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Separation and Protection

Allie had slept on Max’s sofa six nights before she finally felt able to talk, to ask Martin to take her home,  She hadn’t slept well, but at least she’d been able to keep her eyes closed, quiet her thoughts long enough to fall.  That was more than she’d been able to do at home.

Max drove slowly past the university, navigating through the obstacle course of police barriers.

“You’re sure?” he asked.  “You know you can stay with me as long as you like.  As long as you need.”

“No, this is better,” Allie said, fighting a rise in her throat like sea sickness.  “I have to go home sometime.”

“It’s only been a few days,” Max said quietly.

 

The bomb had blasted away half of the Forbes building, taking the English Department, part of the library, and the teachers’ lounge.  Allie noted that Max had driven a longer route, one that wouldn’t take her past the destroyed facades, the blown out rooms that looked frozen in perpetual screams.

The weather had saved her.  The surprise of a 65º day had made her take her students to the reflecting pool on the other side of campus. They’d been discussing Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” some students stretched out and half dreaming in the sunlight, one girl tickling the arm of another with a blade of grass. Allie had just asked, “What did you first think when you read the title? What did you think after you’d read the story?”

So simple, so what every day, any day should be.

“The chancellor announced that well be reopening next week,” Max said, pulling over to the curb in front of her building.  “Will you be ready to go back?”

“I’ll go back,” Allie said.  It wasn’t an answer to his question, but it was, too.

Forty-seven dead.  Another thirty-eight wounded.  All of her students spared by the weather.  Even Max had bandages on his neck, his hand.

She’d called him that night, late.

“I heard you were hurt.”

“I’m fine,” he’d said slowly, his voice sounding dazed, out of focus.

“I woke you.”

“It’s 3 a.m.”

“I can’t close my eyes.  I’m just lying here, staring.”  When he was silent, she asked, “Can I come over?”  She hadn’t heard the hesitation she’d expected in his voice.  Terror and tragedy did that.

She wondered if he’d expected her to want more than his couch, to want to pick up where they’s been six months earlier.  She hated to have him think she was using him.

You’ll go back?”

He looked at her, surprised.  “Of course.”

She nodded.  What other option was there?

 

Inside, she walked through her rooms, laying her hands on every piece of furniture, every wall.  She stood a long time in the kitchen.  The windows in every room had been blown out by the blast.  There was no longer any sign of that.  All shards cleared away, new panes in place, the illusion of separation, protection.  Max had seen to that

She went to the bedroom, pulled pillows and the comforter from the bed.  She made up a nest in the tub and curled up tightly inside.  It would be okay for the moment, would be better than listening to Max’s heavy breathing on the other side of a thin wall.  Better than resisting the pull to go to him.

As her eyes closed, she thought of her students.  Wasn’t it appropriate that they’d been working on Octavia Butler?  If they weren’t living in a dystopian universe, no one was.  How else to explain the bomb, the laughing video claiming bold and proud responsibility?

When she’d gotten to Max’s house, he hadn’t asked for any explanation, had simply put her up on the couch.

“You know where everything is,” he said.

She’d known where he was, that was for sure.  “I don’t stay long,” she’d said.

“You’ll stay as long as you need.”

She knew that should have been longer than six days, but how much longer?  What had she stayed for after the first night of fear?  What would Max say when she called him the next day and asked to come back?  What would he say if she packed a bag tonight and never came back?

Last month I signed up to participate in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challgenge. I like flash fiction.  I like the idea of being handed a genre, a setting, and an object and being given half a minute (or, you know, 48 hours) to write a story. My group for August waas given Action/Adventure, a train yard, and a peach.

Remember how I said I liked the idea of being handed a genre? Yeah, that was until I got Action/Adventure. I’ve never written anything action-y or adventure-y. Never. Ever. I hear that genre, and I think of … well, what I used for the title of this post: car chases and explosions.  Generally not my subject matter.  So I freaked out for a day. Then I forced myself to get to work. And when I say I feaked out for a day, what I really mean is that I feaked out until one o’clock Sunday afternoon. Leaving myself 10 hours and 59 minutes to get my act together and get something written and submitted.

In the end, I came up with the story below.  Kinda sorta Action/Adventure.  Posting it now is totally cheating — I didn’t, after all, write it today — but I’ve had a LONG week of worrying and caretaking and I’m too tired for newness.  Month-old-ness is much more my speed.  Would love to hear what you think!

_____

Serum

Rikki, tired of running, collapses into the gravel and rolls under a freight car, breathing hard, eyes painfully straining to take in every movement in the thin horizontal plane of her field of vision. The train yard is quiet, which feels unnatural. Her brown skin glistens with sweat even in the dim light under the train, and her stomach cramps. It’s nearly noon – an hour has passed since her father called, told her he was being arrested, to grab what she could and get to the depot.

She’d thrown tools and a sweater into a pack. In his lab, she’d smashed everything, set viruses in his computer and burned all but one of his samples. That last one she had taken. If she survived, she would carry the heart of his work with her.

On her way out, she let herself be distracted by the amethyst crystal bowl filled with perfectly ripe peaches – her father’s favorite. They glowed in invitation, and she wrapped one in a tea towel, carefully added it to her bag. Impractical. She wouldn’t see her father again, knows the Magistrate’s men will waste no time, eager to torture out whatever information they can.

She rolls onto her stomach and begins to crawl under the train cars, still headed south. The underground camp of the opposition leader, her father’s friend, has a tunnel entrance at the far end of the depot. She sees a flash of light at the edge of her sight to the left and worries that she has been seen, is being tracked. She is still breathing hard from her run, and prays she has the strength for a sprint.

Her father had insisted she train as a runner, long and short distances. He had developed her workouts, saying she would need them. She had found him unsympathetic as a trainer, had chafed under his strict rules and grueling routines. Today, she silently thanks him for driving her, for a lifetime of practice.

She wonders how much longer she has before the vial in her stomach metabolizes and floods her system with serum. It’s the last of her father’s samples. She knows the serum will kill her or get her killed, knows her best hope is the tunnels, turning herself over to the opposition, letting them make use of her – force peace with the bludgeon she is about to become.

She pauses, certain now that someone is tracking her movement. She strains her ears, desperate for a telltale sound or movement, praying someone has come up from the tunnels to watch for her. If the magistrate’s men have found her, she will have little recourse by the time they bring her in for questions and violence, little recourse but to use the tool her father gave her. His last sample. His last gift.

“You can just freeze like an ice sculpture, girl.”

She starts at the raspy voice above her and turns, twists her head to look up, registers the outline of a man. He is speaking down through the grate in the floor of the train car. He’s in uniform, smiling at her, his gun pointed at her face.

“Nowhere for you to go now, is there? But you were a tricky one. What you want to come all the way out here for?”

Rikki takes a deep breath, turns full on her back, aware that she is crushing her father’s peach, that he is really gone. “You should be careful with that gun, sir,” she says quietly.

The man laughs. “You planning to hurt me?” he asks. “I don’t see a weapon on you.”

“I am the weapon,” she says. “Didn’t they tell you? That’s why you’re looking for me.”

It’s a lie, but she can see it’s had a good effect on the soldier: frozen him, made his eyes go owl-round and wide. It was a lie when she said it, but then she feels the vial expand, blossom in her belly and send the serum flowing through her, sparking chemical changes through her blood stream and nervous system, weaponizing her in an instant.

She watches the soldier, knows she’s his. There is no way to escape, nothing to do but wait to see what he will do, and he’s still thinking. Now that she has adjusted her eyes to see him through the grate, she can see that he is very young but that his eyes are tired, red-rimmed. How long has he gone without sleep? Why did he think he was tracking her if he didn’t know about the serum?

He should shoot her. Dead, they can use her body to arm themselves. She’s counting on him not knowing that. Alive she can detonate herself, obliterate everything they know, draw the world into a tight, hot knot of fire and ash. Alive, she is power, that threat over everyone’s head. Her father wanted her to give his friend that power, thought it would somehow save them all.

She keeps her eyes locked on the soldier’s, waiting. Wonders how it is that the clever people – the ones like her father who dream up big plans for saving worlds – never take this into account, never remember that it will be everyone else, anyone else, who will make the final decision. She crosses her arms slowly, ready to release if she hears his weapon cock.

If I get nothing else from this flash fiction exercise, I’ve just gotten this lovely quote by Joseph Roux: “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”  According to Wikipedia, Roux was a French Catholic priest and a poet, and that is perfect for tonight’s story.  A boatload of other good quotes are attributed to him, too, but I’m sticking with this one for now.

_____

Truth in Sunday Clothes

Richard took his bike down from its rack in the garage and strapped his bag into the font basket.  He was glad the weather had finally thawed enough to melt the ice and compacted mounds of snow that made him drive in winter instead of ride.  He needed the he strength and power he felt when he used his body instead of just conveyed it along.

He knew the conversation he was headed for would be difficult at best, so the extra boost of biking in was that much more welcome.  He smiled as he turned onto the bike path, waved at Sheila Tate and her kids as he glided past them.  He hoped Sheila would come back to church now that her baby seemed to be a bit more manageable.  He wouldn’t push her about it, though.

Since he’d come to Saint Agatha’s, he’d worked hard to change the community’s perception of priests as stern task masters.  He knew both of his predecessors had seen their role as similar to angry, long-suffering parents.  Both had used the mainstays of strict parenting to guide their parishioners, scolding and punishing anyone who dared stumble or stray outside the clearly demarcated lines, boldly reshaping the behaviors of their congregants to match their harsh, Puritanical visions of “right.”

Riding past the industrial park, Richard was pleased to see that posters for Valentine’s Day Love Song Karaoke were already up, their bright pink and red hearts and flowers flashy enough to catch anyone’s eye.  When the teens in the youth council had suggested the event as a fundraiser, he had laughed.  Their courage to broach the idea revealed the comfort they felt with him, and he’d agreed immediately.

He turned into the parking lot behind the high school and hooked his bike into the rack near the door.  He’d been up late the night before planning for the discussion he was about to have, hoping it would actually be a discussion and not an argument, not anything worse.

He’d spent his two years at St. Agatha’s trying to roll back the ugly curtain of shame, distrust, and rigidity that had been draped in sodden, sagging folds over the community.  Between them, the Fathers Hall and Neeson had spent 43 years in town, shutting down any spark that challenged their narrow views.  Richard, as thrilled as he’d been to see that people were embracing the karaoke night, knew he hadn’t turned any kind of tide, that two years of gentle nudging wasn’t enough to do that trick.

He straightened his clothes, rand his hands over his face and hair and went inside.  He wasn’t surprised to find such a large group of parents and nearly the full school staff waiting to see him.  He was happy, though, to see some of their faces relax into genuine smiles when they saw him.  It was a start, and that was usually all he needed.

His late night had been spent combing through books of poetry, pulling out a stanza or a couplet here, taking an entire piece there.  He had a clean, typed copy of his arsenal folded neatly in his bible, marking the start of Psalms.

He’d left his last position — chaplaincy at a small private school in Syracuse — because he’d felt emasculated by the limited authority and scope of his role: hear confession, lead mass.  Done.  No community events, no dinners for saints days, no counseling of any kind.  A few extra duties at Christmas and Easter, but that was all.

He could have found himself overwhelmed by the dramatically expanded scope at St. Agatha’s, but he drank it like water.  He’d drawn up a five-year strategic plan at the end of his first six months, and real changes had slowly begun to take hold.

He’d been broadsided by the news that a teacher had been suspended for using Lucille Clifton’s poems in class and that now all of Clifton’s work was to be banned and a review of all contemporary poetry would be conducted with unacceptable works put on a list and removed from the library.  Never mind that Clifton was one of his favorite writers.  The censorship rocked him.  Each of his small successes felt very small in light of that.  But at least the reign of Hall and Neeson guaranteed that he’d been called to counsel them before anything more drastic would be done.  At least no one was talking about burning anything.

He smiled as he shook hands with the principal and was surprised by the strong wave of longing for his dad.  And, if his father were still alive, Richard would have called him during his night of research, told him his battle plan … and told him, too: “I went to seminary like you wanted, but this — this right here — is why I needed to be an English major in undergrad.”  His father would have laughed, would have reminded Richard that he, too, had been an English major before math had stolen his heart.

He was ready.  His father, who had given him Dylan Thomas as a high school graduation gift — his first “grown up” book of poetry. His father would walk with him up to the lecturn, nod his head in approval.

Eddy (30 Stories – 4)

Eddy

The young man at the counter in Jamila’s store drives me crazy.  He stands at the register like a statue, staring out the window as if he’s in a dream.  He never sees the customers who come to cash out after finishing their shopping.  Jamila always has to shout at him — “Eddy!  Customer!  Customer!”

And then he turns his head slowly from the window, his dark brown curls falling in his eyes, his face still in whatever fantasy has captivated him.  He looks at the customer, looks at the cart and slowly-slowly comes awake and begins to ring up the sale.

But even then he sometimes gets it wrong, sometimes stays asleep.  Once, I had a cart full of vegetables, and he took them one at a time, held them up to his face then dropped them, each one, into the trash bin at his feet.  Jamila went nuts.  “Eddy!  Snap out of it!  Where’s your head?!”

I don’t understand how he keeps his job, why she doesn’t fire him.  It’s nuts that she would have him working her register.  I’ve always wanted to ask her, but I don’t.  Maybe the kid’s her son, or a nephew, or some strange charity case she can’t turn away.  Whatever.  He’s a real inconvenience.

Still, I go back to the store, don’t change my pattern.  Yes, it’s close to my house, but I’ll admit that I’m also fascinated by this strange boy, this Eddy.

Once I saw him outside the shop.  I was walking with my neighbor.  We’d taken her boys to the playground and were on our way to get tea and hot chocolate.  I was talking about something that was maybe important, but I lost my thought from one second to the next, pulled away from our conversation, from the windy street, by beautiful music.  Somewhere close, someone was playing something sweet and delicate, some kind of tune I’d never hear before.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“You don’t hear that music?  Where’s it coming from?”

We followed the sound and found the boy from the shop.  He was alone at a piano in the center of some kind of gallery or coworking space, playing.  He was alone, eyes closed, his hands seeming to drift rather than actually move to particular keys.

“Yeah, it’s nice.  Let’s go.”  My friend was clearly not impressed.

“I want to stay. You go.  I’ll catch you up.”

She frowned then turned and left.

I stayed.  There was no reason for me to stay, but neither was there a reason for him to be able to make the sound he was making.  I felt as if he was deep in his dream state, playing from his unconscious.  And the music called me, as if through it, I could open the door to whatever he saw when he stood dreaming at the shop counter.

I stood.  Listened.  Waited for the door to open.

Taking the Lead

Alma and Angelica unpacked all the boxed first to see what materials had been shipped ahead of their arrival.  Alma began sorting the contents into table displays, standing rack items, and giveaways while Angelica wrestled with the aging joins of the standing rack.

“Is this your first conference?” she asked Alma.

Almna nodded, smiling.  “I hope we don’t have to be on duty in the exhibit hall the whole time,” she said.  “There are some great workshops and interesting speakers.”

Angelica was glad she was stretching the rack canvas into place at that moment so Alma couldn’t see the sour look she felt twisting across her face.  “Don’t worry,” she said.  “That’s why there’s four of us.  Between us, Bobbi, and Mr. Hernandez, you’llhave time to enjoy some of the conference.”

“Being in here will be nice, too,” Alma said hurriedly.  “Getting to meet the other vendors, and all.”  She smiled as Angelica stood the rack beside the table.  “I know I’d like to talk to that guy in the red shorts for one.  Did you see him?”

She’s seen him.  Derek was always hard to miss, always came in on set-up days with brightly colored shorts and a t-shirt with some outrageous or inappropriate image or phrase.  She’d been too far away to read his shirt as she’d entered the hall earlier, but she’d seen the frowning owl on his chest.

“You should be careful, Alma,” she said, smiling.  “Plenty of guys come to these things with some definite ideas about after-hours fun.”

Alma blushed and started handing Angelica pamphlets and info sheets for the display.  She knew what Angelica was talkinga bout — conference sex — exactly the thing her girlfriend Roxanne had teased her about.  Roxanne said it was the only reason for lowly worker bees like her to go to conferences.

“You’ll be in that boring exhibit room all day every day,” she’d said.  “Use it as an opportunity to check out your options.”

Alma wouldn’t be checking out any kinds of options.  Roxanne described conferences as self-service candy shops, but Alma wasn’t interested.

She shook her head at Angelica.  “None of that for me,” she said firmly.  She looked toward the front of the hall, scanning for the guy who’d caught her attention.  “Are you saying Red Shorts Man is one of those men?”

Was she saying that, Angelica asked herself.  Was that fair?  Yes, Derek had talked himself into her room and into her bed with a speed that still astounded her, but she’d been nore than willing.  And she’d been the one pushing away when he’d tried to maintain contact.  She wondered what would have happened if she’d said yes to one of his invitations.

“Red Shorts Man is named Derek,” she said.  “He’s a nice guy, I guess.”

Alma looked at her closely but said nothing.  She arranged the table ites in a loose square around a bowl that she’d fill with candies once the hall opened.  She studied the table, considered arranging everything in alphabetical order, but dismissed the idea and looked back at Angelica.

“You and Derek … ?”

“There was no me and Derek, Alma,” Angelica said quickly.  “Don’t let your imagination get crazy.  He’s always at this conference, so I’ve seen him here for a few years.  Not very exciting stuff.”

Alma smiled.  She could feel there was more to that story, but if Angelica wanted to pretend she had no interest in Derek, that was fine.

Alma admitted that she hadn’t had more than a passing interest in him herself.  Not until Angelica made him seem more interesting with all of her “I’m not saying anyting, I’m just saying” talk.

What she was interested in, however, was the conference itself.  She’d taken the job at the Women’s Center because the center’s work was important, not just because she needed a job.  When Mr. Hernandez had said she’d be attending the conference, she’d seen it as a chance to learn and to network.  She’d been surprised by her good fortune and determined to take full advantage.

“I think we’re done,” Angelica said.  “We can stow the boxes under the table.  Just slide the banner forward so it hangs low enough to hide them a bit.”  She bent down and began nesting boxes together.

“Angelica?”

Of course, she thought.  Because of course Derek would come over to say hello.

“Derek,” she said, trying an easy smile.  She remained crouched behind the table.  “Alma, this is Derek Lukas.  Derek, my co-worker, Alma Flores.”

As Derek and Alma walked through the standard pleasantries, Angelica finished with the boxes and stood.  She dusted her hands on her jeans, half wishing she’d worn a dress … and scolding herself for the wish.

“A few of us are going for drinks and dinner,” he said.  “You ladies should join us.”

Both women smiled.  Alma, feeling obligated to a show of loyalty with Angelica, thought it only right to decline the invitation.  She started to shake her head, but when she did, Angelica smiled.  The smile angered Alma, made her feel Angelica was playing some game that ended with her looking a fool.  She grabbed her purse from her chair and let her head-shake punctuate her acceptance: “No need to ask me twice,” she said.  “I’m starving!”

She didn’t feel entirely comfortable inserting herself into whatever was going on with Angelica, but she wouldn’t be manipulated, either.  She smiled at Derek, waiting for him to lead the way.

Details (30 Stories – 2)

Details

Romy’s wheelchair didn’t fit through the door between the apartment’s entry hall and the living room, but she told Harrison they should take the place anyway, that they’d find a way to make it work.  “I can always crawl,” she said, half smiling.

“Funny.”  He looked away from her.  “You can’t make a decision like that, Romy.  First, you haven’t even seen it yet.  And even more important, we aren’t renting an apartment that you can’t get into.”

The realtor, who had led the way into the space, stepped further into the apartment, out of sight, discovering a sudden, intense interest in something on her phone.  Harrison looked after her, appreciating her discretion, but annoyed by her all the same.

“Romy,” he said quietly.  “We can’t live here.  I should have measured all of the doors before bringing you here.”

“We’ll just keep my old chair inside and leave this one here, in the foyer,” Romy said.  That old one has a slimmer profile than this fancy ride.”  She leaned forward and peeked into the room.  “This is the only place you’ve sounded at all happy about.”

“There are other places.”

“Harrison.  Carry me inside, bring the chair in and let me look around.  Maybe it’s just this door that’s a problem.”  She wanted to see the apartment, knew it was the place she was suspposed to live.  She couldn’t tell Harrison, but she had seen it — had been seeing it for weeks — in her dreams.  Harrison didn’t believe in messages, in portents, in anything that couldn’t be held and nailed down like the butterflies and beetles in his cherished collection.

She hadn’t counted on the small doorway, but it was only a detail, a silly one.  Why would she have been seeing the building lobby, seeing the apartment number, seeing the showy whorls in the tin ceilings if she wasn’t supposed to live there?

Harrison, frowning, lifted her and set her gently on the living room foor, then collapsed her chair and brought it inside.  He moved to lift her again, but she shook her head, pointed.

“Check the doorways first.”

He smiled and wheeled the chair down the length of the room.  Romy leaned back on her elbows, looking left at the wall of windows that she knew from her dreams would give a view of a cloister-like courtyard at the center of the building.  There would be lilacs and hydrangeas planted in odd groups at the corners, a narrow gravel path forming a Celtic cross with a fountain at the center.

“Every other door,” Harrison said, bringing the chair back and stooping to lift and re-seat her.   “Why would you know to think that?  Why should it be true?”

She reached up and stroked his cheek.  “This is my place, Harrison.  We’re supposed to live here.”

“Just like that.”

She nodded and wheeled away from him to explore on her own.  She hadn’t dreamed the entire apartment, so was surprised by the odd trapezoid shape of the bathroom, pleased to find built in book cases around the bedroom fireplace and a mirror with delicate floral etching inlaid above the mantel.

“You’re already decided,” Harrison said quietly.  She did a little spin in the chair and smiled at him.  “You’ll get a lot of writing done in that little office off the dining room,” she said.

“The door, Romy.”  It drove him crazy how casual she could be, how readily she dismissed things she considered “details.”  He begrudged her that ease because he always felt obligated to worry about exactly the things she dismissed.  He was supposed to look out for her, protect her.  And to her, that idea was so ridiculous as to be unworthy even of her dismissal.  It never even made it onto the table for consideration.  From the moment they’d met, she’d rejected his desire to help her, make her path easier.

“The door, Harrison, the door,” she mocked.  “The door is nothing.  So much nothing.  I’ve already solved that problem.”  She cocked her head and looked at him closely.  “Is there something else you don’t like about this place?”

She was certain the only problem was his overbearing protectiveness.  She needed to get out from under that, get free of it, hoped it didn’t mean getting free of Harrison himself.

“The place is beautiful,” Harrison said, calling for the realor to join them.

(Thursday, I had an “Oh, hey, it’s September.  I should be 11 days into my 30 Stories in 30 Days challenge!” moment.  Right.  Funny how things can so totally slip your mind.  But I do feel like writing some flash fic right now, so … welcome to my “Some Number of Stories in 18 Days” challenge … yes, it loses it’s swagger that way, doesn’t it?  No matter.  With all this free time I’ve got on my hands, maybe I’ll get crazy and catch up!)

_____

 Aiding and Abetting

Ora and Joe waited by the pharmacy entrance, neither looking comfortable, neither looking happy with waiting.

“We should have called your sister,” Joe said quietly.  “This is her business.”

Ora didn’t look at him.  “You’ve said that.  More than once.”  She looked away from him, down the street.  She waited a beat, waited two, watched the traffic light change, turned back.  “If Mona was ready to involve her mother, she would,” she said.  “You know my sister feels the need to wear her official hat in every situation.”

Joe pulled his coat closed against the chill breeze.  “We need an official hat,” he said.  “Mona’s in something bad.  You heard her message clearly as I did.”

Ora shuddered, recalling the fear in Mona’s voice on the answering machine, hearing her say someone was dead.  “And if we don’t meet her, what? She’ll be arrested.” Ora’s words were clipped with her draining patience.

“She’ll be arrested, yes,” Joe said, sighing.  “But I have to think bigger picture, think of more than Mona.  What happens if we get involved in whatever this is? You know I never mind helping your family, but this is different.”  He hated how ugly that sounded, how small.  But he was out of arguments, was grabbing whatever came to mind to get Ora back to the car, back home, safe.

Ora took a step away from him.  She could feel the bitterness in the back of her throat, a painful pinch that was ready to rage out of her in an angry storm.

“She didn’t call you,” she said slowly.  “You can go right back home and focus on that big picture.  I’m going to wait for Mona.”

Joe said nothing but stayed where he was.  Ora’s god daughter had always been trouble, from stealing snacks in pre-school to pulling fire alarms and cheating on exams in high school and college.  And Ora defending her at every turn, softening every offense, hearing only what she cared to.

After listening to Mona’s voicemail message, Ora had repeated her revisionist version over and over. “She says someone is dead, Joe.  Someone is dead.  We have to go.” But Mona hadn’t said someone was dead.  What she’d said was that she had killed someone.  And here was Ora, waiting to get sucked into the cover-up, already planning ways to aid and abet.  Unwilling to call her sister the DA, Mona’s mother.

He shuffled out of his coat and handed it to Ora, who hadn’t thought to grab one before leaving the house.  She looked at him with an expression that could have been disappointment or just sadness.

“I can’t do it this time, Ora.  Just can’t.  I’ll come if you need me, but I can’t let that girl drag me down.”

Ora took the coat and turned her back.  Joe stood watching her gently sloped shouders, thinking of how many times he’s massaged away their tension, imagining the tension that Mona’s crime and his dissertion must be twisting into them even as he watched her.

He walked back the way they’d come, glad he’d thought to slip the car keys in one of the coat pockets. She wouldn’t let him forget, wouldn’t forgive him.  He saw it in the turn of her neck and the tightening in his gut.  He wondered what of their marriage would be left.  Twenty-three years, and all their fights over Mona chipping and chipping and chipping away at them.  He’d met Ora on a package tour of Germany and Austria.  He’d noticed her right away — she’d been the only other black person in the group — but he hadn’t spoken to her right off, not until the night the tour bus had dropped them at a shabby restaurant in the Black Forest.  She’d been standing apart, looking at the dingy setting, an odd, amused expression on her face.  He had walked up to her, but before he could speak, she had turned to him and nodded.

“This is only our third night,” she’d said.  “You would think they could have managed at least five, get us through half the trip in a style that lived up to the brochure.”

He had smiled, and she’d said his smile made her feel at home.

At home.  He had loved the thought that his smile made her feel comfortable.  And in that moment had imagined them with a life together.

He stopped walking at the end of the block and turned to watch Ora wait, laughing at himself a little.  He knew there was no way he would  be able to leave her alone in the street in the middle of the night.

He walked back.  She was on the phone, and the sound of his approach startled her.  She spun around and met his eyes, her face shifting from hard to calm.

“My sister,” she mouthed to him, pointing at the phone.

When he reached her, she took his hand.

“Yes, I should have called you,” she said evenly.  “This time I am afraid for her.  Maybe it’s best that the police found her first … Joe is here — ” she looked into his eyes again and nodded.  “He’s taking me home.”

__________

For this story, I used a random words writing exercise I learned from Laurie Stone: a list of 10 words from which I use 7.  Laurie’s idea had more to it than the random words — including that the writing of the should take only 30 minutes.  The 7-of-10 random words part of the idea stuck, but I sometimes give myself a little more freedom with time limit.  I get the word lists from a random word generator.  The word list for this story: forest | restaurant | official | storm | traffic lights | valley | pharmacy | dead | mind | coat.

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