Category Archives: fiction

Shame

Jessica stared at her hands. They were trembling. Thunder rolled in the distance, still a few miles from Rogers Park. The bench was hard, shedding splinters to unwary visitors. The air was still.

She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting there, staring down, feet curled together, wisps of hair escaped from her ponytail and tickling her eyelashes. A branch cracked, and she looked up, green eyes wide.

“Ah, Jess!” Nana was a short lady, wild white hair waving in the wind.

“Nana,” Jessica called, half-heartedly.

“Jess,” she said, sitting down on the bench and breathing hard. She shoved one hand in her apron pocket and rested her elbow on the bench, propping up her head. “How was it?”

Jessica kicked at a pinecone, watched it wobble away down the paved pathway and out of reach.

“Ah,” Nana said, shifting towards her. The two sat in silence. First raindrops plopped to the ground—one, two, three. Gone.

“You know,” Nana said at last, “Whatever those girls did, it won’t seem so bad in the morning.”

“I can’t face them,” Jessica said softly. “Not again. Not after today.”

“Why not?”

Jessica sniffled. She opened her mouth, closed it, and took a breath. “I said I’d never do it. But they all… and now… I’m not one of them, Nana.”

A gust of wind caught Nana’s loose bun and sent long strands of hair whipping across her face. She brushed it back with one hand and stared unblinkingly at the girl. Jessica glanced at her, then back at the ground. Her legs swung back, forth, back, forth, as unsettled as the sky.

“Did you know,” Nana said slowly, “Back in middle school, I used to be one of the popular girls.”

Jessica frowned.

“I know,” Nana said, leaning forward. “Look at me now, eh? It took a few things before I said to myself, I’ve had it, I’ve had enough, I’m going my own way.”

“I tried. Honest I did, Nana.”

“I know. So did I.” Nana leaned back, but never looked away. “You’ll be all right, Jess. I’ve known a lot of kids in my day, seen ‘em grown up and head their different ways. You’re one of the ones who thinks about what she’s doing. That’s how things start to go right.”

Jessica kept watching her feet swing back and forth, back and forth. “You don’t know what I did, Nana. I… I…” She turned away, hid under locks of orange hair. “I can’t say it!”

Nana sat quietly, waiting. One lonely robin warbled in the woods behind them. Click. Click. Click. Jessica knew that sound. Nana’s knitting needles, patient and calm.

Slowly, Jessica unzipped her backpack. She reached for a small pouch, and placed it on the bench next to Nana, unable to meet her eyes. The clicking stopped.

“May I?”

Jessica nodded. She heard the metallic ring of metal against metal, knitting needle aluminum against fire tried gold.

“That is a beauty, honey.”

“Nana!”

“I think I’ve seen one like it in Fenderman’s shop on the corner.”

“It’s the same one, Nana.”

Jessica could feel Nana’s eyes on her. She glanced up, then shut her eyes tight and turned away.

“I’m horrible!” she said, hardly audible. “You’re going to say I have to return it, aren’t you? I don’t even want it! I never would have done it! If I… if I give it back, they’ll know… I can’t, Nana.”

Jessica heard the clunk of the gold going back in the drawstringed velvet, felt it placed gently in her hand.

“Really think it’ll be that hard?” Nana said.

“I can’t.”

Nana clucked, pulled out her knitting needles again.

“I… Nana?”

Nana paused, nodded.

“Go with me?”

The clicking stopped. Nana pulled herself up off the park bench and slipped her knitting into her pocket. “There’s a good girl.”

Jessica stayed where she was, holding still, almost holding her breath. She looked up into the deep brown eyes of the older lady, creased with laughlines all around. Nana’s apron pockets were bulging with various goodies and projects, as usual. Her eyes almost twinkled.

Jessica put the sack into her backpack and eased herself off the park bench. “It won’t be the same,” she said as they walked slowly down the path, crunching gravel. “I’m a thief.”

“Jess, I love you. You ain’t perfect, but good Lord gives us all a second chance and He knows we need it. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You know when you done wrong, you right it as you can, own up, and know a little more next time.”

Jess hung her head. A wave of sprinkles polka-dotted the concrete. Nana’s arm wrapped around her shoulder, squeezed her tight and held on.

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Beyond the Split Rail Fence

Charlie was the color of the dust in the road, curled in self defense. Three men surrounded him. The tall one shoved his boot into the pit of Charlie’s stomach. He gasped, choked on the dust, his head resting against the hard packed dirt. He was well and thoroughly beat.

Brody looked him over. “What should we do with this one, boys?” The wind nearly pulled Brody’s hat off as he looked up. His sleek mare nickered in the distance.

String ‘im up over Turnem’s Creek,” said Jim. “Won’t be comin back for a long while.”

Charlie coughed halfheartedly, tried to roll over. It hurt. He didn’t have energy to hurt.

Brody stroked his beard, bent down. “Ever been to Turnem’s Creek, feller?”

Charlie’s eyes flicked away in the slightest motion.

Brody nodded. “See y’have.”

Seems a shame,” said Rickets, “with the fight in this one. Don’t see that often, Brody.”

He stood still, dry wind tugging at his poncho. “Don’t’s right,” he said, and spat in the dust inches from Charlie’s face. He bent down, close enough so that the others couldn’t make out his words. “What’re you so tight on keepin in that log cabin o’ yours?”

Charlie’s face was expressionless. The muscles clenched in his jaw. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Don’t.”

Hey, lookee there, Boss,” said Rickets, pointing to the split rail fence. Like a blossom in the wind, a little girl hung on the lower railing. When she saw the finger pointing her way, she turned and ran.

I’ll get her,” said Rickets, and lurched forward.

Before he took three steps, a shotgun rang out. Once. Twice.

Empty.

Rickets collapsed in a dark pool of blood. Not far from him, Jim lay dead in the street. Brody jumped up with a black oath, caught his hat in his hand, and swung onto his horse.

A third shot, and a fourth. The mare’s tail jumped as she galloped away, but the bullets flew past, harmless.

In moments, she was at Charlie’s side. She placed the gun by his hand, then hesitated, afraid to touch him. Brow furrowed, she felt along his ribcage, soft as could be. Stopped in one place. Bent closer. He gasped.

Sorry, I’m sorry,” she murmured, and caught his gaze. “They’re safe,” she nodded. “All of us. When I saw Elsie wasn’t with us…”

He was trying to speak. She stopped and leaned close.

Brody,” he said, barely audible. “If only you took him. These… these rats are nothing. But leave him alive…” He lay back and groaned.

Brody will take time,” she said, looking up while her hand lingered on him. She tried to smile and coax him upright.

Charlie winced. “Me too. Let me—” She eased him back and placed the gun in her lap.

Dust blew past them, late sunlight drawing hand shadows in the clouds. She shielded his face, smoothed his wrinkled collar. “Next time,” she said, “we’ll be ready.”

Chalk dust

Chalk dust swirls in the early morning shaft of light, a spiral galaxy forming in empty space. The curtains are closed. The blackboard is empty, smeared with yesterday’s equations half erased.

The door creaks as it opens, again as it shuts. The blinds thump against the window. Rusty’s hand freezes on the knob, reluctant to let go. He’s never seen the classroom empty before, with the light shooting through the window like that. The chair where Rose sits and plays with her crayons is glowing. Joe’s chair is in the shadows, but the engravings on the legs of the desk are lit and look like Alaskan totem poles. Reuben, with his curly black hair, usually sits at the back. His chair is still missing.

Rusty’s cold, damp fingers unclasp from the door. He shuffles across the front of the room, a place forbidden to students. Fumbling with the piece of chalk, he scrawls three words across the blackboard.

“meet me there”

As he writes, the smallest breeze catches the blinds and sends them clinking against the window. Rusty whirls around, shoving the chalk in his pocket.

Nothing.

One more glance at his words, small and squiggly, and he heads for the door. The blinds tap the window as wood meets wood, and the door locks with a metallic clink. Rusty’s day has only begun.

Richard

The Crow tilted his head towards the clock. Beads of humidity ran down the off-color wall as the thin hand ticked away. “You have 30 seconds,” he said, business-like, “to tell me which of you is leader.”

We stood in a line, hands roped behind our backs, the five of us, and waited. The Crow, so named perhaps for his sharp features or perhaps for his love of carrion, stood steadily looking from one of us to the next. At 33, I was the oldest man in the group. Sweat ran down my back and soaked through the worn shirts of the men. We were losing precious water. We hadn’t eaten right for weeks. We couldn’t hold out forever, and no one knew this better than The Crow.

He’d caught us at the outer fence. Moments before young Richard had the chain links cut and the hole wide enough for us to squeeze through. We were nearly out. A minute more, and we could have made it.

I glanced at my men. They stood straight, all four, though exhaustion would have toppled lesser souls days earlier. The night had not been easy on us. The Crow made sure of that.

He glanced once more at the clock, ticking towards 30 seconds past. Reached it. He gave an impatient huff of a sigh, and stepped toward Richard.

Blue ice met grey metal as their eyes locked. “Tell me,” The Crow said evenly.

Richard made no movement. I watched him, heart pounding in my ears. The Crow’s gaze fell on me, then back to Richard. The boy was barely 18.

The Crow lifted his hand, flicked it towards Richard in a small gesture, and stepped back. Immediately the man by the door took Richard by the arm and led him into the room on the other side. The room with the bar on the inside, with one chair, and one small window, and old blood left to stink in the heat.

He didn’t look back. Not one glance to me, who lead him to that fence, who convinced him to try to leave this wretched place. Who should spoken, had the courage to say something when he had the nerve to remain silent. The door closed behind him with a sickening thud.

I realized then that he took my place. And I let him.

When the rescue party came that afternoon, Richard should have been in the room. He couldn’t be found. He never was, these past three years.

Bodies are buried without markers everywhere in that place. It’s not uncommon. But The Crow wouldn’t have killed him. Richard won’t give, and neither will his tormentor. The Crow took the youngest of us, thinking him the weakest. But Richard has a braver heart than anyone.

I know he’s alive. He’s enduring hell, because of me. I’ve barely the guts to go back and take him out. If I can keep up only half his grit, I’ll make it.

The End of the Old Barn

It was apparent that the barn was unsalvageable. Flames licked up into the humid August twilight; billowing smoke obstructed the stars and flickered eerily in the dark. On the ground near the building, lumbering shapes moved toward shelter. The old mare and the hogs were far enough from the flames to be safe. The hens couldn’t be seen.

Standing in the shrubs and thorns to the north, a boy and a girl stood watching the fire. The girl’s dress was torn and blackened, and her hands badly scratched. There was blood on the cast on the boy’s arm, and one side of his face was red where the heat had seared it.

I’m sorry,” he said, barely audible.

The girl said nothing.

This Side of the River

Shannon swung down from her horse’s back, landed with practiced ease on the ground. She took the reigns and led him down to the river at the base of the ranch. The herd was far off, but their peaceful lowing carried across the prairie.

There, boy,” she said, patting the horse’s flank as it drank from the shallows. “Drink deep.”

The last rays of sun stretched across the far side of the river as she walked down the bank, feet crunching pebbles. She sat down, took off her hat and laid it beside her. Two brown braids hung down her back. She sat motionless and listened to the water until the first stars came out.

It’s over,” she whispered at last. Propped up on her hands, she leaned back to the sky. Diamonds slid from her eyes as she tried to smile. “I’m not ready.”

She clenched the gravel, flung it forward into the stream. Ten kerplunks in the dark. She dug her heels into the riverbank, got up. Pulled off the boots and left them on dry land. She stepped into the stream. The water felt good.

It was final, this time. They weren’t even going to try chemo. Hopeless, they said. Six months at most before your cells burst apart.

You always knew it was going to end sometime.

Not like this,” she said to the river. “Not so soon.”

You didn’t used to feel this way about it.

When I was young,” she murmured, “it was different.” The river swallowed her words.

Now life’s caught a hold of you. Now you have so much to lose.

I can’t!” Her voice echoed from the far bank, dropped again to a whisper. “I’m not strong enough…”

You don’t have to be.

I’m afraid.”

You don’t need to be.

So afraid.” Tears welled from her eyes, but her face betrayed nothing.

Everyone’s been here before.

Out of Reach

Think. He’ll be back any minute!”

I am thinking, what does it look like?” Jess scowled, green eyes locked on the scarlet kite. It was twenty feet off the ground, its colorful tail wrapped around a telephone pole.

I told you we shouldn’t take it. But you didn’t listen. It’s your fault.” Rob was pacing, staring up at it.

You were flying it, Bobert.”

Yeah, I was, till you grabbed it and flew it into the wire. It’s Jim’s war-kite. He’ll be mad.”

We should’ve tried to attack something with it, you know? If it’s a real war-kite. What’s it good for, anyway?”

How’re you going to get it down?”

Me? Whadya mean, how am I going to get it down?”

Come on. Think.”

Jess planted her hands on her hips, turned around. The barn loomed behind them, old farm equipment scattered nearby. “What’s that?” she asked. Beside the wall, covered in moss and clinging grass, was a wooden ladder. “Think this’ll reach it?”

Nobody’s used that forever,” Rob said.

Well, looks fine to me. Unless you have a better idea.”

Rob shifted from foot to foot.

Well?” Jess said, wrapping her stubby fingers around one end. “Pull!”

The grass held on. Rob wedged his feet against the ground and strained. Jess put one foot on the red wall and jerked. The ladder shifted. All of a sudden—SNAP! Jess was on the ground. Rob’s end didn’t budge.

Ow,” Rob said, examining his finger. “I think I got a splinter.”

Jess pulled herself up and brushed off. “Well, that won’t work.” She kicked the wood.

You broke our ladder.”

Yeah? I’ll break it again.” She grabbed the stick from the ground and hurled it over her shoulder. A resounding smack echoed from behind them.

Rob turned around. Jim was standing with the piece of wood in hand, inches away from his nose. Slowly, he lowered it.

I’m sure that was an accident,” Jim said.

Rob pointed at Jess. “Her fault.”

Jim stared at Rob, fidgeting under his gaze. He looked at the ladder, now in two pieces. Then he squinted up into the sun. “Is that my kite?” he asked. “Is that my war-kite?”