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Wind-blown rain tore at Anthony’s jacket, finding the gap left by his missing button, secreting through his shirt and settling uneasily against his skin.  He increased his pace and ducked his head against the rain, curling as far inward as possible.  When he reached the office building, he took a minute to shake himself out, calm his shivering.  There was nothing he could do about his wet head, his sodden clothes, but could see he wasn’t the only one in the waiting area who’d been surprised by the storm.

“Bad day for running around,” the receptionist said, her voice sleepy and thick.  “Even an umbrella wouldn’t help out there.”

Anthony tried to smile, but could feel his face only able to shape a grimace. A girl with a voice like that deserved better.  Not just a smile, but a smile from a man who wasn’t angry and desperate, or smile from a man who could back up a come-on with an offer of dinner and a movie.

He shook his head.  There was no time for any of that, no reason to even think of it.  Besides, she reached for a clipboard and the ring on her third left finger told him any come-on from him would be wasted and unwelcome.

“Fill these out,” she clipped papers onto the board, “and then you’ll go to the second floor and meet with a job specialist.”  She smiled.  “Shake out your jacket, try to warm up.”

He smiled something more like a real smile.  The board held standard forms — his most recent jobs, his skills, what he was looking for.  He shook out his jacket, went to the men’s room and used the hand dryer on his hair, his shirt.  At least from the waist up he wouldn’t look his worst.  He appreciated the receptionist’s suggestions, that she had extended herself in even that small way.

He sat in a small room packed with sullen-faced, damp people waiting his turn.  Everyone was closed off, focused on their struggles, looking up hopefully when counselors appeared in the doorway, dropping their eyes when the name called wasn’t theirs.

The group was mostly men, almost 50-50 black and white, one Asian woman, one Latino man.  The counselors were all black and Latino.  Anthony wondered if they judged him, pitied him, wondered what was wrong with him?  Projecting, he thought, hearing his mother’s voice.  He was projecting.  He judged himself, wondered how he hadn’t been able to avoid being in that room.

“Good afternoon, beautiful people.”

Anthony looked up, to see a small, older black woman smiling in the doorway, leafing through papers.

“I do apologize for the rain,” she said.  “The least we could do when you come in is arrange for better weather, right?”

Mentally, Anthony crossed his fingers, then smiled when she called his name.

“I hope you’ve had a minute to dry out,” the counselor said, leading him to a cubicle.

“I didn’t expect there to be so many people waiting,” he said.  “I know the economy’s bad, but –“

“But there’s always work for assassins?” she asked, smiling.  “That’s been my experience, but something’s shifting.  Everyone’s noticed.  Your last job was in the spring?”

“May,” he said, nodding.

“Yes, that’s when it started.”  She looked over his forms, made notes.  “You have great experience don’t you?  You shouldn’t be out of work.”

“I’m all for world peace, but isn’t there always work for a good killer?”  He tried to sound flippant.

She frowned.  “It really makes no sense.  We’ve had peace before, but this –” she shook her head.  “There’s definitely something going on, something upsetting the normal balance.”

“Five months is my longest dry spell,” he said.  It didn’t explain his pathetic state of affairs, however.  He could have saved money, could have lived less lavishly.  But he was talented, popular.  There’s been no reason to expect it to end.

And then, in a bar, complaining to a mercenary he was friendly with, he’d found out about the office, that he could file for unemployment.

“You’re joking,” he’d said.  “Our work isn’t exactly … above board.”

“Neither are the folks in that office!”

Anthony looked at the counselor.  She had the placid, kindly face of a grandmother, but she hadn’t blinked an eye at his profession, had talked easily about his work.

She handed him a slim folder.  “I wish you’d come sooner,” she said.  “I’ll process your paperwork today, but I can only make benefits retroactive by one month.” She pointed to the folder.  “That’s all the info about your options.  We have a lovely range of services.”  She turned to face him and put her hands in her lap.  He half expected her to tell him a story.  “Now.  I don’t have any jobs in your field at this time, but maybe you’d like to enter a training program?”

“Training? Like learning to type 40 words a minute?”

The counselor laughed, a warm, comforting sound that made Anthony smile.  “My, that would be funny,” she said.  “But 40 words wouldn’t get you very far in any case.”  She laughed again.  “No,” she said after a moment.  “I wouldn’t suggest you for the steno pool.”

She fished a pamphlet from a file beside her desk.  “This,” she said, passing it to him, “is our cross-training program.  I have to say torture is surely the best bet.  I’ve seen no drop-off in the need for coercive intelligence gathering.”

Anthony scanned the glossy, tri-fold brochure, wondering when the work had become so ordered, so open, and how he’d missed the transition.  Maybe it really was time for a career change.

“Coercive Intelligence,” he said, noting that the trainees were called the CIG Corps.  “Let’s talk about that one.”

So this past weekend was the second round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge.  When I first mentioned this challenge a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t say that this is a multi-part challenge.  The first two rounds, everyone is in the ring, and everyone’s story is read by the judges and the top 15 stories are awarded points.  Your points for the first two rounds are combined, and you have to score in the top five of your section to make it into the third round.  I got my score last week for my story “Serum” … and I got second place!  So I have 14 points to carry into this new round.  I’m very happy with my second place finish.

And I was even happier with those points when I saw the prompt for round two: Science Fiction – A luxury hotel – Caviar.  So somehow I managed to write action/adventure for round one … and it was kind of sci-fi-ish, and I was pretty sure I’d used up all my sci-fi skill on that story.  But I spent Saturday and Sunday trying hard to make something happen.  It was looking iffy, but I finally got my act together and got my story submitted.  I’m thinking I’m going to need every one of the 14 points I earned in round one if I have any hope of making it to round three!

Okay, okay.  Without further hemming and hawing, here’s my sci-fi entry:

_____

Master Suites

Grace was staying at Master Suites South West, the colony closest to her grandmother’s house.  Her suite was high enough that she could see past Buttermilk Channel, past the bays, all the way to the sea.  It was a spectacular view over the tip of the island, but it seemed to subdue her grandmother with its opulence, and Grace thought she should have taken a more modest suite.  How many more visits would she have with Maman, how long before Forrest Cities banned surface trips, banned surface people from the Suites.

Maman, tiny in the window seat, stared at the city.  “You should  stay with me ,” she said.  “That is our family home.”

“I know, Maman.”  Grace brought a tray to the table by the window, poured her grandmother a flute of champagne.  “It’s my fault.  I was late requesting an overnight surface stay.”

Maman scoffed.  “Still convinced Forrest Cities is improving our lives?” she asked.  She turned from the window and looked at Grace.  “And still won’t consider living with me?”

Grace selected a toast point, buttered it slowly.  This was their constant battle.  Grace wanted her grandmother to give up the surface, move into a hotel tower, any hotel tower.  Maman had no interest in the hotels — called them luxury slave pens.  She wanted Grace with her on land.

“You know I can’t,” Grace said.  “My work schedule is difficult enough.”  She deftly loaded the toast with shiny black beads of Hackleback, her grandmother’s favorite caviar.  She passed the treat to Maman, who popped it into her mouth, frowning.

“You know how I feel,” she said.  “Forrest Cities is wrong.  I know your towers upstate are smaller than these, but they are still wrong.”  She waved at the chrome and white room.  “This is a lovely room, of course —”

“And every possible amenity, Maman,” Grace interrupted.  “You wouldn’t even have to cook if you lived here.  Room service is included in the fee.”

“I like  to cook,” Maman said.  She reached for the mother-of-pearl spoon and another toast point.  “I’m well aware of the hotel amenities.”  She ate the caviar, shaking her head.  “God, I used to love  caviar.  Real  caviar, not this made-in-the-lab confection from room service.”  She held up a hand against Grace’s protest.  “Yes, dear, it’s delicious.  Of course.  Everything Master Suites provides is perfect.”  She ate another toast point.  “But perfect isn’t always best.”

It was in her voice, Grace realized.  Something had changed, something Maman couldn’t fix.

“What is it, Maman?  What’s happened.”

Her grandmother smiled.  “I do  like that in you,” she said.  “You can always tell.”  She looked back out at the city.  “Master Suites,” she said.  “We should have known they didn’t just want this city, that they wanted all  cities, that they wanted all of us.”

Grace couldn’t deny what seemed, even to her, to be true in that.  No one had understood the implications when Forrest Cities was granted rights to the Hudson and East Rivers.  Then the Master Suites plans were unveiled — archipelagos of gleaming towers, one colony for each city quadrant, built to hover 100 feet above the water, each archipelago a colony of twenty 150-story towers.  Pampered, luxury living for over a million people.

Grace had lived in the city then.  She’d put her name on the waiting list immediately.  She’d almost chosen North West for its views of the Palisades.  When Forrest Cities announced plans for a new colony above the Mohawk River, the timing had matched perfectly a job transfer Grace had been coveting, and she’d moved to Master Suites Mohawk Basin.

“I’m leaving,” Maman said.

“You just arrived!  I  just arrived.”  Grace joined her grandmother in the window seat.  “We don’t have to talk about whatever’s bothering you, Maman.  But don’t leave yet.”

Maman smiled.  “No, dear.  I meant leaving the city.”

“To come to Mohawk Basin?  To live with me?”

Maman shook her head.  “There’s a group of us, leaving for the mountains in Guatemala.  Forrest Cities’ tentacles haven’t reached those smaller communities.”

“You’re talking about running away with a bunch of crazy, paranoid people —”

“Not crazy, Grace.” Maman took her hand, squeezed.  “Your friends Tre and Zilla have already left.  They’re settling a place for me.”

Grace shook her head.  “Impossible.  I saw Zilla this morning.”

“Synthdroid,” Maman said.  “People leave them in the Suites to keep an eye out, buy themselves some freedom.”

“Synth—?”  Grace shook her head again, harder.  “Maman, I can’t let you run off to some mountain hovel.”

Her grandmother sat up, raised her head.  “You don’t make decisions for me, child.  I live where I choose.  Fifty years ago, I could have stopped Forrest Cities.  I didn’t see it then, and I’ve spent too long angry over old choices.  Now it’s time to look after myself.  Color of loam, darling.  Color of loam.”

Grace looked into Maman’s beautiful, dark-as-earth face with its filigree of wrinkles.  It was what she always said.  “Color of loam.  Grown from the soil, and that’s right where I’ll stay.”

“Tre and Zilla?”

“Forrest Cities hasn’t approved Zilla’s request to see her mother in over a year.  From Guatemala, she can tap surface communication networks, find out what’s happened to her mother.”

“And just like that, she’s in Guatemala.”

“And just like that, I’m joining her.  I’ve only been waiting for you.”  She squeezed Grace’s hand again.  “Leave the towers before Forrest Cities’ real plan for the Suites is unveiled,” she said.  “Come with me.”

Credit

On his way up the escalator at the mall, he slipped his press pass out of his back pack and looped the lanyard around his neck.  He thought for about the ten-millionth time, how happy his mother would be that he wrote for a living.  He wasn’t entirely sure how happy he was about it any longer — when was he going to sit down and work on the novel that had been teasing the back of his brain for years? — but he knew she would be pleased.  And proud.  Thinking of her made him realize that, once again, he’d been humming ‘If I Were a Carpenter,” without noticing it.

He loved that song.  His mother used to sing it when she was working around the house or concentrating on writing a poem, sang more to herself than anything, her sweet voice drifting through the house.  Since her death, he found himself humming it at the oddest times, and always when he was writing.

“The papers have already been here,” the store manager told him as he walked into the shop.

‘We spoke earlier, Miss Gilchrist. I’m from the online news magazine.”  He extended his hand.  “Tom Banks.”

“Oh, right.”  She shook his hand, gave a small smile.

Her store had been robbed, and the young man who worked for her had been killed.  And that was news, but it was a story because it was the third store in a week with an identical scenario.

Tom hated this kind of story, what other reporters called “real news” — organized crime, political scandals, voting rights violations. His heart was the human interest stories, the fluff pieces: the celebration of the county’s oldest operating pub, the crowning of the homecoming queen who was a sixth-generation queen, the crazy farmer with the Virgin Mary in a potato. Real news as other people would have defined it was important, but there were always people eager to cover it.  He loved the small humanness of the stories that could easily be passed over and left behind.  The homecoming queen had been sweet and humble, proud of her family’s long history in the community, excited for him to see how much she looked like her great-grandmother and wasn’t that just amazing?  It was.  To him.  It was the kind of story his mother would have liked, the kind she would have clipped from the paper and tacked to the board over her writing desk.

He was aware that he was writing for her, writing pieces she would have wanted to read.  He hoped she was enjoying them.

The beat reporter had pneumonia, so Tom had been pulled off of the flower festival and sent to the mall to talk to Rose Gilchrist, who owned the jewelry store, who greeted him with a crumpled ribbon of police tape in one hand.

“How are you doing, ma’am?”

She looked surprised.  “What?”

“You must be so shaken up.  Is there anyone here to help you?  Would you like to sit down?  Or can I get you a coffee?”

She smiled.  “Well, you’re different,” she said.  “I think it’s better to be brisk and efficient.”  She shook her head. “But I am tired.  I’ve been brisk and efficient all morning, and I still want to curl up and cry.  Jimmy Wells was only 18.  He was supposed to go to Johns Hopkins in the fall.”

They walked around the store talking about Jimmy, what kind of worker he’d been, what kind of kid.

She stopped when they’d circled back to the front of the store.  “I know this is wrong to say, but he was the kind of person that my father would have described as a credit to his race.”  She frowned.  “That’s not okay to say anymore, is it?”

“No, ma’am.  It really isn’t.”

She smiled again. “I didn’t think so.  Even as a girl, I didn’t think so.  It sounds like it should be a compliment, but you know how I knew?  I never heard it said about anyone white.”  She shook her head.  “That’s an ugly way to compliment someone.”

“But you didn’t mean it that way.”

“No.  I didn’t.  And I’m sorry, but I was thinking it about you, too.  What do they call that?  Full disclosure?”

Tom laughed and nodded.  “I appreciate your candor.”

“What story are you going to write now?”

“Something that gives my editor what she wants.  But I’ll also write a longer, deeper piece about Jimmy Wells.  Show people the young man you just introduced me to.”

“That’s the one I’ll read,” she said.

 

The song was back in his head as he worked on Jimmy’s story.  He always thought of his mother when he wrote, the way she could disappear into a poem for hours at a time, spend weeks on just a line.  And it never seemed to frustrate her. In the hospital, after the doctors had said there was no more room for optimism, Tom had asked if she needed anything, if there was anything he could do or give her to make her more comfortable.  She’d asked for a steno pad and a pen. “I’ve got at least another short piece in me,” she’d said.  He’d run down to the gift shop to get her tools.  When he’d returned, she’d smiled, told him to write for her, but instead of dictating, she’d turned to look out the window and started singing.

He’d asked why that song, and she’d said she liked that it was about love and hard, honest work.

“I wish it had more verses,” she’d told him.  “Three trades people is nice, but what about the writers and teachers, the librarians and social workers?”  She laughed.  “I guess the social workers wouldn’t make for good lyrics.”

He always remembered that she named the writers first, that she saw writing as a trade, a craft to be done with your hands.

The Summer Wind

She would have liked more time, Iliana thought, standing over Stan’s hard, almost ceramic-looking face at the funeral.  A few weeks, months.  But there was no time.  At least not for Stan.  He looked calm nestled in the cream satin, his perpetually red face dulled to a grey peach.  Someone had strung a small crucifix around his thick sausage of a neck, rested the cross carefully at the center of his tie.  Stan would have ripped it off .

She stepped back and walked away, self-conscious about how much time she’d spent at the casket, holding up the line.  She threw a quick glance at his wife and daughters in the front row.  Relieved that no one was paying her any attention, she walked out to the lobby of the funeral parlor and leaned against a wall.

“You’re not family.”

A young man sat on one of the overstuffed couches in the hall.  His big, dark-suited body incongruous against the pink and yellow cottage roses of the upholstery.  She’d seen him inside, at the head of the line of mourners waiting their turn with Stan.

“Not family.  I worked with Stan.”

He nodded and looked at her intently, making her uncomfortable.

“Forgive my bad manners,” he said after a long minute.  “You just don’t look like a construction worker.”

“Accountant,” she said.  “I do — used to do — Stan’s books.”

The young man nodded.  “Professional.”  He nodded again.  “You look it.  Professional, I mean.  You definitely don’t look like an accountant.”

She exhaled slowly.  “What do accountants look like?”

“Shrunken old men, right?  Usually Jewish.  Glasses.  Maybe a cardigan.”

She smiled slightly, glad he’d said “Jewish” and not “a Jew.”  She wondered if he had any idea that it would make a difference.

“No,” she said.  “In that case, I don’t look like an accountant.”

“You done here?  You heading out?”

“I think I am, yes.”

He stood, and she was surprised by his height and by the easy graceful way he moved.

“Come on,” he said.  “I’ll drive you.  Wherever.”

“Oh, no.  That’s not necessary.”

“No, it’s not.  I’m offering, though.”

“Really — “

“The evening’s cooled off, and your little jacket won’t cut it.”  He gestured toward the door with a tilt of his head.  “I’m right out front.”

She didn’t move.  “You must see why this would be awkward or uncomfortable for me.”

He shrugged.  “We’re strangers.  Sure.  But it’s still cold, and I’m safe.  Safe as houses, as my grandmother would have said.”  He cocked his head to the other side. “I never understood that saying.  Are houses really all that safe?”

She smiled, felt tension run out of her.  “You’re not family, either,” she said, straightening from the wall and walking with him.

“But I am, actually.  Nephew.”  He leaned close, dropped his voice.  “From the unpopular branch of the family.”

Iliana didn’t know how to hear that, hadn’t known Stan well enough to know about any of the branches of his family.  She’d only recognized his wife and children from the photos he’d kept in his office.

“That sounds ominous.”

They stepped into the chill air, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.

“Well, only if we’re related,” he said.  “Otherwise — “

“Safe as houses?”

“Exactly.”  He steered her to a dark SUV.  “You hungry?  There’s a nice Greek kitchen not far.  A fried cheese like you really can’t imagine.”

She nodded, let him hand her into the plush car.  She had a frisson of apprehension at the feel of his hand on hers, wondered about the mistake she was making, but shook it off.  And shook it off again when he opened his own door and ducked down to peek at her before climbing in.

She drew herself in.  She would not bring Stan’s mysterious, “unpopular” nephew home.  Would not make love to him with the stereo blasting Frank Sinatra, Stan’s favorite singer.  Would not.

She said it once, and then again.

“Second thoughts?” he asked, pulling into traffic.  “Worried about walking off with a stranger?”

“Just thinking.  About Stan.  Heart attacks are so sudden.”

“They are that.”  He parked in front of a tiny restaurant.  “You must have other clients,” he said.  “Stan couldn’t have been your whole business.”

“I work for a firm.  There are lots of accounts.”

He nodded.  “So Stan’s death won’t hit you hard.”

She turned to stare at him, but couldn’t see him clearly in the dimly lit car.

“Sorry. That wasn’t supposed to sound so insensitive.  I meant this loss won’t hurt your job.”

She nodded.  It was true.  There were plenty of businesses that needed her to straighten out their accounts, file their taxes.

The fried cheese was better than she imagined.  So good, she wished she’d had a serving bowl full instead of the small appetizer.

The nephew watched her eat, sipping seltzer and eating olives.  He talked about his mother, Stan’s sister, and her decision to marry a man the family couldn’t accept, and how they’d turned her away.  “But not Uncle Stan,” he said.  “He never let her go. All these years.  He even paid for my college.”

She would, of course, take him home.  He wouldn’t fill the empty space left by Stan, not even close.  But at least Stan hadn’t died in her apartment, had never been to her place.  There would be no ghosts to cleanse from her rooms.

“You ever meet his wife?  His daughters?” the nephew asked.

She shook her head.  She hadn’t loved Stan, but she almost had, had just decided that she might.  After all those lunch meetings in his office, after the whispered phone calls late at night because he couldn’t stop thinking about her.  After the first time she noticed that he put his family’s photos in his desk as she walked into the room.  Maybe she could have loved him.

And she’d wanted to tell him.  But what could he say?  She didn’t want him to leave his wife. Why should she make Eleanor pay for her curiosity?

But then Stan had looked at her funny as they’d put their clothes back in order.  And then he’d slumped in his chair, called her name and passed out.  And then there was this nephew, some small piece of Stan offered up.

She would turn on the stereo and play “The Summer Wind” on repeat until he asked her to change it.  There would be no second chances, not for her.  But she’d reach out and take what was sitting in front of her.

Chrysanthemums

White and yellow Chrysanthemums in a thick explosion filled a wide vase at the center of a display of get well cards decorating the window ledge.  Chrysanthemums were Marty’s favorite, each like an exhuberant firework, like the flower world’s equivalent of jazz hands.  Mart bought them for Carla twice a week, had been buying them through thirty-seven years of marriage.  He would bring a new arrangement in two days to replace the ones currently grinning at Carla from the window.  “More mums than you could know what to do with,” he had promised before he’d left at the end of visit hours the night before.  Carla couldn’t stand Chrysanthemums.  She found them cheap and gaudy.  And they made her think of funerals.  For more than half her life, Marty had been showering her with the flowers of the dead.

“Your husband sure is sweet,” the night nurse had said.  “Flowers twice a week!”

“He’s a good man,” Carla said.

“You’ve been together a long time.  That’s what will help you heal, that kind of steadfast love around you.”

Carla had smiled.  She liked the idea of Marty’s love being the magical elixir that would mend her.

When he came to visit that evening after work, Marty smiled at the flowers in the window as he pulled the chair beside Carla’s bed.  “And tonight, my sky, how do you feel?”

Carla reached for his hand and smiled.  “My nurse says you will heal me,” she said.

“Of course.  Of course.”  He nodded and squeezed her hand.  “The flowers.  That is my job and my pleasure.”

He hoped she couldn’t detect the fear in his voice, in the tightness of his breathing.  He’d been with her in the care when the drunk had plowed into them, sending their little sedan careering into a mailbox and parked car on the opposite corner of the intersection they’d been waiting to cross.  He had walked away with scrathes, but not Carla.

When he’d turned and seen her silent, crumpled and bleeding beside him, the shock and horror of it had twisted  his heart out of position.  The sharp pain in his chest was the vision of a life without her.  He’d sat, frozen, staring at her, not realizing the ugly screeching he heard was coming from his own throat until a woman outside his window had shaken his shoulder and asked where he was hurt.

The doctors had said Carla was lucky, that she should heal fine, probably without even a limp.  He couldn’t allow himself to believe them.  Not until he saw the truth of it, of wellness, in Carla’s eyes.  In the first days at the hospital, he had only seen emptiness.  Her eyes looked as if she had already left him.

It was Hanna, the youngest of their daughters, who’d figured it out.

“Pop, don’t you think Mamma misses her flowers?” she’d asked one night on the way home from a visit.

He’d felt stunned, slapped.  “Her flowers! I’ve been so distracted!”

He knew the mums were the secret.  As soon as he’d brought the first arranement, he’d seen a change in Carla, saw a light come on at the back of her eyes.

“What else does your nurse say?” he asked, smiling.

“She thinks you’re sweet,” Carla said, feeling the strong embrace of his smile.

“Oh, does she?  And what about you?  Do you think there’s still any sweetness left in me after all these years?”  He stroked the palm of her hand with his thumb, and she rewarded him with a deep blush as she always did.

Carla laughed — it was maybe her first laugh since the accident.  It hurt her chest, but it felt good, too.  That was Marty.  Good for her in spite of herself, in spite of everything.

 

She’d never told him she hated Chrysanthemums.  In the beginning, she thought it such a wonder that a man would consistently give her flowers, she was afraid any negative comment would shut down the flow all together.  Her best friend at the time had tried to warn her off Marty because of the flowers.  “He just brings you what he likes?” she had said.  “What kind of man does that?  A selfish one.  He’s no good for you.”  But Carla’d had no trouble dismissing that argument.  Mirelis was angry and bitter, in the middle of her parents’ angry, bitter divorce.

Carla accepted the generosity of the flowers and accepted Marty, saw that his whole heart was always on display, just as showy and in your face as the sprays of mums that had begun to invade her home.  By the time she believed the bouquets would keep coming, telling him she didn’t like Chrysanthemums seemed mean.  Marty by her side was what mattered.  If ugly, depressing flowers were the price, she would pay it for the rest of her life.

 

Thirty-seven years later, the price wasn’t exactly feeling high, but having to stare at all the vases of mums when she had come so close to dying was hard.  She had felt the moment when her balance had begun to shift had tilted toward the warm weightlessness of death.  She had felt it and hadn’t immediately fought it, had paused to feel that embrace.  Not to consider — she wasn’t yet 60 and there were too many things still on her myriad lists.  But the gentle pressure against her heart was calming, oddly seductive.

When she had opened her eyes and seen Marty, felt the desperate pressure of his hands holding hers, her heart had raced, and the pleasure of seeing him had washed through her.  When he had walked into her room four days later with the first enormous bouquet of Chrysanthemums, she had smiled, had seen in his eyes for the first time not just hope, but his belief that he hadn’t lost her.

Changing the Story

In the photograph, Janice is giving the ref the finger.  Of course.  Of course that was the moment captured.  Of course that was the photo included in every newspaper article, news report, blog post.  Of course.

Janice sat at her kitchen table drinking her coffee.  She thought that, of all mornings, she deserved to roll back her sugar industry ban just on account of that photo, but she resisted the pull.

“I don’t even swear,” she said as Tanya walked in.  “I’ve never given anyone the finger in my life.”

“Well, now you have,” Tanya said, taking down her oversized morning mug and filling it almost to overflowing with the strong Jamaican blend they both preferred.  She walked to the table and sat across from Janice.  “You’re worried about the campaign.”

“Don’t you think I’ve already been painted as angry enough without this?”

Tanya smiled.  “Sure, but this time, you actually were angry.  They’re saying something true for a change.”

Janice nodded.  “Yes, there’s my consolation.”

“Look, honey, you can’t control that nonsense.  Just like you couldn’t help your response to that ref.”  She shrugged.  “It’s done.  You did it.  All you can do now is move forward.”

“Is this going to be another of your “change the story” pep talks?”

“In fact, it is.”  Tanya reached across the table and held her hand open in front of Janice, waiting for her to take it before continuing.

“You’re good at this,” she said.  “Each time some ridiculous story about your anger has been put out there, you’ve been able to turn it into a story about an issue, a policy piece, something to shine the light on Tipton’s failings.”

“Sure, but – as you so nicely pointed out — this time I really was angry.”

“And you weren’t angry about the benefit cuts to families with children or the diversion of funding for the arts to pay for private school vouchers?”

“Ha, ha.  Yes, of course.  Those were different.”

“Why’d you flip off the ref?”

Janice finished her coffee. “I told you –“

“Tell me again.  You’re going to be answering some version of this question all day, right?  So, why?”

“He called me a dyke under his breath.”

“You are a dyke.”

“It’s a pejorative when he says it.”

“So?  It’s the first time you heard hate speech?”

Janice brought her mug to the sink, rinsed it and set it down.  “I’ve got to shower.”

“Go shower, but that’s the heart, isn’t it?  You don’t swear.  Giving someone the finger isn’t the norm for you.  So why last night?  Was it that insulting to have him call you a name?  The “what” of this is how you change the story.  You need to find it.”

Janice frowned and walked out of the room.  She knew Tanya was right, would have known even if her whole body wasn’t giving up the signs.  She could feel everything acutely: the tie of her robe creating friction at her waist, the bandage on her left thumb feeling tight, the hard soles of her slippers not offering any give against her heels.

Why had she given that foolish man the finger?  It definitely wasn’t the first time someone had thrown her orientation in her face in an attempt to shut her down.  So why?

She was willing to bet that, by the time she finished her shower, that ref would have made the circuit of morning shows talking about how shocked and offended he was, how he’d only been doing his job, but she’d been so angry.

Yeah.  She’d handed him the club to beat her with, handed Tipton’s campaign another media moment to grab hold of.  He couldn’t attack her on issues, but he could go to town on her being such an angry black woman.

Refreshed from her shower, she chose her red jersey v-neck dress that fell to mid-calf.  No way she was going to dress quietly when she faced reporters.  She’d wear a gold chain belt and her black, oiled leather knee-high boots with the four-inch heels.  She’d tie her twist-out back with her purple and green paisley scarf that would drape down her back.  She would look tall and strong and fierce and feminine.  She would talk about hate speech and how her orientation had nothing to do with the disputed call.  She’d apologize for offending people with her vulgar gesture, but also talk about passion.

She frowned.  It didn’t get at the “why” exactly, but it might start to get there.

She could hear Tanya on the phone and smiled.  Tanya would raise an eyebrow when she saw the outfit, but she’d also nod her approval.

The “why” still caught in the back of her throat.  She knew she’d have to be careful, that because she hadn’t articulated it for herself yet, it was dangerous.  It could bubble up and out in the middle of an answer.

She’d get there in time.  Probably not until after dinner, after she’d had the day to see herself standing tall, to see ease return.  She’d come home late, she and Tanya would watch a movie and eat popcorn, and then they’d talk.  And talk.  The way they always did with problems.  Tanya threw the question out over coffee so it would sit over a low flame all day to simmer and burn off the rancor, get to the core.  They she’d be there to help with the harder part, the pain of an old hurt or shame that had been stick-poked and uncovered.

Janice definitely wasn’t ready for that first thing in the morning, but she could use its fuel to drive her day, push her past the insulting questions, put that ref on the defensive, force something substantive into print.

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?

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