on Mom, and I heard them talking quietly, then Mom crying softly, and finally silence.

Mom came out ten minutes later and said: “are you ready for dinner? We are getting pizza!”

——–

In February of 2006, Grandpa made a photographic appearance at my Bar Mitzvah. It happened during my candle lighting ceremony, a time during the reception when the Bar Mitzvah boy honors family members and special friends by inviting each one up to help him light a candle. Our family friends, the Sorens, came up to light one, as did my pregnant Aunt Sheila and her then-boyfriend, Hal, and a number of others. In the midst of these photos, my mom suddenly approached me and whispered into my ear.

“I’d like you to take a photo by yourself, just you lighting this next one.”

I did as I was told, not thinking about what I was doing or why. Probably because my first crush was watching me with Bambi eyes fifteen feet away at the table where I had placed her — mine, of course.

In the photo album my parents later paid to have prepared, my grandfather found his way into that photo op. In our living room as she showed off the contents to my aunt and Dad, Mom explained that she wanted so badly for Grandpa to be a part of my special day. Her eyes found Dad’s as she said this. We all waited for her to say something more.

——–

A few months after my Bar Mitzvah, Mom got another phone call from Aunt Sheila that turned her to frantically whispering like she had when she got the news about Grandpa. This time, though, she didn’t leave the room, and after some time, I could see a look of disgust form on her lips. Her volume began to pick up too, so that I could hear everything shooting out of her mouth.

“He can’t do this to you.”

“That’s not an excuse, Sheila.”

“He’s the goddamn father. Or has he forgotten that?”

———

A day after Aunt Sheila gave birth, we were seated around the dinner table chowing down on my mom’s Swedish meatballs, the rare dish she made that we all, my mother included, genuinely loved.

“I want to help with Marc,” she suddenly announced.

“I’m worried about her, being alone with her first. I’m gonna see if she wants me to stay with her for a week or two.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” responded Dad, and he turned toward me.

“We’ll be okay here, right Shane?”

“Sure, I’ll take good care of Dad. I’ll make sure he doesn’t go to sleep past his bedtime. Don’t worry, Mom.”

We all laughed.

———-

Grandpa began appearing in fewer and fewer photos during this time. However, he popped up here and there just when you thought he was gone forever.

There was the time Dad and I decided to surprise Mom at Aunt Sheila’s place, where she was helping to care for my baby cousin.

It was a Saturday in December in the early afternoon. There was a strong wind that day, and the sun was nowhere to be seen. I sprinted from our parked car and rang the bell. Dad was still getting something out of the trunk. A few moments later, Aunt Sheila opened the door with my cousin Marc in a pouch across her chest.

“Shane, you’re here! Mom’s in the next room. Go see her! She’ll be psyched.”

I pushed open the slightly ajar French doors just wide enough to enter the den, where my mom was staying. Mom was seated with her back to me in front of the desktop computer, unaware of my presence. I somehow knew immediately what she was doing. A few months before my Bar Mitzvah, I had figured it out.

On the screen was a picture opened in Photoshop of a barbeque in our backyard a few months before in the fall. The image, snapped by my dad, showed Mom and my aunt as they reclined in patio chairs and drank pina coladas. Standing to the right of Aunt Sheila and set back a ways was my grandfather, his hand on his hip and an almost invisible series of dashes going all the way around him. As he peered toward the fence that separated our backyard from the house just behind us, he wore a serene expression, as if looking out on a pristine alpine lake that only he was able to see.

 

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How Five Men Died

Raphael stepped on a land mine in the early morning. We spent two hours trying to find his wedding ring. It occurred to me that the last thing he and I talked about was how we both admired Stephen King novels.

Akhil took shrapnel in the throat when a car bomb went off about ten yards from him. He was gone after five minutes. Tyler leaned over him, and gave him a kiss on the cheek to say goodbye.

Tyler was hit by friendly fire when we got into it with some rebels hiding behind a light blue van. He had disappeared in the middle of the skirmish and we all thought he lost his nerve. When he reappeared a few yards from the van with the guys behind it, we mistook him for the enemy. Tyler didn’t have any last words, so Tony made up some for him (“To tell his ma later.”)

A rebel shot Pete in the leg and in the chest when we were out in the middle of nowhere and he bled out later. I killed the shooter myself. Before he died, the rebel screamed, “Screw you, American pizza boys!”

A car bomb took Luis in the middle of our patrol at 5 AM. Tony survived, but lost two fingers. Everyone knew that whenever he patrolled, Luis carried around a small toy snowman in his pocket for luck. Later on, I found the snowman back at camp. Luis had forgotten to bring it. Most of the guys believed that it was just a coincidence, but I pocketed it just in case it wasn’t.

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The Gift

Gram sits beside me in the stationary elephant-gray Camry that used to belong to her. It’s her 85th birthday.

“Do you know where you are and who I am?” I ask, checking in.

“Of course, we’re in a vacant parking lot. And you’re my grandson, Josh.”

Josh is my older brother. Close enough.

She grins.

“I’m going to drive.”

Trading in her grin for a look of jaw-clenched concentration, Gram then gives the car a little too much gas and we fly off about fifteen feet before she applies the brake.

“Just nudge the pedal Gram, and press more lightly than you think you should,” is my advice, and I can hear my father in my voice.

“Are you ready to try again?”

“Yes.”

This time, it’s a smooth departure. We pick up a little speed, avoiding the empty parking spaces, and the Camry remains on the cruising path. Gram’s expression softens some.

After we cruise the entirety of the parking lot a handful of times, I check in again.

“Grandma, how’s it going?”

“Fine, Josh, but would you like to go anywhere?” she queries, eyes still on the vanishing concrete in front of her.

“No sense in driving around here all day.”

“Well, we really shouldn’t leave,” I answer, avoiding eye contact.

“Nonsense. I insist, boy. Let’s go somewhere.”

I don’t have the heart to speak the word “no,” but I stay firm.

Gram slows the car to a stop. Puts it in park without glancing down at the gear shifter. She looks square at me. Her ears are glowing red.

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Going shopping at the body part market (my new story published!)

I have a really short story called “Bargain Brain” up at the marvelous Apocrypha and Abstractions website. It’s sort of a dystopian thing and the main character is a young boy accompanying his mother on a trip to the body part market. Mom needs a new big right toe. The boy ends up putting his head in the price estimator and finds out how much his brain is worth. So yeah, it’s pretty weird.

Read it here

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When his father died, Kyle discovered a dark brown locked box tucked away on an eye-level shelf in the garage. A post-it note with his own name written on it clung to it. It wasn’t until he had tried five different four-letter combinations that he finally realized that the paper with his name was both a note as well as a combination.

He was mystified, but not surprised. The boy was always aware that his father had secrets. For as long as he could remember, the man had been escaping to the garage for about an hour a day. No one knew what he did in there, or more accurately no one cared. As long as he emerged eventually to eat dinner with his family, Kyle’s mother never made a fuss. She assumed the man was working on the car, or tinkering with a gadget.

Upon opening the box, Kyle saw an object the size of a bouncy ball. Sketched onto the ball was a map of some sort of world. There were two distinct yellow swaths of land separated by what he imagined was a great pink ocean. At a loss for what this object could be, he simply put it away in his pocket to be discovered anew.

From there, the object bounced around between different locales, eventually ending up, more or less, where Kyle had originally found it: in the garage, atop a table where he now kept his lego creations.

Over time, Kyle began noticing that the contours of the continents were changing ever so slightly. One stretch of coastline was now jagged where it used to be smooth. Another was smooth where it used to be jagged. And so on.

The boy thought it could be his eyes deceiving him. He also could swear he detected the most subtle of movement as he stared at the object for long periods of time.

He couldn’t fully explain why he did what he did next. Placing a stool on the floor, Kyle reached up to the highest shelf to get the microscope his father had purchased him for his eight birthday. The next thing he did was to put the ball under the scope, and that’s when he saw them.

They looked very much like dots. There were two kinds of them. Red and blue. The red dots occupied one continent, and the blue ones the other. In between them, of course, was the pink ocean, which was both very large and very small depending on who was looking. There were a small amount of red dots on the continent where all of the blues resided, but on the red’s continent there were no blue dots.

Every day the boy came home and watched through the microscope. And every day there were a few more red dots scattered along the coast of the blue’s continent.

Just as his father had done, the boy told no one about this tiny world, not even his mother.

He began thinking long and hard about why his father had gifted this object to him.

Perhaps the man had not known about the dots. Perhaps, a secret such as this one was one that should be guarded by a single being.

Kyle began thinking about his own world. Did his own universe have a guardian to make sure they never fell into the wrong hands?

A few weeks later, Kyle noticed one blue dot on the red continent. He looked hard at this dot. He wanted to know more. He thought if he stared hard enough he might make out some movement. But the truth was he never could.

After many months of looking, there still remained only one red dot on the blue continent. It made the boy sad.

Weeks later, he observed a new development. The number of red dots on the blue continent had diminished. The boy had been keeping track of the two populations ever since he registered the changes months before.

Now, there were 6 less, the boy saw. The population of reds on the blue continent went from 55 to 49. Thinking these reds went back to the red continent, he counted to see if they had gained two more red dots. They had not.

Four weeks later, 5 more vanished. And then 2 more after that. And then the boy cried when he found that the single blue dot on the red continent had vanished as well.

All of this made the boy think of the Revolutionary War his teacher was currently discussing in school. Sometimes, he imagined the blues and reds were the Americans and the British, respectively. In his head, these dots were two populations that were in the midst of some kind of conflict. And for all he knew perhaps they were. Perhaps, they were beings occupying this tiny world.

The next time the boy looked through the microscope he could see 65 reds on the pink ocean, heading for the blue continent.

After seeing this development, the boy began a nasty habit of pulling out hairs from the top of his head.

One month after, the blue population diminished to 248 from 311, while the 65 reds were now 40. Noting this, the boy instinctively moved his hand to the top of his head, where he had made a small, but noticeable bald spot.

The Boy who Guarded a World

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River Flirting

from across the river
you began to point at me
and mouth words
of which I could not make out
over the rapids
you put a finger to your heart
and made an introduction
I did the same
you flapped your hand in place like a fan
and rolled your eyes
I nodded my agreement
and pointed to my umbrella, which was attached to my blue and yellow chair
you smiled
and put your index finger to your head
I took out my sunblock and pointed at it, looked in your direction and furrowed my brow
you shook your head
and shrugged
I made like I was going to throw my lotion over to you
you smiled
I smiled
you smiled
I smiled
we began to play a game of air tennis
I smashed a serve that swooped over the water
and onto your end
your return sailed over a white water raft populated entirely by Asian-American college students and when it reached my side
it bounced and skidded a little
until I picked it up out of the ground and sent it back your way
we went on like this for a few more exchanges
until I finally dumped a ball into the river in mock exasperation,
and you raised your hands in triumph.
I motioned to you as best as I could
that I was going to find a way to get over to the other side
to say hello

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