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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A Mother’s Help

THE SOUND OF BREAKING GLASS stopped her in her tracks. Dana promised her daughter that she could have the house all to herself this weekend while she stayed with grandma for the evening. In her old age, however, she locked herself out of the house. Sneak in – get keys – sneak out – that was the objective.

That was the objective, anyway.

But the sound of breaking glass stopped her.

There was another voice coming from the kitchen when Dana gt inside, but she couldn’t just waltz in unannounced. It would violate the trust that she’d built up with her temperamental daughter. For weeks anything would hurt her feelings and set her off into a fit of swearing or crying. Dana wrote it off at teenage hormones, a flare of aggressive independence. In just one year, after all, she would be going off to college.

So Dana agreed with her daughter, “Alaina, you can stay home alone for the weekend every so often. Grandma wouldn’t mind the extra company.” It was an arrangement that would have been made naturally anyway. Dana’s mother has been getting forgetful and disorganized. Soon she would not be able to live alone anymore. There is an in-between stage and Dana knew that it would be weekend visits. Then nightly dinners, and so on, and so on…

The second voice was familiar; too familiar. Dana was able to identify it as Alaina’s boyfriend: Roger. He was a kind enough young man, but rarely ever wanted to do anything social with her. The mother always found it a bit strange. Still, her daughter insisted that he was just a bit shy and a homebody. Most of their relationship has been spent watching movies and making food runs together. He’d never so much as invited her to a school dance.

Needless to say, Dana didn’t exactly want Roger to be a permanent fixture in her daughter’s life. The breaking glass paired with shouting only reassured her gut feeling that he was not the right person for her.

“You said you fucking ordered the food!” Dana inched around the house in a way only Alaina could share mastery in doing, and weaseled her way into the bathroom between the kitchen and bathroom. From there she heard the fight deepen and another glass shatter.

“I thought it submitted the order! Please don’t break my mother’s dishes. These were gifts from her aunt!” And they probably were, most of the dishes Dana owned were from her mother’s best friend. She’d been a better aunt than any of her real ones, and so every silly dish she sent for holidays was kept and used regularly. It made Dana’s life as a single mom a little less serious, and it was something Alaina always thought was pretty cool too.

“You’re going to make a shitty wife. You can’t cook and you can’t place a food order. No wonder nobody else wanted to date you!” Dana resisted the urge to intervene, but instead dialed 9-1-1. She whispered her anonymous complaint as she snuck back out of the house and went into the car where her mother was waiting.

A noise ‘at the neighbors,’ she’d asked Dana, whatever for – it was so quiet outside. Dana explained that Alaina was having a bit of trouble and she wanted to give her a free ticket out of the mess. The discussion about Roger would be a private one, after the police carted him away.

And so she drove her car around the block and waited at a safe distance for officers to arrive. Dana watched and waited until finally Roger was escorted off of the property, in handcuffs no less, before calling her daughter on the telephone.

“Hi mom,” her voice understandably deflated.

“Grandma locked herself out of the house. I think we’ll be crashing at home instead. Sorry to ruin your weekend alone.” Dana said in her maternal tone, the one she used to apologize and comfort simultaneously. She is surprised, just slightly, when Alaina laughed in reply.

In a quick breath, “I don’t want to be alone tonight anyway.”

Dana knew before she got back home that Alaina would reveal the truth about Roger – the dark, nasty truth – and she would never know that it was her own mother that saved her. That would be okay, though, because a mom never needs recognition. She only needs her child to be safe.


Credit to the prompt generator I used when looking for inspiration for this story.

Also, if you are ever in an abusive relationship, please consider using this website to make the change you deserve in your life. There are one-on-one chat services available and resources to assist you during this difficult time of making a positive change.

The Worst Dinner?

A dish of lies, I say!

There is little more in the world worse than being tricked. My friends had never taken my vegetarianism seriously. One friend in particular was having a big party for Thanksgiving and invited some of his friends. I rarely turned down a social invitation, and as such, I attended with enthusiasm. After all, he had assured me there would be options for “my type of diet.”

When I arrived there was a plate set for me. I questioned the source of protein, asking if it was the tofu he promised me would be available. I even offered to cook it myself when I arrived so long as it was made available. No, he insisted! He insisted that I be treated like a guest. I took the plate as he insisted that it was definitely tofu. Sometimes when prepared one cannot tell the difference between tofu and some meats just looking at it. In this case, I could not be sure due to the dressings and sides. I trusted his word to be honest and went to the extra dining room to enjoy my meal with friends.

Or people I thought were friends.

I was so hungry I didn’t even notice everyone watching with baited breath as I took my first bite of the tofu. As I breathed in the area before even getting the morsel into my mouth, I knew. This was not tofu. I thought it would be rude to spit it out so I swallowed, silently praying to my god that I wouldn’t die. Afterwards I swiftly pushed it to the side and worked very slowly through my vegetables.

As soon as the room cleared and eyes were not waiting for me to “enjoy” the “tofu” again, well, I did what any angry teenager would do! I marched to his parents in the main dining room as the schmoozed with friends-of-friends. Wine glasses clutched lazily in their hands – I announced what their son had done to me. They only seemed partially upset, but generally indifferent to the shenanigans of their forever-a-brat child. If that would not put a fire in their hearts, I could think of something else that most certainly would capture their attention.

“Oh, and did you know you son is selling meth to half of the basketball team? He brags that he has been making in the attic.” I did not wait for their response. Surely news of my friend’s punishment will be the juiciest social news for a week or two. It was immature, unquestionably, but I like to think I was able to save their son’s life that day.

Learning from the Nouveau Riche

Generally speaking, there’s only one thing that can be done when it’s been a bad day. At least, that’s was Helen has always believed. So far this week she’s had six store managers quit, which means that she only has two that haven’t give her a two week notice.

Owning eight premier dress shops has been fantastic. Her rise to success has not been difficult by any stretch of the imagination. Helen found the perfect balance between original dresses, exquisite brands, talented seamstresses, and delightful employees. The formula had been this poised for ten years. Unfortunately, several of her store managers had decided to move on to ‘different horizons.’ It is a very nice way of telling one’s boss that they feel “stalemated” in their jobs. Naturally, these sorts of things do happen. Helen did not question that they would happen so much as she questioned that they all happened to do this in the same week.

“No,” she whispered to herself, “never in the same week.” She threw back another vodka shooter as easily as she blinked. This was something like her third one? Admittedly, she could hold her liquor well. Something that stress drinking can probably do to a person…

That or genetics, she supposes.

The lounge she’s chosen for tonight’s sorrow drowning is a relatively new joint. It’s been around for a couple of years but everyone speaks very so highly of it that it would be easy to fool one into thinking it was a long established business. Public rapport is everything when launching a new start-up, after all. Helen remembers when people would speak of her business so excitedly. Now, they speak of it with high regard as though it had set a standard for all other like companies. Some part of her questions whether this hot spot will ever make it that far….

Since the bartender keeps offering free rounds and meals; “How about another order of martinis for the lovely bachelorettes tonight? Make the most of your last single night, am I right?” He’s cheery and unfazed by the cost of his gift-giving most definitely. It is very quite literally one free thing after the other. It started with the bachelorette party and spread to small gatherings of tired businessmen, to double dates, and so on!

And so on, and so on, and so on – until finally bobbles his way over to Helen. By no she has started to feel a buzz. He asks if she needs anything but she promptly declines, assuring him that she’s had far too much already. He offers her an order of fries instead. He insists that the guys in the kitchen always have a batch of potatoes ready – just in case; “Greasy foods are the best kinds of sober-up foods.”

Helen shakes her head again to assure him that she is fine. It wouldn’t hurt for her to verbally assert that there are other options while she declines; “I can walk down the street and get more fries for half the price. I bet they’d be more fryer grease than potato, too.” For lounge food, everything is actually decently priced, but there are food trucks almost every other block. All of them offer fried delights of some sort. She can get fries just about anywhere so there’s no point in paying six bucks for a basket of fries here when there’s another option for three bucks five minutes out of the way. Helen won’t, but she also can’t because she’s far too frugal.

“Well, what if they’re free? I promise you won’t be charged and you can sober up before you leave tonight.” The bartender must seriously have a problem. Everything for free? Everyone gets something free tonight? Helen can’t support that concept, but that doesn’t mean she won’t take advantage of it.

So she accepts; “But I am willing to bet your boss fires you tomorrow. No business can sustain these sorts of handouts.” Helen vocalizes her opinions with a tiny bit of a slur. Perhaps her lashing out is the result of her anger about her managers leaving. Each store manager seemed to have one thing in common in their exit interview: they wanted to be a part of something bigger. Weddings, school dances, quinceañeras, and business parties – these sorts of things are huge in any person’s life, but they are meaningless in the long run. Some of the managers went are going to not-for-profit organizations as project leaders.

“I raise you a free ginger ale.” The bartender laughs as he sends a message to the kitchen from his mobile P.O.S. device. Helen uses these at her business as well, except they’re a generation or two older. Of course, the lounge is newer than her dress shops. The plan is to get it updated next year as long this year turns a generous profit.

Helen leans into the bar and lets out a howl of laughter; “So are you sleeping with the owner are does he owe you a favor?”

The bartender shrugs and then turns his attention to small group of people that burst very loudly through the entryway. He excuses himself to greet the fresh patrons, explaining that they are regulars that drive several hours to spend the night in town. Helen is impressed by this – for a lounge, the customer loyalty is shockingly astounding. Everyone does seem to know the bartender by name…

…Which makes Helen feel guilty. She hasn’t once asked and he isn’t wearing a nametag for her to check… She hasn’t even tried to commit to memory from the dozens of times she’s heard it uttered that night…

Something like ten minutes or so go by, and in the end a cook from the kitchen hand delivers the French fries with a serving of their “Red Revenge Ketchup.” It is a homemade dipping sauce that it more alike ketchup than barbecue sauce? That’s what the cook says, anyway. Regardless, Helen digs right in and is surprised by how delicious the ketchup actually is once she’s tried it.

By the time she finishes her free dish, the bartender returns with a smile on his face and certain look of amusement; “How about that ginger ale?”

Helen waves a hand at him, “Not until you tell me why you won’t get fired. I simply have to know.” Gossip is something that can’t be avoided where formal events are concerned. Inevitably, the girls buying dresses whisper about other girls at the prom. Bridesmaids share secrets about the bride’s antics before her engagement. The managers always had a great old time having monthly luncheons with Helen and sharing the crazy things they’d heard from customers during the last few weeks.

As such, Helen thirsts to know whatever little amount of gossip she can find. It’s one of her only remaining connections to the ‘common’ world. Every other free minute is invested in her business and drinking away any struggles she faces during the workweek. The bartender is unsurprised by her inquiry.

“I guess you could say I’m sleeping with the owner.” He chuckles as he pulls out a bottle of ginger ale – which apparently is also made in-house. Helen leans back on her stool with a somewhat satisfied feeling in her chest. Sex can motivate people to do ridiculous things. However, there is a certain twinkle in his eye that warns her that he’s not done speaking.

But she manages to piece it all together before he shares it out loud, “Because you are the owner.” Helen gives him a short and quiet applaud for his trickery. Feeling a bit deflated; she is surprised that she didn’t piece this together sooner. More embarrassingly, she still couldn’t put a name to his face in spite of her awareness of his business and its positive reputation.

Carter Hammond, in the flesh he proclaims. They shake hands and Helen details who she is for his reference. Apparently he knows of her and her line of work, stating that the ladies were bragging about the great service they’d received a few weeks ago from the bride-to-be’s dressmaker; “It isn’t the first time I’ve heard of your establishment either. A good many patrons talk about your business. Many have daughters begging to shop at one of your locations. Every young lady deserves to feel like a princess, after all. I am glad that you’re able to give that to them.” This confrontation only furthers her guilt for being less conscious of his relation to the Red Revenge lounge.

Helen covers her shame by announcing that this is precisely why she wanted to have a dress shop to begin with; that when she was young there were very few places she liked to shop from for the annual ball her grandparents used to host at their banquet hall. Saying this aloud brings a level of self-awareness she’d never grasped before in her life – it sounded very entitled, which makes her very uneasy.

Carter comments that her motivations are sincere. It appears that he has no idea that guilt has washed over her mind and continues to compliment her mindfulness of the customer. He even goes on to detail what he believes to be the pitfall of many business owners; “People who grow up on a silver platter forget easily the value in their customers and employees. They become more like numbers than actual people. Unfortunately, without them – their businesses couldn’t even exist. That’s why I give out free stuff daily. It keeps everyone coming back and encourages my customers to buy more while they are here. It’s a positive manipulation of my business. I win – they win – and the economy of small business wins.”

Helen smiles at him nonstop while she pointedly drinks her ginger ale. For a low-key owner, he seems to have found his own ‘perfect balance’ between serious businessman and careless employee. She begins to quiz him how much he can afford to give away before he starts losing money. His only reply is that he doesn’t have enough to give away that would prevent him from making a profit. She is unable to analyze the validity of his statement, but she can only assume that perhaps there are vendors that offer him a profit for distributing their product. That is a very special brand of success that even she has been unable to accomplish outside of local designers that still operate as sole proprietors.

Helen questions if she can, for sure, trust this shared information. Carter Hammond seems to be a respectable man, so on that front she believes that he would not lie to her. Still, as she listens to him continues explaining why he makes these choices – he is almost equally as ignorant to the fundamental business practices of the most successful corporations. Admittedly, the story of his struggle to make a happier living out of something he truly loved is far more than just endearing. Helen admires the people who supported him and helped make his dream a success. Even to this day they continue to give him the support he needs to remain a top contender in his field of business. More and more people want to franchise the Red Revenge brand each week.

He projects that within a few years he won’t have to work in the lounge at all, if he doesn’t want to do so; “But why would I want to abandon my post? The only place I belong is behind a counter serving the people that make my brand so popular?”

Helen calls a cab and waits outside for her ride home. During this time before she makes it to her bed, she can’t help but ponder the possibility that there’s something more that she could be doing with her own business. Even though it is a different field with different trends than a bar lounge, there is a certain similarity in the dedication and loyalty of customers. She already donates dresses that are partially damaged along with any excess sewing supplies that are no longer required. But she can’t help but believe, after speaking with Carter Hammond, that this is simply not enough. What more could she be doing with her own brand?

As she pulls the covers up over her body, still fully clothed and reeking of the French fries she ate for dinner, Helen decides that she will worry more about in the morning. She’ll contact her accountant after breakfast and figure out what kind of money it would require for her to start giving back to the community without bringing any detriment to the company.

For now – she’ll sleep. After all, change doesn’t usually happen overnight.

In All Fairness

Hands are tangled in his graying hair as he remembers that one of his stars is going to be in Keller’s talk show for a segment pertaining to her growing foundation. The clips are vital to the documentary, since any recorded material pertaining to Doctor Celeste Gonzalez is valuable to his work. The visit is last minute, but thankfully Henley recently had studio put into his home with proper equipment to record and store data. Everything in it was top quality, too. Henley demanded it.

At some point, Henley can’t be sure when anymore, he became a bit of a Director/Producer for his work. This allowed him to become more familiar with the equipment and technical work behind a movie – not just the aesthetic of it all. And as of late, he’s also become more familiar with the acting part of the work too. Being that his daughter, Ithaca, has been taking Hollywood by storm – and not just for her acting.

Even though Henley could have given her a great career with his money and reputation, Ithaca refused to use him as a reference; refused to work with him; and constantly turned down jobs that she felt were degrading to her personal character. It took her longer to make it into the limelight, but after doing a dozen or so B-rate fantasy movies – she did it. Henley isn’t sure how, really, but she emerged victorious without ever doing a project that was criticized too terribly.

In fact, many critics applaud his daughter for being selective about her work. She has only ever worked under female directors. She has played doctors, scientists, professors, and war heroes – and she has done it in a way that empowers women to pursue similar career paths. It was never easy, though, because Ithaca took the roles seriously. The young lady has a hodgepodge of medical, science, education, and military skills that she actually learned through universities and training facilities. Her work ethic is envied by many of her peers.

And Henley couldn’t be more proud of her, or the fact that she was voted as one of the top ten most influential women in the last decade.

Midway through his thought, he flicks his hand at the television – ensuring that everything was in place to record the interview. As soon as he turns all his knobs, checks all his cords and lights, and verifies that he’s on the right channel at the right time; Henley takes a seat and tousles his hair once again.

 

Nearly fifteen minutes go by before the segment for Doctor Gonzalez comes on, but it is certainly worth it. Keller introduced her with a commercial produced by individuals who use the services offered by the Mental Illness Awareness Foundation. It was provided to the company (for free, Keller emphasizes) as a ‘thank you’ for the help provided by her company.

“So – do I understand this correctly – M.I.A. is a not-for-profit company?”

Of course it is, the doctor tells Keller. It was never anything but that – she always intended for those in need to receive the help they deserve without concerning themselves with cost. She goes on to explain that mental illnesses are easily the most ignored medical affliction because many people who suffer cannot afford proper treatment.

“This woman is magic,” Henley comments to himself, “She is literally the embodiment of feminism!” Of course, that is true for all ten women on his list. Each woman has done amazing things by creating a generation of awareness. Doctor Gonzalez ranked the fourth most influential woman behind only Disney stars and politicians. It’s hard to beat the following of a politician or a Disney star. Both have pretty well nabbed the two most active parts of the population.

The clip-clop of stilettos in the hallway alerts Henley that his daughter must be home. Well, not home. She has her own condo in town, but she often spends her nights in his mansion because she hates knowing that he is there by himself. At least that’s the excuse that she always gives him. Secretly, he thinks that she gets lonely in her condo. It really was more or less a convenience while she’s promoting her work. At best, it’s a vacation home.

Ithaca, predictably, walks in without an announcement and sits herself next to him on the couch. They watch the screen together in silence. Keller questions Doctor Gonzalez about her plans for the M.I.A. Foundation – to which she assures him that right now they’re trying to expand down into South America. The conversation is brief, but she believes that if M.I.A. Foundation can get a strong foothold there, then perhaps their company can also start specific center for drug rehabilitation focusing on the aspect of addiction that stems from mental illness.

Neither of them speaks until the end of the interview, and it is only in response to Keller’s question to Doctor Gonzalez that makes the conversation relevant… and apparently pertinent…

“An honor was recently bestowed upon you, isn’t that right Doctor?”

            The honor to which he was referring was being named in Henley’s list of influential women. Of course, she already knew this was going to happen. Henley had contacted the women personally as soon as the top ten were determined. Doctor Gonzalez is presently reviewing her contract for the documentary, which she explains to Keller. Although, she confirms in no uncertain words that once terms are agreeable for both parties – she will undoubtedly participate in the documentary as needed. Henley already suspected as much.

Once the interview ends, Ithaca stands with the remote in her hand; “I refuse to be a part of your documentary, papa.”

If he’s honest with himself, he’s not perplexed when she declares this to him. Why would she change her deliberate decision to work with only women to date just to work for her father? Ithaca has been extremely vocal about the fact that she wants to use her fame to bring attention and positive light to up-and-coming women in the industry. Henley is neither up-and-coming nor a woman. The criterion was not met, so he shouldn’t have predicted anything but rejection.

“You were voted. It would be a violation of the voters if I do not place you in this documentary.” Henley remarks passively, still hopeful in his mind that her love for him would make her compliant. It isn’t even that he wishes her to be compliant but rather that he wants her to receive the honor she deserves. Suggesting that she is anything but worthy would be preposterous, but he’s sure Ithaca will manage.

And with a tapping foot and arms folded neatly behind her back, she does exactly that; “If you do not voluntarily remove me from the list then I will publically refute the contract for your film. You know my terms, and you know that I will not budge.” Her stony gaze falls from the ceiling to his eyes. They remain locked this way for an unnecessarily long period of time before Henley, ultimately, must look away. It was silly of him to be even so much as hopeful that she would willingly participate in his documentary.

But she would be just as daft to think he would let it go so lightly. So he offers her the alternative; “You may refuse my offer, my darling. But remember that your public display is also a public commodity. I can put you in my documentary just the same. You are deserving, and no more than you will I budge.” His announcement brings a grin to her face, albeit an angry one.

“And you will prove why I refused. Be prepared, and remember…” Ithaca proclaims only before leaning in to kiss his cheek. Even standing on opposite sides of an argument, she is polite and loving to her father. Henley isn’t sure he raised her that way but is nonetheless grateful. At least he is until she proves that Henley is very much her father, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Little need exists for them to argue the matter any further, and as such Ithaca leaves the room. Although, not before she designates that she’ll be making lunch for the two of them shortly.

“All is fair in love and war, isn’t it?” Henley laughs.

Talk Show Business

 

The thing about talk shows is that they are not usually live. Keller prefers to film in advance, simply because it saves a lot of hassle where fines, technicalities, and copyrights are concerned. You never know when a celebrity is going to say something that could get you in trouble – so filming in the early morning and afternoon hours for an evening show – Ah! Keller loves it!

It also allows him to do segments that incorporate relevant social media – something every talk show must do in order to stay relevant. All of the big shows are doing it now – live trends and tweets scrolling across the screen. Last year Keller incorporated “Trending Tweets” in which he spends five minutes discussing five trending hash tags on Twitter. The segment has been their most popular one on their YouTube channel without any alterations to the format – so he’s made very few changes to the segment. It’ll be reviewed at the quarterly meeting, though, he’s sure. Everything could use a refresher at some point.

As for today’s episode it appears to be the usual…

“The fifth top trending topic on Twitter right now is Hash tag Monday Motivation. I understand that we all need help staying motivated when the new workweek begins – but it’s a top trending tag every Monday! I mean, can we have a Monday where we are actually motivated by our actions and not our Twitter?” The audience laughs, chiming their agreement in a beautiful sort of melody. The Keller Show has a demographic made up primarily of thirty-somethings who aren’t completely “up” with the times but are at least familiar and capable of using the social media effectively. There are younger viewers, but saying something about getting off the Internet isn’t too far fetched to say on air. It won’t ruin the ratings by any stretch.

“The fourth trending topic is about the President. She’s been – caught? Hash tag Prada President! President Bennett wore Prada to a recent press conference and it’s all the Internet is talking about – but I think I’d rather get a transcript of what was said. Isn’t that what really counts?” Political awareness has been growing for years. No longer are the times when it was more important to have a beautiful face running the country; no longer are the times when the youth don’t care about who is running for office! Acknowledging the value in this country’s politicians has become an asset in his show whereas many other shows still glance over the goings-on in the nation’s government. Keller is one of maybe two talk shows not already dedicated to politics and satire that has a large segment once a week focusing on anything happening. It is called “Week at a Glance.”

Keller thinks on how there’d been so much concern naming the segment that – wondering it there was a copyright infringement issue. It was so silly, and he’d told everyone he was positive it would be fine. And it was! So much drama that wasn’t necessary. Keller likes exciting but not dramatic.

He skims over number three (hash tag Winter Woes – a tag dedicated to complaining about the nasty nuisances that occur during the winter). Number two is not as vacant in nature, although many of the trending topics are on Mondays (hash tag Success In Syria – which discusses how far Syria has come as a country in the last ten years). It proves to be the perfect transition into the top trending tag.

“And our number one trending topic is hash tag M.I.A. This tag is bringing attention to the one-year anniversary of a company founded by Doctor Celeste Gonzalez and her brother, Franklin Gonzalez. The M.I.A. Foundation brings awareness and assistance to those affected by mental illness. They offer their services to thousands of people in North America. It is a fantastic organization that receives high praise from dozens of celebrities – many of whom also donate the organization regularly.” As Keller reads this he catches sight of some bustling beyond the cameras. He breezes through the segment that follows “Trending Tweets.” For a Monday episode, it’s a run down of movie releases and television show finales that people can expect this week. The content starts light and simple at the beginning of the week because it fits the audience interests. The episodes that yield a higher intellectual value typically air on Thursday, which is where “Week At A Glance” is placed.

By the time there’s a break in filming to ‘cue’ in commercials, Keller has forgotten about all the madness behind the cameras. So it is somewhat of a surprise to him when the producer and her three interns bombard him; there’s a ton of babble until Keller raises a hand and points at the producer to speak first.

“There was just an announcement made by director Henley Bridget! He tweeted three weeks ago that he was going to do a documentary on the top ten female icons that propelled the gender equality movement forward over the last decade. He just tweeted the list – and this Doctor Celeste Gonzalez – she’s on it! We need to schedule her for an interview. We need to get her on the show Thursday to talk about what’s happening so that Henley will want clips from the show.” It’s always for business; it’s always about business. How can we make waves? How can we get noticed? What can we do to be bigger, better, and richer? Keller understands the ‘we’ mentality. He understands that this is just how these things work in Hollywood.

So, he shrugs his shoulders, “Get me a contact. I’ll personally request her. But the company pays to fly her out and for her accommodations. Understood?” The producer nods her head – Nancy, he thinks her name is. Nancy has been around for a little less than a year. The last producer fell horribly ill and had to leave unexpectedly. Nancy was chosen based on merit within the crew already. He’d not worked closely with her before and still didn’t work closely with her. She was just carrying the torch of a show already set in its ways – for the time being anyway.

The producer and her interns leave, all of them talking about who has to do what and when. In the meantime, Keller is thinking about this documentary and how gender inequality is still a hot-button issue. It shouldn’t be taking a decade for differences to be made so that women are paid equally and treated respectfully. Even with the surge in women occupying leadership roles – it’s not the number that confirms that the gender inequality movement has been a success. Just because corporate America is now fifty percent men and fifty percent women – the women still get paid marginally less. Less is less – and that’s what this director is trying to accomplish with this documentary. Even bigger attention to make even bigger changes!

Keller can get behind that. His ex-wife was a huge name in the feminist community, always writing articles on the sexist ways of the world. She travelled often, discussing the magnitude at which third world countries struggled with the harshest forms of sexism and gender inequality. It is unlike she will, or did, make the list – being that there are a good many other women who made even bigger differences. Hollywood is all about recognition, and she’ll call half-drunk for not having made the list tomorrow.

And Keller just knows she didn’t, because that would have been an even bigger deal than getting Doctor Celeste Gonzalez on the show this week. As soon as he’s nabbed a donut, the crew is calling him back to the set. Since he is the host, it won’t matter if he meanders because it’s not a show without him. He decides to poke just a moment so he can enjoy the donut – white frosting and yellow sprinkles. There’s something intrinsically charming about this particular donut that makes the stress of changing the entire show line-up for Thursday sound easy.

It’s probably because it’s delicious.

“America’s Sweetheart” – A Short Story Inspired by Elle King

Author’s Note: Due to the length of this story (27 typed pages), I have deiced to put a “Keep Reading” break after the first section of this story. I very much like it and hope that you will read it in it’s entirety.

America’s Sweetheart

(Lyrics from Elle King’s same titled song)

(A fiction piece adapted by Alixx Black)



Disclaimer: Let it be known that I am gaining no profit from using the lyrics from “America’s Sweetheart” as performed by Elle King and written by Tanner Schneider and Martin Johnson. The inspiration from this story stemmed from the lyrics, and as such I incorporated them into the story with a bold and italicized front with left alignment. I am not claiming credit for these lyrics in any way whatsoever.

 However, all right aligned text is an original piece of fiction



No there ain’t nothing that I gotta prove

You think your words will make me black and blue.

 

The bonfire burns brighter than the sun in this darkness. Or at least that’s what it feels like to her anyway. Everyone has a struggle, but the joy of growing up is learning how to deal with it. For Echo, well, that was just accepting everything at face value. If it had a deeper meaning, then it wasn’t any of her business.

Not even when it came to the hateful comments that some other party guests had for her; “You’re such a tramp. You drink, you fuck, and then you wake up in the bed of some guy’s pick up with no clue what happened that night!” Of course, she complains as a boy offers her another wine cooler. She’s been taking it easy tonight, moving at a much slower pace. The guy must be her boyfriend – or at least someone she likes.

None of these girls know that Echo is in therapy. These people have no idea that she was in the hospital over the summer after a suicide attempt. Of course, that only occurred while she was detoxing from her oxycodone addiction – which her parents had confronted her about after realizing that she was calling in additional prescriptions using her mother’s name. It’s all whatever now because she’s dealing with it, she supposes. Besides, these girls wouldn’t care even if they knew, and to be fair – she wouldn’t care if they tried to explain why they’re so hateful. It all washes out in the end.

Darwinism, right?

“You look so ugly in those boys’ boots and that ragged flannel. You look like a homeless farmhand, or something.” Another girl in the group laughs, or it sounds like a laugh anyway. Echo can’t really tell because she gets a chuckle out of it too. Perhaps it’s because she is tipsy, or perhaps because she’s a loud mouth with sarcasm itching beneath her skin.

Even with the therapy, keeping herself from biting back with these gals was next to impossible…

Continue reading ““America’s Sweetheart” – A Short Story Inspired by Elle King”

Food as Comfortable as a Blanket

I wanted to squeeze in a quick flash fiction piece before work today, just to keep the flow of work going on my blog. I’m using a “non-traditional” prompt today. It comes from a Tumblr blog geared towards character development.

Prompt: What is your character’s favorite comfort food?


I watch the rain outside with a frown on my face. The unfortunate thing about a rainy day is that it prevents me from working. As a landscaper, I need the skies clear in order to do what I do best. Since the weather doesn’t pass the test, I have to stay home and lose out on some cash. This makes four days in a row, now, that I haven’t been able to work at all. If I don’t work, I can’t get paid. And if I don’t get paid then those bills that are weeping on my counter… They’re mad at me! I can’t hear them.

Just then my sister texts me, reminding me to eat lunch on her. She slipped me a twenty when I stopped by for dinner yesterday. I was talking about the work week, and the bills, and the banks being awful – and she said that she was going to grab a couple drinks after work with the girls. She followed that by saying I deserved a good meal. I didn’t want to take it but I had to do it. If I turned her down, she would have taken it personally.

Everyone in my family takes gestures of the monetary sort personally.

There’s a beautiful bakery up the street that is joined with a family run café that I just love. I could eat there twice if I wanted to, but that’s exactly the problem. I do not want to go there today. I don’t even know that I’d want to go there tomorrow. That’s a place I visit when I am happy, when things are going good. Right now everything seems to be falling apart around me.

So as I stand with my face pressing against the window – I don’t even remember leaning against the glass, but apparently I’ve made myself comfortable there – and I consider what I should eat for lunch. What does one eat when life has decided to take the dark path through the woods? Chili? Macaroni? Hot dogs? Ramen noodles?

“Broccoli and cheese.” I decide. I know it’s not from scratch but I have a microwave dinner in the freezer from last week that I never got around to – last week was definitely a bakery and café week. Going through the motions carelessly and wearily, I find that I am cheered up just slightly after I heard the whirring of the microwave.

My mother used to give all of us kids broccoli and cheese on Mondays after school. With five kids, of course she would have to do anything just to make us calm down after the first day back to school in the week. Oh, how rowdy we could get! My two oldest brothers would wrestle in the foyer, and my two sisters would like chase me through the house playing ‘Tammy Tara Tina Tag.” Those, of course, are all our names. Our brothers are Thomas and Theodore.

The microwave dings, the smell of almost burnt cheese wafts out and grabs my heart. My parents were also “T” people. Tamara and Tyler. We were doing the “same first letter of our first ahem” thing before the Kardashians. We are twice as entertaining and only half as crazy. Someone should give my family a television show.

That would certainly help my financial struggles.

During my consideration of the alternate reality where my family is famous for reality television, I dump my broccoli and cheese into a tupperware container that is actually an old ice cream tub. I also swipe a fork from my drawer. It’s the last one clean. The smell of the steamed broccoli finally permeates the cheese, its earthy and salty. Microwave food is notoriously bad for being salty to help preserve the foods long beyond their normal life span.

But I don’t care, because it tastes fine. The first bite is always weird, especially if I haven’t ate it for a long time. By the third bite, I’m every bit as melted as the cheese. Just ooey-gooey insides and warm coursing through my veins. I barely even noticed that I’ve settled into my blanket on the couch. Halfway through my dish, if any Chef would allow me to properly call a microwaveable meal a dish, I move around to pull the blanket all the way up over me.

“Food as comfortable as a blanket.” Mhmm, it sure is.

Maybe tomorrow the sun will shine and I can go to the bakery to celebrate the clear skies!