⇔ Below are several original short stories ⇔
side note: In 2013 I finished writing my first novel, “The Experiment”. Here are links to sites where you can buy and/or read it:
Dana both looked and felt uncomfortable. The friends who had invited her to this party were separated from her by a sea of strangers she feared having to introduce herself to. She wore thin, cheap leather sandals and aggressively orange hair brushed her freckled shoulders. Her toes felt the grass as she entered the yard– still slightly damp and the air was just beginning to be less humid. She briefly noticed the six-packs on the plastic gray fold-up table against the back of the small yellow house on her right as she waded through the people, eyeing Matt and Quinn.
Quinn spotted her first as Matt had his back turned and was talking to the small circle of people he and Quinn were engaged in conversation with.
“Danaaaa!” Quinn squealed, throwing her hands up and causing heads to turn towards her nervous friend. “I wasn’t sure you’d actually come. Since you’re too cool for us now. You’re such a big deal.”
Dana smiled. “I work at The Central Maryland Chronicle-Herald-Gazette. It’ll be a big deal when I can afford furniture from, you know, Pottery Barn.”
There’s Matt, who was a friend of the sports columnist at The Central Maryland Herald and always got his coffee near the newspaper offices. Dana saw him every morning and paid too much attention to whether he was letting his beard go or had shaved clean. For some reason he never grew the beard out fully, just let it get to an exaggerated five o’clock shadow and then shaved it. Quinn had pointed out before that Matt spoke often but said nothing very interesting and Dana was aware that Quinn was probably right. Although, the sports columnist had mentioned that Matt had recently adopted a dog– a pitbull with a missing eye at that. Dana had always had a soft spot for guys with a big heart. She had hoped that one of these mornings she might see him stroll by with his canine companion in tow.
Melanie swatted at a mosquito before putting her unkempt black hair into a lazy ponytail. Melanie had recently moved to Maryland from Thailand and crashed in the apartment that Quinn and Dana shared before Dana got her big-deal job two months later. Dana knew little about Melanie besides what her toothbrush looked like and that she always forgot to put things back in the fridge.
“I’ll go get you a drink,” said Matt, whose facial hair would probably be completely gone tomorrow, once again not having realized its full potential. His offer surprised Dana, and she requested iced tea. Quinn chuckled at her choice and introduced her to Jacob and Summer, who were dating. Jacob had a loose arm draped over Summer’s shoulder, which pointed to the fact that they had been shamed into submission by friends who complained about possible former levels of PDA.
“Dana and I go way back,” Quinn informed the group before Melanie resumed some very in-demand gossip she was in the middle of spilling before Dana arrived. Dana found it impressive but not ultimately consequential that Melanie had only lived in the states for a few months and already had a better understanding of Gaithersburg’s social scene than Dana had after living in the area for close to three years. By the time Matt came back with her iced tea, which was sickeningly sweet even though Dana specifically asked for plain, the conversation had slowed.
“I hope you like sugar,” Matt said to her with a charming smile.
Dana nodded feverently while her tongue harbored feelings of hatred.
“This, uh, party happens every year?” Dana asked, her obligatory contribution to the group conversation as the new arrival.
“Aaron’s Annual Jamboree is a staple! You’ve missed out,” Quinn said.
“On?” Dana asked with a chuckle.
“What have I missed out on?”
“Uh, some great music, duh!” Quinn said. “Great food and great people too, amiright?”
Jacob offered a whoop of agreement.
“And our… tradition,” Matt added, smiling mischievously.
“What do you mean?” Dana inquired, arousing a chorus of glances from Summer, Jacob, Melanie, and Quinn.
Matt got into some kind of storytelling stance and his face acquired an anticipatory grin. “So like the first year Aaron held the Annual Jamboree everything was going pretty smoothly until just about midnight this very drunk girl– Anna, a yoga instructor or something– got up on stage. She just got up there in the middle of the music, took the mic and loudly broke up with Ted from the Whole Foods checkout.”
“I forget the exact words… but there was one part that was really funny,” Quinn said.
“Oh oh where she said a real man doesn’t have to wear a nametag to work?” Summer suggested.
Quinn laughed. “Yes! And how she said she never really liked his dad’s cooking?”
“Oh man,” Jacob said. “I felt so bad for him.”
“Yeah,” Matt finished. “So then it happened again the next year with a different person and it’s happened every year for six years. Someone gets up on stage, usually while inebriated, and ends a relationship. Last year it was Lydia who dumped Jacquelyn.”
“Oh, you told me about this,” Dana realized, gesturing to Quinn. “I didn’t make the connection when I decided to come.”
“Yeah,” said Quinn. “Every year by midnight someone’s just feelin’ it.”
“And now you’ve gotta be here for the whole night,” Jacob added. “It’s a real shitshow.”
“Does Aaron try to stop it from happening ever?” Dana asked softly, disturbed with the simultaneous certainty and uncertainty of the de facto tradition.
“You know Aaron,” Summer chimed in, pushing some blond hair over her shoulder, “very go with the flow. Plus, I mean, I think he likes it. Now everyone’s just waiting for it to happen.”
“I don’t really know him,” Dana pointed out, “but I can take your word for it.”
“Nobody knows him,” Matt laughed. “He’s the host. Nobody here’s someone he originally invited. I only know who he is because he goes to my gym.”
Jacob said he was bored and suggested that everyone play cornhole. Dana was hungry and said she’d join them after getting something from the grill. She vaguely recognized the man flipping burgers near the fence on the left side of the yard just like she vaguely recognized all the 20-somethings in her area. Friends of friends of friends. So far she had reasoned that she could neglect to familiarize herself with the Olympic-games-logo-like social circles in her area while keeping some meaningful friends, like Quinn. Although for someone Dana spent a lot of time around willingly, Quinn made some pretty inadvisable decisions, attending this party every year being one of them. Dana enjoyed keeping in touch with some friends from college with whom she had had many a thoughtful conversation while everyone else was at the frat house testing their alcohol capacity. There were many ways her generation entertained themselves that Dana found to be a waste of time. And yet here she was, asking for a burger while in the background a local band shared a deafeningly bad guitar solo with the world.
After minimal ketchup and dumping her sweet iced tea over the side of the fence in favor of water, she pulled up a chair in front of the cornhole game and watched Jacob show Summer how to throw a beanbag. Matt and Melanie were on the other side, Melanie winding up aggressively and Matt smiling confidently.
Dana tuned out Summer’s laughing and the soft rock band playing under a tent by the house and tried to guess who might dump who tonight. However, she soon realized she didn’t know who was in a relationship besides now Summer and Jacob and a coworker of hers who was there with a man whom she suspected was his boyfriend based on a smiling photo on his desk. Come to think of it, Dana didn’t know why people had to make their relationships so goddamn public anyway. She had no obligation to know who’s going out with whom. If she ever lost her mind and dated someone — she glanced at Matt, who is playing a very mediocre game of cornhole– she would practically move to a bunker in order to keep it from being discussed. She felt it would be difficult to be honest in a relationship if everyone around you had an opinion on the way it was going. In a twisted way, she liked this drunken barbecue breakup tradition because no one would get up on a stage at midnight at a packed party and dump someone else and wouldn’t mean it. At least these people were being honest.
Quinn stood against the back fence, her brown hands wrapped around and loosely gripping the links. She was booing Matt.
“Hey, why don’t you play?” Quinn asked Dana, who disembarked from her train of thought to hear Quinn’s follow-up statement. “You’re going to come to one party the whole year and just sit around watching everyone have fun?” To avoid further pestering and insulting statements about her priorities, Dana joined Melanie and Matt and Quinn the other team. Quinn, a former star softball player, quickly took the brunt of the athletic work while her other team members tickled each other. Dana pretended to listen to Matt over a very loud rendition of “Wagon Wheel.” He was talking about cornhole strategy even as she scored more than he had in the last half hour and she continued to nod when the topic appeared to become his entrepreneurial ideas about making shirts that are easier to tuck in.
As Dana watched Quinn fling perfectly-angled bean bags into her team’s board she saw a confidence that she wished Quinn could permanently grasp.
After cornhole was no longer adequately entertaining and everyone was beginning to get tired, the friends refilled their drinks and commandeered a group of lawn chairs.
When they had sat down, Matt turned to Dana and asked how her job at the paper was going (he got the name of the publication wrong two times but Dana almost didn’t blame him).
“I like it,” Dana replied. “I really would like to write for a bigger city paper or magazine one day though. I’m keeping an eye out for openings in Annapolis.”
“What about like a family though?” Matt asks.
Dana laughs. “I’m 26. I’m only just starting to think about that.”
“I think I’d be a pretty good dad,” remarks Matt in the dark, illuminated slightly by the lights under the band’s tent.
“How do you know?” Dana asks.
“I have a dog,” Matt replies. “I do a pretty good job with the dog.” Oh good, he really did have a dog.
“Oh a dog? Pretty similar to a human baby right?” Dana laughs.
“Yep,” says Matt, completely serious. “Yeah I think so.”
“A lot more expensive though,” Dana says, “babies I mean. You have to buy all that soft food.”
“That what?” Matt asks. “Soft food?”
“…yes,” Dana replies. “Babies can’t eat hard foods until they’re a certain age.” Matt furrowed both eyebrows and rested his hand on his chin contemplatively. “Huh,” he said quietly.
A few drinks later it was approaching 11 o’clock and some of the original 200 or so partygoers had gone home but most hung around in anticipation of a possible public dumping. Dana came to find that having friends at all is much less fun when all of them have slipped into a slightly tipsy stupor. By midnight she was ready to leave even though she had yet to see the promised pinnacle of the annual party. No one had seized the mic, no heartbreaking announcement had been made, not even a minor friendship had been loudly ended. But she was tired. And bored. And disappointed that the book Matt had read last was an overhyped romance novel. Dana had assumed before that she needed to “get with the program” as Quinn put it, and finally come to a party she did not care about. As it turned out, “the program” was not so much greater than the track she had chosen before. That is, the track of a loner who just wanted to relax at home after a busy day. Hell, the happiest she had been this week was when she was making pasta alone in her apartment and an X-Files rerun came on. Plus, she needed to call her parents, who could actually make more interesting conversation than Jacob and Summer, who had told her how they met – twice- without her prompting. Why was she even here? She didn’t like beer and there was a deadline for her feature tomorrow. It was long past time to go.
She wished everyone goodnight and they murmured in reply, except for Matt, who as she stood up to leave said “stay” in a pathetic voice and placed a hand firmly on her butt. Dana suddenly fully understood what might motivate a person to drag a friend or partner through the mud in front of a crowd. Every harmless but disappointing thing Matt had done or said was so acute to her. His lack of effort was astounding. And yet he didn’t seem to recognize this. Somehow he felt entitled to Dana’s attention and arguably her body after spending four hours with her and clearly showing that he could bring nothing to her life save for the dog which he was “pretty good’ at caring for. It was likely that no one had ever told him how utterly average he was because it was simply not worth it. But now he had crossed a line. It was time for a small wake up call.
Dana knew what she needed to do. She left the group of chairs, pushed through the crowd of people lazily dancing on the lawn to a slow country song, and stepped onto the short wooden stage. Completely lacking inhibition now, she said “I need this” to the lead singer and pulled the mic from its stand, feedback whistling all eyes to the stage. The band gradually came to an unceremonious halt, two members looking annoyed and three looking relieved.
“This is dumb,” Dana stated, utterly sober. “This is really not where I was meant to be tonight. Also Matt, you are bad at cornhole and have a thirteen-year old’s taste in books. I’m not even going to get into your misconceptions about child-rearing. For the love of God either grow out the beard or don’t. Why can’t you make a concrete decision about the simplest thing in your whole damn life? Thank you.”
“Hey!” Quinn yelled from the back of the yard. “Are you crazy?”
“Maybe a little bit, yes,” Dana shouted back. “It’s better than sitting on someone else’s lawn drinking crappy beer and trying to be likeable.”
“I thought you said you needed to cut loose!”
“Well it turns out maybe I can’t. Maybe I’ve never needed to. Because I’m happy.”
With that Dana exited the yard, walked to the sidewalk across the crushed grass, crossed the street, and got into her car. The Honda sputtered awake as she turned the key and she drove home, stopping only at a fast-food drive-thru to get an unsweetened iced tea.
Okay, okay, good to go. Time to go. Time to get out of this legally contested house and out of the guilt spiral. Speaking of the guilt spiral, maybe it’s time you make an appointment with the couples’ counselor. Hope he does one-on-one appointments too.
Oh, dammit. Here’s Justin with the pool bag.
Trunk is open again. In goes pool bag. Wham. Justin gets into his carseat. What a good kid. It’s a real shame he has to be surrounded by all this crap. You pick up his tricornered hat from the floor of the van, put it on his head, and hope this makes up for not going to DisneyLand or something. The finances just aren’t in the right place right now. Plus, a trip to Florida might be a little over-the-top. Daniel would send out an Amber Alert.
Daniel. That absolute sleaze. You wonder how many times you met her at company events, how many times he had to juggle his women. But that’s for another time. Not for now. Now it’s time to go.
“I’m proud of you guys for not fighting,” you tell them after they get their McDonalds. You thought you might splurge and stop somewhere nice but then Isabelle asked nicely so you pulled into the Drive-Thru under the golden arches. You braced for impact when Justin got the better toy in his Kid’s Meal but he gave it to Isabelle, and what’s more she pretended not to want it.
“Thank you, mommy,” says Isabelle in reply.
“Tanks,” says Justin.
They are quiet for the rest of the drive but they don’t look unhappy, which is good since the whole point of getting away from home was to take everyone’s minds off the fact that Daddy has been sleeping at Best Friend/College Friend Jim’s house.
You had actually thought you could have worked this out together, maybe smoothed it over, learned a lesson, gotten a transfer to another branch. Sandi (with an “i”) could be a distant memory, a one-time blunder, like a temporary dip in one’s credit score. But Daniel, oh, Daniel needed “some space/time to think” about your future together. And that’s why you’re taking the exit for Colonial Williamsburg.
You follow other families around while Ye Old Tour Guide talks about how many sheep used to graze here, etc. The other Mommies and Daddies are getting along, you happen to notice. Luckily this is not the 1700s so the Mommies weren’t given to the Daddies along with a herd of goats, bullion, etc. Grandpa and Grandma did not hand-select Daddy for Mommy, which makes Mommy feel worse because she apparently chose incorrectly, chose a Two-Faced Scumbag who might be leaving her for Sandi with an “i”.
Justin is happy to take a picture with Martha Washington. Isabelle objects and asks Martha to justify slave-owning. She’s really been excited about history class lately.
Martha sees the bags under your eyes and understands that you’re not going to help her out. Isabelle leaves unsatisfied, but forgets about this once you all get to make Olden Timey ice cream down by the butter churn.
You buy Justin an ink-and-quill set because at least it’s not a Nerf gun, even if fifteen dollars is a lot to charge for some ink you have to make yourself. Isabelle requests a pocket-sized Constitution because she wants to “know her rights.” Smart kid. Guess she got that from Daniel, along with his dark, folded eyes. You always thought he was smart, anyway, too smart. More and more unable to sit still. But evidently not smart enough to not leave his phone unlocked on the kitchen island with his texts open.
You take some pictures of the kids in the Old Timey stocks, which they think is funny. It makes you smile to think that they can see the stocks as something amusing, instead of a Boring Adult Metaphor about being trapped (in, say, a recently stagnant marriage broken open by infidelity).
“Are you tired, mommy?” Justin asks when you rub your temples on the way to the Wig Maker, who is only open from 4:00-4:45, so better hurry.
“A little, Jus,” you say. No one ever tells you how the loss of a body next to you can keep you up at night. Which is inconvenient when you’re supposed to be angry with that body, not missing him.
“I’m a little tired too,” says Justin.
“Do you still want to see how they made wigs?” you ask.
“Like in the olden times?”
You’re the only people in there besides the wigmaker, who greets you with “good day, madam,” and the children with “good day young miss” and “young master,” which makes them giggle. The re-enactor is perhaps in his thirties, small spectacles perched on the end of his nose as he demonstrates to the children how he sews hair onto a frame before attaching it to netting. Justin and Isabelle are very attentive as he talks about soaps and powders.
He pulls a box of sage soap down from the dusty shelves behind him and when the smell hits your nose you’re reminded, of all things, of the day Justin was born. Your remember that Daniel came into the maternity ward late, he was at work the day your water broke — eight days earlier than expected. You yelled at him because he was wearing a new cologne. Through the tears of labor you screamed something about why did he have to go and change up something on a day when everything was already changing so much. He laughed a little and held your hand and apologized. Even then you should have known he needed change more than you ever could. Three jobs in six years, too many colognes, and now you too were left in his wake. Hurricane Daniel.
“That looks like Sandi’s hair,” says Justin, breaking the haze of your thoughts.
“Hm?” you say. Isabelle looks like she’s expecting a dam to break.
“That looks like Daddy’s friend Sandi’s hair,” says Justin, pointing to the head of hair the wigmaker is working on.
“Oh, oh?” you say, grateful Sandi is still just “Daddy’s friend.” But the feeling doesn’t linger long.
“Does Daddy love Sandi instead of you now?” Justin says, obliterating any Saran wrap of household normalcy you were trying to maintain this week. Isabelle says, “Justin that is not a nice question!”
The wigmaker’s mouth stretches into an awkward half-smile. He goes to the back to get “more hair.”
You lean down to Justin’s eye level.
“You don’t have to worry about that, okay Jus?” you say, “Mommy and Daddy are just figuring stuff out right now. Mommy and Daddy will always be friends no matter what, okay?” The last part feels like a lie but after all, the rage is still fresh in your mind.
The worst part of it all is that you found out while the kids were home. Just leaning back across the kitchen island to read the recipe book again. It called for butter but you only had margarine. You would have gone to the computer to find out if they’re the same for casserole but his phone was right there and you didn’t think he had a password so you opened it and the texts were there. Bubbles of blue reading had fun w/ u today 😉 sent to a woman who was not you.
The wig man returns from the back and you give him a little smile that is meant to smooth things over but probably just looks weird. He finishes his demonstration and the three of you leave just as another family is coming in. Are you a family? Just you, Justin, and Isabelle? You got the family rate at the motel, which might just be good enough.
You decided to serve the goddamn casserole, you remember, before confronting him about the message. You told yourself it was because the dish would settle weird if not baked and served right away but you tasted on your tongue the sick joy of looking Daniel in the eye as you cut him a piece.
Have some Goddamn Casserole, you cheater, you thought as you served him a slice, like the dutiful wife you are. Later you would invite him onto the back porch for a conversation that would end with him making mad excuses and you sobbing into the potted plants. You imagined, before you ever met Daniel, that if you were to leave your husband you’d do it in black heels and a red dress and pearls, perhaps even aiming a gun at him, for the theatrics.
“So long, loser,” you’d say, hopping into a sports car and zooming away.
Instead you cried into the hydrangeas, sent him to Best Friend/College Friend Jim’s house, and took the kids to Colonial Williamsburg.
Everything was light for Toria. Her screens, her world, hummed around her, their soothing glow comfortable and familiar. Each rectangle of pixels had its place. To her right educational games were pulsing before her wide, dark eyes— her classroom. Directly in front of her was a screen displaying her interactive family— her brother, Wiggy, and her mother, whose name it took her a second to recall. Morae. Yes.
Since they had their own VivaPods (after all, it was the twenty-third century) and the VivaPods remained separate and closed at all times to protect self-respecting people from the horror of the modern world, Toria had never seen her mother and brother in real life. Not to mention her grandparents, Million and Hurta, who were in VivaCare facilities for old folks like themselves.
Toria could in fact see what she assumed was her brother’s pod through the wire-covered enclosed surface of the clear plastic pod. Like her own pod, it looked like a see-through egg covered almost entirely in energy-filled white string. Three of these pods were sitting in her grandfather’s house, an unexplored peaceful location where Toria would spend almost all of her life if she chose to. All she knew from what she could see and what she remembered was that the house was old, empty, and made largely of brick and dark wood akin to the color of her skin, which her interactive mother (who was of course controlled by her real mother) often praised as beautiful. And it was true. Toria was aware of two facts for absolutely sure: the world was ugly, and she was beautiful.
On this particular day in the VivaPod, Toria was learning to graph, an appropriate subject for an eleven year-old. And all was well and known and safe.
Until, for the first time in Toria’s memory, the power went out.
And so it was that this girl found herself in darkness, something she had never known. Sudden, all-consuming darkness that felt to her like her veins were being sliced open and her life blood was pooling around her, soiling the perfection of her VivaPod.
Toria’s screens went black and her pod stopped glowing and her throat made a sound she had never heard herself make before. A frightened, girlish scream. This scared her further and the maladjustment of her eyes caused her to flail in confusion.
Toria felt her small, bare foot hit a button nestled in the encircling wall of her pod towards the front of the capsule. The button, now unhelpfully, read “Do not press unless for some completely inordinate reason you wish to open your VivaPod.”
Much to Toria’s further shock, her Pod hatched, splitting neatly down the middle as it was engineered to. She screamed again, because inside the VivaPod the air was room-temperature and smelled like blankets and electricity and now the air was cool and smelled like something she could not name (dust and old wood floors).
Toria was so busy trying to stand up and failing and being confused that she didn’t see a head emerge from the VivaPod beginning to open a few meters away from her. A boy whom, if she took a second to examine his face, she would recognize as her twin brother, Wiggins Emerald, Wiggy for short. The boy had thin eyebrows and a small wide nose. He was her height and had her dark skin and regular outward self-possessedness, though internally he felt quite insecure. He was slightly less prone to screaming, instead he was shaking and trying to look like he was holding it together.
It’s not like the siblings didn’t know each other. They had interacted using screens from a very young age. They had seen each other’s avatars and helped each other with VivaEdu program assignments. However, seeing another person in the flesh was something foreign— Toria and Wiggy locked eyes and took a second to take in the fact that they were seeing another thing that moved and took up space like themselves.
“What happened?” Toria asked Wiggy shakily when they finally were within a meter of each other.
“Power cut,” said Wiggy, who had been paying attention to local news. “There was a raid on the city. You’re taller than I thought you’d be.”
“You’re scrawnier than your avatar,” Toria observed, not meaning it unkindly. Wiggy shrugged this off.
“Where’s mom?” Toria mused.
“I don’t know, but we shouldn’t go looking. We should stay here,” Wiggy said. “I don’t know what we’ll find if we look around and if the power comes back on we’ll want to be here.” He was lying. Of course he wanted to look around.
“We’ll only be out here once for who knows how long. Don’t you want to know what the house is like so you never get curious again?” Toria said, also lying. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in her fractured VivaPod and go to sleep. But she wanted to make up for her earlier cowardice and she knew that she wouldn’t get the chance to wander around Million’s mansion again, at least not until she became an adult and she could make her own decisions about how she wanted to live. Toria’s mother, like most mothers, chose to raise her and Wiggy in VivaPods, and Toria respected that. Toria was also aware that her mother would disapprove of her and Wiggy even stepping out of their pods. Seeing as Toria’s mother, Morae, was the only female role model whom Toria could prove existed, Toria valued her mother’s opinion very much.
“A little looking around won’t hurt I guess,” Wiggy said, trying not to betray how eager he was to have a peek at the upstairs portion of the house. Wiggy was already practicing taking in every single detail of the dusty darkness he was seeing so he could relive it mentally when he returned to his pod once the power came back on.
“Come on,” said Toria, grabbing Wiggy’s small, soft hands. How she knew to grab another human being’s hands of all things when leading them somewhere she did not know but suspected she had picked it up from her learning games or television shows.
The twins quickly realized they were standing in a broad hallway which was formed by a wall on one side and a large, long staircase on the other. Toria started to move towards a partially open door on the right but Wiggy pulled on her hands and pointed to the staircase.
“Don’t you wanna go as far as we can first and then work backwards?” Wiggy suggested. Toria hesitated. She could sense the excitement in Wiggy’s voice that he was trying so hard to hide. She had wanted to keep their expedition small. Oh well, she thought, turning to follow him, if we get killed by Open-runners at least this wasn’t my idea. Despite never having interacted with a living human being, Toria knew she hated being wrong and if she died she would rather do so having had the right idea.
Toria and Wiggy ascended the stairs and gravitated towards a room directly in front of them on the broad landing. There was white light hitting the wood of the landing floor— it hailed from small high windows to either side of them. It was said that Million liked his dark very dark and his light very bright. Moving forward, they opened the two heavy wooden doors to the room one at a time, both pulling on each. There before them was a vast space with a completely empty floor (useful furniture had probably been stolen by Open-runner vandals) and walls made of the most unfamiliar material and interspersed with wooden panels. The siblings both audibly gasped and Wiggy’s small eyes grew large at this unfamiliar sight while a thin layer of dust blew up from the floor. Toria moved around to see the wall to her right head-on and touched it. There were rectangular blocks of leather and cloth and fiber making up the walls, with gold and silver and black writing on their sides. Tori had not encountered such things before. Great Expectations read one of the many small parts of the wall. Another smaller fiber block said Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Toria touched a piece labeled Pride and Prejudice and was astonished when she dislodged it. She thought she might have broken the room itself until she realized the object was clearly meant to be split in two, to be opened. The leather was filled with pieces of what felt like dry, thin wood to Toria. These leafs, filled with words piled on each other in huge blocks, felt immeasurably good between Toria’s fingers.
Wiggy and Toria agreed in an unspoken manner to pull the most beautiful word boxes out from the walls and sit in the middle of the room and touch and see them together. Toria was filled with awe. What useless and wonderful things were these? What useless and wonderful beasts had been here before her?
The Flower Man
The lipstick was too red. Or it wasn’t red enough. No, definitely too red. The lipstick had been a risk. Oh well, Richard wouldn’t mind. He always put up with her flights of fancy, as he called them. Margaret flipped down the top of the compact mirror and put it back in the navy purse hanging limply on her gently sloping shoulders. She had always prided herself on her shoulders. She smoothed down her coat, readjusted the purse strap, tipped her hat forward, and took an unnecessary amount of time to look over the train timetable. Richard’s train was due at five o’clock and she had shown up fifteen minutes early out of anxiousness and excitement. She knew that she should really stop fidgeting but who could blame her? This was a potential husband she was waiting on.
Richard had been stationed with the Navy at an outpost in Paris for two years and now that the war was over he was coming home. He had promised that the two of them would be engaged upon his return and Margaret wondered if he had her ring in his pocket that very minute as his train made its way towards Grand Central Station. In her mind’s eye the ring was shiny and golden, with a sapphire stone nestled in the center. Sapphire. How very exotic. Knowing Richard, though, it was bound to be more traditional.
Margaret toyed with her purse strap again and turned to the golden clock ticking away on top of the bustling information booth that occupied the center of the station. It informed her that the time was ten minutes to five. She really needed something to occupy her. That’s when she spotted the flower stand. Aren’t flowers nice? Fantastic. She could pick out some flowers for Richard and take her mind off his arrival. His letters had been coming fewer and farther between lately, but the Navy office in Paris had informed her that they would be sending him home on train, boat, train, and into Grand Central at five. She had, of course, heard this a month ago but she couldn’t imagine anything had changed.
Margaret found herself at the flower stand, a large wooden booth with pockets of a sort in it for bouquets and mountains of silver buckets filled with fresh flowers to either side of it. The stand possessed a green and white awning so small that the only purpose it served was to give a meagre dose of shade to the man underneath—as though he needed the shade inside a train station. The flower man was rearranging the roses to his right. She considered the roses. They were too red. Or not red enough. No, definitely too red.
“Hello,” said the flower man unassumingly, interrupting Margaret’s particularly trivial train of thought.
“Oh, hello,” Margaret said, startled and still in the process of lifting her gaze from the too-red roses.
“Looking for anything in particular?” he inquired. The young man had a thoughtful brown face and an accent that gave away his neighborhood— Brooklyn. Margaret, a native of the city and the daughter of a Manhattan stockbroker, could recognize it with little trouble.
“A welcome home bouquet,” she answered with a smile, the impatience for Richard’s arrival evident in her voice.
The flower vendor poked around to the left of the booth. “Something yellow, maybe? Who’s being welcomed home?”
“Ah, my soon-to-be fiancé. He’s been writing me from Paris.”
“Oh, he with the Navy?”
“I have seen a lot of uniforms here in Grand Central. I almost feel like I know ‘em a little. I watched them go off in ’39 and come back again.”
“We can only pray for the ones that don’t come back,” Margaret added with a sigh. She knew she was lucky — some of her friends would never see their beaus again.
“And I tell ya, I seen too many ladies like yourself wait here for men that live through it all but never show. Not to put a curse on your happiness, m’am, but Navy men ‘specially. Something about those men of the sea and Parisian women,” the man remarked, handing her a good-sized bouquet of black eyed Susans.
Margaret took the flowers and leaned lightly against the front of the stand as the man behind the booth pulled up a stool on the other side of the pane-less window out of which he worked. His dark pooling eyes seemed to absorb everything they saw as he concentratedly snipped stems off of bundles of carnations before enveloping them tightly in brown paper for whichever waiting people would request them.
“Oh, well you haven’t met Richard,” Margaret insisted, “he’s just wild about me. I get his letters every… well they’ve been coming about once or twice a month now… but anyway, he tells me about his adventures with the Navy.” Margaret suddenly remembered that she had to pay the man and fished some coins out of her purse. She handed the pieces of silver and bronze to him, her cream-colored fingers meeting his rough pink palm.
“What’s he gettin’ up to over there?” the man asked since Margaret didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving the booth.
“Well, he’s been working, seeing the city with his landlady— she’s been showing him the sights. She’s just an absolute dear from what I’ve heard.”
The man smiled knowingly for a second and his dark eyebrows crinkled slightly on his dark face.
“What time did you say his train is supposed to get in, m’am?”
“Oh, I didn’t say, but five o’clock.”
It was nearing a quarter after five. She had not noticed a five o’clock train and suggested that it might be late.
“I mighta seen one come and leave a bit ago,” the man behind the booth remarked.
“Perhaps he missed his train and is coming in on the next one,” Margaret laughed briefly, “I’m not giving up on him just yet.” Richard was a rarity and she had worked hard to keep him. Margaret’s family members often poked fun at her lack of suitors and her mother had cautioned her that she should not let slip from her grasp anyone who was willing to spend time with the frighteningly independent and sharp woman Margaret had turned out to be. Naturally it was also a disappointment that she hadn’t married earlier. Practically an old maid at twenty-six, Margaret also knew the stock market inside and out, which was not a suitable skill for a wife to possess.
The man with the flowers and the woman with the too-red lipstick saw many people over the next two hours— some coming off trains, some boarding, some waiting, quite a few buying flowers, but Margaret’s soon-to-be-fiancé was not among them. The man began to put away his wares at quarter ‘till seven. The woman, now sitting at a small table across from the flower stand sipping a cup of tea, had experienced six different facial expressions in the time that had elapsed. At that moment, she looked defeated.
“Richard’s not coming, is he?” she queried aloud.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” remarked the man as he boxed up some petunias.
The woman looked up from her tea and let out a small disgusted sigh directed at the train tracks and the five o’clock train that did not deliver her Richard, who was doubtless galavanting across Paris with his landlady. Margaret felt empty— both because of her growing hunger, as it was now seven, and and the long-time-coming cold shoulder she had been given. What a stupid idea to tie herself to a man who would spend years of his youth across the world under a promise to come back and put a ring on her finger. What could she say? She was a sucker for a man in uniform.
“I’m ravenous,” she noted when the big hand on the station clock hit seven and the small hand tapped twelve. The man was setting the day’s inventory— taken down on a memo pad— in a locked box in a drawer towards the bottom of the flower stand.
“There’s a sandwich shop right outside the station. Simple place but the owner is friendly toward me and I made a little more than usual today. I’ll buy you dinner,” the man declared, tipping his checkered newsboy cap. “If you’d like that,” he added.
A smile emerged from the unwanted woman’s tired face.
“I’m Margaret, by the way,” she told him as they walked toward the door of Grand Central Station through a dusting of people waiting for themselves or someone else.
“John,” he said.
The yellow flowers were left forgotten on a table top.
The Oriole’s Gift
“Just tell me what my present is, already!” shouted Carlos with a chuckle as Tom led a blindfolded Carlos into his garage. “Tom!” exclaimed Carlos as he stumbled along. He felt fingers fumbling around the knot in the cloth covering his eyes. Finally the red bandana came off. On a table in front of him Carlos saw a small vile in front of him filled with a clear liquid in it. Carlos’ countenance became puzzled.
“What is that?” he asked nervously.
“It’s your birthday present, of course!” Tom said with a grin.
Although Carlos was confused at first, Tom quickly explained what the vile was about. Because Carlos loved birds so much, Tom had used his incredible talents in chemistry to concoct a formula that would transform Carlos into a bird!
“You’ll have feathers and everything! Happy 14th birthday!” Tom proclaimed.
“This is amazing!” Carlos blurted out,”but what will my parents think?”
“I told them that you would be coming over for a few hours,” Tom explained,” you might as well use it now.”
With shaking hands, Carlos lifted the vile to his lips and downed the formula. He felt sick for a moment and then started to shrink as feathers started appearing. He was a Baltimore Oriole!
“The recipe isn’t advanced enough to transform your brain into a bird’s, but you can fly,” said Tom.
Carlos tweeted happily as he examined his talons and wings. After a second of vigorous flapping, Carlos was up in the air. From up in the sky, Carlos could see a small Tom waving from the driveway. This is so cool! Carlos thought as he saw his house and his neighbor’s houses from the air.
As he flew, he saw the Aralene’s house. Mr. and Mrs. Aralene were a nice, middle aged couple with no children. He remembered that earlier today he had passed their house and they had wished him a happy birthday and waved at him. Now, as he passed over their house, he saw something odd. There was yelling coming from one of the windows. He soared down to investigate. Carlos landed on their fence and looked in the window. Mr. Aralene and Mrs. Aralene were arguing. Mr. Aralene was standing and shouting at his wife.With a dramatic gesture, Mrs. Aralene stood up and yelled back at her husband. Uh oh! Carlos thought as he listened up.
“Your mother needs to be in an Assisted Living Facility, and you need to understand that!” Bellowed Mrs. Aralene.
Mr. Aralene barged in, “She’s fine! She’s only 75!”
Mrs. Aralene’s eyes watered. “James, she’s not okay, she forgot my name the other day. She needs help!”
Carlos was shocked. It hadn’t appeared that anything was wrong earlier. Oh well, Carlos thought, it’s none of my business. So, Carlos the bird took off again and landed on a street sign. As he was resting, Carlos saw his neighbor, Jessica, walking home from school with her best friend Amy. However, Jess was not in her usual cheerful mood, and neither was Amy.
“I was just joking”, whined Amy to Jessica.
“That doesn’t make it right!” mumbled Jess.
“C’mon, Jess, everybody has to have a little fun with the new girl. I just gave her the wrong map, no harm done.”
“I saw her crying on the way to math!” Jessica said, obviously irritated.
“Diane will get over it! Let it go!” insisted Amy, although she sounded more like she was trying to assure herself of this rather than Jess.
It was then that Carlos realized what they were talking about. Diane was a new student at Oakbrook Middle School, and Amy had purposefully given her the map of Redrun High School, and cut out the name of the school, so that Diane was thoroughly confused and showed up at all the wrong classes. He wished he could help Amy realize that what she did was wrong, but he was just a bird. He would think of something. As he took off again, he spotted the mailman walking down the street and Mr. Douglass watering his azaleas. Then he saw something out of the ordinary.
Carlos landed on the top of a berry bush and then turned around to see what had intrigued him. Carrie Anderson was sitting on her porch, sobbing. Her boyfriend, Tony, had a solemn look on his face and was putting his arm around her.
“But we may never see each other again! You’re moving to Illinois!” Carrie gurgled between tears.
“Of course we will!” said Tony comfortingly. “I’ll be back to visit for Christmas.”
So Tony is moving, Carlos thought, I feel bad for them. In fact, I feel bad for Mr. and Mrs. Aralene, and Jessica, too! But I can’t just swoop down and talk to them! I’m a bird! This question burned inside of him, he thought hard. Tom never told him how long the concoction lasted! He had to fix their dilemmas before it was too late!
That’s when he had an idea.
First, Carlos flew back to the Aralene’s house. He looked in the living room window. Mr. Aralene was in a foul mood, hiding behind his newspaper, and Mrs. Aralene was in the kitchen cooking soup, her eyes bloodshot. Carlos zipped into action. He flew over town, to Mr. Aralene’s mother’s house. She was a rather careless, forgetful woman and she had left the bedroom window open. Carlos zipped in and found what he was looking for on her dresser, a summary of her latest doctor’s appointment. If Mr. Aralene saw how unstable his mother was, he would see that an Assisted Living Facility was for the best.
Carlos flew back to the Aralene’s living room window and dropped the paper in. It landed at Mr. Aralene’s feet. To get his attention, Carlos whistled. Mr. Aralene looked down and saw the paper. After reading it, he looked grim but his face became softer.
“Sandra”, he called, “I’m sorry.” He paused, “I guess I didn’t want to see how fast her mind was going”.
“I know”, she said, and put an arm around him. Carlos felt good inside. They understood each other!
Next, Carlos flew into Amy’s house through the chimney and found her phone on her bed. He opened up the Notes page and typed TELL DIANE YOU’RE SORRY. YOU KNOW THAT WHAT YOU DID WASN’T RIGHT. That should do it. As he was flying out, Amy spotted him.
“What the heck…” she began to say, but trailed off.
Yikes, Carlos thought.
Then, Carlos flew to Carrie’s backyard. He plucked berries off the bush he had landed on earlier and spelled out, “If you love something, let it go” on her lawn. A hard day’s work had been accomplished, and each person was left with an oriole’s gift.