The Letter

The apple caught Bobby behind the left ear, dropping him in the dirt.

Cal spun around, only one person threw like that.

“Whatcha little dipshits up to, huh?” Brad sauntered out from behind a tree tossing another apple. His twin, Carver, trundled out after him. What Carver lacked in smarts he more than made up for in size.

Cal wished Little Pete were there, but he was off at his grandparents’ place for his annual week-long visit. Little Pete was the only buffer between them and the Terribles as they liked to refer to the twins.

Bobby wobbled to this feet rubbing his head. Cal steadied him.

“Aw, is the little guy hurt?” Brad said. Carver picked at a zit then wiped his sausage fingers on his stained dungarees.

“Go away,” Cal said.

“Or what?”

Cal stared at him.

“Just go away,” Bobby said, “we aren’t causing you guys any trouble.”

“Yeah, but that’s the rub, ain’t it, Bobby? We like trouble.”

Carver giggled, a fat pig getting his stomach rubbed.

Bobby stepped up, “You just wait ’til Little Pete gets back—“

“Yeah?” Brad shoved him, sending Bobby to the ground again. “That fat piece o’crap ain’t here now, is he? So whatcha gonna do about it?”

As Bobby struggled to his feet again a piece of paper fell from his pocket. Brad snatched it up.

Bobby made a grab for it, “Gimme that!”

“What’s the little boy been writin? Maybe it’s a looooove note,” Brad rolled his eyes unfolding the paper. Carver giggled again.

Bobby balled up his fists. Cal grabbed his shoulder, shook his head.

“Ho-ly hell, Carver, it is a love note. And it’s to Francine.”

Bobby sagged into Cal.

Carver pawed at his brother, “Read it! Read it!”

“Shut up,” he squinted at the paper, “you wouldn’t even understand half these words.”

He wheeled on Bobby, “Where’d you learn to use such big words?”

“Reading,” Bobby whispered, “maybe you should try it.”

“What’d you say, shrimp?”

“Nothing.”

“ ‘swhat I thought. Why don’t you just keep your little dreams of romance packed away in that little excuse for a brain you got stuck between those elephant ears of yours. Ain’t no girl gonna look twice at you, not even that fat cow Francine.”

“Fat cow!” yelped Carver.

“Shut your face, Carver, you ain’t got no room to talk, you sweaty meatball.”

Carver shut up.

They stood, the four of them squared off in the dusky summer heat. Sweat rolled in Cal’s eyes, but he never stopped staring at Brad. The quiet glare unnerved Brad for some reason. There was something off about the thin boy in front of him, the way he didn’t cower like the other kids, the way he just stood there staring.

“Ain’t got nothin to say, Cal?”

Silence.

Carver tugged on Brad’s shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“I’ll go when I’m damn-well ready to go,” Brad shrugged him off. He stepped towards Cal.
“You stay outta my way, freak. You and your pet runt.” He shoved his dirty finger into Cal’s chest.

Cal just stared.

It was wrong, Brad thought, to stand there like that. Wrong in some way his muddy mind couldn’t quite grab.

He slowly shoved the letter into his mouth, chewed it, then spit the globby mess into the dirt. “Hope she can still read it.”

The twins turned and lurched off into the trees.

Bobby sank to the ground and gingerly poked at the pulpy mess.

Cal laid a hand on his shoulder.

Bobby looked at him and sniffed, “I’m fine.”

Cal read the lie in his eyes.

“I jus’,” Bobby’s voice quivered, “I really worked hard on that letter. Been holding it for a week waiting for the right time to give it to her.”

He stood, swore, and kicked the wadded mess into the grass on the edge of the trail where it lay, broken roadkill left for the birds.

“I even wrote her a poem.”

Cal raised an eyebrow.

Bobby caught the look, shook his head. “I could maybe re-write it, but it’s not gonna be as good. It just had a . . . a magical feel, like I really got it right.”

He shrugged then started down the trail. Cal didn’t follow.

“You coming?”

Cal shook his head.

Bobby nodded, used to the mysterious ways of his silent friend.

“Swimming hole tomorrow?”

Cal nodded.

Bobby turned and shuffled away. Cal watched his little slumped shoulders until he rounded the bend in the trail and disappeared.

The trail was empty. Just the low summer afternoon and the grasshoppers singing in the shade of the forest.

Cal looked after him for a moment longer then turned and plunged into the woods.

***

“How do you eat that crap?” Bobby stared as Little Pete took another bite of black licorice.

“ ‘sgood.”

“False.”

“Whatever.”

Little Pete leaned back against the railing while Cal creaked back and forth in the old porch swing. Bobby gnawed his pencil and stared at the pad of paper in his lap.

“Heard you two had a run in with the Terribles last weekend.”

Bobby snorted.

“And I heard somethin else too, they done had some kinda run-in with some outta town punks. Leastwise that’s the story they’re tellin.”

Bobby perked up, “Say what?”

“Yep. Beat the everlovin piss outta ’em from what I heard,” he hocked a fat black wad into the yard, “done got their asses handed to ’em. Brad, he got one of the best lookin shiners I ever seen. Can’t believe you ain’t heard about it.”

Little Pete looked at Cal. “You sure you don’t know nothin about it?”

Cal opened one eye, stared at Little Pete, yawned, and went back to rocking.

“I sure would like to meet those fine gentlemen that delivered the beating and shake their hands,” Bobby sounded almost reverential.

Little Pete gnawed off another bite.

“Would you quit it with that? You’re making me sick. Smells like death on a stick.”

Little Pete sniffed the licorice, shrugged.

“It suits me.”

*Author’s note: This story falls into the world of “Move” and “The Swimming Hole.” I’ve gone back and forth on first and third person POV, and I think I’ll be sticking with third going forward.

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The Postcard – a short story

tunnel

Eighteen inches of reinforced concrete. Capable of reducing a vehicle to a crumpled shell; human inhabitants obliterated, sternums fractured, massive blunt-force head trauma, catastrophic internal hemorrhaging.

We crested the hill, drifting across the lanes on the final curve to catch another touch of speed. Carter negotiated the turn then allowed the car to straddle the center line. A quarter mile ahead the bridge squatted. Two narrow lanes burrowed under the railroad tracks. Two lanes split by a barrier wall—eighteen inches of reinforced concrete.

“Call it,” Carter said.

I sat.

Those eighteen inches raced towards us.

I sat.

Carter stared through the windshield. The two gaping holes in the hill stared back.

I sat.

Carter’s fingers tightened on the wheel. I was cutting it close. I knew it. But that feeling of being in control—knowing when I’d make the call while he sat waiting, waiting, insides screaming at me to call it before we—

“Left.”

The car jerked in his hands and leapt to zero in on the left side of the tunnel. I could almost hear the concrete’s disappointed sigh as it buzzed by, flirting with the passenger side mirror before the tunnel coughed us back out into the night.

He let loose a low whistle. “Geez. Waited long enough, didn’tcha?”

“That’s gotta be a new record.” It was closer than I’d planned, I was surprised he’d actually held out for the call.

“If we’re gonna break that then you’re driving and I’m calling next time.”

Suicide Bridge. It was a morbid yet fitting nickname. Sometimes when I’d be driving that road alone late at night, I’d find myself drifting into center almost out of habit, waiting for Carter’s voice to call the lane decision, knowing he wasn’t there, knowing I had to make the call, had to make it before leaning into those eighteen inches, embracing oblivion. There was a reason I didn’t drive that stretch of road for a long time. Sometimes the temptation started sounding a little too logical . . .

***

The glasses clink as he sets them on the battered end table. The bourbon splashes, rye harmony on crystal.

“Cheers, bro.” He nudges a glass my way, and I raise it to meet his. The years have been good to Carter. The cancer has not.

“Cheers.”

We sit on the front porch. The summer night settles around us. The squeak of his rocking chair marks a quiet tempo against the echoing calls of the tree frogs down the hill below us. I nurse my drink, the heat radiating up my chest to meet the warm buzz on my tongue. The blanket of night settles deeper, a comforter tenderly tucked in by a mother humming lullabies of long-forgotten dreams.

“Thanks for bringing the card.”

I tip my glass, “Glad to.”

He stares out into the night and I wait. He refills his glass, sips, coughs. It’s a tearing sound I’ll remember as long as I live, rusty razor blades shaking in rotten burlap.

“Doctor said I’ve got six weeks. Ten tops.”

I reach for the bottle, absorbing this. “Last time we talked you said twelve months.”

“I know. Damn cancer got all motivated I guess.” He tries to laugh. I wish he wouldn’t.

“And that’s why you wanted me to come.”

“Yeah.”

“So there’s really nothing more they can do—“

He shakes his head. “I told them they can go stick some other poor fool, but I’m done. They got all uppity, but I walked myself right out of there and told ’em ‘no deal.’ They send somebody around every other day to check in on me. It’s better this way.”

I don’t argue. There’s nothing to argue about. We’ve always been straight with each other, and if there’s nothing for it, then that’s how it is, no charades, just the plain ol’ truth, slam bam thank you ma’am.

“How bad is it?”

He looks at me and part of my soul crawls away into a corner and dies. If you could open me up and look inside, you’d find the corners of my heart littered with little bits of dead soul; it’s part of what makes growing old so hard. But this is the biggest piece yet. I don’t think there’s much left now.

It’s late when I leave. Orion is slipping into the horizon, the tree frogs all long since gone to sleep, the only sound the quiet hum of the wind walking in the willows along the creek.

I hug Carter, “I’ll see ya.”

“Yep, I’ll see ya.”

We both know it’s a lie.

***

The dial tone broke the silence.

“Hello? This is Brian Shaw. I need to report an OD.”

“ — “

“Yes, that’s correct. You have the address?”

“ — “

“I’d guess last night. He’s in his chair, looks like he’s sleeping.”

“ — “

“No. The pill bottle is right beside him.”

“ — “

“A note? Well, he’s holding a postcard but there’s nothing written on it.”

“ — “

“Yeah, I’m sure. It’s just a blank postcard with a bridge on it.”

-ijs

*Author’s note: the point of this story is neither to argue for nor against the decision of suicide, but rather to process why someone might make such a decision in the final stages of their life. This article hit me hard while I was in the process of writing.

The First Time – a short story

hands

I drove. You DJ’d. We made that deal on our third date.

But that night—the one I’m talking about—was our ninth. We hiked out to the bluffs to watch the sunset, remember? And then I got us turned around in the woods for a second because it got dark way before I thought it would . . . idiot, I know.

But it was the drive back. You remember—driving with the windows down, the summer air howling around us, tearing down those sleepy back roads with your fingers in my hair, and you were already falling asleep.

I loved how you could never stay awake on trips. It was like magic: you’d be amped to go—trail mix, carrots, water bottles, playlists—and twenty minutes later, lights out. Done. But the second I parked, you’d wake up. It was kinda freaky honestly. And you were always so sweet, ’cause you’d apologize and say you’d never do it again, and just wait until next time, I promise and I’d laugh and promise you right back that it was okay, really, and you’d get that bummed out look like you were mad at yourself, and I’d fall for you again so hard it felt like someone chopped me off at the knees. Then I’d hug you really hard, and tell you one more time it’s okay shut up, and you’d grin up at me and finally believe me.

You fell asleep that night slumped over the console leaning on my shoulder. I remember I could still smell the shampoo in your hair mixed with the musk of the day while the cicadas whirred and sang. It was intoxicating. I never ever remember being that happy. I thought if I could just keep that moment, keep it forever, I’d be the luckiest guy in the world. You can’t plan stuff like that. I mean, maybe some guys can, but I’ve never been able to. I’m the guy that gets turned around in the woods, but for some reason every time I showed up and asked you out, you’d cock your head in that funny way you do. And you’d say yes.

I still don’t know why.

Maybe I’m just that lucky.

I remember you were sleeping so hard that your breaths got to that point where I started wondering if maybe you weren’t really breathing anymore, you know, because there’s just that super long pause between each one, almost like you were unconscious, you know? And I realized that you trusted me. You trusted me to keep you safe, to get you home. And this warmth just filled me up inside, and it was so hot I just thought I was gonna explode. My heart hurt—it actually hurt. It felt like someone was squeezing it in two. I wanted to do anything to feel that pain for as long as I could, so I drove right by your exit. I drove by it because I knew the moment I pulled in your driveway you’d wake up and it’d all be over: your head on my shoulder, the breeze, the cicadas, the smell of your hair—all over. And I couldn’t do it. I needed more time. I had to have more time. And so I drove and I drove, and that’s when I knew . . . that’s when I really knew.

I love you.

I said it. I said it out loud. I said it that night while you were sleeping. It was the first time I said it to you. I don’t know why I never told you. I think part of me still feels like that night was a dream: driving while the stars spun away into the horizon, and the wind howled, and you kept on sleeping warm on my shoulder. I think I felt like if I ever tried to explain it to you, it wouldn’t have made sense, but now it does. It makes sense. Because I needed one last story for you.

I needed one last story for me.

I needed one last story for us . . .

***

“. . . that was the first time I said ‘I love you.’”

Her breaths came in ragged wheezes with a long pause between each one, a super long pause where you began to wonder if she really were breathing anymore. Almost as if she were unconscious. Almost.

“Are you ready?”

The voice floated down from somewhere far away.

He looked across at the white coat with the kind, forgettable face.

He looked at the machines.

He looked at her.

He looked at her sleeping there. Knowing he couldn’t wake her. He would never wake her again.

It was her exit. And this time he couldn’t drive by.

He leaned his head on her shoulder, closed his eyes, and nodded.

-ijs

*author’s note: written while listening to The National – “Hard to Find”

Just Coffee – a short story

coffee

It was that time of the afternoon when it’s still okay to wear sunglasses inside. No one looks at you like who’s that dude think he is.

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about and why the hell did I pick this table—

She walks in. Walks in like she owns the place. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not pretentious. It’s just who she is. You know those people who walk in a room and everything stops for like this millisecond? There’s an infinitesimal shudder in the air, and you convince yourself it’s nothing because how do you explain that? It doesn’t make sense. And you’re right—it doesn’t make sense. It’s just the way things are.

I watch her for that moment before she sees me—that fraction of a moment before her guard goes up, before she becomes the person she is now.

The moment—that fraction—is gone almost before I recognize it.

She waves.

My legs move beneath me. I’m walking toward her.

Unplanned. Unplanned. Sit back down.

We watch each other from behind mirrored lenses.

I lean in. Kiss her on the cheek. It’s normal. She’s wearing the same perfume. It’s five years ago . . . .

Get it together.

“Just let me grab a coffee?”

“Sure.”

I sit. Why the hell did I pick this table? Pull out my phone. Put it back in my pocket. Adjust my glasses. I unconsciously rub my eyebrow STOP IT.

She sits. Smiles.

I want to say you look amazing. Tell me everything that’s happened. Tell me about the last three years. Tell me where you’ve been and do you remember? Do you remember everything? And a razor sharp memory: lying on the hood of the Jeep watching the fireworks, wrapped in a blanket because it was a cold July, and how she’d had the hood of her sweatshirt pulled way up over her head so only the tip of her nose was sticking out, and how I leaned over and kissed her under the sonic explosions, and it was like kissing ice, and how she started laughing and couldn’t stop, and how we both almost fell off but I caught her at the last second, and how her bag left a lightning bolt-shaped scratch on the Jeep—

Be smooth.

“So how are you?”

Smooth.

She smiles—that easy, relaxed smile. The room shudders again.

She’s good. We talk. She tells me about the last three years, and I sit and watch her, and it’s easy—easier than I’d hoped. The sun reflects off her glasses and it’s hard to imagine that her eyes haven’t gone gold. And then I’m tipping back my cup, standing for a refill, reaching to take hers habit and catch myself at the last second, she laughs, pushes it toward me, smiles.

The walk to the counter is somehow easier. I can’t tell exactly what’s changed. Hand the cups over, wait, wait, realize I still have my glasses on, take them off, grab the coffees, turn, and see her sliding her glasses into her purse.

I set the cups down.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

I push her coffee across. She looks out at the sunset. The light hits her just the way I remembered, her eyes glimmering sunset on the beach, the salt taste —

“I don’t know . . . for inviting me. I wasn’t sure—“ She takes a drink, looks directly at me. “I didn’t know what you wanted.”

Careful.

“This.”

“This?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all?”

I nod.

She squints. I squint back the same way we used to do when one of us would be keeping a secret—the famous staring contest. Surprises rarely worked with us.

“I wanted to see if you were good.”

She tucks her hair behind her left ear the way she always does when she’s buying herself a second.

“I am.” She nods, “I really am.”

“Then my work here is done.”

She reaches across and touches my hand. Another shudder.

“You know I have infinite tenderness for you.”

The sun is gone. Nothing but clarity in those eyes.

“And I always will.”

I want my glasses. But I sit. I sit and look at her and see what truth looks like, and in the moment she releases my hand she releases something else in me—something no number of sleepless nights, benders, tortured miles, and crumpled diary pages could ever give—myself.

Free.

I am free.

***

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about.

-ijs

Move

Cal looked at Caston, looked at the bleary eyes blazing from his bloated face, looked at the ripped sundress he was holding in his stained, bloody hand, and knew what he had to do, knew it down deep. He was going to have to move. Just like he’d moved two years ago.

—-

Seventh grade was only a week away, and summer sat heavy on the Tennessee hills. For Cal, Little Pete, and Bobby, the days began with the rising sun, petered off during the brutal afternoon heat, and then made a head-long sprint into the musky evenings of mid-August. Returning from their swimming hole, the boys (make that Little Pete) had decided to take the shortcut through farmer Travers’ cow pasture.

You know we’re like to get shot doin’ this,” Bobby spat at Little Pete as he shinnied over the split rail fence bordering the south end of the pasture. Hopping down, he watched Little Pete leverage his bulk carefully over the top before tumbling into the grass. He landed on his butt with a woomp.

Dagnabit!” He hopped up rooting behind him for the briar stuck to the back of his patched britches.

Serves ya right for making us come this way.” Bobby was nervously scanning the field for any sign of Travers. “Ya know he promised to show us what a butt-full o’ buckshot feels like if he ever catches us cuttin’ through here again.”

Aw, stuff it, Bobby. You worry more’n my ma, and with your short legs, I figure you’d be grateful for any kind of shortcut.” He’d managed to locate and extract the offending briar while Cal climbed over to join them. “Cal don’t seem to mind. You mind, Cal?”

Cal shrugged.

See? If it’s good enough for Cal, it’s good enough for me.”

Bobby spat again. “Whatever. Still don’ wanna get shot.”

Maybe if you’d shut up we wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot. You make more racket than our retarded rooster. I swear I’m agonna kill that bird next time it goes off in the middle of the night.”

They trudged on in silence until they crested the low hill in the center of the pasture. Ahead they could just make out the the north fence and the road running away behind it.

Little Pete mopped his forehead then jammed the stained bandana into his back pocket. “See, I told you this wasn’t no big deal. Easy as pie, and we done cut more’n half a mile off—“

Shut up.” Cal half-turned, squinting against the fading sunlight.

Wha—“

He said ‘shut up,’ idiot.” Bobby smacked Little Pete upside the back of his head. It was a testament to the seriousness with which the boys listened to Cal that Little Pete didn’t immediately deck Bobby. Both of them froze, imitating Cal, eyes scanning the fields.

Run.”

Cal was already moving, and Bobby and Little Pete wasted no time wondering what it was they were running from. Two hundred yards from the fence they figured it out.

When’d he get dogs?” Little Pete hollered.

Bobby wasn’t wasting any breath answering; he was trying to keep up with Cal. The baying of the two mongrel dogs gave him reserves of speed he never imagined.

We gonna make it—“ He turned to look back at Little Pete and was just in time to see the bigger boy go down in a tumble, hollering and holding his leg. The dogs were closing fast. They were big, no-nonsense mutts, the kind that’ll eat cans of dog food without bothering to wait for someone to get the opener, the kind of dogs the bad guys always have chained up in movies. They were close enough now that Bobby could make out bloodstains on the big tan dog’s muzzle, close enough he could see the second one’s missing ear and scarred face.

Cal!” Bobby screamed as he skittered to a stop, turning toward Little Pete.

Go!”

Cal was moving back toward Little Pete, but he wasn’t really running. Bobby would later try to explain to himself exactly what he’d seen, but it always seemed so jumbled that he would just give up, falling back on the story that the dogs must’ve been farther away than he thought. He knew that wasn’t it though. He’d seen Cal move.

The two dogs had split, one headed for Bobby, the other for Little Pete who was now up and hobbling like Satan himself had taken a break from floating on the lake of fire and popped in to join the chase. He didn’t have a chance. Bobby was twenty yards from the fence; Little Pete was still another thirty yards back. Another couple seconds and Bobby was at the fence, hauling his skinny body up just as the smaller mutt’s jaws clicked shut below his feet. Sobbing, he turned, ready to see Cal and Little Pete being torn to shreds, and that’s when the other two boys materialized out of thin air and knocked him off his perch. They landed in a tangle of arms and legs and rolled down the hill while the dogs bayed and threw themselves into the fence.

G-g-g-good l-l-ord, l-l-look at ’em,” Little Pete stuttered. He was pale as a sheet and shaking like a career drunk white-knuckling his way through rehab. The dogs gave a few last parting words and then skulked off.

Wha— Wha— How?” Bobby shook his head looking first at Little Pete then at Cal. He thought he saw something different in Cal’s eyes. Little Pete seemed to have lost all power of speech and simply stared at his pants; he’d pissed himself.

Cal brushed his hand through his blonde hair. He felt something, knew something had just happened. Something adults wouldn’t call normal, something adults wouldn’t understand, something that would make them ask lots of questions. One moment he had been at the fence, felt the wooden slats rough under his hands, and the next minute he had moved toward Little Pete. He had meant to run, but something else had happened.

“I don’t know, Bobby.” He studied his hands, dug a splinter out of his palm, and then looked at them again. “I knew I had to get to him … and I just … I made it happen.”

Little Pete and Bobby looked at each other. They’d rarely heard Cal string four words together, much less two sentences. Bobby flopped onto his back flummoxed while Little Pete sniffled back tears.

We don’t talk about this, okay?” Cal looked at them both solemnly.

Little Pete, liberated by this sworn secrecy, burst into tears. Bobby didn’t know what was crazier, seeing how Cal had moved or watching his big friend bawl like a baby.

And they hadn’t talked about it since that day. It was a wordless pact sworn on the weight of their friendship, and Cal was glad for that. He’d always known he was different, but that day was the first time he’d experienced his (gift) ability. When he was on his own, he had tried to move again, and several times he’d managed it, but it still felt awkward like trying to write with your off-hand. But he was getting better.

He kept practicing.

—-

Cal walked Missy home from the June dance. Each summer, the kids threw a dance party to celebrate the beginning of the summer. Ahead lay lazy days on the river, afternoons of hiking barefoot through the rippling forests, and evenings spent lying under the trees sneaking kisses and watching the fireflies flirt with the cool night wind.

They held hands as they walked in the dark, the road a dim ribbon flowing through the trees, shoulders bumping comfortably. Cal had sprung up in his fourteenth summer and was now a good head taller than Missy. She had begun to fill out in her own way, a way which Cal had become increasingly aware of, and as they neared her front yard, he bent and kissed her cheek.

She smiled up at him, “Cal—“

The sound of a shotgun chambering a round cut her off. The front porch light flicked on revealing her step-father leaning against the doorway holding a jug of moonshine. A pair of frayed jeans held up by an old length of rope supported his sweating gut. He scratched the ratty hair on his bare chest and spit between his stained yellow teeth. The shotgun barrel wandered loosely in Cal’s direction.

Pa, please—“

Shut up, and git in here.” He stared at her and licked his lips, smiling the kind of sick smile you see in those cartoon funny houses with warped mirrors.

Cal held her hand, but she pulled free, telling him it was okay with a look that said it wasn’t. She suddenly seemed smaller, much smaller. He watched her mount the steps, watched her step-father set down his moonshine, grab her face, and turn it up into the light.

Lookin’ awful pretty tonight, aint’ we, sweetie.”

She twisted her face away and pushed past him into the house. He let her go for a second before grabbing her arm and yanking her back. She yelped.

Cal was on the bottom step before Caston got his shotgun back up. “Ah, ah, ah … where does the lil’ boy think he’s goin’?” The smell of moonshine rolled off of him in waves. “You think you gonna get some of this?” With a jerk, he backhanded Missy, and she crumpled to the floor with a bruised moan.

Ain’t no one getting’ nothing here, except for me.” He giggled. “And you can jus’ stand there and watch.”

Reaching down he yanked her up by her hair while Missy shrieked, yanked her up and then ripped the sundress off her body like a butcher stripping paper from a fresh piece of meat. Missy moaned, cowering, trying to cover her small breasts with her hands. And that’s when Cal saw the burns.

Cigarette burns. Cigarette burns all over her back from the nape of her neck down to the top of her panties.

Everything inside him went cold.

—-

He had to move. But the thought was gone because he was already moving. The pocket knife his grandfather had given to him on his sixth birthday was out and moving like quicksilver, the razor-honed blade slicing the tendons in Caston’s wrist, and before the shotgun hit the ground, the follow-through slice caught the man’s jugular and a wet fountain turned the world red. Caston coughed, gagged, staggered off the door post and fell on the porch. He managed to get to his hands and knees, and, impossibly, reached out toward Missy again when Call hit him with the butt of the shotgun. He collapsed like a wet sandbag. Cal hit him again. And again. He kept hitting him until there was nothing left but shards of teeth mixed with hair and strawberry jelly.

Cal breathed deeply, evenly through clenched teeth while brain matter and blood dripped off the butt of the shotgun. Finally, he looked up at Missy. She stared at him wide-eyed, blood from her broken nose splattered across her chin and bare chest. He dropped the shotgun and stood. She only hesitated a moment before throwing her arms around him. He held her, feeling her naked body against him, feeling the burns littered across her back, turning her away from the pulpy mess and settling down against the front steps, all the while wanting to kill Caston again.

She sobbed in his arms while he cradled her. Gently, he draped her dress over her and she snuggled against him.

What are we going to do?”

He looked into the night sky. Orion held court overhead in the blackness. Tracking across the ebony desert he found the North Star. He felt a lot older than fourteen.

“It’s gonna be okay.”

And sitting there, with the musk of blood in the air, and his arms around her, she knew it would.

 

*Author’s note: This story is a follow up to “The Swimming Hole.” you can check it out here.

Come Drive This Road with Me

driving 2

Sun-kissed west, dying, gossamer
Diamonds on my window screen
Come with me, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

Can’t believe you’re with me here
And we’re just runnin’ free
Breathe with me, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

Knew when I saw you. Lost, undone
No more solo life for me
No choice, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

The games we played, hunter and prey
First kiss under an old ash tree
Another, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

Crazy love, I wrapped you up
Nights tossed between the sheets
I’ll take you, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

They told us no, they tried to stop what
Fate had meant to be
Forget them, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

Close your eyes, I’ll watch the road
I’ll watch the clock turn three
I’ll watch you, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

Dark night detours, thunderstorms
It’s only just debris
I’ll fight, darling, oh come on
Come drive this road with me.

Morning’s coming, trust me dear,
Lightning splits the ebony sea
Just hold my hand, darling, come on
And drive this road with me.
– ijs

Look – a short story

It was the look.

A look that catches every fiber of your body for an infinitesimal moment, like when you crack your elbow and that exquisite pain explodes through your arm and you wonder if it’s ever going to work again. A look that makes you happy you’re alive and breathing—that you’re breathing in that one iota of time—but it makes you sad too, sad like you want to cry for no reason, the same way a lonely tree in a field or a deserted road makes you want to cry. You can’t explain it. You just know that there’s something there you’ll never be able to explain, but you look anyway and try to remember it the way it is even though you know you’ll never see it that same way again. And that just makes the sadness worse.

I had just kissed my wife, my hand on her swollen stomach, feeling our son kicking—a fighter, like me. I had been gone too long, much too long. I pulled away breathing her in. She smelled like shadows and rain, smoke and pine—the smell I imagined when I was gone. Those lonely nights with only the fire and the wolves way out there in the darkness calling their mates, eerily, like crying children. Lying there looking at the icy spray of stars, I would breath in the twilight and catch a breath of her, an ephemeral taste, and those nights I slept the sleep of the dead.

I missed you, love.” She ran her hands through my hair, traced my beard, her hands strong, gentle. “I’m glad you’re home.” Her eyes shone dark and serious, blonde hair falling over her shoulders in a gentle cascade.

I kissed her again as she held my hand against her cheek, closing her eyes for a moment, relaxing, leaning into me before the sound of tiny feet thundering through the cabin pulled her back.

She smiled up at me. “Someone else missed you too.”

I turned and that’s when I saw it—the look. The look my daughter gave me: her tiny features alight, her body wiggling with energy as she raced—flew—towards me. Icy blue mischievous eyes framed by an ethereal halo of blonde curls. A look that made everything else seem inconsequential. A look that sucked away all the sadness in the world and made you want to go do hard things, unbelievable things, the kind of things they would tell stories about around campfires for ages.

DAAAAADDY!”

Compacting her little body, she launched herself at me, arms outstretched, and somewhere between her jump and when I caught her, somewhere in that moment, I knew I would never experience this feeling again. There would be more happiness, more love, but not this exact feeling, the exact look—that illimitable look of euphoria on her face as she hung suspended, weightless, without a care in the world. Her daddy was home, and all was right with the world.

Catching her momentum, I swung her up into the air to an explosion of giggles that burst like ocean spray across the room. Collapsing back into my arms, she twined her fingers into my furs and pulled my head to hers, rubbing her nose against mine, laughing, smelling like sunrise and silver.

And, CUT! Great work, guys. That’s a wrap on that scene. Let’s get the first team into their next costume change.”

I set Dalton down. Two technicians worked on turning off the cabin fire, and she bounded around them and headed to where her mom stood on the edge of the set. Turning, she ducked behind her mom’s leg then smiled shyly back at me. Thank you her mom mouthed to me.

I nodded, smiled, and walked back to my trailer.

Alone.