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Category Archives: Short Story

A sampling of things that have dribbled from my twisted mind

Echo

Echo
     The old man lay dying, kept alive by the machines gathered by his bedside. Other than the hiss-click of the oxygen that maintained the spark of life within him there was silence, until the woman arrived. She slipped into a seat by the bed and put her purse on the floor, under it, then waited for the man to wake.
     The room and its furnishings, in spite of the hospital bed, spoke of wealth and power, rather than the aseptic surround of a hospital. But still, that wealth and power would delay his demise by not one day.
     After a time the man woke, and she said, “You don’t look like a John, to me… Wrong face, for that name, I think.”
      He studied her for a moment then shrugged as well as his wasted frame would permit, before saying, “Yeah, like you figured, my name wasn’t always John. I was born Gordon Brown.” There was silence, as he gathered his strength, then a chuckle, and, “Living where everybody had a name like Martello and Catelli meant I got in a lot of fights. But, that was okay. I liked beating the crap out of shitheads. It made me tough, too…ya know?
     The woman nodded a yes, then, “So, why did you change your name to John?”
     “I didn’t. It got changed for me, because of a…” He was silent for a moment, before saying, “I guess you could call it a kind of dream.”
     “Dream?”
     The old man shrugged, again. “I woke up one morning hurting…a lot. It wasn’t just the hangover. That was bad enough. I felt like… Well, it was worse than being kicked in the balls. It was like knives were shoved into them. But when I reached for my crotch my hands couldn’t make it. They were tied to the bed. I could move a little, but not enough to either reach my nuts or untie myself. That’s when I noticed that my legs were tied, too.” He was silent for a moment, before, “All this happens before I open my eyes, mind you. But then, there’s a brand new pain, added to the rest, and that got my eyes open quick, to find a bitch I never saw before, shoving a straight pin right into my balls. I lifted up to look and there must have been dozens of them in there already, like a goddamned pincushion. And when she saw I was looking, she just smiled, and said, “Good morning, honey,” and pulled another pin from one of those pincushions made to look like a tomato.”
     “And used it?”
     “Used it? Hell yes she used it. And that one, I swear, was as hot as if she’d held it in a flame. But bad as that was I could see there was worse to come. There was one pin in there that was as big around as a damn railroad spike.”
     “And she used that one, too?”
     There was silence for the space of ten breaths, before the man on the bed said, “I don’t know, because that’s when I woke up.”
     “Ahhh…so it was just a—”
     “That was no fucking dream, lady. Not…not… I don’t know what in the hell it was, but I can tell you that my balls hurt for more than three days afterward…bad. I even went to see a shrink, ‘cause I was afraid to sleep. Hell, for months afterward, if I saw my mom’s pincushion in her sewing basket, it freaked me out.”
     “But, you got over it.”
     “Yeah. I got over it. The shrink, he made me carry a pincushion with me for a while, and when I got comfortable with that he had me push in a bunch of pins. That worked.” He laughed. “Hell, it better than worked. I’d finally managed to get a job as an enforcer for a loan shark. Then, one day, I was about to break some jerk’s finger, as a reminder to pay on time, when I had a thought. I remembered how the dream freaked me out, so…”
     “You did that to the man, instead of breaking his finger? You stuck pins in his—”
     Weak as it was, there was a smile in the old man’s voice as he said, “I figured, what the hell, ya know? It hurts like hell but it don’t keep you from work, and it’s so damn embarrassing that it’s even better than a whacked shin or a broken finger.”
     “I’ll bet. So…”
     “So I tied the bastard down and used those pins. You should have heard him scream. I left him, tied that way and hurting—for his wife to find when she got home.”
     The old man closed his eyes, wearing a self-satisfied smile, before adding, “It worked so good that I started doing it regular, like a trademark. And that was so crazy it made me stand out, and got me promoted.” Unable to lift his hands to point, he gestured with his head, to indicate the room around them, saying, “And, it got me here, for all the good it’s doing right now. That dream is the reason I ended up running the local family, and it’s why they changed my name.”
     For a time there was silence, as the machines went about their business. Finally, the woman said, “It’s funny, how an event that momentous can travel all the way to the end of a life and then reflect back as an echo, carrying both the way to that end and the ending, itself.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You don’t remember what you said before you had that dream?”
     “Said? I don’t—”
     “You’d just met the top people in the family, and to them, you said, ‘To be like you guys… Hell, I’d sell my soul.’ ”
     “I… You have to be kidd—”
     “Offer made…offer accepted. That dream was a reflection from this end of your life.”
     “… then…then I’m…dead?”
     “As of a few seconds ago, yes.” She smiled, gently. “You don’t recognize me? I thought you would by now. We met, about sixty years ago.” With that she reached into her purse and extracted a pincushion, bristling with pins. She pointed toward the hand that held it, saying, “It never runs out.” Then she gestured in the direction of his lower body, adding, “And there’s always room for one more.”
     “I— Shit!”
     “Yeah, isn’t it?” She extracted a pin and held it up for his inspection. “Welcome to Hell, Johnny Pinball.”
 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s Note:
     One morning I woke with an image in my mind. Someone had a pincushion and was about to use the contents on me. It was not the kind of dream you’re pleased to wake from. But still, I knew there was a story in there, if I could only think of the “why and when” of it.
     Through the day I could feel the details clarifying as my warped mind gnawed at the corners of the image, trying to shape it into something with a useful shape and texture.
     At evening I sat at the keyboard to see what my auto-editor had come up with, and it flowed well, though I still didn’t know how it was to end. That was a puzzle for later, I decided. First came the shaping to see if it read as well as it felt. But apparently the shaping had gone better than I’d hoped for because I finished it, but for editing, in one short sitting. In fact, though, I didn’t know what I would use for the punch line until I found myself typing the last line, and laughing.
 
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Short Story

 

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Linda

Linda

 
 

     Linda sat, hunched forward in the rocker chewing her lip and ignoring the pain that came with each breath, as she studied the man on the bed.
     Lying face down, where he had thrown himself, Jack sprawled across the bed in a stupor brought on by a night of drink and the effort of beating her. She could probably undress him, but that might wake him and bring a renewal of the anger. In the morning, sober again, he would be apologetic—a model husband—but not now.
     Killing him would easy and satisfying, and she thought about that for a long time. The pleasure those thoughts generated were a bulwark against the pain. But she finally decided against it. If she wasn’t able to do it quickly enough, and if he got his hands on her…
     Hands clenched in her lap, she mouthed the words she didn’t dare speak—the feelings she could never express aloud.
     She for a time on why she’d said yes to him as a second husband—the second man to treat her as an object on which to vent rage. Stupid? Yes. But at the time a necessary decision, or seemed so.
     But it had led to this, so he would be the last. That was certain, because no man would ever raise a hand to her again.
     How stupid she had been, but how lucky she’d thought herself, at seventeen, in finding Opie, her knight in uniform, who provided a way out of the battle-torn shack her parents called home.
     Opie, with his marine swagger and imperious manner had the worldliness of someone who had traveled beyond the county of his birth. He seemed her great hope of escape. But it was an escape to something worse than her home: a marriage that lasted only seven months, all of it downhill, leaving her alone, frightened, bruised—and with only pennies in her jeans—limping along a rural highway in Mississippi.
     This second marriage lasted a year. There would be no other.
     With a sigh, she leaned back into the old rocker, wincing at a twinge of pain from a new bruise. Like the other beatings, this one had its beginnings in events over which she had no control.
 

*

     Jack came onto the porch, the hesitation in his step announcing that he was already drunk. She gave thought to hiding in the shed until he slept it off. But he was already reaching for the door. And, drunk or sober he had been fairly well behaved since the last time, nearly a month before. And the one time she had hidden, he accused her of being unfaithful—of being out of the house with another man—and had whipped her with his belt until she had prayed to die.
     Jack, angry and sober, was a far worse thing than when he was under the influence of a few beers. She thought then about leaving, had even begun packing, but in the end, returned everything to its place before he could notice. Without money or skills, and with Jack’s promise to track her down and kill her if she left, options were terribly limited.
     Instead of hiding, this night, she smiled when he came into the living room.
     “Hi, honey,” she forced herself to say. “How was your day?”
     He was five hours late for dinner, now long cold in the refrigerator.
     He growled something unintelligible and sank into the easy chair, blowing out a cloud of beery breath and scratching his stomach. Seeing the condition he was in, she sincerely hoped he was not in the mood for sex. After a few beers, he lost what little consideration he normally had for her pleasure, using her as he might a druken slut, rather than a beloved wife. Sometimes, she wondered if he actually knew the meaning of the word love. Sober, he was a passable, if unimaginative lover, but drunk, he was an unfeeling brute, demanding things of her as he might a prostitute.
     She studied him, seeking some clue as to what kind of mood he was in, so she could adapt herself to it and get through the night.
     He muttered again. Missing his words a second time, she said, “What was that, Jack, honey? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
     He swiveled his head toward her, mouth turned down in disgust. “I said, I lost the fucking job, you deaf bitch! I lost the fucking job.”
     Oh shit. She clamped hard on the urge to run for the door. That would be suicide. Running triggered his hunting instincts, and he was sitting between her and the door.
     The problem wasn’t the loss of the job. Jack could always find another. He was a good mechanic—could be a better one if not for the drinking. The fear was for what that loss might mean for her.
     Forcing the chair around with a shriek of complaining wood, he pointed a grease-stained finger at her.
     “Let me tell you, something, baby. That Jew bastard Koch—the fucker who owns the God damned agency—he wouldn’t know a good mechanic from a dumb nigger, but he’s gonna pay for this. I’ll tell you that. He’s gonna pay real good!”
     “What will you do, Jack?” Her voice was a tiny thing, mouse-like, and inoffensive, she hoped.
     He stared at her for a long moment, then mimicked her voice, bringing his own to a nerve-jangling falsetto screech she despised.
     “What will you do, Jack? What will you do, Jack? What the hell do you think I’m going to do? I’m going to kill that bastard. That’s what I’m going to do.”
     The shock must have shown on her face, because he abruptly stood, overbalancing and stumbling against the footstool, which he kicked out of the way with a crash.
     “Don’t you fucking look at me that way, you bitch! The whole thing’s your fault anyway.”
     Wise enough to keep her mouth shut, she said nothing, simply poised herself to flee, if necessary. With a growl, he waved a backhanded blow at her, mumbling, “Pow! I ought to do a job on you, but you’re too fucking dumb to change.”
     With that, he stumbled into the darkened bedroom, accompanied by her sigh of relief.
     Unfortunately, he was only passing through it, making a toilet call. He returned to the living room far too soon, then headed for the kitchen, where he opened the refrigerator, bracing himself against the door as he scanned the inside.
     She got to her feet and began easing toward the front door, but before she could get more than a few steps in that direction, the door of the old refrigerator slammed shut, accompanied by the crash of jars spilling from the door compartments.
     “There’s no beer, you stupid bitch. I told you to buy some beer!”
     She thought of telling him the truth, that he hadn’t remembered to give her money for the beer, but that would only make him angrier.
     “I’ll go now, Jack,” she said, hurriedly. “I’ll run down to the store right—”
     Any further words she might have said were stilled as his hand clamped on her windpipe, lifting her almost off her feet. The rest was a blur of pain and fear as he vented his rage on her, the cruel blows raining on her body like some demented parody of a boxing match. Only the fact that he would begin kicking her, should she fall to the floor, kept her on her feet, saying “please,” over and over in a litany of fear. When he threw her to the bed and began to tear at her clothing, it was a relief.
 

*

     The beating hadn’t lasted long, nor was it as bad as some, but it finally broke something inside her—a dam of pent-up anger and self-lothing that had been filling for years. First had been the endless years of vicious warfare between her parents, with their insane and unpredictable alterations between passion and hate—with her used as both a weapon and target. Then, there was the stupidity of her first marriage, and the death of her dreams of romance and escape. Now, there was Jack.
     As she sat watching her husband—hating him with every fiber of her being—she wondered how she could ever have put up with him. Certainly he was the one who took her in when Opie pushed her out of the car and drove off, though she had paid for that with the only coin she possessed—her body. Certainly, when he wasn’t drunk, he was a decent enough person.
     He was even handsome, when his face wasn’t flushed with anger. But at best, he treated her as though she was an appliance rather than a person, as though wives were bought at the discount store and had only specified and well defined functions: keep house, tend the small crop fields for him, wash his clothes, satisfy his sexual needs, and absorb his rage when necessary. It was assumed that any needs she had would be taken care of without his help. That he neither loved nor respected her was all too obvious.
     
     Reaching a decision, she stood and limped her way to the closet, where her battered old suitcase was stored, tucked behind a carton; hidden against her need. He had thrown it away, snarlingly informing her that she would never leave unless he ordered her out. But she retrieved it, carefully wiping away the mud stains before hiding it, while he was out of the house.
     Clearing the top of the dresser she opened the case, leaning the top against the mirror to hide her battered face from view. She began to pack, moving quietly enough not to disturb him, taking only what she could pack into that small case. Anything else might take too much time.
     Finally, finished, she moved to the bed and began the most difficult part: getting to his wallet. Lost job or not, this was payday, and he would have two weeks pay in his pocket, maybe even something extra as severance pay. He had been with the agency for seven months.
     Her own money, saved penny-by-penny from the household money, amounted to less than fifty dollars, and would take her no further than the next man like Jack. There would be no more like him, and for that more than just a few dollars were needed.
     Jack grumbled under his breath as she got into the bed, then settled down to snoring as she leaned against him, as though cuddling in her sleep. He never stirred as she removed the wallet.
     Nine-hundred dollars! There were nine one-hundred dollar bills in the wallet. And there were smaller bills, too. She didn’t take the time for an exact count, but there was enough to get her out of the county, even the state. Enough, perhaps, for a new start.
 
     Slinging her bag over her shoulder and picking up the suitcase, she cast a longing glance at the old sewing machine in the corner. Through the bad times it had been her companion and her solace. Leaving it was like leaving a dear friend. Everything in her wardrobe had been made on that machine, carefully copied from the dresses worn by models in the newspaper and in the magazines she took from trash cans. Jack had not let her even buy patterns, grumbling over the expense of the cloth she used.
     Unable to simply pass by, she bent her footsteps toward the old machine, stopping to run her hand over its smooth curves, stroking the cool metal of the drive wheel and thinking about how well it would do to sew a shroud for her husband.
     About to leave at last, she turned her head for a last look at his sleeping form, then stopped, her fingernails tapping on the metal of the machine—wondering. She stood that way for a long time, then picked up the suitcase and headed for the front door.
 
     The night air was soft and filled with the growing smells of springtime, symbolizing, for her, a new beginning, one that would take her from this place, and this life. Never again would she submit. Never again would she permit a man to dominate her life. A line had been crossed, and there would be no going back. The flame of anger had been hard to ignite. Life before this had seen to that, but now it burned with a clear and steady glow, as she loaded her suitcase into the rear seat of the car. She placed her worn old shoulder bag on the front passenger seat, then slipped the keys into the ignition, where they would be ready. Sliding out of the car, she closed the door far enough to extinguish the overhead light and kill the warning tones, but left it unlatched, in case she might have to get into the car on a run. Finally, she headed back to the house.
 
     First, she bathed herself, flinching at the new bruises and scowling in disgust at the yellowed remains of the older ones. Then, she dressed herself in the best of the clothing remaining in her closet. Finally, she headed toward her sewing box for needle and thread.
     There was anger in her hands as she sewed, and anger in the teeth that bit off the ends of the thread she sewed with. It was not the kind of anger that Jack knew. His was unreasoning rage, destructive and wild. Hers was cold and controlled, serving her purpose. Moments after she started, her lips turned up in a grim little smile at the realization that there was little chance of him stopping her, even should he wake. Insuring that, the first thing she did was to sew the legs of his pants together at the bottom, then, after rolling his inert form onto his back, she sewed his sleeves to his shirt front, using heavy duty button thread. Even should he wake, and somehow manage to get free, doing so would take time. She knew she could beat him to the car, if it came to that, and knew, too, that the car would come to life at the first touch of the starter. To Jack that was a mark of professional pride, and would work in her favor.
 
But there was no need to run. He never woke. From either side of the bed she pulled the sheets free from the mattress and tossed them atop his body. Those, she joined to form a narrow tube which she converted to a form fitting suit by sewing them to his sleeves and pants, taking care not to stick him with the needle and wake him. It took several hours to complete the job, but when she finally finished, he was sealed inside a body-sack that bound his arms and legs far more securely than had she tied him. The sack she sewed to the mattress
     By then, she was humming to herself, not caring if he woke. Finally finished, she had only to go over the hurried work she had done in the beginning, reinforcing it until she was satisfied that there would no easy escape. He could probably work his way out, but that would take hours.
     He was awake when she cut the final thread, blinking his bloodshot eyes in the harsh morning light, his face filled with confusion. It was then that she sat back to admire her work, ignoring his angry questions. With a nod of satisfaction she stood, and then went looking for his baseball bat.
 
     Linda was humming to herself as she drove away, glad that she had taken the time to kiss him goodbye, even if he hadn’t noticed. It was, she decided, the start of a beautiful day.

     

Fin

  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
 
     This piece began as a dramitization of an actual event, given me by the woman who claimed to have done it. She claims she got the idea from a story about Willie Nelson. Was it true? I have no idea, and the woman no longer lives where I can ask. But the story seemed to work, and because I was curious about what happened to Linda after that morning, I began the novel that followed her life after that traumatic night. It’s about one third finished, and one of these days I will get around to completing it.
 
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2012 in Short Story

 

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Breaking Point

Breaking Point

 
 
 

     The scene is a dank, dungeon-like space, the floor stained with old blood, the walls impregnated with the screams of the dying. Centered, is a table on which James Bond lies, shackled and helpless. With him stands a man in a tuxedo. His face shows no cruelty, only indifference, though his eyes belie that indifference. They glitter with malice.
      “So, Mr. Bond It’s down to this. You will tell me your department’s secrets or you will suffer more than you have believed humanly possible.”
      Cooly, and with a sneer of dismissal, James Bond shakes his head. “Do you think you can frighten me, Coldfinger? I’m a trained agent. Pain means nothing to me. You may kill me, yes, but I will never give in, and I’ll take my government’s secrets with me to the grave.”
      That brings a smile and a sad shake of the head. “You may believe that, Mr. Bond, but once I use this machine on you, you’ll be a spillway to everything I want to know.” He points to a small machine sitting on the table next to where Bond is chained. It’s a simple box, with only one control, a small push button. From the box two slim wires run, presumably connected to James Bond, in some unknown way.
      Bond turns his head as much as the shackles will permit. He frowns before saying, “What does it…do?” The simplicity of the thing obviously has him concerned.
      “It makes you talk, Mr. Bond. It makes any man talk. When I push that button you will know agony such as no man has ever faced. It’s directly connected to your neural system, and will make you know exactly how a woman feels in labor…hard labor.” Coldfinger grins, cruelly, as he leans back in his chair, his hand poised over the box, awaiting a response.
      For a long moment Bond stares, as though accessing the chance that the man is lying. He weighs his options and resources. Finally, he shrugs and takes a deep breath.
     “Okay…the man in charge of my department is named Quincy Farber, and he…
 
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Author’s Note:
     This was something prompted by my daughter’s pregnancy and long labor. I’d talk, too.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well
 
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Posted by on August 11, 2012 in Short Story

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Tingle

Tingle

Note: Adult content.
 
 
 

     Stephanie trudged up the steps from the subway. Another workday. Another day thrown away, to be followed by a night of boredom.
     Had it been a mistake to ask Jordan to move out? True, he was insensitive. Also true that he had the sophistication of a slug. But he was someone to turn to in the night. And he was, if nothing else, comfortable.
     As she pushed through the turnstile into the gray Philadelphia morning, she stiffened her spine. Jordan, when all was said and done, was, and always would be, a jerk. And now that he was finally gone, he could be replaced by someone better.
     Good riddance and goodbye, Jordan. It’s time to think positively for a change.
     Above, the clouds were thinning, and the morning dampness was fading from the street and sidewalk. It was the beginning of a new week and time for a new outlook. Perhaps today would be the day. And with that thought, she straightened, put a spring into her step and headed toward Roe & Rowe, ignoring the voice in her head that whispered, You’re so full of shit.
     The clock display over the corner bank said it was just 7:30. She stopped, nearly at the building’s door and gave thought to a stop at the coffee bar, but discarded that. A half-hour spent browsing the Internet was better, because coffee would invariably lead to Danish, too, and that would go straight to the hips.
     That decided, she turned and walked directly into the path of the man who was reaching for the building’s front door.
     “Excuse me,” he said, smiling, as he steadied her, and kept her from falling. “I’m clumsy this morning, I’m afraid.”
     Their collision was obviously her fault, but he politely ignored that, a bit of chivalry that made her look more closely at his face, now only inches from her own. There was surprise there. But that aside, it was a nice face, newly shaved, pleasant, and of an age that said the man was a possibility, if he wasn’t married, or gay, or…
     Interesting, though. Definitely interesting.
     Then, as he placed her on her feet more securely, his hand brushed her neck, just at the collar of her sweater, and it happened. A tiny tingle, like a pulse of electricity jarred her fully awake.
     Frozen, she looked into deep brown eyes, for several seconds more, stunned, and wondering if she should kiss him. Then he was releasing her and whatever had happened was only a memory.
     You’ve been reading too damn many romance novels, Steph, old girl. But it had happened, and she was seized with the urge to touch his cheek to see if it repeated. But that would be insane, so she clamped down on that bit of stupidity and said, “No, it was my fault. I should have been watching where I was going.” He had a really great smile.
     He pulled the door open and gestured her through, saying, “Even if it was, it was fun…I’m Frank. Frank Nelson. Do you work here?” He followed her toward the elevator.
     For an instant she hesitated. But she had run into him, and it was fairly obvious that she did work in the building, so she took a chance and said, “Stephanie Holt. I’m a paralegal with Roe & Rowe. You?” Perhaps he would suggest another meeting? The week was already looking up.
     “I’m an analyst with Harper Price, up on twenty,” he said, as he pressed the button to call an elevator.
     There seemed to be nothing else to say, for the moment, so she waited in silence, while the indicator over one of the elevator doors ticked its way to the ground floor. Had it really happened? Or was it simply the spring weather and her hormones combining into a romantic daydream? The urge to reach out and touch his cheek to see if it happened again was almost overpowering.
     Then the elevator door was opening and he was bowing her through. It was the perfect excuse, so as though in play she touched his hand in thank you as she moved past. Then, as a sense of electric rightness jolted through her she took his hand in her own as she turned to face him, almost unable to speak.
     “Did you feel…” She pulled his hand, and him, toward her as she said, “I mean, am I crazy? Are we?” And then, as the elevator doors sighed closed behind him she was in his arms, breathing in the scent of him, tasting mouthwash and electricity in equal measures.
     This is crazy…crazy. It was. But her body, without asking permission, molded itself against him, and her hand met his as she fumbled for the button that stopped the car and took it out of service. Crazy.
     It was wrong. That was certain. And when his hand slipped under her sweater to burn a path across her skin she should have shouted, “Stop!” Instead, she turned to guide that warmth to her breast, then guided his mouth there, a thousand volt shock that caused her to press ever tighter against him, as she ripped the sweater over her head, tossed it, then fumbled for his belt. Crazy, crazy, crazy… echoed in her head as her weakened knees buckled under her.
     He tasted of sex, cotton underwear and electricity.
     And then they were on the floor of the elevator, his hands and his mouth a flame on her body, bringing wave after wave of ecstasy, along with, crazy…crazy…crazygood, followed by better…better…betterbetterbetter…oh…my…God! as she fitted herself to him and lost all sense of self, and all vestige of control.
 
     “Wow.” That was the only word that fit. Resting against him, enveloped by his arm and warmed by his skin, her breath finally calming, she looked up at the high narrow confines of the elevator car. “Crazy” was back, but it was joined by “wonderful,” and “exciting,” too. She pulled back to gaze into his face. It was a nice face. Perhaps not what she would have chosen, had he been part of a group of available men, but her body, it appeared, had chosen wisely. The man was amazing, and she told him so.
     “Thank you,” he said, beginning to withdraw, and sit up. “But I think we had better get dressed and place the elevator back in service before someone calls the maintenance people.” He pointed, grinning. “If those doors open I think we’re still at the lobby, and I’m not certain I want my boss to see me like this.”
     She laughed, then nodded and sat up, looking for her sweater. She leaned toward the corner where she’d tossed it, then retrieved his shirt, too, a smile coming at the idea that the clothing was as intertwined as they had been. But as she handed him the shirt a small box slipped from the pocket and tumbled to the floor.
     “What’s this?” she said, as she picked it up. It was a flat, featureless case, black and glossy, in size very like the rear of a calculator. A tiny slide switch showed at one edge.
     “Nothing important,” he said, quickly. But there was something in his voice that was odd, so she turned it over. The other side was equally featureless, other then for electric-looking letters that spelled out, Tingle’Er.
     Tingle’Er? That makes no— And then it came and she looked up at him. Her jaw was hanging. That was impossible to suppress, as was the anger that came afterward and brought her jaw shut and thinned her lips.
     “You bastard! Tingle Her? You were wearing a static shock machine? That is the single most…most—”
     “Despicable thing you’ve ever heard. I know. But you kissed me, remember? And you…well, you were amazing.” He gestured toward her sweater, still hanging from her hands, then toward her panties, lying on the floor of the car. “Maybe it would be best to…” he trailed off and began to dress.
     Angry or not, it made sense to dress before she hit him, so she turned to that. The stray thought came that whoever got into that car next would know, with a single sniff, of the use the car had been put to. Damn!
     “Can I explain?” he said, as he buttoned his shirt. When she said nothing, he continued with, “It was a gag gift, for my birthday, and I was bringing it to the office. Truthfully, I didn’t realize that it was turned on, and I didn’t touch you deliberately.” He hesitated, and spread his hands as he added, “But I’m glad I…” He shook his head.
     “That’s neither here nor there. The idea is that nearly every romance novel talks about the heroine feeling an electric tingle when the perfect man comes into view, or touches her. So by wearing a static generator that gives a continuous tingle to whoever touches you, it’s supposed to trigger a conditioned reaction and the woman will instantly fall in love… I…well, I never expected it to, well…” He made a noncommittal gesture of the hands.
     Shit. And she had dutifully, and enthusiastically played her part. I am an idiot. It was so stupid. One tiny electric shock and she was tearing off his clothing, and… Oh my God, I can still taste the man! And all because of an electric shock? Am I that stupid? The answer was yes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
     Apparently, her expression showed her mood because he said, “I’m sorry, Stephanie. I…well, if it helps, I think you’re beautiful, and had we not bumped together, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to talk to you…though I wanted to. And you’re also—” He stopped for a moment, then blew out his breath before saying, “Also amazing. And for that you have my gratitude.”
     He remembered her name. That was probably a plus. And he was more of a gentleman than she deserved, because he was bending to pick up the condom she hadn’t realized he’d used. And the scent of her was on his breath—while memory of how he’d acquired that scent served to ameliorate her mood.
     He gestured for her to select her floor, and then pushed the control that restored the car to service. He tapped for his own floor, saying. “I’d like to take the time to really apologize, and maybe make amends, but I have a meeting I can’t skip, at eight.” He hesitated for a beat, before adding, “I know this is sort of backward, but would you meet me for a beer or something after work, to…well, to get to know each other?” The door to his floor opened, and he stepped to where his body would block the opening and keep the door from closing, as he added, “I won’t pressure you. I’ll just be in the lobby at five. If you walk by, or use the back stairs, I won’t bother you again.” There was a wistful quality to his voice as he stepped clear of the doors and added, “But I’d really like it if you’d gave me a chance to show I’m not the bastard I seem to be.” And with that the doors slid shut and he was gone.
     The car hummed into motion. Headed upward.
     Did that really happen? She sniffed. Obviously, it had. And the traces of afterglow that still brought warmth agreed that it had. In all, it was one hell of a first date. And she, certifiably, was an idiot. But… He was a gentleman. And he had protected her against her own stupidity—and cleaned up after himself. That had to count.
     In the end, as she made herself presentable for a day at the office she studied her reflection. He said he thought her beautiful. But if she was, that beauty wasn’t apparent—though attractive wasn’t out of the question. So maybe…
     For a moment, as she settled in at her desk she looked around, at the other desks. If only they knew how I started my day. She stifled a laugh, and reached for the first folder, the Hapwood case. Maybe an hour over a beer or two would make sense. He’d certainly had an impressive audition.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s Note:
     This was something I’ve been planning to write for some time. I remembered that plan each time I did a critique of a romance in which the female protagonist reacts to the clichéd “electric shock” that comes when the male lead shows up. Today a bit of free time and the idea coincided, and you’ve just read the result.
     My plan for Stephanie was a bit cynical, in that the male in question was to be a bastard who used the “tickler” as a quick shortcut to sex. But in the end, she seemed a nice, and likable, if a bit overly enthusiastic and cooperative person. But she was honest, and deserving, so since poetic justice demanded that Frank be better than a sexual preditor…
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well
 
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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Short Story

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Footnote

Footnote
 
 
      “So,” Stan George called as he searched for the mustard. What did they say about the car?”
     Tim Shanken turned from the kitchen counter, and the book-bag he was exploring.
     “What?”
     “I asked when your car would be ready.”
      “They said it would be ready by tomorrow night, at the latest, but I’ll bet they don’t fix the problem. I’ve already brought it there twice for the same thing, and I’m beginning to doubt they have the brains to fix it.” He pulled one of the books from the bag and began to thumb through it.
      Stan backed out of the refrigerator, loaded with an assortment of sandwich makings, closing the door with a nudge of his hip. “I know about that, it took me three trips to get the Ford fixed when the transmission went bad last month. If it wasn’t in warranty, I’d go some place else… Mustard okay?” I’ve got ketchup in the fridge if you want that.”
     “Mustard’s fine,” Tim said with a shrug. He motioned toward the book he was holding. “Is this Mike’s? It’s been a lot of years since I read this.”
      Stan cocked his head to line up with the printing on the cover, then laughed. “Moby Dick? It’s been a few beers over the lips since I had to swim through that one.” He laughed again. “That’s Mike’s all right, but I doubt he’ll get much out of it. He’s already pretty ticked off over the fact that he can’t find the movie in the video store. It’s always been checked out by one of the other kids when he bikes over there to get it. Since they don’t have a waiting list, it’s first come, first served.”
      Tim slipped the book back on the bag and hitched himself up to sit on the tabletop, waving away Stan’s gestured invitation to start making his sandwich. “No, you go on. I’ll make mine after you finish.” He held out one palm in a request for more information as he said, “He’s not a reader?”
      That brought another laugh. “You might say that. If it’s not on video, he doesn’t do a book report on it—unless it’s assigned reading, like this one was.” Stan shook his head and added, “I guess I can’t complain, since lots of the kids do that. When I was a kid, my best friend and I would only do book reports on things we could get in the Classic Comic series.”
      That brought a chuckle, and, “Didn’t everybody? So what’s he going to do? Will he actually read this thing?” He pulled the book out again, hefting it. “This may be pretty heavy going for a modern kid. I read it a couple of times, and enjoyed it, too, but not until college when I had the background to understand it.”
      Stan put down the knife he was using to slice his sandwich, apparently thinking over how to say it without making his son look stupid. Finally, with a cluck if the tongue, he said, “He’ll read it, I suppose. He’s good that way. They told him to read it, so he’ll read it—even if he does find the video for it—just because they told him he has to.” He bit his lip before waving his hands in uncertainty, adding, “I don’t know how to put this, Tim, but…. Mike’s a good kid; he really is. He just doesn’t have any…” In frustration, he spread his hands, finally settling for, “Damn, I’m making him sound stupid, or lazy, and he’s neither. He’s just…” He sighed. “I guess I can’t complain—he does get decent marks. It’s just that he sort of drifts, when it comes to schooling. Like I said, he’ll read it just because they told him to, but he won’t pay any real attention, and he won’t enjoy it. He’ll just… just read it. When it comes to something like that, it’s like the old ethnic joke, where the way to keep someone busy for hours is to give them a card that has both sides printed with, ‘Turn this card over and read the other side.’”
      Tim shook his head. “I think you’re being a little hard on the boy, Stan. He’s a little better than that. He’s at least as smart as my Dan.”
      Stan laid the sandwich he was finishing on a plate and turned to Tim, wiping his hands on a paper towel and moving to where the other man sat as he did. He tossed the towel toward the trash and reached for the book, taking it from Tim’s hand and holding it up.
      “I’m serious. If I would put a note in the middle of this book telling him to start over from the beginning, he will, just because the note is there. The kid doesn’t think for himself. I dearly wish I could get him started doing that, but… Well, nothing I’ve tried so far has worked.”
      “You that sure?” When Stan shrugged, Tim slid off the table and moved to the opposite side of the work counter. He dug in the bag for a roll, and began to slice it, his expression thoughtful.
     “Okay, I’ll take that one,” he said, finally. “I can always use some easy money. Five bucks says he won’t do that.”
      Stan hesitated for a moment before nodding and placing the book on the table. He flipped to a page near the middle, motioning Tim over to join him. “Done! But you have to come over here and write the note for me, so he doesn’t recognize the handwriting and catch on.” He fished in a drawer for a pen, bringing it to the table and holding it out to his friend.
      “Here, just write, ‘Note to students: Stop at this point and return to the beginning.”
      Tim took the pen, frowning. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. The bet is that Mike comes to the note and starts over; that he does this because he’s as dumb as the guy who jumped off a building and stopped to ask directions on the way down. Further, that he does this without asking either the teacher or anyone else if the note applies to him, right?
      “You got it.”
      Tim bent over the book and began to write. “Okay, Stan, but this is easy money. No one is that dumb.”
      “We’ll see.”
 
*
 
      Tim pulled the throttle back to stop the engine, bringing the old mower to a halt, as he called. “Hey Mike! Got a minute?”
     As he waited for his friend’s son to walk to the fence gate, Tim fished a plastic bag out of his back pocket and opened it, preparing to empty the grass-catcher. He laid the bag across the mower handle as the boy came through the gate.
      “Yes, Mr. Shanken?”
      Tim studied the boy with interest. Mike was a typical sixteen year-old, awkward with his sudden new size and always slouching in an attempt to keep his eyes at the height they were last year. He was a good kid, and though Tim didn’t know him too well, Mike was a friend to his own boy since they were toddlers.
      “I noticed that you were reading Moby Dick, and I was wondering how you liked it.”
      The boy shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess. I just wish I was finished with it. It’s pretty hard to read, with all that old fashioned language and all. Lots of what they do doesn’t make sense anymore, either.”
      “Oh?”
      Mike shrugged again. “It’s sometimes hard to understand why they get upset over something that would be no big deal today.”
      Tim’s respect for the boy went up a few points, and he decided that his father had underestimated his ability to absorb the story. Casually, he said, “So you’re finished?”
      He shook his head. “No. I would be by now, but there was a note from the teacher, near the middle, telling me to go back and re-read the first part. I guess she wants us to understand it before we go on, and since I don’t, I’m re-reading it. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I see things I missed the first time, so I guess there was a good reason for the note.”
      As the boy walked away Tim reflected that technically he had lost the bet, but certainly not for the reasons his friend gave when the bet was made. He wondered if he had not done Mike a favor with the note. Certainly he would enjoy the story more.
 
*
 
      Stan leaned back in his chair and shouted up the stairs to the kitchen. “Hey Mike, would you bring us some more beer?” He turned back to the men gathered around the card table. “One of the advantages of having children is service like this. When Mike complained that I was treating him like a servant, I told him he gets the chance to have one of his own when he has children.”
      There was laughter as Mike came down the stairs carrying a six-pack from the refrigerator. He put it on the side table and was about to launch himself back up the stairs when Tim stopped him with a hand on the arm. “Did you ever finish that story, Mike?”
      That brought a frown. “No, I didn’t. I’m on the fourth time around, and I still haven’t found what they want me to see, so I can’t go on.”
      “Well maybe if you finished it you could see—”
      “No,” Mike said, firmly, waving his hand in negation. “No, I can see a lot of things I missed, like the fact that the whale is actually symbolic, as is a lot of what is going on in the story, but I don’t think it’s that.” He thought a moment, then sighed. “I guess I’ll know it when I finally understand it, but it’s pretty tough.”
      The boy sounded so troubled, and so sincere that Tim debated telling him of the hoax, but at this point could see no way to do so without hurting the boy.
      “Maybe you should talk it over with the teacher?” He took a breath before saying, “Maybe someone else wrote the note—a student, maybe.” He spread his hands. “You do have to turn in the report, don’t you?”
      The comment about the note being other than from his teacher only brought a stubborn look to the boy’s face, and, “Maybe… but if so, someone found something worth looking for, and I want to see if I can do it for myself. I did the book report on Great Expectations, rather than Moby Dick, since I couldn’t get through it. This is just for me.”
      As Mike vanished up the stairs Tim frowned, then frowned again as Stan said, “That kid’s strange, sometimes.” Tim stared at the empty stair-well for a moment, then, with a shrug, shook himself back to the present. When he turned back to the table he found his friend’s hand extended.
     “Which reminds me, Buddy. We have a bet, and you just lost. Pay up.”
      Itt wasn’t worth arguing so he paid Stan the five dollars, but he looked thoughtfully at the stairs up which Mike had gone.
 
*
 
      Tim pulled to a stop at the traffic light. He stretched the sleep out of his muscles, enjoying the early morning feel to the air. It was a perfect day for a round of golf. He glanced over at Stan, relaxing in the passenger seat, yawning himself awake. “So, Stan,” he said, with a laugh in his voice. “I hate to ask, but has Mike ever finished that stupid book, or is he endlessly cycling up to the note and back to the beginning? He seemed almost obsessed with it the last time I talked to him.”
      Stan turned his head and gave Tim a sour look. “Let me tell you, Buddy, that is one weird kid.”
      “Uh-huh? And?”
      “And, I asked him about it last Monday. He said he was reading it for the tenth time, and that he had a real grasp of the motivations of the people now, and more importantly, the author. He told me he was making a detailed outline of where he thought the story was going, based on his interpretation of the intent of the author. He also told me how he thought it ended, and he was dead on. He claims that before he read it he had no idea of how story went, except that it was about a whale. That’s scary.”
      “Yeah? I guess it is, if it’s true. He could have just forgotten he saw it as a cartoon, or something. You sound like there’s something else, though.” The light changed, and Tim charged forward to block a Toyota intent on jumping into his lane before adding, “You said this happened last Monday. I assume there’s more now.”
      Stan looked even more sour, as he shook his head. “I don’t know if you’d call it more, or just craziness. He’s now into an analysis of the printing process in general. He spent almost an hour just explaining such things as sans-serif type and another on the history of ink pigments. The kid spends half his spare time doing research and half re-reading the first part of that damn book.” He threw up his hands in frustration. “I’ll tell you, Tim. I really don’t know what to do about it. I’m glad he’s learning something, but it’s starting to worry me.”
      Tim drove in silence for a time, then ventured, “Have you thought of telling him who actually made the note?”
      There was an equally long silence before Stan quietly said, “I did. He said it doesn’t matter.”
 
*
 
      Tim reached for the phone, hurrying to answer it before it woke his wife. “Hello?”
      “Hi, Tim, it’s Stan. Thelma said you called. What’s up?”
      “Not much, it’s just that I happened to think about your son Mike today. What with the baby being sick and all, I haven’t heard a progress report for weeks. How’s he doing?”
      There was the sound of a long sigh. “How’s he doing? I really wish I knew, Tim. He’s been almost living at the library, lately, and he’s got a whole room-full of books on things like communication theory and the structure of languages. It’s starting to scare the hell out of me, but he’s aced every test he’s taken in school since the start of this thing, so it’s hard to complain. We may have created a monster, or pushed him onto the path of becoming a great scientist; take your choice. I’d rather it be the scientist, but I’m afraid it might be the other.”
      Tim hesitated before saying, “Is he acting strangely in other ways—skipping meals and such?”
      There was a snort of laughter from the phone. “The human garbage disposal skip a meal? You’ve got to be kidding. No, he’s okay except for that. In fact, he’s a lot more fun to talk to now. He reads the paper, and thinks about it, where before he only read the comics. No, I really don’t think he’s going crazy, or anything like that. It’s just that he’s always so… busy.”
 
*
 
      “Tim! Hey, Tim…up here!”
     Tim searched for the source of the call, finally locating his friend Stan at a second floor window. His voice had been half whisper, half shout, and his face bore a look of urgency.
      “Hi, Stan,” Tim called. “What’s up? You look like you’ve just caught Irma in bed with her grandfather again.”
      Stan ignored the attempt at humor and motioned Tim closer to the house. As he approached, Stan pointed toward the porch, stage-whispering, “Front door’s open, come on up here… and hurry.”
      Tim took the steps to the second floor two at a time, wondering what was going on, but afraid he knew.
     
      “He’s been like this for the past hour. Watch him.”
      Stan guided Tim to the door of his son’s room. Inside, Mike sat on the chair in front of his desk, staring at an open book, his body unmoving. He appeared to be looking at the book, but his eyes were staring—as unmoving as the rest of his body.
      Tim turned his head to speak, but Stan stopped him with a hand on his arm, whispering, “Just watch.”
     Tim did as he requested, and a few seconds later the boy reached out and turned the page, only to resume his motionless position. At Tim’s confused look, Stan motioned to the stair and headed in that direction. With a last look into the silent room, Tim followed.
     
      “He’s reading? It sure doesn’t look like it to me.”
      “Me either, Tim, but that’s what he claims to be doing. He says he’s teaching himself to take in the whole page in one single gestalt—of what is, and what was intended to be, and how it fits into the book and the world.”
      “Gestalt? What the hell is that? It sounds like something he pulled out of a psyche book.”
      Stan shrugged. “I’m not sure, but I looked it up, and it means the whole of a thing that cannot be derived from just the sum of its parts. I don’t know what the hell he means by it, though. He’s starting to really scare me and I don’t know what to do.” He looked at his friend, his expression hopeful. “Do you have any ideas? I’m fresh out.”
      Tim blew out a long breath. “None. This thing has really gotten wild. Have you taken him to a doctor?” At Stan’s affirmative nod, he added, “A shrink?”
      Stan looked glum. “A shrink, and a psychologist, and two other kinds of head doctors, too. They love him. They say he’s the most well balanced and intelligent kid they’ve seen in years. They think I’m crazy!” He held out his hands, as though seeking guidance, or at least a little reassurance. “I’m not, am I?”
      Tim thought that over for a time, then asked, “How is he when he’s not doing the yoga thing?” He pointed in the direction of the second floor, indicating Mike’s present activity.
      Stan deflated, leaning back in the chair and shaking his head in frustration. “That’s the hell of it, Tim. When he’s not like that, he’s great. He helps around the house, plays ball, and does all the things he always did; maybe even more. Hell, I’ve never seen him so full of energy.”
      Tim was at a loss to suggest anything, but a question occurred. “Um… When he finishes with that… uh, reading?” He wasn’t happy with the word, but plowed on anyway. “When he puts the book away, has he actually read it—gotten anything out of it?”
      Stan scratched his chin, thoughtfully. “Well, I can’t tell for sure, but he seems to. When he finishes a book, he can discuss what it was about, it just seems a weird way to read. He’d be a lot faster reading it the regular way.”
      “Have you told him that?”
      “Sure, but when I did he said he’s getting better and that he gets much more out of the book this way.”
      Tim was silent for a long time, and when he spoke, his answer didn’t satisfy him. He just couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Well, if it doesn’t hurt him, and he’s okay in every way, I guess it makes him happy. Who knows, maybe he’ll come up with a new way of reading. I’d give it a little while, and keep an eye on him.”
      It was obvious from the expression on Stan’s face that it was not an answer he was comfortable with, but there was little choice in the matter, and Mike’s energetic feet on the stair ended the conversation..
 
*
 
      “Hi, Mr. Shaken. I haven’t seen you for a while. How are you?”
      “Mmm?” Tim turned from polishing the car. “Oh, hi, Mike. I’m pretty fine. We’ve been at the lake house for three weeks.”
      Tim studied the boy for a moment, before going on, noting that he seemed changed since the last time he had seen him. In some indefinable way he seemed more grown up. For one thing, he stood straight, and had a look of confidence Tim had never seen him wear before. There was more, though. Tim just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
      “Well, Mike,” he continued. “You look pretty happy this afternoon.”
      “I am,” the boy enthused. “I finally broke through yesterday morning, and I have to thank you and my father for making it possible.”
      “Broke through? I’m afraid I—”
      “No, I guess you wouldn’t understand,” Mike said, with a smile, interrupting him. “What I mean is that I finally understand, and now it’s easy to learn.”
      Tim put down the rag he had been using to polish the car, and held out his hands in a request for enlightenment. “Mike, I’m afraid I—”
      “Still don’t understand,” Mike finished, interrupting him once again. He looked thoughtful for a moment, before saying, “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have it, but what I now understand is communication, and how it’s really done. It means that I can pretty much tell what you’re thinking by watching your face, and that I can read a page by just glancing at it.” He shrugged. “In fact, if it’s an opinion book, rather than an accumulation of facts, I can usually tell what the thing contains from the first few pages. Most people are far too wordy when they try to say something.”
      Tim blinked rapidly for a few seconds, before Mike continued, speaking for him, and saying, “But that’s not possible, Mike, and you can’t know my thoughts.” He stopped, grinning at the expression Tim was unable to keep from his features, and there was laughter in his voice as he said, “Of course I can’t read minds, no one could do that, right?” He hesitated, still grinning, then went on more gently, moving away from the subject of mind-reading.
      “Anyway, I really want to thank you for making it possible, even if you didn’t have this in mind when you put that note in the book.”
      Tim just stared for a long moment, then tried again. “So—”
      “What will I do now?” Mike put a hand on the Tim’s shoulder, saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Shanken, I have to remember not to do that. It seems to upset people… Well, in answer to your question, I’ve read everything in the house, so I’m on my way downtown to read the library. Then, who knows? Maybe I’ll go swimming with the guys.”
     
      Tim watched him go, and had the thought that he ought to go find Stan and ask for his five dollars back.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.
 
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Posted by on November 11, 2011 in Short Story

 

Tags: , , , , ,

A Whisper of Love

A Whisper of Love
     Sarah hurried across the parking lot. Given the time lost in traffic she breathed a prayer that Kenny would still be there when she arrived, and that no one else was sitting in her place. He might not have waited, and if someone else had arrived while he was waiting, and he had… Well, that was something she didn’t want to think about.
     She flashed her pass as she hurried past the guard, but the man was already waving her through. Apparently, she had been to the museum so often that showing it was only a formality.
     As she hurried through the galleries she ignored the riches displayed there. Her goal was the narrow bench fronting one single painting. Set in an alcove at the end of a gallery, it and the painting at the opposite end were oddities whose placement Sarah had yet to comprehend. Of the pair, her favorite showed a woman standing by a window, head bowed and listening. For the call of a lover? To a church bell? The painting gave few clues, but the clouds gathered above the woman carried the deep tints of dusk, painting the sky in tones of sadness. Each time she saw it Sarah felt a kinship. That woman, too, was listening for the voice of a dead lover; listening for the voice that would call her home.
     “Hi, Sarah… Back again, I see. It looks like we have something in common, after all.” Norman Atkins fell into step, as she strode through the modern art gallery.
     “Oh hi, Norm.” she said, nodding a distracted hello. “How are you?” If he responded, she didn’t notice. Norman liked her—had, from their days as high school classmates, when his shoulder was the one she peered over when a question had her stumped. He seemed a decent person, and wanted to be more than an acquaintance, she was certain.
     But neither romance nor a discussion of art was on her agenda, so when he showed no sign of turning his path from hers, she said, “Can’t talk, now, Norm. I have to be somewhere.”
     He slowed his steps, saying, “That’s okay, Sarah. I…I’ll see you around.”
     Sarah’s heels tap-tapped on the marble floor as she hurried toward the bench, ignoring the other visitors scattered through the long hall. Unfortunately, there was a man standing in front of her painting, and she had to grit her teeth to keep from ordering him to move on. Instead, she pretended interest in a nearby seascape.
     Finally, the man left and Sarah was able to slip onto the bench, tugging the zipper on her case and extracting her sketch-book as she did so. She had a partially finished sketch on the pad, but had added not a line to it for weeks. Its purpose was to provide a reason for her to be there, and to discourage others from interrupting.
     “Kenny?” she whispered, as she bent over the pad. She had become adept at speaking with minimum movement of her lips over the past few weeks.
     “I’m here, Sarah. How are you today?” A wave of relief spread through her, lightening her usual somber mood.
      “I’m getting by, Kenny. But it’s hard…terribly hard. If it wasn’t for you I’d…” She bowed her head for a moment, then forced herself into a better frame of mind, saying, “We were talking about theater, and why—”
     “You first,” the voice interrupted. “Tell me about your day. Tell me what the weather’s like, and what cut grass smells like. Tell me everything. I’ve almost forgotten.”
     “Oh… Well, okay. It’s sunny, for a change, and windy, so it smells more of dust than anything else.” In truth, it was a glorious spring day, and the lawn in front of the museum had been a riot of tulips, but she’d determinedly ignored all that—until now, as she began to describe it.
     Now, under Kenny’s gentle but relentless questioning she remembered. For the few minutes she spent with him she put aside Brad’s broken body. To give Kenny life, even if only via a second-hand retelling, she herself, must live once more. At first, it had been hard. Now, it was the thing that gave her purpose.
     Sarah had been close to ending her life when she’d taken a seat in front of the painting, over a month ago. Nearly a year had passed since the night of the accident, but it was yesterday in her thoughts. The scent of gasoline and torn flesh still clotted her nostrils and the slick wetness of blood still clung to her fingertips. Brad’s death could never be washed from her hands, or from her mind.
     On that day she sketched for, perhaps, ten minutes, before dropping her head into her hands, lost in tear-stained memories…
     “Why are you crying?” She whirled, embarrassed.
     But there was no one near. The gallery had dozens of visitors but none within ten feet of her—certainly not close enough to whisper.
     Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and sought strength. Strength to go on for one more hour—one more day.
     “Why were you crying?”
     I won’t turn. I won’t look. But she was unable to keep herself from hissing, “Who are you? Where are you?” There was no doubt that the voice was real.
     “My name is Kenny, and I’m… well, I’m a ghost. At least I think I am.”
     That brought Sarah to her feet, shocked out of her depression but feeling more than a little anger, as she said, “The hell you are, mister. What’s going on?” Her eyes darted around the room, then to the wall of the alcove, seeking the grill of a speaker or the shape of a microphone. But there was nothing, and in any case, the voice had been real, not an electronic reproduction of human speech.
     There was no answer, and it was with a great deal of embarrassment that she sank back onto the bench. People were staring.
     “Crazy… I’m going crazy,” she muttered, wondering if she had imagined the whole thing.
     “Crazy is better than dead,” the voice told her with great assurance. “You can take my word for that.”
     Sarah just closed her eyes. After a long moment, and in a tired voice she said, “Why should I believe you’re a ghost?”
     “Don’t then. What difference does it make? If I am, belief or disbelief won’t change things, and if I’m not… so what? Tell me why you were crying. No one’s sat on that bench and cried before. Were you that moved by the picture?”
     And so it had begun. His name was Kenny, and he claimed not to know either why he was there, or how he died, only that he was lonely, and able to contact few of the living. He had died several years before, but remembered nothing of his death. Some details, such as the fact that he had collected vintage cars remained, but much was hazy, with attitudes and beliefs in sharper focus then the hard details of his life. But his life was not what he wanted to talk about, in any case. He wanted to know about hers.
     “My life is over,” she had insisted. But that only led to a discussion of why she believed that, and of the events that led up to her being on that particular road, with that particular man, at that particular time. Since that day she had returned almost every evening, their visits a piece torn from the fabric of time—a moment of quiet talk slipped between the loneliness of work and the nightmares that tormented her sleep. They had an hour together, sometimes less, before the museum closed.
     On most nights Kenny would answer her call. He claimed not to be aware of a gap when he didn’t appear, or of any time passing between their visits.
     “So, what have you done this week toward getting your life back on track, Sarah?”
     “There is no track, Kenny. My life is a train wreck. You know that.”
     “Crap.”
     “It is.”
     “Only because you want it that way. You cherish your pain.”
     “I…. That’s a cruel thing to say.”
     “True. What will you do about it…hit me?
     Sarah shook her head. This was unlike Kenny. They had enjoyed wide ranging conversations, touching on nearly every subject, including her desire to end her life. But he had never attacked her grief as being unjustified.
     “Tell me how it’s true,” she demanded. “Tell me how I cherish my pain.”
     “Fair enough. Have you gone to a movie, or any entertainment, since Brad’s death?
     “… No.”
     “Have you had one single conversation with a man that wasn’t strictly about business?”
     “I’ve spoken with you.”
     “Doesn’t count, I’m male in outlook, but hardly a man. Just a collection of random particles energized by some stray ultra-violet radiation.”
     “Well I wish you were real. If you were I’d have someone to talk to, at least.”
     There was a long silence, then, “There are living men you’d like a lot more than me, Sarah. You just haven’t been looking.”
     “It doesn’t matter. My life is like something from the X-Files. The man I love is dead and my best friend is a ghost.
     “Bullshit.”
     “I beg your pardon?”
     “I said, ‘bullshit,’ and I mean bullshit. You didn’t love Brad when he was alive, so how can you love him when he’s dead?”
     Sarah slid the pad back into the case and deliberately set it aside, then crossed her arms, her face set in lines of anger.
     “How the hell can you say something like that, Kenny? I loved Brad.”
     “He picked your friends.”
     “They were our friends.”
     “Not true. Unless you’ve been lying to me?”
     When she didn’t respond he said, “He told you where you could go, and when—and mostly you went only with him. You hated that.”
     She took a deep breath and shrugged, but uncrossed her arms and slumped a bit before saying, “So we had a few problems. Every couple has them.”
     “True, but every woman doesn’t move clothing and personal objects out of the apartment—nor pack a suitcase and hide it in the back of the closet.”
     “I…” There was nothing to say. She had been getting ready to leave when the accident occurred. Brad was handsome, fun to be with—everything she might have wanted in a man. He was also a bully and an overgrown child, who had to have his own way at all times.
     “Gotcha,” the voice said, quietly.
     “Well it doesn’t change things,” she said, defensively. Brad is gone, and I’m in love with a ghost. And I— Damn!” What in the hell had made her say something so stupid?
     But it certainly had silenced Kenny. When he finally spoke, his voice was slow, and apologetic.
     “I’m sorry, Sarah. I never meant it to come to this. I wanted to help you, not hurt you. I…” He sighed into silence.
     “So what do I do now?” she finally asked. “How do I go on? Do I come here every night for the rest of my life? Do I become the crazy lady who sits in the corner and talks to herself?”
     “You go back to living, Sarah. You find the man who wants you so desperately that…”
     There had been the sound of frustration in his words, then silence. Sarah was at a loss as to what to say, other than, “Life sucks,” but before she could, a strange voice said, “I’m sorry, sir, but the museum will be closing in a few minutes.”
     “What?” Sarah turned, scanning the room. At the opposite end of the gallery a guard, who had been facing the matching alcove, now turned to face her. He leaned backward, placing his head within the alcove, before saying, “The museum’s closing, ma’am.” He hadn’t raised his voice, but the words seemed to come from only inches away.
     Sarah knew her jaw was hanging foolishly open but she couldn’t help herself.
     The woman in the painting isn’t listening, she’s eavesdropping!
     She got to her feet to march the length of the gallery, anger building with each step. She had been duped, conned, played with, and by God, someone was going to pay. The guard, seeing the fury building on her face, and probably deducing the cause—at least in general—raised hands, palms out, and said, “I’m out of here. Just don’t leave his body cluttering the gallery when you go.” He snickered as he left.
     The man on the bench turned.
     “Hi, Sarah. I…uhh, see you made your appointment okay.”
      Sarah closed her eyes to count silently to ten before speaking. She got as far as three.
     “Norman Atkins, you are the single most despicable man I have ever met.”
     “Probably.” He seemed unperturbed, and that served only to infuriate Sarah still further.
     “God, I hate you!”
     “No. You don’t.”
     “What?”
     “You don’t hate me, Sarah, you’re just angry with me…and I can’t blame you.”
     That brought her to a halt. Aside from the question of her hating him, how can you be angry with someone who agrees with you? She felt the weight of depression settle into its familiar place on her shoulders, and closed her eyes.
     “Why, then? Why did you do it?”
     “I like you better angry.”
     Her eyes opened, and she booted depression from its saddle, “Okay, then, damn you…I’m angry. Tell me why you would do such a terrible thing.”
     “A fair question. Define terrible.”
     “Define… Norman, how the hell can you ask such a thing? You lied to me. You told me you were dead.” That sounded stupid, even to her ears.
     “Define terrible.”
     She took a breath. “You said you were someone you aren’t.”
     “No I didn’t. My name is Kenny, at least to my parents and close friends. It’s my middle name and I like it better than Norman.”
     “But—“
     “What did Kenny do when he was alive, Sarah?”
     “Uhh…he was a teacher.”
     “I taught computer science before I founded Belmont Technical Institute.”
     Sarah just stared. There was nothing she could say.
     More gently now. “Define terrible, Sarah. I saw that guard coming, and I knew what he was going to say. A wave of my hand and he would have turned aside, as usual, and you would never have known. But I looked away so he would tell me, and so you would hear.” He allowed her to absorb that, before saying. “There’s a little plaque next to the alcove that explains how the shape of the room and the dome over it focuses the sound waves from each end of the room into the matching alcove at the opposite end. It’s called a whispering gallery, and I really expected you to notice it before this.”
     He leaned toward her, and his voice was both quiet and intense as he said, “Define terrible, Sarah.”
     She turned away, lest he see her tears. “You made me…” She stopped. How could she say, “You made me fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist.”
     Huddled miserably within herself she heard him step closer, and sensed the warmth of him just behind. He touched her shoulder, but dropped his hand when she flinched away.
     “Hate me if you want, Sarah, I deserve that. Just don’t let yourself fall back into being the way you were.”
     After a moment she nodded. He was right. Brad had been a bully, and she had been about to leave him when the accident occurred. And of more importance, the accident was not her fault.
     She took a shuddery breath, and felt as though she had come to the surface after an endless time underwater. For the first time in forever she could breathe, truly breathe, and it felt indescribably beautiful.
     “Live, Sarah!” he demanded. “I want you to live. I want you to be the person you were before this happened—the woman I’ve gotten to know these past few weeks. The woman…” She heard the sound of him taking a breath before quietly saying, “The woman I fell in love with.”
     She turned, drawn to meet his eyes, and he finished with a gentle, “Be the woman who loved me, Sarah… even if she didn’t know it was me.”
     There was nothing she could say in response. It was too sudden, and too much, so in defense, she changed the subject. She glanced at her watch, then said, “They’ll come looking for us in a minute.”
     He nodded. “I know. And I know this is a lot to take at once, so I won’t ask you to leave with me. But I will be here tomorrow, if you’d like to talk.”
     With that, and giving her no time to respond, he turned and walked toward the museum entrance.
     Sarah watched him go—a man she had fallen in love with, yet a man she didn’t really know. Or did she? Certainly, he knew her better than anyone who walked the Earth…and loved her for it.
     When she had no reason to live he had asked her why she was crying, and then had become her reason. Should she love him any less because he was alive?
     Her heels tapped quietly on the marble floor as she strolled toward the entrance, lost in thought.
      I’ll have to do something about his wardrobe. And maybe bring him to my sister’s place to see how he reacts to her kids. And after that… She was alive again, and it felt good.
     Tonight there would be no nightmares. And tomorrow? Well, she already knew the words she would be whispering, tomorrow.

Fin

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
 
    &nbspThis piece began as a contest story on the old AOL Writers Club that had a strict 3000 word limit. It was my first contest win, and that was a great feeling. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Short Story

 

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Interlude

Interlude
Interlude
A Love Story

 
      Mark Stirling sighed as he slipped the key from the ignition. He closed his eyes and let the tension flow from him, breathing a thank you that the day, and the week leading to it, was finally over.
     But indulging in self-pity accomplished little, so he extracted the travel suitcase from the trunk and turned to the building that fronted the road.
     The stylized number eight of the Super-Eight motel chain gave small comfort. The dilapidated cabins that lined the parking lot, said that the place probably dated from the 1950s and would supply little in the way of amenities.
     Gravel crunched underfoot as he made his way toward the office. Unfortunately, moving closer brought no improvement, only curiosity as to how the old place had survived. Its rural location and lack of competition probably helped. But still, that it had survived spoke in its favor.
     The old-fashioned screen door screeched a shrill welcome, closing behind him with the flat slap of wood against wood as he stepped inside.
     Shaking his head at a room that perfectly fulfilled the promise of the outside of the building, he started across the bare concrete floor toward the check-in desk, an ancient merchandise case of glass and wood, straight out of the nineteen-forties. Inside the case, an assortment of sundries stood on display, including a bottle of white liquid labeled Wildroot Cream-Oil that he took to be a hair-care product of some kind.
     “Hello, and welcome,” the heavyset man behind the counter said, smiling. “You’ll be wanting a room?”
     His cheerful voice added a promising note to the place, at least.
     “Just for the night.”
     “Where’ya headed?” he asked, as he spun the old fashioned registration book to face the guest’s side of the counter.
     With a trace of bitterness he couldn’t suppress, Mark said, “Philly, if things go better tomorrow than they did today.”
     “Oh-oh… Car trouble?”
     “Uh-huh.” Bending to sign the book he added, “My transmission seems to have blown a clutch, so I’ve spent part of the day waiting for the tow-truck and the rest waiting for the mechanic to get around to working on it.”
     “Hottenstein’s place?”
     “I think so. It’s about three miles toward the turnpike from here?”
     “That’s him. He’s a good man. If it can be fixed, Zack Hottenstein can do it.”
     “Maybe,” he said, without enthusiasm. “But not today. He can’t get the parts until tomorrow morning, at the earliest.” At the man’s curious look in the direction of the front door, he added, “The owner let me use one of his cars for the night.”
     “Like I told you,” he said. “A good man.”
     “Mmm… Is there a place nearby where I can eat?”
     “Uh-huh. Keep on down the road for a mile or so, Lydia’s place is on the left.” The man was silent for a moment, then ventured. “On your way home to the wife?”
     “Not married, I’m afraid.”
     The man cocked his head for a moment, then shook it as he said, “I’d have figured you for the marrying type.”
     That brought a chuckle, and “Oh I am, or will be if I find the right woman. At the moment I’m headed for a new job in Philly…if I ever get there.”
     “Ahh…” The man leaned an elbow on the countertop, tapping a finger against his cheek for a moment before venturing, “You knew what the problem was with the car, and you have the look of someone who’s handy with a wrench, so I’m guessing you’re…” He stood and threw a finger in Mark’s direction, saying, “I figure you for a mechanical engineer.”
     Mark turned the registration book back to face the man, who had reached back to take a key from a pegboard mounted on the wall.
     “Good guess. I design industrial conveyor systems—or will if the damn car holds together long enough to get me to Philadelphia.”
     About to hand over the key, the man hesitated, and said, “Say, are you in a hurry?”
     Mystified, he shook his head. “Not any more. What did you have in mind?”
     “Well, if you can give me a few minutes, I’m taking a sort of survey, to get a feel for the type of people who stop here.”
     “Well…” He glanced around the seedy lobby, suppressing the headshake the view wanted to generate. That, and the tired looking cabins that stretched the length of the parking lot gave little to be positive about. But mentioning that wouldn’t be very diplomatic, so he said, “I’m afraid I’m not the typical traveler.”
     “That’s okay,” the man said, cheerfully, reaching for a clipboard he had hanging on the wall. “You count, too…grab one of those chairs and set yourself down for a bit.” Without waiting, the man came around the counter, heading toward a group of worn chairs clustered around an equally ancient table.
     With a “what the hell,” shrug, Mark took one of the other chairs and settled into it. With nearly an hour before dinner this might kill some time.
     “Okay,” the man said, pencil poised and sounding as though about to gather information of earthshaking importance. “Name and age?”
     “Mark Sterling, and I’m twenty-six.” The man recorded that at the top of the form and stopped to admire his handiwork before continuing on with such things as marital status and occupation. The man even requested income, data he declined to supply—though he did admit to “middle class,” when pressed.
 
     After five minutes of increasingly personal questions, none relating to his opinion of the motel, it was time to bring things to a halt. What possible connection could his religious beliefs have to do with selecting a room for the night?
     Before he could speak, though, the man put the clipboard aside, smiling.
     “Well, that ought to do nicely.” He studied Mark for a moment before murmuring, “Very nicely.”
     Standing, then, he walked to the counter. To Mark’s surprise, he placed the room key he had been holding back on the pegboard and picked another, saying, “I think you’ll like this room better.” He pointed in the direction of the line of cabins, as he said, “It’s second from the end…number fourteen.”
     Feeling as though things had been happening of which he was only partially aware, he took the proffered key. But the man at the garage had said nice things about the motel’s owner, and though old, the place was spotlessly clean, so he headed toward the room.

*

     Cabin fourteen appeared to be exactly like all the others: tiny, drab, and badly in need of paint. For a moment, he stood in the gravel parking lot fronting the line of cabins. Was it worth the effort of driving to some more modern place? The innkeeper, in response to his request for a wake-up call at seven, supplied an ancient wind-up alarm clock, explaining that the cabin had no phone.
     But he had already paid, so with a shrug, he dug in his pocket for the key. A look around before making any final decision made sense.
 
     “Hello? I’ll be out in a minute.”
     A woman’s voice, coming from what could only be the bathroom, was unexpected. He backed out to compare the number on the cabin’s door with that on his key. They matched. A quick glance inside showed the room to be neat and made up, but the clothes-rack was in use and the dresser-top showed evidence of occupancy.
     “I’m sorry,” he called, backing through the door once more. “I think I’m in the wrong room.”
     “No, wait!” she called. “Give me a minute.”
      Wait? Mystified, he stood in the doorway, unsure of what to do. He should close the door, to keep the insects out, but the idea of entering a stranger’s room, especially following that odd encounter with the innkeeper, required more confidence than the situation generated. A quiet “Damn!” from the bathroom did little to reduce confusion. After a moment a toilet flushed, followed, a few moments later, by the opening of the bathroom door.
     A young woman emerged. The room lights were off, and she was partly in shadow, but at a guess she couldn’t be over twenty. She wore jeans, a brightly patterned tee-shirt, and a face that glowed red with embarrassment. She was tall for a woman, but still, several inches under his six feet—and slim.
     “I’m sorry,” she began. “I didn’t expect anyone for another hour or so, or I wouldn’t have been…been…” Her face reddened still further, as she gestured toward the closed door of the bathroom.
     “I’m Myra,” she finally said, as though that explained everything.
     Apparently, the hotel also functioned as the local bawdy house, and the manager had either given him the wrong key, or thought he might be interested in a bit of sexual entertainment before dinner.
     “I’m sorry, I…” Feeling foolish, he took a deep breath and started over. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I’m supposed to be in a regular room for the night, not…not visiting you. I think I—”
     “It’s okay,” she said, motioning for him to come in and close the door. “This is your room. It’s just that I…well, I come with it, if…if that’s okay with you.”
     “Okay? I…you come with the room? What in the hell does that mean?”
     Either he had stepped into the set of a movie, or was involved in an elaborate practical joke. The odds said practical joke, and that the interview had kept him in the lobby as a delaying tactic to give the actress time to get ready. He glanced around, seeking the camera lens that must be concealed nearby. Perhaps behind the mirror above the dresser?
     “I’m sorry, I’m not doing this very well,” she said, apologetically. “But this is the first time for me, and.…” She stopped, chewing on her lip and looking uncomfortable, eyes downcast.
     She comes with the room and I’m her first customer? Good God, I’ve stepped into crazy.
     But standing half in and half out of crazy seemed silly, so he took a step forward and allowed the door to close, plunging the room into shades reminiscent of twilight, yielding to curiosity and committing to at least see which way things went.
     Her quiet, “Thank you,” gave some sense of re-assurance. Still, with no idea of how to proceed, he waited for her to go on, while mulling over what little he knew.
     A trace of perfume hung in the air—something light and floral. Had she applied it in anticipation of his arrival, or was it simply the scent trail of her cosmetics? Certainly she didn’t seem the type to turn to prostitution, or look like one. Her mode of dress seemed more suited to an afternoon in the park than a seduction, and she appeared to be wearing little makeup—though both could be the result of his arriving earlier than expected.
     With a visible effort she straightened her spine, though she kept her gaze riveted on the floor, avoiding his eyes. She had a nice face, though, but, again, not the face of a prostitute.
     She wasn’t especially noteworthy—her face too thin for true beauty, her nose a trace too large. But attractive fit well. Certainly someone to be interested in were they have met under more normal circumstance.
     “Is there anything I can do?” he ventured, when she didn’t speak.
     She waved a hand in negation. “No, just give me a minute.” Then, with a shake of the head to settle her hair she moved toward the nightstand and turned on the lamp, then sat primly on the corner of the bed, pointing to the room’s only chair as she did so.
     “Sit there and I’ll explain.” She met his gaze then, with eyes of sunset blue, deep and compelling.
     Wow. To cover his reaction he turned the chair away from the battered old table and sat, noting with distaste that bare concrete floored the room, like the office, without even a token covering of tile or paint. The rest of the room fulfilled the promise of that floor, fairly shouting the word cheap.
     “Okay,” she said, forcing a smile into her voice. “I’m not very good at this. But like I said, this is my first time. So I—”
     “What do you mean your first time? Your first time with a…a man? Because if you—”
     “Let me finish,” she ordered, a little testily.
     “Sorry.”
     “It’s okay. But let me finish before you ask questions.”
     He held up his hands in surrender, then motioned for her to continue.
     “Okay…the problem is that the mines in this area have been closing down for years, and there aren’t any jobs.”
     “And?”
     “And everyone who can has moved away, especially the younger men.” Her voice carried tones of bitterness as she said, “Which means there’s no jobs available for a woman, and no men she might marry.”
     “So you have to turn to this to live?”
     “If by, ‘this,’ you mean sex for money, the answer is no.”
     “But you said…” Things were no clearer now than before she had began her explanation.
     “I said I came with the room. But I am most definitely not a prostitute, so get that out of your mind right now. I’m here to talk to you, and help you unpack, and to keep you company.”
     She waved a hand to indicate the room.
     “You may have noticed that there’s no television set. I’m here instead.”
     He blinked several times before saying, “You’re kidding. There has to be more.”
     She shrugged. “Well, I clean up and make the bed in this and three other cabins, and in return I have a place to stay and a few bucks for food. There’s a couple of other girls staying here, too, doing the same thing.”
     He shook his head. Definitely not your average motel. He waved a hand in inquiry. “So where do you sleep?”
     That brought color to her cheeks and a trace of hesitation in her voice, as she said, “When there’s no one here I use the bed.” She averted her eyes, as she added. “I’m supposed to…well there’s a pad in the closet that I can put in the corner.”
     “And if the man using the room offers you money to…to be more friendly? What would you—”
     She met his eyes once more, ice blue, as she said, “Mister, do you know what it’s like to be hungry—really hungry?”
     “I think so, yes. I’ve missed a meal or two.”
     “No!” She shook her head. “I don’t mean like when you miss a meal. I mean the kind of hungry that comes when you haven’t eaten in two days, and there’s not a damn thing left in the kitchen. Not catsup or mustard, either—because you drank the ketchup and ate even the mustard—and there’s nothing in your pocket to buy food with. Have you ever been that hungry?”
     “No,” he admitted. “No, I never have.”
     “Well I have…more than once. And I’ve been offered money for the use of my body when I thought I was gonna die for lack of food.”
     “But you said no.”
     “I said no. There’s not a lot that’s mine, Mister, but I have my pride. That I’ll always have.”
     “So, now you’re an American version of the Japanese Geisha?”
     “I don’t…”
     “They keep men company, entertain with music and song, and cater to their whims. But that’s all.”
     She nodded. “That’s me.” She sat up a little straighter, her eyes seeking his. “And those are the rules, so if you don’t want me here under those conditions you can change rooms…or I will.”
     He leaned back and crossed his arms, looking her over as a smile grew. The idea, so bizarre, and so far out of his range of experience that he couldn’t help but be intrigued by it, amused.
     Finally, he nodded and said, “You’ve got yourself a deal. My name’s Mark, by the way; Mark Sterling.”
     For the next hour Myra talked and Mark listened. She insisted on unpacking his things and placing them in the closet and dresser for him. While she did that, and after, at his request, she told him about growing up poor, something he had, thankfully, been spared. Her father, a coal miner, came to Pennsylvania from West Virginia, when the mines there began to close. He’d worked the local wildcat mines—when he could find work.
     An only child, her mother died of cancer when she was sixteen, followed shortly thereafter by her father. Since their deaths she had done anything that would generate enough money for food and a roof over her head. But times were becoming harder, lately, and jobs non-existent. In desperation, she’d turned to her uncle, who owned the hotel, and he had proposed the quirky arrangement. Her uncle, from what she said, had a good heart, and called himself an innovator, but spent a fair amount of time in Crazyville.
 
     Mark glanced at his watch as he came out of the bathroom. They had been exchanging stories for over two hours, though it seemed far less than that. The room’s single window dimmed with the approach of evening, and his stomach reminded him that he had been neglecting it.
     “So, what do you do for food?” he asked, settling back into the chair, changing the subject from his own childhood in Ohio.
     “Food? Oh, you mean my meals. I take them here in the room, or with the other girls.” She hesitated, before adding, “I’d invite you to join me, but…” She stopped, and left the fact that she couldn’t afford to feed him unstated, saying instead, “But if you’d like, there’s a grocery about a mile from here where you can pick up most anything you’d like. I’ve been told I’m a fair cook.”
     He shook his head, rejecting that, leaning back in the chair as he studied her. She was better looking than he had first thought, or at least she would be if she spent some time off a third-world style diet. Feeling pleased with what he was about to do, he said, “Tell me, Myra, how long has it been since you’ve had a real sit-down dinner that someone else cooked and served?”
     A moment of hesitation, then, “Thank you, Mark.” I appreciate the offer, but I can’t accept it.”
     “But…why?”
     “I just can’t.”
     For a moment he stared, then asked, “Is it a rule that you can’t eat with the guests? You did offer to cook for me.”
     “That’s different.”
     “Different?” Then understanding came. “Ahh…You’d eat then because you’d have earned a part of the meal by cooking it.”
     That realization served as a reminder that they were not two friends sharing conversation and companionship. The camaraderie that had flowed so easily between them was gone, and once again they were client and…and what?
     He puzzled on that for a moment, before giving in with a shrug. “Okay, then, we can eat here. Will you at least come to the store with me? I’d really like your company.” When she appeared to be about to balk, he added, “That is part of the deal, after all—your keeping me company.”
     She gave in with good grace, and even agreed to his suggestion that they cook the steaks on the grill he had noticed in the park-like area behind the cabins, though she did complain that he should not have taken the most expensive steaks in the store’s meat-cooler when there were much lower cost cuts available.
     Myra sent him off to light the grill and start the steaks while she readied the rest of their dinner, then brought it out to the little park.
     The steaks helped make the meal memorable, but she’d done wonders with spices, an onion, and assorted vegetables—some of which he didn’t recognize. He had to agree. She was a good cook.
 
     Talk flowed like smoke between them, as they sat relaxed and alone in the growing dark. As she became more comfortable her language turned interestingly colloquial, with words like “ain’t” and local idioms and pronunciation coloring her speech.
     The lady was interesting company. Though provincial in many ways, she had a good head on her shoulders, and her tastes often mirrored his own.
     Then, without warning, he was yawning and it was time for bed.
     She noticed, and stood, abruptly, to begin gathering the dishes, her posture, outlined in the glow from the single overhead light the park boasted, showing tension.
     “Let me help you,” he suggested.
     “It’s no bother.” A note of cold formality that had been missing since before dinner colored her words, and she said little more as they returned to the cabin. The problem of where she would sleep had re-surfaced.
     That he had no robe or pajamas was another issue to resolve. The idea of the motel providing a companion might be fun, but it definitely should end before this point in the evening.
     Myra placed the last dish into the sink’s drying rack, and after a moment spent silently facing the kitchenette’s tiny sink, turned and leaned back against the countertop, her face pale and her expression terribly vulnerable.
     She bit her lip before saying, “If you’ll take a walk for about ten minutes, I’ll get into my nightgown.”
     He couldn’t help it. His eyes flicked to the bed, then back to her, as he chewed over how to phrase the question that came to mind.
     As though testing his reaction, she said, “It’s…a big bed.”
     “More than big enough,” he agreed
     She nodded. “And if…” She hesitated, and he was about to say something reassuring, when she threw up her hands in disgust, saying, “Oh what the hell. If I can’t trust you in the God-damn bed I sure as hell won’t change things by sleeping on the floor, will I?” She waved toward the door. “Go on out and take your walk, Mark, and let me do this quick before I can change my mind.”
 
     The moonlit darkness was alive with cricket song. That should have been comforting, but spoke of unhappy choices and missed opportunities, instead. He leaned a hip against the car, thinking over the events that resulted in this absurd situation.
     In hindsight it was so clear. The warning signs of the company’s collapse had certainly been obvious. And the car’s transmission problem had provided its own warning signs. In both cases it was more convenient, but not very smart, to procrastinate.
     A clear trail of warnings ignored led here, to standing in the dark, at a place where he would never have willingly spent the night, waiting to sleep with a woman he would probably never kiss.
     He should be in Philadelphia and settled into a decent motel—relaxing, or maybe having a beer in some little club and looking over the local women. Instead, he would be spending Saturday night chastely sleeping with a woman he didn’t know, miles from his destination. After a moment, though, he laughed out loud.
     “But hell, this is probably a lot more interesting than reading the apartments-for-rent section of the newspaper, which is what I’d really be doing.” He also had the wish that Myra lived closer to Philadelphia. It might be interesting to get to know her better.
     That subject he tabled for future consideration, when the light in the room abruptly went out. He checked his watch. It had been seven minutes since he left. Giving her another minute to settle herself, he re-entered the cabin and headed for the bathroom, preferring to undress there.
 
     Taking a deep breath and turning off the bathroom light, he opened the door and moved toward the bed. As he got in she slid away, to the far side—close to the edge and facing him—placing as much distance between them as possible.
     For a time, they lay that way, he on his side and she on hers, saying nothing. The moonlight spilling through the blinds touched her hair, painting a silver halo around her shadowed face.
     Finally, unsure of what to say, he ventured, “Are you all right?” It seemed inane, but given how conscious of the situation he was, she probably felt the same. Certainly, she needed reassurance.
     A flicker of smile came, barely visible in the darkness, and she reached out to touch his arm. “I’m okay, it’s just… Well this is my first time, and it’s not exactly what I expected.” She brought her hand abruptly back to her side, as if she’d realized that he might take her touch as an invitation.
     He laughed, a little louder than he had intended. “Well it’s my first time, too, remember?”
     That brought a real, though tiny smile, and, “You’ve never slept with a woman without…without…?”
     “Never.” He hadn’t planned to say more than that single word, but for no reason he could explain, found himself saying, “There haven’t been many times of the other, either.”
     “Oh?” She moved a bit closer, studying his face, as though searching for something. “Why not?”
     He rolled on his back, not wanting to meet her eyes. Finally, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess part of it is a fear of catching something. But mostly, I think it’s because I’m afraid I’ll fall in love with the woman just because of the sex, and I don’t want to do that. My parents did, I think, and I lived most of my life in a war zone as a result of their stupidity.” He turned his head. “You?”
     Silence followed, as she, too, turned to study the ceiling for a time, before saying, “Just once. I thought he loved me, but he bragged to all his friends about it the next day. I just…just…” Another silence, until, “Most of my friends married the first man who would have them, and now they have a couple of kids, a husband who spends most of his money on beer, and a life that’s no better than mine—maybe worse, because they can’t ever do anything about it.”
     “And you can?”
     “I had hopes of it.”
     He rolled over to face her, interested. “And?”
     She, too, turned, so that they were now lying almost as close as lovers, her voice intense with yearning, as she said, “For two years I’ve saved every cent not needed for necessities, with the idea of moving to Pittsburgh, or maybe Reading, with enough money to live on for a month. I figured I’d find a job waitressing, or maybe clerking in a store. If I could only do that I’d never come back here again.”
     “So what went wrong? You said you had hopes.”
     She bowed her head until her hair pressed against his cheek, and her sigh tickled the hair on his chest, before she looked up and said, “I was there, Mark. One more month and I would have been gone. But, there was a fire and I lost everything—clothes, money, car—everything. Had it not been for my uncle loaning me the money to get started again I don’t know what…” She gave a little shake of negation, then leaned her head against his shoulder in sadness, her voice a teary whisper as she said, “I came so close, Mark…so damn close. And now…”
     Gently taking her chin in his hand he brought her eyes up to meet his, as he said, “How much did you lose, and how much do you owe your uncle now? I could—”
     “No!” She shook her head, almost angrily. “I don’t take charity.” Flat finality hardened her voice, and her hands came up to pull his away. But he was stronger, forcing her to meet his gaze as he said, “I have in mind a loan, Myra. Just a loan, one you can pay back when and if you can.”
     He released her then and she rolled away, to sit on the edge of the bed, facing away from him, her voice flat and emotionless as she said, “You were out of work yourself just last week. Suppose this job doesn’t work out?”
     “And if it doesn’t?” He raised himself on one elbow. “I was out of work because my company failed, Myra, not me. I’m good at what I do…damn good…and if this job doesn’t work out there’ll be another. I’m not worried about that.”
     “But you can’t—”
     “Can’t afford to help? Yes I can. I’m not wealthy, but it won’t break me, even if you never manage to pay it back.” When she made no immediate reply, he added, “At least think about it, okay? I’ll leave you my forwarding address when I go.”
     She nodded, still facing away, but said nothing, then slipped under the sheet with a sigh, turning to face him. “I will think about it,” she said, at last. Then she leaned close to kiss him gently on the lips, lingering there and surprising him with both the act and the way her kiss affected him.
     When he began to respond she moved away, taking the hands that had come up to draw her closer and holding them firmly, saying, “No, please, Mark. That was to thank you for being so kind, but that has to be all. I’d feel like…like I sold myself if we did more.”
     “Myra, I—” She touched a fingertip to his lips, stopping him.
     “Please don’t be angry.” He nodded, and she added a wistful, “I almost wish you hadn’t made your offer, because I think I liked kissing you.”
     He could think of nothing to say, other than “Thank you,” before rolling onto his back once more. Instead of moving away, however, she retained one of his hands and moved closer, to lay her head on his shoulder, whispering, “Good night,” and touching her lips momentarily to his cheek. He couldn’t help himself, and turned his head to place a gentle kiss on her forehead in return, before murmuring a good night of his own.
 
     How long they lay that way he had no idea, but there wasn’t the slightest chance of falling asleep. He lay wrapped in his own thoughts until a tear falling on his shoulder brought him back to the room, and to her.
     “What’s wrong,” he asked, as he turned, so he could see her face.
     “It’s nothing.”
     “You’re crying. That’s not nothing. Does it have to do with me?”
     She shook her head. For a time they lay close, and he noted that her breath was sweet, and that she carried a trace of the scent of soap, mixed with her own pleasant, and very erotic, personal scent. It took a conscious effort to keep from turning her to spoon against him.
     “I’m not going to do this anymore,” she said after several minutes of silence.
     “This?”
     “Staying in the room like this—with men. It’s not…” She sighed. “It wouldn’t be the same. I would probably compare them to you, and the idea of spending the night with some fat, balding businessman…” She sighed as she said, “I just couldn’t do it.”
     She made no complaint when he wrapped an arm around her, only cuddled more closely against him.
 
     The old clock read almost three when he extricated his arm from around her and got out of bed, to stand and stare out of the window. Her breath, quiet and steady, spoke in the rhythms of slumber, something that eluded him. After a moment he moved to the chair, to sit and stare at nothing for a long time. At last he reached a decision and nodded slowly to himself, satisfied. More at peace, he slid into bed, pleased to feel her move against him and give a little sigh of contentment, though she didn’t wake. Then he slept.
 
     The sun cast bright slivers of light against the far wall when next he opened his eyes. For a moment he lay, then moved his leg toward her side of the bed, to make contact. She wasn’t there. He blinked away his drowsiness and sat up, to search the room. But she wasn’t there, either. Her clothing was, however, and the bathroom door was closed. That brought a smile, as memory of their their meeting returned. It seemed so long ago.
     Sitting on the edge of the bed he stretched as he called her name.
     “Just a minute.” A smile brightened her voice as she added, “You seem to have a knack for catching me in here.”
     “That I do,” he murmured to himself. Then he noticed her half-filled suitcase resting on the table—something to be taken care of.
     In many ways a stranger emerged from the bathroom to give him a bright, “Good morning, sleepyhead.” Her long brown hair was pulled back into a flowing ponytail, and her face, with the hair pulled away from it, had taken on an almost regal cast—a look of which he most definitely approved. She wore sandals, and had on a white skirt with a bright red blouse above it, tied at the bottom and buttoned only part way up, showing a quite interesting curve of breast. Indeed, with a little feeding, Myra would be quite a woman.
     But he pushed such thoughts from his head and motioned toward the chair, saying, “Sit. I need to talk to you.”
     “About?” With a puzzled expression, she backed into the chair, keeping her eyes on him as she did so.
     “About us. About what I said last night.”
     “Us?”
     “Well…that’s a maybe. But as you said to me, yesterday, wait till I finish before you ask any questions… Okay?”
     At her mystified nod, he said, “I thought about it a lot last night, and I don’t think your idea of moving to a strange town and making it within a month is sound.”
     “No?”
     “No. There’s too much that can go wrong, so I came up with a better idea.”
     She seemed to be about to speak, but stopped and leaned back in the chair, as she said, “Go on.”
     Now, saying it aloud, rather than rehearsing it in his thoughts, the idea seemed to take life, and make even more sense than it had when he had formulated it late in the night.
     “Look,” he began. “We seem to be able to get along, right?”
     “… I guess.”
     “And wherever you go you’ll need a place to stay, right?”
     She placed folded hands in her lap, and her eyes were unreadable as she studied him. “So you want me to move in with you, to be your—”
     “No! No, that’s not a condition.”
     “What, then?”
     Feeling inept and a bit defensive, he fidgeted a bit before saying. “Look, Myra, what I mean is that if you didn’t have to worry about paying for a room, the same money as I was going to loan you will last two or three times as long.”
     She took a deep breath and let it out again before nodding slightly, urging him to continue.
     “There are no strings to this,” he hastened to assure her. “And you can…well you can sleep on a cot if you like.” He looked away, then, unwilling to meet her eyes, given that he was making a fool of himself.
     “But I liked sleeping next to you. Why—”
     “What?”
     She shrugged. “It was nice. Why would I want to sleep on a cot instead of with you?”
     “Really? You—” he stopped, blinking in surprise. She had just told him she would not only accept his offer, and would be leaving with him, she would be sharing his bed; expected to share his bed; even wanted to.
      Amazing.
     “Thank you, Mark.” She blushed, and looked down, seeming shy.
     Apparently, he hadn’t just thought that word, so he went on with, “Well you are. Amazing that is. And I liked sleeping next to you—very much. But what I meant was that you don’t have to…I mean we don’t necessarily have to—”
     “Men are so damn silly about such things,” she said, shaking her head. She then proceeded to take any sting out of her words by coming into his arms and kissing him into near insensibility before she turned back to her own packing—leaving him standing stunned by the bed
     Before he could reply to that astonishing remark, or the implications of that incredible kiss, she pointed toward the bathroom, saying “You better get in there and get showered and dressed while I finish packing. We have to be in Philadelphia by this evening.”
     “But…” He stared at her for a moment, before pulling himself together enough to ask, “But wouldn’t that make you feel like a… Well, like I was buying you?”
     At his question she stopped and turned enough to ask, “Does your first offer still stand? Can I still borrow enough to go somewhere else and try it on my own if I decide to do that, instead?”
     “Well, yes. Of course it does.”
     “Then that’s your answer. I’m going with you because I want to, not because I have to.” She went back to her packing, as though everything was explained, while he decided that he would never, never, never understand the female mind.

*

     Calvin Zeigler watched the old car pull out of the lot. He smiled at the sight of Myra seated next to Mark, cuddled possessively against him. For a long moment he watched the car as it receded down the road, then grinned and headed back to the desk to reach for the phone.
     “Zack? I just wanted to tell you that you hit one out of the park again. One of the girls just handed me a check for two thousand dollars.” He laughed before adding, “Though I’m not certain you earned the money this time, because from what the man said, he really did have something wrong with the car.”
     He listened for a minute before saying, “They make a nice couple. You’ll see them in a few minutes. And I’ll see you tonight with your commission…take care, now.”
     Still smiling, he hung up the phone, leaned back in the chair in satisfaction for a moment, then pulled a file folder out of the display case to fish around in it for moment. He studied the card he’d extracted, then reached for the phone once more.
     “Hello, Sue Delhagen please.” A moment’s wait, then, “Sue? This is Cal Zeigler from Man-Finders… Uh-huh…sure did, honey. They left this morning, and that leaves an opening for you. Have you studied the manual…and played the video?” He listened silently for a moment, before saying, “Well that’s good, and we’ll go over it again when I see you, so pack a bag and get yourself over here as soon as you can.”
     About to hang up, he brought the phone back to his ear, saying, “Honey? One more thing. I know I’ve said it before, and you’ll hear it from me again, but this is important. I don’t care if you have to chain your legs together, there had better be no sex, and only one or two kisses, or you’ll sure as hell find yourself alone in the morning… What?… Well, yes, but only for a moment or so… Remember what I said, though, and don’t forget to bring your preference form, so I can pick out the right man for you.”
     Setting the phone back in its cradle, Zeigler leaned back in his chair and smiled, as he waited for his first guests of the day to arrive.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Author’s note:
 
     This piece began as a spec story. The editor was planning an anthology of romance and romantic stories set a fictional motel chain. The project never came to fruition, but the story, when completed, was one I especially like because when you read it a second time it has a very different subtext. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
 
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, too.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Short Story

 

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