Flash Fiction

ready set write

Charlotte Writers Group had our first social gathering at which we shared great food and new flash fiction pieces. The prompt was “I’m going to disappoint you, but you knew that already.” We had a wonderful time sharing good food and stories. We will be doing this potluck social gathering semi-annually, so keep your eyes open for our spring announcement. Here’s a selection from our authors. Enjoy!

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Office Disappointments

by Lance Butler

“I’m going to disappoint you,” Cullen said as he swung his weapon around. “But you already knew that.”

“Don’t do this,” Mark whispered. Sweat poured from his brow. “I’m warning you.”

Cullen smiled and shook his head. “It’s too late. I’m going to need you to stand with the other hostages.”

Mark surveyed the room. Four of his co-workers stood against the far wall. Their eyes were wide in surprise. Margie cried. Bart tried to console her but he didn’t appear much calmer. Dante and George looked ready to attack at the slightest hint of an opening.

“This ain’t gonna work.” Mark backed away with his hands high. “He knows where we are. He’s going to come looking for us.”

Cullen took a few steps to his right, toward the door leading to the hallway. He peeked out, but not long enough for any of his hostages to attack.

“I know what I’m doing.” Cullen eased the door shut and circled back to the middle of small the room. “You shouldn’t have crossed me.”

Dante took a step forward. Mark held his hand out and shook his head. Dante’s eyes flamed with anger, but he backed away.

“Why are you doing this?” Margie asked between whimpers.

“Because I’m tired of people like you always getting what you want.”

Margie shrieked like a cornered mouse and crumpled into Bart’s arms. Mark pressed his back against the wall. Cullen, their friend, their co-worker, their designated ‘life-of-the-party’ had snapped.

“There’s no need for this. We can work something out.”

Cullen lifted his arm and took dead aim between Mark’s eyes.

“I’m tired of working things out. I give and give every day and for what? So I can come back and give more the next day?”

“But we’re all in this together,” Bart said, his voice trembling.

“Like hell. I see you and Margie chumming it up with the boss. I hear how you talk about the rest of us when you think we’re not listening. I’m sick of it. I want my piece this time. I deserve it.”

“Then take it,” George said as the veins on his neck throbbed. “Take it and leave and know that if I ever see your face in here again, I will rip you in half and fed you to the ducks.”

“Oh, don’t hurt the ducks.”

“Shut up, Margie,” Cullen yelled. “I will do what I want to do and I’ll take every one of you out if I have to.”

The break room door swung open and the boss walked in.

“What’s going on in here?”

“Cullen’s having a bad day,” Mark reported.

Their boss gave Cullen a sideways glance then walked to the table in the middle of the room to grab the last piece of cake. “Well, get over it, man.” He took a bite. “This is good stuff, Margie. Butter cream frosting?”

She nodded but didn’t take her eyes off Cullen.

“Good. Break’s over. Get back to work.”

Margie and Bart ran for their lives out the door. Dante stared for a moment then exited. George followed but turned before walking out.

“Ducks,” he said with his vein still pulsing. “You understand me? The ducks.”

The boss pointed toward Cullen and Mark then motioned toward the door. “Come on. Get moving. Those accounts aren’t going to balance themselves.”

“Damn it,” Cullen shouted as he uncocked the rubber band threaded tightly around the end of his finger. “I never get to have the corner piece.”

 



Tan Suits

by Larry Hippler

I’m going to disappoint you, but you knew that already. You’re looking for romance. It wasn’t like that.

In the summer of 86 Guys like us wore tan suits, a navy blazer and slacks on casual Friday maybe; but most often, basic tan, poplin suits. That day, Tom wore gold-framed aviators with lenses that reflected your own face back at you. My sunglasses were black and I thought, kind of hip.

I felt queasy even as I pulled up to the house, the last of a string of duplexes, one of those houses where the sidewalk rises in several levels of steps up to the porch, a big porch that stretched across the front. I saw people up there waiting. They saw me too, and they didn’t look happy.

“Looks like a good group!” Tom was trying to put a positive face on it. I appreciated that. After all, it was Tom who’d assigned me to find an appropriate singles group for newly divorced studs like us. NEW DAWN – a discussion group for thinking singles. It seemed perfect.

Everyone on the porch turned as one to look down on us as we started up the sidewalk. Tom instinctively straightened and quickened the pace as if he were pumping up for the month-end review meeting. I’d done this a million times by myself. So why now did I feel like a sacrifice climbing the temple steps at Mazatlan?

I’d hoped to meet some North Baltimore artsy ladies, not hippie throwbacks. I counted fifteen people up there. The men had longish hair a-la 1969, T shirts or old fatigue shirts. One wore — I’m not making this up — bell bottoms. Dead silence.

Then bell bottoms spoke: “Are you two from the FBI?”

“He’s from the FBI,” I joked. “I’m from the CIA. We’re here to check you out.”

Tom piped up with, “We’re in the defense industry,” a defensive bite in his tone.

The women. One thin, pale woman wore a white shirt with two red square pins on the collar and the biggest Fannie pack in America around her waist. Nondescript sack dresses and sandals, no makeup. Nobody smiled. The single pretty one by the wall had on a sack dress too, a light green one but she wore it with flair. She had short, graying hair that had once been blond. She might have been North Baltimore artsy.

More silence until the door was flung open by a huge guy with a black beard and longish black hair, Rasputin in an old army coat, jeans and sandals. I said, “Hi.” With a quizzical frown he seemed to focus on the center of my forehead. Edging back, he had us all troop in.

I remember threadbare, overstuffed chairs, tufts of cotton sticking out at the seams. The 1920s wall paper was peeling. Our destination was a room-sized oval-shaped kitchen table. A collection of rickety, chairs surrounded it. I thought of those picture puzzles that you see in kid’s magazines. “What’s wrong with this picture?” Instead of birds flying inside the house or the sun and moon being out at the same time, Bolsheviks were about to shoot the Czar. And right in the middle of them sit two fortyish white guys in tan suits and rep stripe ties. What’s wrong with that picture?

Seated, unease radiated from Tom like heat from an overburdened samovar. I was wishing Rasputin would finish up with the “minutes from last week’s meeting” crap and break out some vodka and rye bread or something. Baltimore artsy was smiling now and looking uber cute.

Fannie pack sat across from me and I could see the little pins on her collar clearly. One was an all-too-obvious hammer and sickle, the other, a bust of Lenin. Then it happened, like a train wreck in slow motion. Rasputin asked for volunteers at their car wash for the Sandinista rebels. Before anyone could answer, Tom was up and moving.

“These people are Communists! Get out of here, now!”

Out on the street, I could see that Tom was seriously pissed. “We can’t do stuff like that,” he began. “They were Communists, for Christ’s sake! I could lose my job. So could you!”

Behind the wheel. Tom glared up at the house, silent. I saw myself in the rear view mirror. I’d opened my collar when we were on the porch.

When my tie was tight again and the dimple centered just right, I started the car.


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by Surabhi Kaushik

“I am going to disappoint you, but you knew that already.”

Margret stared at the letters on the screen of her phone. “I am sorry Mom” it said. Within seconds the screen grew hazy and a lump formed in her throat. Thick tears were slowly flooding her eyes. She put her phone back in her bag and walked towards the dull grey bench at the bus stop. She sat down and took a deep breath. She knew somewhere that this would happen but she believed that she could make it work otherwise. She never wanted her son Chris to feel that she was pushing him. She always wanted to maintain healthy boundaries.

“I sacrificed many years to make sure my son had the best possible education. Now he is out of high school and working at a low level job and says he has no intentions of going to college.” She had heard many parents say these words. In her workplace, on her Uber rides, Chris’s birthday parties, where his friends’ parents cribbed about their older children. Margret never knew that she would feel like saying the same words one day. She always wished she never would.

Insane incentives, infinite promises and endless hope had all been a part of Margret’s journey to motivate Chris to study hard and make it to college. He always shone with promise when the school year began but started fading like the evening sun when the year came to an end.

It’s just a phase, Margret had often told herself. He’s almost there. He is continuously growing and changing. He’s just a little confused and maybe a little lazy…but every child is, isn’t it? These words often danced in her head when she saw Chris was not taking his future plans as seriously as she wanted him to. Education was like a flowing river, it never stopped, she would say. He always nodded in agreement but never made too loud a promise. He always knew what she wanted.

She was always full of stories to inspire him. She loved telling him how hard people worked to get ahead in life. His favorite was that of James Lehman, who was stealing and used drugs as a young adult, wound up in jail but few years later he went to college and got his Master’s degree and embarked on a whole new career of helping troubled youth and their parents. She also wanted him to know that it’s not right to do the wrong thing. But if you do the wrong thing, it’s never too late to give it up. She wanted to be the lighthouse and help him navigate the rough seas of life and its wavy decisions.

She reminisced those days when she came home tired and worn out like an old shoe, just wanting to rest her tired feet and fatigued body, but she was always brimming with energy to run across to get his school stationery, stay up late at night to help him work on his projects, sweep through racks and racks of books in the library to find that one book that he needed. She walked to work on many sunny afternoons with the hot sun burning her rough black hair, just to save a penny more.

Now, he had made his decision. After all, it was his life, not hers. She stared at the dry, empty road, waiting for the bus to arrive. She felt her heart melt in the heat and her legs aching with her own weight. She pulled out her phone and looked at his message again, before she went ahead and deleted it. “There can be no deep disappointment where there is no deep love.” Martin Luther King Jr.


Southbound and Down

by Karen Newman

I’m going to disappoint you, but you knew that already.  The operator announcing a collect call coming from county jail was a dead giveaway, right?

Where am I, you ask? In an effing holding cell in—no joke—Effingham County, Georgia. Outside my swank crib, Deputy Fife plays with his oversized hat while Captain Lardo waddles over to the box of doughnuts with a soggy cigar stub in his mouth.

What happened, you ask? Before I start, please remember that my intentions were good. Oh, forgive my snicker. A proverb just crossed my mind. Yeah, that one about the road to effing-hell being paved with … yeah, yeah, I know, stay focused.

So a few weeks ago I was telling Janine—I’ve told you about her, she owns the salon with the beautiful décor and delicious cucumber water … What? “Get to the point already”? You’re the one always telling me to introduce the characters for the readers—hey, there’s no need to yell at me. I’ve had a tough enough morning as it is without you screaming … fine, I’ll continue.

So I was telling Janine about how the synthetic stuff the doctors prescribed you to help with your appetite and nausea makes you sicker, and that only the genuine article helps, but how is a sick, housebound woman supposed to be able to procure the one substance that brings her a little relief?

That’s where we left it … until yesterday when she called requesting we meet—immediately. Moments later, in the parking lot of Harris Teeter, she hopped from her car to mine, opened the glove box, and hastily slipped a plastic bag containing a jar of her salon’s expensive moisturizer into it. She explained that she had raided her teenage son’s bedroom and confiscated his stash. She had been waiting for the right moment to conduct such a raid, and after hearing about your situation, she felt there wasn’t a better time or reason. Right then it dawned on me what she had shoved in my glove compartment.

Now it was up to me to get this jar to you. I went straight home and sat staring at it while snippets of detective novels and shows raced through my mind. All I could keep thinking about were coffee grinds. Are you kidding me? That’s the best I could come up with? Anyway, I went back to the grocery store and bought the largest can of coffee they had. Upon returning home, I emptied the can of coffee, put the jar in the can, and poured the grinds back in. I placed the lid back on, stuck it at the bottom of a grocery bag, and filled the rest of the bag up with some road-trip essentials. I even found room for a fifth of bourbon. What’s that you say? Heck, yes, it was new. I know better than to drive with an open bottle of liquor. Give me some credit, won’t you?

I packed an overnight bag and hit the road this morning predawn. I didn’t tell you I was coming because I didn’t want you worrying about me driving, and I knew you’d be home when I arrived. I mean, sadly, where else could you be?

The trip was going flawlessly. I set my cruise control a couple of miles over the speed limit. The grocery bag was in the back of the van, with my overnight bag. I had everything under control. What could go wrong?

I was approaching the last exit in Georgia … the last damn exit. All I had to do was cross over the state line and in minutes I would be at your door. I got in the right-hand lane, settling in for the last few miles of my journey. And then there they were, those twinkling blue and red lights in my rearview mirror.

An effing turn signal. It’s always the little things that trip you up. It was only then that I realized that I fit the profile of an ass—I mean mule—to a tee. All the subterfuge in the world couldn’t disguise a middle-aged—hey, quit laughing—Caucasian woman driving a minivan south on I-95 transporting weed—medicinal cannabis, as I told Deputy Fife—across state lines.

And that’s how I find myself talking to you from jail in Effinghell … ham. But I promise you, the next time—and there will be a next time—I won’t disappoint you.


This is What We’re About

by Ann Stawski

I’m going to disappoint you, but you knew that already. So did I.

It’s our thing, really. Disappointment. Other people have love or laughter. Some have pride and chest swelling. That stuff’s not for us. Lately we’re going through this disappointment routine on a regular basis. You want to know how or what I’m doing in school, in orchestra or even in my video games. I tell you something I think might make you proud or happy or at least a tad more tolerant. You give me the courtesy of hearing me out.

Yet my effort falls short.

Every single time.

You want me to do something different or better or with more effort. Ultimately, it comes down to the way that you would do it, which is not my way.

I don’t know why I expect anything different from you, either. Our relationship doesn’t work that way and, believe me, I’m well away of the definition of insanity. That is our relationship.

What sucks hard is you really don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. You say you want to know about my life, but when I tell you I’m doing something and it’s different than the way you did it, or are doing it, or would do it, then you begin your lecture. That friggin, horrible stream of words you think is so important that you sometimes shout or deepen your voice to provide emphasis. You think it makes an impression on me. It doesn’t. All I do is tune you out until I sense you’re circling a conclusion, otherwise I’d scream bloody murder.

Oh, how I hate that monologue.

Let me count the ways.

One, it’s repetitive.

Two, it’s overblown.

Three, it’s repetitive.

Four, it’s condescending.

Five, did I already say repetitive?

In case I didn’t mention it before, your monologue needs work. Just because you spew out an assembly of letters formed into words and sentences doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. You don’t even notice the alphabet bouncing off me. I don’t take it in anymore, I don’t listen, and I certainly don’t agree.

But you did catch my attention last night when you said you couldn’t trust me. That stung. Where did that come from? Trust was never a problem before. Disappointment, sure, but I never did anything to make you doubt me. I’m a really good son. My grades got me a spot on the honor roll. I don’t sneak out of the house, experiment with alcohol or drugs, and while I am dating my second girlfriend, the most we do is make out. Yet somehow through all my good stuff, you say you can’t trust me.

Of course, you can’t comprehend by doubting me without cause makes me want to do something crazy, something to really make you not trust me. All I have to do is look around at my classmates and pluck one of their misdeeds and there you’d have it. I could give you a real reason not to trust me.

Shoplifting’s a hot game at school. The girl next to me stashes cell phones in her locker like sticks of gum. And for being a drug-free zone, the place is practically a pharmacy. If I wanted to knock someone out, I’ve logged hundreds of hours on Call of Duty and learned plenty of stealth ways to sneak up on someone. I’m capable of doing great thing but not great horrible things. That’s not me, and I thought you knew that.

All I want right now is be alone and quiet, and not have to listen to your lecture anymore.

So this is where we’ve landed. Maybe once you pause long enough to take a breath, you’ll finally notice that I slipped out and went to mom’s house. Maybe you’ll finally be able to see what’s going on.

Don’t let this be a surprise. After all, it’s one more disappointment from me, right? This is what we’re about, but I don’t want to be this way anymore. Give me a call when you’re done monologuing and ready to dialogue with me.


Dear Star

by Sol Vance

I’m going to disappoint you, but you knew that already. You know how we men are; you’ve met enough of us. Don’t interrupt; hear me out. Okay, read me out.

My love, let’s start with this piece of paper. A “Dear John” letter, or maybe we should call it a “Dear Joan.” You’ll read it first and then the cop, and the paramedic, and the coroner, and the investigator, the reporter, then it’ll be in the news and even my dear old mother will be reading about our intimacy at the beauty shop. Those old hags with nothing better to do but stick their noses in other people’s business will hand it to her. It won’t matter to me then. I’ll be gone. I’m sorry, but it has to end. It was wonderful while it lasted.

I still remember the day I saw you in Ladies of the Night, your sweet painted face in the background right between the second and third prostitutes at minute 14.3 in the video. You were sucking your index finger. I fell in love right then and there. You’ve come a long way, Baby. You had that talking part in Schoolgirls Gone Wild, remember? You said “Bite me.” Yeah, that was so hot. And it wasn’t that long after that you got that gig as the fifth maid in The Downstairs Bedrooms. Things sure went up from there. Were you screwing the cameraman? He sure got some closeups of you that time, of your sexy finger in your mouth gesture.

It was in the next video, Steam City that I realized you were right here in town, that I could find you and you could love me back. I looked for you at all the famous night spots and movie studio websites. Craig woke me up to that then, about the videos not being done in studios but in basements and warehouses, so I started looking there. There was a window showing in Dorm-room Sex that with a little software lighting up showed a landmark outside. It was that statue in front of the library. You were just a few blocks from me. No, I won’t say what statue or what library, it’s a nice setup you have there and I don’t want to take the livelihood away from all those nice young people. The membership streaming video was a great idea. I’m sure it gave all of you enough to pay for your tuition, or at least your books. As for me, well, it maxed out my credit card and could no longer get my fix of you.

Craig would bring me drugs, any I wanted, but it wasn’t enough. I had to see you.  He even brought them after I stopped sharing you with him. He loved you too, but not as much as me. I had to go outside, walk the five blocks between us, past the gate and its guard, past the nurse’s station, past my bedroom’s locked door, my padded wall bedroom. I couldn’t face it. I’m sorry.

“Who did you say wrote this, Officer?” The girl passed her long-nailed index finger along the handwritten lines of blue fountain pen ink.

“We found it taped to the computer screen at the hospital’s psychiatric unit,” the female in uniform answered while removing her rubber gloves.

“What does it have to do with me?” the starlet asked as she nervously bit her fingernail.

“We found a lot of pornographic material in the computer. You were in all the videos and pictures.”

“I’m an actor. I’m sure other people have my pictures. What do you want from me? The guy is dead, right?”

“No, he’s not. He just vanished. Had you seen this before?” she gestured at the letter in the actress’s hands.

“How could I? He was in the nut house! And they allowed him a computer with internet? And who’s this Craig guy he mentioned?”

“Ma’am, you see he’s saying you read the note first, then the cop. Had you read it?” the officer said in an authoritative tone.

“It also says here the coroner would see it. That means there’s a body, right?” she closed her eyes for a second.

“We are looking for it. For him. And for the orderly,” the officer squinted, “Ma’am? Are you feeling all right? Your lips … they’re blue.

“I … can’t … breathe …,” the beautiful starlet gasped with a hand on her throat and fell off the chair.

“Help!  I think she’s … dead.”

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ready set write

 

We added a third hour feature to our Saturday critique groups. At our May meeting, we decided to write some flash fiction for our June meeting third hour. Our prompt was an “overheard at critique group” moment. All the pieces started with “Have I ordered already?” and the results were great. Here’s a selection from our authors. Enjoy!

 

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Rendezvous

by Lance Butler

 

“Did I order already?”

Two girls giggle, making fun of their own inattentiveness. The kid behind the counter, no older than the teens taking turns debating their choice of coffee while critiquing the apparel of the shop’s other customers, waits patiently. The Bean is a popular hangout, my daughter Karen’s favorite place for a morning cup of steaming mud.

After the divorce, I moved across the country to start a new life, but I didn’t abandon Karen. I came back and we met here on her sixteenth birthday then again the next year and every year after that. I enjoy keeping up with her life, learning about her ambitions and friends and anything else she wants to share with her old man. I wish we could spend more time together, but life happens.

Business keeps me on the road. School keeps her busy. Today she turns twenty-one. I’d offer to take her to a bar for her first legal drink, but this is our thing. No matter where we are or what our commitments, we find a way to return to this coffee shop and our table.

It’s tucked into the back of the room so we can see everything that’s going on. The girls at the counter have their grande whatevers and laugh as they exit. A man across the room hunches over at a small table while typing on his PC. A woman in a nearby chair reads a book. Everything is normal except I’m here alone.

The bell over the door rings and I look up, hoping to see Karen’s smiling face. “Daddy,” she’d squeal as she ran across the floor, not caring what anyone else thought as she jumped into my waiting arms. The person entering The Bean wears a business suit, dark glasses, and does not call me “Daddy.” He approaches the counter, places his order, and waits.

She’ll be here soon. She always comes here on her birthday.

The young cashier steps away from the counter and makes his rounds between the tables. “Can I take your plate, ma’am?”

The woman puts down her paperback and nods. Is she one of those purest who likes to read the old fashioned way, actively thumbing her nose at the digital world, or has she allowed technology to pass her by? The man typing on his PC is too busy to acknowledge the teen’s offer to refill his drink. Maybe he should step away from the digital world for a few minutes.

Karen’s somewhere in-between. She has an iPhone and a laptop and a Tumblr account, but she likes to read books too, real paper that bends and creases and leaves a faint tinge of black ink on her finger tips. I want to know if she liked the present I gave her last year—a complete collection of all of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books. She loves to read stories that make her laugh and think and pose questions that can’t be easily answered. I haven’t seen her since we drove our separate ways out of the parking lot, since the accident, since the day it all changed.

A digital life can live on longer than the physical. Facebook posts and random Tweets have a way of resurfacing, making the past seem real again like she could walk in at any second, smile, and fall into my arms.

I don’t know what I would say to her. I love you? I miss you? I wish we could meet here every year for the rest of our lives? But our lives are not always what we want.

I rise, bowing to the knowledge that she won’t return, when the bell above the door rings. She’s wearing dark glasses. She nods at the teen behind the counter but doesn’t order anything. She walks toward me but doesn’t stop for a hug, instead she slides into her chair at our table. She’s come to tell me goodbye. I wasn’t sure if she would.

“Did you order already?” a young woman with an apron tied around her waist asks.

“No.” Karen lays a book on the table. “I came to finish a story.” The woman nods and leaves.

Karen lowers her head for a moment then opens the book I gave her. “This is for you, Daddy.”

She pulls a picture from between the pages. It’s the one we took in the parking lot that day. We smiled and hugged and promised to meet here again next year. She came. We did.

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Did We Already Order?

by Jason Dye

 

In a high-backed wooden chair, Jason shifted his weight from one butt cheek to the other. His stomach gave a low rumble.

Across the table sat Eric with his nose buried in a fully unfolded newspaper. His hands, the only parts of Eric Jason could see, grasped the sides of the Charlotte Observer. The front page had pictures of Trump and Hillary with the caption “American’s will pick between a narcissist with bad hair that lies and a Narcissist with bad hair that lies”.

Jason rolled his eyes.

A woman’s voice murmured in the background. Her tone pointed, almost like the person she talked to had done something wrong.

Jason’s stomach gave out a loud gurgle. God I’m hungry, he thought and looked at his watch. 1:00, in a restaurant, and I’m starving.

The smell of cooked meat and fresh rolls filled his nose and his mouth watered like never before. He snapped his eyes to the table. Laid out before him sat mounds of french fries, rolls, hamburgers on buns, A1 steak sauce, and many other foods. The table spanned the length of the room, all of it covered with something edible.

“Did we already order?” said Jason, dropping a handful of fries and two rolls onto his plate.

“Shhhh,” said Eric from behind the newspaper. His voice sounded more gravelly than normal.

In the background, the woman’s murmured voice became more forceful.

So glad I’m not that poor bastard she’s talking to, thought Jason, shifting forward and slurping on the saliva in his mouth. He stopped in mid reach of a hamburger.

“What the hell is this?” he said, picking up a french fry.

“Shhh,” said Eric, head behind the newspaper and his voice keeping the same amount of gravel as before.

Jason looked at the fry. The words French Fry were printed in bold ink across its length. Jason picked up another fry. It too had the words French Fry printed in the firm ink of a laser printer. He gazed at his plate. All the fries had French Fry printed on them. Jason grabbed a roll and across the top the word Roll sat as dark and solid as the words on the french fries.

“Must be some kind of joke,” said Jason, eying the roll.

“Quite Jason,” said Eric forcefully and gravelly.

The voice in the background stopped.

The roll in Jason’s hand began to shrivel and burn like paper on fire. All the food on the table started to shrivel and burn, the words printed on each morsel went up in flames with the food.

“Where the hell did the food go?” said Jason, looking at Eric.

Eric’s newspaper twisted, shrank, spun and churned until it sat in a pile of neatly printed, letter size paper in his hand. Handwritten marks, comments, and arrows graced the first piece of paper. Jason’s full name and the title to the sixth chapter of his book was displayed at the top of the page.

Did I really make a mistake with my own name? thought Jason, seeing a mark and a comment next to his name on the page.

Eric’s face blurred, warped and re-focusing into someone else’s.

“What the F-,” said Jason.

The person who sat across from him wasn’t Eric. “You know the rules, no talking during your own critique,” said Karen, leaning towards Jason, flailing his critiqued papers in her hand. “We have 20  more minutes until you can talk and 30 more before you can eat. If you want something, I can get the waitress to bring you more water.”

More water? thought Jason. But I’m fucking hungry now!

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Waiting

by Theresa Glover

Did I order already? It’s hard to remember with all these people around. There’s so much to watch, so many lives to imagine, even if many of them are sad. I imagine what their lives are like, lose myself in those lives and now I can’t remember if I’ve ordered.

So many dirty tables, too. The management should be ashamed. Not one empty table cleared and wiped down for the next customer. How can a lady feel comfortable putting her pocketbook on the table, never mind her hands, when there are so many crumbs? My pocketbook will remain on my lap even after they wipe it down and I certainly haven’t touched the sticky tabletop. A lady shouldn’t be forced to dine at such an establishment. Nor work here. I will have to tell Nora.

I don’t understand why Nora insists on working in such a terrible place. Such a good girl should be doing more than waiting tables. Even with my glasses on, I can’t see a tip on the table beside me. So few tips and so much work. And for what? Nasty, ungrateful, wasteful people. From the barely touched glass of milk and food still filling most of the plate to the piles of used napkins. Not even the decency to take their scraps home. Maybe Nora will pack them up for the pigs at Daddy’s farm. At least they’d be eaten. Such wastefulness.

None of the other diners seem to mind the mess. Strange how old they look. Strange how they’re all eating and I can’t remember whether I’ve ordered. Surely, my waitress would have cleared away the dirty plate and lipstick-marked coffee cup on my table. It’s a disgrace to wait so long for service, especially at a dirty table. I hope they haven’t mistaken me for a customer who finished their meal. When my waitress comes by, I’ll have her wipe down the table and clean up these gravy spots. Or maybe Nora, if I see her first.

I regret not bringing my sweater. The waitresses don’t seem to notice the chill. They look like they’re sweating in their colorful pants and short-sleeved tops. None alike. Some with bears, some with starfish. Some just plain colors. One has a necklace that looks like a stethoscope, the chest piece tucked in her pocket. I don’t like it. Too much kitsch. The diner where my late husband took me for our first date had the right of it. Uniforms. Those waitresses dressed like proper ladies in pretty pink dresses, bright white aprons and little caps. They looked a bit like nurses, I suppose. Not like here. Here, the waitresses blend in, except they’re mostly younger, their clothes brighter, newer, and plainer. And how they hurry.

One of the waitresses buzzes by and says something, but I only hear the “honey” at the end. So unprofessional. I’m a customer she’s barely acknowledged, yet she calls me “honey.” She could have at least left me a menu, or taken away these dirty dishes. I don’t like staring at the remnants of someone else’s meal, even if I do admire the pretty pink lipstick on the coffee mug. It looks like the Mystic Pearl I wear every day. Most days. I don’t remember if I put it on today, but I’m certainly not fishing through my pocketbook for my mirror. Not until they clean off this table. And I’d like to order, so I’m not leaving for the ladies’ room, just in case I haven’t.

The waitress stops at another table and wipes a customer’s mouth. If the old lady wasn’t bent nearly in half in her wheelchair, it would be scandalizing. I hope someone cares for me like that when I’m that old. She is sweet, that waitress, no matter how busy she is with other diners. She’s like my Nora. She’d take care of me.

I can’t remember if Nora’s working today. I’m sure she left the house early, but I don’t remember what she was wearing. If she was here, she would have cleared away these dishes and brought me a menu, even if I wasn’t at her table. She must not be here today. I can’t remember what she said she was going to do.

Cheap management must not have enough girls for the shift. I might wait forever on my waitress. I’ll ask for her name so I can tell Nora how sweet she was with the lady in the wheelchair, and how she helped another gentleman rise from his poorly cushioned chair. My Nora would pat his hand like that, too, I’m sure. I hope she comes by soon. She’ll know if I’ve ordered already.

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Mail Order

by DH Hanni

 

Did I order? Unsure, I scrolled down the page to double-check. Discovering I hadn’t, I reviewed it one last time, then clicked “Place Order.”

Now came my least favorite part: the waiting game. Two days, in fact. Maybe I should have paid extra for the one day ship upgrade.

What to do while I waited? I looked around my neatly organized and labeled office and sighed. The house was clean so that wasn’t an option. A dust bunny caught my eye and I rubbed it away from the otherwise perfectly polished desk.

I got up and went to the kitchen. With too much nervous energy built up and no other outlet for it, baking would be my release until my package arrived. Besides, who wouldn’t want to come home to chocolate and cinnamon dancing in the air?

Two days later, after dozens of cookies, both a chocolate and a white cake, and brownies, I sat impatiently on the couch, gnawing on my manicured nails. Glancing at the clock did nothing to calm the circus of animals moving about in my stomach. I paced the pristine house, arranging, rearranging, and re-rearranging everything even though every object was in its place. The morning passed, then the early afternoon, and still no ding dong letting me know my order had arrived.

Finally, at half past four, the doorbell rang. I jumped up, smoothed my best dress, and sauntered to the door. A deep breath to steady my nerves before I opened the door and flashed a smile to the delivery person.

“Yes?” I asked sweetly. Next to the delivery person was my order.

Hmmm. Not quite what I’d asked for.

“Miss Mayer?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Please sign.” She handed me a tablet and I scribbled my signature, angrily, barely looking at the package. I handed her back the tablet and showed him in.

“Nice house,” he said politely in a surprisingly deep and pleasant voice. At least that was one positive. He stuck out his hand. “My name’s James.”

I shook it unable to ignore his tiny hands. “Nice to meet you. I’m Lily,” I said, smiling weakly. “Well, James, you certainly aren’t what I thought I ordered.” I emphasized my displeasure by looking him up and down. James wasn’t hideous. Just… average at best. “I was expecting someone over six feet tall, blonde hair, blue eyes, broad-shouldered.”

“Ah,” he replied and forced a smile. “Perhaps you clicked on the wrong buttons?”

“No,” I bristled, “I most certainly did not. I double-checked, triple-checked my order. No, this is a problem with the shipping warehouse.” I took a deep breath, held up my hands, and silently counted to ten.

“Make yourself at home while I attend to this situation. I baked. Have as much as you like although perhaps in your case lay off the calories.” I glanced at the button on his navy blazer that strained over his stomach.

James frowned. “You weren’t what I was expecting, either. Doesn’t mean you need to be rude or that we can’t make this work.”

My mouth dropped. “How…how dare you,” I sputtered. “How could I not be what you expected?”

He shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, Lily, you look lovely and all, but well, hopefully your baking is sweeter than your attitude.”

I was too angry to speak. Instead I grabbed a plate of snickerdoodles and shoved it at James, turned on my heels, and stomped into my office. I retrieved the order from the website and contacted customer service. After several minutes going through the painful automated system, I got a real person. There was much back and forth between myself and customer service before I indignantly accepted their decision. Some places really take no returns, no refunds seriously.

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B and B

by Karen Newman

“Did I order already?” I asked the bartender as he slid a cocktail napkin in front of me and set down a drink. His collared knit shirt hugging his well-defined torso advertised the bar’s name and the fact that he was known as Ben.

“Your B and B on the rocks, compliments of the guy at the end of the bar,” he said, motioning with his head. The odd tone in his voice and the expression on his face made me hesitate. In the reflection of the mirror-lined wall behind him, I tried to catch a glimpse of the man before turning to raise the drink in his direction in a gesture of appreciation. To my dismay, there were too many people gathered in that area for me to figure out who my benefactor was. I’d just have to take my chances.

As I reached for the glass, a thought made me stop. How did the man know what to order? Was it a lucky guess? No. This man must know me. But that’s not possible. I haven’t been in the city for years and definitely never in this part of midtown. Although the doctors told me I would never regain certain memories, I know I’ve never been in this bar before, so even this barkeep named Ben couldn’t possibly know what I drink.

A slice of light cut the dimness of the room as the kitchen door to my left swung open. The mingled scents of gastro pub fare wafted by, distracting me from my musing.

Taking the glass in my hand, it was damp and cold. Beads of moisture had started dripping down its sides. The temperature in the room rose in unison with the volume. I had no idea of what time it was, how long I had been there, nor how I ever ended up in that bar. The place was filling up with suits and briefcases, so intuition told me it had to be after 5:00, but it couldn’t be too late, because before the railroad’s peak schedule would be ending, the bar would clear out, especially since it was a weekday night. This I somehow knew.

Once again, my thoughts were sidetracked as I admired the smooth, effortless movements of the bartender as he poured drink after drink. His motions were fluid and dance-like. There was something vaguely familiar about him, which made me feel comfortable. Over the din of the music and cocktail-hour conversations, I realized that everyone referred to him by name. I made a mental note to do the same.

Turning at a slight angle toward the end of the bar, I scanned the faces hoping to catch the man’s eye so that I could get the obligatory signal of gratitude over with. I wanted to enjoy the drink I was holding. I was thirsty and getting warmer by the minute.

One of the first men I saw nodded at me, grinned widely, and raised his stein of beer in the sign of a toast. Before I could do the same, I noticed the lady next to him wave at me and lift her Cosmopolitan. She then nudged the person on the other side of her and pointed. It was then I realized more patrons were acknowledging my presence.

Totally confused, I mustered up a weak smile, tilted back my drink, and took a deep gulp. The elixir warmed my throat and spread luxuriously through my core. It had an immediate calming effect. Before it could complete its task, I felt an arm around my shoulder.

“So good to see you. It’s been way too long.”

Then an arm encircled my waist and gave a tight squeeze. A soprano voice sang, “Glad you’re feeling better. You’ve been missed.”

My mind started spinning; my heart raced. Who do these people think I am? This is a mistake. I need to get out of here. I have to go home. Now.

I drained the rest of my drink and began to rise from my chair.

As if sensing my distress, Ben broke his pace and came over to me, bringing a fresh B and B with him

“Are you hanging in there, Brandi?” he asked, with genuine concern. He reached over the bar and gently stroked my cheek.

Easing back into my chair, I took a deep breath and felt the serenity of clarity fill me. Ben.

In his eyes I saw the truth. I was home.

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Foodie

by Gabrielle Olexa

 

“Did I order already?” I asked, perplexed, as the plate landed before me with a clatter. The steak in its center jumped and plopped back down, its juices somehow not splattering all over me. I didn’t remember telling the waiter what I wanted, but come to think of it, I couldn’t remember ever sitting down to eat, let alone at a restaurant.

“Many times,” the waiter replied, his tone matching the way he’d delivered my food.

“Well, thanks, I guess,” I said. I looked up, taking him and the room in. Wherever I was, it was fancy. He was decked out in fine attire, dressed like a classical penguin, a white towel draped over his arm. The room, though large, was empty besides the two of us and my solitary table. It too had the expensive look and feel, a crisp, spotless linen covered it and a pair of tall, silver candle holders sat in the middle, the wicks alight and burning bright.

“Did I beat the rush?” I asked.

“Reservation for one,” he said and stalked off. He weaved in and out of what appeared to be nothing, and for a moment I wondered if he was drinking on the job, and then he just disappeared, like literally. He didn’t fall down, walk through a door or step behind a wall, he just vanished.

I looked down at my food and nervously took a bite. I eat when I’m anxious. Heck, I eat when I’m not. I just love food. And this was incredible. The steak was perfection. It reminded me of the one I paid out the nose for in Japan. But I wasn’t in Japan, was I? That was years ago, but I could swear it was the same steak. It evoked everything it made me feel before as I chewed the most flavorsome and most tender cow flesh that had ever rubbed against my taste buds.

I closed my eyes to take this magnificent moment in again and when I opened them, the waiter was back. This time he carried multiple plates on trays balanced precariously on his arms. These too landed unceremoniously before me with a bang.

“Okay, I know for sure I didn’t order all this,” I said.

“But you did. Eat,” the waiter replied and off again he want.

I didn’t bother to watch him get devoured by the darkness this time. Instead, I took in all the delectable dishes and followed instructions. I ate and I ate and it was great, down to every last morsel. Just as I was finishing off a fabulous garbage plate, I looked up to the waiter returning yet again, but he wasn’t carrying the food like he had before. He was pushing it all on a cart and with much difficultly, I must add.

Everything you could imagine was arranged on it. It looked like a Thanksgiving feast had thrown up on itself. My eyes didn’t know where to look, and for the first time in my life, I was fairly sure they were indeed larger than my stomach.

“Where would you like to start?” the waiter asked.

“The question is where does it end,” I said, my voice shaking, as the full size of the cart became clear. There was no way all that food could fit into my stomach. It didn’t matter what level of competitor eater I jokingly thought myself as.

The waiter laughed. It was the first time he seemed pleased with his occupation. “It doesn’t.”

“What level of Hell is this?” I shouted and tried to stand, but I was fixed to my chair. Even my feet were held firm to the floor.

“If only your brains were as big as your gut,” the waiter said. He reached behind him and grabbed a plate from the cart – jellied cranberry sauce, my favorite – and slammed it down in front of me. “Gluttony.”

“Well, hot damn! Why didn’t you tell me that to begin with? This isn’t hell at all or at least not mine.” I could see the waiter’s skin starting to boil with annoyance. “Could be yours, though.” I smiled. “The next time you teleport into what I can only imagine is the kitchen of my dreams, bring my cake from my sixth birthday party. It was the one year my mom didn’t bake one and it was delicious. I ate it all then and I’m gonna love every bite of it now.”

My stomach rumbled. It was ready for more.

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He loves me, he loves me not

by Sylvia Shumake

 

“Did I already order?”

The bartender winks. “It’s from the gentleman at the end of the bar.”

I try to act nonchalant as I glance to my right.

The bartender lowers his head as if he’s about to expose a secret agent. “No,” he mutters under his breath, and nods to the other end of the bar.

Again, with as much of an indifferent attitude as I can muster I glance to my left. Oh, shit. Where are my glasses? All I see is a blur. I think he’s smiling at me. I panic. The last time this happened, I could not get rid of the guy. He chased me all the way to the Mexican border.

The bartender seems to have disappeared so I can’t ask him about the man.

The local barfly stumbles to the exit. The bleached blonde at the corner of the bar seems to have an urgent appointment as she heads for the door.

I’m alone with the unwelcome friendly stranger at the end of the bar.

It’s 3 pm and I’m in a rundown, crappy hole in the wall bar on the side of a desert road. I drove fourteen hours straight through mountains and desert to get this far. I’m hot, thirsty and sweaty and I’m in no mood for romance.

I have to do something, people around here carry guns, and I hear the men don’t take too kindly to rejection.

I raise the drink, look in the guy’s direction and nod my head. Maybe this will be the end of it. Maybe he’s just friendly. Maybe I should put on my glasses. Oh, Shit, here he comes.

I slide my hand in my clutch bag. Good, I remembered to pack the Derringer. I pull out a dollar like I’m leaving a tip.

The bar stool screeches against the hardwood floor. Damn, I hate that sound. I smile and I mosey on over toward the stranger like I think he’s hot and I’m gonna’ melt all over him like I’m butter and he’s the frying pan.

I bolt for the door.

I almost make it to the car, a flashy red mustang convertible I hotwired in Dallas, and my ticket out of this racket. This baby is gonna’ make me enough money to retire from my life of crime. Man, he’s got a grip like a vice, boy, am I gonna’ have a bruise.

Maybe I can still get out of this, I know I said I’m not in the mood for romance but hey these are desperate times. I see the flash.

Hot Texas sun on a Texas Ranger’s metal star.

“Oh, Shit.”

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Untitled

by Ann Stawski

 

“Did I order already?” The owner of the baritone voice was an older gentleman with thinning gray hair and a prominent nose who smiled cordially at me. On the gold and beveled glass cocktail table sat set a silver tray containing an ornate bowl filled with creamed herring surrounded by thin, wheat crackers. “I don’t remember doing this.”

“The waiter said this was what you would want,” I said, remaining seated.

“Ah, yes, Viktor knows my preferences.” His Russian accent grew more obvious with each word as he lowered himself into the red velvet upholstered chair across from me and unbuttoned his herringbone suitcoat.

The back bar of the Metro Hotel seemed a bit garish for a daytime meeting but it was his choice. My brain struggled for an appropriate conversation starter, so I smoothed the front of my navy skirt over my crossed legs.

As if on cue, Viktor appeared at the table. From an expensive bottle of vodka, he filled two shot glasses and placed one in front of my companion and then me. He set the bottle in a champagne bucket stand.

My companion lifted his glass in the air. “To new acquaintances. Nasdrowia!”

I hesitated for only a moment. “Cheers.” When the chilled alcohol travelled down my throat and warmed my empty stomach, I was pleased by its smoothness. Good vodka was always a staple at my family home.

“It’s not often I make time for strangers, Ms. Gariton, but your request for an interview intrigues me.” He glanced at an expensive wristwatch. “I have fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you, Mr. Volkov. I do appreciate it.” I adjusted the neckline of my crème cotton sweater. The irony that his name translated into Wolf was not lost on me.

“Please, Grigory.” He instructed and watched through narrowed eyes while I retrieved a small notebook and pen from my purse.

“I’ve read up on you, so I don’t want to waste time on what is common knowledge, Mr. Volkov.” The notebook remained closed, an empty prop. I knew the story by heart. “You served as a KGB agent for nearly forty years. You completed countless assignments. You’ve lived a life of danger and intrigue. You’ll die with more secrets than one thousand people could acquire in a lifetime.”

He nodded with a smug smile as he spooned herring onto a cracker, and consumed it in one large bite. He wiped his fingers of the crumbs.

I took the opportunity to ask my question. “However, when is the last time you saw Natalie Ashlin?”

The shock that registered across his face was nearly imperceptible, but there was a slight twitch in his left eyebrow. Keeping a smile intact, he motioned to Viktor who in a moment returned with glasses of water. I declined. Mr. Volkov took a long draw.

Surely, of all the interrogations he endured, this was one he never imagined. I leaned forward and prompted, “So, Natalie Ashlin. When was the last time?”

“I have not heard that name in many years.” He ate another cracker laden with herring, then leaned back and wiped at the corner of his mouth with a white linen napkin.

I inhaled to steady my heartbeat. After years of research and searching, I didn’t need answers but only his attention and time for a few minutes.

He lifted his chin at me. “So why is Natalie Ashlin important to you?”

I tilted my head to the side and we studied each other for a moment before I said, “I think you can answer your own question.”

He nodded and poured two more shots of vodka. “As soon as I saw your face, your mannerisms, I knew. But why come to me? And now?”

“This is all I needed. Nothing more.”

“People always want something.”

I gathered my purse and made to leave. “You never knew, so I will never ask for anything. Except confirmation. That’s only fair, no?”

“I have learned that nothing is fair. And life can be cruel.” He lifted his glass. “To you, Natalie Ashlin’s daughter.” He downed the shot and a second later his eyes widened before he slumped back into his chair.

I poured his water onto the herring and my own glassful onto the carpet, then left a wad of rubles on the table for Viktor. Before I hitched my purse over my shoulder and headed for the exit, I drained my vodka. “Oh yes, Grigory, life can be very cruel indeed.”

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Untitled

by Sol Vance

 

“Have I ordered yet?” Tom whispered from the little wooden chair and table prop on the stage.

I nodded. The whole stage moved and the pain behind my eyes got worse.

“That’s right,” I muttered. “Sorry, Tom. Let’s try again.” I straightened up the tray on my hand and backed up to my mark, trying not to sway too much.

“Stop, Dave. This is three times today,” came Christina’s dreaded voice from the dark theater’s orchestra section. I squinted to see her motion me to approach and descended the rickety steps carefully. “Hurry up, we don’t have all day,” she added. I tried to speed up and tripped. The three quick steps that followed almost landed me on her lap.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I stood up in a hurry.

“Are you drunk?” She sniffed.

“No, ma’am.”

“Stop the crap. What’s your problem? Are you high? You’d never had issues with your lines before. And look at you, stumbling all over the place.” I tried to talk but she kept on. “You are my best actor, Dave, but you are replaceable. We all are. Talk. Explain yourself.”

“It’s not what you think.” Lame, I know, but I had to say something fast.

“Not what I think? What then?”

“It’s personal.” She motioned her assistant to go away. I watched him walk a few steps into the dark aisle and disappear from view.

“Go on.”

“I think I’m possessed.” I felt the heat rising from my chest to my receding hairline. I’m not one to blush in normal circumstances, but even I had trouble believing my story. She let out an explosive laugh.

“Posessed? You, the Skeptic Church’s poster child? Get out of here!” I figured she meant it and turned toward the doors.

“Stop!” she yelled “Come back. Tell me about it, and do it quick,” and turning to the stage, “Everyone else, take five.”

I took a big breath and sat on the red velvet seat next to hers. “I can’t blame you for laughing, but I’m not joking. I was cutting through the cemetery on my bike last night when I felt it leave the ground.” She was smirking.

“Like flying?”

“No, more like,” I paused, “levitating and hovering over the headstones. Then it shook me off. I must have passed out because when I could open my eyes it wasn’t there.”

“What wasn’t there? The ghost?” she said in a mocking tone.

“No, the bike. I had a huge headache and a bump on my head. See? Touch right here.” I stood up in front of her and put her hand behind my ear. “The bike was — gone.” There was silence for a moment. Then she burst out:

“You dummy!” in a low but condescending tone of voice while she felt my bump, “That’s called a concussion, not a possession. Go to the ER. “She returned her hand to her clipboard.

My mind went back to the previous night. I remembered the headstones. One had a weird engraving; a word I hadn’t seen before and that I can’t recall now. I remembered the sounds: a ringing, or a chime. Yes, a chime. And the smell. It smelled like burnt lavender. I could sort of hear Christina’s irritated voice talk about me having been mugged. Was she wearing perfume? I looked up to the beautiful crystal chandelier. I noticed there was something engraved on the ceiling, on that very high ceiling above three levels of balconies. It was that same strange word I’d seen on the headstone. I looked back down at Christina, but couldn’t understand what she was saying. I was hearing the chimes again, those same chimes, louder than her voice. Then I felt it again. I’d forgotten that funny feeling of weightlessness I’d felt the night before. Now it was back. And then I was seeing the top of her head — the whole orchestra section — the chandelier, from above.