Archive for the ‘Short Story’ Category

Contest Submission In

Posted: August 1, 2014 in Short Story

I submitted and entry to the Arcadia Magazine chapbook contest. It’s called Derecho and here’s a sneak peek:

Derecho: from the Spanish dietro, to destroy; a land-based windstorm producing hurricane-caliber winds; a warm-weather phenomenon spawned by instability.

The compilation is four stories, 47 pages long. It works chronologically from Friday night until Sunday mid-day. My beta readers, Preston Taylor Stone and Jodie Cain Smith, helped me decide what order to present the stories.

They also helped me answer some important questions like:

What’s at stake? What would happen if the story ended here … or here …

I tend to be a very subtle writer and am not always sure that my stories have hit their mark. The work we did on these four this summer feels like we came close.

First Time – Winkie has come to the hilltop with Tommy to lose their virginity to one another. The windstorm interferes.

Winkie opened her arms. The wind surrounded her bare flesh. She felt herself drying. She closed her eyes and dropped her head back.

Come Home – Cara and her son, Cal, play Candyland during a power outage. They’re holed up in Eli the Sheriff’s Deputy’s house and Cara is trying to decide if they ought to stay there.

“I’m going to have another one,” she whispered.

She imagined he said, “Have it.”

She corked the bottle and opened the fridge again; put the bottle back on the shelf.

Not like Eli. Eli would tell her one was enough, two was more than enough, and three was drunk. Eli Everything in Moderation.

“I want to be drunk,” she said.

“Get drunk,” she imagined Eric would say. He would call her Mrs. Sargent Eric Robert Banks.

Wedding March – Valerie is the resort manager and responsible for organizing a wedding despite the power outage. She’s made a life of being a witness for others’ milestones.

On a trip to Italy once, Valerie had seen the Sistine Chapel but it couldn’t compete with the great hall at Wintergreen. Wintergreen possessed the scenery while the Sistine Chapel seemed to have Heaven merely on loan.

Sunday School – Anne Marie is an independent woman and despite the ridiculous effort to maintain normalcy on this most unusual morning, she feels her defiance is laid bare on the lawn of the fellowship hall.

What did Anne Marie know of Daniel? Of a lion’s den? Of anything, really, except how doggone hot it was. Ninety eight degrees in the shade. We ought to be prayin don’t none of us have a stroke. Mr. Mahoney and his “we don’t have a choice.” Shoot, they did so. They could have gone home and suffered this heat alone. With dignity. In their underwear.

The biggest lesson learned in July (revision month) is that revision is H A R D.

I am the first to commit to specific details and not want to cut them. And then to wonder if some piece is too obvious and therefore too pedestrian. I want to write compelling work, but I also want complex work. Stuff that bears interpretation. That holds up to scrutiny.

So I guess we’ll see if this collection is evidence of that.

Revising the Past

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Short Story, Writing Mechanics

In a short story I wrote about the last night I lived in my parents’ house before moving to Clemson, I described an encounter with a guy. He is recognizable to almost anyone who was there that night but those people don’t read my work.

Most of them don’t anyway.

He almost became more. He almost became someone significant. Either a significant mistake or a significant investment. Either way, the word “almost” is what matters.

Because he didn’t.

The words used to describe him include “boyish” and “narrow.” I remember him, vividly, in fact a grown-up version of him sat near me in the Washington D.C. airport the other day.

He was a hipster before they were called that. A new hippie. A post-grunge artist-type.

There was a problem with the story, it was twice rejected, and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Then my cousin Preston read it and nailed it:

The narrator is sometimes the 37-year-old-Kasie and sometimes the 18-year-old-Kasie.

So there were some lessons learned during revision.

Write Your Stories.

I always say “write your stories,” but it’s not my advice. It’s every writer from Stephen King to Julia Cameron to Anne Lamott. Your stories are the ones you know, the ones you own, the ones whose parameters you get to define.

But not every story you have makes for a good story.

So once your story is on paper, you have to shape it. Revise it. Make it a story.

In my shaping of the story of the last night before I went to college, I had committed to the device of predicting each of the character’s futures.

She would drop out of college and end up stripping in Myrtle Beach; which Justin and Ty defended despite my insisting that it proved she was a whore.

and

Whenever she brought her boyfriend they left before we got really wasted. Eight years later he would be killed in action as a Marine in Afghanistan. He was better than the rest of us. At least that’s what we said about him later.

I liked the device because part of my unburdening myself of this story is placing these people into their dismal futures as a contrast for how delightfully naïve and optimistic we were.

But that was clearly the 37-year-old me and that narrator did not need to be almost-fucking the twenty-year-old hipster described as “boyish.”

The fix:

  • Change anything in the action sequences to reflect the 18-year-old’s perspective: people are hot, fun, cool, not boyish, silly, or ridiculous.
  • The moments described by the 18-year-old must have the weight of minor-things-turned-major.
  • The stakes must be raised as well. The drama belongs to the teenager, not to the older woman looking back.
  • The older narrator’s editorializing is okay, but should be limited to only the passages where things the 18-year-old couldn’t know are said.

With some word choice changes and some re-paragraphing, the story found balance between the two narrators.

The 18-year-old gets to be the one seduced. Which, truthfully, wasn’t what I wanted when I wrote the story. I wanted to remember that night and write my favorite version of it and live it again knowing what I know now.

I guess there are limitations to how far our imaginations will let us revise the past.
(more…)

With the 2013 Short Story Challenge, I had two goals:

Write enough stories to participate in Khara House’s Submit-O-Rama in October

Learn to write really good short stories

As the count sits now, the first objective was met but the second is doubtful. Here’s the box score:

Finished – 16

Accepted – 2 (one to Spry and one to the Wordsmith Studio Literary Mash-Up)

Rejected Once – 7

Rejected Twice – 2

Pending – 6

The rejected twice (like this one) are the ones that hurt the most because I really, really like them the way they are. I thought I would revise them and resubmit but, really, I think they’re wonderful.

So I’m sitting on them for a while. Maybe the next time I look at them I’ll see what their flaws are.

When one meets one objective and not the other, the question is how to meet the other. Certainly revision is a good task but also more practice. I need to write more stories.

With that in mind, rather than abandon the Short Story Challenge 2013 as over, I’ve decided to continue into 2014 and have another 12 stories ready for October to meet Khara’s 3-per-week minimum submission requirement.

This year I have three collections I’m working on:

Snowed in Memphis

The Derecho

Bearskin

I sketched the Memphis outlines but haven’t filled them in yet. That project requires some research as it’s a literary project with some Canterbury Tales tie-ins. It’s been fifteen years since I studied The Canterbury Tales (and then I did it in Middle English ugh!) but this idea has been with me since 2001, so I’m going to pursue it this year.

Last year’s stories include three from The Derecho, but a collection needs at least 10 so that leaves seven more stories to be told. I have the beginnings of two.

Bearskin is the retelling of a Grimm fairy tale from several angles and including various elements of supernatural occurrences. The drafts come from the Reuts Publications November project (all three of mine were rejected, alas). They’re a YA publisher and I am not a YA writer, so I’ll revise these into my genre.

These projects are against the advice of a novelist I met in 2013 who said, “No one buys short story collections.”

I guess they must be simply for my own education and appreciation. I can be okay with that. I had an objective in 2013 that I failed to achieve: Learn to write really good short stories.

Renewing that objective for 2014 is, I think, the right thing to do if I am to become the writer I want to be. And who is that writer?

The one who writes really good short stories, of course.

Submit-O-Rama Week 3

Posted: October 30, 2013 in Short Story

I know, it’s almost the end of Week 4, but I got some much-needed feedback on my Week 3 submissions and needed a few extra days to revise before completing the submissions. For more on Submit-O-Rama, click here.

Here they are:

Gordon Finch’s Miracle

Gordon Finch follows the same routine so that when the miracle he’s been waiting on comes looking for him, it’ll know where to find him. But it’s Aggie’s 40th birthday and she’s sick of hanging around waiting for something to happen to her. Favorite line:

Gordon saw his cup was empty. He had nothing else to do but answer the question. How could he answer the question. He blurted the answer and she stared at him.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

“What do you know?” he said.

“Say it again. You’ll hear how dumb it sounds. Go on. Say it.”

Submitted to Xenith because editor Patrick Nathan said he wanted fiction that moved. I hope this one does it for him. Poor Gordon will never be the same.

It may be worth noting the original draft of Gordon and Aggie’s story was written in 1996 for an undergraduate writing workshop. The criticism it received included “cliché characters” and “not the right time for a factory shift to end.” Turns out I just needed to have some life to realize what wanting a miracle was really all about.

Yesterday, in Boston

Ellen Hayes ran the Boston marathon yesterday. Today she’s stiff, tired, a little dazed, and can still smell the smoke and hear the chaos. Favorite line:

Eight strides from a 4:10 finishing time, her pink jersey visible behind the lady in orange. She was one of the charity runners, she was one of the less-elite. She was just trying to finish.

Submitted to Ardor Magazine. I have never run Boston, or even a full marathon; but I ran the day after the bombing and in the shower afterwards, I thought up Ellen Hayes, the charity runner in her hotel room the day after. How to make sense of such a thing? Writing helps.

I borrowed heavily from this blog, which gave the writer’s first-hand account of the course. So, thanks, Meg Runner Girl. She shows up in the story a little and I have a second story that peels off of this one which may feature her more.

Come Home

Cara Banks is playing Candyland with her son by candlelight after a blackout. They’re in her late husband’s best friend’s house. Sometimes we can see by candlelight things that are not so obvious in the light of day. Favorite line:

Cara closed her eyes and remembered Eric. Sargent Eric Robert Banks. A tear slipped down her cheek and she grabbed the counter top to keep from falling to her knees.

“I’m going to have another one,” she whispered.

She imagined he said, “Have it.”

She corked the bottle and opened the fridge again; put the bottle back on the shelf.

Not like Eli. Eli would tell her one was enough, two was more than enough, and three was drunk. Eli Moderation in Everything.

Submitted to The Missouri Review, which is the oldest of the lit mags I picked this October and also the most prestigious. “Come Home” did not start out October as my starter, I have several others that I think TMR would have liked, but it was time for “Come Home” and it shaped up nicely after some help from a military wife, my friend Jodie Cain Smith of The Queendom.

The name device was inspired by a conversation with Jodie about how significant a name really is. I used it throughout. I also feel like the story watches Cara get a little drunker and a little bit more dramatic and that, too, pleased me.

So there you have it. Week 3 in the books.

I will have to scramble tomorrow to get three more in by the Oct 31 deadline. I have some work to do! But I did already receive a rejection from Lascaux (thank you for being so timely and pfffttthhh) so I may sneak in a re-submit for “Have You Seen” if I get desperate.

How’s your Submit-O-Rama going? Share in the comments!

I did it. I sent three stories, “First Time,” “Packing,” and “Daylight.”

First Time
Winkie and Tommy have come to the hillside overlook to lose their virginity. But a derecho sweeps the mountain and derails their plans.

Favorite part:

Tommy took a deep breath. When he shoved himself inside of her she gasped.

Something broke. A loud crack, the splintering of something, a giving-in to the wind, then a branch ripped out of the giant tree behind them.

Submitted to Passages North, the literary magazine of Northern Michigan University.

 

Packing

Dominique and Roman are filling her suitcase with freshly laundered shirts, wrinkle-free pants, and unsaid things. She’s leaving for a year and they’re beyond the debate stage. Now the sadness sets in.

Favorite part:

“It’s just a year,” he said again.

She looked at him. He was looking at her hand: pulling it toward him, turning it over, palm up. He laid his cheek in her palm. She closed it around the curve of his face, tilted her head.

“They’re lucky to have you,” he murmured, kissing her hand.

“It’s Liberia. They’re not lucky at all.”

Submitted to Salt Hill Journal, the literary magazine of Syracuse University.

 

Daylight

The last night before they leave for school and Sophie has her ex-boyfriend’s brother in her room. Can she (should she?) get him in her bed or will she let daylight come and steal the chance away?

Favorite line:

A touch on my back and I didn’t have to turn, I knew it was him. He handed me another beer and stood a little too close for a little too long. There was a choice to be made regarding the tension we’d found earlier, upstairs. I could feel a throb deep within me and I decided to let it happen. I turned my head, lifted my face, my cheek grazed his. Neither of us pulled away.

Submitted to Lumina, the literary journal of Sarah Lawrence College.

So, week 1 is over. I feel brave. I feel a little nauseated. Oh well. Off into the literary universe my work must go!

Have you submitted anything yet? How did you feel the morning after?

All right, short story writers. The first seven months of our Short Story Challenge 2013 have come and gone. The goal was 13 stories completed in 2013.

Here’s my count:

These stories are “New & Need Edits”:

First Time

Packing

Boston

God Called

Daylight

At the Fair

These are the “Old & Revised”:

Run or Bleed

Two Trunks — ACCEPTED to Spry Literary Magazine for its upcoming Issue #3

Hot Coffee Miracles

These are the “New & Not Finished”:

Sunday School

Wedding March

Come Home

Sadie Wallace

So I count 13 stories there and the goal was to have 13 ready for submission during the October-December submission window.  I also started a series, Snowed in Memphis, which I plan to have follow the Canterbury Tales organization. The prologue draft is here.

Next steps

I’m going to focus on the old and revised and try to polish those for submission. Then I’ll work on the new and need edits to get them ready for submits. They’re the closest contenders.

As for the New & Nots, I think I need to put together a workshop for those. Something along the lines of, “What does the character want?” and “What’s the story really about?” Snowed in Memphis needs a lot of construction work, so it’s probably going have to wait until the Challenge is over.

What about you? How far have you gotten in the 2013 Short Story Challenge?

Daylight

Posted: July 17, 2013 in Short Story
Tags: , , ,

Telling this story was a response to Maroon 5’s song Daylight. I’ve changed *most* of the names. But like Anne Lamott says, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to say nice things about them they should have behaved better.”

__________________________________________________

I could barely breathe when Tuesday ended.

The house had been full of people. A going away party. Our last night together. Only Angela would still be there by the weekend. The rest of us were leaving, one and two at a time, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. So the last night, Tuesday, we had a party.

Tonight. It’s still tonight. It’s the same drunken silliness we’ve been having since April. My parents are all but completely absent and we’ve had run of the house. Downstairs right now are a dozen sleeping teenagers, paired up under blankets and sharing whatever darkened corner they can find.

I’m pretty sure Tag is in my dad’s room. He’s the only one who ever sleeps in there because he always sleeps alone. The only girl he wants rarely comes and when she does she brings her boyfriend.

The boyfriend is much too serious for the rest of us and eight years from now he’ll be killed in action as a Marine in Afghanistan. He’s better than the rest of us. At least that’s what we’ll say about him later but tonight he’s with the girl that breaks Tag’s heart over and over. She’s my best friend so I miss her and I keep inviting her. We said goodbye this afternoon after a day swimming in my parents’ backyard pool and she and the boyfriend-who-is-better-than-all-of-us left the party before the blender started mixing margaritas.

We played the same story last night that we’ve played all summer: plenty of booze, a few spills and mishaps, some he-said she-said drama, seemingly random hook ups. Caught between childhood and adulthood for what seems like the interminable future, we took full advantage of the swimming pool and hot tub out back.

On Tuesday I’d come upstairs to change into dry clothes and he’d followed me and that’s how he ended up on my couch. Despite some other girls’ efforts to get him to share a blanket with them, he’d come with me. I handed him a towel and closed the door. He had a bag with him and turned his back while I pealed my bathing suit off and shimmied into shorts and a t-shirt. I gave him the same privacy and together we charged the air with its first real tension since we’d first met.

With our backs to one another, in unknown states of undress, he said, “Will it be okay if I crash here tonight?”

“Of course,” I said.

“I mean here, on your couch?”

I closed my eyes. My single bed against the wall in front of me, a couch on the wall behind me, a drawing table-turned-desk in the right and a ladder I used as shelving on the left held down the corners of the room. I knew the arrangement like the length of my arms and legs.

I nodded first and then said, “Yes,” so he could hear. Then, “Done?”

With his affirmative, I turned and we faced one another in this room we would share. We didn’t go to bed right then; we left the room, flipped the light off, rejoined the party which at this point had Dancing Queen blaring on the stereo on the living room. We paused at the balcony overlook and watched the crowd dancing. I felt eyes on me and met them. Jason. All summer we’d played this drama, I wanted him but he didn’t want me but he didn’t want anyone else to have me either. The Sophie-Jason drama was tired but we’d kept it up.

Now, though, I’d changed the game. Standing next to me, having just emerged from my bedroom, in fresh clothes, with a time of nakedness elapsed, was his brother. Jason looked at his brother. Joel just looked back.

We descended. The open stairwell met the first floor on a wooden foyer into which the front door opened. Tag was playing a game at the bottom of the stairs, seated on the opening to the living room and facing the foyer. When I came down his eyes widened. I went to him.

“Not Joel,” he said quietly.

“No,” I agreed. “He’s Jason’s brother.”

“I know, Soph, I grew up with them.” He reached up and took my hand. He met my eyes. “Don’t. Just don’t.”

“I wasn’t. I won’t. It was just a towel and dry clothes thing. Nothing else,” I assured him. I smiled then sat down behind him, putting my legs out on either side of his and pressing myself against his back

Tag rubbed my leg and I smiled and laid my cheek on his shoulder.

My parents’ house had ceased to be theirs when they’d split at Christmas time. It was now firmly mine until tomorrow when I left for college. I looked around. Tag and I sat on one side of the foyer, the door to our left, the living room behind us. In the living room was the formal furniture we’d only ever sat on during special occasions, company, or if we were being talked to because of some inscrutable sin we’d committed.

Now, though, drunk teenagers were draped over it. My mother’s lamps, the ones she’d gotten from her grandmother that we’d been led to believe were so fragile we ought not to touch them except to dust them, glowed on either end of the sofa. In here it was a sofa, a deep golden velvet piece with four cushions and stiff tube-like pillows below the arm rests. It sat opposite a piano whose bench was stuffed with sheet music we’d never learned. In the family room it was a couch, okay for rough housing and Sunday napping but in here it was a sofa and no one sat on it until about five months ago when my mom moved out.

I looked over Tag’s shoulder to his opponent. On the other side of the foyer, below the staircase and with the formal dining room behind him, sat Ben, a sandy blonde drama instigator who right now was wrapped in the legs of his sometimes girlfriend Michelle. She’s the one Jason wanted, but she wanted Ben, usually, except when she didn’t and she turned to Jason, who was waiting to drop me and pick her up.

I hated her but we did pretty much everything together except talk about why she kept pulling Jason to her when she knew how much I wanted him. She was leaving for Virginia Tech tomorrow but she wouldn’t stay there. We’d make a single road trip to party which would be torn asunder by the passing of Melanie’s grandfather, and then I would never see Michelle again. She’d drop out of college and end up stripping in Myrtle Beach, a future Jason and Tag would defend as legitimate despite my passionate assertions that it was completely unacceptable.

That Tuesday she was sitting behind Ben, pretending to be in a real relationship with a future that included college and marriage and family, unaware that future would not be hers. And he rubbed her legs, turned and kissed her now and then, unaware that when she was stripping in Myrtle Beach he would have left college, too, and be working at Abercrombie & Fitch as a retail professional for much longer than it was okay to be doing so. Then he’d get wasted and miss a shift and get fired even though the manager really wanted to fire him for being too old and for fucking all the teenagers they hired. He was twenty three when that happened.

I hear my name and stand up behind Tag, pushing on his back so he folds almost in two over the plastic cup in front of him. It’s got beer in it and Ben is tossing beer caps from across the foyer into it. They played this game for hours all summer long. Usually Jason played, too. But when I walked past the stairs, under the walkway, I saw him sitting in my dad’s recliner watching some girls dance.

Melanie is with them. Her grandfather was still alive that Tuesday but he was really sick. She was about six daiquiris in but way better off than the night she drank Brass Monkey. She’d wandered around with that bottle in her hand being the biggest bitch ever. I’d probably deserved some of what she said but I’d been drinking vodka which makes me cry and so her attitude and my emotional instability were a terrible combination.

By the summer after senior year she’s had sex with eight guys and I have, too, and we have an unofficial contest going to see who can get to ten first. She was making a legitimate effort to secure number nine as I entered the room. She gyrated and squealed in that drunk girl way, singing every word to another Abba song. She called, “Sophie!” and pointed at me, pretending to lasso me toward her.

I looked down at Jason who was noticing me standing there. Then I looked past him and saw Joel and two other guys sitting on the couch. They were all just watching.

Later I would understand that look to be the mental video cameras recording what they were seeing for future masturbation material but right then I just saw three girls in various states of summer nakedness, triangle bathing suit tops, string bikini bottoms, hot pants, cut-off t-shirt, tank top, but mostly skin. Lots of skin. Touching and hugging and dancing.

Someone plugged a strobe light in and it flickered. Another squeal went up, more touching, more skin.

I walked past the living room to the kitchen. The floor was sticky but I didn’t bother to wince. We’d clean it tomorrow. We always did. That was the thing about this group, no one left the next day until the house was clean. We had a deal. If you didn’t stay and clean you didn’t get invited back. If you told anyone else about where we were partying, you didn’t get invited back. We had to protect the venue from too many people showing up, that’s when the cops got called and we all got busted. So we kept it to our eighteen-to-twenty regulars and the rules were simple: don’t tell anyone else, bring a blanket for sleeping because no one drives drunk, and stay to clean in the morning.

When I entered the kitchen there was an intense game of Asshole going on at the table and some shouting erupted as someone broke a rule and the others caught the infraction. Behind them a group played quarters on the counter top, bouncing coins into cups and slamming the mugs back whenever one found its mark.

All that noise, all that life, all that youth wasted on the young. I looked through the window and saw people still in the hot tub, still in the pool, on the deck. Our numbers rounded out but everyone was downstairs.

A touch on my back and I didn’t have to turn, I knew it was him. He handed me another beer and stood a little too close and I wondered if he’d finally decided he’d just go for it.

That’s how we got to where I couldn’t breathe.

The house had let go of everything else like a long exhale sending drunken teenage drama into the night and those sober few who hadn’t stayed had gone and the drunks who had stayed were under blankets coupled up all over the house. Angela and her boyfriend had my older sister’s room. They would break up within the year and then reconcile nine years later after Angela got stranded in Atlanta where he was living and used Facebook to put out an SOS to which he responded. She and I would reconnect on Facebook, too, after a long time of misunderstanding one another and thinking that ended friendship.

My younger sister and her boyfriend had made it home and were in her room. She wouldn’t survive the fall with our parents missing in action. She’d miss so much school that my mother would disenroll her, making her a high school dropout and effectively giving up on her. Even though she rallied years later and finished college and turned out okay, that night her future looked dismal and kept that pallor for some time.

Tag had my dad’s bed. He followed me South and lived with his mom for a year before moving to the college town I was in and sharing an apartment with me and Melanie, who’d come down after her grandfather’s death. Tag would work in restaurants and date several women until one of them graduated and moved back to Northern Virginia which is where we all were that summer; our hometown.

Eventually a company called America Online would put their corporate headquarters in our hometown and the whole area would quadruple in size with immigrants legitimate and not constructing four lane highways and wrap-around exit ramps where there used to be two lane traffic signal intersections.

But that Tuesday, after the quiet descended, it was just Joel and me in my room.

I’d asked Jason to stay. Though he’d been cold to me all summer it was the last night and I still wanted him. He’d done his handstand on the diving board that made me wild. He was tight, strong, so ridiculously sexy I couldn’t stand it. I’d made a fool of myself all summer after breaking up with him. He’d refused to get back together though we sometimes hooked up. After seeing me and Joel on the upstairs balcony and Michelle wrapped around Ben, Jason had decided to go home. He had offered Joel a ride and Joel had declined.

All summer I had been taking what I could get from Jason. I took the hookups and pretended to be satisfied. I also hooked up with others, most of whom were not in our group. I had rules. In a previous group of friends there had been one girl the boys passed around and when she wasn’t with us they talked about her. I heard what they said and the way they compared what she’d done with them and I refused to be her. So the rules I set for myself were that the guys couldn’t be friends, couldn’t be teammates, and later, couldn’t be fraternity brothers.

I had a guy I swam with that was a great low-commitment hook up and a friend in my sister’s group that provided a few hits when I needed one. I spent two weeks with a visitor from South Africa, who had been brought to me by a friend that was unwilling to take him to bars and compete with him for women; easily the hottest guy I ever had in my bed. But in our group there was only Jason.

And Joel. Who was laying on my couch as the night slipped away and the quiet of the house settled around us.

“Are you glad to go?” he asked.

“God, yes,” I said, automatically, without blinking, without thinking. It was the best decision I’d ever make to get the hell out of there. “Yes,” again, softly, not knowing then whether it was the right decision or not and feeling like I ought to be afraid even though I wasn’t.

“I remember when I left,” he said, “I couldn’t wait to get out. Sean and I were so ready.” He had his hands beneath his head and his legs crossed at the ankles.

“What brought you back?” I asked, staring at the ceiling but wanting to look at him, really look at him, until I couldn’t anymore. A gap opened and closed between us like the stretching threads of taffy as we pulled and pushed the conversation around looking for thickness and durability.

“It was too easy there. We weren’t going to survive if we stayed. So I left.”

I knew he meant the drugs. I knew he meant they were in to stuff they couldn’t control and couldn’t escape. Tag had told me the first year at VCU had splashed Joel and Sean in so much acid they’d come home disfigured. Joel came home at Christmas of year two, went to community college, tried to get his head on. Sean hung till the end of the Spring term but he’d been home for summer break two weeks when he overdosed on heroin.

A month ago Tag had come to my house, cheeks and eyes red from crying, to tell me about Sean. I didn’t know Sean, I’d never met him, but he and Joel and Jason and Sean’s younger brother Tim had all been best friends since grade school. Joel and Sean were two years ahead of us; Tim was one year ahead of us.

Before Sean died I’d only ever seen Joel when I was with Jason whom I had dated for the better part of the spring. Joel was home from VCU by then but he was in college and we were still in high school and so he didn’t pay too much attention to us. He may have noticed me. I’m not sure. I couldn’t see anyone except Jason because, right up until he’d decided on Michelle, he couldn’t see anyone but me.

After Sean died we spent more time with Joel. He didn’t want to be around people that reminded him of Sean and so Jason had been inviting him to hang with us. We didn’t do drugs, either, we only ever drank our faces off, so Joel was safe here. He worked and drank good beer but we all drank whatever anyone would buy us. Joel was just 20 and I don’t know where he got the microbrews he drank but he smoked hand rolled cigarettes and wrote poetry and drew. He was deeper and more mature than we were.

It was these last two things that connected me to him. I wrote. I wrote passionately and poorly and had been working on a novel for years. I knew the central love story and when I learned about Sean I suddenly had the central story. As I got to know Joel I slowly learned my main character and I infused him with all the beautiful broken things I learned about Joel.

He would eventually finish at George Mason University in bioengineering and go to Ithaca in New York and complete a PhD. Eighteen years later I would hear a radio DJ mention Ithaca in some benign statistic like “Smartest U.S. City” and think immediately about that Tuesday when Joel was just a recovering drug user whose best friend died six weeks ago.

After he said they wouldn’t have survived if they’d stayed I didn’t know what to say. I’d never done a single drug in my life. I’d never even smoked a cigarette. It wasn’t my style.

“I’ve been happy here,” he said.

“I’m glad,” I said.

“It’s been easier with you,” he said.

“I’ve tried to make it that way,” I said.

The darkness hung between us. The window over his head let in some light from the street but the blinds were closed and the light was severed with shadows. If he’d lift his arm I’d see it zebra striped in the night. But his arms were folded over his chest.

I turned onto my side to see him better and to slow the bed spins. I took a breath and let it out audibly, thought about all the people around us. I’d been calling them dead bodies, teenagers passed out and intertwined on couches and carpet and under tables. I didn’t call them dead bodies to Joel. I just thought about them and how easy this had all been all summer long and then I wondered how hard it would be at college.

I would find out I’d taken for granted the comfortable intimacy we shared and that people didn’t just ease into groups of friends in college like they did in high school. I would find I was homesick mostly for nights like this one when everyone had seemed in possession of the same smiles, passing them around and drinking deeply from them like chalices of understanding and security. I would find it wasn’t the booze that created that. It was something else I would never be able to duplicate.

“It is easy here,” I said. “Are we special?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Can we be different, then?” I asked.

“Probably not.”

I knew he meant we couldn’t be anything other than the girlfriend and the brother and that it was a rule I should have made but hadn’t yet.

I blinked and the bed wouldn’t stop so I sat up. He sat up. We faced each other.

“We’re supposed to be sleeping,” he said.

“I know.” I felt chills on my legs and the warm rush of saliva that comes just before all the beer I’d had reappears. I swallowed three times until it went away. I kept my eyes wide and breathed deep, slow breaths, though not the breath of sleep or peace. I reached for the water bottle on the small chair next to my bed that served as a night stand. I drank deeply and tried closing my eyes again. The nausea had passed and I didn’t feel quite as drunk as I thought I was.

He was still watching me. He was still waiting. We sat for a moment and let the darkness hang between us. I imagined his expression, thought I heard his lips part into that boyish smile with the tiny dimples.

“You’re laughing at me,” I said.

“No,” he said, but I could hear the smile in his voice.

I stood and walked across the room, stopped in front of him, and waited. The gap was closed. I could feel we both wanted more. I could feel the chance there. Then.

I reached over his head for the string on the blinds and pulled. They opened and the street light streamed in. I looked down at him, the top of his head. I could have cupped it and pulled it to me but I didn’t touch him.

His hand left the couch, his arm rose up beside my leg, his palm flat against my thigh. His touch singed and I could hear myself sizzle and steam. For a second I stood there, his hand on my leg, his face at my belly. The edge of my pajama shorts hung just over his wrist. His palm didn’t move.

I could kneel in front of him. I could press myself into him, wrap my arms around him, lift my face to his kiss. I could have him. I couldn’t breathe.

“This can’t happen,” he said softly.

“No,” I said, stepping back, breaking the contact, and retreating to my bed. I sat back down facing him. The light now showed his face, sharp cheek bones, beautiful round eyes, the tousled curls of a boy on his brow. I could push them aside, press my lips to him. But not from here.

I turned and laid back down. I could see he was still sitting. I could feel the intention. I begged him silently to follow me to the bed. Sit next to me, crawl over me, lay on me. I was begging and closed my eyes.

“I want you,” he said.

I felt a tear slip out of my eye.

“I don’t want you to go.”

I nodded. I heard him shift on the couch and when I opened my eyes he was laying down again. I squeezed my eyes shut and another tear dripped out.

He would come to visit me not six weeks from then, pulled by that magnet force we’d identified in my room that night. He’d drive all the way down, lying to his brother about where he was going, meeting up with Tag and arriving late one night on my dorm hall. Tag would have been to see me so often he would know how to sneak them in and they’d stay. But by then the world was bigger. Even when Tag left the next day to work and Joel and I were alone and he was lying in my bed, we’d only be able to hold one another.

Another month after that I’d be back home and naked under his brother and the tears would fill my eyes and we’d have to stop so I could gather myself. Then I’d smoke my first cigarette.

Tonight I could hear him breathing, a little ragged at first and then more even but not yet the steady breath of sleep. The daylight was coming and when it did, we would be on our own, apart. This brief moment would have passed and be irretrievable. I wasn’t ready. I clung to the dark, widened my eyes, interrupted my breath.

“In another life,” I said, “I’ll come to you and let you touch me.”

He stopped breathing. “I’ll kiss you,” he said.

I stopped breathing. “I’ll have you,” I said.

I turned my head and saw he was squeezing his eyes shut. His hands came up from the blanket at his sides and pressed into his eyes. I saw his elbows over his chest, his fingers on his forehead, the heal of his palm fit under the bone of his eye sockets. I saw his chest go up and down, then he raised his knees, bringing the blanket with them and I thought certainly he would come off the couch now.

I watched him, lying on my side, my hands tucked under my pillow, squeezing my chest tight, holding my breath.

In my memory he breaks that posture, sits up, and faces me. He doesn’t stand, just lunges quietly toward me, low to the ground, to the edge of my bed and kneels. He places a hand on my cheek and leans to me. We kiss gently at first and then deeper. In my memory he’s desperate for me and I for him. In my memory we know no one will ever have to know what happens in that room. We know the next day I’m leaving and this is the only moment we’ll ever have. In my memory we can’t let it pass.

His lips are warm and gentle and I slide over and make room for him. He crawls into the bed next to me and pulls me to him. We kiss and smile against each other’s lips. We agree to let it be. We agree to not tell. The secret becomes the binding we were looking for.

I let him pull my shirt over my head and I pull his off, too. We are chest to chest in the dark side of the room. He’s over top of me, against me, firm and ready. I’m soft and pliant below him. In my memory he can have me and he does.

I take that memory to school with me the next day. I hold on to the way it could have happened. I repeat, “Nothing happened.” I call it nothing.

He would come to visit and we would be unable to connect, really connect, for fear of what it would do to Jason. We think one of the things we have in common is Jason. We forget what we had in common in my room that night. We forget.

Six hundred miles away from that room, six weeks from that night, we cannot put six degrees between us, there’s only one. While Joel and I are sitting in my room at school listening to some music he’s bought that one degree calls me. He tells me things he shouldn’t and I blush on the phone and Joel leaves the room to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette.

“This cannot happen,” comes back into the room with him.

We go to bed and hold each other.

A month later I would sit on the side of the bed crying and Jason would say, “Did you fuck him?”

In my memory it’s nothing. I remember nothing. I would say, “No.”

The daylight pulled at the edges of the night and the blinds admitted the pinkish hues. Breathing slowed to that deep and peaceful rhythm of sleep. I looked at him again, boyish smile with tiny dimples that indicated mischief even while sleeping. Then I closed my eyes and let the moment pass. Let daylight come.

Boston

Posted: April 30, 2013 in Short Story
Tags: , , ,

The sun is peeking through the heavy hotel curtains when Ellen Hayes wakes this morning. Not like yesterday. Yesterday was race day and the alarm had barely beeped when she’d slammed it off and sat up in the darkness of pre-dawn.

Today the sun is already warming the windows and the street below.

She stares at the sliver of light for a moment, blinks at it, closes her eyes tightly against it and breathes.

The soreness in her legs is there. Yesterday she’d stretched before and after and ice-bathed for a half hour before dinner. She’d stretched again before bed. Twenty six miles is 26 miles and you’ll be sore afterward. She knew that. This wasn’t her first marathon.

She flexes her feet, first the right, it’s on top, then the left. She rolls onto her back.

She’s not alone in the bed. She hadn’t been yesterday either. She can hear his soft snoring, sense the wave in the blanket where it stretches over his turned back.

Ellen turns her head to the left, stares again at the window, again flexes her feet, first the right, then the left. The hamstring muscles pull, tense, begin to stretch, and relax. She points her toes, rotates her ankles. The blankets roll with the motion, tighten and fall.

He stops snoring, turns over.

The air between them stinks of breath and sweat and the industrial detergent of hotel sheets.

Ellen turns her head to him. His eyes are open. He’s staring at the ceiling. She sees his profile, the eye lashes thin and tangled, the bulges still puffy, his nose still swollen. His right hand is on his forehead, the back of it pressed to his skin, the palm up and fingers barely twitching toward the ceiling.

She reaches under the covers and takes his left hand where it lays at his side and squeezes it.

It feels like Washington twelve years ago. They were newlyweds then, one of the six couples that got married in a ten week stretch that summer and fall. The wedding in Washington came just a week after their own so they’d made D.C. their honeymoon.

They laid quiet and awake in the bed at the Rosslyn, Virginia Marriot on Tuesday morning when a tremendous crash shook the building. At the window they’d watched the smoke billow up from the Pentagon, just a mile away.

This morning it’s quiet and dark in the hotel room but she can feel them both waiting for another crash.

Yesterday she’d nearly leapt from the bed. She’d found the Under Armor carefully laid out on the desk, removed her panties and stepped into the lycra shorts. She’d rubbed the gel between her thighs and tugged the shorts over her bare bottom. She’d reached into a snug sports bra, stretched it over her head and fitted it over each breast, reaching inside and positioning them.

Yesterday was race day.

Her pink race shirt bore the names of sponsors from her home town and the logo of the charity for which she was running. She put on lycra cotton blend socks and padded into the bathroom to brush her teeth. All before she’d turned on a light.

Yesterday the darkness had been thick enough to suffocate her nerves. She’d been dressing in the predawn for so long she moved as if in choreographed dance to prepare to run.

After she brushed her teeth she combed her hair into two messy knots and secured each tightly with hair bands. She rubbed a pea-sized squeeze of sunscreen over the part down the middle of her head. That stretch of scalp would burn; she knew it didn’t take long.

This morning she replays that pre-dawn ritual as if seeing herself across the room. She closes her eyes and remembers the anticipation, the deep breaths she took to calm herself down. Race Day.

Yesterday she’d gently woken him and said goodbye. She heard, “Good luck,” and then his snoring before she’d closed the hotel door behind her.

Not today.

Ellen squeezes her eyes shut and considers going back to sleep when Richard says, “What time is it?”

She shakes her head. “Late, probably.”

He snorts, one of those early morning inhales that sucks snot back into place. Then he coughs and rolls over and looks at the clock.

He has to take his glasses off the night stand and shove them onto his face before he can read the red electric letters.

“Nine,” he says.

“Yeah,” Ellen says. “Late.”

“We should get going.”

Ellen gets up first. Slowly. She takes time to stretch as she’s moving away from the pillow, to the side of the bed. Rotates her ankles again, feels the hamstrings pull again, not as tight as before. She stands and turns her torso one way and then the other, feels the small of her back tighten, pull, and loosen. Walking across the room, to the bathroom, she stops at the vanity. Feet together, right foot over left, she stretches her right arm over her head and leans to the left. A full-body-length stretch of her IT band first right side then left. Upright and feeling looser, she walks into the bathroom and closes the door behind her.

Yesterday she’d met some other runners in the elevator. They all had their numbers secured to their chests with the tiny safety pins from the race packets. Everyone smiled. One man had a coffee in his hand.

“Your first?” the coffee man asked her.

Ellen shook her head. She was wearing her long sleeved jacket.

He refrained from suggesting anything. He sipped his coffee. The mug read, “Team Alice,” and was a brushed nickel color with red lettering. The drinker had bushy eye brows that peaked over the edge of the mug and looked like caterpillars.

“Will I be able to leave this someplace?” a youngish woman asked, tugging on her own jacket. She wore a pink hat and pink running shorts. Her shoes were pink and white as was the jacket. She had long hair she’d woven into tight braids and tied up with pink ribbons.

“On the bus. In the bag,” the coffee man said, and indicated the yellow bag another passenger carried.

The young woman looked panicked. “I didn’t bring mine,” she said.

“You can put it ‘round your waist,” another runner said in an accented voice. Ellen could barely see him around the coffee man’s center presence.

“Or, they’ll have more at the start,” Ellen said. She watched the crowd bow and shift in the reflection in the elevator. When the elevator arrived in the lobby, the doors slid open and she said, “Good luck, everyone,” as she exited.

The returned, “Good luck,” from each of them followed her as she walked through the elevator vestibule and into the open lobby of the hotel. More runners queued here and Ellen looked for those with shirts that matched her own.

“Ellen!” She was being waved over by her running partner.

The first time Ellen was part of history was the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco that stopped the World Series. She’d only been a kid then. Her family lived a mile from the epicenter but far away from the significant damage televised in San Francisco and San Jose. Back then when such things happened they occurred in the present. Each trembling, shaking moment, fifteen seconds worth of jarring chaos, simply happened and then was over. The broader impact and context of the event was not quite as well orchestrated. Ellen and her family stayed in the neighborhood four days grilling steak and eggs and pouring Clorox into the toilet. Returning to school after a week, Ellen told her where-were-you story to whomever asked and listened politely to theirs. A shared event needs to be shared. And then it was over. People rebuilt. Life continued.

“Ellen!” and knocking on the door. “I’m going downstairs to get breakfast. I’ll bring you a plate.”

“Okay,” she says loud enough that he can hear her through the door and over the rush of the shower. She peals her pajamas off and steps into the shower. It’s hotel hot and scalds her. She leans in, wincing, turns the knob to cool it down.

The temperature adjusts and Ellen turns on her heel, dunking her head under the shower stream. It’s her third shower since yesterday morning. She’s not sure what is left to rinse off but she lets the water course over her anyway, feeling the heat work into her stiff and tired muscles.

Yesterday in the lobby after she’d joined her group she turned and saw the girl from the elevator standing alone. She walked to her.

“Your first?” Ellen asked.

The young woman nodded.

“Got friends?”

The young woman shook her head. “Just a finish line friend. But she’s still sleeping.”

“Come on with us, then. I’m Ellen.”

“Maggie.”

Back with her group she introduced Maggie to the others and looked around the lobby to see if anyone had begun organizing participants onto the buses. The runners folded themselves in various positions of stretches around the room. Some stood tightly, legs together, arms wrapped around them. Others reached out, arms wide, chests open.

Ellen’s running partner was asking Maggie why she’d chosen Boston, how she’d qualified, how long she’d been running. Ellen listened politely and smiled when the younger woman said she’d been a chubby teenager and found a couch-to-5k program in the first year at college. She was twenty one, she’d been running three years, and had become a marathoner.

“Where do you expect to finish?”

“Probably in the 4:30 or 4:45 range,” she said. “My PR is 4:41 so I’d just like to beat that.”

Ellen’s running partner, Sara, smiled at the young woman. “For your first Boston, just try to enjoy yourself. Soak it up. The next marathon you can push to your best finish.”

Ellen laughed, “Sara is a low-stress runner.”

Maggie smiled.

“Run the best you can and you’ll have no regrets when you leave here,” Ellen said.

The words come back to her this morning under the hot shower. No regrets. She turns her face to the downpour and feels it penetrating her skin, pounding her eyelids. She opens her mouth and feels the hard rays of the hotel showerhead against her teeth like laser beams.

By 9/11 the world had gotten more anxious about identifying history. Ellen remembered Tom Brokaw at the earthquake site, a picture of him in the commemorative book her mom had bought, applying hair spray before going on camera. At the Berlin Wall he’d been pretty sure he was witnessing history and said as much. Starting with 9/11 everything that happened was destined for the history books. She and Richard had stood in the window of their fifth floor hotel room and watched the Pentagon smolder. The television reporters narrated the scene and footage rolled, but Richard and Ellen had tickets to the live event. They were afraid to move, afraid there were more missiles coming and that the hotel would be struck, too. They watched, dumbfounded, as the footage of New York City played over and over.

When the towers collapsed, Richard held Ellen and they wept softly. She ached for all those people. Brian Williams led the news that day and he reminded them they’d seen history. They weren’t living the moment like in 1989, waiting to fully understand what was happening; now they knew what the moment meant. They were watching it unfold and looking for their names in the credits reel. They had immediate perspective on why this was so important.

A reporter staying in their hotel interviewed people in the lobby before she could make her way to the Pentagon. Ellen and Richard listened to the guests tell the same story they had just lived. Then Ellen pressed her cheek to Richard’s chest and asked him to turn off the television.

Ellen knows the schedule for today. Today they’ll leave Boston. She pulls her head out of the shower stream and can hear voices in the other room. Richard left the television on.

She tells herself she can’t stay in the shower all day, turns off the water, and steps out into the foggy room. The mirror’s edges are clouded but she can see herself in the clear glass in the middle. Her slender body is wet and pale. She flexes a bit as she moves and she can see the sharp definitions of muscle in her back, her hips, her thighs. She’s not young or particularly beautiful but she’s strong and she knows strong is the new skinny.

The damage from yesterday’s marathon does not show. Her skin is red from the heat of the water but as she pats it dry the redness is fading. She leans deeper into the reach while drying her calves and feet and gets a good hamstring stretch out of the effort.

The voices in the other room are louder now with the water off. She wraps one towel around her head and one around her body leaves the bathroom. She can hear Matt Lauer as she nears the screen. It glows in the darkness of the room, competes with the slim line of daylight coming through the curtains. She sits on the end of the bed, an arm’s length from the television and watches the images moving slowly across the screen like scenes in the bus window.

“Are you nervous?” Maggie asked. They’d ended up herded onto the bus together and sat side by side midway to the back.

Ellen shrugged and then said, “A little. Race day can be stressful which adds to the nerves. But it will wear off.”

“When?”

“Before the first mile is over.” Ellen smiled though Maggie was only nodding in a dazed kind of way. Ellen had the window seat and turned back to the scenery. She watched Boston inching by, not much faster than it would in an hour as she ran through it, back toward Richard and the hotel, toward the finish line.

“My first marathon was a disaster,” Maggie said.

“Oh yeah?”

“My running skirt was too big and the legs rolled up and just wore into the crease. Terrible burns. I didn’t notice them, just kept running. About halfway through the woman I was pacing stopped and puked and I stopped, too, not sure what was happening and then when I tried to start again, I felt the cuts.”

Ellen looked at Maggie.

“Equipment failure,” the younger woman laughed. “Or user error anyway.”

“Had you run in that skirt before?”

“Yeah, but nothing longer than a few miles.”

Ellen nodded, “It takes a few trips out to get familiar with how the clothes, or the shoes, or the music will behave. My iPod once got stuck on repeat and played the same song over and over. I had no idea how to fix it.”

“What did you do?”

“Turned on the ‘shake-to-shuffle’ and shook it every time a song started to repeat.” Ellen laughed. “First world problems, huh?”

Maggie smiled.

The bus had gotten noisier. Voices carried to Ellen from the seats around them. She heard stories about other years at Boston, heard references to New York and Chicago. Veterans talking about race days like battles in a war.

The cadence of the stories had a calming effect. She knew this song, had even sung it. She said to Maggie, “My first Boston it rained. I mean, rained. I bought a hat to wear but I never run in hats and my head got so hot I had a terrible headache by about the half mark.”

Maggie nodded and pointed to her own head. “Broke this one in.”

Ellen smiled. She had a visor on, her messy knots peeking out behind her ears. “Visor,” she said. “Keeps rain out of my face, blocks sun, and doesn’t trap the heat.”

“Good thinking,” Maggie said. “What’s the course like? Any specific things I should look for?”

Ellen thought for a second, played the course in her head, flashing through it like a movie montage, thought to warn about hills or curves but decided it wouldn’t do much good to say anything and instead said, “Are you packing energy?”

“Sure, I have some gels.”

“Take them earlier than you’d planned.”

“I have them scheduled for particular miles.”

“Of course. Take them earlier. The crowd will give great momentum at the end. But you want to get there. Don’t save the gels. You won’t need them later. Take them about a half mile earlier than you’d planned.”

Maggie looked as if she wasn’t sure of this advice but then nodded.

“Anything else?”

“Have fun out there. It’s a great course, a great city, and a well-supported event. Smile at the clever signs, high five the little kids, enjoy yourself. You can PR anywhere. This is Boston.”

In the hotel room this morning, a damp Ellen stares at the screen. She can see the finish line in the photo. The finishing time reads 4:09.93. She sees a runner with a yellow jersey, several others in red, and one in orange. They look like running sparks as if they’d caught the wind after the explosion. But they’re just running, mostly unaware, because the explosion is just then happening.

It’s the same picture the news organizations have been showing ad nauseam. The edge of the frame is tinged with the orange and yellow fire of the blast. A plume of smoke is breaking loose. Somewhere in that smeary horror bodies are being burned, pierced, shattered.

The pictures change and then it’s back to Matt Lauer, standing on a street corner across from the police tape and debris. He’s talking but Ellen isn’t listening to him. She’s staring at the space where the finish line had stretched upward into the sky. A tall arch like a gate had beckoned her through.

Ellen lost Maggie almost immediately when they got off the bus. She found Sara as they’d planned and they started the race together. Sara’s family had moved in next door two years ago and when she found out Ellen had run Boston before, she immediately created a plan to get them back to the starting line.

It took two years to come out of her 5k, 10k habit and really build the mileage she would need to complete the 26.2. It didn’t have to take two years; Ellen knew people stepped up from the 13.1 to the 26.2 within a few months. But she and Sara took their time, adding mileage gradually and running when they wanted to.

In the second year they decided to get serious and began running even when they didn’t want to. They dragged each other out on long routes on Sunday mornings and kept a quiet, determined pace.

Sara’s young family had not come. Her husband had let their daughters stay home from school, though, to watch mom run even though the likelihood of more than a glimpse was small. Sara had transformed over the last two years. She’d lost weight and gained a taller posture. She smiled more and worried less. She had always been kind but now she was open, too. Running had turned her into a woman, fully realized, confident, and secure.

Ellen thought Sara was beautiful and told her so.

Sara said, “I feel beautiful.”

They held hands at the starting line. Told each other thank you for the hours of training. Wished each other good luck.

She’s sitting on the bed staring at the screen when the door opens. Before it she hears some shuffling and scratching at the door, Richard stretching the card key toward the door knob, swiping it, trying the handle, trying the card again, a beep, and then the handle turns. The noise of entry is just audible over the television. She’s still staring at the footage of the finish line.

The door opens and a shaft of light from the hallway frames Richard as he enters. His hands are full, two plates and a few bottles of juice pinned by his arm to his rib cage.

“Good morning,” he says.

Ellen nods.

“Hungry?”

She nods again. She’s staring at the footage.

When she’d neared the finish there were nine people in front of her that she could see. The course had been between barricades for the better part of a mile and banners draped along the short walls declared sponsors’ taglines and products. She always thought at least half of those ads were for the people standing behind them. What runner ate fast food? So many of them were from elsewhere, why would they need the name of a local church? How could the State Farm insurance agent really assist her?

Nevertheless, the banners strung along the last mile talked her through the final leg of the race. Even as the spontaneous Y-M-C-A chant had caught her at mile fourteen and energized her. She waved at the spectators at mile marker nineteen with the whiteboard on which they updated the Red Sox score. There was a bagpiper around mile twenty that probably had access to a lot more oxygen than she did.

In the final mile, reading the sponsors banners and keeping pace with a woman in an orange jersey, Ellen had reached for more stride. Almost there. Not her first Boston. She could read the clock over the finish line. Watched the digital numbers click, 4:04, 4:04, 4:04. She moved closer, barely feeling her legs.

Richard is handing her a plate. She takes it. The towel she’s held around her drops a bit but she doesn’t tuck it back into place. The top curve of her breast shows, she’s still wet.

Richard reaches for the plate again. “Why don’t you get dressed first,” he says.

She shakes her head, pulls the plate out of his reach. “I’m fine.”

She can feel him move behind her, turn the lamp on between the beds. The light puts a glare on the TV screen.

It’s the same footage she’s seen a hundred times. The finish line clock is in the foreground, ticking off the numbers. In her mind she zooms into the clock, spins the angle, and pulls back like one of those perspective-change shots in the movie the Matrix. She remembers running toward the line.

Her body was slick with sweat and she imagined herself reflecting the light of camera flashes. She’d heard her training music, song after song, imagined in her head. Now she was playing the Rocky theme for herself. The last push, the last surge.

There was no energy left but she tried to summon it anyway. She watched the orange jersey lady’s back and kept stride. She read the clock: 4:07. Flags lined the sidewalk, standing upright and billowing in the breeze. People stood underneath them, crushed together shoulder to shoulder, cheering in the runners. The bleachers on her right side stacked up toward the sky, a calm but satisfied grey. Volunteers in yellow stood a few feet apart like traffic cones leading right up to the finish line.

A dozen cameras were aimed her way. She smiled. Almost there. 4:08.

Ellen lifts a piece of fruit to her mouth and takes a bite. The juice is sweet but she can’t really tell what it is. She’s transfixed by the glowing screen. She can see herself running toward the finish line.

In her mind the finish line looms in front of her, on the screen it’s between where she sits on the edge of the hotel bed and the figure she knows is her, pink top, tucked behind the orange jersey lady.

Ellen watches herself near the end of the race. She remembers how tired she was. How elated.

Richard moves closer to her, behind her, puts his hand on her shoulder.

The finish line clock ticks those electronic numbers, the way the white lines morph from one letter to the next, Ellen can feel them dragging her eyes through the moment. She watches her feet, watches the bouncy pace of the woman she was trailing.

4:09.00.

The footage is security camera footage, the angle is still, the motion is everything in the picture. Ellen. Orange jersey lady. Bright green man in front of her. Yellow volunteers. Cameras and policemen.

Then boom. The camera shakes. An orange plume erupts on the screen. Ellen jerks with the appearance of it. In her mind the angle reverses again, matrix-style, and she’s looking to her left where smoke and flames have appeared. Smoke and flames. Chaos. Disruption. Violence.

She looked back up at the camera. 4:09.93.

She stopped eight strides short of finishing.

She’s watching it again, seeing herself see the bombing. Seeing herself flee the chaos. Seeing others run to the flames.

Richard’s hand is on her shoulder.

She chokes on the fruit.

“Come on,” he says, “Let’s get dressed.”

In the starting corral Ellen looked around and noticed how many people were running for others. She saw sponsors names on shirts, like hers. Local stores and businesses, insurance agencies and apartment home complexes with quaint logos screen printed on t-shirts.  But also homemade t-shirts with Sharpie writing messages of love and hope. One girl had Sharpie on her arms and legs. She’d sold those positions to raise money for the group she was running for.

Ellen felt grateful to be there. She felt grateful to be counted among the charitable, the strong, the runners who were carrying their inspiration with them. Scribbled words on shirts and skin, bracelets, tape, signs, and talismans of all kind, each meant something. Ellen tried reading them, tried understanding them.

“Girl, you’re beautiful just the way you are,” read one runner’s leg. She wore a Girls on the Run jersey.

“For Kate,” said tape across one man’s back. He wore dog tags.

“First National Bank proudly sponsors Team Corey,” across a screen printed purple running jersey on three competitors nearby. Ellen smiled at them and wondered who Corey was.

Ellen felt grateful to be part of such a gathering. All of those runners finding cause to run and then lining up intending to finish, committed to at least starting.

The crowd stilled for the announcements, honors for various sponsors and organizers, and then the start. The mass surged forward, slowly at first so many feet and bodies, and then stretched as the faster groups went off and those in the mid-pack followed.

Ellen and Sara had a plan. They began with the tempo they’d agreed on, tugging one another through the throng until the mass thinned out and they found a solid gait, warmed up, and settled in.

The route was lined with onlookers, children with their hands outstretched. Ellen and Sara high-fived as many as they could. When they heard one kid they’d passed shout, “anyone?” Sara circled back, smacked his hand, and said, “Thanks for being here.”

“Reminded me of Carter,” she said when she rejoined Ellen who had jogged in place waiting for her.

Ellen smiled at her. “Let’s wave madly at a camera and see if we make the highlight reel,” she said.

Since 9/11 she’s been part of history six times. She was at the Super Bowl in Texas in 2004 when Janet Jackson stunned the American public with a bare breast on national television. In 2005 she was part of the Red Cross efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and earned a mention in Anderson Cooper’s book that provided perspective on the disaster less than a year later.

“Is it cold out today?” she hears herself saying to Richard.

“Not really,” he says.

He has turned the lamp on in the hotel room and now Ellen sees her running clothes hanging over the desk and chair. She stands and moves toward her suitcase, hoists it onto the bed, and flips the lid back.

Richard took her to Paris in 2005 and they watched Lance Armstrong win his seventh consecutive Tour de France. In 2008 she’d worked on the Obama campaign and was standing in the convention center in Charlotte, the Southeast headquarters for the campaign, when the country elected its first black president. On a trip to Florida in 2011 she and Richard saw the final launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

Then last year she had planned to run the Wichita marathon but tornados struck the town and the race was canceled. She and Sara went anyway and helped in relief and rebuilding efforts for the three days they’d planned to be there.

Ellen finds panties in the suitcase, a shirt, some capri pants, and lays them on the bed beside the bag. She turns and grabs her running gear in one hand. She lifts it to her nose and sniffs.

Sweat. Work. Stink. And smoke. Ellen closes her eyes. She sees the course. Hopkinton. Ashland. Framingham. Natick. She felt her shoes over the rubber bumps that sent text messages to Richard telling him her progress.

At mile 10 she felt good. She was fast enough the volunteers were still handing out cups. Sara was still with her, stride for stride. By mile 15, the Newton firehouse, more than half way, Sara had been slowing down. She waved Ellen on. They made eye contact and Ellen said, “Thank you.” Then she was on her own, pounding it out.

The Newton hills weren’t unexpected but they stung. At mile 17 a huge group of kids waving Boys & Girls Club banners and wearing matching t-shirts. At mile 18, the country club. The last one, Heartbreak Hill, stretched before her. Crest it and it everything else was down the other side.

Ellen pulled her frame up, shortened her stride, kept her pace, and stared into the concrete. “You can do it,” the mantra in her head repeated. “You can do it.” One foot after the next, pound pound pound, up the hill.

“You okay?” Richard asked.

She looked up. She’d been standing over her suitcase, holding her running gear. She dropped it. “Yes,” she said.

“We have most of the day,” he said, sitting on the double bed they’d left untouched. He was bare chested and the hair over his sternum glistened, still damp, in the lamplight. He had showered while she’d stood over the suitcase, remembering Heartbreak Hill.

Richard crossed one leg over the other and stretched a sock across his foot. First one then the other then he stood and lifted his jeans from the bed. He stepped into them, shaking them as he pulled them up over his knees and thighs. Ellen watched.

“What is there to do?” she asked absently.

“Lunch first,” he said. “With Sara?”

Ellen nodded.

“Then I’m not sure.”

“I just want to go home,” Ellen said.

“I know,” he said.

Heartbreak Hill hadn’t killed her and when she crested it she felt like she was looking down into a great prosperous valley. Her trot felt light and easy. Cleveland Circle, Washington Square, Audobon Circle, the bridge over the Pike, Hotel Buckminster, the Storrow underpass, Right on Hereford, Left on Boyston. Convention Center. Apple Store.

Ellen could feel the energy of the crowd, thicker now closer to the finish. She smiled. Actually smiled.

Later, after the chaos had subsided, she and Richard would find Sara sitting on the curb on Heartbreak Hill. She’d been told by motorcycle cops to stop and had been told why. She’d answered phone calls from home and friends. Yes, she was fine; no, she wasn’t near the finish line.

They’d made their way back to the hotel. They met a finisher in the elevator; she had her medal around her neck. Richard and Ellen walked Sara to her room. They gave her a tight hug before she went inside. They agreed to get dinner. But Sara hadn’t left her room. She begged off when Ellen called later. Said she was icing her legs.

Ellen hobbled into the lobby with Richard. They drank wine and listened to the low hum of post-traumatic sense-making in the conversations around them and the television news coverage. There was the finish line footage and there was Ellen. Eight strides from a 4:10 finishing time, her pink jersey visible behind the lady in orange. She was one of the charity runners, she was one of the less-elite. She was just trying to finish.

And there was the smoke. The orange plume of fire over the heads of those finish line wavers, those cheering sections hanging in there till the very end.

Richard had found her quickly. He’d seen her pass the grandstand and climbed down the stairs before the rest of the spectators tried to abandon their positions. He had jogged around toward the finish line, a few paces behind her, on the sidewalk.

When the explosion happened he raced to her, caught her, frantic, turning, searching, seeing. She reached out her hand and he pulled her to him, over the finish line.

Photographers and first responders rushed past them, ran toward the explosion. Richard pulled her closer, walked her away from the finish.

Chaos ensued.

Now the hotel phone rings and Richard picks it up off the receiver.

“Yes, hello. No, we’ll be leaving today as scheduled. Okay, thank you.” He hangs up and looks at Ellen. “Apparently people are staying extra days.”

“Why?”

He shrugs. “Not sure.”

“What were they saying at breakfast?”

“Nothing new from last night. Everyone knows what Matt Lauer knows,” he says, indicating the daytime talk show host on the screen to Ellen’s left.

She looks over her shoulder and smiles at Matt Lauer. Then the footage runs again and she looks away.

After they’d found Sara the three of them had located some race volunteers and followed the directions to get back to the bags they’d left at the starting line. As they walked they saw other runners, having abandoned the race, draping their bags over their shoulders, looking up with the wounded eyes of shelter animals.

Runners say that running is a visualization exercise. Competitors talk at length about seeing themselves achieve distance, speed, stride. Coaches teach runners how to see the miles passing, the end drawing nearer: see yourself cross the finish line. The Boston runners who knew the route were matching landmarks to their pace. Those that didn’t know the route were reading the mile markers and comparing strength to stride.

The competitive runners passed the finish line just after two hours had elapsed. They included foreign nationals and Olympians. Jason Hartmann, Shalane Flanagan, and Kara Goucher the top Americans to complete the race. They were iced, massaged, and showered when the charity runners neared the stripe after the four-hour mark. The competitive runners may have envisioned the finish they achieved. But the ones who came later, after Ellen, after the bombs, the end they’d experienced, no one could have visualized.

Everybody was just trying to make sense of what was happening. The news media were assisting by speculating and analyzing. Digital technology was assisting with more than 100 private citizens uploading the footage of the race site they’d recorded on their phones for use in the investigation. Faster than ever the event was rushing to conclusion. Even faster than 9/11. Faster than Katrina. Faster than Wichita last year.

After enough wine last night Richard had taken her upstairs, massaged her tired legs until she fell asleep. Now it was Tuesday, they still didn’t know what had actually happened, and they were heading home.

“Call Sara,” Ellen says.

She dresses and packs and then zips the suitcase and the sound of it closing echoes in the room. Richard’s voice is calm but low and she barely hears him before he speaks directly to her.

“Okay, all set. She’ll meet us downstairs.”

Ellen nods.

“Are you okay?” he asks again.

She nods then says, “I’m better than a few others.”

“Still sore?”

“Still grateful,” she says.

He pulls her into a hug, squeezes gently, kisses the top of her head. She steps away, leaves the room. He follows and the heavy door closes behind them.

Packing

Posted: April 17, 2013 in Short Story
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Just Write Short Story Challenge of 2013 continues with this offering. I broke my own rule and edited one I’d drafted some time ago. I think it’s appropriate, though, since my friend who inspired the story has now returned from Liberia. Your comments are appreciated. Please let me know what you think.

_________________________________________________________

“Packing”

Dominique laid another tightly folded shirt into the suitcase. “Twenty-two,” she said softly to herself.

“Here,” Roman said, hoisting a full basket of dried laundry onto the bed next to the suitcase. The covers fell away from the pillows, created lumps, made the basket lean unevenly as though it might spill. He held the basket’s rims tightly, shimmied it to flatten the folds of comforter beneath it. Then released his grip and stepped back.

“Thanks,” Dominique said. Folded another shirt, pressed it into the suitcase. “Twenty-three.”

He lingered at her elbow. Waited.

She scratched 23 on the page next to the line item “30 shirts.” Then she turned to him. “What?”

He shrugged, but it wasn’t real. He didn’t really not know what to say. So much simmering beyond his tight lips, sizzling on his tongue. He swallowed.

Their eyes met. Large, brown, wide eyes on her narrow face. Squinting, lid-shaded green ones on his own face.

“What?” she asked again.

He looked away, his posture resigned.

“Thanks,” she said, clasping the laundry basket’s edge and shifting it. Reached inside, she pulled out another shirt, folded it tightly, laid it into the suitcase.

He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t left.

Another shirt. Folded. Laid. “Twenty four,” she said softly.

She could hear him breathing, not huffing or grunting, just breathing. Sharing the air with her. The room felt warm, late-day light streaming through the blinds, heating the carpet. The cat laid under the window, stretched luxuriously in the heat.

Dominique looked up at the ceiling fan, its blades still. She leaned toward the wall behind her, flipped the switch up. The blades began to rotate, a low whir as the fan came to life. The wind between them muted the sound of his breathing.

He sat on the edge of the bed, next to the basket. Out of her peripheral view now, forcing her to look at him as she reached into the basket for another shirt. Shake. Fold. Press into the suitcase. Twenty-five.

“I’m reconsidering,” he said.

“You’re sad,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

She stopped, looked at him, said, “no.”

Another shirt.

“Okay. I get it. Huge opportunity. Big deal.”

Really big deal,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “it’s a really big deal. It’s just…”

“A year.”

“It’s just a year.”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled. The smile pulled her lips away from her teeth, stretched across the entire bottom half of her face, made her look like a child. “I like it said that way.”

“It’s just a year,” he repeated. But he didn’t smile.

There’s a life here. Work and friends and afternoons at the beach and nights on the boat. There’s a life here. Her life is here. He didn’t say these things. He’d been repeating them silently since he said them three days ago. She knew them.

Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase. “Twenty-six.”

He folded his arms over his stomach, hugged himself. Watched her moving. Those long, thin arms, long skinny fingers, elbow bones, wrist bones, the slight jingle of a bracelet, brown skin freckled and aged by the sun, thick blondish hair on her forearm. She reached into the basket. He caught her hand.

“It’s just a year,” he said.

She looked at him. He was looking at her hand: pulling it toward him, turning it over, palm up. He laid his cheek in her palm. She closed it around the curve of his face, tilted her head.

“They’re lucky to have you,” he murmured, kissing her hand.

“It’s Liberia. They’re not lucky at all.”

“It’s hot there.”

“So fucking hot.” She had rehearsed that phrase, knew it, meant to prepare for it.

“What are you packing?”

“Two shirts a day. Pretty sure my deodorant won’t help.”

He laughed, still holding her hand against his face.

She tugged gently and he released it. She took another shirt out of the basket. Folded. Pressed into the suitcase. Twenty-seven.

No questions. When the opportunity came up she had no questions. Didn’t ask where she would live, who she would know, how she would eat or send bills to the States. Didn’t ask if she needed to know French or if there was wifi. Didn’t ask if he could come.

Still sitting, slumping now, next to the basket, he was in her way a bit. She kept on with the shirts, expected him to move when she needed the space for folding pants. She didn’t push him away.

“Not sad,” he said.

“No, it’s only a year.”

“Not sad,” he said again, “gonna be great. You’re great.”

She grinned again. He didn’t. “Thanks,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Roman replied, softly.

Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase, the stack rose over the edge now. “Twenty-eight,” she said.

He moved behind her, trailed his hand against her hip, across her back, stepped into the sunlight streaming through the blinds. Reached his hands over his head, bending at the elbow to avoid touching the fan. Arched his back, stretched. A yawn. A grunt.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “just stiff.”

She arched a brow, glanced at his pants, “yeah?” Stuck her thumb under the strap of her tank top like she’d pull it off. Just tell her to.

He shook his head, laughed a bit, “no.”

A shrug, hands back to folding. Pushing the desire away. “Too bad. Gonna be a while.”

“Only a year,” he said.

“Should it be?” she asked suddenly.

“What?”

“You could, you know, with someone.” She had rehearsed those words, too. But they still hurt.

“No,” Roman replied, then again, looking her in the eye, “no.”

“It’s okay. I’d understand.” She looked away.

“No, okay?”

She looked up. Their eyes met. Hers brown, wide, brave. His narrow, glazed with tears. “Okay,” she said, “Good to know.”

“There isn’t anyone else,” he said, suddenly angry, he hadn’t rehearsed that conversation. Hadn’t thought about that conversation. Didn’t like it.  “It’s only you. I’ll wait.”

“And you’ll come for Christmas,” she said.

He laughed, “multiple times hopefully,” he said and now he grinned.

She laughed, too, threw a balled-up pair of socks at him. He caught it, tossed it back into the pile.

Roman flopped onto the bed, stepping over the cat, but startling her anyway, the bed shambles puffing around him, letting out the air they’d trapped with the laundry basket shifting. He climbed up to the pillow, tucked his hand under it. Snuggled into it, breathed in deeply.

“A bed to yourself,” she said.

“For a whole year,” he said.

“You’ll forget how to share.”

“Yep.”

He pressed his face into her pillow.

She folded shirts and counted.

There are criminals here. Sex crimes here. Victims here. They needed her as much as those people in Liberia. There was work to do here. She had been making a difference. She had been changing peoples’ lives. She was needed. He didn’t say these things again. But their echoes filled his head.

It didn’t matter how many criminals she got off the street, more arrived. No matter how many victims she found justice for, another young girl came in the next day and the next and the next. She was swimming against the tide and she was tired. It didn’t feel like progress. At least she didn’t think it did. She couldn’t remember what progress felt like.

Another shirt. Fold. Press. “Thirty,” she said softly. The stack leaned a little. She broke it halfway, positioned the top half in a second pile next to the first. Pushed them both against the edge of the suitcase. She pulled the laundry basket toward her.

“Didn’t know you had thirty shirts,” he said.

“Me neither.”

“Work shirts?”

“Mostly.”

The ceiling fan tinked and wobbled above them. He turned onto his back to watch it. The blades spun, the air washed over the room. The fan’s two chains shivered, clinking together occasionally, but mostly gyrating in separate orbits.

Roman put his hands behind his head. His elbows made butterfly wings and he pressed them in and out, shifting, getting comfortable.

She glanced at him, stretched the length of their bed. She imagined climbing on top of him, one leg on either side of his hips. She imagined sitting back into his crotch. She smiled to herself.

He turned as if he’d heard her lips part.

“Naughty thoughts?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Oh, come on, I’m here. I’m laid out. Love me,” he said.

Roman turned onto his side, propped his head on his palm and ran the other hand down the length of his leg, finger tips extended. His shorts bunched on his thighs, his knees stacked, his legs tanned with days of sailing, the hair bleached from the sun.

She looked back to his face, his eyes closed, his lips kissed toward her. Then he opened one eye to see if she was looking. Closed it quickly and kissed again.

She laughed. “Very sexy.”

“How can you resist?” he agreed, “how can you leave?”

Huge opportunity. Important work. Break the rut. We’re not moving forward. This will make my resume. People need help. I’m the perfect candidate. No strings, remember? Unsaid already said things floating like pasta to the top of the boiling water. Done. Cooked through.

She reached into the basket, pulled a pair of pants toward her. Looked back at him.

He was still looking at her. The question had been real.

“Why are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Pouting,” she said.

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

He fell onto his back again, stared at the ceiling fan, hands folded on his belly. She couldn’t see herself straddling him now. The question had taken the air out of the room. She reached up and tugged on one of the fan’s chains, three pulls, slow, stop, high. The fan whirred to a higher speed.

She glanced at the cat who had resumed her languorous stretch in the light. Turned to the legal pad, scratched through “30 Shirts.” Finished folding the first pair of pants, rolled them tightly, laid them in. “One.”

The tinkling of the fan’s chains. The rock of it against its base. The sound of linen, then rayon folded, rolled, stacked in the suitcase. The rattle of the suitcase’s zipper.  Making room. Making it fit.

After a while he got bored, sat up, dropped his legs over the other side of the bed. She glanced up, saw his back, shoulders hunched. Wondered if he was crying. Waited.

He stood, turned back around, reached for the basket, pulled a pair of pants out of the basket.

“You should take skirts,” he said. “Cooler.”

“So my legs can sweat easier? Slide against each other?”

“That slick slapping sound when you walk?” he asked. “Sure.”

“No thanks.”

He smiled at her.

“Is it hot all year?”

“Yes,” she said. Then, quieter, “yes.”

She stacked another pair of pants. He stretched the pair he’d rolled out to her. She took it, met his eyes. Green behind the crinkles of thirty five years, squints like he was laughing, thick lashes she had always expected to peel off whole like falsies.

The right thing to do. A chance to make a difference. A chance to build her resume. A chance for them to see how they would survive. If they would survive. He had work here. Things to do. No other women. Not for him. Just her. They were only 35. They had plenty of time for suburbs and minivans. He would wait.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I’m proud of you,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

He took another pair of pants. She did, too. Fold, roll, place in the suitcase. Push to the side. Make room.

Moved this from the NAIWE blog since that one’s going to be extinct soon.

Here’s the challenge:

13 short stories in 2013

You can call it one-per-month with an extra if you want. I’ll probably pace myself that way. But the rule is a new short story counts toward the 13 but a revision of anything written before 2013 doesn’t.

(This rule is for me since I have four unfinished stories that need work.)

Can’t recycle ‘em. Gotta start fresh.

Who’s in?

I’ll post links to your stories on the monthly 2013 Short Story Challenge Check Up entry.

Facebook-wall-post-me a link to your story and I’ll add it. Or put your link in a comment below or over on Life on Clemson Road.

If we’re serious about getting better at something, we need a plan to study and practice that something. Someday I’ll tell you how I learned football and became a better cook.

Here are some books I requested from the Richland County Public Library to start my short story study:

Homeland and Other Stories, Barbara Kingsolver

What We Won’t Do, Brock Clarke

Carrying the Torch, Brock Clarke

Rock Springs, Richard Ford

The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford