The Particle Theory

©2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 8 minutes

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

MOM WAS A SCURLOCK, once a respected name, but folks in town just called her Annie Screwloose. I knew this from an early age, and I knew what it implied. 

She must have been aware what people called her, but we never spoke of it until one day, in battle, I shot it as a bolt to her heart.

She puckered her mouth and carried on. “People speak ill of others thinking it will make them feel good about themselves. You picked up their mocking name because you’re mad and want to hurt me.” She shoved a cat off a kitchen chair and sat down. “I understand your anger more than I understand their meanness. I wish you could partake of the joy all around you.”

I groaned. “Not this again. About the particles.”

She smiled. “Yes, the particles. Particles of joy in the air about us. I can feel them, see them, hear them, even taste them—and they transform my life.” Her face was radiant. “Why can’t you do the same?”

“Get my life transformed by particles? Mom, that’s crazy talk. There are no particles!”

“You needn’t shout.”

I glanced around the room at the gas stove she had had installed right next to the disused woodstove, never discarding the woodstove, which had loomed there for as long as I could remember—after all, there was “oodles of space in this kitchen.” My glance took in the stacks of newspapers and magazines on top of that old woodstove, mingled with cookbooks of the world’s great cuisines, and a line of motley dishes on the floor holding several kinds of pet food, which spilled onto the patchy linoleum. 

I capped my survey with a loud sniff of the air around us, which held an odor I never smelled in anyone else’s house. “You’re not some solitary saint protecting her only son. You’re a loony-tunes who drove her husband away and keeps all knowledge of him from me. What was he like? I don’t know. I never met him.”

“The less you know of that man, the better.”

 “I’ll be eighteen soon, Mom. I’ll find him.”

#

“Hello, Dad.” 

“Don’t give me that bullshit.” He spat out the words, then launched into a fit of coughing that made me wonder whether he would live out his latest sentence.

“You ought to get that looked at.” 

He gained control of his breathing and glared at me across the amored glass barrier. “Don’t be a wiseass with me. I didn’t have to come out here and see you at all.” He rose from the straight-backed chair on his side of the glass.

“Wait,” I said. “I’m sorry I offended you. I just need—”

“Yeah, what do you need, sonny?” He sank into the chair again, more slowly than he had risen. “Nothin’ I can give you.” His eyes were dead.

“When you said ‘sonny’ just now, was that ‘sonny’ as in ‘son’? It took me years to find you. Can you at least acknowledge I’m your issue?” 

He made a sour face. It puckered the wrinkles around his mouth. I was still in my twenties, so there’s no way he could have been the age his wrinkles testified.

“Look,” he said. “I got no issues. You wanna be my son, what’s in it for me?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Forget it.” I got up to go.

“That’s right, just cut me loose. Forget I ever existed.” His eyes suddenly sparked with fire. “You tell Miss Annie Scurlock: Thanks for nothing.” 

“Tell her yourself, you son of a bitch.” 

I went to the secure door and tapped on the glass. The deputy on the other side saw me and buzzed me through. “Get what you came for?” he asked, his face impassive.

“Got what I could get.”

#

I didn’t want to come home. I’ve been doing just fine on my own—learning a trade, paying my way, traveling light. I have no attachments and want none. I do better as a solo. But she was my mother. 

Her neighbor, Mister Johnson, got in touch with me. I drove overnight to get here, took my stuff into the empty house. It still had the old smell. I sat in the kitchen, depressed, for a few minutes, then got up and went to the hospital.

She had shrunk to a mere wisp. Her eyes were bright when I came into the room, and she looked at me with recognition.

“Hello, Mom.”

She smiled and blinked. They had said at the nurses’ station that she no longer had the power of speech.

“I found the old bastard a few years ago. In jail, naturally.”

The light went out of her eyes.

“You were right about him.”

She closed her eyes and that was that.

The funeral director asked whether I wanted to specify a charity for memorial gifts. I thought of all the cats and dogs that used to be around our house, and I said the humane society.

“That’s very fitting,” he said. He looked down at the blotter on his desk, then raised his eyes again. “I suppose you know they took her cats away a few months ago.”

I gulped. “No, I didn’t.” That explained why I found no animals in the house. “I suppose it was for the best.”

“Frankly, they were getting to be a problem. After they took them away, a few volunteers from the church came by and helped clean up her house. Did the best they could, anyway, to put it right.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that, either. Keep the humane society for the memorial gifts, but I’ll send a donation to the church.” 

“I’m sure it will be appreciated.”

So I came home. Now I sit here staring at the old woodstove. There are only a few magazines and newspapers on it. There are large patches of rust on the cast iron, but it’s a real antique. I’ll bet it could be restored and sold to somebody for real bucks.

It occurs to me to wonder what it would take to fix up this old house. It’s a large Victorian, in the family since the glory days of the Scurlocks. Now it’s mine. It might be worth the investment.

Now I notice a dish on the floor in the corner by the pantry door. Something’s in it that looks like dog food. 

A scratch and a whimper at the back door. I get up, open the back door, and there stands a scrawny-looking mutt, some kind of a terrier I guess. He backs up and gives a half-growl, because he doesn’t recognize me. But his tail wags. I’ll bet this is where he comes to get fed.

I open the door. He scurries in, still half-suspicious, yet hungry. 

He makes a beeline for the dish with the dog food and gobbles it down. 

I watch him. “Hello, Mutt. My name is Frank.” 

He finishes the last morsel, looks up at me, and gives a sudden, whole-body shake. A beam of sunshine slants down through the window, and the dog’s shake sends up a thousand motes of dust, dander, and debris. They rise and swirl, tiny specks in the golden light. 

Something makes me think of Mom, and I realize for the first time in my life I’m seeing particles of joy.

The End

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An Episode

©2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 10 minutes

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

WAYNE MATCHED HIS STEPS TO THE ROTATING GLASS DOOR of the Ultra Star Boston Back Bay Convention Hotel. He walked out into warm summer air and took a deep breath.

Kop van een man (1906)  by Reijer Stolk (Dutch, 1896 – 1945). Public Domain.

Eleemosynary this and eleemosynary that—he had left all such talk behind in the hotel’s lobby. It was just a fancy word for charitable. It did not apply to the Society for the Support of the Classics, since the group aided no persons in actual need. Yet “eleemosynary” was always on the lips of Caedmon Truescott, silver-haired czar of the Society. For Caedmon Truescott nothing was more important than virtue. 

Wayne, having no agenda outside the hotel, drifted with the traffic toward Boston Common. The Society would applaud when he ousted Truescott as chairman of the executive committee. He could hardly wait. Maybe it would happen in tonight’s plenary session.

Truescott’s prime asset was Charmayne, his second wife, young and blonde. Charmayne, always at Caedmon’s side, bedazzled everyone. Wayne could not place Charmayne in the same thought with Mavis, his own stalwart wife of four decades. Give Mavis her due: She studied Greek and Latin to read Homer and Ovid in the original, something none of the other well-heeled classicists of the Society could claim. But Mavis was no Charmayne.

The white spire of Park Street Church loomed ahead. Wayne belatedly realized he had walked past Boston Common barely registering its huge green presence. Well, he would start paying attention, now that he was downtown. 

“Not a care in the world.” A voice pierced the babble of passersby. Wayne turned his head. A man in the shadow of the church stared straight at him. “Fat and happy, aren’t you? Probably from out of town, you have that stargazing look.” 

Wayne halted. “Are you talking to me?”

The man was young and shaggy, his clothing foul. The man’s dark skin challenged Wayne as much as his words. “Bet you never missed a meal in your life.” 

“I don’t suppose I ever have. No apologies. I work for a living.” 

The man smiled. “As would I, my friend, if I could.”

“What do you want?”

The eyes looked down, then up. “The price of a meal would help—not just for me, for my wife, too.” 

Wayne looked around, saw no woman nearby.

The beggar scowled. “You think I’m a liar?”

“No. I just—” Wayne pulled out his wallet. “Here.” He handed the man all his cash. He did not know how much he was carrying. It did not matter. 

The man glanced at the bills, shoved them in a pocket. He looked at Wayne appraisingly. “The Bible says, ‘If a man takes your coat, give him your cloak also.’”

Wayne’s jaw dropped open. “You want my coat, too?” People hurried by, stepping around him and the young beggar.

The beggar’s eyed glittered as if enjoying a rare bit of sport. “Do I look like I have a coat, brother?”

Wayne sighed. He took off his suit coat—two hundred at Men’s Wearhouse? But did it matter?—and handed it to the beggar.

“Thanks, man.” Accepting the gift with his left hand, the beggar swung a roundhouse right and connected with Wayne’s nose.

A brief spasm of pain. The man sprinted away, carrying Wayne’s coat, dashing into the street between cars and vanishing into a warren of buildings on the other side. 

Wayne’s world spun. He breathed heavily. 

Where was he? Why had the man punched him? 

He felt hands on his shoulder.

“Oh, my God, that man’s crazy. What did he do? Are you all right?” A middle-aged woman with a creased face stared into his eyes.

“I . . . it’s all right.”

“No, it’s not. Look here, you’re bleeding.” She squirreled into her shoulder bag, brought out a wad of Kleenex, and shoved them under his nose. “I’ve seen him before. He’s not right.” 

He took the Kleenex from her hand. Bright red stains. He dropped the Kleenex on the sidewalk, fished out his pocket handkerchief, and held it on his nose.

“Look, it’s down your shirt.”

“It’ll wash. It’s no trouble.”

“That man got away with your coat.” 

Wayne felt cornered. “Maybe he needed it more than me.”

“Nonsense. You should call a cop.” She looked up and down the street. “Where are they when you need them?”

Spectators formed a knot around Wayne and the aggrieved woman. 

“Listen, “ Wayne said, “it’s no trouble. I’ll just go to my hotel, the . . . Hilton Something . . . it’s right up here.” He parted the onlookers and walked away, past the church, toward the tall buildings beyond.

“Well, I never,” said the woman, her voice fading behind him.

He only had to get back to the . . . place. The place where Mavis was. Hotel. Yes.

The Hilton Something. No, no, not Hilton. But something of the sort. 

He thought as he walked: he had been in Cincinatti before, surely he could find his way back. No, not Cincinnati. 

Paul Revere memorial. Photo by Daderot at English Wikipedia.

Toledo. Was that right?

There was green on his left. He went through an arch and found himself in a shaded garden. No, not a garden. There were tombstones. Old tombstones—thin, dark tablets with names incised in square letters. Here was a big white one: PAUL REVERE. Imagine that. 

He left the cemetery and continued, up and down city streets. One block, then another. 

The place he was looking for must be close by. Maybe it was just beyond the next block. With tall buildings intervening, it was hard to see your way. 

Bystanders stared at Wayne. What was there to stare at? A cop directing traffic in the middle of an intersection gave him the fish eye as he limped by. 

The sun angled sideways. It threw long, blue shadows between buildings. 

Wayne wearied. He started to fear that he would never find his way. 

He almost gave up hope. Then it was right in front of him: The Hilton. No, not the Hilton. Something else. Back Bay something, the sign said. But it was the right place. He remembered the wide, revolving door. 

He marched carefully to stay ahead of the door. Then he was inside. 

He looked around. Some people in the lobby were familiar. One man gave him a little one-handed salute. Wayne knew him well but couldn’t think of a name. He waved back, smiled weakly. 

What now? Find Mavis. 

Where would she be? 

A key. He needed a key. In his wallet. He remembered putting it in his pants pocket after the gypsies made off with his coat. Gypsies? Whatever. 

It was there. Good. He pulled out the wallet, opened it, and found the key card. The back of the card had the hotel’s name and a pattern of diamonds. 

No room number. Of course. They didn’t do that anymore. 

He was stumped. 

A young woman in a powder-blue coat eyed him from the front desk. 

Of course!

He walked over to the counter. “Can you help me? I have this key, but I can’t seem to remember my room number.” 

She smiled, her white teeth setting off her smooth chocolate skin. “Happens all the time. I can help you.” 

He almost burst into tears. She could help him. 

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Wayne. Wayne Purvis. Mister and Missus.” 

“You’re booked in here with Missus Purvis?” 

Wayne nodded. 

She studied a screen. “Here it is.” She smiled again. “I’ll just need to see some ID.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

Wayne pulled his driver’s license out of the wallet and handed it over. 

The young woman looked at the license, then at him.  She frowned. Squinted at the license, then squinted at Wayne’s face. She bit her lip.

“Very good,” she said. “It’s you, all right. Looks like you met with some mishap?” She did the thing with her eyebrows again.

“That’s why I want to get back to my room.”

The young woman studied him another moment. Then she wrote something on a slip of paper. “Eleven twenty-three. You can take the elevators over there.” She handed him the paper and pointed across the lobby. 

“Thank you.” 

Wayne saw Mavis.

“Wayne!” She rushed to him. “We’ve been looking all over for you. What’s happened?” She gawked at his appearance.

“I met somebody.”

“I guess so.” She looked dismayed, then threw her puffy arms around him. It felt good. 

“I’ll explain” he said. “Can we just, just go to our house, first?”

“In Chippewa Falls? Wayne, this is Boston.”

“Yeah, yeah, I mean . . . our room. Go to our room.” 

“Of course, darling. That’s a good idea.”

Over her shoulder, across the lobby, that silver-haired guy looked on. 

Caedmon Truescott. 

Wayne saw the dour look on Truescott’s face and knew that this moment was the end of his dream to unseat Truescott and become chairman of the . . . the Classical something or other.

Well, let him stare, thought Wayne as Mavis steered him to the elevator.

It was good to be home. 

The End

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Boot Camp for Uncle Max

© 2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

MOM BROUGHT UNCLE MAX HOME FROM THE STATION. 

He stepped through the front door, looked around, smiled at me and Dad. He seemed less tall than I remembered, hunched forward a little, with the collar of his overcoat turned up against the cold. The forelock of dark hair pointed down to his eyes, which nested among dark lines and baggy skin I had not seen before. 

“Hello, Bob.” He dropped his kit bag on the floor and stuck out a hand. 

Dad shook it. “Nice to see you, Max.” 

I rushed forward. “Hi, Uncle Max.”

“Hello, kid.” It was like a slap in the face. I had been about to hug him.

Mom pushed from behind. “Don’t just stand here letting the cold air in. Come on, out of the way. Shoo, shoo.”

Dad, Uncle Max, and I made way for the boss. She closed the front door, took off her coat, and started fussing over her kid brother. “You’ll have to wait to hear the latest adventures. He’s tired from his trip, aren’t you, Max?”

He gave her a grateful look. “Tired,” he said.

She took him to the guest room.

#

Later, at supper, Uncle Max talked. Not his usual line of chatter about hunting and fishing, wrangling horses or exploring the Australian outback. No long recollections of the time he worked his way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat, or the sharpshooting competition he won. Still, he was more like his usual self. Better rested, anyhow. “That’s great meat loaf, Doris. You can’t get chow like that out in the boondocks, where I’ve been.”

“Then you might honor the cook by eating more than one or two bites.” 

“So, Max,” said Dad. “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“Oh . . . I’m kind of in between things right now.” He shook a Camel out of its pack.

“Not in here, you don’t,” said Mom. “No smoking in my house.” 

Max frowned. Not guilt or even shame, but of frustration. 

He smiled, slid the cigarette back down, and returned the pack to his pocket. “Sorry, Sis. I forgot. I s’pose you’re teetotalers, too.” 

Mom said nothing.

Dad handed Max a bowl of mixed nuts from the buffet. “You were saying, ‘in between things’?” 

Max took a couple of walnuts. “Air transport business isn’t what it used to be.” He pulled the little chrome nutcracker out of the bowl and besieged a walnut.

 “You’re no longer with Clancy?”

“All this globe-trotting. Grain for starving villagers, Kalashnikovs for mercenaries. No good for a man. I’ve been thinking about settling down.” He fumbled the nutcracker. Mom snatched it from his hands and cracked the nut for him.

Uncle Max laughed. “Thank you, Dorrie. You always had a way with hand tools.” He looked over at Dad. “I’ve got a job out west. Chance to settle down in a nice part of the country.” 

“Ahh?” said Dad.

“Working for an FBO.”

Mom squinted. “FBO?”

“Fixed base operator. I’ll be the manager of ground operations.” 

Dad raised his eyebrows. Mom scratched her chin.

“Course, it doesn’t pay near what I’ve been making, but the cost of living’s cheap out there, and there’s lots of fish and game.”

“Sounds like an opportunity to me,” Mom said. “What kind of work is it?” 

“Like running a filling station for airplanes.” He gave a snarky grin, the first time since he walked in the door that I recognized my uncle. “Hello, Mister Pilot, Sir. Top her up with jet fuel? Can I check your oil? Rotate your tires? Rent you a little hangar space?” He looked at me and winked like he was letting me in on a joke. Just Uncle Max and me, like the old days.

“Oh, it’s perfect,” said Mom. “Good honest work, in one place.”

Max got the other nut loose by himself. “You understand, I’d be the executive in charge of the service operation. We got other guys for grease monkeys.”

“Of course,” said Dad, nodding wisely as if accountants automatically knew all about airport operations. 

#

After supper, Uncle Max put on his coat and took his pack of cigarettes to the backyard. I grabbed my parka and followed him.

He sat balanced on the edge of our snow-covered picnic table. “Jim, boy! You’re a sight for sore eyes. How are things in school?” A wisp of smoke rose from the glowing tip of his Camel.

“Uh . . . okay, I guess.”

“Those girls gettin’ after you?” He sniggered like there was some deep male knowledge between us. There wasn’t, at least on my part, but this at least was the Uncle Max I knew.

“Not half the problem for me as they are for you,” I said. This was nothing but sass. Since he was the only one in our family to be married and divorced three times, I figured I could get away with saying it.

He blew out a cloud of smoke. “Don’t let them get the better of you. That was always my problem. They get you where they want you, then you gotta cut them loose. And you pay.” 

This was too deep for me. I looked at my feet. “Tell me about your new job.”

He threw his cig on the ground and lit a new one immediately. “Nothing to tell, really. Guy I know from the war runs the whole operation—Grand Tetons Aviation. Said I could work for him.”

“How long will you be staying here with us?”

“I got a week before I have to report out there. Tell you the truth, it’ll be like boot camp for me.” 

“Boot camp?”

“You know your mom. She went through my bag and confiscated my nice silver flask. Don’t matter, it was empty anyhow.” 

Could I picture Mom putting Uncle Max through such humiliation? Sure I could.

“It’s okay,” said Uncle Max. “I’ve been through boot camp before.”

#

We all accompanied him to the station. He stepped onto the platform to meet the train, a different man from the one who had slinked in the door a week before.

He was all jaunty fedora and shiny new wingtips, and everything in between had been remodeled. Mom had taken him downtown on a shopping expedition Wednesday. Under his new tan trench coat he wore a gray suit and striped tie. His bulky aviator’s watch had been replaced by a slim gold Bulova with a matching expansion band. 

Even the comma of greasy-looking hair was gone, the lines and eyebags banished as if they had been massaged away. Maybe he had gained a few pounds.

He set down his brownSamsonite suitcase, yanked the leather glove off his right fist, and shook my fourteen-year-old hand just like I was a grown man. “So long, Jim. Come on out and see me. I’ll take a few days off and we’ll go bag ourselves one of those bighorn sheep on a mountaintop.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

He shook Dad’s hand likewise, then turned to Mom. “Thank you, Dorrie, for all the good food. And, well, for everything.” He leaned in to hug her.

“Just go make that airport hum. Make us all proud.” 

“Airports don’t hum, Sis. They buzz.” He looked embarrassed at the lame joke. “But yes. I will, Sis. I will.” 

I wondered who had paid for all this new clothing and luggage, his fresh haircut and nice-smelling cologne—him, or Mom? At no time in the past week had Uncle Max taken us all out for a big restaurant dinner, as on past occasions. He always enjoyed putting on a show and being extravagant, if he could.

Then the train came. Uncle Max stepped up into a gleaming car and was on his way to Wyoming.

#

A few years later, after he was well settled, we paid him a visit. It would turn out to be the last time I saw him. 

He had married a fourth time, to Ruthie, a woman who looked like a better match than his other wives had been. 

He showed me the camping and sporting gear he had collected: hunting rifles, fishing rods and reels, nifty little tents and camp stoves and backpacks. It was great equipment and well used. But he did not take me out in the wilds to hunt or fish with him. 

“Sorry, Jim,” he said. “I’ve just got too much work to do at the airport.”

“That’s all right, Uncle Max.” By that time, I had other things on my mind, anyway.

He looked over at Mom. “Always remember how important your family is, Jim. Someday you’ll need them, and they’ll come through for you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Mom’s boot camp must have been a success.

He died a year or two later, from too much hard living, and left Ruthie a nice house and a modest pension.

The End

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Lost in the Woods

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

[Larry pic]

Read Time: 18 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

AN OLD MAN NAMED CARL SAT ON HIS PORCH, idly carving on a piece of wood. Nothing had come to him.

He studied the dog at his feet, Chief, who lay across the top step of the porch and snored peacefully. Chief was one of those fire-company dogs, white with black spots now gone gray. “Sleep well, old damnation. Reckon you got it coming to you.”

Carl’s gaze leapt to the pickup truck that stood by the road, dwarfed by tall trees on either side. He could not recall what color it had been, but it was nothing like that color now. Except where rust showed, it was muddy gray, not much to look at. But it still got Carl down to the store for supplies and back up the mountain as soon as he had filled his order. He knew the town people watched him, scratched their heads, and probably thought him a crazy old coot. But he couldn’t help that. Nothing could help.

Wood. Photo by Charlotte Harrison on Unsplash.

He sighed. He had carved Chief plenty of times, in all positions, and the pickup more than once. Maybe he should whittle out one of those fairy tale princesses. He used to carve them for Celia, who was partial to them, but had not done one in years. He shook off the shreds from his aimless whittling and took a new interest in the wood. Where in this block of pine would he find a princess? He saw a line and pressed the tiny blade where he wanted it to cleave.

“Hiya!” said a young, chipper voice. “Whatcha doin’?”

Carl looked up and saw a boy, standing a few respectful feet from the bottom of the steps. He stood fearless, looking up at Carl with eyes that pierced his heart.  

Chief raised his up ear but showed no other interest. He knew about boys.

“Just whittlin’, I reckon,” Carl said. He looked the lad over—six or seven years old, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. “Where’d you come from?” 

“From home.”

“I mean, how d’ye come to be here, right now?”

“Walked.” He marched around in a circle, showing how. 

Carl pressed his lips together. When did kids get to be so sassy?

“We’re renting a cabin. Down the road. Me and Mom and Dad. For two weeks. It’s a vuh-cation.”

Carl examined his carving. “Is that a fact?” He drew another stroke down the block of pine. 

“Yessir. Can I pet your dog?” 

“Why ask me? He’s the one you’re addressin’.”

The boy frowned in perplexity. “What’s his name?”

“Calls himself Chief.” Oughtn’t take too much off the lower end. Princesses need room for their full skirts.

“Chief. Hi, Chief.” The boy sidled ever so carefully toward the spraddled dog. Chief raised an eyelid. The boy placed placed a hand in front of his nose, which hung off the top step along with his downside lip. Chief sniffed the hand, then licked and yawned. Courtesy rendered, he resumed his nap.

“He’s a nice dog,” the boy said in a tone of awe.

“He’s a ball of energy today,” said Carl. “Not this perky when he’s tired.”

#

“Where’s Kit?” It came to Genie that she had not seen her son for—how many minutes? Too many, here in this wilderness. She stopped stuffing food into the cupboards and looked out the kitchen window. Seeing no boy, she looked plaintively at Gus. “I told him to stay close.” 

“When did you ever know Kit to heed instructions?”

“Not yet.” She giggled nervously.

“Well, he’s only seven. Plenty of time yet for growing up.”

“If a bear doesn’t eat him first.” She shuddered.

Gus sighed. “Relax. I’ll go find him.” He strode out the door, down the steps, and out toward the gravel road that wound past the cabin. 

Genie felt mildly reassured. If Gus was not concerned, why should she be? He knew the woods better than she. Where did all that confidence come from? She longed to explore that, but all her experience told her to tread carefully. 

When they were dating—he first asked her out across the circulation desk at the library—he had been a handsome, impertinent young man. “Who are you?” she had asked. “Call me Gus,” he replied. “Now how about that movie?” She had countered, “I still don’t know who you are.” He spread his arms, offering himself for inspection. “I am a humble design engineer.” She looked at him quizzically. “And you want to see Pride and Prejudice?” He feigned confusion. “Something wrong with Jane Austen?” She knit her brows and questioned herself inwardly. “I guess my first thought was, for an engineer, you have a taste for the finer things.” He smiled from ear to ear. “That’s why it’s you I’m asking out, Marian.” “It’s not Marian, it’s Genie. And it’s a date.”

At dinner, after the show, Gus had chatted amiably about Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy, measuring the film against fine points of the book—another shock to Genie’s system. But when she asked anything about his background—his youth, where he grew up, were he went to high school, he clammed up. He shunned all her questions in the nicest way, referring her to his employer, a design-build construction company, who he said would vouch for his honesty.

While falling in love with him, she assumed he would someday share his personal story. But now, eight years and one son later, she still knew nothing of his life before they met. Something had wounded him terribly, and he had walled it off. 

She was hurt that he would not share. All in good time, she thought, as always.

Gus was gone a long time in search of Kit, and she began to worry. Then she saw him coming up the path from the road. Alone, but not upset. That could mean anything.

She ran out on the cabin porch to meet him. “Yes? Tell me. Quick.”

“Relax.” He grinned. “There’s an old sawyer’s cabin a mile up the road. I thought that’s where he’d go.”

“Why did you think that?”

He shrugged. “Because that’s where the road leads. Anyway, I snuck up, hid in the road, screened by bushes, and saw him holding quite a parley with the old man and his dog.”

“Our first day here, and he’s out bothering the neighbors. But you didn’t you bring him home with you?”

“I wouldn’t say he was bothering the guy.”

“You said he’s a sawyer. Doesn’t he have work to do?”

Gus sighed. “Was a sawyer, years ago. Right now, it looks like he’s just a whittler. Probably hungry for any human contact.”

She squinted. “How do you know he was a sawyer?”

“Why else would anybody live up here? He doesn’t rent tourist cabins, I’ll tell you that. In fact, we were lucky to find this one.”

How deftly he changes the subject. “Speaking of which, what prompted us to come to this out-of-the way place for a vacation, anyhow?”

Gus frowned. “I, uh, found it in the paper.” 

“It’s our first vacation ever. You know Kit would have been delighted with Disney World.”

“And he’ll be delighted with these woods, too. You wait and see.”

“I won’t feel good until he’s back in my view.” 

“Well, here he comes now.” Gus pointed. “And all on his own. No coercion.”

Kit skipped in from the road, a smile on his face and an object in his hand. “Hi, Mom. This is for you.” 

He gave her a small wood figurine, less than six inches tall. “It’s a fairy princess. He said you’d prob’ly like it.”

“Who said?”

“The old man up the road.”

“Does this old man have a name?”

Kit shrugged. “His dog’s name is Chief.”

“Aren’t you afraid of dogs?”

“No. I like ’em now.”

“How much money should I send back with you?”

Kit gave her a look of incomprehension. 

“You know, to pay for this fairy princess.”

His eyes widened. “Oh, you don’t have to pay. He said it’s a gift.”

She stood perplexed.

Gus swatted her playfully with a dish towel. “There you go, Genie. One day in the woods and already the forest gnomes are giving you gifts. That wouldn’t happen in Orlando.”

#

When the lad showed up again the next day, Carl was working on a dog. 

The boy’s eyes moved from the real dog reclining on the porch to the wooden dog in Carl’s hands. “Is it Chief?” 

“I reckon it is. He’s the only dog I’ve got to model by.”

“But—”

“I know what you’re gonna say. The real Chief is just like a lumpy rug on the floor. Sometimes I wonder if he’s drawing breath. But this Chief I’m holding is standin’ up and rarin’ to go.”

“Yeah.”

The lump of basswood, on which the old man had worked all morning, had started to show a fair likeness to its original, except for posture. The flop of the ears and the hang of the dewlaps were dead on. Tiny striations from Carl’s blade gave the impression of Chief’s hairy coat, with even the dark spots suggested by minute cross-hatchings. The dog rose on his back legs, front paws flailing the air, as if leaping to snatch a treat from Carl’s hand. 

“You see,” he told the boy, “this is how old Chief looked a few years ago, when he was a gay young dog.”

“Chief is gay?”

“Happy. Playful. That’s what I mean. Just like this.” He held the object for the boy’s admiration. Carl was proud of his work. He might be just an old buffoon in a cabin in the woods, but he knew a thing or two about beauty.

The boy, who had told Carl his name was Kit, asked, “How old is Chief?”

Carl scratched his chin, as he often did when ciphering. “Well, let’s see, it’s about fifteen years ago I got him, and he was just a wiggly puppy then.” 

“Did you buy him at the pet store?”

Carl chuckled. “Oh, no. When you live in the right kind of place, people give you nice dogs like this for free.”

“For free!” Kit jumped up and down on the porch, causing Chief to turn back over his shoulder and protest. 

“Let’s go inside a minute, and I’ll show you something.” 

The boy followed Carl into the dim, cool cabin. Carl switched on a light. “Look at that.”

Kit’s eyes roamed the room. Every surface held carved figurines—in all woods, painted and unpainted, varnished and unvarnished, stained and unstained. They were in two or three subtly different styles, which the boy would not notice, but all bore the fine marks of Carl’s favorite tool, his simple, two-bladed jackknife. He had heard that there were knives especially made for woodcarving, but as long as he had a good, sharp pocketknife, what did it matter? 

Kit roamed the room, looking at dozens of forms—deer and badgers, Chief, the pickup truck, miniature tree trunks of the species from which they were carved, even beetles and toads. He reached out to touch a magnificent stag, and Carl wanted to shout, “Don’t!”—but he bit his tongue. What did it matter? The boy might as well touch them.

Carl picked up an eight-inch carving of a strikingly attractive young woman in a simple dress, looking back over her shoulder. He showed it to the boy. “This was my wife, Celia. When she was young. I lost her before I found old Chief. He never had the chance to know her goodness.” 

“How did you lose her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” Kit’s eyes were big and round. Carl did not know whether the boy had any idea what death meant. Still less how quickly a fast-growing cancer could destroy a life.

Carl set the carving of Celia back down and picked up a smaller one, a little boy in cherry wood, an impish smile on his face. “It’s our boy, Otto. When he was little. He was fifteen when I lost him.”

“Did he die?” 

“No, no. At least I haven’t heard if he did. No, I lost him by sending him away. I was bad to him.” 

#

Gus wondered what he had gotten himself into, and how he would get himself out. And whether he wanted to get himself out.

“This is the forest primeval,” Genie said, spreading her arms as they hiked up the road. 

“That sounds like a quote.”

“Longfellow. ‘Evangeline.’ ” 

“If primeval means original, then Longfellow was talking about someplace else. This is all second-growth timber.” Gus stopped and gazed up at the canopy of trees. “Old second-growth.” 

“And did you just happen to know that?  Or are you an expert forester as well?” 

He shrugged.

“Anyway,” she said. “It feels primeval.”

“Well, there may be something in that.” He grinned. “Lots of primeval feelings up here on this mountain.”

Genie sighed as they walked on. “Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Gus pointed to a bend in the road ahead. “Now hush up. Just beyond here is where the old man lives.” 

“And we’re hushing up because?”

“Just take a look for yourself, and you can judge whether Kit’s in any danger from this old geezer.”

“More likely the other way around, I’d think.” 

“Shh. Lower your voice.”

#

The planes of Otto’s face, caught in a large piece of cherry wood, revealed a smoldering anger. The anger became more focused as Carl worked. Clearly the anger was aimed at him, the carver. Accusatory woodcarving. Will wonders never cease.

He had begun work in the wee hours, unable to sleep. Now it was mid-morning. He whittled calmly but with weariness. 

Chief and the boy watched in silence until, at last, Kit could not contain himself. “I thought you said this was the same boy.”

“It is.”

“But he doesn’t look the same.”

Carl met the boy’s eyes. “The one you saw yesterday—Otto was about your age. I’ve made lots of carvings like that. But I’ve never before carved Otto when he was fifteen.”

“Why not?”

“Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.” Carl brushed a few crumbs of cherry off Otto’s face. “That’s why you think he looks different. He’s older.”

“But he’s not happy, like the other one.” 

“I’m afraid you’re right. He’s not.” The boy nodded, frowning, and Carl wanted to explain. “Nothing can make him happy. That’s how he was at that age.”

“Why?”

“His mama passed away. I didn’t know how much that hurt him.” 

“Why not?”

Carl sighed. “I was unhappy too. So I could only see my own grief. Not his. I’m afraid I beat him.” 

“Beat him?” The boy’s eyes showed shock. “You mean . . . ?” His hands formed small fists and plowed into his own thigh as he sat there on the porch step.

Carl hung his head. Finally, he picked up the knife again and continued work on the anguished figurine of his son. “Anyway, that’s why he looks unhappy.” 

“What happened after that?”

“He left home. I never heard from him again.”

Kit’s head whipped around at a sound.

Carl looked up. 

A woman walked in from the road. “There you are! I found you, you little rascal.” A young woman. A city woman, he guessed. A bit noisy, but she couldn’t be all that bad, raising such a fine young son. “Sir, I’m sorry. I hope he hasn’t been bothering you.” 

Carl set down his knife and the block of cherry and stood up. Now he could see the young man trailing behind the woman. He looked furtive, or embarrassed. As if he would like to reel her back in. “Genie,” he said. 

“Mommy,” said Kit. “This is the man who gave you the princess.”

She smiled warmly into Carl’s eyes. 

The young man came up even with her.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” said Carl. “Hello, Otto.” 

“Hi, Pop.” 

Her mouth dropped open and she stood there looking first at Carl, then at Otto. 

Otto turned to face her. “Otto Augustus,” he said. “Named after my grandfather.”

Carl cast his eyes downward. “God rest his soul.”

Kit jumped up and down. “Dad’s name is Otto? Cool!” 

Otto put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s a long story.”

They all stood a moment, letting their thoughts settle. 

Chief scratched his ear listlessly. 

“Well, don’t just stand there,” said Carl. “Come on up here, where I can get a good look at ye.” 

The End

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Snow Angel

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 11 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

STARBRIGHT, AGE SEVEN, LAY FACE UP IN NEW SNOW. She waved her arms and legs with all her might. After six sweeps, she sprang to her feet and leapt clear to the sidewalk.

Snow Angel. Unknown author. Public Domain.

She turned to look. It was a perfect angel, though small because she couldn’t make it any bigger. Even so, it filled the square of terrace between sidewalk and fireplug in front of the four-story building where she lived. 

She prayed it would be enough.

She went in and, holding her red rubber boots in her hands, ran up the stairs. Thirteen steps each flight, for a total of fifty-two, like the suits in her deck of worn cards. 

“Hi,” said Uncle Dave as she entered. “I saw you down there. What did you make?” 

She stood over the rubber mat. “An angel. Do you like it?”

Uncle Dave brushed snow off her coat with his fingertips. “I do.” 

“How come you’re here? Where’s Wanda?” 

“She went across town to be with her family. So I’m filling in.” He went to the window and peered down. “Of course. That’s an angel all right. Look here what I made.” He pointed to a scraggly green tree.

“Only God can make a tree.” She enjoyed pointing out Uncle Dave’s errors. 

“But I made it stand up in the corner. And I’m going to make it pretty with balls and lights and tinsel. You can help.”

Uncle Dave’s coat was draped on the end of the sofa. Shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened, he lowered a string of lights over the scrawny tree. Starbright grabbed a fistful of tinsel and reared back to throw it.

“No, wait. Ornaments first.”

“Oh.” She giggled. “I forgot. Uncle Dave, I did something bad to Mommy.”

He paused and looked at her. “Yes?”

“I called her a mean old lady.”

“Not nice.”

“I want to tell her I’m sorry, but I’m not. It’s true, and people should say true things.”

Uncle Dave squinted. “Uh huh. Why is she so mean?”

“That’s what I’d like to know!”

“But why do you think she’s mean?”

“She won’t take me to see Grandma and Grandpa for Christmas.”

Uncle Dave draped the lights with care. “We’ll have a jim dandy Christmas here. I’ll come over, and you and your mommy and I can open presents and sing songs and—”

“We never see Grandma and Grandpa!” 

“Now you can start hanging ornaments. I know your mom would feel better if you apologized to her first thing tomorrow.”

“But what I said was true, and true things should be said.”

Uncle Dave mmphed. When the tinsel was hung, he warmed a pizza he had brought with him. They played war and slapjack with Starbright’s dog-eared cards until late. 

“Oops! Look at that, it’s past nine. Time for you to go to bed.” 

They hung her stocking on the coat tree by the front door, because there was no chimney. Uncle Dave said that in multiple-unit apartments Santa Claus used the front door like anybody would. She believed Uncle Dave because he knew all about apartments. 

#

Dave sat in the arm-chair, the one with the displaced spring in the seat cushion, lost in thought. 

After a while he got up, opened Starbright’s door a crack, and listened. Satisfied with the sound of her rhythmic breathing, he got a small tumbler of ice cubes from the tiny kitchen and poured in a shot of Laphroaig from the slim silver flask in his inner coat pocket. It was his one indulgence, although he could easily have afforded others. 

He held the bitter Scotch whiskey in his mouth, savoring the taste of smoldering peat and creosote. Life was like that. Some of the vilest things could turn out to be all right.

What did the Old Man have against Candy, when all was said and done? Dave had gotten to know her better since Willard’s passing, and she was all right. She was doing her best. What more could Dad and Mom demand? 

#

Starbright stood in a field of snow. Clean, white snow that sparkled like diamonds. Not a house or building or car or fireplug in sight. There were only trees, evergreens half-buried in hills of snow.

She had grown incredibly tall. She seemed as tall as the distant trees. 

Then she saw Santa coming across the fields toward her. He was walking, taking big steps in his black boots. She wondered where his sleigh was, and his reindeer, and his pack.

When Santa got closer, she saw that it was not Santa, but a woman, or maybe a man, in a long, flowing robe. He, or she, had a very peaceful look on his, or her face, and said, “Fear not.”

Starbright looked up to see the figure, who was much taller than she, even though a moment ago she had been as tall as the trees. She suddenly knew it was an angel, because she saw the wings on its back, six of them, fanning the air just the way she had fanned the snow in front of the building with her arms.

“When you wake, you must go and ask your mother’s forgiveness.” 

“But what I said was true!”

“The lips of the wise do not tell everything they know to be true.”

“Oh.” Starbright had never thought of that.

The angel nodded. 

“But,” Starbright said, “when will I ever see Grandma and Grandpa?”

“You are not meant to know by what means your needs shall be provided.” 

Starbright stared up at the angel. She could not fathom what the angel had just said, but it was too late to ask, for the angel was gone.

#

Candy rose early so she could shower, dress, and run a brush through her hair before Starbright woke. Dave would arrive early, and Candy did not want to be caught in night dress. It meant she didn’t get much sleep after coming home from Tiny’s, where she waitressed until bar time. But what else was new? 

Starbright, pajama-clad, toddled in. “Oh, Mommy, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Candy stared at her surprising daughter. “You’re forgiven, you know that. What am I forgiving you for?”

“Oh . . . you know.” 

Before Candy could reply, there was a knock at the door. Good heavens, Dave was here already. 

“Come in,” Candy said. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”

Dave carried an armful of packages, which he tumbled down onto the sofa. 

Candy took his overcoat. “I haven’t started cooking yet. Sit down and relax. I’ll rustle up a big breakfast, and we can open presents after that.”

Starbright looked disappointed at the order of things, but she might as well start learning about delayed gratification.

“Here. This might help.” Dave dived into a sack on the sofa and pulled out a tray of store-bought cookies. He held them out to Candy as she returned from hanging his coat.

“Cookies? Thanks, but how’s that breakfast? Both of you just cool your jets, and we’ll get around to treats after—”

Another knock sounded at the door. 

Dave looked at Candy. “Are you expecting someone else?”

She shook her head, and with an expressive shrug went to the door and opened it.

Her father-in-law, Thomas Campion, the Thomas Campion of Campion Realty, stood there, his height and breadth filling the doorframe, a sour look on his face. “Well, Candace? Can we come in?”His wife, Marge, in fur, stood behind him. She elbowed him aside and shoved her way in. “What he means, my dear, is Merry Christmas. It’s so delightful to see you again.” She smiled a thousand watts, including about forty watts of real warmth. She shoved a stuffed bear out ahead of her and wiggled it at Starbright. “Here you are, Bright! Santy left him at our house for you. His name is Geoffrey.”

, thank you!” Starbright stepped forward grinning and hugged the bear, nearly her own size. “I just knew you’d come.” 

Candy’s gaze shifted from Starbright’s radiance to Tom’s discomfort and Marge’s tension. “Yes. Do come in. Sit down.”

Dave swept his packages off the sofa. “Right here, Dad. Get comfortable.” He held out the tray Candy had just ridiculed. “Want a cookie?” 

The old man reached forward, inspected the assorted cookies peevishly, finally pinched a ginger snap between thumb and forefinger. “Thank you.”

Marge held her arms out to Candy and folded her in a clumsy embrace. 

“Candy was just about to make breakfast,” Dave said. Then, to Candy, “Weren’t you?”

They all stared at her.

“Yes, indeed.” She had bought enough ham and eggs for three. “Pancakes. How many can you eat?” 

Tom, holding a half-eaten cookie, looked up from the couch. “You needn’t cook for us, Candace. I mean, it’s a nice thing—”

“What the old fool means is, how can we impose on you, considering . . . .” 

“Considering both of you cut me and Starbright out of your lives when Bill died?”

At the word “died,” Marge winced.

“I know what’s wrong with me, but she’s your only granddaughter.” Candy found she was breathing heavily.

Starbright caught her by the sleeve and pulled her down. She cupped her hands around Candy’s ear and whispered. It sounded like, “Wise mouths don’t blab everything, even if it is true.”

Candy smiled. “Pardon my manners. Of course you’re welcome here. Tell Dave how many cakes you can eat and I’ll get cooking. Starbright, go to your room and get dressed.”

#

Starbright made a detour to look out the window. Four stories below, the snow in the little square lay undisturbed. 

A presence loomed above her head. Uncle Dave.

“No angel,” she whispered. “What happened to it?”

Uncle Dave craned his neck so his face was up against the glass and looked down. “Mmph,” he said.

#

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Christmas Traditions by Smith & Wesson

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

MAMA KEPT THE GUN MY FATHER USED TO END HIS LIFE, which is how it came to be in the pocket of my ratty overcoat twenty years later as I stalked down St. Paul Avenue with murder in my heart.

It was a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber Police Special, a six-shot revolver made of blued steel. It took years for Mama to part with the simplest of Dad’s personal effects—clothes, underwear, socks, watch, cufflinks. She never did get rid of the gun. 

She kept it hidden in a box on her closet shelf, above the limp, dispirited dresses. At age twelve, I snooped all over the house. I fancied I knew all Mama’s secrets. Often when she was still at work, I climbed up on a chair, lifted down the Thom McCann shoe box, removed its lid, and stared at the blue revolver. It had its special place, like a treasured heirloom, kept safe to be handed down to the next generation. Sometimes I played with the bullets in the little box beside the gun. I always put things back before Mama got home. 

Lucille, my older sister, had left to make her own way in the world. She had put all the distance she could between herself and us. I can’t say I blame her. 

All that was long behind me on this cold Christmas Eve. I was now the star of my own drama. 

“I’m leaving,” Angie had announced in the small kitchen of our crappy little upstairs flat. 

“Where you going?” I asked in all innocence. “We need milk or something? I can go.”

“No. I mean I’m leaving you, Eddie. For good.” 

“What! Leaving me?” Then, a moment later, “Who is it?”

She picked up her tiny overnight case from under the kitchen table. “None of your business. But if you must know, it’s Sal.” I had not even noticed the overnight case.

“Sal the saloonkeeper? You’re dumping me for him? What’s he got over me?” I grew hot under the collar, shouted right in her face.

She stood there, bold as brass. Then her eyes softened. “I’m carrying Sal’s child.”

At that I exploded. 

I’m not sure what all I said. I am sure I did not lay a hand on her. 

But she laid me out with words, just as surely as David slew Goliath with a stone.

“A woman wants children, Eddie. I got tired of waiting. Sal gave me what I wanted. You wouldn’t, or couldn’t.” 

She walked out with that tiny case, leaving me alone with Bathsheba, the snappy little Pomeranian bitch I had given her last Christmas. I never wanted a dog. But better a dog than a little hotheaded boy.

I yelled down the hall. “What about the mutt? Don’t you want her?” 

The empty hallway bounced my voice back at me. 

The nerve. The sheer, unmitigated gall. She can’t treat me that way.

I pounded my fists on the wall until the little red fur-ball started yapping. I walked circles on the floor. Then I remembered. 

I went to the bedroom, pulled out my bottom drawer, and lifted out the gun, which had become mine when Mom died. Funny thing, I never could bring myself to get rid of it either.

Those bullets were still in the little box. I loaded the gun, jammed it in the pocket of my overcoat, and went out. 

Angie had left me for Salvatore Balistreri, the tavern-keeper. Now I was gunning for him. Somehow I always knew it would come to this. Dad was a hothead and I was a hothead. Like father, like son. 

My mind was clear as I sloshed through the snow to Sal’s place. It had calmed me some to slide the bullets, one by one, into the chambers of the rotating cylinder. I only loaded five, because I’d heard it’s bad luck to carry a gun with a live round under the hammer.

We lived in a run-down section of Milwaukee known as the Third Ward, an old Italian neighborhood. Now, in 1976, they were building highways through it. One of the last holdouts against progress was Balistreri’s bar. 

I couldn’t help notice the tavern seemed festive. Evergreen boughs draped its lighted front. The door had a fresh coat of red paint. You could call it fire engine red or church door red. Same difference. 

I pushed in through wall-to-wall celebrants, who all had the advantage of me by several drinks. The swirl of tobacco smoke and alcohol fumes was baptized by the smell of garlic as Sal’s sister Loretta danced by with a tray of hot pizza. Merry-makers toasted a small Christmas tree that sat on one end of the bar, hung with lights, tinsel, and small pictures of Italian saints. 

All this warmth around me, but I was an icicle.

Angie, on a stool at the bar, turned her face away when she saw me. Never mind that. 

I rounded the end of the bar to confront Sal. “Who the hell you think you are, loverboy? Who are you, Casanova?” 

I went to grab his collar. He fended me off. He was half a head taller than me, maybe a couple years older. His dark face turned darker, as if he knew to be ashamed of himself. 

He softly placed a white towel on the little shelf behind the bar. “Let’s have this talk outside.” 

He led the way out through the back door, into the alley behind the bar. 

I jumped him. “You’ve been screwing my wife!” 

He threw me back off and held up his hands. “Look at yourself, Eddie. No wonder she don’t want you.”

“Yeah?”

He glowered. “What kind of man is it, won’t give a girl a little bambino?”

My hand dug for the gun. My finger found the trigger guard.

“Angie don’t wanna see you any more. Neither do I. Beat it.” He turned and walked back into the bar as I pulled the gun out of my pocket. 

I raised it to fire just as the door closed.

Standing there, a bewildered baboon, I couldn’t believe it. I had come on purpose to kill him and frittered it away in talk. 

What if I went back in right now and shot him dead behind the bar, right in front of Angie? 

But I should go in the front way, like a man. I ran down the alley, turned the corner, and walked half a block to St. Paul.

I slogged down the street, went on past the front door of Balistreri’s, and found myself on the southbound ramp of the new Hoan Bridge. The city fathers wouldn’t connect the freeway that led to it, so people called it the Bridge to Nowhere. How fitting.

There I was, trudging up the long slope of the bridge, a pedestrian in the middle of an interstate highway with no cars on it. I saw a yellow flicker far away—maybe a hobo camp on the south shore under the south end of the bridge.

It was a long walk, like a mile, to the top of the bridge. But having started, I kept on to the highest point, dead over the Milwaukee River where it entered Lake Michigan. 

I looked down at the black water, a hundred and twenty feet below me. If the fall didn’t kill me, I’d perish soon after in the frigid water. The river would push me out into the lake and I’d never be found.

I felt the weight of the gun in my pocket. A surer way. Quicker. Less terrifying.

“Say, buddy, I hate to bother you . . . .” 

“Huh?” I turned away from the rail. A man stood there. 

A hairy old face, a Packers stocking cap, a bundle of heavy layers. The top layer was fur, like an old-time raccoon coat. “I wouldn’t bother you. It’s just, the pup ain’t et in a coupla days.” A ragged white snout poked out the top of his coat. A dog, some kind of terrier, with a big black nose and dark, hungry eyes.

“You carry it in your coat?” 

“He can run and jump all right, but it’s mighty cold tonight.”

How had I missed this bum’s approach? The moonlight showed his tracks in the snow, coming up from the south end of the bridge.

“You walked all this way to ask for a handout?”

“If you could just spare a coupla bucks, we could have us a meal.” 

The dog made no comment, just stared at me. 

I gave the old tramp all the cash in my wallet. “Here, you might as well have it.” 

His face lit up. “Thank you kindly.” He tucked the bills inside his coat. “God bless you, sir.” He turned and hiked back the way he had come, stepping in his own footprints.

I pulled out the gun. Now was the time. 

The bullets were old, from Dad’s era. I wondered if they would still shoot. Perhaps I should fire a test round.

I had never fired a handgun, so I held it in both hands, afraid of the kick. I aimed down at the river, squeezed the trigger. BAM!

Yes, the bullets were good. And no, the kick wasn’t too bad. 

I looked around, wondered if the gunshot would bring the old panhandler back. But he was gone, footprints and all. Already back at his campfire?

Imagine a guy like that owning a dog. At least the mutt would get a bite to eat, if the old guy could find a store open around here this time of night. I thought of Bathsheba, back at the apartment. I imagined her doggy impatience and felt a twinge of guilt.

Maybe that first shot was a fluke, the one good bullet in the box. I squeezed off another shot into the river. BAM! That settled that. 

Three rounds left. I only needed one of them to work.

Bathsheba could fend for herself. Maybe somebody would find her.

Here I was, the hothead son of a hothead father. In my hand is the gun he used on himself. I have it because my mother saved it for me. A family tradition.

A proper end to a crappy life. I couldn’t even make my marriage last. My wife dumped me because I couldn’t face the thought of another kid like me. Then that Dago bartender moved in on her, so she used him to get what she wanted.

What a sap I am, to kill myself for Sal Balistreri

I pointed the gun at the river. BAM! Take that, Sal. BAM! There’s one for you, Angie. 

I heard a whimper. Nobody closer to me than a mile.

There had been no sound, but it had sounded like Bathsheba. 

If I had been Dad, I would have plugged big Sal back at the bar, and then plugged Angie for good measure, and then shot myself on the spot. 

But I’m not Dad. 

Bathsheba whines to be fed, to be taken outside. Nasty little bitch, none of this is her fault.

BAM!

I fired the last shot into the river. 

I squeezed the trigger once more, to be sure. Click. 

The shakes came over me. I opened my hand, let the gun go. It fell one hundred and twenty feet into the dark water. The night was so still I could hear the splash.

I turned and stomped back in my own footprints, headed for home. Warm little Bathsheba needed me.

Photo by Biswarup Ganguly, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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The Fiddle

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

THE FIDDLE WAS SWEET, because it was subtle.

Rounding errors, applied in not-quite-random fashion to millions of accounts. Half a cent here, nine tenths of a cent there. Billions of times. 

“Two Cents” by opensourceway is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Chuck himself would never have stumbled upon it, if he hadn’t known where to look.

The rabbi dumped earth on Morton’s wood coffin. Who knew the company’s chief information officer was Jewish? He hadn’t looked Jewish. But it was a bit of great luck. Jews had to go into the ground within twenty-four hours. Chuck would have preferred cremation for Morton, but it hardly mattered. 

At this point, delay was victory.

As mourners dispersed, Grayson stood by his huge black SUV. He  lifted an eyebrow. Chuck drew in a breath and headed that way, the plain, useful Stephanie just behind him. Grayson’s driver stood watchful at the left front door. A second young stalwart, equally watchful, hovered at the right rear fender.

“Get in,” said Grayson. He dived into his steel cocoon wihout a backward look.

Chuck climbed in, the driver closing the door behind him. Stephanie stood outside. 

Grayson had already perched in the right-hand seat as Chuck settled himself on the left. The blunt-faced CEO pierced him with an accusing stare. Standard operating procedure. Annoying, but it apparently served him well. As the underling, Chuck would have to speak first.

This was his first visit to Grayson’s mobile command center. It was plush. Folded into the door was a small work table, which he doubted Grayson ever used. The windows did not look thick enough to deflect machine gun bullets, but Witherspoon swore they would do just that. Witherspoon ought to know. As CFO, he had paid for it. 

Chuck met Grayson’s eyes. “Roomy.”

“It’ll do.” Grayson frowned. “Is that all you’ve got to say?” 

“Sad about Morton. I thought he was healthy.”

“Yes. What about this Jamaican alert?”

Chuck sighed, spread his hands. “Nothing’s been compromised, I can assure you of that. All our accounts are clean as a hound’s tooth.”

“Don’t give me hounds’ teeth. External hacking is not the issue. They’re alleging fraud on our part.”

Chuck held up a finger. He opened his door.

His drab assistant stood just where she had been left.

“Stephanie, anything further on Jamaica?” 

She glanced at her tablet, fingered it, narrowed her eyes. “Our correspondent finds two of the Jamaican bank’s partners have underworld interests. He thinks local regulators are bearing down on them, so their claim on us is a smokescreen for irregularities of their own.” She opened her eyes wide, threw her shoulders back, and stood at attention to await further orders. 

Chuck closed the door, shot an inquiring look at Grayson. The man raised his eyebrows. “Your Miss Pinsky seems on top of things.”

“She’s the best there is. My secret weapon.” 

Grayson rubbed his chin. “Don’t let this get lost in the shuffle. Our good name is involved.”

“Of course.”

“Meanwhile, there is a hole in the org chart.” Grayson stared at him.

Chuck sat mute and stared back. Two could play that game. 

After an eternity, Grayson smiled. “You’ve done a good job, Chuck. I know your background is in cybersecurity, but I’m giving you the whole information slice. You’ll be CIO.” 

Now was Chuck’s time to speak. “Thank you.” 

“I won’t say you’re welcome. More like, don’t let me down.”

Chuck nodded.

Grayson reached for his copy of the Journal. “It pays half a mil. Get with HR Monday and work it out. I’ll sign whatever.”

The driver, alert to some obscure signal, pulled the door open, and Chuck stepped out. He and Stephanie walked to where his Jaguar was parked.

Chuck accelerated smoothly away from the graveyard. “He’s going to make me CIO.” 

Stephanie guffawed.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. 

“Oh, the irony.” Tears of mirth rolled down her face. She arched an eyebrow. “If you don’t know about irony, I’ll be happy to explain it to you later . . . in private.” She fingered her cell phone.

Chuck’s blood raced whenever she talked about private things. But back to business. “He’s likely to retract the offer before the weekend’s out.”

She met his eyes and laughed merrily.

They left the Jag in a city lot two miles from the cemetery.

A gypsy cab pulled into the lot. Stephanie gave the driver a thumbs-up. “Right on time. Gus is famed for his poor memory.” 

The driver, Gus, got out and stowed their two backpacks in the trunk. “Where to?” 

“The airport’ll do,” said Chuck.

#

The Hotel Carrasco dining room was the most elegant place in Montevideo, but it was Stephanie who made it sparkle. Nothing about the real Stephanie was drab or unexciting.

Chuck raised his glass in a toast. “To us and our . . . how much was it, again?”

She smiled. “Fifty million, give or take.” 

“One third in Credit Suisse, one third in the Cayman Islands account—”

“And seven hundred pounds of gold bars, at this moment flouting the waves in the hold of a tramp steamer.” 

“Hope she makes port. I didn’t pack SCUBA gear.” 

Stephanie giggled. She raised her glass of cabernet. “Fifty million keys to a better life.” Her gaze told Chuck he was the only man in the room. Maybe on the planet.

Stephanie was the only woman who had that gift, as far as Chuck knew. His rapid climb from nowhere had bypassed girls entirely. They had been outside his focus.

About when the firm hired him to guard its data, Stephanie had come into his life. They met at the chess club. Chuck was a sharp amateur player. Stephanie, on the other hand,  could have been a grand master. She beat him routinely with no word of apology. She just smiled that secret smile that melted his heart. 

He hired her as his assistant. Over long dinners she started to share herself. Like Chuck, she came from a hazy past and coveted success. Her tastes were unrestrained by cost. 

He realized the company would never pay him the amount needed to give Stephanie a life that would satisfy her desires. But he began to see a way. Bit by bit he worked out his special algorithm, the one that skimmed fractions of cents from billions of transactions in such a clever way that no one noticed. Of course it couldn’t last forever, and it had not. But here they were, fifty million richer. Grayson, eat your heart out. You can keep your fucking half million a year.

With Chuck absorbed in the programming details—refreshing the fiddle often to keep obvious patterns from emerging—Stephanie was mistress of all logistics, from the practical to the romantic to the downright steamy. Seven years had flown by in a delightful way.

She was staring at him. “Penny for your thoughts.”

He smiled, “Grayson may already have tumbled. But he’ll lose our trail in Sao Paulo.”

“I told you those backpacks would come in handy.”

“I’m still winded from hiking around the border stations,” he confessed. “And when does our ship depart Uruguay, exactly?”

“Eight a.m. tomorrow. We’ll have just enough time for a little . . . irony. Followed by a good night’s sleep. You’re not as young as you used to be, you know.”

Chuck stared at her with admiration. “You’re like a Swiss train conductor. Everything comes along exactly when needed.” 

“Easy-peasy. It’s a slow freighter with a skipper willing to bend his schedule for us.”

“Yes? What kind of skipper is that?”

“He’s—you remember Gus, our taxi driver?”

“Yes.”

“Well, good, because he doesn’t remember you. The captain of the vessel is like that.”

#

Stephanie pulled the Russian fur closer about her shoulders. Nights near Sochi carried a chill, never mind the palm trees and Black Sea breezes. But that was the very reason why those cute little black sables scampered through the Siberian woods: To be slain so that Stephanie could stay warm on cool nights.

Chuck came around and opened the Lamborghini’s passenger door. “Who was that gorilla ogling you at Victor’s party?” 

“Gorilla?” She levered her Manolo Blahnik alligator boots out of the car, then stood up.

“You know, the hairy guy in the cheap suit.”

“You are wrong about him, my dear. That was a very expensive suit. Italian.”

They climbed the steps of their dacha. Chuck, with a nod, tossed the car keys to Sergei, the silent majordomo. “So who was he, this well-heeled Italianate fashion idol?”

“Arkady Maximovich Greshkin.” 

“The billionaire?” he asked as they entered the front room.

She slipped off her boots. “Multi billionaire, if you must know.”

“Funny. When he was drooling over you, he looked like some stevedore from the Jersey docks.” He loosened his tie, undid the collar button, and sighed as imprisoned neck flesh sagged out. 

Stephanie pouted. “I can’t help the effect I have on men.”

 “Speaking of which . . .” He rounded on her, wrapped her in his arms. As always, she swayed into his embrace and prepared to play the little tongue games that so easily stoked his libido.

She could have become bored with his endless demands for sex, if it weren’t for her workmanlike approach to it. But she was spared the bother, as the door crashed open and four gorillas in genuinely cheap suits grabbed Chuck. 

“What the hell—” 

One of the goons smacked his head with a short club, and Chuck sagged unconscious. Each taking one arm or leg, the four hauled him out the door. 

The swiftness of the action left her breathless. 

Arkady’s men, of course. 

She followed them, peeked out the window by the front door. They were bundling Chuck into a battered ZiL sedan. 

You had to see it as predestined. Chuck and Stephanie were already down to their last twenty million. Soon the only thing between Stephanie and starvation would be the seven hundred pounds of gold locked in the cellar vault. Before long, she would have had to do something. 

It was thoughtful of Arkady to take care of this for her. She would not have to arrange anything special for Chuck, as she had for the late Morton, whose only fault had been curiosity.

And then, of course, there was the fact that Arkady would prize her more, having seized her as a trophy from another man, than if she were merely a sexy millionairess on the loose.

One of the gorillas came away from the ZiL carrying a sledge hammer, which he used to smash the parked Lamborghini’s windows, doors, and fenders. I wonder if Arkady’s commanded them to piss on the upholstery. But no. The automotive symbol of Chuck’s manhood now fully depreciated, they got in the black sedan and drove away. 

Poor Chuck. 

The butler Sergei, among other duties, oversaw the security men who invisibly guarded Chuck and Stephanie in their lovely dacha, kept the riffraff away. Sergei’s obvious lapse in loyalty to Chuck would of course not apply to the bereaved Stephania Mikhailovna Pinsky. But just in case, she would give him one of the little gold bars.

Meanwhile, she had better freshen herself up. There was always the possibility the oil and gas tycoon would show up unannounced to claim his prize.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mister Billionaire-ski.

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Encounters With Monsters

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 16 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

PRISCILLA FLEW BEHIND SEAMUS, just above him, off to one side, safe and carefree. Her filoplumes, tiny feathers that tracked the angles of her plumage, signaled neither discord nor danger.

Everyone honked for joy, as usual in migration. Priscilla loved honking her way south beside Seamus, their offspring behind them, their friends all around them. Even more, she would love flying back home in spring to raise a new brood of fuzzy goslings. Seamus would be with her all the way, to father her chicks and guard them.

The long V of the squadron veered, flew lower, wheeled. They came down on a pond of water that had a broad field of grass beside it. Priscilla had been here before. It was a good place to rest. An open place, where you could see scary visitors when they were still far away. Scary animals, scary birds. Or monsters.

Priscilla feared monsters most. They walked on two feet like geese but had no feathers. They had long legs, ungainly bodies, gangling wings. Their call was not a proper honk but a garbled bellow. Priscilla had seen monsters many times and had always steered clear of them. It comforted her to know that Seamus and the other ganders kept lookout.

The squadron stayed at the pond three days, eating grass from the field and weeds they plucked with their beaks from under water. On the second day, monsters came near to throw rocks. Their featherless wings useless for flight, the monsters used them instead for mischief. They could pick up stones with their forked wingtips and hurl them great distances.

The geese near the rock-throwing monsters leapt into the air and honked.

Bigger monsters came then, twice as big as those that threw rocks. They bellowed. They shook their wings at the smaller monsters. The big monsters chased the little monsters away. When all the monsters had gone, the geese settled back down on the field and pond. 

Priscilla was glad the rock throwing had ceased. It would be nice to stay another day or two. She wandered to the very edge of the field, where stood a thicket of woods. 

Night was falling. Soon it would be dark.

Seamus honked suddenly, as loud as he could. Priscilla’s filoplumes prickled.

A red fox trotted out from the woods, his head low. Priscilla was nearer to the woods than any other goose. Seamus flew right past her and landed in front of the fox. He stretched out his neck and honked. Other ganders joined him. They all hopped forward, hissing. The fox turned tail and trotted back to the woods.

Priscilla stood spellbound as Seamus and the others drove off the fox. A dark form swooped into view above her. She honked out a scream. 

Sharp claws jabbed her wing. A huge owl was trying to carry her off in its talons, to make her his dinner. She honked and beat her wings as hard as she could.

Seamus heard Priscilla’s screams. He flew straight at the owl, who struggled to lift Priscilla off the ground. Seamus crashed into the owl, pecked with his bill, and beat with his wings. 

Priscilla was pulled off the ground. The strong talons squeezed her wing. Something broke, her wing jolted. Help! she honked. 

Other ganders joined Seamus, bashed at the owl.

The owl opened his fist and flew off, chased by honking ganders. 

Priscilla fell to the ground, crying. 

Seamus landed beside her. He touched her hurt wing with his beak. Then he huddled next to her to keep her warm while she shivered from fright and pain. The two of them hunkered in the field, beside the pond, away from the fox’s woods. Seamus kept a sharp watch on sky and ground all night long.

Geese leaving. Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash.

The next day, Schuyler, the squadron commander, said it was time to fly south again. When the sun sank low, Schuyler took off from the pond. A hundred geese rose with him.

Priscilla was not in the squadron as it circled over the pond, ready to fly south. She could not fly. She lifted her head with longing as her friends stretched out their wings, formed a long V, and departed. 

Seamus remained on the ground beside Priscilla. He stayed to guard and protect her.

The squadron had left them lonely.

And in peril. Seamus did not stray far from Priscilla’s side. He stood sentinel, his white chin strap sweeping both ways as his head swiveled to scan field, pond, and sky.

If the fox came back, it would be hard for the two of them to fight him off. 

What if the monsters came again? That could be even worse, because monsters were bigger than foxes or owls, and they could throw things. The thought made her filoplumes itch.

As one day led to another, Priscilla could only walk around the field, her limp wing trailing on the ground. When she swam in the pond, it was better. The water held the wing up nearer her body, where it hurt less.

She ate grass and weeds, but still she got weaker. Seamus brought her food. He gave her a shiny, wiggly thing that he caught in the water. She gobbled it down. 

But the air was colder. The ground was colder. The water was colder; at the pond’s edge, it turned to ice. What would they do when the whole pond froze over? How would they get through the winter with all their friends away in the south?

A lone monster loitered one day by the fox’s woods. Seamus stood erect, alert, his head level at the top of his long neck. He honked.

The monster frowned and watched the two of them. Then it took a scary black thing in its wingtips. It held the black thing before its eyes. Priscilla shivered. 

Seamus honked again, twice, and took a step forward. The monster slouched away. 

The next day, Priscilla weakened. She could not get up to drag her broken wing over the ground. Seamus brought weeds from under the pond. He laid them on the ground near her beak and made a hopeful noise. Eat.

She did not feel like eating, but she tried. 

More monsters showed up. A gaggle of monsters came into the field from all sides. Priscilla and Seamus were alone in the field. They knew who the monsters were after.

Priscilla struggled to her feet and stumbled toward the water. It was her only way to flee the monsters, since she could not fly. Seamus stretched out his neck, bobbed his head up and down. He ran back and forth from one monster to another, honking, hissing, beating his wings. But the monsters kept coming on.

Priscilla collapsed. A monster threw something large over Seamus. A moment later, Priscilla’s world went dark. 

She felt herself lifted, then dropped into a small, dark space. She tried to move, but walls enclosed her. She was bumped. She heard a strange sound and felt more bumping. 

She heard a gander’s honk. She knew it came from Seamus. He did not sound happy, but it made her happy just to hear his voice. 

After more bumps and swaying, light chased the dark away. Priscilla blinked and saw a monster in front of her. She honked in terror. She had never been so near one of them. 

It squeezed Priscilla with its wings. Pain shot through her injured wing. The monster lifted her out of the small, dark space into a bigger place. Roomier—but it was still a monster place under a monstrous sky—a sky of white, full of small black dots. Parts of this monster sky held strong lights, like little suns but not so bright.

Two monsters stood her up between them on hard, shiny ground. The monsters bellowed at each other. Priscilla quaked.

One monster reached out its wingtip to torment Priscilla’s broken wing while the other one held her still, throttling her neck just below her white chinstrap. She saw that the tips of their wings forked into many branches that could move together or apart to hold things. The monster holding her bad wing wiggled it, moved it this way and that. The pain was intense, but it went away when Priscilla fainted.

When she awoke, she was tied up. But the monsters had made a poor job of it. She found she could stand and move around. Her bonds only trapped the one bad wing. Priscilla smiled to herself. The monsters’ cruelty had actually made her feel better, because the bound wing now clung to her body and did not drag on the ground.

They picked her up and carried her to another place that had a different kind of monster sky. They put her down on a bed of soft straw. But Priscilla paid scant attention to that, because Seamus was there.

The two geese came together neck to neck. Seamus wiggled for joy, and Priscilla did too. The monsters left to do their dark deeds. By evil magic, the light left at the same moment the monsters left. 

Priscilla did not care. She did not need light. She snuggled up by Seamus and went to sleep. 

The light came again, bringing the monsters with it. Priscilla and Seamus honked at them. The monsters bellowed back at them, but Priscilla thought that in this case they bellowed just for show. By honking, Seamus and Priscilla had shamed the monsters into bringing food. They left corn and wheat on the ground, then went away again. 

Priscilla and Seamus ate. They had earned this meal by standing up to the monsters. 

Priscilla heard a splash. Turning her head, she saw Seamus swimming. Even though this prison field was not very big, it had a small pond. Seamus and Priscilla ducked their heads under the water but found no delicious weeds. Of course. The monsters had made this pond as a place of torment. But the chance to swim pleased Priscilla.

One day followed another. Sometimes the monsters took Seamus and Priscilla to a different field, a big one with fresh air, sunshine, and a normal sky of blue. But the air was cold, and there was snow on the ground. When the monsters chased them back into the smaller monster field, Priscilla grieved the loss of open air, but at least she felt warmer.

The days piled on each other. The monsters sometimes untied Priscilla’s bad wing, but then after they looked at it they tied it up again. After many times, they seemed to give up on the idea of binding her wing at all. Priscilla stretched both wings for the first time in ages.

But now, just when Priscilla had regained the use of both wings, the monsters no longer took the pair of geese to the place with the open blue sky. They kept them under one of their monster skies all the time. 

Priscilla began to lose hope that she would ever see the blue sky again. She would never fly through that sky in a squadron of geese, never reach home, never raise a new batch of downy goslings. Why even try to eat the grain the monsters brought?

Seamus waddled around their little field, looking up at the strange, bumpy sky in this monster place as if he hoped to see a V of homeward-bound geese. But this bumpy sky could not hold such a thing.

One day, when the monsters came, Priscilla’s feathers stiffened in alarm. Something was amiss.  

The monsters chased Priscilla and Seamus around their small field, drove them into a corner, and grabbed them with their hideous unfeathered wings. They stuffed the geese into small places, like before—separate small places for Priscilla and Seamus. 

But these places did not seem so dark as before. Priscilla could see out in front. She stuck her beak out, but something stopped it. Something thin and cold, with square spaces between. Still, she could see. Maybe she could see a way to escape.

The monsters lifted the geese in their small places and put them down on something. Then came strange noises and a lot of bumping. Then they were lifted back down. 

Priscilla peered out and knew where she was. 

It was the pond with the field beside it and the fox’s woods. The place where the monsters had seized them so long ago. Blue sky above the pond. Warm air filled with sunshine. And all over the field—geese.

Priscilla must act. At last, a chance to escape the monsters. She flapped her wings and honked like mad. Seamus, from his small place, did the same. 

Their raucous protest must have confused the monsters, because the thin, cold grid in front of her swung outward, and then nothing blocked her from the sky.

Priscilla burst out, all fury. The monsters bellowed, but she flew right past them.

Seamus broke out too. 

They flew away from the monsters and landed among a hundred geese who waddled around the field. They looked for friends, listened for voices they knew. 

But they saw none, heard none. They did not know this squadron. 

Strange ganders approached, necks coiled, heads low, and hissed at them.

Then Seamus raised his head and swiveled it around. Priscilla scanned the sky. She heard a far-away honking, one which included their friends’ voices. She heard a clear call from Schuyler.

Their own squadron came and circled the pond. Priscilla leapt upward and climbed the air toward the squadron, honking in joy. Seamus flew just behind her. 

Schuyler! called Seamus.

Schuyler honked a return greeting. 

Their friends opened a space on one side of the V. Seamus and Priscilla claimed it. With the field and pond occupied by another squadron, Schuyler gave the command to fly on to the next rest area. Priscilla followed right behind him. 

Priscilla’s heart raced as she rose with her friends to cruising altitude. All foxes, owls and monsters defeated, she was back where she belonged, headed with Seamus for their northern home and a new brood of fuzzy goslings.

#

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Another Story

Read Time: 7 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

Bob’s Trees

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

BOB, OF BOB’S TREES, stamped his feet to warm himself. The Wisconsin cold froze his bones this year because business sucked. 

Most years, Bob sold trees, bundled trees, fresh-cut their butt ends, and carted them to people’s cars, hardly aware of the weather. After twelve hours on his feet, he gorged himself on the calorie-laden supper that Peg kept on simmer for him, then lapsed into a coma till dawn. Sometimes he fell into bed on arrival, leaving Peg to simmer for the both of them. From Thanksgiving to Christmas Bob could lose twenty pounds. 

Most years, there would be a few days with gaps between customers, welcome respite. Then he would sit in his little office shack and listen to the carols on the radio. 

But this year, trade slumped so that he stood in the elements and waved to motorists to remind them they needed a tree for Yule. This cajolery drew in every hundredth car, so it repaid the vigil in the bitter cold.

Here came one now—a black Lexus SUV that turned left into the mall parking lot, then continued around to the square of pavement occupied by Bob’s Trees each December for the past twenty years. The driver backed into a space against Bob’s curb blocks—a good sign. Backer-inners meant business. They came to buy a tree and would not go home without one.

The car sat idling while Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the motor died and the doors swung open. Out stepped a middle-aged woman, a lanky teen boy, and a slender girl who came up to the boy’s shoulder. Their black face coverings prompted him to remember the plague. He slipped his Packers-themed COVID mask in place. 

“Merry Christmas!” he called. “Welcome to Bob’s Trees.”

The woman, cloaked in a long cashmere coat over Italian leather boots, gave a curt nod. Her green eyes skipped his face to scan the trees ranged on his lot. “Are these the tallest you have?”

That voice. Bob peered at the patch of face above her mask but nobody came to mind. “How big a tree were you looking for, Ma’am?” 

“The tallest you have.”

“That would be these in the corner.” He strode across the lot. The woman followed. The boy stumbled along behind, thumbs on his smart phone, while the girl hugged herself and chattered her teeth.

Bob plunged a hand into the wall of greenery and pulled out a nine-foot Norway spruce.

The woman’s brows beetled. “I don’t know. I was hoping for something taller.” She leaned back to view its top. “What do you think, Rory?” She nudged her son’s calf with the toe of her boot. “Will it stand out in the great room?”

The boy jerked at the touch of her toe, rolled his eyes, dived back into his phone. She put her hands on her hips, head forward, and glowered.

“Maggie!” It came to him. “You’re Maggie Flensgaard, aren’t you?”

She snapped her head toward Bob, green eyes round with surprise. “I am Margaret Prescott.” She sniffed. “I haven’t been Maggie Flensgaard for . . . ever so long. And you”—her eyes flashed with recognition—“Bobby! Bobby Achtemeier. Is it really you?”

“Rory, look!” The girl’s eyes glowed with interest. “It’s Mom’s old boyfriend.”

The boy looked up from his phone.

“Shush, you. Mister Achtmeier happens to be an old school chum. From way back, isn’t that right, Bobby?” 

“Not all that long ago, Mags. But things are way different now, I guess.” Your tangled brown hair has become smooth and chestnut, with hints of auburn and whispers of silver. What was wild is now controlled, and controlling.

The girl looked up at Bob. “Hi, I’m Veronica. You can call me Ronnie. All my friends do.” Her brown eyes sparkled above the black virus mask.

She must be thirteen. Going on twenty. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Ronnie punched Rory in the arm. “Dolt! Show some respect to your elders.” Whoops, back to thirteen.

Rory raised his hand to slug her back.

“Stop it, you two.” Maggie sighed. “What’s it been, Bob? Twenty years?”

He snorted. “Good deal more than that, my dear. I won’t say how long. Little pitchers have big ears.” 

“They know I had them late in life,” she muttered. “They may not know exactly how late.” Her eyes rested on him, took him in. “Look at you. I thought you’d wind up a tycoon.” 

He spread his arms to span the Bob’s Trees empire. “Exhibit A.”

She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. Touché.”

He saw himself reflected in her eyes: A thickset old guy doing roustabout work out in the weather. I won’t tell her about our winters in Florida.

“I kind of lost track of you after we . . . after high school, Maggie. What became of you?”

She gave him a weird sideways look.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You know. What have you been doing with yourself all these years—besides raising these two delightful children, I mean?” 

Veronica giggled. Rory pinched her.

Margaret Prescott waved her hand self-consciously, the very gesture Maggie Flensgaard would have used. “Just the usual. Went to college. Worked in New York for a while. Then I came back home and married a guy that owns a lumber yard.” 

Bob smiled. “Guess you got into the finished end of the tree business. Me, I’m closer to the raw product.” 

“But you can’t sell Christmas trees all year. You must do something else.” She looked desperate for him to explain this was only a hobby.

He shuffled his feet. “Oh, Peg and me got a few rental units up in Door County. Keeps us busy in the summertime, you know.”

“Peg. You married Peggy Schneidermann?” 

He put a finger on his nose. “You’re good. First guess.” 

“I didn’t even know you two were an item. What a lovely girl.” 

“We kept it kind of low-key.” Of course she hadn’t known. Why would she take an interest? 

“And how is she?”

“Peg? Oh, she’s fine. Keeps the home fires burning.” Warming a stew that I’ll be grateful for tonight and will eat before I fall asleep, so help me God.

Rory and Ronnie now giggled like toddlers over Rory’s smart phone. What were kids all about these days, anyhow? Walter would not act that way. Of course, he was ten years beyond them, well-launched in life as a freelance accountant.

Margaret sighed: that long sigh that sounds like the satisfaction of shared memories but signals it’s time to wrap things up.

Bob shook the Norway spruce, spread its lower branches with his free hand. “It’s taller’n you might think.”

Margaret reached a hand out, touched the upright needles. “What do you think, kids? Good enough?” They both nodded. “Okay, I guess we’ll take it. How much?”

“All of these here are a hundred and fifty.”

“Really? That much?” Her question dangled in the frosty air, a gambit best declined.

Maggie Flensgaard might have got it for seventy-five. But Margaret Prescott will need to fork over a fistful of those finished lumber simoleons.

Bob smiled. “You wanted the tallest,” he said with a shrug of apology. 

“Well, yes. I did.” She nodded defeat.

“Let me square off the end for you.”

 “No, leave it. Don will want to cut it fresh himself. Just help us get it in the car.”

He led her into the office shack, scanned a QRC from her phone, printed a receipt for the tree plus tax. Then he helped Rory shoehorn the spruce into the back of the Lexus. They tied the tailgate down gently over the three feet of crown that protruded out the back.

“Keep in touch,” he said.

With a casual nod, Margaret drove off.

He visualized a svelte shape under her tapered woolen coat, considered the upscale tilt of her nose, the sheen and understated elegance of her hair. He gave thought to the half-formed Rory and Veronica.

He remembered Peg, waiting for him at home. His mind’s eye saw her solid form limp over to the kitchen stove, turn on a burner. She ought to get that knee replaced. She kept a dinner warm for him every night, whether he ate it or not. 

He smiled to think of Walter, their stolid son, with his year-in, year-out accounting practice.

Would Bob and Peg manage their usual Florida rental, this COVID winter? 

Sure we will. We’ll figure it out somehow. And then the vaccines will take hold, the virus will go away, and by June all Door County businesses and lodgings will be having a banner tourist season.

Maggie Flensgaard, eat your heart out.

A Story

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

My Own Special Touch

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

SHE SQUANDERED HERSELF IN PROTEST and fell to the ground, undone.

“Damn!” Roger set the inner cover, sticky side up, on the grass. He flicked her sting from his wrist with his steel hive tool. You’ve got to scrape them out quick. One time his whole hand had swollen hard and red like a red lobster claw for half a week, from a sting left too long. 

He felt bad for this little darling, who had been squeezed as he laid the cover on the top box, whose alarmed response had spelled her doom. Workers are sacrificial creatures, not built to survive long. Any sting is a suicide mission. 

“Damned bees,” Roger grumbled. “Don’t know why I put up with them.”

Wellthere’s one reason, staring me in the face. Melvina Foster stood by her clothesline, there across the fence, sour as a crabapple. She grimaced as if in pain. A bit of a wasp herself.

He gave back her stare, then turned away sublimely indifferent, picked up the inner cover, and placed it back on hive number six. 

He was dead sure that Melvina had authored the anti-bee ordinance proposed last week in the town council. “Bitter, vindictive old bitch,” he muttered under his breath.

“You! Roger!” An eldritch screech. Did the old bat have super-hearing, too?

He approached the fence with all the swagger he could muster, which he had to admit was considerable. His smooth, untroubled stride pleased him no end. 

She pointed at a lump of wood in his yard. “I see you steer a wide berth around that old stump. I should think you’d have sense enough to remove it.”

“Tain’t a stump, it’s a log. I’ll move it when I’m good and ready. Was there something else you wanted, Miz Foster?” 

She stood sideways, laundry basket under one arm. She shifted to stand a bit taller, winced as she did so. Maybe she was in actual pain.

He pursed his lips. “You all right, Melvina?”

“I was just wondering how many more of those death traps you plan to install.” 

“You mean my apiary?” He scrunched up his face and scratched his chin. “Well, let’s see, I’ve got plenty of fresh cedar boards for new boxes. I do enjoy the woodworking. Keeps me out of mischief all winter, you know? Who knows how many new honey factories I’ll be ready to deploy next spring.”

Her mouth set in a firm line. “You’re baiting me, Roger Fjelstad. I won’t rise to the bait. But consider yourself warned. Some day your bees will attack a small child or somebody with an allergy and put them in the hospital. Or worse.” She clucked with concern for her purely imaginary sting victim. “How will you feel then, Mister Honeycomb?”

“These are the gentlest little Italian honey bees in the world, Ma’am. Don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”  

“That’s what you always say.”

“Because it’s always true. Listen, Melvina Foster, you’ve got no idea what honeybees are about, how they work, or how to coexist with them. Why don’t you come over some time? I’ll introduce you.”

#

He spotted her as soon as she turned the corner. Since the fence between their backyards had neither gate nor stile, she had to scuttle around the block. Roger couldn’t help but notice she looked more off-kilter than usual.

When she turned up his front walk, he rattled his newspaper. “And how are you today, Melvina?” He leaned back in his wicker chair and looked down his nose at her.

“I’m calling your bluff,” said Melvina Foster. “I’ve come to meet your bees. Bet you thought I wouldn’t.”

He laid down his paper. “Ain’t you scared you’ll get mobbed to death by a swarm of African killer bees?” 

She threw him a spiteful look. “You said yours were from Italy.” 

He sighed and stood. “Benvenuto alla nostra domee-chee-lay.” He spread an arm in welcome.

Limping through the house en route to the backyard, Melvina said, “This looks just like it did when Doris was still with us.” 

Roger stopped and stared at her. “Yeah?”

“I mean, you haven’t changed one thing.”

“Maybe I like the way she had it.”

“Except you’ve let it go to seed.”

 “There, you see? I have changed things. Added my own special touch.” He gave her a grin that he hoped was savage.

#

In the backyard, she wouldn’t go near the hives.

“Come on, what’s to be afraid of?” Roger asked, standing smack dab in the flight path of a hundred foragers. “They’re just bees.”

“I can see them fine from over here.”

He lifted a hive lid, removed the inner cover, pulled a frame partway out.

She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Don’t you have one of those veils? Don’t I see you over here sometimes in a regular beekeeper’s outfit?”

“Veils are for sissies.” 

She made a wry face.

He pinched a fat drone between thumb and forefinger. “Yes, I do have protective gear. I admit I’m a sissy sometimes. Mainly when I do something invasive, like collecting honey or giving mite treatments. The girls can get a little tetchy.” He carried the drone over to where Melvina stood.

As he came near, she poised for flight, like a sprinter on the starting blocks.

“Relax, he can’t hurt you. No stinger. This one’s a drone.” He opened his hand to let the bee crawl around on his palm. “Go ahead, you can pet him. See how fuzzy he is?”

Eyes open in wonder, she leaned over his hand, within a foot of the confused drone. 

“You might spare him some sympathy. He’s an orphan.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “An orphan? You’re pulling my leg.”

“I would never pull your leg, Melvina.” Heaven forfend. “All drones are fatherless. They grow from unfertilized eggs.”

“Is that a fact.” 

He flicked his hand and the drone flew off toward the hive.

She looked uncertain. “I guess I could stand closer. If you’re sure I won’t get stung.”

He gave her a frankly evaluative stare. “There are no guarantees in life, Melvina.” He led her back toward the hives. 

Halfway there, she stopped and looked down. “Just a rotten log, didn’t you say?”

She gave it a sharp kick. Dozens of insects flew out from underneath.

“Ow! Help! Oh, help!”

“Run, Melvina!” He sprinted away from her but still felt a couple of nasty stings. “Come on, quick!” 

Waving her hands in panic, she flung herself crabwise into the screened back porch as he held the door open for her. 

Roger slammed the door shut behind her. He swept his hands around her face and shoulders as she swatted at her bare legs. He grabbed a magazine, rolled it up, and chased down a couple of mad aggressors. 

“Sit down,” he said. “How many times you get stung?”

“Hundreds!” She lowered herself onto a battered hassock.

He frowned. “No. Not hundreds. Breathe slowly. Can you do that?” Pink blotches had blossomed in several places on her face and neck. 

He kept an epi-pen in case one of his bees should ever sting someone with a real allergy. He wondered if he should get it now. 

She took a deep breath, in and out. “It hurts, you . . . degenerate!” 

“Nobody said it didn’t. Couple of ’em got me, too—I just run faster than you. Listen, can you breathe okay?”

“Of course I can breathe.” 

“I mean, your airway isn’t closing up, is it?”

She opened her eyes wide. “Airway? Am I in danger?”

“That’s what I’m asking. Do I need to get the epi-pen?”

She concentrated on her breath. “No. I just hurt all over. My heart is fluttering a bit.”

“You maybe took thirty or forty stings. Once they start in on you, all you can do is run. Each one of those little bastards can sting you over and over again.” 

“Well, you and your damned bees owe me a big apology.”

He bridled. “That’s defamation. Wasn’t my bees. Them were yellowjackets that stung you. Not bees. That’s why there’s no stingers to remove from your hide.”

“Yellowjackets?”

“German wasps. Ground dwellers. They’ll attack anything, anywhere, any time. You uncovered their nest. Now you see why I haven’t moved that log.” 

She bolted up from her hassock. “I see that you’re a menace, is what I see! Bees, wasps, whatever, they’re a danger to the neighborhood. We’ll put a stop to it. Good day, Mister Mayhem.” 

She marched out of the house, down the street, around the corner.

#

From his front porch he watched her go. She steamed down the sidewalk straight up-and-down, nothing off-kilter now. Propelled by righteous indignation.

His bees were threatened, through no fault of their own, by a vindictive bill on the council’s agenda for next week. It was sponsored by Matt Grosswisch, one of the five council members. But Matt never had an original thought in his life. Melvina had put him up to it.

She had not always been this way. Roger remembered when Melvina had been a vivacious, even daring, young woman. Sociable, too. It was her husband, Jack, who had been the town’s chief pain-in-the-ass in those days. Self-important, officious,  hidebound, and narrow-minded—he had it all. 

When Jack died of a heart attack at age 50, Melvina seemed to have been passed the torch of self-righteousness. She lost her amiable qualities, traded them in for the responsibility of making others’ lives miserable at every turn.

He sighed and went inside. 

As he stood in the center of the living room, looking all about him, he had to admit that Melvina was right. He had let it become shabby. It would not have gone downhill like this when Doris was here. She, and she alone, had made this a home to live in. 

Oh, God, how he missed her.

Well, at least he had his little Italian darlings. Until next week.

#

Roger stood on Melvina’s front stoop. He rang the bell. Having heard no sound of a chime inside the house—and his hearing was extraordinarily good for a man his age—he banged on the screen door. He knocked again, scuffing his knuckles in the attempt. He began to fear that she had come home, gone inside, suffered a delayed allergic reaction, and died. Maybe I should have brought the epi-pen.

The door swung open. There stood Melvina. Frowning, as best she could with her nose and lips distorted and swollen. 

He presented a pink bottle with a flourish and burst into song: “You’re gonna need an ocean . . . dum, da-dum, da-dum . . . of calamine lotion—”

“Have you gone crazy?” She bunched up a fist and shook it in his face, but he did not flinch.

“Take it, Melvina. Right now it only hurts, but in a day or two those stings’ll itch like crazy. You’ll need this. Plus all the Benadryl you can tolerate.”

She uncurled her fist and took the bottle. 

With his other hand, Roger presented his second gift—a heavy jar of golden liquid. “Here. This comes from the bees. They want you to know there are no hard feelings.” 

She snorted. “That’s big of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should harbor a grudge.” 

“God dammit, woman! Are you going to go around that way all your life?”

Her mouth fell. “All what way?” 

“Chip on your shoulder.” He stood, holding the jar of honey, in what amounted to a posture of pure supplication.

She let out a sigh. “Well. To tell you the truth. It seems I may owe your bees a little gratitude after all.”

He resisted the urge to ask.

She looked almost shy, like a school girl. “Ever since, I would swear, almost since the moment of the attack, my knees have been free of pain. First time in years. I’m at a loss to understand it.”

“Funny you should say that, Melvina. Exact same thing happened to my knees when those yellowjackets stung me last month. Instant pain relief. And long-lasting.”

She smiled, nodded. “That’s good to know.”

“It’s such a benefit,” Roger said, “I’m ashamed to admit it was those damned yellowjackets done it, not my bees.”

“Whatever,” she said. Her hand closed over his offering of honey.