A Place for Me

I wrote this story for a short story contest hosted by On The Premises recently. The theme for the entries was “community” and writing for this had been difficult for me. There ended up being 202 entries for the first round of judging. The top 10% of stories were chosen to be reviewed for the final judging round – which would have been 21 entries. The story below the line – “A Place for Me” – was one of the top 21 entries reviewed for the Top 10 submissions. Unfortunately, I just barely made the cut. That being said, I still wanted to share with you what I wrote and prove that I’m not missing just because I’ve lost my way. I’m working on original pieces. Without further adieu –


 

“A Place for Me”

Read & Enjoy

 


 

I know that I am breathing simply because I am not actually suffocating, even if my brain is convinced that I am doing precisely that. Each time I make another four inch drop and sink nearer to the ground floor, I feel my hear rate double. The pounding is so loud that is the only thing I can hear besides the actual slamming of it against my chest is the rushing of blood in my head. My vision blurs about halfway through my descent and I practically fall the rest of the way down.

Per the usual, my father has his arms crossed and is clicking his tongue at me. “You’re running late. The dance starts in thirty minutes,” I forgot, but only because I’ve been trying desperately to pretend that I didn’t properly make plans to go. My parents have been begging me to watch after my sister, counting on me to see if she’s up to no good, but I simply cannot. Being around people makes me uncomfortable. The way they smell, the way they talk, and the way they contort their face; it makes me physically nauseous. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Other people might as well be foreign beasts or aliens with the way that they frighten me.

“S-sorry…” I stutter what could have been the beginning of a considerate apology, or another one of my pathetic excuses. Fortunately, my mother comes strolling around the corner with my sister, whom is dressed beautifully in her short black dress and white leather jacket. My sad attempt to show regret for not wanting to go is diminished by the gasp of concern that escapes my mother’s mouth. I hear him start scolding her but I can’t ignore my sister enough to really hear them. She grounds me.

Analise is the opposite of me in nearly every way imaginable. Where I am flat and average, she is curvy and developed. She has my father’s height and my mother’s naturally springy, curly hair. I am short, more like my grandparents, and have my dad’s stick straight brown hair, which I wear short so I don’t have to brush it often. Most days, Analise is the innocent girl next door that has good intentions and a heart big enough to share, much like a hero in any video game. In comparison, I’m just the boring non-playable character that probably has an item for a side quest that has a lame reward for accomplishing it.

I reckon that she’ll be fine at the dance by herself, and I think that’s what scares my parents most. Analise is gorgeous to boot, and not everyone around her means well. If she were my daughter I’d be worried too. My mind gets goes to static as I begin tuning back into the conversation between my parents. I am grateful to hear my mother defending me.

Shaking her head, “Gerald, I don’t think she can do it. We’re asking too much of her.” She’s always been more reasonable about how debilitating social activity can be for me. Appreciation for her fills every empty crevice inside of my chest but the only response I can manage is to cry. That’s how my brain reacts to any sort of input overload, such as an argument about my status as a recluse. Even though my mother is supporting me, my father still denounces the possibility that she’s right. He always does. It makes my crying even worse, my body trembling at the very sound of his breath.

“Mathilda!” He shouts way too sharply. My mother wrinkles her nose in the way that assures him there’ll be consequences if he doesn’t change his tone. Analise and I learned where our limits were when we were in pre-school, and it’s horrifying that he still dares to push her to that point as an adult. “She can’t keep living like this!”

My sister approaches me and then pulls me to the side, placing a hand on my shoulder as she redirects me. In a soothing tone, she coaches me the way she does every day for school. Before we get on the bus she has to hush me into silence, and once more when we get to school because I’ve begun to panic again. Analise doesn’t realize how important she is to my being able to get through school every single day. Without her comforting, I couldn’t make it. I would have quit years ago.

“Ciara is just different, Gerald, and we can’t push her into a social situation. We have to ease her into these things,” she remarks defiantly. She used to struggle with social anxiety too, so she understands why I’m having trouble. My issues are worse than hers ever were when she was my age, I guess, which has my father convinced that I’ll just get over it by the time I graduate high school in the spring. His frustration grows the closer we get to our ceremony in June.

“I don’t care if she’s different! She’ll never survive on her own if she doesn’t get involved with the community! Ciara belongs with her peers – not behind some computer monitor!” he shouts at the tops of his lungs. Rather than anger prickling the edges of his words, it is pure frustration. Though his continual complaining about my social anxiety is grating, I try to remember that he just wants me to be normal.

And he has no idea how badly I wish to be exactly that: normal.

There’s this community, this society, this whole world, full of normal people.

Then there’s me – unambiguously abnormal – and I just don’t belong.

“Dad,” my sister begins. There’s probably more that she says, but her voice becomes distant and my vision darkens. All around me the heavy world melts and solidifies in my gut. The air tastes cold; the earth feels shaky; and my brain evaporates inside of my skull. As I feel the world disintegrating around me, I hear Analise repeat herself more sternly, “Dad!”

Blacking out isn’t unusual for me, especially when I’m being forced out of the house. Any sort of gathering that would provide literally anyone else with ‘a sense of community’ and ‘a sense of togetherness’ just ends up leaving me empty. My father has criticized me constantly for years now, as if I have some control over it, but he never used to say anything in front of me. I wish he still had that discretion, honestly. I’m glad that when I come back to it is to the solitude of bedroom. My eyes adjust to the darkness effortlessly.

In the far left corner, I can see the soft glow of my computer screen, where I spend almost all of my time when I’m home. Sometimes I have nightmares about blacking out and waking to my father unplugging everything. Forget failing, dying, or being cheated on by some short-term boyfriend – being without my games is my greatest fear. I need these black curtains, dual monitors, and consoles. These things give me the motivation I need to continue living.

Logging in is second nature. I type my password and click the icon I want without even glancing at the screen. My left hand reaches out to open a shallow drawer. I keep my headphones there so I never accidentally knock them to the floor. They’re an instrumental part of my gaming experience and I would go crazy without them. The loading screen fades away when I look up to plug my chord into the appropriate port. Just as I do this, a ping erupts in the headset from the messenger program I use with my guild group. This particular tone is unique, assigned to one specific contact, and I know my best friend is online immediately. Instead of tapping a reply on the keyboard, I hit the hotkey to dial out to her automatically. When she speaks, her voice is so rich that I feel the thickness of it wash over my body, “I thought you had to go be a part of the real world tonight. What happened?”

Explaining my worries to her is not necessary. She already knows. All it requires is three simple words, “I blacked out,” and we move on from the topic. An notification message materializes over my inventory menu, a probationary invite to a campaign mission: The Mayflower Maybe. The creator, my best friend, goes by the gamer tag MaybeMay, which is a pun for her real name. I accept the request immediately, but not without harassing her, “Your best mate has to undergo the probationary period?” She laughs at me as I spawn inside of the lobby of her personal server.

Giving life to the joy that erupts from May when she laughs is impossible to accomplish with just words. Hearing her happiness through my headphones is one of the best parts of my day, every single day. I often question why anyone would ever want to be a part of the outside world. There could be someone online living on the other side of the world who could be the most perfect part of their lives.

“As a leader of the people, you must impress my people if you wish to stay,” she details in a voice that reminds me that she’s as much a leader as she is player. I do run my own campaigns, and I have plans to also get a server running so that I can host multiple guilds for my growing players’ circles. I do well in the background, generally, but she’s the ‘front-and-center’ type. MaybeMay just happens to be a more natural leader all around.

Even though I’m new to this particular campaign, many of these players recognize my handle, and they fire off their warm welcomes in the public chat. Seconds barely tick by before the private messages begin filtering to my inbox. Compliments, excitement, compliments, resources for expected behavior, upcoming events, more compliments; and I love knowing that this is my safe place. No matter that I can’t physically see them, they’re as familiar to me as my own family.

Unexpectedly, I hear a knocking at my door and I lurch forward with determination to be quiet. My fingers hurriedly shut off my monitor and hold my breath. My mother is wanting to check on me, I’m sure, and if she knows I’m on the computer she’ll end up telling my dad. If he knows I’m playing my game already, so soon after I’ve passed out, he’ll keep blaming the games for my anxiety. I know that this not true. I really am just that dysfunctional.

MaybeMay’s voice asks me if I’m okay, since I’m just running in circles, and I manage a strangled shush into the microphone. A few more knocks imprison me in this frozen pose, concealing myself from the harsh judgment. How can my father want me to go join the world and be an active member of society with my peers when I can’t even escape his disparagements for having a personal preference?

Once I know I’m in the clear, I apologize solemnly.

“Someone knocked at my door,” I huff, “and I couldn’t tell if it was Dad.”

MaybeMay is protecting my avatar when I turn my screen back on, and there are concerns in the chat that I’ve lost connection. The general tone doesn’t bother me nor does it come off as rude. She assures everyone that there was a personal matter that arose but that I’m confirmed as being back online. To verify, I teleport myself to another player whose just had a low health warning come across the team notifications banner. Usually I’m the healer when I’m not playing as the guild master, and I fall into the routine very easily.

Our campaign mission takes the team four attempts totaling nearly six hours. Weariness settled into my eyes quite a while ago but I don’t know when for sure. Once we’re all done trading our wares and treasures with the merchants, I exit the software and rummage through my emails. MaybeMay lingers online to talk me, despite the reality that it’s even later into the night for her.

Initially, she goes on about some of the small tasks that littered her day, until she hopped on to do her usual work on the server and website. She works from home for some graphic arts company, and only leaves the house a few times a week to do mandatory errands. Her idea of socializing is a LAN party, or some other mass gaming event. I admire that lifestyle and usually remind her at every opportunity that I am jealous. Today, though, I deviate from that pattern.

“Do you think I’m broken?” I shudder at acknowledging my difficulties assimilating to the normal world. More often than not, this reality gets swept beneath some metaphorical rug. Outside of the house, we spread this lie that I’m just extremely shy. Sometimes people try to give me advice – imagine everyone in their underwear, a universal nugget of wisdom, it seems – and other times they just tut their tongue at me. Every so often someone might become bold enough to blame video games or technology. Of course, my father agrees, and his face sinks in confirmation of their theories.

MaybeMay doesn’t reply at first. This startles me because she’s normally doesn’t have to pause to fully consider anything, not even a loaded question such as this one. She attributes her ability to rapidly resolve questions or issues to her gaming, and then she cracks a joke about the people who blame games for a ‘lazier’ generation. I suck in as much air as my lungs can hold just as she replies.

“Yes…” I wasn’t expecting to hear her say that and I’m dazed. I am sure this moment between heartbeats will kill me.

“…but I think we all are broken in our own unique ways. You and I, we’re the same sort of person. Your dad, well, he’s just a different type. His idea of being involved and having a sense of community is really different from yours. Maybe it’s our brains, maybe it’s not, but whatever it is – nobody can say the gaming community is fake any more than they can say that kids at a stupid school dance are fake.” I didn’t think I could ever feel so strongly about a monologue, but this one has me shedding tears of joy. Clarity settles into my mind’s eye. Being different isn’t as bad as my dad makes it seem. MaybeMay gives me the ability to see myself as complete and strong, accepted and appreciated, respected and valid. Everyone should have a friend as loving and as honest as she, but that’s what scares me about the real world beyond my door.

Not everyone is so loving.

Not everyone is so honest.

And not everyone is broken like me.

“I needed that,” my thought escapes effortlessly through my lips. My features relax, and so does my body, as I begin closing all of the windows on my screen. Remaining maximized is my messenger program, silence hanging loosely between MaybeMay and I. Discomfort dares to creep into my thoughts but more than anything I’m just happy to share this sort of moment with her. MaybeMay reminds me a lot of Analise; a sister when my sister is away.

A digital clock next to me shifts into the next hour. Without a doubt it is time for me to go to bed, and so I begin the process of saying good-bye. Once I’m whispering my departure plans, MaybeMay reveals she’s logging off too.

Yet she stops me from ending our call. She insists that there is one last thing to be said before we disconnect and carry on with our lives outside of the game. I hold my breath so that I may drink in every drip of confidence I may derive from it. “A real community is just a group of people that care about the same things together. Tell me that our virtual family isn’t real – I dare you.”

A smile spreads across my face just as the signature sound of a user switching offline dings in my headphones, ears, and body. What I did to deserve her, I may never know, but I won’t question it either. I crawl into my bed knowing that no matter what my dad thinks – what I feel is real, and he can never make it go away.

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Excalibur Returns (An Original Short)

Contest Host: WOW! Women on Writing

Contest Title: 2016 Flash Fiction Contest (With Critique)

Placement: None


 

The ethereal world around me shames even my most whimsical dreams. I feel perfectly at home here even if I have no idea how it is I’ve even arrived. This place is so hauntingly beautiful that I can only presume that it is luck that I’ve stumbled upon this paradise.

 

“But why is it that I feel so lucky?” Not even the tiniest piece of me felt afraid to be somewhere with which I was unfamiliar. There were no questions as to whether I was in danger. My admiration for the scenery left me dumbfounded but put my simultaneously at ease. Why is it I would consider myself lucky instead of concerned?

 

“Because you are,” A divine harmony echoes throughout my mind. Surely it was the single most brilliant voice in all of time and space. Hearing it speak is distracting in the moment that I hear it but also in the seconds that tick by with slow deliberation afterwards. I nearly forget to look around for a person to whom the voice belongs but in my heart I know will not find one. Regardless, I twirl halfheartedly knowing in advance that no human could so sound divine.

 

When I stop my eye catches the slightest glimmer of sunshine bouncing off of a dewy patch of moss. Clouds pass overhead breaking what little light shone through the vast canopy. The moss that was just radiant green is now as dark as night, barely recognizable as any form of plant life. Something in my heart propels me forward to explore this patch of moss very specifically. The closer I get to it the harder my heart pounds behind my sternum.

 

Once I am hovering directly above the chameleon moss I notice that there’s a strange sort of light around it. The way it moves reminds me of a small stress on the countryside. Alas, it is not actually bright light, like what you would see from the sun, but rather palpable nothingness that casts a demanding aura. I cannot resist the urge to stare into the abyss.

 

Unsure what it is I am experiencing makes me curious rather than frightened. I slowly poke each hand into the void in hopes of discovering something with which I can make a deduction about this strange patch of plant life in this oasis. Why does is radiate power in such a way that is distinctly different from the rest of the forest?

 

At first I feel nothing more than a soft breeze. For a second I shiver due to a chill that is best described as a wind tiptoeing up my spine. Since I have no reason to believe that there is any danger I lean in further to take a deep breath. Does it smell as harmless as it looks?

 

“On the ground,” the voice returns only to alert me to the mistake that I’ve made. Agony washes over me as violently as the Thames. The pain is tangiblly audible to the point that I cannot even tell if I am screaming. My eyes remain clamped shut as I suffer through whatever has overcome me.

 

Time seems to stop so that my punishment may hold the attention of the entire universe. My palms are hitting the ground with flagrant protest. I found this paradise to be alluring and perfect but now I damn it for what it has done to me. Through the aching I force my fingers to inspect each frill, blade, and bulge in hopes of identifying an escape. The only thing that exists in me is the will to survive. It is only several cuts, bruises, and rashes later that I finally identify something that is foreign…

 

Something that does not belong…

 

And it is so very, very cold.

 

It is lean.

It is sleek.

And it is cold.

 

Without justification I bring the item to my chest, eyes still closed as the pain continues resonate through my bones. In a way, the echoes of suffering are worse than the initial inflictions. In my heart I know that this punishment is somehow instrumental to my escape. Perfect as it seems, I have no desire to continue my adventure here.

 

Silence begins to fall around me. Clamped eyes begin cracking open so that I can examine the trinket that I have discovered. The cool temperature that had stood out in contrast to my hot pain is wholly refreshing. I find myself absently attached to this object in a way that I find myself describing as ‘victorious.’

 

It is almost as though I had achieved the task for which I was brought to this place. As I suspect this presently, it is also confirmed; “What you hold now is a necklace fashioned from the shattered remains of a scabbard once known as Excalibur. For far too long I have waited for another to carry its burden once more.”

 

Enthralling as the voice is, as the setting is too, I cannot resist laughing at this premise. Tendrils tug in the back of my mind insisting that this is reality but in the forefront of my mind I have the slightest suspicions this is little more than a dream. The feelings, sensations, and pains that I experienced are remnants of regret and accomplishment that I feel in a real world somewhere beyond this place. I would be mad to believe that this luxurious getaway is real.

 

When my laughter fades, though, I find that there is a soft denial. The rhythm in my heart changes and my lungs breathe air differently. I am not independent. The voice seems to instruct me how to feel and what to think. Within seconds my mockery of the possibility twists away from that rooted doubt. As it lifts it is quickly replaced with acceptance; “And yet as much as you lack belief you are equally as easily swayed. Does your necklace not feel as icy as a winter’s night? Those are Excalibur’s remains in your very hands. Your presence in Avalon is not some innocuous hallucination. Of this I can promise you.”

 

I command myself to wake, or so I believe that I have done as much. The brilliant world around me is replaced with dull gray walls. Stained cream curtains billowing in the polluted wind cover a cracked window. I am instantly reminded that I live in a city plagued by crime and anarchy. Displeasure flows steadily in my veins. The largest part of me regrets leaving Avalon. Real or not, I already prefer to be there in spite of the dangers it may contain.

 

“You are meant for great things,” The voice asserts finally as my gaze settles on the blankets that cover me. A heavy object seems to be weighing them down. My fingers feel a breeze rolling off of a necklace that is immediately familiar to me. Excalibur is real and it is here in my lap. The peace that I felt in Avalon returns and I find myself trusting in the words of my invisible guardian.

 

I easily clasp Excalibur around my neck. It was much heavier in my hands. A second passes in which I consider removing the jewelry but the thought feels insidious. A soft whispering in the deepest crevices of my mind is insisting that I was meant to carry this burden. To exist without Excalibur would defy the universe.

 

A gunshot yanks me back into the world beneath my window. I rip the curtains back with assurance. This world must change. I must change this world.

The Girl In My Reflection

Contest Host:     Writers Weekly

Contest Title:     24-Hour Story – Fall Segment

Theme:     940 Maximum Word Count; Following this exact scheme “The barren, tan corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold
evening breeze, the only sound louder than the dry, fiery red leaves swirling around her tiny, shivering bare feet. She’d lost her bearings again and she hoped the dinner bell would ring soon. A gray tree with endless arms and fingers, devoid of any remaining foliage, loomed before her. She gazed at the odd markings on the trunk, which appeared to
outline a hand-cut door of sorts. And, as she stared, it opened…”

Placement:     Grab Bag Door Prize (85 Prizes are awarded in each contest, I was listed as 1/35 Grab Bag winners).


Today was another long day at work. Everyday is a long day at work, though. Especially Fridays because it’s almost time for two days off and everyone wants to get to quitting time and crawl into bed. Okay, so only I want to crawl into bed, but I worked two twelve-hour shifts this week. This body has been running on fumes since Tuesday.

Before I can do any sleeping I am going to have to shower. I didn’t this morning, so there are all kinds of product in my hair and on my face. The apartment is small and sort of triangular in the layout. My roommate loves it, unfortunately, so I put up with it for cheap rent. But it never takes long to get from the front door to the bathroom, which is quite nice after work.

Immediately, I turn on the water for some noise while I get everything I need: pajamas, towels, washcloth, and so on. Moving through the motions is incredibly easy in spite of the fact that I can’t feel my face and I can’t think straight because I keep fantasizing about my pillows. To distract myself, I flick on the television sitting atop my dresser for another layer of noise to help me stay awake.

“Help me.”

The words don’t register at first but they are repeated, “Help me,”­ and I turn around to see what is on the television. As it turns out, it’s one of my favorite sci-fi shows. I love this episode because the wife has to save the husband for a change. Laughing under my breath, I return to the bathroom. Mindlessly I push my hands out to check the shower temperature. It’s warmer than I prefer but I won’t mind. I will be able to stand in it.

Quickly I peel away my button up, slacks, socks, and hair tie. As my hair cascades and I shake it out, I swear I see something moving behind me. Hesitantly I turn myself to check Nadia’s door. It’s shut. I then peer through to my room. It’s empty.

“Help me! I am lost.”

That isn’t a line from this episode. I must be getting really tired if I’m hearing things. Distracted, I wipe off steam build up on the mirror. I wasn’t exactly paying attention, so when I see an image instead of my reflection I don’t react. It takes several seconds before I decide that I’m not hallucinating.

A small, frail girl with blonde greasy hair sticking to the tatters of her clothes stands there expressionless. Her eyes are dark and her skin looks to have been stretched over her bones. I know it’s insane to believe this little girl is standing in the middle of a dark, barren field is actually inside of my mirror, but I do. The maternal side of me emerges and takes over. I need to do something; “What happened to you? Are you hurt?”

I drag the towel more harshly down the mirror, hoping for a drier surface to see the child more clearly. As I pull the cloth away, this thick black ooze replaces the water residue. Without hesitation, I begin using my hands to clean the mirror. When the substance covers my arms entirely, I realize it is blood. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t stopped to climb onto the counter.

“They want to kill me. Will you help me?” Soft tendrils of her voice reach beyond the glass barrier between us, and it just consumes me. I hear nothing but her pleas for help. I know I have to save her. I push myself hard against the mirror. At first it doesn’t budge…

…But then it does. My entire right side slides through the glass no differently than reaching down into a pool. I can see the girl, the dead world behind her, and I can see it every bit as plainly as I did before breaking the barrier.

“Take my hand, sweetheart. I can pull you through.” I say to her, using the voice I use to tell my nieces when it’s bedtime. My sister says it is serene and comforting. I wish to be so welcoming now, “Come on, and just take my hand. I will help you.”

She seems uneasy at first, but her frown starts to melt away as she glances cautiously over her shoulder. Naked feet carry her fragile body nearer to me. Feeling as though there is not a single moment to spare I push myself harder again into the mirror, slipping more and more into some other world that has trapped this innocent child.

She is walking but she seems no closer than she was minutes ago, and so I lean out more and more and more until only my feet are left on the other side of the mirror. Once my head is on the other side of the mirror completely, I realize that I’m covered in the tarry blood. Since I’m balancing with one hand I have to use the other that I’ve extended to the girl to clear my face off. In one swift motion I smear away just enough to regain unobstructed sight.

What I see startles me. The girl is not a girl at all but rather a slender black mass. It’s eyes match the child but there is no other resemblance. A scream rises in my throat but I have no opportunity to let it out. Tree roots sprout from the ground and wrap around my neck. My fear is smothered as I just barely hear, “There’s the dinner bell. I’ll be glad to have you.”

The Winners Are In!!

Well, look at that! It would seem I got first place! I’m super excited about this and have been spamming the news on every social media platform I’m on today! I should probably slow down so I don’t get a big head 😉

Truth be told, I work hard at writing every single day. I am glad to see my work paying off and can’t wait to challenge myself to something new! Today it is victory, but tomorrow it is back to work. There’s always something that needs tackling and I live for those tasks.

A Love Vigilante

Contest Host:  Screamin’ Mamas

Contest Title:  Screamin’ Mamas Magical Fiction Contest

Theme:  A day in the life of a fictional character, exploring what that character would be doing with his or her time during a normal day.

Placement:  Honorable Mention


Every day is a surprise for me. Men and women alike confronting me, insulting me, attacking me; this is the life of someone in my line of work. They think I’m being a home wrecker. People call me every name in the book: slut, whore, skank, trash, and so much more.

But nobody bothers to call me what I am: a succubus.

It is only six months into a new year but I have saved nine women and four men from terrible relationships and marriages. Namely, one such person was Cindy. She had glistening blonde with a button nose. The woman cooked, she cleaned, and she was a star patron of her church; if she could fit something into her schedule then she did it. Honestly, she was the best wife a man could ask for in his wildest dreams. Too bad her husband was sleeping with her sister, her mother, her cousin, and her best friend. I watched and waited for only a few days before making my move.

In today’s day and age, a pair of short shorts and a low cut sequined shirt goes a long way for grabbing a man’s attention. Sickeningly, I didn’t even have to try. He followed me into an alley not too far from his home. All I had to do to encourage his advances on me was wink. The schedule in the neighborhood was set so I knew Cindy would drive by just as his pants settled around his ankles.

Within days, I was working my magic on Cindy’s best friend’s relationship. Boyfriend, Dean, had plans to propose to her based on the rumors I’d been hearing from the couple’s social circle. Cindy’s husband stopped knocking on her door but there was always another man she would string along. The monstrous woman had men queued up. Just shy of prostitution, the only thing that would make the entire gig more businesslike would be if she took payment in the form of cash – you know – instead of peppermint lattes from her favorite coffee shops. I could see that Dean worked too hard at his factory job to waste his time and money on a woman who did not have the same desires as him. Dean needed someone willing to settle down with instead.

The approach for his situation was much different, something a little more traditional. I appeared in his dreams whispering doubt into his subconscious. It took nearly two weeks before he was suspicious enough to expression concern. Glorious was the day when he finally confronted her about the myriad of unidentified numbers in her phone. Upon further digging he unveiled dating apps and photo-sharing programs, each littered with scandalous pictures of her inviting men to have a good time. Never in a million years would she have been able to effectively explain away those secrets. Thankfully, he moved out that same night and hasn’t looked back. Being the occasionally benevolent creature that I am, my connections to other charity cases allowed Dean to stumble upon – entirely by accident – a young lady named Lenora. It is history from there, of course. Both of them freshly out of scandalous relationships. Both of them idolizing futures with families and security in their frayed hearts…

As for today, well, I’m not doing anything in particular. Mostly I’m just watching for anyone dressing in deceit. People today see each other as pawns. Everything is a means to an end. Most days I am convinced they are all animals. Succubus or not, I understand the error in thinking in such a foul manner. My goals have not always been sincere, true enough, but by neither have I been heroic for the entirety of my existence. Once upon a time I was the evil force ruining relationships rather than reconfiguring them. Lately females are realizing the power that they have and the worth they contain beyond nurtured inferior compliance. The gaining popularity of the though sparked enthusiasm within me; I had the ability to use what is truly a curse and turn it into a gift. I could turn it into a sort of unofficial business. Since then it has become my way of life.

“You are lookin’ dressed up tonight but I see no date?” A lovely woman behind the bar with a silky voice grabs my attention, forcing my body to turn from the crowd of people dancing under black lights. Immediately I notice her shining bronze skin, as flawless as well crafted jewelry. My lips curl in a wicked grin. I can practically smell the conflict emanating from this bartender.

Now I know the mantra, all servers are looking to give good service for good tips. She is being nice and thoughtful because that is her job. I have no intention of overstepping my bounds. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I won’t attempt to pick her brain just a tiny bit. As soon as I suck in the air from her direction I am positive that I taste distrust. Something plagues her mind.

“No more dressed up than any other woman in the building tonight. Very sweet of you to say something, though.” I bat my eyes sensually, reaching for a shot glass that she offers with a lackluster slide. Pouting for only a moment, making it appear as though I don’t want to work for my drink, it seems to be an all too familiar gimmick for her. The pretentious expression on my face softens at the sight of her gearing to shoot me down. Enthralled by her easy strength I know that hers will be a name I want to know precisely so that I shall never forget. If only I could manage a peek at her nametag.

“Thanks, but no thanks. Taken.” She replies. The tone is bored. How many times must she have said some variation of this concept tonight? Furthermore, I want to know what was the rate of depreciation in confidence as she caught glimpses of her partner enjoying the company of others. Her hand nervously reaches up to the tight bun atop her head. I catch her staring down the counter to a man laughing with a crowd of scantily clad barely-legals. I can see it a mile away. That is her boyfriend – but he tells her to keep it casual.

How do I know? How could anyone know just by looking at two people without any context? The answer is simpler than you might believe. It is because bodies are my what I live for; they are my passion. When she looks at him she sports a relaxed brow but tense shoulders. This indicates that she respects his desires but harbors an internalized hesitation towards them. Obviously there is more to it than that because body language is the only language that cannot form lies.

The server’s grin toward the patrons is sincere but any mention of love or hooking up and her jaw tightens. It isn’t just a reflex, though, not an absent-minded reaction. When she clenches her jaw her smirk is unmoving making the act intentional. This is conducive of a person consciously “keeping face” to do her job. Plus there’s him to consider as well. Moments come when he glances at her during conversation. Clearly working her in as a topic of discussion. I can see the way everyone giggles at the mention. It assures me that he is making it clear that his relationship sounds more friendly than intimate. None of his customers are in awe of my bartender. Their eyes do not twinkle at her bur rather at him. Sloppy and selfish, he accomplishes exactly what he hopes: he is desirable to these girls hanging around him.

“I’m not the customer you need to worry about…” I venture to share in such a velvety tone that forces her to frown. Her shoulders lower and her arms drop finally exposing her nametag. Until now her movements have been preventing me from seeing it. It was impossible between all the poured drinks and crowd checks around her boyfriend for any faces that may bring her concern.

Memorizing everything I can about Chantel allows me to further confirm my desire to keep this one locked away in my mind. There is something hopeful about the way she sighs in acceptance of my comment. Fear is something that I combat in men and women too weak to see the worth in themselves. Her thick black hair, her short unpainted nails, a pudgy stomach that she hides with spandex undershirts and too big uniform shirts; this is an average woman and yet she has potential to be so much more than that with me.

Chantel wanders away for quite some time. I don’t bother to keep an eye on her since I know that the foundation has been laid out. Chantel will approach her boyfriend with refreshed mascara and a brilliant grin. He will kiss her cheek but proceed to kiss all of his co-workers in the exact same fashion. Meanwhile a redheaded bombshell will keep making her way back to her boyfriend’s section drunkenly, sputtering about how handsome his crew cut makes his chin stubble look so dreamy.

“Little Miss Scotland giving you a run for your money, isn’t she?” I ask loudly when I sense Chantel behind me. When I spin back to her I am met with angry eyes. If I offer sympathy she will most likely open up to me. Or, I can offer her something else; “Tell you what – I’ll go over and see if I can get him to bite. If he does, then you dump him and leave here with me tonight. If not, then you’ll know he’s a good man with a faithful heart.”

Carefully leaning over the counter as she contemplates is one of the more subtle moves in my repertoire. My leather dress pulls tighter against my chest and my wavy brunette locks frame what prove to be an alluring amount of cleavage, even for a straight female. After she glances down she trails back up just as slowly. Chantel does not seem very impressed.

“Is this what you do? Use your good looks to avenge women who feel cheated?” Of course she doesn’t trust me but she certainly doesn’t trust him at this point. Aside from her teetering allegiance, she is somewhat fixated on my offer, if not on me entirely. Even though she is the tiniest bit offended by what I’ve suggested she is considering the value of what I can prove to her. The doubt that she reeks of will burn deep inside of her and make her vulnerable.

Telling her that she is wrong – even if only on a technicality – is a choice that I have to make even thought it isn’t a particularly difficult task. There are people every so often whom almost see what I am trying to accomplish. They ask if I’m working for a private investigation service, or if maybe I’m filming a show about cheating lovers. Admittedly, nobody has ever been as close as Chantel is now. It strengthens my belief that she is special.

Conclusively, I choose to be upfront with her, “I protect men and women from being treated like meat. Nobody deserves to be played as the fool. If he isn’t open enough to tell you he wants an open relationship then he can’t be trusted at all. I can step in and make sure you don’t waste any more of your time on a liar. My interest is in you and making sure that you find what you deserve.” Chantel stalks away once I finish explaining my motives but it is hardly surprising. Articulate conversations with patrons and staff alike support my theory that her focus isn’t on doing her job. Mulling over the opportunity in front of her takes absolute precedence. I need no more proof that I have weaseled into her heart exactly in the fashion I’d planned.

As soon as she returns laden with irritation – Chantel rejects the offer. With this announcement she affirms that it is not a question that he wants something else. Initially I inquire at what point I misread the signs. Did I not look at her jawline closely enough? Maybe I should have analyzed the way she walked with more precision. Hesitation prevents me from apologizing. The delay stems from dismay. How could I have gotten this so wrong? I feel humility after a few moments and push myself away from the counter feeling absent.

My interference was not needed, apparently. Even more so, this time it was unwanted as well. Discouragement befalls my mind and it is frustratingly foreign. I cannot remember the last time I set out to do something and failed.

Chantel is everything and nothing I penned her down to be – and just this once unpredictability is welcomed, “I will still leave with you. Truth be told, I am dying to hear more about what you do as a love vigilante.” And so, shame on me for not waiting to pass my internalized judgment. If there is any luck to be had – Chantel will prove to be the perfect apprentice.

Back Again, Back For Good

Contest Host: Toasted Cheese

Contest Title: A Midsummer Tale

Theme: Returning home or getting away from home, the setting of the story much show the transition from locations.

Placement: None


Back Again, Back for Good

            The sun doesn’t dare peak into the kitchen. This would make the morning better. Tension as bitter and resentful as theirs could taint the world outside, and judging by the current forecast – Eleanor is certain that it already has; “Are you ready to go to Grandma’s lake house?” Chewing her pancake can be likened to eating glass at this point. You are just nervous, Eleanor assures herself shakily. Every time she speaks she must choose her words carefully. It will still be several weeks before the kids will be sat down for a serious conversation. Eleanor knows that she has no intention to talking to her kids immediately and should not be anxious at this moment.

Elijah, her eldest son, is sitting across the table with his black hoodie covering his entire face. It literally and figuratively feels as though a villain is seated at the dining room table. The real villain, their father, is absent so apparently the next of kin must take his place.

Absolutely not, he complains. Of course he complains. He is seventeen years old and this is his last High School Summer. His girlfriend is having a party tonight but he can’t be there and who knows what could happen while I am away, mom? Tons of things will happen, she has to remind him, and sometimes people just have to roll with the punches. Another handcrafted allusion to things he will be faced with soon that are far more difficult to deal with than another girlfriend being checked off the list. He disagrees by dropping his syrupy fork directly onto the table, defying her in the only way he can while he enjoys his favorite breakfast. Eleanor made it intentionally. Maybe if he likes his food enough he won’t be as whiny for the ride to her mother’s lake house.

“What about you, Emilia? You have anything you’re excited to do?” For a brief moment it seems as if the sun will burst through the crisp gray shutter blinds. Much like the kids, the sun has no desire to make an effort to care today. Eleanor hates this aspect of living in the city. It’s not even a “big” city; it is just a big city for Indiana. Nonetheless, being in a city environment for twenty years certainly has been quite enough for one lifetime. Refocusing on the shutters, she begs the sun to change its mind. During her pleas she finds that her mind slips and she accidentally reminisces on the argument she and her husband, Evan, had over the damned blinds. For days during the renovations they were head-to-head on the matter.

Of course, the real argument wasn’t about the blinds but what they represented; what they were preparing the ‘happily’ married couple for in the coming months. Forcefully she stands up from her chair and takes only her dishes to the sink, leaving the unfinished food in place, and tosses it against the metal. Evan can deal with it later if he remembers to even come back.

As it turns out Emilia has been answering the question for several minutes with enthusiasm. She is fourteen and significantly more interested in spending the summer doing something interesting. This year was a whirlwind of new experiences that left her feeling invigorated. There was a time when Elijah was the same way but those years passed, that phase of his life was done. Now he just broods. In fact, he is brooding now, which causes Eleanor glower back at him to stop. She hopes to be as enthusiastic as her daughter in a couple of months when she’s forced to start over with scraps.

“I think the most important thing that I want to happen this summer is my first kiss. I have it all planned, you know? I want to have my first kiss with the hottest boy on the lake at a bonfire that you told me not to go to because there will be way too many older boys. That’s my plan!” Elijah gets to the punch first; stating that mom sucks the fun from everything, don’t get your hopes up kid. He looks like his dad, he sounds like his dad, and he acts just like his dad. Sometimes it frustrates her, sometimes it is adorable, but today it’s just annoying in a way that she doesn’t want to have to tolerate.

Such is the role of a mom, though, and she is aware that she cannot dwell on it. “Get your bags into the car. Keys are on the cabinets by the door. I’ll be out in a minute with the cooler.” Her hands plant upon her hips and her eyes follow the kids as they go outside. When did Emilia finish her pancakes? Did Elijah really take the actual plate of bacon with him to the car? She wiggles her lips in false optimism. Today must be a good day.

Elijah opts to sit in the backseat with his feet propped on the center console. Emilia is behind the driver’s seat with her head leaning dreamily against the window. For a moment Eleanor sees an exact replica of herself, a hopeful blonde teenager with high hopes for what summer will bring and all of the possibilities that exist. When she gets outside and sits in the car she realizes just how bright the sun is in spite of the fact it can barely been seen through the buildings. Temporary jealousy for those in better locations that get to enjoy sunshine and breakfast washes in and out. Eleanor could have used the brightness and converted it to confidence five minutes ago!

Both girls are chattering about rolling the windows down if it remains nice outside. Emilia in particular wants to practice her ‘hair in the wind’ expression. There won’t be an opportunity to do this, though, because Elijah reminds everyone that it will start raining shortly and will continue to do so for the remainder of their trip; “We are driving right into that shit.”

“Watch your mouth, Elijah Daniel!” Eleanor’s brown eyes bore into her son’s matching pair. He has been testing the limits with his swearing and this summer is sure to be decorated with situations similar to this almost every day. The puff of air from her sigh fogs up the window for a few seconds as she winds down from her son’s outburst.

Almost as if on cue, only about ten minutes into the trip sprinkles of rain decorate their silver crossover. Emilia whispers about romantic rainy nights, listing some of the best movie kisses that happen in the rain. Even Eleanor doesn’t want to listen to the charade so she encourages her daughter to think of more authentic activities such as biking the trails, swimming races across the lake, and fishing contests. Emilia mentions the Fourth of July celebrations and fireworks display. Eleanor supports her daughter’s interest until she goes on again about meeting the perfect summer boyfriend.

Listening to her daughter is grating beyond the fact that she hates hearing her unrealistic expectations. It also reminds her that at some point she really will have to tell the kids they are going to live here permanently. The whole point of renovating, Eleanor had found, was tot add value to the house for resale. Instead of falling down a deep, dark mental hole she must replace those thoughts with positivity. All she comes up with is that the chances are Emilia won’t be as dreamy when she’s told this is their permanent residence; provided Evan and Eleanor don’t magically repair their marriage. Such a thing seems unlikely since he’s been sneaking his belongings off to a condo somewhere nearer to his job for several weeks.

“How about some radio?” Regardless of her personal thoughts, she tries to avoid frowning while she speaks. Her grim tone betrays her, coordinating with the weather outside again. She snarls unintentionally but it seems to send a warning to Elijah not to cross her. The rain shifts from drizzle to downpour, and the waterfall created by nature turns into some sort of mosh pit of terrible weather phenomenon. There’s a brief period of time about an hour into the traverse that she pulls alongside the road for the safety of everyone in the vehicle. Not seeing the road is quite the hazard, after all.

Elijah fancies himself hungry still, and starts making a turkey sandwich with way too much cheese and even more mayo. Before he gets anything on her seats Eleanor yanks napkins from the glove box, throwing them into his lap just as a globby mess falls out of his mouth. A toothy grin decorated with partially chewed food follows. His gratitude is expressed with slurred words that might be ‘thanks mom,’ but she cannot be certain. Her focus actually shifts while he is talking to the crack of blue lighting in the sky instead.

Things don’t slow down very quickly so her daughter ties a knot with her hair, talking about how she makes the best sandwiches ‘on the east coast.’ Immediately after she starts using her theater voice to describe this perfect lunch entrée. Secretly Eleanor disagrees with her the entire time because the most important ingredient to sandwich making is the part when someone else makes it. Someday she will realize this, perhaps one day when she is taking care of someone else. It wasn’t until Eleanor moved in with Evan and the relationship became serious that she really started to appreciate food prepared by someone else.

Dear goodness, she doesn’t want to think of her daughter in a serious relationship yet. Thankfully – though other parents may not feel the same way – Elijah has secured himself a reputation that prevents such a thing from ever happening for a good many years. Emilia, though? Finding love and romance is all she talks about and that scares Eleanor as a mother. For now those are problems for another day, hopefully another decade entirely.

Twenty minutes seem to fly by just as quickly as the whipping winds outside. However, there does come a time that Eleanor decides she can drive again. By then everyone has eaten at least two sandwiches and a snack bag of potato chips. Even though she feels comfortable driving again she wants to minimize the distractions. Hands begin pulling her hair into a tight ponytail on the back of her head, hoping that maybe Emilia won’t say she is a ‘copycat’ since the style is different. Just a few days ago they both wore a red shirt to the store and she was sore about it the entire time, mom, you matched me on purpose!

The drive itself was slated to take just over three hours; and as the second hour floats by it proves to be a slosh of muddy roads and cracks of thunder louder than the radio. Even Emilia feels the dampness of the bad day laying its tendrils in her conscience. The three of them wear expressions of malice for the weather, for the unexpected summer trip, and for all of the unspoken things that linger just beyond their grasp. Kind of like proper sunshine…

The cities that blend together grow darker with the weather. Part of it is simply because of the black skies, and the blotted sun. Some of it has to do with the fact that they are driving by run down cities that are losing their population to bigger and better equivalents. Eleanor can relate to those changes on a personal level. It isn’t until she hits the first stretch of road without a single building in sight for miles that she relaxes enough to temporarily forget her personal issues.

Emilia has fallen asleep and is drooling all over her shoulder. Her phone is opened to one of the social media websites that she uses all the time, but it would be a stab in the dark to guess which one specifically it is at her angle. Eleanor urges for Elijah to take the phone and close the app. He is all too happy to help, but not before he takes a “selfie” with his sleeping sister and shares it with her friends. Truth be told, she could probably stop him. Emilia won’t be happy when she wakes up and she’ll be mad at her mom for it. That’s fine, though, because everyone gets mad at mom for everything. Since it won’t matter whether or not she stops Elijah she simply doesn’t; the siblings can deal with those problems on their own. If they go prank war… She vows to video tape it this time so she can post it online for the rest of the family.

Passing through a couple of small towns perks everyone up a little bit along the way, mostly because they stop for candy bars and bathroom breaks. Some of the stress goes down the drain, literally. It is a relief to get back in the car with everyone in a better mood. The last twenty-five minutes of the drive should fly by as easily as the raindrops.

An inner lull leaves Eleanor smirking half-heartedly. There is a sort of silence in her mind and in her heart. She swears that the weather is linked with her telepathically. As soon as she calms the the rain slows in perfect sync. Unfortunately, the scenery foreshadows the constant veil around her thoughts. The sky is currently a light smoky gray, as if a small child drew a picture of a cloudy day and wished for it to be real. An unknown tugging in her chest leaves her bothered.

Several minutes tick by before a text message buzzes her phone in the passenger seat. Unsafe as it is, she sneaks a peak at the screen. Thanks for cleaning off the table; she can practically feel the breath of his sarcasm on the back of her neck. An echoed voice in her head reminds when he first used that tone with her. Again, she reels about the damn blinds and notes that she sees the same color in the clouds. These moments right now are precisely the reason why she and Evan are getting divorced. Stupid fights should not infect every facet of one’s life. She nervously flips the phone so she won’t see any further messages from her husband.

Eleanor finally reaches the edge of the right city and turns onto the right road, the path taking her to the last place she can go without seeing anger in everything seems to be a fairytale. For a second she wonders how she evolved from moderately disinterested to full blown fury during the drive, but then she remembers that real life isn’t just one note of emotions. Wrinkles melt from her forehead and allow her to just admire her surroundings. There’s wet grass and enormous pine trees.

“Are we there yet?” Elijah gurgles through the last mouthful of bacon he’s been stashing underneath his seat. Part of her wants to think he’s food hoarding because it would make more sense. Children as old as him typically can see a marriage fall apart and food hoarding is sometimes a sign of depression. Elijah, though, could just be doing it so that he can get on everyone’s nerves. It would be easier to address if he were doing it for a reason other than to be annoying to everyone around him. Elijah does accomplish that but she hopes that it isn’t his primary reason for making his meals mobile.

The infamous question plagues her mind because, yes, they are almost there. Part of her wants to answer his question. This is the bigger part of her, too. The other part of her that exists wants to lie and keep driving. Eleanor would go so far away from everything that reminds her of her husband; so far that she forgets whom she is and what is happening to her. The moment of weakness lapses, as it always does, because she is mom and she must be there for her kids.

After a few songs run their course on the radio, Elijah repeats the question during the commercial with an emptier mouth. He also dresses his tone with a fresh layer of irritation. She knows she has to answer him, and so she does with a tone easily flatter than the bumpy country roads. They are only five more minutes away, at best, which does excite both kids. They each murmur about television and cell phone reception, better than last time, I hope. Technology is just as addictive as anything else children can get their hands on and she hopes that this summer gives them a new perspective. Eleanor wants the same for herself, too.

Clouds seem to be parting over the lake, which is promising. Her body works on autopilot when she arrives. The car jerks and shakes as she pulls beneath the carport attached to the northeast side of the house. The view of the lake is unsurprisingly motivational because the water twinkles glamorously in the sporadic sunlight. It is more sunlight than she’s seen all day so immediately she’s jealous of – that’s right – water.

The way the house, the lake, the trees are all so natural and comfortable just down the hill from her; Eleanor can only describe being there as slipping back into her own skin. This is where she grew up, after all, and somewhere in her past she left it behind for something else. No, she thinks, for someone else. There is no ‘feeling’ to identify when she closes her eyes because this life is ingrained. Falling back into the old lifestyle will require no command from within because it will emerge plainly.

“I forgot how big the house is…” Her son isn’t even looking at the house. When he should be admiring the two-story home build halfway into the hill his eyes are instead glued to his phone. On the screen is a ridiculous picture of his girlfriend frowning. In reverse of her brother, Emilia is taking pictures of herself next to anything, ready to send them off to the world without any hesitation. Half shouted thoughts from the two become background noise with all of the tweeting birds and bustling squirrels. Eleanor notices all of the dead leaves that haven’t been tended to by anyone for several months and how they are so fragile that they crinkle in the wind.

She encourages the children to go inside and make sure all of the utilities have been turned on, that the appliances are working. It is simple enough that neither of them can mess it up, not even with one hand stuck to their phones. As for Eleanor, she stays behind and leans against the car.

Right before her eyes gusts of air cause the low hanging branches of nearby maples, oaks, and willows to shiver. Ripples from the water bring life to the dull shores decorated by browned seaweed and driftwood. Even though the landscaping seems untamed, the lack of management is quite charming. Eleanor can whip it all together with the help of her kids. Especially now that the skies are clear and the sun finally makes a full appearance. It dismisses the clouds with a vibrant confidence, just the kind she needed to start this summer right.

Eleanor can do this. She can do anything.

“Welcome home,” a familiar voice sounds off somewhere down the hill. Emerging from a neighboring house is an old friend of her father’s, a man who bunked with him during their service in the army. Though nobody has been told why Eleanor and the kids have come for a lengthy visit, they all must have an idea, don’t they? It has to be obvious that they’re really just staying; moving back into the long emptied house.

“Glad to be back.” Her smile for the first time in so many months is genuine. It has all just been too long. Energy courses through Eleanor as ideas for landscaping fill the empty spaces in her mind hurriedly. Welcome home, indeed.