Hay and Gasoline

Hay.
Gasoline.
Sweet hay.
Gas.
Blood.
Blood in my mouth. Did I fall?

I’m lying in the still-long blades of dry, yellow grass. The motor is running. I can only see the tops of red baseball caps. I hear muffled bellowing.

Someone’s holding my hand. Sun is white. Sweat forms just above my brow. Rolls down. Meets my tears. Down my temple/upper cheekbone. Pooled in the cradle of my outer ear. Can’t move. Can’t see anything but sky. Can’t hear very well. Because of the grass? Or something worse?

The silhouette of my father’s face, grimaced and gray, leans. Zooms. I’m veiled by his plaid work shirt now. His overall strap buckle lightly pressing against the bridge of my nose. His huge gloved hands lift me quickly from the ground. I’m laid on the pickup bed’s tailgate. Next to the leaning batches of barn-bound, recently-bailed hay.

I like the attention. But I’m scared. Only because every pair of eyes I meet are scuffling with fear.

Paranormal Revenge Fantasy (1-5!)

*MATURE CONTENT* Chapters 1-4, with new Chapter 5! for easier reading or just to catch up.


1. Time To Wake Up

The room is white. White, sheer panels over the windows. White sheets on the bed. White carpet, white furniture, white trim. The only bit of color is a tan, overweight man sleeping peacefully on his stomach in a twist of wrinkled cotton ridges.
And…
There is a dark figure sitting on top of a dresser in the corner. Its legs are folded underneath. It is motionless and silent. The white panels ripple in the breeze and rising sun. The shadowy form flaps in and out of focus behind the curtains as they fly. The almost stillness hangs on for several moments.
The black figure leaps.
“WAKE. THE FUCK. UP!”
John was immediately awake. Barely able to inhale, John struggled for his breath, partly from the terror running through his body, partly from the pressure of something very large on top of him. John could not move. Only the figure’s sick-red lips and milky chin emerged from the dark hood surrounding its face. It whispered wetly in John’s ear.
“Rough night? I know you’re awake now, right? I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, John. I’m going to enjoy this.”
There was a long pause. John was terrified. He didn’t bother to ask the question of who the figure was. He understood. This was a person that he had wronged. His lifestyle and work placed him next to dangerous people. He ran a successful car service. Most of the people in Miami who used his company were powerful men who played terrifying games. Drugs, sex, crime. He had arrangements, entanglements, loans with these men. His success had come at a great price, his freedom. It wasn’t a surprise to have someone threatening him, but an invasion of his home was new.
The voice on top of him sang sweet like a woman, but the body was very large and heavy. Even if he had wanted to ask some question, he was not able to speak. He had just enough air to keep from losing consciousness. His mind seized as well. He could simply listen and wait for the next moment.
“I know you didn’t expect to see me. I know you thought you would never have to think about what happened again. Oh, you thought about me for a couple of days. But you didn’t worry about how I felt. You only shuddered occasionally thinking I would show up at your door. But how could I? I only had your number and you took care of that. But you didn’t need to unplug the phone, I only called that one time.”
John’s mind immediately flooded with memories of many girls from the past. He tried to place the arousing lilt and scratch of this voice, but it vibrated with echoes and harmonies. He thought of how many times he had unplugged his phone. Avoided the calls of those girls he wanted, slept with and couldn’t bear to see again. John always looked for girls. Women.
He couldn’t help it. It was a habit. Like chewing gum or biting fingernails. He didn’t sweat over it. He did it unconsciously. Involuntarily. Like bleeding.
“I’m Hy.” She placed her elbow in John’s back as she steadied herself to stand. John yelped and squirmed in pain. “Sorry, John.”

2. Let’s Party

Hy slogged across the room. The pieces of fabric tied to her coat jumped up and down, they danced like wooden wind chimes clacking together on the breeze. Dark hair oozed out of her hood and swished around like ink on marble. When she passed the window, he noticed that she was just as tall. She had to be almost 7 feet. Her legs were long enough to step onto the dresser, turn and squat with her black boots tucked under her, supporting her body.
John realized as she sat that he was free and scrambled on all fours through the sheets to the cell phone on his night stand. It was off. He pressed the power button and nothing happened. He slammed the phone down and called for someone, “Deana??! Are you still here??!” No answer.
He got up off the bed and walked quickly to the door. Before he could reach the hall, Hy silently flicked her finger and slammed the windows and doors shut without even looking up from her task. John stopped. He turned to Hy with his fists formed, not angry, scared. Hy swiped her finger across the small screen of a handheld device.
“This Deana? I’m looking at your Facebook, Johnny. She’s cute. Professional cheerleader, huh? And what else does she do? Professionally, of course. On the side? She’s pretty. How long before she cheated on ya, Jaybird?”
Hy vacantly blinks and smiles for a few moments at John. He has no response. He walks slowly towards the dresser and pulls out a black pair of shorts, unsure if she will allow this.
“I’m at least going to put on some clothes.”
“Oh, yeah, please do. I don’t wanna see that. Can I even see it??” Hy giggled. “You know, that always was a lot like your height and personality. Always coming up short.” Big smile.
John sits down on the foot of the bed to face Hy. She turns her face back toward the screen in her lap as she stretches out one leg and sits on the other. She shifts; gets comfortable. “Yeah, Deana won’t be back.”
“Why, what did you do?” He was angry.
“Oh, I didn’t do anything. It’s what you did. When she walked out of here last night, it was for the last time.” Back to the screen. “Looks like you have a successful company. How much do you owe to the banks? Or this guy?” Hy showed a picture of El Rey, known in Miami as a big-league businessman with ties to the drug cartels, a money launderer. No doubt he washed some of the money in John’s cars.
“Oh, here’s a fun picture. The sweaty, beer-stained collar of your shirt really catches the light in this one.” She laughs. “It’s starting to catch up with you, John.” She continues to swipe the screen, flipping through pictures and pages.
“I can’t see how old you are, Jooooohn. No birthday? By my calculations, you are, let’s see, 45 right?” Hy closes her eyes and then pops them open with the answer. “No! My bad. 46. I missed your birthday this year. Sorry ‘bout that. Happy birthday.” Hy is sitting on the dresser, kicking her dangling leg with absolutely no trace of a smile.
“What do you want?” John asked.
“Yay! I finally get to kick you in the proverbial balls. Here’s the real gut-punch, John.” Hy rose into the air. She floated above the dresser with her arms stretched wide. She was done playing around with her mouse. Her voice consumed most of the air in the room and John’s lungs.
“I am righteous anger. I am vengeance. I am every single girl, woman, person you ever violated. I am the pooling blood of the innocent. I am violence. I am justice. I am the voice of the girl you raped and killed. I am the dark angel formed by all the pain and suffering you have left in your life. I’m here for that life, John.”
“I never raped anyone! I never killed anyone!” John gasped.
Hy raised her hands and pushed an invisible force toward John. He was thrown against the wall, pinned by his wrists to the white suede headboard. She seethed and spit through teeth. “You had sex with a drunk, unconscious woman. Remember Rachel? Maybe you don’t remember her name? Maybe you never knew it. That was rape. Your friend took pictures of you having sex with her. He shared the pictures of you raping her with everyone.” Hy clicked her tongue, “Real sloppy, John.”
John was ashamed, afraid, confused and in pain. He started to cry. His chin dropped to his chest along with small streams of tears.
“Rachel saw those pictures being passed around at school. She was taunted by your friends. But you wouldn’t know that. You never went to college. You simply hung around at the parties, preying on girls. You didn’t know that Rachel was mentally ill. She’d have to be mentally ill to sleep with you, honey. Believe me, we all were.
“You also never knew that she stopped taking her medicine because she ran out. She was too afraid and embarrassed to even walk to the pharmacy to refill her prescription or ask for help.”
Hy swooped down and raised John’s head. She whispered the rest into John’s face, her eyes darting back and forth between his, searching for any sign of recognition or remorse.
“She stopped going to class. She stopped eating food. Rachel killed herself because of what you did. Do you remember Rachel now? She sliced her wrists open in the dorm bathroom while her roommates were at a party. You were even at that party. Her
blood is on your hands.”
She removed the force from his hands and his palms landed limply on the bed. She glided to a stand at the edge of the bed. John could not speak or move. He was motionless with fear and shame. Hy stared into John’s eyes for a moment and then returned to a chair near the window. She sat and folded her arms and crossed her legs.
“You didn’t know that did you? You never called her or spoke to her again. You never picked up a newspaper or watched TV. You were too busy fucking someone else to notice.”

3. The Apology

“I’m–sorry.” A few more tears. John was weak.

“Did you just say ‘sorry’?” Hy was angry.

“I AM sorry. I’m so terribly sorry.” John pleaded.

Hy sat still for a moment. She stared at John. She saw past the surface. She saw past the watery eyes. She saw past the terror and despair. She looked into his heart and saw nothing. “You’re pathetic.”

John groveled. “What should I say? I regret doing that. I was young. I was stupid and drunk. I want to take that back.”

“You can’t take it back! She’s gone and I’m what’s left.”

“I don’t want to die. I don’t want this. I’ll do whatever you want, just please don’t kill me.” John whimpered, “I’ll make amends.”

Hy sighed. “You want to make amends. You have no idea what that even means. What that entails? You cannot make amends. You do not want to make amends. You can’t lie to me. You can’t charm me.”

John shouted, “I’ll do whatever it takes!”

Hy moved so quickly to John’s side that her body blurred behind. She was close to his ear within a second. As sweet as you please, “You know what we’re going to do, don’t you?”


4. Back to the Beginning

John panicked. He was terrified by his own words spoken back to him. Those words are the ones he always whispered to women the moment before he kissed them for the first time. His mind flipped back through time, through each woman, flashing through pictures, rapidly increasing in speed. Then everything came to a bright, white halt.

He landed on the one picture he didn’t expect to see. His own mother. The image in his mind began to play like a home movie, soft and dull at first. Her dress and hair faded into vividly bright spots of swimming color. Her face comes close to his. Her face is distorted. She whispers, “You know what were going to do, don’t you?”

John shuddered and dropped the image like a boiling pan. He shut his eyes tightly and went blank. He tried to dampen the overwhelming feelings that struck like lightning bolts.

Hy sneered. “You’ll do whatever it takes, huh?”

“I get it,” John whimpered.

Hy reassured John. “You don’t get the half of it. That’s only the beginning.”


5. Behind Closed Doors

Hy walked slowly to the door and it opened. John watched Hy as she turned to look back at him. For just a moment, a second before she disappeared, her face melted into something different. She started to shrink and wither. She was gone.

John closed his eyes tight for a few seconds and gathered himself. Trying to understand what he had just been through and seen, he heard soft cries of a small girl from the next room.

What is THAT?

The soft, wet breaths increased. A few gasps. The sounds intensified. Weakly, “No.”

She repeated the simple word until John stood. The noise immediately broke, but his mind accelerated. He was afraid to go into the next room.

Even though the noise had stopped, he could still feel things happening down the hall. Light. Warmth. An energy. His chest ached and dragged. He walked slowly to the door.

He looked and listened down the hallway for the now-silent voice. Everything was still for several seconds. He heard a small noise. Not a voice, but a body shift or a paper move. Someone was in the next room.

The hallway was dark. The hallway was usually bright with sunlight reflected in mirrors, artwork glass and light-colored tile. It was never dark. Even at night, the moon and stars found their way down the hall. The house was different. The tile was replaced with dirty, matted olive-green carpet. There was a smell: stale, heavy, metallic.

He took small steps and strained to make out cigarette butts, crumpled plastic cups, crushed beer cans and torn pieces of paper littering the floor.

As he approached the end of the exaggerated hall, he saw a sliver of silver highlighting the edges of a closed door. Whatever was happening was just beyond. The light bounced, dark to bright, when something bumped the door from the other side. He couldn’t breathe or swallow. His chest was burning. He stretched out his hand to turn the knob.

Paranormal Revenge Fantasy (Cont.)

4. Back to the Beginning

John panicked. He was terrified by his own words spoken back to him. Those words are the ones he always whispered to women the moment before he kissed them for the first time. His mind flipped back through time, through each woman, flashing through pictures, rapidly increasing in speed. Then everything came to a bright, white halt.

He landed on the one picture he didn’t expect to see. His own mother. The image in his mind began to play like a home movie, soft and dull at first. Her dress and hair faded into vividly bright spots of swimming color. Her face comes close to his. Her face is distorted. She whispers, “You know what were going to do, don’t you?”

John shuddered and dropped the image like a boiling pan. He shut his eyes tightly and went blank. He tried to dampen the overwhelming feelings that struck like lightning bolts.

Hy sneered. “You’ll do whatever it takes, huh?”

“I get it,” John whimpered.

Hy reassured John. “You don’t get the half of it. That’s only the beginning.”

The Ravine

This story was composed for a literary competition celebrating Ray Bradbury. Obvs, they didn’t pick mine. So I’m publishing here. Rules: 451 words or less (Fahrenheit 451) and in the style of Bradbury. Mine was exactly 451. Also, one was to pick a theme. Choosing a word from the stream-of-consciousness string of nouns that Bradbury would use for his stories. I chose “The Ravine”.

My body is in the ravine. On my back. Legs twisted and broken. Flesh is taken from my side by dogs. Stones and leaves are taking blood from my injuries. Life is a stain. Draining away. Being stolen. I’m almost gone.

I’m not sure when I came into being. When I came to my conscious mind. I just have memories. Like anyone. No one remembers being born. I just am. But not for long.

I like to run. I’m good at running. That’s good because I have to run. From them.

They are afraid of me. They don’t like me. Always yelling. Always pursuing. Always. They aren’t kindly calling me, looking for the lost. They are mad. And I know, because I exist.

Tug-tug. Tug. I can feel my body moving left-right, left-right, left-right. The dogs are almost done.

  1. That’s my name. I know my name because it was called every morning at work.

451, move forward.

I enjoyed my work. For as long as I did it. Mainly because I was good at it. I was designed for it. I haven’t been at work for several days. My teammates won’t ever know what becomes of me. My death will be a secret to keep.

My brown, muscular legs are losing their power now. Winding down into the earth. I raise my head to look at the men standing over me. They click their cheeks against their teeth. One man has tears in his eyes. The others have steel. All have regret.

What a waste.

I wouldn’t go back. Not even if I could. The world is too sweet. Colorful. Warm. I would die anyway, if I went back, knowing what I know. Seeing what I have seen.

They didn’t expect me to know things. I tried to keep it inside. I tried not reading in front of them at all. Or, if I couldn’t help myself, pretend to be curious, but dumb about papers and pages and books. Eat and nibble at them. Nudge and slobber on them. But also read them.

It worked. Until I spoke. In anger and frustration.

They froze. I froze. We paused in that enormous moment and wondered about more than work, deadlines and productivity. We thought about life. The door was unlocked. I kicked. And ran.

Now. Here. This is where my intelligence has brought me. Bleeding out in a lonely, lovely dry river bed of wild taste and feeling.

They stroked my tangled mane and rested their palms on my cold, barely-beating chest.

They said, “We’ll take you back.”

Please, bury me here. Please don’t take me back. I want to live and die on the out.

“You were our best horse.”

Paranormal Revenge Fantasy (Cont.)

2. Let’s Party

*MATURE CONTENT*
Hy slogged across the room. The pieces of fabric tied to her coat jumped up and down, they danced like wooden wind chimes clacking together on the breeze. Dark hair oozed out of her hood and swished around like ink on marble. When she passed the window, he noticed that she was just as tall. She had to be almost 7 feet. Her legs were long enough to step onto the dresser, turn and squat with her black boots tucked under her, supporting her body.
John realized as she sat that he was free and scrambled on all fours through the sheets to the cell phone on his night stand. It was off. He pressed the power button and nothing happened. He slammed the phone down and called for someone, “Deana??! Are you still here??!” No answer.
He got up off the bed and walked quickly to the door. Before he could reach the hall, Hy silently flicked her finger and slammed the windows and doors shut without even looking up from her task. John stopped. He turned to Hy with his fists formed, not angry, scared. Hy swiped her finger across the small screen of a handheld device.
“This Deana? I’m looking at your Facebook, Johnny. She’s cute. Professional cheerleader, huh? And what else does she do? Professionally, of course. On the side? She’s pretty. How long before she cheated on ya, Jaybird?”
Hy vacantly blinks and smiles for a few moments at John. He has no response. He walks slowly towards the dresser and pulls out a black pair of shorts, unsure if she will allow this.
“I’m at least going to put on some clothes.”
“Oh, yeah, please do. I don’t wanna see that. Can I even see it??” Hy giggled. “You know, that always was a lot like your height and personality. Always coming up short.” Big smile.
John sits down on the foot of the bed to face Hy. She turns her face back toward the screen in her lap as she stretches out one leg and sits on the other. She shifts; gets comfortable. “Yeah, Deana won’t be back.”
“Why, what did you do?” He was angry.
“Oh, I didn’t do anything. It’s what you did. When she walked out of here last night, it was for the last time.” Back to the screen. “Looks like you have a successful company. How much do you owe to the banks? Or this guy?” Hy showed a picture of El Rey, known in Miami as a big-league businessman with ties to the drug cartels, a money launderer. No doubt he washed some of the money in John’s cars.
“Oh, here’s a fun picture. The sweaty, beer-stained collar of your shirt really catches the light in this one.” She laughs. “It’s starting to catch up with you, John.” She continues to swipe the screen, flipping through pictures and pages.
“I can’t see how old you are, Jooooohn. No birthday? By my calculations, you are, let’s see, 45 right?” Hy closes her eyes and then pops them open with the answer. “No! My bad. 46. I missed your birthday this year. Sorry ‘bout that. Happy birthday.” Hy is sitting on the dresser, kicking her dangling leg with absolutely no trace of a smile.
“What do you want?” John asked.
“Yay! I finally get to kick you in the proverbial balls. Here’s the real gut-punch, John.” Hy rose into the air. She floated above the dresser with her arms stretched wide. She was done playing around with her mouse. Her voice consumed most of the air in the room and John’s lungs.
“I am righteous anger. I am vengeance. I am every single girl, woman, person you ever violated. I am the pooling blood of the innocent. I am violence. I am justice. I am the voice of the girl you raped and killed. I am the dark angel formed by all the pain and suffering you have left in your life. I’m here for that life, John.”
“I never raped anyone! I never killed anyone!” John gasped.
Hy raised her hands and pushed an invisible force toward John. He was thrown against the wall, pinned by his wrists to the white suede headboard. She seethed and spit through teeth. “You had sex with a drunk, unconscious woman. Remember Rachel? Maybe you don’t remember her name? Maybe you never knew it. That was rape. Your friend took pictures of you having sex with her. He shared the pictures of you raping her with everyone.” Hy clicked her tongue, “Real sloppy, John.”
John was ashamed, afraid, confused and in pain. He started to cry. His chin dropped to his chest along with small streams of tears.
“Rachel saw those pictures being passed around at school. She was taunted by your friends. But you wouldn’t know that. You never went to college. You simply hung around at the parties, preying on girls. You didn’t know that Rachel was mentally ill. She’d have to be mentally ill to sleep with you, honey. Believe me, we all were.
“You also never knew that she stopped taking her medicine because she ran out. She was too afraid and embarrassed to even walk to the pharmacy to refill her prescription or ask for help.”
Hy swooped down and raised John’s head. She whispered the rest into John’s face, her eyes darting back and forth between his, searching for any sign of recognition or remorse.
“She stopped going to class. She stopped eating food. Rachel killed herself because of what you did. Do you remember Rachel now? She sliced her wrists open in the dorm bathroom while her roommates were at a party. You were even at that party. Her
blood is on your hands.”
She removed the force from his hands and his palms landed limply on the bed. She glided to a stand at the edge of the bed. John could not speak or move. He was motionless with fear and shame. Hy stared into John’s eyes for a moment and then returned to a chair near the window. She sat and folded her arms and crossed her legs.
“You didn’t know that did you? You never called her or spoke to her again. You never picked up a newspaper or watched TV. You were too busy fucking someone else to notice.”

Paranormal Revenge Fantasy

1. Time To Wake Up

The room is white. White, sheer panels over the windows. White sheets on the bed. White carpet, white furniture, white trim. The only bit of color is a tan, overweight man sleeping peacefully on his stomach in a twist of wrinkled cotton ridges.
And…
There is a dark figure sitting on top of a dresser in the corner. Its legs are folded underneath. It is motionless and silent. The white panels ripple in the breeze and rising sun. The shadowy form flaps in and out of focus behind the curtains as they fly. The almost stillness hangs on for several moments.
The black figure leaps.
“WAKE. THE FUCK. UP!”
John was immediately awake. Barely able to inhale, John struggled for his breath, partly from the terror running through his body, partly from the pressure of something very large on top of him. John could not move. Only the figure’s sick-red lips and milky chin emerged from the dark hood surrounding its face. It whispered wetly in John’s ear.
“Rough night? I know you’re awake now, right? I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, John. I’m going to enjoy this.”
There was a long pause. John was terrified. He didn’t bother to ask the question of who the figure was. He understood. This was a person that he had wronged. His lifestyle and work placed him next to dangerous people. He ran a successful car service. Most of the people in Miami who used his company were powerful men who played terrifying games. Drugs, sex, crime. He had arrangements, entanglements, loans with these men. His success had come at a great price, his freedom. It wasn’t a surprise to have someone threatening him, but an invasion of his home was new.
The voice on top of him sang sweet like a woman, but the body was very large and heavy. Even if he had wanted to ask some question, he was not able to speak. He had just enough air to keep from losing consciousness. His mind seized as well. He could simply listen and wait for the next moment.
“I know you didn’t expect to see me. I know you thought you would never have to think about what happened again. Oh, you thought about me for a couple of days. But you didn’t worry about how I felt. You only shuddered occasionally thinking I would show up at your door. But how could I? I only had your number and you took care of that. But you didn’t need to unplug the phone, I only called that one time.”
John’s mind immediately flooded with memories of many girls from the past. He tried to place the arousing lilt and scratch of this voice, but it vibrated with echoes and harmonies. He thought of how many times he had unplugged his phone. Avoided the calls of those girls he wanted, slept with and couldn’t bear to see again. John always looked for girls. Women.
He couldn’t help it. It was a habit. Like chewing gum or biting fingernails. He didn’t sweat over it. He did it unconsciously. Involuntarily. Like bleeding.
“I’m Hy.” She placed her elbow in John’s back as she steadied herself to stand. John yelped and squirmed in pain. “Sorry, John.”

Survived By…(Volume 2)

One Month Later by Martha Maggio

“Hi.”

She didn’t look at me as she sat down at the table.  Syl had grown distant from me over the last month.  Understandably so.  I was of no use to anyone, including myself.  I did not usually even drag a comb through my hair.  I had cut it all off the day after the funeral.

I just took the clippers I used every month on Harold, our dog, and shaved my entire head.  No hair guides or tapering, just full on buzz.  That was the first time I hadn’t cried about an activity in several days.  I had always promised myself to shave it on some strange occasion and that day seemed like the exact moment to pop that cork.  It was intensely freeing and satisfying, just as I thought it would be.  With my preoccupation in crying and eating, I had no time for hair.

But this drastic measure had naturally disturbed my daughter.  We didn’t talk about it.  She casually rubbed my head one day and said with a small smile, “Feels like teddy bear hair.”  I returned her smile with a solitary wink.  And that was all the conversation we had regarding Mommie’s new do.

On most days, I would take a shower, towel dry my very short hair and collapse into bed.  I wore sloppy shirts and dirty yoga pants.  I waited around for breakfast time, fed Syl, walked her to the bus stop and quickly walked back home to take a nap.  Today was different.

“Hi,” she whispered.

“How ya feelin’?” I asked.

“Okay.”  And she immediately started eating her cereal.

We sat in the dining room for fifteen minutes.  Silently.  While she slowly ate her flakes.  I read articles on my tablet and I could feel her eyes scanning me.  But every time I would look up to catch her eye, she would automatically shift her eyes to the window behind me.  The last time I looked up, she had stopped eating and was frozen, spoon in hand.  Tears rolled off her cheeks and landed in the sweet milk.

“What? What is it?”

She couldn’t speak.  She just kept crying into the bowl.  Her hand finally released the spoon and it fell awkwardly to the table.  She grabbed her face and finally let out a whimper.  She sniffed and sucked the fluids escaping her face and hands.  She lost complete control.

“Tell me, sweetheart.”

“I miss Daddy.”  More sobs.

“Me too.”  I touched her back and ran to the kitchen for tissues.  I plucked one of the two boxes on the counter.  It was too light and I shook it.  Empty.  I ran my finger inside to make sure.  The other box was empty, too.  No tissues, as we had used them all very quickly.  I wasn’t ready to go out in public yet to get some and I forgot to ask my mom for more each time she brought groceries.  I grabbed the paper towels off the rack and ran back to the dining room.

“Here.”  I laid the paper towels beside her hand.  She didn’t take them.  She was sober and distant again.  I couldn’t help but feel like a failure about the tissue.

Dangit.  Dang Kleenex.  I should have a pack of Puffs strapped to my friggin’ wrist these days and all I can think about is taking my nap.

“Mom.”  she started.  “Mom, I love you.  But you’re making me miss Daddy more.”

I was gutted.

Oh my God.  She’s right.  I am a failure.  Get it together.  She needs you and you are freaking out.  You selfish, horrible mother.  You are letting your baby fall through the cracks.  GET. IT. TOGETHER.

I took a deep breath.  “Okay.”  I smiled.  “I’m sorry.”  I felt like dying inside.  I felt like smashing myself in the face a thousand times.  I felt like flipping out and bawling my head off.  But I just breathed deep and smiled.  The tears came to my eyes, but I held them back.

She got up from the table after holding my gaze for a few moments and then took her dish to the sink.  She went to the door, put on her backpack and waited for me.  I grabbed my keys and put my arm around her.  We walked together to the bus stop.  We sat on the bench just a few steps from the stop and waited for the bus.  We were really early, but we enjoyed just sitting together in the cool morning.  She touched my hair and whispered, “Teddy bear hair.”

The bus pulled up and I didn’t want to let go.  She pulled away and I saw my hand flop back to the bench.  My hands.  They were so pale and thin.  They seemed just as old and wrinkled as my mother’s.  When did they age?

Syl looked back at me and knew that something had changed.  She knew that we could move forward now.  And that she could count on me again.  This seemed to make her happy.  She didn’t smile, but I could see the light had returned to her eyes.  She didn’t have to worry about losing her other parent to a mental breakdown.

“Have a good day, Sweetie.”

“Have a good day, Mom.”

A Pleasant Surprise by Lillian Maggio

I wasn’t ashamed to walk onto the bus, my face soaked with tears.  I got quite a few odd looks from my classmates though.  Even the bus driver seemed concerned.  I suddenly realized I might look like a mental patient ready to be committed, and felt a warm sensation crawl up my neck and onto my cheeks.

Holy moly, this might just be the most embarrassing moment of my life.

I walked down to the back of the bus and sat down. I pressed my face against the window and watched as my mother disappeared into the distance.  The moist, refreshing glass felt good on my embarrassed-hot face.  I wasn’t happy, but I was… almost relieved. Things were finally going to change.

I hardly noticed him sit down next to me.  “Hey.”  It was a boy that I had seen wandering around at my dad’s funeral.  I whipped around, hitting my elbow on the hard metal wall.

“Um.”

Stupid, careless, ridiculous.

The warm feeling came back.  I hoped he couldn’t see me blushing, then immediately pushed that thought out of my head.

Why do I care what he thinks of me?  I don’t need him.  I don’t need anyone.

But who was I kidding?  I would latch onto any friend I could find.  “Hi.”

He looked away.  It may have been the light, but I swore the tips of his ears were slightly reddish-pink.  “Max,” he whispered, barely audible.  So his name was Max, or maybe Maxwell.  I held back a giggle as I thought.

Maxine?

“Syl,” I stated.  “Short for Sylvestra.”  I made a slight gagging noise and pushed my tongue out a bit while I laughed to indicate my acknowledgement of my too-big, too-formal first name.  I shifted in my seat, studying him.  He wasn’t exactly cute.

His skin was pale, as if he didn’t get much sun (but how could anyone, here in Oregon).  He had shaggy brown hair and bangs that might have covered his eyes if he didn’t keep them tucked away behind his ears.  His round-framed glasses gave him an almost-comical appearance, but he wasn’t smiling.  I doubted he smiled very much at all.  Neither did I, though, after everything.  Only when I was nervous. Like now.

“Gum?” he offered.  I took it, the polite thing to do.

Tropical Mango.  Yuck.

I chewed it anyway, and was surprised by the taste.  As a little kid I had always hated anything mango-flavored, but it didn’t seem so bad now.

“Thanks,” I muttered.  “Can you keep secrets?”

His eyes lit up, but he didn’t smile.  “Sure,” he said.  “Can you?”

“One million percent.”  I mimed crossing my heart, and he did the same.  I felt about seven years old.  “You first, or me?”

“I don’t mind,” he mumbled.  He began absentmindedly tapping his fingers on the seat, in the few inches between the two of us.  Taptaptap.

“I like reading.  A lot.”  People thought it was weird that I loved books, but for me it was like a portal to another universe. Another way for me to ignore the problems of my real life.

He stopped tapping, and his legs began to swing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  “My mom’s in the army.”

“I still play pretend.”

“I sleep with a stuffed dog.”

“I’ve watched R-rated movies since I was seven.”

“My dad wouldn’t let me watch R-rated movies until last year.”

It almost became a competition.  Who has the most embarrassing secrets?  Is it Syl, with her weird addiction to grape soda?  No, here comes Max with his ten-second rule of picking up dry food off the floor.  It seemed to go on and on.  I didn’t care that he was almost a stranger anymore; everything we said somehow brought us closer to being friends.

It’s just like the pleasant surprise of mango-flavored gum.  Something you didn’t think you’d like, might actually be pretty good.  Someone you thought might be an idiot, could turn out to be the best friend you’ve got.  Who knew what curveball life was going to throw at me next?

I certainly didn’t.